The life Ozaki Kouyou leads is an inarguably complex one, but years of living it have simplified it into something approximating a routine. Her schedule is not a mundane or strict one, by any means, filled to the brim with myriad responsibilities that few others can boast being held to and prone to sudden, random shifts to account for any number of new information or incidents.
Unorthodox and complicated as her life may be, Kouyou can’t imagine living any other way. Tight schedules and often unpleasant surprises are more familiar than—and even preferable to—whatever monotony her youth had consisted of. She has led the organization that dominates Yokohama’s underground, after all, for over a decade; if there is one thing Kouyou knows well, it is how to expect the unexpected. It is rare for Kouyou to feel unsteady or uncomfortable, and even if she does, it is rare she lets that show—or even acknowledges it herself.
Standing outside the door to a junior high school health room, she thinks she feels the most off-kilter she has in years.
The hall is silent around Kouyou. One of the secretaries had shown her this way, chattering absently about the phone call Kouyou had received just short of an hour ago, with the unfortunate timing of having been made in the middle of a meeting. Now alone, Kouyou finds herself no more enlightened as to why she has been summoned to pick Kyouka up from the school doctor’s office.
It isn’t much later than school would have ended regardless, but any other time, Kouyou would have sent a few of her men ahead in her place. Three-quarters of the staff and students at the elementary school Kyouka had attended until last month had likely at least suspected her career, but Kouyou had hoped it—along with any other number of precautions—would keep harm from coming to Kyouka for fear of retaliation.
She shall not draw conclusions over a single phone call and some odd remarks from the secretary, but it seems that had been a pipe dream.
The last time Kouyou had been in a situation like this had been fifteen-odd years ago now, she thinks. It had frankly been something she had anticipated happening for Kyouka someday, but she hadn’t expected it to occur until at least the end of junior high if not high school outright—today, however, marks the end of only the third week of her first year.
Kouyou tries to keep her expectations at bay, but images crop up unbidden in her mind regardless. Often, Kouyou can control situations that would result in troubling outcomes—an injury at school, however, is well beyond her reach. Something boils beneath Kouyou’s skin at the thought.
Tearing off a bandage has never been her approach to things, in any sense of the metaphor, but Kouyou supposes it may be her best option here. With a quick breath of expectation, she knocks.
“Ozaki-san?” calls a voice inside.
“That would be me,” returns Kouyou. “I am here for Izumi Kyouka.”
There’s a pause, and then the same voice calls, “Come in.”
Her mouth furrowed in an even deeper frown than usual, Kouyou does, pushing the door open to peer inside. She hovers there on the threshold as the air of the room shifts with her presence. That is nothing Kouyou isn’t accustomed to, but she doesn’t think it’s ever been in quite this way, one set of eyes turning on her and the other dropping.
Briefly, Kouyou’s gaze passes over the woman seated close to the door—around her age, wearing a white coat and glasses—and the general layout of the room, from the passive-aggressive posters on the walls to the medical supplies in every direction, but soon her eyes settle on the cot near the back of the room. A curtain has been drawn aside to leave visible the girl seated there.
“Kyouka?” prompts Kouyou, and the girl’s head lifts.
Kouyou is far from sensitive, but even her eyes widen. Kyouka’s dark hair all but covers her face, even with her chin raised, and her hands are curled into small fists atop her knees. One set of nails is tugging at a bundled-up towel. Kyouka is already small, but she’s curled into herself in a way that makes her seem even more so. Despite the distance, her shaking is visible.
What draws Kouyou’s attention above all else, though, is the bright pink bruise on Kyouka’s cheek.
The silence stretches on as Kouyou stares. After a moment, Kyouka lowers her head again, twisting away to obscure the bruise from view.
It is with years’ worth of self-restraint that Kouyou refrains from rushing across the room, taking her adopted daughter into her arms, and ensuring brutal vengeance upon whoever has done such a thing. As it is, she thinks the curling of her fists is audible.
“Kyouka,” says Kouyou again, softer now. The same tightness in her shoulders creeps into her voice. “How do you feel?”
Further silence—save the ticking of a clock—seems at first the only answer she’ll get, but after a moment Kyouka manages a quiet “Okay.”
Kouyou’s lips press together. She’s long since accepted that she can’t force Kyouka to open up just as much as she can’t force her to hide, but she’d thought that they’d made decent progress on this front.
