Disclaimer: Yoshitoshi ABe owns Haibane Renmei; I don't. I am just borrowing them for a little while. I only own Aoi.

Slightly AU. Cuts in shortly before Reki's sin-bound curse is removed--although she has more time alloted her before her Day Of Flight, in order for this story to work.

A note on spellings: I've chosen to use the Glie variant of Guri for the name of the town, and Toga instead of Tooga. The Communicator was a bit of a problem for me. I decided that when I referred to him in the more subjective sense, I'd call him The Communicator. In a more personal sense, such as when he's speaking, he's referred to as "Washi". Beings as I'm not Japanese and often struggle with these sorts of terms, this was to make it easier in my own head, and I hope you understand.

Note for variation: Some of you may have seen this on the Old Home Bulliten Board. It is the same story. Since I typed this from WordPad, this was what was contained in the first 'chapter', so yes, it is indeed very long! After I finish the last 'section' for 'chapter' two, what is missing, so far, will be placed here as well.

Critiquing: If you don't like it, don't read it. The early story is deliberately meant to sound vaguely familiar but with darker undertones. Eventually, the story branches out to form its own path. Stick it out, enjoy Aoi because she is her own person with a definite reason for being born, and again, if you don't like it, don't let the door hit you on the way out. Just enjoy!


Reki dropped the end of the heavy old box she'd been hauling to store in one of the unused north wing rooms. Rakka had been helping her, vaguely recalling that Reki's room DID seem too full of junk to have it in there anymore. She refused to store it in her deeper studio room, the heart of which Rakka had never seen.

Rakka coughed at the resulting cloud of dust, while simultaneously staggering at the heaviness she could not hold by herself.

"Reki, what--"

Her own voice was cut off as she opened her brown eyes again and stared at what was filling the room, so large it had pushed most of the other junk out of the way.

"Oh, my..." was all she could say.

An enormous cocoon filled the room, large and white, the surface just beginning to turn charcoal gray.

Reki just stared, and her breathing became shallow and quick, very fast. A small part of Rakka's mind was glad that for once, Reki wasn't smoking. She'd have made herself sick, breathing like that.

"Oh my lord," Reki breathed, pushing abruptly into the room, not caring if she risked breaking an ankle over the displaced junk. "Another one, so soon? We don't usually find..."

Rakka let the other end of the box go. It was just too heavy. She too pushed into the room.

"Reki? Is this really a--?"

"Yes," answered Reki. Her black eyes, which to Rakka's distress had been so heavy with sadness latey from the pain that had to be eating at her, were, at least for now, alive once more.

"But..." Reki continued, putting both her hands on the outer shell of the cocoon and staring up at the network of roots that anchored it to the ceiling, "It just seems...impossible...that this could be here without us noticing. A second time!"

Rakka knew what she meant. She'd been told that her own cocoon, just months before, had barely been found and the room cleaned before she'd woken up inside it.

"I searched this whole north wing when I was looking for a room of my own," Rakka asserted, coming up and feeling the roughness of the outer surface in wonder. Just inches beyond her fingers had to be floating a new life, a new Haibane. Something to help ease the memory of Kuu's loss. "Although...I think maybe I missed a room or two because I became convinced this whole wing was uninhabitable."

"It must have been growing even as we found you," Reki declared. "Although in its early stages. Cocoons take around four months to grow. And most--" A sudden shadow came over her face. "Very few are found in the depths of winter."

Rakka stared at her, quietly distressed by her sadness. Reki, I swear, somehow I'll do my best to free you of your sin-bound curse. To be sin-bound causes far, far too much pain.

This was only cried out in her heart. She pressed her ear against the rough outer husk of the cocoon, listening for the quiet bubbling noises that the Haibane within might be moving a little bit in her sleep, unaware of how much she was about to lose in her new identity--and how much she had to gain.

She opened her brown eyes and smiled at Reki. "I don't think we'll be putting the box in here then," she nodded gently in the direction of the box half-blocking the doorway, forgotten.

"No," said Reki, a real smile back on her face. "No more junk in here. All that is in here will have to go, and within the next few days, I believe. If she were born with this room still so full of junk--the thought is not only sad, she'd be physically hurt. This room had become a storage room of sorts."

She eyed the displaced junk with distaste.

"Could she be a Young Feather?" asked Rakka as they finally tore themselves away from the cocoon and picked their way back to the doorway.

"I doubt it," answered Reki. "The cocoon is, in fact, I think slightly bigger than even yours was, Rakka, and yours was large enough...she may be your size, or a bit taller. Besides, most of our Young Feathers have been found at Abandoned Factory."

"I knew we fostered them," answered Rakka as they got to the door. Reki shoved the box aside and closed the door gently behind them.

"We don't get a lot of them ourselves. Sometimes they show up in groups of two or three. Kuu was like this. The only Older Feather among them. Groups almost always mean Young Feathers. Her cocoon might not have been as large as yours, but certainly bigger than theirs."

She sized Rakka's hand as she began to speed up. Rakka gave a startled yelp and followed after her. "Rekiiiii!!!"

"Sorry!" called Reki. "These things are always important, Rakka! The fact that the outer surface was turning gray means we don't have much time."

"Okayyyy..." rasped Rakka, struggling to keep up with Reki as they flew out of the building and across the courtyard.

"Dammit I hope Nemu's not working today," Reki mused aloud as she practically dragged Rakka into the building where the Guest Room was.

"She's nooooot," Rakka nearly wailed, grateful when Reki let go of her hand. She didn't mind, much. Reki was finally acting a little bit like herself for the moment. She'd been acting so...distant ever since Rakka had freed herself of her own sin-bound state.

"Good!" Reki rasped, gasping for breath. She reached over and nearly jerked open the door to the Guest Room. "Nemu?!"

Nemu looked up and nearly dropped the teacup she'd been about to place on the neatly-set table. "Reki? What is it?"

"Rakka...I...north wing...cocoon!" Reki gasped out between trying to catch her breath.

"I swear this is what comes of your smoking," Nemu sighed before the last word Reki had gasped caught up with her. Her eyes opened wide. "What? A cocoon? Now? At this time of the year?"

"Isn't that what I said?" Reki rasped, finally starting to catch her breath.

"But--isn't it too soon?" stuttered Nemu, giving Rakka a quick glance.

"It is turning charcoal gray and will soon hatch," said Reki stubbornly. "You know we can't predict these things, Nemu."

"Carcoal gray?" Nemu repeated, her mind trying to assimilate this information. "Why, it must have been growing even as Rakka hatched! And this is winter..."

She paused at seeing the look on Reki's face. "You're right," she said quickly in response to Reki's unspoken words. "They can be found at any time of the year. Once yearly is the usual pattern, that's all. It is by no means the rule. And some might not appear for several years."

Rakka just blinked, only partially understanding the byplay she was witnessing. Before she could speak Hikari and Kana entered the room, their faces alive with curiosity.

"What was all the commotion?" Kana demanded, noticing some sort of very interesting discussion had to have been going on. It was written all over their faces.

"We saw Reki tearing across the courtyard and practically dragging Rakka's arm off in the process," chimed in Hikari. "It had to have been something to cause that."

"Well, something is right," answered Nemu placidly. "They discovered a new cocoon in the North Wing."

"What?" squawked Kana. "That is impossible, isn't it?"

"No, not really," was the calm reply as Hikari gave an excited grin. "Unusual maybe. Whatever the case, we don't have much time. The surface is already starting to turn gray."

"Doesn't that give us only a few days at the most?" sighed Kana, picturing her boss getting upset at her for asking for more time off again so soon. She'd surely have to...

"It most certainly does," said Nemu. "The north wing? I thought Rakka covered that wing not too long ago, when she was searching for a room. It should've been found then, shouldn't it?"

Rakka blushed. "I think I missed a room or two," she admitted hesistantly. "That building just doesn't seem haibtable and I gave up on it."

"It is not the best wing," Nemu admitted. "So we'll have to take great care to get the newborn here safely once she hatches. This is winter, and she'll get a dreadful cold right away if we don't. That would be an awful thing to endure at the same time she grows her wings."

"Well, we don't want that," piped up Hikari. "Both Kana and I have to work today, Nemu. I can get some time off though. This is too important to miss."

"I'll have a harder time," grumbled Kana, with an irritated look on her face. Her arms were up in the air and she'd bent them back behind her head in a typical Kana stance. "Master won't be pleased."

"He'll agree," said Nemu firmly. "This is important where the Haibane is concerned and the humans aren't supposed to interfere too much with us Haibane."

"I'm supposed to work at the Temple today," said Rakka quietly.

"You had better go today," said Nemu calmly, coming back from where she'd ducked into the kitchen to grab some of the breakfast she'd prepared. "The Communicator might want to know early that we'll have a new Haibane on our hands. And you can bring the Halo mold with you. Just ask and he'll let you borrow it."

"Maybe you'll want to be the ring bearer this time," said Kana, a wicked look on her face.

Rakka blinked as she found her seat. "The ring bearer? Me?"

"Oh, every Haibane should do that at least once," said Kana carelessly. "Unless you want Hikari doing it again."

Hikari blushed angrily. "Kana, you haven't done it before either!" she snapped, irritated.

"That sort of thing isn't my playing field," answered Kana.

"You just like tinkering with your watches!"

"It is safer than pouring pancake batter into a halo mold."

"You're mean!" Hikari blushed furiously.

"You guys, there is no need to fight," said Rakka quickly, her hand going reflexively up to her halo, although she was smiling. She'd gotten over that. "I'll get the halo mold."

"And the rest of you must go to work today." Nemu's face had its usual calm, sleepy look now. She was sure everything would be okay. "After today, though, see what time off you can get. Reki and I can stay here and start moving some of the junk out of that room."

"Can we do all that after breakfast?" Kana whined. "I'm sure our new pal will still be napping in her cocoon while we eat. I'm starving!"

Nemu chuckled. "Hope you're in the mood for pancakes."

"Oh, no!" Hikari groaned, realizing her breakfast would not be a peaceful one.

"Have you finished your work?" asked the old Communicator that evening, looking up from where he was writing when he heard the greeting jingle.

Rakka lowered her bell-laden wrists and quickly moved her right wing, the bells attached to it meaning "yes".

"All right then. I bid you goodnight. You may go, and have a safe walk home." Washi was about to resume his writing when he noticed an apprehensive look cross Rakka's face, and her wrists tighten together further, as they jingled faintly.

"Is there anything else you wished to ask me?" he said faintly, the jingle from Rakka's right wing telling him that was the case.

"Very well. I will permit you to speak."

"I must ask you if I may borrow the halo mold," said Rakka nervously. She didn't know why she was nervous, as she no longer feared this old man. He was too nice to her for that.

"The halo mold," he said somberly. "I see. You have a new Haibane who will need it soon."

"Yes," answered Rakka. "Reki and I discovered the cocoon this morning in the North Wing. Nemu says it will hatch very soon."

"I see." Washi stood up. "Yes, you may borrow the halo mold. It will be given to you already filled and ready. All you need do, Rakka, is be careful with it, as it will be extremely hot."

Rakka tensed, a surprised look on her face. She could swear Washi sounded faintly amused in what he said next.

"I take it, after all, that you will be the halo bearer this time."

"Yes," whispered Rakka. Washi could see the many myriad emotions in her brown eyes.

"You need not fear it. You may be only a few months old, Rakka, but you have already faced much joy and sadness in your life here in Glie. You are a good Haibane, and will do your part to be a positive influence on the newborn."

Washi was right, Rakka realized. It wasn't the halo mold that was making her nervous. It was her own feelings about herself, after all she had been through--but being a good Haibane meant passing on what she had learned already, wasn't it? She could step into Kuu's place now, and be the reliable Senior Haibane.

Washi turned to one of the attendants and began making gestures with his hands. Rakka had begun to notice the shapes of their hands and was strongly reminded of the odd patterns on the light tags, down inside the Wall...

Sumika's words came back to her, as Rakka remembered their talk on the petrified book in the Library. The discussion on the symbols and Sumika's remarking, "They kind of look like someone's hands..."

Washi turned back to her. "The attendant will be back shortly." His masked face looked upwards at the snow drifting gently down upon them from the open sky far above, seemingly oblivious to the cold. "It is not common for cocoons to be ready to hatch in winter," he remarked.

His comment made Rakka start. "Is it a bad thing?" she queried.

"No. A Haibane cocoon can appear at any time, at any moment of the year. Most arrive in late spring, and are found late in summer. There is no reason for why it is this way, but it is by no means an absolute rule, and it has no bearings on the Haibane sleeping in the cocoon."

Rakka had to stop herself from asking whether that meant that winter-born Haibane were not always Sin-Bound. She had come to understand, without being explicitly told, that Reki perhaps thought this was the case. She had been born in winter, and her wings had erupted from her back, the dark markings of an unblessed Haibane showing clearly even through the blood.

The attendant returned a moment later, the wrapped halo mold held carefully in his outstretched arms. He walked up to Rakka and held it out to her.

Rakka quickly held up her wrists, so the bells on them jangled in their voiceless language, before she reached out and accepted the mold from him. The package was warm, and yet was not too hot.

"Bear the mold safely and with dignity," said Washi as the attendant retreated silently. "Now go."

His cane gently thumped on the ground, telling Rakka she was dismissed. She bowed to him and quickly left the confines of the temple, stopping only so another attendant could remove the bells from her wings and wrists. Automatically her footsteps carried her over the narrow ledge she no longer feared, and across the bridge that no longer sent her heart racing with terror.

She had to get back. A new Haibane was about to be born.

Rakka headed directly to the North Wing. Nemu was just stepping out into the hall with her typically tired look, mop and bucket in hand. A room down the hall had been opened--and the door fallen off its hinges--where drag marks on the dusty floor showed items had been moved.

"Oh, Rakka, you have the halo mold--good!" she yawned. "Reki and I managed to get most of the junk out of the room and clean it up a bit. And none too soon--she hasn't hatched yet, but when Reki was out of the room at one point I put my ear to the shell. She may not be fully awake yet but she's moving restlessly in there."

Rakka clutched the mold carefully to her. "I hope she's not having a bad dream."

