the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 2 chapter cws: child injury and discussions (but not on-screen depiction) of bullying and violence. jic, in the first scene there is also a brief and non-explicit reference to suicide/self-harm. full disclosure, i got a vaccination yesterday and my arm is killing me so this is not edited as well as it could be. i'm hoping to comb through it better later, in which case this note will be removed. in the meantime, enjoy!

Knowing that Kyouka’s bruise will look worse as time goes on does not make having to watch that progression any easier, Kouyou finds. It, in fact, perhaps makes it more difficult, because this is one impact she can’t bring herself to brace for.

The weekend is quiet and uncomfortable. Kouyou tries to interact with Kyouka as much as she can, but between work—organized crime is not something one takes sick leave from, let alone if that person is the boss—and Kyouka’s resistance to letting herself be interacted with, that isn’t a significant amount of time.

It’s not any better when Kyouka has to return to school the next week—the two days have brought her bruise to fester, an array of blues and purples still overlaid with traces of red. Her face is swollen enough that she closes her eyes every time she moves her jaw. Eating meals together is difficult, and Kouyou has never been more reluctant to let Kyouka out of the door than when they drive to school that morning. Watching her go that morning is near painful.

It is an adjustment period for them both, but neither of them is actually adjusting. Kouyou freezes every time Kyouka walks into the kitchen for breakfast and she sees how the bruise has progressed that day. Kyouka says little and is perhaps most listless when she slips into the car after school. Something is going on, Kouyou knows, but if Kyouka won’t open up to her about it, she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Frustration undercuts their every interaction, though Kouyou strains to keep from taking it out on Kyouka. She invests it in work instead, always more eased by the numb routine of triple-checking numbers, reading reports of far too much legalese, and arranging assassinations and raids. There is little about Kouyou’s job that would be a comfort to many others, but the steady monotony is a gift compared to the tumult in her personal life.

Though it doesn’t make for a tangible difference, she is not the only one concerned for Kyouka, at least. The first thing Chuuya says to Kyouka on Friday, aside from a greeting, is “You know how to throw a punch, right?” Atsushi, when Kouyou sees him late Sunday evening, is pale and stricken, asking in halting tones what had happened and seeming all the more concerned that Kouyou isn’t aware either. Oda calls to verify what Yosano had mentioned and to promise to look out for Kyouka at school. Tachihara complains about being sent out to fetch the creams in line with Yosano’s recommendations, but he’s not any better off when he sees what they’re for.

“The boss and the old man are always talking about how we have to keep up appearances and not start fights just for the hell of it, yadda yadda,” he says to Kyouka, rolling his eyes even though Kouyou is standing well within earshot and eyeshot, “but seriously, if you want me to beat anyone up for you, just say the word.”

Kyouka doesn’t respond, but he squeezes her shoulder in reassurance. Kouyou can’t be bothered to chide him for it.

The rest of her subordinates in frequent contact with Kyouka are much the same. Gin’s expression goes dark, but they say nothing, just look askance at Kouyou before handing Kyouka a set of brass knuckles that are too big for her. Hirotsu is similarly tactful, not asking after the cause of Kouyou’s recent distraction and only blinking when at last he sees Kyouka. Neither Akutagawa nor Higuchi sees Kyouka, but they both seem aware of the aura that surrounds Kouyou all throughout the week, so they seem to tone down the disasters—however different in form—they’re capable of wreaking.

It isn’t quite a relief that everyone else seems to be having as much difficulty with finding the middle ground between appeasing themselves and appeasing Kyouka, but Kouyou heeds it regardless. No one is more unhelpful in matters, though, than Dazai. His actual reaction is fleeting, just a brief shadow over his face, but soon he moves on to offering flippant medical advice as someone with a doctorate (“In literature,” Kouyou and Chuuya are both quick to supplement, which he blithely ignores).

“Kyouka-chan isn’t as fragile as she looks,” he says later, though, watching idly from the engawa as Chuuya adjusts Kyouka’s punching stance, “but she isn’t invincible, either. She is twelve.”

Kouyou had set out tea in the hopes of silencing him, but she should have known better, and his expression, as near as she can tell with most of his back to her, is serious enough that she doesn’t glare. “I am quite aware.”

Dazai ignores the slight bite in her tone. “You’ve been keeping an eye on her, right?”

Kouyou considers several of the conversations she’d had with Dazai in youth and, more pressingly, several that she hadn’t. She eyes the gauze swathing his skin, made visible by his loosened collar and sleeves. “As closely as I can.”

“That’s good,” he says with a hum. Then a faux casualness takes over his shoulders, and he turns to face the garden in full so he can nitpick Chuuya’s posture from the peanut gallery.

Kyouka does not make any attempts to explain things to Kouyou or, as near as she can tell, anyone else. Kouyou encourages her in the subtlest ways she can manage. She’s not sure how well it works, but she tries nevertheless.

More than once, she finds herself staring off into space, one question on her mind: Why was I the one chosen for this?

The Izumis’ judgment is never something that has made sense to Kouyou; she had been a familiar figure in Kyouka’s life since birth, yes, but surely there had been others who had fit that description, and people not entrenched in the Port Mafia and all its creeds to their very cores. Over time, Kouyou had chosen not to dwell on it. It’s nothing that can be answered now, if it ever could have been, and she can see past what she thinks of as the Izumis’ greatest mistake to acknowledge the blessing of having Kyouka in her life.

Now, it weighs down on her all the more. Kouyou grits her teeth through the discomfort and keeps carrying herself the way she always has.

Something is splintering, to be certain, but with any luck, they’ll be able to patch it up with gold in the end.

*

One incident, Kouyou can overlook, even if it concerns and infuriates her more than she can put into words. A second, however, is far more difficult to let slip, let alone less than a month after the first incident.

There is something more decisive about the next call—for one, Kouyou is let in on more of the details this time, namely that Kyouka had been involved in a proper altercation with three of her classmates. For another, instead of being called to the school doctor’s office to collect Kyouka, Kouyou has been instead summoned to the principal’s office.

