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The temple bell started ringing.
“Oh, it seems the New Year has begun. King, Kusanagi-san, Happy New Year!”
“Too early, Totsuka. The New Year starts once the bell has rung 108 times as per tradition”.
“Haven’t you seen ‘The year to go, the year to come’* at least once? Ah well, it seems that technically they ring it for the 108th time after the New Year has already begun”.
“I see. Then it’s the countdown till this year ends, right?” With this, Totsuka strained his hears listening to the bell.
“Ah, so d.a.m.n cold”, Kusanagi shivered and glanced at his wrist.w.a.tch to confirm the time.
Meanwhile, Suoh Mikoto, who was silently standing behind the two, not looking cold in the least, althought the tip of his nose, light red in color, suggested othewise, stared into the distance.
Currently, the three of them - Suoh, Kusanagi and Totsuka - were on the premises of Hikawa Shrine**, located in Shizume city. The grounds were tightly packed with visitors. People were all around them as far as the eye could reach, and to the tall Suoh and Kusanagi it looked like they were surrounded by the sea of people.
A short distance away, there was a row of merchant stalls lit by flaming light of paper lanterns. It was crowded as well. It was impossible to tell even approximately just how many people gathered here, on the shrine grounds.
The scene was nothing unusual for the first shrine visit of New Year.
This was their second year coming here on Kusanagi’s insistence.
“Hm, I wonder, if, say, a Sword of Damocles were to appear in the sky right now, would that make people donate more?”
“Stop thinking stupid things”.
“Stupid? But that sword is like a wonderwork, you know? Seeing it first thing in the new year is a good omen, no?”
“That dangerous thing can only be an evil omen, no matter how you slice it. …Ah, Mikoto? I’d like to give you a little piece of advice, just to be on the safe side - don’t get weird ideas, OK?” Kusanagi said turning his head to look over his shoulder.
Mikoto remained silent, which was nothing new, still gazing in the direction of the shrine, so it was unclear whether he heard Kusanagi’s warning at all.
“…Huh? Say, isn’t the bell they’re ringing supposed to be in the shrine…?”
“Nope, it’s not~ The ringing you hear right now comes from another place”.
“Is there another temple somewhere near?”
“Yeah, although it’s a small one”.
“Hm… Ah, then why don’t we go visit it, too?”
“Idiot. Once we’re done here, we gotta go visit Ebessan and Inari-san*** first. Besides, any temple is packed full at this time, just like this one. I expect we won’t be able to go back till morning, so better prepare yourself”.
Ignoring the sullen look on Totsuka’s face, Kusanagi extended his index and middle fingers with a crispy new 10,000 yen bill held between them. “We lost a lot of money this year, so I gotta have the G.o.ds charge me with fighting spirit for the next year. For prosperity in business and luck with money I will bow my head as many times as needed”.
“Eh? Hold on a second, Kusanagi-san. That bill in your hand, please tell me it’s not for donation?”
“Donation is precisely what I’m gonna use it for. You gotta make your resolve known to the G.o.ds, and a f.u.kuzawa Yukichi**** is great for that”.
“But donating all that money is such a waste! If you want to get rid of it that badly, let’s go to karaoke all together or something!”
“Stop spewing nonesense. Letting brats who only eat, get in fights and sleep have a f.u.kuzawa is way too generous”.
“But donating is all about feelings, you know? So you don’t have to actually give that much…”
“It’s precisely because donating is about feelings that I gotta give this much. Didn’t I tell you already? I really need G.o.ds to fill me with fighting spirit for the next year cause I couldn’t stop cold sweat from pouring when I was trying to strike the end-of-year balance in my account book…” Kusanagi said with utmost seriousness, his eyes glinting sharply. From that dangerous glint, one might think that he was about to raid a yakuza’s office rather than offer a prayer.
Flabbergasted, Totsuka shook his head. “Well, do as you please if you’re such a rich man, Kusanagi-san”.
“Idiot. My bar’s financial situation is directly dependent on my personal financial circ.u.mstances. Sure, I keep HOMRA half as a hobby, but if it keeps being stuck in the red, I won’t be able to ever look my uncle, who left that joint to me, in the eye… Well, HOMRA’s more of a daycare center rather than a bar these days, though”.
“You mean Anna?”
“No, I have no complains about Anna. She always behaves and is a grownup lady in personality. The problem is all the other loudmouthed brats that kick up a racket there all night long”.
“Ah”, Totsuka gave a wry grin.
Kusanagi’s expression turned progressively sourer as he seemingly recalled something. “Since the clientele in the bar turned bad, all the good customers started to avoid my establishment like a plague, and when I ask the brats to help me, they always end up breaking gla.s.ses and stuff left and right; add to that the ever growing food expenses… ah, I just can’t take it anymore, seriously”.
