The doctor at Central Hospital had assured Iris that the prosthetic eyeball was completely indiscernible from a real one, but that hasn’t stopped her from holding it in her left hand and slowly rolling it over with her fingers.
Hitomi watches her carefully. They’re at home now; the doctors declared Iris perfectly healthy — or at least, as healthy as one could be with a malignant brain tumour — and discharged her this morning. But nevertheless, Iris is despondent and miserable. While in the hospital, Hitomi had presumed it was a result of the trauma from being kidnapped and nearly sawed in half — a thought that makes her nauseous — but she’s beginning to wonder if there’s more, somehow.
Trauma changes people. It changed Hitomi, eighteen years ago when she dug Manaka’s body out of the ground and cried until she could no longer breathe, but Iris seems fundamentally different now, and it chills her right to the bone. Her daughter doesn’t move, except to turn the eyeball some more. Growing up didn’t make Iris any less fidgety, so it’s disturbing to see her so still.
Finally, for the first time since they left the hospital, Iris speaks. Her voice is low and rigid, as though she ate sand. “I’m rescinding my contract with Lemniscate.”
Hitomi blinks, and takes several seconds to process this statement. What comes out of her mouth isn’t particularly sensitive, but she’s too startled to think it through. “You’re serious?”
Iris doesn’t look at her. Her gaze is kept entirely on the prosthetic eye between her fingers. “Even if I still could be an idol after everything that happened, I don’t want to be.”
There’s a protest in the back of her throat. This is what Iris had dreamed of since she was a little girl. Her entire life has been built around dancing, and more recently, singing. Iris wanted to become a fully fledged idol and finally reconnect with Falco somehow.
(She doesn’t know he’s serving a life sentence. Hitomi still can’t bring herself to tell her.)
She feels like she should question her daughter on this, but Iris looks so empty and sad that she feels sick at the thought of putting more weight on her shoulders. So, all Hitomi says is: “I understand. I’ll always be here for you.”
Iris continues to turn the prosthetic eye over and over. It’s kind of entrancing, and Hitomi finds herself drawn in by the repetitive motion. She says, “I needed to quit anyway. Since I’m going to die soon.”
“You are not going to die,” Hitomi replies instantly. She gets up from her seat and cuddles up next to Iris, wrapping her good arm over her shoulder. Iris stiffens up in her embrace, as though it’s unnatural for a mother to hug her daughter, as though they’d never shown each other physical affection in the past.
It’s the trauma from being kidnapped and having her eye gouged out. Hitomi repeats this in her head, but the silent mantra brings her no peace.
Iris says flatly, “The money from ABIS only covered the surgery for my eye. There’s nowhere near enough to get rid of the tumour. Even Mr. Okiura could barely help me.”
Hitomi clutches her close, even as Iris squirms slightly. “We still have time. There’s a little bit left over from what paid for your eye, and I still have my savings account, plus there’s the donations you get from streaming.”
Iris doesn’t reply. Despite how she’s leaning on Hitomi’s shoulder, she feels extremely far away. She’s still rotating the prosthetic eye with her fingers, silent and endless.
Deep inside Hitomi’s head, a voice that is not her own rings out: “You’re going to live, Iris. Forever and ever.”
She clings to the statement and prays that it’s right.
On paper, Iris’s parents are Hitomi Sagan and Renju Okiura.
Yogano, the mob doctor whom Renju had sworn up and down was completely trustworthy, had said that it would be easier to get Iris on a family registry with two parents, rather than one. Hitomi had agreed to this proposition, and it’s just another secret that must stay buried.
Iris has never asked about her father. When she was young, Hitomi often feared that it would come up, that she’d passively wonder about why she was the only kid at school without a dad. But Iris didn’t even seem bothered by the lack of a paternal figure. As far as she was concerned, Hitomi was all she needed. Even when other kids and parents commented on Hitomi’s lack of a husband, Iris would come to her defence every single time.
Before she met Falco, Renju and Hitomi had discussed telling Iris that he was her father. It’d be difficult to explain, certainly, but it would also explain why Renju spent so much time looking after her as an infant, and would appear at the drop of a hat to babysit. At the same time, though, it seemed like all it would do was disrupt his relationship with Shoko.
But when Falco came into their lives like a miracle, it didn’t matter anymore. Iris adored him, calling him Uncle and clinging to him at every opportunity. And maybe if things hadn’t gone so wrong, he could’ve been the second parent she deserved. If she had the chance, Hitomi’s sure she would have married him.
Instead, she took a bullet for him and the world took him from her. That’s yet another thing she mustn't tell Iris.
It feels like all Hitomi does is lie to her. At this point, Hitomi feels like the only truth she’s ever told Iris is that she loves her unconditionally. And for somebody else, that could be enough, but Hitomi has a horrible feeling that it’ll never make up for all the sins staining her soul.
At three in the morning, Hitomi blearily makes her way to the washroom. The house is quiet, with only the occasional creak, and she thinks nothing of it until she gets to the door.
Strangely, it’s ever so slightly ajar, and the light is on inside. Hitomi puts her hand on the doorknob, only to pause when she hears a noise from inside. From where she’s standing, she can just barely see into the washroom, and realizes that Iris is leaning against the counter and staring despondently into the mirror.
Hitomi instinctively takes a step back, and leans against the wall so that she doesn’t disrupt whatever her daughter is doing. Part of her wants to rush in and comfort Iris, but the rest of her knows that she won’t appreciate the sudden intrusion. She decides it’s in both their best interests for her to go back to bed and wait, when Iris begins to speak.
“My name is Iris Sagan. I am eighteen years old, and a first year at the University of Tokyo. I live in the Meguro District with my mother. I have a stage four malignant brain tumour that will kill me by the new year.”
She goes on to list several other facts about herself in a low and droning tone. Hitomi’s fist clenches, and she forces herself to walk away. Has the trauma from the warehouse incident affected her memory, or is that a result of the tumour? Or worse, is this something more sinister?
Hitomi desperately dispels the thought, and presses her eyes shut in an attempt to stop herself from crying. Hot tears slick down her face nonetheless.
When Mizuki comes over to visit Iris, Hitomi isn’t expecting her companion. Kaname Date stands in the doorway with an awkward smile on his face, one that doesn’t quite suit him. That said, something about his expression feels familiar in the strangest way. It feels warm.
