He heard the click of the trigger before he heard the gunshot; it was the instinct of a professional, maybe. It was too close, the man was too fast. He still doesn't know what could have happened, whether he could've ducked, or whether the bullet would've hit him. But then he heard Kaori's voice, screaming his name.
Normally, he loved to hear her voice, it made him feel alive. He loved it more when she said his name, it made him feel needed, wanted, like he was a part of something. A family. But at that moment he hated her, for coming after him when he had asked her to stay home. For leaving Aiko alone at home. For loving him, because he was destruction.
She threw herself in front of him, too fast, before he could do anything. It saved him, but the bullet hit her.
He didn't remember much after that, just a rush of everything. There was an ambulance, and there was so much blood. He begged her to stay alive, for him, for herself, for their daughter. She only raised a blood-smeared hand to his face, and smiled.
She had smiled. He still doesn't know whether she was forgiving him, or asking for his forgiveness.
And then, she died. In his arms.
Ryo likes to think she died happy, because she died with a smile on her face.
Looking down at the two graves, the two people who had loved him, who had believed in him, he couldn't help but think that he'd failed them. Today, they were both dead, because of him. Or rather, they had died trying to save him. Which was worse. They had died so that he could stay alive.
She had saved him. He wishes she hadn't. For what's the use of living like this, an endless empty wait for death?
Kaori had been so full of everything, when she was happy, her happiness spread to everyone around her. When she was angry, her anger burnt the room. When she was sad, her sorrow overflowed in tears.
Kaori had been many things, but she had never been empty .
Kaori would forgive him, she always did. Knowing what he was, she had still loved him. He just wished he could forgive himself.
Death must wait, for she had left him with a charge. Her daughter. Their daughter. She had given him his only reason to live. The coincidence struck him, sometimes. Makimura had died, leaving him to take care of Kaori. Kaori had died, leaving him with Aiko. The people he loved died, leaving him in guardianship of someone they had loved in their lives.
He looks at his daughter. She looks exactly like him, black hair, dark skin. He is afraid to become too attached, because he wouldn't be able to bear it if she left him too.
She remembered her mother's death more than she remembered her in life. Her mother, inside a small box, her eyes closed. She was not moving at all.
"Mom?" she'd called. She'd reached out her hand to touch her face. But someone had pulled her away. She wasn't entirely sure, but it must have been Saeko.
"She is sleeping." she'd whispered.
But she wasn't. Her mother made strange noises when she slept, which was called snoring, and if she put a finger inside her nose she'd wake up, shouting.
She'd known. Maybe it was an inborn instinct, but she'd known that mom would never wake up. Somehow, she'd known that it was the last time she was seeing her.
She'd looked around for her father. Her father, who was the best. Who made her laugh, but never stopped her when she wanted to cry. Her father would never lie to her to make her happy.
She'd found him in the farthest corner of the room, slumped against the wall. He seemed different to her, for she hadn't yet learnt what sad was. She had run up to him.
"Dad" she'd said, pulling at his leg. It was their silent signal, she asking him to pick her up.
He hadn't even looked at her. He wasn't crying, but his eyes had looked so lost, it had scared her.
And though he hadn't said a word, she had found her answer in his face. She had found the confirmation for what she knew was true.
Years later, she'd wondered why he hadn't cried. But then, he never did. She'd never seen him cry. Maybe his tears had dried up.
Their lives revolved around two graves. One was her mother's. The other one was of her mother's brother, her father's best friend. Uncle, as she thought of him in her mind.
A brother and a sister, buried side by side. Her brother was the only family Kaori had, they said.
There was an empty space, next to her mother's grave, covered with grass. "I am going to lie there, when I'm dead." Ryo had told her once, when they had come for a visit. She had been very young then, she had cried. She could never imagine a world without her father.
Ryo hadn't hushed her; he hadn't tried to make her stop. He had just laughed, and it had made her feel stupid.
They never visited the grave together anymore. She always came by in the mornings, she always brought flowers. Her father came by late in the evening, so that nobody would hear him talking to the tombs.
She brought jasmines. It was her favourite flower, the smell enchanted her. Not very pretty to look at, but beautiful in its own way. A bit like her.
Ryo didn't bring flowers often, but if he did, he always brought white carnations. It had been her mother's favourite, he'd said once.
Maybe it was because they remembered Kaori in different ways. She didn't remember her very well, but she had this one clear memory. They must have been to an amusement park. She was on a ride, and she had waved madly at her mother every time she passed her. Her mother had waved back, laughing. Her father, standing behind her mother, with a thoughtful look on his face. They had been happy.
