Haku gripped the left armrest of the seat tightly, forcing himself to endure what was about to happen. His right hand was twined in Chihiro's as he reminded himself to breathe. Haku didn't need air the way mortals did, but not breathing might rouse unwanted attention from the people surrounding them.
“I wouldn't have thought you would be afraid of flying,” Chihiro said.
“I'm not afraid of flying,” he replied, trying not to squeeze her fingers too tightly. Despite his human-shape, he was much stronger than a man. It would be too easy to break her if he wasn't paying attention. “I simply don't enjoy flying in such an unnatural way.”
Chihiro exhaled gently and didn't laugh. With her wordless reply, Haku knew she understood why he was uncomfortable. Rubbing her thumb over the back of his knuckles, she matched the strokes to the rhythm of her calm breathing. As the plane taxied to the runway, he knew he only had himself to blame for his predicament.
Meeting Chihiro again had been a given. He had loved her ever since they'd met, and he had never forgot the joy hearing his name on her lips.
Getting married had been a trickier proposition, but he was a selfish enough creature not to want anyone else to own her affections. Making a life in the human world was by turns frustrating, irritating and confusing, but it was all worth it when she agreed to marry him on her twentieth birthday. The wedding had been a fine affair a week gone, but he was not looking forward to the vacation they were going on.
His new in-laws had presented them with a honeymoon package to Western Europe without even asking. Haku would have preferred to stay in Japan, but Chihiro's delight at the gift (and how unacceptably rude it would be to refuse) had ensured that he didn't offer any objection.
The whine of the engines sounded wrong to him. When he flew in dragon-shape, he slipped the earth and spiraled into the sky. Even when his name had been lost to Yubaba, the ability to soar into the solitary peace of the air had been something he retained.
This was just wrong.
The metal around him dulled his senses, protecting him from the sky which was his only remaining home. The acceleration of human made contraption (airplane) pushed him back further into the seat, and further away from the lands where his river had once flown. Spirits never left the lands that birthed them without good cause, and Haku had spoken to a few who had before undertaking this trip overseas.
One had called it an orphaning, another compared it to having a limb severed. Neither had anything favorable to say about the world beyond, and both told him not to go if he could avoid it.
He hadn't listened.
Haku should have explained things to Chihiro and make other arrangements, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to dampen her happiness.
Being around her would be enough, he vowed. He would enjoy the trip vicariously through her. He could be a bit grumpy about the plane – it seemed to be traditional – but once he disembarked, he would not show any sign of his unhappiness.
Gritting his teeth as the metal contraption began to tilt, Haku reminded himself that this was for his wife (and how good it felt to think of Chihiro as his, officially and forever), and he wouldn't spoil her vacation. Once this trip was over, he could gracefully extract himself from the obligation of ever leaving Japan again.
Even as he thought it, Haku knew he was making a false promise. If Chihiro decided she wanted to travel somewhere else, he would be by her side without exception.
Haku would go anywhere for her smile.
Chihiro was not unaware of how much of an effort it was for Haku to make this dream vacation happen. Even though he had faithfully studied up on London and its attractions, she had known he was not eager to leave. The faintest trace of guilt lingered deep in her belly, a nagging ache that would only be appeased if he was able to find something to like about this trip.
She wanted him to enjoy himself, but wondered if that was possible. Haku lived between realities, shifting fluidly between the spirit world and her more humdrum life, but those realities were firmly based in Japan. He had never been anywhere else, despite his many years of life. Once his lack of experience might have been easily explained by the difficulties of travel and the duties of a river god, but the world had become much smaller, and Haku had no river left to call his own.
The fact that Haku had never chosen to venture beyond his borders was worrying. She should have addressed it with him, but she had been afraid she wouldn't like the answers. Despite their several years of dating, at times she was struck by how utterly alien he could be.
Chihiro was human, and she had willfully convinced herself that a trip to London (a free trip) would be something they could both enjoy. After they stepped off the plane in Heathrow, she glanced back at Haku to see how he was faring.
His sharp-featured face was neutral as he moved aside to let a mother with three children in tow plow past. Haku and Chihiro had been seated toward the back (as much as they loved their daughter, the Oginos hadn't splurged for an upgrade), and were among the last to deplane. They had been crammed in for over twelve hours, and Chihiro was more than ready to be set free.
Despite his carefully blank expression, she could tell Haku felt the same.
“Are you okay?” she asked, moving herself to the side of the jet bridge so she wouldn't impede the flow of traffic.
“I'm fine,” he assured her. “The air just tastes different.”
She gauged his expression, wondering if he was demurring, but decided to take him at his word. Haku never lied. If there was something he couldn't deal with, he would tell her.
“Good different or bad different?” she asked.