“Good afternoon, Mizuki. And Mr. Date too,” Hitomi says gently, “Iris is in her room, but I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.”
Actually, ever since her surgery, Iris has been miserable, and nothing seems to cheer her up whatsoever. Hitomi’s tried everything — favourite foods, playing Shovelforge, watching movies, Egyptian mythology — but Iris just looks sad and dejected, and eventually asks to be left alone.
If their financial situation wasn’t already so dire, she’d be hunting down a good therapist. But they’re hideously expensive, and she knows there’s no way it’d make a significant impact on her in the few months she has left.
She doesn’t want to accept that her daughter is going to die, but it feels inevitable all the same.
Hitomi blinks. Mizuki is gone, and Date is still standing stock still. She forces a smile on her face and says, “Please, sit down. I’ll make some tea.”
She hears him shuffle around in the background as she puts the kettle on the stove. It’s a quiet affair; the eventual whine of the kettle is the only noise in the air. She can’t even hear Iris and Mizuki talking — though, that assumes the two are talking in the first place. Iris hasn’t been much for conversation lately.
When the tea is steeped, she carefully brings over two steaming cups on a tray. Date takes one and holds it in both his hands, carefully savouring the scent. His fingers tighten around the cup, and for a split second, it reminds her of Falco. She shakes her head and focuses on her own tea.
Date breaks the silence between them first. “Sorry for showing up out of the blue like this. I know you were only expecting Mizuki.”
Hitomi replies gently, “It’s not a problem. I was surprised to see you here, but I’m glad for a bit of company. Are you Mizuki’s driver now, or...?”
Date laughs. “I wouldn’t put it past her to call me that. Actually, I’m in the process of adopting her. I took her in four years ago, so I might as well make things official.”
“Oh!” Hitomi exclaims. She puts her tea down on the tray, suddenly nervous about spilling it in her lap. “That was you? Renju had described her new caretaker as a relative… I’d imagined a cousin.”
Date mutters, “At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was my cousin.”
“Nothing,” Date says quickly, and is suddenly very interested in his cup of tea. Hitomi decides she’s better off not asking for clarification.
Knowing that Mizuki will continue to be properly cared for is a relief, at least. If worse came to worst, Hitomi would’ve adopted Mizuki herself. Financial constraints be damned; she wasn’t going to let the poor girl get tossed around in a broken system for the rest of her life. And since Iris and Mizuki acted as sisters already, it’d make them both happy.
Not that anything has made Iris happy lately. Hitomi bites the inside of her lip.
Date speaks suddenly, forcing her back into the moment. “Aside from being Mizuki’s driver, I have a reason for being here. There was something I wanted to ask you.”
Hitomi swallows. Normally, when a man says something like that — especially a man like Date — it’s an invitation to dinner. But there’s something awfully serious in his face, so she nods. “Of course. I’ll do my best to answer.”
Date closes his right eye and folds his hands cautiously. “The other day, Mizuki told me something that’s very interesting, especially in light of recent events. Why were you talking to So Sejima on Tuesday afternoon?”
Oh. Oh no.
What does she say? How does she slip out of this? She hadn’t noticed Mizuki during this confrontation, so it’s unlikely she heard any details— Oh, but she’s proven to have supernatural strength and reflexes already. Super hearing would just be the cherry on top, wouldn’t it?
Sensing her anxiety, Date says, “You’re not in any trouble. The bastard’s dead, and I can’t think of anyone who’d try to press charges. It’s a personal inquiry, more than anything.”
“Personal?” Hitomi asks. Her head is spinning. She was so careful, and for what? It’s all crashing down around her. All she’s ever wanted is to protect Iris, protect the one good thing she’s ever had.
Date replies, “Listen, Ms. Sagan. I understand that you’re scared, but the danger has passed. I’m asking as someone who’s daughter was also almost a victim of the New Cyclops Killings. Why were you talking to So?”
Hitomi looks down at her lap and closes her eyes. It takes all her strength to open her mouth. “It’s… a long story. You see, Iris has… a malignant brain tumour. She’s not likely to live into the new year, at this rate.”
Date says nothing, but gestures for her to continue. Hitomi gathers herself first. It feels like dirt is filling up in her throat, trying to stop her from speaking.
“There’s an operation that can cure her, but it’s astronomically expensive. We could never even dream of affording it, as an elementary school teacher and an internet idol. Because we’re running out of time… I did something desperate. I blackmailed So.”
“You what?!” Date exclaims. He quickly shuts his mouth, but the surprise remains on his face.
Hitomi tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “He was involved in… a scandal when I was young. I believe I’m the only living person who knows about it now. I just wanted the money to save Iris, so I held that incident over his head, but… but…”
But So is dead, with no agreement made between them. All his money went to his only known family member. Saito, wherever the hell in the world he is, has finally won after all these years. Soon, Hitomi will be alone, just like she was twenty years ago.
Date says gently, “Thank you for being honest with me. That was all I wanted to know.”
Hitomi smiles. Her mouth tastes of soil, ashes, and a losing war.
Before the silence between them can grow once again, Mizuki barrels out of the hallway leading to Iris’s room and leaps at Date with the agility of a cheetah. He ruffles her hair affectionately — like Falco used to do to Iris — and Mizuki’s smile as he does could make flowers grow.
“Aren’t you supposed to be with Iris?” Date asks, quirking a brow. “You’ve been telling me non-stop for the past two weeks that you wanted to visit her.”
Mizuki says, “She said she’s tired and wants to nap, so I’m letting her do that. But I told her the good news, so hopefully she’ll feel better.”
“Good news?” Hitomi asks.
Mizuki shoves Date lightly. “You didn’t tell her?! Ugh, you’re so useless. This is why nobody wants to go out with you. Being a single dad doesn’t negate your absentmindedness.”
Date folds his arms. “I was getting to the good news, but you interrupted before I could tell her!” To Hitomi, he says, “Teenagers, am I right?”
“Stupid old man,” Mizuki replies. Despite the biting barbs of her words, Hitomi doesn’t think she’s ever seen Mizuki look so happy and comfortable. It’s strange, but wonderful at the same time. Mizuki’s in a good home with a good guardian.
Underneath their teasing is a glaring ‘I would do anything for you’, the same way Hitomi feels about Iris. Families don’t need blood to thrive; merely unconditional love.
