The first time Hanashiro deliberately kills someone, it's messy and bloody and probably--undoubtedly--cruel.
The man has his hands bound tightly behind his back, and he kneels at Hanashiro's feet only because his knees were kicked by the guards until they buckled. The man does not duck his head or huddle his shoulders, but instead sneers up at Hanashiro, cold-eyed and unrepentant. "Just a child," he spits. "You're sick, making a child kill me."
The words are directed not at Hanashiro, but at Shirofukurou, who stands by the door as calm and elegant as always. "You're sick, doing what you did to your own child," Shirofukurou replies crisply, not missing a beat. "Hanashiro, this man did horrible things to his daughter. Unspeakable things. She suffered terribly before she died at his hands. It is only just that he be sentenced to death for what he's done."
Hanashiro doesn't know exactly what this man did to his daughter. He's not sure he wants to know. Either way, it must have been something terrible, if it makes Shirofukurou look so aloof and icy and ruthless--even more so than usual.
"He deserves it, Hanashiro," Shirofukurou continues, voice placid, expression unflinching. "That is his punishment. And you're the one who must do it. You're the only one who has the right to do it. You're the Savior, Hanashiro. You're the one who will save the world from the sins of people like him."
Shirofukurou's fingers, slender and too cold, come to rest gently on the back on Hanashiro's hand. "Do it, Hanashiro." Shirofukurou curls Hanashiro's fingers around the leather-bound hilt of his sword. "Do it, Savior."
Hanashiro swallows, then nods somberly. "I understand," he whispers, and then he turns to face the doomed man.
The man meets him with a defiant glare. "Do whatever you want to me," he snarls, and for good measure, he spits in Hanashiro's face.
Hanashiro blinks. He wipes the saliva from his face with his sleeve, grimacing in disgust. Beside him, Shirofukurou's eyes narrow. "You are an abomination upon this earth," Shirofukurou pronounces, in a voice so cold it cuts like a blade. "You and your sins shall be cleansed from the world."
Slowly, Hanashiro draws his sword.
"Kill him, Hanashiro," Shirofukurou says. "Put an end to his miserable existence. You've trained for this; now is the time to do it."
Hanashiro grips his sword tightly in both hands. It wavers in front of him, ever so slightly. Before him, the man's face has gone pale, as though the gravity of the situation has suddenly come crashing down on him. Hanashiro closes his eyes, just for a moment. Inhale, exhale.
Then he opens his eyes, steps forward, and plunges the blade into the man's torso.
The thrust is easy; his arms extend as muscle memory takes over. He's practiced this a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times. But nothing could have prepared him for the feel of it. A human body feels nothing like empty air or a bale of hay. The flesh resists. Ribs turn the blade at a strange angle. And the blood--
Somehow, he had not expected the blood. Or the screams.
There are no words, only screams. They echo off the low stone ceiling, deafening, petrifying. The man's expression twists and crumples in agony; his body spasms, threatening to jerk the blade straight from Hanashiro's hands.
"You've missed the heart, Hanashiro," Shirofukurou says, voice raising to be heard. "Do it again, properly this time. Put him out of his misery."
Hanashiro stares down at his hands, wide-eyed and unable to breathe. The sword in his hands is sunk halfway into the man's chest. There's blood seeping onto the stone, blood trickling down the gleaming steel, blood dripping onto Hanashiro's hands.
The crimson stands out so starkly against his own pale skin.
"Hanashiro." There's an edge to Shirofukurou's voice now, and Hanashiro blinks and comes back to himself. He stares at the man, at his bugged-out eyes and gaping mouth and gaping, ravaged chest, and he pulls the blade out.
The blood comes gushing. Hanashiro tightens his grip on the suddenly-slick hilt and thrusts the sword back in, more firmly this time. The angle is better. There's less resistance. The blade slices neatly through.
The man stops screaming and starts gurgling instead. Blood spills from his mouth. The body jerks wildly; Hanashiro clings to the sword. Then, at last, the body stills and simply tips, listing to the side in a pile of dead weight.
Hanashiro lets the blade slip free of the body as it slumps onto the floor.
He's gasping. He realizes this as though from a great distance. His mind is foggy; his body feels like it belongs to someone else. He stands there, his chest heaving, his vision fuzzing over, the tip of his sword lying heavy on the floor, and he feels nothing, nothing at all, nothing except for the wetness of blood all over his hands.
Shirofukurou steps forward. "Well done." It's a quiet murmur, almost reassuring; the hand placed on Hanashiro's shoulder is almost comforting. "You did your duty. You did well. And you'll get better, with time and practice."
That gentle voice, once so familiar, now enters Hanashiro's ears as a broken collection of sounds. He keeps gasping for air, staring at the corpse. He says nothing. Language is beyond him, now.
At last, the blade slips from his limp fingers and hits the stone floor with a metallic clatter.
Shirofukurou lets out a faint noise. It might be disapproval. "Pick that up, Hanashiro. And wipe your face. You're a mess."
Numbly, Hanashiro crouches down and picks up the sword, his movements jerky. Then he lifts his arm, tugs the sleeve until he finds a spot that isn't soaked crimson, and wipes his face. When he lowers his arm, the sleeve has a new streak of blood on it.
This is the first time Hanashiro kills a man with intent, and he does a poor job of it. The man is a murderer, but he screams like a tortured soul when Hanashiro's blade pierces his chest. It takes two stabs to finish the job, and when Hanashiro is done, the blood coating his hands is indistinguishable from that of a martyred saint.
Oh, Hanashiro thinks vaguely, with a dim sense of surprise that feels too detached and distant to be his own. He was alive. I guess he was a person, too.
The first time Hanashiro murders someone, he is nine years old.
The world is full of evil, and it is Hanashiro's job to eliminate it before it spreads.
There is a woman who drowned her three children in the river. She put her baby in a burlap sack and tied it shut and threw it into the water. She tossed her middle child in next, watched him scream and flail and sink quickly below the surface. And her oldest child she held down with her own two hands. She cries when confronted with the truth of what she did, shedding enormous tears that leave her face splotchy. She sobs and collapses to her knees, weeping bitterly into her own hands. Hanashiro kills her.
There is a young man, a boy really. A street urchin, a scamp, with eyes like pits and wrists so thin the bones stand out like tombstones. He broke into a bakery to steal a meal, was startled to find the owner already there, and accidentally killed the man in his wild attempt to escape. He's been catatonic ever since. Hanashiro kills him.
There is a woman, harassed and abused by a man she refused to take as her husband. He'd approached her, again and again, his actions crueler each time she rebuffed him, until he snapped and leapt upon her, and she snapped back and plunged a knife into his chest. She stabbed him again and again in a frenzy. Her neighbor found her crouched over his body, his chest excavated, his blood splattered across her face and smeared over her skin. Her eyes remain blank and empty. Hanashiro kills her.
