Ironically, the moment he stepped into the soothing hot spring, Kisuke registered every single injury he had sustained with acute intensity.
In point of fact, his whole body felt like a sore throbbing muscle. Racing to scale all those high peaks in Totomi, fighting tengu on the wing, doing battle with an obnoxious and bratty mountain priestess; the whole ordeal had left him sorely in need of rest and relaxation. While he remained intent on catching up to Torahime, there was no point in working himself to death. Her Narukami ghost samurai he met back in the mountains informed him she had gone to a shrine in Yamato province in search of aid. It was probably the safest place for the disgraced princess at the moment. Even the Shogunate would be wary of transgressing on temple grounds.
As such, he could take a breather before continuing on his journey. Kisuke looked around the sunlit cavern. A monkey had contrived to lead him to this secluded onsen away from human habitation where he might relax and plan ahead. After peeling off his travel-stained attire, the shinobi strode into the steaming bath wearing only his fundoshi. Aching feet that had been abused for miles took this moment to loudly protest such punishment before gladly soaking up the hot healing balm.
The small warrior bent to splash some water onto his face, washing away layers of sweat and grime. At once he felt invigorated. His simian guide gave an almost approving grunt before splashing deeper into the misty pond. Kisuke followed, intent on finding a good spot where he could steep himself to his heart's content.
While having missed Torahime, the battle at the pass on Mt. Akiha did serve some good. He now remembered precisely how they came to meet in the first place, as well as the explanation for how he had survived their unfortunate parting. The spirit of Oboroya Senjyu, a samurai master bound to this world by his recriminations, had sacrificed his limited remaining existence to grant Kisuke a second chance at life, at the same time endowing him with the formidable Oboro-ryu sword style which made him infinitely deadlier than he had been in his past life. He could wield even the cursed Muramasa blades with impunity, as many vanquished opponents could attest to by this stage. Perhaps it was observing Kisuke's own willingness to give his life for Torahime's sake that had drawn the ghost to him. He certainly did truck with a lot of otherworldly beings in his new existence as heroic wanderer. This whole business of fox spirits and Muromachi-era swordsmiths was almost more trouble than it was worth. Still, he couldn't argue with the results.
The steam of the bath seemed to envelop him in a heavenly cloud as he progressed deeper. More monkeys hooted off to the side, and upon consideration Kisuke chose to head in the opposite direction. Wouldn't want any of them try and groom him again.
As he moved through the hazy vapor, a shape arose before him. For a moment Kisuke took it for a pillar of rock sticking up out of the water. Then a soft splashing came from that direction, and immediately he was on his guard. Could it be someone else had happened upon this grotto? He drew nearer, instinctively judging the distance back to where he left his swords in case of trouble.
A figure began to become clearer. At first all he could discern was a mass of white, which made him automatically think 'ghost'. Only with every step a vague sense of recognition started to grow. Is that…? No. Couldn't be. It's the steam playing tricks on my senses. Or I'm getting dizzy.
Only a foot away, Kisuke stopped short. His lone eye not covered by hair had gone wide as could be.
Reclining in front of him with her legs dipped in the hot spring sat the sultry Yuzuruha, a thin towel the only thing covering her otherwise naked body.
"O-haiyo, nin-bō," she purred softly.
Definitely in trouble.
The kitsune smiled at him. "I saw you enter this hot spring and decided to join you." She tilted her chin back and exhaled languorously, eyelids drifting closed in contentment.
His own treacherous orbs took this moment to rake the tall white-skinned beauty from top to bottom. Always before she had appeared to him in a stylish if form-hugging kimono that seemed to accentuate her figure as much as hid it. That was no longer the case. Other than the towel and that ever-present leaf hair ornament, the shapeshifter had bared herself completely. Curvaceous hips drew his attention right away, along with those tempting fully packed buns plumped against the stone on which she sat. It reminded him of very large manju squeezed into a small bento. He then zeroed in on her thighs, pearly white skin shining from the bath. Kisuke wasn't sure where to look next. A wellspring of silver hair tumbled down shapely shoulders in such abundance she looked capable of floating on it should she so desire. Triangular black-tipped ears poked out of her crown, twitching ever so slightly.
The fox matron shifted on her perch, a motion that seemed to open up entirely new avenues of appreciation for that appealing form. In doing so, however, Kisuke realized he was ogling an emissary of the gods. When he looked up, eyes sparkling with blue fire regarded him back, causing the ninja warrior to stiffen. In more ways than one.
To cover this he swiftly turned his back on her. "D-damn!" the blushing teen cursed shakily. "You really go overboard with the transformation magic, y'know? What's with all the sexy? A servant of Inarimyojin ought to be more…" He found himself at a loss for words.
"Mature?" Yuzuruha offered in a lighthearted manner.
