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Winter Pilgrim

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[Sunday, 12/6]

It was strange to sit in the sunlight beneath the bare trees without growing chilled or weary, without bracing for spasms of pain and trembling in their aftermath. Strange, too, to breathe without a sense of drowning; it might have felt wonderful, if breathing felt like anything at all anymore. Everything was different on this side, where Akinari was present but distant, solid but not substantial enough to hold the light.

He could wait like this, he thought, for quite a while.

A boy who looked a few years his junior wandered out of shadows that Akinari hadn't noticed a moment before. Unlike everyone else who had visited the shrine that day, he didn't seem to find anything inherently uninviting about Akinari's bench; instead, he sat down on the opposite side of it, smiled crookedly, and said, "Hey there. I'm not supposed to be here, either."

Akinari considered the way the light stuck to him, the way the hairs on his forearms prickled in the cold. There was something faintly, unplaceably familiar about him. "But not the way I'm not. Are you a shinigami?"

"No. Not exactly. I mean, I'm not going to drag you off or anything, don't worry." The boy scratched the back of his neck, under his long yellow scarf. "I just wanted to know what you were still doing here."

He seemed lonely, and Akinari didn't mind company. "I have unfinished business."

"Really? I didn't figure you for that kind of ghost."

Akinari smiled. "Oh, it isn't revenge or anything like that. I'm just keeping a promise to a friend."

"Ah." The boy seemed to want to say more, but he looked out at the playground instead, where the wind blew a plastic bag into the monkey bars. After a pause, without making eye contact, he asked, "Do you wish you'd had longer?"

"Doesn't everyone?" It would have been nice to see the trees blossom again. Akinari's mother might have liked to see him come of age, too, though Akinari himself hadn't anticipated much satisfaction from it. "I'm sure the alternative is worse."

The boy gave him a rueful smile. "If it's any consolation, you're not going to miss much."

"It isn't, but consolation doesn't matter much to me now."

"It isn't supposed to matter to me, either. It's... weird that I care. But it's weirder that it's weird that I care." With a heavy sigh, the boy added, "Sorry if I'm not making sense."

Akinari shrugged. Strange, still, not to be fighting tremors and gravity. "It's all right. It helps to talk, even to someone who can't understand."

The wind rose, tugging at the boy's scarf. "Does it?" he asked at length.

"It helped me." Akinari stroked his thumb over his notebook, the only thing that still bothered to transmit any sensation when he touched it. "It's how I found the answer to the question of my life."

The boy smiled again, but his eyes were pained. "That's why you're at peace, isn't it? I'm happy for you. I know the purpose of my existence, too, but..."

Silences had never made Akinari particularly uncomfortable, so he let this one spool out until it was clear that the thought wouldn't be finished aloud. "I don't think a purpose and an answer are the same thing," he offered. "My answer is that no one can know the purpose of his own life. We create it, but only others can perceive it." He shrugged again, letting the sunlight pass untroubled through his bones. "Of course, maybe I'm wrong."

The boy's face drained to gray. "That might actually make it worse."

"You'll have to find your own answer, then. I don't think you'll find it among the dead."

"Funny you should—no, there's nothing funny about it." The boy slumped backward, curved his neck over the back of the bench, and stared up at the sun until the dazzle forced his eyes shut. "Am I bothering you?"

"Nothing bothers me anymore."

"Yeah. I know that, but..." He bit his lip. "It really hurts not being able to help."

He was quiet for a long time, so Akinari reached over to touch his hand. There was sensation, but dissonant and strange, like reaching for a face and brushing the smoothness of a mirror, or expecting water and tasting milk. The rest of the world paled and receded.

"I don't need help," Akinari said gently. "As long as you're alive, you should be among the living."

With a soft sigh, the boy opened his eyes and faced Akinari again. "You're right. I shouldn't be here at all. Thank you." He squeezed Akinari's hand before letting go, bringing the park back into color and focus. "I'm sure she'll be here soon, so... see ya later."

He walked away, presumably for the same reason that Akinari chose to sit as if the shape of the bench mattered. And then there was only the wait.

The shadows grew long, and still she had not come. Akinari didn't mind. He could wait like this for quite a while.