"Just like that!" Hiroshi grinned. "Perfect!" He studied the placement of the large silver plate with satisfaction. "We're making good time, Shigeru. Only one more to go, and then we can head inside."
"Good." Shigeru sighed, and sat down -- but he didn't look as pleased as he should be. Hiroshi wasn't sure he understood humans very well. If it worked, it worked, right? No sense brooding on it *before* they did anything. Panic while it happened, sulk afterward... but don't brood about it before. Well... he was probably worried about Satoshi. That made more sense in Hiroshi's mind. Love was difficult to understand.
He dropped beside Shigeru and gave him a sympathetic look. "Are you thinking about Satoshi?"
"Always," Shigeru replied, sighing. "I worry about him, you know. He teased me about it before. But this..." He trailed off, anguished eyes rising to meet Hiroshi's own. "It's something I can't control, and that makes me afraid -- but not for me; for him."
"It makes most people afraid." Hiroshi nodded. "But we can't let it show, because we have to be the heroes -- and if we're running around waving our arms and screaming, then it probably won't inspire much courage in others, either."
A smile lifted faintly on Shigeru's face. "That's true."
"Of course it is. I'm always right, you know." Hiroshi grinned. "Relax for a while, Shigeru, OK? Tell me about Satoshi. And just don't think about what's coming, for now."
Shigeru smiled again. "We'd need hours if you wanted me to talk about Satoshi. I can't possibly tell you everything with just a few minutes." He shook his head ruefully. "I suppose that's what happens when you're in love. You go on and on about them, and just can't stop."
"Well, tell me what you can, then," Hiroshi urged him. "It's not for me, it's for you. We'll stop when we have to, but for now, pretend we're just having a cozy little chat." He tilted his head, grinning. "So, how are you, Shigeru? Care for some tea?"
He laughed. "All right, Hiroshi. We'll do this your way. No tea, though." He smiled.
"Fine." Hiroshi sat back, satisfied. "So, start by telling me... what are you going to do when this is all over, and Satoshi is safe? Did you have a plan, or were you just going to try and work out something as you go along? I know *you* plan to stay in the woods, but Satoshi's a prince. Is that what *he* would want?"
"I'm sure it is." Shigeru's eyes grew distant as he remembered. "Satoshi was always out in the woods, even before we met. He used to come and stay with Joi -- the woman in the cabin up by the fields -- and sometimes he wouldn't go back to the palace for days. I used to watch him," he added, "But I'd never get close. He always fascinated me, from the first time I saw him. I could never get tired of seeing him." He closed his eyes, savoring the memory. "Of course, it's different when you're only 10 or 11 years old."
"I would imagine," Hiroshi commented, waiting for him to continue.
"The first time we met," Shigeru went on, not seeming to notice that he was talking to anyone any more, "it was like fate. He just *happened* to catch his foot on a stray tree root, and managed to sprain his ankle somehow in the process. And then guess who was there to carry him back up?" He smiled to himself. "Satoshi had never even seen me before, but he wasn't afraid. He looked up at me, and smiled, and then just said, 'Hullo'. That was it, one word, and I knew I wanted to be with him every day. We were best friends until we were about 14 or 15 -- and Joi never knew about me, I don't think. But then it turned into something else. That wasn't so long ago, either -- only a few years," he mused.
"So what happened?" Hiroshi asked curiously.
"Well... I realized it first." Shigeru grinned slightly. "My Sato-chan never was very good at seeing what was right in front of his face. So I brought him presents, just things from the woods like flowers or honey -- Satoshi has a sweet tooth, you know. I think it confused him -- but I got what I wanted in the end." He almost smirked. "One day I just kissed him into submission, and he looked up at me with those big brown eyes and said, 'Shigeru -- does this mean you're trying to tell me something?'"
Hiroshi laughed out loud. "Poor Satoshi! He's not one for subtlety, is he? But, neither are you." He grinned at Shigeru. "The two of you are perfect for each other."
Shigeru's eyes grew distant. "Yes, we are," he answered softly. "I can't see myself with anyone else -- ever."
"So," Hiroshi continued, not wanting to let him start brooding again. "When he found out how you felt, how did he react?"
