Though Momoko never forgot her fierce, beautiful benefactor, she had a good life with Isano and her friends. They lived up in the foothills growing their own food and going down to the villages to help those in need. As a miko Isano was in high demand and it seemed they were always going down to see someone who was sick or go into the afterworld. Kouhei came and went as he pleased, he seemed to be looking for something. Sometimes Shouta would go with him, but more often than not he liked to stay around the house and play tricks on people. He and Michiko had several rounds where she would chase him around the house threatening to cut off his tail after he scared her with illusions or caused her weapons to float just out of reach. When he was scared she was getting too close he'd wrap his tail around himself and disappear.
"Yokai brat!" She'd screech. "You hide behind your powers. If you were human you wouldn't be able to get away from me."
Shouta's eyes peeked out at her from behind a table. "I wouldn't be too sure of that. I could best you in human or kitsune form."
Michiko tossed her hair out of her face. "Never." She stated.
"We could test that theory." Shouta said, appearing on a divan, sitting cross-legged. "There is a miko in the southern district who is rumored to be able to turn yokai into human if they so choose. I could go to her. Then, once I've shown you that I am and always will be better than you at fighting and hiding, I will turn right back."
Michiko made a face. "Psh."
"You're not going to be making that sound when Kouhei comes back." Shouta clasped two hands over his mouth, eyes wide. Ichiro, Michiko and Momoko all stared at him. Isano was out of earshot, in the garden.
"What? Surely you don't mean Kouhei is trying to turn human? Why would such an infinitely powerful yokai like that ever want to turn human?" Ichiro gasped.
"Why do you think?" Shouta said drily, and motioned towards the window. "Isano of course. He's head over heels. He can't even be away from her for a few days without going almost crazy. Yeah, he's an idiot but nothing I could say would convince him to change his mind. Baka yokai." (baka-stupid)
"Why didn't he marry her in demon form, it's been done before." Ichiro asked.
"I don't think he wants to live on without her, after she dies of old age. Besides we all know that children of such unions sometimes come out monsters, too big for the birth canal and the mother dies in childbirth. He's afraid of that too." Shouta explained.
"Huh, well, what should we do?" Michiko asked. "Should we tell her? No, what if it doesn't actually work? That could get her hopes up for nothing. Plus, maybe he isn't even going to that miko for that. We don't even know for sure. Um I think the best thing to do is wait until Kouhei gets home this time and see what he's been up to. We don't want to disappoint Isano unreasonably. Everyone go about your business like normal." So of course no one knew what to do or say when Isano came back in, and the household was awkward and unnaturally quiet. She noticed of course, but didn't say anything.
That night the door opened and a man entered. He was abnormally tall and broad shouldered, with bare feet and a mocking grin on his face. Michiko had sprung up with sword in hand at the intrusion. She stopped, stared for a few seconds and dropped her weapon. It clattered loudly on the floor.
Isano came out of her room and Shouta, Momoko and Ichiro all suddenly appeared in the living room to stare at this familiar stranger. His white hair and flame colored eyes still had that untamed fierceness, but they were both black now and his broad, tanned hands had normal fingernails at the ends of them. Isano came close, feeling the spirit presence gone, replaced completely with a human one.
"What did you do?" She asked, shocked. "How did you do this?"
"A miko did it. It's taken me years to find her, but finally, finally I have." Kouhei said, and his voice was exactly the same. It softened like it did whenever he talked to Isano. "I did it for you."
"Baka!" Isano shrieked, taking everyone back. "You've lost all your strength! Any amatsu-kami can take you now! Any yokai! You've left yourself completely defenseless!"
The smirk never left Kouhei's face. He looked like an insolent teenager with the mindset of invincibility. "I guess we'll just have to get along the best we can then, won't we?" When Isano didn't reply he continued. "The amatsu-kami aren't coming for me anymore since I'm human. None of the demons know that I'm not yokai anymore. It was my decision and I refuse to feel guilty. I wanted to be with you Isano, on your level not on mine. Besides." He flexed and powerful muscles bunched all over his body. "I feel a match for anyone not in the spirit world." His face darkened. "Or is the reason you liked me only because I was a yokai?" He asked angrily.
