the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 23 chapter cws: mentions of violence/death/injury (specifically one passing note of self-harm, i guess, irt yosano's ability), implied sex/some mildly suggestive comments.

Favorite seasons are a juvenile concept, even more so than any other notable favorites. The seasons are a natural progression, due to come year after year, and detesting or relishing one above all else is pointless. No matter what, the leaves will turn and the weather will change. Nature will take its toll, time and time again. There is no delaying nor altering the seasons, as much as one might dislike—or, on the contrary, delight in—the sun bearing down or the wind cutting deep into their bones.

This is a concept Kouyou has been fortifying within herself for years on end, ever since she first settled on one of the motifs inked into her flesh. Change is, as her tattoo declares, inevitable. She tends not to proclaim anything as a favorite, least of all a natural phenomenon she has no control over. If she absolutely had to choose, as she had been prompted to several months earlier on her and Yosano’s first date, Kouyou would opt for autumn, with its warm, mature colors and somber atmosphere and pleasant but not unbearable climate.

Winter, however, would not be far behind. The limited sun and heat are developments Kouyou can appreciate, and though she had once detested the cluttering of family- and romance-related holidays through the several months composing its span, recent years have provoked her into coming around to them. The steady shift into days of darkness and sedateness has a way of soothing her.

As November melts into December, then, Kouyou truly relaxes for the first time since before the recent attempt on her life. Often, this time of year is busy and troublesome, filled with a counterproductive amount of work responsibilities as the Mafia’s main branches as well as its assortment of subsidiaries hurry to get things wrapped up and dealt with before the year’s end. Yet with Ace’s recent handling and an overall willingness of most to operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible, which of course involves cooperation, her work is far lighter than she had anticipated. She’s sure multiple people want to comment upon the laidback, easygoing manner with which she carries herself, but, thankfully for them and her both, none dare broach the subject.

Kouyou’s own birthday she has never put on a particular pedestal, but she won’t deny that Kyouka’s plays a part in embedding autumn’s favor in her mind. Yosano’s approaching birthday, then, has a much smaller but still noticeable effect in increasing December’s appeal.

On the day of, which also happens to be a Saturday—allowing her thus the opportunity to spend more time with Kyouka than she does many weekday mornings—Kouyou is lighter than ever, the remnant pain from what is still present of the stitches little more than a passing inconvenience. Work passes with ease, afternoon trickling away and giving way to evening without fanfare. She’s able to leave earlier than usual, and though the farewells from Chuuya and Hirotsu are a bit pointed, Kouyou only smiles all the wider.

Kasa is waiting in the usual spot, or at least what has become such after some arrangements in the aftermath of the sniper attack. “Good evening, Kouyou-sama,” she greets smoothly as Kouyou slips into the backseat. “Have you had a pleasant day?”

“Pleasant enough,” Kouyou confirms, smiling. Kasa doesn’t inquire further, but she does arch an eyebrow in the rearview mirror.

She leaves Kouyou to strap herself in and settle back. As they set off, Kouyou gives into the faint restlessness that has been dogging at her for the past hour or so and makes to check her phone, as is often her routine. She’s unsurprised to find one particular missing call awaiting her. No voicemail has been left behind, so Kouyou is left with few other options but murmuring to Kasa to take the long way home and calling back.

It’s only on the second ring that Yosano picks up. “Kouyou?”

“Good evening, sensei.” Automatic as her cool greeting is, Kouyou can’t help but blink at the groggy tone with which Yosano had spoken. “And happy birthday. Am I interrupting anything?”

A yawn has her tilting the phone the slightest bit away. “Thank you,” is what Yosano says first, far brighter, priorities clear. “And no, not exactly. My colleagues took me out drinking last night in celebration, so I didn’t get up until noon today. I’m still a little out of it—another unfortunate downside of my ability is that it does jackshit for hangovers.”

The inordinate level of dismay in her voice, especially compared to how matter-of-fact she had been about most of the worse aspects of her ability, stirs a smile from Kouyou. “A shame, truly,” she agrees.

“You think that now, imagine being a twenty-year-old college student stabbing herself in the gut three times over only to realize why nothing is happening.” Yosano pauses. “Although I did inadvertently seal up a ton of papercuts and a fractured wrist then, so I suppose it wasn’t a total loss.”

“Always looking at the bright side,” says Kouyou, not so much as trying to hide her dry deadpan. Yosano laughs, however raggedly, so the comment goes over well enough. “I apologize for missing you earlier; was there a particular reason you called?”

“Ah, no worries. I hope it wasn’t a repeat of that time back in September, at least.”

It takes a couple of seconds for the allusion to click, but when it does Kouyou has to fight a rather hangover-esque grimace herself. “Not quite, no. I have since learned to keep this phone off whenever I am so much as in the vicinity of headquarters.”

“Smart. If only that was a lesson you’d learned a few weeks earlier.” Another laugh, one that smooths Kouyou’s reflexive frown back into a soft smile. “It wasn’t anything too important, really—I just wanted to thank you for the very expensive bottle of sake that showed up at my apartment this morning. The delivery was what got me up, as a matter of fact. A well-timed birthday present, I take it.”

The information has Kouyou blinking again. “Indeed. I was not aware, honestly,” she admits, “that it would arrive today. I anticipated it would come later in the week.”

“Oh?” Yosano seems split between pleased and aghast. “You expected it to be a late birthday present, then?” She clicks her tongue. “For shame.”

Kouyou disguises a snort as a cough. “It was, as you put it, very expensive sake. And if it eases the burden in any way, I do currently have a gift I intend to bestow unto you in person. What are your feelings on rose gold?”

“Hmm,” says Yosano, dragging the sound out. “In what form?”

“Earrings. Nothing too extravagant, but they seemed quite fitting.”

“Is that so?” Yosano’s tone swings back to being wholly delighted; at the very least, she seems far more alert than she had when she’d picked up the phone. “I can’t wait to see them, then. Ah, actually, on that note—”

The line crackles, and Yosano makes a startled noise, cutting herself off, as a scuffle sounds. “Hey, Ozaki,” cuts in another voice, familiar and cheerful enough that a muscle in Kouyou’s jaw jumps, “do you have any plans after six-thirty tonight? You don’t, right?”

“You cannot even see me, Edogawa-kun,” says Kouyou, glaring despite how little good it does, even in person. “Try not to be so presumptuous.” She stops—on the other line there’s nothing but silence, perhaps some distant rustling as Yosano attempts to get the phone back, but somehow the judgment and smugness carry through it thicker than anything. “I don’t.”

“Then you should go to dinner with us.” Edogawa’s voice is a bit more distant now, and it’s made clear why when Yosano—muffled too, but at least as audible—tries to interrupt. “What?” adds Edogawa, speaking over her and anything Kouyou could have protested with. “You’re not busy, and it’s your girlfriend’s birthday. The Christmas market opened up this week and everything, and she wanted to visit it with you and maybe Kyouka-chan if she’d be interested. No one else she knows is willing to go with her because she always makes us carry all of her bags. And when I say all, I do mean way too many.”

“What Ranpo is trying to say,” says Yosano dryly, vesting control at last, “is that I love Christmas markets, and I’d be more than happy to go with you and Kyouka if either of you would like to. I just hadn’t gotten the chance to ask about either of your schedules yet.”

“I said what I was trying to say,” Edogawa grumbles. They’d managed to split the difference and set the phone to speaker, it seems. “But sure, that part too. So, Ozaki, what do you say?”

Through the tightening of her sudden headache, Kouyou manages a sigh. “I am not agreeing to anything just yet,” she says, preemptive, and ignores Edogawa breaking into snickers, “but… dinner when and where? And whom with?”

“It’s really nothing too extensive,” says Yosano after a beat, “and you’re really not obligated to go. Don’t listen to Ranpo.” Edogawa makes a tsk sound. Audibly either rolling her eyes or glaring at him (or both in quick progression), Yosano adds, “Don’t listen to Ranpo in this specific situation. Happy?”

He makes a noncommittal sound. Lest the situation leave her control—as little as she has to begin with—Kouyou clears her throat. “Needless to say,” he cuts in, “his advice shan’t sway my judgment in any particular way. May I know the details before I make any decisions, though? If the invitation has been extended to me, then it is only polite to give it the due consideration.” She pauses, something occurring to her. “Are you comfortable with me attending, Yosano-sensei?”

“Yes.” Yosano’s answer is immediate, and there’s some surprise in it, like the very question startles her. “I’d have invited you myself, actually, if only to go for that walk around the Christmas market afterward.”

“If you’d like to let her down easy by hanging up, Ozaki,” Edogawa contributes, “now would be the time.”

