A/N: So, a year and a half later, this is finally complete. Thanks for all of you who commented, favorited, or followed this! Hopefully you like the conclusion. Please note that this has only been self-beta'ed and that hasn't been the most thorough job. Any corrections, if pointed out politely, shall be made. If you're not polite, I'll leave the typos just to spite you. Mature, I know.
This is partially in tribute to the amazing Studio Ghibli that will no longer be making animated films.
Disclaimer: I own neither Bleach nor Spirited Away.
Sen – no, Chihiro – leaves the World of the Bathhouse and Spirits with a sense of relief, regret, anticipation, and a vague sense of contentment. She leaves with a smile on her face, a handmade hair tie in her hair, and a firm sense of herself. She leaves behind the bratty girl who, as her parents did say, whined and was a crybaby.
Ahead of her, her parents begin shouting.
"What! Our car's all covered in branches and leaves!"
"No! I bet some punks set this up as a prank!" Quickly, they begin to brush off the worst of the offending leaves and branches.
"Dear, do you think we've missed the movers?"
"Well, I hope not. This is probably just a prank by some local kids – it's a welcoming party from the kids! Chihiro, look! I'm sure you'll make plenty of friends, don't worry."
"Dear! You don't want Chihiro running around with delinquents!"
"Nonsense, kids will be kids and then they'll grow up and be responsible. It's best to let them get it out now – saves a lot of time and money later in life."
Her mother's response washes over her, like the tide that came so suddenly that first day and trapped her in the Spirit World. Her father's deeper reply intersperses her mother's, like the rocks that broke the first wave, but just as surely kept her there against her will that first night.
"Come one, Chihiro! You're not still afraid, are you?"
"Don't worry – you'll do fine at the new school! And don't you want to see the new house?"
She digs her nails into her hand and straightens her spine. She survived Yubaba's bathhouse and made a lot of friends. School shouldn't be nearly that hard.
So, she hurries over, out from the shadow of the first (the last) clock tower, and shouts, "I'm ready! Let's go!"
Her parents exchange a perplexed look of 'is that really our daughter?' before laughing and climbing in themselves.
Settling back into the seat amongst the various bits of their former home they thought they couldn't leave to the movers, Sen – Chihiro – stifles a giggle. Now that she doesn't have to worry about her parents being eaten, or something worse, there's something hysterically funny about her parents being turned into pigs. If her mom ever remembers (because it's obvious that her parents don't and thank goodness for that), she'd be horrified.
Sen – Chihiro! – does not have a slight fit of hysterics in the back seat of her parent's car as they drive away from an entrance to the Spirit World that stole a part of their lives from them. She doesn't. She doesn't, because if she does she's actually going to have a complete breakdown and that's not going to help anyone, least of all her.
Even if going to see a therapist for some mental trauma, like seeing your parents as pigs and fearing for their lives, or a couple near death experiences, who's going to believe her? They'll probably just lock her up, and she won't let that happen. No one's ever going to put her somewhere she doesn't want to be, never again.
She makes a mental note, through her mess of thoughts and feelings, to ask her parents to sign her up for some martial arts lessons. If magic can't be learned in this world, she'll have the next best thing.
Her parents just look at her a bit oddly for laughing about pigs and bacon and frogs, but they just passed an odd sign for pigs, so they don't give it too much thought.
Chihiro has always had an odd sense of humor for a child.
Still laughing, Sen's – Chihiro's – hair band flashes in the light, and slowly Sen – Chihiro – lets herself calm. Her friends haven't abandoned her, and she won't let what she learned go to waste. Not the cleaning, not the cooking. Not the lessons in humility and respect. No, the ones she learned when she helped the polluted River Spirit and when she went to return Zeniba's seal. The ones that her friends helped her find in her own heart, mind, and soul.
Giggles tapering off, Sen – Chihiro – takes one last deep breath and releases it.
Alright, she says to the sky in the dusty window, I can do this.
School, Sen finds, is remarkably similar to Yubaba's bathhouse.
