Ginshu's boots are thick and sturdy, but the snow has seeped through the leather anyway; his legs are soaked from the knees down, and his toes, once stinging from the cold, have finally gone numb. The air is so frigid it hurts to breathe, and the bitter chill makes his eyes burn. Nightfall looms on the edge of the horizon, and the encroaching darkness only makes the foreboding forest around him even colder; the breaks in the foliage reveal nothing but a sleet-grey sky, glacial and oppressive. But although the biting winter pierces Ginshu to his very core, the ice in his veins does not make him shiver; frostbite has made his fingers go fumbling and weak even through the thick warmth of his gloves, but the finely-honed blade of his sword does not waver, not by even a hair.
Opposite him, the man stands still and silent. His dark hair ripples in the chill breeze; his arms hang limp and defenseless by his side. But even though the tip of Ginshu's sword is pressed to the hollow of his throat, Kuroto does not flinch, or grimace, or even blink.
"I should kill you," Ginshu says. His voice emerges low and rough, an animalistic growl.
Kuroto smiles, faint and mirthless. "You can try, if you want," he says quietly. "But we both know it won't do anything but make Hanashiro hate you."
Ginshu snarls wordlessly. Rage boils in his gut and tints his vision red. "I can't kill you," he says, choking with fury on the admission. "But I have the blood of the first Savior in me. I might not be able to kill you, but I know I can make you suffer."
Kuroto's eyes narrow, but he does not move. "You probably can," he agrees. "But then what do you think Hanashiro will do when he finds out?"
"Put you out of your misery," Ginshu hisses.
Kuroto smiles again, brimming with bitterness. "No," he says, his eyes downcast. "He won't. He should, but he won't. Hanashiro won't kill me." Then he raises his eyes again. "If you torture me, and he finds out, someone will die. But it won't be me."
Ginshu grinds his teeth, clenching his jaw until it aches. His hand tightens on the hilt of his sword, and the tip nudges up against Kuroto's throat, threatening to pierce the thin, pale skin. All it would take is one solid thrust. Ginshu could put his sword through Kuroto's throat, or skewer his heart, or disembowel him and watch his innards steam in the winter air. Ginshu could take off his head with one swing of the blade, or torture him with a thousand tiny miseries until he begged for death.
But none of it would matter, because Ginshu is not the Savior, and that means that Kuroto will not, cannot, die by his hand.
Hanashiro is the only person who can put an end to this, and he's already proven that he's willing to kill anyone else--perhaps everyone else--before he'll kill Kuroto.
Ginshu glares balefully at him, powerless. Kuroto stares back, his eyes dark and shadowy in the forest's gloom. "Don't look at me like that," he says. His expression is fixed, inscrutable. "This isn't what I came here for."
Ginshu wants to spit in his face. The blade of his sword trembles with the ferocity of his barely-repressed fury. "Then what did you come here for?" he snarls.
"I want to make you an offer," Kuroto says.
Ginshu's breath catches in his throat. For a moment, all he can do is stare at Kuroto, his mind blank. "What?"
"I want to make you an offer," Kuroto repeats.
It's just as baffling and inexplicable the second time around. Ginshu's eyes narrow in suspicion. "What do you mean?" he asks, wary.
Kuroto's eyes are startlingly bright. "I need to die," he says.
In the wake of this statement, silence reigns supreme.
Ginshu finds himself speechless. His heart freezes, then pounds at double time. The air in his lungs seems to crystallize. He stares at Kuroto, but Kuroto is unmoved, unhesitant, unyielding. There is no humor in his voice and no deceit in his gaze.
At last, Ginshu lowers his sword. "Explain," he demands.
Kuroto inhales slowly, exhales wretchedly. "I need to die," he repeats. "As long as I'm alive, this world will continue toward destruction. If I die, this winter will end, and the world will be saved. But Hanashiro won't kill me."
"That does seem to be the problem," Ginshu says. He allows himself to voice this cautious agreement, but he continues to eye Kuroto skeptically. He can't see where this is going.
"Hanashiro won't kill me," Kuroto says. "But he will kill for me. If you threaten me in front of him, he'll draw his blade."
"That doesn't mean you can just walk into his sword," Ginshu says. "Can you kill yourself?"
Kuroto holds Ginshu's gaze steadily. "No," he replies. "I can't."
It is not mere speculation, Ginshu can tell.
"But I don't need to," Kuroto continues. "You're right, I can't walk into his sword. But if Hanashiro stabs me, it won't matter whether or not he meant to do it. I'll die either way."
Ginshu snorts. "And how do you propose to get Hanashiro to accidentally stab you?" he asks.
