by murinae and aishuu
Notes: This is a co-write Muri and I have been working on for over eight months - there will be weekly updates until it's all posted, since the entire piece has been drafted. I can promise the entire fic will be out by the end of September 2010. Hope you all enjoy.
Like many fairy tales, theirs was a happily - while not ever after - for most of the after.
It's not worth taking the time to retell how Chihiro and Kohaku found each other again, and came to admit they were in love. That story isn't terribly interesting, except to note that it had been ninety percent Chihiro's hard work, nine percent Haku's, and one percent sheer dumb luck. Suffice it to say, they came to be married and living together in suburb of Tokyo, not far from the place where Haku's river had once flowed.
Chihiro had initially thought they would have the hardest time adjusting to the dragon parts. In actuality, though, the dragon parts simply meant that having a large bath in the house was a must. Other than that, as well as a few small details (and with the addition of a nice lawn with a large wooden fence, and seafood five times a week), life with a dragon husband was pretty much the same as life with any husband.
No, really, it was the human parts that troubled them most.
Haku was a young dragon, but only in comparison to other dragons. He'd been born in the Heian period, and despite the passage of time, he hadn't changed much until he'd lost his river. While Chihiro loved him just as he was, she also recognized he was experiencing the equivalent of a temporal concussion as he tried to adapt to modern life.
He probably had a sense of time flowing past him, all those years he had spent at Aburaya, but until she had pulled him into her world, he had not really dealt with it beyond wandering the empty rides of the abandoned amusement park, musing among the motionless structures. The dam had now been broken, so to speak, and now he found himself in the tide of cell phones and laptops, televisions and automobiles, and information at the speed of light.
"Humans do like such dizzying things," he said, and Chihiro thought, by the way his nostrils flared and he sniffed the air, that he may have been remembering the smell of the abandoned amusement park. "That hasn't changed."
"Yeah. There are some constants in the world," Chihiro agreed, snuggling closer to his side.
"Like the fact that a father-in-law will never believe his daughter's currently jobless husband is good enough for his precious little girl?" Haku asked, a slight smile curling his lips.
Chihiro winced, wishing she could refute the claim, but finding it impossible. Ogino Akio had decided that Haku was a layabout, and nothing would convince her father that Haku was worth anything. "A job probably would help," she told him.
"Hmmm," he said.
And what he hadn't said was this: jobs, themselves, were a rather new thing. In the past, gods - whether great or small - never had to hold jobs, not in the same way mortals did. Mortal jobs were about choosing and becoming; gods were all about just existing and being, whether it was a river, or a tree, or the sky, or a wish. There wasn't a choice. Even his stay at Aburaya was not a job as much as it was penance, something to do because he couldn't do what he had always done before.
It wasn't the same, not in the way Ogino Akio meant it.
Having a job, a human job, meant something more in this new, ever tumbling world. It meant something to little girls (and now big girls all grown) and to their parents. Mortals weren't born with just knowing what they'd be, after all. But, as he gazed in to Chihiro's eyes, he had to concede that there was something much like beauty in a human's becoming. Something precious and ineffable.
He wasn't quite sure he'd ever really understand. But honor and duty, those things a dragon did understand. And so Haku set forth to get a job.
His lack of official records would have troubled him, had he not still had connections. It wasn't surprising, in many ways, that the humans had moved from requiring proof of existence from gods and the supernatural to proof of existence from each other. It was a faithless age, where things had to be spoken and seen to be believed. Moreover, there was power in words, after all.
Since documents and contracts also gave power through their implied faith, it also wasn't surprising that there were many new deities that sprung up from this source (from the tiny wizened parchment gnomes that handled home loans to fat beaming tanuki who had taken over the liquor licenses). Many of them had been frequent customers at Aburaya, and they were more than happy to help Haku out - for the right bit of gold. Still, he made sure that he never gave out his whole name.