“Different different,” he said. “Like ramen with a seasoning you've never tasted. I can't decide if I like it or not without tasting a bit more.”
She laughed, a bit of her lingering guilt ebbing. “You'll tell me if you're unhappy, right?”
“I would, but I don't think it's possible for me to be truly unhappy when you're with me. I might get grumpy, but I'd rather be grumpy where you are than alone in Japan.”
Her stomach squeezed with a fluttering feeling, and she wished that they were alone so she could hug him as she longed to. Haku was different than anyone she knew, part god and part dragon and part lost spirit, but there was no one who could make her feel more loved. He didn't think before showing affection, and the way he spoke was always considerate of her needs. She was lucky to have him, and she prayed that she could love him enough in return.
The only way to reply was to kiss his cheek, ignoring the stares of the final passengers walking by. Haku blushed, but didn't seem concerned about the impropriety of the affectionate display. They were on their honeymoon, after all.
It took another hour to clear customs, getting their passports neatly stamped (and her questions about Haku's acquisition of one had only been answered by smug smiles). Haku took her carry-on and his in order to descend via escalator to the waiting area.
Thankfully, their hotel had a shuttle service which would get them into the city without fuss. It was too early to check in, but the concierge would take care of their bags while they explored the city. After having their day turned upside down, they still had another twelve hours before they should seek their bed. Their travel agent had been very insistent on the importance of adjusting to the local time without taking a nap.
They were lucky that didn't present a problem. Chihiro had slept well on the plane, aided by a kiss from Haku that contained the suggestion of sleep, and Haku couldn't be weighed down by mortal fatigue.
The driver they were assigned was an olive-skinned man with heavy stubble in his middle years, his complexion not at all like the white Englishmen that showed up in the movies. He spoke quickly, and although her English was decent by school standards, the way he phrased his words didn't sound anything like it did on the television or the book tapes she had borrowed from the library.
Haku handled the introduction, providing directions to where they wanted to go and confirming that the trip was complimentary. Chihiro had studied English all the way through high school, but Haku spoke all tongues effortlessly. It was a spirit thing, the knowledge of how to communicate with every living thing, and useful.
She would have been a bit resentful if she wasn't so entranced at the way Haku sounded speaking a foreign tongue. The words lacked the music of Japanese, but the harshness of the language did things for her that made her blush to think about. Maybe later that night, he would recite Shakespeare or something, and they could...
Chihiro forced herself to stop that train of thought immediately.
As they rode through London in the back of a cute little car, Chihiro craned her head around, trying to see everything. The buildings from the airport were suburbia, and not at all like the documentaries had promised. The driver made the occasional comment, but only Haku understood him.
“It's a good thirty minutes to your hotel. Nice place you're staying, right in the center of things,” their driver said, before turning his attention back to the road.
Haku leaned over and translated into her ear to make sure she had understood.
“Can you ask him what we should do first?” She had spent weeks pouring over tour guides, but there was so many options that she hadn't been able to choose. Haku had told her whatever she wanted was fine with him, as long as they made time to get the famous fish and chips.
Haku faithfully relayed her question, and the driver had an immediate response.
“Hop on a river bus and go down the Thames to the Tower of London. The weather's good, and it's a great way to see the sites. Plus you have to see the Crown Jewels.”
“That doesn't sound like a bad idea,” Chihiro said. “My mother made me promise to take pictures of the diamonds.”
“Do they allow cameras in?”
“That wouldn't deter her,” Chihiro said, chagrined that she hadn't thought of it. “I guess we'll have to visit to find out.”
“It seems as good a place to start as any,” Haku said. “And then we can do lunch at a pub.”
“You're obsessed with fish and chips.”
He smiled, and if he had been a dragon, his whiskers would have been twitching. “It's legendary, and I like fish.”
“I know you do,” she replied, laughing. “I promise to let you eat all the fish and chips you can find provided you brush your teeth after every meal.”
“That is why I married you.”
She slapped him lightly on the shoulder, but couldn't stop the bubbling laughter from erupting. It only took a second for him to join her, a unique, light chuckle that was more charming than even a belly laugh. It set her off again, and Chihiro laughed until her sides were sore.
Their driver, well used to insane foreigners, just ignored them.
Haku started to recognize buildings he had seen in Chihiro’s tourist guides. Their driver pointed out several of the museums, and they rolled past several intricate churches he would have liked to spend some time exploring. The architecture was haphazard, with ancient structures abutting more modern construction. They had watched numerous films about the Blitz and the resulting destruction, but this was the first time it seemed like more than static pictures on a screen.
Chihiro, too, took notice and started to ask questions about what she was seeing. The driver gave colorful answers, but it was cumbersome since Haku had to translate. Seeing Chihiro's delight as they rolled by Parliament made Haku smile to himself. Traveling wasn't such a bad thing after all; maybe having a human companion was what made all the difference.
