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One - Ai

Ai had anticipated every possible obstacle and solution that may arise on the day of her fourteenth birthday. Every possible obstacle, except for the rain.

It was always the weather that had to ruin the most perfect of moments, and her fourteenth birthday was supposed to be perfect. Now, instead of a picnic by the beautiful alcove of a glass courtroom fit for princesses, Ai sat on a cushion in her parents living room with six other girls whose dark eyes blinked back at her.

The number of girls attending would have been sixteen if not for the rain which brought muddy roads and humid air. The only reason six other girls now occupied this living space was because they had been in the Torizora Estate since the day before for an exclusive party for Ai’s closest friends. Today’s party was supposed to be for everyone else and for Ai, to feed her hunger for showing off the Torizora Family’s wealth.

Ai looked out the windows for that glimpse of sunlight, but the wooden shutters covering each window didn’t even reflect Ai’s pretty reflection. The young girl had pulled back her long, black hair with a summer ornament and her eye-lids and cheeks were painted with color. She had even worn her new pink kimono patterned with butterflies, but she could show this off to no one but the same, six friends. The sound of rain continued to pound against the dark windows uninvitingly.

For good reason, Ai wondered as she had many times before, why summer was even a season in the first place. Popularily in prose and haiku, summer is a season of sunshine and warmth, but here in the east, all Ai had experienced was the humid rain that made her armpits damp and thick hair, frizzy. Ai blamed her mother for not hastening her birth to be two seasons early or not waiting two seasons later to give birth to her. She wished to have been born in the winter when snow fell prettily like tiny crystals.

“Anyone want to play Ayatori?” Mako, whose round face was framed by a short bob, broke the coven of silence first as she stuck her hand into the right sleeve of her kimono and pulled out a red string of yarn tied in a loop.

“Ayatori, again?” complained Ri in her yellow kimono, who mirrored the bored expression of everyone else in the room including Mako, who had suggested the play. The girls had already played through numerous rounds of the game of strings where different patterns and formations can be made by looping them around a player’s fingers and passing the string around in a kept formation which is altered when each new player takes it into their hands. Whoever broke the formation, lost.

“Don’t complain when you haven’t even won once.” Nana laughed dryly, fixing the pink bow that tied her dark hair behind her back. But that was a lie because Ai remembered Ri had won twice, which said a lot about how many times the group had already played the game.

Sakura twirled a brown curl of hair around her finger. “How about we all just talk?”

Nana nodded in agreement. “What gossip isn’t there to tell?” she said, but her tone was unconvincingly dry.

“There would be more if not for the rain…” Ai mumbled under her breath so that no one could hear.

A girl clapped her palms together. “Ohajiki!” Mako exclaims in an attempt to lift everyone’s spirits. She nudges the quiet girl next to her. “Didn’t Momo bring the stones her father picked for her while overseas? We can play Ohajiki using those!” Mako’s last sentence was directed towards Momo, who had been sitting on her cushion like a stiff kokeshi doll.

“Oh. Oh!” Momo seemed to be coming back to life as she reached into the sleeve of her own pink kimono and produced a small, heavy-looking bag no bigger than her palm.

“Oh goodie, something new to do!” Kaori, who had also been sitting blankly on her cushion, finally sprung to life. Mako slapped her lightly on the knee to force Kaori back down.

Mako gave her best smile towards her disheartened friend. “Ai, which do you want to play? Ayatori or Ohajiki?”

Ai couldn’t care less, but she beamed at Mako as if there was no wrong in the world. The party was lame, but it would only be lamer if the hostess believed it too. Ai reassured herself that she could just host another party in the winter.

“So, Ayatori or Ohajiki, right?” repeated Ai.

Mako began to put away the red string as if the answer to that question was already obvious, but before Ai had come to a conclusion, the sliding paper door to the room threw open and a figure tumbled through the doorway and landed unforgivingly on the wooden floor.

Excitement buzzed through the room as the guests looked at what disrupted the social gathering. Ai realized she had other things besides the rain to worry about.

Once the fallen figure righted their head straight and pulled themselves up to their knees, Ai pointed back where they came from, “Out.”

It was an order.

“Oh…” the other person was a girl too, around the same age as everyone else in the room. But her hair wasn’t made up with a pretty comb and the pattern on her blue kimono had already faded to a dull echo of what might have been sakura petals. However, although the girl looked like a beggar, the most striking features of the stranger was her hair that shone white as snow beneath the grime and hazel eyes that looked yellow. The guests stared at the creature with newfound alertness.

The girl with the albino hair struggled up on wobbling, bare feet. “I thought everyone had already left.”

“I said, out,” Ai repeated.

“I didn’t think everyone would still be here with all this rain.” The girl avoided Ai’s gaze and shuffled closer to the door.

Ai peeked at her friends and saw the faces of open curiosity.

“Who are you?” Kaori asked, her eyes glued on the white-haired stranger.

Ai stepped in front of the intruder, arms out to obstruct her guests’ view. Her eyes pierced accusingly at Kaori who had chosen to speak first.

“No one.” Ai’s voice came out in a squeak. She grit her teeth. “This is no one.” Her voice was forceful the second time.

“But who is she exactly?” Mako asked. Now everyone wanted to know the truth.

Ai’s heart thumped like a frightened bunny. “I already told you, it’s no one,” Ai pushed the disheveled girl into the hallway without looking at her. “Just a maid.”

“But all your maids wear uniforms,” curly haired Sakura points out.

“She’s new,” Ai forced a smile and shrugged. “She must be lost.”

Six curious heads faced her, crowding in like a dark semi-circle. Twelve eyes blinked.

The girl with the white hair peeked out from around Ai and locked yellow eyes with one of the girls.

