the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 13 chapter cws: violence, featuring guns, blades, and some good old fisticuffs. smoking is briefly present as well. some achieve 10k+ chapters, some have 10k+ chapters thrust upon 'em. this was one such chapter and i even cut a scene because it didn't make sense here. enjoy!

“Yes, I am aware that I already paid you,” says Kouyou, cutting off Atsushi before he can even open his mouth to protest the yen that has made its way into his grasp. “And I will tell you once again that money is no object, and I can certainly spare this much. If I couldn’t, you would not be in this position to begin with.”

“Kouyou-san—”

She raises a hand. “Halt. You have earned it.” Her voice softens somewhat over the tepid reassurance, then settles back into its usual cadence. “Do not force me to compliment you any more than that, boy.”

They’re standing in the hallway leading toward the front door, Atsushi hovering on the edge of the step and Kouyou just before him, having offered to see him out but now looming more than anything. She cannot change her stature, literal or figurative, so she makes no efforts to alter this. Unfortunately, it seems to have lost its intimidating effect over time.

Still, Atsushi, however tight his eyebrows are pinching together, swallows and dips his head. “Thank you, Kouyou-san,” he manages, fist clenching around the fistful of cash. “I—I really do appreciate it.”

He continues, however, to look uncomfortable and guilty, bouncing on the balls of his feet and tapping them together. Several times, he’s started to reach for his shoes where they’re sitting in the entryway before remembering that they’re still in the middle of a conversation. Now, he seems halfway to bolting no matter what, but his eyes stay on her.

Kouyou sighs. “Now that that is settled,” she says, able to speak freely now that Kyouka has long since disappeared upstairs, “I wished to inquire as to how Kyouka was today.”

Something in Atsushi’s shoulders unspools, and though he doesn’t cling any less tight to the yen in his hand, his face brightens. “She was good! But she always is, so that really isn’t saying much.”

“Indeed.” Atsushi is well beyond the point of needing to be tested, but Kouyou’s expression grows a touch warmer at his words. “On an emotional level, how was she? And how much of her homework was she able to complete?”

“Um, just how she usually is. Quiet, but not in a bad way, and she stole some food from my plate when we got dinner. And a lot, I think.” Atsushi’s face dips into a half-sheepish grin, and he rubs at the skin between his neck and shoulder. “Actually, she was in her room most of the time—besides when I first got here, the longest we hung out was when we were eating and then cleaning up. She only came back downstairs, like, half an hour ago. Maybe a little less.”

This information does not especially surprise Kouyou, but she still has to smooth out an instinctive frown. “So you surmised this all from those forty-odd minutes total you properly saw her, you meant.”

“Well—yeah,” says Atsushi, chagrined.

Kouyou makes a sound, half-laugh and half-scoff. “I suppose that is acceptable enough. You know her as well as I, after all.” Atsushi smiles, tentative but open, and Kouyou inclines her head. “Well, then. If you are satisfied with your pay—” she glances toward the yen that Atsushi is still uncomfortably holding; with a jolt, he stuffs it into the bag hanging at his side “—then you are free to go. Have a good rest of your night, lad.”

She expects the words to draw a nod and return farewell, but instead Atsushi stiffens. “Um—actually, Kouyou-san, there was something I wanted to ask you about, if you don’t mind.” The words are rushed, like he’s not sure how he wants to say them or if he even wants to say them.

“Oh?” Kouyou raises an eyebrow, but her curiosity wins out over her automatic skepticism. “I cannot guarantee that I will answer if indeed I do mind, but go on.”

“R-Right. Ah…” Atsushi doesn’t jump right into blurting whatever question it is that’s consumed him so; he teeters back and forth on his feet for another moment or two before letting out a breath so forcefully it almost startles her. “So, er, I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been asking me to watch Kyouka-chan more often, and for longer than you usually do. Oh, ah—I don’t mind, obviously!” he hurries to add, waving his hands. “It helps a lot, and obviously we’re friends and I like spending time with her and all. And I’m off school right now too, so it’s not like I don’t have the extra time. But I was just wondering if, um, everything was okay with you. Like, if there was something happening with work, or…” He trails off, chewing at his lip and watching her with wide, concerned eyes.

Kouyou can’t say this had been what she’d expected, but she can’t say she’d been particularly expecting anything, really. She, too, takes a moment to think before bringing herself to speak. “There is always something going on with work,” she says, idle. Atsushi forces out a reedy laugh but doesn’t protest. “And even if there were, I would not be inclined to inform you unless it directly related to Kyouka’s safety or yours.”

“Oh—I guess that’s true.” Atsushi toys with the ends of his hair where it hangs long on one side. He tugs the strands back and forth almost by instinct. “Still, if it’s to do with your safety—”

Kouyou’s sigh cuts him off, although she’s not sure he’d had anything all too coherent to add on, judging from the hedging look on his face. Atsushi’s teeth dig into his lower lip. Tension permeates the silence.

There are a number of options, Kouyou is aware, she could pursue. She could end the conversation here, walking away without another word and leaving Atsushi to find his own way out (not difficult, considering the door is five steps away). She could dismiss his concerns with a simple excuse. She could take the provided excuse of it being due to her work, even, which wouldn’t be too much of a stretch considering that work has led to half of her absences. She could hand him a bit more yen than normal to ensure he doesn’t ask again, though she doubts he would anyway, given his current reaction.

But Atsushi has earned some degree of trust from her, if only by virtue of earning it unconditionally from Kyouka, and he seems to have worked himself up a great deal to be able to ask in the first place. Kouyou can, she supposes, meet that with an equal level of transparency. Although he is given to rambling and overstepping—and thereafter leaping back ten steps—she doubts any information would reach unwanted ears.

With another sigh, she allows herself to answer: “It is nothing of the sort, I assure you.” Her words are clipped but not sharp, tinged more with faint embarrassment than anything. Atsushi blinks up at her. “Work is busy, as usual, but it is not my responsibilities there that have increased the frequency of your babysitting jobs. As a matter of fact, I have been involved in a more personal endeavor as of late.”

“Personal?” echoes Atsushi, tilting his head. “Like, what, dating?”

“Precisely that.”

“Oh,” says Atsushi, absent, nodding a little—and then realization sets in, and his eyes widen, a faint flush shooting across his face. Kouyou is abruptly reminded of their first meeting, when she’d informed him of her career. Then, though, he’d gone white rather than red. “Oh! Um, well, congratulations, then, Kouyou-san! I didn’t really think you were interested in that sort of thing—um, no offense, you just—uh, anyway!” His blush deepens. “How long have you been together? Does Kyouka-chan know them? Does Kyouka-chan even know? Oh, wait, is it just one person? How—”

“One question at a time, boy,” says Kouyou dryly. Though Atsushi squeaks out an apology and falls silent, he’s still looking at her with interest. “And I fear I can tell you naught but the basics.”

