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I'm leaning forward, elbows on the counter, chin resting atop interlaced fingers, as I stare at my absolute lack of customers.
Business is dead tonight.
It's slow most nights, really; side-effect of setting the cart up in the bamboo forest, I guess. There's cicadas chirping, and bugs flit around the paper lantern hanging from the stall's roof. Something's rustling in the underbrush not far off – but whatever it is moves on quickly enough.
I sigh through my nostrils, scuffing a sandal across the ground below. Sure, I'm not exactly making good use of my voice tonight, but even despite that I've usually attracted somebody, fairy or youkai or whatever else, by now.
Ah, well, if the money won't come to me, I'll just have to lure it in. I clear my throat a few times, take a deep breath, exhale, inhale, shut my eyes... and sing-
"SHADDUP MYSTIA I'M TRYING TO SLEEP HERE" screams an irate immortal.
I do so.
...This is one of those times I wonder why I even bother.
Maybe I should just call it quits for tonight-
There's a whumpfh of something landing on my roof.
I look up just in time for a pale-white hand to pull one of the stall's flaps aside from the top, and an upside-down head of white hair to poke down from the roof and stare at me, her smile overly wide. I meet her softly glowing red eyes as I straighten up, keeping my expression carefully neutral. “...Why are you on top of my stall?”
"Ah? I don't understand." Her tone is light and breezy, even if I can't understand a word of the English she speaks. Delicate white eyebrows draw together in thought. "Well, this is a bit of a long shot, but there's no sense in not trying! What abouuuuut... Verstehen Sie mich jetzt?"
I blink, ears twitching, as I process a language I haven't heard in years.
"...Ja! Guten Abend!" I reply, unable to keep the smile off my face. "It's been a long time since I've spoken my mother tongue, you should know. I'm sorry if I'm rusty."
She waves a hand dismissively, shaking her head. "The effort's what matters, and that's that! Unless it's something really important, then doing it right matters because you get no trophies for dying because you messed up."
"...Right," I say, smile wavering the more I listen to her. "So, uh, now that we understand each other, I'll ask again; why are you on top of my stall?"
Her smile inches wider, which is not a pleasant look at all. "Is that necessarily a problem?"
"I'd prefer it if we could talk like normal people and not upside-down people."
Red eyes drift away from mine as she thinks on this. "...Fair enough!"
With that, she disappears upward, letting the flap settle back into place. A moment later, she comes swinging down through the flap, and the slender girl deposits herself right on the seat in front of me. Her outfit's clearly Outsider kit, from the blue shorts to the lighter-blue, uh, hoodie, I think it's called (even if she's not using the hood part at all), and also that necklace with the long, gem-tipped bullet attached to it is definitely not something I'd see around here often.
"Hello again!" she says, grinning brightly at me.
"Hi," I drawl, because a customer's a customer, even if they're weird. "What brings you to Lorelei's Lamprey?"
"So that's what all those weird lines on these things meant." She pokes one of the flaps.
"I'm assuming you mean the Japanese lettering."
"Oh! That's what it is?" She scratches one of her (long, feathery) ears. "Well, I'm sure you're the expert here, Lorelei!"
I sigh. "Just call me Mystia."
Her smile shrinks to a level that doesn't leave me feeling like she's getting ready to pluck my eyes out. "Altina~ But you can just call me Altie. It's cuter! And I'm definitely the cutest, so it's fine."
"The cutest, huh?" I squint at her appraisingly. She patiently waits for my verdict, swaying back and forth with her hands folded atop her lap. "...I dunno, I've met a lot of people around here that could fit that bill."
That smile of hers creeps me out when it widens, I can't deny it. "Well, you should see me in my cheerleader outfit~"
"...I don't know what that is but I don't think it'd convince me."
"It's really cute, is what it is." She leans forward, the better to poke me in the chest. "Like you!"
I fix her finger with a stern look. "Are you coming onto me?"
