In boundless desire
lit by the fire of love
this night at least
may you tread the path of dreams
and no one blame us.
— Ono no Komachi
- - -
The very first thing he does after Yubaba gives in and breaks his contract is go home. Home, where he used to live in harmony with his brothers and sisters. He flies all day and all night, his entire being fueled by this new-found freedom. His lithe form twists and loops through the sky as he moves, relishing in the open skies. Now that all of his memories have returned, his heart hums with expectation. He remembers his true name and his true life. He remembers what he was trying to achieve in the first place. He hopes he can finish what he started.
The hope peters out a little as he flies closer to his old home. What was once a standard human city is now a sprawling metropolis, its borders stretching much further than he remembers. So many years have passed since he started working for Yubaba. What if there is nothing to return to? What if everything he ever remembered has disappeared in his absence?
Circling the city warily, he notices that there is still a dense forest in the middle of the city, right where Eldest Sister should be. He slips through the treeline quietly, finding her banks have hardly changed with the passage of time. He lopes towards the water and bows deeply, a low rumble of greeting in his throat. Then he waits patiently. After a minute or so, bubbles appear on the surface of the deep river. Eventually, her white head breaks through the calm. Dark, jeweled eyes examine him and he can sense the shock there. A tentacle snakes outwards and caresses his snout.
He bares his teeth happily. The mammoth squid before him then swims to the edge of the river and transforms into a thin woman with long black hair and a pointed chin, prompting Haku to transform as well.
"Littlest Brother, is that really you?" She asks, not really looking for an answer as she embraces him hard. "I've been so worried about you."
Haku hugs her back. "I'm sorry I worried you. I lost my way, Nigishikuni Mikoto Toyotama. Can you forgive me?" He speaks her full name respectfully, pulling back and looking at her with hopeful eyes.
"Little Kohaku, I forgave you long ago." She replies, placing her hand on his head and smiling, but Haku notices that the smile does not reach her obsidian eyes. What's more, she doesn't look well. At all. Gaunt and pale, she seems ready to faint at any moment.
"Mikoto, what happened to you?" Haku asks quietly.
Her face contorts with sadness. "They're gone, all of them."
Haku takes a moment to process the information, sinking down to the ground. "Our brothers and sisters?"
"Yes." She sits down next to him and runs holds his hand in hers. "They suffered the same fate as you, their waters drained out for human establishment. And you know what happens to a spirits that loses its home."
"They begin to age, even faster than humans, until they disappear forever." Haku replies. This was the fate that was supposed to have befallen him, but it seems that he has managed to evade death without even realizing it. Once upon a time, he had left his brothers and sisters, looking for a powerful sorcerer. He had thought that learning magic from Yubaba would save him, that he'd gain enough knowledge to stop his eventual disappearance. He hadn't learned any powerful magic, but at least his servitude under Yubaba had won him a little extra time.
"But you, little one, you haven't aged a day since you left." Mikoto says, looking at him with fresh amazement. "How did you keep your youth?"
"A sorceress' magic." Haku says, reluctant to admit his mistakes at first, but once he starts he can't seem to stop. "It kept me at my physical peak, made me strong. But it robbed me of my benevolence and my past, my very nature. She stole my name and put me under a spell."
"But you are no longer under this spell?"
Haku shakes his head. "No. I... there was this human, a girl. I knew her from here, from this city. I helped her, even though my own past was a mystery, and she was the one who saved me."
Mikoto raises her eyebrows. "A human girl, you say? She wouldn't happen to be called Sen, would she?"
Haku's mouth drops open. "How do you know her name?"
"Because, Kohaku, the entire realm is thrumming with a tale too fantastic to be true; Sen, the tiny human girl that outsmarted Yubaba the Greedy, won her freedom and the heart of a river god too." She smiles with warmth and this time her eyes twinkle with mirth. "Had I known the river god spoken of in this tale was actually my little Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi, I would have loudly spread the story to every spirit within passing range of me."
