Chapter 1: Awakening
When they come to a world, they take on the characteristics of that world. It's not only an attempt to blend in; the laws of the universe demand it.
On the day the new Feathers arrived, the walls surrounding the town trembled. They were deep-set walls and strong, but it was a powerful memory they had to bury.
For a moment - just a moment - the sky above the valley twisted and warped, until one could almost see an endless receding tunnel of golden light leading to an unfathomable distance.
Then a flash like lightning lit the sky, grounding itself in the earth below. The walls trembled, but then subsided, patiently waiting.
And four bright seeds streaked down from the sky to take root in the soil of the Old Church.
It was summer, and the plants were growing like crazy. The hillside south of the church was an ocean of shimmering green, the sunlight illuminating a soft silvery sheen of a million minute spiderwebs glazing each tuft of grass. It was alive, too; the air rising up to the church was filled with the droning noise of the crickets in the grass, the rustling noise of small animals and the twittering calls of birds. Beyond the rolling mounds of grass, the hazy light reflected from the smooth, placid surface of the river rolling leisurely by.
All around the old churchhouse, ragged overgrown greenery threatened to overrun the stonework. The inhabitants of the rambling stone building did what they could to keep the grass and weeds from growing over the courtyard and walkways, but there was only so much they could do; it would take far too much time and effort to cut back the ivy that crept determinedly up over the low walls, and that was time and effort they needed to spend on other things.
They had managed to reclaim a flat patch of earth outside the churchyard's stone walls, where the ground sloped away towards the slow river, for use as a garden. This was the second growing year since they'd broken ground and the tomatoes and beans were doing much better than last summer; Willow walked back towards the churchhouse with a basket under her arms overflowing with rustling beanpods. She couldn't wait to get inside and wash; her scalp itched where sweat was trapped under her hair by the long handkerchief, and her face and arms itched where dirt had smudged over them.
After letting herself in through the worn wooden gate, Willow changed course across the courtyard and headed for one of the outlying wings. The whole church, seen from the front, always reminded Willow of nothing quite so much as a collapsing birthday cake. In the center was the stone chapel, the oldest part of the building, beautiful and proud with its arched buttresses and the pointed spire of the bell tower standing up straight like a candle.
Later generations had added several more wings to the original building, one on the east side and two on the west, bending around to surround the original chapel yard. The newer wings were an eclectic mix of stone, wood and plaster, lower and more untidy-looking than the central chapel; their builders had cared less for looks than for functionality. While the chapel contained mostly only beautiful stained glass friezes and echoing emptiness, the outlying wings were a mishmash of offices, kitchens, meeting rooms and storage closets. They might not be as pretty as the stone sanctuary, but they were a lot more comfortable.
And once the last of their builders had gone away, leaving the building empty, the Haibane had moved in.
It was a lot to keep up, especially with just her and the three other older Haibane; the handful of little ones couldn't be expected to provide much help. Mr. Santos the maintenance man came out from town every second Saturday to check the boilers and do minor repairs, but he could hardly be expected to keep the whole place livable by himself. And that wasn't the point, anyway. It was their home, and so they were the ones who worked hard to keep it.
The garden was the same way. One small garden plot couldn't possibly provide enough food for all of them - but every stalk and leaf out of the garden was less supplies they would have to rely on from town. Assuming, Willow thought wryly as she shouldered open the sticking wooden side door, that the little ones could be persuaded to eat green beans.
The hallway was dusty, motes drifting down from the doorframe and then floating up again in the angled square of sunlight, and poorly lit. Somewhere to the right of the door there was a stiff switch that controlled the electric lights to this wing, but Willow didn't bother with them; she knew the route well, and her halo provided just enough light to faintly illuminate the ground before her feet.
Willow hooked the heavy basket over one hip and threw her arm over the top to hold it, and with her free arm dragged open the pantry door. She would store the beans in one of the big, ceramic basins, and then -
She stopped, train of thought broken as she stared at the interior of the familiar pantry. Even without turning on the overhead lights, a pearly blue-white glow filled the room. Indeed, half or more of the room was completely taken up by the glow; the far window was completely blocked by the enormous cocoon that lay there, like a seed fallen from some giant's milkweed plant.
The basket of beanpods fell from Willow's nerveless arms, scattering over the ground. She gulped and knelt hastily down, shoveling them back into the basket and then setting it quickly aside. She'd last been here less than five days ago, setting a load of cucumbers aside. How… oh how could this cocoon have come to be here - and so big! - in just so short a time? Already it filled most of the empty space in the room, the roots biting deep into the earthen floor and the crown of it threatening to buckle the ceiling.
It must be very near to cracking; there was no time to lose. Willow dashed out of the pantry back through the darkened corridor, her heart banging painfully in her chest and her face and hands tingling with excitement. Another Haibane - a newborn - and Willow had found her! Or him, she corrected herself hastily. You never knew, until the cocoon hatched, just what you were going to get.
She hoped it would be an older one, like her - she loved the little ones, but they were charges to be cared for, not friends. Another companion - someone she could talk to, who'd understand, someone to help out around the home, someone to take a job in town and help provide for the others…
Willow hit the small descending stairs at the end of the hallway and stumbled, nearly tripping flat on her face; only a frantic, hasty flapping saved her from a painful sprawl. "Stop it, Willow," she told herself out loud, staggering to find her balance. "You're getting ahead of yourself."
She shouldn't be thinking of the newcomer as a helpmate and provider yet, not when she (or he, she corrected conscientiously) wasn't even out of the cocoon yet. All Haibane started out the same - weak and confused, needing patience and warm support. Willow shifted her thoughts with an effort away from the joy of a new friend, and made herself think of logistics and supplies instead. One of the guest rooms off the main meeting room was open right now, just needing fresh linens on the bed. And there were first-aid supplies in the infirmary, she'd need those for when the newcomer's wings came in…
She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't see or hear where she was going until a sharp voice said "Hey, watch it!"
"Viv!" Willow gasped, steadying herself, her heart still fluttering from the near-miss. "You won't believe what I have to tell you…"
At the same time, the other girl was saying; "Will, I've been looking all over for you! You won't believe what I've found…"
"The cocoon?" Willow interrupted, and grinned at her friend's startled reaction. "I know! I just saw it. Isn't it wonderful?"
"Yes, of course, but…" Viv glanced at the dirt on Willow's hands, then past her down the hallway, a perplexed expression crossing her face. "Didn't you just come in through the garden?"
Willow blinked. "Yes, I was putting the beans - you saw it, didn't you? The new cocoon down in the pantry?"
"No!" Viv sounded shocked. "I was just coming to tell you - there's one in the solarium! It's wicked huge, I can't think how we missed it before now…"
Willow's delighted shock gave way to just plain shock. Two cocoons? At one time? Oh, this was going to be trouble. She hastily re-did her calculations. Well, there was another room across the hall from the first, and some emergency supply kits… with two more mouths to feed, how were they going to manage meals? All of their carefully planned food budgets were going to go out the window…
"You're doing it again," Viv interrupted, and Willow startled slightly as Viv broke into her train of thought. The red-headed girl grinned, that blinding smile that she used to such devastating effect. "I told you. Stop worrying! Everything will be fine. This is great, isn't it?"
"Yes," Willow had to agree. "Oh, two newborns, all at once, after a year without any! It's wonderful, but…!"
"Willow! Willow!" A familiar, high-pitched clamor came up from the stairwell, shortly followed by the clattering footsteps of their owners. Frost came surging around the stairway bend first, hand on the railing to brake his momentum. He was grinning all over his face; behind him trailed Bubbles, as sedate as always but with a secret delight written all over her face. "Guess what we found! Down in the music room!"
Willow looked at them with a slowly growing horror; Frost was jumping around like a cricket, grinning from ear to ear, and Bubbles' shy smile was just intense. "Oh, no," she said, dread gripping her as her stomach dropped out from under her. It was just toounlikely, but… "Don't tell me you've found one more cocoon!"
The two younger Haibane looked at each other, and then Bubbles shook her head. Willow barely had time to breathe out in relief, before Frost interrupted her with a smug grin. "It's two more cocoons! All tangled together!"
The light pulsed: white and grey, white and grey.
He opened his eyes.
The first thing he saw was the plaster ceiling decorated with cracks. It was whitewashed, brightening and dimming with the light. The source of the light seemed to be a bank of windows - three windows set in a little alcove in the wall; the biggest one in the center, and two smaller ones tilted inwards flanking it. The light glowed in the glass panes, making it hard to see out. When it dimmed again he caught sight of the sky beyond, speckled with fast-moving clouds that intermittently covered the sun. Rain was coming soon, he thought, and shivered when he remembered his dream.
He didn't recognize this room and wasn't sure how he'd come to be here. He wasn't sure of much of anything, really, up to and including his own name. Snatches of the dream he'd just had flittered past his mind, too fragmented and scattered to recall; something about city streets, and rain… Before that, nothing.
The inside of his mind was strangely still and quiet, but underneath everything was a kind of worried urgency: he was supposed to be doing something. He was going someplace, looking for - the thought ended on empty space. He didn't know what he was supposed to be searching for, any more than he knew who he was…
The emptiness was a little frightening, but this place seemed quiet and peaceful enough. Maybe this was a hospital, and he'd had some kind of accident. That thought made sense. Soon, some doctors would come and fix the hole in his memory. But if he'd been hurt, then what about the others?
Others? The thought seemed to come from nowhere, like the urgent need to search. He didn't remember any others - but that didn't mean there weren't any. He made an effort to sit up, look around him.
The surfaced under him scraped and wobbled as he moved, and he found himself revising his initial assessment. He wasn't on a bed at all - it was a table. Or rather two tables pushed together, then piled high and thickly with sheets and covers. A glance around the room showed other tables and chairs, pushed back against the walls, but no beds. He himself was wearing a kind of white linen gown, but a draft against his shoulders warned him that it wasn't completely closed in the back. That seemed to support the hospital theory, but then what kind of hospital didn't even have beds?
Footsteps rattled in the hallway outside; he turned quickly to look, but winced as a cramping pain shot through his back. Well, he supposed that's what he got for sleeping on tables…
A chatter of raised voices sounded from the hallway, and not one but three people came piling in. The first set of footsteps scampering in belonged to a girl, small-boned and with brown hair; his attention sharpened on her, but after a careful study of her face he decided he didn't know her. Her hair was too long, ruler-straight and a sort of dull mousey color, not auburn. Her face was thin, her eyes a little too protruding from her face, and she was wearing a shy, happy smile. He decided he liked the look of her.
The other two were total strangers. There was a small boy, even younger than the girl, with pale blond hair cropped close to his head and big, blue-grey eyes. He was grinning, laughing at something the older girl had said. She was quite pretty, with startlingly red curly hair against pale skin dusted with freckles, and the eldest of the three, with close-cut denim clothes over a more adult frame.
And all three of them had wings.
He stared at them, not quite believing his eyes; he shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut and rubbing them hard; but when he opened them again, the vision hadn't changed. Each of them had a pair of soft grey wings extending from their back; they extended only as far as their shoulders, but they were unmistakably there, and fluttered slightly as the strangers moved and gestured. And a pale blur above each of their heads resolved itself, as they turned and nodded, into a pale shining halo hovering soundlessly above each head.
"You're awake!" the younger girl said happily, coming towards him with a face wreathed in smiles. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Bubbles."
"I'm - uh - " He hesitated, suddenly reminded of the strange emptiness inside of him.
The older girl made a disapproving tch. "Bubbles, you're just going to confuse him," she said. "We should wait until the others are all awake and in here, so we only have to do the introductions once."
"Yeah, but he's awake now," the boy pointed out. "We've got to tell him something, or he'll be confused as heck."
"Good point," the redhead said. "Well, I'm Viv, and this little troublemaker is Frost." The boy grinned, not seeming to take offense at the appellation. "Sorry to cut and run, but I've got to go look in on the others."
"Others?" His heart swelled with excited certainty, yes! There were others, he'd been right!
"Four of you, all at once!" Viv shook her head in amazement. "That's never happened, ever. Old man Santos said the same thing, and he's been here for decades. He said he'd never heard of it even before his time, either."
"And the other two are practically grownups," the little boy - Frost - added, leaning in from the side. "Even older than Willow. That never happens."
"And one's a giant!" Bubbles put in helpfully. "He's huge! We had to get a cart and all push it, just to get him into the guest room!"
"Speaking of guest rooms, sorry about all this," Viv added, waving her hands vaguely to take in the sunny room and the not-quite-real beds. "There wasn't any room for you two in the guest rooms, not with the other two taking them up, nor for them out here."
"Are they okay?" he asked anxiously.
"Of course," Viv said, shooting him an odd look. "Why wouldn't they be? But if you're awake, they'll probably be waking up around now too, so I need to get back. Willow's watching over the big dark one, so I need to get back and look in on the skinny blond guy. Frost, go along and tell Will what's happening, will you? Then come back and help Bubbles with these two."
"Will do," the boy said, and thumped away down the hall. The redhead gave him an encouraging smile, then slipped out.
Only the girl - Bubbles - stayed behind, and she gave him a warm smile as she hopped up and sat on the edge of his bed-table. "Sorry about the table, but we just didn't have enough beds free on short notice," she said. "Would you like a drink of water?"
"Uh - thanks," he said, taking the proffered glass. He wasn't actually very thirsty - he didn't feel much of anything, other than a weird, slightly loopy feeling. But other questions seemed much more important. "Are you an angel?"
He wasn't even sure what angels were, but it seemed to be the right word to go with the wings and halos. The girl giggled, her mouth dimpling up as she smiled. "No," she said. "We're Haibane."
That word, on the other hand, wasn't familiar at all. He was still trying to work it out when she added, "Like you."
"Like me?" Automatically he put a hand up above his head, but his waving fingers encountered only empty space. He tried to twist around to look over his shoulder, but a painful cramp made him wince. Anyway, he'd just been sleeping on his back; he thought he'd have noticed if there were wings there.
Bubbles giggled again. "Not yet," she said. "Your wings will come in later. Willow is going to get the molds with your halos in them, as soon as you're all awake and settled in."
"Are the others my family, then?" he asked. "My brothers and sisters? Is that why we all arrived together?"
Bubbles looked doubtful, her nose scrunching up. "I don't think so," she said. "They don't really look anything like you. The big one is all dark, and the other one is super pale. Haibane come from all different countries, you know, before they come here."
"Then why do we all speak the same language?" he asked interestedly. It seemed that if he had come to another world, the languages ought to be different. Although was sure that there had once been a way to translate…
The girl was taken aback. "I don't know," she said after a minute. "We just always do. Maybe it has something to do with the walls, or with the cocoons."
"How do you know all this?" he asked; in the face of her matter-of-factness, he found himself being honest. "I don't think I'm a… Haibane. I don't even remember my name."
The girl nodded, as if unsurprised. "All the Haibane start that way," she explained, matter-of-factly. "None of us remember our old lives, or who we used to be. When you come here you start over on a completely blank slate. Our names aren't our old names, either. Traditionally a Haibane takes his or her new name from what they remember of their cocoon dream."
"Cocoon… dream?" He was feeling lost and out of his depth, but her words stirred a dim recognition in him at last: the inside of a pale milky bubble, shining with a sourceless light, and the dim sound of voices from beyond the walls.
"Bubbles, couldn't you even wait till I got here?" a voice complained, as the young boy - Frost - reappeared in the doorway. "Hey, don't tell me that new girl's still asleep! She slept through all this commotion?"
To his right, another set of pushed-together tables had a mound of fluffy white sheets and pillows. The lumps in the covers were crowned by a head of fine, untidy hair, somewhere between ginger and brown in color; the face was turned away from him, towards the window. Somehow, despite the light shining almost directly into their face, the sleeper breathed peacefully onwards.
So that was all right. She was here, so everything would be all right. A choking fear he'd barely recognized eased, unwinding from around his chest and throat. But if she was here, then where were the others?
"If she's asleep, we ought not to wake her," Bubbles objected, but Frost ignored her. He walked around the converted table-beds to the mound of sleeping white fluff, and yanked the covers down from the sleeping figure.
"Frost! Don't do that, it's cruel!" Bubbles exclaimed.
"Oh, don't be such a baby," Frost retorted. "I'm not hurting her. I do this to wake you up all the time, and you haven't dropped dead of it yet, have you?"
"That's how I know it's cruel!"
He opened his mouth to object hotly to this rough handling, but then closed it uncertainly. After all, it wasn't like they were related, was it? And he didn't know at all what was going on here, and these two strangers did.
Still, he felt a strange, almost instinctive urge to hover protectively over the sleeping girl. She was important to him, he decided to himself. They had been born together; that made them like siblings. And no matter what else happened in this strange new world, he would look after her.
He awoke in a strange place - a creaking, overstrained bed, and walls and ceiling that were dark with varnish. A feeling of residual panic - probably from his dream, although he couldn't fully remember it - drove him to get up, get dressed, and find a way out of here. He couldn't remember where he was from, or where he was going, but he knew it was important to keep running, before, before… before something terrible happened.
A quick search around the room didn't find any of his clothes or - or anything else, and he was wearing only what seemed to be a loose hospital gown. He forced himself to relax, breathe deeply and fight down the urge to flee. This seemed to be a safe place, at least, and he didn't seem to be a prisoner here.
The door opened, and a young woman with curly red hair and flashing green eyes walked in, and smiled widely to see him awake. "Oh, you're up!" she said brightly. "That's good, we can get started."
He found himself returning that smile, his face moving easily into the gesture. Best to be friendly, play it safe, make friends if possible. If nothing else, he had to make this girl think that he was harmless. That should be easy enough. "Excuse me," he said as politely as he could, "but may I ask, who are you?"
"I'm Viv," the girl said, and laughed.
"That's a nice name," he said. "I like it. And - for that matter - who am I?"
He woke up feeling ill-at-ease, tetchy and irritable. No doubt the dream he'd had was partly responsible for it - even if he couldn't really remember the details - but it was made worse by the fact that he was crowded onto a bed a good foot too short for him. When he'd tried to get up to make for the door, he'd been too dizzy to stay on his feet, and had collapsed back on the bed shortly afterwards.
It only increased his annoyance to realize that he was dressed in a flimsy shirt-like garment that was too tight around the chest and arms, despite being completely open in the back - and a pair of what seemed to be small shorts that were probably meant to be loose, but were also several sizes too short.
The door opened, and his fingers curled automatically as if around a handle, reaching towards his hip for - where is my! - he thought, outraged by the loss, even though he couldn't remember what was missing.
A young woman entered the room, carrying a tray with a pitcher and a bowl on it. He looked her up and down narrowly, assessing for weakness - or threat. She had black hair, mostly tied up in a sort of bun on the back of her head, with strands escaping to curl around her forehead and neck. Her eyes were also dark, her features pale and worried-looking, and she wore long-sleeved, sensible-looking tunic and trousers.
She stopped when she saw him sitting up. "You're awake?" she asked, and he snorted at the utter redundancy of the question. Of course he was awake, why else would he be sitting up looking at her? "How are you feeling?"
"Like shit," he told her bluntly, and it was true. His head was throbbing, his back hurt as though he'd pulled a muscle in training, and he hadn't done that in - in - not for a long time, that was for sure. "Why the hell am I dressed in these clothes?"
She flushed. "Sorry, but we didn't have anything in your size," she said, apologetic and a little bit defensive. "As soon as we can go into town, we'll try to find some better clothes for you, but for now, please just bear it."
She set the tray down by the side of the bed, and he subsided uneasily into the creaking mattress. At least she didn't seem to be a threat - there was no point in being rude to her. "Where am I?" he said instead, making an effort to keep his voice civil. "And who are you?"
"My name is Willow," the dark-haired girl said, clasping her hands together and leaning forward on her elbows. "I'll explain everything, but - first we need to give you a name."
"When a Haibane is born, they lose all memory of their former life and that includes their name," Viv explained. "So when they wake up here, one of the first things we have to do is find a name for them."
"Traditionally, the name comes from the dream they had while in their cocoon," Bubbles said seriously. "That was how I got mine. I dreamed I was in a warm pool of water, and the air around me was full of beautiful bubbles."
"I dreamed I was outside, by a river," the boy butted in, leaning across the foot of the bed. "There wasn't any snow, but the river was frozen, and the grass and leaves and everything were all white with frost. So I'm Frost."
"I dreamed of the branches of a willow tree," Willow said, her voice low and pensive. "The leaves and catkins were surging and swaying in the wind, but the trunk and branches were black and twisted and still as stone."
"It's short for Vivid," the red-headed girl admitted, cheeks flushing with embarrassment. "I don't - my dream didn't make very much sense. Mostly what I remember was just a flare of bright, vivid colors - reds and blues and greens and gold. No shapes, no people… just colors. But you can call me Viv for short."
"I think it's a pretty name," he told her gently, and she flushed even more. Then she sat up straighter in the chair, and gave him a saucy smile.
"Well, what about you? What did you dream?"
"I dreamed… of water," he admitted, speaking slowly as the dream came back to him. "I was out in a city street somewhere, and the rain just came pouring down. I could hardly even see the houses, or even the other people in the street. They were… almost dim, like ghosts. Nobody… nobody stopped to talk to me, or see if I was all right." He paused a minute to swallow, as the feelings of hurt and sadness that had come over him in the dream rose up in him again.
"Was it a frightening dream?" Bubbles asked in a hushed voice, leaning forward with her eyes shining sympathetically.
He shook his head. "No, not frightening," he said. "Just lonely."
"Fire," he growled, his voice grudging as he started to speak, as though he didn't even want to admit this much. "I dreamed… everything was on fire - the walls, the roof, everything. It was dark outside - night. I couldn't see the sky past all the smoke. It should have burned me, but I didn't even feel hot."
"Were you frightened?" Willow asked quietly.
"No," he said, sharp and forceful. "I was angry."
There was a short silence between them, and then Willow asked, "Do you remember anything else?"
"It was… like ice," he said slowly. "Like the whole world was carved out of ice, except for me. The - the ground is covered with snow, packed so hard it's like white ice. I'm standing in front of a wall made of stone, and the stone is so hard and so cold it's like black ice. The wall goes all the way high up, much higher than I can see.
"It's snowing, and there's so much snow that it hardly even seems to be falling, just standing still in the air. Nothing moves, except me. Nothing's alive, except me."
He fell silent, trying to wrestle down the feelings of panic that rose in him as he recounted the dream. Something - something terrible had happened, in that dream - something terrible had happened to him -
Viv stirred, and crossed her arms as she huffed out a sigh. "Well, that's no good," she said.
"Rain, then," Bubbles said thoughtfully, and Frost nodded agreement. "We'll call you Rain, since that was the part of your dream that you remember the best."
