Author's notes: You wouldn't believe how old this chapter is… There are scenes in here that I wrote down as the very first notes for this fic almost five years ago when it was just a vague weird idea and I was far from sure if I should actually follow through with it.

Still, it took me ages to finish this chapter (as you probably noticed, mea culpa) and I'm still rather self-conscious about it, especially about the ending and whether it managed to convey all I wanted about Kagetora and Kasahara…

Anyway, enjoy :-)

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

/\/

Nagahide extensively cursed himself for getting that easily sucked into Yami Sengoku business again without the slightest excuse. There was no proper reason for him to do as he did, following Kagetora through the rapidly darkening streets, onto the metro and into a wealthy, but sterile district that could impossibly be the one where Kagetora lived with his kid. Salary men and office ladies were bustling about wherever he looked.

After four hundred years with the Meikai Uesugi Amry, there weren't many things that would throw Nagahide off his rocker or so he liked to think. Kakizaki Haruie becoming a woman. Naoe Nobutsuna falling in love. Uesugi Kagetora giving birth to a child. He had never managed to cultivate the all-encompassing understanding Irobe possessed, but he was used to his comrades' follies.

The sight of Naoe and Kagetora kissing as if there were no tomorrow was in a class of its own, though.

The rain was shooing people inside, but they didn't seem to notice getting soaked. They were speaking briefly, standing close together, neither paying attention to anything that went on around them. They were…very polite, Nagahide found. Very civilized. Not at all as they had been the last time he had seen them together.

There was no way to mistake this spectacle for anything other than what it was, though. Kagetora – Uesugi Kagetora who had never in four centuries given his guardian the slightest bit of encouragement to even indicate his desire they all knew existed – was getting on his toe tips to enjoy said guardian's kiss more properly.

Nagahide wondered if he had stepped into some kind of looking-glass world. Questions were popping up in his head like mushrooms. They were an item now? If they were a couple now, why weren't they living together? Naoe was being very attentive leading Kagetora inside out of the rain, but something about his behavior brought it home that he was the one living here. Kagetora had just come by to visit. Hmmmm….

Lost in his musings, he hardly noticed the presence coming closer. Encountering another possessor was always like this: like watching the shadow of a person approaching you on a sunny day. Nagahide reached out and was loath to believe this was happening to him.

Try not to lead Ranmaru there, Kagetora's ironic words echoed in his head.

So much for that.

/\/

Kasahara Yuuto hurriedly threw off his soaked shirt and shimmied out of his equally sopping wet slacks. Stuffing them both into the laundry basked, he skimmed the contents of his wardrobe for something comfortable and settled for jeans and a sweater. Crossing the corridor in search of Minako, his gaze fell on their shoes right behind the door.

Her sandals looked startlingly small and delicate next to the leather shoes he wore for work. They could be crushed underneath his sole, easily so. He blinked, wondering where that image had come from. But he couldn't completely throw off the feeling of uneasiness when he found Minako in the kitchen, clad in the dressing gown he had given her. It engulfed her, of course. She had let down her hair and was sliding her fingers through the moist strands.

There was a current there, he had learned. Her fragility called a certain kind of violence to mind, the myriad ways in which she could be harmed. Here she was, undressed to her underwear in a man's apartment at night, wearing his clothing while her own was drying.

The extent of her trust frightened him and he was frightened for himself, of what should become of him if he ever betrayed that trust. He blinked again, surprised at this train of thought. There was something there, a pressuring feeling in his chest. He wondered if Nobutsuna had ever been plagued by this sort of idea. Why would he ever think of this?

Harming Minako seemed equivalent to ripping out the wings of a butterfly. And yet, she wasn't fragile like this. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that would they ever match their strengths against each other's she would win hands down.

The floor was cold underneath his bare feet. His slippers he had given to Minako. Leaning in the doorway, he swept his gaze over the small kitchen and the adjacent living room and tried to see the flat with her eyes. He wasn't here very often and the place showed it.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" he offered.

Her amber eyes met his. "That would be nice", she said.

She was the epitome of tranquility – luckily so, he thought as he busied himself with the water boiler and tea-pot. When he had let her inside – holding her hand, no less! – he hadn't been thinking of what this invitation could imply. Thankfully, she wasn't taking it the wrong way.