Yosano doesn’t justify this with a reply, although she doesn’t say anything for a long moment either, as though waiting to see if Kouyou will hang up—which she, of course, doesn’t. “It seemed like a bit of an imposition, though,” she goes on, picking up where her sentence had left off, “and improper besides, since I didn’t make the plans in the first place.”

Edogawa snorts. “Since when have you cared about improper?”

“He presents a fair point, I must admit.” Kouyou shudders as the words leave her, grimacing at the mere thought of a conversation that had compelled her to agree with Edogawa. “So I shall ask again: Who will be in attendance?”

Another pause, and then Yosano sighs. “Me, Ranpo, Fukuzawa, and Kunikida. He might bring Aya, too, but probably not Katsura.”

“I see.” Kouyou considers that guest list—she has points of contention with several members, of course, but it is nothing too intolerable. “I assume it will be spent at a restaurant; precisely where?”

“I don’t think you’d recognize the name,” says Edogawa, “so I’ll text you the address.”

“You don’t have my phone number.”

“Yosano will give it to me.”

“Nice try,” says Yosano dryly. To Kouyou, she adds, “I’ll just text it to you. After Ranpo tells me, that is, because I don’t know off the top of my head either.”

The logistics of this are quickly intensifying Kouyou’s headache, but she hasn’t the time to mull it over, since Edogawa is soon sniffing. “It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“And it was,” agrees Yosano, “until Aya came to my office on Wednesday with a headache. At least I know there isn’t anything wrong with her memory. Or her vocal cords.”

“So you will text me the address, Yosano-sensei,” says Kouyou, seeking to get the conversation back on track.

“Yes.” Yosano, at least, seems relieved by her one-track mind. “They have a website, too, so you can look up the menu and everything to make sure you would be comfortable there and all. But really, there’s no pressure at all—all you have to do is think it over.”

“Yeah, think it over,” echoes Edogawa. “Until a quarter to seven, because that’s when we’ll be meeting there. You know what an anal stick-in-the-mud Kunikida is about these kinds of things.”

Kouyou’s face twists with a grimace. “I do.”

Edogawa allows her a moment’s worth of respite, then speaks up again. “Oh, yeah, and Kyouka-chan is invited too, so let her know when you get home.”

Though they shouldn’t, multiple parts of that sentence raise Kouyou’s eyebrows. “How—”

“Your sound quality is atrocious,” says Edogawa, through a tinny phone microphone that makes his pitch even more obnoxious than in person, “and I’ve heard no less than five horns honk since the phone went on speaker. It’s quieter now, though. Are you pulling onto your street?”

Kouyou is, in fact, doing that. She gnashes her teeth rather than justifying the question with an answer. “I will let you know what I decide as soon as possible, Yosano-sensei. Thank you for the invitation.”

“I invited you,” Edogawa is quick to point out.

“Yes,” allows Kouyou, “but it is not your birthday, nor are you my girlfriend.” She ignores any subsequent protesting. “Regardless of my decision, I will talk to you later, Akiko.”

Another scuffle sounds: Yosano wrestling the phone away, Kouyou takes it, and turning off speaker, from the altered quality of her voice when next she speaks. “Talk to you later, Kouyou,” she says. “Sorry about how last-minute this is, but I would love to have you there—and Kyouka, if she’d be comfortable with it.”

“Thank you.” The words are surprisingly difficult to get out. Kouyou rubs at her throat. “I cannot give you an answer now, with that in mind, but… I shall consider it. If I do not attend, then please, enjoy your evenings.”

With that—and the faint hum on the other line—Kouyou hangs up. As her hand lowers, she stares at the phone in it. She’s afforded little more than a few seconds of taking in her blank-faced reflection before the car parks with a visceral shift.

In the front seat, Kasa tweaks the rearview mirror. “Shall I wait outside, Kouyou-sama?” she asks, lacking any implications—it is, even with the smile stretched across her face and the glint in her eyes, an earnest question through and through.

“There is no need for that,” Kouyou tells her, putting her phone away and digging two fingers into her temple in an attempt to dismiss the lurking pain. As she reaches for the door, she pauses. “But you may wish to remain in the vicinity. Only as a preemptive measure, of course.”

“Of course, Kouyou-sama.”

“Of course,” echoes Kouyou one last time, and then she forces herself to leave the car.

*

And so, little more than an hour or two later, Kouyou and Kyouka are leaving Kasa’s car in a lot in Minato Mirai, Yosano’s text with the directions to the restaurant open on her phone. It’s still early, but the sun is setting, an indicator clearer than any of the shifting season.

Kouyou’s headache has abated, but she won’t be surprised if it returns before the night’s end. “I shall call you when we are ready to return home,” she tells Kasa as they extract themselves from the backseat. Kyouka, upon realizing she’s not going to be able to slide out after Kouyou as fast as she’d presumably expected, goes for the other door and waits on the curb. “We should not be that long. It is a simple enough dinner, although if it is still amenable to all, we may visit the Christmas market afterward.”

“Of course, Kouyou-sama,” Kasa says, dutiful, as blase as Kyouka is about this entire event. “Enjoy yourselves.”

She waves. Kyouka waves back. Kouyou just says a quick goodbye and steps out of the car, halting beside Kyouka to watch it start back up and join back up with what little traffic there is around this area at this time of day.

Letting out a quick breath, Kouyou rests her hand against Kyouka’s shoulder and gestures her along the sidewalk. “Come. We haven’t much longer to be early, and if we’re so much as a minute late we may as well be two hours so.”

Kyouka shakes her head a little but follows along regardless, keeping pace with Kouyou without complaint. The walk to the restaurant is a short one, but when they arrive, Kouyou has to check the text and website three times before convincing herself they’re in the right place. It’s more upscale than she’d expected, which is perhaps unfair considering the number of high-class restaurants she and Yosano have eaten at over the course of their relationship (and the fact that Fukuzawa and Kunikida were both, Kouyou must assume, involved in planning this outing), but it still has a certain traditional, rustic charm to it. Kouyou takes in the exterior for a moment longer before stepping forward.

At once, she has to wonder why she hadn’t attempted this method of verification first, as it takes seconds rather than minutes. A few waiting parties are scattered around the foyer, but Kouyou’s eyes at once are drawn to Yosano, standing in the corner among three men and a young girl, dressed luxuriously enough that Kouyou can already picture those rose gold earrings on her.

She’s also talking, hands on her hips and chin jutting out as she faces Kunikida. “—said she would be right—” Midway through the sentence, Yosano turns to the side, attention narrowing in on Kouyou, and the smile that splits across her face is bolstering for more than one reason. “Ah, speak of the devil—or demon, as it were. Nice to see you two.”

“You as well,” Kouyou returns, dipping her head; Kyouka does the same without encouragement. “Happy birthday, sensei.”

Yosano’s smile stretches wider. “Thank you. You’ve met everyone here, right?” She sweeps a hand to the side, where Edogawa, Fukuzawa, Kunikida, and Aya swell out in an arc behind her, all eyes except two fixed on Kouyou (and the remaining pair upon Kyouka).

Were Kouyou anyone else, the tableau presented might have been an intimidating one: Fukuzawa with his stern resting expression, mere presence, and the broad, subtly muscled set of his shoulders; Kunikida with his similar frown and build; and Edogawa with his unassuming appearance but an unnerving—and irritating—edge to his smile. As it is, she doesn’t so much as blink, meeting the range of reactions with a smile of her own.

“I believe so, yes.” Hand on Kyouka’s shoulder, she sweeps forward. She doesn’t deign to lower herself into even the shallowest of bows for the remainder of the party, but she does tilt her head as she says, “It is nice to see you all again. Thank you for the invitation, Edogawa-kun.”

He bats a hand. “The time to thank me was earlier,” he says, bored, swallowing a yawn with his palm. “And you thanked Yosano instead.”

“Oh, don’t be bitter,” Yosano tells him. “Better late than never.”

Before Edogawa can do more than frown, Kunikida clears his throat and speaks up: “Ozaki,” is all he allows, simple and curt.

Kouyou’s smile thins. “Kunikida-kun,” she returns, just as cool and level, and he gives her a small nod of approval.

The acknowledgment, though, gets Aya to dart across the room, heedless of Kunikida’s startled sound, and grab Kyouka’s hands in hers. Kyouka, while blinking in alarm, doesn’t break this hold.

“Kyouka-chan, it’s so good to see you!” Aya declares, loud enough that the hostess, all the way across the room, grimaces and shoots the small gathering an odd look. The sound of Kunikida’s teeth grinding is twice as audible. “And you look so nice! That’s the furisode you got for your birthday, right?”

