Kasa has been driving for fifteen minutes, weaving her way along the usual side streets and shortcuts toward the school, when Kouyou’s phone rings.
In and of itself, this would be unusual. She has no business obligations this evening—some paperwork to handle tonight, yes, but nothing that will require her to engage with another person. Most know better than to contact her between the hours of four and eight most weekdays, anyway.
But the tone, she realizes after a second, isn’t that of her business line. That is perhaps twice as odd. Kouyou frowns even as she reaches for her sleeve, tugging free her personal cell. Though she doesn’t particularly expect any name to be flashing on her screen, the one that meets her is the lowest on the list of options.
She blinks. Fingers moving before her brain can fully catch up, she picks up and presses the phone to her ear. “Yes?” she asks, unable to keep the confusion out of her voice. At this time, Yosano must still be at work, and if something happened with Kyouka, no doubt Oda or one of the secretaries would be calling instead of her.
“Hey,” says Yosano, and though there’s nothing immediately alarming about her tone, a weary note seems to hang in it all the same. “Listen, I’m sorry to make this so brusque, but—are you on your way to pick up Izumi?”
Kouyou’s eyes narrow. “Yes. Why?”
At first, the only answer she gets is a low, controlled exhale. Kouyou straightens, starting to open her mouth, but Yosano speaks before she can: “You, ah… might need to brace yourself before you see her.”
“And why would that be,” says Kouyou, grip tightening on her phone enough that some part of her thinks it must be audible. Unease sweeps over her, as do a series of images. Kyouka bruised and bloodied again; Kyouka shaking and compressed, her legs pulled toward her chest and her small arms wrapped around them; Kyouka despondent and blank with her head bent and her eyes empty.
“No reason as bad as what you’re picturing, I imagine.” Though Kouyou’s anticipation is mounting, the steadiness—however strained—of Yosano’s voice puts her at least somewhat at ease. If something so drastic had occurred, surely someone else would have been the first to call, or Yosano wouldn’t be able to put on such calm airs. “It’s just—ah, Kenji, w—” A thud, loud enough to make Kouyou wince, follows Yosano’s raised call, and Kouyou catches only a clipped, “Hey, I—” before words become impossible to discern, the phone presumably being tilted away from Yosano’s face.
In the absence of conversation, tension returns to Kouyou’s shoulders, seizing as Kasa makes the last turn toward the parking lot. Footsteps sound, then a closing door, then more footsteps, until Yosano sighs.
“Sorry about that,” she says, voice crisper now. “Anyway, what I was getting to was that there was a bit of an altercation today. It didn’t initially involve Izumi, but she got involved on behalf of someone who did.”
Bemusement returns to replace the bulk of Kouyou’s anxious concern. “An altercation, you say? How uncharacteristically vague.”
“I’m not sure how much I can say, technically. And I don’t actually know all the details myself. The principal is still talking to the other kids and their parents, and obviously neither he nor the secretaries contacted you, so Izumi probably won’t be officially involved.” A tapping sound, presumably either Yosano’s foot against the ground or her fingers against her arm, carries over the line. “I guess you can ask her if you want to find out, but—” Kouyou huffs out what might be a laugh; Yosano doesn’t address it “—the gist of it is, another kid was being harassed and Izumi stepped in.”
“Oh,” says Kouyou, sifting through a number of emotions. Kasa comes to a halt, and she steadies her shoulders as the car jolts into park. “Were the—” she considers multiple words “—children from the last—altercation, I suppose, involved?”
“No, no. As far as I know, the instigators were completely different.” That is in equal measures relieving and troubling, and the irritation now creeping into Yosano’s voice seems to indicate she feels the same. “The other kid is in the same grade as Izumi, but as far as I know they’re in different classes, so they probably hadn’t so much as talked before this.”
“I see.” The furrow in Kouyou’s brow deepens. “Thank you for informing me of this, but—why did you say to brace myself?”
“Well, ah.” The air goes cool, even with the significant physical distance between them. “You’ll be happy to know that Izumi’s strength certainly prevailed in this case, too, but she didn’t exactly get out unscathed. No significant injuries, and probably everything will be gone within a week or two, but—”
So focused is she on Yosano’s words that Kouyou misses the sound of approaching footsteps or the blur of color outside the window, and so she only looks up when the door opposite her opens. Kouyou turns her head to the side, and her thoughts freeze.
She’s aware of Yosano prompting her on the other end, saying her name with concern, but Kouyou can’t make herself process nor respond to it.
“I… see why you wished to warn me now,” is all she manages, eyes not leaving Kyouka’s face. Kyouka’s own gaze never meets Kouyou’s; she first bows her head to look away, then twists it to the side while she climbs into the car and pulls the door shut behind her. “Thank you, sensei, but I fear I must go now. I will speak to you later.”
“Good luck, then,” is the last thing Yosano says, half-wry.
Kouyou hangs up and lowers the phone, letting it fall into her lap rather than putting it away altogether. In the front seat, Kasa, apparently having chosen not to react to Kouyou’s phone call, graces Kyouka with her usual greeting and reaches up to tweak the angle of the rearview mirror.
Kouyou’s reflection is pale and thin-lipped. Kyouka’s is neutral, at the very least, lacking the emptiness or sorrow of months and years earlier—it is, however, marked by several bandages scattered around her face, arms, and legs. Not as many as there could be, in the grand scheme of things, but more than Kouyou would like to see.
“Good afternoon, Kyouka,” she brings herself to say, at last. “I would inquire as to how your day went, but I have already heard that it was, for lack of a better descriptor, rather exciting.”
Kyouka tilts her head forward the slightest bit. She’s busying herself with her seatbelt, but, made stiffer by the bandages around them, her fingers are clumsier than usual. Kouyou watches her tug at it four times before getting it loose, then fumble to click it into place thrice more before pulling it off.
“Is there anything you would like to share with me about it?” asks Kouyou, trying her best to keep her voice light.
