Chapter 9: To Fuzzy Feelings and Fridays

Disclaimer: Still not mine.

I think I still owe Aishuu a chapter, but this one's solely the result of arrana.

Bored did not begin to describe Chihiro. The seat one row behind her and to her left was still conspicuously empty, as it had been for the entire morning. Chihiro couldn't think of another time where Kohaku had just been missing like this.

Chihiro took a deep breath and tried to focus on the lesson at hand rather than the boy presently not at hand. Ok, so technically, he's really only been off the radar for a few hours. No need to send out an orange alert yet. It's not like he's been kidnapped or is being tortured by an enemy for leading a double life as a spy or anything.

There. I've established that he's fine, wherever he is. Now I should be able to pay attention.

Three seconds passed and Chihiro began to fidget in her seat. This was behavior at odds with the façade she had maintained since her arrival in this town. Damnit, why don't I care anymore? Why can't I just go back to being top of my class without any of this drama that came along with that infuriating boy?! Why is he so intent on sabotaging my life – and who has hired him for this dastardly purpose? Was Bab the evil? He seems like the sort of person who would work for a hag like her…

Resolute, Chihiro flipped to a blank sheet of paper. She needed a plan, and in order for that plan to work (unlike all of her previous plans this week), she needed to use all the information at her disposal. Now, what should this plan be named? Operation Swamp Bottom – I'm going to figure out exactly what he's hiding in the depths of his mind once and for all, no matter how murky or mysterious he seems to be! She suppressed a grin; somehow, even the name itself seemed like a good omen.

First things first: name of target. She wrote "Kohaku" in hiragana. Chihiro hesitated – what if someone were to borrow her notebook or accidentally see this page somehow? Normally, she'd dismiss the possibility as paranoia, but based on her luck this week, Miya or worse – Kohaku himself – would end up getting their grubby mitts on the plan. (Actually, Chihiro reflected, Kohaku's nails are better manicured than mine.)

But, better safe than sorry. Chihiro began to erase his name but paused after removing the first character. Haku.

Staring at the remaining two characters, Chihiro furrowed her brow, wondering why that name seemed to fit him so well. All she succeeded in doing was bringing about a twinge that politely informed her that his partner, a full-blown headache, was stuck in traffic but would be there shortly. She settled for underlining the characters and drawing a large question mark next to the name rather than ponder it any more.

Next: Where did he come from? Chihiro frowned and wrote in another large question mark. This plan was off to a slow start. Curses!

The twinge hadn't lied – there was now a sharp pain in the center of her forehead, just above her eyebrows.

Just what I need – a headache brought about by sleep deprivation.But I'm not giving up. Ok, maybe if I just list everything I know about him, I can organize that information and see where to go from there. Chihiro began writing a list: bathhouse, memory, falling towards an ocean.

Wait. That last one was just a part of my dream – there was some sort of flying white whale or something. How silly. Of course whales can't fly. It should have been something more sensible, like a bird or a dragon or something.

A dragon. Her head gave a painful throb. Chihiro felt her eyes begin to water at the pain. Her blurred vision just reminded her more of that dream – the wind buffeting her face, the warmth from whatever she was clinging to, and her stomach giving the rest of her body its two-weeks' notice and citing that if it had wanted to deal with this many ups and downs, it would have chosen to be a foot, thank you.

Chihiro put her hands against her eyes, trying to abate the pain by adding a little pressure. She hadn't felt this much pain since that time she'd tripped in her haste to get out of the tub and hit the wall with her head. There had been this same sense of urgency then as there was now – she was so close.

But to what? I'm still a few macaroni short of a sculpture – all I've got is a blob! Suppressing a groan, Chihiro tried to take deep, calming breaths to ease her headache. She had enough pain for three heads to be rolling in agony.

In. Out. In. Out. Feng shui. Inner peace. Find your chi. Umeboshi. Gold-plated Bob the Magnificent. Chocolate bars.

Chihiro began to mentally chant, feeling her headache begin to recede. She was slightly disconcerted to find that the feeling of being so close to understanding something about Kohaku was receding at the same pace as the headache.

