Footsteps crunch along the grass and dirt, lacking fanfare but sounding with careful clarity all the same. Although the pale tint of the moon and the lights around the garden—not least the pagoda upon the hill, lit up bright gold—leave the area visible enough to navigate, it is still difficult to make out the lush greenery and warm autumnal hues that adorn Sankeien this time of year. If the light conversation and leisurely pace are any indication, though, this isn’t a particular point of contention.
Kouyou lets out a sigh, gliding near the back of the party with rare ease. Though there’s a certain bite in the late summer air, the warmth of the setting and company overwhelms it, lending itself to a pleasant, peaceful lull.
And then, without ceremony, it is shattered by the desperate waving of arms and unintelligible shouting of a teenage boy trying to stave off a thirsty mosquito. Despite how accustomed she should be to this by now, even removed from its frequent occurrence in her life by thirteen years, Kouyou tenses at the sound, and beside her, Kyouka jolts.
Oda, lagging a bit behind the rest of them for now to keep his children together, sighs and rests a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You’ll just attract more of them like that,” he says with placating weariness. A couple of tourists off to the side muffle laughter at the scene. “Just ignore it. And put some of this on.” He pulls a canister of bug spray from his jacket pocket.
Katsumi makes a face but snatches it out of his hand. “How come they aren’t trying to bite any of you?” He casts a dark look around the rest of the group even as he applies it to what of his arms and legs are bared by his shirt and shorts, hoodie long since tied around his waist.
“Because everyone else was patient enough to put on bug spray before we left,” says Oda, taking the can back.
“Dazai didn’t put on bug spray,” says Kousuke immediately, at the back of the group but still quick to throw his oldest sibling figure under the bus. “And we would definitely know if he got bit, because he’s a wuss who likes to complain.”
A startled, biting laugh leaves Chuuya. Oda doesn’t look impressed, but he doesn’t outright chastise Kousuke either, just shaking his head.
“I do have more protection than most of you,” says Dazai, raising a hand to prod at his sleeve and the bandages beneath, breezily indifferent. “Besides, mosquitoes pick people to bite off how their sweat smells or something like that. Maybe you just have worse body odor than me.”
Under the sound of several children wailing in complaint and disgust, he grins—and it drops in an instant when Oda throws him the bug spray anyway. Dazai’s expression, Kouyou notes, isn’t too far off from Katsumi’s a moment earlier. He, too, doesn’t end up complaining; with a sigh, he makes a show of spritzing the repellent onto his hands and the thin sliver of bare skin on the back of his neck. He flings it back, and Oda catches it with a satisfied nod.
Kouyou, observing the entire exchange with little more than a sigh, pats Kyouka’s shoulder as they press on. Oda’s presence here had not been a surprise, what with the extensive arrangements involved in coordinating a party of eleven, but it is pleasant regardless. All the same, Kouyou maintains what distance she can, not wishing to get too entangled in things for herself and Kyouka alike.
It isn’t quite a hard line. Some of the children—Sakura and Shinji, for the most part—will fall back to point something out to Kyouka or ask her something, though they’re quick enough to respect Kyouka’s reflexive stiffness and short, if not nonverbal, responses. One such incident had resulted in Kyouka’s nose twitching as she watched them catch back up with their siblings.
“You’re free to join them, you know,” Kouyou had said. Kyouka had been branching out in terms of friendship as of late, after all, and every time she’d interacted with those two had seemed to go well enough. For a split second Kyouka had seemed tempted, but then she’d tucked herself tighter against Kouyou’s side.
Kouyou hadn’t complained, and she still doesn’t, unsure which one of them is matching her pace to the other’s by now. They are, however, staying synchronized, Kyouka perhaps most comfortable at Kouyou’s side and Kouyou certifiably most comfortable with Kyouka at her side.
At the very least, they’re far from the most uncomfortable people here. Kouyou isn’t uncomfortable at all, really, but the odd tangle of feelings in her chest is one she’ll opt not to examine in great detail. Had Atsushi been here (and Dazai had purportedly invited him, but he’d already made arrangements with friends tonight), his clear discomfort might have been comforting; as it is, Kouyou will have to do with Sakaguchi’s blatant radiation of the same.
Considering how long she’s known Dazai and, to an extent, Oda, it seems the slightest bit odd that she and Sakaguchi have interacted as infrequently as they have. He belongs to a sphere of their lives, though, in which Kouyou is happy to have no part. His presence tonight reflects that—he seems to have been more of an afterthought to this gathering, or has at least lapsed into viewing himself as such. Since he seems to not know what to do around Chuuya—and tenfold so around Kouyou—he sticks with Oda and the calmer children, for the most part, often keeping as far a distance as he can manage from Dazai. He’ll speak up every now and then, but for the most part, observing seems as much his focus as it is Kouyou’s.
What conversations had risen during the first portion of the walk, though, fade as they make their way into the inner gardens. In part, this is due to the lack of anything to talk about—in part, it’s to listen instead.
The once distant sound of traditional music has become clearer the closer they’ve grown. Now, it’s louder and more awe-inspiring than ever. Even the loudest of Oda’s children fall quiet when they come upon the source of it, a group of musicians set up in the grass and surrounded by guests, all observing in tranquil silence.
