Every Tuesday, it was Chihiro’s turn to help clean the girls’ changing room after practice. Miyabe-sensei always complimented her on her thoroughness as Chihiro gathered stray damp towels and chased any lingering suds down into the drains. Chihiro didn’t mind the work. It reminded her of days long past, of the rhythm of days spent scrubbing tiles and baths far larger than the changing rooms her high school swimming team used.
Her days had a different rhythm now.
“Be careful on your way home,” Miyabe-sensei said when they were done. “There are warnings for bad weather. I think there’s a storm coming.”
“Thank you,” Chihiro replied. She tucked her damp hair under her hood and tightened the strings so that it clung securely to the sides of her face. “I will. Take care, Miyabe-sensei!”
Her teacher smiled. “You too, Chihiro. Thank you for your hard work today!”
It wasn’t raining yet when Chihiro began to walk up the road that wound away from her school, but air was heavy with the promise of it and the sky had gone the dark colour of wet slate. She kept an eye on it and quickened her pace as the road began to turn gradually into an uphill climb, the subtle kind that one’s leg muscles noticed long before one’s eyes. The town was full of such roads, being one of those towns that had grown around and over the hills scattered through it, clinging to their sides like strange suburban mushrooms rather than flattening them.
Her legs ached a little from swim practice, but it was a pleasant ache and it didn’t bother her as she strode up the hill. The light was darkening steadily, even though sunset wasn’t due for another hour or so, and the wind began to pick up as Chihiro reached the point where the road curved around and up more steeply. Across the valley, the windows of the houses lit up with a soft glow, shining warm and yellow in the gloaming.
It would be better, Chihiro knew, if she took the road all the way home today. Usually she took a shortcut through the woods between the school and her house, but if there were a storm coming, the road would probably be safer. If she jogged, she could probably still get home before it started to rain. But she’d reached the point now where she could see the beginning of her woods, half-way down the slope, their branches stirring lazy brushstrokes in the warm rain-scented wind, and the sight of them tugged at Chihiro’s heart like a kite string.
She swung herself one leg at a time over the barrier at the side of the road and scrambled down the slope.
It wasn’t a large patch of woodland, but there was something scraggy and wild about it that made it feel larger. The trees grew so close together in places that their branches interwove, twined together like the arms of lovers, their trunks silvery and covered with patches of dark moss at the bases, their roots gnarled. It wasn’t a large patch of woodland, but there was something about it that felt ancient and undisturbed.
It felt as though Chihiro’s footsteps fell more lightly once she was under its vault of slender branches. The air had a woody, green smell that she breathed in with familiar pleasure. She couldn’t help slowing, lingering, despite the clouds scudding thick and dark across the sky, the lightning-charged weight of the wind and air against her body.
She wondered, sometimes (more often than she wanted to admit), whether these woods had a spirit of their own. The sighing of the branches rubbing against each sounded almost - almost - like the whispering of voices. But try as she might, till her heart beat frantic in her chest, Chihiro couldn’t quite make them out.
She tucked her hands into her pockets, tipping her head back so that the wind stroked over her face, her eyes on the seething darkness of the sky, until a flicker of something white darting down one of the branches caught her eye.
When she looked for it though, it vanished.
Chihiro hesitated a moment, then kept walking. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see more white flashes peeking out around twigs and over twisted roots, but if she so much as began to turn her face towards them they vanished again. There was a soft chattering sound, like pieces of wood rattled together in the palm of a hand.
But even though they were shy, they escorted her through the trees, clambering over roots and along branches, even as the first fat drops of rain began to fall.
Chihiro yelped under her breath and swung her backpack around to her front, hunching over it as she broke into a half-run. Now the chattering was as fast as the snapping of castanets, as the kodama flew through the trees around her.
She had glimpsed them from time to time before, but never in such great quantities as they accompanied her now. She wondered at it, even as she ran, and the sky snarled with thunder and the sudden blue-white flash of lightning and the rain began to fall in great sheets.
