This is my first Mirage of Blaze fic. I'm used to dealing with Final Fantasy characters, whose stories are complicated, but not quite on this level, so bear with me, okay?

Getting this out of the way - there will be some slight changes to the MoB canon, either because they're necessary or because I don't have the necessary information. Some historical facts will be utilized, others ignored completely. My apologies in advance to Kuwabara Mizuna, who rules this crazy world, and to Japan. Yes, all of it.

The idea behind this fic is that if Naoe had been more upfront with Takaya/Kagetora about their past prior to episode seven of the anime, and if he had learned certain key things earlier, things might have turned out very differently. This will be Naoe/Takatora, it will be yaoi, and if you're meeting me here for the first time, I will do my best (within the confines of the story's plot) to scare you away. Those who know me from my FFVII ramblings, more of the same, but look, this seme's got a built-in Crazy Switch!

I think that's it for now. Feel free to review or ask questions, no infringement intended, and I do use some Japanese words/terms, but I think only the ones that you're probably all familiar with.

And now...

Chapter 1 - Simulacrum

The season had started off well, maybe the first in their four hundred-year history to ever do so. The summer that descended upon Japan was cooler and clearer than most, and even the muggiest days were brought a respite with each brisk evening. After each day of investigating and exorcising, the pair of Yashashuu would return to their hotel a little or greatly drained. Naoe always suggested rest, but Takaya often felt an urge to walk in the night air, and the elder accompanied him with understanding. This was something Kagetora had always done, and though Takaya still claimed to remember nothing, Naoe could swear he'd seen flashes of memory light up the boy's amber eyes.

If there had ever been any doubt about Takaya's identity - which there had not been; Naoe had never been wrong about this - it would be well put to rest by now. After laying dormant for so long, Kagetora's powers had mostly returned, and the force and strength of them awed Naoe, just as they had when he'd first witnessed them. Takaya's only difficulty was in controlling them, in not allowing his quick anger to...blow up a building? Destroy the whole country? Naoe didn't want to think of what this new Kagetora might be capable of, this fiery teenager who only rarely displayed his old coldness. Fortunately, there were other changes in Kagetora as well.

In the absence of memory, in the need to learn his position over again, Takaya acknowledged Naoe as a teacher, a superior. He listened to him without hauteur, without complaint or command. He joked or teased Naoe, unaware that Kagetora would cringe to witness such informality. Takaya got excited, got angry, briefly sulked - in short he acted his age, which the young Kagetora, as far as Naoe could remember, never had. Like a child, even, he called to Naoe to watch when he was about to do something impressive. He even let Naoe stand behind him to adjust his stance, a position that Kagetora for some reason had been very uncomfortable with. There was actually nothing wrong with the way he stood, but Naoe couldn't help himself. He reveled in this new trust accorded him, as much as he was pained by how undeserved it was.

All in all, Naoe could not remember a happier or more peaceful time in four hundred years. Now that Kagetora could use his powers again, the fear of him being helpless had passed. Naoe found himself praying, when he prayed, that Takaya would never remember their sordid past, that he would remain what he was. If Kenshin had not by now wreaked vengeance on him for lusting after his son, Naoe reasoned, who knows? Maybe he'd even grant the prayer, or send it on to someone who could.

Takaya stirred a little in the passenger seat, and Naoe looked, but the boy went still again, cheek nuzzled against the seat's fabric, disarrayed bangs falling into his eyes. Kagetora had always seemed younger in his sleep, and now he looked like the kid he was, able to doze off on this long ride because he knew his guardian was there. Naoe's heart clenched up in a painful glow of protectiveness. Kagetora had scorned and only coldly tolerated Naoe's position, and sometimes the look in his eyes said he regarded the whole thing as a mirthless joke. Naoe, his guardian? Naoe, who he may have respected grudgingly, but regarded as a threat to him as much as any warlord?

"Mmm...where are we?"

Another glance. Takaya was blinking tiredly at the windshield, clearing his mind of the haze of sleep. He shifted, turning a little to his right...instinctively, Naoe tensed, expecting tiger eyes to look down on him in contempt, or worse, to narrow in accusation.

Cold room, a cold body vacated of soul. Naoe watched the stream of pure light pour into the new vessel, watched with an unbearable hurt as the woman in those eyes vanished and a familiar hate filled them.