There are six soldiers who fled the battlefield. The oldest has toughened skin and jaded eyes, his glazed stare fixed on something far, far away. The youngest trembles, his face bloodless, his cheeks still round with baby fat. They'd fled the battlefield, saving their own hides and in a panic killing the comrade who caught them in their escape and tried to stop them. They do not deny their cowardice; they repent the lives they might have saved by standing tall, but it is too late. Hanashiro kills them.
"You are the only one who may," Shirofukurou says softly, again and again. Shirofukurou is an iron fist in a velvet glove, and Hanashiro can only buckle beneath that inexorable will. "You are special, Hanashiro. No matter how many lives you end, your hands will never be unclean. They deserve it, Hanashiro, and you deserve to bring justice to them." Shirofukurou lifts Hanashiro's chin with a single delicate finger. "Remember, you are saving humanity. By eliminating those who kill, you are protecting everyone else. And when the day comes that you kill Kuroto, you will save us all."
So Hanashiro kills, and he kills, and he kills.
He is very good at killing.
And then, he finds Kuroto.
It's in on the outskirts of a small town in Gun, so small that they're not going there so much as merely passing by. Hanashiro is supposed to be traveling with the freshly promoted Ginshu and his unit, but he's slipped his stiff-necked, stalwart guards and sneaked into town. It's late autumn, the air crisp, the breeze brisk with the promise of snow--the perfect weather for the roasted chestnuts he's just purchased from a street vendor little older than him. Munching on its newly acquired snacks, Hanashiro wanders aimlessly and finds himself on the edge of the town, on a rocky and narrow road that wends its way upward into the mountains.
And then Hanashiro sees him, and he knows.
He knows instantly, without doubt or hesitation. It's nothing about the man's appearance or behavior; there is nothing that gives him away. But somehow, nevertheless, Hanashiro knows.
He stops and stares, his eyes wide, blood roaring in his ears. His entire body is numb; his head is filled with a blinding light. There's room in his mind for only a single thought: Kuroto.
He's found Kuroto. Completely by chance, he's found the man--no, the creature who will bring about the apocalypse. The harbinger of eternal winter, the enemy of humanity. The one Hanashiro is destined to kill. Kuroto is here. Kuroto is right in front of him. His adversary. The anathema. Kuroto.
Kuroto is nothing but a young man.
He's older than Hanashiro, but surely no older than Ginshu. He's taller and more solidly built than Hanashiro, but still on the slender side. His hair is dark and his skin is pale; he wears clothing thick enough to ward off the late autumn chill. He's crouched on the edge of a rough earthen path that barely deserves to be called a road, on the very edge of this tiny speck of a nameless town that isn't worth the ink to mark it on a map, and he's gazing at a hardy shrub that blooms with tiny mauve wildflowers.
He is entirely unremarkable in every conceivable way.
Hanashiro can only stare, struck motionless by shock and disbelief. His feet are frozen to the ground; his fingertips tingle. Kuroto, he thinks again, and then at last, the ice that has frozen his thoughts begins to crack and crumble, revealing the truth: I have to kill him.
That is Hanashiro's purpose in life--his calling, his cause, the reason for his existence. He was born into this world with a singular duty engraved upon his soul; he was raised to be its Savior. He must kill Kuroto, before Kuroto kills them all. He must.
But this unassuming man is nothing like what Kuroto should be. He shows no signs of ill will or malevolence; there's nothing unsettling about him at all. He looks like nothing more than a young man, no different from any other common person who might live in this simple little town, who is noticeable only because he momentarily taken with the ordinary, unremarkable beauty of these wildflowers.
Hanashiro's mouth is dry. Unwittingly, his hand settles on the hilt of his sword. He must kill Kuroto. He must kill Kuroto. He must kill--
And then, gently, Kuroto smiles.
It's there for only a moment, just a slight twitch of his lips. But in that one moment, his entire expression softens. The crease between his eyes smooths out; the tautness around his mouth eases. There's a warmth to his gaze, and perhaps a bit of sadness, too, as though admiring these hardy blossoms of heather while fully aware of their prospects for surviving the winter. And then he reaches forward and touches a flower, just the crook of a finger brushing against the underside of a single petal, so gentle it makes something twist and curdle uncomfortably in the pit of Hanashiro's stomach.
Kuroto, Hanashiro thinks, caught in a haze of disbelief. That's Kuroto? That?
And he hesitates.
Kill him. In his mind, a thousand voices whisper and and scream and cajole and plead; every single one sounds like Shirofukurou. Kill him, Hanashiro. Kill him, Savior. Kill him. Every nerve in his body screams that this is Kuroto, the Kuroto. Abomination. Anathema. Kill him. He sees Kuroto, and he rests his hand on his sword, and he can feel that sacred power seething within him, churning in the earth beneath his feet and electrifying the air around him, and it would be so easy to kill him, to kill him--
And still, Hanashiro hesitates.
And in his hesitation, the moment shatters and is lost.
Kuroto straightens and turns up the mountain road. He wears sturdy, scuffed boots and walks the rugged path easily; he is familiar with this road's every rut and twist. Ignorant and oblivious, Kuroto walks away from his own demise, step by step, his dark silhouette gradually shrinking into the distance.
And Hanashiro can only stand there, his thoughts full of static and his heart thumping too loudly in his chest, and watch that retreating back until it disappears.
Perhaps half an hour later, Ginshu finds him still standing there.
"Hanashiro!" Ginshu's bellow practically echoes off the mountaintops in the distance; his footsteps thud angrily as he stomps toward Hanashiro, pebbles crunching beneath his boots. "There you are, you little punk! How many times do I have to tell you not to go running off?" His hand clamps down on Hanashiro's shoulder, clenching to the point of pain, and wrenches Hanashiro around. "Just you wait until I tell Shiro--"
And then Ginshu breaks off, his spitfire rage abruptly doused. The silence is so sudden and unexpected that Hanashiro blinks and snaps out of his reverie. He stares up at Ginshu's slack-jacked, stupid face. "Ginshu," he says.
"What's wrong with you?" Ginshu demands. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"I," Hanashiro says, and then he turns and looks over his shoulder, back to where that pockmarked road climbs up toward the jagged mountain peaks. But the road is empty; Kuroto is long, long gone.
Kill him, a voice whispers in the back of his mind, sullen and resigned. But at the same time, another voice--one meek and confused, one he does not recognize--dares whisper, so quiet he might be imagining it, Kill him?
Hanashiro looks down. Roasted chestnuts are scattered over the earth at his feet; the waxed paper sleeve lies discarded in the dirt. He doesn't remember dropping them at all.
Hanashiro twists back around. Ginshu stares at him with narrowed eyes, his lips pursed and his brow furrowed. "Did something happen?" he asks at last.
"No," Hanashiro lies. "Nothing."
Ginshu's eyebrow twitches in irritation. "Then stop being such a pain," he grumbles, turning away. "Come on, we need to get going. You've wasted enough of my time already." And he stalks off, his back rigid and his hands clenched into fists.
Hanashiro takes a step to follow. But he can't resist one last look back at the empty mountain road. His eyes settle on the scrubby wildflowers, small and dainty and fragile; in his mind's eye, he can see Kuroto crouched there, gazing at the flowers with a soft expression that is entirely unbecoming of Kuroto.
