WARNING! This is book 2 of the Kamikakushi Saga.

I recommend that you read Book 1 - "A Road to Somewhere" (complete) before reading this story. But who am I to tell you what to do. ^_^


CHIHIRO

"Would you like some more rice, sweetheart?"

"Huh?" Chihiro stared at her mom stupidly.

The kitchen was brimming with the spicy smells of dinner: pork katsu, wedge salad, and rice. Across the way her dad was chewing with loud lip-smacking gusto, shaking out the Sunday paper every time he turned a page, utter absorbed as he devoured the sports section with his eyes. In the distance the air conditioner was chugging away, pumping a cold dry breeze through the dining room that sent the glass panes of the chandelier clinking like bottles of pop. Michio sneezed, making Chihiro jump. Familiar sounds, familiar smells, familiar people.

All the same it felt like she was sinking.

Because somehow she forgot how she'd gotten here.

When had she come down from upstairs? How long had she been sitting here at the table? At once she tried to catch hold of what she had been thinking about a moment before. Whatever it was, it was gone along with the rest of her day. It was an unintelligible blur inside her head. But still, amidst the blur the ghost of something lingered as she stared at her mother.

Wait… Hadn't she been here before?

Hadn't she sat at this table feeling miserable and lost?

Déjà vu hit her like a punch to the gut, leaving her teetering on the brink of panic.

"Chihiro?"

She cringed from the fear in her mother's voice, watching the pinch deepen between Yuko's carefully plucked brows. Worry bled through her face like a stain, traveling to pull down the corners of her perfect lipstick pink mouth. It was the exact same color as her ridiculously frilly apron. Saving Chihiro from herself, Michio elbowed her hard, making her sit bolt upright and hold out her bowl.

"Y-yes, please!"

But the damage was done.

"Are you okay, honey?"

"Y-yeah…?" Chihiro winced again as her shrill voice cracked.

At once Yuko looked at Michio just as the goth put a clump of rice in her mouth.

"Has she taken her medication today?"

Beneath her shocking locks Chihiro's best friend went bright pink, struggling to swallow. The color in her cheeks made her look less at odds with the drab beige and blue of the modern kitchen décor. Michio looked like she was dressed for a summer funeral: short black skirt, black tank, black knee highs, black make-up. Black, black, black: Yuko did not approve.

"10AM and 3PM, right on the dot."

Ugh... The horse pills tasted like chalk. They were supposed to help. If anything they made Chihiro even groggier. But Michio wouldn't let her skip them.

"Did she take it with food like the doctor said?"

Yuko's frown sharpened as Michi's Sidekick buzzed in her pocket. The thing never shut up. Yuko didn't approve of gadgets at the table. But Michi could text without looking at the screen, which she did shamelessly under the table even as Yuko remained oblivious.

"She had them with andango this afternoon, Mrs. Ogino."

"Hmph… No wonder she's not hungry."

Yuko turned away, busying herself with closing up the rice maker. Michi elbowed Chihiro again, nodding after her mother before rolling her eyes. But as Chihiro followed her friends gaze her stomach filled with angry embers.

She didn't like the way Yuko was talking to Michi.

And she liked even less the way her mom was talking over her head.

Like she wasn't there.

Like she wasn't capable of telling time and following directions.

Like she was a little girl.

Over the past two days Chihiro had come to realize she hated being treated like a little girl. She hated her pink frilly room. She hated the crushing emptiness of her parents' cavernous, stair-filled house. As if being on crutches wasn't frustrating enough, she couldn't turn a corner without running into her mother. Yuko was positively vibrating with agendas: doctor's visits, specialist appointments, physical therapy. But she hadn't said a thing about what had happened, nor had she asked any questions. It was like she wanted to forget the whole thing had happened even as Chihiro desperately tried to remember. Chihiro wasn't looking forward to her first meeting with the Psychologist in Mizunamii City. The last thing she wanted was to go back to a hospital. But there was no way Yuko would let her skip out on her appointments.

Furious over her helplessness, Chihiro glared at the table top until she felt like she could breathe fire.

