the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 27 chapter cws: violence (including gun violence and other weapons), blood/injury, death/murder, kidnapping, grief, and light allusions to suicide/suicidal ideation. i guess there are also technically some manga spoilers, but not anything super recent, just (altered for this au) backstory stuff. my most sincere apologies for the delay, but enjoy!

Most days, riding in Kasa’s car is a quiet—if not outright silent—affair. Kasa is the type of person who will gladly make small talk if given the chance, and in fact seems to enjoy it as much as anyone can, but she also knows well to recognize who doesn’t, and Kouyou tends to be one of those people. Often, if the children are not in the backseat, the only sounds are from the radio and the movements of the car itself. The silence is out of comfort, more often than not, unburdened and calming.

Tonight, it is anything but. Instead, the quiet is omnipresent and almost suffocating. Tension fills the air, not chased away even by the subtle puffing of the heating system. None dare to give name to it, but the near-palpable oxygen levels—plus the tapping of Chuuya’s fingers against his thigh and the too-sharp way Kasa keeps turning corners—indicate it well enough. The radio isn’t even on at a low volume.

In another situation, Kouyou might have proposed it be turned back on. The murmurings of cheerful city pop or even dry meteorological and economic reports on a news channel might have offered some respite, or at least a means of distraction.

Now, though, she’s too busy making phone calls. If the behavior of the driver and other passenger isn’t enough to display the strained air inside the car, hers elucidates it, even if on the surface she looks no different than she would any other day. Her eyes only leave the back of Kasa’s seat to dart toward the windows to eye their surroundings, and even that is an instinctive, subconscious motion rather than anything more purposeful.

She places three terse calls in less than twice as many minutes. From the tone in her voice and the way she words things, all know not to prod too deeply as to the current predicament, and they agree to her clipped orders without an ounce of hesitation. Then, switching phones, she locates another contact and prepares for a very different call.

It goes straight to voicemail. Kouyou listens only as far as a reedy “Hi! This is Atsushi. If—” before clicking her tongue and twisting the phone aside. Out of battery again, she takes it, and she shakes her head, deciding to impart either him or Kyouka with a proper charger at all costs. It prompts a wry little smile from her; amid everything else happening now, it seems so small, and yet perhaps for that very reason, it seems as proper a motivator as any.

She scrolls back up to another contact and calls. To her relief, it rings, but the sound persists for several seconds, and she leans back, waiting.

Outside, it’s begun to rain, soft droplets falling against the windows. It’s not heavy enough—yet—to warrant turning on the windshield wiper, but Kasa’s hands lean preemptively in that direction, fingers straying from their perfect position on the wheel. Kouyou watches them appear and trickle down her window.

A click sounds. Kouyou’s shoulders straighten, and she says, “Kyouka?”

Silence; in the background, Kouyou can just make out the muffled static of the television and rustling that might be from a plastic bag. Takeout, perhaps—it is around that time. Putting aside the seeming fact that they are eating in the living room, Kouyou opts to take the lack of answer as one in and of itself and lets out a short breath.

“I’m afraid I likely haven’t much time,” she says, calculating in her mind the amount of time it will take to reach their destination, factoring in how many speed limits Kasa is willing to ignore, “so unfortunately, I must skip over pleasantries for the time being. A certain matter came up unexpectedly, so I am not yet sure when I will be returning home.”

This would be an easier conversation to have in person, with the undeniable knowledge of Kyouka’s attention on her in the form of her sharp, dark stare. Still, Kouyou can feel to some level whatever the auditory equivalent of that is. Beneath the gentle falling of the rain, she listens to the steady flow of Kyouka’s breathing.

“Okay,” says Kyouka, clearly coming to recognize the limitations of this method of communication too. From the weight of her voice, she understands just what Kouyou means by a certain matter. “What happened?”

“I’m… not certain how much I can share at this point in time, either.” Kouyou smooths her free hand over her temples. “All I can deign to express now is that it involves Yosano-sensei and a—colleague of mine.” She catches another several choice words in time, letting this slip out through a smile. “It is imperative that you not get involved, too. I have already requested that Ema-kun up the watch around the house tonight—I have no reason to suspect it will be targeted,” she adds, although she would jump to that conclusion faster than Kyouka, “but one can never be too careful. You and Atsushi-kun must stay safe at all costs.”

“Okay,” Kyouka says again. By her tone, Kouyou can picture well enough the stoic, resolute set of her expression, which must be prompting more than a few nervous looks from Atsushi. “Should we do anything?”

Kouyou closes her eyes, picturing the scene at home: Kyouka and Atsushi at opposite ends of the couch, watching some series or film as they pick their way through far too much take out for just two people, even two with remarkable appetites. The normalcy of it, in contrast with her current position, stings, but in the same way, it’s somehow grounding. She sighs; Chuuya’s eyes flit to her, then away again.

“Nothing except stay where you are,” she tells Kyouka. “This situation will be resolved as quickly as possible, if I have anything to say about it.” Not wholly consciously, she had been keeping her voice light and warm, but now some of that slips away, replaced with a harsh coldness that doesn’t come close to representing that she feels.

Kyouka inhales—not sharp or sudden, just natural and slow. “Okay,” she repeats, one last time. The rustling of fabric is faintly audible.

“That said—as I told you, I am not sure just how long that will take. If at all possible, I will text you when it is possible, but until then…” Kouyou trails off, uncertain just what to instruct Kyouka to do. She frowns, light, and quirks her head. “Behave, I suppose.”

The judgment of Kyouka’s stare is clear even through the phone; she’d be unsurprised if Kyouka had turned her head to project it straight at the screen. A chuckle, however muted, leaves her.

Kasa’s turns have grown sharper, and though she’s not looking around with any particular purpose, Kouyou can feel it in the heartbeat before the car comes to a halt. An intrinsic quickening of her pulse, a subconscious awareness of the roads they almost always follow here. Whatever it is, she isn’t surprised when their movements stop and the quiet rumble of the engine dies down.

Before Kasa can speak, Kouyou sighs and murmurs, “I believe we have arrived, so I must go now. I will speak to you later, Kyouka.”

Her words don’t contain a trickle of doubt. She will speak to Kyouka later—will return home and see her, at that—and when she does, it will be with good news to spare. She is promising as much to both Kyouka and herself. She starts to pull the phone away from her ear but doesn’t yet hang up, straining her ears for the movement of Kyouka’s hair in, she assumes, a nod.

“Good luck,” Kyouka tells her, the same firm, unrelenting confidence in her voice.

Kouyou smiles. “Thank you,” she says, starting to feel such assurance in earnest. She does not bid Kyouka farewell, conscious of the finality in it—instead, she breathes out once more, leaves it at that, and lowers the phone from her ear to hang up.

She holds it to her chest. Eyes closed, she inhales and then exhales, letting some degree of serenity sweep over her. If a non-insignificant portion of it is an act, then it is all for the better, she reasons—any sharper, more visible emotions have not yet been earned.

Composed, she turns the phone off and puts it away again. At Kasa’s quiet throat clear, she turns her head to look out the window, staring with contempt through the glass and subtle sheets of rain at the glow of the Jewel King’s sign. The street is lit in the hues of the sunset still, albeit dampened by the clouds that have picked up, making it seem far later and darker than it is. How fitting, Kouyou thinks with a dry twist of her mouth.

And then, reaching for her umbrella with one hand and the door with the other, she gathers her resolve and makes to stand.

*

The casino is dark and quiet, almost eerie in its current state, such a far cry from what would be expected of a building of its nature. Though the carpet dampens footsteps, they still ring out in the icy silence, the tapping of Kasa’s cane sharper than anything. Navigating carefully in the dark, aware of Chuuya and Kasa—the more support, the argument had been, the better—mere steps behind her, Kouyou moves forward, movements thoughtful but steady and unhesitant.

And then, all at once, the lights go up. The flash of light is unexpected, halting all three in their tracks—above, the fixtures beam down as harsh and sweat-inducingly as any spotlight to be used on a theater stage, though the floor beneath is nothing like the firm wood thereof. Kouyou’s parasol droops against her shoulder, its shade doing little to still her blinking.

Once her eyes have adjusted, they dart between the dark, offline machines and empty tables. She’s sure she’s been around the main area of the casino at some point, but her memories by now are long distant, so she may as well be perceiving the setting afresh. It, of course, is of little interest to her. What she’s really seeking out are the figures littered across the room, from those standing to the two seated, albeit meters apart and in quite different poses.

Multiple sets of eyes are fixed on Kouyou’s. Only one, however, narrowed and bright, holds her attention.

“Yosano-sensei,” she calls, ignoring any other presence altogether. She folds her umbrella, letting its tip rest against the ground. “Are you hurt?”

Yosano’s hair is, for perhaps only the third time since Kouyou met her, tousled, loose strands hanging into her face. With her hands tied behind her, looped around the back of the chair, she blows one wisp away from her mouth, revealing the unamused line it’s set into. “Why did you—” She groans and tips her head back. “A bit bruised. All superficial injuries. I’d love to show you all the nails I still have, but as you can see—” She wiggles her shoulders, drops them, and lets her torso sag with defeat. “I did tell you I could take care of this myself, didn’t I?”

Kouyou swallows laughter. There’s some relief in confirming the lack of fear in Yosano’s voice over the phone, even if there’s still the possibility that at least some of it is bravado, but she doesn’t intend to give the wrong impression. “It is not out of a lack of faith in you, believe me,” she says. Yosano straightens, however slightly. “Still… I would rather not leave things up to chance. And I think it is about time that I settled things with this asshole properly.”

Yosano’s features soften, but before she can open her mouth to speak again, a throat clears, and Kouyou turns back toward the less-than-impressed expression that awaits her in the center of the room. A cool mask falls into place; hands steady and shoulders broad, she lets not a single part of her shake or waver.

“Involving an ordinary civilian in business dealings such as ours, hm,” she says, smile bright and sharp as a dagger. “How low, even for you.”

“I’m a civilian too, am I not?” Ace wears as grand a mask as she does, albeit with greater splinters in it. He’s seated at the far end of one of his extravagant poker tables; only one other chair remains, directly opposite his. Around the table are two objects: A radio transmitter and a deck of cards, stacked into a tidy pile. He smiles. “Although anything but ordinary.”

“On that, I believe we can agree.” Kouyou glances over the men that surround him. Bodyguards, and not all ones she recognizes from the private force he maintains, either—hired guns and fists from another organization, if she had to guess, and a twitch passes through her body at the thought. She returns her eyes to Ace. “Now then, what is it you are so insistent we discuss?”

Instead of answering outright, Ace hums. “If you insist on rushing into things… you’ve confirmed for yourself that Yosano-sensei is well. I’ll not have you getting distracted any further from this negotiation.” He snaps his fingers, and immediately, Yosano is hauled to her feet by the two on either side of her, hands at her elbows. Fury lights her features. Kouyou tenses in a similar way, and behind her she hears the leather of Chuuya’s glove shift. “Behave yourselves,” Ace warns, hands clasped together. “The people in my employ are quite good at what they do.”

“As are those in mine,” says Kouyou, but she holds Yosano’s stare, shaking her head the slightest bit. Yosano, though scowling, lets herself go half-limp. “What is it you intend to do to remove this… distraction?”

“She’ll be placed in a side room for the time being. Out of sight, out of mind, isn’t it?” Ace’s tepid tone turns half of Kouyou’s attention back toward him; under her look, he smiles. “Nothing will be done to her unless either of you—any of you, I suppose I should say—step out of line. My business is with you.”

“And yet you have not hesitated to involve Yosano-sensei in it.”

“She involved herself by consorting with you. Should you comply, no harm will come to her.”

“No further harm, you mean.” Ace shrugs again, and Kouyou swallows down multiple reactions. She makes eye contact with Yosano for a few seconds longer, attempting to convey all she is unwilling to say. From how the corner of Yosano’s mouth curls halfway up, she takes it she’s been at least somewhat successful. Kouyou gives her a small, quiet smile—it is a pale imitation of one she might allow in private, but a clear facsimile of it nonetheless, and it settles Yosano’s posture all the more. Kouyou’s head twists back toward Ace. “Very well, assuming that you hold to that assurance. Otherwise—” She taps at her sleeve. Though her katana isn’t sheathed there, any blade can be deadly in her grip no matter its length.

“Yes, yes.” Ace flicks his wrist. “Say your goodbyes, ladies.”

Kouyou holds her lip back from curling. She doesn’t rush to bridge the distance between her and Yosano, no matter how the impulse tugs at her legs. All she can allow is to hold Yosano’s stare for a few seconds as she’s marched to the side. From the sympathetic curve of Yosano’s smile, she understands—but it still must sting, as it does Kouyou.

A different emotional challenge presents itself in the form of Yosano blatantly keeping herself from breaking free of the men’s grip or struggling at all. The flexing of her expression and shoulders is amusing, for one, but beneath that is the genuine desire to see her do so. Kouyou’s teeth don’t need to catch the inside of her cheek to prevent either a smile or a shout of encouragement from slipping out, but they do anyway, the fleeting prickle of pain rooting her firmer in place.

Before Yosano has disappeared from sight, Kouyou’s eyes settle back on Ace and the men that remain at his beck and call. It’s the safest option, even as she’s tempted to glance back to the side to follow Yosano’s progress, to get some sense of her exact location until Ace is satisfied. She does neither, at least not visibly.

The footsteps, at last, fade. Kouyou’s shoulders tighten, purposeful and slow, and then settle again. She adjusts her grip on her parasol, its tip still nestled in the carpet, and stares in expectation at Ace.

He sighs and rebalances the small radio sitting on the edge of the table, its purpose now clear. It doesn’t crackle, though, nor does he speak into it. Instead, he lifts his chin to stare back at Kouyou. “What do you say, Ozaki,” he says, reaching for the deck of cards resting on the table before him, “to a quick game?”

Kouyou clamps down on her tongue before she can blurt out a simple, curt what the fuck. Her eyes dart, again, over the men surrounding Ace. Between her and Chuuya, with or without Kasa’s support, they’d be no problem in any other situation, but Kouyou can’t guarantee that Ace doesn’t have orders set up for his remaining guards, nor can she ensure that they could make it to Yosano in time if he has taken such precautions.

“What game?” she dares.

