On the first day of summer vacation there's a message from Zeniba, brought to Chihiro's window by a magpie with bright, clever eyes. I'll be going away for a few days, and Kaonashi's coming with me, so I need someone to look after the house and garden. If you're up for the job, I'll see to it that you don't lose any time at home. I don't expect trouble while I'm gone, but you may as well bring the dragon with you, just in case.
In case of what, Zeniba doesn't say, but Chihiro supposes witches have their secrets. The invitation is too good to refuse. When she mentions it to Haku, on one of his visits to her side, he says only: "Of course I'll come with you. We can fly there together."
The door to the cottage opens for them when they arrive, though there's no one waiting behind it. On the table they find a note full of instructions, and a green tea cake covered with a checkered cloth. The cake has its own set of instructions: Eat Me. Chihiro sets down her duffel bag to read the other note aloud.
"Potted plants and window boxes morning and evening. Beans and eggplants and cucumbers and melons if it doesn't rain." She thinks of hauling buckets from the rain barrel, or from the well behind the cottage, and glances hopefully at Haku. "Can you make it rain?"
He shakes his head. "Not here. But I'll help you with the watering, if need be."
"Okay. Thanks." She starts to read again, then notices the way he's pacing, prowling around the single room of the cottage, looking at everything and nothing with a strange unsettled cast to his stare. "What is it?"
He halts without turning toward her. "It's no matter. Only...the last time I entered this house, I was a thief."
"Oh," says Chihiro, with a rush of understanding. "But Haku--" It helps to say his name, even a small part of his name; when she does he always hears her. "That wasn't your fault, and you aren't one anymore."
He nods, though his eyes go on traveling the room. It occurs to Chihiro that maybe Zeniba really did want a house-sitter for more than just the sake of the garden. There might be other thieves abroad. Chihiro fingers the note anxiously, turning it in her hands.
"Do you think--do you think she left that seal here? There's nothing about it in the note."
"I expect she keeps it with her, now," says Haku. "Having lost it once. But whatever is here, you and I are here to guard it."
"I guess we are." Chihiro reads on. "It says there's a place to sleep in--" She glances up. "The loft?" She blinks. A wooden ladder with gleaming rungs leads to an upper level on the side of the cottage opposite the hearth. The undersides of the thick crossbeams are painted, all twisty vines and hidden flowers and delicate leaves. A carved banister runs along the ledge, also painted, with curved pickets of red and blue. "I don't remember there being a loft, before. Was there one?"
For a minute Haku looks uncertain, and baffled by his uncertainty. Then again the cottage is a witch's house. Chihiro trots over to the ladder and grabs hold of the rungs. "There is now, anyway. I'm going up to see!"
She clambers up, sure-footed, and doesn't stop until she reaches the top. The air should be stifling there, with the day so warm outside and the roof so close, but somehow it isn't stuffy at all. Witch's house, she thinks again. Against one wall there's a tiny dresser, more like a nightstand, with a lamp sitting on it and an oval mirror fixed to the top, and against the other wall stands a low shelf laden with books. A rug that looks like a tapestry blankets most of the floor, and beside it sits a folded futon.
One futon. A big one. With two pillows on top.
"Thank you, Granny," says Chihiro fervently, under her breath. Maybe she ought to be blushing, but instead she's only grateful. The crossing between worlds is too difficult for Haku to manage often. Even when he does come to her world, they can't very well spend the night together in her parents' house. Recounting marriage customs from ages past isn't going to save her if her dad gets wind of a boy staying in her bedroom overnight, and she doesn't like sneaking around any more than she likes the threat of getting caught. They shouldn't have to sneak. It's not as if they're doing anything bad, no matter what her dad might think.
The slant of the roof in the loft is too low to let her stand up fully, but if she and Haku duck their heads they'll be all right. Or if they sit. Or if they just stay horizontal all the time. By the quiver in the rungs under her palms she feels him coming up the ladder behind her. Her ponytail swings over her shoulders as she tips her head to smile down.
"It's nice," she says.
Before the afternoon can shade into dusk Haku leaves the house--to go fishing for dinner, he says, though he carries neither bait nor tackle with him. While he's gone Chihiro gets a fire going in the hearth to make rice in a cast iron pot, following another note from Zeniba. Without the instructions she would've been lost: at home she's only ever used the electric rice cooker. While the rice simmers she goes up to the loft to stow her duffel bag and lay out the futon, just to have something to do.
The mattress is white, the comforter pale yellow strewn with a pattern of white magnolias. It's pretty, she thinks. It'll be even prettier when Haku's stretched out on it. Since he quit his apprenticeship he's traded his suikan for yukata, not just for festivals but for every day. Blue or white, usually, with an obi of blue or white or green. Today it's blue, not quite dark enough to be navy, and the obi is a paler blue, the color called mizuiro threaded with white. She can picture him already, lying on his side, maybe, watching her with his faint smile and waiting for her to--
She blinks down at the pillow in her hands, then doubles over to bury her face in it, squinching her eyes shut. Her cheeks feel hot, and not just her cheeks. She puts the pillow down and stares blearily at the futon, facing the thought of exactly what she wants to do on it. Soon. As soon as possible. What did he have to go and disappear for? Although it was nice of him to go out and find dinner. She supposes she'll be hungry for food soon, too.
After smoothing the comforter one more time she goes back down the ladder, then out into the garden to see if any cucumbers are ready to be picked. She's slicing one into thin medallions, to sprinkle with vinegar for a side dish, when Haku returns to the cottage.
