the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 19 chapter cws: past character death, grief, mentions of violence, and a brief implication of underage drinking.

It’s early in the morning, and the graveyard is all but silent. Traces of dark purple are still in the sky, the air is crisp and chilly, and the dew hasn’t yet peeled itself from the leaves. Save for the two figures standing before the grave of a young couple, the area is empty—or, as far as they’re concerned, it may as well be.

It is Kyouka’s thirteenth birthday, but none would know that from looking at her, let alone seeing her here. Her kimono is dark and subdued, and her expression is much the same. At her side, Kouyou is just as much of a ghost aesthetically, looking to Kyouka for support more so than the other way around.

There are four occasions on which Kyouka visits this cemetery: The autumn and spring equinoxes, Obon, and her birthday. On neither instance so far has she asked to visit on the anniversary of their deaths, and Kouyou has no reason to imagine she will in the near future. But two years ago, still often listless and withdrawn, Kyouka had made one of the first requests she ever had: To be brought here on her birthday.

It had shocked Kouyou for more than one reason, but she’d had little choice to agree. When the date had rolled around, they’d ridden to the graveyard in silence. Some part of Kouyou had worried that perhaps it was a sign Kyouka had grown weary of living with her, although the formal adoption process had already been completed and Atsushi’s presence had begun coaxing her out of her shell, so she’d contributed to the quiet tension just as much as Kyouka. From getting into the car to approaching the headstone, though, Kouyou had followed Kyouka’s lead every step of the way.

Any fears had melted away when Kyouka had crouched before the grave and spoken in a soft and tight but steady voice about where she was living now, and all of the things Kouyou and Chuuya and everyone else had done for her thus far. How she missed her parents a great deal and always would, and she wasn’t sure if she was happy yet, nor if she would be in the same way ever again, but for now, she was all right. And she would continue to be so long as she stayed where she was.

When she’d stood, wiping away what few tears had been shed, Kouyou had embraced her (and let go as soon as Kyouka had gone limp with surprise), then taken her out for tofu. They had both been lighter in several senses for days on end.

The next year, the pattern had repeated, and by now it seems to have become a proper tradition. Why Kyouka has chosen it, Kouyou isn’t certain—she’s not sure that there is a solid reason behind it besides Kyouka wanting to spend at least part of her birthday with her parents. No matter what, Kouyou is more than willing to support it.

Today, she hangs back as Kyouka cleans the grave, dutifulness and tenderness shining through in each motion, no matter how minor. She takes her time washing the marker, pink-tipped fingers brushing along the engraved lettering, and tugging out the handful of weeds that have sprung up around the base where it joins with the ground. Her care increases tenfold as she places the incense and flowers (hydrangeas, blue and purple petals as delicate and prideful as the jut of Kyouka’s chin) in their designated spots.

Only then does she glance toward Kouyou. Taking the cue, Kouyou leans forward to light the incense in a swift, practiced motion. Kyouka nods, grateful, and then sits.

She clasps her hands together and lowers her head. “Good morning,” she greets, as though she’s having any other conversation. The only sign of anxiety in her rigid body is the rhythmic curling of her fingertips into each other and back again. Her voice is a gentle murmur, but the wind and surrounding silence carry it well—Kouyou considers stepping away to allow her a modicum of privacy, but if Kyouka wanted that, she would ask Kouyou to leave, as has happened before. “I have been busy with school, and Kouyou-san has been busy with work, but I wanted to see you today. It’s my birthday—I’m thirteen now. Atsushi and Dazai-san usually ask if I feel older, but I don’t think I ever really have. It always feels the same as the day before.”

Kyouka’s head lilts forward. “You used to ask that too sometimes. I think,” she appends after a brief pause. “My memory is good, but there are some things that I can’t remember that clearly sometimes.” She adjusts her posture, shoulders drooping and straightening again. “But I can still picture your faces, and hear your voices, and think about all of the time we spent together when we still could.”

She tucks a few stray strands of hair behind her ear, the gesture instantly nullified when the wind stirs them right back out into her face. Kyouka exhales as if in restraint and drops her hands back to their clasped position.

“I miss you,” she says. She’s still barely speaking above a whisper, but the words are the most forceful she’s spoken thus far. “I don’t think about you all the time like I thought I would at first, but I still think about you a lot. What happened shouldn’t have.” Kyouka reaches up to tug at one of her hair ties. “But it did, and I can’t change that. Someone might have been able to then, but no one can now. And I do not have to be okay with that—” practiced ease rings through her tone “—but I can accept it.

“And—” She lowers her head, ears going pink the way they always do when she gets to this part of the one-sided conversation. “And I am happy where I am now. With Kouyou-san and everyone else. I’m sorry you had to leave me, and sometimes it still hurts that you aren’t here. But in a way, you are, because I am.”

A hand folds over Kyouka’s heart, squeezing the silk of her kimono. “It took me a while to see it,” she adds, “but there is still hope and light in the world. It shines on me every day. I hope that, wherever you are, it’s shining on you too.”

Kyouka presses her fingers to her lips, then presses her fingers to the engravings of her parents’ names. She sits there, bent forward, for a moment. When Kouyou leans to the side, she can see that Kyouka is smiling, a sad twist to it, and tears are sparkling at the corners of her eyes, which are closed tight. Slowly, she takes in breath after breath, then swipes her sleeve across her face and stands.

“I will return,” she tells the grave. Then she steps back, falling in line with Kouyou, and curls against her side to chase either her warmth or comfort. Both are things Kouyou wants for, but she does her best to provide what she can all the same, leaning back and curling an arm around Kyouka’s shoulders in support.

After a long few seconds like that, Kyouka mumbles, “Okay. We can go.”

She looks ready to march off, but Kouyou pats her arm. “Not until the incense is done burning.” At this rate it’ll be quite a few minutes before that happens, though. There’s little else to do in the graveyard except—

Carefully, Kouyou steps forward. She pauses there, making sure that Kyouka can sway back to a proper posture; when Kyouka’s feet have steadied, Kouyou kneels before the Izumis’ grave.

Kyouka’s wide stare burns into the back of her head. “What—?”

Kouyou adjusts her sleeves. “It simply occurred to me,” she says, addressing Kyouka but looking at the grave still, “that I’ve never spoken to them like this before.” It’s true, mostly; the funeral had been brief and small, with not even Kyouka present. And on any occasion when she and Kyouka have visited, Kouyou has let Kyouka say her piece—whether up close or at a distance—gathered up the garbage, and left. She’s never seen any particular purpose in the practice, too sentimental and weepy for her liking, but watching Kyouka…

Well, there are perhaps a few things she should let her old friends know as well. (Although the plural is perhaps an overstatement, considering she had known Suzu best; her husband had been more of an accessory.)

Kyouka takes the explanation with a nod, falling back. She had not asked Kouyou to step away, so neither does Kouyou ask that of her. Besides, perhaps this is information Kyouka should hear as well.

Kouyou’s eyes run along the characters etched into the stone. She can give speeches and project her presence all she wants in any number of other situations, but here she feels humble and small in a way that’s quite alien to her. The past few months, though—and before that, the past few years—have been an exercise in adjusting to the strange and new. So she relaxes her shoulders, sets her jaw, and speaks.

“Good morning,” she starts, echoing Kyouka. Her voice rings out crisp and clear, and Kouyou inclines her head, smile small but firm. “It has been some time, I am afraid. But I shan’t bore you with discussions of the past, particularly not my own—the focus of this conversation ought to be Kyouka and the two of you.”

That unease sets back in, cold and uncomfortable. Kouyou dismisses it with a steadying inhale. “Kyouka has been doing well, as she has informed you.” Pride glows from every centimeter of her being. “She is a model student as well as an everyday fixture of brightness in the lives of those around her. Her social circle has even been expanding as of late; by very little intervention of my own, quite a few more tragic youths have found their way into the fold. I’m sure that will not surprise you.” A chuckle pulls itself from her throat. “She has always been dedicated and strong, and that determination and hard work only shine more and more with age.

“Part of that growth has been physical, albeit not necessarily height-wise yet. There have been several troubling incidents in the past few months, but Kyouka has handled them swiftly and efficiently.” A muscle in Kouyou’s jaw twitches, and she moves on without delving into further detail. “She has been excelling in the martial arts and self-defense training you no doubt would have pursued for her as well, although I suspect you two may have been less thorough than I must be. At any rate, she has shown outstanding progress. I daresay she could even defeat me in hand-to-hand combat someday if she continues along this track.

“All in all,” says Kouyou, keeping her spark of amusement at bay, “I couldn’t be prouder, a sentiment that I am sure you both can agree with. Nor could I ever say that I regret taking her in.” She smooths her hands over her kimono, fabric soft and unwrinkled against her cold, rough fingers. “Kyouka is a delightful, remarkable girl, and it fills me with joy to be able to claim some responsibility for raising her.”

Behind her, the ground shuffles, but Kouyou doesn’t bask in the thought long; her smile twists down, and her eyes lower. “But while I am on the topic…” She takes a deep, sharp breath. “I still am not certain why it was me you chose for this task. Though you both of course lacked in biological family, surely you had closer friends, more well-equipped acquaintances, coworkers you trusted more—any number of names that could have been inscribed in your wills rather than mine. Yet you placed some amount of faith in me to care for Kyouka as any blood relation would have.

