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First Snow of the Fall

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It's the coldest day Ghost has ever experienced in Hallownest. The brownish grass is sprinkled with something powdery and white, and their breath clouds in the air. Grimmchild refuses to leave the cottage. When Ghost tries to take him out of their basket, he squeals angrily. It is no matter. Whether their child wants to come with them on this trip makes no difference. They've traveled alone plenty of times. They're not offended at all.

Okay, maybe a little offended.

The sky is a sheet of grey clouds, from which more of the white fluff drifts slowly downwards. Ghost watches a puff melt on their outstretched hand in wonder.

Behind them, the front door creaks open. Ghost is surprised to see Hornet wearing a fitted hood over her horns, with flaps that extend down to her shoulders. Her clothes of a heavy, soft-looking material, and more if it covers her hands. She has her needle propped over her shoulder.

“Going out to the cliffs again, little Ghost?” she asks, sizing them up. “I should have made you a winter cape.”

She steps past them, leaving footprints on the whitened stone. Ghost follows her, and the two walk to the stag station together. They put a hand on her poncho, just to feel the fabric. It really is soft. They'd fall asleep on their feet if they wore something that comfortable.

“It's flannel with a wool trim,” she explains, sensing their curiosity. “Even the underground is cold—especially Deepnest, where no light penetrates.”

They pass through the frosted glass doors of the station, and step onto the elevator. With a shudder, it descends. “I'm visiting Mother—I mean, her shrine.” Hornet looks down at her feet, and Ghost strokes her poncho again. “You should worry about yourself. This weather is harder to bear above the surface.”

The Stag arrives seconds after Ghost rings the bell. Despite his advancing age, he easily carries the two along down the tunnels. Beneath the surface, the air is cold and damp. The changing of seasons has affected Hallownest all the way to the bottom. Hornet had explained once that in its heyday, it was fairly insulated against the elements, but became more vulnerable after its collapse. Still, there are pockets where it's warm. Greenpath and its related areas, for instance, remain self-sufficient no matter the weather. The acid probably keeps the earth warm.

They arrive at the Stag's Nest first, and step onto the platform. As per courtesy, they check for any newly-hatched eggs, and report back to the stag. There are none, and no signs of the baby stag, either. Disappointing as it is, there's nothing Ghost can do about it. They barely know how to take care of the child Grimm left them as it is. Speaking of him, they hope he's not too cranky by himself. They hope he doesn't give Hollow a hard time. Too late they realize, they should have found someone to babysit. Hollow is competent in many ways, but they are inexperienced in childcare.

They easily repress their worries, and focus on getting to their destination. That white stuff, they should ask about the name, falls thickly at the Howling Cliffs. When they leap from the ledge of the nest, they land in a big pile of it. It comes up to their horns, forcing them to cut a path with their nail. Surprising how something that looks like cotton ends up soaking through their cloak. Watching the white-capped mountains from the cottage had been fun, but walking through it is a different matter. The change in landscape makes them miss the landmark they're looking for. Five times. They finally notice the hilt of the nail on the sixth, sticking out of a drift.

This is not a good start to their weekend.

Fortunately, it is warmer inside the cave. The bug they're visiting has a fire going, which smells of burning shell wood and spices.

“Ahh, my pupil!” All of a sudden, they are scooped up in a pair of large arms. “I was afraid you wouldn't be able to make it, on account of the weather.”

Ghost hangs listlessly in Nailmaster Mato's hug, now aware of how uncomfortably wet they are. Their cloak wasn't made for such rough weather. Nor was their body, seeing as it feels numb. Fire. Warm. They need to sit over there and dry off. Mato seems to share the same sentiment, because now he's bearing them over to the hearth.

“Before anything else, sit here and warm up.”

He settles them onto a pillow, not seeming to mind that they're dripping everywhere. Ghost hugs their sodden cloak around themselves, and waits for the fire to do its work. In that time, Mato returns with two steaming mugs. Ghost looks into theirs, unsure at first. They only partake after offered a spoonful of honey, which sweetens the drink to their liking. Some time passes in silence, with the only sounds being the crackling of the fire and the shifting of shellwood, as Mato tends to it. Smoke drifts through the hole in the ceiling, and every so often a draft blows through it.

