the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 12 chapter cws: off-screen violence, mild character injury. i fucked up the draft for a split second, so hopefully this actually publishes as chapter 12 and not a duplicate of chapter 11! if not uhh... dm me on twitter and i'll troubleshoot asap aha

The gentle breeze tugs at the sleeves of Kouyou’s yukata as she kneels upon the mat, wind mussing her hair and creeping along what of her skin is left bare, offering comfort from the heat. The sun hasn’t yet fully set, warm traces of light still illuminating the park, though the fixtures around the stalls in the distance are twice as bright. Despite that—and the masses of people around—there is something still and idyllic about the scene, in no small part owing to her current company.

Beside her, Kyouka is taking bites as delicate as she can manage from a small mountain of yakisoba noodles. Across from her, Chuuya isn’t so much as trying for delicate as he makes his way through his own helping, having taken—at Kouyou’s insistence—the remainder of the ikayaki she’d failed to finish already.

Though the crowd is chattering, exchanges too distant and too abundant for Kouyou to bother paying attention to, the small group is almost silent. Half of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that their party isn’t yet complete, the majority still wandering the bevy of stalls lining the walkway, but the other half is due to the simple sense of peace the excitement of the evening has given way to. The festive air is as present around them as anywhere else, but they’ve sunken into a more introspective version of it.

It’s as impressive as it is pleasant. Kouyou adjusts the collar of her yukata where remnant humidity has stuck it to her skin and inhales the smoky air.

As a child, she’d never been fond of summer festivals. They were loud and boring and disruptive, and though once had she been dragged to one, she had emerged with positive things to say only about the company. And after that… well, there had been no one to bring Kouyou to such cheerful events. Even if there had, she had been too involved in her work to allow for any spare recreational time, feeling nothing but derision for those her age—college students, most of them; still teenagers, really—who could.

As many things had, that had changed when she’d taken Chuuya in. They’d been forced into each other’s lives in early spring, and come summer they still hadn’t quite adjusted to one another. On some whim, though, she’d offered to bring Chuuya to one of the fireworks displays. She’d wanted to rescind it, but his exuberant response, having never been to one before (or unable to remember it if he had), had killed that thought.

That first year—those first months in particular—had been a whirlwind of confusion and anger, often misdirected, and the week leading up to the festival had been one of their worst yet. Had she been the praying type, Kouyou might have wished for a night without high tempers and careless words. But it wouldn’t have been necessary, anyway—all the stress and strife had seemed to melt away from them both when they’d stood together beneath the night sky, surrounded by happier and closer-knit families enjoying it the same way they were. However scant a maternal instinct Kouyou had had, everything else had shrunk in importance when she’d glanced down to see Chuuya’s face.

The two summers after that, they’d carried on the tradition. One year they’d had Dazai and Elise foisted onto them; the next, Oda and what children he’d had in his care then had taken Elise’s place.

The next year, and quite a few afterward, they had lapsed in their annual visits, or at least Kouyou had. Work had gotten busier for them both, and running an organization had been far higher a priority to Kouyou than enjoying what little of her youth remained.

And then Kyouka had crashed into her life, and again so much had changed. Kyouka had still been on crutches when festival season had rolled around, and she’d been so quiet and despondent in the weeks she’d spent with Kouyou that, even as she bought a pile of yukata and reserved their seating and stepped outside on the evening in question, Kouyou had debated calling it off.

When they’d arrived in the park, however, something had shifted. There had been a few blank looks at first—tears then had still been scarce—and some too-long pauses between responses, but soon she’d loosened, however subtly. She’d shown active interest in food for what had to have been the first time in a month. And when the fireworks had begun, she’d gasped and grabbed Kouyou’s sleeve, raising a small hand as if to reach out for the sparks flashing in the darkness, fingers outstretched and eyes overflowing with light.

With how rare Kyouka’s joy had been then, it had been contagious, and last year they’d shown up just the same. Their presence again tonight indicates that this tradition is reinstating itself, altered in subtle and drastic ways alike from when it had first started but carrying the spirit of its original incarnation nonetheless.

Footsteps announce one of the ways in which it has changed—or so Kouyou assumes, until Dazai is the only one her eyes land upon. She glances past him but is unable to see either a man her height or a cluster of (familiar) children. “Where—” she starts.

“Back there somewhere,” interrupts Dazai, of course, giving a vague and unhelpful wave over his shoulder. He drops down onto the mat next to Chuuya, who instinctively shuffles farther to the side, and across from Kyouka. “Yuu-kun caught a bunch of goldfish, and Kousuke-kun and Katsumi-kun got a bunch of food, so I didn’t want to have to carry any of it.” Chuuya scoffs, but before either he or Kouyou can say anything, Dazai rattles what he is carrying. “Here, Kyouka-chan, want some ramune? It’s watermelon-flavored.”

Kyouka swallows, blinks, and then holds out a small cup for him to pour into. Kouyou scowls at the roundabout non-answer but says nothing more, satisfied enough with Dazai’s repeated failure to actually open the ramune he’d brought.

“Oh my God,” Chuuya says after three attempts, reaching over to wrestle it from his grasp. Dazai does nothing to contest this, just lets his wrists go slack with a calm, sunny smile. “A fucking ten-year-old could open this better than you.”

“Ah, really? Well, you’re the same height as one, so—” Laughing, Dazai leans away from the fist aimed at his shoulder. “Careful, careful, you’ll break Kyouka-chan’s heart if you spill it.”

Kyouka’s face twitches as if questioning whether she’s that emotionally invested in the ramune, even as she continues to hold her cup out. She gets little more than a passing glance, at any rate. Chuuya, brow furrowing as he applies more pressure than seems to be intended, mutters something involving the word break—the rest of the sentence Kouyou doesn’t quite catch, but she thinks she can intuit enough.

Less than thirty total seconds pass before Chuuya snaps, “Here, bastard,” and, shaking spilled foam off his hands, shoves the open bottle back toward Dazai. Dazai takes it graciously and pours for himself and Kyouka.

Kyouka casts her yakisoba aside with a grateful nod. Kouyou, hand folded absently under her chin, watches with a smile as she sips, eyes aglow.

Familiar voices drift their way, and this time when Kouyou raises her gaze it is to see the figures she’d expected beforehand, at last approaching their seats. As they draw nearer, she can’t help but study the children, not having had a chance to do so earlier. Time tends to pass, in Kouyou’s opinion, too slow rather than too fast, but so infrequently does she see Oda’s children that she’s startled by how much they’ve grown nonetheless. Gone are the gap-toothed toddlers of one photograph on her refrigerator; Kousuke is approaching if not already into legal adulthood, and even Sakura will be in middle school come next year.

For all that they’ve changed, their guardian hasn’t by any considerable measures. He has a couple more gray hairs than the average thirty-six-year-old man—prolonged exposure to Dazai, if the similar disproportionate glints of silver on Chuuya and Kunikida are any indication—and he carries himself a little steadier than he had at twenty-three, but otherwise, Kouyou could hold a picture of his younger self up and be able to count the differences on one hand.

