Kurotaka told him once, and only once.
"You are Kuroto," said Kurotaka, his voice unusually somber. "When humanity kills too much, Kuroto is born--that's you. And Kuroto's birth heralds the end of the world. As long as you are alive, the world will continue toward its demise. It's only by killing you that the world can be saved."
Kuroto stared up at him, wide-eyed and gawping. "The end of the world?" he whispered. The rest of it was too big, far too enormous to comprehend.
Kurotaka crouched down and put his hands on Kuroto's shoulders. "Listen to me, Kuroto," he said. "The world will never understand you, and so you have to understand. It's not your fault, it's just the way this world was made. You were born, and that means that one day, one day soon, when winter comes, it will go on forever. Spring will never come, and the world will end."
Kuroto swallowed. "It's winter now," he whispered. His voice shook. "Does that mean spring won't come? The world is ending?"
"Not yet!" Kurotaka said hastily, shaking his head. "Not yet, Kuroto. The world isn't ending yet. Spring will come again." His hands tightened on Kuroto's shoulders. "But one day. That's what Kuroto means--a winter that will never end." He paused. "Unless you die."
"I have to die?" Kuroto asked.
Kurotaka's face did something strange, twisting into an expression Kuroto had never seen before. "It's not," he started, then broke off. After a long, heavy silence, he sighed, his shoulders slumping. "As long as you are alive," he said, his voice quiet, "the world cannot be saved."
"So I have to die," Kuroto repeated.
"No," Kurotaka said fiercely. "You don't have to die. But you have to understand, Kuroto. People will hate you--not because of you, but because of what you are. Someone will come to kill you--not because they want to kill you, but because destroying Kuroto means saving everyone else. And you don't have to die, Kuroto. Not if that's what you decide. But you have to understand what you are, and you have to understand what it means if you choose to live." Kurotaka paused, his eyes searching Kuroto's. "Do you understand?"
Numbly, Kuroto nodded.
Kurotaka smiled at him, broad and bright, and tousled his hair. "Good. Why don't you go to bed, now? It's getting late."
Kuroto nodded, and he scrambled to his bedroom without another word. But he could not fall asleep. Dressed in his sleep-clothes and unable to even blink, he lay in bed huddled beneath the blankets, his head too full. In the hallway, the candles went out, one by one, until the only light came from the gentle burn of the brazier in the corner. Staring at the golden glow, his thoughts tumbled over each other, spinning endlessly, falling inexorably into a single realization.
"I have to die," Kuroto mumbled.
He didn't want to die. Dying seemed scary. But the end of the world seemed even scarier. Winters were bad enough already; it was months of preparation to make sure they had enough food and firewood and other supplies, to make sure they could survive until spring. But if spring never came, ever--
"I have to die," Kuroto repeated, awed.
He was Kuroto. Kuroto was born when the world was about to end. If Kuroto died, the world would be saved.
Kuroto had to die.
He pushed the blankets back and got out of bed. Tiptoeing, he crept down the hall to the front door. He paused there, listening for any sign that Kurotaka had heard him, but the house was silent save its ancient wooden creakings. Slowly, Kuroto opened the door. A chilly gust of air blew inside, and he flinched against the onslaught. But then he pressed bravely onward, stepping outside into the bitter cold and walking around to the side of the house with the wood shed. It was an effort and a half to clamber up on top of it, and even harder to haul himself onto the roof of the house. He slipped and slid, tearing open the palms of his hands and banging his shin on the eave. But eventually, he found himself sprawled on top of the roof, clinging to the chimney and panting for air.
The sky overhead was dark, the kind of dark only a winter night sky could achieve. The stars gleamed brilliantly, their shine made even sharper by the cold. Kuroto stared up, his breath dissipating grey into the empty expanse. Each time he inhaled, he could almost feel the ice creeping into his lungs.
Kurotaka had said this wouldn't be the last winter. But he couldn't know that for sure, could he? Maybe this was the last winter. Maybe, if Kuroto didn't die soon, the winter would never end.
Gracelessly, still clinging to the chimney, Kuroto clambered to his feet. Then, carefully, he tottered over the ice-slick roof and peeked over the edge.
The ground looked very far away.
A pinprick of cold touched his cheek. Startled, he glanced up. Faintly, snowflakes glittered silver as they drifted toward him. He held out a hand and caught one in his palm, and in an instant, it melted away into nothingness.
He could end the winter just as easily as this snowflake.
Kuroto closed his fingers around the melted snowflake in his palm, and then he took a deep breath, leaned over the edge, and fell.
"Kuroto? Kuroto! Kuroto!"
Blearily, Kuroto opened his eyes.
Kurotaka gazed down on him, his eyes wide, his face pale. "Kuroto," he said, hoarse and high-pitched. "Kuroto, thank goodness--"
Kuroto coughed and winced. Just breathing felt like agony. He coughed again, and this one turned into a sob.
"Hush, Kuroto, shh," Kurotaka said, and he pulled Kuroto into his arms. The sudden warmth made him shudder, and suddenly he realized that he had been lying in snow. His sleep-clothes were soaking wet and freezing, and he couldn't move his fingers or toes, and that strange clacking sound was his teeth chattering.
"Kurotaka," he tried to say, but failed. He coughed, swallowed, tried again. "Kurotaka," and it emerged a weak, pathetic croak, but it was his voice, his. "What--what happened?"
