the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 3 chapter cws: allusions to/aftermath of child injury/bullying/violence, past character death, discussions of the usual canon-typical violence/murder/other mafia business. happy (slightly belated) mother's day! this overlapping with that was not planned but i'll take it. enjoy!

For most, walking into one’s living room to find a tiger curled up on the couch, mere meters from a child, would be, in a word, terrifying. Most is not a demographic Kouyou has ever counted herself part of, so her only reaction upon rounding the corner at the surprising lack of response to her entrance is to take in the lumbering form, striped sides heaving with snoring breaths, and then sigh in disapproval.

“Some babysitter this is, hm?” she asks Kyouka, who has glanced up from the notebook she’s bent over.

Kyouka only shrugs. Under the dim light of the few lamps in the room and the television, which is set to some nature documentary and is so quiet it borders on inaudible, Kouyou can make out faint sketches spread across the pages. More than one seems to be of a tiger.

“You needn’t defend him so, Kyouka,” says Kouyou, shaking her head as she continues to watch the tiger sleep. “I shall handle this situation myself.”

Though Kyouka narrows her eyes, she makes no efforts to stop Kouyou, only moving out of the way from where she’s sitting between the couch and the coffee table. Kouyou allows her a benevolent smile before rapping her knuckles against the back of the couch and saying, “Atsushi-kun.”

She doesn’t even raise her voice or sharpen her tone too much, but it still has the tiger startling, his legs jerking and his eyes shooting open. Just as fast, a flash of blue light has filled the room. When it clears—and Kouyou has lowered the shielding hand from her eyes—a pale-haired young man sits in the tiger’s place, already flinging himself into a bow.

The stream of apologies is already flowing, but Kouyou holds up a hand to stop it. “Cease your self-flagellation, boy,” she says; in the near two years she has known Atsushi, his habitual self-deprecation has cleared up a great deal, but he still has his moments. “You are not in any trouble, but you can imagine how it must appear to fall asleep mid-job, particularly when you take the form of a Siberian tiger.”

Slowly, Atsushi brings his head up, whimpering a little. His pupils are still slitted, which Kouyou opts not to point out lest his self-consciousness spread to that. Kyouka tosses a glance over her shoulder, but otherwise, she seems ambivalent about the whole incident. She’s turned the volume of the television up a few notches.

“Still, it’s embarrassing,” he says, bringing up a hand to rub at the back of his neck. Kouyou doesn’t disagree, so she doesn’t, only arching an eyebrow. Atsushi swallows back a yawn, wide eyes shooting across the room before they land on the back of Kyouka’s head. “Ah! Kyouka-chan, you’re still awake! Were you just alone out here for—for however long I was asleep? I’m so sorry!”

Kyouka lifts the remote, using it to gesture to the television screen—on which a gazelle is being pursued by two lionesses, the ominous music stings just loud enough to hear—and then raises her pencil. “One hour and twenty-seven minutes,” she adds, curt. “Your snoring wasn’t that bad.”

It’s likely meant to be reassuring, but it seems to have the opposite effect by informing him he had snored at all. Kouyou sees this as the natural conclusion from falling asleep as a tiger, which Atsushi does seem wont to do more often than he does in his standard form, but she doesn’t point it out.

Before Atsushi can spiral again, then, she interrupts. “Regardless, it seems you are in significant need of sleep, boy. Did you wish to stay for a cup of tea,” she says, as he does most nights nowadays, “or return to your apartment to resume that? Kasa-san is still outside if it is the latter.”

“Um—thank you for offering, really, but tea might make things worse—” Atsushi laughs, seemingly more on reflex than anything else, and scratches his cheek “—and I wouldn’t want to keep Kasa-san waiting. Just, uh, can I have a minute to finish waking back up first?” His expression drips sheepishness.

Kouyou waves a dismissive but not wholly unsympathetic hand. “Certainly. There is no particular rush, and I intend to see you out regardless. Kyouka, if you would not mind—”

Without her needing to finish the sentence, Kyouka is already closing her sketchbook and rising with it gathered against her chest. “Goodnight,” she tells Atsushi, inclining her head.

Atsushi hurries to nod back. “Goodnight, Kyouka-chan,” he rushes out, plastering on a bright smile. “Again, sorry about, um—”

Kyouka shrugs again, then steps away without so much as another word. “I shall be after you in a few moments,” Kouyou calls after her, earning little more than a brief pause of acknowledgment before Kyouka disappears into the shadows of the hall.

The stairs creak, but aside from the distant sound and the remaining noises of the television—namely, that of a gazelle’s neck being torn into—Kouyou and Atsushi are left in the silence of the living room. A still-flustered Atsushi seems to be struggling to shake himself back to full consciousness, blinking hard. Kouyou regards him with an arch expression that he can no doubt feel the weight of, though he doesn’t acknowledge it.

