Title: Never Too Much, Never Too Little
Fandom: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi | Spirited Away
Rating: U
Summary: For Chihiro, it's a struggle to find her footing in the real world after her time in the bathhouse. There's more than one way back to solid ground, though -- it's just a question of learning how to fall, and how to land.
Notes: Written for [personal profile] genarti for Parallels 2014. (Also available at AO3.) All notes are at the end.


Never Too Much, Never Too Little

The Oginos had expected that Chihiro might have a little trouble fitting into her new school. It hadn't been possible for them to enroll her at the start of the school year, so she entered as a transfer student at the start of the autumn term, right after the summer vacation: an awkward time for anyone to be a new student. Even though Chihiro's fifth-grade teacher had promised the Oginos that she would do everything she could to make the transition as smooth as possible, as the weeks went by and late summer rolled into autumn, Mrs Ogino in particular started to worry about her daughter's habits. On weekdays, Chihiro always came straight home from school, and never brought anyone else home to play or even to study. On the weekends, when she might have been expected to beg for money to go see a movie or spend hours in the arcade or the local shopping mall, she seldom went further from home than to return a library book, or to buy a snack from the nearest convenience store. If she had seemed lonely, or left out, it would have been easier to suggest ways to make friends -- invite some of the girls from her class over to bake cookies, for instance -- but Chihiro didn't seem at all interested in reaching out to anyone her own age.

Chihiro's lack of friends wasn't the only cause for parental concern. For all that she had protested and cried and sulked before and during the move, she had grown oddly quiet since they had settled in to the new place. It wasn't a sullen sort of quiet: no pouts or pulling faces, no exaggerated sighs or feigned deafness when she was asked to set the table or put her laundry away. She got up on time for school, did her homework when she came home, ran to the store for dinner ingredients, helped with the dishes, and even made her lunch for the next day without being reminded. But chores were chores, and when all the chores were done, nothing appeared to hold her interest for very long. Favourite board games gathered dust, beloved toys stayed on the shelves, and even the television was seldom on unless her parents were watching it with her. She spent most of her free time curled up in a chair with a book, but even then, there were times when Mrs Ogino noticed that she seemed to be staring at the pages without actually reading them.

Homesickness, of course, was the most obvious explanation...and yet Chihiro wasn't making any real attempt to keep in touch with her friends from her old school, either. A letter or two in response to one written to her, or a telephone call in which she listened far more than she talked, were very nearly the extent of her efforts. If it was homesickness, it wasn't anything like they might have anticipated. To a parent who was used to a lively, curious, and occasionally naughty daughter, the change in Chihiro's personality could only be cause for alarm.

Which led to whispers to each other, in the bedroom, late at night.

Do you think she's being bullied...?

Her grades aren't terrible, but they're not as good as they were last year....

I don't know how many times I've asked her, but she keeps saying that nothing's wrong, everything's fine....

She hasn't even opened the new book you bought for her. I thought she loved that one author....

Could she really be that homesick, still...?

Should I talk to her teacher? You know how kids can be....

She hasn't mentioned anyone who might be bothering her, though. Do you think she's not feeling well...?

The doctor didn't see anything wrong at her last checkup. And really, after all this time....?

Maybe a trip might cheer her up? We could go to a theme park, or the mountains....

The whispers circled round and round, trailing off and fading into troubled silence.

* * *

In her own bedroom, late at night, Chihiro stared at the ceiling.

It was always hardest at night. During the day, when there were things to do, it was easier to pretend that everything was normal. But at night, when she was alone in her room, every sensation seemed to grow fuzzier, harder to place with any amount of confidence. Was that the rumble of a delivery van passing by outside, or was it the vibrations from a dozen pairs of feet hurrying along polished wooden floors? Was she sleeping on a futon, or a mattress? Was that faint snoring coming from her father in the next room, or from Rin, sprawled out on a battered old quilt no more than a few feet away from her? And was that rustle of flapping wings just a bird landing on the window ledge...or Yubaba, returning to the bathhouse as another long night stretched out before all of them?

More than once (more often than she liked to think about) since the move, Chihiro had jolted awake in sudden terror, and had all but fallen out of bed in her haste to put her futon away and wolf down a quick breakfast before the first customers began to arrive -- only to stop, bewildered, when her bare feet landed on a floor rug, and stare out her bedroom window in confusion as the greyish-pink twilight brightened with the light of a rising sun. And then, with her heart thudding in her ears, she had groped her way to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face, and whisper words of comfort and reassurance to her white-faced, dripping reflection in the mirror.

I'm home. Mom and Dad are home. They're alive. We're safe. Haku's free. I'm free.

But when night came again, she would find herself staring at the ceiling, caught in the waking dream between her lives and struggling to remember where she was, and which one was which.

She couldn't think about making new friends, or keeping up with old ones. It was all she could do to make herself live in the here and now.