The soft notes of the biwa hanging in the air are almost melancholy. Kouyou closes her eyes with the force of it. When she opens them, she’s turned her head automatically toward the sky once more. With a soft sigh, she leans back to appreciate the music, slowing; she’s aware of Kyouka doing the same after a furtive glance up, but she doesn’t look back at her. Instead, her eyes wander over the clusters of other visitors.
It’s then that she notices a small group amidst the crowd, a silver-haired older man sitting among two younger figures. One of the latter is spread out on his back, arms folded behind his head—Kouyou wonders if he’s fallen asleep before noticing his mouth moving—and the other is sitting with her legs folded and her hands in her lap. In the limited light of the nearby lanterns, the autumn-red leaf she’s toying with is just visible.
Subtly, almost unnoticeable, a pair of dark eyes cut Kouyou’s way. They widen with surprise, then lower again. Despite the distance, Kouyou can almost hear the quiet chuckle.
She pulls her eyes from the three and returns them to her own party, clicking her tongue almost inaudibly as she regains her pace. Kyouka turns her head to face front again and follows suit.
Mid-step, Kouyou’s phone buzzes. She looks to where everyone else save Kyouka is at least several paces ahead of them, trusts that they’re occupied enough that they won’t notice or at least won’t heckle her, and pulls her phone free.
Hey, the single text reads.
Kouyou almost rolls her eyes, holding herself back only on account of Kyouka’s watchful gaze. Hello, she types back, lowering her phone halfway to keep her eyes on the path ahead.
Within a minute, it vibrates again against her palm. For some reason I thought that we would stop running into each other in weird places when we started dating, Yosano has responded. Apparently not.
It seems so, agrees Kouyou, lips thinning further to prevent a laugh from escaping. I hope you are having a pleasant enough evening thus far, at the least.
The process repeats, Kouyou turning her focus to the approaching landscape and the shapes around her and then looking back at her phone when another notification comes in, this time taking a touch longer. I am, confirms Yosano. I’ll admit, I generally prefer spring flowers to autumn leaves and the moon, but the gardens are certainly beautiful this time of year. How about you? It seems like you have quite the motley crew accompanying you.
Kouyou lifts her head. Kyouka is still clustered close to her, but she’s edged toward Sakura and Shinji, who have dipped back from their comparatively rowdier siblings to talk with her. Just ahead, Chuuya and Dazai have broken into low-voiced squabbling again. Sakaguchi has sped up to give them a wide berth, Yuu a short distance from him by what seems to be mere coincidence. Oda has drifted somewhat to the side and is watching the rest of the group out of the corners of his eyes. Kousuke and Katsumi dog him on either side.
The breeze flutters through Kouyou’s bangs. She closes her eyes for a moment, letting it and the music wash over her. She’s aware of the smile that crosses her face, but she doesn’t inhibit it.
I do indeed, but I am sufficiently enjoying myself, she types. As a matter of fact, I fear I must cut this short; I hope the remainder of your evening is just as enjoyable. Have a good night, sensei.
Without waiting for a reply, she tucks her phone away again, nudges Kyouka’s shoulder, and carries on.
Though there is still ample room to sit and gather, the unspoken consensus among them seems to be to keep moving as long as they’re able. Given the sprawl of the gardens, this is not an extensive amount of time. As they continue on their way, the traditional music fades to ambient murmuring.
They walk in that languid, steady fashion for several more minutes. A few exchanges strike up, but none last for more than a few back-and-forth comments, ears occupied most of all with the distant music and their own footsteps, swiftly becoming the major method of navigation as the sky grows darker still.
Only when a small dining establishment comes into view is there another discernible pause. The question at the back of Kouyou’s mind is answered by several teenagers tugging on whatever parts of Oda’s clothes they can reach.
The matter of payment is settled quickly—though Chuuya and Sakaguchi make some attempts at protesting, Kouyou and Oda split the costs by virtue of being the first to draw their wallets. After a preemptive discussion to keep from wasting the waiter’s time, they hash out their orders and claim a table.
Luckily, there aren’t many other customers. Even with Oda’s children squished together, settled in between Oda and Sakaguchi (who at first seems satisfied with his choice until Dazai slides into the seat opposite him) on one side of the table, they take up a fair amount of space, not to mention the noise factor. Oda does his best to manage this; a simple throat clear or glance is often enough to get the children to behave. It seems to be more out of respect and affection than genuine intimidation, but it is effective all the same.
The once-dulled conversation picks up the instant they all sit, fluid and nebulous but thriving all the same. Kouyou listens more than she contributes, and even that loses its importance when their food is delivered after an impressively short wait. The others carry on even so, Oda having to cough when some of the boys talk with their mouths full, but the bulk of Kouyou’s focus shifts to her meal and, on occasion, Kyouka’s.
Once, when she looks over, Kyouka is staring intently down at her rabbit-shaped mochi. The rest of her food has already been finished and set aside, leaving it alone before her, faced with a contemplative frown and narrowed eyes.
“Is something the matter?” asks Kouyou, brow raised. She’d have expected it to be the first thing to go, considering the look on Kyouka’s face when it had been served, and she doubts Kyouka is full—Kouyou has seen her inhale twice this amount of food in half the time and still have room for more, especially desserts.
Kyouka’s face twitches. Her attention remains on the plate, and she doesn’t move so much as a centimeter. Kouyou opens her mouth to repeat herself, but then Kyouka speaks up, voice just loud enough to be heard: “It’s too cute. I don’t want to eat it.”