"All right," he said, taken somewhat aback. It seemed strange to just hand out names to people, like they were a puppy you found on the street - but at the same time, he badly wanted to have a name, any name. Rain. He tested the name in his head, felt it rolling around and settling on his shoulders like a cloak. He was Rain.
The other two, Bubbles and Frost, both looked over to the girl, who had been sitting quietly on her bed and listening. "What about you?" Frost wanted to know. "What did you dream of?"
The girl shook her head, looking perplexed. "I don't know," she said. "I don't remember anything."
"There was someone else - in the fire," he said. He shook his head in frustration. "Someone else there, in the fire with me - but I couldn't see their face. I kept trying to see their face, but it was just too dark, or the smoke got in the way…"
"Hmm," Willow said, a humming noise almost too low to be heard. She sat back, one arm crossed over her chest, the other finger tapping at her lips. "Pyre," she said at last, louder. "The funeral fire, the one that burns away your old life. That's your name."
"Whatever," he huffed, looking away from her. "Call me whatever you like. It's not my real name."
"No good?" He stared at the red-headed girl, astonished. "What do you mean?"
"We already have a Frost, we can't name you the same thing. It'll be confusing," she said impatiently. "Don't you remember anything else from your dream? Anything else that might be important?"
He stared down at his hands, fingers laced loosely in his lap. In his dream, he'd beat on the wall until his hands bled, fingers withered and chapped and whitened from the cold. He didn't particularly want to tell her that. But - "The wall," he said lowly, hardly knowing what he was saying. "I look up along the wall, and - and it's like I'm falling upwards into the snow, like I'm moving very fast even though I'm standing still. The stones are rushing along underneath me, and - "
He stopped, and shook his head helplessly. "That's all I remember," he said. "I'm sorry."
"Fall," she announced abruptly, and smiled in triumph at her own invention. "Like a snow-fall, we'll call you that. How does that sound?"
Fall. It sounded familiar, somehow, some way he could not define. But if they wanted to call him that, that was fine. He nodded silently.
"But there has to be something," Bubbles said, sounding puzzled. "All Haibane have a dream when they're in the cocoon, it's - it's just the way things are. Maybe you mean that you just don't remember it very well?"
The girl shook her head again. "It's not that I can't remember," she said. "It's just that there's nothing to remember. When I think about the time - before I woke up here, I mean - it's just… blank. Like an empty space that isn't light or dark, or cold or warm. There was nothing there."
"Well, we have to call you something," Bubbles said, exasperated. "We can't just go around calling you 'blank.' "
Princess, Rain thought suddenly, the word appearing in his head like a raindrop had just fallen from the ceiling. "Can't she just choose another name?" he began, ready to offer it as a suggestion.
Bubbles twisted her hands together, biting her lip. "But the tradition -" she said. "The cocoon dream, it's not just a name. It's the last piece of who you are. You don't want to lose that -"
"I'm sorry," the girl said quietly. "There's just nothing for me to remember."
"Aught," Frost interrupted, and sat up straight from where he'd been slouching against the bed. The other three looked at him, blinking.
"It means 'nothing,' " he explained. "But it has a better sound, don't you think? If her dream really was of 'nothing,' then that's just the way it is. Lecturing her won't make a dream suddenly appear out of nowhere."
"I was not lecturing!" Bubbles exclaimed heatedly. "What are you thinking? That's an awful name, that's just as bad as calling her 'zero' or 'blank' or something! We can't!"
"I don't mind," the girl said, and the well-practiced banter between the two children lurched to a halt.
"Really?" Frost said, looking surprised and gratified. She nodded, and he shot a smug look over at Bubbles, a wide grin that showed a gap for his missing tooth. "That settles it, then! She's Aught."
"Listen, never mind all this about dreams and names," Pyre said impatiently. "The important thing, where is this place? I don't even know how I got here, and I need to get home."
Willow looked at him, her face unfathomably sad. "I'm sorry," she said gently. "Nobody knows who you used to be, or where you once came from. Once you are born as a Haibane, you lose all that. This place, this town and this valley - this is your home now."
"There's a wall around the town, you see," Viv explained. "The farms and fields, this church and a few other old abandoned buildings, the woods and the town - the wall goes all the way around it. Nobody comes in from the outside - except Haibane like us, who can never remember anything about our lives before - and nobody can ever leave."
"But that doesn't make sense! There must be a whole world out there, somewhere, beyond that wall," Rain exclaimed. "Hasn't anyone tried to climb it?"
"No!" Both Bubbles and Frost looked shocked, actually horrified by the suggestion - even Frost's joker face was pale and drawn. "We can't do that. We'd get in trouble for even going near the wall, let alone touching it!"
"Normal humans, the ones that live in town - they're different," Viv said. "If they want to leave, they can - although they can never come back again, once they leave. But not us."
"We Haibane, we have to live by certain rules," Willow explained; she looked down, strands of hair falling to cover her hair like a curtain. "This town, this valley exists for us, for our own protection. In exchange, there are certain things that are forbidden to us."
"I don't accept that," Pyre snarled.
Willow gave him a sad smile, and rose from her chair. "You will," she said. "Everyone does, in the end. This is your home now, and you'll come to accept that."
I can't stay here, Pyre thought. I must keep going, because I have to go home.
"It's not so bad, really," Viv encouraged him. "I talk about rules and stuff that make it sound really awful, but for the most part this is a really good place to live. You'll like staying here."
I can't stay here, Fall thought. I must keep going, because they're coming for me.
"Anyway, we're really glad to have you here," Bubbles said earnestly, and Frost nodded vigorous agreement. "It's really good to have another friend living here."
I can't stay here, Rain thought. I must keep going, because there is still something I must do.
That night they slept only fitfully, both of them too disoriented by the momentous events of the day to rest well (and the fact that their beds were actually tables didn't help much.) Before bidding them good night the older girl Willow had hung up old sheets from the ceiling - one over the window and one between their tables - but it was more for the illusion of privacy than any real cover.
Aught had lain there watching the shifting shadows overhead, the way the sheets wafted and blew in the slightest breeze, and whispered to Rain long into the night. If she had been alone Aught would have been very frightened - but Rain's voice in the darkness, only a few feet in the way, made her feel secure and even a little bit excited, like they were together on some grand adventure.
The threatened rain arrived late that evening, pattering on and off softly throughout the night. The next morning dawned grey and hazy, water dripping endlessly off the downspout outside the window and rising in a mist again from the grasses. It left the new Haibane feeling drowsy and lethargic, and so far all the elder Haibane encouraged them cheerfully to keep resting.
People bustled in and out, chatting to each other and clattering as they pulled tools and baskets out of storage. Then they went away, their footsteps echoing along the hallways and tramping hollowly up the stairwells. For a while the rain stopped long enough to let Frost and Viv take the bikes and go out, and return an hour later strung about with damp bundles. One of these turned out to be clothes, which Viv plopped down in front of them with a cheerful smile, while Frost barreled past the doorway laden down with eggs, milk and bread.
"When you're settled in, we can go down to the town and you can pick out your own clothes from the thrift shop," Viv said. "This is just for the next couple of days. We might could lend you two some of our own stuff, but we didn't have anything at all that would fit those two big guys."
Aught perked up at the mention of these other two, the mysterious Haibane who had been found in cocoons along with them, but Rain was more interested in something else. "What's the town you're talking about?" he said curiously.
"It's called Gurie," Viv replied. "It's the town, well, it's the only place to go in this valley, really. Everyone and everything that's interesting is down in Gurie. We're kind of far away from the middle of everything here, you have to go all the way down the hill and cross the bridge before you even reach the outermost buildings."
"Is the town full of other Haibane, like you guys?" Rain wanted to know. "Like us?"
Viv laughed. "No way! They're all normal humans," she said. "There's only a couple dozen of us Haibane, and most of them live in the other nests - there's a few dozen in the Abandoned Factory downtown, and another group in the Dormitory on the other side of the valley. Those are the only places that Haibane can live."
"Why only those places?" Rain said. It seemed like he would never run out of questions; Aught was content to sit quietly and just listening, absorbing it all.
Viv shrugged, her wings rustling irritably, and made a face that was only half a smile. "It's just one of the rules. There are a lot of stupid rules. You'll get used to them, I guess." She stood up suddenly and whirled around, her short skirt flaring over knee-length leggings. "You two go ahead and get changed, then come down to lunch. I've got to get to work cleaning."
"Cleaning?" Aught asked. "Should we help?" Viv tossed another sunny smile over her shoulder as she went out.
"Cleaning out rooms for the four of you!" she called back. "Can't have you cluttering up the solarium permanently, you know…"
Her voice faded, and Aught sighed sadly. The redheaded girl certainly could liven up a room; when she left, it was like the sun went back under a cloud. Her attention turned to the spare clothes she had brought them; they were drab, in dark brown and dark blue colors, but unquestionably better than the hospital-ish gowns they had worn. She pulled out a faded pale blue blouse, with buttons up the front in the shape of flowers - two of them were missing - and a dark blue skirt.
Holding the clothes to her chest, she looked up and met Rain's eyes - and surprised herself with a fiery blush. "Um…" she stammered. "What should we…"
"I'll just get out of the way here!" Rain jumped to his feet, a matching blush spreading over his face and neck as he snatched the remaining clothes and hurried out.
The clothes were heavy and slightly damp from their trip in the rain, and Aught's hands were slow and clumsy as she did up the fastenings, but she felt better to be dressed and ready to face this new world. New voices echoed back down the corridor as Aught changed, along with a sizzling noise. Aught pulled herself to her feet and crept down the corridor; pulled along by those voices and a delicious smell of eggs and butter.
She came out into a cozy, crowded dining-room that seemed to have taken on some of the tables that had been exiled from the solarium. The wallpaper was a dark brocade, rather poorly lit by a handful of assorted lamps standing at intervals along the walls, but it was hardly visible behind looming ranks of dark bookcases. Lumpy, plush armchairs in various pleasantly ugly colors ringed the room on three sides; the fourth wall opened onto what seemed to be a kitchen.
Rain was there, as were Bubbles and Frost, busy with preparations at one of the long metal tables. A kettle was whistling shrilly to itself on the stove, and a teapot with a thick black handle sent up puffs of steam from the table. A handful of small children, each sporting tiny wings and haloes, chased each other in endless tag around the tables, giggling as they did so.
A young man was folded into one of the lumpy chairs, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped around a mug of dark liquid that wafted steam into his face. He was pale and he had fair, fine hair that was in a terrible mess about his head, flattened on one side and tangled on the top. He turned bright blue eyes towards Aught as she entered and blinked, then smiled so meltingly that Aught found herself smiling back involuntarily.
"Hello," he said, his voice a soft tenor. He held out one long arm towards her. "I'm Fall. Rain told me all about you. I guess I'm one of your brothers, since I was born here yesterday."
Indeed, like Rain and herself, he also lacked wings. Aught took his hand and shook it solemnly, wondering if she had ever known this man in her former life. She searched inside herself but found no hint of recognition. Well… well, that was all right; it just meant one more reason to be glad, that she could come here and meet everyone for the first time.
"Won't you sit down, Aught? You're still recovering," Rain said anxiously, steering her towards another of the chairs. He handed her a steaming cup, and Aught sipped it and discovered that it was not coffee but tea, strong and black. Her stomach rumbled, and she eyed the kitchen preparations hungrily. Hadn't Viv said something about lunch?
The door opposite rattled, and a large silhouette filled the doorway; he had to actually duck his head down to get through the frame, and his head almost brushed the ceiling. The newcomer had jet black hair and a dusky tan skin; his eyes were a piercing red, and, like the rest of them, he had no halo and wings. This was the fourth, then, the last of the newcomers.
He was also naked from the waist up. Bubbles whirled around and gasped when she saw him, and the little children gave excited shrieks and pelted from the room. They lingered out in the hallway, peeking around the doorway and whispering excitedly to themselves about the Giant! In the library. Aught squeaked a little and clutched her mug of tea, raising it halfway to her face to hide the blush.
"Pyre," Fall said, addressing the newcomer, "you're not decent, which isn't a surprise."
The newcomer - Pyre - glowered at the blond man. "It's not my fault," he said. He held up a bundle of white cloth. "This thing doesn't fit. None of the shirts do."
"Sorry about that," Frost said, brandishing the knife he'd been using to dice potatoes. "It was the best we could do. That was the biggest they had at the thrift store."
Pyre transferred the glower to Frost, who stuck out his tongue impudently before returning to his work. "Well, you're not going to find much of use in a freaking thrift store," he snapped. "Why not just go to a real store?"
"We can't wear new clothes," Bubbles spoke up; she seemed to have recovered from her double-take. "It's one of the rules. We can only wear things that the townsfolk have given away."
Rain looked up, interested in that. "I've been wondering about that," he said. "Viv spoke of some of the rules earlier - she said that the Haibane can only live in some places. What are the rules for? Are the Haibane being punished for something, or something else?"
Bubbles and Frost both looked taken aback by the question. "No, it's not like that," she said, flustered. "I-it's just the way things are. We can only use the things that the humans have made and then cast aside - buildings, clothes, things like that."
"So it's a kind of charity?" Rain asked.
"No, no!" Frost shook his head sharply. "We're not supposed to take charity. Ever. We have to use our scrip."
The newcomers looked at each other blankly, so Bubbles explained. "Haibane can't use money, either," she said. "Instead, we're each given notebooks that contain scrip, and we can exchange these at some stores for money. Once you start your own jobs, you'll get a notebook of your own, too."
Aught and the others explained blank looks. "Jobs?" she said.
"Yes, you must," Bubbles said, her thin face unusually serious. "All the Haibane must work. All the ones who are old enough, anyway. We have to earn enough money to support the little ones, as well." She glanced over at the doorway, where giggles and whispers still echoed. "We can't rely on charity."
"What sorts of jobs do you do?" Fall looked surprised. He looked from her to Frost. "You're so young..."
"I'm not too young to pull my weight!" Frost said testily. Aught could tell it was something of a sore point for him. "I get a discount on groceries 'cause I help stock shelves at the store."
"I work at a cafe in the town square," Bubbles put in helpfully. "Making coffee, that sort of thing. Viv is a waitress in the big restaurant on the other side. And Willow works at the school in the morning, and takes care of the little kids the rest of the time."
"Oh, so that's how you know how to cook!" Aught exclaimed, feeling faintly envious. She had no idea how she would be able to find a job; she didn't know how to do anything.
"Well, that's great," Pyre interjected, "but in the meantime, I still haven't got anything to wear. Am I supposed to just walk around shirtless or what?"
Fall laughed, stuck out one hand and waggled his fingers. "Well, as much fun as that would be," he said. "Give it here and I'll see what I can do. Bubbles, would you mind fetching me a sewing kit?"
Bubbles scampered away, giggling. Pyre scowled at the blond man, and nearly threw the shirt at his head. Fall snatched it out of the air, still laughing, and set his mug safely aside. He hitched himself to the side, the better to catch the light of the nearest lamp, and spread the white cloth out over his lap. He examined the sleeves and hems intently, then raised both hands and began to rip the sleeves away from the body.
"Hey!" Pyre exclaimed. "It might not fit, but it's the only shirt I've got."
"It'll fit better once I'm done with it," Fall replied, calmly tearing apart the seam from the arm-hole downwards, separating the back and front. "The problem is that it's too tight around the shoulders, correct?"
"Yeah," Pyre said grudgingly. "And I can hardly fit my hand into that sleeve, let alone my whole arm."
"I'll widen the shoulders and redo the seams with more room in the arms. You'll just have to go sleeveless for a while. Hopefully you won't catch a cold," Fall told him. Bubbles reappeared, slightly out of breath, and handed the sewing kit to Fall. He opened it and fished around for a moment, selecting a needle and putting it in his mouth while he pulled loose a length of white thread.
"Fall, you know how to sew already?" Aught exclaimed.
Fall hesitated for a moment, then continued threading the needle. "Yes, I suppose I do," he said. "Even though I can't quite remember where I learned, I seem to know what to do." He bent his fair head over the shirt, and began applying small, careful stitches along the torn seam.
"Well, that just figures," Pyre remarked caustically. "With a pretty face like yours, I'm not surprised that you'd know a girly skill like sewing. You cook, too?"
Fall snatched the needle out of the white material and threw the shirt back at Pyre's head; the bigger man caught it just before it hit his face. "Well, you can always walk around naked if you'd rather," he snapped back.
"I didn't say I cared!" Pyre protested. "I'm just saying, with that hair of yours -"
"Um - please don't fight…" Aught said in a small voice, but neither of the two men took any notice of her, continuing their argument. She glanced around, looking for help, and came up against Frost's understanding smile.
"It's no big deal," the sandy-haired boy said. "All us Haibane need to learn to sew at least a little bit. You'll pick it up pretty quick, Aught."
"I don't know…" Aught hesitated, feeling lost. Rain glanced over at her in concern. "I… I feel like I don't know how to do anything. Not sewing or cooking, or - I just don't know… anything."
She trailed off, at a loss for the words to describe the strange, empty feeling inside her. Fall's movements as he took the needle and thread had been so practiced, so assured; she envied his easy confidence.
And it wasn't just Fall, either. The way Bubbles moved the broom so gracefully across the kitchen, sweeping the tiles clean; the movement of Pyre's hands when he snatched the missile out of the air, almost faster than the eye could follow. The quick, firm motions of Frost's hands as he chopped the potato… even how Rain could ask questions so easily, effortlessly find the words to frame his thoughts and find the answers he sought.
They all could do so many things. They all knew so many things, and she… she could do nothing. Her hands and feet were slow and clumsy - even dressing herself, walking down the hallway had been so hard. "I don't know anything," she repeated hollowly.
To her surprise, Bubbles nodded as though in agreement. "That's often the way it is," she said. "When the newcomers wake up, and they've forgotten everything about their former life. It was like that for me, too. Until you've made a few new memories to fill in the gaps, it's normal to feel a bit… lost."
"And me," Frost agreed. "To get better, you just have to do things. Don't worry about what you used to know, or about what you don't know - you're starting over, so you have a whole new slate to work with. The more you try things, the better you'll get at everything. Hey!" he exclaimed suddenly. "Why don't we start right now? How about you help us with lunch?"
"Really?" Aught said, startled. "Oh, but I couldn't…"
"We'll show you. Come over here," Frost said, and freed one hand to beckon her over. Hesitantly, Aught slid to her feet and walked over to the kitchen table. Frost hopped off his stool and pulled her down onto it.
"See, it's like this," he said, and put his hands over hers to guide her on the knife. "We're making hash browns for all the kids, so we need to chop these potatoes up really thin. Go slow at first, and take your time…"
"Frost!" Bubbles exclaimed, sounding scandalized. "You're just making the newbies do all your chores for you, so you don't have to!"
"Yeah, so what?" Frost shot back, unrepentant. "All that matters is that it gets done, right, not who does it. And I hate potatoes!"
"Oh!" Bubbles threw an empty eggshell at his head, and Frost ducked it, grinning. "I can't believe how lazy and selfish you are sometimes!"
Suddenly Aught understood; they might act like they were arguing, but in the truth they really did love each other. This friendly bickering was like a mock-fight, one they used to cover up the truth of how much they cared.
She glanced up at the main room, where Fall and Pyre were still squabbling over the shirt, and smiled in relief. Maybe she didn't need to worry when they fought; maybe this just meant that they were good friends.
The first shirt was finished and on Pyre's back, and lunch was being served - the promised hash browns as well as eggs, sausages and fried mushrooms - when Willow came back. It had started raining again in earnest, dimming the grey light from the library's small windows even further, and Willow's dark hair was plastered in strands to her forehead and neck. All of the other Haibane looked up as she came in.
"I got them," she announced, peeling off her sopping wet coat and shuffling a large box from one arm to the other as she did so. Her wings shook reflexively, shedding drops of rain everywhere. "Sorry it took so long. But with four at once, they didn't have so many ready…"
"Four what?" Aught said, blinking blurrily as she looked up from her plate. The heavy food sat rather uneasily in her stomach after nearly a full day of fasting and - and who knew when she'd eaten before that. She was determined to help them clean up, and learn to wash dishes, she should, she should… but it was hard to hold on to her faltering determination when all she really wanted to do was go back to bed.
Willow didn't answer at first, instead going over to Pyre. "You found one that fits?" she said brightly.
Pyre grunted, hitching his shoulders slightly. The shirt had ended up more like a large tank top, scoop-necked at the collar and with the side seams pulled out and redone. "Sort of," he grumbled.
"With a little adjustment," Fall put in helpfully.
"It looks good," Willow said approvingly. "Although, you might as well have gone ahead and put in slits in the back at the same time."
"What for?" Pyre demanded.
Nobody answered that right away. Willow exchanged glances with Frost and Bubbles. "They haven't come out yet?" she asked.
Both of the younger Haibane shook their heads wordlessly. "We hoped… well, we hoped you'd get back first," Bubbles said apologetically. Frost chipped in "It's kind of a difficult thing to explain…"
Willow turned to look at them. "How are you all feeling?" she asked directly.
"Um, actually…" Aught said hesitantly. "A little… kind of dizzy, and hot. I was going to go lie down some more after lunch, if that's okay…"
"Do you feel kind of sore? Tight in your back?" Willow asked.
Pyre just grimaced. "That's just the damn shirt that doesn't fit," he said.
"It shouldn't be pulling at your back," Fall said, glancing over at the tall man with a frown.
Willow took a deep breath. "It's not the shirt," she said. "Right. Okay, normally I wouldn't want to rush this, but I think it's important to get your haloes fixed on you before anything else."
She set the casket she was carrying on the table and opened it. "Frost, would you run and get Viv for me please?" she said.
"She's cleaning," the little boy objected.
Willow grimaced. "If she actually is, she won't mind the break," she said. "If she's not, then she can make herself useful." Frost nodded, then scampered off. Bubbles crept closer to Willow's elbow, her large eyes shining - no, that shimmering light was reflecting from inside the casket…
Willow reached into the box with a pair of tongs, and lifted a shimmering ring of light free from its interior. She raised her head and looked Aught straight in the eyes, her pale skin turned luminescent from the radiance of the halo. "Fledgling Aught," she said, and her words had a formal, almost ceremonial quality to them. "To serve as a guiding light in thy new life as a Haibane, I gift thee this halo."
"My new…?" Aught said uncertainly. She sat still, unsure what to do with her hands, as Willow lifted the ring above her head and then - let go.
There was a high-pitched, pure ringing sound that - for just a moment - almost reminded Aught of something else. But instead of sinking against her skin, the halo hummed a moment, then quietly sighed, floating a few inches above the crown of her head.
