the footsteps of love @gealbhan
Chapter 9 chapter cws: nothing too major i think, just typical allusions to death and violence. i'm melting so i have nothing to preface this with. enjoy!

Vibrant streamers flow in the summer wind, bamboo and paper alike stirred by the breeze. It does nothing at all to combat the humidity, which is still edging toward the peak of its daily slope, even as the sun itself begins to dip as the afternoon grows later. Few seem concerned—if anything, jubilant laughter rings out clearer than it has any other day in the past week, and the distraction of the festiveness in the air seems to serve as a distraction from the unbearable heat.

Kouyou is not so lucky, grimacing and shifting on her feet. Her parasol shields her from some of the sun’s glare, as does the additional shade of the buildings along the street, but she still sighs under the intensity of the light she’s swathed in. She resists the urge to wipe away the sweat she can feel clinging to the back of her neck. The tightening of her grip on her parasol is almost audible.

“Do you need something to drink, Kouyou-san?” asks Atsushi for what might be the fourth time, giving her a concerned look from where he and Kyouka have been observing a group of children fishing for toys at a distant stall.

Although she might, frankly, Kouyou shakes her head. “As I have told you the last several times, Atsushi-kun, I am fine.” She arches a brow in the direction of the stall. “Did you wish to join in?”

Atsushi’s cheeks are already pink with the heat, but now the blush creeps toward his neck. “Ah, no, I’m fine!” he says, waving his hands. “I’m having enough fun just watching. Oh, what about you, Kyouka-chan?”

Kyouka, who had participated in a shooting game several blocks back and won a small rabbit charm—which is still curled in the palm of her hand now—for her troubles, shakes her head. Her eyes remain on the stall, though, seeming to echo Atsushi’s sentiment.

Kouyou inclines her head in acceptance, remaining at their backs. She adjusts the angle of her parasol with a frown, turning away from the sharp flash of sunlight.

It doesn’t do her much good—wherever she looks, something blindingly bright is there to greet her. The streets are lined with colorful decorations and stalls, offering food and games alike. The people themselves, children and adults flitting about to exchange conversation and yen, are donning vivid, festal yukata (some of which border more on gaudy than anything). Even the ground isn’t spared from the harsh glow of the sun, which reflects off it at certain angles.

Though Kouyou is used to feeling out of place in public, festivals set her apart in another way altogether, even accompanied by a child and a young adult. It had been by sheer coincidence that she’d stumbled into the festivities today, really. Though she had been free enough to observe the celebration with Kyouka the year prior, and years back she and Chuuya had occasionally drifted about the parade and admired the decorations, most years—this one included—Kouyou tends to forget Tanabata’s existence altogether. Its background hadn’t compelled her beyond girlhood, and she had always found the festival itself too bright and wasteful. But when she’d taken a walk after a meeting she’d had scheduled near the pier earlier today, the time of year had come screeching back to her.

Kyouka and Atsushi finding her had been just as much an accident. One moment Kouyou had been walking by herself, and the next she had heard someone call her name and had seen a familiar rabbit-patterned yukata and a less familiar but still recognizable gray one approaching. Kyouka had pressed a slip of paper into Kouyou’s hand and led her to a table set up nearby, and that had been that.

At least she is dressed for the occasion, Kouyou reasons as she shifts her parasol into one hand to adjust the cotton pooling around her wrists. Her deep rose-pink yukata, adorned with floral motifs, is a bit more minimalistic and of course lighter in layers than her usual wear, but it is no less well-made. The same goes, of course, for Kyouka’s—but not Atsushi’s.

He doesn’t seem to care a great deal; his eyes are glowing brighter even than the sun above as they swim about the streets. For how long he’s lived in the city, he has to have partaken in the festival before—although Kouyou can’t say for certain, given she and Kyouka had had Tachihara and Gin in tow last year instead—but he looks on now as though everything is new to him.

Kouyou isn’t as endeared as she had been with Kyouka a year prior, even if that had been more subdued than the exuberance Atsushi shows now, but she supposes it has its own charm. The operator of that shooting game had blushed when he’d smiled at them, and an older woman had tried to offer him a free fortune earlier.

