the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 24 chapter cws: mentions of violence and kidnapping.

By this point in time, Kouyou can’t—and would never attempt to—tally up the number of moments she has spent just like this: Seated stalwart and still in the backseat of Kasa’s parked car, waiting in a lot a short walking distance from Kyouka’s school, phone in hand as she whittles away the minutes until Kyouka arrives.

Very few of these experiences end up outstanding scenes in her life, glowing among assortments of other memories, and they blur together as much as her daily work responsibilities do. The beginning of this school year had seen the first drastic change in this process since it had first begun with Kyouka’s addition to Kouyou’s life, that being the introduction of a new school and new parking lot. In the months since, there have been more dramatic shifts and memorable twists than there ever had in the preceding two years. Kouyou isn’t quite grateful for that, considering how negative more than one of those memories is, but the sense of progress is still ostensibly laudable.

The majority of days are still not of particular note. Q’s occasional presence is even growing routine by now, as is seeing Kyouka more relaxed and easygoing, although Kouyou could stand to see less of one and more of the other. Yet every now and then, something in the very air feels different.

Today, Kouyou imagines it to be the result of this being the last day of school before Kyouka’s two-week winter break. Kyouka had expressed some excitement about it throughout the month, namely at their recent conference with Oda, but a more significant percentage of the positive emotions stems, Kouyou would estimate, from herself.

It’s nearing the end of December, so the sky is already well on its way to pitch black. Four months ago, it would still be as bright out as it had at noon at this time, but that, Kouyou supposes, is the nature of the seasons. Snow had been promised in the upcoming days; if Kouyou had not read this herself, she would have soon found out from the sharp, quietly thrilled way Kyouka had mentioned it over breakfast more than once. It doesn’t seem cold nor wet enough for it yet, the standard summer storms having vanished over the course of autumn, but Kouyou has some confidence it will happen before the new year arrives. If nothing else, she’ll unearth some way to alter the very weather herself for the sake of Kyouka’s enjoyment.

Things have not yet come to that, however, and so Kouyou watches the cloudy but precipitation-less sky with only a neutral gaze, attention shifting at regular intervals between it and her phone. It is not out of impatience or boredom, per se, but it does begin to border on that as time passes.

Her fingers tap, idle, against the back of her phone. In the front seat, Kasa is humming under her breath, the only other sound at present. If Kouyou paid enough attention, she would likely be able to identify the melody, just from the vast library of music years of having Kasa as a driver have brought into her life, but any potential interest she has is always dispersed before long.

Noise in the distance, voices and footsteps, brings Kouyou out of her mild slouch into an upright position. Her phone is powered down and tucked into her sleeve within a matter of seconds, and her now freed hands come to settle in her lap, one poised over the other. Kasa makes a tutting sound that might be a laugh, but it goes ignored.

Kouyou watches through the window as the distant shapes become more visible. She does a headcount of the approaching figures—and pauses when there is one more than she had anticipated. She watches, waiting for the blonde head to break off from the other two, but he persists all the way to the car, and when the door on the other side opens it is both shocking and not at all so to see Kenji, smile as broad as ever, standing behind Kyouka and Q.

“Hi, Kouyou-san,” is his cheerful greeting, accompanied with a subdued but still open wave. “I hope I’m not intruding, but Kyouka-chan said it was okay if I rode home with you guys today. Oh,” he adds, noticing Kasa, “and it’s nice to meet you, onee-san! I’m Kenji, one of Kyouka-chan’s friends. I go to school with her and Q-kun.”

“He’s a year ahead of us,” adds Q. Kyouka looks rather indifferent on the whole matter, but her eyes are fixed on Kouyou.

Kasa, whose hair is fully silver and whose smile lines are quite prominent, does a clear double-take at Kenji’s choice of honorific, but she seems to take it in stride. “A pleasure, Kenji-sama,” she returns, smile just as wide. Her stare, too, settles on Kouyou in the rearview mirror.

Each look expresses something altogether different: Kyouka’s is, on the surface, neutral, but there is some degree of imploring and insistence beneath it. Kasa’s is also impassive enough, but there’s curiosity in the minute arch of her eyebrow, a request for permission. Q mostly seems bored, although there’s an ease to their shoulders that Kouyou assumes is due to the approaching break from school. Kenji is either oblivious to any friction or blissfully overlooking it in favor of maintaining his pleasant, upbeat bearing.

Kouyou’s thoughts drift between extremes until, at last, she sighs and reaches for her door. “It is no intrusion at all,” she says, although in several ways it, in fact, is. Lying through a smile is nothing new to Kouyou, though, and so she manages it as she swings her legs out in a smooth, graceful motion and stands. With a slow but steady pace, she makes her way around to the passenger door. “Your home and Q-kun’s are not that far apart, if I recall correctly. It ought to only be a short detour.”

Kenji beams as though she’s just handed him the keys to the car outright. “Thank you, Kouyou-san,” he says, watching her with sparkling eyes as she passes the three of them, patting Kyouka’s shoulder as she walks by. “I really appreciate it! You’re a really kind and thoughtful person. I’m glad you and Kyouka-chan have each other as a mother and daughter.”

Though Kouyou’s face feels neutral and blank at worst, she’s exceedingly grateful she’s just turned her back to him, with how her fingers halt on the door handle. She doesn’t acknowledge the statement with more than a noncommittal hum, nor does she glance back as she tugs the door open and slips inside.

It doesn’t take long for the children to take the clue. Used to this routine by now, Q wastes no time in tossing their bag into the backseat and sliding in after it, settling in the middle with it between their ankles. Kyouka, faint smile obvious in the rearview mirror, takes up Kouyou’s former seat, and Kenji slips into the last place on Q’s other side without complaint.

No one else raises an outright protest about the seating arrangements, but Q does wonder: “Hey, Kouyou-san, you have a driver, so why don’t you have a big limo or anything?” Though Kouyou doubts it’s altogether intended as a jibe, the wide, innocuous way their eyes pierce into the side of her face has her grimacing and setting her jaw in an attempt to not respond in the way she would to someone else. “Like, with seats all the way around—” they spread their hands “—and a partition between the back and front and everything. That would be way cooler.”

