"Rakka, I'm so sorry. I know you must think I'm crazy, but I'm not."
"Hikari, it's horrible!" Rakka had stayed silent, politely listening to Hikari's account. But now she threw an abrupt fit as she very rarely did when she was truly upset. "Stop it. I don't want to hear any more!"
Hikari put the note she was reading aloud back on the table.
It was a warm spring night, just at the end of April. Three friends, Hikari, Kana and Rakka, sat together on the cool veranda of Old Home, their familiar if creaky haunt. The golden halos over their heads and the undersized rustling wings at their backs marked them in this place as haibane. A candle burned low in a baked clay pot at the center of the table.
"Quiet, willya? You'll wake the kids up." Kana hissed.
Her outburst spent. Rakka dropped back down in her chair. Kana wrapped reassuring arms around her friend, something she also rarely did. "Rakka, shush. It's alright. It isn't so."
Hikari could see that despite everything Rakka felt touched by Kana's gesture. She peered at Rakka and Kana through her thick eyeglasses, her voice a little distant and detached. It was this strange new tone as much as anything else that had provoked Rakka.
"That's exactly my problem, Kana. How do we know it's not so?"
I. THE FACE IN THE WINDOW
There was a knock on Kana's door.
Kana sat up and looked around, upset. She couldn't afford to oversleep with her boss's fanatical attitude about punctuality. But then she saw the moon still shining through the curtains of her window.
"Go... away...." Kana moaned and curled back into her bed. She banged her halo on the headboard as she did so, and felt her head bobbling under its influence. It rang with a clear note and shook her further awake. Bad enough trying to sleep when you could read by a halo's light.
The door opened. Her friends Rakka and Hikari stepped inside. Kana could see their wide eyes under the golden glow of their halos.
"Oh for pity's..." Kana mumbled. When Reki and Nemu flew away, Rakka and even Hikari, who was technically the senior haibane, had started looking to Kana the tomboy to fix more than broken circuits and gears. It was not a situation Kana relished.
"Kana?" Rakka said. And Rakka spoke in just that exact tone that made Kana's eyes dart open in alarm. Kana sat up, fully awake and adrenaline pumping.
"What's happened?" Visions of calamity danced in her head. That tone meant somebody had died or there was a fire the whole town had to fight or one of the children needed a scooter ride to the hospital right away.
"Calm down," Hikari said in a hushed tone. "It's the kids."
Kana stood up and grabbed her overalls. "Keep talking." She noted her friends looked away while she yanked off her nightshirt. Modesty was low on Kana's priority list just now.
"Hana's frightened them all. Rakka and I have been trying to calm them down, but they won't unless we search the building."
"Slow down. Start at the beginning." Kana finished buckling her jumpsuit. "Hana? What's up with her?"
Rakka blurted, "she saw a face in the window."
"Of the north hall," Hikari added.
Kana gaped at her friends, and abruptly slumped to her knees. "You... woke me up... at this time of night... over a kid's nightmare?"
"Hana seemed very certain." Hikari answered. "It might be a hatchling. Remember how Nemu found Reki, and how we almost missed Rakka?"
"And it's probably just a dream," Kana countered. "I was having a nice dream."
"Kaaanaaa!" Hikari protested. "We need you to help."
A minute later, the trio of Haibane exited the west wing of Old Home. Kana looked to the children's area and saw a string of glinting halos at the windows.
"The housemother would pick tonight to go home," Kana grumbled.
"We did our best to calm them down," Rakka said, "but they're good and spooked. Hana really threw a tantrum."
"Especially when I said she was dreaming," Hikari added. "She insists she wasn't."
Their feet crunched in the tall grass of the courtyard as they headed to the north wing. Wind hissed through the grass and the feathers of their wings. Hikari shivered.
"If this turns out to be a false alarm, I'm gonna--" Kana growled.
"You'll do no such thing," Rakka answered gently. "Hana's a sweet little girl."
"Sweet? It doesn't make any sense she'd be able to see anyone." Kana waved at the gloomy, deserted north wing.
Old Home was rickety, a derelict reclaimed by the Haibane. The plumbing was bad, the lights flickered, the tile was cracked and dingy. A high wall surrounded it, but a section to the west had crumbled. What it had been before was anyone's guess: dormitory, monastery, barracks, perhaps even a prison of some sort?
Each of the senior Haibane had claimed a room and maintained it. The children had a large section of rooms arranged as a kind of boarding school. And there was the common room, twice as big as the little cells, for all to enjoy. It was by far the nicest room. "Haibane central," Kana had nicknamed it, though in fact there were many more of the winged and haloed people in the abandoned factory far to the north. There were also a handful of haibane who chose to live in the nearby town of Guri itself, as if preferring the townsfolk to their own kind.
The north wing of Old Home was utterly useless, uninhabitable even by the haibane's low standards. Old Home enjoyed electrical power only part time, but bad wiring had forced them to cut the north wing's lines entirely. Some of the roof had caved in, so the place was filled with leaks and therefore mold.