The smile returned to Shigeru's face. "He pretty much said what he did whenever I suggested we try something new. 'That's a good idea, Geru-chan, let's go for it!'" He chuckled. "I think I addicted him; when he's around, I can just *feel* how much he loves me. I know he can feel the same about me. We're like one soul; destiny brought us together, and we'll stay that way forever. Or so I always thought." He sighed, but didn't linger on the subject. "Just yesterday, Satoshi threw his ring into a pond, and as much as said that whoever finds it holds all claims to him. It's his way of telling me he wants us to commit to each other." A fond smile tugged his lips upward. "Sato-chan is so funny that way; everything has to be a challenge. He wouldn't have it any other way -- and neither would I."
"Shigeru," Hiroshi said seriously. "This -- right now -- is just like that, you know. Another challenge. If your love is as strong as you say it is, then the two of you can get through it, no matter what."
"I suppose." Shigeru sighed again, then stood. "Come on," he said abruptly. "We have work to do."
* * *
Satoshi studied himself in the mirror, not certain what to expect. His face was the same -- dark eyes, pale skin, coal-black hair. The clothing would have made his mother faint, it was so far from her idea of 'decent' -- but underneath that, he was still himself, wasn't he? It didn't look that way -- and honestly, Satoshi could no longer tell. He looked so different -- so detatched and resigned... Well, he needed to be, now. His new life would demand it.
There was no point in hiding from the truth any more. *Accept your fate,* he told himself sadly. Shigeru had warned him... His happiness was forfeit the instant he reached out his hand to touch the unicorn. This, now, was his punishment. An eternity of cruel servitude. *If* he lived through what he had to do that night.
Satoshi wondered how much pain he would be forced to endure. An eternity's worth, probably.
And every minute of it would be spent mourning his losses.
Well, he would not go down alone. That thought brought him some comfort. *I will not be the only one to fail. So in some way, I will succeed -- a little.* A small smile graced his lips. *I wonder what the punishment for this will be.*
Footsteps alerted him to another presense. Satoshi turned, and dark claws caressed the soft skin of his cheek. He shivered involuntarily but forced himself to look up at his new Lord. That loathsome face smiled down at him, fiercely possessive. "It's time, Satoshi," he purred, then turned to lead the way out of the room.
Satoshi followed, shuddering. *I wonder how much he will hurt me... when I'm made his...*
* * *
"In the beginning," The Dark Lord's voice thundered, over the hissing of fire and the shrieking of his minions, "There was nothing! A void of darkness..."
"We have to start now," Hiroshi hissed, glancing back at the plate they'd just set up. "Brown-Tom, stay here and make sure nothing disturbs that plate." He glanced out to where the Lord of Darkness continued his chanting. "Shigeru and I will keep him from killing the unicorn until the light comes." Hiroshi raised his bow.
"I'll do that," Shigeru offered, taking it from him.
"Thanks." Hiroshi looked up at the little sparkle of light that hung over his shoulder. "Go, Kasumi! Bring us that light!" And she zipped away, following the trail of plates set up to reflect the sun's rays where they wanted.
"The doors are closing!" Shigeru hurried forward, sliding through the space, with Hiroshi ducking gracefully after him. "This way," he hissed, climbing up the rocks to a concealed viewing point. He stole an arrow from the quiver on Hiroshi's back and readied it on the bow, peering out to get his first full look at the Lord of Darkness.
The half-beast was growling, hissing in triumph even as he finished up his rites. He was so huge... Shigeru felt his heart pound. So rough and uncaring; heartless. *Satoshi...* To the side stood the dark-haired boy, no longer looking pale and terrified, but with his eyes lowered respectfully, the very picture of submission. Shigeru gazed at him in horror. That couldn't be his Sato-chan! What had happened to him?
"Shigeru," Hiroshi whispered, following his gaze. "Be carefull. Dark powers are persuasive. If Satoshi is one of them..."
He didn't finish, but Shigeru could guess the rest. *Sato-chan... please...* Even like this, in those dark clothes with uncaring indifference painted on his features, the sight of Satoshi made Shigeru's heart ache. Inside, he believed, the younger boy would always be good, and pure... and still that innocent young 10-year-old who'd smiled up at a ragged little forest boy when he should've been afraid. He could never be evil, not even if he killed a thousand unicorns.
