It was just after midnight, the starry sky spanning endlessly from one horizon to the other, the darkness of the ocean barely distinguishable from its navy blue colour, when that presence first occurred to him. Kougami was standing at the ship‘s bow, looking nowhere in particular, the only source of light the glim end of the cigarette he was holding in his hand. The smoke‘s smell was way more familiar—way more needed—than he would ever admit to anyone. The air tasted like salt and, neither in a good nor bad sense, loneliness.
Still, there was that strange scent that didn‘t fit into the picture; something sweet and spicy, tea, maybe, combined with a hint of slightly burnt caramel. Kougami knew he was the only person on deck right now.
Imagination, he thought, trying to clear his head again. The scent reminded him of something he couldn‘t quite grasp anymore. He knew that that something was hidden in his memories, waiting for a short moment of unalertness to come out and devour his mind and remind him again and again of why exactly he was standing on that fucking ship right now—
„You left them behind, didn‘t you?“
Someone had just stabbed him right through the heart.
Everything fell into place behind Kougami‘s eyes because he knew that voice, because he couldn‘t ever forget its silvery smooth tone even if he tried his damnedest, because the scent had someone to cling to now, reminding Kougami of a sea of waving golden grains, of heavy breathing and the unbearable weight of a cold pistol in his hands, of the coulours of a sunset, then white and red and that scent—
„Did you miss me, Kougami Shinya?“, Makishima asked from somewhere behind him, an audible smug hanging low on his lips. When Kougami turned around, he was simply standing there, wearing a lose white shirt and light trousers as usual, his long hair flying in the ocean’s breeze, his skin nearly translucent against the dark of the night. The blood was gone.
„Fuck you“, Kougami said and took a pull on his cigarette. He wondered how it was possible that Makishima‘s eyes were still the same—still holding that piercing, addicting gaze through unrealistically golden irises—and how everything felt so disturbingly real. The sky didn’t know the answer.
Makishima chuckled lowly, the expression on his face open and genuine, not giving away the number of people whose life he had taken without a care, not giving away who he really was. The one human being he had hated the most in this world, Kougami thought. And still did. Just as it should be. But for the mere fracture of a second, he looked innocent and in some way, the whole picture was incredibly beautiful.
„I don‘t like it when you lie to me“, Makishima replied, his voice stern, his eyes directly fixated on Kougami now.
„Shouldn‘t the dead remain silent, actually?“, Kougami said and turned back around again, throwing away his cigarette and reaching for a new one.
Minutes later, the scent was gone as if it had never existed in the first place.
Two days later, the ship landed in Hong Kong harbour. It was half past six in the morning, the night slowly fading from black to turquoise as the sun prepared to rise, when Kougami traversed the wide container storage area, sneaking from shadow to shadow. Ten minutes later, the city—now spreading out directly before him—finally revealed itself as the lights went out and the scenery was dip-painted with the warm colours of dawn. Under any other circumstances, it would‘ve been beautiful.
Still, Kougami couldn‘t bear watching such a foreign, impersonal painting knowing that there was nothing behind it. He simply didn‘t belong.
As if there had ever been a place he belonged.
„Do you really think running away will make it any better?“, Makishima asked quietly.
Kougami didn‘t know what to reply.
Life tried fairly hard to give him a new sense of identity, Kougami thought.
He had been roaming around SEAUn for three months now, taking on some jobs as a mercenary here and there wherever the familiar scent of injustice lingered in the air; wherever people asked for help but not too many questions. He was, undeniably, a skilled tactical fighter. That still didn‘t explain why it was always him to be in charge of any mission, why everyone else involved, no matter who they were and where they came from, followed after him without a single word of doubt.
Some part of him might’ve indeed be born to be a leader, Kougami realized, to be that calm fixed point in the very centre of chaos and confusion and pressed orders drowned out by the seemingly ever-present crossfire of gunshots around it—
it reminded him of the only man whose death had ever really mattered because it was the only time Kougami had killed for no one else but himself. It reminded him of the fact that cruelty and vengeance tasted way too familiar—sharp and bitter on his lips—but entirely different from the universal justice he was after. Well. He had been, once, maybe, but right now, he simply didn‘t know.
