#51 – Ep
The sun was already high overhead in a wide azure summer sky and the traffic moving busily in both directions by the time they escorted Nagi home. The town had come to life in another perfect midsummer day.
They had somehow managed to meet and repel the fireballs’ attack. But though Narimasa had made a show of standing with them, he’d taken advantage of the chaos to slip away unnoticed near the end of the battle. When the dust settled, he was already nowhere to be seen.
Naoe parked in front of the house. Nagi, still in her pajamas, climbed out, and the others followed suit.
Nagi looked up at Chiaki and said in a small voice, “You’re…going now, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Chiaki replied, nodding. “Don’t worry, you’ll be all right now. You should hurry up and forget about all the scary things that happened.”
“Hey hey, come on. Look, your pajamas are all dirty. You should go and change.”
“P-please stop changing the subject! I—”
Chiaki grinned nonchalantly. He crouched down and peered into Nagi’s face. “You can just think of everything as a bad dream. That way you’ll forget all about it in no time,” Chiaki interrupted her, smiling blithely. “There won’t be any more scary things happening from now on.”
Nagi had not understood anything that had happened. She still knew nothing about they were, what the Dragon God was.
“Chiaki-san,” she began resolutely, “you…what in the world are…”
Straightening, Chiaki answered, “I told you, I’m the servant of the Dragon God. Right?”
That last he directed at the two people standing behind him. Takaya looked away, unamused. Naoe stared silently down at the ground.
“Nagi-san,” Naoe spoke after a moment, “there is one final question I would like to ask you. What did you ask Kuuhachi-san for? What did you wish for in your hundred shrine pilgrimages?”
Nagi’s face stiffened. Takaya pulled on Naoe’s sleeve warningly. But after a moment of silence, Nagi replied, “I wanted courage.”
“So that I will be able to live on even if my mother is no longer here. Even if there is no one to protect me… That was my wish. My mother always said that the Dragon God could grant any wish.”
“Because I’m a crybaby, you know. Whenever something happens, I immediately start crying… So I wanted to be braver. I wanted to walk forward before I started crying…”
All of them looked surprised.
“Does that make me strange?” Nagi looked at Chiaki earnestly. “Am I weird? Does wishing for something like that make me weird?”
The three of them gazed at Nagi silently for a moment. Her eyes held no deceit. Chiaki replied approvingly, “That’s not weird at all.”
“It’s all right, everything’s going to be fine. Your wish will definitely come true. The servant of the Dragon God guarantees it.”
“But of course I knew that. Since we are the Dragon God’s servants. Don’t worry. He’s heard your prayers. You’re a strong girl, and you’ll definitely pull through,” Chiaki stated almost as if he were casting a suggestion, and smiled encouragingly. “Right…?”
At that moment, a black Cedric screeched to a halt in front of the gate. Two men jumped out and came running over, their faces pale.
It was Shiohara’s secretary, Yamamoto, and his driver, Aoki.
“Where did you go?! We were—we were so worried!”
“When I heard that you were staying in the house by yourself, I got worried and called early this morning. But no one was here, and the window was open and everything was a mess…”
“That’s right, but we’re so glad you’re all right!”
Aoki hugged Nagi, on the verge of tears. Chiaki, Naoe, and Takaya looked at each other and smiled wryly.
Chiaki laid a hand on Nagi’s head.
“See you, Nagi.”
“I don’t think anything else’ll happen, but if anything does, call me any time. I’ll come flying over wherever I am.”
Nagi looked straight at Chiaki. “Really? You’ll really come?”
“Yeah, I promise,” Chiaki answered, then took a papier mâché tiger out of his pocket and handed it to Nagi.
“He’s my stand-in. Call me any time.”
“Even if you’re just lonely, okay?”
Chiaki patted Nagi’s head before heading back to the car. Nagi called to his back, “Chiaki-san!”
He turned, and Nagi smiled brightly.
Chiaki smiled back at her and waved. They climbed back into the car, and Naoe started the engine. Nagi stood in the garden, watching as the Presia drove away.
She stood there until the car was out of sight.
“I guess it was just a malicious rumor after all that she cursed her stepfather to death,” Naoe murmured from the driver’s seat. “I wonder if it’s also a lie that she hated Shiohara?”
“Who knows…?” Chiaki commented, and added, “Though she didn’t wish for his death, I still think that she did really hate him. If not, then she wouldn’t have been possessed by Hisahide’sonryou.”
“So Hisahide’s hatred melded with Nagi-san’s? But things will probably be hard for her now, too.”
“She’ll be all right,” Chiaki replied, sounding mellow and relaxed as he reclined against the seat. “Whatever people say, she’ll be all right as long as there are people who care about her that much around. She’ll definitely make it through.” He added, “She’ll be some woman in five years. I guarantee it. I’m looking forward to it.”
Naoe sighed in amazement. Takaya, who had listened in silence, spoke from the passenger seat.
“Hisahide didn’t show himself at all. I wonder where he is. Shouldn’t we deal with him as quickly as we can?”
