A/N: Thanks to my beta, Amputation, for being awesome.
This chapter is a long one by my standards. It contains an involved discussion about non-conforming gender identities. For those of you out there who identify with this, please note that I mean no offense. Minato is a typical cis-male, and any ignorance or presumptuousness on his part can be attributed to that fact.
Chapter 4 – To Forge by Fire, Part I
"Minato, dinner will be done in five minutes. Can you round up the others and set up the table?"
"No problem, Tsukiumi. I'll get onto it!"
"Kusano, what did I say about leaving your homework on the dining table, especially this close to dinnertime?"
"Oh, sorry! I'll clear it up right away!"
Tonight was Tuesday night – Tsukiumi's turn. Deciding to start off the evening on a high note, the Water Sekirei had prepared my most favourite stir-fry noodle dish: yaki udon. The kitchen and surrounding areas were filled with the delicious aromas of dashi stock, mirin and sautéed pork belly. One sniff of the air had me drooling in anticipation, and without further preamble, I headed off in search of our remaining housemates. Since only Kusano was present at the dining table (packing up her homework), this left Musubi, Matsu, Kazehana and Kagari.
I found Kazehana first. She was sprawled across the loveseat in the lounge, a fluffy feathered pen in one hand and her latest draft in the other. After a quick exchange, she set her things down, wiggling her curvaceous hips and behind as she sashayed out of the room. It took all of my willpower not to stand there and stare. Even in a situation as mundane as this, the Wind Sekirei knew how to make an exit.
Musubi was next. I found the Fist Sekirei in the backyard, practising her kata. Feet braced against the ground, she moved with a powerful yet precise fluidity, demonstrating the fantastic control she had over her body. I watched – admired – her for a moment, then called out her name. Upon hearing the words 'yaki udon', her eyes grew as shiny as coins, and she rushed off to the dining area without so much as a second glance.
Smiling at her single-mindedness, I carried on with my search. Since Kagari's room was closest to my current location, I decided to check if the Fire Sekirei was inside. Rapping thrice on the door, I called out, "Kagari! Dinner's ready!"
There was no reply.
I knocked again, calling more loudly this time, "Kagari, are you in?"
Silence answered me once more. I shrugged. He'd probably disappeared to another part of the house, and would show up sooner or later.
Matsu's room was linked to the same corridor, so I headed there next. I raised my hand, poised to knock when I noticed a sliver of light escaping through a gap – the door hadn't been closed all the way. This caught my attention, which was further heightened by the urgent murmur of voices – recognisable as Matsu's and Kagari's – coming from within. Curious despite myself, I pressed myself against the adjacent wall and tilted my ear towards the gap–
"–gave you the chance, Homura!" In her seriousness, Matsu had dropped the –tan suffix, her normally shrill voice giving way to a lower mezzo-soprano. "Why didn't you tell him?"
"I cannot," replied Kagari's contralto, his tone equally serious. "It's too early."
"After waiting for three years, you still say it's too early?" cried Matsu incredulously.
"He's not prepared to hear it," Kagari maintained, adamant as Matsu was incredulous. "And I'm not prepared to say it."
"How much longer will you continue to repeat that stupid rhetoric?" The Brain Sekirei's impatience was palpable.
"For as long as I must. I will not force–" Kagari cut himself off abruptly, as though he'd revealed something by accident. "Dammit Matsu!" he snapped. "I came here to talk about those surveillance videos. Don't change the topic!"
"I already told you, Homura," Matsu tried for a placating tone, "I'd keep your secret. We've been keeping each other's secrets for years!" Her voice took on an injured air. "Shouldn't you trust me by now?"
"He must never know about that," Kagari gritted out, ignoring her question. "It already pains me that you know."
"I understand." There was a moment of silence in which I could sense Matsu's hesitation. "Do you want me to delete them?"
"Please do." The Fire Sekirei's voice was heavy with weariness. "I cannot afford an accident, however unlikely it might be."
"Very well then." For the next three seconds, the sound of clicking keys filled the air. "There, it's done."
"Thank you, Matsu," acknowledged Kagari. "Though, knowing you, there'd be some kind of backup file." He sighed.
The Brain Sekirei giggled in reply. "You do know me too well, Homura." There was another brief moment of silence; I could picture her tapping a finger against her lower lip in thought. "You know, if he hadn't put the Schedule into place–"
I wrenched myself away from the door. Having received irrefutable evidence that they were talking about me, there was no way I could continue to snoop. As things were, I had already heard too much. If Kagari knew of my mishap, it would destroy the tenuous connection I had worked so hard to create in our past two weeks together.
This begged the question: how would I extricate myself from this situation? If I knocked now, it would become apparent that I'd been listening in. I'd never been any good at poker faces; I was too honest.
Wrecked with anxiety, I retreated a few steps. That's a good start, I thought hazily. It wouldn't hurt to put some distance between that door and myself–
I nearly leapt out of my skin; it was with considerable effort that I stifled the urge to let out an accompanying yelp. "Kuu-chan," I admonished, turning around to face my youngest Sekirei, "you gave me a fright!"
"Sorry, Mina-chan," she apologised, about to explain further when she caught sight of my face. Her eyes narrowed; I was undoubtedly wearing a guilty expression. "Is something wrong?"
"Well, I…" Unable to help myself, I cast a sidewards glance at Matsu's door.