Not glancing at either Kyouka or Kasa, Kouyou inclines her head. “A certain level of conspicuousness is unwise.” Q quirks their head, and Kenji blinks innocently. She suppresses a sigh. “Think of it this way. Were you to see a large, grand limousine driving in the middle of the city, would you not take notice of it?”

“Well, yeah,” says Q. At Kasa’s throat clear, they hurriedly strap themself in, the last one to do so.

Kouyou waits for Kasa to ask for Kenji’s address and Kenji to provide it before speaking up again, regardless of Q’s impatient staring. “And as for a car like this? Would you pay particular attention to it were you to see it out and about?”

That takes Q a few seconds longer to answer. Their eyes wander around the car—its comfortable but simplistic interior, its average size, its halfway-tinted windows, what can be seen of its dark and minimalistic exterior. “Not really,” they say at last, frowning. “I don’t think I could recognize it out here if I was walking without Kyouka-chan.”

“Precisely. Attention is occasionally valuable, but I would prefer not to bring it undue.”

They tilt their head farther to the side, angle as close to ninety degrees as they are capable of. Then realization seems to strike, and they startle upright. “Because of your super secret job that lets Kyouka-chan have a driver and bodyguards and stuff, right?”

It is not so much a privilege as a security method, but Kouyou neglects to point this out. “Something like that,” she agrees, at last letting her eyes wander to Kyouka’s reflection. At some point during this conversation, Kyouka had pulled her notebook out of her backpack and is now writing something down, though probably not homework. As they start out of the parking lot, she clutches it to her chest to avoid dropping it at a sharp bump.

“I guess that makes sense,” says Q, with the shrewd and dismissive air of a child who thinks their intelligence outweighs that of the adult they’re interacting with, but who is perhaps vindicated in it by being too intelligent to say as much aloud. “What do you do, anyway? You still haven’t told me, and Kyouka-chan hasn’t either.”

“It is not hers to say,” says Kouyou lightly.

“Kouyou-san’s brother is a secret agent,” volunteers Kenji, eyes shining. Kouyou’s brow twitches, unable to place where he would have come to believe this, until he adds: “He told me at Sports Day. Maybe she’s one too?” He looks at Kouyou as though it doesn’t altogether matter to him what the true answer is, so long as the potential is there.

“Kouyou-san is too mean to be a secret agent,” Q says, dubious, their arms crossed in a petulant way across her chest.

“Perhaps that is my cover.” Kouyou turns her head just enough to fix them with a cool stare. “But you shan’t find out no matter how obnoxiously you ask, so it is only doing yourself a favor to refrain.”

Q huffs, lips pursed in a dramatic pout, but they don’t push it. Something else catches their attention: Kyouka, ignoring or just not participating in this discussion, head lowered toward her notebook. They gasp, aghast—and loud, enough so that even Kasa blinks.

“Kyouka-chan,” they say, accusatory and offended, and her shoulders draw upward. Kouyou’s eyes narrow, jaw poising to intervene. Q’s expression twists into something more cartoonish, though, and when they demand, “Winter break just started! Why are you doing homework!” a significant amount of Kyouka’s tension lowers.

“Kyouka-chan is really hard-working,” says Kenji, somewhere between awe and plain praise. Kouyou can almost see the lackadaisical flowers spinning around his face.

Kyouka grips her pencil a little tighter and lowers her head a little more, but her lips are curving up at the very ends. “I’m drawing.” She slides the notebook a few centimeters to the side, allowing Q and, if he cranes his neck enough, Kenji to watch. “I will probably start on assignments in a few days, though.”

“So weird,” declares Q, nose scrunched, but they fall silent as they observe her sketching, chin propped on their hands.

Letting whatever conversations break out from there taper into background noise, though her ears stay trained for any potential conflict, Kouyou shifts her gaze toward the front window. She’ll have to return to work for an hour or two after dinner, and the unexpected third guest had set her a bit off-kilter, so she doesn’t propose showing Kenji the crepes stand Kyouka has taken such a shine to. Perhaps another time, when Kouyou is feeling more lenient and can spare more than a few half-hours.

In the meantime, she gets her phone out again. The increased privacy of the front seat, Kouyou will allow, has its benefits. With Q’s more frequent appearances over the past couple of months, she’s grown warier about checking her phone when seated in the same area as them (a concern she lacks altogether when Kyouka is the only other passenger, though she still doesn’t often pull her phone out again with her in the car, preferring to make conversation where she can or otherwise enjoy the contemplative, companionable silence between them), but the distance and physical barrier of the seat as well as their current distraction soothe any instinctive lingering twitches.

With the white noise of the children talking in the backseat and low music on the radio running behind her, Kouyou skims through the messages she’d missed earlier. Kasa’s driving is as smooth as ever, calm and assured, and Kouyou spares her only the occasional subconscious side glance.

As she’s mentally composing a short response to a forwarded report, Kouyou lifts her head at the sound of soft laughter. It takes a heartbeat for her to place it as Kyouka’s, and then any focus she had given to work is scattered just like that.

Kyouka laughing is not too rare a sound anymore, but neither is it too commonplace, let alone in mixed company like this—and neither has its value been impacted in the slightest. It is, indeed, as precious and warming a sound as it was the first time it graced Kouyou’s ears.

Kouyou’s eyes dart up to again settle on her reflection. Kyouka’s smile is small but bright, her eyes crinkled with the force of it, her hand curled in a limp, halfhearted way toward her mouth, only grazing the very corner of it. To the side, Q and Kenji are both grinning as well, whatever has cheered Kyouka so carrying well over to the two of them.

For a split second, she meets Kouyou’s stare in the mirror. Her smile dims a tiny bit, reflexive more than anything, and then widens again, cautious but no less joyous.

Kouyou smiles back, and turns her head toward the window for the remainder of the drive.

*

The television drones on, glowing against the slowly darkening living room and illuminating its occupants’ faces with that same flickering light. On screen, a boxing match melts into a teary scene in the middle of an episode of drama, stripped of all the context that would give it its emotional impact, which then becomes a news program in the midst of explaining a complex political situation in the United Kingdom, which turns into a rerun of Takeshi’s Castle.

This episode has also been running for too long to discern anything about it besides what is immediately apparent to the eye, but that doesn’t stop Yosano from at last lowering the remote. One leg comes up to fold over the other, brushing Kouyou’s in the process, and she relaxes against the back of the couch.