That thought has Kouyou’s mouth twitching as she watches him approach, shouldering a few containers of yakisoba and takoyaki as well as several bottles of water. At his side is Yuu, holding up a bag inside which, in line with Dazai’s comments, no less than three goldfish are swimming.

“Careful,” Oda tells him, with a weariness that suggests this has been a point of contention for the several minutes the walk has taken.

“I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” responds Yuu, flippant.

Chuuya, apparently listening in as well, braces himself as if preparing to stand. It seems he’s not the only one with such thoughts of intervening, judging from the “Do you?” from Sakura. She’s a short distance behind her brother and father, face scrunched and hair styled in a way that leaves Kouyou unable to discern from a glance whether she had done it herself or enlisted Oda’s help. Cotton candy hangs limp and forgotten at her side.

“If those goldfish die you’re never going to hear the end of it,” says Kousuke, a few steps back with Shinji on one side and Katsumi on the other. Sakura sucks in a breath and starts going pink like she hadn’t thought of that.

Yuu flinches like he hadn’t entirely, either, but he sticks out his chin in defiance. “C’mon, they’re goldfish,” he says, trying for dismissive but not pulling it off, between his sudden uncertainty and the voice crack. “They live for, like, a week anyway.”

“Actually, that’s not true,” pipes up Shinji, with all the authority of a twelve-year-old who stumbled upon something in a book once and absorbed it like a sponge. “Some species of goldfish can live up to forty years if they’re cared for properly. And we have a tank and food at home, so if everyone remembers to take care of them they should at least make it a couple of years. It’s just because so many people take such bad care of them that people think they have really short natural lifespans.”

“So we could be stuck with them for forty years?!” asks Katsumi, aghast. “Who’s going to keep taking care of them for all that time? Oda, how old are you again?”

“Don’t just ask that!” hisses Sakura, slapping him in the arm hard enough that it produces a distinct sound several meters away.

“Ow! Oh my God, how did you get so freakishly strong, you’re like eight!”

Oda clears his throat, firm but not stern, though it still cuts off the argument before it can truly begin. “Let’s go sit,” he says, and while they still make faces at each other as they go, the children scurry to follow him.

“Do you see why I got away from that as soon as I could?” asks Dazai, dry, even though he’s smiling and shifting his weight, just as ready to hop into the situation as anyone. As he had before, though, he leaves no room to call him on it before moving on. “More ramune, Kyouka-chan?”

She nods and holds out her cup, now with little more than a drop in it. Chuuya clicks his tongue, watching the party approach out of the corners of his eyes, but stays silent.

It takes only another minute or so for Oda and his children to reach them now that they’re not dawdling. The sight of the five adolescents and pre-adolescents walking along like a string of ducklings almost draws a laugh from Kouyou, but the most she does is grace them with a smile as they step around the mat Kouyou had claimed to the one in front of it, a hair closer to the water.

Oda inclines his head in gratitude, just as he had when they’d first met up outside the park. Kouyou waves him off just as she had earlier. Reserving two seats had been somewhat more difficult than reserving one, but she’d done it far enough in advance that it hadn’t been a problem. Dazai had asked on his behalf, and she had done everything within her power to follow up.

Kouyou doubts she’d even call herself and Oda friends, more so friendly acquaintances and, after a fashion, something like honorary in-laws. But he’s been a distant part of her life since he became Dazai’s guardian for his last year as a legal minor, in a similar position to Kouyou as something of an adoptive father on paper but more of a brother figure in actuality, and whatever series of coincidences had led to him becoming Kyouka’s homeroom teachers had been a fortunate one.

Having had her first ward thrust upon her, Kouyou had always felt something toward Oda’s particular openness to taking in the orphaned, neglected, and abused. It had been clear there was something lost and troubled behind his eyes too, however dulled by age. And yet he had welcomed all strays with open arms, no matter how traumatized or unstable they were—and still does, as far as she knows.

At twenty-two, Kouyou had attributed that feeling to irritation at his naivete and too-soft heart. Now, it almost impresses her, as does the calm bearing with which Oda wrangles his children.

Her eyebrow has half-raised, she notes, as she watches just that: With five decent-sized youths, most nearing or into adolescence, and a taller-than-average adult man, seating arrangements are difficult. Yet they manage it, maneuvering themselves into comfortable positions around the mat with room to spare for food—and the stuffed animal in Katsumi’s lap.

“I won it for Sakura, okay,” he defends under an aside glance from Dazai. Sakura herself snaps her head in his direction, but whatever she says is too muffled by the cotton candy she’s eating.

“Sure, Katsumi-kun,” says Dazai, not so much as looking back now, attention having shifted to refilling his cup.

“He was literally walking with us earlier,” says Yuu, attempting a whisper but not quite managing it. “And he’s been in your room. If you’re going to lie to anyone, don’t lie to Dazai-nii.”

Red crawls from Katsumi’s neck to his face, bit by bit, and with nothing to say, he just scoffs. Sakura shakes her head. Kousuke gives a sharp, hyena-like laugh.

“It’s cute,” murmurs Kyouka, and they all come to a halt. Considering how little she’s been around Oda’s children in the past, it might be the most she’s said around them, and it makes Katsumi flush deeper, Kousuke and Yuu stare in awe, and Sakura grin.

“It’s only weird if you think it is,” says Dazai boredly, maybe in agreement. He lifts his head with a bright smile and spreads his hands. “And Yuu-kun is right! You can’t lie to me, no matter what. I’m a human lie detector.”

“Human something, all right,” mutters Chuuya.

Oda gives him and Dazai both unimpressed looks but says nothing, just offers the takoyaki he’d brought to Shinji. The serene air from a few moments prior slips back in, surely but slowly, the area no longer quiet with the latest additions but still attaining some semblance of calmness. The separate seats offer a clear line of division between the two parties, and though it’s one that’s in part respected, they don’t hesitate to talk across the short distance if necessary. Namely, Kousuke and Katsumi heckle Dazai at any given opportunity, and he badgers them right back.

“Stop picking fights with sixteen-year-olds,” Chuuya attempts once, elbowing him in the ribs.

“They started it,” is Dazai’s bland response, followed by, “And Kousuke-kun is seventeen.”

“Right, because that’s so much better,” says Chuuya flatly, but he gives up trying to intervene past that point, except sometimes to remind Dazai of something he’d said about Oda’s children and get even more complaints from the children in question.

After a few moments, Dazai pulls out his phone, tapping away at a game even as he bounces between conversations, going from offering Shinji advice on his homework to trying to steal the last few bites of Chuuya’s yakisoba to chatting with Oda about their respective latest writing projects. He and Oda’s children carry the bulk of the conversation, with occasional interruptions from Oda himself and Chuuya. Kouyou is inclined to listen unless outright addressed, and Kyouka stays quiet even then. She and Sakura strike up a couple of quiet exchanges, nothing more than vague back-and-forths about school and food, but Sakura does manage to coax Kyouka into sharing some of her ramune. A smile settles on Kouyou’s face and doesn’t leave, the pleasant air washing over her anew.

