He thinks he smells the salty-fresh air of the ocean.
Ever-so-slowly, his eyes flutter open, to the dark sky that hangs high, a canopy stretching endlessly in his vision. He breathes, eyes glazed, a blank stare towards the high heavens as the wind rustles the grassy field he's lying on, a soft whisper that tickles on the edges of his mind.
Overhead, cherry blossom petals flutter aimlessly.
He is waiting. He knows he is. For what, he isn't really sure.
At least he remembers his name.
The boat that docks on his side of the river sways. Three children jump down, all giggles and laughter, impatient feet padding across the field, chasing each other. The man who stands on the boat with an oar stays, his red cape fluttering in the wind, eyes attentive, and Makoto approaches him.
"Why am I here?" he asks, tentative, and cool dark eyes sweep towards him, elegant but understanding at the same time.
The question leaves his lips before he knows it: "How long?"
The god doesn't answer. The boat turns away, follows the flow of the water and wades across the river, swallowed by the fog.
The world is hazy gray most of the time, with water lapping on riverbanks and the dock. He sees shadows of people, figures of children, drifting acros the water or jumping off the dock towards the field of hawthorns that sometimes change into rows and rows of cypress trees. Sometimes he walks closer, close enough for the shadows to notice him and engage him in short conversations, but eventually they disappear towards the looming gates behind the field.
Makoto wanders to the gates, once, twice, thrice, but each time, he's unable to come much closer than ten meters from the gate.
"Are you not coming?" one of the shadows ask, as it drifts away from him closer to the gates, and Makoto smiles politely before taking small steps back until he stands in the midst of gentianas spreading blue beneath his feet.
"I'm supposed to wait," he replies.
He folds his knees and buries his fingers in a cluster of gentianas.
He feels his heart drop when someone stops suddenly, right before the gates. Makoto notes his geta, clear behind overlays of gray, amidst shadows moving down the path, footsteps disappearing into the ground. The young man looks at him, keeps his gaze, even when they're the only ones left, the last of the other souls flickering out as they pass through.
"Are you not going to go there?" Makoto says.
His response is a small tilt of his head, an unreadable expression.
"Are you waiting for me?" He looks down, to his fist balled at his thigh, fingers catching the fabric of his white kimono as he lets out a shaky whisper, "I don't think I can go yet."
He's faced with a small frown this time, blue eyes narrowed under the slight crease between his brows.
Makoto wonders why he feels a distant loneliness, when the young man bows and walks through the gates, leaving a trail of irises behind him.
The camelias disappear when he tries to touch it, dissipates under his fingers into a shower of light. He hears the boat as it docks by the river bank, a hollow thud as he turns to look.
He doesn't see anything out of the ordinary, today. Static filled figures, the low hum of passing souls.
No one stops for him, this time.
He continues to wait, watching the lazy laps of water in the distance.
He takes to climb up the cherry blossom tree and perches himself on one of the lower branches.
Some days, the cherry blossom tree blooms and some days it doesn't. Makoto counts one and a half week before the tree blooms again, but then the days here feel like they're blurring into one another, because the sky remains dark and the world remains grayed-out and white-washed--the cherry blossom pink petals a stark contrast with everything as they ride out the wind. He climbs up the tree and watches shadows of people coming and disappearing, some of them struggles to wade through the rapid stream of the river, some of them lightning fast on the boat. He tries to keep count sometimes but always loses count in the middle.
There's no use to think about that, though.
"What are you waiting for?"
Makoto looks up to see monochromatic noise, a dark shape hovering next to him.
"I don't know..."
He wonders if he'll ever know, wonders if what he's waiting for is even beyond the river.
He doesn't remember ever seeing a shrub of field mustard by the bark of the cherry blossom tree, but it's there anyway, and Makoto looks at it curiously. He bends down, runs his hand over the blooming shrub of bright yellow, a reminder of sunshine in the forever gray world.
"Fluffy," Makoto murmurs, thumb brushing the yellow petals gently, and cherishes the warmth.
There are days when he wakes up against the cherry blossom tree, to the flutters of the pale pink petals, and the thick taste of kuroki cloying in the back of his throat.
He doesn't understand why, doesn't know what promises he makes, but the guilt and disappointment grows until it drowns the taste of kuroki, until he chokes on it.
"It's been a while."
A flutter of black as the wind blows, a small shower of petals above his head.
"Oh, it's you. You're back." Makoto watches the soft sway of the dayflowers by his feet. "How long has it been?"
'I should have Haru paint you.'
"I never did ended up painting him." Blue eyes soften as he smiles, a faraway look when he turns towards the gates. "Not too long now, I'm sure."
Makoto leans back against the cherry blossom tree, asks the branches winding above him, flowers in full bloom under the dark sky, "'I should have Haru paint you', huh?"
The answer comes in a rush.