"Really? Why?" Haku asks, puzzled.
"Because stories have power." Mikoto says, squeezing Haku's hands. "For centuries, humans have gathered at our waters, offered prayers and asked for blessings in our name. Though they do not think so now, we were once alive to them and they told our legends to their children and grandchildren. Stories strengthen our power, our very existence."
Haku looks down at their entwined hands, Mikoto's thin fingers against his roughened hands, thinking about her words. "You're saying that... you're saying something about being forgotten."
She nods. "If humans forget us, we do not fade away, but our lives become difficult. Memories and tales strengthen bonds between spirit and reality. The more your story is shared, the more time you have..."
"... Before I disappear." Haku finishes somberly. He's contemplating this development when Mikoto suddenly stands.
"This was fated to happen." She proclaims strongly, every bit the oldest sibling. "Our family is doomed to be extinguished, with the way human progression continues." She looks around at the forest around her. "This land is protected under human law, but there is only so long that human law can withstand greed. My time is limited, I know it."
Standing slowly, Haku looks up at his sister, regal and fragile all at the same time. Thanks to Yubaba's spell, he has virtually lost his family. The sense of loss pierces his heart and pains him deeply.
A look passes across Mikoto's eyes as she takes him in. "Any other spirit would seek vengeance against the humans, to destroy them just as he and his family was destroyed. But I do not believe vengeance to be in your heart, for you do not view humans as ants to be crushed beneath your foot."
"Vengeance is the last thing I'm thinking about. Perhaps our days in this world are numbered, but there may be a way for me to live on in another."
Mikoto closes her eyes, sighing. "I know what you speak of, Littlest Brother. Take my blessing and complete your quest. I hope with all my heart that your dream will be fulfilled."
- - -
Many years ago, the witch Zeniba had told him: just be sure to protect the girl. But he can't, not now. The human world and spirit world intertwine in very few places. It's not like he can walk (or fly, for that matter) behind her and ensure nothing or no one harms her. He doesn't belong in her world (not yet) and in a strange twist of fate, his own world has no place for him either. His time is spent traveling, searching for arcane knowledge and asking favours from those who might help a spirit in his particular situation.
Oho, so you're Sen's sweetheart, they always say, a twinkle in their eyes as they acquiesce. A sacred bead, a weathered scroll, water from an ancient mountain spring. Will it work? Will he be able to see her again? Will she even remember him? What if she's... gone?
He shakes his head as he flies, pushing the thought out of his head. Chihiro is Chihiro. Haku knows she is more than capable of protecting herself. All he needs to do is wait and see if they share the same destiny.
- - -
"You're so slow, Chihiro!" Kyoko sighs and drags her roommate by the arm. "Why are you acting like you've never seen a Tanabata festival before?"
"It's so different in my hometown." Chihiro murmurs, taking in the sights around her. Every road and alleyway is packed with people laughing and talking. Streamers and decorations tower over her head, creating a curtain-like effect as she walks down the main road. She can smell ten different kinds of food roasting too, from squid to yakitori to crepes. And... is that a gigantic Pikachu balloon hanging near the main square, next to towering bamboo trees?
Back home, where her parents are probably out celebrating right now, Tanabata is a very different kind of holiday. Smaller, quieter.
Chihiro smiles and catches up to Kyoko, relishing in the bustling energy of the crowds. Living in the city has been a great experience. She has adjusted well to university life; it's not like this is the first time she's ever had to live on her own, self-sufficiently.
And this time, the possibility of her parents being turned into pork shoguyaki isn't looming over her head.
"Come on, let's write our tanzaku." Kyoko says, heading towards the bamboo trees. They both grab pieces of paper to write on but Kyoko hesitates, tapping the pen against her cheek.