Ace smiles wider, as though he’d only been waiting for her to ask. “Do you recall the rules of écarté?”

A violent, bitter sneer spreads across Kouyou’s face; she reels it in, limiting herself to that small, tight smile. It’s one Ace has seen on her dozens of times before. “I do. What stakes would you propose?”

Her body language doesn’t suggest submission, but her words do, implicitly giving any control over to Ace without ever stating as much. He is, after all, in possession of the better hand. The assumption he’s operating on is that he has already won. Why, then, should Kouyou bring that into question, let his senses sharpen to the point of overriding any of the plans working at the back of her mind?

The show of quiet compliance works; Ace all but glows, but he manages to temper it to some degree. “If I win,” he says, making if sound remarkably like when, “then my casinos become my own to operate and profit off of again—not the Port Mafia’s, and certainly not yours, Ozaki. No more protection money, no more blackmail. Although I can’t tell you that the authorities won’t suddenly discover some of you and your top men’s activities over the years.” He spreads his hands. “I’d be willing to negotiate becoming a proper part of the Port Mafia, too. I hear your executive seats are rather empty. One would surely fit me.”

Kouyou’s expression stays neutral, even as it threatens to bend in various directions. Rather than anything she’s thinking, she says, “And if you lose?”

“Otherwise,” he says, eye twitching, rather than employ her phrasing or the perhaps equally troubling alternative should you win, “your lady friend will be set free. And,” he adds before she can speak up, “I’ll take my business elsewhere and destroy all of the information I have on the Port Mafia. Well, Ozaki? Are those terms acceptable to you?”

The silence stretches out between them, eyes never leaving one another. Perhaps things, Kouyou thinks somewhere, have always been leading to this: A not-quite-violent confrontation involving more than one person it never should have, damage threatening to leak well beyond what is at stake here.

“Will you hold yourself accountable to them?” she asks, head tilting.

“Will you?” Ace counters.

A leading question, and not a well-hidden diversion at that. Kouyou’s jaw clenches. “If you do, then I shall,” she says, smiling, the same kind of non-answer; it makes Ace’s eyes narrow, but before he can pick it apart, she sets her shoulders. “I accept, but I advise you to remain open to renegotiation should you lose.”

Ace clicks his tongue, shaking his head. “That confidence may be your downfall, Ozaki,” he says, so hypocritical that Kouyou has to fight not to laugh. “But very well.” He cuts the deck and starts shuffling it, the same quick, practiced movements Kouyou has seen several times over now—and would do a great many things to keep from having to see ever again. With one hand, he gestures, pointed, to the seat opposite his.

Kouyou takes a breath. She leans down to murmur something to Chuuya; though the words and their surreptitious delivery make him tense, he nods, eyes narrowing as he puts things together.

“Strategize all you’d like,” says Ace, arrogant as ever, not even sparing a glance up from his shuffling. “Gambling is about luck as much as it is skill. Have you forgotten that so easily?”

Chuuya’s lip curls back. Kouyou stills him with a single look—she understands the impulse, truly, but the delicate balance of the situation requires they handle things with more care than she would prefer. At least, for now. Her eyes narrow in the direction of the room Yosano had been brought off to.

Hold on a while longer, she thinks, head lowering. The subtle shows of worry aren’t ones she cares to hide from Ace—if it is despair he expects of her, despair he shall get.

Indeed, when she steps forward and settles into the open seat, parasol resting at her side, his smile hasn’t dimmed in the slightest. He casts her a quick glance from beneath his eyelids, then lowers his gaze again to the cards in his hands, their backs glinting under the lights as they shift and bend in his grip. The sound of paper sliding against paper and leather is the only noise in the entirety of the building.

The cards go still, and Ace sits back, weighing the deck in between his hands. Thought wrinkling his face, he drums his fingers along the back. “Écarté is a swift game, as I’m sure you’ll recall. Since our stakes are what they are, it feels almost unfair to carry out such a fast-paced, simplistic version.”

“It is you who decided upon it, I might note.”

Ace’s smile tautens, but he mostly ignores the interruption. “Why don’t we modify the rules, then? More points to win, or the highest total wins out of a set number of games altogether. That choice, I shall leave up to you.”

“How benevolent.” The thick dryness in Kouyou’s voice goes undisguised. She considers—it had been rather quick when she’d last played, and though she wants this over with as soon as possible, stalling however she can may be useful. “Five games, perhaps,” she suggests. “The first to claim three shall emerge victorious.”

Though Ace looks somewhat amused by the alteration, he nods. “Very well,” he says, smiling, and begins to deal. He flips out each of their cards with an easy, stalwart boredom, then draws and sets aside an ace of diamonds as the trump card. The red burns into Kouyou’s eyelids where it sits. “A shame it wasn’t a king, but how prophetic indeed.” He lifts his cards and smooths them into a fan-like grip. “Will you propose an exchange?”

Kouyou skims her thumb over her cards. What she finds there has her reeling in a smile. “No,” she decides, flicking the king of diamonds up and brandishing it. A violent grimace shoots through Ace’s features—emboldened further by it, Kouyou throws down her queen of clubs for the first trick.

Scowling still, Ace returns an eight of clubs. He wins the following trick, but Kouyou takes the next two.

“I must advise you not to get ahead of yourself, Ozaki,” he says, pushing the cards toward her.

Kouyou’s shuffling is far less smooth and extensive than his, fingers nimble with swordsmanship and paperwork-handling rather than card dealing, but she doles out the cards in the same even patterns. For the trump card, she draws the nine of spades. As she inspects her hand, noting their scope with distaste, she watches Ace’s unhurried movements with some level of alarm.

She’s irritated but unsurprised when he plays without exchanging, though it’s a relief when he doesn’t show the king of spades. Instead, though, she’s forced to meet a queen of diamonds with her jack. Her aggravation ramps as Ace proceeds to take each subsequent trick, by sheer luck of having played first by their final, anticlimactic clash, a ten of clubs against an ace of hearts.

Ace, emitting a dim glow of pride, deals again. The trump suit for the next round is again diamonds. Kouyou’s cards are subpar, so when asked, this time she does propose an exchange, tugging at three cards in advance. It takes a moment before Ace agrees.

Kouyou’s eyes narrow, but the new cards are at least marginally better, so she doesn’t exchange again—she doubts Ace would have agreed, anyway, judging from the unsettling smile that’s begun spreading across his face as he inspects his own hand. She suppresses a scoff when, before she can play, he flashes the king of diamonds at her.

Awe that it may inspire, it doesn’t do him much good in the end—he’s forced to use it against her queen. She ekes out three tricks and manages to end the round in a tie. Ace doesn’t look all too pleased, which fuels her in turn.

She reaches for the cards before he can, shuffling and dealing with somewhat greater finesse this time. When she draws the king of hearts to set the trump suit, it’s with a smile that only dims at Ace’s eyeroll when she asks if he’d like to propose an exchange. He does, swapping out two of his cards; Kouyou trades out only one. Adjusting her grip on her cards, she allows him whatever false sense of security has crept in.

Four out of her five cards had been hearts, which might have been too risky a gamble in another situation, especially considering that her remaining card is an eight of spades that flounders under his ace of the same. Luck would have it, though, that Ace happened to only draw a ten of hearts. It’s within near-seconds, then, that Kouyou emerges the winner of the round, and the first game as a whole.

Ace’s eyes narrow. “You’ve gotten the hang of this rather quickly, for one who lost both of the games we played previously,” he says, more of a threat than a compliment. He starts shuffling the deck again, with even more painstaking patience and thoroughness than before. “I assure you, though, that I have only begun warming up.”

To Kouyou’s irritation, this is not altogether inaccurate. She gets only two points out of the next game before Ace cuts his way to a quick and brutal victory. The one to follow it turns out more even, but too much so—one round ends up with them both at five points, having been tied beforehand and having each taken in one, as per Ace’s apparently recurring rule regarding ties. This time, though, he agrees to play until one of them pulls two points ahead instead of just one.

“Tennis rules?” Kouyou asks with some dismay.

“We are already tweaking the rules, are we not? Or would you prefer it be that much easier to lose this entire deal?” returns Ace, fixing her with a steady stare, and with gritted teeth, Kouyou inclines her head.

The ensuing volley is fierce, and by the time it reaches its peak, Kouyou just wants these high-reward and higher-risk rounds to be over with. Her stamina in battle (and perhaps in general), it seems, is not equivalent to her stamina in card games. It ends up costing her one point, then another, and thus the third game overall.

Her fists fall to her lap, one coiled around the other. She’s still smiling, but in this lighting it may look more like a grimace, and it certainly feels closer to one.

“See?” Clicking his tongue, Ace again shuffles the deck, a visual that is rapidly growing tiring. More irritating than it, though, is his smirk. “Beginner’s luck only lasts so long before it begins to run out. You would make a poor gambler, Ozaki—it’s a good thing your people foist ownership of these establishments off on us middlemen.”

Kouyou curls her sleeve over her ever-sharpening smile. She can almost hear Chuuya and Kasa restrain themselves from intervening in any way; perhaps it would have been best to have claimed a private room, but no one, Kouyou thinks, would have been satisfied with that.

They continue onto the fourth game. Kouyou’s composure stays solidly in place, dignity never falling as she watches Ace deal with a similar level of calm, buoyed by his two victories. Her eyes dart in the direction Yosano had been brought in, but she returns them in time to propose an exchange. Ace, without blinking, refuses.

Lips thinning, Kouyou plays a jack of hearts. Flippantly, Ace places a queen of hearts over it. His next card, however, is an eight of clubs, which Kouyou’s seven of hearts prevails over. With her mouth already preparing for a wince, Kouyou next sets out her nine of diamonds—and claims another trick when Ace’s apparent only option is a joker of spades.

The realization that he’d again only pulled one card of the trump suit is an exhilarating one. Kouyou’s smile grows when her seven of clubs wins by default, and broader still when her ace of hearts closes out the round.

“You would implicate me as the arrogant one,” she says idly as she recollects the cards, “and yet you left yourself vulnerable.”

“Perhaps.” Ace’s lip curls. “But here you still are, acting as though two points make for a complete victory. May I remind you once more not to get ahead of yourself?”

“You may not,” says Kouyou, and she deals.

This time, Ace doesn’t make the same mistake—he starts plucking at the cards he wants to exchange before Kouyou has even drawn the trump card. Kouyou allows it and, between the two exchanges he calls for, ends up trading out three of her cards.

Neither of the two kings in Ace’s hand belong to the trump suit, but they’re powerful enough overall that it doesn’t matter; she’s forced to use up her only card of it on the first turn, and from there she only takes one more trick. At least Ace hadn’t stolen them all, she reasons, but it’s a hollow victory against his smile.

His luck peaks in the next round: First he draws the king of spades as the trump card, then he wins four tricks. It’s nothing Kouyou can’t pull herself back from, but it’s bothersome all the same, both in and of itself and paired with Ace’s expression as his chances of victory strengthen.

Kouyou accepts the deck Ace passes her way and shuffles it with a naturalness she’s settled into over the past—she’s not certain how long, now that she thinks about it, and she pledges not to find out. It feels as though both hours and mere minutes have passed since she first took her seat. Her mind, though, stays in the present rather than wandering.

The last card she draws from the deck is a ten of spades. The first card she sees in her own deck, once she lifts it, is the king of the same suit.

Perhaps there’s something in Kouyou’s smile when she asks Ace if he’d like to exchange, because he tenses for a moment, thinking hard, before curling his lip and shaking his head. Kouyou raises her eyebrows, leans back, and declares the king trump just as he reaches to set down his first card.

The harsh drift of his mouth is amusing, but Kouyou doesn’t allow herself to be distracted by it. Methodically and viciously, she sweeps her way through the round, coming out with the majority of the tricks—and therein winning three points, by which she manages to hit five, the round and game both going to her.

By the thinnest of threads, she holds herself back from letting out all of her breath with relief. Her empty hands fall back into her lap. With as much condescension as she can manage, she tips her chin up and smiles.

“Lucky break.” Even as his eyes sharpen around the edges, Ace manages a faux-airy shrug. He sits back. “I suppose we will be playing all five games, then. You’ve held out longer than I expected, Ozaki,” he admits, “but you’ll go no further.”

Kouyou pulls a warm smile from the deepest recesses of her allowance for any sort of pleasantries. “We shall see.”

Ace clasps his hands together over the cards, and the fifth and final game begins.

The first round is a tie. The second ends in three points for Ace. The third and fourth grant Kouyou a point each, scraping through with three tricks narrowly won both times. Ace takes the fifth round, leaving him with four points and Kouyou with three. A single point more, and it’s over.

Regret, long since cold, starts to seep in at the thought that perhaps Kouyou’s arrogance did get the better of her; to place not only her own life but Yosano’s in the hands of luck and fate, things she holds little faith in, is a decision worse than those that had led it to be necessary in the first place. She’s not one for second-guessing, but she feels herself go rigid with it now. Though sitting across from her is a professional gambler, Kouyou doesn’t have to be one herself to get a sense of the probability of success as opposed to that of failure. A sole bead of sweat trickles from the back of her neck toward her collar.

That, and that alone, is what she lets show. She may have subtle tells even she’s unaware of, but Ace can interpret those as he’d like. Unmistakable, flagrant nerves are out of the question.

It’s with a low, casual breath and nothing else, then, that she starts to gather up the cards for what will more likely than not be the last round. As she does, they size each other up across the table.

Ace taps his fingers against the edge of the table. The arrhythmic, strident sound fills the air. “Should you wish to save face,” he says, cool, “I will accept a forfeit from you. But know that the result will be the same as if you had properly lost.”

All of Kouyou’s misgivings harden. “Unlike you,” she says, “I find myself lacking in cowardice. And you are making a grievous amount of assumptions about how this next round will go.”

Ace’s lips twitch. “Suit yourself, then.”

He sits back and watches her take her time shuffling the cards. It is in part a stalling technique, but it is too an opportunity to gather all of the composure she has left and take a few steadying breaths, not to mention it mixes the deck up as much as possible. Whether that will give her any advantage, Kouyou doesn’t know enough about card games to verify, but she’ll take the chance. When the silence stretches on long enough to grow tenser, she starts laying out their hands.