Worry, tapering soon into aggravation, fills Kouyou’s stomach. She’s arranging for a car faster than the secretary on the other line can even hang up. This drive is just as tense and terse as the one several weeks ago, Kouyou looking through the emails she hadn’t had the chance to read earlier. She gives up after six minutes when she’s only made it through four—and had to skim them all over multiple times.

Sitting still is perhaps worse, and the city pop Kasa turns up doesn’t quite help matters. It seems to be, however, the intent that matters.

School is just getting out by the time she arrives, and a handful of students are already trickling out of the doors. Kouyou cuts a clean, clear path through all of them. She is well used to people going to whatever lengths they can to duck out of her way, often gaping as they do, but never before has she appreciated it quite as much as she does now. Kouyou smiles, tipping her parasol loftily toward the sun to half-shield her face, but she makes no efforts at all to cloak the sharpness of it.

Both secretaries’ heads jerk up when she enters the office. It’s the older of the two that sees fit to guide Kouyou this time, tweaking her glasses as she slides to her feet and flashing a smile that doesn’t cover her clear nervousness. The younger’s typing continues, fading into white noise as Haruno, as she introduces herself, beckons Kouyou back to the door at the back of the room.

“Ozaki Kouyou-san has arrived, sir,” calls Haruno as she opens the door, bowing in greeting. At the principal’s gesture, she hurries off again, smiling up at Kouyou in what might be a wish of good luck.

For a moment, Kouyou only stands there in the doorway, taking everything in. In keeping with the rest of the school, the principal’s office is small but not crowded, arranged in a careful manner that makes it seem more expansive. The desk at the back of the room faces the door, and behind it is a man Kouyou has only seen once or twice: Principal Fukuzawa himself. When the door had opened, he’d lifted his head, and now he stares straight ahead at Kouyou with a stare she’s not used to finding herself on the receiving end of. Sunlight from the window at his back casts him in slight shadow.

A low table runs half the length of the room, upon it a set of tea that must be going cold. On either side of that are two couches that look more comfortable than they likely are. On one sit three adults with three students that must be their respective children. They seem to stiffen at how Kouyou’s presence shifts the very air of the room, none quite able to meet her eyes in greeting—not that Kouyou cares a particular amount, for how short a time her gaze lingers on them. On the other couch, at the very corner, sits Kyouka.

After the prior incident, Kouyou isn’t sure what she had expected from her this time—but whatever expression she had anticipated, it had not been this one. The fragility and discomfort present over the past several weeks had ebbed, but now they’re absent altogether. Instead, Kyouka has an understated confidence about her. The set of her chin and shoulders carries a quiet power. Though her form is still, she’s not compressed into herself as she had been last time Kouyou had seen her sitting in such a position, and though she isn’t relaxed, she isn’t tense either. An almost imperceptible tear in her socks, a slight disarray to her hair, and a few thin cuts on her face and arms are the only visible signs of trouble.

Under Kouyou’s attention, Kyouka straightens up, giving a brief dip of her head. It, more so than the silent sweep of Fukuzawa’s hand, is what has Kouyou closing the door behind her and stepping over to join Kyouka on the couch.

Kouyou’s gaze is centered on Kyouka as she moves, but she keeps a close watch in her peripheral vision on Fukuzawa. His staunch stoniness offers no insight into his opinion on the matter, and neither had the conversation Kouyou had had with him to arrange Kyouka’s enrollment. Were she to guess, Kouyou would peg him as the traditional type—if only from the clothing and the resting scowl, both more so what she would expect from someone in her line of work—but the ice in his stare, fixed steadily forward, gives her pause.

She seals her lips rather than leaping to conclusions, mustering a smile as she inclines her head in Fukuzawa’s direction. “I must apologize for my tardiness, sensei. My work is quite demanding.”

This has some of the children across the room—and their parents—shuffling. Kouyou twists her head in their direction, her smile never faltering but sharpening a touch more. Her eyes remain on Fukuzawa’s.

“There is no need to apologize,” he says simply, not moving so much as a muscle. “Please join us, Ozaki-san.”

With another fleeting nod, Kouyou does, settling onto the couch beside Kyouka. Faint relief slumps Kyouka’s shoulders, but otherwise she doesn’t react, returning her gaze to the opposite side of the room.

Kouyou does as well. One of the two boys is sitting as far away from who must be his mother as he can manage, while the other is an appropriate distance from his father. The only girl of the three students is clustered close to her mother. The three all look worse for wear in comparison to Kyouka, at least as she is right now—one of the boys is rubbing at his shoulder, and the other has his uniform pants torn around the knees. None, however, are bruised in the face.

Fukuzawa doesn’t ease them into things, instead straightening even further and looking sternly around the room. “It has been brought to my attention,” he says, voice not quite loud but sharp and decisive enough to demand attention nevertheless, “that, of the students in this room, three have been harassing the other since school began, and perhaps even since the four were in primary school. This behavior is, as I am sure you are all aware, unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable?” interrupts the father of the boy with ripped pants. “If you’d like to know what I call unacceptable, sensei—”

Fukuzawa reaches to the side to heft a thick book and bring it down, the sound ringing out as clearly as a gavel. “I was merely recounting what events have transpired,” he says, fixing the man with a stare that has him stiffening up, his son looking down altogether. “It was not an invitation to speak.”

Though the man hardly looks happy about it, he does shrink back. Kouyou’s wordless gaze falls upon Kyouka, who has tensed the slightest bit, though it seems it’s just a reflexive response to the noise.

“You may attempt to defend yourselves,” allows Fukuzawa, gaze remaining on the six on the couch, “but in doing so, you would paint both Izumi-kun and multiple members of my staff as dishonest.”

“They’re in junior high,” points out the mother of the girl, who is scowling and red-faced beside her. “Petty squabbles are common at this age. Who’s to say things aren’t being blown out of proportion?”