Kusano followed my gaze, studying the panel of wood and the incriminating gap left between it and the wall. She then turned back to me. "You've been eavesdropping." There wasn't any accusation in her tone – she was simply stating a fact.
I sighed; I could never lie to those preternaturally wise eyes. "Yeah, I think I overheard something I wasn't supposed to know." My voice took on a wild, fluttery edge. "And if they f-figure out I've been outside–"
" –the consequences will be bad," she finished for me, her tone grave. "Very bad."
"Yeah." I sighed again.
It took her no more than a second to weigh the gravity of my dilemma. "I'll call them," she offered, her words like a shining beacon of salvation. "Why don't you head down to dinner, Mina-chan?"
I almost sobbed in gratitude. "Thank you, Kuu-chan."
My youngest Sekirei simply smiled at me – a soft, gentle curl of her lips. In that moment, I was struck by how much I loved her. Surprising even myself, I reached out and seized her in a tight embrace. She returned my affection eagerly, melding against me and burrowing her head into my collarbone. Her arms were squeezing my ribcage so hard that – combined with the bright, heart-strangling burst of my affection for her – I found it difficult to breathe.
After an all-too-brief moment, we let go of each other and parted ways. I made my slow, ambling return to the dining area, and she went off to brave the den of secrets that was Matsu's room. My heart was swollen with warmth and relief; my Kuu-chan loved me so much that she would do me even this favour.
Still, I couldn't resist the temptation to ponder the conversation I'd eavesdropped. What was Kagari so reluctant to tell me? And what was in those surveillance videos that he didn't want me to know?
My conscience surfaced before I could give these questions further consideration. Wasn't it bad enough that I'd overheard those details – details moreover, which could destroy our relationship if I revealed my knowledge of them? A man should have the liberty of keeping his secrets.
With that resolution ablaze in my heart, I hurried back to the dining table and let the smells of yaki udon overwhelm my senses once more.
That's right, I decided. Kagari can keep his secrets.
The rest of the week passed without event – insofar as the phrase 'without event' could apply to a household as crazy as mine. There were the usual wifely squabbles (most of which – to my amazement – ended as soon as I walked into the room), a hole in the back fence (Musubi had been a little overenthusiastic during a friendly spar with Tsukiumi) and a flowerbed that had miraculously sprung up overnight (courtesy of a sweet-smiling Kusano), but nothing otherwise unexpected.
Though they still remained in the realm of novelty, my nightly adventures (or misadventures, depending on how one looked at them) were slowly becoming routine. My Sekirei had established their own norms: Musubi remained oblivious despite her knack for compromising situations, Kusano shared with me her love of nature, Matsu persisted with her debauched schemes, Tsukiumi revealed her rarely seen sweet and demure side, and Kazehana flaunted her womanly wiles like no tomorrow. This added to the flourishing sense of normalcy.
And so life went on.
Before I knew it, Saturday night had come around again.
As usual, Kagari made his request prior to dinner. He told me to meet him at the front gate at quarter-to-nine, a mere fifteen minutes after his turn officially began. He also said to dress appropriately for the weather. Did he plan for us to go out for the evening? I found the implications of that to be perplexing and a little nerve-wracking, though a small part of me felt excited as well.
When the appointed time arrived, I threw on a T-shirt, a comfortable pair of jeans, and – bearing in mind the breezy forecast – my favourite jacket before heading outside. Kagari was already waiting for me at our assigned location. He didn't seem to have noticed my presence; his attention was fixed on something in his palm. Recognising the rare opportunity for what it was, I took a moment to study him.
I had resolved to set aside all questions of Kagari's gender until he revisited the subject of his own volition. However, I'd underestimated the power of pervasive thought. Ever since he'd planted the notion in my head, I couldn't stop myself from becoming aware of his less masculine characteristics.
During the course of the week, I'd taken to watching him, picking out occasions where he would express this hirtherto unrecognised – from my viewpoint, anyway – side of himself. I had known, in a distant sort of way, that he'd adopted new behaviours and habits. His public persona as a woman had to rub off somehow, right? But until now, I'd never paid particular attention to his hairstyles, choice of clothes, or the ways he'd talk, laugh, sit or otherwise conduct himself in front of others.
Throughout all this, he'd maintained his rigorous scrutiny of my person. Since we were both watching each other, it was inevitable that our eyes would meet. More often than not, before one of us would turn away, I would catch a glint of satisfaction in his eyes.
Could Kagari have intended for me to notice this other side of him all along?
Standing before me as he did tonight, that seemed to be the case.
The Fire Sekirei was dressed in a well-tailored grey women's waistcoat, an off-white blouse with full-length sleeves and pleated cuffs, and low-riding black slacks of a rather snug variety. While aesthetically pleasing in and of themselves, the pieces combined well, complimenting his long, slender form. Even so, the waistcoat was – without question – the highlight of his outfit. It hugged his torso, drawing attention to the way his shoulders tapered to his narrow waist and flared out at his hips. Its deep neckline and angular cut also served to accentuate the curve of his breasts – not that I was looking there, of course!
Overall, Kagari's appearance came across as feminine, but not overtly so. His choice of attire was stylish and elegant in a way that suited him to a tee. If it weren't for the fact that I couldn't reconcile this image of Kagari with the one in my head, I would've said he looked attractive.