His hair looks like it might be wet, like he's been swimming, but it's always so sleek she can't tell for sure without touching it. He's tied it back--it's just long enough to stay put if he binds it at the nape of his neck, though a few strands tend to fall loose on either side--using one of her hair bands borrowed when she wasn't looking, a plain one, not the glittery one Zeniba gave her years ago. Chihiro-style, he calls it, instead of a ponytail. He carries a brace of freshwater eels in one hand. The eels are still wriggling.
"I'll clean them," he says, but he pauses beside her at the cutting board, lowering his chin. He's so quiet about it that for a minute she doesn't realize he's sniffing as he leans toward her. Then he smiles. "Chihiro."
"It smells good."
It, he says, and he's not talking about the rice in the pot. She nearly squirms like the eels in his hand. Her cheeks are burning again, she can feel it--not with shame, really, because he's said things like that before, and knowing he knows she's in the mood is kind of delicious in a way--but he doesn't have to come out and say it right while she's trying to help cook. She puts down the knife and huffs.
"That's mean! Teasing like that."
He looks amazed. "Teasing?"
"And here I've been all patient--'Restraint, Chihiro!' That's what I've been telling myself. Restraint."
He looks even more amazed, like he's on the verge of asking but why would you do that? and the eels are twitching and the rice is nearly done and come to think of it she is hungry for dinner, after all. She puffs her lower lip at Haku, not quite woefully. "But we might as well eat."
The amazement gives way to assent. "I never meant to tease," he says. He promises to be quick.
And he is. As he disappears into the back garden, taking only the cutting board and the knife, Chihiro puts the kettle on to heat water for tea, but it's scarcely boiling before Haku reappears with the eels filleted. Together they grill them on skewers over the fire in the hearth. Beads of fat dribble onto the logs below as the eels cook, sizzling into heady, fragrant smoke. When the fillets are done--it doesn't take long--Chihiro lays them in bowls on a bed of rice, and sets out the sliced cucumber on a plate.
The first bite of eel tastes so good she curls her toes and shuts her eyes and kicks her feet as if she were doing the backstroke. She has to swallow her happy whimper before it turns into a squeak. Haku smiles at her pleasure and agrees that the food is very good.
"How did you catch them?" she asks. "The eels. With magic?"
He answers placidly. "With my teeth."
"Oh." Of course that would be the easiest way, for him. Feeling silly, she watches him eat with his usual unstudied grace. She's wondered at times whether the whole business of cooking seems like a waste of effort to him, when in his other shape he could simply swallow whatever he catches whole. But he enjoys doing lots of things that can't be done in his other shape, like talking in words, or writing poems, or holding her hand in his. Among other things.
Although come to think of it she's not so sure some of those couldn't be done, if he and she made the attempt.
More detailed thought in that vein while eating dinner is a mistake. Haku lowers his chopsticks with concern while she wheezes.
"'M okay," she manages. At least if she's choking there's an excuse for her cheeks being pink. She swallows--carefully--and takes another bite of eel and rice together. "At home we always have unagi in the summer, but these are better than my mom's."
He reaches for his tea. "I used to watch fishermen catch them. Sometimes they would build fires and do their cooking just beside my banks. Now and then one would leave an offering in gratitude to the river."
"Is that how you learned to grill?"
He nods and gets up to refill their cups. It's rare for him to speak much about what his life in the river was like, and only lately that he's begun to do it more. Chihiro hopes that means the memories of what he's lost are growing easier to bear. When she was ten she hadn't really understood the extent of his hurt, the magnitude of loss. She doubts she can understand it even now--not because she's merely human, but because she's never been torn from something that was her entire life. But she tries, and listens to what he tells her.
When they're too stuffed to eat any more she waves him away from the empty bowls. "I'll wash up. You did the hard part, with the eels."
He tilts his head, considering. It's not as if there's much to wash in any case. "All right," he says. "I want to look at something in the loft." He goes to the hearth to bank the fire, heaping ash over the logs, and then disappears up the ladder.
While she rinses the bowls and chopsticks Chihiro wonders about taking a bath. She showered in the morning, before she came through the tunnel, but that was in the morning. It doesn't seem right to go to Haku in any state other than clean. Laying the dishes on a towel to dry, she goes to the foot of the ladder.
"Haku, I haven't had a bath, and I probably should, so, um--"
His voice floats down from above with perfect ease. "Leave it for tomorrow. We can take one together."
Which sounds like genius, except she really ought to have one now. "But--I got kind of sweaty on the way here, and from the fireplace, and..."
His hand appears, draped lazily over the banister that runs along the edge of the loft. His sleeve follows, then his chin, and then he's gazing down at her like some incongruous version of Juliet on the balcony, his eyes glinting green like underwater lights. The idea of bothering with a bath drains from her head as if a plug's been pulled in her brain. If she's still sweaty she no longer feels it.
"Tomorrow," he says mildly. "Come up here, now."
Climbing a ladder has never felt so much like running down a diving board to take a wild leap into the deep end. At the top his hands are reaching out to catch her, to keep her from tipping astray as she pitches forward into his embrace. She winds up mostly on top of him, her legs tangled between his. Finally. Finally.
She smothers her face against his chest, rubbing her nose against his breastbone. He smells like clear water, nothing more, nothing less. Like a long, sweet drink of it. She probably smells like sweaty randy human girl. "Hakuuu," she groans. "Am I weird, do you think?"
"Weird?" She can feel his head draw back slightly. His hand cups her cheek, then tilts her chin up. The pupils of his eyes have gone very wide, the irises very dark. "Why?"
"Because I want to do this, like, all the time."
He exhales a laugh. "Why should that be strange? If you are strange, I must be, too."
