the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 16 no particular warnings today i don't think -- enjoy!

Streaks of pink and orange paint the still-dark sky, only enough light cast across the city to allow people to walk about without artificial assistance. If the day itself is sluggish, then the individuals living it are doubly so. Yet for all of the exhaustion and lethargy that looms over them, a certain anticipation and energy trills through the air, overflowing from the smallest form among them all.

Kyouka’s events program is clasped tightly between her fingers, and determination is written across her face. In the other hand, gripped with the same level of intensity, is a water bottle. Her usual headband has been replaced with a bright red tie that smooths her bangs back while leaving a small segment hanging between her eyes. To account for the slight early morning chill, a haori of Kouyou’s is thrown around her shoulders, dragging well past her gym shorts.

Though she could undoubtedly outpace Kouyou, she stays with her as they walk toward the school. Behind them, Atsushi is still yawning with the effort of getting up so early. Dazai, whose weariness had been mitigated by three cups of coffee, is hanging back to needle him, and just a pace behind Kouyou and Kyouka, Chuuya keeps turning to tell him to knock it off; Atsushi himself doesn’t seem alert enough to react.

Kouyou sighs, holds tighter to Kyouka’s shoulder, and wonders how obvious it is that the five of them are a unified party. Hopefully not a great deal so, with the fools the other three are already making of themselves.

Things are still being set up when they reach the sprawling field behind the school building. The production, for a moment, impresses Kouyou; Kyouka’s elementary school had been small and in all honesty somewhat lazy, so its Sports Days had been more perfunctory than anything. On paper, this junior high isn’t much bigger, but the difference in effort and drive is at once obvious.

Today, even though it’s still early and plenty of people are still trickling in behind them, more heads pepper the area than Kouyou had anticipated. Groups of both adults and children are working on setting up tents, umbrellas, and seating along the grass. Chuuya heads straight for one such gathering, dragging both Dazai and Atsushi with him. Dazai starts to protest, then seems to notice—in the same instant Kouyou does—Kunikida among the teachers and drops any arguments. Atsushi has to stop to fix his shoelaces but otherwise nods along. It seems to be as much a physical means of waking himself up as it is in agreement.

With another sigh, this time more one of relief, Kouyou shifts her parasol to better block the still-rising sun and looks around. Familiar faces pop out in the crowd, but none return her stare. Until, that is, she feels an expectant gaze on her and twists to meet it.

It doesn’t take long for Kyouka to notice as well. Together, they walk toward Yosano, who steps away from the group of teachers, parents, and students gathered around the in-progress tents to meet them halfway.

“Hey,” she calls, cheerful, hands planted on her hips. Her outfit isn’t entirely unlike Kyouka’s, though a jacket is thrown over her shirt (and, Kouyou surmises, will be shed within several hours, if not just one) and her shorts are a hair more formal. “You two excited for today?”

Kyouka nods with a cheerful exuberance rare from her, pigtails bobbing. A smile tugs at Kouyou’s lips at the mere sight, and Yosano laughs in a similar fashion.

“Glad to hear it. This was always one of my favorite days when I was around your age too,” she says, glancing to the side with something wistful in her stare—to Kouyou’s surprise, there are darker undertones to it as well. Yosano coughs, though, and turns back around. “Anyway, Izumi, if you want to help out somewhere, it looks like Suehiro-sensei and Alcott-sensei could use some assistance over there.” She gestures to where the two in question are spreading out picnic sheets.

Kyouka glances that way, then at Kouyou, who nudges her shoulder. “By all means, feel free.”

That is enough to satisfy Kyouka—she hands Kouyou her events program, other hand remaining curled around her water bottle, and darts off in that direction. Her hair and headband flow after her as she moves. Kouyou shakes her head to herself but keeps an eye on her disappearing shape, keeping her head tilted at an angle where Kyouka stays in her field of view.

The sound of Yosano chuckling under her breath brings Kouyou’s attention flickering back to her, though her peripheral vision stays on Kyouka. With a huff, Kouyou folds the sheet of paper and tucks it into her sleeve. “She really was quite excited for today,” she says, watching Kyouka leap in. “I’m uncertain as to how many hours of sleep she managed last night, frankly.”

“Well, she doesn’t seem any worse off for it.” Yosano raises an eyebrow as Kyouka smooths out the corners of a sheet with military efficiency and stoicism. Then she glances back over to Kouyou, gaze more intense than Kouyou expects. “Hey,” she adds, softer.

With the setting, people milling about and stepping past them as the morning comes more and more alive, the most Kouyou can really do is smile. She covers it behind her sleeve, but her eyes crinkle with the force as she responds, “Hello.”

Yosano’s grin, too, widens for a split second. “Not that it’s not nice to see you and all,” she says, spreading her hands, “but it looks like Tsujimura-sensei and Naomi-chan could use some help over there, too.”

Kouyou takes no particular issue with being put to work in this context, and so she acquiesces with a simple nod and low scoff. Yosano accompanies her that way. Along with the other assortment of teachers and parents, they pitch in to set up a tent or two—it doesn’t seem to need to be such a group effort, but Kouyou had been invited to chip in, so she follows through with it.

