Chihiro's eyes opened on the hospital room.
Sunlight was streaming through the shades in warm yellow bands.
But with a gasp she sat bolt upright, reaching after something.
What was she reaching after? What!?
"S-shit!" Michi struggled to stay in her chair, startled awake, "Y-you okay?"
Her friend was looking at her askance.
"I… I was dreaming." For some reason Chihiro found herself hopefully staring at the bathroom door. It was shut.
"H-huh?" Michi stammered, staring between her and the far wall if unsure.
She was dressed like she was going to a funeral. Black hoodie, black skirt, black tights, black shoes. Black, black, black save for her violently green hair. It was pulled up into two pony tails at either side of her head, making her look like a kindergarten space alien. But Chihiro stared past her until she wasn't sure what she was looking at.
"I was dreaming about something important. B-but I can't remember, Michi. And I hate this! I hate this so much!"
Fat tears dropped down her cheeks as she choked on a sob she didn't understand. Now the green-haired Goth was more than worried. Chihiro could tell by the way she was chewing on her black polished nails.
"You're scaring me. S-Should I get the nurse?"
"No! No." She repeated a little less shrill.
Nurses meant pills and Chihiro was tired of swimming in a chemical soup. After several deep breaths she got herself under control. Frowning at her friend she pulled Michi's hand from her mouth. She'd pretty much gnawed the enamel from her right hand.
"I just want to go home."
Chihiro shivered, suddenly finding herself afraid.
Because she was going home.
Unfortunately she had no idea where home was anymore.
Nagoya? Mizunamii City? Neither one of those rang true.
"Looks like you're gonna get your wish. Your dad went ape shit at the head of the hospital this morning. Got your release papers signed," With a wicked grin Michi pulled out her Blackberry and began rapidly pushing buttons, "I've never seen someone froth at the mouth before. Here, I took a picture."
"Delete that!" Chihiro slapped a hand over her mouth as she gaped at the screen, trying not to laugh, "Please don't tell me you posted it already."
Michi's thumbs blurred as she typed something to someone somewhere.
"Okay," She lied remorselessly, "I won't."
"What!?" She huffed back, "S'not like any of my friends know your dad! Just be glad I didn't post any pictures of you drooling in the midst of your morphine high."
That cheeky gleam was back in her dark eyes, making her grin from ear to ear showing off her artificially pointed teeth. It was really subtle, but still. Chihiro could only imagine how much it must freak out her parents. That was exactly what Michio was: shock value. But the fact that she'd tamed herself down at all spoke to how much she valued their friendship. Even after all these years Michio was still her best friend. Chihiro grabbed her, hugging her as hard as she could. Like they were eleven again, Michi hugged her back.
She sniffled like a little girl, "Will you come home with me for a while?"
"You're such a baby!"
"M'not!" She muttered back sullenly.
"I actually quit my job to come see you."
"What!?" Shocked, Chihiro drew back.
"I'm a homeless bum at your mercy," With a sharp-toothed grin Michi shrugged if off like it didn't matter, "I'll stay as long as you want me to."
"R-really?" Hope glimmered inside Chihiro.
"Yup. Why we didn't do this sooner I'll never know," tucking away her mobile, Michio pulled back the blankets, "C'mon. Let's get you out of stupid hick town."
Chihiro had to bite her tongue to keep from bitching Michi out over that.
Stunned and baffled by her angry reaction, she followed her friend meekly. After a shower, dressed in some clothes Yuko brought from Mizunamii City, Chihiro felt less like an invalid and more like a person. As she exited the bathroom in a cloud of steam she found Michi had packed her bag. It was slung over her shoulder and ready to go.
"Ready?" she jingled her car keys, making the jaw of googley-eyed skull hanging from the chain clack open and closed, "Let's just take off. It'll totally piss off your mom."
"What? She deserves it after that! What are you, twelve!?"
