"…I can't go any farther. Just go back the way you came, you'll be fine; but you have to promise not to look back, not until you've passed through the tunnel."
"But what about you, what'll you do?"
"Don't worry, I'll go back and have a talk with Yubaba. I'll tell her I'm going to quit being her apprentice... I'm fine, I got my name back!"
"Will we meet again sometime?"
"Sure we will."
"Promise. Now go, and don't look back!"
Six years later, and Chihiro had never given up hope that Kohaku and she would meet up again. On the day she left the bathhouse to return with her parents from the Spirit World, she kept her promise to Haku to not look back until she had passed through the tunnel. It was unbearably hard at times, that promise she'd made, especially when she saw her parents again and they seemed to have no memory of their ordeal of being turned into pigs. In her confusion, she had nearly turned around to look at the bathhouse to see if Haku was really standing there on the steps or if it had all just been a dream. But Chihiro had made friends from her adventure, and those friends and the lessons she had learned proved in her mind that it wasn't simply a figment of her imagination. Those lessons remained with her, and while she missed those friends terribly, her purple hair band was a constant reminder of their love and best wishes for her.
The day that band broke, however, was the first day she began to doubt.
It had snagged on a twig from a tree branch on her way home from school and had snapped when her friend Sora tried to remove the branch from her hair. Sora had been quite shocked at the sudden waterworks that poured from Chihiro's eyes upon her realization that her hair hand had broken. What a silly reaction to a broken hair band, Sora thought to herself, watching in surprise as Chihiro ran after and picked up the pieces of purple string that were blowing around in the evening wind.
Chihiro's mother had been no more of a comfort to her, feeding her empty words of comfort as she sat at the kitchen table, sobbing over the broken, braided fabric. It was such an old hair band anyways, her mother rationalized to her upset daughter, you can simply buy another purple band when we go shopping this weekend if you like the color so much. Chihiro had buried her face in her arms, bawling that much harder over her mother's obvious lack of concern for something she had come to treasure so much.
That night she had fallen asleep clutching the remnants of the present Zaniba and her friends had made and given her. Chihiro's dreams were plagued with nightmares about her friends forgetting her, and she woke up every hour or so in tears, but eventually she managed to fall asleep. In her dreams, her memories of flying in the air on the River Spirit's back helped soothe her pain and fears away. Somewhere in the back of her mind she made another promise to Haku that night- she would do whatever she could to see him again as soon as possible.
When she woke, it was as if she had slept more soundly than ever before. Chihiro knew exactly what she needed to do in order to make her dreams come true, and she was going to do her best to make sure they did! She made arrangements that very day to see a tutor in her worst subjects, and for the next few months she did more studying than she had ever wanted to do before. Her parents were proud at the sudden responsibility and initiative she was showing, though they had at first been surprised with the earnestness and energy Chihiro suddenly devoted to her studies. Before the year was out she improved her average grades to become top in her class. She passed out of high school the next year with honors and received a full scholarship to the University of Tokyo, much to the delight of her parents.
What her parents weren't overly thrilled about was her choice of studies. Instead of picking a high-paying career like her father had hoped she'd do, she instead dedicated her life to the preservation of natural habitats, taking classes in biology and botany about ecosystems, the animals, and the plants that could be found in them. She was hired as a teacher's assistant her second semester, which provided her with more than enough of an income to move out of the dorms, so she found a one-bedroom apartment within half an hour of the university. She graduated within the top 2% of her class, landing her first career-based job with a conservation group that specialized in revitalizing neighborhoods where humans had disrupted the natural ecosystems when they moved into the area.
Her first boss was an attractive young man about her age named Tachi. Tachi and his best friend Yamato had started the company in an attempt to save their favorite soccer camp from being torn down to make way for a commercial district for the nearby town. Having succeeded, they then were flooded with requests to do the same to various other properties around Japan. One of Chihiro's main duties was to sort through those requests and bring to their attention any she felt were not unreasonable.
Both of the owners were good looking, and when Chihiro introduced Sora to them when she had come to visit, she quickly declared her best friend to be one of the luckiest women around. Bushy brown hair and tall, Tachi caught the eye of every female worker hired… except for Chihiro. Ironically, it appeared as if the only woman Tachi was interested in was Chihiro. After dropping a few less-than-subtle hints that she was not interested in him, though, and Tachi not picking up on them, she hesitantly spoke to the calm and rational blond about it.