"That's where you come in," Kuroto replies.
Ginshu's eyebrows shoot up. He gestures for Kuroto to continue.
"You threaten me in front of Hanashiro," Kuroto says. "Tell him that if he won't kill me, you're willing to see if you can. Tell him that because you're a descendant of the first Savior, you might actually succeed. Draw your sword and attack me."
"In front of Hanashiro," Ginshu says. His voice is flat.
"In front of Hanashiro," Kuroto confirms.
Ginshu shakes his head. "I might as well sign my own death warrant. Do you really think Hanashiro will sit back and let me try to kill you?"
"I know he won't," Kuroto says. "That's the point. He'll leap to my defense. He'll try to kill you to keep me safe. So you hold me hostage. Grab me and drag me along with you. I'll play along. Hanashiro will be desperate to save me, but he'll also hold back because he'll be afraid of accidentally striking me instead of you. He'll fight poorly. He'll lose his cool. He'll panic. He'll make a poor decision, and when he does...."
Kuroto trails off there. But he doesn't need to explain; by now, Ginshu can see the thread clearly enough to follow it to its inevitable end. "You can't walk into his sword," he says. "But when he swings his sword, you can make sure to be standing in its path."
Kuroto nods. It's a small gesture, barely noticeable, but resolute. "I'm not saying it's foolproof," he says. "I can't guarantee that he'll wound me badly enough to kill me. And I can't guarantee that you won't get hurt, either. But Hanashiro has already proven that he'll never raise his sword against me, not for anyone or anything. So if we're going to get him to kill me, we'll have to use every dirty, underhanded trick in the book. That's the only way."
Kuroto's voice is steady, unafraid. He intends to die, Ginshu realizes, and the bottom drops out of his stomach. Of course, Ginshu himself intends for Kuroto to die, has always intended to see Kuroto meet his downfall, but that's only his duty. Surely Kuroto himself would greedily clutch at his own survival, just like anyone else. Surely Kuroto would fight tooth and nail to stay alive, clinging to his pitiful existence like the harbinger of silent apocalypse that he was meant to be. Kuroto lives so that everyone else would die; his destruction is the world's salvation. Ginshu has always known this, known it with the quiet, thoughtless assurance of a man who has never questioned anything--
But instead, Kuroto stands here, plotting his own demise.
Ginshu's head spins. "You aren't what I thought you were," he says at last, guardedly.
Kuroto's expression shifts. It could almost be called a smile, if only it weren't so pained. "My very existence is a sin," he says, his voice faraway. "I bring nothing but pain and suffering. How can I prioritize myself over everyone else? If I live, everyone else dies. If I die, everyone else lives. The choice is clear, as far as I'm concerned. But Hanashiro won't kill me, not if he has any choice in the matter."
"So you're taking away his choice," Ginshu says.
For the first time, Kuroto winces. "I don't want to," he says, his voice low. "He--I don't think he's ever had any real choice over anything. I think letting me live was the first choice he ever made for himself." Kuroto closes his eyes, swallows as though devouring his own anguish. "But I can't let him do this. I can't."
"He'll view this as betrayal," Ginshu says. "When he realizes what you've done, he'll think you've betrayed him. You know that, right?"
"It is betrayal," Kuroto says. "But if it means ending this winter, I'm willing to betray Hanashiro." He fixes Ginshu with a hard stare, his eyes flinty and determined. "Are you?"
Ginshu's tongue is devoid of words. The forest is shockingly, horribly quiet. The silence rings loudly in his ears. The cold eats away at his nerves, leaving nothing but desperation in its wake. Desperation, and resignation.
"Well?" Kuroto presses.
Ginshu looks up, meets Kuroto's gaze dead on. In the twilight, Kuroto looks like a ghost, a dark figure fading into the emptiness. In the depths of winter, he is a blaze of fire frozen into ice, beautiful and brittle and on the verge of shattering.
Ginshu sheathes his sword, steps forward, and holds out a hand. "Deal."
Kuroto takes his hand and shakes, once, firmly. Even through the weight of their gloves, Kuroto's hand is heavy and warm.
"Afterward," Kuroto says. "After it's over." He pauses. "Tell Hanashiro I'm sorry."
"He won't forgive you," Ginshu says. His voice is harsh in his own ears.
Kuroto smiles bitterly. "I know," he says. "He won't forgive either of us."
Ginshu feels his own lips curl in a twisted mockery of a smile. After it's over, he will shoulder Kuroto's guilt, and he knows he will buckle and collapse beneath the burden. "I know," he echoes. "I know."