Aught sat very still, terrified to move lest she disturb its balance, as Willow moved around the table, repeating the formal words, changing only the names each time. Very cautiously Aught reached over her head and bumped her fingers against the floating ring. It felt very strange - neither warm nor cold, it seemed the exact temperature of her skin, and… touching it wasn't quite like touching a part of her own body, but when she bumped it a few inches back, her head rocked with it.
Bubbles giggled, trying ineffectively to smother the sound. "It's all right," she said. "You can't hurt it. It's a part of you now. Like ours are a part of us." She grinned and hopped up on the edge of the table, reaching up to tap her own halo. "How does it feel?"
"I - I'm not sure." Aught swallowed. She didn't feel frightened, or hurt in any way, but something about the new halo made her feel deeply disconcerted. It pulled at her, singing a light humming in her ears that ran down the base of her skull and into her spine. Her skin pricked into goosebumps, and she broke out into a cold sweat. A dull ache she'd been feeling all day in her shoulderblades seemed to contract, tightening into pain. "My back -"
Bubbles' smile vanished abruptly, and she turned wide terrified eyes onto Willow. "Willow?" she said in a tight voice.
"What's happening to me?" Aught whispered, wrapping her arms tightly across her chest and hugging herself in an effort to relieve the pressure.
"It's all right," Willow said, projecting a calm, reassuring tone of voice. "This is normal. It's meant to happen. You -"
A low growling sound cut her off, and all eyes in the library turned towards Pyre. He was sitting with his head bowed, shoulders hunched tightly inwards, clutching at handfuls of his black hair. He reached up to yank at the halo, wincing when it pulled his head back. "What did you do to me?" he snarled, and his voice was low and full of pain - and dangerous; the sound of a wounded animal.
He uncurled from his ball in a sudden spasm, and slammed both palms down on the dining table. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in a fierce snarl, and his eyes were wild and unfocused. "You bitch!" he roared. "You poisoned us, didn't you?"
Everyone sprang up from the table; Fall went to Pyre's side, only to stumble backwards, left hand wrapped tight against his right side, as Pyre thrust him violently away. He fell against the bookcase and grabbed at it for support, his long, thin frame sagging against it as his head dipped.
"Willow!" Viv appeared in the library doorway, freckles standing out stark against her pale, terrified face.
"Viv, take Fall to one of the other rooms and take care of him!" Willow yelled, over the noise of Pyre's terrible roaring. "And make sure the little kids stay away! Bubbles, Frost, you stay with them!"
"Right!" Scared but determined, Bubbles leapt forward and took hold of Aught's elbow, pulling her up and towards the other door. The sudden movement of her arms caused a rippling jolt across Aught's back, and she cried out at the pain of it. She caught sight of Viv, leading Fall down the corridor in the other direction.
The next few minutes were a blurred rush of movement; the small hands finally let her down again on the familiar, cool sheets of her bed in the solarium. "It's gonna be okay," Frost's voice came to her, shaky and reassuring. "This is normal. It happened to all of us. It just lasts a little bit - maybe an hour or so - and then it'll be over."
"What's happening?" Rain's voice came from the other side of the sheet curtain, hoarse but determined.
"Your wings," Bubbles said, her voice high and scared, although she was obviously making a determined effort to sound calm and reassuring. "It - um - it always happens for a Haibane after the first day or two. The wings start to grow under the skin, and that causes a fever and achiness, but it doesn't last long. Then - um - it'll hurt a bit when the wingtips break through, but tomorrow morning it'll all be better. I promise."
"You… went through this, too?" Aught whispered, fighting her blurry vision to try to focus on Bubbles' face. The younger girl hovered nervously nearby, reaching out to comb Aught's ragged bangs out of her eyes.
She saw Bubbles nod. "Yes. Everyone does, even the little kids manage okay. You'll be all right - I promise. It's a little scary, it hurts a bit, but you'll be fine, you really will. Tomorrow morning you'll be as good as new - and you'll have your wings."
"Wings like yours…" Aught breathed. She tried to draw in a breath, tried to draw in strength. "Then… will I really be a Haibane…?"
From the library came the sound of shouting, Pyre's voice angrily roaring, the crashing noise of metal and wood clattering over onto the floor. Bubbles glanced over in that direction apprehensively, but didn't move.
"What the hell's going on over there?" Viv's voice suddenly demanded from the doorway. "Sounds like she summoned up a flight of demons somehow."
"It sounds like Pyre isn't taking it well," Frost said, his voice subdued and nervous.
"Well, you're not being much help," Viv said, exasperated. "What are you doing? Get their shirts down, give their wings room to come out!"
"I know what I'm supposed to do!" Bubbles snapped, her hands moving shakily over the collar of Aught's shirt. The awful pressure on her back eased a little bit, and she could breathe again. "Aren't you supposed to be staying with Fall?"
Viv shrugged, tossing her curly hair. "He'll be fine," she said. "He just went and sat down on the bed, no trouble at all. What's the worst that could happen?"
Thunder cracked and rumbled, and Fall pulled himself shakily hand over hand against the wall. It was raining harder - the cold drops pelted against his skin, striking his hair and face almost hard enough to stun him - but it was better than being inside. Inside, the air had grown to hot and stagnant, impossible to breathe… and when the red-haired girl had manhandled him into the small bedroom and pushed him to sit on the bed, the walls had seemed to close in on him from every side.
As soon as Viv turned away, drawn to investigate the alarming cacophony from the other end of the wing, Fall had staggered to his feet and slipped out. His pulsing, aching lungs caught a breath of sweet, cool breeze, and he followed it to the end of the stone hallway. There the air was a dark gray, and the rain fell in numbing sheets, drumming and bouncing off the courtyard paving stones.
His head hurt; his whole body seemed to pulse and throb with every beat of his heart. His own heartbeat seemed too fast, too strong, like it would rip out of his chest at any moment. Breathing deeply, Fall staggered a few more steps out into the courtyard. Cold water fell on his head, on his back, stinging and hurting but also making his skin blissfully numb. He couldn't breathe down here. He was trapped. He had to get out. He had to -
Panic overtook him, squeezing his chest and ribs and spine in a vice. He raised his head and saw a tower in front of him, a blurred spire rising up into the darkened, roiling clouds above. If he could just climb that tower, everything would be all right. He knew this, knew it with a bone-deep certainty. He stumbled forwards, leaning heavily on the wall with one hand.
A wrenching pain in his back and shoulders doubled him over; he hung there for a moment, gasping for breath and trying not to vomit on his own feet. There was a ringing in his ears, a tingling in his fingertips; he seemed to hear the voices through the wall, vibrating up through his hand.
"He's gone? What do you mean he's gone?" It was Willow's voice, stressed and frantic and angry. "Damn it, Viv, I told you to look after him! I asked you to do one simple thing! Was that really so hard?"
"I just looked away for a minute!" Viv protested. "You were crashing around -"
"I was taking care of it! I needed you to take care of Fall! And you didn't, and God knows where he's gotten to in this storm! God, Viv! I can't - I have to take care of Pyre and the others. I can't leave them now! How could you let this happen? How am I ever supposed to be able to rely on you -"
"Well, who asked you to?" Viv's voice burst out in a half-hysteric scream. "I never asked you to rely on me! I never asked for any of this. Maybe you like playing housemother and pretending to be everybody's God, but I don't!"
The anger, the recrimination, the pain - it tore at Fall, with deeper claws than the wrenching cramps in his back. He shoved away from the wall and stumbled forward, landing somehow in a deep, chill dampness that stole his breath away. His hot skin felt suddenly cold. He broke out in shivers, wracking shudders that jerked at his muscles and limbs until it was too much too stand, let alone walk; he sank to his knees.
For a moment the spasms receded. Fall drew a breath, lifted his head and looked around. He was in the chapel - he'd been through here once before, in Viv's enthusiastic tour-guide walkthrough earlier today. Through that archway on his left were the spiral stairs leading up to the bell tower.
Out. Out. Up. He needed to go up. He needed to reach the top of the tower, find the free air. Fall forced himself forward, driving his uncooperative muscles to behave. He stumbled and barked his shin on the first step of the heavy, cold stone stairs. His vision blurred again, and the panic descended - trapped, he was trapped, cold hard stone on every side, it would crush him bury him suffocate him…
He crawled up the steps, one at a time. It was a feverish nightmare of ascent, each movement of his muscles sending another pulse through his skin. He could feel his skin split, his muscles shredding, bones crack, but he could not stop that frenetic drive to reach the top of the tower.
He reached for the next step up and his hand fell on empty air - he gasped and rolled forward, suddenly surrounded by space again. Rain blew in to splash him again, a sharp sting - although the belfry had a roof, it was no shelter against the blowing wind of the storm. Water rolled warm down his back, down his sides - or was that blood?
Stretching out around him in every direction rolled the thunderclouds, roiling grey and blue and green in an infinite abyss of space. Brief sparks of light lit the clouds from beneath, far away, and then once again nearer.
Another spasm gripped him, harder than any of the rest, and Fall flung out his hands and grabbed hold of the bell's stand for dear life. He bit down, and the taste of blood filled his mouth as his whole body was racked by one, last, push…
A bolt of light struck - not him, but nearby, lighting up the whole world of black and grey clouds in one, searing flash. His wings ripped out of his back at last and unfurled, feathers stretching wide to catch the wings of the storms as Fall screamed.
~to be continued...
Chapter 2: Deepening
Kurogane = Pyre
Syaoran = Rain
Sakura = Aught
Fai = Fall
Willow, Vivid, Frost, Bubbles = OCs
Aught sat on the stone steps of the post office, the mailbag shifting towards her hip as she tied the roller skates onto the feet. From the open door behind her drifted the old postman's voice, rising and falling as he delivered a lecture she knew quite well, having heard it every day for a month now.
"That's the last of the morning's mail except for the big deliveries," he told her. "Once you're finished delivering them, you can take off for lunch. But make sure you're back in time for the one o'clock. And for God's sake be careful that you don't trip and break your fool feathered neck!"
"I will!" Aught sang out; she tied off the last lace and pushed to her feet, balancing easily on the skates despite the heavy mailbag at her side. She pulled the straps close, keeping the extra weight tight against her body and easy to manage, and set off down the street.
Not too many other people were on the streets right now, this being midmorning on a weekday; most people had gone in to work, but the lunch hour had not yet started. Her destination was a good few blocks away - most of the people living closer to the post office had already gotten their mail for the day - so Aught took pleasure in skating along the smooth, flagstoned streets as fast as she could go.
Her legs pushed in a steady beat against the ground, one-two, one-two, as the vibration of the wheels against the ground buzzed steadily against her feet. She held her arms out for balance, and her wings rustled excitedly; flapping them in the stiff breeze of her passage probably didn't actually make her go faster, but she liked to think that it did. It was a warm day, the sun hovering hazily in the sky, but the wind of her passage as it whipped against her arms and bare legs kept her from getting too hot.
She turned a corner, her palms skimming off the metal pole of a streetlamp, and slowed down slightly as she made her way up the slight incline of the next street over. She passed the café; the baker, straightening up chairs as he swept between the tables, raised his hand to wave and call out to her. She returned his cheerful greeting, but did not slow down; if she'd stopped, no doubt the baker would have given her a fresh pastry or two from the morning's baking, but she had work to do first.
Gurie was really not a very large town; only a few blocks from the town square the buildings began to break apart, more and more space appearing between them and offering glimpses of the verdant green fields beyond them. There were only a few thousand people living here, far outnumbering the dozen or so Haibane but a small community by any other measure. They were still growing, though; the skeletal rafters of the construction site loomed above several other smaller buildings as she approached.
She slowed as she approached the construction site, coasting up to the very edge of the wooden barrier they set up to warn people away. The men and women were working hard to set up a new piece of scaffolding; she searched among them until she saw the tell-tale grey wings emerging from the shoulders of the largest one. His halo was hidden beneath the hard hat that all the workers had to wear, but his size was distinctive in any crowd.
"Pyre!" she called out, waving furiously. He turned his head to look at her, and his wingtips raised in a sort of salute, but he was carrying one end of a large beam and couldn't stop to do more. Nor could Aught get any closer to the construction site safely; she didn't have the protective boots and gear of the workers, and she had been cautioned repeatedly to stay away from the areas where falling debris was a danger. That was okay, though; even if she couldn't stay to talk, she liked to stop by and see him at work.
Still, she had a schedule to keep to, so she regretfully pushed away from the barrier and skated off down the street. Pyre was bigger and stronger than almost anyone in town - he could do twice the work of any other worker, and had soon earned the respect of the foreman. He grumbled, sometimes, about the fact that he himself would never be allowed to live in any of the buildings that he helped put up; by law the Haibane could only live in older structures that had already been abandoned, like the old churchhouse, or the abandoned factory on the other side of town.
Aught liked living at the church - it was where she'd been born, after all - so she wasn't sure she really agreed with his complaints. But even when Pyre grumbled, she knew he didn't really mean it; he had a good heart, no matter how he tried to cover it up with brusqueness.
She turned another corner - the construction site wasn't really on her route, but it was only an extra block over - and slowed down, since some of the letters in her mailbag were for people on this street. As much as she loved skating fast, with the wind gusting the sweet smell of flowers across her face and the ground blurring by under her feet, she also loved being able to meet and talk to everyone on her route. She'd come to recognize most of the people on her route by face and name, and remembered them well enough to ask about things in their lives as she handed out letters. She felt responsible for them somehow - as though their happiness were her concern - and they were all kindly protective of her in turn.
Aught had actually been the last one of the four of them to get a job. Her three 'brothers' had all found work fairly easily; Pyre's size and strength made him a natural for construction work (as well, his height - and the added height of the halo on top of that - made him more comfortable outdoors than in the sometimes cramped town buildings.) Rain's love of old books had made his job choice easy, just as Fall's nimble fingers had assured him a place working at the tailoring shop. But although Aught had been willing enough to try every kind of work, she hadn't proved especially skilled at any of them, and hadn't particularly enjoyed any one job more than another.
What she really loved had been going from one place to another within the town, meeting all the townsfolk and hearing them talk with love and pride about their jobs. She had bounced back and forth from one workplace to the next so often that they eventually began asking her to carry messages and parcels with her; and from there, the step to postman had been the most natural thing in the world.
Truly, Aught loved being out in the free air (although she loved it less when it rained,) and loved crossing the now-familiar streets of the town and handing out messages and parcels. The townsfolk enjoyed seeing her at work, as well; many of them regarded the Haibane as a sort of lucky charm, and the sight of a friendly little Haibane girl flying back and forth across town seemed to afford them a certain comfort.
A row of shops interrupted the houses, and she sped up again as she headed for one storefront in particular. This was one of the older buildings in this part of town, built of stone and plaster instead of metal or wood, and the storefront window was a hundred smaller panes of frosted glass set into a wrought iron frame. Aught peered through the panes, and was delighted to see a tall, blond Haibane sitting at a table in the front room, stitching the collar to an embroidered shirt.
"Fall!" she called through the open doorway; he looked up from his work and smiled, whipping out a few quick stitches to hold the piece together before he set it down and stood up.
"Don't come in, my dear; you don't want to have to take off and re-lace your skates," he said laughingly. He ducked his head as he came through the archway - the doorframe was tall enough to accommodate him, but his halo tended to knock against the top frame if he didn't. He smiled down at her, his blue eyes dancing. "Now; did you have some mail for us?"
"Oh! Yes," Aught quickly dug through her mailbags to find the envelope. Fall took it from her, tucking it away in a pocket of the tailor's vest he wore, pockets bristling with measuring tape and small scissors and needle cases.
"It wouldn't be fair to take something from a pretty girl without giving something in exchange," he said, and Aught blushed slightly at his teasing. Fall grinned, and pulled something from his pocket wrapped in white lace; he presented it to her with a half-bow and a flourish.
"What is it?" Aught asked as she took it from him. It was small enough to fit in her palm, and crackled slightly. She brought it up to her face and breathed deep; a warm, savory scent of chamomile and amber flowed up to her nostrils. "Mmm!"
"I found it in the back of the storage cabinets, and Madame said I could have it," he explained. "It's for absorbing the moisture out of the air - to protect things that might be harmed by it - and freshening up the air if there's a bad smell."
Aught was pleased, but puzzled. "Well, it's nice, but why give it to me?" she asked.
Fall smiled at her, eyes twinkling. "Well, we no longer need it here at the shop," he said, "but I thought perhaps it might come in handy at the library, to protect all those old books and drive out the musty air. You were going on to the library next, weren't you?"
"Oh!" Aught found herself blushing, again, despite her determination not to. "Well, um, I have to deliver all this mail…"
Fall laughed, and ruffled her hair affectionately. "Say hello to Rain for me," he said, "and tell him that if he stops to pick up cornflour on his way home, we can have hush puppies for dinner tonight."
"I can pick it up on my way home, too," Aught objected. "It's no trouble."
"Yes, but that much cornflour is heavy," Fall replied. "With your skates, it wouldn't be…" The older man trailed off in mid-sentence, a slight frown crossing his face as he looked past her into the distance.
"Eh?" Aught glanced behind her, but there was nothing there; there were no other buildings across the road, just an empty lot backing onto an open field. They were on a slight rise here, the source of Aught's trouble earlier, and this close to the edge of the field it was easy to look past the outskirts of town into the rolling green hills beyond. At the misty green edge of sight, the bright meadow grass gave way to the darker green of the forest. "Fall? Is something wrong?"
"Hmm?" He seemed to tear his attention away with difficulty, and focused another bright smile on her. "Nothing, nothing! Sorry to have delayed you on your route, my dear. I'll see you back at the church tonight, eh?"
At just that moment, the clock tower at the center of town struck noon. Aught gasped. "Oh, no! How'd it get so late?" she exclaimed, scrambling to seal her mostly-empty mailbag. "I'd better hurry - see you later, Fall…!"
The only things waiting in her mailbag to be delivered were a couple of books that belonged to the library; some of the older folk who lived more than walking-distance away found it easier to return the books by post than to hike all the way into town. Aught might have delivered them first, and lightened her load considerably - but by saving them for last, she made sure that she could linger at the library as long as she wished.
When she pulled up before the door to the library she did take her skates off, this time, and swung them in her hand as she crossed into the hushed library lobby. The librarian at the front desk, an older woman with dark auburn hair pulled into a neat ponytail, looked up at the sound of the door and smiled briefly at her. "Looking for Rain, dear?" she said. "He's in the back, in the far workroom."
"Uh - yes!" she exclaimed, then hastily opened her mailbag to pile the returned books on the desk. The skates went in the now-empty bag, and she bobbed her head at the librarian as she went past. "Excuse me, ma'am…"
The back of the library always had a hushed, solemn air that left Aught feeling slightly awed. Here were stored all of the oldest, most precious books that the library owned, and Aught was afraid to touch anything or even cough lest she do some permanent harm. Indeed, she held her breath as she knocked lightly and then pushed open the door of the far workroom.
The young man within was sitting at a drafting table a bit too tall for him; his feet were hooked on the rungs of the chair rather than dangling in the air above the floor. His ruffled brown hair was somewhat pushed about and disturbed by the large pair of examining glasses - almost goggles - that were pulled down over his eyes. Thin cloth gloves covered his left hand, which he used to carefully turn the pages of a book that looked to be crumbling even as he read it - but not his right, which was diligently copying onto a fresh sheet of paper.
He looked up when Aught stepped into the room, and his eyes widened comically behind the magnifying lenses before he pushed them back over his forehead. "Aught!" he exclaimed. "You're here, already? It's only…" He glanced at the clock on the wall, flustered. "Oh, I didn't realize it was so late…"
Aught couldn't help herself; she giggled. "You and me both," she told him, remembering her dismay at the noon bell. "Here, I brought you something." She pulled Fall's gift out of her pocket.
"It's not food, is it? We can't have food back here," he cautioned her, and she shook her head.
"Fall gave it to me," she told him. "He said it's good for absorbing moisture, and helping the room smell better."
Rain's expression brightened. "Well, that would be great," he said happily. "Put it on the back bench, would you? Let me just finish this page and I'll be ready to go to lunch."
"Okay." Aught sat down on the bench herself, her own feet swinging above the floor. "What have they got you working on?"
"Poetry," Rain said absently, flipping the glasses back down as he copied the last few lines. "Some of it's really good, some of it's kind of boring. But when I finish this book, the Professor has given me permission to go looking in the archive by myself. I've found a few books about the Haibane, and I think I know where to find more by the same author. It's really amazing what sorts of things I've learned."
"Oh? What have you learned?" Aught perked up. Rain had a taste for studying, researching and learning that Aught herself did not - he was fascinated by anything as long as it was sufficiently old - but information about the Haibane was of interest to all of them. Even Willow and Vivid - the eldest of the Haibane before the four of them had appeared - didn't know all that much about themselves, and hadn't known where to go to find out more.
"Well, for one thing," Rain said, and looked up at her with a grin that caused her heart to flutter. "We were really strange. Do you remember Viv mentioning that there had never been such a thing as four Haibane appearing at once before? She was right. In all the records, the most there's ever been at a time has been two. And they were actually twins."
"Really?" Aught blinked as she absorbed the information. "Then, why were we different? You and I, maybe we could have been brother and sister -" although she wasn't really sure she liked that idea too much - "but, Pyre and Fall don't look anything like us, or anything like each other either."
Rain shrugged. "I don't know yet," he said. "But, I'll tell you something else that's strange. You know how the other two are the oldest of the Haibane? Well, apparently they're also the oldest Haibane ever to be born here. It's actually really rare even for Haibane as old as you and me to appear. Most of the time, they're much younger - as young as Frost and Bubbles, or even younger than that, like the little kids."
"But," Aught frowned uneasily. "Willow is the oldest of the Haibane that were here before us - and she can't be more than seventeen, eighteen at the most. And they do get older, Frost told us so. If all the Haibane appear as children, and there are no grown-up Haibane, then what happens to them?"
"Nobody knows." Rain's face looked grave. "They go, somehow. I've found a few references towards something called the 'Day of Flight' - I meant to ask Willow about it when we get home. What all the accounts say is that at some point in time, a Haibane starts to act strangely, and then leaves for the Western Woods and never comes back - only their haloes are ever found left behind, no bodies or possessions or anything. But no one knows exactly what happens to them there - apparently, nobody's ever actually witnessed it first-hand."
Aught shivered, although the air in the library workroom was not cold. Rain caught the involuntary motion, and hastened to reassure her. "But, this is good news!" he exclaimed. "This means that there is someplace out there, outside of the walls! Haibane do leave sometimes, and that means that we can leave, too. We just have to find out how they do it!"
"I guess so," Aught said, although her voice was still somewhat troubled. She remembered Fall's strange preoccupation, earlier, with that distant glimpse of the western woods, and it made her uneasy. All of her 'brothers' - Pyre and Fall no less than Rain - were obsessed with the idea that they could leave Gurie, travel on beyond the walls to other lands. Aught wasn't sure she could understand it herself. They were happy here, welcomed, they had jobs and lives and a home. Couldn't that be enough?
