the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 6 chapter cws: mentions of past suicidal ideation. and we're back! apologies for accidentally originally saying the wrong date, i had a migraine and major brain fog at the time lmao. thank you for your patience (i assume); i graduate this week and shouldn't have any other significant responsibilities for a while, so updates should be fairly consistent from here on out. enjoy!

When she was young, Kouyou’s method for coping with headache-inducing troubles had been simple: Deal with it, or ignore it. Her problems in those days, to be fair, had also been simple, at least in comparison to those she’s faced with nowadays, with her limited number of subordinates and purposeful lack of any personal ties back then.

Now, Kouyou finds herself somewhat at a loss, having ostensibly already handled the problem but unable to let it go.

She can distract herself from it, of course, and even when she isn’t trying to do so it isn’t as if the incident occupies her every waking thought. She’s far from that far gone. But whenever she seems to slice off a head of this metaphorical hydra, dozens more spring up in its place, the thoughts lurking at the back of her mind no matter what she does, always eager to surge back into prominence at night or during lulls of silence.

Lull is certainly something that applies to this situation. With the evening setting into full swing, sunset having long since passed, and the heat picking up as spring borders on summer, there is a disarming effect about the very air. The natural post-dinner haze only adds to it. Kouyou is left staring at a point in space without seeing it.

The lingering scent of the food and beverages spread across the table has faded into background noise, not to mention the actual conversation still hanging in the room. It hasn’t involved her for some time now, and most of the time Kouyou would be happy to tune one voice in particular out. Given the current context, though, it’s more annoying than relieving.

Her eyes flutter half-closed, thoughts not quite coherent but no less bothersome—perhaps, really, even more so. She knows, somewhere, what her mind fails to let her express; but since the words refuse to string themselves together, out of self-preservation or simple lack of exact knowledge of how to do so, she cannot so much as acknowledge it.

Kouyou’s lip curls, subconscious. She has long since given up on living an easy life, but still, there is a difference between the burdens she has chosen to bear and the ones that have been forced upon her.

What bothers her most, she suspects, is how easy it should be to set the encounter aside and move past it. She has far more important things to deal with than a single come-on from a woman she doubts she will have much cause to interact with in the future. Like the well-timed flood of paperwork she’s been graced with this week, for one—though she has been finding her mind drift at work again, too.

It happening at all is troubling, not to mention the actual content of her thoughts. As her absent pondering now sways in that direction, Kouyou feels her eye twitching, subtle enough that it likely isn’t visible but is still irritating.

The ability to turn back time—one that does exist, Kouyou knows, even if it as a general classification is far rarer than some others—has never been one Kouyou has wanted for. She has regrets, and there are things she wishes had never happened, but she can acknowledge that the future is the only thing that can be changed. Living in the past won’t do anyone any good; letting it guide one’s present and future, however, will.

On a conscious level, Kouyou can recognize this much. On a subconscious one, she seems unable to prevent herself from replaying that scene of herself rejecting Yosano’s offer.

Accepting it would have been a poor decision on multiple levels. Logically, she knows this, and she is repeating it to herself as though to ingrain it further and further into her mind, because she keeps returning to the thought of what would have happened had she said something more along the lines of What, exactly, did you have in mind for this dinner?

She strains to picture the expression that would have risen on Yosano’s face in response to that, rather than the fleeting disappointment her actual answer had garnered. A smile, perhaps, earnest and bright.

Kouyou’s eyes squeeze shut as if to eradicate the image from her mind.

“—right, ane-san?” comes a voice, and when Kouyou doesn’t respond, barely even processing the words, a throat clears. “Ane-san.”

Abruptly, Kouyou is returned to where she’s perched upon the tatami floor, knees tucked beneath her and hands, in the absence of anything left to eat, resting in her lap. The last time she had lifted her head, the dying light of the sun had still been streaming in through the window, but now their only source of illumination is the overhead fixture in the private dining room. When she strains her ears, she can hear the faint falling of rain.

More pressingly, however, multiple sets of eyes are fixed on her now, and with a slight scowl, Kouyou does her best to disperse the attention. By the time she looks to the side, Kyouka’s head is already lowered back toward her sketchbook, if ever it had lifted. It only takes a couple of seconds’ worth of pointed eye contact across the table for Chuuya to glance away, interest shifting to the glass in hand and the window to the side, but beside him, Dazai isn’t so easy to shake. If anything, the glare Kouyou levels at him seems to sharpen his focus.

“You’ve been staring off into space for a while there, ane-san,” he chides, cheek resting against one hand. Between the index finger and thumb of the other, he’s twirling a crab leg, flaunting both his poor table manners and inability to finish a meal in less than an hour. “Thinking about what expensive birthday present you’re going to get me?”

Kouyou’s head doesn’t hurt any less, but this, at least, she knows how to handle. “This is my gift.” She gestures to the table, eyes narrowed. “I advise you not to fish for anything more, or else you shall risk receiving nothing for the next three decades.”

“It’s surprisingly optimistic of you to assume we’ll both live that long.” When Chuuya’s glare joins Kouyou’s, Dazai rolls his eyes and bites into his crab leg with a nauseating crunch. “Yes, yes, thank you oh so much again for the meal,” he says around it.