"I don't know if she's dreaming or not," answered Nemu. "Nobody knows at what exact point we have our cocoon dreams, Rakka. In either case, it won't be long. Maybe even by tomorrow. Reki spent some time getting the guest room ready, and a couple of extra blankets right in the room next to this one, on top of the junk."

"Why next door?" asked Rakka, not knowing why they could not be kept in this room.

"We will have to get her to the west wing without her getting cold in this weather, or she'll be sick right away. You may not remember it, Rakka, but there is enough fluid in that cocoon to turn this room into a tidal wave once the walls are ruptured."

Rakka looked a little askance and Nemu chuckled. "I remember with yours, all of the rest of us got too close because we were eager to see a cocoon hatch and we all got soaked. The fluid inside carried you out onto the floor. Reki got to you first, and you looked at her momentarily before passing out."

"Reki did that?" Rakka smiled to herself. "I wish I remembered that."

"Some do, and some don't. Some, it would have been better off if they didn't remember anything before waking up to grow their wings."

For a moment Nemu looked a bit troubled, before she noticed Rakka was reading her expression exactly.

"Keep up your faith in Reki," she said in a voice so low Rakka barely heard her. "We all should keep up our faith in Reki."

Rakka puased and gave her a slightly sad look before nodding. Nemu was the last one in Old Home besides the Housemother who knew Reki's troubled past, and she still felt the same.

"Where is Kana?" asked Rakka suddenly, wanting to change the subject. "I thought she'd be back by now."

"Last I heard, she was taking out some of the trash in this room to the garbage area, and cursing out the crows," sighed Nemu. "That is a battle she just isn't going to win."

"I haven't seen her take a broom to them lately," admitted Rakka.

"She probably feels no need any longer," said Nemu. "She'll still yell at them though. You don't have to swing a broom at a crow to remind them that they have rules they are bound by and must adhere to. They should keep to their freedom of flying over the walls."

Rakka agreed. She had a feeling the crows understood their special freedom better than any human, or most Haibane, gave them credit for.

"Um, what should I do with this?" Her arms tightened over the carefully wrapped mold she held.

"Keep it in your room, for now," she said. "We cannot use it until after the newborn wakes up."

"Will...the halo stick?" asked Rakka hesistantly.

Nemu smiled. "Don't worry about it," she sounded distinctly amused. "They don't always stick on a Haibane at first. Hikari's tinkering didn't help matters any, you understand. Your halo will probably always smell of pancakes a little bit, but it is otherwise no worse for the wear."

Both of them laughed quietly.

That night, Reki had chosen to take the first watch. She sat in the room in the North Wing, wrapped in a blanket and staring at the cocoon. Not an easy sleeper, she didn't figure she'd doze off during her shift.

She sighed and reached out, touching the tough outer husk. She just didn't understand. Why? Why a new one now, just as she felt the darkness of her inner world reaching out to claim her?

She'd felt that pull, that feeling that things had been ending for her soon. Ever since she had laid eyes on this cocoon that pull had begun to fade. She'd been trying to shift her responsibilities to others so that they'd be able to handle things once she was gone.

It was why she didn't understand this. She'd never known for a Haibane to sense their time was nearly up, and then have the feeling fade. These things could not be controlled, could they?

Probably that damned old man would be the only one to know the answer to that...

While she'd not outright shirk her duties, now or ever, until her time was up, she could not go back to what she was doing, her preparations for that darkness, until this new Haibane was on her feet. Maybe that was why. A few extra days because there weren't enough hands to go around.

Until Kuu had left, there hadn't been a Day Of Flight in five years, probably because of that very reason. Not enough hands to go around.

Especially in those early days, her, Kuramori, and Nemu. Her and Nemu, still children themselves, and Kuramori, the only Haibane adult figure taking care of three other very small children...

Why had it taken her so many years to realize that Kuramori had held on as long as she could? Probably far past her own time she had held on. Was that possible? Did a Haibane have even a little control over such a fate, despite what that old man prattled about? Kuramori had always been so strong with her love and concern for others. Could that love have held her until she and Nemu were a little bit older and assumed more responsibilities on their own?

What about Nemu? More and more she seemed to fit her name...sleeping...waiting. She should have long since taken her own Day Of Flight, not stick around because she was worried about Reki in particular. Reki didn't want to accept Nemu worrying so much about her, but she had no power to force her to stop. Nemu surely had overcome her own problems long, long ago and except for worrying over her, Reki, she was just sleeping, and waiting...

And Rakka...how had that gone so completely wrong? Rakka had been her hope, her key to salvation, and yet she had been the one forgiven her sin-bound state...

No. No! She couldn't feel that way...she wouldn't allow herself to feel that way! Rakka was free from the worst curse a Haibane could suffer. She could not and would not let Rakka suffer any more pain.

"So then..." she murmured aloud, her fingers caressing the shell of the coccoon, "why are you here?"

Reki didn't expect it, but she very nearly did doze off, her head leaning against the cocoon as she drowsed, her mind drifting in and out of reality.

Suddenly a wooshing, bubbly sound made her black eyes snap wide open. Startled, she looked around, then heard the watery bubble sound again, from inside the cocoon.

Oh god! Is it hatching? Reki wasn't sure, but if it was there was probably no time to run for another person to help before the cocoon's walls were parted.

The noise inside got louder, as if the occupant was thrashing about. Yet no cracks appeared on the outside of the cocoon, no indication that the girl inside was trying to break free.

Reki stood up fully, both hands on the graying outer husk of the cocoon. Was she dreaming, then? Having her cocoon dream?

It disturbed Reki. Nobody knew exactly when inside the cocoon the Haibane lost everything, and dreamed the images that would stay with them all their days in Glie. It disturbed Reki greatly to think that this girl's potential dream was instead, a nightmare, from how she was thrashing.

It was a very bad sign.

"It's all right," she said to the cocoon, not knowing if the occupant inside could hear her or not. "Don't worry...it'll be all right. You won't be alone. We'll protect you. I'll protect you."

The thrashing inside seemed to subside after that. Reki's heart was beating fast, and her fists clenched against the cocoon's walls.

Why had she said that? This wasn't Rakka's cocoon. She'd prayed Rakka was her special sign from God, and it was a bet she'd lost, hadn't she? Even Rakka...even Rakka had left her behind. Rakka didn't need her at all, in the end.

She had no purpose left now, except get this Haibane on her feet and wait for the darkness to engulf her, to never let anyone know it, and to stop making promises she couldn't keep.


There was so much blue

She was floating in it, adrift. She was surrounded by a deep turquoise, bottomless almost...an endless sea on all sides, but it didn't feel like water. She wasn't wet like in an ocean.

Only off in the far, far distance did the blue seem to melt away in a silvery color.

"Where am I?" thought the teenaged girl, not understanding how her thin body could float around like this. "What is this place?"

She wore nothing but a white robe, one soft and fluffy to the touch, almost as light and bouyant on her body as the very blue that held her in it's grip, nothing beneath her bare feet.

The blue around her seemed to waver, and get even darker and more vibrant. A faint rushing sound filled the girl's ears, yet she wasn't frightened.

Something was coming closer, although she didn't know what.

The rushing sound got a bit louder, and sudden dots of light appeared out of the silvery mist, rushing towards her. The girl stared, fascinated, as they got larger and became spheres of white.

She didn't know what they were, but they sure were pretty.

Suddenly within a few feet of her they stopped speeding, and started drifting by lazily.

Intrigued, the girl tried paddling in the blue around her and found she could gain some movement. She got closer to those white spheres and peered closer.

They reminded her of white bubbles, but inside there were tiny scenes, activity. None were really distinct, caught up in a haze.

But she was sure she could see figures moving in them, make out bright sunny days, and when she caught up one and pressed it to her ear, she was sure she could hear very faint, fuzzy laughter, the laughter of children.

"What are these things?" she murmured, letting the bubble go. They played like a person's memories. Or glimpses of another life. But whose? Although she could make out small figures in these bubbles, she could not tell even what they were doing.

The bubbles drifted on by. Somehow what was in those bubbles was important and yet, she did not seem to have anything to do with them anymore. Did she ever? She wasn't sure. If they were of no importance to her now, then why did they drift by like this?

The bubbles drifting by suddenly began to get darker. The girl was startled. Sadness seemed to emanate from them. A feeling of anxiousness gripped the girl's heart as she daringly reached out to catch another.

"It sounds like weeping," she murmured, letting the sphere go quickly.

A sense of coldness reached into the depths of her heart as one very large bubble suddenly drifted into view.

It was black.

And felt just as dark as it looked.

The girl knew she should be frightened. Darkness emanated from that bubble. She shouldn't touch it. She should never have touched any of them and yet...

She was drawn to it.

She caught ahold of it and held on tightly. Anxiously she stared down into the darkness, as her heart began to pound unmercifully.

Shadows began to form and take shape in the blackness. She could see...she could see a path. Pebbles. Stones. Small stones.

A large yellow orb also formed. Was it moonlight?

Crying. She could hear crying. Someone was crying.

Then two people were crying...and a dreadful noise, coming ever closer...

The girl wanted to let go of the sphere. But she wasn't able to. She was overwhelmed by a sense of suffering that was hers and yet wasn't hers. The scene in the sphere suddenly became crystal clear for her to view.

What she saw made her scream.

And a great sense of sadness and pain rush up to claim her. And above all, the painful sense of loss.

It almost did, but then a bright white light came rushing over her, tearing her away from that nightmare, from that awful sense of loss, easing her pain, and putting her back adrift into that endless ocean of blue.

Weak now, exhausted from everything that had wrenched her heart, the girl's eyes began to close and she let the blue claim and suspend her once more, as one more whisper came through the turquoise to whisper something she fell asleep on..."I'll protect you."

It was how Rakka found Reki a short while later, when she showed up to take watch for a couple of hours.

Reki was just standing there, her hands stitll on the cocoon, and she was staring at it.

"Reki?" Rakka sounded worried, and went to stand behind her. "Reki, what is wrong?"

Nearly caught off-guard, a look of surprise came over Reki's face before she could hide it, or the deeper myraid emotions that were in her eyes, just the sort of thing Rakka had focused on lately.

"I--she was sleeping rather badly in there, Rakka," she said.

"Is she having a bad dream?" asked Rakka, coming up beside her and putting one of her own hands on the husk.

"I think she was. She was--" Reki paused. "She was thrashing. She's quieted down now though."

There was a silence.

"It might not be that way, Reki," Rakka put forth, almost tenatively. "The old Communicator said aloud that while winter cocoons might be unusual, they didn't have any real bearing on the Haibane inside them."

"Hmph! Like that old man knows everything of what he prattles!" snapped Reki. Her voice softened immediately upon seeing Rakka's startled look.

"Her distress was real," said Reki quietly. "If that was her cocoon dream...if she is born sin-bound..."

"Then we should treat her the same as always if that is the case, right?" said Rakka.

A faint bitter smile came to Reki's lips. "Yes. She's left everything behind now in coming here. She deserves a chance. Nobody else ever need know if her feathers burst through her skin black as night. I'll smuggle in some dye just in case, and tell her what she needs to know before things get out of hand. There's no reason why she can't strive to live a decent life here in Glie. If we're caught I'll take responsibility."

Rakka didn't say anything at first.

"You'll need help to accomplish everything, Reki," she said quietly. She swallowed. The older girl who seemed so sure of everything, sure this new Haibane was doomed from the start. "I'll help to make sure she doesn't suffer."

Reki smiled. "A good Haibane is kind to the weak," she said. Her hand rubbed the roughness of the cocoon. "We'll get her started off right. I had better teach you how to care for a newborn Haibane anyways. While that has always been my job--well, it doesn't mean that just I should know how to handle it, right?"

Rakka smiled a blank smile. How just like Reki to rationalize any offer for 'help' she had to take as a necessity, and never truly ask for help for the sake of asking for help.

There was something, however, she knew she had to do when Reki wasn't around. Reki had no trust in the Communicator. Rakka had learned to trust him totally, just as she'd come to understand the bird's purpose when she was at the bottom of the well. Both had helped in releasing her from her sin-bound state.

The Communicator especially had taught her that she need not fear him and that he had meant it when he said she could approach him if she was in trouble.

And deep in her heart she knew that all of this, while not the best of signs, in the end still didn't mean that the poor soul inside the cocoon was sin-bound. Only time would tell that for sure.

The next day dawned, and passed, and evening fell once more.

"You're very patient, you realize that?" Reki commented offhandedly to Kana as Rakka showed up for her turn to watch the cocoon. Reki had only followed her to check on things in general.

"You pace any more and you'll wear a hole in the floor," laughed Rakka.

"Hmph! I never said I was the most patient person alive," snapped Kana. "I'd rather be tinkering with my clocks, thankyouverymuch."

"Duty as a haibane first, clocks second," Reki said almost cheerily. "I don't think we'll have to wait much longer anyways. The surface is an even grayer shade now. She could hatch at any time."

"Hopefully soooon," mourned Kana, laying her head against the rough outer husk of the cocoon. "I was starting to visualize hammers again."

Reki chuckled. "Same old Kana," she remarked. "You know the drill: We can't do that."

Rakka listened to this blankly. "Hammers? I don't understand."

Kana patted the cocoon absently. "Eh, it just seems to me we'd save time cracking open this thing ourselves but Reki never lets us. 'Against tradition' she preaches."

"I'm not preaching and you know it," said Reki. "She won't grow strong if she can't break out by herself."

She did not mention her thoughts turning back to Kuramori, whose health had always been delicate. She'd wondered more than once if Kuramori had encountered trouble breaking out of her cocoon that led to her having such frail endurance.

"I'm still not sure that is just an old myth," shrugged Kana. "But whatever. I hope you're here to take over, Rakka. I'm starved."

"Of course I am," smiled Rakka. "Go and eat, Kana."

"Finally!" grinned Kana happily, about ready to make for the door in any case. "I'd even endure the Young Feathers pestering me constantly with questions than pace this room, although I'd like to stick around for the main event. Too bad for the kids you barred all the entrances to this building, Reki."

"The kids don't need to be running around the room possibly rupturing the cocoon before the new girl hatches on her own," said Reki, remembered how she hadn't had a moment's peace all day with the kids begging to see the cocoon.

"You're only provoking them, just like last time," warned Kana, heading towards the door.

They were stopped, however, by a loud 'glub' from the cocoon itself. It made everyone freeze, and look at each other.