Two days and she was sick of this house. Most of all she was sick of the gaping hole inside her head where exactly one month of her life had gone missing. Gripping the edge of the table, Chihiro stared at the shell bracelet on her wrist trying to remember something, anything about the person who had given it to her. Looking for him in her memory was like trying to see the bottom of the sea. She looked and looked, but all she could remember was his name. That was it, just a name.

But that wasn't it... Every fiber of her body told her she should be looking for something else.

What the hell was it! She had no idea!

As she struggled with uncertainty a strange pressure began building inside her chest, until it felt like she was going to fly to pieces. She shivered violently as a strange thrill went surging up her spine, making her hands and fingers tingle as the hairs on her neck stood up. As the sensation peeked the lights overhead pulsed eerily, growing more intense until the filaments burst.

"Oh!" Yuko gasped, recoiling from the fixture as if winked out.

"Huh…" Finally Akio surfaced in from behind his paper, frowning at the burned out bulbs as he folded his paper, "The construction guys must be messing with the power lines again. I'll have some more rice, honey."

"Those are brand new bulb," Yuko took her husband bowl, still frowning at the ceiling, "They're expensive too."

Inexplicably annoyed by her mom's comment Chihiro clambered up from the table without asking to be excused. Wordlessly Michio followed. At least the crutches extended her stride, because she was at the sliding glass door in the beige horror that was the immaculately decorated living room before her mother scolded from the kitchen.

"Chihiro, you haven't touched your diner!"

"M'not hungry!" She shot back without turning, fumbling with the slider.

"Where are you going?" Akio called, only now realizing they had gotten up.

"Just for a walk, Mr. Ogino." Michio answered.

"You girls come back by dark," unconcerned, he was shaking his paper again.

As Michi pulled open the slider Chihiro pitched out into the solid wall that was the humid September afternoon. The back patio was baked with heat that burned the bottom of her bare feet as Chihiro trundled her way through the perfectly manicured albeit wilted yard to the back gate. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed the air as she went crunching across the ankle deep grass sloping down the field behind her parents' house. Her crutches were not made for off-roading and got hung up on the gullies and clumps of weeds. Still she swung her legs forward, fleeing the periwinkle house and all its smothering domesticity.

"Hold up, you crazy tripod!" Cringing from the light, Michio threw herself right into Chihiro's path, "Where the hell do you think you're going!"

With a gusty sigh Chihiro hung on the arm cushions, scrunching the dry grass between the toes of her bare foot. She glared at the Hello Kitty boot the same way she'd glared at the table. But she was glad to look at something beside the muddy scar to her right. Chihiro couldn't stand to see what had become of the woods since housing development expanded. It sparked an irrationally raw cord of misery in her heart she couldn't explain.

"I… I gotta get out of here, Michi. This place isn't home anymore."

"Finally! I've been waiting two days for you to say that!" The Goth shook her shoulders in frustration, "Let's just go. That'd really piss off your mom. Pretty please!"

Chihiro sighed again, pushed by an obligatory stab of guilt to defend her mom, "C'mon, Michi. You know she means well."

Michi crossed her arms with a grimace, turning her back to the bright afternoon sun, "So where y'wanna go? I don't wanna go back to Osaka, so what about Nagoya? You've still got your apartment, right?"

That was true, she did have the apartment. But Nagoya pretty much belonged to Karou. The last thing Chihiro wanted was to see him again.

"Not there."

"Then where?"

"I… I dunno."

"Gah!" Michi grabbed her head, spinning away in frustration, "You're pissing me off too, Chihiro! Just pick a place, kay! M'not gonna decide for you, I'm following you, remember!"

No. She didn't remember.

Growing lost inside herself again, Chihiro trailed her eyes over the slope.

As useless as it was they'd left a beauty strip along the base of the hill. A little bit of the forest followed the stretch of old road towards the charred bones of the clock tower. At least the old hinoki tree was still standing. Some of the construction workers must've been superstitious because there were offerings at its base.

Just then a glint the caught her eye.

Down the old road, just inside the last vestiges of the woods, was an old motorcycle.

