the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 10 chapter cws: past character death, grief, very brief mention of blood/gore in a medical setting. apologies for the slight delay in posting; i've been out of town this weekend and only got the chance to edit this afternoon. also we're roughly a third of the way through (on paper at least) now? wild. enjoy!

Compared to most days, it is relatively early in the evening still when Kouyou steps into the house. The sun hasn’t yet fallen, leaving the sky at her back still painted in shades of deep orange and red, casting warmth onto Kouyou’s back while she fumbles with the keys. There is little, if any, wind, and the second the air conditioning hits her she sighs in relief.

Even she can’t quite hear it, though, above the murmuring of the television in the other room. Kouyou grimaces the slightest bit as she closes the door behind her and reaches for her boots.

“I’m home,” she calls, an announcement she doesn’t often spare. This past week, though, she’s felt more inclined toward it, though whether it’s meant to reassure herself or Kyouka she can’t say.

She’s not sure at first if it’s audible beneath the television, which seems to be set to boxing or MMA if the commentary Kouyou can make out is any indication. Then, after a beat, Atsushi’s voice returns, cheerful, “Welcome home!”

He’s hardly the one Kouyou wants to hear it from, but she pulls up a weary smile as she steps into the living room. Perched on the couch, feet pressed together in a position that seems awkward but is likely more comfortable than a first glance would suggest, Atsushi tilts his head to smile up at her. Beside him, Kyouka only glances up out of the very corners of her eyes, dips her head in a quick greeting, and switches her focus back to the television screen.

Kouyou’s eyes, too, dart that way. An MMA match, as she had suspected, is on. Atsushi grabs the remote to pause it. A frame of a man caught mid-punch, jaw lurching to the side and lips parted unattractively as the fist collides with his face, hovers suspended in high resolution.

“I see my brother’s television habits have worn off on the two of you,” Kouyou says shrewdly, watching it for a moment longer, before her gaze diverts to the two on the couch. Atsushi laughs, abashed; Kyouka only blinks. “Good evening, Kyouka, Atsushi-kun. Have you eaten yet?”

“Oh, not yet,” says Atsushi, his smile growing even more sheepish. “We were waiting to see when you would get back.”

Kouyou pauses for only a second. “You needn’t have done that,” she says, unsure what emotion she’s projecting, but Atsushi just waves a hand, and Kyouka bends a little farther forward. “All right, then. I did have plans to prepare something, if you two do not mind waiting another hour or so.”

A stomach rumbles mournfully—whose it is, Kouyou can’t quite tell, and the expressions on Kyouka and Atsushi’s faces offer no hints. Atsushi, though, clears his throat and says, “That’s fine, Kouyou-san. But we can just order something in, really—”

“Nonsense, nonsense. If you go too long without a home-cooked meal, your health will suffer.” Atsushi’s eyes bulge, caught between dubiousness and anxious suspicion, and Kouyou turns her broad smile upon Kyouka. “If you’d like, you can return upstairs in the meantime, child,” she says, voice lowering. “Perhaps you could wash your hands in preparation for dinner.”

Kyouka tugs at her sleeve, then nods, able to read a command phrased as a suggestion, though she doesn’t look very pleased about it. Kouyou isn’t startled that she isn’t speaking, given she’s grown quieter and quieter over the past several days, but it dims her smile regardless, and no one seems to so much as breathe as Kyouka rises from the couch and makes her way down the hall.

As soon a door closes upstairs, faint but still audible in the silence that has overtaken the house, Kouyou turns back toward Atsushi. “How has she been today?” she asks. She’d had to go into work early enough today that she hadn’t had even the opportunity to have breakfast with Kyouka, only so much as seeing her for the briefest of instances before Atsushi and a handful of Gin’s subordinates had replaced her.

The minute tensing of Atsushi’s shoulders and face offers some hint of an answer even before he speaks. “Okay,” he says in lieu of his typical singing of praises. “I mean, she wasn’t bad, obviously, she just seemed a little tired. She hung out with me pretty much the whole time, but we only actually talked a few times. And it was mostly me talking.” He scratches at his neck.

Kouyou exhales, slow, and tells herself it isn’t a sigh. “I feared as much. Well, there is little we can do but follow her lead—did she indicate to you that there was anything she particularly wanted or needed?”

“Um, not really.” That is what Kouyou expects as well, but she closes her eyes for a moment at it regardless, and when she opens them it’s because Atsushi has spoken again. “Will you guys be all right tomorrow?”

“That is the wrong question, I do believe.”

“…will she be all right tomorrow?” repeats Atsushi.

“Not that one, either.” When his eyebrows pinch together, perplexed, Kouyou turns her head to the side. “We will make it through. No matter how the day begins, or what occurs throughout, we will emerge to see the next. It is as simple as that.”

“Simple, you say, but—” Atsushi cuts himself off, biting his lip. For once, Kouyou wouldn’t have minded if he had continued, but she doesn’t urge him on, only inclining her head in silent agreement. “I told Kyouka-chan this earlier, but… if you—either of you—need anything, let me know, okay? I—I don’t know how much I can do to help, but I’m here. And so are Dazai-san, and Chuuya-san, and everyone else in the, um, Mafia—and even, I don’t know, Oda-san. I think all of us would do basically anything for Kyouka-chan, so if you need help, we’ll be there.”

Kouyou feels almost as if she is the bereaved one, being on the receiving end of that maudlin ramble, but she cannot say that it is not touching to some small part of her. She does sigh this time, heavy and low, and dips her head with it. “Thank you, lad. It is unlikely it will come to that, but I do appreciate the sentiment.”

Atsushi smiles, but it falters after a mere handful of seconds. Kouyou doesn’t bother to return it, only glancing around the living room rather than at his face as it turns back toward the television, still frozen on a single frame.

The room is still for a moment as Atsushi toys with the remote, seeming unsure whether to resume the show or just turn the television off. Kouyou looks at him, feels all of the tension and exhaustion in her body surge forth as if appearing anew, and clears her throat.

Atsushi looks up, startled, almost dropping the remote altogether. His cat-like reflexes seem to be the only factor that allows him to maintain his grip and clutch it to his chest, breathing out with relief. “Um, sorry,” he says, glancing at her again, once he’s recovered. “Did you want something, Kouyou-san?”