With a heavy breath, Kouyou reaches for the television remote, flicking it off. “If you are remaining here several minutes longer,” she tells Atsushi with a side glance, “then you may as well sit with me while I prepare my tea. I do still need to pay you, after all.”

“Oh,” says Atsushi, startling. “Um, sure?” He stumbles to his feet, then seems to process the sentence in full—Kouyou is already turning and walking away, but she can imagine Atsushi waving his hands in desperation even with her back to him. “Ah, but you really don’t need to pay me as much as you have been, Kouyou-san! I have another part-time job now, actually, so I’ll really be okay—and I like hanging out with Kyouka-chan, so this isn’t even much of a job at this point. And I fell asleep tonight, so—”

“I shall pay you however much I chose to, boy,” says Kouyou without turning, voice light and airy but still carrying a threat. She hears Atsushi’s gulp and only smiles as she continues toward the side room. “And you shall accept it.”

“But—”

“No buts, Atsushi-kun. How is the state of your bank account?”

That receives no answer, which is an answer in and of itself. Kouyou clicks her tongue, refusing to entertain any more of this, and picks up the pace. Used to this routine by now, Atsushi settles right down at the table while Kouyou slips into the kitchen to gather her supplies from the cabinet. She steps back out to settle down across from him in silence.

The fine movements of matcha preparation are all but muscle memory for Kouyou by now. In her earliest years, she’d prepared it only for herself, so when she’d reached a point in her life where others had watched her, it had been a touch unnerving. Over a decade’s worth of time has allowed her to adjust, and now Atsushi’s glances are little more than background fuzz. His gaze, though, is a touch more intense than most of the idle glances Kouyou earns during the process, what with the hawk-like eyes—or perhaps tiger-like, she supposes, pupils at last dilating but now looking more like a housecat’s than a human’s.

Kouyou is keen to ignore this until his nose starts twitching, likely a subconscious motion but still a visible one. Hands framing the sides of the bowl, she glances up. “Are you certain you did not want some?” she asks, amused. “Making two servings is hardly a great deal more cumbersome than making one.”

Atsushi’s shoulders jolt up, eyes widening guiltily. “Ah—um, no, that’s fine. Thank you again, though.”

“If you say so.” Kouyou shakes her head to herself and takes a long sip, the warm temperature and earthy taste bringing her eyes shut. By the time she opens them, Atsushi is looking away and picking at a seam on his sleeve, so she lowers the bowl with consideration. “Since you are here… how was Kyouka tonight?”

“Hm?” Atsushi whips his head back around to blink at her. “Oh, Kyouka-chan was fine! She always is, though, so that’s not really too much of a surprise. I was worried after, um—” he casts a concerned, saucer-eyed glance up at her and lowers his voice as though Kyouka can somehow hear this conversation all the way upstairs “—those couple of incidents, you know, but she seems to be doing a lot better now. She ate all of her dinner and some of mine, too.” He laughs, a little huff under his breath. “She was a little quiet, I guess, but not really more than usual, and she was still working on some of her homework by the time I, er, fell asleep.”

Though these are all things Kouyou has noted over the past week, she nods as though they are novel regardless. “And she mentioned nothing about her

“Um, no. But it isn’t like she really talked about that to me before.” Atsushi’s gaze drops with a guilt Kouyou is familiar with—she takes another sip to cover her grimace, though she’s sure he can still tell. “She did mention one of her classmates inviting her to study together, though.”

“Oh?” Kouyou wonders if she’ll hear of this tonight or over breakfast tomorrow.

“Yeah. Midterm exams are coming up at the end of the month, I guess, and this, uh, Aya-chan?” He squints as though trying to recall her name, then seems to deem that correct, nodding to himself. “Aya-chan in her class asked if she wanted to study at either of their houses. Kyouka-chan said no, apparently.”

“That is not especially surprising.” It had never been stated that others were not allowed in the house—Kouyou had given up on enforcing any such rule ten years ago, so she won’t even bother now—but that had never been of much relevance anyway, with how few acquaintances Kyouka had had besides Kouyou’s subordinates, Dazai, and Atsushi. Kouyou can only imagine it would be as unnerving for her to be invited into another’s home. “She has indicated to you that she is still doing well at school, then?”

Atsushi nods. “I mean, she doesn’t say a lot about it still, but actual studying-wise, she seems to be doing pretty well. And she has this Aya-chan and Kenji-kun for friends now, I guess, and every time one of the kids who was, um—whenever one of them even looks at her, Aya-chan starts yelling.”

“I suppose I can tolerate that behavior so long as it is in Kyouka’s defense,” says Kouyou, however beleaguered. Atsushi laughs in vague agreement. “That is good to hear, though. I… had quite a few concerns, I must profess.”

“I think we all did,” says Atsushi, gaze lowering again. “But she has a good support network, at least, and she seems a lot happier now that everything has been handled. Those couple of weeks with the bruise—” He shudders.