There are the cleaning girls who cluster and gossip but aren't much trouble unless you annoy the whole group. There are the toads (or they might have been frogs…she mentally shrugs and decides that it's not going to matter all that much at this point) who are always lurking and adding opinions that no one wants. There are the serving girls, who brought the food, the greeters, the dispensers of tokens, the guests (some particularly cute younger children are remarkable like those large chicks that loved to soak).
Even the principal, for all that he is a forty-something man, reminds her of Yubaba.
So school is similar and boring and new and comforting….
But it also hurts to be there, around all those people who might have known her somewhere else, in some other time.
So, even as Sen – Chihiro – makes friends, she retreats. It's lonely, being in middle school and being so far apart from these other humans who should have been her peers.
(The Spirit World, for all that her power is divided now, is a greedy mistress – once she's touched your soul, there's no chance of returning to your ordinary life. Something, her, is always missing.)
Every Sunday, Sen/Chihiro uses most of her free day to trek out into the forest that surrounds the town. She wakes at six, rubs the sleep from her eyes and practically bounces out the door, leaving a note on the kitchen table when she grabs her lunch. Sundays make the week worthwhile.
She takes her time, wandering around the quiet streets, peering into different places that might, just maybe, be another entrance to the world for which she longs. No one understands her here, when she laughs at frogs, and whispers to the wind about roasted newts and giant friendly daikon spirits.
To be fair, she hasn't really tried.
To be fair, none of her friends would believe her.
So she wanders. Up at the lonely train stop that doesn't require her to walk the tracks or swim through an ocean, she stands as the sole passenger from this small town. It's cold behind her and on her shoulders, and she shivers when the wind blows through. It doesn't matter that it's mid-July and by all rights she should be baking.
The first train passes her by. It's empty, on it's way to another station after a different early morning run. If she lets her eyes flutter, the shadows inside almost look like those people, those shades, that took that same train with her.
Where were they going?
Maybe she'll never know.
She wanders more in the forests, but here at least she has company. The little stone houses for the various spirits, many of which have fallen into disrepair from the erasure of memory or natural disasters, still offer shelter to those spirits that dwell in the human realm. While the larger spirits might not fit, young kitsune (1), tanuki (2), leaf sprites and sapling spirits dwell in these small homes temporarily, usually after something has destroyed their own home or as a hotel of sorts.
Sen/Chihiro has no problem working with these creatures, exchanging work for news from the Bathhouse.
"Yes, Kama-ji is still working those soot sprites hard, yes he is! Still calls them lazy for all that he seems to like them. Even gave some of the slower ones some konpeito (3) the other day when they missed most of what Lin gave them."
"Really? Wow…. Do you know which ones?" Sen (she's really Sen around these creatures – she leant the lesson of giving her real name out when Yubaba had her sign that contract) mumbles around the brush she's holding in her mouth.
The little kitsune, unfortunately named Chibisuke (4), shrugs. "Nope. They're always switching their names, so it's pretty pointless to say."
"Mm, okay." She hopes the little Em-be-r triplets we're the ones. They're always messing around and trying to get out of work.
Standing and brushing the dirt and leaves from her pants, Sen glances over to her small companion and removes the brush from her mouth.
"Alright. Here's your personally painted new home, Chibisuke-kun."
"Awesome! Thanks, Sen-san!"
"No problem. Send me another note if you need anything else. And thanks for the news!"
The small tanuki bobs his head, give her a quick hug, and bounces off into his redecorated home.
High school is much of the same, although her weekend time to help out the local spirits shrinks some – exams and tests don't study for themselves. Her spirit friends are sweet, though, and give her their own gifts for good luck and success.
Some might work better than others, but she appreciates every single gift.
The best one was when she had her college exams and one of the kitsune kits made a trip to the bathhouse and came back with some konpeito, some bits of gold, a few silvery scales, a few feathers, a card that says "chu 3" and another that says "good luck! You're not a dope."
"Thank you," she says through her sniffles and tears.
The kit blushes and offers her a handkerchief.
She takes the offering, blows her nose and cuddles the kit into a hug, resolving to make inari-zushi (5) for the blushing kit next weekend.
Her friends, old and new, are the best.
She thinks of the gold during her science exam, the scales during literature, the konpeito during Japanese, the cards during English, and the feathers during math.
