The mountain air feels biting and wild—pure Gon, Killua thinks, flexing his hands in his pockets to warm his fingers as Gon adjusts Thunder-the-not-reindeer’s saddle. It’s typically considerate of Gon to bother with both that and the mounting block just for Alluka’s sake. This Christmas gift couldn’t be more like him; generous, and something only he could pull together. Two enormous pairs of antlers decorated at the tips with red ribbons branch back over him as he rubs the stag’s trunk-like neck with strong, fight-hardened hands and murmurs something low and earnest.
Killua pushes down a stab of totally illogical envy. There are times he’s exhausted during his travels when he yearns for that kind of attention specifically from Gon—except something more suited to a human—but as if he can ever admit to such a thing.
Beside him, Alluka bounces on her toes. “Wow, he’s magnificent.”
“Yes, silly. Who did you think?” She nudges his arm. “And the ice lilies will be even more amazing!”
“You can mount next,” Killua offers generously, and rolls his shoulders. Best he doesn’t ride behind Gon.
It’s not that Thunder isn’t big or strong enough to carry all three of them. He’s twice the size of an actual reindeer. And it’s safer to ride just one, Gon has insisted, because this way they’ll all stay together.
Gon hooks his boot into the first of the three pairs of stirrups and swings up into the saddle, which puts his back to them. His sage green, softshell hiking jacket flatters him, tapering from his shoulders to his hips. Fading charcoal pants hug his muscular thighs and ass. Killua watches with fascination as Gon wiggles his butt to ensure the saddle is still correctly placed.
“I know what you’d really like for Christmas,” Alluka whispers in his ear.
“Shut up,” he hisses, jabbing her ribs with his elbow. He averts his gaze to the primeval-looking trees around them, darkening in the afternoon shade of the snow-capped mountains. Stone lanterns spaced well apart light the winding route downslope. His cheeks heat at Alluka’s giggle. “You sit in the middle,” he continues. “Where it’s safest.”
“No, you.” She elbows him back. “He’s your best friend!”
If only she’d stop teasing. She’s long since figured out his feelings for Gon and clearly can’t resist. But she doesn’t know how bad this is. He hasn’t seen Gon since July, when they celebrated their seventeenth birthdays, and his stupid, unwelcome feelings for his best friend are hard enough to keep at bay as it is, let alone if he has to hug him while they ride.
“Come on, Killua,” Gon calls, brown eyes sparkling down at him, warm as the hearth fire back at the village inn.
He can’t argue or it’ll seem like a big deal. “Right.” He uses the low pommel behind Gon’s ass and the middle stirrup to swing up onto the saddle behind him. Once there, he leans forward, unable to avoid his chest brushing Gon’s back as Alluka climbs on behind him. As she grips his waist, he straightens, setting his hands firmly on his thighs. The saddle is a snug fit, with only a few inches between each of them.
Alluka pushes him between his shoulder blades, toward Gon.
Killua remains rigid as iron.
Gon twists around, grinning over his shoulder. “Hang on tight!”
And they’re off.
Gnarled branches close overhead, their clusters of needle-like leaves rattling in the wind. Thunder rolls from side to side beneath Killua, unsteady compared to a horse, yet his six hooves are finding a safe descent. It’s hard, seated this close behind Gon, not to dwell on how his shoulders have broadened and how kissable his nape looks above the collar of his jacket. To distract himself, Killua extends his en, but finds no dangerous auras. The risks here are all natural: exploding fungi, a carnivorous understory, spider-birds that weave giant webs.
When the track pitches down, Killua grips Thunder with his knees and leans back as Gon does. His windswept hair brushes Killua’s lips. He bumps into Alluka, who’s slower to react. She pulls away and taps his spine. “Big brother, you need to hold onto Gon. Nanika says there’s a chasm coming up.”
Hmm. She knows full well he has perfect balance.
Gon bows forward, inspecting the trail through Thunder’s antlers. In the forest light, his hair gleams with green highlights. They’re even prettier than Killua remembers. “Yeah, I can see it now. It’s okay, Killua. When I got back from Kite’s, I washed my jacket.”
“The smell of that area clings. I knew you’d have to hang onto me though, so I washed it a few times to get rid of the last trace.”
