Chihiro stumbled along the forest path, panting heavily. She could hear the raised voices of her parents far down the hill, their panicked cries echoing. Chihiro shut her eyes and pushed on, drowning them out. She didn’t have much farther to go and she was determined to reach her destination, no matter how much she suffered for it.
The wool knit cap on her head itched horribly but she ignored it and trudged on. Her white linen dress snagged on passing branches and she tugged on her skirt to free it. With a ripping sound she was free, but she overbalanced and fell to her knees, hard. She stood shakily, leaning heavily on a nearby tree, ignoring the dirt and blood on her legs as she pushed onwards.
She could see the chipped red paint of the tunnel in front of her and for a split second a smile flashed across her face. But it vanished as quickly as it came; she had no energy to spare. It took everything she had to walk through the tunnel. She felt the wind push her the last few steps and let herself smile again. As she left the tunnel the setting sun blinded her for a moment and she blinked.
In ten years, not a thing had changed. Everything was just as she remembered. There sat the bathhouse on top of its hill, its smokestacks just starting to emit wisps of steam as the spirits began to start their work for the evening. The smell of delicious food drifted on the wind and pushed her towards the steps that would lead her back. She stumbled and almost fell again, and she felt the wind ease up a little. Chihiro felt it instead gently wrap around her and lift her up, floating her up the stairs and laying her down at the bridge leading to the bathhouse.
Her legs gave out just as she took her first step onto the wooden planks, her hand grasping futilely at the rail. Splinters lodged themselves under her nails and she bit her lip to keep from screaming. Her body hit the wood hard and the breath was knocked out of her.
Chihiro tried to stand again but her energy had run out. Her eyes swam; she had been so close! She stretched her hand out towards the bathhouse, so close she could almost touch it. With a sigh, her hand dropped with a thud and her eyes closed as she gave in to unconsciousness.
“Is it her, do you think?” a female voice whispered nearby. Chihiro struggled to open her eyes. That voice sounded so familiar…
“I do think,” an old man’s voice responded. “She’s grown older as humans do, yet her spirit smells the same as when she left, as does her human scent. But it is tinged with decay and pain. She is very ill, very ill indeed. I do not think even Yubaba has the magic to heal her.”
“Not that she would,” the female voice replied with a huff. “She threw a big enough fit to start an earthquake when they found her on the bridge. What happened to Sen…I mean, Chihiro? Why is she so sick?”
“I do not know, but I fear for the poor child.”
Chihiro wrenched her eyes open finally and raised a hand to block out the light that burned her retinas. Immediately a face loomed over hers. Chihiro blinked and smiled as she recognized Lin, the older girl she had come to regard as a sister the last time Chihiro had been in the spirit world.
“Hi, Lin,” she whispered, her voice creaky from lack of use.
Lin grinned. “It is you! What are you doing back here? Did you miss us? Why are you sick? What’s wrong with you?”
“One question at a time, she just woke up,” Kamaji admonished. He smiled gently at Chihiro, handing her a cup of water. Chihiro took it gratefully and gulped it down.
“So what are you doing here, Sen?” Lin asked again once she had finished her drink.
Chihiro smiled sadly. “It is…difficult to speak about,” she replied softly, struggling to sit up. Kamaji grasped her gently under the arms and lifted her up to rest against the shelves behind her. She smiled at him again.
“What illness plagues you, granddaughter?” he asked. “We spirits do not sicken or die such as humans do, nor are we used to caring for a human like we do for you. Please help us understand what is troubling you.”
Chihiro sighed and reached up to pull off the wool knit cap she had been wearing. She felt Lin stiffen next to her as her bald head was revealed.
“I have an illness called cancer,” she told them, her eyes filling with tears. “My body is shutting down. I don’t have much longer to live.” She looked up at her friends. “I’m here because I wanted to spend my last few days with the people I love the most. You two, Granny, No-Face, Boh, and…” her voice trailed off.
“And Kohaku?” Kamaji said gently. Chihiro wiped her eyes and nodded. “He comes to visit every so often. In fact, I would bet he has sensed your presence and is on his way here now.”
There was a knock at the little sliding door and all three of them turned to look. A yuna opened it and peered inside, brightening once she caught sight of Chihiro.
“Ah there you are!” she said happily, clapping her hands together. “If you are feeling well enough, I am here to escort you to Yubaba’s office. She wishes for your presence.”
Lin frowned. “Of course she does. She’s less than ten minutes awake and already she’s being made to move. Hmph!” Lin knelt with her back to Chihiro. At the girl’s questioning look, Lin blushed.
