One, two, are you ready yet?
The snow is beginning to fall. There is a thick blanket of it already, deep enough to leave footsteps. The sound of a single boy’s voice echoes but is muffled through the white. It takes a long time before the answer comes back to him–
Three, four, not just yet.
When Ren had been born, there had been something clutched tightly in his fist. When the nurse prised it open, she found a small piece of bone against his palm, which had been held so tightly that it had left an impression in the soft baby flesh. It was a sign, she told his mother and his father, the boy was someone who was reborn to atone for some grief from his past life, something so terrible that he could not slip the chains of the world and move on to a better place. It was better to encourage him to discover the source of his old attachments and resolve them rather than allow him to grow up in ignorance. The piece of bone was put into a silk pouch, expensive enough to be worth a full week’s work, and this pouch was tied around Ren’s neck: in this way, his memento could be kept close to him always.
Ren is a quiet boy, one who is given to long silences and slow deliberate words. He only speaks when spoken to, and never tries to insert himself into any conversation that may be happening around him. Even as an infant and then again as a child, he was not given to play: he sits and watches the track of birds across the sky instead, or his mother as she does the washing and the mending, his eyes watching the movement of her hands carefully, as if the answer to his riddle were in her simple repetitive movements. Other children in the village don’t dislike him, exactly, but he is strange compared to the rest of them, pale and thin and weak where they are brown and solid and strong. Whenever he is invited to participate in running games, he shakes his head and offers no explanation for his refusal.
The adults put their heads together and they say it is because Ren was an Atoner, because he’d clung so tightly to his past life that he could not reconcile it to his current one. It was better that he did not get involved with the children, then, lest he influence them into having the same attachments that were doomed to remain unfulfilled. Over time, the invitations from the other children grow fewer, until there are none. The adults who see his parents in the marketplace still bow politely and make conversation, but no one ever asks about Ren. His mother starts adjusting his clothes to make the collars higher, to hide the silk pouch that he wears around his neck and never removes, even to bathe. His father starts buying heavier coats for him, which swallow up his thinness and give him the impression of bulk, at least during the cold of full winter.
His parents also worry. Late at night they lie awake and they say to each other: what could it have been, that was so terrible that he could not have shaken off the chains of karma and was dragged back to earth as an Atoner? Was there someone else waiting for his return, who would become an Atoner in turn if he never found that person again? Would they wake one morning and find him gone forever, without even a sign of where he might be headed? Where the other children drink up touch and indulge in hugs and other playful tussling, Ren always goes very still under any sort of contact, like a wild deer startled in its foraging. There is a part of him that is so distant that he hardly seems real, a ghost-child that stays in their house and drifts through their lives, theirs but not.
If Ren hears these whisperings, he makes no indication. He works slowly but diligently, first at the tasks of children–the small mending, the washing of vegetables, the repair of broken sandals and umbrellas–and then at the tasks of men in the fields, and he never once seems to notice his slowly growing status as a pariah. Instead, he continues to lose himself in the movement of the birds in the sky, and, when the weather is so, the drifting flutter of falling snowflakes. The faces of the people he knows by rote memory never seem to surprise him–as he grows, he makes no friends among his peers, and only the village elder’s wife ever wins anything like a smile from him. If the pouch around his neck ever bothers him, he gives no indication.
Three weeks before Ren’s sixteenth birthday, the troupe comes to his small village. The others his age abandon their work at the first sound of bells and strings and pipes, clustering in small groups as the wagon creaks gently to a stop. The head of the troupe is an old man, but his back is still straight and his eyes are still bright, and he leaps from the driver’s seat with the grace of a young man. He lands with a flourish, then puts his hands together and bows politely to the village elder, who bows back with equal courtesy.
“I have heard that the paths through the mountains are already blocked over with snow,” says the troupe leader. “If it’s not too much trouble, we’d like to request shelter here until the spring comes. We won’t be dead weight, though; though our skills are in one area, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of other work.” He pats his own arm then, which is corded and solid with muscle.
“The snows are always earliest and worst here,” the village elder says. He strokes his long beard and looks at the collected members of the troupe with a practiced eye. He smiles and he says, “And more than anything, songs and stories help pass a long and dreary winter. I and mine welcome you and yours to this village; may the blessings of the Traveler allow you to rest your wings here until it is safe to move on.”
“And may the grace of the Hearth Tender smile upon this village,” the troupe leader says with an equal smile. He turns then and claps his hands. “All right! You heard him, we’re setting up!”
As if his words were a dam breaking, the people of his troupe spring into action, and the people of the village begin to venture closer. Other than the old man himself, there is an old woman whom he introduces as his wife, or as close to it as they come, a handful of men and women who have raised children to adulthood and left them behind to a more stable village life, and a few who are only teenagers themselves. The youths of the village make eyes and are smiled back at; it is a good meeting. One boy in particular is popular among boys and girls alike; his skin is white as the snow, but he is nimble and quick to laugh, and his eyes are a rare bright blue, the same as the cloudless summer sky. He says his name is Haru, and a mother clucks her tongue and says it is a good strong name for him: Queen Spring must be pleased to share one of her many names with him.
Haru laughs, tossing his head back, and the sound is bright and glad. “I hope so!” he says. “Otherwise, I’d be in a lot of trouble! It’s only because of this name I’ve ever gotten anywhere in life.” And he winks, and the girl whose mother had spoken blushes bright red, ducking behind the woman in a sudden unexpected shyness. Others crowd in, though, all admiring, and he laughs for them all in turn, so infectious and glad that no one takes insult at his teasing.
The whole time, Ren remains in the fields and never looks up, even as the commotion dies down, and the members of the troupe are, for the moment, integrated into his village. It is only when he returns home, a basket of his pickings under his arm, that he sees this other person in his home. The guest mat is laid out by the fireplace, and there are two boys who are sitting on it, their bare feet thrust out to the roaring fire. One leaps to his feet when Ren comes in and bounds over, grinning widely.