Ghost sets the mug aside, gets up, and brandishes their nail. They can only meditate for so long before needing to move around. On cue, Mato pushes himself up and goes to fetch his nail. They totter along behind, and bump into him when he stops. Mato's nail is as tall as he is, and well-maintained. Ghost used to envy how sharp and clean it was; when they first met him, their own weapon had just been saved from the brink of destruction by a kindly nailsmith. Their nail is now gleaming and engraved with intricate whorls, but that wide-eyed admiration has never left them.

“Your execution of the Nail Arts is precise, but you're slow,” Mato tells them point-blank. When they hang their head, he laughs heartily. “Not to worry! You're a fast learner, aren't you?”

Ghost perks up a bit, and nods. There's still a seed of guilt in them, though: they've mainly relied on basic nail techniques to get them through Hallownest. In training they do well, but out in the field, there are too many distractions.

“Because of the snow, we'll have to practice indoors today.” Mato takes his nail off his shoulder, and drops into a fighting stance. Ghost, thrumming with excitement, does the same. “Now, shall we begin?”

Ghost is slightly disappointed that they're training inside. They're ashamed of their ineptitude when it comes to anything more complicated than downwards-slashing off of opponents, but they want their mentor to know about it. Sheo and Sly would be disappointed; Oro would scoff at them. But of all the Nail Masters, Mato feels the most like a teacher. The nice kind, who doesn't mind if you fail. Ghost fails a lot. Their reaction time is sloppy, they trip off of ledges, and have had to be saved by their siblings more than once.

Despite all their shortcomings, they feel like they've done a good job during today's spar. There's always a little bit of pride that comes with fighting on equal terms with someone much bigger than them. On the other hand, they feel like Mato is going easy on them. But on the other other hand, that could just mean they're getting better.

There is little extraordinary about the rest of the evening. Weekends with Mato have a comforting routine of training and resting in equal parts. The abundance of pillows in their mentor's abode means they'll not be wanting for a comfortable place. Night falls deeper and darker than ever tonight, which makes going to bed especially satisfying. They find the biggest pillow they can carry, and drag it over to the hearth. Mato has already set up a nest for himself, but has not settled into it yet.

“Child, there's no need to make do with a single pillow. I have a gift for you.” He kneels before them, and drapes a thick blanket around their shoulders. It feels just like the fluffy material on Hornet's poncho, which they immediately like. Mato pats Ghost on the head, and leaves them to bundle themselves up. When they resemble a very fluffy version of their Shape of Unn charm, they lie down and watch the ceiling. The room can never be completely warm: closing the opening in the ceiling means no ventilation for the smoke, but leaving it open means a cold draft.

They fall into an uneasy sleep, waking every so often from howling winds and unpleasant dreams. At around midnight the awaken to the creaking, shuddering sound of Mato closing the ceiling hatch. In the dark, they see a pile of snow on the floor. They dream of a ledge, a bright light, and falling, falling, falling. It's a few hours later when they jolt upright, and even Mato is asleep. Ghost hugs themselves and watches his chest rise and fall with each breath. It is bitterly cold, but they cannot stay in their nest for another minute.

They pad to the door and slip out into the hallway. Past the bench, there is the thin beginning of a snow drift, much like a lake shore. Out they step into the open, silent air, where snow falls thickly. The moon, ripe and full, hides behind a curtain of clouds. Only the faintest of light is cast upon the ground, but Ghost doesn't need it to see where they're going. In typical defiance of self-care, they plow their way up to the platform above Mato's dwelling. The only evidence that a statue is there is a particularly large bump in the untouched plain. There are no lesser bugs out tonight, to make their tracks on this pale sheet. Ghost cranes their neck back to watch the sky, in awe of how perfect and deep the night is.

