Breathing was a trial; every inch of skin felt like a bruise. Chihiro couldn't say exactly how many consecutive hours she'd spent giving massages, draining used bathwater, scrubbing out tubs and heating fresh towels, but it was a sufficient amount of work to make her every muscle sting as she moved.
She didn't think anything had ever felt so good as lying down on her cot at the first pale hint of dawn, too tired to worry that she hadn't eaten all night. All that mattered was pulling the blanket up over her head and losing herself to the deep, long sleep of the bone-tired. A sleep so complete that, thankfully, Chihiro was spared any dreams of Haku.
The day had already bloomed hot and bright by the time she woke, slightly after noon. The sky was entirely clear, so blue it almost hurt to look at, and the sunlight baked pleasantly into her skin the instant she set foot outside. She was awake all of three minutes, however, before Haku's face simmered to the forefront of her thoughts, sharp and hard in contrast with the sleepy white noise otherwise filling her head.
It's dangerous to be so wrong about a person when I have no other friends in this place, she thought, her throat tightening. She glanced back into the bedroom, where Lin laid buried in her sheets, still soundly asleep.
Even Lin doesn't trust me. The thought left a heavy, unpleasant taste on Chihiro's tongue. It was true. And to be perfectly fair, who in their right mind would trust someone who couldn't even remember her face?
Chihiro took as long as she dared to scrounge up something to eat, lingering out of sight in the pantry with a lukewarm dumpling in hand. She trailed her fingers along a row of unlabeled glass bottles, maybe sake or vinegar, listening to other servants' footsteps cross back and forth outside.
She hated the thought of what awaited her once she left the small room. Dreadfully few minutes from now, Leiko would be barking at her to fetch a fresh load of towels, which would be so hot and damp that the first stack would have her sweating; or perhaps she would have to dispose of buckets upon buckets of dirty water, pinching every muscle in her back and accidentally splashing herself with other people's filth.
For the moment, Chihiro decided to bar such unpleasant realities from her mind, continuing her languid survey of the pantry's contents. There were enormous sacks of uncooked rice, glass jars of peppers, bundles of herbs. Cooking wouldn't have been such a bad job, she didn't think; at least she could end the day smelling like food, rather than worm salts and old bathwater.
Sighing, she lowered herself onto a short wooden barrel and took a large bite of her breakfast, which had now cooled completely. She knew it was almost too much to hope for that she not run into Haku at all that day, but she found herself hoping just the same. The dumpling was somewhat difficult to swallow, as though her throat was too dry to permit the comfortable passage of food, and even after one bite her stomach churned mutinously.
It'll be all right, she thought to herself; even unspoken, the words felt hollow. She managed to choke down the rest of the dumpling, all the while half-wishing she hadn't bothered, and was absently licking the gumminess from her fingertips when she heard her name being shouted from the kitchen.
"Sen? Are you in here?"
It was Lin, Chihiro realized almost instantly, and relief unclenched her stomach. She slipped carefully out of the pantry, taking care that no one see her leaving, lest they think she was stealing sake or something equally absurd.
"I'm here," she replied, coming into view of the kitchen staff and feeling her cheeks instantly heat under their eyes. Leiko had told her that she had no human stench, so the others' scrutiny stemmed from nothing so simple as disgust. They watched her as though she were something lesser, some weakling that was wasting their time and breathing their air.
Lin crossed the room to Chihiro, her expression bland. "Where were you?" Chihiro had scarcely opened her mouth to lie when Lin waved her hand impatiently.
"Never mind. Leiko's looking for you, though. I'd find her soon, if I were you. She's not the most patient woman."
Chihiro could only nod dumbly. It didn't appear that Lin would be getting her a different job any time soon; not that she'd really expected it, but now that vain hope was dashed as quickly as it came into being.
She swallowed hard, her throat still feeling narrow and dry. "Thanks." She tried not to look at Lin as she walked past, feeling the entire kitchen watch her leave.
Chihiro bent at the waist in a stiff bow, her eyes trained on the earth spirit's sandy feet.
"How may I help you?" She straightened up again with a smile. Her voice felt unnaturally high as she forced the words out, knowing Leiko and the others were watching her every move. "A private room for a rest, perhaps? Or maybe a soothing bath and massage?"
The spirit, in the form of a very plain, dirty-looking woman, shook her head. Dust fell from her long yellow hair.
"I'm hungry," she said slowly, her voice like steps staggered through gravel. Chihiro nodded with another flat smile. This spirit must be rich, she thought. Yubaba would never allow someone so filthy in here otherwise.
"If you'll allow me to show you to a room, I can take your order to the kitchen for you while you have a rest."
The woman sighed her assent, her black-brown eyes drifting shut momentarily.
Chihiro bowed again, straightened up again, and abruptly had to catch herself with a hand braced against the nearest wall. It was enough to make her faint, the blood rushing in and out of her head each time she bent over. And she did so plenty, figuring it was safer to bow too often than too seldom. I should've eaten more, she thought with a grimace.