"Hear me, powers of the night!" the Dark Lord boomed out, waving the horn. "We offer this sacrifice in honor of you! Sanctified with blood, and with fire!" His face grew exultant. "I pray you, Father, accept my sacrifice. Let light be forever extinguished. Let the age of Darkness begin! Come, Satoshi," he urged, gesturing. "The birth of a new world awaits your stroke!"
Satoshi gripped the huge sword in both hands, bracing himself. There was a look of determination on his face as he stepped forward. "Let my offering be made of flesh and blood," he began, voice devoid of any emotion. So cold...
"Shigeru..." Hiroshi looked at him with big, pleading eyes. "We can't lose that unicorn, Shigeru. We *can't*." He seemed to see something in the boy's face that Shigeru himself couldn't grasp. The red-haired youth stared at him without comprehension, then looked back at Satoshi.
"I am kin to what dark fates enfold me..."
"Shigeru, *please*!" Hiroshi begged. "It's not only the unicorn he's killing, can't you see? Somewhere around the world, maybe even just the next town over, another boy just like you could be watching his own little Sato-chan -- waiting and wishing; the same dreams, hopes... There are millions of them, Shigeru! And you would deny them their happiness, because you cannot have yours..."
Shigeru looked from Hiroshi to his Sato-chan and back again, face twisting in anguish.
Hiroshi reached for the bow. "I'll do it, if you can't."
"NO!" Shigeru jerked the bow out of reach, then forced his voice to become calmer. "No..." He pulled the arrow back, watched Satoshi lift the sword high above his head, face exultant; triumphant.
*He tied the blindfold around Satoshi's head, covering his eyes -- and that beauitiful laugh rang out like music. "Don't you trust me, Shigeru?" he'd asked -- such an innocent question. But with the most important answer in the world.*
"I trust you, Satoshi," Shigeru breathed, too softly for Hiroshi to hear him. His fingers tightened on the bow, and he aimed, readying his arrow. He closed his eyes and whispered, "I'll always trust you. Always."
At the last minute, he held the arrow back, not letting it go. Satoshi's sword fell...
...and severed the chain that held the unicorn bound, with one quick blow. "RUN!" Satoshi screamed frantically. "Run NOW!" The unicorn galloped from its prison swiftly, and Shigeru let the arrow fly, distracting the crowd.
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?" Face nearly insane with fury, the Lord of Darkness clenched his hands around Satoshi's arms, claws digging into his shoulders. The boy cried out but remained otherwise still, his terrified gaze fixed defiantly on the enraged one before him.
"SATOSHI!" Desperately, Shigeru leapt into the crowd, forcing his way through them toward the pair, trying to reach his lover's side before it was too late. Satoshi's eyes lit on his, and the longing and despair in them made Shigeru want to scream. "Shigeru..."
He didn't get to speak even one more word, because the Dark Lord threw him savagely against the wall, and his body crumpled to the ground, unmoving. The enraged creature beat his own guards out of the way and advanced to bring his sword crashing down in a blow intended for Shigeru's skull. The boy barely had time to counter with his own sword and duck away.
The Dark Lord snorted in disdain. "You're not a swordsman, boy!" He slashed at Shigeru, who clumsily countered and fell back. "Surrender now, and perhaps I will consider giving you a merciful death!"
Shigeru glanced at Satoshi's inert form, and raised his sword in defiance. "Not while he still lives!"
The Dark Lord laughed. "He is mine, boy! A fight won't change that!" He struck, and Shigeru's arms ached with the force of the blows. "Light will die forever; I will see to that!"
Shigeru glanced off to the side, where Hiroshi picked off the remaining followers with deadly accuracy. *I have to wait for that light...* "Don't you see?" he scoffed, smirking. "You've lost! There's nothing left for you! But if *you* surrender, then perhaps *I* will consider mercy!"
The Lord of Darkness laughed once more. "Beaten, by a little boy? I think not!" He made a circling motion with his sword, and Shigeru's weapon flew from his hand. "What now, little mortal? You have no weapon! Shall I dispose of you immediately, or do you wish to prolong the suffering?"
