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**************THE GIRL IN RED
Opening his eyes, Kusanagi looked blankly up at the white ceiling for a while.
His back was hurting, probably because he had been sleeping on the sofa. Why am I sleeping on the sofa? He thought about it for a moment with his groggy head, then immediately remembered. While biting down a yawn, he got down off the sofa and onto his legs, which had been sticking out. He headed towards the bedroom.
Kusanagi cracked open the door and looked at the two sleeping on the bed. Suou, asleep facing the edge of the bed, and Anna snuggled up to his back. They seemed to be sleeping well, and he could hear them breathing peacefull. Kusanagi smiled wryly and shut the dor.
They ended up clearing out the closet on the second floor of ‘HOMRA’ and renovating it a little to be Anna’s room. It was still in progress, so for the time being, she was going to stay at Kusanagi’s apartment- but since she held on tight to Suou’s clothes when he brought her over and wouldn’t let go, he ended up sleeping over too. Considering everything that had happened to her, they didn’t have the heart to go against her will.
…he thought it probably wouldn’t be a very good habit for her to get into, but he decided they ought to spoil her for today and chased Suou (who was making a face) into the room with Anna. To Kusanagi, it was actually rather unusual and enjoyable to see Suou giving in to Anna’s request despite giving such a pained look.
Kusanagi took a short shower, put on some pants, then tended to the injuries on his arm and shoulder. He held one end of the bandages in his teeth while he wrapped them up. After that, he picked up his phone while toweling off his hair. The person he phoned picked up within a few seconds.
“h.e.l.lo. Good morniiiing.”
“Mornin’. Totsuka, when will you get here?”
From the background of Totsuka’s reply, which was for some reason phrased as a question, Kusanagi could hear the sounds of cars and people arguing.
“Are you outside right now? Are you already coming over?”
“Yeah. I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”
“Did you already eat?”
“Nope. Ah, I bought Anna some strawberry jello and blood orange juice, so include that with breakfast.”
“Got it. Do you want your eggs in an omelette or with bacon?”
“Make it how Anna likes it.”
“She’s still asleep. I’ll wake her up when the food’s ready.”
Kusanagi slipped into a s.h.i.+rt as he was holding that idle conversation. At the same time, he paused for a moment when his eyes settled on his own back being reflected in the mirror. On his right shoulderblade, there was the 'proof’ that he was Suou’s clansman. Seeing that, Kusanagi thought of Anna and absentmindedly let out a bitter laugh.
Anna had become a member of Suou’s clan.
What Kamamoto told them after he woke up hadn’t been very straight to the point. The only thing that was clear was that Honami had come to the Center. And that the 'rabbits’ appeared there. That’s where Kamamoto’s memory cut off. The one who explained the situation was the Strain boy evacuating from the Center who had seen what happened.
According to him, the 'rabbits’ approached Kamamoto who had run up to Honami and he had collapsed onto his back after one of them waved their hand in front of his face. Honami panicked and tried to see to him, but one of the 'rabbits’ did the same thing to her. When the 'rabbit’s’ fingers, poking out from their long sleeve, sparkled, Honami apparently also fell like a doll with its strings cut. A 'rabbit’ caught her, then took her away.
Afterwards, the 'rabbits’ caused a stir by arriving in the middle of the mostly settled fight between Homura and Scepter 4 in the courtyard. Within that fuss, the Strain boy hadn’t been able to decide what to do, so he just went up to the fallen Kamamoto and was sitting by his side. Hearing this, Anna’s already pale skin became even whiter. With a stiff expression, she took a red marble from her pocket, closed her eyes once to calm herself down for concentration, opened her eyes wide, then peeked into the marble.
The time Anna spent staring at somewhere through the marble was about thirty seconds. However, to those watching around her, it felt like a very long time. As she looked into the marble, those around her made no noise or movement. It was a tense atmosphere where they couldn’t. Eventually, Anna relaxed. Her tensed body loosened, and she dropped the arm holding that marble. It wasn’t possible to tell immediately from her expression whether this was from shock or relief.
“Honami is okay.” She spoke in an unreadable voice. Kusanagi became uneasy seeing Anna claim things were alright with such a stiff look, and he asked while watching her.
