by murinae and aishuu
Note: The Epilogue/final part. We very much enjoyed writing this, and hope you enjoyed reading it. We'd love to hear what you thought of the fic.
It was hard to remember, sometimes, that he hadn't always felt comfortable in the library. But as the first anniversary of his walking through the doors approached, Haku couldn't imagine working anywhere else. Chihiro teased him that he was in danger of turning into a real bookwyrm.
He was able to handle whatever was thrown at him, and he found he liked the variety of tasks that came with being a librarian. Shelving was still comfortable, but in a nostalgic way rather than as a place to hide. Most of his tasks were centered around the library's electronic resources, since Shinako had learned he was the one who could always keep things running.
The Dragon Lady would always be adamant about every employee knowing the minutia of the library. After getting burned once, he could understand her obsession. But somehow, even she seemed to sense that the electronic resources were really where he was supposed to be, so she never really made a concentrated effort to shift him elsewhere. Her own efforts to finish the lost catalog had increased, and every day, Haku could feel the very stones in the walls vibrate slightly in anticipation.
He was patient, however. He could wait, especially now that he did not feel as if he was encroaching. Perhaps the strangest thing about his new domain was that he had no real domain, or at least, not in a physical space. It had been the hardest to get used to, strangely enough, even for a being that represented something that was wholly based on faith and the ineffable. The electronic river did not have a bank, did not have a real course, and never flowed in one direction. But it did have its tides and its pulls and its floods, and in that, it needed its master. He didn't even really need a computer anymore to access the net; with the availability of mass wireless coverage, it was like being immersed with every step.
Though if he had to assign a place to his new domain, perhaps it would be in his new state of the art computer room at home. He was up to four visible servers and counting. Perhaps it was an irony that the gold from his lost river was giving his new river a form, but he also found it fitting. Akio, though, grumbled about just how much it all cost.
Chihiro was doing her best to be supportive. Having her grounded him back in reality, reminding him that he was living a human life. Once or twice he'd become so fascinated with exploring his constantly-changing new realm that she had to shake him to refocus him on his surroundings. He was trying not to worry her, for as marvelous as his new river was, he loved her more.
If he had to choose, he would always choose her. That would not change.
And it could not change. There was a danger in losing himself in the internet, to never coalesce in any shape or form. As a river, he had his banks.
As for now, he had Chihiro.
Along with a mother load of work.
Nakajima had left the library early – as was becoming her habit, since at eight months pregnant she found herself tiring easily and short on energy – leaving him to cover both her job as well as his own. He'd been putting in some overtime, but didn't mind. Nakajima's gratitude was well worth it, and Haku could hardly wait to see her child. There was something exciting about being around the promise of a new life.
He'd already rescanned the returns to log them in, cheating only a little. The library's machines were in need of an update, and Haku had to "nudge" them just a little to make sure they remained working efficiently. It wasn't quite his domain, but a modern spirit had to be adaptable.
Kuwabara had taken to calling him "The One" or "Ghost in the Machine Man" over the time, because the library technology had taken a quantum leap forward, even though the library equipment had not. Even the oldest machine in the building, a creaky relic from the bygone years of Commodores and floppy disks which flopped, would run as easy as the newest shiny gizmo from Akihabara. (Sometimes, though, when the teasing got a little too much, Haku let just the hint of a trojan to slip onto Kuwabara's laptop. Especially when it wasn't hooked up to the net. It kept the man guessing.) It had gotten to the point where people had started bringing their laptops into the building just to access its wireless. There was no other place, they claimed, that their machines worked better.
The increase in traffic had also a side benefit. Being around books seemed to make even the techiest of techies more inclined to check them out.
Since the patronage and circulation were up, the main branch announced that they were thinking about increasing the budget for next year so that a software, hardware, and book upgrade was in the future. All in all, Haku reflected, there was ample reason to feel good about life and the way things were going.
The library seemed to be feeling pretty good, too. In the last couple of days especially he'd feel the air start to hum with imminence, like the moment just before the sunrise. He knew that something was stirring in the library, a presence which had been muted recently but was beginning to find its voice again.
