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the winter hours

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Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

-- from 'Snowdrops', by Louise Glück


i.

Wind like knives. A long road. A first lungful of dust. Fever, and pain, and warm blood across a cold stone floor. Cold stones. A bitter night, a hard road, an approaching shadow and a crimson moon. These are the first things Reki remembers.


ii.

Some nights she stays awake as long as possible, willing the grey dawn to arrive. She smokes a pack or two, perhaps; paints, when she has the energy to do so; or simply lies and waits between cold sheets, straining to stay awake, clinging to exhaustion. Hold out long enough, time it right, and one can fall into dreamless sleep: empty, numb, and safe.

In winter, the day fades earlier. Tonight Reki gathers a fistful of blanket, curls tighter into herself and tries to remember the important things: Rakka's fever has left, Rakka's wings are clean, Rakka leaves Old Home each day to collect light in the darkness, independent at last and free of sin.

Free of Reki.

She never stops telling herself she should be happy. It makes little difference. In the dark hours truth's edge is sharper, and as Reki's thoughts turn, the knife twists deep. For a while she had had a chance at salvation -- giving or receiving it, she doesn't know -- and now all she sees when she closes her eyes are the marks of her own sin. She remembers the first stab of realization, watching the spreading black creep up Rakka's wings, while beneath the familiar horror there was an insidious whisper of relief: you are not alone.

The days that followed had been a mock-echo of her past, a parody of a second chance. Broken feathers, a pair of scissors; because she was not Kuramori, was not strong enough to be Kuramori, she had not hit Rakka in anger, merely held her close and felt the trembling of her wings, of her voice as she cried out in grief -- honest, unguarded, painfully young. Later, brushing the red medicine into those wings, Reki had promised herself that she would be like Kuramori. Better than Kuramori: she would never leave Rakka behind.

Rakka, who had not needed Reki to save her, in the end...

She closes her eyes tighter, buries her face against her pillow. Better the familiar nightmare than a sleeplessness of guilt. Yes, yes, she should have been happy. But she was Sin-Bound, wasn't she? With a heart dark enough to match her wings. Foolish of her to think that she could rise above selfishness. Foolish of her to think she could buy penance with forced kindness.

If only-- she thinks, and does not dare complete the thought.


iii.

In winter, the walls are weaker. Reki builds up her own instead. It's easier in the daylight, when there are obvious duties, and Reki can pretend to be the good Haibane she wishes she was: keep busy, be useful, say the right things. She helps to cook. She repairs a window, or a door. She marshals the Young Feathers, slips the covers over their small wings. She tries to believe this is still worth it.

The trouble starts at night, and night falls early in winter. When the day winds down in Old Home, Reki runs out of the lie she lives. There is nothing between her and the truth, now; no distractions from the fate she faces. So there is the studio, and there are her paints, and there is her time running out, the future approaching inexorable from the darkness. By now this project is her final hope for salvation.

Ironic, perhaps, that painting her nightmare is the best escape. The despair she feels in the act is mercifully pure, rarefied: there is only the empty night, the gravel that should be cutting into the soles of her feet, the relentless wind. She's been doing this for days on end, now, and her sleep is always calmer afterwards. No space for thought or regret, as she flings paint across grey walls, blurs each colour into the next -- here the red of a mocking moon, there the grey-green of stone. The smell of turpentine ceases to sting. Time and the canvas are her only enemies. She's almost finished covering the far wall with shades of black and almost-black when the door opens. She turns, mind half-lost seven years and a lifetime ago, still breathing the memory of chilled air--

Rakka.

Time does its usual cruel trick of slowing down. Reki watches almost absently as Rakka's eyes widen, as her lips part and close and twist in wordless dismay. There's a strange distance to things, as if Reki is walking the pebbled path somewhere far away and only a ghost remains in her place.

"Reki..?"

But somehow that voice is enough to break the spell: Reki blinks, the brush wavering in her grip. How long has she been painting for? There's paint on her hands, streaked along her arms. To Rakka she must seem half-crazed.

"Reki, why-- what's all this?"

"It's my dream. What I can recall of it." She forces a smile, out of habit. "Don't worry about it." It's the interruption that's disoriented her, she thinks, or simply the strain of long nights. In the day, or even at a different time of night, it would be different. But the bitterness is raw now, old wounds flayed open with each brushstroke, so Reki can't find it in herself to be kind; to be the good Haibane that she is in the daylight, when the pain is sealed safely away.