Did that mean...?


Again? Hadn't she been floating before? Floating in a blue ocean that wasn't water? A sea of liquidless turquoise?

Am I still in that strange place? It felt like a dream...

She moved her arm, and felt a swishing sensation. Wet.

Her eyes snapped open. Wet? She hadn't been wet before.

Was this another dream?

Startled, she looked around.

She wasn't surrounded by blue now. She was...floating. Suspended.

Where am I? she wondered. Was this a new dream? Had it changed?

her world had turned into a greenish color. And fluid was all around her. She was enclosed in some place, like a small room in which she floated, but she could see no way in, or out.

She took a deep breath, trying to get her bearings. Her eyes suddenly opened wider when she realized that what she had just inhaled hadn't been air.

She gave an involuntary jerk, thoughts of drowning coming to mind. Inadvertently she breathed again, and suddenly became aware that she felt no worse for the wear.

Well, that was something...whatever this was, she could breathe it. How strange.

Just where was she? She wasn't entirely sure she was awake. Surely she hadn't been before...

But she was wearing that robe. That white, seamless robe from before was still on her, floating along with her.

She gave an experimental kick, propelling herself a short way, towards that green. Her hand touched a very soft wall of sorts. Surprised, her fingers could sink into the goo, and she ended up pulling a handful away from the wall. It squished in her fingers.

She looked up, puzzled. There seemed to be a hard surface beyond that. She shook the stuff from her fingers to reach out and touch it.

Strange...it felt rough, and yet smooth. And quite hard.

She knocked against it gently. It didn't seem all that thick. Maybe she could break it?

And then what? Wouldn't it be a bad thing? What lay beyond these walls, this strange world of liquid? The vague instinct came to her that her time in here was up, but she didn't seem to quite know what to do about it.

Sudden sounds reached her ears. They were almost distinct, like voices.

"Kids...running around the room..."

"You're just provoking them..."

They were people's voices! Outside.

Yes, her time in here had to be done, although she still wasn't sure how she sensed that.

She reached out and scooped more of the goo away, then knocked on the wall harder. And then harder. It was her only means of getting out.

The knocking sound on the outside of the cocoon was obvious to the three Haibane in the room.

"It's started!" cried Kana unnecessarily.

"Don't go anywhere, Kana!" warned Reki unecessarily.

"Of course not!" snapped the other girl. "I am, however, getting out of the way of the tidal wave that is going to happen here."

Reki chuckled at that. "I do think that would be smart," she mused. "We are still going to get wet, though. There's a lot of fluid in there."

"You're all talking cocoons," laughed Rakka. "I'm just interested in the person inside."

"We all are," said Kana, moving off to the side as the knocking sound got louder. "It is always exciting getting a new Feather."

She was quite right, Reki mused. She herself had cared for many a Haibane. The first one she'd cared for after birth was Kana...after she came back from the messes she'd involved herself in.

"Rakka, wait till the flood dies down before you get the blankets," said Reki in a low voice. "I also put some towels in the next room as well. Even wrapped in blankets she'll still get sick if she's dripping wet in weather like this. Kana, after she's out you go run and alert the others."

"Can do," said Kana, excited now as visible cracks appeared on the outer shell of the cocoon. A moment later, spurts of fluid.

Nobody could say anything else. The suspense was strong as they awaited the birth of the newborn Haibane.

Man this was tough...she felt so tired.

It almost felt like she had a new body. It didn't feel quite as strong as what she seemed to feel was right. In fact it seemed, strangely enough, that it required pounding on this wall to gain strength, to get her blood moving, like a newborn butterfly or baby chick...but it was also wearing her out at a rapid pace.

But the wall was giving way.

A sudden rush of bubbles out of visible cracks told her she'd at last breached the wall. She also sensed a draining of the fluid that had kept her alive. It didn't matter anymore...she didn't think she required it.

She pushed on the wall harder, using about the last of her strength, and suddenly, with one great burst, it seemed to all give way...

"Stand back!"

Reki ran to open the door just in time. She quickly yanked Kana and Rakka aside as the outer husk of the cocoon seemed to virtually explode, and the sudden rush of water nearly overwhelmed all of them.

She just caught a glimpse of a figure carried almost gently to the floor, borne on a wave of cocoon fluid, limp and still. For a moment she couldn't see anything else, because nearly a roomful of fluid had been pent up in that large cocoon and it had almost all broken free.

The open door, however, eased matters a little bit, and there was a floor drain in the hall. A few moments later, the flood in the room was only a couple centimeters deep, and she risked opening her eyes once more.

She could make out the figure on the floor better this time. She was coughing faintly and gasping for breath, nearly facedown in the remaining fluid, but otherwise limp.

Quickly Reki's instincts took over. She splashed across the room, kneeling in the fluid and turning the limp form upwards in her arms.

It was a teenage girl all right, although she appeared older than Rakka, was Reki's guess. She seemed a bit taller than Rakka had been, and she was pale, very pale. Her hair was very long, and its sopping wet strands wrapped around her thin body. It was getting dark and Reki could not tell for sure, but the soaking strands seemed to be a deep red color.

"Wow!" exclaimed Kana and Rakka at the same time, as they forgot about being wet and splashed across the room to join Reki.

"Is she all right, Reki?" asked Rakka anxiously, noting how still she was.

"She's just fine," smiled Reki, for some odd reason feeling a sense of accomplishment she hadn't felt in a while, a sense she got each time she first held a newborn Haibane. "She's just worn out."

The girl in her arms suddenly gave a very faint moan, her eyelids fluttering. Slowly they opened for the first time, and what she saw first was Reki's eyes.

Again it was getting too dark to tell exactly, but her eye color was darker compared to her too-pale skin. Reki guessed dark blue for the moment, although the thought was at the back of her mind.

The girl looked confused for a moment, then gave Reki an uncertain, faint smile. A shuddering breath ran through her thin frame, and she went limp once more.

"That was so cool," whispered Rakka, awed by what she'd seen today. "If I could have put words to that look, it was like she was saying she was glad to see you, Reki, even if she didn't know who you are."

Reki hid the bitterness that threatened to creep into the smile she returned Rakka as Kana bounded excitedly out the door, splashing as she went.

Reki fully expected to be forgotten one day, and like everything else, she expected this girl would forget this as well.

"Let's get her to that table I set up in the hall," said Reki. She carefully slid her arms under the new girl's back and behind her knees and, with just a little difficulty, managed to make it to her feet.

Rakka blinked. "Wow, Reki, I didn't know you were that strong."

"Chasing after kids for so many years will do that to you," answered Reki. "Not to mention wayward Older Feathers?"

Rakka blushed and smiled a little guiltily as she followed Reki to the door. Once there she quickly darted past and into the next room, bringing forth the blankets and towels that had been stored there.

Very soon, with a little effort, the newborn Haibane was bundled carefully first in towels to absorb the moisture from her still-dripping body, and then in blankets to hopefully keep the chill of winter away from her long enough to get her across the courtyard. Reki just hoped the towels were enough to keep the blankets from getting wet, or all this would be useless.

"Lets get her out of here then," said Reki, carrying her carefully towards the exit. "The sooner she's safe in the Guest Room, the better."

Still, she paused for just a second at the open door of the newborn's Cocoon Room. Already a lot of the fluid had disappeared, although the cocoon was still leaking fluid onto the floor. The burst-open front revealed the inner walls of the cocoon, making it clear just how big it had been.

Rakka, too, stopped for a second. So, that is the sort of thing I slept in for so long...

Aware Reki had started walking once more, she quickly turned her attention back to reality and followed Reki out the door of the dilapatated North Wing.

It was bitterly cold. Reki felt the sting in her cheeks and hands, and it reminded her that on her last trip over here she'd not brought her coat. Her own clothing was still quite wet from the cocoon breaking open. With it this cold and carrying a wet new Haibane, she had to get her across the courtyard and into the west wing quickly.

There was an eager pounding of feet, and not only did Kana and Hikari come bursting out, they were followed by a small crowd of little people.

"Can we see now?"

"We wanna see!"

"Let's look at her!"

"Yeah, C'mon!"

Damn, thought Reki. Were they waiting to ambush us?

"I told you guys not to crowd too close!" hollered Kana as she was overtaken by the crowd who rushed past her. "You want to trip Reki?"

Reki stopped and sighed as she was surrounded by little ones not even tall enough to reach her waist.

"Can we see now?" exclaimed a very little girl eagerly. "We've been waiting!"

"Yeah, let us see!" chorused the crowd.

Reki drew in a breath. "Not now, Hana," she said gently. "I need to put the new girl to bed."

"Can't it wait?" begged Hana.

"Do you want me to chase them off?" offered Kana, while Hikari shrugged her shoulders helplessly.

"No," said Reki before turning her attention back to the crowd.

"I must get the new girl to bed quickly," she told the crowd firmly. "She's still wet, and if she stays out here and I take the blankets off, she'll get very sick. Imagine how it would be if you were all wet and then had to come out here in this cold? You'd get really sick. How many of you here really want that for her, just because you could not wait?"

There was a flurry of subdued murmuring, and a flock of shamefaced looks. Hana looked stricken.

"I promise you'll all get to meet her after she grows her wings," said Reki, her voice gentle now.

"You promise?" demanded Hana. "We don't want her sick!"

There was a chorus of "No! Don't want her sick! No way!" in various voices, and Reki smiled to herself. Hana, for all she was a delicate little flower, was clearly a leader.

"I promise," vowed Reki with a smile.

"Yay!" crowed the little girl, a cheer taken up by the others.

"I'll get them back to the House Mother," said Kana, clearly amused. "They ran from her."

Raka grinned at her, not at all surprised. Obediently this time, the little Young Feathers stood aside and let her pass, Rakka and Hikari on her heels.

"Whew!" said Hikari as the door closed. "That was fun! Soooo..." she trailed off excitedly. "You're gonna let me see at least, right?"

"When we get to the guest room," answered Reki, suppressing a laugh this time. Rakka wasn't quite willing to do so, and laughed audiably.

"I'm just excited," Hikari made excuse, her cheeks going pink. "I wish I had been there."

"You were there for Rakka's hatching, and got soaked from head to foot," Reki reminded her.

"You don't look so dry now," Hikari remarked in her turn.

Both were clearly teasing each other, but Rakka decided to change the subject before it got bad. "How long will she sleep, Reki?"

"Can't say for certain," answered Reki as they finally reached the door of the guest room. Hikari quickly opened it, revealing the large, bright, and airy room they all loved so much. " But at least the rest of tonight, and maybe part of tomorrow. You slept about that long."

Rakka suddenly remembered Kuu's first words to her. "You've been sleeping for a whole day! It was amazing!" and realized this was probably true then.

Nemu came out of the adjacent kitchen the instant they entered the room.

"Good, you're here safely!" she said, visibly relieved. "I'm glad. I was worried. It is so cold out."

"I think she'll be just fine," answered Reki, making it to the bed and settling the newborn down on it carefully. Just in time. Her arms had begun to ache.

Nemu began to carefully remove the blankets from the still figure, for the first time getting a look at her.

"Well," she said, visibly pleased by what she saw. "That is good. Another Older Feather."

She unwrapped the towel that had been draped over the girl's head and shoulders, letting the tumbling mass of hair loose. The towel had absorbed most of the moisture, and in the bright room the color became evident.

"That is certainly a deep red color," remarked Nemu. "Long, too. Or maybe it just looks darker because she's so pale?"

"She looks too pale," fretted Hikari. "She's thin, too. Is she sick, Reki?"

"She made it out of her cocoon on her own, so that is a good sign," answered Reki. "If she was that way where she came from before...well, maybe good food and fresh air is all she needs. She is not so thin it is a real worry. She's probably just slender. We don't know just yet."

Her eyes met Nemu's momentarily, and both knew they were remembering the same thing: Kuramori and her delicate health.

Nemu finished unwrapping the towels from the slender body. The white robe the girl wore was also drying swiftly, and beginning to roughen a little, typical of its nature.

Reki came over to carefully help her turn the girl over onto her stomach, to avoid bruising the wings that were surely already growing in earnest underneath the girl's skin. Reki lifted the heavy mass of hair and eased it aside, exposing the girl's slender back.

The drying material had formed an opening, and drying strips had seemed to form and come loose at one end along the open seam. Rakka blinked in surprise as Reki reached over and momentarily opened the seam, exposing the back for a moment. The pale skin was just starting to darken with evidence of growing wings.

Satisfied, Reki closed the opening and pulled on the strips, tying them together to hold the robe shut in the back.

"Uh...do they all do that, Reki?" asked Rakka, puzzled.

"Yes," answered Reki. "These robes always seem to dry like this. It is a blessing in disguise, really. It makes it easier to attend the newborn when she grows her wings. Remember?"

Rakka chuckled softly. "Yes, I remember that. You took care of me, Reki. How could I forget that?"

Nemu came in with a clean, dry blanket and laid it over the still form. "Someone should be here at all times," she commented. "She'll be very confused when she wakes up."

"Yes, we should not all babble at once the way we did when Rakka was born," smirked Reki. Rakka just laughed.

Hikari laughed as well, but her cheeks also went pink. "Well, we'd not had a new cocoon in two years, since Kuu had been born along with the two other Young Feathers," she made excuse. "We just got too excited."

"You can say that again," said Reki, amused. "I'll make sure her entry into this world is as smooth as I can manage. And since it is best she learns these things, Rakka is going to help me."

Rakka smiled shyly at that. Nemu nodded in agreement.

"That is a good idea," she said. "She might be pale but she doesn't really look sickly to me. She looks just fine otherwise. This should go smoothly enough."

"She's going to need clothes," pointed out Hikari. "She's taller than Rakka. Maybe even a little taller than me."

"That is true," mused Reki. Definetly older than Rakka at least. Maybe a couple years younger than herself and Nemu in terms of physical maturity.

"Well, I have that old dress that I got from the thrift shop last year," said Nemu. "It didn't fit me quite right and I was going to adjust it a bit, but maybe with a little seamwork I can get it ready for her tonight."

"The blue one?" asked Reki. "Nemu, that is a summer dress. She'll freeze in that."

"It is all we can spare right now," answered Nemu. "You know none of us have large closetfuls of clothing the way humans have, and she's nobody's exact size. It can hold her till she makes her first trip to the thrift shop and can get outfitted in winter wear. She can also borrow a coat or something till then."