Haku was now a properly documented citizen of Japan, born and raised in a small town outside Tokyo. He had excelled in primary and secondary school, earned a college degree in Japanese history, and the recipient of exactly zero outstanding parking tickets within the city limits.
Given such glowing references, how hard could it be to find something?
A month later, his dragonish temper was at a breaking point. He didn't really understand what the economy was, but Chihiro told him it was the reason he wasn't having much luck with his job hunt.
He also found, once he finally managed to get a job, that keeping it was another matter entirely.
"Perhaps you shouldn't have set the merchandise on fire, dear," Chihiro said, and the way her mouth twisted let Haku know that while she had meant every bit of the censure, she found it rather funny as well.
"You don't understand. That lady was so loud and demanding and demeaning and . . ." he curled his fingers as if they were claws. "Rude."
Chihiro raised an eyebrow unsympathetically. "That's the lot of being a sales rep. You just have to sooth their egos. And I know you can - you had to deal with worse at Aburaya," she said.
"Usually that wasn't directed at me," he said. "Usually they had more respect."
"Well, yes, but these people don't know you're a god," she said simply. Haku rumbled low in his throat, but she merely raised the other eyebrow. "Or that you could bite their heads off. "
"It wouldn't have mattered anyway; it's not like they were actually using anything in them," he said, and it took a full hour of Chihiro nestled quietly next to his side to make him stop rumbling.
"Well," Chihiro said, "maybe you just need to find something better than selling supposedly fireproof t-shirts. Something you really like."
What he liked. He thought of the little fishes and how the light drifted through the curtains of river weed. He thought of the pull of his currents, of how it felt to swell in a flood or shrink back in a drought.
He thought of Chihiro.
"Are you sure there aren't any openings for just swimming down a river?"
"No. Though I guess being a lifeguard an idea. But that's only seasonal. You'd have to think of something else in the meantime."
Lifeguard. He rather liked the sound of it, though he had long learned that, in the mortal world, the sound of something wasn't the exactly the same as the practice of it. But something in the meantime.
"What else do you like?" Chihiro urged.
"Knowledge," he finally said, because the word "you" seemed too obvious. "A dragon must be wise."
"We can work with that."
The next interview (his fifty-fourth, according to the scorecard Chihiro kept in the back of her day planner) was for a position at the nearest branch of the library. Chihiro's mother, tired of listening to her husband complain about his ne'er-do-well son-in-law, had pulled a couple of strings with friends of hers to set it up. Haku, by now well experienced in presenting himself for interviews, landed the thirty hour a week position with little problem. The thought of working there pleased him, since he very much enjoyed reading.
The first day of the job, however, made him reconsider. No one had told him that nowadays, reference librarians spent more time using computers than taking care of books.
Traditional nature spirits didn't do well with technology. Even in his own household and domain, it was a weekly occurrence for him to cause the dishwasher or washing machine to overflow. He'd accidentally fried two microwaves so far just by looking at them. He'd also learned not to go near his wife's cellphone, since they were expensive to replace. Chihiro suspected it might have something to do with his godhood and the fact that water and electronics never did mix, but Haku didn't care about the why. He found electronics annoying.
Books, though, books he could deal with. He had always liked words. To him, they were the most powerful of all human inventions.
He loved kanji in particular, loved how the shape of the word carried the meaning. It reminded him of how curves and bends of his riverbank defined both him and his power. It took the earth to give him shape; kanji was like that.
So he held tight to those thoughts as he drifted aimless through the bookshelves, trying to ignore yet another query as to "why this or that site is being blocked!" or why "hey, this thing just went dead!" on various terminals around the building.
He got away with it for about a week, until his supervisor caught on. The older woman (the staff had nicknamed her the Dragon Lady, which Haku found highly amusing, but unfortunate since he couldn't remember what her real name was), cornered him amidst the 200s.
"Ogino-san," she said, and Haku had to remind himself not to look for his wife, since he had decided to take her name instead of offering his own, "I would like to discuss your current job performance. I understand you're still settling in, but that doesn't mean it exempts you from manning the desk."