Now, his nose is twitching as he sniffs—Kouyou can smell nothing from her current position, so she assumes he’s relying on the tiger’s senses. “Kyouka-chan, you said takoyaki sounded good earlier, right?” he asks, waiting for her to nod before gesturing forward. “There’s a stall right down there. I think it’s close to a yakitori stall, too.”

Before he even has that last sentence all the way out, Kyouka is darting in the direction he’d pointed to. Atsushi stumbles over himself in his haste to follow her. Kouyou, shaking her head, pursues them at a more leisurely pace, hands steady should she need to solve any altercations caused by Atsushi running into anyone. Another shift of the sun or her body has her adjusting her parasol again, casting an askance look up as she does.

The sky is clear and cloudless, the brightness only adding to the sticky discomfort. Kouyou eyes it with a mix of emotions she can’t quite pin down. Within minutes of him and Kyouka joining her, Atsushi had beamingly gestured upward and said, “Aren’t you glad Orihime-san and Hikoboshi-san will be able to reunite today?” with as much genuine joy as if the mythical figures were close personal friends of his.

Kouyou had made some vague affirmative sound and changed the topic, she thinks. For years, she’s tuned romance out of her thoughts almost entirely, but now it seems to surround her, between this and Ono’s wedding later in the week. Or perhaps it’s just that Kouyou cares enough to pay a modicum of attention now.

She catches up with Kyouka and Atsushi, the latter hanging behind and blatantly eyeing the yakitori stall a few down from this one, just in time to pass a fistful of yen to the owner. Kyouka takes her takoyaki with sparkling eyes and a grateful nod. Before she can dig in right in the middle of the crowd, Kouyou ushers her by the shoulders to the side, where it’s less congested.

Then Kouyou grabs a few more notes and hands them to Atsushi. “Here,” she tells him. “This should be enough for you to buy something for yourself.”

Atsushi’s remaining flush deepens. “Ah,” he says, staring at the yen in his palm. “I—I—thank you, but I really don’t need—”

“Consider it a treat.” Kouyou tips her parasol to the side so that it covers, to some extent, both her and Kyouka. It rests against her shoulder in a way that lets in more light than it blocks out, but so long as Kyouka is protected as much as or more than she, she shan’t complain. Her eyes shift back toward Atsushi, who is still glancing worriedly between her and the yen. “Well, lad? You wanted to fetch yourself some yakitori, did you not? You may now, if you so wish.”

“Right,” squeaks out Atsushi, bowing quickly and closing his fist around the yen before scurrying back into the crowd.

Smiling despite herself, Kouyou watches him disappear and, a few seconds later, reappear a few meters away. Beside her, Kyouka isn’t paying attention or just doesn’t care enough to react, so focused is she on stuffing takoyaki in her mouth. Kouyou’s fond gaze returns to her for a few seconds before wandering the street in general.

Atsushi rejoins them just a minute or two later, trying for a greeting that is made wholly unintelligible by the chicken between his teeth. “Don’t speak with your mouth full, boy,” Kouyou tells him, looking down at him with distaste. “It isn’t proper.”

Going crimson again, Atsushi tugs the skewer out of his mouth. “Sorry, Kouyou-san,” he manages. “Er, Kyouka-chan, is your takoyaki good?”

Out of the six she’d started with, only two remain. Midway through reaching for the first, she holds up the thumb of the hand she’s holding the container with, then nods when this doesn’t seem to garner a reaction.

“Good, good.” Atsushi smiles, squeezes into the space left between Kyouka and the wall, and tears another section of his yakitori away with his teeth.

Kouyou shakes her head. The manners they teach children these days, she muses—back when she was a teenager, plenty were capable of sipping from a bowl or glass with sophistication even while torturing someone. Though she supposes that’s not so much a case of etiquette as it is multitasking.

Passersby no longer hold a significant amount of interest for Kouyou, and she has none at all in watching both Kyouka and Atsushi eat, so instead her eyes snap to the strings of paper dangling just above them. A child’s blocky handwriting speaks of wishing to become a volleyball player; a neater scrawl hopes for the success of an upcoming poetry collection; another seeks happiness and prosperity in a recent marriage. In juxtaposition to these, someone else just wants to be invited to drink with their new coworkers.