"Well, you're not weird." Sighing, she lays her forehead against his, so their noses bump, and they stay like that for a minute before he tilts his head to nuzzle her cheek, her temple, the curve of her jaw. She nuzzles him back and sighs again as he kisses the side of her neck.
"I would be sorry if you didn't," he murmurs. "Want this. You haven't been the only one practicing restraint."
A mix of guilt and gratitude and rue washes over her. They're supposed to be married, in some sense of the word, even if the vows were private, but they've hardly had a chance to act like it at all.
"We could quit that?" she offers, a little shyly, even though it's kind of absurd to be shy when she's plastered up against him, chest to chest. "The, um. The restraint thing."
He rubs his nose against hers in agreement, and then his parted lips against her lips the same way. It's hard to tell exactly when the rubbing blurs into kissing. His mouth is open, and hers is too, and then it's wet on wet and they're tasting each other, while his hands slide under her shirt and hers wind around his back. They kiss like shallow is as good as deep, tiny kisses where their tongues just barely brush, or his just barely strokes into her mouth. There are plenty of chances to breathe but pretty soon she's breathless anyway, hot through her entire body and tight between her legs.
When her clothes start to feel like a nuisance she pries herself away from him to pull her shirt over her head. That musses her ponytail, so she crooks her finger in the band and pulls that off, too, shaking her hair loose around her bare shoulders. Haku watches, stretching out on the futon just like she imagined he would, wearing a look of immense and obvious satisfaction.
As she crawls back to him she notices a book sitting by his elbow, one of the leatherbound volumes from the low shelf against the wall. Diverted, she peers at it, but can't make out the title on the spine. It doesn't seem to be in any language she can recognize--Japanese or Chinese or Korean, or the English she's learned in school.
"What were you reading?"
"Spells," he answers, reaching around her back. She shrugs off the straps of her bra when he unhooks it, then pitches it toward her duffel bag. Haku spreads his hands over her back, drawing her closer, so he can close his eyes and press his face into the hollow between her breasts. His hands slide under her arms, down her ribcage to her hips. "It's a book of magic. But much of it isn't new to me." He sounds distracted. "'A spell to render fertile the earth before seeding.' 'A spell to hasten growth, or cause flowers to bloom out of season.' 'A spell to double the yield of fruit.'"
He spares one arm to sweep the book off the futon toward the shelf, then settles a hand on each side of her waist. His fingers rake gently at the shorts she's still wearing. They're knee-length, denim, the pair her friends swear makes her rear end look cute.
"These," he says, "take these off, too."
If she were the eyelash-fluttering type--but she isn't. "You don't want to help?"
His eyes narrow to slits. She's barely got the zipper undone and the shorts dragged down a handspan before he seizes her in earnest, turning her onto her back and lowering his face to her navel, while she tries not to giggle too much at his single-mindedness. They get the shorts off all the way, and then her underpants--she wore the lacy ones that match the bra, but he never seems to notice that sort of thing. He might notice more if she didn't wear any. As he settles between her legs he lets out a long breath, then props his chin on her belly.
"Chihiro. I'm glad to be here."
She strokes his hair. "Me, too."
His eyelids droop as if he were sleepy, which he isn't. He breathes deeply, deliberately, to catch her scent.
"I used to flow to the sea, you know," he murmurs. "My river did. When I came close enough to the sea I could taste it. The brine. How near it was, how near I was to the verge. It made me want to dive into it and lose myself, but I never could."
She wonders whether this is the equivalent of talking about an old girlfriend. The sea's too big to hold a grudge against, even if the idea weren't so funny. "So you did this kind of thing with the Pacific Ocean?"
His laugh huffs across the curls of hair on her mound--which are damp already, some of them, and it seems like there's no point in being embarrassed about that. She used to be embarrassed, in the beginning, when she learned she could get dripping wet just from thinking of him, let alone from thinking of him doing what he's about to do. She isn't dripping yet, but she's getting there, getting closer as he parts the sticky curls with one finger that he swirls in little circles. He answers in earnest, the way he does, though she knows he knows she was teasing.
"No," he says into the curls and the damp. "That was different."
She plays at doubt to keep herself at bay a minute longer, not because she doesn't believe. "Hmm. Really."
"It was different." He noses in, sighing warm breath over her clit. "But you taste like the sea did." He nuzzles again as if he regrets having stopped to talk. "Chihiro. I hope it's all right if I do this for a long time."
That should be daunting, maybe, considering what he is and what his idea of a long time might be, but right now with her spinning head she can only think please and yes, a long long time, a few thousand years sounds good. A few tens of thousands. The miracle is that he talks about it like it's something he craves, like it's a favor she's doing him and not the other way around. She makes some senseless enthusiastic noise. He makes a low noise in return and starts to lick, long and slow, and then there's no keeping anything at bay anymore, not the pounding of her heartbeat, not the shudders of her hips.
His hair and skin are cool against her inner thighs, but his tongue feels as hot as her own body does--as hot, as wet. He's done this enough by now to know how she likes it: he kisses as if he were kissing her mouth, sliding his tongue between her lips and stroking deep. Before long her arms give out, and she flops back on the futon, clenching her fingers in the bedding instead of pawing blindly at his hair.
Whimpers keep rising in her throat. She bites them down until she can't remember why she's bothering to, when there's no one but him to hear, and then she doesn't bother anymore. Maybe she's starting to turn dragon too, now--maybe she and he are getting all mixed up together--because she wants so badly to curl her whole self around him and make that sound he makes in his other shape, the purry growly one. Or maybe that's something everybody wants to do with the person they love like crazy, human or dragon or whatever else.