Not everyone has that resolution, of course. In the distance, she keeps hearing Dazai’s voice followed by twin shouts of indignation from Chuuya and Kunikida. Atsushi seems to have broken from their group lest his hair get any whiter; he’s joined Kyouka and is nervously chatting with some of the teachers and parents. Kouyou doesn’t stray quite that far, but she also doesn’t intervene whatsoever. The extent of her participation is occasional eavesdropping—and silent agreement when she hears Chuuya say, “Kyouka is doing more work than you, for fuck’s sake” (and more reluctant concurrence when Dazai returns, “What else is new?”).

As the morning blooms into life and the vast majority of families accumulate around the field, the areas Kouyou can help with become far slimmer, so she opts to prepare on a more personal level in the interim. The sheets have all been spread out in the area behind the tents, Kyouka’s handiwork clear in their meticulous arrangement. Lunch is bound to be a rush of chaos and commotion, so Kouyou starts toward them to find a decent place to claim for later.

She stops, though, when she notices a familiar haori folded upon one. An impressed brow arches up. It’s the exact spot Kouyou would have gone for, with the amount of shade over it and the mat itself sprawling enough to fit their entire party and then some. With a silent nod, she adds her things to Kyouka’s.

By now, the children are arranging themselves into groups across the dirt, and their families are taking positions around the tents. Kouyou scans the crowd, but before she can find Kyouka, Kyouka finds her—and announces it with a tug on her sleeve.

Kouyou brings her eyes down. Kyouka’s cheeks are already flushed with exertion; she takes a few sips from her water bottle, already a quarter empty, before holding it up for Kouyou to take. With a half-bemused smile, Kouyou accepts it. She presses her free hand to Kyouka’s shoulder.

“Good luck, Kyouka,” she says. “Do us all proud.”

Kyouka nods, bows deeper, and then scurries off to join the other children on the field.

Only when she’s stopped does Kouyou turn away and make to gather the rest of her party. Again, though, they gather her more so than the other way around; Atsushi, noticeable in a crowd for the hair if nothing else, catches her eye and waves her over to where he and the other two are already tucked into the throng of people. Kouyou grimaces but joins them without complaint. Atsushi beams, Chuuya tips his hat, and Dazai gives some vaguely annoying greeting that Kouyou ignores.

She folds her parasol, satisfied enough with the shade provided, and tugs at the collar of her kimono at the building heat. Beside her, Chuuya shifts; much like Yosano, she suspects he’ll lose his jacket within the hour.

Kouyou’s gaze returns to the field, instantly falling upon Kyouka. From what little she’s said about the event in the past couple of month, Kouyou knows that she’d had the luck of winding up on a team with Aya as well as Q and Kenji’s classes. She’d seemed pleased with this much, even if she hadn’t been familiar with many other classmates of hers.

Right now, she and Aya, identifiable by the red hair and stocky build Kouyou has glimpsed only a few times, are standing side-by-side. Aya is talking, but Kyouka doesn’t seem to be responding or even listening. Her dark eyes are fixed forward instead, attention on a point in space that Kouyou doesn’t bother identifying. It seems to be more out of excitement than anxiety or discomfort, but standing in a crowd like this can’t be too appealing to her.

Briefly, her eyes catch Kouyou’s. Kouyou smiles, though she’s not sure if it’s visible across the distance. Regardless, something softens in Kyouka’s shoulders as she looks forward again.

The noise swelling among the students and watching families alike comes to an almost immediate halt when Fukuzawa appears. He has on an athletic headband that very much clashes with his usual traditional garb, and Kouyou’s eyes linger on it all throughout the speech he gives. In keeping with the conversations Kouyou has had with him, it is short and concise but invigorating nonetheless, filled with his typical seriousness and yet perhaps all the more profound for it. It inspires silence and rapt attention, at the very least, even from whom Kouyou takes to be the rowdiest of children.

He sinks into a short bow, haori flowing around him, and calls out one last thing: “All of you, do your best.”

Smatterings of applause ring out as he steps off to the side. Arms folded, he says something to one of the secretaries—Haruno, Kouyou thinks—who nods and steps over to switch out the music. An upbeat instrumental tune fills the air.

Even across the distance, Kouyou can see Kyouka’s face twitch with some mixture of boredom and grit as the students start into a stretching routine. The sun rises, the music swells, and Kouyou leans back for the ride.

*

When lunchtime rolls around, children at every end of the field are panting with exertion, staring each other down with fierce determination until the second they part. The mad rush of activity over the past several hours is a blur now, the distance and chaos lending themselves to little more than a vague impression of the sequence of events, backed only by the program still tucked into Kouyou’s sleeve.

From the looks of it, and the whispers among some of the other onlookers, victory could go to any of the three teams. Kouyou’s faith in Kyouka and her team, though, never wavers.

As soon as the announcement is made for the break, Kouyou is standing and striding toward the seat Kyouka had chosen for them, not looking to ensure the others are following but counting on it nonetheless. She unpacks the bag waiting there with brisk efficiency and takes a seat at the very edge of the mat. The places around her fill out after a few seconds’ delay.

Kyouka jogs over toward them with her water bottle in hand. Trace amounts of sweat slick her hair to her face and neck where the ponytails have fallen; as a whole, though, she seems far less put-out than many of her classmates. Her self-defense training is of course intended for situations far more serious than this, but it still appears to have a positive effect here.

