1: The Red-haired Demon

*****First Encounter*****

Since I was born right in the middle of the year, in July, my age is never quite "right" in the sense of my place in school. My first year in middle school began in March when I was only twelve. The first day was utterly miserable because my mother forced me to wear the girl's uniform for Kunigigaoka Junior High. My aqua-blue hair wasn't quite as long then, but it was long enough that it could be put in a very short ponytail, and of course mom coerced me to do this. Tears of shame welled up in my large, blue eyes as I entered the academy's main gate, closely watched by other students. The guys whispered about me, ogling me, and one of them said I was cute. The girls murmured about me, wondering who I was, and giggling about how my chest was perfectly flat. Biting my lip, I stifled the urge to cry, and began to walk to my classroom.

My third year of middle school, when I was fourteen and fifteen, was spent in the dreaded E-class, but for the two years before that, I was part of the D-class. During roll call that first day, I remember Akabane Karma standing up and introducing himself. His bright red hair was impossible to forget. Of course, his introduction was perfect and charming, but I saw a spark of something dangerous deep in his red-brown eyes. As for me, I naturally wanted to announce that I was really a guy, but when the time came for my introduction, I just felt too embarrassed.

After classes, I met with each of my teachers in private and explained that I was a male. They didn't believe me until they looked up my enrollment information. Even then, they didn't believe that my mother forced me to cross-dress that day. They assumed I did it for some kind of prank or to get attention. The teachers warned me not to show up in the girl's uniform ever again, or I would go to detention. I assured them I would behave, but all I could do was hope my mother would listen to reason in the future. I didn't talk to any classmates that day. I walked home alone, still trying not to cry from anger and humiliation.

Quite suddenly, I realized that I was being followed by two boys older than me, probably fifteen in their last year of middle school. When I stopped, they also stopped and pretended to be on their cellphones or in the middle of a conversation. When I started moving again, they followed, keeping a distance of about nine meters between us. They must have been real scum, I thought, to go after a "girl" two or three years younger than them. Still, I was sure they would give up on me once they knew my real sex. So I took several turns out of the way of my usual route and entered a back alleyway. There, I waited.

The two despicable boys arrived soon. One was shorter, with light brown hair, freckles, and a nasty, leering expression. His companion was much taller and heavier; he could have been in high school easily. As he approached, he cracked his knuckles menacingly and fixed me with an icy stare.

"Let me tell you how this is gonna go," said the smaller boy, approaching me. "We're gonna—"

"Wait," I interrupted, putting my hands up to show I meant no harm, but trying to sound as manly as I could. "You guys won't have any fun with me. The truth is, I'm a guy. Just like you. So," I suggested, as a bead of sweat broke out on my face, "let's just split up here. No hard feelings. Ok?"

The smaller boy clicked his tongue in annoyance and nodded at his companion. The bigger boy then pinned me against the wall and punched me in the ribs. I'm surprised none of them cracked; this kid was, after all, at least fifteen kilos heavier than me, and muscular. The strike hurt like hell, making me shout in pain, my eyes wide with surprise. Did these boys believe me? Regardless, was I done for? What could I do? My mind quickly did the calculation: if I tried to fight, I would only end up with worse injuries. I stood no chance against the towering senpai pinning me in place.

"Don't interrupt me again," snapped the freckled boy. He paced back and forth while he talked, smirking. "We already know you're a dude. We overhead you talking with the teacher. Did you really think anybody would believe that lie about your mom forcing you? You came to school in the girl's outfit because you're a cross-dressing hentai. Well, we don't tolerate freaks like you at our school. Now, we'll just beat the crap out of you till you admit you're wrong and learn your lesson."

If not for Karma, I would have definitely been seriously injured by the malicious older boy. But the red-head waltzed calmly onto the scene, with his hands in his pants pockets and a gleeful smile on his face. If it had been another person, the guys would have ignored him. But Akabane Karma was the kind of person that everybody looks at when he enters. He attracts attention like a magnet.

"Do either of you guys have anything to fight with?" Karma inquired. At the same time, he drew a real knife from his pocket: it was blood-red in color, cruelly curved and double-edged, with a blade about fifteen centimeters long. Just seeing him draw this bizarre weapon spooked the boys who were ganging up on me. Their faces went pale. "What's wrong?" Karma asked them mockingly. "Do you monkeys do your dirty work without any tools? Don't you have weapons? My, what savages!"

"You're—you're bluffing!" cried the smaller, freckled boy, trying to hide his alarm. "You won't attack with that thing! You'd have to be crazy."

