Winter of Kuroto's seventeenth year, when the first snow begins to fall, Kuroto goes out into the forest by the village at the foot of the mountain, and finds a clearing where snow is piling. The ground is already carpeted in a thick layer of it, pristine and white, and as Kuroto pulls the collar of his cloak tighter the wind blows flecks of it into his eyes.
He has brought a small shovel with him and now he makes a shallow scrape in the snow, only stopping when he hits a base of brown earth. He strips down to his last layer of clothes, lies down, and closes his eyes. The snow is still falling in great gusts from the sky and now it gathers around and above him, dusting his clothes, his hands and face, his hair. His clothes grow damp from the snow melting against his skin and he wonders if the chill will take him first, or lack of air.
Kuroto does not remember a lot about what happened next, aside from a faint awareness that Kurotaka comes looking for him eventually. He thinks that Kurotaka yells at him the entire time he is digging, though the words are muted as if coming from a great distance and Kuroto cannot make them out.
Kurotaka wraps his cloak around them both and teleports them home, then bundles Kuroto into dry clothes and deposits him in the chair by the fire, complaining the entire time. His words are clearer now: he is squawking about how cold it is outside, how unpleasant it is to fly in a snowstorm, how heavy Kuroto is...
The process of slowly freezing had been unpleasant, but it had not hurt. It had been more like numbness, of knowing his flesh belonged to him yet gradually losing all sensation of it until at last he was unable to feel or move it. The pain comes at the thaw. Now the warmth returning gradually to Kuroto's body feels like a thousand hot needles piercing every inch of his flesh.
Kurotaka seems to see him stir, removes and re-applies the hot compress over his forehead. "Kuroto, Kuroto, you idiot," Kurotaka says, fingers running through Kuroto's hair. "How on earth is the Savior supposed to find you and put you out of your misery when you are five inches deep in a snowfield?"
Kuroto is about to answer, but his mind is clouded and the warmth flowing from the fireplace over his skin lulls him back into half-sleep, and he never does.
When Kurto is next fully awake, he can move properly again without pain, and he thinks then that although his healing factor is sometimes a curse, it is mostly a blessing. He wriggles out of the nest of blankets, momentarily grateful for Kurotaka's love of fluffy fabric, and follows the smell of food to the kitchen.
"Ah, you're awake," Kurotaka says cheerfully. "About time."
"Kurotaka," Kuroto says, a note of apology in it. "How did you know where I went?"
"Silly boy. I will always find you. I always have," Kurotaka says with a smile that is both exasperated and fond. Kuroto thinks Kurotaka has never looked more like a magpie, preening with satisfaction as he eyes his prize.
Kurotaka shoves a steaming cup of tea into Kuroto's hands, then says in the casual way that warns Kuroto that a world of trouble is coming: "Now, tell me, what did you think you were doing?"
"Thought I'd save that guy a trip," Kuroto answers honestly.
Kurotaka frowns slightly, dropping the pretense of levity. “Firstly, you can't die except at that guy's hands, and it is best if you learn quickly that your attempts are futile. Secondly, why do you think this is your decision to make?" He leans forward slightly. “This fate is shared between the two of you and the Saviour also has a right to choose.”
"We already know what the outcome must be," Kuroto replies.
Kurotaka folds his arms. “It’s not a school problem, Kuroto. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Why not meet him first, and see what he has to say? Then you can work out between the two of you what you want to do.” Kurotaka puts gloved hands over Kuroto’s shoulders, holds Kuroto at arm’s length and looks him in the eye. “Now promise me you won't do stupid things again.”
Kuroto knows now that there is one person in the world who will always remain by his side.
The cup in Kuroto's hands is still warm to the touch, the liquid inside fragrant and steaming. The tea is one of the kinds Kurotaka has a fondness for, and Kuroto knows that when he is better the black hawk will bemoan the waste of his precious tea on someone who doesn't appreciate it at all. But for now, Kuroto wraps his hands around the ceramic and breathes in the steam still misting from the surface.
In the silent forest bounded by snow, the black hawk's cry: We are all birds, trapped within cages we made ourselves.
Hanashiro reminds Kuroto of snow. Firstly, because of his name, which makes Kuroto think of the gentle winters when snow falls soft and thick and white from the sky like flower petals. And secondly, behind Hanashiro's eyes, there is still something still and quiet and bright. Sometimes it seems as though Hanashiro is looking at the world through a glass window silvered over with frost.
Hanashiro too is alone, Kuroto realizes. As the Savior, he is also set apart from the world, and has never been allowed to live as a normal human. In that respect, they understand each other. That is also how they can circle each other like this in mutual unspoken deceit. There is something here that both of them want to hold on to, no matter how fleeting it eventually turns out to be.
Kuroto has never found snow beautiful before. Kuroto is not allowed to find anything beautiful in the world, since then he might grow attached to it, and attached to living. And that cannot happen, since the purpose of his existence is to die.
Resignation does not hurt. It is a feeling of numbness: of knowing this life is freely given to him, yet never accepting it. Before he met Hanashiro, he had thought that he could live like this for as long as it took, and face his fate with no regrets with when it came.
The pain, as always, comes at the thaw.
Kuroto does not remember when he grew accustomed to Hanashiro's visits, Hanashiro asking him questions about the birdcage he is building or the strawberry vines growing in the back garden. Hanashiro lying beside him in the grass at the end of summer, sunlight slanting through the foliage overhead and casting uneven shadows over both their faces. Now the warmth that spreads through him when Hanashiro smiles has nothing to do with the summer heat, and even though Kuroto's heart leaps painfully in his chest when Hanashiro looks at him like they are the only two people in the world, he has to wonder, what are you trying to do, Savior...?
Autumn of Kuroto's twenty-second year, he and Hanashiro sit together on the sloping side of the mountain facing west. Above them in the rapidly darkening sky, the winter constellation is already visible. That cluster of shining stars heralds the oncoming winter, which will also be the ending winter, and Kuroto thinks: he must confront Hanashiro with the truth tonight.
But when Hanashiro takes Kuroto's hand, and tells him how nice it is to be able to see the stars with him—Kuroto has to turn his face away, pretending to observe the constellation so that Hanashiro will not see his eyes.
Absurdly, he wishes that they could have had more time.
Above them the sky is deep blue shading into brilliant orange over the horizon, and the winds that have changed direction now bring the first touch of frost. But Hanashiro's hand is still gripped tightly in his, and beneath the remnants of light from the setting sun, it warms him.