the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 4 chapter cws: references to child injury/bullying, some brief waxing on violence/death/murder.

Kouyou’s body is heavy, and her mind even more so. The day’s worth of work seeps into her bones, making her feel compressed and stiff where she’s tucked into the passenger seat, sitting as straight as ever but still feeling the tightness at the back of her neck like a physical weight.

As usual, Kasa hasn’t said a word; the engine and gentle music on the radio are the only sounds in the car. Kouyou’s eyes rest on the window for the span of several minutes before squeezing shut. Every neon sign and gaudy storefront, bright lights blurring past against the late evening sky, reminds her more of a meeting that had stretched on far too long for how pointless it had been in the end.

When Kouyou had stepped out of The Jewel King, things had been the same as they had been when she’d walked in. If she’s to renegotiate at all, she thinks now, jaw tensing even over an hour removed from the situation, it’ll be to make Ace fork over twice as much for making her talk to him.

In her lifetime, Kouyou has had to deal with a great number of people most aptly described as scum. The vast majority of people aligned with her line of work, after all, fit that bill. From the nouveau riche to those of old blood money, wealth and power corrupt people in a way nothing else can—if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a need for organizations like hers, or at least in some of the areas in which they operate. She isn’t far off from lumping the average cruel person into such a category, either, with the situation with Kyouka earlier this month.

The ebbing tension in Kouyou’s body returns. She lets out a slow, steady sigh, reminding herself that all is as well as it ever will be now, and it won’t be long before she returns home. Kasa turns the radio up just enough to be soothing without disrupting Kouyou’s train of thought.

It is no secret to Kouyou that humanity is cruel and vile, that far more people are intended to lurk in the darkness than to flourish in the light. As a whole, she would say, she dislikes people. She has long since learned how to hold her tongue and feign civility, and she treats her subordinates and those who have not outright wronged her with the respect due to them, but some draw ire from her like no others.

Out of everyone she has interacted with in the past ten years, though, she thinks Ace is near the top of her list of the most infuriating people—if such a term can be used—on the planet.

His cold, mocking remarks ring at the back of Kouyou’s mind even now. Those directed at her, she can handle—though irritating enough that she spends periods of silence, rare as they are, contemplating stabbing him in the throat, they aren’t the worst things she’s heard—but the way he treats his personal guard is far more difficult to stomach. Kouyou would never describe herself as humble, but she isn’t so caught up in herself that she lacks any regard for others’ lives and wellbeing.

Kouyou’s posture stiffens but slants to the side, skin pressing against the cool glass of the window. A scowl twists its way onto her face.

It’s too late to eliminate Ace quietly, unfortunately, or she would have already arranged for such an eradication. Gin has been assigned to work dealing with him several times; Kouyou is sure she would be more than willing to do the honors if ordered to. Years ago, when he’d first begun paying protection fees, it would have been easy.

Even without being a proper member, though, Ace has wormed his way into the heart of the Mafia, and he’s made his connections and network of information clear. His casino, too, does do well enough that Kouyou can’t yet justify removing it as a source of income and business. Getting rid of him wouldn’t be impossible to recover from, but the probable cavalcade of consequences isn’t one Kouyou is willing to deal with now. His habit of throwing money and precious jewels around is as irritating from a business standpoint as it is a personal one—it means that there are plenty of people in a position to take solid hits out of the Port Mafia’s operations should Ace disappear.

Someday, though—someday, Kouyou tells herself, she is going to drive her katana straight through Ace’s heart.

She almost smiles at the thought. Instead, she just takes a deep, steady breath and brings herself to straighten, noting somewhere that the engine has ceased rumbling.

“Kouyou-sama,” comes Kasa’s voice, calm but somewhat dry, like this isn’t the first time she’s had to say it. “We have arrived.”

With some difficulty, Kouyou pulls her eyes open to blink at the dark shape of the house to the side. She wipes at her kimono as though Ace’s blood already coats her palms. “Thank you,” she says, reaching for the door. “Atsushi-kun shall be out in a few moments, I surmise.”

Kasa nods, dimples deepening. She’s still facing forward, but her eyes follow Kouyou as she slips out of the car. It should be too dark for her to be able to follow Kouyou’s movements with any precision—especially given that she has at least ten years on Kouyou, if not double that—but if she struggles at all, she gives no sign of it.

The quiet slam of the door echoes in the empty night; it’s close enough to summer that the air is balmy around Kouyou, containing some traces of a chill but overall still too humid for her tastes. At least it isn’t raining tonight, Kouyou reasons as she reaches for her keys on her way up to the door.