"That's what I want to know," Kurotaka said. He bundled Kuroto up in his own coat, tucking it tight around him. And Kuroto was already too big to be picked up, but Kurotaka picked him up anyway, cradling him close against his chest and turning toward the house.
Kuroto blinked. There were tears, he realized, tears frozen to ice in his eyes. "I," he said, and then he remembered. "I'm Kuroto," he said.
A hitch in Kurotaka's step. Kurotaka halted, his boots crunching in the snow.
"I'm Kuroto," Kuroto repeated. "So I have to die."
He couldn't see Kurotaka's face, but he could feel Kurotaka's arms tighten around him. "No," Kurotaka said roughly. "You don't have to die, Kuroto." He paused; his arms trembled. "Not yet."
"Remember what I told you, Kuroto," Kurotaka said.
"Don't tell anyone my name," Kuroto repeated dutifully. "If someone finds out, I'm not that Kuroto. Don't tell them where I live. Don't wander away from you."
"Good." Kurotaka nodded firmly. "All right, Kuroto. Let's go."
And for the first time, Kuroto went into town.
Kuroto was well aware that there was more to the world than their house and the forested wilderness around it. Kurotaka had told him countless stories--of stone castles with flying buttresses, of horses pulling merchants' wagons over cobblestone roads, of streets where bakeries stood next to smithies and milliners, of farmers who tilled the earth and sold their corn and wheat to the hungry masses. Kuroto knew, too, that there were countless things he did not yet know, things that he could not even begin to imagine for his sheltered upbringing.
So though he stayed close to Kurotaka as ordered, he goggled at the sights, looking every which way with eyes wide with awe.
There was a bell tower, several times taller than their house, pealing out the hour with a sound that resonated all the way through his chest. There was a stable, where a boy about his age tugged at the lead of a restive, snorting horse who tossed its head and stamped its hooves indignantly. There was a fountain that poured crystal-clear water into an elaborately carved basin. There was an open-air market full of stalls selling bundles of flowers, piping-hot bread rolls stuffed with raisins and nuts, painted wooden balls and dolls with stiff smiles, thick-soled boots and sturdy suspenders and mittens in bright colors and--
"This way," Kurotaka said, and he led Kuroto into the marketplace.
Kuroto looked around wildly, his head on a swivel, and still he couldn't take it all in. This stall had row after row of skewers of grilled meat and onion; that one had an elderly woman who hawked bags of rice with a startlingly strident voice. There were bolts of linen and spool after spool of yarn, hammers and nails and shovels and plows. There were bags of apples, ripe and green, and a bushel of cobs of corn still in their husks.
Kuroto jolted out of his dazzled reverie. Kurotaka was looking down at him, arms crossed and eyebrows raised. "I thought I told you to stay with me," he said, his voice too amused to be stern.
Kuroto glanced around him, bewildered. Kurotaka let out a faint huff. "I was over there," he said, pointing several stalls down.
Sheepishly, Kuroto ducked his head, scuffing his feet against the ground. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"As long as you know!" Kurotaka said breezily. "Just don't get yourself lost, okay? Hold on to my sleeve if you need to look around so much."
I'm not a little kid who needs to hang onto your sleeve, Kuroto wanted to say... but it did make sense. Reluctantly, he hooked his fingers around the hem of Kurotaka's sleeve.
Kurotaka grinned at him. "Let's go, then," he said, and he began towing Kuroto back through the marketplace.
Kuroto watched, fascinated, as Kurotaka went and purchased things they couldn't grow in their garden--a sack of lentils so heavy that Kuroto had to wrap both arms around it, a bag of flour and a much smaller container of salt that Kurotaka took charge of. Then, weighed down with their purchases, Kurotaka led them into a small alley a bit off the marketplace, a tiny, obscure area where no one would see them. Thus hidden, he relieved Kuroto of the sack of lentils, winked, and said, "Stay here a moment, yeah?" before vanishing into a distortion of air.
It wasn't the first time he'd seen Kurotaka teleport--he knew Kurotaka often had little patience for the long, precarious road down the mountain to the town--but it was the first time Kuroto had been left alone anywhere other than home. He glanced left, then right, suddenly nervous. But only a few seconds later, Kurotaka reappeared, his hands empty. "That way we don't have to carry it around with us all over the place," he said cheerfully. "Now let's go see if there's anything else we need, shall we? I think you've outgrown a few things lately."
Kuroto once again took hold of Kurotaka's sleeve, and they returned to the marketplace. As Kuroto watched with wide eyes, Kurotaka bought him a new coat, and new gloves, and a new pair of boots. Then he bought Kuroto an enormous grilled mushroom stuffed with bread and cheese, and he looked so self-satisfied at the way Kuroto devoured it that he might as well have eaten the extravagant snack himself. "Is there anything else you wanted to look at?" Kurotaka asked.
Kuroto looked around, then pointed. "We haven't been over there," he said.
Kurotaka smiled at him. "All right, let's go see what's over there."
They wandered over, and if it was possible, Kuroto's eyes went even wider still. This corner of the market seemed reserved for the most expensive, ostentatious, and high-quality of goods. This stall had knives, silver blades gleaming and leather sheaths polished to perfection. That one had brooches, ornately crafted cherries and peacocks and spiders done up in gold and silver and gemstones. This one had tea leaves, tiny amounts boxed up in elaborately carved wooden containers.
Then Kuroto stopped and stared, his breath taken away.
There was a stall whose table was covered in beautiful glass baubles. Spinning tops with spiraling swirls of blue and green, elegantly curved glasses with flared rims and long stems, teardrop pendants that flared as red as fire. And tucked away in the corner was a box of tiny marbles, each perfectly round, each with a twist of color inside.