"You're handsome when you're upside-down."
Makoto opens his mouth, eyes fluttering close, mind clinging to the last image of memory, of crimson hair and the scent of cherry blossom cloying in the back of his throat, and the name tumbles out like a prayer.
Once he remembers the name, it feels like everything comes easier.
Most of the times they come in his dreams, hazy recollection of countless lives, Rin and Haruka the only constants that never change. But they're fleeting, and like any other dreams, they fade from his mind just as quickly as he wakes, leaving only the slightest trail that he grasps onto with a desperation of a dying man: a space clustered in the midst of sunflowers, the smile of a water goddess that lends Haruka's face a faint shade of red, a memory of sharing popcorn and drinks and stealing kisses in the darkness of the theatre.
Sometimes it's a word or a phrase, popping in his mind like bubbles rippling on the water surface, and he'd end up murmuring the word over and over again for the longest time, until he begins to remember.
Makoto trails his fingers in a patch of soft ground, making long, winding paths as he hums the word over and over under his breath, pausing when images tickle the edge of his mind: a bright grin that greets him as he rushes into the station, a soft kiss against his jaw welcoming him home.
"Station," Makoto breathes. "Train station."
The memory dances lightly in his head: dots of different colours, rows of characters naming each dot, attentive Rin by his side, listening, gaze following his finger as it makes a line from one dot to another. Makoto digs the tip of his thumb into the soil, feels the dirt sneaks under his nail, and writes down Rin's name on the ground.
He stops, breath catching, eyes widening in fear. The memory floats away, but this time he doesn't try to reach for it, doesn't try to clutch onto it. There's a sense of horror washing over him, leaving his fingers trembling as they dig into the soil, hard.
He doesn't want to remember that. He doesn't.
"Train," he whispers, shakily, and latches to the last image of Rin's grin pressed against the train window.
The tip of his finger touches something soft, light like velvet, a gentle brush down his knuckles, a tickle around his wrists. Makoto wakes up to a bush of yews growing around his tree, curling up the trunk, fanning out just under the lowest branch. He lets his arm dangle down, feels the leaves prickle his skin, caresses the red buds gently between his fingers.
He thinks the sky looks dark today, more than usual.
He can't quite see.
The branches above blurs into black -- a stroke of green seeping in when looks aside -- and he watches a drop of water slide down his arm as his vision clears.
Rin left him with a storm of cherry blossoms, his name a pain in his chest, a choked gasp.
'Rin? Where are you?'
He sees stems of scabiosa in a slim vase--purples and pinks and yellows--bending under the gentle fingers of a woman in faded pastel-coloured kimono, her hair cascading down to her hips, her smile too small and empty.
"Let them be," he says instead, with a smile that isn't quite directed to her. "It's a reminder."
She doesn't pause, gathers up the fallen purple petals instead. "Of what?"
Of red hair fussed by the wind, and shades of crimson between pale pink cherry blossom petals. Of a meeting that happens too late, hands covering his ears as if trying to block away reality, of kisses and touches that feel like making up for lost time as well as not having enough time. Of pained eyes looking back at him in regret, and a stem of scabiosa between slender fingers, purple petals bruised into darker hue.
Of the steps towards where a small shrine and a cherry blossom tree reside, and the many times in the day he talks himself not to climb them, not to turn around and run away, not to find his way back to what he's lost.
"Of his pain."
Everything blurs to thick layers of reds, one second of Rin on the lowest branch, arms filled with stems of scabiosa, face hidden in the shadow of his hair, vivid and crystal clear as he says,
With a pained gasp, Makoto jerks awake, arms shooting out as if reaching for something that isn't there, and the dream-memory fades with a breath.
The memories don't come easily, but when he remembers, it's like the images dancing lightly on the edges of his mind, like fingertips dancing across his memory: gold-banded lilies a stark contrast with crimson strands, blue eyes sweeping over black-and-white sketches, a tuft of blond hair glittering almost gold under the same warm light of the bonfire that gives a wicked glint on a pair of glasses, a cool smile framed with hair as dark as the colour of midnight sky.
The taste of kuroki, shared in the midst of an ocean of deep purple and dots of yellow. A vow, made in between kisses, renewed over and over again as he turns twenty-fifteen-thirty five-sixty one-forty two-eighty. Rogue grins and determined eyes, stubborn looks and a pair of cat ears flattened in embarrassment, fingers lacing with his own and naps under the canopies of sunflowers.
I, to you, forever.
They are dreams, fleeting and hazy, teasing at him like playful cats batting their paws at their master. Makoto wakes up to fringed orchids blooming all around him, petals bent under the weight of his white robe, and he closes his eyes back, trying to chase the pieces of memories rapidly fading as the haze in his mind clears.