"Yeah, that's Tachi for you," Yamato had told her, his blue eyes twinkling as if remembering some well-kept secret from long ago. "Stubborn and not the brightest crayon in the box, though he means well. If he tries again, perhaps you can divert his attention to one of your friends, or perhaps have one of your male friends stop by with flowers for you? That might be enough to get your point through his thick skull, no?"
Thankfully for Chihiro she never needed to take his advice, as Sora had already sparked the intrigue herself with a sly invite for him to join her at lunch on her next visit. Sure enough, Tachi's attention was soon firmly Sora's to do with however she saw fit. The two of them went to the movies, to the beach, and even on several camping trips at the soccer camp that Tachi and Yamato had saved. In fact, Tachi was so smitten with her that within half a year, the two were engaged and looking into sharing an apartment together.
Chihiro was so happy for her friend. She had always felt terrible about the amount of interest guys had shown her but not Sora. It had been one of her mother's sore points, about Chihiro's unwillingness to even date those young men who showed interest in her while she was in high school and college, and on more than one occasion, her father had called into question her sexual orientation.
Chihiro simply had one reason for her refusal to date anyone: the ideal that she desired to be with more than anything simply had not chosen to arrive in her life yet, and she was going to wait for him to keep his promise, come hell or high water. When she tried to explain this (in very loose terms, mind you) to her parents, they claimed to understand and left it alone for a few months before the pestering began again. And the longer she waited, the more her conversations about relationships with her parents became her own personal hell.
Chihiro's resolve and hope in Haku wavered again as she reached the age of 29.
It had been 7 years since she had begun working at the company she had come to love and respect. One of the other workers had gone out on maternity leave, and Chihiro had volunteered to sort through the letters for both of them until only her own inbox was full every morning. To keep them separate, she read hers in her own office and took to reading the others in the other employee's office. After day four of keeping up this routine, the pen she was using to take notes happened to die while in the other woman's office and so Chihiro opened the desk drawers to find another pen to use.
And what should she find but a letter to the company that was tucked underneath a box of new pens. Disappointed that a letter was being kept hidden there with a sticky note attached reading 'Take to Yamato immediately' instead of it making its way to him, she opened up the letter and read it.
Three hours later, after no one in the building had seen her for most of the day, Yamato came looking for her. Finding the door to the other woman's office slightly ajar, he found Chihiro curled up in a ball against the side of the mahogany desk, silent tears running down her cheeks. Wordlessly, she handed him the letter as he knelt next to her before she buried her head in her arms once more. All it took was a quick glance at the handwriting to realize why one of his most passionate employees had been reduced to tears.
To whom it may concern,
I am writing your company with a request for your assistance with recreating a river that was filled in to create space for apartments where I am currently living. This parcel of land is very special to me, as I met a very close friend at that river when I was a child. It is my greatest hope that he will return to the area if the river returns to that location, and that is why I am asking for your help. I will hold fundraiser for years if necessary for you to help me accomplish this. I miss my friend with all of my heart and the pain of his absence grows more and more each day. Please help me try and find him again.
Gingerly placing the letter back into the envelope and setting it on the edge of the desk, Yamato reached out and gently placed his hand on her shoulder.
"You should have said something," he scolded her gently, handing her a tissue from the desk. "Had I known that this was the reason you were so passionate about your work, I would have done this for you in a heartbeat long ago." And within a few weeks, they were breaking ground on the new riverbed that would flow alongside the apartments.
Chihiro could hardly contain her excitement. She begged her two bosses to allow her to oversee the on-site project, and in light of the letter, they agreed. It took a better part of two months to finish digging the pathway for the river, even though it had been agreed to make it slightly smaller than its original size, but for Chihiro it seemed like an entire lifetime. All that remained was to break the remaining land between the new riverbed and the headwater that would supply it, which would be done ceremoniously the following morning.