The bubble is burst when Chuuya pushes to his feet, earning a brief jolt of surprise from both Kyouka and Dazai and a questioning look from Kouyou. To the latter, he explains, “I’m gonna grab some more to eat.”

Kouyou eyes the stack of empty containers he’s already made his way through. Festival food is far from filling, she supposes, and gives a satisfied nod. Chuuya starts off—

—and comes to an almost immediate stop when Dazai reaches back to tug at the edge of his yukata. It draws an instinctive snarl, and Dazai pats Chuuya’s heel where his hand still rests in appeasement (though it more likely than not has the opposite effect) before saying, “While you’re up, get another bottle of ramune too, won’t you? There’s only half left.”

He taps the bottle with his free hand, but neither his forlorn expression nor tone earns any sympathy. “Fuck you, get it yourself,” says Chuuya, trying to step away.

Dazai’s grip on him remains firm, though. He redirects his gaze and raises his voice the slightest bit. “Kyouka-chan, don’t you want some more ramune too?”

Kyouka swallows the wad of yakisoba in her mouth and glances up. She looks neutrally between Chuuya’s scowl and Dazai’s encouraging smile, blinking several times. “…The cotton candy flavor looked good,” she says, impassive, but the shine of her eyes is enough to sell it.

The splintering of Chuuya’s resolve is almost audible. “Fine,” he grits out. “But I’m taking however much it costs from your wallet later.”

“Good luck finding it.” Blithely, Dazai pats Chuuya’s calf again, then drops his hand back to the mat. “Hurry back, now.”

Chuuya does leave, but he tries to kick Dazai in the small of the back before he goes; it misses, of course, but it seems to be the thought that counts. Humming under his breath, Dazai returns to the game on his phone as though nothing had happened. Kouyou makes no moves to chastise him—normally, she wouldn’t approve of leveraging Kyouka in such a way, but if Kyouka does want more ramune, she shan’t stand in her way, no matter what the means to obtain that ramune are.

The seconds tick past until Chuuya is no longer visible in the distance. Dazai lapses back into silence, though a contemplative sort rather than genuine relaxation, which puts Kouyou on edge. He keeps playing whatever game he has open on his phone, but there’s something listless about the movements now. Every now and then, he glances up at Kouyou. She tenses, more bothered by the absent looks than she would be by a prolonged stare.

Several minutes pass without him saying a word, even to Oda or the children, who are wrapped up in their own discussions by now, and Kouyou’s shoulders descend. Of course, the instant she begins to settle into this false sense of security is the exact moment he chooses to pounce.

“So, about this girlfriend of yours—”

Unfortunately for him and fortunately for Kouyou, this is the very instant Chuuya reappears. A platter of taiyaki and another bottle of ramune hit the mat, followed by a tepid knock of a boot against Dazai’s ribs and a snap of, “Stop being nosy, dammit.”

“You’re the one who was eavesdropping, apparently.” Dazai swats him away and reaches for the ramune. This time, he manages to get it open, and his face flashes with inordinate joy at this, moving to dole some out for Kyouka and himself. Kyouka almost vibrates as she picks up her cup. “And I’m not being nosy, I’m just curious. Don’t you want to find out what ane-san’s type could possibly be?”

“No, because I actually mind my fucking business.” Adding a spread of yakitori and a small container of yakisoba to the sprawl of food, Chuuya settles back down, as far to the edge of the mat as he can manage. He dips his head toward Kouyou and Kyouka as he does, eyes still narrowed. “Sorry for whatever this bastard’s been saying.”

He still has a bottle of sake in hand; presumably, it’s meant for him and Kouyou to share, since Dazai doesn’t drink anymore and Kouyou doubts Oda will be drinking when surrounded by his kids, and a quick glance at the label shows it’s far more in line with Kouyou’s tastes than Chuuya’s. She’s not much in the mood to drink tonight, but she supposes she can settle for a few sips here and there. Especially if Dazai starts asking more questions.

“Nothing too terrible until just now, as a matter of fact,” she says, fixing Dazai with a cool stare.

He just smiles. “What’s so terrible about asking a few innocent questions?” he asks, light.

Chuuya hands the sake to Kouyou. She takes it, reaching for a cup for herself and pouring some out. She’s tempted to down it in a single swallow, but she maintains her dignity, holding the cup between her fingers and meeting Dazai’s stare bit for bit.

“Ask, then. Though I cannot guarantee answers.”

“Ane-san—” Chuuya starts to protest, but Dazai is already grinning and sitting forward at the invitation.

“All right, I will. Where should I start?” He taps a finger against his chin, eyeing Kouyou as if expecting her to make any suggestions; she, of course, doesn’t, sipping her sake slow and steady instead. “Hm, how about… when will we get to meet her?”

Kouyou’s eye twitches, but she otherwise doesn’t react. “You, specifically? Never, if I can help it.” She has known Dazai for a long time, but that means that Dazai has known her for that long, too, and as such, he knows far more about her, having been just as observant and nosy as a teenager as he is now. With how well she knows him in turn, she’s uncertain if he and Yosano would get on like a house on fire in the good way or the bad way.

“How cold.” Dazai doesn’t bother faking offense, instead meeting her smile with one of his own. He reaches for his ramune with the same gravity as though it were hard liquor. “Kyouka-chan has met her, though, hasn’t she? And Odasaku knows her, since they work together.”

At the sound of his name, Oda glances over. When it becomes clear the conversation doesn’t directly involve him, he returns his attention to his children, though not without a sympathetic glance toward Kouyou.

“Kyouka has not met her in this context,” says Kouyou, “so that line of argument—if it can even be described as such—is irrelevant, as is dragging Oda-san into things.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” With a vague shrug, Dazai takes a sip from his ramune, then blinks in surprise and takes another. “Oh, wow. Kyouka-chan, the cotton candy flavor really is good, isn’t it?”

Kyouka nods, having drained half of her cup already. “It’s really sweet,” she says in a tone that, removed of context, would be wholly neutral. “It doesn’t really go with the yakisoba—” she pokes at hers “—but it’s still good.”

Kouyou’s mind reels for a way to change the topic before Dazai returns to it. He would likely let up if she told him to, but there’s something ineloquent about that, and if she doesn’t tell him things outright he’ll dig around for the answers, which she’d like to avoid in this case—not for her sake, really, but for Yosano’s. Chuuya refills Kouyou’s cup, but she’s just reaching for it when she’s distracted by the distinctive buzzing of her phone.

She pauses, going still, sake forgotten altogether. It’s her personal line, meaning that a few months ago, with almost everyone that would contact her using that number surrounding her, Kouyou would have ignored the notification without a second thought. Tonight, though, her brow furrows, and after a moment’s pause to think, she reaches for her cell.

Hey, Yosano has said, you’re watching the fireworks in Rinko Park tonight, right? So am I. No pressure, but it would be nice to see you for a couple of minutes; I’ll be over by the okonomiyaki stall on the left if you’d be open to meeting too.

Kouyou’s mouth almost parts around a surprised Oh. It would have been lost in the rumble of the crowd anyway, but she seals it back regardless, lips curling together rather than opening.

When she lifts her head, she’s not surprised to find Dazai watching her. Her eyes narrow. His smile widens.