“Don’t be disgusting,” says Chuuya, elbowing him. To Kouyou’s gratification, the jab pulls a brief sputter; Dazai has to fumble for his water, a gesture he attempts to make smooth and unremarkable, to wash his bite down.

When he’s swallowed properly and given Chuuya an unimpressed look that goes ignored, Dazai looks at the sprawl of dishes. “In return for your generous offer to cover the entire check,” he says, debonair in a way that isn’t at all convincing, “I should at least offer to hear out your problems, ane-san. What has you so distracted?”

His stare is far too knowing for Kouyou’s liking, which is probably on purpose; Chuuya beats her, however, to a dismissal. “Fuck off already. She isn’t going to tell you anything.”

Kouyou smiles in cold agreement. “If I needed someone to confide in, Dazai,” she says, taking up what’s left of her cup of tea, “you would be my last choice. Perhaps I was lost in thought over regret for buying you a meal.”

“Hm,” says Dazai, unconvinced but seeming to have little else to do here, with how both Kouyou and Chuuya are looking at him. He takes another painstaking bite of the crab leg. “Since you apparently weren’t thinking about what to get me, why don’t I offer you some ideas? My colleagues were all very thoughtful, so maybe you can get some inspiration from what they gave me.”

“With how you carry yourself at work and in your personal life alike, it is a wonder they even speak to you.”

Dazai just smiles wider. “So technically,” he says, moving on as if Kouyou hadn’t spoken, “he was only my colleague for that year before he returned, but Natsume-sensei did drop by to take me out for lunch today.”

As she lowers her tea, Kouyou very pointedly eyes the detritus of their meals. “How very original.”

“He also gave me a few notebooks.” Dazai finishes off the crab leg. “And this is probably better than lunch was, if only because Kyouka-chan is here instead of Natsume-sensei’s terrifying niece.”

“Yeah, his ‘terrifying niece’ who’s sixteen years old,” adds Chuuya, scoffing. “You know, barely older than most of your siblings.”

“She’s a nightmare and you’re out of your mind for comparing her in any way to Odasaku’s kids.”

“You literally called Kousuke and Katsumi demons yesterday.”

“They are! But they still deserve better than being likened to Teruko-chan.” Scowling, Dazai picks up his glass of water again but doesn’t sip from it. “It’s no wonder that you’re defending her, though. She’s basically a tiny version of you. Well, tinier—”

Chuuya slams his glass down with such force that the entire table shakes. “What was that?”

Kyouka doesn’t so much as glance up, but Kouyou angles her body toward her as if to protect her from any loose shards regardless. Dazai just rolls his eyes and takes a swig of water before setting it back down.

“See? That’s exactly what she would have done.” Batting away the swat aimed at his shoulder without looking, Dazai looks back over at Kouyou, eyes crinkling. “Anyway, don’t worry—I always appreciate free meals.”

“If you keep running your mouth,” warns Kouyou, lacking real heat, “then I shall make you pay every cent of the bill.”

“Couldn’t even if I wanted to! I don’t have my wallet on me, you see.”

“Yeah, right,” mutters Chuuya, and Kouyou is inclined to agree, but Dazai’s benevolent smile doesn’t dim at their shared doubt.

“Well, anyway, except for Teruko-chan’s presence, that all went fine,” he says, making a vague gesture. “I think Sasaki-san’s gift was another one of my favorites. She gave me a very nice self-help book.”

Kouyou’s eyebrows lift, and Chuuya outright bursts out laughing, unrestrained and sharp. “Holy shit, did she really? If you don’t send her a thank-you note I’m going to.”

Instead of responding, Dazai reaches into his coat to pull out, indeed, a small book with some nonsensical title about passion and happiness and a cover involving motifs of butterflies. Kouyou’s eye twitches—she brings her gaze back up to Dazai’s face, which is set into an expression somewhere between amused, offended, and genuinely touched. Meanwhile, Chuuya is clutching the table for support as he devolves into further laughter.

“She was so polite about it, too,” recounts Dazai. With a sigh, he gives the book a gentle pat on the cover and tucks it back into one of his coat pockets. “I really should introduce her and Kunikida-kun one of these days. Ah, speaking of Kunikida-kun, he got me a set of pens—with the price tag left on.”

“You go through pens faster than most people go through food,” accuses Chuuya, sobered—in the emotional sense of the word, at any rate—by the shift in tone. “Why the hell would he spend more than a few hundred yen on something that’s just going to go to waste? Especially if it’s for you of all people.”

Dazai taps his cheek thoughtfully. “He did sneak one pretty high-quality pen into the pack, though, and he didn’t do a very good job of hiding it. It was super obvious where he had opened the packaging and tried to hide it.”

“Yeah, well, we can’t all have a goddamn life’s worth of practice stealing shit and sneaking into places.”

Rather than instilling any sense of shame, of course, the remark only makes Dazai perk up. “Oh, that reminds me. Kyouka-chan—”

Kyouka looks up.

“No,” says Kouyou, in unison with Chuuya’s “Fuck off.”

Kyouka looks back down. Dazai clicks his tongue.

“I was just going to offer to teach her how to pick locks again, nothing nefarious,” he says, slumping forward with an exaggerated face. “You should let that be my birthday present. Or hers.”

Kouyou’s headache strengthens. “Ah, yes,” she says, dry, “lock picking, the least nefarious business out there.”