A throat clears, and with difficulty Kouyou looks back at the woman by the door, who is sliding to her feet. Even with her heels, she’s a handful of centimeters shorter than Kouyou—although that is not so uncommon—but that doesn’t seem to deter her for an instant, with the dark-eyed look she raises. As she moves, light glints off the intricate butterfly-shaped pin tucked into her hair.
“I take it Naomi-chan didn’t inform you of the details,” she says, folding her arms and shifting her weight. Her voice is dry, but no less sharp than her eyes.
Kouyou brings herself to her full height, shoulders evening out. “And you would be?” she asks, voice not quite impolite but lacking the appeasing simper she often goes for.
A huff, not quite a laugh, leaves the woman. “Yosano Akiko. The school physician. It is a pleasure to meet you, Ozaki-san.”
“I see. You as well.” Kouyou inclines her head, allowing for this much, but is soon slanting a look back toward Kyouka. “Now, tell me, sensei, what exactly occurred here?”
“Izumi-san.” Yosano tilts her head that way. Kyouka doesn’t react. “Perhaps you are more inclined to share now that your guardian is present.” Yosano’s tone is light, a gentle suggestion rather than an order, but there is a definite tension in her jaw as she speaks.
Trying to discern at whom it’s directed, Kouyou eyes Yosano out of the corners of her eyes once more. Her shoulders are slack but not slouched, posture telling of cool composure and self-assurance that doesn’t reach the point of arrogance. Though her eyes are guarded, there is some sense of warmth and sympathy as she regards Kyouka.
Kouyou’s eyes are brought away as Kyouka shifts, looking up but not answering. The look in her stare makes it clear she won’t, either.
“I wish I could tell you, Ozaki-san,” says Yosano with a slight sigh, “but unfortunately, I don’t know either.” Her attention remains on Kyouka. “Izumi-san, would you be all right in here for a moment if I spoke with Ozaki-san outside?”
Kyouka nods, then seems to regret it, wincing hard enough that Kouyou’s fingers twitch.
“Ozaki-san,” prompts Yosano, gesturing her aside, and though it takes a titanic amount of effort, Kouyou glances Kyouka over one last time before following Yosano into the hall.
Kyouka’s hearing and attention span, Kouyou knows, are far better than most would credit someone of her age, stature, and demeanor for, and the walls of the building don’t seem all that thick. Perhaps to account for this, Yosano steps as far away from the door as she can manage. She adjusts her glasses, then speaks, voice lowered.
“None of the teachers or other kids, apparently, were around, and your daughter herself is a closed book,” she tells Kouyou, voice a touch more clinical than it had been when she’d spoken to Kyouka. “From what I’ve seen of her, she’s not that expressive or talkative anyway—she’s like that at home, too, I take it?”
“Yes.” Yosano’s tone isn’t accusative, only a genuine question, but Kouyou shifts to defensiveness nevertheless. “She is more open when she is comfortable. She just began a new school at a new grade level, and very few of those she knew in elementary school are here. Shyness is allowed in such a case, is it not?”
Something flickers in Yosano’s eyes, but all she does is rest a hand on her hip. “Of course,” she says, tone still neutral. “It was a statement, not a criticism.”
“Right.” Yosano doesn’t try to ask her to apologize, nor does Kouyou make to do so on her own. Her shoulders do slacken, though, and she moves on with little fanfare. “If you are not aware of what happened, could you instead inform me as to the severity of her injuries?”
“That, I can do. It looks bad,” says Yosano with a grimace, “and it’ll look worse before it heals, but the damage is mostly superficial. She doesn’t seem to have a concussion, which is what we mostly worry about with head injuries. Still, I’d keep an eye out over the next few days—if she seems dizzy, confused, or especially sensitive to light and noise, or if she starts running a fever, check with your doctor. Same for if she’s still in a lot of pain after a few days, or if there’s significant swelling.”
She doesn’t space the information out enough slow to be patronizing, but she doesn’t speak fast enough that it’s incomprehensible, either, hitting a medium that Kouyou takes in with a nod. “And for treatment?” She could guess at this herself, but she should at least try to confirm with someone ostensibly more knowledgeable in this area than she.
“For the first couple of days, rest, elevation, and ice.” Yosano ticks them off on her fingers, then inclines her head toward the door. “She’s had ice on her cheek for the past twenty-five minutes or so, so she’s taking a break now. Stick with that on-and-off schedule for a couple of hours. After the first thirty-six hours, use a warm compress instead.”
Again, Kouyou nods. “Should medication be in consideration at all?”