The rear mirror flashed in the sun as a sparse breeze shifted the branched. It had a side car, looking like something straight out of a movie. Weird, it hadn't been here yesterday. Chihiro spent the better part of yesterday staring out her bedroom window and hadn't noticed it.

"What?" With a curious moue, Michi turned and followed her gaze. But she lit up the moment her eyes fell on the bike.

"Oh, cool!"

No longer bothered by the sun, the Goth was already going down the hill, gingerly picking her way as if afraid of the plants.

"Hey! Hey, wait!"

It was Chihiro's turn to chase, which was pretty much impossible on crutches. She almost fell several times, swearing under her breath every time she stepped on something sharp. By the time she made it to the bottom of the hill she was sweating profusely and Michio was already taking picture after picture with her phone. The road still gave Chihiro the creeps. It pretty much dead ended into nothing, but in her story it lead to something much more. It was just a story, but with a grimace she avoided looking at the darkness further into the woods, stumping her way along the shaded path to the rusty motorcycle.

"I love these things. My ex had one that was way cherry. Isn't it super creepy? It totally looks haunted," Michi waved at the side car, "Get in, I'll take your picture!"

Chihiro shook her head so vigorously her pony tail whipped into her eyes. It could've been junk dumped here to rot but the tires were too new. That and someone had left the keys in the ignition. There was something uncomfortably familiar about it that gave her the chills the same way the road did.

"Leave it alone. Whoever it belongs to is probably close by."

"Don't be a baby," Michi rolled her eyes, "At least take a picture of me?"

Shamelessly the Goth was already climbing into the side car. The shocks creaked like a rusty hinges. Chihiro jerked bolt upright as something moved in her periphery; whatever it was skirted between the gloomy maples too quick to see. Every hair on Chihiro's neck stood up as eyes seemed to stare out of the eerily silent tees.

"W-whoa!" Michio was looking into the thicket, "D-did you see that?"

"See what?"

Pale and serious, Michi pointed at the dark shadows further down the road.

"I… I think I saw someone. He was… um… watching us."

Instantly Chihiro's heart quickened as the same strange prickles danced over her skin, "It's probably just one of the stone statues. There're a lot of them out here."

They both flinched as branch snapped far too close for comfort.

"Neh...?" Michi whispered as she got down from the bike, nervously eyeing the trees, "This is totally the way ghost stories start."

"Shut up, Michio!" Chihiro hissed.

Suddenly a wind breathed between the trees. Shadows shifted back and forth as branches swayed, sighing and whispering with a thousand unintelligible voices. On the breeze came the unmistakable scent of rain even though the sky was bare. Once more the horrible feeling of déjà vu hit Chihiro full in the chest, this time so firmly she reeled back. Dropping her crutches she rushed out into the sunlight, limping away as fast as she could. Tripping on the pothole where dirt ended and cement began, she went down hard. The world seemed to spin as she lay on the hot pavement staring up at blue sky.

"S-shit! You okay?" Her crutches clattered on the road as Michio tried to pull her up, "Man, you're heavy!"

"I'll call Lydia," Chihiro gritted between her teeth, "Maybe she can find a place for us to stay."


HAKU

Ducking behind the maple, he held his breath as Chihiro looked right in his direction. As his pulse thundered in his ears sweat beaded on his upper lip. He could feel the heat of her gaze as it roved over the tangled thicket around him.

She was close. Oh, so very close.

For the past two days he and Cinna had followed river upon river of car-choked winding concrete. Their only guide had been the needle and glass Onsen had given him. It was called a compass, or so the cat told him. He knew this way by sky, not by land. But thanks to the brass needle it was not long until the hills grew familiar. Just before dawn they arrived at the bottom of this hill. In the dark he gazed up at the home of Chihiro's parents. Filled with relief and a score of new aches and pains, exhausted by travel and hunger, Haku had fallen asleep in the sidecar only to awake to broad daylight and approaching voices. Struggling upright, he found the cat was gone and in a panic he fled to the trees.

Then he heard Chihiro's voice.

Time had never flowed through him so quickly. It felt as if centuries had passed since he had heard her speak. Yet is had only been a week, if that. The sound along sent him trembling with joy. Against his better judgment he forsook his hiding place for the briefest moment, if only to catch a glimpse. As he did Haku saw a great many things.