Past Gon, far downhill, Killua makes out a pair of taller stone lanterns. They frame the start of a timber and rope bridge that hangs over a narrow ravine. Large holes gape where planks should be. Thunder will have to jump.
Which means he has no choice. As Alluka’s hold tightens around him, he wraps his arms around Gon’s waist. Gon’s hair is soft against Killua’s temple as he peers past. “You really think I care if you smell?”
Gon chuckles. “Well, I thought maybe, since you weren’t hanging onto me…”
“After the amount of training we’ve done together? That’s stupid.”
“Are you sure? Because, to be thorough, I used this new aftershave Mito sent me.”
“Um, yeah, I can smell that.” A subtle masculine scent near Gon’s collar. His jacket feels like it’s fleece-lined, slightly squishy against Killua’s chest and firm underneath. He valiantly resists the urge to snuggle into Gon, but his nose is planted right beside the corner of Gon’s clean-shaven jaw. Killua feels as warm and happy as if he’s inhaling a barrel of hot, spiced wine.
Alluka rubs his back in a wordless signal. Oh, right. He bites his lip. “You smell nice,” he adds, even though it’s embarrassing, in case his silence has given Gon the opposite idea.
“Really?” Gon’s cheeks stretch, and Killua can tell he’s beaming.
“Really. Mito has good taste.”
Alluka groans softly and butts her brow into the back of his neck.
“Mhmm,” Gon says. “She said girls might like it.”
Luckily no one can see Killua roll his eyes. “Have any girls got close enough to say so?”
“No…none as close as you are now.”
Killua’s face stings as if he’s been slapped. What did Gon mean by that? Is he too close? Has he given himself away? He draws back, though he keeps hold of Gon’s waist. At least the timing is distracting. Alluka’s grip around him tightens as Thunder gathers speed. Adrenaline pumps through him as they hurtle toward the edge of the ravine.
“Get ready,” Gon yells, then a jolt compresses Killua’s spine and they’re airborne. Gon’s waist flexes, supple beneath his hands. His stomach floats and he cries out in sheer exhilaration. Alluka’s whoop fills his ears, then they land in a thunder of hooves, momentum throwing him forward into Gon’s back as Alluka slams into him. Gon crows with laughter. Thunder lopes up the other side of the dip as if the jump was nothing.
“We have to do that again!” Alluka’s wriggling with excitement against him.
“Gon, you were right. This is better with just the one reindeer!”
Gon’s hand closes over his and squeezes. Killua’s heart thuds against his ribs. This doesn’t mean Gon feels for him in the way he does for Gon, but he should listen to his own words. They’ve trained together so many times that he shouldn’t worry; he should take advantage of the fact that he can reach further around Gon and hold him. Life is too fragile and Gon too precious to him. For this brief journey, he won’t let go. He’ll just live in this moment, love for his best friend a pure, wild pressure in his chest. The forest sweeps past, and Gon is close against him, warm and solid, snug in his arms, and Alluka is safe, embracing him from behind. If they can’t reach the ice lilies, he doesn’t care. This feeling is worth the journey. Especially since, too soon, he’ll have to let go again.
As Thunder carries them around the moss-covered ruins of a temple at the bottom of the valley, a gentle clinking echoes through the forest. Between the trunks ahead, a bluish-purple shimmer appears—the lake, lit by the ice lilies, which only bloom for the few days and nights around winter solstice. The stone lanterns continue down a set of broad steps.
“Ohhh!” Alluka breathes, gripping Killua’s shoulders. “I can’t wait to get down there.”
Killua’s just as keen, but first they have to see to Thunder. Sensing no danger, he nods. “Go on. We’ll join you in a moment.”
The instant Thunder halts, Alluka drops to the ground. By the time Killua’s dismounted, she’s running down the steps.
Gon bends to rub Thunder’s neck, telling him what a good boy he is. Killua opens the saddlebag and retrieves Thunder’s treats, three huge watermelons. He places them before Thunder, in a shallow hollow by a fallen column. The stag grunts and huffs, then lunges for them just as Gon’s sliding off him. Gon jerks sideways, avoiding a wayward swipe from Thunder’s antler and ends up on his ass on the ground.
“Fuck,” Gon says.