He still can't wrap his mind around it. It was Kuroto, he's sure--the monster, the abomination, the harbinger of winter. He knows it was Kuroto. He knows. But why would Kuroto concern himself with something like wildflowers? How could Kuroto look so normal, so harmless?
...Was it really Kuroto?
Hanashiro shakes his head at himself, dismissing the trickle of doubt. It was Kuroto, he tells himself firmly. I know it was Kuroto. I was just surprised, that's all. But I won't be surprised again, now that I know what to expect.
He nods to himself, satisfied. His moment of hesitation was a mistake, one that Shirofukurou would no doubt consider an unspeakable disappointment, but what Shirofukurou doesn't know can't hurt anyone. Besides, Hanashiro has time. He can taste the encroaching winter in the air's bite, but this coming winter isn't the winter. He has time--time to hunt Kuroto down, time to set things to rights. All has to do is find Kuroto again. And when he does--
I'll see you again, Hanashiro vows. And this time, I'll kill you.
Hanashiro can't tell anyone that he's found Kuroto, or else he'll have a lot of questions to answer. So he needs an excuse to go back, one that won't pique Shirofukurou's suspicion. But it turns out to be easy enough, in the end.
When they arrive back at the palace, Ginshu frogmarches him to Shirofukurou and reads him the riot act while Shirofukurou listens silently, as chill and immobile as ice. Hanashiro stares at the wall and idly picks his ear with his little finger, tuning Ginshu out entirely. Ginshu notices, eventually. "Are you even listening to me, Hanashiro?" he demands.
Hanashiro shrugs. "No," he answers flippantly.
Ginshu's face rapidly purples. "Why, you--"
"Hanashiro," Shirofukurou says, silky and sedate and far, far too cold. "Have you no shame? You are the Savior. Act like it."
Hanashiro looks Shirofukurou straight in the eye. "Fine," he says. "I want to go look for Kuroto."
Ginshu splutters. "You what?"
Hanashiro ignores him. So does Shirofukurou. "And if you find Kuroto?" Shirofukurou asks, unmoved. "Do you believe you can kill him?"
A frisson crawls up Hanashiro's back; he's torn between bristling and shuddering. He settles for fixing Shirofukurou with a dour glare. "That's what you've trained me to do, isn't it?" he says.
For a long moment, Shirofukurou simply studies him. The force of that too-sharp gaze is unsettling, and Hanashiro can feel his stomach turn. For the first time in a long time--perhaps the first time ever--it feels like Shirofukurou is looking at him and actually seeing him.
It should be satisfying; it should feel like a moment of triumph. He was raised at the hand of prophet and the wing of the white bird, and he's spent so long trying so hard to win Shirofukurou's approval. But now, with the full force of Shirofukurou's attention turned on him, he feels nothing but a sick churning in his gut.
"Very well," Shirofukurou says at last. "Captain Ginshu, if you will excuse us. Come with me, Hanashiro." And with that, Shirofukurou sweeps from the room, gown rustling in a gentle sussurus like dead leaves, and Hanashiro can only scramble to follow.
It doesn't take Hanashiro long to figure out where Shirofukurou is leading him; it's a place he's gone countless times before. In the pit of the palace, carved into the bedrock itself, are the cells where they hold prisoners--horse thieves and pirates and traitors, vandals and cutpurses and cutthroats. The lucky ones are thrown into cells that have tiny barred windows near the ceilings that offer a glimpse of a sliver of sky; the unlucky ones end up in claustrophobic, hunkering cells, swathed in darkness and far from the light of day, where the stench of blood and rot have seeped into the very stone and mortar.
It's to one of the latter cells that Shirofukurou brings him, and to the poor, pitiful soul ensconced within.
The man cowering in the cell is drawn and bedraggled and filthy. He has a ragged beard and haunted eyes; he looks up at the sound of their footsteps but seems to see nothing, not even when Shirofukurou stops right in front of the bars of his cell.
Shirofukurou gazes down on the man, then looks askance at Hanashiro. "You want to go out to hunt down Kuroto."
It is not a question, but Hanashiro responds anyway. "Yeah. I want to find Kuroto."
"And you think you are ready for it?"
"I want to find Kuroto," Hanashiro repeats. "I'm ready."
I was caught off guard. I wasn't ready when I first saw him. But next time, I will be ready. I will.
Something shifts in Shirofukurou's expression. Hanashiro can't identify what, precisely. But then again, he's never really understood Shirofukurou at all. Maybe that's why he's never been able to win Shirofukurou's respect, or approval, or affection, or anything, really.
Maybe that will change, when Hanashiro finally kills Kuroto. Maybe Shirofukurou will praise him, and appreciate him, and love him, and mean it.
But for now, there is nothing but that indecipherable shift in Shirofukurou's expression--some sort of shadow, some sort of glimmer. And then Shirofukurou says, calmly, "If you are ready, then prove it. Kill this man, Hanashiro."
Despite himself, Hanashiro looks at the prisoner. There's nothing particularly remarkable about the man except his state of physical degradation and psychological despair. He's just a man--a puny, pathetic, common man. Hanashiro glances back at Shirofukurou with raised eyebrows. "What did he do?"
Shirofukurou gazes at him with placidly folded hands and ruthlessly narrowed eyes. "Does it matter? You are the Savior."
Hanashiro hesitates, just for a moment. But Shirofukurou's right; it doesn't matter. Hanashiro is the Savior. No matter how much blood he sheds, he is blameless and sinless. He gives Shirofukurou a firm nod and reaches for the cell door.
"Not like that," Shirofukurou says.
Hanashiro halts, his hand outstretched. "Not like what?" he asks.
"Not with your sword," Shirofukurou says. "Anyone can kill with a sword. But you are the Savior. If you are ready to fulfill your duty as the Savior...."
Shirofukurou trails off there, but there is no doubting what the glint of expectation in those eyes means. Hanashiro swallows, but then he turns to the prisoner and stares at the man through the bars.
Killing with a sword is easy. But Hanashiro doesn't need a sword to kill. He doesn't need any weapon at all, because he is the Savior, and that means he is the weapon.
The first time Hanashiro killed someone with intent, it was messy and incompetent and cruel. But the first time he killed someone at all, it was mostly an accident. He'd been kidnapped by raiders, and instead of rescuing him, Shirofukurou merely looked at him with frigid, merciless eyes and said, "Hanashiro, kill that thing." And Hanashiro did. He was small and young and terrified and naive, and the power of the Savior surged within him, and it was over almost before he even knew what had happened. He killed the man holding him captive with nothing but the Savior's power at his disposal, too young to control it but just old enough to know what it meant to kill, and Shirofukurou patted him on the head, once, and said, "You did well, Hanashiro." And those brief words of praise and that tiny shred of physical affection were enough to slice through the terror and horror and nausea, and Hanashiro felt--for just a moment--something like a sliver of happiness.