Date clears his throat. “Anyways. As I was saying—”
“We got the money for Iris’s brain surgery!” Mizuki exclaims, clapping her hands together.
“Hey, I thought you wanted me to say it!” Date says, glaring at her. Mizuki only giggles in reply.
Hitomi stares at them blankly. Iris must have told Mizuki about the tumour while she was in the hospital, because that’s the only reason for her to know about it. She shakes her head, blinking a few times. “I’m sorry, what?”
Date says, “She needs expensive nanotechnology surgery, right? I know it’s one of those things that’s hard to accept, but I’m offering to pay for it. So Iris can live.”
It feels too good to be true. Like a golden goose that’ll disappear when she turns her head. Quietly, she says, “That’s incredibly kind of you, but I don’t think you understand how much money this will cost. The MPD couldn’t possibly pay you enough to afford it, even with my savings added.”
“No, really, I do, and I have the money,” Date insists, the look on his face completely serious, “It’s… a weird story, but I just inherited all my… my father’s assets. I know it’ll be enough.”
Hitomi blinks. “Oh my goodness, you have my condolences. I had no idea you lost your—”
Date laughs. “Please don’t apologize. I’m glad the bastard’s dead, and I honestly didn’t know he was my father until I found out he left me everything in his will.”
Mizuki mutters, “He said something about being your father when you were barely conscious. It felt like a fever dream.”
Date makes a face. “Did he? Gross. Glad I don’t remember that part.”
Seeing Hitomi’s blank expression, Mizuki says, “Apparently, Date is So Sejima’s son. Which made the whole tying me up and trying to kill us thing so much weirder.”
She knows what those words mean, but they don’t sink in immediately. Her brain flatlines, trying to process what she just heard. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel real.
Date is So’s son, and everything suddenly smells like iron and rust.
Unaware of the storm churning in Hitomi’s mind, Date says, “I don’t have any memories from any time before six years ago, and it’s not like I want him as part of my family. Like I said, I’m glad he’s dead.”
Date is So’s son. Date is Saito.
Now that she looks at him — really looks at him — the resemblance is there. In his jaw, in the texture of his hair, she can see So. And while Iris — bless her heart — took mostly after Manaka, she can see traces of her in Date’s (Saito’s) face too.
She has to do something. Saito must be telling the truth about not remembering his past, since he hasn’t tried to harm any of them, but that doesn’t stop him from being the person who murdered Manaka in cold blood, just to know what it felt like to take a human life. Her stomach hurts and she clenches her left hand until it goes white. He’s still Saito. He’s still dangerous. And god, she’d seen Falco in his mannerisms. What an idiot she turned out to be.
Saito and Mizuki are still talking like nothing is wrong, and oh god Mizuki. Saito is trying to adopt her. She’s in danger too, and she has no idea. Hitomi’s breath hitches, and she desperately tries to assess the situation. She doesn’t have a lot in her living room, only one working arm and a fury that’s been stewing for eighteen years.
He’s strong, but if she has the element of surprise, maybe she can get to him. Kicking the table at him might do something, might incapacitate him for a second, but no, he’s a cop and he has a gun and oh god Saito Sejima won’t get put away because he’s a cop because the system was built to protect bastards like him and—
All she has is her cup of steaming tea. Hitomi slowly picks it up, holding it in her hand, and watches him. Then, when Mizuki is far enough away, and he’s not looking at her…
(This is for Manaka. This is justice.)
Hitomi leaps at Saito with all her strength and screams at him until her throat goes raw as she smashes her cup on his face, over and over again.
Saito doesn’t struggle, so when Hitomi feels someone trying to pull her off him, she panics and keeps swinging at him, in a desperate hope that it’ll somehow make up for everything he’s done.
“Teacher! What are you doing?!” Mizuki shrieks. She realizes belatedly that she’s being dragged to the floor by a pre-teen, and bites back a curse. Mizuki holds her in place and shouts, “Aiba, call an ambulance!”
Hitomi has no idea what that means, but Saito seems to as he says, “I’m fine! I don’t need to go to the hospital.”
Mizuki exclaims, “But you’re bleeding!”
Saito presses a gloved hand to his face. Blood streams from a cut across his nose and cheeks. A few fragments of her cup are stuck to his skin, which he makes no move to peel off. Hitomi’s body trembles as she watches him, slowly feeling the adrenaline leave her body.
The world around her feels drenched in fog. Mizuki lets go of her and rushes up to Date — Saito — and helps apply pressure to his wound. Both of them are talking, but Hitomi can’t make out a word of it.
Manaka’s killer is in her living room. She welcomed him into her home and actually thanked him. Her stomach lurches and hot bile rises up her throat. The universe has clearly sent her a sign, a sign that she will never feel joy again. Because it needed a last laugh.
Iris is dying. Manaka and Renju are already dead. Saito is alive and unpunished.
She presses her bloody, shrapnel filled fist to her chest, and sobs.
She fully expects Saito to rescind his offer to pay for Iris’s surgery, and press charges against Hitomi for assault. Neither of these things happen, but Hitomi suspects that Mizuki is the only reason they didn’t.
She sits at Iris’s bedside, holding her hand gently. Though going back to the hospital sunk her mood, they both held onto the light at the end of the tunnel.
She was getting the operation. She was going to live.
Iris isn’t talkative, which isn’t surprising. Ever since Hitomi arrived to visit with her, all she’s done is stare off into the distance, silently rolling her prosthetic eyeball in her hand. Apparently, it doesn’t feel comfortable, so she’s refusing to wear it, and has instead opted for a cloth eyepatch. When Iris was a little girl and couldn’t stim by dancing, she would twirl pens around with her fingers. She’s returned to this habit, but seeing the eye makes Hitomi feel uneasy.
They don’t have long together, and Hitomi really wants to make the most of her time with her daughter before the nurses put her under, but she doesn’t know what to say. The few conversations she’s tried to start have gone nowhere.
Ever since the warehouse incident, it’s felt like someone built a wall between them. Like no matter how hard she calls out for her daughter, Iris will never hear her. The distance almost feels like a funeral. Hitomi grits her teeth at the morbid thought, because Iris is not going to die.
There’s a knock on the door. Hitomi turns around, expecting to see a nurse, and her mouth dries out when she makes eye contact with Saito. For a moment, they stare at each other in a guilty silence, one where Hitomi tries not to notice the fresh scar tissue across his face.