Haku turned away from the cart he was using to re-shelve books. "Nakajima-san said she preferred to handle the requests, and asked that I take care of the shelving," he replied coolly.
"Yes, well, you are good at shelving," she said, for it was true. He liked putting things back into their place and bringing order to the chaos from uncaring fingers and bored students. And he was good at it. But apparently, that wasn't enough. "It isn't about what Nakajima-san wants, you know. It is about all of us doing our part. And do you know what your part in this is, Ogino-san?"
Haku had to admit, there was something draconian in the way she peered at him, brown eyes glinting. "May I remind you that we have taken you on the weight of the recommendation of certain parties with the expectation that you would understand this. So do you understand, Ogino-san?"
Haku forced himself to take a deep breath to keep from saying something he shouldn't. It rubbed against his very nature to allow a human to treat him as an inferior, but he didn't want to lose this job as well. He didn't think Akio would ever let him hear the end of it.
"I appreciate your concern," he replied, "but I do not understand why both of us shouldn't work to our strengths."
Her nostrils flared, and Haku's mind treated him to a memory of Yubaba looming over him. He forced himself to remain placid as she leaned forward threateningly. "All of our staff needs to be conversant in all aspects of library operations."
"And I am," he said. The tone was soft, but there was an undercurrent to his voice, tugging at the syllables just so. Perhaps humans didn't believe in gods anymore, but belief had nothing to do with the twist in their genes that had told them, after millions and millions of years, to be wary around things that could bite off their heads with a snap.
The Dragon Lady of the library backed off a half step, blinking in confusion as she did so. She ran a manicured hand through her perfectly coiffed hair, as if trying to rearrange something with the motion, then steeled her shoulders again. "We are an organization, Ogino-san. It isn't about strengths. It is about knowing our place. And you need to figure that out quickly or..." She left the rest unsaid.
Haku didn't like being threatened. It pricked his pride, and a part of him was tempted to let her know exactly who she was trying to command. It wasn't like he needed the money from this job, nor any of its (rather useless) benefits. He still had his ties to other deities and several owed him favors. He could easily retrieve a bit of gold he had cached and be comfortably set.
But gods and dragons are creatures of ritual. And as for knowing one's place...
The question rankled at him, and if she could have seen his whiskers, the Dragon Lady would have perhaps recognized the bristling and known what it meant. Knowing his place - that was the true problem, beyond nagging father-in-laws and the wagging of tongues (both godly and otherwise).
To find some space, in this every changing world that had taken away the very earth of his riverbank - in this, his true foe wasn't the Dragon Lady.
"Well?" she repeated.
"I'm still getting used to the systems in this facility," he said. "I'll work harder."
He gave her a respectful nod – there was nothing that would ever force him to bow to any human except his wife – and hoped that would be the end of the matter.
She nodded, but there was no satisfaction in her eyes, which Haku found peculiar. Most people gloated a bit whenever they got their way, but this woman wasn't following true to type. "As soon as you finish with this cart, please go man the desk."
"Very well," he said, and watched her go, curiosity making him narrow his eyes. Dragons, of course, had their pride, and dragons knew rituals, and dragons, above all, had their honor.
Dragons also liked puzzles, however, and riddles. If she wasn't after making him lose his pride, nor out to belittle him for the sake of improving her position, then he could spare a little interest as to her motives. Haku ran a hand along the side of the shelving cart, the tips of his fingers swirling in patterns just so.
It was time to learn the computer system. And time to call in a few favors.
"So the Dragon Lady finally scorched you?" Haku's coworker, Kuwabara Kenji, asked, his eyebrow raised as Haku made his way over to the desk. The other coworker at the station, Nakajima Kimiko, was too wound up helping a beaming retiree research information on The Kama Sutra to offer any greeting.
