Haku's sea-green eyes shimmered with red and gold as they reflected the scorching heat of the crackling flames that engulfed the bathhouse. Muffled screams flew past the broken windows as tenants—too high to be rescued—jumped from the balconies of their burning rooms into the restless water below. Spirits of every origin fled to the forest to find sanctuary from the heat and the smoke. As the colossal—and once grand—bathhouse began to collapse, a jaded, old witch covered in soot watched as her former apprentice flew away, past the throng of onlookers to the ignited, crumbling sensation...
"Chihiro!" Haku's desperate cry split through the torrid air.
He covered his eyes as they throbbed—irritated by the fire's intense light. His lungs burned—overwhelmed with black smoke. He blindly ducked and leaped through the burning debris as fast as his magic could carry him. Even with his incredible spread, he could feel his feet scream in agony as the giddy flames licked at his ankles. But he never stopped—not for anything, not for a second. Not even to catch his breath. Time was his enemy. For all he knew, Chihiro was out of time.
"Chihiro!" he yelled through the fire. "Chihiro, answer me!" His heartbeat quickened to an unfathomable pace when there was no response.
Suddenly, a massive wooden beam—sparkling with flakes of red and black—fell from the ceiling. It crashed through the floor in a splintered heap, sending what remained of the building into a thunderous quake. The walls groaned as the fire continued to mercilessly eat away at it.
The heat from the flames were too much for the river spirit. He leaped away, tripping on his heels and tumbling down to the floor below him through a hole. When he hit the ground, what little air he had left inside his lungs was hurled out of him in one sudden blow. He gasped, unable to breathe through the thick smoke. Rolling onto his stomach, Haku writhed in pain, clutching his side. He closed his eyes as they brimmed with tears.
"Chihiro..." the river spirit moaned. "Chihiro!"
Just as his consciousness threatened to fade, Haku's head snapped toward a faint, yet unmistakable clank of metal; the light tinker of a bell from a hairpin he'd given to Chihiro—the hope of finding her he had tucked away in his heart. Fighting against the pain and excruciating heat, Haku gripped the floor with the pads of his fingertips and pulled his broken body toward the sound. Feeling a jolt in his stomach and a stabbing pain from his ribs, he suddenly stopped, lurching forward to cough up blood. Still, he continued to drag his body across the hot splintered floor.
For what seemed like hours of crawling across the ash-stricken floor, had only been minutes before Haku rounded a corner to see Chihiro's body pinned again't the ground by a stray column. His body flushed with instant relief—he'd finally found her!—but simultaneously grimaced when his stomach whirled with nausea as it jerked with summersaults. His worst fear, his most dreaded nightmare, was right in front of him:
Her body lay limp in a pool of blood. It flickered between red and orange as the fire came closer and closer to consuming her body. Her face was pale. Blood was splattered across her lips. They were no longer pink, but black and purple—bruised. The satin white dress that she was wearing was torn and grazed with scorch marks. Her skin was battered with burns and gashes that were caked with dirt and blood. Her elegant honey-brown eyes were closed and swollen.
His fear turned into anger as he clenched his teeth and gathered whatever strength he had left to conjure up enough magic to force the fallen beam off of her body. He leaned against his elbows to haul himself the rest of the distance to her broken form.
Haku hovered over her body, his hands shaking, unsure of what to do. He wanted nothing more than to hold her close—die with her even—but was afraid of hurting her. Feeling completely defeated, Haku reached for her, cupping her face in the palms of his hands. She flinched beneath his pulsating touch. While he should have felt comfort in knowing that she was still alive, he felt nothing but grief. She was in so much pain. Her struggle to breathe was met with poor attempts to suck in the polluted air. Even though they were surrounded by incredible heat, her skin was impossibly cold. The life that his love was so dearly holding onto was slowly slipping out of her grasp.
Haku's heart fluttered in pure torment knowing that, soon, he would never feel the warmth of her skin again. Nor the love and passion he felt radiating from her lips whenever he kissed her. Nor the comfort from her hands. Nor see her eyes flash with excitement. Nor her cheeks flush with adoration. Nor her smile that made his heart skip a beat and breath hitch inside his chest. How... How did it all come to this?
