Yubaba counted her gems, in the silent seconds following Haku's request. Opals and diamonds rattled across her desk, glimmering in the morning sun. She snorted, without looking up at him. "So, you're quitting, huh? Don't make me laugh."
Haku said nothing.
She held a ruby up, tilting it this-way and that in a ray of light. "My control might have been, ugh, squashed, but it means little. Like it or not, I've still got you under contract, boy."
He stood at the end of her finely patterned carpet and stared. Waited. She pretended to examine the ruby. She couldn't stand the sound of silence.
"A fine shame Sen undid all my hard work. Will you return to your acts of petty theft that you exhibited when you first arrived? What a waste."
He didn't consider his past acts petty theft. It wasn't like he stole any physical treasures. He hungered, always hungered, for knowledge, for literature, for magic. He missed the lust for it, quashed by Yubaba's curse. He had it back, now.
"I know you have to allow me an exit from my contract," said Haku, unfazed. "Ask what you wish of me, and I will do it, and then I will leave. You must let me go, Yubaba."
Yubaba flicked her eyes to Haku. She set the ruby down. She folded her hands beneath her chin, and took a long look at him. She read him for a while, constructing a riddle suited to his personal weaknesses.
"You cannot get out of your contract until you write me three poems," said Yubaba, careful of her words. "I want one poem about your past before the bathhouse, one of your present at the bathhouse, and one of your life after the bathhouse. And don't try to make something up! It needs to be concrete! Something that has happened and something that will happen! It needs heart and mind poured into it! I won't accept anything less than total accuracy!"
Haku's carefully composed expression broke, and he blinked in surprise. Yubaba didn't fail to notice the crack. She mistook it for hesitation.
"You're a dragon, aren't you?" snapped Yubaba. "What kind of dragon can't write a poem?"
Haku recovered himself. He hid his concern behind his usual mask. "A terrible dragon, ma'am. It's a deal."
He was less worried about his writing abilities than he was about the actual content. A poem of the present? Easy. The past? Difficult. Although he had his name, he had nothing to show for it save a few scattered memories of a much younger Chihiro, and there were too many holes in said imagery to draw a coherent narrative from it. The future? Nigh impossible. Spirits who could look upon the threads of fate that wove into time were rare indeed, and never came to the bathhouse. He had no idea how to go about scrying his destiny.
But it was a task, and it was theoretically doable. He bowed, and took his leave.
He started on the "present" poem first, because it was the easiest. Despite turning in his letter of resignation, he still had a job to do, and he didn't have much downtime. In his few free hours, he would sit on the uppermost roof of the bathhouse, dangling his legs off the ceramic shingles, and muse on his memories. He would stare out along the wide, clear river, watching the reflection of the sun glimmer across the mirrored surface.
The river was the border between human and "other," and it was one he could not cross under the servitude of another. It flowed against time, was impossibly still, and always rubbed the wrong way against Haku's scales whenever he swam through it.
He thought of the time he spent as Yubaba's apprentice. What he liked, what he disliked. He thought of long nights flying across the plains on some mission or another. He thought of the quiet nights with just him and the stars and the moon. He thought of all the spirits he'd met. The hundreds of spells he'd memorized. His futon he rarely slept on. Meeting Chihiro. The taste of the fish in the waters nearby. The roar of the elevators. The heat of the steam pumping through the walls. The smell of dishwater. What he learned, what he stole. The cruel things he did under the control of Yubaba, and the kind things too.
When he was ready, he told the wind to unroll his paper, and told the breeze to hold his brush. He told a pool of rainwater to fill his inkstone, and told it to match the color of the petals he plucked from the gardens. His tools hovered in front of him, and he whispered to them what he wanted on the page. Kindly, they drew it for him.
In the quiet of midday
The peony dreams
While low purple clouds
In the sky.
The tools set themselves neatly on the roof when finished. Haku plucked the poem from the air, examined it, and rolled it up. He put it in the sleeve of his kimono, then returned to the bathhouse.