Yosano takes a second to think that one over, tapping at her chin. “Tylenol if she’s in enough pain, and creams or supplements with vitamin C might speed up the healing process. It’ll heal eventually on its own—a couple of weeks at most unless something else is wrong—but it’ll look ugly as hell first.”
“All right.” It already does look unpleasant, a splotch of pink on Kyouka’s cheek too large and lopsided to be mistaken for a girlish blush, so Kouyou can’t imagine how it’ll look when it yellows and purples over the days. Yosano looks like she’s hesitating, eyes narrowed as they remain on the door, and Kouyou adjusts her posture. “Is there anything else I should be aware of?”
“Well…” Yosano lets out a heavy breath and raises a hand to her cheek, fingers curling in. “The physical effects are one thing, but psychologically, facial bruises can be tough. Self-esteem is already so rocky in this age group, and since I don’t know the cause of this, there could be some external factors to that too.”
It doesn’t take much for the implication to click. Anger flares up in Kouyou’s chest. “Is there truly nothing that can be done? If Kyouka is being bullied—”
“Trust me, it bothers me as much as it must you,” says Yosano, holding up her free hand. Kouyou makes to frown, but she can’t deny Yosano’s curled lip and the underlying frustration in her voice. “But if I don’t know anything, then unfortunately, all I can do is heal the physical damage. People underestimate how easily and how brutally a mind can break, though.” At the look Kouyou is giving her, Yosano trails off and looks away, a muscle in her jaw tensing and untensing. “My best advice is to keep an eye on her and encourage her as best you can. I hate to put it all on her, but right now, if no one else has noticed anything or isn’t willing to speak up about it…”
“I see.” Kouyou dips her head, lips tight and jaw tighter. Her teeth shift together for a moment before she pulls in a deep breath and manages a thin, cold smile. “I shall keep this all in mind, sensei. Is it all right for me to take her home now?”
Yosano hesitates, but after a moment, she nods. “My examination is done, and Oda-sensei already dropped by to talk with her. She didn’t say anything to him either,” she adds before Kouyou can do more than raise an eyebrow. “He mentioned that some of the boys in that class had been acting up, though. They might have known her from elementary school, he thought.”
“I… see.” A frown twists across Kouyou’s face. She doesn’t know who that would be, because Kyouka has mentioned that some of her old classmates are here now, but no one she had been actual friends with. “I shall ask her later, though I cannot guarantee a more successful result.”
“Just letting her know how many people are in her corner would help, I think. Anyway, school is out, and I don’t need anything else from her.” Yosano folds her arms again. “I don’t feel great about not observing her closer, but in this sort of a situation, there’s only so much I can really do. The most I can do now is trust you to take care of the rest.”
She’s watching Kouyou with a level of scrutiny that Kouyou is used to finding herself under, but not in this context—she is not being examined as a leader, ally, or rival, but as a parent. Maintaining a mask in the former cases is simple enough. Here… she isn’t quite sure what she’s meant to do. Staying too guarded would be unwise, as would letting her guard too far down; there are certain things Kouyou doesn’t wish to show on her face before a school official. Nothing directed at Kyouka, of course, but there are settings unfit for children even if nothing is toward them.
So Kouyou does nothing, simply standing there and allowing herself to be analyzed. She lowers her head to give an impression of some degree of submission, but she’s sure Yosano can see the remaining flint in her eyes when they meet hers.
Whatever Yosano finds, she seems to come to terms with it, because she only quirks her head before stepping past.
Kouyou turns to follow her back inside the health room, where Kyouka is sitting in the same position she had been before, although she lifts her head when the door opens. Her fingers are flexing where they still sit in fists. She says nothing, but a hint of curiosity fills her eyes as she glances between Kouyou and Yosano.
“You’re free to head home now, Izumi-san,” says Yosano, back to the gentler voice. She makes her way back to her desk, glancing to the side with a nod as she goes. “Remember what I said, all right, Ozaki-san?”
Kouyou bows her head but not much else—a woman like her does not bow often, if ever. “I shall make sure Kyouka is cared for just as adequately as she has been here.”
Yosano only nods, eyes flitting between her and Kyouka. Kouyou gestures to Kyouka, who stands without hesitation, setting aside what Kouyou assumes to be the ice pack Yosano had mentioned and grabbing her backpack where it sits at her feet. As she walks to Kouyou’s side, she moves a bit slower than normal. When she passes Yosano, she inclines her head, and Yosano nods back.