How she managed to sleep at all the night before was beyond her, but she kept dreaming of her blue and white dragon and how he was trying desperately to reach her. She was up before the sun rose beyond the edge of the earth combing her hair, brushing her teeth, ironing the blue and white kimono she'd picked gotten from her parents for Seijin No Hi, her coming-of-age ceremony when she'd turned 20, and fretting about all the possible things that could go wrong but hoping at the same time that they didn't.
The ceremony for the breaking of the headwater began at noon. Yamato had decided to make it a truly ironic event, with the naming ceremony being performed by Chihiro herself. As the two of them were almost positive there really wasn't an officially recognized ceremony for naming new rivers, they made it up as they went, but the people who lived in the apartments appreciated it all the same. Chihiro, absolutely beaming with hope and joy in her blue and white kimono, stood on a small bridge that spanned the new riverbed. She raised her shovel above her head and drove it into the dirt. The water slowly began to leak from where her shovel struck and flowed even faster when she pulled it back out. She watched in awe as the stream of water grew and grew until it passed under the bridge and the moment the rest of the water burst through the remaining soil with a sound rivaled only by the pounding of her heart in her ears, she cried out in a loud voice and her eyes now rose to the heavens:
"River, I name you! You are the Kohaku River!"
There was cheering and applause from the crowd, but Chihiro simply held her breath, watching and waiting as the water rushed down the new path of the river. She stood frozen in place while the crowd dissipated and only relaxed after she could no longer hold herself ridged in anticipation. Sensing her loss of hope, Yamato came to stand next to her on the wooden bridge, watching her gaze out over the waters.
"You did it," he whispered just loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the water moving below them. "You returned the river."
"Yes," Chihiro replied softly. "But he's not here."
Yamato sighed and rested his left hand on her right shoulder in comfort. "Your friend can't possibly drop everything and rush here immediately simply because suddenly water flows here now, Chihiro. He may not come today, and he may not come tomorrow. But if he is really the friend that you remember him to be, he'll come as soon as he is able," he wisely told her before making his way towards the apartments for the celebration inside. She glanced out over the water and renewed her promise silently before following after him.
And so Chihiro decided she would wait patiently for the spirit of the Kohaku River to come back to her. Yamato informed her at the celebration that since the main project was completed that she could (and should) take a well-deserved break. Chihiro spent the next two months making preparations and waiting for Haku's arrival.
But two months came and went, and still the River Spirit did not appear.
Chihiro went back to work, but with notably less enthusiasm. Autumn came and went. Winter set in, and the chill and bitter cold accompanied larger than usual amounts of snow. Chihiro rarely went outside besides going to or from work or to stand on the bridge and watch the water as it flowed by, and her friends and co-workers began to worry about her health. They conversed more openly amongst themselves about the affect the river was having on her, wondering if perhaps this latest project would result in the loss of one of their own from either depression or worse…
Spring came earlier than usual which seemed to lighten Chihiro's mood. The flow of the water increased, and she secretly hoped that it meant Haku might be more likely to come. But spring soon came to an end and summer began, and then almost immediately it was fall and then winter again, and still she had no sign of her water dragon making an appearance. The rest of the world had moved on, despite her unwillingness to let it. Sora and Taichi's wedding had been that past summer, she'd received a promotion to a new position to help Yamato out while Taichi was away, and the Christmas party at the office that she'd typically been the one to plan was done so by a few other staff members.
Knowing nothing else could be done except moving forward, Chihiro resigned herself to simply waiting yet again for the return of Haku in his own time, despite the realization that the hope within her was beginning to die. And while Sora had meant well with the gesture, calling Chihiro's parents to inform them of the depressive slump that their daughter had appeared to hit did anything but help the situation.
The next break in the winter weather, both of her parents came to confront their daughter. The story Sora had told them of her pining for her childhood friend had not sat well in their minds, for Chihiro had only been to that river once, during which she fallen in and nearly drowned. At no point had they seen her with a little boy her age, and even if by chance she had seen a little boy there at the time, it was most certainly not long enough to become close friends with him. And her father had no problem telling his daughter what he thought of that. After hearing her very vague and hesitant version of how she'd met this friend, her parents were convinced that either their daughter had gone crazy or she was unhealthily holding onto some absurd fairy tale from her childhood.