That thought stopped abruptly as soon as they hit Westminster Bridge.
The bridge, a construction of concrete and metal, was painted a faint green and bordered on either side by statuary. Along the edges, elaborately shaped metal lampposts grew out of the sides, the shapes reminiscent of old gas lighting. It was pretty, but the second their car rolled over the bridge, all he could think of was what lay under them.
His river had been a minor tributary of the Kinugawa, which in turn fed into the Tonegawa. He knew Kinugawa's temperamental dragon very well, but he had only met Tonegawa's spirit once. That spirit, a great river that dominated its surroundings, had made him realize just how insignificant he really was. The spirits of the Great Rivers were different, reaching out from the spirit world to shape all creatures that lived within its grasp. It was a power that Haku couldn't even begin to fathom.
This River was the more like Tonegawa than any other he had met.
Locked within the metal box of the vehicle, Haku gripped his wife's hand again. Everything in him was begging to offer some kind of respect for the mighty spirit below, and he had to remind himself that it wasn't appropriate to shed his human-seeming in front of their driver.
Chihiro didn't ask any questions, instead remaining silent and stroking his palm with her reassuring thumb. The warmth of her human skin grounded him, and he could breathe again as soon as they hit the South Bank.
He offered her a wan smile to tell her he was alright.
Their driver, like most humans, didn't notice that anything had been awry. Instead, he chuckled, taking his eyes off the road to nod to the left side.
“Old Father Thames can have that effect on people the first time. The Thames may not be the widest river there is, but it's impossible not to feel the history when you see it,” the man said. “The River is London's heart and soul.”
“He is very striking,” Haku agreed, but didn't say anything else.
Thankfully, he didn't have to. The driver pulled into one of the Plazas, and turned the car off.
Before getting out of the car, Haku slid on the pair of glasses he wore to protect himself when out in public. Chihiro liked the way they looked on him, but they also served an important function to help him fit into the human world. There was nothing magical about them, and they had no prescription. But when Haku looked through the human made glass, he saw the world as a human did, a world that didn't have spirits or shadows of the past mixing in the modern day. It was a simpler world, and Haku found it easier to “act human” when he wasn't seeing things they couldn't.
Besides, humans were very uneasy when someone started a conversation with an unseen companion.
It only took another five minutes to meet with the concierge and learn there was a good four hours before they could check in. Chihiro paused, nibbling on her bottom lip uncertainly.
He knew what - who - was bothering her. Haku hated the fact that he was taking any of her joy out of their vacation with his obvious discomfort for the foreign place.
“Didn't you want to go to the Tower of London?” he asked, hoping that a gentle prompt could get things back on track without a long explanation. He would tell her, tonight when they were alone, but a hotel lobby wasn't where he wanted to have the conversation.
“Only if you're feeling up to it,” she replied. “It won't be any fun if you're unhappy.”
She was so gracious, offering him an excuse.
“Just a bit of jet lag,” he said. “We're only here for three days before we're due in Paris, so we shouldn't waste time.”
She was still uncertain, he could tell from her posture, but she didn't make an issue of it. Instead, she reached out and took his hand, and they went out into the City.
Whenever he looked out of the side of his eyes, he caught glimpses of the otherworld overlapping with the more mundane one. He didn't mention it to Chihiro, since the South Bank had long been one of London’s more colorful areas, and he didn't want to worry her. Chihiro, unlike most humans, had already journeyed between worlds, and letting her know what underneath might open her up to things she would rather not see. None of the spirits would be silly enough to offer them any harm, so there was no point in raising it as an issue.
He caught the sight of a form wearing a white mask with a long beak walking through a narrow street which no longer existed, and resolutely returned to staring through his glasses.
It was a short walk back to Westminster Bridge. The sidewalks were busy but not packed, and the souvenir vendors were out but not forcibly hawking. The tourists were able to convince themselves that they absolutely needed the pro-London merchandise without additional prompting.
Without the protection of the auto, the presence of the river was nearly overwhelming. He focused on Chihiro at his side, reminding himself which world he currently belonged to.
Westminster Bridge was a nice span, well decorated and made for pedestrians as well as vehicles. He couldn't help but think of the other bridge they had crossed together at the Aburaya. This time he was the nervous one, needing her strength.
To their right, the London Eye rose, dominating the skyline. Ahead of them, he could just see Elizabeth Tower, with the famous clock holding Big Ben marking the time as nearing eleven. The lines of tourists were following across the bridge, with some stepping off at the end to walk down to the river launches. Haku could only spare a glance at them, far more intent on remembering that he was a river spirit no longer.
Even his glasses couldn't prevent him from seeing all that the Thames had been. The sidelong flashes were becoming more frequent, and a slight stench arose from the river, an echo of what had gone before.
