Kamaji stared at me for a while. The he broke into a grin, the fire's light reflecting off his glasses. The soot balls all squeaked and stopped working, then one by one dropped their coal on top of themselves.
"Get back to work, you lazy things!" Kamaji roared at the soot balls. They all jumped up and went back to work while Kamaji said, "My granddaughter. You've come back."
"I missed you so much!" I cried, running forward and flinging my arms around him in a move that surprised us both. Naturally, it was rather awkward with Kamaji’s many arms and legs, and soon I was wrapped in a cocoon of them.
"How did you get in?" Kamaji asked, confusion evident in his voice.
I thought about a moment before replying, "I have no idea. I just . . . the boiler room door was in the side of the river, so. . . ."
Kamaji raised his brows but said nothing. "Anyways, why did you bring another human? One is enough."
"I didn't mean to," I said, grimacing. "But she wandered in here, so I couldn't do much about it. I should probably wake her up and get some foo—"
The door to the rest of the bath house slid open and Rin crawled out.
"Hey, Kamaji. Morning, Sen. What's that awful smell?" She asked, looking half asleep. "Kamaji, I keep telling you to leave your old bowls out!" Then, "Sen?!"
I braced myself for the inevitable suffocating hug, and sure enough, Rin didn't disappoint.
"Oh my gosh you're here when did you get here why are you here don't you know it's dangerous for humans wow you stink!" Rin exclaimed all in one breath.
Just then, Masuka decided to make her presence known with a loud gasp, apparently having recovered from her faint while Rin was suffocating me.
Immediately, Rin pushed me behind her. "Who are you? What are you doing here? This is no place for humans!" Them she wrinkled her nose. "Wow, you stink even worse than Sen! I didn't think that was possible! You should get out of here before—"
"—Yubaba finds her?" I guessed.
"Actually, before Haku finds her," Rin explained.
"Why would Haku get mad?" I asked, utterly confused.
Rin leaned closer. "Lately, he's been more moody, and you know what that means. Haku, the robot drill sergeant. Sometimes he's even worse than Yubaba!"
I was still confused, though. "Why would Haku still be here?"
Rin's eyes widened. "He didn't tell you? Wait, no, he couldn't have. Well, anyways, Yubaba was different after you left. Sometimes she'd be nicer than usual. After awhile, she announced that Haku would inherit the bath house once she was gone. Everyone was surprised, even Haku. So, he still has to be here to learn to do what Yubaba does. But he's not under her control anymore."
"But you don't have your name back?" I asked.
Rin smiled sadly and confirmed, "No. It's okay, though. The pay has gotten better, and it's safe here. Yubaba wouldn't want to be short-staffed.”
“Wh-who are you?” Masuka gasped.
"Sen's best friend!" Rin replied, eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
Masuka glared at her. "Chihiro's best friend!"
Rin laughed suddenly. "Sorry, Sen. I always forget your real name is Chihiro."
Masuka snapped, "What kind of friend are you if you don't even know her name?"
"It's not my fault Yubaba stole her name and changed it to Sen!" Rin retorted.
"Stop!" I interrupted. "Masuka doesn't know!"
Rin's eyes widened. "Why didn't you tell her?"
"Rin, in the human world—well, people don't know about spirits," I explained. "They'd think I'm crazy if I told them."
She blinked. "Really? That's stupid."
"You haven't changed a bit, Rin.”
“And you’ve changed too much,” Rin sighed.
“I’m really confused right now,” Masuka complained. “How come you never told me about . . . this? Spirits?”
I smiled wryly. “Would you really have believed me? That one day my dad drove us into the woods, got us lost, and ended up in the spirit world? My parents turned into pigs for eating food they weren’t supposed to eat, and I got a job working in a bath house run by a witch. I met a dragon river spirit and helped the witch’s twin sister. I stopped a monster from eating spirits and, once turning my parents back, went back to the human world forever, or so I thought.”
Masuka blinked. “Oh. That is a bit hard to believe. I’m assuming this is the bath house?”
I nodded. “It looks exactly the same.”
“No one changes in the spirit world, Sen,” Rin reminded me. “The only thing that’s changed is you. And you’ve changed us. You didn’t think we’d forgotten you, did you?”