“And do schoolyard squabbles,” cuts in Kouyou before Fukuzawa can speak, feeling him glance at her as soon as she does but not halting, “often result in severe facial bruising? I have photographic proof of what you are accusing my child of blowing out of proportion.”

Fukuzawa’s stare doesn’t linger on her, but he does raise a hand, a silent warning that has Kouyou tightening her smile. “It is clear,” he says, looking straight at the other side of the room, “that something must be done. Izumi-kun has made her thoughts on the matter clear to me—” that is, Kouyou must admit, a surprise; she glances at Kyouka, but the eye contact is not returned “—but I wished to offer Ozaki-san the opportunity to make hers known as well.”

There are quite a few thoughts Kouyou would like known, but at Kyouka’s shifting, she swallows her automatic response and allows only for a minute widening of her smile. Her eyes pass over each of the six opposite her in turn, and she sits back.

“You said as much as I wished to, sensei,” says Kouyou, quirking her head. “This behavior is unacceptable, and it is possible it has been going on longer than even I was aware of. Kyouka, how long exactly have your… classmates—” she says this with an emphasis with which she would far prefer using a much different word “—been bothering you?”

“We haven’t been bothering her,” pipes up the girl across the room. She earns a warning look from her mother—and Fukuzawa—for it, but neither seems to deter her. “If she would just stop making herself stand out so much—”

“Pardon me,” says Kouyou through her teeth, “but I do believe my question was directed at Kyouka. Is your name Kyouka, girl?”

“…a year,” says Kyouka at last, cutting the girl off from any response she could have given to that. Her eyes are on her lap, where her hands are curled into one another. “The first time they said something was last year.”

“Izumi-kun has stated that the insults and patterns of exclusion first began one year ago, in her and the other students’ final year of primary school,” confirms Fukuzawa. “It has only been within the past two months that physical violence became part of this dynamic, however.”

Kouyou’s stomach twists at the notion of how long Kyouka has been carrying this around, all without so much as a word. She had been quieter than usual toward the end of last year, true, but Kouyou had dismissed it as stress from exams, perhaps, or the upcoming shift in her life, and Kyouka had still been calm enough at home that it hadn’t seemed too significant.

“For a year, Kyouka has been dealing with this harassment all on her own.” Kouyou is careful to keep her voice steady, unwilling to risk a proper rebuke from Fukuzawa, though from the look on his face he’s not much further from pulling a katana than she is. “Perhaps things only recently became physical, but underestimating the impact of threats and manipulation would be unwise. Consequences are necessary—perhaps not only for the children involved, but their parents.”

The man who had spoken up first scowls. “I beg your pardon—”

“Beg, then,” Kouyou tells him. A smile is still curled onto her face, and her eyes are almost closed with how far it has forced her lower eyelids up. Before any of the others can offer a rebuttal, she turns her head back toward Fukuzawa. “Fukuzawa-sensei, you seem to be a reasonable man. Whatever discipline you see fit, I shall almost certainly stand by, so long as it truly is a fair solution for all involved.”

“I see.” Fukuzawa looks sidelong at her—it’s difficult to read his expression, but it shifts into something a touch more lax for a heartbeat before hardening again. “I will most certainly take this into account. Thank you for your time, Ozaki-san, Izumi-kun, but I believe the remainder of this discussion must be had in private.”

Kouyou’s eyes narrow further, but even she cannot stand in the way of whatever privacy laws are at stake here, at least if she’d like to keep Kyouka in this school and having some degree of positive contact with her teachers and peers, so with a slow nod she pulls herself to her feet. She reaches for Kyouka only to find her already sliding upright as well. Kyouka stands steady and firm, bag between her hands from where it had been sitting at her ankle.

“Thank you for informing me as to the extent of matters, sensei,” says Kouyou, not so much as acknowledging the other side of the room. “I take it you will be in touch.”

Fukuzawa nods. An uncomfortable air fills the room for a moment, the parents opposite Kouyou muttering to themselves and their children again, and at last Kouyou turns her ice-cold stare upon them.

The temperature drops at least ten degrees. Neither Kyouka nor Fukuzawa reacts, but everyone else does, tensing and flinching.

“No matter what Fukuzawa-sensei decides upon,” says Kouyou, basking in it, “I do feel I should make one thing clear.” She steps forward as much as she can manage in the small room, all but looming over the couch. “Should any of you see fit to flap your lips or lay your hands upon Kyouka ever again, you shall find yourself lacking them. Do I make myself clear?”

The nods are so fast that they’re almost dizzying; the mother who hadn’t spoken up has to reach over to pinch her son in the crook of the elbow to get him to comply. Kouyou lets her dagger of a smile slip away and steps back with an arm around Kyouka’s shoulders.

For that, she most certainly expects at least a look if not outright words of reproval, but Fukuzawa is looking away, perhaps feigning disinterest. His eyes meet Kouyou’s for half a second, then lower to Kyouka’s.

He doesn’t smile, and the overall look on his face doesn’t shift, but for a brief instant, the regard flowing off of him is almost palpable. Kouyou is almost impressed by the steady, pointed incline of his head.

“Haruno-kun will see you out,” he says, and as if on cue the secretary in question opens the door, smiling at Kouyou and Kyouka.

The conversation hasn’t picked up again by the time Kouyou and Kyouka step outside, Haruno closing the door behind them, but Kouyou strains her ears to hear Fukuzawa’s booming voice even across the distance and through the walls regardless. They’re led out of the office, where the younger secretary is still typing, though she pauses when they pass by.

“That was fast,” she remarks, looking up. “The principal must be pissed.”

“Naomi-chan,” hisses Haruno, with a pointed glance at the two others in the room, “don’t say that.”