"...I will never forgive..."

But no, it was Takaya, only Takaya's sometimes-aggressive but essentially guileless current self looking at him, probably wondering why Naoe had frozen. "Naoe?"

"Sorry. We are about to enter Uozu City. Did you sleep well, Takaya-san?"

"Oh, right," the boy said absently. "You wanted me to meet someone. Who is it? Another famous name?"

Some combination of sullenness, sadness and trepidation came over Takaya's face as he said this, displacing his waking blankness. Naoe took this in with concern, grateful that he had learned to read his lord's expressions so well. And struck by a jolt that hit him before, the day Yuiko had nearly pushed Lady Sanjyo's spirit out of her and Takaya had seen the blaze of it: never in four hundred years had Kagetora's face looked so much like that of his original body.

"You'll see when you meet them." Delaying a problem might not be the best course, but procrastination was hardly the unhealthiest thing about this relationship. "Why don't we take a break?"


The isolated, oceanside highway had offered beautiful scenery for many miles, mountains and villages giving way to a cliff wall on one side, endless, sunlit blue on the other. Naoe pulled into a rest stop, shook feeling back into his legs and grabbed his sunglasses. By the time he exited the car, Takaya was already leaning against the nearby railing, staring out with a searching look on his face. Naoe fought the urge to touch him and merely stood as close as he dared. He found he couldn't turn toward the sea or move at all, or do anything but watch Takaya's face, lose himself in its beauty and confusion.

"This is a famous spot for seeing mirages," he had planned to say; when they traveled, he always made sure they stopped at places of interest like this. But the subject brought to Naoe's mind their conversation about kanshousha, about their practice of ousting the soul from a body and infesting it like a parasite. The image of Minako burned behind Naoe's eyes, inciting a quiet shudder of self-loathing. He had done what he had to to protect Kagetora, would do it again, but it hadn't been love, it was force and need and a disregard for two lives who had dared love each other.

Yes, we are parasitic. Nothing so harmless as symbiosis.

"There are so many different colors of ocean." Takaya still sounded distant, and Naoe wondered if the boy was fully awake. "The blue of it is much darker in Odawara."

The name brought a chill, a cold foreboding. "Takaya-san...have you ever been to Odawara?"

Takaya shifted uncomfortably, not a gesture common to Kagetora, but easy enough to read - he didn't want to answer. He must have been remembering, as Naoe was, the hospital room, the meditative attempt to retrieve Kagetora's full power, and Naoe shaking him out of it almost hysterically. Takaya knew Naoe no longer wanted him to remember, though he felt obligated to encourage it, and therefore there could only be one reason the boy looked so pained. He was remembering.

"Have you...are you..."

"I keep seeing these flashes," Takaya admitted. "Things like the ocean, a full moon. Being with someone, riding our horses on the beach. The sound of a flute."

"You played it."

"What? When?"

"When you were Kagetora-sama, my lord."

Takaya must have sensed the distance in that response, because he scoffed softly and nudged Naoe, his faint smile bringing back the elder's. "Aren't you always insisting I still am Kagetora?"

Gods, let him stay like this, I'll do anything. "Indeed you are."

"Did we know each other then?"

It hurt to remember, it always did, but thinking of this longing's beginning had its own particular sting. "We were acquainted, yes, but we did not know each other well."

"Then, why - "

"Aw, isn't this nice. The dog and his master are on vacation. What's next, a game of toss-the-stick?"

Without thinking, Naoe got in front of Takaya, keeping himself between him and the intruder. Takaya was confused, not unduly alarmed, and maybe he had no need to be, but Naoe wasn't taking the chance. Kousaka, dressed fashionably and slightly effeminately as always, quirked an amused smile at Naoe's predictable possessiveness. He took in the possessor-monk's territorial anger with a soft laugh, then his eyes flickered over to Takaya, observed him with interest until Naoe spoke up.


"This is Kousaka? The one who went after Yuzuru?" Though Naoe wasn't facing him, he could feel Takaya's rising anger. The boy was easily provoked, true but few things aroused his wrath as quickly as threats to Narita-kun.

"It's been quite a while, Kagetora-dono. I see you haven't lost your ability to glare, at least."

"This is who you wanted me to meet?!"

"Of course not!"