I flushed and answered, “Well, I wasn’t here for very long. And I couldn’t have changed that much.”
“Sen! Of course we’d remember you! You’re the only human to have wandered in here and gotten in a job! The other humans die or leave or something.”
“Pleasant,” I muttered. “Anyways, Masuka and I need some food. And I assume we can’t leave the way we came?”
Kamaji grinned. “That door only goes to the stairs. I think you’re stuck here for awhile.”
Rin nodded happily. “I’ll have to tell Zeniba! Of course, knowing her, she’ll already know. And maybe we’ll have a party! Ooooh, I can already see it! Tons of roasted newt!”
Laughing, I took Masuka by the hand and drag her towards the door to the rest of the bath house.
From his office on the top floor, Haku watched the scene in the boiler room play out. Disappointed, he slashed through the image, destroying it. Chihiro hadn’t been the one to bring his name up. She hadn’t even said much about him or asked to see him. What if she hated him? Why hadn’t he gone to see her sooner? What if she had another man in her life? During her visits to the river and when talking to the painting, she hadn’t said anything about her love life. All she’d asked was for him to come and bring her back. And even that had slowed in the recent years.
He couldn’t wait to meet her again. Was she really happy to be back? He knew bringing that other human back would be annoying, but Chihiro was here. Nine years without seeing Chihiro was too long.
Haku rose from his chair. “I’m coming, Chihiro.”
I showed Masuka the bath house and told her all about my trip to the spirit world and trying to turn my parents back. Unsurprisingly, the bath house had changed very little. Surprisingly, everyone remembered me. Even the grumpy foreman.
The only people I didn’t see were Yubaba and Haku. I didn’t want to have Masuka along when I saw them again. She was already having enough trouble as it was coming to terms with the fact that the spirit world was real. So I dumped her on Rin and headed to the elevator.
Walking up to the Yubaba’s office door, I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts. How could I stay here if I didn’t have a job? I hadn’t talked to Rin about this because I knew she would object, but I kind of wanted my job back. Last time, I would’ve stayed if I hadn’t had to save my parents. This time, I had no such obligation. Even though I’d wanted to finish college, spirits didn’t really care about degrees, did they? Did they even have schools?
“Don’t just stand there!” the doorknocker snapped. The door opened as I reached up to grab it and I ran through, remembering how I was dragged before.
The halls, the doors, everything looked exactly the same as before. And as I came to Yubaba’s office, I saw that it looked the same. There were still the three heads, Yu-bird, and the door to Boh’s room.
“Well, I guess you aren’t the puny little girl you used to be,” Yubaba remarked from her desk.
I smiled wryly and replied, “And you aren’t the unforgiving, cantankerous witch you used to be.”
“Who are you calling cantankerous?” she snapped. “I was very nice back then. Anyways, why are you here? Come to get your job back?”
Nodding, I walked forward until I stood at her desk. “This time I won’t be so obedient, though. I will remember my name no matter what.”
For a moment, Yubaba looked shocked. Then she cackled. “You’ve turned into a fine young woman! Although, I don’t steal names anymore. Too much trouble.”
Surprised, I asked, “Then why don’t you give back everyone else’s name?”
Yubaba sighed. “I put all the names in a library and now the library’s a mess. If you want, you can sort it out, but I’m not paying you.” She handed me a contract and a pen. I signed my name after rereading the contract several times. The stipulations were better than I remembered.
“You start work tomorrow morning. Rin will show you to your room, but you’ll need to see Haku for your food so you don’t disappear,” Yubaba pointed out.
I looked down and almost shrieked. “I didn’t even notice!” I was almost completely transparent. And Masuka! She’d be freaking out.
“Thanks for the job, Yubaba!” I called as I dashed out of her office.
As I ran, I wondered why I had to see Haku for food. Couldn’t I just go to the kitchen? Or did he spell the onigiri when he gave it to me? Maybe magic from this world helped to bind me to it?
“Masuka!” I called as I peered into the kitchen. And found her eating ramen with Rin. “There you are!”
Masuka looked up, completely solid. “Rin gave me some food ‘cause I was starting to disappear. You need some food, too.”
Breathing hard, I gasped, “But Yubaba said I needed to see Haku for food. How come you don’t have to?”
