Resilience of the Soul
Scott sighed to himself. He leant over the balcony that was connected to his bedroom, inhaling the scent of flowers from the garden below. The spirit world was beautiful, there was no denying that. He was worried about going home. Many a legend he had grown up with warned of travel to the other realm. Human who went there normally sickened and died or vanished entirely. Having avoided both those Fates Scott wondered if he was to be cursed with another symptom of contact with the spirit world - being unable to leave. His Granny had told him one particular tale of a girl who had been walking the woods in the evening and had been stolen by the fair folk… literally spirited away. Scott chuckled to himself; the old bat had scared him stupid. The old stories had terrified him; most of them did not end well. This poor girl had been returned to the human world a year and a day later, pregnant and claiming she had been away for merely a few months. She had taken a husband but had angered him and he had exiled her. The poor girl gave birth to a halfling which her family insisted she leave in the woods for the father to collect. The girl herself pined for the beauties of the place she had left. She eventually refused all food and died.
Scott pulled a face. He had been away for months. Could he even go back? Would he be content to return to his family and former life? Magical influences aside, he desperately wanted to see his family, but feared returning to a life that had no direction. Life here in the spirit world was dangerous and difficult for an outsider to comprehend and of course humans were not well liked. However, this world he had come to was vast, complex and unpredictable and it was his to explore if he chose.
When he decided to aid Chihiro, it had never been his intention to stay long. He had felt pity for her, alone, knocked up and asking for his aid. Of all the people she could have called on she wanted him. He had been flattered in a way, despite feeling hurt and used. He wondered what her family thought of their daughter living in a different dimension. They would hardly be pleased; they had thought her mad for years. His own family did not even know where he really was. He felt guilty he was lying to them, he had been less than nice to everyone on his return from Japan. His family had never even teased him for being kicked out of the country he had longed since high school to study in. He had told his brother there had been a "girl" involved and ended the conversation. None of them had mentioned it again. He owed it to them to go back to the human world. He had even stolen an irreplaceable family heirloom and as that sword had merged with Chihiro's own he doubted he would get it back.
He hoped she was okay. It had been a bit of a nightmare for Rin to look after him and run her domain while he recovered. He had also been less than a model house guest, no doubt adding to her burdens. He had not totally been useless. Besides shaking up the hyper conservative nobility he had acted as Rin's accountant. Yes, taxes, income and expenditure even had to be calculated in the spirit world. Rin's home was not doing well, her bastard of a… he struggled for a word. What had he been? Not husband, no; she had been a concubine… The idea made him feel a little sick. The thought of Rin and… well… behaving like that… He shook his head. His thoughts were scrambled. He blamed the snowberry wine he had been drinking that evening. It was good stuff! He licked his lips and decided not to make any life changing decisions while a little tipsy.
Unfortunately Fate had other ideas.
He turned and realised he was not alone. Beside him was a man… Well, that was using the term loosely. The being was resting on the balcony as he was, observing the moonlit garden below. Scott schooled his features. Expecting the unexpected was now something he was used to and he knew that being too open with your emotions could get you rapidly into trouble in this world. He was surprised and wary but would not let it show. He coolly regarded his visitor, waiting for an introduction.
Rin's castle had more than just walls protecting it, also those evil lion spirits had returned from their homeland. Apparently they preferred their lives here, as long as they could visit their traditional hunting grounds when they felt the need. Scott would never want to piss those brutes off. There was an old saying back home "a cat's anger lasts seven years." Scott could well believe it looking at the golden haired spirits. Everything about then screamed predator and is gave him the jitters to be near them.
His visitor must be either welcome or powerful enough to get past the defences and the psycho twins who were utterly devoted to the woman who had freed them. Scott decided he liked the former scenario much more than the latter. His unannounced guest was almost as tall as he was. His hair was untidy and gleamed black and dark green in the moonlight. The hands on the balcony were delicate for a male, but Scott knew that meant nothing in this place. Was he assuming even too much to think the creature male? The clothes his guest wore were simple and unremarkable. Cotton tunic and slacks, bleached white. He could not see much of the face as the greenish hair covered it. It was at times like this that Scott felt out of his depth.
Spirits could sense many things about each other; approximate age, power (indicating social standing), health and wellbeing… Rin always knew when he was brooding about home and would do her best to improve his mood. He smiled in spite of himself. That woman would have everyone think she was a total ball breaker. He knew better. She was a big softie under all the armour.
His visitor made no move to speak and Scott decided that he either had to start a conversation or go with his instinct and run screaming for lion spirits to come and kill the scary thing.
"It's normally polite to introduce yourself," Scott said with a confidence he did not feel. "Especially if you appear unannounced in someone's room."
Scott's anxiety eased when he heard a chuckle from the man beside him. The stranger turned to face him. Scott had to clamp his jaw shut to stop himself gasping.
He had once asked Chihiro what her mate was like. They had had many conversations over the course of their journey but she had always avoided any mention of her mate. He guessed she was trying to spare his feelings. Scott had decided to point to the elephant in the room himself, or dragon in this case. He remembered vividly how her face had lit up and she gave him a dazzling smile.
"He's wonderful!" she bubbled and then bit her lip, realising who she was talking to. He had laughed and encouraged her to keep talking. He was not sure why, but he was curious about the creature who had stolen Chihiro's heart when she was just a child, dooming the chances of any human man who might try to win her in the future.
"Well, he has two forms… No, wait, three, and then there is the river… That took some getting used to. It also nearly killed me by accident; it did not realise that if humans don't breathe they die. All it wanted was to give me a hug." Scott remembered feeling a little lost, but she continued. "He is very powerful and acts like it." She smirked and a little chuckle escaped her. "He's much less arrogant than he used to be, perhaps because of me, but I would not like to assume it's entirely my doing." She smiled wistfully to herself then laughed. "I'm making him sound very unappealing!" she laughed. "He has his flaws, as do I…" She paused, ordering her thoughts "I suppose the best way to describe him is bright. Everything about him is bright, from his bright green eyes to his fiery temper."