Then again, why would she? They were of the same clan after all, comrades in arms or whatever it had been called at the time. There must have been many evenings like this in the past he couldn't remember, there was nothing conspicuous about visiting each other at home, even if one of them possessed a male and the other a female body and it was rather late and there was no one else around…

Kasahara put the teapot on the table between them and added two cups. They had probably spent many evenings in each other's company like this, when she had been Kagetora to him. They took the first few sips in silence.

He cleared his throat. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course." As usual, there was a hardly perceptible wariness in her eyes.

"Why didn't you come for me?"

Minako's froze.

"I mean… when we were in the hospital at Aso – why didn't you tell me at once? I mean, I understand why you didn't clue in the doctors about it, but you could have told me, right?"

Minako was silent for a few heartbeats. "I don't have a satisfying answer to this, I'm afraid." She wrapped her fingers around her tea-cup as if she wanted to warm them, her gaze on the clear liquid inside. "There were several reasons why I decided against telling you. For one, I wasn't sure how you would take it – if anything might reach the ears of the medical personnel. Then, I wasn't sure about what to expect from the Oda clan, how many of them were still in the area and if we would have to leave you behind either way to go into battle again. And later, I was comforting myself that you were living your life without being troubled by this conflict. I didn't have the heart to rob you of your peace." Her amber gaze returned to him. "Does that make sense?"

/\/

No, Kagetora answered his own question. He hadn't seen this coming although it was only logical for Kasahara to wonder about why they had never contacted him after his amnesia. He should have thought about some good pretext beforehand to present the man with.

Kasahara wasn't looking at him when he asked the next question. "So when you left me… it wasn't some kind of punishment afflicted on me?"

His blood ran cold. "Punishment? What for?"

Kasahara looked a bit embarrassed. "I don't know. It's just because that boy… when we went out together –"

"Mori Ranmaru", Kagetora filled in.

"He made a few strange remarks about how you could still trust me." It was visible in his eyes how the thought of a conflict between them that he didn't remember had troubled him.

"It's his manner," Kagetora shrugged. "The Oda aren't exactly friends of ours as you know and they would love to see us fighting each other instead of them." He paused to let the words sink in. "It's true though, that we did fight a lot in those days. You and I. Nagahide and I. You and Haruie. Irobe must have felt like the only adult among a bunch of misbehaved children."

Kasahara still wasn't convinced that he had nothing to worry about. "What did we fight about, you and I?"

"Different things." Kagetora took deep breath. "About which was the best strategy against Oda, about who should take over which tasks and which dangers were involved."

"That's all?"

He tried to look surprised. "Yes, of course. I would tell you if there were anything else." He looked directly into the man's eyes and tried a weak smile. "Why would I lie to you?"

Kasahara finally smiled back. "I'm glad, then. I was a bit worried about that to be honest."

How relieved he seemed. Kagetora was getting lost in that smile to an extent where he started to wish that what he had just told Kasahara were true. So far this evening hadn't gone at all like he had planned. It gnawed away at him. He was used to doing what he had to, even if it cut right through his heart. In four hundred years he had strayed from that path only once and it hadn't been for lack of resolve as it was now.

For the first time, he was too weak to do what he must.

Why, he couldn't understand. He had never spared Naoe before. On the contrary, he had always been a little stricter, a little harsher with him than with his other comrades in arms. Deep down, he also knew the reason. He was afraid of softening towards his guardian, so whenever he couldn't help but let his own guard down in front of Naoe, Kagetora turned around and stroke at him with particular cruelty.

As Naoe had done with him, he thought bitterly, not for the principle of the thing but to make him strong, to not let him stray from his path. Was that why his father had chosen Naoe as his guardian, he wondered uneasily. Because Kenshin knew that Naoe could be trusted not to allow him to abscond when the going got tough?

Well, as soon as Naoe had been removed from the picture, Kagetora had jumped ship, so Kenshin might have been onto something.

Warm fingers closed around his hand. Startled, he looked up and met Kasahara's mild greyish eyes.

"What are you thinking of?" the man wanted to know.

Kagetora's breath hitched. There was no way he could answer that question truthfully. Looking down at Kasahara's fingers intertwining with his, he remembered that he had come here to make it clear to Kasahara that they couldn't go on doing these things. It seemed he had missed the moment.