“That’s true. Since he was controlling the ‘Hiragumo’ remotely, we haven’t discovered his true whereabouts, but he’s probably somewhere around here, near the old capital.”
“But if he’s allied himself with Akechi Mitsuhide…” Chiaki moaned, scowling. “Still, that Mitsuhide’s got some nerve, huh? Won’t Nobunaga go tear him to pieces as soon as wakes up?”
“Whatever happens, things are going to get messy.” Stepping on the break in front of a red light, Naoe looked at Takaya sitting beside him. “I believe the «Yami-Sengoku» will only intensify from here on. Kagetora-sama, our leisure has run out.”
Takaya look at Naoe listlessly and turned away.
He gazed at the scenery outside the window in absent-minded dejection.
Vassal of Oda Nobunaga, general of Ecchuu. Four hundred years ago, he had fought against the Uesugi for control of northern Ecchuu and Echigo. And after Kenshin’s death, many violent battles had unfolded between him and Kagekatsu, the next head of the Uesugi.
He said it in his mind as he had in his dream. Though no clear impressions yet stirred at the name, still the feelings it roused roiled, oppressive and unbearable, in his chest.
His younger brother, whom he had fought in the Otate no Ran.
Takaya bit his lip lightly, submerged in silence. Naoe gazed fixedly at him.
Kagetora had, without a doubt, begun to regain his former «power» and knowledge. And, perhaps—
Those memories as well…
(Kagetora-sama…) he cried in the silence of his mind—and then abruptly noticed, belatedly, why he so naturally thought of Takaya as Kagetora when he was here at his side: Takaya’s every act and every word were, all unconsciously, exactly the same as when he had been ‘Kagetora’.
Naoe looked at him with fresh eyes. (Can the person he is now endure all that is yet locked within his mind?)
Could he accept the past?
Could he withstand and accept the enormous cruelty of the memories from four hundred years ago?
Or would he break first?
(And yet…) Naoe’s thoughts darkened.
When Kagetora regained his memories…
If it meant that he would be banished…
You alone I shall never forgive for all of eternity—if it meant that Kagetora would fling those words once again into his face…
(Let him break instead.)
Better that he should break.
Then he would be able to gather those shattered pieces in his arms and never let go. He would hold this person whom no one else could love for eternity.
And even if there were those who loved him, even if there were those he loved…
He would let no one touch him. He would never give him up.
(Not to anyone…)
Naoe came back to himself at the sound of Chiaki’s voice. The light had changed. He stepped on the gas. The scenery flowed past outside.
Chiaki stared at Naoe’s face in the rearview mirror. He seemed on the verge of saying something, but hesitated and sighed deeply instead.
(It’s not really something I can stick my nose into…I guess.)
Chiaki closed his mouth. Right. He had already cut his ties with the Meikai Uesugi Army. He had not changed his mind about that. Uesugi Kenshin had nothing to do with him. He had not heard that revered voice for decades, and there was no longer any need for blind obedience to duty. He had made the decision to live however he wanted. He had cut himself off from anything to do with the mission and all the rest of it. He could disappear somewhere tomorrow.
Chiaki looked at the two sitting in front of him. Naoe and Kagetora…
(Neither of you can let it go, can you…)
Silence settled within the car, its passengers occupied by vastly different emotions. To be interrupted by—
“Aaaaagh—!” Chiaki suddenly shouted. Takaya and Naoe started as the yell flung them out of their thoughts.
“Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-what the heck, Chiaki?! Don’t scare me like that!”
“Shit! My Leopard’s still parked in a freakin’ no-parking zone! Hey, Naoe! Hurry up and get back to Yamato-Koizumi Station
! Come on, step on it!”
“You’re still okay, aren’t you? You don’t have to be that panicked about it.”
“Idiot! They’ll totally tow my ass and ticket me! I’ll be up to my eyebrows in red tape!”
“Oh, right. ’Cause you’re driving without a license.”
“That’s not the problem! What’ll I do if they scratch her? You gonna pay me to fix her up?!”
“Humph. That’s called ‘reaping what you sow.’”
“What was that, Kagetoraaa?”
“Or maybe karma.”
“I’m gonna murder you!”
“Just you try it, No-License.”
Chiaki jerked back on Takaya’s collar, precipitating an all-out brawl. Naoe headed for Yamato-Koizumi Station
, hand pressed against his forehead. The combination of Nagahide and Kagetora might be the most potent they had, but with these two, multiple meanings of the word probably applied.
“Chiaki, you bastard. Dammit, that’s it. I can’t take this anymore!”
“That’s my line, you ass! We’re gonna settle this today, once and for all!”
“Good grief…! If you’re going to play around, then please do so outside. Outside…I sa—aaaaagh!”
The escalating battle had engulfed Naoe, causing the car to swerve onto the opposite lane. It in turn forced the driver of an oncoming car to veer wildly to avoid them, finally resulting in his car landing in a rice paddy beside the road.
The Presia continued clamorously down the highway, completely oblivious.
Cicadas chirped in the fields all around them.
The dazzling cerulean sky across the vast open plains foretold of another hot summer day.