Even now, there were few things that set Kuroto's heart at ease more than seeing the snow melt away.
There had been one stubborn patch of ice just outside the front door, sharp and brittle in the face of spring's warm breath. The snowdrifts between the trees and the icicles daggering down from the eaves and the frost spindling over the windows had all long since surrendered, but that small bit of ice had clung on, dogged and desperate.
But when they stepped outside one morning, the air was crisp and chilly enough that Kuroto was glad for his coat, but that tiny patch of ice was finally gone, leaving nothing but bare earth in its wake. Winter had, at long last, let out its final gasp and slipped away.
Hanashiro noticed. "The ice is gone," he said, and he stepped on the patch of ground where the ice had been. "I guess that means it's finally the first day of spring."
Kuroto was pretty sure that wasn't technically true, but he didn't argue; it was true in all the ways that mattered. "I guess so," he replied.
"Perfect timing," Hanashiro said with a grin.
They set out, Hanashiro holding the basket, Kuroto with the blanket draped over one arm. They went slowly, as the path got a bit challenging at times--particularly steep here, a bit rocky there. It hadn't always been this way, but the years were not always kind.
That didn't matter. They had been kind enough.
Not far from their destination, just around a bend, a deep rut slashed across the path, the beginnings of a gully. Kuroto stared at it in dismay; it looked like it had widened since their last visit. "I think we might finally have to build a walkway over this," he said.
Hanashiro waved off his words like a pesky gnat. "It's fine! We're not that old!" And as though to prove his point, he gingerly stepped over the ditch, his arms spread wide for balance. On safe ground once again, he turned back and beamed. "See? Come on." He held out a hand.
Kuroto muttered beneath his breath, but he reached out for Hanashiro's hand, squeezed it, and took as big of a step as he could. He wobbled, but Hanashiro's grip was warm, steady, strong, and Kuroto let himself be tugged safely over to the other side.
Hanashiro exhaled. "Okay, it has gotten kind of big," he allowed, but he was smiling. His fingers slid between Kuroto's and held on tight. "Maybe you can build it next year. I'll help."
"I want to know your definition of help first," Kuroto said dryly.
Hanashiro glared at him in mock outrage. "I can help!" he protested, but his eyes sparkled with good humor. "I'll help carry."
Kuroto looked at him with fond exasperation, and Hanashiro grinned, blindingly bright.
They continued on their way. Hanashiro swung their linked hands back and forth as they walked. It wasn't much farther now, and the path was flat and easy, and soon enough, they emerged from the forest into a wide clearing.
The divide between forest and glade was stark, as though the forest trees held back out of respect. The grass of the clearing was thin and patchy, not quite fully emerged from its winter slumber. In the center of the clearing stood a single tree, its knotted trunk only slightly twisted, its branches splayed out broadly against the ruddy blue sky. In hues of rose and ivory, its blossoms were just beginning to bloom.
For a moment, they stood there together, gazing at the tree. Then Hanashiro broke the silence. "It's so pretty," he murmured.
Kuroto swallowed. "Yeah," he said, so much more than just agreement.
They walked to the base of the tree and found the spot of ground where the grass was thickest. They laid out the blanket--Kuroto tugging at the corners to make sure it there were no wrinkles--and then they sat side by side, facing the tree.
"I was a little worried," Hanashiro said. "I thought we might be too early for cherry blossoms. It stayed colder for longer than usual this year, after all."
"We're still a little bit early," Kuroto pointed out. "It's not in full bloom yet."
"That's okay," Hanashiro said. "It's still pretty."
As though to prove his point, a sudden gust of wind whipped through the clearing, blowing Hanashiro's hair and sending a hail of tiny blossoms swirling through the air around them. Brushing his bangs out of his eyes, Hanashiro turned his gaze upward. He blinked in surprise as petals danced around him, and then, like dawn breaking, he smiled.
It only deepened the wrinkles at his eyes, but it was so guileless, so genuine, like joy of a child witnessing something long hoped for and beautiful and true, that for a moment--just a moment--Kuroto felt that they were young again, seeing this tree in bloom for the first time.
Softly, the moment ended. Hanashiro laughed and brushed the petals out of his hair. "I hope we don't get too many flowers in our lunch," he joked. "What did you make, Kuroto?"
"Vegetables," Kuroto deadpanned.
Hanashiro shot him a dirty look. "You didn't," he said, his voice full of accusation. Still, when he opened the basket, it was with no small amount of excited anticipation. He pulled out one container, prised off the lid, and let out a laugh. "I knew you wouldn't do that to me," he said.
