Happy birthday, son!” Were the first words he heard from his mother in two years.
The woman who stood before him was a stranger, dressed in a western style dress vastly different from the kimono of his childhood. Her lips were upturned in a benevolent smile, a smile she had never shown him before. Her eyes, however, did not smile. “I brought you a present!”
Bending down carefully, she pushed forth the huge box she had brought along. The red wrapping paper on it shimmered and a white satiny bow sat neatly on top. It was a box fit for a boy of ten, the boy she left behind, not the young man of twelve that now greeted her.
He didn’t want to open it. He wanted her to leave, to yell at this now-intruder who only wore the face of his mother. But instead throwing a childish fit, he simply tore away the wrapping, unveiling a large crate. “Open it, Ryuichi!” His mother encouraged.
With a strain, he lifted off the loosely fitted lid. Whatever was inside, the manufacturers obviously weren't expecting it to move much. Inside, curled up in a fetal position among plastic packing peanuts, was a young boy, slightly older than him. His chest did not rise or fall with breath and his entire body was as still as a corpse. Not a single twitch stirred his form. He was perfect. Every part of his body had been lovingly shaped, from his tiny feet to his pixie like face and soft blond hair. It was a borderline comical sight, a male Venus surrounded by the lime green of the foam peanuts. But his perfection only emphasized his eerie stillness. He was artificial perfection.
“It’s an android, Ryu-chan! The newest model! He’ll be a perfect friend for you, I’m sure.” She said it like he had a need for friends or androids.
He just looked down at his present. The boy’s face was composed in a monotone expression, no emotion to be found. It seemed an injustice to his angelic features. Somehow, he felt compelled to ask, “Can he smile?”
She froze for a beat and then gave an apologetic look. Her hands nervously fidgeted with her purse, adjusting the dangling tags. “I’m afraid not, Ryuichi, they say the previous model could, but it was very disconcerting. The programmers just haven’t figured out how to make them that realistic.”
“Oh.” He felt an odd sense of loss, imagining how pretty the boy would surely be if a smile graced his lips. But those rosy lips stayed firmly tilted downwards in a show of apathy. Of course he wouldn’t smile. He was just a robot. A robot.
“I like it, thank you.” He said to the woman.
She gave a grateful smile, her shoulders relaxing as if some great stress had been lifted off of her. It didn’t take her long after that to bid a hasty farewell and leave him again. He probably wouldn’t see her again until his next birthday…
Adults could be so selfish. It was obvious she had come to soothe her guilt that she had abandoned her son with his yakuza father, unable to tolerate this lifestyle. She was rich now, married to a wealthy businessman, thoughts of the mafia far behind her. And he…was here. Right where she had left him. Plus an artificial companion now, he supposed.
Then again, it is the privilege of adults to make choices and of children to manage. Turning back to the box, he examined his present again. Footsteps thumped into the room. “I see she left you a present.” His father said, pensive yet severe in his black kimono.
“It’s an android. The new model.” He absentmindedly parroted her earlier words.
“The first present she’s ever given you that’s useful.” The man grunted in approval.
Ryuichi turned in shock. His father was a firm believer that technology only served to make men weaker and more complacent, and yet he approved of this?
“Never underestimate the value of an ally that can never betray you.” He grunted, catching Ryuichi’s confused look. “From the looks of him he won’t be able to fight much, but there’s always a use for completely loyal people. Keep him close, Ryuichi.”
Never betray you. This android would be his. It wouldn’t leave or stab him in the back. It would be his forever.
The thought was a comforting one.
“Shoot him.” His father’s eyes were cold as he pressed a gun into Ryuichi’s hand.
The doomed man no longer thrashed about, he was already so tired out. Blood oozed steadily from several head wounds and one of his legs was twisted at an unnatural angle as he slumped against the pole he was tied to.
“But--” He felt his heart palpitate rapidly.