When he lifts his chin, his lips are glazed. She knows it's her making them like that, and she's really got to quit thinking because thinking only makes her dizzier. He licks his upper lip and stares at her, eating her up with his eyes. Part of her can't believe she has the nerve to divert him from what he's been doing, even for a little while, but she wants his mouth on her in other places, too. She puts a hand under her breasts.
"Haku--here, too? Would you--"
Before she can finish he surges down to do what she asks. "Forgive me," he says, and his breath on her nipple makes it go harder than before, hard as a button. Chihiro shivers. She has no idea what the apology is for.
"For making you ask." He laps gently, then covers her nipple with his mouth. It feels so good she can't even moan, can't manage words again until he lets go to turn to the other side.
"Ah--but I don't--mind asking?" She cradles his head, willing herself just to cradle and not to mash his face against her chest. "I could, nnh--write it on a wooden plaque? Ah!" He nips her, almost too hard, not her nipple but the inner curve of her right breast. She pants with laughter and lets her head slump to the bedding. The ache between her legs is twice as bad as before, until his fingers nestle there and start rubbing, reveling in the wet. She pushes into his touch, begging for more with her body and with her voice. He raises his head from her breast, breathing like he's just surfacing for air. His finger curls into her slit.
Suddenly she can't wait any longer, doesn't want to, doesn't want him to wait to slake his own need a minute more. She catches hold of his yukata, drags on the obi like a lifeline only to undo the knot. He half-rises to his hands and knees, pulling his finger from her, then claws the obi aside with restless force.
"Haku--" Come in, she thinks, come in come in, and maybe she groans it aloud, or maybe she doesn't and he hears anyway. He gives a wordless hiss and slides against her, grasping her hip to hold her steady and open as he surges in.
It always feels like being flooded, like a dam's crumbling and the water's roaring to fill a place it was meant to fill, while she clings to him and gulps for breath. Of course he's not water, not really, he's solid in her arms, hard inside her, but somehow when he moves--when he ripples--it feels like everything goes to liquid at her core. Sometimes it's all she can do to wrap her legs around him and moan.
This time she needs more than that, needs to feel the way she does when they're flying, with him underneath her and gulfs of night sky stretching below. She shifts her weight toward him, pressing him deeper in. "Haku, can I--I need to--"
Hissing through his teeth, he rolls to let her ride him, pulling her astride. She braces herself on her arms with her hands planted, tossing her head back. She has a muddled sense that you're not supposed to do it like this--you're supposed to lie there and let the boy do the work--but that must be a human rule, not a dragon one, because Haku never holds her to it. He doesn't seem to know it exists. He's so quick, always, like he can see in her mind what she craves, or smell it on her skin, and maybe when they're joined like this he can. His fingers clench her hipbones as he arches up into her, cresting like a wave about to break.
Her arms are shaking now. She can't hold herself up much longer, can't roll her hips down any harder than she already is. He says her name, fiercely, and just like that the last barrier cracks. In the depths of her body something perfect unfurls. The dark behind her eyelids goes white as a torrent, white like stark glitter on a sea too bright to bear. Relief overtakes her, and sweetness in a tide that rushes through her, overflowing all the way to her heels.
When it ebbs she folds onto Haku's chest, limp. He eases them both onto their sides again, slowing in her, and with another small hiss he goes still.
For a long while neither of them moves except to breathe. A soft reluctant sound escapes from Haku's throat as he withdraws. He tangles his fingers in hers.
"Chihiro," he murmurs, "thank you."
She tucks her forehead against his again. She feels sodden, drenched and content; the bedding floats her like a raft of air. "Mm?"
"For being the sea."
If she weren't so drowsy she would giggle. "Are seas supposed to fall asleep after you swim in them?"
"This one is allowed to."
"Oh good." It might be a while before he joins her--he sleeps less than she does, except in the winter--but she knows he's not going anywhere, and it's a luxury to be with him, to have him with her the whole night through. With a sigh she burrows against him and lets herself drift.
There are no windows in the loft, so when she wakes in the morning the only light is welling up from below, cloudy and gray, diffuse. The dimness reminds her of being submerged in a quiet pool. She feels Haku beside her, hears the hush of rain on the thatched roof, both assuring her there's no immediate work to be done outside, no need to get up. The blue blanket draped over them isn't a blanket but Haku's yukata; she feels the weave of it against her hip, her bottom, her breast. Underneath it she shifts her body closer to his, so that even more skin touches skin.
"I thought you said you couldn't make it rain," she says sleepily.
He speaks into her hair. "It wasn't my doing."
"Truly, it wasn't."
He's never lied to her, though sometimes he doesn't think to tell her everything he should. The rain still seems unduly convenient. As Chihiro stretches her legs she feels slickness between them--again, already. It's a neat trick of his, to let her fall asleep and then slither into her dreams, so she wakes up wanting him all over again. "Greedy," she mumbles. "You were in my dream."
"Should I not have been?"
"No, you should." She reaches for him. "It was a good dream."
Even in the gray dimness his eyes glint. Then he's sliding over and onto her, matching her belly to his, and she laughs a little and calls him greedy again, though he isn't really, or if he is then she is, too. They have so many missed nights to make up, along with all the other mornings when they couldn't wake up in the same bed. She's too languorous to move much this time, except to fold her arms around his neck, so she lets him do the moving when he sinks in. He keeps to easy eddying, now and then slowing to a purl, but she's so susceptible that slow motion is enough to carry her. When she comes it's like tumbling over tiny rapids into a basin, with him tumbling in her wake, and afterward she feels revived instead of sleepy.