Dazai looks her dead in the eye. “What’s your body count again?” he asks sweetly.

“Hey,” says Chuuya, glowering, but Kouyou’s response, light and just as saccharine, overlaps his: “One less than I would prefer it to be.”

“Sure, sure.” Dazai feigns a yawn, but he’s made his point. “As I was saying… Jouno-san’s was kind of funny, really; he offered to take me to the horse races, but in a way that made it seem like his real plan was to shank me and dump my body back behind the stables.” That earns another glance up from Kyouka. “And then there was the deck of playing cards from Dostoyevsky, the anthology of contemporary psychological horror stories from Mushitarou-san, and the multiple religious pamphlets from Hawthorne-san. I think at least one centered around premarital cohabitation,” he adds, already unable to keep a straight face and laughing harder when Chuuya scoffs, “but I couldn’t really say for sure, since I burned them. Oh, and the nice bottle of sake from Fukuchi-san.”

It seems like half of Dazai’s coworkers hate him, and the other half adore him. Kouyou raises an eyebrow. “See? With such a wide array, you cannot possibly want for anything more. I imagine Oda-san and Sakaguchi-kun treated you to drinks as well.”

“Tonight they are—last night Odasaku and the kids threw an actual birthday party. Yuu-kun tried to steal my cake.”

“And you did nothing to piss him off, I’m sure,” says Chuuya.

Dazai blinks. “Absolutely not,” he says, drawn out to almost be believable to any onlookers, were there any—as it is, everyone in the room has known him long enough to look at him in disbelief. “You know how moody teenagers are. Ah, yourself not included, obviously, Kyouka-chan.”

“I’m not a teenager yet,” says Kyouka with a shrug, barely even looking up.

“Of course, of course. Well, Yuu-kun, unfortunately, is, and he’s going through one of those phases that makes him incredibly rude to me for no reason sometimes.”

Shaking his head, Chuuya pours himself some more wine. “You’re so full of shit.”

“And you’re going to pass out in the car,” says Dazai with a derisive look. It’s probably true, enough so that Chuuya doesn’t contest it aside from another scoff and a listless punch to the shoulder. Dazai shrugs it off, rolling his eyes, then seems to recall something. “Actually, now that I’m talking about presents—there was an unmarked box delivered to my work today. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

Kouyou doesn’t have to fake a frown, because she doesn’t. “I’m afraid not, and I question your juvenile characterization of me.”

Eyes narrowed, Dazai studies her face, but after a second he just shrugs. “It must have been Akutagawa-kun, then. The coat and gloves did seem more his style, anyway, but you never know.”

Kouyou scowls at having her brand of unexpressed and passive-aggressive affection mistaken for Akutagawa’s, but beyond that, she only clicks her tongue. “I imagine you received something from Atsushi-kun as well.”

Kyouka’s gaze lifts for a split second again, but she’s soon looking back at her sketchbook. Dazai’s smile brightens. “A mug, yes. And a promise to at least think about the TA position I offered him for next year.”

“Oh?” Kouyou sits up a touch straighter, taking an active interest in the conversation for the first time all evening. Kyouka’s attention, too, lingers. “He hadn’t mentioned that to me.”

“I just brought it up for the first time a week or two ago,” says Dazai, shrugging. “I think his brain has been short-circuited every time he’s thought about it. But it’s nothing too extensive, so he should have time for it, and despite his automatic protests, he’s more than skilled enough for the role.”

Kouyou inclines her head in agreement. “I shall congratulate him when next I see him, then.”

“Feel free. If he faints, record it.” This earns Dazai an immediate thump in the shoulder from Chuuya and a harsh glare from Kyouka, the latter of which seems to be more behind his sigh than the former. “Fine, fine, you can just tell me about it.”

“Ah, it seems that I have decided upon your birthday present after all.” Kouyou presses her hands together, not quite clapping but still producing a triumphant sound. “Since it seems that there is nothing you especially need.”

“That doesn’t mean there’s nothing I want,” says Dazai. “Like, say, a new coffee machine.”

It’s more probable than not that he’s still bluffing as he smiles winningly across the table at Kouyou, but she can’t help a slight grimace, since that is just what she’d ordered a few days prior. “Get it from someone else,” she says anyway. “I have already spent far too much money on you.”

“All right.” Blithely, Dazai raises his hands. “I’ll look forward to whatever shows up at the apartment.”

“Gin-kun with a knife, if you persist.”

Kouyou’s personal threats of violence don’t work on Dazai anymore, but this one seems especially ineffective for how he snorts at it.

“Cut it out already,” Chuuya tells him. He reaches over to drain the rest of his wine—he hadn’t poured much more to begin with, so this isn’t a significant amount—and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. “If I leave for five minutes, can you refrain from provoking ane-san into stabbing you? You’d deserve it, obviously—” Dazai makes a mock-offended sound “—but Kyouka doesn’t deserve to have to see that.”

Over the top of her sketchbook, Kyouka eyes Dazai like she does, in fact, deserve and want to see that, but she says nothing. Dazai’s attention swivels back toward Kouyou. “If you’re on your best behavior, I’ll be on mine,” he tells her with a bright smile.

Kouyou rests her hand over the sleeve he’s certainly seen her pull a dagger from multiple times before. “I shan’t make any promises.”