This just goes to prove that thinking about him really is dangerous to my health. But I'm still supposed to bring him to dinner. What excuse can I use to get out of that…?

I wonder if I could get away with saying that I'm allergic to the very thought of him? Chihiro remembered that her parents had already seen her and Kohaku in very close proximity to each other and cursed that Bab the Evil had it out for her.

I know – I'll tell them that he's actually interested in dating Miya-chan! Chihiro smirked a little at the thought. If she could convince her parents that Kohaku was two-timing their little girl, there would be no way for him to stay in their good graces – football player or no.

And the fact that her mother would be giving Miya dirty looks for the next year was just an added bonus.

Chihiro was feeling almost cheerful again while savoring the idea of revenging herself upon Miya and Kohaku simultaneously when the classroom door swung open and Katsuya-sensei, the year three English teacher and football coach walked in. Following behind him with the grace of a god was Chihiro's own personal headache.

Her mood switched immediately from 'pleasantly temperate' to 'threatening to thunderstorm with a chance of hail.' Small cities began to evacuate.

Kohaku paused for a moment as the two teachers exchanged a few words. As soon as they finished, he turned and began to walk down the aisle towards his seat. His green eyes seemed a little colder than usual, but the moment he saw Chihiro, they seemed to soften. His entire posture seemed to relax from its tense state as he drew closer to her.

Chihiro, on the other hand, was sending him looks sharp enough to slice a train car in two. Why does he always appear when I want him to show up the least? Spitefully, Chihiro swiveled to level her glare at him even as he walked by her.

As the fabric of his uniform rustled past, she caught the scent of something sweet and herbal. Her stomach clenched as she tried to place the smell. It was so clean it felt like it was purifying her even as she just breathed; it felt nostalgic somehow.

The smell was gone an instant later, though and with it, all the feelings that had flooded into Chihiro disappeared once again. She was becoming quite used to this ebbing and flowing of emotions wherever Kohaku was concerned, which disturbed her considerably.

What disturbed her more was that with him so close to her, she couldn't even maintain the façade of being angry with him. It's like all the anger I should have has been replaced by, I don't know…something like longing?

Chihiro gave herself a good mental slap. Longing? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. That was probably just the hormones talking and, no matter how devastatingly handsome he may be or how well he kisses, they don't get a vote in this.

She was going to get answers, or Bob help her. She was going to find out exactly what Kohaku's nefarious schemes were, why she was picked to be his hapless target and exactly where he had disappeared to this morning.

But first, she was going to have to ask him over to dinner with her parents.

Chihiro was pacing. No, I'm not pacing. People pace when they're nervous. I'm not nervous – I just really enjoy walking in teeny tiny circles. I have nothing to be nervous about. It's not like my arch-nemesis and seducer isn't coming over to have dinner with my parents or anything.

Oh, right. He is.

So maybe I am pacing. There's no law against pacing is there?

This had seemed like a good idea at the time. Really, it had.

"Ask Kohaku to dinner." Oh yes, of course, please, come over and meet my parents. Meet the voracious eating machine I call my father and the overly prim etiquette book I call my mother.

Chihiro paused. Was she more afraid of her parents meeting Kohaku…or of Kohaku meeting her parents? To be honest, they're both bad scenarios. It's like trying to pick if I'd rather face an angry giant baby who wants to crush me to death or a bottomless pit monster who wants to eat me.

Ok, no. I will survive this. I am calm. I'm as tranquil as a river. Chihiro imagined floating down the gentle current of a river, trying to relax her muscles with her inner chant. Unfortunately, her nerves were humming a nearly supersonic tune that refused to let her body unclench.

Maybe they were in league with her hormones, who were currently convincing Chihiro's stomach to do somersaults at every little noise. Haku is late. Father is already upset at having his meal delayed – it's like he's got a split personality when it comes to Haku. One minute it's Haku-can-do-no-wrong, the next, it's how-dare-he-touch-my-daughter-the-pig!