“I cannot deny that I have broken that trust on more than one occasion.” Her nails dig into her palms as the vacant wonder in her tone curves into something more bitter. “At first and even now, the thought often strikes me of how many homes would have been a better fit for Kyouka. However, even so…” She exhales. “I am grateful, endlessly so, that it was me who you entrusted Kyouka to. I cannot say I understand it, nor that I would have agreed with or accepted the decision had I known about it beforehand, but your daughter has become an integral part of my life. In fact, now I cannot imagine a version of it without her.”

Her voice cracks slightly, at once embarrassing and humbling. Kouyou lowers her head. Kyouka’s stare is once again palpable, singing the back of her neck, but she neither speaks nor moves closer.

Resummoning her smile, Kouyou brings her chin back up. “My decisions have not always been the wisest, nor have I always treated Kyouka with the respect, understanding, and affection that she deserves. For that, no atonement will ever be enough. I do not expect to earn Kyouka’s full forgiveness, so to ask for yours would be inane.” That shifting sounds from behind her again, and Kouyou squares her shoulders in an attempt to stave off any comfort for the time being. “But I have tried, and I will continue to try as long as Kyouka is in my care.”

She and Kyouka, Kouyou will be the first to say, have changed each other’s lives, be it for better or worse in the end. Never before has she felt that sentiment so wholly and so brutally as she does now.

She clears her throat and plucks at her collar. “I suppose I have little else to say in that regard without coming across as repetitive or maudlin. So in the end, there is only one thing I can say: Thank you. For everything.” The words are little more than breaths, so quiet that after she’s spoken Kouyou isn’t even sure if they’d been audible. But they linger in the air, leaving tranquility and surety behind.

When Kouyou leans back, she blinks at the warmth that seems to radiate off the grave before her, combating the bite of the November morning. Coincidence, she’s sure, or her imagination, but it prompts a thin smile all the same. A certain lightness settles over her—closure, perhaps, in a more quantifiable sense than she’s ever managed before.

With slow, careful movements, Kyouka comes to sit beside her. Her hands curl in her lap, and she studies her parents’ grave with a tender but clear gaze, eyes wide and mist-free. Silence swells back up around them.

After a moment, Kyouka leans her side against Kouyou’s. Kouyou doesn’t hesitate in wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Her hand curves up to pat Kyouka’s head.

They wait out the burning of the incense like that, almost suspended in time, still and unspeaking. No further words are exchanged; they aren’t necessary.

Kyouka is the first to rise, suppressing a delicate cough at the smoke. Kouyou soon follows. Once they’ve cleaned up after themselves, she pauses before Kyouka and extends her hand. It takes a few seconds for Kyouka, giving her parents’ grave one last thoughtful stare, to notice—when she does, she blinks, looks away with a hint of embarrassment, and takes Kouyou’s hand with performative reluctance.

Kouyou supposes it would have taken a great deal of wishful thinking for the teenage spirit to wait to crack through. She squeezes Kyouka’s frail, calloused hand, though, and together, chilled by the air but warmed by the time spent at the grave of a couple taken too young, they walk back to the car.

*

Kouyou’s house tends to be a quiet place. The people who are in it, more often than not, are quiet, either by nature or because of the company they find within, years of familiarity smoothing out time spent together and downplaying any need to fill space. Even for visitors, Kouyou’s presence and the looming impression of the decor create an environment that encourages tranquility (or at least enough intimidation to simulate it). The very structure of the house, walls thick and acoustics often poor, falls in line with this.

Quietness within Kouyou’s house, in short, is average. Tonight, then, is anything but.

That applies for more reasons than one, most primary among them being the nature of the evening and the number of people within, the ostensible source of the higher-than-typical noise levels. Conversation and laughter stretch about the kitchen and dining room, the overall energy far more than Kouyou is used to. That, Kouyou will allow, is more on behalf of the several children scattered about than the additional adults, though she’s sure some of the latter are contributing all the same.

Positioned near the doorway between the kitchen and the side room, Kouyou observes the scene before her with some degree of detachment. Though it is taking place in her house, it is far from an event she arranged, nor one she would have allowed in advance without significant had she known of its caliber, so she feels a certain distance from the proceedings before her. Now that they are in full swing, though, she makes no effort to slow or stop them.

Even if she tried, she doubts she could go through with it, she thinks as her eyes return as ever to Kyouka, seated at a counter across the room. Atsushi is beside her, and Akutagawa beside him, a combination that has grown explosive—in an almost literal sense—more than once. Yet the relaxed, cheerful expression has not once fallen from Kyouka’s face.

Of the three birthdays Kyouka has had with her, this is by far the most theatrical. Last year, Kouyou had taken Kyouka and Atsushi out for dinner and little else. The year prior, they hadn’t even gone out, in part because then Kouyou hadn’t yet been willing to set aside work for more than an hour or two and in part because Kyouka hadn’t known if she could handle it. Atsushi had been by, as had Chuuya and Dazai, but it overall hadn’t been much of a production past the morning visit to the Izumis’ graves.

Tonight, people are scattered throughout the kitchen, voices and cheer alike hanging in the air. Confetti is still strewn about from the handheld cannons that had been set off when Kouyou and Kyouka had returned from the twenty-minute drive Atsushi had texted to advise them to take. (Kouyou has already made it clear that only those whose fault the confetti had been will be cleaning it up. Only the look on Kyouka’s face had kept her from wringing multiple necks then and there.) Presents, to be transported upstairs come the night’s end, have been set in the side room for now. Cake had been promised, but Kouyou had yet to unveil it on behalf of, out of all who had already arrived and are now sprawled across the room, one particular invitee’s absence.

As if on cue, the doorbell rings, and for the first time since Kouyou had reentered, all goes silent. Several people tense to attention; Kouyou waves them aside with a surreptitious eyeroll, stopping the scramble before it can begin by murmuring, “I’ll get it.” She is the ostensible host, after all, even if her house doesn’t feel as if it’s under her control right now. Whatever suits Kyouka’s wishes, though.

The chance to slip down the hallway and buffer some of the din, at any rate, is an appreciated one. Kouyou rubs at her temple, anticipating a headache to accompany her tomorrow, and reaches for the doorknob.

What first catches her eyes is the sprawl of the sky above—darker than she’d frankly expected it to be with how little time seems to have passed since she last looked, but still halfway sunlit. Not more than a smattering of seconds, though, pass before Kouyou drops her gaze to the smiling face below.

When their eyes meet, that smile stretches wider. “Hey,” says Yosano.

“Hello,” returns Kouyou, allowing for a thin smile of her own, though she can almost feel her weariness slip through.

Yosano shifts on her feet. She’s dressed in the business casual style Kouyou has come to expect from her in such contexts, although the sleeves of her light jacket and the button-down beneath are rolled up past her elbows. Her arms are crossed behind her back, the tension to her shoulders and contortion of her forearms suggesting it’s not a mere postural choice. She doesn’t call attention to them, so neither does Kouyou, though she does spare a curious look.

It goes ignored as Yosano’s eyes flicker to the side, past Kouyou’s shoulders. A shout inside indicates either a fight breaking out, some sort of short-lived celebration, or something breaking (the option Kouyou most hopes it isn’t, for it would result in someone’s head being severed from their neck, and that would put a real damper on the event). Either way, Kouyou can’t hide her grimace, nor can Yosano hide her again broadening grin.

“So this really is a party, huh?” she prompts, tilting her head.

A sigh has Kouyou’s shoulders falling. “Some of my subordinates are rowdier than others,” is her only attempt at explanation, “and a couple of Kyouka’s friends are here as well.”

“I see. More of an ordeal than you expected it to be?”

Kouyou shakes her head the slightest bit, not really disagreeing or agreeing, and steps back, taking up a position against the wall a meter or two away. Yosano tugs the door shut behind her with a thankful nod. She only smiles in response to Kouyou’s quirked eyebrow and attention upon her shoulders and goes about getting her shoes off without bringing it up.

With a soft huff, Kouyou leans back. A bit of shifting and the angle would make it more than easy enough to see behind Yosano’s back, but her intent to hide it is clearer than anything, so for now she will respect that. Should all progress normally, she’ll find out soon enough anyway.

“We finished up with presents a few minutes ago,” she says, turning her gaze to the wall opposite her, “but there should be no problems with prolonging that period.”

“Ah, good. It’d be a bit awkward to carry it around like this all night.” Yosano manages to step out of her flats without once moving her hands, an admittedly impressive feat, but she still turns, each movement meticulous, so her back isn’t visible when she joins Kouyou in the hall. “I didn’t have time to put it in a box or anything, unfortunately—will that be all right?”

“Of course. At least one of the others here might have been better off not wrapping their gifts, frankly.” Kouyou thinks of Tachihara’s clumsy wrapping job with a grimace, then shakes herself. “Shall we?”

Yosano inclines her head, shifting her shoulders, and follows Kouyou down the hall back toward the kitchen. When Kouyou reaches the doorway, Kyouka’s head is already turned in her direction. Kouyou crooks her finger, and no matter how her brow furrows, Kyouka immediately jumps down and scurries over, not so much as bothering with goodbyes. Atsushi jolts a little, but when he sees Kouyou he settles. Kouyou graces him with a thin smile before twisting back toward Yosano, who crosses the remainder of the hallway to stand before Kyouka.

