Whirling through a star-speckled sky was far more nauseating than wondrous, as Chihiro promptly learned.

Everything around her—merely black space with bright dots—spun around like a kaleidoscope. Through it all, Chihiro was somersaulted, turning upside-down and praying she would not vomit. She was too breathless to scream, even as terror clawed at her throat like an animal. The only thing anchoring her to reality was the spirit's clammy grip. She chanced a peek at her profile and likened his marble-like expression to "Master Haku's" cold mask. Then Chihiro squeezed her eyes shut to fight vertigo.

As abruptly as flying into the sky, Chihiro fell to the earth. Well, almost fell—the spirit's grip bruised her, but he prevented her from toppling over her wobbling legs as they landed. Seeing her ashen face, he half-pulled her into a semblance of a hug.

"You there! Notify someone, quickly; I have brought a human!"

"Where am I?" Chihiro rasped out. Talking hurt.

"At the Imperial Palace. The Lady decreed that stray humans be brought here."

Chihiro heard half of it. She could only make out a blurry white wall and a vicious pounding in her head; then she collapsed.

When she came-to, Chihiro first noted that she was resting in her life's softest bed and that a small bowl of soup wafted its scent from a nightstand. She fell on the soup like a starving animal, pausing only to breathe in between spoonfuls, and, once satiated, looked around.

The room was small, albeit fashioned far more modernly than the Bathhouse. A wooden nightstand and vanity mirror accompanied a narrow bed. The floor was bare save for a red knit rug lying next to an unlit fireplace. A layer of dust webbing in the bookstands and smudging the mirror hinted at a longstanding vacancy.

"We must do something about her," a feminine voice said softly from the door's other side. There was a quick succession of footsteps: the click of heels and a quieter gait. "This can't go on forever."

"What else do you want me to say, Mother? I've not changed my mind."

Chihiro cursed herself for the way her heart leaped with longing at the sound of the man's familiar voice.

"Be careful, son; you must decide wisely, but I cannot give you more time to think."

"I know." The doorknob jingled; a wisp of a shadow peeked through the doorstep. "She's my responsibility now."

"I warned you that no one would accept this—matrimony!"

"I'll take care of it," the man said wearily. "Have a good sleep, mother." The doorknob turned, and the man slipped inside, stiffening as his green gaze fell on the wide-eyed human.

Chihiro exhaled a breath she did not realize she held and darted her glance around the room.

"Chihiro," Haku whispered, "how are you feeling?"

She sat mutely, darting her glance around the room, before biting out, "Fine."

Haku stepped closer to her gingerly—like approaching a beast, Chihiro noted bitterly. "I see you've eaten; was the soup to your taste?"

"It was fine."

"Chihiro, you arrived unconscious and bleeding. What happened to you?" He hovered as if unsure whether to approach or steer clear of his mother's bed. "Chihiro?"

"I'm not mad, Haku. You don't have to act like I'm a ticking bomb," Chihiro hissed.

"I'm sorry if I offended you -"

"Is that all I get from you?" she exclaimed. "'I'm sorry'? I left months ago and could not do anything other than wait for you! I am alienated from my own world; I could not assimilate back into society because I waited for you. You promised, Haku, you promised you would come for me. Was that a lie?"

"Of course not," he said evenly, "but Chihiro, you have to understand -"

"I've been understanding, Haku. Well, the time to wait is over. Do you understand the human lifespan? I will not live for ninety years. I cannot keep waiting for an unfulfilled promise, or I'll wait my life away! Either I establish myself there or here, but I must know now, especially if . . . if your idea of a future is different from mine."

She wrung her wrists and glanced sadly at the floor.

A hint of a smile tugged at his lips. "I doubt it is different, but I have yet to hear your version. Care to share?"

A sigh expanded her chest and slumped her back. "I'm not in the mood to share anything, Haku. I was almost killed because of my so-called association with you, and I don't even know if there is any!"