As I'd noted earlier, he was staring at something in his hand. From my vantage point, I couldn't make out any details beyond the colours of orange and silver. Intuition told me it was the same piece of jewellery I'd seen hidden under his pyjama top in our previous two encounters. So my guess was right – he was wearing a pendant. If his rapt expression was anything to go by, he must be incredibly attached to it.
A gentle breeze blew, sweeping his silver hair dramatically behind him. Cast in the moonlight as he was, I could picture Kagari as a lone romantic figure, reflecting upon a jewel that held his innermost sentiments–
I shook my head, abruptly ending that train of thought. Where did that come from?
Deciding that I had dawdled long enough, I walked out to the Fire Sekirei. My sneakers made a soft thud-thud against the pavement, alerting him to my presence. He twisted his neck, looking at me over his shoulder.
I stopped a few feet short of him, greeting him by way of a nod. "Kagari."
"Sahashi." He turned around to face me, closing his fist around the pendant and tucking it back into his cleavage at the same time. It was a perfectly innocuous motion, yet I found myself fighting down the sudden impulse to stare.
"You said to meet you here?" I asked hastily, seeking to cover up my near-blunder.
To my relief, the Fire Sekirei seemed too preoccupied to notice. "Yes. For tonight," he cast his gaze upwards and into the distance, "I would like for us to go someplace else."
Ah. While it was Kagari's prerogative to decide the specifics of his turn, his taking the initiative like this came as a surprise (though not an unwelcome one). Nevertheless, this strengthened my suspicion that it had something to do with his outburst at Matsu last Sunday – not to mention the conversation I shouldn't have overheard.
"Someplace where Matsu's cameras can't follow?" I threw out, testing the waters.
Kagari snapped his eyes back onto me; I noticed they had widened slightly. "Indeed."
"You're really bothered by her bad little habit, aren't you?"
His mouth tightened. "Who wouldn't be?"
While I understood his irritation at Matsu's unsavoury habit, I didn't see a point in getting worked up over something that was more or less harmless. The Brain Sekirei usually kept the details to herself (last Sunday being an exception).
"If my guess is correct," I replied evenly, "Musubi and Tsukiumi aren't even aware that her new surveillance system exists. As for the others, they don't seem to care."
A furrow had etched itself between his brows. "What about you?"
I gave him a smile that was part resignation and part nonchalance. "I guess I'll never have a moment of true privacy while I'm in the house. It's annoying, but I've gotten used to it, too."
Kagari let out a sigh. "It appears I'm alone on my stance," he muttered, sounding almost petulant.
"Listen, Kagari," I offered, spreading my palms in a sincere gesture. "Even putting up a united front, I doubt we can talk her out of a lifetime of spying. But we'll always have the option of venturing outside her spy zone, won't we?" I shot him a conspiratorial grin.
His dark expression relaxed at my words. "You're right, Sahashi."
"So why don't you show me this special place of yours?"
Said special place was a little out of the way, as Kagari had put it. For a Sekirei, he'd added, his expression as close as it could come to sheepish. The only way to get there within a reasonable space of time was to have him carry me. Following a brief discussion on logistics – in which there were irritated protests, pained grumbles and red-faced spluttering on my part – we settled on a piggyback ride. After all, I refused to be hauled around like a sack of rice, have my arm dislocated, or endure the indignity of a bridal carry (surely he'd offered that as a joke?).
Nevertheless, this arrangement made me feel uncomfortable in more ways than one. Common practice dictated that piggyback rides were offered to those of small stature – a child or a girl. I was neither of these. Not to mention Kagari stood a full four inches shorter than me, and was slighter of build to boot. However robust his Sekirei body might be, it was jarring to be carried in this manner, let alone having him bear my larger body and weight.
And this didn't even take into account the physical proximity involved.
Yes, I'd been in close contact with Kagari before. I'd even embraced him on a handful of occasions – our victory at the final confrontation of the Sekirei Plan was one of those. But aside the rare hand-squeeze or casual pats on the shoulder or back, ours was a 'minimal touch' relationship. Now that I have developed a new and – let's face it, unsettling – awareness of his person, I was even more leery of touching him.
Apparently, I was not the only one to feel discomfited by this. The Fire Sekirei's expression was carefully schooled into blandness, but he gave an unmistakable twitch when I settled into position against his crouched back. No doubt he was as perturbed as I was by the sudden shift from cool night air to the press of warm bodies. He proceeded to interlock our elbows and knees in a quick, almost rough movement, rising onto his feet a second later.
Then all thoughts of personal discomfort dissipated as Kagari leapt into the night.
I had travelled alongside my Sekirei in the past, but those experiences did not dilute this one in any way. In short, it was exhilarating.
Kagari's athleticism was truly something to marvel at. Although I had an intellectual appreciation of his physical prowess – as I did of my other Sekirei – it was another thing to see, feel and breathe it in action. His first leap cleared several houses along the street, and subsequent leaps only took us further. While he lacked Musubi's raw strength, he made up for it in technique, building up momentum until he could traverse a field in one bound.
The wind slashed across our faces, whipping my hair back and drowning out all other noise in a whistling cacophony. My eyes registered little beyond coloured lights; we were moving so fast that urban artefacts, rooftops and trees alike flew past us in a blur. Each breath brought in sweet, crisp air, and the cold sharpened my senses even as it left icy needles in my flesh – I could not be any more awake if I'd tried. The sensations engulfed me; surely I would have lost myself in them without the reminder of Kagari's warm body against mine, the assuring flex and release of his muscles as he gathered energy for his next leap.