Revived and starving. When her stomach growls he smiles and pets her belly, indulgent. Straggling upright, she bundles his yukata around him and sends him down the ladder first, in case her legs are so wobbly that she slips and needs to be caught. Then she digs into her duffel bag and pulls on the sleeveless nightgown that got no use during the night.
It turns out her legs will still hold her. For breakfast there's rice leftover from dinner, and Haku makes miso soup with scallions from the garden and dried wakame from the kitchen cupboard. On top of that there's Zeniba's green tea cake. Despite her sense that cake for breakfast is much too decadent, Chihiro decides she needs the energy and cuts a slice. It tastes better than anything she's ever had in a patisserie.
When they've eaten she asks hopefully, "Is it bathtime now?"
Haku blinks. "In the morning?"
Okay, she thinks, this is getting suspicious. A water god ought to be more encouraging of bathing. Probably he's just sitting there secretly delighted that she reeks of sex. Or maybe he thinks getting doused with his essence a couple of times is bath enough. "You said."
He bows his head, which doesn't fully hide his smile. "So I did."
The bath is in an outbuilding behind the cottage, next to the watermelon patch and the trellises of beans. It houses a wooden bathtub, squarish like the building itself, old-fashioned and deep. Chihiro hates to think how long it would take to fill it if you couldn't use magic as its owner can. When he tells her it's ready she follows him out the back door in her sandals, carrying soap and shampoo, towels and a pale green sundress to change into. The morning rain has lessened to a drizzle, hardly enough to moisten her skin, but it feels pleasant and a little daring to be outside in the misty warmth, wearing nothing but a cotton nightgown that doesn't reach her knees.
On her way past the raised beds of vegetables she pauses. Between the neat rows of eggplant a host of weeds is bursting up from the dirt. She'd noticed one or two when she was picking cucumbers, but they seem to have multiplied overnight. Multiplied to the infinite power. Frowning, she calls to Haku.
"Doesn't it seem like there's a lot of weeds?"
He halts at the door to the outbuilding and surveys the garden. "The witch is away," he says at last, as if that explains everything. He's holding the door for her, so Chihiro turns from the eggplants and goes trotting inside.
Wooden slats cover the raised floor of the narrow room, with gaps between them to let washwater drain. Half of the space is occupied by the bathtub. Chihiro sets down her bottles, shimmies out of her nightgown, and reaches for a bucket. Haku merely sheds his yukata and climbs straight into the tub.
"It was the same at the bathhouse whenever Yubaba left," he continues. "If I didn't keep watch."
She blinks. "You mean the garden plants went crazy?"
"Not the gardens. The staff would do things they wouldn't otherwise dare."
"Oh." That made more sense. "So you had to be mean and act like the boss." The water in the bucket is warm, not too hot. Chihiro splashes a palmful over her face and wipes it away. Much as she'd like to just jump in the tub with him, there's sweat to rinse off first, and she wants to wash her hair. "No wonder she used that creepy bug on you, to make you do what she said. You're terrible at being mean."
"Yesterday you said otherwise."
"Eh? I--oh, I did." She rubs soap into her hands to lather. "But I didn't mean it."
He's baiting her, or as close as he ever comes to baiting in his constant mildness, lounging with one arm over the edge of the tub. Twisting her lips, Chihiro holds up her soapy hands and waggles her fingers. "I'm sorry I called you mean," she says fondly. "If you come here I'll scrub your back?"
The bath somehow takes longer than expected. By the time they emerge, the rainclouds have tattered across the sky, letting shafts of bright sunlight through. While Haku makes lunch Chihiro takes off her shoes and wades into the vegetable beds, thinking to pull weeds while the soil's still damp. She doesn't want Zeniba to come home to find the garden completely overrun. Half an hour later it occurs to her to wonder whether there's a spell for pulling weeds, but if Yubaba's bathhouse--and studying for entrance exams--taught her anything, it's that often there's no substitute for hard work. Soon she's sweating again, with dirt mottling her shins and knees, feeling grateful that Haku had the wisdom to leave the bathtub filled.
Just when she can't stand to pull another weed he appears with tea and onigiri, asking what she'd like for dinner. Chihiro hrmms and wipes her brow with the back of her arm.
"The eel was really good. We could make it with sauce this time, instead of doing shirayaki. If you don't mind catching more?"
He doesn't mind. She has to clean up again--her hands, at least--and then they find a spot to eat in the garden, in the shade of a persimmon tree by the well. The patch of grass is still damp from the morning rain, until Haku passes his hand over it and makes it fit for sitting.
"Shall I help you in the garden?" he asks her as they eat.
"I'm done for now," she says, heaving a sigh. "It's too hot. I'm taking a break."
He nods, looking into the distance. "In that case, I may go out for a short while."
"Not for eels." He turns to her. "I found something else yesterday that you might like. I won't be long."
Chihiro waits for him to say more, but he doesn't. She bumps her muddy foot against his pristine shin. "You're being mysterious." But she's used to that. Mystery is one of his charms. She takes another bite of her rice ball and happily chews. Cooking, that's another one. If she made a list it would probably run as long as his whiskers. Maybe both whiskers and tail combined.
He smiles and says nothing more.
"So it's a secret."
Still smiling, he looks serenely upward. The few clouds scudding across the blue are white now, puffy cumulus, the kind people imagine into animal shapes. When Chihiro looks into the sky she has trouble seeing anything but dragons, even when Haku's not really there. At least in this world there are no airplane trails to fool her. She stretches her legs out across the grass and thinks of how nice it would be to lie down here, in the shade of the tree, maybe to take a nap or maybe just to watch the clouds sail.
