The crow blinked. It tilted its head to one side, and then the other, and repeated its message.
“Ah,” he said again. It was only a moment, a breath, a simple exhale stretched out to forever. He felt like he was floating, higher and higher on a cloud made of numbness. He felt like he was teetering on the edge of an abyss.
— Good morning, Tokito-kun!
What’s so good about it?
— Nothing yet, maybe, but we have the chance to make it so!
And then it all came crashing down.
The tears would not come, for the maggots had hollowed him out, eaten up his heart and chewed him down to the bone until everything was as raw and painful as the press of salt to flayed skin.
Inside of him it throbbed; give in, curl up, die, screeched every nerve in his body, but he had spent countless hours training and ignoring its demands, so he would ignore it once more.
He was at least strong enough for that.
He dropped to his knees
— Be careful, Tokito-kun
as strong arms wrapped around him and lowered him gently to the ground, rather than letting him crash upon it
His fingers curled into the dirt. They were pale, corpse-pale against the soil. He dragged them around, a swooping line. Shaking and unsure, like all things he did, but it didn’t have to be good. That didn’t matter.
All that mattered was he’d never hear that enthusiastic voice again. That he’d never see that bright smile, never feel the warmth of those calloused hands.
He didn’t want to forget.
Another line. A series of jerking movements to mark out hair like fire, eyes equal parts piercing and comforting. Eyes he could not hide from, but would allow him his secrets until he was ready.
How nice it was, to be seen.
The uniform, like his own, but infinitely warmer. The fabric he would wrap around him, smelling like woodsmoke and sweat, and for those brief, wonderful moments Muichiro would feel safe.
Fingers that had once combed through his hair. Hands that held his own, that accepted every snail and frog and bug and rock Muichiro offered with unbridled excitement.
— Oh, the shape of this one is very nice! And the way it shines in the sunlight! I like it!
— Ah! Tokito-kun, you have a knack for finding the biggest frogs! I must concede defeat, the one I caught is barely half this size! And far less cute, too…
You can name him if you want.
— Consolation prize! Okay! Hmm… Ribbit, ribbit? Yes? I see! Guichiro-san! Nice to meet you!
There would be no more frog-catching now. No one else knew him like Rengoku had (what was his first name again? oh god, oh god, oh god…), no one else could he share it with.
Names didn’t matter so much as substance. He drew another line for a sunbeam grin.
Something painful was lodged in his throat. He swallowed, his unsteady hands growing even moreso.
“Ah,” that one syllable was all he could repeat, a fragile little noise, the sound a heart makes when it breaks.
He stood. Rengoku’s face stared up at him from the dirt.
Never was a very long time.
But, Muichiro swore, he would remember.