The buzz of the television is audible the instant she steps inside. It’s too distant for Kouyou to make out the actual programming, but it brings a smile to her face regardless. She leaves her boots next to a pair of new sneakers she recognizes as those she’d bought Atsushi for his latest birthday, a well-needed replacement for the worn pair he’d clung to beforehand. The laces are undone, Kouyou notes with an absent click of her tongue.

A problem for later, she decides, and not even one of her own. As she presses forward down the hall, Kouyou inhales, letting her shoulders go slack and her gait become more leisurely. The heaviness in her body recedes, still present but more tolerable.

Kouyou rounds the corner toward the living room in near silence, peering at the area around the coffee table without bothering to see what’s on TV. The familiar sight of Kyouka perched on the floor and Atsushi curled into the corner of the couch has her pausing for a moment before stepping closer, gliding past the areas of the floor where the shift in weight would give her away. This time, at least, Atsushi isn’t asleep, though judging from the slump of his shoulders and the half-lidded glaze of his eyes he isn’t too far off.

Kyouka notices her first, of course, glancing up out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head. Kouyou nods, and Kyouka nods back. It takes Atsushi until Kouyou presses down on the floorboards just enough to make them creak.

At the sound, he jolts upright, pupils narrowing to slits and wide eyes darting around the living room—when they land on Kouyou, he startles back, no less alert but at least easing back into the cushions. “Good evening, Kouyou-san,” he’s quick to greet, mustering a half-apologetic smile.

“Good evening.” Kouyou returns the smile, though there’s a more teasing edge to hers, and tilts her head back to regard Atsushi with an arched eyebrow. “I am impressed, I must admit, that you are still awake at such an hour.”

Atsushi preens—and then attempts to wipe drool from his face in a surreptitious manner, which means that it is of course the most conspicuous thing Kouyou, who is the leader of an organized crime syndicate, has ever seen in her life. “It’s been kind of difficult to fall asleep with this playing,” he says, gesturing at the television.

Kouyou glances that way too, finding some sort of crime procedural playing. It doesn’t seem like a particularly good one. “I see.” Again, she glances at Kyouka, who only shrugs. “Well, as usual, you are free to stay for a few moments,” Kouyou tells Atsushi, returning her attention to him, “but if your beauty sleep is calling, then Kasa-san is waiting outside.”

“Um,” starts Atsushi, but whatever he’d been attempting to say is cut off by a more forceful yawn. Even in human form, it’s impressively cat-like. When his eyes have managed to flutter back open, he glances down at Kyouka. “Sorry, but I should probably be heading back.”

“You needn’t apologize, boy.” It is with a great reserve of patience that Kouyou keeps from rolling her eyes. Atsushi seems like he wants to apologize again, so she speaks before he can: “I shall see you out, then. I do still need to pay you.”

“Ah, uh, right.” Atsushi scratches at the back of his neck, swallows another yawn, and scrambles to his feet. He has to steady himself on the back of the couch, teetering back and forth. Kyouka eyes him with concern from the floor, and he takes the opportunity to nod down at her. “Goodnight, Kyouka-chan. It was fun hanging out today.”

Kyouka inclines her head. “Goodnight,” she returns, bringing the briefest of smiles to Atsushi’s face before he scurries out of the room.

Kouyou walks him to the door, handing over his pay and smiling at the complete lack of resistance this time. “Oh, yes,” she adds just as he’s reaching for the doorknob, goodbyes already having been exchanged. “You may want to tie your shoelaces.”

“What?” says Atsushi, startled, and promptly trips over the front step.

After Atsushi’s knees have been checked over for any injuries—just some scrapes that are already healing up by the time he straightens, his healing factor kicking in at a speed that always takes Kouyou aback—and his shoelaces have been secured, Kouyou steps back into the house. The distant sound of the television has faded, but when she returns to the living room, Kyouka is sitting in the same place.

Kyouka lifts her head. She’d been holding the remote, but she sets it down on the coffee table and pulls herself to her feet, as though she’d been waiting for Kouyou to reappear.

“Good evening,” Kouyou says again, tension seeping away. “It is impressive that you are awake at this hour, too, I must admit. Were you planning on sleeping soon as well?”

The answer to that, it turns out, is a resounding no. Within a few minutes, the two of them are in the kitchen, Kyouka seated patiently at the table and Kouyou heating up some spring rolls from what she and Atsushi had ordered from dinner. It had been surprising enough that there had even been leftovers, with Kyouka and Atsushi’s combined appetites, but Kouyou shan’t look the gift horse in the mouth. She doesn’t mind doing this, either; it’s more methodical and calming than most of what she’s had to do today, and it allows her to ask after Kyouka’s day.

“It was better than mine, I surmise, though that is not saying much,” she says as she sets the platter down on the table, deeming it to have cooled down enough. Kyouka doesn’t answer with more than a considering look, too busy diving in. Kouyou leans against the side of the table. “You finished your midterm exams today, yes?”