Seated on the floor in front of them, having dismissed any offers to claim the center of the couch, Kyouka doesn’t lift her head at the change in programs. Her eyes might raise, but at the current angle, Kouyou can’t tell as much. Her hand doesn’t cease in its idle sketching either, continuing to move uninterrupted around the notebook open on the coffee table.

After a surprisingly uneventful afternoon, the evening is starting to set in, warm and quiet and subtle. For all the weight Christmas Eve carries with it, the day has felt and still feels altogether ordinary, and this scene imprints it as even more so, even if it is one Kouyou has occupied only a handful of times before, and never with the exact circumstances before her now.

So, she thinks with an idle glance at Yosano, suppressing a smile at the brightness of her face, not even a year in, and our relationship has plateaued.

It is not as negative a thought as the phrasing makes it sound. There are few ways Kouyou would rather spend this evening, and most are only appealing in theory, losing it when she considers how unrealistic and tedious many would be. Stabilization and normalcy starting to take root in this relationship, really, is something to celebrate—even if it also sparks the usual deep-rooted unease within Kouyou when she considers her complaisance and even encouragement in such a process. For now, she lets it settle, neither shying away from that lurking discomfort nor choosing to address it now. Later, it can consume her thoughts; for now, it hasn’t much of a place in the moment.

Atsushi, after Kouyou and Yosano had returned from lunch, had too been invited to stay, but he had declined on behalf of having to take care of some things for school. “Technically, I won’t be helping Dazai-san until next year,” he’d said, “but I should probably get used to doing things over break. And I don’t wanna intrude on you guys on Christmas, anyway.”

Kouyou had pointed out that it wouldn’t have been an intrusion, but his schoolwork and general work had been too strong a call to accept. It isn’t a particular regret to Kouyou, but neither is it a complete relief. She’d not have minded his presence, really, which is perhaps the most positive thing she could bring herself to express in this regard. (Not that she had, of course, expressed it to him.)

Either way, the comfortable serenity the three of them have fallen into is pleasant, interrupted as it may be by the sounds of heavy impacts and contestants’ anguish. Sitting watching a decades-old game show with one’s daughter and girlfriend is far from the way most people in relationships would enjoy spending Christmas, Kouyou imagines, but, as is an oft-established fact, she doesn’t qualify as most people. She’s not young nor sentimental enough to be interested in extravagant, overly romantic dates. There’s little purpose in it, anyway, with someone who has, in quite the literal sense, stitched up her wounds and brought her back from the verge of death, no matter how long they’ve known each other. So as far as she’s concerned, this is more than acceptable.

Kouyou’s thoughts—and by extension, the steady silence in the room—are interrupted by the buzz of her phone. For a split second, all she does is tense—and then she clicks her tongue.

She considers not checking it, but the passing concern that it could be work-related or otherwise important nags at her within seconds. Paying little heed to either Kyouka or Yosano’s reactions, she pulls it out. The lines of confusion beside her mouth only deepen when she sees the short, single message on her screen: hungry​?

Out of all of her contacts, it is the number she would most expect such an impromptu, incomprehensible text from, but it doesn’t make the current context any clearer, and it gives way to irritation far faster than it would from anyone else. What, she sends back.

For several seconds it hovers there with no response or so much as a hint of one. Kouyou must be scowling—by sheer reflex—hard enough to notice, because Yosano asks, “Something wrong?”

“Oh, the usual headache,” she says, and wearily types out, Not excruciatingly so, but I had begun considering dinner. Why do you ask?

She hopes he can somehow hear the emphasis on why there and the several omitted expletives, since she can’t portray passive-aggressiveness as well over text as she would in real life. Still, it takes only a few seconds for a reply to pop up: good, we come bearing chicken!

It takes even fewer seconds, such a short interim of time that Kouyou barely has time to so much as read (let alone process) that, before the doorbell rings. With the sound, Kouyou’s headache jumps from a faint prickle to a full-blown throbbing brand.

Kyouka looks up for the first time in at least an hour, blinking in the direction of the front door. Before either she or Yosano can question it aloud, Kouyou drops her phone with all the force of a piece of delicate porcelain she wants to obliterate, rises, and strides toward the door. She hears the television pause behind her, but she spares it few thoughts as she continues in her path.

When she opens the door, two faces greet her: One looking immensely tired, and the other looking immensely gleeful. Kouyou’s arms fold, a stark contrast to Dazai’s lax posture, hands in his pockets and shoulders slack.

He, of course, doesn’t so much as blink, let alone react to any degree of fear or intimidation. Instead, he raises a sickly sweet smile up at her. “Merry Christmas.”

Kouyou’s glower intensifies, then lets up as she, without a word, turns her gaze onto Chuuya. “I take it this was not your idea,” she tells him, eyeing the three bags split between his hands.

“God no,” he says immediately.

“Yet you still allowed yourself to become an accomplice,” Kouyou finishes, raising a sharp eyebrow, and she smiles at his automatic grimace. Still, she sighs and shifts aside to allow them both in. “It does save me the trouble of cooking, I suppose, although I might question your choice of eating establishment.”

“It’s traditional, ane-san,” says Dazai, blithe, taking the opportunity to slip in as soon as it presents itself. He eyes the pair of flats tucked in among Kouyou’s boots and Kyouka’s loafers by the step but opts not to say anything about them, which doesn’t put Kouyou as at ease as it ought to. “There’s enough for five, probably,” is the closest he gets, turning his head just barely to glance at the bags in Chuuya’s hands.

“You are not getting off of that thin ice until I taste the food,” says Kouyou, not relaxing her glare the slightest bit. She does take one bag from Chuuya, though, so he can better divest himself of his coat and shoes, and smiles at his brief thanks. It drops as she glares back at Dazai. “Or rather, until Kyouka does.”

Dazai salutes her with a bored “Sure, sure,” but she’s turning her back and sweeping into the kitchen before the syllables have even left his mouth.

Yosano rises to exchange greetings; Kyouka reserves hers to a simple nod before joining Kouyou in inspecting the food. Chicken doesn’t appeal to her as much as some things, Kouyou knows, but the time and special nature of the day bring about just as much light in her eyes as though a truck loaded with yudofu had shown up at the house.