Kyouka nods, bright, and reaches down to smooth out her obi. In contrast to the deep, dark blue fabric of the furisode’s outer layers, it’s a sleek, soft off-white, emblazoned with the delicate brushwork of a rabbit. Two more are painted onto the back, which has been tied up into a more formal, intricate bow than Kyouka often settles for. The obidome crossing the width of her waist also features a small charm in the shape of a rabbit—in combination with the decorations of them low on her furisode and the embroidered creatures along her collar, the rabbit theming is a touch over the top, but Kouyou supposes no descriptor suits a member of her family more.

Still, the sparkling of Aya’s stare provokes some amusement. “Did you not see each other just yesterday at school?” remarks Kouyou with a dry look. Kunikida shares it.

“Well, yeah, but that was yesterday,” says Aya, cheek swelling with indignation as she stares up at Kouyou as though she’s being daft. “And she was mostly hanging out with Q yesterday, anyway.”

Kouyou arches an eyebrow, eyeing Yosano and Kunikida as if you confirm. “You and Q-kun don’t get along?”

Aya scrunches up her nose. “They’re mean.”

“They’re nice,” Kyouka says, halfway to reproachful, shifting on her feet. “They just don’t like it when people are loud.” The stare she fixes Aya with is pointed and prolonged, and it has Yosano stifling laughter (and Edogawa snickering without qualm or shame).

“I can be quiet!” says Aya in a near-yell. Edogawa has to start wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.

Before Kunikida has the chance to do more than inhale with a deep, shuddering patience, the hostess calls out: “Kunikida-san, party of seven.”

Reprimand forgotten, Kunikida pushes up his glasses. “That will be us,” he announces, as though it would be anyone else, and checks his watch with a pleased twitch as he steps up to confirm.

Behind his back, Yosano shakes her head and Edogawa and Aya exchange frighteningly identical looks. Fukuzawa, impassive, sweeps forward to follow in the hostess’s lead as she guides them toward their room, and with a range of expressions the others tag behind. Kouyou’s hand drifts from Kyouka’s shoulders as they fall in at the back, gliding side-by-side regardless of the cramped stretch of space they’re brought to cross.

The private room is quiet and small, but more than large enough to account for them all. With little more than a few glances around, all start to file into the appropriate seats. Yosano, as the clear most important party, takes the head of the table farthest from the door. Edogawa sits to her right, and Fukuzawa to her left, with Kunikida filing into place next to the latter. To Kouyou’s displeasure, she’s left with nowhere to sit but beside Edogawa. Kyouka and Aya, respectively beside Kouyou and Kunikida, end up seated across from one another, though, an arrangement that Kyouka seems satisfied with, so she shall accept it for now, even if she has to fight brisk and violent retaliation when Edogawa shoots her a little grin.

Small talk is thrown about for a few minutes, snippets of muted conversations, but for the most part everyone focuses on their menus and drinks. Kyouka sets down hers fastest and swaps it out for the small sketchbook and mechanical pencil in her bag. Kouyou skims a bit longer, alternating glances with sips of the tea she’d requested, but soon she too is settling back in wait.

The waiter dips back in before long. They all order with little issue, although the demeanors of several at the table seem to put the waiter off. It’s only when they’re circling around to collect menus and have to beckon Kyouka to sit back so her sketchbook isn’t covering hers that something occurs to Kouyou.

“Ah, yes,” she adds, reaching over to lightly tap the top of Kyouka’s head. Kyouka jumps a little, glancing at her, but seems to realize the purpose of it when Kouyou clarifies, “She and I will be on a separate check, if you do not mind taking note of that.”

The waiter starts to nod, but a voice interrupts: “There is no need for that. I will pay for your meals.”

Fukuzawa’s voice, it seems, really is capable of stilling an entire room, as happens now—even the waiter goes rigid as they look with some franticness between Kouyou and Fukuzawa. Edogawa is the only one who doesn’t freeze outright, and even he raises an eyebrow.

Surprised enough to show it, Kouyou tips her head toward Fukuzawa. “This event is being held for Yosano-sensei’s sake,” she says in as calm a voice as she can manage, resisting the impulse to stray into the speech habits and expressions common during business negotiations. Her eyes flicker toward Yosano only to find her already looking back, watching Kouyou as though awaiting what argument will follow. Kouyou holds down a throat clear and returns her attention to Fukuzawa. “Kyouka and I were not initially factored into your plans. As such, it is only appropriate that I cover the fees of our food. I am more than capable of it.”

Kunikida’s face, quite pale seconds earlier, is beginning to flush, veins pulsing into visibility. The indignity of questioning such a statement from Fukuzawa, it seems, may be dangerous for himself. Aya covers a cough with her hand. Edogawa, meanwhile, is starting to grin.

Kouyou ignores the expression and keeps her eyes on Fukuzawa, whose expression doesn’t twitch in any direction. All he does is blink, the lines of his face as smooth and impassive as ever even as something flickers behind his stare.

“You are guests all the same,” he says, “and I had already made arrangements to see to the cost of tonight’s meals. I insist that you accept.” He lowers his head into a gesture that borders on a bow, closing his eyes as his neck dips forward.

If the air in the room had been stifling earlier, it is thick enough to be suffocating now. Yosano’s gaze darts at a record speed between Kouyou, expression lapsing back into blank shock, and Fukuzawa, who remains in his current position, shoulders drawn taut under the stretch of his haori. What a man he must be, to turn a show of respect and submission into a power play.

Recalling the time they’d spoken in Sankeien, the moonlight and ease giving way to an honesty and regard Kouyou hadn’t expected of herself, she lets a smile creep across her face. “All right,” she says, and feels half the room release their held breath with it. “Thank you, then, Fukuzawa-sensei.”

Her arm brushes against Kyouka’s, a minute nudge, and Kyouka too ducks her head. “Thank you,” she echoes, eyes shut.

Fukuzawa draws himself back up with grace but without ceremony, simply inclining his chin in another small nod. The waiter finishes gathering up the menus and tells them their food will be out in a short while before all but fleeing from the room. As she watches them make their escape, Kouyou can’t help but wonder with amusement what would happen if they were to discover how skilled multiple people around the table are with bladed objects.

With the distance between them, Yosano can’t exactly pat her shoulder or squeeze her thigh or hand under the table, but the sidelong look and smile carry the message of a situation well-handled nevertheless. Kouyou smiles back, then settles her hands in her lap and relaxes her posture into something more unassuming. The relief on Kunikida’s face is obvious, though when she catches his eye he drops his gaze.

Kouyou’s smile widens, and she nods in Fukuzawa’s direction. He doesn’t nod back this time, though he does acknowledge the gesture with a steady blink.

Several people seem ready to split apart what little tension remains with an icebreaker, but Yosano is the first to speak. “We didn’t get to talk much about it earlier,” she says, framing her cheek with a hand and giving Edogawa a pointed look, “so how was your day, Kouyou? Is work going all right?” There are layers to the question that aren’t quite made explicit, not so much for the others’ lack of knowledge about Kouyou’s occupation—she’s sure everyone but Aya knows, and considering who she’s surrounded by she may well have her inklings—but out of general courtesy, especially considering even the implication has Kunikida’s jaw tensing.

The wider curve of Kouyou’s lips is a genuine one. “Yes, very much so, as a matter of fact. Things seemed dubious for a period of time there, but in the end they have worked out quite well.”

Visible comfort sags Yosano’s shoulders. “Ah, that’s good to hear.” She tugs at her gloves as though she’s just remembered their presence, letting them settle at the very edge of the table. Her bare fingers lace under her chin. “And your brother and the rest of your colleagues, they’re holding up well too?”

“As well as can be expected.” Kouyou reaches for her tea, settling into the feeling of its warmth against her palm. “Kyouka is well too—is that not right?” She nudges Kyouka as gently as she can, shoulder brushing hers.

Kyouka glances up, blinking, and refocuses on the conversation. She nods, though she doesn’t seem altogether certain what it’s in response too, and goes back to drawing.

“That’s good.” Though she chuckles a little, there’s sobriety in Yosano’s face, a tenderness with which she regards Kyouka for a few seconds longer before shaking herself. “I don’t know how excited she is for winter break, but I definitely am. I swear, every time a break is coming up the kids just get that much more injury-prone. It happened before summer break, too.”

“And then there’s the influx of students who claim various maladies to get out of exams,” adds Kunikida, sour. Fukuzawa closes his eyes with clear strain.

“See, that I can deal with—it’s only a few students per year, really, and there’s nothing wrong with letting them stew for a few minutes before ushering them away in lieu of kids with actual medical problems I can see to.” With a huff, Yosano lowers her hands. “Though it is the principle of the thing.”

“Say, since we’re talking about winter break,” interrupts Edogawa, straightening from the slouch he’d sunken into to better sip his water, “are you two doing anything for Christmas?” He gestures between Kouyou and Yosano as if to clarify you two, although it hadn’t needed the hint. “It’s coming up pretty soon, you know.”