“You’re Ren,” he says. “I’m Haru. It’s nice to meet you! We’ll be staying with you until spring.”
Ren tilts his head. He says nothing. Haru goes on, as if he’d been answered: “Your parents actually asked for us specifically! When they said ‘Ren,’ though, I was expecting a cute girl.”
“Haru,” says the other boy by the fire, whose eyes are brown and whose name is Jin–Haru’s cousin and fellow actor–“that’s rude to our guest.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” Haru protests, and he claps both hands on Ren’s shoulders, beaming. “I was going to say, even though I was expecting a cute girl, it turns out you’re a pretty cute boy, too. I’ll accept you having such a pretty name.” He looks straight into Ren’s eyes, and his gaze is clear and unwavering. “All right, Ren?”
Ren just blinks. He is still as stone under Haru’s hands, but the knuckles of his own are white now, upon the edge of his basket. Jin clucks his tongue and gets to his feet as well, coming over to hook fingers in the back of Haru’s shirt and tugging. “Oi, Haru, leave the poor kid alone. You can’t just throw yourself at people all the time and expect they’ll always like you right away.”
“They always have before,” Haru protests, and Jin says over him, “Only because you’ve got spring’s own luck guiding you. Come on, give him some space,” and drags him back to the fire. It isn’t much space, but it is enough for Ren to take a sudden breath, and enough for him to have room to slip past the watchful pair and into the kitchen, where his mother is washing rice and humming to herself. She looks up when Ren enters and she smiles, looking nearly young.
“Oh, Ren,” she says. “I heard, it seems you’ve met our guests.”
Ren nods, dropping his gaze. He kneels before his mother and puts the basket down. There isn’t much in it–roots, mostly, foraged from the fields and the base of the mountains that surround their little village, a freshly-killed squirrel that has been neatly wrapped for cleaning, and nothing else. His mother looks at the contents and shakes her head, and though she is still smiling, it turns a little sad.
“Don’t worry about that,” she says. “Because we have guests, they’re paying us for the room and board. Your father’s gone to the market to buy us a roast.”
Ren glances up at her for a moment, pressing his lips together, then looks down again. His mother dries one of her hands on her apron and reaches out to rest her fingertips on his thin shoulder.
“I know you’re worried,” she says. “But they’re both nice boys, it seems, and the elder has already given their troupe permission to stay. When that one boy heard about you, he insisted that he stay with us. You must try to be nice to them, all right? If they leave…” Her other hand, still submerged in the milky water with the rice, curls into a slow fist, then forcibly relaxes. “Anyway, they will be sleeping in the living room. That is the only place with enough room for both of them, after all.”
Ren nods again. He begins to take the roots he’s gathered out of the basket, laying them out in order of size, small to large. When he’s done with that, he ties back his sleeves, keeping his head bowed; he can feel his mother’s sad eyes on him the entire time.
“Promise you’ll be good, Ren,” she says abruptly. “I know you don’t really like people. But they’re here, and for better or worse, we’ll have to take care of them. And they’ll take care of us, while we’re tending to them. Maybe if they’re happy enough, there’ll be something left over when spring comes. It’s only until the seasons turn.”
He wets his lips. His voice is a quiet thing, rusty with disuse, but he whispers anyway, “Yes, Mother.”
As promised, Ren’s father returns with a solid haunch of a deer’s leg and other treats; the squirrel is cleaned and skinned and already cooking when he returns, cheeks red from the cold, but grinning like a schoolboy. Haru and Jin move to help him at once, and Ren, hovering in the kitchen doorway, just watches as the three of them haul the meat and the extra rice and the sweets and the bundle of winter greens in the middle of the living room. It’s a lot of food, and Haru immediately goes for one of the boxes of sweets; he gets one in his mouth before Jin smacks the back of his head and snaps at him to be patient.
“But I’m hungry now,” Haru whines. “Even that squirrel’s not going to be enough for me! I just want something to eat, Jin, leave me alone!”
“If I left you alone, who knows what would happen,” Jin grumbles. “You’re being rude to our hosts again.”
Ren’s father just laughs, though, shaking his head. He sounds genuinely pleased as he strips off his heavy winter coat and boots. “It’s fine, it’s fine–I bought it so that we could all share.”
“Sir, please don’t encourage him …”
In the meantime, Haru opens the box again and sneaks a second piece of candy. He catches Ren’s eye, from where Ren is standing, and winks once, deliberately. His fingers are sticky with honey, and he licks each one clean, never breaking eye contact. Jin smacks him again as soon as he’s done, and they’re back to squabbling over the proper time and place to eat candy; Ren ducks back into the kitchen and keeps his head low as his mother bustles past him to greet her husband and exclaim over what he’s brought back home. Ren goes to kneel by the cookpot instead, where the rice-and-squirrel porridge is slowly bubbling away. His face feels unexpectedly hot, so he leans in close to the steam, and lets that be his excuse.
When his mother comes back to the kitchen, laden with meat and winter greens and one of the boxes of candies (Haru and Jin are still arguing about the one left behind, while Ren’s father occasionally laughs but says nothing), she is beaming and happy in a way she has never been, in all the years of his life. She puts her burden down and leans down to pass her fingers through Ren’s hair once, which is so startling that he looks up–his mother has not been one for casually touching him in years.
“I think they might be our good luck charms, those boys,” she tells him softly. “Your father bought all of this and still had money left over, but when he tried to return it, they refused to take it. They said to keep it. With this, perhaps we’ll be able to afford more in the spring.” She folds a hand over her breast and closes her eyes, still smiling, and Ren stares at her face and chews the inside of his cheek until it tastes raw. Then she opens her eyes and the spell is broken as she resumes business as before, tasting the porridge and declaring it nearly finished, and setting him to the task of cleaning and preparing the bitter greens as she attended to the business of the deer. Ren does as he’s told, keeping his head bowed the entire time.