"It's completely dark," Kana continued. "How could she see--"
"A halo?" Rakka asked. "It gives off a light. But a hatchling wouldn't have...." Rakka's voice trailed off. What was that clattering noise?
The trio ignited a flashlight each and moved toward the western end of the north wing.
The banging noise was coming from a door, rattling and slamming loosely on its hinges in the wind. The three Haibane warily approached it until Kana grabbed it to still the intermittent noise.
"Hana might be right," Kana said very quietly. "We chained these doors closed." Of the chain in question there was no sign.
Rakka's eyes widened with dread. "We should go back and wait until morning. We can ask the Renmei and the town guard to help."
Without answering, Kana entered the building. Rakka whimpered.
"I don't want to go in there either," Hikari confessed to Rakka. They waited together until the door opened again and Kana waved them inside.
The trio stood in a stairwell. The door leading to the long hallway had come off its hinges and lay on the floor, useless.
"Let's come back tomorrow morning," Rakka suggested.
Kana knew that it'd be easier to persuade her friends once they'd actually crossed the threshold. "Hikari's right, Rakka. We need to do this. If it is a Haibane, it might be freshly hatched. This is no place for it."
"And if it's not...?" Rakka asked.
Kana decided to ignore the question. "There are four levels. What level did Hana say she saw the face at?"
"I didn't ask," Rakka answered. Hikari also shrugged.
"Okay. Rakka, you check the ground level. Hikari, second. I'll take the third."
"You think it's a good idea to split up?" Hikari asked.
"A building this size, we'll be at this for hours if we don't."
Kana was exaggerating, a little. There were twelve rooms on each floor, but many of the doors were jammed or had fallen away completely. Searching the place for someone who wanted to be found would take an hour. A thorough search for an intruder, much longer.
"What about the fourth floor?" Rakka asked.
"Nobody go up there," Kana answered. "The roof's fallen in; the floor's rotted. You could fall through. I'd burn this trash heap to the ground if I wasn't scared it'd take the rest of Old Home with it. It's only good for cannibalizing spare parts."
With that, Kana started up the stairs, leaving Hikari and Rakka to wrestle with their fears. Kana knew they'd get to work once she'd gone.
Their twin flashlights barely cut through the gloom. Rakka and Hikari looked into each others' eyes.
"I really don't want to do this," Hikari said, her glasses made her azure eyes look huge.
"Me either," Rakka answered.
Rakka turned away first, and started down the long moonlit corridor, leaving Hikari to follow Kana up the stairs.
Rakka watched as Hikari's light vanished, then set about opening the first door. The room inside was filled with crates and old junk. Her flashlight glinted off a rusty tricycle. She'd need to remember to bring it to Kana's attention. The kids would enjoy it if it could be repaired.
But at the moment, an abandoned child's toy only deepened the gloom as Rakka doggedly waved her flashlight about the room. Crates blocked the closet doors, but the layer of dust on the floor was undisturbed, so Rakka chose not to bother with them.
Rakka squeaked her alarm. The loud noise had come from above. For a moment she trembled in helpless fear. Then, when she saw Hikari's face in her mind's eye, she darted out of the room and scrambled up the stairs.
"It's alright," Hikari's shaky voice answered. "A big box fell. My fault."
Footsteps! Rakka whirled to point her light back at the stairwell she'd emerged from. Kana, looking shaken and her overalls covered with dust, appeared, waving her arms at the light.
"Ghaa! Don't point that at my eyes."
"Sorry," Rakka lowered the light to the ground. "Hikari bumped a crate. A box fell." Hikari exited the room and nodded. Amazingly she managed to blanch with fear and blush all at once.
Kana sat down in the dust. "This is gonna take all night. Look, I'm going to check the far stairwell. I dunno why I didn't think of that before."
"Think of what?" Rakka asked.
"If the dust there's undisturbed, we don't have an intruder, 'less they can fly. It means Hana's dreaming and I can get back to my bed.
Kana again left the pair in darkness.
"That's right," Hikari sounded reassured. "I'm glad Kana's thinking straight. I'm nervous as a cat."
Rakka half-grunted, half moaned her agreement. Abruptly, they saw Kana's light moving purposefully back toward them. The pair watched nervously until the approaching figure resolved itself into Kana.
"Let's go," Kana said quietly.
"What?" Rakka said.
"C'mon." And she led the trio back to the stairs, down and out the door. She didn't stop until they were safely back inside the west wing and had the door closed behind them.
"Kana?" Hikari bounced up and down in an agony of suspense.
"There were footprints in the dust. Hand prints on the walls too. Recent. I decided it was time to go." Rakka and Hikari both noted with a little guilty satisfaction that even Kana's courage had limits.
"I don't blame you!" Rakka said. That their phantom had solidified into a genuine intruder didn't reassure her, not one little bit.
"I don't go looking for trouble," Kana said, her usual bravado gone.