Laughing, Killua reaches for Gon’s hand and pulls him him up. Gon beams at him.
They bump shoulders as they take the steps down, each collision firmer than the last. Both of them snigger as it becomes a competition. Gon cannons into Killua and tugs him back before he goes flying off the side. Gon’s strong grip makes Killua’s stomach flutter. He shoulders Gon back just as hard, forcing him to yelp a protest, and hangs on. Best friends can hold hands if they want. No one can read anything into it. They’re only mucking around, like always.
The lake comes fully into view as they emerge from the forest.
“Wow,” Gon says, eyes wide.
Killua’s breath catches at the sight. Ahead, a wooden pier stretches into the water, surrounded by ice lilies spreading in all directions, covering the lake to the far side. At the end of the pier, Alluka is sitting on the railing, hanging on behind herself as she leans out as far as she can reach over the lilies. Her white hoodie shimmers in their glow.
“Mmm,” Gon says as they wander down the pier. “No one mentioned they’d smell this good. Sweet but not too strong, like…lychees.”
The delicate scent fills Killua’s nostrils, like pear and vanilla. From here, he can see that each lily is the size of his spread hand. At the centre of their translucent, ice-like petals, their stamens glow with iridescent pollen in tones of crimson, violet and electric blue. When the lilies bump together, constantly shifting in the breeze, it sounds like a thousand birds softly chirping pure notes. They spread in a myriad of soft colours to the the far side of the lake, perfectly matching the twilight sky and the last of the sun glowing on the snow.
Killua’s throat thickens at this much beauty. He leans onto the railing between Alluka and Gon. “You couldn’t have chosen a better time of day.”
Gon’s hand tightens around his and he finds himself squeezing back. The hard-earned toughness of Gon’s hand feels like it belongs against his own.
“Look!” Alluka says, pointing to a series of boulders emerging from the water some distance from the pier. “They go out all the way from the shore. I’m going to explore them.”
“Hang on,” Killua says. “What if you slip? You might get tangled in the roots underwater and not come up again.”
She frowns at him. “Big brother, Nanika and I will be fine. You don’t have to look after us all the time. Besides,” she stares meaningfully across him at his hand still entwined with Gon’s. “You two lovebirds need time alone.”
“Alluka!” Killua glares at her as his cheeks heat. But she’s already flipping around, jumping down from the rail and jogging back down the pier before he can find a protest that’s less embarrassing than saying nothing.
He doesn’t let go of Gon’s hand, because that would be caving in to her teasing. Neither does Gon let go, though he must have heard.
“Lovebirds,” Gon smiles weakly. He’s looking down at the nearest lilies, their light glowing off his face.
“Sorry,” Killua says. “Just because we’re holding hands doesn’t mean...”
“I know,” Gon says.
“She reads a lot of romances.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”
“I’d…” Killua clears his throat and weaves his fingers through Gon’s. Since now there’s no room to misinterpret anything, it helps him feel less stressed. “I’d make a lousy boyfriend anyway, for—for anyone. I mean, I don’t have a normal life. My family still assassinates people, even if I don’t. Plus my skills are in demand, and I’m always on the move ‘cause of all the secret shit I get involved with. I can’t be there for anyone. Just being my, my other half, would put anyone in danger.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, Killua.”
He shrugs. “That’s just how it is.”
“Well, I think you’d make anyone a perfect boyfriend.”
“Yeah?” He angles a sideways glance at Gon. “How come?”
“Well, you’re really smart. You’re fast and strong, and your nen’s awesome! And you’re loyal. You risked your life to save me and Alluka, and even for people you didn’t know. You’re amazing.”
“Mmm. Those things might make me a good hunter, but most people don’t look for them in a boyfriend.”
Gon narrows his eyes. “What people?”
“Just…people. I don’t know.”
“So…not just girls?”
Killua feels himself flush. “Not necessarily, no.”
There’s a moment of silence. Then Gon says, “So, what do you think people want?”
“I don’t know.” He rolls his shoulders. “Good looks, I suppose. Someone they can have fun with. Who understands them. At least, someone who can be with them.”
“Are those the things you want?”
“I guess. Maybe.” Killua licks his lips. “That’s an embarrassing question.”
