After Chihiro comes back, beyond the making up for a few weeks of lost school time and moving into a house that now needs a good dusting, her journey has its lingering effects. She holds her breath while crossing bridges, is wary of oil lanterns, and finds comfort in even store-bought onigiri, though her mother's homemade food is best. She knows things now. Things are not always what they seem. Follow the instructions you are given. There are rules. Finish what you start. Names have power, even if they are not your own. All dragons are kind. Charms can be broken. Nothing that happens is ever forgotten, even if you can't remember it. There are rules. Don't ever look back.
There are always ways to do what you have always been told is impossible. He is not kin to the strange river that separates the land of the gods from their retreat, since it is a river far older and stranger than he, but even for a river dragon as comparatively young as him, there are ways. As long as you follow the rules. He has his name back now, she has saved him. Charms can be broken, but he will not let anyone take away the name she has given him back. He made a promise, and he intends to keep it.
She expects to meet him again on the first Tanabata after her strange journey ends. After all it is the day that all lovers meet. It is traditional; the lovers that were separated by cruel fate and long days (longer, really, though she ignores that part studiously), are reunited at last by a bridge of stars. Even if it's only for one day each year, if they're lucky, there is always the promise that next year they may meet again. Suitable, she believes, and makes her wish on the day at the shrine accordingly. To meet Kohaku again she writes in careful loops and curls. Hangs it up, a wish among the hundreds of others. Except she knows hers will come true, because, of course, he promised.
Though, it is strange to pray to the gods she remembers, and even the ones she does not. They like their tributes, that she knows well, and so tosses her coins in and bows her head respectfully and is glad she no longer has to help Rin clean the big tub, since you never know what form the gods will come to you in. As she goes, she thinks she catches a glimpse of a boy in white with straight black hair, but no, no, just a pretty girl, her white yukata splashed with a pattern of fireworks. Chihiro shakes her head at herself for expecting the world to answer her so quickly, and hurries to catch up with her friends, watched by spirits as she goes, though not the one she wants most.
Most small deals in the spirits' floating world go through either Yubaba or her sister Zeniba, if one knows of her. The difference between the two is subtle, but very real and important. Yubaba, she will put you to work, she is required to, after all. But it will be work for her, for her bathhouse, for the myriad of paying spirits who come through. Though it may end up for yourself too, in a roundabout way, there's no guarantee that it will. Instead you might find yourself working for her, forever, as he almost had, instead of working for yourself. It’s a clever trap, one she has caught many in.
Zeniba, on the other hand, will put you to work too, but in the end there will be some benefit to it, not only on her behalf but yours as well, or for one you consider close as friend or family too. She laughs and waves him off when he asks to become her apprentice instead. "That's not what you need at all, river spirit." He doesn't know exactly what Zeniba is, but he knows she has power and seems to know what she's talking about. And for every powerful figure or spell in this world there is a counterpart. She is Yubaba's counterpart, just as clearly as the dry is from the wet.
She puts him to work washing her dishes, and he doesn't question why, because she calls him Kohakugawa and assures him that Chihiro must be okay, since her hair-tie is still fine. A strange way to tell, and he wonders if it’s accurate. But she helped make that, he supposes. Still, strangely, he is reassured, and plunges his hands into the soapy water willingly.
She goes up the hill one day, on her birthday, to the old red building, passing through the dark and damp brickwork to emerge on a hill of grass. But no matter that she stays until dusk falls and the lights of evening come out above her, there is no change here, save the spiders and other night creatures coming out. This road is not open to her anymore, it seems, and so she trudges home and endures the scolding from her mother for being out so late by herself.
In class, her pencil strays from a note about Miyazawa Kenji as she thinks it might be slightly unfair--for Kohaku, that is; he is the one working to get his place in this world back, along with his name. And all she has to do is wait; wait and live. Not that that is as easy as it should be, some days, but it certainly isn't what she thought it would be.
Staying strong is its own task though, no matter how long it may take him to get back to her. She knows this much. Chihiro can't stare at the sky forever, waiting for that glimmer of white scales and thrill of joy to come to her, because she would miss life otherwise. And he did not help her only to have her miss her own life. She knows that too. Watching, listening, understanding and never forgetting, that's her task now, here. As hard as any work at the bathhouse was, maybe, though in a very different way.
The thought of missing life brings Chihiro back to the literature class she is supposed to be paying attention to, and she pulls her mind from thoughts of water dragons and names to the far more pressing business of paying attention.