She could still hear that laugh sometimes, when she closed her eyes. Whenever she thought of her mother, she always imagined her laughing. In her memory, she seemed like a whirlwind of energy, a burst of happiness.
Nobody ever laughed in this house any more. She wasn't a laughing type of girl. If her father did laugh, the hollowness of it echoed through the empty house.
Ryo had taught her to live every moment; to take life as it came, to enjoy it. She did, in her own way.
She didn't really miss her mother, not like Ryo did anyway. Maybe because she had never known what it was to have a mother at all.
She had Ryo, she had Saeko. She had Umibozu and Miki; she had Norio, their son, her best friend. She had little Shieri, their daughter, with her huge eyes and tiny hands. What more could she ask for?
What was she missing?
She looked nothing like her mother, with her long black hair and grey eyes. Ryo was glad. He couldn't bear to have a younger version of Kaori returned to him.
Aiko sometimes looked in the mirror, and wondered what Kaori would've thought of her. She was beautiful. Not stunning, maybe, like some of the girls in her class, but beautiful in her own way.
Ryo kept a picture of Kaori in his pocket, close to his heart, she thinks. It was a strange one, Kaori sitting next to the window, staring into space, her eyes looking so sad. A soft light falling on her face, through the folds in the drawn blinds. It was so completely at odds with what she normally thought of her mother.
She bathed the world with her smiles, spreading the joy that was a part of her. But only he saw her tears.
She sat next to Norio at school. Most of the time, they couldn't relate to the other children in their class, with their stupid practical jokes and irrelevant, inconsequential 'problems'.
They lived in their own world. Maybe they had grown up too fast.
Give or take, she was happy. Happy with what she had, with who she was. But sometimes, looking at the mirror, she wished she looked like her mother.
I had read somewhere that Saeko was Makimura's fiancée. I am not sure if that's canon, but I am taking it to be so in my story.
Ryo brings a new woman home, almost every other night. She meets some of them, but she doesn't care to remember their names. She understands, when the door of the guest-room is closed, that she is not to disturb.
Ryo always takes the women to the guest-room. Never to his room. She hadn't asked, but she knew it was because of her mother.
Sometimes, she wishes Ryo would marry again. They could have a real family, maybe she would have a brother or sister. She pictures a woman, intelligent and understanding. Not like her mother, because no one could replace her, but someone more like a friend.
She doesn't know why, but in her mind, this woman always looks like Saeko.
"Dad, why don't you marry Saeko?" she had asked once.
Ryo had been silent for a while, then he had shrugged. "We have been friends for too long. We know each other too well."
"But you knew Mom, too, didn't you?"
Ryo had remained silent for a while. Then he had said, "I did. But I don't think I ever understood her, you know."
Aiko had asked the same question to Saeko, years later. But by then, she already knew the answer.
Saeko had turned her face away. "You know."
She did know. Saeko had been engaged to her Uncle before he was killed. She could never love anyone else.
Sometimes she felt she was living in the land of dead people.
As she grew older, she felt herself growing distant from Norio. Her books, which provided a welcome distraction from the emptiness of everything around her, became her best friends. Norio bugged Ryo and Umibozu to tell him anecdotes from their time in the underworld, and he lapped them all up. Aiko wished he wouldn't; Ryo loved to talk about the old days, but it always made him sad afterwards.
Norio said he would start his own agency when he grew up. He romanticized that life, living on the edge. Aiko couldn't wait to get away.
They had chosen their paths.
When she made it into NYU, she thought her father would be happy. But he had only looked at her in a strange way, and she knew that he saw it as a desertion.
Your mother would never have left me. She had seen it written clear on his face, as well as if he had said it out loud.
Well, she was not her mother. She was who she was, and she was proud of that. Her mother had wasted her whole life, for a love which had destroyed her in the end. She was not going to do that. She was not going to live for someone else.
He had thrown a party for her, nonetheless, celebrating her success. He had asked her to invite all her friends, anyone she wanted. But in the end, it had just been Norio, Shieri, Umibozu and Miki, Saeko, Reika and her new husband. Her family.
Her broken family.
They had all come to see her off at the airport. Ryo had waved her off, cheerily, like it didn't matter that she was leaving, like she would come back the next day. But she had long learnt to see beneath his facade.
She tried not to feel. Finally, she had achieved what she wanted, she got what she deserved. Finally, she was flying away, to places where she belonged.
It was not till the plane had taken off, that she felt this desperate urge to go back. To her father, and pull at his leg, asking him to pick her up. And finally, only because Ryo couldn't see her, she let herself cry.