Kyouka’s fixation on her food doesn’t allow for a wholly reciprocal conversation, but her nod is all Kouyou requires.

“How has that been going?”

“Fine,” says Kyouka, pausing in between bites. “I didn’t have to do much, but it was good that I studied a lot.” That she had; this past week, between Kouyou’s work and Kyouka’s studying, they had seen little of each other outside of breakfast and sometimes dinner. Seeing Kyouka get invested to that extent had been, at the very least, somewhat comforting, even if the time apart had been offputting in a way it never had before. “I think I did well.”

“I am sure you did.” As empty reassurances are not in Kouyou’s nature, the words contain absolute certainty, and Kyouka smiles into her next bite.

Finding it odd to simply hover, even if she isn’t eating, Kouyou makes to sit—then she stops, eyeing the shrimp filling of the spring rolls and considering how long it has been since she’d last eaten. Not even having sat all the way down, Kouyou rises again and steps toward the refrigerator. Kyouka doesn’t so much as blink.

Kouyou leans in to inspect their leftovers, not wanting to put together a proper meal this late. “Were there any you particularly enjoyed?” she asks over her shoulder. Framing exams as something to be enjoyed is perhaps not something most would say, but neither Kouyou nor Kyouka is included in most of anything.

Out of the corners of her eyes, she watches the contemplative expression cross Kyouka’s face. It takes a few more crunching bites for Kyouka to decide on an answer. “English and math,” is what she says in the end, brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Kunikida-sensei told me that I was the only one in the class to get a couple of the questions right.”

“Oh? You must be proud of that.” Kouyou is, at least, even if Kyouka only shrugs. “I am sure everything turned out well enough, but were you concerned about any?”

Kyouka shrugs again, somewhere between too confident to have any significant worries and too stoic to admit to having any. “Science,” she says when she’s done with her next bite, “but just because of how Kajii-sensei teaches. He didn’t actually go over a lot of the textbook in class.”

“You read that on your own time, though, do you not?”

Kyouka nods. Kouyou decides not to ask about the more vague aspects of her day, assuming the only answers she’ll get will be monosyllabic at best. Any questions leave her mind when she triumphantly pulls a two-day-old container of miso soup from the refrigerator and a bag of half-formed gyoza from the freezer, at any rate.

At the latter, Kyouka blinks. “There was gyoza?” she says, probably not trying to sound faux-disinterested but not pulling it off either way.

Smiling, Kouyou sets both down on the counter and moves to locate a pan and saucepan. “There is likely enough for the both of us, if you are still hungry when you are finished with those.”

Her back is turned to Kyouka now, but she can feel the judgmental stare burning into her nevertheless. Kouyou shakes her head, still smiling, and gets to work.

No matter how troubling her actual work becomes, she reminds herself, she’ll always have this to return to.

*

On a Sunday afternoon, the shopping center is bustling, tourists and locals alike weaving in and out of its array of shops and restaurants. Toting bags and boxes, they shuffle about, sidestepping other passersby and chatting as they continue on their way. Traffic flows as thickly within the buildings as along streets in the densest areas of the city.

Being among the fray is far from what Kouyou—or Kyouka, for that matter—would consider a typical day of recreation, but here they are regardless. They don’t blend into the crowd, but they sift through the throng all the same, a guiding arm around Kyouka’s shoulders. The trip had been by Kyouka’s request, to Kouyou’s surprise, but it had quickly turned into an excuse for Kouyou to attempt to accommodate the growth spurt Kyouka is beginning to hit and usher her into various clothing stores.

That goal is one that has waxed and waned over the past hour-and-a-half. Kouyou is neither surprised nor troubled by how often they’ve gotten sidetracked, really; there’s not a great deal of clothing sold here that appeals to either Kyouka or herself, but plenty else does. Kyouka has earned something like this, anyway, and her enjoyment is enough for Kouyou to tolerate the noise and masses and distant distaste of plans not working out.

When they step out of the latest shop, then, it’s not a frown Kouyou is masking but a smile. Kyouka is hefting the third stuffed animal she’d nabbed thus far, a lanky—nearly half her height—rabbit-like figure patterned with stars. The cashier had offered a bag, but Kyouka’s determined stare had dashed any such notions.

If she has to, though, Kyouka will just set it in whichever other bags she and Kouyou have on hand and pass it off to the pair of subordinates Kouyou had brought along, as she had with the previous two. There’s some clear wear around her eyes and a slight lag in her step, though, so Kouyou isn’t sure they’ll be here long enough for that to be necessary.