Briefly, Kyouka’s eyes dart toward Kouyou, but she ducks into a hurried bow. “Hello,” she tells Yosano.

“Good evening, Kyouka,” Yosano returns, her resting smile broadening into something more purposeful. “And happy birthday, of course.” She takes a cautious step forward, passing Kouyou by enough that she gets a glimpse at what’s pressed against her back—Kouyou’s eyes widen, but she swallows any immediate obvious reaction. “Ozaki told me you’ve gotten quite a few thoughtful presents already, so I hope you don’t mind if I give you something as well, even if it’s a bit late.”

Kyouka falters a little, blinking, and shakes her head. From this angle, most of the kitchen can see them; half of Kouyou’s guests are keeping to their former conversations, but lowering their voices, while others have taken to active, open observation with varying degrees of respect and dignity. Kouyou’s eyes skim over them, then refocus on the scene halfway into the hallway.

Yosano, too, softens her smile in vague greeting before returning the brunt of her attention to Kyouka. “I’ve also heard that you like rabbits,” she says, vaguely hedging.

“I do,” says Kyouka instantly, curious gaze flitting again toward Kouyou. Kouyou lets a smile start spreading across her lips but does nothing else.

“Great! I hope you’ll like this one, then.” Yosano’s words ring with confidence, but she throws a quick wavering glance at Kouyou before she finally shifts her arms to present what she’s been carrying.

Cradled between her palms, raised into the air before Kyouka, is a large stuffed rabbit, at least half the size of Kyouka’s entire torso. Its medium gray fabric looks softer and fluffier than any other Kouyou has seen. A pink bow, the same hue as its (inaccurate) paw pads and the insides of its ears, is tied around its neck.

Any distant fawning is overshadowed by a delighted inhale, not quite a full gasp, from Kyouka and the thrilled widening of her eyes. Her hands shoot out on instinct before she glances at Kouyou and tucks them back toward her chest, though the slip in manners would have been overlooked by just about everyone in this case. Yosano chuckles and holds the rabbit farther out. Given the direct opportunity, Kyouka takes it with the delicacy and reverence with which one might handle a diamond.

“Thank you,” she says, clutching it against her chest. Her cheeks have filled with red, and her smile stretches far enough that her jaw must hurt.

With another laugh, more relieved than truly amused, Yosano leans back. “Of course. I’m glad you like it.”

Kyouka hesitates, teetering back on her feet, and shoots another look at Kouyou—this one, more than the others, seems to be seeking permission. What for, Kouyou can’t tell, but she nods all the same.

Confusion gives way to warmth when, bolstered, Kyouka lurches somewhat awkwardly forward and maneuvers herself to give Yosano a one-armed hug. Yosano stiffens under it with shock. Neither, however, backs down—Kyouka maintains the pose, and after a few seconds of adjustment, Yosano’s smile splits again across her face, and she wraps her arms around Kyouka in turn, firm and welcoming. The stuffed rabbit is crushed clumsily between them, tucked as much against Yosano’s abdomen as Kyouka’s now, but neither complains or readjusts.

After a few stilted seconds, Kyouka draws back, curling her other arm back around the plushie. “Thank you,” she repeats with a flustered but pleased bow, and then she hurries back to rejoin Atsushi—interrupting the low argument he and Akutagawa had broken into—and show off her latest present.

Yosano smiles after her. “She really is such a good kid,” she says with a soft sigh. Her eyes flit up toward Kouyou. “And thanks for not spoiling the surprise.”

“How could I have, when you didn’t even deign to share the exact details with me?” Kouyou smiles too, though. “It ought to be me thanking you, at any rate, for producing that sort of a reaction from her. A splendidly chosen gift, to be sure.”

“It just seemed like something she would like.” Her satisfied smile doesn’t quite match her half-humble tone, but Yosano brings a gloved hand up to rub at the back of her neck. “I’m glad my intuition was on point.”

“I daresay it is a bit more noteworthy than all that.” Kouyou’s eyes return to Kyouka, brightness all but radiating off of her face and form. Her smile softens, and she twists her head a degree toward Yosano. “There will be cake in a few minutes, if you plan on staying. In that case, however, there are several faces here I imagine you are unfamiliar with; shall I introduce you?”

Yosano draws her gaze from Kyouka and lets it drift about the room, lingering just as much upon the faces she is familiar with as those she isn’t. “Lead the way,” she agrees, falling into step beside Kouyou.

With an appreciative smile, Kouyou nods and starts off. Across the room, Dazai straightens. Kouyou gives him a preemptive look of warning, though she’s sure that even if he does notice it, it will have very little—if any—effect. It’s both out of convenience, given they’re the closest ones to the door, and to make a point that the first guests she guides Yosano toward are Gin, Higuchi, Tachihara.

Gin lifts her head at their nearing footsteps and smiles, small but bright. She glances at Yosano but nods toward Kouyou, any curiosities remaining unvoiced. Higuchi does much the same, albeit in a less level-headed manner. Tachihara, meanwhile, has his back to them—not out of disrespect or even ignorance, but as a side effect of the current position he has taken, which is seating himself on the edge of the island facing Gin and Higuchi. When Kouyou gives his shoulders an unimpressed glance, Gin nudges him; absent, he nudges back. Higuchi presses a hand to her forehead in dismay.

Kouyou sighs under her breath, then clears her throat more firmly. The realization that sweeps through Tachihara’s shoulders is sharp and quick. He jerks his head around, and the expression that instantly sets in when his suspicions are confirmed almost gets Kouyou to laugh, so drawn with shock and embarrassment is it. He scrambles down to his feet, almost hitting his head on the cupboard along the way, and bows lower than he ought to. The scraping is more troublesome than the alternative, and Kouyou gives him an arch look for it.

“Tachihara-kun,” she says, level, arms coming to fold over her chest.

“Boss,” he returns, not looking up.

“Rise, boy,” says Kouyou, suppressing a sigh. “I am not looking to cause problems at my daughter’s birthday party, nor do I truly wish to spill blood on my property in general.” She swivels her wrist in a vague gesture.

Carefully, Tachihara draws himself back up. He seems to be holding back either a string of swears, whether self-directed or aimed at her, or a swallow. Kouyou turns her head away so that it looks like she’s occupied with watching Kyouka, and sure enough a low gulp sounds in the space between that and her twisting her head back.

That settled, Kouyou clears her throat again. “Moving on… I do hope that the two of you have enjoyed your evenings thus far.” Gin nods and elbows Tachihara into doing the same. “I wished only to make some brief introductions. This is Yosano-sensei; she works at Kyouka’s school, and over the past several months she and I have become more closely acquainted.” Her phrasing is as innocuous as she can make it, lending to implications but none that will be confirmed. “Yosano-sensei, these are three valued subordinates of mine. Gin-kun and Tachihara-kun work closely with Hirotsu-san, and Higuchi-kun is a direct subordinate of Akutagawa-kun over there.”

“Nice to meet you,” says Yosano, smiling and bowing her head. Gin returns the gesture if not the words; Higuchi returns both with a steady expression.

Tachihara nods vaguely, but after a few seconds he frowns. “Your name is Yosano?” he echoes, and at Yosano’s bemused nod his frown deepens. “I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere before. What—” He stumbles to a halt mid-sentence and freezes in place, staring at Yosano with wide eyes and a slack jaw, eyebrow twitching. The air in the room shifts. “You’re… why are you…?”

Gin gives him a rather unsubtle askance look, mask’s position against her chin leaving her frown very visible. Higuchi, too, casts him a direct glare. Kouyou glances between him and Yosano, who is still in some state of confusion that is sharpening by the second as some sort of realization seems to seize her as well.

What that realization is is lost altogether on Kouyou, but the confusion in Tachihara’s face morphing into outright hostility, sharp around the edges, isn’t difficult to catch. She steps the slightest bit in front of Yosano, positioning in the room not allowing her to hide her from view altogether but getting as close to that as she suspects is possible. Yosano inhales, but Kouyou doesn’t wait to see if it’s in protest or relief.

“No problems, and no bloodshed,” she repeats, holding Tachihara’s widened stare. “This event is for Kyouka’s sake, and Yosano-sensei is a valued guest. If there is an issue, I suggest you handle it elsewhere.”

Tachihara’s shoulders stiffen, and with difficulty he drags his eyes down to the floor. “Right,” he says, forcing nonchalance and looking all the more uncomfortable and out of place for it. “Sorry, boss. Guess I’ve had a little too much to drink.”

Kouyou looks at Gin, who too looks away. Not that subtle a lie, then, but his apology had borne at least a shred of honesty, so Kouyou nods. “We are understood, then. Enjoy the rest of your evenings.”

Without waiting for responses beyond the beginnings of his, Gin, and Higuchi’s near-simultaneous bows, Kouyou turns on her heel and strides away. She hears a vague nice meeting you from Yosano before she follows. The kitchen is big, but not big enough to make their exit too dramatic, and there are few paths for Kouyou to take that really put that much distance between them, let alone with the thoughts stirring in her mind. She lets muscle memory guide her and little else.

“What’s your problem?” she hears Higuchi asking Tachihara as she and Yosano step away, but whatever response—or lack thereof—Tachihara gives is lost again in the din. It is for the better, Kouyou reasons, a muscle in her jaw flexing.