Kouyou isn’t far off from such a visceral reaction, having to hold back a flinch of her own. “If something like that ever happens again,” she says darkly, “then I shall not hesitate to begin disemboweling the ones at fault.” Atsushi makes a half-cough, half-laugh sound, tentative and awkward, like he isn’t quite sure whether she’s joking or not. She is not, but she gives him a bright, too-wide smile across the table regardless. “But we needn’t worry about that at the moment, no? She does seem to be doing better.”

“Um, yeah,” says Atsushi, looking even more troubled by how fast Kouyou’s tone has turned.

Still smiling, Kouyou continues to sip at her tea. “For what it is worth, lad, I am sure time spent with you is helping matters.”

On what seems to be sheer instinct, Atsushi laughs again and reaches to fidget with his collar. Kouyou has no doubt, however, of the truth in her words, even if they’re embarrassing to hear—his friendship is perhaps dearer to Kyouka now than any other.

It’s the earnestness he brings that reminds Kouyou of the importance it holds in Kyouka’s life. When she’d had to seek out a babysitter, Kouyou had only planned on finding one who could keep an eye on Kyouka and understand her and the dangers of the world well enough to protect her. She had considered choosing a guard from her subordinates, even, and even when Dazai had flung one of his first-year students toward her lap, she’d had some accompany Atsushi. Gin in particular had ended up watching Atsushi on his so-called trial run and adding extra security. Though Kouyou does still sometimes bring her people in, since Atsushi is too busy with college sometimes and the level of security his ability brings isn’t always enough, now she can’t imagine having hired someone that hadn’t so much as liked or gotten along with Kyouka.

That bill is one Atsushi most certainly fits, even now. “I don’t have any biological siblings, and I was never really close with the other kids in the orphanage I grew up in,” he had told Kouyou once, strained laughter undercutting the words despite the pained expression on his face. “So I guess Kyouka-chan is the closest thing to a sister I’ve ever had.”

It had cut too close to Kouyou’s own history, her memories of being even younger than Atsushi is now and having a younger sibling figure forced into her care. She hadn’t said so, then or since, but Atsushi must be able to draw the connection. She hadn’t pointed out, either, that Kyouka likely thought (and still does think) the same of him, but she’s sure Atsushi knows that too.

It’s why she trusts him with Kyouka now, which speaks volumes more than any personal feelings of trust or respect she has toward him. Their shared familial affection for Kyouka has more or less eased any tension by now, and despite the prevalence of blatant and subtle threats alike Kouyou had thrown Atsushi’s ways in their first few months of acquaintance, they’re on decent terms now. Kouyou would not call what they share friendship, but it is an amicable dynamic regardless. They can tolerate each other’s presences, at least, and Atsushi’s importance to Kyouka—and, to some extent, Dazai—has granted him some to Kouyou as well.

Perhaps out of reciprocation of this, Atsushi smiles at her now, valiantly overcoming his embarrassment and changing the topic. “How have you been, Kouyou-san? You look, um—no offense, but you look… tired.”

“Pardon me, but who is the one I found asleep on my couch mere minutes ago?” Kouyou narrows her eyes, making Atsushi flush and sputter. With a sigh, though, she lets her shoulders drop. “Between Kyouka’s situation and difficulties with work, I do suppose I have been under a bit of strain as of late.”

“Oh.” Atsushi doesn’t quite tense up when her work is brought up the same way as he had when they’d first met, but there’s still an instinctive flash in his eyes. “I hope everything clears up soon, then, Kouyou-san.”

Kouyou inclines her head in frustration and gratitude alike. “As do I.” She drains her bowl as if in a belated and solo toast, then sets it down and rises, gesturing for Atsushi to follow. “Well, then, we shan’t keep Kasa-san waiting much longer. Do not think you can distract me out of paying you, either, boy. Come.”

Though sheepish, Atsushi follows in her wake, unable to hide the pleased glint in his eyes.

*

Bright sunlight and the heat it brings with it stream through the windows, casting a glow upon the kitchen that Kouyou has tried her best to shut out, although by now she’s given up on preventing the thinnest cracks of light from slipping in on behalf of not letting her food get cold. It is too early for this extent of illumination, really, but it is nearing the end of May, and there’s little Kouyou can do about it but fume into her meal. So fume, mostly silently, she does.

Any sense of outright irritation—at least at the lighting—has trickled away by now, though. Her hands glide with practiced ease between the bowls and platters on her end of the table. Aside from the gentle sounds of chewing and occasional clinking of utensils, the room is quiet, a sense of peace having descended over it.

It is not an uncommon morning in the household, but those have felt less and less common the past month. The long stretches of silence, once comforting, put Kouyou on edge now, wondering what is being left unspoken. She knows well that it is a feeling that will likely pass with time, but it is no less unsettling, a familiar routine turned stiff and borderline threatening.

Kyouka, opposite her and sitting still save for the movements of her jaws and arms, seems unaffected. She’ll give Kouyou an occasional searching look, but otherwise the tension that seems in every direction to Kouyou appears not to have swept over her. Kouyou isn’t sure whether to count it as a blessing or a curse.