Kousaka continued idly, watching the Yashashuu like they were a private joke he was enjoying. "I've been wanting to have a long talk with you, Kagetora-dono, you know, to catch up. Love your new form, by the way. You look almost like yourself. Have you thought of growing your hair out?"

Takaya was growling softly; Naoe spoke hurriedly. "Why have you come, Kousaka? To spy on Etchu?"

"'Spy' is such a strong word, Naoe. You wound me." The kanshousha shook his dark hair with a dramatic sigh. "This area has been causing some commotion, let's say."

"Who is it? The Oda?"

"More annoying than that."


"Let's not talk here. There's a café just down this road."


It was harder than Naoe had expected to sit in the booth beside Takaya and not touch him. He tried to be calm so that that, and his close presence, would reassure the boy - he knew these things usually did. On the way here he had quickly explained to Takaya that while Kousaka was definitely no ally, he did occasionally provide useful information, and so it was worthwhile to hear him out. But as they sat in the near-empty restaurant sipping iced tea, Takaya's tension and anger continued to be palpable.

It really didn't help that Kousaka kept smiling at him with that oh-how-interesting expression.

"The believers from Ikkoushuu have started to move."

Now that Takaya was in grumpy-teenager-mode, Naoe briefly imagined he could hear the boy's thoughts - Who? Huh? Whatever. He kept from snickering at this and thus making himself look insane, and solemnly repeated "Ikkoushuu?"

"Did you hear about Akechi Mitsuhide?"

"You mean..."

"Mmm-hmm. The Ikkoushuu and Akechi Mitsuhide have formed an alliance against the Oda."

Absurdly, Naoe felt another urge to giggle. Takaya was listening but pretending not to, looking out the window beside him and giving off a stream of adolescent Don't care don't care don't care vibes. Now that Naoe was temporarily in charge of this, he knew he should discourage childish behavior. But it was so cute, so un-Kagetora, except the haughtiness of it. A smile or laugh was coming up; Naoe hid it by taking a long sip from his glass.

Kousaka had gone back to staring at Takaya. "He has no ambition in this life either, huh, Naoe? I feel like I'm looking at Kenshin of the old days."

That made Takaya turn back to the conversation, narrowing his golden eyes dangerously in Kousaka's direction. That was very like Kagetora, who had always been unquestioningly devoted to his adopted father and ready to pounce on anyone who insulted him. Looking closely, though, Naoe saw a flash of vulnerability, even fear, that he couldn't quite place. Kousaka, having no doubt heard that Kagetora didn't have his full powers back yet, and no doubt remembering Kagetora as a reserved man not given to impulsive behavior, was obviously not considering two important things. One, that Kagetora even at low power was a force to reckon with, and two, that right now Kagetora was a teenager and thus not so good with impulse control.

Continuing with the giddy undercurrent beneath his serious mood, Naoe thought the spectacle of Kousaka being hurled through the window might be well worth the hassle of dealing with the restaurant's staff.

"If Kagetora-dono wanted to," Kousaka continued fearlessly, "he could rule this land under the threat of his exorcising power. But he seems happy in this comfortable age, surrounding himself with fools. Or is it your old sense of justice, Kagetora-dono? Daddy must be so proud."

Kagetora, a Kagetora who remembered everything, including how to deal with Kousaka, would have remained calm and diffused the situation with a cold but casual insult, to show that he had no intention of being baited. But this was Kagetora without his centuries of knowledge and experience, a Kagetora working blind with the little he had relearned and influenced by his current age and hormones and barely seventeen years of living memory. Takaya pressed his fingers against the tabletop until all color left them, and continued to glare.

"Oh, how rude of me to speak so familiarly," Kousaka went blithely on, showing a calculating smile. "I should call him 'Kenshin-kou', shouldn't I? I've always wanted to ask you, Kagetora - what did he have you call him in bed?"

Naoe was almost relieved. This was an old barb, an insult that had begun in their original lives out of jealousy among Kenshin's men for the way he favored an adopted son, a former Hojo, above his Uesugi retainers. Naoe suspected this rumor had once been hurtful to Kagetora, but for hundreds of years had seen him dismiss and ignore it without anger. Kagetora knew better, knew the truth. At least, he used to.

Naoe scowled at Kousaka, then looked to Takaya, prepared for the boy to jump up and let his fists fly.

