God I'm so inconsistent, but I thought I'd post this right when I finished it so I could make up for the long delay from last chapter. I'll try to get the next one out as soon as I can, but it's a big one and I want to get it just right. As always, please leave a review if you're so inclined, I literally live for them.

Kohaku really wasn't in the mood for this. True, he wasn't in the mood for anything these days, but this was a particularly distasteful nuisance.

A heavy body swathed in clothing too fine for his wretched face slumped down the wall in front of him, clutching at his shoulder and quivering pitifully. The spirit's three bulging eyes stared up at his assailant in abject horror, realizing too late that he had made a terrible mistake in underestimating the child in front of him. Multiple burly ogres lay scattered about the room, unconscious but alive. The remnants of the merchant's paltry security. He had assumed that brute force would protect him from all threats, but he clearly had not accounted for a sorcerer of Kohaku's caliber. Nor would he need to, on a normal day. Unfortunately for him, he had pissed off the wrong people.

Red blossomed beneath his mottled grey, warty palm where it pushed against his injury, seeping into his gaudy silk vest. Kohaku himself was untouched, his short, sleek hair falling perfectly to his shoulders, his clothes unruffled.

"Master Haku, surely we can come to some kind of understanding?" The merchant offered desperately, voice shaking as the much smaller spirit approached him on noiseless feet.

Oh, so I'm Master Haku now? I was just "some brat" before I massacred his henchmen. Kohaku thought with dark humor. Little did the pathetic creature know that the abbreviation of the river spirit's name only served to offend him further, to remind him that though he had his name, he remained a slave, forced to carry out the will of a woman he despised more than anything. He stood before the crumpled spirit, a part of him revelling in the way he cowered before him. It felt good to feel respected, to be feared by this inferior creature. As it should have been. The kinder part of him, the part that saved little human girls, was disgusted with himself.

He fiercely suppressed these unwelcome emotions. He could not afford to feel anything at the moment. He had a job to do, nothing more.

"What I need to understand is why you've been dealing in counterfeits? Did you really think Yubaba was that stupid?" He asked. The merchant blanched at the infamous name. Of course, Yubaba had been operating under a pseudonym, considering the shady business she was soliciting from. She didn't want her public image being associated with the black market. But her name was a good scare tactic when things went south, everyone within a thousand miles feared the power of the witch of the bathhouse.

"I had no idea it was fake, honest! I can give you a refund. We've worked together before, you know I'm good for it!" The man insisted. Kohaku regarded him with a bored expression.

"That's not what I heard from your buddies down at the docks." Kohaku contradicted, inching forward. "They said you were bragging about pulling the wool over our eyes. Got two paydays for the price of one. It must've seemed like a good deal at the time. Maybe not so much now."

The merchant shivered at the sharp glint in his green eyes, like they were made of splinters of sea glass. There was no sympathy there, no mercy. He scrambled for words, the rim of his cap quickly becoming damp with cold sweat. Kohaku took another menacing step forward, into the merchant's space and he seized with fear.

"You-you've got to understand my situation! I know I promised it to you, but he gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. He threatened my life, and my business. What could I do?" He stuttered, trying to rock onto his feet. Kohaku thrust him back into the wall with a swift flick of his wrist. The man hung suspended above the ground, scratching at the invisible force around his throat that kept him aloft. He felt the grip around his neck tighten in tandem with the clenching of Kohaku's fist, raised so the merchant could see how effortlessly the boy could kill him, if he wished. He swung his feet uselessly in the air, drool dribbling down the corner of his purple lips as he choked for air.

"I'd say you bet on the wrong horse." Haku said in a low, threatening voice. Too threatening for any mere child. Only now did the merchant realize that he may have been wrong about that as well, too late to do anything about it.

Just as he thought that the oversight might cost him his life, the merchant was dropped unceremoniously to the ground.

"Who has the bell?" Kohaku asked flatly, his patience for the man spent.

"I don't know! I don't know!" The merchant wheezed, coughing so hard he gagged. He was visibly trembling now, too weak to try to stand again. Kohaku was unmoved, and simply raised a hand again, preparing to squeeze. All three of the merchant's eyes bugged at the gesture, and he dove into a supplicating bow.

"Please spare me Master Haku! I don't know his name! No one does! I'm not sure knowing it would do you much good anyhow. Once he's got something it's gone from the world forever." The pitiful man babbled.

Haku glowered at him, loathing the slimy man for getting him into this mess. He had to get that bell, Yubaba would never help him find his river if he didn't. "Are you sure he won't part with it for any price? I don't have to remind you who my employer is, you'll be hearing from her again soon enough."

The man gave a quiet whine of pure terror. He would have to disappear to the far corners of the earth to escape the wrath of Yubaba, and even then he might still not be safe. He felt the seconds of his life begin to tick away knowing he wasn't long for this world. He would almost prefer to die now.

"He does not sell his trophies. He collects them."