It is either an eternity or forty seconds before Kyouka, gaze still down, is standing before Kouyou. Kouyou raises an arm—the fragility of Kyouka’s shoulder beneath it has her grimacing, but she guides her by it nonetheless, the shape of her sleeve adding to the illusion of protection.
Near the door, Kyouka stops, and Kouyou stops with her. They’re still standing at an angle where Yosano, who hasn’t turned back to the files before her yet, is visible.
“Thank you,” says Kyouka, barely louder than a whisper. In a room as quiet as this, the only sound the distant murmur of the air conditioning, it’s the equivalent of a thunderclap.
Yosano seems taken aback for half a second, then smiles, even though Kyouka isn’t looking at her. “Of course. Take care, all right, Izumi-san?”
Kyouka starts to nod—she has to pause to tuck her hair behind her ear before completing the motion. Yosano’s arms are crossed, one set of fingers tapping an absent beat against her sleeve, and a concerned knot has formed between her eyebrows, but she seems content to leave it to the two of them for now. Her gaze is almost tangible where it burns into their backs.
“Have a nice weekend—or at least as nice as you can manage, all things considered,” says Yosano, and Kouyou pauses.
“The same to you, sensei,” she says, the most gracious thing she can manage, and then she and Kyouka are stepping out, the door falling shut behind them. Halfway down the hall, she can make out the distant sound of pen against paper.
When they step back outside, sunlight having ebbed enough to not hit them too harshly, some of the tension leaves Kyouka’s shoulders. Only some, though, and she remains on the side of Kouyou where her bruise isn’t visible. The silence persists as they walk toward the gates.
“Kyouka,” starts Kouyou, and dark eyes dart up to meet hers before dropping again. Kouyou presses her lips and jaws together.
She doesn’t speak again, focusing now only on getting them home.
It had been a rainy morning when Kouyou had gotten the call.
All things considered, it had not been a wholly surprising one. At the moment, it had given Kouyou pause, but in retrospect she would say that part of it had always been a consideration. Over the years, its probability had faded out, never hitting zero but becoming more and more unlikely under Kouyou’s leadership and the passing of time. Not something Kouyou had seen as a certainty, but not impossible either. The circumstances had made it regrettable, and perhaps sorrowful and a touch alarming on a personal level as well, but it was nothing she hadn’t at one point anticipated.
The other part, though—that, Kouyou will still profess to not expecting nor often understanding.
The exact exchange, Kouyou doesn’t recall now. The human memory is fallible, and small and more significant details alike slip over time like petals to the ground. No piece of the conversation had been sharp enough to stick with her longer than a handful of months. There had been an explanation, during which Kouyou had sat still and silent. Eventually, she had responded, but what she’d said and how she had sounded are long forgotten.
What she does remember is this: The nurse had sounded panicked as they had explained that late last night, there had been a freak accident near the outskirts of the city, and only one of the three in the car had survived.
By the wills of the deceased, they’d gone on to say, the girl was now in Kouyou’s care.
That had halted Kouyou most of all. Kouyou had pressed for details of the survivor’s exact condition, but the answer had been unsatisfying or nonexistent. Her heart had not been beating any faster when she’d hung up, but the frown on her face had been tighter, and weight had hung in her shoulders.
She’d stared at herself in the mirror for a moment longer, she does recall, meeting her own cold yet perplexed eyes, and then reached for a different phone.
Several phone calls, an upheaved schedule, and a swift drive later, Kouyou had been walking down the winding halls of a hospital. A general sense of disturbance had crept over her. She’d never had a particular fondness for hospitals—the plain discomfort at the unfamiliarity had been shared by her subordinates in the waiting room, but alongside that was the fact that her last memories of being in a public institution like this had ended in a flatlining heart monitor and the distinct feeling, for (at the time) the third time in her life, of plummeting.
If her work had taught her one thing, however, it was that appearances were everything, so Kouyou had not let a modicum of her unease show.
Izumi Kyouka, age ten, had awaited in a small room on the third floor. It had taken a second, however preposterously, for Kouyou to even locate her—and another to tell if she was breathing. When the door had opened, her head had been turned away, and she hadn’t faced the nurse at the sound of their voice. Her inhales had been audible, but they’d sounded more like broken wheezes, although she hadn’t seemed to be crying. Just staring, unmoving and rigid. Twitching hands and low breaths had been the only indication she was even awake.
Kouyou’s eyes had lingered on the cast swathing one leg, on how small Kyouka had looked, on the tubes hooked into her. Were this a subordinate, she had thought, she would have known where to start in an instant—however, she also wouldn’t have likely been here to begin with.