There are other children that find their way or fall into this shadow world, of course. There always have been, always will be. But he is not a part of their story, as he was a part of Chihiro’s, and still is, as he reminds himself. For now, here in this world, his role has changed yet again, the silent observer, the dragon at the elbow of the old woman, unexpected and observant. He is kind, and wishes sometimes that he could do more, but there are many gods, and their chosen are not his chosen. The workings of the spirits are funny things, and as he has his own, he leaves them to it, for the most part. There are rules, and there are other stories that are not his.
Things grow, and in the growing, change. For Chihiro this is confirmed even for herself each health day, measured with the other girls, their weight, height, measurements, and so forth recorded as religiously as any statistics about rocks and their changes or historical dates and who made them important. Nothing in the world seems to stay the same. As long as there is room for change, a place to grow into, there can be life, and things can be different.
The days seem to pass slowly, flowing into one another inexorably. Kohaku hangs the wash out to dry, the white and purple and green and black fluttering in the sun that surrounds this quiet place on the edge of the floating world and waits for things to change, though he knows somewhere deep down that they already are.
She is a teenage girl, just barely, her time taken up with schoolwork and afterschool activities (she joins the garden club, for something to do, and it turns out quite fun) and friends and so forth. There isn't much time to wait, staring at the night sky, waiting for a dragon though, in her heart, even as she goes about her day, she is always waiting. Even when it seems as if she is not.
One day she almost crashes her bike because she thinks she sees, in a glimmer and flash, a figure, in white and she almost can't stop without losing control before she plants her loafer-clad feet on the ground and twists back to look. But no, no dragons, not today. Just the rising sun on the river (not her river), the flash of gold at a shrine erected to some esoteric god the old folks here know and still leave pinwheels and food for.
Pushing the bike back into action, though, she does glance once at the empty, blue spring sky, hoping.
She doesn't hear about news, about the little things that happen in her old hometown. She is far too busy with school reading to read a paper, far too busy practicing the weird intricacies of English grammar and then Japanese grammar and then more English to watch news programs. She doesn't hear of minor floods, or personal fires or the small disasters where no one is hurt except a few wooden timbers, and she doesn't hear of a sinkhole that forms in someone's backyard, in her own hometown, scaring a little boy and his granny who was watching him. After all, no one was hurt.
"But when?" He asks, the impatience clear even under his controlled tone of voice.
River spirits could get mad too, Zeniba knew. Oh, they were nowhere near as volatile as ocean spirits— those could turn from calm as glass to mad like a squalling child as quick as you please. But river spirits, yes, they had their strong currents down there, under nice-looking surfaces. "You think I would have you do all this work for nothing?"
Wisely, he does not answer and she laughs cracklingly, Noh-face poking its head to see around the corner from where it is chopping up vegetables for the evening meal. "Everything we do brings something in the end," she reassures him, patting his shoulder with a heavy hand.
Still he does not answer, but when he thinks about it later, he supposes he can feel the pull of water far more strongly than before, and the river that separates this world from the other seems not so vast as it once did. Perhaps she is correct, he tells himself, and applies himself more assiduously to the washing up after dinner.
This was how rivers in Japan were now, she thought to herself, rubber-clad toes right on the edge of the bright gray concrete. Bound and encased in rock, directed and tied down and nothing at all like their former selves. Chihiro flopped down on the strip of grass separating the stream from the road, hastily and automatically rearranging the fabric of her uniform skirt. Reflexive now, that action. She had been in junior high school for two years now, nearly, and a fairly good one at that (with what even she had to admit was a fairly stylish uniform--as if such things mattered). So the skirt and wearing it had become second nature already. Shedding her jacket as the day turned warmer, she sighed, watching the glint of the sun across the confined river water.
It wasn't her river. Not her river god. Not only was this totally the wrong place, but she knew this river spirit too. It remembered her now, if only as something much more grown-up than a child. She knew the moment she had snuck down here (told her friends she'd forgotten something with a smile and raced down here and, dodging furtive high school kids sneaking a cigarette and shy couples nearer to her age who still held some notion of this river as a romantic kind of spot) and stuck her feet in this concrete river. It was some other dragon, a flash of feeling more than anything: businesslike, feminine but sharp, and a little kind. All dragons were kind. But it was not her dragon. Her dragon was not here, and this was not her river, though she rested by it on occasion, as now.
The trilling of her mobile phone broke her from her reverie and, dragging up her socks and slapping stray blades of grass off her skirt, Chihiro dug in her bag for the device and answered.