* * *

By the end of the school year, with fifth grade over and sixth grade about to start, the question of Chihiro's future middle school was bound to come up. The closest public middle school had a very good record, as far as academics were concerned, but neighbourhood gossip also hinted that its reputation for high scores went hand in hand with a reputation for bullying -- to the point where it was said that one family had had to pull both of their sons out and send them elsewhere after the younger one refused to attend school for months on end. (Regardless of the truth of the rumour, the very words school refusal made Mrs Ogino shudder and immediately start searching for other options.) Looking a little further afield, however, brought a promising possibility: Tsutsuji Girls' Academy, a private, all-girls' combined middle and high school in the next town over, with tuition rates that were just on the edge of what they could afford. The glossy school brochures that Mrs Ogino pored over showed picture after picture of studious but smiling girls in neat lavender-and-white uniforms, and spoke about the special care and attention that would be given to help every young woman find her place to shine.

'Would you like that?' Mrs Ogino asked Chihiro, over a celebratory chicken curry dinner the night before the start of sixth grade. 'It's only three stops down on the train line, and a short walk from there.'

'Mm?' Chihiro looked up from her bowl, blinking at the question. 'What's three stops down?'

'The middle school I've been telling you about,' Mrs Ogino said patiently. 'It's supposed to be very good. All girls, too.'

'None of those smelly boys to bug you,' Mr Ogino chimed in, with a grin. 'Getting their boy-germs all over everything.'

Under the table, Mrs Ogino nudged her husband's ankle in warning. 'You might meet some nice girls there,' she said. 'Do you want me to ask about their entrance exam? We could even go tour the school a little later in the year, if you like.'

Chihiro thought for a moment, then shrugged and looked back down at her bowl. 'It's fine,' she said simply, digging into her curry. 'I'll go there, if you want me to. Is there any more rice left?'

She was so intent on getting back to her meal that she didn't see the look her parents exchanged.

(It was easier to remember where she was when she was eating. She'd helped make the curry, after all; this meal was completely safe for them to eat.)

* * *

For all of her parents' unspoken worries, Chihiro passed the Tsutsuji entrance exam by a comfortable margin. She acknowledged the congratulations from the various adults around her with a half-confused reluctance that fortunately could be mistaken for shyness. It was hard to understand why they were so excited for her. It was what you did, in this world: you went to school, you sat at a desk, you listened and took notes, you studied the notes, you prepared for exams, you passed them. That was how you knew where you were. She didn't quite understand why her mother wiped away tears when she sat down to breakfast on the first day of middle school; this year wouldn't be any different than the one before. All that was different was the uniform she now had to wear, the lavender-and-white skirt and blouse with the new black schoolbag her father had bought for her.

The first week of middle school was a blur of assemblies and classroom introductions, as she had expected, but by the start of the second week it was obvious that something was different than it had been at her old school: the after-school club recruitment process was suddenly in full swing. Big handmade posters in hallways and classrooms touted the fun to be had in joining the manga and light novel club (come work on your own original stories!) or the drama club (be a part of our Super Summer Spectacular!), sought out competitive spirits for the softball and tennis teams (prefectural middle school champions two years in a row!), and encouraged civic participation on the student council (help us make our school a better place for everyone!). At the end of the week was the recruitment fair itself, and Chihiro dutifully followed the rest of her class to the assembly hall, where the club booths and upperclassmen recruiters were waiting to welcome the new arrivals.

It was easy to get lost in the noisy crowd, one face among dozens. Some of her classmates already seemed to know what clubs they wanted to join and headed straight to the booths to sign up, while others hung back, too nervous or undecided to do more than take the flyers and treats that the different clubs were handing out. Before Chihiro knew it, she was juggling flyers from the knitting club and the autumn sports festival committee, a bag of candy hearts from the English conversation club, a card with the dates and times of the go club's matches against rival schools, and an origami lily folded by a creative third-year in the gardening club. But the sea of students swept her past most of the club booths, and it wasn't until she found herself all but deposited into an empty corner that she was able to catch her breath.

She looked down at the little collection of club materials in her hands. Gardening and English and sports festivals...none of it really appealed to her. The thought of showing up to club meetings made her feel a little sick and squirmy inside. It was hard enough to sit in school all day, trying to figure out how to fit in; spending even more hours at school, pretending to be interested in some activity or other, sounded even less enjoyable. And it wasn't as if clubs were a requirement here -- she'd heard some of the other girls joke about signing up with the 'Go Home Club' -- so no one would miss her much if she decided to leave when the last bell rang. The same as last year, and the year before.

She folded the flyers into quarters and slipped the card into them, tucking the bag of candy into the crook of her elbow so she wouldn't crush the little paper flower. Just as she had sorted her things out and was ready to try to make her way back to the door, a sharp voice said:

'You interested?'

Startled, Chihiro looked up, and saw that she was standing in front of a folding table that had been wedged into the far corner of the hall. A large piece of posterboard with the words JUDO CLUB written on it had been taped, with a truly excessive amount of tape, to the front of the table. There was only one girl standing behind the table, a short second-year with a lopsided ponytail, and she was staring at Chihiro with an intensity that bordered on an outright scowl.

Chihiro swallowed. 'I...I don't know,' she managed to say, as politely as possible. 'I've n-never done judo before.'