This, however, was where things took a turn Naoe hadn't expected.


The ride to the hotel where Naoe had made reservations was tense, a clearing of the air following an explosion. It could have been worse, he told himself, in so many different ways. Kagetora could have lost control of his powers, Takaya could have fought the arms that physically pulled him back to the car, the hands attached to those limbs could have touched the boy in the way Naoe desperately wanted to. Or Naoe might have laughed out loud at the dumbstruck expression frozen on Kousaka's face as they left. Clearly he had been as surprised as Naoe to see the refined, elegant Kagetora - a child born to and adopted by Japan's noblest families - stand up and furiously shout that he was in no mood to sit there and be insulted by "Takeda Shingen's butt-boy".

Fortunately, Naoe's old retainer-instincts and the people skills he'd gained as a handsome man and a monk kicked in, and in seconds he had thrown a handful of bills on the table, apologized smoothly to the staff and hustled his lord toward the exit. Takaya struggled in his light grip, but only half-heartedly, seeming momentarily deflated by his outburst or the jibe that had prompted it. Naoe watched his charge with concern as he drove, giving Takaya time to cool down and wondering exactly what was wrong so he would know exactly what to say.

"I thought you wanted me to meet someone." Low voice, strained but devoid of anger. A jolt of strong desire to hold the boy told Naoe that Takaya was sad as well, about something or everything.

"There is no hurry. I believe we should rest and leave that to tomorrow evening."

"I'm fine," Takaya said quietly, but didn't argue further.

"We've been busy, an early night will refresh us. Takaya-san - "

"Why do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"You always address me with an honorific, even though I don't do that for you. You'll make people think I'm even less polite than I really am." Takaya smirked, never having much cared if strangers thought him rude. "Can't you just use my name?"

", my lord." Formality in speech toward one of higher station was an old, ingrained habit. His constant use of "-san" was about as casual as Naoe could be. "I apologize."

Takaya looked pained again, as though the apology had hurt him, before his expression hardened into something closer to cool anger. Closer to Kagetora. "You weren't on my side."

Ouch. To think that such a sullen, childish remark could wound a grown man. "It's not that, Takaya-san. I merely thought it would be unwise to make a scene in that - "

"No. The Otate No Ran. You weren't on my side." Takaya's voice had gone cooler, away from anger and toward the chilly emotional void Kagetora so often spoke from.

"No...I wasn't. But that was four hundred years ago."

Takaya turned toward the window, leaving his face visible only in profile and his accusing eyes mercifully obscured by shadow. "Then why you?"

They had entered the hotel's parking lot, and the question didn't seem to be directed to Naoe, so for the moment, he decided to leave it. Neither said anything more than was necessary while they ate a quick dinner in the restaurant adjoining the lobby, and Takaya steadfastly refused to meet Naoe's eyes. Once back in their two-bedroom suite, the boy was about to hurry into the privacy of his own space when Naoe got between him and the door, not trusting himself to detain Takaya by touch. The elder meant to plead for more open communication or gently express worry, but what came out was:

"When did you remember I was not on your side, Kagetora-sama?"

Takaya was looking past him, eyes fixed on something. "I didn't."

Naoe followed his gaze to a small table in the corner of the shared sitting room, and immediately understood. Left on it was a book he'd noticed Takaya carrying for the past week or so; unusual, because Takaya was no bookworm, nor was he at all dutiful when it came to homework. Naoe moved closer, picked up the volume and silently read the title. Blood And Soil: The Warring Clans of the Sengoku. Aha. He'd known Takaya had done a little research into his own past not long after they reunited, and apparently he was doing so again.

Flipping through the glossy pages, Naoe felt nostalgia wash over him, like an old man perusing his high school yearbook. Familiar names that looked odd in modern print, familiar faces distorted by the perceptions and limits of long-dead artists. Foes who had risked all to seek world conquest, pitifully reduced to dates and battles memorized by schoolchildren. The Oda, the Hojo, the Takeda. There, reprinted for all to see, was the famous love letter from Shingen to a young and jealous Kousaka, a reassurance of devotion in the warlord's typical flat style. Naoe almost laughed. We believed we would make history. Live forever. These men who would be giants are only names now.