One day Zeniba shoos him out the door, tells him that he has a few errands to run, doesn't he? "It's soon going to be much harder for you to come back and see old granny, let alone other people here." It's her way of telling him something indirectly and he practically leaps into the sky with barely-contained joy and anticipation.
He doesn't have many goodbyes to say. The boy that was Haku doesn't exist anymore, so mostly they're out of a sense of obligation to Chihiro. He bows low to Rin, and she startles to see it, but he's not the boy he was anymore. "Thank you, for taking care of Chihiro while she was here."
Rin waves it off as if it is nothing, even though it's everything. "I'm just happy for her. She got to the other side of the river, didn't she?"
Kohaku pauses, unsure of whether it is against the rules to say such a thing as he is about to, and deciding that the rules no longer bind him to this bathhouse. "Perhaps one day you will find your true name and cross the river too, Rin."
She looks startled again, and there's a flash of something like hope in her dark eyes before she waves it off again. For her there are no rescuing dragons, the dismissal says. He thinks Rin does not realize that he and Chihiro rescued each other, in the end. "Yeah, maybe. Now go on, dragon boy, you've got other errands before you go, right?" And with that she's gathering the dishes from Kamaji's meal and shaking out the last few konpeito from the bucket before disappearing back into the world he's already leaving.
It is very hard to stop a river forever. Water wears away at whatever it is given as an obstacle, and springs are even harder to stop from flowing. They may change course, shift and twist away like a live wire, but stopping them is, in the end, very difficult. Even though it may take years of wearing away at rock and metal and dirt, in the end, the river finds its way.
Chihiro, taking an interest in the sciences (though she dearly loved her literature classes too, sometimes) knows this. Geology, fluviology, dirt and rocks and water and rivers, most importantly, fill the contents of the books she has any time to read outside of class and friends and all those other things. She graduates from a very good high school (an hour's train ride away--very near for such a good school, given how far out they are, her mother comments) with not-bad grades and thinks about going to university next.
She decides to postpone for a year, maybe two. Perhaps, her father tells her, she can get into Tokyo University next year. Or Waseda, perhaps, or... she decides to go a bit closer to home, though, at the local university, even though so many of the prestigious schools are in Tokyo or even overseas. She isn't quite sure what to do with herself, and decides to stay in town a little longer, living with her parents, going to school and learning all this strange knowledge and new words. Chihiro works a part time job, helping out at Sato-san's store down the street, living a quiet life. It's not a bad life, for all that she thought she wanted excitement and adventure. She's sure that one day she'll go away from all this, but for now she is content to talk with old Sato-san, a woman in her seventies who still runs her family's store, about the old gods and rocks and whether it will be sunny and beautiful tomorrow or if the rains will come.
Zeniba shakes her head at him, Noh-face watching over her shoulder curiously and silently, as always, as much as Kohaku has learned to read his moods. "It isn't as if you need it, but I still haven't got anything to give you."
Kohaku shakes his head, the long tied-back tail of black hair following the motion. "I have no need of anything else, Zeniba-obaa-san. You have given me everything I need."
A crackling laugh, the sort he's so used to these days. "You found it yourself, you know," she assures him and then, despite her words just a moment ago, takes something out of a pocket, wrapped in a silk cloth and presses it into his hands. "For her. Say hello to her for us, won't you?"
Noh-face nods with his small noise of agreement, and Kohaku takes the cloth-wrapped box with a bow, no idea what's inside and not needing to know. "I will. Thank you."
Zeniba gathers her skirts about her. "You fly safely, you hear me?"
With a quirk of his lips that would be a smile on anyone whose currents didn't run as deep, he bows again and shifting, leaps into the twilight sky, the rules changed now, because of hard work and long years. It has been worth it, he knows, even as he sees the lights shift from lampflame and gas to stranger sodium-vapour and fluorescent beneath him as he flies.
They, like so many families, dress up in their kimono, get into Daddy's Volvo and go to the shrine on the first day of the year. She's seen pictures of the crowds in Tokyo, and she vaguely remembers far more people back at their old home (or perhaps she was just shorter then, and everyone seemed bigger and more everywhere), but the crowds in a town this far out aren't too terrible, even on this day.
She is turning twenty this year, and Daddy's business has been doing so well, that Chihiro's mother persuades her father to give Chihiro her furisode a few days early, so she can wear it for the short trip. It is a lovely pink, embroidered all over. Possibly not the trendiest of patterns, but beautiful and Chihiro declares she loves it. The obi, which her mother cannot remember how to tie in a suitable knot, belonged to Chihiro's grandmother, Mother tells her as she watches Sato-obaa-san with frail-looking hands that nonetheless seem to have the strength of ten Zenibas tie the complicated knot in river-blue silk that matches the rich embroidered streams. "I know it's an unusual pattern for a pink one, but I saw it and thought it was very beautiful and that you would like it."
