the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 5 chapter cws: brief descriptions of torture/violence/injury, alcohol consumption. i've been down with a migraine today, so apologies for any egregious editing mishaps here; once i finally get the chance to edit chapter 2 i might go back in and tweak this one as well. anyway, enjoy!

“—have been telling you, this is not a top-priority job, which is why I am deigning to speak to you at all. Break a bone or two and he shall nearly damage more in his haste to spill all he knows.”

The words come out more natural than the simultaneous motions of stirring and mixing, spoken with the caustic ease of one who has had to say them several times more than she would prefer to. The lull of the evening does little to quell the aggravation boiling beneath Kouyou’s skin. Her phone is tucked between her shoulder and her ear as she shuffles about the kitchen, but the subordinate on the other end has dared not to say a word about the clanging of pots and pans that must be audible. By this point, Kouyou almost wishes he would—it would be easier to handle than whatever this has been.

At the very least, she reasons as she adds a bowl’s worth of noodles to the pan, she hasn’t had to stomach looking him in the face. Remote contact between home and headquarters isn’t something she can manage often, but it is always something of a relief when she can.

Any sense of mercy is brought to an emphatic conclusion, though, when the line crackles with a single asinine syllable.

Kouyou sets down the bowl with enough force that it rattles on the counter. “But what, now?” she demands, smiling thin and dangerous and gripping the tongs firmer than she would a sword. “Must I involve Akutagawa-kun in this whole affair?”

Further stammering answers her. Kouyou gnashes her teeth rather than outright scoffing. As she continues to stir, she casts a glance over her shoulder at where Kyouka sits at the table, not so much as looking up from the homework she’s taking the opportunity to finish. The atmosphere in the room, save for Kouyou’s mounting irritation, might be the most comfortable it has been since March.

Kouyou opts not to dwell on that, instead cutting into the rambling, given that it’s far more annoying than it is amusing. “I thought not. Either get to the point or pass the phone off to someone more useful—I care not which.”

She occupies herself with continuing to stir the yaki udon while she waits for him to make a decision and then go through with it. He stays on the line, unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, in that she needn’t deal with another imbecile. All the same, Kouyou finds her eyes narrowing within minutes.

“You should not underestimate small injuries, you know,” she says, interrupting another spiral of drivel. “Less is more, no? A fractured finger or two can go a long way.”

Across the room, perhaps drawing conclusions from either the tone of Kouyou’s voice or the strengthening scent of their meal, Kyouka scrawls out another sentence before sliding her books off the table and setting them on the floor beside her. She starts to rise, but when Kouyou raises a hand, she settles back down, albeit with a twitching eyebrow. Most children wouldn’t be more troubled by being allowed to laze about than to assist with setting the table, but it is a well-established fact that Kyouka is not most children.

Another minute and forty-six seconds of Kouyou’s life are wasted on this phone call. “I suspect—or at least hope—that you now have a firmer grasp of how to handle things,” she’s grateful to say at last, serene smile trickling into her sharp words. “I shall await your report tomorrow.”

Without waiting for confirmation, she hangs up and lowers the phone. The blissful silence that fills the kitchen lasts for only a moment before Kouyou allows herself a single sigh.

She forces herself to move on, starting to dish up the plates before things get either too cold or far too overcooked. With her free hand, she dials another number.

There’s a click before the first ring has even ended. Kouyou doesn’t allow for so much as a greeting from the other end, not that she suspects he minds, instead saying immediately, “Akutagawa-kun, your assistance is required.”

“With what,” is his automatic response, flat but undercut with that fierce determination Kouyou knows to almost always precede a violent homicide.

That isn’t what she’s going for here, but she won’t be able to bring herself to complain if the most incompetent of her subordinates get caught in the crossfire. She gathers what dishes she can manage in one trip and starts setting them out across the table. “Kobayashi-kun’s men seem to be having a difficult time with that young man from Tokyo,” says Kouyou as she steps back toward the counter, not bothering to elaborate further than that. Akutagawa had been the one to capture that young man, after all. “Lend them a hand.”

Static fills a momentary beat, perhaps Akutagawa stepping away to inform his sibling or Higuchi. Then, in the exact same tone, comes a short, “Got it.”

“Good. I doubt you will need it,” says Kouyou, her smile more genuine but her words still carrying the weight of an order, “but good luck, boy.”

The line goes dead. That, Kouyou supposes, is a downside of this method of communication—in person, Akutagawa would have at least bowed. She chooses to overlook it, if only because the timing is perfect for her to set down the last plates and slide down at the head of the table.

