They emerged in spring, and the cherry blossoms were in bloom. The branches of countless trees hung with soft pink sakura petals, mingling with the gentle blue of the sky above. Long tendrils of puffy white clouds snaked unnaturally over the sky, like a giant serpent with a body of white smoke.
Beyond the trees, tall hedges of sakura flowers blocked them in. Cherry blossoms wouldn’t normally grow on bushes, Hito knew; these barricades were the Labyrinth’s doing. But if this was a prison, it was a beautiful one.
Flower petals littered a white stone floor and stirred around his sandals as he walked. The wind whispered gently in the trees, causing the petals to sway in the breeze. Hito inhaled deeply, grateful for the sweet, flower-scented air in his lungs.
“It’s beautiful!” Ren said. “Like the picture in your jacket!”
“They’re sakura trees,” he said as they walked slowly through the grove. A wave of melancholy swept through him, the bittersweet pang of nostalgia. “It reminds me of home. When the flowers bloomed in the spring, my family would go out for hanami.”
“Hanami?” Ren asked.
“It’s like a party, or a festival. You pack a lunch and go relax outside somewhere and admire the sakura petals.”
“Like a picnic?”
Hito nodded. “I was never happy with my life in Edo, learning my father’s trade. But I loved the days in spring when I could lie back and look at the flowers.” He reached out and caught a sakura petal carried on the breeze. “I could let the weight off my shoulders. Clear the stress from my mind. The adults would be laughing and drinking, and I could let my mind disappear into the blossoms and forget my troubles.”
Ren caught him by the long sleeve of his jacket, tugging him back. “Let’s do it,” she said, her eyes glittering.
Her smile held a gentleness he rarely saw from her. “We’re both exhausted from all we’ve been through. The monsters. The fighting. We need some rest. So let’s stay here for awhile. Let’s have our own little hanami, just you and me.”
A wave of gratitude overtook him. “That sounds nice.”
Ren led him by the sleeve to a nearby tree, and the two of them lay down at the base of its trunk. The stone beneath him didn’t even feel hard, as if the flowers formed a soft cushion; he knew this was impossible, but it did nothing to damage the sense of comfort he felt. He laced his fingers together behind his head and stared up at the blue and white sky through the pink branches of the trees above.
He remembered the days he used to spend with his family, eating dumplings, mochi, and other snacks, playing with his siblings under the watchful eye of his father. What were their names? Had there been a mother? Whenever he tried to picture faces, he saw nothing but a blur.
Something’s wrong with me, he realized.
He lifted a hand into the air, as if to snatch memories from the flowers above. “Mono no aware,” he said quietly.
“Mono no aware. It’s hard to translate. It’s about the beauty in temporary things. Like melting snow, or the sakura blossoms fading with the season. They’re lovely, but you know they won’t last. Yet that sadness somehow only makes it more beautiful.”
Ren propped herself up on her arms and looked at him. “What’s gotten into you? You’re getting all artsy!”
“I am the son of an artist,” he said. “But you’re right, I shouldn’t let myself go like that.”
“That’s not what I meant!” she insisted. “I like it. Please, I want to hear more.”
“I just miss my family. I remember how unsatisfied I was with my life, but I don’t remember why. Why did I run away? What if I never make it back? What if after a lot of time passes, I forget all about them? What if they’re fading away, like the snow and the sakura blossoms?”
Ren settled back to the ground, her arms folded over her. “It happens,” she said. “I was so young when my father died that I barely remember anything about him. Then there’s my brother. Will I forget all about him some day, too? You talk about things becoming more beautiful when they fade away, but where’s the beauty in that? I don’t want anything to fade. I don’t want to lose anyone else.”
“I don’t want to lose you, either,” Hito said, so quietly he couldn’t be sure she heard him.
All the while, Tama hovered nearby. Even though he never said a word, Hito could sense his disapproval.
They lay there for what felt like hours, listening to the wind in the leaves and blossoms, enjoying this momentary reprieve from all the Labyrinth’s horrors.
“Ren,” Hito said at length. “What was your brother like?” Sometimes it felt like he knew nothing about her, and even less about himself. He needed something to fill the gap.
“He was four years older than me. In many ways, he was my opposite. He wasn’t much for adventure, but any time I went overboard, he was there to bail me out. He was my voice of reason. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t jump off the apartment roof, Ren!’ That sort of thing.”
