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Refuge

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Minako cleared the breakfast dishes with her usual grace, but to Kagetora, she seemed constrained. Unsure if he should comment on it, he merely said, "Thank you," as she picked up his plate.

The water drummed into the sink; the dishes clattered as she arranged them. From his place at the table, Kagetora watched her back. She wore an off-white skirt; a pink and white, flowered blouse; a mother-of-pearl hairclip barely restraining her flowing hair: quintessentially Minako.

Without turning she said, "I called an old school friend who lives in Osaka. She was so sympathic about my parents, and she said I could come and stay with her as long as I like."

For an instant, Kagetora felt like an ant trapped by an ant lion, frantically trying to clamber out of a pit of dirt crumbling around him.

Minako swirled her dishcloth over a plate like a caress. "So I can get out of your bed--I mean--" She turned to him, her blush matching his, "It's been so good of you to let me stay, but I hate to think of you camped out on the couch like a guest in your own apartment. You work so hard, and I've imposed for far too long."

Kagetora went to her side. "Minako, you aren't imposing at all. Having you here, it's the least I can do after what happened to your parents." That came out wrong; it made it sound like all he cared about paying his debt to her. "What I mean is, I like having you here." But he didn't want to hold her against her will. "That is, given this insane life I lead, I'd certainly understand if you want to go to Osaka--or for that matter to Korea or--or Belgium or as far away from his bizarreness as you can geographically get." She smiled, which was kind, considering he wasn't entirely sure he was joking. "But please don't feel you need to leave for my sake. I'm--I'm better for having you here."

She looked up at him with those bright, wide eyes. "Thank you, Kagetora."


She didn't say that she would stay, but she said nothing more about Osaka. That night, as Kagetora was arranging himself on the couch, she padded out of the bedroom in a summer nightgown, a shapeless cascade of lavender falling to her knees.

"I think that couch is pretty uncomfortable," she said.

"Not at all. I've slept comfortably in much worse places."

She hugged the doorframe of the bedroom like a spirit of the threshold. "You can come to bed if you'd like."

"I couldn't possibly put you out on the couch."

She gave a slight, silver laugh. "I meant with me," she almost whispered.

He stared at her dumbly, his body a mass of conflicting impulses. He didn't trust himself to move.

Dismay fell across her face. "I'm sorry. I've spoken very inappropriately. What you must think of me!"

Kagetora bounded up, then halted about two meters from her. "Minako, please believe me, I never expected.... Your family died because of me. I owe you more than I can ever begin to repay, and you have no obligation whatever to... to repay me in any way."

She shook her head shyly. "I know you feel that way. That's why I... I want to offer all I have to you." She watched the floor. "I suppose I'm in love with you."

"I'm in love with you too," he said so swiftly he scarcely believed the words had slipped out.

She glanced up at him, then away. His steps clunking, like a man of clay, he drew close to her, lifted his hands to her face and kissed her, burning. She took his hand and led him into his bedroom, which smelled of her now, a foreign country. As they settled in bed, he grew acutely aware that only the light layers of their bedclothes separated the most intimate parts of her from him. They lay facing each other. He caressed her cheek, her slim shoulder, struck by her smallness, as he was with all women. He was not a big man, but her body could disappear beneath his. Her arm around his back could almost be a child's.

How long had it been since he'd held a woman's body? Decades, another century. The 1890s? The last life in which he'd been born into a family traditional enough to marry him off without asking him about it. And still, as always, when he came this close, his native fear fought back his passion. He wanted her, but he didn't want to do that to her.

She kissed him, and he heard himself say, "We don't need to do this tonight, Minako. We can take it slow."

She pulled away a little as if he'd hurt her feelings. After a minute or so, she said, "I think you think me very virtuous, much more than I deserve. I'm not a virgin."

Indeed, that pronouncement surprised him. But he chided himself for his surprise, thinking of the myriad ways a person could lose their virginity, the thousand things a statement like that could mean.

"That doesn't matter," he said. "Many virtuous young ladies are not virgins." He put an arm around her and drew her close to his chest, hot. Human bodies touching human bodies were always so unbelievably hot. She didn't kiss him again, and sweltering peacefully, he fell asleep.


The next four nights were the same. He took to masturbating in the shower to relieve his desire for her body. In bed, they held each other and didn't speak about their strangeness.

Then, he had to head north to put down an uprising. It was a mess, as everything was these days: Haruie broke her arm; Naoe got slashed across the ribs and needed stitches. At least, Irobe was on hand to fix them up, having just quit his hospital job because he couldn't fight Nobunaga and be on call at the same time--all of which left him sour and complaining about his mortgage. By the time they'd driven the Oda back, five of their retainers had been destroyed, kanshousha who'd been with them from almost the beginning.

As they were tying up the loose ends of uprooted trees, disintegrated souls, hypnotisms to be dispelled, shattered windows, police inquiries, and the fire in the hotel, Kagetora bought condoms (for the first time in his existence). He snuck out of the hotel (their second one) early in the morning and spent a half an hour vainly scanning shelves before asking a clerk and being informed that he was in the wrong store. When he finally found the right one, he decided he should buy a few other things too to look less conspicuous. So he picked up some aspirin, bandages, and iodine on the theory that they'd need these things anyway, though as he was checking out, it occurred to him that these items might actually make his purchase look odder.