"They're pretty, aren't they?" Kurotaka said.
"Each and every one blown by a master glassmith," said the merchant, instantly perking up. "Imported all the way from Tou. Real artisanship right here."
Kurotaka leaned over. "Hear that?" he said to Kuroto, his eyes gleaming. "Artisanship. Do you like them?"
Kuroto nodded vigorously. "I really like them," he said, prodding at a marble with one tentative finger.
Kuroto nodded again.
"How about this," Kurotaka said. "You can pick a marble to get."
Kuroto's head snapped up. "Can I really have one?" he asked, breathless.
Kurotaka smiled indulgently. "Of course. Pick whichever one you want."
Kuroto gazed at the marbles, his eyes flitting from one to another. They were all so beautiful. After much deliberation, he pointed at one near the back. Within it was a swirl of smokey gray and a twist of rose pink, the two streaks of color curled around each other as though dancing. "This one," he said. "Please."
The merchant plucked it up and dropped it into Kuroto's outstretched palm. Kurotaka handed over some amount of payment, but Kuroto didn't see how much; he was too entranced by the glass marble he held cupped in his hands.
He'd never owned anything so beautiful before.
He glanced up to see Kurotaka watching him. "Thank you, Kurotaka," he said.
Kurotaka's smile grew fond. He put a hand on Kuroto's head. "You're welcome, Kuroto," he said.
The merchant inhaled sharply.
Kuroto's eyes went wide, and slowly, his heart beating too fast, he looked up.
The merchant was a lean fellow, his dark hair thinning and his shrewish face blanching. "Kuroto?" he whispered, recoiling.
"No relation, I assure you," Kurotaka said sharply. His eyes had gone narrow; all goodwill had vanished from his expression. "He can't help what he was named."
The merchant still stared at Kuroto like a wild animal. "Kuroto?" he repeated, and his voice was trembling with something undefinable--more terrible than fear, more awful than revulsion, more vitriolic than hate. "You mean to say that Kuroto is--"
"Be sensible, man!" Kurotaka barked. "Would the Kuroto be a child like this?"
The man seemed to come back to himself. He gasped for air, pressing a hand to his chest. "A child," he echoed, and then he shuddered. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket and mopped at his brow. "A child," he repeated. "No, of course not. Of course not." He glanced at Kuroto, askance, as though not daring look directly at him for fear of being infected. "A child," he mumbled. "Right. Of course he's not Kuroto." He folded up his kerchief in shaky hands. "But what a terrible name to be burdened with," he said. "You didn't name him, did you?"
"No," Kurotaka replied. "I took him in, but he isn't mine."
"I see," the merchant said. "How unfortunate. Poor child." He offered Kuroto a smile that perhaps was meant to be comforting, but it was too sharp, too uncomfortable. "How cruel, to give a child the same name as that abomination. An evil name. May he grow up to be nothing like that monster."
Kuroto did not reply. The atmosphere was painfully chill. "Come along, Kuroto," said Kurotaka, his voice pitched low. "It's time to go home." And he wrapped his arm around Kuroto's shoulders and hustled him away.
"Pleasure doing business with you!" the merchant shouted after them.
Kuroto shuffled along, letting Kurotaka lead him. He didn't look at any of the stalls or their brilliant wares, didn't look around to see what else the marketplace had to offer. Instead he stared down at the marble in his hands, his eyes hollow.
"Kurotaka," he said, "what's an abomination?"
Kurotaka's arm tightened around his shoulders. "Nothing you need to know," he said gruffly. "Let's go home."
And with a familiar blur and a flash of light, they stepped though space and time.
When Kuroto looked up, they were on the pathway leading up to their house. Kurotaka let go of his shoulders and strode up to the front door. "I think we should check the garden," he said cheerfully, pulling the door open. "I think there are some weeds that might need to be taken care of."
Kuroto didn't follow him to the door. Instead, he looked back down at the marble. It was beautiful, still, but now the smokiness inside seemed like something poisonous, insidious. He bit his lip and lowered his eyes.
"Kuroto?" Kurotaka's voice was full of forced cheer. "Come on inside. We need to put your new clothes away before we check the garden."
Kuroto shoved the marble into his pocket and trudged up to the door. Kurotaka ushered him inside and placed the bag full of Kuroto's new cloak and gloves and boots into his arms. "Go put these away, Kuroto," he said, and so Kuroto went to his room, hung up the cloak, put the gloves in his chest of drawers, set the boots down on the closet floor. It was mindless, mechanical. He couldn't get the merchant's face out of his mind.
He hates me, Kuroto realized. Then, a correction: No, he hates Kuroto.
But he was Kuroto. He would always be Kuroto. He could never be anyone but Kuroto.
The merchant had talked about Kuroto liked he wanted to kill Kuroto with his bare hands.
"Kuroto!" Kurotaka hollered, and Kuroto shook his head and went to join Kurotaka.
"I need to put these away," Kurotaka said, gesturing to the bags of food. "Can you start on the garden?"
Silently, Kuroto nodded, and he went out back to the garden. He fetched a trowel from the shed and crouched down between two rows of carrots, prodding at the earth. There were weeds, little scraps of green poking out of the soil, starving it of nutrients that the carrots needed. Kuroto dug his trowel into the soil and started tugging out the weeds.
That man hated me, just because I'm Kuroto.