“You obviously don’t have the strength to walk on your own so I’ll carry you instead. Got a problem with that?”
Kamaji helped her onto Lin’s back and settled a blanket around her shoulders. Chihiro smiled at him.
“Goodbye, Grandfather,” she whispered, knowing this might be the last time she would see him. “Thank you for everything.”
Kamaji gently patted her head and helped Lin maneuver them through the tiny door. Once it had shut, he turned to his soot spirits with a determined scowl. He had work to do.
Lin carried her up the familiar stairs and elevators, stopping shortly to allow Chihiro to look over the balcony at the bathhouse below. Chihiro breathed in the steam and grinned happily, laying her cheek against Lin’s back. Lin hitched her up higher on her back and walked into the ornate elevator that would take them to the top floor.
The door slid open and Yubaba greeted them with a glare.
“You are no longer needed,” she growled at Lin. With a crook of her finger, Yubaba brought a wheelchair into view. Chihiro was oddly touched at her thoughtfulness. “You may wait here while I speak with the girl.” Lin frowned but lowered Chihiro into the wheelchair and stood back.
Yubaba walked off down the hallway, crooking a finger over her shoulder to make the wheelchair follow.
“Welcome back, Sen,” the old witch said with a sneer. “I trust you are not here to ask for your job back, considering you are even more pathetic now than before. So why don’t we cut to the chase and you just tell me what you want.”
“I am dying, Yubaba-san,” Chihiro replied. “I came back to say goodbye to those I love, your son being one of them. I would like to see him one last time. I would also appreciate your assistance in visiting your sister, though I know you share no love between you. That is what I want.”
Yubaba raised an eyebrow at the girl over her shoulder but kept walking. “Well aren’t you forward. I should like to hear a bit more begging from you with all you’re asking for. And you want this all for free I expect!”
“Of course not, Yubaba-san,” Chihiro smirked. “I brought payment.” She reached a hand into her purse and pulled out a small sack from its depths. Yubaba took it and peered inside, a grin spreading slowly across her enormous face.
“And where did this come from?” the witch asked, pocketing the pouch.
“Gold is easily found in my world, Yubaba-san,” Chihiro laughed. “I trust it is enough for what I ask? I don’t have much time left, may I see Boh now?”
Yubaba glared. “You’re not contagious are you? I don’t want my baby sick!”
“No I’m not,” Chihiro assured her. Yubaba huffed and flung open a door, standing aside as the magically controlled wheelchair rolled inside.
Boh sat behind an enormous desk, chewing a lip between his teeth and he laboriously wrote something onto the paper in front of him. The tiny bird Chihiro remembered was still with him, hopping up and down in front of him, chirping encouragement. Boh looked up when the doors slammed shut behind his mother. He looked at her and frowned.
“I’m in the middle of lessons, Mother, what is it?”
“I brought an old friend to visit you, sweetums,” Yubaba gushed, running over to her son and pinching his cheek. “You remember Sen, don’t you?”
Boh narrowed his eyes at Chihiro. “Is that really her? She’s so much bigger than I remember!”
“It’s what happens to humans, Boh,” Chihiro smiled up at the enormous child. “I wanted to see you again. I missed you.”
Boh stood up so suddenly the desk was knocked over, causing Little Yubaba to shriek and fly in tight circles around the room in its agitation. Boh stomped over to Chihiro’s wheelchair and sat down heavily in front of her, leaning in and breathing her scent deeply. An enormous grin lit up his face and he clapped his hands.
“It IS you!” he cried. “But what is wrong? You smell…bad.”
Chihiro smiled at him sadly. “I came to say goodbye, my friend. There is a sickness in my bones and soon I will die. I wanted to see you one last time and ask you if you would join me in visiting your aunt Zeneba.” Yubaba huffed audibly but did not protest.
Boh’s eyes watered and he reached out, picking Chihiro up gently and cradling her in his arms in a soft hug. “Of course I will go with you,” he whispered. “I have missed you and would be honored to join you in one last adventure.”
Chihiro smiled and patted his cheek. “You’ve grown up, haven’t you? I’m proud of you.” She sighed as Boh set her back in the wheelchair, grimacing as her bones ached and shifted. She looked at her former boss. “Yubaba-san, thank you for this.”
To her great shock, Yubaba wiped away a single tear. “Sen, if you survive, know that you are always welcome in my bathhouse.” She turned away and stared at her fireplace. “Boh, hurry and take Sen…I mean, Chihiro to the train stop. If she so chooses, Lin may go with you on this journey.” Four train tickets floated off of Yubaba’s desk and landed on Chihiro’s lap. “Go now.”