In an instant, all of the previous tension and ire in her body and face vanish, replaced with a smile of greeting and a cheerful tone. Kouyou’s hands, poised only minutes ago to grab her favorite katana, press together. “Now then,” she says, inclining her head toward Kyouka, “it is about time we get started, is it not?”

The expression Kyouka gives her is unimpressed at best, but regardless, she nods. “Thank you for the food,” she says, as quickly as she can manage without her words slurring together, and reaches for her chopsticks.

Allowing for this moment of respite before a likely evening spent managing her unruly subordinates from afar—and later in person, should things escalate—Kouyou does just the same.

*

The time of day and the average sound level of an izakaya seem to have a proportional relationship: As the former grows later, the latter grows louder. With how little Kouyou visits anything other than the occasional restaurant or teahouse, this is something she does not consider in full until she already has a drink in hand and is taking stock of her surroundings again.

Sound all but surrounds her, conversation and laughter in all directions. As time passes, more people enter the izakaya, so Kouyou supposes their connection is a reasonable conclusion to draw. The light streaming in through the windows—or at least what isn’t blocked out by the buildings across the street—is growing warmer and darker by the minute, and Kouyou had glanced at the time on her phone when she’d pulled it out.

She eyes Atsushi’s response of That’s OK!! Travel safely!! (as though he would need to tell her that, she notes with amusement) to her notice of her probable delay and tucks her phone away without bothering to reply again. She’s sure he assumes it to be due to a complication with work, given her lack of elaboration. That isn’t quite inaccurate—it’s just that the complication had been that things had wrapped up earlier rather than later than anticipated, and she’d found herself with a pocket of free time.

Any other day, especially after these past two months, Kouyou would have welcomed the opportunity to return home earlier than she’d expected with open arms, but between the headache-inducing cavalcade of work occupying her day and the current time being that odd window bridging afternoon and evening, a drink had sounded more appealing than anything. She had thought it a bit improper to go straight to the alcohol cabinet upon arriving home, too, so getting something elsewhere it had been.

Now, seated at the counter of an izakaya she’s done business in before but never taken personal interest in, Kouyou adjusts her weight upon the stool. As she shifts, her sake swishes gently against the sides of the glass. In the extended period of time she’s been sitting here, she’s taken only a couple of slow sips. She intends for the drink to be the only one she has here, so she may as well savor it. The bartender hasn’t so much as glanced her way since they set the glass down in front of her, and Kouyou is glad for it, for how little she wants to engage with others at the moment.

In the absence of a conversation to focus on, something she’s used to having when casually drinking, Kouyou’s eyes dart around the room. Of the business filling the izakaya now, she stands out among the crowd. That isn’t something new, of course, but here, everyone is too wrapped up in themselves and their drinks to give her more than a fleeting glance.

As time trickles past, business is starting to pick up; it’ll be another half-hour at most before Kouyou leaves, far less if the noise levels become unbearable. From the looks of things, that won’t take too long.

Kouyou can’t catch distinct snippets of conversation from where she’s seated, but her gaze jumps between the loudest spikes of sound. A couple in one corner is already well into their cups, laughing and, as near as Kouyou can tell, reminiscing. They only look like they’re in their mid-twenties, so what they would have to reminisce about is beyond Kouyou, but her attention is moving on from them before she can wonder in much detail.

Across the room from them, a group of men in suits—far poorer in quality than those Kouyou’s people wear—are enjoying their spread of food and round of light beers in equal measure. They’re sharing their table with, but mostly ignoring, two forty-somethings in evening dresses that would better suit a far more impressive establishment. At another table along the wall, a raucous group of college students is cheering and toasting, looking varying degrees of fucked up. Kouyou spares a passing thought as to whether they attend the university Dazai works at; if she’s to believe how Dazai speaks about staff drinking parties, let alone the undergraduates’ conduct, then she’d be inclined to think so.

Far fewer people are around the bar like Kouyou, but a middle-aged woman opposite her is sipping whiskey and scrolling through her phone. Kouyou watches long enough to see the woman glare at the two rowdy young men—it would surprise Kouyou if they were a full month over twenty—sitting precariously close to her before growing bored of the absent people-watching and returning her focus to her drink.

Distantly, Kouyou hears the door open, another patron entering and making their way toward the bar. It isn’t until a familiar voice speaks up to order a drink, though, that Kouyou’s head turns in full, registering the figure a few seats down as anything more than a vague amorphous shape.