He didn‘t even know whether it was still him who fought battle after battle desperately trying not to think about how all of this was terribly wrong.
Because it didn‘t feel as though it were wrong.
Now and then, in a rare moment of silence in the darkness of an ever-changing shelter, often way past midnight because Kougami wasn‘t quite capable of falling asleep anymore even though his body felt the most tired it had in a long time, memories managed to catch up. The faces of Ginoza and Akane were blurry, somewhat smudged, when he tried to recall them, but he could still see disappointment, confusion, blankness painted all over them.
You left them behind.
Makishima was right and it hurt more than words could grasp. Kougami wondered what exactly they would say if they saw what kind of person he had become after leaving Japan. Then someone, again, twisted the blade around that had been sitting in his chest all the time, and he embraced the bittersweet unknowingness the mere distance provided him.
He knew that it was possible to change, that he could still turn back to become the person of values and ideals he once had been—in another reality that had already started to fade, to loose its colours—but then again he simply couldn‘t bring himself to care.
It hurt, and the only source of consolidation was the glim end of his cigarette reflected in a pair of golden eyes; the person they belonged to sitting next to Kougami, a pale and totally still ghost whose presence he had gotten used to. Feeling the eyes of his nemesis clinging to his skin at every step he took should feel uncomfortable and distinctly wrong. It didn‘t.
„You‘re free now. Isn‘t that worth much more than living alongside some likeable shepherds still holding the leash that‘s tied around your neck?“, Makishima asked, musingly cocking his head to the side.
Makishima‘s questions hurt, too, but right now, he was the only constant in an otherwise inconstant world slowly slipping from Kougami‘s fingers.
Sunsets above China were much more orange than those in Japan, hints of pink only to be seen when one was looking for them really closely. Still, they held the same sense of peace, of a quiet ending that would not last longer than till the break of dawn. The eternal circle of light; always the reassurance that there was another day, another chance, that the sun would rise again.
Time was not even capable of coming to an end, but some things should—just to leave him alone. A person that wouldn‘t die was still scary.
The heavy scent of sweet tea and burnt caramel had already become too familiar.
„Do you plan on living a life like this forever? Always on the run, never coming home—never belonging?“
Kougami closed his eyes at the twisted tone in Makishima‘s melodic voice; something in between accusing, pretentious and, somehow, empathetic—as if he understood ...
„I don‘t know.“
„But you can‘t go back to Japan, can you? They‘d pursue you and eliminate you without thinking too much about it. Oh, how unfortunate“, Makishima replied and sneered at Kougami. He was standing next to him now, the dying light of the sun being caught between strands of silvery hair, casting shadows over his finely chiselled features, his gaze drifting off into a place just between proximity and distance. His presence felt, in a pleasant way, cool.
Kougami remained silent.
„What about the girl—Tsunemori Akane, wasn‘t it? She was devastated. She feels guilty because you killed me and she couldn‘t stop you from becoming a murderer.“
The sky was, all of a sudden, too bright and too colourful for Kougami to look at. You abandoned them. You left them behind. You hurt everyone who had ever trusted you. The voice in his head was now Akane‘s, and it had lost all of its joy and optimism.
„The other one. Inspector Ginoza. There‘s something between the two of you—he cared about you whilst still trying to conceal it, and he‘s important to you, too ... I wonder what it was that made you turn each other your back.“
Kougami nestled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, lighting one and slowly dragging on it.
„Are you jealous or what is it that you‘re concerned about?“, he managed to ask dryly.
The other man looked away, his hair not quite hiding the ever so slight blush on his pale cheeks.
It‘s all in your head, a quiet voice whispered, it‘s not real.
Kougami shook his head as though that would make whatever he was feeling right now go away.