Yosano sits back. “We hadn’t discussed it yet,” she says with a wary glance between him and Kouyou, who merely meets her gaze with a neutral stare. “I suppose it depends on what Kouyou’s family is doing. And what you and Poe end up doing.”

Edogawa hums. “Makes sense. If you wait too late to plan, though, every decent place in town will be booked out.”

“It is only the first week of December,” interrupts Kouyou. “I doubt anything shall be unavailable just yet, let alone for someone such as me.”

“You’d be surprised,” Kunikida says grimly. Then he pauses and seems to recall just who Kouyou is—or is reminded by the thin, sharp smile she gives him.

Kouyou turns her head, tipping it back toward Yosano and Edogawa. “It is as Yosano-sensei said, though. It has not come up in conversation just yet, although it undoubtedly soon will; when it does, we shall make any appropriate arrangements.”

“Hmm.” Edogawa doesn’t seem too interested by that response, but he taps his fingers against the edge of the table in thought. “Hey, Christmas will be close to some sort of anniversary, too, right? Didn’t you start dating July?”

“Yes, about then. Officially, near its end. It has been just shy of five or six months now, I believe.” The realization halts Kouyou—it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it is by far the longest contiguous romantic or sexual engagement she’s partaken in. It’s not quite a bothersome thought, but it does evoke some level of emotion within her, a range she can’t quite pin labels onto. She tries to keep it from showing, but from the side glance Yosano gives her it’s still in some way clear.

Edogawa opens his mouth, but before he can ask or say more, Aya blurts: “What are you drawing, Kyouka-chan?”

Though her attention span means it’s improbable the interruption had been on purpose, its timing does raise a few eyebrows around the table. With a glance in Kouyou’s direction, Kyouka sets her sketchbook down on the table and twists it to show her, all the while doodling more from the other direction.

The conversation leaves Kouyou, in no small part due to Kunikida’s intervention, clearing his throat and switching topics. She’s sure it’s not altogether on behalf of her clear inclination toward privacy, if that even is a factor at all, but she spares him an appreciative glance all the same. She doesn’t bother to follow his and Yosano’s ensuing conversation; as she reclines and sips at her tea, bits and pieces slip through, enough that she could fill in the context and participate from there, but for the most part her attention wanders, thoughts sifting between work, Kyouka, and Yosano.

What a neat set of priorities she has there. Kouyou halts a smile before removing her lips from the rim of her cup.

Until their food arrives, the room persists in that fashion: Dry and brisk conversations that Kouyou for the most part doesn’t partake in, though she and Kyouka are addressed from time to time. It’s far from the most uncomfortable dinner Kouyou has ever sat at, and as time passes it strays from any sense of discomfort.

The easygoing, familial relationships between the others seated around the table set a soothing enough mood. Kouyou keeps it in mind to observe them as best she can, taking mental notes of the ways Yosano, Edogawa, Kunikida, Fukuzawa, and Aya interact amongst themselves. In some ways, their range of personalities and banter reminds her of the family dynamics she has stumbled upon and forged for herself; in others, they’re so different so as to almost seem alien. However limited most of their attempts to engage with Kouyou and Kyouka are, it seems to be as much down to introversion and solitude as any outright unease with their presence (considering how Fukuzawa in particular speaks as little as either of them), and the others aren’t ignoring or dismissing them outright—if anything, Kouyou and Kyouka appear to have been stitched into the overarching dynamic in a natural a fashion as they can.

By the time the waiter swings back in, trays in hand, Kyouka’s shoulders have smoothed out altogether. Kouyou isn’t quite to that point herself, but then, she almost never is.

Any discussions that had been taking place are soon dropped when the smell and sight of their meals overtakes the room. Some spirit of conversation is maintained, thoughts voiced as they occur, “Oh, did you hear—” and “How about—” and “So the other day—” abounding, but a non-insignificant number of them relate to the food and service itself, and few topics are dragged on for longer than a few concise exchanges.

Kouyou settles back into observing. She’s one of the last ones done with her meal—Kyouka, Edogawa, and Aya being among the first—which allows her more than enough reason to not speak up much. She doesn’t listen all too much, distracted by her own thoughts (though she’s put aside the unsteadiness of consciously noticing how long she and Yosano have been together, it sneaks up on her from time to time, and then there are the passing concerns about work and Kyouka), but what she does catch she takes in with varying amounts of interest. By the time she’s setting her chopsticks aside and dabbing at her lips, a calmness has swept through her.

Okay? Yosano mouths when she notices Kouyou glancing toward her. Kouyou smiles, nods, and leans back in time to be faced with a barrage of questions from Aya.

When the waiter returns and asks about dessert, Edogawa is the first to order rather than Yosano, though she’s certainly not far behind. Aya soon speaks up to nab a slice of cake herself, and with some prodding Kyouka agrees to sharing something with Kouyou; Kyouka ends up the one to eat almost all of it, with Kouyou’s diminished appetite and low favor of sweets, but as this had been her intention, Kouyou neither voices any complaints nor can find any internal ones.

When the last of the plates have been cleared away, they don’t linger long. Fukuzawa, as he had promised, covers all of the bill, and Kouyou allows herself to keep to her own promise about not interfering, even if only for herself and Kyouka. With an inordinate amount of grace and inconspicuousness for a group as chaotic as they had proven to be, they file out of the restaurant.

To Kouyou’s (pleasant) surprise, there are no further complications in the process of parting ways. Yosano and Fukuzawa bow to one another, and there’s the slightest of smiles on Fukuzawa’s face as he settles a hand on her shoulder and glances aside toward Kouyou and Kyouka. He nods to them, and Kouyou finds herself able to do little but nod back. With a few more quiet words to Yosano, inaudible across the distance and too private for Kouyou to bother reading his lips, and similar goodbyes to Edogawa and Kunikida, he slips off into the distance, a lone figure that Kouyou doubts anyone in their right mind would dare attempt to take advantage of.

Kyouka and Aya’s goodbyes are far more dramatic on one end—as seems to be par for the course—than is altogether necessary. Kouyou settles for a simple exchange of nods with Kunikida. If nothing else, she supposes, they will likely be in similar migraine-addled states come morning, so she can spare some sympathy.

Edogawa clasps one of Kouyou’s hands between his own, squeezes hard (but not quite hard enough to hurt, with their respective strengths), and pats Kyouka on the head before whirling to talk to Yosano, still a fair distance from them. Nodding to Kunikida’s disappearing form, Yosano turns in time to be caught by the shoulder.

Kouyou watches as Edogawa leans up to tell her something in a low tone. Judging from the smug smile on his face as he tips back onto the soles of his feet, it can’t be anything good; the furtive, subconscious glance Yosano throws Kouyou only deepens that feeling. It doesn’t spur more than an eyeroll, though, and soon Yosano is patting his shoulder and stepping back over to face Kouyou and Kyouka, the three of them the only ones remaining of their impromptu party.

Behind Yosano, Edogawa winks at Kouyou, then makes a break for it. Kouyou refrains from either shaking her head or throwing something at him. If Kyouka notices her sudden tensing and forceful relaxing, she says nothing of it, nor does Yosano.

“You know,” Yosano says, overshadowing any farewells Kouyou had had in mind, “the Red Brick Warehouse isn’t far from here. And I hear the Christmas market opened up earlier this week.”

“Oh? Is that so?” The smile spreads across Kouyou’s face before she can stop it, but she doesn’t attempt to smooth it out either. She glances down and to the side. “Well, Kyouka? Would you be amenable to such a detour?”

She had discussed that aspect with Kyouka earlier, otherwise she wouldn’t have sprung it on her in such a manner, but she still pauses with half-bated breath to await Kyouka’s response. Kyouka looks up, looks at Yosano, and then looks back at Kouyou. “Sure,” she says, and it doesn’t seem to be only for their sakes, judging from the sharp little glint in her eyes.

“To the Christmas market it is, then,” says Kouyou, sweeping a hand. “Lead the way, sensei.”

*

“Are there somehow more people out here than there were earlier?”

Staring out into the crowd and pondering the same question herself, all Kouyou can do in response to Yosano’s faintly awed words is lift a shoulder in a shrug. Kyouka, standing in between them, doesn’t so much as blink.

Before them, indeed, is a significant amount of foot traffic. Though the market had only opened a few days prior, and Christmas proper is of course still several weeks off, the hordes of people gathered about would suggest a rather different picture. There had been a decent amount of people inside as well, but split up between enough shops and floors that it hadn’t mattered too much. Now, out in the open and clustered together in one area, all seem to melt into one coherent mass.