Dinner is a peculiar affair because it is noisy: Haru and Jin tell stories of their travels and Ren’s parents laugh and ask questions, teasing and scolding in turn. Haru talks about one village where Jin got drunk and nearly got them run out by his behavior (to which Jin retorts that perhaps Haru’s misremembering, as he was the one who had been drunk enough to take a swing at the elder’s wife when she came to check on them), and Jin talks about Haru’s inability to memorize his lines until the day before a performance, so everyone always frets that perhaps this will be the time when their plays are a failure and they’ll be laughed at and not paid, and Haru protests that at least he does remember them, and every single play’s gone off with a hitch, hasn’t it?
Because you have spring’s own luck, Jin says again, and Ren’s mother laughs and laughs and says that perhaps when he gets older, Haru will finally learn some temperance, as spring itself does when it begins to mature into summer.
“But Auntie,” Haru says, his eyes wide and guileless, “it’s not nearly as much fun that way.”
They all laugh again, four different voices clashing and discordant, and Ren puts his plate down and leaves.
Outside, it’s snowing. He puts his hands in his sleeves and takes long slow breaths, staring up at the sky and blinking away the snowflakes that get caught in his lashes. It isn’t a heavy fall yet; most of the ground is still visible through the faint white powdering. He watches his exhalations puff out and fade away and tries to will his unease away.
“Ren,” Haru says from behind him. Ren tenses, but doesn’t turn around. “Ren? I’m sorry. Your mother says you’re not really fond of noise and stuff like that. I guess we’re tiring you out, aren’t we?”
Ren lifts one shoulder stiffly, then drops it again–a shrug. Haru lets out a sharp breath that’s nearly a laugh.
“All right,” he says. “I guess I get the point. Sorry. I’m used to people liking what I have to say.”
Ren shrugs again.
“Say something, all right? It’s kind of creepy, with you just staring all the time. You can talk, can’t you?”
Ren glances back. Haru is standing in the open doorway, framed in the light from inside. There is no more noise, as if there was already enough snow to muffle everything. He licks his lips quickly. “… Close the door,” he whispers. “It’ll get cold.”
Haru’s eyes widen. “You can! I knew it! C’mon, say something else–”
Ren ignores him, moving towards, then around him, trying to reach for the door. Haru catches his wrist before he can; his fingers are both warm and very strong. He tugs that hand up, and Ren has to look up as he tries to tug his hand free. There is something thoughtful in Haru’s sky-blue eyes, the beginnings of a frown on his smiling mouth. There is a long silence that passes between them, and then Ren sets his own mouth into a scowl and yanks his hand free, grabbing at the open door and pulling it closed, shutting them both out of the house together. He stops then, hand still resting on the door, breathing hard.
After a moment, Haru laughs for real; the sound is soft, nearly rueful. “Bet you didn’t mean to do that,” he says. Ren glances briefly at him, and he goes on, “Now it’s like we’re stuck together. I mean, for now.” He holds up both hands, as if to show Ren he’s unarmed, then tucks them deep into his own sleeves. “Sorry. Jin’s always yelling at me to think more, but I’m not very good at that. I didn’t mean to scare you. Or bother you, if it’s that.”
Ren just glares. He doesn’t let go of the door, fingers curling.
“No good, huh?” Haru asks softly. “Guess I should have expected that. Sorry.”
He reaches out then, putting his hand a good distance above Ren’s on the door, then pushes it open. Ren opens his fingers when Haru pushes, and lets the door open, watching silently as the other boy heads back into the little house, this time closing the door behind himself. He rubs at his wrist where Haru’s fingers had been moments before and turns his back to the house and goes back to watching the slow steady descent of the snow.
Five, six, are you ready yet?
His breath comes in little steaming puffs around his face, and there’s so much snow that he can’t see much beyond endless white below and endless black above. He presses his hands to his face, to keep some of the cold from his mouth and nose, and to breathe on his fingers to warm them.
Seven, eight …
Eventually, a sort of pattern is reached. Ren wakes early enough to avoid both of the guests, going out to the fields long before his father begins and stays long after he stops. Because of the money that Haru and Jin pay, there is always a full table and even frivolous snacks to take when he goes out, but Ren still wanders through the long winter-dead grasses and kneels on the cold dirt to dig up roots where he can find anything that looks promising. His parents look less pinched and worried than ever before, and whenever Ren comes creeping back to the house, they are all laughing and talking, filling the house with noise. Just listening to them tires him out, so he goes to the kitchen to take his share of food–his mother, observant still, leaves his portion there for him–and then takes it outside, to eat under the eaves as he watches the snow fall. The rest of the troupe is also integrating into the village–he sees girls he has grown up with with their arms hooked with strange young men, and a couple of his peers nervously preening for unfamiliar girls who giggle at their earnestness.
Haru does not try to speak to him again, not since that first night. Ren is relieved; he’s not certain he wants to deal with whatever it was that Haru wanted in the first place, with that sly suggestion from the candy-eating. It’s too strange, just like everything about the other boy, and Ren knows it’s better to be done with it, separate from him even when they’re sleeping in the same house.
Then Ren’s sixteenth birthday comes, just shy of Longest Night and its accompanying Snow Festival. In the morning, as he’s preparing to creep out again, the elder’s wife comes to his home and knocks on the door. Being the only one awake, Ren opens the door and looks down at the old woman, whose name is Mai and whose face is familiar and solemn in the gray light of early morning.
“Happy birthday, Ren,” she says. “Will you walk with me?”
He nods. He does not have the heavy coat his father bought for him, but he steps outside anyway. When Mai puts out her hand, he takes it slowly, linking their fingers together, and together they set out, across the fresh layers of new-fallen snow, out of the village and down towards the fields, and the mountains beyond them. They walk until they are nearly to the mountain itself and the village is barely visible as a dark, nearly shapeless stretch behind them, and then Mai stops and turns to look at Ren, taking his other hand in hers, peering up at his face.
She says, “When the snows melt this year, will you leave the village?”
Ren’s brows draw together; for just a moment, his fingers tighten on hers, then relax.