“Haku was the first one to bind you to this world,” Rin explained. “Your soul only responds to his magic, now.” She had a funny expression, as if she had just swallowed too bitter tea. “You need to face the past, Sen.”
“I told you, it’s Chihiro!” Masuka exclaimed.
“It’s okay, Masuka,” I reassured her. “I like Sen.”
“Go,” Rin ordered. “And remember that whatever happens, Haku was still the first person you met.”
I nodded, unsure of what she meant, but unwilling to disappear. I rushed along but stopped. Where was Haku? Did he have an office?
Some unseen force took over, moving my limbs as if they weren’t my own. I went up, through elevators and random staircases I didn’t know existed. Eventually, I stopped before ornate wood double doors. I found that my body was my own. Hesitating, I reached forward to push the doors open, but yanked my hand back. Why was I nervous all of a sudden? I’d never been nervous seeing Haku before. You also aren't ten anymore, replied a voice in my head. Gathering my courage, I leaned forward and gave the two doors a push. It wasn’t a hard push, but the doors immediately swung inward, revealing a very oriental room. It appeared empty, but a fire crackled in the fireplace, the glass sliding door to the balcony sat partially open. Creeping forward, I noted all the bamboo, glass, and wood. Not a single piece of metal tarnished the room. While plenty of precious gems sat in various places, no gold or silver was anywhere. No steel, iron, or copper. On the polished bamboo desk in the middle of the room sat only a jade vase. No flowers, just the vase. All together, it was very different from Yubaba’s office. And the large balcony probably made take-offs and landings easier in dragon form.
I knelt in front of the large desk, deciding to wait for Haku. I wanted to know what lay behind the door behind his desk, but I also didn’t want to seem rude.
“Stand up,” commanded a startlingly cold voice from behind me. Haku. Closing my eyes, I mentally prepared myself for the little boy he’d been before rising and turning around.
And turning away as fast as I could. I’d seen his face, the small surprise and the expression of hurt in the overall coldness as I spun away. But he wasn’t the same person I’d known nine years ago. Taller than me, he still wore the same greenish shoulder-length hair, but had broader shoulders and a black kimono with a white obi. Different, yet the same. Still the same face, with his expressive green eyes. But I feel like I hardly know him. Why did he grow up? Why did he grow when everyone else seemed the same?
“You’re disappearing,” he observed, and I cursed myself for forgetting. “Have some onigiri.”
Too bad I couldn’t ignore him, but staying aloof while disappearing was harder than it seemed. And I couldn’t cure it on my own. So I faced him and accepted the onigiri.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. I ate quickly, gratified to be solid again. Glancing at Haku again, I was the struck by how he’d changed . . . for the better. He was tall, handsome, wealthy (or going to be), and completely unattainable. Just what every girl wanted. Apparently that included me as well, for even at ten I’d lo—
"Why are you staring at me?" Haku interrupted, jolting me from my thoughts. And it was a good thing, too, because I disliked the direction my thoughts were going.
However, his question didn't quite garner an answer. Instead of denying the statement, I turned away and walked to the balcony doors.
“Who put the door there?” I inquired.
“Aren’t you happy?” Haku asked, standing behind me, his breath stirring my hair. “I didn’t break my promise.”
Rage filled me and tears started to form. “What are you, an idiot?” I snapped, spinning around and shoving him away. “I waited nine freaking years! Do you know how long that is in the life span of a human? I only have seventy years left if I’m lucky!” Angrily dashing away my tears, I continued. “You just stand there, ignorantly, thinking I’d be better off going back to the human world, but you don’t understand.”
Surprised, Haku protested, “I haven’t said a word!”
“Predictable,” I spat. “Everyone in this damn place wants me to go back. Sure they’re happy to see me now, but don’t think I don’t know what’ll happen. It’s ‘where I belong’ or some other crap like that.”
Haku sighed and tried anyway. “You were born there for a reason, Chihiro.” My name on his lips was soft and welcoming, contradicting his words. “If you were meant to be here, why are you human? Why did you leave? We could’ve wiped your parents’ memories and make them think they had no daughter. If you’d wanted to stay, why didn’t you?” The last part rough, Haku had shut down his face again, but an anguished gleam remained in his eyes.