The instant she joins the others, a flow of congratulations and praise greets her. Atsushi, the most tactile of them, outright tugs her into a side hug and ruffles her hair. Kyouka’s serious expression brightens under it all, but she maintains an air of flustered modesty.

Smiling, Kouyou holds out her bento, wrapped in rabbit-patterned fabric. “You have earned this break, child.”

With a pleased nod, Kyouka takes the box and takes a seat near the corner of the mat, Kouyou to one side and Atsushi to the other. Halfway through unwrapping her lunch, though, her head jerks to the side, and before Kouyou can so much as open her mouth Kyouka has already jolted to her feet.

“Be right back,” she says.

“Kyouka—” starts Kouyou, but she’s already darted off.

Kyouka’s bright headband, at least, serves as a flare that allows Kouyou to track her position. The angle and eventual distance prevent her from keeping too close a watch—all she can tell is that Kyouka hasn’t moved too far away and is approaching a figure too distant for Kouyou to discern. Anxiety prickles along Kouyou’s scalp. It is broad daylight, though, and a bustling school event besides; surely enough eyes are around that Kyouka won’t evade everyone’s line of sight.

Atsushi glances up. “Should I follow her?” he asks, worrying his chopsticks between his fingers.

“If it takes an exorbitantly long period of time for her to return, then yes,” decides Kouyou. To do something with her hands, she reaches to unwrap her own bento, tugging the floral-print silk open and letting it fall aside. “For the time being, however, I will wait to see what it is she clearly intends to do.”

“I guess.” Atsushi’s shoulders lower, but he keeps glancing around, a clear nervousness to his posture that Kouyou shares but keeps a tighter lid on.

Chuuya, watching Kouyou cautiously, untenses in a similar halfhearted manner. If Dazai has any such concerns, he doesn’t voice or show them, perhaps distracted by waving toward a figure that Kouyou recognizes after a blink as Oda, stepping away from a handful of students that had approached him. Oda doesn’t seem to catch the purpose of the gesture at first, just waving mildly back. When Dazai rolls his eyes and sweeps a hand toward the empty space between him and Atsushi, Oda pauses and makes his way over.

Kouyou gives Dazai an askance look but doesn’t protest Oda’s presence, gracing him with a small smile as he approaches. He’s dressed in more casual clothing than usual, though not quite the sportswear some of the other teachers have opted for. He nods toward Chuuya and Atsushi, then pauses for an instant upon glancing at Kouyou.

“Ozaki,” he says, nodding to her as well.

“Oda-san,” she returns, as warmly as she can manage for anyone besides her family members or select subordinates (or, at this point, Yosano).

He sits with unhurried ease. The space on the mat, exorbitant in theory, narrows further, and Oda’s eyes fall upon the blatant empty space, complete with an abandoned bento, between Kouyou and Atsushi. “Are you missing someone?”

“She went running off that way,” says Dazai, gesturing to the side. “We’re not sure why.”

“Ah.” Oda blinks, bemused, but seems to decide not to inquire any further. He settles back, folding his legs, and unwraps his bento. It looks store-bought, but a pink sticky note with a child’s awkward scrawl wishing him a good day has been stuck to the lid; clear fondness shoots through his expression before he sets it aside.

“You are missing several people as well, I see.” When Oda glances over at her, Kouyou clarifies, “Five of them, as a matter of fact. Your children did not accompany you?”

“Ah, no. Ango is watching them, since he didn’t have work today.” Dazai gives a mean snort and bats away the elbow it earns him from Chuuya. “They’ve already had all of their Sports Days, too, so I didn’t think they would be very interested in watching,” adds Oda, ignoring the boke and tsukkomi routine beside him. “The high school and junior high’s were both a few weeks ago, and Sakura’s was back in July.”

“Yikes, when it was so warm?” Atsushi cringes harder when Oda nods. “That’s rough. Did they have fun, at least?”

“Yes. Her team just barely lost, so I had tear stains on my shirt for the rest of the day, but it was otherwise enjoyable enough.”

“Oh,” says Atsushi, frowning a little. “That’s… good?”

“The tears were Kousuke-kun’s, not Sakura-chan’s,” Dazai adds cheerfully. “She was a pretty good sport, actually. It was her big brothers that got so invested that they ended up disappointed on her behalf.”

“Ah,” says Atsushi, seeming no less certain of how to react. He looks between Dazai and Oda, neither of whom speak up to offer any further information. “Um. What were Sports Days like when you were in school, Dazai-san?”

“Boring,” is his immediate reply.

Chuuya’s eye twitches. “So much so, apparently, that you started napping in the middle of the relay race two years in a row.”

“Yeah, exactly. All that dead weight was easier for Kunikida-kun to drag along, wasn’t it?”

“It literally was not.”

Atsushi seems to regret having posed any questions at all as the conversation devolves from there. Kouyou spares him a single look of commiseration before her attention drifts.

With the noise around them, it seems natural to peer at their surroundings. A few of the teachers are sitting among the students’ families or themselves, and some families are intermingling, exchanging dishes and laughter. Kouyou overhears passive-aggressive and earnest tones alike. Team rivalries in some cases, perhaps. Though few, if any, families seem as unconventional as Kouyou’s—not a single person sitting upon the mat (or absent from it) being related by blood, and quite a few not even by law—there is a cobbled-together feeling about the event as a whole, jagged pieces molded together by the festive spirit in the air.