"Just… of nothing in particular." He fought not to wince at his own way with words.

Instead of an answer, Kasahara took his hand and guided it up to his face. Very gently he pressed Minako's slender fingers against his cheek. Although he stopped breathing for a moment, Kagetora couldn't help notice the smoothness of his skin.

"You know, I very much enjoy having you here."

For once, Kagetora wasn't surprised when Kasahara leaned in. This was dangerous, he knew, much more so than when they had been on his terrain. The late hour, the flat being empty except for the two of them, the unknown area of town he was in…

Cursing his own inexperience not for the first time, he contemplated how he could best break off the kiss without being inexcusably rude. Before he ever got that far, he could feel Kasahara smile into the kiss and one of his hands close around his own, guiding it around his neck. Now this was a much more comfortable, but at the same time a much more intimate position, he couldn't help noticing. One of his hands was resting in the nape of Kasahara's neck, while the man put both of his hands around his waist.

Kagetora withdrew at the unexpected contact, planning to put an end to all this, and instead found himself relaxing against the man. Kasahara pulled him closer, one of his hands gliding through Minako's long strands of hair.

/\/

She was hesitant, as she always was when it came to this type of action. From the start, her reactions to his touch had been extremely subtle, but she gave no indication that she disliked it.

It was part of what made her so different from other women, he thought. She never flirted, never made it easy for him to approach her. The image of being hard to get that other women took such trouble to create – Minako was its epitome without even trying.

Because it's real and not a front, he thought. It must be because we were comrades in arms for so long… Of course, she'd be freaked out by the idea of becoming romantically involved. It's much easier for me. It would be another matter if I remembered being her… vassal or whatever they were called in those days.

By now, he was convinced he had harbored a secret affection for her for centuries. He couldn't say for sure how he came by that idea, but it was firmly planted in his head. Even without remembering, having to rely on what Minako and the others had told him, he felt a kind of conversance with her.

If there had been a most important someone for him in the past he couldn't recall, it would have been her.

/\/

When Kasahara withdrew from him, he didn't know whether to be relieved. As usual, he thought, getting up without meeting Kasahara's eyes. He went over to check on his clothes. "They've dried", he said softly.

"Good." Kasahara was watching him from his place at the table. "The bathroom is the second door to the right. You can change there."

Change, right. Get dressed was more like it. He left with his eyes cast down. Maybe he would never know for sure if he liked the physical closeness or not. But the body he possessed knew well and truly what it wanted.

To say that this puzzled him would have been an understatement. Shouldn't the memory of the violation be etched in skin and bone after what had happened ten years ago?

Do you possess that short a memory? Kagetora scolded his shell. Don't you remember what he did to you?

He held up his palms in front of himself and contemplated those hands that weren't his – as he had done with all the other hands, all the other bodies in the centuries gone by. Or was it him after all, he wondered with growing unease. Did the body have no choice but to follow suite because he was the one who desired Kasahara's touch? With a decidedly queasy feeling, he returned to the kitchen where Kasahara was putting their cups into the sink.

If we were married, it would always be like this in the evening. One of us cleaning the kitchen, the other looking after the kid… He shook his head. Now these are weird thoughts.

But for some reason, he found himself unable to shake them off.

If things could stay like this... I told him enough to help him understand and use his powers. He doesn't need to know the rest of it. He's happier like this anyway.

And so am I...

In thought, he touched a fingertip to his lips. Why does there have to be more than this?

Maybe it should have been me, he mused. I could have just sealed my own memory and let his stay intact. He could have told me that we were married, expecting a child. We might even have more than one by now. We could have been living together this whole time like a family. And I would never have suspected that anything was wrong with the picture. I would have forgotten about Minako then, about what we did to her. I also would have forgotten about the night of the red moon.

I would have loved him. I don't see how I could have done anything but. I would have been happy.

Then he would have been the one scared that I might remember something, living in constant fear…

We just cannot win, can we?

/\/

She'd practically fled.

Leaning against the sink, Kasahara ran his hands through his hair. Well, he'd known she was a challenge. But there was more to it. He was emotionally involved in this and that made it so much harder to simply reel off his usual program for situations such as this. Most other women would have –

Stop it. Those common measures didn't apply to Minako.

