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Amidst the chaos, the clash of metal on metal and the spatter of red blood over pristine snow, nobody pays attention to one man holding the still body of a boy.

All around Kuroto the battle rages on, but the sound and fury is muted as if he is surrounded by a bubble of glass. He feels as if someone has ripped out half of his heart. That feeling of raw absence is like a fresh wound in his chest, and for a moment he is not sure what he has lost.

It might be Kurotaka, or it might be Kuroto's own manifest destiny. Or it might be the body in Kuroto's arms, weight the same as ever but slowly draining of warmth. Hanashiro will never draw another breath; he will never open his eyes or smile at Kuroto again. That sudden awareness knifes through Kuroto, and his hands crumple Hanashiro's coat as he bows his head.

As the ongoing war continues to rage all around him, the tears of one man that fall upon the snowy ground are inconsequential.

 

 

 

 

The Saviour is given a hero's burial on a warm day two weeks into spring. The official story is that the Saviour had perished in the final showdown with Kuroto: he had killed the harbinger of the ending winter and saved the world before drawing his own last breath.

Few in Sai know that the Saviour's name was Hanashiro, and that he had been only sixteen.

He never even got to see the forever spring.

Kuroto attends the funeral in Kurotaka's old suit, the only formal clothes he owns. Afterwards, he collects Hanashiro's possessions as his last surviving friend. "He preferred to be on his own," the Captain says as he turns over the small suitcase containing Hanashiro's things. "Even though he held such an important position, he never attended any of the functions unless he was made to."

That is strange to Kuroto, because neither distance nor weather nor time of year had ever kept Hanashiro from visiting him up in the mountains. He had asked Hanashiro why, once, and Hanashiro had replied with a smile, "I like it here."

Now the hilt of Hanashiro's sword still radiates a faint warmth, the last lingering traces of the Saviour's power that probably no one else on this Earth can feel. This blade should have pierced Kuroto's heart, held by Hanashiro's hands. Kuroto thinks now that it still can. He can draw the blade here and drive it through his own chest. End everything here, just as it should have ended in the first place.

And yet...

Kuroto is the only one who remembers that person's smile. Kuroto is the only one who remembers how gentle he is, and how warm his hands are.

He had wanted Kuroto to live on.

Kuroto tightens his grip on the scabbard and bids the Captain farewell.

 

 

 

 

The villagers who had chased them both down the long road to Sai now regard Kuroto with wariness. Kuroto slices his palm open with a branch and shows them the blood. Mechanically, he repeats the official story: "Kuroto was killed by the Saviour. I am just someone with the same name."

Some of the villagers regard him with distrust. Some ignore him and others apologize to him. Kuroto accepts it all, calmly and politely. None of it matters any more. The Kuroto who went through all of those things was a different person who lived in another time.

Now Kuroto can bleed, and he can feel pain. That is a sign that he is alive.

 

 

 

For a single splintering moment after Kurotaka had yanked on the rope, and Kuroto felt the threads connecting him to the world snap one by one, Kuroto had hoped. 

He had hoped that he and Hanashiro might live out the rest of their lives in that little house on the mountainside. Away from the world, just the two of them, as the sand in the hourglass beneath the Tower continued to flow.

Now, the house is empty and cold. As Kuroto packs, he finds black feathers among the reams of bedding, and Kurotaka's old books in strange nooks and under chairs and in cooking pots. He takes everything he needs. Cleans and tidies one last time, then closes and locks the door behind him and sets off for Sai's capital city.

 

 

 

In the cool early days of spring, Sai's markets and sidestreets are already bustling with commerce. Kuroto trades some of Kurotaka's books for a tiny flat above a bookstore; the kitchen is pint-sized, the main room barely big enough to stretch out in, and his things still don't fill it. He gets a job as a cook at a corner restaurant where the 'fresh' vegetables are already yellowing with age, and the employees get to take home the food that doesn't sell.

Time in Sai's capital city flows by like a grey river. Sometimes Kuroto goes to the park where the flowers are all in bloom, and scatters stale breadcrumbs for the birds in the park square.

Sometimes, out of the corner of his eye, Kuroto will see a flash of pale red hair, or the silhouette of a boy in white. That phantom which resembles Hanashiro so much is always just out of Kuroto's reach, round the next corner, through the far doorway, or a glimpse of a face in a crowd.

