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[Spirited Away] Third Time's The Charm

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[Spirited Away] Third Time's The Charm

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Title: Third Time’s The Charm
Fandom: Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
Pairing: Chihiro/Haku
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: romance
Disclaimer: The characters belong to their respective owners. The story is mine (and flamebyrds ^_~).
Summary: Chihiro, 21 years old by now, doesn't remember anything that happened to her in the spirit world. She is currently looking for a job for when she finishes college, though without any success so far, and is quite stressed out because of it. When her best friend finally just can't watch her getting more and more depressed any longer, she takes Chihiro to a hot spring resort in order to relax for a couple of days and refill her energy levels. During a walk in the park, Chihiro meets a handsome, though somewhat strange young man called Haku...
Notes: written for flamebyrd in the Yuletide Challenge 2009.
Also, many many thanks and much love to whimsy_chan for the (last minute) beta and to belina for much needed encouragement. ♥!





She was tired. And exhausted. And depressed. And…tired.

Chihiro sighed and rested her head on the soothingly cool surface of her desk. The only illumination in the room was provided by the small desk light, bright enough for her to work, but the rest of the room was cast in eerie shadows. She didn't care. It actually fit her mood quite well.

Job hunting was definitely no fun and at the very bottom of the list of things that she wanted to do at the moment. Not that it really mattered what she wanted.

She was 21 years old, going on 22, in her third year of university, and job hunting was what any sensible university student in her situation had to do, if she wasn't planning on going to graduate school. As it was, Chihiro had no intention to do that if she could help it.

Truthfully, if she'd had her will, she wouldn't even have gone to college, but her parents had wanted her to and the constant nagging and pushing had worn her down. And the annoying fact that she depended on them.

It didn't matter that she fairly liked her part time job, even though she had to admit that the pay was ridiculous. Chihiro had been working at the public bath in the vicinity of her parents' house since the summer before she started senior year of high school. She liked the people there and she didn't mind the sometimes hard labor. She felt at home wrapped in the scent of the hot water, various soaps and cleaning detergents. She could picture herself working there all the time. Besides, the pay was only this low because she was still a student. Full time employees made better money. Well, a little better money.

Her parents, however, wanted her to find a decent job at a big and well-known company where she would receive the necessary training on the job and then could work her way up, like most young college graduates did nowadays. Of course she was only supposed to work until she found a wealthy man to marry and have his children. What else had they sent her to college and paid her tuition for? She should be rather grateful for that.

Chihiro groaned and willed her mother's wheedling voice out of her head.

The problem was that she didn't really know what she wanted to do. She didn't feel like she was particularly skilled at anything like her friend Akiko who had such talent for writing and knew she was going to be a journalist. Chihiro didn't feel a calling for a certain profession like Marika who had wanted to become an elementary school teacher since she was 12 years old. Even the college degree Chihiro was undertaking at the moment was as general as it could be, simply perfect for the average OL job.
So she had been diligently applying for job after job, but so far she had received nothing but rejection letters, the pile growing steadily. Honestly, though, she wasn't even sure if she wanted any of them to be a positive reply.

She was just about to bang her head against the table, maybe even repeatedly, when the chirping of her cell phone stopped her mid-motion.

Heaving another sigh, she stretched as far as she could to reach over where the phone lay precariously close to the edge of the small shelf, almost dropped it because of her laziness and had to scramble after all to catch. Finally, she picked up, a little breathless. "H'llo?"

"Chihiro?" her best friend Yukari's voice resounded hollowly from the receiver.

Chihiro flopped back down into her chair. "Mhmm."

There was an audible sigh from the other end, and Chihiro could easily picture the eye roll that accompanied it.

"Chihiro, have you left your room today?"

"…no."

Another sigh and eye roll, she was sure of it.

"Do you work over the next two or three days?"

After a moment of thought, Chihiro shook her head. "No, I don't."

"Do you have anywhere else you gotta be except for school?"

"…no."

"Do you have enough money for a two night trip?"