Since the food on the table has been dwindling away, however, she clears her throat to break the silence. Mid-bite, Kyouka glances up at her.

“I hadn’t much of a chance to ask you last night,” says Kouyou idly, nudging at a bowl of steamed vegetables, more so toying with them than preparing to eat one, “so I wished to do so now. School has been all right this week, yes?”

Kyouka nods, still chewing. The tamagoyaki she’d bit into had been Kouyou’s, but an exchange of glances had preceded the transaction, and Kouyou doesn’t mind regardless.

“And you have had no more trouble, correct?” Kouyou doesn’t need to clarify what she means by that, between Kyouka’s intelligence and the darkening of her voice.

Kyouka shakes her head. This time, she swallows in time to say, “There was an assembly, and then a special announcement in our homeroom class. They got switched to a different class, too.”

“Truly?” Kouyou’s eyebrows jump, and Kyouka nods. “My, that Fukuzawa-sensei truly is efficient. I hadn’t expected the response to be so drastic, frankly—but so long as it is effective, I cannot offer any criticism.”

“Mm,” is all Kyouka has to say to that, but that could just be because she’s started in on her rice again.

Kouyou watches with a smile for a moment before pulling free a carrot slice. “And your schoolwork itself has been going well too, I imagine.” Another nod. “Atsushi-kun mentioned that your midterm exams were approaching.”

“They are next week,” confirms Kyouka. Before Kouyou even has the opportunity to ask, she adds, “I am prepared.”

Looking at the determined set of her face, Kouyou can only believe it. “I am sure,” she agrees, lips quirking farther up. “Well, I shall wish you good luck regardless.”

“I don’t need luck,” says Kyouka, a sentiment that would have sounded like a boast from almost anyone else but just sounds true from her. There’s a pause, and then: “But thank you.”

“Of course.” Kouyou inclines her head, curls her hand momentarily over her spreading smile before Kyouka takes it as anything aligned with mockery, and takes a quick sip of tea. “Atsushi-kun also mentioned to me that you had begun getting along with one of your classmates. An Aya-chan, I believe?”

Kyouka, who has just reached for another piece of tamagoyaki, pauses to take a bite before setting it back down. She nods, almost to herself. “She is… loud. But nice,” she adds, the statement lilting halfway into a question.

“Not too far off from Atsushi-kun, then,” says Kouyou dryly.

Kyouka makes a face like she can’t disagree but doesn’t want to agree either. She does neither by just reaching for her miso soup and draining what’s left of it.

“All the same, it is nice to hear you are making some friends. From what Atsushi-kun said, I take it she is the one you mentioned who told off those vermin beforehand.”

“Yes,” says Kyouka, albeit with a slight grimace. “She was on cleaning duty with us that time.”

There is a great deal left unsaid there, Kouyou assumes, but she chooses not to force Kyouka to recount the incident in great detail, only nodding. “Having someone like that for a friend will no doubt be valuable as well. Can she fight?”

“She’s in the judo club, so I think so.”

Kouyou pauses. “I was unaware there was a judo club.”

Kyouka shrugs. “They gave an exhibition a couple of weeks ago. It was fun to watch. Kendo looks cooler, though. I might join that next year.”

Though this is news to Kouyou, Kyouka says it like she’s long since decided on doing so—and like it’s not a might but absolutely will. “It is your decision,” says Kouyou, quirking her head. “Is there any reason you are waiting until next year, though?”

“I want to see more matches first. And just focus on schoolwork for now.”

Kyouka could no doubt balance the activities well were she to put her mind to it, but Kouyou accepts this pragmatic reasoning with little more than a nod. With the stoic expression, neutral voice, and calm posture she maintains most of the time, it is difficult to think of Kyouka being overwhelmed, but, as little as Kouyou likes agreeing with him, Dazai had made a point with his simple statement of She is twelve. A mature, smart, and hard-working twelve-year-old, by all means, but still a traumatized twelve-year-old who’s just accrued more trauma. Kouyou does not need to be reminded of this, but sometimes she thinks Kyouka herself does.

Their silence resumes as they finish up their meals—and this time, Kouyou is relieved to find, the quiet is genuinely tranquil and soothing. The last notes of the conversation had veered toward the somber, but that tone melts away as soon as Kyouka swipes more tamagoyaki from Kouyou’s plate. Kouyou just shakes her head instead of pointing out that Kyouka still has her own salmon left.

Regardless, the dishes end up all but licked clean after a few more moments. Kouyou finishes up her tea while Kyouka reclines, calm at a glance but a bit antsy when looked at closer—in anticipation for school, Kouyou surmises.

Setting her empty cup down, Kouyou checks the clock. “There should still be several moments before Kasa-san arrives. Would you be willing to share some of your work from last night?” When Kyouka only blinks, Kouyou clarifies, “Your sketches, not your homework, though I would be more than happy to check over the latter.”