"Hmm, what will I wish for this year? Last year, I wanted to get into a national university and it really happened, so I ought to pick carefully. Maybe I should wish for the highest mark in my- hey! You're already done?" Kyoko looks at Chihiro with surprise. "What did you ask for?"
Chihiro ties the paper to the bamboo tree, letting the distant memories wash over her. "Same thing I ask for every year."
"What? Oh, wait, if you don't want to tell me, that's okay." Kyoko says apologetically. "Some people like to keep these things private."
"It's nothing. Just a silly dream I have. It won't ever come true, but... it feels nice to wish for it." Chihiro admits.
"That's so cute." Kyoko says, readjusting her yukata as a group of lanky boys walks by them. "It's about a guy, isn't it?"
Chihiro thinks back to white scales and bright, green eyes. "Kind of." She sighs, feeling strangely deflated. "Have you decided on your wish?"
- - -
He said we'd meet again, that we surely would see each other once more. But it's been eight years since I escaped the spirit world and with every passing day, it becomes harder and harder to remember what happened. I can't remember the smell of Kamaji's boiler room. I can't remember the taste of the herbal cake I gave No Face. I can't remember the wrinkles on obasan's face, the kindness in her eyes. I can't remember the exact sound of Lin's voice. It all feels so far away.
Except Haku. I remember him, his blood on my hands and sharp white teeth pressing against my arm. But I also remember my hands holding his as we fell through the sky. Like magic, like knowing with absolute certainty that everything would be right in the world.
I've tried going back, but I have no idea how. I've kept my eyes open for anything strange, anything that might be a spirit, anything that would help me get to him. For eight years I've looked and for eight years I've been unsuccessful. I don't know what to do anymore.
I miss him. I'm afraid that in a few years, after I turn twenty and am recognized as an adult, even my memories of Haku will fade. My parents don't know anything about what happened to them, after all. It makes me sad to think that some day, I won't even recognize his face if he stands right in front of me.
At least then, I won't be able to miss him at all.
- - -
They're walking down the main road when Kyoko suddenly squeals with excitement. "That stall over there is selling SMAP posters! I have to buy one!"
Chihiro follows Kyoko, compelled by the catchy beat playing from a stereo. "Looks like there's a line-up." She points out.
"I don't mind waiting. Oh, you said you wanted to get food, right?"
Chihiro's stomach picks that exact moment to rumble and the two of them laugh. "Yeah, I haven't had dinner yet."
"You go ahead and eat something then." Kyoko fishes through her change purse and gives Chihiro some money. "If you find ice cream, bring some back for me, please?"
"Sure." Chihiro edges away from the growing pack of SMAP fans and waves at Kyoko. "I'll be back in a few minutes!"
She makes her way through the happy crowds, trying to find that one stall that was serving sashimi. The sights and sounds are so jubilant, so festive, that eventually Chihiro is just taking in the atmosphere, feeling a lot like her younger self, that child who stumbled upon a whole new world.
When she turns around to continue walking, she realizes she's utterly lost.
Sighing at her bad luck, she wanders around, looking for a familiar landmark. Nothing really stands out to her. But then a delectable smell drifts through the air and instantly her mouth is watering. Mmm, oden. Chihiro sniffs the air, not caring how ridiculous she looks, and follows her nose, winding through various roads looking for the source of the smell. Finally, she turns left into a small alleyway festooned with blue and green streamers but otherwise empty of people. At the very end is a old man at an oden cart.
He perks up as Chihiro approaches him. "Ah, so you've come for a taste of my oden?"
"Yes, sir." She hands him the appropriate amount of money and starts digging in the moment he hands her the container.
"How does it taste?"
"Delicious." Chihiro replies, biting on a radish. "It's too bad you're so far from the crowds, they're missing out." She brings a fish cake to her mouth but it drops from her chopsticks, landing on the ground with a splat.
That's when she notices the man's feet are not human.
Chihiro slowly looks up at the man. "Um, why do your feet look like fox paws?"
