Past and Present
She no longer remained the innocent, helpless girl she’d been nine years ago. The first thing Haku had noticed was the darkening of her eyes. Chihiro’s eyes were still the same dark brown, but they seemed weary and not as open as they once were. But how she’d grown into a beautiful young woman! It only made him want to claim her, though he knew she’d never want that.
Her thinness struck him, too. She’d always been skinny, but now she was bony to the point of being underweight. He’d have to make sure she ate well.
She’d mumbled something as he walked out the door, but even with his dragon hearing, he hadn’t been able to tell what it was. He didn’t really want her to leave, but the spirit world was far more dangerous than she’d come to think. The bath house was actually one of the safest places in the realm. Haku knew that if Chihiro stayed, she’d be forced to learn how spirit ethics differed drastically from mortal ethics. Because spirits were immortal and possessed more power, certain crimes weren’t as heinous.
Humans and their short lives. Haku supposed that that was why they bred like rats. They were so much easier to manage when they had kings and queens and valued modesty and purity over all else.
But how could she stay? And how could he let her go again? Loving someone enough to let them go was stupid. If one loved another enough to let them go, did one really love them at all? Why wouldn’t one love them enough to fight to stay with them at all costs?
I could never let her go back to the human world, Haku realized. I could never force her back to a place that obviously holds so much unhappiness. And he knew he hadn’t heard the worst. He’d have to find out when she woke.
When I woke, the morning sun almost blinded me.
“Wake up!” someone snapped. “You always sleep in!”
“Five more minutes,” I muttered, turning over and burrowing my face in the pillow.
“Sen! Work! Get up!” Another voice joined in the cacophony.
“Ugh,” I groaned, sitting up. Two figures came into focus: Rin and Masuka. Work . . . what work? “Crap,” I breathed. “What time is it?”
“Time for work,” both of them said at the same time, then glared at each other.
I flopped back onto the pillows. “Where’s Haku?”
Masuka and Rin glanced at each other, then Rin replied, “He’ll be here until Yubaba’s done training him, which won’t be for awhile.”
Nodding, I slipped out of bed and went to change.
“Whoa,” I breathed. completely in awe. For some reason, the bath house had a giant library that probably stretched a good twenty feet above me.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” asked the librarian, an old lady named Ume. “And every book is catalogued in alphabetical order. It took quite a long time, but it was well worth it. Now if I can just manage to catalogue Yubaba’s name collection. . . .”
“Do you know how I could find a way back to the human world?” I questioned.
Ume narrowed her eyes. “From what you say, it sounds like you went through an intentionally opened portal. This could be because of two reasons. One, someone wanted you to come to the spirit world. Two, someone opened a portal on the other side of the world, and this was the sister portal. Portals always open in two to keep the universe balanced.”
“So I have to open another portal?”
“Well, there is another way. . . ,” Ume supplied hesitantly. “Two portals open every quarter of the year. That’s the two solstices and the two equinoxes. They open in the center of the spirit world.”
“How much power is required to open a portal?” Or what I really wanted to ask: Could someone like Haku open a portal?
After a pause, she answered, “Only powerful bound spirits or witches.”
“Bound spirits?” I asked, confused. I’d never heard anyone talk about them.
Ume nodded. “Bound spirits are those bound to land. Take your dragon, Haku, for example.” He’s not my dragon. “He is bound to the Kohaku River. But a spirit like Yubaba is not bound. Witches are not bound spirits. She is a free spirit, although most free spirits aren’t witches.”
“It sounds like bound spirits are more powerful than free spirits,” I extrapolated.
“Bound spirits are generally more powerful because they can use the power from their counterpart, but once they seek power past it, they turn into witches. And a new spirit takes over their territory.”
I took a deep breath. “Can Haku open a portal?”
Ume nodded. “Haku is, surprisingly, a very powerful river. This is probably because he gets the run-off from Mount Hakusen, who is his father. And then he flows into to the Sea of Japan, who is his mother.”
“Wow,” I gasped. “No wonder he’s so powerful.”