“Are you okay?” Chihiro asked again when they were just about to the halfway point.
He couldn't lie to her. “There's a lot to take in,” he said diplomatically.
“Does London still taste like funny ramen?”
The suggestion made him laugh. “It smells like forgotten cesspools and abattoirs.”
The face she made wasn't pleasant. “That's awful.”
“Not entirely.” He tried to think on how to explain what his nose was telling him. London had been built on the back of the River Thames, and its inhabitants were unable to forget. “I also smell tea and coffee and baking and the scent of horses. There's paint from easels and sweat from athletes on their crafts, burnt wood and coal from the boats. There's thousands of things, some of them I can't name but I know. London is such an alive place, and River Thames smells like that.”
“I don't know if I'm glad or not to miss it,” Chihiro admitted.
Haku smiled, but didn't point out that he would never give up what his senses told him. Despite the glasses, all he had to do was pull them down his nose to immerse himself in the more.
He thought a moment, and then made a decision. It was so fundamentally human to take the well-trod path laid out by millions of tourists who had made the same trek. They could go down to the boats and ride down the rivers just like everyone else, and surely enjoy the experience.
But it wasn't the only option.
He stopped, and let himself feel the power of the River below. It wasn't going to suck him under, but it did demand respect. Chihiro looked up through her bangs, waiting for him to explain.
“I think we might be able to invent our own tour,” he said. “We can do the Tower later, but I know a better way to get to understand London.”
“There's more to this place than what most people see,” he said. He pulled the glasses off his face, neatly tucking them away in their case. Around him, the layers of history and spirits flared into life, a visual and aural cacophony that took him a second to sort through before settling down to manageable levels.
“Do you want to see the real River Thames?”
This was their honeymoon, and what could be more romantic than doing something that shared both of their worlds?
Chihiro didn't answer immediately, thinking through what he had meant. She had only gone back to the Aburaya once, the day after she had accepted Haku's marriage proposal. Afterwards she admitted to him that while she had been glad to see old friends (Boi and Rin and Kabaji and Kaonashi and Zeniba and even Yubaba), the place unsettled her somewhat. Entering an unknown spirit world might not be something she desired.
But Haku knew her bravery, and thus knew the answer would be a yes even before she spoke.
“Let's have an adventure. We'll make a new memory to share,” Chihiro agreed, glancing around to see if anyone was watching before rising to her tiptoes to kiss his lips gently.
He smiled down at her, before stealing one more gentle kiss for good measure. He never would have dared in Japan, but no one knew who they were here.
Then he stepped back, evaluating the bridge carefully before deciding they could depart from where they stood. Haku bowed, sweeping his arms out like a Duke in those silly period pieces that Chihiro was so fond of. As he straightened, he extended his hand, palm-up, toward her. “Shall we go, my lady?”
Chihiro tipped her nose up as she placed her palm against his. “Lead on, my lord,” she replied, struggling not to laugh.
It took only a bit of magic for Haku to surround them with a field that averted mortal eyes away. The magic raced over his skin, feeling good after so long trapped by first the airplane and then the auto.
He felt like he could breathe, the first time he'd been able to do so since climbing into the cabin. Haku couldn't fight the slight smirk that stretched his face as he stepped up invisible stairs to the bridge's rail. Chihiro trailed in his wake, a little wobblier on the magic steps, but with no less confidence that the air would support her weight. “Ready?” he asked.
“To fly with you? Always.”
He liked the giddiness of her smile, but couldn't resist a bit of teasing. “We're not really going to fly. This time, it's the landing that matters,” he replied.
Pulling her close to his side, he stepped over the edge and took her with him. Chihiro cried out in surprise, laughing as they fell toward the River Thames together.
Maybe I should have said bimonthly on updates since I'm such a slow editor. I hope you enjoy the next part!
There was ice upon the water, forming a firm surface to stand upon. It was the first thing Chihiro noticed when her shoes hit the ground, striking with no more force than if she'd simply jumped a foot or two before landing.
For a second, Chihiro was utterly disoriented. It had been September a moment ago, but the spirit world didn’t always reflect the human one. Chihiro tensed, waiting for a blast of cold to hit her.
It never came.
Instead, she was assaulted by a cacophony of sounds and scents that made her want to slap her hands over her nose and ears protectively. The din made her dizzy, and she braced herself against Haku to give herself a moment to settle before looking around.
The sky still held daylight, but that was the only thing that remained the same.
Along the shores, there were new buildings, structures from quaint little houses to elaborately spiraled churches. People – not all human – swarmed through the area in haphazard ways, each going their own direction with little care for others. Some wore modern clothing, but most looked like reenactors that had stepped out of history books. A Roman soldier argued with a Victorian lady to their left, and children dressed in homespun without shoes played football with others wearing gas masks on their faces.
