Saturday, July 1, 2017

Akuma No Imouto Chapter 6

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<-----First Chapter

Your name is Nagito Masaomi, and life has returned to normal after the incident last weekend.  Ryo’s half-demon friend is on standby in case that strange creature that you can’t consider to be any sort of being which belongs in this world happens to return to Akuma Spirits.  Vicente is taking shifts waiting tables, lightening the load on you as Arthur’s popularity spell continues to work its magic over the bar.  Koren is making good food, Ryo is mixing good drinks.  If you ignore the excitement you encountered only because of your own poor judgment, you’re settling in rather nicely around here.

The part that’s most obvious is, of course, that it’s far more pleasant than what your life was when you were trying to make it on your own.  Part of you feels ashamed, for needing your sister’s help to live a life that lets you actually feel happy, rather than passably not-sad from time to time, but she doesn’t seem to mind, so you don’t let it bother you.  She seems almost relieved that you’ve ended up relying on her, probably because you saw each other so rarely when you were living apart.  That was a stark contrast from the demon world, where you spent most of your time together.  The other demons always noticed how weak Ryo was, and though they were only making the same observation any other would, you always stood up for and protected her.  She relied on you, even when you were in horrible places emotionally.

You were there for each other, and now you are again.  You’ve returned to the status quo, but you’re starting to feel like there’s a reason the status quo exists, at least when it comes to the way it works in cartoons.  It’s comfortable and uplifting.  Anything can fall apart, but it can and will be fixed.  Of course, there is the status quo of society, which is admittedly a pretty awful thing since it’s more of an ‘everything is broken, and dammit, we want it to stay broken’ situation, but you’re referring to things on a personal level.  If family is kind, respectful, and supportive of each other, why would you ever want to leave that behind?

There’s no shame in relying on the people closest to you.

You’re on shift now, but Vicente hasn’t bothered to leave the place while he’s on break, just hanging out at the bar instead.  He’s leaning back on it and just watching the room as customers mill about, ready to step in if it happens to get too busy for you to handle.  You’re pretty good at keeping up, but it’s always good to have backup just in case something goes wrong.  You’re ‘better than Neptune ever was’, according to Ryo, but after having seen how they’re on such bad terms you have to wonder if Ryo’s just saying that out of spite.  Still, a compliment on how you do your job, deserved or not, is reassuring for your job security.

Besides, if the conflict arose due to Neptune not remembering her trauma but still reacting to it, that could never happen to you.  Ryo is entirely aware of why you have breakdowns; you don’t tend to keep secrets from her.  In fact, if she asked, you’d readily tell her that you remember what happens during the process of secret collection.  She’s just had no reason to even think that could be the case.  She can trust you where she couldn’t trust Neptune, and that’s the difference.  Though you do think that everyone should be able to keep to themselves, there is a point where someone needs to explain why they keep making mistakes.  Breakdowns with no explanation are much harder to excuse than breakdowns with a known reason.

You’re wiping down a table after a group of confused humans have finished at it when you notice the door open again, and look up to see that the strange creature known as Howl has returned along with the sisters who’d brought it in the first time, and one other girl who you stumble backwards at the sight of, then point at, “H-Hey!  You’re not going to shake down this place too!”

“Eh?” The girl who looks thirteen but must be twenty to have gotten in the door glares at you, “I’m just here for a drink with my friends, dude.  Who do you think I am?”

“I don’t think anything, I recognize you,” You walk up to her and cross your arms, asserting that even though you’re short in your humanoid disguise, you’re still taller than this childlike punk, “I used to work at a gas station just outside of Tokyo, along the highway you’d take to get to Kobe.  You and some thugs came in and beat up my manager, then stole a bunch of snacks!”

“Oh, don’t go holding that against me,” She responds, then unbuttons the top few buttons of her shirt and sticks out her tongue as she rolls her eyes.  She’s got elaborate tattoos all over the skin she’s just exposed, and you can only assume they go further.  You know enough about human culture in this country to understand what those mean, “It was business.  That guy wasn’t paying any of our allies in Tokyo, and he wasn’t paying us for getting so much off of people coming into our city.  So as long as you’re holding up any deals this place might have, I have no beef with you,” She strides past you and takes a seat at one of the tables, tossing her hair back behind her shoulders, “Now get me a double strong bloody mary, and I might still give you a decent yelp review.”