Hikari said nervously, "You think maybe a hatchling--"
"Hatchlings aren't born with shoes," Kana interrupted. Then she lowered her voice as they reached the door to the children's rooms. Hikari quickly entered.
"I'll go talk to the constable first thing tomorrow." Kana whispered to Rakka. "Let the boss yell if I'm late. This is not good. We don't even have locks on these doors."
Hikari returned to the hallway carrying a chair. "Kana," Hikari said, moved by the obvious fatigue on her friend's face. "You and Rakka go lie down in the kids' room. I'll keep a watch."
"Sure you won't go to sleep?"
"I'm not Nemu. And I don't think I'll be sleeping at all with some stranger peeping at us."
"Well don't," Kana looked over at Rakka, who was almost cowering. "Rakka, soon as the sun's up I want you to go recruit some of the boys from the factory."
Both Rakka and Hikari gaped. This was Kana talking?
"I uhm... y'know that creepy feeling like somebody's watching you? That's why I left so fast."
Abandoned Factory. That was the only name the townsfolk had for the other major haibane nest in Guri. It was an older and more decrepit version of the new craftsmen's hall. The factories made... well, everything. The older one had apparently concentrated on lumber and masonry for actually building the town. With the population stable, the new hall produced consumer goods, everything from pottery to horse shoes.
It was all part of the invisible web Rakka had sensed early on that held this town together, made it nearly self-sufficient and even quietly comfortable.
With the new hall, the factory was abandoned. She'd overheard that at first haibane had found jobs for themselves there. Then they'd simply taken up residence.
Now a large number of haibane cocoons appeared here too. Some, perhaps half of the haibane, emerged as children and reached their day of flight as young adults. Rakka was one of those that hatched already reasonably mature. These older haibane, if they weren't looking after the "young feathers," found jobs and lived relatively normal lives alongside their human friends... overlooking of course the gravity-defying haloes over their heads, the wings on their backs, the protective way the humans looked after them and the long list of rules and prohibitions that made up the haibane lifestyle.
...not that the rough-and-tumble haibane of Abandoned Factory observed any of those rules scrupulously.
Rakka easily found the concealed hole in the chain link fence and walked between the rusting buildings, wary of a certain mischievous haibane boy with firecrackers.
"Helloooo?" Rakka called out.
"Hmm? Good morning," a voice called back, and soon its owner emerged. This particular haibane was one of a trio of females who chose to live in the male-dominated factory.
"Oh hey! The messy haired girl." Rakka winced at the nickname, but as she'd forgotten her counterpart's name she couldn't complain. This one wore her hair in ponytails and liked to dye her feathers in pretty colors. She'd outdone herself with this week's red-to-yellow blend, with matching ponytails no less.
Rakka followed the girl into the current noisy chaos of the factory. The boys, reputation for rowdiness notwithstanding, seemed to have a good work ethic. The place was a thunderously noisy hive of buzz saws, hammers and chisels. Rakka actually found herself wondering how this artist ended up here while handy Kana had taken up roost in Old Home.
The cacophony drowned out any chance of conversation until her escort sent her into a relatively quieter room where a haibane was busy with, of all things, a popping, hissing arc welder.
"Midoriiii?" the girl in pigtails sang over the crackling. A good voice too, Rakka noted. The welder held up a finger in response, then continued her work until it was complete. She shut off the welder and yanked away the heavy iron mask protecting her face.
Midori had thick, straight black hair with matching eyes, and a pointy chin. Rakka had helped her reconcile a long enmity with Reki before her day of flight, and since then Midori had gone out of her way to be kind to "messy hair."
"Thanks Oumu," Midori said and waved the girl off. Rakka filed the name away for later use.
"What are you building?" Rakka asked, a little in awe.
"Spiral staircase. The segments get put together at the library."
"Aaahh..." Rakka nodded. Now the iron parts she was seeing made sense. "That's very impressive."
"I do statues too. I'll always regret Reki and I never collaborated on something." Midori smiled and poured herself a cup of tea. Rakka smiled back. It was nice of Midori to allude to Reki; it was as much as mentioning she felt indebted to Rakka.
"Want some?" Midori offered a cup.
"Is that... coffee?"
"Oh, this isn't like the dishwater they serve at Kartie's," Midori smiled mischievously. "This's the stuff you only get if you can get someone to buy it for you from the Touga."
And only a few minutes later Rakka said, "...and we couldn't find anyone but Kana's sure somebody was there and watching and left footprints and hand prints too so we left and Kana said I should come here to get some of the guys to help us investigate or maybe even stay and Kana'd never say that if she wasn't really scared so I came here first thing this morning to ask!"
As Rakka paused for breath, Midori took Rakka's cup away and headed for a sink.
Rakka stopped pacing back and forth long enough to say, "but I'm not finished!"
"Oh? Sorry, already poured it out." Midori smiled apologetically. "Feel like going for a walk? I know exactly how to solve your problem."
"You do?" Rakka jumped in place. "Yay! Thank you Midori what's your plan?"