“I, uh, came to see Iris,” he says, looking reasonably uncomfortable. His eyes (or just one?) flicker back and forth. “Is that okay?”
Iris turns her head slightly. With her voice barely above a whisper, she asks, “Mr. Date? Is that you?”
Hitomi forces herself to smile. “That’s right, sweetheart. I’ll step out and let the two of you talk.”
“Thanks, mom,” Iris says. The vaguest hint of a smile flickers onto her face, before it vanishes, replaced with bitter apathy.
Saito stands in the corner of the room, giving Hitomi lots of room to get up and exit without having to get close to him. As she slips out of the hospital room, she sees Saito take a seat next to Iris. Her fingers curl tightly into a ball, but she forces herself to close the door and take a deep breath.
They’re in public. He won’t hurt her. He can’t hurt her.
Hitomi forces herself to walk into the waiting room. Mizuki is sitting in one of the chairs, swinging her legs back and forth while she stares at the floor. Hitomi takes a seat beside her, and she looks up.
“Hi, Teacher,” she says, continuing to swing her legs, “I won’t be at school on Monday. That’s… that’s when my mom’s funeral is.”
Hitomi says gently, “Thank you for telling me. You’re ahead of the rest of your classmates, so you don’t need to worry about missing much.”
Mizuki nods, but she doesn’t reply. Her body sways from side to side absently, and if Hitomi listens carefully, she can hear her humming the chorus of Invincible Rainbow Arrow. Her chest aches just a little bit.
They wait quietly for some time. Hitomi controls her breathing and gathers her thoughts before speaking. “I’d like to ask you something. How is it, living with Mr. Date? Is he a good guardian?”
Mizuki says, “Well, he’s a stupid old man who smells weird and eats my pudding, and the way he uses chopsticks is disgusting. ...He’s the best, and I love him.”
“That’s—“ Hitomi fumbles for a response— “a very candid description.”
Mizuki laughs. “Yeah. He’s… he feels like home. Like I look at him and I know things will be okay.”
Hitomi tries to smile, but finds herself unable to. Her hand is shaking miserably. “I’m… glad. You deserve a happy and healthy environment to grow up in.”
Mizuki asks, “Does this have anything to do with why you attacked Date out of nowhere?”
Ugh. Hitomi rubs her face. “I’m very sorry about that. It’s… extremely complicated.”
“That’s such a boring adult answer,” Mizuki grumbles, “Why can’t you just explain it to me?”
Because this poor girl is already traumatized enough. Because she doesn’t know what Mizuki would do if she found out. Because she can hardly comprehend it herself. She says nothing, and the conversation dies right there.
It’s good that Mizuki isn’t in danger, but Hitomi can’t stop thinking about how the girl has been raised by a murderer for the last four years. Sure, it’s a step up from the abusive and neglectful family she came from, but it makes her feel nauseous. What will living with him teach her? What has it already taught her?
Until Saito leaves Iris’s room and returns to the two of them, neither of them say anything. The instant she sees him, Mizuki leaps out of her seat and into his arms, a smile on her face.
“Can I go see Iris now?” she asks, looking between the two of them. “Or will there be some kind of issue with you guys?”
Saito ruffles her hair gently. “We’re adults. We’ll be on our best behaviour.”
When Mizuki locks eyes with her, Hitomi says, “Go see her, before the operation starts. We’ll be fine.”
She can’t quite tell if the girl believes her or not — the pain of being scrutinized by a twelve year old — but she sprints off in the direction of the patient rooms. Saito mutters under his breath, but slowly approaches the chairs and sits down next to Hitomi.
They stare at the floor. She wants to vomit.
Then, Saito says, “I forgive you. For smashing a mug on my face. But I’d really appreciate an explanation for it.”
Hitomi murmurs, “Even if I told you, there’s no way you would believe me.”
“Considering how the last few weeks have been, I can at least hear you out,” he replies. His tone of voice and the way he’s holding himself reminds her of Falco, and she silently curses. Falco is behind bars. She’s sitting next to the person she swore vengeance on eighteen years ago, not her long lost lover.
She takes a few moments to gather her thoughts. If something goes wrong, there’s people watching the waiting room. Even if everything goes downhill from here, it won’t be in vain. Saito is waiting expectantly for an answer, so Hitomi steels herself. If he’s been truthful thus far, he doesn’t remember anything she’s about to say.
“This will sound like it’s unrelated, but… I told you about Manaka Iwai, right?”
Saito nods. “You did, shortly after the incident in the Okiura Fishery Cold Storage Warehouse. She was a friend of yours who passed away when you were young.”
Her fingernails dig into her knee. “Yes, but she didn’t ‘pass away.’ She was murdered. By So Sejima’s son.”
Saito grabs his head and shudders, looking as though pain is coursing through him. For a few moments, he does nothing except breathe heavily and clutch at his skull. At last, though, he murmurs, “I would’ve been twelve years old back then. Are… Are you saying…?”
“He only had one son,” Hitomi replies bitterly. She’s decided its better not to say anything about Iris; best that secret dies with her. She’s the only one left who knows the truth. “That’s why I broke a mug on your face. For taking her away from us.”
Saito says nothing for a very long time. Hitomi doesn’t have it in her to be surprised, especially since she’s more exhausted than anything. Part of her wishes that this awful truth could be nothing more than a bad dream. Bile rises up in her throat, and it takes all her remaining strength to swallow it.
“Ms. Sagan,” he croaks. When his breath hitches, he stops and clenches his fists tight. She watches him out of the corner of her eye, unwilling to face him head on. “I… I know there is nothing I can do or say that will make up for your loss. And you have my most sincere condolences.”
Hitomi bites her lip. “But?”
“I know it sounds like an excuse,” he begins quietly, fiddling with the ends of his hair, “but six years ago, I lost my memories of everything before that day. I genuinely only know myself as Kaname Date. So Sejima might be my father by blood, but I don’t want anything to do with him, or who I used to be.”
Hitomi looks down at her lap, as tears brim in her eyes. “Even if that’s true, I can’t look at you without knowing that you killed Manaka. I swore I would never forgive any of the people involved with her death. That I wouldn’t rest until they were dead in the ground.”
He whispers, “I understand. But Saito Sejima is dead. And I’ll spend the rest of my life burying him in whatever way I can. If that means never seeing you or Iris again… I can accept that.”