A sharp voice in the distance has her eyes cutting that way, finding dark hair and a familiar smile. Kouyou’s gaze, for a split second, catches Yosano’s. She and Fukuzawa, along with Kunikida, Aya, and a teenage boy that must be his other adopted child, are sitting off in the distance, sharing a tray of tea and sweets. Yosano lowers her cup long enough to smile and nod. Kouyou nods back.

Her momentary distraction immediately catches Dazai’s attention. “Say, ane-san,” he says, sitting forward and ignoring or not even noticing the warning glance from Chuuya. Kouyou grimaces, regretting the indiscretion at once. “Doesn’t your girlfriend work here? Is she here today?”

“Girlfriend?” asks Oda idly, glancing toward Kouyou with subdued surprise—they aren’t too close, but he has known her almost as long as Chuuya and Dazai have, and Kouyou can’t even begin to guess what Dazai might have told him about her. Then something clears, and he nods. “Oh, Yosano did say something about that. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Oda-san.” The words leave Kouyou by instinct. Despite herself, she’s a bit touched.

That feeling dissipates as soon as Dazai cuts in. “Ahh, that’s right,” he says, shaking excess soy sauce from his sashimi, “you know her too. Maybe you should just introduce us, Odasaku, since obviously ane-san refuses to. I even got a name from you, and I never have from ane-san.”

“Because it’s none of your damn business,” says Chuuya with all the weariness of an argument that has been exhausted ten times over by now. Atsushi sighs, by now recognizing that tone as well as Kouyou.

“I just want to meet her as Odasaku’s colleague! I mean, it makes sense; I know Kunikida-kun—”

“We went to high school with him and you were on the student council together, of course you know him.”

“—and I’ve met Alcott-chan, Twain-kun, and Tsujimura-chan a few times,” says Dazai, moving past the interruption as though it had never happened, “and I even know the principal and the secretaries. Why shouldn’t I meet the school doctor too? Will you introduce us, Odasaku?”

Oda’s eyes flicker from Dazai, smiling, to Kouyou, smiling too but holding her chopsticks so tightly she half-fears the wood will splinter. “If Ozaki doesn’t want you to meet, then I probably shouldn’t.”

Kouyou thinks she should be forgiven for all but exuding smugness at that, tilting her chin up as she fixes Dazai with a pointed glare. “Thank you, Oda-san.”

Under two triumphant looks and two more sympathetic ones, Dazai clicks his tongue. “I’m just trying to put an end to your pathological delaying of the inevitable.”

“I do not need or want your help in that regard. If it is time for you two to meet, then you will—there is no use in forcing things.”

“If you say so,” says Dazai dubiously. He chokes down some of his sashimi before returning a thoughtful stare to her. “Oh, I see. Are you keeping your girlfriend away from me because you’re concerned I’ll steal her from you? Ane-san, I know I’m very charming, but—”

Kouyou doesn’t lower herself to whacking him atop the head in public, but luckily Chuuya has no such qualms and knocks his fist against his shoulder—or tries to, because Dazai is already sliding away with a brightening grin. Atsushi opens his mouth as if to somehow intervene. When Oda shakes his head, though, he becomes very interested in his rice instead.

“—I’m really not interested,” Dazai finishes with a condescending pat to the top of Chuuya’s head. He doesn’t dodge this punch, but it’s halfhearted enough to begin with that Kouyou suspects the effect is the same as if he had. “And I’m honored you would think so, but I’m not a homewrecker either.”

“Bullshit,” says Chuuya immediately. Dazai blinks at him, innocent and thereby fake as can be. “You broke up, like, five separate girls and their boyfriends in high school and then didn’t even date any of them. Or speak to them ever again.”

Atsushi looks alarmed. Oda doesn’t look surprised, but he sighs anyway. Kouyou had been updated on all of these incidents across the weeks they had taken place, so she just reaches for her tea.

“I barely remember that, so I don’t know how you do,” says Dazai, propping his chin up on his knuckles. “I’m flattered you were that obsessed with me back then, but—”

“Either way,” interrupts Kouyou before an important day for Kyouka can be ruined by two idiots getting into a fistfight on school grounds, “you are certainly not Yosano-sensei’s type, so that is far from a concern of mine. My reasoning for you two not meeting yet is simple: I do not want you to.”

Dazai looks like he wants to retort in some way, but the conversation dies there when Kyouka returns—with someone else in tow.

Kouyou glances up with surprise. The first time she had met Kenji in person had also been the last, but his smile is as sunny and bedimpled as it had been then. Sunscreen makes his freckles glow against his tan skin, no doubt the lingering result of the time he’d spent in the country over the summer. His hair is brushed out of his face with a white headband similar to Kyouka’s. The bento, twice the size of anyone else’s, held against his chest is wrapped in cloth decorated with sunflower designs.

Walking a few paces ahead, Kyouka is the first to reach the mat; when she does, she pauses and looks at Kouyou for, presumably, belated approval. However bemused she is, Kouyou nods.

“We’re eating right here,” Kyouka tells Kenji as he catches up, eyes darting over the several people already gathered. Atsushi’s chopsticks are frozen halfway to his mouth, a piece of rice falling back into the dish. “Sit wherever.”