"That's right," Karma nodded, still smiling. "I am, in fact, crazy. Now, I want to thank both of you for this opportunity. I've minced raw meat, stabbed frogs, and carved up cats and dogs plenty of times, but this is my first time dissecting a pair of monkeys. This is going to be so much fun!" He twirled his knife as if it were a pencil, walking closer to the boys. "I'm going to take you apart bit by bit, piece by piece. I wonder what I'll do with all those body parts? I know. Throw them down the storm sewer. Or put them in the trash incinerator at school." He laughed, and it sounded genuine.

This speech, spoken with obvious and sheer delight, was enough to make both of the bullies start trembling. Karma darted forward without warning and made a slashing motion at the freckled boy. At first I thought he had really cut him. But Karma's knife only sliced the bully's necktie and his belt. His pants fell down. Pulling them up again, the smaller boy took off running and screaming. The larger boy began to walk after him, but preserved the last of his dignity by not yelling or running.

I was alone with Karma. My first thought should have been fear, but at the time, I was still convinced Karma had been bluffing about everything and was actually a good person. How else could he appear so charming and suave? "You're really good at acting," I said, still leaning against the wall in the alley, holding my injured side where a bruise was forming.

"I wasn't acting," Karma stated in response. "If the boys hadn't run away, I'd try to cut them up."

"So you weren't lying about hurting animals?" I gathered. "And you've probably hurt people before too. But why? You don't seem at all like a hateful person."

"Hateful?" repeated the red-head, and for a moment he looked genuinely surprised. His easygoing smile returned in a few seconds, though. "Of course I'm not hateful. Do you think hate is the only reason people hurt other people? I do it because it's entertaining. It's fun. Torture is my hobby. Just a pastime. I have no hard feelings towards anyone I torment."

"If that's really the case," I inquired, "then why did you save me just now?"

"That's because I'm curious as a cat, of course. There are three things that motivate my actions, as a rule: logical analysis, pleasure, and curiosity. Shiota Nagisa, you seem like the kind of person who could easily lie to save your own skin. I can see that kind of cleverness in your eyes. That's why I don't just believe you're a dude because you said so. I have to find out for myself."

Without further ado, and with all his movements graceful and coordinated, Karma whisked off the grey shirt of the girl's uniform I wore. As he pinned me to the wall with one hand threateningly over my throat, his other hand explored my perfectly flat chest beneath my thin, white undershirt. When I tried to talk, to struggle, he pressed on my throat, and I knew it would be better to just bear with him. Though he was only a little taller and stronger than me, I figured fighting would be no good when this boy was capable of hurting others without the slightest bit of remorse or anxiety.

When I realized that, a shiver of fear moved up my spine from the low of my back to the base of my skull. Somehow, the terror I felt was exciting. Still not satisfied, Karma quickly used his free hand to touch the area under my skirt. Then he let go of me, backing several steps away. He was giggling.

"You really had me fooled!" cried the red-head gleefully. "I was sure you were a girl! It takes talent to pull one over on me. Let me congratulate you, Shiota Nagisa! You're the kind of person who's highly entertaining without me having to hurt you at all. Have you ever thought about seriously cross-dressing? If you establish yourself as a girl for the next two or three years, I'm sure nobody would think too much of your voice changing. You can adopt feminine speech patterns and continue to fool everyone. Doesn't that sound delightful?"

While he ranted on about that, I tried to regain my composure. Even as a guy, it was somewhat embarrassing to have my shirt stripped and my privates touched, if only briefly. I put my grey shirt back on and redid the black necktie, while my face burned red and my heart raced. In response to this red-haired demon before me, I had no idea what to say or do. Though I felt angry and humiliated, those weren't my primary emotions. What I felt more strongly than anything was a sense of fascination tangled up with a sense of terror. It was a bizarre feeling, but I couldn't help it. Akabane Karma was frightening, yet more than that, he was alluring and utterly intriguing.

"Hey, Nagisa," Karma continued, using my first name without permission or any honorifics. "Why don't you become my follower? I can tell you're clever. I can also tell you like me. And you can keep a cool head even in a situation like this. Most importantly of all, you're so damn cute. I want someone like you as my follower. Won't you join me, Shiota Nagisa?"

"Do I have a choice?" I asked, a hint of bitterness ringing in my words. "If I say no, you're just going to bully me and do horrible things to me. Right?"

"No, not really." Karma shook his head. "Like I said, you're plenty of fun without me having to do anything to you. You might not be fun anymore if I broke you. That's why I'm asking instead of forcing you. I'll even say please. Nagisa, won't you please become my disciple?"

I considered it seriously, but finally said, "No. I won't become your follower or your disciple. Because that's not what either of us needs. What we both need is a friend. So I'll be your friend, and you should be mine." To make this request to a demon, I must have been not quite right in the head. Of course, I realized this. For one thing, I was in no position to be proposing my own ideas over those of my aggressor. For another, any sane kid would be outraged at the thought of being friendly with a person like Karma. Perhaps I was crazy, but so what? This was what I wanted. As a rule, I always pursued what I wanted, even if it cost me dearly.