Noticing Kyouka clinging to Kouyou’s sleeve more so than matching her brisk pace, Kouyou slows and steers them off toward a clearer side area. An empty bench is available, but Kyouka doesn’t do more than glance at it. She adjusts her grip on her stuffed rabbit and breathes in and out with a certain purposeful steadiness.

“We should be leaving fairly soon,” Kouyou tells her, voice raised just enough to be heard over the general din. “I planned on only dropping by another shop or two, perhaps, unless you have noticed any others you were interested in visiting.”

She says this as though Kyouka has at all hesitated to drag her into multiple shops without so much as a word, but Kyouka humors her by only shaking her head. Kouyou nods, then twists her head toward the people walking past, though she keeps Kyouka in her peripheral vision.

People-watching is part of Kouyou’s occupation as much as it is a pastime, but with her focus divided, she doesn’t take much interest in it. Couples and families filter past, as uninteresting as they tend to be any other time. Kouyou eyes passing teenagers, harried middle-aged women attempting to rein in young children, gawking tourists, and pairs that seem to be on dates, though the appeal of shopping as a date is one Kouyou doesn’t understand; the same applies to many things couples do, she supposes, ignoring the distant tug in her heart at seeing people with their arms linked and heads bent close together in conversation.

More so than being the one watching, however, Kouyou finds herself being the one watched. That isn’t too much of a surprise, let alone today. She and Kyouka have caught quite a few eyes, what with their attire, the contrast between their appearances, the purchases they’ve made, and their bearings (more so Kouyou’s in this case). The attention is of no concern to Kouyou, from whom even a single sidelong glance can make crowds scatter and people trip over themselves in fear.

Kyouka doesn’t seem to notice, busy stretching while she has the chance. By the time Kouyou returns her full attention to her, Kyouka is already looking back up at her, stuffed animal tucked firmly under one arm and expression bordering on impatient.

A smile settles over Kouyou’s face, and she extends a hand. “Shall we continue, then?”

Kyouka takes her sleeve rather than her hand, but the gesture still seems to be appreciated.

They wander about in the same fashion they have been for the bulk of their trip, without a real aim but with their eyes sharp on both the passing shops and passing people. Kouyou had mentioned the likelihood of visiting another couple of shops before calling it a day, but nothing seems to catch Kyouka’s eyes. It had been for Kyouka’s sake that Kouyou had paused and put a cap on their excursion, but she too is starting to feel the mid-afternoon crash.

Arm perhaps growing tired, Kyouka passes her stuffed rabbit off on one of Kouyou’s subordinates after a stretch of walking. Kouyou, eyeing the burden of their many bags, decides to take pity on them and send them back to the car for the time being.

“Er, Kouyou-sama—” one starts, looking around at the crowd.

“If anything happens,” is Kouyou’s calm response, “I will be more than capable of handling it.”

She smiles, bright and dangerous, and lets her hand rest over the sleeve her folded umbrella is tucked into. It seems to be that as much as the reassurance that gets the two hurrying outside. Just as an official creed of the Port Mafia is to always obey the leader no matter what, an unofficial rule is that anyone who takes it upon themself to fuck with Kouyou—and, now, Kyouka—deserves whatever they get.

Kouyou is right in saying if, though, because nothing does happen in the ensuing several minutes, including anything positive. She and Kyouka continue to mill about in the crowd, which is beginning to taper off as the evening grows closer.

Just as she’s considering closing things off on an anticlimactic note, Kouyou finds herself halting outside a cosmetics shop. When Kyouka stops along with her, Kouyou realizes how inconvenient pausing in the middle of a crowded walkway is and hurries to guide them forward enough to not impede foot traffic.

As soon as they’ve stopped in a less dangerous spot, Kouyou glances down to find Kyouka staring blankly forward. It takes only a handful of seconds for Kyouka to notice that she’s being studied and look up. As soon as she had lifted her gaze, she’s dropping it and shrugging.

“We shall only be a moment,” decides Kouyou, and Kyouka dutifully stays glued to her side as they step forward.

The shop isn’t large, nor is it overflowing with cosmetic products, but there is something pleasant about its layout. The thick scent of perfume and scented lotions has Kyouka grimacing a little, but she seems to get used to it, and Kouyou veers away from the parts of the shop where it’s strongest, feeling a slight ache behind her own temple.

Kouyou is inspecting a display of what seems to be everything featuring the color red in the entire shop when she feels a tug on her sleeve. Two tugs, in fact, one right after the other to ensure Kouyou won’t miss it. Glancing up in surprise, she finds Kyouka staring not at her but the opposite wall. Confusion furrows Kouyou’s brow, but it fades the instant Kouyou follows Kyouka’s gaze.

“Ah,” she says, feeling Kyouka shift marginally closer.