Considering the limited amount of room still available, the offer is less generous than it seems at first blush. By the time Kyouka returns to her spot between Kouyou and Atsushi, gracing Kouyou with a grateful glance but otherwise not reacting at all to the situation, the only fourteen-year-old-sized space left is a narrow spot between Oda and Atsushi. Kenji takes it without hesitation, though, beaming all the while.

“It’s nice to meet you again, Ozaki-san,” he says with a cheerful dip of his head in her direction, as bright as the flowers swathing his bento. She manages to nod in return. “And I hope you’re having a nice afternoon so far, Oda-sensei! I didn’t know you knew Kyouka-chan’s family.”

Mostly, Oda knows Dazai, and the rest of them to a proportional varying degree, but he inclines his head as if he and Kouyou are lifelong acquaintances. “You seem to be having fun, Kenji. Is your family not here?”

“Oh, I live with my uncle when I’m in Yokohama, and he doesn’t really like things like this. He’s a detective, so he’s usually pretty busy too.” At the blinks this earns him, Kenji clasps his hands together. “It’s okay, though! Because I have all of my classmates, and all of the teachers, and everyone over here. Kyouka-chan’s family seems almost as big as mine, actually.”

An image flits through Kouyou’s mind: A photograph Kyouka had once shown her of Kenji surrounded by cows and similar golden-haired, grin-bearing figures in overalls and straw hats, a significant amount of them over the age of thirty-five. “From what I’ve heard, I doubt that.”

“Well, still, there’s more people than a lot of the other families here!” That much is true; a significant amount of other students seem to be only children, and some are accompanied by only one parent. “And it’s nice that you all came to support Kyouka-chan and the rest of our classmates.”

The three bemused stares, by now, have shifted from Kenji to Kouyou—out of the other three, she’s the least familiar with Kenji, so she doesn’t see why the onus of introductions falls to her, but she sighs and clears her throat. “Ah, yes. Kenji-kun, this is Chuuya, Dazai, and Atsushi-kun,” she says, gesturing to them each in turn before pointing her chopsticks back toward Kenji. “And this is Kenji-kun, a second-year student here as well as a friend of Kyouka’s.”

Kenji’s grin remains as he nods to everyone in the party, making sure to confirm their names and greet them each in turn. There are a few stutters in the process, the three who don’t already know him seemingly taken aback by his sunniness the way Kouyou had been months ago (and still is now), but it doesn’t throw Kenji off for an instant.

As much as his personality clashes with most of those among them, Kenji fits in surprisingly well. Perhaps the conversation is eased along by Kyouka’s open comfort around him, something up until now rare with peers, and Oda’s clear fondness toward him; in and of itself, though, Kenji’s welcoming and easygoing demeanor makes it near impossible to outright scowl in his presence.

Not so much as looking down at his—indeed decent-sized, even if the majority of the proper contents seem to be on the lighter side—bento, Kenji eats and chats with simultaneous ease. He’s an impressively clean and efficient eater as much as he is a pleasant and attentive conversationalist. The first thing he says to Chuuya is a compliment on his hat, which Chuuya doesn’t seem to know how to react to. When prompted by Atsushi about what he’d meant by when I’m in Yokohama, he chatters on about his hometown. Somehow, the topics spiral out from there, branching out like cobwebs that Kouyou can’t trace the exact threads of.

Kyouka is too focused on her meal to contribute much to the conversation, but once in a while she replies to Kenji, often in an offhanded and monosyllabic fashion but at least somewhat helpful regardless. Kouyou occupies a similar state of quiet observation, as does Oda, though perhaps he’s only attempting to maintain some degree of professionalism. It’s interrupted from time to time as Kenji takes the effort to engage with everyone at least a couple of times, whether to ask about their food or how they’re enjoying the festivities so far or how their summers were or, in the case of those he’s just met, what they do.

This question isn’t so problematic when it comes to Dazai and Atsushi, who even manage to stall things out by divulging from there (an abridged version of) how they’d met and how Atsushi had come to know Kouyou and Kyouka, but nothing stops Kenji’s wide, guileless eyes from falling upon Chuuya in the end and asking him the same. The distinctive chill that shoots through the air is one that is altogether lost on Kenji.

Never one to ignore an opportunity to be a gadfly, Dazai immediately frames his face with a hand. “Yeah, what do you do?”

“You don’t know either, Dazai-san?” asks Kenji, of course, blinking wide and open between them. Atsushi looks halfway to either burying his head in his hands or bursting out into song as a distraction.

Visibly restraining himself, Chuuya shapes a grimace into something approaching a smile and tightens his grip on his chopsticks rather than, Kouyou presumes, Dazai’s throat. “It’s… not really something I talk about, I guess.”

“Something that you don’t talk about?” Kenji frowns, thoughtful, and then straightens with a lightbulb all but glowing over his head. “Oh, I see! It’s okay, onii-san, you don’t have to tell me about it if you can’t. I’ve heard about these kinds of things.”

The address has Chuuya making a face somewhere between flattery, considering he would be approaching oji-san years if not for his height, and discomfort, considering even ninety-percent of the Mafia calls him by his first name and an honorific. “You… have,” he echoes flatly.

Kenji nods, stars shimmering in his eyes, and leans forward to whisper, “You’re a secret agent, right, onii-san?!”

