Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi and all associated characters belong to Studio Ghibli.

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In the Garden

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Honeybees drone among the bean plants, trailing lazily from bloom to bloom. Yellow butterflies fan the cabbages; corn leaves rustle and hush. A young god listens to these things, to the burrowing of unseen grubs beneath his feet, to the heartbeat of the human child in his arms. She sniffles, her face buried against his shoulder. Her crying is nearly done.

Scents fill the air here: tilled earth, bean blossoms, the girl curled against him. Haku breathes in, thinking that the slug women must be mad to complain of a smell like this. There's no hint now of the fear, the metallic tang of automobile stink that had sullied her the night before. Freed of those, her scent is sharply clean, like green shoots in early springtime, or buds of white plum still sealed up tight, or runnels of snowmelt furrowing a mountainside to form a stream. The aura of her spirit is the same: a faint glow that plays about her body as mist above a waterfall, stronger now that she has fed, many-colored and clear, with no taint in it. As it should be. The tears have done their work. He knew better than to tell her not to cry.

In the landscape of his past there are far too many shrouded places, empty pitfalls where certainty and self-knowledge should be. Still, he's sure it's been a long time--he can't think how long it's been since a girl-child was so near to him, since he felt such small hands clutching, since eyes so big with wonder were turned up to him, stunned by the dazzle of sunlight on river, sunlight on white scale--

His next breath is taut. The glimpse vanishes as soon as it appears, barely a glint of memory, scarcely enough to taunt him. Even so, his eyes narrow. On the bridge at sunset, too, he'd felt that sudden flash--I know her--and heard with it a distant, echoing cry, as if from far away or underwater--a panicked mother's voice calling Chihiro--

Perhaps she feels the tensing of his arms. She lifts her face, then raises her eyes as awareness returns to her, and with it shame. Her cheeks, already round and soft, are puffy from crying, reddened from pressing against him. She looks down, rubs awkwardly at her nose.

"I'm sorry," she mumbles. Then, after a mighty sniffle, "The onigiri were really good."

He smiles. "It's good that you could eat." A lone grain of rice still clings to her chin. The rest, no doubt, have been wiped on his shoulder. He plucks the grain with his fingers, lifts it for her to see, then puts it to her lips. She blinks, but accepts it, swallowing at once, and a strange pleasure unfurls in him, like the pride of a man who has taught a wild creature to come at his call. Has he tamed a human, then? he wonders. It was easier than he would have thought.

Tamed or not, she watches him with animal eyes, dark brown and uncertain. "Is it time to go back?"

He considers. Before long the bathhouse will be rousing for the workday; soon he will have to leave on his thief's errand, or risk the witch's rage. At the thought of Yubaba's orders, his smile fades. Something sickening and imperious begins to wriggle in his gut, and he flattens his mouth. He has no powers against it. If it takes hold of him entirely, he might shove Chihiro aside and abandon her there, without even a word to explain the cruelty. But she's still watching, the fringes of her spirit flaring keenly around her, around him. He fixes his mind on that pure brightness, and the squirming thing within him reluctantly subsides, settling into quiescence once more.

"Not yet," he tells her, when he can safely speak. "In a little while."

She nods, sits up, casts furtive glances from side to side. "It's pretty here."

"I think so, too."

"At least my mom and dad are next to a pretty garden." She turns toward the pig pens, looking sobered and forlorn.

The will to protect is in his marrow, though he cannot explain why. His own name has been taken from him, but he knows hers; nothing could ever make him forget it. One of them, at least, will leave this place, and take her loved ones with her. Instinct deeper and fiercer than the tyrant in his belly moves him to draw her close again, speak firmly. "You'll find a way to free them. I'll help you as much as I can."

Squeezing her eyes shut, as if to stave off a fresh leak of tears, she nods.

"Chihiro, look up."

After a moment, she does. The sky of this world is a blue she has never seen before, radiant at the height of morning, undimmed by pollution or smog. Haku hears the leap of her pulse, her exhalation--the hum of bees, the stretch of grass blades reaching sunward, the creep of roots pushing deeper into moist, fertile soil--and in all of these a resounding rightness, a joy and assurance he has not felt since--since--he can't remember. But before he can even begin to rue his losses, her gaze descends from the sky to him.

Her lips tilt in a tiny, comforted smile.

In a garden where camellia and hydrangea, cherry and azalea bloom in impossible unison, a young god crouches with guarded breath, entirely still, to witness the opening of another flower.

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