That almost tore a laugh from her. "What's with all the questions? But no, money shouldn't be a problem. It's not like I have any time or reason to spend any money except on cheap cafeteria food at the library, printing paper, envelopes, and stamps?"

"Good good. It's decided, then. We're going away for a couple of days. There's a hotspring resort I've been dying to check out, and you need to get the hell away for a while. I'll make the reservation right now, and we're leaving tomorrow afternoon."

Before Chihiro could utter any kind of protest, there was a click and the line went dead.

Rather bemused, Chihiro slowly blinked at the now silent phone.

Apparently, she was going on a spontaneous short trip. It could be
worse.

***

Sighing, as she so often did, but for once with actual pleasure, Chihiro sank into the deep tub of the outside bath, disappearing into the water up to her chin. The almost scalding hot water enveloped her, flowed around her in gentle waves, nipping at her skin and warming her body to the core. Above her, stars twinkled merrily from a velvety black clear sky, but around her, the steam that rose from the water's surface into the cold winter air obscured anything more than a couple of feet away. She could barely make out Yukari's face next to her, but she was sure that her friend's face must look as blissfully relaxed as her own.

After a couple of minutes of comfortable silence, Chihiro poked Yukari's leg with her foot and grinned, probably for the first time in weeks.

"So, I guess this is where you expect me to say thank you."

Yukari chuckled. "Well, you could just admit that this place is heaven on earth, that I'm an absolute genius, and that coming here was the most wonderful idea ever."

"This place is heaven on earth, you're an absolute genius, and coming here was the most wonderful idea ever," Chihiro replied deadpan.

Yukari laughed. "All right, all right. I'm just glad I got you away for a while. You needed a time out, badly."

Chihiro sank even deeper into the water, blowing bubbles as she exhaled through her mouth.

"I don't wanna talk about it." She mumbled when she finally came back up. "Please."

Yukari sighed, but nodded. "I can't blame you. Let's just enjoy ourselves for the next two days, shall we?"

Chihiro gave her a weak smile in return. "We shall."

***

As last night's cloudless sky had promised, it was followed by a bright and sunny winter day, but also with more than just a slight chill in the air. However, after thoroughly enjoying soaking in the hot spring several times last night and again this morning, indulging in an elaborate dinner and sumptuous breakfast, as well as long overdue girl talk until the wee hours of morning, Chihiro found it to be just perfect to go for a long walk and clear her head.

Yukari had preferred to stay in their room and read, so Chihiro went out by herself, all bundled up and ready to face the winter cold.

The snow crunched under her boots as she entered the park that seemed to come right out of a winter's fairy tale, with tree branches bowing under their white burden and merry snowmen that lined the paths; untouched patches of snow sparkled and glittered in the sunlight, and a herd of tame deer lingered between the trees. It was a weekday, and still before noon, so the park was all but deserted. Not even the highway close by could take away from the peace that lay upon the place and turned it into a magic world of its own.

Yukari had been surprised and immediately made an oh-so-funny little joke about fate when Chihiro had told her upon their arrival that as a child she used to come to this area with her parents during the summer. She couldn't remember much, but she was sure that it hadn't been as urban back then. It wasn't just the hot spring resort now, but an entire town that surrounded it instead of scattered little settlements and secluded farms. All she recalled were lush forests, rice fields and the happily dancing rapids of a river that came down from the mountains.

The tree tops of a forest were still visible beyond the city borders and up the mountain side, but there was certainly no sign of a river anywhere. Sure, one of the paths in the park led over a bridge that delicately arched over some sort of watercourse, but it all looked rather artificial and way too small to even remotely resemble the river in her memory. But then, she could be wrong. She had been but a child back then, and in children's eyes, everything seems bigger than it really is.

Still, her curiosity was piqued, and she didn't have a particular place in mind where she intended to go, anyway. She took her time as she meandered through the park toward the little bridge, trying not to think too much and just enjoy her walk.

When she reached her destination, she walked up to the center of the bridge, leaned on the railing, and gazed down into the ice and snow covered streambed. Surrounded by nothing but the sounds of nature, she could hear a faint gurgling sound from below the blanket of snow, interrupted only by the occasional cracking of ice.