"I thought it was odd that you would remember that, of all things," Naoe admitted, pointing to the letter, indicating the relationship between Shingen and Kousaka. "This book probably also told you, if you didn't remember, that such things were common then. Same-sex relationships had none of the stigma they..."

Takaya had flinched, and Naoe, distracted by this, trailed off slowly. Could that be what was bothering the boy, something that small and unrelated to him? Kagetora's amnesia meant he had been more affected, more shaped by the present than the other kanshousha, who had long breezed through history with their personalities already formed and intact. Included in that was a view of sexuality that did not divide people into the overly rigid categories of gay and straight; Takaya didn't have this. Or rather he did, but didn't remember he did. Still, Kagetora, homophobic? That wasn't right, wasn't it.

But...Naoe thought back to his early years of service to Kagetora, the way the younger had gotten furious whenever Naoe touched him, hated Naoe even standing behind him. Back then, Naoe had attributed this to an intelligent mistrust of a former enemy, and it had dissipated over time. Never gotten good, never become closeness, but Kagetora had learned to trust him, at least to a point. Besides, it wasn't just Naoe; Kagetora had never seemed comfortable with anyone...except Minako. And Haruie. Come to think of it, Kagetora had become much warmer to Haruie when she began to reincarnate as a female.

Well, it was like that with all of us, women were a refuge from war. But is it more than that? What am I missing?

"Do you find such things offensive, Kagetora-sama?" he heard himself ask coolly, indicating the reprinted letter again.

"What? Homosexuality? No." Takaya smirked, but it was tense, guarded. "Something you wanna tell me, Naoe?"

Yes. No. Yes.

"No. Takaya-san, please tell me what's bothering you. I would like to help."

The teenager studied him, weighing Naoe's words and sincerity and gentle gaze against his own trepidation. Kagetora's wariness and Takaya's need for guidance were fighting almost visibly in those dark golden eyes, and the resigned look of trust that broke through declared Takaya the victor. He took the book and sat down on one of the couches, indicating the place beside him - not too close, however - and Naoe took it with a smile. This was Kagetora, all right. Only he could defeat himself.

"Has this book been prompting your flashes of memory, Takaya-san?"

"Other way around, mostly. I was hoping it would help me understand the stuff I've seen. It hasn't, really."

"Ah. History doesn't record the things that matter most."

"You should write one about the Yami Sengoku," Takaya said with a derisive laugh. "People might believe a monk."

"Perhaps if Kagetora-sama gave me a good review."

"Yeah, right. 'This guy is a slacker monk, don't listen to a word he says.'"

Joking, they were laughing and joking together. As Naoe flipped the pages and Takaya unconsciously edged closer to him, he felt like he was filled up inside with warm light, happy, grateful, praying this ease of togetherness would never end. A full-page illustration of Lord Kenshin caught his eye, a rather good one, and Naoe stopped. Takaya stiffened, the warm light rushed away, and the moment snapped like a twig under too much weight.

"What's wrong?" Naoe knew that Takaya responded to his gentlest voice even when Kagetora wouldn't. "Can you remember Kenshin-kou at all?"

The boy had closed his eyes, and now he nodded. "A little."

Was this fear? Though a man renowned for his compassion and justice, Kenshin had been, Naoe recalled, very intimidating to his foes and those experiencing his powerful charisma for the first time. From what Naoe remembered of Kagetora in their original lives, there had been love and trust between the warlord and his adopted son, and as general of the Uesugi Underworld Army, Kagetora had continued to revere his father. But the duty Kenshin had placed on his shoulders was a heavy burden. If Takaya was resenting that, Naoe couldn't blame him.

"What do you remember?"

"Feeling..." Reluctance. Takaya didn't want to talk about this, and was plainly only doing so because he wanted the reassurance of his retainer's presence and knowledge. Naoe wanted very badly to hold him, and might have tried had he not kept speaking. "Feeling safe."

Oh...then why...

"I keep seeing his face reflected in a pond, obscured by falling leaves. He laughs softly. It's quiet and peaceful, with young trees and flowers all around."

"That was Lord Kenshin's private garden, his favorite spot for meditation. You were one of the few who didn't require permission to enter it."

Takaya looked at him, quietly with those strange, remarkable eyes. For what? He couldn't bring himself to say whatever it was out loud.


