the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 20 chapter cws: implied (fade to black) and mentions/discussions of sex, although i don't think it ended up being quite suggestive enough to warrant a rating bump. there is some (nonsexual) nudity in the last scene as well, along with the standard passing mentions of violence/death/injury throughout.

From the moment she gets into the car, Kyouka is fidgeting.

In and of itself, this is not a cause for concern. Although Kyouka can stay statue-still at times even two years removed from a perpetual version of that state, she’s comfortable enough with herself and her surroundings now that idle movements are common. Shifting back and forth in her seat or on her feet, tugging at the very ends of her hair, twisting pendants or keychains or sweatshirt strings between her fingers, tapping the toes of her shoes together—all frequent but absent, subconscious habits suggesting calmness and informality.

The way Kyouka is fidgeting today, by contrast, is at least somewhat purposeful, an active attempt to stave off the nervous energy drifting from her. The motions themselves deviate from the norm: She keeps smoothing out invisible wrinkles in her skirt and adjusting her bangs where they’re hanging into her eyes, things she would be content with any other day. Her posture itself is stiff and uncomfortable.

Her face, too, doesn’t quite maintain its typical neutrality. Kyouka’s eyes, which otherwise often remain fixed forward or to the side, keep flickering around, flitting from place to place and particularly straying in Kouyou’s direction. More than once, she even starts to open her mouth before closing it and looking away again.

The fifth and final instance of this in half as many minutes destroys any semblance of patience Kouyou has. “All right,” she says, firm, and Kyouka snaps her head up, blinking with surprise. “What has happened now?”

The tension in Kouyou’s voice deepens Kyouka’s frown, but she lets her hand go limp where it had been picking at the hem of her skirt. “Nothing bad,” she says, gaze swiveling toward the window. Outside, a group of teenagers in the uniform of another local school are walking past.

That statement doesn’t quell Kouyou’s pessimism, considering her standards of bad are not the same as anyone else’s—particularly when it comes to Kyouka—and Kyouka had not denied anything at all occurring. She allows herself to relax the slightest bit, though. “But something did happen?”

“Mm.” Kyouka’s shoulders even out, but in a very conscious, controlled manner. “Aya asked if I wanted to study with her this weekend.”

That takes a moment to click, if only because this reaction seems disproportionate. “Is that not something that has happened numerous times already?” Kouyou asks, slotting her fingers together, when no further information is forthcoming. “From what I have heard from Atsushi-kun, Aya-kun has become a semi-frequent fixture upon the living room couch.”

Kyouka makes a face like she’s been interrupted, though Kouyou had waited a reasonable enough time before responding. “At her house,” she clarifies. “And maybe spending the night after.”

“Ah.” That, Kouyou supposes, would do it. Something in her flares instinctively, a surge of that overbearing protectiveness she’s been training herself out of for two years, but she soothes it with a careful breath, focusing on the conflict in Kyouka’s gaze. “Did you agree?”

Minutely, Kyouka shakes her head. “I said I had to think about it.”

By which she means I had to speak with my neurotic adoptive mother about it, but Kouyou appreciates the tactful version. “Did you want to agree?”

Kyouka’s mouth thins into a silent line, which is an answer in and of itself.

“I see.” Kouyou’s fingers press together and then settle, slack and smooth upon her lap. A single nail taps along the opposite knuckle. The seconds tick past along with it; she doesn’t bother to count them out, but she feels them bearing down all the same, dug further in by Kasa’s innocuous glance in the rearview mirror. At last Kouyou breathes out. “Well, if that is the case… I see no reason to hold you back. Aya-kun and her guardian have proven they are trustworthy by now, I feel, and if this is something you are interested in, I am not one to stand in your way.”

“Really?” says Kyouka, dubious, as though this might somehow be a trap. Kouyou wants to laugh, and then wants to kneel again before the Izumis’ grave at the notion that she has contributed to that wariness.

“Really,” she confirms, wry. “Although I shan’t leave the details up to two thirteen-year-olds. You have Aya-kun’s contact information, yes? Would you mind asking for her guardian’s?”

Something is still suspicious about Kyouka’s stare, but she nods and then clarifies that she will when they get home. Kouyou allows herself to smile. They don’t speak for the rest of the drive, as little time remains to begin with, but Kyouka’s posture is much more relaxed; she continues to fidget every now and then, but in a way that follows suit with this.

And so, after dinner, half of a bottle of sake poured out on the counter before her, Kouyou finds herself typing one Kunikida Doppo’s number into her phone.

He doesn’t pick up the first time, and Kouyou doesn’t bother listening to more than a single syllable of the voicemail greeting before trying again. That one he does answer, albeit in a fashion so similar to an answering machine that she’s almost impressed. She’s grateful for it, too, when she’s able to state her intentions without pretense and cut to the heart of things.

With Kunikida’s meticulous scheduling, arrangements are swift and rigid. The level of planning and lack of ambiguity are more things Kouyou supposes she can appreciate, and when she hangs up and makes to pass the information along to Kyouka, her apprehension has gone down an exponential amount.

Some still lingers, of course, however dashed by the excitement in Kyouka’s nod it is. Kouyou can shut off a great many things, but she cannot shut off who she is at her core, nor would she especially want to. She’ll cloak it for Kyouka’s sake, but some part of her is displeased at this turn of events. Yet it seems they will roll on all the same, with or without Kouyou’s say.

A thought occurs to her. This weekend, for the first time in over two years, she will be alone in the house overnight.

For all of the years before in which that had been Kouyou’s everyday experience, the thought should not be as jarring as it is. Most nights, the house is silent and still, but Kyouka’s presence is always palpable, and should Kouyou need a reminder of it she only needs to walk the several feet to her door. It is calming, in a way, because it means both that Kyouka is there and that Kouyou is there to protect her.

Kouyou acts sometimes as though her presence in Kyouka’s life has made Kyouka more stable, and perhaps that is the truth in a number of ways, but a greater truth would be the other way around. Many a night has Kouyou been away, whether until the next day or just past a time she would have expected Kyouka to still be awake. Those nights seem to have little impact on Kyouka, who always has other company and takes most such things in stride all the same. The thought of a flipped version of that dynamic, however, is enough to give Kouyou pause.

In the first few months after taking Kyouka in, Kouyou had had several conversations with Oda about the unexpected realities of parenthood. This, she supposes, is another to add to that list.

There’s little Kouyou can do about it now, though, she supposes. She had committed herself to not standing in the way of Kyouka’s desires for her own selfish urges, and that is quite relevant here.

Another thought occurs to her. This one is less difficult to chase, but it imprints itself on Kouyou’s subconsciousness in an inescapable, all-consuming way all the same. Had this occurred two years ago, she would have had to be alone, or perhaps spend the entirety of the night at headquarters, committing herself to the only distraction she’s known for the past decade: Work. Now, though—

Kouyou’s gaze strays toward her phone. It seems to stare back at her. Her brows pinch together. In her mind, she goes through the motions of calling, running along the probable branches of the conversation, at least from her end.

Before she can second-guess herself, she picks it up and scrolls through her contacts to place a call. Really, she thinks with a frown as she presses her phone to her ear—she’s been in organized crime for all but her entire life, she’s slain more people than she could ever hope to count and manipulated and used twice that, and she’s a skilled enough tactician and swordswoman to have led the Port Mafia for over a decade. And yet here she is, balking over something like this.

Her thoughts come to a brisk halt when a click sounds against her ear. “Hello?” comes Yosano’s voice, surprised but pleased; the buzz of a radio or television is just audible beneath.

“Hello.” Kouyou means to suppress her faint smile, but it slips through all the same. Forcibly, she reworks her expression into something more neutral, for all the good it does over a phone call. “I hope I am not interrupting anything. Are you having a good evening?”

“Ah, no, you’re not. So far, I am, and I suppose it’s better now. Hopefully. Is something wrong?”

Kouyou loosens the tension in her face, surmising that something in it has bled into her tone. She sips at her sake. “Nothing of the sort,” she eases. “I merely had a… question.”

“Oh? A question you had to call for?” The electronic rumbling fades altogether, and there’s a shifting sound. “What would that be?”

“Had is perhaps the wrong wording, but—yes, so to speak.” Despite herself, Kouyou finds her words failing her—she purses her lips with a flash of that same irritation and lowers her cup. Her tolerance makes liquid courage an impossible ideal. “Do you happen to have any plans this weekend?”

“Not that I know of,” says Yosano, a curious hum to it. “Did you want to make some?”

“Yes. In all honesty, this may be an improper question to ask—” a huff of intrigued laughter sounds on the other end, and Kouyou’s mouth twitches into an emboldened smile “—but… would you be willing to have me over for dinner this Saturday evening? At your apartment, that is.”

“Ah, that sort of improper.” Yosano clicks her tongue. “I’d absolutely be up for that, though—last time went well enough, and I did visit your house last week, so I figure swapping again is fair enough. Are you planning to bring Kyouka along again?”

“That is why I asked, as a matter of fact.” Kouyou runs a careful finger along the side of her cup. “It would only be me. Kyouka, ah… she will be staying overnight at a peer’s then. Her decision, not mine,” she adds with a dry expression, heedless of the fact that Yosano can’t see her, “but I intend to support it so long as it is her wish, which indeed seems to be the case.”

“I see. So you wanted it to be just us?” Yosano’s voice is unreadable, neutrality made murkier by the distance.

Kouyou takes a long sip. “Yes, if that would be all right with you. I understand that Edogawa-kun’s presence is all but inevitable, but—”

“Actually,” Yosano cuts in, a lilting amusement picking up, “Ranpo will be out this weekend too. Poe couldn’t visit for his birthday a few weeks back, so he’s making up for it now by spending the rest of November here. So I’ll probably see Ranpo on—” there’s a pause “—mm, maybe nine days total this month. And Saturday almost definitely won’t be one of them.”

“Ah,” says Kouyou, unsure what tone she’s conveying now. She clears her throat. “It truly would only be the two of us, then. In that case… would you be all right with me spending the night?”

For a moment, the call is utterly silent. Kouyou glances toward the door as if to verify that Kyouka hasn’t chosen this moment to reappear, overlooking the fact that she would have heard the stairs creak, even distracted as she is. She is, as expected, alone, but in some ways that’s perhaps worse than if she were being eavesdropped on.

“Would you be all right with that?” returns Yosano at last, at a midpoint between interested, concerned, and startled.