"True enough," answered Reki.

Rakka had agreed to sleep that night in the guest room so the girl would not be alone. She was not too bothered to stretch out in a pallet on the floor for one night. This room was always quite warm.

She lay awake for a while, though, watching the still face as she slept on the edge of the bed. Rakka felt sympathetic--she had no idea what was going to happen to her when she woke up, or what she faced when her wings grew. Rakka herself could hardly remember the pain for some odd reason, but she did remember how she had screamed in agony. The next morning the worst of the pain had vanished from her memory; a blessing in disguise.

It still seemed strange to her, too, that she had appeared so soon after Rakka herself had been found and born...had it really been such a short time ago? Just a couple months. Rakka didn't know if she herself would be considered a newborn any longer.

Please, don't be sin-bound, she silently begged.

The next morning, Rakka had awoke and had barely put her pallet away when she heard a tiny knock on the door.

Creeping over silently, she opened it and looked down to see little Hana's face from behind a large boquet of flowers.

"These are for the new girl when she wakes up," said Hana spritely. "I grew them myself in the greenhouse. The House Lady said they were mine to do with as I chose!"

"Well thank you, Hana, that is so thoughtful. I'm sure she'll love them when she wakes up," smiled Rakka, taking the proffered flowers. They smelled sweet and she reflected for a moment that Hana really would make a good florist, if she was still around then.

Truth be told, she had a sneaking feeling that Hana had snuck away from everyone else again and had found a handy excuse to appear at the Guest Room--and before Reki showed up, at that!

It was confirmed from the uncertainty that crossed her little face and that didn't escape Rakka's notice.

"You want to see, don't you?" she said knowingly, and Hana looked half eager, half ashamed.

Rakka smiled and held a finger to her lips. "You have to be absolutely quiet," she whispered. "And you can't tell Reki you broke your promise to her, and you can't tell the other Young Feathers."

"Cross my heart," swore Hana.

Rakka took her by the hand and led her into the room. Hana pulled her hand free and tiptoed rapidly towards the bed, gazing eagerly at the sleeping new girl.

"Was her cocoon really bigger than yours?" she whispered excitedly.

"Yes, I've been told," whispered Rakka back, having found a vase and placing the flowers inside.

"That is so cool!" whispered Hana. "I hope she's really nice!"

"I'm sure she will be," smiled Rakka. "Now come on. You've seen her and if Reki catches you...well, a good Haibane isn't supposed to break her promises is what she'll say to you. So don't tell you about your mischief."

Hana's eyes twinkled merrily. "I won't!"

A vague drifting sensation...nice and warm...was she dreaming again?

Her hands were clenching on something soft anyways...slowly she opened her eyes. Whatever was soft was fluffy and white...clouds maybe?

She squeezed harder for a moment. No, it felt like a...pillow?

Her eyes snapped open wide this time, and she lifted her head, startled.

Where was she?

A large room was laid out before her eyes. It had a very homey feel, but she didn't recognize it at all. It was nice and bright in this room, comfortably warm. Large windows let in lots of light. She was in a large bed, sleeping on her stomach, and had no idea how she got there.

She made a move to sit up, feeling vaguely heavy in her limbs and a strange, aching sensation in her back.

Getting upright, the sensation didn't lessen. She could swear her back felt bruised or something. Her heavy mass of red curls, so long she could nearly sit on them, were weighing on her back and didn't help matters.

That didn't tell her anything about where she was.

She glanced downwards. Her white robe! It was the same one as in her dream...and in the world full of fluid...so maybe they had not been dreams? The fluid one at least, surely had not been. Some deep instinct told her that, although she wasn't totally sure how much of that she remembered.

She touched it. It was a bit rough now, not soft like before. She sighed softly.

Sudden soft footsteps alerted her, and suddenly a strange girl came out of a curtained-off area, carrying a bowl and pitcher in her arms.

"Oh, you're awake!" she said kindly. "You were sleeping so heavily I wasn't sure when you would awaken."

The girl just looked at her, not knowing what to say. She had no recollection of this other girl at all. She was very pretty, the girl decided, with long, silky dark hair, almond-shaped black eyes, and a gentle, but very solid and determined set to her features. However, there were two things about her that didn't seem quite right...wings...and a halo? Surely she was still dreaming then...people didn't have...

"I was just fixing lunch," the girl went on. "Sorry if we woke you."

"No, I'm okay," said the girl in a very soft voice, not knowing what else to say. "Um...where am I?"

"It is no surprise you're confused, don't worry," said Reki reassuringly, sitting on the edge of the bed beside her. "You're in the guest room. We found your cocoon just a couple days ago, and just in time. You hatched yesterday."

The girl's large eyes stared into hers, startled. Reki realized her guess had been right, her eyes were a very deep, dark shade of blue.

"Cocoon?" she repeated. "I don't understand..."

"It is hard to understand when you're a newborn," said the woman gently. "My name is Reki. You are a Haibane, and all Haibane hatch from large cocoons, filled with fluid."

The girl blinked. "Fluid! Yes...I remember a world of fluid, and knowing I had to leave it...and breaking the wall...yes." She stared at Reki. "You were there then too, right?"

Reki blinked. "Yes, I was."

The girl smiled, suddenly seeming relieved. "I'm glad. Your eyes. I remember your eyes. I saw them for just a few moments, but I remember them now."

Somewhere inside Reki's heart clenched.

"That is interesting," she remarked, not showing it. "Most don't remember so much about their hatching. But yes, I turned you over and you woke up for a few moments. That was yesterday. A newborn usually sleeps for about a day afterwards."

"And what is...Haibane?"

Reki grinned, and turned aside a moment. Her wings could be seen clearly now, and she fluttered them.

The girl gasped. "They are real?"

Reki nodded. "They are. Yours will grow as well, pretty soon."

"Ooooh, Reki, she's awake!"

They were interrupted by the door opening, and another girl, with funny messy hair but the same wings and halo, also entered the room.

"And that is Rakka," said Reki with a grin. "She is not very old herself."

"Is this building full of...Haibane?" asked the girl curiously as Rakka came over.

"Well, not exactly," answered Rakka. "There are only five of us Older Feathers, and you now make six. Any other Haibane you see in this building are young children, the Young Feathers." She bowed in greeting. "I'm happy to meet you. As Reki said, my name is Rakka."

"Um...pleased to meet you," said the girl uncertainly.

"I know this is all very confusing," said Reki gently. "But don't worry. Everything will make sense very soon, I promise."

"Was lunch about done?" asked Rakka. "The others were on their way up."

"Yes," answered Reki. "But it will be a bit of a wait, I think. We'll have some things to take care of first. Did you bring the Halo mold in last night?"

Rakka nodded.

"Go get it, please?"

Rakka darted back into the kitchen, where she'd hidden the mold carefully in a high place. She unwrapped it from its coverings gently, and hurried back into the main room, hearing a babble of excited voices as the others entered the room.

At Reki's warning look Kana, Hikari, and Nemu all fell silent as they approached the bed and girl with the long red hair sitting in it. Reki had seen the other girl shrink back a little bit, being in bed surrounded by so many strangers.

"Don't confuse her," warned Reki. She turned back to the girl in the bed. "These are the other Haibane. This is Hikari, Kana, and Nemu," she indicated each one in her turn.

"We're all excited to meet you," said Hikari.

"Yes, welcome to Old Home," said Nemu in her placid way.

Kana just grinned.

"All right then," Reki stood up and stretched a bit. Rakka saw her eye her lighter on the table, then turn away from it, much to Rakka's surprise. Reki always smoked.

Instead Reki grabbed a chair and sat in it backwards, leaning over the chair back in typical Reki fashion. Nobody was surprised when she did this.

"Okay, now that we are all here, can you tell us about your dream?" she asked.

The girl blinked. "My dream?"

"Did you have a dream while sleeping in the cocoon?" asked Rakka. Wordlessly the girl nodded.

"Then can you tell us what you saw in the dream?" said Reki. "You see, each of us are named after the dream we had in our cocoons. Rakka is named because she had a dream that she was falling from the sky. Kana dreamed she was drifting in a river like a fish, so her name means 'river fish'."

"I was surrounded by a light in my dream, a sparkling light," said Hikari. "That is why Hikari is my name."

"Nemu's a deep snoozer, and she dreamed she was sleeping on top of it," said Reki with a slightly wicked smirk in Nemu's direction. "So her name means 'sleep'."

"You're asking to have your britches kicked, aren't you?" snapped Nemu good-naturedly.

"So you can understand, then, why we wish to know your dream. It is a tradition." Reki pretended to ignore Nemu's threat.

"I see," said the girl softly. "Well..." her eyes closed a moment as she thought back.


"Blue?" repeated Reki, blinking.

"I was surrounded by blue, like an ocean, yet I wasn't wet. A deep turquoise blue. Only off in the far distance did it fade into a silvery color. I was suspended in it, floating."

Her dark blue eyes opened, stark against her pale face.

"Was there more?" Reki's mind was a bit troubled. If that was all, then it was a bad indication.

The girl nodded. "I heard a soft noise, and suddenly all these bright spheres came flying at me. When they came close, they suddenly slowed, and drifted by lazily. I could move in the blue, and drifted over. I could touch them. There were images inside. I could not make them out very clearly, but they seemed...happy."

Reki's eyes became deeply thoughtful. "Was there anything else?"

The girl nodded, and suddenly, she looked troubled.

"The bubbles changed. Suddenly some went by, and they were dark. I could not see the images inside them very well either. I touched one and felt sadness. I wished I had not touched any of them at all. And then--"

She paused, and began to tremble.

"Can you say it?" asked Reki gently. "Was it scary?"

"No, it is all right. I will tell you." The girl steadied herself. "One drifted by, larger than any of the rest. Much larger. It was also dark, darkest of all. I did not want to touch it, yet I did. The scene inside unfolded before my eyes, yet it was all in shadow. It was hard to make out much."

Her breath hitched for a moment. "I looked. I know I saw something, and it was horrible!"

"What did you see?" asked Reki gently.

Suddenly the girl trembled violently all over.

"I know I saw something but...I can't really remember," she whispered.

Reki felt her heart sink. So, maybe she was sin-bound.

"All I remember is a single beam of brightness...a moonlit night. There was a rocky path, filled with small stones. Someone was there, I think. And I heard crying. Maybe two people crying. Then the scene was supposed to become clear but...I can't remember anything else, yet I know I saw something. It filled me with horror."

The girl did not seem to realize that tears had filled her eyes and were trickling down her cheeks.

"Sometimes cocoon dreams are a bit scary," said Nemu reassuringly. She gently reached over and handed the girl a handkerchief.

She did not see Reki's thunderstruck look that she swiftly pushed behind an impassive face.

The girl nodded, and got her bearings fast. "I'm sorry if I appear cowardly. All I know is that suddenly, the images were gone, and so were the spheres, and I was suspended once more in the turquoise as if nothing had happened. Then the dream ended."

It took all of Reki's self-control to not show the horror she felt. It was too much, almost, to know that even part of this girl's dream sounded so agonizingly like her own. She was surely already locked in sin, and was bound to suffer.

Remember, you are stone. Figure out her name for now.

She closed her black eyes in thought. "Blue," she mused. "You said you were surrounded by blue."

She opened her eyes and stared into the girl's dark blue ones. "I think Aoi should be a suitable name for you then," she concluded. "We will call you Aoi."

The girl blinked. "Aoi?"

"Yes, Aoi, meaning blue," answered Reki.

"But..." The girl paused, and her eyes closed. "Don't I...didn't I already have a...I don't think I remember my name!"

Her hands tightened visibly on the blanket covering her lap as she said this.

"Which is why you need one now, Aoi," Reki said with great calm. "Nobody here knows who you were before you ever arrived in the cocoon. Not even you. That is how it is with us."

"But...why?" Aoi asked, for the moment resigning herself to the new name. If she truly had no other...

"Nobody knows for sure," answered Reki. "And we all ask why at some point. It is unlikely that there is anybody in this world who can remember you any more, either, just as you cannot remember them. Your life now is here, with us, and whatever reasons we became Haibane."

Aoi stared at her for several long seconds, then nodded her head. "I cannot say I fully understand. Like you all I may end up asking why, but I will answer to Aoi."

And already she felt an ache deep inside her, a need to know why. If she could not find out, could she resign herself to a peaceful life here, among strangers?

"That is great!" Hikari smiled. "Your name is the first step. Rakka?"

Rakka gave Hikari a nervous look, but steadied herself.

"It will be okay," urged Hikari. "Just like I told you to do, Rakka..."

Rakka nodded, and stepped forward with something Aoi could not identify. It was round, a hole in the middle, and it had a handle.

Rakka held it flat, and flipped open the lid. There was a quick burst of steam, and a faint hissing noise.

She was holding it low enough so that Aoi could see into it. A glowing circle lay in the mold, quite obviously very hot.

Carefully Rakka picked up a pair of special tongs and reached into the mold with them. She picked up the glowing circle and held it aloft.

"Feather Aoi," she said, and was surprised her voice was so steady. "To help guide your future as a fellow Haibane, I give you this halo."

Aoi blinked in surprise as Rakka carefully reached over and held the halo a few centimeteres above her head, and let the tongs go.

To Aoi's shock, the halo gave a strange noise and hovered a little uneasily above her head, but did not fall and hit. Instead it stayed in place, wobbling a bit unevenly.

"Be careful," warned Reki, seeing that Aoi's arm jerk in a controlled impulse to touch it. "That halo is still hot."

"Ah...okay," answered Aoi uncertainly, for some moments not able to take her eyes off the shimmering halo above her head.

It wasn't just her. Everyone around her watched anxiously for several seconds as the halo wobbled a bit, and that peculiar noise continued before fading away. A moment later the halo seemed to settle into place.

Rakka breathed a deep sigh of relief. "It stuck. Thank goodness!"

"Should it not have?" asked Aoi uncertainly as Rakka closed the halo mold with a satisfied click.

"Well...mine didn't want to at first," admitted Rakka, blushing. "They had to hold it in place with cardboard and wire for a day or so before it decided to. Yours seems to be behaving itself."

Aoi smiled at that. "I imagine you were a sight."

