the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Epilogue

JUST UNDER THREE MONTHS LATER…

Cherry blossom petals flow through the air, stirred about by spring’s first warm breezes. Delicate and feather-light, they drift along, scalded around the edges by the fading rays of the sun as it begins to descend beneath the horizon. The light of the evening paints the park and its guests in the colors of the sunset, adding an extra degree of elegance and peace to the slow unraveling of the day.

An ever more familiar sense of repose in her shoulders, Kouyou shifts her knees beneath her. She smooths out an imaginary wrinkle in her kimono with one hand, palm running across the expanse of pale silk, before bringing it up to support the cup of tea held aloft in her other hand. Heat radiating into her fingers, she lifts it to her lips and sips. Though her eyes are tempted to fall shut, placid and tender, she lets her lids lower only halfway so she can still follow the path of a series of petals tumbling toward the earth.

Setting aside time for an event such as this, dedicated not only to observing a natural phenomenon as ephemeral and temporary as any other but also to spending time with friends and family, had seemed inane to her in youth. In recent years, its appeal has graced her more and more, and now, joy swells within her at getting to enjoy each aspect of it. Maudlin as it may be, there is a delight in such occasions she has grown to appreciate in earnest.

Feeling eyes upon her, Kouyou dismisses her thoughts and lowers her tea to her chest. Without turning to meet the intent stare, she raises an eyebrow. “Is there perhaps something on my face?”

“Actually, yes,” says Yosano. “Well, kind of.” Before Kouyou can so much as open her mouth in response, a hand has reached up to pluck at her hair, pulling something from between the loose, unbound strands near her ear. Kouyou blinks as Yosano holds up the offending object: A pale pink petal. “Kyouka, would you mind getting that other one?”

Kouyou’s eyes swivel by reflex to watch as Kyouka nods and slides from her knees into a squatting position. Leaning up on her toes, she tugs another petal out of Kouyou’s hair. Kyouka leans back, twists it between her fingers for a moment, and then stretches her hand back to let it fall to the grass below.

With a grimace, Kouyou shakes her hair out as best she can and sweeps it back from where it had fallen forward across her shoulders. She had opted to wear it down today for convenience’s sake, but now she doubts there is, in fact, anything convenient about this style, between the wind, tangles, and now this.

Across the mat, Dazai abandons the container of takoyaki he’d been poking at to reach toward his wrist. “I have a spare hair tie if you need it.”

Why he does, Kouyou can’t imagine, because his own hair is only barely long enough to tie back and Chuuya’s is already pinned half-up with a pin she thinks she’d given him years back, but she declines without hesitation. “It shall be fine,” she says, diplomatic, almost cut off by the lock blowing toward her mouth.

“Sure,” says Dazai, before tugging it off and throwing it her way anyway.

Through a glare, Kouyou catches the unnecessary and unwanted gift, then drops it into her lap. Dazai shrugs and returns to his food, a reaction that has the contrary effect of grating further on Kouyou’s nerves. She takes a breath and then a drink rather than drawing a weapon.

It wouldn’t be a first, though, by any means. For as many years as Dazai’s presence has been a staple of Kouyou’s annual hanami plans, so too have her threats and his serene reactions to them. It is as much tradition, Kouyou would argue, as any other element of the event.

On behalf of the extra company this year, though, she’s refrained from her average reactions, and Dazai, preoccupied with other conversations and (more importantly) other targets, hasn’t pushed her buttons as much as usual. Kouyou can’t bring herself to be too relieved about it, knowing that the second she relaxes she’ll have lost.

For so long it had been only her, Chuuya, and Dazai—and on occasion a stray subordinate or Oda and his children at a separate blanket—that even three years in, it’s somewhat odd to have other company to begin with. Having Yosano among them isn’t quite organic, but it had taken time to adjust to Atsushi’s attendance too—and her being here at least feels more natural than their other new addition. Kouyou spares Edogawa a reluctant side glance. His position is one that has only been altered in minute strokes since he first joined them: Lying on his back at Yosano’s side, legs crossed in midair, arms raised in an awkward position so he can play what seems to be a game of Snake on his phone, head resting lazily against Yosano’s side. Yosano, for one, hasn’t flinched for a second, and is half-leaning back into the contact.