Still unable to sleep, they recline in the snow and watch the subtle movements of the sky. The clouds bow to a slow, irregular breeze. The moon dips lower, and the black sky shows a sheen of lavender and pale gold in the east. When it reaches halfway across the sky, Ghost stands up and hobbles back to the cave. They only manage a few frozen steps, before slipping off the edge of the platform.

Ghost expects to hit more snow, or perhaps spikes concealed in snow. Where they land instead is Mato's arms: he is a far earlier riser than they thought, and must have been out looking for them. It is so coincidental, and unceremonious, for them to reunite like this.

“I was wondering where you had run off to. You look like you've been out all night!” They were, actually. Mato cradles them to his chest, and wraps his cloak around the both of them. They realize now how chilly they are, and shiver violently. At once Mato hastens with them into the cave, where the beginnings of a new fire lick a bundle of shell wood. Their cloak, now with a layer of frost, is replaced altogether with their woolen blanket. They watch plaintively as it is hung in front of the fire to dry; despite how ratty it is, they are attached to it.

On the other hand, being swaddled and rubbed dry in a wool blanket is most pleasant. Mato, despite his clear worry, laughs and tries to make light of the situation. As he brings them to their pillow, he says, “I daresay you've never seen snow before, am I right?”

Ghost nods. Them reacting at all brings a smile to the nail master's face. “Ah! I thought so. Where I come from, this kind of weather is typical year 'round. Enjoy the novelty before it wears off, little one.”

Ghost nods again, thinking that they'll never get tired of snow—so long as it's not a constant thing. They already long for the bath water air of Greenpath, though that may just be because they're so cold. At the same time, they feel like they're burning. They burrow into the blanket so they can sneeze and cough into their hands, though they are unaware that that is an unhealthy thing to do. They feel Mato patting them on the back, and they suddenly wish he'd pick them up again.

“That's the first noise I've heard you make,” Mato comments. “Wait here a moment, I should have some medicine.” Ghost hears him stand up, and panic blossoms in their chest. With the blanket heaved over their shoulders, they stumble after him. The little tap-tap-tap of their feet is drowned out by Mato's heavy foot falls. Yet, as if Mato possesses a sixth sense, he notices them coming after him.

“Yes?” he asks patiently, kneeling closer to their level. He's got a spoon and a bottle of something, which he takes a moment to uncork. Oh, it smells bitter and awful. Ghost cringes and pulls the blanket over their face. Still, they hold their ground. They've faced worse foes than bad-tasting medicine. They've not tasted it yet, but they know it's bad, they just know it! They hold their blanket in place with one hand, and with the other, they hold onto Mato's sleeve. Truth be told, they are too shy to ask even their siblings to pick them up. They hope hope that this gesture suffices as a desire to not separate. They had their alone time out in the snow.

If they could tell what Mato was feeling, they'd be surprised at how touched he is. They've only expressed themselves through blank stares and the clashing of blades. They didn't think he needed to know anything else, but they're not right about everything.

“No need to fret. I'm not going anywhere.” And, to Ghost's relief, Mato sweeps them into his arm. Less to their relief, he fills the spoon from the bottle, and holds it to their mask. “Now, I know you have a mouth; I've seen you eat. This will help with the chill.”

Ghost's eyes could have bore holes in that spoon. They stare at it as contemptuously as one can without a real face, and then turn their head away. Mato's laugh is a low rumble of thunder in his chest. “'Tis only a spoonful,” he coaxes, bringing the spoon closer. “I'll not pretend it tastes good, but we can follow it up with some honey. What say you?”

...Ghost does love honey, especially when they don't have to go into the Hive for it. They brace themselves, and take the spoon into their mouth. Wyrm, it really is terrible! Their hands fly over their mask so they don't spit it out. While they're forcing themselves to swallow, Mato swaps out the medicine bottle for another small jar. Ghost recognizes the amber semi-solid as their promised reward, and sags in relief. They gratefully receive the spoon this time, desperate to rid themselves of that bitter-sour leaf taste.