Now, Hanashiro looks at the man, this poor, pitiful, pathetic man who stares, catatonic, at the stone wall. He pulls his hand away from the hilt of his sword. Instead, he musters the power and feels it beginning to swirl inside of him, the pure white heat of the Savior's violent grace that only he can wield, and he looses it in all its terrible glory.
Hanashiro kills the man, strikes him down without raising a finger. As splatters of blood paint the wall, Shirofukurou says, "Well done, Hanashiro," and Hanashiro feels nothing at all.
When Hanashiro returns to that little hamlet at the base of the mountains in Gun, winter has arrived.
It's a lovely, picturesque scene. A fresh coat of snow fell overnight, and while it's already been packed down on the roads and walkways, it clings still pristine and beautiful to the slate rooftops and the stately pine trees that surround the town on all sides. Icicles hang like crystal daggers from the eaves of every building; every glass window is hoary with frost. Children in brightly colored knit hats and mittens gambol about, laughing and shrieking gleefully as they roll the powder into balls that explode in glimmering sprays of water and snow. It's like a scene out of a storybook or some kind of fairy tale.
Hanashiro knows how this tale ends.
But he's in no rush. If anything, he wants to enjoy his newfound freedom. He's here without Shirofukurou, without Ginshu or his squad, without any sharp-eyed overseers at all. Shirofukurou has given him free rein to travel alone in search of Kuroto, and Hanashiro fully intends to take advantage of that.
So he spends a bit of time wandering around the town, peeking curiously into storefronts and waving at children who skid by on sleds. He treats himself to two skewers of grilled rabbit, right off the fire and so hot it burns the roof of his mouth, then washes it down with a steaming cup of cinnamon tea, so spicy it almost stings. He follows that up with a roasted potato, alternating between munching on it and letting it warm his hands as roams aimlessly through the streets. The brisk breeze is invigorating, the crisp taste of the mountain air almost intoxicating. Hanashiro very nearly forgets the reason he came here in the first place.
He nearly forgets, but then he ends up on that rough country road on the outskirts of town, at that narrow, rough strip of a road that snakes up into the mountains, and he realizes that he never really forgot at all.
The shrub with pink blossoms that had captured Kuroto's attention is now nothing more than a heap of snow. The road, too, is covered, a river of untouched white that vanishes into the trees. No one's walked this path since the snow fell last night; it's almost impossible to tell there's a pathway at all. Hanashiro chews on his lower lip as he stares up the road, uncertain. But snow or not, this is the only clue he has about Kuroto's whereabouts.
Hanashiro lets out an aggravated sigh, and then he starts trudging up the road, sloughing his way through the snow.
It's harder going than he expected. The snow hasn't piled that high, but it's soft and fluffy, and he sinks right down into it, just deep enough that it overtops his boots. Before long, his socks are soaked and his feet are freezing. To make matters worse, the ground that lies hidden beneath the snow is rocky and uneven, and he catches himself stumbling over unseen stones and pits in the road several times. The tip of his scabbard drags, too, drawing a tail in the snow behind him. And the farther he climbs up the road into the forested mountains, the steeper and rougher it seems to get, and the deeper the snow feels.
"This was a terrible idea," Hanashiro mutters to himself. His breath comes out in white puffs. He sticks his frigid hands beneath his armpits to try to warm them up; it only makes it harder to ignore how freezing his toes are by comparison. "I don't even know if he's up here or not. Maybe he was just passing through. What am I doing? I swear if he isn't here--"
His toe catches on some unseen rock or crag, and he falls face-first into a snowdrift.
The sudden plunge into ice and snow is a shock to his system. His eyes watering and his cheeks stinging from the chill, he bolts upright, frantically scrubbing the snow from his face as he hauls himself back to his feet. "This is the worst," he splutters, wiping his eyes with his sleeve as he clambers to his feet. "I hate this, I hate this, what am I doing here, this is so stupid--"
"Do you need help?"
Hanashiro's head jerks up. He knows this voice. He's never heard it before, but he knows this voice.
Before him stands Kuroto, a striking silhouette against the snowy backdrop.
Hanashiro stares up at him, eyes wide and mouth suddenly dry. His mind is awhirl, his thoughts filled with a deafening buzz. His lips part, but he cannot speak. Kuroto, he thinks, blind and overwhelmed. It's Kuroto. I can tell. I know it.
I have to kill him.
But he stands frozen on the spot, damp and shivering, unable to do anything but stare.
"Are you okay?" Kuroto asks. His voice is soft, with just a hint of concern. Concern. From Kuroto. Hanashiro's brain can't even process it. "You look like you've had a rough time of it."
The words throw Hanashiro for a loop. He blinks, dazed. "I fell," he says dumbly. "In the snow."
Kuroto's eyes flicker down, looking him over. "I can see that," he says.
On reflex, Hanashiro looks down at himself and belatedly realizes there's snow clinging to his clothes all down his front. He hurriedly starts batting it away. It gets the snow off, but it doesn't change the fact that he is now wet and even more freezing than before. "I wasn't expecting it to be this bad," he says distractedly.
"You're pretty far from civilization," Kuroto says. "Winters up here in the mountains can really catch you off guard if you don't know what to expect." Again, his eyes rake over Hanashiro top to bottom, and the scrutiny brings a rush of shame that makes Hanashiro's cheeks heat. Abruptly, he realizes that Kuroto is wearing boots that rise halfway to his knees, and warm gloves, and a thick coat that's tightly fastened against the chill. Next to him, Hanashiro feels like a silly, ignorant child.
Kuroto pauses. It's a strange pause, heavy with meaning that Hanashiro can sense but can't understand. And there's something in Kuroto's expression, too--a shadow around his eyes, a tautness around his lips, something difficult and uncertain in his expression that niggles at the back of Hanashiro's mind--
And then, at last, Hanashiro realizes.
On cue, all of Hanashiro's nerves start screaming, the instinctive fight-or-flight reaction of a weaker animal in a predator's line of sight. But no, there is no option for flight. Hanashiro is the Savior; there is only one choice granted to him. He has to kill Kuroto. Here, now. Before Kuroto kills him.
Kill Kuroto. Kill him, Hanashiro. Kill him, Savior.
But Hanashiro's hands are frozen stiff, and he barely manages to twitch his uncooperative fingers before Kuroto begins speaking again.
"Listen," Kuroto says. "I don't live far from here. Why don't you come over?"
It feels like the rug has been pulled out from beneath him; it feels like a slap in the face. Hanashiro gawps at him, baffled and stunned. "What?"
"You'll catch your death if you stay out in the cold like that," Kuroto says. "I can't offer much, but I can at least give you some a place to dry off and something hot to drink."
Something in Kuroto's voice trickles down into Hanashiro's mind like water seeping through bedrock. It's so incomprehensible, so impossible, that he doesn't understand it at first. And when it does register, he can barely believe it.
Kuroto is extending him an offer of kindness.