Scott had made some factious comment about her being in the spirit world so long she could not give a straight answer to a simple question. "Everyone here talks in riddles!" he had moaned with a dramatic sigh. Linca had taken that moment to chime in.
"You want to know about dragon boy?" she said with a grin, skipping up to Scott and taking his arm. "Green eyes, pale as a ghost, greenish hair, not too well built, bit weedy for my tastes; I like a bit more meat on my men." Chihiro rolled her eyes but Linca ignored her. "Massive ego," continued the sprite. "Scary temper and he is putty in her hands." Chihiro had blushed prettily and was suddenly interested in the path they walked on. "It is truly sickening how devoted he is to her and it does not hurt that he is very easy on the eye." She grinned up at Scott, blue eyes dancing with mischief. "I would go so far as to say if you are into that type of guy he is drop dead gorgeous." Scott raised an eyebrow. High praise from such an "experienced" spirit. "Is that all you want to know?" she purred "Or does your manly pride need to be kicked more today?" She let go of his arm and giggled. "Seriously, why do this to yourself? Do you like punishment because if you are into that then I could certainly…"
"Enough!" snapped Rin, cutting the sprite off. "Leave the boy alone!" Scott had been offended at the time to be called a boy but knew enough of spirit kind by then to let the insult slide. Rin had probably been born when his family were building their castle.
There could be no doubt as to the identity of the creature beside him. The green eyes that regarded him with amusement were truly dazzling.
"Haku," Scott breathed. The dragon smirked and sharp white teeth peeped at him. He was worse than the lion spirits! How could Chihiro stand to be near this thing? Scott's every instinct told him this being was not only powerful, it was bloody dangerous.
"Love is blind," said the creature, confusing Scott. The dragon's voice was pitched low but carried easily. The creature held its head on one side and grinned wolfishly. "Forgive my sudden appearance and lack of proper manners. I am getting used to my new position and your thoughts were loud and unguarded. I sometimes forget that most cannot communicate mentally." Scott decided to leave that topic alone as he had no hope of understanding. He jumped to what was important instead.
"If you are free then Chihiro was successful?" he asked.
"Yes," came the neutral reply. The dragon's posture and demeanour gave away nothing. Scott thought that if he had just been set free from a long incarceration and the worlds had been saved then he would be a little more joyful.
"Then where is she?" he pressed. "And Linca?" He smiled and wondered what trouble the sprite might get into if she came back to the castle. She would no doubt approve of his efforts to lighten up the oppressive atmosphere in Rin's court. His face fell as the dragon answered his question with silence.
"Did…" Scott swallowed and tried again. "Did something happen?" The dragon's eyes flicked to the garden.
"They are not why I am here," he said curtly. "Your time here grows short." Scott blinked anger flared at the dragon's refusal to answer. He was not stupid however, he knew there must be more going on than he was aware of. He remained quiet and let the dragon explain.
"Your bond here was temporary," Haku said softly. "I would have attended to you earlier, but I have been busy; very busy." Haku sighed and rolled his shoulders. "I cannot explain much, but your time here is over. If you remain you will either have to stay permanently or risk your health." Scott moistened his lips. The dragon might not have said it directly, but it was clear he either had to stay forever or leave now. "You have served my mate well," continued the dragon. "I would be happy to bond you permanently but I sense you are not ready for that."
"I am not," said Scott truthfully. "I have family…" He trailed off and felt a lump rise in his throat.
"Can't I even say goodbye?" he asked softly.
"No time," replied the dragon, the green eyes seemed to hold genuine pity. "It's the solstice in your homeland. I was a little over-zealous when I re-created the rift. The boundary between the worlds is less fluid than is used to be. You've been here some time. If you had just arrived, returning you would be easy, but you have taken too much of the essence of this world within yourself for your return to be a simple matter." Scott decided he did not know enough about inter-dimensional travel to question the dragon's judgement in this matter. "You must go now or stay."
"Can I come back?" Scott asked, his heart sinking. "I would like to say my goodbyes properly." He pinned the dragon with a hard stare of his own. Human he may be but he would not simply do what he was told without some assurances. "I also need explanations; having me leave without knowing what happened to my friends is more than cruel."
"It is," admitted the dragon. "But necessary." The dragon opened his hand and presented the young human with a flawless amethyst. "Take this with you and look after it," he instructed. "If you decide you wish to return then smash this it on the next equinox." Scott took the gem and pocked it. "There is a catch," said the dragon tonelessly.
"Isn't there always?" sighed Scott. The dragon smirked but the smile was automatic and empty of emotion.
"If you return you will have to stay; you have been here longer than you should have already. If Rin had not been masking your symptoms with her power you would already be getting headaches." Scott's eyes widened. She had said nothing to him about any illness. Just how long had she been helping him? He had thought her tired from long days and little food and sleep...
"Are you ready?" asked the dragon. Scott shoved his hand in his other pocket and placed something wrapped in a handkerchief on the floor.
"I am now," he said with a sigh. The dragon nodded.
"We will speak again, son of Mulvey," he said and inclined his head. "I owe you for your service."
"I did not do it for you," Scott said softly. "I helped a friend in trouble, nothing more."
"There is still a debt between us," said Haku sternly, "and I will honour it even if you stay in the human world." Scott nodded and was gone.
Haku sighed and bent to pick up the token he had left for Rin. He did not need to look at it, he knew what would be left before the young man knew himself.
Haku relaxed the barrier he had erected around the room to hide his presence. The goddess had often vexed him with her ability to appear wherever she wished within the bathhouse and he would only hear of her visit later. Now he understood the value of such tactics. The boy may not have left so easily if Rin had been present. He let his aura flare, advertising his presence to everyone in the castle.
He would not be alone for long.