“So yes, he could open a portal. So could Yubaba or Zeniba. Although good luck trying to convince either of them. It takes a lot of effort and could potentially cause dangerous repercussions to the surrounding area and the spirit opening it.”
I told her, “Then I just have to wait for the summer solstice and go then.”
“You should send a letter so the humans don’t do something drastic,” Ume suggested.
“How would I send a letter?” I wondered. “If I can send a letter, why not a person?”
Smiling, Ume replied, “Because the wall between the human and spirit world can let through things without souls. Small things. Little things that get lost easily.”
It’s still Sunday, I realized. If I can get a letter to college and tell them Masuka and I are sick or something, they won’t worry. And then we’ll have summer break.
“How will I know which portal to go through?” I asked, remembering that there wouldn’t just be one portal.
“You’ll know,” Ume reassured me.
“Where will I end up?”
She explained, “You have to visualize a place clearly.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “You don’t know how helpful you’ve been.”
Ume just smiled. “Use the knowledge wisely.”
I nodded and almost ran out, eager to tell Masuka.
When I told Masuka she’d have to wait until the solstice to go back to the human world, her expression was a mixture of sadness and happiness. She’d wanted to return sooner, not being a person who adapts well to new environments. To which Rin replied she thought the sooner the better. That hadn’t gone over very well.
She and Rin had a love/hate relationship, which was very entertaining. They also argued about who was my best best friend, which got a little annoying, and was funny to watch only until they actually got mad. Then I had to lock them both in closets. I didn’t know why, but the closets all had locks. Why would anyone want to lock their closet? It worked though, and fortunately, neither one had figured out how to escape. Yet.
However, she did seem intrigued by the bound/free spirit concept.
“So Haku’s pretty powerful, huh?” she mused, looking oddly happy.
“I guess,” I shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter to me.”
“No, you just want to know whether or not he created that portal.”
When I didn’t deny it, she smiled knowingly. “Just don’t get your hopes up,” she advised. “Guys like that don’t think much of promises. From what I’ve heard, he probably promised so you’d feel better. He probably thought you’d forget, anyway. Think it was a dream, maybe?”
“I almost did think it was a dream,” I muttered. Masuka knew about my medical past, having been my first friend in high school.
“I wouldn’t dwell on it too much,” she told me. “Soon I’ll be back home and out of your way. And then maybe things will sort themselves out.” Masuka was the sort of girl that was wiser than she acted and knew more than she said. If she said that would happen, I trusted it would.
It seemed that most of the workers remembered me, and some of the customers did, too. They all remarked on how tall I’d gotten, how beautiful I was, and how happy they were to see me. It reminded me of family gatherings.
“Hard at work, huh?” asked someone behind me, making me jump. I was on break, so I sat on a balcony with my legs dangling over and a pork bun in my hand.
“Haku.” I didn’t turn around.
“You don’t sound very happy to see me,” he commented.
“You piss me off,” I threw at him.
“Why?” His voice carried a hint of pain, but I ignored it.
I sighed. “You wait nine years to uphold your promise, you don’t even give me a reason, and then you drag me back here and tell me to leave.”
“How do you know I put the door there?” he wanted to know.
“Who else would?” I muttered.
Haku answered, “Believe it or not, Chihiro, there are many people in this world who are interested in you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re the only human to wander in twice in eons,” he told me.
Sighing, I took a bite of the pork bun. “I still think you put the door there,” I grumbled. “And why didn’t you come get me sooner?”
Haku shifted, then said, “Spirits are immortal.”
“Time passes more quickly for us.”
“That’s your reason.” Disappointment washed over me. I’d hoped for something better than that. I’d hoped he’d at least had work or something.
“No. War is taxing upon all four sides.”
“Four?” I asked, frowning.
“A war between two sides. Then a side that wants a compromise and a side that wants nothing to do with it. Offense, defense, pacifism, and indifference.”
“You’ve been in a war?” I gasped.
Haku exhaled. “No.”
Annoyed, I snapped, “You didn’t forget about me, and you weren’t in a war. How are those reasons? You’re just confusing me.”
“Chihiro, there are two very powerful spirits preparing for war. Do you think I’d want you here at a time like this?” he let out in a rush.