Across the shop from them stands Yosano Akiko. Her back is to them, but she’s leaning just enough to the side that Kouyou can make out the familiar hair and the pin tucked into it. She doesn’t look a significant deal different outside of the school health room—her clothes are a touch more casual, but only in that she lacks a lab coat and glasses now, the latter of which seems to be why she’s looking so closely at a bottle of perfume. The set of her shoulders is somewhat more relaxed, but overall, she doesn’t carry herself with any less composure.

With the size of the shop, it’ll only be a matter of time before she turns and notices them as well. Kouyou’s focus shifts from the display she’d been examining to Kyouka, who is still watching Yosano, something that isn’t quite fear or excitement in her face.

“Did you wish to say something?” asks Kouyou, not leaning down to maintain a whisper but keeping her voice low nonetheless. “If not, we can simply leave before she sees us.”

Kyouka glances up at Kouyou, then back over at Yosano, clearly seeing the same ticking clock that Kouyou does. Then, the same way she had when Kouyou had first noticed the shop, she shrugs.

Unlike before, Kouyou plans to take this as a refusal, and she’s just prepared to steer Kyouka back into the crowd when Yosano turns on her heel, still weighing the bottle of perfume, and skims her surroundings, presumably in hopes of catching the attendant’s eye. Instead, her eyes fall upon Kouyou and Kyouka where they stand just opposite her.

The instant she processes their presence is obvious: Yosano stills, half-frozen in both pose and expression. The conflict written across her face—to acknowledge them verbally or just nod and walk away—is even clearer, if only because Kouyou is also running through such a dilemma.

Kouyou is the first to muster a smile, but Kyouka is the one who tugs on her sleeve again, this time to pull her in Yosano’s direction. Muffling a sigh, Kouyou allows herself to be towed across the shop. They come to an abrupt stop just in front of Yosano, and Kyouka bows her head in greeting.

“Yosano-sensei,” Kouyou settles for instead, widening her smile. “Apologies for the interruption.”

Yosano smiles back, wry, and reaches back to set the bottle of perfume back on the shelf. “No need to apologize,” she says breezily, shifting her weight on her heels. “I did say I would see you two around, didn’t I?”

“That you did,” says Kouyou, after a brief pause of consideration. “And it is not the school infirmary this time,” she allows, though glancing around, she’s not sure if this is quite an improvement save for Kyouka’s clear lack of injuries.

“It certainly isn’t.” Yosano huffs out a short laugh and leans back, arms crossing. At a glance, the posture is guarded, but there’s no trace of intimidation in her face, nor is there any visible unease besides now-fading surprise and basic discomfort at the unexpected situation—a rare thing around Kouyou, by all means, even among regular civilians. For a split second, she meets Kouyou’s cool stare with calm neutrality, then her attention drops to Kyouka. “Since you bring it up, though… how have you been faring, Izumi-san?”

Kyouka blinks, tensing up a little on reflex. She settles again when Kouyou, pulling her narrowed eyes from Yosano, glances down. “Fine,” she says simply. “What you said to the class helped.”

“Oh, really?” Politely surprised, Yosano blinks, then laughs again. “I’m glad to hear that, actually. I thought I might have laid on it a little thick, but neither the principal or Kunikida chewed me out over it, so I haven’t been sure how well it landed.”

“The other students are scared of you now,” says Kyouka solemnly.

Kouyou gives her an askance look, but Yosano seems to take the remark in stride—her grin widens into something wolfish and pleased. “Ah, that’s great,” she says, crossed arms tightening. Without the coat, Kouyou can make out subtle but definite musculature beneath the form of her shirt. “Hopefully not too scared to come to me if this stuff happens again, though.”

Kyouka hurries to shake her head. “They were impressed, too. The scalpel was cool.”

“The scalpel?” echoes Kouyou, dry, gaze drifting back to Yosano.

“That’s where I thought I might have crossed a line.” Yosano lifts one hand to frame her face, fingers curving along her cheek; she still doesn’t seem too sheepish or uncomfortable, but her grin is a bit chagrined. “At least I didn’t go with my first plan of bringing a cleaver from home.”

“That would have been cool too,” says Kyouka, eyes flashing briefly.

“Or it could have been a lawsuit,” says Yosano, shrugging. She lowers her hand back to tuck into the other arm. “All’s well that ends well, though, I suppose. Have you had a chance to consider what I talked to you about, too?”

Kyouka only nods. Kouyou elaborates a hair further: “We have been discussing matters in counseling as well as at home. Kyouka has been continuing her self-defense training as well, in the event that she should require it again.”

Yosano inclines her head, taking this in. “Good, good. If you’re interested in doing anything like that on a further scale,” she tells Kyouka, tone mild, “then we do have a few martial arts clubs at school, you know.”