When she's done eating she does exactly that. The scent of earth and grass deepens as she settles backward, pillowing her head on her folded arms. Haku looks on in approval, then rises to his feet and steps out of the shade into the sun.
"I'll be back soon," he tells her again.
A moment later she hears a rush like a gust of sudden wind, and a white dragon goes spiraling up toward the clouds.
She could've sworn she only closed her eyes for a little while, but when she opens them again the shade has moved--her toes are in the sun--and a bright glint is approaching from the eastern sky. The glint lengthens into a shining ribbon, and soon she can make out Haku's lithe shape, his legs tucked against his body, the green line of his mane.
He stays high as a wild bird until he's directly overhead, above the garden, then circles down in a narrowing coil with enough speed to buffet the boughs of the tree. The leaves rustle wildly and shimmer as he lands. Chihiro's hair flutters back from her face.
He alights almost on top of her, winding around her spot on the grass as she sits up to greet him. He's making his beautiful purr-growl, the one that vibrates all the way through her ribs, as he lowers his head until it's level with hers. Laughing, she hugs his muzzle and plants a kiss on the top of his snout.
"Do I get to know the secret now?"
He curls his lips, not to smile or snarl but to show her something dark and roundish held between his front teeth. Chihiro cups her hands and he drops the something into them: a clam--no, a mussel, dense with meat and broader than her palm.
"For me?" Smiling, she turns the shell over in her hands. It's still sealed up tight, like a wrapped present. "If I'm supposed to open it, I'll have to get a knife."
As she moves to get up his coiled body arches into a fence around her: no, she's not to do that.
Lowering his head again, he touches his nose to the mussel's shell.
It opens slowly, like a flower beginning to bloom. The flesh inside is rosy, and within the flesh as it unfolds she sees a single gleaming pearl.
Holding her breath, she picks out the pearl with her fingers. It's big, big as her thumbnail, uneven in shape, pale pink tinged with silvery gold. A freshwater pearl, not cultured, not the too-perfect white kind she's seen at jewelry counters in department stores. She holds it up in the light, tilting it to watch the iridescence swirl.
"It's so pretty."
Haku deepens his purr. Chihiro lays her cheek against his muzzle, hugging him as best she can with one arm.
"You don't have to get me things. But I love it." She squeezes the pearl in her hand. When she goes home she'll have to keep it secret; her mother would want to know where it had come from. She can carry it in her pocket, maybe, or keep it in her purse. After a minute she looks uncertainly at the opened mussel. "Is this for eating?"
In answer he swipes his tongue across the meat, scooping it out and downing it in one gulp. For him it's not even close to a mouthful. She snickers.
"I guess it is." The inside of the empty shell, too, is pearly and tinged with pink. Chihiro strokes its glossy smoothness before setting it down beside her on the grass. "But how did you know there was a pearl inside?"
Haku's eyelids droop, and he looks pleased enough with himself to be called smug, almost.
"You just knew?"
He rumbles. Maybe it's because she's touching him, her legs and shoulders leaning against his sides, but the sound goes thrumming right through her body, down to the pit of her belly and below. The reverberations summon an answer there, a roil of want like condensing cloud. She sucks in a breath. Haku's eyes sharpen, and she can see his nostrils flare. If anything his sense of smell is keener in this shape, so there's no hiding from that. She's about to ask him to change back, and then she thinks of the possibility that almost choked her at dinner the night before, the thing they haven't tried.
She feels like maybe she could swallow it now, if he could.
"Haku," she says, in a small voice, "can I ask something?"
He nudges her cheek lightly, swiveling his ears. Of course she can ask.
"Can we...can we, like this?"
His eyes widen. It's almost funny how long his lashes are, especially in this shape, but she's too uncertain of his answer to laugh. He draws his neck back--it reminds her less of a snake than of a heron when he does that, or maybe a startled swan--and then his entire length shimmers and goes hazy and contracts. The transformation leaves him blinking at her, kneeling close beside her on the grass.
Chihiro draws her legs up and smiles sheepishly, fighting the urge to cover her face and hide. "I guess that's a no?"
He grasps her hands, studying her. "Is that something you want?" At her wordless nod he asks, "Why?"
Why not doesn't seem like enough of an answer, not for this. She takes a deep breath. "Because--you're still you. I mean, I don't just...stop feeling how I feel when you've got scales on. You're still beautiful." She ducks her head. "I don't know, maybe I'm being too simple-minded."
"No. Not at all." He sits back onto his heels. "You've thought of this before?"
"Sometimes. A little bit. When we're flying, sometimes." It's been hard not to, now that she's not a kid anymore, when he's naked from nose to tail and she's straddling his body, with her breasts pressed to his mane. The way he undulates in midair while he's ascending is no help.
He blinks once or twice more, no longer searching her face. Some of the tension seeps from his arms. "I see. It's only that I never thought you might wish to. Since this form--" he gestures tersely at himself, "is more suited." He pauses. "Does the other one please you better?"
"No! Oh no. They, um, they both please me," she says hastily. "A lot."
"I see." The corners of his eyes soften, and he tightens his clasp on her folded hands. "Chihiro, thank you."
"But...." He pauses again. "I'm afraid it would be too much for you."
It, he says. She's not sure which it he means, and maybe she's better off not knowing. Trying to get a dragon to fit where he doesn't think he will seems like a bad idea. She supposes the point of going to the trouble of having a human shape is to do human-ish things in it, like having sex with your human significant other. But she doesn't see why the only options should be all or nothing.
She bites her bottom lip. "Couldn't we maybe, still...play, a little bit?"