Isano shook her head. "No." She said gently. "I just never had to be afraid for you while you were one, because you were the strongest. Now I do." Kouhei grinned,bad mood gone. He came closer to her and enveloped her in strong arms.
"We'll be fine, you'll see. I won't let anything happen to either of us." He looked around the room, and his eyes settled on Shouta. "Besides, I'm not the only one who was going to do this. You, Shouta? Weren't you the one who brought it up, who got me thinking of this to begin with?" He asked jovially. Shouta jolted backwards. Obviously he hadn't thought Kouhei would actually go through with the transformation to be human. "Weren't you going to do this too? Because you said you were in love?" Kouhei continued brutally. "Or was that just a joke?"
Shouta licked his lips, showing sharp animal teeth. "Ah...perhaps." He said. Momoko turned her head aside and grinned a little so he couldn't see. She knew what must be running through his head, the possibility of giving up all his kitsune powers, feeble as they were in comparison to Kouhei or Katsuya's, must make him feel panicked.
"It's ok Shouta." She murmured. "He's just teasing you." She heaved a sigh and suddenly thought of Katsuya. If he'd been human, how would things have been different. Would he have been safe from the amatsu-gami? Suddenly unable to bear the sight of a human Kouhei and Isano embracing she turned to leave. The others watched as she stared out the window then moved towards the door. There was a swift, silent movement and a hand gripped her arm. She turned to see Shouta's narrow, child-like face next to hers, with his red-brown hair hanging low over anxious large-brown eyes.
"Momoko, I really was going to do it, if it worked for Kouhei. I-I just can't bring myself to turn human yet. But, wait for me, don't go marrying anyone else okay?" He pleaded. She shrugged. She wasn't planning on getting married anyway.
"Take all the time you need." She answered blandly. Shouta released her arm, relieved and she continued outside to be alone with her thoughts of Katsuya-sama. She put the thought from her mind after that and never brought it up again. Things were different with Kouhei human at first. It was strange not seeing his cap of snow-white hair and his long, sharp canines appearing every time he smiled. He seemed more normal, slightly less dangerous, but only slightly. He still possessed that feral quality he had when he was demon, even without those flame colored eyes glowing and the evil talons. He seemed to have to prove himself more now that he was human and did a lot of endurance things, so that it came to be he could run harder, swim faster, and hunt longer than anyone else around him. It took him longer to age as well, but eventually that caught up with him and he began to grow old and feeble just like anyone else.
At the end of Kouhei's life, when he was 80 yrs old, Isano, who had been his wife ever since he turned human, asked him if he regretted doing what he had done.
His eyes, now nearly as dim and milk colored as hers, rolled to her wrinkled, aged face. "It was worth every minute." He reassured her. They died within hours of each other. By that time Momoko also was old. Shouta had kept good with his promise and went to see the miko a few years after Kouhei did. It took him awhile longer to part with his kitsune powers, but he did it for love of Momoko. They had several children together and their house was on one side of Isano's. On the other side Ichiro and Michiko made their home. They lived for a long time, unplagued by further incidences of sickness, banditry or visits by heavenly warriors. Eventually however, they all died and went to the Jade Emperor's home in the sky.
Katsuya in the meantime was in hell paying penance for all the innocent victims he'd slaughtered.
"Remember Momoko, the great wheel will only spin once more for you. Wherever you go after this you stay." That was the voice of Kazuharu, the warrior who had sent Katsuya to his grave. She and Shouta had eventually lived out their years and died, going to heaven. There they had stayed, above time, as the earth spun underneath them. One day when they wandered through the golden gates of the city above they passed the Immortal Peach Garden and Shouta suggested they pass through. It only bloomed every three thousand years, and this was their first time to see it growing fruit.
"What are you thinking of?" He asked, feeling her sentient change as they traveled through the beautiful orchard.