And then, for the trump card, Kouyou draws the king of hearts. Her fingers are steady as she sets it down to the side. Ace doesn’t comment, but his features do curl in for half a second. Kouyou’s focus sharpens, the gentle thumping of her pulse and the muffled breathing throughout the room fading to background sensations.

He proposes an exchange. Kouyou accepts and trades out two of her own cards. The resultant deck is far from ideal, but it ought to get her by should she—quite literally—play her cards right.

Ace’s eyes are glinting when he puts out, with a surprising lack of fanfare, an ace of hearts. Opting not to waste her better card, Kouyou plays a nine of hearts. Ace slumps somewhat, a gesture that Kouyou watches with interest, and he slides the pair aside. His next card is a ten of spades.

That, Kouyou can deal with better. She takes the trick with her ace of spades; with a nine of clubs against his eight, she wins the next one as well. In the fourth, Ace manages to best her jack of spades with a seven of hearts. He clicks his tongue, absent, as the tension in the room reaches a fever pitch, the eyes on him and Kouyou and the cards in between them almost burning with intensity. Kouyou’s own, she’s certain, aren’t lacking in heat themselves.

Ace is smiling when he plays his final card, a clear flourish in the swing of his wrist. When Kouyou processes its suit and rank, it’s obvious why: It’s a king of diamonds, almost radiant in the overhead lighting. She pauses, shoulders drawing back. Her eyes dart between it and her remaining card, hesitation pulling on long enough that Ace raises a sharp eyebrow.

“Is something troubling you, Ozaki?” he drawls out. “I had thought you too dignified to resort to such blatant stalling.”

“You thought correctly; ‘twas of the sort.” Kouyou’s impassive expression holds for only an instant more before she allows a smile to rise. “I was merely… imagining the look on your face when you realize you’ve lost.”

Ace frowns, brows quirking down at the wording—and deeper at the meaning behind them. Kouyou widens her smile and places a queen of hearts.

The sound of her fingers peeling away from it echoes about the room for a heartbeat, replaced soon with all-consuming silence. Ace stares down, unblinking.

And then recognition hits. It’s clear the moment it sinks in, from how he startles backwards with the force of it. His eyes go wide, darting over the suit as though somehow it will morph into a diamond before his very eyes. His jaw hangs half-parted, stricken speechless. His hands shake and press tighter together, knuckles surely white beneath the gloves, where they’re still steepled on the edge of the table. Rage and bafflement roll off of him in equal measure. A syllable seems to be trying to leave him, but with his state, all that escapes his mouth is a low, incoherent hiss.

Kouyou sits back, grinning outright now. “Even better than I had pictured.”

Ace brings his stare from the cards up to her face. “What are you playing at?” he snaps, nostrils flaring.

“I was under the impression we were playing écarté.” Kouyou wishes, somewhere, that she had a cup to sip from. “Emphasis on were, as I take it that I have just won. We did agree on three games out of five, yes? And I have now claimed three, so I think it is time for you to make good on your promise to release Yosano-sensei and quit my life for good.”

With a sharp intake of breath, Ace draws his composure back up piece by piece, reconstructing his cold mask. “You see?” he says, leaning back, a smile starting to curve across his face. “This is what I like so much about card games. No matter what, something can always surprise you. In the end, it all comes down to luck. The cards you have, and the way you choose to play them.” His hands rise to rest beneath his chin. “Nearly everything in this world revolves around luck, really. Which is why I’m sorry to tell you that yours has just run out.”

“Oh? I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“Come now, Ozaki.” Ace’s hands twitch. On second thought, perhaps Kouyou is glad drinks are not within easy reach. “You didn’t really think that you and Yosano-sensei were getting out of this alive, did you?”

Kouyou can hear fabric and floorboards shifting behind her; as subtly as she can manage, she casts a glance to the side and flicks a hand. Not yet. “We had a deal,” she says instead, calm as can be. “What reason would you have to break it?”

A harsh laugh tears itself from his throat. “What reason wouldn’t I? You’re the most powerful person in this entire city. The only reason you’ve lasted as long as you have is that no one has been able to find out any of your weaknesses. Blackmail is only so effective, and your combat skills are known far and wide.” With distaste, Ace lowers his hands and spreads them apart. “But now… I’ve discovered something that means something to you. Someone that means something to you. It was a gambit at first, frankly, but—” He shakes his head, grinning in earnest. “You’ve gone through so much trouble for her sake, it’s clear just how valuable Yosano-sensei is to you. Whether it’s a sentimental attachment or a practical one, I could care less. It being an attachment at all tells me enough.” His eyes bore into Kouyou’s. “You’ve gone soft, Golden Demon.”

All of his words fill the space between them. Kouyou doesn’t react in the slightest—she pulls in breath and lets it go, lets her eyelids drop and lift when her body compels them to, but not a single voluntary muscle flexes. “Are you finished?” she asks at last, voice betraying no emotion.

If it bothers Ace, he doesn’t show it—his smirk doesn’t for a second dim. “Oh, I haven’t even begun.” He reaches for the radio transmitter sitting on the edge of the table. Raising it to his lips, he orders, holding Kouyou’s stare all the while, “Kill the doctor.”

Kouyou doesn’t so much as blink. Static and static alone pours from the radio. Ace’s brows press together, but his smile doesn’t yet drop as he rattles the receiver in his grasp.

“Do you hear me?” he snaps, clenching his free hand. “Shoot her, stab her, strangle her, I couldn’t care less as long as her heart stops beating with Ozaki here to hear it.” More static. Ace presses down hard enough on the transmitter to produce a dangerous-seeming cracking noise, as though it’s mere seconds away from breaking in his hand. “Answer me, or I’ll find out just how much your life is worth.”

“Is something the matter?” asks Kouyou, mild.

Ace’s eyes jump to her. “You,” he snarls, nose and mouth alike wrinkled with it, spittle flying from around his lips. Kouyou leans as far back as she can manage. “I don’t know just what it is you did, but—”

And then, in a flash as quick as they had gone up earlier, the lights go down, darkness sweeping the casino from wall to wall.

For a second, there’s silence, stunned and processing. And then comes Ace’s voice, rough and urgent, shouting for someone to turn the lights back on, to shoot Yosano already, to tell him what the hell is going on. Kouyou stays seated and silent but coils her muscles for the chance of conflict, hand scrabbling for the hilt of her parasol, feeling for the give in the wood should it be necessary. Footsteps, voices, and gunshots alike carry through the air, until all at last goes quiet.

The lights flicker back to life. Ace, standing now, jerks his head about as his eyes readjust and dart across every corner of the room as if seeking any sign of Yosano’s presence. He doesn’t have to look far—after all, she and Gin are standing mere meters behind him.

Light glints off of Gin’s dagger as they resheathe it. Yosano rubs her unbound wrists, red rings visible upon the skin between her glove and rolled-up shirt sleeve. She looks no worse for wear than she had however long ago it had been that Kouyou had seen her, although her hair is somewhat messier, butterfly pin still keeping it in order by some small miracle. When her hands lower, one hovers near her thigh, no doubt prepared to draw the butcher knife strapped there.

When Ace follows Kouyou’s gaze, he turns his head with it, so unfortunately she can’t see his exact expression upon seeing Yosano and Gin. She can picture it well enough, though, from the sound he lets out.

His fist knocks against the edge of the table, then uncurls, fumbling for balance. “How the hell—”

Opposite him, Kouyou rises, slow and steady, to her feet. One hand comes to rest on the very handle of her parasol as though for support. “Thank you for your aid, Gin-kun,” she says with a gracious smile, crinkling her eyes at them. They dip their head. “Your work is, as always, without rival. Yosano-sensei, I assume you have accrued no further injuries in your tribulations?”

Yosano cracks her knuckles. “None,” she confirms, easy, dropping one hand back toward her thigh and raising the other to her neck to rub out a kink there. “Or at least none that stuck.”

Kouyou nods, accepting that for now, and turns her head back toward Ace, who is clutching the table still, eyes darting with rage from her to Yosano and back again. “Would you like to hear just where you went wrong, Ace-san?” she asks, the sweetness in her tone persisting but taking on a sharper, more dangerous edge. “Because I can offer you a few simple examples. Namely, from the very start, believing without fail that you are the smartest, most powerful person in any room you exist within.”

Ace draws his chin back, scoffing. “I was born a king,” he says, the tired old line more vicious than ever. “Thinking strays like yourselves are anywhere close to my level is a mere fantasy.”

“And that would be the train of logic that compelled you to believe you would thoroughly defeat me at écarté—and the one that led you to all but ignore the comment I made to Chuuya earlier.” Kouyou’s smile widens. “Thank you, by the way,” she says over her shoulder, “for contacting Gin-kun so discreetly and swiftly. Your actions were instrumental in this plan.”

Chuuya returns her grin as he waves his phone, drawn again from his pocket. “All I did was follow your orders, boss.”

A muscle in Ace’s jaw all but throbs. “Spell out your schemes all you’d like, Ozaki,” he says, lip perhaps permanently curled back. “It doesn’t change the fact that you’ve already lost.” He snaps his fingers, and every collared and stray guard in the room—not that many now, with how many he seems to have assigned to the halls—jolts to attention. He opens his mouth—

And, interrupting anything he’d had to say, comes the strident, jarring sound of a door being kicked in. Ace’s head whips around, face gaunter than ever, in contrast with the smile that spreads, unbidden but not unwelcome, across Kouyou’s lips. Guns cock and footsteps ring out as figures in dark suits file into view, swarming out to surround the room’s perimeter. Though plenty of the pistols are aimed at Ace’s men, ready to counter any retaliation, more than one is pointed straight at Ace himself’s vitals.

Polished shoes click against the carpet, and the circle of men parts just enough for Hirotsu to step through. His hands are folded behind his back, and his expression is devoid of any blatant emotion, but his eyes burn when they slot open to linger on Ace.

Kouyou tips her head toward him, gaze split between him and Ace. “Your timing is, as always, close to perfect, Hirotsu-san.”

Hirotsu lowers himself into a brief bow. “I do try, boss,” he says dryly, gracing Gin with a short nod as well. Tachihara, present among the flood of men, tucks his hands toward his belt, ready to draw at a split second’s notice. His eyes dart in Yosano and Gin’s direction, and his chin flexes before his attention snaps away. “If it is assistance you require, we are more than willing to provide it.”

“Thank you.” Kouyou’s eyes dart from person to person: Yosano, silent but poised as if for a fight, a certain glint in her gaze; Chuuya, a brighter version of it in his as he reaches to adjust his gloves; Hirotsu, standing firm and waiting at the edge of the room, prepared for orders just like Gin and Tachihara; Kasa, smiling wide, grip on her cane firm—and, of course, Ace, pushed by now well beyond fury. At him, Kouyou broadens her smile. “Were you intending to give a certain order to your men, Ace-san?”

Ace’s teeth clash, audible and visible alike. Muttering under his breath, he lifts his gaze to make harsh, bitter eye contact with her. “Shoot them all,” he snaps, looking still at her rather than around at his men. “Leave their vitals if you can. No matter what, leave Ozaki alive. Her life is mine to end.”

“How curious.” The guards are scrambling for their weapons, hastening to obey, but Kouyou takes advantage of the few seconds she has left before triggers start going off, already moving to dodge. “I was going to issue the same order to my men, only regarding you instead. Hirotsu-san?”

When her eyes dart his way, he’s grinning, open and civil. “Light them up,” he says, flicking his wrist.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Lights flash, both the unstable overhead lighting and the flares of guns filling the room with strobes. The noise that explodes from both sides, too—gunshots and physical swings alike—overwhelms any further attempts at speech, save for the shortest, most muddled orders that get shouted out below the din. In a matter of seconds, a still room has become a battlefield.

Just as more than one gun is aimed at Ace, who dives to the side and barks orders at his men, plenty are directed at Kouyou. She ducks, drawing her katana in a quick motion and flinging the shell of her parasol aside. It’ll be a shame if it’s lost in the crossfire, but not so great a tragedy as her own life would be, and it’s not as though it’s the only umbrella in her possession. She casts only a sparing glance to the abandoned paper and wood’s location before dodging another shot, knocking its gunman’s pistol away with a short throwing dagger to the wrist—something else up her sleeve (quite literally), and something else she won’t miss—and dropping behind the cover of a toppled poker table.

It won’t hold forever, but it will long enough for Kouyou to plot out her next movements. She hadn’t, in all honesty, been expecting things to devolve with this speed or intensity, though so long as she can seize the advantage and seize it fast, that isn’t a complete detriment.

The odds are already, at least on paper, in her favor; her numbers are greater than Ace’s, she had counted on some level of an altercation, and if she had to bank on either side’s loyalty or skill, it would be hers. Ace’s ability is to his active disadvantage, since it rids him of living, breathing bodies. The gifted individuals among Kouyou’s men—the force with which multiple figures fall across the room and the fierce pull preventing quite a few bullets from landing, really, speak for themselves.

And then there’s Yosano. Kouyou’s head darts up at the thought—she had lost sight of just about everyone in the immediate rush, but considering Ace’s objective, her disappearance would be of particular concern.

A bullet narrowly misses Kouyou’s ear. She spots the shooter, already aiming again—closer than she’d like, but that’s his loss, since it makes it that much easier to flick another dagger toward his (bare; hired help, then, not a standby) throat. Choking, wide-eyed, he stumbles back and hits the ground with a thump.

Practicality wins out, and Kouyou, ducking and swerving as necessary, searches the crowd for Ace first. She doesn’t find him. Either adrenaline is doing his job of hiding him in plain sight, or he’s ducked around a corner or taken to using a bodyguard or another table as a shield. Kouyou clicks her tongue but doesn’t waste too much time looking; if he’s still breathing, she’ll find him. If he’s not, someone will never hear the end of it.

Her head turns, eyes now seeking out dark hair and a gold pin. What she finds first are a pair of gloved hands, raised in defense, the fighting stance a hair off from proper but apparently no less effective, Kouyou finds when she glances opposite Yosano and sees the tall man she’s locked in combat with, cheeks swelling and blood leaking from his nose. He’s not been slowed by the injuries, though, rushing for a grapple.

Kouyou starts forward, katana readied in assistance—and, within seconds, finds it utterly unneeded. Yosano avoids the man’s lunge—and, in the process, a stray bullet—and, while he’s still stumbling, grabs him by the wrist. He tries to shake her grip, but she holds tight and twists back with enough force to provoke a yelp.

