They buried Mikoto on a Sunday. It was cold, the sun obscured by gray clouds. No snow.
Izumo could have spoken, could have made a grand affair of it. His King was dead, after all. A new King had yet to emerge, leaving Homra temporarily disbanded. He could have given them a show, lead them in their mourning. He could have gathered all the former clansmen and launched them at Scepter 4 in a suicidal charge in which most, grief-stricken and perpetually searching for the next violent act, would have willingly participated.
Instead, he kept back, let Yata say what he wanted, let each grieve in his own way.
The truth was, ever since Totsuka's death, Izumo had known his King was fading. It was a bitter realization. Mikoto's desire to live had been intrinsically connected to his desire for revenge against the Colorless King. Izumo had wanted revenge as well- all of Homra had. They would have wanted it for any clansman. Mikoto, however, had only wanted revenge. Except for the hatred fueling the revenge, he had wanted nothing.
Izumo had been grieving his King for weeks. He just hadn't known how to tell anyone.
Anna held his hand, her eyes large and tear-filled. The last few days had been even quieter than normal, Anna sitting silently at the bar, eating little and drinking less. In the span of a month, she had lost the two people who had been most like parents to her. In the next few weeks, if a new Red King failed to emerge, she would lose even more family. Izumo suspected that the core clansmen would remain, but the rest... many would disappear, some sooner than others.
Izumo could take it. He had been there from the start, when the Red Clan was nothing more than Mikoto and him.
"Anna," he said quietly, shaking her hand to get her attention. "Let's go home."
He pretended not to notice that only a handful of clansmen followed them.
Within a week, twenty clansmen left. Less than half informed Izumo directly. He simply assumed the rest weren't coming back.
Within two weeks, that number doubled, a list even appearing under the front door after he had locked up for the night. Izumo had read the names with apathy before crumpling the paper and putting it in the trashcan out back.
A month after Mikoto had been laid to rest, only ten people remained- probably, Izumo thought with only a trace of bitterness in the great void of numb that made up his emotions these days, because they had no other life to go back to. He should tell them to leave, to find somewhere else, to stop reminding them and him of what had been and never would be again. Instead, he said nothing when Yata or Kamamoto stood around, talking in oddly hushed voices. Instead, he let Eric sit in a corner, watching everyone even more silently than Anna, while Fujishima pretended not to be watching him. They brought a bit of normalcy to his day, gave him someone to listen to if not to talk to. These days, Izumo didn't do much talking.
In fact, he didn't do much of anything. He didn't go out looking for Munakata Reisi or the Colorless King. He didn't wonder why no one knew what had happened to Weismann after that day at the high school. Mostly, he cleaned his bar, only leaving to purchase groceries or cigarettes. Kamamoto, aghast that Izumo was allowing Anna to get to school on her own, now took her most days. Izumo wasn't quite sure who took her on the others. He thought it might be Chitose, for unexplained reasons.
It was hard to remember that he had Anna to take care of, too. She had always clung to Mikoto or been content to be largely alone. It was hard to remember that she wasn't even a teenager yet. It was hard to remember that she was relying on him for everything now.
Everything had become difficult when Izumo wasn't looking. Small things, like taking out the garbage or walking to the store took so much more energy than they had before. Listening to Shohei recount the highlights of his day was exhausting. Looking at the door to Mikoto's room and thinking once again about cleaning it out left Izumo staring blankly at his bedroom ceiling for hours.
Some days, Izumo simply didn't leave his bed. He would leave the back door unlocked for Kamamoto and trust that Anna would get to school. She was old enough to put together a decent breakfast, he figured. There was always enough food for when she returned. The reputation of the bar would likely be enough to keep any strangers from breaking in.
His regular customers became used to odd hours, the bar being closed more often than open. Izumo had money saved away. He didn't need to work to live through another day. He was not sure he even wanted to.
Izumo's greeting to his latest customer was lackluster under the most generous of terms. He honestly did not care.
When he saw whom his bar had been graced with, he cracked a small, tired smile and began mixing a martini with bean paste.