Chuuya shakes his head but seems to accept this much. He hesitates for a handful of seconds longer; it’s only when Dazai arches an eyebrow, the unmistakable precursor to some series of insults, that he drags himself to his feet. Kouyou doesn’t intervene, only seconding Dazai’s bored “Don’t punch anyone” in a way that expresses more genuine concern. He slips out of the room with a final glare over his shoulder at the back of Dazai’s head.

In his absence, they’re left in silence. Kyouka continues to sketch, Dazai begins poking at the slim remains of his crab, and Kouyou sits ramrod straight with her eyes fixed across the table. She almost wishes for another argument to strike up—if nothing else, it would give her something to focus on, but as is, she’s struggling not to lapse back into her prior thoughts.

She closes her eyes, decides that this is unhelpful, and opens them again, gaze drifting to the window. The sound and vague sight of the rain wash over her.

Within three minutes, Kyouka, too, is rising, closing her sketchbook and setting it aside. She makes to excuse herself with a brief bow.

“Do you know where the restroom is?” asks Kouyou, glancing up. “And will you be able to get there all right by yourself?”

Kyouka only stares, but it’s a stare that answers for itself. Kouyou doubts she’s the one who should feel chagrined in such a scenario, but under the weight of Kyouka’s stare, she feels that creeping in nevertheless.

Across the table, Dazai huffs. “Ane-san, there are hardly going to be knife-wielding assassins lining the hallways of this restaurant,” he says, replacing Kouyou’s embarrassment with irritation whiplash-inducingly fast. “Also, she’s turning thirteen in less than six months.”

“Were you able to enter public restrooms by yourself at thirteen?” Kouyou scowls. “And it is never harmful to take precautions. You are free to go, Kyouka,” she adds in an aside, because now Kyouka is just hovering to the side of the table, not seeming sure who to listen to, “but do be careful. Take your phone with you.”

“Don’t fall in,” ribs Dazai.

Kouyou wishes they had settled for a Western-style dining room for the sole purpose of being able to comfortably kick him under the table. In lieu of being able to do so, she smiles at Kyouka as she leaves, then turns a glower on Dazai the instant Kyouka’s back is turned. Dazai is unaffected, of course, plucking at his sleeves rather than looking at her.

Quiet overtakes them, uncomfortable in the wake of the preceding conversation. Kouyou curls her hands close together where they rest in her lap. Her gaze drifts to the window, watching rain speckle the glass.

Dazai doesn’t allow the silence to die with dignity, nor for it to stretch on until either Chuuya or Kyouka returns. Instead, he breaks it by rapping on the edge of the table. “So,” he says when Kouyou looks, unimpressed, at him, an introduction that instills a deeper sense of dread in Kouyou’s stomach than a loaded gun would, “what did have you distracted earlier?”

Never mind—Kouyou can handle this, even if her lip curls on sheer instinct. “If you think I would suddenly unveil my deepest thoughts with only you for company, then you are sorely mistaken.”

“Well, of course. But you have to acknowledge how unusual it is, do you not?” Dazai leans forward with an innocent expression, like he doesn’t know that that’s just why Kouyou is acting like she is. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen you space out like that, including tonight, and one of those was at Mori-san’s funeral. The others were after Kyouka-chan’s incident. Something must have really gotten to you.”

“It has been a stressful week work-wise,” says Kouyou, which is technically true in that every week is stressful; in the scheme of things, though, this hadn’t been a mad rush that would warrant such a descriptor, just a standard series of negotiations and numbers. “I was simply considering the magnitude of paperwork this excursion forced me to shirk.”

Dazai’s eyes glint like he’s caught her in a lie. “Oh, really? But if that were the case, Chuuya would have started complaining after four sips of wine.”

Kouyou refrains from rolling her eyes, despite this also being true. “His duties are significant, yes, but they pale in comparison to my own.”

“Barely. Everyone knows that if the Port Mafia had an official second-in-command role, you would promote him to that without a moment’s hesitation.” When Kouyou only narrows her eyes, Dazai spreads his hands. “I won’t ask, ane-san, but—”

“You already have.”

Dazai’s resting smile stiffens. “…I won’t ask again,” he amends, “but—”

Again, Kouyou doesn’t hesitate to cut him off, tense but unwilling to concede. “You shan’t shy away from manipulating me into answering?” she says, to which his smile morphs into an outright grimace. Kouyou inspects her nails. “I’ve had the misfortune of knowing you for over fifteen years, boy. You are only fooling yourself if you think your juvenile games still work on me.”

“I’m offended by whatever you’re accusing me of, really.” Despite saying so, Dazai is grinning in full again. He starts to say something else, then pauses—when he speaks, it’s with a tone that Kouyou can’t quite pin down. “Has it really been fifteen years?”

“I am aware that it is not your area of expertise, but certainly you can do the math.”

Despite the context of the conversation, it is gratifying to see Dazai frown, gaze dropping to the table and brow furrowing while he goes through the mental calculations. As soon as the realization hits, he sags forward with a blank expression.

Kouyou smiles, a bit wry. “My, it is rare to see you staring off into space so,” she says, just to hammer it in, and Dazai scoffs. She leans back in her seat. “Admittedly, it is somewhat incomprehensible to me as well. I would like to say that you haven’t changed at all, but tragically, I fear you have in quite a few ways—albeit not enough that I can’t tell when you’re attempting to eke something out of me.”