Hitomi purses her lips. Her voice creaks as she says, “I want to believe you. I want to believe that you’re a good person, that you’re the hero who got justice for the New Cyclops victims. That… you’re a good guardian to Mizuki and selflessly offered to pay for Iris’s surgery.”
“‘Hero’ is a bit much, but I try,” he says, “And I’d do anything for Mizuki. She’s a good kid, despite her attitude.”
And Saito — Date — makes Mizuki happy. She’s never seen the girl in such good spirits, and her bright, honest smile makes Hitomi feel so guilty for suspecting her guardian.
For a few more minutes, the two of them are silent. They both have a lot to contemplate. It isn’t until Mizuki returns from Iris’s room and curls up on one of the waiting room chairs that Hitomi finds her voice.
“I can’t forgive you,” she murmurs under her breath, in hopes that Mizuki doesn’t hear, “But I’m willing to give you another chance. Don’t make me regret it.”
Kaname Date turns his head to her and smiles. “Thank you. I wouldn’t ask for anything else.”
“Are these the right books?”
Iris slowly drags her fingers over the lengthy titles, examining each volume — all in depth analyses of foreign policies — with full attention. After a few moments, she looks up and, for the first time since the warehouse incident, looks at ease. “They are. Thanks, mom.”
Hitomi lets out a sigh of relief and sinks into the chair next to Iris’s hospital bed. Her surgery was completely successful, but the doctors wanted to keep watch on her in case of any complications. She’s fine with it; best to be cautious.
Iris slowly opens the first book in her stack and begins to read, quiet and methodically. Hitomi supposes that’s due to her vision being warped; a lack of focus and depth perception must make focusing on the small text difficult. That, she understands. What Hitomi doesn’t understand is Iris’s sudden obsession with politics.
When she first brought Iris something to read, Hitomi took her daughter’s favourites from her collection at home. However, Iris had completely lost interest in them, and instead asked Hitomi to procure some other books from the public library. Of course, she isn’t upset, and Hitomi is happy to help aid her in a new hyperfixation — god knows how many Egyptology books Iris wanted when Falco began teaching her about myths — but something about this feels different. This isn’t the same hunger for knowledge that Hitomi remembers, it’s something cold and haunted.
Like Iris already knows everything she’s reading.
Hitomi presses her lips together and looks down at her lesson plan. Thanks to her extenuating circumstances, the school has been providing a substitute teacher on the days Hitomi has been at the hospital, but she still needs to have work prepared for her students. At least it’s easy, with elementary students. She can’t imagine trying to detail out any material more complicated than the times tables right now.
Though they both work in relative silence, Hitomi can’t help but watch Iris most of the time. Even though she’s just sitting in a hospital bed and reading, her daughter seems far more dignified than ever before. It’s not a bad thing, but it feels strange. Since the warehouse incident, everything about Iris has felt strange.
Eventually, Iris catches her staring, and effortlessly raises an eyebrow. “What?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Hitomi says. She watches Iris a moment longer, before admitting, “I’m… worried.”
“Why?” Iris asks, seeming genuinely confused by the concern radiating from her. “I’m fine. The tumour is gone, and once I’m ready to be discharged, we can both move on with our lives, instead of constantly thinking about how we’ll pay off our debts.”
Hitomi tries not to wince at her flat tone. She forces a smile and says, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m your mother. I’ll always worry about you. Having a child is like having a piece of your heart running around in the world by itself, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it from getting hurt.”
Iris regards her carefully. She fiddles with the pages of her open book, pinching and bending them as she processes this. “Is that… really how you feel?”
Hitomi nods. “I’m sure it sounds ridiculous to you now. But if you ever have a child of your own some day, you’ll understand what I’m saying.”
“I won’t,” Iris immediately snaps. When Hitomi draws back, she closes her eye and takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I… didn’t mean to get angry. But I don’t want children.”
“You’re forgiven. I hope you don’t think that I was trying to pressure you,” Hitomi replies, carefully watching her daughter. “Besides, you’re much too young to be thinking about actually becoming a parent.”
Iris says coldly, “You were only a year older than I am now when I was born. Are you saying you regret me?”
Hitomi’s breath catches in her throat. She gets up from her chair and sinks down next to Iris, hugging her as best she can with only one arm. “Sweetheart, I have not even once regretted you. If I could go back in time, the only thing I’d do differently is ensure there were more people around to love you.”
Iris says nothing. At this point, Hitomi can’t be surprised by how withdrawn she is. She lays stiffly in the bed, rolling the glass eye in her hand. It’s in moments like these where Hitomi ever so briefly doubts that the young woman answering to Iris Sagan is actually her daughter. Ever since Iris first awoke in Central Hospital after the incident, when she regained consciousness and screamed at the top of her lungs until she ran out of air, Hitomi has felt that something about Iris is wrong. She always feels sickeningly guilty immediately after the thought crosses her mind; what kind of a mother is she?
(The nurse she confided in told her about Capgras syndrome, but Hitomi’s experiences don’t match the symptoms. Even so, every time her doubts resurface, she’s begun reminding herself that Iris is alive, So is dead, and Saito is buried. It doesn’t make the gnawing pain in her stomach disappear, but it hurts less now.)
Hitomi gently brushes a loose strand of hair out of Iris’s face. Her hand hangs in the air for a moment, and she says quietly, “You’re not wearing your headband anymore.”
Iris stares down at the glass eye, the faintest traces of a sneer on her lips. “Obviously. I wore it to stop my tumour from spreading. I don’t need it anymore, and besides… it’s childish.”
“You’re so different now,” Hitomi murmurs, mostly to herself. She regrets the words as soon as she says them, but there’s no taking them back.
Coldly, Iris says, “A serial killer kidnapped me, gouged out my eye with his bare hands, and almost cut me in half. I should hope I’m different now.”
She and Hitomi flinch at almost the same moment, for decidedly different reasons. Iris hasn’t talked about her kidnapping even once until now. When Hitomi was finally allowed to see her, she said that she would bring up the incident when she felt comfortable. Hitomi had respected that wish this entire time, and now nausea pools in her stomach.
“I’m sorry. I only meant that I’m not used to seeing you without your headband,” Hitomi says softly. It feels like she’s treading dangerous waters, but it’s her responsibility to be kind and forgiving. To be a good mother.