Boh kissed his mother on the cheek and pushed Chihiro’s chair back down the hallway to the elevator. Little Yubaba flapped alongside them, chirping happily. Lin was pacing anxiously in front of it, but upon catching sight of them she ran forward to peer at Chihiro’s face.
“You’re okay, right?” she pressed with concern. “She didn’t do anything to you, right?”
Chihiro laughed softly. “It is all right, Lin. Yubaba has been generous. Boh is going to travel with me to Zeneba’s house and has given permission for you to go with us if you choose.” Chihiro held up the train tickets and watched Lin’s eyes light up.
“Are you kidding? Of course I choose!” she practically shouted, and then looked abashed when Chihiro winced. “We should hurry if we want to catch the train,” she continued at a quieter tone, and pushed the button for the elevator.
They made it just in time, and Boh gently carried her inside the train while Lin tugged the wheelchair after them. The train whooshed along, the scenery the same as the last time they had taken the ghost-filled locomotive. Boh, after realizing that he was a bit too massive to comfortably fit in the seats, shrunk down to the tiny mouse form Chihiro remembered so well.
“You’ve advanced far in your magic studies, haven’t you?” she praised him, and Boh’s mouse cheeks lit up in a blush. He spent the rest of the journey tucked in the crease of her elbow, letting out little snores as he fell asleep.
Chihiro leaned heavily against Lin’s side, the older girl’s arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders. She stared out the window, lost in thought, and wondered where Kohaku was and if he would find her in time.
The train finally whistled to a stop at the swamp and the quartet quickly got off, Boh reverting to his giant form once back on solid ground. Lin unfolded the chair and Chihiro settled into it with a sigh, only slightly regretting exerting herself so much that day.
“Well aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!” a cheerful voice called from down the path. Chihiro smiled as she saw Zeneba floating towards them, No Face following at a more sedate pace. “What brings you here?” the old woman asked, then froze as she took in Chihiro’s wan face and chair.
“Oh my dear granddaughter,” she whispered sadly. With one hand she sent off a great fireball into the sky and with the other she caressed Chihiro’s face gently. “Nephew, be a dear and change back into a mouse. It will be much easier to transport everyone if you are smaller.”
Boh obliged, and the tiny mouse and bird hopped into Chihiro’s lap.
“Our ride should be arriving any moment,” Zeneba muttered. “He’s actually late. Where…ah!”
Chihiro’s confusion transformed into pure joy as the great dragon settled down before them. Lin thumped him on the nose and scolded him for not coming sooner, but helped Zeneba secure Chihiro on his back and climbed up after her, hugging her tightly from behind. Kohaku gently picked up the wheelchair in his talons and launched into the sky, leaving Zeneba and No Face following the ground path back to her house. Boh and Little Yubaba poked their heads out of Chihiro’s pockets and watched the world fall away below them excitedly. Chihiro simply leaned back against Lin, allowing herself to give in to the blackness that had been dancing at the edges of her vision.
She awoke in front of a warm fire and No Face’s mask bobbing in front of her. She smiled at him and raised her right wrist, showing him the sparkling hair tie that rested there.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, patting her head. If his mask could have grinned wider it would have.
Zeneba bustled over with a cup of tea, handing her the cup and watching her hawk eyed as she drank it down, her hands trembling slightly. Immediately Chihiro felt energy flow through her and she sat up a little straighter.
“Thank you, Granny,” she murmured. Zeneba smiled and took the cup from her still shaking hands.
“I will not beat around the bush, as you humans say,” Zeneba said. “How much longer?”
Chihiro knew what she meant without having to ask. “I have maybe a few more days, Granny. The cancer started in my bones and has spread throughout my body. As I told Lin and Boh, I came here to see you all one last time.”
“And what of your parents?” Zeneba asked sharply. Chihiro blushed in embarrassment.
“They…they would not let me come. They wanted me to stay in the hospital. So I ran away.”
“The pull of this world was strong, deep in your soul,” Zeneba nodded. “While I do not approve of your parents worry, I am glad to see you again, child.”
Chihiro hugged her awkwardly, still not able to hug the old witch completely though her arms had lengthened with her growth. She let her go and turned her head, seeing Lin sitting in a corner, facing the wall with her arms wrapped around her knees.
“What is Lin doing?” she asked Zeneba. The woman’s face hardened.