Whatever tension had descended upon them bursts. Dazai doesn’t have to cloak his laughter as a coughing fit, but only because he actually chokes and has to turn away. The expressions on Kyouka and Oda’s faces are the exact same.

Chuuya himself only stares, at a seeming loss for words. Kouyou can see the exact moment he decides to just go with it from how his eyes narrow and he sags forward with a sigh. “Yeah, sure, something like that.”

Though his expression is shining all the brighter, Kenji mimes zipping his lips and dances on to another topic.

Kenji’s food vanishes in only a few more minutes, without a single drop spilled. (Even Kyouka seems a bit startled at that—when she notices every segment of his bento is empty, she pauses before redoubling her own efforts. Kouyou tells her not to make herself sick.) He carries on without so much as blinking, setting aside the box to allow for a more comfortable position but otherwise not impeded in the slightest.

Kouyou stays only on the very outskirts of the stream of conversation, intervening when addressed and on few other occasions. Unexpected guests aside, there is something overall pleasant and even comforting about the break. Relaxation is surely the opposite effect intended to wash over the students, but Kyouka and Kenji seem as chipper as ever in their individual ways—perhaps it’s just from an observer’s perspective, then, but either way Kouyou allows herself to settle into it.

When the time comes around to return to the day’s activities, Oda is the first to react; he gathers up his things with brisk efficiency, thanks Kouyou, and heads off to regroup with his fellow teachers, waving in response to Dazai, Atsushi, and Kenji’s voiced farewells. In his absence, Kyouka and Kenji start cleaning up after themselves without so much as a look of encouragement.

It soon becomes clear that perhaps all the food had had a more pressing impact on Kenji than had at first been evident, judging from his string of drawn-out yawns as he goes through the motions. Kyouka glances at him in concern.

“It’s okay,” he says, though it isn’t quite believable from the yawn he has to swallow halfway through. “I just get sleepy after I eat sometimes. But I can sleep on the train ride home! There’s always a nice lady who shakes me awake at my stop. Right now, I just need to keep going so I can help my team win this.” He stretches his arms out.

“What an admirable spirit you have.” Kouyou frowns in thought, though, and surprises even herself by adding, “If you are in need of a ride home, however, you’re more than free to come with us after all wraps up here.”

Kenji blinks at her with wide eyes. “Ooh, really? The train is fine, really, but I would appreciate that! I’ve only ridden in an actual car a few times,” he says in a wondering tone.

Atsushi stares as though it’s only now sinking in what a country boy Kenji really is, despite him having talked for twenty minutes about the remote village he’d grown up in. Though Chuuya twitches a little, he doesn’t speak up to contradict Kouyou’s offer. Kouyou sees the possible future in which she begins leading frequent carpools for junior high school students and grimaces, but she doesn’t take it back either.

“I’ll come with you guys later, then, if it’s okay,” says Kenji, looking around the group. When Kouyou nods, he smiles and stands so he can properly bow. “Thank you, Ozaki-san, and thank you all for letting me eat with you too—it was really fun! Of course who wins matters less than just enjoying ourselves and doing our best—” several people in the vicinity, Kouyou included, suppress scoffs “—but I hope you’ll all keep cheering our team on anyway.”

“Of course!” bursts Atsushi, impressionable and excitable as ever. Having him and Kenji in the same vehicle, Kouyou realizes, may not be the wisest of decisions. “Good luck, Kenji-kun. You’ve been doing really well so far, and what’s most important is that you’re working hard and having fun!”

“Right, right?” Grinning with delight from cheek to cheek, Kenji nods. Kyouka shuffles on her feet with a half-disgruntled expression. A call in the distance has Kenji’s eyes darting in that direction. “Ah,” he says, giving another quick bow, “but I really should go now, so I’ll see you all later!”

He rushes off. Atsushi lifts a halfhearted hand in a wave; as a whole, the five still gathered take a moment to adjust and shake the afterimage.

Kyouka ducks her head. “Thank you,” she repeats. She lifts her chin, eyes flashing. “We will win.”

A smile, calm but fierce, splits across Kouyou’s face. “You most certainly will,” she says, echoing the confidence in Kyouka’s voice, and Kyouka nods again before darting away to catch up with Kenji.

This time Atsushi manages an impressed smile. Kouyou’s own settles into place, perhaps not a permanent fixture but sure to be a long-lasting one, and she returns to tidying up their things.

*

For the first time all afternoon, the field is quiet and calm, yet the certain undercurrent of a storm hangs thick around it. Having wrapped up the last of their activities, the student body stands across the field in the formation they’d started it out in, some having to lean on teammates to stand upright but all facing the crowd with varying degrees of dignity and confidence. Fukuzawa stands before them all, arms crossed and haori, kept on despite the rising heat and humidity, fluttering around him.

“Today,” he says, voice ringing out clear and commanding, “you all have applied yourselves admirably. You have demonstrated teamwork, cooperation, diligence, creativity, and strength, both physically and of character. Only one of the three teams can claim victory, but that does not mean that only that team can pull pride and value from today. Regardless of the results, know that you have done your families and your classmates proud. You have done me and my staff proud as well. Remember that, and do not look back on today with sorrow and regret but accomplishment and drive.”