The summer evenings were long, and by the time Fall had closed up the shop and locked the doors behind him, the sky was still full of slanting golden sunlight. The air was soft and warm, with just a hint of a cool breeze coming over the moors, and Fall was expected at home.
He turned over the closed sign on the shop door, and put the key in his pocket. The Old Church had a number of bicycles, and even a rickety old motor scooter, but Fall did not ride any of them to his workplace. His legs were too long for the bicycles, and the scooter was usually saved for an emergency - and any way, the walk from the church into town was a pleasant one. It was better than usual tonight, with the soft warm glow of the sunset around him and the cicadas beginning to take up their chorus in the tall grass.
The tailoring shop was on the edge of town, more or less - within a few minutes of walking he found himself out between the buildings, on the verge of the road between two fields. Their first lush green was beginning to fade, the tips of the stalks lightly frosted with pale brown as the heads of grain began to ripen, bobbing under their own weight. A motor cart rattled past him, going along the same road, and the driver called out a laconic greeting as Fall stood aside to let him past. Fall raised his hand and smiled, the pleasant courtesy coming as second nature, long habit from lessons he no longer reminded. The man turned back, satisfied, and the smile faded away from Fall's lips as soon as there were none left to see it.
For all that the rolling hills of the valley seemed lush and endless, this valley simply was not that big. A day's walk could take you around the whole circumference of the walls, considerably less than that to cross the center. The sunlight was still heavy in the sky when Fall stopped at the crossroads; the road leapt a small brook with a weathered stone bridge before T-ending. The road behind him led into town; to the right was the old churchhouse and to the left, more distant farm buildings that Fall had never visited.
Ahead of him lay the woods.
He'd been warned against entering the Western Woods; all the Haibane had. The townsfolk avoided it without needing to be told, apart from the occasional teenagers urging each other to test their bravery. But the Woods were especially dangerous to the Haibane, he'd been told. No one was entirely sure why; the wall that enclosed the valley ran into the woods on one side and out the other unchanging, but Willow had been very firm on the fact that the section of the wall in the Woods was more dangerous somehow.
Somewhere in the woods lived the Touga, the mysterious figures who oversaw the dispensation of the Haibane and ensured the rules were strictly enforced. There were many things that Haibane must do, and must not do. Haibane must work, and work in one of the prescribed locations in town. Haibane must not accept charity from the townsfolk, use money, wear new clothing, or live in new buildings. There were a whole list of other rules dictating the way that Haibane and humans could - and could not - interact, but none of them had yet to impinge on Fall or his brothers or sisters, so he hadn't paid them much mind.
Nobody knew much about the Touga, not even Willow, who as the eldest was tasked with the duties of interacting with them on behalf of the other Haibane. It had been her job to report the arrival of the newcomers to the Touga, to register their names and bring back those mysterious haloes that marked them as full-fledged Haibane.
She had talked a little bit about them, so that they would know what to expect if they ever had to go there; how they all dressed in long, tan-covered robes that fully obscured their bodies, and masks that covered their faces. How they never spoke aloud, except through a single delegated spokesman called the Communicator; and how the worst possible breach of etiquette was for a Haibane to raise his or her gaze to look them directly in the eye, or speak to them uninvited.
At the time, none of them had been in any hurry to visit the distant enclave of the chill, formidable Touga; and Fall did not wish to do so now.
But there was something in the woods. Something that called to him. He could hear it clearly now, more clearly every day, a distant thumping or a vibration that was felt more than heard, silent and invisible yet as palpable as his own heartbeat. He'd mentioned it casually to the other three first, then more indirectly to the elder Haibane. None of them had seemed to have any idea what he was talking about; they only repeated that the Western Woods were dangerous, and should be avoided.
Why could none of the others hear what he heard, feel what he felt? Was he going mad?
He had to know. This doubt, this uncertainty was surely more terrifying than any truth could be.
Aught and the others wouldn't be expecting him for a while yet. Fall turned away from the sun-drenched crossroads leading back to the church, and his worn leather shoes shirred across the grass as he stepped off the path and headed for the woods.
It was cooler under the trees, the air damp and full of the damp smell of moss and rot. The going was hard. This was clearly no tree-farm, no decorative stand of vegetation planted for the benefit of the townsfolk. The trees grew thick and close, their branches crossing and twining as they battled for space and sunlight; the ground was uneven, with roots and stones and sudden precipitous drops and ridges. Generations upon generations of fallen leaves and twigs had rotted into a thick black loam underfoot, unbroken by footfall or animal track. This was an ancient woods, primeval, and he could feel the trees' breath stirring cool and disinterested on the back of his neck.
The going was slow under the trees. Although it had been quite light out in the open, most of the daylight was blocked by the deep green leaves, and there was nothing resembling a path. It was difficult enough even to tell direction in here, out of sight of the sun and sky; he could not simply walk around a tree and continue in a straight line, but had to pick his way through a twisty maze of fallen and upright tree-trunks and slanted gullies. Fall was no woodsman; he had no idea how to track or even blaze a trail, and could easily have become hopelessly lost as soon as he was out of sight of the road.
The only thing that kept him on his course was the pulsing, the deep, steady rhythm that drew him further and further into the woods.
At least the dark and close canopy kept the forest floor clear of much underbrush - apart from twining vines and thick shaggy moss that hijacked the tree trunks to gain height and breadth over the ground, nothing else grew but the ancient trees. Fall kept a wary eye out for danger - the shaded darkness could hide any manner of wild animal - but nothing warm-blooded stirred. This was truly a domain ruled by the trees, the lords of the vegetable kingdom, and nothing short-lived was welcome here.
Fall did not know how long he had been struggling through the trees, his clothes soiled by black slime from the tree roots and bits of decaying leaves, his hands and knees skinned from scrambling over roots and out of gullies. The light faded swiftly under the trees to a confusing gloaming; it was not night yet, not quite, but it was difficult to see where he was going. When the trees opened out at last, he might have hoped to get some sunlight under the branches, but by then the sun had disappeared behind the great wall, casting the clearing into shadow.
The clearing was not large, but completely free of trees or saplings, as though the forest itself drew back appalled from what dwelt there. There at the center of the clearing sat a low, circular pile of dark stones, forming a shadowed ring in the ground. A well. The rotted traces of a wooden contraption and a rusted chain languished nearby, years uncounted having all but devoured them. A well that had been long abandoned.
The strange pulsing was louder than ever, echoing in Fall's head, in his blood like a second heartbeat. There could be absolutely no doubt that it emanated from the well, which seemed to flinch and swell slightly with every pulse. It called to him, compelled him, so that his feet carried him forward even as Fall's senses struggled to resist. What is that? What is happening to me? He could have shouted the question aloud, but there was no one around to hear; even if anyone at all could have answered him.
The mouth of the well seemed to breathe out darkness, a cold wet chill that spread over the clearing and lapped at the edges of the trees. Fall took another step forward, and then another, although his teeth chattered and his feet dragged through the sparse grass which was all that would grow in this forsaken clearing. The well called to him, attracted him even as it repulsed him; and although Fall could dig his heels in and refuse to advance any further, he could not force himself to turn around and retreat. What was down there, so unworldly and unnatural, and why did it call out to him, calling so insidiously that he could not ignore it?
As he approached the well, the air of the clearing seemed to distort around him, the color and heat draining out of the landscape. It felt unreal, like a dream. A dream? The stones of the well - black, close-set, rimed with a black moisture that rendered them too slick to climb - he had seen stones like these in his dreams, hadn't he -?
He stopped at the edge of the well, teetering on the very brink of his horror, and the dark throat of the well stretched out into darkness below him. All at once the world heaved and shifted, turned inside out, gravity itself undoing until Fall did not know whether he looked down into a round well, or up along the curved wall of a tower that loomed an endless height in the darkness above.
These stones, this wall… I saw it in my dreams… Fall remembered; and as in the dream, he was overcome with feelings of horror and fear. Something bad had happened here, something very bad, something was waiting in the darkness for him -
Movement, in the darkness below. Something stirred. Movement, and Fall shuddered with the realization - he had not dreamed of falling, the black stones rushing underneath him - something was moving towards him, with the ominous inevitability of an onrushing train -
Fall broke and ran.
He bolted like a rabbit, all rational thoughts banished from his head; only the panic remained, rebounding and echoing through him until his entire body shook with the cold, crashing waves of fright. Branches slapped his face and wings, stones bit at his feet, but he hardly felt them. A sharp wind whistled across his face and past his ears, making his eyes water furiously, and cold tears coated his cheeks and his lips drawn back over his teeth with fear.
He did not know what he was running from, and it didn't matter - pure instinct had taken over, driving his legs with the speed and strength of a hunted beast. He did not look behind him to see if he was being chased - dared not, when he could not spare an instant's attention in his panicked flight, lest he trip over an exposed tree root and break his neck in a ditch.
At last he slowed, out of pure exhaustion if nothing else. He staggered and wheezed, lungs laboring and heart pounding as he strove to catch his breath. He had no idea how far he'd run, how much time had passed when he was caught up in that mindless panic, only that he recognized none of his surroundings.
Nothing had pursued him. Now that he'd finally slowed down a bit, the thundering panic in his head that had screamed at him to flee settled into a more recognizable clamoring. Run - run - you are not safe - they are coming for you, his mind howled at him, but there was no sense or reason to be found in that panicked cacophony. Who or what were they? He had no idea; he did not remember. The key to understanding, the knowledge of who or what had planted that seed of terror, had been wiped from his memory as surely as his own name. All he had left was the litany of fear, which whispered to him every waking moment that he must not stay here, that he must keep running, that he would never be safe.
And then his dreams -
"This is a place of sanctuary," a hollow voice said.
Fall whirled around, his breath and voice seizing in his lungs. A figure was standing on the rocky bank above him, dressed in dark and pale browns and draped over with a light grey cloth; it blended into the background so well it took a moment for Fall's blurred eyes to focus on it.
The figure was that of a man, a little shorter than Fall and a little stooped from age, leaning on a gnarled wooden stick. But the face under the grey hood was wholly inhuman, a stark visage of yellow wood that was only just not the color of human bone. The shape was only vaguely reminiscent of a human face, with perfunctory markings indicating where the nose and mouth ought to be; but at the top of the face there was only one gaping hole, centered in the forehead like a staring Cyclops, so deep and black it swallowed all light around it.
It was a mask, Fall realized; narrow slits on either side of that staring darkness his the speaker's true eyes. And the resonant, hollow echoes of that voice when it spoke came from behind the brittle wooden mask. "A place of respite," the man went on, "a last refuge for those to whom all other doors have been closed. Here they can find shelter, here they can find healing, and here, in time, they may find redemption for their sins."
The man moved slightly; the gaping emptiness of the mask was now staring directly at Fall. Ornaments of metal, wood and bone clinked as he moved; strings of little metal bells chinked from the end of his sleeves, rang from the head of his staff. This was one of the Touga, Fall realized with a start, the frightening figures who ruled the lives of the Haibane; and Fall was not permitted to speak in his presence.
"But for you, there will be no healing here," the man went on. His voice was implacable, devoid of either censure or pity; he could as well have been remarking on the weather. "Too much remains undone for you, young one, for you to find peace or redemption within these walls. Forgetfulness will provide no cure for you, innocence will bring no grace. You do not belong here."
With that pronouncement hanging in the air like a death knell, the man turned and began walking away, leaning on his cane. Despite the hobbling gait of his legs, and the uneven surface of the rocky slide, he moved with an astonishing speed; he was receding into the distance before Fall could unlock his frozen muscles enough to move.
"Wait!" he shouted out, forgetting in his desperation that he was not allowed to speak. "If I don't belong here, where should I go? What should I do? Please, tell me!"
He scrambled up along the side of the ditch, fingers scrabbling for a hold among the loose gravel and damp roots. Rocks turned under his feet and he slid; he had to claw himself desperately upwards, reaching up to grab the underside of some tree root before he could haul himself over the lip. Dark soil, damp with fungus and flecked with shining beetles, pattered past his face; he shuddered at its touch. Then he heaved himself upwards over the bank and he was on level ground again.
The Touga was already far ahead of him, his drab-colored garments making him almost invisible against the forest ground. Fall broke into a run, stumbling over the uneven ground, chasing after him. "How do I get out of here?" he shouted desperately after the receding figure; but his voice seemed thin, torn away on the winds. He had no idea whether the Touga had heard him; he hardly heard himself.
Loose rocks and gnarled tree roots grabbed at his feet, tripping and slowing him. His ankle turned under him, and he had to grab sideways at a low-hanging branch to keep from throwing his whole weight onto it and twisting it painfully. By the time he managed to right himself, limping forward and looking up from the tree, the old man was gone.
Fall slowed in the space under the trees, and then stopped. There was no clear path among the sun-pierced gloom; it was impossible to say which way the Touga had gone. Fall wasn't even sure at this point which way he could go back to get back to the old church.
You do not belong here…
Fall's breath caught raggedly in his chest; his calves cramped painfully from the desperate uneven chase. The world swam about him, the patches and flickers of sunlight sliding along the ground like a viscous golden-brown liquid. The rustle of leaves and twigs in the wind grew to a cacophony that filled his ears, threatening to deafen him.
You do not belong here…
"How do I get out?" he said hoarsely, to no one listening at all. "How?"
Getting out of the woods, at least, proved simple. In his panicked thrashing he had actually brought himself to a lighter part of the woods, with gaps in the tree cover showing patches of pale sky and green fields in the distance and a lighter, more open ground to cross. He managed to make his way out of the woods at last, and at the top of a small bald hill he glimpsed the distant rooftops of the town, reflecting the last of the setting sun. Between that landmark and the brighter glow of sunset above the western wall, he was able to orient himself at last.
Through the growing darkness he walked, first over grass-grown meadows and then on the verges between fields. Although his halo shed enough light that he could just barely make out where to put his feet, the plants themselves were colorless masses in the dusk, their bright green extinguished. At last, he found the road - he had come out on the wrong side of the intersection, somehow, and passed the bridge on his right as he walked back towards the church.
It was full night by the time he got back, and only the glow of the lights in the church windows guided him through the last half-mile. Someone had set a lantern out in the courtyard, which they didn't normally do at night; they had noticed his absence, then, and had put it out for him.
You do not belong here…
Voices drifted through the night air, from the kitchen in the side wing. For a moment Fall wavered, tempted by the promise of light, food, and human company. But at the last moment he veered aside, and headed instead for the far wing which housed all their sleeping quarters.
The hallway was dark, the rooms empty. No doubt everyone else was at dinner. Fall turned on the lights in his room, then in the bathroom, and he set himself in front of the bathroom mirror with a washcloth and attempted to clean himself up after this afternoon's excursion.
You do not belong here…
Neither the familiar walls of the bathroom, the hollow splashing of water against the copper basin, nor the sting of soapy water against his bruises and scrapes were enough to keep Fall's mind from wandering. Willow and the others were right; the woods were dangerous to Haibane. He should never have followed his mad impulse to go to into them alone, and he knew that he could never gather the nerve to go back.
He had learned nothing. He still did not know what lurked at the bottom of the well, save that it was evil, and unnatural, and that he must stay away from it for his very life. He still knew nothing more about himself; whether he was truly mad, or somehow sick, or something else entirely.
But there was one thing he knew now, that he hadn't known when he'd set off for town this morning - so ignorant, so innocent. In that terrible moment at the mouth of the well, he had briefly relieved his dream from the cocoon - and he remembered something from it that he had forgotten, before. Why he was so driven, every waking moment, with such a helpless dread. Why he was so sure that someone, some nameless, terrible forces, were coming after him. To catch him, to punish him.
Because I deserve it.
He had done something wrong. Something terrible. He couldn't remember what, but of this much he was sure. And no matter how far he ran, he could never outrun his own sin.
He'd gotten most of the dirt off by now, the mud and tree bark that had coated his hands and face and wings after that wild sprint through the forest. But there were a few black spots on his wings - on the feathers towards the lower edges, towards the tips - that he could not seem to get rid of.
He scrubbed harder.
It was midafternoon, and the sun beat down on the construction site like a hammer. The heat might have been - just barely - bearable in the shade, but there was little shade to be had out here outside of the framework of steel girders and the dusty line of tents strung up around the perimeter.
The building, when it was done, was going to be five stories high - the tallest building in Gurie apart from the clock tower that overlooked the town square. For that it would need a sturdy, flexible metal skeleton - and a strong, solid foundation. The huge slabs - cut from a quarry outside down, nearby to the old abandoned factory that made up the Haibane nest - had been rolling into town all day, closing off one of the streets.
It was up to Pyre and the others to slot the enormous slabs into place, forming the foundation. They were too big for any man or even a team of men to handle without the aid of motorized carts and levers, but it was still a huge effort to wrestle the stone blocks on and off the trestles. The construction workers were a sturdy, hardy bunch, but after a day of this they were flagging, and quitting time was still a few hours away. Between the heat, the dust and sore muscles, tempers were running high all over the site.
"Hey, Heron!" one of the shift supervisors shouted at him. "Get a move on! We've got a stuck trestle on the northeast."
Pyre slammed the load he'd been carrying and turned to glare at the woman. He hated that nickname, which the other workers had landed him with practically his first day here. Apparently there was a local water bird - the night heron, they called it - black-headed and red-eyed, which stood as tall as a man when it stretched to full height. Oh, they probably didn't mean any harm by it - it was just their idea of a friendly ribbing - but he hated it. His own towering inches and unusual coloring (to say nothing of the wings) made him stick out like a sore thumb among the shorter, buff-haired crew, and the nickname really just hammered home how much he didn't belong.
"Northeast corner's not my beat," he growled. "Tell those lazy-ass twins to get on it." The crew included a pair of non-identical twins, Rust and Reed, who between the two of them just about did a full person's worth of work, as far as Pyre was concerned.
"They're busy," the supervisor bawled back at him over the noise and chaos of the construction site. "Get to it, Heron! The sooner we finish the foundation level, the sooner we can all knock off and go home."
Pyre growled under his breath, throwing a length of cable to the ground and stomping off in the requested direction. What was it to him if they got this done today, tomorrow or next year? What good was it for him to finish early when there was nowhere to go? He'd just get home late, take an unsatisfying shower in the weak water pressure of the church's broken-down plumbing, and sit down to a dinner where everyone worth talking to would already have made their excuses and run off.
This wasn't his home. Not Gurie, and not the old churchhouse, and it pissed him off that people kept telling him it was. He and the other Haibane weren't even allowed to live in town, they were kept separated and subjugated in old, falling-down crumbling structures near the town's edges that would never be as fine and fancy as this fucking building he was sweating blood to build.
No, this place wasn't home, it would never be home, and Pyre would never allow himself to think that it was. He would be true to his own homeland - he would remain loyal to it, even if he couldn't remember it. The emptiness, the fleeting blankness in his head when he tried to close his thoughts on those memories frightened him, and more than that, it infuriated him. Why had he come here? Who had done this to him - taken away his memory, his past, his very name? What the fuck had given them the right, to rob his mind and brand him with these marks that made him forever an outsider? Work hard, be diligent, obey the rules - and for what? For the right to be held in a cage, displayed like freaks in a zoo for the amusement of these fucking peasants?
The trestle really was stuck. Some idiot had overloaded it, piled four of the foot-thick stone blocks on a machine that was only graded to carry two, and the extra weight had caused the whole machine to actually sink inches into the ground. He hit the motor, and it whined unpleasantly, a rising grinding noise, before he hit the cutoff switch. Completely souped. "What nutbrain thought this was a good idea?" he growled, turning his glare on whoever was nearby.
"Hey, don't blame us for trying to speed things up!" one of the other workers exclaimed, holding up gloved hands in defense and backing away from the responsibility. "We can't all have superhuman strength like you, okay?"
Pyre's teeth clenched, and he saw red as he turned back to the intractable trestle. Lazy, weak-armed assholes! he thought furiously, biting back the desire to throw the words in their faces, or just throw a punch. Fury thrummed through his veins, compounded by the heat, the glaring sun, the sweat running down his neck and back and coating his wings in a soggy paste of sweat and dust. I'm not your fucking beast of burden!
The northeast corner was the closest to the street, the very street that Aught skated by and called out to him sometimes. Now it was thronged with townspeople, busy and impatient, jostling each other as they tried to get around the traffic jam caused by the construction trucks on the other side. Every few minutes one of them would stop, grab his neighbor by the shoulder and whisper to him as he pointed towards the construction site; and they would stand there and stare at him gape-mouthed, just like travelers at a sideshow.
A surge of heat and fury rolled through him, the blood-haze spreading to cover his entire vision as his frustrated anger spiked. To hell with this, to hell with this place, this job, these people, none of whom he gave a fuck about and none of whom gave a second fucking thought for him -
Pyre almost didn't realize he'd pulled his arm back and swung, his fist loosely clenched as though gripping a handle, until the crack of the impact had echoed through the entire construction site. He barely even felt the hit in his hand, would hardly have thought he'd made contact at all, except -
For the other construction workers, reflex took over and they hit the dirt as the explosion rocked throughout the area. Not only the two cubic meters of solid stone shattered, not only the trestle beneath them creaked and groaned as it warped into an impossible shape, but a good two feet of the wall already constructed beyond him broke and crumbled.
The noise roared around him, raising a cloud of dust that tumbled and swirled in a whirlwind; beyond it, Pyre could hear the screams of the townsfolk as they ducked and scattered to try to get out of the way of the falling debris, fists-sized chunks of stone and metal raining down on the street below.
The foreman's office wasn't really an office - that was only a formality. It was just another one of the construction tents, a little more spacious than the rest, which housed the foreman's desk and the big metal filing cabinets that held all the paperwork. The foreman was well-known for his heavy smoking, so the clear plastic 'windows' of the tent had darkened and grimed over with smoke over time. The workers thought he liked it that way; it meant it was impossible to tell when he was in his tent and when he was out, looking over their shoulders.
He was in now, and Pyre let the heavy canvas tent flat fall behind him. The foreman wore a pair of thick, round safety glasses that he never bothered to take off, and he was puffing a cigar under a bushy mustache gone grey with age. As Pyre stepped before his desk, looming over him by a good yard, the foreman glanced up, put the manila folder he'd been reading aside and leaned back in his folding chair. "Well, Heron," he said. "I assume you know why you're in the doghouse here."
Pyre didn't say anything, just glared. His roaring rage from earlier had quieted to a sort of simmer, tempered by shame. He'd been wrong and he knew it, damn it, but he didn't need to stand here and be lectured about it.