He’s still fumbling to shake her grasp. Yosano releases it willingly, hands falling back, and while he’s still reeling goes in for a knee to the lower abdomen and a final punch to the jaw. The man staggers back, falling to the carpet, floating somewhere near unconsciousness. Kouyou’s eyebrows raise, impressed. She had seen Yosano in action before, of course, but—

“Kouyou-sama!” comes a voice, and Kouyou jumps to attention, sidestepping the shot in time for it to only barely graze the side of her upper arm.

Hissing through her teeth, she glances around for the source. A tremor rattles the room before she can, but it fades just as fast, coming and going in only enough time to send multiple men around the room stumbling backward and landing on their asses—one of whose guns, Kouyou notes, is still smoking.

She nods at Kasa, positioned meters away with her cane wielded as a makeshift staff, and then at Chuuya, holding his hat down with one hand as he catches several bullets in the other, too focused to nod back. Kouyou’s gaze returns to Yosano, who, shaking her wrists out, glances up. The sheer excitement on her face startles Kouyou for half a second, especially with how it increases upon making eye contact. Then both it and Kouyou’s surprise fall back, and grinning, Yosano flashes her a quick thumbs-up.

Kouyou can do naught but instinctively, numbly return the gesture. Were she not in the middle of a gunfight, she might scrounge up some embarrassment, but as is, nothing of the sort comes to mind. Instead, it’s with greater focus than ever that she glances aside.

Aside from the physical state of the room, the scene before her is a far clearer one than that she had been met with before. Her subordinates, for one, are much easier to spot among the thinning crowd. Gin springs from their position at Hirotsu’s back to dig their knife into the throat of a man twice their size. Tachihara has emptied at least one clip already, and as Kouyou watches he goes through another, nabbing an already-wounded figure among Ace’s guard as cover while he reloads. It’s not altogether necessary—Ace’s forces have diminished a significant amount over a mere matter of minutes, and even those remaining are looking more and more reluctant to engage in this conflict any longer.

And as for the man himself—

Kouyou’s eyes drag across the room, seeking his familiar hair and face now that her field of vision is more open. Her brow furrows, though, as her more extensive search still fails to turn up anything. She even looks over the bodies littering the room—most belonging to Ace, but a handful of her subordinates too—but to even less avail. The radio he’d used earlier is in pieces, likely caught by a stray bullet or foot.

She glances at the open doorway at the back of the room, leading farther into the casino. From its front exterior, even knowing its nature, one wouldn’t assume it to be a sprawling building with more rooms than could be counted except for by consulting a blueprint. But Kouyou’s time here has almost exclusively been spent in those back rooms, and though she doesn’t know the layout by heart, she can count, off of the top of her head, at least five escape routes and thrice as many hiding places in that direction.

Keeping her movements visible to at least Chuuya, Hirotsu, and Kasa, Kouyou weaves her way around bodies and shots and punches toward that doorway. She only has to dodge three more bullets and one feeble attempt at hand-to-hand combat on the way, unerring in her mission. She doesn’t rush, not interested in drawing that much more attention to herself, but she doesn’t slow her pace any more than is necessary.

The sound of gunshots and grunts fades to background noise as Kouyou, more or less unscathed, slips around the corner. She glances both ways; each end of the hallway is a blank expanse, empty but for a few distant crumpled forms that must have been guarding Yosano’s former room, as is the extension forward. But the doors that line its stretch are too great in number to count in a glance, and Kouyou isn’t familiar enough with the building to recognize any unnatural grooves along the walls. Her eyes narrow, and she twists to one side, focusing with all her might.

A click catches her attention. Kouyou whirls to the side. She’s not surprised when the first thing she sees are Ace’s narrowed eyes, looking straight back at her as he approaches, revolver in hand. Its gold make—not one Kouyou recognizes, admittedly impressively, for the implication that it had been sneaked in under the Mafia’s vice grip on arms dealing—shines under the lights.

“A pompous weapon for a pompous man,” she says, loosening her shoulders. Ace doesn’t appear unharmed, although he does look somewhat harried, hair askew and sweat gleaming just as bright as his gun; despite the clear strain, he’s managing a thin gash of a smirk. “How fitting.”

Ace’s steps don’t stutter, unfortunately but not unexpectedly. His eye does twitch, subtle enough that even Kouyou almost misses it but clearer with the increasing proximity between them. “Haven’t you ever heard the saying about bringing a knife to a gunfight?”

Kouyou’s fingers edge along the hilt of her katana. “It has never presented any problems for me in the past, and I doubt it shall now.”

“There is one flaw in that judgment, I fear: It is not just anyone you’re up against, but me.”

A laugh bubbles out. “All of this, and you’re still clinging to that horrid self-importance of yours.” Kouyou shakes her head. Ace is within spitting distance now; or, by her terms, stabbing distance. She doesn’t move to adjust her grip again, aware of his attention fixed on her, but neither does she relax it. “Does it ever get tiresome?”

“Not when it’s justified.” Ace takes one step forward, then another. “Which, in my case, it most certainly is.”

“Yes, yes, your king motif.” Kouyou bats her arm idly—and fights a sudden flinch at the pain near her bicep, that graze wound catching up with her. She shakes it off; the blood loss is minimal at most, and there are more pressing matters at hand. “From my perspective, that is rather tiring indeed. Why not give it a rest? Here; I’d be more than willing to lend my assistance.”

And, without pause, she rushes forward, katana aimed at his sternum. Ace raises his revolver and shoots but misses—all the bullet catches on its way to the nearest wall are a few locks of hair. The echo overshadows any other noise, but luckily there’s nothing for Kouyou to take in, only the muscles compelling her blade forward.

Ace dodges, stumbling back. She lunges after him, slashing at his abdomen in hopes of her luck persisting. The closest she gets is a shallow swipe across his cheek. Ace staggers, and his grip on his gun loosens, and Kouyou presses onward, using the uncertainty as an opportunity—

The thought is not hers alone. Ace straightens with sudden steadiness, and his free hand darts out, fingers an iron manacle around her wrist. The force shoots up Kouyou’s arm, pinching along just the right nerves to make her gasp, a burning feeling wrapping around her arm. Her katana slips from her hand and hits the ground with a dismal thump. Her eyes widen as she watches it fall, but before she can even think about diving for it—

Another click sounds. The sound is soft, but in the quiet of the hallway, it’s almost deafening. The revolver is pressed against her abdomen, barrel right above her navel, palpable even through the layers of fabric. Kouyou tries to wriggle back, but Ace’s grip on her is unyielding. The only thing she can see, through a rapid, intense onset of tunnel vision, is the triumphant, infuriating spread of his smile.

“Game over, Ozaki,” he says, and fires.

The sound seems louder than it really is, up close and amplified by the sudden ringing in Kouyou’s ears, which intensifies in turn. For a moment, it’s all she can process: The noise and the force of it. And then, in degrees, she recognizes the pain, the too-familiar physical damage, the feeling of blood dampening her skin and clothing.

Kouyou staggers backward. She can hear footsteps, but only distantly, the rush of blood in her ears drowning out any other sounds. The floor under her feels at once unstable, ready to give way by the second; or perhaps that’s only her legs, weak and uncooperative as blood starts to spread across the front of her kimono. She swoons backward—

And finds herself falling right into another’s grasp, one hand at her waist, holding her up, and another at her neck, nitrile against flesh. The familiar feeling spurs a startled breath from Kouyou’s lungs, diaphragm pulsing out. Another breath follows it, and then another, less and less encumbered by the second.

When Yosano had first used her ability on her, Kouyou had been unconscious, the chainsaw blades against her stomach the last thing she’d felt. She hadn’t quite considered it a mercy, but she hadn’t spent much time dwelling on it, either, choosing to let Yosano’s feelings on her ability (and the role it had played in ensuring her survival) influence her own. Now, conscious but drifting, feeling it wash over her is still a sensation she can’t put a coherent description to.

There’s a certain warmth in it, but mostly it’s unsettling, skin stitching itself back into place and wounds all but reversing. A shiver runs through Kouyou, involuntary but violent. Any pain is swept away, though the drying blood and overarching malaise remains, as does the afterimage of the ache, visceral and sharp, a phantom feeling that provokes another wince.

Kouyou’s mind jolts back into sharp alertness. There’s nothing for her to be alert to, though, at least not at once—any noise in the room has faded, rapid and jarring, and even the hands supporting her are now slipping away, guiding her to sway back onto her feet.

“Thank you, sensei,” she gets out.

“Of course,” comes a half-breathless voice a step behind her; Kouyou doesn’t have to turn her head far to get a clear look at Yosano’s face. She’s smiling, hand falling back to her hip. “Two is just a coincidence, so let’s keep this from turning into a pattern, all right?”

Ace’s gun falls uselessly to the ground beside him. His expression is one Kouyou will commit to memory for all eternity, right alongside several others of his from this evening. His lips work without sound for a few seconds, then manage to form a stuttered: “Where—how—”

“You did your research on me,” says Yosano, grinning wider, feet planted apart. “But apparently, there was one pretty damn big thing you missed. I don’t blame you for it, really—I doubt it’s on any reputable records that have survived to today, after all.” She flexes her wrist. “As long as I’m here, being fatally wounded is equivalent to having no wounds at all.”

Ace’s teeth gnash. “I see,” he says, pulling up a smarmy smile from somewhere, though it’s weak. “What a despicable ability.”

“Spoken by the man who holds the power to turn lives into precious gems, that phrase loses any impact whatsoever.” Boots shifting, resteadying her weight, Kouyou lets every feeling within her melt to a steady, brutal calm. She bends at the waist and stretches her arm to pick her katana back up. Never does she take her eyes off of Ace’s face. “Would you care to try again?” She hefts the sword in her grip and nods, pointed, toward the gun lying limp on the ground, far enough that it would be more than easy to deliver multiple lethal wounds before Ace’s fingertips could graze it. “I am amenable to a rematch, if you too would be willing to engage in one.”

Ace doesn’t sputter, but it seems to be a near thing, from the flush that fills his once-pale face. He sneers, opens his mouth—

And promptly runs in the other direction.

“Hey,” Yosano shouts, bristling, but Kouyou holds up a hand, stopping her from pursuing him yet—for, whether he realizes it or not, he’s rushed right back into the main room.

Kouyou’s gaze rolls toward the ceiling as she counts out the second. One, five, ten, fifteen, twenty—and then, familiar to her as anything, comes the sound of flesh colliding with flesh and a body knocking against the floor.

She strides out in Ace’s wake, Yosano fast behind her. By the time she steps back into the room, Ace’s remaining men have been restrained, either by firm holds or more permanently. Ace himself has been frozen in the center of the room, prevented from scrambling up from his position on the floor by the boot resting on his shoulder, pressing down with enough force to perhaps fracture something. From the back, Chuuya appears almost bored with the task, hands in his pockets. The probable effort it takes to keep Ace from struggling, indeed, must be very little.

Kouyou clears her throat. The guns trained on Ace lower, and Chuuya turns, bending to the side enough to afford Kouyou a clean look at Ace. His nose is bent at an awkward angle, and blood has started trickling from one nostril. Still, when his eyes lock with Kouyou’s, he tilts his head back in some feigned sense of composure.

The hint of fear in his stare is enough to make Kouyou smile, though. She continues on her way, cutting a quick and unharried path straight to Ace, not glancing behind or around her for more than a few short beats. She stops at Chuuya’s side.

Neither speaks, nor does Ace so much as flinch. Chuuya inhales, draws his foot back, and just as swiftly slams it back into Ace’s shoulder to knock him flat against the ground.

“All yours, boss,” he says, bowing as he steps back. He shoots a startled glance at the blood on her side, just noticing it, but a nod in Yosano’s direction is enough to clear his expression.

“Thank you.” Kouyou smiles, as cold as it is genuinely appreciative; its edges sharpen when she takes Chuuya’s place looming above Ace, who is dragging himself back up into a half-seated position. “A shame that you chose not to follow up on that rematch. Here, though, I feel is as good a place as any.”

Ace moves his jaw, like perhaps he’s accounting for a now-missing tooth. He opens his mouth, but a shift of Kouyou’s blade perhaps a few centimeters closer to his jugular than he’d like has him stopping before he can speak.

“I can guess, I think,” she says, peering down with open contempt, “what you intend to say.” She tilts the katana farther away, still near enough to present a certain level of danger but at such an angle that her first swing wouldn’t be satisfying or deep enough. “That you have contingency plans set up to bring the Port Mafia, and me in particular, down in the event of your death. It would be a major inconvenience, but considering what we have gathered of you and our other resources, it would not be impossible to combat. And it would not even come close to sinking us altogether.”

“Exposing you to the government is one thing,” says Ace, even against the warning look Kouyou gives him. “But it’s not the strongest weapon I have at my disposal.” He raises his voice, glancing around the room. “How could your people ever trust you again, after knowing how you tried to turn against them once?”

Silence greets him, far from the outcry Kouyou has to assume he had wanted. The smug look remains on Ace’s face for a total of thirty seconds before starting to droop and fade, replaced with a sharp, stunned anger.

“Was that really all?” says Kouyou, raising her eyebrows. “It would take effort to convince someone of that in the first place, considering the ostensible lack of solid proof save for eyewitness testimony. And those who have known me since then have had time and experience to come to trust me. I have led this organization for fourteen years—I hardly think now would be the time to turn traitor.”

“Well—” Ace’s teeth flash. Sweat is joining the blood on his face, the inevitability of his fate starting to seep in. “The doctor. Who could have faith in a leader with such a strong attachment to a civilian?”

Still nothing. Kouyou blinks, slow and exaggerated. “And yet so many of them heeded the call for that very purpose, did they not? But since you bring that up… you were wrong earlier, you know.” Ace narrows his eyes, and she clarifies: “My affection for Yosano-sensei is not, though I may have felt differently a few years prior, a source of weakness. It is one of strength.” The words leave her with a confidence they hadn’t quite carried in her own mind. She doesn’t look at Yosano to catch her reaction, nor does she bother glancing around at her subordinates, uninterested in watching their surprise or judgment. Ace’s expression shifts reflexively, but Kouyou ignores this too.