“Oh, yeah, of course! I’m sorry, I—”

“How many times must I tell you how unnecessary your incessant apologies are?” Kouyou’s cool stare cuts through Atsushi’s words once more. He doesn’t make to speak again, but he does bow in an unspoken apology, which Kouyou supposes she will ignore for now; it gives her a reason to look away, at least. “It has now been just over a month, I believe, though officially only a handful of weeks. Kyouka is quite aware—excluding Chuuya, she was the first to be informed. She is also acquainted with the person, considering she attends their place of work. You are familiar with them as well, in fact. Would you care to guess?”

“Really?” Atsushi outright gapes, and only at Kouyou’s look does he tone it down, laughing awkwardly. “Um, I’ve only met a couple people who work at Kyouka-chan’s school, and I think Dazai-san would have mentioned it if you were seeing, like, Oda-san—” Kouyou can’t help a grimace at the thought; she gets along fine with Oda, but thinking of him in a romantic context is far from ideal “—so—oh! Is it that lady we bumped into that once? Um… Yosano-sensei?”

Kouyou’s brow creeps higher up still. “How astute of you,” she remarks, a bit dry.

“Oh, really?” Atsushi continues to blink. “Ah, that kind of makes sense, actually, with what I’ve heard about her from Kyouka-chan. Are you… happy?” His voice ticks up at the end as though even he isn’t certain what he’s trying to ask, nor why.

“It is nothing so serious, Atsushi-kun.” He continues watching her, focused and sharp in that way despite all of his timidity and naivete, and Kouyou purses her lips. She thinks of the moment she and Yosano had shared at the fireworks festival, the first dinner they’d had not much more than a month ago now, the ease with which they’d conversed in the izakaya and sushi bar. “But for the time being, yes, I suppose I am.”

“That’s good.” Atsushi’s face softens into a warm smile, one that isn’t quite endearing to Kouyou but slackens her shoulders nevertheless. “I’m happy for you, then, Kouyou-san. Um, and I’m sorry for pushing you to talk about it, I just—”

“Once more, boy, it is far too late for me to suffer the fate of hearing your spiral of apologies. I shall accept this one if you vow never to broach the topic with me again.”

“I can do that,” says Atsushi immediately, paling rather than blushing. “Goodnight, Kouyou-san. And—just because I don’t know if I’ve said it before—thank you for trusting me with Kyouka-chan.” He ducks into a bow.

The sentiment takes Kouyou by surprise, but not quite as much as his earlier inquiry had. She inclines her head. “I must thank you, then, for looking after her,” she returns, tone steady, “and for being a friend to her. Now I must implore you to vacate the premises of our home.”

“Right.” Atsushi scrambles to get his shoes back on, taking an instant to fix his laces before he shoots back up to his feet and almost runs into the door frame in his haste to leave.

“Goodnight, Atsushi-kun,” Kouyou calls after him.

Illuminated by the headlights of Kasa’s car, he turns and waves. Despite herself, Kouyou is smiling when she closes the door.

*

The Yokohama Museum of Art is, at this hour, not quite crowded but far from empty either. Footsteps and voices ring against its high ceilings and across its sprawling floors. On one side of the room, a group of tourists is being led about; some stragglers are inspecting on their own, as are clusters of locals: Couples on dates, families, and individuals flitting around as they please.

Kouyou, for one of the only times in her life, fits into the first category. She and Yosano, she’s faintly sure, don’t look like they’re on a date. Their attire is in clear contrast, for one, with the floral pattern of Yosano’s button-down the only thing that matches Kouyou’s light but still intricate yukata, and though they stay close together, walking in tandem, there is a careful distance between them. The closest they’ve come to even holding hands is Yosano catching Kouyou’s sleeve to show her an exhibit.

It isn’t as if the other couples are all that affectionate, either, the public setting confining them to linking arms or interlocking fingers or smiling soppily at each other like they’re the only ones in the entire world, ignoring the people waiting to get through the doorway they’re blocking. There still seems to be a stark dissonance, though, between them and Kouyou and Yosano.

Kouyou doesn’t mind, really, but it occupies her thoughts nevertheless. She wonders for a moment what it would be like to be any other citizen, wandering about in this idle and joyful fashion, comfortable with an easy, romantic life—and comes to the swift and harsh conclusion that she would despise it. Even if she were able to ever live such a life, she doubts she could bring herself to. So long has she been in the Mafia that she may as well have pledged her loyalty at birth. An ordinary life is well beyond her imagination, let alone her reach, by now. Everyday happinesses have simply never been hers to hold.

Or so she tells herself, but she’s standing here in a museum on a date, having gotten off work an hour prior and ensured her daughter and her babysitter would eat at a proper time, and she is enjoying every bit of that.

A twitch runs through Kouyou’s face. Living a life of pure domesticity, perhaps, would not be possible for her. Having it as a side to the violence and darkness that consumes the whole of her life, though—that is something different. Something, she admits, appealing.

“Kouyou,” she hears, and her attention drifts to Yosano, a meter or two away, leaning in to inspect a rather abstract painting. Any thoughts leave Kouyou’s mind. “What’s your interpretation of this one?”

No information plaques surround the piece, which is presumably meant to be lumped in with some of those submitted by a group of bright young college students. Kouyou steps closer, shoulder seven centimeters away from Yosano’s.

“An expression of rage against an unfeeling, oppressive government and society in the face of a deteriorating and struggling world,” she suggests primly, “or an experiment with all the shades of red in the artist’s collection.”

“One of those, definitely.” Yosano straightens, shaking her head, and pauses when their shoulders brush. Her smile settles into something calmer and warmer, then drops halfway when her eyes catch on something in the distance. “Ooh, and look at that.”

Though not physically pulled along this time, Kouyou nonetheless lets herself be swept toward an impressive large-scale painting on display. It’s a dreamy, surreal landscape, the colors and minor details of the setting creating an unsettling feeling. On the spectrum of hit or miss, this one, by Kouyou’s standards, falls on the end of the former; she can see how the array of sharp, cold colors and just enough dissonance to be eerie had drawn Yosano in.

After a moment they turn away, moving on to the next few in the row of paintings. “Come to think of it,” says Yosano idly, tapping her chin as she stares up at a sprawling print of a dark forest, seeming to warp in on itself the longer they stare, “Izumi draws, doesn’t she? Can you imagine her work being here someday?”

“If she’d like it to be, then most certainly,” says Kouyou at once. The usual fierce pride she adopts when it comes to Kyouka swells off of her. “I am not sure this is the end goal for her in that respect, though. But should she ever decide it to be…”

Yosano arches a brow. “You’ll let her skill speak for itself?”

Kouyou hesitates just a second too long, stretches her smile out just a centimeter too wide. “Of course.”