For too long, Hanashiro can do nothing but stare, dumbfounded. Kuroto waits, patient, as though he hasn't just undermined everything Hanashiro has ever learned about who Kuroto is supposed to be. Hanashiro opens his mouth, then closes it again. His hands hang uselessly by his sides; his fingertips tingle, and it's not just from the bitter cold.
It's a trick. It has to be. Right? There's no way that Kuroto--the Kuroto, the anathema, the herald of the world's demise--would extend genuine sympathy and generosity to the person who is the single greatest threat to his existence. This must be some kind of plot, some kind of trap. A deceptive ploy to get Hanashiro's guard down and draw him, gullible and unsuspecting, into the enemy's nest, where he will be at Kuroto's mercy.
Don't be fooled, Hanashiro tells himself. This is Kuroto, it's Kuroto--
And then, a heartbeat later: I can take advantage of this.
That's right. This man may be Kuroto, but Hanashiro is the Savior. Whatever Kuroto might be planning, Hanashiro won't be caught unawares. And as he proved to Shirofukurou, he doesn't need a weapon to kill--he is the weapon.
Hanashiro swallows. "I guess--okay," he says. "Yeah. I'd like to warm up."
Kuroto doesn't smile, but his expression does soften. "All right. Come with me. You're in luck--it isn't far." And with that, he turns and starts up the road, and Hanashiro stumbles to follow.
For several minutes, they walk without speaking. Kuroto steps too easily through the snow; beside him, Hanashiro flounders awkwardly and tries not to shiver. Maybe it's the desire to distract himself from his cold and sorry situation that drives Hanashiro to ask, "What's your name?"
A pause follows his question, extending just a moment too long. Kuroto's face is mostly inscrutable, but there's a furrow in his brow that speaks of something complicated and ill at ease. "Kuroto," he says, too slowly.
Hanashiro trips over his own feet and nearly ends up face-first in the snow again. "Kuroto?" he blurts. "Your name is Kuroto?"
Kuroto's lips quirk in a mirthless smile. "Blame the person who named me," he says dryly. "He has a twisted sense of humor."
"I guess," Hanashiro says, almost awed at the sheer audacity. "Wow. He sounds like, uh, quite the person."
Kuroto lets out a sound, the quiet huff of an aborted laugh. "You have no idea," he says. There's a fond, exasperated humor in his voice that's so very human that Hanashiro can barely believe it. Kuroto isn't supposed to sound like that. Kuroto isn't supposed to sound so--so normal.
Hanashiro's heart pounds in his chest, beating an erratic rhythm. He feels utterly lost--a traveler without a map, a child left alone in the wilderness. Kuroto doesn't make sense. None of this makes any sense.
"What about you?" Kuroto asks.
Hanashiro looks up at him, surprised. "What?"
"Your name," Kuroto says. "What's your name?"
Hanashiro, too, pauses. There's an uncomfortable squirming in his gut, like he's doing something wrong. "Hanashiro," he mumbles. "My name is Hanashiro."
"Hanashiro," Kuroto repeats. For a moment, his gaze drifts upward, toward the sleet-gray sky. "Like snow."
A shiver snakes its way down Hanashiro's spine, a frisson that has nothing to do with the temperature. "Like snow," Hanashiro echoes.
"Although I'm guessing you don't much like the snow," Kuroto says, glancing at Hanashiro.
He could be making a sly reference to Hanashiro's earlier encounter up close and personal with the snowdrift. But he isn't. Hanashiro knows he isn't.
But before Hanashiro can figure out how to respond, the moment passes. "Well, you'll be out of the snow soon enough," Kuroto says crisply. "It's just a little bit farther."
True to his word, when they round the next curve in the road, the trees thin and reveal a small clearing, and at its center, a small house, squat and sturdily built and homey. Snow has piled high upon the rooftop and in front of the windows; a narrow walkway has been cleared from the road to the front door, a slender strip of hard, frosty earth. Hanashiro has to walk carefully to avoid slipping, but it's an outright relief after trudging through snow for far too long.
The door is unlocked; Kuroto simply walks inside. Unsafe, Hanashiro thinks, but maybe there's no need to lock the front door if you live this much in the middle of nowhere. Or when you're effectively immortal to every person in the world, save one. "Come in," Kuroto says. "Take your shoes off before your feet freeze. Let me get the fire started."
Hanashiro steps inside and gladly closes the door behind him. It's noticeably warmer inside the house, not toasty but at least comfortable--warm enough that the rush of heat to his chilled hands almost hurts. He flexes his fingers, wincing, and then he strips off his boots and his soaked socks. His frozen toes, too, immediately complain as they start defrosting, but it's far preferable to being stuck outside in the cold. He takes off his coat for good measure, then hesitates.
"You can hang your coat up, if it's not too wet," Kuroto calls out. "Or you can lay it out in front of the fire to dry if you want. You should do that with your boots and your socks, at least--it's never fun to go out into the snow with wet shoes."
Feeling more lost than ever, Hanashiro drapes his damp coat over one arm, picks up his snow-drenched shoes and socks in the other hand, and tentatively ventures into Kuroto's territory.
The house is, as far as Hanashiro can tell, a perfectly normal house. The front door opens up onto a main room furnished with a sofa and a few chairs and a table, as well as the fireplace that Kuroto is presently crouched in front of. Through one doorway, Hanashiro can see what is obviously the kitchen; another doorway leads to a hallway that Hanashiro presumes leads to Kuroto's bedroom, and perhaps other rooms as well. It's nothing fancy or elaborate, certainly nothing compared to the lushly appointed palace where Hanashiro has spent so much time, but Kuroto's home is warm and comfortable, in a way that sets Hanashiro's teeth on edge. Because this--this place isn't a trap or a trick. Its very atmosphere betrays its true essence. Hanashiro can tell from the easy way Kuroto exists in this space, prodding at the banked fire to stoke the flames back to life. He can tell from the dent in the wall where the door was once opened too energetically, and the scuffing on the floorboards from where feet have trod again and again, and the scratches etched into the wood of the tabletop. This place is imbued with years and years of life, and Hanashiro can sense that this house is not merely a house, but the place Kuroto calls home.
It's a small, humble place, but it's filled with a warmth and sincerity that Hanashiro has never felt in any place he's ever lived, and it strikes a pang in his heart that he can't define and doesn't understand.
"You might as well get yourself in front of the fire," Kuroto says. "No point standing in the doorway and letting yourself freeze."
Slowly, Hanashiro approaches the fireplace. He stiffens when Kuroto pulls the poker back from the flames, but Kuroto only returns it to its stand by the wall. "Make yourself comfortable," Kuroto says, straightening. "I'll get the stove started in the kitchen and get you something hot to drink."
"Thank you," Hanashiro says. His mind is utterly blank; his mouth is functioning on automatic. But he doesn't miss the way Kuroto starts, as though surprised to hear words of thanks from the Savior. Hanashiro stiffens, his head snapping up, prepared to--to--
--to watch as Kuroto, saying nothing, disappears into the kitchen. Hanashiro is left, most strangely, alone.