That, Kouyou supposes, is a reasonable reaction to have. One of the brief conversations they’d had near summer’s end had touched upon what an appropriate point to progress into sexual intimacy would be, and whether that was even something they were both interested in. It had been only extensive enough to cover basic boundaries and a ballpark estimate of whenever it feels right and also is possible (given their respective living situations, occupations, and limited free time), and aside from vague innuendo and charged flirting in the interim, the topic has never been raised again since. It’s not as if Kouyou is being considerably explicit now, but the phrase and context offer little ambiguity.

She lets out a cautious breath. “I would,” she says, and means it in full. She would have meant it several months prior, and might have chosen it over a full-fledged romantic relationship, but over a decade’s distance from any semblance of an active sex life and the unsteady balance of her schedule and her child’s had made it as implausible. “It is not my intention to make you feel obligated nor pressured; if this is a step you are uncomfortable with, I truly can just stay for dinner. Or limit our contact to sleeping with you in the strictly literal sense. But it is one I have been interested in pursuing for some time, so I see no reason not to take the opportunity presented.”

“I—” A soft wheezing laugh carries over the line. “You know, Kouyou, every chance you get you surprise me. I fully mean that as a compliment, so don’t make that face.” Before she realizes what she’s doing, Kouyou relaxes her face from the blank half-scowl, half-gape it had shifted into. “All right. I’d be happy to have you over Saturday. Nothing has to happen, per se, but you’re more than welcome to spend the night.”

Kouyou’s brow quirks. “That easy to agree, was it?”

“Somehow I suspect it’s been longer for you than it has for me, so I don’t want to hear that from you,” says Yosano dryly. “What time were you thinking of coming over?”

Kouyou doesn’t bother to protest the—likely true—assumption, only sighing. “Perhaps somewhere around six or seven,” she suggests. “Kyouka will be dropped off at her friend’s at just after one, so that grants enough of a window for me to get a fair amount of work done in between. With any luck, I should also be able to wake at a reasonable enough time to pick Kyouka up.”

“Hopefully,” agrees Yosano, smile audible. At Kouyou’s scoff, she snorts again. “But, ah, that should work fine for me. See you then?”

“See you then.”

“Great. Goodnight, Kouyou—enjoy the rest of your week.”

Before Kouyou can return the sentiment, the line goes dead. She presses her lips together in ostensible offense—a closer glance, however, would show that the smile she’s suppressing is as clear as anything.

And then, of course, she drains what remains of her sake in a single drink.

*

Kyouka is not fidgeting as they stand outside the Kunikida home, but there is something nervous to her stance nonetheless, an anxious energy that rolls off of her in muted but still present waves. Kouyou isn’t certain whether a steadying hand to the shoulder would help or hurt, so her hands stay where they are.

Around them, the neighborhood is quiet, breaths close to inaudible; all that is left is the distant chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves in the wind, the air thick with the early omens of an upcoming rainstorm. The gathering clouds overhead have Kouyou second-guessing her decision not to bring her parasol, no matter how briefly she will be here. Kasa has parked down the street, so the sound of the idling engine is no longer present. It may have been comforting or the exact opposite—whatever the case, its absence makes the scene feel much emptier.

Kouyou peers up at the architecture before her, traditional blended with modern work similarly to Kouyou’s own house. When the minute rolls over, she raises her fist to knock. Within seconds, the door opens. The one to greet them, of course, is Kunikida himself, lacking an overcoat but otherwise as neatly dressed as every other time Kouyou has seen him of late.

“Ozaki-san,” he says immediately, bowing his head. “And Izumi. It’s good to see you both—and perfectly on time, at that.”

“Kunikida-sensei,” returns Kouyou, nodding in return. “Of course. Kyouka has been greatly looking forward to today—is that not correct?” She nudges Kyouka’s side, if only to make sure she isn’t hyperventilating, and gets a quick nod in response.

“As has Aya.” With a firm cough, Kunikida leans back. “Would you care to step in for a moment? Ozaki-san, I don’t know how you take your tea, but—”

“Ah, I am afraid I haven’t the time to stay for quite that long,” says Kouyou, and her lips quirk at the momentary relief that slips through Kunikida’s neutral front. She tilts her head. “I do not at least mind seeing Kyouka in, however.”

“Right.” Maintaining his professional air, Kunikida steps back to further clear the way for them. Hovering at the neck of the hallway that leads, Kouyou has to assume, into the living room or another such area, he crosses his arms over his chest for a seeming lack of anything else to do with them.

Kouyou ushers Kyouka inside, perhaps hoping to ease her with her continued presence. Together, they step into the compact but comfortable entryway. The door slides shut behind them; light still creeps in from the windows framing it, and the sound is lost beneath their twin footsteps as Kyouka gets right to shedding her shoes.

Her peripheral vision staying on Kyouka, Kouyou lingers near the door, eyes otherwise wandering over what she can see from here. The interior of Kunikida’s house is as well-maintained as its exterior, if not more so, though that’s no particular surprise. The floor is spotless enough to shine under the lighting. Only a handful of sets of shoes are lined up along the step, and it’s easy to tell from the sizes and styles which are his, Aya’s, and the other son’s. A couple of pairs of slippers are also set out, which must be for Kyouka’s benefit. Kyouka slides into one without pause.

Absently observing, Kunikida taps one finger against his arm, the staccato rhythm quiet but sharp. “Aya is upstairs,” he explains. “You can head up there now if you want, Izumi.”

Kyouka glances at Kouyou, who half-nods in slight encouragement but doesn’t otherwise move or react, settling for holding Kyouka’s stare. Kyouka shuffles on her feet and stays in place.

“…or you can wait until Ozaki-san leaves,” says Kunikida in slight defeat. He shifts his feet, facing them both with continued neutrality, though it seems more and more strained as the seconds tick away. At last he manages to look back at Kouyou. “You seem well, Ozaki-san.”

“I suppose so,” says Kouyou—she more or less is, as far as she’s concerned. “You do as well, Kunikida-kun.”

He accepts this with a brief nod. It isn’t altogether inaccurate. Aside from the party he had attended a week or so ago, during which they’d not interacted a great deal, she’s only seen him in passing since he was in high school, as little as she had even interacted with him then, but up close she can see how he’s grown into his severity—though he still looks older than he is, what with the glasses chain and austere resting expression. Confirming Dazai’s offhanded comments, there may even be a few premature shots of silver in his hair. He seems both more relaxed and more harried than he’d been as a teenager, but overall, it seems to be a positive shift. Perhaps taking in orphans had done him well too.

Though she’s less obvious about it, Kouyou too finds herself uncertain of how to behave here. He’d been on decent terms with Chuuya—and, despite Dazai’s needling, better with him—but only a sense of basic civility had been shared between him and Kouyou, who had thought little of his idealism and righteousness but spared some respect for his maturity. What exchanges they’d had last week had been eased by others’ presences. Kouyou supposes she ought to extend some warmth for him being the guardian to one of Kyouka’s only close friends, and a fine teacher besides, but for now her smile remains cool.

Her gaze scrapes across the walls. “Your home seems quite lovely,” she says, “at least as near as I can discern from here. Fit for a family, indeed.” She glances back at Kunikida. “I was unaware until recently that you were Aya-kun’s guardian, but it is surprisingly apt.”

That is a slight stretch of the truth, considering she had found out over four months ago, but considering how infrequently she interacts with him, the maintained sense of surprise carries through.

Kunikida seems uncertain whether to thank her or grimace; in the end all he does is nod. “Is there really nothing you’d like to drink, Ozaki-san, or—?”

“No, nothing of the sort. I should leave you two—or rather three—” she glances upward “—to it now, I suppose.” Without being prompted, Kyouka turns toward Kouyou, and Kouyou smiles down at her. “Enjoy yourself, child. Do not hesitate to call or text—or ask Kunikida-sensei to do so—if you require anything, no matter what time it is or what matter has come up. All right?”

Kyouka hovers for a moment, eyeing Kouyou like she would hug her were spontaneous physical affection more common for her, and settles for dipping her head. Kouyou nods back, pats Kyouka’s shoulder, and turns a steely look on Kunikida.

“I hope you realize, Kunikida-kun,” she says, slow, earning a sharp side glance from Kyouka that she ignores, “how serious it is that I am deigning to place my dear Kyouka’s care in your hands for nearly a full twenty-four hours. I expect her to be treated just as well as she would in my very own home, and for absolutely no harm, physical or otherwise, to come to her. Otherwise, there shall be serious repercussions.” She lifts her head so her eyes flash, radiating a cold sort of power. “Is that clear?”

A distinctive pallor has swept over Kunikida’s face, but he remains stoic, bowing regardless of the beads of sweat on his cheek. “You have my word, Ozaki-san.”

“Hm.” Kouyou stretches the suspicious hum out as long as she can, then closes her eyes. “I’m afraid that won’t do,” she decides. “What I require from you is a blood oath.”

“I—” Kunikida swallows hard. “Pardon me?”

Kouyou’s eyelids rise enough to see the blank, terrified look on Kunikida’s face—and in an instant, her cool facade cracks. “Lighten up, boy,” she tells him with an amused huff, straightening back up. Kyouka is staring resolutely at the ground; she and Kunikida both look ready to faint, albeit for very different reasons. “‘Twas a jest. If nothing else comes up, I am to collect Kyouka around twelve-fifteen tomorrow, yes?”

It takes Kunikida a long moment to get his jaw working again. He pushes up his glasses, flushing rather than blanching now, and clears his throat to regain some composure. “Yes, that—that is correct. Please do be as punctual as you can, Ozaki-san.”

“Of course.” Kouyou pats Kyouka’s shoulder in a last brief gesture of encouragement and starts to turn away. “I shall see the both of you then, then. Enjoy your evening.” This is more directed at Kyouka than Kunikida, as evidenced by the warmth in her voice, but she tips her head toward Kunikida as well, hammering in the lone statement as well as her earlier warning.

“The same to you.” Kunikida hurries into another bow. “Kyouka will be in excellent care, I assure you. I will let you know about how she’s settled in later this evening.”

Kouyou casts a smile over her shoulder. “I would appreciate that, Kunikida-kun. Give Aya-kun my best as well, if you please.”

“Goodbye,” says Kyouka, quiet and a little absent, eyes already darting toward the stairs.