“You will not find what you’re looking for, here,” she says. Regret is heavy in her voice, and she presses her lips together at first, like she can’t make herself say the rest of it just yet. “This village is too small, and you already know everyone in it. Except for the occasional traveler or group, what new faces do you find here? With this–” She pulls one hand free of his, and as Ren’s hand drops limply, she stretches to touch the small lump under his shirt, from the silk pouch strung around his neck. “You have to find the reason you’re Atoning, Ren. Whether it’s a person or a task left undone, you won’t find it here.”
Ren licks his lips quickly. “I’m fine,” he whispers, his voice thin. “I like this place. I like it here.”
“Ren,” the old woman says. “There’s no place for you here.” She presses again on the pouch under his shirt and says, “An Atoner who does not find his reason for rebirth will become a Hungry Ghost. If you die here, this is where your bones will be laid to rest, and it will be this village that you love which suffers for it.” Her fingers close for a moment around the pouch, like she might rip it from his neck, and then she lets go of both that and his other hand, stepping away from him. “When the mountain paths thaw out in the spring, we will prepare a sending-off for you.”
He stares at her face for a moment, then lets his head fall forward, staring at the ground instead. For a moment he feels both hot and dizzy, like his legs won’t quite hold him up; when the moment passes, it feels as if a long, strange fog has finally lifted from his senses. Everything feels sharper and clearer than before, like glass polished clean of scratches and dust so that the light can shine more easily through. Before him, Mai is still talking: they hope to send him off with the visiting troupe, so that at least for a short while, he’ll still have companionship and protection, and when he sees fit, he may part ways with them. They have not yet spoken with the troupe leader, but her husband hopes to approach him to-day, and they will know his decision before the spring thaws. The village does not hate him, it never has, but it recognizes he is not one of them, and certainly he must have noticed it by now. It is for the best to do this before the worst happens–
“Grandmother Mai,” Ren says quietly, “I understand.”
The old woman goes silent. She says nothing else, but walks around him to leave him. He half-turns to watch, and her shoulders are stooped more than before, her gray head bowed so low he almost cannot see it over the rise of her back. Though she does not look back, she drags her feet as she goes, slowly, slowly, back to the village. Ren looks away from her then, leaning against the nearest tree and tipping his head back. He is tired and he is cold, and there is no snowfall to watch and clear his mind, so he is instead only able to watch his own breathing. He reaches for the pouch at his neck, tugging it out of his shirt so that it lies warmly against his palm. When he closes his fingers, he can feel the small bone-fragment that is nestled within, the symbol he had been born with and lingers even now–it must be a person, he thinks, for the first time; it must be a person that is waiting for him, because otherwise, his mark would have been something different.
Stories of Hungry Ghosts are common enough, all mindless hunger and rage, searching for something to satisfy their never-ending hunger, too lost in their own selfish griefs to realize what they have become or what will assuage their pain. Even in a tiny village like this, there are stories told to keep children behaving–Ren has never needed anything like that. Now, he thinks, perhaps he does–and it’s his own shadow that he must be wary of.
When he straightens finally, turning to walk to the fields, he sees, beside his own tracks and Mai’s dragging steps, a third set of footprints in the still-fresh snow. It should surprise him more than it does, he knows, but he follows them back, through the field and down into the village itself, until they lead to his own door. Haru is leaning against the wall, under the eaves, where Ren normally takes his dinners, and his normally-laughing face is as stonelike and solemn as it has ever been in the weeks since his arrival to this village. Ren stops at the sight of him, rocking up onto his toes for a moment, body tense. He tilts his head.
Haru says, “So you’re leaving with us?”
Ren shrugs a little. He’s beginning to feel numb again, distant from his own body and self. Haru’s blue eyes darken.
“You are, or you’re not,” he says flatly. “Pick one.”
Ren wets his lips. He glances at the path, where Mai’s footsteps have moved on, back towards her own large home. Haru follows his gaze and snorts.
“Leader will say yes, of course,” he says. “Your village’s treated us well, better than most places this size would. He likes all of you. Are you coming with us?” He moves forward now, and there is aggression in his posture and his walk, which makes Ren freeze up again, automatically. “But you’ve got to make that decision. If you dither, I’ll tell Leader that you don’t want to, that they’re forcing you to leave for no reason, and then–” He starts to reach out, as if to touch Ren, and on sudden, impulsive instinct, Ren lashes out, slapping that hand away before it can make contact. The sound is very loud, in the cold winter morning.
“I …” Ren glances one way and then the other, everywhere except for Haru’s startled face, “I don’t know. They just. I only just. Today is the first time. I heard of anything. Like that. I …” He has to stop then, take a few deep breaths to keep up with the words that are bubbling up inside of him–for the first time in years, he thinks dimly, if ever. “I don’t know. I don’t want. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I. If I leave, I won’t. But I don’t. I’ve never left. Ever.”
“Hey,” Haru says, gently now, his expression contrite; he doesn’t try to reach out again, but his posture shrinks back and softens; he’s no longer threatening, but still hovering. “I’m sorry, I thought–”
“I’ve never,” Ren gasps, desperately, fixing on a point on Haru’s chest to stare at instead, “I’ve never! Father sometimes–sometimes goes. To the next village over. But not me. I stay home. The farthest–I’ve only ever been to the mountain. No farther. I–” He blinks, and is startled at the sudden burning in his eyes. “I want to go home. I want to stay home.”
“I know,” Haru says softly. “Leaving home is never easy.” The door behind him opens; from the corner of one eye, Ren can see Jin stepping out to join them, closing the door behind them. “Not that we ever really had a home, the two of us, but we’ve picked people up before–most of them don’t last beyond the first major city.”
“Haru,” Jin says, “you’re going to scare him more.”
“I’m not–” Haru lets out an explosive breath. “All right. All right. Ren? Ren, look at me for a moment.”