He looks surprised again, and then begins to smile. "I'd like that."
"Yes." Letting go of her hands, he lays one of his at the top of her thigh. Not quite at the crux of the matter, but close--close enough to make her pulse jump, and to rouse twinges of ache where he's almost touching. "I'd like to taste you."
"Ahhh--okay." The nape of her neck prickles, and the twinges worsen. She shifts her weight. "Um, now?"
"If you like."
She glances toward the cottage--are they really not just doing this, but doing it outside?--but then she thinks of how cramped the loft would be, with all his coils. A patch of grass in the shade is nicer than the hard floor of the house. And her feet are still muddy from the garden, besides, and his fingers are curling in the fabric of her sundress and no, no, they're not going anywhere. She bobs her head.
Cupping her cheek, he leans in. "Yes?"
He changes. When the shimmer subsides his body encircles her, so she's sitting at the heart of a white coil. He nuzzles the place on her cheek where his hand was only seconds ago, and she hugs his whole snout, not letting go until he tugs his head free to lower it to her lap.
Part of her can't believe this was her idea, but it's a small and feeble part. As his muzzle brushes along her thigh, pushing under her sundress, any doubts she might have had are drowned out, and then drowned altogether in a flood of heat. His head is big; she has to scoot down and spread her legs further, and that makes her feel wanton in a way it doesn't when he's in his other shape--and then she doesn't care if she's being wanton because he's nuzzling her, right through her panties, warming the cotton fabric with hot, damp breath.
Why on earth did she bother with underwear today, she wonders wildly--is he going to tear them off with his teeth? But his teeth have never scared her, not even the time he was wounded and snapping at everything in his pain, or in the moment when she thrust her hand down his throat to feed him the bitter dumpling that would cure him. Instead of tearing he licks, lightly, through the fabric. Testing, maybe. He's never done that before in any shape--licked her with her panties still on--and just from that she's throbbing, tightening, hunching her shoulders. "Ah--"
He looks up, jaws parted slightly, waiting.
She fumbles to pull her dress up, clumsy and air-headed with want. "No, it's good, it's--more?"
With a purr he wedges his nose between her thighs. Chihiro slumps against whatever part of his belly is coiled behind her. Of course his tongue's bigger this way, a swath of wet warmth that can lave her whole mound and everything below it in one lick. In a few more licks her panties are soaked from both sides. When she can't stand the feel of damp cloth on her anymore she pushes his nose away, just enough to let her lift her hips and drag the panties off and kick them aside.
"Wait," she gulps, when he looks like he's ready to dive right back in. "What--how should I--" Catching hold of his muzzle, she pets his face, his nose, the crest of his mane. "I want to touch you, too. I don't know what's good, like this."
He nudges upward, licks the hollow of her throat. Then he tilts his head to bare his own throat, exposing the place underneath where soft ruff gives way to scales.
"Here?" She puts her hand there, hesitant, then rubs as if he were an enormous cat. He lets out a faint hiss, and his whiskers curl upward, rippling. The way they hover has always amazed her--it's like gravity has no effect on them, like they just float without effort on the air. Of course his whole body is like that when he flies, as buoyant in sky as it is in water. Whiskers, though, whiskers are for sensing, so shouldn't they be sensitive, too? She grasps one of them lightly where it sprouts from his muzzle, enclosing it, and runs tentative fingers along its length.
Another hiss, and he flares up--his mane, his ears, the ruff around his jawline, the arch of his neck.
She lets go of him quickly. Before she can apologize he's nudging her hard, with enough strength to knock her over if she weren't already braced against his body. His eyes glitter. His whiskers trail toward her, as if to insinuate themselves again into her grip.
She clasps both whiskers in her hands, one on each side of his face, and strokes them. He purrs and purrs and nuzzles a path back down her middle, nipping at the fabric of her dress, until he has his nose between her thighs again to press against her sweet spot and lick. Flushed and shivering, she keeps stroking. Then she feels something against her ankle: the tapered end of one whisker, coiling like the tendril of a pale vine. There's no force in it, no real grip--she could shift her foot away if she didn't like it, but not liking it is the furthest thing from her mind.
For a minute she leans her head backward, pillowed against him, looking up dizzily at the sun through the boughs of the tree. She rocks her hips into the press of his tongue, feeling like she's melting under it. His whiskers stiffen in her hands, and all of a sudden it's like they're everywhere, gliding under her sundress, between her breasts, against her skin. The tip of one of them brushes her mouth, almost coaxing; she shuts her eyes and opens her mouth and lets it slip inside.
The growl he makes when she suckles is almost a groan. She feels his body shifting behind and around her, slithering against itself, his tail sweeping back and forth against the grass and then lashing the ground like a whip. She doesn't want to let him out of her mouth, but she needs to breathe, has to jerk her chin up to let him slip loose so she can pant.
"Haku," she says raggedly, "Haku, maybe you should change back and--ah--"
Just then he tilts his head, searching for an angle that lets him slide his tongue deeper in. It's too big, it ought to be too big but it's hot and wet and thick and her body just wants, wants that, wants him. Caught without any breath to moan, she reaches down with both hands and spreads her own swollen lips. He licks hard, growling into her, so she feels the sweet thrum of it right on her clit. With a short sob she lets go to grab hold of his mane, his horns, clinging to him. He growls once more, like it's an affirmation, and she bends over his head and shudders with her release.
For a long time after he goes on licking the insides of her thighs, gently, as if to lap up every last glimmer of wet. Chihiro buries her face in his mane, mumbling to herself or both of them.