Altina blinks, and her hand all but teleports back onto her lap. "Oh! Oh, no, no, not at all! I already have a girl I love very much and even if I can't find her anywhere around here that's no excuse for being an awful person! Even if you're cute too."
"Ahuh," I say, keeping my expression deliberately neutral. "Thanks."
She leans back in her seat, still grinning. "You're very welcome!"
"Right. Right." I take a moment, shutting my eyes and inhaling deeply to steady myself, before I straighten up and return to being a good host. "...So, uh, what brings you here?"
Altina tilts even further back, so much so I'm surprised she doesn't just fall off the stool as she spreads her arms wide. "I am totally lost!"
"As expected of an Outsider." I sigh- and then recoil as she leans way too close again.
"Is calling people Outsiders a Japanese thing?" Her head cocks left, right, left again, eyelashes fluttering. "It's a Japanese thing, isn't it. It's very rude!"
"I'm calling you an Outsider because you're from Outside, clearly." I resist the urge to take a step back, barely, but this is still really unnerving.
She giggles like I just said something terribly amusing. "I expected the xenophobia, what with Japan's 'Do Not Fly Over Us Or We Will Shoot You Dead' policy, but wow! It's something else to actually have people be rude like this in person."
"I-" I start, before she shifts forward that little extra bit to leave her nose-to-nose with me.
"Don't call me an outsider again, okay?" Her grin is very, very wide. "It's not nice."
I swallow, not daring to blink. "R-right. Got it."
"Okay!" She plops herself back down on her stool like she hadn't just probably threatened my life. "Now we can move on to good things!"
"Like?" I ask, eager for a change of topic.
"Well..." Her fingers rattle-tap-tap across the counter. "I guess while 'outsider' is still a very rude term, I'm curious as to what kind of people like that you're actually used to seeing around here!" Altina looks around at all of my no customers. "Because I'm not exactly going to get to ask them myself!"
I repress the urge to swat her for that jab. "They're not usually like you, that's for sure."
"Oh? She smiles-nods-smiles. "I wouldn't expect anyone as cute as me to show up here, for sure!"
"That's... not really what I meant." I wave a hand vaguely at her head. "Like, the ears, and eyes, and definitely the hair – I normally get humans, not youkai."
"...I don't know what that is!" she says, entirely too cheerily.
"No, I"-here she lays a hand on her chest-"am this pretty through eugenics~"
Whatever I was thinking to say, I've lost it. "...What?"
"If you want me to explain, maybe you can serve up some of this..." She leans to the side this time, the better to gesture at my stove. "...Whatever-you-called-it?"
"I- That's-" I heave a sigh. "Okay, fine." I'd gotten so caught up in everything I'd almost forgotten she was a customer, sheesh. Fortunately, I've been keeping something on the grill, so it's not long before I've got a filled plate and a knife in hand-
"Oh, no, you don't need to cut it up!" Altina says, and I pause, glancing over my shoulder to see her beckoning at me. "Just pass it over."
"...If you say so?" I shrug, setting my knife aside and turning about to lay the plate, and its accompanying lamprey, in front of my only customer. "Let me at least get you some-"
"No need!" Altina raises her index finger, and the fingertip pops open, revealing its hollowed-out insides; I only realize I've backed up when my wings brush against the stove. There's a vrrrrr as a small beam extends out from her finger, and then she dices up her meal into bite-sized pieces with terribly precise movements, humming merrily all the while.
My mouth is very dry when I find it in myself to speak up. "I- I see some weird things at night, but that's- that's pretty up there, you know?"
She shrugs, beam retracting inside her finger, tip closing as if nothing had happened. "It's just a laser blade."
"I'm familiar with both lasers and blades and even both combined but normally they don't pop out of your finger like that."
"I am clearly a special girl, then!" Altina pops a piece of the meal into her mouth and shuts her eyes as she chews, swaying gently to-and-fro. "Mmm, this has... texture. I think that's what it's called. Maybe I'm being silly and using the wrong word on accident."
