Hey all!

I am SOOO sorry that this chapter took like, a month to come out. I honestly wasn't using all that month to sit around and think about this fic, and I want to thank everyone who waited patiently for me to update even though I'm an ass. Your reviews are so nice and complimenting, and talking about my story like a 'work of art' makes me smile! Even though I beg to differ.

Okay, so one strong message I got from people this time was: Stop writing so much freaking detail and make the story interesting again. Hmm. okay, I'll try; I guess I was just focusing too hard on the drama and suspense last time around. Although, remember, this is my writing style so it's not as though things are going to change overly much in that department, but I hope you all don't just skip over the descriptions too much anyway. I mean, that's the hard part! Dialogue is easy, but describing the spirit world takes thought.

There will be more Chihiro and Kohaku fluff to those who care (A.K.A everyone. Except for one atypical reviewer who said the story didn't need any fluff. but. I thought it went well.) don't worry, because I love it too. but no lemons. I don't do lemons. First off I'm too young to write them anyway, and secondly I can't ever see that fitting in with this story. Chihiro's fourteen, she's in the middle of a war and Kohaku would definitely wait until he and Chihiro were married or had performed some other spirit. custom. thing, before they did anything. Anyway, that's that, but whatever - I don't think too many of you were really hoping for a sex scene anyway.

Also, to that one reviewer who mentioned it. I don't think it's actually possible to report an author for being late with updating. But hey, whatever, you can try. (Actually. don't. God, don't.)

So, please enjoy my story, acknowledge the fact that I don't own Spirited Away. and that's all!

*

Spirited Back

By Rio Grande

Chapter Five: Pollution

*

"She looks so tired."

"Do you think she'll want to go to Yumei falls?"

"Oh, I want to take her to-!"

"Shhh, we'll wake her up!"

"It's all right! Rin said-!"

"Shhh!"

"But Tei!"

"SHHH!"

Chihiro opened her eyes slowly, feeling as though her face had been stretched out like a newly made canvas coated in sticky salt water, thanks to all of the tears she had cried and forgotten to wash away last night. There was a rancid taste in the back of her throat she feared was vomit as she tried to sit up and scrub at her face. She was further pulled into the world of the living by the many squeaky little voices dancing around her head.

"Look! Look she's waking!"

"See, you woke her up!"

"Did not! It's late anyway - I bet she would have woken up on her own."

Chihiro slowly slid her eyes open, blinking into the dimly lit room, and finding it disorienting to wake up naturally in the evening. She waited for her vision to clear before she tipped her head to the side to see just who it was making all the noise near her bed.

".Hello."

"Hi!"

"I-it's nice to see you again!" Three little Yuna girls stuttered, blushing cutely and staring at their hands when they noticed their idol's gaze rest upon them. It took Chihiro a while for everything to process as she continued to silently stare at the three diminutive spirits, before realizing that before her was Kima, and two of her friends who had been there at the meeting before she went to the bathhouse, last night.

"Where's Rin?" Chihiro croaked, drawing her knees up while bracing her hands on her cot and trying to get to her feet. This task was a lot more difficult to pull off then one would imagine. She was just too exhausted.

"U-um, she told us to tell you that she went to a meeting and doesn't want you to come!" Kima quickly explained, glancing up at Chihiro nervously.

"Doesn't want me to come? Why?" Chihiro asked quietly, not really expecting these three young girls to have the answer, but curious nonetheless. What was Rin doing?

"She said she wanted you to rest. and have fun," one of the other girls chirped happily. "We're supposed to play with you!"

"Play with me?" Chihiro repeated, shaking her head. Call her crazy, but after all that had happened, Chihiro felt as though it would be almost offensive to have a good time when there were people trapped with Tiko at the bathhouse. Alone. scared. hurt. Chihiro shuddered unconsciously and got to her feet, deciding that, above all, she needed a bath. Her entire body was covered in a very take a bath." she mentioned distantly as she traveled over to the washroom, dazed. The girls stared after her, looking vaguely worried and ringing their hands.

Rin HAD told them to play with Chihiro, and had been very specific about the part how the girl from the mortal world was to have only a very good time that day, making sure the girls understood they weren't to bring up anything about how the mission went last night. The job had seemed easy at first to the three, exuberant and very young Yuna. but now the ordinarily simple task looked daunting as it dawned on Kima and her friends just how depressed Chihiro truly was. Her entire attitude was dark and halfhearted, and her brown eyes empty of the sparkle they had remembered seeing on her when she had started out to the bathhouse, earlier. She had been so gung ho and eager to help out her friends when she had started out, and now.

No one knew yet what exactly had happened at the Aburaya, thus the meeting, but it was looking as though things had gone awry at some point - the fact that they were missing two members of their merry crew when they returned last night, shaking and crying, being enough proof of that. And master Kohaku had yet to return!.

Chihiro sighed as she scrubbed her body deftly while staring at the wall, submerged in cold water, within the confines of the washroom. Rin's bathroom was small, and decorated sparsely since it had been built by rebels trying to throw together something akin to shelter, but it had all of the essentials for cleaning the layers of dirt out of Chihiro's hair. She had been too lazy to actually warm up the water provided, so Chihiro found herself shivering and rushing out of the bath as soon as she had efficiently cleansed herself.

