Chihiro doesn’t forget. A normal life of unpacking and attending school seems surreal in perspective of the time she spent in the bathhouse. Things aren’t easy, her parents don’t remember and there’s no way Chihiro could explain the months they missed and be believed so she never tries. At first people in their new town are kind. Other students talk quietly around her and act like they’re afraid she might break down crying at any moment if paired together for a class project. Her teachers are accommodating about the time she missed, pulling Chihiro aside to ask if she needs anything, if her family needs anything, if she would like another chance to retake that test. Somewhere in following months the tone starts to shift. Five months of snide comments and whispered later they move.
Their new house is smaller because they had to move again in such short order, and there wasn’t as much money for that. Chihiro’s father has to take a demotion for his new job and Chihiro’s mother worries over the family’s financial registers every month. Chihiro takes over cooking because her mother is often distracted enough to burn food. No one knows or recognizes her at her new school. Chihiro is still recently from the city and between that and her recent moves it gives everyone something normal to ask about. She doesn’t tell anyone about the bathhouse.
Even though her parents claim not to remember, there are still changes. Her mother never cooks meat anymore, and neither of them will eat it even if Chihiro makes it. They stop buying it all together.
“It’s better for the environment.” Chihiro’s father says. Maybe it’s because his new firm does environmental consulting, or maybe it’s something else.
“And think of the poor animals, they all have feelings too,” Chihiro’s mother says and Chihiro thinks that maybe it means something, but all her mother’s new friends are ones she met at a vegan cooking class. Chihiro sometimes eats meat at lunch. When the boiler on their new house fails and they have a repairman come, Chihiro stands in the doorway as he works and looks carefully for any small movement, for any puff of fuzzy black that might be out of place. There’s only dust.
When Chihiro joins all the other kids to go swimming in the river near town during the summer, she keeps her eyes wide for any flash of undulating scales, for any murmur of water that could be words, or soft, slick algae that might be hair. The river is empty besides some for fish and the splashing of the other kids. When she speaks to the river, under the water so no one else can hear, nothing responds. Chihiro doesn’t go back to the river after that summer. She has cram school and school projects and friends and then a move on her own for a decent high school and her first part time job. Chihiro can’t list her time at the bathhouse in applications at any rate.
Chihiro visits her parents before she goes to college. The house hasn’t changed much, but her parents are finally seeming settled and happy where they are. Her mother packs a vegetarian bento and her father gives her an electric teakettle. Chihiro’s used to moving by now. She gets on the train with two suitcases and the cardboard box of the teakettle awkwardly balanced on top. She reaches back to touch the cord around her ponytail as the train doors close.
She’s an hour from her destination when the passenger gets on. The tall column of shadow nods politely to Chihiro as it glides past. Chihiro is too startled to react and stares after it long enough to be impolite. Quickly averting her eyes, she watches as scenery whips by out the train windows. A jerk to the train car has her snatching the teakettle before it can hit the floor. She hugs it close as she lets the feeling of possibility surge up within her.
Chihiro has an apartment in a complex with a bunch of other students and the vending machine out front caries the kind of peach tea she likes. She joins the origami and paperfolding club and the occult club, who take weekend trips to haunted places and share recommendations for books about spirits. They mostly don’t really believe that they’ll find what they’re looking for. Nothing looks odd to Chihiro at any of the “haunted” places they go.
She still doesn’t share specifics about that summer, but she tells classmates detail-less anecdotes about the summer she worked cleaning a bathhouse. It’s not too strange, there’s a boy in her English seminar who commiserates about calluses that don’t seem to go away since he helps with the bathhouse his parents run. They trade stories of their oddest clients and experiences. Eventually it no longer seems strange to just talk about those at the bathhouse as just people, obscured under the lack of specific detail in general stories.
Perhaps the more Chihiro looks the more she notices, because where once her campus and the streets around it were only full of students and ordinary shops, she now catches a scuttling woman with an absurdly long neck ducking into a bar Chihiro’s never noticed before. Another afternoon floating gossamer hairs waft by her lecture hall window and she has to lean over to peer up into the sky to glimpse where a serene face is gracefully floating past, just above the roofline. Chihiro doesn’t forget. The more she looks, the more she shares about it, even with so much left out, the more she sees.
A week later, Chihiro retraces her steps past a Mr. Donut, a combini, a coffee roasters and cafe, and a few restaurants looking for the awning she’d glimpsed the long-necked woman going into. At first she can’t find it. She walks slowly back up the street, scrutinizing each shop front. A child in the Mr. Donut stares at her as she slowly walks by. At the combini she turns around and does it again. She is so sure, but each store is wrong.
Soon it’s gotten dark enough that streetlights have come on and all the shops are lit up with welcoming signs and bright windows. Chihiro closes her eyes with a sigh as she thinks about heading for home. Stopping under the brighter pool of a streetlight, she gives the street one last look up and down. The bar is there.
There’s the tinkle of a glass bell that flutters when she enters, even though it’s no longer summer. The inside seems wider than the shop front should allow, it's dimly lit with air wafting the tang of alcohol like an invitation to regular patrons. The old wood and scuffs on the worn chairs and floor make it feel like it should be familiar, a place that never changes. It seems like Chihiro should be able to see the outlines of the patrons who might typically line the bar just by their repeated impressions left on the space, even though there are no guests present Chihiro can see. The bartender looks up from behind the counter and squints at Chihiro from behind his glasses. He could be Kamiji’s older brother for the number of arms he has cleaning glasses, though his hair is pure white and solely on his the top of his head and filling his bushy eyebrows so they grow long at the edges trailing down to curl just below the corners of his eyes. There is no moustache in sight.
“Are you here about the job?” he asks.
“The job?” Chihiro echoes, slowly approaching the bar. She feels young, like her legs should be trembling, like the room should be growing around her. The man’s bushy eyebrows furrow.
“You don’t see any wait staff do you? How else did you find us? You’ve worked somewhere like this before. Do you have a referral?”
One of the long slender arms extends as if waiting for Chihiro to place something in his palm. Chihiro holds out empty hands to show that she doesn’t have a reference letter, and can’t quite figure out how to explain why she’s here. The spindly fingers drag across her palm as if snatching something away. Chihiro’s heart clenches and she compulsively closes her palm cradling it to her chest. She still knows her name. The man inspects the tips of his fingers.
“Well, that’s quite a reference. You’re hired.”
Chihiro gets a second job because working for Nomiyaji doesn’t pay currency she can use to buy food or pay for her apartment. She sees the occult club less and completely drops out of paperfolding, leaving goldfish and dragons and a march of paper cranes proceeding across the windowsill in her neglected apartment. She goes home just enough to sleep and study splitting time between class, smiling at customers as she rings them up at the green grocer, and the wee hours of the morning when Nomiyaji’s place is fullest and she learns to catch the sloshing drinks Nomiyaji slings across the wide wood counter, and to balance precarious stacks of plates and trays that appear with the sharp squeak of the hinge as the rotating drum that connects the bar front to the kitchen spits out food.
The green grocer gives Chihiro the oldest vegetables a few times a week. Chihiro takes some of them home and some of them to the bar. It’s the only time she ever spins the drum to the kitchen herself, and she only ever does it once a night at the beginning of her shift. When she talks to her grocer co-worker about the bar, they start giving her their share of vegetables.
“They’re almost bad anyways, no person could really eat them fast enough. This way I don’t have to throw out as much.” Chihiro doesn’t mention that for some reason the vegetables she keeps never seem to go bad. She still doesn’t know what to think about it when some of her regular customers, the old ladies who squint at receipts and like to pat her hand and call her dear, start waiting until her register is open specifically.
“You have a special touch,” one grandmother tells her. “Only the best vegetables for my grandson and you take such good care of them. All love and diligence transfer to the food, even a grocery store clerk’s.” Chihiro continues to carefully pack the grandmother’s plastic bag, arranging the apples so they wont bruise. Chihiro tells her to have a nice day.
When Chihiro brings groceries to the restaurant the kitchen always makes her a meal at the end of the night. The meals are always the perfect size, no matter how hungry Chihiro is or isn’t. She gets the feeling that kitchen appreciates the bounty.
Nomiyaji only eats food he makes himself. It’s the same thing every night as soon as they close. Chihiro wipes down the tables, sets the chairs on them, and sweeps the floor while Nomiyaji skins and fillets his fish and spoons out rice from the cooker secreted somewhere under the counter. He keeps a special dipping sauce in an old ceramic gourd-shapped bottle with an old-fashioned cork that also lives somewhere beneath the bar. He always offers a piece to Chihiro. After the first few months she accepts and adds it to whatever plate the kitchen has shrieked out. The squeak of the drum is always worst at the end of the night. Chihiro has tried to oil it, but that seems to do nothing. She never says anything about what she would like to eat, but whatever the kitchen makes is always exactly what she wanted, sometimes when even she didn’t know. It’s never something from the menu of what’s available for guests of the bar.
She goes home for winter break with a specially packed bento from the kitchen. The train ride is easy and she’s only carrying the one small bag so she doesn’t have to keep track of anything this time. Her parents take her out to eat at her mother’s favorite vegetarian restaurant and they play board games and watch movies in the evenings. She hasn’t been away long, but her room at home still feels like it’s waiting for her to come back, even when she’s sleeping there. Her father goes with her to the mall and they buy a new winter coat. At new years their whole family goes to the shrine. It’s packed as usual, but Chihiro doesn’t run into anyone she knows. The sky is clear and cold and bright with stars. She holds her mother’s hand as they walk home.
Chihiro’s mother takes Chihiro to a make up counter and they spend the afternoon together as the woman with flawless skin and expertly curved eyebrows helps Chihiro try on what seems like every color. They leave with a small bag tucked over Chihiro’s mother’s arm and more make up than Chihiro really thinks she needs. The trip to rent a furisode is easier, if no less colorful. The place is reasonably full with other mother’s and daughters searching together for the right rental. Chihiro does run into some old classmates, girls she remembers playing in the band performances. She feels bad at first for not remembering names, but when it turns out none of them remember hers either they all laugh about it.
“Are you sure you don’t want flowers?” Her mother asks when the shop is far less full. She seems somewhat dejected, but at least not disappointed as much as confused.