If Yosano Akiko’s voice and profile weren’t recognizable enough, the pin she wears removes any doubts. The slant of her shoulders is laidback, but her eyes glint with sharp focus behind her glasses, scanning the surroundings with only the slightest movements of her head. Whether it’s just a holdover from work—from where she seems to have come, judging from the attire, business casual down to the white coat placed over her seat—or an overall natural inclination toward observation isn’t clear.

Kouyou wonders, somewhere, if she can slip to an unoccupied table or out of the establishment without drawing attention, but she’s spared from any escape plans when Yosano’s eyes flicker her way. What had likely been intended as a careless side glance turns into a blinking double-take, then a full-blown stare.

For a fleeting instant, they hold each other’s gazes. Surprise crosses Yosano’s features, but it soon turns into that dry humor Kouyou had seen of her before. While Kouyou is still frozen, considering what to do, Yosano leans her elbow on the counter and cups her face with a hand.

“Well,” she says, voice raised slightly to be heard over the distance and existing noise, “I did say I would see you around again.”

“I fear you may have cursed us both with such words, sensei.” Even as she acknowledges the truth in the words, Kouyou shakes her head, staring into her sake. The glass is still filled almost to the brim, but there seems now a troublingly low amount of liquid within. Yosano laughs, but Kouyou’s tone is nothing but serious. She brings her narrowed gaze back up. “I had expected it to be in a place like this even less than any other, however.”

“No kidding.” Yosano watches her for a moment longer, then sighs and gets to her feet. She’s soon slinging her coat over another stool, however, this time the one just beside Kouyou’s, and settles back down there—what could have been a short exchange, then, seems to have become a more formalized conversation. “I take it this isn’t a favorite haunt of yours.”

Kouyou tilts her head subtly forward, not an outright agreement but acknowledgment nevertheless. “That would be difficult to manage,” she allows, weighing her glass, “when I have no such haunts.”

“Is that so? What brings you here tonight, then?”

Yosano’s question is light, and she isn’t even looking at Kouyou now, instead watching the bartender prepare her drink, but Kouyou’s hackles automatically raise. With the average person’s unwillingness to engage with her and her subordinates’ unwillingness to risk irritating or disrespecting her, small talk among mere acquaintances is not quite an everyday experience for her. It takes a beat longer than is polite to settle her shoulders and form a response. Yosano doesn’t seem bothered, just glancing over when Kouyou speaks up.

“A meeting ran somewhat shorter than I had expected, and it has been some time since I was able—or willing—to take time by myself like this.” Kouyou keeps her tone airy and her answer concise, an acceptable explanation that still leaves out more than it includes.

As though she can hear at least some of what is left unspoken, Yosano glances over her, then nods. “I see. I don’t hang out here too often either, for what it’s worth.”

“I suppose it is only polite to ask why you are here, then.”

“Not too different from you, really. Change of pace,” says Yosano, shrugging. “And my roommate’s boyfriend is in town this weekend, so I might as well take what alone time I can get.”

Kouyou is spared from having to respond by the bartender, who sets down Yosano’s drink—good-quality genshu, if Kouyou had heard right. With a gracious smile, Yosano thanks them and raises the glass.

“Cheers,” she tells Kouyou, but she doesn’t seem to expect reciprocation of the gesture or sentiment, with how she immediately takes a sip. Her eyes slide shut, and she makes a small sound of appreciation. Looking away, Kouyou sips from her neglected glass, which doesn’t go unnoticed. “I take it you’re drinking something so expensive it might as well be liquid gold.”

The assessment is apt, enough so that Kouyou doesn’t even frown. “I can afford luxuries here and there,” she says, lowering her sake but not setting it down.

“So I gathered, from how worn out you and Izumi-san looked when I ran into you the other day.” Yosano adjusts her grip on her glass, gloved fingers shifting into what must be a more comfortable position. “How is she, by the way?”

“Kyouka is well.” Kouyou’s lax neutral expression brightens into an outright smile, soft but present nevertheless. “Her schoolwork is starting to pick back up, so she is enjoying herself there. And I do believe we have settled back into our normal routine—or a modified version, at the very least.” She again says only what she really needs to, this time not out of privacy but lack of necessity, what with how much Yosano already knows.

“Good, good. She dropped into the health room earlier this week, you know,” says Yosano, mild. Kouyou, who does not in fact know, glances up with surprise. Yosano raises a placating hand. “It wasn’t for anything too drastic, just a stomachache. I’d rather have kids know they can come for me for minor things than not come to me at all, so it was nice, actually.”