Haku perched on the bed and cradled her hands. A bruise bloomed across her fingers. "If I tell you I had a good reason for my belatedness, will you forgive me?"

Chihiro peeked at Haku. He barely looked remorseful, but something about his earnest gaze ebbed at her anger. "Well, maybe."

"I tried to keep you safe. The spirits will not accept a human princess, even if it means harming you. After the Dark Spirit's invasion, the country was more in an uproar than ever, and taking you back would be like setting a room of wood on fire."

"I figured that out," Chihiro muttered darkly.

"Unfortunately, you did," he agreed grimly. "Mother warned me of that, and, to be frank with you, Chihiro, I knew that this lapse of time would also be . . . beneficial for you. I cannot—will not—enforce this choice upon you before you could have truly seen what a normal human life meant for you."

"What choice? Haku, don't you realize that I cannot make a choice when you have not shown me what you want? Or did you fancy you may pop up any time in my life, knock on the door, and say, 'The spirits have recovered from their prejudice; come with me'?"

She stood, spinning on her heel to glare at the river spirit. The sudden anger flaring in her eyes made Haku briefly wonder whether he should have brought Zeniba's kettle of chamomile tea when she continued:

"When I came back, I came as a willing lamb to the slaughter. Mere hours earlier, someone almost did kill me for something so ludicrous that it saddens me. Am I little more than a plaything for you, to be disregarded or retrieved at your whim? I shall not debate our relationship further with you, Haku. If you do not respect me enough to be forthright, then there is nothing to discuss!"

Haku crossed their distance in three steps before Chihiro could run out the door and grasped her arms. "Chihiro, wait, wait, listen to me. I apologize. I have not realized that I did you such a disservice -"

"How could you not know?"

"- because I believed I was keeping you safe and giving you time to think your options through."

"I said I don't know what those options even are! I could not fit into my world and was left not even knowing what -"

"I was a fool, and I'm sorry."

She retracted her hand and edged closer to the hearth—away from the frostiness she perceived in Haku's rigid stance. She allowed herself a minute more to nurse her bruised heart before muttering, "My parents are in trouble, Haku. Some spirit kidnapped them, and I must save them."

"Kidnapped," Haku echoed, shaking his head as if to dispel such an unlikely notion. "Are you sure?"

"That's why I'm here. I went to look for my parents, and there was this—this massive fire in a cafe they frequented. Then a frog spirit met me, told me to come along with him because he had my parents."

"And you followed!"

"What choice did I have, Haku: abandon them to danger, as you left me?"

Years of work as Yubaba's apprentice cultivated the discipline for Haku to keep his expression impeccably blank, even as the human's words sent pain fissuring in his heart.

"Your concern is understandable. I merely don't want you harmed." He gestured. "Please make yourself comfortable. I will find your parents. They will be safe; you have my word."

Haku's businesslike tone left Chihiro reeling with unspoken protests. Never had she doubted his word, but being confined to a safe room while her parents were heaven-knows-where belied her nature. Hadn't she risked tooth and limb for them when she was ten? But she could not rescue her parents now, so she settled for giving the river spirit a long, stern look.

"Bring my parents back and get me if there is anything I can do."

Haku smiled softly. "I promise that, too." He hesitated like a shy child—did she hate him? How approach a woman he wronged yet loved?—and then cupped her chin, guiding her head into the crook between his shoulder and neck. She did not resist, and, feeling bolstered, Haku buried his nose in Chihiro's sweet-smelling hair and hugged her. Slowly, she snaked her thin arms around his torso. Haku gasped and clasped her tighter.

After the Cyborgs' departure, life returned to its mind-numbing lull. Ivy found nothing extraordinary to suggest that her overlords were testing their subjects to see who deserved to attend the Queen's ball. Even her workload had not increased ("And you wouldn't notice if it did because you already are overworked," her aunt snapped when Ivy voiced that concern). Aunt Beth's warning glared to stay low blared in her consciousness, but with time, the worry ebbed.