With one more nod in her direction, Kouyou pushes the door back open and steps outside, quelling the resurgent wave of protectiveness at the back of her mind. She takes a step back toward the sidewalk, then another. Kyouka will have fun, she reminds herself, and if she doesn’t, or something goes wrong somehow—

Her phone buzzes. Kouyou finishes the thought—that will happen—and scurries to check.

A text from Kyouka greets her, consisting of a single picture of her and Aya. Aya is grinning with her arm thrown around Kyouka’s shoulder, which Kyouka doesn’t seem sure of how to react to, simply staring into the camera with wide eyes. In the background, Aya’s room is visible, messier than what else of the house Kouyou had seen. No caption is included, but the intent is clear.

Kouyou shakes her head, chuckling under her breath, and types out a simple Enjoy yourself before proceeding toward the car.

*

Over the past four months, Kouyou has grown more and more accustomed to feeling out of her element. As rare a feeling as it had been in the preceding years—or at least the ten-year stretch where she’d lived alone and not as a legal guardian—it had, at some point in her and Yosano’s developing relationship, begun to feel more natural than not. What could be in her element, after all, about a romantic relationship with the potential to become a long-lasting excursion?

Only a few times, however, has that sensation hit a definite peak, all of them within the first month or two of this courtship. When Yosano had asked her out at the izakaya that first time; when she had come around to the realization that she did, in fact, want to say yes, and to pursue this beyond that; when Yosano had first kissed her cheek and taken her hand; when she had processed being a girlfriend and having one for the first time at the age of thirty-six. Each little moment of intimacy and understanding and everyday peacefulness that Kouyou had never before known. The feeling has never nullified altogether, lingering in every interaction, but it has dissipated as the weeks have passed.

Now, standing alone in front of Yosano’s door with a bouquet in hand and a bag over her shoulder, Kouyou feels it surge up in her chest anew.

The lack of obligation and necessity for certain aspects of this date had been made clear time and time again, and in and of themselves, they aren’t what fill Kouyou with a sudden and certain unease. The prospect of having sex tonight does not intimidate or abash her. Her upbringing had scrubbed her of any sense of chastity or shame; early days spent poring over torture and dismemberment and maiming methods had killed any embarrassment or discomfort about the human body, and though she had eased off of her adolescence-ingrained view of sex as a tool and weapon and little else, it still occurs to her every now and then. She hasn’t the libido of a nineteen-year-old, but she doesn’t altogether lack one either, and it goes without saying that Yosano is vibrant and enchanting and attractive in personality and looks alike.

It’s what comes after that gives her pause. Spending the night in someone else’s home—away from her own, stripped of the securities and certainties and easy comforts available there—is, to Kouyou, a far greater step than sleeping together. As is being in that home alone in a romantic context at all.

The solitude of the apartment is clear even outside, without Kyouka by her side to fill the space if not the silence—and knock if Kouyou couldn’t. Around Kouyou, the hall is empty; any sounds of life from the other doors are muffled by the walls. No matter what direction she looks in, she can’t shed the prickling feeling creeping up the back of her neck. It’s not quite a suspicion of being watched, but it’s a similar sense, sharp and tight and unsettling.

Her mental arguments growing increasingly ridiculous, Kouyou shakes her head. She tugs on the strap of her duffel bag and faces the door with a hard stare. Her chin juts out in cool arrogance. It is perhaps an embarrassing gesture, but it does something to bolster her spirits, and she takes in a sharp inhale.

She lifts her fist and knocks, three crisp and clear raps. A low exhale is lost beneath the echo as she leans back to wait. Not thirty seconds later, Yosano calls out from within: “It’s open!”

Kouyou’s brow curves up, and she casts an unimpressed look about the hallway, but she tries the knob nevertheless. The door slides open with little effort. She clicks her tongue, this time rather audible, and crosses the threshold.

“How unsafe,” she calls, voice raised enough to carry deeper into the apartment. She shrugs her bag off and leaves it by the door, but she maintains her grip on the bouquet. “Anyone could enter if given permission to. What if it was not me at your door, but someone with ill intent?” She very carefully does not name any specific manifestations of that ill intent, both to maintain some air of reverence and to avoid redundancy.

“Lock it yourself, then,” returns Yosano, and before she steps out of her shoes—sandals for convenience rather than the usual boots—Kouyou twists to do just that. “Also, considering I buzzed you up less than ten minutes ago, it seemed reasonable. And I have multiple knives at arms’ reach.”

That doesn’t especially narrow down which room she’s in, out of the limited options, but Kouyou doesn’t much need to guess as she starts down the hall, besocked feet soft against the tile. The bouquet shifts in her grasp as she walks. She comes to a stop before the kitchen, as much out of surprise as it is a natural stopping point.

Across the room, Yosano is standing behind the counter, lifting her head at the creak of the floorboards. One of those knives she’d called attention to is in hand as she cuts along a still-steaming slab of unagi. She’s in a different apron—and different clothes beneath—than she had been last time Kouyou was here, of course, but the scene is at least somewhat familiar: Yosano mid-cooking and dressed for it, yet perhaps all the more charming

“Good evening,” says Kouyou, however belated it is. “Apologies for my tardiness.”

“No need—if anyone is running late, it’s undoubtedly me.” Yosano shoots a look at the unagi spread on her cutting board, and she slams the knife down for the last time with a bit more fanfare than seems necessary. Kouyou has no critiques. “It’s nice to see you.”

“And you.” Kouyou’s words are automatic, but lacking in feeling; halfheartedly she realizes that the angle of her body is blocking the bouquet from view, and she shifts to bring them into visibility. “I recall you being fond of flowers. These, I hope, are to your liking.”

Yosano wipes her knife clean and leaves behind the sliced eel, rounding the counter. Her eyes, lit behind her glasses, catch on the flowers and widen. “Oh my, how lovely,” she says, striding over to get a better look. “Let me get a vase. The rice is almost done cooking, anyway—” she gestures to the rice cooker “—so it’ll just take a few more minutes to get everything together.”

Kouyou blinks as the flowers are eased from her grasp and set aside, placed carefully so as not to be in the way of the array of other ingredients. As she lowers them, Yosano takes a moment to admire them up close.

“Thank you,” she adds over her shoulder, smile brief but warm, and all Kouyou can do is incline her head the slightest bit. Yosano’s smile stretches momentarily wider, and then she steps away.

The mundanity and relative normalcy of it almost makes Kouyou want to laugh. What had she expected? Rose petals leading to an ajar bedroom door? All of the lights dimmed save for a few well-placed, seductive candles? A direct, immediate path to passionate, lingering kisses and heavy petting? They’re grown adults, and career women besides, not overanxious teenagers or hormone-addled college students playing at maturity or long-term, star-crossed lovers following up on years’ worth of tension. It’s been so long since she played at intimacy with anyone who wasn’t being paid for it, though, that anything but immediacy freezes her in her tracks for a split second.

Perhaps she ought to reconsider her earlier certainty that the potential of sex had not played into her trepidation. As a basic possibility, it still doesn’t offput her in the slightest, but in the context of it being an event in a serious and committed romantic relationship rather than a one-off incident—that might daunt her more than she’d been willing to admit.

Dinner had, Kouyou reminds herself, been the main event of the evening, regardless of anything that had been implied to follow, so that is where she turns her attention rather than ruminating. Her eyes scan over that assortment of other bowls and plates across the counters. “Chirashi?” she guesses, the pieces slotting together.

In the midst of rummaging through a cupboard, Yosano glances back for only a heartbeat. “Yeah, it felt fitting—quick and easy, but still pretty filling. There’s tonjiru—” she sweeps a hand toward the stove, atop which sits a covered pot “—tempura, shrimp and some vegetables—” this time it’s to a rack off to the side and the batches visible upon it that she gestures “—and a fair bit of tsukemono too. Sorry for not asking about the menu in advance, but I don’t think there’s anything you’ve actively expressed disliking there.” She gives a low aha! as she at last locates and extracts a suitable vase.

A lump, for whatever reason, swells in Kouyou’s throat as she glances about, the combined smell and sight—familiar, warm, caring—sweeping over her. “No, this is more than all right.” Perfect, she would even say, were she so willing. “Although you needn’t have put quite this much effort in, appreciated as it is.”

She manages to subtly clear her throat before Yosano looks at her, but it’s a close thing, and there’s a split second’s worth of concern in Yosano’s stare all the same. It disappears, though, when Yosano bats a wrist. “Please, it’s a special occasion. You seem like you need a distraction, and I’m more than happy to provide one.” The sink turns on, and Yosano sets the vase under it. “How are you, by the way? Coping all right with Kyouka being away from home tonight?”

“Until you reminded me,” says Kouyou, narrowing her eyes at the back of Yosano’s head—and then, as she turns to rest her back against the sink, head-on at Yosano’s face.

Yosano gives her a placating smile. She checks over her shoulder, reaches to turn the faucet back off, and dumps some excess water before moving to place the flowers inside the vase. “Sorry,” she says, fingers moving carefully to avoid the remaining thorns. “All the more reason to get your mind off of it, hm? Aside from that, though, I take it you’re doing well.”

“As much as can be expected, I suppose.” Kouyou watches the stems drop into the water, shifting against the bottom of the vase. Yosano fine-tunes the arrangement of the flowers on top. “Work is fine, and ultimately Kyouka is as well. More than, in fact. I simply…”

“Worry?” supplements Yosano, when no neutral- or positive-coded words, and really few fitting words at all, are forthcoming. Kouyou doesn’t reply. From the current angle Yosano is standing at, the minute broadening of her smile is visible. “Take it with a grain of salt from the one without any children—”

“The one who works with them on a day-to-day basis, in other words.”

“—but,” continues Yosano, ignoring the interruption, “that seems reasonable enough. You just naturally worry about her in any situation, and this is something new for both of you. Plus, it involves her being away from what you probably consider the most secure location for you both. And the most secure person.” She glances back once more, catching Kouyou’s rapid blink with a lopsided grin. “She’s young enough—and you’re protective enough—that your lives are obviously separate but still pretty heavily intertwined, so it’ll be difficult to break out of that, but you’re clearly trying your best to accept that—” she gestures to the room at large in demonstration “—so that’s a start, if nothing else.” While Kouyou is frozen stiff, Yosano adjusts the flowers once more, then steps away from the vase and back toward the other counter. “I’ll find a better place for this after dinner. In the meantime, go sit, why don’t you? I’ll be finished up here in a few minutes. Ten to fifteen max.”