"And how are you this fine day, Seri-chan?"
"I am here on official business, Kusanagi. I have no time for drinks." Izumo could see that. In other circumstances, he would have been surprised at her coming in here in full uniform.
"There is always time for drinks. Sit, mademoiselle."
She looked at him oddly for several long seconds before taking a barstool.
"You look awful," she said bluntly.
Izumo nodded absently, as though he weren't listening. He was, but the words had no impact. Very little did these days.
"You look wonderful as always, mademoiselle." He placed the martini in front of Awashima and leaned forward against the bar. She stirred it, turning the pretty green liquid into a murky sludge. "What official business is this, then?"
She studied Izumo, sighing before producing an envelope.
"From the Blue King to Homra."
"There is no Homra."
"Which is why I brought it to you. Fushimi has attempted to contact members of your gang regarding this information, but his attempts have been... unsuccessful."
"Indeed." She took a sip of her martini before standing. "Do what you will with the contents of that letter. My objective was only to bring it here."
Izumo did not bother to watch her leave. He trashed what was left in the glass and left the envelope where it was.
It stayed there for three weeks.
Once upon a time, Izumo's greatest irritation in life was a horse in the front room of his bar. Back then, he sorely wished Mikoto was more discriminatory in regards to whom he let in Homra. At the very least, a basic intelligence test would be nice.
Now, he wondered if maybe Mikoto had the right of it after all. People were people. There would always be some who would leave and some who would stay, but the most loyal were the ones no one else had been willing to give a chance.
Izumo didn't have much irritation anymore. There wasn't anyone fighting in his bar or bringing in stray animals. Desperate girls weren't begging Izumo for Chitose's whereabouts. Bando and Shohei weren't necking out by the trashcans in the middle of a meeting. Everything was very quiet, very calm.
Izumo missed the insanity a bit when he was sweeping a spotless floor and there was no Yata threatening to kill anyone, no Totsuka trying to keep the peace. Anyone who came into the bar talked quietly or not at all.
"What's this?" Fujishima asked while Izumo was dusting the jukebox for the second time that week. It was Tuesday and, according to Kamamoto when he had returned with Anna, a beautiful day outside. Izumo wouldn't know.
Izumo glanced at the envelope Fujishima was holding up before looking away disinterestedly.
"It's from the Blues. Likely an apology of some sorts."
"It has dust on it."
"Are you going to open it?"
"No," Izumo answered honestly. Eric scooted out of the way as Izumo turned his attention to the windowsill.
Fujishima placed the envelope back on the bar and didn't mention it again. If it weren't for his propensity for bringing in stray things, Izumo would have liked Fujishima very much.
"Anna got an award at school yesterday," Kamamoto told him one morning. Izumo couldn't recall what day of the week it was or the date. It was late February, he knew that, or maybe early March. Kamamoto's hair was getting long, and he wasn't eating much.
"Did she?" Izumo tried to sound interested. Kamamoto had begun returning to the bar after he dropped Anna off at school, wanting a drink or to talk to Izumo about this or that. If Izumo wasn't downstairs, he would go up and rouse him out of bed just to mix something nonalcoholic at a quarter to ten in the morning. Needless to say, Izumo wasn't exactly thrilled to be talking to the man again.
He had considered locking the door, but he couldn't very well lock Kamamoto out if he was coming all this way because of an emergency involving Anna or the others. He had also tried it once and had Kamamoto, with Yata's help, nearly break down the bar's fully steel back door before he could stop them. A lot of their strength had been lost when the Aura left them, but a lot of it had never had anything to do with Auras.
"For English. She's the best in her grade. Eric's been helping her."
"Hmm?" Kamamoto repeated, not realizing how little emotion Izumo was willing to invest in this conversation.
"Hmm," Izumo confirmed, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"She'd rather you had helped her. Eric doesn't talk about anything interesting, she says."
"When does Anna talk to Eric?" Izumo hadn't seen Eric around lately, not that he paid too much attention to him. Eric could become all but invisible when he wanted. Izumo preferred not to think about why Eric had learned that particular skill. There wasn't much pleasant about Eric's past.