He wasn't sure what he'd had in mind when he had invited her in earlier that night. Had he thought of seducing her already? Well, not consciously maybe. But the idea had been in the back of his mind… almost ever since he met her.

In the meantime, many things had changed, a lot had been revealed to him, but if at all, it had served only to bind him closer to her. Minako's reluctance, his own cluelessness… this was nothing he couldn't deal with. He had learned how to cast a proper shield to protect her. He'd learn how she wanted to be treated by a man. As a long-term project so to speak.

Suddenly, he felt elated, having made a resolution to win her over instead of keeping on daydreaming. Maybe he wouldn't tonight, he had to be cautious if he didn't want to shoo her away. Still, that didn't mean, he couldn't risk another little foray…

Inwardly shaking his head at himself, he turned around to find that she had returned. The mere sight of her made his heart soar.

Emotionally involved, my foot. Ridiculously in love is more like it.

/\/

There was a certain routine to Kasahara's actions with him, Kagetora noticed, a little as if the man were trying to decoy a shy animal. Which might very well be how things presented themselves to him.

At first, their hands would touch – warm, dry fingers closing around his own, interlacing. Kasahara would use that contact to draw him further in, usually by cupping his face or stroking through his hair with the other hand, guiding Kagetora's face towards him until their lips touched. Kagetora came to understand that he, too, meanwhile reacted in a predefined manner to Kasahara's approaches. In the shell-shocked state he usually found himself in as soon as Kasahara reached for him, Kagetora wasn't able to do much but monitor what was happening.

Part of why he found it difficult to react or to even verbally present his opinion on the going-ons lay in the fact that he didn't know what he wanted. Even if he had found his voice, what would he have said? That he felt threatened, when he had never complained before? In fact, there was a certain security in knowing by now what to expect, that certain lines wouldn't be crossed.

No sooner Kagetora had finished that thought than Kasahara suddenly broke the pattern by opening his mouth, gently coaxing his own lips to part in return as if trying to bring it home that what he had seen so far was but a tiny snippet of the overall picture. Kagetora's eyes flew open as he tasted the inside of the man's mouth for the first time. Kasahara's smooth cheek and the tips of his feathery hair filled his field of vision for a moment before his eyes fluttered shut again.

Sensing his perplexity perhaps, Kasahara gently gripped one of his wrists to guide Kagetora's arm around his neck, then did the same with the other. Their bodies pressed closer together like this, the man's body heat permeating the various layers of clothing between them. Kasahara deepened the kiss, his tongue rubbing against Kagetora's who reacted with a surprised gasp. Kasahara took advantage of his mouth opening further by letting his tongue glide in deeper.

Of the few kisses there had been in his past four-hundred years, most had been with Kasahara and none had been anything like this. He could feel the heat rising in his cheeks, torn between how exotic this felt and how amazing. His fear subsided somewhat as if a pleasant fog were spreading through his mind, for now drowning all doubt and awkwardness.

Distracted, he barely noticed when one of the man's hands went astray, stroking over his shoulder and arm. He did notice, however, when the hand steered further south, the back of the fingers gliding over the female curves of his upper body. With Kagetora's arms wound around his neck, that area was easily accessible to Kasahara. Even through the fabric of his blouse, the touch seemed scorching. There was no strength applied, in fact it was completely unobtrusive almost as if happening by mistake, but Kagetora still froze in shock.

Partly the fright came from what it felt like. This was completely different from having his hand or arm or face touched. It was disturbing and electrifying at the same time. It was a terrifying feeling. Kagetora couldn't help a tiny sound of unrest escaping him.

But the hand withdrew, coming to rest on his waist as if lying in wait for a more favorable opportunity. The man's other hand held his face comfortably in place. Their lips softly meshing together, mouths opening to each other required his whole attention. His head sinking back, he gave himself over to the new experience.

Only after a while he started registering the various other sensations he was exposed to, Kasahara's strong arm that was wrapped around his waist, fingertips gliding over the side of his face, brushing back his hair. And above all, there was the other person's body he was huddled against. Then, he gradually became aware of the warm, slow pulsation in his lower body.