"That was so good. Why was that so good." She doesn't need an answer or expect one, not even when he changes back into his other shape and tilts his head up to kiss her mouth. Kissing is better this way, for sure, but she feels a little bereft, a little more naked without his coils wrapped around her, making a nest for her to be dissolute in. His gaze on her is still soft as grass. His fingers touch her hand, coax it open, and place something small and hard in her palm.
She blinks down at the pearl in surprise. When had she--
"You dropped it," he says, with a smile just this side of wry.
They spend the rest of the afternoon in the garden, more at play than at work, and the evening after dinner settled in the loft, side by side, browsing books from Zeniba's bookshelf. Haku leafs through the book of magic, while Chihiro pulls out The Knitting Way: A Guide to Spiritual Self-Discovery.
"Maybe I could learn to knit," she muses. At Haku's quizzical look she says, "It's not just for old ladies. I knew some girls at school who were really into it. They started a club and everything." She flips through the book, looking mainly at the pictures: hats and scarves and shawls and totes.
Haku peers at the open page. "I never thought it was only for ladies of any age. Only that your people are always making things."
Human people, he means. Chihiro supposes it's true. In the old days women had to make clothes for their entire households--it must have been a lot of work, she thinks, feeling a little in awe of her ancestresses. But she can't imagine her mother sewing or knitting anything. "I guess we are. I could make you a scarf. If I made you a scarf, would you wear it?"
She doesn't quite roll her eyes. "Not in summer."
"Chihiro," he says, leaning toward her, "I would wear anything you gave me."
"Really? Anything?" The possibilities begin to swarm. "Sunglasses? A Hawaiian shirt?"
She rolls over onto her back, wracked with giggles. He looks on peaceably, unperturbed, and asks whether she doesn't approve of how he clothes himself.
"Oh, no. You look good in this." She reaches out to finger the front of his yukata. "Really, really good."
He smiles and puts the book of spells aside.
On the third day the clouds return, dark and gravid. Once it sets in the rain is relentless, nothing like the idle showers of the day before. The two of them stay in bed for hours, well into what must be afternoon, although Chihiro can't tell from the murky tone of the light what time it is, and the clock on her mobile phone is frozen at the hour she crossed over from the other world.
At last she has to beg for a respite. For a second Haku stares as her blankly, like she's speaking in tongues, before he blinks and draws a sharp breath as if snapping out of a daze. She's never seen him look so chagrined.
"No, it's okay," she soothes. "Really, it is. You didn't break me or anything. I just need a rest."
She pulls his head to lie pillowed on her breast and pets his hair to reassure him. "Do you not get worn out, ever?"
Bemusement slowly replaces his chagrin. "I don't know. I've never...been this way before. It's not the same as flowing to the sea, or furrowing the earth. But I never tired of doing those things."
"Oh, wow." She's let herself in for it, though. A few thousand years, a few tens of thousands. And she wants that, never mind she's slightly winded at the moment. The thought of having to leave the cottage in the morning fills her with heavy reluctance. Three days is too short a time, barely enough to get her feet wet. She wants to stay, to go on keeping house with him, or better yet to find or make a place of their own, a place for both of them to be.
It isn't easily done in her world. Maybe it would be easier in this one. She looks up at the cottage roof-beams, wondering as she never has before how Zeniba came to live here. Whether there might be other houses like this one, at other stations or further afield, uninhabited. Waiting for someone to take up residence.
"Haku," she asks in a murmur, "could we live in a place like this? Like, not this house, but a different one? I mean, it's really nice." A little lonely, maybe, but there would be friends nearby, friends to visit at the bathhouse, and probably other friends in this world she has yet to meet. "I could get used to living here."
"You have a place in your world," he says quietly. "And your schooling. Do you not want to finish it?"
"No, I want to." She didn't go through all the work of getting good grades and passing exams just to give up on school. If she can do something to ensure that what happened to Haku's river happens to fewer others, she wants to do it. Even her dad seems proud that she'll be following in his footsteps, in a way. She sighs. "I guess it'd be hard to commute, huh. But maybe someday?"
"Someday," Haku murmurs. "I hope we can."
It's hunger that drives them out of bed at last. They crawl down from the loft to make a meal in some uncertain space between lunch and dinner: tea and rice, and eggplant grilled with miso glaze. When Chihiro ventures into the garden it's like a jungle--both the weeds and the vegetables are inexplicably huge--but the rain keeps streaming down, and in the time it takes to pick the eggplant her hair and clothes are slicked to her skin.
By morning the rain has almost cleared, but then it's time to say goodbye to the cottage. As she and Haku make ready to leave Chihiro writes a note to Zeniba. Dear Granny, it reads, I'm so sorry about the weeds. Yesterday it rained all day and we couldn't really do any work in the garden. Maybe you know a spell that can get rid of just the weeds without hurting the vegetables. Haku says it's hard to do. Other than the weeds we didn't have any trouble, and nobody tried to break in and steal anything. Thanks for asking us to stay. We had a really nice time.
On her return home Zeniba takes one look at the petunias in the window boxes--the lush leaves, the fat burgeoning blooms--and claps her hands.
"What did I tell you?" she cackles. "Worked like a charm. Better than any spell I could've cast, and that's saying something. We'll have to send them a melon as a thank-you gift."
Her companion heaves her suitcase down with a gusty sigh. "Ah, ah."
"I'm sure you would have, but a girl like that has her modesty, and I'd be surprised if the dragon took kindly to your gawking. His kind may be good-natured, but they get tetchy about their pearls."
"Yes, I know she's not literally, you goose, it was a metaphor. Come on, let's have a look at the beans. I'll bet they're as tall as the house."