the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 11 chapter cws: brief mentions of violence (including torture), death, trafficking, and sex. also, some vague on-screen violence in the form of sparring.

“How you two are capable of sparring in this heat is beyond me. It isn’t as if I lack the space to train indoors.”

Kouyou’s complaint falls upon dismissive ears, Kyouka too busy aiming a kick toward Chuuya’s midsection and Chuuya too busy blocking it to react save for some minute twitches. It is a terse standoff, a few seconds passing in that tight silence before Kyouka, age and inexperience catching up with her, falters. Chuuya wastes no time in seizing this weakness and knocking her back with only enough force to have her stumbling for balance.

Above, the sun is beating down in full force, only now beginning to dip from its peak height. Sweat glimmers on both Kyouka and Chuuya’s skin as they step back to oppose each other across the grass. The efforts to which they have to go to avoid disturbing Kouyou’s immaculate garden perhaps lend some credence to their habit of practicing outside, ingraining in Kyouka a habit of awareness and caution of her surroundings, but it seems as much a hassle as it is useful. And it would be more practical during a month that doesn’t average lows in the twenties. Not to mention the frequent rain, although that at least is dwindling as August nears.

With a click of her tongue, Kouyou sits back, leaning into the shade provided by the roof. “If Kyouka gets heat stroke,” she calls, “you shall be at fault.”

That spurs a wince from Chuuya. “She’ll be fine, ane-san,” he says, glancing her way. “She’s wearing sunblock—” as is he, a few white swabs he’d failed to properly rub in still visible on his cheeks “—and we’ll take another break to sit in the shade and drink some water in a few minutes. It’s—”

The sentence goes forgotten when Kyouka takes advantage of his distraction, however, momentary, to lunge. Chuuya has good reflexes and reaction speeds, but he’s caught off-guard for a split second, surprise and forceful restraint making him almost stumble under Kyouka’s rushing tackle. He’s able to ward her off, blocking one punch with an elbow and catching the other in his own fist.

It seems the strikes’ secondary purpose, however, is as another diversion—without hesitation, Kyouka sweeps a kick toward Chuuya’s legs. He plants his feet, too sturdy to be knocked to the ground, but raises an impressed eyebrow.

“You need to apply a bit more force when you try to knock someone down like that,” he says. “Not enough that you lose your balance too, though. Wanna give it another go?”

He slackens his posture. Both of Kyouka’s feet return to the ground, but when she starts to rear back for another kick, she hesitates mid-step.

“C’mon, Kyouka, what’s the holdup?” Chuuya lifts his chin, glancing her over, and then shifts with a slight flicker in his expression. He squares his shoulders and crosses his arms. “You won’t actually knock me over or hurt me, you know. In a few years, maybe, but if that’s what you’re worried about, don’t.”

Something flares in Kyouka’s eyes, the reassurance taken as a challenge. This time she opts for a similar strategy—swinging first, rapid-fire movements blurry from afar—but tweaked enough that Chuuya’s reactions are delayed by a fraction of a second. The lack of much vertical distance between them allows her to jab toward his chin with ease, pulling a pleased nod from the one who’d taught her to go for the face where they’re seated a short distance from Kouyou. When Chuuya’s arm is half-raised in defense, Kyouka goes in for the kick, striking his ankles with enough force to prompt a grunt.

As Chuuya had said, it doesn’t send him sprawling, but it does make him rush to lock his knees, thereby forgetting to block Kyouka’s swing and taking an extremely light palm to the chin. Kyouka backs up the instant she notices she’s landed a hit.

A grin, meanwhile, stretches across Chuuya’s face. “Nice, nice! If you time it right and keep up that balance, you might be able to knock someone else on their ass like that.” He claps Kyouka’s shoulder, then glances to the side. “Though I think ane-san will throttle me if we don’t take a break now, so let’s get some water, yeah?”

After taking a beat to catch her breath, Kyouka nods, takes a single step, and then promptly sinks to the ground, yukata billowing out around her as she drops. Chuuya snorts and pats the top of her head before stepping toward the bottles he’d left near the engawa.

Kouyou sips from her cup of tea, pleased, and shuffles a few centimeters farther back into the shade. Gin, so silent and motionless save for their nod earlier, shifts their posture in a similar fashion. They’d helped Kyouka warm up earlier, but after a few brief spars, they’d swapped places with Chuuya; by now, they seem content to watch them practice and occasionally comment. They sit up a little straighter, arranging their hair into another bun, tighter and less likely to come undone with sweat as their previous updo had.

Though they haven’t taught Kyouka anything more than basic self-defense skills and some supplemental biology, the prospect of an assassin—in particular one as skilled as Gin—training a child is one many parents, adoptive or otherwise, would balk at. As she is in most areas, Kouyou is fortunate not to be many parents.

If anything, she thinks Kyouka is disappointed that Gin hasn’t taught her more about their specialties. The first time Kyouka had met Gin, as a matter of fact, Gin had—in an apparent moment of panic that had worked out well for them both—whipped out a butterfly knife and shown her a few tricks. Kyouka had watched in awe and then asked to borrow it.