She steals a side glance at Yosano, but her expression has returned to a cool sort of neutrality, and she neither speaks up nor returns Kouyou’s gaze. Something within Kouyou sharpens, but she isn’t quite certain in which direction. She pulls her gaze away and focuses again on the room at large.

By instinct, she realizes, she’d started walking toward Kyouka, and by extension toward Atsushi and Akutagawa. When she considers the remaining composition of the room, it isn’t a disagreeable thought, and there’s only one person there Yosano is unfamiliar with anyway. Kouyou narrows her eyes in that direction and continues on.

In the several minutes that have passed since Kouyou last spared them a conscious look, the conversation has shifted away from whatever Kyouka’s reappearance had spurred, or at least it seems to have. Atsushi is leaning toward Kyouka and attempting to tug Akutagawa along with them, an endeavor Akutagawa is resisting with all his might. Only the barest portion of his body is even perched on his stool anymore. Shuffle less than five centimeters to the right, and he may well fall. The prospect becomes a real danger when he shifts at Kouyou’s approach, though he manages to cling on enough to jerk his head up and send her a beseeching look, nonverbally screaming for a swift yet unembarrassing rescue.

Kouyou arches an eyebrow. She speeds up the slightest bit, coming to a halt at the end of the counter. “My, my,” she says, bringing Kyouka and Atsushi’s eyes to her as well, “what is happening over here?”

“Oh, Kouyou-san.” Straightening, Atsushi holds up a phone—not his, Kouyou notes, but Kyouka’s. “I offered to take some pictures with Kyouka-chan—just to make today more memorable, you know?” he explains. Kouyou does not know, but she does not interrupt. “And since Akutagawa is here, I thought we should include him, but he’s being annoying about it.”

“Is that so.” Kouyou hums with consideration, eyes darting between the three before her. Kyouka’s expression is impassive, but with enough of a gleam in it that Kouyou’s eyes then narrow at Akutagawa, lips curving into a simpering smile. “Surely one little picture won’t kill you, Akutagawa-kun.”

Faster than Kouyou can blink, Akutagawa’s gaze goes from almost reverent to downright murderous, though the dark look only lingers on Kouyou for a beat before diverting to Atsushi. “Boss,” Akutagawa rasps out, but whatever he’d intended to follow it up with is interrupted by a cough. One turns into another, and soon another devolves into a small fit.

Alarmed, Atsushi pushes a glass of water down the counter toward him. Akutagawa winces, nose scrunching, and shoves it back. Atsushi scowls like he’s half a second from force-feeding it to him, but ultimately he lets it be.

“A spontaneous allergic reaction to the mere proposal of a selfie,” says Yosano from beside Kouyou, having caught up to her. “How impressive.”

Akutagawa squints as if trying to determine whether he’s being made fun of. Atsushi, though his eyes widen for a second when he recognizes Yosano, sits back with a huff. “He has really bad asthma and acts like just toughing it out is the best possible option for everyone,” he explains irritably, making a face at Akutagawa that is met with a swift snarl. Atsushi pushes the glass of water over again. “Here, drink this or Gin-san is going to notice and stare you down until you use your inhaler.”

Akutagawa’s face twitches in a pointed way, any sliver of fear masked valiantly, but, looking as though it’s a great burden, he reaches for the glass and tips it back in one sip. The motion, and the shudder the courses through him afterward, would make one think it had been straight absinthe. Akutagawa’s expression suggests he’d have preferred that.

Satisfied, Atsushi turns back toward Yosano with a smile. “It’s nice to see you again, Yosano-sensei,” he greets, inclining his head. “It’s been a while, and Kyouka-chan and Kouyou-san have both talked about you a lot.”

“Oh?” Yosano glances at Kouyou, eyebrow quirked and smile sharpening.

Kouyou gives Atsushi a dry stare. “That is a slight exaggeration, I am afraid.” Kyouka shrugs, subtle but visible enough that they all can take notice of it, and Kouyou gives her the same look even as Yosano laughs.

Akutagawa coughs, this time in deliberate interruption rather than a more pained contraction, but it gets Atsushi to stand and go refill the glass anyway. Though Akutagawa spares his back with a scowl, and the shadows of his jacket shift in a pointed way, a look from Kouyou gets his shoulders to hunch back in. His shadowed eyes settle on Yosano.

Granted a clean introduction, Kouyou gestures first to him. “This is Akutagawa-kun, one of my most promising subordinates. He is the older brother of Gin-kun over there as well.”

Used to that introduction going the other way around, Akutagawa’s shoulders shift, but it’s not out of inherent distaste. Yosano glances him over and notes, idle, “I can see the family resemblance,” before smiling and inclining her head. “Yosano Akiko. I work at Kyouka’s school. Nice to meet you.”

Kyouka nods in vague confirmation, though she and Akutagawa are both soon distracted by the sink turning off and Atsushi walking back over to hand Akutagawa the glass again. Akutagawa clenches his fist around it as though tempted to break it with his bare hand. “A pleasure,” he allows Yosano, gruff and tight around the edges.

“I’ll tell Gin-san if you don’t drink that,” says Atsushi in warning, reclaiming his seat. He shifts his legs to keep them from bumping Kyouka’s as he settles back down, which instead makes them swivel too far toward Akutagawa. “I haven’t forgotten that picture, either.”

Kyouka sits up straighter and fixes Akutagawa with a stare from just behind Atsushi’s arm, angling herself into visibility. The look in her eyes is equal measures intimidating and charming, backed by the stuffed rabbit still held tight in her grasp. Under both it and Atsushi’s similar stare, Akutagawa’s shoulders tighten. He turns his back on them and sips his water rather than responding.

“I think that is our cue to move on,” says Kouyou, smiling and nudging Yosano to the side. “Best of luck in convincing Akutagawa-kun to star in one of your photographs. As for you, Akutagawa-kun, it wouldn’t hurt to loosen up a touch; this is, after all, a party.”

If Akutagawa had already been tense, it triples at that statement. Without turning, he mutters something that sounds like yes, boss, but the light words are enough that Kouyou won’t pay too much attention to see if he follows up on her suggestion. It isn’t, by any means, an outright order, so she has no enforcement in mind, but the implied threat may as well be enough.

“If Atsushi-kun has not sent me at least one image featuring Akutagawa-kun by the night’s end, I will be shocked,” she murmurs to Yosano as they depart, making for the corner where four figures are sequestered. Yosano snickers, though even after only interacting with them for a few minutes, she seems to agree. “Let’s hope, though, that they do not slay one another while my back is turned.”

“Your no bloodshed rule is in effect for everyone, I assume,” says Yosano, “so I don’t think there’s much of a risk of that.”

“That is not always a deterrent for Akutagawa-kun.” Yosano arches an eyebrow, but Kouyou hasn’t the time to expand on that thought, for then she’s taking another couple of steps forward and greeting with little fanfare, “Gentlemen.”

Chuuya is the first to look over, stiffening by instinct before relaxing again; Hirotsu, beside him, allows a murmur of boss. From their idle conversation, Oda and Kunikida too both glance over, one considerably more laidback than the other. Kouyou graces Kunikida with a half-mocking smile but otherwise doesn’t let her stare linger long.

Yosano scans over the uneven gathering, focusing first on the three faces she does recognize. She smiles at Oda and Kunikida, neither of whom quite return it—and the latter of whom may tense further—but both of whom do dip their heads, and nods at Hirotsu, whose lips twitch as he nods back. Chuuya is silent, tilting his chin back and watching Kouyou more than Yosano.

If it’s a cue he seeks, then Kouyou is all too willing to provide it. “You have been acquainted with Hirotsu-san already,” she says, gesturing Yosano closer, “and of course you are familiar with Oda-san and Kunikida-kun, but I would like to introduce you to my younger brother and one of my most valued subordinates.”

Yosano straightens her back, attention fluidly shifting from Kouyou to Chuuya. “Chuuya-kun, was it?” Without waiting for a response, which shows no signs of coming aside from a glance at Kouyou regardless, Yosano bows her head and smiles. There’s subtle tension in her shoulders, more so than there has been at being introduced to anyone else, but she smooths it out with careful ease. “It’s nice to meet you. Kouyou has told me quite a bit about you.”

Chuuya’s eyes narrow briefly, but he accepts this with a nod and lowers his head in return, cautious. “You too,” he says. “I’ve heard less about you, probably, but ane-san and Kyouka clearly think highly of you.”

Yosano’s smile widens as she straightens. It takes some effort for Kouyou to keep her expression in place, but with a surreptitious side look at Kyouka she manages it.

“Chuuya-san and I were discussing you earlier, as a matter of fact,” adds Hirotsu. “Particularly how important your presence appeared to be to the boss and Izumi-kun.”

“I’ve more than gotten the message about that,” says Yosano with a chuckle, hands settling casually on her hips. “I’m more than happy to be here, so the sentiment goes both ways.” Hirotsu allows her a brief, pleased nod, adjusting his arms where they’re folded behind his back. “You all seem to be enjoying yourselves too.”

“In our line of work, and I imagine Oda-san and Kunikida-san’s as well, leisure is a rare occasion.” Hirotsu glances around the room—as expansive and well-decorated as anything else in Kouyou’s home, but part of her home nonetheless, and looking and feeling like it, regardless of its current population—and then toward Kouyou, eyes crinkling. “If nothing else, it is far less overwhelmingly extravagant than the parties the former boss threw for his daughter.”

