[Contains significant spoilers for the movie Spirited Away. Please see my disclaimer page for copyright information.As always, no infringement is intended; this is a not-for-profit fanwork meant solely as homage and shameless adoration.]
Crossing OverA Spirited Away fanfic
By Natalie Baan
Chihiro slid her school shoes into her locker and closed the door on them. She tugged her rain boots on briskly, hopping on one foot to get the stubborn right boot over her heel, then grabbed her satchel and umbrella and waved a quick, cheery goodbye to the other girls in the club, who were still huddled in a knot around Sachiko's locker, comparing notes on their latest round of quizzes and moaning. Moving at a not-quite-jog, pony tail bouncing on the back of her neck, Chihiro pushed through the double doors and into the green world outside--summer rain falling hard, layer after layer of translucent, shimmering curtain that blurred the distances, a silvery grumble and swish as the downpour scrubbed leaves, grass, and flowers to renewed intensity. Its cleansing brought out the blue-lavender of the hydrangeas next to the school’s front gate, darkened the velvety brown ridges of tree bark. Coming out from under the portico, Chihiro swung up her umbrella and opened it, and as she stepped out onto the gravel courtyard she drew in a breath of warm, wet air, a breath that seemed to uncoil within her, going deep into her stomach and out along her arms and legs, until she released it at last, and with it all the busyness, all the bells and voices and ceaseless demands of the school day.
University fever already, planning and preparation for exams to come, the life-determining choice of this school or that one, and all that on top of the everyday round of classes and activities.
Not too overwhelming for somebody who'd been to the spirit world and back.
And there it was as always, the central axis of her existence--the touchstone of remembered joy, the ache of the void. Hitching her satchel strap onto her shoulder, she let her stride lengthen and slow slightly, falling into steady, purposeful rhythm. The rain rumbled on her umbrella, hissed over the stones; occasional small drops, kicked up by her steps, splashed her shins where the school uniform's skirt and her low boots left them bare.
Her journey had remained vivid to her despite the passing years, never fading into dream-haziness, as she'd half-expected and dreaded that it would. She'd found it was the measure against which she weighed all circumstances, all encounters: /Has anything strange ever happened to you?/ was her test question, floated casually past would-be friends, and by their reactions she could tell whether they'd remain polite, somewhat remote acquaintances or whether she could talk to them from the heart and not fear putting them off. She'd yet to meet anyone who'd taken a trip quite like hers, though--at least, no one she'd felt sure enough of to confess to or even to ask more searching questions. She'd tried once, not long after, when the wonder and loss were both still raw and new, to bring the subject up with her mother, but her tentative beginning had brought only laughter and a wince-inducing praise of her imagination, and she'd tucked the secret inside herself again, to be hers alone. In hindsight, she'd wanted to kick herself for being such a dip, although as she'd grown that embarrassment had become tempered by some sympathy for her younger self. The impulse to reach across that divide was strong.
It was funny, she thought, spinning her umbrella and sending a thin pinwheel of drops arcing from its rim, how something about her experience had changed her sight, so that she saw through people, could nearly always tell what moved them, while nobody seemed truly to see into her or to feel things the same way she felt them. It was a knowing that both connected her to those around her yet kept her subtly but distinctly separate, as though she and they were two villages sharing but parted by the still waters of a lake. She thought of the after-school Green Club meeting that had just let out--one would expect everyone in it to be more or less on the same wavelength, but no. Some members, including the club president, believed that saving the environment was a worthy, virtuous cause for high-minded young people. A few had joined because they'd thought it would be an undemanding activity, one that would look good on their school records. The loudest and most passionate, Chihiro had gradually realized with some surprise, were driven mostly by fear: the terror of a future that would be spoiled for them, a world that would be dangerous, toxic, that wouldn't have enough of whatever they needed to survive. She'd noticed that as university crunch time drew nearer some of those were slipping away, that fear flitting to attach itself to a more immediate future. Her own friend Sachiko had a soft spot for Amazonian birds and monarch butterflies, but was squeamish about picking up vacant lots and having to touch other people's trash.
After plunging into a befouled river spirit, breathing its reek and then seeing the luminous, ecstatic blaze of release as it was made clean, after witnessing the cost in suffering, loss, and displacement of human carelessness--how could she /not?/
Chihiro smiled, a hint of a skip coming into her step. She shrugged her satchel strap to a more comfortable spot on her shoulder. Really, it didn't matter why her classmates did what they did--it only mattered that the work that had to be accomplished got done. Just as it wasn't really important that her friends and fellow students saw only cheerful, energetic Chihiro, and never knew her secret, the other side of that everyday surface. /She/ knew, and those who had taken part in the story knew (except for her parents), and that was enough of a gift. She was happy in her life, and didn't mind so much that she was a little askew from other human people--not noticeably so, just enough that she herself was aware of it. It was like wearing a necklace tucked inside a blouse, a simple trinket to anyone who didn't understand its very personal significance, or like waking up to the day with an inward sense that it would be special but not knowing why, and then walking around like that, caught up by a faint, private shiver of expectation.