Totsuka’s wry grin became more bitter as he listened to how fed up with the situation Kusanagi was. Every complaint was true. The bar HOMRA had become the gathering spot for team 'Homura’. Young hotblooded guys who gathered under the Red King, Suoh Mikoto, hung out there around the clock. Moreover, they didn’t really drink alcoholic drinks and didn’t order food all that much. There were proper paying customers among them, but most of them were not, only showing up at the bar to hang out. To make things worse, they were always very loud when they gathered, unwittingly chasing away other customers. To Kusanagi, the bar’s owner and bartender, it was a really sore issue. Except, even though he complained, the first one to come out of his way to help was also none other than said Kusanagi. When a member didn’t turn up, at first he would feel relieved, but before long relief would be replaced with worry, because basically, he was a good person.
“Well, still, we had a promising new addition this year, right?”
“Yeah. Were she 10 years older, she could become a great contributer to the business by attracting more customers–”
“No, no, I don’t mean Anna. I’m talking about Yata and Fushimi”.
“Ah, them. Now that you mentioned, those two joined only this year, huh? I got so used to them that I completely forgot. Especially to Yata-chan”, Kusanagi chuckled despite himself. “He didn’t stop grumbling today, too”.
“Kusanagi-san, it was mean of you. He wanted to come with us so badly, so you should have just let him”.
“Like h.e.l.l I can take loudmouthed brats like them to appear before G.o.ds! And anyway, who would’ve looked after Anna had they come? There’s no way we could take a kid like her with us and force her to pull an allnighter, you realize?”
“We could’ve just let King stay then”.
“Idiot. Not taking the boss to visit the temple is absolutely out of question. Not to mention that with Mikoto staying, Yata and the rest would’ve stayed as well”.
“Besides, it’s impossible for Yata to bear having to quietly stand in a huge line like this. He’d get fed up pretty quick and start doing unnecessary things”.
“Ahaha, can’t argue with that. Well, I hope he won’t be bored back at the bar - he has Fushimi and Kamamoto with him after all. It would be great if they let Anna to stay up late tonight, though”.
Kusanagi had closed the bar before going, but there were still a few members of Homura left inside, all because Yata suggested they gather there and enter the new year all together.
It hadn’t been long since Yata joined Homura, but he was well on his way to becoming the leading figure of the younger part of Homura. He was younger than the most, and his brazen speech and conduct also stood out. However, the complete lack of hidden agenda and, most of all, his clear adoration to Suoh that was evident even to outsiders, quickly won him the trust of those who also adored Suoh as their 'king’. Their respect extended to the point that even Kamamoto, the next senior member after Kusanagi and Totsuka, addressed him as 'Yata-san’, attaching the polite 'san’ to his name.
“Yata will be OK, but I’m not so sure about Fushimi. I’m afraid he’s sitting alone in some corner again, playing with his PDA right about now”.
“Well, I bet that’s precisely what he’s doing. Seriously, no matter how much time pa.s.ses, that guy just can’t fit in. I know it’s a hard fact, but I just can’t help thinking that him and Yata being friends is really bizarre”. Remembering something, Kusanagi gave a malicious sneer. “Come to think of it, you yourself said that Fushimi is the only one who’s 'difficult to ease into being a full-fledged member’. In the end, even you, who’s able to tame our newcomers in no time, had to throw in the towel when it came to him, huh”.
“You shouldn’t put it that way. I don’t 'tame’ them, I just try to get along with everyone, is all. And actually, I think that I’m doing pretty good even with Fushimi”. Totsuka smiled uneasily at Kusanagi’s remark. Then his face suddenly became serious, “Say, Kusanagi-san… about Yata and Fushimi… what do you really think of them?”
“'What’, huh… A year ago both were just middle school brats”, Kusanagi paused for a moment; his look became far-away as he thought in silence. After that, he answered with unexpected seriousness, “… Well, believe it or not, but it’s possible that after we retire, those two could become our successors”.
“…One can retire from being a clansman?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I was talking about the gang”, Kusanagi shrugged his shoulders. “Yata could become its centerpiece, Kamamoto a unifying force… and with Fushimi supporting them from a position one step away to allow him see the bigger picture, they could make a surprisingly good team. In that sense, we picked up a pretty promising addition”.
“So you consider promising not only Yata but Fushimi as well?”
“Actually, he’s the one with the potential hard to come by. He has a sharp mind, a strong business grip and guts to boot. But best of all is his ability to not get swayed by opinions of those around him and think fairly”.
“Fairly? Fushimi can do that?” Totsuka asked with doubt, making Kusanagi break into a grin.
