By Black Rose
The snow fell in drifts from the evening sky to catch the glow of the street lamps, ice crystals flaring more light than white for a brief moment in each circle of illumination. From the window Ran had sat and watched, all afternoon, from the first haphazard flakes to the thicker flurries. He had watched the flakes melt against the heavy pavement, their tiny existence created, fulfilled and spent in one long plummet through the darkening sky.
He had watched the streets turn wet and slick as the gray afternoon light faded into dusk. Dust on the pavement became mud, splashed black and brown over the feet of anyone foolish enough to venture out. Yet the snowflakes themselves were white, perfect and pristine, fluttering down from the heavy dark clouds. From dark to dark, Ran had thought, but between the darkness there were flecks and shimmers of light.
Contrast. That was a good word for it. But as the evening dwindled on, the darkness growing until the light was reduced to splashes of brilliance beneath the street lamps, he wondered if there might be a better one.
Gingetsu found him there, late in the afternoon when the lamps had just flickered to life. The older man had stood for a time, watching the snow, or maybe watching the boy who was watching the snow - Ran preferred not to know and took pains never to ask, not even by accident. It was, he thought, an impolite thing to do.
"Would you like to go outside?"
If the question had caught him by surprise - and there were times Gingetsu did, his mind as still inside as his face could be outside - Ran might have laughed. It was an old question, one that called to mind a barefoot boy who had stood barely as tall as Gingetsu's coat buttons, a boy who had rolled the older man's shirts up to the elbows and still had trouble finding his own hands.
He didn't need to roll the sleeves so far, nowadays, and some days it seemed as though he gained an inch against the fabric with every passing week. Not that Gingetsu was prone to the loan of his shirts when Ran had, as he was quick to point out, perfectly serviceable shirts of his own. If Ran would only stop growing out of them so quickly.
That boy, barefoot in the cold rain, seemed lifetimes before. Lifetimes and whole months. Ran had smiled, watching the light and shadow of his reflection - contrasts again, captured in glass - mimic the motion. "No," he had answered, just as he had then, just as he always would. The thick glass was cool beneath his hands, the warmth of his skin leaving prints of fragile frost tendrils to fog the surface. Ran breathed out, letting his breath wreath the glass in translucent white that diffused the falling snow and the street lamps into indistinct hazy light. "Do you think it will cover the streets?" He could - almost - imagine it in his mind's eye, the dark city streets transformed by a layer of white.
"No." If Gingetsu said it then it would be true. Ran let the image go, watching as the cold ate away at the imprint of his breath, transforming light back to dark. In the reflection of the glass he could see Gingetsu behind him, the other man sketched in shadow against the lit frame of the door beyond. He wondered if, from the other man's perspective, he himself were light or dark against the plane of the window.
Outside, the last remnants of daylight were fading and the snow continued to fall. "I like watching it," Ran had said. Gingestu had said nothing, but Ran hadn't expected him to. Months before, the boy he had been would have asked if he were allowed. Gingetsu had always replied that Ran didn't need his permission; Ran, after awhile, had stopped asking.
Gingetsu, Ran knew, had been out earlier in the day. From the distorted reflection of the window Ran couldn't tell if the older man's coat was dappled in wet patterns from the snow or not. "What is it like?" he had asked, and if there had been a trace of wistfulness in his voice Gingetsu had been polite enough not to bring notice to it.
"Cold," Gingetsu had replied. He might equally have said "wet", or "windy", or "muddy", but it was enough.
When he had gone, Ran let his breath mist the window glass again. His fingertip, drawn through the fog, sketched darkness into light, only to be eaten once more by the cold until it faded as though it had never been. But his breath, blown onto the glass, could call forth the stroke once more in a dim, hazy sigil against the darkness, as though the glass remembered.
He added a second stroke to the first, mirror image drawn in reverse. Two halves of a whole, their bowed tips touching as their bodies curved outwards. When the cold ate it once more he didn't call it back again. It was enough that he knew where it was and that his breath could call it forth like a magician's illusion spun from thin air. Outside, the snow continued to fall, from dark clouds to dark, muddy streets, with the lamps lighting the way in-between all the long evening.
The two strokes might have been several things, at first glance, or maybe many things when looked at longer. But perhaps what they most resembled, sketched in fog and glass and the print of Ran's slender finger, had been the simple shape of a single leaf.
The next morning had dawned grey but clear, no trace of snow lingering in either the cold crisp air or the mud strewn streets. Ran had put water on for tea, then washed out the last dregs of cold coffee in Gingetsu's pot and put a fresh one to brewing. The smell of it as it dripped into the carafe, dark and sharp, had overwhelmed the quieter scent of his tea leaves steeping. Gingetsu had appeared in the kitchen before the coffee maker had hissed and burbled to a stop, a third of the carafe disappearing into his mug just as though it had never been.
Ran rolled back the too-long sleeves of the shirt that he was wearing - military starched and crisp in its whiteness - and took out a package of eggs and a pan. Gingetsu, watching, drank his coffee and said nothing.
They ate in the silence that had become customary of their mornings, Gingetsu wrapped in the morning news reports, Ran in his own quiet and the faint scent of spring blossoms that rose like a promise from his tea cup. When Gingetsu had risen to rinse his plate, Ran had been too engrossed in chasing down a last bite of egg with the crust of his toast to look up.
A second tea cup thumped down on the table beside his own, startling him. Gingetsu, his expression a study in the art of opacity, had only pushed the cup towards him when Ran had glanced up in surprise.
The ceramic was cold to the touch, rimmed in frost from the freezer. When Ran peered into it he found that the white glazed bowl of the cup had grown texture, a thin layer of fragile ice crystals that dusted the surface and which were already fading away in the warmth of the room.
"You asked," Gingetsu said, when Ran looked to him once more. Embarrassed, Ran had ducked his head. When he reached into the cup the snowflakes melted against his fingertip, insubstantial as air, wet to the touch and yes, cold.
He sucked them from his finger, remembering the taste of raindrops and the chill, wet feel of them as they had slid down his hair. When he looked up, words of thanks on his lips, he found that Gingetsu had already left.
Ran smiled. The cup between his palms was cold and slick with condensation. He never asked. It wasn't polite. But sometimes... sometimes, he couldn't help it if he didn't need to. Gingetsu understood.
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