„Nevertheless, you didn‘t stay as he mourned his father‘s death. You left him behind just so that you could run after me, that you could at last fulfill that one final duty of yours ...“
Kougami couldn‘t fight back the images that rose to his mind, placing their hands around his throat, cold as ice, ready to squeeze the life out of his skin, ready to rip him apart from the inside—
one, two shots from the pistol he clenched with his hands as though his life depended on it, which was true, in a way—Makishima‘s grim smile when he disappeared into the darkness around the next corner—then Gino, kneeling down next to Masaoka, blood from both of them coating the ground, the ever-distant mask on his face already ripped into pieces as he cried, unbelievingly, his eyes begging Kougami to stay, to stay, to pleasepleaseplease not leave him alone—but he ran, fighting the urge to look back, ignoring whatever something it was that someone had just torn apart right in the place where, presumably, his soul sat—
„... you made me your priority, you put revenge before care for your loved ones. What, do you think, does that make me?“
Kougami‘s eyes filled with tears he tried to rapidly blink away, pulling on his cigarette, his hands shaking uncontrollably. He didn‘t succeed, and it was rain streaming down his cheeks, the harsh taste of salt on his lips.
„Hey, it‘s okay, you know? I‘m proud of you. You correctly decided in favour of finally writing an apposite end to that tragic story of ours. It was beautiful.“
Kougami desperately tried to ignore the all but soothing tone of Makishima‘s voice. He wasn‘t allowed to find comfort in these words that came from the reason for what he‘d become. It was wrong. Simply ...
„Right. Killing someone is beautiful and abandoning people who once trusted you is what you can pull of as an everyday task. I get it“, he tried to say, huskily, his breath too uneven to sound convincing. „Just fuck off already.“
Ten minutes later, the sun had set completely, only leaving behind the dim blue light that came before darkness. The inculpating voices in his head, however, wouldn‘t let Kougami erase the memories from his mind.
Of course he had expected Akane to change.
Yet Kougami found himself mourning the little girl he had gotten to know three years ago when he had promised her to not act like a dog but like a detective—he had broken his promise and the look on Akane‘s face had gotten stern, fiercer, even more determined; as though she had had to grow up too fast after he had left. Kougami figured she didn‘t know what to think of him. Their relationship felt strange and unfamiliar, too fragile to last, too unsteady to stand the distance any longer.
She was disappointed, which was for sure.
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and, slowly, took a pull on the cigarette he was once again holding in his hand. The stone of the balustrade he was leaning onto still felt warm to the touch, yet the sun had set hours ago, leaving behind the complete and utter darkness of a clear night sky. Back in Tokyo, stargazing hadn‘t been possible. There, it was city lights that never went out, the ever-looming noise of cars in a city that never slept.
The nights at the rebel base Kougami spent in the small apartment he had come to know so very well were too quiet to find peace. However, that wasn‘t the only reason for why he was still awake. Akane looked too young, innocent, when she was sleeping.
This time, he felt the familiar, unobtrusive coolness before the sweet scent of tea and caramel grazed his lips.
„You still owe me a night of talking“, Makishima said, „even though I have gotten to know you well enough over the last three years, it was never you who told me all these things. It was your actions, your behaviour, the few words you exchanged with whoever you met, the quick glances you darted across the battlefield. Still, I know you better than anyone else in this world could ever imagine knowing you. I can see your soul.“
His steps were soundless, his skin translucent and white. His presence, however, was crushing, still too much to bear, the weight of the past still too heavy for Kougami.
„Nonetheless, I want to hear everything from your lips. It‘s speech—words, language, really—that exposes people. It‘s where the truth lies.“
Kougami desperately tried to ignore Makishima now standing right next to him, too close, a ghost that had been too thin in his lifetime and looked like he could now be blown away by any ever-so-small blast of wind; the voice that haunted Kougami in his dreams, that made him wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and exhausted; that made him lose his focus mid-battle when he was aiming at a target spotlighted by the bright midday sun.
The voice that demanded him to challenge himself about what exactly he‘d become.
Kougami all but violently stubbed out his cigarette and looked Makishima right into the eyes, playful oceans of amber and gold that were shining even brighter now as they were reflecting the starry sky. He wanted to drown in those eyes and never come back to the surface.
„You don‘t know anything about me.“
The white-haired man chuckled lowly, the smile stealing onto his face seemed almost tender, somewhat soft. In another life—in a world not as fucked up as this one was—it would have been beautiful, Kougami thought.
