Disclaimer: Mirage of Blaze is the magnificent creation of Kuwabara Mizuna Sensei. I'm just one of the lowly messengers spreading the word.
Warning: I still don't know squat. Even less about prequel Naoe and Kagetora. So this is rather a stretch of my own imagination.
Acknowledgment/Dedication: Most especially to erah_haruna205 for sharing the original draft of the story. The scene you described was just so pretty and romantic, I hope you forgive me for running away with it (including the title!). And always, thank you to the members of the MOB Community for the support and encouragement!
The endless void of darkness loomed before them. Surrounded by the heavy foliage, the very forest stood like an impenetrable fortress, guarded by towering sentinels, bitter and menacing, thwarting every effort made by the two weary travelers to escape. Branches stretched forth like demon claws, vines hung across their path like snakes, waiting to ensnare the unguarded.
The younger of the travelers held the torch before him, despairing at the weakening flame at its end. They have been walking around for hours, and the oiled cloth had nearly consumed itself. The other, taller man, followed patiently beside him, his own torch had long since burned out, and now instead, wielded his sword against the obstructing vegetation.
Uesugi Kagetora carefully moved the torch around, trying to discern the path as much as he could from the dim light, cursing himself a thousand times of fool for having drawn them into this predicament.
Sometime during their travel back from a nearby village, Kagetora had sensed a foreign presence following their small band. Not an onryou, but a shinobu, no doubt. At his silent command, he and the rest of the members of the Uesugi Underworld Army had scattered in four different directions, aiming to confound the intruder.
Unfortunately, he had miscalculated the possibility of rain, and without the guidance of the stars, had only led them to getting lost themselves. Which was most probably what that damned spy had intended in the first place.
Worse, that end-of-summer shower burst had left a sudden chill in the air, and the ground too damp for a campfire, leaving the hapless men to either find the quickest way back to base camp or brave the night in the cold. He could only hope that the others were faring better.
But at least, he was not alone.
Kagetora looked up at his companion who had, thankfully, remained silent all throughout, with nary a word of blame or complaint. In the ensuing melee earlier, they had somehow stayed together.
He remembered meeting him formally for the first time near the breakwater, while the sea lashed its fury around them. The man had introduced himself as Naoe Nobutsuna, and that by command of Lord Kenshin, he would now be vassal to Kagetora.
A million thoughts had swirled through Kagetora's mind at that time as to why his father had chosen a former enemy, no less than the very man who had destroyed him in the past, to accompany him on this mission. It pierced a thousand daggers into his heart, that even beyond death, even as a Possessor, it seems that Kagetora will always be beneath Lord Kenshin's regard.
Father still refuses to trust me. Perhaps he wanted this person to watch over me to prove just how much of a failure I truly am. Perhaps this man's true aim is to destroy me completely.
For the man was certainly a formidable character. Despite Naoe's constant deference towards his new lord, Kagetora sensed an underlying intensity in him, like lava beneath a slumbering volcano. It showed in his resolute speech, the direct, unwavering gaze, the proud bearing. Kagetora could even sense it now, despite the complete lack of emotion displayed by the other man.
And though it violated his every reasoning, this strength, so purposefully restrained, provoked him no end.
Because, perhaps, here was someone who was not superior as to be condescending, nor weaker as to require indulgence. Instead, rather frighteningly, Kagetora recognized his own equal.
From the outset, Kagetora had thrown the gauntlet in his face, and Naoe had challenged him right back with the calm deliberation of a venerable warrior. For once, here was a person against whom he can duel, strength for strength, mind against mind, and know that either of them can emerge victorious.
But would he understand if he knew…? His thoughts would always circle back to this question.
Kagetora gave a start as a distant luminosity caught his eye. A small village perhaps or an encampment? In his hand, the flickering torch spluttered valiantly one last time before it finally snuffed out, leaving them in near pitch-black nothingness.
Breathing deeply, Kagetora determinedly moved onward, stumbling slightly against tree roots and rocks, sensing, more than hearing Naoe following him.
And there, beyond a final curtain of thicket, easily slashed aside by a sharp blade, was the forest's hidden reward for their fortitude.
The river softly blazed with the glow of fireflies, flickering lights reflected against the still waters, like a million stars descended from the skies to frolic upon the earth.
Kagetora gazed around him, mesmerized, eyes wide and bright with childlike wonder. He stepped forward, as closely as possible to the river's edge, water lapping at the tips of his boots, hands outstretched to the tiny motes of light.
Several of the creatures seemed to welcome him, gliding towards him like a living silken veil, but not quite breaching the barriers of the river bank. The light they brought gilded the young man's face, rendering his skin nearly transparent, while the evening breeze stirred loose tendrils of jet black hair, weaving the long strands into a delicate web flowing behind him.
And for the first time in their brief acquaintance, Naoe saw the soft touch of a smile tease his mouth.
Naoe stood transfixed, the vision before him encompassing all his senses. Perhaps the world has turned on its head and sea and sky had reversed, leaving heaven within one's reach. And at its gates, right before him, was this creature of light, this person that radiated beauty far beyond the physical.