"I was, a bit," answered Rakka. "But in the end, it always sticks, so I've been told. I'm happy yours did without a fuss."

"Well," said Kana. "It seems to me there is little more to do here until Aoi grows her wings, so what say we eat?"

"We can if the food hasn't gone cold," answered Reki. "Aoi, I imagine you don't feel hungry yet, but you may have some tea if you like. I'd like to get some liquids into you before your fever sets in."

"Fever?" answered Aoi, thinking tea sounded very good right now.

"You will get a fever when your wings grow in," answered Reki. "But after your wings sprout, the fever will probably be gone by tomorrow morning."

She got up as she spoke, heading towards the teapot as everyone took this as their cue, also heading towards the table. Only Rakka breathed a private sigh of immense relief that she had done her duty successfully, and went to put away the halo mold.

"Wings..." Aoi repeated softly. "Is that why my back is sore?"

"Yes," answered Reki. "Your wings are under the skin, growing. It will happen probably tonight, or by early tomorrow at the latest."

Aoi decided not to ask if it would hurt. If they were under her skin...

Reki, however, saw her overly-pale skin grow completely sheet-white. So, she realized without being told, something of what would happen.

She poured hot tea into the cup and brought it over to Aoi as everyone else settled in at the table.

"Don't worry," she advised. "All of us had to go through it. It will sting a bit when your wingtips break the skin, and you will run a high fever. But it soon fades."

She saw Aoi clamp her jaw shut, swallow, and nod, an accepting look coming into her eyes. "I understand," she said, very softly as she accepted the teacup. "I will not fear it, since you told me what will happen."

I'm glad she's brave, thought Reki to herself. She'll have to be, in order to accept what she faces as a sin-bound Haibane.

"That is always best," answered Reki. "Not knowing is much harder to bear. Once everyone eats they will leave you alone. Rakka and I will be here with you as you grow your wings."

Aoi nodded, deciding, as she sipped her tea, to put the ache in her back from her mind long enough to understand more about where she was. Listening to chatter over lunch should tell her plenty.

She didn't have to just listen. The others were very kind and did their level best to include her in their conversations, just as if she already knew about the town she'd arrived in. For Aoi, she listened in fascination as she began to learn something of where she was.

The town she was in was called Glie. It had several thousand other people, and was a self-sustaining city.

It had to be. It was surrounded by walls on all sides.

"But...um...wouldn't that get crowded?" asked Aoi uncertainly as Reki poured her a second cup of tea.

"There is plenty of room to move around," answered Kana. "One of these days I'll take you to the clock tower where I work. There is a fantastic view."

"You might as well begin to understand, Aoi, that Haibane are bound by certain rules, as well as the humans here," said Hikari kindly. She nodded upon seeing Aoi's blue eyes widen. "Yes, most in the city of Glie are human. They let us live in their town, and work. In return we are provided for what we truly need, so long as it is secondhand."

Aoi blinked. "You are not allowed to own anything new?"

"Our clothing and belongings are items the humans no longer need," explained Nemu. "Or items we make ourselves, such as wing covers. You are going to need a pair of those, too."

Aoi looked around the room. For everything being secondhand, she saw some very nice items. This room was so comfortable-looking.

"You should not feel too stifled. There are plenty of open areas," encouraged Rakka. "I'll show you the Hill of Winds, and the giant windmills. It is the perfect place to be on a sunny day."

She saw Aoi smile at that.

"Um...where is Glie located?" she asked. "What is outside the walls?"

There was a small pause.

"Nobody knows," answered Nemu.

Aoi sent her a confused look.

"You must never go near the walls, or touch them," Reki decided to put in this warning early. "Both humans and Haibane are forbidden to leave Glie. It is our most sacred law. Nobody comes in, or goes out, with the exception of one very isolated group of beings. You will learn about them later, I imagine. But I must press this upon you: Never touch the walls. It is not only forbidden, it is very dangerous."

Her voice was very serious, and everyone was staring at her.

"Reki, don't scare Aoi so early on," scolded Nemu gently. "I bet she is feeling overwhelmed by information already, on things she has not even seen."

"No," Aoi interrupted before Reki could reply. "Reki is quite right. And I want to know as much as I can. I won't forget." Her gaze slipped past Reki's, past all of them, as if she was seeing something off in the far distance. She did not know how to outright say she was looking inside herself. "If I have lost my past as you say I have, I can still somehow tell that I was never one to forget hardly anything."

Nobody really questioned this. It was true enough. A Haibane was stripped of their memories, past, and name while sleeping in the cocoon, but they usually rememebered practical matters about themselves. It should not be such a big surprise then that Aoi recalled this on her own.

Lunch was finished quickly. The ringing of bells seemed to alert everyone that they had other things to do.

"We'll let Reki and Rakka take it from here, Aoi," said Nemu gently as everyone waved goodbye, reluctant to go. Aoi seemed a likable enough person to them.

"I understand," answered Aoi. "I will see you later then."

"Bye!" chorused Kana and Hikari, heading out the door. Only Nemu remained for just a second longer, and it was to shoot Reki a very telling look. Aoi did not understand why, or why Reki met that look with a very serene on in turn.

Damn! thought Reki as Nemu left without another word. Nemu knew her well enough to understand that she feared Aoi was sin-bound. She might even suspect it herself if she truly understood the implications of Aoi's incomplete cocoon dream. Surely she'd cooperate with the matter of Aoi's wings.

Well, whatever Nemu thought, Reki told herself fiercely that she'd see to it Aoi lived as normal a life as possible while as a Haibane. If she, Reki, was bound to face darkness, it would not be before she had Aoi fully on her feet in order to face her own challenges. Maybe she'd even do a turn like Rakka and...overcome it...

For a moment bitter jealousy surged in Reki's throat and she forced it down. Had she truly wanted Rakka to continue suffering the sin-bound curse just for her? Just so that she, Reki, didn't have to suffer it alone? No! It was a horrid thought. No! Rakka was where she should be, free.

And for now, Aoi certainly was under the same curse, and it meant that, until this new Haibane found her own salvation, there was still another then, wasn't it?

A single faint cry startled Reki out of her thoughts. She looked back to the bed. Aoi was breathing heavily and touching her shoulder, not able to fully hide the pain in her dark blue eyes. Rakka was already at her side.

"Reki?" she called uncertainly.

Swiftly Reki crossed the room.

"It is her wings growing more, Rakka. Here, Aoi, would you please lie back down?" Rakka watched as Reki gently eased Aoi's thin frame back down on the bed, lying on her stomach on the bed's edge.

"I'm going to open the back of your gown, Aoi, all right?" she said gently. Aoi nodded, and then her breath hitched again.

Very gently Reki lifted Aoi's heavy mass of red curls off to the side. Rakka watched carefully as Reki untied the laces in the back of Aoi's white robe and parted the opening in the back, revealing Aoi's slender shoulders, and the very large bruises that were now evident on them.

"Yes, they are growing very rapidly," Reki mused aloud. "Rakka, could you go get some ice?"

Rakka nodded at once and hurried off, remembering Reki doing this for her. Now it was her turn...

Rakka watched her run into the kitchen area.

"The ice will ease your discomfort," soothed Reki. "Are you in much pain?"

"It..." Aoi's breath hitched again. "It feels...more like a cramp."

Sweat broke out over her forehead, and Reki picked up a cool cloth, reached over and sponged it away.

"I understand. It won't be too long before they are ready and will break through your skin. It means I don't have much time to explain to you something I hope never again to have to explain to a newborn Haibane."

She sounded troubled, and Aoi's eyes opened to watch her warily.

"I'll tell you while I braid your hair," said Reki gently. "It is very long and will get messy when your wings break free from your back if I don't."

She reached for a hairbrush as she spoke.

"You have memories missing from your cocoon dream," she said softly.

Aoi nodded.

"And you have seen how everyone's wings are that light charcoal grey shade," she went on gently.

"Yes," Aoi rasped, her head beginning to feel hot. Reki stopped to sponge her forehead again.

Oh, how hard this was going to be on her, and on this newborn, to tell her what she must. It was worse, in a way--Aoi just didn't strike her as the kind to arrive here with some hidden sin in her soul.

"This town calls the Haibane blessed," said Reki. Rakka came in just then with the ice and a cloth bag, in time to hear this. Her face blanched as she realized what Reki was being forced to tell Aoi.

"Blessed..." Aoi repeated between muscle spasms in her back.

"Yes. They say this town exists for the Haibane," said Reki. "But there are some, Aoi, that cannot be blessed by the town. Their cocoon dreams are incomplete, and they are born with black on their wings. Such a Haibane is declared to be Sin-Bound. Most are afraid of and ostracize such an unblessed Haibane."

Aoi let out a faint cry over a real spasm of pain this time. "And you think..." she gasped heavily. "You believe that my wings will sprout like that, and that I am sin-bound?"

"I was guarding your cocoon when I heard you thrashing inside," said Reki softly, her fingers starting to weave the thick hair in her hands into a braid. "Your forgotten memories must be filled with horror. Though some say it isn't so, a winter-born Haibane does seem to be sin-bound more often. It is winter now. I was also born in winter, seven years ago."

She fluttered her wings, and Aoi looked at them. "Your wings look all right," she managed.

Reki's face tightened, and pain came into her eyes before she could fully hide them.

"I cannot recall my own cocoon dream," she whispered, nearly finished with Aoi's braid. "The bit about moonlight, and a pebble-laden path sound like my dream. I was walking down such a path. It was dark. The path was rocky and I was crying. I know something else happened, something horrible, but after that, I recall nothing."

"Your wings...?" Aoi gasped.

"My wings burst through my back, already marked with the curse of the sin-bound. I was lucky that the person who found me was so kind. There is a dye made from a tree that grows near the walls, the Elderly Tree. It can hide the blight of the sin-bound. When your wings come in, if necessary, I'll apply that dye. Nobody outside this room, with the exception of Nemu, ever need know the truth. Nemu is the only one here older than myself, and even she was afraid of me at first."

"But it's more than that!" cried Rakka. "Do you forget, Reki, that I too know the suffering that comes with the sin-bound curse? And my wings were grey when I was born!"

"You were born in late summer," said Reki, having tied Aoi's thick braid. Now her forehead was in her hands. "You became depressed when Kuu left, then your wings began to turn black a month later. You had a bird help you, to offer you forgiveness, that old Communicator was so kind enough to prate at me. I was happy to realize that you no longer had to suffer. You're happy again. You were so depressed, and I was afraid for you."

Reki swiftly realized that her bitterness would show too much if she didn't control it now. She choked back the rage that had swelled up in her. Happy, yes, she had been...but oh, how jealous as well! Rakka must never know that...

She'd never find her salvation.

"Whatever the case," said Reki, kindness back in her tones, "You won't easily have a chance to attain your salvation, Aoi, if you can't go about a normal life. I want that for you. I will dye your wings once they are cleaned, and show you how to create the medicine necessary to keep them covered. Try to live your life as a good Haibane. You might find what you lost, and escape the curse."

Aoi's hands tightened on her pillow as she digested all that was told her. Reki was doing this to be kind. Aoi wasn't sure why she was sin-bound, much less herself.

She could think it out fully when she wasn't in so much pain. The cramps in her back were getting worse, and it wasn't even evening yet.

Rakka, however, had grown steadily more distressed as Reki had spoken. She too understood why Aoi had to be told, but it brought back painful memories. She just could not stop the tears swelling in her eyes. She dropped the cloth bag of ice she'd been holding, forgotten, in her hands. They went to cover her face instead, as she stood there, her shoulders shaking.

She was only slightly startled when she felt Reki's arms go around her comfortingly. No. She shouldn't cry! Reki had suffered so much for her, and here she was again, holding her and comforting her. No. She had to get ahold of herself. Surely, somehow, Reki's curse could be lifted. Washi had told her that Reki didn't have much time left, but...

With a start Rakka realized something. Reki's halo! Since finding Aoi's cocoon Reki's halo had entirely ceased blinking on and off as it had been. Why was that?

"I'm okay, Reki," she murmured, trying to wiggle out of Reki's embrace. It was Reki who needed the comfort, she thought, not her.

"That is good, I'm glad," answered Reki evenly, and Rakka, drying her own eyes, was even more keenly aware of the pain Reki was hiding so well. No. Her turn to help Reki would come.

"I am sorry..." Aoi gasped. "I am sorry it causes you both so much pain."

"We're all right," answered Reki, picking up the bag Rakka had dropped and bringing it over to the bed. "I will deal with my eventual fate, when it comes."

"If this is my fate..." Aoi breathed, and her fingers gripped the pillow again in determination as she forced herself to face reality, "Then I will do so. I will accept the dye, but only as a necessity. If it is possible to be free of the curse, then I will work towards it."

Reki could barely contain her relief on hearing this. Aoi was much stronger than she had given her credit for. She hadn't screamed, or cried in fright, or denied it vhemently. To be realistic enough to want to change her fate was a very positive sign.

"I'm happy to hear that," smiled Rakka, although her eyes were still teary.

Aoi gasped again and buried her face in the pillow. Quickly Reki applied the ice to Aoi's back.

"This is happening even faster with you than with Rakka," she said, a bit anxiously. "The others I've cared for were so slow."

"When it happens, I will face it," rasped Aoi.

"Is the ice helping?" asked Rakka, wringing out Aoi's forehead cloth in the cool basin water she'd brought.

"A little..." rasped Aoi. Concerned, Reki reached over and felt her forehead.

"Her fever is rising swiftly," she murmured. She took a few ice pieces and added them to the basin water, and swirled the cloth in it again before sponging off Aoi's forehead once more.

"It won't be long now, will it?" asked Rakka, realizing the lumps on Aoi's small back had swelled within a very short time.

"No, it will not," answered Reki.

Aoi's faint, but heavily labored, breathing became more evident. Time passed swiftly, and in the middle of the afternoon, her fever hit a sharp spike.

Reki applied the cloth again.

"Hold on tight, Aoi," she advised gently. "It should not be too much longer now."

"I...see..." Reki saw her lips move, but really heard nothing. Her whole thin body, wracked with fever, had gone from too pale to an angry shade of red.

Rakka reached over and took her scorching-hot hand uncertainly, sensing it would be a nice thing to do but having to fight to not show her pain when Aoi clenched it hard over each cramping pain.