Momoko reached up to touch a glowing fruit. "I was wondering what would have happened if Katsuya had been able to eat this fruit. He would have truly been immortal then."
"It is dangerous to think of creatures such as Katsuya...don't let him taint your thoughts!" Shouta said. She glared at him, had he already forgotten he had also been a yokai? She also knew she was in dangerous ground, but she allowed her mind to wander along thoughts of him. His kindnesses, every time he spoke to her or noticed her seemed engraven in her memory of childhood.
"As a being on earth, no one took notice of me or cared for me until he came along. I don't even remember my parents. My aunt loved me, I know, but she too died and she is here. He came back for me, was concerned about me, kept me safe in earth. Should I not honor him at least in this way? By keeping him in my memory?" They turned their heads, sensing a powerful presence close by. It was Kazuharu, the warrior who had sent Katsuya to hell.
"You should not even consider those who are down below." He told her. "This is bliss, it has no room for tainted thoughts."
"And Katsuya is a tainted thought?" She asked angrily, "He never..." Suddenly her mind flashed back to the sight of his body when she saw him at age thirteen, emerging from the bathhouse. There had just been a towel, but she remembered her feelings at the sight.
"It is enough." Kazuharu said. "You've been here 1000 years. You need to decide your place Momoko."
"No! You may never come back!" Shouta grabbed onto her heavenly garment, his eyes pleaded with her, but she shook her head. "I need to go back and find him. He hasn't been repaid as he ought to have." Her mind was fixed on Katsuya now, even though she knew what that meant.
"So be it." Said Kazuharu. He tore a path in the heavens with his sword, and shoving her through the rip he sent her soul back.
An elderly man and woman had a fifth child, a girl whom they named Suki. She grew up just like the other children until she turned six. A change came over her. She insisted her parents call her "Momoko."
"That's such a common name for a pretty girl like you!" They protested.
"That's the name he knows me by." She said, not explaining that 'he' was someone she remembered from another lifetime. "Mother, father, who is the most powerful god in the village?"
"The river goddess." That day Momoko set out to the river goddess's shrine, but she was intercepted by the wise woman on her way there.
"You search in the wrong place."
"What? Is this not the most powerful goddess in the village?" The girl asked.
"She is, but what you look for is not here. She has no communication with the dead. Isuyara, the spring goddess is the river goddess's messenger. She communicates to the otherworld and ferries spirits of the drowned there. It is her whom you seek."
There was a dark room in hell, and that is where the demon Katsuya stayed. The entire time Momoko had lived out her life he'd been down below paying his penance for his time as a demon. A crack opened where there had not been one before, and he saw the fires of hell. What was this? A girl appeared who did not belong in the netherworlds. Blue silk the texture of foam was wrapped around her body and she wore a kimono of scales. Her shoes were tipped with stones from some river and sparkled like dew drops. She beckoned. 'A water goddess? What was she doing here?' Katsuya's tortured mind thought. 'Is this just another trick?'
"Come on Katsuya." She said testily. "I spent the better part of rainy season convincing hell's gatekeepers to let you go." Katsuya came out of the room. The marks of the dog demon burned on his face, making the contrast between them even greater.
"Isuyara? Why are you here?" He asked. "Why would a goddess help a demon?"
"The Jade Emperor has heard the child Momoko's incessant prayers on your behalf, and has decided to let you go. Something unprecedented in the yokai world, don't abuse this privilege." She replied irritably and led the way past the fires of hell up to the entrance. At the gate, Katsuya stopped. "My swords" He said, glaring at the demon standing there.
"Why do you want those? You will not be able to wield them." Isuyara said dryly. "You are not going back as yokai."
"You've upped a level Katsuya, you're going as a human. This way, you can hope to obtain heaven."
"It's either that or you can retreat into that dark hole and call it home." Katsuya didn't have to look back to know that was not an option. He followed her. "Don't mess this one up Katsuya...only that girl's inexplicable love for you moved the spiritually forces for this time. Even then I barely got you out. I cashed in all your credits to get you out of this place. If you return, there's no second chance."