“That surprises me, I must admit. She is far more prone to toughing things like that out on her own. Last autumn, she fell ill with a nearly forty-degree fever and was still insistent upon doing her homework before Sunday.” Kouyou pointedly leaves out where she had been the one to panic then, rushing around the house and work alike like a woman possessed. Dazai still laughs at her about it.

“Mm.” Yosano takes another sip, laughing a little, then lowers her sake. “Apparently, one of her friends—Koda-san, I think—more or less forced her to check in with me.”

Neither Kyouka nor Atsushi has spoken of any other friends beyond Kenji, with whom Yosano had seemed on more familiar terms, so Kouyou takes this Koda-san to be the Aya that has come up more than once. “Ah. That would explain it.”

“That’s an odd friendship, there,” says Yosano with a grin, “but they do seem to be good for each other.” Kouyou inclines her head, taking in another brief sip. When she receives no spoken response, Yosano reaches up to adjust her glasses, then drinks from her sake as well. Once she’s done, she’s quick to say, “And what about you, Ozaki-san?”

“What about me?” returns Kouyou, the change in topic making her frown.

Yosano lifts an eyebrow. “How have you been?”

Kouyou is automatically sipping from her glass before she realizes it. With a brief laugh, Yosano prompts, “That well, huh?”

“I have been doing fine, as a matter of fact.” Kouyou brings her hand down, resting it so her glass hovers over the very edge of the counter. “Today was simply… trying.”

“Trust me, I get it. I have to keep twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds from hurting each other and themselves for a living.” Though there is a certain amount of dry frustration in Yosano’s voice, in line with the context of her words, she can’t quite mask the underlying joy. At Kouyou’s askance look, she laughs again. “All right, I do like my job, but you have to admit that it’s hell on paper. And sometimes in reality.”

“I enjoy mine as well, but I suppose it is a similar situation,” says Kouyou, instead of saying that wrangling mafiosi and businessmen is perhaps an even greater hell than handling adolescents. Curiosity flickers across Yosano’s face, but Kouyou is already looking away. “I’m afraid to say that I have no intention of speaking about my work any more explicitly than that. It is… a confidential matter.”

For a moment, Yosano says nothing—but after that fleeting pause, she sets her glass down and rests her cheek against her palm. “Actually,” she says, voice the most neutral it’s been any time they’ve spoken and all the more unnerving for it, “I do think I have an inkling.”

“Oh?” Kouyou lets no hint of discomfort show; instead, she smiles, calm and cold. “Humor me, then, sensei. What is this inkling of yours?”

“Well, I have heard your name before. Only in passing, but it’s a hard one to forget.” With her free hand, Yosano drums her fingers lightly against the edge of the counter. “It just took me some time to remember where. What else is it they call you?” She pauses to think, mouth twisting into a frown of concentration, before her expression clears, and she draws her hand back to snap her fingers. “Right. The Golden Demon.”

Kouyou is far too good at what she does to freeze, tense up, or visibly show surprise in any other way. The most she allows herself is a single blink.

First Kouyou glances toward the bartender, who is polishing glasses and speaking with the young men at the other end of the bar. Then she glances out of the very corners of her eyes toward Yosano, who is watching her in return, sake halfway to her mouth and head tilted just slightly to the side. The izakaya lighting and the sunset outside combine to provide Yosano’s dark eyes with a slight glint. Her expression offers no further clues as to her intentions than her voice had—she’s smiling, but in the same way she has been, relaxed and easy. The only thing that is clear is her continued lack of intimidation or wariness around Kouyou.

Slow and careful, Kouyou sets her drink down and folds her hands on the counter. “Some circles you must participate in,” she says at last, the edge to her otherwise casual tone almost tangible, “to be familiar with that title.”

It is rare for ordinary civilians to know of her title. Even for those more aligned with her line of business, it would be rare to come upon a context where it would be used alongside its counterpart in her full name. An average-seeming school physician is by no means someone Kouyou would have expected to know that name and connect it to her given one.

Yosano shrugs. “I live with a private investigator who happens to also be a loud genius. I’ve picked up on a few things.”

That is all she offers by way of explanation, which Kouyou supposes is earned for her own purposeful dancing around the full truth earlier. All the same, Kouyou watches her expression and body language carefully, far used to picking apart the smallest hitches in conversation partners’ breathing patterns, the subtlest of twitches in their fingers. Nothing suggests Yosano’s words are an outright lie. Omitting several things, perhaps, but that too is something Kouyou is more than familiar with.