Ren keeps his gaze stubbornly set on Haru’s chest–but he sees how the other boy’s hand moves, reaching up, towards his own neck, and in spite of himself, he watches as Haru reaches into his own shirt and pulls out a small silk pouch, strung on a black cord around his neck. His eyes fly up to meet Haru’s, and he sees the other boy is as quiet and serious as he’s ever been, and he knows his mouth is open and his face is wet and that it’s suddenly difficult to breathe. Haru holds his gaze for long seconds, still holding up the pouch, then quietly tucks it back into his shirt, out of sight, and smoothes a hand down his front so that the pouch lies flat–nearly invisible, as it was before Ren had known it was there.
“I get it,” he says. “All right?”
Ren stares at him for a minute longer, mute again, then turns and flees.
As evening descends, snow begins to fall again: softly at first, and then with more urgency, covering everything in a slowly-thickening blanket of white. Ren watches it, tucked up on a tree branch, his hands stuck into his sleeves as far as his elbows. His toes are beginning to go numb, but he just tucks his body into a smaller ball, staring blankly up at the sky. He feels cold and hot by turns, strange inside of his own skin when a day before, everything had fit together neatly and easily. His breath steams and fades in small puffs each time he exhales, and the pouch around his neck is heavier than he can ever remember it being. Once, he fingers the cord, as if he could tear it off and fling it away himself, and absolve himself in that manner, but in the end, he tucks his hand back into his sleeves and bends his head to his folded arms.
It’s already dark by the time he hears a voice calling his name at the foot of the tree. He shifts just a little to look down at Haru’s pale face, and in the dimness his blue eyes are nearly black. Nearly familiar.
“Your father was gonna come look,” Haru says. His voice is hushed, but it still carries. “I said I’d do it, since it was my fault you ran away.”
Ren blinks once.
“I didn’t tell them, though,” he adds. “About me. That’s not something they need to know. It’s bad enough they know about you–I guess they’d have to, since they’re your parents, this time around.” He stamps his feet a few time in the snow, rubbing at his arms, but his attention never wavers, staring up at Ren in the tree. “We heard that there was someone like you here, you know. Like me, I guess–stories like that, they travel.” He tries a smile, but it’s weak and tired. “Leader thought it’d be good for us to come here–we did it on purpose. Because we thought if we were here long enough, we’d figure out who the right person was, but it was pretty obvious from the beginning. Or it was to me, I don’t know if the others guessed.” He snorts again, ducking his head for just a moment to blow on his hands, then looks up at Ren again. “Hey, won’t you come down?”
Ren sighs and looks up. The snow is still falling heavily, and his body feels rather pleasantly numb. He hears Haru take another breath–probably to call him down again–and slowly unfolds himself. It hurts a little to force blood back into his limbs, and he has to move carefully as he sets hands and feet for the slow climb down. Haru waits silently the whole time, hands over his mouth, trapping his breath between his fingers, and his expression is solemn when Ren drops the last jarring distance from the lowest branch to the ground. The shock is enough to make him sway and his knees buckle, but before he can hit the ground he hits Haru’s chest instead, and there are strong solid arms that hold him close for a moment, then gently push him back to his feet. Ren stares up with unblinking eyes into Haru’s face.
“Come back inside,” Haru tells him. “You’ll freeze to death this way.” He smiles then, a wry, almost self-deprecating twist of his lips. “Then you’ll be no good to anyone, not even yourself.”
Words rise up in Ren’s throat and almost come out. Instead he bows his head and nods a little. When Haru puts a hand on his elbow to gently urge him along, he doesn’t flinch away–just lets himself be guided. The lights are off in his parents’ house when they return, but Jin is still awake, sitting in front of the door like some sort of sentinel beast. He rises to his feet as they approach, meeting Haru’s eyes for a long moment, then opens the door to allow them both inside. There is food set out in the living room still–two meals’ worth–and Haru pushes Ren to sit in front of one, then takes a seat across from him.
“You’re gonna eat, right,” Haru asks. “I’m not going to have to feed you?”
Ren shakes his head. He picks up his chopsticks and flexes his fingers a little, testing their dexterity. He eats mechanically, staring at the food without really tasting it. Jin passes through the living room only once, ducking into the room that Ren shares with his parents, and doesn’t emerge. Ren pauses, and Haru says, “He’ll sleep in there tonight. Jin’s a good person. He’s not like us, but we grew up together. He knows all the bad things about me.” There is something heavy in those last words, but when Ren glances at him, Haru is looking at the curtained doorway, and not at Ren.
Ren licks his lips. “Why?” he rasps.
“Because I like you,” Haru says, still not looking at him. “And I wanted to talk to someone who knows what it’s like.” He doesn’t move at all, but Ren swallows and again becomes keenly aware of the cord around his neck, and the similar one hidden under Haru’s shirt.
“Talk,” Ren whispers.
“Jin would say I’m taking advantage of you,” Haru says, and turns to look at him. He smiles, and for a moment it’s the same brilliant thing that had charmed so many of the villagers when they’d first arrived, with the winter snows and the freezing of the mountain passes. “Would I be?”
Ren puts down his chopsticks. “… Maybe,” he says softly. He makes himself look up, meeting Haru’s eyes deliberately for the first time, and he says, “I’m cold.”
Haru puts down his own bowl and leans forward, across the low table, and covers Ren’s hands with his own. He doesn’t smile, but his eyes are warm and his touch is careful.
“All right,” he says.
Up close, Haru smells mostly of woodsmoke and the clean traces of snow; there are bits of cold wetness still caught in his hair. The first thing he does is lean his forehead against Ren’s, bringing his hands up now to rest on Ren’s shoulders. They are warm, even through the material of Ren’s jacket, and a fleeting smile touches Haru’s face again.
“I have a strong heart, Leader says,” he says, “so no matter what, I’m always warm.” Gently he pushes back, moving around the low dining table, and Ren lets himself be eased until he’s on his back on the rush-mat floor, blinking hard up at him. “If you’re cold, I’ll take care of that.” He remains in a half-crouched, half-seated position over Ren, moving to untie first sash, then to pull the two folded edges of his shirt open, and Ren shivers at once, flinching away from the cold. He opens his mouth, but all the words he wants to say are ash in his mouth when Haru spreads both hands across his thin chest, and the warmth from those fingers seem to sink into his very bones, and he can feel his skin tightening into goosebumps from that.