While wrapping a towel around her thin form, Chihiro stared at the tub with a small frown. It really looked nothing like it, the small, iron tub stuffed in the cramped, humble bathroom, but. Chihiro couldn't help but be reminded of Kohaku's bath while staring at Rin's tub. She swallowed painfully, shaking fingers reaching for the doorknob behind her as she tried to rip her gaze away from the ghost memory that entranced her so, stumbling out into the slightly warmer hall of Rin's home. Rubbing her face and shaking her head, Chihiro turned around, abruptly coming face to face (or thigh to face.) with Kima and her friends, who had been waiting dutifully outside of the bathroom door the entire time.

Chihiro stifled an accepting sigh, realizing that she was going to have to stay with these girls all day if it was what Rin wished, or what they had been ordered to do, plastering on an accepting smile just for the scared looking Yuna.

"Hey," Chihiro said, her throat still scratchy.

"Hello," the girls repeated once more, in unison.

"So. We were supposed to play together.?"

*

"This way!"

"Over here!"

"It's the best over here!"

But a mere half out later, Chihiro found herself being dragged down the streets of the subversive rebel town, illuminated by hanging lamps strung up above her, and glittering with life and character. The girls seemed to know their current home like the back of their tiny hands, and were leading the lost fourteen year old around it quite well. Chihiro's hair was tied back in a dark, wet braid, and she had just barely had time to dress in a demure, dark purple robe before being dragged out into the night. Kima and her friends seemed simply too exited at the chance to teach Chihiro about their world, and show her a good time. Chihiro had to admit. their obvious naivety and gay innocence was having a wonderful effect on her bone chilling misery.

Kima's two friends were named Tei and Mia. Tei was the tallest, dark hair going down her back and a pink kimono making it easy to tell her apart from the others. Mia was very small with lighter hair, and large inquisitive gray eyes. She seemed rather shy, unlike Kima who considered herself a bit of an expert when it came to Chihiro now - considering she had met her TWICE before, and was showing no hesitance in taking Chihiro by the hand and explaining to her all there was to know about a spirit market. Tei and Mia followed along behind, shooting out helpful comments when needed. Chihiro found it endearing, not used to being the older person in situations like these.

"Wooww. look at those kimonos!" Chihiro commented, stopping in front of one of the many stands lining the streets, staring at the beautiful kimonos exhibited for her. They came in many deep, yet delicate colors, the embroidered designs on them stunning, and reminding her of more ancient robes she had seen only in books. These would be priceless back home.

"We used to have these made all the time at the Aburaya as a hobby for when things got too boring!" Kima explained casually, finding the kimonos to be nothing special. "But. now that things aren't so boring, there aren't many left," she admitted. The woman behind the stand smiled broadly at Chihiro, offering for her to come closer and take a better look, but Chihiro still had no money fit to pay spirits with, so she hurried along her way.

The market was an impressive maze of tents and merchandise, a melee of eager customers spending their money and inspecting the quality of goods . however even Chihiro noticed how everything seemed slightly quieter today, people a bit more solemn than usual as they waited for news from the meeting to come back, and hear how everything went during the big invasion last night. Chihiro mentally winced as she realized things would probably be even darker around this place by tomorrow, knowing perfectly well that no one was going to be pleased by the news they got back from the rebel leaders.

"The market was started to trade supplies between rebels so that we could build new homes, in the beginning," Tei explained in a surprisingly mature tone. "However, now it's more for fun, so that people don't just sit home all day, plotting and worrying about the war,"

"I see," Chihiro commented, glancing down at Tei and acknowledging that her height probably accounted to the fact that she was older than Kima and Mia.

The quartet continued to walk around the market place, Chihiro examining the merchandise with much interest, remembering many items from when she had first gotten a brief glimpse of the trading area with Rin, upon arriving in the underground sanctuary. However it had only been a brief visit, and Chihiro was still a little confused about a number of things in this metropolis of spirit goods.

"Kima, how come people are selling so much dirt and water?" Chihiro asked, wrinkling her nose and stopping in front of one stand that proffered said products. She had seen it before, and it still confused her; why did the spirit world need to sell fresh water and dirt when they lived in such a lush area? Kima only waited a beat before answering simply:

"Pollution."

Chihiro frowned and looked down at the Yuna dubiously.

"What sort of pollution? You don't have any factories around here. no cars, no garbage dumps - you don't even have any electricity, so how can pollution be a problem?" the girl questioned. Once again Tei replied in a very knowledgeable tone.

"It started recently. when Tiko started to take over, really," the young spirit said, reflectively. "Our ponds and lakes started to loose plant life, and soon entire bodies of water were crystal clear so that you could see straight down to the bottom,"

"But. isn't that a good thing?" Chihiro pointed out, ready to admit she knew very little about the environment, but deciding she rather liked her ponds free of algae and other, icky pond scummy type things.