For lack of anything better to do, Hanashiro installs himself in front of the fireplace. He sits down on the floor, spreading his cloak out beside him, arrays his boots and socks as close to the hearth as he can without risking something catching fire. After a moment's uncertainty, he removes his sword, too, setting it aside so he can sit more comfortably. Then he stretches his hands and feet toward the flames, wiggling his toes to try to get some sensation back. The crackling of the fire is almost as warming and comforting as the heat itself.
Despite himself, Hanashiro can feel the tension inside him begin to unwind, his shoulders going slack and his back beginning to slouch. He might be in the very center of the enemy's home base, but there's no sense of danger or threat here. There's just this fire warming his bones, the gentle padding of footsteps and clinking of crockware emanating from the kitchen, and the quiet whisper of the breeze outside.
Curious, Hanashiro cranes his neck, looking around as much as he can without leaving his comfortable place in front of the fire. There's a blanket slung over the back of the sofa, an abandoned cup sitting on the tabletop, someone's dark coat hanging on the hook by the door. The windows have thick curtains, all of them drawn to keep the heat in and the cold out; elsewhere on the walls hang a tapestry, bundles of dried herbs and flowers, a charcoal drawing of a cat batting at a birdcage. Hanashiro turns his head this way and that, drinking in the sights and trying to reconcile them with his understanding of Kuroto the anathema. He can't.
There must be something he's missing. There must be.
Hanashiro listens hard, straining his ears, but he can't hear anything from other parts of the house. At last, his wariness wins out. "Does anyone else live here?" he calls out, loud enough for Kuroto to hear him.
The sounds in the kitchen fall silent, just for a moment. "Sometimes," Kuroto says at last. "My--my guardian, I guess you could call him. The person who raised me. He lives here, too, but he's a bit of a wanderer--he's not here right now."
Hanashiro can read between the lines. The black bird, he thinks. And then Kuroto's answer sinks in. The black bird isn't here.
He's alone with Kuroto.
The puzzle makes even less sense than it did before--why would Kuroto invite the Savior to his own home when his greatest ally was absent?--but Hanashiro knows a chance when he sees one. Yes, he's on Kuroto's turf, but everything else is falling to Hanashiro's advantage. He could kill Kuroto right now, if he wanted to. He could stand up, walk to the kitchen doorway, and kill Kuroto in his own kitchen. He could drive his sword straight into Kuroto's back. He could kill him with the Savior's power, without raising a hand, without batting an eyelid.
Kill him, Hanashiro.
But then Kuroto reappears, holding a tray with two steaming ceramic bowls and a pair of spoons. "Are you warmed up enough to sit at the table, or do you want to stay in front of the fireplace?"
Eat sitting on the floor? Shirofukurou would never even suggest such a thing, and surely would respond with polite, chilly disapproval if Hanashiro tried. And Ginshu, for all that he's a soldier who has eaten field rations with bare, dirty hands, would blow a gasket and bluster on about behavior appropriate to the man with the title of Savior.
"I'd rather stay here," Hanashiro says. "It's warmer in front of the fire." And if he stays here, he can keep his sword in arm's reach rather than being forced to decide whether it would be better to leave it where it is lying on the floor or to draw attention to it by picking it back up.
If Kuroto has any inkling of Hanashiro's ulterior motive, there's no indication of it in his face or in his gait as he walks over to Hanashiro. "It's just some broth," he says as he walks over. "It's not much, but it's what I have right now--we're low on supplies. I was heading down into town to stock up when I ran into you." He sets the tray on the floor and sits down himself. "Sorry, but you came at a bad time."
Hanashiro is struck by the sudden, hysterical urge to laugh. A bad time? he thinks, inane laughter building up inside his chest. Is there ever a good time for the Savior to come for you, Kuroto? But he bites it back and swallows it down. "Anything warm is good right now," he says. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Kuroto says. "Take whichever one you want--they're both the same."
And Hanashiro hadn't even thought that it might be poisoned, but now that Kuroto has just firmly shut the door on that possibility, he can't help but think about it. He eyes the two bowls--identical in size and pattern, both filled with steaming broth that are identical in appearance--and then he gives up and takes the nearer one. The bowl is blissfully warm on his still-chilly hands, and when he sips the piping-hot broth, the richness and the heat both warm him from the inside out.
Kuroto takes the other bowl for himself. "So, what were you doing out in the snow?" he asks. The question should seem accusatory, but his tone is conversational. "I don't think I've seen you around before. New to town?"
"Just passing through," Hanashiro replies. It's true enough.
"Passing through?" Kuroto asks. "Not many people passing through a tiny town like that. Or coming all the way up here into the mountains. I'm pretty sure the only people who use that road are the people who live in this house."
Hanashiro falters. His fingers tighten around his bowl of broth. "Just some business," he says. "I was--looking for someone."
He looks up at Kuroto. Kuroto's gaze is steady, his expression almost frightfully peaceable. There's no hint of nervousness in his posture, no tautness or wariness about him. If Hanashiro didn't know better, he'd think that Kuroto genuinely had no idea why Hanashiro was here. What game is he playing? What is his plan? Hanashiro doesn't understand. He doesn't understand.
"Did you find him?" Kuroto asks.
Of course I did, Hanashiro thinks. We both know I did. But the words die in his mouth, unspoken. He knows this is Kuroto, he knows, but at the same time, it seems impossible. This man is so normal--a bit brusque, perhaps, but kind, considerate, unassuming. How can someone like this be the creature who will destroy humanity?
"I--I'm not sure," Hanashiro says.
Kuroto's eyebrows rise. "You're not sure?"
Hanashiro saves himself the trouble of having to respond in more detail by gulping down his broth. "This is really good," he says. "Did you make this?"
There's nothing subtle about Hanashiro's attempt to change the subject, but Kuroto lets it pass without comment. He does not, however, have the grace to look flattered at Hanashiro's ham-handed compliment. If anything, he seems unimpressed. "I did," he replies. "But it's nothing special, it's just vegetable broth."
Hanashiro nearly spits out his next mouthful. "Vegetables?" he exclaims, spluttering. "It's not chicken broth?" He isn't sure whether he feels more outraged or betrayed. "But it tastes good!"
Kuroto fixes him with an evil eye. "Don't tell me you're one of those inveterate carnivores who refuse to eat vegetables."
Hanashiro can't help the way his face crinkles in distaste. "Vegetables are gross," he says.
"Vegetables are a necessary part of a healthy diet!" Kuroto retorts. This is the first time Hanashiro has seen a hint of fire or intensity from him, and it's about vegetables. The way to get Kuroto angry is to insult vegetables. Hanashiro can barely comprehend what's happening right now. "Vegetables have nutrients that you can't get from meat, and--"
"But they're gross," Hanashiro repeats.
Kuroto rests his head in his hand an aggravated sigh. "You and Kurotaka both, honestly," he mutters, rumpling his hair in clear exasperation. "Complaining about vegetables! You're such a child."