“What? It’s true, Haruno-san,” insists Naomi, leaning forward with her hands cupping her cheeks. “He hates stuff like this. I bet he’ll call a special assembly just to show off anti-bullying PSAs for, like, an hour straight.” At the looks both Kouyou and Haruno seem to be giving her, she relents. “I mean, I’m not making fun of the intent and all—it’s definitely important, because it happens way too much, but the principal gets way involved in these things. Anyway, Kyouka-chan, you’re doing better now, right?”

Kyouka seems startled at the question. She looks up at Kouyou as if prompting her to answer for her; when Kouyou only looks back, she drops her gaze. “I will be,” she says eventually, which Naomi seems satisfied with.

“Good, good.” Naomi sits back and lowers her hands to her keyboard again. “A bunch of us here are rooting for you, just so you know.”

Kyouka’s face goes faintly pink, and she reaches up to tug at Kouyou’s sleeve. With a smile more genuine than any she’s used in the past fifteen minutes, Kouyou nods toward Haruno and Naomi before assuring them she can take it from here. Fleeting goodbyes, most on the secretaries’ behalf, are exchanged before Kouyou steps toward the door.

As soon as it closes behind them, she exhales, and she thinks she hears Kyouka do the same. Kouyou glances down—though there are a great many things she wishes to say, she doubts that here is either the right place or the right time.

Instead, then, she eyes Kyouka’s faint cuts. “Have you had the chance to visit Yosano-sensei?”

Though blinking at the perhaps unexpected topic, Kyouka shakes her head. “I was waiting in there—” she glances toward the office door “—while they were being examined.”

“I see.” Kouyou glances Kyouka over. “Your wounds do not seem too severe, but there is no harm in verifying that, if you would like to briefly drop in.”

For a moment, Kyouka only blinks, perhaps mulling this over. Then she nods, already stepping in that direction. Kouyou lets out an amused breath as she follows.

When they reach the door to the health room, it’s closed, the scene eerily familiar. Kouyou has Kyouka beside her and doing about as well as she can be under such circumstances now, though, so today she does not hesitate in raising her fist to knock.

There’s a pause of what might be surprise, and then Yosano’s familiar voice is calling, “Come in.”

Yosano isn’t at her desk but halfway across the room, taking a drawer of folders from a golden-haired boy in a school uniform, perhaps a grade or two above Kyouka. Surprisingly, he’s the first of the two to react to Kouyou and Kyouka’s presence, whirling with wide, shining eyes.

“Kyouka-chan!” he says in a bright voice that has Kouyou outright grimacing and Kyouka jumping. Yosano doesn’t seem too startled, seeming to seal her lips over an amused smile, so perhaps this is just how this boy is. The ghost of a headache stirs at Kouyou’s temple. “I didn’t know you would still be around after school. How are you feeling?”

“This is… a friend of yours, Kyouka?” asks Kouyou with half-narrowed eyes.

Before Kyouka can respond, only getting the chance to furrow her brow, the boy is turning to look up at her, his beam not dimming for an instant. “Well, we only met just today, but friendships always have to start somewhere, don’t they?”

Kyouka gives an ambivalent shrug. The boy doesn’t seem too chagrined by this, only smiling in slight encouragement.

“Kenji-kun here is a second-year,” explains Yosano, a bit wry, and he nods. She hefts the drawer in her grasp and steps toward a side table to set it down. “He was just telling me about what happened with Izumi-san, as a matter of fact.”

“You witnessed the incident, then?” Kouyou tilts her head toward Kenji, aware of Kyouka shifting her feet beside her but not acknowledging this. “Even Fukuzawa-sensei seemed to not know the precise details.”

Kenji bobs his head in a hurried nod. “It was super cool! I didn’t see how it started, because I was just coming down the corridor to get to Yosano-sensei’s office—I told her I’d help her out after school today, because the club I’m in doesn’t meet today—but when I saw them, Kyouka-chan was already taking care of things. Sometimes I have to break up these things,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck, “but she was fine on her own. She flipped Hatsuo-kun onto his back and pinned his sleeves down with pencils so he couldn’t get back up. Akira-chan was mostly just hanging back, but she tried to lunge after that, but Kyouka-chan tripped her so she and Taro-kun fell over each other. Taro-kun was just starting to get back up when Oda-sensei noticed and got involved.”

Kouyou’s eyebrows have progressively crept farther and farther up her forehead throughout this story, told with all the exuberance and awe of a thirteen-year-old boy who seems easy to impress. She glances at Kyouka, who is staring at the floor with simultaneous resolution and embarrassment. Taking this to be a lost cause, Kouyou lifts her gaze to Yosano.

“I doubt that all was an exaggeration,” says Yosano, hand raised flippantly.

Kenji’s eyes widen, and he rests a hand over his heart with an expression Kouyou isn’t used to seeing on those above the age of nine: Pure, open sincerity. “Honesty is extremely important, ma’am. As long as we treat each other honestly and sincerely, we can understand each other. Sometimes other kids get a bit rowdy, but they’re just like the cows back in my home village—they’re not bad, they’re just acting up, and sometimes you have to knock some sense into them to get them to behave.”

“How… idealistic of you, lad.” Kouyou struggles to keep her tone under control, though whether it’s amusement or irritation bubbling in her chest she isn’t certain.

Dimples crease in Kenji’s cheeks. “Thank you! I do try.”

Kouyou isn’t certain whether she should correct him about the statement not being intended as a compliment, but Yosano clears her throat before she can so much as formulate a response.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I imagine you two didn’t drop by just to chat,” says Yosano, stepping back toward the center of the room. “Izumi-san, I was under the impression that you weren’t injured too badly.”

“We did not think she was, no,” says Kouyou. “But we supposed there was no harm in having her looked over while we were here.”

Yosano nods with a look of consideration, then steps just close enough to Kenji to tap his shoulder. “Would you mind stepping out for a moment, then, Kenji-kun? You’ve been a big help, but I would imagine Izumi-san and Ozaki-san wish to do this privately.”