Kouyou clicks her tongue. “Only your assistance.”

Setting the remote down on the couch beside him, a safer position from all perspectives, Atsushi blinks. “With what?” he asks in a waffling tone, like he isn’t sure he wants to know what the answer is.

“With dinner,” says Kouyou, fixing him with an openly disdainful look.

“Oh.” He nods to himself a little, blushing now, and brings up a hand to tug at his collar, the nervous bob of his throat visible and audible alike. “Ah, um, are you sure that’s okay? I can’t really—I mean, I don’t—”

“Nonsense.” Kouyou sees no qualms in interrupting, considering she isn’t certain even Atsushi had known where that sentence would have ended up. “You can hold a knife, can you not? Or stir a pot?”

Atsushi’s hand curls into his shoulder. “Well…”

“I am not asking for you to help cook the meal in its entirety; I am simply asking for you to lend a hand.” Kouyou eases the edges around her face and voice as much as she’s capable of. She doesn’t bother, however, making her words themselves any less blunt. “The responsibilities I will foist onto you shan’t be the type that result in the meal somehow being ruined. In addition,” she adds, eyeing a very faint bruise on Atsushi’s elbow, “if you are somehow injured, I imagine your ability will serve as a more valuable form of first-aid than any supplies in the house could offer.”

“That’s true, I guess.” Atsushi cracks a half-smile, but the line of it is still jagged and awkward.

“Besides,” continues Kouyou, barely suppressing her sigh, “two sets of hands shall make things go far faster than one. The faster the meal is prepared, the sooner you will be able to eat it.”

She is amused but not surprised that that of all things is what gets Atsushi jolting to his feet, eyes flashing and stomach no doubt tightening as a reminder. “I can help a little,” he says, tentative but imbued with a passion he’d lacked just seconds before.

“Much appreciated,” says Kouyou dryly. She turns, not looking back to see if he’s following. “Come, then, boy. Tonight we’re having…”

The ominous feeling looming over the evening does not dissipate as Kouyou guides Atsushi toward the kitchen, but it does ease back the slightest bit.

*

If she had been asked directly, Kouyou would have had to admit that she hadn’t had any particular expectations for how today would turn out. None had asked outright, though, and so until she awakens on the morning of the two-year anniversary of the Izumis’ fateful car crash, she is able to keep the uncertainty and unease at bay, left unspoken and therefore unimportant as they are.

When she does wake, it is to feel a preemptive tension all throughout her body, shoulders coiling up tight the instant sleep leaves her. When she brings herself upright and processes the date, it only sets in deeper.

The focus of the day is inarguably to be on Kyouka, but that is perhaps the source of Kouyou’s apprehension. She can hazard a guess as to what Kyouka will be like and want to do and talk about, but until Kyouka emerges—which could be some time yet, considering there is no noise anywhere else in the house—those are only guesses, and shall do her little good in the end. Anticipation does not bother Kouyou, but it is rare that it is in such a personal shade, so it grates on her in a way it never has before.

Her mood isn’t helped by the light, too bright for how early it is, streaming in through her sealed curtains. Kouyou sighs, pushes herself to her feet, and tightens them before gliding toward the bathroom.

Last year, things had been difficult. Just as she has today, Kouyou had made arrangements for her subordinates—primarily Chuuya and Hirotsu—to handle any business that would otherwise involve her and remotely handle anything for which that was possible. Things had been raw and sharp still, though, and very little had seemed to ease Kyouka’s woes altogether. She hadn’t voiced her troubles, but the day had been fraught and arduous all the same, so much so that it had seemed to last multiple days.

This year shouldn’t be that bad. More time has passed, and Kyouka has gathered more coping skills and a broader support network in the year since. Still, Kouyou can’t quite swallow a creeping feeling of what isn’t quite dread but isn’t too far off.

At the bottom of the stairs, she steadies herself on the wall and takes a deep, slow breath. She and Kyouka are both better-equipped to handle things, and the fact that neither has overarching pressure from school or work means that there aren’t extraneous factors making everything worse. They aren’t obligated or expected to do anything but simply make it through.

It sounds simple enough, but Kouyou knows from experience how laborious such a task is. She commits herself to it, though, and helping Kyouka to achieve it as well. And then she starts toward the kitchen, committing herself to a different undertaking altogether: Preparing breakfast.

It’s nothing too extensive, only the usual array of light dishes, but the weekend morning and Kyouka’s absence allow Kouyou to put a touch more care and leisure into the process than she’s able to most days, though it doesn’t quite seem to be to her benefit. Rather than allowing her additional time to face the day with the composure she needs, the stretch of silence and work seems to make her tenser and tenser.

But, she tells herself again, they’d made it through last year, and this one isn’t even close to as great of a hurdle. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult, but it does mean that there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to clear it just the same.

Then, running her hands under the cold tap to snap herself out of it, she turns her thoughts away from this as much as she can and focuses only on cooking.

Some time later, a creak in the hallway has Kouyou turning in the middle of setting the table. Her eyes fall upon Kyouka, standing in the doorway in a dark yukata—though presumably not the one she’d slept in—and with her hair undone. Kouyou cannot muster a smile of greeting at the sight of her; neither, it seems, can Kyouka, but that isn’t so out of the ordinary. Kyouka dips her head, then walks in. Her steps are slower and more cautious than usual, a certain heaviness to her shoulders.

Without a word, she sits. Her dark eyes are downturned and lack much focus, but they don’t seem to be rimmed with either red or blue. Her hands settle over her lap. Though her breathing is steady, there’s something mechanical about it, and still she doesn’t speak.

Just as silent, Kouyou finishes setting out the dishes. Though she doesn’t expect tears at this point in time—or from Kyouka at all—she surreptitiously draws from her sleeve a small packet of tissues and places it at the edge of the table as well. At this, Kyouka blinks, and a twitch of what might be amusement goes through her face.

A glimmer of hope passes through Kouyou. Last year, she had only gotten the barest of sparkles in Kyouka’s eyes throughout the entire week. By the time Kouyou takes her seat, listlessness has swept through Kyouka’s form again, but even a split second’s worth of cheer Kouyou will accept.