But he remembers. Bits and pieces, like mismatched puzzles of so many lives he'd lived through. Not enough, never enough, and he finds himself gathering fringed orchids into his arms and burying his face into the bunch of them, hiding the wet patches on his cheeks.
"Why can't I go back," he murmurs, the next time the boat docks on his side of the river, this time to let a shadow of a young girl hop off, feet hesitant for a second before she runs across the field and vanishes. "If I can't go any further from here, why can't I go back instead?"
The god regards him quietly. "It is not your path to be reincarnated again."
"You remember fast," he remarks, much to Makoto's confusion. "It usually takes centuries for souls before they remember important things. Except for gifted ones, of course―maybe you are one."
The river takes the boat away.
Under Makoto's feet, asters breathe to life.
"It's my turn to wait, now," Makoto whispers as he wakes up, white camellias spreading all the way to the dock, where the boat just leaves with a gentle, echoing thud, leaving figures of children running towards the gate with laughter trailing behind them. He stares at the white camellias wistfully, resisting the urge to reach out and twist their stems.
"Will you find me too, Rin?"
"Don't be stupid."
"Hurry," he murmurs, breath hitching as he draws his knees up, burying his head into his arms. It's painful, so painful, and he doesn't know how Rin handles this, every lifetime, over and over again. "Hurry and find me, Rin."
Haruka stayed a while, this time, lets the water lap at his geta as he walks down the riverbank. Makoto doesn't dare come near, sits on the dock instead as he listens, Haruka's soft voice in-between rhythmic splashes.
"That sounds cute, actually," Makoto says, hiding a giggle behind curled fingers.
Droplets of water splatters upwards near his feet, with the way Haruka turns. They trickle back down into the river with a plop, along with an unamused stare. "It really isn't."
Haruka kicks at the water, pouts at his rippled reflection. "Only you."
"Don't worry about it too much, Haru." He traces patterns along the wooden dock, feels the little grains and ridges tickle his index finger. "We can't do anything about it."
It doesn't quite reach his eyes, brows furrowed and strained lines at the edge of his lips, but Haruka smiles. "He keeps hiding the stuff he doesn't want to eat in his haori."
"He still does that?" An amused tilt of his head.
"Yeah." Makoto could see the way Haruka softens this time, expression filled with quiet endearment. "I wish he'd just die already. You can take care of him again, then."
"That's not very nice, Haru."
Haruka shrugs, an easy roll of his his shoulders as he looks down and away. "Things would be so much easier if I could just free him now."
"You...can... do that...?"
"I'm sorry," Haruka says with a heavy exhale, wisps of air passing between the gaps of his fingers, tears he tries to hold back. "I shouldn't have said that." His hands drops to his side, clutches the material of his kimono in balled fists. Haruka keeps his head down, to the water rippling around his ankles.
Don't worry about it too much," Makoto says again. A small chuckle, he sets his hands on his lap, fingers laced together. "I understand."
"It wont be too long, I promise." He hears a splash as Haruka leaves the water, makes his way across the riverbank and up to the dock. "Please wait a bit more?"
Haruka passes the gate in a flurry of hydrangeas. One blue flower floats down in front of him, doesn't disappear with the rest. Makoto catches it in an open palm, follows the thin veins across the petals before lightly curling his hand.
He falls asleep with the flower on his cheek, dreams of Rin curled up next to him, ears tickling his cheeks in a little cat nap. He watches Rin's nose twitch, when he delivers a soft tap to the tip, feels a bitter-sweet nostalgia, when he sees red hair splayed over a bed of calliopsises.
"I miss you," he whispers over Rin's cat ears, his breath brushing over chestnut fur, passing over yellow petals.
Sometimes, despite the tug he could feel that prevents him from going too far, Makoto goes down to the water.
He frowns, words trailing into emptiness where the memory stops, hangs at nothing.
Cockscombs sway in the quiet breeze, trails of crimson petals that lead back towards the cherry blossom petals, and Makoto sees brilliant red strands cascading down in curtains, blending shades with the flowers, stray bangs framing sleepy eyes.
"For me," Makoto murmurs, blinks away the memory: the splay of red, the haze of contentment. It skitters on the edge of his mind, giving him another trail. "As the Inaba mountain pines.."
He stops, closes his eyes, and remembers with a clarity that hurts: of Rin rousing himself awake, eyelids heavy with sleep, draped over the lowest branch of the tree, and cockscombs blooming between bushes.
A shadow of soul fleets over the corner of his eyes, and Makoto turns to ask: "Do you remember what date was it?"
He thinks he sees a speck of soft pink in the shadow's silhouette, but it's gone before he could take a better look. The shadow stays there, head tilted upwards as if thinking, remembering, and its words a sliver of whisper: "I don't remember."
"Ah," Makoto nods, lips crooking into a wistful smile. "I heard it's hard for us to remember."