“Mm-hmm.” Yosano’s disbelief is clear in both her face and tone, but she seems amused, bypassing the next couple of paintings in favor of eyeing up a set of netsuke on display. Her eyes trace the lines of the wooden figures. “Well, I doubt she’s either old enough or noteworthy enough to put anything on display now, so you won’t have to worry about making friends and influencing people here just yet.”

“A shame.” Following in her stead, Kouyou gives an exaggerated sigh. “For Kyouka’s sake if nothing else, I shall look forward to that day, if it ever is to come. I am already acquainted with a fair amount of the staff here, after all.”

Yosano doesn’t seem certain if she’s joking. (She isn’t. Quite a few meetings have been held here after hours, whether in the quiet exhibition rooms or the lecture hall.) She lets the topic drop, though, just huffing as she makes her way over to another series of abstract paintings, these even more difficult to parse.

They amble about in that fashion for a few minutes longer, striking up brief conversations every now and then but, for the most part, just enjoying the artwork and each other’s company. The permanent galleries are littered with more famous, recognizable pieces, some of which Kouyou has copies of either at home or at headquarters. (Or, as Kouyou phrases it with a wary glance toward potential eavesdroppers, “The office.” It is true, and it has Yosano coughing to hide laughter.)

Out of everything, it’s a set of woodblock prints of women in traditional attire down one hall that has Yosano pausing for the longest, looking askance at Kouyou all the while. At the attention, Kouyou lets out a huff of something like laughter.

“The linework is exquisite,” says Yosano lightly, gaze flickering back to the wall where the prints hang, “but I do think I prefer the real thing.”

“Hm,” says Kouyou, tamping down on a pleased smile as she strides past.

As the museum gets closer to closing, the crowd peters out more and more. Kouyou could pull some strings, even if this is far from for business purposes, but in this situation she thinks there are few things less appealing than wandering around an empty museum past dark.

At the heels of some other groups Kouyou had seen over the course of the past hour or two, they make their way back to the entrance. Yosano pauses to lean against a wall both to adjust her shoe and to check her phone.

Whatever she finds there her pausing and glancing up. “It’s not that late,” she says, brandishing the time at Kouyou, who has stepped toward her to be out of any passersby’s way, “so did you want to stop for dinner somewhere? There’s a nice sushi place just a while down from here.” She makes a vague gesture in that direction, as much as she can indoors. “And if that doesn’t sound good, obviously there’s a ton of other places to eat around here. Up to you.”

Kouyou takes a moment to consider, at last nodding. “Sushi is fine,” she says, calm. “Lead the way.”

Yosano’s smile goes crooked in the pleased way it sometimes does, and she nods. Her heels echo around the open room as she strides toward the doors, Kouyou following close in her wake. The stares directed their way are nothing new, so Kouyou doesn’t react with more than a slight smile of her own.

When they emerge, the evening sky greets them. Light glints off the pavement, still just bright enough to have Kouyou blinking and unfolding her parasol. The breeze does a poor job at cutting through the heat, a sharp contrast to the museum’s cool interior; Yosano fans at her neck, and Kouyou smooths out the line of her collar. Despite the thick warmth, the slight cloud cover and almost indiscernible scent indicate that the rest of the week will see intermittent—if not heavy—rain.

It is summer, reasons Kouyou. Hopefully any upcoming monsoons won’t spiral into full-on storms, though, she thinks with a glance in the direction of the pier.

“The restaurant is that way, you said?” she asks Yosano, gesturing in the same general direction Yosano had.

Yosano nods. She doesn’t tug at Kouyou’s sleeve as she had inside, just waits for the masses to filter a bit so she can slip through. Her steps are confident and as broad as her height will allow for—there’s no questioning of Kouyou following her.

With almost anyone else, Kouyou would be, if not outright enraged, mildly irritated. Now, a smile matching Yosano’s rises to her face.

The assumption isn’t unfounded, either—Kouyou, slowing her own usual pace a marginal amount to stay at Yosano’s side, is quick to catch up and maintain that pace. Neither speaks, but Kouyou’s gaze wanders their surroundings. Her parasol bobs against her shoulder. Even without her eyes forward, the crowd—consciously or subconsciously—parts around them.

As they round the corner, Yosano stumbles, falling behind. When Kouyou glances over, it’s to see that she’d half-collided with a man loitering around the corner of the building, ducking to grab the cigarette he’d been lighting. A no-smoking sign is visible ten centimeters from his boots. Though Yosano seems the worse off out of the two of them, clutching at her shoulder with her other hand, she pulls herself upright with a smile, says a quick “Sorry, my bad—are you all right?” and, when he offers no answer but a grunt, continues walking.

Yosano shakes her head as she falls back into step with Kouyou but otherwise doesn’t acknowledge the incident. Kouyou clicks her tongue but doesn’t bring it up either.

They lapse back into a comfortable silence, weaving along. A few blocks pass at that companionable speed before Kouyou stiffens, a chill traveling up her spine. Her pace does not slow, nor does her posture or expression change to a noticeable degree, but adrenaline starts to pulse through her system, heartbeat picking up the slightest bit and breathing stilling before following suit.

A familiar certainty sweeps over her: They’re being followed.

This statement, in and of itself, isn’t an unnerving one; Kouyou is used to the security of subordinates lagging behind and around her. The presence behind her and Yosano, though, far and casual enough not to attract outside attention, is clearly hostile, and when Kouyou angles her head just right, she recognizes none of the four well-dressed men her gaze finds. They’re armed and carrying themselves with that self-assurance Kouyou expects out of the young and newly initiated.

Kouyou tilts her head closer to Yosano’s, murmuring, “Trust me.”

To her credit, Yosano too barely looks startled, blinking as she glances up but not hesitating or slowing or reacting in any other way that would get them noticed in a heartbeat. She dips her head only a fraction of a centimeter, the acknowledgment imperceptible to anyone farther away than Kouyou.

Then, smiling bright and too-wide, she turns her head to face front. In a calm, unbothered voice, audible to passersby but not conspicuously so—just like any other person talking to a date—she chatters on about her day, the weather, where they’re going to eat after this. Kouyou nods and replies when needed, concentrating on their path. A few turns and they’ve ended up on a side street that Kouyou knows to be a dead end.

They stop, facing the wall of the building before them. A fire escape leads up toward another small building to the left, but it’s blocked off with tape and signs. To the right, there’s another wall. In theory, they’re trapped.

Within seconds, footsteps sound, and Kouyou and Yosano turn in unison to see their pursuers blocking the dual-purpose entrance and exit. Up close, Kouyou sees that the majority, if not all, of them are shorter than her, and though they’ve made the swells of handguns against their jackets quite obvious, she’d be shocked if half of them even have the safety off.

“Hey!” one barks, and Kouyou does a quick head count, frowning when she comes up with only three. Perhaps one of the men she’d noted hadn’t been with the others, then.