"I remember the garden at night, too. Looking at the stars' reflection in the water, the light of torches, and someone else was with me." Takaya paused here, and the waves of pain coming off him nearly broke Naoe's composure. "Bigger than me, with shorter hair. He had a wide face, and he would have looked like a thug except for his eyes. They were always looking far away, like they saw something I couldn't."

It was a weak description, but Naoe knew immediately who it was. Four hundred years of devotion to Kagetora had made old loyalties irrelevant, but that didn't mean he could recall them, him, without feeling a faint sting.

"That was Kagekatsu-dono. Your adoptive brother."

"But...he was my friend." Just when Naoe thought the boy might accept an arm around him, Takaya abruptly stood and walked a few steps away. "I remember! We used to talk all night about fighting side by side, protecting Echigo together, bringing peace to the whole country like Father - "

Takaya's fists clenched. His head bowed to stare at the carpet. Naoe wondered if this sad, godlike soul would ever stop breaking his heart. He had asked himself this question many times over four hundred years.

"It was my fault," Naoe blurted out. "I served Kagekatsu, I urged him to fight you whenever his heart made him waver. He was being told by all his advisors that he had to defeat you or the land would be torn apart by civil war." What are you doing, Naoe?! Risking his hatred for a lord you served only out of duty? Or seeking the punishment you deserve for other crimes? "I'm so sorry, Kagetora-sama."

Takaya shook his head, put up his hands for silence, everything but scream that he didn't want to hear any more, but Naoe couldn't stop.

"Lord Kenshin ordered me to stand by Kagekatsu, and I had to obey, though I would've given anything, broken any other oath, to be with you instead. I couldn't leave him, I couldn't end it until one of you either surrendered or..." He choked up and Takaya was looking frightened, but Naoe went on expelling the poison from his soul. "When I learned of your death I raced into battle to find my own, I wandered in torment as an onryou and now I will spend eternity suffering as much as you want me to to pay for what I did. Hate me as you always have, rather than let bitterness taint what you feel for your family. Kagekatsu did love you, and Lord Kenshin - "

"Will you stop talking about Kenshin?!" Takaya shouted.

A vase perched on a nearby ornamental table exploded, shattering in pieces that clattered to the floor. One shard hit Takaya's hand and left a thin, bloody cut. Takaya, who was standing with trembling fists and closed eyes, didn't flinch or seem to notice at all. He didn't stir until Naoe hurried to him and took his arm.

"Don't - !"

"You are hurt, my lord, please allow me to see to it."

With a forlorn, exhausted expression, Takaya let himself be led like a child to the bathroom, and sat on the edge of the bathtub while Naoe carefully cleaned the small wound. He gently dabbed it with sterilized cotton until the bleeding stopped, and then continued to gently hold Takaya's hand, lightly keeping it at rest on his own. Takaya's smaller fingers tightened around it slowly, and looking up Naoe saw that it had likely been done unconsciously, as Takaya was looking distantly at the floor. Naoe wasn't sure what he'd rather believe - that Kagetora was letting slip a feeling of warmth toward him, or that Takaya was reaching out to him in spite of Kagetora's hatred.

"Are you all right?"

"Did you hover over Kagetora like this?" the boy murmured.

You are Kagetora. "As much as he would let me," Naoe admitted.

"I'm not made of glass, Naoe." It was strange, like Kagetora was speaking as both his past and current selves, in a cool commanding voice (so unintentionally seductive) and one that was similar but filled with feeling.

"I know."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it, I will take care of it. I apologize if I upset you, Takaya-san."

Reminded of Naoe's outburst, Takaya withdrew his hand. At least he didn't yank it back. Tension had always filled the space between Kagetora and his retainer, but Naoe didn't want that with Takaya. Spilling his guts was risky, he had just seen proof of that, but maybe his revelations would prompt the boy to make some of his own.

"When I was young in this body, learning again how to properly use my powers, I caused a lot of damage to my family's temple. And unlike you, I at least had all my memories."

A moment of uncertain eye contact, only a moment, but enough to encourage Naoe. "I thought I would never see you again. I thought you were gone forever, and I..."

He choked up here, stopping short of the pain that delving into his memories of Minako would cause. Takaya seized his hand and he allowed it, unwilling to pull away even when Takaya pushed up his sleeve and traced the scars on his wrist.