“The reason I have lasted as long as I have as the Port Mafia’s leader,” she goes on, “isn’t as you said, either. It’s not that no one has found my weak points, nor that I lack them altogether, much as I’d like to pretend otherwise. It is, above all else, that I have something to fight for. The Port Mafia itself, my family—” two terms almost synonymous less than five years prior, separated only by connotation; now, still close to one and the same, but with some deviation “—this city… and now her as well.” Kouyou flicks her wrists to alter her katana’s position, both getting a cleaner angle on Ace and gesturing in Yosano’s vague direction. ‘So I should hope that it is something that bolsters my subordinates’ faith in me, rather than the other way around.”

“How touching,” Ace says, thick with irritation. “I can’t tell you how unnatural it feels to hear such a sentiment from a demon like yourself.”

“You’re right. I am a demon. Which is why I have no interest in prolonging this conversation any further than you’ve forced me to already.” She nudges the edge of the blade against his chin, forcing his face up, compelling him to make eye contact. “You may be a king, but that does not equate to victory. And just because you were born a king doesn’t mean that you’ll die one.”

Fury burning in his gaze, Ace spits at her. Kouyou slides back, avoiding the last resort, and swings her boot back up, foot slamming into the middle of his abdomen. He doubles over with a groan.

Kouyou clicks her tongue, shakes her head, and lifts her katana again, preparing to thrust down—

But with a sudden burst of strength, Ace writhes, knocking her away—Kouyou stumbles back, surprised enough to be caught off-guard. Her grip on her katana slips, advantage lost. Ace’s nose is broken, and perhaps a few ribs too, but he still manages to look smug backing up from her, blood dribbling down past his sneer. He makes to stand—

—and is knocked back onto his back with a move so fast even Kouyou has to blink to make sense of it. Ace’s face contorts, and he lets out a ragged breath. Pinning one hand to the floor, jabbing through flesh and bone, is a large, distinctive knife.

Perched behind him, Yosano lifts her chin and meets Kouyou’s gaze. “Well?”

Kouyou smiles and dips her head. “Thank you.” She turns her eyes downward again, letting her grin turn into something else altogether.

It seems to cut into Ace as much as the blade stuck through his palm. He squirms, babbling as the inevitability starts to set in—strings of nonsense words, as near as Kouyou can tell, nothing close to the begging she had hoped to incite. When he raises one hand to free the other, Yosano straightens enough to slam her heel down into his wrist. He gasps, and he stares up, eyes at last more so those of a mouse than a snake—

And this time, when Kouyou brings her katana down, it aims true, burying itself straight into his heart.

One final choked sound leaves Ace; one last convulsion passes through him. Then, the fight and life draining from him, he falls still. His eyes stare sightlessly up. Kouyou doesn’t move to close them—as far as she’s concerned, she’d brought him a more merciful death than he had earned, and so she won’t ease things along any further.

She watches him. There’s no question of the seconds over which the life leaves him, but stranger things have occurred, and Kouyou isn’t certain if Yosano’s ability can activate without intent. So she keeps her sword in place, and she keeps her eyes on Ace’s pale, stricken face, a mix of satisfaction and sharpness passing through her.

The room, for a moment, is still. All eyes are upon them, from Ace’s hired guns to Kouyou’s subordinates, and watching with bated breath.

And then, slowly, Kouyou draws her blade free and steps back. She wipes the blood off along the edge of her kimono—it’s far from the first she’s had to clean blood off of, although she’d prefer it if it weren’t Ace’s—and slots the katana back into, lying unharmed a coincidental meter or two away, the wood casing of her parasol. With a click and a sigh, the room revives.

For the most part, that means that her men whir back into action, acting on muscle memory and sharp sidelong glances to disperse orders and get to work, making calls and darting around as necessary. Those less used to this type of setting stumble about but are strongarmed into more natural manners by their seniors. Kouyou steps away from Ace’s body, leaving it to her subordinates to see to, and casts a quick look at Yosano, who has also backed away. When Kouyou reaches to take Yosano’s knife from Ace’s hand, Yosano makes a light oh sound and grabs it herself, flashing an apologetic grin.

Along with the movement of Kouyou’s people, though, comes the movement of Ace’s. There are few left that had been loyal enough to him—or at least loyal enough to his pay, in the mercenaries’ case—to now realize the predicament they’re in and make a break for it, but there are some. One man, bleeding from a cut above his eyebrow, tries to sprint for the door. Tachihara fires off two swift shots, snagging him in the ankle and forcing him to a halt, and when he limps farther forward Kasa swings her cane out to catch him in the knees. By the time he’s able to scramble back, legs buckled beneath him and bleeding, the sword hidden within her cane is already a dangerous distance from his throat.

When another figure uses the distraction to attempt to escape himself, Chuuya, not so much as pausing, grabs him by the back of the collar and flings him into the nearest table hard enough to break it, wood splintering and crumpling to the ground. A gasp of surprise is cut off by a boot to the chest.

“Anyone else want to try to start shit?” demands Chuuya, pulling himself upright. When the would-be escapee tries to use it as another chance to flee, he grinds his sole down harder without glancing down.

The general and immediate consensus seems to be a firm no, judging from the complete lack of subsequent problems. Yosano, tugging down her sleeve to clean the blood off her cleaver, whistles.

Once she’s strapped the knife back to her thigh, Kouyou nudges her arm. “Come,” she says, nodding to a clearer space. “I expect the adrenaline rush will fade soon, and you are still, by all accounts, a civilian; you oughtn’t involve yourself too deeply in what comes next.”

“I think I’m about as involved as I can be at this point,” says Yosano dryly, but she accepts, falling into step with Kouyou.

Calling off what few orders she feels compelled to give—to leave the captured men alive for now and take them into holding, to summon Akutagawa and Higuchi if it worst comes to worst—as she goes, Kouyou steps with her over to the side. It’s only in part for Yosano’s comfort and removal; here she has a better vantage point on the room at large. Yosano gives her an askance look like she realizes this, but if she takes issue with the ulterior motive she doesn’t mention it. Rather, she seems as interested in watching the room along with Kouyou. Kouyou’s eyes wander from subordinate to subordinate, ensuring what work is being done is being done to its fullest—and, if not, nodding to Chuuya or Hirotsu.

Even with the angle, it takes her off-guard when, once most of Ace’s men have been cleared from the room and all that remains are the blood and bodies, a certain figure approaches them. “Yosano-sensei,” he says while Kouyou is still blinking.

Yosano, too, turns in surprise. “Oh? Tachihara, wasn’t it?” she asks, careful, layers to the name that Kouyou can’t quite follow.

He nods. His posture is loose, but like at Kyouka’s birthday party, there’s something to it he can’t quite hide. “I just wanted to ask you something, if you don’t mind.”

“Tachihara-kun,” Kouyou says, about to remind him of their conversation that night and several of those since, but she’s unable to add anything more, for Yosano waves her off.

“Sure,” she says, guarded, even as she faces Tachihara head-on. “What is it?”

“That pin.” His eyes are fixed on the side of her head, where the golden butterfly in question is askew but still in place, glinting under the lights. “Where did you get it?”

Kouyou halts. Of the few things she had expected him to say, that had not been one of them. She had asked the same, once, but it had not received an answer, and Yosano’s rather clipped manner of refusing the question had been enough to turn her away from ever asking again, even once their relationship and trust had deepened.

Now, Yosano tenses the same as she had then. At first it seems she’s going to dismiss it this time too, jaw set and eyebrows meeting, but then she lets out a breath. “A patient made it for me.” She reaches up, fingers smoothing over the cool metal, but says no more, the momentary softness in her expression disappearing just as fast. “Why do you want to know?”

That question, too, is one Kouyou holds, especially because Tachihara doesn’t look any happier at the response. If anything, his face has drawn tighter. “A patient, huh,” he echoes, not acknowledging her inquiry. “But not from your job right now or when you were a surgeon at an actual hospital, right? From before that.”

Yosano narrows her eyes. “That’s correct.” Though she’s still upholding an overall veneer of composure, minute splinters are starting to flicker into her voice and carriage. “How do you know that?”

Again, Tachihara goes off of only her first words, and even then it’s only a thin connection: “Yosano-sensei. Or—no. You went by a different title once, didn’t you?” He shifts on his feet, almost anxious. It melts away as he looks up and meets Yosano’s eyes. “The Angel of Death. You’re her.”

The name makes Kouyou freeze. It’s one she’s heard before—she doubts a single member of the Port Mafia around and surpassing her in age and seniority hasn’t, and even some younger, for all the whispers it still graces among lower ranks, passed down from seniors, whether via eavesdropping or direct inheritance. When she was a teenager, their infamy had been even stronger. Few had known anything about them, which hasn’t changed: The only concrete fact that remains, even it debatable, is that they had assisted Mori in his clinic when it was still in operation. Many had dismissed them as a myth altogether. Mori himself had never spoken of them, and by the time he became leader any actual knowledge about them had dissipated into thin air. Reports of sightings and encounters had persisted, but most could agree that if they ever had existed, they were now long gone.

Were Yosano that figure, cloaked in mystique and obfuscation—quite a few things about both her and those rumors would, Kouyou realizes with a start, click into place. The Angel of Death’s purported medical talents; Yosano’s own skillset, not to mention her ability and the pain it has dealt. Her connection with Mori, although this would run deeper than Kouyou had anticipated. The burdens of her past. The way the Angel of Death had vanished without a trace, right around the time Yosano would have been nearing the end of her adolescence.

It is difficult not to rush to conclusions, with the silence all throughout the room almost painful, all eyes on their quiet conversation. And yet Kouyou silences her mind too, letting her gaze settle on Yosano’s stony face.

Yosano’s eyes close, and her shoulders sag, a visible blend of defeat and something more like deliverance washing over her. “Yes,” she says, though Tachihara hadn’t phrased it as a question. “I was. I am.”

Kouyou’s breath stutters, but the only shock in her is a muted, dull kind. Tachihara inhales, a quick flare of the nostrils. He shakes his head to himself, smiling a little—in anger? Vindication? Bitterness? Surprise? No particular emotion at all?—for but a second before it turns into a deep, heavy scowl, accompanied by a harsh exhale.

The very next sound is a sharp click as he raises his gun and aims it right at Yosano.

Noise erupts across the room, shouts and murmurs alike. “What the hell,” Chuuya starts, stepping forward with a slip of his ability that shakes the ground, and Gin snaps, “Tachihara,” though neither is acknowledged with even a glance.

Yosano, though, raises a gloved hand. Several sets of eyes swivel to Kouyou, who averts her gaze rather than offer a response or even mere acknowledgment; though she won’t oppose Yosano’s apparent decision outright, she can’t bring herself to condone it aloud either. The assortment of weapons and, in Chuuya and Hirotsu’s case, loaded abilities trained on Tachihara don’t lower, but no one moves. (Somewhere, beneath every other emotion and thought, a distinct sense of vindication passes through Kouyou—Ace was, on yet another front, wrong.)

Tachihara doesn’t look away from Yosano for a second. His grip on his gun is so tight it must hurt, but his fingers show no signs of loosening. Yosano doesn’t look away, either, or falter in the slightest.

“You asked why I wanted to know about your pin.” Tachihara’s mouth twists downward, jagged and taut. “I just wanted to confirm that it was the one my brother made.”

“Your… ah.” Yosano’s widened eyes lower, her head with it, and a wry, pained smile creeps across her lips. “I thought it might have been something like that. When Kouyou introduced us, you looked as though you’d seen a ghost.” Hand coming to rest on her hip, she tips her chin back, a kind of forceful boredom filling her expression. “So what is it you’re looking for? Revenge? A fight? Another confession?”

Tachihara’s grip stiffens further. His eyes dart down toward his gun, then back up, where they stay. “It’s because of you that he died,” he says, an answer and not one at all at the same time. The vitriol in his tone is palpable but controlled, no matter how brittle the locks keeping its full force back are.

Yosano’s expression goes blank, impenetrable. After a considerable pause, she sighs, inaudible to all but Kouyou. “I won’t deny that.” Her fingers dig into the waistband of her skirt. “But I won’t agree with it, either,” she adds, steel sparking in her gaze as she brings it back up. “I’ve spent a lot of years thinking about it, and feeling guilty about it. I don’t think there will ever be a time where I can say that I’ve completely let go of what happened. Whether or not it was quantifiably my fault, his death is still on my conscience.” Her free hand settles on her other hip. “So is that what you want? An eye for an eye, so to speak?”

Tachihara laughs, but violently, like it’s been forced out of him. He lowers his gun by a few centimeters—no longer a clean fatal shot, but still well within range to catch a few vitals with an absent shift of the wrist. Kouyou knows well what a skilled marksman he is; any move would be all too easy. Hirotsu catches her eye, then looks away.

“Something like that.” Tachihara’s head twists to the side, but his eyes still don’t leave Yosano. “Look, I was a kid when my brother died. So most of what I know about him was shit I grew up hearing from other people. And a lot of them, I’m pretty sure, wish I had ended up dying instead.” He shrugs. “No matter what, they measured me up against him. So after a while I started deliberately doing the exact opposite of what my brother might have. And, well… it brought me here.” He glances toward Kouyou, guilt dashing through his expression before disappearing, and then around the room, gaze sweeping along the colleagues prepared to make any move against him for Kouyou’s sake. “That doctor—” his teeth gnash “—was already dead by the time I joined the Port Mafia, but I ended up staying. I like it here, and it wasn’t like I was in touch with my family anymore.” His eyes narrow. “And then the boss met you.”

At Tachihara’s fleeting glance toward and brief mention of her, Kouyou can no longer swallow her words. “Tachihara-kun.” Her voice rings out low and deadly, and though Tachihara’s eyes—and plenty of others—shift to her, Yosano’s don’t. “I imagine I don’t need to tell you what will happen if you pull that trigger.”

From this distance, she can’t hear him swallow, but she can see it, the awkward bob of his throat. “I’m sorry, boss,” he says. “But… you said it yourself. This is a personal matter. It’s not about you.”

He says it gently, or at least as gently as he can manage in his current state, but it doesn’t lessen the sting any less—nor does the realization that Kouyou had, in fact, said as much. Though this isn’t quite what she’d meant by it.

“It was your choice to attempt to resolve it in my presence,” she returns. “Therefore, it is well within reason for me to involve myself, since you have seemingly already chosen to involve me.”