Kouyou, standing in place under the weight of the impromptu psychoanalysis and blinking still at the abrupt shift in tone and topic, shakes herself. She eyes the empty dining room, then the sprawl of food spanning the width of the kitchen. “Is there truly nothing I can assist with?”

Yosano chooses this moment to take up her knife again, even though there doesn’t seem to be anything left for her to dice. “No,” she says, clicking her tongue. “I can manage more than well enough on my own.”

“I never implied you couldn’t. It just seems to be a great deal of work for one person to oversee alone.”

“And I’m sure every meal you cook at home is modest in size and reasonably manageable, and if not you accept help from everyone who offers.”

Kouyou averts her gaze. “Kyouka has been assisting as of late,” is her halfhearted rebuttal. “She is quite skilled with a blade herself, you know.”

“Of that, I have no doubt.” Yosano twists her wrist, altering her grip on her knife and staring Kouyou down with a dangerous-edged grin. “It’ll be all right; most of it just needs to be assembled and plated now anyway. Go sit before I force you to.”

Only for a few seconds longer does Kouyou hold her gaze, turning away with a soft scoff. “I do hope you realize,” she says over her shoulder as she starts toward the table, “how significant an act my acquiescence is.”

Yosano’s attention returns to her cooking, though Kouyou catches her smile hook to one side. “Of course,” she replies, shifting the knife in her hand again. “Isn’t that the point?”

For that Kouyou has no response, and so she only presses her lips together and hastens her pace. She settles down at the chair at the end of the table facing away from the wall out of a natural survival instinct—though the setting is unassuming enough, Kouyou can’t root out either the deep-seated knowledge that any situation can change in very little time or the overwhelming urge to limit blind spots and find as broad a vantage point as she can. The entireties of the kitchen and living room are visible from where she settles down. It is an overall less effective tactic than the multiple weapons within reach, but it lends some sense of security nonetheless.

Without Kyouka present to occupy her attention, a certain restlessness still starts to set in. At first Kouyou pulls free her phone and skims through messages and emails, but there isn’t much to be accomplished there. She sends out a few responses, but most of them amount to rescheduling notices and terse requests that she could have as easily made in person or by proxy. Regardless of how lax Yosano has shown herself to be about Kouyou’s work, it also feels a touch too sensitive to handle here, not to mention somewhat impolite. The texts from Kunikida—and some less regular ones from Kyouka—on her personal line are easier to stomach and more compelling, but they offer little opportunities for responses, let alone back-and-forth chains to capture her attention for that much longer.

So, with a sigh, she too puts both phones away. Her eyes wander around the room, but little has changed about the apartment since she was last within, and nothing catches her eye that hadn’t beforehand. The one source of movement, then, for her to focus on is Yosano.

Kouyou sits back, observation more absent than anything. If Yosano notices her idle gaze, she doesn’t acknowledge it, continuing to flit around the kitchen with an impressive level of focus split between the various dishes being finished up. For all of the confidence she carries herself with, separated from Kouyou like this some amount of visible insecurity and stiffness has crept in—in an odd way, it is reassuring, the passing knowledge that she’s not the only one more—uneasy, perhaps (nervous is not all that accurate and is offputting besides), about this than is due of someone of her age and occupation.

Working as she is seems to ease the tension, though whether it’s due to the quiet it offers or the motions themselves Kouyou isn’t certain. There is, she knows well, a certain comfort in the familiarity of preparing food, though she might have expected the context here to have buffered that. If it does, it doesn’t show.

A similar calm feeling begins to descend upon Kouyou just watching. Her attention, more than anything, is drawn to Yosano’s hands—and then, when she notices what had caught her eye to begin with, her fingers themselves. For all that seeing her has been a regular occasion for over four months, the number of times Kouyou has seen her bare hands is far lower. Her frequent donning of gloves seems to be a matter of comfort, hygiene, and perhaps fashion, and it is nothing Kouyou takes issue with, but their absence carries a certain weight, a level of vulnerability and trust perhaps akin to Kouyou being here tonight at all. The thought stills her, and soon she’s turning her head aside and tamping down on a smile.

True to Yosano’s word, it only takes a few minutes longer for the noise to die out and her to step into the dining room with various plates in hand. Kouyou again offers her assistance and is again turned down.

“How often do you end up taking care of other people?” is Yosano’s rebuttal when Kouyou, uninhibited by Kyouka’s absence, pushes after her reasoning. Kouyou tenses but finds herself unable to answer, mouth not so much as opening; Yosano, one hand palm-down on the table and the other on her hip, only looks at her. “I doubt it’s all in a tender way, too. So let me take care of you today.”

She hasn’t even the decency to step away to allow Kouyou the opportunity to mull that over—instead she looks at Kouyou until she, concerned after the food’s heat, lowers her head in something that might pass as a nod. Yosano’s mouth twitches, but whether down or up is unclear as she turns and strides back into the kitchen.

It takes three trips in all to transport all of the dishes, even with the use of a tray that shudders under the weight of more than a few cups of tea. It bears that, too, though, when Yosano returns the fourth time.

Only once she’s done pouring the tea does she, in a tone light enough that their previous exchanges seem forgotten, offer sake. Kouyou declines unless they are both partaking. It isn’t intended as a challenge, but Yosano seems to take it as one all the same, arching an eyebrow before snatching a decent-quality bottle and doling some out for them both. Five total trips, then, are necessitated before Yosano at last sits.

As she does, she stops for a moment to take in Kouyou’s face. Kouyou isn’t quite certain what she finds there, but whatever it is, it makes her ask, “All right?”

Kouyou attempts to clear what unease seems to be lurking in her expression, smoothing it out. “Quite,” she says, lowering her head. “Merely thinking.”

Shoulders relaxing the slightest bit, Yosano settles into her chair. “Thinking, or overthinking?”

“Is there that stark a difference?”

It seems to be Yosano unable to answer this time, for she gives only a small smile of something like agreement before pressing her hands together and then reaching for her chopsticks. Kouyou clears her expression further before doing the same.

The noises of Yosano’s eating fill the room well before Kouyou’s; though her etiquette is more than all right, as Kouyou knows well by now, she’s not a fussy eater by any means, and she’s grown more informal in Kouyou’s lone company, something Kouyou has opted to view as a compliment. She watches for a few prolonged seconds, chopsticks barely lifted, before moving them toward her serving of chirashi.

The soft sound that leaves Kouyou upon her first bite is utterly involuntary, and embarrassing both for this in and of itself and the actual cadence of it. Despite the sound of her own chewing, Yosano glances up at once. She swallows, then grins. “Good?”

Multiple responses filter through Kouyou’s mind, but she settles for sincerity: “Wonderful. You have outdone yourself, I think.”

Though Yosano continues smiling, there’s a split second where her eyes widen a fraction. Her expression settles back, as does she. “Only the best,” she says, and though she appends nothing truly flustering to the sentiment, Kouyou still takes a swift reinterest in her meal.

With both of them focused upon their food, when they do talk again it is fleeting and somewhat brusque. The shared silence, though, carries with it a certain sense of amiability. Kouyou finds herself studying Yosano’s body language every now and then, and just as often she notices that she’s on the receiving end. They both steer clear of any elephants in the room, sticking to the standard subjects: Work, friends and family (of greater interest now that Yosano has met Kouyou’s in full), general experiences and wellbeings since they last spoke.

Yosano tiptoes around the topic of Kyouka for once, but eventually it isn’t worth avoiding, and Kouyou’s phone has been buzzing with more idle texts from Kunikida all the same. That spurs a conversation about Kunikida, whom Kouyou realizes Yosano has known almost as long as she has Edogawa and Fukuzawa. This is by virtue, it seems, of Fukuzawa having also taken him in while he was in high school.

That revelation gets Kouyou to cease eating altogether for half a minute. “And now Kunikida-kun has taken in two children of his own,” she observes, shifting her grip on her chopsticks. “I truly think there may be something in the water at that school.”

Yosano shoots her a pointed look. “I don’t want to hear that from the woman who has raised one child and is currently raising another, both of whom she would do anything for,” she says, which is fair enough that Kouyou presses her lips together, accepts the point, and reaches for her soup.

The conversation keeps drifting in and out in that fashion, long periods of quiet interrupted by sudden questions or stories, from recent news to recollections of interactions and thoughts that hadn’t been brought up prior. Kouyou is eased by it just as she had been earlier, and she continues to be so.

Yosano had started her food a notable stretch of time before Kouyou, and she finishes it well before her as well. By the time she takes her last bite, her tea has been drained and her sake is half-empty; she starts in on the latter once her chopsticks have been set down, taking in idle sips in a way she’d only managed between bites before. Though Kouyou still has a significant amount of food remaining, Yosano doesn’t seem to mind waiting for her to finish.

It takes a few minutes longer, but finish she at last does. To her displeasure, she isn’t able to stomach all but licking her plates clean, but Yosano takes the few leftovers in stride.

“It’ll save some time on breakfast tomorrow,” she notes. The comment strays a touch too close to the topic they seem to have been avoiding discussing since their phone call on it, but Yosano doesn’t seem to react, going on smiling even as Kouyou forces her shoulders to lower. “Besides, it’s obviously not out of disgust for my cooking, or you wouldn’t have forced down nearly as much as you did in the first place.”

“Certainly not,” says Kouyou, aghast at the notion, and Yosano laughs.

“If I were a proper chef I might be a little insulted,” she adds, “but luckily for you I’m anything but.”

Though they’re often much hastier when dining out, here there is no rush to clear their plates and leave the table. Neither is there a great pressure upon striking up another conversation—thoughts filter through Kouyou’s mind but remain unvoiced, either because they’re irrelevant or because she doesn’t want to discuss them at the moment. If there’s something Yosano would like to talk about, she doesn’t broach it, just sitting back and finishing her sake. Kouyou does the same, basking in the pleasant warmth that settles over her. The easy silence furthers that feeling, and for a moment she closes her eyes as she takes it in.

Naught can last forever, however, and neither can this. A few moments pass in that state before Yosano, a similar restlessness seeming to pluck at her as it is Kouyou, huffs and rises, reaching to start stacking empty dishes. Only a few more seconds go by before Kouyou follows suit.

Yosano stops, hand halfway across the table, and shoots her a dubious look. “You don’t need to help with the dishes, either.”

“This time I insist.” Kouyou begins nesting the bowls on her side of the table within one another. “It is a simpler task than cooking,” she points out when Yosano still seems unconvinced and tempted to pull the same threat she had earlier, “and not already in progress besides. Four hands make quicker work than two, at any rate.”

