Shougo Mikadono was frustrated.
He had infiltrated the Miryuu Academy Times as a way to investigate IMOUTO and her activities without arousing suspicion. Like most stories that affect the lives of millions, readers weren’t interested in the IMOUTO beat, but Shougo was interested. Quite interested indeed. Unfortunately, Shougo had underestimated the realities of the journalism trade.
IMOUTO didn’t sell papers. Why? She didn’t exist — not officially, that is. IMOUTO had done a masterful job of sticking to the shadows and dissipating any interest in her to the royal imouto. Little sisters were damned popular in this school, but not the little sister Shougo needed. And by “needed” he didn’t mean in that icky way. “Needed” like he needed to know who she is so that he didn’t accidentally marry her and produce a litter of incestual monsters. That sort of “needed.”
Shougo had approached the paper’s editor in chief about investigating IMOUTO, but he was shot down; in fact, he was laughed out of the room. Why waste time and resources chasing a phantom when there were school festivals to cover? When there were romantic scandals afoot? When there were celebrities on campus — celebrities like Shougo Mikadono? Shougo had steadfastly refused to consent to an interview with the Times. He’d stolen a quick glance at a few papers before applying for work. Their “interviews” were the most insipid of fluff pieces. Readers came out of them knowing less than they did before. Perhaps it is unfair to scrutinize a student newspaper so ruthlessly, but as the saying goes, corruption starts at the roots. But because Shougo had little interest in course correcting yet another wayward journalist, he hit a brick wall. The chief continued sending Shougo on ridiculous assignments, leaving him little time to sniff out IMOUTO’s tail. Er, trail.
And here Shougo was again taking the lead on another silly story. He was to interview Mei Sagara, the owner of Lyrical Sisters, a cafe dedicated to providing the ultimate of fantasies: a little sister who actually gives enough of a shit about her big brother to cook him delicious food. There is likely a highly cogent, ironic point to be made about newspapers reporting on false, blatant fantasies, but pointing it out so deliberately would be bad form. Shougo had set up an interview at Mei’s class after school; however, when he arrived, she wasn’t there.
“Figures,” Shougo said. He sighed and sat down by the window. The sun was setting and cast a soft, deep orange glow on the classroom despite the fact that it was around 3:30 p.m. The blinds threw deep shadows on Shougo’s face. He could almost hear a dissonant saxophone playing in the background. Maybe a dame could walk in to complete the feel. Or, perhaps, a mysterious informant soaked in darkness and dread.
“Psst,” someone whispered.
“. . . What was that?” Shougo said. He looked around but could see nothing nor nobody.
“Psst,” the voice whispered again.
“Who is that?” Shougo said. He stood up and looked around the classroom again. He saw nothing but then caught something out of the corner of his eye. Near the back of the class by the shelves was one of the dresses worn by the waitresses at Lyrical Sisters. Poking out from underneath the dress was a pair of legs. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Shougo said. He tried getting a better view, but the legs kicked out at him.
“Such a naughty boy,” a deep, garbled voice said. “Do you always peek up a lady’s dress like that?’ Wisps of smoke curled out from under the dress. Shougo wasn’t sure if the classrooms had smoke detectors, but they would find out shortly.
“Who are you?” Shougo asked. “What do you want from me? . . . And why are you smoking underneath that dress?”
“I’ll answer your questions in reverse order,” the voice said. “Because I can. I called you here to relay some information I expect you’ll want to hear. You can call me . . . Imouto.”
“IMOUTO?” Shougo gasped.
“No,” Imouto said. “Imouto.”
“I don’t hear any difference,” Shougo said.
“Then perhaps you should try looking harder,” Imouto said. The mysterious informant blasted a stream of smoke at Shougo’s feet. Shougo curled his nose but tried to ignore it as best he could. “We don’t have much time,” Imouto said. “The distraction I left for Mei won’t last much longer.”
“Then cut to the chase,” Shougo said.
“Lyrical Sisters is a front operation for IMOUTO,” Imouto said. “Mei is just a stooge — a money launderer. She gives IMOUTO’s activities a legitimate appearance. The students and teachers are driven so stupid by being catered to by little sisters that they would never expect the place to be a haven for the criminal underground.”
“Wait, teachers?” Shougo asked.
“This is a nasty world we live in, Shougo,” Imouto said, taking another drag of the cigarette. “‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are just as much fantasy as Mei’s army of little sisters.”
“How do you propose I get to her?” Shougo asked. “She’s not going to spill the beans if I grill her.”
“Ask her for work,” Imouto said. “Make a move to the inside, and strike. Follow the sisters.”
“Will she hire me that easily?” Shougo asked.