"Are you really Sen? The human who outwitted Yubaba? I thought Sen was a little girl." The man replies, his face becoming furrier and more snout-like as he talks. "Oh wait, humans age, of course. You must be nearing adulthood then."
Chihiro feels like her heart might leap right out of her throat. The container of oden drops to the ground with a clatter and she takes a step closer to the fox spirit, realizing that her most desperate wish may have just been granted. "Please, do you know where Haku is? Where can I find him?"
"He's in our world, the spirit world. As are you."
"I am?" She finds herself unable to believe it, unable to believe that the dream she's held on to for so many years could come true in the blink of an eye.
"Yes, ever since you ate my food."
Chihiro's eyes go wide and she looks down at the spilled container of oden on the ground, the crystal clear memory of Haku giving her food flitting through her mind. And with that, she knows deep inside that this is no dream, this is reality. She's been given a second chance.
"Thank you. Thank you very much." She bows reverently to the spirit.
"You're most welcome, Sen."
She pauses. "No one has called me that name in a very long time."
"Well, that's the only name we know you by, Sen." The fox spirit says jovially. "Now head down to the hill."
"Hill?" At that point Chihiro notices that the back wall of the alley is no longer a wall. Instead, a doorway has formed with a stone staircase that leads down into the earth. As Chihiro slowly walks towards the stairs, she can feel a breeze sweeping past her cheeks, ruffling her yukata around her ankles.
Looking back at the fox spirit, Chihiro racks her brain searching for important questions to ask. "What do I do when I get to the hill?"
"You'll know." The spirit says patiently, tending to his food. "Sen always finds the solution, doesn't she?"
Chihiro opens her mouth to argue that it isn't true, she doesn't always have the solution, she isn't always right, she just follows her heart and things usually turn out for the best when she does. But the breeze blows harder, enticing her down into the dark passageway.
- - -
There are no hills in the city but Chihiro somehow finds herself atop of one when she exits the passage. It's very windy, her surroundings dense with trees and humming insects. She wanders through the vegetation, not caring about getting her yukata dirty or the leaves tangled in her hair. There's a glowing light in the distance and Chihiro feels compelled to seek it out.
Suddenly, the trees thin out and she's standing in a clearing. The source of the light becomes clear; a large fire is burning right in the center.
Standing in front of it with his back to her is someone in a dark blue kimono.
"Haku..." She breathes his name out with shock and he turns at the sound. His eyes are the same eyes she remembers, shining even in the darkness of night.
"Chihiro." He's walking towards her and she's walking towards him and before they know it they're inches apart, struck speechless by the magic of their meeting.
"You've grown." Chihiro says matter-of-factly, the deepened but familiar timbre of his voice still resonating in her ears. She can't stop looking at him, relearning all the little details from her childhood and discovering new ones as well. His hair is still pin-straight, but he's much taller. Chihiro examines the slope of his jaw-line, wanting to reach out and place her fingers there. She begins to move her hand but Haku catches her hand midway and holds it with a smile.
"You have too."
"This wasn't an accident like last time." Chihiro says, replaying old memories in her mind. "You brought me here on purpose."
"Yes. I need your help, Chihiro." Haku's hand entwines with hers and he brings her closer to the fire. She notices that there are a lot of odd items sitting on the ground: woven baskets full of strange plants, a couple of ancient-looking scrolls, and other random items. What is Haku trying to do? Why does he need...
"You need my help?"
"Exactly. But only if you agree." Haku lowers his eyes. "I'm sorry, Chihiro, for making you wait so long. It was hard, a lot harder than I thought, to get all the proper ingredients for the ritual."
"It's okay, Haku." She says, meaning it. She never expected this, never imagined she would be alone with her white dragon again. This is more than she could have ever asked for.
Chihiro crouches down in front of one of the baskets, picking up what looks like a white root of some kind. "What's this ritual that you're talking about?"