Like everybody she met being a jigsaw puzzle, but only she could see the lines and gaps between their pieces--just as only she knew the precise shape of what was missing from herself, the winding in-and-out curves that would click smoothly into place, a perfect fit.
Shaking off such thoughts and the little thrill of something, loneliness or excitement, that went along with them (boy, she had a one-track mind today, Chihiro thought wryly--must be the rain), she turned her attention back to where her feet were taking her, which was left out of the school gate, toward the town's tiny park and the coffee shop on its far side where her mother or father would be picking her up after work. Ordinarily she'd just ride her bike to and from school, enjoying the wind and the rush of speed, but her mother worried about her on the steep, slick roads. There didn't seem to be much point in an argument. As always, she paused in the middle of the park's low-arched footbridge to lean on the railing and gaze down at the rushing stream below, a brown surge today, licked with pale froth. She wondered, not for the first time, if /he/ might be there, so close all this while--but really, she didn't think so. This was a serious-feeling small river, direct and businesslike in its flow between concrete banks. A salary-man river, she thought, like those uniformly suited men making their daily commutes, eyes fixed firmly ahead, no leaping riffles or quiet pools. She couldn't see /him/ in it at all. She pressed her palms together around her umbrella's handle anyway, for the kami that did call the river home. Straightening, she turned from the railing.
He was there.
The jolt was so sharp, so unexpected, that it was as though she'd fallen down an abrupt drop and jarred the whole world out of focus, so that there was only him, a white flame at the far end of the bridge. For a moment she wondered breathlessly if the door between worlds had slid open again, and she might walk into the realm of spirits if she went forward to meet him. But when she blinked hard and really looked, the human world was still there, unchanged, the park's thin stand of willows a floating mist of green behind him, a sporadic flash of color showing through as cars and trucks went by on the road beyond. A young woman pushed a stroller along, a clear plastic curtain protecting her child from the rain; a couple of grade school students in slickers darted past Chihiro, dodged around that motionless figure on the path, and sped off in a crunch of gravel, shouts and laughter ringing in their wake.
He looked exactly as she had pictured him--not, she realized with dawning astonishment, as he'd been back then, but as she had seen him in her mind. His image had always been clear, never the least bit muddled or vague, but now she could see that from year to year it had altered, maturing as she'd grown older. She had no idea what the coincidence meant, if it was one. But did kami grow up in human time after all? He was watching her as she gaped from the top of the bridge's shallow rise, a slanted look from half-lidded jade eyes, that faintly inscrutable yet warm smile quirking his mouth. It took her another instant to grasp that he was wearing modern clothes: an incandescent white shirt, slacks of a moss green just a few shades off from black--crisp-pressed and immaculate, despite the rain shushing down all around him. His dark shoes were polished, seemingly new. He could have been any unusually well-turned-out young man. But those eyes, and the way he stood poised, perfectly balanced even in stillness, one foot a little forward and hands lightly fisted as though he were ready to flash into motion--
Chihiro could feel the smile spreading across her face, huge and probably goofy but she couldn't help it and didn't care. She galloped toward him, covering the distance in just a few strides--then came to a skittering halt on the end of the bridge, faltering, arms half held out at her sides before she wrapped them around herself instead, hugging her satchel strap tightly against her chest. If he'd been in his dragon form, she would have pounced on him for sure. However....
The moment drew out as she stared at him. She could feel her face flush a little. The river rolled and boiled past below, echoing as it passed under the bridge.
"Well," he murmured at last, breaking the spell and making her jump, "I hope you haven't forgotten my name already."
"Gck!" she said, as second thought rammed headlong into first impulse. She struggled out of the wreck, blushing more strongly, dithered, and then, with some hesitancy, chose what she thought would mean the most to him. "Kohakunushi...san." She wondered if she ought to have been even more formal--he /was/ a god, if a small one--but she'd seen too many idol-worshipping teenaged girls overdo it with the honorific. She didn't want him to think she'd turned into one of /those./
Dark lashes lowered, a cat's slow blink, and that knowing smile widened almost imperceptibly. "I think that, for you, 'Haku' is still good enough."
The pressure inside her chest, that knot of wishing denied, popped like a bubble. She drew in what felt like an endless breath. "Haku!" Obstruction gone, the words rushed out of her without hindrance. "How have you been? What have you been doing? Have you--" She stumbled, became aware once more of the sounds of the river below, the rain on her umbrella, water noises muffling the world around them, creating a strange kind of distance. "Have you found a new place yet?"
"No." Haku shook his head. "Not yet."
"It's all right." He shrugged, outwardly careless but beneath that still coiled, she thought, a little restless, a little ambitious--forbearing, especially for a god whose home and livelihood had been destroyed by humans, genuinely goodhearted and compassionate despite all that, but with a carefully and not always perfectly controlled impatience. A hunger that kept him searching. "That's the way the divine hierarchy works. I could have had a place by now--if I were willing to settle for being the guardian of some rice paddy for the next hundred years or so." His voice dropped, became a low purl, soft as fur, as water washing over stone. "There's better."