That must be what arousal feels like…

Of all the stunning things that had happened to him tonight, this was probably the most alarming. He came to his senses with a sharp intake of breath, retreating a little from Kasahara who was looking at him with a gentle, pleased expression.

No, more than just pleased. The expression on his face was one of surprised joy.

It shouldn't be possible for Kasahara to bring this out in him, Kagetora thought, dismayed. No one ever had. Stepping back to bring a little more space between them, Kagetora saw the need to justify his actions. "I didn't mean to – "

"Liar," Kasahara chided, but with a tender smile. "You just weren't prepared for what it would be like. Neither was I, to be honest."

Kagetora's eyes widened in shock. The fog in his head finally cleared. He broke away from Kasahara's touch. "No", he burst out, finally letting his nerves get the better of him, giving in to the overwhelming feeling of mental overload that had plagued him the whole evening. "You were the one who wanted it. You can't just blame it on me!"

"W-what?" Kasahara looked completely aghast. "I'm not blaming you for anything."

"You just said it was me who –"

"I believed it was both of us," Kasahara replied, dumbfounded. "And I enjoyed every moment of it. I'd never hold any of it against you!"

There was a familiar sick feeling in his stomach, the awareness of having both of them utterly embarrassed. It was just… that he had heard this excuse a thousand times. It was always him, not them. It was his fault they stared at him, his fault they tried to touch him, as if they were powerless to resist even when it brought about their own demise.

The star of misfortune, he had been called.

Kasahara's bewildered eyes never left his. "Minako… what are you afraid of? Is this happening too fast for you?"

His breath hitched. Unable to form words, he slowly shook his head, not sure himself what it was he meant to imply.

Kasahara seemed at a loss as well. "I wouldn't want to pressure you into anything. And… you don't have anything to fear from me." He seized Kagetora's hand again and placed it near the edge of the shirt he was wearing, slowly guiding it half-underneath the fabric. He could feel the oddly comforting warmth of Kasahara's fingers on the back of his hand and the equally warm and silky texture of the man's skin under his own palm.

Kasahara was watching him as if trying to read in his face. "See. Nothing dangerous here."

You've no idea, Kagetora thought.

Kasahara let go of his hand. "Is it… that you feel pressured? Do you think I won't speak to you again if you don't sleep with me tonight? You think me that immature?"

Kasahara's eyes were full of apprehension and gentleness and it made Kagetora feel worse. What do you ever want with me? The question wasn't that new. In the past, he had wordlessly asked Naoe the same thing countless times.

"What will you do?" he asked softly. "If I don't."

The smile returned to Kasahara's face. "I'll wait, of course. This is important to me. You are." His smile deepened. "All of this is kind of new to me as well. I was never crazy about anyone. But I am now."

"You were before," Kagetora corrected before he could stop himself. "You just don't remember."

"Was I now," he murmured, the gentle glow in his eyes leaving no doubt about whom he imagined as the receiving part of those feelings.

Kagetora's eyes widened. For a moment he felt as if a gigantic hole were opening up right underneath his feet, ready to swallow him as he fell. This was such a dangerous terrain that with all that had been happening tonight so far, that Kagetora felt the overwhelming urge to flee. He had never expected it to become that hard having to deceive Kasahara about so many things.

The body he possessed was more honest than he could ever be with the man.

More honest than he had ever been with Naoe, otherwise he would have given into his feelings centuries ago. Maybe he would have been badly bruised, but they never would have found themselves in this situation. And Minako would be alive.

His heart ached for her and for Kasahara who had no fault in any of this and still was suffering from the consequences. And Kagetora wasn't making things any easier for him by behaving like a madman. Madwoman. Whatever.

/\/

What did he do to you, that brute?

The thought was in his head all of sudden but the very same second Kasahara was convinced that there must be at least some truth to it. At least it explained her little freak-out and the raw panic he had sensed under that sudden hostility. She had accused him of shirking off responsibility onto her. Wasn't that supposed to be a classic when it came to sexual abuse? The abuser suggesting to the abused that they had provoked them, brought this on themselves in some way?

There was a bitter irony to the fact that she of all people who had consecrated herself to the cause of helping people who suffered from traumata had never been able to overcome her own – whatever it might have been. The obvious answer to that question was that Minako's husband must have been responsible for the damage or at least hadn't been able to help her get rid of her fears. She had mentioned that this body was the first female one she had ever come to possess, so her husband was the most likely candidate when it came to men who might have mistreated her.