'It's a lot of hard work.' The girl folded her arms across her chest, as if defying Chihiro to tell her otherwise. 'There's no room for slackers here. If you're looking for a place to gossip about boys, go sign up with the swim club.' She jerked her head in the direction of a booth two places down, where a handful of first- and second-years were clustered around a cheerful-looking third-year whom Chihiro had already identified as one of the more popular girls in school. 'Half of those idiots don't even get their hair wet.'

Before Chihiro could respond, another voice cut in. 'Ashihara-san, that's not nice.'

Both Chihiro and the second-year -- Ashihara-san -- turned to see a tall third-year walk up to the booth. Chihiro vaguely remembered the new girl from her first day of school, one of the upperclassmen representatives who had been helping to direct the first-years to their classrooms. Between her height and her air of cool authority, she already looked like a high school student -- especially compared with Ashihara-san, who was even shorter than Chihiro.

Ashihara-san scowled at the upperclassman's rebuke. 'I'm only telling it like it is, Nakata-sempai,' she grumbled. 'You know they wouldn't last five minutes at one of our practices.'

'And I wouldn't last five minutes in a swimming pool, so we're probably even, right?' Nakata-sempai said smoothly. She smiled at Chihiro. 'Judo is a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun, too. Most of our members are beginners, so you wouldn't be alone if you've never tried it before.'

Chihiro bit down on her lip. 'It's not...I mean, I don't think I'd be good at it.' Which was true enough. 'I'm not that good with sports at all.'

Nakata-sempai nodded understandingly, but not in a way that made it seem as if she agreed with Chihiro's reply. 'Why don't you come with us tomorrow afternoon and see what it's like, if you're free?' she said. 'We practice at the dojo near the train station.'

'Near the train station?' Chihiro repeated, with some dismay. She vaguely recalled walking past a sign advertising some kind of dojo on her way to and from school, on the main road to the station. If it was the same one, then she'd have even less of an excuse to avoid the invitation.

Nakata-sempai nodded again. 'That's the one. If you try it and don't like, I promise we won't make you stay. No hard feelings,' she added, with a little wink.

It was difficult to tell, at that point, what tipped the decision for Chihiro. Part of it was the wish to not be rude to an upperclassman so soon after she'd started at the school, and part of it was the knowledge that it would be extremely awkward to go out of her way to dodge the offer. But there was another small part, half-buried beneath the weight of two years of not paying much attention to her classmates, that was curious about what could have brought two very different older girls like Nakata-sempai and Ashihara-san together in the same club.

'If it's near the train station,' she finally said, weakly, 'I think I can stay for a little while.'

'That'll be just fine,' Nakata-sempai said, pleased. 'You won't need anything for the first club meeting -- we'll explain everything to you then. If you wait for me by the shoe lockers tomorrow, I'll walk over with you. Some of the other girls will be there, too.' Her brow furrowed, as if she were trying to remember something, but quickly smoothed back into a smile again. 'And I haven't even introduced myself, have I? I'm Nakata Miyuki, judo club president and third kyu rank. Ashihara Kyoumi-san here is the vice-president, and third kyu rank as well.'

'Ogino Chihiro.' Chihiro bowed, though she had to cut her bow short in order to keep the bag of candy from slipping down her arm. 'Thank you for inviting me.'

'Tamamura Reiko-sensei is the official club advisor, but mostly she just watches us and helps arrange travel and testing for our belts. Her uncle owns the dojo we practice in.' Nakata-sempai's smile faded slightly. 'We're not a very big club, but I hope we'll get more members this year.'

'We'd better,' Ashihara-san muttered darkly, mostly to herself.

Nakata-sempai picked up a clipboard from the table. 'If you'll sign your name here, Ogino-san? To remain a club, the student council wants us to list our potential members as well as our current ones.'

There were a handful of names on the sheet already, including both Nakata-sempai's and Ashihara-san's. Chihiro took the pencil that was attached to the clipboard by a string, and scribbled her name down as quickly as possible, mostly before she could change her mind.

As Nakata-sempai put the clipboard back down on the table, Ashihara-san peered at the page, then looked up at Chihiro. 'What's with the spelling?' she said, pointing to Chihiro's name -- which was written entirely in hiragana, like a preschool child would write it.

'That's how I spell it,' Chihiro said, and this time she met Ashihara-san's sharp gaze with a frosty stubbornness that ran straight to the core. It was the same response she gave to anyone who asked that question, masking the underlying reason: You don't get to know my real name.

'Then that's how we'll remember it.' If Nakata-sempai had seen the sudden coldness in Chihiro's eyes, she made no comment on it. 'See you tomorrow, Ogino-san.'

* * *

The dojo near the train station was on the small side, its main entrance squeezed into the space between a ramen shop and an empty storefront that had once held an insurance agent's office. Chihiro and two other girls were the only new first-years that Nakata-sempai had managed to recruit, and as the four of them slipped off their shoes at the entrance to the dojo, she seemed to be putting a brave face on the low turnout.

'We lost four of our upperclassmen from last year,' she said, ticking them off on her fingers. 'One from my year moved to Tokyo with her family, one from the year above me passed the public school entrance exam, and the other two are in the high school now.' She shrugged. 'Looks like we'll have lots of chances to practise with each other, right?'