Haku kneels on the ground next to her. "It's an arcane magic that allows a spirit to pass through worlds."
Chihiro frowns and turns to Haku. "What does that mean?"
"It means it will turn me into a human."
Her mouth drops open just a little bit. "Human? But... why? You won't have your powers any more. You won't be able to fly or become a dragon. Why would you want to give all of that up, Haku?"
"Because I can't survive in my world for much longer."
"Why not? Are you still working for Yubaba? Has she done something to you?"
Haku can't help smiling at her concern. "I haven't seen or heard from Yubaba in years, Chihiro. I'm free of her. No, it's something else."
Chihiro puts the root aside and sits on the ground. "Tell me, then. Tell me everything."
He tells her about his family, his brothers and sisters who are long gone, the tale of a powerful magic that can turn willing spirits into humans, how that magic was his only hope for so many years. He tells her how escaping into the human world is his only option at this point, if he wants any sort of future.
Besides, he can't see any future that doesn't have Chihiro in it.
"You know I have no home, that there is no Kohaku River anymore." Haku explains. "I would have died years ago if it weren't for the fact that our story has become something of a legend within the spirit world now. That story, your story, has kept me alive, Chihiro. You've been saving me for the last eight years."
Chihiro shivers at his words. She has always wondered if Haku thought of her, wondered if he had moved on with his life, when in actuality he owed his very existence to her.
"But I can't do the ritual on my own, or even with the help of any other spirits or sorcerers. Only another human can accept me into their world, someone with whom I share a powerful bond with so that the spell is not weak. I needed you."
Chihiro nods, understanding. "I'll do what I must, Haku."
"You would do this for me?"
"Of course. I love you, Haku." The words come easily, without pretense. Her love for Haku is simple and uncomplicated. She loved him even before she understood what love meant.
"But before we do this, I have one request. I want to fly in the sky with you as a dragon." Chihiro interjects, knowing it's the right thing to say. "You're going to be losing a very important part of yourself, it's only right that you take one last flight when you can."
His eyes radiate tenderness as he cups her cheek with his hand. "I have always loved you, Chihiro, because you have a pure soul. I would be honoured if you would be the one to grant me a new life."
- - -
After flying over green hills and darkened valleys together, Haku begins his work. The ritual doesn't seem very complicated to Chihiro but she knows Haku has put an incredible amount of effort into it. He ties some string around her left hand and she ties one around his right. They both drink ice cold water from a leathery flask that looks like it's a hundred years old. Some plants are thrown in the fire while others they have to eat, the white roots for example. Then Haku reads the final words from the scroll and the flames in front of them swell up into the sky, flashing purple and blue. A wave of light washes over everything and in front of her, Haku's image wavers for a second before becoming clear again.
"Did we do it? Are you human?" But she knows the answer before he says anything. He's standing differently, taller somehow. He seems stronger and refreshed, as if being a spirit was weighing him down.
He looks so very alive. Free.
"It's like... it's as if someone removed a death sentence that was hanging over my head. I feel lighter." Haku whispers with amazement. "I cannot thank you enough, Chihiro. I wish we could have done this sooner."
"You picked a perfect date, actually." Chihiro says, looking up at the sky with a smile. Hundreds of thousands of stars twinkle above them. The Milky Way glows brightly, swathing the night in its heavenly sheen. Down below the hill is a valley where townspeople must live, because fireworks are starting to explode in the air above them. They shimmer and swoosh about, alive in this magical world.
Haku seems pleased that she noticed. "Yes, the Tanabata festival. Hikoboshi and Orihime will be together tonight. It seemed... appropriate."
Chihiro turns her attention back to Haku, her arms wrapping around him. "Well, they may be together tonight, but we'll be together forever. Right?"
He rests his head against Chihiro's and nods, a contented smile on his face. When they draw closer for a kiss, the fireworks burst to their full glory, a colourful congratulations to those who have been reunited.
- - - end - - -