She lets that observation sift to the back of her mind. “Oh, dear,” she says, not even attempting to go for a convincing voice, “it seems you’ve cornered us.” Yosano has to visibly stifle laughter.

The man who’d spoken steps forward, one hand on his hip, glare fixed on Yosano. Quieter, without so much as a reaction to what she’d said, he snaps, “You bumped into my buddy back there—” he jerks a thumb toward one of the men standing beside him, who juts his chin out in, presumably, a threatening gesture “—and didn’t even offer a proper apology. What’s the deal with that, huh?”

Kouyou’s bored stare travels to the man he’d indicated. Yosano raises both hands, palms out. “I did apologize,” she says, light, not inciting an altercation but not shying away from it either. “You must not have heard me.”

“I didn’t hear a damn word from you,” says the man in question, tilting his head up further. Should he crane his neck any more, it may stick that way.

“I certainly did,” says Kouyou, smiling, “and I was standing right beside her.”

All three men’s eyes snap to her, a spectrum of wrath to annoyance that only serves to bolster her. “And who the hell do you think you are?” snarls the third, bringing Kouyou’s eyebrows up—that, she hadn’t expected, judging from the impression the men, as individuals and as a whole, give. This group must be new to the city, new to this life, especially imbecilic, or some combination thereof.

“Someone who hasn’t the need to follow two women into a dark alley on behalf of some petty squabble.” She steadies her grip on her parasol. “What disgraceful behavior. What, I wonder, would your dear mothers say were they to see you like this?”

Yosano, again, has to stop herself from laughing. The third man freezes, overtaken by this for a moment, before the apparent de facto leader of the three claps him on the shoulder.

“Get a grip, man,” he snaps before turning his attention back to Kouyou. “Don’t play smart with me, bitch. You ought to give us a proper apology too.”

“Ah,” says Yosano, sighing, hints of amusement still thick in her voice. “Now you’ve done it.” She reaches toward her leg, hiking up her skirt to snatch a cleaver almost the length of her forearm from the sheath there. “I think you’re the ones who owe us an apology, as a matter of fact.”

Though the man’s eyes widen momentarily at the sight of the knife, he soon recovers, scoffing and snatching his handgun off his hip. The sound of it cocking rings sharp and brutal in the quiet lot. “Yeah? How’d you get to that conclusion?”

“If you want to fight,” says Yosano airily, not so much as flinching at the gun now trained on her, “then we’ll fight. If you’re going to call either of us a bitch again, though, you’d better do it now so I get to slap it out of your mouth.”

Rather than answering, the man shoots. The bullet hits the wall, a good twenty centimeters above where Yosano’s head would have been anyway, and higher once she ducks, lunging forward to deftly swing her knife straight toward his face. The man startles backward hard enough to almost drop his gun.

How embarrassing. Kouyou can spare no pity, though, as Yosano brings her knee up into the man’s groin and then has one arm grabbed by either of his associates. He’s too busy groaning and going red to bark orders, so Yosano’s kick at one of the other men’s knees gets him to drop her in shock, leaving her only in the grasp of the man who she’d run into earlier. Before she can resist, he grabs her other arm, twisting it back.

Kouyou’s hands shift on her parasol. Wood and paper clatter to the ground, leaving only her sleek katana in her grip. In a matter of steps, she’s crossing the distance to hold its sharp blade to the man’s throat.

He freezes, swallowing. It pushes his Adam’s apple that much closer.

“Be very careful about what you do next,” says Kouyou, smiling.

The air itself seems to freeze. The man’s eyes dart about, from Kouyou to Yosano to his temporarily incapacitated co-conspirators, before at last shooting downward toward his own hip. Kouyou presses her katana in deeper, and Yosano takes advantage of the distraction to yank her arms free and shove herself away, staggering straight toward the risen third man.

Arms now loose, the man before Kouyou wastes no time in grabbing his gun. Kouyou whips her katana around, jabbing him hard in the hand with the hilt; when he sputters and jolts, forcefully enough that the gun goes clattering to the ground, she drives the hilt into his stomach. He doubles over. Aware of the sounds of contact behind her and hoping Yosano isn’t the one being struck, Kouyou brings her foot up to kick him in the side of the knees.

The man stumbles and then topples over altogether, hitting the ground at Kouyou’s feet. Her boot comes to rest upon his shoulder and shoves him down farther.

She chances a look over her shoulder, where Yosano is dodging a hit from the third of the men and coming up to deliver one of her own. Though he seems the most skilled in hand-to-hand out of the three, she seems to be even more so, and from what Kouyou can see, she’s certainly faring her own.

A groan diverts Kouyou’s attention. The first man is charging bow-legged toward her, recovered but apparently not enough so, gun still held aloft. His fingers are fumbling for the trigger, but Kouyou doesn’t trust his aim—if he hits either her or Yosano, it’ll be by accident, and she’s not certain she likes the odds of that occurring.

She drops her foot from the man below her’s shoulder, considering him down and out for now. As the first man surges toward her, she sidesteps far enough to catch him off guard; a well-timed kick to the backs of the knees has him crumpling face-first, hitting the ground with a satisfying smack. His gun, too, lands a few centimeters away from his outstretched hands. Kouyou steps over to confiscate both it and the second man’s handgun.

“Men and their toys,” she says dismissively, emptying both. “Sensei, how are you faring?”

“Oh, fine,” returns Yosano.

The grin in her voice takes Kouyou aback, and as she tucks the cartridges into her own sleeves and tosses the unloaded pistols to the ground, she glances back again. Bruises are visible across the man opposite Yosano’s face, and blood is trickling from his nose. He isn’t backing off, though, aiming another fist at Yosano’s face.

Again Yosano ducks beneath it, using the man’s momentum against him. She shoves at his arm, knocking him back, and rears back to punch him in the dead center of the face.

The sound of the impact echoes throughout the lot—the force is enough, indeed, to send him flying, head hitting the wall with another audible crack. Kouyou’s eyebrows raise.

Just as Yosano is leaning back and dusting off her hands, as much as she can manage with a cleaver still in one, a blur from above catches Kouyou’s attention—the fourth man from earlier is lunging from the fire escape Kouyou had overlooked, headed straight for Yosano with a dagger in hand.

“Akiko!” she barks.

Not a second too late, Yosano twists to drive her cleaver into the man’s shoulder. A shuddering gasp leaves him, and he stumbles back, sagging against the wall behind him, when she tugs it free, producing a wet sound as metal disconnects from tissue. Yosano’s heel swings up to drive into his stomach, knocking him the rest of the way to the ground.

“Are you all right, Kouyou?” asks Yosano over her shoulder.

“I—yes,” says Kouyou, blinking despite herself, bemused at being on the receiving end of such concern in this situation.