There were four girls in the dojo when Chihiro and the others arrived. They were all dressed for practice, in judo-gi of thick white cotton with plain white belts. Ashihara-san -- or Ashihara-sempai, as Chihiro knew she would have to think of her now -- was tying her hair back, but when she spotted Nakata-sempai she quickly straightened up and bowed to the newcomers, and the other three girls followed suit. Nakata-sempai returned the bow, and motioned to everyone to line up and sit or kneel on the floor, with the new girls facing the existing club members so Nakata-sempai could explain the structure of the club and how it worked.

'The senior high school has its own judo club,' she explained, once they had all introduced themselves. 'We practise separately for most of the year, up until winter break, and then we all go to Hokkaido for a week of combined training and work together for the rest of the year. We usually team up with another club for the sports festival and the all-school festival, but we won't start planning for that until after summer. Most of the time, we just work together, every Tuesday and Thursday.' Her gaze travelled across the new girls. 'None of you have done judo before, right?'

There was a long pause, and then the thin-faced first-year next to Chihiro, who had introduced herself as Hanami Yuuki, timidly held up one hand. 'My younger brothers do karate,' she said. 'So I know a little bit, maybe?'

Nakata-sempai smiled at the hesitant explanation. 'That's fine. Starting from the beginning means that you won't have any bad habits to unlearn.' She turned to look at the girls who were already dressed for practice. 'Ashihara-san, Seto-san, would you like to demonstrate? Just some basic sweeps and throws -- whatever you feel most comfortable working on?'

The two older girls got to their feet and walked over to the middle of the room. Both girls were second-years, but Ashihara-sempai was by far the shorter of the two. Nonetheless, in the space of what seemed to be half a second, the much-taller Seto-sempai ended up flat on her back, as her opponent seized her and hooked a leg behind her left knee, sending her crashing to the floor. Chihiro and the other first-years all jumped, and Hanami-san let out a half-terrified giggle.

'That was a nice inner reap,' Nakata-sempai said, beaming brightly. She glanced at the wide-eyed first-years. 'It looks like it hurts, but a big part of judo is learning how to fall and how to land so that it doesn't.'

'Well, not much,' Seto-sempai added wryly, as she propped herself up on her elbow. 'I'll be feeling that one tomorrow morning.'

There were a few more demonstrations from the upperclassman, as both Seto-sempai and Ashihara-sempai showed some of the different types of throws and the ways to hold an opponent down once you had them pinned where you wanted them. It didn't take long for Chihiro's head to start spinning with all of the names for each new technique -- shoulder reap, belt drop, scarf hold, too many to count all at once. But even though the terms were sometimes hard to follow, there was no denying the strength and skill required to perform everything that the older girls were demonstrating. It was amazing to see how with a firm grip and a quick shift of weight, Ashihara-sempai could slip free from the grasp of a girl who was almost a head taller than her and let her opponent all but sail over her. Seto-sempai, in turn, had a particularly clever trick of appearing to lose her balance, but then suddenly using her foot to sweep both of her opponent's legs out from under her. With every thud against the floor, Chihiro's heart seemed to skip a beat, quickening with excitement.

Finally, Nakata-sempai clapped her hands to bring the demonstration to an end. 'That's a lot of what we do,' she said. 'But you have to learn a few things before we'll start working on throws and sweeps like these. The first three weeks, we'll mostly be doing exercises to build strength and endurance -- all you'll need are your gym clothes for those. Then, if you're still interested, we can help get you set up with judo-gi and everything else for the real training to start.' She turned hopeful eyes on the prospective new members. 'Everyone still interested?'

Chihiro looked at Hanami-san, who was sitting with her hands clasped tightly in her lap. The other first-year, a sturdily built girl named Kurai Asako, poked Hanami-san in the side and whispered, loud enough for all the other girls to hear, 'Two weeks. You promised.'

Hanami-san's shoulders twitched, but she nodded minutely. That appeared to be enough to satisfy Kurai-san, who declared, 'The two of us are in, sempai.'

Nakata-sempai raised an eyebrow at their exchange, but let it go without a word. 'Ogino-san?' she asked.

For a brief but sickening moment, Chihiro felt torn. Some deep, hidden instinct screamed out in panicked protest -- don't do it, don't promise anything, it's a trap, you'll never leave -- and she had to gulp a quick breath of air to quell the thick, drowning feeling in her chest. Only the solid wooden floor beneath her knees kept her grounded in this world...but it was just enough for her to muster her resolve, and force out a reply:

'I'll do it.'

* * *

Hanami-san and Kurai-san accompanied Chihiro on the short walk to the train station, and in the few minutes they spent talking Chihiro learned about the two-week promise that Kurai-san had hinted at during the club meeting. The two of them had known each other from elementary school, and had made a deal that in middle school they would each pick a club and try it out together for two weeks. Kurai-san had chosen judo; Hanami-san had chosen the library club. As Kurai-san explained it, 'I like books okay, and she can at least run a lap around the track in gym class, so it's not like we'll completely stink at either one.'

'What interested you in judo, Ogino-san?' Hanami-san asked, clearly trying to change the subject.