"I'll tell you right up front that I like you, kid," the foreman said. "And I don't mind giving one of you people a job. But look at it from my point of view. This is a small town and that's a fact, and there's not too many of you. The fact is that the whole town knows that I've got a Haibane on my work crew, and if you get involved in some sort of problem, everyone in town is going to hear about it. Now, I don't want to give you your walking papers, because I like having you around -"
Of course he didn't, Pyre seethed. No one would want to fire a worker who he they didn't have to pay.
" - but the truth is that you caused some serious damage today, and set back two good days' worth of work," the foreman went on. "And it's just good luck that nobody in the street got hurt by the falling rocks. I don't know how in the hell you did that with your bare hands, and I don't really care. If you can't find some way to get yourself under control, boy, then you're going to be more of a liability than an asset."
Pyre ground his teeth. "You knew when you hired me that I was strong," he said. "You hired me because I was strong. Don't know why you're complaining about it now."
The foreman tipped his chair back down with a thump, and his hand slammed down on his desk. "Don't be a fool, boy," he said angrily. "There's only use in being strong if you use that strength for something. What good is strength if you only use it to destroy? I've got controlled demolitions for that; I don't need damn-fool kids doing it as well!"
Pyre glowered, but couldn't keep from saying, "And stop calling me 'boy' like I'm some fucking kid. I'm not one."
The foreman snorted, and leaned back again as he took another puff from his cigar. "Just a tip, son; the only people who object to being called a kid are the ones who still deserve the title."
Pyre couldn't think of anything to say to that that wouldn't get him sacked on the spot, so he just glared off into the corner of the tent instead. The old man was at least partly right, and he knew it. He'd lost control out there on the site today, and he had no one but himself to blame for it. It was just that being chewed out for it like a dog who'd peed on the carpet wasn't helping him control his temper.
He glanced up to see the foreman looking at him intently through a cloud of smoke; appraisingly and a bit sorrowfully. "You might be big and strong on the outside, but you're still young where it counts," he said. "You've got some growing up to do still. All you Haibane do. You come in this town when you're still children, and you leave before you're really done growing. That's how it is. But so long as you're here, you've got to pull your weight, and I don't just mean lifting blocks."
Pyre's jaw worked, but he swallowed the angry retort that wanted come out. He gave a grudging nod.
"Take the rest of the day off," the foreman advised him. "Tomorrow too. I'll mark you down as half-pay for both days so you won't get far behind. Come in on Monday when you've worked out what's getting up your ass and making you a hazard in the workplace. We'll see how you do next week. If there's no more problems, then we'll let this all blow over. If not… then I'll have to let you go."
"Thanks," Pyre muttered, still addressing the smoke-hazy corner of the tent. "I'll… work it out."
"See that you do," the foreman said, and picked up his manila folder with a shuffle of papers. "Good luck, son."
Pyre had to duck awkwardly under the top bar of the tent on his way out, and the late afternoon sun made him squint. He went to get his bag from the roped-off area where the construction workers hung around when they weren't working; a few of the others were there, eating from their lunchboxes, but some of them avoided his eyes and even the friendliest of them glanced at his thunderous expression and said nothing. Pyre grabbed the canvas bag from the pile and slung it across his chest, removed the hardhat from over his halo and tossed it on the rack, then turned around and marched back.
The walk back to the church gave him an uncomfortable amount of time to think. The weight of the canvas bag, slung over his shoulder and rough where the strap rubbed his skin, was just another reminder of what he didn't want to face.
Fall had made this bag for him; they hadn't been able to find one with a strap long enough for him to comfortably hold, or tough enough to hold his equipment. It was just another thing that pressed on him in this cramped, confining little world. Some days felt like everything was too small, or too fragile, or bound about with rules like old lace embroidery - he couldn't take a step or make a move without tearing one.
But things had been like that ever since he'd come here, and he'd always managed with no problems before. What had changed? Only that at first, he'd always had others to help him deal with his constant irritation, good friends that could listen to him vent, help him let off steam in a safe way before it all built up to be too much.
Somewhere in the last few weeks, he'd lost that. He still had the kids - Aught and Rain and the other Haibane as well - but they really couldn't offer the same understanding. Fall and himself shared a special bond, the two that were always out of place - too tall, too old. Too full of dark places, under the shiny blank surface.
Pyre hated to think, when he looked back over the past few weeks, how much of his moodiness was simply caused by Fall not being around much anymore. The stupid blond fool had taken to spending most of his time in his room, only coming out for meals or sometimes not even then, presumably cooking his own meals alone late in the night. He'd claimed to be too tired to come down and join them, and indeed the dark shadows deepening under his eyes bore up that claim - but Pyre had also seen lights on his room well into the night, well past the time that anyone should have been asleep.
He hated the fact that losing Fall's presence from his life should drive him so crazy, but he hated just as much that it had taken this long - and this much of a humiliation - to see the problem.
He had a couple days off now. He vowed to himself that he'd take the time to finally track Fall down, corner him and demand to know what he thought he was doing by shutting himself off from the world this way. Fall had to get back to normal, for his own good - and Pyre's.
Pyre found Fall in the sanctuary, after searching high and low in each of the other wings. He supposed he should have checked here earlier, but there was just no reason to spend time in the chapel; it was empty and cold with the drafts that could never fully be patched.
The chapel had been patched up with electric lights, but they were not turned on. Instead Fall had lit some of the candles at the end of the aisle, and was sitting on one of the pews a few rows away. His back was to the door, and he didn't move when Pyre came up beside him.
"So here you are," he said. Now that he'd actually found his quarry, he was uncertain how to begin. He was no good with words or feelings; any of the others could have done better. "Look -" he said, then stopped.
He wanted to find some way to get through to Fall, to explain to him how much he meant to all of them - Pyre no less than the others. Maybe more than the others. How much it hurt them all to see Fall so withdrawn, remote, how much they wanted to help him if only he'd allow it. But there was no way he could think of to broach that subject, so at the last moment he changed his mind. "Come in to dinner," he said instead. "Everybody's worried about you. Don't think I've missed seeing how many meals you've skipped. Whatever it is that's on your mind -"
"Did you ever stop to think about what this means, Pyre?" Fall said. He still did not turn around.
Pyre followed his unflinching gaze upwards. Fall was staring at one of the stained glass windows in the church, enormous works of lead hatching and colored glass in a brilliant mosaic. There were a dozen of them around the chapel and Pyre had never paid them the least attention. "What, this window?" he said.
"Everything," Fall said. "Our dreams. These wings. These haloes. This place. Did you ever really stop to wonder about it?"
Pyre had, sometimes - but since there were no answers to be found, he generally didn't let himself waste time in useless speculation. "Not really," he said.
"Look," Fall said. "It's right in front of us."
The window? Baffled, Pyre looked up at it again. It was a riot of bright colors and rounded shapes, and art was highly stylized to begin with. It took him a minute to sort out one thick-lined window pane from the next, but the brazen crimson color caught his eye first. Scattered in drops and puddles along the ground, it was obvious enough that it was intended to be blood.
Once he'd identified the blood, it took him a few more seconds to realize that the dark double-thick lead lines next to it were meant to be swords. The scene resolved itself, a terrible battle - a line of stylized, side-portrait warriors marched across the window, leaving bodies in their wake.
Behind the soldiers followed a group of men in saintly robes, wielding blurry books and scepters and thuribles. They bent and touched the fallen bodies, and ghostly white figures rose up from the corpses and floated in a line across the blue glass sky towards the ceiling.
The floating people all had wings and haloes, just like them.
"We're dead," Fall said, and his voice was so calm, so eerie that it took Pyre a moment to process what he'd said. "It's the only explanation. We're dead, and this is the afterlife. Why else would you dream of burning, and me of freezing? All the other dreams, too? What else could that be but our last moments before dying?"
"That's - ridiculous," Pyre said, and he could hear in his own voice just how unnerved he was. "That's an awful big leap to make based on one old painting. You -"
He put his hand on Fall's shoulder, intending to pull him around face-to-face to talk sense into him. But he paused, with his hand inches above Fall's shoulder, to stare at his wings. There was something… something about the feathers on those wings…
"Maybe this is meant to be heaven," Fall was saying, as though Pyre had said nothing at all. "I don't know. But it's not meant for me. Children - all the others are children, and they're innocent. I'm not, I'm not. I don't belong here - that's what he said, and now I understand, this kind of heaven was never meant for me -"
Pyre ignored his babbling, grabbing Fall's shoulder and pulling his back into the light. He ran his other hand along the edge of Fall's wings, and then back, more slightly, pulling against the grain of the feathers. No - they weren't feathers; they were little fluttering scraps of white linen, cut into small triangles and fitted carefully over each of Fall's own feathers. They ruffled up under his touch, and the thin white scraps of linen pushed away, revealing the dark, iron-grey stains beneath them.
"What have you done to yourself?" Pyre whispered.
The scraps of cloth fluttered, almost like wings themselves, as under the pressure of Pyre's hand the stitches of white thread began to give way. Tiny drops of bright red blood beaded along the vanes, thread pulling taut against the tiny holes where the white scraps had been sewn into the skin. Pyre had a sudden vision of Fall working long into the night - that lamp, burning for hours and hours in his room - with his back turned to the mirror and neck twisted painfully over his shoulder, pulling the needle and thread through his own flesh.
Fall had sewn scraps of white cloth over his feathers to hide himself. From a distance, it had been enough to make him appear normal - and he'd kept them all at a distance. But it was only an illusion, less than skin deep. Under the screening cloth of the linen cloth, his wings were stained back. At the top of the wings, near the crest, the feathers were almost a normal light, ashy grey. But the further down his wings they descended, the color deepened to dark grey and then to coal black. The feathers along the very bottom were ragged, almost withered, the very tips glistening an oily black color that seemed to be eating its way inward.
"The walls, the gates, they're not to keep others out," Fall was rambling. "They're to keep us in. Land of the dead. But that means I can't get out, I can't stop it from happening. Whatever happened before, I'm being punished for it now, and I can't stop it. The walls - they won't stop it from happening. They're going to come for me, to judge me for my sins, and I can't get away. No second chances - there's no way out - there's no coming back from being dead, I -"
Enough of this. Pyre seized Fall's shoulder and yanked him around to face him straight on, grabbing his upper arms to force Fall to look him straight in the face. "I'M - NOT - DEAD!" Pyre roared.
Fall stared at him, shocked into silence. For a moment, only their breathing could be heard in the silence of the chapel. "And neither are you," Pyre said at last, breaking the tension. "Wherever we are - whatever we are - we've got to live the life we find ourselves in, understand? It's not our place to just lay down and die, whatever you think happened before."
Fall's breath drew in sharply, and he turned his head aside, blinking rapidly to counter the wetness in his eyes. "It's not that easy," he whispered, and the pain in his voice was unbearable.
To hell with this. What was the use of talking? Pyre grabbed Fall's shoulders and pulled him into a tight hug, trapping the smaller Haibane's arms against his bodies. Fall made a startled noise and shifted, pushing weakly away - but Pyre ignored it. After a long moment Fall released a shaky breath on what sounded almost like a sob, and relaxed into Pyre's arms; his hands found their way awkwardly to Pyre's sides.
"If you're hurting or afraid, don't hide it from us," he said sternly; it was easier to say what he was thinking when he didn't have to look at Fall when he did it. "We'll find a way to help. We'll all try. Trust in us a bit, will you."
"Pyre," Fall whispered, and then his head dropped to rest against Pyre's shoulder.
Aught hesitated in the hallway, one hand clutching her package and the other raised to knock. At breakfast that morning - the first time any of them had seen him after he'd vanished the night before - Pyre had reappeared, and called herself, Rain and Willow aside for an impromptu emergency meeting before work.
He'd explained, with a quiet voice and very hard eyes, that Fall was sick - he'd gotten some sort of infection in his wings that turned them dark and ragged. For the time being, he said, Fall would be staying home from work until he felt better. They should all look after him and take turns watching over him, and he was absolutely not allowed to do any more sewing work in the interim.
"I've heard about this," Willow had said, a disturbed and distraught expression on her face. "This black wing disease. I've never seen it myself, but I remember Silver said once that some Haibane are born with black wings and nobody really knows why. I never heard that it was a sickness - is it contagious? Will any of the children catch it?"
"Don't think so," Pyre had replied. "He must have been sick for a while now, and none of them have caught it yet. I think that's why he's been hiding in his rooms so much lately."
Rain had been frowning in that usual intense, earnest way that he had when he was looking at a new problem. "You say that this has happened before?" he asked Willow. "I can do research, then - I can look at the old books in the library, and try to find out what causes it and what the cure is."
"Oh, yes, please do," Willow said, sounding relieved. "In the meantime, what should we do? Should I cook some chicken soup for him - would that help?"
Pyre shrugged, his own grey wings rustling irritably. "It's worth a try. Drop in on him sometimes, try to cheer him up. Whatever it is, it's getting him down… pretty badly. I'll keep working on him, as well."
They each had promised to do the best they could for Fall - Rain vowing research, Willow planning special meals and medicinal teas. But Aught couldn't cook as well as the others, and she didn't have access to any special books. So instead she had planned to make wing covers for Fall, to protect them from drafts and chills and to make him feel less self-conscious about the color. Frost had said that they made them every year in the winter, anyway, since most of their clothes didn't cover their wings; this would just be special for Fall, instead of for everybody.
She felt terribly insecure about the workmanship of the gift - she wasn't much of a sewer. Fall could have done a much better job… but then again, it wasn't like she could have asked him for help on his own gift. Most of the other Haibane knew how to sew to some extent, although none of them were as good as Fall; she'd asked Willow and Bubbles to show her how. She'd always relied on Fall to do her sewing for her, but it was well time that she learned how to do it on her own.
Yes, it was past time she gave something back to the people who always helped her. With that thought in mind, she firmed her resolve and lifted her hand to knock on the door. It was a soft, timid tapping, and for a long time there was no answer. Perhaps he was asleep? If so, she could come back later - but no, Pyre had said that they shouldn't let Fall sleep all day. He wouldn't be able to sleep at night and that would just make him get sicker. She knocked again, louder this time.
Finally, Fall's voice came from the other side of the door. "Who is it?" he called out. He sounded tired; maybe he had been asleep after all.
"It's… it's me," she called out. "Can I come in?"
"Oh, Aught," Fall's voice came. "Yes, of course. Come on in."
Aught smiled and reached for the doorknob, but was caught up short when it didn't move. She tried again, a little harder just in case it was stuck, but with the same result. "Um… Fall? Your door is locked."
There was a long silence from the room beyond, before she heard the sound of footsteps on the floorboards. The door chunked and rattled, and then swung open partway. Fall smiled tiredly. "Sorry about that," he said. "I forgot I'd locked it. Is there something I can do for you, my dear?"
"Um…" Aught made slight motions towards the room, until Fall got the idea and moved aside so she could slip in. She didn't know what she'd been expecting to find, but was relieved to see that his bedroom wasn't a mess; indeed, the room was almost painfully neat, with only the bedclothes in disarray. The lights were off and the curtain partially drawn over the window. "I just thought I'd stop by and…" she trailed off, making a gesture in the air with the package.
Fall reached out and plucked the cloth bundle from her hands. "A sewing project?" he asked, folding the paper back around it. "Did you want my help with this? I would, but our big lunk of a housemate said I wasn't to…"
"No - no, it's finished," Aught said, flushing - it was kind of amateur-looking, with the stitches still visible around the corners. Like Bubbles had shown her, she'd cut the two pieces of cloth to a shape, sewed them together using an over-and-over stitch and then pulling them inside out to hide the seams. It was the same technique they used to make mittens, but cut in the shape of a wing instead of a hand. "I made it for you. For your wings."
Fall fell silent, his fair hair falling into his face as he bent his head over the gift. Now that he wasn't meeting her eyes, Aught glanced up at his wings, and barely stifled a gasp as she got a clear view of them for the first time.
It was harder to tell in the dim light of Fall's room, but the feathers of his wings from a few inches below the upper ridge to the tips were obviously discolored, stained a dark shade of grey. The remiges, near the bottom of his wings, looked tattered and disarrayed as though they'd been cut at with scissors. Suddenly, Aught thought that Pyre's strange edict that Fall should not be allowed to handle any sewing tools made sense.
"I hope they're the right size," Aught blurted out. "I just thought that i-if - you know. If you'd feel more comfortable wearing these, maybe you could come down to dinner more often."
"Thank you," Fall said, and he lifted his head to give her a smile. "I appreciate the thought, my dear. Perhaps I'll try them on later."
"Really?" Aught's heart lifted. "Then…"
"If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone for now," Fall interrupted her, and he gently took hold of her shoulder and turned her towards his door. "I'm a bit tired, and I'd like to rest for a while."
Reluctantly, Aught allowed herself to be herded out into the hallway. Fall gave her another smile through the doorway, before shutting it gently but firmly behind her. She heard the lock click into place.
She stood there for a long moment in the hallway, then turned slowly away, and wondered how Fall smiling at her like that could make her want to cry.
Rain cracked a jaw-aching yawn, aborting at the last second a move to cover his mouth with his hand. He was still wearing the archivist's glove on that hand, and he didn't particularly want to inhale a mouth full of dust.
He stopped to rub at his eyes with the top of his forearm, then reached over and pulled a fresh sheet of paper towards him. He was exhausted, his head throbbing and his mouth dry with the taste of dust and mildew, and his eyelids seemed to be coated by lead. There were no windows in the archive room, but he could see from the cracks around the doorway that sunlight was beginning to creep into the hallway. Had he really been here all night?
The librarian had been kind enough to grant him full run of the archive rooms, once he'd finished his work for the day. Last night - no, it was two night ago now - he'd hunted exhaustively through the archives in search of one obscure tome that all the others seemed to refer back to, hinting about the darker secrets of the Haibane. When at last he'd found it, it had been only to discover that it was written in some language he couldn't read. He'd given up and gone home to bed, exhausted.
The next day he was back in the library, however, afire with determination and convinced he'd seen books written in that language before. He'd finally managed to assemble a working dictionary, and had lost himself in transcribing and translating passages from the ancient tome. Once he'd started, he didn't want to lose his place and have to begin from the beginning again.
And now he was almost done. Fighting the waves of exhaustion that threatened to overtake him, he bent his head and scratched out the rest of the page. As he'd hoped, the ancient book finally had some of the information about the Haibane that he'd been missing. Perhaps in these pages, he'd finally find the hoped-for key that would tell them how to escape this place.
How old could this tome be? The binding style and ink were completely unlike any of the other books in the library - even the paper didn't seem quite like real paper. It was practically falling apart as he handled it, despite the protection of the glove and the most delicate motions he could make, and he regretted the loss - but at last, he found some useful information.
At times, the book wrote, the Ash Wings may fall to a moste peculiar Affliction of the Spirit, brought on without Insult or Contagion. That was true enough, Rain thought; none of the other Haibane had become sick. Under this Malady, the Ash Wing may become lethargic, her Affect moste depressed, and the Colour of her Wings may darken to black.
That description seemed painfully accurate. In the week since Pyre had explained to them what was going on, Fall had gone into a bleak depression. He had been avoiding the others for some time now already, but since yesterday morning Fall had not even eaten the meals that Aught took up to his door. Everyone was worried, and it was this increasing sense of urgency that had driven Rain back out here at first light this morning (yesterday morning?) to try to find some way to help their friend. Now, at last, they had some real information on the sickness that had overtaken Fall. Rain read on avidly.
The Transformation may be partial or complete, the old tome wrote, and then diverged into a full page listing different case studies of Haibane who had been affected; some had seen only the edges of their wings turn black, or part of the wing, where others had seen the discoloration spread over the entire surface of both wings. Some had borne the dark wings for years with not much change; for others, it had appeared and then spread frighteningly quickly. Many of the cases seemed anecdotal, a story related by the aunt of a neighbor of a grandmother; apparently not many Haibane had been available at the time the book was being written.
His attention sharpened again on the word Treatment. Of treatments, the unknown author wrote, there are few. The Feathers cannotte be pluck'd, as they will only grow in a darker Colour than before. The book then went on to describe a number of different approaches; the wings could be brushed in a medicine distilled from the sap of a certain tree that grew next to the Wall, or else the patient could be fed a mixture of certain herbs culled from the Wood. Both, frustratingly, needed to be harvested in the spring, which was six months away now.
The results of these treatments, when tried on the patients, were mixed. It seemed that some of the Haibane had recovered fully, while others made a partial recovery but then lapsed again. Others showed no improvement at all. Several other remedies were suggested, but the book did not seem very hopeful about their efficacy. Indeed, the entry ended with a chilling warning.
Our gentle Reader would do well to note, the text wrote, that the Ash Wings are notte as mortal Men, and the Illnesses that afflict them cannotte be encompassed by any mortal Healer's Art. If it be so willed, the Ash Wing will notte thrive, but continue to sicken according to her Destiny. If the Malady cannot yield to your Ministrations…
He was almost at the end of the book. Rain leaned forward, the pen dangling nerveless from his hand, his lips moving as he painstakingly translated his way down the page.. " - then - the black Colour will spread throughout her Wings until such time as all are - " He had to stop to look this word up in the dictionary, and his eyes widened in horror as he found it. " - necrotic, and the Wings may fall away from the Body -" Rain gasped, jerking back from the book as the horrifying implications sunk in.
That couldn't be true, could it, that the wings would just continue to rot until they fell off! If the wings were gone, then what made them a Haibane anymore? Rain swallowed, and forced himself to bend back to the page. Only a few lines were left.
" - and - with the loss of the Wings, and the Halo darkened of its Light, then the Ash Wing herself will…"
The chair banged to the floor, the clatter of wood on stone nearly deafening in the quiet room. The pages of the ancient book flipped and fluttered in the wind of passage, the sheet containing the translation slipping to the floor. The door swung back against the hallway wall, creaking in protest at the force of the slam, but Rain paid it no mind.
"Please don't do this," Aught begged him. "Rain, you'll get hurt!"
At any other time, the tearful tone of her voice and the anxious pleading in her wide green eyes would have melted his heart in an instant. But even as he felt his resolve waver, he squelched it. He had made up his mind what to do and he was going to do it, no matter what anyone said to persuade him otherwise. "I'm not worried about myself," he said. "Somebody has to do something, Aught, we can't just sit around and wait for things to get better on their own. If we don't find a way to get out of here, then Fall will die!"
The ground sloped up steeply below their feet, robbing them both of the breath to argue. They were off the road, climbing a rolling hill covered with unmown meadow grass speckled with a thousand tiny flecks of purple and white. He pushed his bike beside him, instead of riding it; the wire basket was full of his supplies. Aught was able to keep pace beside him, although she'd taken off her skates and carried them now in her hand.