“…nothing happened to her?”
“Nothing happened.” Said Anna shortly as she looked down.
Kusanagi looked at Suou. Suou was frowning and looking down at Anna.
After arriving, Totsuka had to help prepare breakfast.
“Every time I come over, this place is so clean it gets on my nerves.”
Totsuka looked around the apartment while cutting tomatos up into bite sized pieces. The counter kitchen was big enough for two people to work in it without feeling cramped, the wide living room was nice and sunny, and light softly filtered in through the large window.
“The enrichment of necessities results in the enrichment of life.” Said Kusanagi as he tilted the fry pan and folded the omelette. The cheese in the eggs melted and sizzled. Anna looked in from the bedroom, perhaps lured in by the smell. Totsuka smiled at her.
“Good morning, Anna. Where’s King?”
“Tell him breakfast’s ready and get him up.”
Anna obediently nodded to Kusanagi’s words and returned to the bedroom. Even though he’s the one who asked, he became a bit worried about whether that guy who was horrible about waking up could be awoken by a quiet little girl shaking him.
“What are we going to do about Anna’s clothes for today?”
The blue clothes she had worn yesterday were in tatters from getting dirtied and touched by embers in the fuss. And anyway, if possible, she’d rather not wear them again.
“Wonder if she can’t wear my s.h.i.+rt. If she put it on, it’d be like a one piece dress, wouldn’t it?”
“Maybe… but wouldn’t it be kinda indecent? Somehow.”
As they were talking, Anna reappeared. Who knows how she managed to wake him up, but Suou was behind her. After coming out looking sleepy and in a bad mood, he scratched his head and collapsed into the living room’s couch. Kusanagi smiled wryly and slowly poured some fresh coffee from the server to a cup. Today, they were planning on going to buy clothes for Anna.
After finis.h.i.+ng breakfast, they managed to get together Anna’s clothes for going out. When they asked her if she’d rather wear her messed up blue clothes from yesterday or Kusanagi’s s.h.i.+rt, she ended up choosing the s.h.i.+rt. Totsuka gathered it up at the shoulder and pinned it with a safety pin, then tied a cloth cord at the waist like a ribbon. The sleeves, which were too long, were also tied up at the shoulders with cord. The shoulders, full of pins and cords and other things, were hidden under a scarf, so that it looked surprisingly like just clothes of that design and actually looked cute. As they walked through the town, Anna held on to Suou’s clothes, and was looking all around uneasily. Totsuka spoke to her from behind.
“Head on in to any store and pick the one you like, okay?”
It was a street with various clothing stores, but Anna just walked by them all while looking troubled at them from outside.
“I guess it might just make it harder to say anything’s fine.” Totsuka tilted his head at Anna, who shrunk back a little.
“Is there any kinda outfit you particularly like?” When Kusanagi asked, Anna’s gaze still wavered in an unsure way.
“I guess she doesn’t really fit the image of a normal kid. Maybe she’d look good in a frilly dress kind of thing after all?”
“But that’s that Center chief’s taste, isn’t it.”
“Mm, I guess…”
As Totsuka and Kusanagi talked and twisted their necks, Anna looked up at them and spoke.
“I liked the shape of those clothes… Honami also said they were cute.”
Kusanagi felt guilty about making Anna bring up Honami, but she looked peaceful.
“Hurry up and choose.”
Suou glanced back at Anna and said that like this was a pain. He sounded bored already, even though they hadn’t entered a single store yet. Anna didn’t look scared at all by his bad mood, and if anything she seemed to calm down a little and looked around the area. Suddenly, her eyes stopped on a certain shop’s window.
Taking along Anna who had confirmed Honami’s safety through her red marble, Suou left the Center and headed towards Honami’s apartment.
He felt a little regret.
The reason why she had left the bar- not only left it, but probably gone to some extreme lengths to do so as he had left some Homura members there- was likely because he hadn’t explained things to her properly. It wasn’t something that could be explained away easily, and Suou was bad at talking over things or persuading people in the first place. But he hadn’t felt like leaving it up to Kusanagi or Totsuka either, and had ended up practically threatening her. In the end, those threats hadn’t worked on her. He should have known how stubborn she was when it came down to it.