"When she's over at his and Kosuke's apartment." Kamamoto gave him a look that was a strange amalgam of exhaustion, worry, and frustration. "They moved in together about a month ago, remember?" Izumo didn't remember, didn't even have the feeling that he should remember. The last time he had given any thought to Fujishima's living arrangements had been ages ago. "Well, she goes over there and Eric helps her with her English. And she'd rather it be you who helped her." The frustration was growing in Kamamoto's eyes.
Izumo sucked in a lungful of smoke and crossed an arm over his chest. He tilted his head back and studied the ceiling for a long moment.
"What do you want from me, Kamamoto?" he asked, letting the smoke escape out of the corner of his mouth. "Why do you keep coming back here?"
Kamamoto, his mouth slack in amazement, stared at him.
"What do I want from you, Kusanagi-san? I want you to care. I want you to stop acting like your life ended when Mikoto-san left us. People need you. Anna's just a little kid. She's lost so many people; she doesn't deserve to lose you, too."
"I haven't gone anywhere."
"No, but you're not the same person you used to be."
Kamamoto let out a frustrated noise and pushed away from the bar.
"Yes, Kusanagi-san, people change. But not like this. Make whatever excuses you want. I can't stop you. But you should know Anna misses you. We all miss you."
Kamamoto slammed the front door on his way out. Izumo sighed.
"Maybe you shouldn't," he said, stubbing his cigarette out in the nearest ashtray. "Maybe you should all just me go."
On a certain level, Izumo knew he was not the only one who was grieving nor the only one who had changed. There was a pallor over all of them that made conversations drift into silence, that made smiles difficult to hold. Even Shohei's natural cheer was muted, toned down.
Izumo had thought- well, he was not going to voice what he thought Yatagarasu was going to do those first few days afterward. Something or someone had pulled the former vanguard back but had not managed to heal the pain of Mikoto's loss. Izumo had spent many strangely silent moments with Yata before Yata would break down and sob into the nearest surface. Izumo let him every time, sometimes hustling him up the stairs to an empty bed when Yata had cried himself into exhaustion. Yata had always had emotion to spare.
As for Izumo, he was numb. He was disassociated, drifting through life without purpose or desire, unable to reconnect and uncertain whether he wanted to. Numb was neither pleasant nor unpleasant: it was an in-between where nothing and no one could hurt you, not even memories.
Did he want to feel again? Did he want to become like Yata, barely held together and falling apart every few hours? In the numbness, nothing could hurt him.
"Are you afraid?"
Izumo blinked, partially in surprise that Eric was talking to him and partially to adjust to the sudden English. It was- it was May, if Izumo was right. Yes, it was May. He had done April's inventory two weeks ago.
"Am I what?"
"Afraid, scared, terrified. Of what you might find in there." He nodded at the letter on Izumo's counter, barely moved since Fujishima had touched it.
"And why would I be afraid of a letter?" Izumo asked. Despite the steadiness of his voice, he could not deny the racing of his heart. He had left Munakata's letter there for a reason. It was easier to ignore it, to put it off until another day, than to open it or to throw it away.
"Because it might have answers."
"And what answers would those be?"
When you look into the eyes of a scared animal, Fujishima had told him once, you could see all the pain and suffering inside, and you couldn't help but want to help it. Perhaps there was something wrong with Izumo's vision because he had never been able to see that, not in any animal, certainly not in Eric. What he saw in Eric then was a fathomless look that said I have seen and lived through more horrors than you have ever known, and what you fear is less than any of that.
"I know everything I need to know," Izumo said. It was a poor excuse even to his own ears.
"Then what are you afraid of?"
Everything, Izumo wanted to say. I'm afraid Munakata's answers will make sense and I won't be able to hate him. I'm afraid the Colorless King is still out there and Mikoto's death was for nothing. I'm afraid that if I open that letter, I might learn something I never wanted to know.
"You can feel him, when he's in your head."