“It was worth a try, wasn’t it?” The distant, contemplative look remains in Dazai’s eyes even as he flashes her a smile that isn’t the least bit charming. Idly, he runs his index finger along a whorl in the wood of the table. “Fifteen years, huh,” he remarks again. “Back then, I didn’t think I’d make it two.”

Neither had Kouyou, at one point. When she’d first met him, she had all but willed it, though by her own hand rather than any other cause. Now—

Now, for the plague upon her life he continues to be, a part of her is grateful to be sitting here with him, both of them—perhaps not well, but at least alive.

She opens her mouth, then decides she would rather die than express such a thought in so many words. “If you hadn’t,” she says, tone serious enough that Dazai glances up at her, “then you wouldn’t have had the chance to heckle me as you have tonight.”

Likely hearing what’s beneath the words and as unwilling to acknowledge it as Kouyou is, Dazai only smiles. “I can’t say that that tops my list of reasons to live, but it is certainly true.” He reaches again for his water, though there’s nothing left in it now but some lukewarm clumps of melting ice. “I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to find out what you got me, either. Is it actually a coffee machine?”

“Hush,” says Kouyou, back to glaring. “I wouldn’t wish to ruin your birthday by driving a dagger through your hand.”

“You say that like it’s exactly what you want to do,” accuses Dazai, but he falls silent again regardless, shaking around the dregs of ice in his glass until Kyouka and Chuuya rejoin them, the two pausing for a split second at the air of peaceful nostalgia they find the room enjoying.

(Later, sweeping a braid over her shoulder and willing the continued rainfall not to become a full-on thunderstorm, Kouyou will reason that she hadn’t been able to ignore her troubles after all, but she’d at least been able to distract herself from them.)

*

The sun beats down overhead as Kouyou and Kyouka make their way to the edge of the park, light reflecting off the sidewalk at a sharp angle and wet heat hanging in the air. Given it had been pouring down rain less than twenty-four hours prior—and scant traces of puddles are still obvious on some streets—the stark shift in weather is a surprise, and not an altogether pleasant one.

Kouyou adjusts the sleeves of her kimono. Kyouka had been savvier and opted for a lighter yukata, but she too is squinting against the harsh sunlight, hand raising to shield herself every now and then.

“I am sure Atsushi-kun won’t mind terribly if we take a moment to drop back to nab an umbrella,” Kouyou tells her, glancing down. Her voice is layered with her blatant hope for an affirmative response.

“It’s fine,” mumbles Kyouka instead.

It clearly is not fine, but Kouyou just presses her lips together rather than sparking an argument. “If you insist. But really, child, it would take but a few moments—”

Before she can say anything more, Kyouka is speeding up her pace, half a block ahead of Kouyou in the blink of an eye.

For a second, Kouyou is affronted—and then she sees Atsushi waiting ahead, turned away to watch the other end of the sidewalk, and is only marginally less so. She shakes her head, lifts her sleeve to keep out the glare of the sun, and follows.

By the time Kouyou catches up, Kyouka is reaching up to tap Atsushi’s arm, and Atsushi is spinning on his heel with a yelp, almost falling over altogether. Looking like a deer in headlights, he teeters for a second before managing to steady himself. Kyouka offers no assistance, only looking up at him in bemusement.

“Ah, hey, Kyouka-chan,” he says, trying—and failing—to cover his loud swallow. “I—I didn’t hear you coming.”

“We noticed,” says Kouyou dryly, stepping up beside Kyouka. Atsushi swallows harder. “Good afternoon, boy. May I know what the occasion for this outing is?”

It had been a surprise when, a couple of days ago, Kyouka had padded into the living room to ask if Kouyou wanted to go for a walk with her and Atsushi over the weekend, showing her a chain of texts detailing Atsushi’s offer. He had something he wanted to discuss, so he’d said, and had pointedly extended the invitation to Kouyou. In and of itself, that had been unusual. Though it isn’t uncommon for Kyouka and Atsushi to wander the city on days when Atsushi babysits, Kouyou can think of no times she’s joined them on purpose besides occasional holidays.

“Some news this must be,” she’d said to Kyouka, whose brow had furrowed as though mulling that over herself. The further opportunity for distraction, however, had been enticing, so she’d added, “All right. Let me know when and where.”

Looking at Atsushi now, fumbling and red-faced from what Kouyou assumes is more than the temperature, Kouyou is even more bemused. She’s half-certain she already knows what he wants to talk about, given it’s what she had intended to bring up with him when next he was conscious enough to respond, but his presentation is another story altogether.

“Well,” says Atsushi, shuffling his feet. “Um, it’s just—well, it’s nice to see you guys, and—hey, Kyouka-chan, you’re busy studying for finals, right?” Kyouka barely gets the chance to even nod, the stoic determination in her face deepening, before Atsushi is continuing. “I hope that all goes well, then. And Kouyou-san, everything is going well with your work and everything?”

Kouyou suppresses a wince. “That depends on your definition of well.”