This had, of course, failed when Gin had looked at Kouyou in muted panic and Kouyou had shaken her head. Undeterred, Kyouka had then asked Kouyou if she could have one of her own.

“When you are in high school,” Kouyou had said, a common refrain, head turned away so as not to be swayed by Kyouka’s expression, “perhaps we can discuss it further.” This—along with a promise from Gin to show off more of their knives—had proved satisfactory.

Now, Gin reaches down to grab one bottle of water and fling it in Chuuya’s direction. He catches it, and they toss him the other, which follows an effortless arc into his free hand, already outstretched. Chuuya nods, and Gin holds up a proud thumb.

Chuuya steps back over to Kyouka, crouches, and presses the bottle he must have deemed hers to her forehead. Kyouka jolts and reaches up to snatch it from his grasp. Laughing, he settles back into a full sitting position and starts a new conversation.

Tipping back her tea again, Kouyou grimaces when she shifts her weight and comes into sharp awareness of the stagnant heat clinging to her clothing. Between the temperature, the thick mid-afternoon humidity, the ever-present glare of the sun, and the accumulation of insects, she wants summer to be over yesterday.

The only thing good about this season, really, is that Kyouka is off school and at home with her (or, because Kouyou hasn’t the luxury of taking a vacation herself, with Atsushi or one of her subordinates). Even that will end before summer’s official conclusion, though. And since Kyouka isn’t all too fond of summer vacation, with her affinity toward the work, consistency, and opportunity to prove herself granted by the school year, Kouyou can’t even enjoy that to its fullest.

The homework foisted off onto Kyouka, at least, allows some sense of routine and productivity to carry into the break, though Kouyou presumes she’ll be done with it at least a week or two before returning to school. The remainder of her vacation, it seems, will be spent with family, Kouyou’s subordinates, Atsushi, and Aya, her only school friend left in town since Kenji’s apparent return to his home village for the month. (He’d extended the possibility of visiting, but the seven-hour trip has eradicated any wishes to follow up on this.)

Kouyou’s childhood summers, she supposes, weren’t too different. More difficult, even, with long-deceased parents and an unideal living situation to make the most of, not to mention how much of her proper childhood had been robbed from her.

Her eyes drift to Kyouka, who is listening to Chuuya talk about his judo days in high school with an enraptured, unblinking expression, water bottle frozen halfway to her mouth like she’d raised it and gotten too invested to remember to drink. Despite her exhaustion of moments earlier, energy all but radiates from Kyouka now.

There, really, is the glaring difference: Kouyou’s childhood had lacked the light and joy and love that hangs thick today.

Kouyou dislikes the sun and the painful, poisonous light it brings. The warmth that comes with it isn’t much better, with how it clings and bites. But sitting here, watching Kyouka enjoy herself and be as much a child as she’ll ever get the chance to be, Kouyou can’t help but wish, however distantly, that she had had more days like these ones. Any at all, really, when she thinks back.

She is glad, at least, that Kyouka gets to in her stead. Kouyou cannot change her own past, but she can put effort into changing Kyouka’s future.

She’s pulled from her thoughts when the grass rustles as Chuuya stands, extending a hand to pull Kyouka to her feet as well. “We’ve been out here for a while,” he says, making sure Kyouka is able to stand before letting go, “so this’ll be the last one.” He punctuates with a glance toward Kouyou.

“I never imposed any time limit on you,” says Kouyou dismissively, scoffing into her tea. She empties her cup and swallows. “I merely made a suggestion that you chose to ignore.”

“You say that, but I know an order when I hear it, boss. It’s been a couple hours, so we should probably wrap up anyway.” Chuuya waves her off and starts stretching again, rubbing at his shoulder—he can’t have done something to it today, so it must be an old pain flaring up under the sun and exertion. Kouyou suspects stopping here is as much for his sake as Kyouka’s. “Was there anything you wanted to go over again, Kyouka?”

Kyouka shakes her head, cracks her knuckles, and charges him.

Kouyou laughs under her breath at the expression that crosses Chuuya’s face at having this pulled on him for the third time this afternoon, then busies herself with refilling her cup. Distantly, she watches Gin tug at some hair that’s slipped loose of their bun despite their extensive attempts to get it to stay. Their mask hangs limp around their chin, leaving their mouth bare, set somewhere between a grin and a frown. Their dark eyes dart between the two on the grass and Kouyou.

Without hesitation, Kouyou reaches for another cup. “Gin-kun,” she says, smooth, and they jump but look expectantly at her, “would you care for some tea? I fear I have no snacks to go with it, though I can most certainly fetch some if you would like.”

“That’s fine, Kouyou-sama,” Gin hurries to say, dipping their head and dropping their hands to their lap. Their fingers curl together, nails worrying at dry skin. “Um, I wouldn’t mind tea, though, if you’re offering it.”