“Sorry about that, Red’s in the mafia,” Evelyn stage-whispers as she goes and takes a seat next to the enforcer, who immediately drapes an arm almost possessively across her shoulders.  Serena follows and sits as well, but Howl just stays in the doorway, staring at you.  You shiver under its gaze, then turn around and walk up to Ryo.

“Already calling my telepath,” Ryo grins, showing you that she’s got her cellphone skillfully hidden from view of the customers by standing at an angle, “Yeah, Kobayashi-san, remember that thing I told you about?  It’s back, and just as silent as ever, so I’m gonna need you to come by and see if you can’t do some mindtalk.  Great, see you soon!” She hangs up, then turns to you, “Arthur will be so proud if we can get a secret out of that thing.”

“What about the girl there?” You question, pointing at Red, as Evelyn called her, “She’s in the yakuza, so I bet she’s got a pretty valuable secret too.  Also, she wants a double strong bloody mary.”

“Of course she does,” Ryo laughs as she starts to put together the drink, “Look at her eyes and it’s no wonder she wants a drink this color.”

“Yeah, they’re super gray.  So what?” You question, frowning, “And are we going to give her the serum or…?”

“Dude, you haven’t heard the legend?  What sort of demon are you?” Ryo leans towards you as she shakes the drink in its tumbler, “They say that Japanese Women with gray eyes can only see the color red, and that they’re born assassins.  And the ones with purple eyes are born soldiers, since they’re the same way but also really good at learning a lot of different skillsets all at once.”

“Oh.  Is that true, or just a myth?” You ask, leaning forward on the counter as well.

“It’s definitely true.  Didn’t you ever hear about Ryoko Tomura?  She was one of them, and used her abilities to become a famed spirit medium!” Ryo explains, and you just give a clueless shake of the head.  She groans, “Dad told us the story all the time, about how she managed to make it into the demon world and come give a talk about the mortal world at his school!  He was so proud he got to meet her!”

“Not ringing any bells,” You shake your head, then stand up straight as she finishes pouring Red’s drink and pick it up to bring over to the table.

“Anyway,” She shrugs, “If you seriously want to try and collect two big secrets today, I’m game.  It’d make Arthur happy, but I mean, it does take a lot out of you!  You were so exhausted after the first time that you couldn’t even keep up your disguise.”

“Yeah, but I’ve gotten better now,” You explain, then look over to the table, “Well, I’ll bring this over to them and we’ll figure it out later.  First things first is Howl, after all,” You note as you bring Red’s drink over to the table that Howl has made its way over there, floating just behind Evelyn in what seems to be its version of a protective stance.  That girl seems to be worth protecting to an otherworldly being of terror and a member of the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan, as indicated by her mention of Kobe as ‘her city’.  Now, you don’t know why that would be the case, but you’re sure nobody wants to mess with somebody who’s got both of those on her side.

“Thanks,” Red mumbles as you set the drink down in front of her, then holds the menu up, “Steak tips, rare, please.  Unless you’ve got a more interesting meat off-menu, yeah?”

“I’ll check with the chef,” You nod, then turn and walk to the kitchen window to ask Koren, “Hey, Koren-chan, the scary girl at table eleven is asking if we have any meat more interesting than steak off-menu.”

“Well, not usually,” Koren shakes her head as she approaches the window, “It’s hard to stock things which expire, my off-menu items just use the ingredients we already have at hand.  However,” She slides to the side and gestures towards the walk-in freezer, “I actually went hunting last night!  I got a really big stag, so I couldn’t eat the whole thing myself.  You could ask her if she’d like some venison, and I’d be glad to make it for the little angel.”

“Would not call this girl an angel,” You mumble, but return to the table nonetheless, “Would you prefer venison, Miss?”