When they’d first shown up, Dazai had thrown Edogawa a bottle of strawberry-flavored ramune. Edogawa had arched an eyebrow but caught it with ease; the ensuing conversation between them, by some small mercy, had died out within a couple of minutes. Now, Edogawa lets his phone rest in one hand and stretches the other out to find the bottle. It takes a few seconds for his fingers to close around its neck, but when they do he doesn’t hesitate to take a long sip. He tilts his head back with a noisy gulp and exhale.

The entire process seems like a medical emergency waiting to happen, Kouyou deems with narrowed eyes. She can’t gather too much concern, though; Yosano is a doctor and in possession of a quick enough fix, and it is Edogawa at stake here.

As though feeling her judgmental stare, he slides his eyes partway open—how he had been continuing to adequately play his game, Kouyou can’t even begin to guess—and makes eye contact. Kouyou lets out a gentle scoff and takes another sip of tea. There is a harmony to their interactions now, a similar but distinct and less developed rhythm to her and Dazai’s perpetual back-and-forth of threats.

There is a certain tranquility to the event as a whole, really, tensions set aside or played up depending on which lends itself more to a calm air. It’s clear in the soft, almost imperceptible smile on Kyouka’s face; the low, even set of Chuuya’s shoulders; the ease with which Atsushi, looking far more comfortable than he had either last year or the year before, turns to ask Dazai about something to do with his upcoming work as a teaching assistant. Although that could be more due to the several cups’ worth of sake he’d had than any natural response.

A shout from behind has Kouyou hastening to swallow and twist her head. Only a few meters away, Oda is lowering a cup of sake—or so she assumes, considering she had shared hers with him a short while earlier—to wrangle his children, if wrangle is defined as addressing a group of rowdy teenagers with a firm “Now, now” and doing little else. It seems to work as well as anything, however; Yuu, the probable cause of the noise, sits right back and launches back into a regular-volume conversation with his siblings. Kouyou allows for an impressed glance.

Their proximity had not been planned, or if it had it hadn’t been by Kouyou, but it has been an amenable enough addition to the atmosphere of the excursion. The children’s occasional exuberance is managed with record efficiency, and the periods of calm are soothing for all in the vicinity. Though they’re prone to join in with their brothers’ antics, Shinji and Sakura have broken free of them a few times to lean over to talk with Kyouka, each such interaction terse but, by all appearances, pleasant. Dazai, meanwhile, has made no such efforts to cross the physical distance. Whenever he has something to say to Oda, the children, or Sakaguchi, who is sitting stiffly on the very edge of the blanket and keeps adjusting his glasses to avoid having to look at anyone, he settles for calling it out with complete disregard for anyone else’s ears. Instances of that, though, have slowed. The lull has not at all eased Kouyou’s preemptive tension, even if that is the point.

Somehow, they’d also happened to choose a time, day, and seat close to that of a handful of Kouyou’s subordinates. Atsushi and Akutagawa had stiffened at seeing each other under such circumstances, but they seem to have relaxed into things by now or at least adjusted to ignoring one another. Hair down and delicate kimono a far cry from their usual attire, Gin seems to have recovered from their fleeting embarrassment. Even Higuchi has, albeit with great reluctance, struck up a couple of conversations with Atsushi. Tachihara, meanwhile, has been consuming enough sake and beer—as an at least partial result, Kouyou thinks, of seeing her and Yosano in the same place for the first time since January—to create a permanent glaze of red across his cheeks. Hirotsu had been invited as well, according to Gin, but Kouyou can’t blame him for not attending.

As though the string of other coincidences weren’t enough, Fukuzawa had come along with Yosano and Edogawa, the three of them upholding some level of a family tradition. Rather than join them today, though, he’d taken up a seat in the distance, sharing a mat with men Kouyou recognizes as Fukuchi, the dean of the university Dazai works at, and Natsume, a former professor at that university. Among them, too, is a red-haired teenage girl in an almost militaristic school uniform—Natsume’s notorious niece, Kouyou assumes—as well as Kunikida and Aya. The two girls, Yosano, and Dazai have made for an unfortunate team; Kouyou thinks Kunikida is at least half a bottle of sake down by now.

The other visitors to the park have given their groups quite a few odd looks, but the bulk of them brush off any passing glances or prolonged stares, used to such attention by now. Other crowds have tapered off by now, at any rate, and no one seems to have outright left because of any of them. (Although Kouyou wouldn’t cast blame upon any for doing so either.) Everyone unrelated to their parties who remains is far enough off, too, that the noise doesn’t carry to them or vice versa. Kouyou’s gaze passes over the distant shapes before returning to her own circle.