Her friend pointed at the pink boot on her foot. Chihiro cringed and tried not to look at it. Pink wasn't so bad, but the Hello Kitty print and decals were a bitter reminder of the fact that her mom still thought she was a kid. Rebellion reared its head in the wake of her resentment, making her grin to match Michi.
"Alright. Let's go. But we're gonna text them as soon as we leave town."
"Fine by me," The Goth shivered convulsively, "Ugh! I can't wait to get out of here; this place gives me the creeps!"
With an awkward gait thanks to the horrid pink boot, Chihiro followed in Michio's shadow. Although she paused, looking around the room at all the cards and gifts, struggling with the sinking feeling in her chest. Because it felt like she was leaving something behind. Something really, really important. But she had no idea what it was.
That scared her stupid.
"What?" Michi nosed right into her feelings, "Wanna bring 'em?"
"N-no…" Chihiro whispered, pushing out into the hall, "Just get me out of here."
Despair held Haku pinned into the corner of the middle landing of the front stairs.
He did not feel the Onsen worrying in the walls behind his shoulders. He did not hear the patter of webbed feet as Yoshi and Little Green Frog carried bags from the guest wing out to the car in the gravel lot. He did not hear Natsumi scrubbing the hall leading into the bath wing. At the moment all he could hear, echoing over and over in his head, was the startled words Mrs. Ogino blurted over breakfast after the small noisy rectangle of plastic in her pocket chirped and sang like a bird.
Chihiro check out of the hospital!
She left with Michio! They're already in Matsuzaki Bay!
Haku closed his eyes, cringing as Yuko spoke again from the entryway.
"Your Onsen is so beautiful." She effused with false cheer.
He shuddered at the lie of gladness in her voice. Chihiro's mother was not at all what he expected. Neither was her father. It was difficult not to see the humans as pigs. They vibrated with greed, smelling sharply of chemicals and unhealthy fears. Never had he met a more blinded pair of mortals. How they had produced Chihiro he would never know. At least they loved their daughter, that much he could sense. But even as they loved her they seemed to view her as a thing, a possession to be retrieved like the things they carted along with them.
"Hmph… Well, it's a neat place. I guess I see now why she bought it."
Akio spoke this time. He was not entirely dismissive.
But still, his arrogance sent Haku's blood boiling.
"You are too kind, Mr. and Mrs. Ogino," Aniyaku beamed from the welcome station.
"Again, I apologize for leaving so suddenly. Please pass my condolences along to Mrs. Nikkou," Yuko fretted with barely disguised disapproval, "Honestly, I don't know what's gotten into Chihiro. It isn't like her to take off like this."
"I will glad pass along your words, Mrs. Ogino. And please do not trouble yourself. Given the circumstances, I cannot fault Se-… I mean Chihiro for wanting to go home."
The Frogman slipped on her name but quickly covered his tracks.
Strangely, Haku was grateful for Aniyaku in that moment. For all of his insufferable self-importance the kami had the uncanny ability to put forward a good face. They barely had enough time to restore the house before Chihiro's parents descended on them. Hidden beneath his human guise, he charmed the Ogino's through the week with his Buddha smile. Had any of them been forced to take the frogman's place there was no way they could have summoned such a smile.
"Thank you for taking such good care of us during such a sad time," Yuko hurried along through the words as if she could not leave soon enough, "I am so very sorry for your loss. Perhaps we shall see you soon under happier times."
Their retreating footsteps echoed through the hall.
"Good bye, Mr. and Mrs. Ogino," Aniyaku called from the front porch, "Good bye!"
An engine started, making Haku jolt. He listened in a panic as gravel crunched and the sound dwindled away, leaving him listening to the distance laughing brook and the screaming cicadas. It was oppressively hot, so much so he was sticky with uncommon discomfort of sweat. All the same, he felt so very cold as silence filled the Onsen to the brim. Haku did not realize he had sat down until his shins knocked against the floor. He seemed to be falling a great deal these past few days. He was not used to the two legs and weak knees of his new body. As he say there in the swallowing silence he could not find the strength to stand.