He had to spark his memories of his past somehow. He had his name, and he had Chihiro, and he had his hunger for knowledge returned to him, so it did not seem an impossible task. He would spend his free time in Yubaba's private library, pouring over her collection of folktales and scrolls that spirits had given her over the years. He hoped to gain some inspiration by reading the memories of others. But weeks slipped by, into months, and nothing came.
It brought more questions than answers. Dragons had temples and shrines, controlled the weather at their whim, lived at the bottoms of lakes and lived for millennia and mastered whole sutras. When they assumed human form, they were rarely children. And if they were children, they manifested as small snakes when in their true form. Haku wasn't sure what to make of himself after seeing the patterns in the stories.
Frustrated and tired, he accepted an invitation from Zeniba to take tea at her cottage. He'd been avoiding her letters out of a deep sense of shame and regret, but he gave in when she suggested she could help him with his poem. After profusely apologizing to her at her doorstep, he allowed himself to come inside and sit at the table. No-face served him cheesecake.
He explained his plight to Zeniba. Her knitting needles clacked in the silence following. She took her time, in deciding what advice to offer him, and settled on a parable.
"Once upon a time, there was a man who moved to an abandoned house. In the back of the house was a pond, covered in algae and neglected for a hundred years. Because the shack was so decrepit, the man was forced to sleep outside every night."
Haku watched the milk swirl in his tea.
"Every night, the water would ripple, and something would wade out from the pond. The thing would walk by the man, and brush his cheek with a wet hand. The man was so scared he could not look at whatever haunted him."
Haku wondered whether he was supposed to be the "thing" or the man in this parable.
"But after weeks of this, his fear waned, and he was fed up with the pond-thing brushing his cheek. So one night, when he heard the thing approach, he sat up in a rush and pushed the thing away from him."
"And what sort of 'thing' did he push away?" asked Haku.
"A small old woman," continued Zeniba. "Near death. The old woman didn't respond to any questions or accusations, she just stood there as the man threw accusation after accusation at her. Finally, after many questions with no answers, the old woman meekly said, 'Would you please bring me a tub of water, and throw me into another pond?'"
Haku sipped his tea.
"So the man brought her a tub of water. The old woman peered into it, staring at her reflection. Then, without a word, she collapsed into the tub. She vanished. Nothing remained of her, but the tub was suddenly full to overflowing. The man carried the tub to a neighbor's pond, and threw the water in, and the old woman was never heard from again."
The tea was Western-style, some flavor of Earl Gray. It went well with the cheesecake. "I assume I'm supposed to be the pond spirit in this story, looking for a home no longer abandoned, yes?"
Zeniba laughed. "I don't know, foolish boy. That's for you to figure out!"
He did not sleep that night, after returning to the bathhouse. He laid awake and stared at the crisscrossing beams of the wooden ceiling, glowing silver in the moonlight. He wondered what kind of spirit the old woman was, that she could drift between ponds like that, wandering like a ghost.
Perhaps Haku could wander, once he was free from the bathhouse. He'd like that. Technically, he was sort of a ghost, wasn’t he? His lifeblood was snuffed out by an apartment complex and he was doomed to drift.
And he wondered if he had always drifted. If he never stayed long enough to create memories that would allow him to grow beyond the body of a child. If his name wasn’t just Nigihayami Kohakunushi, but if he had as many names as there were rivers flowing through the mountains. Drifter. Spirit of all waters and spirit of none.
As though he had broken a hole in a dam, a trickle of disjointed memories began to seep into his mind. He was the dragon in the waterfall, observing meditations and making it rain when the interesting people of the village called for it. He was the spirit of a quiet lake and would eavesdrop on the fisherman swapping their best fishing tips. He was the dragon of the blue heaven temple, where he pressed his ear to the door and listened to monks chant secrets not meant for him. And when he would learn what he wanted, he would leave, and find a new river to wear the skin of.
The fragmented memories did not form a coherent narrative, but they formed a greater theme. A spirit always drifting, always wanting to learn, always needing more, always sacrificing memories and self to move on to the next source of knowledge. It was a quest that would doom him in the end, one that would lead him to the bathhouse when he was forced from his skin and unprepared for the loss of self.