“Ah,” says Kouyou. “Well—”
“If you’re not going to eat it, can I?” interrupts Yuu, already reaching across the table.
In a flash, Kyouka slaps his hand away. The sound draws startled glances from almost the entirety of the table.
At the compounded stares upon her, Kyouka returns her hand to her lap and mumbles, “Sorry.” Yuu, shrugging and seeming overall unoffended, resumes eating what’s left of his soba, and though with some continued glances of concern, the others settle back into their conversations and meals. Kyouka’s conflicted gaze falls back upon her mochi.
“If I may, I do have a suggestion in mind,” says Kouyou, spreading a hand. Without moving her head, Kyouka looks at her. “We take a photograph of it, so you can always remind yourself of how it looked, like any of your arts and crafts you have given away. You needn’t eat it if you truly don’t wish to, but it seems a waste, no?”
Though Kyouka’s face is still serious and downturned, it seems more thoughtful now, and she allows for a tentative nod. Kouyou hides a laugh at the low growling of her stomach.
Without further prompting, Kyouka lifts her phone and takes a quick, careful shot of the mochi. She studies the screen for a handful of seconds, nods in apparent satisfaction, and, with however heavy a chin, reaches for her chopsticks.
It isn’t long before the table is wiped clean. Sakaguchi is the last to finish his food—perhaps half due to Dazai’s harassment (which tends to begin and end at “Say, Ango—” because of Sakaguchi’s instant harsh “No”s, but is still distracting even if it doesn’t go anywhere) and half due to the fact that he’s sitting beside Kousuke, who is rather free with his elbows—but in the scheme of things, he’s not far behind Kouyou. Tempura soba whittled away, she’s left to savor what little remains of her tea.
Eyeing the detritus of their combined children, Kouyou and Oda both pose the question of seconds, but no one takes them up on it. For a few seconds they all sit in silence, but of course it doesn’t last long before being smashed through. Though there are some murmurings of perhaps circling around the musicians again, then heading out, most everyone seems content to sit here for a while longer. Everyone, that is, save Kouyou.
She glances toward Kyouka, now sitting serenely with her eyes half-closed and her hands in her lap. Kouyou doesn’t yet wish to make a scene of things, but she also thinks she would have to repeat any whisper multiple times, so she draws her phone out, locates the contact in question, and types out a short message.
Would you be all right here if I went off to walk by myself? I should not be gone long, but I wished to have a few moments alone before we leave, she sends, and she watches Kyouka until she notices the notification and clicks on her phone.
Kyouka’s brow furrows, and she looks over at Kouyou, who waves her on, sipping at the dregs of her tea. As Kyouka reads the message, her eyebrows dart the other way, and she glances again up at Kouyou before typing something out, sending it, and setting her phone back down. Intrigued, Kouyou waits for it to deliver before checking her messages.
The reply consists of a single thumbs-up emoji. Kouyou’s lips quirk.
She puts her phone away and takes advantage of the coincidental break in the conversation at the table to clear her throat. “If you all are not opposed,” she says once all eyes have been drawn to her, “I was hoping on taking a few moments to myself and departing for a brief walk. It shall likely only take a short while, so you all are free to continue waiting here.”
“All right,” says Chuuya, leaning back to nod. His eyes dart back toward the now pitch-dark sky. “Just be careful.”
Kouyou clicks her tongue. “As though you need to tell me that,” she says, peering shrewdly at him out of the corners of her eyes; she gets a half-laugh, half-scoff in response, and some snickering from the peanut gallery (in other words, Oda’s kids).
“It’s so cruel of you to abandon us, ane-san,” says Dazai, sighing. “Is this day not supposed to be about celebrating with friends and family?”
“You are not my friend,” Kouyou tells him. Before he can raise a complaint about that as well—or worse, note what she hadn’t denied him being—she casts a glance to the side. “Oda-san, please watch after Kyouka in my stead.”
“Of course,” he says, bowing his head with grave importance.
“I suppose watching over seven children isn’t that far off from watching over five,” says Sakaguchi with a note of consideration, delicately adjusting his glasses.
“What do you mean, seven? Your math is off there, Ango; no wonder you teach history,” says Dazai. “Even counting Kyouka, there are only six kids here.”
Sakaguchi stares right back at him. “No,” he says, “there aren’t.”
It doesn’t take long for it to click, and when it does, Dazai makes a sound of mock offense. Chuuya starts laughing. This starts a chain of reactions from Oda’s children, who waste no time in ganging up on Dazai, and with a wry headshake, a reassuring pat to Kyouka’s somewhat stiffened shoulder, and a soft, “I’ll be back,” Kouyou rises and leaves.
Once she’s taken a few steps from the building, she pauses, considering. She has no particular goal or path in mind; though she visits these grounds ever so often, she by no means has them memorized by heart, and their attractions are far more notable during the day anyway. Now, with the hour and season, it’s difficult to make out anything of especial note, even with the illuminated state of the gardens. Darkness has always been where Kouyou has felt most comfortable, though, and so when she strides forward without any plans besides simply taking some time to wander by herself, it is with as much confidence as she wields seated in her office hundreds of meters above the ground.