She was soaked immediately, despite the waterproof claims of her thin jacket, stray tendrils of hair plastering themselves across her face. Water ran down her forehead, her cheeks, dripped off of the tip of her nose and her chin like tears. She tasted the rain cool and sweet on her lips, and remembered, fleetingly, what clouds had tasted like as she flew through them. She couldn’t help glancing up into the blinding fall of rain in the hope of catching sight of a far greater flash of white, silver, and green against the stormy sky, but the ground was slippery and rife with stray twigs and pebbles that seemed suddenly treacherous underfoot and Chihiro nearly fell twice, after which she lowered her head and concentrated on not tripping over her own feet or anything else.
When she reached the edge of the woods, she gathered herself and turned to drop a swift deep bow to the kodama to thank them for their rattling escort. This time they didn’t vanish, but perched atop roots and in the crooks of their trees, their little heads cocked at curious angles and their black eyes peering down at her. They were surprisingly silent and Chihiro hesitated for a moment, wiping rain out of her eyes with the back of her hand.
Then there was another bright flash of lightning and she bowed to them again and raised a hand in farewell, turning and running up the grassy slope towards her house, the windows shining with soft light.
“Chihiro,” her mother cried as she spilled through the door in a flurry of rain and apologies, “you’re soaked!”
It felt, for a moment, as though the wind were tugging possessively at her jacket, but Chihiro turned to find only the storm outside and her mother came over to close the door.
“Chihiro,” she sighed. “You’d better go and have a hot bath, before you catch a chill.”
After Chihiro’s bath, getting into the soft cotton of her pyjamas felt like a wonderful luxury. Chihiro’s mother had drawn her curtains closed against the storm swelling outside, but Chihiro opened them again. Something about the storm pressed in on her, plucked some strange quivering note from her heart.
She sat on her bed, her back against the wall, and carefully slid her hand down the slender gap between futon and wall. Her fingers brushed the spiral-binding of her most secret possession, lingered a moment before she could get enough purchase to bring it up from its hiding place.
Chihiro drew her knees up to her chest and rested the book against the angle of her thighs.
She wasn’t an artist and did not consider herself to be one. At school, she didn’t enjoy it.
But this book contained all of the drawings that she didn’t want to share at school.
She opened it to the first page, where a dragon curled its serpentine calligraphy through childish clouds. It was a quick, clumsy picture, smudgy blurred pencil worn away by time and the press of Chihiro’s fingers. She touched it again now, traced her fingertips over those winding, elegant lines, and there was something caught in her throat that felt between wistfulness and wanting.
Haku, she thought, with the ferocity of a prayer.
The other pages were full of different sketches and doodles. Here the sun rising over the edge of the balcony outside the room she shared with Lin and the other girls, here the wide curve of Aogaeru’s mouth, here a train that ran on rails just below the surface of the lake. The style of the drawings changed a little and improved as the pages turned, as Chihiro had gotten older, and although they lacked in finesse there was a determination there to capture at least a single element of each picture in a way that was just right. Lin’s smile, the susuwatari with their food, Kamaji…
And here and there, not on every page but near enough, the dragon’s coiling, sinuous, lovely lines, that small reserved smile, the gleam of dark eyes like stones underwater.
Haku Haku Haku
Chihiro found the next blank page and grabbed the biro from her bedside table. She sketched the trees quickly, stick-figure things, and then spent time on the multitude of tiny white faces peering down from their boughs with their strange and unreadable eyes.
They looked expectant, she thought, as though they were waiting for something. There had been so many more of them than she had ever seen before.
The first time she’d seen one had been some months after they moved, some months after they returned, when sometimes her stomach would feel as though it were filled with impossible wings of wanting and waiting.
I’ll find you.
It had been a promise.
But she had just reached the cusp of starting to feel as though it had all been a dream, when she’d seen the first kodama on her way to school. It had ducked its head down the moment she’d looked at it, but she’d still seen it. And, for a moment, something fierce and exultant had bloomed Yes in her heart.
Chihiro had returned home and started to draw, determined not to forget.