Kouyou fills the second cup and, as they shuffle closer, pushes it to the opposite end of the tray. Gin murmurs their thanks and takes the cup between their fingers.

“It is still fairly warm,” warns Kouyou.

Gin nods, pausing with it held there. With some difficulty, they angle their body so they can still peer at the two across the backyard.

After a few seconds, Kouyou’s gaze drifts there as well. Chuuya—with some difficulty—is blocking another jab from Kyouka. The finality of this sparring bout, perhaps, grants them both a dose more of intensity, and Kouyou mentally calculates the likelihood of Chuuya wearing himself out too much to drive home before night falls.

She sighs, sets out two more cups but doesn’t yet fill them, and waits.

*

The evening is late, bleeding into night by this hour, summer maintaining the sky’s light but only barely. The last threads of sunlight had been visible through the kitchen window as Kouyou and Kyouka had eaten dinner an hour prior, and when Kouyou had gotten up a short while earlier, they had still been clinging on for dear life, red and brilliant against the consuming darkness.

Back in the living room, she doesn’t know whether the sun has yet been overcome, nor does she care. The curtains are drawn, the air conditioning is cool and wispy against what of her skin is bared by her yukata, and only its distant rumble and the idle rustling of paper fill the room.

Kouyou is seated on the couch, half-reclined but still poised to leap to her feet if need be. It is improbable she will need to, but a life in the Mafia has conditioned her to be prepared for a fight at a nanosecond’s notice, and so she is as prepared now as she ever is, even with a book in hand, her eyes half-closed, and her daughter sprawled across the floor a few meters away.

Kyouka had at one point been working on her summer homework, but now she seems to have put aside any academic work in favor of perusing a thick book of origami patterns she’d gotten a few months prior. She’d brought no appropriate paper, so Kouyou can only assume she intends to memorize the patterns. If anyone would be capable of it, it would, she reasons, be Kyouka.

Sometimes, Kyouka reaches for a notebook she’d brought as well, sketching and writing for a few moments before returning to her book. Notes, perhaps, or just drawings. Kouyou does not ask, and Kyouka does not explain or share.

So they mill about in this fashion, only moving to turn a page or jot something down. The evening would have been painfully banal to Kouyou a few years prior, but now she settles into it, the steady rhythm and the tranquility of comfortably sharing space with another.

Out of the corners of her eyes, she watches Kyouka glance down at her phone, which has lit up with a series of notifications that Kouyou can’t quite make out from here, then pick it up and start typing something. As she does so, she moves somewhat subconsciously to curl her limbs up toward her torso, hunched over the screen in a way that protects it from view. Kouyou raises a half-amused eyebrow; it’s not as if what Kyouka is doing interests her enough to look that close.

She continues to absently observe, though, as Kyouka pauses in her typing. She turns just halfway to glance at Kouyou, then back again. Kouyou’s interest piqued, she turns all of her attention to Kyouka, albeit still only watching her in her peripheral vision. Kyouka looks down, then at her, then down, then—

Within seconds, the routine grows tiring. Kouyou closes her book with a loud thump that has Kyouka jumping, knuckles going white around the phone in her grip.

“What is troubling you, Kyouka?” asks Kouyou, smiling down in a sharp way she doesn’t often summon around Kyouka.

Kyouka looks at her, back down at her phone for a split second, and then sets her phone face-down on the ground beside her. She remains in her half-curled position, perhaps most comfortable that way. “I have been invited to watch the judo team practice in three days,” she says. Her voice is level and blase, but she isn’t able to hide the glimmer in her eyes.

“Is that so?” Kouyou lifts her book from her lap, leaning forward enough to put it down on the coffee table. Her hands come to fold in its place. “Your friend Aya-chan was the one to invite you, I take it?”

Kyouka nods. Her fingers twitch in a likely instinctive movement.

“I see. How many others are there on the team?”

“I don’t know,” says Kyouka evenly, after pausing for a beat to think about it. “There are two other first-years, and some upperclassmen. I am unfamiliar with them. I can ask.” Without looking over to guide her fingers, she reaches down, hand fumbling against the carpet for a moment before closing around her phone.

“That shan’t be necessary, unless you wish to.” Kyouka stops, blinks, and then slowly drops her phone. Kouyou’s fingers intertwine in her lap. “What time is practice?”

“Twelve to three.” Kyouka sits up a little straighter, this time more assured about her answer, which comes almost automatically. “Sometimes the third-years stay longer. Aya won’t.”

Kouyou nods in thought, then asks what should perhaps have been her first question, obvious as the answer is: “Do you wish to go?”

Try as she might, Kyouka can’t stop herself from giving Kouyou a plain judgmental look, blank and pointed—and Kouyou, in turn, has to curl her sleeve over her mouth to swallow laughter. She sets her chin, regarding Kyouka with what she hopes—but doubts—passes as cool consideration. Kyouka continues fixing her with that neutrally defiant expression.

“It would be interesting,” she says when Kouyou says nothing. “I haven’t learned many judo skills. And there will be lunch after.”