Aside from her soft, almost inaudible thank you for the food, Kyouka doesn’t speak, nor does Kouyou force her to. Kyouka is quiet by nature, and while sometimes her silence takes on a concerning edge, this morning it doesn’t feel any tenser than usual. Perhaps tinged with melancholy, but that is to be expected. Kouyou doesn’t feel all too inclined to speak herself, at any rate, between the food laid before her and the weight of the anniversary pressing down on her—it cannot be even close to the weight Kyouka feels, but it is still weight.

“Apologies for not saying it earlier,” she does say, raising her soup toward her mouth and waiting for it to cool, “but good morning, Kyouka. Did you sleep well?”

She watches Kyouka out of the corners of her eyes. Kyouka is eating slowly, snatching up a few grains of rice at a time, but after a moment she nods.

Kouyou doubts Kyouka has the energy or drive to cloak any discomfort at the moment, so she accepts this as the truth. “Good.” She takes a sip of soup; it hasn’t quite fallen to a comfortable temperature yet, but Kouyou can tolerate it, although she does set the bowl aside and go in for some steamed vegetables instead once she’s swallowed. “I shan’t ask how you are faring, for I think that is quite obvious, but should you wish to talk about it, know that you are welcome to.”

Again Kyouka hesitates, then nods, her gaze all but boring into the table. Kouyou presses her lips together and continues working on her breakfast.

A quiet breakfast, the only sounds those of jaws moving and utensils clicking, isn’t too significant a departure from their standard routine, but the date hanging overhead makes it difficult for Kouyou to convince herself of this. Kyouka’s slow, meandering rhythm, too, sharply contrasts her usual brisk, efficient pace. Kouyou steals glances at her as they both eat, sure somewhere that she should say something but unsure as to what, since she doesn’t want to bring up Kyouka’s parents but doesn’t want to ignore them either, leaving her with no safe topics to broach.

In the end, they pull through. On occasion, Kyouka inhales between bites in a way that makes Kouyou fear the tissues will see some use, but they end up being unnecessary. As time passes, the silence settles into something more familiar and comfortable. Neither of them speaks, but perhaps that is better than if they had.

For once, Kouyou is finished with her meal well before Kyouka, but she remains at the table. Through delicate sips of tea, her peripheral vision stays on Kyouka, studying her with as much subtlety as she can manage; Kyouka either doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind enough to acknowledge it, so this seems to work out fine for them both.

When the time comes to clear the table, Kyouka gathers up her empty dishes as if on instinct. Kouyou tries to dissuade her, but she’s met only with a side glance before Kyouka continues in the process, methodical and determined.

That flash of life in Kyouka’s face, more than anything, is what has Kouyou falling back and murmuring, “All right, all right.” It upholds their everyday routine, and it is something to occupy Kyouka’s hands with besides. It also isn’t as if, any other day, Kouyou would complain about assistance with household tasks, let alone from a twelve-year-old—she’d once had two seventeen-year-olds in this house at once, and though one had tried, Kyouka’s work ethic still outshines both of theirs combined.

In continued silence, Kouyou tightens up her tasuki and joins Kyouka at the sink. They wash and dry in a steady, smooth rhythm. Kyouka scrubs each dish and utensil clean with a sort of intensity Kouyou often sees from her, but now it seems to be a tenser version than usual, as though if she doesn’t pour all of her focus and very being into it she will splinter as easily and violently as one of the bowls in her grasp.

Her hands do not shake, but it seems to be a close thing. When the dishes are done, she doesn’t leave the kitchen, staying by Kouyou’s side and glancing around.

This degree of restlessness is certainly not something Kouyou is used to seeing, and she finds herself almost stumbling for a moment just the same, pausing to flick off the remnants of soap and water on her hands. “Your therapy appointment is at noon,” she says over her shoulder. “If you’d like, you are free to return to your room and sleep, read, play video games, or do something else of that ilk until then. I have some work-related matters to attend to, but they are all things that can be accomplished from here. Is there anything you need or want me to do?”

She glances back in time to see Kyouka shaking her head, a bit subdued, but not making to move. Kouyou wipes her hands dry and straightens to brush one against Kyouka’s shoulder.

“Should that change,” she says, soft, her smile thin but better than no smile at all, “know that I will be here.”

Kyouka seems to take this to heart, for thirty minutes later, she and Kouyou are both seated in the living room, Kouyou taking care of some calls while Kyouka alternates between sketching in a notebook and playing something on a handheld console. Silence hangs between them, almost a physical object in how much presence it carries. Multiple elephants are gallivanting about the room, but Kyouka ignores them, and Kouyou follows her lead.

In the time between breakfast and now, Kyouka had dressed and tied her hair up into a simple, single ponytail. It shifts with each minute twist of her neck. Though Kouyou understands why her usual flower pins are missing, their absence is glaring all the same, and the corners of Kouyou’s eyes keep catching on Kyouka’s hair.

She manages, however, to keep the majority of her attention on her phone. Kouyou keeps her voice low and calm, leveling warnings and giving commands with as little fanfare as she usually possesses. Most other times, she’d have retired to a side room to handle this, but she doesn’t want to leave Kyouka alone for too long, and she doesn’t seem to be listening anyway. Even if she is, it’s probable she’s heard worse. That perhaps isn’t great in and of itself, but there is very little Kouyou can do about it now besides invest in even further therapy.

Between calls, if she’s offered the chance, she checks up on Kyouka as best she can. Kyouka still speaks only in brief smatterings, and still Kouyou doesn’t pry, having to return to her phone soon enough anyway. For Kyouka, video games, drawing, and homework serve as distractions; Kouyou, meanwhile, has to occupy herself with describing just what should be done to unruly subordinates and traffickers encroaching on Mafia territory.

The few hours they spend there seem to stretch out longer than they are, the morning quiet and terse. Spending time with Kyouka is not unpleasant for Kouyou, but the circumstances make it impossible to cherish. Once or twice she brings up the possibility of moving to the backyard, but Kyouka shakes her head the first time and doesn’t seem to hear her the second, engrossed in her game as she is. After this instance, though, Kouyou does momentarily leave the room to fetch her tea supplies, returning to prepare a bowl of matcha for each of them.