After a few minutes into our superhuman sprint, I realised that we were heading northwards towards the bay. Lamplight became sparser; soon enough, we left the sparkling capital behind, navigating through the dark under the sole guidance of moonlight. Clusters of buildings grew thinner, giving way to dirt tracks, copses of trees, and eventually rocky outcrops. A salty, humid fragrance encroached on the air, starting as a trace scent that gained presence until it all but filled my nostrils.
Several precise leaps later, we were there.
Our destination, as it transpired, was a large alcove in the beach-wide cliff face. The structure was mercifully free of jagged points; eons of exposure to the elements had worn the walls smooth.
Kagari crouched down, prompting me to unhook my limbs from him and clamber off. The loss of his body heat came not without regret; it was as though all the accumulated chill of our journey had doused me at once. Shivering, I folded my arms to preserve what little warmth I'd retained.
"A little out of the way, you said?" I quipped through numb lips. Rising to my full height, I studied the ceiling. It cleared my head by a good two feet. I wouldn't be bumping my head against it, at least.
"Just… a little," Kagari sounded short of breath. I immediately snapped my gaze back to him. He'd remained crouched, one hand braced against the ground, the other against his heaving chest. The alcove echoed with his gasps.
How could I not have noticed all the while?! "Kagari, that wasn't–" I started, stumbling over my words. "You didn't overexert yourself, did you?" I stretched out a concerned hand towards him.
To my surprise (and a little hurt), he knocked my hand away. "I might have… underestimated the distance," he panted, a defensive edge to his voice. "Please give me… a moment to recover."
Kagari's admission only fuelled my worry for him. Grasping his shoulders, I pulled him upright into a nearby beam of moonlight. He froze like a startled rabbit, whereby I took the opportunity to examine his face. The brightness was just enough to make out a flush across his cheeks, and his irises were emitting a brilliant red glow of their own. As if that wasn't alarming enough, they had also thinned into rings, almost swallowed by the pupils within. Moving by instinct, I clapped my hand against his forehead – and nearly snatched it back.
"You're hot! You're burning up!"
My exclamation jerked the Fire Sekirei out of his stupor. Growling, he seized my wrist and pulled it away to the side. The glare he directed at me was intense, ablaze with emotion: anger, mortification and something dark and primal. Then, realising what he was doing, he wrenched his eyes away, stepped backwards and whirled around in quick succession. My eyes fell upon his back – it was so rigid it might as well be a wall.
I massaged my discarded wrist, feeling rather injured and more than a little bewildered. Although the exchange had taken no more than five seconds, it'd left me teeming with questions. For one, what was the hell was wrong with him? For another, what was that all about? Yes, I was guilty of invading his personal space, but this was clearly an overreaction!
"I am not feverish… or sick," he gritted out, managing a stiff tone in spite of his laboured breathing. "Just winded. Being a Fire Sekirei… my body temperature is… higher than most. This is nothing."
Even if I could believe that excuse about his body's unique thermoregulation, it did not make his breathless state any less troubling. "And wearing yourself out like this is nothing?" I said incredulously.
"Trust me," he panted, bracing a hand against the nearest wall. "A minute… is all I need."
I didn't understand. Why was he being so defensive? And why was he so averse to have me touch him?
Sekirei or no, Kagari's body had limitations. If anything, he recognised that fact the most keenly out of my Sekirei. For what reason would he try – and fail – to prove that he was unaffected by his exertions? Surely he knew that exhaustion would be the outcome when he'd elected to travel at breakneck pace. Why would he overlook this detail, only to be ashamed of it afterwards? It didn't make any sense at all!
Worst of all, if he were doing this because of me–
"Kagari, I'd rather not have you kill yourself on my account!"
My passionate outcry gave him pause, and I felt his hostile aura melt away into the night breeze. "I won't," he assured me. "Besides, the absence of Matsu's cameras… is worth it. As is the view." He gestured towards the entrance of the alcove. "Take a look for yourself."
Reigning in the impulse to sigh, I turned in the direction he'd suggested instead. In his stubbornness, Kagari had insisted that his condition would improve if left alone. There was little I could do but accept his request and give him space. Any further worrying on my part would only cause the prickly Fire Sekirei to retreat into himself – and I couldn't have that.
On the other hand, he was right about the view. 'Enchanting' could only begin to describe the sight that graced my eyes. I wasn't normally given to poetry, but to describe it otherwise would despoil the beauty that lay before me.
There were no clouds tonight. Untainted by the city's artificial glow, the stars could clearly be seen, dotting the indigo sky like so many glittering diamonds. The full moon formed the centrepiece of the scene, a perfect circle that lit both heaven and sea in a burst of silver radiance. Beneath lay waves, undulating gently as they rose up one after another to receive the moonlight. Thus ensorcelled, they began their journey towards the shores, washing up against sand and rock before receding into the dark water whence they came.
"It's beautiful out here," I said after a minute. "I can see why you like this place."
It seemed that a minute was enough time for Kagari to catch his breath. Walking out to the alcove entrance, he stopped a foot or so short of the edge. Here, he plopped down, folding himself into a cross-legged position.
"I like to come here to think," he said, his gaze fixed upon the moonlit ocean. "The whisper of the waves, the breeze against my skin, the smell of the salt air – it's soothing. And when the moon alights on the water, it looks like the world shimmers."