Iris whispers, “I know. But it really is too childish to keep around. Especially now that I’m done with Lemniscate.”
Hitomi asks, “What are you going to do now? I don’t remember the last time you told me about your other goals for the future.”
Iris turns to her, and for the very first time since her kidnapping, smiles. Normally, her smiles light up the room, but this one is unusually sharp. It’s as though she has too many teeth, and something about it makes Hitomi feel very, very cold.
“I’m going to be the youngest Prime Minister in the history of Japan.”
Reflexively, Hitomi says, “That’s incredible. I’ll be there for you every step of the way.”
Iris meets her gaze with a peculiar, calculating expression that’s so unlike her that it makes Hitomi’s eyes sting. “Good.”
When Iris is discharged from Central Hospital for good, the first thing she does upon returning home is lock herself in her room.
Hitomi wishes she could say this was a surprise, but she’s resigned herself to Iris’s strange behaviour. Yet again, she reminds herself that Manaka’s death made her a very different person, and it would be extremely unreasonable for Iris to act exactly the same after such a horrific event.
Bitter bile rises in her throat. Manaka. She was a political science student who dreamed of being a member of the National Diet. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that all these years later, Iris is following in her biological mother’s footsteps.
(Her biological father’s, too, but Hitomi still feels sick thinking about how So used his and Manaka’s common interests to groom her. Her only solace is that he’s finally dead.)
Hitomi shakes her head to rid herself of her thoughts, and heads into the kitchen to start preparing dinner. Part of her wants to make okonomiyaki; it’s still Iris’s favourite, despite — or perhaps, because of — the memories it evokes. Unfortunately, since she lost the use of her right arm, cooking has become significantly more difficult. Iris usually helps her in the kitchen, but Hitomi can’t count on her today.
She settles for rice and stove fried vegetables. It’s nothing exciting, but it’s easy, and at this point, Hitomi needs something to be easy.
(Loving Iris was always easy. Of course, Hitomi loves her unconditionally, but she feels so far away from her now.)
Iris comes out of her room shortly before Hitomi puts plates on the table. Her movements are slow and guarded, almost like that of an old man. She still must not be used to the lack of depth perception, which is fair. Hitomi still tries to use her right arm sometimes, six years later.
“Dinner’s almost ready, sweetheart,” she says, opening the cupboard where their dishes are kept. “Can you wait just a few more minutes?”
Iris says nothing, but she places something on the table and slumps down into her usual seat. Hitomi watches her out of the corner of her eye as she sets the table, unsure of what to say. Iris is staring down at a photograph, unmoving. It’s chilling.
When Hitomi finally finishes dinner and sits down to eat, however, Iris pushes the photo over to her. Hitomi frowns, but pulls it closer to see what it is. She recognizes it quickly; it’s an old high school photo of her, Renju…
“Where did you get this?” Hitomi murmurs, half to herself. She hid all her old pictures of Manaka to prevent this from happening. To protect — or lie to — Iris.
Iris says flatly, “It was on your desk. Who is she?”
‘And why does she look exactly like me?’ is unspoken, but heard clear as day. Hitomi wipes her eyes, but moves her chair closer to Iris so they can look at the photo together. This was not how she pictured this conversation going; in fact, a very selfish fragment of her hoped they’d never have it.
“This is Manaka Iwai. She was my best friend growing up… and your biological mother,” Hitomi says slowly. Her fingers tremble as she speaks; old memories of the mountains and cold dirt under her nails resurfacing. “She… she died very shortly after you were born. And so I raised you myself.”
Iris purses her lips. “So you’re not my mom.”
Hitomi winces; her words cut deep into her chest. “Not by blood, no. But I have been with you every single day since you were born. Love is what makes a family, and I love you very much.”
Iris looks down at her lap. She’s playing with her glass eye again, rolling it over and over in her hands. “I wish you had told me. Why did you keep it a secret for so long? It feels like you didn’t want me to know.”
“I wanted to tell you about Manaka, I really did,” Hitomi replies. Treacherous tears brim in her eyes, and she blinks them away as best she can. “But it wasn’t safe. More than anything, I was trying to protect you.”
“Protect me? From what?” Iris asks, her eyebrows knit together in confusion. “You’re already a single parent. Me being adopted doesn’t change anything.”
Hitomi takes a deep breath. She reaches out and tucks a loose strand of hair behind Iris’s ear. “Your biological father… was not a good person. He didn’t know you’d been born, but if he had, I’m certain he would’ve hurt you.”
Iris effortlessly arches an eyebrow. “‘Was’?”
Despite everything, Hitomi finds it in herself to smile as she reminds herself that the two of them are free from the overwhelming shadows of eighteen years ago. “He died recently. We don’t have to worry about him targeting you anymore.”
Iris looks back at the photo. It’s one of the oldest photos of the three of them; if Hitomi remembers right, her parents were still alive back then. She wistfully stares at Manaka’s smile, her eyes watering. Even all these years later, she still has candles lit in her chest for her best friend.
But Manaka and Renju are gone. In another year, Iris will be older than her mother was at death. And she still doesn’t feel satisfied, somehow.
So is dead and Saito is buried.
“Why? Why take me in? Did you feel guilty, or something?” Iris asks. Her voice trembles, and tears well in her eye. “All I’ve ever done is brought you pain and suffering! You should’ve gotten rid of me when you had the chance!”
Hitomi reaches out and pulls Iris close with her good arm. Her daughter tenses, and doesn’t ease into the embrace. She feels unnaturally cold — almost like a ghost — and Hitomi clings to her tighter. “Iris, you have brought me joy every single day of your life. I am eternally grateful for you, and you are more important to me than my own life.”
Iris hunches in on herself.
“I know this is all a lot to take in. I understand if you’re upset or angry with me, but I’ve only ever wanted what’s best for you. No matter what happens, you’ll always be my daughter, and I love you endlessly.”
Finally, Iris whispers, “I know.”
When Iris moves out at the end of December, she says it’s to make her commute to university that much easier. She’ll be rooming with Amame Doi and Sachi Nishimura — two of her former coworkers from Sunfish Pocket — so she won’t be fending for herself.
Despite these assurances, Hitomi feels sick every time she looks at Iris’s possessions. The nausea starts in the pit of her stomach as Iris begins packing everything into boxes, and only increases as the boxes slowly disappear. On the day Iris leaves, Hitomi stands in the doorway and watches as Amame’s car takes her daughter into the unknown.