It was like someone had taken a history book, yanked out random pages, and shoved them back together. Chihiro might have liked the juxtaposition if things stayed put long enough for her to study.
One second, she was examining at a building that looked like a medieval church, and the next second, it faded, replaced by a Jacobean tobacco shop. She blinked as the shop faded into ruins covered by red ash. Another two turns convinced Chihiro there was no rhyme or reason to the rotation.
It reminded her of the way night had fallen at the Aburaya that first evening, the way the night had shifted as the gods began to appear from around her. Chihiro turned her head from where the tobacco shop was now dominating, with the faint outlines of a blocky, Brutalistic tower lingering behind.
Hopefully this trip would not involve people being transformed into pigs.
“Wow,” she said. “It's so much.”
“It's messy,” Haku said. He stood beside her, his eyes flickering that changeable brown-blue-green that reminded her of his river. “Too much has gone on here for the spirit realm to decide on a true identity. It wants to keep everything.”
She looked down at the ice under her feet, reassuring herself that it was too thick to break under her weight. The subtle discomfort of not having sensation match what her eyes were perceiving was the most disconcerting thing about this new place. “I think I should be cold, but it still feels like autumn.”
“You'll be fine without sweater. It's not really winter, but we needed something to stand on.”
“So we're seeing ice?”
“Yes. There used to be Ice Festivals around here when the Thames froze over, and a part of them linger. Along with everything else,” Haku said, sounding disapproving.
Chihiro scanned around her, trying not to feel too dizzy. Everything looked like double or triple exposed negatives, the kind her mother had unwillingly collected during Chihiro's childhood due to her father's extreme inability with a camera.
“If there's ice, why isn't it cold?”
“Because anyone who gets this far is encouraged to stay.”
“Stay? Stay here?”
“With the River Thames,” Haku said. “He appears to be the possessive sort.”
She remembered the Aburaya, and the last time she had encountered possessive spirits. Yubaba's voice was suddenly in her head, expressing a disdain for the humans who stumbled upon the spirit realm. “Maybe I shouldn't be here.”
Haku knew what she was thinking, and hurried to reassure her. “I'll get you back out,” Haku promised, squeezing her fingers. “Just don't eat anything that I don't give you.”
Holding her hands out in front of her face, she checked to make sure the flesh was all there and none of it was transparent. “Will I be okay if I don't?”
“It works differently over here.” His shoulders rose and fell with a shrug. “Western spirits never make sense.”
As if to punctuate his point, a toad dressed in Edwardian finery motored passed in an antique automobile. The toad was singing at the top of his voice, ignoring the way his panicked passenger (a badger dressed neatly, although not as extravagantly, in an Inverness cape and morning suit) was begging for him to slow down.
Chihiro's eyebrows lifted as the spectacle vanished under Westminster Bridge. “All frogs are alike,” she said, thinking of the greedy Aogaeru from the Aburaya. The thought made her relax, and a giggle escaped her.
“That's a toad spirit.”
She crossed her eyes at her husband and huffed melodramatically. Sometimes he was too pedantic for his own good. “You're such a stickler. They look alike.”
Haku refused to rise to the bait, changing the topic instead. “Do you want to stay here, or do you want to look around?”
“I'll follow your lead. Where should we go?”
Instead of using sight, Haku shut his eyes and inhaled the air. There were so many scents that Chihiro was overwhelmed, but Haku was able to sort it out readily.
“That way,” he said, pointing down the river to the next bridge. “If we head down far enough, we'll reach London Bridge. That's the heart of this place.”
“London Bridge like 'London Bridge is Falling Down?'”
“The same,” Haku said.
Chihiro clung to his hand, remembering how he had led her into the Aburaya. She had been so scared, but Haku had proven himself a being to be trusted.
The ice was strong under them, though they had to duck a couple of the less experienced skaters wearing iron blades tied to their shoes. They passed a small circle of dogs ringed around a man tied down with a stake, a bear in a tall black hat holding a whip to keep the screaming man in place. Neither the bear or the dogs seemed that interested in attacking, but the man was casting down truly horrific curses.
Chihiro didn't think he was the kind of person she would like, but she felt compelled to as least ask. “Should we....”
“No. It's justice,” was all Haku would say. He pulled her along, and they passed by a hackney coach driven by a kangaroo wearing a blue-powdered wig.
Off to their right side appeared a string of stalls set up on the river itself, perched on top of the ice defiantly. Some of it looked like it was driftwood, but some round edges hinted at old barrels. The materials were just as much of a mishmash as the people who were skating around, dickering over purchases.
“Don't see many of your kind around here!” a feminine voice called from behind one of the booths. The booth was piled so high with rags and knickknacks that it was impossible to see who was speaking. “Plenty of humans stumble through, but I've never seen an Asian dragon come this way.”