'I don't know,' Chihiro said, more honestly than she had intended to sound. 'Nakata-sempai asked me, and I said yes. But it looks like it'll be fun, maybe.'

For the first few weeks, it was much more hard work than fun. As the club president, Nakata-sempai led the other girls in seemingly endless rounds of sit-ups and push-ups and other calisthenics, along with special stretches and bends and twists to build their core muscles. They took turns trying to pull each other across the dojo by holding onto opposite ends of a folded judo belt. They even tried a strengthening move where two girls stood back to back, arms locked together at the elbows, and did their best to bend forward far enough to physically lift their partner off the floor. Even after they were finished with practice, they had to clean the dojo, taking damp towels and running back and forth with them to keep the floors in spotless condition. After every practice, Chihiro struggled to stay awake for the train ride home, and looked forward to nothing more than a long soak in a hot bath to soothe her blistered feet and aching arms and legs.

But even though she was tired and sore, it was a good kind of tiredness. It allowed her to fall asleep almost as soon as she got into bed, and to sleep through the night without a single bad dream. It was hard to forget where you were when your shoulders and thighs reminded you of every tug-of-war and deep knee bend you had been doing yesterday afternoon. And even though Hanami-san and Kurai-san weren't in her class at school, they usually met up to walk to the dojo together and talk about classes or homework on the way. By the time the two-week trial period was over, both of them had seemed to like the judo club enough to stick with it.

As Chihiro's blisters turned to calluses, and the soreness in her muscles started to fade, the judo club practices turned more towards actual techniques. First, Chihiro and the other first-years had to learn how to fall properly, initially by watching the upperclassmen demonstrate. The hardest part, Nakata-sempai told them, was to not be afraid of falling -- and the only way to get over that fear was to do it over and over again.

'When you're little, you can run and fall because you don't really know that it will hurt,' she said. 'It doesn't really sink in that it'll hurt until you've fallen a few dozen times. So you just have to keep falling more, so you know that it doesn't have to hurt if you know how to land.'

Which was easier said than done, if Chihiro's bruises were any indication. Her parents, not-so-secretly thrilled to see her participating in any club at her new school, had rushed right out and bought her judo-gi and some extra treats like a new gym bag and towel set, but when she started to come home with black-and-blue knees and elbows they both had to hold back their worried remarks. Chihiro, however, didn't mind the bumps and scrapes. She could identify every one: the one on her right knee had come from an awkward sideways fall; the one on her left hip from a forward roll that didn't quite go as planned. All of the other girls had bruises like hers, too. The older girls all had their own share of stories about the bruises they'd earned in previous years, and every one had as much pride as embarrassment behind it.

Some of the upperclassmen were particularly eager to share stories, and not just about their own experiences. Ashihara-sempai, Chihiro soon learned, could talk for hours about judo itself, reciting from memory the career highlights of incredible female athletes like Tamura Ryoko and Inokuma Yawara who brought home medal after medal from the Olympics and could wipe the floor with anyone, girl or boy, who thought they could beat her. It was obvious that judo was the only thing she seemed to care about -- in spite of Nakata-sempai's occasional scolding, her performance in the classroom was only just good enough to keep her eligible for club membership, and her attitude towards exams was a flippant I won't impress anyone if I pass them, so all I have to do is not fail them. It wasn't the best attitude, perhaps, but Chihiro understood at least a little of what it really meant. She wondered if Ashihara-sempai had ever had trouble falling asleep at night, before she joined the judo club.

The spring term went by quickly, and Chihiro and the other first-years were able to get together during the summer break to exercise outside the dojo. They even had a chance to go to a movie together before Hanami-san's parents took her and her brothers to the countryside to see their grandparents, and Kurai-san went to visit some cousins in Tokyo. With everyone out of town, Chihiro suddenly had a lot of free time on her hands -- and with nothing better to do, she took the train over to the dojo, just to see if anyone else was around. She didn't bother to bring her clothes or towel; there was no reason for her to expect that anyone else would be there.

All the same, it shouldn't have been a surprise to see that one person was there. Judging by Ashihara-sempai's sweat-streaked hair and the limpness of her judo-gi, she'd been practising by herself for some time. She was so intent on her training, a set of basic forward rolls, that she didn't hear Chihiro come in at first. When she straightened up and saw that she was no longer alone in the room, she frowned in a way that Chihiro had come to recognise as a reluctant greeting.

'Didn't expect you to stop by,' she said, with her usual bluntness. 'Anyone else with you?'

'Just me,' said Chihiro. 'Are you the only one here?'

'Nah.' Ashihara-sempai yanked on her ponytail, pulling it back into place from where it had started to slipped down. 'Tamamura-sensei is around somewhere.'

'Is she?' That was a real surprise to Chihiro. The Tsutsuji middle school judo club advisor came to their practices only once in a great while. She hadn't shown up at all during the spring term, and the older girls had said that they might not see her at the dojo until halfway through the fall term. 'I hadn't seen her.'

'Huh? No, not our Tamamura-sensei. Her uncle, the one who owns the place,' Ashihara-sempai explained. 'He lets me come here on off-days, so long as I clean up when I'm done and run errands for him when he needs them.' She rolled her shoulders back in a stretch. 'Better deal than paying for lessons any day.'