"Ye…" A reflexive glance back was curtailed with such force he nearly broke his neck. "No!" That most certainly was not her problem. At least in one sense. In another…
His spectral guide giggled, sending a pleasant tingle up his spine. "I would be most interested to hear your observations regarding my performance, Kisuke-sama." He heard a sound that instantly translated to a bare leg rising to hang dripping from the water. "In the meantime, shall I wash your back for you?"
At this prospect an unfamiliar part of his brain leapt up and howled with joy like a wolf baying at the moon. The more disciplined side of him which no doubt derived from years of clandestine training had to shout to make itself heard over this primitive uproar.
"No thanks!" Kisuke announced. "That is, I was just leaving. Can't risk getting caught off guard. You should stay."
Before he could make good on this determination, a long white leg wrapped around his waist.
Instinctively he reached down to grab it only to freeze upon realizing just what he was doing. As such that lovely limb met no resistance when it drew him back to settle against the rock outcropping.
"Kisuke-sama," her words chided him. "There is no cause for alarm. Considering all that you are capable of, I doubt this is how you will meet your end."
Mouth hanging open, he turned his head to find the kitsune's nose mere inches from his own. A face like that would make imperial courtesans kill themselves out of envy. Very fast he turned away again before those spellbinding eyes tempted him into doing something he might just regret. Any impetus to jump up and run panicked from the spring was curtailed by her leg keeping him trapped. And however bad this might look, Kisuke was not about to manhandle a demigoddess on general principle. A horrible thought occurred to him: what if Torahime spotted us like this?! She'd totally get the wrong idea!
While he wrestled with his own private hell Yuzuruha took this opportunity to dip her towel into the cloudy water. Wringing it out, she then proceeded to scrub the boy's shoulders, tsking softly at how hard they were. For his part Kisuke realized he was still holding onto her calve and let go, momentarily at a loss where to put his hands. He settled for clapping them under his armpits, striving not to obsess about how good that had felt. Think about frogs. Frogs aren't sexy.
The towel traveled down his spine, wet and warm. Soft fingers breezed against his skin along the way. There was something to be said for divine powers. For all he knew that the woman behind him was in actuality a fox, it was very disconcerting to find he could be put in this kind of situation by an animal, be they heaven-sent or not. As such Kisuke was left to soak and sulk while the vulpine temptress hummed pleasantly away.
A shiver went through him as the cloth ghosted over his ribs. Behind him Yuzuruha chuckled. "I beg your pardon. It had not occurred to me you might be ticklish. Doubtless many would be surprised to learn this as well."
"Very funny," he groused. "Don't go getting any ideas."
"Rest assured, your secret is safe with me."
"That's not what I–! Forget it." He then plopped down to sit in the pool, brooding on his lot in life. Other men would kill to be in this position. The gracious Buddha certainly did enjoy testing him. Giving an irritated growl he dunked his head completely and came back up to shake it back and forth like a shaggy wolf.
A soft touch trailed lightly against the back of his neck. "Are you thinking of her?"
He turned around to find Yuzuruha had contrived to lie flat on the rock. Her legs extended back into the water, arms crossed beneath her chest, in doing so giving him only a peek which somehow made it all the more alluring. The towel now draped over her ripe posterior, barely covering it, while that mass of shining hair flowed off to one side leaving her back exposed. It was a sight that managed to imply everything while revealing nothing. Whether she had assumed this pose on purpose or not, the pale maiden's face was curiously introspective. She honestly seemed to want to know the answer.
"I've got nothing else to think about," he responded after a moment.
The kitsune cocked her head to the side. "I have watched many mortals pursue one another only to wind up empty-handed. They sacrifice all they have in the name of that ideal. Most often the results fall short of their expectations. Usually it is a case of not considering how the other person might truly feel."
"Yeah?" he frowned. "Well, don't worry about me. I can take care of myself."
"On that we can agree. But perhaps your real concern is… you cannot take care of Torahime-sama."
"Don't go playing your fox tricks on me." Kisuke shifted around to rest his head back against the stone. He gazed at the cavern roof, watching steam eddy and swirl on its way through gaps that allowed in sunlight. "I'm just aiming to help someone who was hurt because of my mistakes."
"Surely the Buddha will smile on you for such selfless concern towards another soul."
"Right," he grumbled, eyes closing at the thought. "Probably means I'll get a private spot in the Hell Pool of Blood along with all my fellow sinners."
"You have a very resigned outlook to damnation. Still, there is a line of thought which says the right company can make any suffering bearable."
"I don't want Torahime to go to Hell with me!" he protested angrily.
A gentle hand suddenly caressed along the side of his jaw. "Is that what you thought I meant?" Kisuke flinched, momentarily unsure where this line of conversation was heading. "Inarimyojin does not take a mortal into his service lightly. Should you succeed in overcoming Inugami, I could petition him on your behalf. There is a high likelihood of intervention." Her mouth came close to whisper pleasantly in his ear. "The power of a god can alter mortal fates."