Any ire is swallowed and channeled into energy to set the table and dole out their food. There really is more than enough for all five of them, an abundance of side dishes alongside the standard large buckets of fried chicken, and were it not for the appetites of several of those present Kouyou would even worry about it being too much. If there does end up being anything not licked clean, she reasons, she’ll either send it home with Chuuya and Dazai or be forced by Kyouka’s stare into accepting it as leftovers for them.

Even without that stare on her now, Kouyou teeters on the edge of setting that preemptive condition. She chooses not to, on behalf of the fact that she isn’t even sure yet whether there will be leftovers, nor whether Kyouka will be that interested in them. She does eye one of the cakes, but a simple, “After dinner,” from Kouyou is enough to avert her attention, save from an occasional longing side look.

She settles down at the table without fuss, though, as does everyone else. For a few minutes, things are blissfully quiet, the scuffle over utensils and food intense enough that no one altogether wishes to waste time speaking, or at least at length. The tone that takes over the silence isn’t quite the same as the one that had been present earlier, but things are pleasant all the same, teetering between the chaos that had threatened to spill over mere moments earlier and a more measured, less natural sense of calm. Outright tranquility is far out of reach, but an artificial version of it hangs about as an option, at least.

And then, of course, it is broken by a single comment: “Say, Yosano-sensei, have you been kidnapped yet?”

It’s thrown out with as much ease as a casual note about the weather or someone’s wardrobe might have been, even accompanied with a calm smile, and yet it instantly provokes a reaction from everyone at the table. Chuuya almost chokes in his haste to turn his head and glare. Kouyou’s fingers tense in a similar manner. While the majority of Kyouka’s focus is and remains devoted to her meal, her eyes dart up before lowering.

Yosano, meanwhile, only arches her eyebrows. “Should I have been?” she says mildly, ignoring the way both Kouyou and Chuuya look at her with silent pleas not to encourage the question.

Dazai’s smile widens for a split second, then dims to something less glaringly smug. “Well, you and ane-san have been dating for, what, six months now? And you haven’t been all that secretive about it. So it’s bound to happen at some point. It’s surprising that it hasn’t already, really.” He shakes his head. “You should start preparing for it.”

“Dazai is a statistical outlier, so far as kidnapping attempts go,” says Kouyou, giving Yosano, who is merely blinking in slight interest, a dark side look. She narrows her eyes back at Dazai. “And in many other regards as well. But crucially, he has been subject to far more kidnappings than any living human being ought to prepare for.”

“The first time is always the worst,” says Dazai, essentially ignoring her. “And not even because of the kidnappers themselves. I was hogtied and thrown in the back of a black van for ransom, and when they called Chuuya to tell him as much he told them they could keep me.”

Yosano lets out a startled bark of laughter, and Kyouka, who Kouyou doesn’t think has heard this story in so much detail before, presses her eyebrows together for the shortest of seconds. Kouyou’s until-now-receded headache swells back into full force, but she can’t fight a slight smirk at Dazai’s affronted expression, no matter how fake it is.

Chuuya’s eye twitches. “Fuck off, that turned out fine. We showed up two hours later and you’d somehow talked the guys into shooting each other.”

“Yeah, but I got shot too, so it still sucked.”

“You were grazed, and incredibly lightly at that,” cuts in Kouyou, scowling. Her memory of the scene isn’t quite as strong as she expects either of theirs are, but she does recall the subsequent two weeks. Chuuya, mouth already open to say as much himself—though, she imagines, in cruder terms—gestures at her in emphasis and agreement. “You didn’t even require proper treatment for it.”

“It still hurt, though,” says Dazai with distaste.

Chuuya takes in a breath that sounds like it’s meant to be calming but instead bleeds with aggravation. “You’ve literally actually been shot. More than once. There’s no fucking way that stuck with you more than anything else.”

“Pain is pain.” Dazai shrugs.

The self-restraint it takes Kouyou and Chuuya not to prolong this conversation for the sole purpose of continuing to berate Dazai is palpable; Kouyou has to relax her fingers from the fist they’ve curled halfway into, and Chuuya lets out another irate exhale. Yosano, watching them, snorts.

“The odds that you will be kidnapped as a result of your relationship with me, let alone at this point in time,” Kouyou tells her, just to settle things, “are incredibly low. Exponentially more so than the probability Dazai sits at on an average day, at any rate.”

“I really can’t imagine why,” says Dazai, fingers linked under his chin.

Chuuya starts laughing, out of surprise more than anything, then presses a hand to his forehead, rubbing at what must be a twin headache to Kouyou’s. Though Kyouka’s head is already bent well forward, she ducks it lower. Any other time Kouyou would chastise her for such manners, but she does respect her ability to remain the most composed and kindest person at this table, even if Dazai is not deserving of that mercy.

“Would you like me to list the potential reasons?” says Kouyou, smile a veritable dagger.

“Your chicken would go cold before you could finish,” says Chuuya, shaking his head.

“How hurtful,” says Dazai, not expressing hurt in any other way whatsoever. With a sigh, he sits back. “Someone probably would have to be really stupid to fuck with ane-san that much. There’s only been one kidnapping attempt on Kyouka-chan, and I’m sure everyone saw how poorly that ended.” Kouyou’s jaw sets at the reminder, a memory pushed far back into her mind that she opts not to acknowledge it except in the very darkest of times. “…but still,” he amends, “people can be pretty stupid, so you should probably brace yourself for it anyway.”

“I’ll be careful,” says Yosano, absent but earnest. “Kouyou did warn me when we first got together, and there is a reason I always have a knife on me.”

“Very practical,” says Dazai, pragmatic. Kouyou considers bringing up the gun he often if not always has on him, but somehow she suspects it would backfire on her, and he’s already moving on with little fanfare, turning to ask Kyouka about her grades.

As the conversation tapers out into something more reasonable and manageable, requiring less intervention, Kouyou’s unbidden tension starts to subside. She refrains from speaking, mostly, unless addressed or otherwise prompted. Some degree of silence slips back in over them all, relaxing in a more genuine way now that any sort of conflict has been for the most part ramped over.