But she was, ultimately, a practical girl. Practicality lay at the core of her, lined the marrow of her bones. It had saved her, before. And practical girls did not spend all their time thinking of dragons and lost things. They made friends and did their best to try hard at school and joined the swim team. They lived their lives.
That was why Chihiro kept the book down the side of her bed, a treasure to be pored not pined over.
She gazed down at the kodama again and wondered what they were waiting for. Outside, the storm’s voice grew to a snarling howl. The window rattled in its pane.
Chihiro closed her sketchbook and slid it back down the side of her bed, away from where her mother might see. Then she got up and went to close the curtains, but not before she pressed her face against the glass, peering out into the night. The storm had taken it over completely. The wind tore at the clouds, hurling them across the sky as though they were running from something.
Barely visible, the trees thrashed violently in the wind.
She wondered if the kodama were still there, waiting.
The thunder growled like a living thing directly overhead. Chihiro clasped her hands together, against her breastbone, and thought please.
Then she drew the curtains closed and went to bed.
She dreamed of flying.
Underwater was a strange world of shimmering light and muted sound. Her classmates’ pale limbs moved languidly, as though dreaming. When Chihiro kicked off of the wall, it was an explosion of motion and bubbles.
Her arms cut through the water with swift, economical strokes. Her feet were a flurry of movement. The moment her fingertips hit the opposite wall, she twisted round underwater and pushed off again.
The pool had been very chlorinated when Chihiro had first joined the swim team, but the smell of chlorine on her skin after swimming had felt like a betrayal. Luckily, Miyabe-sensei was not a fan of chemicals either, so now they had cut down on the chlorine.
Even so, Chihiro was very thorough when she showered, shampooing her hair two or three times to make sure that the sharp chlorine tang had completely disappeared.
“Chihiroooo,” Michiru called, sticking her head around the side of the wall. “You always take so long in the shower! Hurry up~!”
“Sorry, sorry,” Chihiro called back.
After everyone had showered, and they had sat around eating pieces of fruit and discussing the training plans for the following week, Chihiro and Michiru left together.
The storm had passed in the night and the day after had the feeling of being washed clean. There were gauzy white clouds stretched against the sky’s fresh bright blueness and there were puddles of water here and there on the road, that Michiru went out of her way to splash through.
“Aaaah,” Michiru sighed, stretching her arms upwards, “it’s so nice now!”
Chihiro smiled. “The day after a storm is always nice, I think.”
“The air feels so clean,” Michiru agreed.
They walked in silence for a bit, both of them swinging their arms and enjoying the lightness of the breeze against their faces.
Michiru had been the first friend Chihiro had made after moving. They were not that similar apart from their love of swimming, but Michiru was friendly and honest and that counted for more than having read the same books or liking the same songs.
“The storm last night was so scary,” Michiru was saying, hugging herself. “I kept thinking our roof would blow away. It sounded like something roaring! And when I woke up, the tree outside our house had lost two of its branches.”
“Yeah,” Chihiro said. She thought of the customers at the Bathhouse who could have produced such a roar of a gale. Once, a zennyo ryūōhad come to stay with them for three days. Yubaba had been beside herself because the weather inside and outside the Bathhouse had been so bad. Even though it was a Bathhouse, many of their guests had complained about being unable to stay dry.
Chihiro hadn’t been allowed to deal with that one. That had been Haku, she remembered. Haku who had bowed politely to the rain-dragon and spoken to her in a voice so low that it was only for the two of them. Whatever the rain-dragon had replied in her soft, hissing tongue, it had made the corners of Haku’s eyes tighten and his mouth draw down. Just a little. At the time, Chihiro had thought he was angry.
Now, knowing his full name and his true form, Chihiro thought that Haku’s expression had been closer to sadness.
“Chihiro!” Michiru bumped into her, laughing. “You’re a million miles away! What’re you thinking about?”
“Oh,” Chihiro said, letting Michiru’s arm through her own draw her away from her memories, “nothing much.”