Kouyou glances at Kyouka, who seems to have no preference but doesn’t protest the request. Perhaps Yosano is the one who wishes for this interaction to be private.

“Of course,” says Kenji at once, straightening up. “Will you need any more help later, Yosano-sensei?”

“Thank you for offering, but I’ll be fine from here. I appreciate what you’ve done thus far, though.”

“I appreciated being here, so I’m glad to hear that!” With a final sunny smile, Kenji ducks toward the back of the room to pick up his bag and sling it over one shoulder. It looks as though it weighs half as much as he does, but he lugs it without issue—perhaps there had been some truth to his take on physical altercations, then. “It was nice meeting you,” he says with a bow toward Kouyou. “And I’ll see you two tomorrow!” This seems to be directed to Kyouka and Yosano, upon whom he turns his crinkled stare.

Kouyou and Kyouka step aside to allow him out of the door, and he flashes a look of gratitude up before slipping out. The door seems to shudder on its hinges as it slides shut behind him.

“Hm,” says Kouyou.

Yosano, meanwhile, has already moved on. She’s turned to sift through files, back to them, but over her shoulder she calls, “Have a seat, why don’t you, Izumi-san? I’ll be right with you in a moment.”

Without hesitating, Kyouka extracts herself from Kouyou’s arm—already light enough that it doesn’t take much effort—and crosses the room. She settles right back down on the cot she’d been seated on several weeks prior. Her posture is almost the same, and when she sets her bag down at her feet it’s in almost the same spot it had been before. Kouyou doubts it’s purposeful, more instinctive than anything, but her lip curls at the reminder nevertheless.

True to her word, Yosano is soon stepping over to the cot, having set one small stack of papers from the drawer aside. She adjusts her gloves before pulling up her chair. The examination process is quick and simple: Kyouka sits still as Yosano glances her over, holding out her arms and turning her head when prompted.

“Are you in any pain?” asks Yosano, and Kyouka shakes her head. “And none of this bled too heavily, right?” Another shake. “Well, then, this shouldn’t be too bad—just avoid picking at the scabs when they form, and watch out for signs of infection. These scrapes are minor enough that you shouldn’t have to put bandages on, though. Did you get a chance to clean them up earlier?”

“She went directly to Fukuzawa-sensei’s office, she said,” volunteers Kouyou.

Yosano glances at Kyouka, who shakes her head in confirmation, and then crosses the room to grab a handful of paper towels and run them under the tap. Kyouka is already reaching up to take them by the time she returns. With a brief nod of gratitude, Kyouka dabs at the few cuts and scrapes on her arms, wincing for a fleeting second at the temperature but moving past it soon enough.

Quirking her head, Yosano leans back. “I must say,” she says, hands coming to rest on her hips, “I think you ended up the best out of anyone here. You really did a number on Hatsuo-kun in particular.”

Kyouka’s blink is mild, almost unaffected, but a dark look flickers through her eyes. She brings the paper towel up toward her cheek. “I was defending myself. He pushed me before and tried to again.”

Kouyou’s hackles rise, and distantly she wishes she’d made proper introductions with the other six in the principal’s office. Kyouka had handled the situation, and it seems that going forward, Fukuzawa and the rest of the staff will try to handle things, but a few careful phone calls would certainly ease the process along.

As though she can tell what Kouyou is thinking, Kyouka glances askance at her, a look that Kouyou only meets with a smile. Yosano, seeming not to notice the silent exchange, takes the paper towels Kyouka has held out.

“Well, far be it from me to advocate violence, let alone against children,” says Yosano lightly as she steps over to drop the paper towels in the trash can, a spark of something like mischief in her eyes, “but I don’t think they’ll be bothering you any time soon. Or that anyone will be, for that matter.” She straightens back up, casting a shrewd look across the room. “I can’t imagine that was all sheer instinct and luck. Where did you learn how to fight?”

Kyouka starts to open her mouth, then pauses and just glances toward Kouyou. It could be either an answer in and of itself or a request for Kouyou to speak in her place, and Kouyou waits until Yosano follows Kyouka’s gaze to respond. “My line of work makes knowledge of self-defense skills quite valuable,” is her careful explanation. “Kyouka has been surrounded by skilled fighters from a young age—” not an inaccurate statement, given her parents’ professions “—and, several years ago, it became crucial for her to begin learning from those I am on a familiar basis with.”

Her vague wording seems only to sharpen the curiosity in Yosano’s stare, but ultimately she nods. “I’ll hardly chew you out for using those skills, then,” she says, glancing back toward Kyouka, who stiffens—just as Kouyou does—at the sharp undertone, “but I do want you to keep in mind that violence is a tool, Izumi-san. It’s not always the wrong one to use, and I certainly won’t suggest you don’t defend yourself, but it wouldn’t hurt to explore ways to do that without potentially putting yourself in further danger.”

“Pardon me,” interrupts Kouyou, smiling tightly again, before Kyouka can so much as blink, “but I find it troubling that Kyouka is the one being told to defuse matters.”

“Oh, I had plenty to say to the instigators of this whole situation, believe me. If at least one of their parents doesn’t end up filing a complaint about me, I’ll frankly be shocked.” The amusement on Yosano’s face dies out within seconds. Before Kouyou can speak, she lifts a hand, the easy nature of the dismissal more startling than the gesture itself. “And I agree. It isn’t fair that victims are pushed to be the ones in control when abuse aims to strip that from them. And it especially isn’t fair to expect them to take things on all by themselves.

“I won’t tell you that all teachers and authority figures in general are automatically trustworthy,” says Yosano, returning the brunt of her focus to Kyouka, “or that just because we’re adults, we know best. But I can promise that you’re not alone here, Izumi-san, and that I want you to feel safe coming to the people who work here.”

Kyouka takes a breath, then another. Kouyou, hackles not quite lowered but willing to let Yosano speak her piece, watches. For a long pause, Kyouka just seems to process this, before at last she says, “I can try.”