"You're delusional, Chihiro! This boy you claim you met here doesn't exist! And if he doesn't exist, there's no point in waiting for him! You're 31 and you've never even been on a single date! Are you trying to hurt your mother with this sort of talk?" he asked, gesturing to her now sobbing mother, who was rocking back and forth in her chair.
"I was never late in putting away the dolls when Hina Matsuri(i) was over!" her mother wailed. "What did I do wrong?" Any words of comfort Chihiro offered her mother fell on deaf ears, and as much as she'd missed her parents, she was quite glad when they left.
By the time February 1st came, Chihiro had done plenty of thinking on her mother's words, as well as research about the festival. Thinking that somehow she was to blame about it, she decided to follow the ancient Chinese form of the custom this year. Her resolve hardened and she seemed to get a little bit of her determination back in her life. Her bosses and co-workers were thrilled to see the way she attacked new projects with increased vigor, and though they did not know the true cause of this change, they were glad for it.
By day she worked at her job; by night she worked at creating her doll, focusing her thoughts of bad luck and being cursed into every stitch she sewed. She'd never been one for sewing, so she'd come into work with band-aids on her fingers a few times, but everyone was just too polite to ask.
March 3rd arrived quickly. Chihiro managed to complete the doll that morning before going to work, taking it with her inside a drawstring purse. Suffice to say her mind was not on her work, but she could be forgiven for it, as she'd already done so much for the company.
Yamato cornered her on the way out that evening, and from the look on his face, she could tell it was important. He seemed fidgety as the two of them stood in the main entrance to the building, which was highly unusual for the typically calm man who rarely seemed to show his nerves.
If she'd been expecting something, like a disastrous message about something that had happened to a friend or even perhaps one of her parents, it was in no way the sudden, quite forward kiss she found herself in. Pulling away in shock, her face as red as a tomato, she gasped as Yamato knelt on one knee at her feet and brought out a small jewelry box.
"Chihiro…" he said slowly, his eyes meeting hers. "I know that your heart longs for your friend, and that you plan to go back to the Kohaku River tonight to wait for him, but my own can no longer be silenced. I don't need an answer right now, but if you could just think about it… I want to make you happy. I will be content with whatever you decide, but I had to at least offer you another choice… how could I not, if I truly loved and cared about you?"
She nodded once before fleeing, her face flushed with embarrassment and emotion. How had she never noticed his feelings for her in nearly 10 years of working for him? But as she slowly walked home and towards the Kohaku River, she began to see just how much he'd shown his affection for her over the years, from being the one he'd always consulted when confronted with a task he could not tackle on his own to cashing in numerous favors, IOUs, and debts to get permission to recreate the Kohaku River, her deepest, most heartfelt wish.
She reached the bridge over the river a conflicted, torn individual. She stood there for what seemed like hours staring out at the river she had helped rebuild, her thoughts far away- back to her friends in the Spirit World. What had kept Haku from returning? Had she done something to anger the Spirits that prevented his return? Had he forgotten his promise?
Pushing those fears aside, she knelt at the side of the bridge and drew out the homemade doll. Whispering a short prayer, she placed the miniature replica of herself into the river. Letting go, she tried to will whatever bad luck had kept Haku away into the doll as it floated underneath her. She rose and turned to watch it until it passed beyond her sight. Deciding to stay there until nightfall, she drew her coat closer to herself and shivered, feeling the temperature drop and the wind pick up slightly.
As the evening wore on and the sun began to set, her thoughts returned again to the many possible reasons why Haku had not kept his promise. Those reasons, however, had taken a turn for the worst. Had something happened to him? Had Yubaba stolen his name again somehow and made him forget all about her? She stiffened as an even more terrifying thought entered her mind. Had he fallen out of love with her and in love with another? Could that be why he'd failed to return to this place, even though it had been flowing for well over two years?
Shaking her head violently as the tears began to well up in her eyes, she tried to get the image of Haku with another, perhaps even a female water spirit, out of her mind. The images still came, unbidden and unwanted, and she saw Haku leaning down and stealing a kiss from the giggling woman in his arms. It was at that moment—that terrible, horrible moment—that she realized Yamato had stolen her first kiss; the one she had promised herself on her 16th birthday would only go to the one she wanted to spend the rest of her life with- the Spirit of the Kohaku River.
"Oh Kohaku…" she whimpered before dissolving into tears.