Based on the quizzical stare he gave me for a few seconds, Karma must have understood that I wasn't normal at all. However, shortly enough, his expression changed and he chuckled in amusement. "Alright, Nagisa," he said, approaching me and extending his hand out to me. "You're interesting enough for me to compromise this one time. It'll be just like you said. We'll be friends."

"It's a deal." I shook his hand readily.

I'd like to say that such was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. To honest, though, it wasn't beautiful at all. Even though I stayed on friendly terms with Karma, I was always wary of him, and I distanced myself from spending much time alone with him or discussing any serious topics. We only ever talked and hung out in class and during lunch break. It was a shallow friendship. Never having made any truly close friends, Karma at first didn't notice or care that I was acting aloof. Over time, however, he started to realize that I smiled less and talked less when I was with him. He also grew annoyed that I repeatedly refused to hang out with him after classes or on the weekends.

Our relationship became quite strained during the second schoolyear. Karma was always oddly interested in my true thoughts, so once he fully realized how much I was holding back, he became incensed. I had enjoyed our occasional play-fighting, until he started actually beating up on me and winning overwhelmingly every single time. He threatened to seriously hurt me more than once, but he never followed through for some reason.

There were times I seriously wondered if Karma was going to kill me because he was so frustrated. Instead, though, he answered my indifference with an even colder indifference. He grew bored of me and started deliberately ignoring me. When my poor grades caused me to fall into the dreaded E-class for my third year, Karma didn't even say goodbye.

Just a few weeks into the schoolyear, the red-haired demon was also sent to the E-class. He soon became one of the best potential killers in our assassination classroom. At first he acted fairly distant toward the class, but after getting to know us and being advised by Koro-sensei, the red-head's attitude changed. His natural charisma and superficial charm drew everyone to him, and he loved training with the rest of us. Even when we knew he intimidated and tormented people sometimes, we didn't judge him. After all, we were a group of assassins and fighters. It helped that the demon's targets were never members of the E-class, those in his own "circle." Thus Karma transformed from a symbol of fear and delinquency to a widely admired, charming, handsome, and intelligent student.

He and I became friends again, but even so, I didn't fully engage. Akabane Karma was someone with no sense of fear and almost no sense of shame; he lived in a different world from the rest of us. That world still frightened me, not because it was incomprehensible or totally alien to me, but because it seemed like a world I could very easily enter. I didn't think I would be the same person if I let myself look any further into that world. So I shrank away from it, acting friendly on the surface.

*****High School Encounter*****

Four months before my sixteenth birthday, I began attending a private high school called Konishi Koko Gakkuen. It was located only within three kilometers of Kunigigaoka Chugakko, where I had spent the last three years. The most recent schoolyear had been life-changing and unforgettable. It was the year I spent in the E-class, trying to assassinate the mysterious creature we called Koro-sensei. At long last, our class succeeded, and I delivered the killing blow to our beloved teacher.

As I started high school, my heart ached, missing Koro-sensei. Still, things were not as bad as they could have been. It turned out that a handful of the E-class students of Kunigigaoka had gotten into the same high school as me. This included Okuda Manami, Chiba Ryunosuke, Hayami Rinka, Kayano Kaede, Terasaka Ryoma, and of course, Akabane Karma.

My first high school encounter with the red-haired demon was almost the reverse of what had happened during our middle school meeting. This time, Karma was the one in trouble and I was the one to come to the rescue. I thought I heard angry voices on my way home from school, so I stealthily followed the sounds. In a secluded cul-de-sac alley surrounded by tall metal-wire fencing, I saw Karma with his back to the concrete wall. Four other boys surrounded him, most of them second-years. Though Karma was six feet tall, he was thin, and two of his aggressors were noticeably heavier and more muscled than him.

The two weightier boys started beating up on my classmate fiercely, showering him with punches and kicks. Meanwhile, the two lighter, shorter boys stood by watching, laughing, and throwing insults. Most of these insults were to the effect of, "Fag," "Creep," "Hentai," and "Disgusting." There were rumors in circulation that Karma liked to mess around with effeminate boys, but it was difficult to believe he was homosexual because there were just as many rumors about his love dramas with his numerous female admirers. But even if Karma was gay, I didn't care. I still couldn't stand and watch while he was beaten.

It didn't take me long to disable the bullies. The first one fell to the ground and hit his head after I snuck up behind him and kicked his legs out from under him. If I had come from the front, I would have broken his kneecaps; he got off lucky. The second boy reeled back after one of my palm-strikes broke his nose. Defeating the two heavier boys was even simpler, since they were slower. One of them came at me with a powerful punch, and I used his own force against him to flip him over onto the ground. To keep him down, I used one hand to hold his arm in a joint-lock; with my other hand, I slapped the oncoming fourth boy in the ear as hard as I could, and with my hand slightly cupped. This is the kind of attack which damages and/or ruptures the eardrum. Howling in pain, the bully toppled onto the pavement.