Yosano nods, satisfied, but the man beneath Kouyou goes very pale. “Kouyou as in… Ozaki Kouyou?”

Kouyou smiles. Any remaining color in his face vanishes, and he all but flattens himself in his hurry to bow, even horizontal as he already is. Apologies fill the air, soon echoed by the other men as they realize the gravity of the situation.

Lighting a cigarette, perhaps, would be the most fitting response to this. Kouyou doesn’t smoke, so all she has to offer is a disdainful look, unimpressed by the offers and pleas and, most of all, excuses being rattled off around her—until one catches her ear, and her smile widens.

“You’ll do anything, you say?” she asks lightly, peering down. “My, what a grand offer. Wouldn’t you say so, sensei?”

Yosano hums vaguely. Kouyou glances over out of the corners of her eyes, but she can read little in her face.

“Please,” says the man again, forehead pressing against the gravel.

Kouyou’s smile curves up at one corner, harsh, and she brings her boot down.

Fifteen minutes and a quick phone call later, Kouyou and Yosano step away from the scene, exiting the area in the opposite direction from where they’d come. The blood has been wiped from Kouyou’s katana, and her parasol has been reassembled around it, resting again against her shoulder. Yosano’s cleaver, she assumes, has been returned to its sheath. Her skirt blows absently around her knees, stirred by the breeze.

Silence floats around them, not quite fraught but underlaid with some tension nevertheless.

“I apologize,” says Kouyou, low, granted some privacy by the quiet side streets they’re still walking along, “that you had to be part of that. That sort of thing does not often happen to me either—at least, not when the would-be assailants don’t know who I am. And even then only rarely, in fact.”

Beside her, Yosano is silent, her only reaction a slight twitch in her jaw. Kouyou halts, fingers shifting along the handle of her parasol.

“I assure you, it will not occur frequently, if ever again. And should I have any say in it, I shall not allow any harm to come to you.” The admission leaves Kouyou without intent, and she feels Yosano’s eyes dart to her, but she doesn’t move to take it back. “That said, I would fully understand any feelings you might possess about perhaps having gotten in over your head, and I shall respect your wishes in regards to this situation and our relationship, whatever they may be.”

Yosano’s shoulders start to shake. Kouyou stops, startled and scrambling for any sense of comfort she can offer—and then the sound of laughter hits her ears.

Yosano is… laughing. It’s a low, pleased laughter, the kind Kouyou has heard from her before but a bit deeper and rougher, and lasting longer at that, prompting her to curl a hand over her mouth to contain it. Kouyou stares openly, caught by the sound and concerned by it in equal measure.

“Sorry, sorry,” manages Yosano, gasping it out between continued laughs. Her hand drops, falling to her chest instead as she heaves in breath after breath, each catching for a moment as she takes them in. “I don’t mean to laugh at you, really, it’s just… you sounded so earnest. I didn’t expect that. Least of all after beating the shit out of some random jackasses.”

Something flares within Kouyou, not quite anger but close, though she’s unable to put a name to it. “Would most people not be rattled by such an encounter?”

“I thought we settled this already. I’m not most people, and neither are you.” Though she’s still smiling, broad with amusement, Yosano gets ahold of her breathing, at least. She straightens with a half-pained sigh. “That wasn’t even close to the worst situation I’ve been in. Really, this one time when I was twenty-one and interning at a clinic, I had to help lance a perianal abscess. Now that was scarring.”

“Akiko,” says Kouyou, with more of a bite to it than she intends.

It seems to be the name more than anything that gets Yosano to blink, face smoothing into something more neutral. “I’m being serious,” she says, lifting a hand. “I meant it when I said I could take care of myself. And honestly, I haven’t gotten that decent a workout in a while.”

That much, Kouyou supposes, is true. Yosano’s movements certainly hadn’t been those of a timid, inexperienced fighter, but neither had they smacked of overconfidence. She had moved with care, precision, and power, the likes of which Kouyou is only used to seeing among her own ranks.

Her brow furrows as she looks at Yosano, those inklings about her past stirring again to life. But ultimately Kouyou hasn’t enough to go off of, nor does she wish to impose more on Yosano’s boundaries than she already has.

Yosano adjusts her gloves. Both the nitrile and the sky are too dark to note any stains. “I don’t have any wishes in regards to our relationship,” she says, adopting a more lilting tone in what must be an impression of Kouyou, “except that it run its proper course. I assure you, I’m perfectly fine, and this ‘encounter,’ as you called it, hasn’t changed a damn thing. Unless it has for you, that is.” She chances a cautious glance up.

Kouyou is unable to express that seeing Yosano in combat, movements flowing smoother than a figure skating routine and blade all but molded to her hand as though it belonged there, had intensified what feelings she’d already held for her, and that if they had known each other any longer and marriage was of any interest whatsoever to her she may have knelt then and there. She settles for shaking her head. Things had changed, she supposes, but not in the sense that Yosano is asking after.

“All right,” says Yosano, a touch relieved. “I’m fine, you’re fine, and the situation is handled. Did you still feel up for sushi, or did the fighting get rid of your appetite?”

The noise that had come from the one man’s shoulder when Yosano had withdrawn her cleaver comes to mind. Kouyou’s stomach rumbles, inaudible but still palpable. Fucked up, perhaps, but she’s long past the point of caring. “As a matter of fact,” she says, visualizing a platter of shrimp nigiri, “sliced seafood is beyond appetizing.”

Yosano cracks a grin again. “Glad to hear it,” she says, reaching down to brush out invisible wrinkles in her skirt. “Hopefully we don’t smell enough like blood that they won’t let us in.”

“Hopefully,” agrees Kouyou.

As they start toward the main sidewalk again, Yosano reaches for Kouyou’s sleeve, and Kouyou instead lifts her hand to catch Yosano’s in her own. Yosano’s glove is dry against her skin, but Kouyou doubts she would have minded even if it hadn’t been.

Yosano’s eyes all but burn into her, but Kouyou keeps her gaze forward, walking with careful surety. Yosano chuckles, and her grip on Kouyou’s hand tightens in a brief, warm squeeze. Though perhaps they should have been, neither hand is shaking—for all intents and purposes, it seems, this outing has gone just like any other embarked on by two people in a relationship.

Kouyou almost shakes her head, but instead she smiles, thin and tired but as cheerful as she can manage, and lets Yosano lead her toward the restaurant.

*

The house is still with the idyllic crawl of late August, summer heat creeping in through the walls and the orange-red glow of the sun flooding every room with its curtains so much as cracked. Kouyou averts her gaze and fans at her throat as she always does, longing for the monsoons that sweep most summers. Her mind is sharp even as the evening draws nearer, though, and it is only with passing irritation that she abandons the sprawl of takeout menus in the kitchen to head upstairs in search of her daughter.