“Good, good,” says Atsushi, like he’s not listening at all, prompting a quirk of Kouyou’s brow and a prolonged stare from Kyouka. His gaze darts around, looking far more like that of a prey animal than an apex predator. “Um… this weather sure is nice, isn’t it? Summer came along so fast, though, haha. It seems like just the other day it was—”

“You’re stalling, lad.” Kouyou folds her arms and shifts to the side; with the angle of the sun and her height advantage, she casts a shadow over Atsushi that has him jolting. “You had something you wished to discuss with us, did you not? By all means, then, discuss it.”

Tongue-tied again, Atsushi manages some vague ramble about wanting to enjoy the sunshine. It takes a flood of self-restraint for Kouyou to keep from rolling her eyes.

“Would this, by any chance, be about the teaching assistant position you were offered?”

The pure shock that Atsushi’s expression lapses into is, in a very muted way, amusing, as is the way his mouth flaps soundlessly again for a moment or two before he manages to squeak out, “How did you—?”

“Dazai and I do speak, you know,” says Kouyou, dry, “much to my vexation.”

“Ah.” Atsushi’s face reddens, and he picks at his sleeves. “So you already knew, then?”

“Yes, and I intended to congratulate you.” Atsushi freezes yet again, and Kouyou allows for a somewhat softer smile, inclining her head; beside her, Kyouka does the same. “As Dazai mentioned, you certainly have the skill for it, and he must have had even more solid reasons to ask you. As far as I have heard, though, you have not yet decided whether to take the offer.”

“Well, no.” Seeming to notice in the same instant Kouyou does that they’re taking up a considerable amount of the sidewalk, Atsushi brandishes an apologetic smile-slash-grimace, then starts walking, his hands sliding into his pockets. Kyouka keeps pace with him, and Kouyou follows in their wake, half a step behind. “It’s exciting, of course, and a really good opportunity, but it’s kind of stress-inducing too, isn’t it? Being responsible for all of those people, and having to balance it along with all my other schoolwork and job stuff…”

“It isn’t as if you are intended to take over the class for Dazai,” says Kouyou, although now that she’s said so, she wouldn’t put it past Dazai to do something like that. From the bleak look that shades Atsushi’s face, he wouldn’t either. “Which course is it you are to assist with, at any rate? He did not explain in excruciating detail.”

“Ah, just a couple of his introductory classes. And I wouldn’t really be doing that much, just grading papers and leading a couple of classes and taking care of records and sometimes tutoring and stuff.” He pauses to catch his breath, then presses on. “Still, though—what if it’s too much for me to handle?”

His breathing is starting to speed up, enough so that Kouyou—feeling the same concern reflected in Kyouka’s face, albeit to a much less significant degree—presses a hand briefly against his shoulder. “There is a bench just over there,” she says, gesturing him that way. “Would you care to sit?”

“Um. I—I guess so.”

Atsushi trudges that way, dropping down with a weight that his form wouldn’t suggest. Kyouka perches on the very edge of the same bench. Kouyou remains standing, both for lack of room and for lack of interest in sitting, hovering just to the side with her hands folded at her waist. The shade from a nearby tree, really, had been what had drawn her attention to this small area.

Atsushi isn’t making to speak again, just staring at his hands as he wrings them. Down the bench from him, Kyouka shifts in place, seeming uncertain what to do.

Kouyou allows the silence to persist for a moment or two, letting Atsushi even out his breathing before she makes to speak. “You were worried about taking on this job, were you not?”

Brow furrowing, Atsushi stares blankly up at her. “What?”

“Babysitting Kyouka. It was intimidating at first, was it not?”

“…well, yeah,” says Atsushi, still sounding somewhat lost. “But I’d never babysat before, and one of the first things you said to me was also that you were a mob boss, so obviously that was way scarier than—” He stops. Kouyou takes the pause as an opportunity to glance around to ensure that no eavesdroppers are present; Atsushi isn’t always the best at volume control or subtlety. “Oh. You’re saying that the TA thing is nothing compared to this, so I shouldn’t be so nervous about it?”

“Not entirely, though I suppose that applies to some degree as well.” Kouyou shifts her weight, bringing her arms up to again cross them over her chest. “What I intended to imply was that, for all of your fear, that turned out fine. Better than, I would even say, for Kyouka’s presence in your life.” Kyouka turns away, but she can’t quite hide the pleased flush in her cheeks. “Who is to say that this shall not?”

Atsushi continues to stare down at his hands, fingers still arranged in a complicated knot, white knuckles and sharp nails wrapped around each other. Slowly, he untangles them and lowers his hands to his thighs. “That’s true,” he says, careful, glancing over at Kyouka. “I still don’t know, though.”

“I do not hear an outright rejection, either,” says Kouyou, and Atsushi reaches back to rub the back of his neck. “Dazai seemed pleased enough that you were simply thinking it over, and I imagine he doesn’t expect an answer now.”

“He said as long as I got back to him by, like, the beginning of March, it would be fine.” Atsushi’s lips twitch slightly. His hand falls back down, rubbing at his knee for a moment before going limp. “And that the exact position was pretty flexible, and I could just quit later on if it got to be too much.”

“See, lad? You already have quite the safety net should you slip.” If only because he isn’t looking right at her, instead staring forward, Kouyou allows for a gentler smile than those she often goes for—she turns her head away, though, to better cloak it. “If you truly are interested and can handle it, then I do encourage you to take it on. Should you struggle with balancing your schedule, I am more than willing to ease up on your babysitting duties as well.”