"If you don't want any broken bones," I said to the third boy, who was held in place by my submission lock, "then run away or don't move."

I then released the bulky boy and ran over to Karma, where he was still on his hands and knees, covered in dirt and bruises. Behind me, the four assailants made no move to attack again. Karma coughed up a little bit of blood; the bullies might have cracked one of his ribs. I reached down to him.

"Thanks, Nagisa," the red-head said, smiling as I carefully pulled him to his feet. "You helped me out of a real pinch." He started dusting himself off casually.

"What are you talking about?" I demanded, unable to understand. "What were you doing just standing around? It's not like you. Last year, we defeated a monster capable of destroying the world! It should've been easy for you to best some high school punks."

"It would have been easy to kill them, anyway," Karma agreed. "See, I just can't hold back against scum like these guys. If I started fighting back, I definitely would have assassinated them all. I would have enjoyed that very much, of course. But," he reminded me, "there are three things that motivate me, as a rule: curiosity, pleasure, and logical analysis. The benefit of killing those boys—the pleasure—was outweighed by the social consequences of murdering four schoolmates. I have no desire to go to the great lengths necessary to hide the bodies and erase the evidence. Getting caught and going to jail would be problematic. Logically, the only thing to do was put up with their insults and take their beating."

Karma meant everything he said earnestly, and I saw the vicious glint in his eyes that told me he would have, indeed, enjoyed killing his attackers. Speaking of those attackers, they were each getting up off the ground and listening. Based on the looks on their faces, what they heard temporarily petrified them.

"How do you do it, Nagisa?" asked Karma with a melodramatic sigh. "How did you take them down without even really, seriously hurting them? Aren't you tempted to just crush their very existences? Ah, this is why you're still a better killer than me, my friend. Only the best of assassins are able to hold back in cases like this where killing would create such a large headache."

I couldn't help smiling when I saw all four enemy boys take off running. Unlike Karma, I wished to avoid killing because it was morally wrong, not because it would create a headache or cause me trouble down the line. Still, this wasn't the time to argue ethics.

"It doesn't seem like those four will give either of us any trouble anymore," I remarked. "Your speech probably scared a few years off their lives. I'm happy I was able to help this time, Karma-kun. But I won't always be there to watch your back. You need to learn to adapt better to the orderly human society we live in." My concern for him was obvious from my tone.

"I'll tell you I'll change my ways if it makes you feel better," Karma replied. "You deserve to have your mind at ease since you helped me out."

"But if you tell me that, it won't be the truth, will it?" My voice was somber and a little sad.

"You're exactly right," answered Karma. "I shouldn't have to change who I am. Hey, Nagisa. Let's play a game." He took a coin out of his grey trousers. "Do you want heads or tails?"

"Tails, I guess," I replied suspiciously. "But what are we betting about? What kind of game is this?"

"A very simple one, but a big gamble for both of us." Karma winked mischievously. "If it's tails, I become your follower and try to change my ways by learning from an upright person like you. If it's heads—"

"Let me guess," I interrupted. "I have to be your disciple or whatever."

"Hmm, since you guessed what I was going to say, it's not fun to use that one anymore. Let me think." For a moment, Karma paced back and forth, with one hand rubbing at his chin. "How about this?" he suggested. "If it's heads, then you go on a date with me tomorrow night." He chuckled, tickled by my confused expression. "It's not like we'll do anything particularly out of the ordinary. You don't have to act any different from your normal self. I just want to take you around town and show you a good time." That's what he said, but I could tell from Karma's voice and smile that by "going on a date," what he really wanted was for me to let my guard down, be myself, and take a look into his world. If it was just for one evening…

Since graduating middle school, I had become more decisive. "Flip the coin," I ordered.

Karma did so, and then showed me the result. I knew it was heads before I even saw it—his demonic grin made it obvious. I took a deep breath to accept my loss. With that one breath, I let out all my fear, judgement, and arrogant pride. Then I smiled at Karma, looking right into his eyes with the sweetest expression I could muster.

"I would love to go on a date with you," I announced. "But let's not get this backwards. I am the one taking you out on a date. I'll meet you at the ramen shop on Sumire Street tomorrow at eight PM. Don't be late." With that said, I turned and walked home.

Akabane Karma lives in another world. I'm getting ever closer to it, but it's not my world. His world is dark and merciless. Mine is dark too, but there are glimmers of hope within the black. A clear path guides me, showing me the way to live with others and to love them. Karma extended his hand to me and said he would pull me into his world. What he didn't expect was for me to grab him and pull him into mine instead.