Now certain of his mood, I moved to sit down beside him, sprawling out my legs and leaning back on my arms. While I agreed wholeheartedly with his words, I also understood that this place was sacred, beyond the reach of ordinary people.
"It's practically inaccessible, though," I went on to illustrate my point. "There's no way I'd be able to get here without help from one of you, even with a helicopter."
"Yes." There was a faraway quality to Kagari's voice. "That's part of its charm – only birds can reach this place."
We sat in comfortable silence, admiring the view together. Eventually, I found my attention drifting to my companion. His earlier tension had disappeared, replaced with a relaxed, almost lazy expression. I had never seen Kagari so peaceful; it meant that this place could be none other than his sanctuary. For one as reclusive as the Fire Sekirei, bringing me here was tantamount to showing trust – a great deal of it – in me.
I decided to express my appreciation of the matter. "Thanks for sharing this place with me, Kagari."
"My pleasure," he replied easily. After a long pause, he continued, "I think I understand now, why you decided to include me in the Schedule."
He turned his wine-red eyes onto me, a gentle fire glowing in their depths. "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for you, would we?"
"Yeah," I agreed, reminiscing about our first encounter, where Kagari had opened his door only to engage in an awkward staring contest with me. "We've come a long way in three weeks."
There was a wistful curve to his lips. "Sitting by the water's edge, watching the ocean… I never thought I'd be doing this with you."
"Me neither. But I don't dislike it." Suddenly sheepish, I reached for the back of my head. "Even though it kinda feels like a date."
Unlike me, Kagari didn't seem at all perturbed by the implications of my last statement. "That's what these nights are supposed to be, aren't they?" he said, to my surprise.
"I g-guess?" I stuttered, scratching harder at my scalp. "It just feels… I dunno, weird thinking of it in that context."
"The homoerotic connotations bother you?" he asked, tilting his head curiously.
I gave an awkward little laugh. "Yeah, that's one way to put it."
He looked down, folding his hands into his lap – a distinctly feminine gesture that was made all the more feminine with his following words. "Perhaps it would help if you didn't think of me as a man." His voice was quiet, and if I didn't know better, I would've said he felt shy.
"I-I don't know…" I fumbled for the right thing to say, feeling very out of my element. "It's really confusing. I've spent the past four years thinking of you that way. It's hard to get out of that mindset, you know?"
His replying nod was sympathetic, which struck me as odd. "I understand. It was hard for me to get out of that mindset, too."
"Is that because your body–" I started.
"–permanently adopted female characteristics?" he finished for me. His hand drifted to his chest, brushing over the curve thoughtfully. Again, it took an enormous effort on my part not to stare. "Yes, looking like a woman can be very inconvenient when you've gone about your life as a man."
Guilt washed over me like a tidal wave. "If only I weren't your–"
"For god's sake, stop that, Sahashi," Kagari interjected, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance. "I have no regrets, and I'd rather you didn't either. If it weren't for you, I'd be dead. Between looking like a woman and being dead," he continued wryly, "I find looking like a woman preferable."
"I'm not sure if every guy out there can say the same thing," I muttered. Well, given the perverted minds of heterosexual men – of which I was no exception – most would find it entertaining to prance around in a woman's body. For a day, perhaps. But for the rest of their lives? "At least, not in the long run."
The Fire Sekirei shrugged. "It's not like I wasn't used to the physical changes. Prior to my release, my sex was constantly fluctuating, remember?"
I recalled that particular detail only too clearly – poor Kagari. "Yeah, I remember. Even so, you've had to change your life around after having gone about it as a man. With a feminised body, you couldn't continue your career as a host–"
"That's where you're mistaken," he corrected me. "I could've continued; I chose not to. Being a host was a means to an end. When I found my Ashikabi – you – there was no longer any incentive to remain in that line of work."
"You couldn't continue your career as a male host, then," I persisted, laying a heavy stress on the word. "Nor could you take up any occupation that required a male-specific role."
"Not a male host, no," he conceded. "But I could still present as a man for other male occupations. I'd have to bind my chest, and avoid situations where people could see me undressed." He gave a careless wave. "It'd be something of a nuisance, but hardly a difficult feat."
"Yeah, I noticed the times you did that," I said, casting my mind back to our first year post-Sekirei Plan. I saw precious little of Kagari then, but he was much like the person he'd been when I first met him – indisputably a man. "But you gave it up after a while."
Kagari nodded. "Those were the early days. Back then, I had tried to slip back into my old life. Although I couldn't resume my previous title as a host, I'd thought that I could still salvage some parts of my male identity."
"But it didn't work, did it?" The following year had seen his wardrobe overhauled, after all. Even if I hadn't been paying careful attention, I didn't miss the women's overenthusiastic chatter about Kagari 'coming over to their side'.
"Indeed," he confirmed, studying the cuff of his left sleeve. "I felt out of place; things didn't fit like they used to. I had changed. I wasn't really a man anymore, however much I pretended to be one." He finished his sentence in a heavy, ironic sigh.
His words perplexed me – they'd made it sound as though some unknown force had altered Kagari's perception of himself. "What do you mean by that?"