Anna didn’t say a word. When they arrived at Honami’s apartment, she also didn’t speak as they went up the stairs, and simply held on to Suou’s clothes as she moved her legs. Anna had confirmed Honami’s safety with her power. In which case, it had to be the case. As he thought that, Suou rang the doorbell. There was an immediate response. After the sound of someone rus.h.i.+ng through the apartment, the door opened.
“Oh my, Suou-kun.”
Honami saw Suou at the door and a smile bloomed on her face. Suou frowned questioningly at how normal her smile was. Suddenly, Honami’s eyes landed at Anna, who was beside Suou. However, she didn’t act glad at Anna’s safety, and merely tilted her head in confusion.
“…Is this Suou-kun’s little sister?”
…So that’s how it is.
Suou bit down bitter feelings in silence. He had certainly considered the possibility of Honami’s memories being sealed by the 'rabbits’. There wasn’t any other reason for them to have gone out of their way to take her. If she had been made to not remember what had happened at the Center today, then while his feelings on that were complicated he did think it was for the best.
Suou looked down at Anna. She showed no sign of being moved, and stared up at Honami. While searching for Honami with her powers, Anna had likely learned of her condition. She had already known that her presence in Honami’s heart had been painted over, and she had accepted it.
…You oughta cry.
Suou thought that as he looked at Anna’s doll-like expression. Even if crying and begging Honami to remember her wouldn’t break the 'rabbit’s’ spell, it would certainly move Honami’s heart. Even if Anna right now was a complete stranger, if she cried and wanted for Honami, then Honami would probably try to accept her. She’s that sort of person.
But Anna didn’t shed a single tear.
“It’s okay.” She said that in a clear voice to Suou, while looking at Honami. As though she had seen right through Suou’s heart. Honami spoke in a confused voice.
“…Suou-kun… is something… wrong?” He looked at her and frowned.
“…what’s wrong with YOU?”
Honami was crying.
Her eyes were open wide, and shedding tear after tear. She looked confused as she caught her falling tears in her hands. She stared at them in confusion, as Suou could only watch. Suddenly, Anna moved. Her small hand took Honami’s. As though trying to comfort Honami, Anna held Honami’s pale hands tightly, and slowly changed her expression.
Letting go of her doll-like expression, she loosened her tight face. It turned into a smile, a smile that even Suou would have to laugh at as awkward.
“Don’t cry.” With that awkward smile, she spoke kindly to Honami.
Honami blinked. Tears were spilled by her long eyelashes.
“You’re…” Honami looked at Anna in a way that was confused, that was pained, that was fretful. Suou saw that and let out a long sigh.
“I’m sorry I was a bad student until the end.” He said while roughly wiping her tear-streaked cheek on his palm.
“What are you saying?”
“…no.” He laughed a little, bitterly.
He turned away. 'Suou-kun?’ She asked in a confused way, but he didn’t turn around again. After a pause, Anna’s tiny footsteps followed. He listened to that as he silently walked away. They left the apartment, then pa.s.sed through the park across from it. Without speaking a word, and keeping up a strange distance. Suou frowned in a foul mood, kept his hands in his pockets, and just slowed down enough for Anna to keep up.
When they pa.s.sed the park’s entrance, Anna abruptly stopped behind him. After going on a bit further, he stopped and turned around. Anna was staring at him with a transparent expression. It was an empty park. Suou didn’t know this, but it was the place where Totsuka and Kusanagi had once tried to convince Anna and failed.
Anna called him quietly, and held out her hands to him as though asking for something.
“I want Mikoto’s red.”
Suou s.h.i.+fted slightly inside at those straightforward words. Anna was both an immature and dangerous Strain. As Mizuchi had been obsessed with her, she also held an ability that would make her easily targeted by others. Going by how the 'rabbits’ had erased her from Honami’s memory, it likely meant that they no longer thought it safe to leave her with civilians. However, it was just after that fuss. The red clan wouldn’t allow for her to be taken in by the golden clan. In other words, the golden clan was compromising by allowing the red clan to keep Anna.