Kouyou’s hands don’t stray a centimeter from their folded position. “How far does this inkling of yours stretch?”

Yosano’s shoulders hadn’t been tense to begin with, but she rolls one casually as she reaches for her sake again. “I get the basic gist,” she says, eyes lingering on Kouyou’s sleeves and collar. “Enough so that it’s a little surprising to see you by yourself so often.”

“My subordinates are well aware of how capable I am of taking care of matters myself.” Kouyou watches Yosano’s accepting smile, but it reveals nothing. “Is that truly the most you can say?”

“Well, I don’t think here is the type of place you want me to go into excruciating detail.” Yosano gestures around the izakaya, which, indeed, has filled out a considerable amount since Kouyou last paid a significant amount of attention. “And anyway, we’ve all got mouths to feed. We all have to do it somehow.” Though her smile remains, her voice and face take on a dark edge. “So long as you’re not involved in, say, human trafficking…”

Kouyou recoils at the very thought, expression twisting with repulsion—at both the accusation and the idea of someone overhearing. “We do have standards,” she murmurs.

Yosano nods as if she’d expected as much. “And Izumi-san isn’t involved in anything, right?”

“Absolutely not.” Kouyou’s voice grows even sharper. It had been a question worth considering two years ago, but now, softened and more open-minded, she refuses to even humor the prospect. “If she decides to be upon growing older, then I shall certainly oversee that, but she deserves at least a chance to live in the light.”

“See?” Yosano’s tone and expression lighten again, and she turns a softer smile into the rim of her glass. “Nothing to worry about, then.”

“Regardless, it is far from savory business,” says Kouyou, wondering why she’s still pushing when Yosano seems as blase as anyone can be upon learning that the guardian of one of their students is the leader of a prolific criminal organization. “And you are a school official as well as a licensed physician.”

Yosano glances at her in confusion—then something seems to click. An incredulous laugh leaves her, and she sets her sake back down. “I’m not going to report you or anything, if that’s what you’re getting at,” she says—having been thinking just that, Kouyou smooths her lips into a thin line. “What I was getting at was the opposite, really. It doesn’t matter what you do to put food on the table so long as you are. And it’s clear Izumi-san looks up to and cares about you, perhaps almost as much as you clearly care about her.” Yosano leans forward with a soft sigh. “I expect you don’t deal with dozens and dozens of kids her age on a day-to-day basis, but… it’s upsetting how rare that care is. I’ve seen plenty of unhappy kids, but Izumi definitely isn’t one of them.”

“Oh.” It’s all Kouyou can bring herself to say, her gaze swiveling forward so it isn’t clear just how deeply the words sink in. From Yosano’s quiet laugh, it isn’t as effective as she’d like. “I—thank you, then, Yosano-sensei.”

“I should probably thank you, all things considered. Not all orphans end up in homes as good as Kyouka seems to have.” At the glance she earns for that, Yosano just tilts her head back. “I do have access to her medical records. Besides, it’s obvious you two aren’t biologically related, so even so, it would be easy enough to put two and two together.”

Lest she do anything too embarrassing, like smile, Kouyou takes a long, deep drink. A sense of something like guilt prickles at her neck, those first few months of her custody of Kyouka coming back to her as harshly as ice against her skin, and when she lowers her glass, it’s to say, “I hardly think I am deserving of such praise. Kyouka puts just as much work in as I, if not more so.”

“Oh, yeah, I figured,” says Yosano, so immediate that Kouyou would scowl did she not agree. “But she isn’t exactly here for me to thank, so…”

“Now that would be troubling.” Kouyou pulls a face, earning a chuckle from Yosano.

“I’ll drink to that.” In accordance, Yosano lifts her glass—their next sips are simultaneous, though not by verbal agreement, perhaps fulfilling that earlier toast after all. Yosano wipes the back of her hand across her mouth as she lowers her sake. “On the topic of your daughter… I imagine you plan on heading home soon, but you might as well finish off your drink.” She nods toward Kouyou’s glass, still hovering just centimeters from her lips; somehow, less than half remains. “So why don’t we talk about something lighter than what we have been? Nice weather this week, hm?”

Fully relaxing isn’t in Kouyou’s nature, let alone during a conversation as blindsiding as this one, but she does allow some tension to leave her shoulders. “Indeed. Though I suspect we shall see quite a bit of rain next week to make up for it.”