Midori stomped into the courtyard of Old Home as if she owned the place, Rakka bouncing right behind. Midori strode toward the north wing, right in the middle, knowing all the bedrooms faced to this side.
"She's pretty new still, about a month." Midori explained to Rakka as they walked. "Timid, prone to bad dreams. You should have been there when she hatched. It started rocking and then just exploded. Never seen anything like it."
"Ha!" Midori abruptly bellowed, "I know you're in there! You stop scaring these poor girls and come out right now! I'm not fooling around here!" Of all the haibane, Midori was known to have the sharpest tongue and the fiercest temper, a trait which made her both formidable and the epicenter of all sorts of conflict and trouble. With silence as an answer, Midori decided this was a rare chance to cut loose....
From between the hands she'd cupped to her ears Rakka said sheepishly, "I didn't think Haibane were allowed to use language like that."
"I'm just getting warmed up. Thanks Rakka," Midori smiled and winked. "That was exactly what I needed. Figure I'll quit now before my throat gives out. If Ha's in there, I expect she'll turn up, or leave. And yeah, that's her name. Just 'Ha.'"
"But what if it's not her?"
"Then I'll send reinforcements for tonight."
"Good. Together we can at least finish searching the building."
Both noticed Rakka was tapping her fingers together in a rapid, fluttery motion. She shoved her hands into her pockets with a smile, unaware that the fluttering simply shifted to her wings. Midori stifled a laugh.
"Meantime I have a deadline to meet. See 'ya!"
Rakka waved Midori off happily, her wings still rustling at a rapid pace.
Rakka tapped her foot and considered the north wing.
Before she knew it she was walking in a tight circle around the water pump.
Frustrated by her complete inability to stand still, Rakka made two decisions: first, she'd resume their aborted search of the north wing and second, no more coffee.
Rakka began by visiting the stairwell. She found no sign of the hand prints Kana had mentioned, but there were rough patches of dust on the floor. Someone had taken the trouble to cover up footprints. Rakka smiled.
"Haaa?" She called out. "My name is Rakka. I'm nice and I don't want to hurt you. I'm sorry if Midori scared you. She's gone. She's halfway back to the factory by now."
Rakka started ascending the stairs. Second floor.
"I'm coming up the stairs now. I'd really like to meet you. I'm not mad at you for scaring the kids. Please come out."
Uhm... I'll bet you're hungry. I can't cook but I could make us some sandwiches.
Rakka almost jumped out of her skin. There, waiting quietly on the fourth floor landing, stood Ha.
II. THE NAME AT THE DOOR
It was the second time in as many days that the mere sound of her name, the way the person spoke it, shot through her like lightning.
Kana was just putting the finishing touches on a tractor's steering column. The clock tower's machine shop handled all sorts of intricate machinery, not merely pocket watches. She abruptly stood up to see her master looking grimly down at her.
"What's happened?" Kana's voice was flat.
The town's hospital was conveniently located near the central plaza. Kana saw it every day from the clock tower's balcony. Kana had visited it only once before, when one of the worker's legs had caught in a gear.
The hospital staff worked in three continuous shifts, with a doctor and two nurses at all times. One of the orderlies, surprisingly enough, was a haibane, a bookish young blond with an interest in and a knack for medicine. And it was he who took Kana up via the town's sole elevator.
"It's not that serious, I promise," the orderly said with a reassuring tone that, Kana could tell, was well practiced. "Two small puncture wounds, not too deep but they did breach the thoracic cavity. She lost some blood. Your friend's very lucky. Any deeper and her lungs would have been punctured. That would have been bad."
Kana smoldered. "How'd it happen?" But she already had a guess and a vow -- the "north wing phantom" just made an implacable enemy.
"We don't know. She turned up on our doorstep, literally." The blond haibane shrugged.
"I've never seen you before," Kana said. "You one of the factory guys?"
"No, I live here. Name's Karashi." The orderly smiled. "The hospital's one of Guri's oldest buildings, naturally. It's quiet and peaceful most of the time, and it means I'm always around for an emergency." The tall haibane smiled and waved Kana into a room.
Hikari stood inside, her brows sky high and chewing her lower lip, and on a bed beside a window Kana saw Rakka, lying in a hospital gown.
"Kana," Rakka said weakly. "I sure end up like this a lot. Sorry to be such a bother."
"If you'll all excuse me," the tall orderly said, "I need to go put some medicine on order for her. Don't wear her out." With that he closed the door.
"Alright Rakka, you found this 'Ha' in the stairway," Hikari blurted. "If she's such a nice girl how'd you end up like this?"
"Ha?" Kana scowled. The phantom had a name.
Rakka nodded. "It means 'leaf'. She's really nice. About Kuu's height with longer hair, and kinda reminds me of her. This isn't her fault."
Abruptly Kana did a double-take, then gaped at Rakka, even bending down almost nose to nose. "Whoa... Rakka!"