“You can speak to her,” the nurse had said, “but I don’t know how responsive she’ll be. Would you like to go in?”
When she had, not replying beyond a nod, Kyouka had finally moved, head twisting toward the door. She’d blinked up at Kouyou, a natural process rather than in surprise. The dull look in her eyes hadn’t been unfamiliar, but when Kouyou had last seen it to such a degree it had been on someone even a few years older.
Those emotionless eyes had stayed on Kouyou as she’d pulled up a chair beside the bed. Kouyou had tried for the warmest smile she could manage.
“Good morning, Kyouka. Do you remember me?” she’d asked, tone and words careful. Her prior interactions with Kyouka had always been with her parents present, so they hadn’t been negative, but now had been a poor time to speak alone for the first time.
“Oba-san,” Kyouka had said, soft and monotone. “Ozaki-san.”
Kouyou had nodded. “You may keep calling me either of those if you would like, but from now on, you are free to address me as simply Kouyou. Or ane-san, if you’d like.”
The slightest confusion had knit between Kyouka’s brows. “My parents,” she’d said, and then stopped. Something in her face had flashed, emotion cracking through for a split second before her mask had sealed again. “There was a crash. They are gone.”
“Yes,” Kouyou had confirmed, her lips in a thin line. The nurse had given her a warning look, but clearly Kyouka was neither an infant nor in denial. Kouyou, never one to dwell upon her own grief and not so close to the Izumis to be catapulted into despair, had kept her voice steady and not bothered with apologies or commiseration. “As neither of them had any remaining living family, I was the one to whom they entrusted your care. If it is all right with you, I will be looking after you.”
“Oh,” Kyouka had said, and nothing else.
For the rest of the day, Kyouka had intermittently slept, stared off into space, and at meal times ate food provided from the hospital’s cafeteria. She had not spoken again.
Kouyou had postponed all of her business without hesitation. Anything too important to push back altogether had been foisted off onto subordinates, Chuuya the only one high-ranking and willing enough to ask for a reason. She doesn’t remember what she’d told him, but she does remember making the call from the hallway outside Kyouka’s room, not wanting to stir what Kouyou hadn’t been certain was a nap but hadn’t wished to interrupt regardless. Her time not spent making calls or handling what paperwork she could had been spent sitting in Kyouka’s room, watching her, or speaking with the hospital staff.
Physically, the doctor had told her, Kyouka had gotten off lucky: Abdominal contusions and bruised ribs from her seatbelt, mild whiplash, some scrapes along her arm and shoulder from hitting the side door, and a fractured tibia on the same side. Surviving the impact had been all but miraculous.
Kouyou had been unable to wrap her head around that. Both of the adult Izumis, by no means lacking in physique or agility, had died, but Kyouka, small and fragile and weak, had alone made it through. It spoke to resilience that Kouyou had been unable to see on the surface—and perhaps the priorities of Kyouka’s parents. The thought had crossed her mind how easy it would have been for Kyouka to not make it through.
She’d put it out of her mind as the conversation had turned to the possible psychological effects. Kyouka hadn’t seemed to have a concussion, but her behavior had seemed abnormal. Grief, or a simple lack of energy from everything she’d had to take in. Kouyou had taken the offered cards of trauma specialists and grief counselors with a thoughtful nod.
It had taken three days for Kyouka to recover enough to be released from the hospital. Each of those days, Kouyou had visited, although on the latter two she’d seen to her work responsibilities. On the last night, she’d—by allowance of the staff—brought tofu for dinner, recalling one evening she’d spent with the Izumis a year or two back.
Kyouka had liked that, but her blank expressions and dull reactions had otherwise persisted. None of her attendants had seemed to know if it was a physical or emotional impact that had blunted her affect so. Physicians could do little about it for now, though; Kouyou had promised, both to the doctors and herself, to get Kyouka to see a mental health specialist as soon as possible.
It had rained again on the day Kyouka had been discharged. Kouyou had sent a group of subordinates to the Izumi home to pick up Kyouka’s things. In the meantime, she’d sat with Kyouka in the hospital, filling out paperwork slower than usual to ensure that when Kyouka walked into an unfamiliar home, at least something there was hers.
They’d walked out together. Kouyou had tilted her umbrella toward Kyouka to protect her casted leg. Their movements had been slow to keep pace, Kyouka’s crutches clicking against the ground. She’d stopped unsteadily outside the car, and Kouyou had helped her into the back before sliding in on the other side.