“You know, I was right,” Haru says. “You are cute.”
Ren blinks at him, then frowns, brows drawing just a little together. “Would that have been better…?”
“Ren is Ren, isn’t he?” Haru says. He leans forward now, his hair framing his face, making his blue eyes seem larger and darker than before. “You’re the one who’s the Atoner, like me. So it doesn’t matter.” He presses his lips to Ren’s bared shoulder, and his mouth is dry and a little rough and very warm, just like his hands, which track their way down, across Ren’s ribs, along his sides, to settle on his hips. Ren’s own hands flutter uselessly for a moment for lack of anywhere to settle before he decides on Haru’s shoulders, which are surprisingly solid through his own clothes, like knotted wood under Ren’s fingers. His lips move, but he can’t say anything as his belt is unfastened and tugged loose, only squeeze his eyes tightly shut and clutch at Haru’s shoulders like a lifeline.
“Hey,” Haru murmurs. His voice is low and rough. “Hey, relax. I’m not really taking advantage of you here, am I?”
Ren forces himself to open his eyes, and sees that Haru’s face is hovering just above his, openly concerned. He draws in a quick breath and it’s hard to breathe, and he can see how Haru’s face darkens, the way he begins to retreat, and he does the one thing he can think of–he reaches out and snags his fingers into the collar of Haru’s shirt, searching until he finds the cord hanging around his neck, then curls around that, tugging until it pulls free. He slides his hand down that length and closes his hand around the pouch itself, pressed tightly to his palm, as he imagines he carried his own symbol at birth.
“I’m fine,” he says. “You don’t have to worry.”
Haru’s eyes are wide and surprised, but then he smiles. “You’d better mean it,” he says. “I’m not in the habit of doing this wrong, I’d rather not start.”
Ren tightens his fingers around the pouch and tugs until Haru is forced to lean down further. He pushes himself up onto his elbows to meet the other boy halfway, and presses their lips together. It’s a little awkward and a lot strange–when he thinks about it, Ren can’t remember if he’s ever kissed anyone before, even his own family: he’s seen others do the same, so he knows what it looks like in theory, but what he notices most is the warmth of Haru’s breath, smelling of rice, right there against his own mouth. Haru makes a small startled noise, and then his mouth opens, and there is wet pressure that flickers against Ren’s mouth, encouraging him to do the same. They kiss at that angle for a moment before Haru reaches to gently unhook Ren’s hand from his necklace and presses that hand to the floor, shifting above him to kiss him harder now. There is a dull roar of blood in Ren’s ears, but his nerves feel oddly calmed, and he puts his other hand on Haru’s shoulder again, kneading at the solid strength of it.
Haru’s kiss is like the snowfall, he thinks, closing his eyes–a warm snowfall, one that calms him and warms him through. He hisses once when gently callused fingers press against the sharp rise of his hipbones, at first instinctively flinching back from that touch, and then pressing tentatively into it. Haru spreads fingers wide on Ren’s lower belly first, then finally moves down, and his fingers warm further against the softer skin it finds down there. When they close finally over Ren’s cock, he makes a startled garbled noise, a dozen words compressed into a few syllables, exclaimed into Haru’s open mouth, and which are returned to him in a low, fond chuckle.
“It’s all right,” Haru tells him, barely more than a whisper, like a secret language into Ren’s skin as he begins to stroke slowly, firmly, with a confidence that must come from practice, “I’ve got you.”
And Ren finds himself unable to do anything but gasp and cling to Haru’s shoulder with the one hand, lacing the fingers of the other tightly with Haru’s own. It feels strange, hotter than he’s ever been before–and consistently so, without the flashes of distant chill he has become so accustomed to over the course of his life. He paws restlessly at the floor with both feet and whimpers into Haru’s mouth over and over, each breath nearly a long low whine. He slits his eyes open and sees Haru’s face, tight with concentration, and he feels the slow deliberate flex of his body as his arm works.
He opens his mouth to say something finally–Haru’s name, perhaps–and then his back snaps up into an arch, a startled yelp bursting from him when he comes, a sudden hot rush in his veins that leaves him unable to think for long seconds as his body folds down again to rest upon the floor. Haru chuckles again, roughly but not unkindly, and he says, “Was that so bad?”
Ren shakes his head slowly, breathing hard still. When Haru kisses him again, he responds at once, fingers kneading restlessly against the other boy’s shoulder. When it breaks, he opens his eyes at last, looking up at Haru’s face–familiar but different now, with this shared not-secret between them. “What should I–?”
“There’s a lot,” Haru tells him, pulling back just a little, letting go of Ren’s other hand to push his hair back from his face. He’s smiling now, easy as before, something quite fond in his expression. “Whatever you want to do, though. You get to decide.”
Ren pushes himself up onto his elbows, chewing his lips for a moment. He glances down to his own splayed legs and Haru’s wet fingers resting against his lower belly, and he goes bright red, turning his head partially away. “I–”
“This can be enough,” Haru tells him at once. “If you’re not ready.”
“It isn’t,” he starts, then shivers. He feels cold again, abruptly, as if the small distance between their bodies is too much, so he pushes himself up further, closer to Haru’s body again, and he brings his arms up to wrap them both around Haru’s neck. It takes a little bit of manuvering, with his body still too sensitive in places, but he puts his legs around Haru’s hips as well, hooking his ankles to press them together. He presses his face into that solid shoulder, and he says, “I want to. Let’s.”
“Oi, oi,” Haru murmurs, and his clean hand presses up, under Ren’s shirt to rest against his naked back, supporting him. “Are you sure? That’s a big thing. And where did you learn about something like that, anyway?”