And he knew what – or, rather, whom – was the cause.
Shinako was almost done with her project with the card catalog. It was a remarkable effort which made his head spin just to think about, the knowledge that one woman was almost single-highhandedly reviving a library god.
As closing time neared, he could feel the thrum in the air, and wondered if today would be the day.
The very walls seemed to be humming at a frequency that made his (somewhat non-existent) whiskers twitch. The patrons also seemed to catch the spirit. No matter how dour or upset they were at coming in, each patron left with a smile. Everyone seemed to be able to get the exact article, book or magazine they had requested. Even the children's section remained quiet, the shelves neat, and the normally grubby-fingered hellions were content to sit in one place, page through a book, and - wonders of wonders - put the books back on the shelving carts after they were done with them.
In the corners of his eyes, he could catch the slightest hint of a black tail and the flash of a yellow eye.
Mu did not manifest often in the library during opening hours anymore. Haku understood that it was half due to a sense of respect for propriety - the only kind of respect, actually, that cats could give - and half because it was attending to its own domain. Like Haku, its own world and word had shifted, but it never forgot what his purpose was.
Still, perhaps since he hated the sense of debt between them - and perhaps because Chihiro had suggested it - Haku had tentatively mentioned to Shinako that the library would be the perfect place to host a calligraphy club. She had agreed.
Haku wondered how he would feel if he was to see a reminder of his old river (had it still been there), but the thought rattled through him discordantly, as if he was holding his breath just to squeeze into a skin that was too small now.
But right after the club met (every Wednesday night, for one hour just before closing), Mu would appear, and it seemed sleeker each time. It was the one day Haku could count on seeing his friend.
Mu, though, had tired of just appearing in the corners. It suddenly popped into existence over Haku's console, one eye bright, and fur fuzzed up. It nodded once.
"Is it time?" Haku murmured. No one was around him, directly, but the last thing he wanted was to be seen talking to a cat.
"Almost," Mu said. "As long as the miko doesn't get interrupted, it should be soon."
Haku smiled, struck by the idea of Shinako as a miko. It made a peculiar sort of sense, but he had a hard time imagining her in the traditional garb of a shrine maiden. "Are you going to go keep the library spirit company?"
Mu's tail twitched quickly, in the manner of a cat about to pounce. "Maybe. Maybe not."
"Wouldn't it be more pleasant to awaken to an old friend's company?"
The whiskers twitched this time. "Maybe. Maybe not," Mu repeated.
Haku thought on the cat's uncharacteristic indecisiveness. Mu represented the third option in an either-or situation, but it always had some sense of direction. Haku had known Mu felt protective of the library spirit, but hadn't realized it was concerned about what the library spirit was changing into. "At heart, we all remain the same," Haku said finally. "If he was your friend once, he will remain your friend."
"She," Mu corrected. "She was my friend."
Haku nodded once, encouragingly. He started walking to the back of the delivery room, an area he knew would be empty at this time. Mu followed behind, stepping with an odd ambling urgency that cats sometimes showed when they felt they were obliged to be somewhere, but did not want to rush to be there.
"It will be different, but you of all beings shouldn't be afraid of that," he murmured again, when it seemed obvious that Mu wasn't going to continue.
"I know." The brush god picked up a dainty paw and began grooming it. However, the tense way its tail snapped about belied its outward poise.
"But still, it must have been hard, for a brush god with a name like yours to hold a friendship, any friendship," Haku said as he started unpacking the delivery boxes.
"Yes and no. It's neither easy nor hard... I'm just the third choice to a binary question." Mu began on its other paw.
"And that's why you don't like concrete answers," Haku said softly. "While the god's state was uncertain, you probably understood that more than most."
"Perhaps I should be called Schrodinger," Mu chuckled, but there was little humor in its voice.
"And now she's nearly back..."
"Now I'll know that answer, finally. But, dragon of the electric seas, do you know my question?"
"Yes and no," Haku replied, since it was Mu's nature to dislike certainties. "Your main question is 'what if,' but you have more than one question that starts that way, and there is only one answer. The only thing that matters is that she will be back," Haku said.