“It may be difficult to adjust at first,” Kouyou had said, watching the rearview mirror. “If you decide against living with me at any time, or if you would like anything—within reason—altered for your comfort, then please inform me. I and my subordinates are more than willing to help.”
Kyouka had said nothing, simply watching raindrops pelt the window against which her forehead rested. It had been silent until they’d reached the house.
Years had passed since anyone else had lived there, Chuuya having moved after graduating high school, and the house—manor, by some definitions—had felt suddenly, unsettlingly empty. Perhaps feeling it too, Kyouka had tucked herself tighter behind Kouyou as they’d stepped inside. The Izumi home hadn’t been cramped, but it had been smaller and more traditional, and imbued with the warmth and affection its three occupants had shared—a real home rather than the mere house Kouyou’s had lapsed into.
Compared to that, Kouyou had understood Kyouka’s discomfort. She’d guided her inside nonetheless, showing her to the various rooms—most of which had become storage in the absence of anyone else living there—and explaining in greater detail the one she was to stay in until she was more capable of traversing the stairs.
Kyouka had tried to challenge this, eyeing the bare room with a couple of boxes of her belongings and then turning straight for the stairs, all without a word. She’d made it upstairs, but the difficulty of the process had solidified Kouyou’s decision as the right one. It would be uncomfortable for her as well, given she’d planned to sleep in the room next door for now, but that, Kouyou had supposed, was the point of this whole ordeal.
She had shown Kyouka her eventual bedroom, down the hall from her own and a third that had been empty even longer than Chuuya’s, but soon they’d gone back to the ground floor. Kouyou had set up a futon, watched Kyouka take a stuffed rabbit out of one of the boxes, and swept away to figure out lunch.
The rain had persisted into the night, swelling into a storm. Droplets tapping against the roof and walls had filled the silence of Kouyou and Kyouka’s dinner. Eventually the flashing of lightning and the rumbling of thunder had joined it.
Kyouka had frozen at the light and sound, Kouyou had noticed, but neither had broached the topic. When they’d finished eating, Kouyou had ushered Kyouka off to bed; going through the motions of her own nightly routine upstairs, she’d dropped back down before bathing to bid Kyouka a good night, but a dark room and a faint lump beneath the comforter had met her.
Not much more than two hours later—and this is the part she remembers clearest of all—Kouyou’s light sleep had been disturbed by a scream. She’d still not heard Kyouka utter more than two syllables at a time, but Kouyou had recognized her voice in an instant.
In a blink, Kouyou had rushed to her feet. She’d slipped a short but sharp blade free from her sleeve as she’d pushed open the door, attention honed in on the room beside hers. With the dagger gripped tight and caution guiding every step, Kouyou had flung Kyouka’s door open.
She’d found no would-be assassins or kidnappers; instead, Kyouka had been sitting alone in the middle of the futon, duvet thrown aside and stuffed rabbit clutched to her chest. Kouyou had outright dropped the dagger in shock.
It was a mistake her mentors would have laughed at her for were they alive to see it, but Kouyou had had no thoughts of the sort at the time, just staring with her mouth parted as Kyouka shook. Then, shaking off the shock, she’d hurried to Kyouka, crouching at her side.
Kouyou had asked with as little desperation as she could manage—in any other situation, a simple feat, but here much harder than she’d have preferred—what was wrong, if Kyouka was hurt, if she’d had a bad dream, if there was anything at all she could do. Kyouka had started to speak, but another roll of thunder had made her stiffen and tremble harder.
Realization had hit. Kouyou had opened her mouth to ask what Kyouka’s parents had done for this, but she’d stopped herself mid-breath in case mentioning them worsened matters. All she could come up with as a solution had been her presence. Working on instinct and little else, she’d leaned back and asked, “Is it all right if I sit with you?”
Kyouka had given the mildest of nods. Her mouth had opened, but she hadn’t gotten the chance to speak, with the deep rumbling that had shaken the room again.
Any words had died in Kouyou’s throat as she found a small, quivering body flung into her arms. She’d blinked in surprise before instinct had kicked back in and, with awkward and likely cold movements, she’d wrapped her arms around Kyouka in turn. Kouyou had been still and rigid, but Kyouka had relaxed into her, shivering with each further crack of thunder and bolt of lightning.
