Phoenix Odyssey Book XI: Oceania - Chapter 6 - AnneOminous (2024)

Chapter Text

“So, if you’re dying to know how I feel about you now, turn on your radio…”

Ranko scribbled in her little black Ranko and the Dapper Dragons spiral notebook, adding another line with a black disposable ballpoint pen before quickly slamming the book closed again and snapping her eyes forward. “Oh, hi! Sorry about that! What can I get you?”

The nervous coed standing on the other side of the secondary bar blushed as she fidgeted with the white ribbon in her jet-black hair. “Um, two drafts and a Wild Orchid CD, please?”

Ranko grinned, reaching behind herself from her stool and grabbing a cellophane-wrapped jewel case from the merchandise display behind the service bar. “You got it! Want me to sign this for ya?” She reached for a black marker next to the cash register.

The black-haired customer blushed, nodding sheepishly. “Would you mind?”

The songstress shook her head with a smile as she started to remove the plastic wrap from the CD. “Not at all. In fact… those girls over there at table sixteen?” She motioned with the back end of her uncapped marker. “That's Hitomi Uyeno and Emi Kimoto, my backup singers. I bet they'd sign for you too, if you asked ‘em.”

“Oh, man, really?! That'd be awesome!” She giggled as Ranko blew gently over her signature to help dry the ink on the CD insert featuring a large photo of her laying in a field of orchids in her favorite white lace dress.

Ranko took the young woman’s credit card, running it through the imprinter with a loud ka-chunk and returning it to her along with the reclosed jewel case before reaching into the blue plastic rack on the counter next to her for a pair of pilsner glasses. “You having fun out there tonight?” She smiled brightly as she tilted the first glass under the tap, slowly steepening the angle as the glass filled to keep the appropriate amount of foam at the top of the glass, just as Yui had taught her.

The customer bobbed her with a grin. “I mean, we wish you were up there singing, but…”

Ranko nodded a bit wistfully, handing over both beers with a smile that was a bit less sincere than it had been a moment before. “You and me both. Hopefully soon.” She softly dropped her fist onto the plush beige padding atop the crutch leaning against the back of the counter. “Stupid things.”

The woman sped off to rejoin her date, and Ranko looked up as she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Huh? Oh! Hi, Mom!”

Hana leaned down, kissing the top of Ranko’s hairspray-stiffened coif. “Hey, little star. How you holding up, honey?”

Ranko made a noncommittal gesture that was somewhere between a shake of her head and a shrug. “Alright, I think. Knee’s mostly okay, I guess. Am I doing alright up here? I'm so nervous I’m gonna screw this up and Yui’s gonna murder me.”

Hana smiled proudly down at her youngest daughter. While it was true that Ranko had never tended bar at the Phoenix before, Yui had taught her sister the basics before Christmas, before she'd reconsidered her decision to leave the bar and move to f*ckuoka with her then-girlfriend. It was far from the best use of the young starlet’s talents, but the bar was short both Izumi and Akane that night. Ayako was not yet ready to resume pitching in, either, and Ranko wasn't sure whether it was her eldest sister’s ongoing rift with Hana or the demands of her newborn son that was the bigger impediment. Either way, the bar was short-handed, and the redhead who had put the little hole in the wall on the map had offered to come in and do what little she could to help on one leg, even if it were just to park herself on a stool and be the blushing beer girl for the evening.

“You're doing great, baby.” Hana rubbed Ranko’s back through her mint green dress. “How's the music?”

Ranko smiled up at her friend, standing on the stage behind a folding table full of blinking electronic equipment. “He's doing pretty good! I told you it was worth taking a chance on him.”

Hana nodded with a smile, bouncing a bit on her knees as she vibed with the dance track pouring from the twelve overhead speakers. “You were right again, honey.”

“... Hey, Mom?”

Hana turned, having already taken two steps back toward the blue saloon door and the kitchen beyond, where no shortage of orders for pizzas and chicken wings awaited her. “Yeah, Ranko?”

The redhead motioned to her left with her neck, to a despondent blonde leaning over the main bar counter, idly spinning an unopened beer bottle on the polyurethane bar top. “What can I do for her, mama,” Ranko pleaded quietly. “She got me through so much, and now she's hurting, and nothing I say seems to be helping. It just makes her mad.”

Hana sighed, looking with worry and no small amount of pity up at her second-eldest daughter as she squeezed Ranko around her shoulders. “She'll be alright, baby. She's a tough cookie, like all of you are. But, it was hard for her to let Sakura in, after what she went through the last time she dated, and this just cut her really deep. We should have expected it to, honestly, given her past. Sometimes broken hearts, just like broken knees, don't get better with anything except time. So, all we can do is tell her over and over again that we love her, and we’re here for her when and if she needs us.”