“Probably, but I can’t say I mind the rain either.”

“It is more tolerable than the humidity, at any rate.” Kouyou adjusts her sleeves in demonstration.

Yosano bobs her head in vague agreement. “I suspect those guys would agree with you,” she adds, gesturing to the men in suits still gathered around one table, at least two looking a great deal redder in the face than they had when Kouyou had last glanced their way.

Kouyou is no more impressed with them than she had been then, either. “If their suits were less shabby, perhaps.”

It takes several minutes to whittle down what’s left of her sake, but occupied with Yosano’s laughter and their idle conversation, exchanges indeed far lighter than they had been mere minutes prior, the time seems to pass both faster and slower than it should. When she’s weighing the last sip, Kouyou finds that it’s with a degree of apprehension. Yosano is raising her glass again, though, and watching her with a slight smile.

Kouyou tips back her glass. Swallowing takes more effort this time than it has all evening, and she wonders distantly if the sake is getting to her head more than she’d expected.

Yosano drains her own drink and orders another, along with some sashimi. “I’m here anyway, so I might as well have dinner,” she says, shrugging, at Kouyou’s side look. “I won’t keep you any longer, though. Have a good rest of your evening, Ozaki-san.”

“You as well.” Kouyou tips her head, sets down a handful of yen, and turns to stand. Her joints protest at the sudden movement; with a wince, she adjusts her shoulders to rid herself of some of the tight pain. “I enjoyed speaking with you, I must admit. Even if I was not expecting our conversation to spiral so heavily.”

“Sorry about that,” says Yosano, though her grin indicates she isn’t too much so.

“‘Twas not a complaint,” says Kouyou simply. She steadies herself on her feet, shaking her head to rid herself of the slight buzz of the alcohol—she’ll wait until she’s outside to message Kasa, but she reaches for her phone now regardless. “I do hate to be the one to bring this curse upon us now, but… I shall see you again sometime, I suppose, Yosano-sensei.”

“I guess it’ll definitely happen again, then.” Yosano shrugs, bored—then her shoulders straighten, and she whirls on her stool, facing Kouyou head-on. “Oh, wait. Actually, there was one more thing I wanted to ask you.”

“Oh?” Stopping in place, Kouyou frowns, finding herself taken aback by Yosano for the nth time that evening. Somehow, she suspects it is a feeling that will not fade any time soon. “And what would that be?”

Yosano’s smile sharpens. “I was wondering if you would be willing to join me for dinner this weekend.”

*

Kouyou steps into the house with a buzz that she can’t blame on the sake. In the drive home, she’d had time to think, but nothing had come of it, leaving her mind still alight but somewhat incoherent now, her brow furrowing harder than ever when the door closes behind her.

She stands there for a moment, hovering just beyond the threshold. She can’t hear the usual hum of the television, but she does hear music and voices—or rather, one voice, intermittent and muffled by the wall. Otherwise, the house is still in a way that would be soothing any other time but is almost intimidating now. It is ironic, Kouyou supposes, that this air of pleasant normalcy is all she wished for mere weeks ago, but now it seems to loom over her in a way few things do.

Drawing in a breath, she settles a calm, casual smile on her face and divests herself of her boots with practiced speed. Her shoulders fall back as she steps down the hall. The walk to the living room is a short one, but tonight it feels longer than ever.

Atsushi’s voice grows louder, as do the music and sound effects from the fighting game that Kouyou now sees he and Kyouka are playing, perched at opposite ends of the couch. Looking on with faint bemusement, Kouyou hovers just to the side, hands folded. She’s sure Kyouka has already noticed her and is just too busy to look up, but it’s a tossup as to whether Atsushi knows.

He has a white-knuckled grip on his controller and is mashing buttons with far more desperation than Kyouka, but it doesn’t seem to be helping him any. Jumping as though every hit to his character is real and brutal, he stares wide-eyed at the screen.

Kouyou adjusts her posture. At the slight shift of the floorboards, Atsushi’s gaze snaps up, widening for a second before settling, darting between her and the game. “Ah, hi, Kouyou-san,” he grits out, glancing her way to dip his head. “Sorry, we—”

In the split second that his grip goes slack and his attention strays, Kyouka leaps on the opportunity to pummel Atsushi’s character with everything she has. A startled yelp leaves Atsushi, and he jerks his head back around, but he’s already been knocked off-screen. Atsushi slams his thumb against a button as though that will save him—Kyouka, meanwhile, is already letting her controller fall limp against her hand.