Students swallow and fidget. Some of the third-years are already tearing up, wiping their noses with the backs of their hands and smearing more dust across their faces than snot. Kouyou’s attention narrows in on Kyouka, standing stoic and firm among her teammates. Her jaw is set and her eyes are forward, but they don’t seem focused on anything in particular.

That confidence from earlier, never quite dulled even with the distinctive disadvantage the tug-of-war half an hour earlier had given Kyouka’s team, sets back in. Kouyou closes her eyes and tilts her head forward.

“It is with great pride in all of you and your accomplishments, then, as well as humility and respect,” continues Fukuzawa, “that I announce today’s winner.” If anyone hadn’t already fallen stiff and silent, now they do. Fukuzawa closes his eyes and lowers his head. Then, whip-quick, he turns and proclaims: “Congratulations to the Red Team!”

For a split second, there’s no sound at all. The air itself stands still as everyone processes the statement, letting it sink in, thoughts echoing it beneath roaring heartbeats.

Then, with all the force and volume of an explosion, cheers burst from every direction. Some are rough around the edges from the cheering the children and their families have been doing throughout the afternoon, including the intense relay race that had closed out the event—Atsushi’s, all the more noticeable for being very close to Kouyou’s ear, is one such cry. Fukuzawa seems to have intended to say something more, but he steps back and allows everyone their celebration and grief.

Kouyou barely registers the movement, eyes glued again only to Kyouka as a smile splits her face. The sheer noise seems to have caught Kyouka off-guard, but when the surprised discomfort settles, she’s glowing as much as any of her classmates, face halfway to a smile. The cluster of students composing her team dissolves into a tangle of limbs as part collapses and the rest double in energy.

Vindicated pride must be radiating off of Kouyou where she stands. She can’t bring herself to rein it in, only slipping a fan from her sleeve to combat some of the mid-afternoon heat.

“You’re not subtle at all, ane-san,” Dazai tells her in an undertone.

“Must I be?” she returns airily, hair stirred by her absent fanning. “Kyouka and her team have achieved a great deal. Besides, nothing about this situation calls for subtlety.”

She snaps her fan shut and gestures with it toward the field, where two-thirds of the students are ducking their heads in defeat and the other third are raising theirs in victory. On every team, few eyes and noses are dry and few mouths are closed.

The celebration is short-lived, but its spirit carries through the subsequent cleanup. Taking everything down takes more effort and manpower than putting it up had, and so it takes a significant stretch of time to restore the field to its previous state, even with the entirety of the faculty, students, and guests contributing. Though the children are sweaty—and some, no matter whether their team had won or lost, have tears mixed in with perspiration—and lethargic, they’re no less determined. The announcement and Fukuzawa’s tone seem to have instilled a drive in everyone anew, and soon even those on the losing teams are talking and running about with their competitors.

Kyouka is one of those students that seems more invigorated now than ever, mingling among her classmates and accepting congratulations with modest nods and quick smiles, applying herself with all the force of an hour earlier. At one point, Kouyou glimpses her giving Q a piggyback ride while also helping gather up what little garbage remains.

Perhaps as a result of this, there is a drool stain on Kyouka’s shoulder when she sidles back up to Kouyou as families—including Q and their indeed very objectively intimidating guardian, to whose back they’ve been transported—drift away. Only a smattering of tents and other Sports Day structures and decorations remain, and the onus of taking them down seems to have been shunted onto the staff and some lone parents. Kouyou hangs back, poised to assist if called upon but otherwise taking the moment to congratulate Kyouka.

Squeezing sweat out of her hair and sipping at what’s left of her water, Kyouka accepts this with the same blush and tiny smile Kouyou has witnessed from her several times over. The fierce pride and confidence she emits, though, is of the same shade as Kouyou’s.

Aya comes up to them for a moment, chatting with Kyouka about the day and how cool her judo teammates thought Kyouka was during the relay race and how she can’t wait to do this again last year. Kyouka bobs and shakes her head along but doesn’t say much herself. Though Kouyou steps to the side to allow them some veneer of privacy, it doesn’t seem to matter much to either of them, and she listens in as much as she can tolerate.

The conversation doesn’t last long, eight minutes at most. “Aya!” calls a voice in the distance, either Kunikida’s or his son’s, and Aya shouts back a sharp “Just a minute!” before telling Kyouka goodbye and rushing off.

“Lively as ever, that one,” Kouyou says, watching her go. She glances to the side to see a blur of white hair darting toward them to take Aya’s place. “That one, too.”

Kyouka follows her gaze and braces herself. They both wince at the too-loud greeting of Kyouka’s name, followed by a string of congratulations and compliments that grow increasingly more watery, as Atsushi seems far more emotional about the victory than either Kouyou or Kyouka. The display does at least bring Chuuya and Dazai back over, the latter laughing at Atsushi’s sentimentality and subsequent embarrassment alike.

As promised, Kenji joins them then. It’s clear that he’s worn out—no doubt from aiding in the cleanup more so than any other student, displaying an impressive amount of strength and resolve—but his eyes are sparking with life still as he steps over, hands behind his back and smile as broad as ever. Kouyou is well aware that she is a very intimidating individual, but she thinks that innocent, sunny smile may be even more daunting.

