He began wearing gloves when he was nine years old.
For the first few weeks he was continually reminded of their presence. Every motion his hands made felt odd. Every time he turned a doorknob or picked up a pencil or ran his fingers along a stair railing it felt strange, and the comforting real presence of the physical world, like so many other things, began to fade away, and eventually he began to wonder why it had ever been so real to him. It was easy, then, to forget. It was easy to smile, too, that winter. It had never been easier in his life to smile, or less meaningful.
Something had changed between the two of them, or perhaps it had never really been there to begin with. She still greeted him with her same warm smile, a kiss on the cheek, a murmured I missed you, but he was painfully aware of the distance between them. Then again, perhaps it wasn't a distance at all. Perhaps they did have the same soul, and if they were ever apart, it would draw them back together, and if they ever had their own thoughts they would look the same when viewed through the lens of memory. Perhaps. He did not think too hard about these things. Something was different; that was enough. Something in him, perhaps, had broken. But even if the wound never healed, the blood began to look so pretty on the snow that winter he did not know how to wish for healing. He had forgotten how not to smile.
The next spring, as the world began to thaw out, he did not thaw with it. His smile was still frozen, still blank. It would have taken a very astute observer to notice the changes. He was always cold those days, and wore jackets even as spring began to turn slowly, inexorably, into summer. He smiled all the time. It was so easy.
Summer was long, and hot, and dry. He felt cold even when his clothes were soaked in sweat. It was like having a fever that did not go away. After a while, he ceased to care.
The gloves felt more natural, and in winter they were welcome. Every day, the world receded a little further, until one day it was so far away he could barely see it. It became habitual, then natural, to be careful what he touched, and to stop being afraid of heat or cold, knowing it would be a second before even those strong sensations reached him. By the time he turned eleven, he had forgotten what the world felt like with bare hands.
The autumn he was twelve was early and cold. He had lived in Tokyo for two and a half years then, and began to acquire an appreciation of the city. There were so many things to do there. Trains to ride, cafes to eat at, parks to explore. The brown leaves of trees in late fall he preferred then to the flowers. Flowers, after all, everyone could enjoy, but there was a cold beauty in the death of the trees as well. Leaves fell, making room for next spring's buds. There was something more beautiful to him in the sacrifice than the exuberance of the spring. Perhaps it was the knowledge of his own youth, he mused, much as the elderly liked the spring better because they knew their spring was past.
I missed you, she would whisper into his ear as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. It was not much of a comparison, then. He could not think otherwise. The had the same eyes, and they had secrets between them, impossibly deep, so that even if one of them had wanted to tell them they would not have know how to begin putting them into words. I missed you, she told him, as she lay beside him in bed, trailing her fingers down his back. Every second we're apart. We weren't supposed to be apart so long. At all. He would smile, and kiss her cheek, and laugh, a light and almost feminine laugh.
He was still what might in a girl have been delicate - in him, perhaps, fine- boned - slender as a flower-stalk, skin as soft as cherry blossoms, wide eyes that caught one off-guard, that could see into someone's soul. He bruised easily, and was often clumsy. When he came to school holding his wrist oddly, he would explain he had fallen down the steps, and everyone nodded sympathetically. He never climbed trees. She did, often, but she seemed then so much more alive than he did, and full of grace. If he had tried to climb a tree, then, he would have fallen.
He wondered sometimes if he would be as graceful as she was, when he was older. They were the same height, the same weight, and their hands spread out against each other were even, joint to joint, palm to palm. Only the gloves made them different.
He hit puberty sometime the next summer, gained inches at a time, outgrew his gloves. She sewed him new ones, of course, out of silk, and presented them to him with her smile firmly in place. He thanked her in a voice he was not yet accustomed to. Of all the changes, that was perhaps the one that mattered the least to him, since he spoke so rarely, but it was nonetheless the one he noticed the most. That, and his difference from her - the widening of the shoulders, the way his new voice reverberated below hers, the change, even, in their smells - how her body pressed against his at night was warm and soft in all the same places, but how it brought disturbing new thoughts into his mind, and how the slight musky scent of his body had begun to differentiate from her smell, always of flowers. He did not know what to think of it.