The mundanity and ease of so many Tanabata wishes have never ceased to impress Kouyou—in a positive sense in youth, a negative sense as she’d aged, and now somewhere in between. Ordinary people go about their lives in such a, well, ordinary way. Desires for good luck with schoolwork or in a relationship had seemed unparsably idyllic to a young Kouyou, already to her waist in the mire of the Port Mafia. Even now, able to understand somewhat better, she still feels a stark disconnect from the types of people who mill about with so many normal, domestic things to hope for and declare, however anonymously, in the open.

She has become one of them today, though, she supposes. They haven’t looped back around to the area where Kouyou and Kyouka had strung up their wishes, but the sunlit characters reading I wish for the continued health and wellbeing of my family are just as clear in Kouyou’s mind now as they had been then.

Kyouka’s had been a bit less specific, a promise more so than a true wish: I will keep living in the light. (Last year, she’d wished to eat a lot of good tofu. Kouyou isn’t sure if this is an improvement.)

“I’m sure they’ll both come true,” Atsushi had said. His own wish, put up some distance away alongside those of some of his college friends, had read, I want my friends and family to eat and sleep well.

That, Kouyou had called simpleminded but all the more fitting for it. She supposes she’d fallen into the same vague wishy-washiness, at any rate, so tragically she doubts she’s in a position to judge—not that that has ever stopped her, but she can allow it for an afternoon.

Kouyou’s eyes catch on a slip of paper that wishes only for Orihime and Hikoboshi to reunite happily. An automatic smile spreads across her face before she lets it dim.

Distantly, she registers that both Kyouka and Atsushi have finished their food and are now talking amongst themselves (or rather, Atsushi is talking and Kyouka is sometimes nodding). Kouyou clears her throat, snapping their attention to her.

“I do believe,” she announces, “that I would like a drink now, after all.”

Atsushi laughs, and off they walk, the perpetually flowing streamers still shining behind them.

*

Kouyou can’t recall the last time she attended a wedding. Reception, rather, she supposes—the ceremony itself had been traditional and private—but even that has been a significant amount of time; she can better pinpoint the last funeral she attended.

In all fairness, funerals are far more common than weddings in her line of work. Yokohama is far more peaceful than it once was, but that doesn’t mean that tempers don’t run high and fingers don’t slip, nor does it make the simple prevalence of disease and tragic accidents fade, particularly when such a high percentage of her subordinates drink and smoke like it’s as crucial and life-sustaining as breathing itself. Reports of losses are almost as common as those of the Mafia’s monthly expenses.

However frequent they may be, funerals don’t often earn Kouyou’s presence; they tend to be of low-ranking grunts, not quite replaceable but not of particular personal concern to her. The ones not quite smart enough to make it. The ones she’ll pay her respects to on her own time but not make a show of doing so. It tends to only be the funerals of those very high up—rare as they are apropos of nothing—that are worthy of her personal attention. The last one she can recall attending in person had that of a former executive several years back.

Weddings are more or less the same, though rare enough that she hasn’t put much thought into that notion before today. The bride (the one Kouyou is familiar with, at any rate) is a sub-executive who oversees intelligence and some arms deals and other negotiations, making Kouyou’s presence somewhat obligatory; none would dare to fault her for not showing, but she’d perhaps have faulted herself. Despite herself, the freshness of the occasion had drawn her in as well.

True to form, Kouyou has never cared for weddings. For years, she’d seen them as a display of something fruitless and poisonous besides, barely able to hold her tongue in the face of such flagrant exhibitions. Clear political or otherwise arranged weddings, she can tolerate, but marriages for love she isn’t certain how to handle.

And across the room, the brides look very much in love. Even from a distance, they seem happy and caught up in one another, sitting with their heads close together and their hands discreetly intertwined under the table as they chat but overall seem to just appreciate each other’s presence.

It’s an odd thing to see in a room full of mafiosi. It’s particularly odd to see in relation to Ono, by all accounts and observations a stoic and reserved woman who had kept to herself and showed little emotion since she was much lower in the ranks. The smile she wears now is little more than a slight curve, but it’s the largest Kouyou has ever seen on her. Even scolding her daughter for trying to sneak away to smoke doesn’t dampen the almost tangible bubble of joy around her.