“You really did that?”
Ren laughed. “Yeah, when I was four. I climbed a ladder when a maintenance guy wasn’t looking. Jake tried to talk me down, but I jumped off anyway. And when I twisted my ankle, he’s the one that helped support me so I could walk back inside.
“He was sheltered. Shy, a bit of a shut-in. Not the kind of guy most people would call strong. But he was always protecting me.” Her voice carried sadness, mingled with a sense of fondness and nostalgia.“Going on that trip was one of the most adventurous things he ever did. And you know how that turned out for him.”
He had no right to compare his feelings to hers. He had never lost anyone. But when he thought of his family, he still couldn’t shake the feeling they were long gone, just like Ren’s father and brother.
“It must be hard,” he said. “I miss my siblings, too.”
“You had siblings?” Ren said, staring at him. “Why haven’t you mentioned them before? How many? Brothers or sisters? What were they like?”
I don’t remember, he wanted to tell her. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t envision their faces. But instead of explaining, he turned away and lay on his side, feeling ashamed and strangely irritated. “I don’t want to talk about it. My life in Edo wasn’t worth much. Nothing I did there mattered. It was …” He searched his mind for the right words, but the ones he arrived at felt inadequate. “Tiresome. Boring. Unbearably mundane.”
“But you still want to go back there?”
“Yes,” he said. “More than anything.” Even though he couldn’t remember the details, he still felt a deep ache for home inside him.
No one said another word, but there was an unspoken understanding that it was time to sleep. Hito continued to gaze at the soft pink blossoms against the white stone, and breathe in the sweet air, until his eyes slid closed and the breeze carried him off to sleep.
Hito’s mind swam as he opened his eyes and sat up. The breeze had died, leaving the carpet of blossoms eerily still. He couldn’t hear a single sound, and what had been comforting before had grown ominous and unnatural.
Ren was gone.
“Ren?” he cried, his eyes darting around. But there was no sign of her. Why would she wander off without him? Had something happened to her?
He climbed to his feet, his heart pounding painfully in his chest. He could feel its beats—one at a time, much too powerful, much too slow. His head continued to swim, the world spinning as he staggered forward.
“Ren! Where are you?”
He broke into a run. She had to be here somewhere! She couldn’t have gone far, could she?
Above him, the blue of the sky began to fade like washed out watercolor paint. The sun arced swiftly overhead, as if an entire day were passing in a matter of seconds. Reaching the apex of the sky, it began to descend. Still Hito ran, the motion of his feet stirring the flower petals only for a second before they settled back to the ground like something dead. His heart beat faster, but still too hard and too slowly.
The sun dipped out of view over the horizon, leaving a black sky without a single star to be seen. The flower petals emitted a ghostly pink glow.
Just ahead, he caught sight of a figure, facing away from him. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was Ren.
“There you are,” he said as he trotted up and reached for her. “Why’d you run off by yourself? Why didn’t you answer me?”
She turned to him. Deep sadness shimmered in her blue eyes, and she opened her mouth to say something. Before she could, Hito’s hand brushed against her, and she changed. Her eyes drained of life, and every inch of her body turned pink. Her skin cracked, her features distorted, and her face began to disintegrate.
It wasn’t Ren at all, but a dummy made entirely of flower petals, which fell apart and fluttered to the ground at his feet. Overcome by a wave of horror so intense he couldn’t even speak, Hito watched as the pile of petals curled up and withered before his eyes, then crumbled into dust.
His heart beat so hard he doubled over in pain, moaning. He fell to his knees, then collapsed onto his side on the ground, the beating of his heart sending such furious vibrations through him that every muscle in his body ached.
He couldn’t remember climbing to his feet, but now he was walking. The sakura trees had vanished, and in their place, a forest of evergreens surrounded him.
Behind him followed a teenage boy, and the two chatted excitedly as they walked. Hito could hear the pitch of his voice, and knew it wasn’t his own, but that of a strange man. It isn’t really me, Hito realized. I’m someone else completely!
“We’ve been at this a long time,” the boy said in a voice Hito thought he recognized from somewhere. “Can’t you tell me where we’re going?”
“Not much farther now,” said the man’s voice from within Hito. “You’ll understand when we get there.”