“The best medicine is often the bitterest—literally so, in this case,” Mato says with clear sympathy. He shifts Ghost so that their head is against his shoulder, and they rest there while he shifts aside a curtain. They're now in a kitchen, or perhaps a washroom. Ghost has never been able to tell exactly. There's a sink, a counter, and a chair. No stove, though, which they assume is unneeded with the fireplace around. The sound of footsteps and running water soothes them, but not as much as the cool, damp cloth against their shell.

Not once have they thought about their inadequacies during their treatment. They simply feel languid, taken care of. Mato rocks them as naturally as if he had held them a million times before, and Ghost wonders why they had always been too shy for more than a hug 'hello' or 'goodbye'.

Mato does not meditate this morning, out of concern for his ill child. Dissatisfied with the state of their cloak, he washes it thoroughly and hangs it to dry once more. He cannot do this while holding them, so he puts them in a nearby basket. Ghost watches him the entire time, memorizing the process of heating the water, adding soap, and scrubbing with the washboard. Back home, Hornet does the laundry, feels it's her job alone, and gets hissy if anyone tries to interfere.

Mato suggests they stay here until they feel well enough to travel, else he'll take them to Dirtmouth himself. Ghost nods disinterestedly, feeling more up to sleep than making decisions. They mime rubbing their eyes to convey this, and Mato lays them onto their pillow.

Their sleep is long, deep, and dreamless. Mato sits nearby, meditating but finding it difficult to do so, out of concern for the little one. He'd proclaimed them his child when they first met, but this is the first time he got to do anything fatherly. The way they carried themselves, so sure and independent but alone, broke his heart a little. They offered nothing but the strength of their nail and a whisper of a name, so fitting of their transient nature. Little did he know, he was about to find out where they went when they were not with him.

A small, pointy bug clad peeks through the doorway, with snow still clinging to her poncho. Mato looks up, expecting a new pupil, but is surprised to see her staring at the sleeping child.

“Come inside if you want,” Mato offers. She does so, and he sees the fearsome needle strapped to her back. A warrior, then, one with the same pale shell and black carapace as his pupil. The stranger bug sets her tool aside with a sort of reverence, and kneels before Ghost.

“I've come to collect them,” she says, “But at an inconvenient time, it appears.”

“If I may be so bold to ask, are you of some relationship to my pupil?” says Mato, leaning forward a bit. The bug—a spider, by the look of her limbs—nods. Her hands are folded primly on her lap.

“I am their sister, Hornet. I was curious as to their whereabouts.” She looks left and right, clearly scrutinizing the room. Though she has the appearance of a young woman, she carries herself as though she were middle-aged. Her eyes, narrow and sharp, seem to stare right into his soul. Her words are just as barbed, a stark difference from Ghost's general softness. Yet Mato can see the resemblance, though he couldn't quite describe it if asked. It's the same innate 'connection' he sensed between himself and Ghost upon their first meeting.

“They did not tell me of any siblings,” Mato says, incredulous. He lays a hand on the sleeping Ghost's shell, and pats them fondly. They lean into his touch, but do not awaken. “But it comes to me as a relief, to know they have kin outside these walls.”

Hornet looks at the cloth on Ghost's forehead. “Are they ill?”

“Yes. They enjoyed the snow a little too much.”

Hornet bows her head. “Then I must thank you for taking care of them. But what do you imply—that they have kin here?”

Mato feels like he's being interrogated, but is not ruffled in the slightest. He explains plainly: “I've considered them to be my child, ever since I taught them the Nail Art.”

There's no sound but the crackling of the fire. Hornet is no longer staring down Mato, but smoothing the blanket that Ghost is swaddled up in. She withdraws her hand the moment they seem to rouse. Mato, who is at home with silence, does not bid her to speak. But she does, eventually.

“There are four of us: three of us siblings, and our ward,” Hornet says. She clasps her hands together on her lap, rubbing one thumb over the other. “The eldest of us was raised by our father. I was raised by my mother.”

Mato suddenly gets the sense that he's encroaching on something very personal.

“Ghost had no one. Up until the plague was eradicated, they've been fending for themselves. I've been raising them along with my sibling, but I am no proper substitute for a mother.”