It was a comfort of sorts that he did not know everything. He knew that Rin's heart was warmed by the human boy's presence in her castle, but she was not ready to admit anything more. The boy himself was blind to this, just as Chihiro had been to his feelings towards her. Perhaps it was a human trait? He could not see the boy's future any more than he could Rin's. The knowledge Fate gave him was mainly of generalities. He knew that Rin would work hard for decades and eventually her home would be restored to its former glory. This would also destabilise the region as the power base would shift and workers would move to Rin's domain. He saw the shadow of bloodshed on his sister's future but more than that he could not define. If the boy returned there was no guarantee of a happily ever after for him and the spirit woman who would not admit she liked him. Not all love was predestined, not like his own had been.
"Perhaps we really were doomed from the start," he wondered brokenly. "She always joked that we were."
He could hear the commotion his presence had caused in the castle, but Rin was in control of her forces and belting out orders. They would not attack; yes, he was powerful and had technically infiltrated their defences but she assured them he posed no threat. Part of him wanted to remove all barriers on his power and give them all a true taste of what it was to have a deity call upon them. He laughed hollowly at himself. In another lifetime that would have been exactly what he would have done. He was different now and such things were pointless and more than a little immature.
Eventually all was quiet. The door to the room was opened softly and the lady of the domain walked through it.
Rin looked well, though his senses told him she was anxious and under immense pressure, most of it self-inflicted. Her deep brown eyes swept over him before briefly flicking around the room. He smirked despite himself. She was looking for her human. Her hands tightened to a white knuckled grip on the door frame.
"You are different…" she said at last. He nodded, accepting her words and her change in attitude towards him. It was to be expected. She entered the room and closed the door. She swallowed carefully, but he could tell her mind was racing. All he wanted to do was hug her. She had journeyed with Chihiro and helped her until her own tragic past stopped her from going onwards. She was all that was left of his family. He had lost his brave little owl sister and his mate and child were lost to him too. For a moment he felt intolerably lonely. It must have shown on his face as Rin dared to step closer. Even clad in a black silk kimono she still moved like a bathhouse Yunna, solid steps with little grace and refinement. She would learn again all she had forgotten. Soon she would be the most respected woman in this part of the spirit world. Being able to claim kinship with him would not harm her progress either, he thought ruefully.
Rin bit her lip and glanced at her feet.
"Sen?" she asked softly.
It was his turn to swallow. He was the Guardian of the Rift now, he could not afford to dissolve into weeping no matter how he felt.
"Lost," he said at last in a tight voice. "We must wait for her return." She looked up at him and gave him a searching look.
"Linca?" she whispered.
"She saved Chihiro," he whispered back, his voice faltering over the name. It felt like he was tearing his heart to shreds simply saying it. "She gave her life…"
Rin slowly closed her eyes, her shoulders slumped and she exhaled evenly. She drew on the inner strength that had been instilled into her in her former life as a court ornament.
"You could have told me sooner," she murmured. "It's been nearly a month since the sky turned red and the clouds boiled. I've been so worried…" Her words were mild enough but her reprimand cut through Fate's nagging prompting in his head that he should already be elsewhere. He shoved the entity to one side and ignored it. This was more important. Rin opened her eyes and they were wet with tears she refused to shed.
"I sent scouts. They found nothing, not even the fortress that maniac lived in… I thought you all dead!" She was shouting now and he let her, he deserved it. He should have come to her sooner; he deserved her anger. The punch to the jaw that followed was a little unnecessary, but it made Rin feel better. She stood before him, hands on hips and glaring. They could have been back in the bathhouse…
"What gave you the right to send Scott away?" she snapped. "That is not your responsibility!"
"It is," he replied simply, massaging his jaw. Another entity interrupted his thoughts. This time it was his other self, the watery part of him. It had been wailing at him to come back since he ascended. He had given it all the energy it needed to repair the damage done by separation. What else could it possibly want? He had told it many times he was far too busy for lazing around in the water like he used to. Still, the infernal thing insisted he needed to return. He supposed he would have to spend a day with it soon or it may start making trouble just to get his attention. He pushed its call away again and focused on the angry spirit woman.
"I was waiting for the Lady to come and speak to him!" she protested. "She could have extended the bonding!"
"He needed to go home," Haku replied in a gentle tone. He reached out and cupped her hand in his own then dropped the token the human had left her into it. "Family is precious," he said as he curled her fingers over the gift. "You should know that better than most." Rin sneered and snatched her hand away.
"I'm your family and yet you have left me to worry about you until now!" she growled. "That is not how you treat…" He interrupted her tirade before she said something she regretted. He simply laid a finger over her lips then let the barriers he put around himself slip. He felt something akin to grief as her eyes widened in wonder and fear.
"I have been busy," he said at last, containing his power so she would feel less intimidated. "Forgive me for not seeking you sooner," he murmured apologetically. "I have literally not had a single moment to spare until now. I would not be here at all if the human had not needed returning." Rin staggered back from him, clutching her gift to her chest.
"How?" she managed to splutter.
"I made the worlds one, then tore them apart," he sighed, running a hand through his hair. It was getting annoyingly long. He could shorten it with a thought but somehow could not bring himself to do it. "I did not realise the consequences of my actions until it was too late to go back."
He expected bowing and scraping. That was what normally happened when he revealed who he was to people. He certainly did not expect a rib cracking hug. He found his resolve nearly left him. He wanted to hug her hard and sob into her hair. He settled for lightly resting his hands on her back. It was enough, he decided. She did not hate or truly fear him. He was not alone. Fate's patience was thin, however, and he felt momentarily as if his gut was being ripped out. He winced and "politely" told it to go away. That was low, even for the cold and calculating entity.
He let go of Rin and apologised. He had to go. There were humans dying while he held her. There were so many of them trapped even he was unable to save them all. He had recruited some powerful help; well, more like ordered those with the power and ability to ease as much human suffering as they could. The Sallow-Hale was a killer, but not a fast one. He had three weeks for each individual. That time was rapidly coming to an end; without either intervention or being sent back the humans would die. He did not want to think how many had simply vanished before they even suffered the Sallow-Hale, victims of dimensional eccentricities that their bodies had never been designed to cope with. Their particles would literally start to fall apart until they were nothing but a puddle of salty water.