“I want to,” Ren mutters, though his face is so red it hurts, and he can’t make his hands untangle themselves from the deathgrip he has on Haru’s shoulders. “I want to, you need, I want–”
For a moment Haru is silent, just holding Ren without moving, and then, gently, he says, “No.”
“Maybe later,” Haru says. “I mean, it’s going to be a long winter. If you don’t hate the sight of me tomorrow, that means we’ll have plenty of time later.” Carefully now, moving slowly, as one might approach a wounded creature, he reaches up and grasps Ren’s arm with damp fingers and pulls. “Tonight, we’ll just do it like this. Let go a moment.”
Ren struggles for a moment, scowling to himself, but Haru’s thumb strokes a sweep across the tender skin of his inner elbow, and he shudders and finally acquieses, forcing one hand to let go of Haru’s shirt. When he does, his wrist is caught and guided down; it takes him a moment to realize where it’s headed, and then Haru is pressing Ren’s palm against his belly, the supporting hand on Ren’s back stroking gently, soothingly, before his wrist is released.
“Just do as you like,” Haru tells him in a low husky voice. “Tonight’s because you’re cold, isn’t it? This will be good for both of us, then.”
Ren takes a deep breath. He nods, though he keeps his hand where it is when Haru shifts, tugging his own pants open one-handed. Only when Haru shifts again, pulling them to lie side-by-side, that one hand still resting warmly against Ren’s back, does Ren actually move, catching his own upper lip between his teeth and sucking it in concentration as he presses his hand into those open pants and finds something that is summer-hot and hard between his fingers–almost like the warmed bark of a sapling’s branch, but different at the same time: alive, moving just a little under his touch; he can feel an unfamiliar pulsebeat there when he closes his fingers around that heat, and Haru’s entire body jerks a little, a low sigh exhaled heavily against Ren’s hair.
“That’s fine,” Haru says, his voice rough. “You can hold a little harder. Like I did for you.”
Ren gives a tiny nod, but he can’t make himself grip that tightly yet–he’s worried he might not be able to feel as much himself if he does: the skin of Haru’s cock is as soft and smooth as the fine silk that carries Ren’s symbol of Atonement, but warm and it feels alive; he has no better way to describe it. He bites his lip harder and starts to stroke, listening to Haru’s groans as he does and pressing himself closer to the other boy. It feels good and it feels strange, and his own breath is starting to come fast and nervous in his chest now when Haru’s cock jerks in his hands. This is his doing, he thinks with some awe–he’s the one who’s doing this. He closes his eyes and whimpers a little himself, and then Haru moves again: the hand on his back slides down to press low, nearly against his hips so that they’re now flush with Haru’s own, and then Haru rasps at him, “Like this,” and tugs Ren’s hand away. Before he can protest, though, Haru is guiding him again to take both of their cocks in hand, his own fingers curled warmly around Ren’s.
“Like this,” he whispers again, and Ren can only whimper and nod, closing his eyes and stroking them both hard and fast, and this time, when he comes, Haru’s open mouth is pressed against his own, and this time he manages the words, but there is only thing he wants to say–
“Haru,” he breathes, warm to his core. “Haru.”
In the morning, Ren wakes up and feels odd. It’s not just the unfamiliar sensitivity of his body–something inside of him feels lighter, freer, different from anything he’s ever experienced in his life.
He sits up and his hand automatically goes to the pouch around his neck. Carefully, holding his breath, he slips the cord off–for the first time in his life–and opens the little silk pouch before he upends it over his palm.
Nothing falls out. He keeps holding his breath, pressing a finger into the pouch and feeling around. It’s completely empty.
“Oh,” he says aloud. Beside him, Haru rolls over.
“Oh?” he says, and opens his eyes. Though his gaze is hazy, it sharpens in a moment, fixing on the pouch in Ren’s hands. A second later he’s sitting up himself, ripping off his own pouch, biting his lip so hard that it goes white between his teeth. He doesn’t try to turn his pouch over, rooting around it for a moment, then meets Ren’s eyes. When he lets his lip go, there are dark impressions on the flesh left behind. He says, “This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Only in stories. It’s not …” He stops and puts a hand over his face, his shoulders trembling–not crying, Ren thinks, but something nearly that, for a hysterical sort of relief that’s more than a single lifetime old. “Magic like this isn’t real.”
Ren leans in and presses his lips to Haru’s cheek: a kiss and a benediction both. “Maybe,” he says, “sometimes, it is.”
Nine, ten, I’m coming to find you.
“What did you have?” Ren asks, as they watch rain fall from the sky–rain finally, and not snow, the first sign that spring is finally on its way. “Here, I mean.” He taps his chest as an indication.
Haru stretches, luxurious, his long lean body draped, catlike, against the wall and its low windowsill. “A horn,” he says. “Blood-red, actually. Scared the hell out of my parents, I bet. It was like a demon’s horn, or something.” He pulls a quick face, then laughs. “Stupid, huh? Demons don’t come this far west–they’re all over on that side of the world.” He waves a dismissive hand in precisely the wrong direction, but Ren just covers his own smile with one hand and says nothing. “I still don’t know what it means, though. It’s gone, so that’s good, but the rest of it …”
Ren leans closer to him, hand creeping until it finds Haru’s, and laces their fingers together. “So we’ll find out,” he says quietly. “Whatever it means.” He turns his face to the window again, eyes tracking the movement of water down across the glass. “In the spring, when we leave, we’ll find a place that’s just meant for us. Maybe we’ll find our own story out there. … But even if we don’t, that’s not such a terrible thing. Right?”
And Haru turns to him with a smile that is more warm than bright, and squeezes his hand. “Guess not,” he says. “No ghosts for us.”
Ren kisses his cheek, and says, “Nope. Never again.”