Having only been able to return at half-past two in the morning for the past three nights in a row, busy until then cleaning up matters primarily on the shoulders of the lowest men on the rungs, Kouyou intends to now throw herself into her home life as much as she can. Kyouka returns to school in little more than a week, which Kouyou is only able to muster some excitement for because of how much Kyouka is looking forward to it.

“I don’t think it’s normal for kids to like school as much as Izumi does,” Yosano had said when last Kouyou had spoken to her, discussing this in passing, “but it is refreshing, isn’t it?”

Kouyou, thinking only of how much her work schedule as of late had limited her time with Kyouka, had managed only a hum of vague acknowledgment.

Now, that blend of emotions settles back into Kouyou’s mind, subtle and pushed back as far as possible but present nevertheless. She scowls as she ascends the stairs. When she had first agreed to take Kyouka in, she had anticipated having to learn how to prioritize between Kyouka and her work, but she had not anticipated how much she would end up wanting to elevate the former.

There are a great many things at play here that Kouyou cannot change, so she doesn’t let them consume her as she makes her way calmly and steadily toward Kyouka’s room, the door wide open as it often is during the day. She stops in the doorway, though, when she sees Kyouka hunched over her desk rather than reclining in bed.

Her homework packet has long since been completed, so it can’t be schoolwork occupying her time so. At this distance, Kouyou cannot see over Kyouka’s shoulder, but she cranes her neck farther up as though she can regardless, half-forgotten fist bumping against the door frame.

The faint sound of the knock has Kyouka’s shoulders jumping with tension for a heartbeat, but soon they settle back down. Kouyou’s eyes narrow at her back.

“Kyouka?” Kyouka’s head lifts a bit, but she only hums in response. “Is it all right if I enter?”

Kyouka holds up a thumb. Though she shakes her head to herself, Kouyou lowers her hands to her waist and crosses the threshold.

She pauses for a moment there, remaining at a distance yet still attempting to look at what Kyouka is so invested in at the moment. When Kyouka doesn’t protest aloud or make to hide her project from view, Kouyou takes a few steps closer, cautious but firm—and is rewarded for it when, as the floorboards creak beneath her, Kyouka opens her posture up a bit to offer Kouyou a better view.

An illustration lies before Kyouka, her pencil still gliding along the paper as she leans to the side. Though still a visible work-in-progress, it seems to be a more involved piece than Kyouka’s usual doodles, and different subject matter than Kouyou is used to seeing in her sketchbooks besides.

“Very nice so far,” she murmurs. “Branching out, are we?”

In explanation, Kyouka reaches over to her phone where it’s sitting beside her supplies and taps at it a couple of times before holding it out to Kouyou. With her free hand, she continues sketching. Kouyou, surprised blink going ignored, reaches out to steady the phone, fingers settling around Kyouka’s.

On the screen, the built-in calendar app is open. Kyouka has opened to one particular date, only a handful of days from now, which has been marked with the label Birthday: Miyazawa Kenji.

“Ah, I see,” says Kouyou with consideration, releasing the phone and watching Kyouka set it back in its former place. “Had you mentioned this to me earlier, we could have simply gone out to purchase something for Kenji-kun.”

Now, Kyouka does look up, if only to fix Kouyou with a flat look. The stare lingers long enough to get the judgment across, hard and pointed even on a face as endearing as Kyouka’s.

Kouyou can’t help a smile, though she doesn’t let it loose until Kyouka has returned her attention to her work. The clear focus and drive in Kyouka’s expression are foreign to her, at least in this context, but she can spare some appreciation and perhaps borderline admiration for them all the same. Even if Kouyou has no inclination toward the arts herself, the combination of independence, creativity, and care in creating a gift by hand is fitting enough for Kyouka. She and those acquainted with her have received similar offerings of drawings and origami in the time Kyouka has been in Kouyou’s life, but to see that habit extended to someone Kyouka has known for all of five months is equal measures incomprehensible and touching.

Kyouka doesn’t tell her to leave, nor does she implicate such a feeling in any way, so Kouyou remains where she is. She could take a seat, but the only applicable space would be the edge of the bed, but she’s not sure she’d like to relive her notable previous adoption of that position. The most she does, then, is turn partially away to allow Kyouka some semblance of privacy.

It also serves as an opportunity to pull free her phone—content as she’s sure she would be hovering in place for however long it takes Kyouka to complete her illustration, Kouyou should attend to what business she can. That pointedly does not include the few—non-dire—phone calls she has to return later. The most sound she allows (save for the occasional clicking of her nails against the screen, something she can’t control) is a scoff every now and then. Her needing a distraction does not mean that Kyouka needs or wants one, after all.

What overtakes them isn’t quite silence, except in terms of speech, what with the tapping of Kouyou’s nails and the scratching of Kyouka’s pencils and erasers. It is, however, comfortable and productive in the way most silences and near-silences between them have become by now. Kouyou settles into it, relaxing the most she has in at least a week.

When at last the seamless noise of pencil against paper halts, Kouyou raises her gaze from a text chain with Chuuya she’d stumbled into. Kyouka is frowning, pencil to her chin, regarding the paper with an intense level of scrutiny. Carefully, she adjusts a couple of things, pencilwork painstaking and precise. Then she sits back again, still frowning but somewhat more satisfied—and then, again, she leans back down to make tweaks too minute for Kouyou to track. This routine repeats several times before Kyouka sets her pencil down altogether.

Kouyou lowers her phone. “Finished?” she asks, keeping her gaze at the level of Kyouka’s head. When Kyouka nods, she makes to shift her position before pausing. “Am I allowed to see, or would you prefer this be for Kenji-kun’s eyes only?”

Kyouka scoots her chair back and spreads her hands. It is far from the most subtle invitation Kouyou has ever received, but far from the least subtle one as well.

“Thank you,” she says, stepping closer to peer over Kyouka’s shoulder. As soon as she gets a glimpse of the sheet of paper, her eyebrows are lifting, impressed. “My, how stunning.”

The result of Kyouka’s sketching is a stylized but still somewhat realistic pencil drawing of a cow standing in a field, sky bright behind it and tail swishing. Open on Kyouka’s phone is an image that she must have referenced from, and its impact is clear in the level of detail in the cow’s form. There are minor hiccups here and there, awkward lines and mildly off anatomy—although it’s not as if Kouyou has seen a cow as of late and can verify from anything other than the image of one in her mind’s eye—but it looks perfect to Kouyou regardless, and she doesn’t doubt that Kenji would accept it with overflowing gratitude even if it were on par with a four-year-old’s crayon scribbles.

Minus the last bit, she tells Kyouka so. Kyouka smiles, small but bright, and nods hopefully.