Her father snorted in displeasure from the adjacent room and Chihiro cringed. And he calls Haku a pig…

There was a sudden twinge, and Chihiro realized that not only had she defended Kohaku in front of her father, but that she was calling him "Haku." Granted, it was only in her head, but what if it accidentally slipped out somehow? It would look like she was familiar enough with him to give him a nickname!

What if someone had seen her talking to him after class today? That, in conjunction with a supposed nickname, would seal her fate forever. She might as well curl up into a little ball and try to disappear.

Come to think of it, curling up into a little ball while chanting "Disappear, disappear. This isn't real!" sounded really attractive right now. Just as she began to crouch, having figured that she really didn't have all that much to lose by giving it a try, there was a knock at the door.

It was a very polite, refined knock. Chihiro wasn't sure exactly how one's knock could be coaxed into being both very polite and refined, but she did know exactly who could manage it.

"…Kohaku-kun's here." He even has a better knock than me. What is this? One-up Chihiro day? Make her feel inadequate some more?

"About time he was." Her father ground out from his position. Chihiro found herself wondering once again if he had a firearms license. Once again, she was disturbed by the fact that she didn't know whether the idea of Kohaku sitting across from her father as he stroked a shotgun lovingly was a very good image or a very bad one.

Sighing, she chose the side of reason. That is, the side that had food.

"Daddy, please wait until after dinner to eviscerate him – you know how mum won't let you eat before washing up and blood is such a pain to remove from clothing…"

Her father made a noise that was a cross between a gurgle and a strangled roar. While Chihiro tried to puzzle out exactly what colors on the rainbow of despair her father was currently feeling (Indignant Indigo or Teeth Gnashing Green? Maybe a bit of Off-with-his-head Orange?), her mother beat her to opening the door.

"Good evening, Ogino-san. I apologize for being late. I was detained unexpectedly."

"Oh, don't worry about it at all, Nigihayami-kun." Her mother smiled, fully in hostess mode.

"It isn't much, but I know that Chihiro-san likes chocolate, so…" He trailed off, holding up a chocolate cake that looked so decadent Chihiro felt that he'd stolen it from some god's dinner table. She tore her eyes away from the cake in time to see her mother shoot her a small smile as she accepted the cake and began to lead Kohaku in.

A small part of Chihiro was proud that Haku had managed to pass her mother's test of acceptability. A larger part of Chihiro was trying to squash the former part of Chihiro with a rather heavy lump of coal because there was no way her mother would ever believe that she wasn't involved with Haku after he bought a cake especially for Chihiro.

He even enters like nobility, Chihiro groused to herself as he stepped into the house and removed his shoes.

Chihiro felt more than saw her father move to stand in front of her. Dad always acts like some sort of farm animal whenever he can't get food fast enough. It's a pity nobody warned Haku that daddy cares little for manners and less for pretty boys that try to seduce his daughter. She grinned, waiting to see by what method her father would shred her arch nemesis to pieces.

"Oh, and I'm not sure if you have time in your busy schedule, but a friend of mine happened to have two extra box tickets to this year's semifinal and final football games. I have no use for them, but maybe you would…?" Once again, Kohaku trailed off, producing two tantalizing sets of tickets from nowhere.

"Why, thank you. Well, come along young man, dinner is waiting." Her father's eyes seemed to sparkle as he accepted the bribe – because that's exactly what it is!

Did everybody see that? Chihiro demanded inside of her head, he grows on you! He's like a tall, dark and devastating cancer!

She could only watch in horror as he stepped aside to make way for her mother to pass in front of him. As her mother and father disappeared toward the dining room, Chihiro scrambled to follow them, not wanting to be left alone in a room with the much too-perfect being that existed (it seemed) solely to make her life miserable.

Why can't he just leave well enough alone? She plopped down into the nearest seat as gracelessly as possible, wanting to have nothing to do with Kohaku or any of the eerie perfection he seemed to display. To hell with perfection and its soul-sucking-ly beautiful green eyes.