Gon eyes him, taking him in from his elbows where he’s leaning on the rail to his heated cheeks. “You do realise you’re extremely handsome, don’t you, Killua?”
His eyes widen. “You think so?” Hurriedly, he looks away. “Uh, you don’t have to answer that.”
“Well, I do think so. And, we always have fun together.”
“I know, but. That doesn’t mean I’d be fun for everyone, Gon. It would take someone really special to handle me with my life.”
“You make that sound impossible. Yet I understand you. And I know you can’t be there all the time.”
“Not everyone’s like you.”
Gon looks away, then stares back down at the lilies. “Killua, do you think I’m good looking?”
“‘Course.” He studies a spider bird diving down to the lilies in the middle of the lake. “You know you are. You’re fuckin’ hot.”
“I know girls like me,” Gon continues stubbornly. “But, do you find me attractive?”
Killua’s throat goes dry.
Every scenario he’s ever imagined where he’s confessed and been rejected runs through his head lightning fast. If he tells the truth, it could cast a new light on their whole friendship. Gon’s going to feel betrayed that Killua has kept his feelings secret. Going forward, he’ll start to second-guess everything Killua does or says. He’ll worry about leading Killua on and shy away from doing things they used to not even think about.
“That’s embarrassing,” he rasps. His palm feels wet against Gon’s.
“Ah, sorry,” Gon says, with a lop-sided grin. “Guess I shouldn’t have asked.” He pulls his fingers from Killua’s and claps him on the back. “I’m going to check on Alluka.”
Killua winces and lets Gon walk away. He didn’t say ‘let’s go’. That hurts more than that he felt the need to drop Killua’s hand.
Alluka is crouching on a rock a short way out in the lake, plucking petals from an ice lily and dropping them into the water. Her hands glow with the blue from the pollen. When she glances up at Killua, her eyes are Nanika’s voids. Nanika’s smile turns down.
He swallows. She can tell that every step Gon takes away from him is ripping a piece from his heart. Of course Gon only asked that question because now he knows Killua likes boys, he has to be sure there’s no confusion in their friendship.
The pier vibrates as Gon covers the distance to the shore. That’s not his usual light gait.
Killua’s stomach gnaws. Something’s wrong. His emotions have gotten to him. He’s not thinking straight—he knows Gon isn’t like that. He’s known for a long time—all the way back to when Palm had a crush on Gon. That didn’t make him uncomfortable, even though at the time she was psychotic. He’d even taken her on a date. When Killua had asked him about it later, Gon had just mentioned that he told Palm he couldn’t give her what she needed.
And what had he just told Killua?
One by one, he’d ticked off every item on Killua’s vaguely worded list.
Fuck, what has he done? You idiot.
“Gon, wait—” In a burst of Godspeed, he’s at Gon’s side, shoving his hands in his pockets as they turn to walk along the shore. “It’s fine. I don’t mind you asking…” Killua rolls his shoulders, clenches his hidden fists. “If—if I’m attracted to you.”
Gon eyes him sideways. “You’re not too embarrassed?”
“Yes, I’m embarrassed. Obviously. But.” He clears his throat. “I do find you attractive.” He flushes so hard his face hurts.
Pink rises through Gon’s cheeks and his brows pleat. “You’re embarrassed that you find me attractive?” There’s a raw look on his face.
“Uh, no! That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean, Killua?”
“I mean. I’m attracted to you, and I’m not embarrassed about that. But I am embarrassed to talk about things like that. I find it hard to talk about my feelings.”
Gon stops. “You have feelings for me?”
Could this get any worse? Killua nods miserably and croaks, “Yes.”
And now he’s ruined everything. He kicks a stone at a huge tree root crossing the ground ahead, then risks a glance up to see how bad things are.
The corner of Gon’s mouth is tilted up. Is he laughing? No. His deep brown eyes are focussed on Killua as intently as when he’s analysing an opponent in a fight. “So…am I special enough then?”
“Special enough?” They leap onto and over the tree root in perfect synch. The shore ahead curves around toward the rocks.
“To be that person who can handle your life.”
“That person…?” Butterflies whirl in his stomach.
“To be your boyfriend.”
Oh fuck. There must be something in the lilies. He’s trembling. “Gon. To be my boyfriend, you have to want me like a boyfriend does. It’s more than best friends.”