Out of the corners of her eyes, she watches Kasa reach for the keys, stopping when they jingle beneath her palm. She doesn’t revive the engine just yet. She isn’t quite eyeing Kouyou and Kyouka, but the sense of observation is a clear one all the same, a cycle from Kasa to Kouyou to Kyouka to the back of Kasa’s seat.
“I was protecting someone,” Kyouka says, quiet but firm, leaving no room for argument or questioning.
Kouyou is often the exception to that kind of tone, so she tries anyway. “That’s all?”
Kyouka hesitates, her lips pressing together and just barely visibly shaking, but inclines her head. “That’s all.”
The energy she’s putting off isn’t quite hostile, but it is defensive, and Kouyou curls her hands together over her phone rather than prying. Kyouka keeps her gaze forward, Kouyou keeps hers on Kyouka, and Kasa starts the car.
“Legally, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, so if you repeat it, you didn’t hear it from me.”
Yosano’s second call had been easier to anticipate than her first, but the first thing she says startles Kouyou just as much as what she had earlier. The evening up to this point had been a terse, uncomfortable one; half an hour earlier, Kouyou and Kyouka had finished up the dishes, speaking few words in the interval between when they had gotten home and then, and the feeling in Kouyou’s stomach cannot be blamed on dinner. Kyouka had disappeared upstairs to finish up her homework, and Kouyou had fled to the living room.
Paperwork is spread out on the coffee table before her. Kouyou had meant to continue working on it even after she picked up, but now that seems like an inadvisable course of action, no matter how skilled at multitasking she is.
“I see,” she says. “What is it that you are not telling me, then?”
Yosano lets out a soft laugh, then sobers. “Izumi seemed worried earlier, so I wanted to update you on what happened with Yumeno. Ah,” she adds, “that’s the other child that the altercation involved.”
“I presumed.” Kouyou shifts, sensing that this discussion is going to run somewhat longer than she had first anticipated upon seeing Yosano’s name on the screen. “Do elaborate.”
“Well, I just wrapped up with them and their guardian a while ago. And as of then, at least, Yumeno was doing all right. They weren’t physically harmed in the incident; Izumi jumped in before anything could happen to them.” Terrible as it is, Kouyou cannot help a slight twist of her mouth at this information, the visual of Kyouka injured and dark-eyed far too fresh and sharp in her memory. Of course it is good that only one child was wounded rather than two—she wishes that zero could have been, though, or at least not Kyouka. “If it helps,” adds Yosano, perhaps picking up on her silence, “the kids Izumi fought were just as scraped-up as her, if not more so.”
It does, somehow, judging from the flash of pride that flickers through Kouyou. She taps her fingers against her thigh. “Continue,” she says after a pause, with a retrospective grimace for how much she sounds like she’s talking to a subordinate.
Brusque as her tone may be, Yosano takes it, as ever, in stride. “All right. Physical harm aside,” she says, crisp and professional, although Kouyou is sure she’s still skirting around various details for privacy’s sake, “Yumeno panicked a bit when I sat down to talk with them, but the more we talked things over, the more they calmed down. Their guardian is a bit distant and kind of… weird, for lack of a better word—he’s American, I think, or maybe European, so it could just be a cultural gap—but he and Yumeno seem to get along fine. Yumeno wasn’t scared of him, at least, even though everyone else in the office was.”
“I take it you are excluding yourself from that group.”
“And Fukuzawa-sensei, of course.”
“Of course,” says Kouyou, permitting a thin smile. “So everything turned out well in the end?”
“Not quite well, since they’re still very clearly traumatized and troubled, but it’s a start.” A sigh crackles over the line. “On another bright side, they and Izumi talked a bit when they were in my office together, and I think they got along pretty well. Being friends with Izumi would be good for them.”
Kouyou sniffs, haughty. “As it would for anyone.” It draws another laugh from Yosano, but it’s strained, weariness evident. The option is there to leave the conversation at that, but before she can stop her mouth from moving, she asks, “Are you all right, then?”
“As all right as I can be after hearing about one of the kids I’m supposed to look after being bullied.” There’s a pause, Kouyou raising her eyebrows halfway at the tired snap in Yosano’s tone, before a rattling exhale sounds. “Sorry. It’s hardly your fault.”
“Nor is it yours. The situation seems to be a stressful one; reactions such as that are understandable.”
Yosano scoffs, but there’s some amusement in it, however dry. “Tell me about it.”
“I believe the proper invitation would be for you to do so.”
Another pause. “Are you sure?” asks Yosano, the only sound save for Kouyou’s own subtle breathing. “It’s not even something I would dump on Ranpo or one of my colleagues unprompted, and you’re not even really involved in this situation.”
“I would agree, were it not for Kyouka’s involvement. You did call me.” Kouyou doesn’t point out that, by virtue of being involved with Yosano, she is involved in her business, even when it is work-related. Instead, she says something far more dangerous: “And besides, it was you who mentioned shouldering one another’s burdens.”
“Ah, that.” There’s a shifting sound, like floorboards creaking, so low that Kouyou isn’t sure if it’s on Yosano’s end or her own, or neither at all. “Listen, I won’t hold you to that. You’re not at all obligated to listen to me vent, let alone help me through shit like this; you’re my girlfriend, not my therapist, and you haven’t been that for that long, anyway.”
“Yosano.” It isn’t rare that Kouyou says her name, approaching two months and change into this arrangement of theirs, but the dropped honorific seems to catch Yosano’s attention. “Should it ease you to do so, I encourage you to confide in me. I would perhaps not like to hear it, but I am more than willing all the same.”
“…all right. Stop me if you need to, then.” Yosano still doesn’t sound certain, but with a steadying breath she speaks up again: “You know how much I enjoy my job. This part is the only real downside. I know I won’t be able to be everywhere at once, but… it’s my job to look after them, and make sure they’re healthy and happy. So when this shit happens right under everyone’s nose, especially if it’s been going on for a while like I’m pretty sure it was with Yumeno, it’s infuriating.”