It doesn’t seem to have any impact on Kyouka’s nerves, but she drinks all of it nevertheless. Kouyou forces herself to look away from the quivering of Kyouka’s hands as she raises the bowl toward her mouth. If Kyouka doesn’t wish to speak about it, she tells herself, then she shouldn’t force her to. Time and time again it has been proven that Kouyou’s mere presence and offers of support are enough, but a feeling of helplessness—doubly unsettling for how unfamiliar it is—hovers at the back of her mind regardless.

The balance she has to maintain is a careful, precarious one, and as someone who is overbearing and demanding by nature, albeit often subtly so, Kouyou has to struggle with herself to keep it in place. Yet, for all the odds weighed to one side of the scale, it manages to equilibrize itself more than anything, brittle tension remaining unshattered and unacknowledged.

Despite the shade cast over the day and the stress prickling along her skin, the stillness of the living room and the easy routine of tossing out threats and orders lulls Kouyou into some sense of calmness. Some of her attention, though, is still on the clock, which she watches tick away molasses-slow while another incompetent subordinate rattles in her ear.

When the time arrives at last for Kyouka’s appointment, she ends the call she’d been on for the past ten minutes and stands. At the sound, Kyouka looks up, and it only takes a single side glance for her to snap her notebook shut and get to her feet.

“Is there anything else you’d like to bring?” asks Kouyou. Kyouka shakes her head, holding her notebook closer to her chest, and Kouyou nods, bowing a touch deeper than she would any other time. “All right, then. If you are feeling ready to set out, then we should leave now.”

As she starts toward the doorway, the sound of Kasa’s car rumbling outside becomes audible, and in the same instant that Kyouka’s footsteps halt behind her, Kouyou realizes one potential problem with this. Last year they hadn’t left the house at all, save for the three-AM trip Kouyou had had to make to headquarters. Cars, as a result, hadn’t come up.

Kouyou still isn’t quite certain how much, if any, of the crash Kyouka can remember. But back when Kouyou had first taken her in, it had taken several months for her to approach cars without hesitating at least a little beforehand, and today, with everything sharp and raw once more, driving may still be an issue.

“If you’d prefer an alternative method of transportation,” says Kouyou, not looking behind her, “then we do have options. It is not that far a walk, nor is public transportation out of the question.”

When silence ensues, she does turn to look over her shoulder. Kyouka’s knuckles are white around the notebook pressed to her chest, but her jaw is set, a muscle visibly clenching and unclenching.

“Or,” says Kouyou, glancing down but keeping her peripheral vision on Kyouka, “we could cancel this appointment altogether, if you are not feeling up to departing.” A truly gentle voice is something she has never quite learned how to harness, but she keeps her voice as neutral and light as she can, trying not to sway Kyouka any way other than what she’s most comfortable with. “Your comfort and wellbeing are my utmost priorities, child. It is entirely up to you.”

Kyouka’s posture tightens a little further, and Kouyou lets her shoulders drop, diminishing her posture as much as she can. Her eyes dart to the clock before she can help herself, but she manages to drag her attention back to Kyouka, who has not so much as twitched.

“I hate to pressure you,” says Kouyou, trying now to fully soften her voice, “but this decision is somewhat time-sensitive, I am afraid, since I had not the foresight to mention it earlier. Would you prefer staying here today?”

Though Kyouka’s expression is flighty at best, and her head is now half-bowed, she shakes her head. Kouyou’s eyebrows arch instinctively, then drop back down to a more objective angle.

“All right, then.” She reaches out to steady Kyouka’s shoulder and usher her along, not pushing but at least lending her some support. “Should you change your mind at any point, do not hesitate to let me know.”

Kyouka nods, though it could just as easily be another bow, and, with Kouyou’s aid, steps the rest of the way toward the door.

The silence persists throughout the car ride. Kyouka tenses when they step outside, and her hands are shaking again when she straps herself in, but she manages it with only a little assistance. She spends the entirety of the short trip staring straight ahead, eyes fixed on the passenger side headrest, but she seems alert and present enough that Kouyou resolves not to make her so to an uncomfortable degree.

They arrive at the nondescript building Kyouka’s therapist is based out of just over fifteen minutes early. Kouyou tells Kasa not to wait on them, and waits until she’s driven off before resting a hand on Kyouka’s shoulder and guiding her inside.

Most days, Kyouka is relaxed enough to tap a foot against the ground or sketch while they wait. Today, however, she’s statue-still where she sits to Kouyou’s left, tucked into the chair farthest from the door and hidden further from view by the sprawl of Kouyou’s kimono. She’d left her notebook in the car, seemingly on purpose, and she’d brought nothing else to occupy herself with. Every few seconds she’ll blink, or her fingers will twitch where they’re folded in her lap, but that’s the most movement Kouyou sees out of her until Ise emerges and greets them.

When she does, Kyouka stands without prompting, glances at Kouyou, dips into a brief half-bow, then steps past Ise into the office. Ise is left standing to the side with a blankly pleasant expression.

“Rough day so far?” she asks Kouyou.

“Not particularly, as far as I have noticed,” says Kouyou, settling her hands in her lap as if mirroring Kyouka’s former posture. “But she has been a bit on edge all week, and she hasn’t yet spoken this morning. I expected today to be difficult, though.” Her fingers tighten, knuckles surely white beneath the sleeves of her haori.

“I see. Well, we’ll be back with you in just a while.”

Kouyou inclines her head. “I shall see you then.”

Ise smiles, a bit lukewarm but trying at encouraging, and then disappears into the office as well. The door closes with an almost inaudible click.

Rather than striking up a conversation with the receptionist, Kouyou reaches for her phone, scanning through emails and messages and making notes to return a few missed calls when she’s no longer in a public facility. Some days, others flit through the waiting room, on behalf of the other three counselors that operate out of the same office space. Kouyou hadn’t scheduled around their absence on purpose, as she sometimes does, but the waiting room is empty and quiet today, something she has never before been so grateful for.