Yosano’s face softens. “That’s all I ask of you, then. If we don’t know what’s going on, then we can’t help you—and I’m sure that applies for everyone else in your life, too. Ozaki-san seemed just as troubled by this situation as I’ve been.”

A faint flush rises in Kyouka’s cheeks. She drops her gaze, staring down at her feet.

“I’m not trying to guilt you into anything,” says Yosano, shifting back. “Trust me, I understand not feeling comfortable trusting adults you barely know—it’s our responsibility to protect kids like you, but that doesn’t mean it always happens, unfortunately. And I think trying to handle things alone is admirable, if not particularly healthy.” She fixes Kyouka with another look that Kyouka almost entirely ignores. “The way you fought today was certainly impressive, too, and if it’s a viable option, then I do encourage fighting back. But if you hadn’t had such extensive self-defense training, and you’d been just as fragile as the other children likely assumed you to be…”

Kouyou makes to interrupt, but Yosano is already shaking her head and adding, “Well, there’s no real use in dwelling on hypotheticals.” It’s the exact view Kouyou had intended to interject with, and her mouth closes unhappily. “You did well, Izumi, and with any luck, you really did knock some sense into your classmates. If not—” She cracks her knuckles, seeming to be more of a reflex than anything else. “Well, think on it, all right? If you’re in counseling, maybe talk it over there.” After a brief pause, Kyouka nods, and Yosano nods back before turning. “Oh, and Ozaki-san?”

On instinct, Kouyou’s shoulders tighten. “Yes?”

Though the look she’s giving has made grown men all but fall upon their swords in the past, Yosano doesn’t so much as flinch. She almost smiles, in fact, as she looks across the room. “I understand that your daughter’s wellbeing is your priority,” she says, gaze sharp, “and I want you to know that it’s one of mine as well. Oh, and don’t tell anyone I said this, but treat her to something she likes as a reward for fighting better than probably half of the adult men in this city.”

An unbidden laugh almost leaves Kouyou, but she manages to swallow it before more than a breath can escape. “You inform Kyouka she should have other responses than violence,” she says, incredulity creeping in, “and then tell me to reward her for such a reaction? Your signals may be straying, sensei.”

“Are they really?” Yosano raises an eyebrow. “My point isn’t that Izumi-san shouldn’t have fought back, it’s that she shouldn’t have had to in the first place. What matters most is her safety, and it shouldn’t be up to her to maintain that—it should be up to the rest of us.”

“On that much, I can agree with you, I suppose.” Kouyou presses her lips together, looking finally back at Kyouka, whose head has risen to allow her to glance between Kouyou and Yosano. “Is there anything else you wished to note, sensei? If not, I do think it is approaching the appropriate time for the two of us to leave.”

Yosano looks at her for a long moment, then turns an inquisitive gaze upon Kyouka, who has already begun reaching for her bag. “No, you’re free to go. Again, those scrapes shouldn’t need too much attention, and your bruise has healed quite well, Izumi-san, much as I’m sure we all wish it hadn’t been there to begin with.” Kyouka’s face sets into a hard frown, but she slides to her feet by way of distraction. “Think on what else I’ve said, though.”

Instinctively, Kouyou’s jaw sets, a subtle enough motion that she doubts Yosano will notice—from the slight twitch of her lips, though, she does. Kouyou allows for a tight-lipped nod. Kyouka is stepping toward her, regardless, so Kouyou’s smile becomes more genuine as she reaches out to rest a hand on her shoulder. It’s intended to be reassuring, but Kouyou isn’t quite certain if it’s more for Kyouka or herself.

“Thank you, sensei,” Kouyou brings herself to say, inclining her head farther. “You have made it clear that you do have Kyouka’s best interests in mind, and I must respect that.”

Beside her, Kyouka bows, a silent echo of the notion. Yosano blinks, then smiles. “It is my job,” she says wryly, but she nods back, eyeing them both when her head rises. “Thank you for your involvement, Ozaki-san. I’m sure we don’t see eye-to-eye on anything, but regardless, there’s plenty of parents who wouldn’t go to half the lengths you have.”

“Then, in my firm opinion, they do not deserve to be called by such a title.”

That startles a laugh out of Yosano, a gloved hand shooting up to curl belatedly over her mouth. “I can’t say I disagree, really.” She shakes her head, then coughs. “Have a good rest of your evenings, you two—no offense, but I hope I don’t have to see both of you in my office for a long time, at least under these circumstances.”

“Yes, as do I.” Kouyou’s face twists at the thought, but she clears it and her throat in the same beat. “Thank Fukuzawa-sensei for us as well, if you get the chance.”

Though she pauses to consider that, Yosano is soon nodding again. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate that,” she says, smile widening. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you two around.”

“With any luck, not here,” says Kouyou, glancing at the posters and medical supplies once more, before at last she nudges Kyouka along, aware of the side glances she’s been getting for the past several minutes. “Farewell, Yosano-sensei. May you enjoy the rest of your evening as well.”

“Goodbye,” says Kyouka over her shoulder, already being steered away.

The last glimpse Kouyou gets of Yosano is of her smiling, a soft laugh still ringing faintly in the air, and illuminated by the red-tinted sunlight behind her, glinting almost too brightly off the elegant hair pin she wears. It is soon little more than an afterimage, however, as Kouyou sweeps Kyouka out of the door and back outside.

*

On the drive home, Kyouka is still quiet, but it seems to be in her typical manner than anything more serious, and when Kouyou asks about her day—what had preceded the altercation, at any rate—she doesn’t hesitate to answer. Almost as soon as they’ve stepped foot in the house, she’s off to her room under the excuse of starting on homework.

Too drained to entertain the thought of cooking, Kouyou orders in from the restaurant Kyouka likes—Kyouka’s eyes light up when she offers, the resurgence of genuine excitement making Kouyou’s heart glow the same way. They eat in a comfortable sort of silence. Kyouka makes her way through four bowls of yudofu before she starts struggling with swallowing. Two are still left over to heat up another night, and the majority of Kyouka’s side dishes remain as well, lying in disarray around her place setting.