She laughed when he mentioned it, in her way that made the whole room seem to light up. It's just because you're growing up. Of course; it was natural, perhaps, that he would begin to be aware of her femininity as his own masculinity became obvious, but still it seemed so very strange, that they should be so different. He breathed in the flowery scent of her hair and told himself it didn't matter. They were still the same.
All the class trips had found other places to be and all the salesmen had left with the warm weather, so he had the park to himself. He liked it better that way. The leaves were already falling from the trees. Soon it would start snowing.
One couldn't see very much of Tokyo from the top of the trees, he imagined, but something in him insisted that he try. So for once he hitched himself up onto the lowest branch, wavering as his muscles were extended beyond their comfortable reach, wondering if his adolescent gawkiness would depart him long enough to let him make it all the way up. But still, miraculously his gloved hands did not slip on the bark, and the bark did not scratch him or destroy the gloves as he pulled himself up, bracing his feet carefully, until he was standing, carefully, with a hand on the trunk but not feeling it.
Perhaps he was finally growing up.
He took a deep breath and reached for the next one.
It took him a little less time and a little more effort to lift himself up, and the next one made him pause for a minute to catch his breath; he had never been particularly athletic, although he had plenty of energy. By the time he neared the top, he was panting and his heart racing, from both the effort and the three near-falls he had saved himself from at the last moment; perhaps he was not so grown up as all that. Still, it was exhilarating, terribly exhausting, and he knew, no matter how many scratches his face took from stray branches, how many times his gloves had nearly come off on a snag, no matter if the bark wore through their leather and into his skin and left ragged bloody bones emerging from the ruins of his palm, he would not stop climbing. He would not be able to.
He forced himself to stop for long enough that his breath was no longer ragged and sobbing, and then he reached for the least branch, gripped, braced, and pulled up. He had to balance carefully, and his arms ached with overtension, but he managed to pull up in one motion. He was cold, aching all over, and oddly numb.
He had been right; the view was really not that good. But it was better than the view from the ground.
His hands were slipping. He could not hold on. He let go of the branch, and as he fell backwards into the embrace of the branches, his only thought was, It was worth it. He fell in fits and starts, catching on most of the branches, until they ripped through his clothes and left inch-deep gashes in his skin. This tree will scar me, but did I really expect it not to? It felt like he was falling forever.
She said that spring was her favorite time of year. She said she liked it because everything bloomed then. She would pick flowers, arrange them in old cracked teacups and elegant vases and on one occasion a fishbowl (he hadn't known they owned a fishbowl, but it suited the huge overbloomed camellia) and leave them on the countertop or in his bedroom. He would smile, his sweet, meaningless smile, and thank her for it. Don't thank me. It makes you happy. That's thanks enough.
He was fourteen, slender but strong, already having to fend off adoring glances at school. No woman did anything for him, though, except her. They lay beside each other and she twined her hand through his, kissed his wrist, flicked her tiny red tongue as far beneath the gloves as she could reach it. We'll always be together. Two of a kind. They were two of a kind, he though. They had the same eyes. They had the same smile. They had the same laugh, like a rose in bloom. She smelled of flower petals even more when she had been arranging them for him, and he loved to drink it in, like perfume or blood or the air after a thunderstorm.
I love you, he told her. The last of the sakura petals were falling from the trees in the park, where he had not dared to go back since he fell. More than anyone. She pulled him closer and laid her head on his shoulder, let him breathe in her flower smell. No, you don't. You love me the best now, but someday, you'll meet someone else. Someone you can give your whole self to.
And you? His whisper was barely there, almost fearful, as if he could ever be afraid of her.
I will always love you best. Her smile was impossibly sweet, and her breath a whisper against his lips. We're two of a kind.