"Chihiro..." Haku whimpered, his voice barely above a whisper. He rubbed the pad of his thumb gently across a bruise on her cheek. "Chihiro..."
She struggled to open her eyes. He feigned bravery so that the woman he loved wouldn't have to worry, but failed miserably as the tears he'd been holding in with all of his might began to spill from his eyes in hot streams down his face. They trickled from his chin onto her lips, but she wasn't startled in the least.
"Haku..." Chihiro whispered. She lifted her injured hand with an innocent desire to touch his face, but the pain was too great. Her arm went slack, but before it could hit the ground, Haku grabbed it mid-fall and pressed it against his face, kissing the inside of her palm.
"I..." Haku began, distrusting his own voice, "I'm so sorry. Chihiro, I—"
"Haku..." Chihiro's voice sounded strained. Her eyes were no longer glistening with life. They were dull—dying. It was in that moment that Haku realized that she could no longer see or hear him.
"Haku..." Chihiro's mouth moved, but the sound of her voice was completely gone.
Haku felt the life of the one he treasured most disappear, her body cold and limp. With his magic and energy completely spent, he released an agonizing, tortured scream—surrendering to sorrow. He clutched onto the folds of her dress, picking her up to press against his body. He held onto her as tight as he could manage while his ribs wailed in protest. He sobbed in the crook of her neck, unable to control the pain that enveloped his heart.
Then, it suddenly dawned on him that he was no longer Kohaku River. He no longer had the right to lay claim to that name. For without his other half—Chihiro—who was he really? She had given him the key to his freedom. She had remembered his name. She had given him his soul back. Without her, he was nothing more than a god without a river. Without her, he was nothing more than a spirit without a home to return to. Without her, he was simply, Haku—his slave name.
So, he let the flames swallow him up, hoping that the fire would bring with it his death so that he wouldn't be forced to face the dawn of a new day alone...
But, it wasn't until the next day, when the sun kissed the ocean, that he truly understood the meaning of hell. With nothing but ash in his hands, Haku silently cursed his immortality with an empty and bitter heart...
"Haku! Haku! Come on, Dragon Boy, wake up!"
Lin struggled to shake her friend from his restless sleep. He carelessly lashed out against her, turning over and over again as if he were in pain. His hair clung to his face, drenched in sweat. She cringed in pity when he muttered her name for the hundredth time that night. Taking in a deep breath, Lin grabbed the blanket that Haku was tangled up in and pulled him to the ground.
He finally woke up, gasping for air and clutching at his shirt where his heart threatened to pound right out of his chest. Lin watched as he searched the room, panicked. She saw the utter look of terror in his eyes. They were red—bloodshot. Closing his eyes, he tried to gain control of his breathing. It took almost half an hour for him to calm down completely while Lin, feeling shamefully useless, did what little she could and rubbed his back. When he seemed calm enough to speak, she broke the silence.
He slowly shook his head, eyes cast downward—veiled in the shadow of his hair. Lin knew that he wouldn't elaborate unless she pestered him.
"You were calling for her again..." Lin was almost afraid to tell him. She knew she had hit the nail on the head when he froze; that horrified look he had before returning to his eyes. She felt her heart sink with guilt and decided that it would be cruel to say anything else that would possibly remind him of whatever he had just seen. At a loss for words, redeeming or otherwise, Lin decided it was best to leave him alone. Whether or not he wanted to be alone was something she would have to gamble with.
"It was..." Lin was surprised to hear his voice so soft and vulnerable. "—nothing. It was nothing," he finished quickly. "There is no need to be concerned. I will be fine."
That was all he wanted to say despite Lin's nagging. He ignored her and, knowing that sleep wouldn't come back to greet him with a welcome embrace, Haku turned on his side so that his back was facing the fireplace. Red was the last color he wanted to see. Haku stared blankly into space—seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing. Even though his eyelids quivered for sleep, he refused to close them. Seeing her again would force him into a mental state beyond repair.
Sometime during the remaining hours of the night, Lin had returned to her room after Haku refused to "answer" anymore of her questions. The clock chimed midnight and Haku yawned—fabricating lies was truly exhausting.