"No, it's not!" Mia quickly piped up in her little squeak, as if this should be quite obvious, especially to someone of Chihiro's status in the spirit world.

"It means all of the plant life in the water has been killed. And once the plants start dying, the animal life starts going too. You know once this happens that the water isn't healthy enough for drinking or bathing in," Tei clarified, as Mia nodded helpfully.

"I see," Chihiro said, her forehead creasing into frown lines as she thought over the gravity of this situation. "So you're having trouble getting freshwater then? What about the bathhouse? What water do they use?"

"They're using up what freshwater we have!" Tei admitted, the hate obvious in her voice. "People are starting to sell fresh water they've collected at very high prices, since it's becoming such a precious commodity."

"It wouldn't be such a problem, but we can't leave the bathhouse property in search of better water, so we're stuck with what we've got," Kima added, sighing.

"And the dirt?" Chihiro asked, almost afraid to know as she started to continue walking, the Yuna quickly following, eager to explain their grave situation to Chihiro, who would surely be able to help out with this problem in the end. Chihiro noticed the undying trust in the girls' eyes, and mentally sighed. What did these people want from her? How was she supposed to save the entire spirit world from being contaminated? She felt as though everyone expected her to be some wonderful savior, when she was just a girl with a lot of luck. These people were having problems she couldn't even begin to help out with.

"Tiko's fault as well," Kima stated firmly. "Since the water is so terrible. my mother says it's hurting the rain, too. Now, the soil isn't fit for growing plants, and since we grow most of our food down here, it's important to have fresh soil,"

"You haven't noticed it because you came in through the lake to get to the Aburaya, but the area around the bathhouse is now terribly polluted with garbage and trash Tiko is letting her people litter. It's disgusting," Tei said firmly. "We have to get out of this area, or soon we won't be able to survive,"

"She's raised the pH levels in the soil." Chihiro acknowledged with a sigh, having learned that in biology, and knowing enough about the atmosphere to realize that Tiko had done something terrible to the spirit world. She had created acid rain. How, Chihiro didn't want to know, but how could the woman bring the things Earth suffered from so, to this innocent land? It wasn't fair. They weren't doing anything wrong.

"I hate this," Chihiro groaned, clenching her fists. The three Yuna exchanged worried glances, immediately noticing Chihiro's disheartened attitude. Rin had said to cheer the prodigy girl up, cheer her up! Instantaneously they regretted burdening poor Chihiro with all of the Aburaya's problems.

"Hey! Let's go to Yumei falls!" Kima all but shrieked happily, latching onto Chihiro and staring up giddily into her eyes.

"What?" the girl replied numbly, still trying to figure out what Tiko's angle was.

"Ohhh! Lets!" Mia chirped happily, bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet.

"What is it?" Chihiro asked.

"Oh it's great! It's this big waterfall with a nice pool to swim in and the water isn't too dirty and it's not too cold and it's sooo fun!" Kima burst out all at once, thrilled that Chihiro was showing some interest; If Yumei falls didn't cheer the girl up, Kima didn't know WHAT would.

"It sounds nice," Chihiro admitted, glancing over all of the girl's expectant faces. Hey, what was the harm? It was true, she had just been burdened with yet another thing to worry about for this war between the good people of the bathhouse and the terrifying witch who had hurt them. but, on the other hand, Rin HAD instructed she have only fun that day, so.

"All right!!!" the spirits cheered, triumphantly.

*

Yumei Falls WAS beautiful. A collection of sparkling waterfalls that bled off glittering rocks covered in bright green moss, and collected into an almost luminous blue pool, giving everything an ethereal look, made up Yumei. Chihiro was imeediatly taken with it. The water was cold and pure, just as Kima had said it would be, looking far from contaminated, as the girls had told her most bodies of water were now. But, who knew how long it would be before the acid rain reached this spot too? Chihiro had a feeling it was untouched because it was far from the rebel town, through a series of tunnels that led to a spot a little above ground with trees, where you were able to see the sky. It was actually placed just about as far away as you could get from the Aburaya, and one of the only places safe for rebels to go when they wanted a breath of fresh air, away from the underground town.

The little Yuna, still in their robes, shrieked happily and raced up the rocks to get the top of smaller falls, throwing themselves off the foaming edges and into the deep pool below. Apparently they had come to this place many times before, and knew all of the highest waterfalls to slide down, instructing Chihiro on how to best slither around the stones so as not to bruise her hips when going down the falls. Chihiro screamed with fright as she made a vertical plummet into the water, swimming up the surface only to find Kima, Mia and Tei laughing at her for being scared. Chihiro soon found herself laughing with them; that hadn't been so bad! In fact. it had been fun. Really fun.

'I should thank Rin for letting me do this. It's making me feel. rejuvenated. I just needed some time to recuperate before thinking about all of the dark stuff out there, and the meeting would have just made me miserable.' Chihiro decided, pulling herself up onto shore and staring up at the dark sky, partially blocked by a canopy of trees swaying in the night wind. 'But. I wonder how Rin herself is doing,' The girl shuddered lightly as she realized it was warmer swimming in the water than drying off in the grass, goose bumps forming all over her arms.