“You’ll have to worm your way in,” Imouto said. “But if you know the right words, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Shougo, are you there?” a voice called. “I’m ready for the interview!”
“Crap!” Shougo said. “Imouto, you have–” But Imouto was already gone. All that remained was a string of smoke dancing on the breeze. Mei walked into the room.
“Sorry I’m late,” Mei said. “Something came up suddenly. Do you still have time for the interview?”
“Actually, I thought of a better idea,” Shougo said, turning to face Mei. “How about I work for you for a night? You know, to experience Lyrical Sisters from the inside? I’m sure our readers will be very interested.”
Mei moved almost imperceptibly, but Shougo could sense that she took the briefest of steps backward. Her eyes became more guarded. Shougo knew Lyrical Sisters was in bed with the Times: Mei exchanged certain favors with the chief for advertising and favorable coverage. Now that Shougo knew how deep the rabbit hole went, however, he could understand why Mei was so suddenly suspicious.
“We accept only the best at Lyrical Sisters,” Mei said. “If you can find the way in, then I’ll be glad to have you. But I won’t give you any help.”
Mei turned and left the room. Fortunately, she was so supremely confident in her reply to Shougo that she became exceedingly easy to tail. He followed Mei to an alley that led around to the back of Lyrical Sisters. Mei knocked on a door thrice, and a panel opened up. She whispered something; the door opened, and she slipped inside. Shougo stepped up to the door and knocked quickly three times. The panel opened.
“What’s the password?” a deep voice asked.
“Um,” Shougo said. He thought quickly. What could be the password?
“Password,” the voice said.
“. . . Imouto,” Shougo said.
“What was that?” the voice said.
“IMOUTO,” Shougo said.
“Come right in, sir,” the voice said. The door opened and Shougo stepped inside. The door slammed shut immediately, and Mei was behind Shougo to greet him.
“Welcome to Lyrical Sisters . . . onii-chan,” Mei said. “Put on your costume and mingle.”
Mei shoved Shougo into a closet before he could reply. On a hanger was a simple outfit that would make Shougo look like an usher at a Hollywood theater. Shougo put on the costume. It couldn’t be helped. He walked out of the closet and beyond the dingy curtains that separated the back room from the main hall.
“What is this?” Shougo asked. He walked into a boozy, ribald party, except without the booze because everyone was underage, and without the indecency because the joint was careful not to break those laws. In fact, it was deathly quiet in the restaurant, so there was no partying, either. No conversation. No glasses clinking together, freshly filled with savory drinks. No life. No soul. Just awkward boys hoping beyond hope for some reason to keep on living. The little sisters gave them a rush they couldn’t feel through any other means. It reminded them of all the pain they felt having nothing worthwhile in their lives, but that pain was better than feeling nothing at all.
“Excuse me,” Shougo said. “I need to get something from the back.” He ran through the curtains and plunged against the wall. His face was drenched in sweat. Despite being chased by so many little sisters that he practically ran an orphanage, he had never found himself so deep in the sordid world of IMOUTO. Shougo breathed in and out deeply; he shuddered as the air spilled out of his mouth. This wasn’t a time for a panic attack. There was work to do.
Out of the corner of his eye, Shougo spotted a door open at the end of the hall. The light was on. He sneaked over to the door and listened. Nobody was inside. Shougo took out a pair of gloves, slipped them on and opened the door slowly. Not a sound. He creeped inside. Shougo’s eyes were drawn immediately to the pile of filthy literature on a dresser at the back of the room. It was too conspicuous a setup; something had to be hidden there. Indeed, when Shougo shoved the books out of the way, he saw another of the prototype phones used to mask IMOUTO’s voice.
“Such a naughty boy,” Mei said, walking into the room. “Do you always peek at a lady’s books like that?”
“Mei!” Shougo said. “The game is up! I know you’re in bed with IMOUTO!”
“What of it?” Mei asked.
“Tell me!” Shougo said. “WHO IS IMOUTO?!”
“You know very well I can’t tell you that,” Mei said, walking closer to Shougo. She stood in front of Shougo and looked into his eyes. When she spoke next, her voice was hardly a whisper: “I can’t help you any more. I can only push you in the right direction.”
“What–” Shougo started, but he was cut off by a soft bang. Mei held a small pistol in her hand. She shot into Shougo’s side. He grew tired and fell to the ground. Mei kneeled beside Shougo and whispered into his ear.
“I’m tired of this life, but I can’t get out,” she said, her voice growing scratchier and more garbled. “But you can do something. Follow the sisters.”
Shougo went to sleep. When he woke up, he was in his bed. There was only one thing on his mind.
He had to follow the sisters. He had to find IMOUTO.