In the ensuing silence, an image comes to the forefront of Kouyou’s mind: Kyouka in Yosano’s office, sitting with her head down and her cheek bruised, something rueful and pained in her eyes but the rest of her face a careful mask. It’s followed by one of Kyouka in the weeks after, with a clear weight to her shoulder but toughing it out all the same. And, finally, that scene in Fukuzawa’s office, physical bruises faded but emotional ones sure to last a lifetime, and no doubt running deeper than Kouyou will ever know.
Kouyou curls her hand into a quiet fist, nails pressing against her palm. “I understand, I believe,” she says, “although not precisely on the same scale. I cannot say that any advice I could offer would be relevant, but you are more than free to speak more on it, if it would help.”
“I don’t think it’s really something anyone can give advice on.”
“Then, if this much has been valuable, you are free to go on.”
“You…” Whatever Yosano had meant to finish that with, she doesn’t, cutting herself off with a soft laugh. “It’s just—frustrating, I guess. To know that you can technically do everything right on paper and still fail kids, because you weren’t accounting for someone’s specific needs or because someone just slipped through the cracks. It technically isn’t anyone’s fault, but that doesn’t take away the hurt. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? But even as a doctor, some things just can’t be cured. I can treat them, and I can do my damn best to make sure this kind of shit doesn’t happen again, but there’s nothing I can do to make sure it never happened in the first place.”
Yosano’s tone stays steady and calm throughout her rambling, enough so that defining it as such is odd. Yet, with how her words are strung together and undercut with that tension and aggravation, it is the closest word Kouyou has. She stays quiet for a long moment, not making to speak again. The intent for Kouyou to instead is clear.
Proper comfort, Kouyou thinks, is beyond her. Yosano hadn’t asked for it, all the same—all she wants, Kouyou imagines, is someone to listen. Yet she had hinted at advice, and no response feels quite right. So, with a breath, Kouyou settles on what at least approaches it.
“Forgive me for what a nonsequitur this may seem at first,” she starts, “but perhaps it will ease your burden. When Kyouka first came into my care, I did not treat her as well as I should have.”
“You’ve mentioned this, I think,” says Yosano, neutral, a bit curious.
“Likely so, yes. I will not go into detail, both in the effort of truly putting the past behind us and—I admit—saving face—” a soft tsk from Yosano has Kouyou half-smiling before her expression sobers “—but saying we clashed would be an understatement. I grew up in darkness, and by now it would be impossible for me to leave. Kyouka is, as I’m sure you can tell, very much a child of the light.”
She pauses, allowing for the briefest of hums from Yosano. Kouyou’s gaze falls to the hand still resting in her lap. “At first, I saw too much of myself in her,” she continues, tense, “so I could not accept that. I made it seem as though my life was the only one she could end up with. I thought and suggested that she, like me, would be forever bound to a life in darkness. Had time gone on, that prophecy may have fulfilled itself, but only because I pushed it so.”
For a moment, her words hang there. Then Yosano prompts, “And now?”
“And now,” says Kouyou, breathing out, “it has been some time since I moved past such expectations, and we are better for it. However, that is only because of the work we have invested in our relationship, and the past has not disappeared as a factor in our lives—I was certain it had come back to haunt me when I saw Kyouka in your office that day.” She listens to her steady pulse as it beats against her throat. Somehow, it feels that it should be speeding up, but she supposes relative bradycardia is the simplest of the prices she has paid for her way of life. “Regret is not something natural to me, understand. It cannot be. But there are few things—perhaps none—I regret as much as I do my behavior toward Kyouka in those early months.
“What I was getting to,” she goes on, “was that no matter how regretful these things are, they are not things I can erase, and only through work and care have I been able to mend what could have so easily been irreparably broken. Kyouka is more important to me than anything, but I could have lost her altogether.” The grave realization is not new to her, but it washes over her just as raw and painful as the first time she had thought it. “Rather than dwelling on that, though, I have chosen to learn from it and push for a better future.”
That, too, hovers between them, laden with perhaps equal amounts of hope and despair. Some amount of disgrace curls inside Kouyou at having spiraled into such a topic, but it doesn’t seem to bother Yosano, if her gentle sigh is any indication.
“I’m sure she understands.” The sentiment comes out a touch tight; Kouyou says nothing of Yosano’s soft throat clear. “And—thank you. These burdens aren’t really the type that can be eased, either, but I do see your point. If I could go back and change all of this, I would in a heartbeat, but unfortunately, I can’t. All I can do is help them recover and process it.”
Kouyou’s shoulders straighten. “Precisely. None of us can alter the past, but if we allow ourselves to be consumed by it, we may well alter the future—and for the worse.”
Yosano hums in agreement, but it seems a touch distant. Kouyou makes to check the connection, but then Yosano’s voice comes through: “I do take issue with part of what you’ve said, though.”
“Oh?” Kouyou’s brow crinkles. She’s aware that their views divert in certain areas, but she can’t recall anything she’s said that would provoke such a debate. “What would that be?”
“Your life… you make it sound like a worst-case scenario.” Kouyou freezes further, but Yosano is still talking. “I don’t know just what you’ve gone through, but I don’t need to to see what a strong woman you’ve turned out to be. And I don’t mean to imply that you’ve needed to go through hardships, obviously, because that’s complete bullshit.” The tone startles a laugh out of Kouyou. “But if we’re to grow from the past, ignoring it won’t help, and for better or worse, our histories make us who we are.”