"Hey, Chihiro!" Kima cried from the water, splashing around with Mia. "We're going to play hide and seek! You wanna play too?" Chihiro smiled broadly.

"Sure!" the girl replied, eagerly diving back into the water and swimming over to the Yuna.

"Okay, Sei is gonna count first!" Mia explained, already swimming backwards and keeping an eye out for a good hiding spot behind some of the larger rocks.

"Okay. go!" Sei instructed, hiding her eyes and treading water as she counted. All three girls quickly splashed off, Mia and Kima swimming as quietly as they could behind a hefty boulder near one of the largest falls, while Chihiro took a different approach, trying to find somewhere really clever to hide. She dove underwater, searching around for a good location as quickly as she could. She frowned as she spotted something near a waterfall. It appeared to be the opening of a cave. Briefly coming up for breath, she inspected what it looked from above the water, finding it to be just rocks, the secret entrance only visible when you were submerged.

Her adventurous nature getting the better of her, Chihiro spared the still counting Tei one glance before diving under and entering the cave entrance.

While this situation might frighten others, being in the spirit world where everyone saw her as a hero, liberated Chihiro, and she loved to swim, so she felt no fear as everything got dark around her. She continued to propel herself forward with her arms, keeping her eyes out for anything interesting. The cave seemed to go on for a while, and Chihiro was considering turning back so she could get some air, before suddenly the water changed from a murky darkness to a bright, crystal hue. There must be sky above her again! Smiling, Chihiro swam up until she reached the surface, and indeed found herself to be outside once more, the moon's beams making everything take on a silver light.

"Wow." Chihiro breathed, the three little Yuna forgotten as she inspected her surroundings. She had apparently come out into another cave. the one she had just swam through merely an entrance to this larger, far more impressive one. Looking up, Chihiro found the moon to be winking at her through a hole in the ceiling that rose up some many feet above her. Cold stone surrounded the girl, and everything was totally silent in the glowing cavern except for the sound of water lapping at the edges of the underground pool. Chihiro quickly got out of the water, marvel apparent on her features as she continued to investigate this place she had found.

"I wonder if anyone knows about this place," she wondered aloud. It looked to be uninhabited, and it made Chihiro feel that much more excited over the fact that she might be the first person to ever step foot in this place. She giggled in spite of herself and forged ahead, wanting to know how far this cave went.

She had only traveled a short distance, her wet robes making her shiver slightly, when she heard it. a low growl. She froze, eyes wide. Something was down there, in this cave. And it was growling. This was rarely a good sign. Chihiro bit her lip and wondered if she should turn back. when she realized that the growl was getting louder, and closer. fast. It echoed off the walls and made Chihiro take an unconscious step backwards as she heard it.

"Uh oh." she mentioned distantly. The girl stared, transfixed, almost physically unable to move as the growl got so loud she knew that whatever was making the horrid sound was almost upon her.

And suddenly it was.

Out of the dark shadows of the cave came a bounding monster, growling loudly and frightening Chihiro so much she screeched piercingly, wondering why she hadn't just run away when she had the chance.

Chihiro had no idea what the monster really was. It was about three heads taller than she was, and didn't necessarily have one definite form. It was large and goopy, its entire form made out of a dark semi-solid substance that oozed and made disgusting squishing sounds as it moved. The body changed shape sporadically as Chihiro watched it move with some degree of horror, and its mouth was a gaping hole that made terrible noises, with no nose to speak of. However it had eyes, large soulless ones that made Chihiro whimper, since when she looked into them she saw something that made her quiver. Pain. Suffering and anguish and hatred. The monster was eternally frustrated, and miserable at the same time. It killed because it was supposed to, and didn't really understand why. This thought made Chihiro notably sad, and she was suddenly quite at a loss with what to do in this situation. Could she protect herself from a demon like this? Would it even try to attack her?

The answer to that question was apparently, yes, as the thing made a mad swipe at her with one gooey arm, slamming it into the ground from where Chihiro had been before she leaped frantically to the side. There was a prominent dent in the stone ground now, and it made Chihiro frightened. This thing could really do her some harm, and it would probably be in her best interests to get away from it.

She immediately began to sprint back in the direction of the underwater passage, heart beating madly in her chest. before she stopped abruptly, still hearing the raging monster slowly slinking its way up to her, growling and crying louder than ever. She couldn't lead this thing to the girls! She had to get it away from them! Or at least get rid of it. Frowning with determination, she turned to face the deformation once more, hands clenched. She was Chihiro who had liberated the people of the bathhouse when she was ten! She could do this!

Experimentally, she picked up a rock and chucked it at the monster, just to see what would happen. She mentally groaned as the rock simply bounced of the demon's odd body, and skidded back at her, landing near her feet. Perfect. What was she supposed to do then? The monster leaped at her again, somewhat slowed down by the fact that it was made out of a Jell-O like substance, giving the stunned Chihiro time enough to get out of the way, and then start running in the opposite direction of the girls, hearing the monster begin to give chase once more. What was she supposed to do?