Momoko was at a library in modern-day Tokyo. As a student she only saw her family a few times a year, and was currently studying business at a middle class college. She studied a lot, and in her spare time walked around the city for exercise. She liked choosing different diners to eat at and window shopping, but she felt like she was missing something. The day she'd left for college she'd had a strong urge to visit Inuyara's place again, but she hadn't had time. Her father had packed everything into the little run down car they had and driven her to a train station in order for her to get to college in time for orientation.
She remembered looking out of the window with a sad, sweet longing in her heart, feeling like she was leaving behind something very important. It couldn't have been the village, which was just like any other village, and it wasn't the same as homesickness. It was as if something had just passed her by and if she'd waited an hour longer, gone back to the shrine, she would have found it. Momoko shook her head as she walked out of the library, passing a tall, muscular student on her way out. As she walked down to her apartment building, she noticed several older guys lingering around the stairway. They chuckled and whistled as she walked by, and she quickened her footsteps.
She glanced back nervously to see that they had begun to follow her. 'A thousand years, and nothing has changed.' She thought drily. 'If only one of my friends from my first lifetime were here, they would not bother me then.' The sky was darkening and they were drawing closer, and she still had a twenty minute walk before she reached her home. Momoko clutched her backpack straps and began to run.
She heard shouts and laughter but didn't look back as the footsteps also broke into a run. The people at her village had told her she could have run olympics if only her family had started her young enough, because she could outrun the boys and even the animals of the village. She caught birds in flight with her bare hands sometimes, only to let them go again. She was much faster than the thugs behind her, but she couldn't resist turning and looking again.
An uneven space on the sidewalk tripped up her feet and she fell heavily, skinning her hands and knees. She saw a car stop and the young men, sweating and cursing now got in. Heart thumping from fear, Momoko rose again and ran as fast as she could, but knew she could not hope to outrace a car. She cut through a back alley to shave a few minutes off the way back home and sprinted as fast as she could, fumbling in the pocket of her skirt for her cell phone to call the police.
Her hand touched it for a second before it flew out of her pocket and bounced off a concrete wall, breaking. She looked around again as the black car squeezed into the alley way and started gaining ground. Momoko burst out of the alleyway as the sun slowly sank behind the buildings and the world darkened around her. She could hear the catcalls and loud voices of the men behind her, the screech of tires as it raced around the corner. She was almost there, but she knew they would catch up to her in another few seconds.
"Help! Help! Bad men are after me!" She screamed as she came insight of her apartment building. There was no one around, no one seemed to be out who could help her. The car raced past her and cut her off, and the men came spilling out. Five of them, wearing black bandannas and tattoos of some street gang. They leered at her and loped towards her grinning. Momoko came panting to a halt and whirled to run, but ran smack into a stranger who'd come out of the alleyway. Strong hands gripped her shoulders and for a second she stared up in shock at the student she'd passed in the library.
"I've been looking for you for a long time, Momoko." He had short black hair and a coldly beautiful face, with familiar fierce black eyes. The marks of the dog demon were no longer on his face though, and his clothes were that of any other ordinary Japanese man.
"K-Katsuya?" She murmured.
"I thought you'd have gone to the Jade Emperor by now." He said. "You didn't make enough sacrifices and they sent you back down for another turn of the Great Wheel?"
"N-no I got into heaven the only way anyone gets in." She gasped, still not believing it was him, momentarily ignoring the snarling pack behind them.
An angry, growling voice interrupted her. "It's just one man, we can still get the girl." Katsuya pushed her behind him and from his jacket brought out a revolver. He pointed it at the men.
"Did you say something?" He asked. "You can probably take me, but I'll kill at least one of you before you lay hands on her."
"You remember our faces." The men said, "We'll make short work of you." They got back into their car and drove off and Katsuya pocketed the gun. Momoko and Katsuya stared at each other for a long time in the darkening alley.
"Momoko." He said finally. "The great wheel will turn only once more for the both of us. Shall we give this one more try?"
Her answer was to take his hand, and together they walked inside.