„Oh, that is what you think? You‘re wrong in your assumptions. I know exactly how many cigarettes you smoke on a daily basis and that it‘s most probably six more on particularly stressful days or whenever you feel memories rise up in your head. I know which foods you like best and which ones you detest even though you pretend not to care. I know that you love and hate the blue hour after sunset at the same time, and I know that you miss Japan. I could name the person to whom you‘re getting off to in the evenings that are even lonelier than the rest.“
... green eyes and straight dark bangs, still a notch softer than they seemed to be; lips that tasted like vanilla and cold coffee from a half-emptied mug; warm skin, exposed to the rather cool air of his small dormitory ...
„That‘s not you. You‘re not real. You‘re my mind playing games with me with the ultimate goal of driving me crazy.“ Kougami shook his head, closing his eyes as though that could prevent the images—dreams, really—from being too close for a moment spent right next to the fading illusion of the man he despised.
... Gino’s limbs pliant beneath his touch; his voice, somewhat desperate, whispering Kougami‘s name as though it was the most precious thing in his world ...
“He’s a dog now, too. Do you think he misses the wolf that escaped from a society which no longer could make any use of it?”
Of course he was. Of course it had been too much for Ginoza, for his already wrecked psyche even though he had always been the one to look after his mental state the most diligently. His father, dying right before his eyes; a world slipping from his grasp; his long-time best friend, his trusted partner, his subordinate—leaving him without planning on ever coming back.
Of course it had been too much, and Kougami himself was the one to be blamed for it.
The guilt felt like a sharp stab to his back, rushing over him in a wave of heat and anger, painfully so, and he stumbled back, turned around, leaned onto the balustrade, panting. Makishima stayed where he was, standing still, view flying down to the ground, over the seemingling endless rainforest—trees closely next to one another, melting into a black ocean, the blue night sky spanning greatly above it.
„We are alike, Kougami. I understand you and you were the only one to understand me. We‘re connected, bound by destiny, by something very much greater than you and me. You can‘t escape it.“
Kougami looked down. He knew for sure that these eyes, magical golden irises that might or might not be holding the answers to all questions of the universe behind them, would be able to take down his defense. Just because they always did.
„You need me.“ Makishima‘s voice was light, airy, hardly to be heard if it wasn‘t for the utter quiet of the night.
He was right. Of course he was. Everything Makishima did, what he said, his words—most of the time spoken against a wall, into cold emptiness, vanishing without any reaction, but still so very present—were telling Kougami a truth he had slowly grown tired of fighting against. Denying his presence would mean rejecting himself; another lie to be thrown on top of the stack of bitterness and dishonesty and somewhat blissful ignorance behind his back, weighing heavy on his shoulders.
White hair and pale skin had vanished, the scent was gone. It was still then when Kougami realized that the illusion of his nemesis, of the man he loathed with a passion, had gotten too familiar to distinguish from himself.
Gunshots, resonating from machine guns, echoing with the walls of the south train station where the supply units were located. It was chaos—it always was—but Kougami felt strangely at home, even at peace, sometimes running, sometimes sneaking over the areal, taking down men that were shooting at him first. He didn‘t kill anyone. His reactions were automatic, muscle memory and reflexes fighting the battle for him, the feelings of wrongandguiltandshame gone, temporarily forgotten, somewhat hidden in the back of his mind. Right now, he wasn‘t only existing.
It was these moments, these split seconds of bright and vibrant purpose, that kept him alive.
He ducked behind a stack of wooden containers. For a second, everything fell silent; he tried to listen closely to any steps, any ever-so-quiet breathing, any sign that could give away the attackers lurking seemingly everywhere.
Sweet tea didn‘t match the smell of gunpowder and blood lingering in the warm, dusty air.
„On your left“, Makishima said, playfully so, his voice as light as ever. Kougami didn‘t need to see the cheerful smile on his lips.
So he moved, instinctively so; two, three steps to his left, then he turned around, retrieving the revolver from his belt. It fit perfectly into his hand, testimony to all the times he had held it, still weighing heavy because a man‘s death was clinging to it.