Luckily, the cave seemed to be pretty large, so she wasn't going to run into any dead ends soon, however it was fairly steep and going uphill, and the monster didn't seem to be getting tired like she did. Not to mention it was gaining on her. Chihiro grit her teeth and tried to move faster, but she was already panting heavily and her knees were shaking from fear.

The girl let out a strangled cry when the monster slammed one of its gluttonous arms into the ground, shaking the cave floor and making Chihiro trip over her own feet. She cried out in fear and just saved herself from breaking her nose by bracing herself on her hands when she collapsed. Shaking with trepidation, she turned around to see what the monster's position was now.

"AH!" she cried as she found it to be very close to her, looming ominously over her form, and looking ready to pounce. She squeezed her eyes shut and prepared herself from the blow she knew would soon be delivered to her. possibly killing her. when someone cried out in the distance.

"CHIHIRO! Don't let it touch you!"

"Hu?" Chihiro asked, head craning around as she realized that the voice calling out to her sounded quite familiar. A shadowed form leaped out from behind the girl, and nearly flew over to the monster. Chihiro caught sight of a flash of steel, and realized there was a sword in the new person's hands.

"Hya!" they screamed, slashing the sword across the monster's neck - and slicing its head of with one clean swipe. Chihiro gasped in surprise, eyes wide, as the monster's own head slid off its shoulders with a nauseating wet sound, and plopped onto the floor. There was one last, fatal moan, and then the body too, toppled to the ground, where it lay for a brief moment, before beginning to bubble noisily. Chihiro got to her feet quickly and watched with morbid fascination as the body shortly after reverted to pure liquid, and then evaporated into nothingness. She let out a breath of relief. It was gone.

"We should get out of here," At the sound of that voice, Chihiro's attention was swiftly brought back to her savior.

"Oh! Thank you for saving me-" Chihiro's breath caught in her throat as her hero turned around to face her. That person, casually sheathing their sword on the belt around their waist, was.

"Kohaku!"

Not wasting a moment, the overjoyed Chihiro threw herself onto the still taller boy, embracing him and crying out happily. "You came back!"

It seemed like a dream - it was impossible! He had really returned! She felt like crying and laughing and shouting all at the same time, and took a moment to marvel over her friend who was always there for her. Whenever things got tough, Kohaku was there. How did he do that?

"Of course I did," he said simply, hugging her back briefly. "You're not injured, are you?" he added, briefly looking her over for visible wounds.

"No, I'm fine but - God I'm so glad you're here!" she gushed, distantly realizing this was the third time she had been reunited with her friend since her arrival to this world. "I was so worried about you. I ." she hesitated, remembering his fate, and immediately getting a guarded look in her eyes. "I."

"Sh." Kohaku said simply, at once recognizing the reason for Chihiro's sudden change in attitude, and looking her straight in the eyes. "We shouldn't worry about such things now. Beside, we've just discovered something more important."

"We. have?" Chihiro asked, confused, but glad she had something to get her mind off Tiko and other disturbing variables in her life.

"Yes. Tiko and her tainted spirits are getting closer to finding the rebel base, if they've gotten this close to us. No tainted spirit has ever gotten this far along the way to figuring out where the bathhouse workers are staying. We have to warn everyone," he said in his liquid smooth tone.

"That was a tainted spirit?!" Chihiro gasped, remembering the disgusting demon. So, that had been her first encounter with a spirit under the effects of Tiko's poison. she remembered the pained look in the demon's eyes and winced. Would that be Kohaku one day? She closed her eyes and concentrated on his words, taking his advice and trying not to dwell on things that couldn't be helped just then. She had to focus on the war. She had to help. Winning the war and destroying Tiko would inevitably help save Kohaku in the end, and she HAD to keep that in mind whenever things looked bad.

"Yes. And now we should get back to Rin and inform her of this news. I'm sure she'll be eager to hear from me, in any case. Do you know where she is?" he asked, looking down at the girl still in his arms. His eyes softened as he realized how distressed she looked. And how much he loved her for caring.

"Well, there was a meeting today, but she might be out of it by now." The girl admitted. "But. but Kohaku how did you get away from Tiko!?" She had to know. "What happened after you. threw me out the window," Kohaku got a vaguely embarrassed look on his face as he remembered hurling Chihiro out the window, ending their latest encounter.

"I'm. very sorry about that," he said sheepishly. Chihiro shook her head.

"No, you did it to save me," she quickly assured him. Kohaku smiled kindly at her, glad she understood.

"Yes... But, there was no fight with Tiko. I already taken her poison, so. she had nothing to fear of me," he admitted softly. "She even let me leave, knowing my fate was sealed, on the condition that I cause no more havoc." Chihiro looked down, averting her angry gaze.

"I hate that woman," she said simply. Kohaku didn't hesitate.

"Me too." They shared a quick trade of rye smiles, but in the end Chihiro's lips started quivering, and she buried her head in his chest, doing everything in an effort to stop crying. Kohaku deserved to have a strong friend.