"When I reacted to you, my body wasn't the only thing that changed," the Fire Sekirei explained. "It took time, and I didn't even realise until I looked back on my past self, but I'd picked up other things. Mannerisms. Ways of thinking. Ways of dressing." He picked at the fabric of his cuff, whether as a subconscious gesture or to emphasise his point, I didn't know.
Although I acknowledged that this explanation best accounted for the differences in his behaviour, it genuinely surprised me. Wasn't I the one who'd said that Kagari could stay Kagari? "You're saying the changes applied to your psyche as well?"
"Indeed." He turned to face me, meeting my eyes with intent wine-red ones. "Would you, as a man, adopt behaviours normally associated with the opposite sex?"
It was a rhetorical question that made me realise the stupidity of my earlier statement. Of course his psyche had changed, you idiot, I reprimanded myself. How could Kagari successfully carry out an ongoing persona as a woman if being one lay far outside his true identity? The Fire Sekirei was no government agent, and even spies would have difficulty posing as a member of the opposite sex.
"You have a point," I sighed. "But this makes it seem like you've been forced to become… something else against your will."
"A quirk of my body's design, I'm afraid," Kagari replied with a sardonic smile. "I did mention that I would imprint very strongly on the desires of my Ashikabi – so much so that my gender would change to suit your preferences."
"So I've subconsciously willed you to become a woman?" I concluded, horrified at this. "Not just in appearance, but also in your head? Even though I said I wanted you to remain yourself?"
"Not entirely." With two simple words, Kagari managed to bring me relief, which was further reinforced by the rest of his speech. "My feminisation isn't complete – in that sense, I am still myself. There are still parts of me that qualify as male."
"Parts of you that qualify as male?" My mind leapt to the most obvious answer: he'd kept the Equipment. "Are you saying that you still have–"
"–a penis? Yes," he said bluntly. His expression then turned dark. "Believe me, Sahashi, you wouldn't be sitting here tonight if you'd taken that away – my Ashikabi or no."
In other words, he would've murdered me. However, this ominous threat did not make me cower in fear; instead, it cemented my sense of relief. I might have brought about his feminisation, but I did not erase this essential part of his masculinity. Having already bollocksed so many things with the Fire Sekirei, I didn't need another sin hanging over my conscience.
"I'm relieved to hear that, actually," I admitted. "By being your Ashikabi, I've already forced you into a difficult situation. There's no way I could forgive myself if I'd also taken away your manhood –" my eyes lowered in shame, "– what little remains of it, that is."
"You and I both, Sahashi," he agreed, his tone still dark.
I hung my head. "It'd be like I couldn't have insulted you more if I wanted to."
"Indeed. But now that you understand that," Kagari said, his voice becoming gentle, "there's no need to punish yourself further. Clearly, your feelings have allowed me to retain this part of myself."
Feeling grateful that he'd absolved me of this matter, I lifted my head and gave Kagari a warm smile. "Yeah, I'm glad they did." Then, a question occurred to me – if Kagari had kept his man parts, how much of his body was actually female? "Still, it makes me wonder…"
Kagari zoned in on my thoughts straightaway. "Let me guess," he said, amusement twinkling in his eyes, "you want to know the extent to which I've been feminised?
How the hell did he– "I d-didn't say that!" I waved my hands frantically in denial, my cheeks growing warm. "Y-Y-You put those words in my mouth!"
His eyes twinkled more, if that was possible. "Silly Ashikabi, you're practically twitching with curiosity."
I sighed. "Am I that obvious?"
"You've always been perfectly transparent," he replied, his voice rich with combined amusement and fondness. "It's an endearing quality of yours."
That sounded very much like a compliment. "I s-suppose?" I stammered, blushing and rubbing the back of my head. "Anyhow, are you?" This, I directed at the Fire Sekirei, hoping that he'd grasp my implied question and explain without further elaboration on my part.
No such luck. Moreover, my efforts had backfired, if that smirk on Kagari's face was any indication. "Am I what?" he drawled, dragging out last syllable into something obscene.
I groaned. What was it about my Sekirei that made them prone to deriving entertainment at my expense? "Why must you make me say it?!"
Kagari imitated a thoughtful pose, cupping his chin and tilting his head. "Well, beginning and ending a question with 'are you' leaves too much room for interpretation, wouldn't you say?"
I groaned again; trust Kagari to make a clever comeback. "Fine!" Taking a deep breath, I steeled myself and blurted, "Are you also a – a… g-g-girl down there?" My cheeks felt like they'd been set alight.
At this, the Fire Sekirei lost all semblance of control and burst into laughter.
"Hey, it's not funny!" I protested, my face flaming hotter.
"On the contrary," Kagari got out between guffaws. He then paused and eyed me, his smirk turning wicked – so much so that I found myself recoiling backwards. "So Sahashi, what do you mean by g–"
"You can't possibly be that cruel!" My voice had risen to a high-pitched – and very unmanly – wail. Not that it mattered now; I had already forfeited all my dignity. "Having to say t-t–" I gesticulated wildly, "–that was embarrassing enough!"
The Fire Sekirei let out several more sniggers, making me wish I could sink into the ground and disappear. Nevertheless, underneath my injured pride and mortification, I was glad to see him like this. There was something genuine about the way he laughed. It was unhindered, full of delight, free from the burdens that plagued his heart and shaped his too-serious countenance.
If I were honest with myself, I wouldn't mind hearing Kagari laugh more often. Not at my expense, though – that would be asking for too much!