Hoping to catch a glimpse of his body, he glanced down and found nothing, not even a pair of legs. No body at all. Nothing.
But it didn’t stop his heart from pounding. He cried out and froze, paralyzed with pain. His heart began to beat more rapidly, but he wished it wouldn’t.
He wished it would stop.
The boy’s eyes widened as he rushed forward to help. “Dad, what’s the matter? What’s happening?” But before Hito could answer, the trees and the boy vanished.
Now Hito found himself in a nothing space, a black void where nothing existed except him. His heart beat faster, faster—too fast—and every beat sent waves of excruciating pain through him. He screamed, his mind going wild, unable to think through the pain.
Why is this happening?! Make it stop! I’ll do anything to make it stop!
But it wouldn’t stop. It kept beating, faster and faster, soon filling his chest with one massive, unending heartbeat which threatened to tear his whole body apart.
He had to get rid of it.
Screaming, he hooked his hand into claws and plunged it into his chest. Any pain at breaking his skin was washed away in the stunning agony from the beating of his heart. The vibrations pounded up his arm as he probed behind his ribs and clasped the traitorous organ. An image of the gashadokuro flashed through his mind as he gave his heart a fierce yank and pulled it from his chest, arteries stretching then snapping back like broken rubber bands.
Pitch black with not a trace of blood, Hito’s disembodied heart quaked in his hand, the arteries twisting from it like tangled black roots. Pain shot up his arm, and he struggled to keep hold of it. He had to get rid of it! He had to get rid of it!
With a tremendous shout, Hito pitched his heart into the darkness with all the force he could muster. It arced up into the air, then quickly disappeared somewhere in the void.
With it gone, he stood there panting. Looking down at himself, he found nothing amiss. No hole in his chest. Not even his clothing had any sort of mark. He kept breathing and living, as if he didn’t need a heart after all. And yet …
Within his chest, he could sense it missing, a cold hollowness seeping down to his stomach. He found the veins in his wrist and pressed a pair of fingers there, searching for a pulse, but there was nothing. What was he without his heart? He had become a freak, something inhuman. He had become a monster.
He fell to his knees, screaming as tears flooded his eyes, his cries not even echoing as the void absorbed them.
“Hito,” a voice called, as if from a great distance.
Go away, Hito thought. Leave me alone.
“Hito!” Louder now, more insistent.
Leave me alone. You don’t matter. Nothing matters anymore.
Awaking with a start, he found Ren shaking him so hard the back of his head slammed against the stone. “Hito, wake up!”
Ren hesitated, then gave him one last violent shake.
“Ow!” he cried as his head struck the ground. “Why’d you do that?!”
“I dunno, it seemed like you needed it. You were moaning in your sleep. You must have been dreaming.”
Hito thought back to the image of Ren dissolving into cherry blossoms, of that strange boy in the forest, of ripping out his own heart. Gazing into the distance, he glimpsed a black sky and glowing pink petals, as if they had followed him into the waking world.
He shuddered. “Yeah. I had a nightmare.”
“My dreams were bad, too,” she said.
“About your brother?” he asked, guessing from her face.
“Yeah.” She swallowed. “Hito, I have a dumb question.”
“What is it?”
“Do you think the dreams were real?”
He stared. “Of course not! Dreams are just dreams!”
“What if they’re not normal dreams? What if the Labyrinth is messing with our heads again? What if it’s telling us the truth?”
“You’re thinking too hard about it. My dreams were nonsense.” He shivered again, thinking of the feeling of that horrible heart’s beating about to blow him apart. “What did you dream about?”
Her eyes dropped. “I dreamed my brother was alive, and here in the Labyrinth.”
He gazed at her, unsure what to say. Did he tell her it was ridiculous, that her brother was obviously dead?
“We should go,” he said. He climbed to his feet, brushed the sakura petals out of his clothes, and extended a hand to Ren, pulling her to her feet.
“You’re right,” she said, her face brightening almost instantly. “Time to put the petals to the metal!”
Ren rolled her eyes. “Let’s hurry.” She went on ahead, and Hito followed behind her.
They had only gone a few steps when awareness struck him—someone was watching them. He froze and scanned for danger, but could find nothing amiss. What was out of place? How did he know?
Then he saw a flash of red and silver in the darkness. “Ren, down!” he shouted as he made out the shape of a knife shooting toward her.