“What seems to be the problem, ane-san?” he asks in an innocent voice. His eyes flicker between her face and her phone. “Is there something more important than hearing my thoughts?” Undeterred by Chuuya’s mutter of anything would be, jackass, he adds, maintaining the blase facade but not well, “A date, maybe?”

“As a matter of fact,” says Kouyou, locking her phone without replying, at least yet, “yes.”

The sheer surprise that shoots across Dazai’s expression for the briefest of moments, she decides, is worth the slyness in the “Oh?” that comes a second later. That doesn’t extend, however, to Dazai’s subsequent comment of, “Really, you would abandon us all to rendezvous with your girlfriend? How—”

The rest of the sentence dies with a muffled grunt as Chuuya, eyebrow twitching, shoves taiyaki into his mouth. Dazai pulls a face but bites the head off the—somewhat misshapen from the trip it had taken here—pastry fish, pulling the rest of its body away to dangle awkwardly from his hand. Red bean paste oozes out. He slides his fingers down to curve just around the tail as he chews, expression ruefully acquiescent.

Kouyou offers him a bright smile. “It is none of your business either way,” she says. Despite the distant urge to fidget, she tenses her wrist rather than flexing it. Her eyes dart to the black screen, tracing the edge of her reflection.

Dazai is looking at her like she’s embarrassing herself, which she likely is, but she doesn’t see the need to concern herself with judgment from a man with red bean paste all over his hand. Chuuya is aiming for a far more neutral expression, which isn’t quite working; she respects the attempt all the same. Kyouka isn’t looking at her at all, but a similar curiosity rolls off of her.

Off to the side, Kousuke says something that makes his siblings cheer and laugh, and Kouyou drags herself abruptly upright. “Will you be all right here for a few moments?” she asks Kyouka, angling her hands so her phone isn’t visible to anyone else sitting with her when she unlocks it.

Kyouka’s jaw is set, and though she gives an apprehensive glance to the rowdy group beside them, her gaze seems to settle when it lands on Oda’s shoulders. She nods.

“It’ll be fine, ane-san,” volunteers Chuuya, sitting up a little straighter as well. “We’ll—” He stops and reconsiders. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”

Though he seems to regret having bitten off such a large portion of the taiyaki forced onto him, Dazai manages to swallow in time to retort, “You have two of them, don’t you?”

“Thank you,” says Kouyou shortly, cutting off the squabbling before it can begin. She gives Kyouka one last searching look, just in case, but finds nothing but encouragement, at least in the thinnest sense. Lips pressed together, she types a quick message out and puts her phone away. “I shouldn’t be long. Text or call if it is necessary.”

She does in part regret saying that with Dazai present, but there’s little use in it now, not with Chuuya waving her off as respectfully as possible and even Oda and some of his kids glancing over at her as she shifts onto her heels and then her feet. She has to take a second to steady herself—then, with a final smile in Kyouka’s direction and none other, she steps away.

Dazai’s laughter hits her back as she goes, but she puts it out of her mind, focused only on the path ahead.

*

It’s a short walk, even with the crowd that has gathered in the time since Kouyou had sat down. No doubt it’ll be even thicker later, but Kouyou decides to count on the automatic way people step aside to allow her through—and keeps to the side to avoid most of them in the first place. She cuts a brisk path, eyes scanning the landscape ahead until they fall upon a familiar shape standing alone.

The silhouette is tucked off to the side, a noticeable distance from the mentioned stall, turned away so the edge of her profile is just visible. At the sound of footsteps, she straightens, then turns altogether, coming to face Kouyou with a look of blank surprise that soon melts into a welcoming grin, the hint of teeth bared as bright as the sun had been above.

Kouyou doesn’t pause, but as she draws nearer, an invisible force seems to sweep over her, quelling the tension in her shoulders and spreading a reciprocal smile across her face. She’s walking at her normal pace, but the way time is warping around her makes bridging the remaining distance seem to go far slower than it does.

The wind is blowing enough to pull at Yosano’s yukata, rippling through the patterns of flowers and butterflies printed across the deep blue fabric. Those shift, too, as she moves. Though her hair isn’t quite long enough to pull back into the elegant styles Kouyou has seen on most of the other women in attendance, it is tugged halfway up into an artfully messy updo. The breeze also stirs free a few dark locks, but she makes no move to smooth them back into place. Instead, she widens her smile as she peers up at Kouyou.

“Hey,” she says.

“Good evening,” returns Kouyou, lowering her head in a way that would be demure were it anyone but her.

“If it hadn’t already been, it definitely would be now.” Now Yosano adjusts her hair, tucking away strands that have fallen into her eyes. Her hand falls slack against her cheek but doesn’t lower from that position. The other hand, Kouyou notes, is hidden behind her, arm bent in a way that obscures it—and whatever she must be holding—from view unless Kouyou were to step close enough to peer over Yosano’s shoulder.

She doesn’t, approaching only enough to keep a respectable distance between her and Yosano. Unable to respond to Yosano’s easy flattery outright, she only hums, hands stiffening at her waist.

With a soft laugh, Yosano relaxes her posture. “Sorry if I pulled you away in the middle of something.”

“Not anything too important. You may have rescued me from an interrogation, in fact.”

“Oh?” Yosano looks curiously at her, but Kouyou brushes it off with a simple smile, not bothering to elaborate. “I’m happy to be of service, then. How’s Izumi? Assuming she’s here, of course.”

“Naturally.” Automatic, Kouyou’s head swivels back toward the seat she’d left behind, but it’s difficult to see any of the seats from here, let alone her specific area. “She is well. She has had some difficulties adjusting to the break, but that is to be expected. She was quite looking forward to tonight.”

“Ah, that’s good,” says Yosano, smiling, and Kouyou cannot help but return it. “You don’t seem quite as excited as she apparently is.”

Kouyou lifts one shoulder. “This sort of event is not nearly as appealing to me as it is to my family. So long as they are enjoying themselves, I can tolerate it, but that is the main extent of my enthusiasm.”

“I see. Though not entirely, I have to say; I do like fireworks, and though the whole atmosphere here—” Yosano waves a vague hand “—doesn’t quite appeal to me, it’s festive and energetic enough that I still end up enjoying myself most years.”

“It’s not that I don’t enjoy myself, quite. Just…”

“Not as much as you would sitting in your backyard drinking tea?” prompts Yosano, brow quirked, and Kouyou, caught, allows a wry smile of her own. “Hey, I get that, too. I imagine you get even fewer quiet, peaceful nights to just unwind and relax than I do.”

“Unwinding and relaxing is a near foreign concept to me,” agrees Kouyou, rubbing at her temple.

“I can at least try to reintroduce it to you. Here, let’s start with this.” Yosano pulls her other hand from behind her back, revealing two skewers loaded with three dumplings each. “I’m not as interested in cotton candy bigger than my head as Ranpo was, but these did look good. Want one?”

“Dango before flowers, hm?” Despite Kouyou’s amusement, she doesn’t hesitate to take it, her fingers brushing Yosano’s gloved ones in the process. Yosano flinches, hand twitching back—her wince tightens at the motion. Kouyou blinks. “Is something wrong with your hand?”