“Well, maybe not exactly 'fairly’ but rather 'impartially’. All we have is idiots who’re totally crazy about Mikoto. For better or for worse, they can only divide people into 2 categories - 'friends’ and 'the rest of the world’. But Fushimi is different. He’s able to make his own judgement about both Mikoto and Homura itself from the objective point of view. For a team, such as ours, someone like Fushimi is a valuable a.s.set. And having a guy like him on our side is absolutely necessary for the continued survival of the team”.
“…I must say that I’m surprised. I didn’t know you were of such a high opinion about Fushimi”.
“Well, for now he prefers living withdrawn inside his sh.e.l.l. He’s at that age, I suppose, so it’s not surprising. We can’t forcefully color him with our colors even if we try. I just hope he’ll find some place where he’d feel he belongs…” Kusanagi’s gaze had a pensive distant quality to it.
Seeing that look on his older friend, Totsuka giggled inanely. “Kusanagi-san, you sure live the part of a meddlesome mother hen, you know”.
“Geh. And you get influenced by the brats way too easily. I don’t mind you hanging around with them, but take your position more seriously and train them properly, would ya”.
“Ah, sorry. But as far as the distribution of roles inside the team goes, we have all the right people in all the right places”.
“Oh really? Then why do I have this feeling that I’m the only one to get the short end of the stick all the time?” Kusanagi didn’t feel like joking, continuing his ceaseless complaints.
Totsuka gave him another smile and muttered, “Maybe you’re right”.
He looked about their surroundings.
The tightly packed throng of thickly clad people was completely surrounded by the bone-chilling cold. Despite that, people’s faces were bright; white vapor from breathing, let out together with smiles, appeared and then disappeard in the dim light here and there. A great many of different people carrying different wishes gathered on the shrine grounds to pray for the new year, smiling despite the cold.
“I wish Fushimi…”
“I wish Fushimi, too, gained the confidence to take the short end of the stick with a smile, like you, Kusanagi-san”.
“…Right. It’d be easier on me, too, then”, Kusanagi added with a mean expression appearing on his face again.
True indeed, Totsuka thought as he nodded. Upon reflection, in the beginning they themselves were nothing more than misfits who had nothing to do with each other. But then, they came to gather under their king, Suoh Mikoto and were able to form a functioning team, giving birth to the wonderous 'bonds’. He prayed for those bonds to last for a long, long time and bring their own personal brand of happiness to each of them. But of course, this was not going to be easy.
Totsuka grinned broadly and said in a joking manner, “Kusanagi-san, speaking of, how about we have King train Fushimi personally? For example, they could go to karaoke, just the two of them”.
“Oh, that sounds like fun. I sure wanna see that”.
“The atmosphere in the karaoke room will be incredibly tense, I bet. I wonder which one of them will give up first and take the mike? Or maybe they both will just sit in silence for hours, eh?”
“Bwahaha. And if they try to ask someone to tag along, everybody will turn blue in the face and run away as far as they can”.
“Even Kamamoto’s iron stomach might not be able to take that”.
“I got an idea! Whoever breaks another gla.s.s next will get this kind of outing as a punishment game! I’m sure that after that, they all will be extremely careful when wiping gla.s.ses. …Did you hear, Mikoto?”
Suoh didn’t reply. As both Kusanagi and Totsuka turned to look over their shoulders, their eyes widened in pure wonder.
“…You gotta be kidding me. He’s sleeping while standing”.
“Wow! King’s surprisingly skilled, huh!”
“No, no, no! His skills are not the issue here. We gotta start with who the heck’s ever heard of a king sleeping outside while standing?!”
“He’s so dignified. It’s such a shame I don’t have the camera with me”.
“…A shame indeed. If we recorded this and showed it to the others, maybe that’d make them regain some of their 'impartiality’…”
The two, flanking their 'king’, exchanged their thoughts with amazed expressions on their faces. Probably they did it too loud for his liking as Suoh suddenly frowned, grunted and opened his eyes. Seeing the other two staring at him, he asked as if nothing had happened, “…What is it?”
Kusanagi only sighed, while Totsuka remarked, “Dignified to the last”, laughing good naturedly. “We’re no match for King. …Ah, by the way, we didn’t notice, but the bell’s finished ringing”.
“Yeah. And we’ve crossed from one year to the next doing something rather stupid”.
“…What’s with you? Something happened?” Suoh asked puzzled, but neither Kusanagi nor Totsuka felt like providing an explanation.
Then, Totsuka beamed cheerfully at the other two. “Well, here I go again. King, Kusanagi-san, Happy New Year! I’m looking forward to spending another year with you!