No sooner had he picked up his bag and turned to go than he came face-to-face with Naoe, who had been sticking like glue of late.

Kagetora reached into his bag. "Here: I bought you aspirin." He thrust the bottle at Naoe.

"Thank you," said Naoe, his beady stare never leaving Kagetora's face.

Kagetora turned and strode out, Naoe beside him. "How's the cut?"

"Adequate to the dispensation of my duties," Naoe replied. He'd taken to talking like that recently too.

"Good. We need everybody in peak condition."

"Yes, that's so, just as we need everyone's attention focused on the Oda."

Kagetora flashed him an unamused glance. "Go order breakfast. I want to catch the noon train and be home by this evening."


At breakfast, Nagahide accused him of skipping out on them before they'd adequately pacified the hypnotized spirits. He said that Kagetora's puppy love for his big-eyed puppy was getting to be a stale joke.

Kagetora slapped him, for the first time in over two hundred and fifty years.


In bed that night, he kissed Minako and felt her hungry kiss in return. Heart hammering, he touched her hot body with his hot hands; together they were an oven. He mounted her, thought of his condoms in the bedside drawer, and at once, the old, familiar weariness beset him. Responsibility, obligation, the vice grip of others' expectations: that wasn't the way men were supposed to feel about sex. Women maybe; he hardly knew. But the pretense of enjoyment in the midst of this quagmire of flesh: surely that was even worse than a wife's duty to put up with it.

"Minako." He pulled back from her kisses. He could think of nothing to say that wouldn't debase himself in her eyes. Finally, he stumbled out with, "Would you mind if we didn't?"

She wriggled out from under him as if she'd just found a cockroach crawling on her. It was all going wrong, as he'd known it would. She grabbed her fallen nightgown and threw it over her head. "I'm sorry. I've been assuming that--that you felt-- And here I've thrust myself in your bed..."

"No...." He reached for her.

"You must think I'm really a slut."

"No." Sitting up, he held her close. "It isn't you; you're perfect. It's me. I just--I don't really like sex. It's not you. I never have. I just--" He felt his voice catch and couldn't stop it. "I don't have it in me." He closed his eyes, but the tears squeezed out. Despising himself, he let her go and hid his head against the pillow, wiping at his face.

"It's all right." She stroked his hair and hushed him like a child. "Whatever you want, it's all right."

The more she soothed him, the swifter the tears came, till finally he shook with sobs while she pressed his head against her breasts. By degrees, he calmed and sleep crept on him till he drifted into slumber on the life raft of her body.


He was cheerful a week later as they settled in for the night. He tucked her against his chest and said, "I have no right to be so lucky, to have a woman like you who accepts me so charitably, a man always running off to fight vengeful spirits, barely making enough money to keep body and soul together, a crazy man like me who throws away an invitation to sleep with such a beauty." He gazed at her with a sudden awe. "Even knowing I'm not a real man, you accept me."

For a long while, Minako said nothing, then: "I once read a novelization of the Mahabharata in which there was this passage; I don't know if it's in the original, and I don't remember exactly what was going on. But I think Yudhishthira was struggling over having won the war at the cost of so much death and destruction to his family, and so on. And Krishna told him that he should be rejoicing. He said, 'You are like a man who refuses to sleep with a willing woman.' Now, I accept Krishna was right that it was right to rejoice at the reunification of the kingdom. But Yudhishthira was most certainly a real man, and one of greatest heroes in a thousand years of legend. And it was his conscience, his guilt, his unwillingness to forget the dark things, his refusal of easy pleasure in the face of all the suffering, that made him a great man."

Kagetora stared a her moment, startled by her knowledge of Hindu epic and wondering what else lay enclosed in her mind. Presently, he kissed her forehead and thought of Yudhishthira, of the Pandava fighting their cousins for the kingdom; of Arjuna killing Karna, his brother; of all the Pandava's sons being murdered in revenge for the lie Yudhishthira told in order to win the war.

I am nothing like Yudhishthira; my crimes win nothing.

Yet somehow, he had won this woman, who could see his every weakness and still love him, this woman with whom he could speak the truth. "You are my refuge, Minako. I think I never lived until you found me."


He started awake to a hard rap on the door and Naoe entering without being asked. Minako, too, startled in his arms.

"Please excuse the interruption, Kagetora-sama, Minako-san." Naoe's face was stone.

Kagetora pulled the blankets up and held Minako close. "What do you want, Naoe?"

"I have received word of an Oda presence in Yokohama, manifesting an ocean-based energy of considerable proportions."

Kagetora wiped a tired hand over his face. "Have you told the others?"

"It is appropriate for me to alert you first, is it not?"

"All right," Kagetora snapped. "I'll be with you in a few minutes." Unfogging his brain, he considered where he'd deployed the others. "Go round up Nagahide and phone Haruie and Irobe at their hotels."

Naoe stood stock-still and glared.

Kagetora glared back. "I said I'm coming."

"Understood." Naoe went out, closing the door with a soft click.

Kagetora collapsed for a moment against Minako, her hand resting in his hair. "The Oda seem to be everywhere," she said.

"Yes. I have to go." He reached for his trousers.

"Can I help?"

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he took her face in his hands. "You do help, simply by existing. As long as I know you're safe, somewhere, I'll be able to face anything."