“Ah, that.” Idly, Yosano rubs at her wrist. “A businessman bumped into me earlier. I might have twisted something handling him.” She smiles, tranquil but with a sharp edge to it, and, with care, switches the dango to her other hand. “It doesn’t hurt, but it is a little tender, so I’d like to avoid putting pressure on it in case I fuck it up. I don’t exactly have a menagerie of first-aid supplies on me, so…”

“I see.” Kouyou’s brows pinch together as she considers the statement. “A businessman, you say? Do you recall what he looked like?”

Yosano doesn’t seem thrown by the request, instead tilting her head back to think it over with little more than a steady hum. “Maybe a little shorter than you, eighty-odd kilograms, shitty mustache, designer suit, short hair, early forties at the youngest,” she rattles off. The description isn’t familiar, but Kouyou commits it to memory. “He’s gone now, I’d wager. Being flipped onto your back by the woman you loudly called a bitch can’t be great for your reputation.”

The image almost draws a laugh from Kouyou. “I suspect his injuries are far worse than yours, then.”

“I did tell you I could take care of myself.” Yosano’s eyes glint as brightly as her pin in the darkness.

“And I did not doubt it.” It isn’t quite accurate, but Yosano doesn’t verbally call her on it, just raising an eyebrow. Kouyou averts her stare by taking a bite from the dango in her hand. When she’s finished chewing, she presses a hand to her mouth to ease the swallow and says beneath her sleeve, “I’m sure you caused quite a scene.”

“He’s the one that caused the scene to begin with, but I didn’t exactly ease matters, no.” Yosano’s grin widens, its glow adding to that of her gaze. “It was kind of refreshing, honestly. I don’t get to do shit like that a lot anymore.”

“A shame I couldn’t witness it, then.”

“I’m sure it’ll happen again sometime. Men like that are around every damn corner, I swear.” Yosano shakes her head. Her expression suggests that were one of her hands not in the state it is, she would crack her knuckles. Instead, she bites down on her dango.

“Indeed.” A low sigh leaves Kouyou. She closes her eyes, lashes stirring against her cheeks, before pulling them open again, something occurring to her. “I will admit, it is relieving to see you will follow up on such assurances. That reminds me—I heard from Kyouka that you told her, I believe, that if anyone else messed with her, you would kick their asses.”

With the quiet, steady self-assurance that tends to radiate off of Yosano, the sheepish look that crosses her face takes Kouyou by surprise. “Ah,” she says, simple, and Kouyou sets her teeth into the back of her lower lip to conceal a smile. “I probably shouldn’t have said that, all things considered. Or at least not in those terms.”

“Oh, believe me, my mentioning it was not an indirect reprimand.” Kouyou raises a hand. “Crude as it might have been, I did appreciate the reassurance. Surely Kyouka did too, or else she wouldn’t have mentioned it to me.”

“Well, at least there’s that.” Yosano’s smile settles back into something more confident, though her low laugh is still a touch strained. “I wasn’t really thinking when I said it, frankly. I just wanted her to know she had at least one person at the school in her corner.”

“That conveyed the message decently, I daresay,” says Kouyou, and Yosano’s laugh this time is far lighter. “As did what Fukuzawa-sensei said. That, she hasn’t yet shared with me—from his bearing when I was in the room, though, I take it he took a shine to her.”

“A shine might be underselling it. Were she not already an adoptee, he’d probably take her in as his granddaughter.”

Kouyou considers Fukuzawa’s stoic face, impassive at first glance but undercut with a certain fury and determination, a near match to Kyouka’s on the same day. “Their expressions are already similar enough,” she muses. “Were their hair and builds more alike, they would look the part.”

Yosano snickers. “That’s true, too. But for what it’s worth,” she adds, glancing askance at Kouyou with something unreadable in her stare, “the way she carries herself is all you.”

To that, Kouyou has no response, eyes flicking away in surprise. She can’t bring herself to agree or disagree—it isn’t all her, she knows well, as Kyouka’s parents had both been quite dignified and graceful, and from a physical standpoint, Kyouka is the spitting image of them both, all sleek dark hair and svelte build (though if she hits another growth spurt, she’ll reach at least her mother’s height). By that standard, her bearing must at least partially stem from them too.

But still, Kouyou likes to think she’s instilled at least something in Kyouka over these past two years, and she sees no reason to reject Kyouka’s quiet elegance as something picked up from her. In fact, half of Kyouka’s mannerisms—how she sets her chin, how she holds her shoulders aloft, how she keeps her posture subdued in some situations and open and confident in others, how her voice can take on a cold, biting edge—are easy to trace if she consciously thinks about it. They’re such simple and natural parts of her everyday life, though, that she almost never has until now. Little traits here and there, yes, but not as a collective whole.

The thought that her impact on Kyouka is something so noticeable yet surreptitious at the same time is an inordinately sobering one. Guilt and remorse are not organic emotions for Kouyou, who prefers pushing forward to looking back, but she feels them creep up her throat as she considers her first few months with Kyouka. If she had been harsher, had closed herself off more, had projected herself further, would Kyouka’s inherited traits have been a different set altogether?

“Kouyou?” comes Yosano’s voice, soft but firm, and Kouyou stirs herself from the daze. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Kouyou manages to say. She smiles, but it’s with a sorrowful twist to it; she lets the feeling wash over her, then seep away, telling herself that it’s not worth considering now. “Simply lost in thought.”

“If you say so.” Yosano lets her have it, smiling and taking another bite from her dango.

Watching her, something occurs to Kouyou. Though there are few things she wants to speak about less, her mind is whirring for any topic to discuss at all, and so she speaks without fully thinking it through: “You mentioned Edogawa-kun earlier. Is he here?”

Yosano straightens, almost coughs, and leans back to swallow, patting herself on the chest to see it through. “Ah, yeah,” she says, a bit gruff, while Kouyou stares in alarm. “We usually come together to things like these. More efficient, since we live together, and the trains are a nightmare even when there aren’t hundreds of tourists swarming them.” Kouyou gives a thoughtful nod. “We didn’t have the foresight to reserve a seat like I’m sure you did, though, so usually we just wander around separately until the show starts.”

“I see,” says Kouyou, tossing a wary glance over her shoulder as though Edogawa will be there smiling at her.

Yosano catches this and laughs. “He’s probably still seeing how many sweets the stalls will sell him before they cut him off. Don’t worry, he agreed to leave you be tonight.”

Kouyou isn’t sure she trusts this, but she inclines her head regardless. “How thoughtful,” she says dryly. “Mostly, I’m concerned about what could happen if he met another unfortunate acquaintance of mine. Another insufferable genius, as it were.” She grimaces at the faint affection that slips in beneath her disgruntled tone and covers her expression by biting into the second of her dango.

“I called Ranpo loud, not insufferable.” Yosano doesn’t correct the assumption altogether, though, only shaking her head a little. One dumpling remains on her skewer, and she twists it around a bit, eyeing Kouyou’s. “Are you planning on finishing that?” Pointed, Kouyou swallows and nods. “No rush,” clarifies Yosano, raising her free hand. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t forcing it down.”