“This is the treatment traitors get.” The tone of his voice lowered as his eyes took on a dangerous glint. Either Ryuichi would shoot to man, or he would get shot. Such was the way of this life.
Gritting his teeth, he shifted to turn towards the man, raising the gun up to aim it. Eyes glazed with pain tilted upwards to regard him, silent pleads swimming in their depths. Don't kill me. Please. He looked into those eyes, and steeled himself. With a deep breath, he pulled the trigger.
A bang sounded around the room, spooking none of the men. They were all veterans to this, save for Ryuichi. Brains dripped wetly against the pole and a section of the wall, red pooling everywhere. A sanguine masterpiece.
“Good aim.” His father sounded mildly impressed. “I can see your lessons have been paying off. Perhaps next time we’ll try a moving target.”
“Thank you, otou-sama.” He bowed his head, ignoring the layer of cold sweat that had settled over his entire body. “I will excuse myself now.”
The man nodded in agreement, already turning back to the other prisoners who trembled in their own piss.
His measured steps clicked along the floor as he left the basement, walking across corridors to his room. Slowly, he slid open the door, cool and calm. The very image of a yakuza’s son, fit to inherit everything. But the instant the door slid shut securely behind him, he ran for the bathroom.
“Master?” The chiming voice asked curiously. Akihito (as he had dubbed the robot, for it wouldn’t do to call it “It” forever) blinked his blue eyes, surveying his owner with worry. No doubt, he was assessing Ryuichi’s raised body temperature and heavy breathing. “Are you alright?”
“Yes.” His voice cracked across the room sharp as a whip, brittle. “Leave me alone.”
“Very well master.” Obediently the robot sat himself down on the chair reserved for him, but his eyes still followed Ryuichi’s figure watchfully.
After firmly shutting the door to the restroom so that the damned thing wouldn’t see this, Ryuichi breathed in deeply. Behind his squeezed shut eyelids, he could see it all. The gory sight of the brains, dripping down with wet little splats was burned into his memory indelibly.
Maybe we’ll try a moving target next time…
The cruel words rang clear as a bell in his head. A casual proposal to hunt down men as one would a deer or any other animal. There was no regard for the man’s family, his loved ones, his dreams, his regrets, or his thoughts. A single bullet could erase it all in an instant. It was sickening, nauseating to the basic human part of him. He retched into the toilet bowl, his very being rejecting it all.
Yet this was his world, the one he had been born into and the one his mother had left. A solid wall trapped his retreat, and he would walk forward or fall to his death. It wouldn’t even sadden his father; the man had many more sons besides him.
Flushing the toilet, he walked over to the sink to rinse the sour tang out of his mouth. A shower washed away the sticky sweat all over his body and the clinging sense of filth that stuck to his skin, filling his nostrils with the scent of death, all gunpowder and iron. With a kimono slipped on, he was once again Asami Ryuichi, son of Asami Ryota.
When he opened the door again, he looked around the room. Sure enough, Akihito was still waiting. His eyes had closed from inaction, impossibly long, dark eyelashes brushing his face. Ryuichi reached out, touching the skin. It was silky to the touch, perfectly mimicking human skin. It was peculiarly cold though, since Akihito had no need for much body heat or blood. Just another reminder to his true nature, just like his unsmiling face. Akihito was a puppet, manufactured and given to humanity. He had no free will.
And yet, how did that make him so different from Asami? They both only moved on orders, locked into their roles. Perhaps…the true puppet had been Ryuichi all along.
The robot only stared in mild concern as tears pattered onto his cheek. His cool hand rose up, and wiped away the tears trickling down the boy’s face. His lips parted, gently whispering, “I am here.”
Those mechanical words soothed Ryuichi more than the saccharine placations of his mother or the piss and vinegar encouragements of the yakuza ever had. “Never betray me, Akihito, no matter what you do.” He rasped out.