In the time that has passed, the air has also grown chillier, or at least seems so compared to the comforting warmth they’d left behind. Kouyou clings tighter to her haori, and Yosano foists her bags off onto her so she can untie her jacket from around her waist and toss it back around her shoulders. Kouyou, unimpressed, considers leveraging her gunshot wound and subsequent surgery, but Yosano tugs her arms back into the sleeves fast enough that it doesn’t end up mattering. When she reaches back for her bags, Kouyou is already extending them to her.

“You know, one of these is yours,” Yosano points back, even as she accepts all three.

“It has purchases of mine in it,” corrects Kouyou. “The majority of its contents are still yours.”

Yosano steps aside to clear the doorway for a couple slipping inside, gesturing Kouyou and Kyouka along with her. “Albeit paid for with your money, I might add.”

“I would not be so sadistic as to make someone whose birthday is today pay for any items of her choosing, sensei.”

“I would,” Yosano mumbles, but when Kouyou glances at her she only smiles. “And I appreciate it, believe me. But it does mean that you would have as viable a reason to carry these as me.”

Kouyou isn’t quite opposed, not in a genuinely irritated way, but she still frowns. “My stitches—”

“—aren’t something you like to use as an ultimatum or an excuse, because you see it as a weakness and it pisses you off. Also, they’re nearly healed by now.” Kouyou’s lips press together, brow furrowing. Yosano’s breezy tone carries into her light smile; with her free hand, she pats Kouyou’s upper arm. “I’ve got nothing on Ranpo’s mind, but I do know you. Or at least I like to think I do.”

Kouyou, something curling inside her, opens her mouth, but Kyouka chimes in before she can, albeit with a complete nonsequitur: “Is that a cider stall?”

“Hm?” Yosano twists her head in that direction, squinting behind her glasses. “Oh, I think they’re selling mulled wine. And… hot chocolate, maybe?” She leans up on her toes, but even Kouyou can’t quite make out what is being passed over the counter across this distance. “So they might have something non-alcoholic, if you’re thirsty.”

She glances at Kyouka in a silent question, which Kyouka answers by shaking her head. Kouyou’s mouth parts again, this time to ask if Yosano is interested in grabbing something—again, though, she’s interrupted, and now by a voice she doesn’t expect:

“Kouyou-san?” comes the call, and Kouyou, Kyouka, and Yosano all cock their heads in its direction, each recognizing it with a curving scale of familiarity. From a break in the crowd emerges Atsushi, his hair skewed by the wind and his wide eyes almost the only bit of his flushed face visible above his tattered scarf and bulky coat. Some degree of relief washes over him when he meets Kouyou’s eyes, confirming her presence—although surprise returns when his attention shifts to either side of her. “Oh, and Kyouka-chan and Yosano-sensei too! I didn’t expect to run into you all here, but it’s nice to see you.”

“Atsushi-kun.” Kouyou dips her head. “What a long stretch of time it has been since I last saw you,” she adds dryly. “Two hours? Or was it three?”

Atsushi laughs, a nervous little chuckle, and scratches his cheek. “Something like that, yeah. Oh, right,” he adds, eyes enlarging again as they settle on Yosano, “happy birthday, sensei! Kouyou-san mentioned it was why she and Kyouka-chan were going out tonight.” He grins, a little wobbly, and then tugs at his scarf. “I’m sorry, I don’t exactly have anything for you…”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.” Eyes glinting, Yosano waves a hand. “The wishes are more than enough.”

Kouyou’s lips twitch. “Spoken like a woman who likely will not remove those eighteen-karat rose gold earrings I gave her for no less than two weeks straight.”

“You’re exaggerating. They’re not exactly appropriate to wear to school, are they?” Yosano reaches up to nudge the dagger-shaped dangle earrings that Kouyou had handed her on the walk over; Kouyou isn’t quite certain what had become of the more minimalistic pair she’d had in beforehand, but she supposes it doesn’t matter.

Atsushi, watching the movement, just keeps smiling. “Well, they’re really nice, so I can see why you would like them. And if they’re a heartfelt gift from Kouyou-san, it’s even more important, right?” He tilts his head, endearing enough that any immediate embarrassment is well-buffeted. “Ah, speaking of, that furisode looks really nice, Kyouka-chan.”

Face lighting up, Kyouka tugs at her sleeves. “Thank you.”

Though her reaction is subtle enough, Kouyou’s isn’t, chest swelling with pride. “Does it not? A wise choice by all means.” When Atsushi giggles in agreement and Kyouka picks at the ends of her hair, Kouyou returns her stare to the former, head quirking. “I cannot say meeting you here is an unfortunate coincidence, Atsushi-kun, but why have you come tonight? Are you here alone?”

“Ah, well, about that—”

“Man-tiger!” bursts a familiar voice, and a sheepish grimace shoots across Atsushi’s face only seconds before Higuchi, bundled up in a similar but more subtle manner, pushes through the crowd toward them. The less harried-looking Akutagawa siblings follow close behind. “Don’t run off like that! We can’t watch you if you’re not there to watch. Why did you even—”

The instant she notices who Atsushi is talking to is obvious, from how immediately and viscerally she freezes. Horror fills her face, which goes white, then red. Behind her, Akutagawa curls his palm against the side of his face. Gin’s mask is up high enough that Kouyou can’t tell if their cheeks are flushing too, but the way they fix their eyes on the ground is a clear enough sign.

“Boss,” Higuchi stammers out, hurrying into a bow. Gin does the same; their brother is already doing the same, but they nudge him to speed up the process. “It’s—um—nice to see you…?”

Kouyou watches with no shortage of amusement. “Indeed. You are all making superb use of your time off, it appears.” She leans back, brow quirked. “Though I expect any sense of revelry to be scrubbed from your systems by tomorrow, when there is a greater deal of work to be done.”

“There is no revelry to begin with,” says Akutagawa, straightening before anyone else. Gin follows suit, staring off into the distance as though mentally removing themself from the moment, but Higuchi may be stuck in a half-bent state forever. “I was forced into this.”

“Don’t be like that, Akutagawa-senpai!” Higuchi at last jolts upright, if only to whirl on her heels to fix him with what Kouyou must assume is a reproachful look. Meanwhile, Yosano observes with some blend of bemusement and delight. “You enjoyed the hot chocolate earlier, didn’t you? But that’s not the point,” mutters Higuchi, twisting again to glare at Atsushi. Akutagawa’s shoulders dip with relief. “You! Why did you just run off like that? And without warning us?”

“Sorry,” says Atsushi, swallow audible. His meek, tentative grin gets a scoff out of Akutagawa. “I just thought I saw Kouyou-san, so I wanted to say hi to her. And wish Yosano-sensei a happy birthday.” He punctuates this with a sniffle and scrubs at his nose. Though Yosano reaches for her pocket, it’s Gin who, with a silent and more delicate touch, ends up offering a handkerchief. “Oh, thank you, Gin-san.” He blows his nose, loud and dramatic but presumably not purposefully so.

“Disgusting,” mutters Akutagawa.

Higuchi, too, has a disgruntled expression on, but as Atsushi attempts to hand Gin back the handkerchief and is rebuffed with a wordless hand, desperation overtakes it. She turns back toward Kouyou, Kyouka, and Yosano. “Um,” she says, blinking. “It’s your birthday, Yosano-sensei?”

“It is,” confirms Yosano.

“Happy birthday, then.” Higuchi hurriedly bows again. Though theirs is much shallower, Gin does the same. “We’re sorry for intruding on you and the boss’s, erm—” Rather than finish the sentence, Higuchi clears her throat a few times, the blush still creeping up her cheeks. “Um, Gin,” she adds, head jerking to the side, “you wanted to go ice skating before we left, didn’t you?”

Visible below their bangs, Gin’s brow furrows. “What? I—” They stop, realization—and Higuchi’s heel, though Kouyou doubts it hurts them much—hitting. “Fine,” they say, smoothing the edges of their mask. “Nii-san, did you and Atsushi-san see that stall with all the stuffed animals?”

Akutagawa’s expression twists downward, though it’s more out of confusion than anything more violent on account of his partiality toward them. “Why? Did you want one?”

“Maybe, but I wanted to look at them closer first.” Gin’s fingers twitch toward the strands of hair hanging around their face. “I only really saw it for a couple of seconds.”

“Hm,” says Akutagawa simply.

Kyouka, meanwhile, is glancing in all directions. “I want to see.”

“Oh, ah—” Atsushi, of course, jumps to attention at that. The used handkerchief has since been stuffed into his coat pocket; when Yosano offers him a bottle of hand sanitizer, he gratefully accepts it. “Is that okay, Kouyou-san?”

At the question, Kyouka’s eyes spin onto Kouyou, who is of course helpless beneath the prolonged look. “I see no reason why not,” she ekes out. “Any potential combination of you four would offer sufficient protection, and Yosano-sensei and I are not moving.” She reaches for her wallet. “Do you need money?”