She weaves a careful yet absent path around the gardens, continuing to work her way along the path she can see. When the lit pagoda comes back into view, she stops for a second to take it back in. The sprawl of the pond beneath the dark sky draws her eyes downward, as does the round, bright moon reflected in its depth. Kouyou watches it shiver with each ripple.
A sudden chill sweeps through her. She adjusts her sleeves and collar, wondering somewhere if she too should have invested in bug repellent; perhaps there had been some truth to Dazai’s lighthearted comments earlier, though, as there often is, as any pests seem to give her a wide berth. With an unvoiced plea to keep things that way, Kouyou resumes walking.
Alone, the quiet of the evening is all the more obvious. The performance in the distance is still audible, gentle biwa notes swelling at her back, and voices of tourists and locals alike are present but indistinct, leaving the prominent sounds as the rustling of the wind and the rhythm of Kouyou’s footsteps.
True tranquility is near impossible for her to achieve, and by now, she is most likely to reach it with Kyouka at her side. Even by herself, some level of guardedness runs through her, and she never gets too distracted from her surroundings. But as she walks, each step certain despite her general and uncharacteristic aimlessness in this endeavor, something akin to that warm peace settles over her.
Within several minutes, she finds herself approaching a bridge. Enough time has passed that Kouyou considers this her finishing line; she’ll spend a moment or two here, then return to the rest of the party. No matter how trustworthy and responsible a guardian Oda is, this much distance from Kyouka—at night and in public besides—sets off a tugging sensation in Kouyou’s gut, and an overall sense of weariness, perhaps the natural extension of that contentment, is starting to descend upon her. But… for just a moment longer, she supposes, she can allow the experience to linger.
She steps toward and onto the bridge, leaving behind the grass for wood, which creaks beneath her boots. Kouyou pauses, testing its give, before stepping closer toward the railing. Idly, she rests a hand on it and peers down.
Beneath the waves, she can discern the distant, dark shapes of a few koi, murky and fluid. She watches the vague curve of one as it weaves through the water. As limited as the visibility is, there is something soothing about the movement, and Kouyou feels her breath even out, coming in slow, steady patterns.
She keeps her eyes down but her body readied to move at a second’s notice. She tenses, preparing, when the sound of footsteps reaches her, carrying through the silence even across a distance great enough that she can’t quite make out their owner. In case it’s someone looking to walk past her, Kouyou presses closer to the bridge. Her head stays lowered, though her hands are poised to free her katana from its hiding place should this be an unwanted visitor.
It’s only when she hears her name—Ozaki-san, voiced low and unwavering—that she glances up.
The voice registers in the same instant that Kouyou’s eyes fall upon Fukuzawa. Even in the dim lighting, his sturdy shape and lined face are unmistakable, as are his wind-stirred hair and kimono. He’s standing at the very edge of the bridge, arms crossed in a loose, casual manner, haori billowing around his firm shoulders and hands tucked away. His expression is the stoic, stern one she’s never seen him without.
Blinking, Kouyou turns to face him. “Fukuzawa-sensei,” she says, smoothing her face into a startled smile that ought to pass as a relaxed one. She dips her head, just barely, in a belated greeting. “I did notice you and the others earlier, but this is a surprise. Albeit not an unpleasant one.”
Fukuzawa nods, bowing a little in return. She’s never engaged with him with both of them standing before, so it’s only now that she notices they’re around the same height, and her heeled boots still boost her higher; in mere presence, however, Kouyou thinks Fukuzawa could rival even her. Her hands shift to fold at her waist. The set of Fukuzawa’s arms remains firm.
“How is Izumi-kun?” he asks, careful.
Though the question doesn’t catch Kouyou off-guard, quite, she hesitates before making to respond regardless. “Recent exploits notwithstanding, she is well. I imagine you have witnessed some of those.”
“Yes. Her skills and initiative remain commendable, to be sure.” Fukuzawa’s eyes close in thought. In a smooth movement, he extracts one hand from his sleeve and brings it to his chin. “The situation with her and Yumeno-kun was an unfortunate one—” though his wording is vague and professional, his jaw and shoulders tense “—but they both appear to be thriving now. Yosano-kun handled it well.”
“Indeed, she did. As did, it seems, you.” Kouyou adjusts her weight, mulling over the flicker in Fukuzawa’s gaze upon mentioning Yosano. She wonders if her expression has shifted in a noticeable manner too—and half-hopes it hasn’t. “I thank you for your concern over Kyouka, sensei, but was there something else you wished to discuss?”
It’s difficult to tell, but he seems almost relieved that she’s brought it up before he had to. Fukuzawa moves his feet, sandals shuffling in the grass, and lifts his chin. “It has come to my attention,” he says, “that you and Yosano-kun have grown closer.”
His tone isn’t sharp—it isn’t anything, really, though it carries the same severe gravity as the rest of his words, something that two years of living with Kyouka have trained Kouyou to look past—but Kouyou feels her shoulders stiffening all the same. How ridiculous a reaction. It isn’t as if she’s a high school student being interrogated by her date’s father here.
…well, most of that is inaccurate. She is a thirty-six-year-old woman, and Yosano is almost thirty-five, so high school is close to two decades behind them both. Fukuzawa is certainly old enough to be Yosano’s father, and Yosano has mentioned that they’ve known one another for some time, but Kouyou doesn’t doubt that any blood relation would have come up in conversation—and led to quite a few concerns in regards to their working relationship. Her seeing him as a father figure is not so unbelievable (albeit still dubious, nepotism-wise; Kouyou supposes she, having instated her brother as an executive member of her organization ten years prior, is not one to talk, though) but still hasn’t come up, nor does it lend itself to the visual. And besides, one neutral statement does not an interrogation make. Kouyou should know; she has led quite a few interrogations.