Kouyou requisitions a couple of the pickled dishes, picking her way through a platter of takuan while Kyouka pokes at some of her rice. When she starts picking up individual grains at a time, Kouyou coughs.

“You are not obligated to lick all of your dishes clean,” she says, swallowing any amusement, and Kyouka looks up, chopsticks—this time an ambitious two grains of rice between them—frozen in midair. “I do believe you have earned one night of indulgence.”

Kyouka slips the two grains into her mouth, then sets her chopsticks down with a decisive slump. She’s soon reclining in her seat, almost nodding off. Her face is still half-alert, but it’s clear the four bowls’ worth of tofu is catching up with her, and the undeniable exertion of her day as well.

It’s not until Kouyou stands that she startles upright. Without being asked, Kyouka hurries after her, making to help her clear the table.

“You don’t need—” starts Kouyou, a bit startled, but Kyouka is already shaking her head and rolling up her sleeves. The silent plea for a return to a normal routine is one Kouyou can understand, so she smiles. “Very well, then. You clear the plates; I shall store the leftovers.”

They slip back into a rhythm that feels easier, yet also a touch more tense, than anything has for almost a month. Kouyou returns to the sink to wash what few plates and utensils from home they’d used, passing them off to Kyouka to be dried. Once or twice, their hands slip in the process, but their combined reflexes keep anything from breaking. When the kitchen is spotless once more, Kouyou gives Kyouka a firm nod.

Kyouka almost smiles—not by much, just a slight twitch in her face—and heads upstairs. There is still a faint tug at Kouyou’s soles telling her to follow, but it’s simple enough to quell, and she distracts herself by skimming through calls and emails.

A few hours later, Kouyou stops by Kyouka’s room on the way to hers. The door is open all the way, as if Kyouka had anticipated Kouyou’s eventual arrival, and Kyouka herself is seated atop the covers, knees folded beneath her. At the rap on the door frame, she looks up from the handheld console in her grip.

Wordlessly, Kouyou steps into the room and takes a careful seat on the edge of the bed. Kyouka taps a few more buttons, then seems to pause the game, setting it aside.

“If you are busy,” says Kouyou, a bit dry as she glances at the console, “then I will leave you to it, but I was hoping we might talk for a few moments, if you would be amenable.”

After a silent pause, long enough that Kouyou is bracing for a refusal, Kyouka nods. Her hands settle on her lap.

“Thank you,” says Kouyou, tipping her head. “I am sure you can imagine what it is I would like to speak about.”

Kyouka glances away, though she returns her gaze when Kouyou lets out a soft laugh. Kouyou shuffles back as much as she can without pulling her legs up onto the bed—she’s careful not to rumple the sheets either, immaculate as they somehow are. There is an inherent discomfort to a position like this, one where she almost regrets not opting for simple futons for the full-fledged bedrooms, but if she can move past a great many things, then Kouyou supposes she can overcome something such as this.

“I shall elaborate nonetheless,” she says. Mimicking Kyouka’s posture, she folds her hands in her lap. “I am troubled, I confess, by today’s situation—and, indeed, the situation that seems to have been going on for at least several weeks, if not months to potentially years.”

Now Kyouka’s gaze drops altogether, falling to her console where it lies. She doesn’t seem embarrassed, more so uncomfortable—at that, an almost inaudible sigh escapes Kouyou, though Kyouka does seem to hear it, from her murmur of “Sorry.”

Kouyou’s eyes widen. That hadn’t been her intention in the slightest, and she hastens to clarify: “You needn’t apologize at all, child—I ought to be the one saying so.” Kyouka jerks her head up, surprised, but Kouyou is already continuing. “Your parents entrusted me with your safety, and now little more than a month into junior high school, you have been threatened and harassed by your peers, not to mention injured in such a grievous fashion.” Kyouka’s bruise is almost completely gone now, but Kouyou’s eyes catch on tiny wisps of yellow and brown where it had been. “This is a failing of none but those vermin and myself.”

“Just them,” says Kyouka, quietly enough that at first Kouyou thinks she’s misheard.

Her expression softens when she processes it. “Yes, I will certainly not deny their greater role in matters. With any luck, the combination of your combat prowess and Yosano-sensei and Fukuzawa-sensei’s methods shall knock some sense into those little beasts’ heads.” A hint of amusement flickers through Kyouka’s expression. Dead serious as she is, Kouyou allows a thin smile in response, then drops it. “However… had I given more thought to this possibility, or encouraged a more open environment here at home, or perhaps even furthered your self-defense training earlier, perhaps you would not have had to suffer in such a way. Nor would we have had to have this conversation so belatedly.

“I know that you are independent and strong-willed, Kyouka,” continues Kouyou when Kyouka says nothing, “and such traits are admirable. But when they are at the expense of your own wellbeing, they become less so.” Hearing the edge in her voice, Kouyou attempts to soften it. “I understand wishing to take matters into your own hands. Had I known enough to know this was the case here, I would not have stood in your way, and I may have been able to advise you.”

She trails off, considering what next to say. In the drawn-out silence, Kyouka shifts, nudging her console farther to the side and unfolding her legs from beneath her. She stretches them out before pulling them up toward her chest. There, she nestles a cheek against one knee as if resting, but her eyes are as sharp as ever as they flicker back up toward Kouyou.

Under the expectant look, Kouyou exhales. “Perhaps—more likely than not, in fact—there is nothing I could have done that would have been so effective as what you did today. It is difficult to justify laying hands on children your age, disgraceful and despicable as their actions may have been. But all the same, having that knowledge may have helped somehow. And I suspect I am not the only one in your life who feels that way.” Too many faces come to mind than can be named.

Kyouka tucks her knees closer to her chest. She opens her mouth as if to speak, then thinks better of it, hunching forward so her knees cover half of her face.