"Who?" But Izumo knew. The Colorless King.
"You can hear him. He taunts you, trying to find a weak spot. Did you know memories can be a weakness?" Eric paused, looking thoughtful. "Just memories." He paused again and frowned. "I don't have too many happy memories. The ones I do have I like to hold onto. When I was with my old gang- after my parents died- those memories kept me going.
"And that's how he got in. He told me I had never left Hikawa and Kosuke had never found me. I broke. My new memories were so much better than the old, I couldn't take the idea that it was all in my head.
"Since I woke up, I've been thinking that memories are dangerous things. If you get caught up in them, you might as well be living in your head. I've spent a lot of my life living in my own head. Memories can protect you and they can make you happy, but they can also make you miss out on life. I have scars I don't know how I got. That's how deep I've gone. Mystery scars."
"Would you rather remember them?" Izumo asked quietly.
Eric studied his knuckles, the only parts of his hands that weren't covered by his sleeves. Fujishima and Yata, in his own way, had broken down a lot of Eric's barriers, but no one had been able to get him to wear less concealing clothing. Even in July, he wore long sleeves. But they had all caught glimpses of what Eric was hiding.
"No. But it can't be a good way to go through life. What if I could have escaped earlier if I had been paying more attention or what if I missed something important? What if I made my life that much harder because I didn't want to live in the real world?"
Eric looked up from his knuckles. Izumo had to swallow hard, realizing, for the first time, that the strange marks decorating the webbing between Eric's fingers were cigarette burns.
"I know, I know. Kosuke tells me it's not my fault, too. It doesn't stop me from thinking that, bad as real life can be sometimes, it's better to live it than to get hung up on old memories. I also can't help thinking that I wouldn't be here right now if Kosuke had been living in his own head, if he didn't look outside his own life all the time." Eric huffed. "That was long. There are some things I can't say in Japanese; things don't turn out right. And there are things Kosuke doesn't understand."
"He's a good person."
"He is," Eric agreed. "Too good."
"Shohei," Izumo said, making the brunet raise his head from the conversation he was having with Chitose and Dewa. The bar was packed with former Homra members and more than a few regulars. Izumo could use the business, don't get him wrong, but he was mystified as to why they were all there. He gestured at Shohei."Come over here. I want to ask you something."
"What can I do for you, Kusanagi-san?" Shohei asked cheerfully. He was always so cheerful, always smiling. In a way, he reminded Izumo of another person he had lost.
"Why is it everyone is hanging around here today?"
Shohei's smile faltered a bit. "Do you not want us here, Kusanagi-san? I can ask everyone to leave, if that's what you want..."
It was exactly what Izumo wanted, but for Totsuka's memory's sake, he could not bear to say so.
"It isn't that. I was simply wondering why they are all here."
Shohei scrunched his face up.
"Well...it's a bar, isn't it?"
Izumo's eye twitched. Yes, it was a bar.
"Wouldn't you rather go somewhere more..." -Izumo was at a loss for words, a rare occurrence- "lively?"
"Ah, Kusanagi-san," Shohei said, scratching the back of his head. "We don't need lively. Your company is enough for us."
Chuckling, Izumo reached out and patted the top of the idiot's head. He was a good kid, not least for putting up with Bando. There was a relationship Izumo consistently failed to understand.
It was not the hardest those doors had ever hit the walls, but the force was certainly more than necessary. Izumo jerked his hand back at the abuse, taking Shohei's flame-bedecked hat with it. He glared at the newcomers before recognizing them. The bar had become deadly quiet.
"Lieutenant Awashima Seri...and associates," Izumo said. "Welcome."
Seri strode towards him. She grasped him by the scarf and yanked him halfway across the bar. A disgruntled murmur arose from around the room. Kamamoto cracked his knuckles.
"Are you ever going to answer it?" she hissed.
"Mademoiselle, there are many things I have yet to answer."
"Damnit, Kusanagi, this is not a game!" She looked around, staring down the occupants of the room. "All nonessential personnel clear the room. Now!"
