This was a Yuletide 2016 gift fic for hlae. Enjoy.

Chapter 1: The Burning Hairband

"Just walk forward toward the bridge and don't look back." Haku said quietly while looking solemnly into Chihiro's eyes. Seeing her hesitation he smiled gently.

"Go on, your family is waiting for you on the other side."

Almost as if watching it all play out from a distance, Chihiro could suddenly see herself turn away from Haku and slowly start to make her way to the bridge. The instant that her other self had turned around, Chihiro saw Haku's smile vanish and in its place was a heartbreaking look of loss instead. She could see his fists tightly clench at his sides as if to keep his hands from reaching out after her.

Never once did Haku turn away as she left. His eyes stayed on her until she disappeared over the bridge, and even once she was gone he remained that way for a good half hour.

"Chihiro, wake up! You're snoring."

Chihiro snapped wide awake and sat upright in her chair as she tried to take stock of where she was. A string of names was being called out over a loudspeaker, followed by occasional clapping. Someone still had their hand on her shoulder, and Chihiro stole a glance behind, just to see her roommate and best friend grinning back at her.

"Was it at least a good dream?" She asked Chihiro waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

Chihiro rolled her eyes and shook her head. If only. These dreams were increasing in frequency with each one denoting feelings of sadness, regret, and loss.

"It's a shame your parents couldn't make it" Amy said, correctly interpreting the look on Chihiro's face as she observed a pair of parents sitting off too the right and proudly snapping pictures of their offspring climbing the steps to the stage.

Turning back to face the front Chihiro waved off her friend's concern. "No, it's all right. They live much too far to fly down here just to see me graduate. Mike said he's filmed the graduation ceremony - I'll just send it to them on dropbox."

"You know, if not for your specialization you could have gone to study anywhere. With the marks you pull off I would assume that most universities would happily take you. Even one closer to home..."

Chihiro sighed. Amy was right, her specialization in Euro-Asian Mythology and Folklore was most developed and respected in the university that she was currently graduating from. Although many people did not believe that any good jobs could be gotten from a such a narrow specialization, Chihiro felt that it was the only thing she actually really wanted to study. Whenever she learned something new about myths and legends it made her feel just a little bit closer to the dear friends that she had left behind so many years ago...

"Do you regret it?"


"Choosing to move so far away from your family?"

Chihiro laughed softly and shook her head. "It's funny you should ask, especially since if you had suggested that I move away to an unknown environment far from my family, twelve years ago I would have pitched a fit and refused to budge. But a lot has happened since then. For one, I know what I want. For another, change doesn't scare me anymore."

"Really? Then how come you've never decided to get a real haircut? Amy asked teasingly while flipping Chihiro's ponytail up for fun.

"You've had this ponytail the entire time that I've known you. I've only seen you trim it from time to time."

"That's because I'm actually happy with it just the way it is." Chihiro replied with a sigh as she turned to face her friend once again - pulling her hair out of Amy's reach. And it serves as a very important reminder, she silently added to herself.

With the graduation ceremony finally over Chihiro decided to head over to the bathroom to quickly freshen up. She had about half an hour before she had to be outside for the grad photos.

Leaning over the sink Chihiro gazed at her reflection intently.

She no longer looked like her ten-year-old self; there were a lot more angles and edges to her face than before. For one thing, her cheekbones were a lot more prominent now. Her eyes had a steady, thoughtful gaze - as if taking many things into consideration and weighing each accordingly. Far from the insecure and demanding child that she had once been. The dilemmas she had faced those twelve years ago, and the choices she had made, had helped shape her into the person she was today. To forget what she had experienced and write it off as nothing more than a figment of her imagination would have destroyed all that. Her ponytail and the hairband she had received back then served as a constant reminder of the qualities that truly made her strong, as well as the sacrifices she had been forced to make in order to secure her current future. Lastly, it was a testament to her ability in always succeeding despite all odds.

To forget all that meant reverting to the person she had been before. And that was not something she would ever want to do.

Chihiro raised her hand to where her ponytail was gathered at the back of her head. She gently ran her fingers over the pink hairband, feeling comforted by it's pulsing warmth. Like a living thing it often gave off it's own heat. Chihiro liked to think that somehow it was connected to those she cared about the most, that the pulsing was actually their heartbeat and that whenever she touched the hairband her friends could feel that her thoughts were with them...

Just as she was about to remove her hand from the pink hair elastic she felt it heating up to the point where it actually burned her fingers.

"Ow!" Chihiro yelped in surprise as she immediately put her fingers under the cold water now running from the faucet. They were sore and had red stripes where they had been in contact with the hairband. What if my hair catches fire? The instant that frightening thought hit her, Chihiro reached back with both hands for the hairband and urgently started to pull it out of her hair. As the heat of the pink band increased so did the difficulty in removing it. Gritting her teeth to avoid crying out, Chihiro managed to wrench the hair elastic half-way down her hair before she happened to glance at the mirror.

She was glowing! So was the hairband, but that was not as shocking as seeing one's own body lit up like a light-bulb! The little elastic band was no longer pink but a bright glowing red. Chihiro herself seemed be glowing from the inside out, almost the way a hot ember would. Her black eyes widened in shock and horror as her arms started glowing brighter and brighter. A splitting headache took over and Chihiro grabbed her aching head instead. Everything was hot, so hot. She was burning up, on fire. The pain, the pain!

A shriek filled the bathroom, getting louder with each second. The instant that Chihiro thought she was going to burst into flames like a flaming human torch, everything came to a sudden stop. The screaming stopped, the burning pain had ceased, and she felt herself collapse to the floor like a marionette without strings. Her gasping breath could be clearly heard as well as the sobs that now shook her body. Relief and fear were warring inside her. The pain had stopped and she was still alive - so that was a good sign. However, the fear that she had come close to dying and not knowing if it was over, or what had started it, had shaken her to the core.

Afraid of what she would find if she were to look at her arms, which were currently spasming next to her head, Chihiro lay on the cold, hard ground and kept her eyes squeezed shut.

There you have it guys, Chapter 1 of 4. Let me know what you think. Reviews feed the Muse and encourage the writer!

- Rampant Id