Life at the Aburaya had taught Haku that employees liked to gossip about their overseers, and that remained true in the human world. Haku also remembered what Yubaba had done to those she caught flapping their lips and it had made him wary of indulging in such talk. While the Dragon Lady didn't have magical powers, she did have authority over him, and could make him quite miserable if she didn't outright fire him first.
That in turn would lead to Chihiro's father groaning loudly to all and sundry, yet again, what a useless sack of flesh his son-in-law was, and what was this age coming to when one's baby girl couldn't be provided for-
And Chihiro's mother would just look at him and shake her head. It would be all over her book club next week, then the ikebana circle, then finally even the postwoman would be by and clicking her tongue in a rather disapproving manner.
It was a death in inches.
So, in her own way, Yubaba was kinder. Just a simple spell, then you had more legs than you'd remember, and then - wham, bam, frying pan.
Chihiro, of course, would laugh through it all, and make him his favorite grilled eel.
Still wasn't worth it, however.
"C'mon, spill," said Kuwabara. "We've all been there. I'll even tell you how to get around her."
Then again, he hadn't had eel for awhile.
"She believes I need to spend more time on other tasks than shelving," he said simply, deciding to say only the truth, and not add any opinion. Hopefully sticking to the facts would be enough to cover him, should this indulgence get back to his boss.
Kuwabara rolled his eyes, contorting his face in a fashion that reminded Haku of a radish spirit. The overweight man had a scraggly mustache, so the comparison was rather inevitable. "Bull. Shelving in this place is a full-time job, and you're doing an excellent job. When I go to look for something lately, I actually find it where it should be!"
Haku nodded once at the compliment, since it was his due, before heading for the main computers. He would have thought this signaled the end of the conversation, but Kuwabara just followed him.
"She's always been like that, y'know. Saying that everyone have a turn at everything in the library instead of just having a system. I mean, you're great at the shelving, Nakajima is good at the check-in and out, and I figure I'm decent at the tech specs. But no, it's like she wants us all to have a taste of misery or something."
"Hmm," said Haku. He tentatively typed his password in, using his index fingers, as he tried to blank out what had happened the last time he'd dared touched the keyboard.
"I think she'd be more about efficiency, you know? Because we are understaffed, and it makes sense for everyone to play to their strengths," Kuwabara continued. "But noooo, just because she's a miserable old cat lady, we all have to be miserable... it's so not our fault she hasn't had a date in a decade."
"She has cats?" the words slipped out before Haku could stop it. There hadn't been the smell of cats on her, nor did she seemed marked by them (as all humans who were adopted by cats tended to be).
"Tch, yeah." Kuwabara continued. "She's even followed by that odd mangy one at the back lot of the library. You know? The one with only one eye... I mean, I think it's a cat - a rather ugly one too. It must smell the crazy on her or something. Anyways, rumor has it that they're going to cut the budget even worse next year, and the way things are going, we're going to have to go back to the card catalog."
Haku might have spent time hoping those budget cuts came through, if he hadn't been distracted. Haku knew very well that there was no cats in the back lot, since the area was under the protection of an inugami and thus was off-putting to felines. So whatever it was probably wasn't of the natural world.
The computer screen in front of him flickered twice, and Haku forced himself to focus his attention back at the desktop, which was finally coming up. All of the computers in the library were old, and all of them had their little quirks, quirks which were not helped by Haku's magical aura.
Kuwabara was going off again on his favorite topic: budget cuts and the Dragon Lady and how it would mean the ruin of scientific progress as they all knew it.
"I mean, we're the last bastion of free information!" he said. "We're here to make access open to everyone, not just those who can afford a T1 connection and the latest shiny gizmo from Akihabara. But here we are, running around, doing things halfway, and pissing on efficiency. It makes us look like noobs! But does the Dragon Lady care? No, it's all about everyone has to have its place and we all are cogs in the giant gear of - duuuude, what did you do?"
"Ah..." Haku said softly, as the screen began to flicker and lights began to dance across its face.
"Man, what keys did you press!"