"Is something wrong, Sen?" The disdain in Leiko's voice had a syrupy coating for the benefit of their guest. "If you're not feeling up to your usual tasks, I'd be happy to reassign you elsewhere."
Chihiro gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to turn around, knowing Leiko would be smirking. "If you'll just follow me then," she forced herself to say brightly, and led the spirit away from the others' ill-disguised laughter.
After delivering the new guest safely to her room, and putting in her strange request for six bowls of plain miso broth, Chihiro took a moment to attempt to relax. The particular hallway she'd chosen was nearly silent, with only two of the rooms occupied. The steam from the baths didn't quite reach this far, and for that Chihiro was grateful. Her skin was already clammy enough with cooled sweat.
Leaning against a solid portion of the wall, Chihiro slid slowly to the floorboards. She felt hopeless, and nauseous, and exhausted, and no sooner had these notions occurred to her then she was suddenly choking on a lump in her throat, blinking back a hot veil of tears. She hated crying, especially when she wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to stop, so she tried to breathe deeply enough to regain her composure.
The worst part was that she knew that she would have to face Haku sometime that day. Preferably not when she was crumpled on the floor sniffling and trying to dry her eyes, but she felt that almost no amount of bad luck would surprise her at this point.
I don't even know why I'm here, she thought miserably. If she only had a purpose, or just one concrete reason that she could understand, the rest would be tolerable. But with no sense of direction, no allies, not even Haku…She gulped back a hiccuping sob, feeling incredibly pathetic. No more crying.
"I'd better get back to work," she mumbled to no one, heaving herself to her aching feet. She dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve, and swallowed hard once more. The soup would be ready any minute, and it certainly wouldn't do to keep her hungry guest waiting. The very least she could do was perform her job well enough to keep Leiko happy.
Haku could not recall a time when he'd felt more awful. He was both miserably tired and oddly jittery, feeling as though he'd not slept a wink and had downed an entire pot of coffee to compensate. While it was true that he'd had no more than three or four fitful hours of rest, he could not account for the strange tension that was knotting up his insides, like a leaden weight tethered to ropes threading through him, twisting and smothering.
He'd spent just about the entire night thinking of Chihiro, picturing again and again the moment he'd shoved her at Leiko, hardened his gaze to betray nothing, and all the while his stomach was turning sour and shrinking. He could scarcely bear to remember the look on her face, the utter hopeless shock slackening her features. Was it worth it? Was breaking her heart and making her hate him worth the relative safety of having nothing to do with one another? Was it really a better fate than whatever Yubaba could invent?
Haku massaged his right shoulder lightly, trying to relieve some of the knotting in his muscles. He had to go on thinking he'd done the right thing, or he'd simply cease to function. Besides, it was far too late to apologize. He knew he had crafted his betrayal perfectly; his talent for feigning disdain was utterly unmatched after his years in Yubaba's thrall, normally second only to his ability to remain unswayed by emotion. However, he feared that guilt was more than capable of ruining him this time.
He made his way to the kitchen before beginning his shift, thinking that perhaps some tea would help relax at least the physical effects of his distress. Moments later, as he leaned over an empty portion of counter-space to sip at his drink, a hand clamped suddenly onto his shoulder, grip so firm that he winced. He turned around quickly.
"What did you do?" Lin asked flatly, glaring at him. Haku set his cup down so abruptly that scalding-hot tea slopped onto his hand, but he gritted his teeth against a groan of pain.
"I was just enjoying a hot beverage before work," he said, with little inflection. "Did it appear differently to you?" He allowed himself the tiniest of smirks.
Lin's hands were on her hips, an all-too-familiar stance that meant the next few moments were going to be rather unpleasant for him; being promoted to head of the kitchen staff had done nothing to soften her infamous bluntness.
"Sen. What did you do?" she asked again, slower this time, as though the question may have been too complicated at first. Hearing Sen's name swiftly reversed all the good the relaxing tea had done, and Haku fought not to slump over in response.
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," he replied, managing to sound calm. His mouth had gone sour.
Lin rolled her eyes and heaved an enormous sigh. "I see. Well, it might interest you to know that she was hiding in the pantry before work this morning, and she looks awful." She scowled and fixed him once more with that intense glare. "I suppose that had nothing to do with you."
Haku felt his face go slack for a split second, picturing Chihiro crying somewhere alone, tiredness sapping the color from her face and bruising her beneath her eyes. He quickly tightened his jaw and narrowed his eyes at Lin.
"Perhaps you should be speaking to her about this, and not bothering me with your petty concerns." He turned to leave, but Lin's hand was around his wrist in an instant, clenching like a steel cuff.
"If you hurt her, I will hurt you," she said slowly, her voice unnervingly soft and low. Had she shouted at the top of her lungs, she wouldn't have fazed Haku in the least; this menacing near-whisper was infinitely more effective.
Haku jerked his arm away from her. "I do not take kindly to threats. Mind your tone," he snapped. With that, he brushed past her and walked out of the kitchen as quickly as he could manage, all too aware that his eyes were suddenly brimming with an unfamiliar heat.