Dazai and Atsushi are still talking, but less actively now, it seems, drifting with Atsushi’s flagrant tipsiness and Dazai’s doubtless boredom. Chuuya has turned to say something to Kyouka, who accepts the small dish of inarizushi he passes her with bright eyes. A soft smile catches Kouyou’s lips. Mid-bite, Kyouka glances up at her out of the corners of her eyes, pauses in chewing, and inclines her head in vague, quiet acknowledgment before resuming.

To the other side, Yosano and Edogawa have started a game of shiritori. “Come on,” Kouyou catches Yosano say, using Edogawa’s proximity to her advantage by nudging his shoulder with a sharp, weaponized elbow. “Don’t just end it in two turns this time. You agreed to play.”

Edogawa sighs as though this is a grave imposition. “Fine,” he says, and proceeds to end the game within three turns, throwing out a bored saiban with such a flat voice that his actual intent is, for a moment, unreadable.

Yosano stares at the back of his head as he starts tapping at his phone again. The clouds churning in her mind are almost visible. “I suppose that one’s on me,” she mutters, reaching up to rub her temples, beyond begrudging for someone who has, by the standard rules of the game, just won. She clicks her tongue, drops her hand, and grabs her own phone. “All right, then. What do you say to some mahjong?”

“Oh?” Edogawa frowns in thought, then grins and swings himself up into a proper sitting position—or somewhat proper, at least; one leg is crossed and the other is propped up, socked foot tapping against the mat. He almost kicks Atsushi in the process, but neither seems to notice. “What stakes are we playing on?”

A sharp grin lights up Yosano’s face. “Loser takes five drinks,” she suggests, knocking her knuckles against the bottle of sake Kouyou had commandeered, assuming it to be safer within her and Yosano’s reach than anyone else’s. She had, it seems, assumed wrong.

“You’re on,” says Edogawa at once, pulling up another app.

Kouyou considers raising an objection or at least a suggestion that they pace themselves appropriately, to set a good example if nothing else—although, judging from Atsushi, that ship has long since set sail—but decides not to. They are both adults, and Yosano’s tolerance is adequate; Kouyou isn’t as certain about Edogawa, but regrettably, she must cede that Edogawa’s chances of winning are higher. Yosano’s expression, bright with challenge and zeal, is entertaining, anyway.

When she realizes she’s been staring for an embarrassing amount of time, Kouyou sits back and averts her gaze, sipping again from the tea she’d half-forgotten she was still holding. Kyouka is looking at her, but to her relief, no one else is.

The lack of a snide comment from opposite her, though, is just as unsettling as one might have been irritating. Kouyou looks, wary, at Dazai to find that he isn’t even paying attention to her. Instead, he has twisted his torso to look back toward where Akutagawa sits. “Hey, Akutagawa-kun,” he calls with a faux-benevolent smile whose true sinister nature isn’t well-concealed, extending his chopsticks, “want to try this? You’ll never bulk up with how little food you have—” he casts a disparaging glance down “—and this is good, I promise.”

Kouyou glances down to find him holding out what is unmistakably a dog treat, dipped in soy sauce in an attempt to obscure its true nature, so thin it’s close to breaking under the minute force of the chopsticks framing it. Even putting the improper manners aside, she sighs into her tea.

Akutagawa looks conflicted, sensing a trap but willing to fall into it if it’s Dazai offering, but also not seeming to know how to either accept or refuse. His eyes dart from place to place without settling anywhere for more than a couple of seconds.

“Cut that out, asshole,” says Chuuya, knocking the back of his hand against Dazai’s arm. He turns to fix Akutagawa with a partial glare and partial pitying look. “He’s fucking with you, Akutagawa. Whatever weird shit he’s offering you probably shouldn’t be for human consumption.”

“I would never,” says Dazai, eyes wide and free hand pressed to his heart. Everyone within earshot looks at him in dismay.

Akutagawa presses his lips together with visible strain. “I have enough food, Dazai-san,” he says, though the way he pokes at the contents of the bento in front of him indicates he isn’t feeling up to eating most of it. “Thank you.”

Dazai lets out a heavy sigh. “Suit yourself,” he says, and pops the dog treat into his own mouth instead.