“Oh?” This is perhaps almost as significant a factor in Kyouka’s excitement as the main event. Kouyou lowers her hand to rest beneath her chin, no longer needing to cover her amusement, now only blinking calm and curious as she peers down. “Whom with?”

Kyouka bears the continued interrogation with only the slightest of grimaces. “Aya and her father.”

Considering what she’d learned about that from Yosano, it only takes Kouyou another several seconds to incline her head in allowance, though she soon follows it up with another question: “How long will this last?”

“Until four-thirty, probably.”

“This all will occur three days from now, you said?” Kyouka nods, and Kouyou tilts her head farther to the side, tapping a finger against the side of her neck. “I imagine you would not end up being hungry for dinner until later in the evening, then. Would you be opposed to Atsushi-kun accompanying you to practice and lunch? Or some of my subordinates, for that matter?”

Though the second suggestion brings about a more reluctant answer than the first, Kyouka shakes her head at both nevertheless. Hope is beginning to join the excitement in her eyes, combining to form a look Kouyou doubts she could deny even if she had planned to in the first place.

“Practice will occur at the school, yes?”

Another nod. “The judo team and some of the other sports teams have access to a separate gym,” elaborates Kyouka, sitting forward a little. “I’ve never been inside.”

Kouyou smiles to herself, thinning it out when it threatens to stretch too wide. “Do not set your expectations too high, dear,” she cautions. “It is likely just like all of the other gyms you have been in. There is no shame in dreaming big, mind,” she adds when Kyouka only stares at her, bright eyes now half-narrowed, “but with something like this, I don’t wish for you to set yourself up for disappointment.”

For a few seconds, the room is silent, Kyouka glancing to the side and Kouyou’s eyes remaining on her. Then, with an almost inaudible exhale, Kyouka says, “The judo team’s practice will be there, so it will still be new because of that.”

“That is the spirit.” Kouyou’s smile widens, this time appropriately so, and she lets her hands fall flat. “Where do Aya and her father intend to eat?”

Kyouka shrugs. “She said he was planning on making something to bring, but since I and the other first-years on the team might end up eating with them, they might just go out for sushi or hot pot.”

Silence stretches out again between them as Kouyou finds herself running out of questions to ask. Kyouka watches her with edged anticipation, sitting so still it must hurt. That Kouyou’s answer could ever be in question is laughable, but she had told Kyouka to temper her expectations moments earlier.

At last, she dips her head. “Very well. So long as the proper security is ensured, I see no reason for you not to go. Kasa-san will drive you to the school, accompanied by whoever happens to be available, and you—as well as whoever you are joined by, with any luck—know how to contact her if you are also in need of a ride home.” Kouyou glances at the phone still sitting beside Kyouka. “Should an emergency occur, you are also more than welcome to contact her, myself, or Chuuya.”

Kyouka nods, head bobbing exuberantly, though Kouyou hadn’t worded anything as a question. When Kouyou has stopped speaking, she bows as much as she can in her current position and says, firm, “Thank you.”

“If it is for your happiness, Kyouka,” says Kouyou, steadier than she’d at first half-feared it would come out, “then there is very little I would not agree to. Promise me just one thing.”

Lifting her head, Kyouka stares expectantly up at her. In lieu of a prompt, she blinks.

Kouyou smiles. “Enjoy yourself.”

*

The side room of the teahouse is quiet, a sense of tranquility upheld by the inhabitants and their surroundings alike. Warmth flows through the air, metaphorical and literal alike—bright afternoon sunlight streams in through the window they’re seated by, through which the well-maintained garden outside is visible, and gyokuro blows hot and rich toward Kouyou’s face as she raises her cup to her mouth. Should she glance too far to one side, the light burns the corners of her eyes.

Still, she cannot quite find it in herself to complain. Perhaps it is the delicious tea upon her tongue; perhaps it is the soothing atmosphere those who oversee this property maintain. (At seventeen, it had been Kouyou’s, the first front granted to her. Once she had taken her current position, she had passed it onto Ono in her stead, but some attachment lingers.) Perhaps it is just the company.

Kouyou chances a glance across the table, where Yosano is reaching for another delicacy—the sunflower-shaped nerikiri. Despite being the one out of the two of them who’d had a proper lunch earlier, she has eaten the vast majority of the wagashi provided alongside their tea, but Kouyou cannot complain about that, either.

She takes a slow, delicate sip of her gyokuro. Her eyes flutter halfway closed, and underneath her eyelids, she watches Yosano bite into the well-crafted sweet and swallow. At one point, she recalls, Yosano had professed a particular liking for wagashi; that affinity is visible now, in every one of Yosano’s careful movements and open enjoyment. Kouyou’s smile at observing is small, but she feels it spread nevertheless.

Her eyelids fall all the way shut. She tips her head back to better drink her tea, then lowers both the cup and her chin. Dabbing at the corners of her mouth with her sleeve, Kouyou grimaces the slightest bit, blinking away the sting of the sunlight when it catches her.