"...Do you like it, though?" I ask, giving up on pressing for any more information about the finger thing for now.
"Mm-hm!" Her head bobs up and down, up and down. "At least I get to try new things when I travel! So that's one lovely little upside to all this."
"Right." I let her snack on little cubes of lamprey for a time, waiting for her to keep going, but I get precisely nothing. "...So, you said you were going to explain what you meant earlier?"
Altina blinks, eyes very wide indeed as she pauses with another bit of lamprey poised in front of her open mouth. "Oh! That's right, isn't it? I apologize." She clears her throat, setting her food back down before affecting a deep voice. "Eugenics is normally the process of selective breeding to ensure certain desirable traits"-here she waves a hand at herself-"pass on to the next generation! But in this case it was all really scientific and more just like 'you come here and pay us money and we'll science up the most adorable children you'll ever see in your life~'" Altina lays her hands on her heart, her grin broad. "And I was so cute that I was a model in the advertisements! Probably."
"What, you some kind of amnesiac?" Still wouldn't make her the weirdest person I've met, but she keeps ramping up higher and higher.
"As it so happens, yes! There's a great big hole in my memory here!" She taps her skull demonstratively. "In fact I've got great big holes everywhere in my brain, probably, but I don't like a lot of what I do remember so that's fine." She leans back in her chair again, hands folded on her lap. "But anyway, I've been told I looked like the ads did, and besides, it's bad PR to be a postergirl for eugenics if you aren't actually a product of it, right?"
"Hm." I prop my elbows on the counter, resting my chin on my fists as I consider this. "Outsider technology sure is scary, sometimes."
"Well, look at me!" Altina's smile is perfectly innocent. "I turned out perfectly, didn't I?"
"...I'm not sure I can say yes to that?"
She gasps, reeling back in her seat, hands clasped over her heart. "I am wounded!"
"Kidding, kidding," I say, smiling; she's not so strange I can't have fun with her. "So this gave you your ears, too?"
"What? Oh, no, no, I've just been sprouting bits lately."
I blink as a brilliantly white tail fans out behind her, wide enough to fully encompass her twice over and half that besides.
"Like so~" she trills.
And it's gone again – well, packed up, anyway.
"...That's- pretty cute, actually?" I say, lacking much else to contribute.
"I know, right?" Altina giggles, swaying delightedly on her seat. "It's just the best."
I'd rather not get dragged into a talk on the cuteness of tails with her, so I decide on the next best thing to ask about. "Anyway, your meal comes up to-"
She's already shoved a hand into a pocket, fishing out coins. "Here, here, shh, keep the change!" The money she tosses down is something I don't recognize at all – and my nose wrinkles as I take a closer look; these are little bronze-ringed circles of meat, with something stamped onto them that's... probably supposed to tell me what they're worth?
"...These are worthless to me," I tell her, after a moment's hesitation.
Her eyes widen in sync with her smile, but this time I don't flinch at the look she's giving me. "Oh? Hm. I don't have anything that's not these."
"So you can't pay me anything," I say, as she stuffs the money back into her pocket.
Those delicate white eyebrows draw tightly together in thought as her eyes drift upward. "...Nope! I'm very terribly sorry."
Gah, I'm stupid, getting so caught up in things I forgot to ask for the payment first, just stupid. "I usually don't operate at a loss, you know."
She idly pushes some of her diced-up lamprey around with a finger. "Ooh, is this the part you demand I pay you back in a fashion that's ethically despicable?"
It takes a moment for the insinuation she's making to click in my head, but she only giggles at the way my expression's tightened up. "What kind of person do you think I am?"
"I don't know! But it's good to poke and prod and find out, right? After all," she lifts her index finger, the tip uncapping again to emit that beam as she wags it back and forth, "bad people don't deserve to live!"