The train of thought is even more ridiculous than the initial reaction, so Kouyou stops it in its tracks. “That does seem to be the case, yes,” she says lightly, ensuring she hasn’t paused long enough for it to be uncomfortable. Fukuzawa doesn’t react. Kouyou’s mind turns in cautious trickles. “If you are concerned, perhaps, about it interfering with her work—”
Fukuzawa blinks. His frown remains resolute, but he still seems a touch startled. “If so, I would discuss the matter with her. Yosano-kun remains as dedicated and focused an employee as she ever has.” The faith Yosano and her coworkers express in Fukuzawa as their principal is clear—it seems, Kouyou thinks with twitching lips, that faith is something that runs both ways. “I wished only to offer my congratulations, and perhaps a word or two of caution.”
Somewhere, Kouyou is reminded of a different conversation thirteen years and change prior, sitting out in her backyard with cooling tea spread out on the tray and the air flowing from hostile to sweet between heartbeats. Perhaps the paternal interpretation had not been so far off the mark, then. This is still far from an interrogation, though; if anything had been, that decade-old discussion had, considering it had resulted in a sword to a throat. With any luck, this incident will not turn out the same.
For now, Kouyou focuses on the first half of Fukuzawa’s words. “Your congratulations?”
“Yes. The two of you appear to be a good match, regardless of the objections Ranpo raised at first.”
“Objections?” Kouyou allows for a soft scoff. “I apologize for potentially overstepping, sensei, but on the one occasion I spoke with Edogawa-kun, he all but shoved me toward Yosano-sensei. What, if I may be so bold, would he have to object to?”
“Something to do with your occupation, I believe.” Fukuzawa’s stare hardens, as though he understands just what Kouyou’s occupation is. Refusing to be cowed, she lets a smile spread across her face. He says nothing further on this note, instead continuing to meet her gaze as he says, “Yosano-kun seems happy with your arrangement, so I am satisfied as well.”
The words run through Kouyou; without her permission, her smile softens at the edges. She doesn’t resharpen it. Fukuzawa’s presence seems to encourage candor, which isn’t an uncommon feeling from either end—his brand of intimidation, though, is far-flung from either her own or Mori’s.
“Thus far,” she says, keeping her words level and frank but still as clipped as possible, “I suspect I am as happy with our arrangement as Yosano-sensei is.”
Fukuzawa processes this, then nods. “I wish the two of you continued happiness, then.”
“Thank you.” Kouyou’s hands momentarily tighten where they’re pressed together, but she lets them fall slack with a low exhale. “And as for the words of caution? I cannot imagine that they pertain to what you shall do should any harm or displeasure come to Yosano-sensei, as I imagine she would be more than willing to handle such a slight herself.”
“Indeed.” Though Fukuzawa still doesn’t smile, there’s a faint hint of amusement in his tone. “I expect you do not intend to let anything of the sort occur regardless, though.”
“Certainly not.” The earnestness in Kouyou’s voice startles even her, and she barely keeps herself from biting down on it or taking it back. It is a good thing after all, she supposes, that she’d split off from the others.
“Good.” Fukuzawa fixes her with a look of expectation, if not quite trust—if he knows what she does, though, she’ll accept that much as fair. “Rather, then, I wished to inform you that there are burdens on Yosano-kun’s shoulders that can never be lifted. She is strong, but she carries a great deal with her.”
Kouyou inclines her head. “I am aware.” She intends to leave it at that, really, but something about Fukuzawa’s expression and the tender anonymity of the scene spurs her into continuing: “Perhaps it will not ease you to learn this, but I bear quite a few burdens of that sort myself. And…”
Her words stop in her throat, cut off in instinctive self-preservation. And what, precisely?
Unprompted, her mind summons the image of Yosano seated across a teahouse table from her, smiling and staring at her with a warmth Kouyou had feared and outright reviled for so long. Extending a literal and metaphorical hand alike. Is that not what dating is? she hears Yosano ask, the words ringing through her thoughts. Sharing each other’s burdens and worries?
“Should Yosano-sensei allow me to,” she brings herself to say, “I am willing to attempt to aid in carrying hers.”
The words hang in the air, heavier than she intends even with their hedging phrasing, and though she wants to swallow them, she is certain that they are true. Yosano had offered her the same, after all. Some things Kouyou cannot yet reciprocate, let alone to her face, but this much, she thinks she can be sworn to.
“I see.” Fukuzawa’s gaze passes over her. She can’t tell if he’s surprised, but he seems pleased, at the least, closing his eyes with his mouth set in a smooth line; Kouyou cannot shake the feeling that she has passed some sort of unspoken, unacknowledged test. He bows his head one last time, a pose that has been directed toward Kouyou thousands of times over by now—but never once, she thinks, has it simultaneously lightened and tightened her chest in such a way. “I bid you the best of luck, then.”
Kouyou parts her hands and spreads them at her sides. She doesn’t quite bow, but she does incline her head once more. “And I thank you.”