Chihiro had forgotten this land was just as foreign to Haku as it was to her. “We're just visiting,” Haku said calmly.
There was a jingling sound of unmelodic metal striking as a goods shuffled on the shelf. “London's always open to tourists,” the creature agreed. Her voice sounded nearer, but Chihiro still could not see the speaker. The creature – it wasn't human, although it seemed to be female – beckoned with a long, thin hand over a stack of old books. “Come closer and see my wares!”
“We don't have a need for anything. We're just passing through.”
“No one passes through London without shopping! Everyone can find something useful here.” The finger crooked, and the voice rasped, “I have the perfect trinket for your companion.”
Haku started to tug Chihiro's hand to lead her away, but Chihiro hesitated.
“Would it hurt to listen?” she asked, curious in spite of herself. Not all spirits were bad, she thought, remembering Zeniba's kindness to them both. This spirit might have her own agenda and own motivations, but that didn’t mean she would cause harm.
“Listening leads to buying,” Haku said cautiously.
“Course it does, but I only sell things to the right person!” the voice piped in. “Tis my trade to match the buyer to the items they need. I wouldn't get repeat business if I wasn't honest,” the shopkeeper said, and she sounded affronted. “It just so happens your lady fair is a good match for something I've been holding onto.”
The pure white fingers slid under a sack of rags, and drew out a pair of lenses banded with silver. They looked old, but in the fascinating way of well-crafted heirlooms. To call them spectacles would have been a misnomer, for they were far more decorative than a common pair of glasses.
“These should help you keep things straight. A person looking through these will be able to sort out London's layers,” the shopkeeper explained.
The frames were perfect circles approximately five centimeters, and attached through a slender arc of silver that served as the nose piece. Instead of ear pieces, there was a handle made of elaborately embellished silver that extended from the right side. The silver was antique, a deep gray without tarnish.
Chihiro found it more charming for not being highly-polished. Her friend Mariko was into steampunk cosplay, and Chihiro had tried on some of the accessories for fun. The lenses were of far better quality than anything in Mariko's collection, though, and Chihiro’s fingers itched to touch.
“It's a pinch nez!” Chihiro said, clapping her hands together as she remembered the word.
“It's a lorgnette,” the spirit corrected. “Proper English device, unlike those silly French things. Won't make your nose hurt from being squeezed wrong, and they're a pretty piece besides.”
Chihiro nudged Haku, indicating he should step in. Deals with spirits were chancy things, and she wasn't going to accept one just because the item in question was attractively shiny.
Haku touched the silver with a single index finger, checking on the composition. “It's memory silver,” he told his wife.
“Indeed it is. It was mined here, right in Devon, and has traded owners and form many times. The silver holds the memory of what it's been, and it's been around for a long, long time.”
Haku's finger traced down the handle, his eyes intent. “There's sense of coins, and jewelry and a religious item. It's been well loved.”
“Which makes it a good everyday form of magic that can't be tampered with, rather than a temporary spell. It just is, and you'll find that plenty valuable.”
The idea was tempting. Chihiro thought of the headache she would shortly have if things kept flickering so rapidly.
Haku's fingers traced down. “And what would the price for such a treasure be?”
The shopkeeper laughed, a deep, squawking sound that rolled over Chihiro's ears. “We Londoners are merchants, and appreciate the value of a good trade. I've got a son who intends on visiting Japan, and a bit of kindness his way would go far. Perhaps a dinner at a good restaurant, and an introduction or two to likely customers.”
Haku's posture remained rigid. “You're selling these for such a small favor?” he asked.
The shopkeeper laughed again. “I'm not selling them, mind you. It's a loan, a rental if you like. If you end up taking this out of Britannia, it's no good anymore. No, no... you'll return them when you're done.”
“Return them how?”
“Before you leave London, just throw them back into the Thames. They will come back to my shop.”
That made Haku's shoulders relax. “It's a fair price for a loan,” he said, before turning back to the shopkeeper. “I will make the bargain with you.”
Haku made sure he was the one to seal the deal with the swan spirit. Swans were a temperamental bunch, and he didn't want to entangle Chihiro unnecessarily. The swan's bargain had been reasonable, and introducing her son to Yubaba would more than pay for the temporary loan. Yubaba was a good businesswoman, and she would be an ideal contact for a newcomer looking to open up business routes.
Not all deals with spirits need be bad. Spirits were inclined to trick each other if possible, but a swan spirit wouldn't willingly cross a dragon. Swans were very tasty, and water dragons didn't need to cook to enjoy a meal.
Besides, it was most appropriate for a new husband to give his wife something pretty on their honeymoon.