Kouyou suppresses a shudder and a too-early surge of tomorrow’s headache. “That much is true,” she says with distaste. When she glances at Yosano, expecting to see her with a similar look of bemusement to the one the other three wear, she’s startled by the quiet shadow that crosses Yosano’s face, gone so swift that it might as well have never been there. She looks away and attempts to clear her throat again. “I suppose you are the expert as far as these things go, Oda-san.”

Oda, sipping at a glass of water, lowers it in consideration. “Not really,” he says, with a muted shrug. “I don’t do much for the kids’ birthdays unless they ask, and usually they don’t want much besides cake and a few friends over. Some of them have wanted to go to Cosmo World for the day, though.”

“Of course,” says Kouyou, able to picture younger versions of several of his boys pleading for just that. “And I imagine you obeyed those wishes without hesitation.”

“It was what they wanted, and I have the means,” says Oda, blase as ever.

Kouyou sighs. “How soft,” she says, and doesn’t entirely mean it as an insult, though Kunikida still grimaces to the side.

“You two do know each other outside of school, then,” observes Yosano, thoughtful. “I was wondering, after I saw you at Sports Day. Oh, and—” She snaps her fingers in an attempt to remember. “Sankeien, was it?”

Oda nods, absent, as though he himself has half-forgotten. Kouyou fills in, with as little detail as possible for brevity’s sake, “Oda-san adopted Dazai—” inadvertently she glances toward him, seated at the dining room table a few meters away “—when he and Chuuya were in high school, so we have been acquainted for some time now.”

“I see.” However short a time Kouyou’s gaze is on Dazai, Yosano follows it there, perhaps putting a face to a name. “You’ve done that a few times, haven’t you? Taken kids in like that, I mean.”

“The man has a talent for accruing orphans,” says Kouyou, a bit shrewdly. Chuuya snorts, Kunikida coughs, and Oda simply shrugs.

“There are a lot of children deserving of a chance at a better life,” he says, eyes shifting around the room from one head to the next. “The least I can do is grant them it. “I think you’ve met Shinji and Sakura, Yosano,” he adds, gesturing to the two he’d brought, the former being strongarmed into playing some sort of mobile game with Aya and the latter stepping away from them to take up the stool next to Akutagawa. Oda’s other boys had, Kouyou assumes, been foisted off on either each other or Sakaguchi again.

“Ah, probably. I’m familiar with them, at least.” Yosano manages to catch Shinji’s eye and gives him a commiseratory half-smile and small wave. He returns the wave. Kunikida mutters something about Aya, and Yosano’s gaze swivels back to him. “I shouldn’t be surprised after seeing you at staff drinking parties, but you really don’t loosen up even here, hm?”

“We had a limited amount of time to spare,” he responds tightly, pushing up his glasses. “I’m simply making sure we remain on schedule.”

Yosano adjusts her own glasses, somewhat subconscious. Before she can respond to that, though, Hirotsu is saying idly: “On the topic of wards, Kunikida-san, should yours be attempting that?”

“What?” Snapping upright instinctively, Kunikida draws even tenser when he follows Hirotsu’s gaze to the opposite side of the room. He takes in a sharp breath through his nose, closes his eyes, and starts marching over. “Please excuse me,” he barks over his shoulder, picking up the pace as soon as Kouyou waves an absent hand in acknowledgment.

Kouyou turns her eyes away from the ensuing parent-child argument, sure that it will be resolved soon enough one way or another. Oda’s attention flickers to his own children, but they’re behaving themselves as usual.

Chuuya, shaking his head, glances at Yosano. “Did you want something to drink? There’s only cider, tea, and water out, but if you didn’t drive here and don’t mind, ane-san does have a lot of sake and wine stored up.”

Yosano spares the cupboard he’s indicating a considering look, but in the end she shakes her head. “Aside from Tachihara-kun over there, I think I’d be the odd one out,” she says with a wry but half-forced laugh, waving a vague hand toward him and Gin. Gin glances over at the movement, but only for a fraction of a second. “And I don’t think this is the most ideal setting for it anyway, so unfortunately I’ll have to decline.”

“Right,” says Chuuya, though his face is twitching a little. Hirotsu cuts his stare away.

“Still bitter about that, are you?” comes Dazai’s voice, choosing to intervene at, as per the usual, the worst possible time. “I did point out that I don’t drink and am more than capable of operating a vehicle.”

The expressions that cross Kouyou and Chuuya’s faces must be almost the same, from Dazai’s immediate huff of laughter, but the sound is lost beneath Chuuya’s scoff. “The day you drive my bike is the day I die,” he snaps back, glaring. “Probably literally, with how shitty your driving is.”

“That’s a bit unfair,” says Dazai mildly. “My license hasn’t been revoked or anything, so it can’t be that bad.”

“That’s not a reasonable measure of fucking anything.”

Yosano’s silent gaze flickers from them to a picture of them pinned to the refrigerator. It’s from their high school graduation, Kouyou knows; they’re both standing in uniform just outside the school they’d gone to, respectable enough at a glance, but any inspection a few seconds longer inevitably reveals the crooked index and middle finger Dazai is holding up behind Chuuya’s head and the irritated strain of Chuuya’s smile as he reaches back to grab his wrist. (A second picture taken seconds later had caught the retaliatory blur of Chuuya’s fist, diploma thrown aside.) At the very edge of the photograph, Kunikida is just visible, pushing up his glasses and trying very hard to ignore the other two.

“No problems, you said?” asks Yosano, seeming to be fighting a smile.

“No problems out of the ordinary,” corrects Kouyou. Hirotsu smiles, and Oda sighs. “The latter clause is irrelevant for anyone else.”

A larger-scale argument, though, is prevented by Akutagawa coughing in the distance, the fit more violent and forceful than any of his others thus far tonight. Dazai spreads a hand as if to say well? and, with a tongue-click and final glare, Chuuya storms in that direction.

Kouyou observes with little interest as Chuuya, Atsushi, and Gin’s combined efforts—and Kyouka’s staring from behind them all—takes effect. An inhaler is pressed into Akutagawa’s hands, and after a dark glance around he ducks out of the room for privacy. Kouyou hears a door close in the distance; the sound is soon covered by the swelling conversations, and the vague semblance of ambience leaves plenty of room for her to notice the prolonged stare Dazai is fixing her with.

Kouyou heaves a sigh. She’d have preferred to do this with Chuuya present, but he’s watching the door and chatting with Atsushi and Gin, so she doesn’t see it crucial to draw him away. “I suppose this is as apt a time as any,” she tells Yosano, sharing looks with Hirotsu and stepping over, “to introduce the final relevant guest. Yosano-sensei, this is Dazai; Dazai, Yosano Akiko.” Yosano joins her in time for her to jerk a brusque hand between them.

Any pretext of feigned disinterest dissipates as Dazai sits up straighter, the awkward slump to his posture evening out. “So you’re the famous Yosano-sensei,” he says, minutely inclining his head.

“And you, I take it, are the infamous Dazai,” Yosano returns with a calm, measured smile. The corners of his mouth quirk up, an ostensibly genuine reaction. “I’ve heard a bit about you.”

“Really? All good, I hope.” Dazai turns his stare for a moment on Kouyou, who doesn’t lower herself to making a slit-throat gesture but does smile in a way that conveys the sentiment regardless. He huffs, surely expecting this, and returns his attention to Yosano. “I’ve heard very little about you, frankly. Tragically, ane-san has been very tight-lipped.”

“And within mere seconds,” cuts in Kouyou, “you have vindicated that stance. An impressive new record, truly. Particularly whilst multitasking.” She sweeps a shrewd look over his keyboard. “Though I’m not entirely certain what it is you are multitasking on.”

She hadn’t been looking for an explanation, and had in fact wanted to avoid one, but he provides one all the same: “Grading essays.” He tilts the laptop screen the slightest bit toward her, allowing for a brief glimpse of winding paragraphs and red notes spanning the width of a word processor, then turns it back toward himself. “And finishing up my lesson notes for next week.”

“You teach?” Yosano leans to the side. “High school?” she guesses, in the type of voice one would use to ask after which method of execution someone had chosen.

“College,” Dazai responds, even more gravely. He taps out a brisk sentence and hits the enter key with finality. “Literature, specifically. I do know a couple of miserable high school teachers, though.”

“Anything past junior high is miserable, so I hear. Although this isn’t exactly a walk in the park either.”

Dazai hums in vague understanding. “You’re the doctor there, though, right? So your role is a bit different. You deal with everyone, not only a specific class or grade.”

“That’s true, but I don’t intend on downplaying my colleagues’ efforts. God knows I’ve walked in on enough of them sleeping or crying in the staff rooms.” Yosano’s tone is serious, but a smile starts twitching across her lips.

Almost at once, Dazai returns it. “Is Kunikida-kun on that list?” he prompts, voice faux-innocent enough to spur a Pavlovian grimace.

Kouyou is not all too concerned with Kunikida’s honor, but she does see this conversation spiraling further and faster out of control than she’d prefer, and if left out of her supervision she fears the worst, so she clears her throat before Yosano can respond. “I do hate to interrupt your newfound kinship,” she cuts in, “but I believe I have delayed a certain aspect of this evening long enough.”