“I like the dragons, besides, blue suits me.”
“Well, you’ll want to do something else with your hair than that ponytail, though that cord is very lovely, we can probably still use it.” She brushes gentle fingers over Chihiro’s hair.
On the second to last day of her visit to her parents, Chihiro wakes awfuly early to meet with a hairdresser her mother selects. She’s home and bleary eyed in time for her mother to help her into the furisode. Once Chihiro’s finally put together, her mother takes so many pictures Chihiro’s afraid they’re going to be late.
Chihiro’s layers of fabric and faux fir stole fight back the cold well enough at the outdoor ceremony. She can’t see her parents, in their scarves and mittens, through all the people. When the crowd starts to disperse, and they find each other again, Chihiro’s father places a small jewelry box in her palm. Chihiro can’t control the tears that well up in her eyes when she opens it to find an exquisitely crafted gold dragon on a slender gold chain. Her mother beams and flicks tears off her own mascara’d lashes before she helps Chihiro set the clasp in place.
“We thought you might like it,” Chihiro’s mother murmurs, “though we bought it before you insisted on that kimono. Some things are meant to be I suppose.” She reaches out to squeeze Chihiro’s hand.
For her third trimester Chihiro signs up for two more courses from the German department. It’s hard to keep on top of homework when she still feels like she’s learning all the nuances of the bar or the green grocer, but Chihiro likes the professors in that department best of the classes she’s taken so far.
The afternoon Chihiro gets her father’s phone call about her mother’s heart attack she calls in sick to the grocer, and goes straight to the bar. Nomiyaji isn’t there and the whole place is dark and quiet. Chihiro uses the key she has to lock up after late nights studying at the bar after Nomiyaji leaves. She doesn’t turn on any of the lights and sets up a stool for herself so she can lay her head down on the wood. She’s not sure how long she’s had her eyes closed when there’s a quiet, tentative squeak from the kitchen drum. Chihiro lifts her head and walks around the dim bar to stand over a bowl so familiar and nostalgic that it could have been made by Chihiro’s mother herself.
Chihiro sits on the floor and cries, leaning against the wall beneath the kitchen drum for a long while before she can bring herself to stand and eat. She feels better after that, and she gets out her cellphone so that she can buy train tickets. She puts the empty bowl back in the drum and gently spins it, letting her fingers caress along the warped metal. The chopsticks she leaves laying on a note to Nomiyaji telling him she’ll be gone a few days.
Chihiro misses two weeks of class. Chihiro has to work extra at the grocer to make up for it, but her boss is kind when Chihiro breaks down crying when she asks Chihiro about it. The woman quickly ushers her into the back room and brings her a tissue box. She leaves Chihiro to sit there, in the quiet of the strange office. The courtesy makes her feel a little protected in a way she hadn’t expected. Her employer doesn’t say anything about it afterwards, but Chihiro notices that the hours remaining that she has to make up because of her un-pre-approved absence are much less the next day.
Nomiyaji is long gone from behind the bar and the food from the kitchen has gone cold by the time Chihiro finishes her overly thorough cleaning each night. Then Chihiro starts sleeping beside the bar, curled up in her winter coat because she doesn’t want to go back to her apartment. She sets an alarm on her phone and notices that even though it was on silent she hasn’t missed any calls or texts from her father.
Chihiro has only ever had one set of grandparents, the other died when she was too young to really remember them. Her grandparents send her cards at the New Year, but they hadn’t spoken to her father since that summer they were “lost in the mountains”. They’ve always blamed him for getting them all lost. After the funeral, Chihiro had helped her father move them into his empty house. With Chihro’s mother gone, there’s no reason for him to stay alone. She’s certain her father doesn’t know what to do with the kind smiles and words about a nice man moving past his grief to help his wife’s aging parents that flutter after him. Chihiro isn’t really sure who will be taking care of who, but she’s fairly certain that scrubbing all the moldings and working the kitchen floor back to a clear shine are not enough to offer. She should have done more when she visited during the break, should have held her mother’s hand longer, or done a better job cleaning the house. Chihiro doubts anyone else will notice the infestation of talkative birds with feathers like glassnoodles that had made thorough nesting space of the uppermost shelf of the closet. They’d all greeted Chihiro so cheerfully she hadn’t been able to make herself evict them.
Chihiro trudges to campus through snow the next day, it’s closer to the bar than she expected, or maybe she’s never walked this particular route before. She’d put her head down against the blowing snow and looked up to find herself at the campus a short while later. Half her German class doesn’t show up and their professor jokes that all the students present will probably be German majors if they braved a blizzard to get to class. Chihiro’s second class of the day is canceled because the professor didn’t come in through the snow. A herd of students stand dripping slightly in the lobby, puddles of melted snow and bright red cheeks as they groan and laugh and stare out the glass doors to the indistinguishably gray sky.
“I can’t believe its still going.”
“I can’t believe it’s supposed to be spring.”
Another student darts in out of the cold with a tray of hot drinks and their friends whoops and hollers. The drink bearer is dusted in snow and stamping feet on the floor, whether to shake off clumps of snow, or to get some warmth back, Chihiro can’t tell. She pulls her hat more firmly down over her ears, even though it presses her ponytail against her head. She slips out into the snow.
There’s a text on her phone that came in during class canceling all grocer shifts. The cold bites at her face and fingers before she jams her hands into her pockets. She squints her eyes against the snow and wind, and picks up to a run to keep some warmth in her legs and toes. Her apartment shouldn’t be this far, and she’s beginning to be worried that she’s gotten lost. Streetlights are an indistinct blur and all the buildings with darkened windows down the street when suddenly there’s a blast of heat against the side of her face.
She skids to a stop, her calves prickling with pain from overuse working against the deepening powder of the snow. The door to Nomiyaji’s bar is wide open on the far side of the street, the awning stretched out toward her and light pouring out like a golden carpet over the snow to butt up against her sodden shoes. A cluster of people of all shapes and sizes stand just to the side of the awning, arms, mouths, and other appendages open and raised to the sky. They laugh and warble amongst themselves, not sounding terribly different than the students. One of them looks up to see Chihiro and waves enthusiastically.
“It’s about time you get here!” they boom beckoning Chihiro over in a ripple of whiskers. Chihiro doesn’t know the right name because customers pay in coin or trade and don’t always share their names, but she’s seen them at least once a week since she started working with Nomiyaji. Chihiro smiles and darts across the street.
Closer to the fogged windows she can see that the bar is the most packed she’s ever seen. Every chair and table is taken and some people are standing to lean against the walls or standing around tables behind those with seats. There’s a fireplace Chihiro has never seen in the bar before and some cushier chairs, patched corduroy and worn leather with curling arms like she’s seen at the coffee shop near campus that brews it’s own coffee and serves it in mason jars with handles.
Nomiyaji spots Chihiro through the window and waves her in with most of his arms. She hurries down the somewhat longer than expected hallway separating the entry from the bar proper. A row of medium height duckbilled customers move aside to let her pass. Into the bar proper she weave through the crowd towards the bar. Many patrons know greet her by name in friendly voices as she goes. She’s never seen all of them together at the same time.
“Such a storm!” Nomiyaji is saying gleefully when Chihiro is in earshot. “So many visitors! Chihiro,” he calls as soon he spots her coming alongside the bar. “Excellent, if this keeps up we’ll all be here a few days. The kitchen likes you better. It’s stopped completing food orders with the overload and I don’t have the time or the tongue to sweet talk.” Nomiyaji flourishes his arms and their variously held bottles and glasses for the multiple drinks he is simultaneously concocting.
Chihiro has seen him make this kind of performance before, but only as a performance. In the warm bar lighting she can see sweat trickling down from the longer strands of his eyebrows to his cheeks. “What a day! What a night! Hurry up, Chihiro.”
Chihiro weaves back through all the guests to reach the kitchen drum. It’s firmly closed shut. She gently taps it with a finger.
“Excuse me?” Chihiro asks after there’s silence from beyond the wall. “I know this is a lot of pressure and we’re all going to be very busy with this many customers, but I’m going to do my best, it would be really wonderful if you could help me? Or if you let me know how I can help you…”
After a few more moments of silence the kitchen drum reluctantly creaks around to reveal a very small bowl of toasted baby sardines in a sweet soy sauce glaze dotted with sesame seeds. Chihiro smiles and cups the bowl in her palm using the provided chopsticks to eat it. They crunch satisfyingly, savory and but still a little sweet.
“Thank you.” Chihiro says, returning the now empty bowl. She feels fortified; the kitchen’s food always settles her. “I’m sure our guests would appreciate your skills just as much, as out of place as they all seem to be from the storm.”
The kitchen drum whirls around, metal side back towards her, but the spin is quick and smooth. It’s back a moment later with a multi-tiered stack of dishes.
“You’re wonderful.” Chihiro loads her arms full and turns to face the tables.
Chihiro is run off her feet by halfway through the night. She’s almost too busy to keep track of greeting new guests as the chime above the door tinkles. The door stands open but it still only rings as each new guest crosses the threshold. Chihiro started the afternoon far earlier than the bar is typically open, it had been full then, but customers keep arriving as the muted outside world collects into drifts against the streetlights. Chihiro has never seen this much snow, not at this time of year. The later the evening goes the more bedraggled the new customers are. They come in shivering and wet. Chihiro starts taking time from her endless rounds of food and drinks to bring hot dry towels to the foyer. The space has grown wider to accommodate the numbers of outdoor garments and shoes. Given the slowly growing river of water flowing out from under the shoe rack to freeze in a slick ice rink outside, just to the right of the entrance, Chihiro appreciates the courtesy.
The guests who have been there longest have been getting louder as the hours go past. The room is busier than any feast at the bathhouse and Chihiro worries vaguely that the drunken revelry will end in broken furniture. She’s bringing another round of drinks to one of the booths closest to the front windows when she feels a tug on her hair. Without conscious thought Chihiro whips around, slapping one hand back against whatever has grabbed towards her ponytail and nearly loosing the one remaining drink she’s holding.
“Don’t!” says the creaky voice of one of the duckbilled people, eyeing Chihiro cautiously as it continues to it’s partner without lowering it’s voice “You know, that cord is magic, it’s what keeps her bound looking like a human.”