“It’s the Hakusei!” Kaori gasped loudly as she now recognized the creature.

“The Hakusei?” repeated the other girls. Some stumbled back in surprise while others pushed against Ai to look closer.

The Hakusei referred to the fairy tale spread around Hikizu village. Hakusei, in the language of the people of the Kuroba empire, meant “white fairy” and referred to an albino fairy who spread good fortune. While children believed the Hakusei to be real, adults had little faith. For young teenagers, interests lied in balancing the myths with the truth, so the dark eyes of the girls glimmered with newfound excitement.

Ai shook her head in protest. “No.”

Momo looked at Nana who stood next to her. “I thought the witch belonged to the Temple of the Crane.”

“Yeah, my mom told me that the Hakusei would pop if her powers weren’t supervised by the Hy’err.” Nana spoke, referring to the god of the common religion.

“So then why is she here?” Mako wondered out loud.

Ai found it hard to breathe as eyes looked at her for answers. Ai had none to give. At least none that didn’t speak the truth.

Ai had no one on her side now. Her parents were out on a date and would be stuck wherever they were until the storm was over. And the servants of the estate didn’t know the family secret. So her friends should also never know.

There was no time to think. Ai had to decide, so she chose herself.

“Surprise!” Ai laughed and stepped to the side so that the Hakusei in her bedraggled kimono was exposed to all. “This is a special birthday delivery from my father,” Ai explained. She purposefully avoided meeting eyes with the albino.

“If she’s good luck, why’s it still raining?” Ri wondered out loud.

Kaori beamed and wrapped a fist around the Hakusei’s pale wrist. “I heard that if you stick a lit matchstick under the fairy’s thumb, good fortune would be immediate.”

Ai laughed forcefully. “Then too bad we don’t have any matchsticks.” But to Ai’s horror, Moko had done the work, finding a packet of the flammable sticks in Ri’s kimono sleeve.

“Hey, wait a minute-” Ai protested as Moko lit a matchstick. Ai’s own brown eyes locked eyes with the Hakusei’s as the girl was wrenched back into the room and placed before the matchstick.

The Hakusei’s face was turned towards Ai with wide eyes. “Ai?” she reached towards the birthday girl, but was pressed down by the other girls.

The group giggled. “This is much more fun than Ohajiki!” clapped Ri. Kaori took the lit flame from Mako and approached the Hakusei. The girl flinched as the matchstick was brought to hover beneath the girl’s outstretched palm. The flame flickered in the lamplight, then seemed to jump as a spark made contact and the Hakusei’s entire hand burst aflame.

The girl dropped into a tucked position, sandwiching her burning hand between her belly and knees. But the act was in vain because the flaming hand had surprised Kaori, startling the girl into dropping her stick. Now the bamboo floor curled with hot, orange fire.

“Oh my freaking Hy’err!” screamed Sakura as the flames spread.

“How’d that even happen?” Ri whispered, not believing her eyes.

Kaori backed against the wall. “She’s cursed!” she cried.

“Oh my freaking Hy’err!” Sakura cried again.

“What!?” Mako shrieked.

“That’s right.” Kaori warbled onwards. Her eyes didn’t leave the Hakusei’s curled form as she spoke. “She’s cursed.”

Nana shook her head with disbelief. “Kaori, you don’t make any sense!”

“Oh my freaking Hy’err…” Sakura whimpered, her eyes stuck on the rising flames.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Kaori cried. “The Hy’err cursed her for leaving the Temple of the Crane!” Kaori gestured wildly at the albino. “Look at her burn! She’s no fairy, she’s a witch!”

The girls frantically backed up to corners of the room away from the towering flames and the Hakusei who remained curled up on the floor with her face in her knees.

“Worst birthday party ever!” Ri cried.

Ai grabbed an untouched cushion and beat at the flames. “Mom! Dad!” she cried, but to no avail because her parents weren’t home. Now Ai blamed her parents who trusted their daughter to run her party on her own. In the panic, Ai tumbled towards the Hakusei through the blurry fog of smoke. “Do something!” Ai cried. The windows rattled as the other girls slid the wooden boards of the windows and drew it open. The rain was not so heavy, but the wind hooted outside as thunder roared.

When the Hakusei looked up, there were tears of pain that reflected Ai’s behind her veil of greasy white. “I can’t…” she protested. But the girls were now surrounded by hot flames that charred their kimonos and frizzed their hair.

Purple lightning flashed and thunder continued to roll through the valleys. The wind rattled and shook the open windows, but inside was in its own war.

“Get us out of here!” Ai begged. “You can do magic. I know you can.”

The Hakusei clutched her once burning arm. “I can’t!” She looked at the girls cornered by the far wall through blurry eyes. Flames were at their feet. “It’s not aloud,” the Hakusei sobbed.

“Please save us!” cried the girls who’d lit the matchstick.

“Please…” begged Ai. “If you don’t we’ll all die.”

Ai didn’t mention what everyone in that room knew: that if the Hakusei used magic, it was punishable by death as per law.

“Father Mich’yl would never forgive me,” the Hakusei said, but she was already on her feet as if she were resigned to make a decision. Not even her fear for the priest of the Temple of the Crane is greater than her fear for death. She locked eyes with Ai. “The only way out is through those windows.”

“We’re on the second floor…” Momo sobbed.

“T,then have us fly out to safety.” said Ai over the roar of fire.

“Yes!” cried the other girls.

“Have us fly. Up, up!”

The Hakusei was now surrounded by a ring of fire and the girls could only see her silhouette. But Ai last remembered seeing the Hakusei’s resolve before the girl closed her eyes and moved her lips.

After that was the call of birds, her flock.

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