Shigeru dodged the sword and fell back, eyes never leaving that cruel gaze. *Where is that sunlight?*
* * *
Kasumi reached the top of the tunnel and resumed her full size, glancing around. The first thing she noticed was the plate, glinting in what was left of the daylight. And the second, lying unconscious on his back, was the dwarf.
"Screwball!" Kasumi cried, trying to wake him. He didn't respond; the climb must've exhausted him. Not wanting to waste time, the fairy grabbed at the plate herself, trying with all her might to lift it into the proper position.
Much of Kasumi's life had been spent as a creature two millimeters high, and nearly all of the exercise she got came from flying. The large metal plate was more than she'd ever tried to lift in her life... It was way too heavy for her.
"No... I have to...!" With a determined look on her face, Kasumi struggled with the plate some more. She wouldn't fail the others -- she *couldn't*.
* * *
The Dark Lord backhanded Shigeru, sending him tumbling across the rocks. "Haven't you learned, boy?" he laughed. "There is no defeating me. I hold ultimate power!"
Shigeru lifted his head weakly, struggling with his thoughts. He had to think of something soon, or he would be dead, and Satoshi would be... He pushed the thoughts out of his head, determined to succeed. *I'll win this -- I'll make a difference... at least for my brave Sato-chan, for what he did...* The thought gave him new strength, and he rolled out of the way, in time to avoid being crushed by that huge sword.
The Dark Lord levelled the sword at Shigeru's throat. "Every wolf suffers fleas..." he sneered. "'Tis easy enough to scratch!" He leered at Shigeru, whose mind raced.
A glint caught his eyes, and Shigeru realized that the severed unicorn horn had been dropped during the fight -- or perhaps before. Now, though, it sat in a small pool of water, slowly sinking into its depths.
The sword descended. Shigeru fell backwards and slid sideways, rolling, then dipped his hand into the pool of water. It burned his skin, but he hardly noticed. When his hand reemerged, he held the horn triumphantly clenched in his fist.
* * *
Kasumi cried in frustration, tears streaming down her face as she tried desperately to lift the heavy plate. *It can't end like this!* she thought, straining against its weight. *I have to finish this! I can't let them down! They're counting on me!* Her wings fluttered in a vain attempt to add more pull against the load.
"Ermph!" someone mumbled as she accidently brought her foot down on something soft. "Get your foot outta my face!"
"Screwball!" Kasumi gasped, and reached for his hand. "Help me, please! Hurry! The others need us!" The dwarf's eyes widened in alarm as he realized where he was, and his hand clenched around hers.
With Screwball's help, Kasumi could lift the plate at last, to catch the sun's light. It reflected blindingly down into the tunnel, finally on its way to save the others.
* * *
"Give it to me, boy!" the Dark Lord growled, reaching for the horn in Shigeru's hand. He looked furious that a mortal would "dare" touch the sacred object without his permission. Shigeru dodged the hand and brought the horn up, feeling it pierce through that thick skin and embed itself in the flesh of the Lord of Darkness's stomach.
He roared in pain, and Shigeru fell back, watching in horrified fascination as his opponent pulled the offending object from his stomach. He then turned his hate-filled glare back to the boy who had caused him such trouble.
That was when the light found its way there, bursting through the door with the power it gained from being set free where it had been suppressed so long before. Shigeru shielded his eyes, and the Dark Lord let out an anguished howl, being pushed back to the edge of his realm, where blind darkness swallowed everything pushed into its depths. On one side, his claws scraped against the rocks to hold him from his doom -- on the other, the horn rooted him inside.
Shigeru lifted the sword from where his enemy had dropped it, and walked forward slowly, readying himself.
The Dark Lord laughed in his face. "You think you have won!" he sneered. "What is light without dark? I am a part of you *all*!" Shigeru did not stop or hesitate; his face was set with determination. "You can never defeat me! We are brothers... *eternal*!"
"Shigeru, do it!" Hiroshi yelled, from behind him. "You've won; it's your right! Kill him!"
"I didn't need encouragement," Shigeru muttered. Raising his sword, he brought it down fiercely, slicing the horn from the Dark Lord's fingers. Without that anchor to hold him, the Lord of Darkness lost his grip on the physical world and fell back into the empty void, his roars fading away into silence.