"Lemme explain. Okay, so I coaxed Ha out of the stairway. She's timid as a mouse but I think the sandwiches I promised did the trick." Rakka actually smiled at the memory.
"She told me she couldn't stand all the noise and shouting at the factory and ran away. I visited the place myself this morning and yeah, I can understand that. She'd heard rumors that there was another haibane settlement. But... Ha's terribly shy. She said she was trying to work up the courage to introduce herself. It's hard asking someone if you can live with them."
Hikari shrugged. "I suppose that makes sense. But it's not like we're short of rooms. Then...?"
"I made some sandwiches and she and I had a long heart-to-heart in 'haibane central,'" Rakka shrugged. "I was trying to figure her out. Y'know, like with Reki?"
"You do have a gift for helping people get their heads on straight," Hikari nodded.
"She's too quiet and timid for a place like the factory. Ha's like a little mouse, scared of her own shadow. I told her she'd be much happier with us. And I told her about the early troubles I'd had with... y'know."
"Is Ha...?" Here Hikari pointed to her own wings.
"Sin bound?" Rakka half whispered, as if the subject wasn't to be discussed in polite company. "No. And she wasn't whitewashing it either."
Kana favored both her friends with a blank look, until Hikari said sharply, "Kana! You've lived with two sin bound haibane and you don't even know what it means?"
"Nobody ever tells me anything!" Kana protested.
Hikari shook her head. "Nemu told me all about it when Rakka got sick. I should think you'd be more interested in your friends' well being."
"Hey! Who do you call for when the power's out?"
"Let it go, Hikari." Rakka patted her friend's hand. "Where was I?"
"Haibane central," Kana reminded. She straddled one of the chairs, a common pose for haibane as chair backs could be a real nuisance.
"Well," Rakka continued, "when I mentioned the way my hair sticks to my halo," here Hikari quietly bit her lip, "Ha just lit up. She said she'd fix it for free."
Kana nodded. "And that explains the way you look."
"Do you like it?" Rakka beamed. Her hair had been trimmed into a neat pixie cut and parted to one side. The halo's influence pulled the top upward into a cute pouf of brown hair.
"It's adorable," Hikari gushed. "It's exactly right for you."
"Clever," Kana said with approval. "Turn your halo problem into an asset."
"About time, too," Rakka groused. "You'd think in a town this size somebody would know how to cut hair. Well, I was so happy I was beside myself--"
"Oh no!" Hikari smacked her forehead. "Rakka, you didn't!"
Rakka hid her face behind her hands in embarrassment.
"What?" Kana asked.
"Rakka hugged Ha while she was still holding the scissors," Hikari guessed.
"...and I ruined everything!" Rakka moaned. "Ha bandaged me up. Kana's scooter was gone. We had to walk to the hospital. It was just a nightmare! That poor girl."
"And now the mouse's hiding and scared to show her face again," Hikari took this as a cue to clean her lenses.
"It wasn't deliberate?" Kana was still scowling.
"If you could have seen the look on her face...." Rakka answered.
"Wow! Wow. Rakka," Kana said, "Forgive me... you idiot!"
"I know." Rakka sounded suitably miserable.
Kana stood up to rave, "I mean that's epic! That's spectacular!"
"Kanaaa..." Hikari warned, "enough."
Kana and Hikari said their good-byes to Rakka, who was obligated to spend the night at the hospital. To settle their nerves they decided to have their dinner at Cafe Kartie. The proprietor was happy to see them, and said many kind things about Kuu, the haibane in his employ who'd flown away.
Kana noticed at the dinner that Hikari seemed a little distracted, but said nothing.
They rode Kana's scooter together toward Old Home, and a surprise waited for them at the bulletin board when they tried to check in by turning their tags around.
A tag bearing the name "Ha" had appeared, and a note.
"Haibane Ha, you will report to the Renmei temple immediately to explain the wounding of your fellow haibane, Rakka," Hikari read aloud.
"Dummies," Kana scoffed. "Ha doesn't live here."
Hikari examined the name plate.
"According to this, she's in."
Hikari and Kana shared a look. The situation had just turned spooky again.
"We look?" Kana asked.
"We look!" Hikari answered.
Together they searched the western wing. They even reentered Reki's room above "haibane central," the darkly painted room that no one ever visited if they could avoid it. Kana dearly wanted to erase the nightmarish, room-sized painting, but Rakka insisted it had too much historical, artistic and above all sentimental value.
They separated to check the eastern and southern wings. Then Kana shouted to the northern one. Nothing.
And of course by then, the moon was high in the sky and they were both exhausted and frustrated. Kana said good night and left Hikari in the common room, nursing a cup of chamomile and fuming.
Hikari went up to her room, changed into her nightshirt, and for the first time since... since she'd found herself in Old Home under the care of a quiet girl named Nemu and her pensive raven-haired companion Reki, Hikari blocked her door with a chair.