Eventually, Kagari took pity on my sulking form and raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Alright, I'll stop," he relented, amusement still twinkling in his eyes. "To answer your question: yes, I have both male and female genitalia."
Having my curiosity sated did not dispel my fluster. If anything, I blushed more furiously – here I was, thinking about Kagari's privates! While it presented an intriguing mental image – damn male hormones – nothing could be more inappropriate right now–!
"I s-see," I stuttered, groping around in my mind for ideas, expressions – anything to banish my unbidden train of thought. "So t-that means you're not completely male or completely female. Hang on," I turned to the Fire Sekirei, "what does that make you?"
"Exactly what you'd just said." Kagari's voice was sure and intent; he had regained his sobriety. He fixed his wine-red gaze upon me, and I knew, without question, that his next words were of utmost importance. "I am neither man nor woman, and both at the same time."
Neither man nor woman, and both at the same time.
So I was right. Kagari didn't want to be seen as a man – or a woman. He wanted me to see him as merely himself.
But I had no concept of what that entailed.
Everything I knew and understood about human social interaction revolved around the principle of two binary genders. One was either a man or a woman. The way people behaved towards and treated one another depended on the category they fell under. A man treated a fellow man differently to the way he would treat a woman, and vice versa.
Truth be told, I knew only how to treat Kagari as a man. I had less idea of how to treat Kagari as a woman, and still lesser idea of how to treat him as someone who fell outside both categories.
Still, this didn't explain why his public persona was female.
"If that's the case, why do you dress and act like a woman in public?"
In reply, the Fire Sekirei gave me a look that said it would be a long answer. My reply to this was to emulate his cross-legged position and angle my body towards him, showing that he had my full attention.
Satisfied with my response, Kagari launched into his tale:
"At first, it was a matter of ascertaining my true identity. I needed to know if being a woman was who I had become. Having already adopted some feminine mannerisms, I decided to take the next step and go the entire way. So I tried on woman's things: clothes, shoes, cosmetics, accessories – the lot. But it wasn't a perfect fit either. Some clothes felt like they belonged on my body, but I hated the looks other men were giving me.
"Then there's the matter of gender interpretation. In this society as we know it, there are two mainstream genders: man and woman. The idea of a third, in-between gender – my gender – is still new and unfounded. For the sake of blending in, I had to choose between 'man' and 'woman'. Indeed, things might have been easier if I had chosen to stay a man. But as we've already established, it didn't feel completely right. Nor did 'woman' for that matter. Nevertheless, I settled on 'woman' in the end."
With that, Kagari folded his hands in his lap, signalling that he'd reached the end of his speech. I sat still for a moment, digesting his words.
So, this was what formed the crux of Kagari's gender crisis. He possessed a third gender that combined male and female traits. I didn't understand the entirety of this concept, and I probably never would. But I did understand one thing: Kagari hadn't found a place in society where he belonged.
"Let me get this straight. You're neither man nor woman, but you choose to play the part of a woman."
"Doesn't that feel, well, wrong?" I wiggled my fingers in a shuddering motion.
Kagari gave me an appreciative smile; perhaps it gladdened him to see that I was finally catching on. "It's like wearing a half a mask," he explained. "One that reveals my female side but conceals my male side. I won't deny that it's tiring to maintain the pretence – to express only half of who I am. But everyone at home knows the real 'me'. Within the safety of our house, I can still be myself."
Everyone at home but me, it seems, I thought humourlessly. God, I was truly that oblivious.
"I'm glad you have at least that much," I sighed, thankful that my other Sekirei weren't as lacking as I was in the 'perceptive' department. "But I still don't understand. Why go through the trouble of posing as a woman?" I wrinkled my brow, perplexed at this question. "You could've picked either 'man' or 'woman'. So why not 'man'? Even if it doesn't feel completely right, it would've been easier – you said so yourself!"
Kagari closed his eyes, his smile turning wry. "I guess you won't be satisfied until you hear the entire truth, eh?"
"The entire truth?" As I'd surmised, there was more to the story – but it obviously wasn't something he was comfortable divulging. "Well, you don't have to tell me if you don't wa–"
He held up a hand to forestall me. "Sahashi Minato, I do want to tell you this. The real reason why I decided to overhaul my male identity and re-establish myself as a woman."
The Fire Sekirei stilled, taking several deep breaths. When he finally spoke, I could tell that each and every one of his words had cost him a significant effort. "It's straightforward – it's because I'm married to you. It may be a marriage in name only, but it's the only thing I have. Without you," his voice rose with emotion, "I am nothing – I wouldn't even be alive! If I were recognised as a woman, I would be counted amongst your wives! This would mean that I–"
–belong with you.
He hadn't said the words outright, but I heard them as clear as day.
"You want to… belong with me?" I spelled out Kagari's unspoken confession, causing his eyes to snap wide. "Is this why you were so insistent that I maintained our pledge of 'forever and ever' to you?"
He looked away, as though he were ashamed of himself. "Yes."
For my part, I was stunned. Kagari took on the mantle of womanhood just so he could find acceptance in my eyes?
Seized by a sudden, fierce possessiveness of him, I reached out and took hold of the Fire Sekirei's shoulders. "But Kagari, don't you see?" I cried, peering into his bewildered face and praying that he could see the sincerity in my gaze. "You will always belong with me! You will always have a place by my side. I'd never abandon you just because you're not a girl!"