The request, she knows, is one Kyouka will not take her up on—she sometimes prompts Atsushi or Dazai for assistance on her homework, but only once every roughly five months, and though she’s even asked Chuuya and some of Kouyou’s other subordinates once or twice, she’s never asked Kouyou. Kouyou has opted not to see it as anything personal and perhaps even an extension of good will by not adding further stresses to Kouyou’s life. In the face of strained alliances and troublesome subordinates, she thinks she would almost prefer junior high schoolwork sometimes, but it isn’t up to her.

The former opportunity, however, is one Kyouka nods at. She remains just long enough to gather up her dishes and set them in the sink before slipping upstairs, not saying so but no doubt soon to return.

Kouyou smiles to herself and moves to wash the dishes.

*

Being a leader means becoming accustomed to sacrifice. Being the leader of the Port Mafia means all but embodying sacrifice, in particular in relation to others’ lives—or at least it had, over a decade ago.

Collateral damage had been one of Mori’s favorite phrases, Kouyou is half-certain. And as for his own predecessor… the hundreds of reports, buried deep enough in Kouyou’s office that even she couldn’t locate them without some effort now, listing off the bloody altercations and violent executions his leadership had caused speak for themselves.

Mori had been a step up from that, but only in that he’d made his violence and weighed odds less flagrant. The man who had led the Mafia when Kouyou was young had been slipping in his last few years, almost destroying Yokohama in his bid to control it, calling for death and desolation in all directions, even if it meant skyscrapers toppling down under their own weight, piles of bodies weighing the very city down. When that man had wanted someone dead, he had made a show of it, a grotesque display that Kouyou still bore the stains of. When Mori had, he’d done it without (much) fanfare and covered it up as illness.

Kouyou likes to think that she meets some sort of middle ground there, or operates outside of the framework her predecessors had set forth entirely. She wraps her steel in silk, but aside from her presentation, she sees little use in cloaking her brutality. Sacrifice is not new to her, but she holds it to a different definition than she surmises the previous bosses had. Collateral damage is sometimes necessary, but Kouyou does aim to prevent it whenever possible.

And then, of course, there is the sacrifice of some of her subordinates knowing details of her personal life.

A younger Kouyou would have balked at the thought. Now, Kouyou has come to be indifferent on the matter—when the entirety of the organization falls under the term subordinates, the vast majority don’t know much; the lowest in the ranks, not even properly initiated yet, might not even know her face. The remainder rank high enough or have known her long enough that they’ve earned it, and most don’t outright ask regardless.

Among those who aren’t high enough up that speaking with her is far from a normal occurrence, too, rumors invariably circulate. Like blood, they are difficult to clean up without leaving a trace; like cockroaches, they are resilient; and like disease, their spread is fast and merciless.

Though some had threatened almost to choke Kouyou when first she’d vested control of the organization—the truth that she had once tried to defect, and the lie that Mori’s death had been at her hands—now few are damning enough to topple her. There will always be whispers, whether they hold any water or not. Asking people in a line of work where information is as much a form of currency as violence is not to gossip is like asking scorpions not to sting; they can’t go against their nature.

Kouyou ignores most of the rumors. Some, she does have to handle, like the incident years back where someone had claimed to have video footage of Mori’s alleged killing. Others, she finds amusing or effective enough to let slip, like the fearmongering murmurs among Tachihara’s subordinates that she bathes in the blood of traitors.

Willingly volunteering information is still a separate beast altogether, though. Had she not had to arrange for Kyouka’s protection, Kouyou might never have mentioned her mere existence to anyone besides Chuuya, and the amount of people who know is far greater than the amount she’d outright told, having spread even to some distant allies over the past two years. Whom Chuuya has lived with for over ten years, and that he lives with someone at all, is a similar brand of open secret.

Information and violence are both forms of currency the Mafia deals in, which means that the right information reaching the wrong person is more dangerous than most of them are willing to risk. Still, curiosity is a natural emotion, and even more so under the sense of privacy most mafiosi hold to. There is a certain balance Kouyou seeks to maintain: Open enough that she is trusted, but closed-off enough that she is obeyed.

Given the Mafia’s key rules, that isn’t too difficult. People wonder, she’s sure, but gossip and Kouyou’s occasional allowance often sate them well enough.

It is one thing for Kouyou to be aware of all of this, though, and another to feel the weight of dozens of her people’s stares—and, of those bold and high-ranking enough, spoken questions—upon her.

For over a month, that has been Kouyou’s state of existence, only truly fading when she’s alone in her office or with those of a less intrusive demeanor. After closing out a meeting with Higuchi with another inquiry into Kyouka’s wellbeing that Kouyou had again responded to by suggesting that Higuchi go with Kasa to pick Kyouka up from school—and then roping Akutagawa in when Higuchi had seemed to take it as a slight against her skill set this time—it is relieving to meet with the Black Lizard lieutenants.