Chihiro was not well. Her injury obviously pained her as she leaned heavily on her crutches. But worst of all was the cloud of despair that hung over her like an impending storm. Haku knew why. He could see it in her face; see it in the lines of suffering that etched around her eyes. She was at war with herself, at odds with the curse that prevented her from remembering what she knew to be true. Worse, she grieved and not for him. Even as jealous seared his heart Haku's puny mortal legs went weak with worry for her, threatening to fold and spill him into the leaves and dirt.

Then he took notice of Michio.

The woman was not what Haku expected; birdishly thin and strangely painted, she smelled strongly of human chemicals. But there was an unspoken kinship between the mortal and Chihiro, one that reached back into their childhood. He half remembered the strange mortal woman from the days Chihiro used to play beside his river. She had changed greatly. Curiously he studied Michio, because in spite of the tart reek of the sharp green poison leeched through her hair and smeared on her face, Michio's eyes held an inexplicable clarity most humans did not possess. And so it should not have been surprising that she saw him in spite of his tatter cloak's obscuring shadows.

But it was a surprise.

As their eyes met he gaped in astonishment.

And she saw him as in a panic he hastily melted back behind the tree.

"Whoa! Did you see that!"

"See what?" Chihiro answered uncertainly.

Michio was now afraid, "I think I saw someone. He was, um… watching us."

In response to his agitation wind coursed through the thicket, pouring out of him in great gouts of surprise. It stirred up into the maples overhead, blowing back down the road towards the motorbike.

"Chihiro!"

As Michio's voice pitched up an octave Haku threw his gaze around the tree only to watch Chihiro flee. As she tripped and fell instinct took over. In a blink he would have been at her side, lifting her in his arms. Before he could move something hit him from behind, knocking him flat on his stomach. A heavy weight crushed him into the carpet of dry leaves. Resisting, Haku came up short as claws sank into his shoulders.

"Don' y'even!" Cinna hissed quietly in his ear.

Even after he went still the cat continued to stand on his back as if she did not trust him not to run. In truth it was probably wise, because the wind was still buffeting the trees. A squall of emotions went raging through his insides and he struggled to find a calm that came with unusual slowness.

"I cannot breathe!" Haku gritted between his teeth.

Her tail tickled the backs of his calves as it lashed back and forth, "Y'gonna be good if aye letcha up?"

"Yes," he wheezed, finally in control of himself.

Drawing in a deep breath as the weight dissolved from his shoulders, he rolled over onto his back, staring up at the dappled green roof spread over the reaching fingers of the trees. It took Haku a moment to realize he was listening intently to the silence.

"They's gone back up t'the house."

Sharply he looked at the cat as she guessed his thoughts. Wearing faded black jeans torn into shorts and a knotted black shirt, Cinna was crouched beside him with her shamisen slung across her back. She made no effort to hide her velvet ears and tail and her bare feet were muddy to the knee. The cat's crimson eyes tightened into smiles as mirth split her dark face, revealing sharp teeth.

"Y'got stuff n'yer face, kitten." Reaching over she peeled a leaf from his cheek.

"Where have you been? I woke and you were gone," He demanded sharply, earning a sour moue from the cat.

"Tch… Ain't we lippy! Y'nodded off soon as t'sun came up so's aye went off t'see what's 'round here: humans, humans, an' more humans. They's made a mess o' t'hills back there," she jabbed a thumb towards the construction site as she slowly sashayedback towards the road, "By-the-by, brought somethin' t'eat."

Food.

Instantly Haku clambered after the cat with not a care for where she had been. She laughed as his stomach let out a fierce and petulant whine, stooping to fish a cloth wrapped box out of a hollowed tree. At once he was on his knees at her feet, wide-eyed and salivating as he reached for the parcel. This she relinquished without comment. Tearing the fabric free and tossing the lid on the container Haku breathed in the salty smell of grilled fish and rice. Seated barefoot in the dirt the former God shoved both into his mouth by the handful.