Tachihara’s face twitches. “Boss—”

Kouyou rests both hands on the handle of her umbrella, one folded over the other, fingers slipping lower. “Unless you wish to speak further to Yosano-sensei and Yosano-sensei alone, the time for talking has passed, I believe, Tachihara-kun.”

He swallows again, then nods through a pained twinge. The whole of his attention settles again on Yosano, who is standing still and unreacting, save for a short glance toward Kouyou. Kouyou squares her shoulders.

“Well,” Yosano says, giving a soft puff of mirthless laughter, “as I said… I’m not looking to punish myself for what happened. I’ve long since accepted that though I can’t stop feeling responsible for his death, it wasn’t on my shoulders, or at least not entirely so.” One shoulder lifts. “But if you want to take revenge on the last person you can, then I respect that. I won’t go down without a fight, mind you, but if it comes to my loss, I’ll accept it.” She turns her head, just barely, toward Kouyou. “Thank you,” she says, simple and calm, soft enough that it almost doesn’t bridge the gap between them. “And I’m sorry.”

“Sensei—” Kouyou starts.

Before she can continue, Yosano takes two short, steady steps forward, heedless of Kouyou’s now-silent imploring, and spreads her palms at her sides, posture open and calm. What is still visible of her face, too, suggests utter, overpowering conviction. But this close, Kouyou can still see the couple of beads of sweat trickling along the side of her cheek, the hint of tension in the flex of her jaw, the faint but still present pallor to her skin.

Her lips curve again into a smile. This time, it’s genuine, but sorrow underlines it. “I’m sorry,” she says again, this time with different layers to it, with all the volume and importance of a gunshot. Tachihara’s shoulders, already overfraught with tension, draw even tighter. “Your brother… he was a good man. I looked up to him a lot. He shouldn’t have died at all, let alone when or how he did.” She curls her fingers into lax fists. Though her words remain level, her stance slips, preparing for the fight she’d promised. “I can’t claim to have known him that well, really, but—I think he’d be proud of you. Not for this specifically, maybe, but who you are and who you’ve become.”

Tachihara’s expression doesn’t change in any dramatic fashion, but the shock that flashes through it is as clear and violent as a lightning strike. His hand shakes, and the gun trembles with it. His eyes and barrel, however, remain firmly upon Yosano. Kouyou’s jaw is poised to sing out an order, her hand to pull free her katana again—

But before she has to do anything, Tachihara is turning his head down and to the side, lip caught between his teeth, and his gun is falling to the ground, flung aside as though with revulsion. It hits the carpet with an underwhelming thump. Reflexively, he kicks it away; it skids, harmless, to a halt a meter away.

All of the pressure in Kouyou’s lungs fades. Her hand doesn’t drift away, but her mouth does snap shut, lips sealing over half-formed words. She can’t bring herself to look at Yosano and see her reaction, so instead she stares at Tachihara as he, chest heaving, too drops down.

“No,” he mutters, kneeling, palms pressing against his thighs. “He wouldn’t. I didn’t know my brother that well, either—I didn’t get to.” Even among the shame that now fills his voice, a fair amount of anger is still present; with how intense it had been, how long it had had to stew, Kouyou doesn’t expect it to fade in full any time soon. “But he really admired you, too. And he wouldn’t want things to turn out like this.” He lifts his head. “I can’t forgive you. But—I don’t think you can forgive yourself, either. And you’ve saved the boss’s life at least twice by now. So… I guess, for now, we’re even.”

Slowly but steadily, relief sags through Yosano’s form. “I guess so,” she says, though almost as begrudging about it as Tachihara seems to be. Kouyou watches her rub at the junction between her neck and shoulder. “If you—ever want to hear about your brother—”

Tachihara raises a hand. “Thanks,” he grits out, folding the other into a fist. “But that’s—I—” He shakes his head, seemingly incapable of saying more, and Yosano nods, stepping back.

In a quite different way to how it had been after Kouyou killed Ace—an event that had taken place less than an hour ago, but feeling far further away from the present moment—the room is again silent. Subordinates preparing to intervene now fall back, whether with disappointment or relief. Almost none, however, resume their previous motions: Quite a few take to staring, whether at Yosano, Tachihara, or Kouyou herself. Whispers carry, but not far enough to be audible here, and after a few seconds of all but nothing Kouyou’s impatience boils over.

“Well?” she snaps, swinging her parasol up. Even with its true nature obscured, the motion manages to carry the weight of a threat. “Do you not all have work to carry out? Get back to it, then. Clean up what you can, and call in assistance for what you cannot. Do not hesitate to search the whole of the building, either—Ace’s documents may be of use, and I am certain he kept at least copies here. Surely anything would be a better use of time and energy than rubbernecking.” With a sharp ahem, she adds, “That does include you, Tachihara-kun.”

She has more to say on that front, but for now she spares him, planning on something similar to the conversation they’d had after her assassination attempt. The majority of the room, urged on by Chuuya, Gin (who then moves, arms crossed, toward Tachihara), and Hirotsu, comes to attention and scurries about, their haste almost inadvisable as the opposite but not something Kouyou stops to criticize. Instead, she turns the brunt of her attention back toward Yosano.

“Yosano?” she says. A soft hum, almost lost beneath the footsteps and voices that have picked up, answers her. “May we speak for a moment? Privately, I mean.”

Yosano’s shoulders stiffen, then lower. She drags her attention away from Tachihara, still kneeling a few meters away but pulling himself up, and turns back toward Kouyou, face wiped of any particular emotion. With a similar neutrality, she says, “All right.”

Kouyou takes her elbow, as gentle a grip as she can manage in contrast to Yosano’s earlier handling, and guides her back toward the hallway. As per Kouyou’s orders, there are a number of her subordinates milling about, but they grant her and Yosano a wide berth as they move toward as private a corner as Kouyou thinks they can manage now. Without ducking into another room altogether, that is, and Kouyou has no especial inkling to do so.

“So,” says Kouyou, and finds herself unable to continue, unsure where to begin.

Yosano smooths out her skirt. Her head is carefully turned away from Kouyou’s, only the very edge of her profile visible. “So,” she repeats, tone neutral in an unnatural, terse way. She, however, goes on: “I did tell you that you would find out about my past someday, and I suppose today works as well as any other someday. I’m sorry that you had to find out like that, though.”

Kouyou shakes her head. Whatever she had been intending to follow up with, that had not been the gist of it. “I am sorry that you were not the one to tell me on your own time and in your own way.” Yosano turns toward her, expression slack with surprise and, well outweighing it, relief. “It was solely up to you whether you would have kept that promise eventually. I would not have forced you to uphold it.” The statement is far from a white lie; Kouyou is by now more than capable of suppressing any reflexes geared in that direction. “They are your burdens to bear, and thus you are in no way obligated to share them with me—or with anyone, for that matter. I appreciate knowing them, as I feel I can understand and support you better, but all the same, I would have preferred hearing them directly and privately from you.” Her fingers clamp down around her parasol. “I will speak with Tachihara-kun later, but at present… overdue as the question may be, sensei, are you all right?”

It takes Yosano a few seconds to reply, half-widened eyes fixed on Kouyou as they are. “Physically, yes.”

“And otherwise?”

Yosano lets out a soft sigh, an answer in and of itself. Wary still of the setting, Kouyou puts aside the few gestures that come to mind first and reaches out to rest one palm against Yosano’s cheek.

At first, Yosano only blinks. Then, with a gentle breath that’s half a laugh, she leans into the touch. One careful hand comes up to curl around Kouyou’s wrist, holding her hand in place. Considering the usual temperature of her hands, the warmth of her gloved fingers against Kouyou’s skin is unexpected—but not, once Kouyou adjusts to it, altogether unwanted.

Kouyou breathes in and out, the process slow and cautious. “Even the kidnapping and ransoming alone would have made this day quite strenuous,” she says, after a moment or two, “to say nothing of what came after. Should you require space, I understand fully.”

That, too, startles Yosano, her eyebrows shooting up and then falling back. Her fingers curl tighter around Kouyou’s wrist, and her mouth twitches. “You think this would make me want to break up with you?”

“I didn’t phrase it like that, but the possibility was there, yes.” Kouyou’s wrist flexes as though preparing to rescind her hand, but Yosano’s light grip keeps it in place. “You don’t have even a single thought in that direction?”

“I mean—none of this is your fault. You had no reason to believe that guy—Ace?—” though grimacing, Kouyou nods “—would ever learn about me, and you didn’t know about my past. Obviously.” Yosano spreads her other palm. “Or that Tachihara would do what he did. I don’t think even he did until he was doing it, really; if he really knew for a fact that I was who he thought I was, then it would have been easy enough to get rid of me in the confusion earlier.” She shrugs, expression darkening, and then relaxes again. “But that’s not the point. The point is, I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.”

Her voice doesn’t waver for a second, carrying the same level of confidence it had when she’d spoken to Kouyou over the phone earlier. She holds Kouyou’s stare, letting the words sink in, firm and unshakable.

Kouyou smiles before she realizes it, though she reins it in once she notices. “I see,” she murmurs. “For what it’s worth, I do share the sentiment. Although I likely made that clear earlier.” Yosano grins a little, nodding, and her fingers loosen. Kouyou’s hand falls away, coming to curl over the other where it rests atop her parasol. “If that is the case… may I ask one thing? About your past, that is.”

“Just one?” Yosano huffs out a faint laugh. “Go for it.”

Kouyou nods. Though she’d phrased the preemptive question as though she had already had it planned in her mind, all she has is the vague concept thereof, and she takes a moment to consider how to put it to words. What leaves her mouth, in the end, is, “How old were you?”

Yosano blinks. Kouyou isn’t certain what she’d expected, quite, but she can tell it hadn’t been that.

“I mean to say,” Kouyou adds, when no response is forthcoming, “those legends were most prevalent when I was still young myself, and you are close to two years younger than I, correct?” Yosano nods, slow. “I have begun doing the math in my head, but I would like to avoid any misunderstandings in that regard.”

“Ah.” Yosano’s tongue presses against the backs of her front teeth, and cautious, she reaches up to right her butterfly pin where it had become crooked. The care with which she handles it is evident to Kouyou in a way it never quite consciously has been before. “Well, I don’t remember, exactly, off the top of my head. When I first met Mori-sensei, I was probably… ten or eleven? Younger than Kyouka, definitely. And it wasn’t that long after that that I started working as his assistant.”

Kouyou’s knuckles blanch. It’s with great force that she has to relax her grip on her parasol, for fear of breaking its already-thin hilt for good.

Yosano smiles, though there’s no mirth in it. “I would have stopped at around sixteen or seventeen, too, I think. Around the time he became the Port Mafia’s leader and stopped working out of that clinic. I had met Fukuzawa-sensei and Ranpo a couple of years before, so I was already starting to distance myself from that work, but… it wasn’t really until he left that I did.”

“I see.” Part of Kouyou regrets asking, for all that the information has really provided her with is a distant desire to somehow revive Mori for the sole purpose of killing him again. “Thank you. Unless you wish to tell me any further details, there is nothing else I’d like to know now.”

“…not even about Tachihara and his brother?”

“Do you want to tell me the full story? And I do truly mean want; being willing to so long as I would like to hear it is not the same thing, nor would that satisfy me.” Yosano hesitates, then shakes her head. Kouyou nods. “Then no, I do not need to know about it now. I trust and respect you,” she says, the words more natural than she had, in all honesty, expected, “and it is, again, yours to share when and how you desire. If Tachihara-kun attempts to tell me anything that pertains to your history when I next speak to him, I will refuse to hear it.”

Yosano stares at Kouyou for a moment, then breaks back into a quiet, appreciative smile. “I should be the one thanking you for that, I think.”

“There is no need. It is an act of common decency, not active benevolence.”

“Maybe. But still, I…” Yosano trails off, seeming uncertain of what she’d meant to follow up on that with, and reaches up to attempt to amend the unkempt state of her hair. “Actually, if you don’t mind, there’s something I want to ask you.”

“Oh?” Kouyou frowns, automatic, but softens it out. “Feel free.”

“You were in the Port Mafia even then, right?”

“Yes,” says Kouyou, without even needing to think about it, although she does furrow her brow at the question. “I can scarcely recall a time of my life when I wasn’t.”

Yosano nods. “That’s what I thought. It’s kind of weird we never crossed paths, then, isn’t it? I mean,” she adds when Kouyou only blinks, “I didn’t exactly come into contact with a lot of Mafia members—it was actually mostly regular people, or members of other gangs, that Mori-sensei’s clinic saw to—but I did meet some, however briefly. And you were already pretty prominent back then, if I remember correctly.”

“I suppose all you’ve heard about the Golden Demon is payback for what I have heard about the Angel of Death.” Yosano chuckles; under the soothing sound, Kouyou mulls it over more earnestly, considering the parallel lines their lives would have been during that time period. “It is somewhat odd, I suppose,” she allows. “But I think it is ultimately for the better. I doubt you and I would have gotten along as friends then, let alone ended up as we are now.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true.” Yosano’s smile widens, and she glances to the side in thought. “It would have been a bit poetic, though. The Angel of Death and the Golden Demon.”

“There is a certain symmetry in it.” Kouyou returns the smile, tapping her fingers along the edge of her parasol handle. “Though it accomplishes little to reminisce on what could have been.”

“Yeah,” says Yosano with a sigh. She runs a hand over the side of her neck. “I’m glad I met you when I did, instead of then. Ships passing in the night is one thing; ruining any chance of a future connection is another. Having you in my life has made it more chaotic, definitely,” she adds, “but that’s not a bad thing, really, in and of itself. Tonight aside.”

The words still Kouyou for a heartbeat, even with the underlying humor and weariness in them. “I’m… pleased to hear that. And I, too, am grateful to have you in my life now, rather than earlier or not at all.”

Yosano smiles, bright and open, and then pauses, leaning aside to avoid getting in the path of one of, Kouyou thinks, Gin’s subordinates. “Oh, shit, is there something you should be taking care of yourself? I don’t mean to keep you from your work. I know tonight was fucked up, but I really can handle it from here.”

Kouyou spares a glance to the side. “I think Hirotsu-san may subtly attempt to bar me from doing any further work tonight,” she says, a bit dry, though she’s more tempted to frown than to smile at the thought. “And Kasa-san will likely back him. It would be simple enough to order them down, but…” She rubs at her temple. “For once, I think I might agree with their judgment. What must be done tonight can be handled by my men, and what mustn’t can be dealt with over the coming week. For the time being, your safety is among my highest priorities.”