“Do you plan on giving the paper itself to Kenji-kun?” asks Kouyou, lowering a hand to hover along the edge. Kyouka bristles on instinct, but she doesn’t attempt to remove Kouyou’s hand, just watching as it skates centimeters above the paper; when Kouyou glances her way, she seems to remember the question and nods. Kouyou straightens. “May I take a picture of it beforehand, then? You will have more work of this caliber and beyond, undoubtedly, but I would still like to preserve it.”

Kyouka blinks. Again, there’s a prolonged beat of silence as she shifts in her seat, but under Kouyou’s patient stare, eventually she manages a slow nod and mutter of, “Okay.”

She leans farther out of the way to allow Kouyou better access to the canvas where it’s laid out, framed by erasers and pencils. Kouyou takes one photo on her own phone; as soon as she’s tucked it away, she glances over to see Kyouka holding out her own phone. Without complaint, Kouyou takes it and snaps a quick picture with it as well.

Kyouka nods, grateful, as she takes her phone back. Smiling, Kouyou pats her head—Kyouka’s face twitches at the gesture, but she accepts it with little more than a mildly disgruntled expression.

Her look of discontent has Kouyou abruptly recalling what brought her toward Kyouka’s room to begin with. She clears her throat. “I suspect this question is somewhat belated by now,” she says, earning a confused look from Kyouka, “but since it is fast approaching that time, what would you like for dinner?”

There’s a pause of silence, and then a faint sound that might be Kyouka’s stomach growling—however, it is obscured by the creaking of Kyouka’s chair as she startles upright. Blinking, she suggests, “Tofu?” Since this is often Kyouka’s only suggestion, Kouyou continues watching her until she settles on something more concrete. “The kenchinjiru from Tachibana’s sounds good.”

Kouyou swallows a sigh of relief at the prospect of not having to cook, now that she has run out of time as well as energy. She inclines her head. “Then you shall have it, my dear. I will let you know when the order has been placed.”

At first Kyouka only smiles, but after a few prolonged seconds she ducks her head. “Thank you,” she says, turning around to face her desk again.

“It is the least I can do,” Kouyou tells her back, smile widening. When she leaves the room, it is with a sense of pride still stirring both behind and around her.

*

Most mornings, Kouyou stirs with the dawn. This morning, for whatever reason—of no correlation whatsoever to what time she’d fallen asleep, she’s sure—she awakens just before sunrise.

That soft, drifting sensation between sleep and consciousness lasts only a smattering of seconds before Kouyou shakes herself from it. At first, the early hour is not all that discernible—then she registers the dimness of the room, having to squint as she comes to. Her vision soon settles, though, and even before that Kouyou is pulling herself to her feet.

Quiet enough that she’s almost tiptoeing, Kouyou gathers up her clothing and pads into the restroom. She allows herself movements a touch more leisurely than usual as she goes about her usual routine, washing her hands and dressing with all the efficiency of any other day but not a swift, mechanical version thereof. Given the expanse of time in which to do so, she pauses to put her hair up in its regular intricate style before stepping back out into her bedroom.

With summer beginning to stumble on its feet, a few bright, warm rays are starting to crest over the horizon, streaming in through Kouyou’s curtains. The light flooding her room—a stark contrast to the darkness that had filled it a mere half-hour earlier—makes her wince, even compared to the fluorescent tint of her bathroom. She adjusts to it just as she had the more subdued lighting, though, and steps over to part the curtains.

Kouyou’s eyes wander across the horizon for a second. Then, shaking her head and rubbing the corners of her eyes, she turns for the door.

When she passes Kyouka’s still-closed door, she can hear faint movement within, perhaps the creaking of the bathroom door. Kouyou pauses for half a step to smile before continuing on her way.

Downstairs, she moves about in a brisk yet considerate manner, tugging open the curtains and blinds in her immediate path toward the kitchen but not going out of her way to take care of them all. Any remaining lull from her rest has faded altogether by the time her foot lands on the cool kitchen tile. She ties her sleeves back with practiced ease and gets to work.

It isn’t until almost all the way through preparing breakfast that Kyouka joins her, dressed in her school uniform and with brighter eyes than Kouyou expects out of even her this early, although there’s still a definite bleary haze over her gaze. All the same, after exchanging nods with Kouyou, she makes her way to the table and settles down.

“Good morning, Kyouka,” Kouyou tells her, starting to set out the other dishes while the miso soup is still heating up. “Did you sleep well?”

Kyouka nods but doesn’t elaborate. Her posture is a bit restless, hands twisting where they sit in her lap and legs shifting back and forth underneath her. Kouyou casts her an askance look, but the beep of a timer keeps her from pressing into an interrogation.

She fetches the reheated soup, pours half of it into another bowl, and steps over to add the two to the table. Steam obscures her vision as she walks; she blows it away with a series of huffs. When Kyouka’s bowl is set in front of her, one hand visibly twitches toward where her chopsticks are waiting before stilling. Kouyou presses her lips together over a smile as she seats herself at the opposite end of the table.

Kyouka presses her hands together, mumbles out a “Thank you for the food,” then picks up her chopsticks and starts in on her rice. Shaking her head, Kouyou echoes the sentiment before, much more slowly, taking a bite of her natto.

Beneath her eyelids, she watches Kyouka begin her meal with her typical voracity but not-so-typical clumsiness. Kouyou should have asked how long Kyouka had slept for, she supposes—from her appetite and how she’s almost missed her mouth multiple times, Kouyou would have believed her slumber had lasted a year. Still, some source of energy is spilling out of Kyouka’s form nevertheless. Identifying it takes little effort.

“You seem quite spirited this morning, Kyouka.” The only acknowledgment Kouyou gets for the comment is a split-second upwards glance, perhaps able to be dismissed as a trick of the light, but she’s unbothered. “Are you looking forward to returning to school today?”

Kyouka nods again, this time more intensely, and swallows her current mouthful of rice. Either disregarding or not noticing the heat still emanating from the bowl, she then reaches for her soup, making to tip it back into her mouth.

“Careful, careful,” says Kouyou, although Kyouka is already sipping—at the belated warning, she lowers her bowl and swallows with a blink. Kouyou clicks her tongue regardless. “We are in no particular rush.”

As if to prove it, she nibbles at her natto, steady and slow. Kyouka shrugs and makes no efforts to slow down, sipping at her still-steaming soup a few more times before sitting back and returning to what remains of her rice. Kouyou sighs but doesn’t attempt to intervene again, although she does poise herself to stand should Kyouka end up burning or otherwise injuring herself.

They continue in that quiet state of suspension, Kyouka busy eating and Kouyou busy watching to ensure that she doesn’t choke while also making her way through her own food. Kyouka’s sleepiness sloughs off over the ensuing several minutes, her shoulders straightening up and her movements becoming sharper. It takes a few moments for her to reach for her soup again, and the look she gives Kouyou when at last she does is begrudging at best. Kouyou makes a point of not reacting.