“I know,” says Kyouka, perking up again. “I would like to do kendo next year.”

“Is that so?” Yosano’s eyes glint with interest. “I’ll see if I can put in a good word for you with Suehiro, then—I’m pretty sure that’s one of the clubs he advises. You’ll have to keep your grades up, but from what I’ve heard, that won’t be much of a problem.”

“It almost certainly won’t,” cuts in Kouyou, switching from calm observation to glowing pride. Kyouka, staring in the other direction, brushes away the hair that has fallen into her eyes. “Kyouka’s marks on her midterms were quite impressive, not to mention the rest of her schoolwork thus far.”

“I did hear a bit about that,” says Yosano, tilting her head back in thought. She casts a mischievous look down at Kyouka. “Don’t tell him I told you this, but Kunikida was talking about how you got the best score in the whole class the other day.”

Kyouka blinks, seeming to rest somewhere between embarrassed and pleased. Yosano seems ready to say something else, but before she gets the chance, another customer interrupts by asking if she wouldn’t mind letting them get through to the perfume display she’s blocking.

Though startled for a second, Yosano is quick to step aside, recovering in a heartbeat much the way she had when Kouyou and Kyouka had approached her. “Sorry about that,” she says with a brief grin.

The other customer, looking over their shoulder in Kouyou’s direction and going stiff for a single beat before jerking their head around again, doesn’t strike up a more in-depth conversation, but the brief exchange has Kouyou’s eyebrows almost imperceptibly lifting regardless. The ease Yosano speaks and carries herself with when engaging with a random stranger, it seems, really is the same as when she interacts with Kouyou. Perhaps due to Kyouka’s presence, her voice in the latter case had even had a touch more warmth to it than it does now.

Kouyou doesn’t put a particular amount of stock into intimidating the average person. It is only in crowds or during business negotiations that the sheer presence she holds is of any real use, as amusing as it sometimes is to watch delinquents go pale under a nanosecond’s worth of eye contact. Overall, it is something she appreciates, but she doesn’t bask in ordinary people’s squirming the way she suspects most of her subordinates think she does. (The bathing in traitors’ blood rumor she’ll accept, because she does bask in the squirming of the detestable vermin she occupies far too much of her time with.)

Still, when even most of those she factors into her day-to-day life had flinched nonstop when they’d first met her, a woman she’s met a grand total of three times now treating her like any other acquaintance is unsettling in a way Kouyou can’t put into words. It doesn’t quite bother Kouyou, but it doesn’t put her at ease either. She finds her eyes narrowing in Yosano’s direction, almost subconscious.

Kouyou drops her gaze the moment Yosano turns her attention back to her and Kyouka, and before the conversation can reignite, Kouyou clears her throat. “I suppose that is as good a stopping point as any,” she says, dipping her head. “We shall let you return to your shopping now, Yosano-sensei.”

For a moment, Yosano only blinks at them, almost seeming disappointed. It passes soon enough for Kouyou to wonder if she had imagined it, replaced only with a light smile and a nod. “It was nice talking with you two,” she says, lifting a hand in a brief wave. “I’m glad school has been going well for you, Izumi-san—if there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to let me or the rest of the staff know, all right?” She holds Kyouka’s gaze—or at least stares at Kyouka while Kyouka stares at the floor—long enough to elicit a nod. “I’m sure you know that, but a reminder never hurts.”

Kyouka nods again, if only to herself, and Kouyou pats her shoulder. “Have a good rest of your afternoon,” she tells Yosano.

“You too.” Yosano shifts to the side, almost as if to walk off before stopping and looking back at them once more. “See you tomorrow, Izumi-san. And I suppose I’ll just see you around, Ozaki-san.”

“I suppose so.” Kouyou returns her hand to Kyouka’s shoulder, steering her off toward the opposite end of the store. Kyouka nods one last time before falling in step, a similar fleeting sense of faint disappointment in her face as had been in Yosano’s.

There is a faint trickling sensation of something somewhere in Kouyou’s mind as well, but she puts it aside. Kouyou smooths out her shoulders again, wondering absently when she had relaxed them, and steps over to a display in the corner of the store.

A few minutes later, Kouyou overhears—not difficult to do, given the size of the shop—Yosano speaking with the cashier, but she doesn’t bother to keep up with the actual conversation. By the time she drops by the counter with a handful of purchases, Yosano has long since left. Kyouka tries to make her glancing around surreptitious, but it doesn’t quite work.

Kouyou doesn’t bring it up as they leave, and of course Kyouka says nothing at all, only keeping as close to Kouyou’s side as she has been all day. The crowd has thinned out enough that Kouyou might not need to keep hold of Kyouka, but she keeps her arm around her shoulders regardless.