When they got to the curve of the road, they separated. Michiru lived on the opposite side of the hill that Chihiro lived on, so it would have made sense to go all the way together. But Michiru didn’t like to walk through the woods because she was afraid of insects, and her shoes were usually the cute kind that mud would have spoiled.
“Be careful in the woods today,” Michiru said, before they waved goodbye. “You don’t know what the storm might’ve tossed up.”
There was no sign of the kodama today, Chihiro noticed. Perhaps they were being even shyer than usual, or perhaps the fury of the storm had scared them into hiding. Either way, her walk through the woods was without their company. She kept expecting - hoping - to catch a glimpse of them as she went, but there was nothing. The ground was sodden and swampy underfoot and all too soon, Chihiro felt the coldness of water seeping in over her toes.
Maybe coming through the woods today had been a mistake, she thought. Mother wasn’t going to be happy if Chihiro came home with half of the earth outside caked to her feet.
But she found it hard to regret her choice too much when the air was so fresh and pleasant to breathe and the woods seemed so content after the rain. Everything smelled green and wet. Just breathing felt good.
Chihiro tipped her head back, smiling a little.
Some of the trees had been bent and re-shaped by the storm, whilst others had lost some of their weaker branches. It was while clambering over one of these that Chihiro heard a low whistling sound, like an irate kettle boiling over.
Her first thought was snake, and she froze, a palm against the peeling bark of the branch to balance herself atop it.
Her eyes darted from side to side, looking for the source of the noise.
After a moment, she realised that it was coming from a little further away. As she began to slide over the branch, a kodama popped its head up over the roots of the injured tree and looked at her.
They looked at each other.
Then it vanished.
And still that irate whistling.
“Wait,” Chihiro called softly, jogging towards the tree.
A little further off, another kodama appeared, cocking its head like a curious bird.
They led her through the woods that way, one at a time. Chihiro didn’t run, but her heart wanted to. Anticipation touched the beat of her heart with quickening fingers. But because she was also practical, she made a note of the way she was walking, just in case. It rarely did any harm to be cautious.
After several minutes, they came to the shallow stream that sometimes ran through the heart of the woods. In particularly hot summer months, it would often dry up entirely, but now after the storm it had swollen enough to swamp the ground around it too.
Half in the water, half out, a slender silver-blue dragon lay coiled. That angry whistle issued from it again as it tried to move, and Chihiro saw dark blood clotting the scratches on its side.
Haku, she thought, her heart in her throat, but even as she moved forwards she realised it wasn’t so. Haku was different. It had been years, but the truth of him was written on her heart. This was not Haku.
But it was a dragon, wounded and furious. It was too big to be the spirit of the stream, Chihiro thought, and if it had been she supposed it would have been trying to get further into the water rather than out of it.
The dragon snarled softly to itself and tried to lurch forward again.
Chihiro thought about how sometimes fear could make you angry, and how frightening it must be to be injured and in a place that was not your own. Then she stepped out from around her tree, aware as she did that more kodama were popping up around her, rattling quietly to themselves.
“You’re hurt,” she said, soft, and the dragon’s head snapped around to look at her. It bared its teeth, blood on its jaw, and Chihiro saw something silver held between its long fangs.
She held out her hands. “Let me help you,” she said, and somehow managed to make it sound like a request.
The dragon reared back on itself as she approached it, its gaze suspicious and unfriendly, teeth shown in sharp warning. Haku, she thought, had behaved similarly once, when he was not himself.
“Please,” she said, and reached out.
The dragon growled, its eyes sparking. It tossed its head, that silver thing gleaming in its teeth. A bauble of some kind, Chihiro thought, and then someone caught her wrist lightly.
A voice as familiar as the sun said, quietly, “Careful.”
Chihiro turned. It felt as though she did so as slowly as the earth, that she would turn and never be done turning.
And then she was facing him.
There was an almost painful moment where the memory of him, that she had held safe in the secret spaces of her heart, came against the fact of him now… and was changed.