"It never freezes completely."

Startled by the sudden sound of a voice, she whipped around, coming face to face with a handsome young man. She hadn't heard him
approach at all.

"Wha-What?" was the most intelligent answer she was able to utter as she stared at him, blinking rapidly.

"The little creek," he gave a nod toward the ditch under the bridge, "it never freezes all the way, not even on the coldest day of the year."

"Really?" At least she managed without a stutter this time. She gave him a quick once over, still wondering where he had appeared from all of a sudden. He was quite tall, clad in simple jeans and a gray coat, with black hair brushing just past his shoulders, but the most striking thing about him were his brilliant green eyes. Chihiro couldn't quite decide what shade of green they were, as even in the short couple of seconds she looked into them, they seemed to shift from a deep sea green to a gentle moss green and back again.

He seemed amused at her eloquence as well as her scrutiny.

"Really," he confirmed with a slight smile, then delivered a small bow, "My name is Haku, by the way. I apologize if I startled you before."

Haku. Chihiro's heart gave a little flutter at the sound of the name, though she had no idea why.

"I'm Chihiro, nice to meet you" she replied with a bow in return. The introduction felt way too formal, unnecessary even, but again she couldn't think of a reason why.

"Nice to meet you, too, Chihiro."

For a moment, she could have sworn he winked at her as he said it.

"Are you from this area?" she inquired instead.

"You… could say that. I grew up around here. Much has changed, though." He motioned toward the creek again. "That creek, for example. It's actually the last and only remainder of a much larger river, the---"

"---Kohaku river!" Chihiro blurted out. She had no clue where the name had come from, but she knew with absolute certainty that she was right.

Haku just nodded with a brief yet oddly pleased smile before he continued his tale with a very serious face. "They drained the river, pumping up most of the water to produce electricity and redirecting the rest into numerous little streams to irrigate fields miles and miles away. The old riverbed was then filled up with dirt and concrete to build apartment buildings on top of it.
All that's left is this little creek."

He sounded almost angry as he pointed at the creek for the third time, and for a moment, it seemed as if the gurgling of the water answered in kind. Chihiro's heart was beating rapidly as she frantically thought of something to say, something that might soothe the sadness that turned Haku's eyes into the murky green of a stormy lake.

"I… I used to visit here with my parents when I was a child," she tried. "I think I remember the river, and playing by its shore. But
I was very young, so I don't recall much," she added apologetically.

Haku gifted her with another warm smile, though his answer seemed rather strange. "Thank you. That is very kind of you."

He moved to stand next to her, leaning easily against the railing. They watched in companionable silence as the deer Chihiro had spotted earlier emerged from the trees and walked down to the creek. There must have been a hole in the ice for they bent down to drink. Slanting a glance at her new acquaintance, Chihiro watched in amazement as Haku's face softened and his eyes visibly turned back to moss green while he watched the animals drink from the creek. She didn't think she had ever met anyone whose moods were so clearly reflected in his eyes; it was almost unsettling. It was also intriguing, however, just as the rest of him, so she didn't want to part ways with him just yet. If only her feet hadn't felt like they were turning into icicles any moment now.

"You know, I'm starting to get cold, just standing here," Chihiro bit her lip, then gave herself a mental shove, "so, I think I need to start walking again. But if you wouldn't mind keeping me company for a while longer, I'd love to hear more about this place."

"It would be my pleasure."

They easily fell into matching steps, and Chihiro had to fight the urge to reach out and take Haku's hand, a gesture that seemed like the most natural thing to do, if it hadn't been for the fact, of which she had to keep reminding herself, that she had only met the young man not even five minutes ago.

***

"What do you mean, you didn't get his number?!"