He shoved the trowel into the earth, hacking at the weeds.
Does everyone hate Kuroto that much?
He yanked out a handful of weeds by the roots and set them aside.
But they know Kuroto means the end of the world. Of course they're afraid of Kuroto. Of course they're afraid of me.
He tangled with another patch of weeds, grunting as he tugged them free.
They know that if I'm alive, they'll die, every single one of them.
He wiped sweat from his brow and tossed another few weeds onto the pile.
I would hate me, too.
He drove the trowel into the dirt, then paused. He was panting, his mouth hanging open as he gasped for air. His head spun.
I would want to kill me, too.
He sat back and dug the marble out of his pocket. He held it up to the light, gazing at the interplay of colors within the glass orb. It was still beautiful, one of the most innocently beautiful things Kuroto had ever seen.
How could he deserve something so lovely?
Suddenly disgusted, Kuroto flung the marble away. It arced through the air, flashing with beams of sunlight, before disappearing into the soil and grass somewhere in the distance. Kuroto scrubbed furiously at his face with dirty hands, sniffling. There was a lump in his throat now, unexpected, threatening to choke him. He could barely breathe.
As long as I'm alive, the world will end, and everyone else will die.
He looked down at the trowel. It was a gardening tool, but sturdy and heavy, the edge just sharp enough to be dangerous.
I shouldn't be alive.
He swallowed past the lump in his throat. He picked the trowel up in one hand, testing its weight. The metal blade gleamed dully. He lifted it, higher, higher, and then he brought it down.
Kuroto awoke with a gasp.
It was dark, frightfully so. His eyes darted wildly about, trying to make sense of the vague outlines in the dimness. Then, belatedly, he realized he was in his own room, lying on his own bed.
It was night.
He jerked upright. Sitting there, perched on the side of his bed, was Kurotaka. Kuroto stared at him, his breathing ragged. "Kurotaka," he blurted.
Kurotaka pressed a hand against Kuroto's shoulder, and Kuroto, confused but obedient, lay back down. The pillow made a faint sound as his head sank into it. "Kuroto," Kurotaka said, his voice pitched low. "What were you doing?"
Kuroto clenched his jaw and said nothing.
Kurotaka sighed, almost noiselessly. "If you were trying to play the hero and save the world by killing yourself, it's useless," he said bluntly. "Kuroto can't just be killed. Just like there is one person born to destroy the world, so too is there one person born to save it. That's the only person who can kill you, Kuroto. No one but the Savior can kill you--not even yourself." He reached out and brushed Kuroto's hair away from his eyes. "So please don't try," he added, his voice soft.
Kuroto swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. I can't kill myself, he thought. I can't stop the world from ending.
The devastation at this revelation was sudden but total.
Somehow, Kuroto opened his eyes. "The Savior," he whispered. "Who is it?"
"I don't know," Kurotaka replied, too frankly for it to be anything but the truth.
"So it could be anyone?"
"It could be," Kurotaka said. "But you'll know who it is when you see them."
Kuroto frowned. "That doesn't make sense," he objected. "How will I know who it is?"
"You'll know," Kurotaka replied. "You'll know."
He met the Savior, and he knew.
There was no logic or rationale, no declaration or proof. There was nothing but a boy, a slender, slight slip of a boy, a boy who wouldn't be a day over thirteen. A young boy with narrow shoulders and a childish face. A boy with hair the color of cherry blossoms and eyes the color of blood.
He wore a starkly white coat, whiter even than the snow all around them. How appropriate; white for purity, white for sacredness. White for death.
Oh, Kuroto thought, surprised by the sense of peace washing over him. You're here.
You're finally here to kill me.
The Savior stood toward the side of the narrow pathway wending through the trees. He wore no gloves, as though he couldn't feel the cold; his cheeks were tinged a healthy pink. He stared at Kuroto with his head cocked to the side, a dozen different things flashing across his eyes, his face twisting into a dozen different expressions. Finally he smiled, innocent and friendly, and he said, "I wasn't expecting to see anyone in a place like this. Do you live around here?"
His voice was high and sweet, the voice of a child who did not yet know the world. It sent a pang to Kuroto's heart just to hear it. Oh, he thought, but this time with a creeping sense of dread. He swallowed. "Something like that," he replied, and somehow his voice emerged neutral.
"Oh," the Savior said, sounding surprised. He blinked. "I'm just passing through," he said, offering Kuroto a smile. "But I'll probably be here pretty regularly--I have business in the area."
Business, as though he were not a child. Business, as though he weren't here to kill Kuroto.
"My name's Hanashiro," the Savior said, all brightness and light. "Like--"
"Like snow," Kuroto said.
The Savior's eyes widened, just by a hair. His expression went slack in surprise. "Like snow?" he asked, hesitant.
Kuroto held a hand out, gesturing to the snow all around them. "The falling snow," he said. "Don't you think it looks like flower petals, sometimes?"
"Falling petals," the Savior echoed. "Like snow." His expression was uncertain, now, almost lost.
A child, Kuroto thought. The Savior is just a child.
How is such a child supposed to kill?
"Like snow," the Savior repeated softly. He looked down. His hands curled into fists, then relaxed. He looked up again. "What's your name?"
Kuroto looked away. He could have lied, could have tried to hide. He didn't. "Kuroto," he said.
He didn't know what he expected. Maybe for the Savior to gasp in shock and turn a baleful glare upon him. Maybe for the Savior to pull that knife from his belt and stab him straight in the heart. Maybe he didn't expect anything at all.