I sighed, anger forgotten. Why did he have to actually have a good reason? “I guess.”
“I don’t want you in the middle of a war with no way to defend yourself,” Haku explained. “I’d probably be forced to fight and I’d—you know I’d worry.”
How could he go from aggravatingly annoying to so darn sweet? “You’re impossible,” I muttered.
“And you’re as stubborn as I remember,” he replied affectionately, ruffling my hair. I stuffed the rest of the bun in my mouth and stood, turning to tousle his hair in return. But of course, he was probably about five inches taller than my five-foot-six. Which meant I had to reach up, bringing me a lot closer to him than I’d planned. And his hair felt so silky. The same shade of green and just a little longer than it had been.
“Why did you grow up?” I wondered.
Haku’s eyes widened. “I–ah . . . I just–I was ready to grow up.”
Tilting my head, I replied, “I don’t think so. You’re hiding something.” He reddened, making me smile. “Tell me,” I pleaded, widening my eyes and doing my best to look innocent.
Haku closed his eyes, as if to collect himself. “I told you, I was ready to grow up,” he repeated, much more smoothly than before.
“Fine,” I muttered. “I have to get back to work anyway.” I’d work on him later.
“She didn’t give us the big bath! Can you believe it?” Rin exclaimed.
“It used to look so big, but I saw it again, and it’s tiny!” I observed. “You remember when I accidentally flooded it?”
Nodding, Rin continued, “And the time you helped that stink spirit that wasn’t really a stink spirit.”
“And going to Zeniba’s to help Haku.”
“That feels like ages ago,” she sighed, mop in one hand.
“Nine years. Hey, do you know how I could get Masuka back to the human world?” I asked. “I can’t just leave her here. I mean, it’s one thing for me to stay, but I don’t know if she could live here.”
Rin looked guilty. “Oops. Sorry, Sen. I was so busy being happy you were back that I forgot you’re a human. And what do you mean by ‘it’s one thing for me to stay’?”
“I don’t belong in the human world,” I proclaimed bluntly. “Masuka does. She has friends and family who love her. My parents stopped loving me a long time ago.”
“Sen!” Rin reprimanded. “Never say that. I’m sure your parents love you very much. They probably just have a hard time showing it.”
“No,” I denied. “I know how they feel about me.”
Sighing, Rin muttered something inaudible.
“Do you know what they did?” I demanded. When Rin shook her head, I went on. “They gave me therapy and medication and quarantined me, and for a year or two, I was actually crazy. And then in high school, I missed a few months because I was so depressed from everything that I considered killing myself because there was no point in living anymore. You think they love me? After all this, they still blame me for tarnishing their reputation. The only reason I hung on was so Haku could come back and bring here. The only place I’ve ever belonged.”
Rin eyes were wide by now, and she gasped, hugging me tightly. “Sen! I’m sorry, I never knew! Otherwise, I would’ve gotten you myself. That idiot dragon! Insensitive reptile!” And here she spewed a few choice words.
I hugged her back, not wanting to relive my past. “Thank you, Rin,” I said, interrupting her cursing Haku.
“Oh, sorry. I’m just glad you’re okay. From what you say, the human world is a horrible place.”
“It isn’t. I just never found a happiness in it.”
Unbeknownst to me, a certain dragon walked away from the bath we were working on, having heard enough.
Haku was absolutely, soul-encompassingly livid. Furious. Everyone in the bath house could practically see his aura radiating off him in enraged waves. So as he walked by, every single employee was doing their best to be professional and efficient, while the customers they served were doing their best to remain as low-maintenance and invisible as possible. Their efforts might have been appreciated had Haku not been completely blind to the outside world. So blind, in fact, that he completely missed the door in front of him until he walked right into it, sending a crash throughout the bath house, mixed with a very violent curse.
Throwing it open and slamming it behind him, Haku transformed into dragon form and launched into the air so hard the wooden porch underneath him collapsed. He growled and magicked it back together.
Why hadn’t Chihiro told him? Her parents had made her want to kill herself? Those bastards! Had she not trusted him enough to tell him?