“Oh dear, I’m really sorry.” the other hurries, “it’s just so shiny.” It looks up at Chihiro cautiously and offering the embarrassed compliment, “and you have nice hair.”
Chihiro’s fingers trace the line of the cord, rough and familiar beneath her fingers. She fumbles behind herself to put the last glass on the table. Somehow she doesn’t miss.
When she makes it back to the kitchen drum she leans her head against its smooth, cold surface. After a moment it starts moving slowly, almost apologetic as it spins around to provide another round of bar snacks Chihiro is pretty sure is for the table of rainbow colors who’s edges have been blending more and more together with each new set of tiny snacks she brings them. The last time she’d went by they’d started sparkling so much that she could no longer make out any faces in particular. She turns away with the tray but the drum squeals again behind her. She looks back to find a small sugar tea sweet in the shape of a rabbit.
“Thank you,” Chihiro says and pops it in her mouth. Her feet are still sore and she’s wondering if the bar will ever close, but she squares her shoulders and wades back into the crowd.
“I might run out of alcohol,” Nomiyaji says when she next stops by the bar. “It hasn’t been like this since just before I first took over the bar.”
Chihiro takes the lull in Nomiyaji’s drink making caused by his search for more unopened bottles under his counter by flopping her head and arms forward across the sticky bar top. One of Nomiyaji’s hands pats her head.
“I thought when you arrived I might be retiring soon, you’re certainly proving me right, Chihiro. Wonderful job. We’ll start training you to mix drinks almost as well as I can when the snow melts.”
“She’ll need more arms!” one of the very drunk radish spirit guffaws next to her. He looks very odd without his red hat.
Nomiyaji shrugs one of his shoulders. “Odd for me to say it, but arms aren’t everything. I know promise when I see it, and she’s certainly proving herself tonight. I’ve never seen the kitchen be so accommodating to this many people. You’ve done a good job stocking it. It’s probably why so many have come here.”
“There were some very sad and confused folks hanging out side that green grocer, so you’re probably right,” the radish spirit chuckles.
Chihiro leans her cheek against the back of her palm. She doesn’t want to check her phone to see what time it is, but the old clock on the back wall above the shelves of bottles has always been wrong. She fishes it out of her jeans pocket. She’s not even appropriately dressed for work and she’s pretty certain she couldn’t locate her winter coat under the pile of outerwear of so many people if she even wanted to leave. Her phone tells her it’s past three am.
“Where is everyone going to go?” she asks. Nomiyaji comes up from under the bar with two old barrels. The lights wink off his glasses as he ushers her aside so he can tap the new barrel. Chihiro moves a few inches, but she’s still close enough that when the liquid starts flowing a few inches from her face the scent gives her a head rush.
“Most of them will stay here. They know we’re closing so they’ll let up a bit, but they’ll sleep it off where they are. We might even have some help cleaning up when the rest of the crowd leaves, eh?” He raises one damply drooping eyebrow at the radish spirit. It rocks side to side noncommittally with quiet grunt but doesn’t directly object.
“You can sleep here, behind the bar. The kitchen will throw a fuss if no one’s minding the place with this many people in it, but I’m too old a man to sleep down here.” As if that settles something, Nomiyaji slides the new drinks he’s poured down the bar to where a cluster of spirits are waiting “Serve these out for me!” he orders sternly and after a moment they flutter to do as they’re told. With his other hands he starts opening his rice cooker and pulling out his nightly fish. “Why don’t you go see what the kitchen has for you before you come back here.” Chihiro nods dumbly. She’s never been behind the bar. As far as she can tell she’d need to climb over it to get behind it. There’s a door within the space enclosed off for Nomiyaji behind the bar that presumably goes to wherever Nomiyaji lives or sleeps, but she’s never seen him anywhere but behind the bar. Chihiro isn’t fully certain how customers were served before she came.
The kitchen drum looks as tired as she feels as it spins one last time for her. There’s a cup of hot cocoa in a white ceramic mug patterned with blue blossoms falling onto a blue river. It’s the first drink the kitchen has ever provided. Chihiro leans for a minute to savor the froth of the drink.
“You’re really kind, you know.” She says. The drum does a creaking quarter turn but doesn’t reopen, even after she’s finished the cocoa. Chihiro takes the cup back to the bar with her. If Nomiyaji notices it he doesn’t say. He extends to arms hands out just in front of Chihiro’s shoulders like someone reaching down to pick up a toddler. Uncertainly and still clutching the mug, Chihiro raises her arms. Nomiyaji picks her up off the floor and swings her over behind the bar.
“Wait here just a moment,” he says, having placed her on her feet. Chihiro stands very still, looking out over the slowly dwindling movement of the bar proper. The rainbow colors are all pooled in intermingling swirls over the table. The duckbilled guests have all crammed in together on one side of a booth, fluffed up close and leaning against each other with closed eyes. The radish spirit stares at Chihiro for a long awkward moment before sliding sideways off his chair and onto the floor. Chihiro isn’t precisely sure, but she thinks he’s laying down to sleep, not just going over in a faint.
Nomiyaji comes back with a bedroll and two pillows. He brings a battered teakettle and a small coal burning stove that smells achingly familiar. He rolls the bedding out on one end of the space and places the teakettle towards the other.
“If you need to relieve yourself you can come through the door and go straight to your right, you don’t have to leave from behind the bar. If anyone does anything too rowdy just yell at them. They’ll hear you from back here. I’m leaving it in your care so they’ll pay attention to you. The doors are all shut for the night. Anyone who needs shelter can still come in but they’ll know to see to themselves at this hour. You don’t have to kick them all out in the morning first thing but we’re not offering breakfast.” He raises his voice to direct his last comment to the bar at large, though he’s still looking at Chihiro, “Anyone who wants anything more will be working for it tomorrow, we’re closed.”
There’s a general murmur of understanding, and a few snores. Nomiyaji claps a hand on Chihiro’s shoulders.
“You’ll be alright?” he asks, though it almost doesn’t sound like a question.
“I’ll be fine.” Chihiro agrees.
She normally takes her ponytail out when she goes to bed. For some reason, tonight she leaves it in.
Chihiro didn’t think she could fall asleep, but she wakes from a dream of swimming in a river as a child to the soft chime of the threshold bell. Half asleep she clambers upright above the counter with an automatic welcome on her lips. A beautifully familiar face is standing just within the hallway, not quite into the bar proper. His hair falls dark and straight, his eyes are so green she can see that even in the half-light of streetlights filtered through snow. His cheeks are flushed with cold and his arms are wrapped tightly around himself.
“Would you like a hot towel?” Chihiro asks, unable to come up with anything better. She reaches blindly beneath the counter and her fingers close over soft warm fabric. What she actually hands over is a blanket, but she figures it will do. He drifts slowly towards the bar, almost disbelieving as he takes the striped fabric from her hand. His fingers carefully do not touch her own. He wraps the warm blanket around his shoulders.
Looking past him the rest of the room seems to have remained asleep.
“I’m sorry, the kitchen is currently closed.” Chihiro whispers, eyes tracking the water melting off his bangs and dripping into his eyes. “But…I think I still have some rice?”
She flicks her glance away to check Nomiyaji’s rice maker, hoping he won’t mind her offer. This seems like it could be a special circumstance.
“Rice would be good,” he says softly, careful not to disturb the quiet. He perches on a bar stool while she searches for clean bowls and chopsticks. She paddles out a small amount of rice for them both, careful to leave a bit in the bottom of the ricemaker like Nomiyaji always does.
“We’re mostly out of drinks too,” she murmurs, fingers tapping over bottles as she goes, “technically we’re not open, but it’s fine for everyone to be here, because of the storm.”
He nods acknowledgement watching her silently. She can’t read his expression yet; as serious and calm as when they first met.
“Do you, ah, want something to drink?” She fishes up a bottle that still seems to be half full. It’s one of the older unlabeled ones, glass gone murky-dark whether from dirt, use, age, or the liquid inside.
“Please,” he says.
Chihiro pours into two teacups. The smell is syrup-thick and fruity but the color reminds her of tea. It’s almost like the cup seems to warm in her hand from the liquid as she pours, ceramic comforting to a chilled palm. The bottle is still cool to the touch when she replaces it under the counter. He cups the teacup in both ands and breathes from it deeply with closed eyes before taking a sip.
Chihiro nods, unsure quite how to respond. She takes a gulp of her own drink. It warms her throat almost like the cocoa, though the taste has a tang like summer and humidity, rather than the something to brace against a winter’s chill.
“Do you…live near here?” Chihiro asks hesitantly.
“Oh, no. I was traveling. My path sometimes swings over this area, but there were too many of us near here so I was knocked down and decided to take a rest,” he shrugs. “They’ll sort themselves out by morning and everyone will be back on their way. I’m sorry for all the snow.”
“Snow?” Chihiro asks, leaning forward across the bar so there’s less space to be quiet between.
“Taikikawa, a lot of them –us don’t like running into each other.”
“Atmospheric Rivers…like the jet stream?”
He laughs softly, “Well, that’s not me, but like that.”
“I…” Chihiro leans slightly closer, still careful not to edge too far into his space, and lowers her voice. “I thought you had your own river, weren’t you going to find it?”
“The place I loved, who I was, that was gone. I couldn’t fit back in. I’m better in the sky than under the ground. If I’m not holding it, the river will fade away, but I don’t think anyone will notice. With the way you humans are changing the world there are some new places for us. I guess I was called to a place I could make my own. It’s not too terribly different from being a river running over the ground.”
“I’m sorry.” Chihiro shifts back to her side of the bar.
“Don’t be.” Haku shakes his head. “There wasn’t anything you could do.”
They fall into silence for several long moments. They crawl over Chihiro’s skin like ants and she finds herself blurting,
“I went back, to find you.” At the same time he says, “I looked for you.” They stare at each other.
“I went back,” Chihiro’s voice is a whisper, “to the Kohaku River, where it was. I thought…maybe you would be there and even if I couldn’t see you it would mean you could come find me. I was only there a few hours though, when, when my mom went to stay with some friends near where I grew up. I wasn’t even invited to go with her but I told her I wouldn’t make trouble.”