Aoi gave a faint gasp of pain over the most recent contraction, then turned, burying her face in the pillow she lay on. She held it there for several seconds before lifting her head. A strange look was in her eyes, and for a moment Reki was momentarily frightened. That didn't seem to be a coherent look.

"Aoi? What is it?"

"I...just wonder...about the family I left behind..." Aoi rasped softly. "But...even if I am...sin-bound...should I be...I have another reason...don't I? Maybe another reason...to be born like this..."

"Is it her fever, Reki?" Rakka was worried by this talk, and yet, hadn't she thought a lot herself about why she was here? Didn't she still?

"No..." rasped Aoi. "I think...there is...some other reason...I feel it..."

"We can't say for sure," said Reki, speaking to both at once. "Since nobody remembers anything...it is painful not always finding the answers we seek..."

Aoi gave a small, sharp cry and buried her face in the pillow once more. Her gown, which lay wide open in the back, revealed her fever-red shoulders and the trickle of very red liquid that was suddenly slipping down one shoulderblade. A visible wingtip had broken the skin.

"Reki! It's started!"

Reki turned and ran for the first-aid kit. She had thoughts of binding her thumb again like before, but she might not even have enough time to do this.

She didn't fall this time, and came running back at another faint cry from Aoi as a second bloody wingtip broke through her skin.

Pain. It was worse than anything Aoi figured she had ever known, in this life or her last one. The skin on her back was ripping, widening, and overwhelming muscle spasms were trying to push...something...through her skin, some foriegn thing that wasn't a part of her body...but ripping the skin ever wider to break out...

"Don't damage your hand again, Reki!" hissed Rakka, sensing what was on Reki's mind. "I don't think she will take it! And there isn't time!"

And there wasn't. Rakka ran around to the other side of the bed, climbing in beside Aoi, so she could hold her other hand and yet leave Reki room enough to move in. Aoi took her hand gratefully, and Rakka hid her pain from having her hand forcefully squeezed.

Reki smiled faintly, then sponged off Aoi's forehead a last time. No, Aoi would probably not bite her tongue. She wasn't even screaming, or crying that it hurt.

Aoi's eyes opened wide, though, in intense pain and amazement as she felt wild pulses begin forcing...something out of her back. This pain was the worst yet, and she wanted to pass out...but no. She had to hold on...

Her pain-glassed eyes met Reki's black ones as Aoi gave a stifled gasp, and with that gasp suddenly, but steadily, blood trickled down her back and her wings began to slide out, rising steadily from her body.

Larger and larger they emerged, ripping the skin wider as they went, and this brought Aoi even more pain.

Her only sounds were faint gasps as they rose. The wings, partially free, began to expand immediately upon sliding free, and suddenly the very bottoms of the wings burst out. In a virtual explosion of blood, her wings arched forth, and fully extended from her body, sending sprays of blood in several directions.

The moment her wings burst from her back, Aoi's eyes went wide once more with a final spasm of pain, but at that moment, there was no sound at all. Not a scream, not a gasp. Nothing.

A blankness slid over her eyes instead, and she went limp, into a total faint.

For several seconds, total silence reigned in the room. It was like some lingering spell. Reki sat very still, startled by the myriad emotions she'd seen in Aoi's eyes...ones she could not name...just before they had glassed over and she'd passed out.

It was a pair of violently twitching, bloody wings that made both her and Rakka come back to attention. Reki's first thought was to check Aoi's wings, to see how bad the black spots were.

As gently as she could, she took hold of a twitching wing to examine it.

Her breath caught, and she swore she felt her heart stop in her throat.

No black spots were evident.

She carefully examined every feather of the wing, then took hold of the twitching other wing and stretched it out, looking.

Aoi wasn't sin-bound.

Rakka also had to examine the wings for herself. She, too, saw no spots showing through the blood and grease the wings were soaked with, while below them both, Aoi lay completely oblivious, in the welcome relief of darkness.

"Oh, Reki! She isn't sin-bound! We won't have to dye her wings!" Rakka was so relieved to realize this she was trembling a bit.

Reki released the wing she'd been examining and gave Rakka a small smile. "No. We will not. Not at the moment."

She didn't let on to Rakka how her insides were twisting. She'd convinced herself that Aoi was sin-bound and doomed from the start, and that she'd have to step in this one last time and set her on the right track before her own darkness called to take her with it. The uneasily twitching wings in front of her told her otherwise.

Just what were you hoping for, Reki? Aoi doesn't deserve to be sin-bound. It should be the biggest relief to you that she isn't cursed as you are.

"I'm so glad!" exclaimed Rakka, moving to climb off the bed.

"Yes, Aoi should not have to worry right now," said Reki in a gentle, even voice that completely hid her emotions.

Rakka paused. "But...her dream...it is still not complete," she said worriedly.

"Yes," answered Reki.

"Doesn't that mean she could still..." Rakka began, looking troubled all over again.

"I don't know. It is possible. It happened to you, didn't it?" answered Reki. "We can only pray that she avoids such a fate. But for now, she is all right. I'm happy for her. I just hope that when she wakes up and knows she's not an unblessed Haibane, she will not be angry at us for making her think she was..."

If she did, Aoi would never trust her again, or Rakka. And it still did seem to be true that she could find herself trapped, and face that old man lecturing her on that stupid "Circle of Sin" riddle.

"I don't think so," Rakka's answer surprised Reki. "She seemed to accept what she might be." She reached down and touched Aoi's long braid, holding back only at the last moment, mindful of her bloody hands.

"Reki, I remember how terrified I was when my wings began to turn black. I didn't know what was happening. I cut my feathers. I wanted to disappear permanently. You came and took care of me again. I'll never forget that. You told me what to expect and kept me from disappearing again. I clung to that somehow. Aoi here was so determined to overcome it. She seems the type who'd be grateful you tried to prepare her, instead of leaving her to drown in her pain blindly."

Reki stared at her, then turned her head aside fast. She had to. She couldn't show Rakka she had felt tears stinging her eyes. Tears she didn't want to feel.

"I hope you are right," she said. She hid her tears, and blinked them back, but her voice sounded extremely vulnerable at that moment. Rakka did not miss this.

"Come on, Reki," she said gently. "Let's clean her wings before they stain."

Reki's eyes were tearless when she looked back at Rakka. She just nodded, and arose from her chair to go collect the bowl of water and brush she'd use to rinse Aoi's wings free of blood.

She came back a moment later to find Rakka already gently sponging Aoi's back free of the blood that had coursed down them. There were fresh bloodstains on the carpet surrounding the bed, and the damp spots on her red winter dress told Reki that her clothes had been hit by blood as well.

"Rakka, when you go finish there, you might want to run and change your dress, and set it in cold water before those stains become permanent," she advised. "Go put on your seifuku for now. This room is warm enough."

Rakka nodded. "I'll come back and help you finish cleaning her wings. You told me this takes time and I should learn how."

"It is simple enough, just intensive," answered Reki. "I'll still have plenty to do when you get back."

Rakka nodded her head. "All right."

Reki, meanwhile, set the bowl of water up in front of her, on the nightstand. She dipped the brush in the water and carefully caught a twitching, bloody wing, holding it still. Very carefully, she began to brush the wings, using the water to make them clean.

She paused after a moment, though, concerned by how hard and ragged Aoi was breathing, even unconscious. She did have a rather frail appearance.

Reki's concern, though, eased a bit when she reached over and touched Aoi's hot forehead again. She was probably breathing heavily more because of the high fever than anything.

Laying that worry aside, she went on cleaning the wing she had started on.

It took her some time to even make a dent in all the blood and grease that soaked the feathers through. When Rakka came hurrying back inside the room, clad in her sailor dress, Reki was only just starting to get to the true color of Aoi's left wing.

"Wow, it really does take a long time," Rakka marveled, watching Reki.

"Yes," answered Reki. "Would you mind sponging off her back a little more? It is still oozing a bit of blood here and there. It should stop very soon though."

"All right," Rakka answered, going to obey her. The sound of the brush followed her into the kitchen as she went for a new, clean cloth. The other was beyond use.

Reki continued to brush the wings, when she suddenly saw something that made her heart contract. Her hand trembled and she stopped brushing the wing.

Quickly she looked at the window. The sun was streaming in full force, going down the western horizon. The room was very bright.

She looked at the wing again, and wondered if she could handle this. Surely she couldn't..."Rakka, come here."

Rakka was just returning with the cloth. "Reki, what's wrong?"

"Rakka, loan me a feather, would you?" asked Reki.

"Huh? Why?" asked Rakka, although she was already obeying.

"I need to make sure of something," Reki answered. With a small grimace of discomfort, Rakka pulled a feather free and handed it to her.

She held the gray feather against the small part of Aoi's wing that she had managed to clean. "Can you see a difference?" she asked quietly. "This is to make sure my eyes aren't decieving me."

Rakka, puzzled, bent in close, then drew in a sharp breath.

Rakka's feather was that light charcoal gray. The feathers showing under Aoi's blood were lighter in contrast.

They weren't gray.

They were white.

"You were not seeing things, Reki..." Rakka whispered. She trembled. "Her wings look white."

"I...I don't know what to make of this." Reki took a shuddering breath, feeling like a knife had twisted the heart she had worked so hard to turn to stone. Automatically she began cleaning the wings once more.

"I thought she wasn't sin-bound!" whispered Rakka, starting to sponge Aoi's back. "Her wings are still different!"

"They aren't black, though," answered Reki. The clean area on Aoi's wing was larger now and there was no mistake about it: The feathers were white.

"If black is sin-bound, what about white, then?" inquired Rakka.

"I don't know. I've never heard of it," answered Reki. The strange, oddly fathomless look she'd seen in Aoi's eyes just before she fainted came back to her, and she felt and odd, cold frission run down her spine.

"Surely if those born sin-bound happen from time to time, so do those with white wings," said Rakka. Washi had never mentioned this to her, either.

"I just don't know on this," answered Reki. "I don't have answers for this, nor do I know how the others will take it. I can't use the dye on these wings. They are for black feathers, not white ones. It won't make any difference here. Nemu might accuse me of overdoing it and bleaching her wings or something."

"I'll tell her you didn't," assured Rakka. "We have to find out what it means."

"There's no help for it," answered Reki, forcing her pain down and her pounding heart to ease. "I dont want to, but I'll ask the Renmei."

"Maybe white won't be so bad," Rakka offered optimistically.

"I don't know how the town will react to it, no," answered Reki. "If there isn't a dye availible to change her wing color to gray, then there is no other choice but for her to bear it."

Rakka swallowed back any further words. She could only hold on to her optimisim. White was the opposite of black. Maybe it wasn't as terrible.

Reki just kept brushing the wing, and rinsing the blood off in the bowl. These white wings were such a stark contrast to the black spots on hers. Was fate mocking her? One last laugh at her before her darkness engulfed her? How could she bear this latest insult tossed at her?

It was the worst bitter bile she was sure she could not accept in the end.

Her black eyes drifted to Aoi's still, fever-red face, and instantly she felt contrite for her thoughts.

Aoi hadn't done anything to deserve having her wings different, now had she? Yet the color stamped her different even as Reki's own black spots did. It didn't matter how the townspeople reacted in the end. Every time Aoi looked in the mirror, she would know she wasn't like the others, and it would set her apart.

The thought calmed Reki's pounding heart, and suddenly she could breathe easily once more. She'd not let herself hate Aoi, and worsen her own sin. And she hoped that in the end, she would cease feeling jealous, because Aoi was still as different from the others as she was.

She stopped and reached over, touching Aoi's fever-hot forehead. Whatever it was, however frail Aoi looked, she seemed strong. She'd bear it, just like Reki had to.

Reki held onto the comforting thought as she cleaned off all the blood on the wing, so it glimmered faintly in the light.

Midpoint through the intense cleaning, Aoi found herself dragged painfully back to consciousness.

Her back and sides were on fire. She could feel a foriegn twitching shooting through there as well. Dimly, she realized it had to be her wings.

Reki heard a faint moan, and Aoi's fever-bright eyes slowly opened.

"Mmn...Reki? Rakka?" she asked weakly.

"We're here," answered Reki gently. "We're just cleaning your wings."

"My wings...?"

"Yes," answered Reki. "They came out just fine, if you can't remember."

"I...I do..." she said softly. Even with her fever, the memories of today came back to her, crystal clear. "Are...are they...did you already?..."

Reki smiled a gentle smile at her. "You should be glad to know there was no black on your wings," she said encouragingly.

"No black?..." Aoi tried to follow this. "Does that mean...I'm not...sin-bound?"

"It is a good sign so far," answered Reki. "I do hope you forgive me if I scared you too badly telling you about unblessed Haibane. I wanted to prepare you, but I might have overdone it."

Aoi blinked, and smiled at her faintly. "No. I understand. You wanted to protect me."

On the other side of them both, Rakka sighed with relief. Aoi wasn't angry.

"There are still issues," contined Reki, comforted by the understanding look in Aoi's blue eyes. "You still have an incomplete cocoon dream, like Rakka did."

Aoi paused. "I remember...what she said," she murmured. "So I could still..."

"I don't know what is going on at the moment," answered Reki. "It may be possible, or it may not be. Your wings don't have black, but they are still a little unusual, Aoi. They aren't grey, they are white."

"White?" Aoi's eyes widened. "My wings are white? What does white mean?"

"I'm afraid I don't know," answered Reki. "Neither does Rakka, and she works at the Haibane Renmei temple."

"White..." Aoi struggled to accept this latest bit of information...she was so tired it was difficult to do. "If black is so bad, what about Haibane then with white wings?"

"It hasn't happened in my time here," answered Reki. "I cannot say how you will be recieved by the townspeople. But don't worry about it until we know what the Renmei tells us, all right?"

"It still means...I am different, right?" Aoi said slowly.

Reki nodded her head yes.

"Don't worry about anything more right now," she advised. "Just think about yourself and your health. Your fever is too high for you to be doing any worrying."

"Aoi," Rakka cut in, coming into Aoi's view, "Whatever the others think, I believe in you. I won't let you stand alone. So don't worry, okay?" She smiled brightly, optimistically.