The last meal he had taken was at the largess of a mikan tree (2) along the road. Haku had eaten so many he made himself terribly sick. But the strength of mortal hunger was not something he had been prepared to endure. It was a suffering unlike anything he had ever felt. The worst of it was the selfishness it imparted. Haku was gnawing on the fish bones before realizing he had not offered any of the meal to Cinna. Staring in horror at the empty container, his face flooded with heat as he lifted eyes to the cat.

"I… I am sorry!"

"S'okay, kitten, aye's already eaten." Something in her face softened as she waved off his mortification, "Y'get 'nough fer now? Wan' me t'getcha more?"

The cat's concern only served to intensify Haku's shame.

"No. This is enough, thank you."

Trying to regain the dignity he had so hastily thrown away Haku closed the container and went to rewrap it with the cloth only to realize there was a name written on the bottom. A streak of cold went blowing through Haku's chest, making the meal he had just consumed suddenly feel like a lead weight in his stomach.

"Cinnamon… Where did you get this?"

Abruptly she turned away, "Wot's it matter where it come from?"

Kami could not lie.

They often avoided telling the truth by answering a question with a question.

"It does matter," he pronounced with firm disapproval.

At once the cat's tail bristled out into a great brush as she growled low in her chest, rounding on him with mirrored eyes, making him recoil in surprise as she stabbed a yellowed claw at the ground.

"We got's t'eat if we's gonna stay in this world an' there ain't no one t'feed us now! Ain't gonna watch y'starve 'cause y'too proud t'steal! Y'gotta git over them high an' mighty ways o' yers if yeh wan' t'survive this world, got tha'!"

He sat bolt upright, chewing on angry emotions to keep from flinging hot-headed words of reply at the cat. Clenching shaking fists, Haku threw his furious gaze aside, because she was right and he knew it. At Yubaba's bath house his needs had been seen to by servants. After he left magic had been enough to sustain him when food was scarce. And then Chihiro had taken care of him.

But all of that was gone now.

Once again the crushing terror of what he had become pressed down on him like a stone. Shackled with this flesh Haku found himself bound by needs he did not fully know or understand. Even more foreign were the necessary ways to fulfill those needs. He knew nothing about being human. He was utterly helpless, so incapable of caring for himself he had reduced his companion to stealing in order to feed him

"I am sorry," Haku gritted between his teeth as heat flooded his face with shame. Bowing with stiff formality over the empty container, he held it out to the cat, "Thank you for what you have done for me."

"Ah, hell..." Cinna sighed, sinking onto her heels as she glared off into the woods, "Aye's sorry too, kitten. Didn't mean t'bite."

Together they sat in silence as birds chirped overhead, flitting by in tiny flocks. The afternoon was already waning and the heat retreated as shadows pitched longer and deep. That was a blessing because he felt utterly coated in sticky sweat. The discomfort of perspiration was something else he had never before experienced. He did not care for it. Haku cared even less for the horrid itching that accompanied the condition in ever crook and nook of his body; especially his hair which he scratched vigorously. But the cold was far worse than the itching. He had spent much of the journey with chattering teeth as the wind robbed his very bones of warmth.

As if anticipating night Haku shivered violently only to jump as Cinna tossed a pebbled at him. Looking up he found her glaring with crossed arms and flattened ears.

"Don' sulk," she muttered, "Makes y'look sour."

Haku snorted, following the road with his eyes to the dry grass at the feet of the great hinoki (1) cypress. Again the corners of his mouth pulled down into a frown as he stared at the road where Chihiro had fallen.

"She does not look well."

"Tch…" Cinna answered shortly, "Least y'found her."

At once aggrieved and elated, Haku found himself at a loss. His throat pinched in pain as burning pinpricks flooded his eyes with what he was learning to understand as despair. It overwhelmed him as he turned his face into filthy hands.

"Yes… We have found her, but I know not what next to do." He hushed between his palms, "I have gone to her in dreams with no success. I cannot greet her in waking moments for I am a fright in my current state! Oh, how I am lost!"

Haku flinched at the cat threw a much larger pebble at him. It hurt. Looking up he found her glaring again with sharply retracted pupils.

"M'sure she feels t'same way."