“Yes. I do follow, but—”
“Let me finish.” Yosano’s tone isn’t upset or rude, but it commands instant silence from Kouyou. “You act like, now, it would be terrible for Izumi to end up like you. In some areas, it probably would, especially work-wise. But—as it stands now, your life isn’t that bad, is it? I mean—despite everything, you have a loving, supportive family. You’ve made one, at that, with your brother and Kyouka and all the strays they seem to have ended up dragging in.” Kouyou’s lips quirk, but she still doesn’t speak. “Not to mention your job. You clearly love it, and you’re good at it besides. You run a whole organization. Maybe not all of the fine details are inspirational, but set out like that, isn’t that something plenty of people dream of?”
“I—” Kouyou stops, thrown for a loop by this swerve. “I suppose so.”
“I won’t push you too hard on that one,” says Yosano, smile audible. “But—you say it would be impossible to leave this darkness you’ve always been in. Maybe that’s true. It seems as though you’ve let plenty of pieces of light into it, though.”
Kouyou can think of nothing to say to that. She can’t agree, but disagreement seems equally beyond her reach, and so she is left with a half-parted mouth and a whirring series of thoughts.
Yosano notices. “All right over there?”
“Yes,” murmurs Kouyou, hearing more than feeling it. “I will be, at any rate. And—sensei.”
“You say that there is only so much you can do. But what you’re doing—it is not nothing.” Kouyou’s words are halting and careful, but no less certain, spoken with her usual surety, the air of assurance that lends so many to put their faith in her. “Perhaps you have not been able to stop anything—being angry or upset or guilty about that is reasonable. It is still difficult for me to process that Kyouka was targeted by her classmates for so long without my knowledge, and that even if I had, I could not have intervened. That responsibility and anguish, increased tenfold… I cannot begin to imagine it.”
It’s true. Her subordinates—or at least, the majority of them—are not expendable to her, but their lives do not evoke the same feelings in her that Kyouka’s does. Their business is only hers in the vaguest sense, and she doesn’t get involved in their personal troubles unless they threaten their professional lives, and even then she herself doesn’t interfere. To have that direct a role in so many others’ lives, and children besides—it is almost impossible for her to picture.
“Thanks,” Yosano says flatly.
“Allow me to finish.” Despite herself, Kouyou smiles. “Perhaps your impact is not as drastic as it would be were you able to stop this abuse before it escalated, but the effect you’ve left is clear nonetheless. Were it not for your guidance and support, I don’t doubt that Kyouka would perhaps still be in the state she was months ago. You made a difference in her life; undoubtedly, you have now made one in Yumeno’s too, not to mention all those I am unfamiliar with, both in this line of work and your previous one.” Yosano inhales but ultimately doesn’t interrupt. “Perhaps you cannot see those differences now, but the simplest of actions can lead to great effects. A single butterfly flapping its wings and feeding into a hurricane on the other side of the globe, as it were—in a more positive context here, though.
“Think of it this way,” adds Kouyou. “Had you known about what Yumeno was facing, or at least strongly suspected it, would you have stepped in?”
Yosano’s response is immediate. “If I could have done so safely and without doing them more harm than good, then yes.”
“And would you not do the same for every other child you have suspected or known was experiencing hardships of a similar variety?”
“You are not all-knowing, and you cannot predict the future. No one can.” Kouyou pauses, thinking of one particular person who is very close to (but not actually) all-knowing, and another who can, to some extent, predict the future. “All right, very few can,” she amends. “You cannot, as far as I know, and as such, how much you are able to handle is impressive. Saving others from their fates is a romantic, idealistic thought, but rarely do things work that way in reality; you being there for and defending as many children as you have, as far as I am concerned, is just as impactful. You are building trust with them and letting them know that someone will stand up for them, even if others bite their tongues and pretend to ignore things because it is ‘easier that way.’”
The vitriol that slips into her tone has her blinking, clearing her throat, and moving on without fanfare. She doesn’t, however, rescind the sentiment, nor does Yosano raise a protest. “The fact that you care so much, in and of itself,” continues Kouyou, “is proof that you are doing as much as you can. And I must thank you for it, if they cannot.”
The other line, once again, is silent. Kouyou’s smile spreads slow and firm.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
An exhale sounds. “Like you said, I will be,” says Yosano, a simultaneous weight and lightness to it. She coughs, and Kouyou hears the flipping of paper. “Thank you, Kouyou. It’s already pretty late, so I’ll let you pass my news onto Izumi now, if you’d like.”
“Of course.” Kouyou flexes her fingers against the phone, her wrist having gone stiff from the maintained position. She dredges up the information Yosano had handed her at the beginning of the call, the rest of the conversation having dislodged it from the front of her brain. “Thank you for calling, sensei—I do appreciate it, as well as all that you have said. Have a good rest of your evening.”
“You too, Kou.” The nickname drops without hesitation, nor does Yosano call attention to it, even as Kouyou freezes in place and blinks at the sound. “I’ll talk to you later.”
A decisive click ends their conversation. The phone falls away from Kouyou’s ear, and for a few seconds she stares at the blank screen.
Then she turns off the phone, sets it aside, gives the paperwork strewn about the coffee table a derisive look, and goes to make herself some tea. When it’s done, she settles down at the table in the side room, pouring a single cup to the brim and instantly taking a long sip—and then, only then, does she call for Kyouka.
Within two minutes, Kyouka is standing before her. Kouyou lowers her cup with great force.
“I have been called to be informed,” she says, careful to word things around Yosano’s name, though from the look on Kyouka’s face she can intuit that much herself, “that Yumeno-kun, I believe their name was—” Kyouka gives a small nod “—is doing as well as they can under the circumstances. With proper work and care, they will likely end up just fine. They—as well as Yosano-sensei and Fukuzawa-sensei—commended your handling of the situation.”
It’s not the most in-depth recounting of Yosano’s words as she could have given, but the earlier half of the call is more distant in her mind now, and she doesn’t doubt that some aspects wouldn’t be too important to Kyouka. As it is, Kyouka seems eased by the information, posture slackening and head inclining.
Kouyou closes her eyes in turn. “I imagine you can get more details from them and perhaps Yosano-sensei tomorrow,” she says. “So long as you do not divulge elsewhere that this information was unofficially shared with me.”