“I haven’t the sweet tooth you seem to,” says Kouyou, thinking of Yosano’s established affinity for wagashi, “but it is good.”

“Hey, my sweet tooth is nothing compared to Ranpo’s. Our apartment is at least sixty-percent candy and pastries.”

“All the more reason to compare myself to you instead.”

Yosano seems unable to argue with that. She shrugs and goes for the last of her dango. Kouyou follows suit a moment later; when Yosano reaches out for the skeleton of a stick that remains, she hands it over without pause, and Yosano steps to the side to toss both hers and Kouyou’s into a nearby trash can.

“My hands will be sticky for the rest of the night,” she says as she steps back, laughingly brushing them off, one with more ginger motions than the other, “but it’s worth it, right? The only thing that would make this better is some tea.”

“Hot tea in the middle of the summer?” inquires Kouyou, and when Yosano nods with an aghast expression at her apparent dismay, she drops the neutral facade to laugh. “It does sound good, I must admit.”

“There’s probably tea for sale somewhere around here.” Yosano absently looks around but makes no efforts to move. Neither does Kouyou. “Another time, I suppose,” says Yosano with an amused glance.

“Quite.” Kouyou had seen a stall selling tea earlier, she believes, but she doesn’t recall where it was, nor is she inclined to find it. She opens her mouth again, ready to turn the conversation in another direction or perhaps even suggest they part ways.

Whatever she’d meant to say, and any other thoughts with it, are cut off by the sound and light of an explosion.

Kouyou’s attention snaps to the Yokohama skyline. Light and color in the shape of fireworks, as dramatic and bright and impressive as they are every year, are bursting one by one across the dark sky, accompanied by the swell of barely audible music from nearby speakers.

Fireworks displays had stopped being quite awe-inspiring or even just impressive to Kouyou years ago, but still, her eyes widen the slightest bit as she tilts her head higher up. The position she’s standing in isn’t the greatest—the seat she’d left behind would provide a much better angle—but it isn’t bad either, free space offering a decent view of the sky.

She raises her hand as a shield and blinks hard to protect herself from a blinding flash. Kouyou’s lips twist into a frown. The visuals of fireworks are appealing enough, but she could do without that aspect, not to mention the sound.

Her thoughts, when she can properly hear them, turn to Kyouka. Kouyou’s eyes scrape through the crowd, but with how many people have gathered, she can’t make out those seated from here, nor can she feel or hear—under the current circumstances, she’s aiming more toward the former—her phone vibrating. Concern twists in her stomach all the same, but last year had gone well; she has no reason to believe this one won’t.

Kouyou lets her breath leave her in a low, steady exhale. Kyouka is with three adults (however loath she would be to admit it to one of them) that Kouyou trusts to watch her and know what to do if she gets overwhelmed. It hasn’t been long since Kouyou left, and Kyouka had been fine then. The only changes are that Kouyou is no longer sitting with her and that the fireworks display has begun, and though they might combine to be taxing, Kouyou suspects she’s the only one feeling the tug of separation anxiety at the moment.

Who is the parent and who is the child again? she thinks, caught between scowling and laughing. She settles for the former.

She doesn’t doubt that Kyouka will be fine, but she doubts the rest of her brain will accept that just like that. She plants her feet, rooting herself in place. She’ll return to her seat before the fireworks have finished—somewhere, she questions if she’ll even make it five full minutes before bolting—but for now, she forces herself to stay where she is, caught between two urges and chasing the genuine want rather than the nervous compulsion.

Seeking any distraction at all, Kouyou’s eyes flicker toward Yosano’s face. Yosano isn’t looking back at her, so she allows her gaze to linger, multicolored lights flashing across Yosano’s skin—she’s lit in neon shades, illumination far more vivid than that of the moon. She’s already radiant in the dimly lit night, and each firework makes her shine her all the more, painting her cheeks in fluorescent hues. Both from the fireworks and from within, her eyes spark with vitality and joy. A grin adds to the spotlight her face has become.

Beautiful, thinks Kouyou, distantly.

And then Yosano’s head twists, and her eyes catch Kouyou’s.

Kouyou stiffens, snapping her head back up to (pretend to) watch the sky. Subconsciously, she realizes, they’ve shifted closer together: Their sides are almost molded together, shoulders brushing. Yosano’s hand finds Kouyou’s, warmth spreading through her gloves. Their faces are just as close as the rest of them, and when Kouyou glances to the side again, the distance—or rather, lack thereof—is reinforced.

Yosano smiles, a slow curve, and says again, “Hey.”

To be audible above the continued noise, she has to lean toward Kouyou’s ear, tipping up on her heels to accomplish it. Warm, sweet-scented breath fans across the side of Kouyou’s neck. It’s unexpected, and it has her suppressing a shiver.

Careful, light, Yosano raises her free hand—the injured one, so the caution must be on her behalf as much as Kouyou’s—to frame Kouyou’s shoulder. “I did promise to warn you this time,” she says, still pressed close. Her mouth quirks, open and encouraging, and despite the blaring noise of more fireworks to the side, Kouyou can hardly think of looking anywhere else. “Is it all right if I kiss you?”

Kouyou says nothing aloud. She merely smiles in turn, closes her eyes, and leans down to close the gap between them.

If Yosano’s cheek kiss after their second date is to be taken into account, fleeting and chaste as it had been, this is not their first kiss, but its nature—both in location and in that Kouyou expects it and can therefore savor it—means it may as well be. The setting isn’t ideal, but they’re obscured enough and everyone is distracted enough that Kouyou isn’t too concerned. Yosano gives her a wide window to reconsider and pull back, making no moves to deepen the kiss or tighten her grip on Kouyou’s shoulder, but Kouyou only presses closer.

Kouyou is out of practice, which becomes evident within seconds. The angle of their heads is awkward, height difference just enough to make the stretch uncomfortable, and when Yosano parts her lips there’s an uncomfortable collision of teeth, sharp enough that Kouyou pulls back with a hand over her mouth. She and Yosano exchange horrified looks—

And then, unable to help it, Kouyou collapses forward with inaudible laughter. Her forehead comes to rest against Yosano’s; she’s slouching considerably, but she can’t bring herself to care when Yosano’s soft, incredulous chuckles join hers.

The embarrassment-turned-amusement melts into something gentler and more relaxed, and they try again. The angle is better this time, with both Kouyou leaning down and Yosano leaning up to make it work. Although it’s still clumsy from Kouyou’s end, it’s now in a way that’s at least charming and not reminiscent of a gawky teenager tripping over themself to get to first base.

Any further coherent thoughts are soon dismissed with a furrow of her brow. Even with the improved angle and softer connection, Kouyou is unable to entirely relax. She quirks her head a little more, lessens the pressure keeping her eyes shut, curls her fingers tighter into Yosano’s. Her free hand itches where it sits at her side, fingers twitching up almost in mimicry of the gesture.