Still feeling sleep far away, she sat at her desk and tried to write. Hikari wrote poems. They were, she'd been convinced, truly awful. The few times she'd tried to share them they'd provoked only laughter. So they remained hers to treasure privately and she never inflicted them on anyone else. She didn't even bother lighting a candle; Haibane could read and write by the light of their halos.
Old Home was the same, Guri was the same, yet everything seemed out of joint to her. Some primal voice inside her whispered an alarm she couldn't ignore. So as she scribbled, she toyed with the pieces of this strange incomplete puzzle.
Rakka said this Ha was timid and harmless, but Rakka was in the hospital. The Renmei, who always seemed to know everything, thought Ha was here in Old Home but she wasn't. She'd vanished. What did all this mean?
Hikari also struggled to find something to rhyme with her own name, "Hikari," which meant light. Light... Hikari somehow sensed the answer was plain as day, if only she could see it.
Finally, the lines on her desk still in jumbled fragments, she set her glasses aside and flopped into bed.
Late that night Rakka felt a gentle hand on her arm. Her eyes widened when she saw none less than the masked face of the communicator looming over her bedside.
"How do you feel?"
"Oh! Oh, thank you!" Rakka said, very much touched by this visit. "It hardly hurts at all. The doctors say I'll be just fine."
"I was pleased when Ha found her way to you. You did well with Reki."
"I sure blew it this time."
"What can you tell me of Ha? What is the source of her trouble?"
"Bad dreams!" Rakka said firmly. "She has them more and more often."
"Dreams...?" the Washi considered. "Did she tell you of her dreams?"
Rakka told the communicator of the strange dream imagery that Ha had confided to her. Long before she'd finished, the Washi's shoulders straightened, like an old soldier hearing some silent alarm.
"Thank you, Rakka, that is most revealing! I must go now to take certain steps. Rest."
And with a wave of his hand, Rakka fell into a deep and completely dreamless sleep.
Hikari lurched up from her nightmare and looked around, half blind without her glasses. It was still night, and she let the terror slowly fade away.
In her dream there had been a breach in the great wall surrounding Guri, and water had poured in. She and her friends had tried to herd the children to the clock tower, but one by one the raging torrent consumed them until only a few desperate Haibane remained, huddled and shivering on the balcony. As night fell a subterranean voice thundered nonsense words, and the submerged town changed before their weeping eyes into something hideous....
She sat blind and shivering, rocking on her bed until the images and the awful gibberish flew from her memory. Where had that come from? Her dreams were usually so prosaic. She hadn't thought herself even capable of such ghastly images.
But when the dream had gone a sinister idea remained in Hikari's head that she couldn't shake.
Hikari fumbled for her glasses, quickly dressed, picked up a flashlight and headed toward the south wing. She climbed the stairs to the very top floor. Rakka's room.
She opened the door.
She'd hoped she wouldn't need to search the place. Doing that without Rakka's permission would be a serious transgression. She was already trespassing.
She stood in the middle of the room. The power was out this early in the morning, and the flashlight beam didn't pick up any candles. Hikari felt a chill run up her spine when, on a hunch, she shut off her flashlight.
Soon, as her eyes adjusted, she saw it... a faint glow coming from Rakka's desk, glinting off the frog toys Rakka had claimed from Kuu.
Hikari whimpered. The eldritch phantasms of an early morning nightmare had become solid and real before her staring eyes.
III. THE SHADOW OVER GURI
Rakka was just finishing her breakfast when Hikari and Kana burst into her hospital room, breathless. Hikari was clutching some sort of flat package.
"Where's that orderly?" Hikari gasped.
"Good morning to you, too," Rakka said. Then she saw the wide-eyed look on Hikari's face. "Down the hall on the left, giving Oumu a tranquilizer."
"Her name's Ame," Kana corrected. "'Parrot' is just a nickname."
"Tranquilizer?" Hikari interrupted, pushing Kana aside.
"Hyouko brought her in ten minutes ago. She's hysterical, crying her eyes out."
Thanks to Hikari's glasses, Rakka was actually able to see Hikari's pupils contract in alarm just before she charged out of the room.
"Kana, what is going on?!"
Kana shook her head. "I'm just the driver here. She didn't have time to explain it all, but... it's serious. Look, you just worry about getting better."
In the next room, Ame lay in seeming peace, tucked in neatly, her pigtails sprawled apart on her pillow.
Karashi watched with clinical curiosity as Hikari's eyes went as blank as a doll's. She leaned over the bed and whispered nonsense into her sister haibane's ear.
Ame sat up with a jolt, her brow wrinkled and a grimace pulling the corners of her mouth down! Then she looked at Hikari and hissed similar gibberish, as if completing an incantation.
Hikari looked to the medic and asked with an uncharacteristic monotone, "when is Rakka's medicine supposed to arrive?"
Wulf the gatekeeper stood watch, as usual, his rottweiler Guy sitting obediently at his feet, while the Washi completed his sign-language conversation with the small group of Touga. The Washi nodded, and Wulf turned and signaled his men to turn the massive wheels.
