Juneau recognized his bizarre leather tunic and boots, the ruddy fox-hood ending in the white-tipped tail. Sunlight hit Kitsune's amber eyes, and Juneau was reminded of her cat Ferris. She wondered fleetingly if he was all right, and conversely whether Kitsune would eat him, given the opportunity.
"Yes and yes," he said without solicitation.
Juneau tried not to smile too wide. Secretly, she was delighted to see him, more so to find him alone. "I'm glad I found you."
Kitsune smiled and stepped closer. He exuded an exhilarating musk that made Juneau realize that it had been ages since she had had sex. Yet all of a sudden, this virile specimen of an immortal appeared before her, and in rushed the hedonistic thoughts. She blushed because she knew he knew she was having them. Her rouge deepened to know that he was doing this on purpose, that he was making her giddy--and she could do nothing about it.
"How have you been?" the fox spirit asked, still close enough for his breath to caress her ear and petition her loins to prepare a welcome committee.
"Fine." Juneau tried to recompose herself, giggled foolishly. Recovering somewhat, she noted, "It's been literally hundreds of years since we first met, yet it feels like yesterday."
"Time is a no concern--for me, at least." Kitsune winked. Crouched on his heels, he rested his hands on his thighs. "How you humans perceive it... is confusing and utterly useless to me. It is like a prison that follows you wherever you go: no doors, no windows, no escape. For me, it's this hood. I can put it on or take it off. I can become it; it can become me." He slipped the hood over his head with one hand to demonstrate, and his features were sucked away. The next moment, the fox eyes, equally amber, blinked and focused on her. When the fox maw spoke, it was in Kitsune's voice, unhampered by the long, narrow ribbon tongue, or the sharp teeth and the shape of the jaw. "Time is like a coat you wear in winter, an umbrella against the rain in spring, sunglasses in summer sunshine." As he spoke, his coat changed color: brassy red to snow white. When he mentioned sunshine, the light filtering through the overhead canopy intensified and burned Juneau's skin wonderfully.
She was breaking into a sweat, uncomfortably infatuated. She thought this was what it must be like for a geek dating a supermodel: all the preconceptions were wrong, but the visions were dazzling. She said, mostly to distract herself, "You can visit other realities, too, can't you?"
A hand lifted the fox's lower mandible up and over Kitsune's human face, which appeared magically now. "To answer your question, in one realm you are furious with me for being so presumptive. This Juneau has thrown the mission, and the Three Gorges Dam will indefinitely remain destroyed. In another, you are still fighting with your sisters. In that one, as in this, you are mystified about what is tearing Yuki up--and what she's not telling you."
"What isn't she telling me?"
Kitsune laughed. "I'm sure if she knew what was bothering her, she'd tell you." He ignored her attempt to interrupt again. "In a third realm, you never made it to Japan, because you have yet to discover ikebana. In this particular realm, you are still dating one Matthew Carver." He was towering over her again, looking down. The amber in his eyes were thin rims around the black discs of his irises. She could practically feel his pheromones being sucked into her skin, as if by osmosis. When he spoke, it sent a shiver down her spine. "And in every one of these realms, I could devour you and leave no trace of you ever existing, Ieyasu Junō."
She shivered again, yet felt strangely safe beside him. The chemistry between them, or the hormones in her body of their own accord, drew her attention to his striking features. He was a god among men. How could she go back to dating scrawny guys like Matthew Carver? Kitsune was very handsome, skin of bronze under a light dusting of stubble. He didn't look Japanese in the least, which didn't make a difference to her. Her impression of him was rather of a movie star, like Clive Owen or Daniel Craig--men built strong with perfect white teeth and million-dollar smiles. But, oh, the up-keep! These beauties, she realized (and she counted Kitsune among them) seemed more work than they were worth. They wouldn't suffer her walking around in skuzzy T-shirts and track pants, no makeup, uncoiffed. She didn't mind getting dolled up once in a while, but everyday everywhere was just too much.
She was suddenly derailed, released from his grip on her. With his musk, he had stunned her into submission--but no more. As quickly as it started, the sexual Olympics racing through her mind, the queasy deliciousness of that musk being sopped up by her spongy nasal passages all stopped. She had broken free. She laughed in Kitsune's face like Hideyoshi reading gory headlines.
"Ha! Take that!" She smiled whole-heartedly. "Look, Mister. I don't know what you want out of me, but you ain't getting it. As for what we want out of you, you know you're gonna help us out."
He raised an eyebrow at her mockingly, undaunted by her shimmying out of his mental mitts. "And why is that?"
"Because you're bored out of your skull, and this'll be entertaining."
"At least for a little while," he agreed with a nod and a great, big smile.
From that moment forward, he acted like a puppy on his way to the park. He followed Juneau eagerly, smiling as they angled back down toward Shokadō.
"You have been bored," Juneau noted. "What have you been up to for the last five hundred years?"
Kitsune shrugged. He plucked a butterfly off a star-shaped purple flower. It froze in his fingers and when he shook it, it fell to the ground in a rain of cherry blossom petals.
"Where does it go?" she asked, aghast at the subtle yet ostentatious display of power. "Does it just cease to exist?"
"Does anything 'cease to exist'?" the king of foxes retorted. "The butterfly has become these petals. Let's say these petals will live for an hour before dying. If I told you the butterfly was going to die in an hour, would it be any less gruesome?"
Juneau looked at the pink petals and felt a sinking feeling in her heart. "So it is dead?"
"Give it an hour," Kitsune teased before moving on. "Conversing with a mortal about death is like talking to a fish about water..." He seemed to be talking to himself. The phrase rang like a haiku, but she didn't want to play games--especially with a god. He clued into this and finally said, "I think about Mitsurigi Ayumi a lot. I go back and watch her. She is beautiful to look at, but her soul is changed, become something else. All I see of her is a shadow of what she used to be. It is frustratingly unfulfilling. But it makes me mad, too." He began to pace. Midstep, he crouched down and became a fox again. "Mad at myself, for acting rashly, for destroying all of her selves. One of them might have loved me--but instead of embracing that one, I devoured all the millions that didn't."
Juneau listened without comprehending. She thought about love, that fickle thing. Had she ever even known it? Matthew had claimed to make love to her, and she to him. She couldn't even remember why she had broken up with him. It wasn't so much a reason to break up with him as a reason not to stay with him. Had love ever wandered the corridors of her heart? Looking back at her past like this, she couldn't help but entertain another question: had she ever been happy? She had never worked hard for anything, never felt she'd accomplished anything worthwhile. Hence, she'd never felt the joy--the happiness--of achievement. But she had never struggled either--never been truly hurt or abused or manipulated. So had she really ever experienced happiness? Was it merely the absence of sadness--or its own thing?
"I assure you, they are different," Kitsune said, reading her thoughts. "And don't interrupt. I will do this thing for you, but only because it needs doing. I was once a human. Or I may have been a fox. I was mortal once, in any case. My past is far behind me, like a tail so long I can't see the end. But I can feel if it gets cut on a barb.
"I will do this thing for you," he began again, as if reminded, "but only as a favor to Tachibana Rikka. She must never become what I am. She must not be suffered to live forever."