Fukuzawa studies her for a moment longer, blinking slow and serene, then abruptly turns on his heel and begins walking in the other direction. Kouyou’s smile slips, centimeter by centimeter, as she watches the line of his back disappear into the night. A heavy breath leaves her. Though neither intimidated nor nervous, she thinks she’s the closest to either she has been in decades.
She turns back to press her hands against the wood railing of the bridge, staring for a minute or two into the water’s dark, cloudy depths, before pushing away and walking back to where she last saw the others.
Mori Ougai’s grave sits alone, separated from the others in the cemetery. Where it rests instead, it is simultaneously remarkable and surreptitious—the dark gray granite jutting up from the ground blends into the shadows, but the characters inscribed upon its surface glisten in the early morning sun. It perhaps, then, captures the man himself: A cut above the masses, yet an obvious figure of the night.
The breeze is thick with the first breaths of autumn, stirring the copse of red spider lilies that have sprung up in the nearby grass. They wave, ghost-like, in the air. (How impressive—that even surrounded by death, life in such a form can persist.) Distant voices drift through as well, gentle murmurs and quiet conversations throughout the rest of the graveyard, but nothing is quite close or loud enough for Kouyou to discern exact words where she’s standing, arms folded behind her back and head bent as she peers down at Mori’s grave.
It’s a familiar scene, but it’s not one that stops feeling any less alien as the years pass. Kouyou is not the kind of person who tends to visit graves; those beloved to her had not earned kind burials, and the cruel contrast of Mori’s postmortem treatment curls her lip even now. Walking through cemeteries instills her with a sense of wrongness, nothing she can name precisely but no less sharp for it.
And yet, year after year, she finds herself walking the same beaten path and casting the same shadow over this lonely corner. Though the rest of the cemetery may be bustling, Mori’s grave is almost always left alone, both due to its inconvenient location and whispers about who its owner had really been.
Which is why, when Kouyou had arrived, she had stopped to gawk (in a suitable fashion) at the flowers already placed there, an arrangement of white chrysanthemums arcing toward the sky. The implications of it had coursed through her, and then she’d stepped forward to clean the grave regardless. She’d washed it down, as she always does, with more tenderness than it likely deserves. Even in death, Mori’s presence commands respect and obedience.
Now, Kouyou shifts on her feet, somewhat unsteady. She hasn’t said a single word, and she still doesn’t make to speak. Just short of fourteen years’ worth of visits and sometimes careful avoidance of visits have been more than enough to get out any thoughts in her mind. They have gone unanswered, of course, but they have been expressed all the same.
Spilling her heart out to a headstone has never been comforting to Kouyou, at any rate. Closure is something she will never attain from a situation like this one. She and Mori had not been friends, and they hadn’t even been especially close; she had supported him in his leadership, respected him as a boss but not as a person, and succeeded him mere weeks after his demise. It had been an unsatisfying ending, and it remains so.
Standing here now, Kouyou feels as young as she had the first time she’d stared down at the tombstone. Then, she had had fewer responsibilities, and though she had looked toward her duties with the same pride and ease she does now, something had been missing. Then, she had kept an iron fist and an even more fortified heart. Then, she had been freshly into her twenties but seeking to behave decades older. Then, she had worn fewer scars, but her chest had been as heavy as it is now. Then, when she had smoothed together her broken pieces, she had covered the cracks with plain, thin plaster rather than gold.
And now—though so much of that has changed, a significant proportion of it, too, hasn’t. No one had managed to make her feel as young and brash and naive as Mori’s predecessor, but Mori had come close. It seems that, too, is an effect that carries through beyond the grave.
She feels almost as though it should be raining. She chances a glance up, even, tightening her hands where they rest on her lowered parasol. The feeling rolling through her is not quite melancholy, not quite sadness at all, but it certainly feels like one that should be accompanied by rain. Yet the sun shines bright and clear above, the clouds are light and thin, and there are no signs of any approaching storm.
How uncathartic. Though the grave itself seems to be so—perhaps it should evoke more in her than others, but by now her surface-level thoughts upon looking down on it even out to a dry, dull distaste—and she’s never sought that to begin with.
Kouyou dips her head in either deference or irritation; even she isn’t certain which it is. Such is the nature of her relationship with Mori.
Crunching footsteps behind her divert her attention. Kouyou doesn’t have to turn to see who it is, only turning her gaze skyward and waiting for the steps to pause.
Several paces behind her, they do. “Ah,” comes a voice. “Ane-san.”
“Dazai,” she returns, still not looking.
The footsteps resume, then stop beside her. With a small sigh, Kouyou lifts her head and glances over out of the corners of her eyes. Dazai looks laidback but weary, hair and coat blowing gently in the wind. His face is devoid of any solid, identifiable emotion, but there’s a certain sharpness to his smile and a darkness to his eyes that Kouyou can’t blame altogether on the angle of the shade.
For a long moment, he doesn’t speak, nor does he so much as look back at Kouyou. Though she counts herself among the few living people who can even begin to understand him, she can’t be sure what it is he’s reliving or mulling over now, and hasn’t even the slightest of guesses—the only thing she is certain of is that she doesn’t want to know.
The air between them isn’t quite tense; if anything, it’s more peaceful than the vast majority of occasions where they’re alone together. The barrier before them, though, still gives it a certain weight.