The in-game announcer’s voice rings out, and a victory screen flashes. Kouyou raises an eyebrow.

“I win,” says Kyouka, voice soft and plain. Finally she glances over at Kouyou—she starts to nod in greeting, but something stops her, and she stares up at Kouyou with a slight frown.

“Congratulations.” Kouyou’s smile widens, then falls back as her gaze flits between the two on the couch and the television. “How many times in a row is this?”

“Nine,” says Atsushi, little more than a miserable whisper.

Kyouka reaches over to pat him unconvincingly on the shoulder. “You will recover.”

Atsushi drops his head into his hands. Kyouka’s hand falls away, but she doesn’t look too concerned about this, just turning back to face the television. Out of the corners of the eyes, she glances at Kouyou, who stares back as steadily as she can.

“Can’t you just let me win next time?” cries Atsushi, waving a hand—the one with the controller in it, making Kyouka lean back out of the way. “Like, just a little. Just one win, Kyouka-chan. You can go right back to your winning streak as soon as it’s over.”

Kyouka looks at him like he’s lost his mind, but Kouyou clears her throat. “Before you continue playing at all, regardless of who emerges victorious—which will inevitably be Kyouka—” Kyouka closes her eyes, sage, and Atsushi flinches but sighs “—have you eaten yet?”

The despair fades from Atsushi’s face, replaced with embarrassment. “…oh,” he says, setting his controller down. “Um, I was getting around to it, but I didn’t know how late you would actually be home, and we only had lunch a couple of hours ago, so—”

“All right.” Kouyou raises a hand. “I shall prepare something, then—luckily for your stomachs, leftovers should be more than enough to feed the three of us.”

“Three?” Atsushi blinks owlishly, like he doesn’t eat here more than three nights a week on average, even when Kouyou isn’t present. “I—I can head out, really—”

“If you’d like to, then feel free.” Ignoring the side look this earns her from Kyouka, Kouyou lifts a shoulder in an elegant shrug. “However, I am sure Kyouka and I both would enjoy your continued presence.”

Atsushi opens his mouth, but before he can speak, a loud growl fills the room. Under both Kouyou and Kyouka’s pointed stares, he gapes without sound before blushing and sinking down into himself.

“Right, then.” Kouyou smiles down, not bothering to press a hand over her mouth, and then turns on her heel. “I shall be back out to start on that in a moment.”

Without another word, she heads for the stairs. The steady walk that carries her to her room is one that she carries out in a mechanical, numb fashion. She thinks she hears Kyouka and Atsushi murmuring when she leaves the room, but soon Kouyou can no longer hear even the faintest sounds of their voices, and for once she lacks interest in eavesdropping.

The click of the bedroom door behind her sounds far more final than she intends. Kouyou moves past it with a shrug, flicking on her lamp and perching herself on the very edge of the bed. She sheds her haori, then reaches for her obi.

Kouyou’s fingers pause, however, when in the silence, the events of the last hour catch back up with her. She shuts her eyes on instinct, hearing Yosano’s offer on repeat again.

For a moment, the rest of the izakaya had seemed to go silent, even though logically Kouyou had still been able to recognize the cheering college students and chatting businessmen and friends. All that had mattered was that pocket she and Yosano had found themselves in, which had fallen dead quiet. At a far younger age, Kouyou hadn’t been quite unused to propositions, but now, out of reach to acquaintances and strangers alike, she can’t recall the last time someone had raised such a bold sentiment.

It had done what Yosano’s earlier statements, however surprising they’d been, had failed to: It had made Kouyou freeze, mouth parting with open surprise. Such flagrant, honest emotion from her would have made everyone on a familiar basis with her gawk.

Yosano’s smile hadn’t dimmed, even when it had taken over a full minute for Kouyou to recover enough to speak. When she had, her words had been stiff and clumsy.

“I am admittedly flattered,” she’d said, a hand to her mouth in hopes of covering the sudden flush in her cheeks, “but I fear I must decline.”

She’d offered no further explanation, but Yosano had taken it in stride, quick to nod and allow Kouyou her leave, regardless of the instinctive disappointment that had stolen across her face. The air had been tense and uncomfortable in the bubble that had formed around them, somehow separate from the atmosphere of the izakaya. Kouyou’s retreat had been even swifter than she’d intended; she’d dipped her head again and strode out without looking at Yosano.

And yet the words, her own and Yosano’s alike, echo in her ears even now.