Kisuke stared straight ahead, lost in thought at this declaration. If he served the gods, while at the same time protecting Torahime… was there a chance they might remain together?
He wanted that.
And really, why not? Like he said before, what else was there left for him in this life? A fallen shinobi in love with a disgraced miko princess… not a lot of options available for their set. He couldn't go back to the Ozaru clan any more than she could return to the Narukami at this stage. Right now his future prospects included wandering the countryside forever, at best ending up a wrathful ghost like Senjyu. Hell looked pretty appealing in light of that. Being damned together… still wasn't worth it, at least for her sake. But what if another option existed whereby the princess might be his here and now?
It felt foolish holding out hope for salvation from a fox spirit. Still, he wasn't just a ninja anymore, serving one arbitrary master or another. Peasants spent their whole lives toiling in the fields while ducking bandits and paying samurai taxes, but even they fell in love and got married. Could even a guy like him hope for that much? Like normal folk?
Natural caution prevented him from getting too worked up. "What do you mean by that?" Kisuke finally asked, hunting for more specifics before committing himself aloud.
From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse as those appealing legs rose out of the spring to wave lazily back and forth. Then all his attention was claimed by two fingers walking along his shoulders from one end to another, making him press his lips together to prevent any treacherous utterances from coming out. Her touch stirred up quite a lot. It skirted close to the welt on his back from the wound that ended his previous life, a stark reminder of mortality. Speaking of which, while his body felt greatly refreshed as a result of the bath, Kisuke was starting to get a bit hungry. Just as he was considering this, a peach appeared before him in the palm of one white hand. The surprise this evoked did not prevent him from accepting it and taking a big bite. "Thanks."
Chin resting on her fist, the forest spirit concentrated on the path her fingertips continued to trail across his skin. "A warrior must keep up his strength. Heaven has chosen you and the princess to act on its behalf in overcoming the Dog God. You both owe your lives to divine intervention."
Kisuke gave a snort as he munched greedily away. "I wouldn't call being possessed by a gloomy ghost 'divine intervention'." Absently he wondered why she chose to include Torahime in that statement but decided against asking.
Behind him Yuzuruha laced her arms together and rested her head on them, eyes closing. "Only because you see but a small portion of the plan laid out for us," she murmured in soothing tones. "The web of destiny is far too vast for mortal perceptions, but like cloth on a loom, it is not immutable. The pattern can be altered depending on certain factors, the actions of men being one of them. Whether living or dead, your wishes have an impact. It is not only a question of the gods. That is what Inugami hopes to capitalize on in his bid for freedom."
"Does that mean even I've got some say in all this? I thought our fates were signed and sealed long ago. Like the gods wrote the play and we're just reading our lines."
She sighed. "We are not so far above you as many tend to believe. In fact, you might say the mortal and divine belong to one another, existing together as naturally as earth and sky. You have desires as do we. Whether mortal, kami, living or dead, it is only natural to find ourselves wanting more than just what we have been given."
He finished the peach and lobbed its pit well clear of the water's edge before settling back with a contented groan. They were getting closer to what he really wanted to know, but still Kisuke remained wary of opening up too much. "So what if I asked to be made shogun as my reward? Would that be possible?"
Her voice sounded amused again. "Is that how you envision your story ending?"
As though by magic the mists before them swirled, colors blending and shifting until an image appeared. Kisuke blinked upon recognizing himself wearing the robes of the ruling warlord. It seemed so real, like he need but reach out and grab hold to make it happen! A sufficiently powerful warrior could seize that distinction regardless of his ancestry. Heck, everybody knew the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate fudged his heritage to claim divine descent and cement his authority. With heaven's blessing, he could do the same. And then no one would dare question should a ninja and a princess be wed. Now the vision included Torahime crouched splendidly at his side in costly raiment. His heart began to pound at this sight. Only what was it Yuzuruha said earlier, about taking other people's wishes into consideration? Would a noblewoman even want to be with someone like him?
While swimming in this grand illusion, a set of playful teeth bit down on his earlobe. He very nearly lost the ear at the way this made him jump.
"When you know the question you really desire answered, Kisuke-sama… feel free to seek me out."
She let go. The ninja youth spun about clutching his throbbing ear, to find only a towel draped over the rock. A flash of white drew his eye. He looked back towards the entrance in time to see a fox land outside the pool. She swished her bushy tail and stood with one paw raised, a grin visible even through the mists. Giving a sharp yip Yuzuruha then bounded out of the springs.
Kisuke stared after her. He noticed the monkeys watching him and felt his face flush. "Oh, like you guys would have fared any better," he snapped, snatching up the discarded cloth and proceeding to scrub his face.
Only then did it occur to him… this was the same towel Yuzuruha had used to cover her…
Several bathing primates scattered as a loud yell resounded throughout the grotto. Slipping down the side of the mountain, a white kitsune paused and looked back with a smile before disappearing into the lowering dusk.