“How could I?” I demanded. “Just abandon them after all the trouble I went through? Then I’d be better off if I’d left them as pigs and let you eat them!”
Now Haku smiled. “That’s why you should leave. Don’t abandon your parents.” But his voice was slightly strangled, almost like Rin’s when she had told me to find Haku.
“Do you want me to or not?!” I screamed in frustration. “Don’t go telling me to leave and then sounding like you want me to stay!”
“I do want you to stay,” Haku replied softly, catching my hands and pulling me towards him. “I want you to stay forever with me and never think about leaving. But it’s for your own good that you need to leave. A human in the spirit world would never survive. You have friends in the human world. Henry and Li. And you need to take Masuka back.”
“You heard me?” I breathed. I hadn’t known he’d listened when I went to the river.
“And that painting,” Haku complained. “That damn painting drove me crazy all the time because it made me want to steal you away in the middle of the night.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked. “I would’ve gone with you.” A thought occurred to me. “So you heard me beg for you to come back every month and you heard me talk to the painting?”
I jerked my hands away from his. “And you didn’t fulfill your promise until nine years later, when I started to doubt whether or not you were real! Do you know what I had to endure?” When he only looked at me with sad eyes, I went on. “After I came back to the human world, I started drawing you and everyone else. My parents wanted to know where I got the ideas, so I told them. They thought I was crazy and assumed it was some dream or imaginary world. Then I told the kids at school, who never really liked me anyway, and they completely ignored me after that. ‘That weird girl with the ponytail’ I was called up until high school. Then I transferred, but I knew no one would believe me if I told them. And even worse, my parents started giving me therapy and medication since they thought I was insane! There was no one that cared about me. People just wanted to lock me up and pretend I didn’t exist.”
Haku gathered me up in his arms squeezed me tight. “I’m sorry. If I’d known, I would’ve come sooner,” he whispered, “but you never told me any of that. You only asked for me to come back.”
“I didn’t want to worry you,” I explained bitterly. “In case you could actually hear me, of course. But I guess it didn’t really make a difference.”
“Forgive me, Chihiro,” Haku begged. “I never wanted to hurt you. I only want what’s best for you, and I think it’s the human world.”
“I told you, I don’t fit in there,” I retorted. “I won’t go back. I’ll help Masuka go back, then I’ll stay here.”
Haku said, “You should go back and explain to your parents. They might think you’ve been kidnapped if you suddenly disappear.”
“I don’t think they’d notice.”
“They’d notice,” he assured me, soundly oddly certain. He hugged me, and I couldn’t resist slipping my arms around him.
“It’s hopeless,” I muttered. “My parents would never let me stay here. They still think I’m an insane drug addict. The only drugs I’ve ever had are the ones they’ve given me. And they’re horrible, too. They make my head fuzzy, and I can’t think clearly. And they make me throw up.”
Haku stroked my head. “Don’t worry. I won’t let them hurt you anymore.”
“You make it sound like you’re my bodyguard or something,” I responded, smiling. For some reason, I felt oddly sleepy.
“I was the first you met in this world,” he reminded me.
“And the only one to make a promise.”
“That I kept.”
“After nine years.” I was really sleepy now. “Why am I so tired?” I asked Haku, yawning.
“Just sleep,” he told me.
“But you put a spell on me, so of course I’ll sleep.” Funny. The thought hadn’t occurred to me until I’d voiced it aloud.
“You start work tomorrow, so you can sleep tonight,” Haku reassured me. “And I’m not happy about you getting a job,” he whispered in my ear. “After all the trouble I went through to get you out of it last time?”
“I would’ve . . . stayed if . . . I could have,” I mumbled, leaning on him. “Don’t put . . . spells on me, Haku. It’s not . . . nice.” I yawned again.
Haku chuckled and picked me up easily, bridal style. I was too tired to really care as he carried me. I vaguely remembered an elevator and hallways and then I laid on a soft bed while Haku tucked me in.
“Sleep well, my little Chihiro,” he murmured, and turned to leave.He was at the door when I whispered, “I love you, Haku.” But I don’t know if he heard, for he closed the door softly and his footsteps faded away.