Recalling the final time she, Dazai, and Mori were in a room together, not counting the day he’d died, is impossible. Kouyou wouldn’t have assigned it any importance at the time, and even so, she’s sure any memories from that period are worn thin in her mind. Even the strongest of her memories from years past are foggy, a few details sharp but most lost to time. Yet the mood that picks up around them now, she thinks, must be similar to whatever had surrounded the three of them in that last encounter.
She watches as Dazai’s eyes fall shut, then open again. A scoff cuts through the silence. “I can’t imagine you brought those flowers.”
Kouyou, unaware she’d been half-holding her breath, lets it out in a steady exhale. “No, I certainly did not,” she confirms. “They must have been placed earlier. We only brought hydrangeas for the Izumis.”
“Hm,” says Dazai, not surprised but, to an extent, relieved. “I’m glad. The chrysanthemums would have been tacky, even for you.”
Kouyou is silent, but in some sense of agreement rather than the opposite. It does leave the question as to whom else would pay such a personal visit to Mori’s grave, though—as far as she knows, his daughter hasn’t been in the country in years, and while subordinates who have been in the organization long enough to have known and served under him might have wanted to pay respects, they’d be more likely to do so from afar. Hirotsu is far subtler; he had derided Ariwara and dismissed Ono; the former Flags had more or less thrown a party after his death. (“Celebrating our new boss,” Albatross had always claimed, but everyone had known better.) Kasa is perhaps the most probable suspect, but even she doesn’t seem quite that sentimental.
In the end, Kouyou supposes, it is not her business. That doesn’t stop the petals from drawing her eyes, and she keeps studying them even when Dazai speaks up again:
“Kyouka-chan is talking to them now, then?”
“Yes. I allowed her her privacy for the time being. It is rare we do this sort of thing, after all.” Never, as a matter of fact, on the actual anniversaries of the Izumis’ deaths, nor any other date save appropriate holidays and, for reasons Kouyou has never been able to intuit, Kyouka’s birthday.
Dazai nods in acknowledgment. He shifts back and forth on his heels, so minute that it’s difficult for Kouyou to notice it—otherwise, he’s as still as the grave before them.
Kouyou clears her throat. “I take it you are not here alone either.”
It isn’t phrased as a question, but Dazai inclines his head as though it had been. “Nope,” he says, rolling his eyes, a bit more genuine casualness in his posture for a split second. “He went off to go visit some subordinates buried here, or something else grossly sentimental like that.”
“So it was your choice to see Mori-dono.” That hadn’t been too ambiguous, but it feels natural to note it aloud all the same.
“It’s tradition,” says Dazai airily. Kouyou almost smiles. A strong wind washes over them; while Kouyou tugs her sleeves down farther, he half-spreads his arms in lazy acceptance, letting it run through him. The gust is forceful enough that, were he a few kilograms lighter, Kouyou would fear him toppling over under the pressure of it.
“That is a far more reasonable excuse for myself than you,” she returns.
“Who says it’s an excuse?” The wind passes, and Dazai stretches his arms out behind his back, bending for a second with it before straightening back up. “Aren’t you enjoying the equinox so far, ane-san?”
“I am not sure anyone could enjoy this.” Kouyou shakes her head. Inadvertently, it tousles free a lock of hair, and she reaches back to tuck it away. Her updo is perhaps the most pristine it has been in several weeks, and she’d hate for the weather and her indiscretion to put an end to that. “Anyone normal, at the very least.”
The words roll off of Dazai, as she’d expected they would. “Probably,” he says with a smile and goodnatured shrug. “There is something enjoyable about knowing Mori-san is six feet under, though.”
Kouyou inhales and exhales, not denying that but not offering agreement either. The mixed emotions in her chest stir again. She doesn’t let them show on her face, but she doesn’t doubt that Dazai catches the swell of them regardless.
Beside her, he laughs, soft, without mirth. “You know,” he says, almost light and conversational if not for the cool glaze to his eyes, “had Mori-san not died when he had, I probably would have ended up slitting his throat one day.”
Kouyou does, in fact, know this. It is not a sentiment he has raised in such flagrant tones before, but it is not a surprising one, nor one she can place any amount of doubt in, especially when taking into consideration the type of person Dazai would now be if Mori had lived to keep him as a protege. Looking askance at him now, a pleasant smile on his face even as he regards Mori’s grave with two narrow, dead eyes, she doesn’t think she would have blamed him.
As a leader, Mori had been efficient, a necessary evil to vest the Yokohama underworld from the previous leader’s grasp. As a person, he had been perhaps just as cruel. Perfect to rule the Port Mafia and return stability to the night side of the city—and impossible to stomach being around.
Kouyou’s memories are warped and distant, but the sound of the flat line ringing through the room seems as loud to her now as it had fourteen years prior. So do the feelings that had rushed through her that night and the ensuing weeks. Anger, anticipation, shock, pride, flashes of nerves—but never, not once, outright fear.
Perhaps that, too, is the same blend of emotions that sits within her now. It is impossible to name because it is not one single feeling—it is a flurry of them, all suppressed beneath the veneer of stoicism and composure she strives to maintain, even now, beside one of the most observant, needling people she has ever known, and one of those who knows her best besides. But she suspects that he, too, is in a similar state.
Dazai doesn’t seem to need or want an answer, but Kouyou makes to give one regardless. “And you would have likely ended up sitting where I do now.”