"So you wanted to die?" The boy's voice was tinged with righteous anger. "You're still such a samurai that failing at something has to be paid for with death? What, didn't you have the right tools for seppuku?"

"Takaya-san..." This is not Kagetora's jealous possession of his guard dog...what is it? "I had lost you. I felt I couldn't face - "

"Kenshin?" Takaya dropped his hand and stalked out of sight.

Living without you. Putting that aside for now, concentrating on the tension the boy put into such a familiar name, Naoe followed him back to the sitting room. Takaya was standing near the couch, staring down at it in silence, as though waiting for him.

"Takaya-san, did you remember something about Lord Kenshin that upset you?"

"No." His eyes were locked on the discarded book; Naoe followed their gaze.

"Was it something you read?"

Abruptly, his movements less graceful than usual, Takaya snatched up the book. He harshly flipped through the pages till he reached close to the center, thrust it at Naoe and moved a little distance to turn around. Naoe scanned the lines of text, feeling certain he'd know the cause of Takaya's anxiety when he saw it, and he did. Almost halfway down the left-hand page was a paragraph discussing the historical assumption - shared by many reputable scholars - that Kenshin had been homosexual. True, from what Naoe recalled; Kenshin had been very discreet, but he'd been known to have lovers, none of them female. Some well-known names were listed, those believed to have been involved with the lord in that way. Naoe Kanetsugu, the spirited young man not known well to Naoe Nobutsuna but related to him by marriage. Kagekatsu, Kenshin's elder adopted heir, his nephew by blood in a time and place that didn't condemn such a thing. And of course, Naoe was unsurprised to see, Kagetora, born Hojo Ujihide but adopted by Kenshin and by all accounts loved dearly by him.

"Takaya-san." Naoe looked up and saw that the boy was silently trembling, fists clenched and for once not because he wanted to fight, more like he was struggling to keep a grip on something. "Takaya-san?"

Is this what's wrong?

"Takaya-san, please talk to me. Let me help."

"It's not true, right?" The words came up too fast to have been entirely willing. "Right, Naoe?"

The most honest answer would have been that Naoe couldn't know for sure, but he thought he had read Kenshin's feelings toward Kagetora correctly, and of course Kagetora taking part in such a thing with a lord he revered was unthinkable. There was also Takaya's desperate voice, the plea in his eyes. Naoe couldn't not comfort him.

"Of course it's not true. I believe Kanetsugu was involved intimately with Lord Kenshin, but certainly not you," Naoe said reassuringly. "I never saw anything between the two of you that intimated more than a familial relationship."

As he spoke, Takaya turned to face away from him and nodded slowly. Naoe couldn't see his expression, but picked up on the way the boy's shoulders untensed, and the relieved exhalation of breath. Naoe's feet were moving him before he realized he was doing it. He reached for Takaya, arms stretching out in desire to hold him but falling before contact could be made. He had so many memories of trying to touch Kagetora to ease his distress, and being refused.

"Takaya-san, is that what has been upsetting you? It''s all right. Do not let the mistake of a few historians pollute your feelings for Lord Kenshin. I know you don't remember much, but I promise you, his love for you was that of a proud father. It still is."

The words came out just as Naoe had planned - minimal desperation, maximum kind authority. He knew Kagetora had always been too complex to be completely reassured by anyone's certainty but his own, but Takaya, his gentler self, should have been disarmed by this. Embarrassed, maybe, and choosing to hide it behind indifference or aggression, but he should have continued to relax. He shouldn't be shrinking into himself where he stood, struck by some other pain the moment one hurt had been healed. Takaya should never look so vulnerable and sad, like a precious flower wilting. Like Kagetora had occasionally been, and hated Naoe for seeing him like that, but there was no genuine hatred to be sensed from Takaya. Only loneliness, and more than that, a knowing that not only was he apart from other people, but that he always would be.

The boy looked so small and cold that even the fire of anger would be better. Naoe realized, as he closed the space between them and wrapped his arms around Takaya, that the progress he thought they had made these past months was the real mirage. Kagetora - who had been damaged somehow before the first time Naoe ever got lost in his eyes - had a will stronger than any other soul he'd ever known. In the end Kagetora would overwhelm Takaya, and Naoe would return to his rightful place in the lord's universe, the poison-green star of loathing and bitterness and every bad feeling that had ever existed between them.

To be continued.