(“It’s not like I’m abandoning you. It’s like a forty minute train ride. Besides, I’m sure you could get Mr. Date to drive you over. He’s already making plans to take Mizuki there.”)
Even so, her heart stings. Her house has never been so lonely before. When her parents died, Manaka and Renju helped her fill the empty space. And after Iris was born, the house was always full of her energy and life. Hitomi roams through the rooms quietly, staring at stray dust particles. Is this what it’s going to be like, now? Silent and still?
Her eyes drift to the drawing of the Okonomiyaki War. A weak smile cracks on her lips as she remembers how joyous the three of them were in those days. It wasn’t too long after Iris drew that picture that Falco disappeared from their lives. Hitomi presses her hand to her chest. She was really going to marry the strange man she found bleeding out at the shrine.
(She’d always tried to make their meeting sound cute and romantic to Iris, but in retrospect, it was something out of a horror movie.)
A sudden conviction swells within her. She has to go see him. Though he’d spent the last six years insisting that he wasn’t the man she fell in love with, she can’t see anyone but the person who jumped at the chance to be a father, and huddled under a blanket during a zombie movie. It’s been too long since their last visit.
Hitomi struggles into her coat, and calls out, “Iris! I’m going to run an—” She stops, and her mouth tastes bitter. Iris is gone, and her first reaction was to lie to her.
There is no absolving Hitomi Sagan of her crimes. She’s fated to be a liar through and through.
Fuchu Prison smells of rotting meat and empty souls. Hitomi suppresses a shudder, and sinks into one of the plastic chairs for visitors. Falco sits on the other side of the bulletproof glass, looking deeply tired. At the same time, they reach for the phones that will allow them to speak.
“Your eyes…” Falco murmurs gruffly, “They’re so bright.”
Hitomi says, “You always manage to be a charmer. How are you feeling? It seems like you’ve recovered.”
When she last visited, Falco had the flu, and was not permitted to leave the doctor’s office. They were still able to speak over the phone, but he sounded like he was on his last legs. Thankfully, he looks a little more like himself today.
“I’ve survived worse,” is all he says. Ever since his arrest, Falco has been far more closed off than he was during the few months they dated. While he was rarely emotionally vulnerable back then, it feels like the prison walls aren’t the only barrier between them here.
(Just like the distance between you and Iris, a tiny voice in the back of her head whispers. Hitomi forces herself to ignore it.)
Usually, Hitomi talks about Iris, and her life during these visits, and Falco nods along without contributing to the conversation majorly. It’s their routine, a routine forged out of some desperate need for normality in their far from ideal situations. She doesn’t press him too hard, because prison is horrific, and he doesn’t need to further delve into whatever trauma he’s experiencing. She is his levity. He is her anchor.
But today, Falco surprises her. He leans in, head nearly touching the glass, and says, “I heard they caught the New Cyclops Killer.”
Hitomi blinks, surprised by the topic, but nods. “That’s right. It was nearly two months ago, but the MPD tracked him down. He… He can’t hurt anyone anymore.”
Falco nods, slowly. “He targeted her. Iris. Or so the guards outside my cell said.”
Hitomi looks down at her lap, pressing her lips together. “Yes. But she survived, and she’s doing so much better now. We were even able to get enough money for surgery to remove her tumour.”
Something in Falco’s eyes flickers. She hopes it’s relief, but he’s gotten so much harder to read lately. He says, “All’s well that ends well, then.”
Hitomi sighs softly. She shifts in her seat a few times, trying to figure out how to word this. “I don’t know. I… I feel like she became an entirely different person after the incident. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if that’s actually Iris at all.”
“Awful, I know. I’m such a terrible mother for not being able to understand her anymore,” Hitomi continues, tears running down her face. “I don’t know what to do. I’ve lost all the people I care about.”
Falco is quiet for a few moments, while Hitomi tries and fails to compose herself. Eventually, he says, “You haven’t lost her. Your daughter is out there, and needs her mother to support her. Get a grip.”
Hitomi squeezes the phone tightly in her fist. “I’m… I’m trying, I swear I am. It seems like nothing I do is ever enough.”
“Because you keep tying yourself down,” Falco replies sternly, “Look at me. I’ll be in this shithole for the rest of my miserable life. And yet you come here every few months, acting like I just moved to a different city.”
Hitomi whispers, “I thought you liked it when I came to see you.”
Falco closes his eyes. “Doesn’t help either of us. At the end of the day, I’m still stuck here. You need to move on.”
A sharp pain enters her chest cavity. Hitomi’s vision blurs. “Falco, you can’t really be suggesting—“
“I’m not Falco,” he says, cutting her off, “I’m a murderer. Listen to me. Either you get the hell out of this place and fix your relationship with your daughter, or you spend the rest of your life digging two graves. If I were you, I know what I’d pick.”
Hitomi clutches the phone so tightly that her hand turns completely white, and feels fuzzy. “But I love you!”
Falco watches her, expressing no emotions on his face whatsoever. Finally, he mutters, “If you really love me, you won’t come back.”
He hangs up the phone, and the guards come to return him to his cell. Hitomi stays rooted to the ground, still holding the now silent phone, as she sobs.
“...And I assure you, my fellow citizens, that I will follow through on every promise made when you elect me as your next Prime Minister.”
The crowd cheers. Hitomi joins in as best she can, despite the melancholy in her heart when she looks at Iris. Shortly before announcing her campaign, Iris dyed her hair black and completely redid her wardrobe to match her eyepatch. She almost doesn’t recognize Iris as she stands atop a campaign car.
According to the pre-election polls, Iris is the most popular candidate. It’s not sure that she’ll win, especially considering how young she is, but Hitomi has been silently supporting her every step of the way. She’d love to be more vocal about it, but these days, Iris barely wants anything to do with her.
Most children, she supposes, go through a phase where they feel deeply embarrassed by their parents, and refuse to show affection towards them. Iris had always been so patient and caring, that Hitomi mistakenly assumed she would be different.
She shakes her head. Iris is speaking again, answering questions from the crowd. There’s a blur of yellow and blue that catches her eye; a girl sprinting through the tiny gaps in order to get to the front. It’s Mizuki, lively as ever. She practically leaps onto the car, waving at Iris.