“Haku,” she breathed, and was amazed she could do that much, with the weight and pulse of her heart on her lips. He was taller, she thought, and he looked older, even though he had been centuries old when she had met him before. His hair was a little longer. But his face, the angles and lines of it, that was exactly the same.
He looked at her, and dropped her wrist. He was unsmiling, and once she might have thought he looked stern, but his eyes had narrowed slightly and Chihiro remembered that dragons didn’t smile with their mouths.
He was pleased, she thought, and answering pleasure bloomed in a sunburst under her skin.
Then Haku looked away from her, towards the dragon.
“That is not yours,” he said, in his quiet, steady way. He held out a hand.
The dragon rumbled at him, defiant, its talons digging furrows into the mud. But Haku didn’t lower his hand, or his gaze, as calm as still water.
“Return it,” he said. “Please.”
Chihiro counted her breaths, one, two, three, before the dragon made a sulky sound low in its chest and opened its jaws enough that the silver thing fell free, to be caught neatly in Haku’s palm.
It was a ball of some kind, Chihiro saw, shining with its own silvery light. Haku’s fingers tightened around it and he looked at it for a long moment, the line of his mouth thoughtful. Then he looked up at the dragon.
“I will return this,” he said. “But you must convey your own apologies.”
The dragon snapped its teeth at him, for all the world like an irritable teenager, and then with a scrabbling of claws against the muddy ground it launched itself upwards in a shower of water and muddy droplets.
Chihiro yelped and ducked her head, holding up a hand to shield herself from the sudden rain. But nothing touched her. Blinking, she looked at Haku, who had raised a hand in similar protection, and then at the drops of water suspended, glistening, in mid-air.
“Oh,” she said, and there was the faintest smile touching Haku’s lips now. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” he replied, in his formal way. He tucked the silver ball away into a sleeve, and watched her. There was something very warm in his gaze, and it made Chihiro’s face feel suddenly hotter.
“What is it?” she asked, to cover her sudden shyness. She pointed at his sleeve.
Haku blinked once, catlike. “It belongs to a kitsune,” he replied, slowly. He glanced briefly at the sky, following the path the silver dragon had taken. “He stole it from her.”
“Did she ask you to find it?” Chihiro asked, watching him. It felt like drinking water after a long run, as though she could never stop looking at him, but it also felt overwhelming. He was here, in her woods, in front of her, and her heart felt as though it would burst.
Haku looked at her, and then lowered his eyes. “A favour,” he said, quiet. Chihiro thought that if he had been human, he might have fidgeted with his sleeves, but as it was he just took a deep breath and then held out his hand to her.
“Will you walk with me?” he asked, and she took it.
As they walked, the sky changed colour slowly above them, a steadily deepening blue. Haku’s hand was cool and dry against her own, and Chihiro felt as though he must surely feel the frantic drumming of her heart through the tips of her fingers.
They spoke a little. The rest of the time, they walked in comfortable silence, enjoying the green stillness of the woods and the sun gradually lengthening tongues of fire across the sky. It was strange, to be at last with someone who had travelled two worlds and in between to find you and to feel not the desire to pour out all the events of the intervening years but a quiet, peaceful familiarity, as though rediscovering some intrinsic part of oneself.
“I am sorry,” Haku said at last, “that I took so long.”
Chihiro glanced sidelong at him, and found him studying the horizon intently. They had almost reached the edge of the woods now, and she could see her house a little way up the slope, past the edge of the trees.
And Haku’s fingers, light against the back of her hand.
“It’s okay,” she said.
Haku looked at her, his eyes as dark and fathomless as deep water. “It was harder than I expected,” he said slowly. “To find you again. Here.”
But I never left, Chihiro thought, puzzled. They’d stayed in the same town that they’d move to and that they’d returned to from another world entire. She had stayed in the same place. I never left.
But, looking at Haku, at the way his mouth set, pensive, she saw that he had been troubled by this. Gods found all sorts of impossible things as easy as breathing; they could conjure wind and water, fly through storms, inhabit the deepest and darkest of seas… but Chihiro supposed that perhaps this meant that some things, the simplest things, were quite difficult indeed for them.