Inspired, he rolled over on his futon, grabbed his brush and ink, and scrawled his next poem onto the nearest piece of parchment.
O these hundred barren years
Of barren life--
May my dreams now
He would use his nature to his advantage to compose his next poem.
He stood balancing on a balcony rail jutting from the back of the bathhouse. He looked down, into the soft glow of the border river, clear and blue and bright. He spread his arms, closed his eyes, and tilted forward. He fell. Wind rushed through his hair and his clothes, and he emptied his mind. He made himself blank, to take on a new form. He vanished, when his body hit the water. He became part of the infinite river, separating the human from the “other.”
The threads of fate flowed like currents against him, and so he reached out and swam with one.
He was no longer Haku, in this thread. But someone else. He had searched for so long, and now he found a home and a new name. And it showed in his form, he had grown, he was an adult, with more strength and wisdom and a much darker kimono.
He was watching someone, from his river. A young adult, in a furisode, had drifted away from the festival at the local shrine. She lingered on the bank in her fine kimono and fur, and her breath pooled white in the midnight winter cold. Puffy snowflakes dusted her hair, done up nice for tonight.
Everything felt heavy. The stars were weighted with light, the moonbeam cast near-solid beams across the river, he couldn’t think clearly. Chihiro, it was Chihiro at his very edge, there was no doubt about it. It had been so long.
He emerged from the river. He took human form and pushed himself from the surface, and stood in the center of the river as though the water was a solid floor. The edges of his dark kimono pooled into the babbling waves like a shadow. The snowflakes melded into him when they landed on his body.
She gaped at him, awestruck at the man emerging from a river and waiting for her to join him. He didn’t know if she remembered him. Whether through magic or the slow ticking of the years, she might have completely forgotten her time at the bathhouse. But even if her mind forgot, her heart did not.
She took off her shoes and socks, and placed them on the edge of the bank. She lifted her kimono, as though he'd allow her to get wet. When she stepped into the river, her feet pressed flat against the surface like she tread along cool marble. She was surprised, but not surprised enough to stop walking. Cold, white ripples cascaded across the water from the balls of her feet.
He wanted to show her this wasn't a trick. He took her hand in his. He kissed her knuckles, then each of her fingertips, and felt love and all the feelings that came along with adulthood, and then- and then-
Haku couldn't relate to these things as he currently was. He detached from the waters of fate. He opened his eyes, the weight of the river pressing against his face, threatening to carry him into the world of the dead. He shifted into his real body, and used his powerful tail to propel him upwards and breach the surface. The crest of the water as he emerged sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight.
He did not wait to write the poem, afraid he would forget. He ripped a large scale from his body, and told the water to stain characters upon it in the way he saw fit.
Did we part
or a thousand years ago?
Even now I feel
Your hand on my shoulder.
"Here," said Haku, and threw the scrolls onto Yubaba's desk. She stared at them like he just brought her a dead fish.
She stopped reading her account books to spread her fingers wide, and all the scrolls unraveled in front of her. She trawled her eyes down each one of them, reading not only the words but the intent on the pages. She could not find any flaws. These were exactly what she asked for.
"Some of these are so mushy. I didn't think you had a romantic bone in your body," she snorted, angered he managed to pull off the task. The scrolls rolled back up with a flick of her finger, and flew into one of the many drawers of her desk.
Haku felt the burden of employment lift off his shoulders. He hovered off the ground an inch or so, unused to feeling so light.
"Goodbye, Yubaba," he said, too elated to sound bitter. "I doubt we will meet again."
"Same to you," she said, curling her lip.
Haku left the bathhouse, strolled through the spa town, walked across the fields, and took a deep breath when he was across the dried riverbank. He smelled the grass, the fresh air, the far away boilers. He burst into his true self, and launched himself into the sky. The sound of whidchimes accompanied his flight into the next adventure.
Yubaba set Haku's poems into frames and hung them somewhere in her impossible maze of opulent halls.