Once upon a time, in a village that sat high up in the mountains, a little boy was born with two small horns growing from his forehead, red as blood even when the rest of his face was wiped clean. His own mother was terrified and cast the infant child out into the snow, where the head monk of the local temple found and took the child in to raise himself. The boy grew up in the silent and holy space of the temple, but he always wore a wrap around his head to disguise the horns that had made his own mother recoil in disgust. He was quiet and thoughtful, but he loved to watch the snow fall and he loved the little songbirds who came to the mountain in the spring, and with permission from the monk, he would feed the birds whenever he could.
At the same time, in the same village, there lived another little boy who had been so lovely at birth that his mother wept tears of gratitude to the gods for the gift she had been given. He was a healthy and inquisitive child, and he liked to explore the wilder places of the mountain whenever he could. He also loved birds and the newly-fallen snow– and so it seemed inevitable that one day, he came to the temple grounds while the horned boy was feeding his birds, and the wind came up sudden and fierce, blowing away the wrap that hid his horns. So ashamed was the horned boy that he ran and hid in the temple, but the village boy came and sat on the other side of the sliding door and spoke to him through it, saying that he thought the horns were very interesting, and that he’d never met anyone so different before, and he liked it. He talked and talked until his voice went hoarse and faded, and finally, the horned boy peeked out from behind the door and said that he, also, had never met anyone like the village boy, and if it pleased him, would he stay?
So began a friendship between the two boys, one that stretched beyond weeks and months and into years. Sometimes the woman who had given birth to the horned boy would look up and see the son of her body walking and talking gladly with the village boy, who was by now lovely enough to rival any of the maidens their age and she would feel something that was not quite regret to see him this happy, but she remembered too clearly the horns that were hidden under his wrap, and the scars they had left on her body during birth. So she said nothing, and the two boys grew into youths together, and you could not see one without the other being close behind.
The game the two boys liked to play the most was hide and seek, for no one knew the mountain and its secret places as well as these two. They would play this game long into an age when others their age had their eyes turned to girls and it was always the same: one, two, are you ready? three four, not yet; five six, are you ready? seven eight, not yet; nine ten, I’m coming to find you. They were inseparable, and even if one could always find the other, it was a game that was played less for the sport and more for the fun, their two voices echoing long after the sun had gone down and the village had lit its lights for the evening.
Then came the day where the village boy’s mother and father came to him, and they said, You are nearly a man now, and you must now start thinking about having a wife and a family. We would like grandchildren in our age.
But the village boy balked at this. I have no need for a wife, he said, for there are plenty of orphans at the temple who would be glad to be welcomed into a family’s name.
You will need companionship, said his mother and his father.
I have a companion already, the village boy said, and he is my good friend for now and for ever.
Then his parents went away with their hearts troubled and the village boy went up to the temple to call for his friend, who came at once to continue their eternal game of hide and seek. Their laughter was clear and clean in the mountain air, and those who heard them nodded to each other and said yes, these were two who would suit each other very well, whether or not they took children into the family name or not.
However, the village boy’s father remained troubled. He alone was one of the few who knew the truth about the horned boy’s appearance, for the boy’s mother was the father’s cousin, and on her deathbed she had confessed all to him, as well as the terrible scars he had left upon her as a birthing infant. He was troubled at the ill omen he was certain the horned boy represented, so one night, as his son slept, the father went up to the temple and, disguising his voice, called for the horned boy, who came at once. And the father took his family’s sword, which was said to have been made itself from the horns of a demon and the only thing that could kill others of the same kind, and he thrust the sword into the horned boy’s chest, so that it pierced his heart and threw him to the ground, so that the snow was painted red with his blood. And the father took the body and threw it not into the wilds of the mountain, but into the stream that wound its way from the top to the bottom, so that the body would be carried far, far away. Then he went back to the temple and cleaned away the bloodied snow, and then he went home and slept untroubled for the first time since his son’s confession.
The next morning, though, the village boy went to the temple as before, and called for his friend. And this time, his friend would not come, though the village boy called and called until his voice was hoarse. He went in to speak with the monk who was now very old, but still head of the temple, and he was told that his voice had been heard the night before, though he knew that he himself had not come, and that his friend was gone. The sheets of his bed were cold. Confused and unhappy, the village boy returned home, and that night he dreamed: his friend came to him, covered in blood with his skin rotting away to show the bone underneath and weeping. Oh, oh, my friend! You have tricked me! he cried, and when the village boy reached for him he only pulled away. The village boy reached out again, and this time he pulled his friend’s littlest finger away from the rest of his hand.
Who has done this to you, he cried, who has made you so?
One whom you hold dear, said the horned boy, and when he wept, his tears were blood. One whom you have trusted always and whom we had always believed in. He sleeps in the same house as you, and you are untroubled by this! With this, I am caught by the chains of the world, for you were one I believed in always, and I see how my trust is repaid.
And the village boy wept and protested, for he knew of the sword his father kept. I will look for you, he promised, and until your body is given a proper burial, I too will be chained to this world. We have always been together as two, and we will continue to be so until both our sins are atoned for. Please promise you will wait.
I will be in the world somewhere, said the horned boy, but I do not promise to wait. And then he vanished and the village boy woke from his dream, and weeping, he took up the sword his father had used and saw that it was still red with blood in places. He took it to the bedroom of his father and his mother, and what happened there has never been said. But afterwards he walked out from his home and into the wilds of the mountain, with tears down his face and his clothes rent and torn. He vanished into the mountains, and the villagers could hear his voice echoing, week after week, one, two, are you ready yet? nine ten, I’m coming to find you. They spoke to the monk of the temple, who shook his bald head and said that there was nothing he could do, not without the bodies of the two boys, which of course were nowhere to be found.
Someday, perhaps, the old monk said, as he stroked his beard, white as the mountain snow, they will find their own peace, and that voice will stop.
It is said, though, that while they did fade in time, every now and then, on the night of a full hunter’s moon, when the snow is tinted red from the light, you can still hear voices crying to each other in the mountain wilderness:
One two, are you ready yet?
Three, four, no, not yet.
Five, six, are you ready yet?
Seven eight, no, not yet.
Nine, ten, I’m coming to find you.