And so the boy grew. He grew, his figure shooting up and becoming packed with the muscle he had so desired long ago. The more he killed, the more eyes dimmed before him, the more he didn’t care. He almost became the perfect yakuza. He was strong, handsome, powerful, and a cold blooded killer, groomed from birth.
But then they came. They would steal over him at night, smothering him as he heaved for breath. Every time, his heart felt like it would startle right out of his chest. His vision swam, and on the worst occasions he would see things.
Corpses, as mangled as they had been the day he killed them, grasped at him. They hissed at him, cursed him, and surrounded him, covering him with the horrible panic that made him wish he could die. He would wake up later, anywhere from minutes to hours having passed.
The doctor called them “panic attacks” and suggested he “take it easy and relax, maybe go to therapy”. As soon as he found out, he realized this was karma. It was a price the universe had deemed fit to take from him, in exchange for everything. He could callous over his soul, could play the part of the crime lord without even a hitch now. But there would always be weakness built into his soul.
He had shot the doctor afterwards, to prevent any news of his psychological instability from getting out. Such rumors could cause his reputation to crumble in an instant. Fear was the greatest weapon when it came to his trade. The unfortunate doctor would be just another ghost to haunt him in the nightly macabre parade.
And all along the way, all that stayed from his past was Akihito. The angel-faced boy, unchanging at 16, unsmiling, was always there. Always watching.
He knew that by now, Akihito was hopelessly outdated. The newer androids could smile, could laugh, could do all the things Akihito could not.
Perhaps it was his last shred of sentimentality that let him keep the boy.
“No.” He tossed down the folder.
“No?” Asami Ryota raised his eyebrows in shock. “That’s an awfully fast decision.”
“I don’t wish to marry anyone at the time.” Ryuichi said flatly, pointedly not looking at the profile before him of his potential marriage candidate, the daughter of another syndicate. Wives meant sharing a bed. And that meant she would eventually discover his attacks. Only Akihito was allowed to attend to him, and the damn thing shut itself down every night anyways.
“You’ve been avoiding marriage for far too long.” His father looked at him shrewdly. “It’s time you married. You will meet this girl. And you will marry her.”
"I will no longer obey your orders." Ryuichi stated. It was time to change, to begin his climb.
"You will, or you will die."
He could feel the tension. It had always been this way among the yakuza. Ryota seemed to sense it, but by the time his hand moved, Ryuichi already had his gun firmly trained upon his forehead. Looking at it, Ryota gave a rueful chuckle. “Ah, I’ve raised a snake to be sure.”
With a bang, Ryuichi sealed his future. The men who rushed in at the noise took just one look and realized what had happened.
A new leader had been instated.
“Stupid robot.” A feminine voice spat as a hand slapped across the android’s face. “Why does Uncle even keep a piece of trash like this around? It's practically ancient.”
“Kanoko,” A deeper voice cautioned, his aged face becoming wrinklier as he frowned, the deep lines in his skin standing out in shadowed contrast to the pale sallowness of the rest of his face. “That has sentimental value for him. Don't insult it.”
“It doesn't even smile.” The girl tossed her hair in scorn.
"That's part of his charm, you'll have to understand." Another voice broke in. The master stood in a corner, smiling coldly.
“Oh but Uncle,” Her voice turned cloying, “Shouldn’t you replace it soon? I can buy you a new one. It’ll even smile for you.” She cast another look at the impassive face of the android.
“No, that’s quite alright, Kanoko-chan.” Asami somehow managed to convey just the right amount of casual scorn. “You two should be getting to home soon, it’s getting late.”
“Of course, Aniki!” The girl’s father grabbed her shoulder with a tad more strength than needed, giving her a warning look. “Come along, Kanoko.”
Later, Asami, reclining in his bed, gave a sigh. Akihito turned to look at him in concern. “Is anything wrong, Master?”