In a way, Rain wished that she hadn't caught up with him on his way to the outer wall. If he succeeded in his plan, he could make his way back to the church and bring the rest of them back. If he didn't succeed… well, he wasn't going to think about that. He had to succeed, that was all.
"Rain, you know we're not allowed to touch the wall," Aught argued desperately. "Look at what happened to Fall. He went into the Western Woods when everybody told him not to, and look at him now. The last thing we need is for you to get sick, too!"
"Everybody knew the Woods were dangerous," Rain said stubbornly. Fall had warned them all, upon his return, of the great evil lurking in the well at the center of the woods, and told them in no uncertain terms to stay away from it. But it had been too late to keep it from affecting him. "The Wall's different. It's here to protect us, everybody says so. I'll be fine."
"That's just it! It's here to protect us from the outside! If you try to cross over the wall, who knows what'll happen?" Rain ignored her, marching along in stubborn silence, so Aught tried another tactic. "You're not the first one to think of it, you know! I heard the story from the man who runs the hotel. When he was a boy, his grandfather told him the story about another Haibane who tried to scale the wall. He couldn't do it, either, and he almost got killed trying!"
"But he didn't die," Rain pointed out. He'd heard the same story around town, although the details had differed slightly depending on who was doing the telling. Some people said that the Haibane boy had been trying to get back to the girl he loved who was outside the Wall; others said that his girlfriend was another Haibane and he did it just to impress her. All the stories agreed that the attempt had been a catastrophic failure. "Besides, he was trying to break down the wall. I'm not going to do that, just climb over it."
"But -" Aught fell silent, biting her lip, but her expression was cloudy, troubled.
They had reached the Wall.
Although the days had begun to shorten, it was still bright and sunny today with summer's warmth. The stone wall looming up ahead of them seemed to drink up the light and heat and leave the day dim, breathing back cold air into the warm. The collision of heat and cold made the air feel electric, like the sky before a thunderstorm. It somehow did not surprise either of them that the grass and flowers drew back before quite touching the stones of the wall.
Good, Rain thought. He wouldn't have to clear much space. He set the kickstand of the bike on the most level ground he could find, and began unloading his supplies from the basket. They included a hammer and chisel, several ells worth of rope, and a clanking handful of long metal staples.
"It's not… not really that high," Rain said, forcing his jaw not to chatter. He'd picked this spot because the ground was the highest here, and the Wall stretched only a dozen or so yards above his head. If he could just place enough of the staples, like rungs of a ladder… Fall or Aught should be able to climb to the top without even needing to touch the wall at all. "Stay back, Aught, please. I don't want you to get hurt," he told her.
She stamped her foot on the grass, her green eyes blazing with anger. "Rain, you hypocrite! You don't want me to get hurt -? What about you?"
"I'll be fine," Rain said, clenching his jaw shut. He turned to face the wall, and squared his shoulders. He'd made his decision; he wouldn't back down.
He picked up his hammer and chisel and approached the wall, trying to judge the distances by eye. The edge of the wall overhead eclipsed the sun, casting him into shadow; he looked up the sheer face of it and tried not to quail. This was where the Wall was shortest, but what had looked so short and easy from the distance seemed immeasurably far away from the foot of it. If he got partway up and then lost his grip and fell -
Well, that was what he'd brought the ropes for. Before he could lose his nerve, Rain set the first pivot against the stone surface of the Wall and slammed the hammer against it.
As soon as his hands touched the surface of the wall, a numbing cold spread up from his fingers through his arms. It was far colder than the faint chill of the air could have suggested - shockingly, unnaturally cold. It was like putting his hands on the pump handle of the well in the dead of winter, when the surface was covered by thick furry frost - and instead of warming against his skin, it only grew colder the longer he touched it. It stole his breath away, made his hands and arms want to seize up and freeze just from the mere touch.
Ignore it! Keep going! Rain sucked in a deep breath and forced his arm into motion, drawing his arm back and slamming the hammer forward again. On the third blow the rock cracked, the metal point of the stake driving several inches into the wall, and the small victory galvanized him. He picked up a second staple in hands too numb to feel it, and raised the hammer again.
The freezing cold of the wall was excruciating, freezing and burning all at once - and now Rain wasn't really sure at all whether it wascold he felt, or burning hot, the red-hot stovetop that confused the skin at first touch as to whether it was hot or cold. After that, Rain became more and more certain that it was hot after all, a seething white-hot fury concealed behind the stone façade. Agony spread through his hands, his wrists throbbing, up the inside of his arms as though red-hot lead were being poured into his very bones. He had to stop. He had to let go. He had to…
He might well have stopped right then, had he not received a sudden vision - almost a memory, but more like a certainty - that he had done something like this not long before. He had reached through a fire, or something like a fire, and it had burned him and hurt him - but he hadn't given up then, because the thing he was reaching for was far too precious to abandon, because he was reaching for something that was worth all the pain.
And he hadn't let go then, he hadn't given up, and he had reached it… whatever it was, he had accomplished his goal. It would be the same way now, if he just hung on. If he never gave up…
The blows of the hammer rang in his ears, deafening him to the rest of the world. His vision narrowed down to a tunnel, shot with blinding colorless sparks; he could just see his hands, clenched around the iron spike. The pain wasn't so bad anymore; he could barely feel his fingers at all. With immense concentration, forcing each digit to move separately, he shifted; he climbed up on his first stable and hung onto the second by one arm, then reached up to place his third.
Each crash of impact shook his entire body; the crashing sound of the iron spike against rock made a constant din, punctuated by silences. In those silences he began to hear echoes, like the sound of voices overlaid with the chipping of solid stone. He heard schoolchildren laughing and jeering, throwing childish insults that hurt all the same; Bubbles' low and gentle voice, sobbing as if heartbroken.
"I'm a little concerned about your preference for alcohol over food," a voice spoke directly in his ear, and Rain almost turned his head to see the speaker. Despite the chiding words, the tone was warm and wry - a loving father's voice. Another voice chimed in from the other side; angrier, harsher. "Not in this house! Do you hear me? I won't have that damn garbage in this house! If you want to sleep under this roof, that goes down the toilet right now!"
Aught's voice came to him, calling his name, and there was terror in it - but she seemed so very far away, and somehow that name didn't seem to belong to him anyway. The last thing he felt was a pair of hands grabbing his ankle, trying to pull him down from his perch - but then she cried out, and the hands vanished.
It was a battle, now, between him and the Wall - which of them could last longer. He could almost see it, now, not with his own eyes but with his mind. A towering presence, ageless and inhuman, with the patience of endless years behind it. The Wall had been here for eons before their brief mortal lives intruded into it. The passing of the sun in a year-round cycle was less than a moment to it.
Who had set it to its duty it knew not, but it knew its duties and it kept them: to keep the mortals inside the walls, to keep all others out. To receive, to hold and to keep the memories that were given into it, and to release them at the proper time into nothingness. The wall did not want him to pass. It did not care if it hurt him, not in the way that a human would care. But it could not kill him. It did not have the power to kill, and he could bear anything else that it could throw at him. Others had attempted to best it before, and they had all failed.
But he would not fail.
Faces swam across his vision; young, old, beautiful, homely. A middle-aged man smiled at him, sandy-haired and with thick spectacles over kindly eyes. A much younger man, not much older than Rain himself; he had fine, handsome features and well-coiffed hair, but something about his expression seemed haughty and self-absorbed. A little girl, burnish-haired and freckle-nosed, smiling a wide gap-toothed smile. None of them faces he knew, yet all of them weirdly familiar somehow.
And then - Pyre? - His friend's familiar face appeared, or - it looked like him, but much older, with laugh lines around the eyes and an unfamiliar scar along the chin. He was dressed in strange clothes, clothes Rain had never seen in this valley, and the black tattoo of a dragon wound around his wrist and hand before disappearing up his sleeve.
His own face, eyes blank, devoid of any human feeling. A black eyepatch slashed across that face, locks of his own brown hair drifting weirdly in the nothingness. Reaching out towards him, hands opened to clutch at his throat.
If you will not yield, a soundless voice told him, then you must forget.
A bolt of light crashed into him, and in an instant all the voices and faces and all thoughts in his mind fled. All he knew was the whiteness, the infinite light that obliterated all in its path, an expanding bubble of utter nothingness.
And then he fell, and he did not remember when he hit the ground.
Chapter 3: Unfolding
Fall had roused himself, barely, when Aught came back - distraught and frantic and full of dire stories about Rain's mad plan. She'd come looking for Pyre, mostly, because of all of them Pyre was the strongest and if need be he could subdue Rain - or carry him.
Carrying him turned out to be what was needed. Fall did not go with the others to find Rain - the thought of approaching the Walls filled him with a paralyzing terror - but he was awake and dressed (and with the covers pulled over his wings) by the time they got back. Pyre was stony-faced and grim, Aught in tears. Rain - who had never seemed so small as he did then, slung over Pyre's big shoulders for transport - was unconscious, and could not be roused.
Willow, taking charge as usual, set up a rotation for each of them to sit up with the stricken boy. By midnight he had developed a soaring fever, tossing and moaning restlessly in his sheets and his skin burning hot to the touch. They were all kept busy making ice compresses to cool his forehead and neck.
Morning brought no improvement. At last Willow, white in the face and with heavy bags under her eyes from lack of sleep, directed them to bundle up Rain for transportation to the hospital in town. She herself departed for the enclave of the Touga, to beg their aid. They all moved in a cloud of hushed terror; Rain had broken the most sacred of rules, committed a vile sacrilege, not only by touching the forbidden Wall but by driving three stakes into it before he had been overcome. For that crime, what would the punishment be? Could it be any worse than what the Wall had already visited on him?
Fall accompanied them to the hospital, although he felt stupid and useless the entire trip. He couldn't bear to stay behind in the hushed, empty halls of the old church, not knowing if… not knowing.
"But why did he do it?" he asked Aught, as they trudged through the chilly pre-dawn streets in Pyre's wake. "I knew he wasn't completely happy here, but…" But he hadn't thought that Rain would be as desperate for escape as himself - although much braver.
"I tried to stop him," Aught said tearily, and the words poured out of her in a flood of guilt that Fall could not have gotten a word in edgewise to say that he never doubted it. "I did! But he wouldn't listen. He's so stubborn. Oh, why does he always have to be so stubborn? He was just so worried, the things he found in that book convinced him that we had to get out now, before - before -"
A chill stole over Fall, and he turned towards her. "What book?" he asked. "Get out before what?"
Aught refused to meet his eyes. "Before - before anything bad happened," she said nervously. "Please, Fall - he was just so worried about you - all of us were…"
The cold chill settled in Fall's bones, freezing like water thickening into ice. His pace slowed, and it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other; only the sight of Pyre's broad back, with Rain's tousled head of hair just peeking out from beside his arm, drew him to keep moving forward at all.
My fault, he thought numbly. It was my fault after all. I should have known…
It was so quiet in the hospital - quieter than Fall would have expected. The town was at a funny size, too large for a single doctor's office but too small and too peaceful to fill up a whole hospital. Some cautious governor in past years had built one anyway - just in case of emergencies - but there were no more than a dozen other patients there when the rushed and bedraggled party of Haibane arrived. The nurses took over Rain immediately, transferring him from the motorbike to a crisp-linened hospital bed; giving medicines, checking vitals.
Rain finally awoke as he was moved into the bed, his torn and muddied clothes exchanged for an open-back hospital gown. He moaned and thrashed, strange wordless vocals that were more disturbing than any of his earlier fevered mumbling. Nurses crowded around his bed, repeating questions to him that he could not seem to answer. His hands and feet twitched, seemingly at random, with no coordination or purpose.
Fall leaned heavily back against the doorframe, then slid slowly down to the floor. He hated his own cowardice, but he could not force himself to go any closer to the hospital bed where Rain made those terrifying animal-like noises. There was nothing he could do for his friend, anyway, that the nurses could not do better; he was useless, useless, a curse…
Because of his angle of view, through the wardroom door and into the hallway, he saw the flash of earth-colored robes and jangling bone tokens. The Touga had arrived, although he saw no sign of Willow; he recognized the Communicator, speaking in grave tones with the head doctor.
Seized by a sudden anxious trepidation, Fall crept closer. There were two of the Touga, their elaborate robes and morbid decorations seeing bizarre and out of place in this solid, comfortable town buildings. They brought with them the breath of the forest, cool and rank and indifferent to the suffering of mortals. Had they come to exact some punishment on Rain?
" - arrangements within the Confederation for his long-term care," the Communicator was saying in a cool voice. "After a time it may be possible to move him back to the nest, where the other children can continue to care for him; in the short-term, however, it would be best if he could be under constant supervision."
The doctor murmured something, and the Communicator slowly shook his head, his amulets swinging. "The medication we will provide can bring down the external symptoms, at least," he said, and Fall noticed the damp-stained leather herbology bag carried by the second Touga - the source of the forest smell, no doubt. That smell, combined with the sight of those robes and masks, took Fall back to the day in the woods, where he had torn through the leaves and branches in his panicked flight - the broken-off twigs and plants beneath his feet had given off just such a pungent, earthy smell -
The second Touga turned his face towards Fall, without otherwise moving. That wooden, indifferent mask, with the dark hole in the center - it was like an accusing eye, a gaze that was unblinking and unwavering in its judgment. It saw everything about him - his stained and frayed clothing, worn by weeks of neglect; the lies and masks he habitually wore; the black stain spreading over his wings. "But unfortunately," the Communicator went on talking, although behind their hoods and masks, it was impossible to say from which cloaked figure the merciless voice came; "the damage to his mind is irreversible."
Your fault, the empty black gaze seemed to whisper to him. Another moan from Rain's bed, behind him, struck up the hair on the back of his neck. Irreversible. He did it for you. You know he did. Your fault, your fault, your faultyourfaultyourfault -
Fall jumped to his feet. The hospital walls tilted crazily around him, the walls and ceiling wavering at crazy angles and threatening to collapse and crush him. He had to get out of here - he was suffocating -
The hospital staff dodged hastily aside, flustered and affronted by his blind, barreling progress down the corridors and out the door into the sunlight. In the sickroom behind him, with all eyes on the stricken young Haibane in the hospital bed, no one else saw him go.
The street was a little better than the hot, close air of the hospital, but not much. As the day brightened, more and more people were out and about, and he could feel their astonished, contemptuous stares as he stumbled along on the cobblestones. Here in the heart of town, the tall buildings rose up like walls around him - and behind them, he could feel the ominous presence of the true walls, a crowding barrier that penned him in like a trapped animal. Fall panted as he staggered forward, struggling against the feeling of inescapable confinement. Trapped, trapped, he needed some space, that was all -
Fall's blurred eyes fell on the clock tower, rising clean and high and lonely into the sky above the crowded town. Up there, he would be above everything, above the walls that wanted to topple and crush him. Up there, he might be able to breathe -
The thought of a possible escape route shook him from his paralysis, seized his muscles and drove him forward. He set off towards the clock tower at a dead run, as though all the legions of Hell were on his heels.
It was quieter in the hospital room, now, with only the three Haibane left in the room. The doctor had come to give Rain some mysterious, bitter-smelling medicine, then shake his head slightly and go off again. The nurses had done their best to make Rain comfortable, but in the end there was only so much they could do, and they too had drifted off to their usual duties. One came by every half-hour or so to check on Rain's progress, but so far there had been no change.
Rain was awake, but so far he had been able to say nothing about what had happened to him. Indeed, he seemed not to be able to say anything at all. His voice came in wordless cries and moans, unshaped by any words or even any control of his own volume. His movements were spastic and jerky, his hands and arms flopping around without coordination. The nurse had helped to feed him; he didn't seem to be able to manage the dishes on his own, or even to sit up properly.
Aught hated herself for thinking it, but it had been a relief when Rain had fallen back into sleep.
Of the Haibane from the old church, only herself, Bubbles, and Viv remained. Willow had not appeared at the church yet - most likely she was still dealing with the Touga, or trying to maintain order back at the church after this violent disruption of their lives. The boys had accompanied them to the hospital, but now vanished; whether to go to their neglected jobs, or just because they couldn't stand to stay here any longer, Aught didn't know. She couldn't really blame them.
Vivid had hung back, by the hospital door, for most of the morning. Now she uncrossed her arms and pushed forward, approaching the bed as tentatively as though it contained a nest of snakes. She reached out, hesitantly, to stroke Rain's cheek… and then at the last moment just brushed against the pillow beside his head instead.
"You know, I sometimes - thought about it," she blurted out suddenly, and looked up to meet Bubbles' and Aught's questioning stare. "Going over the wall, I mean. It wasn't like I really wanted to go anywhere, or go back to my old life. It's just that - it's just that - it always made me so mad. There are all these rules that we have to follow, you know? And I thought, it just isn't fair. Why should we have to do this and do that, just because some old guys in smelly robes say so? Why shouldn't we have money and nice clothes and live in new houses?"
"So I thought - I'd show them. I'd go to their precious Wall and I'd, I'd… I never really thought it through. He had a plan, he even brought ropes, and that's just so… I would never have thought of that. He took my idea and he went through with it, and I never quite dared, and now…" She trailed off, shaking her head, her coppery curls falling raggedly into her face.
"I'm glad you didn't," Bubbles said quietly. "We wouldn't want you to have been hurt, either."
"Yeah, but - maybe if I had, he would have known better?" Viv looked at Aught, a guilty and hunted expression on her face. "I don't know. Maybe not. It's just - really weird, that's all. I always thought the rules were just, were just, I don't know, made up to piss us off. To keep us humble and make us behave. I never - thought that there was a real reason for them. I never thought that anything bad could really happen, just by breaking their stupid rules."
Nobody knew quite what to say. Aught looked down at her hands, clasped tightly around her bare knees. She'd tried to hold Rain's hand, earlier, but he'd jerked it around so much she had to let go.
"I hope he gets better soon," Viv said at last, breaking the silence. She stood up, her expression subdued and troubled, and left the room.
"What's happened to him?" Aught whispered. She didn't really expect anyone to answer her, and for a very long time it seemed like no one would.
"Rain asked me," Bubbles said, her quiet voice barely stirring the silence. "Why it was that we all spoke the same language. It… it was almost the first thing he ever said to me, you know?" She gave Aught a trembling smile.
"That's Rain for you," Aught said numbly. "Always asking questions… He was always interested in finding out how things worked…"
"At the time, I… didn't really know what to tell him," Bubbles said. "At the time, I… didn't really know what to tell him. I hadn't ever thought about it. You don't think about the things you have, you know? Not until they're gone.
"They say… they say that the Wall holds our memories, until the new year when it releases them to the sky. They say that when the Haibane are born into this world, they forget everything. But that's not really true, is it?"
"What do you mean?" Aught asked, confused.
"It's true that we forget our names, and where we came from, and everything like that. But there are all sorts of other things we still remember. Like…" Bubbles waved a hand vaguely. "How to talk. How to read, and write. How to ride a bicycle, or just how to walk. How to feed yourself, and what is and isn't okay to eat. How to tie your shoes, or tie knots. How to use keys and light switches and… and a hundred other little things that our hands remember, even if our mind forgets. Even if we don't remember where we learned them.
"And… I think that Rain has lost all of those, now," Bubbles said, in a voice close to a sob. Tears welled up in her brown eyes, rolling in fat droplets down her cheek. She rubbed her cheek with the back of her hand, and the wet streaks coursed down over her wrist. "I think he's forgotten everything. Everything he used to know. The Wall took all that away from him."
Aught felt sick. It was a strange, weightless feeling inside her, like her stomach didn't want to stay where it was supposed to be; it left her feeling distant and nauseous and faint. She knew Bubbles was right, that this was the horror that none of them wanted to admit had befallen one of their own.
He won't remember me, she thought, and hated herself for that selfishness. But that was the least of it. Even if he'd forgotten about her, at least he would still have been there, clever and serious and always, always supportive. She looked at Rain, tossing restlessly on the bed, and the Rain she knew was just gone, that clever mind and caring soul had just been sucked right out of him, leaving… blankness. Nothingness, an empty slate like a newborn baby.
Would he grow up again? she wondered. Like an infant, learning everything again for the very first time? Or would he be unable to make any new memories, ever? An infant's mind trapped in a teenager's body… it was too horrible. Surely they couldn't keep him in this hospital forever, but would he really be any better back at the old church?
Either way, Aught realized, as she blinked the blurriness out of her eyes, he wasn't going to come home today. And they'd been in such a tearing hurry to get him down here, they hadn't stopped back by the church for any of the essentials. Aught took a deep, calming breath, and forced her spine to straighten. "I should," she said, and her voice wobbled a little until she tamped it out steady. "I should go back to the church, and bring him a change of clothes."
"Okay." Bubbles said wanly, the younger girl looking pale and forlorn in all this bleached-linen sterility. But then, Aught didn't suppose she looked much better, her face puffy from crying, her clothes mussed and stained from the peltering run from the Wall to the old church and back. She'd regained her breath from that run hours ago, but a little pain still lingered in her lungs and her heart.
"And maybe -" Bubbles said, and Aught paused at the foot of the bed. Bubbles gave her a peaked, hopeful smile. "Maybe some things from his room. You know… familiar things, they might help him remember."
Aught paused. Despite her words earlier, it seemed that Bubbles couldn't let go of a last bit of hope. "Okay," she said quietly.
It was a long walk back from the hospital to the old church.
The church was completely deserted. Aught wandered from one room to the next, through the kitchen and the laundry room and the big meeting-room with the three angled windows where she had been born. Where she and Rain had been born.
The air was still and cool, the peeling wallpaper looked lonely and decrepit. Although surely it couldn't have been empty for long - a few hours at the most - the building had a sad, lonely quality to it. The echoing empty vault of the chapel, the confused tangle of hallways and rooms of the adjacent wings, all seemed so pointless without people there. Without voices to fill the air, and footsteps to echo across the cracked tile floors, the fading sorrow of the abandoned church settled over it like a patina of dust.
In the cloakroom by the back entrance - nestled into the wing between the west wing and the chapel - she finally found a sign of habitation. It was a note from Viv, written in her familiar spiky, hurried handwriting. It said that she was taking Frost and the other young children to the Old Factory to stay the night, since they weren't sure when Willow would get back from town.
How like Viv, Aught thought to herself, to avoid the responsibility of feeding and looking after the children for the night by bundling them all up to trek halfway across the valley. It would never occur to her that it would be easier to just settle down and do the task put to her instead of ducking out.
With the note in her hand, Aught climbed down the narrow splintering staircase and let herself out the sticking back door. The sun was still warm and bright on the southwest side of the church, lighting up the grassy hillside in a blaze of verdant color, until each blade of grass glowed with its own emerald light.
A sudden crushing wave of sorrow gripped her, and Aught choked down on a sob that echoed down the hillside and out over the river. Her legs felt suddenly weak, and she sat down on the worn white paint of the bottom step, wrapping her arms around her knees. She thought she might indulge herself in a good cry, but the spasm of misery faded as soon as it had come.