Kyouka nods again, mouth twitching. When Kouyou says nothing more, she starts to step away, and something sparks at the back of Kouyou’s mind.
“Kyouka,” she calls.
Mid-step, Kyouka stops. Half-apprehensive, she looks over her shoulder; at the beckoning curl of Kouyou’s finger, she pads back over.
Kouyou stares, for once up rather than down (though she’s tall enough even kneeling that there isn’t too drastic a difference), at Kyouka, small and fragile yet with so much ferocity and strength radiating off of her. Words twist around Kouyou’s mind, none so eloquent as a simple sigh.
“Be careful, child,” is what she settles on, and Kyouka blinks. “As I hope I have consistently made clear to you, I shan’t chastise you for using violence to your advantage, although I do wish situations that necessitated it did not crop up so frequently in your life. I shall not advise you, either, against doing what you feel is right. Much as I tried to push otherwise upon you at first, your moral compass is your own to develop.”
Kyouka’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t make to interrupt. Her surprise isn’t difficult for Kouyou to place—given how devoted she’s been to moving past her prior mistakes with raising Kyouka, and how far removed they are from those days in theory, it is rare that she brings them up at all. Her silence, though, is appreciated.
“But,” continues Kouyou, “the world is not always soft and giving. I know that you understand this,” she adds when Kyouka squares her shoulders, lines furrowing in her face, “but it is worth repeating all the same. And I feel that it is crucial in this situation. This was not something forced onto you, as it has been in the past—you chose to become involved, and interfere on this Yumeno-kun’s behalf. What if they had reviled your attempts at assistance? What if they come to rely on you, and you begin to put their safety before your own? What if they had turned out to be a vile person not worth your help?”
Kyouka’s resting expression, edging toward troubled, sharpens. Kouyou seals her lips together and regards Kyouka with expectation. Something is stretched thin between them, and for an instant Kouyou feels a flash of fear that she may have pushed things too far again, that everything she has worked to build with Kyouka over the past two years may yet splinter here. Her shoulders coil tight with anxiety.
And then Kyouka takes a breath and, quiet but firm, speaks.
“I wouldn’t regret it, even so.” Kouyou blinks, taking in the steadfast determination in Kyouka’s voice. It is what she had half-expected to hear, but not with such steady confidence, as though it’s something Kyouka has been thinking over. “If the world is cruel,” continues Kyouka, raising her chin, “then isn’t that only because other people make it cruel? And if I’m able to help someone, isn’t it worth it to take that chance?” She doesn’t meet Kouyou’s eyes, but she doesn’t waver even when her gaze drops to her hands, which are pressed tightly together at her waist, knuckles bruised white. “The world isn’t good. But it isn’t bad, either. It is filled with darkness, but it is also filled with light. They were in trouble. I helped them. I would again, and I would do the same things I did before.”
Kouyou’s first attempt at a response dies in her throat, and she brings her head down in a gesture that isn’t quite defeated. Her eyes fall shut. “I cannot understand such optimism,” she confesses, “but neither shall I stand in its way.” Though she is not looking at Kyouka, she can hear her exhale. “In your pursuit of such ideals, however, please remember to take care of yourself just the same. You know that the place from which I speak is one of deep care, and to see you harmed in any way… it is something I can scarcely handle.”
She opens her eyes in time to see Kyouka nodding, a conflicted expression upon her face—there is melancholy and sympathy there, but they do not eradicate nor obfuscate the determined spark in her eyes. “I know. And I will.” She sets her shoulders and meets Kouyou’s stare. “But I will also do what I can to keep the light in this world shining.”
And Kouyou, to her own surprise, believes her.
Kyouka isn’t like her, after all. Once Kouyou had thought she was, and that thus there was no way she could turn out other than how Kouyou had. The similarities are there, at first blush—left alone at a young age, thrust into a life of violence and hardship that Kouyou would never outright advocate to a newcomer, encouraged to grow up too fast, a cold exterior cloaking more tender feelings.
But Kyouka has a great many things Kouyou lacked at that age. Light in her eyes and her heart. A lack of direct exposure to the brutality Kouyou now wears and delivers as easily as anything; no blood upon her delicate palms. Friends and family that will mold her into something other than a weapon. A life with endless choices and paths to walk rather than one narrow road stained a deep, dark red. Youth still shining in her every word and action despite the maturity she’s also attained. So much hope within she almost bursts at the seams with it.
With the past she bears, and the life she is surrounded by, it would be so easy for darkness to consume Kyouka. But instead, at every turn, Kyouka has shaken it away and rushed toward the light.
The life she plans to lead won’t be easy, and even a single misstep could harm her beyond repair. But should she commit herself to it, there is naught else Kouyou can do but support her however possible, however strong her kneejerk reaction to such proclamations is.
“All right, Kyouka.” Kouyou’s voice is gentle, whisper-soft but still ringing out clearly in the silent room. With steady hands, she reaches to pull free another cup and set it out beside hers. “There is still some tea left,” she says, calm, “and it is still rather warm. Would you care to join me for a few moments?”
At the sudden shift, Kyouka starts, posture momentarily opening—but then she bows her head and slides into the seat opposite Kouyou. She is quiet as Kouyou pours another cup and places it before her. With another nod of thanks, she takes it and sips.
A weary smile spreads across Kouyou’s face. Regaining her own drink, she considers Kyouka’s expression, lapsed back into seriousness, and replays the several conversations she’s had today at the back of her mind. “So,” she starts, “how did you find interacting with Yosano-sensei today?”
(The remainder of the evening swells out around them, a potential altercation turned into a constructive conversation, and simultaneous exhaustion and warmth left in its wake. When at last Kyouka leaves to prepare for bed, several more exchanges and an eventual period of peaceable silence later, Kouyou waits until she can hear the stairs creak—and then stop creaking—under her weight. Then she lets out a sigh and turns her head to the side.