No one moved, except for a single regular who had enough common sense to listen to a furious Blue lieutenant. He scuttled out the front door.
"Kamamoto, put your phone away," Izumo said. "All of you, out." He gave Seri a level look or as level a one as he could manage while being partially asphyxiated. "Your turn, Awashima."
With an indelicate growl, Seri released her grip and ordered her men out.
"Please remind your men that they have an unfair advantage now," Izumo told her as he pulled a cigarette from his pack. "Care to light it? No, you wouldn't."
"I want an answer, Izumo."
"To what?" On account of his door and her ill-treatment of it, Izumo was filled with an odd sense of bravado, an almost need to toy with her. He had never been anything but polite to her, but now all he felt was a viciousness growing. "Ah, the letter. Of course."
"Have you even read it?" Seri snapped.
"No." Izumo lit his cigarette himself.
Letting out a strangled sound, Seri dropped onto a barstool and put her head in her hands, resting her elbows on the table.
"Munakata has been awaiting your answer. He grows more and more impatient with each passing day."
"Seri-chan, that letter is addressed to a clan that no longer exists. You told me so when you gave it to me. What would you have me do with it?"
Her hands balled into fists, another unusual display of temper from the normally composed clanswoman.
"Read it, answer it, do what any de factor leader would do: take care of things! The Blue Clan held together for ten years until a King appeared! You act as though your clan disbanded when your King died. Have you forgotten that your King appeared after Kagutsu and he after another? Damnit, Izumo, Homra still exists."
Izumo laughed. It was not a pleasant sound.
"Do you know why we were called Homra, Seri-chan? Do you know why you came to me and not someone else? Mikoto named the clan after this bar. We were two idiotic teenagers sitting around, trying to find a name for ourselves. Mikoto looked at the sign and said, 'Homra. We'll be Homra.' There wasn't anyone else around to tell us otherwise, no wise, experienced, former Red clansman to tell us what to do. There was only us. The Red Clan does not stay together after its King dies. When a new King appears, new people will rally around him."
Seri's eyes looked unusually reflective, but that could have been the light. She was silent for a long time.
"Am I going to end up like you?" she asked finally. "If Captain dies, will I just be a shell pretending to still be alive? Izumo, when the day comes, what do I do?" She buried her head in her hands and yanked on her beautiful hair hard enough to make Izumo wince.
"Izumo," she sighed, "I'm so afraid. I don't want to end up like you."
Izumo did not know how to take that, so he tapped off his ash and smoked some more.
"You don't even care if you live or die anymore. Your clansmen need you and you don't even care. If this is what happens to Homra, how will Scepter 4 ever survive?"
The clash of steel against steel from outside made Seri swear and Izumo put out his cigarette and look towards the door.
Unsurprisingly, Yata, despite the fact that Izumo had not seen him all day, was at the center of the commotion. The sound they had heard had most likely been his skateboard against Doumyouji's saber.
Bando was bleeding from a cut to his shoulder and Chitose looked fit to do something atrociously stupid, but Scepter 4 was easily outnumbered, seven to two. No, three. Fushimi must have been lurking nearby the whole time.
"Call your men off!" Seri yelled. "They're going to get themselves killed!"
"Only if your Blues can kill them," Izumo answered dryly. He had his bets on Yata's and Eric's abilities to defend themselves. Neither had been what anyone would call benign before.
"Fushimi!" Seri barked. "Resolve this!"
Clicking his tongue in aggravation, Fushimi pushed off from the wall he was leaning against.
"Mi-sa-ki~" he sing-songed, "aren't you a little short to be play-fighting?"
"WHAT?! WHAT DID YOU CALL ME, YOU DAMN MONKEY?!"
Crisis averted. Izumo turned to go back into his bar.
Izumo glanced back at Seri.
"Don't you care at all?"
His hands itched for a new cigarette. He felt exhausted from doing next to nothing. He wasn't their King. He wasn't their anything.