“You’re no fun, ane-san,” Dazai complains with a sigh, slumping forward. He cocks his head at Yosano. “How do you put up with it?”

Yosano’s grin slides back into something more languid. “She’s fun where it counts,” she says, idle, sparing Kouyou a teasing side glance.

That—and the fact that it is Kyouka’s birthday, and therefore Kouyou is insistent upon herself obeying the no problems rule as much as everyone else—is the only thing that keeps Kouyou from drawing a dagger. The momentary look of surprise on Dazai’s face, however muted, would be another incentive if not for how fast it morphs into gleeful laughter. The neutral, half-startled line of Kouyou’s mouth turns down.

“Don’t encourage each other,” she tells him and Yosano darkly, pressing a sleeve to her mouth. “I have trusted all other parties present tonight to remain on their best behavior; can I extend that same trust to you?”

“Why are you looking at me specifically?” Dazai lifts a hand from his keyboard. “I’m always on my best behavior, ane-san.”

“If that is true, then any number of falsehoods may be so as well.” Kouyou shakes her head, choosing neither to dwell on it nor answer her rhetorical question with any finality, and steps away lest she be drawn into the routine argument any longer. “Kyouka,” she calls by way of distraction, and across the room Kyouka snaps her head around from whatever she and Sakura, having swapped seats with Atsushi, have been doing on her phone. Even Akutagawa, slinking back into the room, glances over. “Would you by any chance be inclined toward cake now?”

The answer is immediate, even before it’s formally provided: Kyouka’s eyes flash with brightness, and she bobs her head in a hurried nod. To the side, Yosano chuckles as she drifts back toward the kitchen proper. Kouyou’s forced smile melts into something more genuine, and she makes straight for the fridge.

Sakura scurries down, and Atsushi—after some nudging—reclaims the stool he’d had earlier. People shuffle about, gathering around (or staying put and observing from afar, in some cases), but Kouyou pays little attention to the particulars as she unveils the elegant tiramisu and sets it on the counter before Kyouka.

She reaches first for a plate, setting it out, before glancing around for the nearest specialized blade. Yosano holds out a knife, and Kouyou takes it before thinking too hard about it—when she glances down, though, she realizes that it’s not one of her own but the one she’s seen Yosano wield a couple of times now. At Kouyou’s raised eyebrow, Yosano only shrugs. Kouyou clicks her tongue, but it’s a knife as good as any, so she brings it down to cut out a small slice. Setting it aside, she hands Yosano’s knife back, distantly aware of her stepping aside to rinse it off, and exchanges it for a set of candles. With careful precision, she sets three down in a simple row.

Chuuya, faster and closer than Hirotsu, passes her a lighter. With a short nod of gratitude and a sweeping gesture to beckon Kyouka back further, Kouyou clicks it open and lights each candle.

“There,” she says when the last is aflame. In the distance, she hears someone fumble for the lights; the candles and distant remnants of sunlight remain the only illumination in the room. “Make all the wishes you’d like, Kyouka.”

Eyes lit by the embers before her, Kyouka casts her gaze around the room, and though the majority of her attention is on Kyouka, Kouyou can’t help but follow it. She too traces over the clusters of people scattered about. The vast majority of them, if she thinks about it in enough detail, wouldn’t have so much as wound up in the same room now were it not for strings of coincidences and choices, not all of them even having been made over the past several weeks. From the three teachers now instinctively convening to the three children scattered around them to Kouyou’s dark-faced but light-shouldered subordinates to the three that have most inarguably molded themselves into the small family Kouyou can claim, each individual looks somehow out of place in this setting, let alone in combination with one another—and yet, for that very reason, there is such a sense of belonging throughout the room that Kouyou is for a moment almost sick with it.

The conversation she’d had with Yosano near the end of September comes to mind, fragmented and distant, the gist of it returning to her more so than any concrete sentiments. Kouyou’s gaze doesn’t linger on her more than it does anyone else, but she finds herself glancing over a second time before she returns her eyes to Kyouka.

When she does, it’s in time to catch Kyouka’s eyes flutter shut. Then she tilts her head forward and lets out a forceful breath, snuffing all three candles in a single exhale.

Applause and smiles echo all around. The lights go back up. As Kyouka flushes, proud but shifting under the attention, Kouyou smiles, fetches her a proper utensil, and pauses as the conversations throughout the room strike back up.

Low enough that only Kyouka and maybe Atsushi can hear, Kouyou asks, “Are you enjoying yourself thus far?”

The warmth in Kyouka’s eyes doubles. Through a mouthful of cake that keeps her from answering aloud—if she would have in the first place—she nods, enough fervor in it that she has to press a hand over her mouth to keep herself from choking. Alarm strikes for a second, but soon Kyouka swallows and sags forward.

Kouyou leans back, smile widening. “How glad I am to hear that.” You deserve days like this, she does not say, unable to articulate it so plainly, but she hopes it carries through her tone and expression nonetheless. Then she clears her throat and faces the room at large. “Who else would care for cake?”

*

As the evening starts to trickle away, so too does the crowd—and Kouyou’s energy and tolerance, making this a positive effect. The food and conversation and good cheer keep everyone in high spirits, but the human circadian rhythm and psyche are only capable of withstanding so much, and so it isn’t long before goodbyes are starting to be exchanged as much as plates and jokes.

On behalf of Aya’s curfew—or rather his, as she’s rather open to pointing out—Kunikida is the first to duck out, thanking Kouyou for her hospitality and bidding Kyouka a stern farewell. Oda soon leaves for similar reasons. Out of Kouyou’s subordinates, Hirotsu leaves earliest for understandable reasons, but the Akutagawas and Higuchi aren’t long after. Both offer Tachihara a ride back; he refuses in each case, choosing instead to linger. He tends to stick around Chuuya or Atsushi, or on occasion Kyouka, flinging out strategy and technique questions at her and crowing with half-drunken glee when her responses are satisfactory, but most often Kouyou will find him sitting off to the side by himself, observing the others with a mix of emotions or sometimes none at all.

Uncharacteristic as it is, the behavior isn’t malicious, so Kouyou doesn’t pay him much active attention. The bulk of her focus remains on Kyouka—this is her day, after all, and that is Kouyou’s natural state of being besides. No matter how she strays to talk to the other guests, Kouyou always makes sure Kyouka is in her direct line of sight.

It’s not especially necessary, with how much Kyouka is enjoying herself, but it lends some sense of security all the same. Bit by bit, Kouyou grows laxer, until she’s diverting her attention to scan over those that remain and narrowing her eyes when two faces come up absent.

One is easy enough to dismiss, considering she had voiced wanting to get some fresh air a few minutes earlier, but another is concerning. Kouyou strides over to Chuuya, sparing only a second’s worth of attention for a quick nod of greeting before asking, “Do you happen to know where Dazai went?”

Having straightened up on instinct at her approach, Chuuya too pauses and glances around at the question. “Outside, I think,” he says with consideration, jerking a thumb in that direction.

“Thank you.” Kouyou inclines her head again and steps off without hesitation. Behind her, she hears an irritated mutter; though she doesn’t waste the time to respond or acknowledge it, she does half-smile for the few seconds it takes to pass through the doorway.

Through the back door, the lit expanse of the engawa is visible, as are the shadowed figures seated upon it. Voices—two of them, distinct and familiar—are audible, but the distance and glass keep Kouyou from knowing just what the discussion is about.

Not that she can’t guess. With brisk, heavy footfalls and a deep scowl overcoming her face, she cuts a swift path across the room.

“—thought she was going to kill all of us,” comes Dazai’s voice, muddled through the door but now intelligible. The laughter in it, too, is audible. His legs are crossed, one hand curled against the accompanying calf, and he looks at ease in a way that furthers Kouyou’s growing ire. “I’ve never seen her lose her composure so badly. Ah, but I suppose there was that time right after we graduated, and—”

Kouyou throws the door open with all of her might. The sound is deafening, as is the subsequent slam of it knocking against the frame and rebounding back.

With that commotion, a throat clear is unnecessary, but Kouyou gives a sharp “a-hem” all the same. “I believe that is enough,” she tells Dazai primly, peering down at him with utter contempt.

Considering how many times he has been on the receiving end of that stare, he doesn’t react in the slightest, instead smiling as he turns to peer over his shoulder at her. “Ah, hey, ane-san,” he says in that light voice that boosts Kouyou’s anger by an exponential factor. Beside him, Yosano straightens but doesn’t turn, only glancing over out of the corners of her eyes. “I was just telling Yosano-sensei—”

“What I think you were just doing,” interrupts Kouyou, mouth stretching into a sharp smile, “was going back inside and assisting the others clean up.”

“Ehh, but—”

Kouyou tears a dagger from her sleeve and points it right between his eyes, though the range and angle mean that she’d have to throw it to land such a hit. Yosano doesn’t so much as flinch. Neither does Dazai, looking bored, if anything.

“How violent,” he says in the flattest tone possible. His eyes flicker idly toward Yosano. “And in front of your girlfriend? My, my, ane-san. She shouldn’t see this side of you so early.”

Yosano snorts. It pulls Kouyou’s attention toward her for half a second, and thereby loosens her grip on the dagger for that long as well, but at a peripheral glimpse of Dazai’s smile she glares back at him.