It is far from the most ideal way to spend Christmas, but then, Kouyou’s somewhat certain she’s never spent it in an ideal sense, at least by her definition of the term. The closest she’s gotten, perhaps, had been childhood days too far back in her memory to recall in detail now. The past two years, or perhaps a span of time over a decade back, had gotten nearer as well, as had the stretch of the day before Dazai had texted, but with the holiday’s connotations, it’s never been all that important to Kouyou to begin with.

To sit here with many of those for whom she has come to care most, however unwilling she would be to say as much to at least one of them, enjoying a meal and each other’s company, then—this, Kouyou decides, is enough.

“What’s with that smile on your face, ane-san?” asks Dazai, staring blatantly at her across the table, eyes narrowed and smile curved as though he already knows the answer.

“Eat your biscuit,” Kouyou says, but she’s unable to back it with the scowl she wants to.

*

Two days have passed since Christmas Eve, but the holiday spirit continues to hang in the air. Perhaps this is due to the short time left until New Year’s follows. Perhaps it’s only due to the weather, a near-blizzard that had prompted Kouyou to leave work early in the afternoon lest she be stuck in it by evening; although it has ceased by now, it has left its mark behind in the sheer amount of snow still clinging to any possible surface.

As she sits mere meters away from Kyouka, crouched above the ground and intently staring down with a type of determination and focus Kouyou has seen on very few of her men, Kouyou cares not about the cause, only that it remains. There is a definite chill in the air, enough to stir worry that the snow will pick up again. Kouyou is indifferent to the cold; Kyouka, too, seems unconcerned, either wrapped up or fixated enough that it doesn’t matter.

Kouyou is inclined toward the former, though that may only be due to how bundled up she is. Fluffy earmuffs frame her head, and her hair is back in a simple thick braid rather than her usual cute, sleek ponytails. The long coats (plural) she’s wrapped in brush the ground. Her scarf obscures a significant portion of her face; a pale, rosy pink is dusted across the span of skin that is visible. Gloved hands hover on either side of the ball she’s clustered the snow together to form, molding it with the utmost care and reverence, one palm coming to run along the side as she begins to apply the finishing touches—

Beside her, Atsushi sneezes, loud and violent. Her concentration visibly shatters. Kouyou coughs into her sleeve at the way Kyouka whirls on Atsushi, expression disgruntled at best and enraged at worst.

“I—I’m sorry, Kyouka-chan,” Atsushi gets out through chattering teeth, covered in almost as many layers as Kyouka but not doing as well as she has been. A quick transformation would likely solve any such problems, but the idea either hasn’t occurred to him or isn’t worth it. “I just—achoo!” He turns his face into his elbow just in time to catch the second sneeze. When he’s shaken out the aftereffects, he starts to turn his face away to keep talking, but yet another sneeze has him snapping his head back around.

Kyouka, without straightening from her squat, shuffles to move to the other side of her half-formed snow hare. Her scarf is still covering her mouth, but from only the look in her eyes, Kouyou can picture the disdainful frown it’s set in.

Atsushi sneezes one final time. The sound echoes for several seconds, and he waits, frozen in place, for almost a full minute before he lowers his arm. A violent shudder racks his frame. “I’m sorry,” he says again, raising his hands and adjusting his posture. He’s been attempting to copy Kyouka’s crouch, but he’s less flexible and less capable of holding such a position for an extended period of time, so he’s almost fallen face-first into the snow multiple times. “It’s just really cold, and my socks are soaked, and—well, anyway, keep going! It looks really good so far!”

In silence, Kyouka looks between him and the in-progress form she’s making out of snow. She gives Atsushi one more glance before focusing back in on her progress, rounding and leveling it out more.

Though he’s smiling, Atsushi continues to shiver. He rubs at his arms through his sleeves, teetering back and forth on his heels as much as he can in his current position.

“I did offer you tea, lad,” calls Kouyou from the engawa, her cup warm between her gloved hands. She takes a pointed sip and arches an eyebrow at him. “That offer stands.”

He casts a longing stare toward the tray set before her but shakes his head, vehement. “I’ll be okay for now,” he says, scratching at his ears beneath the knit beanie he’s thrown over his hair, side fringe remaining loose against his cheek. “I’ll have some later.”

“There will not be any to have later, if you persist in this fashion.” Kouyou raises the pitcher in demonstration, letting the sound of the limited amount of tea within sloshing carry across the distance. Atsushi’s resolve wobbles, as do his features, and she sighs and gestures to the clear space before her. “Come, Atsushi-kun. You will have just as decent a view and just as many opportunities to provide feedback from here.”

Atsushi looks tentatively at Kyouka. She’s again too focused to spare him even a single askance glance; after a moment of watching her with no reaction, he sighs and sways to his feet. The process is interrupted by one final sneeze—he pinches his nose shut to catch it this time and seems to regret it, from how his eyes bulge, but the squeaky, muffled achoo! doesn’t disturb Kyouka, so that provides some relief to both him and Kouyou. He drops his hand and makes his way toward Kouyou. Though the crunch of his boots does earn him a side glance, by the time he collapses onto the edge of the engawa, Kyouka seems emboldened by the lost proximity.

Kouyou pours another cup, one of the three she’d brought, and passes it to him. “Was that so difficult? And must I remind you,” she adds when he immediately raises the cup to his mouth, “that burns are as dangerous as frostbite?”

Steam billowing out around his face, almost obscuring it from view, Atsushi winces and lowers his hands to chest-level. “Sorry,” he says meekly, as though he’d forced her to ingest too-hot tea rather than attempted to drink it himself. “It just felt good, since it’s so cold out.”

“Yes, as you have established.” Kouyou sips her tea, already having had ample chance to cool. She pours herself a little more. Regardless of her threats, she’d never have drained what she had made alone, and even if she had managed it, the most time she would need to prepare more would be a few minutes. “Worry not; the temperature shan’t be a problem much longer. As soon as Kyouka is finished,” she says, waiting for it to settle in the cup, “we will take a break indoors.”

Atsushi blinks, looking excited for half a second before tempering it. Inhuman claws curl into his cup before shrinking. “Well, it’s not that bad.”