“Say, Ozaki,” comes Yosano’s voice. They haven’t spoken since their tea arrived, and so when Kouyou looks up it is primarily with surprise. Yosano isn’t making direct eye contact, instead studying the cup before her. “Do you know what about you first caught my attention?” Kouyou crinkles her brow, unsure what to answer, but it seems Yosano isn’t expecting one, as without pause she says, “Your eyes.”

That clears nothing up for Kouyou. “My eyes?” she echoes, forehead smoothing as her eyebrows raise instead.

“Mm. Not how they looked, really, but the expression in them.” Yosano presses the heels of her palms together and frames her chin with her hands, fingers curling up against her cheeks. With her gloves shed, one folded over the other where they sit on the table, her hands are almost imperceptibly paler than the rest of her sunkissed skin, with the callouses and faint scars adding further to the contrast. “You just had a certain fire to you. At a glance, you’re all prim and proper—not in a demure way or anything, you’re just very graceful—but there’s clearly more to that beneath the surface. If someone pays attention to your eyes long enough, they give it away.”

It isn’t easy to fluster a woman like Kouyou, and she doesn’t quite flush at Yosano’s light words, but she lowers her cup to avoid the additional heat regardless. “And you paid that much attention?” she returns, just as steady.

“Yeah. And given the circumstances, there was a lot of that fire that first time. I couldn’t tell if it was me you were pissed at, or if you were just pissed in general, and my priority then was Izumi so I didn’t really consciously care.” Huffing out a laugh, Yosano lowers her hands to intertwine below her chin. “It wasn’t until we bumped into each other in that cosmetics store that I noticed how deep it really ran.”

“How coincidental,” says Kouyou, and Yosano blinks expectantly at her until she elaborates. “That incident also led me to the realization that you weren’t the slightest bit intimidated by me.”

“Well, I did first meet you on my territory. And even if I hadn’t, authority and power aren’t too threatening to me. If you topple a king’s throne, he’s a person just like the rest of us, at least by technicality.” At whatever expression is on Kouyou’s face, Yosano chuckles again. “Not that you’re not very charismatic and imposing, of course. I have noticed how basically everyone else all but runs from you in public, even though most of them don’t even know who you are.” She sits back, a more serious shadow falling over her face. “But I’ve faced worse than you, and however unfortunate that is, it has made me fear very little.”

“I see.” Kouyou offers no expression of sympathy, for which Yosano seems relieved, or at least not bothered. Boldness creeps up on her, and she says, feigning casualness as she reaches again for her tea, “All the same, it is what sparked my interest in you. I suppose we are even now, as far as sharing information of that ilk goes.”

“So we are.” Yosano folds her hands not in her lap but on the edge of the table, leaving them in plain view. A pleased smile stretches across her face, then dims once more. “I didn’t intend to wax poetic, though, and I won’t continue doing that. I’ve only known you since April, and we aren’t even officially dating—yet.”

The emphasis on that last part has Kouyou tensing, though she does her best to assuage it. “Yet, you say?”

Yosano’s smile returns. “Yet, yes. That’s what I was getting around to.” That seriousness slips back in, though dialed back a touch this time, and accompanied by a brighter glint in her eyes. Her thumb slides back and forth atop the back of her other hand. The absently hypnotizing rhythm of it distracts Kouyou, drawing her eyes toward it, until Yosano speaks again. “I like spending time with you—I like you. You’re intense and sharp and compelling and, so I hear it, quite handy with a katana.” Her grin sharpens, and Kouyou has to press her lips together to keep from catching one of her own. “Maybe we won’t end up married or in anything long-term at all, but I’ve enjoyed myself thus far, and it seems you have too. So I’d like to ask if you would consider, so to speak, making things official.”

The very air in the room seems to still. Yosano’s words, frank and open, hover between them, seeming to materialize enough to be tangible. Her expression is just as careful, blank yet earnest as she peers across the suddenly far too long table at Kouyou. Though the leadup had been clear enough, the outright admission still has Kouyou pausing.

Kouyou’s lips part, but no sound leaves them. She finds herself unable to formulate a response, let alone speak it aloud.

“You don’t have to answer right away,” says Yosano, lifting one hand in a mollifying gesture, though her voice stays calm and neutral. “I’m aware of the potential conflict with your job, and your daughter. Not to mention all the other shit you’re carrying around. I’m not exactly expecting you to be able to say yes just like that, and if you genuinely aren’t interested in anything more serious than a few casual dates here and there, I completely understand.”

She seems as if she has more to say, but Kouyou gives a soft laugh before she has the chance. “I fear that for me,” she says, hand resting on the side of her tea, “a few casual dates are already more serious than they would be for the average person. It is not that I am uninterested, sensei, it’s simply…”

She’s not quite able to finish that sentence. From how she inclines her head, smiling in sympathy, Yosano seems to understand anyway. Kouyou’s fingers curl tighter around her cup.

