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The Girl in the Water

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In middle school, Chihiro takes up swimming. It's not quite a whim; she's not sure what she could call it, only when clubs start to recruit and she has to decide, swimming is what she picks out. The art club tries to lure her over (Chihiro's notebook doodles are well-known for how strange and distinctive they are, even if they're just the work of a few minutes of spare time or a wandering mind; they're full of vividity even when they're just scratched in ballpoint pen, overpopulated with the bizarre and the ugly-cute and the just plain ugly), and she's flattered, but swim club's table catches her eye, and once she's over there, there's no going back.

"There's just something about it," she explains to her friend Chikako. "When I swim, it makes me think of flying."

"When you're jumping off the blocks?" Chikako raises a sardonic eyebrow, and Chihiro shakes her head.

"I don't know. It's like…" She's grown up to be an articulate girl, but this leaves her at a loss for words. Chikako, who went to the art club like an iron filing to a magnet, frowns a bit impatiently as her friend searches for words.

"Yeah?"

"…Like something out of an old dream."

Chikako looks at her. It's Chihiro's turn to frown, not too irritably, but still. "That's all I can say about it. I really don't know."

But swim team is a fortuitous choice for her, as it turns out. Chihiro is good at it in a way that's a bit surprising from a girl who didn't exactly spend her childhood trawling the pool. It's like the water loves her, or something, and she loves the water right back. Her kick is thunderous, her arms relaxed and strong, her fingers pressed together sculling through the water, efficient paddles. She bangs her head now and again during the backstroke before she gets the hang of it, but when she figures things out she never worries about that again. Breaststroke is hard to learn and hard to perfect, but it's challenging and fun and Chihiro works at it until she can do it - shoulders breaking up through the water for a quick breath before she plunges back down again, hanging long and languid in the blue light that exists underwater, bubbles trailing from the corners of her mouth, eyes protected behind her goggles. Safe, sleek, quick.

Chikako goes to her meets and cheers for her during her turns. Chihiro barely hears her even then. She turns off the wall as quick as she can and gets herself under the water again, closing her eyes just briefly as she shoves off the wall. When six girls are kicking in the water it sounds like thunder; Chihiro near feels herself carried by something bigger than she is, something sinuous and fast, and she holds her breath until her lungs are screaming and she pulls and kicks until her limbs are burning, and she beats them all.

Her best friend is there after the race, handing her an energy bar and a towel. Chihiro tosses it around her shoulders and unwraps her food, and they go find a place to sit together and talk.

Chikako has been drawing some of the people at the meet, and she wants Chihiro's opinion on this pose and that line and this page's use of negative space. Chihiro eats and points carefully, with her finger still damp.

"It helps, you know," Chikako says to her. "You know, we'd still love to have you at art club. You really are good at it…"

Chihiro shrugs a little, rendered reticent yet again by the temptation to leave her recreational activity of choice. Chikako flips her sketchbook shut and sighs. "Okay, I'll shut up. I'm sorry. It's just, I miss you, you know? This takes up so much of your time…"

After a moment, Chihiro smiles at her friend. Chikako is a strong-willed person herself; it helps their friendship, even when Chihiro won't just give the other girl her way. She figures it's actually for Chikako's own good. Charm and a cute smile and asking a lot for someone to do something will only work for so long, after all.

"I know I'm busy, but it's okay. We're still friends. You know I'm always glad to have you here, right?" Chihiro smiles. "And I like this."

"But you're such a good artist, too! Why this? I mean, you're really good at this too, but…"

Chihiro puts her head to the side and considers her answer briefly. After a moment she shakes herself, and turns back to her friend; Chikako looks anxious, her wide brow furrowed the slightest bit.

"You know, when I was little, I feel in a river near my house and almost drowned," Chihiro says. "I was playing on the bank and just fell in. It only took a second, and then I was being dragged by the water and I couldn't do anything."

Chikako's eyes widen a bit. "Did someone save you?"

"The river saved me," Chihiro says certainly, and then her eyes turn down a bit. The words have an odd resonance when she thinks them back over. But it's the truth. "The current picked me up, just when I thought I was going to die, and carried me back to shore."

For a long moment the two of them are silent. Events are still going by; people are splashing into the water, spectators are shouting encouragement at them. Chihiro scratches absently at her skin. The chlorine is drying and it's itchy. Eventually, Chikako speaks.

"So when you swim, it's like taking that back?"

That's not quite it, not precisely, but Chihiro nods anyway because she can't think of any other words that will make sense of what she's thinking. Then, because she doesn't like to lie, she tries to clarify. "Sorta. Now when I'm in the water, I just feel like… that same thing. Like I'm in a current, and it's carrying me towards something, and I'll be all right."

Chikako stares at her. Chihiro stares back, and this time she's the one who breaks the silence.

"I know it sounds strange. That's just the best way I can put it."

Chikako looks a bit relieved that Chihiro has admitted it herself, and nods along with the words. "I guess it's not bad, though. I mean, if you really do love it…"

"I do." Chihiro is very certain of this, at least.

"Then that's what you should do. But…" Chikako looks down a bit, and Chihiro watches her friend. The other girl's worry is genuine, and Chihiro feels a little brittle when she realizes that Chikako really did believe Chihiro might just slip away. "…there's a student art opening next weekend. Do you think you'll come?"

"I'd love to," Chihiro says, sincerity from the soles of her feet. Chikako's smile lightens, relieved, and Chihiro smiles back. "Not to ruin the moment, though… but I have another event."

"I'll cheer for you!" And now Chikako's smile is bright, she's scrambling up and tucking her sketchbook under her arm while Chihiro gets up too, slower, stretching with her arms over her head and the towel still around her shoulders. She smiles at her friend briefly before handing the damp cloth back.

She couldn't stop swimming - these days, Chihiro just can't give up the water. Not the rain, not the pool, not the banging deep-voiced ocean on the shore. There's water everywhere, after all, in ground and sky and in her blood, molecules from old rivers and lakes unnamed swimming alongside those she knows - a bit of the Kohaku River in her bloodstream, escorting her everywhere, at her side in the water, while she races.

Haku will show her a real dragon's race someday. His sinuous form is much quicker in the water than even the fastest Olympic swimmers'. But Chihiro goes on for now, finding her own way, and her friends and her family and those spirits that she knows, they're all proud.