Hirotsu sits as calm yet poised as he ever does, the sunset shining in through the open windows illuminating the lines of age in his face. Were it not for Gin’s occasional shifts in posture, they would almost blend into the chair they’re seated in. Tachihara is far less composed, slouched—though he jolts upright every time Kouyou looks right at him—and loud as ever, but even that is more comforting than a sudden attempt at tact.

“So—” he’d said the first time Kouyou had seen him after things had resolved, so to speak, and she’d cut him off with a brusque, “Kyouka had no difficulties in beating up her classmates herself, but I am sure she is still grateful for your repeated offers.”

Now, things are strictly business again. Hirotsu, not one to pull punches, had outright opened with a discussion of the interlopers that have been getting closer and closer to breaking the terms of the agreement Kouyou had worked out with their leader months ago. Looking right at Gin, Kouyou hadn’t danced around matters either, stating in no uncertain terms: “Do bring me that vile beast’s head.”

If they’d smiled, it had been hidden by their mask, but their nod and narrowed eyes had made their intent clear enough.

Less notable business has been covered as well, of course. A smaller operation is to precede anything of that scale, a raid of an unrelated group that has been sniffing around their warehouses just enough as of late to have almost pulled off several outright thefts. It never ceases to amuse Kouyou how many people are unwise enough to make an enemy out of the Port Mafia.

As the meeting comes to a head, Hirotsu mentions something far less amusing. The way he rubs at the bridge of his nose is a sign enough that Kouyou isn’t going to like what she’s about to hear, if it’s enough to get him to show irritation. Indeed, when he adds, “Ace-san requested a meeting with you,” Kouyou mimics Hirotsu by tensing her jaw.

“Tell that man,” she says through her teeth, bared in a painful smile, “that he hasn’t the ability to order me around like cattle. He pays us, not the other way around, and lately he has been slacking on that payment. If he is so desperate to meet with someone, then surely he can meet with one of our collectors.”

Tachihara is all but vibrating out of his seat by the time they wrap up, with well wishes from Kouyou’s side—“Good luck in clearing out the vermin,” she tells them in approval of Hirotsu’s plans—and bows and reassurances from the Black Lizard’s. Kouyou is too, but she’s far more surreptitious about it. The three still all give her pointed looks as they rise.

Gin’s seems the sharpest, perhaps on behalf of the rest of their personality, but they’re also the first to nod and move on, ponytail flowing after them. Hirotsu isn’t far behind them. Tachihara opens his mouth and then closes it, choosing for once just to fall in line.

“Tell Kyouka we said hi,” he calls over his shoulder. Hirotsu sighs, and Gin elbows him, but neither argues with the we part of the sentence, just filing out without another word.

Kouyou smiles at the door as it closes, but it’s in part to cover her instinct to wince. The offhanded but earnest call is an inadvertent reminder of just what has had her restless even in times like these.

Once they’ve cleared out, Kouyou is quick to locate her personal phone and skim through it. No calls from the school await her. A text from Kyouka at first has her pausing, with how little Kyouka actually uses her phone, but opening it reveals only a blurry picture of Akutagawa in the passenger seat of Kasa’s car. The caption is a simple question mark.

Kouyou almost smiles, sending back a vague reassurance before heading back to gather up a stack of paperwork she can complete at home. It will be some time yet, Kouyou reasons, before she can’t get through a meeting without the muted worries and even more distant guilt at the back of her mind spilling over during stretches of silence—and before she can refrain from checking her messages whenever she’s given the chance. It will likely be even longer before her subordinates’ curiosity dies off and something more interesting than their boss’s recent unease grabs ahold of them.

But at the very least, they seem to be approaching a sense of normalcy again.

*

The American couple across the street is arguing again. Kouyou, stopping as she steps out of the car to Kasa’s placid goodbyes, spares their house a glance of bemusement; her English is decent, but whatever they’re saying is too distant to make anything out. Perhaps she’s better off for not understanding, she decides as she steps toward her door, shaking her head.

Had Kouyou the choice, she would have lived far away from any other settlements, but these are the cards she has been dealt. As far as neighbors go, the pair isn’t horrid, really—they’re pleasant enough when they encounter Kouyou, which is infrequent enough that she isn’t even certain if they are a couple, though the woman is haughty and self-centered and the man isn’t much better off, given he’d tried to proselytize Kouyou in broken Japanese two weeks after moving in. (Kouyou had closed the door in his face without a word. His roommate had offered monetary compensation the week later, referring to him in terms—mostly insults—that had done nothing to clarify their relationship.)

The two had moved in around four or five years ago now, and their conduct had loosened a bit by the time Kyouka had joined Kouyou’s household. The woman had brought money for New Year’s several months ago—it hadn’t been much, and coming from someone not much more than a stranger it had been odd, but Kyouka had seemed to appreciate it regardless. Kouyou supposes that the best reflection of their relationship is that they’ve been acquainted for at least four years but still have never exchanged proper introductions.