'So you don't take judo lessons outside of club?' Chihiro asked. None of the club members had ever mentioned outside lessons, but if anyone was doing them, she would have expected it to be Ashihara-sempai.

'My folks would say it's a waste of time.' The older girl's voice took on a high-pitched, sneering lilt, mimicking a woman's nagging tones. 'We didn't send you to Tsutsuji to spend all your time playing with your club, blah blah blah. But it's not like they'd normally care what I was doing, so long as I'm out of the way.' She yanked on her ponytail again, though it didn't need the adjustment. 'I'd rather be here than there.'

'And you're here often enough, from what I can tell,' said a new voice, from behind Chihiro.

Both girls turned to look at the person who had spoken, and Chihiro nearly stumbled backwards when she saw the figure framed in the dojo's entryway. It was an older man, well into his sixties or seventies, with long arms and a round, bald head. Perched on his nose was a pair of small, rounded sunglasses -- having just come in from outdoors -- and he was carrying two wrapped boxes tucked under one arm. He had a small, neat mustache...but Chihiro had no difficulty picturing him with a huge and bristly one, because to her eyes he looked amazingly like Kamaji from the bathhouse.

The old man took off his sunglasses, and peered at Chihiro. 'Oh, you're another one of my Reiko's girls, aren't you?' he said. 'Come to train here, too?'

Chihiro didn't have a chance to reply before Ashihara-sempai bounded forward, reaching for the boxes that the old man had in his arms. 'Sensei, I said that I'd go pick up those packages!' she exclaimed. 'You didn't have to -- '

'I needed the walk,' Tamamura-sensei said, cutting off her complaint and neatly side-stepping her attempts to take the packages from him. 'And you should take one, too. It's hotter than a boiler room in here.' He looked from Ashihara-sempai to the still shell-shocked Chihiro, and then back again. 'Tell you what -- if you'll go pick up some iced tea for the three of us, we'll call it even for today. Just swing by the nearest vending machine. I'm not picky.'

A quick exchange of coins later, Chihiro and Ashihara-sempai were out on the street, Ashihara-sempai still in her damp judo-gi. It was a scorching afternoon with only a hint of a breeze, and yet Chihiro had to agree with the old man that it was nicer outside than inside the dojo. She'd started to feel a little fuzzy again after seeing Tamamura-sensei -- nowhere near as bad as she had felt before, but being outside and in front of a completely normal vending machine helped remind her where she was.

'Tamamura sensei seems nice,' she said, in an awkward attempt at small talk, as Ashihara-sempai crammed a handful of hundred-yen pieces into the machine.

'He's a stubborn old goat,' Ashihara-sempai replied. 'He'll have another heart attack if he doesn't take it easy. But he's got more brains than anyone else in this town.' She punched the buttons for bottles of iced barley tea and iced green tea, then glanced at Chihiro. 'What d'you want?'

'Milk tea, please.' The can rattled into the slot, and Chihiro bent to pick it up. 'I don't have my stuff today,' she said, straightening up, 'but will you be here tomorrow? I'd like to get better at leg sweeps, and if it's okay with Tamamura-sensei, and you're here....'

It was Ashihara-sempai's turn to look startled, though she quickly covered it up with a swig of her tea. 'Yeah, sure, whatever. But I don't come here to play around,' she added threateningly. 'If you can't keep up -- '

'I'll keep up!' Chihiro insisted. The can of tea in her hands felt cold and solid, a welcome anchor. 'I want to do things right.'

* * *

Summer break rolled into the next term, and the girls of the Tsutsuji middle school judo club continued their training. Everything was geared towards two big events: the combined club winter break trip to Hokkaido and the first matches against other middle school club teams in January. The upperclassmen were all looking forward to seeing the high school girls, their old seniors, again, and their excitement over the Hokkaido trip was contagious.

'It's at this crazy-old inn, all sliding doors and charcoal fires and everything. We get a discount because it's off-season. It's kinda small, but the hot spring baths are great.'

'Especially when it starts snowing out.'

'Oh, you don't know snow. My first year, there was a big storm right before we were supposed to leave, and we all got stranded up there for two whole extra days.'

'Stranded and eating strawberry-cream cheesecakes the entire time, was what I heard.'

'Yeah, but it was still a lot of snow!'

Chihiro listened to the changing-room banter with a growing smile. She was beginning to look forward to the trip, too.

Now that it was the fall term, the club practices were really increasing in effort and pace. Reiko-sensei, their club advisor, had even started to come by the dojo during the Tuesday practices, standing on the sidelines with her uncle to watch the girls work on throws and falls. Nakata-sempai always seemed to work them extra-hard when Reiko-sensei was there -- and after a few practices, Chihiro began to suspect that the club president had a bit of a crush on the elegant, willowy teacher who taught third-year Japanese literature during the school day.

Kurai-san and Hanami-san had noticed it, too. 'You can tell she's trying to act like her,' Kurai-san said one October day, as she and Hanami-san waited in the station with Chihiro for the train. 'You saw how she was standing at the end of practice, with her hand on her hip? Reiko-sensei does that all the time.'