She can't take the tokens with her, but they're there nonetheless.
Chihiro should have been celebrating her entrance into Keio. She should have been with her high school friends, who are at a karaoke bar and having the time of their lives.
She is, too. Except, her party had foxfire and the drums of tanuki and the whispering chorus of the forest.
"Thank you all! I couldn't have done it without your charms and well wishes."
"Hooray for Sen!"
"Sen, come back and visit!"
"Of course I'll visit!"
The party lasts into the next morning.
Except, instead of arriving at her home, Sen enters Soul Society.
It's a morning rush for the trains and Chihiro is too tired to pay much attention to those around her. Everyone is dressed in some shade of black, grey, or navy with accents of white from crisp business shirts beneath the blazers.
I wish I'd slept more last night….
And while that thought is tripping around in her head, someone shoves a bit too hard and she goes tripping herself, too tired to catch herself before she's past the yellow tiles and over the edge of the platform.
Someone dressed in black is there to greet her, prevent her from panicking too much, and presses the hilt of their sword against her forehead so she's moving again.
In her ears, there the rush of water over a large grassy hill that has the rocks for a dried up stream that never made it to reality in the human world. But she doesn't see this. Instead, everything is dark until it's not, light making her vision redden as she tries to see through closed eyelids.
She opens them to disappointment.
It's not an old amusement park, or a bathhouse, or a train, or a small house at the stop called 'Swamp bottom.'
It's just a street with other people.
Her niche is storytelling. The little ones come to listen, the older ones, too, to find a break from the monotony of their lives (what do you aim for when you're dead? What is your ambition when those who will succeed are born with their power?).
"Once there was a young girl. She wasn't pretty or strong or smart, but she did manage to go on an adventure that changed her world…."
"Under the tallest pine in the forest of Kamakura…."
"The school girls were so happy to have to chance to go to Kyōto…."
She tells of her life in snippets and earns her food from them, one life into the next.
Chihiro definitely doesn't start anti-shinigami entitlement propaganda when she sees some black robes beating up a kid for stealing.
It's not in response to the abuse the shinigami who patrol heap upon them if some of the antagonists in her stories become clad in black and wield swords with odd attacks. Lots of other stories have them and she can't keep telling the same ones year after year. People might lose their memories when they come to Soul Society, but they don't keep losing them once they're here.
Some of the higher ranks, who try and slip into the outer districts for sake, disguising themselves as travelers or what have you and give out food and spend money, give her a smirk when she tells those stories of the Black Robes.
Okay, so some of the Black Robes are actually traitors and help the innocent and poor in her stories now, that's fine. Not all the yōkai were evil either.
Years pass, and one of the black robed ("Storyteller, they're called shinigami." "I know, but 'Black Robes' are so much more dramatic." "Haha, if you say so….") comes to her district and stares at her awhile before barging through the crowd and shepherding her off to school – this Shinigami Academy.
Yeah, like heck is she staying there.
Somebody tells her that bucking the system is just like the Lost Demonic Hero of Soul Society.
Obviously, someone needs to work on their naming skills.
"Why?" She asks. There's a story there and her own are getting boring.
Her fellow black robe shrugs. "Dunno. that's just what the stories say about him. He was always doing things his way until he broke away."
Broke away or contained, perhaps that's a better question and a lesson in itself. The Central 46, and even the rest of the shinigami dislike change with a burning passion that sometimes looks like grief on Kuchiki-fukutaicho and Abarai-taicho.
Whatever, she'll do things her way and see what comes of it.
The years in Soul Society have taught her steel and patience and exasperation. She's had determination for years. It's the best time to make use of them.
1) Kitsune – foxes, connotation of trickster spirits, shape shifters
2) Tanuki – lit. raccon dog, also tricksters, shape shifters, are known to use their prominent bellies as drums
3) Konpeito – the little star-like candies the soot sprites eat, pure rock sugar
4) Chibisuke – lit. shorty/short stuff, usually a nickname (like in Prince of Tennis)
5) Inari-zushi – fried tofu pockets wrapped around sushi rice. Foxes are thought to like them because of Inari.
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