That night, as she lay in her bed looking out at the stars, she made up her mind on what she would do. She knew that no matter what she decided, someone was going to end up hurt and people she cared about would be angry with her. But remaining in limbo between a man who had offered her his heart once upon a time and a man who offered her his heart now was simply not fair to anyone involved. Was she taking a huge risk, betting on the likelihood of Haku's promise ever being fulfilled? Yes. But most people would have never even waited on Haku for 10 years, let alone the 21 years she had already dedicated to someone who had made a promise to them when they were 10. Her mind was clearer than it had been that day and perhaps even longer than that, and she wanted to scream her decision from the rooftop. But for now, she would sleep and give her answer to Yamato in the morning. And sleep she did, a small smile creeping on her face as she dreamed of what her life would have in store for her tomorrow.
The sun was setting on the bathhouse in the Spirit World when Lin stumbled over Haku's sleeping body in the boiler room as she brought Kamaji is breakfast. For the fifth time that month, he had taken Chihiro's old work clothes from the room she and Lin had shared with a few other workers and fallen asleep with them clutched to his heart.
"You're hopeless, dragon boy…" she muttered before giving him a swift kick to rouse him.
Haku groaned, turned on his side, buried his face in Chihiro's clothing, and promptly went back to sleep.
"Fine, sleep all day for all I care!" Lin growled, though she did kneel down and shake him awake after waking Kamaji, giving him his usual breakfast and taking his dinner bowl back from the night before.
"You know, Lin," Kamaji noted carefully between bites as he watched her futile attempts to wake Haku. "I do believe you've developed a soft spot for him."
"Yeah right," she snorted. "He's a grown man now; he's not some kid who can choose when to work and when to daydream, though you wouldn't guess that from the way he acts sometimes. But if I don't get to slack off, he doesn't either!" Frustrated even more with his stubbornness, she pulled the blanket off of Haku and looking for the kettle of water after failing to wake the dragon. His blatant refusal to even crack open an eye to her attempts despite his twitching was making her angry and the boiler man's observations didn't help her temper. Especially since she was inclined to believe he was right. "Kamaji, hand me that kettle, will ya?"
"I wouldn't do that if I were you…" he warned, but handed it to her anyway. Lin grinned mischievously and dumped its contents all over Haku.
"CHIHIRO!" he cried, sitting up suddenly. Realizing where he was, he became quiet and still, holding his hands to his face. His frame shook once or twice; Lin and Kamaji shared a worried look.
"Haku…?" Lin asked hesitantly, placing a hand on his shoulder in concern. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he sighed heavily, bringing his hands down to his side and pushing himself up from the floor into a crouching position. "Just a dream…"
"About Sen," Lin accused. "Haku, that's the third-"
"Fourth," Kamaji interrupted.
"Ok, fourth dream about her this week! All you've done since she's left is pine for her! When are you going to go after her?"
"But she hasn't been gone long enough!" Haku cried out in frustration. "She needs time to understand where she wants to be! If she'd already had the time she needed, and this was where she wanted to be, she'd have found a way here by now, Lin!"
"You've forgotten that time flows differently between the Spirit World and the world the humans dwell in, Haku." Kamaji reminded him gently. "It's been nearly 20 years here, but how long has it been there?"
"So you're content to just wait for her to come back to you, no matter how long?" Lin spat. "If you love her and want to be with her, go to her! Honestly, I don't see what your problem is!"
"I can't," Haku whispered. "Chihiro said they filled in my river to make room for apartments and that was why I couldn't find my way back."
"And when was the last time you even tried, hmm?" Lin accused, his slumped shoulders told her he had not tried for a while now. "Kohaku, you really are a coward if you honestly think Chihiro wouldn't try to find a way to either find her way here or find a way for you to be there."
"I am no coward!" he grumbled, though it was as much a response to his own heart as it was to Lin's accusation.
"Then try it right now! Prove me wrong! Or are you too afraid to find out you've been wasting time here?"
"Fine," Haku said, closing his eyes, focusing on where his river had once been, willing himself to stand on its banks once more. He opened his eyes as he spoke, knowing full well that what he'd open his eyes to drawers of herbs and the disappointed faces of his friends. "See Lin, what did I-"
The sight that greeted his eyes, however, was of a wooden bridge over a river along the edge of a small lake. Turning around, he saw that the river flowed down a slight incline, past a row of apartment buildings. It didn't take a genius to know where he was, or why he was there.