As if in unspoken reassurance, Yosano’s hand migrates from Kouyou’s shoulder to her cheek. Her thumb settles along Kouyou’s cheekbone, and her fingers fan out to frame her jaw and the side of her neck. Though it’s more grounding than the soft grasp on Kouyou’s shoulder, she leans back nevertheless, opening her eyes to see Yosano’s half-flushed and still firework-lit face, taken in by it for a second before she manages to get her thoughts back on track.

Yosano blinks up, expression crinkling with concern. Glancing to the side, Kouyou starts, “Your hand—”

“Oh—oh.” Yosano laughs, close enough that Kouyou can feel it, and adjusts her wrist. “It’s fine. Not exactly the most comfortable, but I can deal with it for a couple of minutes. Was that all you were worried about?”

Forgoing a verbal response once more, Kouyou inclines her head and kisses her again. Compelled to action by the weight of Yosano’s hand on her cheek, she brings her hand up to rest on Yosano’s waist, grazing the soft cotton of her yukata. Yosano makes a small, muffled sound of what might be surprise or encouragement or both. Emboldened further, Kouyou tightens her grip to pull her closer.

There is an airy sort of warmth to the embrace now, a steadiness to how they come together. The intrinsic newness of it has sparks skittering beneath Kouyou’s skin, but before long, the rhythm of it, an even push-and-pull with occasional clumsy nonverbal negotiation, settles into something as natural as breathing.

Breathing, which Kouyou soon pulls away to accomplish. A gasping laugh from Yosano blows across her face, but it’s cut off when Kouyou presses back in.

Yosano meets her with somewhat more force this time. Kouyou, startled, tips back on her heels for an instant before recovering and holding tight to Yosano’s waist. It remains slow and cautious, never becoming more heated than that. Their hands remain where they are, and their mouths stay mostly closed where they’re pressed together—it’s still a bit much for where they are, but between their exact location and the murmurs and cheers in the distance, Kouyou is certain now that no one is paying attention to them.

It’s casual, calm, nothing groundbreaking or world-altering. The only fireworks are literal ones filling the sky above them. But it’s warm and pleasant and the closest contact Kouyou has had with another person in this context for years, and a tender sensation comes to settle in her stomach. She’ll blame it on the dango for now.

Her face tingles subtly when she pulls back, less stark and more natural this time. Her eyes stay closed as she regains her breath, but soon she’s turning toward the sky again. Through a half-lidded gaze, she watches more fireworks bloom bright against the darkness, their celebratory nature somehow seeming enhanced. Yosano shifts so their shoulders brush again.

They’d never stopped holding hands, Kouyou realizes absently. They hang intertwined at their sides, somewhat squished between them a few moments earlier but now limp again, Yosano’s glove soft and warm where it brushes Kouyou’s bare palm. It had at some point become background noise. Kouyou has to tilt her head forward, watching the fireworks light up the ground rather than the sky or Yosano’s smiling face.

A familiar buzzing, though, draws Kouyou’s attention away. Another text on her personal line.

“I apologize,” she says, leaning back to pull free her phone, “but I should see what that is, in case it’s important.” She would hope that an emergency would warrant a call, but when she unlocks it, distantly aware of Yosano’s murmur of understanding, to see the text is from Dazai, alarm spikes in her chest.

What awaits her is not an emergency, to her relief, but it is still something she would classify as important: A message with a photograph attached. The picture is blurry and taken from a somewhat awkward angle, but its subjects are clear nevertheless: Chuuya is standing in the distance, close to the water, with Kyouka perched atop his shoulders, reaching up to raise her phone toward the sky. literal shortstack lol, reads the caption.

The smile creeps across Kouyou’s face before she can maintain it, and when she sees Yosano arch an eyebrow, she tilts the phone toward her. Yosano leans closer to get a better view, then too breaks out in a grin, even though she’s only familiar with half of the two in the image.

“That’s your brother with her, I assume?” she asks, eyeing Chuuya’s silhouette, half-lit by the flash of a warm firework above. She tucks her hair back where it’s come loose by the shift in posture. “My, that hair… if I didn’t know better, I would assume you two were biologically related.”

Kouyou huffs. “If you had known him as a teenager, you would not dare to suggest such a thing,” she says, haughty, even as fondness lingers in how she studies the picture for a few seconds longer before putting her phone away again, not bothering to respond.

Yosano keeps watching her. She doesn’t return the stare, looking back at the sky instead, but she feels it burn against her like a brand, and its weight is made all the more obvious when Yosano bumps their shoulders together.

“If you need to get back to your family, feel free,” she says. Her hand had been jostled, but it’s still clasped in Kouyou’s, and her grip tightens as if by reflex.

Kouyou straightens, given the clear opportunity she’d been hoping for moments earlier—and a more reasonable, understandable chance to take it. Dazai’s text had eased any remaining worries, though. It is obvious that Kyouka is enjoying herself; there is little reason, Kouyou tells herself, that she can’t.

“Surely I can stay a moment longer,” she says, squeezing Yosano’s hand.

Yosano glances at her, surprised, but her smile widens. Kouyou leans as much closer as she’ll allow herself, the whole of her arm warm where it presses against Yosano’s, and together they watch color and light dance across the sky.

*

It’s only a few minutes more, really, that Kouyou lingers, comfortable staying with Yosano in theory but in practice overtaken after a few moments by concern for Kyouka, along with some less prominent blend of guilt and unwillingness to give Dazai more ammunition than she already has. She expresses an abridged version of this to Yosano, who soon disentangles herself and all but shoos Kouyou off.

“I see how it is,” says Kouyou at this, giving her a dry look. It falls flat, with the tenderness she doesn’t doubt is etched across her face, but it draws a scoff from Yosano still.

“I’m hardly jilting you. I’m letting you attend to your kid, who, unless I’m mistaken, is always your top priority.” Yosano pats the side of Kouyou’s arm. “Believe me, I would be happy to stand here with you all night, but I understand how unrealistic that is. If you have to—or even just want to—go, then go.” She pauses for a moment, during which that seeps in, and then turns her head away with a laugh. “Besides, I should probably catch up with Ranpo anyway. He hasn’t even texted, so I should make sure he hasn’t pissed someone off, if nothing else.”

“Ah, of course.” Considering her singular encounter with him, Kouyou wouldn’t be surprised if he had purposefully been giving them a wide berth, but she has no desire to discuss him in detail, so she only inclines her head. “I suppose here is where we part ways, then.”

“I suppose so,” agrees Yosano. Her hand falls back to her side, though she pays it no heed, keeping her eyes on Kouyou’s face.

For the span of a few heartbeats, they’re silent, listening to the fireworks continue to burst in the distance and watching the light illuminate one another. Then Yosano leans up on her heels to press another quick kiss to Kouyou’s cheek. When she shifts back, her smile is crooked and bright, so much so that for a split second Kouyou almost reconsiders her decision.

“Goodnight, Kouyou,” Yosano says then, though, eyes darting toward the crowd. “Seeing you tonight was a surprise, but it was still nice. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kouyou nods, agreeing with all of the statements, and bends briefly to return the cheek kiss, which seems to take her and Yosano both by surprise. It lasts only a handful of seconds, Kouyou soon stepping back—and facing an inordinate amount of glee in the warm flush that has begun emanating off of Yosano’s face. She had wondered, if only in passing, if it was even possible to fluster her.