"25,674 humans met that fate in the first two hours of their arrival in this world," Fate supplied unhelpfully.
"Shut up!" Haku snarled at it and with a thought he was gone.
Rin looked dismally at the space Haku had been standing. The tears came, splattering onto the mats on the floor. She cried with noisy sobs filled with her grief. They were all gone; her sisters… one dead, the other missing; her brother, they were never close… too alike, she supposed. Now he was further away from her than ever. Elevated to such a level that she should not even consider him kin. She had seen his pain and could not ignore it, now she shared it.
Scott was gone too. The days would be duller, that was certain. She opened her hand and looked at the gift he had left. She laughed through her tears. It was his camping knife. Many blades contained in a shiny red sheath with a white cross on it. She had admired it during the journey. It was so useful! There was a blade for every purpose that you could possibly wish to use one for and it was all contained in the same utensil.
He had teased her about liking a lowly human invention, but let her use it when she asked. Of all the things he could have left… She was not sure if he thought she would like to have it or if he was subtly teasing her.
She guessed she would never know.
Rin said a quick prayer to the sky; substituting the words "goddess" and "lady" felt almost blasphemous to her but she supposed she would get used to it.
"Be safe, brother," she murmured. "And remember you are not alone."
Far away, the god of the spirit world heard her prayer and smiled.
A week later Haku stood on the black beach below his home. He could not bear to go inside the building he had shared with Chihiro; too many memories to haunt him. The appeals of his river had finally brought him here. It had been an interesting process to witness. His elemental self had become more strident and forceful in its demands for his presence. Fate had responded in kind. It got to the stage where Haku felt like a bystander in his own mind as Fate and his river argued about where his physical body should be. He thought perhaps the entire conflict had lasted over a day.
Somehow his river had come out the victor. Fate was not to contact him or give him orders for an entire day or his river would start draining his energy and he would be useless to Fate. There was an agreement that if there was some sort of catastrophe the deal was off, but other than that his river had him all to itself.
It occurred to Haku that he should be complaining bitterly about such treatment. He was his own person and should not be letting these beings squabble over him. In reality he knew he had given up the right to complain when he reconstructed the barrier. His thoughts were heavy with the lives he had been unable to save. Close to half a million humans. They were calling them the "vanished" in the human world. A few with connections to the spirit world knew what had happened but other than that, the human world was baffled and frightened. Fate had said that it would take decades for their scientists to ascertain what had really happened. Out of the Vanished incident a whole new concept of dimensional understanding would be born. In a few centuries human kind would begin to actually discover the existence of the world parallel to their own where creatures that were considered myth lived.
The human race would then come full circle. They would slowly re-establish contact with the spirit world and the creatures their ancestors once revered would again show them the wonders of their world. Millennia from now, there would be one world and coexistence. It was the vision the goddess had worked towards throughout her tenure as the rift guardian and now that distant vision of the future sustained Haku.
A loud complaint interrupted his thoughts. His river was disgruntled with his lack of attention. What was the point of him being here if all he could think about was Fate? Haku threw his head back and roared with laughter. His river sounded like a jealous mistress. Its mood grew truly enraged at his amusement and its dark waves crashed against the black shore, soaking him to the skin. Haku shook himself, his hair sticking all over his face in kelp like ribbons. He sighed and tension he had not realised he felt eased. It was divine to be drenched in the water of his river. He had missed it keenly. The river cooed with pleasure at his response and trilled that it had someone who wished to see him hiding in its depths.
Haku winced. He was supposed to be taking a day to relax and was not in the mood for visitors. The river overrode his objections. This spirit had waited to speak to him patiently and had performed great services for him. It would be churlish to deny the petition to see him. Haku agreed, curiosity piqued. The waters calmed and smoothed back to a glassy subterranean lake that was never touched by the wind. Haku basked in the calming green glow from the bioluminescent plants that grew on the cavern walls. Ripples broke the black glass surface of the lake. An equine head rose through the surface.
Haku's face broke into a grin. This visitor was more than welcome. Lowly water horse he may be, but the nygel was practically family. The creature did not seem to relish meeting him. Shoulders and back were heaved from the water with reluctance. The nygel was not even projecting its normal glamour charm to make it seem more appealing. For a creature of mischief this was tantamount to forgetting to breathe. Haku beckoned the creature forward.
"Have no fear, friend," said Haku, his tone warm. The nygel remained standing in the shallows, his hooves sinking in the soft black sand. He eyed Haku wearily then bent his forelegs. The nygel clumsily knelt before the dragon. Haku checked his barriers. No, he should appear no more powerful than he normally would. The nygel should not be aware of his change in status.
"Master," the horse nickered. "I come before you to beg for forgiveness." Haku was taken aback but sensed the spirit was genuinely penitent. The dragon almost called on Fate to ask what the nygel thought he needed to forgive. He scolded himself for being already reliant on the most recent voice in his head.
"I allowed Mistress Chihiro to be captured," the nygel whinnied. "I was trapped and she was forced to surrender as a condition of my release and aid for Mistress Linca." He snorted in distress and his eyes rolled in fear. Haku felt a little ill. Had he really been such a tyrant that a noble creature who had served him to the best of its ability feared the consequences of what had clearly been beyond its control?
"I failed them…" the water horse breathed to the wet sand. Haku was about to tell the creature that there was nothing to forgive, but it continued. "As soon as I was released I followed mistress to the fortress of the enemy. I am not a creature that can cope well in the desert and my progress was slow. When I got to the fortress it was already destroyed and the glass desert had become a lake."
Haku tried to not let any emotion show. A lake founded on a mother's bitter tears of grief was more of a monument than that creature they had opposed deserved.
"But I did find something…" the nygel added in a whisper. "I give it to you now and can only hope it puts right what I allowed to go wrong." The nygel dipped his snout into the water and pulled a tiny leather bag from the water. Clearly the river had been protecting whatever it contained. The nygel shuffled forward, refusing to rise. He lay the bag reverently at Haku's feet.
"This is not nes-" Haku began.