“What were you telling me about a few minutes ago?” asks Yosano, quirking her head. “An incident where she threatened to use you for target practice, right? I daresay I’ve seen and heard more than enough of this side of Kouyou by now.”

“It’s not as funny when you use it to gang up on me,” complains Dazai, but all the same he drops his hands and pulls himself up to his feet, rolling his eyes toward Yosano as he goes. “Well, I’ve exhausted my supply for now anyway. Text me anytime, though, sensei, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

That pulls another huff of laughter from Yosano. “I just might take you up on that,” she says, lifting a hand in vague farewell. Under Kouyou’s warning look, she smiles. “The embarrassing Kouyou stories will have to be saved for special occasions, though.”

“Oh, that’s more than acceptable! The best ones are from special occasions, after all.”

“There are garbage bags calling your name,” Kouyou cuts in before he can spiral into it again, gesturing with her dagger toward the door. “Scram, boy.”

“I’m going, I’m going.” Dazai gives her a shrewd look. “You’re in the way.”

Kouyou, however reluctantly, sidesteps to allow him through. He flashes a winning smile toward her before pressing back into the house, where Kouyou has no doubt she’ll hear no less than three arguments break out in the next five minutes. There’s not much she can do about that, though, so for the time being she turns back to Yosano.

Yosano has turned her attention back to the garden before them, and she’d be the last person to be bothered by the blade’s presence, but still Kouyou tucks it away again. “My apologies for that,” she says, grim, though she’s not sure she should from the clear camaraderie that had developed. “I hope he didn’t tell you anything too offputting.”

“Oh, no.” Yosano stretches out an arm, flexing her fingers, and tilts her head to peer back up at her with the thinnest of impish smiles. “It was a lot of fun to hear about how you got soused at your former boss’s funeral.”

Kouyou just barely restrains herself from stepping back inside and hurling the nearest heavy object at Dazai’s head—she can’t keep her eye from twitching, though. “That is a gross exaggeration and oversimplification,” she says, icy, casting a glance over her shoulder. “I was not drunk; tipsy would even be an exaggeration. I had only a few cups’ worth of light sake. It was an incredibly stressful and taxing time, and Dazai had procured a bottle from who knows where, and I thought that if there was ever an appropriate time and place to drink with two seventeen-year-olds, it would be that man’s funeral.”

Yosano lets out a low whistle. “That bad, was it?”

“The funeral, or my relationship with the boss?”

“I meant the former, but I suppose either.” Yosano sits back, smoothing out a crease in her skirt. “You don’t speak of him often.”

“It has been over a decade since I have had to, so it is a matter of irrelevance more often than not.” Seeing no way out of it, Kouyou shifts forward with a sigh and seats herself at the edge of the engawa, feet resting against the grass and dirt below. Yosano scoots a hair to the side to make more room for her. “I suppose my answers would be intertwined. The funeral was hardly ideal, but that was in part due to the fact that my interactions with Mori-dono had grown strained in the time leading up to his death.”

There’s the slightest bit of tension in Yosano’s face at the mention of Mori’s name, but it settles soon enough, eased by the wind and Kouyou’s tone. She leans forward again, watching Kouyou out of the corners of her eyes.

Kouyou is not in a particular mood for elaboration, but she lets out another sigh. “I respected him as a leader, but by then I had ceased respecting him as a person. It was odd, to say the least, making positive speeches about him less than a month after I held a sword to his throat in a particularly heated moment.”

A laugh startles out of Yosano. She manages to catch herself with a soft throat clear and a hand to her cheek, cupping her chin. “Heated?” she echoes. “How so, to reach that point?”

“That is one story I shall allow Dazai to tell you, since in the end it had to do with him as much as me.”

“I see,” says Yosano, thoughtful, after a moment. Seeming to sense that the train of inquiry will lead her nowhere, she adjusts her hand and stares forward again. “Was you nearly tearing the house apart and threatening to behead multiple people that time Kyouka got sick an exaggeration, too?”

Kouyou’s mouth tugs back down. “Not much of one, admittedly. That entire experience is not one of my proudest moments.”

“I can see why.” Yosano brings her other hand up to frame her face. With both elbows resting on her knees, she sags halfway forward, letting out a low, half-amused breath as the wind stirs her hair. “It’s a good thing she’s as healthy as she is, I suppose. For more than one reason.”

Those few days of turmoil and chaos and more than one death threat wash over Kouyou, seeping deep into her bones, and she suppresses a shiver. “Indeed.”

Yosano makes a sound like she wants to say something more, another question or recounting of one of the stories Dazai had apparently told her, but in the end she doesn’t speak again. Kouyou, although she shakes off the dull reminiscence descending upon her soon enough, doesn’t either. She lets some of the tension drift from her shoulders and just sits here, basking in the first moment of true silence she’s earned all evening.

What it had turned into is perhaps less ideal, but Kouyou can’t help but understand Yosano’s initial yen for fresh air. The breeze flows over them—with the season and time, it’s colder than not, but compared to the stuffy warmth that had built up inside, it is so in a pleasant way, the sting drawing a soft breath from Kouyou. She leans back, letting it flutter through her sleeves. Once it passes, she reaches back up to adjust her hair where it had fallen out of place.

Perhaps stirred from the spell in the same way, Yosano stretches out her arms and feet. “I should probably be heading back now,” she says, eyeing the moon above, though she makes no efforts to move the rest of her body. She casts a side glance at Kouyou. “I know I didn’t get to stay for long, but—”

Kouyou lifts a hand. “But what time you did spend was valuable and appreciated, and it was not a great deal shorter than that of those who have already left. It is growing late; your reasoning is more than understandable. I’ll see you out, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.”

So they say, but it takes them both a moment longer to shake themselves altogether out of the lull and stand. They do so almost in unison, choosing nearly the same instant to arise. Yosano laughs, looking over, and Kouyou brings a sleeve to her mouth to cover a similar reaction. There’s no need for it, really, with the comfort in this situation and the fact that Yosano has to know what’s behind that particular gesture by now, but old habits do die hard.

Kouyou follows Yosano’s lead as they step back inside, the door closing behind them a sharp and final sound compared to the light conversation a few rooms away, but by the time they walk into the kitchen they’re side-by-side, or at least as close to it as the doorway will allow. Kouyou stops there, and after a second longer of reflexive walking Yosano does the same.

Dazai is seated with his back to the door, bent at his laptop again, and Kouyou resists the urge to do something juvenile. It would be moot anyway, with how Chuuya and Atsushi, the former looking at his phone behind the counter and the latter seated at it next to Kyouka, acknowledge her presence at once. A soft sound from Atsushi, too, has Kyouka turning to look at them. Tachihara, hovering by the table, observes in silence.

Kouyou almost narrows her eyes at him, but she saves it for now, instead clearing her throat. She isn’t granted the chance to speak, though, as Yosano does it for her.

“Tonight has been lovely,” she says, stepping forward just enough to focus the attention in the room on her, “but I’m afraid I ought to be heading home now.” Understanding passes through most of the others’ faces, but it seems to be relief that drops Tachihara’s shoulders. “Happy birthday, Kyouka—it was great to see you. It was nice to meet all of you, too,” she adds with a glance around. “And to see you again, Atsushi. Have a good rest of your nights.”

“You too,” says Chuuya immediately, straightening up.

Dazai gives a vague hum, turning to face her. “Our conversation was enlightening,” he says with a smile that has Kouyou returning an even sharper one, though his focus of course isn’t on her. “I look forward to talking more with you, sensei, if I’m allowed the chance.”

Kyouka’s murmur of “Thank you” overrides any reply, from the passive-aggressive to the threatening to the sincere, anyone could have made to that. It’s a small statement, but likely the one that has the greatest ripple.

“It was nice having you here,” Atsushi chimes in as soon as the opportunity becomes clear, bright and cheerful, beam spanning the width of his cheeks. “Kouyou-san likes you a lot, so—ouch!” He jumps, the result of a foot swinging against his calf just a bit too hard to altogether bypass as an absent accident. “That hurt, Kyouka-chan,” he complains.

Kyouka inclines her head. “Sorry,” she says, insincere. Atsushi makes a face but doesn’t call her on it, just wincing and rubbing at his leg before flashing Yosano one last smile.

Across the distance, Kouyou grants Kyouka with an appreciative nod. Kyouka drops her gaze, though she seems pleased, and turns back around. The exchange prompts soft laughter from Yosano, even as they all opt to breeze past it.

With the you toos and thank yous and until next times covered, Kouyou steps past, leading Yosano back toward the entrance despite the lack of necessity to. Yosano doesn’t protest, and as she passes through the kitchen she leans over to pat Kyouka’s head. The gesture prompts an immediate smile from Kouyou—she speeds up the slightest bit, pressing faster into the hallway leading to the front door. There, they stop to face each other, and both make to speak at the same time.

“You first,” says Yosano before Kouyou can offer the same. “I have to find my shoes, anyway.”

She doesn’t need to do a great deal of looking to accomplish this, considering how thinned-out the entryway has grown, but Kouyou accepts it with an austere nod. “Thank you again for coming,” she says while Yosano turns and crouches. “Kyouka appreciated it—and your gift—quite a lot, as did I.”