"Chihiro…" he whispered, a rare smile coming to grace his usually frowning face. The smile widened to a full-out grin, and he found himself laughing at this turn of events. He was in such euphoric bliss that he almost didn't notice the old man slowly hobbling down the slope to the bridge, carrying a bouquet of red carnations until he passed.
"Let me help you cross," he offered in his blissful state, and the old man accepted gratefully, taking Haku's arm and allowing himself be led across the bridge slowly.
"Thank you young man; it's not every day that someone helps an elderly man like me do something as simple as cross a bridge. Young people these days have so little respect for age, with their miracle creams and their cosmetic surgeries and the like." Unsure of what he was referring to, Haku simply nodded in agreement, his mouth slipping into its usual slight frown. This seemed to encourage his companion, so he kept talking. "It seems like just yesterday I was like them, running around without a care in the world, righting wrongs, rescuing princesses, slaying dragons," Haku twitched uncomfortably at that, but the old man took no notice. "And then one day, you wake up and find that things have changed and are no longer how you remembered them the day before."
As they reached the other side, the sun disappeared behind dark clouds, and the old man slowly grew quiet, as if remembering a memory from long ago.
"Have you ever been in love, young man?" The seemingly random question caught Haku off guard, for he jumped slightly, making the old man laugh. "I'll take that as a yes. Well let me give you some advice for your help: when you find that one person that you know deep in your heart is someone you will love forever, cherish every moment with them, both the good and the bad. You never know when that moment could be your last together…" He sighed heavily, lifting the bouquet. "The woman I love is buried in a grove next to the river. I have come to pay my respects to her one last time before I die. My doctor diagnosed me with cancer and says I only have a few weeks to live, so I wanted to visit her again before my strength runs out."
Moved by the love in the old man's heart, Haku suddenly felt pulled towards the same destination. One day he hoped to be in this man's shoes, telling someone the same advice about his feelings about Chihiro. Chihiro would understand if he didn't come to her right away because he was helping this kind soul reunite with his loved one before passing on, so he felt no guilt in offering to accompany him further. "Then why don't I go with you and pay my respects to her as well." The old man smiled, thanking him, and the two of them slowly made their way along the side of the stream.
"What can you tell me about this river?" Haku asked, hoping that perhaps he could learn something that would lead him to Chihiro. The old man smiled, remembering pleasant yet distant memories before he spoke.
"Long ago, a river called the Kohaku River ran through here, but it was filled in to make way for the apartment complex you see on the other side when I was young." Something about that statement seemed peculiar to him, but as he couldn't place it and his companion kept talking, he let it go. "I never really thought twice about it after that, it was all so common for forests to be torn down and rivers to be filled in that I forgot about this place. And then I met her." He smiled fondly, obviously recalling the first time they'd met, and Haku smiled too, knowing exactly what he meant. He'd felt the same way the first time Chihiro had fallen into his river. He hadn't known it right away, but that very event would shape who he'd become and what he would like to be.
"What was she like, your wife?" Haku asked, spying a lone gravestone up ahead and knowing that their walk back would likely be in silence.
The old man chuckled softly. "Who said anything about her being my wife?" Haku suddenly felt quite uncomfortable at the blundering mistake he'd made. "It's ok, son, I'm sure the way I speak of her must have led you to believe we were married. I'd wanted to make her my wife, but unfortunately got there too late to lay any claim to her heart."
"She married someone else?" Haku asked, confused. Something about this conversation had begun to make him feel deeply uncomfortable, and he found himself wishing he hadn't agreed to come here with the man. He'd been feeling more and more worried about the uneasy feeling that was growing with every step they took, but Haku had given his word to the man, and he wasn't about to back out on his promise to pay his respects simply because of an uneasy feeling.
"No, no," he replied softly as they approached the grave. "But if she'd had the chance I know she would have done so in a heartbeat."
"Did he die, this other man?"