Ranko nodded. “And try to keep her from drinking.”

Hana nodded, biting her lip and blowing a heavy sigh out over it. She looked bone-tired, but Ranko guessed her soul was far more ragged than her body, given how much she’d watched her children suffer of late. Yui’s drinking, more than anything else, was what Hana truly feared as it pertained to her daughter’s misguided attempts to cope with her grief. She had seen alcohol destroy more good people than she could begin to count in her decades in the bar business, and she was terrified of watching it happen to Yui. “Yeah, baby. As best we can.”

With a soft pat on her daughter’s shoulder, Hana slipped back through the swinging blue door into the kitchen, and Ranko’s attention was redirected to the bespectacled young man with frosted tips who approached the bar after having descended from the stage. Her stage. “Hey, Ran-chan. How's it going?”

Ranko grinned with a bit of a blush, spinning another pilsner glass into her hand and beginning to fill it from the tap. “Good! Real good! You've got a great set going up there, dude.”

Orochi Matsuda nodded, turning to survey the two hundred-plus revelers who were dancing to the pop record he’d left spinning on his portable turntable. “They seem to be enjoying it, anyway. You sure you won't let me play any of your stuff? I bet they'd go nuts out there.”

Ranko shook her head, shouting over the music. “It would just set expectations for them, and I don't wanna let them down. Mom won't even let me get up there and sing the slow stuff until I'm off the crutches. Hey, where's Ei-chan? He does remember I lifted his banishment, right?”

The young deejay shrugged with a chuckle as Ranko handed him the beer. “Basketball practice. I figured he’d be here by now, but maybe his train ran late or something.” He craned his neck, scanning the crowd again with his eyes. “Speaking of people we can't find… where's Mei hiding?”

Ranko gave a shallow shrug of her shoulders, wincing slightly. They were killing her after supporting her weight on her arms all day at school on her crutches. She swiveled slightly at her waist to look back at the blue slatted door. “She was gonna show Seiichi how to do inventory, so I guess they're in the back still.”

Orochi reached over the bar, a thousand-yen bill in hand, but Ranko waved him off with the back of her hand. “Talent drinks for free. House rules.”

The young man laughed. “I don't know about talent, but if you're sure…” He jammed the bill back into his pocket without bothering to return it to his wallet.

“Hey, can I get a Dragonfire,” the slender brunette in the sparkly silver tank top asked, reaching across the bar and poking Yui on the shoulder. The rectangular chips of multicolored resin coating her shirt captured every colored beam of light from the tracks in the ceiling, making Hitomi look like a disco ball in stiletto heels.

“Yeah, sure,” Yui said glumly, straightening her posture and reaching for a bottle of rum. “Surprised you girls are hanging here tonight. Isn't it ladies’ night at Steam?”

“Drinks are cheaper here.” Hitomi flashed her a winning smile. “Bartenders are cuter, too.”

Yui gave a sage nod, blushing a bit. “Seems as good a reason as any, I guess.” She started to tip the bottle of rum over a mixing glass, but Hitomi’s hand caught Yui’s before she could invert the bottle enough for liquid to begin to flow from the pour spout.

“Hey. When are you gonna be okay,” Hitomi asked softly.

Yui scoffed, shrugging as she put the bottle back down on the counter. “Who knows? Tomorrow? Never?” She sighed heavily. “It's not getting any easier. It's f*ckin’ supposed to get easier, Hitomi.”

The brunette nodded, stepping up onto the footrest of a barstool, carefully minding her miniskirt as she sat on it. Ranko could not fathom how the girl didn't freeze to death; even when it was snowing outside on a mid-January night, Hitomi wouldn't be caught dead in anything that reached down as far as her knees.

“I'm guessing you haven't… ya know, been with anyone, since?” Hitomi's voice was soft and soothing despite the thumping bass playing behind her. Ariel had adjusted the bar’s sound system some time ago, repositioning the speakers to direct sound away from the main bar and toward the dance floor to allow customers to order drinks without screaming at the bartenders.

The blonde glanced back at the backlit array of bottles behind her with a disinterested sneer. “Got a great night planned with a really good guy, in fact. We go way back, him and me.”

Hitomi scowled. “Nice try. Jack Daniels doesn’t count, Yui. I’m bein’ serious here. You seeing anybody yet?”

Yui chuckled darkly. “Just Bob.” She leaned her elbows on the counter, rubbing her itchy right wrist through the sleeve of her blue denim jacket.