Kohaku's heart sank. This was only the beginning.

"Uh-huh, I hear what you're saying," Amaya nodded sagely, "but why the fuck not?"

"He's...temperamental. He barely tolerates me, let alone a total stranger. No offense Amaya, but you can be a bit, uh, extra." Chihiro responded with an apologetic smile. Amaya made a show of flipping her hair over her shoulder, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the fact that all of it was piled up in a bun on the top of her head.

"Extra just means there's more to share." She insisted with a cheeky grin. Chihiro laughed.

"You'll meet him eventually." Chihiro promised, "Just let me get a chance to work him around to the idea. He appreciated the sake, that's a start."

"Did he? At least he's got good taste." Her best friend said in delight. "In that case, you should bring him this!"

Amaya produced a bottle of peach schnapps from the cupboard. She placed it in Chihiro's hands. "And this," a six pack of soda, "and this," a party pack of chips, "and this!" An absurdly large, three pound bar of chocolate. "Wait, you said he's a cat, can he eat chocolate? I don't want to poison him."

Chihiro struggled under the weight of the load in her arms, looking dubiously at her friend over the growing mountain of food. "Don't you think this is a little much? I'm going to see him again tomorrow."

"Nonsense! The poor dear's been deprived for who knows how long! It's a travesty to think there's any person in this world who has never tasted the absolute majesty that is junk food. Think of it as my contribution to his education."

Chihiro simply sighed indulgently, and helped Amaya pack a bag full of snacks. There was no stopping the colorful young woman when she got like this. She was not looking forward to schlepping the heavy thing up the mountain, but she would be lying if she said she didn't feel some of Amaya's excitement. She was still swimming in giddiness after meeting a spirit after all this time, every interaction with him felt like dipping her toes into the other world.

Maybe we can even be friends. A little part of her thought, thrilled at the shaky possibility. He was rough around the edges, even scary, but Chihiro thought she might have caught the tiniest glimpse of the intriguing person hidden beneath the callous exterior.

"Alright, I'm off. I'll see you tonight!" She called at the door, adjusting the various straps on her shoulders, trying to find a comfortable enough way to carry the backpack. The bus would only take her as far as the base of the mountain, she was in for a long hike after that.

"Wait!" Amaya stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder. Her usually vibrant face was turned into an uncertain frown, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth and staining them with green lipstick.

"I wasn't going to say anything, but I thought you should know your mom called me last night. She sounded worried about you."

Chihiro's mood soured, thinking bitterly about how she'd left her parents last. It had burned a painful hole in her memory, and she cringed when she thought about it. They had hurt her deeply with their harsh dismissal of her feelings.

You were no better. A quiet voice scorned, but she pushed it aside. She wasn't ready to confront this yet, not now that she remembered everything she'd been through. Everything they wouldn't believe even if she told them. They would brush her off, like they always did. Amaya instantly recognized the dark turn in her expression, and crushed her into a tight bear hug.

"I love having you here, you know I do, but I think you should see them." She said into her hair, rubbing her arm comfortingly. Chihiro relaxed into it, but said nothing. She didn't want to see them.

Amaya pulled away, her face uncharacteristically forlorn and far away. "They love you, you know. I can tell. I would kill for that. I ruined my relationship with my family, and I regret it every day. I don't want to see you make the same mistake. Talk to them."

Chihiro thought about the other night when Amaya had drunkenly wept about how she wouldn't have anyone to walk her down the aisle, about how her children would never know their grandparents. Few people knew it, because she rarely let it show, but she would cry herself to sleep sometimes, wishing she had done things differently.

Chihiro sighed. "I will. I promise." She finally acquiesced, "Just...not yet."

Amaya nodded in understanding and let her go, dabbing at the corner of her eye before the single tear that pooled there had a chance to fall.

"Okay, now go and make friends with Grumpy Cat."

"Don't call him that, he knows what it is now."

"Even better."

By the time she'd collapsed, gasping and sweating, onto the veranda of the honden, she was half an hour late.

I don't care how well intentioned she is, next time I see Amaya, I'll kill her. She thought as she shucked off the straps of the two ton backpack. True, she could have sucked it up and walked along the meandering mountain road to get here, the incline would have been less intense, but no, she had to be stubborn and take the shortcut through the trail. The shortcut stopped being so short when she'd realized about halfway up that her arms and legs were noodles.

"You'd better appreciate this." She mumbled halfheartedly towards the door of the inner sanctuary.

"I always appreciate finding you on the brink of death. Lucky for me, it seems to be happening every goddamn day now." A voice said from directly above her.

Chihiro shrieked and launched into the air, clutching at her chest. Hinata stood casually above her, dressed in a frilly pink pinafore and thigh high socks with little cats on the front, looking like she just stepped out of an anime.