Still she sat there, soaking up the last of the sunlight, staring out across the river over the valley. The cold rain had cleared up hours ago, leaving the sky washed a bright blue, and the tops of the trees of the distant woods and the stones of the road reflected a bright silver. The same cold rain had at last silenced the cicadas that had provided a faithful evening chorus in the last few weeks.
It was very quiet.
It had never been this quiet before. Always before the old church had been full of noise; the excited laughter and yelling of the younger Haibane, the more relaxed and measured conversations of the older ones. The clatter of pans and cookery, the sizzle of a fire, the sound of chopping wood echoing from the woodlot around the east side. They had all filled Aught's ears and her days, distracting her from the empty silence inside herself.
She found she was crying after all; not violently or hysterically, but a gentle, slow drip of water down her cheeks. She stared out over the peaceful, sunlit countryside, and wondered how such a beautiful place could harbor so much secret unhappiness.
The wind that shushed through the grass was gentle now, although the dip of the land in which the staircase lay strengthened it to a low note in her ears. It was a warm breeze, but enough to dry her tears cold on her cheeks, make her eyes sting. What's wrong? the wind sighed. Why do you cry?
"I feel so helpless," Aught said aloud. "I'm not strong, like Pyre, or clever, like Fall, or brave, like Rain. I'm just me."
Most people are, the wind observed. That doesn't usually stop them.
Aught blinked, then squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed them with the heels of her hands. She stood up and opened her eyes wide, staring out over the valley. She could almost - not quite, but almost - make out a transparent whirling in the air, a bright and curious presence dancing around her. If anyone else had been around, she would never have dared, but - she was alone. "Are you speaking to me?" she said cautiously.
Are you listening? came the curious response. You never did before.
The voices had a familiar tone to them, and Aught thought they might have sung to her before; when she was flying on her roller skates through the streets of the town, too caught up in the joy of motion and the freedom of flight to pay notice. Was she just hallucinating this? Had she gone crazy?
"Wind," she said hesitantly, not sure how one addressed a talking breeze. "What's outside the walls?"
Things. People. Other places, the wind answered. Or so we hear. We don't get out much. Walls are too high.
"You, too?" Aught almost laughed, a shaky gasp, but the reminder of the Wall brought a cold pang to chill her elation. The walls were formidable, frightening, and they concealed a deep and dangerous power. There was no getting out past the Wall. "What… what's in the woods?"
Things forgotten, the wind whispered, swirling around her. Breezes flattened her dress to her legs, teased strands of hair away from her head. Things not permitted. Things that have been thrown away. Pieces.
"Pieces of what?" Aught asked.
Pieces of you.
"Of me?" Aught asked, startled and frightened. "What do you mean, of me? Or of us?"
There was no answer. The breeze died away, leaving her standing alone in the sunlit garden.
Aught stared across the slowly crawling river, and her heart began to beat faster as her hands and face pricked with excitement. "No, I can't," she whispered, half-expecting someone to answer her, half-not. "It's forbidden. It's not safe. I can't…"
It was madness even to consider it. Fall had told her, quite explicitly, to stay away from the woods, that there was something dangerous there. The rules were there for a very good reason. Just look what had happened to Rain, when he broke them.
Aught drew in a sharp breath, and the cool air seared in her throat and her lungs. But she was all alone now, she thought. There was no one else to rely on.
And there was one thing that Rain had been right about, however else he'd been terribly wrong. You weren't going to get anywhere by waiting around for the world to fix itself for you.
She went back into the house long enough to put Viv's note on the kitchen table, to get a coat and a pair of better hiking shoes. Then she set off across the hillsides, boots squelching in the rain-wet grass, towards the dark shadow of the woods.
The wind had felt gentle on street level, nearly imperceptible between the houses, but up here it fair gusted, filling the top of the clock tower with a rushing sound. Fall gasped for breath and failed to catch it; the pressure of the wind against his throat and chest was not helping his panicked feelings of suffocation. His shaking fingers scrabbled at the collar of his shirt, the stitches ripping from the worn and faded fabric as he yanked at it.
He regretted it a moment later when the cold air hit his skin; it was cold, cold up here with the breath of oncoming winter, and within minutes he was shivering as the sweat dried to his skin. Shivering and clutching his arms, Fall thought about going back down - down, where it would be warmer - but the thought of the stifling air in the tower below him drove him outwards instead. There was a glimpse of blue sky through the gears and rods of the mechanism, and it pulled him forward like a fish on a line.
A gust of wind hit him like a blow as he stepped out onto the balcony, and his teeth chattered. This was the tallest building in town, over a hundred feet off the ground; from here he could see easily over the roofs of the town buildings out to the rolling green of the fields. Beyond it he caught a silver-blue glimpse of the river and then, rising up to encase it all, the grim dark stone of the Wall.
He'd hoped that the free air and height would make him feel less stifled; instead, this birds-eye view of the town and valley on brought home to him how very small their world was, how confined. Everything was circumscribed by the wall, only a few small square miles of land in between one side of the valley and the other; even here it felt like the walls were moving inwards, grinding up the green hills and buildings between them like the squeezing sides of a vice.
All at once the feeling of tight confinement surged up in him again, and his legs seized up with the terrible urge to flee - but there was nowhere to run, nowhere higher to go, nowhere in this world he could run to escape that judgmental, brooding gaze. His clothes and skin felt too tight and confining; he pulled at the seams of his shoulder and arms to try to loosen the restrictions. His trembling hand, groping at the shoulder, brushed against the top of the wing covering; in a sudden spasm of fear and fury he ripped it off and flung it away from him. A moment later its mate joined it, and the air around him was filled with a flurry of drifting black feathers.
Fall snatched awkwardly at his wings, and a handful of feathers came loose in his fist; they should never have come free so easily, but they were already dying, sick and withered and weak in their pinions. He stared at the ragged, coal-black feathers in his hand, and bile rose in his throat until he had to throw them away from himself. He shivered violently, fingers scratching at his arms and chest even though his shirt flapped torn and loose around him; he was disgusting, he wanted to be free of it, this awful skin, this sinful body. He stumbled towards the rail, gagging, and the chilled iron rod caught him in the stomach and brought him up short.
The wind gusted around him, and a swirl of feathers spun into the open air. Fall watched them go, mesmerized by their movements. Dancing on the wind, it looked like those feathers were really free; free of fear, free of pain. That wind, Fall thought, could fly free over the walls and escape, and leave all doubt and pain behind.
He didn't plan it. He didn't even really stop to think about what he was doing; all he knew was that the dark stone walls of the clock tower were threatening to crush him, the walls and ceiling and floor all rising up to squeeze him to death. The open air called him, and he stilled his trembling hands and gripped the iron bar hard. He climbed up onto the railing and pushed himself straight, and for one endless moment he teetered there, balancing in the free air.
Then he closed his eyes, spread his arms and wings wide, and let himself fall.
A shout sounded from somewhere behind him, and an iron-strong grip latched onto his elbow and jerked him back. Fall's eyes popped open, and he saw the sky and ground and town careening crazily around him. His feet scuffed and slipped on the railing, and his knee impacted very painfully against it as he lost his balance and footing. Then the vice-hard grip was dragging him back over the railing and away from the edge, and all the breath whooshed out of his lungs as he landed on his back, staring up at the dim, rusted inner workings of the clock tower.
A pair of red eyes glared down at him. "You idiot!" Pyre roared, right in his face. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"
"I -" It was hard to talk with the breath knocked out of him, but even if it hadn't been Fall had no idea what he would have said. His teeth began to chatter as the shaking spread in waves throughout his body. "I d-don't -"
Pyre reached down and hauled him to his feet, an angry scowl on his face that deepened as his gaze swept over Fall's front, taking in the ripped seems, the scratch marks on his chest and neck. "Damn it!" he cursed, his voice full of the growl of a thunderstorm. "Why did you let it get to this? Look at you!"
That was the last thing Fall wanted to do. "Let go of me, Pyre," he said unsteadily.
"What? So you run away? So you can try to throw yourself off the tower again?" Pyre demanded.
"I wasn't going to - " Fall began, but Pyre interrupted him.
"I'm sick and tired of you lying and covering up your pain!" he said, and his left hand came up to grip Fall's right shoulder, pulling him to look straight into Pyre's eyes. "Don't you understand that I would do anything to help you? But I can't unless you tell me what's wrong!"
"I don't know!" It burst out of Fall in a wail of despair. As though that admission had broken a dam inside him, the words came tumbling out in a flood. "I can't remember!"
A pause, and then, "Something from your life before here?" Pyre asked quietly.
"I don't know," Fall repeated, and he raised his trembling hands to clutch at his hair. That, at least, didn't come out in bunches like his wing feathers, but the stinging pain as he yanked at the strands helped to ground him, a little. "Something terrible - someone terrible, maybe several someones - they're coming for me. I know they are. And when they catch up to me, I… I don't know. Something… something bad." Words failed him. He couldn't articulate the dread, the nameless doom that pressed down on him from all sides; he only knew the mortal terror that it left behind in him. Something bad. That was all he knew.
"All the details, all the specifics - I've forgotten them all. But that doesn't help, don't you see? Just because I've forgotten them,doesn't mean they've forgotten me! They're going to come for me, and nothing will be able to stop them. That I've forgotten - that I don't remember who or what or why - it just means I don't have any way to fight back! I'm trapped here, I can't run and I can't fight, and they're coming for me…" Tears were pouring down his face, the bitter taste of salt in his mouth. He pulled at his hair harder, and pain flashed through his scalp as the blond hair began to part from it.
"Stop that!" Pyre said sternly, and pulled his hands loose from his hair. He grabbed Fall's face, forcing him to look Pyre straight in the eyes. "You are not alone, do you hear me? We're all with you. Whatever's going to happen, you won't have to face it alone. We'll be here to help. We'll fight for you…"
"No!" Fall's panic redoubled, and he struggled - futilely - against Pyre's hold. The big man had always been strong, and a summer of hauling around beams and blocks had only sharpened that strength. "No, you mustn't! Don't you understand? I deserve this!Whatever I did, even if I don't remember it, it was awful enough that I have this coming. No one else must interfere, because I'm not worth -"
"Shut up!" Pyre snarled, pinning Fall tight against him, blocking his escape. Fall froze, his body taut and quivering with the need to run, run, run… to escape this place, because this awful, beautiful place was too much like Heaven. And he knew that he belonged in Hell.
And then Pyre kissed him.
It was a fierce, hot and hungry kiss, his red eyes closing on an expression of intense concentration, brows knotted as his lips claimed Fall's. Fall gasped in surprise, taking in a breath for what felt like the first time in hours, and Pyre took advantage of the opening. He stood frozen in shock for a long moment; Pyre shifted him around in his arms, pulling him flush against his body, and deepened the kiss.
Heat bloomed in Fall's mouth, starting with his lips and tongue and traveling down his throat, through his chest and belly and hips. It melted the icy fear inside of him, leaving him feeling loose and warm for the first time in - in longer than he could remember. He sighed and relaxed into Pyre's embrace, his own eyes fluttering closed. Without conscious volition his arms wound around Pyre, steadying and balancing him, and he found himself pushing up on his toes to return the kiss.
His frenetic desperation dwindled away, not gone - not completely gone - but, just for this moment, not seeming so all-encompassing that death seemed the only escape. For the first time since he'd woken up in this strange little world, he felt he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
The wind had died down; the huge metal arms of the turbines were still as Aught passed under them. The rusty joints creaked only slightly, and it had a lonely sound, up here on the hill away from everything. Aught knew that the great windmills turned the generators and provided power to most of the town, as well as to the Old Churchhouse itself, and were therefore terribly important; but on the hillsides swept clean by the wind of all but the hardiest short grasses and low, small-leafed shrubs, she thought they seemed very lonely.
Autumn was advancing fast on the countryside; much of the grass had turned golden-tan, and the summer flowers had withered. The trees growing alongside the road were beginning to turn at their very tops, yellow and red and brown, although the branches lower down were still a full leafy green. The woods ahead, though, loomed a dark green seemingly untouched by the tides of the seasons.
She passed from the heat of the golden autumn sunlight into the cool green space under the trees - not without some trepidation, for the warnings of Fall and the others still rang loud in her head. But although the air under the trees was cool and dim, it was not dark, and once her eyes had adjusted to the crepuscular air Aught had little trouble picking her way between the trees.
She went slowly and carefully, because the footing was slippery and uncertain. Although the trees remained solidly green, the ground was covered with windfalls that rolled away dangerously underfoot; spiky brown balls from the sweetgum trees, hard pointed acorns that broke underfoot with a crunch. Aught was glad she'd brought the boots, and glad for the stiff wool of the coat when grabbing a branch to steady herself brought a brief cold shower of rain on her head and shoulders and wings.
A few minutes into the wood, though, Aught slowed to a stop, unsure. Where was she going? Fall's description of his trip into the Woods had been terse, concentrating more on warning them away from the well than providing any helpful directions for finding it. He'd said only that it was near the west end of the woods, closer to the Wall; but that still left a huge volume of the woods to search, even if she could tell one direction from another in this twilight.
There was no wind in this woods; the thick foliage blocked it out. But Aught heard the rushing of water not far away and set out towards it. This stream must feed into the same river that ran by the old churchhouse, she realized; the Woods were upstream of them. The thought made her feel oddly more secure here, in having that link back to the rest of the world.
She came out into a gap between the trees and found the stream, somewhat smaller than she had expected given the noise. The streambed lay in a deep channel between its banks, with the trees on either side sending down deep brown roots towards it. Bright glints shone of the rushing water, dark amid the slick black and grey stones of the streambed - reflections, Aught realized as she bent over it in fascination, of her own halo.
Now what? Aught glanced around, looking vainly for some form of direction; but she was alone. "Water," she said aloud; she felt somewhat foolish, but who would be here to see it? "What's in this wood?"
She was not as surprised as she should have been when the babbling stream spoke back to her. Places to play and leap and sing and dance, it said. High places and low places and fast places and deep places. Light places and dark places that have been long long forgotten.
"I'm looking for one of the… deep places," Aught said. Surely if anyone in a forest would know where to find a well, it would be the water. "An old well - near the western wall. Can you help me?"
The sound of the rushing stream filled with laughter. Of course we can help you, it said. Up the bank and through the gully and around the bend and around again and then you'll be near, it's not too far away. We can still hear the echoes sometimes although it's been dry for a long long time.
She listened to the stream as she continued to hike up along the streambank - it wasn't always easy to stay close to the brook, which twisted and dipped among the trees and didn't offer much in the way of footing. Once she slipped and splashed right down into the water - icy cold against her legs, and seeping quickly into her boots and the hem of her skirt. "Oh, sorry!" she gasped out involuntarily, as she climbed hurriedly back up the tree-roots, but the stream didn't seem to mind enough to respond.
Here, the water said at last, after she'd been hiking along the streambed for what seemed like a long time. Follow this gulley to the top of the ridge, then turn when you reach the boulder and go downhill towards the stand of willow trees and when you pass through those to the other side you'll see the well.
"Thank you," Aught said, unsure of the proper etiquette for receiving advice from a stream - but it didn't feel right to just walk away without saying anything, either. "You've been very helpful. Thanks."
You're welcome, the stream replied cheerfully, even if you are one of the children of the air we like you and we like to help people we like.
The grove of the willow trees was just where she'd been told, but Aught's footsteps slowed as she reached them, until she was almost dragging her feet. She'd come out this far, but - she could still turn around. She could still leave and go back, before it was too late, before she did something unforgiveable and ended up as badly off as Fall or Rain…
Thoughts of her friends steadied her determination to go on. She couldn't go back, not after having come all this way and accomplishing nothing! Maybe there was something up ahead that could help them, or maybe there was nothing; she might not gain anything from going forward, but she surely wouldn't gain anything from going back.
Taking a deep breath and stiffening her shoulders, Aught marched forward into the clearing ahead. There it was, just where the water told her - an old well, with moss growing thick up around the sides and the stones of the rim crumbling with age. The air of the clearing felt heavy, tingled where it touched her skin, but - Aught couldn't feel any evil, any ill intentions. Just the ancient agelessness of the woods around, and a strange aura from the scattered stones of the well, something like regrets…
Aught walked up to the edge of the well and, after a moment's hesitation, put her hands on the rim and peered down. The shaft of the well disappeared into darkness, and the light of her halo extended only a few feet below the level of the rim. "Hello?" Aught called out into the shadows below. Her voice echoed down the depth and came back up at her a few seconds later, unaltered. There was no sound or smell of water; this well was dry, indeed.
Was there something down there?
Aught strained her eyes to the limit; she thought she could make out movement, down there in the deep darkness, just like Fall had said. But it was a slow, faint movement; it didn't seem to be coming up towards her. It had been here for all this time; perhaps itcouldn't leave, even if it wanted to? Perhaps it was stuck, just needing help to get out?
If she wanted to meet whatever was in the well, she would have to go down there herself.
There were rungs set into the stones of the wall, thick metal staples like the ones Rain had tried to drive into the Wall to make his escape. Moving slowly, carefully, testing each step before she made it, Aught moved her legs over the lip of the well and pushed her feet tentatively against the first rung. It seemed steady enough; and so, taking a deep gulp of air, Aught swung herself onto the ladder and began the slow and careful descent.
The last of the sunlight lay in a slanted block a few feet below the top of the well; from there, it grew rapidly darker. Aught made her way down by feel, wishing she had thought to bring a lantern with her in addition to the boots and coat. But then again, she wouldn't have had a hand free to carry the lantern or anything else.
Her groping foot met packed dirt instead of a metal rung and Aught stumbled a bit; she'd reached the bottom of the well. Slowly, carefully, Aught lowered herself to the ground, gripping the last ladder rung for confidence before she could make herself release it and turn around. She'd gotten this far and no vicious creature or evil spirit had attacked her; what more was there to be afraid of?
Her halo gave off a faint light, the only light in this dark well. Even as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, it took her a long moment to make sense of what she was seeing. Aught took a few steps over to the middle of the well and crouched down, tilting her head to study the patch of blurred whiteness that resolved itself, as she neared, into two small white objects.
One was a round, white, fuzzy creature with long ears a little like a rabbit, except the body and head were too round and smooth and a bright red gem set in the middle of the critter's forehead sparkled in the light. The creature's chest rose and fell smoothly with its breath, but it made no other movement or sound; it was asleep.
The other white thing was a feather - a big one, bigger than any bird she'd ever seen, as broad as her hand and longer than her palm to her fingers. It was a pure white, much brighter than her own grey wings, but gilded with an intricate black design.
Aught hesitated, the hairs on the back of her neck pricking up with an eerie feeling. She hadn't known what she'd expected, but… if she could have imagined anything less dangerous, anything less like Fall's description of a malicious danger lurking at the bottom of the well, she couldn't think what. She reached out a hand and, after a moment of hesitant wavering between fur and feather, picked up the feather.
For a moment there was resistance, as though the object had been glued to the ground, before she managed to lift it free. For a moment longer there was an odd sensation of distance - like holding a warm pan through a potholder, or snowball through a thick mitten - as though she were holding the feather but not actually touching it. And then there was a sound like glass breaking, somewhere nearby but also very far away, and the feather seemed to come alive in her hand.
It felt electric to the touch, warm and full of life and power, and so familiar - so much a part of her - that she couldn't think how she had ever been without it before. Pieces of you, the wind had said, and so it was little surprise when after pulsing in her hand for two or three heartbeats, the feather brightened into pure illumination and began to melt away into her skin.
As it slid back into place in her body, the memories started to come back - not just one memory but dozens of them, falling into her like raindrops in a sudden downpour. She could hear the whisper of others rushing past her, pouring through the rent in the world that her feather had made when she'd touched it, flowing past her and away into the distance, and a detached part of her knew that not all of these memories were hers. But most of her was too lost in the sudden sweep of remembrance - identity - understanding -to notice when the white rabbit-thing in the well beside her began to stir and awaken.
She knew who she was now. She was not Aught, she was not nothing; she was Princess Sakura of Clow, and she was on a journey with her four companions throughout many worlds with the aid of a great magician, the Witch of Space and Time. The three men who had been born with her were her protectors and companions, and her friends.
Visions of the worlds before this one swam through her mind; she remembered vague, sleepy recollections of a noisy place with busy, hectic streets. Buildings that rose up on either side like impenetrable cliffs, strung about with wires and clotheslines and illuminated with brilliant lights of every color. The teacher and his wife - Sorata-san, Arashi-san - and her own watchful companions, standing attentively at her bedside for that first awakening. Fai, Kurogane, Syaoran. Syaoran. Great looming figures that were more than human, shapes of birds, dragons and wolves, disappearing into the distance.
Then another world, one more familiar, with smaller buildings and quieter streets. That world had a name. Koryo, she remembered that, and a trip to the marketplace where she had played dice and won them all new clothes. A friend there, closer to her own age - straight, stark black hair and a face full of fiery determination. Chu'nyan. Chu'nyan had showed her the magic of that world, done with charms and fudas and mirrors. Going with Chu'nyan to help her friends, to defeat the evil Ryanban who'd caused so much hurt and sorrow; to break the spell of illusion that had enslaved the villagers and turn the tide of the battle in favor of Syaoran and the others.
Syaoran, standing so battered and so brave, demanding that the Ryanban surrender the feather that was not his - because this was all about the feathers, Sakura remembered that now, from start to finish it had all been about the feathers. They held her memories, fragments of a life before that first awakening in Hanshin, a life that she'd somehow forgotten - and then forgotten again, when they'd come to this strange world, and the laws of the walls and the world had demanded that they surrender all their memories in exchange for being allowed to live here in peace.
"Sakura?" A tiny voice piped up from beside her, and Sakura blinked her way out of the half-trance she'd fallen into with the weight of memories restored for her. She turned to her side and there was Mokona, the smallest and warmest and most cheerful of her companions, Mokona who had carried them faithfully from world to world. She and her kind were not allowed here and so she had been exiled, torn from their arms and forced to the bottom of this well and sealed in slumber, that she would not disturb the peace and order of this place. "Sakura, where are we? Is this a new world? Where are Kurogane and Fai and Syaoran?"
"They're not far, Moko-chan," Sakura answered, gathering the tiny creature up in her arms and hugging her to share some of her own warmth. "Everything will be all right now. Let's go find them."
He was late.