“I’m not stupid, Killua.” Gon reaches for Killua’s hand, tugging it his from his pocket, and winds their fingers together. “I do want you that way—even if you seem to think that’s impossible. When we held hands before, I thought you might feel the same. That made me really happy.”
Warmth blooms in his chest. “Me too.”
“So from now, can we be boyfriends?”
Is this real? Killua squeezes Gon’s hand tight enough to assure himself it is. “You’re not worried?”
“About how this might change our friendship.”
“No. I’m looking forward to that.” Gon’s expression is open and admiring. His eyes shine in the twilight, which highlights the faint sheen of sweat on his freckled cheekbones. Killua wants to run his finger over them. “I’ve thought about this for a while. I didn’t know if you’d think of me that way. But we’ve already survived so much together. I’m sure that this will only make things better.”
The air feels charged. What happens now? Fuck. Does this mean he can kiss Gon? He bites his lip and reaches for Gon’s hip. He’s never kissed anyone except on the cheek, and now, an urge is pulling him toward his best friend’s generous mouth, which is slightly parted, tilting toward him.
The sound of boots hitting stone jerks Killua’s attention round. Alluka is leaping from rock to rock back toward the shore. Killua sucks his lip in.
“Killua—” Gon pulls him into a fierce hug. “I don’t want you to feel embarrassed.”
Killua holds Gon just as tightly, drawing in the subtle scent he now knows Gon wore in the hope it might please him. His eyes heat.
It feels like reality has merged with Killua’s dreams. Everything is familiar, yet the change feels electric. His skin tingles wherever Gon brushes against him. For the rest of their time at the lake, he’s holding hands with Gon or draping his arm around him, and there’s no mistaking the meaning. Dusk is falling. As the air grows icier, Gon warms Killua, leaning into him and holding him close. The lilies are more luminous than ever, casting a blue glow upon the trees around the shore.
Alluka explores the rocks and returns while there’s just enough light to leap from stone to stone ashore, before Killua calls to her. Almost as if she’s making the point that she’s quite capable, big brother, thank you very much.
“So?” she asks Killua as she plants her feet before them. She casts a pointed glance at Killua’s hand, planted firmly around Gon’s waist.
“Yeah, you were right.” Killua rolls a shoulder, but there’s the weight of Gon’s arm around him and a squeeze. He can’t stop himself grinning. “Just don’t call us ‘lovebirds’ or I’ll zap you. We’re boyfriends.”
Alluka beams. “I knew it!” She jumps and claps, then leans in and kisses Gon’s cheek.
Their return is a little different from their departure.
Alluka sits behind Thunder’s antlers at the front of the saddle. Killua’s in the middle, holding her waist. Gon’s behind him, chest pressed to his spine, strong arms wrapping round him. Thunder’s hooves rumble as he carries them from lantern to lantern. To each side of Killua, massive tree trunks recede into blackness. Gon nuzzles into him as they ride, and their cheekbones brush.
It occurs to Killua that right now, they have privacy, whereas people will soon surround them back at the inn. Even Alluka’s attention is fixed on the trail ahead between Thunder’s antlers. She’s finally stopped teasing him.
He twists slightly, dropping his gaze. Gon’s mouth is close to his. His heart skips a beat. Heat rises in his cheeks and he can feel the pull of his usual embarrassment. But where’s that got him? He almost let Gon slip through his fingers because of it.
He needs to change it. At the very least, when they’re alone.
So he leans in until their mouths brush.
Gon’s lips are cold from the wind, thrillingly pliant as they open. His breath mingles with Killua’s, then Thunder’s motion rocks them apart, but the flash of heat through Killua’s stomach stuns him. It’s an extraordinary kiss, better than he dreamed a kiss could be, even when his dreams were…more elaborate.
Gon whispers. “You’ve made this the best Christmas ever.”
“No, you.” Killua flicks Gon’s arm where it’s resting across his stomach.
“That make you feel better?”
The flick or the kiss?
“Yes.” He leaves his hand on Gon’s. The faint notes of Christmas music drift down to them as they pass the lantern at the edge of the forest. In the distance ahead, the windows of the inn are ablaze with candles. Joy burns inside Killua, brighter than all of them.