In appearances, at least, the reception reflects their work well. From the extravagance of the banquet hall and its seemingly effortless decoration to the brides’ attire—between Ono’s kimono, cool-toned and floral, and her wife’s colorful gown—to the light yet filling and well-made lunch itself, almost everything attests to the class and tradition Ono exudes, both as a person and as a representative of the organization.

A sense of formality hangs thick in the air, too, in no small part due to the makeup of the guests. Ono’s subordinates well outweigh those who outrank her; Kouyou is one of them, and she’s sure her presence as well as Chuuya’s, the Black Lizard lieutenants’, and Akutagawa’s shifts the balance of respect in the room, though the setup of tables maintains the hierarchy. The only ones removed from this are the small group sitting with Ono’s daughter—relatives or friends of Ono’s wife, perhaps.

Beyond that, though, what becomes clear is a sense of—however downplayed—true happiness and affection. It isn’t quite fairytale-like, but to Kouyou it might as well be so. The lights strung up around the room even add an almost hazy feeling to the afternoon, particularly in combination with the post-meal daze.

Kouyou’s eyes wander back to the newlyweds as if committing them and the tenderness of their casual intimacy and attention to memory. Ono is shaking her head at something her wife is saying, floral hair accessory shifting with the movement, but her sliver of a smile hasn’t left.

“—thoughts on the matter, boss?” comes Hirotsu’s smooth voice, startling Kouyou from her thoughts.

With some difficulty, she pulls her gaze from Ono and her wife. Under twin looks of bemusement and concern from Chuuya and Hirotsu, Kouyou clears her throat. “My apologies,” she says, a hand to her chest. “I fear I was distracted for a moment. Would you mind repeating yourself there, Hirotsu-san?”

“Of course not, boss.” Mustache twitching, Hirotsu adjusts his monocle and averts his gaze. His hair is slicked back even more firmly than usual, and the dark suit he’s wearing almost shines in the lighting.

As he looks across the room, Kouyou sees his attention linger for a moment on the table where the Akutagawa siblings—Gin in a vest and slacks, Akutagawa in his usual overcoat and hunched over like he’s expecting having to use it—are seated alongside Tachihara and Higuchi, who look equal amounts uncomfortable in their respective suit and dress. Higuchi is flushed like she’s at least three drinks down; Gin hands her a glass of what might be water.

Hirotsu shakes his head to himself, then coughs. “I was simply remarking to Chuuya-kun,” he says at last, “about how rare this type of occasion was.”

Kouyou gives a soft huff of laughter. “That was my train of thought as well,” she admits. “Particularly how strange it is who of all people is at the center of it today.”

“She’s been married once before, I’m pretty sure,” says Chuuya, leaning his cheek on his fist.

Hirotsu inclines his head. “I do recall that. She and her former husband did not part on the best of terms, as I recall—he is part of the organization as well, and I don’t believe their wedding was quite like this.”

He doesn’t clarify in what sense, but Kouyou can, she thinks, fill in the blanks. Before today, she doesn’t think she could have imagined Ono smiling so openly. But something had shifted in her when she’d been assigned to watch over the girl she now considers a daughter a few years back, and though she’d not become any more nurturing or personable on a day-to-day basis, Kouyou had noticed the subtle changes regardless: A genuine passion for her work rather than dull, mechanical duty, and greater opportunities to take advantage of her ability. Seeing Ono like this is still surprising, but perhaps in retrospect, Kouyou can stitch together the underlying threads.

The parallels are plain, and Kouyou reaches for the sake she hadn’t touched since Chuuya had poured for her to keep from addressing it, even in the sanctity of her own mind.

“It certainly is an elegant reception, at the very least,” she says as she lowers her glass. Outward appreciation for the aesthetics and sense of propriety is the most she can manage. She can acknowledge the emotion and love in the room, but it makes Kouyou feel almost self-conscious, and though her feelings on weddings aren’t as negative as they’d once been, they’re still not quite positive. One date and the promise of more aren’t enough to flip that balance—and hopefully they aren’t enough to have her exuding a similar aura to that of Ono and her wife. “And Ono-san’s wife doesn’t appear terribly bothered by being surrounded by criminals.”

“Hey, she’s not surrounded. Some government officials are here too.” Chuuya jerks a thumb toward the table where a few of them are sequestered, at least two unsubtly watching Kouyou.