“Oh, boss, you don’t need to do that yourself,” cuts in Higuchi. She starts patting down her own pockets. “Here, man-tiger, do you need money?”

Making a face, Atsushi—after giving Yosano back her hand sanitizer—drags out his wallet. “I have money!” He cracks it open and winces. “Some money, anyway.”

What could have delved into a three-way argument is interrupted by a short, irate cough. “What you don’t have,” says Akutagawa, “I’ll cover.”

Atsushi blinks. The wallet is still hanging open in his hands; Kouyou reaches over to pinch it closed so what money he has inside isn’t torn away by the wind. “Oh, thank you,” he mumbles before looking back at Akutagawa. “I can’t ask you to—”

“You didn’t.” Akutagawa looks at him with palpable derision. “You’ll pay me back,” he adds, and starts walking away.

Gin twists their head to follow his path with their half-widened eyes. “I didn’t even show him where the stall was.”

“It’s okay, Gin-san, I’m sure we can find it.” Atsushi puts his closed wallet away with a cheery smile and holds his arm out to Kyouka. She takes hold of his sleeve without hesitation. “See you in a few minutes, Kouyou-san, Yosano-sensei.”

Kyouka nods as if echoing the sentiment. Together, keeping up with each other’s brisk paces, they scurry to keep up with Akutagawa.

Higuchi waits only a few seconds before nodding once more. “Boss, sensei,” she says; she looks like she wants to say something more, but she doesn’t in the end, only linking her arm with Gin’s and heading in the direction of the ice rink.

For a long moment, Kouyou and Yosano simply stand there in their newfound silence and solitude. The wind and chattering of the crowd mere meters away are the only sounds, both of them at a seeming loss for words.

Then Yosano makes a sound half-laugh, half-cough. “That was subtle.”

“Wasn’t it?” With a low sigh, Kouyou rubs at her temples. “I swear to you, they are all—with the exception of Atsushi-kun—quite skilled operatives. Interpersonal situations simply aren’t any of their specialty.” She pauses. “Although whatever that scene was was quite the marked improvement from when I first met the Akutagawa siblings.”

“Oh dear,” says Yosano, smiling despite the lack of elaboration, perhaps able to fill in enough with imagination alone. Then, considering the crowd, she adds, “You don’t want Kyouka to get too far out of sight, right? Here, let’s walk this way.”

Mimicking Gin and Higuchi’s earlier motion, Yosano moves all three bags to one arm and slots the other into Kouyou’s. It’s not the cleanest or easiest way to walk, but the warmth and weight is in its own way comforting, and with only a split second of resistance does Kouyou let Yosano steer them in the direction Kyouka, Atsushi, and Akutagawa had headed.

They settle in a reasonable vantage point. As they come to a halt, Yosano’s arm drifts away from Kouyou’s, though their sides remain close together. Kouyou eyes Kyouka, Atsushi, and Akutagawa’s distant heads, visible only by virtue of Kouyou’s height and how much Kyouka’s furisode and Atsushi’s hair color stand out. Her gaze travels from them to the stall they’re gathered around, where several large, colorful stuffed animals are hanging above. The variety of creatures and sizes is somewhat impressive. There are also, Kouyou has to assume, more that can’t quite be seen from here. With any luck, Atsushi and Akutagawa’s combined budget will limit the number Kyouka is able to get, but so long as Kyouka is happy, Kouyou doesn’t have too harsh an opinion on the matter.

Glancing to the side, attention landing on the side of Yosano’s face, Kouyou straightens as she recalls something. Now seems as apt a time as any to bring it up. “Ah, I hadn’t the chance to ask earlier, but—” Yosano’s eyes dart over, and with a throat clear Kouyou continues, “What, if I may, is it Edogawa-kun told you earlier?”

“Oh, that.” A scoff. “Just that he would be out most of the night working on some case, so I’d be more than welcome to invite a certain someone over.”

The words don’t take long to process. “Ah,” says Kouyou, the most coherent thought she is capable of uttering.

Yosano glances at her; whatever she sees in the lines of Kouyou’s face prompts her to wince and cross her arms. The bags still dangling off of them rustle. “There’s no obligation, of course,” she says, slow, steadily avoiding any particular tone. “I didn’t bring it up earlier because it wasn’t really a reasonable idea then, and I know that you’ll probably be busy with Kyouka and work tonight and tomorrow.” She pauses, then adds, “And, of course, your stitches—”

“My stitches,” says Kouyou with as much if not double the caution, “are, as you yourself said, nearly healed. Were I to give an excuse, it would be a far less thin one.”

“Of course.” When Kouyou smiles, Yosano smiles back, although it’s a bit pale compared to her typical grins. “I just wanted to offer a ready-made one. Seriously, it’s just an offer. I’ve survived longer before, and I can again.” Her smile quirks up at the edge, a bit sharper, and something in Kouyou eases.

“It is not that I am opposed, but…” Kouyou smooths a hand over the back of her neck. In the cool weather, it is still its standard temperature, if a touch warmer beneath her icy fingers. Her fingertips curl in, and she blinks with consideration. “Would Kunikida-kun be willing to take Kyouka in for the night again, do you think?”

“Well,” says Yosano in a tone that does not inspire much confidence, “there’s no harm in trying, I suppose. Although—” she checks her watch “—he may be asleep by now, honestly.”

“If my chances are already as low as you are making them out to be, then I have little to lose, I take it.”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Yosano huffs out a laugh, letting her arms fall from their folded position. “You’re sure you’re actually interested? I know how worried you were about Kyouka staying somewhere else overnight even when you had had days to prepare instead of, like, half an hour.”

“That is true,” says Kouyou, wincing at the memory. “However, this time there are two starkly different factors.”

“And those are?”

“That it is your birthday, and that I am the primary one behind these arrangements.”

“Ah.” Yosano’s grin slackens, and she reaches up to adjust her glasses, though from the angle of her hand Kouyou at first thinks she’s aiming for one of her earrings. “That would make sense. I imagine this not being the first time would help, too.”

“The first time of which?” Kouyou can’t help but ask, dry, though she agrees with the sentiment. “Kyouka staying elsewhere, or you and I sleeping together in either sense?”

Yosano spreads her palms at her sides, then shifts her arms again when at least two bags threaten to slip loose. “Take your pick.”

“I’m sure that is a third difference, yes. Now—”

Footsteps announce Kyouka’s return, and Kouyou, falling silent, twists to face her—and pauses in admiration, but not complete surprise, at the large stuffed shark in her grasp, resting against her shoulder. Atsushi, lagging a few steps behind, is sheepishly staring into his wallet. Behind them both, Akutagawa has his hands in his pockets and a stormy expression, so Kouyou assumes the situation had gone at least neutrally, if not well.

“Oh my,” says Kouyou, taking in the new addition with a smile. While Kyouka preens, she turns a sharper smile upon the two lagging behind her. “Is that a gift from Atsushi-kun, or from Akutagawa-kun?”

“Ah, well… Akutagawa mostly paid for it,” Atsushi admits, snapping his wallet shut. “But I covered some of it, so it’s from both of us.”

Akutagawa’s only response is a cough. More than used to this, Kouyou inclines her head at him; she smiles wider when he cuts his gaze away, embarrassment rolling off him in waves.

“Well, thank you both, I suppose.” Granting Kyouka’s proud look with another fond look, Kouyou glances at Yosano, then the other two. “I apologize for keeping this so brusque, but I suspect the three of us shall be making our leave soon, so goodnight, Atsushi-kun. I will see you tomorrow, I imagine.” If Kyouka is at all disappointed or surprised by the announcement, she doesn’t do more than blink, tucking herself back in between Kouyou and Yosano. With a pause, Kouyou adds, “The same to you, of course, Akutagawa-kun.”

“Oh, goodnight, Kouyou-san.” Atsushi shuffles his feet a little, blinking, but manages to recover enough to flash a bright expression. “I’m glad I got to see you and Kyouka-chan again—and have a good rest of your birthday, Yosano-sensei.”

“Thank you,” says Yosano with a smile, waving. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, too, Atsushi.”

He grins, then elbows Akutagawa in the side. Akutagawa glares at him but lowers himself into a bow; whether it is directed at Kouyou, Kyouka, Yosano, or all three is unclear, but it carries any number of messages well enough. Kyouka waves, more so at Atsushi than Akutagawa but earning a soft scoff from the latter.

As they weave away, Kyouka and Yosano mostly following in Kouyou’s lead as she steers them back through the crowd, Kouyou catches snatches of the conversation they’re leaving behind. It seems they’re drifting toward the rink where Gin and Higuchi still are, and Atsushi is—to little avail—attempting to convince Akutagawa into skating with them. She almost wishes they had time to linger after all—Akutagawa ice skating is a mental image that she’d like to see brought to reality with everything in her.