A violent shudder overtakes Atsushi, still clear-headed enough—or clear-headed enough again; Kouyou isn’t certain, come to think of it, how his healing factor applies to alcohol—to react in such a way. “Dazai-san,” he says with some desperation, “you really should stop eating those things. I don’t think it’s good for your digestive system.”

Swallowing, Dazai flashes him a cheery look. “It’s never been a problem before.”

“It’s a lost cause,” says Chuuya, shaking his head with unveiled revulsion. “Don’t bother.”

Atsushi’s shoulders droop as he sighs. Kyouka, though less than eager about it, offers him some karaage in consolation. Edogawa laughs, but whether it’s in response to this exchange or whatever has happened in his and Yosano’s game of mahjong is unclear, and Yosano’s forcibly stolid expression offers no enlightenment.

Kouyou peers into her cup, letting the remaining tea sift against its walls and watching the last rays of sunlight glint off of its surface. She blinks hard to dismiss the glare, but perhaps she doesn’t mind as much as she once might have.

Once, Kouyou had shunned the light. She’d been burned by it before, and that was enough for her to disavow its very existence, deem herself and anyone else touched by darkness, let alone enswathed in it as she had by then been, incapable of ever so much as letting light contact them again. She’d turned every piece of her, from her skin to her very soul, to steel to protect herself from that naive idealism. (Although perhaps the deeper truth of that defense mechanism had ended at protect herself.)

Her life has changed a considerable amount, however, since she was fourteen. Over the years, bits of light had crept their way into her life, sliding into cracks and wedging themselves in so tightly that by the time she noticed, it had been far too late to even think of removing them.

And now, in spite of how long she had spent blocking any out, there are so many sources of light around Kouyou that she scarcely knows what to do with it all. Some are inanimate—the work she has accomplished, paradoxical in the darkness that it carries with it by virtue of its nature. But more than anything else, it is the people around her that exude such luster.

Kyouka, a veritable star housed within her chest, cold and fragile but capable of more tenderness and warmth than Kouyou ever had been, and just as strong—if not more so—beneath it all. Chuuya, Kyouka’s near opposite in some ways and a distinct parallel to her in others, no less radiant for his jagged edges. Kouyou’s other subordinates—Hirotsu with all his experience and his keenness to help her lead, Gin with their steady hand and quick wit, Akutagawa with his brittle brutality, Higuchi with her sharp reflexes and deep devotion. Tachihara, too, for all the rough patches he and Kouyou have hit over the past several months, loyal to the finish under his bluster. Others still, enough to compose multiple rolls of parchment. Atsushi and his bright, awkward smile and unassuming talents that had earned him Kyouka’s trust and respect and, by extension, Kouyou’s. Even Dazai, in a way she’ll never admit, pestiferous and manipulative and dozens of other things but not without care; not to mention Oda, who is primarily responsible, Kouyou would guess, for unearthing and shaping that in not only him but the other children as well. And of course Yosano, not outshining anyone else but matching them beat-by-beat, with her stalwart, comforting presence—not the most important person in Kouyou’s life, but important regardless.

The combined force has wiggled its way into Kouyou’s life and planted roots. Now, surrounded by so much light, it almost overwhelms her. And yet, now that she has achieved all of this, she doubts she’ll ever let it go, let alone want to.

For so much of her life, Kouyou has despised and reviled the light. But now, sitting here with it shining down upon her and her family—

She thinks, for once, it wouldn’t be so bad to embrace it.

fun fact: this was supposed to be a one-shot. long story short: it became the longest thing i've ever written instead. i honestly still don't fully understand how that happened, but here we are at the end, so... i could go on about the writing/editing process, and all of the things i would change were i to go through another draft, but i'm not here to wax about either of those (though i might put up some liner notes on tumblr at some point), so i'll just say: i had a lot of fun and am very happy i got to publish all of this, scheduling issues aside! this was very much an exercise in self-indulgence and was written pretty much solely for myself, but thank you so much if you've enjoyed it to this point; i really appreciate your interest and support! i do have actually several other pieces planned in this au -- only a couple of which will be multi-chapter, though, and only one that should even come close to, like, 1/4 of this one's length -- because yes, i wrote nearly 300k of this shit and still wanted to do more. it'll be a bit before any of those see the light of day, but i'm hoping to eke out some over the next couple of months? who knows! any and all future works here will probably be posted here, so stay tuned if you want. in the meantime, stay cool, and i guess i'll see you around! twitter: @chuuyasyndrome tumblr: @autistickyouka
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