A violent thunderstorm was keeping the residents of the old boarding house from finding much rest that night, but something beyond that was bothering Yue Qi.
The teenager sat up in bed and watched the rain battering his window. Luminous bolts flashed across the sky, crashing down to the ground or into one another. The closer ones set the whole of the building trembling atop its aging foundations.
Ever since he tried to lay down that evening, his ears had been picking up strange sounds. The din of the storm and the deafening peals of thunder made it hard to tell where they were coming from, but as the hours ticked on it became impossible to ignore.
Was someone crying? One of the younger Haibane scared of the storm perhaps? The more likely scenario was that someone hadn’t closed a wooden door properly and it was squeaking helplessly on its hinges.
Whatever it was, he could handle it so the others could rest better. He was wide awake anyway.
Yue Qi climbed out of his bed, shivering when his bare feet made contact with the floor. There weren’t terribly many rugs to go around in the house, and the building was chiefly made of stone, so it conducted the chill of the autumn night air quite well. The light of his halo was enough to help him find his tinder-box and brass candle-holder, and that in turn lit the room enough for him to find his slippers. He set out into the hallway, careful not to move his creaking door too quickly and wake someone.
Outside each door he passed he’d stop and listen. Sometimes he’d press his ear nearly to the door itself. Yet, he never heard anything that matched those fleeting sounds coming from within any of them. Nothing from the rooms where his friends were sleeping. Nothing from the rooms where the younger children slept either.
But Yue Qi still heard it, and it was getting clearer. Something--curiosity perhaps--urged him on and he picked up the pace, heading down the stairs to the ground floor.
Kitchen, commons room, dining room… all were empty. None of the wooden shutters or doors were to blame for the noise either. The others had been diligent after cleanup tonight when the storms had begun. Everything was locked up, nice and tight. Not a thing out of place.
Until he passed the kitchen door and heard the most distinct sound yet. It was definitely coming from outside, somewhere behind the house itself.
Yue Qi felt his chest tighten horribly. He had to stop it. Not out of malice, or annoyance, or even just concern for the others waking. Something about this sound made everything seem to fall out from under him, made it feel like his heart and lungs and stomach were all being squeezed by invisible hands. It was awful. Abandoning the candle on the kitchen counter he pushed the door open and ran out into the wind and pouring rain without any hesitation.
The renewed rush of sounds made him lose track of it for a moment, but it wasn’t long before the awful noise hit his ears again. It was coming from the old unused woodshed, the one that had been abandoned long before Yue Qi had come to the boarding house. A rusty lock stood in his way. Not for long.
He took up the ax they kept for cutting firewood and rushed at it. A few blows was all it took, and the crumbling shed door creaked open.
Under the illumination of the lightning he saw it clearly. He dropped the ax in shock. A shivering teenager with long black hair was curled up naked on the floor, staring up at him, reddened eyes wide with terror. The wild fear that had been nagging Yue Qi’s mind had just came true right in front of his eyes. All the while he’d been hoping for the more rational, more mundane explanations. But, no.
A cocoon had formed in the abandoned shed, unknown and unattended for all the weeks it took to grow. This Haibane had hatched from it and laid here alone for… possibly hours. In the cold and the dark, in a dirty shed with a leaky roof.
Trying to be as comforting as possible in spite of his own panic, Yue Qi assured, speaking slowly, “It’s okay. Don’t be scared. I’m going to be right back with something to help.”
‘Something to help’? Not very comforting. Yue Qi chastised himself as he ran back to the kitchen. Does he need food? Should I bring water?
Wait. Calm. He needs you to be calm.
New Haibane were, understandably, often very frightened upon their emergence from the cocoon. They had no memories besides that of their names and a single dream. Nothing around them would be familiar and they were prone to panic. The process of emerging could often be rather traumatic in itself; this was why Haibane usually tended night and day to any cocoons they came across. That way the new Haibane could enter the world in comforting surroundings with people ready to soothe them through the transition.
Yue Qi took a deep breath at the kitchen door. He didn’t want to leave the new Haibane alone for long so he grabbed the nearest stretch of cloth--an unused tablecloth, and ran back outside, trying as best he could to shelter it with his body and keep it from getting wet.
When he got back to the woodshed, he didn’t initially see the new Haibane and nearly panicked. But a flash of lightning revealed him. He’d managed to, more or less, stuff himself into the corner of the shed, half hidden behind the remnants of his ruptured cocoon, arms curled around his knees.
Holding up the cloth, Yue Qi cautiously approached. “Here. You look cold.” But he stopped, because the new Haibane was shrinking back and glaring at him. “It’s okay,” he tried to soothe. The only answer was a growl that could only be described as feral.
Could this Haibane… not speak? That would be new. Even the youngest that he’d seen emerge could speak. He knelt down, trying to be less intimidating. The newcomer’s eyes never left him, calculating.