None of this would’ve happened if you’d gone sooner, his brain reminded him. He roared, and that part of his brain wisely shut up. But that little doubt kept nagging him. What if he had gone earlier? Was putting Chihiro in the middle of a war better than what she’d gone through? Why hadn’t she even told him through the painting or when she’d visited his river? Come to think of it, she’d never mentioned her parents.
Had he destroyed her trust by not seeing her sooner? She probably hated him for waiting so long.
A crash startled me, making me drop the bucket of soapy water on my foot.
“Ow!” I complained, rubbing my foot. “What was that?”
Rin shrugged. “Could’ve been anything. Hey, you, what was that crash?” she called to a passing yuna.
Obviously frightened, the yuna said, “Master Haku came by in a rage and . . . walked into a door. I don’t know what we did to make him so mad. I should probably get back!” She ran away hurriedly.
I glanced at Rin. “Why was he mad?”
“I don’t know,” Rin responded, laughing, “but I would’ve like to see him walk into a door! Ha! That good-for-nothing lizard!”
“Is he okay?” I worried. “Doors hurt.”
“You’re so funny, Sen! Of course he’s okay. He’s probably just pissed that his rice was cold or something.”
“Would you please excuse us, Rin,” Haku forced out from the doorway. She gave him an uneasy smile. He walked forward and grabbed my hand, making me drop my broom.
“Hey! What are you doing with her?” Rin yelled.
“Having a talk,” Haku retorted. His aura still showed in purplish-red light.
They shared a glare and seemed to come to an understanding, for Rin nodded. Haku dragged me down the hall, ignoring everyone’s stares.
“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Let go!” I struggled, by Haku’s grip on my wrist was iron hard. “Stop!” When he didn’t, I tried one last tactic. “You’re hurting me!”
Immediately, Haku released me. But instead of letting me walk, he picked me up, princess style, and carried me down the hall.
“This is even worse,” I muttered. Finally, we arrived in front of Haku’s office door. Somehow, we’d gotten there without going up the elevator or up stairs.
When we got inside, Haku set me down and started pacing.
I sighed. “What now? Come to pester me again? I’m supposed to be working. I don’t know if you noticed, but Yubaba still owns the bath house, not you. She can still fire me.”
Haku rolled his eyes. “She’s not going to fire you.”
“That’s what you think,” I contradicted.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” I asked, startled by the sudden change of topic.
“What your parents did to you.”
Bewildered, I replied, “I did.”
“Not what you told Rin,” he retorted bitterly.
“You eavesdropped!” I accused.
“Accidentally,” he protested. “But that’s not the point! The point is that you lied.”
“I didn’t lie!” Now I felt anger growing. He eavesdropped! How could he sink so low?
“That’s still a lie of omission,” Haku pointed out.
“You stupid dragon!” I exploded. “Lies of omission are bullshit anyway! When someone asks you a question, it’s not like you tell them everything you know about the subject! Besides, I didn’t have to tell you anything! Do I have to relive every painful moment of my life for every person here?!”
I saw the hurt in his eyes before he turned away. “You trust Rin more than you trust me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Rin didn’t wait nine years to keep a promise. She didn’t bring me back here and tell me to leave! She can’t—” But here I shut up. She can’t hurt me as much as you can, I wanted to say.
“I didn’t put the door there!” Haku shouted.
I drew back, feeling my heart break into shards that splintered and delivered acute jabs of pain. Eyes wide, face pale, I must’ve looked like a ghost.
“Chihiro?” Haku whispered, scared and worried.
“You mean you didn’t try to see me at all?” I gasped, afraid of the answer.
“Chihiro—” Haku began again, obviously looking to reassure me.
But I was beyond reassurance. “You weren’t going to come back for me,” I realized.
“I was going to wait until after the war!” Haku cried, reaching for me.
I took another step back. “And how long would that take? Decades? Centuries? Forever?”
“No.” I shook my head, hands going up to press my temples. “You would’ve broken your promise. I–I trusted you, Haku. And look where it’s gotten me! I hate you!” I screamed, backing out the door and turning, running away as fast as I could.