“I have enjoyed myself,” she brings herself to say, “and I would enjoy spending more time with you. I am not opposed to the thought, in and of itself, of entering into a proper relationship. Admitting anything further is difficult.”

“I understand. And I’m not asking you to let go of those burdens, either—if anything, I’d be willing to help shoulder them.”

For a fraction of a second, Kouyou’s eyes widen; she’s able to regain control of her expression, though, and turn her head to the side as a last-ditch effort, playing it off as studying the lush sprawl of the garden outside. “If dating is too grand a proposition, then that certainly is.”

Yosano gives a soft, startled laugh. “Ah, I guess so. Sorry, then.” Out of the corners of her eyes, Kouyou watches her lean back. “Is that not what dating is, though, at least in theory? Sharing each other’s burdens and worries?”

“…ideally, I suppose so.” Kouyou’s fingers twitch where they’re still half-curled around her tea. It’s starting to cool in her grip. She brings it to her mouth, taking another sip of what remains. “Not all of my burdens are the kind that can be shared by another, though, I am afraid.”

“Neither are mine, so you can rest easy there.” This, Kouyou supposes, is fair—as no response comes to mind, she only drinks again. Yosano watches her, calm and leonine, before clearing her throat. “So you aren’t refusing, but you aren’t fully accepting yet either. Do I have that right?”

Kouyou swallows and lowers her cup. “I suppose that is an apt description, yes.”

“All right.” Yosano inclines her head. “I can work with that.” She sits forward again, now tapping one set of fingers along the back of the other hand. The arrhythmic motion again catches Kouyou’s peripheral vision. “Would it be too much, then, to start referring to you as my girlfriend?”

Kouyou’s breath sticks in her throat, trapped halfway up in her trachea. “Perhaps not,” she says. “But it may take longer for me to be willing to refer to you as mine.”

“All right,” says Yosano again, this time with a small laugh, though whether it’s at Kouyou’s words or her general choked reaction is unclear. “If you want something to start on, you’re welcome to call me Akiko.”

“I—fear I may need to build up to that one as well.” Frozen for another moment, Kouyou stills her shoulders and at last twists back to face Yosano head-on, though the second they make eye contact she’s dipping her head to break it. “That said… very few people call me by my surname, so it would not be all too intimate were you to address me by my given name.”

“I think I can handle that, Kouyou.” The actual sound of it in Yosano’s voice, especially said with such ease, has her startling, but Kouyou settles within a heartbeat. Yosano is still smiling at her as though she’d noticed, she realizes when she glances up, but by now she recognizes that fully upholding her composure in Yosano’s presence doesn’t matter much.

That, more than anything, gives Kouyou pause. Around everyone else, even those with whom she is most comfortable, she has some semblance of a role to play. A dedicated, diligent, and imposing leader; a stern but protective and caring sister and mother; a powerful, ruthless enemy worth every consideration as such. So long has it been since she was afforded the chance to be herself, to exist without in some way performing, that she doesn’t entirely recall how to.

Kouyou’s lips press together. Emotions do not quite wash over her at the realization, but something curls, warm and tight and overwhelming, in the pit of her stomach.

In the silence that sweeps over them, Yosano reaches for her tea, by now surely halfway cold like Kouyou’s is, and not drained enough already to make up for it. Almost as if in a toast, Kouyou lifts hers, holding Yosano’s gleaming stare as they drink in unison.

“Oh, yeah,” says Yosano, lips ghosting over the rim of her cup. “I might as well ask this again. My job won’t be a problem, right? What with my interactions with Izumi and all.”

Kouyou takes her time with her drink, stare almost bored as she fixes Yosano with it. “If my being the leader of an organized crime syndicate is not a dealbreaker,” she says, considering the wording Yosano has employed more than once, “somehow I doubt that your occupation would be.”

“That much is true, I suppose.” Yosano holds her cup aloft for another few seconds, swigs again, then sets it down. As she does, another thought seems to occur to her. “Is your occupation a dealbreaker for you? You have made it clear that something like this puts you and I both in potential danger.”

“That is part of my motivation behind being unable to give you an open answer just yet. It would be the case whether or not you and I entered into an official relationship, though; it is not as if I discuss my affairs publicly, so regardless of what label we do it under, spending time together will undoubtedly draw unwanted attention.” Kouyou doubts anyone in her world worth their salt would target Yosano—she is still a civilian, and attacking her only for rumors of their relationship would be bold, petty, and disgraceful. If anything, her concern lies with what might crop up within her own ranks, but even that would be old regurgitated bullshit she’s been handling for almost fourteen years. “Should any problems arise,” she concludes, “I will handle them.”

“Hm.” Smile broadening, Yosano leans her head against her hand, fist curling against her cheek. “Now how could that ever be a dealbreaker for me?”

Kouyou scoffs, quiet but half-amused, and drinks again, this time almost draining her gyokuro. She puts it down, leaving a sip or two to swish against the sides of the cup.

“I must thank you, I believe,” she says, peering up at Yosano beneath her eyelashes in a way only their current angle would ever allow for, “for your patience.”