I suck in a breath that's only a little shaky. "...The proprietor of this establishment reserves the right to kick out customers that make death threats."
There's a little whirr as the finger-blade deactivates and the fingertip caps itself again, and Altina's smile shrinks as she nods agreeably at me. "It's a good thing I'm not making any threats, then! Because you're a charming, lovely person who has absolutely nothing unfortunate in mind for me just because my money's no good."
"Oh." That's... good to hear, I suppose. "So-"
"But!" She holds her hand up, cutting me off. "I still need to do something nice for you to make up for how I can't pay for this! So~" This time she leans over the counter, it's to glance about for any eavesdroppers, before she fixes me with a conspiratorial little grin. "If you have any bad feelings, you can talk to me about them! I'm a very good listener~"
"Why do you wanna know?"
Whumpfh, she's back on her stool properly again. "Well, because I'm a selfish girl who just wants to learn about your personal issues, what else?" She flutters white eyelashes at me even as she lists sideways, before shooting a meaningful look at the bottles behind me. "But if I'm going to be listening to you and we're having a nice back and forth about your troubles, we should totally have something to drink while we do it! That, and the food, will be more than enough payment for me to hear your problems!"
"Hey, how come I'm paying you, now? You're the one who's got a tab to deal with!"
"I just explained, you doof~"
"You just want free drinks," I accuse.
"How are they free if they're my listener's fee?" Altina giggles. "Really, you are silly sometimes."
Gods help me, this girl is impossible. I should just kick her out and be done with it.
"Oh, what the hell," I grumble, turning to grab a cup and bottle. Altina perks up in her seat, eagerly awaiting free drinks. That expression twists a bit when I actually set the cup down in front of her and fill it.
She picks it up, staring at the contents. "Is this just a cultural thing? Cups for ants?"
"Hey, you're drinking for-"
"-a nominal fee-"
"-free," I say, ignoring her. "Now shut up and enjoy it."
"Hmph. The Russians are more generous." Altina takes a long, deep breath, eyeing her cup again, and then she shrugs, picks it up, and downs it in one go. "Mmm! Well, this is new."
"Mirin," I say, because it's only polite to tell her just what it is.
"I see!" She pauses, thinking on that. "Well, technically, I taste. But I like it! I'm not used to my drinks being sweet."
I cock an eyebrow. "Really? You're not the kind of girl I'd think would go for the hard stuff."
"Oh, yes, yes, I've had some incredibly awful alcohol before. So this is a real treat!" She giggles, taking another sip. "...But enough about me, right? I want to hear about all your problems! The easy ones and hard ones and really intimate ones too if you want to share those~"
"I think I can decide on what I want to talk about, okay?"
"Okay!" She sets an elbow on the counter and lays her chin on an upraised palm, pausing only to drink again. "Lay upon me any and all secrets that you wish to share. I promise you they're very safe in my head."
I look around. "...Well, you're my only customer I've gotten all night, for one. That's kind of a downer."
Hers is a thoughtful nod. "I have to say that relying on people randomly stumbling through the woods at night for the specific purpose of buying food from you in the middle of nowhere is perhaps an unwise business plan."
I huff. "You're tellin' me. Can't even advertise out here."
"This probably has something to do with that very loud lady who yelled at you to shut up, right? Guessing from her tone, anyway."
I raise a finger - pause - lower it again. "...You did show up right after that happened, huh?"
"Indeed! I also have excellent hearing!" Her head bobs up and down excitedly. "So even if I was really far away I'd have heard it. But instead I heard you sing and then heard her yell at you and now I'm kind of wanting to hear you sing some more, you know?"
"That's probably not a good idea." I sigh. "Even if it is how I draw in customers."
"So why don't you just pack up and go somewhere an angry woman can't shut you down for being obnoxious?"
"That's a very good question and the answer is that it sounds like a lot of work and I'm lazy."
"Oh." Altina's lips purse as her head tilts ever so slightly. "Working hard is a good thing, you realize?"