Kyouka is only in the office for fifty-odd minutes, but it feels like hours. Kouyou has to keep glancing between the clock on the wall and that on her phone to ensure neither is off. The walls are thick, but not that thick, so she keeps an ear out for raised voices; she hears nothing, which she can’t decide whether to categorize as more or less unnerving. Considering Kyouka’s typical volume and demeanor today, she leans toward the latter.

She’s halfway into skimming through a report from one of Ariwara’s government moles when the door opens. Information leaving the forefront of her mind at once, Kouyou can’t look up fast enough.

To her surprise, it’s to meet Kyouka’s eyes. The faintest tint of pink surrounds the edges, but there’s a glow to them that Kouyou had missed all morning, and her posture seems lighter. For the briefest of moments, Kyouka holds her gaze with a quick nod.

“I daresay we were able to air at least some things out,” says Ise, hovering at Kyouka’s shoulder. “Does another two weeks work for your next appointment? I have openings then at twelve, two, and three.”

“Have you any preference, child?” Kouyou slides to her feet, reaching out to steady Kyouka—and perhaps herself—with a hand to the shoulder. When Kyouka shakes her head, she says, “Two ought to work fine. Thank you for your aid, Ise-san.”

As they leave, Kyouka lifts her hand to briefly wave at Ise. Kouyou’s hand doesn’t fall away from Kyouka’s shoulder, nor does Kyouka seem uncomfortable with the contact, light and guiding as it is. They fall in step together as they leave the building and step out onto the street, where they both wince at the too-bright sun that hits them.

Kyouka flings up a hand as a shield while Kouyou unfolds her parasol with her free hand. “I take it you didn’t happen to bring sunglasses.” Frowning, Kyouka shakes her head. Kouyou tilts the umbrella more to the side, shadow now falling three-quarters over her and one-quarter over Kouyou. “Is that any better?”

Kyouka nods, although she’s still squinting. Interpreting this as a sentiment along the lines of it’s better than nothing, Kouyou accepts the response and maintains that position.

Together they start down the sidewalk, sidestepping a young couple with their arms pressed together. Since she has no particular destination in mind, Kouyou’s pace is a touch more leisurely than it would be any other time, and Kyouka stays only a step or two behind her. Kouyou doesn’t expect her to speak for some time still, really, and certainly not out here. She’s ready to step to the side so she can pull out her phone and call Kasa when Kyouka stops, making her stop too, and takes a breath.

“I want crepes,” she says, quiet but resolute.

It is difficult to put into words the sense of relief and warmth that sweeps over Kouyou at such a declaration. “Oh?” she asks, peering down. Kyouka nods, gaze fixed forward. However helpless Kouyou is in the face of the smile that stretches across her face and the feeling that swells within her chest, she clears her throat, attempting to play it as casually as Kyouka is. “Well, it is about lunchtime. If it is crepes you want, dear, then crepes you shall have.”

Kyouka doesn’t smile, but the clear expectant shine to her eyes is far, far better than nothing.

Luckily, the street they’re on now isn’t too far from the park where the crepes stall Kyouka likes so much is set up. As they step out of the limited shade of the buildings to cross the street, Kouyou switches her parasol to her other hand to better shield Kyouka from the sun. Though Kyouka hasn’t sped up any, still lagging a bit behind Kouyou’s brisker steps, she no longer seems to have as great a weight to her shoulders as she had this morning.

Before long, the park comes into view. Kyouka glances fleetingly over at Kouyou as they approach the entrance, but she continues to match Kouyou’s pace as they weave throughout the thin crowd. Kouyou keeps her parasol aloft and her chin higher, sweeping around other passersby with her usual control and ease.

There is a short line leading up to the stall, but Kouyou and Kyouka progress through it in a matter of a few minutes. They order—or rather, Kouyou does, as Kyouka is too busy salivating to speak.

Kouyou gestures Kyouka by the shoulder to the side as they wait, shifting her parasol to hang between them. Others continue to mill about, and Kyouka presses closer without prompting, although the vast majority of other parkgoers are giving them a wide berth to begin with. When a crepe is pressed into Kouyou’s formerly free hand, she allows herself to trust Kyouka to keep to her side without physical encouragement.

She shifts her fingers into a more comfortable position, then nudges Kyouka as best she can anyway. “Come, let’s find somewhere to sit.”

Kyouka looks seconds from starting to eat while they walk, but she manages to hold herself off for the minute it takes to find an unoccupied bench cast half in shade. Folding her parasol, Kouyou takes the side hit by harsh sunlight. Kyouka only hesitates for half an instant before settling down on the other.

While Kouyou is still adjusting her grip, Kyouka dives right in, eyes shining brighter than they have in a week. Before long, whipped cream and ice cream are trickling down her fingers toward her sleeve, but she seems not to care or even notice, continuing to eat with open abandon as though she’s been starving for days.

With a sigh, Kouyou pulls free a handkerchief to wipe her hand clean. Kyouka blinks, jumping on instinct, but allows it with a quick nod.

In less than four minutes, Kyouka has devoured her crepe and is wiping the residue from her fingers. Kouyou, less than a fifth into hers, raises an eyebrow.

“Would you like another?” she asks, already reaching for her wallet.

Kyouka starts to shake her head, but she freezes the instant her stomach growls, loud and prolonged, making her answer clear. Kouyou chuckles and hands her twice as much yen as she needs for a crepe. Her eyes don’t leave Kyouka for even a fraction of a second as she scurries across the park and returns with a second crepe, this one seeming to be a different flavor.

This one doesn’t go down quite so fast, but Kyouka is still done with it long before Kouyou manages to finish hers. She seems content now, hands folding over her stomach as she sags back into the back of the bench. Kouyou almost offers her a bite or even the remainder of her own crepe, considering this excursion hadn’t been for her sake, but the vague remorseful comfort to Kyouka’s face and the pressure of her hands over her abdomen stops her.

They sit there a few moments longer, the summer heat combated by a smooth breeze. Kouyou’s eyes wander from person to person walking past, less focused on people-watching than she would be were she alone—and were the day a different one—but distantly processing the flow of foot traffic regardless.