Because Chihiro was gone.
Haku was not sure how long he sat there.
Long enough for Lin to find him.
"C'mon, you dope," she murmured gently, picking as if he weighed less than air. Without another word they made their way into the kitchen. Amano jumped as they came through the split curtain, going absolutely pale and almost dropping the dish he was scrubbing. The broken nosed male deserved his name now. Every morning he came on his motorcycle with his son riding tandem. Thanks to him they were eating well. Amano had done all the cooking over the past week. The kitchen was still full of heat and delicious smells from breakfast, but even they could not bring Lady Nikkou down from her room.
The old woman was entrenched in mourning. Hidé was not dead, but Reika grieved his loss as though he had. Sometimes at night Haku could hear her crying. The sound sent him up onto the third floor of the God wing. He slept little in the cavernous space. Escorted by Suzume, she came down from her room once or twice a day only to visit the bath wing. In her white kimono she was almost transparent with grief. Were she kami he would have been terrified she was about to fade.
Glancing at them again and again from the corner of his eye, Amano tried to get back to washing dishes. Beside him Kai gawked openly, attempting to dry dishes. These he handed off to Hiko and Ginka who darted about like fleet finches, returning the implements to their respective cupboards. The little boy jumped as his father grabbed the top of his head, turning it back toward the matter at hand as Lin eased Haku to a seat in the nook. Mutely he stared up at her as she sighed gustily, frowning at Amano.
"You don't have to do that by hand, you know."
"We tried to tell him, Miss Lin." Hiko piped solemnly as she swept the tile floor.
"Our way really is quicker," Ginka looked up at Amano hopefully.
The little yuna carried a stack of plates to a cupboard that opened for her of its own volition. The broken nosed mortal flinched from it as the platters floated from her hands into the levitating stack as the Onsen rearranged the dishes by size. He had to clear his throat so he could speak.
"I like doin' this by hand."
Kai was gawking again as the cupboard swung shut. His father nudged him with an exasperated sigh. The boy had been circling the plate in his hands through his towel for some time now. It was quite dry.
"You girls have worked enough this morning," Lin announced, "Why don't you take Kai out back and play?"
"Really!?" The mortal child lit up with excitement, appealing to his father, "Can I, dad!? Please, please, please!?"
"S'long as you stay away from t'garden," he agreed reluctantly, "I don't want you botherin' Obaasama."
"We'll go way out in the back field, Mr. Amano." Hiko bobbed a polite bow that Ginka mimicked as she picked up where her sister left off, "We'll be quiet."
Amano fought a smile in the face of the little flowers. They streamed out the back door in a quiet rush. From where he sat Haku watched Kai struggle to keep up with the fleet footed yuna.
"Amano-san, could I trouble you to make tea?" Lin asked with unusual politeness.
"Sake'll do him better." The broken nosed man muttered as he turned on the stove.
"I am fine." Haku somehow managed to find his voice.
The lie just slid out of him, making his sit bolt upright. Because he was anything but fine. Gods, he had never in his life lied! And cold wind blew terror through him in the wake of the mistruth.
Lin was peering at him worriedly. "I think you're right. Do we have any sake?"
"That's a question for the cat." Amano cast about, opening and closing cupboards.
"I said I am fine!" Haku snapped bitterly.
At once he was on his feet and out the back door so quickly a wind followed his heels. Faster and faster he drove himself, until a gale was chasing him. It hit the tree line out back of the Onsen, as the sun blotted into dappled shadows. The tall pines groaned and knocked together as currents of air struggled their way between the trunks, kicking their way between the ferns and flooding up the hills at his back as Haku sprinted blindly
Little kami squealed and scrambled out of his way as he bolted through the glades.
Birds scattered from their roosts and deer fled in abject terror.
He cared not for who or what he disturbed, following no path in particular.