“Bob? A guy?! You?! With a name like that, I'm guessing what, American?” Hitomi giggled. “Spill it.”

Yui blushed a bit, leaning in closer with a wistful smile. “Sorry. Something Sakura used to say. Bob. B.O.B.” She lowered her voice further, to the closest thing to a whisper that had a chance to be heard over Orochi’s dance music selection. “Battery-Operated Boyfriend.”

“... Oh! Yeah, I know Bob! He's great! Never could figure out how to get him to do the flippin’ dishes, though!” Hitomi giggled brightly. “You here ‘til close tonight?”

Yui nodded. “And every night.”

Hitomi bit her lip, glancing over at the blonde at table sixteen. “So, hey, listen. When you get done tonight, why don't you come back to my place for a bit? I bet me and Ems can find a way to… get you smiling again.” She tittered brightly. “Bob’s welcome too, of course. The more, the merrier.”

The blonde nearly collapsed behind the bar, her eyes wide as saucers. “Wh… what?!”

Hitomi giggled, nodding spritely. “C'mon! What's the point of getting off if you're not gonna, ya know, get off?

“But I thought you girls w… were…” Yui stammered, her green eyes turning to Emi at table sixteen as if she were afraid Hitomi's roommate was going to come snatch the brunette from her stool by her hair for two-timing. She received a bright smile and a cute little wave in return, and it only poured more fuel on the fire she felt building in her cheeks.

Hitomi smiled, waving Yui’s concern off with her hand. “Me and Ems, it's like this. We like to play. Sometimes we bring people home to play with. Sometimes, we play with each other. Sometimes, one of us brings someone home, and we… share. I mean, I guess we’ll have to call Shinji and tell him we're busy tonight.” Hitomi grinned devilishly. “Unless, of course, you'd rather we let him come by anyway…”

Hana groaned at the shrimp pizza on the aluminum tray on her prep counter, looking up at the clock mounted to the left of the bar’s bespoke pizza oven. Come on, Mei. It's gonna get cold. Where the hell is that girl? Sighing, she scooped the tray up, carrying it out to the front room. She bustled between Ranko, who was still conversing with the bar’s new deejay, and Yui, who seemed to be trying to light a Dragonfire aflame with just the heat from her cheeks, for some reason. Still, at least Yui was smiling. Hana had not seen Yui crack even the faintest smile in some time, and it did her heart good to see light in her daughter’s eyes, even in the smallest of measures.

Dropping the large pie off at table six, she hurried back behind the service bar, wiping her brow on the sleeve of her ever-present black leather jacket with an exhausted groan. I'm getting too old for this sh*t.

“Hey, Ran-chan? Have you seen Mei or Seiichi?”

Ranko shrugged as Orochi headed back toward the stage to queue up another song. “Sorry, Mom. I thought they were back there with you. And I haven't gone anywhere, ‘cause I was told I'm not allowed to get down off this stool unless I gotta pee.”

Hana smiled sweetly despite her slumped posture. “Yes, you were. And I'm proud of you for listening for once. Good girl.”

Ranko blushed. While the phrase had nowhere near the same effect coming from her mother as it did from Akane, it still filled her stomach with butterflies. It felt good to make Hana proud, even if it had been achieved by sitting perched on a bar stool and pouring beer in glasses until her ass had gone numb.

The bar’s proprietress sighed again, trudging back into the kitchen. She's not out there, and she's not back here. Maybe she's not feeling well? She crept quietly up the stairs to the little apartment above her office that had at one time or another been home to all of her daughters save the one she’d acquired through Ranko’s marriage, careful not to make much noise on the steps in case Mei were dealing with a headache. She'd spent enough nights in bars with powerful sound systems to recognize the occupational hazard as the distinct possibility that it was.

“Mei, sweetheart? Are you alr…”

Hana lifted her hand off the doorknob as if it had burned her, her jaw falling slack mid-word as she peered into the darkened apartment.

“Mama?!” Mei sat up bolt-straight in the bed against the white metal headboard, clutching the purple duvet cover tight around her chest. Only one of her trademark pigtails was intact, her bare right shoulder almost entirely hidden under a cascade of wavy, matted cotton candy-blue hair.

Mei’s mother turned her eyes quickly to the right at the sound of a loud thump in the narrow space between the bed and the bathroom door.

Hana stepped cautiously to her right, peering around the bed. There, she found the flushed, nude form of her new server sprawled awkwardly on the apartment floor.

Phoenix Odyssey Book XI: Oceania - Chapter 6 - AnneOminous (2024)
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