"I love it," Chihiro assures her, twisting to see the play of light over the firm knot of the obi, the intricate embroidery of the water and the blossoms. "It's beautiful."
Dad mentions a photo, but Mother shoos away the notion as it's not Coming of Age Day quite yet, wait until then, that's what's proper. Chihiro is just happy to focus on climbing into the backseat of the car in something resembling a graceful manner, her hairtie holding up her hair in a quite-simple bun, tonight.
She steps out of the car with her zori scuffing along into the river of humanity, really just a stream here. Her friend Misaki, in her own mother's kimono (that was her grandmother's and so forth, since theirs is a family with a lot of history here), spots her first, waving her over to the group. Chihiro gives a half-apologetic smile to her parents even as her mother waves her off. Yui is in pretty black velvet tonight, a beautiful Western-style dress that makes her look pale and tall and beautiful.
The three of them make quite the trio as they follow everyone into the shrine, following the rituals (Chihiro lingers over the water a little longer than the other two, hurrying as much as one can in a full,long-sleeved kimono to catch up) coming to the shrine itself, making their offerings, their wishes for the new year. Variations on health and happiness and Yui makes a wish that she won't tell the other two that makes her blush and hide her face in laughter and gives it away entirely. Chihiro pays little attention to her fortune except that it mentions the past and visitors and luck that will probably be good, though curiously undefined. And while that's interesting, these fortunes, she knows, can mean so many things and come true at so many different times.
But it is good, overall, so she holds on to it, even as Misaki ties hers up with the hundreds of other old fortunes others hoped to avoid without much hesitation and Yui, after hemming and hawing, ties hers up too, 'just in case', she says.
The two of them have to leave, Yui with her mother, Misaki with her fiance, though her parents are here somewhere too, much sooner than she does, and so Chihiro waves them off down the street and turns back to go looking for her parents, someplace in this stream of humanity.
She isn't expecting the careful hand at her elbow and, as she turns, thinks it must be that her mother has found her first. Instead, no, it is not her mother, and Chihiro is left standing speechless, the crowd around her falling away into murmurs like water as she stills.
Kohaku smiles. Taller, older-looking, she thinks, in a far more formal kimono than the one he used to wear at the bathhouse, of course, in blues that range from pale ice to that of the night sky down at the bottom of his hakama. His hair is a lot longer, tied back, but his eyes are still that piercing green and, in a rush of certainty she knows it is him, knowing him again as if for the first time.
"Chihiro," he names her, simply, breaking the silence that only exists between the two of them.
She flows into motion too, the silk streams of her kimono gleaming in the lights from the nearby temple as she raises her hands, intending to touch him and hesitating at the last moment, in case he isn't real, in case it was a dream all those years ago and she's spent all this time waiting for this to turn out not to be as real as it feels. "Kohaku."
Kohaku takes her hands, pulls her to him, pressing his forehead against hers. "Nigihayami Kohakunushi," he gives her his full name again. "Kohaku." It is the name she had given him, with all the power that implies, and her heart nearly stops,
Chihiro laughs, her breath visible in the cold air, the tears springing to her eyes. He is here, he is real. All that work, all the waiting and coming to slow understanding, all the watching of the night sky from the floating world and the grounded world, the slow erosion of time, it has all led to this.
Slipping one hand out of hers, he produces a small box, wrapped in green and purple silk. "For you. From Zeniba-obaa-san. She says hello." Chihiro takes it, understanding. The knots fall away as if by magic, though knowing where it came from that is perhaps not far off, and inside the lacquered box is a hair comb, simple, but beautiful. She smiles again as he takes it from the box and places it in her hair, some purple grain in the wood matching the hairband she still has, that never ever broke, sturdy as a promise, in her dark hair. His hand, slim and cool, lingers against her hair, her cheek, like light.
And then, because moments cannot last forever in a solid world, she hears her name in a different voice from the crowd of humanity around her and she smiles at Kohaku, her Kohaku, come back to her. Just as he promised. She holds tighter to his hand, and turns to face her parents, and the new year and its possibilities, with him at her side, right here; her river god, her dragon, her Kohaku that she had been living for, and now, the promise of a new life, just waiting to be filled up.