"Please," the nygel murmured, interrupting him. "Do not comfort me. I know I could have done more to protect my mistress. I will not rest until I can ask for forgiveness from her own lips." Haku swallowed thickly and bent to retrieve the bag. His hands shook slightly as he untied the sodden draw strings. At first the bag appeared empty. He peered into the depths and his focus sharpened. Then he saw them. Three hairs were crumpled in the bottom of the bag. Haku's eyes widened. The significance was not lost on him.
"I found them trapped under a rock," the waterhorse whispered. "I knew they were hers by the scent. I took them, not wanting to leave any part of her in that cursed place. I now give them to you."
Haku drew the bag to his chest. His heart hammered. Hair… Not as good as blood but not an issue when you happened to be the most powerful creature in the spirit world… Since the mating bond had been erased, Haku had no connection to Chihiro any more. Her tac'tal had also been destroyed; an item he had deliberately given her so he could track her no matter which world she was in. All ties between them were now severed. With what was in his hand he had a way of finding her. It would take preparation and plenty of power but he would at least be able to get a glimpse of her, no matter how far she had strayed from him.
The nygel had not given him merely hair, the waterhorse had given him hope and he had no idea how to thank it.
"Bring her back to us," the horse said in response to the dragon's incredulous gaze. "Find her and bring her home."
Haku nodded. If it was within his power, it would be done. He would need advice. Scrying was something he had almost no knowledge of.
"I can help," Fate murmured, slinking into his mind. Haku ignored it. Any help he got would come with conditions and he would be dancing the steps it dictated again. No, he knew where he could get advice without conditions, as well as a cup of tea and a slice of cake. He could not actually remember eating at all since he created the rift.
He watched the waterhorse dejectedly shuffle into the water. He told his river to ensure the spirit had everything it could possibly want. The water smugly told him that he needed to listen to it more often. Haku smiled. It actually felt good to be nagged by his river again.
Zeniba put the last plate out on the table. He would be hungry, she was sure. She had been keeping a close watch on the dragon ever since he created the new rift. The poor child had been running around the spirit world like a headless chicken for months. Now he had slowed down enough to actually think about the loss of his mate rather than run away from the pain, he was coming to her.
She had always been good with foresight. Yubaba cast stronger and more destructive spells; Zeniba had always favoured subtlety. She pulled a large cream cake from her pantry and put the kettle on the stove. It was her sister's stove from the bathhouse. She had decided to liberate a few souvenirs of her time there. Mika was now running the place and making a fine job of it.
She expected to hear a rush of wind and the front door rattle on its hinges. She nearly had a heart attack when she turned to find the dragon helping himself to a large piece of cake. He looked up at her and grinned.
"I don't think I've ever heard you shriek before," he said with a chuckle. Then his attention was back on the cake. He finished a slice in three large bites and reached for another. Zeniba regained her composure and sat opposite him. She watched him carefully. His eyes were still haunted and his face was thinner. He seemed more cheerful than she had expected. She guessed time and the knowledge his mate was not as lost as he originally thought had done much to heal the wounds she knew he carried. She sighed and poured the tea. She pushed a china cup towards him. Pomegranate and white tea, her favourite blend. He poured the steaming cupful down his throat and replaced the cup on the saucer for it to be refilled. Zeniba chuckled. She should have offered water rather than her most highly prized tea blend.
"When did you last eat a meal?" she enquired softly.
"Does prison food count?" he asked, starting on his third slice of cake. Zeniba's eyes widened. She stood and bustled around the kitchen. Soon a pan of rice was bubbling on the hob and fish was steaming next to it. Haku groaned at the smell and wiped cream from his lips. The cake was gone.
"I know why you are here," said Zeniba as she placed a plate of cookies on the table for him to devour while the meal cooked. "I have a request before I help you." He took a gulp of tea and nodded, green eyes suddenly warily.
"I want to see you once a week for the next six months," she said firmly. "Rift guardian you may now be, but if you keep pushing yourself even your body will begin to suffer." He put his head on one side.
"You're worried about me?" he asked softly.
"Of course I am!" she almost snapped. "Even Gods need someone to worry about them."
"I will do my best to fulfil your request," he said seriously. She nodded then paused, thinking of something else.
"I mean all of you!" she demanded. "No splitting your consciousness between forms so you can be in two places at once. I will be able to tell the difference!"
He laughed and rested his hand over her ancient gnarled ones on the table.
"Thank you for worrying about me," he said gently. "It is pleasant that you are treating me no differently." She nodded then sat back, freeing her hands from his touch. She may not treat him differently, but she could still feel the power in him. It was intimidating; she was witch enough to admit it. She held out her hand. She did not need to ask, he immediately placed a small leather bag in her hand. She nodded and served him the meal she had prepared while her mind mulled over the best way to use Chihiro's hair. It was not that fresh, so she could do less with it than she would like. Still, a few added extras and she should be able to boost the connection enough to make a visual connection. Once that was established, the dragon should be able to do the rest.
She pulled a chipped mixing bowl from the table and filled it with water from the stream outside. She handed the dragon a pouch of powdered obsidian, asking him to charge it. He did so in-between lifting chopsticks to his mouth. Zeniba sprinkled the powder onto the water and then rested the precious hair on the surface.
"Is that it?" Haku asked. Zeniba nodded.
"It's a simple spell," she murmured. "I can guide your power but you will be performing the scry. Once the link is made and you see her you must trace the connection to the source." She gave him a hard look. "You will not have long," she warned him. He nodded and wiped his mouth again and pushed the empty dishes to one side. He placed his hands on the chipped bowl, almost cradling it. Zeniba did not see what he saw but he inhaled sharply and his hands trembled on the bowl. He simply stared at the water for precious seconds. Zeniba frowned and let her power flare. It was enough of a mental slap for him to remember what he was supposed to be doing. He tore his eyes from the bowl and bit his lip. She knew he had located Chihiro when his body stiffened and he swore under his breath. She felt the connection snap. The hair had been consumed and there was nothing left to focus the spell on.