And Yubaba was a good business woman who could take care of herself. Serving as an intermediary would be no hardship for Haku. Sometimes, rarely, deals benefited all involved, the way trade was meant to do and rarely did.
Haku took the lorgnette from the swan spirit himself, ensuring that he was the purchaser and no ties of obligation would bind his wife. The silver tingled pleasantly against his skin, full of the magic of this foreign land.
He stepped around Chihiro so he stood on her left, leaving her dominant hand free. He thought about playfully dangling their “loan” out of her reach to tease, but Chihiro didn’t like being reminded of all the inches of height she had not achieved. Instead, he pressed the silver into her fingers, and watched as she raised them to her face.
“This really helps!” Chihiro said, peering through. She slowly turned around, a grin on her face as she finally was able to concentrate on one thing at a time.
Haku found himself smiling from her contagious enthusiasm, and reached out to take her free hand. He didn’t want to let go, just in case.
They walked onto the next bridge, a newer bridge that smelled like trains. There was another double-image, but it was much less overwhelming. Chihiro looked up to examine the locomotive crossing the older of the two images, another piece of Victorian craft that was beautiful in simply existing.
Then she gasped. “Oh, my goodness!” Chihiro exclaimed, jerking her head back as movement caught her eyes. There was a body dropping from the walkway, falling and falling. Just before it hit the water, it vanished and reappeared on the walkway, only to fall again.
“Traumatic moments have a way of sticking,” Haku said, dropping her hand in order to wrap a protective arm over her shoulders. “Look away, there’s nothing we can do.”
The scene replayed, and once again the body disappeared before hitting the water.
“But that poor man!” Chihiro reached out, as though she wanted to try to catch him.
Haku loved her compassion, but the spirit world was not a kind place. “It’s an important moment to the Thames. At some point, maybe the right person will come along to heal it, but we’re not those people.”
“How do you know that?” she asked, crossly.
“It’s not our sin to expiate,” Haku said, hustling her along as they moved under the bridge, leaving the falling man behind. The spirit world was amazing, but not all of what it contained was nice.
“But-“ Chihiro tried to protest one more time, looking back over her shoulder. She neglected to use the lorgnette, and she squinted for a moment at the overlaying images that assaulted her eyes. She spun back around, her face upset.
It hurt Haku, and he stopped so they remained sheltered under the bridge. A couple of the nearest spirits stared, but none of them made any approach. Despite his human-seeming, it was impossible for any of them to mistake him for anything but what he was. None of the local spirits were foolish enough to tangle with a dragon.
“We can go back to Modern London if you like,” Haku offered. “All we have to do is step on the bank.”
Chihiro hesitated, before shaking her head in a firm no. “I’d forgotten that parts of the spirit world were scary. But it’s there for a reason?” she asked, her voice lilting upward with a questioning plea.
“The river remembers,” he said, as though that should be explanation enough.
He could tell from her eyes Chihiro didn’t understand, but she trusted him enough to not demand clarification. It was one of the many compromises they had to make, since neither understood entirely where the other came from. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go find something nicer to look at.”
He smiled and followed.
London was a city of bridges, and humans had forged multiple paths to ford the Thames. The modern river resembled a ladder, with regular bridges acting as rungs. Once, rivers had been fewer, and people had relied on rickety ferries to carry them. A couple of ferries glided across the ice, with their crewman cursing at anyone who got too close.
Chihiro smiled as a pair of women on old-fashioned skates – the kind where a wooden blade was tied onto the bottom of the boot, rather than actually being incorporated into boot itself – went by skating backwards, playfully calling out for people to get out of the way. One spirit – a seal lounging on the ice, snoring loudly despite the crowd – didn’t move, and both women toppled over it in a flash of petticoats. She snorted in laughter, but Haku dragged her along before she could witness the fallout. Seals could be nasty, and he didn’t want to upset her unnecessarily.
The river started to bend, and the crowd was growing thicker, bottlenecked at the bridge that spanned the curve.
“What’s going on?” Chihiro asked.
A nearby fox spirit – not a kitsune, but clearly a close relative – turned and sighed. “A new troll moved in, and not everyone has the money to pay the toll.”
“A troll?” Chihiro echoed, her eyebrows raising.
“An oni,” Haku translated. They could always step around the bridge, but rivers never liked dams, and neither did Haku. Being stopped made his invisible scales itch. “What can you tell me about it?” he asked the fox spirit.
“Rumor has it that it used to live up in York. The old troll doxy slept all the time and usually was fine with a small tribute. She got annoyed by the construction, so they swapped houses.” The fox’s tail swished in agitation. “This one demands gold or gems, and a lot of us don’t have anything it’ll take. Father Thames hasn’t bothered to correct the new guy yet, so we’re stuck on this side.”
“I understand,” Haku said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a bit of gold for payment. He didn’t want any favors, since he might end up with an unwanted debt.