Naoe had always been aware of it, had seen it ignite the hearts of warriors amidst the red clouds of blood and gore and battle. Had witnessed its brilliance like a beacon shining through despair and agony.
He had truly vexed him, this mere mere pawn who had blazed across enemy lines, reaching the elusive eighth square to become the most powerful. It had galled at the very foundations of his pride. And Naoe had wanted it for himself, coveted it, barely restrained, with a searing jealousy and a raging desire to possess and conquer.
Yet despite himself, Naoe had been inexpressibly drawn to it as well, longing to bask in its presence, yearning to hold this luster into him and bring it to a smoldering conflagration with his own hands.
And now, as Kagetora stood vulnerable before him, turning to smile at him like a child sharing a wondrous secret, glimmering softly in the innocent light of the fireflies, Naoe felt his own heart shatter, felt the remaining barriers around his soul disintegrate. In its place, something else was born. Something that would forever beat for and will always belong to this magnificent being standing before him.
As they both watched, a lone firefly broke free from the multitude, flying determinedly across the quiet surface of the water. It fluttered past the riverbank, past the young man's outstretched hand, zig-zagging above his head in playful sweeps. Only to hover uncertainly before his solemn gaze.
Won't you come closer, little one? Kagetora silently asked of it. Or are you tired? From your journey, from sharing that light within you...
The shimmering river seemed to beckon him. Naoe moved forward, his feet moving of their own accord until he stood beside Kagetora, while as yet bathed in shadows. His own hand reached up for he knew not what, guided only by a force beyond his control.
The tiny winged voyager seemed to make a choice, braving the shadows to alight on Naoe's hand. The man's lips parted slightly in surprise and awe.
Kagetora turned towards Naoe, his eyes filling with the emotion. He watched the tiny insect perched upon that bronzed skin, a delicate fragment of life cradled against a hand that had the ability to kill, yet now served as a brief haven for tired wings. The firefly seemed to glow contentedly, completely fearless, absolutely unafraid that no harm will come to it.
How did it know? How could it discern in the space of a breath what is in this man's heart and judge it as trustworthy?
As if in answer, wispy little feet began to trace a subtle dance, leaving faint trails of evanescent light. Kagetora moved even closer, his face a mere sigh from Naoe's hand, as if trying to decipher the little creature's message. His hand moved unconsciously to tentatively touch that fragile innocence.
Please tell me…
The little insect suddenly launched itself into the air, soaring high above their heads, and as both Kagetora and Naoe looked on to follow its flight, it circled once, twice, as if in farewell, in a faint halo of phosphorescence, before rejoining its friends in the river's light.
And when they both turned away from it, found themselves in each other's arms, their gazes caught and held within each other. The light from the river framed Naoe's form, casting his face in ethereal light, the subtle sparks of green in his eyes burned luminescent. And Kagetora could see himself mirrored in those eyes, seemingly trapped in that emerald prison, yet just as that little firefly had known, he would be safe within it.
Naoe could only stare spellbound at the person in his arms, as fragile yet as brave a creature as that firefly. His hand moved to touch Kagetora's face, glorying in the unbearable sensation of soft warm skin beneath his fingertips, enthralled by the vision of radiant beauty framed amidst the shadows of the forest behind him. Naoe's hand moved gently, as if with subtle touches he could convey what his own mind could not yet understand.
Kagetora felt a shiver run through him, his hands grasping at the fabric of the other man's sleeve. Try as he might, he was unable to divert himself from this enchantment. For surely, this is what it was. The quiet of the forest washed over them, as the evening breeze picked up, cool and soothing. He lifted his face as Naoe closed that final distance between them.
Shadows melted into one. Lightning struck upon lava, bringing the earth to a tremulous awakening.
And with it a heart's wish yet unvoiced, but heard. Stay with me...
Distant voices broke the silence. Calling out, calling their names.
Kagetora's eyes snapped open, jolted into full awareness of reality. In a movement of pure reflex, he pushed against Naoe, disturbing the man's precarious balance against the river's edge and Naoe fell into the water with a resounding splash.
The forest was plunged in sudden darkness once more as the startled fireflies ceased their evening dance and scattered in a million different directions.
Naoe hoisted himself upright, water dripping from his hair and clothing, while the remaining insects flew around him indignantly. When his vision cleared, Kagetora had fled. A drop of water trickled shyly down Naoe's cheek, melting against the corner of his mouth, and his hand lifted to touch the dampness and lingering warmth.
Hidden in the void of the forest, Kagetora leaned heavily against a tree trunk, hands fisted upon his chest to still the pounding of his heart. His face was damp, struck by the splash from the river. He pressed cold hands against the burning in his cheeks, unconsciously biting his lower lip where a drop of water and the subtle hints of fire still remained.
And high up above them, tiny motes of light wove a spell against the evening sky as if to carry a message to the stars.
Author's Note: Okay everyone, you can now start hurling those tomatoes... I'm hiding under the desk.