But he knew he wasn't going to solve this mystery today. It was late, her nerves were raw and her child was waiting for her at home. Of course, he didn't make a fuss and grabbed his keys.

"I'll take you home."

/\/

They weren't touching, this time. Kagetora found himself throwing furtive glances at Kasahara's hand as they made their way down the stairs, but after the way he'd behaved, it was completely understandable if the man didn't try to reach out to him.

They were almost at the base of the stairs when they both felt it.

"That was – " began Kasahara.

Yes, Kagetora thought. The repercussion of a strong collision of supernatural powers. Who of their Yami Sengoku colleagues had the effrontery to go to battle in the middle of a living district?

Exchanging a quick glance, they hurried for the doors and stepped out onto a dark street. The rain had stopped a while ago, but the concrete was still glistening, reflecting the streetlights and other rays of light – the outward manifestations of the beams of power the opponents were aiming at each other. Kagetora couldn't ascertain who was gaining the upper hand.

One of the opponents, however, was unmistakably Mori Ranmaru.

Damn it.

Nobody seemed to notice them at first and Kagetora was much too dumbfounded by what he saw manifested in front of a group of men that seemed to belong together like a shield.

The sign of the Amida Buddha.

The Ikkō sect.

How was that possible? There had been no signs of the Ikkō-shū for –

He noticed too late. The shield effectively deflected one of the light beams Ranmaru or one of his minions had hurled at the members of the Ikkō sect. It didn't die away, though, but instead came straight at him.

He felt no pain being hit.

It was more like an explosion of whiteness in his head.

/\/

Kasahara watched her falling as the first flashes of his shield emerged from his hand. Too late, too late… She had been hit, her eyes closed before she even touched the ground, lifeless like a puppet cut from its strings.

Minako! he wanted to call but found the word stuck in his throat as a sharp pain shot through his head. There was something there, an anomaly he hadn't noticed before and he did so now only because all of a sudden a crack ran through it. Fright seeped in, enough to distract him from his surroundings.

What is happening?

As if in answer, a hollow chorus swept through his mind, a cacophony of past voices, each filled with its own importance, each breaking in a layer of the cocoon in which his consciousness had been wrapped. They flickered up and hurried by as if each were searching for its counterpart, brushing against one another in their haste, whispering to him of the deeds of a recent and not so recent past, linking them together, a tangled web spreading out in his mind, unraveling at last…

Kenshin-ko has appointed me as your guardian.

Is he the child you were pregnant with when the tragedy occurred?

I am Naoe Nobutsuna.

Yes, that is my son Kiheiji.

Please stay back, don't come any closer!

Then it wasn't some kind of punishment inflicted on me?

You're not the type of person who would do this kind of thing.

Let's say in a fight, he never would have picked the losing side.

Are you not afraid?

I won't let you escape.

Can you really accept me as your master?

I love him, Minako.

The soul who perished at Samegao Castle is standing right before your eyes.

You sure are a romantic, keeping your woman's body for such a long time.

Because we were enemies during our first lives.

You alone I will never forgive –

I cannot help this, Minako, this is just who I am.

See? Nothing dangerous here.

for the rest of eternity!

I'd very much like to kiss you again.

Even if I have to use thorns to bind you.

Are you not afraid?

I will not let you run away.

We don't know if my memories are truly gone.

Are you not afraid?

I didn't mean it like that. Of course, you might still regain them.

You should be tired of lying.

Please trust me. I will explain everything later, just…

Are you not afraid?

The first question, the very first words… and the answer came on a black wing. I need not be afraid. Henceforth, I shall address you as –

He was on his knees, brought low by the onslaught of who and what he really was. Four hundred years and a pair of eyes.

His cry echoed from the high walls of the surrounding buildings.

"Kagetora-sama...!"

/\/

Author's Note: Welcome back, Naoe Nobutsuna…

… Did the last part make sense? Like, at all? o_0 It's supposed to be a mishmash of flashbacks switching back and forth between conversations he remembers from his life as Naoe Nobutsuna and as Kasahara Yuuto.

Next Chapter: "You'll frighten the child if you continue with this behavior."