The fox grabbed it, just as greedy as all of Yubaba’s bathhouse employees. Then, afraid Haku would change his mind, the fox disappeared into the crowd.
“What do we do?” Chihiro asked, gnawing on her bottom lip with concern. “Onis mean trouble.”
“You’ll be safe with me,” Haku assured her. He’d eaten an oni or two back when he still had his river, and even diminished as he was, he was confident that he could handle it. The small pouch of gold he always carried could pay their way if necessary, but Haku’s pride rebelled at the thought.
They pressed forward, coming to the small trickle of creatures that was crossing under the bridge. One by one, they disappeared beneath it, and some kind of magic prevent them from seeing if they came out the other side.
“Let me do the talking,” Haku said, pressing a kiss against the top of her head.
“Do I need to hold my breath?”
“It won’t be looking at you,” Haku replied, taking her hand in his. “Though you may want to put the glasses down so you don’t have to see it’s true form. I’ve heard humans find them most unpleasant.”
Chihiro swallowed, but lowered the lorgnette compliantly.
The bridge smelled like animal musk and rotting vegetation, which made his nose twitch. Chihiro’s face converted into a disgusted expression, and muttered something about polluted river kami smelling worse. He grinned, anticipation building up inside of him.
“Yous haves to pays my tolls to crosssss,” something growled behind them.
Instead of spinning around, Haku remained facing forward. Chihiro, too, didn’t look back, remembering her first adventure with the spirit world.
“I don’t think that’s the way this works,” Haku replied, amusement dripping from his voice.
“Its works hows I says its works,” the troll responded, abandoning the shadows it was lurking in to come around to face them. Thick tusks sprouting from its lower jaw explained the lisp.
It was twice as tall as they were, with green moss growing all over its distorted features. Its face was dominated by a huge nose half the size of its head, leaving little room for its beady black eyes. Chihiro’s breath made a slight hiss as she saw what they were facing, but remained outwardly calm.
He was so proud of her courage. It was one of the many things he loved about her.
He might not have been a western spirit, but he was familiar with other cultures. This specimen had likely immigrated to England with the Vikings, one of the many examples of cross-cultural contamination trade brought. A wise spirit took time to learn of other cultures, and Haku’s draconic nature craved wisdom.
In short, Haku knew the rules, and he knew this troll wasn’t following them.
“Are you willing to stake your life on that?” Haku replied calmly. “You have the right to collect tolls to people crossing the bridge, but under the bridge belongs to the River Spirit.”
It was only because Haku was familiar with oni that he recognized the twist in the troll’s expression as concern. Beside him, Chihiro squeaked slightly, and he knew it must have been a fearsome sight for a human. “Father Thamess has more importants things to do thans to worries abouts a singles bridge,” the troll scoffed.
Haku could handle the situation one of two ways: he could continue to challenge the troll and make a scene, or he could pay the toll. All Haku had to do was raise his voice so the spirits stuck on the other side were reminded of the troll’s proper due, and they would swarm forth in rage. Almost all spirits obeyed the rules for fear of karmic retribution, but if reminded the troll’s power wasn’t absolute, they could and would overwhelm him with ease.
Spirits didn’t like being cheated.
The part of him that always looked through dragon’s eyes wanted to make put the troll in his place, but he was a guest in a foreign land. Making a scene would be rude, no matter how much the troll deserved to be brought into check. It might also become messy, and Chihiro was by his side. He was confident he would easily win any sort of contest presented by this foreign oni, but there was a chance the troll might get in a lucky hit.
But he would not give this creature any gold that wasn’t deserved, since dragons couldn’t stand injustice.
There was a possible compromise.
“I suggest you let us pass, and I won’t raise this as an issue to your neighbors,” Haku said. He hoped the troll was smart enough to realize what might become of him should the others surge forth, but trolls weren’t known for their intelligence.
“Yous needs to pays the tolls!” the troll hissed.
“You’ll have my goodwill, which should be payment enough,” Haku responded, smiling so his teeth showed. Thank goodness Chihiro was looking at the troll, instead of him, so she didn’t catch sight of dragon’s teeth he revealed.
The troll almost tripped over itself as it backed away, thanking Haku for being so kind. Apparently this one had an ounce of self-preservation in its thick skull.
Smugly, Haku pulled Chihiro along as they walked on at a sedate pace.
“That was odd,” Chihiro said. Wisely, she didn’t look back from whence they came, knowing well the dangers of the spirit world.
“I’m sure the river spirit will sort it out,” Haku said soothingly. He imagined what Tonegawa would do with such a presumptuous creature blocking his flow, and almost felt pity for the troll. Father Thames might rule a large area, but he would eventually get around to dealing with the upstart. The troll would be lucky to survive the wrath of the mighty river.