Although he should not have been surprised as the air turned humid and the ground marshy beneath his feet. The sharp spicy smell of cinnamon flooded around him as the pines fell back, suddenly seemingly puny beneath the reaching hands of the massive camphor tree. Magic sang in the worn stones beneath his bare feet as gasping for air he skidded to a stop. Haku stared up at the high canopy as leaves whispered and boughs creaked with sighs as his wind coursed through its branches. Shimmers curled in the shifting green and gold light, stirred up in the circling gusts working their way round the hillock punched through with swelling mossy roots.
The anger Haku left in the kitchen caught up with him finally.
It struck him from behind, leaving him trembling in fury at the foot of the tree.
"Why!?" He thundered at the dilapidated shrine atop the stairs, "Why did you not protect her!?"
Never before had he dared to speak so rudely before a God.
"Why!? Are you punishing me also!?"
The silence beneath the hushing rush of his wind was unbearable. It sent him blind with fury as emotions swallowed him. The injustice of the situation burned inside his chest until he could have breathed smoke and fire. Snatching up a fist sized rock he almost hurled it at the camphor tree. But he stayed his own hand, dropping the stone as shame sent him sinking among the bracken and moss. Who was he to shake his hands at the Gods?
Be glad you are alive, Kohakunushi.
Suzume's words rang loudly in his mind.
Be glad you are both alive. In enduring one can always find hope.
Here he and the fox agreed. But when it came to being patient, when it came to waiting for Sen to find her own way, he did not agree. How could she remember what she did not know? It was impossible. Somehow he had to find a way to remind her without causing harm. This he would do, just as he had promised in the last moments of their dream.
Staggering to his feet, Haku went to work clearing the fallen branches from the path, sweeping the muddy clots of leaves from the stone steps with his bare hands before finally kneeling before the massive knotted roots.
"Apologies, O-Inari-sama. In my weakness I have become a child," he stared at the dirt under his hands, too ashamed to lift his head, "Forgive my impatience, but I must follow her. Perhaps on my journey I will learn to become more than the child you see before you. Perhaps along the way I will become worthy of what I seek. Please watch over my family in my absence, O-Inari-sama."
Resting against the swell of a root, Haku closed his eyes and waited for dusk. Unbothered by the reflective eyes in the dark or the gyrating lights that floated like ghosts along the ridgelines, he made his way back to the Onsen. The red lanterns in the God wing had guttered low, telling him the Bath House kami had already gone to bed. The kitchen was dark and remained so as he crept up the back stairs, peering down the hall. No light spilled under Mrs. Nikkou's door and not a sound besides the crickets still the hot press of the humid evening.
Curiously the Onsen's eyes followed him into Chihiro's bedroom. She soaked through the walls as he shut the slider. And he could feel her mounting apprehension vibrating through the floors as he shook out his tatter cloak and willed it into a backpack.
"Stop that!" He hushed irritably as she refused to open the closet. Taking a steadying breath Haku appealed to the ceiling solemnly. "Please, Onsen? I will bring her back."
Hope pulsed through the polished maple floor as the closet snicked open. Inside was a pile of many useful things he gladly pushed into the endless interior of his pack.
A tight coil of sacred rice rope: earth.
His bow and red fletched arrows: wind
A flint and jar of sharp smelling pitch: fire.
A sloshing gourd hot to the touch and smelling of sulfur: water.
Ume's silver knife: metal
A pouch full of camphor sticks and leaves: wood
These things made sense; but here the Onsen's offerings grew strange. An tattered western umbrella. A ticking pocket watch. A ring of ancient keys. A cracked mirror attached to a spinning needle that pointed every which way save north. A plastic packet full of old yellowed paper run through with ink. And finally a pair of wire spectacles with a missing lens. He took these things not just because Onsen offered them, but because they were vibrating with a strange kind of magic he had never before encountered.
At the bottom of the pile was a sketchbook.