Kyouka is the first to stand, pulling herself up and brushing her kimono off. The wind blows her single ponytail to the side, stray locks fluttering around her face; for an instant she looks both older and younger, mature and hardened but still certifiably a child.

“Ready to leave?” asks Kouyou. When Kyouka nods, reaching up to tuck some of the hair that’s fallen into her eyes behind her ears, she too stands.

The ride home is more relaxed than the drive out had been, though Kyouka still flinches for a fraction of a second when Kasa pulls up along the side street. Kouyou watches a series of emotions flit across her face as she takes in a deliberate breath and lets it go. They still don’t speak, but it’s out of comfort—and some weariness, on behalf of the sun and food—rather than discomfort this time, and perhaps noticing this, Kasa turns her music up a bit to occupy the relaxed silence filling the car.

It follows them into the house, and it isn’t until Kyouka is taking off her shoes that Kouyou dares to break it.

“Apologies if you are not yet ready to think about another meal,” she says, and Kyouka blinks up at her as she steps up into the hall, “but do you have any preferences for dinner? We could go out—” Kyouka’s face twitches briefly but violently “—or not.” Kouyou smiles, even as she glides farther into the house, making for the kitchen. Quiet footsteps behind her indicate that Kyouka is following. “Would you like to order in from somewhere, then? If not, there are quite a few things we can do at home, if you would not mind a brief shopping trip.”

Kyouka opens her mouth, then closes it with a frown, not seeming to know how to respond. She looks at Kouyou in wordless indecision.

“Would it be easier if I presented the options one at a time?” suggests Kouyou, and Kyouka thinks this over for a few seconds before nodding. “All right. Would you like to order in?”

After another pause of consideration, Kyouka inclines her head again. When Kouyou asks what she would like, she’s quick to respond, “Yudofu sounds good.”

Kouyou smiles. “It would be easier as well,” she agrees, reaching for the notepad pinned to the refrigerator. “Tachibana’s?” At Kyouka’s final nod, Kouyou smiles and jots it down.

The remainder of the afternoon passes in a blur. With Kouyou’s encouragement, Kyouka disappears upstairs again, enough light in her eyes and ease to her posture that Kouyou isn’t concerned, though she’s still relieved the couple of times she heads upstairs under the guise of using the restroom and finds Kyouka’s door open and Kyouka herself busy drawing or reading.

When evening comes and the food arrives, Kouyou calls Kyouka down. They set the table together, and the smooth flow of the routine is casual enough that it takes Kouyou a second to realize that Kyouka has tied her hair back into her typical twin ponytails. Kouyou doesn’t comment on it, only smiling and taking her seat.

Dinner is such a stark contrast to breakfast that it is hard to believe the latter had taken place less than twelve hours ago. They don’t talk much, but they do talk, chatting intermittently about what Kyouka’s been doing in school now that exam season is up, and what she’s looking forward to doing over summer vacation, and if she’d like Kouyou to make any plans, either for them or for Kyouka and her friends. Most of the questions are met with shrugs, but as far as Kouyou is concerned, that is better than no communication at all.

Kyouka’s first bite has her squeezing her eyes shut, seemingly in equal amounts of joy and sorrow. Kouyou pulls the packet of tissues out again. They still go unneeded, but their presence seems to lighten things further, and Kyouka outright laughs this time, wet and quiet but no less bright.

Again Kyouka helps with the dishes, and again Kouyou lets her. Kouyou is able to coax Kyouka outside afterward, and they sit there for about half an hour, neither speaking and neither moving except to drink the tea Kouyou had brewed. The sun sets, slow and steady.

Afterward, Kouyou sees Kyouka off to bed, though she’s sure she won’t sleep for a while longer. Leaning down, Kouyou brushes back Kyouka’s bangs to press a brief kiss to her forehead. The gesture has tiny tears appearing at the corners of Kyouka’s eyes, though she brushes them away as quickly as they’d appeared.

“Sleep well, Kyouka.” Kouyou’s smile isn’t quite one of full understanding, but it is at least approaching comfort. “You did extremely well today. You should be proud—I most certainly am, and I’m sure your parents would be as well.”

Kyouka blinks hard a few times. “It was hard,” she says, tugging at her sleeves. “But I could feel my parents watching over me.”

Kouyou has no particular superstitions around death and what succeeds it, but she cannot help but hope such a sentiment is true, if only because the Izumis deserve to see how their daughter is turning out. In lieu of a full hug, she squeezes Kyouka’s shoulder—and is surprised when Kyouka clumsily but warmly wraps her arms around Kouyou’s waist in return.

For a second Kouyou stiffens; then the stupor passes, and she lets herself relax into the embrace. Her arms fall in loose brackets around Kyouka’s shoulders, loose and understated but reciprocal nevertheless.

The embrace doesn’t last long, but to Kouyou the few prolonged seconds—so she assumes—seem timeless. The spell shatters when Kyouka steps away, but the ghost of it remains, its physical and emotional warmth alike lingering in the air. A slight flush has risen in Kyouka’s ears, just visible beneath the dark curls of her hair, but she stands still, her eyes on the ground and her posture embarrassed but not tense.

Her words still hover around them, too, and Kouyou smiles. “I’m certain they are,” she says with a confidence she doesn’t quite feel, but it is worth it for the shine of Kyouka’s eyes. “Goodnight, Kyouka. If you need anything, please, do not hesitate to inform me. And remember—they loved you very much. As do I.”

Those words are not ones that often leave her mouth, but now, in this moment, they feel more natural than anything. Kyouka’s eyes widen, and her flush deepens, but she bows her head in unspoken reciprocation before ducking into her room, pulling the door shut behind her.

“Goodnight,” she says before it closes with a pointed click.

Kouyou’s smile doesn’t falter as she absconds to her own room. She has some reports waiting in her inbox to look over as well as a handful of calls to return, but for a moment Kouyou puts aside any work responsibilities in favor of looking through her personal phone.

She calls Chuuya, but it goes straight to voicemail, so either he’s still at headquarters, is asleep, or has his phone off for reasons she doesn’t care to entertain. Kouyou texts him rather than leaving a message, summarizing her and Kyouka’s day and inquiring as to how work had gone.

