Footprints in the Snow
by Fushigi Kismet
They searched for him in the silences, in the time between half-recalled memories. His presence, the faint traces left behind, the faded path of tears, were like a dream.
He remembers that day, when he presented his master with a platter of nuts and fruit, neatly peeled, a silken robe he had secretly ordered, and the pair of slippers he had sewn with his own two hands. The fabric held a pattern of flowers, magnolias, perhaps. His memory was still clouded at the best of times. Some days it seemed he could only remember the shape of his master's smile and the color of his eyes. He could only remember looking at the flowers - red? Had they been red? - as he sewed clumsily under the poor light of a dim lamp and thinking, How beautiful they are - the flowers that an Emperor may tread upon.
His master had said to him, softly, What is this for, Kouri? What have I done to deserve this bounty?
And he had replied, merrily, blithely as a bird, Because I've decided it's Christmas, and one is supposed to give presents to the people we love on Christmas!
Ah, his master had said, bending to look him in the eyes, understanding without understanding, knowing that this was some tradition of that other world and that other life that his beloved kirin had left behind, and what shall I give to you, Kouri?
He had shaken his head and smiled and let his master lift him into his arms. They turned together to look at the snow falling outside, his head snuggled against the warm crook of his master's neck.
When they found him, he was filthy and haggard, age and endlessly long years etched upon his features. But none of that mattered. The shape of his smile and the color of his eyes were the same and Taiki embraced him, tears streaming from his eyes in a surfeit of joy and a surfeit of grief, his gaze flickering to the dark red staining his master's bare and cracked feet and then away. He could not shut his eyes nor could he turn from the sight in front of him, for even now, his master was beautiful.
"Kouri," his master said brokenly, stroking the shorn dark hair, "Kouri! Kouri! How hard it must have been for you!"
One snowflake fell and traced its path down his master's cheek, and then another. "Will you stay?" he murmured, stroking the side of his Kouri's face, looking at him in desperation as though he might vanish again at any moment.
"Yes!" Taiki said with a strangled cry, burying his face in his master's hair.
Gyousou tilted his face up to the sky, a vast expanse of graying white, and watched the snow come spinning down. "Ah, I never did give you anything that year, did I, Kouri? What shall I give you?"
"This is all I want! Just this!" And the kirin held him closer still, his face a mess of tears, his throat unable to swallow against the stone that had lodged itself there.
The weak arms went around him with a shadow of their old strength. One hand reached up to touch the back of the shorn dark head. "How selfish I am, Kouri, that I will accept this too, though I am not worthy."