“Goodnight,” says Kouyou, smiling as she turns halfway on her heel.

She takes a few steps forward, then pauses, considering how decent the lighting is here, and pulls out her phone to check her face in the camera. Her brow furrows as she scrutinizes anything out of place. There doesn’t seem to be anything too incriminating, save for the smudge of lip stain several shades lighter than hers at the corner of her mouth and the few askew strands of hair around her face, both of which she fixes as soon as she notices them, but she stares down with narrowed eyes for a moment longer before she’s satisfied.

Yosano’s laughter behind her is barely audible. Kouyou shakes her head at the sound, watching the motion—and her tiny smile—in the camera. Then she locks her phone, tucks it away, and starts weaving back toward the party waiting for her.

Now that the fireworks show has properly begun, the crowd has thickened, children and their parents abandoning games and bringing food to come observe as close as they can. The seats have filled out, as has the area behind them. Bodies blot what had before been a clean, clear landscape, seeming to mold together into one collective shadow to block the way. As often happens in public settings, though, most jump apart for Kouyou by instinct; she does have to raise her voice to get out an excuse me every now and then, though, between how caught up in themselves some are and how laidback and relaxed she is now.

That feeling begins to ebb as she steps around and through people. It’s not quite difficult, but it’s an inconvenience nonetheless—objectively, the seat she’d left behind isn’t too far away, but it seems to take a small eternity to reach it regardless. It doesn’t help that Kouyou keeps getting distracted by another series of noise and light from above or crowing from a nearby family or couple. (Or, on occasion, the resurgent memory of Yosano’s gentle, cloying kiss.)

It’s the voices of two of Oda’s boys, overlapping each other, that hits Kouyou’s ears first, followed by Oda’s calm but firm mediation and Dazai’s quiet laughter. She pauses to temper her smile and settle it into something less revealing before following the sound. First her head turns toward it, then the rest of her body.

The space Kyouka, Chuuya, and Dazai have left for her is visible even from a distance, and Kouyou bites down on a wider smile than the one already resting across her face. She makes her way toward it with little fanfare, not counting having to half-duck to keep from impeding anyone’s view of the sky. She’s not certain how well it works, but she supposes it is the thought that counts, as is the fact that her height also means that it only takes a few short steps to reach her seat.

At the sound of her steps, Oda looks up, nodding before returning the bulk of his attention to his children. Kouyou grants him a quick smile as she settles down. Beside her, Kyouka, too busy leaning up on her knees to continue snapping pictures of the sky to notice her approach, snaps her head around at the shift of the mat, eyes alight and awed. Though she looks curious for a moment, all she does is nod and then twist her head back around. Chuuya, too, glances over, but with the bite he’s taking from his yakitori he’s equally unable to respond.

Unfortunately, Dazai is not encumbered in any such way. His eyes scrape across Kouyou’s face, and she is for an instant vindicated in her preemptive grooming but still braces herself for having missed anything. What leaves his mouth, however, is a complete nonsequitur: “Ane-san, did you get my text?”

Kouyou blinks, momentary tension dropping out of sheer surprise, and then allows for a laugh. “I did,” she says, settling her hands in her lap, voice raised a touch to be heard over the fireworks. “I can’t say I particularly cared for your caption, but I appreciated the visual all the same.”

He sighs and sags forward. “I was hoping you would be a more receptive audience,” he says with a discerning glance toward Chuuya, who looks back with automatic irritation before wincing in a way that indicates he’d bitten into his cheek instead of the chicken. “Clearly I should lower my standards.”

“Clearly,” agrees Kouyou. She passes Chuuya one of the bottles of water Oda had bought, and he takes it with a thankful nod.

A burst of sound preemptively ends any opportunity for a continuation of the conversation, to Kouyou’s relief, and her head twists in time to catch the accompanying light and color flash across the sky. She’s still blinking the aftereffects away when a whoop of delight from Kousuke and Katsumi pulls a shush not just from Oda but three people in neighboring seats. As Oda apologizes, almost lost beneath the next series of fireworks, Dazai laughs, using it as a distraction to steal some yakitori from Chuuya’s plate.

Chuuya snatches what’s left of Dazai’s ramune in retaliation, drinking it in one go—and making direct, pointed eye contact with Dazai when he complains—and draining the rest of the bottle proper into Kyouka’s cup. Kyouka lowers her phone to take a sip. Before turning away again, she pushes the cup of sake Kouyou had left behind, still half-full, toward her.

Surprised, Kouyou reaches for it. As she sips, she graces Kyouka with a smile, but Kyouka is already facing the sky, the gesture done and forgotten.

Above, the fireworks continue to burst, and Kouyou feels something similar to those warm explosions in the pit of her stomach.

- oda is actually probably the character i have the hardest time writing, because i feel like he's very... straightforward? which isn't a bad thing at all; he just tends to be so easygoing and candid (and, as ango and i think mori comment on, willing to let dazai and his kids get away with shit lol) that it's difficult to incorporate him into the kind of back-and-forths i like writing so much. one would think that having him in scenes with dazai, who the bulk of his canon interactions are with (since there's also such a limited time frame of characterization to work with), would ease this, but since it's still a group setting that also includes, say, his kids, chuuya (who's on the complete opposite end of the reactivity scale), and kouyou, not to mention the context is so different, that isn't how it ends up working out... as such despite being relatively important here he does not crop up often. sorry to any oda fans out there, i like him a lot too! he just eludes me writing-wise >_< - "dango before flowers" (hana yori dango | 花より団子) is a japanese proverb equivalent to something like "substance over style." - the shortstack joke probably does not work in japanese but as someone who is 5'2" i reserve all rights to make short jokes whenever possible. - i edited most of this chapter after 4th of july weekend so it was Very Difficult to paint fireworks in a positive light lmao. anyway! thanks for reading, and see you next week! if you have time to spare, any thoughts are always very appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
1. Chapter 1 7533 0 0 2. Chapter 2 9781 0 0 3. Chapter 3 7942 0 0 4. Chapter 4 7673 0 0 5. Chapter 5 7397 0 0 6. Chapter 6 8166 0 0 7. Chapter 7 11242 0 0 8. Chapter 8 14519 0 0 9. Chapter 9 7769 0 0 10. Chapter 10 10079 0 0 11. Chapter 11 8041 0 0 12. Chapter 12 11189 0 0 13. Chapter 13 11128 0 0 14. Chapter 14 8922 0 0 15. Chapter 15 9885 0 0 16. Chapter 16 8226 0 0 17. Chapter 17 12887 0 0 18. Chapter 18 8330 0 0 19. Chapter 19 15146 0 0 20. Chapter 20 17299 0 0 21. Chapter 21 18177 0 0 22. Chapter 22 8794 0 0 23. Chapter 23 13959 0 0 24. Chapter 24 10162 0 0 25. Chapter 25 12723 0 0 26. Chapter 26 8403 0 0 27. Chapter 27 24347 0 0 28. Epilogue 3365 0 0