"I remember how old I was," the shadow says, light as a feather, even as its edges begin to shimmer and vanish. "I died when I was ninety."
Ninety. That's how long he's been here, at the very least, but he thinks it might have been much longer. Much, much longer, because he's seen Haruka three times and reincarnation is supposed to take time, isn't it?
"Goodbye," the shadow says to him, almost cheerful. "Have a good next life."
It vanishes into nothingness, leaving only wisps of white fog behind, and Makoto curls his toes in the midst of white-yellow chamomiles, eyes closing, his words a trail or quiet murmur: "I won't have one."
Rin won't even know that I won't be back.
"I'm not wearing a flower crown," Rin says stubbornly, eyes narrowed at forget-me-nots in Makoto and Haruka's hands, fragile petals weaved very carefully. The sky is a layer of orange and yellow, and the horizon tilts behind the rows of pine trees. Another dream, Makoto realizes, and looks back down to the forget-me-nots.
He remembers this.
Rin's voice continues, "This is not that kind of wedding."
"Do you like it," his voice echoes, tentative and hopeful, but the way Rin blinks one time too many, the way he touches the ring almost reverently and angles it to catch the remaining rays of sunset, the way he exhales shakily is crystal clear.
"Nise no chigiri wo chikau," Rin's voice lilts, almost too soft. He lifts his eyes, and his smile trembles. "This is a marriage vow."
"Even until the next world," the words trail, Rin's voice a wisp in his ear, fading with each syllable, and Makoto inhales the last of his scent before the wind takes it away,
"Haru?" he calls out.
"I wanted to bring you something." It's been a while, since he has seen that petulant pout. Comforting, a warmth settles in his chest.
"I really wish I could do something for you."
Is this how he felt―
A little while more―
Rin turns to him looking dejected, cat ears flattened down his head. "It's not like I asked for it..."
"You could try being nice to them?" He scratches the cat cradled in his arms behind the ears, throws Rin a disproving stare when he starts hissing.
"I do!" Rin says, completely contradictory to what he's currently doing.
"I don't know!" He starts makes faces at the white cat. "They just don't like me."
"You should maybe try stop antagonising them, for starts?"
Makoto holds the cat up, laughs when he takes its paws to bat at Rin's nose.
"Don't be rude." Makoto follows Rin's finger, pointing to another cat curled up on Rin's lap, a ginger tabby.
"Oh, I remember him." From a life once lived, a fuzzy memory stretching centuries back. "He was stuck on your tree."
"He shares food with me now," Rin says proudly, puffing out his chest.
"It's nice seeing you actually have cat friends." He snickers, hopes the Rin doesn't catch the teasing lilt.
"Yup! They curl up around me for naps, sometimes. It's nice."
He stays under the shower of cherry blossom petals swirling above his head, raining down upon him and beds of pale yellow patrinias. He gathers the petals in his palms, brings them against his cheek, feels them tickle the corner of his lips.
"Although its scent still lingers on," he breathes carefully. "The form of a flower has scattered away."
He holds himself still as the wind picks up, whisking the petals away from his hands but rains more of them all around him. He closes his eyes and pretends it's Rin, showering his room with roses and nemophilas and dogwoods.
He pretends that when he opens his eyes, he could reach up and kisses Rin with a petal separating their lips.
He thinks his breath might have stopped, when he sees a flash of red in the distance, hears wooden bells along with soft thuds of a rowing oar.
He curls his fingers, lets his arm fall to his side, tastes salt on the edge of his lips.
To Rin, who washes the world in colours of flowers, Makoto smiles.
"I've been waiting for you, Rin."
"So," his voice doesn't break, and the grin remains, as Rin takes a step forward. Makoto is so, so proud of him. "I saw the ocean."
It rips out a chuckle off Makoto's throat. He makes his own first step, too, steady if a bit tentative, eyes never leaving Rin's own. "Yeah."
"It was really beautiful." Rin's eyes are bright, brighter than Makoto has ever remembered seeing, spelling out freedom better than anything he could ever think. Each syllable is a breathless wonder, tinted with a sense of satisfaction and achievement, accompanied with one step for every word. "It was amazing!"
Makoto nods, eyes wet. Takes another step closer. "Yeah."
He stops, and by his feet, comet orchids blossom in trails, petals fluttering awake by the wind's whisper.
Rin huffs out a laugh, grin widening, almost feral now. "Well, I guess it's now my turn to show it to you, huh?"
Home, at last.
His fingers tangle in short red strands as he lets Rin go, tasting smiles and tears and relief, and Rin grins at him, sharp teeth flashing before the grin softens into a fond smile.
"I'm home," he whispers into the scant air between them, and Makoto closes his eyes, feels the feather-light words dancing on the corner of his lips.
Underneath them, tucked neatly in the scant space between their feet, a lone comet orchid blooms alive.