Unaware of the conversation hanging above them, Ghost rolls onto their side. The cloth falls from their forehead with a soft plap. They are capable, they are independent, but at what cost? Mato's heart breaks for this poor little bug.

“I had no idea,” he says, defeated. “I had wondered about their situation, but to be all alone…Am I doing well enough for them?”

This question was for himself, not for Hornet, but she answers anyway: “They are the only one who can give you a definitive answer, albeit in their special, unorthodox way. Perhaps they've told you already, or are waiting for you to answer their own question.”

Hornet sets a brown paper package next to Ghost, gathers her needle, and rises. “I've lingered long enough. Keep them with you a few days longer—they're probably too shy to ask for themselves. Now, good day.”

As suddenly as she appeared, she now disappears with a swish of her cloak. Mato reflects on their brief conversation, and nearly jumps out of his skin when Ghost sits up. They rub their eyes for real this time, and look around. They'd showed signs of wakefulness while Mato and Hornet were conversing; now that they're awake, they're looking for her. That's what he assumes.

“Your sister stopped in to check on you,” he explains. “You're very lucky to have family in such a bright young woman.”

Ghost nods vigorously. A cursory glance towards the fireplace shows them that their cloak is clean and dry. The next thing they notice is the package by their nest.

“She left that for you. I'll fetch your cloak, so why don't you open it up?”

Ghost tears into the paper. When Mato returns to them, they're holding up a cloak made of thick flannel. It is navy blue, with white embroidery at the hem. On the breast is a symbol identical to the strange, four-pronged mark Mato has seen on their chest before. They quiver with excitement, and whirl around to show it to him.

“Did she make that for you?” They nod, looking more excited than he has ever seen them. Mato notices something else underneath the wrappings. “There's something else in here.”

He holds up a tunic of the same color and material, with and an elastic collar and a few pearly white buttons down the front. Upon closer inspection, they're snap buttons—easier for Ghost's little hands, no doubt. He undoes them and beckons the little knight to him.

“Arms up.” Ghost does so, and jolts when the dark fabric slips over their head. The collar easily stretches over their horns, and the sleeves come just a bit past their wrists. They keep their arms up even as Mato snaps the buttons shut, upon which they look down at themselves in confusion. Mato lowers their arms for them, and fastens the cloak over their shoulders. They're now sufficiently dressed for the weather, and though they cough a bit, they're no longer shivering. Mato thumbs a bit of dirt from their shell, making a mental note to have them wash up later.

Ghost puts a hand to their cheek, as if confused by this little gesture. Mato remembers what Hornet told him: that they have their own way of communicating, that they may be questioning things themselves. Mato takes their hand between his forefinger and thumb, the latter of which Ghost wraps their fingers around. Even the strongest fire couldn't melt Mato's heart as thoroughly as this.

“You know, you are welcome to stay for a few days longer, if you wish,” Mato begins. “And if you ever want to come over, for any reason, you are free to do so. You may even bring your siblings; I would be honored to know the rest of your family. You may even send a telegram, if you'd like me to come down to Dirtmouth instead.”

Ghost bows their head in silent agreement.

“I know not the details of your circumstances, but as—as your father—” Ghost looks up suddenly. Mato feels them tense up, and squeezes their hand to soothe them. “—I feel as though I should take more responsibility for your upbringing. What say you?”

Ghost is quite still. So still, that Mato fears he has been too forward, too intrusive. He's fond of the little bug, but he'll give them space if they so request it.

Two fat, black teardrops leak out of Ghost's eyes and roll down their shell. Mato startles at this; he has never seen Ghost cry before. “I'm, little one—I have spoken out of turn.”

Before he can apologize further, Ghost practically throws themselves at him, and buries their face in his chest. Mato does not hesitate to put his arms around them, rubbing their back as they sniffle and cough. Whatever they've been through, it's over now. They have their family in Dirtmouth, and Mato as well. In this moment, he vows to see them through to an adulthood where they never have to cry like this again.