“Absolutely,” She nods, smirking, “As rare as you can make it without violating health codes, right?  And well, without it being cold.  Think you can do that for me?” She chuckles as she tosses a pigtail again, “Don’t worry, I won’t raze this place to the ground if you can’t!  The drink’s real good.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” You nod, then flash her a grin of your own, “I’m sure we’ll be able to accomodate your request.  The chef literally has a whole dead deer in the walk-in.  Well, excluding the parts of it she’s already eaten.”

“Huh,” She smiles, “I like your style.  So how’d you end up in a cool place like this?  Seems like a real big step up from graveyard shift at a shitty gas station that doesn’t even stock ice creams!”

Sayaka Yamaguchi
“Sayaka, don’t be rude,” Evelyn mutters to her.

“I’m just curious!” She jokes back, then looks to you again.

“Nepotism,” You answer matter-of-factly, “My sister owns the bar.  Also, at my last job, I was dating my manager.  The one you beat up.  Kudos to you for that.  Basically, I have no merits of my own and rely on other people at all times.”

“Nice honesty,” She laughs again, then holds up her left hand and shows you her pinky, “I got this because I wasn’t relying on other people enough!” Upon closer inspection, you see that the fingertip is actually false, “Y’know, I couldn’t help but notice you don’t have a great dessert menu going on here… Think you could grab that owner you mentioned?  I’d love to talk business.  Not busting up the place business.  Mutually beneficial business.”

“Er, I’ll see if she’s available to talk right now,” You nod, then approach the bar again, “Ryo, I know you’re busy, but the mafia wants to talk to you.”

“Oh, Goodie!  I’ve been waiting for this,” She claps her hands together, then announces to the bar, “Okay, nothing too complicated till I get back, okay?” She then leans over to where Vicente is reclining, “Hey, you can mix a simple cocktail, right?  Mind the bar for a bit, get yourself some tips.”

“Can do,” He nods, then stands up and just climbs over the counter rather than going around to the employee gate, since Ryo’s in the process of using it to escape the bartending space.  He immediately gets to work taking drink orders with the charm turned up to eleven, and you’re glad he’s capable enough to relieve Ryo briefly, though it seems she doesn’t trust him with more complicated mixed drinks.

You follow Ryo as she approaches the table, arms crossed over her chest as she addresses Sayaka, “Hey, I own this place.  You wanted to have a chat with me, eh?  Now keep in mind, we don’t need your protection here.  We could hold our own in any sort of dispute.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Sayaka shakes her head, “Actually, I’m looking to make a legitimate business partnership.  See, I myself am a business owner.  I graduated from a top high school and completed a confectionary apprenticeship.  I own a bakery.  May or may not be a front for money laundering, but who cares about that?  I’m talking sweets,” She sounds deathly serious, “I can provide you with dessert items.  If they sell, I get a cut of it.  If they don’t, my loss, I won’t make you pay.”

“That’s an awful good deal to give someone you just met,” Ryo narrows her eyes, “There’s more to this, isn’t there?”

“So you’re smart, too,” Sayaka laughs, leaning back in her chair, “The big family around here, they’re looking for some more support from us, that includes putting some guys in the area.  That’s part of the reason I agreed to come to Tokyo at all today, to do some scouting.  I’ve been put in charge, so I need to pick a base of operations.  Think you can turn a blind eye?”

“Well, that depends on what else you’re willing to give me,” Ryo’s smile is coy, “A good deal on a profitshare that might not pay out?  Isn’t nearly enough if we’re going to get a reputation that scares off customers like your friends here.  Think if we end up known for yakuza presence, tourists will wander in just to try us out?”

“You have a point there,” Sayaka stands up, then turns and puts her hands on her hips, “So it’s about time I use my actual intel on you.  What, did you think this was the first time I ever heard of the place?  I wouldn’t be looking to use your space if I just wandered in here with my friends,” She leans towards Ryo, “I had a chat with one Neptune McLaren a little while back.”

“Excuse me, what?” Ryo questions, taking a step backwards and furrowing her brow, “You’re not threatening me, are you?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it!  Actually,” She stands up straight again and waves a hand in the air, “If you let us use this place, you can take the secret of any of my crew who comes in here.  Trust me, we’ve got some good ones.  I mean, I dunno what you do with them, or how you harvest them, but I guess they’re valuable to you.  Is that worth the rep loss?”