“I am trying,” she says lowly, hoping it reaches Kyouka’s parents somehow.
Her last sip of tea is sweeter than the rest had been. With a minute shake of her head at the coincidence, Kouyou is still smiling when she too rises.)
The parked car is silent, even Kasa’s near-perpetual city pop station no longer playing and the air conditioner not running. Kouyou cherishes and reviles it in equal measure. It gives her the room in her mind to focus solely on the emails she’s skimming through, eyeing the chains that have somehow ended up in her work inbox, but it also gives her the room to think about anything and everything else, thoughts wandering from Kyouka and her latest exploits to the political and economic headlines she’d glimpsed this morning to the possibility of failure of a covert operation by the Black Lizard, arranged weeks ago, tonight to Yosano and when they’ll next meet.
All of that fades in importance when the door clicks open. Sighing in relief and locking her phone, Kouyou looks up, only for the smile to freeze on her face. For the second time in as many weeks, she finds her spike of joy at seeing Kyouka morph swiftly into surprise.
This time, though, it isn’t because she’s injured; it’s because she’s accompanied by another child. Given the uniform and setting, they must be about Kyouka’s age, but looking at them out of this context, Kouyou might have assumed they were younger from their stature—a few centimeters below than Kyouka—and the round, innocent lines of their face. Their hair is a tangled mess, short enough to frame their cheeks, and dark brown on one side and stark white on the other. That detail, and a certain weight to their mismatched eyes, is well at odds with their apparent youth.
An unpleasant familiarity twists in Kouyou’s stomach, and it isn’t until their wide eyes meet hers that she recognizes it. In basic appearance and bearing alike, they’re troublingly reminiscent of fifteen-year-old Dazai, even before they open their mouth and hammer in the resemblance.
“Wooow, Kyouka-chan,” they say as they peer into the car. Kyouka is already climbing in, but they hang back, hands curled into tight fists around the straps of their backpack. They teeter back and forth on their heels. “You really go back and forth to school like this every day?”
“Most of the time,” answers Kyouka, idle. She settles into the middle seat rather than the side opposite Kouyou’s, as she normally does, but reaches for her seatbelt as though nothing is out of the ordinary.
“Weird,” gasps her presumed classmate, but with astonishment in their wide gaze and pitched voice.
Kouyou’s eyes narrow over the top of Kyouka’s head, eyeing the child who has joined them. “I was unaware we would have a guest today,” she says, appeased by the brief pause in Kyouka’s movements as she seems to note Kouyou’s tone. “Yumeno-kun, was it?”
Their eyes return to her. Somewhere, Kouyou feels as though she’s being assessed, but with nowhere near the precision or confidence as she’s come to expect from a similar stare. They smile all the same, though, and bow only enough to pass as polite. “Yumeno Kyuusaku, Class 1-1,” they confirm. “I mostly go by Q, though. It’s nice to meet you, obaa-san!”
Kyouka’s seatbelt clicks into place, as does the irritation kept at bay at the back of Kouyou’s mind. She presses her teeth together in a grimace that might pass as a smile. It doesn’t seem to bother Q, at any rate.
“First things first,” she says, “do not call me that. Ozaki-san or Kouyou-san will do just fine.”
“Okay, Ozaki-san,” they say almost immediately, crinkling their eyes with a sweet smile that puts Kouyou on edge more than it soothes her. “Kyouka-chan told me I could ride home with you guys if I wanted to. That’s okay, right?”
They don’t wait for a response, already sliding in after Kyouka and pulling the door shut behind them. A headache begins to pulse behind Kouyou’s temple. Kasa looks at her in the rearview mirror, smiling as broadly as ever but with conflict in the arch of her brow, and Kouyou raises a dismissive hand with a sigh.
“Kyouka is acquainted with them,” she explains, glancing askance at Q, “but I am not sure exactly why they are here.”
Q opens their mouth, but it’s Kyouka, looking steadily at Kouyou, who answers: “Their guardian was working, so they asked if we could walk home together.” She doesn’t elaborate on how things developed to this point, but the conclusion is simple enough to draw.
Q has no such inhibitions. “Yep!” they confirm, bobbing their head and grabbing for their own seatbelt. They still have received no answer about whether Kasa will drive them home, but this doesn’t seem to stop them. “And Kyouka-chan told me that she doesn’t walk, and I told her that I don’t really like the train but I would take it if she was with me, and then she said that she drives.” That same shock and awe creeps back up.
“Walking and public transportation are more dangerous than I would prefer,” says Kouyou, automatic, although she’s unsure why she’s humoring them.
“Basically everybody walks, though.”
“Kyouka, you will find, is not basically everybody.”
“Well, yeah.” Seatbelt tugged over their torso, Q shuffles against the seat and tugs at one of their sleeves. Beneath, colorful band-aids pepper their skin. That sense of likeness resurges. “She’s super tough and super cool. But I thought that would mean she would be even safer walking home by herself, ‘cause she’s so good at fighting.”
Kouyou lets her dry gaze flicker over Kyouka, whose stare is fixed pointedly forward, but soon returns it to Q. “That is true, but our situation is complicated, so to speak.”
“Oh? What, are you, like, royalty?” Without waiting for a response, Q gasps. “That’s even cooler! Are you some long-lost princess or something, Kyouka-chan?”
“No,” says Kyouka simply, though Kouyou would have been happy to let them persist with that misconception. “I just don’t walk home.”
“Oh.” The syllable is uttered with the complete opposite tone it had been seconds earlier. Q deflates, shoulders drooping, and picks at a Hello Kitty bandage on the underside of their wrist. “Well, it would be cool if you were a princess, right? It would explain the car, and how well you can fight, and your really scary but also probably really strong mom.”
They make no effort to lower their voice, nor do they actually seem that scared of Kouyou, from the almost challenging look they toss her way as punctuation. They’ve endeared themself to her the slightest bit, though, by addressing her as Kyouka’s mother and complimenting her in the same breath.
