By "Clinesterton Beademung", with all of love.
Disclaimer: "Haibane Renmei" © its respective creators and owners. I do this for fun, not profit. So there.
Comments and criticism welcome.
Chapter Two – Visitors
In Old Home, curled up in Kuu's feather bed and cocooned within three layers of wool blankets, Rakka opened her eyes. The window over her bed was a faint gray square that shed no usable light. No moon, no stars, all encloaked and invisible behind snow-bearing clouds. She held her hand in front of her face, felt her fingers move and tried to imagine that she could see them move, too. No luck.
Rakka drew her hand back under the covers, thrust it into the warm spot under her arm, and closed her eyes. Even for winter, it was too early. Her work at the temple didn't start until after noon. Reki had more than a little bit of nerve to get her up at this hour.
Rakka sat upright. Cold air shocked her face and shook sleep from her brain. She sighed. Reki was gone, her Day of Flight almost a year ago.
Rakka steeled herself for the trial to come. When she was ready she slid her feet over the edge of the bed and wiggled them into her slippers, took three steps to the door, grabbed her housecoat from its hook, slid her hands into the sleeves, threaded her wings through the back slits, and cinched the belt tight around her waist. The wing covers were more difficult, but guided by instinct (and an urgent desire not to see her wings frozen off) she put them on in two well-practiced motions.
In her living room Rakka paused at the window, careful to deflect her breath away from the glass with her hand. Descending snowflakes diffused light coming from the guest room, leaving most of the courtyard as feather gray and featureless as the sky. The cold of the last few nights had been terrible, and the sooner more of the stuff came down the better. Snow made an excellent blanket, and when it got deep on the roofs and against the walls their nights would be a little more comfortable. She worried most for the young Feathers, but they had two space heaters all to themselves and Kana made it her responsibility to see they were always lit and full of fuel.
Rakka listened, but heard only the silence unique to wintertime in the walled city. Reki's voice had been a dream, after all. The clock tower across the courtyard lay beyond the meager semicircle of illumination coming from the guest room, and could not be read. Well, it was certainly early, at any rate. Maybe she could sneak down to the kitchen for a cup of cocoa and find out who else was crazy enough to be awake at such an hour.
In the guest room Kana, wrapped head to toe in an old quilt, was sitting at the table. The quilt was speckled with droplets of water that used to be snowflakes. She'd moved the space heater behind her chair. Rakka couldn't blame her.
"Good morning, Kana," Rakka said. The clockmaster's apprentice peered up from under the blanket, and yawned.
"What's good about it?" Kana said. "Colder than a well digger's butt in my room. Hell of a night to be up and around."
In the kitchen Rakka found the cocoa it had cost her, Nemu and Hikari a page each from their voucher books to purchase. They didn't splurge often, but the housemother had given them a thorough scolding on the virtues of frugality, and Rakka was amused and a little frightened to think what sort of talking-to they'd have got from Reki, had she been there. Rakka drew a bottle of milk from the icebox, picked away the ice on the milk's surface with a butter knife, poured two cups' worth into a saucepan, put it on the stove and lit the burner. On the adjacent burner the teapot was steaming.
On her way out Rakka glanced at the battered alarm clock Kana's master had given her last summer. Four-fifteen.
At the table, Rakka sat across from Kana. "You sure I can't make you some cocoa?" she said. "That tea of yours will keep you up all night."
Kana shook her head. "I can't stand milk, I told you that. Especially warm milk."
"You should learn to like it, it's good for you. Besides, cocoa is sweet."
"No-o-o thanks. Just the smell of that crap cooking makes me want to puke."
"You're exaggerating again. And what would the housemother say if she heard you using such foul language?"
Kana smiled, though her eyes were bleary and a bit red. "Hey, when you work with a bunch of guys who swear at machines all day, it's hard not to." She leaned forward. "Wanna hear some really dirty words? I learned a few new ones during the last overhaul."
"Um, no thanks." Two months ago Kana had cut her hand in the Old Home clock tower. The three or four words Kana had added to her vocabulary by then had been more than enough to make her pain and anger plain to anyone within the sound of her profanity-laced shouting. Good thing the housemother had been running an errand in town, and the young Feathers had been down for a nap at the time. The kids looked up to Kana, but Rakka hated the thought of them picking up Kana's bad habits.
A low howl rose to a whistle. Kana gathered her blanket around her and shuffled into the kitchen. The whistle stopped, and Kana emerged holding on a saucer a cup of the strong black tea only Kana and the housemother liked. Kana returned to her seat at the table, drew the rising white vapor into her nose.
"Ahhh," she said, and took a sip. "Nothing better on a cold winter's night. Oh, by the way, I didn't think your milk was warming fast enough, so I turned the heat up as far as it would go."
"Kana!" Rakka shoved back her chair and stood. "You shouldn't do that, it'll burn." On her way to the kitchen Rakka wondered if having evil thoughts and feelings toward another Haibane, even if he or she happened to deserve them, would earn Rakka another sin-bound curse. She found the milk in the saucepan steaming, and the burner set where she had left it. At the table, under her blanket, Kana's shoulders were shaking.
Should've known better, Rakka thought. Maybe another ordeal of black-feathered shame would be worth one or two of Kana's favorite words aimed back at her.