Kurotaka, Hanashiro thinks, but then the rest of Kuroto's complaint enters his ears, and the spike of sheer indignation blows every other thought away. "Well, sorry for being such a child," he says churlishly, turning his face away with a huff.
From the corner of his eye, he can see Kuroto's stern expression soften. He looks at Hanashiro, just looks, and then he says, subdued, "That's right. You're just a child."
Hanashiro glowers, but there's something understanding and apologetic in Kuroto's tone, and it mollifies him, just a bit. He keeps drinking his vegetable broth. It might be vegetables, but it's warm, and that's all he really cares about right now.
And he has to admit--no matter how grudgingly--that it does taste, well, at least not terrible.
"So, that person you're looking for," Kuroto says. "What do you mean, you're not sure if you found him or not?"
The broth turns sour in Hanashiro's mouth. He swallows it down and shoves the bowl aside. "I'm just not sure, okay?" he snaps. "But it doesn't matter. It's fine. I have time."
That's right. It's winter, but it's not yet winter. He has time.
This man doesn't have to die today.
"There's time," Kuroto echoes, his voice soft. His eyes drop. "And you're still just a child."
A child. Just a child.
In some ways, Hanashiro feels like a child. Shirofukurou makes him feel like a child. So does Ginshu. But sometimes, Hanashiro doesn't feel like a child at all.
"I--I think I should go now," Hanashiro says.
Kuroto's body jerks, and his head swivels Hanashiro's way. For the first time, he looks actually surprised. "You--go?" he asks. "You're going? Just like that?"
Hanashiro manages to produce a laugh that sounds almost natural. "Well, I can't stay here forever, can I?" he replies. "People will start worrying if I don't get back soon. Besides, you said you were running low on supplies, didn't you? No point in sticking around if I'm not going to get properly fed." He clambers to his feet, pulls his socks and boots back on, ties the laces, swings his cloak back over his shoulders. His socks are dry now and blissfully warm, and his cloak is similarly cured; even his boots, although still a bit damp, are a far sight better than they were when he walked inside. "Thanks for letting me borrow your fire," he adds as he reaches for his sword. "I think I can make it back without freezing now."
He reattaches his scabbard to his belt, and when he pulls his hands away, Kuroto's expression finally, truly breaks. He looks at Hanashiro's sword, then up at Hanashiro. Still sitting on the floor, his legs crossed and his bowl of broth tipping precariously in his lap, he stares up at Hanashiro with something very close to desperation in his eyes, as though--as though--
--as though the fact that Hanashiro is about to depart with his sword in its sheath rather than plunged into Kuroto's chest is some kind of betrayal.
No. Hanashiro must be missing something here. There has to be something he's failed to understand, or is misinterpreting, or simply doesn't know. Because this is Kuroto. Kuroto. The curse, the anathema, the one who will bring the end.
The one Hanashiro will kill, one day. But not today. Not when Kuroto is acting so wrong, so confusing, so unlike how Kuroto should be acting.
There's still time. Yes, there's still time.
"I might come back," Hanashiro says, with a carefully forged nonchalance he's proud of. "Would it be okay if I came to see you again?"
Kuroto's expression steadies and settles. His back straightens, and his shoulders square. It's the poise of a man who has found reassurance and comfort in the face of death, and none of it makes sense. Hanashiro can't make any sense of Kuroto at all.
"I'd like that," Kuroto says, quietly, as though he understands, even if Hanashiro doesn't.
When Hanashiro returns to the palace, Shirofukurou is waiting for him.
"Welcome back, Hanashiro." Shirofukurou's voice is thin and wispy, like the whistle of a flute or the chirping of a songbird. Most people would not hear its undercurrent, the threat of steel and disappointment; Hanashiro is not most people. "How was your venture outside?"
Hanashiro looks at Shirofukurou, trying to find the words. I found Kuroto, he thinks. I found Kuroto, and he recognized me. I found Kuroto, and he invited me to his home and fed me and let me sit in front of his fire. I found Kuroto, and he's a normal person who lives in a house in the woods and buys supplies in the nearest town and really likes vegetables.
I found Kuroto, and I think he was waiting for me to kill him.
Hanashiro licks his lips. There's a trembling deep in his gut, a ball of anxiety and uncertainty that makes him nauseous. He looks at Shirofukurou, at that ethereal aura and that pale, serene face and those hard, ruthless eyes that see nothing in Hanashiro but the Savior, and he says, in a voice full of boredom, "Nothing to report, really. Just that it's really cold out there."
Shirofukurou studies him with a pleasant, meaningless smile. "Well, you came back at a good time. There was a bit of an occurrence while you were gone."
Instinctively, Hanashiro straightens. "An occurrence?" he asks.
"Yes. You see, there was an attempt on the king's life." Shirofukurou's eyes glitter. "Fortunately, he has very skilled, loyal guards. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful. His Majesty escaped without injury, and all of the perpetrators were captured."
Suddenly, Hanashiro feels cold. His fingertips, his toes, the knot in his belly and the blood in his veins--his entire body feels very, very cold, as though the warmth is being drained from him. But after the unsettling strangeness of Kuroto, this is, in a way, comforting. This is exactly as it is how it's supposed to be, exactly how it's always been. This, he understands.
He looks up and meets Shirofukurou's gaze dead on. "Where are they?" the Savior asks.
There are three of them. All are young men, little older than Kuroto or Ginshu; they are young, impressionable fools, gaunt with poverty and cowering with a newfound fear of death. The skin of their arms is pulled taut over their bones; they quiver where they sit, their bodies trembling from more than the unforgiving cold of their stony, sunless cells. They remind Hanashiro of nothing more than deer facing a predator, their eyes white and rolling in terror as they realize the impossibility of escape.
"Hanashiro," Shirofukurou murmurs, and Hanashiro knows what he is being asked to do.
Hanashiro is very good at killing.
As he sluices the blood away in the bath, Hanashiro thinks. He can't help but think.
He thinks of the three men, the would-be assassins who had been hired for a pittance by an unknown master. They were pitiful people, caught up in a plot not of their own contrivance, who had nearly committed an abominable crime. Who, if left to their own devices, no doubt would have made another attempt, if only out of need for another few coins to scrape out another few meals. They had cried out, all three of them, in whimpers and in screams; their voices warped and gurgled and died as their blood came pouring out of them. And yet their deaths meant nothing, because their deaths were at his hands.
He thinks of Shirofukurou, watching the bloodbath from just enough of a distance to keep those ivory robes pristine. After it was over, Shirofukurou had moved forward, stepping delicately over the stone to avoid the rivulets of blood, and placed a hand atop Hanashiro's head, icy fingers stroking gently through his hair. "You've done well, Hanashiro," Shirofukurou said, soft and coaxing, and Hanashiro felt nothing.
He thinks of Kuroto.
Kuroto is a too-normal man, one who has to bundle up against the driving chill of winter. Kuroto is a considerate man, one who worries about a stranger who's caught out in the snow. Kuroto is a man whose name betrays his very essence, and yet who invites his mortal enemy into his home to sit by the fire, as though he has spent a life waiting for that moment.