Chihiro rolled her eyes at Yukari's incredulous face and comfortably leaned back in the hot water. She wiggled her burning toes and fingers, which seemed only slowly coming back to life and painfully reminded her just how long she had spent outside walking with Haku. It was a price she gladly paid, however, for it had been a wonderful couple of hours. Even though they had only just met, she felt like she could implicitly trust Haku, that if she only spoke to him of her troubles, he would try and solve them for her or at least give her a hint in the right direction. She had told him about her childhood, about the big move that had changed her world when she was still in elementary school, about meeting Yukari at the new school, about high school, and about the decision to go to college. He had listened patiently to everything, asked a question here and there, or had added little anecdotes of his own. His reaction to her part time job had been particularly
interesting. Somewhat bemused at first, he had quickly shifted to finding it much funnier than he was supposed to, and even though he had successfully evaded her questions as to the reason for his amusement, it had given her the chance to hear his beautiful laugh.

"Chi-hi-ro!"

Yukari's voice tore her from her musings and she looked guiltily at her best friend, scrambling for a second to remember the current subject of conversation – ah, Haku's phone number. Chihiro shrugged slightly.

"There just wasn't a suitable time to ask…"

"But…"

"Yukari, this is important to me. It just doesn't seem like any other chance encounter. I can't explain it, but I certainly know that I don't want to mess this up by being too pushy," she clarified.

Yukari smiled at her. "Chihiro…I haven't seen you this intense about anything for months if not years, so it must be truly special."

Chihiro grinned. "It is. He is. Besides," she added, her grin turning into a smirk, "I'm meeting him for lunch tomorrow before we leave. I assumed you wouldn't mind."

That earned her a hearty kick in the shin under water, but she guessed she deserved it for holding back that important little piece of information.

She felt giddy and excited and wonderfully alive.

Tomorrow, she would meet Haku again.

Only then did she realize that he had never given her his last name, nor had he asked for hers.

***

Chihiro didn't find out Haku's last name the next day, either, but she did manage to get his phone number, which he actually offered on his own. They spent another two delightful hours in each other's company. Chihiro learned that Haku had studied abroad for couple of years as a teen, though he didn't specify exactly where or what, and that upon his return when he saw the forceful changes in the landscape that had taken place by human hand since he had left, he had started to work at the nearby mountain nature preserve in order to save what was left to save.

It was obvious to Chihiro that he was leaving things out, but then, she hadn't really told him everything about herself, either.
Truthfully, it just sparked her interest all the more.

With the promise to meet again soon, they parted ways, but just before Chihiro turned to walk away, Haku reached out and gently tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
Chihiro had to control herself very hard not to skip all the way to the train station where Yukari was waiting for her.

***

The next couple of weeks went by in a blur and before Chihiro knew it, winter started to turn into spring. Even though her job hunt situation hadn't really improved by much, it didn't take over her life as completely as it used to. She had other things to look forward to now, such as phone calls with Haku, spending some of her days off with Haku, day dreaming about Haku…

She still didn't know his full name or where he lived, exactly, but, however strange it might seem, it nonetheless felt as if they had known each other all their life. Conversation flowed easily, and there was always something to talk about. He patiently listened to her complaints about school, writing useless applications, about her parents and the unfairness of life in general. But he also gently pushed her to see things from other perspectives, coaxed her to find dreams and wishes that were truly hers in the maze of possible futures. He asked the right questions at the right time to make her think and ponder, but without getting caught in circles from which she couldn't escape. He comforted her when yet another rejection letter arrived or yet another interview turned out to be a failure, made her go on and write the next one.

He made her feel important, as if she had been born for a very particular reason; he showed her that there had to be a purpose in life, for she was unique and there were things that would only happen because she was who she was and because she, and only she, did something that caused them to happen that way.
He also made it clear that she was special and precious to him simply by being herself. He made her feel loved.

Chihiro in turn tried her best to encourage Haku's passions, to soothe his fears and worries about the unstoppable advance of urbanization. She listened to his plans and dreams, helped him to shape them into words and reassured him when despair threatened to take over.

It wasn't just talk that drew her to Haku, though. She enjoyed spending time in comfortable silence, just being in his presence, being close to him. Touches, though they were still tentative most of the time, became more frequent as time wore on, and soon Chihiro couldn't have imagined a walk where they didn't hold hands for at least part of the way. And sitting on a bench in the park, curled up in the warming curve of Haku's body, his arm around her shoulders, often seemed like the best place to be in this world.