“And this is not a criticism of you,” Kouyou rushes to say. “You are by no means at fault in any part of this situation, and I do not intend to imply that you were. Kyouka—” her hand twitches, wanting to rest on Kyouka’s shoulder, but she holds herself back “—you did not deserve any of this, and you are not to blame in the slightest. If you should take nothing else from this conversation, please know that much.”

“I know,” says Kyouka, little more than a whisper.

Kouyou’s shoulders settle, and her hands curl into fists. “Then please know that I say this for your sake as much as my own. I dearly, dearly hope such situations will not reoccur in the future—but should they, will you, at the very least, promise to inform me?”

Kyouka tenses, posture tightening. A conflicted look glazes over her eyes.

On instinct, Kouyou wants to push further, but she dismisses that reflex. This is not an interrogation—it is, for all intents and purposes, a conversation between equals, as she has made herself view Kyouka. Not as a malleable toy or a subservient child expected to live at her beck and call, but a person with feelings and opinions all her own, from whom respect and trust must be earned as much as from anyone else. As her legal ward and a child for whom she cares, Kyouka has responsibilities to her, but Kouyou has just as many to Kyouka. And one of those is to make sure the life she lives is a good one while also allowing her to think and act for herself.

Keeping Kyouka under her thumb, manipulating and molding her, would have once been easy. It is what Kouyou does by way of occupation, and many of her interpersonal relationships had started out under less than positive conditions, even if they aren’t that way now. Her relationship with Kyouka is no exception.

Working to treat Kyouka as an individual is more difficult than anything Kouyou could do naturally. And for that very reason, it is worth it. Kyouka’s happiness and safety, with few exceptions, are the most important things in the world for Kouyou by now, and she refuses to be the very one standing in the way.

Looking down at Kyouka now, Kouyou forces herself to uncurl her fists and let out a breath. “I suppose I should not hold you to a promise such as that one.” Kyouka relaxes somewhat, but she’s still watching her, eyes intense. “I will say this much, then: I would like for you to be as open with me as you can. I strive to keep your best interests in mind, and my duty is to protect you—things that I cannot do if I am not aware of the danger you are in. And though I understand that circumstances will not always allow you to be open, I encourage you to be so nevertheless.

“I will not,” she continues when Kyouka doesn’t interrupt, “instruct you on how to behave in response to someone who is clearly willing to physically harm you. I will, however, encourage further combat training, if that is something you would be interested in.” Kyouka nods with such force that the motion is difficult to track, and Kouyou tries not to smile. “Very well, then. I shall work something out with Chuuya and the Black Lizard lieutenants at my earliest convenience.

“However… the most skilled, most gifted—” in more ways than one “—fighters in my employ are still prone to injury. If they are not invincible, then you are far from an exception. I shall not tell you to simply talk things out with your tormentors, mind you,” says Kouyou with disdain, scowling at the mere notion, “but perhaps we should develop strategies that do not involve violence as a first resort as well. Preventative measures, for one. For the most part, I do believe that translates to involving others.

“I shall not encourage you to wholly trust authority figures nor adults as a whole,” she continues, sharp, “but there are some you can confide in, yes? At home, there is myself, Chuuya, and Atsushi-kun. And, I suppose, Dazai.” This time, the tone does get another tiny smile from Kyouka. “Though I am unfamiliar with most of your teachers still, at least some of them are trustworthy, I would surmise. Oda-sensei, certainly, and Kunikida-sensei as well. Yosano-sensei too, I would say—and your principal, though I take it you do not intend to interact directly with him often.” Kyouka shakes her head. “And though he is not an adult, you have our friend Kenji-kun now as well, do you not?”

Now Kyouka nods, somewhat hesitant. “There’s a girl in my class who told the other students off once, too.”

“Even better, then. There are people, then, that you can lean on.”

“I do.” The admission is a conflicted one; Kyouka is frowning, but it seems more out of thought than any sort of discomfort. Her hands tightened where they’re folded together. “I… don’t want violence to be the only tool I can use. If there are other things I can do, then I want to do them. But knowing that I can fight if I have to makes things easier.”

“That is understandable. We shall talk this over with your therapist, then—or you can on your own,” Kouyou adds, “if you do not want it to be a discussion I am involved in.”

That had been another allowance she’d had to coax out of herself. In their first few sessions, Kouyou had sat in with Kyouka, continuing in that manner for several months before the therapist had made the tentative offer to Kyouka that she could talk things over one-on-one if she so wished. Kouyou had almost declined for her, but one look at Kyouka’s face had made her balk. Now, most of their sessions are one-on-one, though on occasion Kouyou will join in at the end or if either of them wants to talk something over in a controlled setting. Ise’s mediation skills have thus far not disappointed Kouyou.

Kyouka just shrugs. Kouyou accepts this with a measured nod.

“You need not figure things out right this instant,” she reassures. “I shall bring it up again in a few days’ time, however, so think on it.”

“Okay,” says Kyouka simply. A bit tentative, she stretches her legs out again. “Can I go to the bathroom now?”

Kouyou’s eyes dart toward the clock, and she startles to her feet. “Certainly, child. How long have you needed to?” Kyouka’s glance away says that she won’t answer that, so Kouyou holds up a dismissive hand. “It is getting fairly late, so I shall leave you to your rest now, Kyouka. Sleep well, and as always, if you need anything during the night, do not hesitate to let me know.”

Kyouka nods, though she’s in the middle of sliding off the bed. She steadies herself on the corner of the desk as she takes a careful step forward. “Goodnight,” she calls over her shoulder.

“Goodnight, Kyouka,” says Kouyou, smiling, and there is a lightness to her when she leaves, closing the door behind her.

With Kyouka, there is always worry stewing under her skin—but for now, as she steps down the hall toward her room, Kouyou thinks that they’ll be able to handle any problems with at least a marginal amount more dignity than they have been.

thanks for reading! see you next week! 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