Kuroto was kind to me, Hanashiro thinks. He didn't run away from me.
If Hanashiro weren't the Savior, he never would have guessed that Kuroto was the Kuroto. The Kuroto he met was a man, just a man. The only difference between him and the men Hanashiro killed today is that those men chose murder, while Kuroto chose nothing but nevertheless had the misfortune of being born under a cursed star.
Hanashiro slaps his own cheeks, furious at himself. Kuroto, he reminds himself. It's Kuroto. The anathema. The one who will bring an endless winter to this world. His act is just an act, a trick to get my guard down. He's planning something. I can't let him deceive me. I have to kill him.
That's right. No matter who Kuroto is or what he acts like, Hanashiro has a duty, and he will accomplish it. He must.
You must kill him, Savior, Shirofukurou's voice hisses in his mind, and Hanashiro closes his eyes and listens to the echo.
When Hanashiro next shows up on Kuroto's doorstep, this time wearing suitable boots and a heavier cloak and thick gloves and yet still shivering in the cold, Kuroto only raises his eyebrows. "Hanashiro," he says. "I--wasn't sure when you'd be back."
When, he says, not if. Because Kuroto knew he'd be back. And yet you stayed here, Hanashiro thinks. Waiting for me. Plotting something, no doubt, although Hanashiro doesn't know what. All he knows is that if Kuroto isn't running for his life, then he must be laying the groundwork to kill Hanashiro. Nothing else makes any sense.
He doesn't say any of this. There's no reason to; even if neither he nor Kuroto explicitly says it, they both know the score. "I wanted to get out for a bit," Hanashiro says, keeping his tone airy. "Change of scenery, you know. My lessons are so boring."
Kuroto eyes him critically. "You're skipping out on your tutors?"
"They deserve it," Hanashiro says cheerfully. "Can I come in? It's cold."
Kuroto lets out a small sigh, but he steps aside. "You have good timing," he says, as though Hanashiro has not just bullied his way into his home. "I was just about to start making lunch."
And that is how Hanashiro discovers that Kuroto is, genuinely, a connoisseur of vegetables.
Hanashiro stares in very real dismay at the array of disgusting, leafy items laid out in the kitchen. "You're in luck--this is the last of the fresh vegetables for the winter," Kuroto explains, pulling apart a head of lettuce as he talks. "Well, root vegetables will keep well enough in the cellar, but anything else needs to be pickled, and let me tell you, that gets pretty old after a while. So I always enjoy the fresh vegetables while I can. I was going to make a salad. Do you want some? There should be enough."
Slowly, Hanashiro drags his eyes away from the carnage on the countertop and looks at Kuroto. "Salad," he says increduously. "You want to feed me salad."
Kuroto's eyes flicker his way, just for a moment. "Oh," he says. "That's right. You're not particularly fond of vegetables, are you? But you should eat them--they're good for you."
"Yeah, good if you like torturing yourself," Hanashiro mutters. "You're joking, right? You have to be joking."
"I'm completely serious," Kuroto says. "Why do you think I'm joking?"
"Because you're trying to feed me vegetables," Hanashiro says. "Again. This is the second time! Are you trying to kill me? Is that what this is? Are you trying to kill me with vegetables?"
Kuroto lets out a sound, a faint huff that's not quite a laugh. "If I were going to kill you, Hanashiro, vegetables are not how I would try."
There's something in the tone of his voice that makes the hairs on the back of Hanashiro's neck stand on end. Kuroto's voice is neutral, and yet there's a sense of gravity, a heavy weight to his words. And suddenly, too late, Hanashiro realizes that they aren't having the conversation he thought they were having.
If I were going to kill you, Kuroto said. If. As though he didn't actually have any intention of killing Hanashiro at all.
But you have to kill me, Hanashiro thinks, his mind strangely blank. Because if you don't kill me, I'll kill you.
But Kuroto seems peculiarly unconcerned. He chops lettuce and carrots and radishes, his movements economical and unadorned, and then he whisks up some sort of dressing, something with oil and some unidentifiable dried herbs. The entire time, Hanashiro watches silently, his mouth dry and his heart thumping strangely in his chest. Too soon, Kuroto sets the bowl down with a satisfied nod. "Well?" he asks, turning to face Hanashiro. "Are you going to have some salad or not?"
It looks disgusting. Hanashiro wants nothing of it. He swallows. "Sure," he says.
Kuroto blinks at him, obviously taken aback. But then, just a little, he smiles.
It's barely there, nothing more than a minute twitch of his lips. Hanashiro almost doesn't notice it. But it's there, that fleeting hint of a smile, and Hanashiro has seen more than enough false and heartless smiles in his life to know a genuine one when he sees it.
Kuroto dishes out the salad onto two plates, and they sit at the table. "Thanks for the food," Hanashiro says dubiously, not even trying to hide his distaste, and he crinkles his nose and forces himself to take a nibble. It isn't the most vile thing he's ever eaten, but there's nothing about it that's appetizing in any way.
But Kuroto watches him, chin propped up on one hand and wearing that awful ghost of a smile. "See? It's not too bad, is it?"
"It's pretty bad," Hanashiro grumbles, mulish.
"You shouldn't be too picky," Kuroto says. His pointed tone is belied by that faint, gentle smile. "But I guess it says something that you're trying it anyway. Good for you."
It should mean nothing. It's silly, trifling praise, a compliment for something that's utterly insignificant. But it turns something in Hanashiro's stomach anyway, something that has nothing to do with the leaf he's just gagged down.
Kindness. Once again, Kuroto is extending an offer of kindness to him. And Hanashiro doesn't know how to handle this, doesn't know what it means, doesn't understand anything, except--
--except that it's starting to dawn on him that, somehow, incomprehensibly, Kuroto's kindness is true. Kuroto is true. Everything Kuroto has said and done, he means it.
The world tilts on its axis, precarious. Nothing makes sense; nothing is what he thought it was. But he's caught a glimpse behind the curtain, and for the first time since he first saw Kuroto--maybe the first time in his life--Hanashiro feels like he finally, finally understands.
Hanashiro eats another bite of salad, swallows it down past the lump growing in his throat. He sniffs and wipes his stinging eyes on one sleeve.
"Is something wrong?" Kuroto asks.
"No," Hanashiro says, choking out the words. "No, it's just--this salad is really, really bad."
The salad is awful, but it's the least worst salad he's ever eaten. Because Kuroto made it to feed to him. Because Kuroto might be a bit prickly at times, and he might like vegetables to a truly horrifying degree, but he's thoughtful, and he's kind, and he opens the warmth of his home to even the man who's supposed to kill him. Because neither of them was ever given a choice, but Kuroto has made a choice anyway, and Kuroto has chosen not to kill him.
Kuroto has made his choice. Now Hanashiro has to make his.
I'm not going to kill him, Hanashiro realizes. I'm not going to kill Kuroto. And he chokes down the salad, every last bite of it, and feels the earth begin to shift beneath his feet.