She glances toward Kyouka, who looks a bit dismayed at this offer. Under Kouyou’s sidelong look, though, she closes her eyes and tilts her head in acceptance.

“Oh, that stuff should be fine!” Atsushi waves a hand. “I already don’t really watch Kyouka during what would be school hours, and most of the time, it’s pretty easy to just work on school stuff at the house.”

That is true enough, given Kouyou has found him bent over a laptop as many times as she has found him unconscious on the couch. She nods to herself, acknowledging Kyouka’s relief with what amusement she can muster.

“Um, thank you, Kouyou-san.” With a timid smile, Atsushi glances over at her. A well-needed cool breeze flows past, stirring the lock of hair that hangs loose on the side of his face. “I’ll think about it some more.”

Kouyou nods again, peering down at him out of the corners of her eyes. This is not the exact brand of distraction she’d hoped for it to be, but she supposes it works out in the end after all. “My extension of congratulations still stands, then, and I suppose I ought to bid you good luck as well. If you do decide to assist Dazai, you will almost certainly need it.” Her smile sharpens, and Atsushi winces.

“You’ll do well,” chimes in Kyouka, facing away still.

Atsushi can’t quite manage a confident expression, but he is at least able to cobble together a more cheerful one. “Thank you, too, Kyouka-chan,” he says. “It means a lot.”

Kyouka just continues staring forward; she nods, but otherwise doesn’t react. Atsushi doesn’t make to say anything more either, returning to focusing on his breathing, coming easy and unhindered now.

Again, Kouyou lets the silence stretch out for a moment before interrupting it by stepping forward. “Well, what is it you would like to be treated with?”

Atsushi blinks. “Huh?”

As if he’s being particularly dense—which he is, so far as she’s concerned—Kouyou sighs. “You have significant news,” she says, “and you invited the both of us to discuss it, so doubtlessly, some sort of congratulatory gift is in order. Have you eaten lunch yet?”

“Erm, no, but—” Atsushi scratches at his chin. “You really don’t have to do anything like that, Kouyou-san. I mean, I haven’t even accepted the position yet, and it’s not—”

Kouyou sniffs. “Do not take this as an act done out of obligation, boy, nor this opportunity as an insignificant one. Does anything sound especially appetizing?”

Though he still seems hesitant—which could be in part due to the cool stare Kouyou is staring him down with—Atsushi does glance toward Kyouka. “Well, there is this nice crepes stall around here,” he says, tentative, and Kyouka straightens at the very sound. “But I can pay for my own—and if Kyouka-chan wants one, hers too, obviously.”

“It is called a gift for a reason, Atsushi-kun. I advise you to accept it.” He swallows but nods; the way he bites his cheek to keep himself from protesting further is almost visible. “Kyouka, do crepes sound good to you as well?”

Kyouka’s nod is immediate and exuberant, enough so that the smile on Kouyou’s face settles into something warmer. Perhaps this had been a fine idea, after all.

“They’re good,” says Kyouka, something she has expressed multiple times over but has never gotten to do in the actual vicinity of the stall. “There are lots of different flavors.”

“Is that so? Perhaps I shall endeavor to try one myself, then.” Kouyou extends a hand. “You two lead the way, if you are so willing to brave the heat and masses again.”

Kyouka’s face is set into an expression far graver and more determined than Kouyou thinks crepes warrant, but she shan’t complain, particularly when Kyouka takes her hand to haul herself up. Atsushi slides to his feet on his own with a quick grateful nod toward Kouyou. She only smiles and gestures them onward.

It’s a warm weekend afternoon, so while Kouyou’s characterization of the crowd as outright masses had been slight hyperbole, there is a fair amount of people around the park, families and couples and some stragglers. With Atsushi present, Kouyou doesn’t bother reaching for Kyouka as she often would in such a situation. The two of them fall into pace together, Kyouka a step or two behind, and Kouyou maintains her position at their backs.

Kyouka and Atsushi walk with practiced ease, another reminder of just how embedded this crepes stall is into their routines. Kouyou’s mind drifts as she follows for once, but in a more pleasant way than she’s gotten used to it doing over the past several weeks. She takes in a breath, letting the summer air flow over her—

And then Atsushi, head turned to say something to Kyouka, slams his shoulder right into that of another passerby.

Instantly, Atsushi is jumping back and whirling around, his eyes wide and guilt filling every bit of his face. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I should have been looking where I was going,” he stammers out, hands flailing about. “Do you need any help, ma’am? I’m really—”

“It’s fine, kid,” says the woman he’d run into. She straightens up with a grunt, dark hair falling aside, and Kouyou freezes. “Far from the worst I’ve gotten.”

If anything, this seems to trouble Atsushi more. “But still—”

“Seriously, I’m all right.” She brushes off her shoulder and flashes an amiable smile; the light of the sun glints off her teeth and the pin tucked into her hair alike. “I’m pretty sturdy. Are you okay?”

“Ah, um, yes.” Atsushi scratches at the back of his neck. “I’m sturdy too, I guess.”

“Good, good. Now then—”

Whatever she had intended to say after that, however, is lost as, at last, she lifts her gaze the slightest bit to see Kouyou and Kyouka standing beside Atsushi, both stiff with recognition. In a heartbeat, Yosano falls silent, blinking up at Kouyou. Out of the corners of her eyes, Kyouka too is looking up at Kouyou, as if questioning her particular rigidness.