For a long moment, Mu stared at him, one eye narrowed. Then it nodded slowly, body stilling.
"And perhaps the other important thing is with her, I was not alone, but even without her, I wasn't alone, either," it said.
And Haku knew, at that moment, that it was as close to a "thank you" as he ever was going to get from a brush god.
Or a cat.
"I'll come see you before I leave for the day," Haku promised. "Where can I find you?"
"I'll find you," Mu returned. "Perhaps you should think about the overdue tribute you will offer her... but perhaps, hmmm..."
"What?" Haku asked, suspiciously.
"Perhaps we're the ones who should be offering tributes to you." Mu blinked once, long and slow, like a wink in slow motion. "You have gotten very large, dragon of the electric sea."
Before Haku could answer that, the brush god had wisped into nothing. And in the air, he could feel the sharp readiness of something gaining momentum. As he absorbed and analyzed the phenomenon the data streams that always surrounded him quivered. (And at that moment across Japan and all of Asia, every website or message board dedicated to the study of Shinto gods found themselves flooded and under a DOS attack).
He had witnessed the death of many gods. He had been witness to the rare birth of several more. But he had never seen any rebirth, save his own, and he only witnessed that through the reactions of a third party.
He found himself holding the breath he didn't really have to take, even as he made his way towards Shinako's office.
The clock he passed indicated there was only fifteen minutes until closing, and he wanted to encourage Shinako to finish today. He wasn't sure if he could bear another day of this feeling, the swell of eagerness and curiosity that made him jittery, like a human who had consumed too much caffeine.
He knocked lightly on her door with his knuckles. He heard her call out for him to enter, and turned the doorknob gently.
"Can I help you, Ogino-san?" she asked, not looking up from her work.
She looked prettier than he'd ever seen her, with her salt-and-pepper hair loose around her face. Despite the white in her hair, her face appeared young and healthy, and the usual lines seemed to have been smoothed away. The god's stirring presence was having a positive effect on her, even though Shinako didn't realize it.
"I came to see how you were coming on the catalog project," he told her honestly.
Her fingers kept clicking on her keyboard, even as she looked up into his face. "How did you know I was working on that?"
"I have my ways," he replied mysteriously, letting a small smile curve his lips.
"You must," she replied, pausing to flip over an index card onto a tall stack and pull another one from an even smaller pile closer.
"You are nearly done, I see," he said, for the pile was nearing its end. He thought she had maybe thirty left.
"You want to help?" she asked.
"No," he quickly shook his head. Shinako squinted at him, mouth twisting slightly into a frown. "You started it. You should complete it."
"Okay," she said, her mouth twisting further. She looked up at him, obviously wanting to ask "then why are you here?" but not finding quite the right way to ask it.
The air in the room seemed even thicker now.
He let his smile grow a little, as he slid into the seat she kept for visitors without waiting for an invitation. "I just thought you might want to have a witness for this. Remember when I told you you'd complete this task?"
She nodded slowly as she finished entering the data from another card. "It was a strange day," she said.
"It was, I guess," said Haku.
"You're strange too, Ogino-san," she said, then put a hand up to her mouth. Shinako could be quite blunt, but she did at least try, nowadays, not to be actively rude to him. "Ah," she fumbled. "What I mean..."
"It is fine," Haku said. "I'm not offended. Where no offense is meant, none should be taken."
"But still, that doesn't mean I wasn't out of bounds," she said, hands drifting to the cards. "I don't know why I'm telling you this, but you're different now, in the way I can't explain. You weren't like this when you first came here, to these stacks. I guess it just comes from being a librarian. I've worked with a lot of people, over the years. And the one thing that links us, you know, is that all of us - no matter what age - we're always looking for some sort of answer to something, especially those who come through these doors, to this place. But you... you seemed to have found an answer - all your answers. I guess that's the best as I can put it."
Haku shrugged, "I don't know if you're right."