Shigeru stumbled and dropped the sword, drained from the struggle and the shock of his sudden win. He ignored the unicorn's horn that lay on the fresh earth near him, and tried to run back the way he'd come. Exhaustion forced him to his knees, and he crawled the rest of the way.
"Satoshi..." Shigeru lifted the raven-haired boy's limp form, cradling him gently. His breathing was smooth and even, but he didn't wake at his lover's touch. Tears streamed down Shigeru's cheeks, and he looked up at Hiroshi desperately. "Can you tell... Is he badly hurt?"
Hiroshi shook his head. "It's not a physical wound, Shigeru... he's under a spell. Something powerful, I can tell." He looked up and smiled as Kasumi shifted into full size beside him.
"Do something," Shigeru said urgently, one hand brushing the soft skin of Satoshi's cheek. He seemed so frail...
Hiroshi shook his head again, smiling this time. "It's your riddle, Shigeru. You answered mine. And you will this one as well." He glanced back at the horn meaningfully. "I believe we have a promise to fulfill." The unicorn whinnied in agreement, and Hiroshi looked back at Shigeru. "Maybe you'd better fulfill yours, too."
"I'll miss you guys," Shigeru said sincerely, a half smile on his face.
Hiroshi grinned in return. "You won't forget us, will you?"
"I don't think I could even if I *tried*!" Shigeru laughed, and felt the world shift around him. He clutched Satoshi's body tightly, and then...
The pond rippled gently below him. Shigeru gazed around at the forest, where summer had once again been restored. Behind him, Satoshi's body lay, cushioned by soft moss. The dark clothes were gone, and his fine ones returned... He looked so angelic. Shigeru knew what to do.
Turning from Satoshi, he dove from the rock and into the blue waters of the pond, plunging immediately into its crystal-clear depths to search the bottom for his prize.
~Horn in hand, Hiroshi knelt down beside the fallen unicorn. His fingers were steady as he held out the precious object, returning it so very carefully to the broken piece where it had been cut. His hands slid back and he stood, waiting.~
Shigeru burst back out of the water, gasping for breath. He shivered from the chill and his lungs ached, but he had a grin of triumph on his lips. Opening his right hand, he revealed a simple gold band -- Satoshi's ring.
~The unicorn's eyes opened slowly, and he rose from his resting place, spreading a smile of relief across Hiroshi's face. Slowly, the unicorn strode to nuzzle against his mate, spreading a wave of happiness across the forest once more.~
Falling to his knees, Shigeru bent over Satoshi's pale form. He took one limp hand in his own and slid the ring onto its third finger. "Come back to me, Sato-chan," he whispered sadly, and caressed his face softly, pressing a sweet kiss onto those still-warm lips. The body beneath his shifted...
Shigeru broke the kiss and gazed hopefully at the still face in front of him. Luminous brown came into view as his eyes slid open slowly, and he looked around him in bemusement, before focussing on Shigeru. Such beauty... "I love you, Satoshi," the older boy said with every bit of conviction he possessed.
Satoshi's eyes lit up, and then he raised his hand, gazing at the gold band that adorned it. "Shigeru..." He glanced back, almost disbelieving, to the older boy's warm smile. "Oh Geru-chan!" he finally cried, throwing his arms around Shigeru's neck and passionately kissing him, with every ounce of that restless energy. "I love you too!"
Shigeru's heart was full to the point where it felt like it might burst. Rising to his feet, he lifted Satoshi right off the ground and spun him around, kissing him. "Let's go," he said softly, setting his lover down. "We have dreams to fulfill."
"Right." Satoshi took his hand and followed him, giggling. "And the first one, Geru-chan, is having you come visit my room at the palace. This place has too many sharp-eyed animals around for my taste..." Shigeru turned red to the roots of his hair, and Satoshi continued to chatter away, unabashed.
Hiroshi grinned at Kasumi. "Isn't that sweet? True love." He sighed. "I think this is where you add, 'And they lived happily ever after. The end.'"
"Except it's not the end," Kasumi grinned back, catching his meaning. "It's just the beginning." Both of their gazes turned at the same time, as Shigeru and Satoshi walked off toward the sunrise -- and destiny.