It could also be seen as the red clan being told to take responsibility. However, even now, Suou was still unsure.
…Am I scared? Of being entrusted with one brat’s life.
The heaviness he felt as he increased his comrades. Sometimes, Suou would feel a discomfort he could do nothing about as he was entrusted with people’s lives and feelings as king. It slightly resembled fear.
“I don’t plan on throwing you out… but I can’t guarantee anything, either.”
“That’s fine.” Anna replied immediately to Suou’s unfair wording.
“I’m going to follow Mikoto because that’s what I want to do.” Her eyes didn’t waver.
“Mikoto doesn’t have to promise anything.”
Suou felt as though he had completely lost to her, and smiled a little, bitterly. He slowly held one hand out to her. In front of her, his hand was surrounded in red flame. The red glow reflected on her pale cheeks and danced. Anna’s eyes, which could only see red, stared at his flame.
“Can you take this hand?”
Suou said that in a way that was still a little unsure, but Anna didn’t hesitate even a moment. She grabbed his hand with both of hers, and treating it as if it were a precious treasure, she hugged it to her chest. The fire spread from Suou’s hand to her whole body. It was a flame of providence, which would never burn her.
Scepter 4 was to be disbanded.
The first person s.h.i.+otsu informed of that was no his own subordinates, but rather someone who used to be his comrade.
“I dragged it on for ten years, but… really, I should have done it back then… like you.”
The person on the other end of the phone didn’t try to reply. He never said anything more than he needed, only did what was needed, and had decided his own retirement.
“Directly after the previous leader’s death, when you left Scepter 4, I felt like I had been abandoned and resented you… but your decisions are always correct.”
The burden of being replacement leader had been too heavy for s.h.i.+otsu. He had tried to carry around a burden too heavy for him to walk around with, and let the important things spill out of his hands as everything became twisted.
“If you had become the replacement instead of me, maybe things would’ve been different… Zenjou.”
The man who had once been the blue king’s right hand made no reply after all to s.h.i.+otsu’s whisper, which was like a complaint. s.h.i.+otsu smiled bitterly at this situation, where he seemed to be talking to himself at a terminal.
“Anyway, I just wanted to report. I guess it’s something you wouldn’t be interested in anymore, though.”
Zenjou called his name. Across the terminal, his deep voice struck s.h.i.+otsu’s ears.
“I’m sorry.” It was a flatly delivered apology. But s.h.i.+otsu smiled wryly as he felt the many meanings stuffed into those short words.
“…that’s my line.”
Another blue king would surely be born someday. However, s.h.i.+otsu was no longer fit to serve the new king. He closed his eyes, then imagined the new king in his mind.
Ending his call to his old acquaintance, s.h.i.+otsu finally noticed a presence within the room. Minato Hayato and Minato Akito, the twin brothers, were standing at the door.
“Scepter 4’s disbanding?” Said the older black-haired twin, Minato Hayato, in a dazed voice. The twins, who had always worn masklike expressions, were visibly shaken.
“Meaning, Scepter 4’s going to get taken apart along with the Center?” The younger brown-haired twin, Minato Akito said that. His voice was wavering thinly.
s.h.i.+otsu softened his wrinkled expression.
“…yes. But, either way, it was about time.”
s.h.i.+otsu felt guilty as he watched the twins’ faces. They had become clansmen as children, and what they used for support after their king had died on them was their 'cause’. However, that cause had become twisted as the twins became stronger. 'Rules’ became everything, and they judged anyone who broke those rules under the name of their cause. However, in the end, that cause was nothing but an excuse for them to use their special powers.
“I’m sorry.” s.h.i.+otsu said quietly.
He was responsible for these two remaining children as their bodies and not their hearts grew, and for letting them grow twisted. He remembered the look on their king’s face ten years ago as the two of them begged to be made clansmen and he allowed it.
“…a new blue king will be born, I’m sure… If you two want to serve them, you’ll probably need to change.”
The twins twisted their faces at s.h.i.+otsu’s words.
“…It’s not like,”
“-we want to serve a new king.”
s.h.i.+otsu smiled wryly at the twins, who shared their words between them. He remembered how the two of them had innocently looked up to their previous king.