Whatever had been prickling at the back of Kouyou’s mind is filtered away. They hover there outside the shop for a moment, Kouyou gauging both the number of people still around and the hours of light still left in the day. Her eyes fall upon a nearby clock. It’s perhaps a bit later than she would normally insist on lunch, but it is not so late enough that it would interfere with dinner.

“How would you feel about stopping for something to eat before we leave, child?” she asks, almost airy, glancing down. “Or would you prefer stopping somewhere else on the way home instead? There are quite a few places to eat around this area, but if you would like, I am more than amenable to picking up some yudofu.”

In an instant, Kyouka is jolting to attention, wide eyes first fixing on Kouyou’s face before darting all the way across the shopping center. She narrows them at the sprawling windows and then reaches for Kouyou’s sleeve. With Kouyou’s arm still resting around Kyouka’s shoulders and a bag in her free hand, it takes some maneuvering, but Kyouka manages it, pulling Kouyou toward the nearest flight of stairs with unspoken resolve.

“I shall take that as a stop on the way home,” says Kouyou, chuckling under her breath, and is answered by a brief nod.

Any thought of the brief encounter is dismissed, as distant and unremarkable as any passing face in the crowd on their way out.

*

As the end of May fast approaches, whatever cosmic force presides over the weather seems to see it fit to make up for the sun that had filled the preceding weeks with near-record amounts of rain. Rain in and of itself is not too troubling; had Kouyou a problem with rain, she would have long since moved to a country deep in drought. For her, though, precipitation is preferable to record amounts of sunshine, and it serves a purpose just the same. Fewer people out and about, too, allows for better business opportunities. All in all, rain alone tends to be a net positive.

When storms come along with the rain, however, Kouyou finds the phenomenon far less tolerable.

For a few days, she tolerates the downpours. It is pleasant white noise during meetings or at home, each conversation underscored with a natural soundtrack far more pleasant than the buzzing of insects she associates with brighter summer afternoons. She keeps the windows in her office visible most days, calmed by the shade cast over the room more so than she ever has been by bright sunlight.

And then comes the thunder and lightning.

It’s nothing environmentally dangerous, according to the forecasts, but the smallest crackle of thunder has Kouyou’s attention sharpening all the same. When it rumbles through the room during a meeting with some of her overseas operatives, it takes everything in Kouyou to not call off all of her work for the rest of the day and rush home. Chuuya and Hirotsu keep giving her askance looks all the same, and by the time she leaves the building it’s with more relief than she can express.

There is very little she can do, of course—a great many things are under Kouyou’s purview, but tragically, the weather is not one of them—but being with Kyouka has always seemed to help. The combination of thunder and this time of year, an unfortunate anniversary creeping closer by the day, is a volatile one, so Kouyou isn’t certain what to expect.

What she gets turns out to be: A quiet greeting, and a quieter dinner. Kyouka seems to appreciate the yudofu Kouyou had, for once, made rather than ordered, but she doesn’t say much, even when prodded about her schoolwork. Every time thunder sounds, her shoulders draw up tight.

It’s with faint regret that Kouyou ends up dismissing Kyouka for a bath and bed later, but all the same, it isn’t long before a knock is coming at her door.

She’s already awake, but at the barest brush of knuckles, she’s alert and on her feet, files discarded without a particular amount of care. It would have been concerning had anyone but Kyouka been at the door, but Kyouka standing outside is another type of concerning—having expected something of the sort had the thunder persisted, Kouyou refrains from dropping down to eye level, but it doesn’t make the sight of Kyouka with her unbound hair covering her face and a stuffed rabbit tucked under her arm any easier to stomach. Just as the door opens, another rumble ripples through the house, and Kyouka flinches.

“Come in, child,” says Kouyou, already turning around. “Some storm this is, hm?”

Kyouka doesn’t respond, but behind her, Kouyou can hear the door sliding shut. Kouyou reaches forward to tug the curtains—already drawn firmly shut—just a hair tighter, though lightning flashes through the silk all the same. The sound of the rain overlaps that of her footsteps as she moves toward the closet.

“Well, I cannot guarantee that it shall pass overnight,” she says over her shoulder, tugging open the door, “nor can I will it out of existence, however dearly I wish to. I can provide what little comfort I am capable of, however.” Kouyou reaches up to pull the mattress from the highest shelf and allows herself a smile as she turns. “Had you any preference as to where you are sleeping tonight?”

Kyouka looks at her, then looks around the room, managing dry wit without so much as a word. Sometimes Kouyou wonders how much influence she and the others who frequent her household truly have on Kyouka’s upbringing from here on out—this terminates any doubts.