“I wasn’t there. I would remember you if I was, even if you couldn’t see me. I thought, maybe from the sky I could find you. It’s a long way down, I suppose I stopped noticing after a while.”
“Until this storm.”
“Until this storm,” he agrees.
“…Are you still the Kohaku River? Or do I call you…?”
He smiles at her. “Check your satellite weather.”
Chihiro fumbles her phone out of her pocket, their city is covered in three thick bands of color magenta and amber and teal.
“Kohaku River…” Chihiro whispers. When she looks up it’s harder to see his face because of her tears, but she can see that he’s grinning. He reaches one slender hand across the bar and Chihiro holds it tightly in both of her own as she cries.
In the morning Chihiro orders the overnight guests to clean up after themselves, at least a little. Grudgingly they gather belongings, wipe down sticky tables, and sweep soil, little rocks, and an assortment of flower petals into a surprisingly large pile. Chihiro hands each guest the thin porridge that seems to be all the kitchen is willing to produce. The bowls note that they are 100% compostable on their undersides and Chihiro has no idea where they came from.
As the hours pass, the customers dwindle until the front door has remained closed for more than twenty minutes and the sun reflecting off the snow fills the whole bar brighter than it’s ever been lit with regular afternoon light. Haku waits off to the side of the bar, counting out the various coin and gifts the guests have deposited as they left. After a moment of thinking about it, Chihiro gives up and uses her arms to hop her butt up onto the bar so she can swing over to the other side. Her feet land solidly on the floor, but something shakes her balance loose and she has to windmill her arms to stay upright.
Undeterred, she rolls up her sleeves and twirls her ponytail into a bun, punching it into place with broken, unused chopstick. The washroom available to guests doesn’t look as bad as the worst she’d seen at the bathhouse, but it isn’t pretty.
“I have work to do,” Chihiro tells Haku, “will you still be here when I’m done.”
Haku looks out at the sky, “A few more hours. I’ll need to leave at sunset.”
“I’ll be done before then,” Chihiro promises.
The corners of her sleeves are wet and there’s sweat down the back of her neck and pooling against her bra by the time she’s done, but the bathroom is sparkling. The bar floor back to a nice shine and none of the leather in the booths is sticky. She takes a final moment to clean the front windows of all the smudges from various hands and appendages writing in the fog or rubbing it aside to peer out.
“Is this all…yours?” Haku asks uncertainly, open palms encompassing the bar proper by gesture.
“Ha! Not yet,” Nomiyaji barks and Haku jumps.
Chihiro hadn’t seen Nomiyaji come in.
“Would you like a drink, son?” Nomiyaji asks, his hands already taking bottles down. “It seems like we all deserve a celebration for making it through that. She’ll be a good barkeep one day, but give her a few years. You planning to stay, boy?”
“Nomiyaji!” Chihiro protests.
“An old man likes to know these things.” Nomiyaji takes a sip of the drink he’s poured and smacks his lips ostentatiously. “Not bad,” he holds it out to Haku.
Haku takes the glass and drains it without looking away from Nomiyaji’s face. Nomiyaji’s lips split into a wide grin showing several missing teeth. His eyebrows raise with his smile the bushy hairs themselves seeming to lift a bit.
“I like him, Chihiro.”
“Thank you,” Chihiro snaps, striding towards the bar and picking up the second glass Nomiyaji poured with his other hands to slam it back. She has to wheeze through her nose and her eyes squint shut but she doesn’t cough.
Nomiyaji’s hand claps her on the shoulder. “First you’re going to learn the currency, so stop dawdling and get back here. I think it’s time for your whippersnapper to leave.” Chihiro looks over her shoulder to the pink reflection of sunset on the snow.
“I know where you are now.” Haku promises, “I’ll be back.”
He flows out the door in swift a ripple of wind she remembers from the giggling shouts of bathhouse ladies on the bridge.
“Chihiro,” Nomiyaji’s call for her attention is gentler than she expected. He gestures to the far side of the bar, near the kitchen. There are hinges in the wood there, just human sized for it to swing open and let her pass. “If you’re going to do as well as I have, you need to remember you need to know money before you know drinks.”
The snow melts in less than a day and the streets, and a few campus buildings, flood. Chihiro goes back to her apartment and packs up what things she’ll need for the next few months. She doesn’t need to get the rest until her lease ends in late summer. She doesn’t go home for spring vacation and her father doesn’t press her when she talks about her jobs and how busy the last few weeks of school were because of the snowstorm. He doesn’t say much on the phone at all.
Her employer at the green grocer calls her into her office to tell Chihiro that if she continues performing so well, she’ll get a promotion to manager when they hire extra help for the summer. Chihiro doesn’t point out that there’s never been a manager before, just the clerks and her employer in the back office.
“My wife is expecting, and I’ve always thought it was important for both parents to be there for their child.” Chihiro’s boss scrutinizes Chihiro’s face.
After a moment Chihiro nods, “Okay,” she shrugs, “That’s very nice, and I’m happy to help as a manager here. Thank you.”
Her boss waits an extra few minutes in an increasingly tense silence Chihiro doesn’t know what to do with. Finally she sighs. “You’re a good girl, Chihiro.” With a gesture she dismisses Chihiro from the room.
Two weeks later Chihiro finds out she didn’t get accepted to the German abroad program. Her German professor takes her aside to tell her how strong a candidate she was and that she should apply again next year. He says that the program likes Juniors and rarely gives Sophomores honest consideration, that Chihiro is lucky she got as far in their evaluation process as she had. Chihiro isn’t certain the professor believes her when she tries to explain she’s not actually upset about it.
She comes into the green grocer what seems unreasonably early to meet with her boss and learn how to use the ancient scheduling system and the special trick to jiggling the plug on one of the cooler units to stop it when it starts making that weird clicking noise. She learns about the ordering forms and sits in on phone calls between her employer and the farms they source from.
“Chihiro will be working with you starting this summer,” her boss says with a smile.
Chihiro goes from the grocer to the bar where she still runs food from the kitchen, but now also takes over the bar in the mid evening so Nomiyaji can take a break. She buys a chalkboard and fills it with her careful writing to sit on a shelf behind the bar with a clear list of what drinks are available when Chihiro is the one mixing. She doesn’t get every order right but the customers are patient. The radish spirit starts coming every night. He orders a different drink from her menu each time. She never sees him actually drink it but the glass is always empty when he leaves and he smiles and nods to her whenever he thumps off his chair.
With the summer comes rain. On the first day of truly heavy rain one of the bar regulars says, “Not the usual, make me something special.”
Chihiro steps back to let Nomiyaji handle that; they’re both working together behind the bar, as the night is a little busier with the first summer rain.
“No, her,” the customer says. The corner of Nomiyaji’s smile grows wider.
Chihiro swallows and looks over the customer. His eyes close with his smile, teeth sharp in his thin fox-like face. His expression doesn’t change as Chihiro studies him.
It’s like finding the right vegetables for the old ladies who claim they need her help with their shopping. She lets her fingers feel the bottles, papery or slick, labeled or no label at all, glass or ceramic or wood, something that feels strangely like bone in the way it sucks moisture off her fingertips. She finds the right ones and Nomiyaji hands her a glass.
She does not look at the customer as she fills the glass, carefully pouring her selections so that her hand doesn’t slip. The liquor is citrus yellow with one pour and shades to rust with another. She stirs and a light froth follows the swirl of her long handled metal spoon. When she raises the glass to catch the light the slender bow of it’s arching curve shows the liquid spinning with flashes and flecks as if dusted with gold. She passes it to the customer. He doesn’t open his eyes when he takes a sip, but he stops smiling. He puts the glass down with the softest clink against the wood.
“Well done.” He says and gives Chihiro an oddly formal bow before collecting his drink and meandering over to a table in the corner.
Chihiro is tired every day, poor sleep on the floor behind the bar where she crashes late each night after they’ve finally cleared out the customers and wakes early each morning to reach the grocer in time. She’s taken to doing her German translation between drink requests, taking over a space that could have been for a customer with all of her homework. They’ve restricted the hours food is served so Chihiro isn’t completely pathetic by the end of the night. If it weren’t for the kitchen, Chihiro is fairly certain she’d never manage to actually feed herself. She’s beginning to understand the wisdom of Nomiyaji’s rice and fish.
She seeks out the weather reports when she can. Chihiro has a hard time staying focused during class, vision distracted by the typhoon warnings with their amber streak across the satellite map. The old ladies titter and ask if she’ll be going on a special date, given she’s daydreaming so much.
“I remember when my husband and I first went on a date,” one grandmother muses. She smiles at Chihiro, “Have fun dear, you don’t stay young forever.”
Partway through the night the sky opens up and rain howls down the street. There are only a few people at the bar. Nomiyaji had taken one look at the sky earlier and harrumphed to himself. “You don’t get to leave early when you’re the barkeep,” he’d chided. “I promise I won’t.” Chihiro had agreed. She almost wishes she hadn’t when the door blows open and she sees Haku, drenched and smiling.
“Would you like a towel?” Chihiro asks.
“I would love one.”
When she presses it into his hand, his fingers close against her own.
“The kitchen’s still open this time. Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten yet.”
“That would be wonderful,” Haku answers.
The kitchen adds two chocolate truffles to the tray with their meal and Chihiro doesn’t suppress her huff of laughter.
“Glad you approve,” she taps her knuckles against the drum as it swings silently closed.
Chihiro announces that she’ll be taking a break so anyone wanting another drink should order now. Most of the customers wave her off and a few give her knowing looks, but only one orders a second beer. It’s a label that Chihiro has seen in the one vending machine that sells beer near campus.
She and Haku sit across from each other in a booth. Chihiro surreptitiously toes off her shoes under the table to rest her aching feet out of their confines. At first they don’t say much and focus on eating.
“This is really good,” Haku breaks the silence when her bowl is halfway empty.
“The kitchen and I get along well.”
“I think maybe everyone gets along with you these days,” Haku observes and Chihiro shrugs.
“Being an atmospheric river will you always be soaked when you arrive now?”
“It is odd that I was drier as a ground river. I think perhaps it is that I am still learning.”
“Will there be flooding tonight?”