“Hey, thanks for the invitation. It was the least I could do, and I had fun.” Yosano locates and gathers up her heels. As she straightens, she tucks a few stray hairs behind her ear. “It was nice seeing the house, too—” she glances around the walls, dark in make and low lighting alike “—and meeting everyone.”

“They returned the sentiment. Perhaps a bit too much so.” Kouyou shakes her head, tossing a final wry glance over her shoulder, and Yosano huffs out a laugh as she bends back down to slide into her shoes. “Goodnight, Akiko.”

Yosano smiles at that—she leans up for a moment, the distance of the step requiring her to lean up just as much as if she weren’t in heels, to kiss Kouyou’s cheek, then steps back. “Goodnight, Kouyou,” she returns. “Talk to you later.”

Kouyou inclines her head in agreement, and earns a split second more of Yosano’s smile as she starts toward the door. She slides it open and steps out in a quick motion; before tugging it shut behind her, she waves over her shoulder.

When Kouyou returns to the kitchen, the remaining crowd has dispersed—Atsushi has joined Dazai at the table, chatting to him about recent and upcoming schoolwork, and against his apparent better judgment Chuuya is passing another small slice of cake to Kyouka over the counter. At her entrance, some of them glance up, although only for brief instants before turning their focus away.

It’s Tachihara that stands alone, leaning against the refrigerator. His arms and ankles are both crossed, and his expression is serious, somber. He’s looking forward as though observing the others, but his gaze is lowered—until, that is, Kouyou steps in.

As soon as she does, he lifts his head and darts over toward her. His arms move to fold behind his back, which in and of itself is a far cry from his usual posture, casual and irreverent. The easy slant of his shoulders gives the impression of normalcy, but the inherent offputting sense of the scene has Kouyou’s own posture tensing, and she turns only halfway toward him.

“Boss, can I talk to you for a minute?” he asks. There’s a quiet, understated urgency in it, one that Kouyou might associate with requesting aid on a mission or wanting to provide her with information on a rumored traitor with them in the room.

“Of course,” she says, leaning back. Her own tone is carefully neutral, even in every sense of the word. Though he’d made some attempts at volume control, she doesn’t so much as try to lower her voice, noticing but not acknowledging the looks it earns them. “What is it you wished to speak about?”

“I—ah—” Tachihara’s eyes flit around. “Not in here, if you don’t mind. Uh, just—” He gestures vaguely to the side—Kouyou assumes him to be indicating the living room as their destination.

Her head tips back with vexation, and she allows askance eye contact with Chuuya for a split second before nodding. “All right,” she says, and turns without waiting for him to follow.

He does, of course, falling in several steps behind her. It isn’t an issue of disrespect, then, or at least well-cloaked if it is. They leave behind the kitchen, drained of the warmth it had been overflowing with mere minutes earlier, and take up positions just a few meters to the side, separated by the thin veneer of privacy that the wall allows. Kouyou places herself between the coffee table and television and turns to face Tachihara. Her back is to the front wall like this, and she isn’t certain of how reasonable a choice it is.

“Well?” she prompts when Tachihara doesn’t make to speak, only tugging at his sleeves. “You wished to talk, so talk.”

Tachihara jolts to attention. “Right, boss. Are you, uh…” His face screws up, a conflicted expression that Kouyou has never before seen on him filling his features. “Ugh, I don’t know how the hell to ask this,” he grits out, reaching up to tousle his hair in aggravation before clearing his throat and starting again. “Are you—” And again. “How serious are you about Yosano-sensei?”

The question bursts out of him, seeming to surprise him and Kouyou in equal measure. Tachihara’s hands fall stiffly at his sides, where they curl into haphazard fists—in lieu of fidgeting with them, he shifts his weight on the floor, feet shuffling back and forth with unease.

As they should, Kouyou thinks, not hesitating to regain her dignity. The chill that fills the room doesn’t seem to envelop them alone; the rest of the house seems to have fallen still and silent. Or perhaps that is mere subjectivity—all the same, it holds true to them, frozen as they regard each other. But Tachihara does not even begin to back down. Though his eyes aren’t quite meeting hers, he continues to stare up at her, the muscles in his jaw working as he awaits a response, drawing tenser and tenser the longer the silence drags on.

When Kouyou at last speaks, her tone is sharp: “I do not believe it is anywhere near your place to ask that.” Stiffness shoots at once into Tachihara’s shoulders, but Kouyou isn’t yet done. She draws herself higher up, back going taut and head rising. “Tachihara-kun, you are one of my most valued subordinates, and your presence here tonight was greatly appreciated. But understand that you have no say whatsoever in my personal life or decisions.”

His low, long exhale has him sagging like a deflated balloon. “Right,” he mutters again, adjusting his weight. “Right. I just—that woman… you don’t know what she’s done, do you?”

The sheer resentment in his voice is startling. That, it seems, had been the source of his discomfort when Kouyou had introduced them earlier.

Those burdens of Yosano’s, those so-called unscrupulous matters well behind her now—they are beginning to take shape, and yet they remain nebulous enough that Kouyou could not put name to them if she tried. She twitches a little at the thought, but ultimately, she can reason with enough distance still there, they are Yosano’s to bear, and therefore Yosano’s to solidify.

Kouyou’s shoulders remain steady. “I am not certain what it is you are referring to,” she says, slow. Tachihara starts to open his mouth again, and Kouyou firmly interrupts, “And I do not wish to know if it is coming from you. Yosano-sensei’s past is her own to inform me of. If you have something to resolve with her, then do it alone. Do not involve me. This is a personal matter, but I intend that as a wholly professional order, Tachihara-kun.”

Her tone is not harsh, but it leaves little room for argument all the same. Splotches of heat stir in Tachihara’s face, and several emotions flicker through his face—she has little doubt, however, that in the end he will acquiesce.

And acquiesce, at last, he does. “Fine,” he says, lowering his head. His whole body seems to sag forward with the motion. “I’ll—I’ll trust your judgment, boss. Sorry for overstepping.”

“You don’t mean that in the slightest,” says Kouyou, smiling as she eyes his gritted teeth, “but I appreciate the effort all the same. I ask for nothing you do not already provide—mind your tongue in my presence, and respect my privacy and my authority.” It is a bold claim to make when in her home, but it is perhaps all the more effective for it. “Now then, had you anything else to discuss?”

Slowly but steadily, Tachihara brings his head back up. To his credit, he manages to keep his words level despite the clear turmoil still boiling in his face. “Nothing, boss. Thanks for inviting me tonight. I’ll see myself out.”

Kouyou hadn’t intended this conversation to end in a dismissal, but she supposes it is as reasonable a conclusion as any. She graces him with a cautious nod. “Goodnight, Tachihara-kun. I shall see you tomorrow, I expect.”

Tachihara nods, bows, and exits as swiftly as she thinks he can manage without seeming too disrespectful about it. Kouyou remains where she is until the instant the door closes and brakes sound outside.

This time, when she steps back into the kitchen, it is with an aggravated exhale and a step heavy enough that the door frame creaks worryingly above her. Three sets of eyes turn at once upon her. Kyouka, the odd one out there, has finished her latest slice of cake and is seeming to regret it already, one hand pressed to her stomach and a tepid grimace tightening her expression. Kouyou’s immediate path toward her is half-conscious and half-instinctive.

The movement brings Kyouka’s gaze to her too, although only for a split second before she slumps back down on the stool. Kouyou pats her shoulder, then leans against the counter. It takes an immense amount of willpower to not go straight for the liquor cabinet.

“What was that about?” asks Dazai idly, not pausing in typing or so much as looking up from his laptop screen.

“Did Tachihara-san leave?” is Atsushi’s curious inquiry.

“Yes,” Kouyou says to him—to Dazai, and the room in general, she adds, “Nothing too important. It is settled now, I believe.”

Atsushi relaxes, Chuuya tenses, and Dazai ceases typing for a halfhearted beat before resuming. Kyouka doesn’t react, and Kouyou is somewhere grateful for it.

Her eyes turn toward the front of the house, wondering at both Yosano and Tachihara’s paths to their respective homes, until Kouyou gives another muted hiss through her teeth and whirls back around. “I expect you all will be heading out soon enough as well,” she says, pulling up a poised, smiling mask in no time at all. Atsushi jumps, but the others don’t blink. “In the meantime, however, would you care for some tea? You as well, Kyouka; it might ease your stomach.” This she adds with another slight nudge to Kyouka’s shoulder.

Atsushi is the first to respond, tugging at his sleeve. “That sounds nice, Kouyou-san,” he says, tentative, not seeming sure what tone to affect. His eyes dart between the others as if seeking guidance; Dazai, closest to him, of course offers none but a faint twitch toward a smile. “Do you need any help getting it set up?”

“None,” says Kouyou with a shrewd look, internally echoing Chuuya’s stifled scoff, “but I thank you for the offer.”

He falls back with a silent little nod. Down the table, Dazai snorts, and Kyouka turns her head halfway toward Kouyou, watching her with some quiet blend of comprehension and confusion.

Kouyou hasn’t the faintest idea of where to begin with that, so rather than react she widens her smile, steadies her hands, and sweeps out of the room. Tea she had offered, and tea she was damn well going to make.

thanks as always for reading! see you monday! if you have time to spare, thoughts are 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