It was after a few months at the University, that she met Joe. Not exactly handsome to look at, with his lean, stubbly face and nerdy glasses, but she thought him beautiful. There was an intelligence that twinkled in his eyes. He believed in a lot of things, he thought deep thoughts. He lived in his own world.
She knew Ryo wouldn't like him much, but she took him home with him anyway, to show him her city. Ryo didn't react as badly as she had expected him to, but she was so mad in love, she couldn't care any less.
She wasn't daddy's little girl any more. Her life didn't revolve around the graves. She still dropped by the graveyard, every time she came to Shinjuku, she still brought flowers. But she didn't wonder about the people sleeping in there. That bald patch next to her mother's grave didn't make her cry any more. For a man waiting for death, it only seemed inevitable.
Ryo had taught her to live every moment. But she guessed, a part of him had died with Kaori. It was the ghost that was left behind; it was the ghost that she'd known all these years.
Ryo downed the last can of beer as Saeko set the dinner. Saeko spent most of her time in here, these days. She has recently retired from the police force, and had nothing to do at home. They ate their dinner, in comfortable silence. It seemed like after having gone through so much, together, they had nothing left to talk about. They were just two people waiting for death.
Ryo thought about how Saeko had replaced everyone, Makimura, Kaori, even Aiko. There were some things in the world that no one else could understand. Like why he needed to talk to the tombs in the graveyard, why he insisted on keeping Kaori's room exactly the way it used to be, why he kept carnations in the vase by the window. There were some things that could be shared only in silence, only with the people who have been through it.
Aiko had chosen her path, she had chosen who she was. She lived in her own world now, a world of thick books and professors and seminars and knowledgeable friends. It was a world he didn't belong in. He had never been to school. All the education he had ever received was at gunpoint.
Ryo liked Joe more than he would like to admit. He was a man who stood his ground, who wouldn't back down from the things he believed in. Of course, he was not the kind of man Ryo would've chosen for Aiko. He would have chosen someone strong, someone who could protect her. Someone who would love her from afar, who would never say it out loud, but she'd know. He would have chosen someone who loved her the way he had loved Kaori.
Because Kaori had always known.
He guessed it wasn't his choice to make. He guessed she'd have to learn to protect herself.
After Saeko left, he sat in the dark, wondering whether he brought up his daughter well, if he had been a good father or not. He realised, that he had never been a father at all. Aiko had just grown up on her own.
Aiko had met a woman once, in the airport, with long red hair and a pretty face. Something about the clothes she wore, the briefcase she carried, and a determined shrewdness in her eyes had told her that she was a journalist. She had looked oddly familiar to her.
The woman had been looking at her for a long time. At last, Aiko had asked, "Do you need something, ma'am?"
She had smiled, and as she did, the shrewdness about her had vanished.
"Your ring." she'd said, pointing at Aiko's hand. "I have the same one."
Indeed, it was the same. Aiko had held it up for up to see. "It was my mother's."
The woman had nodded, as if she knew. She had looked at her in a strange way. It had unnerved Aiko, but she had returned the look all the same.
"Strange, how coincidence works, isn't it?" she'd said at last. "I got this from my mother as well."
Suddenly, as if on impulse, she'd touched Aiko's face. Her lip had trembled, as if she wanted to say something, but couldn't form the words. Then she'd walked away, without looking back even once.
Aiko tried not to think about it much, but this woman kept haunting her. She couldn't quite shake off the feeling that the woman knew something about her that she didn't, or that she knew the woman from somewhere.
If you haven't guessed, the woman is Sayuri Tachiki, Kaori's sister.
Saeko was the first to go. A cancer of the ovary, the doctors said. She had been suffering for two years, and she hadn't said anything about it to anyone, not even Reika. Aiko wasn't surprised; it was something Saeko would do. All her life, she had suffered in silence.
They buried her next to Uncle.
Umibozu was next. It came as a shock to Aiko. Even though he had become completely blind and had to rely entirely on his sense of sound and touch, even though he had taken to the wheelchair towards the end, she always thought of him as invincible. She had always thought that nothing could get past Umibozu. He was waiting for death too, they all were, but maybe because he didn't show it much, she'd thought he would live forever.
Then, it was Ryo. They found him on his desk one morning, stone cold, whiskey bottles scattered all over the place. He was clutching Kaori's picture in his dead fist, and it gave the impression that he had been talking to it in his last moments. Maybe he was, there was no way they could know.
She had the picture buried with him. It wasn't hers, anyway.