Says the person who is clearly the most impacted by it. Although that, Kouyou supposes, is why he’s saying so. Still, she huffs, breath rippling across the surface of her tea. “Relax, boy, it is not only for your sake. And even if it were, it would still be a worthwhile endeavor.” His eyes widen, but she leaves little time for the potential expression of care to sink in, let alone be addressed. “Dinner soon approaches, and I already intended to prepare a decent amount of soup.”

“Oh, that sounds great.” The words are absent but earnest, a smile stretching across Atsushi’s face. “And I’m sure Kyouka-chan will think so too,” he adds with a glance toward her; his smile widens when he sees her paying their conversation no heed at all. As he turns back toward Kouyou, his chin dips. “Thank you, Kouyou-san.”

Her first response is a simple hmm. Eyes wandering about their surroundings, she then says, “Allowing one of Kyouka’s closest friends to perish of cold in my backyard would be a poor note to face the year’s end with, I believe.”

Atsushi laughs—nervous, like he’s not sure how much of a joke the comment is—and deems his tea cool enough to take a quick gulp. The expression that bursts forth says he regrets it, and he frees one hand from the side of the cup to curl over his mouth as he takes the great effort to swallow. The hand drops to his throat when he manages it, rubbing and soothing. A ragged gasp escapes him.

“I did warn you, boy,” Kouyou says evenly.

“I know, I know,” Atsushi grumbles. It can’t have hurt him too badly, then; for all his exaggerated reactions, his pain tolerance is on par with hers, if it does not surpass hers altogether on behalf of the tiger’s attributes. “It’s really good, though. Just really hot.”

Kouyou acknowledges this with little more than another hum, busy watching Kyouka as she perfects the form before her. Any other onlooker would say it needed no extra work, but Kyouka’s perfectionism and drive in such matters knows no bounds, and so she keeps evening out the sides and smoothing out the curve of the back, hands moving with nimble efficiency.

It takes but several more minutes, however, for Kyouka to sit back and lift her head, attention shifting rapidly and intensely to Kouyou. Without a moment’s hesitation, Kouyou sets her tea down and rises.

As she descends into the garden proper, careful to avoid the grime the snow has brought with it, Kouyou pulls free two thin leaves and two small red berries. She pauses for a second, then presses them into the palm Kyouka has extended. Kyouka smiles briefly, scarf slipping enough to make it visible, and nods in gratitude; without pause, she gets back to work. Kouyou backs away but doesn’t yet regain her seat, confident in the assumption that as soon as Kyouka finishes up—which oughtn’t be long now—coaxing her back inside will not take much exertion.

The feeling of eyes upon her has Kouyou turning back and identifying the source at once: Atsushi is watching her with his mouth agape and brows twitching. When she meets his gaze, he jumps, then manages to squeak out, “Kouyou-san, did you just… have that on you?”

“Of course.” Kouyou fixes him with an aghast look, eyebrows raised and head cocked. “Did you think I wouldn’t prepare for this?”

“Well,” says Atsushi, before seeming to decide that any answer would be an improper one. He takes three back-to-back sips from his tea, eyes purposefully averted.

“As I thought,” Kouyou says, feeling no sympathy when he almost chokes on his tea again. It at least seems to be somewhat cooler now, enough so to not sear his esophagus on contact, so there isn’t too much danger involved, only mild discomfort.

Smile even and placid, Kouyou twists her head back in time to watch Kyouka finish adjusting her latest tools. A flush is starting to spread through her cheeks, but whether the cold has finally gotten to her or it’s only due to excitement, Kouyou can’t quite tell. Fingers falling, Kyouka starts to sit back, does another double-take, and leans back in with a frown to tweak the position of the berries.

She stares at her work for another long moment. The set of her expression is stern and critical, aged well beyond her years—and yet, at the same time, it captures her youth in full.

At last, satisfied, she settles back and spreads her hands. “Done,” she declares, quiet but carrying throughout the entire backyard all the same.

Sitting before her is the loose shape of a white rabbit, cartoonish body formed of snow and leaves and berries arranged in the respective analogous structures of ears and eyes upon its ostensible head. It doesn’t look ready to hop to life, as with some of Kyouka’s sketches, but it is cute, and the labor that had gone into its creation is evident.

Kouyou lets her smile slacken, face glowing. “Fantastic work as usual, Kyouka.” Behind her, Atsushi—mouth too full to agree aloud—bobs his head, and the pink in Kyouka’s cheeks deepens. “Did you wish to take a picture?”

Immediately, Kyouka nods. Before Kouyou can offer her own phone, Kyouka tugs hers free of its neck chain. The charms dangling from it rattle as she bends forward again to get a decent angle. Her expression now is as intense as it has been throughout the rest of the process, taut with passion and focus.

Snow, like life itself, is ephemeral, for all the beauty and grace—or, on the contrary, cold and complications—it brings in the time it lasts. Within a few hours, and at least by mid-morning, it is probable that Kyouka’s snow sculpture will have melted along with the majority of the rest (and less well-utilized) covering their neighborhood. On behalf of that short lifespan, once Kouyou may have chastised such a pastime. What is the use, a small part of her thinks even now, of investing in things that will only fade into nothingness?

But the simple joy of creating and doing, she can recognize, is just as important as the finished product—perhaps more so, even. It won’t last, true, but that is all the more reason to bask in it now. And so long as Kyouka is wearing such light in her eyes, Kouyou is quite all right with sharing in that joy.

Albeit not out here, or at least not for much longer. After Kyouka leans back again and puts her phone away, Kouyou steps carefully around the snow rabbit and holds out a hand. Kyouka blinks up at her, gaze flickering between Kouyou’s face and her hand.

“It is growing late,” says Kouyou, “and temperatures are descending, so I thought we—” she gestures toward Atsushi “—might head inside now. Atsushi-kun may have burned his tongue, too.”

Kyouka’s eyes widen with concern, but Kouyou glances over her shoulder to find Atsushi hurrying to set his cup down to instead wave his hands about. “Kouyou-san is exaggerating—I’m okay, really.”

“Do you trust such an assurance from him?” says Kouyou, dry, and Kyouka stiffens, caught somewhere between her instinctive faith in Atsushi and the truth of this sentiment, even in the face of Atsushi’s indignant squawk. Kouyou spreads her palm. “At any rate, his burdens shall surely be eased by the heating system, not to mention a few bowls of miso soup and a warm platter of… curry rice, perhaps?”