She gives them a pointed smile, and they duck their heads. “That is perhaps even more dangerous,” she acknowledges with a hum, in response to which Chuuya snorts and Hirotsu takes a well-timed drink to hide his smile. Her eyes soon flit back, however, to the couple. “Either way, it seems as beneficial a match as any involving one of our number, not to mention one involving one of us and a civilian.”

Hirotsu looks, perhaps subconsciously, at Chuuya, and then out of the very corners of his eyes at Kouyou. His gaze drifts back toward the brides. “Fukuda-san seems pleasant enough,” he says with idle consideration. “She and Ono seem to care for each other a great deal, so perhaps they’ll pull through.”

“Hopefully better than Ono and her last spouse apparently did, anyway,” says Chuuya with a scoff, prompting a minute nod from Hirotsu.

A discussion of this sort from their perspectives as likely as strange as the subject matter itself. Kouyou’s thoughts on romance have of course shifted over time, but marriage is not something she has ever aspired to, nor would she like to be in the place of Ono or her wife right now. The other two’s opinions can’t be far off from hers. Despite Hirotsu’s age, she’s certain he’s never been married, and any partners he may have had have been well-kept secrets. Kouyou would outright laugh if Chuuya—however about much his living situation, by contrast, is known among longer-term members—made any notions of getting married.

Somehow, though, their voices carry some degree of earnestness on the topic of Ono’s marriage. Had this whole affair taken place just three years ago, Kouyou isn’t sure she would have been able to project that civility so well, let alone back her well wishes—and the heavy envelope of cash she’d prepared—with legitimate sincerity. Her resting smile twists, wry, at the thought.

Hirotsu’s voice again distracts her from the train of thought, this time wrapped around a soft chuckle. “If that is any indication,” he says, nodding toward the brides’ table, “they’ll do quite well.”

Kouyou lifts her head and cuts her eyes that way. Across the room, Ono’s wife has leaned in to whisper something to her, hand cupping her mouth to hide whatever it is she’s saying from view. Ono’s face ripples for a moment, and then she bursts out laughing, open and joyous. It may be the first time Kouyou has ever seen her laugh, let alone like that. And yet her grin is wide enough to spread to her wife, who giggles too, sitting back but still remaining well within Ono’s space, surrounded by people but looking at Ono like she’s the only other person in the entire world.

Watching with a polite smile, Kouyou sips at her sake, dismissing any warmth prompting her mind to wander as an effect of the alcohol.

*

“—and that’s when the guy wakes up, tries to look down at his ass where it’s hanging out of the shitty hospital gown, and asks, high out of his goddamn mind, ‘Am I still pretty?’”

Soft laughter fills the crisp evening air, and it takes even Kouyou a moment to recognize it as her own. She curls a hand over her mouth, but chuckles spill out regardless, quiet enough that they shouldn’t draw anyone else’s attention but still too loud for her own tastes. The way Yosano glances up at her, eyes shining behind the lenses of her glasses, has Kouyou quelling any attempts to silence her amusement—and then, with an irate little shake of her head, stifling those attempts. She manages to clear her throat and, with it, her expression.

“I must say, sensei,” she says, turning her gaze forward to watch the skyline, “from how you discussed your previous occupation, I expected your stories about it to be far gloomier.”

The words make Yosano’s expression sober just the same, gentle smile settling back down and shoulders shifting. “I do have plenty of those too, to be fair,” she acknowledges, “but they’re hardly material for a date, let alone only the second one.”

Out of the corners of her eyes, Kouyou eyes the lines of weariness and pain in Yosano’s face, almost made invisible by the shade of the night. “That is fair, I suppose.” She allows her smile to return but lets it remain cool and mirthless this time. “As is the human inclination to focus on the good rather than the bad.”

Yosano hums in vague agreement. “And your own inclination not to talk about your work at all,” she says, shooting a glance in Kouyou’s direction. Kouyou’s smile twitches momentarily into a grimace, which returns Yosano’s scanty grin. “That’s fair too, and I don’t mind filling the silence. Besides, your laugh makes telling the funnier anecdotes worth it.”