"I-It makes me so m-mad." she admitted, her throat closing up painfully against her will.

"I know," he agreed, his voice soothing her nerves, and getting her to come down, layer by layer. Only Kohaku could do this to her, get her to calm down so completely she felt as though she could just melt into his arms and never worry about anything ever again. He made her feel protected. "But. In the end, if we have enough heart, and someone to defend. it'll make us into a stronger person, won't it?" he said quietly.

"Yes, I-." Chihiro stopped, eyes wide, she wrenched herself away from Kohaku to look up into his twinkling, ocean green eyes. 'A stronger person'. 'Someone to protect'. But that sounded like.

"Come on," Kohaku said offhandedly. "We should get back to the town, it's not safe outside, even this far away from the Aburaya, anymore. How did you get here, anyway?"

". I swam." Chihiro said simply, quickly regaining her wits and jogging after her friend, pushing any more alarming thoughts to the back of her mind for later inspection.

"Swam?"

"Yes, look there's a pool up ahead!"

"Right." Chihiro giggled lightly as she slipped into the water, still warm on her skin, watching as Kohaku gracefully dived in as well. She watched him get a good look around underwater before coming back up.

"You came in through the underwater passage down there, then?"

"Yeah," Chihiro confirmed.

"Any particular reason why?" he wanted to know.

"Well, I was playing hide and seek with some little Yuna."

"Hm," he replied, raising any eyebrow. Chihiro giggled, and together they both took a big breath of air, before diving under and swimming through the smaller cave, Chihiro in the lead, mentally smiling. He was back! Kohaku was back!.

*

"Chihiro!!" the Yuna shrieked, as their new friend burst up to the surface of the Yumei falls pool, gasping for breath.

"Where were you!? We were so worried!!" Kima cried, dancing nervously around the edge of the pool, looking quite anxious indeed. Chihiro smiled apologetically, realizing she had probably scared the girls half to death. What would they tell Rin if she had never come back?

Just then, a second form came to the surface, looking hardly winded or in need of oxygen, casually glancing around at his surroundings with little surprise.

"Yumei falls," he commented, a small smile flitting across his face.

"MASTER KOHAKU!?" all three Yuna cried simultaneously. Everyone in the rebel base knew of Kohaku's disturbing disappearance, and it had been weighing heavy on all their minds for some days. Even Kima and her friends'. "Where did you come from?!"

"Chihiro brought me back," Kohaku decided upon saying simply. Chihiro sighed and pulled herself out of the water, dripping, knowing what was coming.

"Chihiro. you're so wonderful!"

"How did you do it?!"

"I knew you would bring Master Kohaku back to us all along!"

Chihiro shot Kohaku a bland look, of which he returned with a little quirking of his lips, before turning her attention back to the girls. "Oh, it was hardly any trouble." she said, sighing again. "He actually just found me, is more like it, really." Chihiro realized it would probably be best to leave the part about the tainted spirit out of her story, finding no need to worry these children. The fact that the tainted spirits were getting closer to the rebel's underground home was probably not something they wanted to hear.

"We should head back," Kohaku said simply, having also lifted himself back onto dry land, his eyes going over to the trail that would lead the group back underground.

"Okay," Chihiro agreed, squeezing the liquid out of her braid as she spoke.

And so they started off, the three Yuna regarding two of the most respected people in the rebel town with something very akin to reverence.

*

Chihiro and Kohaku dropped Kima, Mia and Sei off at Mia's house, the other two explaining they knew their way back from that point. Chihiro had no misconceptions that they didn't, having first hand knowledge that their familiarity with the base was vast, and waved them off, with a promise to see them all soon. This announcement made every girl squeal with barely contained joy.

The mortal girl and the dragon, river god gone boy made the rest of the trip to Rin's humble abode in relative silence, Chihiro so completely thrilled to have him near her she could hardly form words, while was Kohaku lost in deep thought about the rebel's position in the war from here. He hadn't told Chihiro, but he had some bad news to drop.

They reached Rin's house shortly, Chihiro quickly traveling down the steps, thankful that Rin had left the door unlocked.

"Rin!" Chihiro cried, throwing open the door and stumbling into the house, eyes darting around the living room. She spotted her older friend sprawled out on the couch, a picture of exhaustion from the lively meeting no doubt, one hand thrown up over her face.

"Chihiro.?" she mumbled tiredly, rolling over on her side and swatting away Chihiro's hand when she tried to rouse the rebel leader. Chihiro sighed with frustration, and Kohaku looked mildly amused behind her.

"Rin, wake up! I have something to show you! You'll like it!" Chihiro tried, shaking her friend gently, understanding that she deserved to rest after a hard day of explaining to a hundred plus people that they had practically failed in the terribly important mission they had been attempting to pull off for many months and, in addition had lost three important comrades. but decided that she seeing Kohaku just then was more important.

"Chihiro, maybe we should leave her alone." Kohaku voiced hesitantly.