She didn't cry at his funeral. Maybe her tears had dried up as well.
There was an irrational, insane part of her that couldn't help but feel relieved, happy for her father. He had died at his home, probably in his sleep, probably dreaming of Kaori, Aiko thought. He was where he had wanted to be, sleeping in the cold, grey earth, beside the one he loved. He hadn't been happy in his life, but, like all men of the underworld, he had found happiness in death.
She hoped he found his peace.
She hoped they all did.
She knew who the woman with the red hair was, now. Saeko had told her, the last time she had visited before she died. She must have known about the cancer by then, she must have known that she didn't have much time.
They had been walking in the park. "Kaori wasn't really Hideyuki's sister, you know. She was adopted." Saeko had tried to keep her tone casual, like she was telling her a piece of local news, but Aiko could tell she was nervous, that she had prepared herself to tell her about it, because Ryo wouldn't.
She knew why they had the same ring now.
"So she didn't know about it, till the day she died?" Aiko had asked.
"No. But I think she believed, somehow."
Aiko wondered how sad it must have been, to meet your sister, to be so close to her and not know that she was your sister at all.
"Dad should've told her, you know."
"He should have. But he kept putting it off."
Saeko thought for a moment. "I think...I think he thought himself unworthy. That he didn't deserve to tell her something that important, something that could change her life. He didn't want to change anything. And he has always been good at keeping secrets."
Aiko nodded. It made sense.
"I think he was afraid that it could change the relationship he shared with Kaori. He would never say it, but it had always been his greatest fear, that Kaori would leave him someday. But he knew that she'd be better off if she did, and that made it worse."
Well, she did leave him, in the end, Aiko thought, without any emotion. His greatest fear came true.
She came out of the main gate of the airport, and looked around. Her city was changing; there were so many places she didn't recognize any more. Norio was waiting in the corner, ever the same, always there.
Norio had joined the police force, now. He had made a dab at the agency for a few days, but it hadn't been very successful.
"Maybe you need a really good partner in that line." he'd said, "Like Dad had Mom and Ryo had Kaori."
"Haven't you found her yet?" Aiko had asked.
"No, but I am still looking." he'd replied with a smile.
It's been some time since she'd broken up with Joe. She still believed him to be a beautiful person inside, but he didn't understand her, not really. He didn't know how it was to grow up without a mother, to know her through the memories of other people. He hadn't known Ryo.
They walked towards the airport's parking lot, where Shieri was waiting in the car. Miki couldn't come, leaving the cafe untended. Miki was the only one left; Reika had died the year before.
The coincidence struck her, sometimes. A brother and a sister. A criminal's daughter.
"Do we drop you home, or to the cafe first?" Shieri asked.
"The cafe." Aiko said. Home was a dreary place.
Aiko laid out the flowers on the row of graves. Jasmines, always jasmines. But today, she'd brought carnations as well. White carnations. It was her mother's birthday.
"They stand for pure, innocent love." Ryo used to tell her, when she was young. She hadn't bothered to ask after she'd grown up.
"Really? They're so beautiful!" she would say. As a little girl, flowers had always fascinated her.
"That's what your mum used to say, too. They were her favourite."
She put the carnation down, and closed her eyes. Because I love you, mum, she whispered in her mind, I will always love you.
Her youngest daughter peered from behind her, trying to read the name on the headstone. She didn't bother telling her that it was her grandmother, or the grave next to it was her grandfather's. What was the point, she thought. They are just names to her.
One day, I'll be here too, just a name on a piece of stone. She couldn't stop the thought from running through her head, but strangely, it didn't scare her. It didn't scare her at all, she only felt a vague longing. Maybe this was how it felt, waiting for death. Maybe she was looking for a place to rest her soul. Maybe, like everyone else, she was looking for a place to die.
Her other daughter hovered a little distance away, near Umibozu and Miki's graves. She remembered Miki a little from her childhood, for her, it was the only name that had a face to go with it.
Norio would tell them about their grandparents sometimes, the funny things that Ryo did, and how Umibozu would be scared of a tiny cat. It made them laugh, but other than that she thought it useless. What was the point, telling them about someone they'd never get to know?
She knew how it was, to know someone through other people's memories. She didn't want to pass the legacy on.
But deep down somewhere, she knew that if Kaori had lived, she would have loved her, no matter what, no matter who she was. Not just because she was her mother, but because she couldn't live without loving everyone around her. Because she had too much love inside her, and it spread to everyone.
That's all the matters, in the end, she thought as she walked away, her daughters following at her heels. It's love that stays.