I fix this dainty, pale girl with the flattest of stares. "Have you ever worked a hard day in your life, Altina?"
"I kill people for money."
"...Oh," I say.
"They're terrible, awful people, mind," she continues, setting her cup aside and folding her arms across the counter. "Standards are important! It's what helps make all the times I've been shot and sliced and stabbed and blown up tolerable, because all of that really, really hurts!" Her smile shrinks to just the lightest quirking of her lips. "...But at least I always have a special someone right beside me, ehehehehe~"
"Must be real special if you're willing to deal with all of that, huh?"
"I love her bunches and bunches~" Her head tilts this way and that, eyes drifting shut as she fingers her bullet-necklace. "...Except now I'm here and not with her and I don't know how I'm supposed to get back to her because this place is terribly, terribly Japanese and we weren't even close to Japan last time I checked and everyone else I've asked for help around here has tried to hurt me and I'm just about ready to kill someone-"
"Altina?" I say, biting down on my lip. "Can you maybe not break the counter?"
Cracks are spreading through the wood from where her slender fingers grip the stand. She looks down at it, then up at me, blinking owlishly. “Oh, dear, I'm being terrible. I'm very sorry.” Her fingers ease off the counter, leaving me to sigh in relief.
“Just... watch it, okay?” I plead.
“Mmhm!" Hers is a determined nod. "...And, dear me, I've gotten swept up in things so much that I completely made this conversation about myself again." Her ears droop, her fingers tap-tap-tap on the counter, and she sheepishly averts her eyes. "Well! Ah, you didn't want to sing before, for reasons that we've gone over, but I still think it wouldn't be so bad if you did! You sounded quite good from what little I heard before."
"It comes naturally," I say, happy for the change in topic as I refill her cup - and, after a moment's hesitation, pour one out for myself, too. "Birdsong, yeah?"
Altina huffs amusedly. "Ahah, yes, I get it." Her tail puffs out again, just briefly. "So, like, do you practice a whole bunch?"
"Voice exercises, sometimes," I say, taking a little sip of my sweet alcohol. "Mm. Mostly I just sing to draw people in here. That's all the practice I really need."
"Hmm." There's a steady littlethump-thump-thump coming from Altina - I can't see her legs, but I'd bet her toes are tapping against the stall. "If you can sing, well, that's the first step to getting into a band, I think! That'd be fun, right?"
This time, I chuckle. "I'm actually in one. You wouldn't have heard of us, but there's this other girl I know with a rockin' set of vocal cords. We team up - I do backup vocals and play guitar, she really screams out into the night, and we just rock right out." My sigh is a happy one. "Outsiders might be weird, but the electric guitar is a miracle."
"...That sounds really cool." Altina picks now to empty her cup in one go. "I bet you'd make lots of money doing stuff like that! I know I'd charge if I was putting on a show. Except I've never really tried singing. Dancing, though! Dancing is something I am very, very good at." One of her eyebrows lifts up, eyes on the ceiling as she thinks. "I should put on a show too when I finally get back. I'm sure people would find it lovely."
"Just dancing alone seems a bit... lackluster," I say, pouring her another cup. "Maybe you should try a song and dance routine instead?"
"Like a musical?" she asks, as I offer myself the same courtesy.
"Like a musical." I nod.
"Hm. But that needs a script and lots of rehearsals and everything." Her eyebrows draw together. "That seems like a lot of extra work when I could just dress up in the sexy outfits with Adrian and dance with her in a really exciting way."
I'm glad I hadn't yet taken a sip from my cup, or I'd probably be choking on it. "...That sounds, ah, risqué. But Adrian's the name of the lucky girl you're with, huh?"
Altina blinks several times rapid. "Did I let that slip? Oh. I was trying to keep it secret." She punishes herself for this indiscretion by polishing off her latest cup. "But yes, she's a wonderful person! Even when she's yelling so loudly at horrible people that it makes my ears hurt. But she loves me a whole bunch and she gets so, so angry when people try to hurt me! And then she eats them."
