"What's so bad about living forever?" Juneau asked.
Kitsune gazed off into the distance. "Immortality isn't the gift some would have you believe. Especially if love is a possibility. Everything I love is fleeting. I could have let the butterfly 'live', for example. I could have loved it, but its life is measured in days, weeks, scant months. Then it dies. Everything dies.
"Not me... I watched my heart Ayumi die. Many times, in fact. Over and over again. She died alone, a lonely woman whose heart a fox had eaten alive. She continued to live long after I left her, but you could also say that she truly died the day I destroyed all of her other selves. That's certainly when she lost the capacity to love. She never learned to love again, and I never learned to let go. Imagine that hounding you all your never-ending days! Is it any wonder that I'm so crazy?"
"Oh, so you know you're crazy, too?" Juneau jibed.
"I am! And Ayumi wasn't my only love. There were others, all intense, all short-lived, even when I managed to possess her until death. Death, you see, is the only god of import. It possesses everything in the end. For you humans, death and time are synonymous: the latter counts the seconds until the former arrives. Time is death's courier, and life lasts as long as it takes time to deliver death's message: 'You're mine'..."
"How very poetic. You should write some of this stuff down."
Kitsune narrowed his eyes in the sunlight, though he might have been seeing another reality, another past, or the future--anything but what was right in front of him now. "Truly, death is the gift that we immortals can never attain. It shall be my gift to Tachibana Rikka."
"Yeah? Well, don't bother sending me any presents!"
Juneau led the fox spirit past Engaku Temple, then to Shokadō School through the courtyard beside the training hall. The fox spirit's eyes lit up when he saw the dōjō. "This brings back so many memories..." His image seemed to waver and blink, like the image on a television set with shoddy reception. When he was solid again, he was smiling.
"Where did you go?" she asked.
"To visit Ayumi. The dōjō was the last structure that Ogawa Tarō needed help with. It was where the last brick was laid, by Ayumi's hand..."
Juneau reflected on Ayumi's flight from Kitsune's clutches. The fox spirit didn't appear to be the evil thing that the scrolls must make him out to be. "You loved her." She had meant to ask, but it came out a statement. She knew it was true. Time and space may not affect him, but he had become such a fixture in a human culture that he had absorbed the quintessential human strength and weakness: love.
He waved the statement away like a gnat. "I can't be controlled. Your mind tricks won't work on me."
"What mind trick? I wasn't trying to control you!"
"Weren't you? By putting words in my mouth, weren't you trying to control me?" Kitsune had lost some of his carefreeness and seemed rather irritable now. He eyed her for a moment before continuing through the courtyard toward the school grounds. "You know it's curiosity like yours that put Rikka in this position."
"Wait a minute!" Juneau jogged to catch up. "What does that mean? Are you saying Rikka and I have something in common?"
Kitsune shrugged. "I'm only saying that when humans get a taste of power, they want more. It's like a drug. You have to quit before it's too late... It's not too late for you, my dear." He glanced around him and sniffed the air. "I'm hungry. What's for lunch?"
Juneau was struck silent by his remark. "I'm not drunk on my powers."
"Not yours, no. It's become almost passé. But you'd like to learn Claire's powers someday, right? And eventually, Yuki's..."
"No!" she objected forcefully. "I don't like what you're implying. I am not power-hungry. I only thought that learning my sisters' powers might somehow save our lives."
The fox spirit made an air-raspberry. "Learning your sisters' powers won't save your lives; I will."
Kitsune led the way to the schoolhouse, and beyond it to their quarters. In a stifling silence, they passed the sitting room where her newest arrangement was sitting, dappled by sunlight. Peach carnations, stones in a shallow tray, stalks of bamboo at acute angles to each other. Mameha had been right; tending her tanden meant it lasted longer, impossibly longer. It was like an animal, almost--something needing more attention than food, more love than water. She decided to change the water and strip off the dried, dead edges.
"It is beautiful," said the fox spirit with a snicker. "But have you never wondered why your sisters don't have theirs on display?"
"I have, actually."
He smiled warmly, condescendingly, coyly--all at once. "It's because they take it with them wherever they go. You keep referring back to this piece in this place. But once you internalize the tanden and cultivate it in your heart, you can take it with you to every time you go."
"I thought I had," she replied absently.
With the sun at its apex and the heat finally unbearable, no one was in the stuffy sleeping quarters. They continued on toward the kitchen where Mameha and the servants were making lunch. Juneau pulled Kitsune aside before they stepped inside.
"I forgot to mention something," she whispered. "Jūban Rikka, one of Tachibana Rikka's replacements, is here training with us. She's turned against Kuban, her predecessor. She knows about you and your powers--what it means for her. She's a good soul, it seems, but she knows that we can't trust her not to turn out like all the Rikkas before her." She paused, thinking about what she really wanted to say. But she couldn't find the words.
Finally, Kitsune saved her the trouble. "Juneau, Jūban has the best gift a human could want. She knows what many humans obsess over without ever learning: the precise cause of her death. She is scared and frustrated on many levels. But somewhere in there, she's happy, too." Seeing that this did little to bolster Juneau's spirits, Kitsune added, "I promise not to aggravate the situation any more than necessary."
In the kitchen, First Mother greeted Juneau with a warm hug, which Juneau turned around and gave right back to her mother. (Kuni had done well to stay out of the way, checking in on Juneau from time to time, but basically busying herself around the school grounds, as she was at the moment, helping First Mother in the kitchen. Mameha was thrilled with the progress Kuni'd made in the garden, which gleamed with a newfound glow.)