"Kohaku!?" Rin cried, shooting straight up and pushing Chihiro to the floor. "You're back!!" she cried, throwing herself at the 'young' man. "Don't you ever, ever do anything like that again, you idiot! How did you get here!?"

"I flew." he explained, as Chihiro picked herself up off the floor, frowning.

"That's not what I meant and you know it! How did you get away from Tiko?" Rin pressed, eyes flashing. Kohaku gave off a small smile, knowing that he wasn't going to be able to get anything past his Yuna friend.

"She let me go, after making me promise I wouldn't cause much trouble for her from now until I transformed," he said. Rin's exuberant manner dimmed somewhat at his words, when she remembered just what Kohaku was going to be transformed into, Chihiro's story coming back to her with a vengeance.

"Oh. Kohaku," she said, shaking her head.

"I sensed a tainted spirit very close to the rear entrance of the rebel base on my way back, and came down to investigate. That's where I found Chihiro." Kohaku continued. Rin's attention was almost immediately transferred over to the smaller girl.

"A tainted spirit! God are you okay Chihiro?" Rin asked, going a bit mother hen on Chihiro as she quickly scanned the girl's form for any injuries. Finding none, she listened to Chihiro's explanation intently.

"No, I'm fine. I might not have been, but Kohaku saved me before there could be any damage done." Chihiro said, her eyes straying down to the medium sized blade still at Kohaku's waist.

"Oh, God. you could have really been hurt. what were you doing at the edge of the base's property anyway?" Rin wanted to know. "And with the girls?"

"We were at Yumei falls. and I was in a cave near it," Chihiro explicated.

"No - they're getting as close as Yumei falls?" Rin gasped, traveling back over to the couch and collapsing onto it, her eyes getting a distant look. "This isn't good. We'll have to close the falls off then. maybe even confine everyone to only the underground portion of the base."

"Um - do we have to get so serious about it?" Chihiro wanted to know as she sat on a chair opposite Rin, Kohaku following suit. The girl couldn't imagine being stuck below ground for the duration of her stay. It would be terrible!

"We might have to Chihiro, there are a lot of defenseless Yuna and bathhouse workers out there who could get seriously hurt," she reminded the girl. "Just think what could have happened to you if Kohaku hadn't come to your rescue," Chihiro sighed but nodded in agreement, looking at her hands folded in her still damp lap.

"Rin, I need to tell you about the agreement with Tiko," Kohaku said grimly, as soon as it as apparent Chihiro had nothing more to say.

"Oh, don't worry. Chihiro already told me everything." Rin said somberly.

"No, but. there's more," Kohaku said, as Chihiro's head snapped around to look at him, taken a back. But he hadn't said anything. "It's about the barriers around the Aburaya being raised."

"What about it?" Rin asked, fearfully. Kohaku captured the complete attention of both females as they waited for what he was going to say next with baited breath. Could things get ANY worse?.

"She's only going to raise the barriers when I have almost completed my transformation into a tainted spirit. That should be about a month from now." Apparently so.

"Oh - GOD." Rin groaned, holding her head in her hands. "But you are the best fighter we've got Kohaku, and the fastest. How are a bunch of bathhouse workers supposed to get the attention of the spirit world without our river god to help? We were depending on having you with us when I told everyone about your situation at the meeting. We just assumed the barriers would be up by now." Kohaku looked vaguely apologetic, and Chihiro was biting her lip furiously.

Rin was right, who in the spirit world WOULD listen to the ex-Aburaya workers when they were already plunged into a fearful war of their own against an unidentified enemy. Who would believe that the bathhouse owner Tiko was responsible for the deaths of millions of spirits?

'Was this Tiko's plan all along?' Chihiro wondered despondently. 'Did she know that without Kohaku to help us anyway, it would be very hard to get our word out there until it was too late? Already it would hardly matter, since Tiko has such an army if people were to find out she could probably put up a good fight, but this.' Chihiro shook her head wretchedly. This was terrible.

"She promised she would raise the barriers before I had totally transformed, perhaps a few days before the potion has taken full affect, so that I could see with my own eyes that she has kept her promise," Kohaku continued.

"What state will you be in by then?" Rin asked quickly, forgetting the stages of the transformation.

"Almost completely gone," Kohaku admitted. "This first week I will feel nothing to show that I am changing. Only the second week will some small symptoms begin to show through. By the third week it will be apparent I am going, and the third is when I really will begin to cross over,"

"So she's really going to wait till the bitter end." Rin acknowledged grimly. "Damn her,"

"How do you know she'll stay true to her word?" Chihiro wanted to know, hands clenched.

"She has no reason not to. We made a deal, and she could defend herself from most spirits outside the property who attacked her at this point, since her plans have been going on for so long, and she has enough monsters and guards to defend her. She has more of an army than either of you realize. However. it will free the rebels. And they will be able to finally join up with the rest of the spirit world. If we didn't leave this place soon, our supplies and natural resources would run dry, anyway. with Tiko's pollution helping it along, especially." Chihiro nodded knowledgably, now that she knew exactly what sort of pollution Tiko was raining down on the spirit world. She would have to talk to Rin about it more at a later date, though. She had a feeling there was more to it then Kima and her friends knew. "Especially now with her monsters getting so close to finding us. Saving everyone is enough of a triumph for me, anyway." Kohaku confided in the two women. Chihiro's eyes softened at his words, and she took his hand, resting her head on his shoulder, not so sure if she was comforting him with this action, or herself.