Ah, Kouyou almost says, her lips forming soundlessly around the shape. Her steps don’t waver, but she feels off-balance for a half-second all the same, struggling to maintain her equilibrium.

Would that she could blame it on the couple of glasses of sake she’d had at dinner, but alas, Kouyou’s head is as clear as it had been when she’d first sat down several hours ago. She gives herself a brisk shake all the same.

Around her and Yosano, the night is still, the sky a deep, dark purple flecked with distant stars. Although she gives Kouyou an amused side glance, Yosano says nothing about her surreptitious stumble—nor does she make to say anything more, just letting out a low breath and rolling her neck.

The second sigh—and audible crack—the motion produces brings Kouyou’s attention to the stiffness in her own body. She supposes it’s to be expected after being seated for another several hours, but she would have thought a decade’s worth of days full of meetings would have prepared her for such interactions; the nature of this meeting, though, perhaps sets it apart enough that her body is adjusting as much as her mind still is.

A second date has not vanquished her concerns nor transformed her psyche, nor would Kouyou say she had spent any less time tonight second-guessing herself as she had last time. After a month of feeling her responsibilities and values breathing down her neck more so than ever, Kouyou has had the opportunity to get used to that. She hadn’t let it distract her—too much—from enjoying herself.

A fifteen-minute phone conversation with Higuchi midway through and a “restroom” break she’d in fact spent checking her messages aside, Kouyou had, admittedly, had a good time again. Though she hadn’t let herself consciously set expectations before the fact, under pressure Kouyou would have admitted to anticipating things to fizzle out rather than reignite. Perhaps a second date would have made her come to her senses about what a poor decision this was, or Yosano would be the one to realize Kouyou’s lack of suitability as a partner. Either way, Kouyou had somewhere assumed that the second date would reveal all the flaws the shiny newness of the first had cloaked.

That prediction, however, had been the one to die out. As evidenced by Kouyou standing here now, walking side-by-side with Yosano even a decent distance away from the restaurant.

“Sensei, since you were kind enough to wait with me previously,” she’d said as they’d been leaving, having been running the words over in her mind for the past eight-and-a-half minutes, “it is only proper that I return the favor this time around, is it not? Allow me to walk you to the station.”

Though she’d paused, in the middle of slinging her jacket—returned clean and all—over her elbow, Yosano had accepted, and after paying they’d set off. A tense silence had lasted for only a block or two before Yosano had cleared her throat and asked, “I never had the chance to finish that story I was telling you, did I?”

And so, a handful of minutes later and perhaps having covered a third of the distance to the station, here they are, keeping pace with one another and the conversation as they weave throughout the evening crowd milling about the streets. That has not been an exorbitant amount of people, in small part due to Kouyou’s automatic slant toward uncluttered, obscure side streets. Yosano had been mid-sentence when they’d first stepped into a narrow alley, but she’d quirked an eyebrow. She hadn’t complained nor commented, though, and neither does she now even as they lapse back into silence.

A few more steps and they emerge onto a busier sidewalk, Yosano steering closer to Kouyou to avoid running into another passing couple. For a heartbeat, Yosano’s arm brushes against Kouyou’s—Kouyou has the slimmest opportunity to stiffen but little more before the sensation is gone, Yosano leaning a more comfortable distance away.

Out of the corners of her eyes, Kouyou looks Yosano’s way. Her hair and skirt are rippling softly in the gentle breeze, and the light of the passing street signs glints off the lenses of her glasses. Along her arm rests her jacket still. Kouyou, eyeing the neat fold of it, is either quite relieved or quite remorseful about the lack of any chill in the air to compete with tonight. The heat isn’t enough to truly bother her, but every now and then she brings up an idle hand to fan at her neck.

She does so now, sidestepping a pedestrian with naught but a glance. She’s smiling to herself, she realizes, and she presses her fingers to her lips to cover it and the delicate cough she forces out. Before she can even begin to think of a new subject to broach, Yosano is clearing her throat beside her.

The sound jolts Kouyou to attention, and the entirety of her attention shifts to Yosano, who takes several seconds more to speak. When she does, her tone is casual in that lightly heavy way Kouyou is growing used to from her: “Ah, on the topic of date material…”

Kouyou’s brows pinch together before she recalls the train of conversation they’d been on a mere couple of moments prior. “Yes?” she prompts.