Zeniba waited patiently and let the dragon stare at the bowl.
"That explains a lot," he said at last. Zeniba raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
"She's back in the human world," he said softly. "No wonder I could find no trace of her." He scratched the back of his head absently and cocked his head to the side as if listening to something she could not hear.
"Linca," he said at last. "She used her life energy to save Chihiro but she also tore a rift to send her where she thought she would be safe." He shook his head as if trying to deny this new knowledge.
"She was a land spirit, she should not have had the power for that even with her life force given," he muttered, clearly puzzled.
"She loved Chihiro," sighed Zeniba. "You know yourself that such emotions can drive a spirit or human well beyond their natural abilities."
Haku smiled at her wistfully.
"Perhaps you are right," he murmured then stood.
"Well, I know what I must do now," he said confidently. "Wait."
"Solstice is not that far away," said Zeniba softly. "You could always send a message rather than going yourself if you do not wish to wait." Haku shook his head.
"I have to go in person," he said emphatically. "We are no longer mates and she still does not remember."
"A scar on your hand is not indication of your connection to each other," Zeniba said kindly. "The bond is still there, it's been there since she was a child. Fate itself pushed you together; I am sure it is in its own best interests to see you reunited."
"You really are an old romantic," the dragon chuckled. He bowed politely and murmured his thanks for the food. When he straightened there was a mirror in his hands. He gave it to her, glass facing the floor. She took it.
"What is this for?" she asked. There was no power that she could sense in the mirror; it was not a magical object. Silence answered her. Haku had gone. She frowned and turned the mirror over. She shrieked for the second time that day and the mirror crashed to the floor shattering. The shriek was shrill and girlish this time. She held her hands up; they were smooth skinned, with elegantly tapered fingers and perfectly manicured nails. Blond waves of hair were falling in her face.
The curse she had endured for so long was lifted. Zeniba was restored.
Chihiro sighed as she looked out of the window. It was starting to rain again. Her mind was pleasantly empty as she watched the clouds roll in. She did not want to think, it made her focus on what she had lost.
She ran a hand over her stomach absently. The roundness of her abdomen was becoming quite pronounced. The doctors were a little worried about her, the foetus was developing much more slowly than they would expect. She had been put on a strict diet to provide as much nutrition as possible for the child and herself. They may not have told her directly but they were concerned about her too. She could not blame them. Like so many of "the returned" she was frequently confused and there were yawning gaps in her memory.
She was lucky, she guessed. Many of those who had winked out of existence, only to come back, knew nothing of their time away. Some of the ones who came back were in very poor health both mentally and physically and would take years to rehabilitate. Chihiro was one of the most severely affected mentally, having almost total memory loss, but she had coped remarkably well. She also was one of the few that had some idea about where she had been, though she kept that information to herself.
Who would have believed her if she spoke the truth? Her earliest memory was her face being wiped clean of blood and a dark haired man with sad eyes telling her that she had been sick and he was her grandfather. Her gut twisted and she shushed the child in her belly. It did not seem to like her thinking about Kenshin. Then of course there was Linca and the man she had freed… Haku. She blinked, annoyed at herself for dwelling yet again on things she could not change.
Haku had obviously done what she needed him to, or the human world would not now be separate from the spirit world. She grieved for that. She found the human world difficult to be in. The sounds and smells seemed too harsh. The sunlight was too bright and the nights too dark. If she could have remembered where she was from she might have felt better. The doctors had told her she spoke Japanese so it was probable she was from that country. They were making enquiries on her behalf but the world was in chaos. So many were missing or out of place. One pregnant girl with amnesia was not a priority. She knew she had parents, Kenshin had mentioned them, but she could not recall either their names or faces. It was frustrating. She did not like living off charity when there was a family out there who were no doubt worried about her. A nurse bustled into her room, a happy string of babble coming from her lips in greeting. Chihiro had picked up some spoken Korean, but the language was difficult for her. For some reason her mind seemed to expect to be able to understand everyone. It was still jarring to her to listen to words that held no meaning for her. She smiled warmly at the woman and inclined her head in greeting.
The nurse took her temperature and blood pressure then left, but not before leaving some clean clothes, a subtle reminder that Chihiro had not gone out for a walk today. Exercise was also part of her recovery. She frowned at the clouds and sighed. She was going to get wet. She glanced at her reflection in the window and frowned again. She was not used to the change in her appearance either. Her face was the same, but her skin was paler than it had ever been. The doctors had thought her severely anaemic at first. Multiple tests later and they still could not discover why she was so pale. She had also not told them that her eyes had changed colour. They had once been a rich brown. Kenshin had complemented her on them on numerous occasions. Now, they had deepened in colour and in the right light looked almost maroon. She wondered what else had changed in her that she was not aware of. "You will be different now," Linca's weak voice ran across her thoughts.
Was this what the sprite had meant? She sighed and stood. She did not want to think about that now. It had taken weeks for her to work her way out of the mire of guilt the spirit's death had plunged her into. The woman had sacrificed herself for Chihiro. Living with that had been more than difficult. Almost as difficult as not thinking about a dragon spirit with green eyes every five minutes of her existence. They were both in the past; the barrier was restored. Linca was dead and Haku, no matter what he had been to her, was now lost to her. They would never have the chance to become the friends he had promised they would be. She knew he had hoped for much more than that. She had believed him when he had said he loved her.
He had not had time to tell her much of their life together; saving the worlds had taken up most of their attention. It was a nice story, however; meeting over a lost shoe then meeting when she was older, then again when she was all grown up. It was almost as if their connection had been predestined, though she thought that idea idiotic. It was more like some sort of oddball fairy tale. She had devoured romantic sagas when she lived in Kenshin's fortress. His library had been extensive and she had been bored. He had been surprised she still had the ability to read. He had thought her "illness" would have made her forget she knew how. If a poet or playwright got hold of their story… With some significant tweaking it would no doubt become a sweeping romantic epic.