"Just call it a librarian's hunch, from years of helping people search for things, sometimes when they didn't even know what they were looking for," Shinako laughed. Haku felt himself smile as well. "But yes, seeing someone having the answer to well - everything - is rather reassuring, in an odd way. And I'm glad that you seemed to have found it here. That's what a library is for."
"Mu's right. You are a good miko," Haku murmured.
He tilted his head, smiling ever so softly. "I just said isn't it time to make things right?"
Shinako just gave him a long look, frowning, then reached for the next card. "You're a rotten liar," she returned gruffly. "I know I should be sending you out to do... something... but I think I want a witness. I've got three cards left, and then the card catalog will finally be complete."
"It would be my honor," he murmured, lowering his head slightly. It wasn't quite a bow, but it was as low as he'd go for a human.
He could see her excitement as she flipped over another card and quickly filled in the electronic form. Two books left, he thought, and remained still as she worked her way to the last card.
"I know it's ridiculous, but I'm so pleased with this," she said. "I know most people aren't going to care that the catalog is perfect, but it matters to me more than it should." She held up the last card in her right hand. "Isn't it funny? The last book is a copy of Kojiki. Whether anyone will check it out or not, it'll be here for them to find."
"With whatever answers it may bring," Haku agreed softly. The very earth underneath his feet shivered; it was a wonder the humans didn't feel it. "And no, I don't blame you for being pleased."
Shinako gave him a sidelong glance. "It almost seems anti-climatic, you know. But here goes..."
He held his breath as she pressed the enter key... and the world around him suddenly came into focus.
He could feel the library spirit come into full wakefulness. Despite Mu's jibes about paying him tribute, Haku was still working inside of her domain. He could feel the magic coalesce into the library's system, in the terminals which he'd been using to connect to his own domain.
The feeling was akin to how a human might have felt when taking that first, shuddering breath, after spending a long, long time without air. Reality itself seemed to draw in upon itself, as it tried to resist (as it always did) the change.
Then came the exhalation. One moment, there was nothing. Then, there was something like the switching on of a light.
For Haku, it was like shedding dry scales, a feeling of relief. He hadn't realized how much the library spirit's comatose state had preyed at him, not until this moment when it suddenly wasn't a factor. He could breathe more easily now without that feeling of uncertainty hanging over his head.
Shinako, however, was human and didn't notice the change in the spiritual realm. All she saw was another blank screen, waiting for her to enter in more data if she wished. So she simply pushed herself back from the desk, raised her arms behind her head and allowed herself to indulge in a stretch. "It's time to close," she said, glancing at the clock.
It was almost anti-climatic, Haku thought, as he watched her walk towards the checkout desk, apparently to help Kuwabara finish shepherding out the last few patrons. To the humans, it was like nothing had happened.
And to them, nothing really had. Unlike his ascendancy, the library spirit's renewal was not about changing or becoming but about just being again.
He did notice, however, that the humans did seem just the slightest bit more at ease. They may not have known why, but some part of them could feel the completeness. The rightness. A library was a place for answers; the spirit being back meant that the answers perhaps had more meaning than ever.
That was what gods were for, at any rate.
He turned to go as well.
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
He turned to smile down at Mu. "You said you'd find me. Have you found your answer as well?"
"We'll see," Mu answered, but there was amusement in its eye. "I think you should stop by the desk before you leave, though."
Haku nodded graciously, before turning away from the cat. "I'll see you tomorrow," he called over his shoulder as he made his way to the desk.
Kuwabara had stepped away and was chasing the stragglers out of the library. Haku glanced around, trying to see the god, but found nothing. He could feel her presence, though, and knew she had to be close. Mu had pointed him toward the desk, and the brush spirit had no reason to mislead him.
Unless he wasn't looking in the right direction.
He stepped away from his side, where the librarians stood and waited on patrons, walking around to the public's area. Libraries, as Kuwabara was always ranting, were meant to be for the people.
And then he saw her, deceptively small but stunningly beautiful. Mu had told him he needed to offer a tribute, and maybe later he would, but for now he would start by offering his greetings – and a chance at friendship.
"Hello," he said, smiling at her. "I've been waiting to meet you."