Between the heat, brightness, and now this, Kouyou can’t wholly feel her legs beneath her. The fact that Yosano looks as uncomfortable as she feels is a small mercy—the expression of surprise is replaced with a composed smile after a few seconds, even.

“Um,” says Atsushi. “Is—is everything okay?”

“Hm?” Yosano glances back at him, then sharpens her smile in apology. “Ah, yes. It’s nice to see you two again,” she adds to Kouyou and Kyouka, her voice pleasant but with a definite undertone of dismay that this has happened again.

Kyouka, oblivious to or ignoring the pointed tension in the air, dips her head. “Sensei.”

Atsushi blinks rapidly as his head twists between them. “Wait, you all know each other?”

There’s a beat as they all seem to debate who should explain, or just continue adjusting to the entire situation. Yosano is the one to break the silence, huffing and saying, “I’m the physician at Izumi-san’s school, so I’ve run into her and Ozaki-san a few times over the past few months.”

“Oh.” Atsushi nods, taking this in, before it clicks and his eyes widen. “Oh, you’re the Yosano-sensei Kyouka-chan was telling me about! It’s nice to meet you, then, sensei. Oh, uh, I’m Atsushi,” he adds on with a hurried bow. “I… work for Kouyou-san, I guess?”

“Oh?” Knowing just what working for Kouyou must entail, Yosano raises an eyebrow at him and then at Kouyou, who sighs.

“He babysits,” she elaborates. A prickling sensation runs down the back of the neck, one she wants to blame on the heat. “He and Kyouka are close friends by now as well.”

Atsushi smiles, and Kyouka lowers her head farther, eyes closed.

“Ah, is that so?” Yosano’s light smile and guarded gaze return, passing over Kyouka and Atsushi in turn. Kouyou makes sure her inhale is inaudible. “It’s nice to meet you too, then, Atsushi-kun. Unfortunately, though,” she adds, shifting back, “I can’t really stick around to chat—I do have some errands to get done this afternoon. It was nice seeing you, though.” This she directs more so at Kouyou and Kyouka, nodding in the latter’s direction.

“Of course.” Kouyou swallows a sigh—whether it would be one of relief or disappointment isn’t something she’d like to examine in great detail at the moment. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon, Yosano-sensei.”

Years of practice are all that keep her voice steady and calm, as even as if the events of several weeks prior hadn’t happened. The look Yosano levels her with is shrewd, eyes narrowed, but she just nods.

Neither of them, perhaps purposefully, say see you around. With a more pointed, “See you on Monday, Izumi-san,” Yosano is stepping away, hair and skirt flowing after her.

“Oh, um, bye,” calls Atsushi after her, and Kyouka waves.

Yosano glances over her shoulder to smile toward Kyouka and Atsushi; the expression falters the slightest bit when her gaze jumps up toward Kouyou, but she’s turning around again too fast to track the shift. Within seconds, she’s another blur in the crowd, gone from sight as fast as a butterfly.

Kouyou stares after her, eyes half-glazed and lip curled. The heat in the air feels incidental all of a sudden.

“Kouyou-san?” comes Atsushi’s voice, and Kouyou twists her head to find both him and Kyouka watching her, their faces undercut with concern. “Are you okay?”

Kouyou clears whatever face she’s making and smooths a neutral expression back into place. “Certainly, lad. That was simply an unexpected encounter,” she says, turning. Neither Atsushi nor Kyouka looks convinced, but they’re both polite enough to not say anything of it, even if they exchange glances amongst themselves. She clears her throat. “Now, where were these crepes you were raving about again?”

They look at her for a moment longer before Atsushi sighs, almost inaudible—but still obvious enough to earn a pointed look from Kouyou—and starts walking again. Kyouka reaches up to take hold of Kouyou’s wrist; ostensibly, it’s to pull her along at a quicker pace than she would have allowed for on her own, but the firm support in the curl of her fingers is as clear as anything.

Kouyou’s smile grows more genuine, but she still finds herself on edge every time dark hair catches her peripheral vision.

thanks for reading! as always, any thoughts are very much appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
1. Chapter 1 7533 0 0 2. Chapter 2 9781 0 0 3. Chapter 3 7942 0 0 4. Chapter 4 7673 0 0 5. Chapter 5 7397 0 0 6. Chapter 6 8166 0 0 7. Chapter 7 11242 0 0 8. Chapter 8 14519 0 0 9. Chapter 9 7769 0 0 10. Chapter 10 10079 0 0 11. Chapter 11 8041 0 0 12. Chapter 12 11189 0 0 13. Chapter 13 11128 0 0 14. Chapter 14 8922 0 0 15. Chapter 15 9885 0 0 16. Chapter 16 8226 0 0 17. Chapter 17 12887 0 0 18. Chapter 18 8330 0 0 19. Chapter 19 15146 0 0 20. Chapter 20 17299 0 0 21. Chapter 21 18177 0 0 22. Chapter 22 8794 0 0 23. Chapter 23 13959 0 0 24. Chapter 24 10162 0 0 25. Chapter 25 12723 0 0 26. Chapter 26 8403 0 0 27. Chapter 27 24347 0 0 28. Epilogue 3365 0 0