The gate was built with two sets of doors, outer and inner. The gatekeeper could control both, but by design only one could be open at a time. His guards were opening the massive inner door to allow the Touga traders to depart. No citizen of Guri, not the Washi, not even Wulf himself, ever saw beyond the outer door, save those few humans who were exiled or chose to depart, never to return.
"Stop!" A high, desperate shout rang out over the rumbling of the gate. Wulf looked up, startled.
A pair of haibane... running toward the Washi? Merely in approaching the communicator in such a way, even to address him without his permission, defied the strict rules the haibane lived under. And these ran toward the gate at full speed, another and still graver violation! Unprecedented!
The guards immediately stopped their work and pulled truncheons from their belts as they had been trained. Some immediately rushed to block the half-open gateway while others followed Wulf toward the charging haibane.
"Halt!" Wulf commanded, and the dark-haired haibane recoiled. But the one with glasses continued forward, toward the Washi. Then she saw Guy, Wulf's rottweiler, barreling toward her, teeth bared, tags ringing and clinking on his collar. The haibane dropped onto her hands and knees before the Washi, holding a leather-wrapped flat package over her head as if to ward off the dog.
"Guy, heel!" And just like that, Wulf stopped the dog in his tracks. Wulf was justly proud of him, a first-rate animal. Guy loomed over the shaking haibane, growling.
Another pair of guards rushed forward to surround her darker-haired companion.
"Haibane... Hikari, is it not?" The Washi thundered. "You have broken many laws today. If you have an explanation, I grant you this chance to offer it."
Hikari raised pleading eyes to the Washi. "Sir, there's a haibane in the Touga's wagons. You must search them."
The Washi stiffened. "Impossible...!"
With a final growl to the quivering, cowed Haibane, Guy rushed forward in the direction Wulf pointed, toward the wagons. He sniffed about each, until finally he snarled and began barking angrily at the last one.
The Washi strode toward the wagon and yanked off the cover. There, hidden amid piles of goods traded to the Touga, was Ha. Guards rushed over to stand beside the communicator.
"Haibane Ha," the Washi began. "you have..." and the Washi's bellow simply trailed off.
He saw it.
Hikari noted, with a tiny satisfaction, that today she had witnessed the Washi himself struck dumb.
Three friends, Rakka, Kana and Hikari, sat around a guttering candle on Old Home's veranda on the eve of May.
"Okay Hikari," Kana said. "I'm still trying to figure out how you knew Ha would be there."
"That was easy," Hikari said. "It was the most obvious way... how she got in the wagon without the guards seeing is anyone's guess, but she had this thoroughly planned out."
"So you think she did stab me deliberately?" Rakka asked. "To get the Touga to come in the gate?"
"That was a clue either way," Hikari answered, "Remember? That medic, Karashi, he said the hospital had to order the medicine?"
"We can make all kinds of things here, but it looks like they need to get certain medicines from the Touga... from outside the wall." Kana had her chin in her hand, pondering. "That's interesting. But I'm talking about before, Hikari."
"It was honestly just an educated guess. Kana, you remember you once said the Renmei had magical powers? Then later, Rakka, you said the Touga found you in a well?
"Deep in a forest... at night... in a snowstorm...?" Hikari cocked an eyebrow.
"They knew I was in the well?" Rakka ventured.
Once the guards had taken the bawling, hysterical Ha away, the Washi turned his masked face toward Hikari and Kana again.
"You've been using them to track us--" Hikari quietly accused.
"Silence," the Washi interrupted, and banged his staff upon the ground. "Give it to me."
Hikari handed over her package.
"What you have witnessed today is not fit for discussion," the Washi commanded in a general announcement. His mask turned to regard the faces of the men around him.
Wulf nodded, "it will be so."
Then the Washi said, more gently, "Haibane Hikari, you have done... exceedingly well this day. The Renmei commend you. Leave this place. Now."
Both visibly quaking, Hikari and Kana turned their backs to the gate.
"They knew you were in the well," Hikari confirmed.
Rakka's wide brown eyes looked upward, toward her halo. She experimentally pushed at it with both hands, and whimpered in pain.
"Like an animal with its limb in a trap," Kana said.
Hikari nodded. "Ha was stronger than any of us, or insane with fear. She hid it under the bookshelf on your desk. You'd never see it by day, but by night the glow was obvious. And the note was with it. Once I'd read it, well--"
"Look!" Rakka shouted, pointing toward the horizon.
The three haibane gazed in wonder as the great wall surrounding the city began to glow, exactly as it did at the turning of the year. But this time, instead of a gentle blue green, the wall flared an angry red.
Kana yelped, "What -- ow!"
All three winced, and each saw the others' halos flare red for a moment, before returning to their usual soft golden hue.
"What was that? What happened?" Hikari asked, an edge of panic in her voice.
"Certain steps..." Rakka quoted the Washi. "Reki once told me that the wall existed to protect us. Maybe it's not healthy to imagine what it's protecting us from. Hikari, I hope you'll sleep better tonight. Let us know?"