Kyouka’s focus narrows back in on her. “With gyoza?”

“If you wish it, then of course.”

“Wait, wait,” cuts in Atsushi, even as Kyouka’s face twitches toward a smile. “Can I look at what you made first, Kyouka-chan?”

He slides to his feet without waiting for an answer, but Kyouka is nodding anyway. He trots over with his hands in his pockets and arms bent in; he teeters close enough that Kouyou holds out her other arm, seatbelt-like in its collision with his chest, to prevent him from trampling over the snow rabbit, earning her an affronted frown. His offense doesn’t last long, though, because after ten seconds he’s crouching opposite Kyouka.

“Oh, it’s so cute!” His smile ever growing, Atsushi reaches out a hand as if to trace the rabbit’s side. Kyouka tenses, but his hand only hovers around it, not coming into direct contact with the molded snow. “You did a really nice job, Kyouka-chan,” he says, turning to her. “You got pictures, right?”

Kyouka dips her head in confirmation and gratitude alike, then takes Kouyou’s still-outstretched hand and lets herself be pulled to her feet. “It’s cold,” she echoes in a plain, mild voice that suggests either she isn’t expressing the extent of her chills or she’s more compelled by the promise of food. Her eyes dart up toward Atsushi. “Let’s go. I can send you the picture.”

“Oh, thank you! I would really like that, actually.” Atsushi follows in her lead by standing as well, adjusting his coat as he does. “Let’s go,” he repeats, smiling at Kouyou.

Kouyou returns it, then turns to guide both him and Kyouka inside.

*

“All right,” announces a voice, and several heads snap up as Tachihara, shoulders aloft and face lit with triumph, steps back into the room. The bottles in his grasp rattle and clang together, a disconcerting sound considering their fragility, but when they’re placed on the side table, it seems to be without harm. “Top-dollar sake and champagne for the more refined among us—” some contempt enters his tone, but a look from Kouyou evens it out “—and the least shitty beer I could find for the rest of us. What a haul, right?”

Poised with her hands in her lap and her back straight, exuding authority even seated and, to many an outsider, demure, Kouyou only reaches forward to inspect the sake. “Fine choices indeed,” she says, turning the well-made bottle over in her palms. When Chuuya holds out a hand, she passes it to him, watching in her peripheral vision as he pours for her and Hirotsu. “We shall see how they hold up.”

Tachihara grumbles, but he flops back onto the sofa he’d been taking up residence on a few minutes prior. Hirotsu slides closer to the edge on his side, casting Tachihara’s sprawling limbs a wary look. On the other couch, seated between the Akutagawa siblings, Higuchi shakes her head.

Under Gin’s look rather than hers, Tachihara jolts. “Oh, right,” he says, and chucks a vending-machine-quality bottle of water at Akutagawa’s chest.

Akutagawa jumps, startled and unprepared—before it can hit the floor, two dark spires shoot out from his coat and wrap, vine-like, around the bottle. The sound it produces—and the space the tendrils infringe on—make Higuchi grimace. Gin just closes her eyes. With slow, painstaking precision, Akutagawa pulls the somehow unharmed water bottle up to his chest and lets it drop into his hand, ability dissipating and dark, murderous eyes settling on Tachihara.

“Uh,” says Tachihara, laughing even as sweat starts dripping down his cheek. “Sorry. Your reflexes can always use testing, right? Don’t wanna get too rusty.”

Gin and Higuchi’s glares join Akutagawa’s. Hirotsu sighs as Akutagawa’s fingers dig into the bottle, grip hardening to the point that Kouyou would be worried about it bursting if she didn’t know Akutagawa’s personal level of physical strength. Tachihara’s hand settles at his waist.

“Knock it the hell off already,” Chuuya tells them, handing Kouyou her sake. “The boss just cleaned these floors. If you get blood on them, it’ll be your sorry asses scraping it off of the tile.”

Akutagawa’s features flex like he’s willing to accept that sacrifice, but with a scoff he turns his head away and uncaps the bottle. Tachihara throws his hands up in the air and gestures for Higuchi, shoulders dropping, to pour some beer for those partaking. Kouyou smiles, reinforcing the threat, and takes a sip of her sake.

For a few moments, the office is still, calm, even if it’s only playacting at true tranquility. The sunset’s glow shines through the shadeless windows, casting the entire office—save its deepest, darkest recesses—in soft, ardent hues. Despite the apparent warmth outside, a deep chill can be felt with the minutest of shifts. The actual temperature and the interactions and bearings of the room’s occupants have little to do with it—were Kouyou to guess, she would blame it on the simple presence of the room.

From the faded etchings of a young girl and scalpel imprints across the walls to the worn chairs set across the carpet to the assortment of old files and books kept in neat shelves behind Kouyou’s desk and chair—the only things, aside from the flooring and wallpaper, she’s replaced in over ten years—the room itself is a ghost, not to mention the numerous that inhabit it. Not ghosts of people, but of memories, feelings, scenes long since passed. Often, crossing the room’s length, Kouyou recalls tense, uncomfortable conversations with her previous bosses, the taste of cold tea and careful words stripped of emotion and tells thick on her tongue permeating the air. She can’t spend much time alone facing the Yokohama skyline; as stunning as the view may be, it provokes far too many thoughts of days of old. Tonight, she spares the meek, perspective-dwarfed skyscrapers, sprawling and glistening bay, and awakening Cosmo Clock 21 only the most absent of glances.

Even with all that lives within it, the room is also, in and of itself, a bit dry, occupying a perfunctory purpose and little more. On a normal day, Kouyou’s office is where she spends a significant portion of her time, if not the majority of it. It is formal and sterile, home to brief conversations and concise reports and filing of paperwork and, on occasion, tea—or, on the worst of days, liquor—breaks. The memories it evokes compose only part of the coolness within; the rest is down to function.

Today, however, it offers one of the only clandestine yet classy and easily accessible locations in which the top brass could begin welcoming in the new year. Cleaning and taking care of any remaining business had been Kouyou’s initial intention, but as more and more subordinates had trickled in, a reward had seemed more and more necessary, and drinks had been easy enough to get everyone to agree to.