Something in her tone, or perhaps just a more natural agreeableness and comfort that had been present an hour prior, makes Yosano sigh in concession. She resumes, shifting her position to work in clean tandem with Kouyou. “Fine,” she says, and with her hands full starts back toward the kitchen. Over her shoulder, she says, “I’ll wash, you dry.”

It seems to be intended as a question, but the lilting tone of it falls somewhat flat. Kouyou nods despite this and the fact that Yosano is no longer looking at her. When she, too, has gathered all she can carry, she exchanges places with Yosano and sets them down before repeating the process.

Carrying things back takes less time than carrying them in had. Kouyou’s aim is not to be smug about this, but Yosano gives her a dry look when the last load is brought in all the same. Reunited at different positions along the counter, Yosano rolls up her sleeves and Kouyou ties hers back, though she’s far enough from the sink that there isn’t a real need to. It is a habit, for all that the rest of the situation is unfamiliar from multiple angles.

They work in efficient, natural silence. There’s something calming to the pace of it, a similar—but at the time quite different—energy to that Kouyou enjoys when she and Kyouka or another frequent evening visitor handle cooking or cleaning together. An unspoken, simple rhythm develops within a couple of minutes, easing what already hadn’t been nudged aside by the conversation and sake.

The process itself takes only a short while longer than transporting the dishes had, enough so that, words aside, Kouyou blinks when she sets one bowl down and is not handed another. The faucet squeaks off, the dishwasher clicks shut, and Yosano hands Kouyou one dishtowel while making use of another.

When she sets it aside, Yosano smiles. “Thanks,” she says, though it’s a touch begrudging. Sleeves let loose in time to hide a smile behind one, Kouyou nods.

There’s an awkward beat, neither of them appearing to know how to fill it or proceed with ease. Kouyou’s hands fall to her waist, one folding over the other, kimono sleeves too short to cover their minute twitching. Yosano’s hip comes to rest against the edge of the counter. It’s a game of chicken, almost, waiting to see which will blink first.

At last Yosano reaches for her phone and flicks it on to check the time. “It’s not that late,” she observes, glancing too at the kitchen windows, evening darkness starting to creep in. In the process she seems to recall the forgotten vase of Kouyou’s flowers, set aside on the counter in a sad, lonely state, and makes a soft oh sound before moving it to the windowsill. Among the lusher plants, the flowers look somewhat out of place, but oddly add to the overall atmosphere of the room all the more for it. Satisfied, Yosano glances back at Kouyou. “Is there anything you need to take care of? Work-wise, I mean, or regarding Kyouka. You’re free to do that here if you can; if not, we could see what’s on TV or something.”

Kouyou’s eyes stray toward the hallway before she catches herself. “That is all right with me,” she says, inclining her head, and then adjusts her sleeves. “Although I might make use of your restroom beforehand.”

“Ah, of course. All yours.”

When Kouyou returns to the living room, Yosano is already seated on the couch, one leg folded over the other and a remote in hand, flicking between channels with a half-thoughtful, half-bored expression. Though she doesn’t glance away, she does offer a vague wave in greeting, prompted perhaps by the shift of the floor beneath Kouyou’s weight or the peripheral blur of her figure. Kouyou pauses for but an imperceptible second before joining her.

This angle offers a far less comforting view of the apartment than her seat in the dining room had, and without Kyouka or Edogawa the couch feels at once too large and too small, but Kouyou settles back. A careful, safe amount of distance separates her and Yosano. Eyeing the shifting scenes on the television screen, she quirks her head. “It was my intention to leave this decision wholly to you,” she says, hands folding again in her lap. “Is it a difficult one?”

“Hm?” Yosano stops, looking over. A few seconds span out in which the television stays on a badly dubbed and edited action flick. “Ah, well, when it’s mostly this kind of thing on I suppose it is.” She gestures to the screen. “Would you prefer a bad drama, a so-so drama, or a good drama? Because that seems to be all that’s worth watching.”

“…how bad, precisely, would the bad option be?”

Yosano grins, shark-like, and turns the television decisively to another channel. The scene that presents itself to Kouyou defies description, let alone explanation, and she stares for a long moment at the sickening camera angles and poor at best costume design before averting her gaze.

“I suppose I shall settle for the so-so drama, then,” she says, eyes closing to prevent a surge of motion sickness. “However good the remaining option may be, the meaning is lost when entering without context.”

“True enough.” Yosano shrugs and again changes channels, this time tossing the remote onto the coffee table once she does. “This one is a medical drama too, actually, so if there are any glaring inaccuracies you and I can have fun ripping them apart.”

Kouyou’s startled laugh morphs into a cough. “I believe your expertise there is more apt than my own, but I am not opposed to that.”

“If we still had sake we could make a drinking game out of it,” says Yosano, a bit mournfully. She shifts her posture back into something more comfortable, hands curling over one knee. “Ah, well. Probably a bad decision anyway, for more than one reason.”

“Likely so.” Yosano stretches out to grab the remote again and turns the volume up a few notches, and Kouyou’s eyes fix upon the screen. “Next time, I suppose.”

Out of the corners of her eyes, she watches Yosano’s face, and thus she catches with immediacy Yosano’s celeritous smile. “Next time,” she agrees, then twists her head all the way back toward the television. “Oh, hey, a surgery scene already. Let’s see…”

The episode has been running for about ten minutes already, so they’ve missed some of the setup and thereby a significant amount of context, not to mention the characters and overarching plot themselves, but it’s not hard to pick up the rest from there. Yosano wastes no time in running commentary on the medical aspects, Kouyou wastes no time in pointing out the questionable anatomical references she doesn’t, and they both grimace at the clunky dialogue and dubious character motivations. It’s a more interactive encounter than last month’s, to be certain, and Kouyou feels what tension had built back up unspooling within minutes. There is something painfully mundane about the scenario, sitting here with her girlfriend watching bad television, and yet for that very reason Kouyou relaxes into it.

By the episode’s end, a smile has stolen across Kouyou’s face and refuses to leave, no matter what she does. That Yosano’s expression is the same offers some degree of comfort, at least.

Credits and a short preview bleed into commercials, which soon become an episode of another series on the network. Not two lines in, Yosano reaches for the remote with a grimace and flicks the television off altogether, leaving them alone in the dark, cool, silent living room.

“Honestly,” she says, leaning back and rubbing at her shoulder, “that was actually better than I expected. Still far from high literature, though.”

Kouyou huffs out a laugh, twisting her head to utter a brief agreement. The instant she glances to the side, though, she freezes.

Sometime over the past thirty-odd minutes, Kouyou realizes, the space between them had narrowed, centimeters crossed through subconscious shifting. In the sudden silence of the room it becomes all the more pressing. When Kouyou shifts her shoulder the slightest bit, the warmth of Yosano’s arm along the line of hers becomes evident. With Yosano’s legs still crossed, their thighs are at least not that close, but it’s not difficult to imagine.

Yosano opens her mouth to say something else, then stops herself, perhaps thinking better of it. Kouyou watches her only out of the corners of her eyes, keeping her head turned toward the black-screened television. There is a sudden awkwardness to the air, an uncomfortable tension far less becoming of thirtysomethings than it would be for teenagers.

With a soft sigh, Kouyou adjusts her legs and shoulders so that her position is more comfortable, then twists her abdomen toward Yosano. She is anticipating the proximity of their faces in theory, but in practice it almost startles her. She sloughs off the reflexive bolt of discomfort, though, and disentangles her hands. Flexing one set of fingers, she extends the other toward Yosano’s face; at the graze of her skin against Yosano’s cheek, Yosano tenses the slightest bit, but it passes as she tips her face a degree to the side. With a smile that likely isn’t as placating as she intends it, Kouyou continues the motion of tucking a stray lock of hair behind Yosano’s ear, then drops her hand back to her lap.

Several expressions ripple across Yosano’s face in rapid succession. The final look she grants is a considering one, her eyes narrowing and her legs uncrossing as she turns to face Kouyou as well.

Kouyou’s smile curls further up at the edges. “Your hair was out of place,” she explains. Her voice comes out lower than she anticipates, though she supposes that isn’t an inherent negative. She turns her head back toward the opposite wall, but not the rest of her body. “Fixing it myself was a swifter solution than pointing it out to you.”

“I’m sure.” Even behind Yosano’s glasses, her stare burns into the side of Kouyou’s face. Several breaths stretch out between them, and then Yosano gives a soft huff and shifts back, letting her shoulder rest against the back of the couch. “Kouyou,” she says, sharp enough that Kouyou’s eyes flicker back toward her.

“Yes?”

“You’re allowed to kiss me, you know.”

Just as fast as Kouyou’s gaze had returned to Yosano, it snaps back toward the blank television screen. It’s dark enough in the rest of the room that only faint silhouettes of their figures and the glow of the lamp off to the side are reflected. “The reverse is true as well.”

“Yes, it is. But it’s not entirely fair if I’m always the one kissing you, is it?”

“You aren’t,” Kouyou points out. She shifts, watching the complementary change in her murky reflection.

“When we’re actually alone like this, I believe I am. As few times as that has occurred to begin with.” Yosano adjusts her posture as well, sitting back forward and crossing her ankles rather than one knee over the other. “I don’t mind, but…” She lets the sentence drop, implications hanging in the air between them.

A few seconds pass in silence. Kouyou’s tongue presses against the back of her teeth as she seeks any valuable response, eyes fluttering half-shut in concentration. It isn’t as if there is any conscious reasoning behind her overt distance, or at least nothing that she is willing to express for how inane and incoherent it would sound.

“Unfairness is subjective,” is what she settles on saying in the end, turning her face back toward Yosano’s. “Allow me, however, to make it up to you.” And, before distant thoughts can get the better of her, she leans closer.

She hasn’t the chance to so much as close her eyes, though, before Yosano, despite her challenging smile, is nudging her shoulder back. Blinking, Kouyou accepts the rebuff and leans away—she isn’t left long to wonder as to the purpose behind the gesture, as at record speed Yosano then takes her glasses off and folds them on the coffee table. Their position atop the book there seems rather precarious, and doubly so when taken into account who else occupies the apartment, but Kouyou can’t find it in herself to complain, not when Yosano leans right back in and presses a hand to her cheek. The cool feeling prompts a jolt, but Kouyou recovers soon enough, tilting her head to meet Yosano’s eyes.