Kouyou had almost begun shaking, too. Nurturing had never been a word applicable to her; she cared and looked out for her subordinates as much as was smart, yes, and this hadn’t been the first time she’d been in this position, but it had been thrust upon her as much then as now. She had never wanted to be a mother or any sort of guardian figure. Love did not come easily to her, in any shade, and someone like her opening her heart had its consequences, as she well knew—and she was not always, or even often, the bearer of those consequences.
For years, she had been known as the Golden Demon. It was a title she wore with pride, or at least dignity, and still does. It was true, after all. She was a demon, a monster of women, plenty a bloodstain marring the silk of her appearance, and that was not something she planned to shy away from. In darkness she had been born, and in darkness she would remain for life.
But now, here with Kyouka defenseless and shaking in her arms, Kouyou had thought one thing: I would do anything to protect her light.
After some time, Kyouka had fallen still, breaths evening out beneath the pouring rain, but Kouyou had stared at the top of her head for hours, coming more and more to terms with the prospect of uprooting half of her life.
In the near two years since Kouyou had taken Kyouka in, Kyouka has opened up a considerable amount, a wallflower blooming to vibrant life. Therapy has helped, as has simple time—it doesn’t always heal, but it can lessen the sting, however gradual and insignificant that lessening can seem when observed in real time.
Kyouka still isn’t outgoing, and she can sometimes be outright emotionless, but Kouyou has grown used to small but bright smiles and soft-spoken comments. Snippets of conversation about her day flowing into full-fledged stories. What one of her teachers had ranted about, or what another had the class read, or what her classmates said about her performance in gym, or something she overheard at lunch, or how someone in her grade had caused a scene. The names have changed over the past month, only some of the same classmates following her into middle school, but the overall gist remains.
Today, however, Kyouka is silent. She isn’t as statue-stiff as she had been in the health room, but her movements are limited to minute tugs at her uniform skirt and adjustments of her hair where it falls against her cheek. Her gaze stays on the window, but she seems to be staring into nothingness rather than tracking the passing streets.
It’s unsettling, to say the least, even more so now that the setting is familiar. At school, it had been easy enough to dismiss; Kyouka can’t be used to that room yet, nor Yosano’s presence. But now, Kouyou finds herself faced with all but a brick wall.
Kouyou won’t deny that she hasn’t always been the greatest adoptive parent, nor is she now. She’d been sharp and short-tempered with Chuuya, both of them young and prideful enough that conflict had sparked. Time and familiarity had eased the growing pains, and they’d come out of it with a positive enough sibling-like dynamic, though that’s at least in part due to their working relationship.
By the time Kyouka had come into her life as a child she was meant to care for instead of the daughter of two acquaintances Kouyou saw once or twice a year, Kouyou had been more prepared—and, at the same time, not at all prepared. The situation was familiar, but not the details.
Kyouka hadn’t been like Kouyou or Chuuya, not well-adjusted to their trauma but adjusted to it nevertheless, and all but born for their lifestyle. She had been younger, quieter, turned doll-like rather than into an explosion waiting to happen. There had been a light in her, precious and somehow not snuffed by what she’d gone through.
Kouyou had seen too much of herself—or rather, a self she’d long since left behind—in that. Though those first few days had filled her with the affection she’d half-feared would never come to her, she’d projected herself onto Kyouka perhaps a bit too strongly, and in the earliest months they’d spent together, Kyouka had suffered for it. If Kouyou could take that time back, she would; since she can’t, the most she can do instead is make up for it in the future.
Still, though, it had been trying enough that Kouyou is almost surprised by their current rapport. There had been quite a few days—weeks, even—where Kouyou and Kyouka hadn’t spoken. One such instance had involved Kouyou’s failure to update Kyouka on her parents’ death—namely, that it hadn’t been an accident, and that those at fault had already been taken care of. Kouyou’s words had grown harsh, Kyouka’s conduct had cooled, and the house had become a war zone for close to a month.
An argument with Dazai (beginning with saccharine pleasantries and ending with her blade at his throat) had snapped Kouyou to her senses. She’d hastened to repair her and Kyouka’s relationship before the situation could spiral out of control. It had been touch-and-go, but soon they had settled back into a rhythm. Kyouka had never outright forgiven Kouyou—nor does Kouyou think she should have or should now—but they had warmed to each other once more.
Since then, she and Kyouka have developed some degree of a healthy familial relationship. Kyouka has opened up more and more, bright eyes and small smiles commonplace now. Emotions don’t factor into their conversations every day, but they address them with maturity and care when they do, and in a controlled therapeutic setting if need be.