“Yeah.” To him as well, there would only ever be one king.
'Yeah’, he whispered to himself once more, relaxed as he let out a long sigh, and quietly closed his eyes.
Deep red clothes with lots of lace.
The sleeves were flared, and so was the skirt that went down just a bit past her knees. Placed on the side of her hair was a little red hat. It was tied down on the opposite side by a red ribbon. Her shoes were also red with s.h.i.+ny enamel. Wearing that, Anna looked down at herself, and turned around and around trying to twist around and see herself from behind as well. As usual, it was difficult to read her expression and tell whether she was excited about her new clothes or confused by them.
However, the air about her was soft.
Anna and company who returned to 'HOMRA’ were welcomed by the members of Homura. Everyone knew that she had become Suou’s clansman. They were a bit unsure how to act, since they had never had someone like a little girl for a clansmate before, but they still welcomed her brightly.
“Man, you really do look better in red, don’t you?” Yata tried to do something unusual by praising a girl’s clothes, but it seemed like it hadn’t really gotten across, and Anna just tilted her head in confusion. Kamamoto brought a bunch of candy and spread it out across the table.
“Here, eat whichever one you want.”
As always, Fus.h.i.+mi watched from as distance as the members of Homura fussed around Anna. Suou sank into the sofa beside Anna, and watched her and the guys around her sleepily. Kusanagi was working on the preparations to open the bar that night. Totsuka was also behind the counter and helping out.
“Mikoto always put on a face like he didn’t know what to do with her, but now that he’s given up, they might actually get along pretty well.” Said Kusanagi from behind the counter as he watched the two of them. Totsuka smiled and nodded.
“Doesn’t look like there’d be much conversation, though.”
Totsuka suddenly thought about something while checking on the ingredients.
“Say, if Anna had really become king… I wonder what kind of king she’d have been.” It was the sort of conversation that could be had because Anna was safe. Kusanagi smiled and joined in.
“She’s a bright kid. She might’ve actually been a much better king than someone like Mikoto.” He said that jokingly, and Totsuka lightly laughed.
“I bet they would’ve gotten along as kings, too.”
While finis.h.i.+ng up the cooking Kamamoto had started for them, Kusanagi looked away a little as though thinking.
“…before that, I wonder… what exactly IS a 'king’, anyway.”
Mizuchi, who had been charmed by the 'Slate’ into his own destruction. He didn’t feel even a shred of desire to understand that guy, but even then, he also felt like he wanted to know about the 'Slate’ which chose 'kings’ and gave them power.
“To Mikoto, a throne is just a chain.” Kusanagi said that quietly, like he was talking to himself.
Totsuka, Kusanagi, and the other members of Homura, were all chains holding Suou down. Totsuka was well aware of that, and thought that that was his most important role.
And now, Suou had put on a new, innocent chain.
“But I won’t let anyone say he’s unhappy.” Totsuka told Kusanagi with a smile.
He couldn’t truly understand the smoldering gloom within Suou, or the burden Suou held.
However, Totsuka didn’t believe that this place called Homura which had gathered around Suou was not giving him any sort of repose.
“It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, it’ll all work out!” When Totsuka said that so optimistically with a smile, it infected Kusanagi and he smiled back.
Within Anna’s left eye, there was a faint warmth.
That was the proof of the flame she received from Suou. She didn’t have the same 'proof’ on her skin that her comrades did. She was a bit disappointed by that, but if she looked closely into a mirror, she could sometimes see the 'proof’ in her left eye.
Surrounded by everyone on the bar’s sofa, Anna gently put her hand to her chest. She had the red she received from him in there. When she was beside Suou, the red within her body would lightly hold heat, and become warm. Anna looked quietly up at Suou sitting beside her. He was staring off into s.p.a.ce sleepily. His form took on color within her formerly monochrome world. Suou’s body was always faintly surrounded by the fierce red light he held, which was more beautiful than anything else. As though looking at a treasure, Anna dearly burned Suou into her eyes.
A faint smile rose to her face.
…Mikoto’s red is prettiest.