Reki blinked, and took a deep breath upon hearing this. "And neither will I," she promised. If Aoi was fated to suffer, even with white wings, she could not let her do so alone. Maybe...just maybe...she had a steadying hand in her darkness after all.

She could not rely on it until she knew what the Renmei had to say on the matter of white wings.

Whatever the case, she'd still try, one last time, to be a good Haibane, like Kuramori. No bet, like with Rakka. She'd do this just because it needed to be done.

Aoi's eyes shone brightly. "Then I will not worry," she whispered. "I cannot worry, if I'm surrounded by friends like you."

Reki gave her another serene smile. "We'll take care of you, I promise," she assured Aoi. "Now go back to sleep. When you wake back up, you should be a new person."

Aoi smiled faintly, and her eyes drifted shut.

She slept soundly all the rest of the afternoon, and all that night, her body taking the time to begin healing.

Dawn was just streaking the skies over Glie when Aoi awoke. Surprised, she lifted her head and looked around.

Reki was still in her chair beside her, sitting leaning over the back of it. Her arms had crossed over the top of the chair, and she'd fallen asleep that way.

Did she watch over me the whole night? Strangely touched, Aoi got up on her elbows, suppressing a sharp hiss as dull pain shot through her body.

She looked over on her right. Rakka had obviously fallen asleep on the other edge of the bed. From the way she slept Aoi figured she probably had not meant to fall asleep there but tiredness had overcome her at some point. She wasn't wearing her red dress, either. She was wearing a seifuku.

Aoi found she felt extremely light. Her body no longer felt hot.

"And just like magic, you are fine," said Reki's voice, causing Aoi to look back at her and smile.

"How do you feel?" Reki asked when Aoi smiled at her.

"I feel much better, like I could fly," Aoi answered. It was true. While she knew she had suffered terrible pain the day before, it was like a distant memory now. She still hurt but it wasn't like having your skin ripped open.

"Well, your wings won't do that, I'm afraid," answered Rakka, waking up herself. "They aren't big enough."

Aoi laughed softly. "Well, I feel very light," she admitted. "Is it okay to get up? I would like to move around."

Reki grinned. "I think you are safe now," she assured her. "Rakka didn't want to stay in bed either the morning after her wings grew."

She stood up, stretching a moment, and feeling vaguely crampy from her odd chair-sleeping position. Aoi managed to sit up and made sure her robe was back on her shoulders where it belonged. She was surprised to find generous amounts of gauze wrapped and taped around her upper body.

"I had to bind your upper body with gauze," said Reki. "Although you didn't awaken. Your back was still bleeding a little bit. You should have scabs by now, and can remove the gauze when you go clean up."

Aoi nodded, letting Reki reach under her braid to carefully tie the strings in back, holding the gown in place. "For now, let's get you on your feet."

She took Aoi's pale hand, and Rakka came over to take her other one. Carefully, unsteadily, Aoi rose to her feet.

Reki had been right in her guess. She was taller than Rakka, and just a shade taller than Hikari. Certainly physically she was older than Rakka. She was at least as old as Kana, if not slightly older. It was hard to tell exactly for sure. Too early for that. Maybe only a couple years at most younger than Nemu and herself.

Reki let go of her hand and stepped back to get a good look at her. In the early-morning dawn, Aoi stood tall, pale, her eyes a dark blue in her face, and her wings gleamed in the light.

Yes. A newborn Haibane, on her feet and ready to go, which was as it should be.

Almost immediately there was a gentle knock on the door.

"It's Nemu," said the voice from beyond. "I've brought the dress for Aoi, Reki."

Reki took a steadying breath. Here we go.

"Come in," she called. Rakka reached over and squeezed Aoi's hand reassuringly.

The door opened, and Nemu came into the room, holding an item of clothing in her hands, and simple indoor sandals on top of those.

"Good, you are up, Aoi," she said cheerfully. "I hope these clothes fit you. It is all we can spare until we can get you to the thrift shop, you understand."

"I understand," Aoi said. Yes. She'd be grateful for whatever they could spare right now.

"This is rather a summer dress, so we definetly have to get you winterwear," Nemu went on, looking directly at Aoi. She suddenly stopped and came closer.

"Oh my," she whispered, making it crystal clear she had noticed Aoi's wings. Her normally sleepy look was gone for the moment, and she was wide-eyed with surprise. Slowly she came over and walked around Aoi, not able to believe her eyes.

"Reki, I know you brought in dye and don't deny it," she said accusingly. "Did you overdo it and bleach this poor girl's wings?"

"No," answered Reki calmly. "I didn't have to use it. She had no black spots as I feared."

"I was afraid of it too, a little bit," admitted Nemu. "Are you telling me her wings grew this way?"

Aoi, white with fear, just nodded before Reki could reply.

Nemu was silent for several seconds before reaching over and touching Aoi's damp feathers.

"Well..." she mused. "Beings as your cocoon dream is not complete, it must still mean something. We'll have to ask the Renmei. But otherwise..." she drew back and looked Aoi over. "I don't think you look so bad, myself. They're kind of pretty."

Reki tried not to scowl. "You were afraid of me, you know."

"Who hasn't heard tales then of those born with black wings? I learned to look past that foolish nonsense and be friends with Reki, not the Girl With The Black Wings," said Nemu impatiently.

"I worry about how the townspeople will react to her," fretted Reki. "I know of no way to make white wings gray."

"I can't say for sure either," answered Nemu. "Maybe it won't be so bad. They will stare, but Aoi, your wings are white, not black, so it might not leave the same impression. Only time will tell."

"Come what may, I'll face it when it happens," Aoi said softly.

Nemu smiled and handed her the clothing. "Here. Go and clean up, then put this on and see if it fits. If you are up to it, maybe we can arrange for some of us to take you to town today as well. The Renmei will eventually summon you anyways, and you can't go in that white robe."

"All this talk of the Renmei, yet none of you have told me who they are," Aoi remarked, accepting the clothing bundle.

"I see we haven't," laughed Rakka, relieved at Nemu's acceptance of Aoi. "We'll tell you when you come back."

Aoi walked, unsteadily at first, to the bathroom also attached to another part of this large room. Inside, she carefully removed her newborn's robe, the gauze bandages, and unbraided her long hair.

She felt she didn't feel much emotionally at the moment, except gratitude that Nemu had not seen fit to turn away from her.

There were cleaning supplies in here, and with some difficulty, due to soreness, she managed to clean her body.

Finally, she reached for the dress and the sandals. She slipped the latter on, and wondered how Nemu had managed to produce a fitting pair when surely she hadn't had a good look at her feet.

Aoi then held out the dress. A soft blue, it had long sleeves but a fairly wide neck, and was made of thin material. Thin white lace adorned the collar, cuffs, and around the hem. A slightly darker blue band was meant to go around the waist.

Aoi turned it over. In the back were two slits, presumably for her wings.

The wings on her own back twitched, for they seemed to have minds of their own. Aoi wasn't sure how to make them behave, but obviously the others did. It was probably something that happened over time.

Carefully, painfully she pulled the dress over her head and struggled for a moment. The halo bobbing on her head didn't help matters.

Finally, after several seconds, she managed to make her head pop up where it should be. Maybe it was just pure luck, but with a little force she managed to make her wings burst through the slits a moment later as well, ignoring the pain as best she could.

"There," she whispered. Opening her eyes, she noticed the mirror.

She'd taken great care to avoid looking into it before now, for reasons she could not explain.

Now, however, she looked, turning to the side so she got a good look at the white wings glimmering faintly on her back.

Surely they didn't look so bad. The difference was not too stark between her and the other Haibane until you got closer, while she imagined black on those wings could be spotted from a long distance away.

Her eyes strayed to the rest of her. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting to see. How could she when she couldn't remember her former life?

Still, as she stared at her own dark blue eyes and dark red hair, she had an odd feeling that it was fine; she was supposed to be this way.

She was a bit askance at noticing how pale she was, and her slender build made her look positively frail. She had no idea how strong she really was but wasn't too sure she liked how it would probably make people think she was of delicate health...unless she truly was and didn't know it yet.

Other than that, her features seemed normal enough. There was nothing odd or strange about her face or form that she could discern.

Above all of it, her halo glowed brightly above her head. Aoi had no idea of what strange force held it there, not falling and yet not moving away either.

Her red curls swung loosely about her, more in the way than anything. Aoi picked up a brush she found, and the red tie that had held her braid together before. Slowly she began to work the brush through the mass, smoothing out lingering tangles. To braid it behind her back would be a torture she didn't care to face, so she pulled it all to the side and braided it over her left shoulder instead.

"Reki, time to keep your promise!"

A sudden chorus of little voices made Aoi stop in surprise, just as she finished braiding her hair. Children?

Of course, hadn't she heard mention of Young Feathers?

She heard laughter and a scampering of little feet, and Reki scolding gently about opening the door without permission.

"We wanna see her now," came a tiny, female voice, followed by a boy's voice.

"Hana's right! Is she up yet?"

"She'll be out in a minute, Shorta. She's dressing."

Are they that eager to see a new girl? Aoi thought absently. Strangely she wasn't nervous about meeting little ones, but--and again she could not explain how she knew--children were usually far less judgemental than adults.

Aoi tiptoed out of the bathroom and peeked around the corner that led into the guest room. Two children were merrily running races around a rather exasperated Reki. Both sported small wings, and halos above their heads.

It was a cute sight, enough for Aoi to chuckle to herself.

The little girl looked over at her, and skidded to a halt. Suddenly very shy, she held on to Reki's skirt.

It made Reki notice and look up. "Hey," she smiled. "Does it fit?"

"It seems to fit well enough," Aoi answered softly, stepping fully into view.

Reki smiled at her. "That's good. It is something to wear anyways."

"She's gonna freeze in that," piped up the little boy, watching Aoi with surprised eyes. "How come girls sometimes like to wear dresses instead of pants? My legs would be icicles!"

"It is a girl thing, Shorta," answered Reki, clearly amused.

"Dai's gonna be jealous!" crowed Shorta, changing the subject fast in his typical fashion. "He's still stuck at Abandoned Factory! We got to see the new girl first!"

Aoi smiled to herself. She walked over, spying a tiny face peeping from behind Reki's skirt. It was tpyical of Hana to be bold one minute and super shy the next.

She bent down so she was nearly at eye level with the timid brown eyes that threatened to duck back behind Reki's skirt at any moment.

"Hi there," she smiled.

The friendly voice drew Hana's head further around Reki's skirt. "Hi," she said in a small voice. "You the new girl?"

"Yes," answered Aoi. "You come all the way down here to meet me? Because I sure would like to meet you."

"It is fun meeting a new girl," answered Hana, her shyness fast disappearing as she finally stepped around Reki's skirt. "I'm Hana."

"Hana," Aoi repeated. "Did you dream about flowers, Hana?"

"No," she asserted, which puzzled Aoi. "I like flowers and want to be a florist. So I'm Hana!"

"The Young Feathers don't have any respect for the naming traditions of the Haibane," Reki explained, still very amused by the children's antics.

"Well," Aoi looked thoughtful. "I'd say a dream for the future is still a good way to pick a name."

"That's right!" asserted Hana. She let go of Reki's skirt and stepped closer to Aoi, looking her over and quickly spying her wings.

"Wow!" she exclaimed. "I want white wings like that, Reki!"

Shorta was over there in an instant, pushing to see. "Hey, how'd she get white wings!"

"Maybe she painted them!"

"Reki, get us some white paint! We want white wings!"

"I'll paint flowers on my wings too!"

"That's silly, Hana!"

"No arguing, you two," Reki shook her head, clearly exasperated. "And don't paint your wings. The housemother would kill me later."

"Oh, her?" shrugged Shorta. "We ducked away from her. We wanted to see the new girl. Say, what's your name anyways?"

"My name is Aoi," she answered him.

"Why?" he demanded. "Did you dream about a blue dress?"

Aoi couldn't contain it; she sank onto the bed laughing merrily. "No. But I did dream about an ocean of blue, that wasn't wet."

"All the storybooks say an ocean is full of water, and water is definitely wet!" Shorta asserted.

"Not in my dream, it wasn't," she assured him.

He paused. "Well, I guess," he shrugged. "It was just a dream, wasn't it?"

"I'll get the little ones back to the Housemother," chuckled Nemu, who had been listening to this the whole time, and finding most of it funny. "She'll make them eat carrots with their breakfast again if I don't."

"Heaven forbid," Reki called after her. The two little ones waved goodbye and, laughing, ran merrily in front of Nemu out the door and down the hall.

Aoi laughed lightly from the bed where she still sat. "Those are some of the Young Feathers, are they?" was her comment. "They're adorable."

"And some of the worst mischief makers one could ever encounter," said Reki, but she was smiling. "I'm used to them. You see, that has been my job here at Old Home for the past several years. Taking care of the newborn Haibane, or when somebody is sick, and helping the Housemother with the kids otherwise."

Rakka had to bite her tongue to admit that, until they had found Aoi's cocoon, Reki had been pushing several of her responsibilities off on to others--as if she was preparing to leave.

"I imagine Kana and Hikari will be in here very soon," she said instead. "I think they would have gone to town to pick up some breakfast...or at least Hikari. If Kana gets too much into her mechanics this morning, expect her to be--rushed."

"That is Kana with her clocks, but I'm sure Hikari at least went to town," Reki cast a quick glance at the large veranda windows, and at the soft snow outside. "It is a warm morning for winter, and the kitchen isn't much of an option when I'm taking care of a new Haibane."

Aoi blushed a little. Reki chuckled at seeing the uncertain look on her face.

"This room has always drawn people," she explained. "When we gather it is always in here. You, however, Aoi, may use the room as long as you like. You can pick out a new room anytime as well, when you are ready. Old Home is immense."

"Okay," Aoi nodded her head. Just what was this place where she had been born into? It was hard to picture. It was so strange, remembering practical matters and yet all her memories having to do with this one room.

Quietly she stood up and walked over to the veranda windows, to get her first look outdoors, through the glass.

The outside veranda did indeed show the signs of winter--snow all over everything. But from Aoi's limited perspective through the window it offered an immense view that called to her.

Unfortunately the thin material of her dress was what kept her from wanting to step outside more. Still, it was enough to trigger something...a sensation from deep within her. She didn't know this place at all. Wherever she had been on the outside world, nothing she had ever done, no place she had ever gone, had crossed paths with this isolated town.