Dark as they are, there’s an evident warmth there, echoed by the slow upward turn of Yosano’s mouth. “Hi,” she says.

Kouyou can do naught but return the smile. She doesn’t, however, waste her breath on a verbal response—all she does is press closer, eyes fluttering shut as her mouth nears Yosano’s. She leaves enough of a gap between them to back out still.

With her eyes closed, she can’t see the expression on Yosano’s face, but the breath that sounds from centimeters away offers enough insight. The distance isn’t closed; instead, the cool hand leaves Kouyou’s cheek and, along with its counterpart, closes over one of her own hands, pulling it up and away from the half-rigid position it had assumed in her lap. Quiet and careful, lips are set against her knuckles.

In surprise, Kouyou’s eyes flash open. Yosano’s lips curve into her skin as she catches her gaze. Kouyou opens her mouth, but a soft breath is all that leaves when Yosano shifts her grip on her hand and kisses gingerly up the back toward the arch of her wrist.

Muscles and joints, coiled tight, unwind. Kouyou’s eyelids lower again, and in no time at all Yosano is setting her hand down and returning hers to Kouyou’s face. It settles in the position it often does when granted the opportunity to: Thumb stroking smooth and even against Kouyou’s cheekbone, fingers brushing her jaw and curving into the back of her neck. Like this, Kouyou is sure that her heartbeat is both palpable and audible, sluggish as it still is but beginning to pick up.

Yosano leans closer, but still doesn’t close the miniature chasm between them. Kouyou waits for a handful of seconds before realizing that the strategy is the same as that she’d applied minutes earlier, and with a flash of something in between irritation and endearment she tilts her head that meager amount forward to meet Yosano’s lips.

Despite the buildup, there’s nothing altogether different about this kiss compared to those they’ve shared in the past. It’s gentle and chaste, a certain degree of pressure but no real heat behind it. Something that would still be frowned upon in public, to be sure, but not too warranting of a strong throat clear or covered eyes. Kouyou keeps herself from frowning only by a thin thread. She’s not quite bothered—surprise aside, it’s pleasant enough, and she’s able to bask in it more than she would be in any other situation.

Of course, there’s not much to bask in—just the soft feeling of Yosano’s lips pressed to hers, the faint familiar taste of their dinner and sake, and the even fainter scent of it, accompanied by low hints of floral shampoo or perfume. One of Yosano’s hands is still folded over hers; the other is coolly grounding against her cheek. The room is quiet, but faced with the frankly somewhat uncomfortable sound of lips meeting, Kouyou almost wishes the television were still on to provide some ambience.

That desire intensifies when Yosano pulls away. It fades back out, though, when Yosano presses back in, not leaving Kouyou time to so much as open her eyes. This time, the kiss is a hair deeper and lingers longer—aside from that, though, it’s the same as the former, the slick slide warm and comforting but not too exciting.

Even as Kouyou leans into it, body as lax as she can manage and hands still, her mind attempts to unravel the puzzle of Yosano’s play here. She could be teasing, waiting for Kouyou to break first, but the overall air doesn’t suggest that. Although perhaps the general sentiment there is not so inaccurate, Kouyou realizes, considering some of their earliest conversations—maybe it’s that Yosano is putting it into her hands to choose when to move forward.

It seems that she’s stiffened enough at the thought to catch Yosano’s attention, because soon the kiss is breaking once again, and though Kouyou prevents herself from swaying forward like a swooning teenager, it’s a close thing, and once the warmth and pressure tip away their absence sinks in sharp and overpowering. Yosano hasn’t leaned back far enough to separate them altogether, but her hand slips from Kouyou’s cheek to her shoulder.

“All right?” asks Yosano.

“Until now, yes. More than.” Kouyou closes her eyes tighter and tilts her head forward until her nose brushes Yosano’s. There’s a soft sound of surprise, but Yosano doesn’t lean farther away. “And I will inform you if that changes. You needn’t restrain yourself quite so much.”

She feels the sighing exhale as it leaves Yosano’s lips, heavy with some blend of exasperation and relief. “Right,” she says, though, and nods enough that her nose shifts. A half-smile is audible, and while Kouyou is tempted to sneak a glimpse at it, she opts to refrain.

And then she feels the curve of it against her own mouth as Yosano kisses her again, though soon it smooths back into calm neutrality to ease the collision. Kouyou makes a soft, involuntary sound at the fire behind it now—a low, controlled flame, but burning nevertheless—and resists a smile herself.

She waits a second, two, ten, twenty—enough time to confirm that Yosano is still in part depending on her to decide on the pace. It is reasonable in that it keeps them both active participants, and in that Kouyou is the one who has expressed the most (and in all honesty almost all of the) reservations regarding this relationship, but it loses its effect if they both spend all of their time waiting for the other to make a move first. So, as the seconds sweep past, Kouyou risks swiping her tongue against Yosano’s lips.

Only two outcomes, really, are possible: That Yosano accepts it and responds in kind, or that she doesn’t and slows them down again. Kouyou would admittedly be somewhat troubled by the latter, but she would respect it and not push further without a deliberate cue—still, relief washes through her when Yosano’s mouth parts against hers.

There’s no immediate jump in speed or intensity, and the addition of tongues and open mouths seems to even curb them. In theory, it’s pleasant and agreeable; in practice, particularly with Kouyou’s limited muscle memory, it takes some adjustment to feel anything other than awkward and clunky, and she almost outright flinches back when their tongues first meet. Their movements are more experimental than anything, Yosano’s caution now contagious.

Seconds or minutes continue to trickle by, confidence sets in, and something clicks into place. Intent and care take the place of fumbling uncertainty. There are still split seconds of unwieldy angles and dangerous placement of teeth or noses and quick gasps for lost breath, but as time wears on they fall into the vast minority, a sense of rhythm and comfort picking up in their place. The motions remain slow waves rather than fast, heated lunges, but there’s still a certain passion behind them.

Yosano’s hand slips back toward Kouyou’s cheek and tugs her closer. Kouyou doesn’t so much as think of balking. She tips her head farther down herself and turns her hand in Yosano’s half-forgotten grasp, squeezing with what strength she can muster.

A sense of limbo curls out around them. This still isn’t quite what Kouyou had expected, but she’s far from complaining—like this, very few negative thoughts (and past a certain point, very few thoughts at all) are roaming around in her brain.

Yosano pulls back to speak; the words vibrate against Kouyou’s lips, the feeling sifting through her mind well before the low sound of: “Do you mind if I—”

Kouyou is already nodding, pointed and controlled enough to not qualify as overeager but still earning a snort. She’s granted a moment’s worth of silent consideration as Yosano seems to try to figure out how to execute what she’d been asking about. Eyes staying shut, Kouyou clenches her jaw with thought, suspicions filtering through and discarded.

In the end, she doesn’t anticipate the hands, firm but not forceful, that press down into her shoulders. The pressure and intent get her to back away with a soft gasp. She blinks, processing, while Yosano swings herself up and around to instead settle in Kouyou’s lap. The movement isn’t especially graceful, considering the effort and cooperation it takes as well as the limited space of the couch, but it works well enough—Yosano’s knees end up framing Kouyou’s thighs in neat brackets, and after a few seconds’ worth of readjustment she’s leaning back in for another kiss from her newfound position.

Boxed in like this, braced horizontally by Yosano’s legs and vertically by the line of her body above, Kouyou’s instinct is to continue to push back, test limits. It doesn’t seem one Yosano would be opposed to, given her earlier insistence on feedback, but for now Kouyou restrains herself. She goes still but not unreceptive, for now allowing the limited control and seeing what comes of it.

The reaction it earns her is swift and sharp: Yosano’s lips press harder against hers, and teeth scrape against her lower lip. Kouyou’s hands rise to Yosano’s waist in a steadying gesture—which of them she’s attempting to steady, she isn’t altogether sure.

For all the upped intensity, Yosano doesn’t push much further, keeping the tongue and teeth to a minimum and hardly moving the rest of her body except to make either of them more comfortable. It’s more tepid than Kouyou had anticipated, but not in an altogether negative way. Sensual and warm, but with no active expectation of more yet, and abating even in the former when either of them falters for whatever reason.

The middle ground between not touching at all and full-on skin-on-skin contact is, Kouyou realizes, something she doesn’t think she’s ever trodden before. Kissing for her has always either been wholly chaste, in many cases even platonic, or a brief precursory stage soon disregarded in favor of greater physical intimacy. She had told Yosano that nothing was obligatory, and she had meant it, but had she let herself believe it?

Kouyou’s inexperience doesn’t quite embarrass her—until adulthood she had been little more than a tool to those around her, and there hadn’t been much of a gradient between that and her ascent to the opposite end of that scale, so some purportedly human experiences have never been hers—but it does set her back into that off-kilter feeling she’s held at bay since stepping into the apartment. Kouyou doesn’t let it overwhelm her, but she leans into it more than she would like, following Yosano’s lead and adjusting to the even push-and-pull. Though she’s still hardly opposed to sex, neither, she finds despite the clear pretense and interest, is she to the possibility of doing nothing at all tonight. Or perhaps the middle ground of staying like this, new but far from unpleasant.

While she’s been lost in thought, she realizes, Yosano has leaned back, lips no longer in contact but still close together. “Still doing okay?” she asks, low. “We can stop, if you want. Or just slow it down a little.”

Kouyou drags her eyes open long enough to cast an incredulous, affronted look. “Not for a moment,” she says, and she hasn’t the opportunity to reflect on the roughness of her voice with how fast she leans back in.

She again relents control over the pace to Yosano the second she reaches for it, lips vibrating against Kouyou’s like she’s fighting laughter. Kouyou scowls, but it’s kissed away in seconds, the steady back-and-forth resumed with very little hesitation.

Being eased back is a slow, cautious process, steady enough that Kouyou doesn’t even realize it’s happening at first. With the current angle, it’s impossible to come to true fruition, so it’s far less jarring to be pressured toward the back of the couch than to be shoved straight down. Recognizing the sudden recline, though, is still at least a little startling. Kouyou stills with it, shifting her weight and holding tight to Yosano’s hips to keep from knocking her off.

Yosano still backs off, leaning away and peering down at her. “Is this comfortable for you?” she asks, concerned. “Because I think my neck is starting to cramp up, so I don’t see how yours wouldn’t be.” With a grimace, she reaches back to run a palm over hers, tilting her head until an audible crack fills the room.