Though Dazai had texted her a few times throughout the day, she ignores these, assuming he’ll get the information either upfront or through snooping. Instead, she examines the notifications from Atsushi below. Early in the afternoon, he’d asked how Kyouka was doing; a second message from several hours later includes an attachment, which loads to reveal a grainy picture of the crepe Kyouka had eaten, and a vaguely relieved caption.

A smile returns to Kouyou’s face before she can tamp down on it. She types out a concise reply, covering the basics but ultimately encouraging him to ask Kyouka—and provides an opportunity to do so in the form of asking him to watch her tomorrow evening.

It’s late enough that he shouldn’t reply, and even if he does, Kouyou won’t encourage a full conversation by even looking at it. She taps out, therefore, and by instinct finds herself scrolling down to another contact.

Considering her—however bare-minimum it had been—explanation to Yosano a couple of weeks ago and their scarce communication since, Kouyou isn’t expecting any texts from her. She isn’t surprised nor disappointed when that suspicion is confirmed, their last messages (a fifteen-minute back-and-forth about the man who drank a broth of bacteria to prove his hypothesis that they caused peptic ulcers) having been exchanged two days prior. Still, something stirs within her staring at the blank screen.

With a hand to her lips, Kouyou considers Yosano’s sleep schedule. Are you still awake? she types out, apprehension in each stroke of her fingers. She stares at the message for a moment, eyes narrowed, and hits send before she can change her mind.

In the ensuing silence, Kouyou occupies herself with trying to decide whether she should replace her curtains, tattered as hers have looked as of late. When her phone buzzes in her hand, the train of thought disappears.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a “u up” text from you of all people, but it’s definitely not the worst one I’ve gotten, Yosano’s response reads. I am, as you can tell. What’s up?

A fleeting smile crosses Kouyou’s lips. Nothing in particular. Today was something of a difficult occasion for Kyouka and myself, but we made it through. That makes the situation sound graver than it had ended up being, but Kouyou sees no need to mull on it, nor to recount things in excruciating detail.

I see. That’s why you’ve been busy the past couple of weeks, I assume?

You are as sharp as ever, sensei, types Kouyou, mouth twitching for a heartbeat. Work did play some factor in my schedule, but this was the bulk of it, yes.

I see, says Yosano again. You and Kyouka are doing all right now, then?

It was a bit difficult at first, as I said, but yes, we are both faring well now. She had a therapy appointment today, luckily, and that greatly helped matters.

Glad to hear it. Is this your way of letting me know your schedule is a little more open now?

Kouyou is not quite inclined to answer yes, but she finds herself pausing before she responds all the same. I shall still be preoccupied with Kyouka for the next several days, so likely not, she settles on, leaning back further against the headboard. I believe I mentioned summer vacation as a cut-off date before—shall we stick with that?

Works for me, replies Yosano. Did you have another actual reason for texting, then?

Though Kouyou’s fingers jump to type out a response, she finds herself faltering as she stares at the keyboard, unsure what had driven her to this. I can’t say, really, she says in the end. I suppose I was seeking some sort of distraction before attempting to sleep.

There’s another brief pause. And then, without another question, Yosano responds: Want to hear about this time this dude ripped out his IV and started spewing blood all over the interns?

Please, sends back Kouyou without a moment’s hesitation, and she smiles when the typing bubble reappears almost at once.

*

No matter how unbelievable the prospect may have seemed at several points the day before, the sun rises again, bringing with it a new morning. Kouyou stirs slowly, then all at once, blinking up at the bright ceiling through half-shut eyes one second and twisting to the side to stand the next.

Today, she doesn’t waste time on introspection, instead willing her mind into silent submission as she dresses. Her conversation with Yosano last night—and then another with Chuuya, once her phone ringing pulled her out of a bath that had nearly lulled her into sleep—had instilled some sense of calm in her, despite the subject matter, and the stillness of the early hour has allowed it to persist into today.

She starts downstairs, again unsurprised at the lack of sound—save for, if she strains her ears close enough, soft and even breathing—from Kyouka’s room. It brings a smile to Kouyou’s face today, though. Kyouka has earned her rest, just as Kouyou has earned this momentary stretch of silence, still laden with some tension but overall far more soothing than the uncomfortably empty room she’d found herself in yesterday morning.

Kouyou parts only some of the curtains in the kitchen, moving about with ease in the half-dim room as she gathers ingredients and weighs how much time she has. It is still the weekend, and with any luck Kyouka won’t be up for a while yet. With this in mind, she commits to taking her time with breakfast, perhaps even waiting a few minutes more to start.

For a few moments Kouyou stands there in the kitchen, still and calm. She lets a menagerie of feelings wash over her—and then, just as quickly, she sloughs them all off, ties up her sleeves, and starts getting to work.

Less than ten minutes later, the stairs audibly creak. At first Kouyou is willing to dismiss it—her house is an old one, so sometimes there are creaks and shifts for no particular reason—but then so too do the floorboards right beyond the kitchen doorway, a sound far less natural. They groan as if beneath organic weight—forty kilograms of it, to be exact.

Kouyou turns, blinking, to face Kyouka. Kyouka blinks mildly back at her.

The first thought to come to Kouyou’s mind is that perhaps a nightmare had woken Kyouka; she’d had them last year, after all, prompting her to spend most of a two-week period on a futon on Kouyou’s floor, and others still in the first few months she’d lived here, prompting her to come downstairs or to Kouyou’s door in a similar fashion. But Kyouka looks alert and no worse for wear, her hair back in a bun and the sleeves of her yukata tied back. She also doesn’t make to speak or dart forward to tuck herself into Kouyou’s side as she often does—or rather, had—on such occasions. All she does is stand there, hovering in the doorway with her hands at her waist and her head tilted up to watch Kouyou just as Kouyou is watching her.

No further explanations come to mind, and Kouyou attempts to smooth out the furrow of confusion in her forehead. She clears her throat and summons up a thin smile. “Ah, good morning, Kyouka. Apologies for my surprise, but I presumed you would be sleeping in longer. Did you rest well, at least?”