A soft scoff leaves her. “Q-kun, is there any way you will leave this vehicle beyond being driven home in it?”
“Kyouka-chan invited me,” is their blank-eyed response. “It’s her car too, isn’t it?”
It is not, as the expressions on Kouyou, Kyouka, and Kasa’s faces all indicate, but Q doesn’t back down, staring back up at Kouyou with that stubborn saccharinity. As dismayed as she is, she’s also almost impressed.
“Fine,” she decides after thinking it over for thirty more seconds, the memory of Kyouka’s face last week imprinted over her mind. Q straightens, Kyouka jolts but half-smiles, and Kasa coughs. “I suppose a short detour would not drastically harm us. Where is it that you live?”
They rattle off the address. Kouyou turns it over in the back of her mind—she is distantly familiar with the neighborhood in question, not the highest-class but far from the slums as well; she thinks the Mafia may own property near the area, an apartment complex or two and some storage units. She glances at Kasa, who’s already nodding.
As the engine rumbles back to life, Kyouka bows her head in a gesture of gratitude that Kouyou does not respond to. She seems a touch uncomfortable in the middle seat, considering she’s been sitting in another every weekday for the past two years straight, but the car offers enough room that she isn’t coming into actual contact with either Kouyou or Q. If she has any other complaints, she doesn’t voice them. Annoyance flickers over Kouyou, but it doesn’t last for long.
Her eyes dart toward Q, something occurring to her. “Your guardian is working, Kyouka said?”
“Yep.” They swing their legs back and forth as much as they can in the limited space. “I don’t really know what he does, because he’s only tried to explain it like once and he was really bad at it, but he’s busy a lot.”
Q tells her this in a very dull, matter-of-fact tone, but it has Kyouka shifting. Kouyou presses her fingers minutely closer together in her lap.
“You will be at home by yourself when you return, then?”
“Probably,” says Q. They slump forward the slightest bit, elbows resting on their knees and head resting in their hands.
“Hm.” A tight sigh escapes Kouyou’s teeth, and as they start out of the parking lot she continues to watch Q in her peripheral vision. Memories are stirring at the back of her mind, and for what may be the first time ever she curses Kyouka’s presence in her life as she opens her mouth to say, without fully thinking it through, “Would you like to stop anywhere beforehand, then?”
“Stop somewhere?” Q blinks owlishly, as does Kyouka. “Like where?”
Kouyou, tempted now to redact the offer, racks her brain for any sort of place where children this age—normal children, as loosely as she thinks the descriptor applies to Q—might like to hang out. She glances at Kyouka, who looks at her with some degree of curiosity but does not help.
“A park, perhaps,” says Kouyou, slow and uncertain but managing to turn it into a proper statement rather than a question. “Or something similar to that.”
Head tilting back and forth in consideration, Q thinks this over—then their eyes spark with inspiration. “Can we go to Cosmo World?”
“No,” says Kouyou without hesitation.
Q’s face screws up, nose twitching and mouth twisting into a sour line. Their eyes, by contrast, go watery and pleading—an expression that she may have cowed to had it been on Kyouka’s face, but as is, no such luck. Kouyou glances at Kyouka in case, but Kyouka remains unmoved and uninterested. It’s more probable than not that she’s paying attention to the conversation but not bothering to react.
“Are you hungry at all?” attempts Kouyou before Q can start outright crying. Now there’s a manipulation tactic she’s not used to, at least from a child. “I shan’t pretend to be familiar with you and your guardian’s schedule, but it is still likely earlier enough that a snack will not interfere with dinner. It shouldn’t for us, at least.” Again, she eyes Kyouka, who is now returning the look. “In a park nearby, there is a crepes stall that our family quite enjoys.”
“Crepes?” Q perks back up, eyes clearing of pre-tears. “Are they good?”
“They’re delicious,” says Kyouka, sitting back to finally contribute. “There are lots of different flavors.”
Lips pressed together, Q processes this. “Okay!” they decide in record time. The car slows as they near a crosswalk. “If Kyouka-chan says they’re good, then I trust her. We can go to the park, obaa-san.”
“Once again, do not call me that.” Kouyou barely holds back a sigh. At this point, she would even take a flat oba. “You may drop us off there, then,” she says with a nod to Kasa, who is giving her the most respectful expression of bemusement Kouyou has ever seen. She narrows her eyes all the same and gets a vague wrist flick in response.
Any thoughts, though, are soon drowned out by Q’s loud awe at a skyscraper they’ve just passed—really, how long have they lived in Yokohama again?—and the subsequent chattering they break into, asking Kyouka about her homework and these famous crepes and what she is to warrant a personal driver if not a princess. They don’t hit on the truth, as near as Kouyou can tell, but she tunes most of this mainly one-sided conversation out. Besides, with what she’s seen so far of Q’s personality, she presumes they’d find them being the Port Mafia’s leader and her daughter just as impressive as royalty. To part of Yokohama, after all, they might as well be.
It takes only a few minutes to reach the park, anyway, so they don’t get too in-depth. The instant the car starts to slow, Kyouka brightens, almost reaching for the door before remembering she’s in the middle seat. She ushers Q out onto the sidewalk so she can take their wrist and guide them toward the stall.
Kouyou, with a quick assurance to let Kasa know when they’re done, follows in the two’s wake, shaking her head all the while. This has to be the most excited and comfortable she’s seen Kyouka act with someone her age, though, so she supposes she can take some amount of cheer from that, even if it’s almost overshadowed by her fear of losing them in the crowd.
She catches up with them in a few steps, stance and leg length working to her favor. Kouyou stays just behind them, listening with a warmth within her to Kyouka’s flavor recommendations, and only steps forward when they reach the stall proper. Kyouka nudges Q forward to order first, which takes longer than Kouyou thinks Kyouka had expected. They manage to make a decision before the line has spiraled out of control, however, and Kouyou and Kyouka’s orders are far quicker; the owner hands over their crepes, and Kouyou passes over the yen while Q oohs and aahs behind her.
