The Irazu Valley sanctuary was painfully hot. The buzzing of cicadas passed through the open windows, but what drew Kei’s eyes to the outdoors was the hope of rain. It felt like it would be coming soon.
The sounds of child’s play passed the church, as well. On a day this humid, the other children would be dashing down to the riverbank to try and find some relief. Kei tugged at his stifling shirt collar, daydreaming about joining them.
“What’s so fascinating out there?”
His father’s voice was gentle in its reprimand. Kei looked back to him with a guilty smile, returning his attention to one of the many books that compromised their scripture. He still hadn’t memorized much of it, and his voice was still far too quiet for a priest. He didn’t have time for play, if he was going to learn to be as good as his father.
The Miyata Clinic basement was deathly cold. Shiro shivered every few moments, struggling not to pull his thin coat tighter around himself as he watched his mother work.
“See this?” She carefully pulled back a flap of dead skin, treating the corpse like a present to unveil. “This is the best angle to start with. You get access to all of these tendons.”
She was diligent, almost obsessive in her analysis of the human body, pointing out every little piece and how it could best be broken apart and put back together. Much of it went over Shiro’s head. It was warm outside the freezing walls of their family’s clinic, he knew that. He wanted to be outside, relaxing by the river and enjoying the day with the other children.
Instead, he listened and watched, asking questions when they were required and nodding when they weren’t. After all, as his mother had said many times, he was going to replace her, one day.
Reiji Makino’s funeral was a small, subdued affair, only a handful of villagers filing into the area behind the church. It made sense, after all, not many wanted to stand around in the cold and wind.
The cause of the former guiding priest’s death was made no secret. The villagers gossiped openly about his suicide, even as his father’s note weighed heavily in the pocket of Kei’s oversized priest uniform, one never meant to be worn by a boy of thirteen. No one seemed particularly devastated by the loss, either - his father had failed the ritual and lost his people’s sympathy in the same night.
Kei was, frankly, terrified. His father had been a good man, yet there was no love for him to be found in the village that he had guided for so long. How could Kei be any better?
The Miyata family was in attendance. Their son was mere feet away from him, and Kei knew he should say something. He didn't have to say anything about the strange dreams he'd been having, the ones he almost hoped his estranged brother was having as well. All he had to do was say hello, thank the boy for coming.
Ryoko Miyata didn’t receive a funeral. She disappeared one night, after a dispute with some important family that Shiro had caught bits and pieces of through the angry phone calls his mother made sporadically for nearly a week.
Shiro woke to an empty house, and a woman knocking at his door. He recognized her, vaguely, as coming from the Kajiro family. His mother had always told him to tread carefully around the Kajiros.
He licked his lips. “Hello, may I help you?”
She smiled. “Oh, what a mature young man. I just dropped by to tell you that you shouldn’t worry about your mother. She’s with us.”
“Oh.” Somehow, that didn’t relieve the anxiety in Shiro’s chest. “Thank you. When will she be coming back?”
The woman patted him on the shoulder. “When she’s ready.”
She was never ready, of course.
Maybe it was strange, to never talk with your own brother. It wasn’t a conscious effort. It simply...never happened. Their paths crossed on occasion, enough for Shiro to see Kei growing comfortable as the village’s generous source of faith, and Kei to see Shiro growing as cold and calculating as his job required. But neither of them took action, took the simple gesture and few words it would take to acknowledge the person who shared his blood.
Years passed in the blink of an eye, and the first time they truly spoke face-to-face, twenty seven years later, Shiro delivered a message from the family that had taken his mother away from him, ordering Kei to start the ritual that had taken his father away from him.
Kei finally took action when his brother put a gun to his own head. He reached out without thinking, grabbing his wrist.
“Oh?” Shiro cocked an eyebrow. He didn’t move the gun, but he made no effort to dislodge Kei’s hand. “Now your bravery shows its face.”
Kei stared, his jaw slack. “Miyata, I-”
“Isn’t it strange,” he interrupted, “That we address each other by surname? We’re brothers. Twins. The closest two people can possibly be.”
“Shiro, then, I-”
“Oh, no. Don’t call me that. It sounds too strange.”
“Please, listen to me!” Kei was utterly unaccustomed to raising his voice. His firm tone was more akin to an average man’s regular speaking volume. Still, Shiro went silent, nodding at him to continue. “I...I’m tired, of doing nothing.”
“Nothing? You’re the guiding priest.” Shiro spoke the title with resentment only he could hear. “This entire village relies on you.”
“And I’ve done nothing for them.” Kei glanced down at the pavement, watching rivulets of red rain sluice through its cracks. “This is wrong. All of it. The ritual is something that should not happen, and yet, I went along with it, without a single protest.”
“You never have had a strong will, Makino.” He didn’t intend it as an insult.
Kei shook his head, his grip on Shiro’s wrist tightening. “I haven’t, and now it’s my fault that the village is like this! I failed myself, and everyone else.”
“Just like your father.”
He took a deep breath. “Just like my father.”
Shiro laughed, without any joy in the sound, and his finger twitched on the trigger. Kei didn’t think this time, either. He yanked at Shiro’s arm, knocking the gun away as it went off, barely missing Kei’s shoulder. Adrenaline making his heart hammer in his chest, he pushed Shiro against the building beside them to prevent him from going for the weapon again. “Are you mad? This isn’t the answer!”
Shiro smiled, rueful. “We’re going to die, brother. You can’t seriously believe we’ll escape this catastrophe alive. Isn’t it better to die a man than a monster? I believe that’s in our scripture. Somewhere.”
“You’re not just a man,” Kei protested. “You’re...you’re my brother. And we’ll make it out of this. Together.” He didn’t believe the words even as he said them.
Shiro’s smile turned into something strange and sad. He leaned forward, placing a gentle kiss on his brother’s forehead. Kei leaned back, confusion running over his face. “You’re naive as ever,” Shiro said, reaching into his coat. “But I suppose that’s why I envy you...”
His fingers wrapped around the handle of the claw hammer in his pocket.
“My dearest brother.”