“Mm,” says Kyouka vaguely, inclining her head in something approximating a nod. The slightest wisps of dark circles underline her eyes, but she has those most of the time regardless of the quality of her sleep, so Kouyou does not factor them into her observations.

“Good, good. And you feel at least somewhat better than you did yesterday, I take it?” Another minute nod. Kouyou manages to expand her smile. “That is good, too.”

Kyouka makes a noncommittal humming sound again. She looks up at Kouyou as if she’s trying to communicate something without having to speak it, but whatever it is is lost on Kouyou for the time being.

“Well,” says Kouyou, in the absence of anything else to fill the silence with, “you are free to sit and wait, but I cannot say that will be very interesting. Breakfast should take another—” she glances at the clock “—forty minutes at least, so should you wish to occupy that time another way, you are more than free to return to your room.”

She expects Kyouka to perhaps obey this suggestion, either to stay there until summoned or bring something down to wait at the table, or even take a quiet seat at the table. Instead, Kyouka stays where she is, lips pressed together and feet half-curled together on the tile.

A frown crosses Kouyou’s face, but before she gets the chance to ask if Kyouka is truly all right, Kyouka is glancing toward the counter and saying, “Can I help?”

Again Kouyou stops in her tracks, and again she’s unable to cloak the shock that fills her expression as she glances toward Kyouka.

“With cooking, you mean?” asks Kouyou, careful, just to leave out any room for miscommunication. Kyouka nods, relief and life both flickering through her eyes. Kouyou leans back with consideration. “If that is what you wish, then of course, child. Your help would be greatly appreciated, so long as it is given willingly and not out of some sense of obligation.”

She punctuates the statement with a sharp look, but Kyouka doesn’t waver—if anything, her determined stare hardens further under the heavy-handed nudge. Her chin juts out, proud, in a way Kouyou would wager she picked up either from herself or Chuuya.

Bemused as she still is, Kouyou can’t help but smile. “Very well, then. I could use your assistance preparing the soup. The stock, aburaage, spring onions, mushrooms, and snap peas are all in the refrigerator—would you mind fetching them?”

Kyouka nods and turns on her heel without hesitation. Kouyou raises an eyebrow at her back, but she turns back to glance at the salted salmon fillets she’d set in the oven only a few minutes earlier. From the clattering behind her, first from the refrigerator and then closer to the counter, she assumes Kyouka has succeeded in her task.

When she turns again, that assumption is confirmed, and Kyouka is fixing her with an expectant stare from across the room. The thought occurs to Kouyou once more how skilled a mafioso she would be; and again, she quells it.

Quickly, Kouyou takes stock of what else she has to prepare—the rice cooker is whirring away, the takuan and umeboshi are already ready and just need to be dished up, and she should be able to take care of a couple additional side dishes while the soup is simmering—then gestures Kyouka over toward the stove. Apprehension crosses Kyouka’s face for the briefest of seconds, then she does, bringing with her the dashi, as instructed.

Kyouka can’t quite reach the settings on the stove, so Kouyou alters them for her, setting out a small saucepan already filled with water. “We’ll add the rest of the ingredients once it starts boiling,” she explains, glancing toward where they’re spread out. “For now, two cups of dashi. Make sure there’s still some left; I’d like to prepare some dashimaki as well.”

Though she isn’t looking at Kyouka, attention instead on the stove, she can almost feel how her eyes widen. She isn’t distracted from her task, though, pouring in the stock under Kouyou’s guiding gaze.

“I’ll let you know when it begins boiling,” says Kouyou when Kyouka’s eyes turn back toward her. “In the meantime, could you chop up the rest of the ingredients? You know where the knives and cutting board are, yes?”

Kyouka nods, brief, and steps that way. Kouyou doesn’t bother asking about her ability to wield a knife, given who some of the most significant figures in her life are, nor does she offer advice as to how to cut each ingredient, given how often Kyouka has watched her run through this part of the process. The prospect of Kyouka being anything less than a natural at this aspect of things isn’t even worth considering.

Sure enough, the crisp slicing of metal through plant fibers sounds from across the room within a few moments. It sounds clean, but Kouyou still chances a look. Kyouka is hunched forward, side profile just visible as she leans forward over the spread-out spring onions, stance all but immaculate.

Kouyou softens at the sight. Gently jostling the saucepan, she says over her shoulder, “It is not that I mind this development, of course, but… if I may ask, what prompted it? You have shown very little interest in cooking in the past.”

The sound of Kyouka dicing spring onions halts, and Kouyou glances back again to see the tail end of Kyouka shrugging. She waits, but Kyouka resumes chopping and says nothing. If there is a particular answer to Kouyou’s question, it seems to be one that Kyouka can’t voice.

“I see.” Kouyou turns her attention back toward the stove. A small, warm smile has stolen across her face, and only now does she become fully aware of it, though she doesn’t bother tamping down on it. “Well, all the same, your help is greatly appreciated, child. Now, when you’re finished over there—”

She has her guesses as to Kyouka’s intentions—what matters more in the end, though, is the result: The two of them working in tandem to prepare their breakfast, on opposite ends of the kitchen and occupied with different tasks but enshrouded in some sense of solidarity nevertheless. Less than a full twenty-four hours out from a tense, uncomfortable, grief-heavy morning, Kouyou can’t help but cherish the feeling.

There are still, of course, undercurrents of yesterday’s—and the rest of the preceding week’s—turmoil, a weariness that cannot be cloaked nor fixed, plenty of heavy emotions and baggage that cannot be healed. It is easy to plaster over cracks in the foundation, but they persist regardless, creeping in every now and then. As much as Kouyou would like to pretend everything has been smoothed over, she is not so naive. Kyouka will still be quieter than usual for the next few days if not longer, and her parents’ absence will still especially be felt in domestic, everyday routines like this one.

But for now, slowly, carefully, just as the soup boils, they work toward healing.

- the peptic ulcers thing is real! in the 80s, to prove that h. pylori caused ulcers rather than stress (which can be a factor but isn't the main cause), barry marshall drank a petri dish full of bacteria and fell ill days later. anyway, thanks for reading! see you next week! if you have time to spare, comments and kudos are always appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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