"Oh Kohaku," Rin said, shaking her head. "You were always so noble. So stupid," she laughed. "Everyone was really distressed at the meeting when they heard your fate."

"They all know now?" Kohaku looked vaguely surprised that all of the rebels were aware of what he would transform into in a month's time.

"Well, yes, I had to tell them. You're such a leader around here, they deserved to know what happened to their most trusted commander," Rin pointed out wryly. These words only made Kohaku look pained though, so Rin quickly changed the subject.

"Anyway. you should come to the next meeting, they'll all be really happy to see you. You too Chihiro! Everyone missed you, and wanted to make sure you were okay!" Rin added. Chihiro nodded; still incredibly relieved she had gotten to miss the last meeting, as it had done wonders for her. She remembered how depressed she had been earlier, compared to her lighthearted state of mind now. Especially with Kohaku near, she felt revitalized.

"Thank you for not letting me go to the meeting today, Rin." Chihiro said softly. Rin beamed at the girl.

"I knew it would only make you more upset, after seeing your reaction last night. But. you both look very tired. Perhaps its time we all turned in. The sun will be rising soon." the woman pointed out, gaze turning to stare out the window, where you could admittedly see no real sky, except for the occasional man made breaks in the ceiling of the underground base, where moonlight flitted in.

"I agree," Kohaku said, standing up. "I should be getting back to my house."

"Wow, I never thought about it before but. where do you live Kohaku?" Chihiro wanted to know, unable to imagine her river god friend actually having a normal house, like Rin's.

"Only a little ways away," he admitted, startling Chihiro further. He really DID have his own house. weird.

"Oh," she settled upon saying, abruptly looking a bit downcast at the realization that she would be leaving Kohaku for the day. But she had just been reunited with him. Chihiro suddenly felt a bout of possessiveness over her friend, who, it seemed, every time she parted with she tended not to see again until something very bad happened to them both. "Um."

"Hm, well, I'm going to hit the sack, see you both later I guess!" Rin blurted quickly, seeing the awkward air between the two and deciding she was most likely not needed just then. Ah, young love.

"Bye," they voiced distantly, as Kohaku stood, Chihiro following him, while never tearing her gaze away.

"So I'll see you tomorrow then?" Chihiro needed to know as she escorted Kohaku to the door, both still slightly wet from Yumei falls. Kohaku smiled kindly down on his best friend.

"Of course," Kohaku said. "I'll see you at the meeting tomorrow, and after that, I'm sure."

"Good!" Chihiro chirped, looking a bit relieved. "I . I want to see you as much as I can! Before." Chihiro took in a breath, the cold hand of despair gripping her heart briefly, before she forcefully pushed those emotions away, knowing Kohaku didn't need to see her like this. She might be saddened beyond belief but. but Kohaku didn't need to know that! Really, all she wanted to be was something for him to lean on when times got hard, as she knew they soon would for him. "I just want to see you! You're my best friend!" she settled for, plastering on a fake smile.

Of course, Kohaku saw through her false cheer. He sighed, lifting up one hand and touching her cheek briefly. Suddenly, he looked utterly depressed, as Chihiro had never seen him before. One part of her wanted to be happy that she could be the only one that he would show this side of himself to. and another part just wanted to be miserable with him.

"If there's one part of this whole scheme I truly regret. it's the fact that I'm going to have to leave you." He admitted, in a tone that made Chihiro blush. He turned, looking as though he were going to leave for the night, before Chihiro grabbed his arm, spinning him around once more.

"I'm sorry!" she gasped softly, standing up on her toes to briefly kiss Kohaku on the cheek. The two shared a moment of connection, as they remembered the other night in the bathhouse, and the more intimate moments they had shared. before Kohaku turned on his heal and swiftly traveled up the stairs out onto the street without another word, a brief, pained expression coming over his features, and leaving the saddened Chihiro alone. She stood silently for a minute, eyes closed, letting the tears come only now that she was sure that the most important person in her life wouldn't have to watch her shed them.

"I can do this," Chihiro sighed, viciously scrubbing away her salty tears with the back of her hand. "I'll be strong,"

*

Author's notes:

I am so sorry for this short chapter; none of you deserve it after that terribly long wait. However I've just had finals, so I didn't really have time to crank out something longer. Hopefully the next chapter will be more substantial, but until then please bear with me.

I've been thinking about the ending of this story, even though it's a ways off, and I have to warn you all, I'm going to get a little Green Peace on your asses. I'm thinking you've gathered that much from this chapter, what with the pollution and acid rain. Well, you know, I want this story to have a moral!

All I ask is that everyone reviews, please! I promise that if a lot of people review, I'll have the next chapter out sooner. Like, a few weeks or something. Until next time,

Rio Grande~