“All right.” Yosano thumbs at one of her eyes, lids starting to droop as exhaustion sets in, and reaches out to tuck her arm into Kouyou’s. “Let’s go home, then.”

Tension passes briefly through Kouyou and then falls away. She leans into Yosano, supporting each other and being supported in equal measure. “Home,” she agrees.

*

A few assurances from, indeed, Hirotsu and Kasa later, Kouyou is slouched at one side of the backseat of Kasa’s car, watching the dark city scroll past without paying attention to it. Just as the drive to the Jewel King had been silent, the drive home is too, although for starkly different reasons, chief among them seeming to be that no one has anything left to say. The radio is on this time, but warbling so low that Kouyou has to strain her ears to hear it. Chuuya, who had taken the passenger seat, and Kasa might have it better with their proximity, but neither seems inclined to alter the settings.

That, as far as Kouyou is concerned, is quite all right. A long conversation is the very last thing on her mind, and she suspects Chuuya and Yosano are on much the same wavelength. The only drawback is that without anything stimulating, weariness threatens to take hold, but Kouyou has had enough practice fending it off that it isn’t that dramatic of a hardship. After the past couple of hours, it’s even less so. So she rests her head against the back of her seat, lets her shoulders go slack, and settles into as relaxed a state as she’ll let herself.

Only once is speech constant: When Yosano pulls out her phone, mutters should do this sooner than later at Kouyou’s askance look, and calls Edogawa. Kouyou pays only the most peripheral attention to her half of the conversation, which lasts no longer than seven minutes and seems to consist, for the most part, of Yosano filling in the gaps in Edogawa’s knowledge more so than telling him anything altogether new about the situation. Even then, then, it’s quieter than not, between Yosano’s low voice and the intervals of silence.

At one point, Yosano does trail off; not having heard her say goodbye, Kouyou glances her way and pauses when she finds her already looking back. Yosano smiles, covers the phone with her free hand, and says, “He wants to know if I’ll be back at the apartment tonight. Will I?”

Kasa hasn’t made a single turn that would lead them toward Yosano’s apartment complex, so Kouyou assumes she had made a decision in advance, for efficiency’s sake—a longer route would mean a greater delay in returning to work—if nothing else. “That is up to you, I believe,” says Kouyou even so. Her thumb rubs over the back of her other hand. “For security reasons, I would advise not, but it is ultimately your decision.”

“Uh-huh,” drones Yosano, although the security of it is at least half of Kouyou’s genuine reasoning. She returns to her call, laughing as she says that if she is, she’ll be late. “I’m sure Kouyou will send some people to look after the building for your sake, though,” she adds.

Kouyou had in no way been predisposed to do this, but with a begrudging scowl she texts Hirotsu asking to spare a few men for that exact purpose. No matter how much of a nuisance Edogawa may be, he is Yosano’s closest friend and all but surrogate brother, and he doesn’t deserve to die or suffer should Ace’s potential failsafes target him. Never will she tell him as much, though.

Thanks, Yosano mouths, and moves on to saying her goodbyes and stay safes.

The sky has faded to pure black by the time Kasa pulls up to Kouyou’s house. The rain has let up, too, and the drive had taken long enough that the half-darkened state of Kouyou and Chuuya’s hair and accompanying stains on their shoulders have dried to a manageable level. What clouds Kouyou can make out with a discerning look don’t seem promising for the upcoming week, but that is a bridge to be crossed in time.

When she glances at the clock on the stereo’s display, then glances at the visible lights on in the house, her first and foremost thought is: Thank God it is now the weekend. Then, letting out her bone-deep exhaustion with a low sigh and thanking Kasa, she reaches for the door.

She, Chuuya, and Yosano shuffle out with further relative silence, bidding Kasa farewell but expressing little else. Kasa lifts a gloved hand from the wheel, waves it, and watches them all the way to the door.

As they approach, Kouyou’s shoulders draw even. She needn’t face whatever awaits her with quite as much dignity as she had Ace, but some level thereof is still appropriate. She glances around, verifying the position—and, as much as she can from here, identities—of her men around the house and then eyeing the dark stretch of the area. At least the couple across the street isn’t arguing, which Kouyou opts to take as a good sign rather than a bad one before dismissing it from her thoughts.

Her hand closes over her keys, and then the sound of a phone ringing disrupts the silence. It isn’t Kouyou’s ringtone—not to mention her phone is still on vibrate—and Yosano shakes her head when she glances at her, leaving both of them to turn on Chuuya, who’s already extracting his from his pocket.

A glance at the caller ID prompts an immediate grimace, but he waves them on and steps to the side to pick it up. If that hadn’t clarified the caller, the irritated “What?” he snaps upon answering would have.

Kouyou, making estimates at the back of her mind, sighs and nudges Yosano toward the door. Yosano doesn’t ask any questions, just chuckles as Kouyou unlocks the door and leads them both inside.

Though Chuuya has his own key, she doesn’t bother locking it after them, assuming he’ll be in soon enough one way or another. And even if he isn’t, he is standing right next to the door, so that in and of itself renders any potential threats null and void.

Sated in this reasoning, Kouyou slides the door shut and continues on. In the living room, she can make out the same gentle buzzing of the television she had over the phone earlier, and perhaps some low voices beneath it. Nothing she hadn’t expected, nor anything that bothers her as she goes about the usual motions of returning home, acknowledging Yosano’s beside her with only the barest proportion of her focus. When the white noise of the television fades, she pays it as little heed. She sheds her boots, steps up into the hall—

—and within fifteen seconds is almost knocked back down into the genkan by a body colliding with hers.

It’s the shock of it more so than the force that sets Kouyou stumbling, having to steady herself and the figure who has put all of their weight onto her both by grasping at the nearest wall. Yosano’s startled “Kouyou?!” is dismissed with a flick of the other wrist. Kouyou lowers that hand to one narrow shoulder, pushing gently to the side.

“Not so much pressure there, if you don’t mind,” she manages to say once she’s sure they won’t both fall, through the natural smile that springs up as she stares down at dark hair and the school uniform Kyouka, it seems, hadn’t changed out of today. “I did get shot there not two months ago.”

Kyouka’s face is lowered against her abdomen, cloaking her expression from view, but the way she stiffens makes it just as clear. Shuffling guiltily, she backs up and leans more to the other side.

“It’s not still tender because of the shot,” Yosano points out, audibly more relaxed. One heel hits the ground, then another, and she steps up beside Kouyou, tilting her head to smile down at Kyouka. “That’s because of the stitches.”

“The stitches were due to the—” Kouyou shakes her head, cutting herself off. “This does not matter right now. Were you asleep?” she adds, noting the unkempt, unbound state of Kyouka’s hair. Kyouka nods, which she feels more than sees. “I apologize, then.”

Kyouka shakes her head and steps away. The redaction of the half-embrace shakes Kouyou’s balance more than the rush of it had, and she catches herself again with the palm planted on the wall. Kyouka’s intense stare jumps from her to Yosano to the floor as her head lowers again.

“I was worried,” she admits, tugging at the very edge of her skirt.

“Aw, kid,” says Yosano, stepping the slightest bit to the side, and that’s all it takes for Kyouka to stumble toward her as well.

Yosano pauses for a half-second in surprise, the same way she had under the same gesture at Kyouka’s birthday party, but relaxes into it much faster now, whether it’s simple fatigue or greater comfort that contributes to the reaction. The embrace is too loose and distant to count as a proper hug, but neither attempts to solidify it more. Watching, Kouyou feels something tighten within her chest.

“Ah, Kyouka-chan—” comes Atsushi’s voice, and Kouyou lifts her head to find him rushing around the corner, though he skids to a pointed stop when he sees the scene before him. Eyes darting between Kouyou and Yosano, he ducks into a hurried bow. “U-Um, good evening, Kouyou-san, Yosano-sensei. Are… are you guys all right?”

“For the time being, yes.” Kouyou glances at Kyouka and then Atsushi’s clear expression as he nods. “I take it you have already been informed of at least some of the details.”

“Oh, um—yeah,” says Atsushi, voicing it like a confession and not a simple confirmation. “Gin-san called and told us what was happening. They didn’t, er, talk about everything that was going on, but—they did let us know that Yosano-sensei was kidnapped by someone you used to work with to get back at you, and that you—ah, handled things.” He fidgets on his feet, somewhere between discomfort and relief.

He doesn’t mention anything about what had come after, so Kouyou assumes either Gin had contacted him before the incident with Tachihara, or they had left it out. She nods, slow, and opts to perhaps share the smallest of details later. For now, it is irrelevant, and somehow rawer than the kidnapping situation as a whole.

“I see.” Kouyou’s desire to have a drawn-out conversation has by no means increased since she left the car, and so for now she deigns to leave it at that. Her shoulders lower again with a deep sigh. “I imagine it has been as long a night for you two as it has for us.”

Atsushi tugs at his collar. “Ah, well, probably not…”

Yosano rubs at her eyes, silently agreeing with that as much as Kouyou is. Careful and quiet, she nudges Kyouka aside while still keeping a hand at her back, guiding them a few steps down the hall. “I know you were probably going to suggest we sleep,” she says, glancing at Kouyou, “and I’m not against that, but honestly, I never did end up getting dinner.” She makes a face, as though this is the most egregious part of this entire day. “And I don’t think either you or Chuuya did either, so—”

“Oh! Um, we ordered a lot of sushi, actually, so there’s probably still some—” Atsushi gestures over his shoulder with a thumb.

The door opens before they can make another move, and the four of them, in disjointed patterns, turn to face Chuuya. The rain seems to have picked up again, if only just enough to redampen his hair, because it’s now hanging around his face in a way he doesn’t look too enthused about—or perhaps that’s on behalf of the phone call he’s in the middle of, considering the phone is now hanging limp halfway from his ear.

His eyes narrow in on Kouyou, and he holds out his hand. “It’s for you,” he says, looking immensely weary about the statement but passing her the phone anyway.

Kouyou raises an eyebrow, but she does still take it and press it to her ear. “Yes?” she says, apprehensive.

Laughter greets her, and reflexively Kouyou’s fingers tense around the phone, squeezing hard enough that if it weren’t Chuuya’s she’d be concerned about breaking it. He turns halfway away as if to avoid the fallout to come. Kyouka, Yosano, and Atsushi all keep watching Kouyou with a sliding scale of concern and interest.

“I guess I should actually be saying this to Yosano-sensei,” comes Dazai’s voice, cheerfully smug tone somehow both the first and last thing Kouyou needs at this point in time, “but, well. I told you so.”

Kouyou hangs up and throws the phone back into Chuuya’s extended hand. “Um,” Atsushi starts, alarm in every line of his expression, but he’s cut off when it starts ringing again.

Chuuya visibly weighs the pros and cons, declines the call, and shoves his phone back in his pocket. Yosano starts laughing—more at the general context-less chain of events, Kouyou presumes, than any instant in-depth understanding of what has just transpired. Atsushi looks no less lost.

“Well,” says Kouyou, plastering on a bright smile and clasping her hands together, “I think that is a more-than-appropriate opportunity to prepare some food and drinks for the five of us.” Atsushi jumps and opens his mouth; she clarifies, “By drinks, I did mean tea, boy. …Although I don’t mind drawing on my wine and sake stores either, should anyone be inclined toward something harder.”

“Thank God,” Chuuya and Yosano say in unison.

Atsushi rapidly pales. Kouyou laughs, pats him on the shoulder, and sweeps past toward the kitchen.

*

The slow spread of sunlight across her face stirs Kouyou awake. Her first instinct, one she hasn’t felt in a very long time (if ever), is to roll onto her side and chase the fading feeling of sleep, but she manages to quash the impulse before it can take root. She blinks, slow, up at her too-bright ceiling as her senses return to her.

Her hands, sprawled to either side, twitch. One has been pinned under Yosano’s side where she’s curled toward Kouyou’s, her own arm slung lazily across Kouyou’s stomach. Kouyou attempts to wiggle her arm loose, but it’s not to any avail.

For now, she relents. With the hand she has easy access to, Kouyou brushes both red and black hair out of the vicinity of her eyes and mouth. Both notable instances she had spent the night at Yosano’s, Yosano had woken before or mere seconds after her, but the events of yesterday—or at least the just short of copious alcohol consumption that had followed—seem to have taken their toll on her after all. Her breathing is slow and even, steady with all the makings of a deeper sleep than Kouyou thinks she’s ever been able to attain. Kouyou feels a faint, irrational twinge of envy and sets it aside.

There is nothing altogether enticing or illuminating about observing a sleeping person, regardless of the observer’s relationship with that person—it is active at best and disturbing at worst. Still, staring at the relaxed lines of Yosano’s face, twin comfort and unease weave into Kouyou’s mind. She can’t help but wonder, somewhere, if she looks that peaceful when she sleeps. Somehow, she doubts it, but she also doubts Kyouka or Yosano, the only two people likely to see her asleep, would tell her either way.

The novelty wears off. Kouyou’s eyes lift to what she can see of her desk from here. The stack of paperwork—what she’d been intending to bring home and work on yesterday before her unexpected delay—there narrows her eyes. She had gotten through a few files last night, but Yosano had strongarmed her into sleeping before she could lose track of time altogether.

(“If not for your sake, do it for mine,” she’d said, lying on her side, only half-lucid between the half of a bottle of wine she’d drunk and unconsciousness’s descent but somehow managing to make direct and pointed eye contact anyway. “I got kidnapped and then threatened at gunpoint, remember? I think I’ve earned at least one favor from my girlfriend for that.”

She had smiled to hammer in the lack of sobriety—in more than one sense—in the request, and Kouyou had driven her pen into the paper before her hard enough to tear it. “Do not use that as a bargaining chip,” she had warned, but with a sigh she had gotten up anyway.)

Now, Kouyou must start doing the same, but in reverse. And with a greater number of steps, considering her lack of mobility. She counts to ten, inhales, and brings her hand up to nudge at Yosano’s shoulder.