Therefore, Ivy had no reason to suspect today would be any different.

It was one of those pleasurable times when the workload slowed: the overlord bought two human-slaves, thereby lessening an individual's stress. Much to her joy, Ivy found herself picking fruit and berries from the garden as her aunt wove baskets in the sun.

"What is this called, Auntie?" Ivy asked, holding a tiny pink fruit for inspection.

"A raspberry. When I was a little girl, my mother used to grow a raspberry plant. It was a small little thing, half the size of that one, but every summer, I would have raspberries in my cereal."

Ivy loved it when her aunt reminisced about her childhood. Her face seemed to grow younger and softer, more open, as if recalling that time erased the hard years which followed.

Since they were alone, Ivy rubbed the berry on her sleeve and popped it in her mouth. It was sweet and tart, much like that sour orange she tasted a week ago, except that it was brighter and bolder. Right then, Ivy decided that raspberries tasted like summer and declared her new "favorite fruit."

Aunt Beth smiled indulgently. "Ah, my dear, you have so much yet to experience! There are fruits you cannot begin to imagine—pineapples, coconut, dates, and you must taste a watermelon sometime! That shouldn't be too hard to come by next month. Then there are so many things that people can do in the summer."

"Like what?"

"I'll tell you, but mind you do not neglect berry-picking." The aunt glanced around furtively and handed Ivy a plump strawberry from her pocket. "When I finished my chores, I would run to the beach with my friends. Sometimes it would be in the evening (when the heat abated), or I would rise early to finish my work shortly after dawn and go in the mornings. How lovely it was! Now, you remember what a library is -"

"Yes, a place where people could read books for free," Ivy interrupted.

"When the days got particularly humid or hot, I would spend my days there reading anything I fancied!"

"Like what?"

"Like . . . like fairytales and other adventure stories," the woman said carefully. "I used to love such things. Then, if a traveling circus happened to stumble upon our town, the girls and I would beg our parents for a penny, buy the tickets, and see marvelous shows. There was always plenty of animals doing tricks."

Ivy found herself making a conscious effort not to get lost in this carefree world and reluctantly stretched to reach red apples from a high bough.

"But such a life is over," Ivy muttered disdainfully. "Now, our future is toil and more toil."

"You shall earn your freedom," Aunt Bella said encouragingly.

"But what of yours? And when will I achieve mine?"

"My dear child, why worry about an old granny like me? I have lived my life; all I want is for you to live yours freely. Then I can rest content."

A sharp metallic glint tore through their focus—the approach of a silver-hued humanoid, approaching with unnatural strength and speed. Ivy dropped into a curtesy and watched, teeth gnawing lips, as her aunt staggered to her feet and bent her aching back. This Cyborg was their overlord's son. He was the heir, their future-owner, and a pompous devil-may-care thing that harassed human girls at his whim. Apprehension tugged Ivy's heart.

"Berry-picking? A leisure activity, don't you think, can be hardly be called a chore," he drawled, plucking a red apple from Ivy's hands and taking a noisy bite. "Shouldn't you be harder at work?"

In the picture of demureness, Ivy kept her knees bent, eyes downcast. Her aunt was shaking, literally shaking, from maintaining her bow as this brat of a robot ignored her. Had humans been gifted with machine-man's powers, laser-beams from Ivy's eyes would have smoldered him.

"My father might announce this later, but I will say anyway: you were picked for the Queen's Autumn Equinox. Don't ask why. I haven't a clue."

"Thank you, master," Ivy said through clenched teeth.

"Martha, is it?" said the Cyborg, turning to the elderly woman, who murmured a weak "yes, Master." "Sit. You've earned it—raising this one so well as to be invited by the Queen! Others will only whisper of this jealously (or thankfully, depending on what happens to her)."

"W-what do you mean, Master?" rasped the aunt.

"What does the Queen want of a human at her banquet? Your speculation is as good as mine."