The disturbing sound of it and Yosano’s wild, satisfied grin makes Kouyou grimace. Her thoughts circle back around to the actual question Yosano had posed; she pauses, thinking, running over various parts of her body and the knotted muscles there.

“It is not ideal, admittedly,” she says, attempting to lean back without jostling Yosano. Her hands slip toward Yosano’s thighs, and she studies the awkward angle of her knees. “Had you another suggestion?”

With a hum of thought, Yosano settles back, stretching her hand down to rub lower down her spine. “Maybe; we’ll see how well it works. Lie down?”

This adjustment is even clunkier, Yosano leaning out of the way to let Kouyou pull her legs up and Kouyou working around the concern that she may be too tall for this and them both having to exchange brief apologies when they get in each other’s ways, but once it’s resolved, comfort abounds in the support of the pillows at Kouyou’s back and the grounding weight of Yosano in her lap. There, Yosano pauses for half a second, prompting, “All right?” and waiting for Kouyou’s nod before leaning down again.

Far from the resurgent passion Kouyou had expected, the kiss they share now is a return to that cloying, tender slowness of earlier. Kouyou sighs, both in a genuine expression of weariness and an invitation. It isn’t taken—in fact, it’s rejected in a subtle but still clear manner, Yosano backing away and only resuming when Kouyou’s mouth closes again, the kiss needing to be coaxed out of her with how tightly her lips seal.

She’d been wrong earlier to think Yosano was teasing in keeping things at a glacial pace, but now it doesn’t seem so off the mark. Kouyou’s teeth skate over Yosano’s lip, sharp enough to qualify as a warning. Yosano hums but doesn’t otherwise react.

Kouyou’s eyebrow, she thinks, twitches. All right, she decides—it isn’t as if she lacks patience in a great number of other areas, so she might as well play along and exercise it here. With force, she relaxes into the kiss, accepting the pace no matter how torpid.

For a while, Kouyou lets herself lose herself in it. Her tension eases away, at first pointedly and then without her conscious allowance. It is nice, after all, and perhaps a lack of immediate and overbearing sexuality or even sensuality is something she had indeed needed. The sense of intimacy remains, and it isn’t as if her anticipations are being refused or overridden altogether, just drawn further out.

The pressure and anticipation stretch on, kisses longer but not much deeper. It’s only after what could be either five minutes or thirty, long enough that Kouyou isn’t expecting it, that Yosano meets her open-mouthed and welcoming again.

In Kouyou’s surprise, they’re both almost set off-balance. Yosano’s leg slips, and Kouyou’s hand drops with it to guide her knee back into place, steadying her by the hip again. Broken apart by the natural chaos, they catch each other’s eyes, both perhaps intending to apologize—as soon as their gazes meet, though, it seems neither can help but smile, brush past it, and resume.

Things come to a natural conclusion before long when the need to breathe—for longer than quick nasal inhales will allow, at any rate—at last wins out. It’s something Kouyou can sense coming, but it startles her no less when their lips separate once more.

The sound of it is sharp and loud against the silence. The sense of finality this time, too, is fierce. Yosano is breathing heavy, the scent and warmth of it blowing against Kouyou’s face where they’re still pressed close together, and for a moment that (along with Kouyou’s more subdued breathing) is the only sound in the room.

Kouyou’s eyes slide open. In the limited light of the nearby lamp, a faint glow is all that illuminates Yosano’s face, but that makes little difference. Her lips are red, her hair is askew, and a soft flush is visible high in her cheeks. The traces of saliva glinting on her face are objectively disgusting, and the feeling of some on Kouyou’s own chin is enough to justify the opinion, but the sight transfixes Kouyou just as much as any other detail.

At first neither of them moves. Then, with a gentle hum, Yosano shuffles back and, able to better with the new angle, drops her head against Kouyou’s shoulder. Her hair is warm and silky against Kouyou’s neck, tickling with each shared breath.

There is no real sense of urgency in the air, nothing driving them immediately and instinctively together again, but the earlier heat remains, neither waxing nor waning but not quite stagnant either, hovering in wait around them. It slows to a calming, unhurried buzz. If she wanted to, Kouyou could allow staying just like this forever, or at least all evening.

Physical issues like the pins and needles creeping up one of Kouyou’s arms aside, that is. She shifts it away with a slight wince, shaking out the numbness in as dignified a manner as she can; when a grunt sounds near her ear, she tightens the other hand, resting still on Yosano’s other hip, in appeasement. Chastisement too, perhaps, soothing it out with a light stroke.

It’s arguably less comfortable, but Kouyou’s free arm falls back to the narrow space left between that side of her body and the back of the couch. She flexes her hand against the cushion, dismissing what remains of the tingling feeling. A similar sensation is present in her neck and thighs, but those she has less of an easy fix for, and they’re not yet bothersome enough to warrant wriggling free of this position to try something more drastic.

Her other hand, she realizes, has continued gliding in jagged patterns up Yosano’s waist. She stills it. Her fingers twitch to pick the motion up again, but she disregards the impulse, not moving save for the natural intake and release of breath.

There’s a steady shiver against her—Kouyou tenses, then realizes it’s silent laughter rattling against her body. Yosano is smiling when she draws back, a heady light still glinting in her eyes but her expression overall relaxed, deep-seated tranquility clear in it. Like she, too, would be more than all right maintaining this position for a small eternity.

The eye contact, though, lends itself to more than one elephant. For a moment neither of them speaks, only holding each other’s stares and catching what’s yet to return of their breaths. That quiet warmth sharpens, and that tension sets back in.

Then Kouyou’s eyes shift to the side, boring into the wallpaper on the opposite end of the room without fully processing it. “I believe,” she says, vocal control granted only by decades of practice, “that you have yet to complete the rudimentary tour you began when I was here last.”

She returns her peripheral vision to Yosano’s face in time to catch the shift from faint, half-flushed confusion to recognition—and, from the spreading smile, delight. “Oh?” She leans back only enough that her weight isn’t resting quite as much on Kouyou anymore, though their faces remain close enough to feel the breath that accompanies the words. “I suppose that’s true enough.” Dryly feigning ignorance, she lifts a hand to gesture toward the hall. “Ranpo’s room is right down the hall. You can’t miss it—the scent of all the candy he has stashed away alone will tip you off.”

Where her hand still rests on Yosano’s hip, Kouyou squeezes, more to pull huffed laughter from Yosano than administer a genuine reprimand. It works, and she adjusts the splay of her palm and fingers. “His hardly interests me. Unless I was mistaken, there was another yet to be covered.”

Yosano bares her teeth in a grin. “Patience,” she says, but it’s undermined by how she proceeds to climb off of Kouyou and the couch altogether.

The shift in weight and warmth has Kouyou jumping, part of her body instinctively leaning halfway up to follow it. Yosano either doesn’t notice or doesn’t acknowledge it, busy pausing beside the couch to dust herself off—there’s little purpose in doing so, but Kouyou returns the favor by not pointing that out. She sucks in a careful breath instead.

It makes a little too much noise, perhaps, or Yosano’s attention just continues naturally on its orbit, as not a second later that stare, sharp even half-lidded, returns to her. Yosano’s grin doesn’t dim, but it does soften around the very edges. They watch each other, neither twitching a single muscle.

Slow and steady with purpose, Yosano extends her hand. “Coming?”

Kouyou shuts her eyes for a moment, reveling in the wash of darkness, before sliding them open once more. “With any luck,” she says, as wry as she can, before letting her body go slack and stretching her hand up to allow Yosano to pull her to her feet.

Yosano’s laugh echoes around the room, and then down the hall as she tugs Kouyou along.

*

“I figured you had one.”

Yosano’s hand is running down Kouyou’s back, feather-light and casual, but when she speaks she halts to tap the space between Kouyou’s shoulder blades. Her voice is as soft as her touch, low but easy to make out in the silence of the room.

Dull morning sunlight beams in through the curtains, casting warmth onto Kouyou’s back to replace that lost with the sheets drawn back. It’s early enough, and it’s been for such a short period of time that Kouyou has been awake, that her rigid composure has all but disintegrated—there is very little dignity she can cling to like this, and even if she could, she is, she finds, surprisingly resistant to the idea.

She’s not sure how long this pose has been maintained. She’d stirred when the bed had shifted with Yosano’s disappearing weight; a lifestyle like Kouyou’s does not make for heavy sleepers. The sun hadn’t even started to rise then, so it would have been possible to fall back asleep, and even as she’d heard Yosano step out and then the bathroom sink run down the hall, Kouyou had considered it. The furthest she’d gotten had been shifting onto her stomach, by no means a comfortable position. Yosano’s return had nullified the point, in the end—she’d settled back down on the bed and brushed a hand over Kouyou’s shoulders. The touch had been soft at first, almost not noticeable at all, the intent of caution clear. She’d gained confidence when Kouyou hadn’t protested and even leaned into the calming weight of it, but still her motions had remained careful and respectful, soothing and light to them both.

Not a word had been spoken until now, and so the sound stills Kouyou for an instant. It’s not difficult to process what the comment refers to, but formulating a response takes a few seconds longer, and not altogether due to her bleary state.

It occurs to Kouyou, with a conscious pressure, how vulnerable this position is. Rarely does she turn her back on anyone, let alone bared as she is, and there are near-countless ways her heart could stop beating with her undressed and relaxed, remaining tension ebbing away at Yosano’s gentle, curious examination of her back. Yosano is a doctor, her knowledge of the human body likely surpassing even Kouyou’s, and collects sharp objects besides—any within arm’s reach would mean an instant death. A blade through the spinal cord, into the heart from behind, across the throat, straight through the back of the head.

Kouyou’s lip curls at the morbid train of thought. No matter what, it seems, she truly cannot separate herself from who she is and what she does for that long. That, or she needs to spend less time around Dazai.

Her face shifts to the side; the angle is inconducive to meeting Yosano’s watchful eyes, but she has a bit more leverage like this nonetheless. “It is traditional,” she murmurs.

“Well, yes, but appearances aside, few things about you are.”

“And this is an aesthetic choice, so it follows that logic.”

“I suppose so. It’s not as if it’s something anyone actually sees, though.”

“You are seeing it,” Kouyou points out mildly, a similar line of argument she might have pursued in regards to the several layers she always wears beneath her kimono had it raised any questions. It hadn’t, though, so while the comment is stale to her it isn’t to Yosano.

“True.” A finger smooths along a curved line. “You only had your back inked?”