Haku frowned at it, flipping through the page upon page of ever God imaginable until he found a drawing of Chihiro. She wore a phoenix mask that made her frightening. But her eyes remained worried and kind. Out of the pages fell a bath token. He shook the book, searching for its twin but it was not to be found. All the same, both went into his pack along with the sibling to the red tile firmly affixed to the bedroom door. There the second tile would remain in case he needed to return swiftly. Pack on his back and mask over his face Haku paused on the threshold of the entryway, because again the Onsen refused to open the door. He put his hand on her frame, feeling the house tremble.
"I will bring Chihiro home," he promised quietly.
At once she lapsed into stillness.
And the door opened a crack, just enough for him to slip through.
Haku hurried over the bridge, running again, because he had to make it beyond Suzume's reach by morning. Otherwise the fox would chase and make him return. This he could feel ringing in his bones. Putting wind beneath his feet, Haku ran. He ran so swiftly the trees blew and whipped about behind him. But he was forced to rest and catch his breath atop the hill on opposite side of the Kumomi overpass. Stunned by the hot pinch in his lungs, Haku bent over his knees. Dismay welled in his heart as he was forced to face with the limitations of his new body. There was no way he could make it off Izu by morning on foot alone!
Abruptly he straightened as a motorcycle engine puttered distantly.
From his vantage point Haku watched the familiar contraption pull out of the temple parking lot and come motoring across the overpass. Cinna came riding up the hill with her red reflective eyes fixed on him like he was some kind of mouse. Controlling the metal beast without a shred of fear, the cat pulled up to idle beside him. She was wearing a dented metal helmet and a pair of ancient goggles that stank of suffering and fear. On her shoulders was an equally antiqued leather jacket and battered boots that laced all the way to her knees. Slung across her back, carefully wrapped in protective oil cloth, was her shamisen.
"Well!?" She called over the motor before nodding at the side car, "Get in!"
Haku pushed up his mask, "Go home, Cinna!"
But he came up short as the cat cut the engine, hooked her goggle onto her helmet, leaping up to stand on the seat so she could tower over him. He jolted back from her scrutiny, frowning as she sank into a crouch howling with laughter, slapping her knee.
"Look atcha! Wearin' a goddamn yukata, fer cryin' out loud! Y's'posed t'be a peasant r'somethin'!? Y'ain't even got shoes, y'dummy!"
She pointed at his bare muddy feet before throwing her hand at the distant mainland.
"Y'really think y'got t'chops t'survive out in t'mortal world!? Y'need me, kiddo! Aye's goin' wit' yeh whether y'like it r'not!"
Haku found himself wanting to argue, especially as the cat continued to snicker. He drew himself up and glared frostily. But Haku held his tongue. Seeing the difference in the way the cat set out on the journey made him realize just how unprepared he was. This was not his world. Again he found himself at the mercy of another. Pride was a difficult thing to swallow. He, however, was not about to admit this to the cat.
"Did Onsen send you?" He demanded hotly.
"Nah," Cinna inspected the claws poking from the leather gloves on her hands, "But she did tattle on yeh. Lin sent me."
"Lin!?" Haku was shocked.
"Yup. Sourpuss' got yer back. She gonna keep t'fox off us long 'nough fer us t'git off Izu. Now git in, y'wallflower. We's got t'git goin'!"
Hastily climbing up into the side car, Haku sank to a seat as the cat kicked the bike to life. She whooped as the headlight flooded the road ahead of them. The engine roared as they shot like an arrow into the dark. Speed devoured the road beneath them faster and faster. Again Haku leaned into the turns as his heart thrilled in his chest. He glared at the glassy expansive ocean, turning his back to it, staring instead at the dark swelling mountains ahead of them. Somewhere ahead of them in the wide foreign world yawning at the stars Chihiro was sleeping. Was she dreaming of him Haku wondered?
Strange that their story had come full circle.
Strange to once again come to the same beginning.
The dream chasing the sleeper.
At least he knew what he must do.
He would find her.
He would wake her.
Together they would find their way home.
End of Book 1 of the Kamikakushi Saga
To be Continued by Book 2 - In the Dreamer's Wake