And maybe when Haku had crossed the river in that other world, he had found himself somewhere else entirely.
She squeezed his hand gently. “It’s okay,” she said again, and smiled at him when he glanced at her, startled. “We’re both here now.”
Haku’s eyes were warm when he nodded at her.
Then he glanced at her house. “Do you need…”
“…Yeah,” Chihiro said, sighing. “But not… yet.”
There was a small part of her wondering how on earth her life was going to adjust to having a dragon appear in the middle of it.
That was if Haku were staying.
She frowned. “The kitsune… do you need to return—?” she motioned at his sleeve, and Haku’s eyes widened slightly. He coughed a little, appearing slightly embarrassed.
“Yes,” he said. “I have… a debt. When I could not… she is an acquaintance, from before. I asked her for help. She said that if I found her hoshi-no-tama for her, she would help me find you.”
He laughed softly. “I did not imagine that she would be quite this clever… foolish of me, I expect. But yes, I must return it to her. She kept her end of the bargain, after all.”
Chihiro nodded, her throat full of words she couldn’t even begin to voice.
“But I’ll come back,” Haku said. “I… know how to, now.”
And he squeezed her hand in return.
“I wanted,” he said, very careful and precise, “to give you something. If you would accept it.”
Chihiro blinked at him. “What is it?”
Haku hesitated a moment, then reached up under his dark hair to undo something clasped at the nape of his neck. When he held it out to her, Chihiro could see that it was a slender chain on which was suspended a small white scale. It had a faint luminosity in the rosy sunset light.
“Haku,” she breathed, clasping her hands together uncertainly. She looked from the necklace to Haku, who looked almost…shy.
“It’s mine,” he said quietly.
Chihiro half-reached out to touch it, then drew her hand back. Feeling suddenly shy herself, she lifted her ponytail away from her neck in mute acceptance.
Haku’s gaze dropped as he stepped forward, so close that Chihiro could smell the clean riverwater smell of his skin. She held herself very still, almost trembling, as Haku reached around her.
His fingers brushed the soft skin of her neck as he fastened the clasp, and Chihiro shivered.
“Thank you,” she whispered, curling her fingers around the scale where it rested between her collarbones. It felt smooth and cool against her skin. She held it and gazed at Haku. “It’s beautiful. Didn’t… didn’t it hurt?”
“Yes,” Haku said simply. Then he smiled, as warm and bright as sunlight. “It suits you.”
“Thank you,” Chihiro said again, a little helplessly. On an impulse she tugged the band out of her ponytail, her hair spilling in a damp shampoo-scented tumble around her face, and held it out to him. Her cheeks felt hot with embarrassment. “It’s not…”
It was green, with a pattern of tiny red cherries stamped onto it, still damp from her hair. Chihiro felt ridiculous offering it to him.
But Haku accepted it gravely, with a slight bow. “I am honoured,” he said, without a trace of teasing, and slid it onto his wrist.
Chihiro pressed the backs of her hands against her hot cheeks and smiled at him again. “I knew you would find me,” she said. “I’m glad that you did. Come back soon, okay?”
Haku’s bow this time was far deeper. “I will,” he said. “Chihiro. I know how to find you again.” He smiled, his eyes on the hairtie around his wrist. He looked impossibly pleased by it, as if she had given him something far better than a fruit-patterned hairband. “I will see you again.”
“Okay,” Chihiro said. She bowed to him in return, her hand still closed around the scale at her throat, and then she turned to run up the slope towards her home, because she didn’t want him to have to leave her there.
But this time… this time she turned around, to wave once more.
Haku waved back, half-hidden under the trees.
Then she held the scale again for a moment, tight enough to leave the print of it in her palm, before hiding it under the collar of her shirt and continuing home.
He had found her once. She trusted him to find her again and more than that, she trusted herself to be able to find him if she had to. The scale at her throat felt like a promise.