Haku shrugs. “Probably. But you won’t have a problem here.”
Chihiro takes another bite, Haku’s foot brushes her own. Chihiro wonders if he took off his shoes at the door or if they’re in a pile under the table with her own.
“So you’re going to school?” he asks.
“I am. I’m probably focusing in German, I could do translation work freelance someday. I can work from the bar that way.”
“Will you need another job?”
Chihiro laughs. “I already have two, but Nomiyaji’s doesn’t pay in a way I can use in my world.”
Haku thinks about that for a while.
“This is your world too.” It’s a statement not a question. Chihiro raises and drops one shoulder. “You’ll need to call it something else, when it isn’t Nomiyaji’s anymore.”
“Well, I’ve never put my name on something like this before, so I’m not sure how I feel about that. But I guess I do have to think about it.”
“You probably have time.”
“So…where are you staying, are you leaving tonight?”
Haku shakes his head, ducking forward a bit so the curtain of his hair hides his face.
“I think I probably have to leave just after sunrise.”
“There isn’t really anywhere to sleep here, and you might want to rest while you’re down on the ground? Would you want to stay at my apartment?”
“I thought you lived here?”
“I do mostly, but I have a bed, and a comfy chair. The chair is probably nicer than the bar floor honestly, I can sleep there.” Chihiro pauses and corrects, “Or, well, if you’d want me there. I mean, I could stay here and give you the keys and show you where it is and then come back here.”
“It will be better when you actually live here,” Haku decides, “but I’ll stay with you, if that’s alright.”
“Great!” Chihiro jumps up. “Well I have to finish up the night here. I think I see people needing drinks so I’ll be over at the bar but you can stay, of course. Or if you need anything to drink, it’s on the house.”
Haku catches her wrist before she can make it too far from the table.
“You wouldn’t want to forget this,” he says and presses the chocolate into her hand. Chihiro’s fingers close compulsively around it.
“Oh, yes, thank you,” she babbles, but the flush to his cheeks is probably as bright as her own feels which makes her duck her head to hide her smile as she goes back to the bar.
Chihiro’s apartment is strikingly bare from the perspective of showing it to someone else. Haku doesn’t even need to comment on how unlived it feels. Chihiro tidies a bit, moving textbooks from previous semesters from their neat stack on a dust-collecting desk to an even dustier bookshelf. She makes them both tea from the electric kettle her father gave her and a light snack from some of the remaining vegetables in the fridge because she’s nervous enough she needs something to do and it’s making her hungry.
The silence feels less awkward when they’re occupied with eating. There’s so much to talk about, but Chihiro has class, and summer break is only a week or so away. Chihiro’s honestly a little amazed that Haku’s arrival has pre-empted any of the test nerves or fanatical studying that this time of a trimester often brings. Either way she has to be at the grocer’s in the morning and she will need to sleep, it’s already too late by the clock next to her bed.
“I’ll be back in a few weeks,” Haku says, setting down his chopsticks. “It probably wont be as big a storm next time, but I might be able to stay a little while longer.”
“Oh.” Chihiro looks down at her food, she hasn’t eaten as much as she thought she was hungry, then back to Haku, “I’m not going home for summer vacation because I’m going to be working more at the grocery store. I would like that.”
“I think this all may be a bit worse this time because I was anxious.” He swirls a hand to encompass the sheeting rain and howling wind out the apartment window.
“You were anxious?”
“It’s nice to see you again,” he says, going on as if Chihiro hadn’t asked. “But you need to sleep. Maybe we could go to dinner before the bar opens next time?”
Chihiro shakes her head, “I eat at the bar because I come straight from the green grocer now. But I won’t be working at the green grocer on Thursdays. So I’ll have that afternoon free?”
“Okay.” Haku agrees. “A Thursday then. Should I take the chair?”
Chihiro adamantly insists that, as a guest, Haku take the bed. She unfolds her futon and quickly changes the futon cover, shaking the new one into place and zipping it shut. It’s a bit ungainly and she has to pick it back up to re-shake after a few humps still remain from the first time. The comforter is a faster cover to change and she takes an extra moment to plump the pillow into shape before settling the comforter over it all with a billow.
“Thank you.” Haku acknowledges.
“I hope you sleep well. I don’t know if I’ll be leaving for work before you’ve left or not. Should I wake you? I typically eat breakfast going over inventory and orders for the green grocer before it opens.”
“I would like to see the other place you work, if there’s time and they wouldn’t mind?”
“Ah, we’re not open that early so I’m not sure…”
“Another time then,” Haku demurs. “But we should sleep now.”
Chihiro gather’s up her extra blankets and turns off the light before tucking herself into the comfy secondhand armchair she’d bought because it was almost big enough to be a couch, but small enough to still not take up too much apartment space. It’s surprisingly easy to fall asleep.
In the unexpected events of the night before, Chihiro forgot to set an alarm for the next day so she wakes up running behind and with Haku already gone. The futon is nicely folded and there’s a lukewarm cup of tea on the little table.
“You should have woken me up,” Chihiro tells the mug, though she does feel refreshed.
The start of summer vacation means Chihiro has more time for the bar and green grocer. All the new summer hire grocery clerks have accepted her authority equanimously and don’t object to the fact that she’s running the store more than her employer. Her boss’s baby has been born and she’s at the shop even less than Chihiro had expected, taking full advantage of faith in Chihiro’s oversight during the month long break in classes.
Chihiro’s grateful now that she was given a solid basis of understanding before the vacation because it’s only that level of preparation that allows her to keep everything from catching on fire, metaphorically or otherwise. On her Thursdays off she joins the few other members of the occult club who haven’t gone anywhere for the break in day trips to nearby haunted or purportedly magical locations. Mostly there’s nothing to see, but Chihiro enjoys sitting in the shade and talking about ghosts with the summer heat prickling through her hair and a cold bottle of her favorite peach tea to sip.
On one particularly awkward Thursday the haunted forest they visit turns out to be home of Chihiro’s fox-faced customer. She tries to plead for his patience through her expression and heaves a sigh of relief when she’s able to wrangle the others into leaving with nothing more incurred than his silent, whisker-twitching laugher.
Saturdays and Sundays when the green grocer is busiest Chihiro’s almost always on her own to handle the shop. With the help of her clerks, and the ability to leave anything particularly thorny and complicated to her boss, she manages. More and more often, when something comes up that Chihiro can’t handle on her own, her boss will keep her several extra minutes after the grocer closes to talk it through with Chihiro so she can work through it on her own the next time. More and more often Chihiro has to run to reach the bar in time for preparing to open properly.
After the fifth time she’s almost late Nomiyaji says, “I know you’re trying very hard Chihiro, but you wont be able to keep up like this.”
Chihiro sags before she can even reach the bar. She slides sullenly onto one of the stools.
“I know,” she admits after a moment. “The break is almost over, I guess I’ll tell the green grocer I’ll need to do less when classes start.”
Nomiyaji’s eyebrows twitch at her.
“Hmmm…” he says.
Chihiro rolls one shoulder in a not-quite shrug.
“You’re putting your name on a place there too. Would you want to have both?” Nomiyaji inquires.
Chihiro blinks. “The woman who owns the green grocer loves it, it’s one of the reasons I like working there. I mean, she knows all our farmers by name and that’s part of why the produce is so good. I like that we support those families, I like that we carry seasonal produce. Not everyone wants to shop somewhere small with less variety, but there are people who depend on the store and our quality food… but I know, well I think, that you wanted me to take over here someday? I won’t go back on my commitment. They can probably find someone else for next summer if I let them know, and it’s a little less busy in the winter.”
Nomiyaji contemplates her. He tilts his head side to side, as if looking for a piece to a puzzle.
“Take this,” he says finally.
The bracelet he slides off his wrist is old and a little worn, but the round wooden beads match the wood of the bar and floor perfectly. He drops it into her palm.
“Be careful not to walk through doors with anyone else, you don’t want to accidentally bring a grocery customer to the bar.” His eyebrows twitch with mirth, “though that might be amusing.”
“What do I do?” Chihiro asks, sliding the bracelet around her wrist. It fits so comfortably she’s fairly certain she could forget it was there.
“When you leave to come to work, you’ll come straight here, wherever you are. I’ll clear out a back room for you and you can move in at the end of the summer, no more camping behind the bar.”
Chihiro agrees and can’t stop smiling the rest of the night.
Haku only takes her out to dinner once before classes start. Chihiro has enough warning from her weather report to dress nicely that morning. She uses the makeup left neglected since the ceremony at the beginning of the year and tries to recreate the feeling of her mother carefully applying it to her face. She wears a top just a little lower cut than all the rest, enough to show the brilliant gold of the dragon she hasn’t taken off since that day.
Chihiro cleans her apartment well before noon and changes the covers on her bed before sitting down to drink multiple cups of tea and fail to parse the German novel waiting for the weather’s forewarning to come true.
Haku knocks on her door earlier than Chihiro expects so they spend the afternoon walking through a nearby park, umbrellas softly bumping against each other in the light rain before it’s time for dinner.
Her German professor encourages Chihiro to apply for the abroad program again.
“You’ll be a very strong candidate this year. The department has been proud of your work.”
Chihiro can’t help blushing at the praise. Time abroad isn’t required as long as she does enough language hours for a German focus on campus, but the abroad program is worth more credits and to skip it might mean an extra year, and a less competitive position from which to find work. Chihiro doesn’t know how to explain the complexity of why she’s too busy to leave. She doesn’t want to leave anymore. Instead she adds in a language exchange club a few times a week, meeting up in a café to talk with some international students and other German majors. She can’t work up the same enthusiasm she hears from others about experiencing the world. Chihiro’s world feels plenty large as it is.
In the mornings she folds up her futon in the back room of the bar. The room still smells a bit like mop buckets and it takes on the fall chill in a way that makes Chihiro worry about winter. She has time to make it her own and starts thoroughly and carefully going over every inch of the room to clean, brighten and leave her own fingerprints on it’s history. It takes her more than one weekend to fully chisel away the old paint sealing the window shut. After a few overly cold days the room starts smelling fresh and clean again consistently, with a faint green scent from the small square of green and concrete behind the bar. She calls her father to ask him about environmentally friendly space heaters and they speak for two hours longer than any call they’ve had since the spring.