Letting that back-and-forth fade into background noise and hoping Atsushi takes pictures should anything happen, Kouyou glances down at Kyouka. “Say, child,” she says, careful, and tries not to startle when Kyouka’s attention swivels up to her. “I know this is on short notice, and I apologize for springing it upon you in this manner, but… would you be all right with staying elsewhere tonight? If they were to agree to it, perhaps with Kunikida-kun and Aya-kun?”

Kyouka’s eyes spark with interest, then flicker between Kouyou and Yosano. Whatever realization sinks in doesn’t still her, but she does fix Kouyou with a mildly unimpressed look that Kouyou will, as she does many things, blame on Dazai.

“Okay,” says Kyouka. “Is that okay with them?”

Yosano, too, puts all of her focus upon Kouyou. Ignoring the weight of it, Kouyou extracts her phone from her sleeve. “That,” she says, “is precisely what I am going to find out. Excuse me a moment.”

With one last glance between them, Kouyou steps away, cutting her way through the masses with her standard effect. Once she’s a reasonable distance away, in a space where things are—if not silent, which she doesn’t think she’ll get anywhere in the vicinity—relatively quieter, she finds the appropriate contact and brings the phone to her ear.

To her relief, Kunikida doesn’t seem to be asleep, because he picks up after three rings. “Hello, Kunikida-kun,” greets Kouyou, calm and firm.

“Ozaki-san?” comes his confused voice. “What is the issue? Has something happened with Yosano or Izumi?”

“Ah, not quite.” Kouyou shifts her weight in thought, mulling over how to phrase her next request. “I do apologize for the inconvenience, though. I was simply wondering if perhaps you might be willing to watch Kyouka for the night. Would Aya-kun be amenable to another sleepover?”

“…tonight, you mean?”

The disapproval and dismay in his tone are obvious, enough so that Kouyou suspects he may hang up right then and there. “Yes,” she confirms still. “I apologize that this is as sudden as it is, but I had admittedly not wholly thought through the night’s plans. There are other options—” far and few between as they are, she doesn’t note “—but there is a precedent for this one, and Kyouka is comfortable with you and Aya-kun. If you would be able to tolerate the inconvenience, Yosano-sensei and I would both appreciate it, as would Kyouka.”

The silence that ensues is so lengthy and all-consuming that for a split second Kouyou thinks she has been hung up on. Then footsteps ring out on the other end, and Kunikida grits out, “Ranpo-san did inform me this was a possibility. Aya has been bothering me about another such event for the past month, too. I didn’t actively factor it into tonight or tomorrow’s schedule, but—” A heavy sigh, and something creaking, followed by the distinct snapping of paper. “So long as I can rearrange several things and you drop her off and pick her up at reasonable times, I should be able to account for her presence.”

Brisk and terse as the rationalization is, Kouyou can’t help but raise an eyebrow. “My, you are… more lenient about this deal than I had anticipated.”

“Tell Yosano it’s another birthday present.” Kunikida mutters something under his breath, a string of words Kouyou doesn’t bother straining her ears to catch, and after a series of rustling sounds, he adds, “Can you arrive in thirty-five minutes?”

Kouyou tilts her phone away to check the time and, as she holds it back to her ear, considers how many speed limit laws Kasa will be willing to break. “Make it thirty-nine, give or take a handful of seconds. Is approximately ten-thirty tomorrow an acceptable pickup time?”

The flipping of paper, an all-too-familiar sound, carries over the line. “Yes, that should work out nearly perfectly.” Resignation more so than irritation hangs in Kunikida’s tone, but she can still almost picture his free hand’s position at his furrowed brow. “Is that all?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Then I will speak to you then.”

Before Kouyou can eke out a less ambiguous farewell, the line goes dead, and with a perhaps permanently arched eyebrow she lowers her phone. She switches to her messages, texts Kasa, and then makes her way back to Kyouka and Yosano. They seem to have lapsed into a short conversation, but it doesn’t seem all too important, for they both fall silent and turn to face Kouyou as she approaches.

“Plans have, somehow, been made,” she announces, brandishing her phone with a quick flourish. “I believe Kunikida-kun expects an expression of gratitude from you sometime tomorrow, Yosano-sensei.”

“Figures,” says Yosano with a huff. She doesn’t seem all too bothered, though, judging from her steady smile. “I’ll get him a nice stationery set or something.”

“Something to be appreciated, for certain.” Kouyou clears her throat. “I apologize for my brevity, but Kyouka and I ought to leave now if we wish to arrive on time.” Her attention turns to Kyouka. “I will go over the details in the car—we’ll stop at home to pack, then Kasa-san and I will drop you off at Kunikida-kun’s, if that sounds all right.” Kyouka nods, taking in the rush of information with little more than a split-second blink. Kouyou nods back, then turns her eyes upon Yosano, who is looking back with her arms loosely and openly folded and her expression slack, somewhat impressed. “We will be off now, then, sensei. I’ll see you again in—” she mentally calculates “—around an hour, I believe. Unless you’d like to ride with us?”

Yosano’s eyebrows, having crept higher with each word, lower at last. “Thanks, but I’ll hedge my bets on the subway,” she says, shifting the bags in her grip. She casts them a forlorn look. “It’s a shame I won’t have anyone to help carry these, though.”

“Ask Atsushi-kun,” Kouyou suggests, and lingers only long enough to hear Yosano’s tinkling laughter before turning, hand at Kyouka’s shoulder, and merging back into the crowd. Over her shoulder, she calls, “Goodbye for now, sensei,” and hears Kyouka echo a similar sentiment.

If there is a sudden chill in the air, a counterattack against dryness that would hint at incoming snow, it is lost on Kouyou, so light and warm is the ground beneath her feet.

*

Morning creeps in slow and easy, the weekend lull and tender mood meeting to slow things down and gentle their progression. Even the sound of the shower and sink running seems somehow muted, and overall a certain content, tranquil buzz accompanies Kouyou’s each and every movement.

By the time she, standing upon the washroom tile, twists her obi into place, any fog that had swept over the mirror has long since dissipated, and any lingering aching in her side has long since ebbed away. Her shoulders are loose and her back at the midpoint between slumping and ramrod-straight. Though she isn’t smiling, her expression is lax and calm, lacking the immediate hardness and coolness she’s used to seeing even this early in the morning.

She gives her reflection a final glance, patting at a few remnant drops of water along the back of her neck, then steps out, bare feet slipping casual and quiet along the wood as she makes her way back to Yosano’s doorway. The door is cracked, as Kouyou had left it when she’d slipped out and into the bathroom in the first place. Inside, sunlight has begun to steal through the yet-closed blinds, replacing the darkness that had once filled the entire bedroom in steady, subtle increments. Yosano is seated at the edge of the bed, ankles crossed and phone in hand. Its glow illuminates her face more harshly than the soft, natural sunlight, but it provides light all the same.

Kouyou parts the door the slightest bit more, producing a soft creak that gets Yosano to pause but not glance up, and leans against the frame. “The restroom is, I believe, yours,” she greets, smoothing out her sleeves.

“Ah, thank you.” Yosano taps at something on her phone, then lifts her head to offer a smile. “I’ll be out in the kitchen in a few minutes; I was planning on making breakfast, but help yourself to anything in the meantime.”

Rather than reply, Kouyou nods, leaves her to it, and strides back down the hall. With the couple of times she’d been within, the apartment is recognizable and navigable to her by now, though she’s still a bit wary by nature of its unfamiliarity and relative lack of security. She rubs at her eyes as she treads through the kitchen and toward the dining room, intending on waking up further before she peruses the food and beverages available.

Before she can stroll too far along that train of thought, though, a cough sounds. “Good morning,” comes an obnoxious, drawn-out voice.

It may as well be a bucket of ice water dumped over Kouyou’s head. She stops, head twisting on instinct. Her eyes snap to the singular other person in the room, seated at the dining room table with his head cocked and his dark bangs falling back onto his forehead as he leans back to look at her.

Multiple stages of grief flood Kouyou at once. She’s dressed, and in a different kimono than the one she’d worn yesterday at that, but from the air Edogawa exudes, she might as well be in Yosano’s shirt and naught else.

Not allowing herself to get distracted by the image, Kouyou brushes one strand of hair free from her cheek and brings herself to dip her head. “Good morning,” she returns, forcibly level. She had heard footsteps earlier, but she’d assumed it was only Yosano, or a facet of her imagination or a lingering dream. “At what time did you return?”

“What are you, my mother?” Edogawa yawns, then answers in a dull tone, “Three or four, I guess. It took a while to finish up work, and I figured it would be safe by then.”