"Kuroto," the Savior repeated, as though he'd never heard the name before. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Kuroto. Maybe I'll see you again sometime! I'll be coming back here again."
I'm sure you will, Kuroto thought.
I know you've come to kill me, Kuroto thought.
Please, kill me.
The Savior smiled, guileless and innocent and entirely without deceit, and then he skipped off down the path, vanishing around the bend and out of sight.
Dumfounded, Kuroto stared after him, jaw hanging agape. The Savior, he thought, and then, despite himself, Hanashiro.
Kuroto roasted vegetables for dinner, but his mind was far away.
A child, he thought for the umpteenth time, still dazed. The Savior is just a child.
Kuroto knew he had to die. He was born to be destroyed; the Savior was born to kill him. Kuroto knew what fate awaited him, accepted it, even longed for it. But to die at the hands of a child?
To make that child kill him?
The Savior had to have known. Surely the Savior had known who he was, in the same way that Kuroto had known. But the Savior--Hanashiro--had done nothing. Had not killed Kuroto, had not tried, had not made even the slightest gesture or threat. Hanashiro had looked at him like he was a stranger, but one who might one day become an acquaintance. Like someone who might be worth knowing, if only to trade greetings in passing.
It was nice to meet you, Kuroto, he'd said with a charming smile, as though Kuroto's very existence were not a great and terrible sin, and Kuroto's heart lurched in his chest.
A child, just a child. A child who no more deserved the cruel fate bestowed upon him than Kuroto did.
Kuroto stared at the pan, at the slices of potato and onion and eggplant being roasted with basil and salt. At the open flame of the stove, flickering and burning bright and white-hot.
Just a child, Kuroto thought. Oh, Hanashiro. You're just a child.
The Savior was just a child, but Kuroto had already suffered. Kuroto was already unclean.
He set the pan aside, reached out for the flame, and closed his eyes.
The stench of charred flesh was unbearable.
There was a reason Kuroto never ate meat.
"Kuroto," Hanashiro said, "can you teach me to cook?"
Surprised, Kuroto glanced up. Hanashiro was sitting at the table, gazing at him with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.
"Do you want to learn how to cook?" Kuroto asked, surprised despite himself. "I thought you just came here for the food."
"What are you talking about?" Hanashiro propped up his cheeks in both hands as he gazed at Kuroto, swinging his feet. "I come here for the company, of course." He flashed a cheeky grin. "The food's a nice bonus, though."
Kuroto scowled. "So why do you want to learn how to cook?"
"Hmm? I guess I just feel kind of bad, making you cook for me all the time." Hanashiro tilted his head to the side. "Can I help? Or would I just be a nuisance?"
Kuroto let out a sigh, but it was mostly for show. "Only one way to find out," he said. "Come here, then. But wash your hands first!"
Hanashiro obediently washed his hands at the sink. Then he stood beside Kuroto, staring down at the abundance of ingredients. "What are you making?" he asked, his voice dubious.
"Stew," Kuroto replied.
Hanashiro kept staring. "Where's the meat?" he asked blankly.
"It's a vegetable stew," Kuroto snapped.
Hanashiro pouted, his lower lip trembling. "No meat?" he wheedled.
"No meat," Kuroto snapped. "Here, you can do the carrots."
Hanashiro wrinkled his nose. "I don't like carrots," he complained.
"If you really hate them, you can eat around them," Kuroto replied crisply. "But they're going in the stew either way. They're already peeled, so you can chop them."
"Chop them?" Hanashiro asked. "How?"
Kuroto pinched the bridge of his nose. "Really?"
"You can't blame me," Hanashiro said sullenly. "No one ever taught me anything to do with cooking."
Kuroto sighed. "Here," he said patiently. "Here's the knife, you hold it like this, see? Hold the carrot in your other hand like this. Make sure you watch out for your fingers--you don't want to cut yourself! Tuck your fingers under, like this. And then you cut." The knife slid through the carrot and hit the chopping block with a muted thud. "The pieces should be about this long, see? And then you'll cut this part into smaller pieces. The smaller you chop them, the faster they'll cook, and the easier they'll be to eat, too. Not too small, though." With a few quick movements, he chopped the slice of carrot into smaller pieces. "Like this." He swept the chopped portion of the carrot into a small bowl, and then he held out the knife to Hanashiro, handle first. "Your turn."
"Okay," Hanashiro said, although he still sounded uncertain. He accepted the knife, took it in his hand easily. Too easily; it was the ease born of long practice. For some reason, though, he still squinted at it like he didn't know exactly what he was doing. "Um." He took the half-chopped carrot in his other hand, groping for a solid grip. Then he lowered the knife, the sharp edge hovering just above the carrot. "Right around here?"
"That's good," Kuroto answered.
A solid thunk as the knife sliced through the carrot, swift and clean. The piece of carrot spun and tumbled to the chopping board. "Like that?" Hanashiro asked.
"Exactly like that," Kuroto replied. "Keep it up."
His brow furrowed, Hanashiro lifted the knife and brought it back down on the carrot. Thunk. Again. Thunk. And again. Thunk.
Kuroto watched him, watched the knife he wielded more and more deftly with every second. Hanashiro was doing just fine; he was clearly used to working with a blade in his hand.
Oh, Kuroto thought, and suddenly, his entire body felt cold.
Hanashiro glanced up, as though unnerved by Kuroto's sudden stillness. "Is this okay?" he asked uncertainly, gesturing with the knife blade to the chopped carrot.