Her lips quirk up. Hitomi scans the crowd — because if Mizuki is here, it’s unlikely she’s alone — and soon identifies Kaname Date by his insistence on dressing like an anime protagonist. Slowly, she weaves her way in his direction.
Date notices her as she approaches, and grins. “Hey. I should have known you’d be here.”
Hitomi says, “Of course. I’ve gone to every single one of her speeches. I really believe that she’ll be able to win the election. I’m… I’m so proud of her.”
(There is a monster in her chest that tells her to be suspicious of her daughter. It rumbles, low and angry. She forces herself to ignore it.)
“I’m surprised you’re not up at the front with Mizuki,” Date replies, turning his head towards the car.
Hitomi follows his gaze. Quietly, she says, “Iris… doesn’t want me there. She’d rather I keep my distance.”
“Geez, and I thought Mizuki was bad,” Date chuckles lightly. He rests a hand on her shoulder for a moment, then quickly pulls it away. “Teenagers. They’re so unpredictable.”
Hitomi tries to smile, but falters after a second. She doesn’t want to think about how her own daughter has rejected her. She knows it’s her own fault for lying, but even so…
Her eyes catch on Date again. She wants to believe him when he says he’s burying Saito, and she really doesn’t want to dredge up his repressed memories, but her secrets got her into this mess in the first place.
Deep breath. They’re both watching Iris, not looking at each other. Maybe if she tells him now, she can finally begin to repent for everything she’s done wrong. She still has many more things to keep hidden for the rest of her life, but at least this one sin can loosen its chokehold on her.
“Mr. Date, I—“
They both speak and cut themselves off at the same moment. Hitomi smiles, puts her hand in front of her mouth, and says, “You can go first.”
Date rubs the back of his neck. “I just wanted to ask how you’ve been holding up. Mizuki said you seemed sad when she saw you at school, and obviously with Iris being so busy… Well, we’re both a little concerned that you’re lonely.”
Hitomi looks away from him. “That’s… very kind of you. Thank you, both of you, for looking out for me. I’ll admit… I’ve been having a tough time recently. I’m sure it will pass, though.”
Date says, “Even so, there’s no reason you need to get through this by yourself. Listen, Mizuki’s favourite ramen place is a couple streets over, and we’re grabbing dinner there after she’s done pestering Iris. Why don’t you come with us?”
“Are you sure? I’d hate to be a bother,” Hitomi says, despite the monster in her chest grabbing the bars of its cell and begging for human contact.
“I wouldn’t have offered it if I wasn’t sure,” Date replies easily. It’s at times like this when it’s the hardest for her to see Saito in him, when the scar she gave him blends in with the evening light. “Anyways, what did you want to say?”
‘Iris is your half sister,’ dies on her tongue just as soon as she thinks about it. Instead, she says, “I was curious about how raising Mizuki has been. I’m sure she’s much different at home than at school.”
Date snorts. “Besides being a pain in the ass? She’s incredible. Honestly, I’m so grateful to have her. She’ll make me into a better person, whether I want to or not.”
Hitomi chuckles. “Children have an odd way of doing that. How did the adoption process go?”
“Decent, after a friend forged a marriage certificate so it could be official. I’m now legally wedded to my own left eye.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Date laughs. “It’s a long story. In any case, I’m proud to be her family. We… we both really needed someone who felt like home.”
Hitomi whispers, “I’m so glad.” And despite the icicles thick in her throat, she means it.
Date says, “You know, she called me ‘dad’ the other day. I cried for about three hours after that, like a reasonable person.”
“Tears of joy, I presume,” Hitomi responds.
Date looks up at the sky, with the brightest smile on his face. “Yeah. One hundred percent. She’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Hitomi nods, completely understanding. Again, she looks out at the election car to watch Iris, as she shakes hands with an elderly man near the front of the crowd. It’s bizarre, yet relieving to see her happy again. She’s a far cry from the dejected and miserable girl who woke up screaming in Central Hospital.
Iris looks up to survey the crowd, when her gaze meets Hitomi’s. For a very long moment, they stare at each other; Hitomi with regret in her eyes, and Iris with disdain.
“It’s happening, it’s happening!”
Mizuki leaps off the sofa and points at the TV, a bright smile painting her face. Date puts down the pot he’s washing in the kitchen, and comes over to see the election results. Hitomi stays behind, quiet.
Date and Mizuki began spending so much time with her, that Hitomi eventually invited them to move in with her. Their old apartment was much too small anyways. Mizuki took up lodging in Iris’s former room, while Date made himself at home on a futon in the living room. It’s a strange arrangement, but it’s nice to have such a wide space be filled with life again.
(She hopes that Manaka will forgive her for befriending her murderer.)
The news reporter declares that, with an overwhelming sixty-six percent of the vote, Iris Iwai will be sworn in as the newest Prime Minister of Japan; the youngest ever. Mizuki and Date both cheer, loud enough that their downstairs neighbours bang on their ceiling.
Hitomi watches, obviously overjoyed for Iris, but she can’t bring herself to go join in on the celebration. She feels like she’s watching it all happen on a screen, like everything is endlessly far away.
While Date and Mizuki are still distracted, Hitomi slips into her bedroom. After they moved in, Hitomi took down the Okonomiyaki War drawing and put it in her room, next to the photo of her, Manaka, and Renju. The two pictures contain the only four people she’s certain she’s ever loved, none of which she will ever see again. She stares at them forlornly, before shaking her head. This isn’t what she came here for.
Earlier that day, she received a package in the mail that she’s yet to open, wanting to do so away from prying eyes. The return address is Iris’s, but the handwriting isn’t her’s. Her logical brain suggests that someone else — a secretary or an assistant — sent the package, but the monster within her continues to suggest the unthinkable. Hitomi steels herself and tears the brown paper covering it.
Inside is a small, black box. Hitomi opens it slowly, revealing a small object set in soft foam. It’s the glass eye that Iris refused to wear.
With a shaking hand, Hitomi picks it up and closes her fist around it. She doesn’t know what on earth she’s going to do with it, or why Iris mailed it to her after all this time, but she’s not going to let go of this final memento.
There’s a knock on the door, and Date pokes his head in, looking concerned. “Everything okay, Hitomi? You’re missing the celebration.”
Hitomi tucks the glass eye into her pocket, and forces herself to smile. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
Dirt wells in her throat.