"A gesture of goodwill unsurprising from Her Majesty's generosity," Ivy suggested despite her better judgment. Then, to avoid seeming smart: "I'm honored, of course."

"Why yes, as you well shall be, but I would be careful if I were you all the same. If you offend Their Majesties—well. You know." A sleek smile, juice dribbling carelessly on his tunic. Drawled-out sentences between bites. Ivy saw red, and then her aunt was pressing her wizened hand to Ivy's curled fingers. She glanced upward to see the Cyborg departing—thank goodness, she breathed.

"You've got to get a better hold of your temper," Aunt Martha whispered.

"Why is he like this, Aunt? Why are they all like this—what have we done to them?"

"They treat us so because they can, child. Now listen to me. There is no saying what will occur in the Palace; you must be careful. Come back alive and whole."

Ivy felt strangely numb as if her brain could offer no response, and her throat swell shut.

"I'll ask around," her aunt muttered. "There must be something to know. In the meantime, keep your head low. Oh, but why were you chosen!"

"I'll be all right, Auntie," whispered Ivy.

Aunt Martha pursed her lips into a semblance of a smile, but the apprehension did not fade from her eyes. Patting her shoulder affectionately, she indicated for Ivy to carry the fruit basket into the kitchens. Martha watched her retreating niece's back forlornly and bit back a sob. How could she forget her sister, or her gruesome death, or the plea that thin girl whispered through bleeding lips? How Martha clung to the scrawny toddler and swore to her dying sister she would protect Baby Ivy as her own? No, those images clung to the elderly woman's brain like a bright illustration from a nursery-book. However, she had nearly forgotten why her sister died: an assault from an overconfident Cyborg, like the young brat who had provoked Ivy minutes before. Nothing remained of her human sister, nothing but blood and bruises and wounds.

Martha never told her niece how the Cyborgs kept humans for sport, for activities far worse than cleaning and cooking. They enslaved humans to gratify lust or to experiment upon. And no human flesh could withstand a machine-man's anger; sooner or later, they all succumbed to abuse.

So why would the Queen of Cyborgs invite humans to her banquet—her home, a fortified castle, whereas humans had one entry and no exit?

Martha had sheltered Ivy from this cruel reality. Of course, the girl knew hardship: they all did. Her scraped knees and skinny elbows and shadowed eyes were evidence of her grueling work, but at least she was fed and whole. Fear did not plague Ivy's mind as it did her mother's. But now that's a disservice, Martha realized. How could Ivy protect herself at the ball if she was blind to half of the dangers?

Martha gathered woven baskets and, gripping her cane, wobbled her way to the kitchens. The overlord's garden was thick with summer's harvest, dizzying fragrances, and ample overgrowth that camouflaged hidden paths. A few of them led out of the overlord's grounds. The Autumn Equinox was three weeks away; perhaps she could snuggle Ivy away? But where would she go?

Then, with helplessness blaring down on her hotter than the midday sun, Aunt Martha whispered a desperate prayer for her niece's safety. Let anything—anyone—save her from the dreaded fate doubtlessly awaiting every luckless human at the Queen's Autumn Equinox. But help arrives in the most unsuspecting forms, and at first, Aunt Martha will not recognize the stranger as her prayer's answer.

A/N: Hello, dear readers! I know my year-long absence is inexcusable. So many things have happened in the world (COVID-19, for instance!) that everyone has been affected. In that time, I moved back to the U.S., graduated high school, and underwent a grueling scholarship competition (but we all know how competitive THOSE are). Now, with free time in my hands, I returned to this story. I hope you enjoyed this little chapter, dear readers, and do drop by some feedback while you're at it! Despite my hiatus, I did meant when I said it is so sad to see this fandom dwindling (I remember the good old days, when there were daily updates here a few years ago), and if there is one movie that deserves to be forever remembered, it is Spirited Away! So to help revive this place, leave a feedback, and I, in turn, promise to come back soon—no more unreasonably long hiatuses! Thank you to everyone who read, reviewed, favorited, and followed.