She opens the green grocer almost every day, getting up what feels like ever earlier as the nights get longer. The kitchen seems quite happy to have her there both morning and night. Chihiro blearily accepts whatever breakfast it provides because it gets sulky if she doesn’t.
The start to her days gets slightly easier when her grandparents and father send her the joint gift of a bicycle for her birthday. It’s bright blue with clean white handles and a white seat. She bikes across town to the grocer each morning. Her polite concern about her father being disappointed if her new bike was possibly stolen nets her a special spot in her boss’s office whenever Chihiro is working. Chihiro isn’t certain if it’s still residual sympathy about her mom, or patient accommodation because Chihiro has done so much over the break, but it means she can wheel the bike out the door with her when she leaves at night and take it with her in one step from grocer to bar.
With the cloudless nip of fall she sees Haku less.
“Someone’s gloomy,” Nomiyaji observes one night when the bar is mostly empty. “Here, warm yourself a little.”
He hands her a warm cup of sweet red bean broth.
“I’m sure he’ll think you’re new room is lovely whenever he gets here.”
Chihiro blushes and drinks a quick gulp. It’s soothingly warm and doesn’t scald her tongue.
Nomiyaji winks at her. “I remember what it was like to be young.”
“Did you ever…?”
“Ah, no. You may think I’m handsome now, but I’ve done well in my older years. Places like this, you have to love them more than anything.” Chihiro frowns down into her glass and Nomiyaji continues, “…But, if you love a river, they’re always going or coming even when they’re right there. Different all the time, so it’s not bad to be steady in a place.” One of his knuckles raps against the bar like a hollow drum. “A place like this can always be found, but it takes as much care whether you do it alone, or with someone else. It’s a choice you make for you.”
“I see,” Chihiro says, though she couldn’t perhaps explain the feeling of understanding that sinks over her, or why it feels so comfortable. She takes another gulp of the drink, sweet and filling, another kind of warmth.
“You’ll bring the world to you, I reckon. The best of us do.”
Chihiro can recognize Haku now by the sound he makes when he whistles into the bar and not just because the glass chime flutters more loudly for him than anyone else. The kitchen drum shrieks and Chihiro gestures Haku to a seat while she goes to get the tray.
“I think the kitchen is sweet on you,” Chihiro observes. Haku raises an eyebrow and points out that there are, in fact, a second pair of chopsticks for Chihiro as well. Nomiyaji waives a dismissive hand when she turns to ask him about a break. His mutter about young love is loud enough to be heard this distance from the bar. Haku winces slightly but Chihiro reaches out to grab his hand.
“I missed you,” she says simply. He takes her hand to brush a light kiss across her palm before releasing it. “You’re not going to be helping the young love impression,” she points out, grinning. His responding smile is small but sincere.
“I don’t mean to. Not if he’s right.”
It takes her longer to eat than it should because she can’t stop grinning. She still finishes before him but Chihiro supposes she can’t blame him for being distracted when it makes her chest feel so bright and full.
“This is a beautiful room,” Haku says, running careful fingers against the paneled wood of the wall. Chihiro smiles.
“You wouldn’t know it was a broom closet anymore.”
She looks around, trying to assess it with his eyes. There is only the one window but it is large and clean filtering in the green of the small patch of earth behind the bar, the bare twisted branches of its lone tree. Now that the window is reinforced by a storm window the room stays warm. Chihiro hasn’t found a good place to store the screen for summer yet, but she’s tucked it away up on what used to be a shelf stacked with old cleaning products.
With a bit of scrubbing, polish, and careful treatment, the walls have come back to a nice gloss, better even than the floor in the bar proper. The new cream of the window frame is a bright touch against the dark wood. At night when she draws the soft blue curtain and turns on all the lamps she’s collected the room is cheerfully bright and cozy. There’s less space than at her previous apartment, but she doesn’t need to set aside space for a kitchen or bathroom so it’s not a bother. She does her homework at the bar and she can work on her laptop while sitting in her armchair. Her room gets faint but functional wifi access she can use as long as she stops in the coffee roasters and café on Saturday midmornings to borrow the weekly Wifi password update.
“It feels like it’s yours,” Haku remarks, “more so than the other place.”
“It does, doesn’t it? I do like it better here. Though it might be a little cramped for two people, I’m sorry. Do you mind if the futons are right next to each other?” Chihiro frowns and considers how she might move the chair to make better space, but with the shape of the room it’s really only practical to have the two side by side.
“No, it will be fine. Do you need any help?”
“Oh, no. Please, sit.” Chihiro gestures while she gets out the futons to set them up neatly. “Where have you been traveling?” she asks as she does so.
“Not quite all over, but nearly. I’ve never known how beautiful the ocean is, before. I sometimes still can’t believe how it glimmers. Mostly I’ve been bringing rain places far from here, but gently this time.” Chihiro can hear the amusement in his voice without turning to see. “The kind of rain people like to go outside to dance under, well maybe moreso in places that need it.”
“I guess people don’t dance for rain much anymore, we just get out our umbrellas.”
“Children do,” Haku muses, “And if I’m close enough to the ground, all the umbrellas popping up like rainbow mushrooms is nice. Fewer people running out into the rain without clothes in the city.”
“Do people really do that?”
“Oh, everywhere.” Haku confirms, “not everyone of course, and some of them make sure they’re alone first, but others don’t care.”
“I don’t suppose you find any of us all that exciting anymore, after having seen so much then,” Chihiro teases. The words feel bold and awkward all at once. It’s one thing for Haku to have kissed her the last time he saw her -Chihiro had kissed him back- and she knows they’ve been flirting but this is another thing entirely to be tracing the edges of.
Chihiro’s been writing Haku notes and letters whenever she has a spare moment, finding herself unable not to when he takes up so much of her mind these days. He’s gone so often and a kiss pressed to her palm and held close for days afterwards or tingling for to-brief moments on her lips isn’t enough. She places them next to the rain barrel nestled in the incongruous back garden by the tangled tree. None of the other buildings have back gardens and Chihiro is fairly certain there isn’t actually space for it for that little square of land to exist, but it’s there nonetheless. The more she looks at it through her window the more strangle beautiful it becomes, rain glinting off the cracked concrete pavers, and untamed bushes and weeds growing ever more verdantly green, twisting through the rusted stool that might have once had enough pieces to be a chair. The letters are always gone when Chihiro next checks, but she hasn’t yet asked Haku if he’s been receiving them.
“There are people I still find interesting,” Haku says, his eyes fixed on Chihiro. The weight of them turns her to face him. Chihiro sits down on her futon with an ungainly lack of grace. “At least, one person in particularly.”
“Really?” Chihiro breathes.
Haku nods in response but stays where he is sitting in his chair. It feels like they’re in a staring match.
Chihiro is suddenly overcome with regret that she has no idea what she’s doing when this feels so important. He’s smiling slightly and his long dark hair is dry and loose. The fact that he’s wearing jeans and a collared shirt no longer surprises her. All the ways he’s changed are matched in all the ways he hasn’t. His eyes are still bright and sharp, vibrant with a kind of fire Chihiro hasn’t seen in any human. His fingers are still slender and sure where they grip the arms of the chair. He’s only grown more into the lean grace he’d had when they’d met. She can understand now, how so much dragon could fit into the contained shape of a man, though she’s a bit concerned if he shifted form he’d wouldn’t fit in the room. Even just seated as he is he seems to take up the whole space, pushing out any room for Chihiro to catch her breath.
His eyes aren’t a mirror in which she can see herself, his gaze is too heated for that. Chihiro worries the inside of her lip at an onslaught of unneeded comparisons. She too has grown since they met, with both unnamable and obvious ways in which she has become herself. She had two substantial growth spurts stretching her bones and her face to an adult shape. She’s filled out and not all of it in the places she wants to curve, particularly the way where the width of her hips makes it harder to look as fashionable in tight jeans or shorter skirts. Her hands are still nimble, compact, and small, but rarely graceful. Her hair, perpetually in a ponytail now, brushes just past her shoulder blades thick and neat. It all makes her feel so ordinary with no way to outline her own space, the extent of herself in return: no reason that someone should catch their breath particularly.
Chihiro reaches out to the wall just behind herself for steadiness. The woodgrain is warm and soft against her fingers, when she breathes this place breathes with her. The home Chihiro has made for herself doesn’t reflect a gaudy attempt to distract from perceived inadequacy, and it isn’t so insular that no one wants to visit, or guests feel the falsehood of their invitation the moment they cross the threshold. Chihiro’s home is warm and clean and perhaps unassuming but there is friendly intent in every detail, welcoming and honest. It’s jarring to have her earlier vision inverting so suddenly and she braces herself back against the wall. If Haku catches her breath it is because he occupies a space that is entirely her, Chihiro is a room and a world she’s made for herself where her skills and her space may be practical but they’re large enough to encompass a dragon, even if it feels only barely.
Chihiro may be human, but she has been wrapped so strongly in the history of a path she’s chosen, no matter how unexpected, so that if she closes her eyes she can almost see what Haku sees. She is a young woman with a confident and practiced smile still genuine enough to call an answering smile to another face. She’s the perfect height to lean on the bar with her elbows and laugh with a customer. Her hair matches the rich luster of the wood closely enough that from a passing glance it might seem she has always been part of the bar. Her voice is bright and clear, able to be heard over a din or brought soft and hidden for only one pair of ears, comforting in the assurance of a sympathetic listener but firm enough to end a tale when it’s done, no matter who’s telling it. Her arms are strong and her hands are competent and the scent around her is of sweet carrot and mulling spices, whether or not she’s been making one of their seasonal drinks.
“It suits you,” Haku says. Chihiro opens her eyes. She hadn’t meant to really close them. “More people come here because it’s you. You know that this place doesn’t have a name, I’ve heard more than one person refer to it as Chihiro’s. But it’s not this place I love you for, it’s the other way around. I love this place because of you.”
Chihiro’s ears seem to stutter.
“Isn’t it too early to say that?” she blurts.
Haku cocks his head quizzically, “But you wrote that in your letters.”
Chihiro buries her face in her hands, the thousand times she’s signed ‘with love, Chihiro’ flashing before her.