The machine began to play Handel's 348, Suite in F Major.
"How is that even possible? It's not hooked up with a sound card!"
"I... I don't know!" Haku blinked. Heads were popping up to look at him, and he seriously was about to yank the cord when he felt it. A small swish of air, the slight prickle of magic, and then...
The login screen finished. He was in the system.
"Whoa, that was strange." Kuwabara said. "I mean... hey! Why is my shoe kinda wet? And... does it smell like pee to you?"
Haku could only stare at the one eye that vanished around the corner of the stack.
To be fair, Kuwabara had called the thing ugly.
After the library closed, Haku didn't immediately rush home, although that was what he wanted to do. Seeing Chihiro after a long day of work was always soothing, and reminded him why he suffered through the indignities of his job.
However, something was there in the stacks, he realized, something he needed to acquaint himself with. The growth of the human world had forced spirits to seek whatever places they could to exist, and Haku knew there were creatures everywhere. Whenever he ran into one, he was polite, but he had little desire to make friends with any of them. He was a dragon, after all.
But a spirit had chosen to help him out today. Haku appreciated the effort, but was also wary. Not all spirits were friendly, and Haku didn't like being in the debt of something he didn't know.
He found it curled in the corner behind a pile of periodicals, one amber eye watching him in amusement.
"Merr-row?" it said, and it flicked its long, sinuous tail around its four stick thin legs. It had fur, which was the purest inkstone black, and a head that could have been called catlike, if it wasn't for how its eye gleamed. "Purrr?"
"Don't even try that. You are no ordinary cat," he replied, letting just the right amount of a growl to slip into his voice. The fur on the creature's nape rose slightly.
"Hmph. Is there anything such as that? Ordinary cats, I mean. Oxymoron, if you ask me," it said, with a voice like velvet gone to rust - if velvet could rust, that is - something soft, yet tarnished, at the same time. "Though I could say that you, yourself, could be seen as the epitome two definitions clashing; your own oxymoron in a human suit, yes?"
"Perhaps," said Haku, and then, because he always remembered his manners, "for the unasked for help with the computer, I could give my thanks."
Haku just gave the creature a long pointed look. It was dangerous, offering gratitude. The creature blinked its yellow eye.
"No, it wasn't done for your gratitude. Or to put you in my debt," it finally said. And this, more than anything, made the invisible whiskers on Haku's face rise. If not for gratitude...
And not for debt...
Nothing in the spirit world was done for no reason.
His years in Aburaya had been long. The syllables of his once lost name rattled in his head, even as he firmed his stance, mentally preparing. "Then why?
"How much will you pay to know?"
"Not more than I can afford," Haku replied.
The creature didn't look impressed. "Then I'm not going to tell you," it said, its words more hiss than purr. "But I will offer a smaller bargain, if you provide me some fresh fish tomorrow."
Haku smiled, flashing his teeth. "Is tuna to your tastes?"
"That will do," the creature replied. "And, perhaps because I feel generous after seeing the ignorant masses you have to work with - I will also offer you the assurance that you will experience no ill from my actions today."
Tuna was easy enough to obtain. Chihiro raised an eyebrow as he packed the can into his work satchel. His very vocal disdain for canned food, especially canned seafood, had caused him to be labeled "hippy and weird" by most of her other family members.
She declined to comment, however, and instead, handed him two slices of bread. When he refused, telling her that neither bread nor crackers were required, she raised the other eyebrow.
"Make sure you bring a plate to serve the tuna on, then," she said. "It's more polite that way."
That comment had earned her his raised eyebrows, but in the end, he thought, neither of them had been truly surprised.
And he wasn't surprised when she said, "Call me if you're going to bring home... work. A girl likes to be prepared, you know." The way she had jerked her chin and firmed her stance was awfully familiar.
Chihiro, challenger of the gods.
He hadn't been planning on ever letting anything like that into his house, his domain. But the understanding was appreciated, anyway.