Kuroto had prepared a veritable buffet for their picnic lunch. There was chicken roasted with lemon, and smoked trout, and hard-boiled eggs. There were herb-roasted potatoes as well, and skewers of grilled onions and peppers, and mushrooms wrapped in bacon--the only way Hanashiro would deign to eat mushrooms, and even that only after years of wheedling and trickery. Kuroto had also made half-sized portions of wilted spinach and carrots--only half-sized, because he had long since given up any hope of Hanashiro learning to stomach them. He also added rolls of bread on the side, and a bottle of cider to drink, and honey-poached pears for dessert.
Hanashiro pulled out the containers one by one, arranging them on the blanket. He crinkled his nose at the vegetables, setting them obnoxiously close to Kuroto. The chicken, on the other hand, he placed directly in front of himself. At the bottom of the basket were plates, cups, and silverware, and he took them out and promptly began serving. Of course, he put most of the meat on his own plate; indulgently, Kuroto let him.
"I'm glad we get to do this," Hanashiro said. "Come look at the cherry blossoms, I mean."
"It was your idea to begin with," Kuroto reminded him.
It had been Hanashiro's idea. They'd just planted the cherry tree, little more than a twig at the time, and Hanashiro had gazed on it with a stubborn good cheer and optimism that did not fully mask the glimmer of pain in his eyes and said, half in jest but entirely serious, let's come back to see the flowers when they blossom. The way he'd said it had sounded silly and childish at the time, but it had been a conscious decision on Hanashiro's part--a resolution to look toward the future and make it worth living.
It's a reason to look forward to living a long life, Hanashiro had said, and for the first time, Kuroto had realized he had a long life to live, and was glad to realize it.
Kuroto gazed up at the cherry tree. "It was a good idea," he added quietly.
"Still." Hanashiro settled his plate in his lap. "Thank you."
Kuroto said nothing, but he smiled into his cup of cider all the same.
Hanashiro ate robustly, wolfing down even the mushroom without complaint. But he paused every few bites to look up, as though he couldn't stop admiring the cherry tree. "I'm glad it grew so well," he said abruptly. "The cherry tree, I mean. I was a bit worried when we first planted it."
"It did take some looking after, those first few years," Kuroto agreed. "Remember when it got blight?"
Hanashiro grimaced. "That was bad," he said.
It had been bad. The tree had been little more than a sapling, and yet it had been ravaged by the disease--its bark gone dark and gummy, its leaves riddled by holes until they withered and died. They had spent a good number of hours carefully pruning away each afflicted part, knowing that if they missed even the tiniest piece the blight could come raging back.
"Blight that bad usually kills a plant," Kuroto said. "I wasn't sure if it would survive."
"Me neither," Hanashiro replied. "But we saved it."
Kuroto gazed up at the cherry tree. At the time, the tree had barely been taller than him; now, it towered over them both, its trunk so thick he couldn't wrap his arms all the way around it, the spread of its branches almost filling the entire sky. "Yeah," he said softly. "We did."
They fell quiet, then, the only sound the clinking of their silverware and the whisper of the wind through the leaves. It was peaceful like this, a gentle sense of solace. A hard-earned moment of respite. This tree had survived so much.
They had, too.
Eventually, Hanashiro set his plate aside and sipped his cider, gazing upward. "How tall do you think it is now?" he asked.
Shading his eyes, Kuroto squinted up at the tree. "I don't know," he replied. "Forty feet? Fifty?"
Hanashiro let out a sigh. For a long, long moment, he was quiet.
"I wanted this tree to grow as tall as the tower," Hanashiro said at last, his voice soft. "Taller, even. I think I felt like maybe, if the tree grew that tall, it would be tall enough to reach them."
Kuroto didn't ask who Hanashiro meant by them. He didn't have to ask.
"It's not as tall as the tower, though," Hanashiro mused.
Kuroto tilted his face upward, toward the pale sunshine and the petals that drifted down like snow. The tree was rather tall for a cherry tree, but nowhere near as tall as the tower had been. Even all these years later, he remembered the tower well--its rough-hewn gray stone, its rows of cathedral windows, the way it rose as though to pierce the heavens. Kurotaka. "I don't think we'll be around long enough to see it get quite that tall," he said quietly.
Hanashiro let out a soft, pensive hum. He gazed up at the cherry tree, his expression faraway, his bangs blowing in his eyes. His hair had gone nearly pure white, the years washing out the pink to nothing but a memory, but his eyes were still as bright as ever, more vivid than the blossoms that drifted down about them. "Maybe not," he said at last. "But I'm okay with that, I think."
He lowered his hand, and gently, his pinkie finger curled over Kuroto's.
"Yeah," Kuroto murmured. He linked his little finger around Hanashiro's. A single, small point of contact. "I'm okay, too."
Perhaps they wouldn't live long enough to see this tree break into the heavens. But all these years had been time enough, and they had more time still.