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the scent of flowers long ago

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Haru gets the first text so soon after seeing Rin off at the airport, he’s not sure Rin even had time to get to Australia, let alone time to drop off his stuff or get settled. How far away is Australia, he wonders, as though he hadn’t watched the electronic map on the back of the seat in front of him the whole way back after their trip last August, knowing Rin would be going back without him in less than a year. 9 hours, 10? He and Makoto had said goodbye to Rin at Narita early that morning before practice and now Haru is making dinner for himself in his tiny apartment.

He jumps a little at the ringtone — he barely gets texts — and pulls the phone out of his bag to see Rin’s name and a picture attached.

not as cool as cherry blossoms, reads the text, but it’s famous in australia.

it’s eucalyptus, comes a second text a moment later.

In the picture, Rin is standing in front of a tree. It doesn’t look like anything to Haru, except vaguely exotic, not something you’d see in Japan; “eucalyptus” sounds like something they use in shampoos or body washes. What really draws his eye is Rin, still wearing the same sweatshirt he’d had on this morning and his backpack over his shoulder — so he hadn’t even made it to his apartment — smiling as brightly as ever. A baseball cap shields his eyes from the sun and his hair is pulled out of his eyes. He looks good, like Australia already suits him, and Haru remembers the energy he’d had when they were there.

Pretty cool, he texts back and thinks about the warm sun on his skin.

After that, the pictures come so frequently that Haru can barely keep track of them: Rin at the pool awkwardly posed showing most of his torso (jealous? ;P ), Rin with a koala (had to do it, but it was kind of mean actually), Rin with Lori and Russell (they wish you were here! ), Rin with a spider the size of a bird (i s2g australia is a horror movie sometimes), Rin at the aquarium grinning in front of a shark (my new best friend). Haru looks at each one and replies carefully (we have pools here toolooks dirtytell them I say hellodon’t be scaredwhich one is you?) but he doesn’t quite know what to say sometimes. Rin looks happy in all the photos, which is good! which is great, really, but Haru wonders why Rin wants him to see these small moments of his everyday life, ten hours and an ocean away.

Exhausted from practice one day, Haru lies on his bed. The coach had scolded him for a 100-meter time that was less than brilliant. Haru didn’t even know what his time was or what it was supposed to be; he’d just felt like the water had held him back that day, like it was in a mood. There was nothing he could do about it, but there was no explaining that to the coach. Haru wonders again what the point of all this times and competition is, staring up at the dull white ceiling. He could be back in his house in Iwatobi sitting in his bath, not worrying about any of this, he thinks, when his phone buzzes. A text from Rin.

It’s dumb — a picture of a pile of steaks and the message now that’s a proper meal — but the sight loosens the tightness in his chest. You’ll clog your arteries, he texts back, and Rin replies, athletes need protein!! Haru types, Lean protein. Fish or chicken. The reply comes with another picture: i’ll show you chicken!! and a giant pile of barbeque chicken wings. Ugh, Haru thinks, and types you’ve gone native. Rin sends him three tigers (his compromise for the lack of a shark emoji), two chicken wings, and a dolphin (the dolphin is Haru, Haru’s learned.) Haru texts back a long string of sushi and falls asleep remembering that Rin’s getting faster, stronger every day.

Makoto meets him at a restaurant near his apartment for dinner at least once a week now. He chats happily over noodles about school and what he’s learning and who he’s meeting and Haru only feels the ghost of a memory of the jealousy he’d felt in junior high when Makoto had started branching out to other friends. Mostly, he’s happy Makoto has other people around and isn’t homesick for his family; Makoto had always needed more people around than Haru had.

Makoto is telling him about a stretching technique they’d been learning about in one of his sports science courses when Haru’s phone buzzes. On the screen is a picture of Sydney Harbour at sunset. Rin isn’t in it, just a view of the bridge, which is somewhat dull, but the message reads, do you remember when we came here?

Makoto notices him looking at his phone. “Who is that?”

“Rin.” Haru types out a reply quickly, Yeah I remember. Of course he remembers.

Makoto smiles. “He emails me sometimes, mostly about training. It sounds like he’s settled in.”

Haru feels suddenly embarrassed, that Rin’s sent Makoto actual information while all he gets are these cryptic pictures and one line texts. “He sends me pictures,” he says, trying not to sound defensive.

Makoto’s eyes widen. “Pictures? Of what?”

“Australia. Things.”

“Oh, I see.” Makoto is smiling knowingly in a way that’s even more irritating than the thought of Rin writing Makoto long emails Haru will never get to read.

Haru passes his phone over to Makoto to show him the texts aren’t anything special. Haru watches his face shift from smiling to embarrassment to bemusement as he scrolls back through what is now weeks’ worth of almost-daily text messages. Finally, Makoto slides the phone back.