“I meant where in the room. Your choices are limited, but I wished to offer you one nonetheless.”

“Oh,” says Kyouka, faint but still something. She casts a stare around, brow furrowed, and then points somewhat tentatively at the space between the foot of Kouyou’s bed and the wall.

Kouyou glances over, assessing the option. It is a small area, boxed in and safe, and close to Kouyou without impeding her path toward the bathroom or door—it isn’t as if Kyouka had had much to choose from, but she had chosen well all the same.

“Very well,” says Kouyou, unfolding the mattress as she steps over. “You’d like your back to the wall, I presume?”

She glances over in time to see Kyouka nod, then starts setting up the futon. Kyouka helps her smooth out the covers when she gets to them and spreads out the duvet herself, leaving the corner open and her stuffed rabbit tucked in on the other end as she straightens back up.

“Can I use your bathroom?” she asks, fidgeting with her sleeves.

“Of course—you needn’t even ask something like that, Kyouka.” They have been through this routine a number of times, but it seems some things will never stick. Kouyou settles back down on the edge of her bed. “Call if you need anything.”

Kyouka makes a face but nods; without another word, she darts into the bathroom. For the first time all day, Kouyou is the slightest bit grateful for the cacophony of the rain and thunder outside. As she waits, she reaches for the files again, her focus even less intact now than it had been several minutes ago but her eyes valiantly skimming across the lines of ever duller text.

After a few moments, she hears, however distantly, the toilet flush and the sink start running. Kouyou keeps her eyes on her paperwork even when the door slides open and Kyouka pads back over toward her futon.

“I shall likely be up for another half-hour, if not longer,” Kouyou tells her, still not looking up. “I assume you will be all right with the light staying on that long—” she gestures toward her lamp with the pen in her hand “—but would you like it left on even afterward?”

There’s a pause—out of the corners of her eyes, Kouyou sees Kyouka freezing in place as she crouches beside the mattress, rigid and blank-faced. After a beat, she looks up, stare hovering somewhere beside Kouyou’s face. “It would be difficult to sleep with it on,” she says in a careful voice. She doesn’t seem to be speaking about herself.

“I have slept in worse conditions.” Kouyou flips to another page and almost groans at the sprawling codes that greet her there. “If it makes you more comfortable, then I am certainly capable of adapting. Would it make you more comfortable if the light were left on?”

“…yes,” admits Kyouka after another short stint of silence. She settles onto her knees, and when Kouyou looks over, she’s dipping into as much of a bow as she can manage in that position. “Thank you.”

“If it is for your comfort, child, then it is a mere trifle.”

The duvet rustles as Kyouka slides underneath and pulls it up almost to her chin. Another crackle of thunder echoes outside before she can answer, if ever she’d planned to. Despite the rain and hour, the late spring heat is still almost tangible, and the indoor heating is certainly decent, so Kyouka can’t be cold, but Kouyou thinks she sees her tremble nevertheless.

“Did you want something to block out the sound?” asks Kouyou. “I have earplugs, or perhaps I could fetch your headphones and phone from your room, if you would like to listen to something.”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you certain? I really—”

“I’m fine,” repeats Kyouka, a bit louder this time. Kouyou presses her lips together, but Kyouka doesn’t go back on her word, just rolling onto her side; she’s facing Kouyou, but her eyes are closed. One arm ends up flung over her stuffed rabbit, tugging it a little closer, and the other curls up toward her face. “Goodnight,” she mumbles.

“Goodnight, Kyouka,” manages Kouyou. She turns another page. “I hope you are able to sleep well—or sleep at all, all things considered. I shall see you in the morning. If you need anything in the meantime, do not hesitate to let me know.”

A vague murmur of agreement or reciprocation comes from the floor, but soon Kyouka is turning her face closer into her pillow and evening out her breathing. Whether she’s falling asleep for real or only trying to get closer to it, Kouyou can’t tell, but she allows the moment of peace nevertheless. For a couple of heartbeats, she watches Kyouka drift off—and then her eyes shift back to the files in her hands, and the fond smile spreading across her face drops immediately, replaced with a hard scowl.

Outside, the rain continues to pour—but inside, Kyouka continues to breathe, steady and calm.

- aside from pretty reasonable exceptions (literal children, the buraiha trio, ace kind of), kajii is the only canon mafia member i have not kept as that because i thought it was funnier to make him a science teacher. - the stuffed animal kyouka is directly mentioned as carrying is meant to be a rab plushie from craftholic. i mention this specifically because craftholic apparently has done a bsd collab and what was going to be just !!!cute stuffed rabbit!!! turned into a genuine reference somehow. thanks so much for reading! see you next week :^) if you have time to spare, comments & kudos are always appreciated! <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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