Juneau moved to introduce Kitsune, but Mameha had eyed him already and offered him a modest bow. Kuni, too, seemed to recognize him. They moved into the dining room adjacent next, where Yuki, Claire, and Jūban were sitting at the table chatting and giggling. For a second, Juneau didn't want to interrupt. Watching them smile and enjoy themselves was a rare joy. They had been so focused on getting Rikka, so devastated to find themselves powerless against her, even Jūban--or perhaps especially Jūban. (Indeed, as long as Kuban was wreaking havoc somewhere, the Triad and all of Shokadō would continue to question her loyalties.) But something about today--the good weather, the fortuitous meeting with Kitsune, Kuni's gardening, Mameha's cooking?--had lifted their spirits.
Claire saw them first. "Juneau, come sit! And who is your friend?" A coy come-hither stare transformed her face into a movie pin-up. She lightly twisted the chestnut coils at the nape of her neck.
"Guys, this is Kitsune." She was watching Jūban's reaction closest, expecting a glimmer of recognition or some other indication that the jig was up. But the girl seemed as surprised as the other two, whose eyes went wide to take him all in.
"Mameha didn't say anything about him being a hottie!" the French one declared.
Yuki laughed and covered her mouth with a chunk of bread, which she took a bite of. "Nice coat." At her side, Jūban nodded at the fox spirit with a subdued air.
Juneau didn't need to introduce them, she knew, but she did anyway. When she reached Jūban, she gauged the fox's reaction and was mildly disappointed when he seemed nonchalant. He bowed at them silently and sat on Yuki's other side. Juneau sat across from him, next to Claire. Looking around the room, he adjusted his garb to more closely reflect theirs. Juneau thought he looked quite handsome in jeans and a muscle-T, which showed off his toned arms and through whose V-neck she could see virile tufts of chest hair.
Yuki elbowed him in the arm and asked, "So, you gonna help us, or are we gonna have to bring on the hurt?" She chuckled and nibbled on more bread.
"He'll help," Juneau said with a smirk in his direction. She was famished, so she tore herself a piece of the bread and tossed the remainder of the loaf to Kitsune.
He nodded, eyed the loaf in his hands, opened his mouth wide and downed the whole thing. He didn't even chew. Jūban's face went ashen instantly and Juneau thought she looked ill. But the girl kept quiet and simply went about tearing her hunk of bread into itty-bitty little pieces.
Yuki was furious. "Gee, thanks, guy! I was eating that!"
"Don't worry," Mameha said as she brought in a tray of steaming goodies and placed it on the table. "Lots more where that came from. Eat up. Kitsune, I'm preparing something else for us adults. Will you join us?"
He grinned devilishly, stood and followed Mameha back into the kitchen. When he left, Juneau felt the part of her mind that had been stuffy and threatening a migraine clear. She had managed to shake the fox spirit's hold on her, but she still felt like her body and mind were fighting off constant advances. It was different from the feeling she got in Kato's presence, which originated in her loins and her gut. She piled food onto her plate in hopes of mitigating the dull throb in her temples.
"So tell us all about him," Claire ordered, staring dreamily through the doorway as if in hopes Kitsune would come back. "I am so in need of a manly intervention..."
"You know he's like a million years old, right?" Yuki was eternally entertained by Claire's foolishness. "A regular 'Harold and Maude'..."
"Funny." Claire bonked her sister on the head with a chopstick. To Juneau, she said, "Well?"
Juneau ran through her encounter with Kitsune: the pheromones driving her into high gear; how time and space affected him naught; his penchant for returning to the past to watch Mitsurigi Ayumi--whom he truly loved; how the last thing he wanted for anyone, Tachibana Rikka included, was immortality. On this last note, her eyes drifted over to Jūban's direction.
The girl had been present to the whole story and, though the color was back in her cheeks, she swallowed thickly. She didn't wait to be asked before answering, "It's for the best."
"It's so strange," Juneau said shaking her head, "all these movies you see make it seem like immortality is the be-all, end-all. But Kitsune is sure it's more like a curse. He thinks he'll be giving Rikka the ultimate gift."
"Creepy," Claire said.
Yuki shivered, "Tell him not to do me any favors."
"I know, right?" Juneau cried.
"Well, you know all that Hollywood stuff is bunk, right?"
"Wait a minute, Yuki," Juneau said. "You're the movie nut-job here. And now you're trying to tell us that we shouldn't buy into it? Hello, Kettle, how's it feel to be black?"
"I don't get it," Claire muttered, her eyebrows knitted on her perfect forehead.
Yuki patted her on the hand. "It's an English thing about 'the pot calling the kettle black'." To Juneau, she said, "What you don't seem to understand is that movies are an important part of popular culture. It opens up a dialogue for movie-goers to compare notes, debates themes, you know?"
"I know," Juneau replied, unrattled. "The Seattle International Film Festival is one of the largest public film festivals in the world. My mom and I go see a couple films every year."
"Well, good for you," Yuki mocked. "I don't see why you don't like me expressing myself through film, then."
Juneau frowned. She honestly didn't know why either and decided it was a silly thing to get frustrated about anyway. "Alright," she conceded, "I'll try not to roll my eyes when you start your movie rants..."
Yuki smiled. "That's all I can ask for."
Claire looked lost. "I still don't get it. The pot and the kettle are... African American?"
They laughed and gabbed some more, and Juneau was absorbed into the circle of laughter and joy she had witnessed coming into the room. She was an agent of the Shokadō Triad--burdened with keeping balance in their topsy-turvy world. But she was also a sister, a daughter, a mortal. In light of this, she understood how meaningful it was to enjoy the time she shared with her favorite people. Soon, with help from the fox spirit, she could put this whole nasty business behind her and go back to living a normal life.
It was only natural, however, for Jūban Rikka to be less than jovial throughout the entire affair.