“Well, I’ll say,” Ryo mumbles, tucking her hair back behind her ear, “But you know, I can’t just jump into this kind of partnership blindly.  I need some time to think about it and decide if I can trust you.”

“Why would you need to do that!?” Sayaka questions, grimacing, “I’m literally offering you all the secrets of the yakuza.  There’s nothing for us to hide from you.”

“It isn’t like I remember the secrets when I collect them,” Ryo explains, “Unless I’m very close to the person whose secret it is.”

You’re about to chime in with the fact that you remember the secrets, when the door opens again and a small girl with red eyes steps into the room.  She must be the half-demon that Ryo called.  She waves, “Hello, Masaomi-san.  You called me…?”

Ryouma Kobayashi
“Ah, Kobayashi!  Perfect timing,” She chuckles, walking over, “We needed a break from that tense conversation!  Yes, you see, this lovely creature,” She gestures to Howl, “Has a stitched mouth and a straitjacket, leaving natural communication impossible.  I’d love it if you could translate a few thoughts for us?”

“You don’t wanna do that,” Evelyn speaks up, standing up and grabbing onto Howl’s shoulder, “This thing is only mildly tolerable to be around when it’s silent!  You definitely wouldn’t want to hear what it has to say.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Ryouma waves off Evelyn’s concerns and steps forward, making eye contact with the thing, “I’ll just relay what it says, okay?  It can hear you, so just ask whatever you want and I’ll give you its response.”

“Well, simple enough,” Ryo nods, then looks up at it, “You’ve heard my conversation with Yamaguchi-san, so you know what’s going on.  We’d like to collect your secret, if that’s okay?”

“It says…” Ryouma started, then made a weird face as she relayed the statement, “You most certainly can, but only if you are truly willing to grasp the most concentrated idea of depravity.”

“I see what Evelyn meant,” You mumble, but Ryo just takes up an even more confident posture.

“You talk big, but I really doubt it could be the worst I’ve ever seen, even just from the ones I can remember,” She shakes her head, smirking, “Now, Nagi-nii, you can stay behind if you prefer, but I definitely want to get this secret!”

“I…” That’s intimidating, and you’re sure that whatever you see, you won’t want to remember… But still, you’re curious.  Curious, and if you don’t remember it, then who will?  Would anyone else ever know how a creature like this exists?  Though you shouldn’t get your hopes up on that front.  When you got Marv Hamilton’s secret, after all, it didn’t actually answer any of the questions you had regarding him.  Still, “I’ll go with you.”

“Great!” Ryo nods, then waves her hand, “Go fetch the serum from Vicente then, won’t you?  He’ll be able to get it for us, just call it the ‘liquid heck’.  I haven’t told him about the secrets thing, but he knows that the liquid heck only goes into the specialty cocktail.”

You can’t believe Ryo actually convinced somebody that was what the serum was called, but you suppose it’s better than needing to disclose the nature of the bar’s enchantments to a new employee, especially seeing as Neptune apparently sold off that information to the yakuza herself.  You’re starting to trust her less, too, though you suppose if she was paid well enough you could write it off as necessary in her unemployment.  You get it from him, then return with the drink in hand.  Evelyn gives you a worried look, but then grabs the drink and holds it to Howl’s stitched lips.  Everything freezes, and you and Ryo step forth into the secret’s representation.

“Welcome to my twisted mind,” A raspy voice speaks, and a shadowy wraith floats in front of you before materializing into Howl’s image.  It tilts its head at an unnatural angle, and its mouth is still stitched, but its voice persists nonetheless, “Are you sure you’re prepared to see the past of a thing like me?”

“What’s going on?” You question, furrowing your brow.

“Not every secret requires investigation,” Ryo answers, holding her hand out towards Howl, “Sometimes, a secret can’t be boiled down to one moment in time, in one place.  Sometimes, it is a story that must be told.  And sometimes… The holder of the secret will be the one to tell it.  Well then, Howl.  Won’t you show me the meaning of your existence?”

“My name…” The scene melts away, showing a young boy sat inside a classroom, coloring in a picture of the sun wearing shades, “Was Phineas, once,” Howl floats over to the boy and dips its head, “It feels so long ago… That I had a name.  What a dreadful time.  What normalcy.  That was thoroughly destroyed.”