“Thank you again for letting me ride back with you, Kouyou-san, Chuuya-san,” he says, bowing to them each. Kouyou accepts it with a thin smile; Chuuya looks a touch more uncomfortable but tilts his head back in acknowledgment all the same. “I really appreciate it.”

“Say, ane-san,” cuts in Dazai, either feigning disinterest or actually bored, poking around on his phone, “weren’t you planning on taking us out for some big dinner or something? Either to celebrate Kyouka-chan’s team’s victory, or to make up for their loss, right?”

“I only planned for the former,” says Kouyou with a warning frown that goes ignored, “but yes, that was the intention.” A meaningful look has her pausing, and she glances over to Kenji, who is blinking as though not following the train of thought. Kouyou clears her throat and glances at Kyouka, then back to Kenji. “Would you care to join us for that, Kenji-kun?”

Kenji lights up even more. “If you wouldn’t mind, then sure! I am pretty hungry again, actually,” he says with an unabashed smile. Kouyou is certain she isn’t alone in wondering how he could be, but no one voices such a thought. “Thank you all so much for your generosity. Can I borrow one of your phones to let my uncle know?”

He seems to be aiming this at Dazai, who is visibly holding his, but it’s Kyouka who answers by handing hers over with a neutral expression. Unperturbed, Kenji thanks her and wanders off to make a call.

Atsushi smiles after him, then blinks and turns toward Kouyou. “Um, were you thinking of going to anywhere in particular?”

She hadn’t, she realizes, but it takes no time to respond: “That decision, I believe, is in Kyouka’s hands.”

Watching Kenji out of the corners of her eyes out of what Kouyou assumes to be protectiveness over her phone, Kyouka straightens the slightest bit. “I want tofu,” she decides, absent.

“You shall have all the tofu you desire, then. You have most certainly earned it,” Kouyou tells her, smiling bright and open.

Off to the side, Kenji laughs, says something, and then hangs up. Kouyou’s eyebrows arch at his efficiency. He rejoins them and hands Kyouka back her phone. She takes it with the gingerness with which she always handles it, nodding at him again before putting it away.

“My uncle is fine with me coming as long as you drop me off before nine,” Kenji tells the group, cheery as ever.

Needing no further cue, Chuuya reaches for his keys in his coat—and, after thirty solid seconds of increasingly frustrated fruitless searching, snatches them out of Dazai’s extended hand—and strides off. The others trail behind, Dazai with laughter (that Kenji echoes in a far more pleasant cadence) and Atsushi with a sigh. Though she’s used to leading, Kouyou lets herself fall to the back, guiding Kyouka with a hand to her shoulder.

Kouyou’s phone buzzes as they walk, and with a pause she pulls it free and unlocks it. I have to go to a staff meeting so I can’t snag you in person, unfortunately, reads the message waiting for her there, but I wanted to tell you to tell Izumi congratulations from me, if you don’t mind. Her team did great, and their victory was every bit deserved—no bias on my part in saying that, of course. Great work, and enjoy the rest of your evenings!

Before she even feels it, Kouyou’s smile has spread from cheek to cheek. She glances higher up in their text history, but the latest message obscures anything but quick goodbyes from their last conversation, so with a huff Kouyou holds the phone out to Kyouka. “Yosano-sensei has a message to pass onto you,” she says when Kyouka blinks.

Interest flashes across Kyouka’s face, and she takes the phone. Less than a minute later, she’s passing it back over with her head lowered, a flush high in her cheeks, and a smile stretching across her face. “Tell her thank you,” she mumbles. “And that she doesn’t have to call me Izumi.”

“Oh? All right.” Kouyou has heard Yosano address Kenji by his given name—in fact, come to think of it, Kouyou isn’t even certain what his surname is—so she doubts it’ll be too much of a problem. Still, she pauses for a fraction of a second as she types the message out, rephrasing two times over and checking with Kyouka before she sends it.

Her gaze filters toward the sky, fading from afternoon to evening, blue in the process of being washed out by orange and pink and purple. Faint stars are starting to creep into visibility.

Kouyou lets the smile on her lips soften, tucks her phone away, and continues onward.

thanks for reading; see you thursday! as always, if you have the time, any thoughts are very appreciated~ twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
1. Chapter 1 7533 0 0 2. Chapter 2 9781 0 0 3. Chapter 3 7942 0 0 4. Chapter 4 7673 0 0 5. Chapter 5 7397 0 0 6. Chapter 6 8166 0 0 7. Chapter 7 11242 0 0 8. Chapter 8 14519 0 0 9. Chapter 9 7769 0 0 10. Chapter 10 10079 0 0 11. Chapter 11 8041 0 0 12. Chapter 12 11189 0 0 13. Chapter 13 11128 0 0 14. Chapter 14 8922 0 0 15. Chapter 15 9885 0 0 16. Chapter 16 8226 0 0 17. Chapter 17 12887 0 0 18. Chapter 18 8330 0 0 19. Chapter 19 15146 0 0 20. Chapter 20 17299 0 0 21. Chapter 21 18177 0 0 22. Chapter 22 8794 0 0 23. Chapter 23 13959 0 0 24. Chapter 24 10162 0 0 25. Chapter 25 12723 0 0 26. Chapter 26 8403 0 0 27. Chapter 27 24347 0 0 28. Epilogue 3365 0 0