“I’m dying.” The words were a simple statement, devoid of the expected histrionics. Then again, Asami Ryuichi was never a man to put on a show, not even for his death.
“Master?” Akihito turned in shock, looking at the man. His Master was old, it was true, with silver at his temples…but it wasn’t the age of death. Not nearly.
“The doctors say it’s something with my heart, probably from prolonged stress. Can you imagine, all these years of being strong just to have it be my downfall. God sure loves irony, huh.” His sardonic laugh was cut short as he abruptly coughed violently, wheezing for breath.
He blinked the tears from his eyes, his vision swimming, almost seeming to form shadowy figures. His heart rate picked up, ready for the familiar cycle…when a cool hand touched him.
He glanced up at the angel-like android, who gently held his hand. “You’ve always been this way, Master.” The boy sounded sorrowful, his eyes staring down at Asami’s trembling hand. Gentle fingers rubbed across the sweating palm.
Ah, so that was it. The thing he had forgotten. Only Akihito had been with him through all this time. This unsmiling android, who had served him faithfully and had been the only one to see his weakness. Akihito was only one who had cared enough to look behind the mask and see the crying boy, the suffering man. And yet he was merely a piece of machinery with the bare minimum of emotional programming.
He smiled, caressing the boy’s face as more tears made their way down his cheeks. “You know, perhaps it’s because you can’t smile that I have been able to trust you so much. You have never lied to me with your smiles, have never covered up any unhappiness.”
The android looked at him with sadness, and said, “I will serve you forever.” But it seemed like an empty promise, spoken to a human being clutching onto fleeting life.
And the man wept bitterly.
Asami-sama died that night.
The funeral was an extravagant affair, as expected. Hundreds of people came to bid their farewells to the man. Speeches were made, many tears shed, and yet Akihito somehow knew it was all as empty as a shell.
Humans were strange in that way. He had only one face, which he wore properly for his master. But humans could change theirs. They could laugh while they cried on the inside, and vice versa.
He stood in a back corner, eyes downcast as the family at last prepared to cremate Asami-sama’s body, per his wishes. It felt curiously melancholy, to see his master look so very…small in death.
“Thank god that’s all the preparations,” Kanoko sighed. “I’m already tired of this whole hubbub.” True to form, only the most faithful subordinates displayed sorrow of any sort. For most, this was a mere formality, a prelude to the oncoming power struggle.
“But, Kanoko-sama, what do we do with him?” One of the men pointed at him.
She glanced down at him in disgust, her cruel hazel eyes pinning him down from behind her mourning veil of black lace. “What do I care? He’s just trash.” Her eyes brightened with a sudden idea, shining with a wicked light. “And trash should burn, should it not? Why don’t you don’t set him next to his beloved master so we can burn the two of them in one go? He’ll be so happy to rest in peace with his precious master. Maybe he’ll even crack a smile. Oh wait! He can’t.” She snickered.
Though the men looked at him doubtfully, hands still dutifully lifted him up and placed him into the incinerator. Their hands were without finesse or care, and they set him down roughly, side by side with his master. Without much ado, a heavy lid slammed down atop of him and he could already feel the upwelling of heat.
Ah, so this was it for him. There was nothing to be regretful about, he had lived a long life for a robot. Slowly, as he waited, a memory from so long ago bobbed up from the foggy shadows of his memory chip, written over so many times by other data and yet somehow still existent.
Hey…do you think robots can go into the afterlife?
I’m not sure, Ryuichi-sama, though I doubt it.
Oh…I’ll miss you then.
His eyes shifted to the side, drinking in his master’s handsome features, so strong even in his old age. And for the first and last time, he prayed. Prayed to follow him, both the innocent youth that had cried when he killed a man and the cruel man who had killed more to hide his weakness.
God, please allow me to accompany him wherever he may go, even if it’s to the hellfire below.
The flames rose up to engulf him.
And the robot smiled.
For in his last second of consciousness, he had learned what it was to love.