“Once Kohaku set down in front of my cottage, he saw that you had fainted and panicked. As soon as Lin and Boh had taken you inside, he took off again. We yelled for him to come back but he has not.”
Chihiro felt the air leave her lungs and fell backwards into the ever welcoming arms of unconsciousness.
Chihiro floated in and out of awareness of her surroundings. Sometimes she would come to, look around at her family’s worried faces, and fall back into the dark again. She preferred the dreamlike state of the blackness, sometimes seeing Kohaku’s smiling face beckoning to her across the river he once guarded. Her pink shoe drifted in between them, bobbing gently as the water swirled around it, making it dance on the waves. But as she went to step into the water and swim across to him, her limbs grew weak and her hair fell into the current and drifted away. Kohaku’s smiling face would shift into an expression of disgust and he would turn away, ignoring her cries as the waves grew larger and washed her away, leaving her to drown. And then the dream would begin again.
Chihiro came back to full consciousness to raised voices and loud crashing noises. She could hear Lin screaming what sounded like curses and Boh yelling in agreement. Turning her head she could see No Face’s monstrous form outside the window, weaving back and forth as if to keep something from coming inside. Chihiro struggled to sit up and laboriously maneuvered herself into her wheelchair. As soon as she was settled, the chair moved forward without her touching the wheels, bringing her outside.
Blinking in the bright sunlight, she took in the scene. Boh was throwing large pieces of firewood at the large dragon that dodged out of the way, Little Yubaba perched on his head and hissing angrily. Lin stood beside him, still screaming, and Zeneba herself stood still, the air around her crackling with energy. No Face was the first to see Chihiro, immediately reverting to his normal form and patting her head excitedly. Boh ran out of logs and was turning to get more when he spotted her, and he nudged Lin hard enough to knock her over.
“Watch what you’re doing, you great dirty…” she trailed off and ran to Chihiro’s side, kneeling beside her chair and peering into her eyes.
“You’re awake,” Zeneba said, still staring at the dragon, who had now landed. “I think someone wishes to speak to you, but if you decline we will chase him off.”
Kohaku did not change back to his human form, nor did he offer any explanation to his abandoning her before. Chihiro felt the tears gather in her eyes and spill over as she regarded him. Still he did not speak, merely staring at her with his enormous eyes that seemed desperately sad. He took a step towards her, but Chihiro rolled her chair backwards and he froze.
“If my visitor wished to speak with me, he had ample opportunity to do so before now,” she told Zeneba, her heart breaking with every word. “I thought he cared for me, but now I can see it was just a childhood fantasy.” She looked at Kohaku, hardening herself against his gaze. “Thank you, sir, for your visit and for your assistance in getting me to my Granny’s home.” She nodded slightly at Lin and her sister pushed her back inside the house. She thought she heard a cry behind her as the door shut, but shook her head and believed she had imagined it.
Chihiro slept again, this time haunted by dreams of crying dragons and brief glimpses of Kohaku at the edges of her vision but disappeared when she turned to look directly at him. When she awoke, she found Lin asleep in a chair next to her bed, her head pillowed on her arms and soft snores coming from her mouth. Chihiro smiled and brushed a hand over Lin’s hair, waking the other girl.
“You’ve been asleep for two days,” Lin said softly. “We didn’t know if you would come back.”
Chihiro felt her eyes tear up again but bushed them aside. “I think…I think this might be the end,” she whispered, not enough energy left in her to speak properly. Lin sat up in alarm and gripped her hand.
“No! Don’t…don’t say such things,” Lin sobbed.
“Lin, you have been like an older sister to me and I cannot thank you enough for your friendship. Boh,” she said catching sight of his enormous face peering at her from the end of the bed, “promise me you’ll take care of Lin and Little Yubaba. I am so proud of the man you have become.” Boh burst into hiccupping sobs and ran out the front door. She could hear him howling outside and the sounds of a tree being ripped up at its roots. She closed her eyes against the sound of his pain.
“Granny, thank you for taking care of No Face,” she continued, eyes flickering as she struggled to open them again. “And No Face, thank you for taking care of Granny. I am glad you both have found a friend in the other.”
She gripped Lin’s hand weakly. “Lin, tell Grandpa thank you and goodbye for me please,” her whisper growing quieter. She could feel her body shutting down but struggled to stay for a few moments more. “And tell Kohaku that…even though…he didn’t love me…I have always loved him.”
Chihiro couldn’t feel Lin’s hand in hers anymore, or the blankets covering her body. The last thing she heard was Lin’s wordless scream and the feeling of her hair tie tightening around her wrist.