The cat stabbed a claw down the road towards the top of the hill before standing and planting her hands on her hips, jostling the shamisen strapped to her back. The instrument let out a soft sympathetic plink.

"Aye don' know nothin' 'bout curses, kitten. But aye do know you an' she's on t'same road. Y'gotta meet up at some point. You's both here, aintcha? Tha's gotta mean somethin'."

"Perhaps it is coincidence?" He muttered sullenly.

"Tch!" Cinna hissed between her teeth, "Ain't no such thing as a coincidence!"


LIN

The lilting voice of Natsumi's koto filtered through the floor, filling the humid evening air with soft song. Even the cicadas seemed to quiet in the face of the music.

But Lin didn't hear it.

Earlier that evening Onsen watched curiously from the rafters as Lin carried boxes of records from the office back to her room, skulking in the dark like a thief. But she was no thief. She was just borrowing them. Behind closed doors she went to work, pulling piles upon piles of papers until the low table in the corner of her tiny room was drowned in white. As Lin tallied old and new earnings her brow tightened and pinched. Click, click, click when the beads of her abacus. She glanced at her fingers. They were smudged black with ink of countless calculations.

All of this started earlier that morning.

After Amano-san brought in the groceries he turned over a strange slip of waxy paper. It took Lin a moment to realize it was a mortal receipt accounting for the cost of the food. The human was utterly red with embarrassment, so much so she found herself concerned for his well being.

"Nani set up an account for us," Amano muttered apologetically, refusing to look her in the eyes, "S-sorry… Didn't have enough cash t'pay for it all."

Lin's heart sank like a stone just as it had earlier.

She looked down at the red numbers in the total columns. They were growing larger and larger because the Amano had also brought with him small rectangles of human paper. Inside these were stiff stubs printed with more numbers. The humans called it mail, but a debt remained a debt. And they were close to drowning in them.

Closing her eyes, Lin tried to remember a world without money.

It had been ages since she'd thought of Ezo. (3)

In that time the forest provided everything she needed. Her memories of the north were thick with winter snow. Like a blanket it coated the shores of Lake Shikaribetsu, covering the ice, climbing up the bowl of mountains on all four sides until the whole world went white. She could almost taste the glorious cold on her tongue; almost smell the sharp scent of the black pines as her claws cut through bark. It had been a long time since she recalled the sweet earthy press of her burrow and the soft wiggling bodies that clambered against her for warmth.

But that place was dead.

Lin's heart clenched with terror as the heavy thud of a club echoed in the depths of her chest. She would never forget that sound, just like she would never forget the shrill screech of snapping traps. But the hunters couldn't catch her. She was too smart but her siblings were not so lucky. All too soon they were hunting only her.

Lin could still hear the baying of the dogs that had chased her from the north. Gripping the edge of the table, she fought the familiar panic that drove her all the way to Yubaba's Bath House. By that time she was glad to give up her name, glad to forget what she had lost.

But as she had lost so too had she gained.

Then there was Sen.

Sen took them in. Sen took care of them and did so without asking for a thing in return. She just gave and gave and gave. It was easy to get used to that kindness, easy to depend on it. But now Sen was gone and Lin's chest tightened, growing too small to hold in all the things she was feeling. Lin found herself listening to the koto.

It reminded her of rain.

Reminded her that Haku and Cinna had gone as well.

Lin made the Onsen stay silent that night. Without hesitation she sent the cat. And by the time Suzume realized both were missing they had gone far beyond his reach. Like a piece of stone she stood before the fox's rage, unmoved by all his shouting. But as the God's outburst ended Suzume turned on her such a look of betrayal Lin nearly shattered. She and Suzume had not spoken a word since that day. She endured the crushing silence between them without regret for what she had done. If anyone could bring Sen home, it would be Haku.

Lin would have gone with him if she could. She scowled at the clear night sky beyond the balcony the sliders. Stars winked around the crescent moon, reflecting in the rice fields. It took her a moment to sort the reflections from the mushi drifting in the gathering mists. The living lights grew thicker towards the black wall of trees on the perimeter of the property. They blurred as she put the ink brush in her mouth. Biting down, her sharp teeth dented the wood. Turning her head into her hand, she tried desperately not to cry.