Then she waits. Yosano’s expression tightens at the pressure, mouth and eyebrows pressing inward, but she doesn’t awaken; the minute shift in weight, though, is enough for Kouyou to slide her other arm free. She sits back, shaking the numbness from it. Her fingers curl into a fist and back again eight times over before the sensation isn’t accompanied by the unpleasant prickling of static.

It’s far easier to pluck Yosano’s arm from her abdomen and set it back down on the now-bare span of the mattress as she swings her legs up and around. She jostles Yosano’s on the way, but neither disturbance does anything to bolster her into consciousness. Kouyou sits there, looking back at Yosano’s sleeping face, for a few seconds longer, then lets out a soft huff and stands.

Though there’s no reason to, she adjusts the knot of her robe as she goes. The motion is unnecessary even when she’s alone in the room (which is all but a couple of days a year, even those only within the past two years), but it has somehow become habitual, something Kouyou does without thinking about. Another irrational quirk of the human condition.

She gathers a fresh set of clothing and pads into the bathroom. She waits to flip the lights until the door is shut behind her, even that as gentle a sound as she can make it. The sheets rustle, but whether it’s with conscious movement or not is something Kouyou doesn’t bother peeking back out to double check. If Yosano is awake, then she’s awake; if not, then she’s not. Either one will be dealt with when Kouyou emerges.

Glancing at herself in the mirror, Kouyou is somewhat surprised by how decent she looks. Yosano’s ability had worked, as it had before, its magic: There’s no indication that she had been shot in the abdomen the night before, and the spot where her prior stitches were removed from is little more than a tiny sliver of paler skin. Amid the patchwork of scars covering the rest of her body, its comparative unimportance is almost laughable. The dark half-circles beneath her eyes and slight state of disarray her hair is in are the only testaments to any sort of duress. Even then, the former is near permanent, and the latter can be dismissed by the natural effects of sleep.

Kouyou shakes her head and dresses with the usual briskness. She ties her obi more plainly than she often deigns to, unwilling to spare the time and effort, and pins her hair only half-up, letting the rest flow past her shoulders. If she feels the need, she’ll alter both before she leaves for the day, but for now putting on any more airs than usual is a tiring thought.

Kouyou steps out, not bothering to switch the lights off before she opens the door. Sunlight has already all but filled the room, though the blinds seem to have been tightened, and Yosano is indeed awake—and seated upright, at that, tapping at her phone with her legs folded and her torso angled away from the pillows at her back.

At Kouyou’s throat clear, Yosano looks up. “Oh, hey.” She lowers her phone, which had until then been very close to her nose, then points to it and adds, “Was just checking in with Ranpo. My glasses broke when they nabbed me last night, and all my spares are at home, so…”

“Ah.” Kouyou frowns, uncertain if she should offer condolences, but opts not to when Yosano goes back to scrolling and, she assumes, reading. She reaches back to turn off the bathroom light and steps all the way back into her room proper. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit sore.” Yosano rubs her free wrist against her knee. “And I have a bit of a headache, but I did get a glimpse of your medicine cabinet last night, so that’ll be easy enough to fix.”

“Not if you keep staring at your phone like that, it won’t,” says Kouyou, and with an acquiescent sigh Yosano flicks it off and tosses it aside. Shaking her head, Kouyou comes to sit at the edge of the bed. “The bathroom is yours, at any rate. Help yourself to the medicine, although I’d advise you to check the expiration dates.”

“Oh, right, you’re the grin and bear it type. Well, maybe not grin.” Yosano rolls her shoulder, which produces a sound of troubling volume and intensity, but she doesn’t so much as blink at it. “Oh, that was a good one,” she says in a bland voice, ignoring Kouyou’s disgusted stare. “Anyway, thanks.” She plants her palms behind her and uses the momentum to push herself to her feet.

She sways a little upon standing, having to fumble for the nightstand for support, and Kouyou jolts. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, fine. Just—” Yosano presses her free hand to her forehead. “More lightheaded than I thought. Damn. It really will be fine, though,” she adds, waving her hand in a vaguely assuaging manner.

“If you say so,” says Kouyou, still half-poised to aid her. After Yosano’s well-timed rescue the night before, it only seems appropriate, but as of now it seems unnecessary. Yosano manages to stagger to the side with only a minor grimace. “If you have no spare clothing, for what it’s worth, you are free to borrow my own.”

“Eh, I think I’ll stick with last night’s. Somehow I doubt you have anything hemmed to my height.” It is a true assumption, and the thought of one of Kouyou’s kimono pooling past Yosano’s feet is more wince-inducing than pleasing. Yosano bends toward the neat pile of her clothes in the corner of the room, reaching for the shirt on top. She pauses. “The dried blood on this won’t be a problem, will it?”

“It isn’t yours, I assume,” says Kouyou. Yosano nods but still seems dubious. “Besides, it is far from the only garment in this household with such stains. When you do depart, I’d be more than willing to lend you a jacket, at least.”

“Is that so?” Yosano laughs, soft, as she continues gathering up yesterday’s clothing. “I’m getting a weird feeling of déjà vu.”

“Déjà vu refers to something that hasn’t happened before. You’re a doctor, you ought to know this.”

“This, specifically, hasn’t,” points out Yosano. “So I think I’m in the right for using it.” She folds her shirt over her skirt, then makes a quiet oh sound of recognition and reaches for the until now obscured thigh harness still holding her knife. “Thank you, though. I’ll probably take you up on that. The walk of shame is one thing—looking like I came back from murdering someone is another.”

“…well…”

Yosano snorts but doesn’t reply. As the rustling of fabric and Yosano’s careful steps persist, Kouyou turns her gaze toward her phone, skimming the latest influx of messages. Hirotsu and Gin had kept a decent handle on things well into the night, it seems, and without a great need for assistance; for now, Ace’s potential postmortem blackmail appears to have been dealt with. And, tucked innocently between a report from Higuchi and a forwarded file from one of Ariwara’s Diet sources, Tachihara has requested a meeting this afternoon.

After a short pause, Kouyou opens that email. It is, as expected, clipped and lacking in detail, but the gist and tone are clear enough. She considers leaving it until later to reply, then rethinks that half-petty urge and taps to respond, planning on specifying a time and saying nothing else.

“Oh, yeah,” comes Yosano’s voice, and Kouyou lifts her head to see her stopping at the bathroom doorway, hand at the frame. “Happy birthday.”

Any thoughts of the email before Kouyou—of almost anything at all, really—dissipate as she freezes. Her hand lowers by some automated process. She blinks, taking in Yosano’s confident tone, the widening quirk of her smile at Kouyou’s obvious, almost tangible surprise. Words fail her for a moment before she manages a single, “How…?”

“Surprisingly, it wasn’t Ranpo.” Kouyou’s lips, half-formed around the first syllable of his surname, pinch closed. Yosano turns all the way around to rest her shoulder against the door frame. Her arms fall in a loose cross over her chest, supporting the weight of her bundled clothing still. “I don’t think even he could just deduce someone’s date of birth without actual records. Dazai told me, actually.”

Kouyou rubs her temple. “Of course.” She’s not certain why that hadn’t been her first thought. “How long have you known?”

“A couple of weeks, maybe. Was there a reason you didn’t tell me yourself?”

“There was no intent or game behind it, if that’s your implication,” says Kouyou dryly, and Yosano shrugs. Frowning, Kouyou leans back. “Frankly, even I struggle to remember it most years. It isn’t a date of especial note for me. Chuuya usually gives me something, and since I adopted Kyouka she and Atsushi-kun have been doing so as well, but other than that I do not celebrate it with much fervor.”

Yosano nods, thoughtful, face swept of emotion. “Would dinner reservations for tonight be viable, then?” As Kouyou continues to blink, she adds, “It’s a place we’ve been to before—I don’t know if you’d know it by name, but you would recognize it. I made it for six, too, since I figured you would want to have at least Kyouka and Chuuya there but I wasn’t sure about Dazai or Atsushi or any of your other subordinates.”

Kouyou’s fingers do not tap against her thigh; she curls them inward before they can. “Perhaps if yesterday had not gone the way it had,” she says, imbuing her tone with regret, “then that would be amenable. But unfortunately, I do have a great deal of work to see to today, and I am not certain when I will be able to even return home.”

“All right.” There’s a careful lack of disappointment or anything else so colored in Yosano’s simple concession. “I don’t mind canceling and doing something another day, then, or not at all—Fukuzawa-sensei’s birthday is today too, actually,” she tacks on, at which Kouyou raises an eyebrow, “and usually we don’t go out for lunch or anything until the day after, either. I did have enough time to get you a couple little things, though.”

“How little, precisely?”

“Says the woman who got me rose gold earrings and very expensive wine for my birthday.” Kouyou continues to stare Yosano down, and she spreads her hands in defense. “It’s really not that much, I swear. But I wasn’t exactly expecting to get kidnapped the night before, so it’s all back at the apartment.”

“I see.” Kouyou supposes she has little room to stand on here, and thus falls silent. Having another mark on the tally of people who bother to both remember and do something for her birthday is odd, but not disagreeable, as little emphasis as she puts on the date herself. She feels no older than she had the day before, even if several parts of it had induced enough stress to seem age-advancing. “If you wouldn’t mind a likely very late meal,” she says after a moment of further consideration, “then the aforementioned approximate six of us could hold something quiet here. Either tonight or within the next couple of days, should you be free.”

The plans aren’t ones she’s certain she can hold herself to, what with the small mountain of work in her field of vision and what’s sure to await her at headquarters. But the idea of them is, at least in the moment, comforting enough, toeing the line of a happy compromise.

Yosano, from her widening eyes and slackening posture, agrees. “That’s fine with me,” she says. “I mean, work it out with everyone else first, definitely—don’t do this just for my sake.”

“Kyouka stares very intently at me every time I disavow my own date of birth. Something of this variety was bound to happen eventually.”

“Ah, I see.” Yosano shifts her arms, making sure her clothes don’t fall from her grip. “Talk it over, then, and let me know what you decide. In the meantime—” She nods toward the door behind her.

Kouyou inclines her head. “I should have at least started on breakfast by the time you emerge.” Though she says so, she makes no move to stand yet, instead continuing to watch Yosano. “Do you have any particular preference of tea?”

“Whatever will go well with whichever one of your over-the-counter headache remedies I end up taking.”

“…I’ll surprise you, then.”

Yosano smiles once more, then turns to finally push the half-ajar bathroom door all the way open. The lights go up with a click, and the door slides shut after her. Kouyou turns her attention away again, letting out an exhale as she stares at the blank email awaiting her. With care and precision, she types out and sends an equally terse response. What comes of that, too, will be dealt with when necessary and no sooner—though since, as Tachihara had pointed out, it is a personal matter at stake, she may need to set aside a moment to ask Yosano what she would prefer happen before she leaves.

A year ago, Kouyou can’t help but think as she reflexively glances to the side, someone else staying in her room, in her bed, and using her facilities would have been a prospect to laugh at. Now, it’s nothing natural or just right, per se, but it draws less incredulity than she would have anticipated.

As she sits back, ankles crossing and uncrossing, something coils within her chest. It is not altogether unpleasant, but it is tight and startling, a sensation she has grown used to rejecting but now allows to remain. Sharp and volatile at first, it settles after a heartbeat, feeling as though it’s been there all along.

The word love is not one Kouyou is willing, yet or perhaps ever, to apply to this relationship. It is barely one she can use for her other relationships, and it would be grasping at straws to deny her love, if in a different sense of the word, for Kyouka and Chuuya. Yosano, she hasn’t even known for a full year, and the reservations that had dogged at her when they first entertained the thought of dating still haven’t faded in full.

At the feeling that washes over her now, though, she thinks she’s a touch closer to accepting such a term when or if it becomes apt.

Ace’s words, by now half-forgotten, reenter her mind. You’ve gone soft.

Once, and not even that long ago, Kouyou would have agreed with him, and every other statement he had put forth about her ill-advised attachments and affection. Such a mentality had been ingrained into her in childhood and only honed in adolescence. She had had so little to care for in her earliest years, and when she had come to care for something, it hadn’t taken long for it to be torn away. Hope and love and happiness had become worthless, futile things to her, inane ideas to be condemned.

The heaviness of that time, she carries still, and it had taken years for the ice around her heart to begin thawing. Even now, there are pieces that are still frozen over, locked away, never to be graced with light again.

But it’s been years since she held so hard and fast to such ideals, resolve weakened over time by Chuuya and then twice as much so by Kyouka. She had loved and lost, yes, but as desperately as she had sometimes hoped otherwise back then, her life had not ended—opening herself back up little by little, though, has not struck her dead where she stands.

She can’t cast aside her upbringing and the creed that had guided her for so long for good, though, or at least she can’t yet. Her doubts and misgivings persist. But she’s been easing and overlooking them for months now, and she has no reason to believe she’ll tire of that task soon.

Holding a sword is easy. Taking another’s hand is difficult, and it hurts as much at first as grabbing a katana by the blade might. It is easy to hold too tightly or too limply, to leave bruises in the shapes of fingerprints or to slip away and claim it as an accident out of plausible deniability. It is easy to recoil at the inconsistent, irritating temperatures and textures. It is easy to flinch at the fragility of the human body, how throwing a punch can hurt the assailant more than their victim if done wrong, how simple it would be to break skin or fracture bone. It is easy to simply reject the vulnerability in it.

But when familiarity sets in, when that openness and affection becomes desirable rather than embarrassing or uncomfortable, when comfort becomes not quite easy, full stop, but at least easier—it becomes worth it to hold on with just the right amount of strength and pressure.

Kouyou’s hand flexes, instinctive. She puts her phone away with a sigh and smooths down the front of her kimono. A faint tingle in her abdomen surges up at the fleeting contact, but from the lack of new injuries or marks thereof, she suspects it’s more psychosomatic than anything, an incessant sensation she’ll soon kick.

The sound of water running behind the bathroom door carries through the walls, almost startling from this distance. Kouyou twists her head absently toward it, then her eyes drift aside again.

She had once thought love would weaken her, serve as a vulnerability. Now, if it is what she feels, she thinks she is, indeed, only stronger for it.

Kouyou smiles, and brings herself at last back to her feet.

the last chapter/epilogue will be up on thursday; see you then! i'll have more to say then but as always, thank you for reading, and if you have time to spare comments and kudos are appreciated ^^ twitter: @chuuyasyndrome tumblr: @autistickyouka
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