The physician says it is a symptom of grief, and that all the visions mean is that that person had been important to him.

"Yes," Kuroto says. "He was, very."

Acquaintances place gentle hands on Kuroto's shoulders, meant to comfort. That person is gone; there will be others. Life always goes on, like night turning into day, or winter turning into spring.

Kuroto doesn't remind them of a time they were genuinely afraid the winter wouldn't end.

If Kuroto were anyone else, letting go would be the right thing to do.
But he is Kuroto, the one once meant to end everything.
He owes it to the world never to forget.
He owes it to Hanashiro, who let him live.

 

 

Sometimes, in Kuroto's dreams, he sees a different outcome to this story.

Sometimes, Kurotaka is still with him. They leave this world together, and watch the miniature garden from outside all of time. In that story, Hanashiro is still alive. Lifetime after lifetime, the Saviour's soul returns to the world in search of a destiny that no longer exists.

Sometimes, he and Hanashiro never make it to the Tower, and the string of fate is never broken. The world ends beneath an endless rain of gently falling snow, beautiful as a picture book and just as lifeless. In that story, Hanashiro leaves the world without blood and without pain, body cooling past the lowest survivable temperature with a smile on his face. "Kuroto, I..."

But Hanashiro never finishes the words.
Above all, Kuroto just wants to know what Hanashiro would have said. 



 

On the shortest, coldest day of the year, Kuroto goes back to the house in the mountains. There the  winter surrounds him, deep, endless and cold, and the snow that gathers on his hands and face chills him to the bone. He leaves the door open to the freezing wind, and stands with his hands clasped in prayer until he can no longer feel them. One man's penance to a broken world. That era is over now, but Kuroto will never forget.

"... Kuroto? You're back."

Hanashiro's voice, clear and bright as always. How many times has Kuroto heard that person talking to him in the city streets, at the marketplace, or as he falls asleep at night?

"I like it here," Kuroto replies, an echo of a memory from a lifetime ago. 

"Well, come in, won't you? Out of the cold."

Kuroto steps past the threshold and into the house, where everything is exactly the way he left it, except now covered with a thin sheen of dust. The clay teapot still sits in the cabinet by the window. Kuroto puts the water on to boil, then fills it with leaves from the tin above the stove, and sets two steaming cups of tea on the table.

"How is work?" Hanashiro asks.

"The same. Quite boring, but it passes the time, and pays the bills."

Hanashiro smiles, swinging his legs where he sits on the windowsill. "Hey, don't just go repeating things I used to tell you."

"It's the truth," Kuroto replies.

Hanashiro stands and goes to the door. Turns and smiles at Kuroto, as if asking him to follow.

Outside, the snow has stopped falling. The air is cold and bracing, the ground blanketed with white. Kuroto treads lightly and carefully so as not to break the spell of serenity over this place. The bench in the back yard is piled high with snow and Hanashiro waits for Kuroto to clear a space for them both. 

"It's strange, isn't it, Hanashiro? Once, we were the linchpins of the world. Now, both of us have been forgotten."

"I quite like it this way," Hanashiro replies.

"Even though I have to live in a world without you?"

"If that is what it cost so that you could live," Hanashiro replies. His coat is pristine white, the colour of the snow, and he hugs his knees with his face turned to the sky. The edges of his silhouette are just out of focus and Kuroto tries to look closer, but can't. "Sorry, Kuroto. I am a selfish child. But, you know, it makes me so happy to hear from you that you miss me too."

"... Are you really here, Hanashiro? Or am I just imagining it?"

"Does it matter?" Hanashiro says. He turns to Kuroto then, his smile as sweet as spring flowers. "Maybe, with my last breath, with the last pieces of my power as the Saviour, I wished that I could stay here with you. Maybe I wished not to leave this world until you do."

But you did, Kuroto thinks, the knowledge clenching painfully around his heart. The ragged edges of grief have been filed down by time, but the loss will always remain etched deep. And I miss you, so much more than you can ever know. "Hanashiro..."

"Mm, Kuroto?"

"Should I have done anything differently?"

"You made a choice of your own free will." Kuroto feels Hanashiro's hand tighten over his. "And you lived. That's the only thing that matters to me."

Hanashiro steps off the bench and holds out a hand to help Kuroto up, and Kuroto takes it. Hand in hand, they walk together down the snow-dusted mountain road, to the clearing overlooking the village where the winter crocuses are blooming.