She pointedly ignored those said-same eyes as Kohaku walked into the dining room. With her father seated on her right, at the head of the table, and her mother's apron on the seat to her left, Kohaku was forced to sit across the table from her. Success – a foot and a half of solid table between us!

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye (all the while pretending to be very interested in the kitten-patterned potholder sitting on the table) to gauge his reaction.

She was surprised to see him grinning. Nigihayami Kohaku smiled demurely – he never grinned like a lunatic who just found out that the moon really was made out of cookies. Chihiro was so surprised that she forgot to ignore him and turned to get a better look. Are my eyes deceiving me again or is he actually grinning – and grinning at me?

Trying to focus on anything but how her insides had stopped churning in hunger in favor of having a party replete with streamers, confetti, and various other cheering party guests, Chihiro strained to pick up the faint tinkling sound that seemed to emanate from where Kohaku was walking. She could almost see his hair beginning to fan out around him as a swirl of air wrapped around him.

Chihiro blinked. There can't be any wind inside of a house. Did I hallucinate the whole thing? She scrutinized Kohaku's now seemingly-normal grin-less appearance. Neither of her parents seemed to have noticed anything strange and she had just begun to ease back from the edge of her seat (When did I end up sitting way up here?) when that impossible breeze brushed her bangs, tickling her cheeks and flooding her nose with that same, strangely clean scent.

She strained to remember what it was that felt so nostalgic and then, with a sharp jerk, Chihiro stood straight up, staring at the boy sitting across from her.

She remembered.

She remembered the river god who had given her the herbal cake, the daikon radish patron who had shared an elevator with her, the no-face monster that she had let in.

She remembered the bathhouse, the soot-balls who fed the flames, the train ride to Swamp Bottom.

She remembered Bo, the three green heads, and Yubaba.

She remembered Kamaji, Rin and Zeniba.

She remembered Haku.

"Haku." Chihiro liked how the name rolled off her tongue. She was drunk with the rush of memories. It felt like she was falling, just like she had been in her dream. I have to get a grip – but everything is shifting and roiling. Oof, I think I'm going to get seasick and I haven't even left my house… When did everything get so complicated?

As darkness began to appear at the periphery of her vision, Chihiro vaguely registered a warmth encircle her. How incredibly cliché, she thought to herself before giving into total blackness.

Author's Addendum:

I'm sorry…I just couldn't help myself. (If you've read any of arrana's work, you'll know exactly what line I'm talking about). If you haven't, but like Naruto, I'd highly suggest scuttling over to her profile to start reading.

While her own work is amazing, I'm also happy to announce that she and I are going to be co-writing a story for the Naruto genre together:

Everyone knows that people unconsciously pick up the characteristics of their mentors. That's why Naruto has a frog-shaped wallet and a perverted jutsu. That's why Sasuke has homicidal urges and a tendency to scare little boys. And that's why I've suddenly become the Legendary Sucker and could really use a strong drink.)

This new story will be posted under her account, so there's yet another reason to find her. (It's not hard – it's linked from my own account's profile). Give it a read – chances are, if you like this story, you'll like that one. ;)

Things I don't own in this chapter: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Cliché/Cinderella at the Grave by arrana, Frozen Moonlight by JaneDrew.

Finally, to answer some questions:

Q: Are you going to update anytime soon?
A: Yes, look – I just did! Oh, wait, you mean the next chapter already? Well, I update my profile page with the status of my writing, so you can stalk me there if it'll make you feel better? (or you could go read Legendary if you're so anxious…)

Q: How long is Changes going to be?
A: Originally, it was supposed to be 7 chapters for the 7 days that passed in Chihiro's timeline. I think that it got a little out of hand in the middle somewhere, but we still have one more chapter to go. Maybe two, if I'm feeling especially cruel.

I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn't like it…uh, sorry? Feel free to yell at me in a review, I guess? Feedback is appreciated (and usually makes me feel guilty enough to start writing the next chapter) and I'd really like to hear whether people are unhappy or happy with the shift in direction… I'd half-expected someone to demand that I stop writing before I completely ruin the happy-go-lucky mood of the first few chapters...

Until the next.