And hence, here they sit, strewn about a husk of a room—but a clean husk, thanks to the work Kouyou had done and the aid the others had provided—with a celebratory air about them. For how infrequently others linger in this room, Kouyou had begun questioning the amount of furniture in it, but now the chairs and lounges are more than appreciated, in particular now that the coatings of dust have been scrubbed away.

Things are far from spotless, but they have been improved. Conscious of their contents’ sensitive nature, Kouyou hadn’t delved too deep into the shelves at the back of the room, and everyone else had steered clear of the area around her desk. She’ll return before long, she reasons, the milder weather and her schedule permitting, but for now she’s willing to leave them untouched. In the meantime, the windows have been cleared of internal dust, cobwebs have been swept from corners, and any non-permanent markings in the walls and floors have been smoothed over.

Nothing has been done to make the office any less of a graveyard of discussions and threats and orders, either, but it is now both presentable and as quiet and serene as possible. The hectic nature of the past several months is melting away, replaced by an air that isn’t quite companionable but is at least amiable.

Under the overarching ease and goodwill, discomfort, of course, lingers. The decor prioritizes appearance over comfort, which is all well and good when it’s not in use but now more of a hindrance, though any complaints the present users hold go unvoiced. Any complaints they have with each other, too, are soon resolved, as Akutagawa and Tachihara’s clash had shown, either through natural processes or by a tap of Kouyou’s heel, a snap of Chuuya’s fingers, or a clear of Hirotsu’s throat.

Although several things may have been sloughed off alongside the dust and grime, the sense of awareness as a whole remains. Gin’s mask is down and her expression pleasant as she chats with her brother and Higuchi, but her head never turns too far away from Kouyou. Higuchi hasn’t discarded the tension in her posture, and likely won’t until she’s downed at least three glasses. Tachihara is the most languid of them all, voice raised and one leg slung over the other, but even he’s quick to falter at a sharp look or pointed word, so long as it’s from one of his inarguable superiors. Even Chuuya and Hirotsu carry with them a certain inhibition.

But they’re all talking amongst themselves, animosity and introversion overlooked for the sake of a good drink and conversation. Relaxed from cleaning and the approach of the new year—and the addition of booze—alike, there is a greater comfort to all of their shoulders and faces than Kouyou would expect from this kind of situation, if only marginally so. It, in turn, puts her somewhat at ease.

Kouyou’s thoughts scatter as, for the second time in half an hour, Tachihara’s voice—or at least the sharp, echoing rap of his nail against the side of his glass—compels the attention of the room. “Hey,” he proposes, “let’s make a toast.”

All eyes shift from him to Kouyou, whose posture has instinctively tautened. She lets the silence taper out for a moment before lowering her chin. “All right,” she decides, sliding to her feet in a fluid motion.

Perhaps recognizing the inaccessibility of the distance between them all, the others are quick to copy her. Tachihara, looking half-surprised and half-relieved that she’d accepted without so much as a question, is the first to scramble upright; Akutagawa, sluggish and cautious in each movement, is the last.

“What is it we’re toasting to?” asks Hirotsu, mild with curiosity.

“Hey, don’t look at me.” Tachihara scratches his cheek with his free hand. “The new year, I guess?”

“Do you think anything through?” says Higuchi, as flat as her expression. Some irritation might still be lingering over Tachihara’s earlier stunt, but it might just be the result of her and Tachihara’s general relationship.

Tachihara, for one, scowls back. “It seemed like a nice idea, okay? We’re usually so wasted by the time the clock rolls over that we start toasting to anything and everything. What do sober people usually toast to?”

Higuchi opens her mouth to snap back, then seems to think about it and leans back, thoughtful. “Around New Year’s, my sister and I always toast to prosperity and fortune and that sort of thing in the upcoming year. Better luck with work and finances and relationships. We could do something like that. Like… to the work we’ve done this year, and the work we’ll do next year?” Her eyes dart to Kouyou, as if expecting her to shut down the idea. When Kouyou says nothing, she sighs in relief.

“Family,” puts in Gin. Akutagawa coughs in some middle ground between derision and agreement.

“To our health,” Hirotsu suggests dryly.

Smoothly, Kouyou synthesizes and surmounts these things: “To the Port Mafia.”

None raise an objection, and not only due to the sway she holds. Chuuya grins and nods outright, and Hirotsu’s mouth tugs into a slight smile. With a satisfied incline of his head, he raises his glass. The fading light of the sun glints off its transparent rim, the glare bouncing back off the windows.

“To the Port Mafia,” he repeats, a chant that is soon taken up by the rest of the room.

Their glasses—and Akutagawa’s bottle—meet in the middle, the clink filling the temporary silence and then fading out again. In a rare moment of harmony, they all sip.

Once he’s swallowed, Chuuya brings his glass back up. “To the boss,” he adds, which everyone is equally willing to cede to, even with Akutagawa’s fleeting embarrassment and Tachihara’s split-second conflict.

Kouyou smiles, more earnest than she altogether intends, and drains half of her cup in one swallow. “How flattering,” she says, light, the rim of it only far enough below her lips to allow her to speak. Weighing it in her hand, she raises it once more. “To fewer troublesome business partners, no matter through what processes, and assassination attempts.”

Again, they all drink. Multiple people grimace, some more obvious about it than others—Kouyou settles for a simple twitch of her mouth into something uglier and more violent, though it soon smooths out into a more easygoing smile. Silence picks back up, the calmness in it more genuine than it has ever felt within these walls.

One final toast, though, must be made, and it is only because the room is populated by those it is that Kouyou dares to make it. “To my daughter.”

“To Kyouka,” all agree, a variety of expressions upon their faces.

The room is, at long last, filled with warmth.

- apparently quite a bit of takeshi's castle was actually filmed in yokohama. this is not why i included the barest mention of it here but i thought that was fun. - i usually don't note things like this but it ended up coming up a lot and might not be common knowledge so, christmas in japan very much has romantic connotations and is a very popular date day. eating kfc on it is also a big tradition and has been since an ad campaign in the 70s lol. - snow rabbits/yukiusagi are a real thing! and very cute ;w; thanks for reading! see you next week! if you have time to spare, all thoughts are very appreciated~ twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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