Rakka shivers, and Reki feels an irrational surge of anger. What does Rakka know? She's escaped. She's not Sin-Bound anymore. She can't feel the pebbles underfoot, the whip of the wind. Rakka smiles uncertainly, says: "It's late, Reki. Get some sleep, ne? Nemu's been talking about all the things we have to do tomorrow..."

"I'm running out of time," Reki says, quietly, almost to herself. Then, louder: "Go to bed, Rakka."

Rakka's gaze trembles. Such unashamed, unguarded weakness. Reki forces herself to look away, stares at the wall in front of her instead and raises her brush to coat it with another layer of black. She doesn't know if she hates this girl, this pure and earnest girl who is everything Reki isn't, everything Reki never had the chance to be: forgiven, forgiving, true. She wanted to be everything to Rakka, once. But who needs salvation given by a Sin-Bound?

Instead she paints. She tries to remember. The cold, and the gravel, and a call emerging from the darkness. A bright light, bringing something terrible.

"Today... I saw the Washi today."

Reki turns. Rakka's voice is still uncertain, but she looks straight at Reki as she speaks, eyes bright with something Reki tries not to recognise as hope.

"He gave me your name. He said to give it to you after the festival--"

"The festival isn't until tomorrow," Reki says blankly.

"I could-- I mean, if you're running out of time, if you want to remember, I could show you the name. It might help. Reki, I just want to help--"

And somehow those innocent words are the last straw. Reki laughs incredulously, wants to cry, wants to tear the world apart. Wants to be torn apart. This girl whom she named, standing before her now with a trembling voice and trembling wings -- how had things changed so fast? Reki still remembers Rakka's blood on her face, small teeth bruising skin, helplessness and fever. She cleaned the blood from those wings, once; stained those same wings with red dye. "I don't need your help. I never asked for help. I don't need saving, Rakka, I--"

-- wanted to be the one to save you.

The brush falls unnoticed to the floor. Reki looks away from Rakka; looks down at her shaking hands, instead. The clarity of realisation is sharper, now, cutting like the cold: of course she couldn't save Rakka. She can't even save herself. All this is futility, and helplessness, and a circle which is a cage which are the walls around them--

-- but then there's just Rakka, suddenly close, crying as her small hands reach out to Reki, speaking a sign language older than words: fingers curled into cloth, hands against skin, blind and desperate, echoing the wingbeats of a crippled crow. Rakka buries her face against Reki's neck, breathes a broken litany against her collarbone. Reki, Reki, Reki, voice tripping over the syllables. Even the name sounds brittle.

She'd named Rakka the same way, hadn't she? Thorny consonants, a harsh catch of breath: rak-ka, rak-ka, like a pebble tumbling down a cliff, falling, falling. Even when I try to do something good, Reki thinks lightheadedly, I drag others down with me. She can't breathe. Her hands clutch weakly at Rakka's back, Rakka's wings. The feathers turn black where she touches them, and there's a moment of irrational panic before she realises her paint-stained fingers have streaked them. She wants to laugh. She tarnishes everything she touches. What right does she have to hold Rakka like this -- pure, good, forgiven Rakka? Rakka, whom she couldn't even save?

But Rakka holds her, still, as if there were something worth holding.

Reki shivers. There's something she should be trying to remember, she knows; something about a dark night and a bitter wind and a path of hard pebbles, a sound emerging from the darkness. But here and now there is just Rakka, soft and warm against her. Reki breathes in, breathes out, wants only to forget.

---

Reki smells of cigarettes, ash, turpentine. There's a not-quite-familiarity about this, Rakka thinks. She was the one being held, once, on a cold stone floor. She reaches up to stroke Reki's hair, blinks away her own tears. It's her turn to be strong. Tomorrow-- tomorrow, after the festival, she'll show Reki her real name, like the Washi told her to, and everything will be okay. Everything will be okay. She's a bird, she tells herself. A bird, crossing these walls, letting Reki know she isn't alone. A bird bringing forgiveness. Rakka closes her eyes, holds Reki close, remembers: falling, a cold sky, the helpless beating of black wings.