“Yes.” Kouyou’s shoulders flex as much as they have room to. “Several of my subordinates have tattooed arms as well, but I find there to be little purpose.”

“Hm. This one is nice enough to make up for it, at any rate.” Yosano taps a section partway down Kouyou’s spine. “It’s a hou-ou, right?”

Kouyou inclines her head in as much of a nod as she can manage. She can picture the design in her mind as her eyes slide shut—it isn’t as though she hadn’t all but burned into her memory when first it had been presented to her, or as though she doesn’t catch glimpses of it in her reflection almost daily.

The tattoo is large, spanning from her lower back—with a few lines brushing her hips—up toward her shoulders. Each line and splash of color had been applied with painstaking patience. An elegant, brilliantly multicolored bird, as Yosano had said and Kouyou had confirmed, composes the bulk of it. Its wings are spread, its twining tail feathers are vivid enough they almost look aflame, and its sharp beak is curved in a prideful little smile. Delicate autumn leaves are falling in arcs around it.

“Grace, virtue, loyalty, justice, the empress…” Yosano gives a low whistle. “What a perfect symbol for you. The leaves are a bit on the nose, but I can’t say they don’t fit too.” Her thumb sweeps over a section that Kouyou takes to be marked with one of the leaves in question. “How long have you had it?”

Kouyou’s eyes fall briefly shut as she considers this. “The first session took place shortly after I turned twenty-one, and the color was completed within the next several months.”

“Damn. And with the size and detail, it must have hurt like a motherfucker.”

“The pain was minimal compared to the itching, frankly. One I was conditioned into handling even then; the other, not so much so.” Kouyou’s mouth twists in reminiscence—it’s been over a decade now, but with touchups and tweaks here and there, the tight prickling of getting the ink applied and the burning, scratching sensations that had plagued her for weeks afterward are still all too fresh. “It being done in increments, too, lessened the pain somewhat.”

“Sure, but still.” Yosano’s hand skates over one side of Kouyou’s back, fingers skimming possibly one of the hou-ou’s tail feathers. “Did you design it yourself?”

“I chose the symbols and the general feeling of it, including the overall colors, but I fear I have never had a particular interest in the visual arts myself. The artist I visited had the honors.”

“Ah, of course.” At Kouyou’s drifting voice, Yosano chuckles. “One more, if you don’t mind—and feel free not to answer this one if it’s too invasive.” That prompts Kouyou’s shoulders to stiffen, although they settle halfway when Yosano, moving by apparent instinct, rubs along the stretch of skin covering her spine. “Is the scar tissue from before or after?”

Kouyou freezes more fiercely this time. Her shoulders pull upward, and her half-numb hands shift to steady her weight. Widened eyes blink forward, not focused on anything in particular. She had expected Yosano to follow that line of questioning before long—it isn’t as if her back is the only place she’s scarred, after all, faded and recent marks peppering her abdomen and limbs just the same, and more visibly without the ink—but she hadn’t expected her to do so now.

She goes without speaking or moving long enough that Yosano withdraws her hand. The lost weight (but not warmth) makes her tense further.

“Sorry,” says Yosano. “You don’t—”

“It simply took me aback. I don’t mind answering.” Kouyou slackens again, this time by force instead of a natural progression, and rests her cheek against the sheets. She doesn’t, even if some of the explanations are too personal to free from the deepest recesses of her mind, but it takes another moment for the shock to pass enough for her to speak. “A mixture, I suppose. Some, I could likely explain in detail—for others, the memories are murkier. At this point I have stopped counting assassination attempts.” She means it half as a jest, but it comes out more serious than intended—and she supposes it ought to be, considering how true it is.

“Huh.” Yosano’s response, to Kouyou’s relief, contains no pity, nor any emotion at all. “Is it all right if I touch them? The scars, I mean.”

“Have you not been already?” Yosano’s hand continues to only hover over Kouyou’s back, though, close enough that she can feel the cool ghost of it, and she sighs. “Yes. By now there are quite a few that I cannot feel, although I may still jump instinctively. Either way, it likely will not be painful or unpleasant.”

A pause—and then, with a slow hum, Yosano’s finger brushes over a spot beside Kouyou’s spine. “Is this a bullet wound?”

“I believe so, although likely only a graze. Had the angle been any different, and it landed a mere few centimeters to the right—”

“—it would have punctured your lumbar vertebrae and left you paralyzed from the waist down, if not worse. Same for this one here—stab wound, maybe?” She prods at the other side, an area hidden well enough by Kouyou’s ink that she doesn’t quite know which scar Yosano is referring to. When she doesn’t reply, Yosano hums again. “You’re a very lucky woman, for what it’s worth.”

“Likely so, yes. I am in your bed.” The thought leaves Kouyou’s mouth without even a half-second granted to think it over, impulsive but not something she can bring herself to disagree with.

Again, Yosano pauses, but it seems to be one more out of genuine surprise than consideration this time. At last she gives a low laugh. “Then I’m just as lucky,” she says, grin audible. When next she speaks, though, that amusement and glee fall back. “But seriously, some of these are pretty rough. I’m sure the injuries were treated well, but to have left the marks they have…” Her palm settles across Kouyou’s spine, sliding back and forth in absent strokes.

“I fear that the scars upon my flesh are nothing compared to those marring my mind.” Kouyou closes her eyes, then opens them again when it only exacerbates the series of images fluttering through her mind. “The physical toll of my lifestyle is simple enough to handle with proper aid—although that is not saying a great deal; I’m sure you know how difficult it is to find a doctor who is both worth their pay and familiar with the concept of keeping their lips sealed—”

“Absolutely,” says Yosano, snorting. Her knuckles curl in, the press of her hand into Kouyou’s back applying more pressure now, bordering on a massage.

“—but though the psychological toll is far easier to ignore, splinters spread and will intensify beyond repair if they are overlooked for too long.”

Yosano gives a vague murmur of agreement. “And sealing them with gold is better than not sealing them at all.”

A brush against a tight knot of muscle near the back of Kouyou’s neck keeps her from responding for a moment. “You would liken the human psyche to kintsugi?”

“You started the metaphor,” Yosano points out. “I was expanding on it.” Her hand shifts toward Kouyou’s shoulder blades, where a thumb passes over long-faded lacerations, their pattern obscured in ink; any other time, Yosano likely wouldn’t have noticed, and it’s possible (if improbable) that she doesn’t now, saying nothing of them. “If anyone’s mind was to be both functional and decorative, with its flaws highlighted with precious metals rather than hidden, I’d put my money on it being yours.”

She’s not certain if it’s a compliment or not, Kouyou returns it nonetheless: “I would say the same of yours, frankly.”

Yosano doesn’t reply aloud, letting the conversation taper out there, but the pressure of her hand is a continued comfort along the stretch of Kouyou’s back.

The languor of the morning is pleasant enough, but before long the dull emptiness in Kouyou’s stomach and the incessant buzz of not doing enough at the back of her mind become too pressing for her to ignore. She pushes her weight onto her palms, inadvertently knocking Yosano’s hand away, and rolls to sit up against the pillows. Yosano, still kneeling, shuffles back to make room for her.

Kouyou had silenced her phone the night prior, but she had still checked it several times before finding sleep. Kunikida’s updates had persisted until he had presumably gone to bed, and Kyouka herself had texted about studying and dinner going well and the offered guest futon being very comfortable, but the urge hadn’t left her until half an hour after Yosano had fallen asleep. Now she fumbles for it again and goes straight for her messages. A single text from Kunikida awaits her, announcing that the children are not yet awake but he is and intends to start breakfast soon.

With a low sigh, Kouyou glances up to the time. The alarm clock on the nightstand is a few minutes late, but it isn’t as late as she’d begun thinking it was—it’s still earlier than she wakes on many weekdays, in fact.

“I will have to leave just before noon,” she says, locking her phone and putting it down. “In the meantime… there were leftovers from last night, correct?”

Yosano’s smile, having lapsed into quiet bemusement, brightens again. “Yeah. Along with the rest of the shit in the fridge, more than enough for a full-sized breakfast.” She slides off the bed and snags a button-down from the dresser, shrugging it on over her tank top. “While I’m working on that, you’re free to use the shower,” she adds as she makes quick work of her buttons. “Ranpo isn’t home, so technically you don’t need to worry about clothes—”

“A statement I am sure you have no additional motivations in making.”

“Zero whatsoever,” says Yosano, flashing a grin at her. “Anyway, though, I’m sure you brought some—” she glances at the duffel bag set in the corner of the room, transported there as a detour on the short walk “—but if not, you can borrow whatever you’d like from me, however small it might be. You remember where the bathroom is?”

“I did spend the night here.” Dry comment aside, Kouyou nods as she too pushes the sheets aside and gets to her feet. She pulls a robe from her bag and pulls it on, ignoring the cluck of disappointment Yosano gives behind her. As she stands, she brings with her the spare ensemble—a thin yukata for ease of assembly and storage, regardless of the season—she’d indeed packed. “Thank you for the offer, but this ought to work fine.”

“Suit yourself.” With a shrug, Yosano adjusts her shorts and trots out of the room.

There’s something intrusive about lingering in the bedroom by herself, so after a moment’s pause, Kouyou follows suit. A lazy weight still deep in her bones, she strides toward the bathroom.

When she shrugs free the temporary robe and sets out the layers of her yukata to make the dressing process simpler, Kouyou catches a glimpse of her tattoo in the mirror. She pauses to consider it. A careful hand stretches down as far as she can reach, fingertips soothing over the hard jut of her shoulder blade.

The spectral weight of Yosano’s touch hovers across her back. As she steps away toward the shower, Kouyou spares a slit of a secretive smile for her reflection.

- i actually almost got cold feet over kouyou’s tattoo design because hou-ou/fenghuang lore tends tend to get conflated with egyptian/greek phoenixes, but ultimately i have stumbled upon japanese tattoo sites designs featuring them and they're both fitting and gorgeous, so i stuck with it. the leaves, though also ostensibly representative of the inevitability of change or something like that, are a bit of a joke about kouyou's name; the kanji (紅葉) refer to autumn leaves or the process of them changing colors. - a standard modern kimono consists of at least 3 basic layers -- the kimono itself, the nagajuban, and the hadajuban/susoyoke (which i guess some people do go without sometimes nowadays, but i doubt kouyou would lol). which obviously is not counting further underwear, obi, datejime, various other accessories... anyway, thanks for reading! see you thursday! if you have time to spare, thoughts are as always appreciated~ twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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