The gloves had long ago ceased to bother him. He had stopped taking them off even at night. If he did not need to shower, he would have stopped taking them off at all. Touch had become something other people had, and even the touch of his own skin was strange, alien, confusing. Still, he sometimes wanted, so badly it ached, to remove them for long enough to press his hands to the bark of a tree he still wondered if he would ever climb, to rub them against it until they were raw and bleeding, until he could feel nothing but the exquisite pain of giving himself to it, instead of nothing at all.
The autumn was long, but the air smelled thunderstorm-fresh all through it, for once drowning out the stink of city air. It had been all year since he had gone to the park. He decided it was time to try again.
He began by taking off his jacket, and abandoning it on the ground, and then, driven by an impulse he could not name, he pulled his gloves off, shivering at the touch of cool air on skin that had not felt the open air in almost six years, and tucked them in his belt.
He laid a hand against the bark of the tree, and it felt right, finally. Yes. This was the way it was supposed to be. He dragged his hand down the bark, feeling the rough edges scrape into his soft fingers, felt the trail of blood he was leaving behind. This time he would not fall.
It was faster, less exhausting, and his balance was easier. Perhaps he had, finally, grown up enough. Perhaps. His hands grew wetter with blood on every branch, but he didn't even feel the pain. Perhaps the tree only asked for a gift, or it would take one, and this was his. Blood is sweeter given freely, he thought. He wasn't even out of breath. He wasn't even cold. He had stopped being cold long ago.
This time I will not fall.
The feeling of exhilaration, of effortless flight, did not leave him. Even after he came back down, and put on his gloves, and picked up his jacket with two fingers so as not to get too much blood on it, he knew that he would not be alone again.
He did not go back to the park.
The winter fell quickly, but the camellias bloomed regardless, and the tree kept flowering, spring in the midst of death. He preferred the autumn with bare branches, but the combination, the stark colors of frozen dead petals on snow, had a certain appeal as well - life cut off early, forever beautiful and perfect, protected from the ravages of time. She was like that, he thought. Beautiful and perfect, and so delicate, so easy to lose in an early frost.
The garden was covered in perfect white snow, the color of a wedding gown. He had no more choices now, he knew. None at all.
He always slept more comfortably with her beside him. It was only natural. They were two of a kind. He would rest his head on her small, perfect shoulder, and breathe in the flower scent of her hair, and run his hands along her sides, until she smiled and kissed him, her lips cold as a china doll.
He did not sleep, though, although his breathing slowed and he closed his eyes until he felt her weight shift and leave the mattress, and her lips brush his cheek. He lay in silence, unmoving, as he heard her leave the room, close the door carefully, and then he shifted until he lay in the hollow where her body had been. He opened his eyes, and stared at the ceiling, but it held no answers. His hands, in their silk gloves, still felt raw from where they had bled. They had healed perfectly, without a trace of a scar. Still, he knew where every cut had been. If he concentrated he could trace their lines with his finger. He could turn them over, too, and trace the inverted stars on the backs of his hands. If he held still he could feel them, shining with a light few humans could see, but visible, still, to a few.
He dressed and left the house shortly before dawn. Although it was a school day, and he dressed in his school clothes, he did not go there. Neither did he go to the park, where he knew the tree was waiting for him. Instead he walked along the streets of the city. He was unregarded. Something like fifteen, neat clothes and quiet smile, he was no threat and no target. He did not talk to anyone, but brushed past them, and they did not notice he was there.
The sun rose, and after a while the shops opened, commuters began to pack the trains and streets and sidewalks, children on their way to school, workers on their way to the office, housewives on their way to the grocery store. Him, on his way to nowhere. Each person he passed made him laugh a little, but silently. He never laughed aloud these days. He never stopped smiling. Sometimes he wondered if he had forgotten how.
Finally, as the light began to reflect off the snow and make the world unbearably bright and out-of-focus, he went home. The door was open, as it always was. He could hear her soft laugh, coming from the garden, next to the camellia.
He pulled his gloves off, and dropped them on the floor of the hall as he walked toward the garden, where she waited for him, smiling.