“I did mean it,” Chihiro mutters into her hands. Haku’s hands curl over her wrists, slowly easing them away.
“Well, that’s helpful since I mean it too.” He leans forward very slowly until Chihiro closes her eyes once more and lean forward into the softest brush of his lips. Haku seems to intend to keep the connection light, drawing gently back. Chihiro shakes her head quickly, tangling her fingers in his hair. When Haku beams at her, it’s the brightest smile she’s ever seen on his face she hauls him back in to kiss him more properly.
Haku’s comings and goings add a growing spontaneity to Chihiro’s life. She doesn’t make any travel plans for winter vacation because of it, though her father invites her to come home. Cautiously Chihiro offers a counter invitation, after first checking with Nomiyaji. She doesn’t expect him to agree to visit her, but she supposes he may be grateful for a chance to leave his home. He assures her that her grandparents won’t be coming so she’ll only have to worry about one guest.
Nomiyaji leads Chihiro up the stairs almost reluctantly.
“You’ll want to be making more space your own, I suppose,” he sighs.
“Just a guest room. Just for a few days.”
“That’s how it always starts.” The words are an affectionate grumble.
Chihiro isn’t sure how Nomiyaji manages to fit all of himself up the stairs, the stairwell is so narrow. The steps have a rather ratty carpet runner, which dips towards the center as if hundreds of years of feet have worn a gentle groove in the wood below. The stairwell could do with another light at any rate.
The hallway at the top has a storage closet, a room Nomiyaji claims, a toilet, a lovely blue-tiled bathroom, and a room that was probably meant to be an office, which Nomiyaji offers for her to fix for her father.
“I didn’t know we had a bath here. I’ve been going to the bathhouse or grabbing a shower at the school gym, would it be alright if I used the bath too?” Chihiro is a little miffed that Nomiyaji never mentioned the option. Having a bath available would be lovely. Nomiyaji harrumphs but relents after a moment.
“I suppose. Just be sure to knock.”
“I can get one of those little wooden placards to hang on the door, that way guests could use it too?”
“I don’t suppose you’ll be keeping your visitors to a minimum then?”
“Oh, not many visitors. I don’t expect my Dad will want to come every year. And Haku stays with me, though I’d offer him use of the bath while he’s here, that’s just courtesy.”
“Just as long as you don’t go turning this place back into a guest house, the kitchen might not be pleased with you then.”
It takes Chihiro most of the rest of the month to fix the office up into a decent bedroom. Under Nomiyaji’s watchful eye she trades a few special drinks to particular customers for their help moving furniture down the stairs. She borrows a dolly from the grocer to wheel out what she’s ready to donate, with Nomiyaji’s approval, and wheel in a sleeker, more practical desk to set up a more compact office space in one corner of the food storage and pantry room between her own room and the bar.
Chihiro hadn’t explored the pantry in depth before she’d decided that it would be good to have some sort of office for the bar and that it might be the only other usable space on her floor. She’s been helping enough at the grocer that she has a sense of the sort of things that a business should be doing and the state of the office she dismantled certainly had no evidence that Nomiyaji was doing any of that. Chihiro isn’t even certain where to start, but the desk, lamp, and filing cabinet fit nicely in the corner of the room.
She sets the papers and files saved from their dusty neglect in the old office, now guest room, and tucks them away for when she has some time to really sort through them. She makes note of things the pantry is starting to run down on. Chihiro amuses herself with a few extra food purchases along the way. She’s paying for so little these days; it feels nice to splurge on new and unusual things the kitchen might appreciate. She buys American wild rice, Spanish saffron, and Sicilian juniper berries. She does some online shopping for preserved and shelf stable foods and adds smoked salmon, black walnuts, cashews, and macadamia nuts. It’s odd to visit other grocery stores but it’s nice that the kitchen drum is squeaking less harshly so she comes back with agave, papaya, passionfruit, and cranberries. After she’s deposited a pile of figs and pomegranates, along with a very nice bottle of olive oil, and packages of cinnamon, cardamom, and tamarind she gives the kitchen drum a pat and apologetically says,
“I think that’s the most my wallet can keep up with for now, but hopefully that’s alright?”
The kitchen drum whispers shut soothingly and Chihiro smiles.
Once dusted and scrubbed and re-furnitured the office room turns into a homey, welcoming space. Neglected corners seem to expand. the second floor windows seem wider, framing a pleasantly busy view of the street below like a moving painting, the room blossoming under the increased light.
Under the dust and out of the dim, the room turns out to be a pale green. Chihiro likes it and finds a comforter with curling green spring vines weaving across pattern to compliment the color. Two weeks later the German department redoes the lounge space for upperclassmen and puts two comfy, worn but still useable shape green upholstered armchairs out in the hallway with a ‘free’ sign. The sign indicate that they will be taken away by maintenance at the end of the day if no students claim them first. Chihiro calls some of her strongest clerks and stockers from the grocer and guards the chairs while they bring over the dollies and help her wheel the chairs from the college building to the bar.
“You live here?” one of the young women, Kimiko, asks. She’s a freshman at Chihiro’s college and they’ve talked a little. It’s odd now that Chihiro is their manager. She now has employees who’ve never known her as a peer. She likes all of them and she’s fairly certain they feel kindly towards her too.
“I actually work here nights after the grocer’s closes,” Chihiro admits.
“That’s really dedicated.”
Chihiro shrugs. After a moment she decides, “it’s sort of a family business. I think I’ll probably take over when the current owner retires.”
The others nod their understanding as they navigate to the back stairs.
“I’m sorry there’s no elevator.” Chihiro eyes the stairs with concern but one of the men, Hideki, who’s just a year or so older than Chihiro, beckons her to step aside and more quickly than she’d imagined, the three of them are marching the first chair up the stairs. Chihiro hurries up after them.
“It’s the first door on the left!” she calls. They get the first chair settled and then do the same for the second.
“This is a really pretty room,” Kimiko says. “Is this one yours?”
“No, I’m downstairs, but it’s so more of my family can visit.”
They all troop down the stairs. The other’s looking around more curiously now that they’re not awkwardly maneuvering the large chairs.
“Thank you all for your help. Would any of you like a drink before you go?” Chihiro offers, “I mean, I’ll still pay you for your time and help, but there’s not much else here I can offer.”
The kitchen drum shrieks a turn and two of her employees jump.
“And there’s food. You’re all probably tired from carrying all that, and we’ve all lost most of lunch to that. Would you like a meal on the house?”
They look at each other.
“Sure, thank you,” Hideki responds, and they all take seats on the bar stools while Chihiro goes to the kitchen drum. It’s odd how they all seem not to notice that it’s maybe strange that Chihiro suddenly has food; that the bar is closed and at any other place this might be vaguely creepy. Instead they chat amiably together with the comfort established from so many hours at the grocer.
“This is really fantastic,” Kimiko says when she puts down her chopsticks. “I have no idea how I’ve never heard of this place before, if the food is like this. You must be swamped in the evenings.”
Chihiro laughs, “Yeah, sometimes it’s like that.”
“You open when the grocer closes?” Hideki asks, “We should all come here after work sometime.” Chihiro bites her lip, looking around at the empty open space of the bar. It’s darkened but comforting, and she can just imagine it teeming with spirits and stranger. As she opens her mouth to respond she hears the quietest whisper of the kitchen drum and she stops. The sound echoes again, hopeful and a little sad.
“Yeah, that would be nice, we should do that sometime.” Chihiro says and her fingers white-knuckle on the bar.
She gets a new rug for the guest room so her father’s feet won’t be cold in the mornings. In her search for some nice storage bins or a dresser that would fit in the guestroom well she winds up outfitting her own space more. A few bookshelves and a mirror later Chihiro’s reached a state of satisfaction with the upstairs room and even greater settled comfort with her own. The timing is good because she has less than a week before her father comes to visit.
She’s still riding an edge of panic, even with how right all the spaces she inhabits are starting to feel at the bar, when her employees from the grocer finally come to the bar two days before her father arrives.
They pile in laughing, college kids released from work and ready for a weekend. Energy is high from the upcoming winter break and end of classes. The bar is starting to get busy by the time they arrive, Chihiro’s winter customers coming in to steam off the cold as they fled south to catch the dwindling warmth of the season, along with the local regulars, and a few folks coming down from the north with their cold to meet up with old friends.
“It’s so lively!” Kimiko laughs looking around, “You’ve got people from all over here.” She doesn’t seemed shocked to be surrounded by bird faces, whiskers, or bark-like skin.
“How do so many tourists know about this spot when I’d never heard of it?” Hideki complains as they make their way to the bar where Nomiyaji’s many hands are at work mixing a multitude of drinks.
“…We advertise?” Chihiro hazards. She tries to see it as they do: the light shining off the glossily polished wood suffusing the entire room to feel brightly welcoming. Everywhere is warm and inviting from the familiarity of the leather-upholstered booths to the chairs by a roaring fire. The bar may be a strange combination of spaces, but whether large tables ringed with many chairs or the tiny pool of stillness to be found around individual stools at the bar, there is somewhere in the room for everyone. It's something Chihiro loves about her bar. She'd been so worried but those fears are falling away, watching her co-workers in this space, Chihiro has somehow made room for everyone. She hadn't thought that could be true.
When she’d told Nomiyaji she’d invited them to come he’d simply scrutinized her for a long, uncomfortable moment and then said, “well I guess that’s the way it is.” He hadn’t told her they couldn’t, hadn’t reassured her when she worried about it to him every night for the last weeks. All he’d said further on the matter was “You’ve invited them, so they’ll have to come.”
Now he grins at her wide, still a little vaguely unsettling. His mirth bristles his eyebrows and he winks at Chihiro.
“You don’t look much like your grandfather,” says Miho, Chihiro’s co-worker who’d been a clerk with Chihiro when they’d both first started working for the grocer. She’s in Chihiro’s same year at the college but on the Computer Science track. “It’s the eyebrows.”
Chihiro can’t stop her giggling at that, grinning at all of them. “No, I can safely say I feel lucky that those aren’t passing on to me. What do you all want. Our kitchen can make something special, though that’s hard to know what it will be, or you can order something off the menu. I’ll get some for all of you if you want to grab a seat once you tell Nomiyaji your drinks.”