With Kyouka’s increased alertness, though, comes an increased frequency of glances sent in Kouyou’s direction. That first plaintive expression aside, they seem more curious than anything. More than once, Kyouka seems ready to speak before stopping herself, a muscle twitching in her jaw. This sort of hemming and hawing is odd from her, and Kouyou finds herself watching her again, this time in a more surreptitious manner.

Several more moments and half of Kyouka’s dishes later, she exhales loudly enough that the entirety of Kouyou’s attention shifts to her. “I had a question,” she says, sitting stiff and still.

“Oh?” Kouyou lowers her chopsticks, surprised by both the notion and Kyouka’s relative openness in going about it. “I cannot guarantee that I will have a satisfactory answer, but by all means, ask away.”

Kyouka’s eyes are burning a hole into the table. Another several seconds tick away in silence before, relaxing her shoulders, Kyouka seems to bring herself to ask: “What should I do when I see Yosano-sensei?”

“Ah,” says Kouyou automatically. Of all the questions she had expected, that had not been one of them; putting aside the instant spark of surprise, she lowers her eyebrow and reaches again for her chopsticks, not wishing to make this too formal a discussion. “How often do you see her on a day-to-day basis, really?”

Kyouka seems to think about that, then follows Kouyou’s lead by starting back into her umeboshi. “Only if I go to her office.”

“I see. And you do not plan on doing that often, do you?” Before Kyouka even has a chance to answer, Kouyou’s eyes narrow. “Those children were not still harassing you by the time school let out for summer vacation, were they?”

Kyouka hurries to shake her head, stirring her ponytails around her face. “They weren’t. And they won’t.” The confidence in her voice is flat and firm, backed by the flash in her eyes. “I probably will not have to speak with her much. But just in case I have to…”

She speaks as though discussing some grave matter of life-or-death importance rather than the prospect of interacting with her adoptive mother’s girlfriend. It’s endearing enough that Kouyou has to attempt to limit the stretch of her smile lest it be misconstrued.

“Well, I see no reason to drastically alter your conduct. You haven’t met her as my girlfriend, so she is still simply Yosano-sensei to you, no?” Kyouka tilts her head and squints in consideration, then allows for a nod. “Then I would advise you to continue behaving as you have been. Perhaps things will change if you meet her properly outside of school,” adds Kouyou, the if somewhat more forceful than she intends, “but you of all people should be able to act professional, no? And I am sure she will maintain her composure just the same.”

Thoughtful expression persisting, Kyouka nods again. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” With a wry smile, Kouyou returns the bulk of her focus to her breakfast, allowing them to lapse back into silence.

Despite Kouyou continuing to insist they have no need to rush, Kyouka is done within another handful of minutes. There is still a decent amount of time before school starts, but Kouyou picks up the pace so Kyouka can assist with the dishes and then be excused upstairs to finish getting ready, however little tasks that will end up entailing.

Kouyou spends the remainder of this free time making herself another cup of tea and looking over her own plans for the day. At the note of a meeting with Ace this evening, beginning just before Kyouka gets out of school and, if she knows the man, running well past then, she can’t suppress a quiet groan.

She doesn’t, however, get the chance to focus on it for too long before two alarms—one Kouyou’s, the other Kyouka’s—go off, which is either a blessing or a curse. Kouyou chooses not to consider it in detail. By the time she opens her mouth to call for Kyouka, Kyouka is already standing right behind her, carrying her bag in one hand and a scroll of paper in the other. Her grip on the latter is tight enough that Kouyou is half-concerned about the paper crumpling, but Kyouka doesn’t seem too worried, so she says nothing but “That would be Kenji-kun’s somewhat belated birthday present, I take it?”

Kyouka nods and clutches it a little tighter to her side. Kouyou only smiles and offers another genial reassurance, then ushers Kyouka toward the door and the waiting car outside.

The drive is silent save for the radio, but Kyouka is fidgeting with excitement throughout, minor movements that might have gone unnoticed by anyone else. Kouyou catches them all, of course. By the time they turn into the parking lot a reasonable distance from the school, she’s half-worried Kyouka is going to shove at the door before the car has even stopped moving, but luckily, she restrains herself that long. Still, the immediate shift in her posture when Kasa finds a place to park is obvious.

Kouyou sits back, watching while Kyouka gathers up her bag and opens the door with silent efficiency. Her eyes shine, catching the glow of the sun beneath her bangs; the sheer joy on her face is almost contagious, bringing a half-smile to Kouyou’s own lips.

Kyouka is starting to slide out when Kouyou’s hand on her shoulder stops her. She turns, blinking in surprise.

Softening her smile, Kouyou lifts her hand to brush back Kyouka’s bangs. It doesn’t hold, the hair falling right back into Kyouka’s face the instant Kouyou drops her hand, but Kyouka continues blinking regardless, head quirking in faint confusion.

“Have a good day at school, Kyouka.” Kouyou folds her hands in her lap and leans back. “I am afraid I likely won’t be able to pick you up this afternoon myself, but Gin-kun should be free, and I shan’t be home too late. You will have to tell me all about how your first day back went later, if you still have the energy for it.”

Faint traces of pink in her cheeks, Kyouka nods. “See you later,” she says before, without further ado, hopping out of the car and slamming the door shut behind her. Beyond the glass of the window, she waves briefly, then turns and darts off.

She’s visible for only another moment before disappearing, but Kouyou’s gaze lingers on the window nonetheless. Somewhere, she is aware that the vast majority of Kyouka’s classmates walk to school with no problem, and from even farther distances from the parking lot Kasa tends to drop Kyouka off in, but in practice, she can’t help the prickling feeling at the back of her neck watching her go.

Kouyou is soon jarred from her thoughts by the rumble of the engine as Kasa starts it back up. She drags her eyes toward the front of the car, meeting Kasa’s waiting dark eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Where to next, Kouyou-sama?” Kasa prompts over her shoulder. “You have several meetings scheduled today, as I recall, but the first is not until around eleven. Did you wish to return home in the meantime, or perhaps stop in at headquarters?”

The headache that Kouyou has been fighting since she glanced at her schedule for the day makes itself known again, and she presses a finger to her temple with a low sigh. “Headquarters is the most reasonable option,” she says, light. “Take a particularly long route there, though, will you not? I’d like to make a few phone calls on the way.”

“Of course, Kouyou-sama.” Smile as bright as ever, Kasa nods, then puts the car in reverse.

As they pull out of the parking lot, Kouyou sighs once more, reaches for her phone, and prepares herself for a day that will likely be the sheer opposite of Kyouka’s.

- i think this is the part of this fic where you can really tell i started getting into the yakuza games in between the first and second draft. thanks for reading! heads up: we'll be taking another quick break between chapters, but with any luck this will be the last (or at least second to last) one; after we resume on 8/9, i'll be starting to update on thursdays as well (god willing!). as always, i greatly appreciate any and all thoughts! <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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