"The ending would certainly be changed," she muttered to herself as she dressed. "This one is awful." She may have a head full of holes but she was a realist. Their story was to remain unfinished. They would not meet again.
"Will we meet again?" her own voice, much younger in tone, flitted across her mind.
"I'm sure we will," replied Haku's voice also sounding more youthful.
Her head swam and throbbed. She hated when the memories bubbled to the surface, they nearly always concerned Haku and they did not make just her head hurt. Her broken heart would make its presence felt. She bore the sadness and loss stoically. Linca had died so she might live, she would not waste her life mourning for what could now never be. She had a child who would need her when she was born. She needed to be strong enough to not only care for her but make sure she was happy. They would only have each other in this chaotic and frightening world but they would adapt.
She pulled on her socks with difficulty. Her stomach really was starting to make bending difficult. She stood, back murmuring a protest and she shuffled from her room on the ward. She was a "guest" of the South Korean government. Like many of the returned she was to be studied. She did not mind. The tests were not invasive and she had a place to stay. She wondered towards the back of the hospital, greeting staff and patients in her broken Korean. She hated the language, her tongue simply refused to form the words she wanted it to. Her efforts were appreciated, however, and she was rapidly becoming a favourite among the nurses and doctors. The rain had not started as she had feared, in fact the sky seemed to be clearing.
The hospital gardens were actually quite large and well maintained. Miniature stands of bamboo surrounded pools of still water, full of water lilies in full bloom. The lawns were a verdant green and neatly trimmed. She often had the urge to take her shoes off and feel the cool and spiky surface beneath her feet. Something in her rebelled at the idea; shoes must be worn outside and taken off on entering a building. She could not have her hosts thinking she had no manners!
She crunched over some gravel planted with purple succulents then walked to the edge of one of the pools. The water was almost obscured by plant life. She sighed, feeling her mood lift as she sat down beside the pool. It was spring and the day was warm but not hot. She rubbed her stomach absently and watched fluffy grey clouds scud across the sky. Her life was peaceful at least. She may not be entirely content but she and her child were safe.
"It will have to be enough," she murmured at the sky.
A shadow fell over her causing her to look up. With the sun behind the person standing before her, she could only make out his silhouette.
"What if you received a better offer?" asked the shadow.
Her eyes widened and for a moment she could not breathe. Her heart swelled to what she was sure was a dangerous size and pounded in her chest as if it feared it would fail to beat any moment. She knew that voice. She would remember it until the day she died. Questions buzzed around her head, one of the most urgent appeared to be 'how?' She asked none of them. She ignored her clamouring mind; it was hardly reliable anyway.
A slow smile spread over her face and for a moment she thought she would burst into tears. She was pleased she did not, though her lip wobbled. She should have had more faith. What was an inter-dimensional barrier to someone like him? Of course he would see her again.
"Haku," she whispered at last, his name almost a benediction on her lips.
He slowly crouched before her and she could see his face as the sun's position shifted behind him. He really was breath-taking, even in the human world. His eyes were almost the same shade as the grass she sat on and his hair gleamed black under the bright sun. She frowned; there was no green sheen to it. She cast her eyes down over his body and burst out laughing.
A smile bloomed on his lips.
"Do I appear so out of place?" he asked with a chuckle in his voice. She nodded and tried to stifle her giggles. The blue jeans and brown hooded jacket looked completely alien on him. She also preferred his greenish hair; the black was much less interesting. It was still him even if he was diluted down for human consumption and she was overjoyed to see him.
"You came to get me," she said her smile slipping. She had a decision to make and knew this moment and should be taken seriously. His attitude mirrored hers and he sat across from her, gracefully folding his legs.
"I still don't remember you," she admitted. The words came out more bitter than she intended. She guessed she had a right to be.
"I know," came the reply. His expression was intense but he did not seem saddened by this. Perhaps he did not understand.
"I mean, I don't remember loving you… at all." She struggled, she needed to be honest but it was hard to put what she felt into words. She could not make this decision based on a life she did not remember. "I know we were together and that you loved me very much… But I don't…" She trailed off unable to admit the true extent of her emotions. She found him attractive and he was the father of their child, but she could not love someone she had no memory of.
She felt the loss of him in her life like a yawning gap in her heart, but she could not simply push the person before her into that hole and hope he would fit. She was different and she suspected he was too. She could not let him think that if she went back with him that they would be what they once were. She may never feel again the way she did before Kenshin had taken her memory.
"I think you misunderstand my intentions, little one," he said at last. She blinked. So he was not here to whisk her away into the sunset to live happily ever after… She felt some of the tension leave her. "I will ask for no more than you are willing to give," he said with a reassuring smile.
His hand cupped her cheek and she allowed the contact. He tilted her head slightly and looked deeply into her eyes.
"Linca left her mark," he murmured. "I was hoping as much, no doubt it was her intention also." She raised an eyebrow and waited for him to explain. His hand left her face and squeezed her hand where it rested on her knee.
"Linca's gift to you was more than life," he whispered. His fingers left hers and she almost told him to put his hand back. It felt good to have his soothing touch on her skin. "She gave you more than you needed to heal," he explained. "She gave you time."
"You will be different…"
"Am I still human?" Chihiro asked, realising at last what the sprite had meant.
"Yes," he replied. "But also part spirit. You are still yourself but you will live a few centuries longer and you may even gain a basic magical ability if you train hard…"
Chihiro's attention drifted from his words momentarily. Linca had given her a longer lifespan? Her heart felt crushed under the weight of such a gift. How would she live when she now had a life she was never meant to live? Could she have the courage to live so long? Could a human endure without going completely insane? Such a gift could be a curse. She felt her eyes swim with tears. She would just have to be certain she used the gift given. She would live and make Linca proud.
"Don't cry, little one," murmured Haku. A pad of a thumb gently wiped over her eyes. "Linca loved you dearly. She would not want her gift to be a burden to you." Chihiro nodded, knowing he was right. She sniffed and forced a smile.
"You said you had a better offer?" she said with forced brightness. He gave her a flat look, obviously not fooled for a moment. He sighed and humoured her.