Rakka poured milk into a coffee mug and for a moment considered drinking it plain to get back at Kana. She opened the box and stirred in two heaping scoops of cocoa. She rinsed the spoon under the trickle of water dribbling from the faucet, put the spoon in the sink and rejoined her tormentor at the table.
"That was mean, Kana," she said.
"Sorry," Kana said. "I couldn't resist."
"You should try harder next time." Hikari, wrapped in what appeared to be multiple layered housecoats, leaned on the door handle with one hand and rubbed her eyes with the other. Her face was cross, made even more so by her obvious sleeplessness and her missing eyeglasses. "For heaven's sake, Kana, you need to stop horsing around or you'll wake the twins."
"Yes, Mother Hikari," Kana said, and yawned.
"Good morning, Hikari," Rakka said. "There's warm milk on the stove if you want some cocoa."
"Thank you, Rakka," Hikari said, and padded to the kitchen. She returned with a chipped earthenware mug a customer at her bakery had given her. She sat beside Rakka. "So what are you two doing up so early? It's not even five yet."
"Checked on the kids, couldn't get back to sleep," Kana said.
"Well, that tea certainly isn't going to help," Hikari said. "What about you, Rakka? You're not exactly a morning person."
"Ain't that the truth," Kana said.
"Well, I…" Rakka drank some cocoa. "I guess I thought I heard a noise. And you?"
"Oh," Hikari said. "I…forgot to add an extra blanket to my bedding. The cold woke me up." Hikari tightened her grip on her mug.
"Yes, it's been a terrible winter so far, hasn't it?" Rakka said. "Have either of you seen anything like this?"
"I haven't," Kana said. But I haven't been here as long as old lady Nemu."
"Who's an old lady?"
Rakka turned in her chair. Nemu, clad in three layers of bedclothes, stood in the doorway. Nemu yawned as only Nemu could, with mouth wide open and jaw cracking on its bony hinges.
"You are," Kana said. "And if you're up this early, then I must be dreaming."
"Kana, be nice," Hikari said. "We're all tired and grouchy. No need to make it worse."
"I'm fine, Hikari," Nemu said, and sat beside Kana. She yawned again. "Maybe Kana's bad temper will keep me warm."
"So what are you doing up, sleepyhead?" Kana said. "Did you dream you were awake and sleepwalk over here?"
Nemu smiled. "As strange as it sounds, you're not far from the truth. I was dreaming it was spring. I was standing at my window, looking down into the courtyard, and I saw Reki. I thought she was walking to the entrance, off on some errand or other I suppose, but she was just standing there. I waved to her. She didn't wave back, but she raised her arm, pointing at the south gate. Then I woke up." Nemu looked at each of them. "Next thing I remember, I'm standing at the window, wide awake."
Rakka took a long drink of cocoa. Hikari and Kana looked at each other.
"That's kind of scary," Hikari said. Her eyes were wide. Rakka felt her shudder through the table.
"Yeah, I was only kidding," Kana said, looking frightened herself. "You're not telling us a ghost story just to get back at me, are you?"
"No," Nemu said. "That's exactly what happened. What about the rest of you? Did you…?"
Rakka looked into her empty cup. "I did, a little," she said. "But not like you, Nemu. I just thought I heard her voice."
"I guess," Hikari said, "I guess I did, too." She pulled her housecoats close around her. "Now I'm really scared."
"Come on, you guys, don't be silly," Kana said. "It's just a coincidence."
Hikari's brow wrinkled. "Oh? I'll bet you dreamt of Reki, too, and are too proud to admit it."
"No, I'm not," Kana said. Hikari scowled, crossed her arms. "That is, I mean, even if I did dream about Reki a little, it doesn't mean anything. Does it, Rakka?"
Rakka got up from the table. And just as with Nemu, as if lost in a half-dream, she was a little surprised to find herself standing at the balcony doors.
"Rakka, what is it?" Hikari said. "What are you looking at?"
Rakka opened the doors, shoving aside the deepening snow on the balcony. Warm and cold air fought for dominance in the guest room and, judging by her friends' cries of dismay, the warm air was losing. She left the battle behind, and walked to the railing. She swept cold white powder aside and rested her hands on the frozen stone. It was true, then. Just as she'd heard—or only thought she'd heard, according to the old Communicator—just as she'd heard Kuu's carefree laughter while cleaning her friend's true-name tag, Rakka had hoped to hear something from Reki while cleaning hers, but for the balance of the previous year, Reki had remained silent…until this morning. No, it meant something, all right. Reki's voice had been as unmistakable as Kana's dreadful spoon-and-saucepan alarm.
Swift footsteps came close behind.
"Rakka, what on earth are you doing?" Kana said. "Have you lost your mind?"
"Come back inside, before we all catch cold," Nemu said.
"Wait, you two," Hikari said. She put a hand on Rakka's shoulder. "Rakka, tell us. What is it?"
Rakka nodded her head at the south arch. Lamp light filled the entryway.
"We have company," she said, echoing Reki's words.
Sorry, short chapter this time, but more are on the way! See you next chapter, when the Haibane of Old Home struggle to heal a Haibane wounded in body…and in spirit.