Their bickering is startling at first, but it isn’t too disruptive, especially the farther away Kouyou gets, which she endeavors to do as fast as possible. The sounds and any thoughts of the neighbors fade out when she steps inside the house, hesitating for a moment at the silence that sets in when she slides the door shut behind her.

It isn’t strange, with how quiet Kyouka is, but entering the house without her a mere hour after school would have wrapped up is a bit odd. Kouyou’s schedule doesn’t allow for personally picking up Kyouka every day, but she has managed it for the past several weeks, so today had been a deviation from that habit.

In setting her boots down, Kouyou notices one more set of shoes than she expects—a familiar pair, at least, though she still swallows a groan. Just because the sight is a familiar one doesn’t mean it’s in a comforting sense. She’ll need to stop upstairs to at least wash her hands, then. Kouyou steps up into the hall, already shrugging off her haori and cutting a quick path toward the stairs.

Kyouka isn’t in the living room or her room, nor does anyone seem to be in the kitchen when Kouyou glances in on her way past, so she and their guests must be either outside or in one of the side rooms. That would account for the lack of noise, too.

Kouyou washes her hands twice over and fixes up her hair before heading back downstairs. When she starts toward the kitchen this time, it’s then that she notices the sound of computer keys clicking.

The threads stitch together. A gentle sigh leaves Kouyou as she approaches Dazai’s hunched form, leaning over his laptop where it rests on the side room table.

Years ago, the sight wouldn’t have been so odd. It had been rare for Kouyou to go four days without hearing his raucous voice or seeing his bandaged face back when he and Chuuya had been in high school, whether because they’d ended up in the school health room or because he’d been loitering in Kouyou’s house or because he’d been lurking in the corner of the room while she spoke with Mori. Their second year of high school had in particular forced her to adjust to Dazai’s presence, with how often he’d been over during the first part of the year and the two-month period he’d lived here after Mori’s death. Even after Oda had signed off on his adoption papers, Kouyou still hadn’t blinked at seeing Dazai perched on the kitchen counter or sprawled across the couch.

Now, it’s rarer to see him without being warned about his presence in advance. Noting with some amusement that neither her shadow nor reflection are visible at this exact angle, Kouyou avoids the creaking floorboards and stops only when she’s right behind him.

“You’ll require a back brace before you reach forty at this rate,” she says calmly, and although Dazai has never been keen on listening to her, let alone obeying, the way he straightens is automatic and mechanical.

Much as he tries to pass it off, it still takes him a moment to recover, reaching back to rub at the nape of his neck. “Good afternoon to you, too, ane-san,” he says without turning his head, smarmy smile audible nevertheless. “Slit any throats today?”

Kouyou eyes the skin just visible between his bandages and hair. “No, but the day is still young.”

Dazai hums in response, not quite a laugh but still amused. “I’m sure you’ll make up for it tomorrow.”

“Perhaps so.” At last, Kouyou glances toward the sliding door to the backyard, noting with muted surprise the two figures visible there. They don’t seem to have noticed her, as focused as they are on their sparring match. “How long have they been at it?”

“Ehh… forty minutes, probably? Though I might have lost track.” Dazai gestures toward his laptop, where his cursor is blinking on the new blank document he seems to have instinctively opened at the sound of Kouyou’s voice. He does that often; in the past, he’s laughed it off as his documents, be they work-related or unfinished manuscripts, containing sensitive information.

Kouyou steps closer, glancing down to look him in the eye. Dazai doesn’t meet her stare, but she asks nonetheless: “And why are you not outside with them? Some sunlight would do you good.”

“I’m a writer, ane-san—I’ll turn to dust.” He flicks a hand toward the window, then pulls an exaggerated face when the light falls upon his spread fingers. “Besides, all that noise and action is distracting, and I am trying to work. It would be a problem if Chuuya’s sweat somehow got on my two-hundred-thousand-yen laptop.”

“Is that so?” Kouyou arches an eyebrow, gaze flickering toward the door. “You can still hear and see them here, and I can smell your sunblock.” Dazai doesn’t react, but she knows him as well as he knows her. “Allow me to guess, then. You made one too many obnoxious comments, and Chuuya sent you inside.”

Dazai sits still for a few seconds, grimace somewhat more genuine, and then sighs, pulling up his other document and resuming typing. “Ane-san, you’re too smart for your own good.”

“I have said the very same thing about you,” says Kouyou, eyes glinting. She doesn’t bother looking at his screen; she does own copies of the novels he’s published (though she intends to never inform him of this, she’s sure he somehow knows), but the working process doesn’t interest her, nor does watching him sift through undergraduate essays.

“Well, I did need to work on this anyway, so it was probably for the best.” He yawns, probably fake but making him stumble on his typing regardless, prompting him to tap the backspace key several times. “But now you’re the one distracting me.”

“Yes, I can tell it deeply troubles you.” Kouyou refrains from rolling her eyes, simply stepping toward the door. “But since you insist, I shall leave you to it.”