Kuroto swallowed. "That's good," he said. "Do the other carrots, too." And consciously, deliberately, he turned his back on Hanashiro.
Hanashiro was not cruel. It would be swift, easy, as painless as was possible. Perhaps the blade would slide between his ribs, or perhaps slice across his throat. Hanashiro was too sensitive, too kind; he would make it quick. And if Kuroto kept his back turned, he wouldn't have to see it happen. He wouldn't have to see the way Hanashiro's hands would tremble, or the way his eyes would fill with tears.
Hanashiro, too, would not have to look Kuroto in the face as he died.
If there was any kindness to be found, any sliver of grace granted them by a cold and uncaring universe, it was here. Kuroto would die at home, surrounded by warmth, at the hand of a Savior who would weep and stay by his side so he would not die alone.
It was more than Kuroto could have asked for.
With too-steady hands, Kuroto put a pot of water on the stove, added some spices, stirred them in.
Then he closed his eyes and waited.
Behind him, Hanashiro kept chopping the carrots. A sibilant hiss as the knife carved through the root; a dull thump as it impacted the chopping board. Slow, but regular. Again, and again, and again.
What would it sound like, when the blade pierced Kuroto's body? Would Hanashiro's hand be as stable and certain?
A pause, a silence. Kuroto held his breath.
"Kuroto? I'm done."
Kuroto jolted in surprise, and then, slowly, he turned around.
Hanashiro was standing exactly where he'd been before, at the counter in front of the chopping block. The knife lay, innocuous and unassuming, on the board next to a pile of chopped carrots. Hanashiro grinned at him, a bit tentative, a bit pleased. "How do they look?" he asked, gesturing to the carrots.
Blankly, Kuroto looked at the carrots. They were a bit uneven in size and shape, clearly cut by an inexperienced hand.
"Good," Kuroto said.
Hanashiro's chest puffed up in pride. "Is there anything else I can do to help?" he asked, a bit too eagerly.
"You can chop the potatoes, too," Kuroto said. A few steps away, the washed and peeled potatoes sat in a bowl on the counter. Crossing that short distance felt like walking through water. Kuroto picked up the bowl and deposited it in front of Hanashiro. "They're already peeled, too. Cut them into pieces about the same size as the carrots, okay?"
"Okay!" Hanashiro chirped, and he picked up a potato, scrutinized it every which way, carefully set it down on the chopping board, and picked up the knife again.
Kuroto swallowed and went to the sink. He began rinsing the mustard greens, his back turned.
Behind him, Hanashiro's knife thudded against the chopping block. The back of Kuroto's neck prickled. Please, Hanashiro, he thought, with increasing desperation. Just get it over with. Kill me, Hanashiro. Please.
Kuroto ducked his head, squeezing his eyes shut. But the killing stroke never came.
Three winters of Hanashiro showing up at his house, disdainfully turning his nose up at mushrooms, crouching in the garden and prodding the soil curiously with a trowel. Three winters of Hanashiro snipping at Kurotaka, poking his nose into random cupboards and drawers, picking fights with chickens. Three winters of Hanashiro bringing him hardy wildflowers to arrange in a vase on the kitchen table and leaving him notes jotted on scraps of paper.
Three winters of watching Hanashiro laugh, and scowl, and wheedle and whine, and huff and stomp away, and lose his words in broken-hearted vulnerability. Three winters of Hanashiro grabbing Kuroto's hand every time he wanted his attention, and hooking his elbow in Kuroto's as they walked down the narrow country road into town, and curling up against Kuroto's side as they sat in front of the blazing fireplace. Three winters of Hanashiro casting aside his role as Savior and looking at Kuroto with that raw, naked longing in his eyes.
And Kuroto grumbled and groused and sighed, but every time Hanashiro showed up on his doorstep, he let him in, and even in the dead of winter, the house grew warmer for his presence.
"Maybe I'll just move in with you," Hanashiro said flippantly. "It'd be nice, to live here with you."
Kuroto raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"
"I'd pull my weight around the house," Hanashiro added. "It'd be fun, wouldn't it? And I sure would eat well."
"Yeah, by eating my cooking," Kuroto muttered.
"And you're funny," Hanashiro added.
Kuroto just stared at him, feeling lost. "Is that supposed to be an actual reason?"
Hanashiro was still wearing a silly grin, fond and teasing. "Is that a no?" he asked lightly. But even though his voice was glib, there was a thread of uncertainty, too. As though he were passing it off as a joke, but the sentiment was very much serious.
And there was something dangerous here, something that set Kuroto on edge. Something that made his heart clench and his stomach flutter, something that made his breath catch. Because--because--
Because this was treacherous territory, a place Kuroto didn't dare go for fear of finding what was there.
So he shook his head at himself and did the only thing he could: he went on the offensive. "Hanashiro," he said softly, "isn't there something else you're supposed to be doing?"
And Hanashiro bluffed and played innocent and feigned ignorance, but nothing could hide the way the blood drained from his cheeks and his expression went frantic. Because Hanashiro would never admit the truth, would never face up to the fact that he was the Savior and Kuroto was Kuroto, and in the span of a few awkward, agonizing minutes, Hanashiro had made his excuses and turned tail to run, just as Kuroto had known he would.
Hanashiro only paused to say one thing. "Kuroto," he said, his hand on the doorknob, "do you like me?"
Kuroto drew back, startled. "What?"