“Probably,” he says again. His hands slide into his pockets. “I’ll admit, ane-san, that you likely do a better job of it than I ever would have.”
Kouyou’s brow smooths. “It is not about how well of a job I perform,” she corrects, even-toned. “It is about how capable I am of living with myself.”
Dazai lets out an amused breath. “You do a better job of that, at least.” He tilts his head to the side. “I don’t know if I ever would have made it as far as you have.”
“Someone likely would have assassinated you by now,” says Kouyou, allowing him the easy way out for once.
He sniffs. “It’s not as if you haven’t escaped plenty of assassination attempts yourself. Actually, it’s weird that there haven’t really been any this year,” he points out. His shoulders are slackened even further now, though, thumbs tapping an absent pattern against the fabric of his coat. A few seconds pass before he closes his eyes and leans forward. “You’re probably right, though. And I doubt they’d have had the decency to make it a clean, easy one, either.” He wrinkles his nose. “I suppose it is a good thing, then, that you became the leader instead. For more than one reason.”
It is, Kouyou thinks, something of a reciprocation of the remark she’d made on his birthday, a comment that he’s surprised her by failing to use against her in the three months since. Perhaps he does understand where to draw the line, or perhaps it had touched him. She understands him to an extent, but Kouyou shan’t pretend to comprehend the innermost workings of Dazai’s mind; that is a headache waiting to happen.
Either way, she sighs with the weight of it. “It is,” she agrees simply.
They stand there a moment longer, both sets of eyes fixed on the grave. There is a greater sense of solace and calmness within Kouyou’s body now, she thinks, than has resulted from any of her other visits. She lets her gaze wander to the swaying spider lilies.
She is not the same kind of leader Mori had been, nor the kind his predecessor had been. What would Mori have done? is a question that has never once crossed her mind. He had served his purpose, and had he lived, he would have continued being as skilled a leader and as horrible a person—and someday, had interventions not been made, the very person he had conditioned to act as his right hand no matter what, indeed, likely would have ended up delivering karmic retribution in an altogether different sense than his death from illness: A scalpel to the jugular.
When she had first taken the seat, there had been questions. If she would be softer, less brutal. (This had come from the most traditional among the ranks, men who quickly got their heads out of the past and their asses when met with her blade.) If she would be faster to anger and less willing to compromise. (This had come to those who knew her marginally better.) If her open favoritism and coldness would prevent people from putting their full trust and faith in her. (This, Kouyou still holds, had just been spiteful, as Mori had been no slouch in either department and still had people dying in his name week after week.) If she would be a step forward from the prior leader, or a step back.
She cannot say that for sure. All she can say is that she is a strong leader in her own right, and she has at least lasted longer than Mori has—and even with a gun to her head, she won’t relinquish her position.
A smile stretches across her face, for perhaps the first time in years, as she looks at the etching of Mori’s name. There is a certain relief, she’ll admit, in knowing that he’s far below and she’s still standing tall.
For the second time, she finds her attention scattered by the sound of approaching footsteps—this time, however, voices are accompanying them, and she turns her head as soon as the pitches register. Kyouka and Chuuya are walking toward her and Dazai, talking amongst themselves. Whatever conversation they’d been in the midst of is too far for Kouyou to make out, and it dies out the second Kyouka catches her eyes besides. Kouyou softens her smile in greeting.
“Ane-san,” says Chuuya immediately, tipping his hat. He doesn’t give Dazai’s back so much as a side glance, instead looking straight ahead to the grave. His hand drops with surprise. “Someone left flowers for the old boss, huh?”
“So it seems.” Kouyou glances at them again. “I suspect he would have appreciated the wild spider lilies more, though.”
“Even in death, Mori-san is an asshole, making us speculate on his flower preferences and wonder what connections he had,” says Dazai with a sigh, shaking his head. He turns, then, the whole of his back now facing the grave. Kyouka nods at him, and he nods back but says nothing.
The sun, perhaps in response or, more likely, by coincidence, slips away from the cover of the small cloud it had been hiding behind. Kouyou unfurls her parasol and raises it to her shoulder.
“Well,” she says lightly, stepping away just the same, “it seems we have run out of business here. When did you two last eat? Kyouka and I were discussing going out for an early lunch afterward; you are more than free to join us, if you would like.” Dazai opens his mouth, and she jabs her parasol toward his face. “You are covering your own meal, though.”
“I’ll gladly pay for Chuuya’s,” interrupts Kouyou. Chuuya stiffens, seeming half-uncomfortable with this but willing to accept it if it equates to a one-up over Dazai.
Dazai gives a heavy sigh, shoulders slumping and sinking deeper into his pockets. “How unfair.”
“If it’s fair you want, then I am the wrong person to speak to. Are you coming along or not?”
“We are,” says Chuuya decisively, and though Dazai gives him a withering glance he doesn’t speak up to protest. “Thank you, ane-san.”
“Think nothing of it.” Kouyou smiles, gracious, the edges of it sharpening when she looks at Dazai, who bats a bored hand before dropping it back into his pocket.
More likely than not, Kouyou will end up paying one way or another, as evidenced by the easy slant to Dazai’s shoulders and the scoff from Chuuya, followed soon by muttering as he and Dazai fall into step with one another. She shakes her head, adjusts her parasol to cover Kyouka too, and follows.
They depart from the graveyard in an uncharacteristically calm silence, a lightness in their unified steps.