“Much appreciated,” says Dazai boredly—if he says anything else, Kouyou intends not to hear it, already stepping out back.

In the couple of minutes that have passed, the sparring has ceased, and Kyouka and Chuuya are now seated on the patch of dirt and grass close to the engawa. At the sound of the door opening, Chuuya stops mid-sentence, instinctive irritation flashing across his face. When he registers that it’s Kouyou, it morphs into embarrassment and then respect as he hurries to lower his head. Beside him, Kyouka pauses in raising a water bottle to her mouth to nod.

“Apologies for the interruption,” says Kouyou, nodding back.

“It’s your house,” points out Chuuya, like it hadn’t been his once too, flicking away a strand of hair slicked with sweat to his forehead. “And we’re taking a break, anyway.”

“All the same…” Not bothering to complete her sentence, Kouyou takes a careful seat where sunlight streams down but doesn’t hit her straight-on. She much prefers spending time out here closer to autumn and winter, when the humidity and brightness threaten less to choke her, but she supposes she can spare this one afternoon. “Have you two been enjoying yourselves, then?”

Kyouka’s nod is immediate. Chuuya’s grin is an answer in and of itself.

“You should have shown up a few minutes ago—Kyouka almost managed to knock me off my feet,” says Chuuya, glowing with both the pride of victory and that of being nearly bested in a way he can respect. “She seems to have picked up Akutagawa’s strategy of bombarding the hell out of opponents before they can get a hit in.”

“That is also your most frequent strategy,” points out Kouyou, unimpressed.

Chuuya scoffs. “Well, yeah, but I can take a hit if I need to. Akutagawa barely can. And Kyouka can’t really either.” He glances half-apologetically toward her, but Kyouka seems to take it with dignity, only closing her eyes as she takes another drink.

“I would like to improve,” she says, setting the bottle down with enough force that some water sloshes free onto the grass. “But if I can first subdue my opponent, then they won’t be able to attack back.”

“You’ve gotta actually subdue them first, though,” says Chuuya absently before pausing. “By subdue, do you mean—”

“I want to learn how to perform chokeholds,” says Kyouka, as serious and neutral as ever.

At once, Chuuya barks out a startled laugh—at Kouyou’s look, he stifles it. “I mean, I could probably teach you that eventually. If ane-san doesn’t mind, of course.”

He reaches for his own bottle of water, but Kyouka twists her head around to stare straight up at Kouyou, fixing her with a look that she must know well Kouyou couldn’t refuse if she tried. “…I am admittedly not thrilled by the idea,” she brings herself to say, “but it is a viable self-defense mechanism regardless.”

Kyouka seems to take this as outright approval and turns back toward Chuuya. It takes him a moment longer to notice than Kouyou had, but the combined weight of Kouyou and Kyouka’s stares have him glancing up after a moment.

“Hey, hey, we’re not gonna start on that type of thing right now,” Chuuya warns. He’s not much better at brushing off Kyouka than Kouyou is, but he manages well enough to only have Kyouka’s eyes narrowing a bit. “I’m rusty at that aspect of judo, anyway—I don’t usually have to get as close to people as you’ll have to.”

Though Kyouka nods in understanding, her head droops a little. Kouyou wishes she had brought some tea out with her, if only to have something to do to stave off the instinct to glare at Chuuya.

Chuuya grimaces. “Well, hey, in the meantime, why don’t we show ane-san what you have been practicing?”

Kouyou settles her expectant gaze on Kyouka, who seems to mull this over for a moment before answering by standing up. Half-relieved and half-triumphant, Chuuya follows suit. Eyeing them from afar, Kouyou clears her throat. Kyouka startles, looking toward her, only to pad dutifully over when Kouyou curls a hand in a beckoning gesture.

Dark hair, slick with sweat, is clinging to Kyouka’s shoulders, half-undone from its standard double ponytails. Kouyou unties it altogether and redoes the careful knots, then brushes back Kyouka’s bangs as much as she can. That effort is in vain, as they fall back into place as soon as Kyouka nods with vague gratitude, but at least the rest of her hair is back into some semblance of neat pigtails now.

Sliding her ponytails back off her shoulders, Kyouka hops back down to the grass. Chuuya straightens to stand opposite her. He opens his mouth, but before he can get so much as a syllable out Kyouka is charging, her surprise attack granting an instant advantage.

Kouyou, laughing gently, sits back and observes.

- here is where it starts to become clear that "background & cameo characters" as a tag translates to "it would literally be easier for me to list off the characters that aren't somehow mentioned." - since gin appears here: i write her as using any and alternating pronouns, generally switching between appearance/speaker here! this is difficult to convey explicitly because pronouns don't work the same way in japanese (and aren't actually as necessary as they are in english) but that is, ftr, a thing. they/she will be most common, but he/him might be used in passing too. anyway, thank you for reading! see you next week! if you have time to spare, thoughts are always appreciated c: twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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