The edges of the room seem to catch alight, glowing with the heat before bursting into flame and overtaking the entire scene.  In the ashes of this image steps a bright red loafer, and you find you’re on the ground.  You look up to see a familiar face, though younger than you know.  It appears to be… Jasper Jekyll.  He turns away from you and crouches down, pulling the earlier child from under a pile of rubble.  Howl speaks again, “I was a fool, in that moment.  I believe I was rescued by a man like this.  I thought that things would be okay.  That I could move forward from the disaster which had struck down my home and family, eventually…”

“I-I’ve met that guy,” You speak up, pointing at Jasper, “He left his number on a receipt, and I went on a date with him where he tried to get me murdered by a tiny American girl,” As you say this, Howl just gives a solemn nod.

The image changes once more, to Jasper carrying the boy close to his chest, flanked by a tall woman with a ponytail which reached beyond her waist, and a man who you’re sure you’ve seen in political debates on television.  Howl’s face is suddenly right in front of yours, “Let’s not take a look at what that man did to me, yes?  He took Phineas, and as was his religion, destroyed him.  He reveled in my pain, and there was no inch of me left untouched by his cruelty.  Ah, but that’s not the end of my story at all…”

Once more, the image before you changes, and you shiver, cold suddenly as the scene changes to an empty, frozen wasteland stretching out before you, with nothing to be seen, horizon lines flat on all sides.  You frown, but Ryo voices her concerns before you can, “Is this… A polar desert?”

“It is, though I can’t say which one,” Howl answers, stepping into the footsteps of its childhood self, “I never knew.  Jasper often liked to leave me to die in perilous places, just to see if I would push through and survive.  He could afford such things, as a celebrity.  I often felt bitter that somebody who I hated so much, who was so horrible, could be so loved by so many people.  He is disgusting, and never deserved to exist in this world…” It turns its gaze to you again, “Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you that you went on a date!  I mean, how could you have known that the random hot guy flirting with you was a sadistic cultist!?  You’re just like the masses, hopping on his dick without a second thought, and who am I to hate the masses!!?”

“Howl-” You protest, but it cuts you off.

“This particular time,” The child drops to the ground, “I did not survive.  But I was found.  I was found, but by then, I didn’t think I would be rescued, on the brink of death,” Howl curls in on itself as walls rise from the ground and close around the three of you, turning from barren tundra to sterile tile, “And I wasn’t.”

A woman in what looks like a sexy nurse halloween costume, with a lab coat on over the top, steps in through a door you didn’t notice was there.  The unconscious child lies on an operating table now, which Howl hovers over.  Unlike its experiences with Jasper, which you were spared from, the operation is done in full view.  Howl doesn’t say a word the entire time, instead slowly turning to shadow through the process, until it rises from the table and speaks again, “Bringing the dead back to life.  That’s not an admirable goal.  But it is an admirable skill.”

Howl stands and approaches you again, a smile stretching its stitches, “That is what was done to Phineas, and that created me.  I am not Phineas, Phineas is not me.  Howl, as I am now, is a concept of a creature.  A human, broken by The Order and rebuilt by The IIA… You wouldn’t know the meaning of those words, of course, but know that they are mortal enemies.  Yet here I stand, the disgusting bastard child of a torrid affair between the moral bankruptcy each group harbors.  So that, that is my secret, harvester of thoughts.  Shall we find the item which represents such a thing?”

“That’s a terrible past,” Ryo stands up again and steps toward it, “And yet, you still carry on.  Why is it that you do?  Why not reject the second chance which was forced upon you, and embrace death?  Why did you try to survive in those perilous lands, when there was no reason you shouldn’t desire death?”