“Hey, if I wanted something easy, Kouyou, I’d have holed up in Ni-chome.” The name leaves her casually, almost like an afterthought, and it again has Kouyou struggling for breath for but a second. Yosano’s eyes crinkle with her smile. “Respecting your boundaries is the least I can do, anyway. And really, given our schedules, going slow is honestly probably the only viable option.”

“That I have as much free time as I do is nothing short of a miracle,” agrees Kouyou.

Yosano snorts and makes a vague gesture with her hand, fingers falling open like flower petals bursting. “I suppose it’s only fair,” she says, begrudging, “that the first woman to captivate me enough to ask her out during our first conversation that didn’t involve her kid is someone even busier than I am. And with even more baggage.”

That startles a rough chuckle out of Kouyou, though she follows it up with a dry look. For all that Yosano has hinted at her past, she has not delved into any details, nor has Kouyou done that for her; she had done the bare minimum of a background check, but nothing of particular note had turned up, only a basic timeline of her life past age sixteen. Inklings have stirred, of course, but it isn’t as if Kouyou is willing to unfurl her own past yet, if ever she will be.

As they lapse into silence again, comfortable and easy, Kouyou lets the train of thought lull her into as relaxed a feeling as she thinks she’s going to attain. Her free hand, formerly resting upon her thigh, comes to settle atop the table. Her other hand stays where it is, meager remnants of heat radiating out from the cup.

Turning her head to look out the window, just as Kouyou had earlier, Yosano picks up her tea again. Her diverted gaze is perhaps a mercy for what happens next: Her free hand, in a slow but unhesitant gesture, falls upon Kouyou’s where it rests upon the table.

Though Kouyou has become more accustomed to physical contact over the years, she is startled more by this than the tightest of hugs from Kyouka, albeit not quite as much as she had been by the cheek kiss a few weeks prior. It stills her in much the same way, though, making her breath hitch and her heart almost stutter, feelings she’s not used to.

Yosano’s hand is light over Kouyou’s, not exerting much pressure. In other words, should Kouyou wish to break the contact, she could without much effort, and no doubt Yosano would not call her on it.

Kouyou doesn’t move. Her reflex is to jerk away, but she manages to quell it for a moment, processing the situation beat by beat. Yosano’s skin, she notices, is quite cold—she’s sure her own hand is on the cooler side, even warmed by the tea, but they have perhaps found solidarity in that regard. The texture of Yosano’s hand, too, is rougher than not, owing to the calloused, scarred nature Kouyou had noticed. Yet despite it her fingers are gentle and soft, metaphorically if not literally. They rest above Kouyou’s in a way almost comforting, if she canf remove herself from the context of the moment for but a few seconds.

Out of the corners of her eyes, Yosano glances over. The apprehension there, in combination with the softness of her touch, makes it clear that should Kouyou express any discomfort, she’ll not hesitate to back off.

Something unravels in Kouyou’s chest, ironically producing a tightening sensation. A lifetime of dealing violence without hesitation, and it is a simple gesture of romantic tenderness that stills her, chokes her up, has her stomach clenching. Manipulation, extortion, torture, murder—all seem to pale in the face of holding hands.

Carefully, Kouyou swivels her wrist to turn her hand upright. Before Yosano can retract hers, Kouyou tweaks the angle as much as she can and curls her fingers in, forming a tepid but unambiguous grip that, after a split second’s worth of surprise, Yosano returns, thumb smoothing along the joint of Kouyou’s.

With her free hand, Kouyou takes up her tea again, letting it calm the knot forming in her abdomen.

*

When she stands before the mirror that night, Kouyou almost expects something about her appearance to have changed.

It is a ridiculous notion, of course. She does not hold romance of the importance society expects her to, and though she seems to have stumbled into such a relationship, the world and her life are not a great deal altered for it. To assume that Kouyou’s very self would have shifted is laughable.

And, naturally, there is not a shred of truth to the fleeting thought. Kouyou looks the same as she ever has. Perhaps wearier than usual, as per the hour, and on a similar thread, less composed than she would prefer, but when she intends on being unconscious within the hour it matters little. The bath she’d stepped out of mere minutes before had brought still-present pink to her cheeks, and her hair is still damp and loose around her shoulders.

Aside from the minute situational changes, though, there is nothing starkly different about Kouyou’s visage. The steel of her eyes—the fire Yosano had waxed upon—is the same as ever, as is the steadiness of her hands where they rest on the edge of the counter. If anything, she has hardened further.

Kouyou rubs beneath her eyes. The glow about Ono and her wife at their wedding reception, some palpable energy even when apart, comes back to her. She is nowhere near that level of intimacy with a woman she has known for less than half a year, but regardless, she can’t help the faint concern that an outsider would be able to see some subtle alteration. That her growing affection has swathed her in some unmistakable aura. Perhaps nothing anyone who doesn’t know her well could pick up on nor trace the source of, but to those who are either observant or quite familiar with her, as short a list as the latter is—

An irate rumble slips from Kouyou’s throat. She smooths the collar of her yukata. The flush is fading from her cheeks now, lighter and lighter the longer she stands still in the cold washroom, but warmth lingers throughout her body nonetheless. She reaches up to press the back of her hand against her forehead and shivers at the contrast. Unwittingly, she recalls Yosano’s cold, rough hand against hers.