"Because I like you," Hanashiro continued. He was smiling, sincere but edged with something heavy and bittersweet. "That's all I wanted to say. I'll be back again later! Bye!"
And without waiting for a response, he swung open the door and vanished out into the flurry of snow. When the door slammed shut behind him, it left in its wake a ringing silence.
The whirlwind of emotion left Kuroto stunned; the suddent silence left him drained. He slid down in his chair, his thoughts spinning. "Hanashiro," he whispered to the empty room. "What...."
Do you like me?
Kuroto should have known better, but there was only one answer to that question: Of course he liked Hanashiro. He would have chased Hanashiro off long before now if he didn't enjoy the company on some level. Because for all that Hanashiro could be exasperating, he was sweet, too, and honest and straightforward in his affection. He was silly, sometimes, and on occasion he could make Kuroto laugh. There was an innocence, a childlike wonder that he hadn't lost even as he'd grown over the past couple of years. And no matter how cold it got outside, no matter how high the snow piled or cutting the wind became or how icy the ground grew, Hanashiro was warm--his hands, his smile, his laughter. His eyes. His heart.
It would be nice, to live with him. Hanashiro would probably have trouble that first winter, might go a little stir-crazy being stuck in the house for weeks on end. But he would bring a joy and liveliness, too. Kuroto could make dinner for them, could chat with Hanashiro as he cooked and sit across from him at the table. They could play games to pass the time, and Hanashiro would pout at his losses before poking fun at himself. There was only one bed, but that was all right; they could share, all the better for keeping warm during the bitterly cold nights. Kuroto would have to lay down some ground rules--no snacking in bed, no hogging the heavy quilt--but he would sleep better hearing someone else breathing beside him, and in the morning, he could wake up to see Hanashiro's face, peaceful in sleep.
Kuroto found himself smiling faintly at the thought. Hanashiro, he thought wistfully. How wonderful it would be, to have something worth waking up to in the morning.
Then, with dawning horror, Kuroto realized what he was thinking.
He leapt to his feet and slammed his hands down on the table. "No," he snarled at himself, shaking his head furiously. "No."
Impossible. Unthinkable. He was Kuroto. He was sin and cruelty personified; he was man's inhumanity to man made manifest. He was born to die at Hanashiro's hands. How dare he dream of a peaceful life?
How dare he find something worth living for, when he was the reason so many people would die?
Do you like me?
Kuroto staggered, dropped back into his chair, buried his face in his hands. "Hanashiro," he whispered, overwhelmed. "No, Hanashiro, you have to kill me."
Because I like you.
How could he make Hanashiro kill him?
How could he let Hanashiro kill him?
Kuroto took a deep breath, then another.
And then he lifted his head, determination burning in his gut like bile.
Outside, he found a tree with strong, sturdy branches. He climbed up it, the rope slung over his shoulders, until he was high enough. He crawled out onto a branch, one thick enough to hold his weight, and he tied the rope around the branch, giving it several knots just to be safe. The other end he tied in a hangman's knot, winding the rope around itself and pulling it taut. Then he settled the loop over his head and tugged until it was snug around his neck.
A proper hanging did not strangle, but rather snapped the neck. Death was supposed to be quick and mostly painless.
Kuroto eyed the distance to the ground. He adjusted the noose until the knot was positioned just below his left ear. One deep breath, another, and then he tipped himself off the branch. A plummet, a recoil, a horrific crack--
His eyes snapped open. He gasped, but no air came in. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe.
He clawed at his own throat, but his fingernails only tore uselessly on coils of hemp. His mouth was open, but his throat worked futilely, producing nothing but agonized grunts. He kicked and writhed, but there was no resistance, no leverage, nothing to keep him from spinning as he dangled in the air. The world tilted crazily around him, his vision going misty and gray, his thoughts going distant and fuzzy, his movements going jerky and uncoordinated, his lungs screaming screaming screaming--
He came back to awareness all of a sudden, a bolt of confusion and instinctive, animal panic. He thrashed, but no sounds emerged from his battered, closed-up throat. There was something tight around his neck, something rough and powerful that clamped shut and refused to yield. His fingers plucked at the rope, but it dug into his skin, no hope of slipping even a fingernail beneath it. His neck ached and his lungs desperately tried to take in air, but he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe--
The world was a blur of darkness and snow, flurries gusting against his limp body. His thoughts were faint, a slurried mess. His mouth was dry and cottony, his eyes dry and stinging. He let out a strangled noise and pawed at his throat, but the cold made his fingers stiff and uncooperative, and he could barely even feel the rope gouging into him. He tried to grab the knot, but his hands slid over the loops and coils, and he couldn't focus, couldn't think, couldn't fight the encroaching darkness--
He tried to breathe in, but couldn't. His body jerked, a primitive reaction. An animal trying to flee danger and pain. He scratched at the rope, clawed until it was slick with blood, but gravity continued to drag him inexorably down, and his chest heaved in vain, his head going light and airy, his vision speckling around the edges, narrowing, collapsing--
He was dying.
He was dying.
He was dying, and he could not die.
His struggling lungs fought to inhale, and he tore at the rope in mindless desperation. But soon he could do more than twitch, his muscles going limp.
Let me die, he thought, his vision swooning crazily. Let me die.
He gurgled. His hands worked mindlessly. Hanashiro.
He flailed, tugging helplessly at the rope. There was no conscious thought, no thought at all. Nothing but desperation, his body twisting in the air--
And then, like a divine benediction, a ripping sound, a loosening of pressure--
His lungs inflated. Air. Air. He sucked it in, gloriously cold and crisp, agonizingly painful, pure bliss--
And then his body hit the ground with a sickening crunch.