“Do you ever send anything back?”

“Back?” Of course he sends things back, which Makoto must have seen; he carefully replied to every image even when he didn’t know what to say.

“Do you ever send him any pictures back?”

“Why? He’s seen Japan before.”

Makoto raises an eyebrow. “You’ve seen Australia before.”

“That’s different.”

“I don’t think it is. He’s not sending you pictures because he wants you to see Australia.”

“Then why is he sending them?”

Makoto laughs. “You know, he talks about you in his emails.”

Haru freezes, feels the tips of his fingers tingle with numbness and a flutter go through his stomach. He looks at Makoto sideways, through the corner of his eye, hoping he didn’t notice. “What does he say?”

Makoto shakes his head, still smiling. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Then why say it?”

“Because he talks about you a lot. And I think he’d appreciate a picture.”

“Hmm,” is all Haru says and he sits mostly silent for the rest of the meal. That in itself isn’t unusual but he feels like Makoto is laughing at him, a little bit, in a way that he isn’t used to.

After they pay and say goodbye, he walks home, the activity of Tokyo around him less busy than his own thoughts. By the time he reaches his apartment, he’s decided that not sending Rin pictures back was a texting social faux pas he can’t have been expected to know about. But he still needs to do something about it.

That night, Haru can’t think of anything he’d want to send Rin in a picture, can’t imagine stopping in his daily routine to take a picture of his walk to school or the campus or the pool, which are the only things he sees. Does he have to be in the pictures? How many does he have to send to make it up to Rin? Would it even be enough just to send pictures? No, Haru decides, it’s not enough; he’ll have to do something special to make up for not sending pictures. He doesn’t want Rin to think he didn’t appreciate the pictures, even if he didn’t always understand them.

He’s pushing his way through his English homework when the idea hits him. In his desk drawer, with the art supplies he rarely pulls out anymore, is a watercolor set. He pulls them out, looking them over; it’s mostly unused, since water on paper had turned out to be more wild, in some ways, than water in a pool, but he knows this is the right medium for this as soon as he looks it. There’s reds and mauves and blues he can lighten to get the right shades.

In one of his books of waterways, there’s a picture of the moat outside Hirosaki Castle in Aomori in spring: branches stretch across, dropping their pink blossoms in the water. He pulls it out from under the bed. The castle he’ll cut out, but the water and the blossoms are perfect. Filling a glass of fresh water, he draws out his brush.

By midnight, he’s finished something that looks respectably like cherry blossoms on a still river, something that Rin can hold and remember what he’d left behind in Japan.

“This is stupid,” Haru mutters to himself the next morning, looking down at the now dry painting. Should he write a note? What would he even say? He sets the painting on the only thing he can find to keep it from bending, a pencil board showing Kegon Waterfall, and puts it into an envelope before he can feel too silly about it. He mails it that afternoon, wondering when it will make it to Sydney, a part of him not sure if he wants it to make it there at all.

His phone buzzes one night while he’s making dinner. He almost drops a precious piece of saba to grab for it on the table. On the screen: a text from Rin and a picture.

i got your package!! i love it, thanks, says the message.

He studies the attached picture. Rin is smiling and holding the painting. Next to his head in close-up, it looks almost like the backdrop of his other pictures, but now the unfamiliar Australia wildlife is replaced by Haru’s own silly pink brushstrokes. It’s not enough, not really the same as having Rin back under Japan’s own favorite flower and Haru feels a sudden nostalgia for all the times they could have spent under the cherry blossoms together. Rin does look happy though, at least as happy as he did in the other pictures, Haru hopes, except — except, of course, there’s a tear stain on his cheek and a section of the watercolor looks like it’s been smudged.

He texts back, Don’t cry on the things I send you.

Rin’s reply is almost instantaneous: i wasn’t!!

And then: does that mean you’re going to send me more things?

Several seconds later: you don’t have to, only if you want to

Then: it’d be cool to have things for my wall, you know

Haru frowns. Too embarrassing, he texts back. What do you want me to send next?

There’s nothing for a minute or two. Haru imagines Rin is thinking very hard of the most ridiculous thing he could possibly ask for — sharks?? on fire?? he wouldn’t be surprised — and Haru knows he’s going to end up painting whatever he asks.

The text that comes next says: maybe something of you? & Makoto & everyone?

Haru knows Rin has pictures of them already, already up in his apartment; he saw one on the desk in one of the photos. Haru thinks about how he could see the traces of Rin’s hands in each of the photos — an angle, a joke, a smile. Maybe Rin wants to see how Haru’s hands will trace over their familiar faces. He thinks for a moment of how he’ll do it — watercolor won’t give the faces enough detail, he’ll try something else — and smiles.

He texts back, ok, and makes a note to stop at an art supply store the next day. Maybe he’ll text Rin a photo while he’s there.