But now, it’s as if they’ve gone right back to that time. Except now Kyouka’s probable frustration is directed either inward or toward children Kouyou doesn’t know and therefore can’t threaten.
The air in the car is too tense for Kouyou to dare speaking there, though she’s not sure her mind wandering to the past as it does is much better, so she waits until they’re home. Kasa watches them with faint concern as they leave, but ultimately she seems to deem it above her pay grade.
Kouyou makes straight for the door. Kyouka follows her in continued silence. At a glance, she looks as impassive as ever, but her knuckles are white where they’re gripping her backpack straps. The way she walks is meek and careful, reminiscent of the first day they’d come home together—and no other time since. It has Kouyou hesitating to unlock the door in a way she, too, hasn’t done in years.
“Have you any homework for today?” she asks as they step inside, leaving her shoes at the step and moving aside for Kyouka to do the same. “Or, I suppose, this weekend?”
“I do. English, Japanese, math, and history,” recites Kyouka.
“I see. You are free to work on that in your room, then—or do anything else, since you do have the next two days to complete that.” Kouyou knows well that Kyouka prefers to get things done as fast as possible, for efficiency’s sake if nothing else, but perhaps today has changed things. “Would you like any more ice for your cheek?”
The bruise looks worse now, but it could be the lighting. Kyouka twists her face as if to hide it and shakes her head, wincing when her hair grazes against her cheek.
“Why don’t I get you some regardless,” says Kouyou, not a question. She’s smiling, but more out of obligation than any genuine desire to.
Kyouka’s face twitches, but she pads after Kouyou into the kitchen, hands starting to move in small jerks up and down her backpack straps. She stands back as Kouyou unearths a cold compress from the freezer. Kouyou does know basic first aid, but Yosano seems to have taken care of most of the work, and there’s not much that can be done for a bruise like that.
Kouyou wraps the ice pack in a towel and hands it over. “As Yosano-sensei told me,” she says as Kyouka, with only a moment’s hesitation, presses the compress to her face, “this will heal, provided we properly care for it—” her use of we is pointed “—but it will not look pleasant at first. If the pain is significant, or you begin to feel dizzy, feverish, or confused, let me know, all right?” Kyouka nods, stiff but seemingly genuine. “Good. Now, did you wish to tell me what happened?”
The room is silent. Kyouka’s jaw twitches, just a tiny flex that no one save Kouyou might have noticed, and she stares at the tile. Without speaking or moving, her answer is a clear no.
It is more or less what Kouyou had expected, but she fights a sigh regardless. “Dinner will be in an hour or so,” she says. “I shall call you when it is ready. Chuuya will be over to eat with us—if sparring afterward would brighten your spirits at all, he would certainly be happy to see what Gin-kun has been teaching you.”
Kyouka nods, absent, but there is a flicker of life in her eyes. “Can I go do my homework now?”
Kouyou studies her. “Feel free, child,” she says after a moment has passed, resisting the urge to draw her into an embrace if only because she fears that would have her locking up further. “Inform me at once if you need anything at all. I will be here.”
It’s almost certain that Kyouka will not take her up on that offer, but Kyouka tilts her head in a way that could be construed as a nod. Then, still holding the ice pack to her cheek, she starts toward the door.
Before she can stop herself, Kouyou is calling after her: “Kyouka.” Kyouka stops, though she doesn’t turn. Talking to her back is both easier and more difficult. Kouyou’s hands fold at her waist, wringing. “You are not obligated to tell me anything,” she says, halting with unease, “but if you would like to, then please know that you are more than welcome—encouraged, even. There is no need for you to shoulder anything alone. I am here, Chuuya is here, your teachers are here, Atsushi-kun and my trusted subordinates are here. Dazai is even here.” This she says in the disgruntled tone she often uses in regards to Dazai, hoping it might draw a laugh from Kyouka, but no such luck. Kouyou swallows a sigh again. “Should you wish for us to share your burdens, any one of us would be more than happy to.”
The prolonged pause is punctuated only with their breaths, Kouyou almost silent so she can hear Kyouka better.
“I know,” Kyouka says then, so sudden it almost startles Kouyou, though it’s not any louder than anything else she’s said. She shifts on her feet. “Thank you.”
She does not elaborate, and before Kouyou can say another word, Kyouka is stepping away and out of the room.
In the empty, quiet kitchen, Kouyou feels the chill of the tile even through her socks, and if only to keep herself from following Kyouka upstairs to make sure she really does end up in her room, she starts on dinner.