“There is one thing I learned, when I was still Phineas,” It answers, leaning in towards Ryo.  She’s somehow unphased by the closeness of this thing.  Even knowing the tragedy which created it, you can’t stand to look at it for too long, “It was the last thing that father ever said.  His very last, dying, gutteral words.  He said, ‘Phineas, they will come for you.  Liars and cheats, thieves and murderers, torturers and rapists.  Any of them would, and will, if you survive.  But so too will truthtellers, friends, kind hearts, and lovers.  When they come for you, if they catch you, remember that for every injustice you suffer, someday, somebody will give you equal blessings.  Only when you have received an even lot of joy and misery can you die’.  Was that a philosophy, a statement, or a hex upon me?  I’ve no idea, but it is still what drives me.  Evelyn is a dear friend.  As dear as Jasper is hated.  So, I am just beginning to be made up my suffering.  I can’t stop now.”

“That’s lovely,” Ryo smiles, “It would have been easier to give up, but you’re insisting that you get what you’re due out of life,” She steps closer, then reaches out and grabs one of the belt buckles on Howl’s outfit.  It snaps right off, “A smiley face… I have to say, this is fitting of you, isn’t it?  A smile, it’s a way to tell other people you’re happy.  But you can’t change these.  Even when you’re beyond anything which should exist, you’ll broadcast to everyone that you’re trying anyway, right?”

“Yes…” It hisses, then backs off, “You understand me, Ryoji.  Like Evelyn does.  Even in this state, where I am nothing which should be considered alive!  I want to keep going.  I’ll live to my fullest.  Maybe I’ll get revenge someday, too, but for now, I’m enjoying myself.  When you’ve been fucked as much as me, there’s nothing else you can do.”

“This,” Ryo holds up the smiling buckle she’d taken from it, “This is the item which bears your secret.  It’s a very powerful secret, so I have to thank you for allowing me to collect it.  And I’ll invite you to return to my bar again in the future, so you can see what sort of wonderful things we accomplish with the power this secret of yours can grant.”

“I’d be glad to.  Your chef makes quite the nice soup.  It almost makes me feel like I’m not tired of soup,” Howl nods, then turns around and on the wall, every image you’ve seen so far appears in a sort of timeline, “It’s strange to stop and think back to where I’ve come from.  Haa… It’s even more gruesome this way, seeing it from the outside.  As I experienced it, it was only life, it was only the hand I had been dealt, but to watch how I was so thoroughly destroyed, how I lost all semblance of humanity to the point where I am no longer a ‘he’, but an ‘it’... I suppose that does make it mildly impressive, that I’m still here.”

“More than mildly,” You add in now, standing up too as you look over the timeline of Howl’s life, “I had no idea… It was possible for anyone to go through this much in one lifetime.  The human world really is an awful place.”

“I agree,” Ryo sighs, turning the belt buckle over in her hand, “Something like this, it would happen in the demon world… Once every five hundred years.  But this century alone… It’s 2020, and the human world has already had so many problems which would happen rarely in our world.  It’s as if every year in the human experience holds as much peril and tragedy as a thousand for demons.”

“Yes, humans are terrible,” Howl agrees, “To you and to each other.  But demons are also terrible, from a human perspective.  Sentient beings don’t like to think that they’re livestock, after all, and that is all they truly are to you.  Savage, disgusting livestock who do terrible things and are most useful to you when dead, of course, after providing resources for years… Even still, Ryo and Nagi, the two of you treat humans as people.  You sympathize with them when they are victims of other humans.  You sympathize with me, a prior human who is now just an object who happens to be capable of thought.  Why is that so?”

“It’s because we’re the same,” You respond, now also offering Howl a smile.  It’s grotesque, and its vocabulary is vulgar and crude, but you can understand it too, “Humans and demons, it isn’t like one side has power over the other in a real sense.  If humans deny us resources, we will take them by force.  But we also can’t deny humans what they ask of us in return for the resources, if we’re summoned.  Of course I’d sympathize with a human, or even a thing like you, who’s been hurt by humans, because I’ve been hurt by humans too.  Even with the strength and power a demon has, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done.”

“You…” Howl turns and gives a bittersweet chuckle, “You are horrified by the suffering I have endured, even though you keep bringing pain of a similar nature on yourself.  What a fool you are… To think you aren’t still in a very deep hole.”

With that, you’re back in the real world.  Howl will not remember what it said to you.  Ryo will not remember what it said to her.

You remember, though.  You still remember.

And it’s true.

You aren’t any better at all.

Next Chapter ->

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