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New Year's Eve

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Her mother thought she was being ridiculous. The trains would be crowded, it was snowing--if Chihiro was so set on visiting a shrine tonight, why couldn't it be one of the local ones? There was all this food, for heaven's sake, who was going to eat it? Her father was supposed to be watching his weight. But Chihiro told a story about doing hatsumode with her friends from work, in the city, and she promised to come home again the next day and obediently stuff herself. Her mother sighed and drove her to the station.

The train was full, or nearly so, but Chihiro found a seat. She sat with the bag her mother had packed across her lap: two boxes of osechi ryori, more than she could possibly eat by herself in the next eighteen hours, and a couple of mandarin oranges. There was a bottle of sake, too, a good one, which her mother hadn't packed but Chihiro had stolen--borrowed, rather, only borrowed--from her father's liquor cabinet. She'd get him another one in exchange, but she didn't want to be caught unprepared tonight.

It was a two-hour ride even on the express, and she had to change trains when she reached the city. She tried to read a little, only to end up staring blankly at the page. She put the book away and stared instead out the windows into the dark, fogging the frigid glass with her breath when she leaned toward it. Maybe she was being silly, hurtling back into town like this. Maybe her mother was right about going to another shrine. It wasn't as if Haku had ever told her not to. But--

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

She blew out a puff of breath between her lips. That wasn't his commandment, but she found herself wanting to follow it anyway, feeling that to follow it was exactly right. It might be fine to visit other shrines on other days, to pay her respects as anyone with decent manners would, but hatsumode was special. She didn't want to start the new year with regrets.

By the time the train pulled in to her destination it was past midnight. Outside the station she hailed a cab--she would take the bus, usually, but not tonight. The cab dropped her off in front of the condominium complex. She swiped her key card in the outside gate, squinting at the sharpness of the wind, and trotted down the paved walkway toward the building's entrance. A dust of snow swirled across the concrete under her feet.

Of course there was no one at the shrine. It was too small, too unimpressive, not the kind of place people went out of their way to visit on the first day of the year. No amulets to buy, no fortunes to receive. No indication of who or what dwelled there except the little stone dragon on the stone ledge.

Chihiro halted directly in front of it. Ignoring the cold, she stripped off her gloves, bowed, and clapped.

She only had to wait another heartbeat.

"I thought you would be with your family tonight," said Haku from behind.

Behind her again, honestly, he always did that--appeared where she couldn't see, or else at the far edge of her field of vision, on the fringe where she couldn't quite be sure she wasn't imagining things. She turned, and when she saw what he was wearing--kimono and haori, both in a dark and glossy blue that seemed as resplendent as formal black--she sucked in a breath, and wished she were wearing kimono herself, and that her hair was all done up with sparkly pins in.

"I'm going back tomorrow," she told him. He was smiling, and so was she, although her smile was probably less self-possessed. "I promised my mom. But I wanted to see you. Um. Happy new year?" And then more decorously, with a bow and everything: "I ask for your favor again in the coming year."

He stepped forward to close the space between them. His feet left no prints in the snow.

"I ask for yours," he said, reaching for her bare hands to clasp them. His fingers were cool, but their grip was warming. He peered into the bag that hung from the crook of her arm. "What's this?"

"Osechi that my mom made, and oranges, and sake, and--" Chihiro glanced at the shrine. "Do you have to stay here all night, like, to receive visitors? In case people come?"

"I am not expecting visitors," he answered, "other than you. If any do come, I'll know."

Maybe that meant it didn't matter that the windows of her unit didn't overlook the shrine. She hadn't let go of his hands, and didn't want to. "Okay," she said, "okay, so--"

A gust of wind blew out of nowhere, blustering right through her coat and sweater to her skin. Strands of her ponytail whipped against her neck, and her bangs lashed into her eyes. She winced. Haku stepped closer, and somewhere in the distance a bell was ringing, or maybe that was just the wind stinging in her ears. He released her hand to make a slight gesture, a downward hushing motion, as if to say enough, quiet now--and the air was still.

Chihiro didn't have to pretend to shiver.

"You're cold," he said, as his hand returned to hers. She nodded emphatically. In the lamplight by the building's entrance his skin was pale, his eyes a green so dark it was the same color as the sky, or the color the sky would be behind the snowclouds. His gaze flickered. "Chihiro, if I may--"

He hesitated.

"Oh, please! You're invited!" she exclaimed, and when he smiled she wrapped her arm around his and tugged him toward the doors.

They didn't sleep that night, or at least she didn't think they did. It was hard to be sure when he held her both waking and sleeping, in dreams and out of dreams and in between. She remembered taking a bath, as much to get warm as for any other reason, and Haku must have heated the sake, because she didn't remember doing that, but in the morning she found the pitcher and the cups. She might have peeled one of the oranges, because he murmured to her that her fingers smelled of it, and her hair smelled of melted snow, and the rest of her smelled of her, which he liked best.

She had no other gods before him, and no others after. When the first dawn of the new year came, she was paying no attention to the sun.