He gives Kouyou a look that she ignores as she, seeing no other options, makes her steady way to the table and settles down opposite him. “One of the first times we spoke,” she says, prim and even-shouldered, even as the tension that the shower had soothed rises again, “Yosano-sensei was giving the apartment a wide berth on behalf of you and your boyfriend, so I hardly think you have room to chastise me.”

“Hmm,” is all Edogawa has to say about that.

The irritation in Kouyou’s chest spikes, but she soothes it out with a nasal exhale. The space between them is too grand to fill with mere small talk, she supposes, but still she gathers the presence of the mind to ask: “How did work turn out? Did you solve the case?”

Edogawa lowers his head from its half-reclined position to make his affronted face all the more obvious, though the loud, huffy scoff sells it just the same. “Obviously,” he says, voice dripping condescension. “They don’t call me the greatest detective in the world for nothing, you know.”

Kouyou gives him a dry look. “Who is it who calls you that, if I may ask?”

“Anyone who’s paying attention.” Edogawa reaches for the cup in front of him, one of the only two objects on the table (the other being a haphazardly folded newspaper). What is within the cup is, judging from the smell and context, ostensibly coffee, or at least it may have once been, but a mess of sugar and cream and God-knows-what-else has stripped it of any resemblance to its apparent original state. He dips a finger in to stir it. Revulsion flashes over Kouyou at multiple things, and it intensifies when he sighs and goes on, “I’d tell you more about the case if I could, just to show some examples, but it’s top-secret. Especially from you.”

He gives her a shrewd stare over his glasses, but it loses its impact when he upends half of his disgusting drink into his mouth. Kouyou hadn’t planned on prolonging the conversation anyway, let alone with a spiral into Edogawa’s ego, so she doesn’t say anything that could provoke him into continuing.

Luckily, he doesn’t start back up on his own, either, even when he sets his cup back down with a heavy thud. Perhaps he’s as irritated by Kouyou’s presence as she is by his, or still too bleary to antagonize her—or some combination thereof.

The sound of rustling from the direction of the bathroom carries through the walls, then the louder and clearer rushing of the faucet. Kouyou lets it fade to background noise, fog filtering from her mind bit by bit. Across from her, Edogawa continues to slurp at his coffee, but she ignores that sound, too, as best she can.

She slips her phone out of her sleeve and skims over her messages, both a few scattered ones from Kyouka and Atsushi she’d missed the night before and work-related memos from Chuuya and Kasa. Akutagawa and Higuchi’s work the night before, it seems, had gone well, if the headline of Higuchi’s email on the matter is any indication. Kyouka doesn’t seem to have awoken yet, but Kouyou texts her a short good morning and brief reminder of her plans for today, though she’s sure Kyouka has it memorized as well as—if not better than—she does. Edogawa makes a sound of vague interest when she hits send, but it seems to be directed at something in the paper.

She looks up at him all the same, planting her feet rather than becoming diverted by his apparent lack of attention. He notices, and the resting line of neutrality his mouth has smoothed into turns up.

“Tell Kyouka-chan hi for me,” he says, idle, and though she scowls, Kouyou types out another message relaying just that.

With the lack of any response or acknowledgment, Kouyou sets her phone down, though she doesn’t turn it off. Her hands fold in her lap rather than on the table. She curls one around the other, fingers tucking together in absent patterns.

She’s considering getting up to at least get some water—or perhaps tea, if there is any—when footsteps near the doorway catch her attention. Kouyou lifts her head to find Yosano entering the kitchen, stretching her arms out behind her as she steps forward. She straightens after a moment, catching herself on the edge of the sink and glancing toward Kouyou and Yosano where they sit.

“Morning,” she calls to them both, neither so much as pausing to give Edogawa a further once-over nor off-put by their silence. She leans against the counter and peers over, raising an eyebrow. “Anything interesting happen with your job, Ranpo?”

He groans, slumping forward with his hand pressing against his cheek. “Nope. The police were idiots as usual, the culprit was obvious, and the wild good chase that could have been prevented if they just listened to me lasted way too long.” Hints of glumness still pervading his expression, Edogawa reaches over to lift the newspaper and hold it out. Humming, Yosano crosses the remaining distance to take it with a considering look. “I saved the obituaries for you,” Edogawa tells her, dropping his face back against his palm. “There’s this one about someone who died super violently; you’ll love it. And some ninety-six-year-old—heart attack, nothing exciting—whose life story was being written by someone who clearly hated his guts but tried to act like they didn’t. Also, we’re out of sugar.”

The last bit is even more flippant than the rest, but it’s the only part that earns a look up now that Yosano has started flipping through the paper. “I can’t imagine why,” she says with a dubious glance at his coffee.

With an innocent smile, Edogawa takes a long sip. Kouyou gives it an askance look of disgust—she doesn’t want to think about the sugar content. Or any other contents, really, knowing his overall tastes.

Yosano’s knuckles graze her shoulder, and Kouyou turns her attention back to her. She’s lowered the paper, letting it hang from one hand, and is arching her eyebrows again. “Did you want anything to drink, Kouyou?” She pauses and eyes Edogawa. “That doesn’t involve sugar, that is.”

Edogawa’s cherubic attributes multiply tenfold. Kouyou’s eye twitches, but without acknowledging him, she answers, “Water, perhaps. I am more than capable of getting it myself, though.”

“I’m already up, so it’s no problem.” Yosano shrugs, folds the newspaper and sets it down in front of the seat between Kouyou’s and Edogawa’s, and heads back toward the kitchen. “Ranpo, have you eaten yet?”

“Not since—” he pauses, counting on his fingers “—one. Ah, unless you count the couple of snacks I had after I got home and after I woke up a while ago.”

Unimpressed but unsurprised, Yosano glances back from where she’s paused before the refrigerator. “Are you hungry, then?”

Edogawa shrugs. “Sure. I think the one you should really be asking that is your girlfriend, though, because she looks like she’d rather pour a jar of nails into her mouth and eat them than share another meal with me.”

Kouyou is making no expression of the sort, but the feeling must radiate off of her palpably enough for him to pick up on it all the same. Or he’s bluffing and managed to strike the bullseye. The sly side look he gives her clarifies nothing, although she meets it with narrowed eyes still. The thought has occurred to her before to never let him and Dazai meet—it has never been so intense as in this moment.

“Well, Kou?” Yosano prompts from across the distance, resting her hip against the front of the refrigerator. Her posture is stern at a glance, but it’s clear she’s trying not to laugh. “We should have more than enough for three, if you’re willing to stay.”

Edogawa folds his arms behind his head and starts whistling under his breath. Kouyou attempts to dig her heel into his foot under the table, but he snatches his legs up and folds them before she can reach. She’s impressed, she’ll admit, but in a deeply begrudging, negative way.

Eyes still on him, she says over her shoulder, “I shall tolerate it this once. Although—”

Before she can so much as start to lift out of the seat, Yosano is clicking her tongue and fixing her with a pointed look.

Kouyou’s lips press together, but, just as she has a few times over now, she lowers her shoulders and relaxes into her chair. Edogawa watches her out of the corners of her eyes, but mostly he goes back to stirring and drinking his coffee.

What was it Yosano had told her when she was here last? How often do you end up taking care of other people? It’s not a thought that frequently occurs to Kouyou, for all of the work she does to maintain and vindicate her cold, ruthless reputation—but sitting here, hands in her lap and hair loose and wet, she struggles recalling a time, not counting the last morning like this, someone else outright made her breakfast. She enlists others’ aid on occasion, of course, but the majority of the work always remains on her shoulders, no matter if it’s only her or her and four others she’s cooking for. There’s something disquieting yet uncomfortably pleasant about being treated in the way Yosano sometimes treats her. She trusts her with her life, and yet depending on her for something as small and everyday as a meal—

The feelings it stokes are myriad. But, Kouyou supposes, she isn’t all that opposed when it comes down to it.

Across the table, Edogawa starts laughing. Kouyou turns her glare upon him.

“It’s not my fault you’re embarrassing,” he says, pressing his hand against his cheek again. The pose is likely just a supportive, casual one, but it doesn’t hurt the smugness radiating off his general countenance.

“And it is not mine that you notice things no other human being would.”

“Play nice, you two,” says Yosano from the side, a weary and disinterested voice that seems like the type she uses on students.

Kouyou settles back by instinct. Edogawa’s smile only widens, but he too refrains from continuing the mock-argument, instead calling out to Yosano to ask about what had been on TV last night.

Embarrassing, Kouyou muses as she tilts her head just enough to the side to watch them both, indeed. Sitting here, though, observing and being wrapped into Yosano and Edogawa’s easy back-and-forth as well as the overarching pleasant, welcoming atmosphere of the apartment, Kouyou can’t bring herself to mind.

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