Onsen let out a sharp chime of surprise.

Lin spit out the ink brush.

The door to her room flew open so violently it made ink spill.

Black as the spreading stain, Suzume stormed inside her room.

The bastard had not so much as knocked.

The lantern overhead guttered low in response to his foul mood, making the shadow of a fox shift and chase across the wall behind him. Lin glared as the door slammed shut behind him. Like he owned the very air the God paced in the narrow path between the windows and door, shuffling her papers in the wind of his passing. More than annoyed, Lin entertained the idea of throwing him off the balcony. But this was the first time since the fight they'd seen each out outside the moments he arrived in the kitchen to take meals to Lady Nikkou. Her temper flared, because it was obvious he wanted to fight. Lin was happy to indulge; she welcomed anything but the silence.

He cutting her off as she opened her mouth to speak first.

"You knew! You knew but you did nothing to stop them!"

Suzume growled, baring sharp teeth as he whirled to face her. The fox lost a bit of steam as she was on her feet. She was almost as tall as he was. The fact that she could look him in the eye with flinty calm seemed to unnerve him.

"You knew he was going to leave."

"But you did nothing to stop him!"

"You're an idiot if you think you can tell the wind to wait. You can't ask water to be patient. Both will move whether you want them to or not."

Suzume sputtered, sending cracks of red pulsing along the hem of his sooty robe. Like a sudden summer downpour words flew between them.

"He knows nothing of thisworld!"

"Cinna went with him!"

"The cat is no nursemaid!" Suzume barked with scathing sarcasm, crossing his arms haughtily.

"You think I don't know that! I would have gone myself if I could!"

With widened eyes Suzume started back against the wall, retreating physically from her words. All his anger fled as the moon seemed to bleach him of all color. At once he was quiet with stark fear.

"You would leave me?"

Lin barely resisting the urge to shake him, "I'm here, aren't I?"

"Do not leave," Suzume almost pleaded as he went paler than pale, "Should you go I could not follow."

Lin tightened her hand into a fist as the urge to comfort superseded anger. Unfortunately softness was not a part of her being. Instead she became a stone firmly rooted at his feet.

"I'm not going anywhere."

"I cannot follow them… I can offer them nothing… I am useless!" Suzume whispered so quietly she barely heard him, continuing in a rush, "And I am terrified he will fail as I have failed."

"You aren't useless, you stupid fox," Lin pronounced each word firmly, "Haku's fate is Sen's fate. Let him chase hope for all of us because we are needed here."

Lin started as his handsome gold eyes lifted to hers. As they did Suzume's wan features flooded with desperate affection.

"Hiyashimi."

As he spoke her true name aloud Lin closed her eyes. How she missed the gentle tenor he only used when speaking to her. How she missed the warm spice of his camphor scent. How she loved this stubborn God for all his blind strength and stupid weakness. Suzume would never apologize. It was not in his nature. But something in the way he spoke her name came close enough.

It made her want to shove him away.

It made her want to run away so swiftly he couldn't possibly catch her.

But even if she ran he would call after her.

He would call her back no matter how angry she was with him. Though she would never admit it to anyone, she would return to him gladly even as she fought herself every step of the way. Lin held her breath as Suzume lifted his blackened hands to her face. She did not cringe from the roughness or the sharp smell of charcoal. He did not hide the burns from her as he did with the others. Closing her hand on the front of his kimono, Lin pulled; but he resisted. Confused, she looked up and found him frowning at her mouth.

"Woman, you have ink on your lips."

Remorselessly she hauled him forward by the front of his robe and threw him at her futon. He hit the cushions with that shrill yip she utterly adored. Chuckling throatily, Lin pinned beneath her, holding him down with her strength even as he fought to free his hands. How handsome her fox was when aggravated. His hair turned glossy ebony as pink flooded his pale face, matching the colors seeping between the flashing gold ribbons weaving across his robe. Sliding her hand under the silky nape of his neck, Lin lowered her face to kiss the God that returned her name. Suzume's hands surged up into her hair as Lin worked her mouth against his, melting against him until the boundaries of their being overlapped and mingled in the dark. And there was no need for hands anymore, no need for bodies. Gods loved with their souls alone and in the light of the red lanterns they found their way into one being. But with a gasp Lin yanked back into physicality, barely aware that she'd forgotten clothes.