"...Eats them?" I ask.
"Eats them." She sniffs. "I don't see the appeal, but apparently I'm the only one. They have it coming anyway, though, so I don't mind so much that she goes around eating bad people."
"Ahuh." I buy myself time by taking a long, slow pull from my drink. "Sounds like someone good to have on your side?"
"You don't want her punching you in the face, because you would die. And it would be really painful. But enough about that!" Altina holds her empty little cup up for another refill, which I oblige. "I want to get back on track a little, which is why I still want to hear you sing properly!"
"I don't really fancy a visit from an angry pyromaniac," I say, and only realize I've lost track of how many refills I've doled out when I notice my cup's full yet again.
Altina dismissively waves my concerns off. "Ooh, do it anyway. She's probably asleep again. And if she isn't, she can just keep complaining!"
I shrug, frowning as I swirl my drink around. "I dunno..."
Altina flutters her eyelashes, the picture of oddball innocence. "Please? Don't let some shouty hag bully you."
Maybe it's the alcohol talking, but... "Oh, what the hell. Comes down to it, I can always fight Mokou if she kicks up another fuss."
Altina claps her hands together merrily. "There you go!"
"Okay. Okay. So." I push my cup aside, straighten up, and clear my throat a few times. Altina watches me with unabashed curiosity as I ready myself. "I don't really go for lyrics, but I can carry a tune pretty nicely? Just a heads up, there."
"This is fine." Altina patiently awaits my performance, all smiles.
"Okay," I say again, shutting my eyes, clasping my hands together - taking a deep breath -
...It's nice to just cut loose and sing, sometimes. Even without a proper song to put out there, simply making my voice heard in a (dare I say lilting) melody fills me with deep satisfaction.
This is what I should be doing. And nothing can-
"MYSTIA!" comes a very familiar scream in the distance, "I TOLD YOU TO SHADDUP!"
I shut up immediately-
"YOU SHUT YOUR FAT MOUTH!" Altina hollers back.
I wince as the faraway sound of flames burning reach my ears. "Oh dear," I say, opening my eyes again to find Altina staring up at me, fists clenched atop the table, smile wide as can be, eyebrows twitching. "Um, maybe you should go before Mokou gets here."
"No, no, no, that just won't do~" she trills, rising from her chair (rather more wobbly than when she started). She takes one last drink, then sets her cup down - just as there's a thunderous crash behind her. "Oh, my, I think we're going to settle this right away!"
"Oh, gods," I say, peeking out at her from between my fingers as she spins about and pulls the stall's flaps aside, revealing a still-smoldering Mokou unfolding to her full lanky height.
"Sup!" Mokou calls out, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her red suspenders. "I know I told you to shaddup, Mystia, but that definitely wasn't you who shouted back!"
"Ahh, nihongo~" Altina titters, strolling out to meet the intruding immortal. I hastily vault over the counter and bustle after her, because there's no way this is ending well.
"Um, Mokou, maybe take it easy-" I start (in Japanese, obviously), before the woman holds a hand up.
"So it was her?" she says, jerking her head at the grinning girl not far from me. "What'd she say?"
"She told you-" I wince. "To, uh-"
"Mystia?" Altina says, not taking her eyes off Mokou one bit. "I realize there's a bit of a language barrier here, but please do tell her exactly what I said. I stand by it!"
I squeeze my eyes shut. "She told you to shut your fat mouth."
Mokou makes a sound. Fire starts crackling. "Oh, it's on-"
I don't see what happens next, nor can I quite describe the noise that follows - but it ends in a whumpfh, and Mokou's on her back when I open my eyes, a quartet of holes drilled through her skull. I slowly turn to my customer, who smiles wide at me, crosshairs visible in her red eyes, and she waggles uncapped fingers. Four of them.