Kuroto blearily opened his eyes, and he breathed.
He lay there in the snow, sprawled on his back, his limbs akimbo, and simply breathed. His entire body was frightfully cold, and he didn't have the strength to move, and his throat felt like it had been torn to shreds. But he could breathe, and he was alive.
He was alive, and on an instinctive, human level, he was glad of it.
He was alive, and in that moment, he loathed himself with inhuman fury.
I don't want to die, he thought, and detested himself with every fiber of his being. Hanashiro, I don't want to die--
Later, much later--and yet not much later at all--Hanashiro showed up on his doorstep, anxious and intense and shivering and with steel in his spine. "Kuroto," he blurted, "let's run away."
And Kuroto did not choose to be born Kuroto, did not ask for this, did not wish to be the harbinger of despair and destruction, did not want to bring endless winter upon so many innocent souls. But his sins were nevertheless his and his alone, because he knew who he was, knew he did not deserve to live, knew his very existence was a damnable curse. Knew he had to die.
But Hanashiro looked up at him with crazed, desperate eyes and said, "Kuroto, run away with me," and Kuroto--
Kuroto said yes.
+1. in victory and in defeat
The villagers ringed them, circling them on all sides. They held swords, knives, hatchets, icepicks, shovels, hoes--anything that could be used as a weapon, anything that could be used to beat them down. They all glared at Kuroto with the righteous fury of the unjustly damned.
The village chief was an older man, with hair graying at the temples and a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows. "Take their weapons and restrain them," he commanded, his voice gravelly with years of labor.
"Tie us up, you mean," Hanashiro spat. Whatever hostility the villagers offered him, he returned twofold, tenfold, hundredfold; his face was twisted in snarl of disgust, and his voice was full of venom. "Sorry, but we don't have time to waste playing around with you. Get out of the way."
The village chief offered them a thin, mirthless smile. "Look at how many people are around you," he rumbled. "There are only two of you. You can't possibly think you can escape."
"Hanashiro," Kuroto hissed, his eyes darting about. "They want me, not you. You can still get way."
Hanashiro scoffed. "For the record, I would run, even if you got captured," he replied. "You'll never die if I'm not there to do the job. But that's exactly why they'll never just let me go."
Kuroto cringed at the words, too harsh in their honesty. But the village chief didn't even twitch. "I'm glad to see you understand the situation," he said. "Don't make this more difficult than it has to be. Surrender peacefully, and no one has to get hurt."
Hanashiro's eyes flickered about, narrowed and wary. He turned on his heel, glancing behind them. Calm, assessing.
"Hanashiro," Kuroto said quietly. "We're surrounded."
Hanashiro met and held his gaze. Kuroto stared back, unable to look away. "Hanashiro," he said. "Please."
Hanashiro's gaze wavered, and then he closed his eyes, just for a moment, in something that was alarmingly close to surrender. But then he turned back to the village chief, his chin lifted and his stare flinty, and Kuroto recognized it for what it was: resolve, hard and unyielding.
"I won't let you capture us," Hanashiro announced, glaring at the villagers with utter loathing. "I won't let you hurt Kuroto."
And slowly, with a metallic ring, Hanashiro drew his sword from its scabbard.
All around them, the villagers recoiled a step, fear rippling through them like a wave. Kuroto's eyes went wide. "Hanashiro," he whispered, his voice hushed.
Hanashiro took the hilt in both hands. "I won't let anything happen to you, Kuroto," he vowed. His eyes were gleaming and wild, and Kuroto could almost see the power of the Savior surging within him.
"Hanashiro," Kuroto said, more urgently. "Hanashiro, stop. I don't want anyone to die for me! I don't want anyone to die for my sake!"
"And I don't want you to die for anyone," Hanashiro replied. "I don't care about the rest of the world. I don't care what I have to do. As long as you survive--that's all I want."
"Capture them!" the village chief shouted.
Hanashiro brought the sword swinging down--
And too late, Kuroto realized.
"Hanashiro!" he screamed, his voice cracking--
And Hanashiro plunged the blade of the sword into his own stomach.
For an eternal moment, time stopped, but it was too late.
Hanashiro's grip went slack, and his knees buckled out from beneath him.
"Hanashiro!" Kuroto shouted. He stumbled forward, fell to his knees in a rapidly expanding pool of blood, yanked the sword free and tossed it away and pressed both hands against the gaping wound. The blood was warm, so warm, and it poured out in a torrent, seeping through Kuroto's fingers no matter how forcefully he pressed down. "Hanashiro," he gasped, "Hanashiro, no, no--"
Hanashiro coughed, a wet, sickly sound. Blood dribbled from his lips. "Kuroto," he said, and his voice emerged a wracked whisper. His lips curled into a wobbly, pained smile. "See?" he choked out. "I told you. I won't let you die."
"Hanashiro," Kuroto whispered, and the blood kept coming. He pressed down harder, his hands bearing down on flesh and intestine and blood, so much blood. His vision blurred; he could not breathe. "Hanashiro, why--"
"It's okay," Hanashiro said. He reached up one shaky hand and pressed it weakly against Kuroto's chest. "All I ever wanted was for you to live. And now you will."
I can't, Kuroto thought. You were supposed to kill me. I can't live without you. Hanashiro. Hanashiro.
"Hanashiro," he said numbly, but there was no reply.