She sat back on her heels above Suzume listening.

A phone was ringing in the distance.

Amano had plugged it back in so he could call and make calls. But she could hear the frogs snoring drunkenly. Natsumi still played koto, ignoring the sound. None of the Yuna were brave enough to answer the beetle black device.

"Hayashimi."

Suzume caught her attention just as he caught her body by the waist, hauling her back against his mortal form. Lin gasped again, because it had been a long time since she remembered that flesh could be very useful. The pleasurable force of the sensation bent her over the carved marble of his bare chest, spilling forward her loose hair. It fell around them like a flood as the phone rang a second time.

"Leave it, Hayashimi," Suzume commanded smolderingly.

She almost left just to tease him.

But the God's gold eyes glowed like reflective mirrors, powerful and compelling. They held her as his ruined hands ran up the hard wall of her stomach, spreading over the planes of her chest before gently parting to caress her shoulders. Again she sighed, throwing her head back, trembling as he touched the place where her arm had been wrenched from the socket. Without an ounce of revulsion he smoothed his scarred hands over the hard knots of ruined flesh. The act alone was more intimate than anything she had shared with another. Never had she felt so beautiful and her heart ached with the strength of the truth Suzume was pouring into her.

Somehow Lin summoned enough presence of mind to speak.

"Suzume," She murmured breathlessly, "We must take this reservation."

"Must we?" Sitting up, he nuzzled the soft skin at the heart of her chest, stroking his rough hands down her flanks. He bit her teasingly, grinning as she jerked back only to grasp his chin with her only hand. The flint in her stare brought him to stillness as the phone rang a third time.

"Our debts grow with each day we eat."

The fox's faced cleared only to soak through with sharp worry. Lin knew why. But they could not starve in the face of Lady Nikkou's fragile grief. Nor could they let her starve. And they could not beg from Amano-san either. He and his son had so little already. All this Suzume knew as she stared into her eyes.

"I will return in a moment." Tenderly as she could, Lin smoothed the stray hairs from his face, trying to soothe his worries, trying to learn how to be something other than stone if only for him.

"I shall wait."

Reluctantly Suzume let her go but only after making himself comfortable in her bed as if it belonged to him. Again he yipped as she playfully nipped his shoulder on her way out.

In a blur Lin was across the covered walkway into the main building.

In fractions of a second she was down the hall so quickly her arrival at the welcome station caused a wind. Abruptly the reservation manual hopped out of its cubby and flipped open as the Onsen lifted the ringing phone from the cradle. Under the direction of the house's invisible presence the receiver floated to Lin's reaching hand. Not without a bit of shyness she answered, feeling strange and out of place. But this was her world now. Swallowing fear, Lin spoke aloud in the dark.

"Hakuryo Onsen."


Chapter Notes:

(1) Hinoki Cypress are the most sacred trees in Japan. They're the only wood used to make Ise Shrine, the main shrine to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

(2) Mikan are Satsuma oranges, wee deliciously sweet citrus fruit whose peel literally leaps off to make eating them all that much easier.

(3) Ezo is the historic name used to Hokkaido during the Japanese medieval period.


Author's Note:

I'm back!

Sorry its been so long. But guess what? Chapters 1 thru 18 (and counting) are written. I'm editing (with help from my lovely, wonderful, patient, gracious Beta's). So you have a choice: either cope with grammaticals and get to the story faster, or be patient with me and let me try to improve what I have to post. You decide.

Also, lots of goodies to be posted on Hakuryo Onsen soon. I'm making a Google Map of all the places I mention in the story. Also, I have lots of pictures to post so I'll try to get that up soon.

I'm going back to Japan in December for three whole weeks and I'm really going to try to see Izu this time. I'll take picture of Big and Little Cow for you.

Thank you so very much for reading. Your comments have convinced me to not give up on my original fiction. Maybe one day it'll be published and you might consider buying it. I promise I'll sign it for you. ^_^

Much love from LadyL