"I think I do," he said evenly. "You don't belong here; you belong with me and your family."
"I have family here," she said quickly. "I just don't remember them either," she muttered guiltily.
"I have little influence here," he said, drawing her attention back to him. "In the other world I am much more…" He held his head on one side and gave her a penetrating look. "I can help you remember, not just by telling you of our time together, but I may be able to restore most of what you have lost."
"I would have to go with you to do that?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"I won't lie to you; if you wish your memory to be fully restored you will have to bond yourself to me again. I can then reconstruct what has been taken through that connection." His lips pulled up into a smile. "That's my best offer but I am willing to negotiate."
"You're a terrible businessman," she countered with a grin. "You are supposed to give your worst offer first then haggle upwards."
"That's probably because I am not a man," he reminded her with a chuckle. "Besides, what is the point in haggling when you have every intention of getting exactly what you want?"
"Arrogant lizard!" she snapped and clapped a hand over mouth, mortified. She had just insulted him! After he had come all this way just to speak to her! She blushed scarlet and bowed low, spluttering an apology. Where had that insult even come from?
She was pulled into a firm hug.
"I have missed you so much," he mumbled into her hair. Chihiro closed her eyes and let him hold her. She let the feeling of familiarity wash over her. She hoped she could remember what he was to her and to do that she would need to be in his world. She would never come here again, part of her understood that now. The human world would be the price she paid for her memories. She pulled back from him and composed herself. She fussed with her maternity top and saw him eyeing her stomach.
"I will not force you to bond with me," he said at last. "That choice is for you to make. If you wish to live without your past then we will have to ensure we fill your head with lots of new memories." She realised he was referring to their child. She moistened her lips. If she did not go with him would that mean he would not see his own daughter?
He held out his hand, silently asking her to take it. Another memory fizzed to the surface of her mind. She once let go of that hand and returned to her world. Now he was asking for her back. She looked from the offered hand to his face.
"I will get you back, no matter how far you stray from me…" Had he really said that to her? His gaze faltered and his fingers trembled slightly. For all his aura of confidence she suddenly saw how nervous he was. He had no guarantee of her consent and if she stayed he would lose both her and his child. Yet he was leaving the decision with her. She was sure he could make her go with him if he wished, but he was not. He wanted her willing or not at all.
"Come with me, Chihiro," he said at last. "Not because I love you or because you feel it would make me happy…" His words trailed off and he closed his beautiful eyes for a moment. "I only want you to take my hand if you believe you can trust me." His eyes opened and she caught her breath. He really was beautiful. "Everything else is secondary… If you trust me then come with me and everything else will fall into place in its own time."
Time… She had plenty of it now.
Her hand slipped into his and his grip tightened as if he never wanted to let go.
The nurses from the hospital noticed Chihiro was missing an hour later. A search was launched but one missing woman was not much of a concern when so many had gone missing. She was an interesting statistic, nothing more. It was later theorised that she had been mentally unstable and had either run away or killed herself. She was identified some years later and her medical records from Japan did indeed show a history of mental ill-health. In fact she had been sectioned in the past and had escaped confinement. The hospital was satisfied they had done all they could for her under the circumstances.
The hospital received a substantial anonymous donation a few days after Patient 8392 disappeared. The money came with the condition that a new wing was to be built on the hospital and specialise in the treatment of those who had been "returned." The new building was to be called Linca's Wing. The instructions were carried out. The fact no one knew who the new section of the hospital was named after did not hamper it. Linca's Wing quickly became an international centre of excellence, despite the colony of owls that insisted on nesting in the roof space every spring. The patients seemed to enjoy listening to them calling at night. Some swore they heard a woman's voice comforting them when they felt at their most distressed. Some even said the mysterious Linca was actually the guardian spirit of the hospital.
Whatever the truth, the staff never could fathom who left them gifts every spring. Each member would find in their locker a package covered in white paper. Each package contained a slab of finest Belgian chocolate and a bottle of Russian vodka.
No one made the connection that the date the gifts were given every year was the same date Patient 8392 disappeared.
What can I say people?
Thank you, I guess..?
I never, ever anticipated when I started this how well read these stories would be and how many friends I would make across the globe because of them.
To every person who reviewed I can only say I am truly humbled you read my work, even more so that the majority of you like what you read.
This story has consumed years of my life… eight in fact. Courage of the Spirit was started in 04! 450,000 words for all three stories combined, give or take a few thousand. (Indebted is bigger but that is a different beast altogether.)
So many people have supported me along the way but I need to say very special thanks to…
Dimac, who got me into fanfiction back in the day and who has been an excellent beta reader. She is also my best friend and deserves so much more than just thanks.
Massive thank you to Daishar, who created my first fanart and who has evolved into a fantastic artist. She is also now one of my oldest and dearest online friends. She has even created fanart for this chapter. The link is on my profile.
To anyone who has created fanart for me I can only grovel at your feet. I feel unworthy of your attention and yet love it! Your pictures kept me pressing my laptop's keys.
Also thanks to my husband for putting up with the hours I spend on the laptop and for nagging me to keep up my oddball hobby when I'm threatening to chuck it all in. He is a very understanding man!
Shout out to the French translation team too. You guys ROCK! I never thought I would be read let alone translated! Love you Ori!
I have changed much over the course of writing these stories and looking back at Courage it is almost as if it was written by someone else.
I've taken the plunge and stated a novel. Wish me luck with it.
This is the end of me writing about spirited away. I may write a one shot epilogue at some point but for the foreseeable future my Haku and my Chihiro's story ends here. They have become almost family to me over the past few years and letting go of them is proving difficult.
Now I have demonstrated I am completely mental I shall say goodbye. Keep an eye on my profile. If I ever publish anything I will post a link to it there (highly unlikely but I like to be optimistic.)
Again, I can only say thank you. You changed my life people and made me believe that even a dyslexic can write. I believe in my ability because of you.
Watch this space… I hope I prove to be worthy of your praise and encouragement.