As winter turned into spring, as the cherry trees began to blossom and covered the land in a flurry of delicate pink and white flower petals, Chihiro learned what it meant to fall deeply and utterly in love and have that love returned.

However, as much as she was in love, she never forgot that there was something different about Haku, that there were things left unsaid, knowledge that remained hidden, be it on purpose or not. It was something she had felt from the first time they had met. She sensed a secret that was yet to be revealed, a distance that still had to be crossed. Sometimes it seemed as if she was actually scraping along the surface of it, that if she only asked the perfect question right then it would all but unravel itself, but so far she hadn't had any luck.

She also wondered when he would finally kiss her.

***

Spring had rolled into early summer, and once again Chihiro had made the journey to meet and spend the day with Haku. Although it sometimes irked her a bit that it always had to be her who traveled all the way out here, she clearly felt his reluctance to be separated from the land where he lived and worked. Besides, she had come to love it very much over the past couple of months.

Today, however, today felt different. Something grand seemed to linger in the air. Haku appeared distracted; he kept giving her sideways glances as they walked hand in hand along the path that led through the thick of the forest up the mountain. It was nice and cool in the shade of the trees, the already remarkable heat of early summer kept out by the lush foliage above and around them. It smelled wonderfully fresh, a few droplets of dew still visible on the leaves just above the ground. They were each caught up in thoughts of their own, not quite ready to share yet. Simply being together seemed enough for now.

Maybe it was fate, maybe some higher force decided it was the appropriate time now, or maybe it was mere coincidence. Chihiro didn't know what triggered the realization, what made her think of it right then and there, but all of a sudden, out of nowhere, she knew that the one important missing piece, the key to everything else, was Haku's full name. That if she wanted to know him, truly know him, she needed to learn his name. It was like a revelation that only needed to be put into action if she dared to.

Waiting for Haku to try and observe her when he thought she wasn't looking, she immediately caught his gaze when he did. He seemed startled and she grinned at him triumphantly. He shook his head, most likely at himself, and gave her a rueful little smile of defeat. Chihiro – 1, Haku – 0.

She took a deep breath; it was probably best to go all out as long as she had the upper hand.

"Haku…?"

"Yes?"

Was she imagining it, or was there a hint of apprehension in his voice?

"You know, we have been kind of dating for several months now. Don't you think it's strange that you've never told me your last name?"

The exact look in his eyes was undecipherable, but their color had turned a shining light moss green, something she knew only happened when he felt happy, relieved, or was about to do something mischievous. Her question hadn't upset him and for that she was glad. She still wanted an answer, though. When it came, it wasn't what she had expected.

"I've been bad, Chihiro, and I sincerely apologize for not quite being honest with you."

Chihiro's heart started beating wildly. What was he talking about?

"Haku is actually not my name. Or at least it's not my full name. My name is---" his voice caught and he hesitated as Chihiro stared at him, her lips parting to say it, the incredible, unbelievable thing that had just unveiled itself to her. It took her several tries, and when she finally managed to voice it it was barely more than a breath.

"Kohaku. Your name is…Kohaku." She stared at Haku, wide eyed. Something stirred in the back of her mind, but it was still elusive, still too slippery for her to grasp. "You were named after the river?"

He moved to face her, hands resting lightly on her waist as he serenely gazed down at her, his eyes suddenly the dark blue-green color of the bottomless river he was named after. Or was he?

"Not quite," he amended with a gentle smile. "Do you trust me, Chihiro?"

There was no second thought, no hesitation to her answer. "Yes."

"Do you believe in magic?"

"Magic?"

"Magic."

Chihiro was confused, but she felt that the answer to the riddle lay close, much closer than ever before. She looked up into Haku's beloved face, his otherworldly eyes that were about to change color again. Fascinated, she watched as they shifted into the soft green of a summer meadow, but behind it, she thought she could catch a glimpse of the white twirls and splashes of the rapids of an untamed mountain river.

"Show me the magic, Haku. Show me who you are."