'Reiko-sensei's a nice person, though,' Hanami-san insisted, not one to let her friend speak ill of their upperclassmen or their advisor.

Kurai-san shrugged. 'I didn't say she wasn't. But when she's around, Nakata-sempai tries too hard, and it shows. D'you think I would've been able to throw her today if she'd been paying more attention to me than to Reiko-sensei? I even screwed up my hold big-time, and she still lost.'

'I wonder if she even knows she's doing it,' Chihiro said, absent-mindedly.

'Well, all I have to say is that it'll be super-awkward if she's like that when we're all on the training trip. Maybe having more people around will help.'

Classes and homework and exams took up nearly all of their attention outside the dojo, and the rest of the autumn and the start of winter seemed to flash by in no time at all. Soon enough, Chihiro and the other girls were packing for the club's big winter trip, trying to stuff as much winter clothing as possible into the two bags they were allowed to bring. The middle school group went in two vans, one driven by Reiko-sensei and their other by her uncle, with the high school club arriving in a separate group under the supervision of their own advisor.

After such a long drive, they all were grateful to stumble into the inn and fall right onto the futons and layers of warm quilts and blankets that were laid out for them. But on that first night, even after spending hours mushed into the backseats of a van, Chihiro woke very early in the morning. Something about sleeping on a futon again, in a strange dark place, surrounded by a half-dozen other girls in a pile of faintly musty-smelling blankets, stirred the old bad feelings in the back of her mind.

In the inn, there wasn't a private bathroom with a sink and a mirror where she could find some cold water to splash on her face.There were only the toilets and showers in the big communal bathroom adjacent to the hot springs of the bathhouse, and it was completely deserted in the darkness before twilight. Shivering in the frosty air, Chihiro quickly used the toilet and washed her hands...and then paused in the doorway as she was leaving the room. Maybe taking a bath would help. It had helped her once or twice at home, on days when the fuzzy feelings had been particularly strong. There was no one else around to disturb her, and she wouldn't be disturbing anyone else. A short soak might be just the thing to help clear her mind.

It was a little weird to be the only one scrubbing herself and washing her hair so early in the morning, so Chihiro soaped and rinsed as quickly as she dared. The big main hot spring pool was steaming gently in the cold air, and the hot water felt wonderful when she stepped into it. Clean and warm, she felt like she could stay in it for hours, and as she traced little circles in the water with her hands, she leaned back against the wall of the bath and closed her eyes, trying to find her place in the world again.

She might have nodded off, or at least dozed for a time. It was hard to know what time it was when no one else seemed to be stirring. But at some point, Chihiro realised that someone else was in the room with her. She couldn't actually see anything through the steam, but she heard the scrape of a bath stool on the old tiled floor, followed by the splash of water sloshing in a bucket.

'Hello?' she called out, sitting up and tucking her knees closer to her chin. 'Is someone there?'

Somewhere in the steam, she could just make out a standing figure. It was on the taller side, and had a woman's shape.

'Is that you, Nakata-sempai?' Chihiro squinted, trying to see who it was. If it were Nakata-sempai, or one of the other club members, why hadn't she said anything when she came in? 'Sempai?'

Without a word, the figure moved closer to the bath, and Chihiro felt the water swell around her at the unseen person stepped into it. Just before Chihiro could call out again, she heard a voice -- an instantly familiar voice.

'Sempai? What's with the sempai?' And out from the steam emerged a young woman (ghost spirit demon weasel, Chihiro's mind spun crazily) with jet-black hair, tied up to keep it out of the water.

Chihiro's eyes nearly bugged out of her head. '...Rin?!' she gasped.

'You think anyone human is crazy enough to be up at this hour?' Rin sank down into the water, heedless of the waves that crashed against the sides of the pool, and gave Chihiro a full, bright-toothed grin. 'Jeez, look at you. All legs and arms like a monkey god.' Suddenly, she was right up beside Chihiro, and poking her with the tip of one finger. 'Not as scrawny as you used to be, though -- you'd be a good eating size right about now.'

Chihiro scrambled back, moving out of reach. 'What are you -- no, how did you -- '

'I got borrowed for a little bit,' Rin said. She tilted her head back, as if talking to someone standing overhead. 'Somebody seems to think that humans wouldn't understand a girl and a river god hanging out in a bath together, so here I am. I don't get it, but then again I'm not the one calling the shots back there.'

Chihiro almost leapt out of the water. 'Haku brought you here? Where is he?'

'Like I said, he didn't exactly stick around.' Rin waved a hand lazily. 'And as for why I'm here...well, it's my old stomping grounds.' She frowned in thought. 'Or I think it was. It's hard to remember exactly. But it was easier for me to get here than I thought it would be. So that's why I'm here, I guess.'

'And you're all right? How's Haku? And Kamaji? And Kaonashi, and Zeniba? And -- '

Rin cut her off. 'I'm not here to talk about them,' she said, suddenly sober, her eyes sharp and serious. 'I'm here about you. And so the first thing I have to ask you is this: Are you doing all right?'