Hideki snort-coughs, “that’s what you call him?”
“-Family tradition.” Chihiro ducks her head awkwardly, “I really need to get my apron on and do a bit of work first since I’m on the job now, but I’ll stop by to eat with you all in a bit and I’ll bring some starters on the house.”
The evening goes unexpectedly well. Chihiro never quite understands what each of them sees when they look around the room, but all of them seem not to notice the details of their fellow patrons. Later in the night when Miho has gotten very drunk she slurs something with great apparent hilarity about how large that man at the bar is. It’s awkward and Chihiro doesn’t quite know how to respond, but she muses that the turnip spirit would probably take that as a compliment. Chihiro herself is a bit tipsy by then.
At some point Nomiyaji made her stop her usual hostess, waitress, bartender combination to go spend time with her friends. She hadn’t corrected them, and with Miho slumped across the table and Kimiko cuddled against her side and across the table the guys Hideki, Kazuto, and Shinpei still laughing and drinking, though with Shinpei listing ever further forward over the table himself. By the time Kimiko, Kazuto and Chihiro were sober and Hideki just a bit tipsy, Shinpei and Miho still need some help leaving the bar. It’s late enough that the bar is clearing out, but Nomiyaji waives Chihiro out with her friends.
“You’ll clean tomorrow, it’s the start of your break, or some such human thing, you’re right to enjoy yourselves.”
Chihiro helps coordinate everyone getting home through various phone apps and friends. She occasionally waves to other customers as they leave too. When, finally, Miho’s boyfriend arrives, Miho grabs Chihiro by the shoulders and gives her a rather sloppy kiss on the cheek.
“You’re good,” Miho declares. “We’ll do this more. This’s good.”
Chihiro pats her shoulder and shakes her head slightly to negate Miho’s boyfriend’s apologetic smile as he gently steers Miho away from Chihiro and towards his car.
Chihiro stands in the small pool of light from the bar staring out into the empty street a few moments when they’ve all gone. She’s just turning to go back inside when she hears a sound. When she looks back across the street, Haku’s there.
He waves slightly and Chihiro grins back at him, admiring the fall of his hair and the play of silvered streetlight over his nose and chin. He swirls across the street, a flurry of sudden ice crystals swirling up and settling around his feet.
“Snow’s coming,” he says before he kisses her. Chihiro’s only distracted by the kiss for so long.
“My father’s coming the day after tomorrow, if you delay him…” she mock glares at Haku. He leans in and brushes cold lips across her cheek.
“I can be gentle, I am here earlier than I’m really supposed to be, I just wanted to see you. Is he going to mind if we all get snowed in?”
Chihiro harrumphs, “I have plans to show him my college, and the nice tea place, and he wants to take me to the museum like we did when I was a kid.”
Haku hums noncommittally.
“What if I distract you?” Chihiro asks, the words swirling into steam to brush against his neck as she reaches her arms across his shoulders to pull him close. “I could be very distracting.” The sigh Haku lets out at that is immensely satisfying. His fingers curl against the small of her back.
“I could be distracted.”
Chihiro proves that she is very distracting, discovers that Haku can in fact fit in her room even in full dragon form and that he himself can be immensely distracting in new and novel ways. They both learn that distraction, however complete and all consuming, is not enough to delay a storm.
When Chihiro and Haku make it out to the bar proper sometime in the late afternoon there’s a foot of snow on the ground and Nomiyaji is disgruntledly running a mop in a lackluster way over the corner by the frosted windows.
“Neither of you are exactly quiet, which is perhaps something to consider before your father arrives,” he notes.
The blush that engulfs Chihiro’s face feels fiery enough that it should be raising the room temperature all on it’s own. Haku seems to duck slightly behind her, which is no help. Chihiro reaches back blindly for his hand and his fingers curl, sure and comfortable with her own.
“Do an old man a kindness and finish this job,” Nomiyaji instructs, dunking the mop back into the bucket. “I’m going to go take myself a well deserved nap. I’ll let you open and run the bar tonight, I’m going to go visit my family and maybe have a nice luxurious bath. I’ll be back in the evening around when your father arrives and you can take tomorrow night off for family.”
Chihiro blinks at this sudden generosity, “Thank you.”
“Oh, don’t thank me. Take as much of the night and tomorrow to be as loud as you need.” Nomiyaji waives a few dismissive, and affectionate, hands. “After the bar is closed of course,” he admonishes with a fourth hand.
“That wont be a problem, sir,” Haku swears seriously. “I deeply respect Chihiro’s work, and this establishment.”
The smile that lights up Nomiyaji’s face hides his eyes into his eyebrows and barely touches his lips. Chihiro’s heart swells with how enormously pleased and happy Nomiyaji looks.
“That’s good. She deserves nothing less. Now stop dallying. If you respect her that much, you’ll help clean up to earn your keep here.” His hands gesture towards the mop bucket, the rag pail and the sticky tables, the foyer where there’s surely some mud and dirt from customers shoes, and the bathrooms.
“We’re on it,” Chihiro assures him. Nomiyaji does not look back to check as he leaves. Chihiro and Haku share a look. Chihiro still hasn’t stopped giggling by the time she’s wrung out the mop and taken back up where Nomiyaji left off. Haku’s snickers as he starts in on the nearest table suffuse her with fond, delighted warmth.
Chihiro’s father is delayed, but only by an hour. Haku insists on helping him carry his luggage up to his room, but leaves them both as soon as he’s set down the bag. His fingers do brush lightly against Chihiro’s before he steps out and her responding smile is still on her face when she turns back to her father. He raises one questioning eyebrow at her.
“So, is that’s the boyfriend then?”
“Uh, yeah.” Chihiro feels her smile growing wider.
“He seems very nice.”
“Yeah, yeah he is.”
“I didn’t know he’d be here, you said he’s not here very much?”
Chihiro can’t read her father’s voice, it doesn’t sound judgmental, but Chihiro had wished, a little, that she’d had enough forewarning to tell her father.
“I didn’t know he’d be here for break. His work is…he doesn’t always know when his trips will be, so it’s a bit last minute.”
“Am I taking his room?” her father asks, looking around the guest room. Chihiro uselessly wills down her blush.
“Ah, no. He stays downstairs, with me,” her father looks back at her. Chihiro feels a little like when she was small and had accidentally broken something, that scrutiny where she was sure her father could see it on her face. Her father smiles.
“I’m happy for you.”
The feeling is so sudden that the tears take Chihiro by surprise. Her father instantly opens his arms and Chihiro falls forward into them. They didn’t hug like this at the funeral. His hand sooths over her hair and he shifts, rocking her slightly with him while Chihiro cries. She’s so happy because she loves Haku and she loves her Dad, she loves the bar and the home she’s making here and with all of this in front of her she desperately misses her mother. She can’t tell if her Dad is crying, but she thinks his shoulders might be shaking a little, where the fabric is pressed, damp beneath her cheek.
When she finally gulps for breath and settles into silence, he doesn’t immediately let her go. His hand keeps it’s steady pattern over her hair, like when Chihiro would have a fever and he’d sit up in bed and read to her until she fell asleep because her mother had to get up too early in the morning and couldn’t.
“I’m really, really happy.” Chihiro finally mumbles, words still wet and snot dripping fairly distressingly onto her father’s shirt. Chihiro pulls back, wiping at her eyes and futilely at his shirt. “I love him dad,” she admits.
Her father’s hand squeezes warm around her shoulder. His eyes are still wet from his own tears but he’s still smiling at her.
“She would be so happy for you.”
Chihiro swallows and nods, not able to find the words. He doesn’t resist when she pulls him back into a hug, crushing him tight against her.
“Okay.” Chihiro finally gusts with a heavy sigh, stepping fully away. “You should unpack whatever you want. And maybe change your shirt. My boss is running the bar tonight so we can all go out somewhere else. You’ll be eating here the rest of your visit so you’ll have more than enough time to experience the bar, and our kitchen, which is amazing. …Can Haku come with us?”
“Of course, I’m getting the sense that he’s going to be family.” Chihiro ducks her head to hide her smile.
“Well, we haven’t talked about that yet, but I think you might be right.”
“Good,” is all her father says in answer. Chihiro can’t stop smiling. "You've really made a space for yourself here, haven't you?" he says.
Chihiro nods, "I think I have."
They go downstairs together. Haku looks up from where he's sitting on his now-typical stool at the bar. Nomiyaji has not in fact arrived before her father, so Chihiro turns on the rest of the lights and prepares the bar just a bit for opening. Nomiyaji can do the rest. Chihiro looks out into the bar with her father. The early winter dark has crept past the windows and the street twinkles with streetlight and the neon from shop windows reflecting on the snow. There's not enough on the ground to keep shops from opening and the evening crowds are just starting to flow past. Inside the bar is bright, clean, and cheery. Chihiro can feel the space waiting with her, the readiness of the kitchen drum, the wink and promise of light glinting off the rainbow of liqueurs on the shelf behind the bar with a few of her folded paper dragons peering out from between them. Chihiro's most recent chalk board with its ever more complicated drink options sitting at ready.
"I wouldn't have thought to say it about a bar, but it's beautiful, Chihiro." her father observes. "I can tell it's yours."
All words catch in Chihiro's throat. Haku catches her hand and gives it a squeeze. Chihiro squeezes back overwhelmed with how much here is hers. The bell at the entry tinkles, the glass whisper of summer. Chihiro automatically welcomes the customer, before Nomiyaji wags multiple chiding fingers at her, easily climbing past her and over the bar.
"It'll be all yours soon enough, but I thought you all had dinner plans first." he makes shooing motions with multiple hands, summarily dismissing them all from his attention. Her father blinks at Nomiyaji a few times, as if his eyes aren't quite able to resolve all the many limbs quite the way Chihiro's co-workers could.
Chihiro gives her father's arm a light tug to get his attention.
"Come on, Dad. I can tell you all about all of it over dinner." She pauses for a moment, then takes a deep breath. "Actually, it's a really long story. Do you remember when we got lost in the mountains when I was a kid? But, Nomiyaji's right, let's go get some food first, then I'll explain."