Chihiro lowered her gaze, trying to sort through a sudden, sourceless confusion, a small flutter in her stomach. She found herself focusing on Haku's shoulder--he was still that little bit taller than she was--aware peripherally of the totality of him, close and living and real, the shadow of his near physical presence, the stir of soundless breathing. Drops of water beaded and rolled down his shirt sleeve, as though the cloth were scale, smooth and impermeable, and she found herself reaching up, almost dreamlike, one finger extended to touch a tiny, liquid jewel.
He caught her hand. Thumb on the pulse point, long, cool fingers wrapped around her wrist--she started, but he was just holding her there, not plucking her away, not letting go of her either. She looked up, met the intensity of his gaze, concentrated shadow, still and deep--he leaned toward her, and she was falling, pulled down into those depths--
--it's fast--she breaks through, tumbling into a cool wetness that spins its light touch all around her, the color of a green tea candy--so pretty up above, sunlight dancing on the fractured water, the dark spot of her lost shoe bobbing and turning, just above her outstretched fingers--too far now, those reflections getting further, her chest squeezing and hurting, even though the water's so gentle--she opens her mouth, watches silver bubbles wobble and rise, the water not tasting sweet or like tea after all, and as the ache doesn't get any better she knows, a flash like a new big star opening its eye wide inside her head, /I'm going to die/--terror and at the same time the flying feeling of slipping into a dream--
--at the edge of thought, something brushes past her, something alive and real--
--she reaches out--
--the feeling of that snaky, strong body clasped between her knees, trailing like a kite, like a cloud through the air, but solid and way safer than her father's driving, supporting her as though their flight together were effortless--the ridged smoothness of the horns she holds onto, like tortoise shell but the color of pale golden sand, the wild yet satin-soft mane that blows back to tickle her cheek as she bends low over that long, long neck--his body surges and flexes, catching an updraft, the wind enclosing them, flowing over her skin, his scales, bearing them both up in another world, a familiar floating, rising feeling--her eyes go wide, a memory, like the pulse of a heart--
--"Your name is--/Kohakugawa!/"--
--the dragon stiffens--his scales begin to strip away, one by one but fast, glittering shards like glass, each one holding moonlight--they fall together, out of that cloud of shed brightness, no fear this time but exultation--the thrill of the wind whipping upward around them, Haku's hands holding hers, his radiant smile--
/As I was./
--his hand gripping hers, drawing it against his chest--this tangible presence, gravely focused, yet with a glimmer of light in the depths, like a fish flickering below the surface--in this nearness, she almost understands--that sense of enfoldment, of walking always a step apart, borne up, marked off like a himorogi, purified ground, watched over by the kami's eyes, all the while waiting for the day's promise to emerge--the coils of the dragon around her--his patience answered, a thousand small rivulets coming together to feed the river's rising waters--now, it is time--
/As I am./
--current in spate--she's snatched up like a leaf, battered and spun, drowned and raised--now carried, by this water that changes and is changed by all it touches, casting off brilliant glints of light, reshaping its banks--that gathers itself with thunder, like a roil of clouds climbing the horizon, rises with a growl and leaps from the waterfall's edge, from the earth--and there's only the night sky above and before them--wind and darkness and the white moon among stars--the two of them soaring together, an arc of release and power--liberation--a searing blaze of--
Gasping, Chihiro jerked against his grip. It loosened--he let her sway back to an arm's-length distance, but didn't quite let go. Her skin tingled like pins-and-needles; she'd dropped her umbrella, and the rain was dappling her shirt more and more thoroughly, sticking it to her body. Water clumped her bangs together and dripped from them onto her face. She stared at him, her heart beating like a huge drum, too big for her body, making her tremble all over. Pieces of vision wavered in her mind, confusing, half-grasped, like a reflecting pool shattered by a splash.
Haku straightened, raindrops trickling from the ends of his hair, glancing off his shoulders, surrounding him with a thin, white haze of water-mist. He met her gaze, held it evenly, but as she looked at him she glimpsed a subtle tightening around the eyes: disappointment, understanding and regret...grief? Dipping his head, he smiled, then took a half-step back himself, letting her wrist slip tenderly from his fingers.
Chihiro caught her breath. She lunged forward, seizing his hand before he could escape. He started, and she saw surprise dart across his features, hover there like a dragonfly, swift-winged, without design, its shadow an elusive hope. In that instant, she was certain. Quickly snatching her fallen umbrella, she stepped off the end of the bridge, to his side, and as she raised the umbrella to shelter them both, she grinned, swung their clasped hands suddenly--she felt real and complete, fed once more by that kindness, no longer afraid but exhilarated, and eager for the unknowns that were to come.
The greatest adventure was just beginning.
[Author's note: A himorogi is a patch of ground marked off by rope and surrounded by evergreen plants and trees; in other words, a simple Shinto shrine. Thanks go out to Shanti for assistance in taming raging similies, and to Kristin O. for thrashing and fact-checking. This story is sort of intended to live in Kristin's post-movie continuity; in any case, I highly recommend reading her Haku/Sen fics at http://sekaiseifuku.net/haku.html .Kristin was also cool enough to draw me a fanart for this picture (*bow*worship*fangirl*drool*), which you can find on my gallery page or simply here.]
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