Reki watched her stare out the window for several moments. "Don't worry," she said at last. "We'll get you outside as soon as possible. You'll get a better impression of Glie then."

"I'm back," called a voice, and there was a light knock on the door. "I picked up some breakfast. Is Aoi up and around, Reki?"

"Come in, Hikari," answered Reki. "Aoi is fine."

Aoi tensed slightly, but swallowed. Until she faced Hikari's reaction, she'd really know nothing.

Reki gave her a reassuring smile as Hikari came in, loaded down with bags and followed by Nemu.

"Thanks, Nemu," Hikari said as she entered. "I'm glad you came along just now; these were heavy."

"Glad to help," said Nemu. "Didn't you get an awful lot of food, Hikari?"

"I work at a bakery, you know. I stopped by there too, and when I told them we had a new Feather, they gave me some extra goodies to welcome her with."

"Well isn't that sweet?" chuckled Nemu.

Hikari set her packages down on the table before looking up, notincing Aoi by the windows.

"Oh, hi!" she exclaimed. "How are you feeling? How's the fever?"

"It was gone by the time I woke up this morning," Aoi answered, blushing..

"I'm glad of that," Hikari chirped, giving Aoi the distinct impression that this was someone who often had a lot of energy to spare. "And you look very nice in that dress."

"Thank you," Aoi answered.

"I am going to have to get you some wing covers made as soon as possible though," said Hikari thoughtfully, beginning to open bags and remove a number of take-out packages as she did so. "Keep your wings warm and dry. No coat can really do that."

"She'll need a coat first," Reki remarked.

Hikari chuckled. "I see. Well, we'll get you to town as quickly as we can then. Get you outfitted for winter, that is, if you don't freeze on the way."

"I hope not," Aoi answered, strangely rather starting to like this particular Haibane. This was one who always seemed to look for the sliver lining in things.

Aoi, however, still felt very tense. Hikari was also apparently not one to pay very close attention to details, or she'd have noticed by now that something was definetly...odd about her. She was certainly standing close enough.

"Um, would you like me to help?" Aoi asked. The last thing she wanted to do was stand still right now.

"Well, certainly, if you want to," answered Hikari. "Nemu's already bringing out plates but she can show you where things are."

Aoi nodded as Nemu set down plates and smiled at her. She quickly followed the older Haibane back into the kitchen.

"Hikari's a little shortsighted," whispered Nemu as she rattled around in the cupboards for cups. "She jumps headfirst into things, but she'll notice eventually. But she's very kind, and I don't think she'll be mean about it. She's not that type."

"And Kana?" Aoi whispered back. She looked a little askance. "Nemu, would I be a coward if I were to tell you that I'm kind of...afraid?"

"I take it Reki told you what a sin-bound Haibane was," Nemu murmured. At Aoi's nod, she said, "I don't think you are, but white wings are still different. I just don't know. And you are not a coward. Genuine fear has little to do with cowardice. I was afraid of Reki at first, but it was cowardly of me to not attempt to accept Reki for who she was, either. I had to learn. Reki will never overcome her own problems if she is ostracized as well. However, what I tell you here, remains here, all right?"

Aoi nodded. "I understand."

Aoi had just set the last porcelain cup on the table when she heard a distinct thump.

She looked up to see Hikari staring at her with wide eyes, and a slightly wary expression.

"I thought it was just the light a little while ago," Hikari murmured. "Aoi?"

Aoi swallowed momentarily, then straightened up and faced Hikari fully, clasping her hands in front of her in an unconscious, nonthreatening gesture. "Hikari?"

Hikari opened her mouth, then shut it again. She looked at the others, who were all also watching her, waiting for her reaction. Nobody else had so much as pointed out Aoi's wings for any reason. Did they see no cause to do so?

Hikari closed her eyes, then opened them once more. "If you like, I'll show you how to take wing measurements later and how to make wing covers," she offered. "We can work on them together. Is that all right with you?"

Aoi blushed pink, and Hikari noticed her whole body seemed to relax. She smiled. "I don't know if I can sew, but I can try."

Hikari smiled. "That's wonderful. Wings can absorb moisture so we should make them quickly. Now, let's set out the rest of this breakfast before Kana comes storming in here with her usual lack of manners, shall we? Especially if she considers herself 'late'."

Aoi chuckled and did as Hikari asked. She kept the fact she was still troubled to herself, for now, and not so much because Kana still had to see her wings. Hikari's reaction was more of someone who hadn't known at all how to respond.

After she thought about it for a while, would her attitude change?

"I'm starved!" Kana announced as she came striding into the room. "I hope you got good takeout, Hikari."

"What?" Reki idly mocked. "No rushing in to choke on croissants, Kana?"

"Oh please," Kana rolled her eyes and ignored Reki's snickering. "I can be on time for breakfast once in a while, sheesh. Master also knows we have a new Feather."

"Don't you return to work today?" asked Nemu quickly as Kana flopped unceremoniously into one of the chairs.

"Yes, but a bit later than I normally go in. I'm surprised Master was so generous."

"He was generous enough the last time, too," Nemu reminded her as she set down plates of food in front of everybody, and more on platters in the center of the table. "He's an old man, and I'm sure he's dealt with many Haibane over his lifetime."

"He's an old bear," grumbled Kana.

"He was nice enough to me," Rakka volunteered with a grin.

"Yeah, you were the guest, I am the one who answers to him all day," muttered Kana, but then she smiled and looked quickly at Aoi. "Pretty soon you should find a job too, Aoi. I did mention yesterday I'd show you where I worked. Spending time where everyone works to find a job you like is a good idea."

"Where does everyone work, besides you at the clock tower, Kana?"

"Nemu works in the library, where she works on the books in between naps," Kana grinned over Nemu's threatening look. "Reki generally helps care for the kids and such here at Old Home, and Hikari works at a bakery. Rakka works with the Haibane Renmei, much to my own surprise. Any of that appeal to you?"

Aoi blinked. "Um, I don't know," she said quickly, surprised. "None of you have even told me what the Haibane Renmei are."

"They are the group that garauntees our living," answered Kana. "Haibane Renmei means Charcoal Feather Federation. It is they who oversee the payment of our expenses for Old Home, and in return we work for the town."

Aoi blinked at her. In a way that made sense, and in a way it didn't. "You are saying the town pays for the Haibane's living, and in return, we work for them?"

Kana nodded. "We're not allowed to recieve any money from our work," she explained. "And where we can work is very limited. We use the Notebooks of the Haibane Renmei to buy things. I expect you'll be recieving one in a day or so, Aoi."

Aoi didn't get a chance to ask what the Notebook was. Kana looked at her directly, blinked, and rubbed her eyes.

"Oookay," she muttered. "I'm used to waking up early. I can't be seeing things here. What in the world--"

Abruptly Kana left her seat and came around the table to where Aoi was sitting, needing to take a closer look.

Aoi felt herself grip the sides of her chair as Kana came up behind her. There was a tense silence before Kana whistled.

"Wow...white wings!"

"Yes, Aoi has white wings," Nemu said impassively, as if the fact were of no concern to her. She went on sipping her tea as if nothing was wrong.

"And nobody thought to point it out to me?" Kana demanded, returning to her chair with a thump.

Is it a big deal to you, then, Kana?" asked Reki, her tone cool.

"I...uh..." Kana sighed and dropped her chin into her hand, still staring at Aoi, who inadvertently leaned back in her chair. "I've never heard of a Haibane with white wings before," she mumbled.

"Yes, well, none of us have," Nemu's tone was still that of someone totally unconcerned.

"You're going to ask the Renmei, right?" asked Kana anxiously. "Because I've never heard of white wings, but I've also heard the townspeople tell stories of--"

"We know what the townspeople say on that," interrupted Nemu. "But I for one am not going to let this bother me. The Renmei will be consulted, but in the meantime, don't let what you see affect how Aoi appeals to you as a friend, sister, and fellow Haibane."

"Ah...well no, I guess not," Kana finally admitted. "I don't suppose that'd be very fair."

She felt Reki's foot nudge her under the table. Kana got the hint.

"Uh...I'm sorry, Aoi," she said quickly. "I was surprised, that's all."

"It is all right," Aoi said, although her face was very red by now and regaining eye contact with Kana was difficult. She made herself do so. Kana had just been shocked, she told herself.

"Aoi...I'm sorry too," Hikari put in sadly. Aoi blinked and looked over at her.

"Why, Hikari? You seemed kind about it, even when you were surprised."

"I know," Hikari nodded. "And...I tried to be. I just didn't know what to think though, and shut it out of my mind for a little while. Nemu is right, you know."

"I imagine life is full of a lot of shocks," Aoi said quietly. "I suppose we can only deal with them the best we can, right?"

Hikari smiled. "But of course!" she said brightly, all traces of sadness now completely gone.

Aoi blinked. Boy, she sure changes moods pretty fast!

"But..." Kana spoke once more, her face a mask of concentration. "How will the townspeople take it? At the very least they'll stare and point at Aoi."

"I'll take it when it comes," said Aoi softly.

Kana looked at her.

"You talk brave, at least. It must be harder than it looks, taking all of that. I'm sure that such a thing would have happened before. If the townspeople know of Haibane who--"

"Kana!" scolded Nemu.

"You know what I mean, Nemu! My point is Aoi can't be the first Haibane ever born with white wings either. If none of us have ever heard of it, then it probably only means that it hasn't happened for some years prior to the time any of us ever appeared, that's all."

Nemu's face remained fairly stern as she took a sip of tea, but inside she knew Kana's observation was indeed very accurate.

Hikari decided to change the subject entirely and dispel the mood that still lingered. "If Aoi's wings are fully dry by the time breakfast ends, then let's all go to town!" she suggested. "Aoi needs better clothes than what she has."

"We'll have to make use of the bikes and Reki's scooter," answered Nemu. "I don't mind walking so much but Aoi can't walk into town in winter, in that thin dress with nothing else."

"That is true," answered Hikari.

After breakfast, Nemu set out to see what she could do to keep Aoi at least partially covered long enough to get her to town. She hoped she was lucky enough in this endeavor, since Aoi's apparent frailness concerned her.

Everyone else also scattered to get ready for the trip to town.

Nemu soon appeared back in the guest room with a carefully wrapped package, and a pair of shoes on top of them.

"These shoes are the closest to your size I could find, Aoi," she said, handing them to the surprised girl. "They used to belong to a friend of mine."

"Let me guess; Sumika?" asked Reki, amused.

Nemu just smiled, but Reki knew her comment had been accurate.

The shoes were a shiny black, and buttoned up the sides instead of tying. They looked very old-fashioned, but Aoi liked them at once. When she tried them on, they mostly fit. Half a size too large was, she figured, close enough.

"It'll give you enough room for stockings once we get you some," said Nemu with a smile.

"What is in the package?" asked Reki. "It looks like you haven't opened that one in years, Nemu. That wrapping looks old."

"It is," said Nemu, and she suddenly looked sad, much to Reki's surprise. "But...I think it is appropriate. It'll at least keep Aoi warmer for today. After that, if you object, I'll put it away again, Reki."

"What are you talking about?" Reki asked, even more surprised now.

Nemu didn't answer directly. She unwrapped the package carefully, and tenderly lifted from it a beautiful red shoulder cape that buttoned in the front and had a small gold-colored design near the fringe all around.

Reki felt like she would swallow her tongue. She'd not seen that in many, many years.


"All I could find," interrupted Nemu. "Because we all want to go to town, don't we?" She smiled. "I too wanted to keep something of Kuramori's, you know."

"But..." stuttered Reki, totally at a loss for words.

"If it truly bothers you, then Aoi won't need it after one trip," answered Nemu softly.

There was pain in Reki's eyes, and Nemu could see it.

So did Aoi.

"It is pretty," she said softly. "But if it hurts Reki, I won't wear it. I'll freeze first, although I don't know who Kuramori is."

"Kuramori was...a Haibane from our childhood," answered Nemu as Reki strode over to the veranda windows and stared outside. "She is gone now, though. But after I discovered Reki's existence, she was the one who managed to get to Reki and her cocoon."

She glanced at Reki, knowing her actions had brought the past back for her dark-eyed friend.

Reki, hearing this, smiled to herself, despite the pain she forced down so it would not appear on her face. Nemu had tried to amend the truth for her sake. She turned around.

"It is all right," she said softly. "Aoi, I won't let you freeze on the trip up there. It will help a little bit till you get a coat at least."

Nemu gave her a grateful smile, and between them passed a silent, apologetic look. Reki knew Nemu hadn't meant to be unkind in any way.

Nemu held up the shoulder cape and shook it out, lightly and carefully. Aoi backed away from her.

"Is it really all right?" she murmured. "I don't want--"

"It is all right," insisted Reki. "Put it on, Aoi."

Reluctant now, Aoi reached out and accepted the garment from Nemu. It felt warm and, up close, was indeed quite pretty. In the back she could see wing slits--if she could make her disobedient wings work. They still twitched.

Carefully Aoi drew the garment over her shoulders, closing her eyes and struggling to bring her wings under control. They twitched stubbornly, and Reki came up behind her and held the bottom of the garment in place.

"Be careful," she advised. "You still have scabs. We don't want to hurt your wings."

"You all can control yours," Aoi murmured in her turn. "Why can't I?"

"Don't worry," said Reki kindly. "You'll be able to soon. It is like that way at first for all of us. In a few days your wings should obey you well enough."

"I see," Aoi said softly, then closed her eyes once more, willing her wings to behave.

Finally they did, and burst through the wing slits with minimal feather loss.

Aoi sighed in relief and buttoned the button at the top of the cape, and pulled her braid back over her left shoulder, the way she had braided it.

Flushing, she turned around to face both Nemu and Reki. "Um...is it okay?" she asked.

Nemu smiled. "You look very nice. You'll still be cold on your trip, but the weather outside isn't too bad. We'll get you there before you freeze."

Reki was staring at her for several long seconds, before she suddenly blinked and chimed in. "Yes, it should keep you warm that long," she agreed in a too-cheerful voice. "Come on, Aoi. The others should be at the bulletin board by now."

Aoi nodded, ready to leave this room and its walls, which contained everything she did remember.

Author's note: Aoi's white wings are not inclined to mean what one would think they mean...