When Kouyou glances at the mirror again, she’s smiling, small but visible, a subconscious reflex she’d only half-felt. She schools her expression back into something neutral. It isn’t hard, with the scowl that twitches into place at the sight.

Kouyou adjusts her weight in consideration. She thinks about Kyouka’s recollections of her weeks at school and time now with her friends—the afternoon she’d spent with her school’s judo team a few days ago, for one—the quiet dedication as she draws and writes, the look in her eyes when she’d taken her first bite of the tempura Kouyou had prepared for dinner. A similar but far wider smile stretches across her reflection’s face. The experiment repeats itself when she thinks about the first summer festival Chuuya had been to—and the squeals of a human trafficker when she, then nineteen, had crushed his toes.

Satisfied that her own demeanor shouldn’t give anything away, Kouyou lets her posture settle again. Jolting to some sense of coherence, she moves to grab and wet her toothbrush. The click of her tongue is almost lost beneath the rush of the faucet. As soon as she sinks into the methodical rhythm of brushing her teeth, her mind wanders once more.

A swift realization strikes her: For decisively the fourth time in her life, she does not know what she is doing.

It should be embarrassing to have never been in a relationship—in those exact terms, at any rate—by her age, but Kouyou has had other things on her mind throughout her life, and she doesn’t consider romance a rite of passage as many seem to. Desiring it somewhere and needing it are quite different things. Passing loneliness is manageable, and though physical intimacy appeals to her slightly more than emotional intimacy, any active longing for that had too been silenced. She had had some dalliances at nineteen and twenty, mostly ushered into paying working girls by well-meaning colleagues. Half of the time, no contact had even occurred, the distraction of a conversation satisfying enough for Kouyou and whichever escort she’d ended up with.

When a child had been forced into her life at twenty-one, she had distanced herself even further from this behavior, and by the time he had grown up, the organization she’d then been running had taken significant precedence over sex and, as little a factor as they’d been to begin with, relationships. Kyouka’s arrival had solidified her celibacy, and outright romance hadn’t been so much as a passing thought. And now—

Now, she is being reminded of all the unnecessary complications that could come about from her indiscretion. It is something that her upbringing had drilled into her, that some among the Mafia’s ranks still cling to: Relationships like this are not for people like her.

Perhaps it would have been smartest, after all, to leave things at that clipped refusal when she and Yosano had met in a crowded izakaya on the cusp of the evening.

Yet Kouyou had actively sought Yosano out again. Yet she had, in however roundabout a fashion, accepted Yosano’s offer to become her girlfriend. Yet they had held hands, and Yosano had kissed her cheek several weeks ago. Yet—for all the smoke and mirrors, all the apprehension and confusion, this is something she wants, enough that it nearly hurts.

It is not something she needs, something she will die without. It is not even something she’d have given particular thought to before the last several months. It is not something that quite feels right the way she has heard many discuss; if soulmates exist, she does not care for the notion that Yosano is hers. But it offers comfort and distraction and joy and warmth, things Kouyou does not lack but does not see much of in this shade.

For the Port Mafia, she is a leader. For Kyouka, she is a guardian and caretaker. For friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, she is a distant authority figure. For Yosano, she is… a person and equal.

Neither of those are things Kouyou is used to being, nor things she often lets herself be. There is something captivating about being not only allowed but encouraged to fill such a role. Perhaps love proper will not come of this, but for the time being, Kouyou finds herself wanting to see what will.

Her attention refocuses on the mirror. Her grip has slackened around the handle of her toothbrush, letting it go limp in the corner of her mouth. Kouyou wipes toothpaste from her chin, nose twitching in distaste, and returns to properly brushing her teeth.

She is still ruminating when she at last finds sleep, but something in her chest feels lighter.

- this is touched upon here, so: i actually don't have a concrete sexuality hc for kouyou (other than her just generally preferring women) and thus don't label her at all here. also, i don't portray her relationship with the man from her backstory as anything romantic, both because i'd be uncomfortable doing so when he was clearly significantly older than her, and because i think it suits the themes of this verse better if their dynamic was platonic. there's room to read her as having been in unrequited love with him, but ultimately it's left vague. - a related note: you might be wondering why the main romantic relationship is already established barely a third in. the simplest answer is that, well, i promised a year in the life! more in-depth: the focus of this fic isn't actually technically kousano but kouyou's relationships as a whole, so centering the general scope around the former felt odd -- not to mention it kind of bothers me when stories just end when the main couple gets together (...despite how many times i've done that myself lol). also i just generally went way more overboard with this than i expected. anyway!!! thank you for reading, and see you next week! if you have time to spare, comments and kudos are always appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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