Kougami didn‘t see the young boy running toward him until it was sharp pain hitting his chest, flashes of white clouding his view—a single gunshot that seemed to be resonating for seconds, forever—then warm stones and the cold metal of the railway underneath his body that was heavy—too heavy—and everything was slow and so so far away ... Kougami wondered if it was worth the effort trying to hold onto reality because the thick black darkness threatening to invade his view was suddenly so alluring, welcome, it was okay, totally fine—
the last thing he saw before unconsciousness took over was a slim white figure, bending over him, eyes as bright as ever, the smile on their lips now smug.
„That‘s how it felt.“
It was one thing to know that one couldn‘t trust their enemy. But how was one able to find out if they could still trust themselves?, Kougami wondered briefly in one of the loathsome moments consciousness kicked in again between hours and days of sweet oblivion.
He didn‘t know how long he had been sitting on the cold stone, the stairs—carved into the material by hand, sanded down by the wind of centuries—stretching out below and behind him; neither did he remember how many cigarettes had wandered through his dry hands, had touched chapped lips just to be stubbed out eventually and thrown to the ground. He felt restless, somewhat more than he always did, than what he had gotten used to over the course of nearly seven years he had spent everywhere but in Japan.
It still felt strange.
As though it had never really been him, fighting and running and leaving and moving on and on through all of Asia; as though some part of him had died when he had pulled the trigger what felt like ages ago—in a golden cornfield, colours fading from a sky far above, the vanishing rays of the sun not telling him how all of it was terribly wrong.
Wrong because he had killed the one human being that had unterstood. Wrong because in another lifetime, they could have coexisted without fulfilling a destiny that only knew tales of pain, death and too-dark blood on white skin.
Wrong because it was him, it was Kougami, and he didn‘t seem to get anything right.
„We could have changed the world together.“ Makishima sat down on one of the rounded stones enclosing the narrow stairway, gracefully so, in that oiled way of movement Kougami knew so very well.
„I forgive you“, Makishima said. „Forgiving is an unpredictable act—here, as in action and speech generally, we are dependent upon others, to whom we appear in a distinctness which we ourselves are unable to perceive.“
He was quoting someone, but Kougami didn‘t know who it was, and the world fell silent again.
The sky was painted a dark shade of blue, stars sprinkled on it like small splashes of white dye. It reminded Kougami of the night he had first met Makishima‘s illusion, on that ship, when everything had still been fresh and dangerously close—
ever since, he had wondered how a hallucination made up by his own mind could feel so unbelievably real.
„How is it that you‘re confused about my existence? I told you before that we are alike, that we think in the same ways. You should know me just as well as you know yourself.“
Kougami took a pull on yet another cigarette, deliberately, and he noticed that the scent was there again. Slightly too-sweet tea, burned caramel, pleasant and warm in its own way. It didn‘t match the ever-lingering smell of cigarette ash, the taste of smoke on his own lips; and he didn‘t match Makishima—of course he didn‘t—their motives, their values, what they believed in—none of it was even remotely identical.
Values? Morals? Is this still something that matters to you?, the quiet voice in his head asked. Kougami ignored it.
„You can‘t be me. You can‘t be my subconscious talking to me. I‘m not like you and I‘ll never be.“
Makishima sighed, pretentiously so, then looked Kougami directly in the eye, a smile waiting at the corner of his lips.
„Does that really matter?“
Kougami didn‘t know.
It was only then—cool fingertips tracing his jawline; long, slender fingers brushing a strand of hair behind his ear—when he realized that the past couldn‘t be erased. He couldn‘t delete the memories from his mind; he couldn’t undo his actions, the many times he had hurt the people who had believed in him. He couldn‘t bring back the lives that had been lost because of him and he couldn‘t reverse the death that had made him a murderer.
But he still remembered glimpses of a life in which he had had purpose.
Maybe it really wasn‘t too late, and they were still waiting for him, and maybe they would even give him another chance. It seemed like a dream and not like reality, not quite like a possibility, and definitely not like something the man he had become would do.
But he wanted to belong—to come home, if people like him did have something like that.
From behind him, he heard Makishima chuckle softly, as though the whole situation was all but amusing to him, nothing more than a scene in one of the books he had so thoroughly enjoyed reading.
„Then go back.“
And maybe, he would.