Syaoran blinked himself a wake with an urgent feeling that someone had been calling his name or that he had overslept an alarm. He was late for something, but what? His job at the library - no - he was supposed to be on the dig site right now - no, not that either - wait, where was he? This wasn't his bedroom -
And what digsite? For that matter, what job? And…
And his name was Syaoran. Not Rain. Not anything else. Or -
Syaoran jolted upright, his head swimming as all the thoughts and memories churned about inside it, seeking their proper place. He clutched his head and groaned, feeling a twinging pain through his skull, down his neck and back and arms. He was in a hospital. Again. With no memory of how he'd gotten there. Again.
This was really not a habit he wanted to get into.
He blinked at a watery vision of the sunbeam falling in through the window, golden brown dust motes floating in its path, and tried to sort things out. He was in the hospital in Gurie; he'd been here once before. The last thing he remembered before that was the Wall - he'd tried to climb it, like a fool, and it had been a complete disaster. He remembered shocking pain, and a confused babble of voices and faces - and through them all, one face stood out through the mist, upturned and anxious and with tears brimming in her wide green eyes.
"I have to go to her!" Syaoran said out loud, and all at once the world settled into place around him. Of course he was late, incredibly late, he'd been wasting time puttering around in this world for weeks and he still hadn't found Princess Sakura's feather!
He pulled himself free of the tangled bedsheets and stood, his hands feeling clumsy and his legs strangely shaky. How long had he been out? No matter. He had to find Sakura and deliver the feather to her. He pushed away from the hospital bedframe and slogged determinedly towards the door, the loose hospital gown flapping around him.
Syaoran made it about ten steps down the corridor before he almost collided with a nurse, coming around the corner with a clipboard in her hand. She looked as flabbergasted to see him as he was to see her, and she caught his arm with one strong hand as he listed towards the opposite wall. "Now, sweetie, what are you doing out of bed!" she said in astonishment.
"I'm fine," Syaoran gasped. "Excuse me - sorry - I have to go…"
"Not that we're not all pleased as punch to see you up and about," the nurse said, the her tone combining pleased surprise and exasperated scolding, "but you won't be going anywhere just yet. Well! I never thought I'd see it! The doctors were all sure you'd be out of things for much, much longer, you know…"
She began to steer him expertly back to bed. Syaoran resisted, but his balance was none too steady. "I really am fine," he protested. "I just need to go see my - my friend. I have to get back -"
The nurse tsked, and deposited him back on the edge of the bed. "And where exactly do you think you'll be going in those clothes?" she challenged him.
Syaoran felt his face flaming red - in his hurry to rush out of the hospital and find Princess Sakura, he hadn't even stopped to think about the fact that all he was wearing was a loose green hospital gown, totally open down the back. "Sorry, ma'am," he said meekly. "Do you, um, have a change of clothes…?"
"That little redheaded girl said she was going to get you some and bring them back," the nurse said, and rolled back his sleeve as she grasped his wrist firmly in her fingers and held up her other arm to regard her watch. "She left hours ago. Practically sleepwalking herself, she was. I have to say, sweetie, you gave everyone a scare. I'm sure all your friends up at the Church will be glad to see you up and about - let's just get you properly checked over, and then you can go on home to them, hmmm?"
"Yes, of course," Syaoran said automatically, but he was already thinking quickly ahead. Sakura had left - where had she gone? Did she have anything to do with why he suddenly remembered who he was? And - the most important question - if he remembered everything, then what about the others?
The only warning he had was a faint, faraway buzzing in his ears - not nearly enough to distract him from what he was in the middle of - before he was overwhelmed with a cascade of images. He saw as though through a dark-tinted glass the visions of a faraway country: the blue-hazed mountains, the green valleys, sun and sky glinting in reflections of the water striped by square straight rows of rice. Distant figures moved and stooped among the seedlings, their kimonos tied up above their knees and elbows as they worked, and every one of them was black-haired, dark-skinned like him.
This was his home, the home he had missed and longed for even when he couldn't remember it - the home he had lost, all in one night of blood and flame, the same flames that haunted his dreams. He had lost everything - father, mother, homeland, innocence - and then even his own princess had sent him away, chiding him for the unapologetic violence that he inflicted on those who dared to cross his wrath. It didn't matter, it didn't matter. He would return and show her the truth of who he was - when he had proven himself Kurogane, the strongest warrior not just in Nihon, but in any world.
Along with the memory of self, came the memories of others - his fellow travelers, the kids he'd been roped into protecting. The brat had been so lonely, so heartbroken standing there in the rain, forgotten by the one he cared about the most - Kurogane had professed not to care, but he wasn't a monster. And likewise the princess, when she'd awoken, confused and ailing and so obviously needing to be cared for. And the mage, with whom he'd fought back-to-back with against the Kiishim, who drove Kurogane crazy with his obnoxious nicknames and obfuscating stupidity, and -
And whose body was pressed very, very close against Kurogane's own.
Kurogane opened his eyes and found himself staring into blue ones, that pale face inches away from his own. Horrified.
They both more or less leapt backwards, scrambling to separate from each other and struggle for composure in the drafty confines of the clock tower chamber. Kurogane pulled on hems and collars, re-did the tiny buttons on his blue workman's shirt, and was very glad that his hot blush did not show much on his skin; Fai was not so lucky, his face and throat flushing a bright red as he struggled with the fastening of his own clothing. It was weird, fucking weird to have this strange double vision of the man - both the friend he had grown so close to in the past weeks and the troublesome mage who had so annoyed him on their journey, standing there withwings and a halo like a fucking bodhisattva.
Gods, had he actually just been kissing the man? - and more than kissing, halfway into his clothes, if they'd been left alone for another hour who knew what would have happened? And that was not something that Kurogane was prepared to deal with; now that he remembered who Fai was, he remembered how deeply he mistrusted him, those fake smiles and that tongue that lied so easily and smoothly. He'd lied when he told them - in Hanshin - that he'd given away his source of magic to the Witch of Time and Space; she'd pretty much said so to his face when they called on her in Koryo. If he'd lied about something so important, so fundamental, what else was he lying about?
But - and yet - he was also Fall, the more-or-less brother who'd been born into this world at the same time as Kurogane, who had struggled and learned the ways of the Haibane alongside him. Even not knowing his own name, Fai had been kind; even when he had nothing of his own, he'd been generous. When he wasn't playing the fool, he was such a good man. Why did he try to hide that?
"Well!" Fai exclaimed brightly, turning around and pasting a vacant smile on his face. He seemed to have gotten all his clothes in order and his expression under control, but there was a lingering high color in his cheeks and his blue eyes seemed brighter than usual. "That was a fun little interlude, eh, Kuro-chummy?"
Oh, so they were back to this again. Kurogane felt the angry scowl snap down over his face as though it had never left, and glared at his companion. "What the hell just happened?" he growled.
"That's a good question, Kuro-myuu!" Fai said, and brought one hand up to tap at his lips. "Obviously, something released our memories - broke through the barrier between this world and the world outside. It wasn't Syaoran-kun's attempt on the Wall, or it would have happened this morning - so something else from outside of the world must have brought our memories in with them. At a guess, I'd say that Mokona probably -"
"That's not what I meant," Kurogane interrupted. "We have our memories back, so who cares how? I meant the other thing - the -" Kurogane broke off, flustered and angry to be so. "You and me. Just now."
"Ah!" Fai said, and he turned a lazy, condescending smile on Kurogane that made the ninja want to punch it off his face. "Just a misunderstanding. Don't worry, I won't hold it against you -"
"Hold it against me?" Kurogane said, outraged.
"Well, Kuro-forceful was the one who grabbed me and started sticking his tongue where it wasn't asked for," Fai said, his eyes flashing. "But that's all right. I'm sure we can move past it and put it behind us. After all, neither of us were in our right minds at the time, right?"
Kurogane said nothing. He didn't know what the expression on his face looked like, but whatever it was, it made a little of the plastic cheerfulness on Fai's face fade away.
"I just forgot myself for a while, that's all," Fai murmured. "To think that you would ever…"
On a sudden impulse, Kurogane reached out - to do what, he wasn't sure. Put a hand on Fai's shoulder, punch him, kiss him again? It didn't matter; as soon as he moved, Fai stepped quickly back from him, and the distance stood like a stone wall between them.
Fai turned abruptly away and headed towards the stairwell leading down the tower. "I won't let it happen again, I promise," he said. "Let's go. We need to find Syaoran-kun and Sakura-chan and leave this place before anything else happens."
Kurogane kept his eyes on Fai the entire climb down the stairwell; the other man must have felt his piercing gaze, but his back was stiff and straight and he didn't turn around or slow down even once. Running away again.
Fai could make whatever threats or promises or airy excuses he liked; he couldn't make the weeks they'd spent together - growing together, learning about each other - not exist. How fucking fitting was it, Kurogane thought bitterly, that he'd learned more about his companion when Fai hadn't even known his own name, then in all the rest of the time they'd spent together?
But something had been formed between them in these weeks, something that Fai couldn't wish away and he couldn't easily break. Fai had been honest, at the last, when he'd confessed his misery and terror. And Kurogane had not lied when he'd promised to protect and support him.
He'd remember that promise, even if Fai wouldn't.
At the sound of Sakura's glad cry, Syaoran's heart lifted. The next moment his arms were full of a laughing, crying Sakura, still dressed in her faded green clothes and a dark brown wool coat. "You're all right! You're okay!"
"Y-yes, I…" Syaoran found himself blushing fiercely, and had to hem and clear his throat several times in order to speak in something approaching a normal voice. "I woke up in the hospital about an hour ago. Kurogane-san and Fai-san said that they got their memories back at the same time."
Indeed, he'd met them on the street, heading back towards the hospital even as he finally made his escape from it, dressed now in a pair of loose green pyjamas and an old pair of work boots (at least it was a step up from the paper gown.) Fall - Fai - had lost his wing covers somewhere along the line, and Syaoran had been surprised (but relieved) to see the blackness on his wings beginning to retreat, allowing pale grey feathers to show themselves again. He'd guessed right away that they'd regained their memories, too, and as soon as they greeted him as Syaoran he knew he was right. More importantly, Fai claimed to know where they could find Sakura and Mokona - and Sakura's feather, too.
He'd led them off in a hike across the fields and through the woods to an old, abandoned well; Sakura hadn't been there, but they found her recent tracks in the wet ground. The tracks had led off towards the western edge of the woods to where the trees ended before the great Wall. It was a place that Syaoran had seen mentioned a few times in the old books about the Haibane, a round clearing on a broad rise, and at the very center of the clearing was a flat stone altar flanked by two smooth granite pillars.
All the texts had insisted it was a magical place, solemn and powerful and sacred, and the anxiety Syaoran had felt at the thought of Sakura near such a dangerous place hadn't lifted until he found her there and all right. "Did your memories come back, Princess?"
"Yes! And I remembered who you are, too!" Sakura beamed at him, and Syaoran's heart thumped with a sudden wild hope. Then she blinked and looked around at all of them, from Syaoran to Kurogane to Fai. "You're my very good friends, who came to help me when all of my feathers were scattered to other worlds!"
"Oh…" Syaoran said, more than a little crushed. But it was hard to feel too disappointed when she was still holding onto his hand and smiling like that, so after a moment he did the only thing he could and smiled back. It had been a foolish idea; Sakura would never remember him, never remember their old life together. That was the price that he had paid to the Witch of Time and Space to save her life - all of their memories together.
But, he realized suddenly and for the first time, that didn't mean that they couldn't build a new life - and new memories. The past few months were proof of that, if nothing else. It was strange, looking at his companions now and trying to resolve the memories of the people he knew, from before they'd come to this world, to the friends he'd come to know while they stayed here. The two sets of images were gradually melding back together, though, as he watched the familiar habits and movements; the way Fai tossed his head back when he laughed, the subtle shift of Kurogane's muscles as his hand touched his thigh where a sword usually hung; the way Sakura distractedly pushed her hair out of her eyes, strands flying every which way in the breeze.
"Is Mokona all right as well?" Fai was saying, and he came closer and bent over to look closely at the little critter riding on Sakura's shoulder. "It would have taken something powerful to keep you sealed for all this time. Were you harmed?"
"No, just asleep," Mokona replied, and hopped from Sakura's shoulder to Fai's outstretched hands. "Sakura woke me up when she picked up her feather. I'm so mad! Sakura told me all about the fun you guys were having together, and Mokona didn't get to see any of it!"
"It's all right, you didn't miss much," Fai said blandly. Kurogane made a choking sound, but Fai didn't so much as glance in his direction. "Now, Mokona, do you think you feel strong enough to take us to the next world?"
"Mokona thinks so," the white creature replied. "There's a strong magic around this world, but it's mostly for keeping people out, not in! As long as we don't actually touch it, Mokona won't have any problems."
"Oh - but -" Sakura looked crestfallen. "Surely we can't leave just like that, can we?"
"You recovered your feather, didn't you?" Fai looked over at her, smiling. "So we have what we came for, and it's time for us to go."
"Yes, but, what about all the others back at the church?" Sakura said. "We can't leave without saying goodbye!"
"Why not?" Fai said with a tilted smile. "It's tradition, isn't it? The Day of Flight."
"Yes, that's right," Syaoran said. "At least in the books I read. They all say that when a Haibane gets ready to take his or her Day of Flight, they never tell anyone where they're going. They just get strange and restless, and give away all their precious possessions, and then leave without saying goodbye."
"Mokona wants to meet everyone too!" Mokona cried, bouncing back into Sakura's arms. "Willow, and Vivid, and Bubbles, and all the children! Mokona wants to meet all your friends!"
"Personally, I don't want to leave without having a chance to get some of my own back against whoever decided to mess with us," Kurogane commented. Fire snapped in his red eyes, the echoes of past injustice. "Whoever thinks they have the right to mess with my head and take away my memories, I have a thing or two I'd like to say to him."
"It's not like that, Kurogane-san," Syaoran found himself saying, to his own surprise. "It's - it's not a person. It's just the way this world is, the way it was made. The walls…" He hesitated, a shudder going through him at the memory of those agonizing visions. Yet, there was neither fear nor anger in that memory.
"The walls aren't alive, they don't think like a person does, but they're very strong. They have a certain task to do, and that's to take the memories of anyone who comes from the outside. It doesn't matter whether it's a Haibane like Willow or the others, or - or just travelers who are passing through, like us. As far as the Wall is concerned, they're all the same."
"Someone had to make the walls," Kurogane began to argue heatedly.
"Now, now, Kuro-bloodthirsty," Fai interrupted him, in an exaggeratedly soothing voice. "There's no need to get so upset. Whoever created the walls probably passed on long ago. And we've already spent too long in one place as it is. It's time to move on."
"Oh!" Sakura exclaimed. "Will that really be okay, do you think? I mean… our wings and… the haloes, too! They'll look awfully strange one we get to other worlds…"
"Mokona doesn't think it will be a problem!" the white creature piped up. "Those things aren't really real - Mokona can tell, because I'm the same way. They belong to this world, not any other world, and when we leave this world, they'll stay behind!"
Kurogane leaned forward towards Fai and spoke more quietly. Syaoran could only barely make out his words; he didn't think Sakura, standing further away and talking animatedly with Mokona, could hear them at all. "And you want to be far away before whoever's after you is coming after you arrives, is that it? You've remembered who it is now, haven't you?"
Fai's eyes slid uncomfortably towards the ground. "Kuro-chan, you should just forget I ever said that. I was confused at the time, I… worked myself into a panic over nothing. It's nothing you or the others need to be concerned about."
"You think I'm going to buy a load of bull like that?" Kurogane shot back. "It's not like it's hard to figure out. You don't want to stay in your own world, you want to go to as many worlds as possible, as quickly as possible. That means you're on the run. And you're strong - you have to be at least as strong as Tomoyo, to come to the Witch's world all by yourself - so whoever's after you, they have to be even stronger than you. That means trouble, trouble coming our way. And you don't think it's something we need to know?"
"All the same, I think we should leave," Fai said loudly, deliberately turning his back on Kurogane. "The magic that erases memories has been broken, at least for the present, but the longer we stay in this world the more time it has to assert its power over us. Mokona, isn't that the case?"
Mokona's ears tilted downwards. "Maybe," she said. "Mokona isn't sure. The magic is very strong."
"Better safe than sorry, I guess," Syaoran said. He was a little sad at the thought of leaving all their friends behind, but - if they went to see them now, it wouldn't be for just a quick goodbye. They'd have to explain everything, and Mokona would cause all sorts of questions, and … and…
And the Walls and all the people in this town, all devoted their existence to making sure that the Haibane stayed safe, untroubled by memories or knowledge of the outside world. Syaoran didn't know exactly why that was so important, but he was stone-certain that it was. He didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize that.
Besides - out there somewhere, in the other worlds, Sakura's feathers were still waiting.
"It's time," he declared, turning back towards Sakura and taking her hand. He held his other hand out towards Mokona, and smiled as she jumped into the crook of his arm. It was strange how much he had missed her cheerful presence, even when he couldn't remember her.
Sakura nodded, looking slightly tearful, but she adopted a brave and determined expression on her face as they looked back towards their older companions. "I'm ready," she said. "Kurogane-san? Fai-san?"
"Let's go!" Mokona cheered, and then she leapt up; the familiar golden, glowing lines of the transportation spell sprang into existence around them. Syaoran's heart lifted, and beat faster with excitement, as he wondered what sort of world they were going to find next.
"All the same," Sakura said, even as the air around them began to shimmer and warp, "I'm glad we came to this world. I'm not sorry that we stayed for so long, or that we got to meet everyone."
The golden lines converged; four faces blurred into light. Four pairs of grey wings lifted against the air - three a light ashy grey, and the fourth a dark coal grey edged with glimmering paleness. In the beam of the light that shot upwards from the stone altar those wings stretched and grew, beating tall against the air, large enough to carry their owners over the Wall and on to their next lives.
But that was not their proper gateway, and the beating of wings fell into silence as the feathers shredded and melted into the air, the wind whipped up by their passage carrying them away into the woods. Four haloes fell through the suddenly unoccupied space and thudded on the ground; their glow faded as they cooled, no more than empty rings of metal.
There they remained for all that night, and the next day, while strong winds hurried the clouds across the sky overhead. That night there was a frost, the first of the season; and when dawn came to the clearing, slanting in across the woods from the east, every leaf and blade of grass lacquered in delicate white.
Drained of their light, the rings of metal were already starting to corrode; the frost coated every ridge and bump in their surface, giving them the illusion of the white light they had once held. And that was how the other Haibane found them, wrapped up in coats and scarves and mittens, their breath huffing and steaming in the chilly dawn air.
It had been a long walk out to the wall with just the three of them; although Frost had been willing enough to help them search the woods the day before, this sudden cold snap had left him pale and ill and Willow had fussed him into bed. Viv would have been happy to stay in bed, too, but she hadn't been given that option.
"This is the place, isn't it?" Viv said, puffing as she hiked up the last of the slope. She was overheated by the walk in the morning sunlight under the heavy coat, but it was really too cold and biting to take it off.
"Yes…" Bubbles walked forward to the center of the clearing, turning her head slowly from side to side. The wooly hat she wore had earflaps on either side that were too big for her small face, making it hard to see anything not directly in front of her. "This is - the place that Rain talked about in his notes, the ones he translated from the library. This is where the Haibane go on the Day of Flight, before they leave this world forever."
"Well, that's it then, isn't it?" Viv said. The sun glinted off a shard of metal on the frosty ground, and she bent over and picked it up. She handled it gingerly, turning it over in her hands; it was freezing cold from lying out on the ground all night, and the metal ring felt oddly hollow, as though it would crumble away under her touch. "They've gone. They've flown the nest."
"How can we be sure that all of them made it safely, though?" Willow said, coming up behind the two of them. Instead of a hat she wore a scarf wrapped around her neck and head, making her look years older than she was. "Rain was in no condition to make it out here all on his own - he couldn't even walk by himself! And you know that Fall hasn't been well -"
Viv sighed. They'd been arguing this all the way out here; Willow had wanted to search the woods all throughout the night with flashlights, convinced that Rain or Aught must be dying in the woods out here. They'd finally managed to convince her to take a rest overnight, but she'd been up again at dawn the next morning. "Will you least believe your own eyes?" she said, stooping and picking up another one of the discarded haloes. "Look. Four of them. They've all gone, Will."
Willow took one of the haloes in her gloved hands, her dark eyes troubled. "That can't be," she said. "In all the time there have been Haibane, there's never been -"
"- four who took the Flight all at the same time?" Viv interrupted her. "You may be right, but come on. Those four were weird right from the start. When did they ever do anything according to the rules?"
Willow grimaced. "Yes, and look where that got them," she retorted. "One in trouble at his job, another sick, a third one in the hospital in a coma!"
"The nurses said he was fine," Viv said, exasperated. "He was awake and talking, walking on his own, he even checked himself out! Will you just admit that they're gone, they fixed themselves up without your help? Not everybody in the world needs you to be theirmother - "
"I can't believe he's gone," Bubbles said, her voice only just too soft to be a wail. She sunk down into a crouch, arms crossed over her chest, staring down at one of the discarded haloes. "He didn't say anything. None of them said anything."
Tears threatened in her voice, and Willow and Viv exchanged a look of mutual agreement to table their argument for later. Willow crouched down next to Bubbles, smoothing a warm hand up and down her back. "They never do, Bubbles," she said gently. "Silver was the same way, do you remember? - We just woke up one morning and he was gone. It doesn't mean that he didn't care about you - it's just the way it has to be."
"Rain was…" Bubbles sniffed deeply, then swiped her eyes with the back of her mittens. "Rain knew all about this sort of thing. He was only here for a few months, and he already found out more about the Haibane, about us, than anybody else knew in the town. Why couldn't he have stayed?"
"Well, you know," Viv said, feeling awkward at inserting herself into the conversation. "Rain, uh - he left all his notes behind, didn't he? All the ones he took while he was studying at the library. And he found all those old books, and the dictionary to translate them, too. If you wanted to - you could sort of take over for him, you know? Pick up where he left off."
Bubbles' sniffling stilled; after a long moment she nodded, her long hair falling in a curtain around her face.
"I'm sure it's all right," Willow said, and the words seemed to be as much for her own benefit as for the girl's. "I - I guess they didn't need me, after all. They've gone together, so they'll be able to look after each other from now on."
"Yeah," Viv said. She looked up the sheer face of the cliff, and couldn't help but smile when she imagined what lay behind it. "They're a pretty tough bunch. I'm sure wherever they went, they can handle anything that the universe can throw at them."
"I just hope they're happy, wherever they are," Bubbles said, and she looked up to give the older girls a wan, wobbly smile. "And I - I'm glad they came here. I'm glad I got to meet them, if only for a little while."
"Yes," Willow said, and she slid her hand down Bubbles' arm to take hold of her hand and squeeze it. Viv tossed aside the decaying fragment of the halo, and came around to take Bubbles' other hand, swinging the girl to her feet. "So am I."
And I will not forget them.