"Hinata! What are you doing here? You scared the crap out of me!" Chihiro gasped around the thudding pulse in her throat, her nerves shot. Hinata regarded her coolly, blowing a bubble in the gum she was chewing.

"I wouldn't have had to come if you'd actually answered my calls. Still, it would have been better if you'd let them go to voicemail instead of breathing into the speaker like a creep before hanging up on me mid-sentence. What, are you trying to prank me or something?"

Chihiro cringed, thinking of the only person that could have been. He was probably sitting on the other side of the wall listening to this conversation right now. At least he hadn't answered it properly, or Hinata might've reported a stolen phone to the police.

"Must've been sitting on it or something, sorry." She covered, unconvincingly she thought, but Hinata wasn't the type to question. Or rather, it was more accurate to say that she didn't care enough to question. "Anyway, what did you need to tell me?"

Hinata huffed and tossed her perfectly curled hair, adjusting the large white bow adorning it at a perfectly imperfect angle. "I'm not going to be around for the next few days. There's been some interest in the design for my oceanic oil-water filtration pump so I'm going into Tokyo to meet with a few potential sponsors."

Chihiro blinked owlishly at her like she'd just been spoken in Swahili. "Your what?"

For once, Hinata looked excited about something she was talking about, and Chihiro saw a genuine smile expose a hitherto unknown dimple in her chin. "It's a system I engineered that can either function as an independent, self sustaining unit, or be adapted to a motor. It sucks in oil from the ocean and pushes it through a filter that spits out clean water on the other side. When it's adapted to a ship's engine, it can convert the oil gathered into a supplemental fuel source that the ship can use to run on." The young woman explained to her gaping boss, though the title hardly seemed fitting after what she'd just learned.

Chihiro regarded the girl in a new light. She was what, sixteen or seventeen years old? And to think she was already developing these incredible technologies. Now that she thought about it, Chihiro did recall her assistant mentioning that she went to some fancy private school, but she had always just assumed that her parents were loaded. And, though she was ashamed to admit it, Chihiro had not expected the aggressively cute girl to gravitate towards something so, well, academic. But apparently she was some prodigious genius. She chastised herself internally, should know better than anyone how appearances can be deceiving.

"Wow Hinata, that is so amazing! I had no idea you were interested in science, let alone working on such a great project. It's really, really impressive and I'm honestly super excited for you. You have to tell me how it goes when you get back!" Chihiro gushed, watching as an unexpected blush tinted the young woman's cheeks. She looked away with a scowl, trying to hide it, but Chihiro couldn't help but think the whole thing made her more endearing.

"Shut up, it's not that interesting." She mumbled reticently. "Anyway, are you gonna be okay all by yourself here? I don't know when Ito-sama is coming back and he told me to stay with you as much as I could…"

"I'll be fine, what you're doing is way more important than sweeping some stone steps." Chihiro reassured her. Hinata nodded hesitantly, and gave Chihiro a microscopic grin, before grabbing the bike that was leaning against one of the sturdy oak posts. Chihiro smiled back, feeling like she'd made some progress with the usually insufferable teenager.

Maybe I totally misjudged her before...

"Do yourself a favor Chihiro and get yourself an electric bike or something. You look like you're about to keel over any second. Oh wait, that's all the time. My mistake." Hinata quipped as she pushed off towards the mountain road.

Never mind.

Chihiro watched her go. As she pedaled out of sight, Chihiro was made suddenly aware of the silence that had draped over the shrine complex. Ito-sama and Kouji were off in Tokyo, Hinata would join them there tomorrow. There had been no patrons in the last few days either, save for a few elderly folk who still believed in the old ways.

No wind rustled the rust tipped leaves, no animals bustled in the thick underbrush that inched toward the carefully maintained courtyard. The peeling red paint of ancient wood pillars supported swooping grey eves like the wings of a crane about to take flight. It was as if the world had taken a snapshot of a single, timeless moment. Chihiro breathed it in, committing it to memory.

The sharp snap of a branch, as loud as gunfire, interrupted the serene quiet. Chihiro whipped her head to the edge of the forest, eyes peering into the wall of darkness cast by the canopy of branches high above. Nothing moved, save for the slightest ripple of sunlight shifting through foliage. But instead of feeling relieved, a sinking wariness settled into the hollow of her chest. She kept searching the patch of shadow with needless anxiety. She didn't know what she was looking for, but the hair on her neck prickled, like the trees themselves were looking back.

"Chihiro, what the hell are you putzing around outside for? You coming in or what?" A sudden, familiar voice called from the depths of the inner sanctuary. Her heart fluttered with excitement as she was invited in, saved from worrying about whether or not she'd be welcome, and she eagerly turned to join her new, maybe-almost-friend with her monstrous backpack in tow.

"Yeah, yeah, I know you just want me for my booze." She answered with a laugh, only just barely strained with worry.

But even as she closed the doors separating her slice of the spirit world from the outside, she could still feel the unseen eyes watching. Waiting.