Hikari nodded. "I've been scared to go to bed. One of those dreams was enough." Rakka noted a strange glazed look in Hikari's normally sparkling blue eyes.
"It put poor Ame into the hospital." Kana added.
"How long did Ha endure them?" Hikari asked herself, though she knew the others would hear.
"Rakka," Kana looked over at her friend, who was so uncomfortable with the whole conversation she was squirming. "When you went to the temple, what did the Washi say?"
Almost on cue, a breeze blew their candle out.
"Haibane Rakka," the Washi answered Rakka's double-handed silent greeting. "Your devotion is appreciated, but you must rest until your wounds have fully healed."
Rakka remained. The communicator's voice echoed eerily in the barrel-shaped Renmei temple.
The Washi turned to face her. "You wish to speak." It wasn't a question, and Rakka could tell the Washi wasn't thrilled by the idea just now, but she waved a wing "yes" anyway.
"You would ask about Ha," the Washi predicted. "We have granted her wish. She has been allowed to leave Guri. Rakka, do not blame yourself. An influence more dire than you can yet imagine wormed its way into her heart. You would do well to simply forget her."
Rakka was startled. This was the first she'd ever heard of Guri abandoning a Haibane. but she kept her peace.
"Ha is lost to us, lost in her fear, and has damaged herself more than she knows. Still, we were fortunate."
"Is there..." Rakka knew she was making a mistake, but she had to ask. "Is there any truth in what Ha wrote?"
The Washi turned to face her fully, and she could feel him bristling under that mask. She cringed.
"After all your time here... you would seek guarantees? Promises?" The Washi boomed. "Haibane, I will share with you a bitter truth: even I know not what awaits you after the day of flight."
With that, the Washi dismissed Rakka, and she fled from the temple.
"Rakka, I'm so sorry. I know you must think I'm crazy, but I'm not." Kana read aloud slowly. Then she snarled and slammed Ha's note down on the table. "Alright, just for the record -- that cracked cocoon thinks we're in a big cattle pen? Ha thinks our day of flight's the dinner bell ringing?"
Rakka winced and put her head on the table, hiding it under her arms. "I told you I don't want to talk about this any more."
"I don't believe a word of it, Rakka! That anything would go to all the trouble to build all this, this town and the walls and trees and--"
"Is that what chickens in the coop think?" Hikari asked. Her voice had turned strange again. "Ha was right about the--"
"Ha was paranoid! Completely nuts! Tell me you're not buying into her delusions?!" Kana realized she was the one shouting now. She sat down, embarrassed, and then hissed, "didn't you hear her raving? 'Yoggy soggy knows the gate?' Come on!"
"I'm not buying it; I'm trying to figure out how to disprove it." Hikari checked her glasses, only to find it was her eyes that were misting. "Kana, Ame and I had the same nightmare, right down to--"
"Hikari!" Rakka half sobbed, her palms over her ears and her fingers digging into her hair.
"Every day," Hikari's voice faltered. "the people here make me feel warm and safe. Every night I go to bed feeling grateful. I have seen the beauty of the walls at the turning of the year. I love this place, and I... I absolutely, completely refuse to believe Guri's here just to keep the poultry happy and fat. But whuh... where's the flaw in Ha's reasoning?"
"You can't disprove it," Rakka reached out to Hikari from the warm little cocoon she'd made of her own arms. "It's just... faith. That's all we've got, and what she didn't have. And if Guri means anything it means we can't give up on that faith, no matter what."
The three haibane sat together for a while, a little clutch of arms and feathers lit by the soft glow of their halos, until Hikari and Rakka felt better.
"Ha was misleading us anyway." Kana finally said. "Her name doesn't mean 'leaf.'"
"Uhm?" Hikari sniffled and looked up.
"If I had that name, I'd say it meant 'leaf' too. Like most of our names, hers has a double meaning. It also means 'teeth.'"
Rakka's wings shivered with a sharp rustling noise.
"We all know what we think our cocoon dreams mean," Kana continued. "I don't wanna know what Ha was dreaming about that made her bust out of her cocoon. But I think that's all she can see now: teeth."
For a long moment, the only sound was the sound of Rakka's shaking wings.
"I see," Hikari nodded. "Everything's distorted by her dreams. Okay, that makes me feel a lot better, just knowing Ha's glasses were cracked. Thanks, Kana."
Rakka peeked up from the shelter of her friends' arms and looked at the stars over their heads. They had seemed so pretty and clean just the night before. Now they felt cold and harsh to her, the blackness more desolate. She didn't like this new feeling, not at all. It made her feel small and lonesome and frightened.
She stood up.
"I am going to bed. I'm finished with this. Tomorrow I don't want to hear one word more about it. I tried to help her. Ha misused my friendship, she hurt me, and she got me in the doghouse with Washi. I'm going to follow his advice and do my very best to forget I ever met a haibane named 'teeth.'"