“Do not eat while walking,” Kouyou tells them, and though Q looks ready to defy this, Kyouka points out a bench close enough that it doesn’t matter.
The three of them settle down. There’s almost not enough room for the three of them, but they manage it, owing in no small part to Kyouka and Q’s respective sizes. Kouyou stays on the very edge of the bench nevertheless, paying more attention to the children than her crepe.
Q’s eyes light up with their first bite. Kyouka watches them with something between pride and smugness, which sharpens when they say, midway through chewing, “This is good!”
“Do not talk with your mouth full, child,” chides Kouyou, more reflexive than anything. She stands by it, though.
Q scowls at her, but they dutifully swallow and drag the back of their hand across their mouth to wipe away some crumbs. “It really is good,” they repeat, nothing short of starstruck. “It’s so sweet, and all the different flavors go together really well.”
Kyouka nods, grinning with agreement. Kouyou hands her a handkerchief for the ice cream trickling down her fingers.
Though she is tempered by this, and stalled by a few exchanges with Q besides, Kyouka’s crepe is gone in only a few minutes. Q savors theirs a little better, but they still possess all of the impulse control of a twelve-year-old trying a sweet, chocolate-loaded treat for the first time, which is to say very little. It isn’t much longer before they’re licking their fingers clean, although they continue carrying on their conversation with Kyouka like nothing has happened.
Not having too strong an appetite, Kouyou takes her time with her crepe, listening to Kyouka and Q chat as she stares forward. In the calm light of the early evening, plenty of people are flitting about the park, kids getting out of school and couples and individuals going for walks before it gets too dark. A group of high school students passes at one point, ribbing each other but laughing amongst themselves. Q jumps at the sound of their voices, tucking their legs closer to their torso, but an askance look from Kouyou has them settling again.
An inexplicable emotion stirs in Kouyou’s chest, watching Q—their sharp flinches at certain sounds and sights; the way they take in everything as though it’s both brand new and temporary; the nervousness and discomfort that undercuts their every motion, no matter how carefree and cheerful they try to seem. It isn’t the same maternal drive she feels over Kyouka, but it’s a similar hue.
Kouyou doesn’t entertain the thought for long. Irritated as she’d been by Q’s initial imposition, their conduct and the way they engage with Kyouka has chipped away at something, and she’s content to let them sit here and take everything in.
For a while, at any rate; when the sun starts to dip, she makes to stand. She gestures for Kyouka and Q to do the same and dispose of their waste while they’re at it—Kyouka does so without hesitation, and Q blinks a little but complies. Though Q isn’t sure if their guardian will be home, Kouyou doesn’t wish to keep them out too late. She calls for the car, and together the three of them slip back in.
It’s quieter now, perhaps marked by a descent from the kids’ sugar high. The park is farther from Q’s house than the school had been, and within a minute of getting in the car, Kyouka is pulling her homework out of her backpack and starting in on it.
“Don’t make yourself sick, now,” Kouyou tells her with a stern glance.
“I won’t,” says Kyouka at once, not looking up.
Q is looking between them with an expression Kouyou sees it most fitting to describe as wistful, or perhaps just confused, but when she catches their eye it dissipates. They turn their attention to Kyouka, watching her scrawl out equations and brisk sentences. On occasion they offer commentary or suggestions, but Kyouka seems, for the most part, to dismiss them. The exchanges draw the smallest of smiles from Kouyou as she observes.
When they stop at Q’s house, a small and aged Western-style building with an overgrown yard and a package waiting on the doorstep, Kyouka lifts her gaze from her homework for the first time since she pulled it out. Q scrambles to gather their things and stumbles out with a smile of farewell.
Before they can close the door, Kouyou clears her throat, bringing both Kyouka and Q’s attention to her. “It was nice to put a face to a name, Q-kun. If you would ever like a ride home again—with your guardian’s proper permission this time,” she adds firmly, “then you are more than welcome to join us. Or simply Kyouka, if I am unable to pick her up myself.”
Kyouka doesn’t contest this, but the look she gives Kouyou is half-surprised and half-impressed. Kouyou keeps her attention on Q, who stares back at her for a moment before making to speak.
“That’s really nice of you, Ozaki-san.” They shift on their heels. The glint in their eyes as they regard her is shrewder than she would expect of a child of their age and demeanor, but she isn’t put off by it. “Are you sure? You don’t seem to like me much.”
The flash of overt insecurity is unlike the rest of their behavior today, and Kouyou meets it with a steady blink. “I do not say things I do not mean, child,” she tells them; it isn’t the entire truth, but for a situation like this, it’s close enough. “I do not dislike you, as you have, it seems, become a valuable individual to my Kyouka. As such, I am willing to harbor you.”
That look that had crossed Q’s face in the car reappears, and they continue to look bug-eyed at her for a few seconds before beaming, brighter and more earnest than any other smile they’ve given her. “I’ll ask, then! Thank you, Ozaki-san. See you tomorrow, Kyouka-chan.”
“Bye,” says Kyouka, serious-faced but warm-eyed.
With a skip in their step that seems genuine, Q prances up to their door and slips inside. They stop in the doorway to wave over the shoulder, and Kyouka, leaning to the side to be seen through the window, waves back. The door closes. Kouyou’s eyes stay on it for a minute or two before returning to the rearview mirror.
Kasa is already waiting to catch her eye. “Home, Kouyou-sama?”
“I do believe so, yes.” Kouyou leans back. A faint smile is still resting upon her face, and she presses her hand to her mouth in an attempt to obscure it.
In Q’s absence, Kyouka has unbuckled her seatbelt and slid back over to the other window. As she reaches to strap herself in again, she looks at Kouyou like she knows regardless, but Kouyou does little more than fix her gaze on the horizon ahead.