"As you wish." With those words that seemed to hold more weight than they normally would, Haku bent down, his lips brushing over her cheek before they came to rest against Chihiro's ear.

"But there is something I would like to do first."

Before she could give it a second thought, his warm lips closed over hers in a gentle kiss. Rubbing his mouth against hers, he nipped at her lips, and finally used careful teeth and tongue to coax her mouth open. He let his tongue tangle with hers for leisurely seconds, tasting her for the first time.

All too soon he drew back and spoke into her ear again, his warm breath washing over her neck and making her shiver, which elicited a chuckle from him in return.

"Now hold on to me. Tightly."

Still rather dazed, Chihiro could feel him smile against her skin as she complied, wrapping her arms around Haku's neck just as his came around to enclose her in a firm embrace.

"My real name is… Nigihayami Kohakunushi!"

A deep roar filled the air, vibrating through the entire forest, and then they were soaring high and higher above the ground and rushing toward the sky and the clouds.

Chihiro couldn't quite suppress a startled cry, but Haku's arms tightened around her, and she found that she truly, truly trusted him. He would never let her fall.

She gingerly opened her eyes, still a bit wary, but the sight that greeted her blew away all the fears that might have lingered. Securely held in Haku's arms, she watched the world below, the deep dark green of the forests that stretched in all directions, the winding rivers, and the snow crested mountain tops, but also the cities, little towns and scattered houses, long straight roads and curvy little paths. The world she lived in. Their world.

Suddenly, she felt Haku shift around her. "Chihiro." His voice was in her ear again. "Do you still trust me?"

There was only one answer. "With my life."

Haku's chuckle reverberated against her cheek. "Then keep on holding on!"

She did, and then she felt him change; his body stretched out into an incredibly long, graceful and snow-white shape, his hands and feet turned into powerful claws of the same color, and instead of clothes, Chihiro suddenly touched smooth little scales that shimmered like mother of pearl, intermixed with silky white hair. Following an impulse, she grabbed onto the spiraled horns that had appeared in front of her. The dragon, for Haku was definitely a dragon now, growled his approval, and Chihiro scooted forward, so she could gaze out front between the horns.

The wind tore at her hair and clothes as they glided through the sky. They passed the white and fluffy clouds that seemed like soft cotton from the ground, though were really quite wet, but Chihiro didn't mind. She felt absolutely wonderful, almost high even. And suddenly, finally, all the memories returned in a rush of images, sounds and feelings, so intense that she had to close her eyes for a moment. All the fears, the pain, the loneliness from back then, but also warmth and love. So much love.

All through her life.

Chihiro buried her head in the soft green mane, completely overwhelmed and close to tears.

Warm concern surrounded her like a soft blanket, and then Haku's voice resounded in her head. "Are you ok?"

Taken aback, she opened her eyes, staring down into the Dragon's. "You've never done that before, I'm sure!" she called in surprise.

The dragon's, Haku's, answering laugh shook his whole body, and he sounded quite smug. "I, too, have grown up.

Mostly."

The last bit should have warned her, really, but it was too late as they were already plummeting toward the ground with breakneck speed, accompanied by Chihiro's high pitched scream and Haku's rolling laughter.

***

The old bathhouse was barely more than a ruin, really, almost completely blending in with the surrounding trees, and Chihiro wasn't sure at all whether it deserved even a second glance. However, what was quite intriguing were the little white clouds that rose out from underneath the many broken floor boards and what they hinted at: a hot spring.

They had stumbled upon the building on one of their many strolls through the mountain forests over the summer.

Chihiro gave Haku a doubtful look. It would be a lot of work. And that was probably an understatement.

The smile she received in return went straight to her knees, turning them all buttery. Love and pride shone in those serene green eyes that, this time, matched the forest. "I'm sure we could do it."

It was the unconditional 'we' that did it, paired with the knowledge that even though it might not be a real 'calling', it was certainly a task and work she would enjoy. Heaving a deep sigh, Chihiro squeezed Haku's hand and nodded.

"Let's do it. Let's get this bathhouse back to life."
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