His wine-red eyes were enormous, having widened as far as they could go. "Sahashi…"
I let go of him. "I'd never abandon you, Kagari," I repeated firmly, my heart still thrumming with the ferocity of my emotions.
"I believe you." His quiet admission calmed me, but I could hear in his voice a hint of doubt, which manifested further with his next words. "Still, there's no denying that you prefer women. My body – even my mind – changed because of that."
At this, I felt anger well up inside me – anger at him for accepting the changes, anger at myself for inflicting upon him the agony that came along with said changes. "Doesn't this very fact bother you?" I exclaimed, clenching my fists. "Don't you hate me for forcing you to become, well – this?" With a rough gesture, I indicated his body.
Kagari averted his gaze, hesitating. "I did for a time, yes."
"That's what I'm trying to–"
"I have no regrets, remember?" he interrupted, turning back to face me. His eyes were twin flints of determination. "Just like accepting that you're a man, presenting as a woman – it's something I've come to terms with." His tone softened, becoming pensive. "It's quite an enlightening experience, actually. Having now walked in the shoes of a man and a woman, I've gained a better perspective on things."
How could he forgive me so easily? "It's still a sacrifice," I maintained fiercely, "however you put it!"
In response, Kagari leaned towards me and – to my unprecedented surprise – took my hand into his own. His wine-red eyes locked onto mine, blazing with such intensity that it took me aback. "There are times when we have to make sacrifices." In contrast to his eyes, his voice was calm. "It's never easy to do so, but it makes life all the more worth living."
Unable to bear the weight of his gaze, I looked away. "Is life worth living when you can never be completely happy?"
Instead of adhering to his sombre, realist nature, Kagari said something I'd never expected to hear. "Time may change that yet."
"That's… strangely optimistic, coming from you," I breathed, astonished.
"I have reason to hope." Bending down, he brushed his lips over my knuckles. The contact was electric, sizzling up my arm in flash of overstimulated nerves.
What the hell was that?!
Alarmed, I wrenched my hand back, giving several awkward coughs in the process. My heart rate had accelerated all of a sudden, and my mind was racing. This reaction, it couldn't possibly mean what I thought it meant, that Kagari and I had some sort of physical chem– Nononononono! I was treading on too dangerous mental ground as is; I had to change the topic!
Fortunately for me, the subject of pronouns popped into my head, and I seized upon it for dear life. "So uh, you're um… n-neither man nor woman, right?" I blurted. "If that's the case, how should I address you? Which pronoun do I use? Male or female? Or something else?"
Kagari, who'd been watching me with a veiled expression, shrugged his shoulders. "Whichever one you're more comfortable with," he returned, unexpectedly casual.
He was offering me the luxury of choice? This presented an interesting situation. Curious – and more than a little desperate to distract myself – I tried associating the Fire Sekirei with female pronouns.
Kagari was a 'she'. She was Sekirei number six. Her powers were fire. She was quiet, reserved, aloof. Her usual pose was to lean against the wall with her arms crossed. She didn't like spinach–
It didn't fit.
"I can't picture you as a 'she'," I admitted at last. "It doesn't sound right."
Kagari shrugged again. "Then call me 'he'. Honestly, it doesn't matter which one you use. Strangers call me 'she'; the others call me 'he'. I'm accustomed to both."
I, on the other hand, was baffled – not to mention a tad disappointed – by his nonchalance. "It does matter!" I insisted. "I greatly respect you as a ma–" I nearly slipped, correcting myself with a wince, "–as a person. I want to show you that respect – even in a small way, like describing you by the pronoun you prefer."
He looked at me, his gaze soft with intermingled fondness and exasperation. "Silly Ashikabi. All I ask is that you differentiate me from the others." A furrow formed between his brows. "I will not be lumped in with that brood of hens who keep clucking over you."
"Well, I'm glad you don't–" I chuckled, borrowing his less-than-complimentary expression, "–cluck over me, that is. 'He' it is."
"Then I'm also fine with that."
"To be fair, I'm not the only one that 'brood of hens' cluck over," I pointed out, making light conversation. "I remember a handful of occasions where they tried to stuff you in a dre–"
"Please don't remind me about that," he cut me off, groaning.
"But you'd probably look good in a dress," I teased.
"Not you too, Sahashi!" he cried, spots of pink appearing on his cheeks.
I held up my hands, signalling a ceasefire. "Easy, Kagari. I was just kidding!"
His response was to shoot me a flat, unamused glare, and I couldn't help but crack a few giggles. It was due time that the Fire Sekirei had the tables turned on him for a change.
Sobering, I continued, "You know, I really admire you for it. Being able to make the change into a woman, even though it doesn't fit you completely. I don't know if I'd be able to do it were I in your shoes. It would be so hard. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. It wouldn't know how to speak, how to act, what to wear. It'd be like I was thrown into an alien world."
"It was like that in the beginning," Kagari replied, turning his gaze upon the full moon. "I'm glad those days are long past. Now it's as normal as eating breakfast in the morning. You get used to things after a while."
Hearing these words only made my heart swell further with admiration for the Fire Sekirei beside me. "Kagari," I called out his name softly.
"Yes?" He returned his attention to me.
"You're an incredible person, do you know that?"
He blushed prettily – and in light of our most recent discussion, I found that the word 'pretty' suited him just fine. "Thank you, Sahashi."