The question took the wind out of Chihiro's sails. All of her questions, her desires to know about everything that had happened in the spirit world since her departure, vanished like the steam rising from the bath. And in the space left behind, Rin's question shot straight to her core.

Was she doing all right? Even with her difficulty sleeping that night, her bad moments had been few and far between lately. She had things to do and people to talk to, and some days the memories of her time under Yubaba's control, of her time as Sen and not Chihiro, seemed like a daydream that she might've had a long time ago. She hadn't been doing all right for a while there, but now....

'I'm fine,' she said at last, meeting Rin's eyes. 'I really am.'

With a great splash, Rin flung her arms up in the air. 'See, I knew you'd say that!' she exclaimed, exasperated. 'And here somebody was, wanting me to ask you all sorts of stupid things, wondering about your parents and if you were having a hard time and a bunch of other junk that I had to stop listening to because it was so boring that I almost toppled over.'

A fluttery warmth that had nothing to do with the bathwater bubbled up in Chihiro's stomach. 'Haku was worried about me?'

'I could've told him you'd be fine,' Rin said, almost a grunt, as she wallowed back down into the water. 'I mean, if you could get along with the kind of weirdos I work with -- we worked with -- you could probably get along anywhere.'

Chihiro thought for a long moment about the girls in her judo club. About Kurai-san, solid and practical, as if she didn't know any other way to be and didn't quite get why others weren't the same way. About Nakata-sempai, so keen to be seen as grown-up, trying so hard to chase the image of someone she saw as a perfect lady. About Hanami-san, who had once confided to Chihiro that most of the reason why she stayed in the judo club was so that her little brothers wouldn't tease her about being afraid of her own shadow anymore. And about Ashihara-sempai, not willing to give an inch if it wasn't dragged out of her, but willing to push herself harder than anyone else ever would ask her to go. Two years ago, she couldn't have imagined that she would be friends with any of them...but she wouldn't be sitting here now if she wasn't.

'It was tough for a little while, but it's better now,' she said quietly, partly to Rin and partly to herself. 'Haku doesn't have to worry about me.'

'Yeah, well, I'll pass on the message.' Rin snorted. 'For all the good it'll do.'

In spite of Rin's cynicism, the thought was enough to satisfy Chihiro. 'What about you, Rin-san? Are you okay?'

'About as okay as I've ever been. Not much different about me, that's for sure.' Rin darted a glance at Chihiro, and then said in a louder voice, 'Look, can we maybe not talk about it? I just got off shift, and I don't get many chances to relax like this, so if you don't mind I'm going to hang out here for a while.' She scooted back until she could rest against the side of the pool, then leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

'I'll have to go in a little bit,' Chihiro said. Her fingertips and toes were well and truly wrinkled; she'd been in the bath longer than usual.

Rin opened one eye, then closed it again. 'Then I'll stick around until you have to leave.'

In the silence that followed, Chihiro took the opportunity to slide back in the bath as well, until she was sitting beside her old colleague. It took her a moment to find a comfortable position, but once she was settled she leaned back as well, and let her own eyes fall shut.

Even though Rin was right next to her, Chihiro didn't have to struggle to remember where she was. Haku had been there to catch her the last time she fell -- but this time, she'd learned the right way to fall, so she could get to her feet again and meet the next challenge head on.


Notes

This fic is a classic example of an idea that started out as a 2,000-word postcanon story (about Chihiro meeting Rin in a hot springs bath in Hokkaido) and suddenly ran away with itself, thanks to a group of very insistent OCs who started demanding greater characterisation and screen time than I'd initially planned for them. The Tsutsuji middle school judo club members are composite characters based on several girls from my own middle and high school swim teams -- which is also the origin of Ashihara-sempai's initial dig at the school's swim team during the club assembly. I can't say that I'm upset at having given them a chance to flesh out a possible postcanon future for Chihiro here.

A few other cultural references deserve greater explanation and elaboration:
- Although Tamura Ryoko is indeed a real-life judo-ka and Olympic medallist, Inokuma Yawara is the fictional protagonist from Urasawa Naoki's Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl manga and anime series, from which I drew a lot of inspiration to get the judo terms correct.
- Chihiro's choice to write her full name only in hiragana stems from the idea that her name as written (ちひろ) has multiple possible kanji combinations. The one we see in the film is 千尋, from which Yubaba steals the second kanji to leave her as 千 (Sen). As Chihiro sees it, by using only the syllabic hiragana, she can prevent anyone from stealing her true name again. A twisted sort of logic, but a sensible enough precaution.
- Rin's connection to Hokkaido comes from another combination of legends and sources, both the Japanese sable (native to Hokkaido) and the kamaitachi weasel-spirit (according to the tales, native to central Japan). Background materials for the film say that Rin is supposed to be a weasel spirit, but as the kamatachi is a far more malevolent being than Rin generally seems to be, it didn't seem quite fair to me paint her in the same light.

Finally, the title of this story comes from a quote by judo founder Kano Jigoro, who in his 1882 book on the sports says that a basic tenet of judo is to apply just the right amount of force -- never too much, never too little. Much of the reason why I went with judo as Chihiro's means of finding her way back to the real world comes from this concept, for reasons that I hope I've made evident enough in the fic.


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