He offered a smile. “My name is Yue Qi. I know you’re probably really scared right now, but I want to help.”
The other teen made no indicator that he understood. He just kept glaring.
“What’s your name?” he tried. “Can you remember it?”
It was a while before the new Haibane answered him, still eyeing him suspiciously. His voice was rough from what was probably hours of crying out. “...Shen Jiu.”
“Shen Jiu.” Yue Qi nodded, breathing an internal sigh of relief. Good. Progress. “I see. And, do you remember your dream?”
A full-bodied shiver ran through Shen Jiu and he shook his head violently.
“You don’t have to talk about it if it’s too scary,” he amended, flustered. It wasn’t uncommon for the cocoon dream to be an unpleasant one--his own wasn’t particularly nice--so he’d chosen the topic poorly. Either way he needed to get this new Haibane out of the cold. Hastily he stood, unfolding the tablecloth, and draped it around the other teen’s shoulders.
Shen Jiu wailed and pushed him violently.
Startled, Yue Qi let go of the cloth and staggered back. The look of betrayal in the new Haibane’s eyes under the flash of the lightning would be seared into his brain for a while.
When he saw Shen Jiu’s back for a brief moment, though, he understood. Two angry red lumps were already present on the shoulderblades. If his wings were coming in now, though, that meant he’d been lying here alone for more than half a day. All the existence this new Haibane could remember was hour upon hour of fear and loneliness and pain, shaking in the cold, crying out without being heard. And now from his perspective he’d just been harmed by the only person he’d ever spoken to.
“I… I know, it hurt, didn’t it…” Yue Qi held his hand out, apologetic, his heart sinking while his mind raced. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it was already happening--”
“What’s happening?” Shen Jiu shouted the first words he’d spoken since his name, fury and fear alike lighting up his eyes. “What’s happening to me?”
“This is.” The easiest explanation was for Yue Qi to just turn a bit, giving his wings a couple of demonstrative flaps.
The new Haibane just kept shaking his head, “What are you?”
Yue Qi knelt down in front of him, nearly begging, “Please, listen, Shen Jiu. Let me take you into the house--”
“Get away!” Shen Jiu screamed, doubled over in pain. “Leave me alone! Get away from me, beast!”
Yue Qi knew better than to let these words wound him. The fever that came with the appearance of a Haibane’s wings had likely already set in. Shen Jiu was just scared, delirious, and hurting. But if he wasn’t going to cooperate, how was he going to get him into the house peacefully?
As Shen Jiu was leant over, Yue Qi spotted blood starting to run down his pale back. The skin was breaking. The wings were coming in right now and there was no stopping it. He could only deal with it.
Yue Qi laid out the tablecloth on the ground. It wasn’t much, but it’d have to do.
Shen Jiu would be too weak to fuss much--or so he thought. He attempted to gather the new Haibane into his arms and got a dizzying blow to the jaw for his trouble. A coppery taste gathered in his mouth, but he ignored it and pressed on, struggling with Shen Jiu until he finally managed to get him to lie down on his stomach.
The smaller teen was panting from exertion and stress. Blood ran freely down his back now, wingtips visibly warping and pushing at the reddened skin from beneath. No matter how many times Yue Qi had seen this happen, it still set his own shoulders aching in empathy. It was a tough memory all Haibane had in common.
What made matters worse was that Shen Jiu just wouldn’t hold still. He was weakening, sure, but he kept trying to crawl away, back into the corner.
“Shen Jiu, please don’t thrash around,” he pleaded in the most soothing voice he could manage, but it still trembled a bit. “I know it hurts. I know you’re scared. It’s going to hurt a lot for a few more minutes--sorry, but I can’t do anything about that. Then it’ll stop, and you’ll feel very tired. Don’t fight it; let yourself rest. Once you wake up your fever will be gone.”
Yue Qi looked the frantic Shen Jiu in the eyes. “But through all of this, I’m not going to leave you. When you wake up I’ll still be right beside you.”
The gaze was finally returned, and Shen Jiu stilled somewhat.
“You won’t be alone anymore. I promise.”
Shen Jiu didn’t have a chance to answer him. He gripped the tablecloth so tightly that his knuckles went white, whimpering as the flesh on his back began to tear. Yue Qi could only watch helplessly. There was really no way to protect him from this part of the process. The best thing he could think to do was scoop one of Shen Jiu’s hands into his own, letting the younger teen squeeze the life out of his hand in a way that would most certainly leave bruises. Yue Qi’s free hand stroked the back of Shen Jiu’s, offering what little reassurance he could.
Two bloody, greasy masses of feathers emerged from the wounds on Shen Jiu’s back. His new wings twitched once, twice, and then spread for the first time in a violent motion that wound up splattering blood all over the tablecloth, the walls, and Yue Qi.
His scream was deafening, even in the thunderstorm.