Kouyou’s teeth gnash at her phrasing. Must had perhaps been the most accurate word; want to or not, engaging in such a relationship in Kouyou’s position would be difficult, if not impossible. Her work, after all, may as well be her life, and more likely than not it will be her death as well. Though Kouyou does not regret forging the relationships she has now, romance is a far cry from familial and occupational bonds. Kouyou doesn’t lack interest in it altogether, but it is something that requires energy, desire, and affection from all sides—all things that, with her past and present alike, she isn’t certain she can spare.

It doesn’t matter, she tells herself, for want does not factor into this situation at all. Yosano had earned her respect and curiosity, true, but that is a long way away from romantic interest. Kouyou does not know Yosano, and never will she; she’ll only meet her again in passing, if that, and—

And, at that thought, there is a quiet twitch in Kouyou’s stomach. There are any number of explanations—a delayed reaction from the sake, a passing pain in some long-since-forgotten wound, hunger pangs—but far too soon, Kouyou tags it as the same disappointment in Yosano’s face for that single beat.

She recoils. Getting genuinely attached to a woman she’s only met four times and only knows the barest of information about is moronic. It is something someone with far less experience and far less brains than Kouyou would do. Reacting with such viscerality to something that she can’t even bring herself to classify as infatuation is—

Muscle memory carries Kouyou to her feet and into the washroom. She pulls the door shut after her despite the lack of necessity for it, eyes opening to catch her reflection.

At a glance, there is nothing wrong with her appearance. Faint traces of pink dust across her cheeks, but Kouyou doubts the lighting throughout most of the house would put it on display the way the bright fixture and stark, sterile white walls in here do. Her hair is immaculate, as are her makeup and clothing, even with her obi half-untied. Any outsider would see nothing out of place.

However, Kouyou—as much as she’d like to keep a steady distance from some parts of herself—can see the cracks. Lines of tension surround her mouth. When she meets her eyes in the mirror, the lack of resolve there is clear. Her fingers tap against the edges of the counter, where she hadn’t even realized they’d come to rest.

Kouyou brings up one hand to press at her temple, thumb digging into the skin as if trying to squeeze out the gathering pain beneath. It only worsens things.

It would be easier, she supposes, if Yosano’s offer had genuinely bothered her. She would be able to put it out of her mind, dismiss it as another failed attempt at flirting from someone in whom she holds no interest. Not only would Kouyou be able to move on, but she would have forgotten the entire encounter within the hour.

Instead, however, in that pause of shock and then embarrassment, Kouyou had been far too compelled to accept.

Whether or not she has any interest in properly dating her, Yosano does intrigue her. She is an interesting woman, with a straightforward life at first glance—a composed, dedicated physician who is all but devoted to her work, and who clearly cares for the students under her protection, Kyouka among them—and layers beneath that. Her complete lack of fear of Kouyou, for one, even with the knowledge she has (and shouldn’t) about Kouyou’s work.

If she were a different person, more open and less entrenched in her work, Kouyou perhaps wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend more time with such a person, but she would at least entertain it for longer than she’d allowed.

She is not, however, a different person. She has a great many responsibilities, to herself and her family and her people and the city alike, and endangering any of that due to a—passing fancy is not remotely in her nature. However interested she may be in Yosano, it can (and should be) ignored.

Kouyou looks at herself in the mirror: The hard set of her jaw, the steel and flame glinting in her eyes, the firm line of her painted lips, the deceptive brittleness of her slim red-nailed fingers. Every bit the demon she had become known as. Whatever splinters Kouyou sees are minute enough that likely only she can, but to her they stand out as much as neon street signs.

Raising one hand, Kouyou smooths back the stray locks of hair that have fallen aside. She stretches her other hand out to fetch a washcloth, which she wets and presses along the flushed lines of her cheeks. The sudden cold has her flinching, but she forces herself to relax into it, eyes closing.

She tosses the washcloth aside and fetches another to wipe away her makeup. The eyeliner she reapplies, but she doesn’t bother with the lipstick, feeling a distant sense of emptiness that she can more earnestly blame on hunger.

Kouyou glances back at her reflection. Her face is perhaps somewhat pinker, but the pretense of clearing her head takes effect, be it placebo or not.

She inhales, partitions her thoughts aside, exhales, and steps away.

...you might have noticed that "slow burn" is very deliberately NOT among the tags. full disclosure, i have fallen slightly behind on editing, so i will likely be skipping next week's update just to have a chance to catch up -- in the event of this, i'll see you on june 14th! in the meantime, thank you for reading, and any and all thoughts are very much appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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