"We never did find out. She'd stand on that bridge we passed over for hours and hours, just standing and waiting for him, but he never came. Even on the last day of her life she stood on that bridge, waiting and hoping her long-lost friend would return to her." Haku's heart sped up and he could feel his throat constricting as he was suddenly able to name that growing uneasiness. It couldn't be… it just simply couldn't be. No. There was some other explanation for it all sounding just too familiar, there just had to be. The old man was still talking. "…insisted on being buried here next to the river as soon as she knew she was dying. I had to pull so many strings for it to happen, but I think she's happy here, next to the river she helped recreate…"
They reached the headstone just as Haku's knees gave out. He didn't even need to see the name etched on the other side to know who was buried there; the painted white and blue-green dragon that was wrapped around the clock tower that eerily reminded him of the one from the Spirit World was all the confirmation that his worst fears were true.
"They filled in that river. It's all apartments now."
"Chihiro…" he whispered for the second time within the hour, but this time there was no joy, no happiness in how he said her name. Her words filled his mind, and his vision clouded over as he suddenly placed the initial statement of the old man. For him to have been young when that happened would have made him and Chihiro roughly the same age. The skies now opened up and a gentle rain began to fall. Soon it became unclear whether the water rolling down his cheeks were tears from the sky or himself. Haku had never been one for tears, but he found himself unable to stop once he started, not until both the sky and he had run out of tears to shed at the unfortunate truth.
A hand was gently placed on his shoulder. "You are Kohaku." It was not a question, but a statement. Haku nodded, trying to wipe the few remaining tears from his eyes as he turned to look at the old man as he spoke. "It is said that the tears of a river spirit will bring rain, but I always thought that to be nothing but myths and folklore. Chihiro's insistence that you would not come to her until a river with the name Kohaku River flowed at this location, her obsession with water dragons, her insisting on being buried here…it all makes sense now. But one question still remains a mystery to me… why did you not come until now?"
"I…" Haku swallowed, trying to clear his throat of the scratchy feeling he'd gotten. "I was afraid, I guess. Afraid that she did not really feel the same way I have felt for her since we parted ways 20 years ago."
"60 years ago. It's been 60 years since you two parted when she returned here."
Haku frowned. "But that would make her…"
"70 years old, yes, if she'd lived a few more days for her birthday," the old man said softly. "I guess that time flows differently in the Spirit World."
"How…?" Haku managed to choke out.
"She told me about her adventures that last day she was alive. She called me up and asked me to join her on the bridge that evening, saying that she wanted to tell me a story. I must admit that hearing her speak of you with such love and respect did curdle my blood, but it was out of jealousy, for you had something that I would never have. But I was glad at the same time, to have known someone as special as her. I think we both knew that it was her last day, and when the phone call came the next day from a neighbor that she had passed in her sleep, I knew that she was trying to find a way back to you…"
Haku looked into the old man's eyes and saw a calm serenity that had not been there before. "Thank you for your kind words; it makes the pain just a little more bearable."
The old man held out his hand to help Haku up, and he took it. "The name is Yamato, Kohaku-sama. I am so glad that you came, even if it was too late." The two men smiled, coming to peace at last over what had happened. "Before we go, Kohaku-sama, there is something I think will interest you that Chihiro insisted be written on this stone; let me show you."
This time, Haku let himself be led around the stone and what he read made his heart ache just a little less.
I will always love you, Kohaku.
Author's Note: I know, it's so sad, but I left more than enough room in things for a sequel if it's demanded. I started writing this last night and finished this whole thing in less than a day, which, given my track record lately for not finishing any writing I start, is a hopeful sign! I do not own Spirited Away, it belongs to the amazing people who make up Studio Ghibli… and unfortunately Disney, but we'll overlook that small detail.
Reviews both positive and negative are loved and will earn you both respect and cookies, especially since my birthday is tomorrow. ^_~
(i) Hina Matsuri or doll festival takes place on March 3rd every year. Its origins go back to China which had the custom of making a doll for the transferral of bad luck and impurities from the person, and then putting the doll in a river and forever ridding oneself of them. March 3rd celebrates Girls' Day in Japan and from mid to late February families with daughters put out the dolls with the hopes their daughters will grow up healthy and happy. One superstition associated with this is that if they are late in putting away the dolls when the festival is over, their daughters will become old maids.