And- and Fushimi would not kill Yata. He might hurt Yata some, but not worse than Yata had been hurt before. No, not worse than Yata had been hurt before. Izumo did not have to get involved. He did not have to do anything at all.
"What do I want from you, Kusanagi-san? I want you to care. I want you to stop acting like your life ended when Mikoto-san left us."
"Memories are dangerous things. If you get caught up in them, you might as well be living in your head."
"The Blue Clan held together for ten years until a new King appeared!"
"Mikoto looked at the sign and said 'Homra. We'll be Homra.'"
Homra was not the Red Clan. Homra was a bar Izumo had bought a long time ago because he had loved the architecture and the way light filtered in through the windows. Homra was a name Mikoto had chosen because… because why? Because he was terrible at giving names beyond basic word association? Because he had not cared enough to think of something more original? Or was it because, perhaps, he had wanted to establish that they were more than the Red Clan, that they were what he and Izumo had created, the conjunction of power and location?
"Mikoto looked at the sign and said 'Homra. We'll be Homra.'"
"'Homra. We'll be Homra.'"
"'We'll be Homra.'"
Homra was not the Red Clan. Homra had never been simply the Red Clan. Izumo would be reaching to think that Mikoto had meant for Homra to outlast the Red Clan, but the name was there. These idiots fighting in front of his bar were no longer Red clansmen, but they were Homra. And Mikoto had not often given Izumo orders. He had trusted Izumo to know what to do or to figure it out if he did not.
More often than not, Izumo had called the shots when it came to the clansmen. More often than not, it had been his word keeping them in line.
"'We'll be Homra.'"
Yata's head jerked up in surprise. Even Fushimi looked mildly startled.
"Get back inside," Izumo said. He looked at each former clansmen in turn. "All of you."
"Yes, Kusanagi-san," Yata said, his voice filled with unhappiness. He picked up his skateboard and trailed after the others, looking back at Fushimi with a determined expression that promised a rematch.
"You said Homra was over," Yata accused, leaning against his upright skateboard. "That means you can't boss us around anymore."
"I can if you need common sense knocked into you," Izumo returned. "You're not as strong as you used to be, Yatagarasu." Yata bristled. "None of us are. We have to be more careful in what fights we pick. Some of us more than others." Izumo was looking right at Yata again.
"I'm still plenty strong!" Yata protested hotly. "I can take anyone I want."
"Not if you want to win. The Blues are stronger than us now. If you attack them, you are not going to win."
"So, what? We just give up?!"
"You don't pick fights!" Izumo snapped. "You don't go out and make people want to kick your ass!" He glanced around the room, leveling a hard look at each clansman in turn. "You act smart. You stay away from other clans when you can, and you leave gangs alone unless you outnumber them. Fight to defend, not simply to fight. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Kusanagi-san," they chorused.
"Good. We need to lay low for now. We are weaker without a King, but we do not have to be weak, do you understand? We just have to be smart about how we do things."
"But you said-"
"I was wrong. Homra isn't over. The Red Clan is without a King, but Homra is not over. We are Homra."
A small hand tugged on Izumo's pant leg. He looked down.
"Are you sure?"
Izumo knelt, placing his hands on Anna's tiny shoulders.
"About what, Anna-chan?"
Anna had never been verbose and yet Izumo understood her perfectly.
"Yes, Anna-chan, I'm sure."
Her big, red eyes widened and she gasped, falling into him in a tight embrace. Izumo hugged her back just as closely.
"We're Homra," Kamamoto said, contracting Izumo's words.
"Yeah!" Yata said, raising his hand in a fist. "We're Homra!"
"We're Homra," Chitose repeated, followed by Dewa and Fujishima. The others repeated the word like a mantra, their voices rising in a chant.
When Kamamoto lead the cries of "No blood! No bone! No ash!" Izumo could see the change that came over all of their faces. For the first time, he realized he was not the only one who was still grieving, still lost so many months after. Even happy, little Shohei looked as though an impossible burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
It might take years for a new King to come. He might not even want them when he did. But they had never been simply the Red Clan. They had always been more.
They had been Homra.