“Well, I was wondering if you still thought of me as such.”

Again, Kouyou does not trip or outright stop, but she does spare Yosano an askance look, half-concern and half-confusion. “Pardon?”

“We did only agree on one more date, and this was that one more,” elaborates Yosano. “Would you be interested in going out again?”

“Ah.” Kouyou pauses for a fleeting second but speeds her pace to make up for it, enough to remain a step or two ahead of Yosano. Jaw shifting, she allows herself to say, “I had not entirely thought that far ahead.”

“I can tell.” A soft snort sounds behind her. “For what it’s worth, I, at least, would like to see you again.”

“Ah,” says Kouyou again. She can feel Yosano’s eyes on the side of her face; she hasn’t made to speak again, though, and Kouyou lets out a nearly inaudible sigh. “The thought is… not unappealing, I must admit.”

Yosano echoes her sigh. “Is that the most enthusiastic statement I’ll get from you, Ozaki?”

Kouyou presses her lips together in lieu of the smile she feels tempted toward. “This is difficult for me,” she says, calm.

“I know that, and I can understand and respect that.” Yosano’s voice is just as calm, her composure not slipping for an instant and even seeming to harden, and manages to bridge the tightrope between compassionate and patronizing. “But I do want to make sure that you’re not dragging your feet through this without really wanting to spend time with me.”

“…there are very few things, I hope you understand, that I will resort to dragging my feet through.”

“Of course, of course,” says Yosano, blase. Somehow, the flippant dismissal still manages not to come across as condescending. “You’re a very assertive and powerful woman, and if you were offended by my advances I’m sure my body would have been dumped in Tokyo Bay a month ago.”

Luckily, they’re a good distance from any possible eavesdroppers, with the closest other human beings by now being multiple blocks away. Kouyou’s tone is half-aghast regardless: “I would not have had you killed for something like that,” she says. “I might have had you run out of the prefecture, but only if you had been too persistent.” The words are almost instinctive, and Kouyou grimaces slightly at the ease with which they roll off her tongue; she can almost feel Yosano’s eyebrows raising behind her back. “If I was not interested in being here, then I would not be here.”

“Here, yes, but what about in the future?”

Kouyou pulls herself to a stop. Across the street, a burst of noise from a group of maybe college students draws her attention—Kouyou spares them with a glare, even though the distance means they won’t notice, before turning to face Yosano, who’s halted to fix her with an expectant look. “Yosano-sensei,” she brings herself to say, “I would like to spend more time with you. I would enjoy going on another date with you, and perhaps more afterward.”

The words inspire a pregnant pause, long enough so that Kouyou, no longer able to tolerate Yosano’s blinking, forces herself to turn and start walking again. Another pair of footsteps, though, soon accompany hers.

“All right,” says Yosano, quiet but indubitably pleased. When Kouyou slows her pace by a hair, Yosano draws even with her again, and a glance to the side allows a glimpse of the part-sly, part-soft smile curving across her face. “Thank you for saying so—I do appreciate it, and I feel the same about you. When are you free next?”

Kouyou inhales, slowly and steadily, and lets it out. With a fleeting glance around to ensure the presence of no further passersby, she staves off whatever kneejerk resistance is still building inside of her and tilts her chin back up.

“As a matter of fact,” she says, “I do not entirely know that yet.” Yosano cocks her head, but before she has the chance to ask, Kouyou is already explaining: “I am afraid I will be busier than usual in these upcoming several weeks, so it may take some time before we are able to engage in such an excursion.”

“Oh?” says Yosano, eyebrow quirked. “All right. Is it all right if I contact you at all?”

It’s clear she won’t ask why Kouyou will be busy—and just as clear, despite that, how interested she is, but she seems to have assumed it’s something relating to work, perhaps an especially dangerous undertaking. That isn’t altogether inaccurate, as Kouyou can’t predict what will come up there in the weeks to come, but it isn’t the main reason either. Kouyou considers explaining the death anniversary fast approaching but decides against it. It is hers and Kyouka’s business, more so the latter’s even, and though she may explain after the fact, now hardly seems the opportunity.

“That is all right, yes,” says Kouyou, allowing for a one-shouldered shrug. “It is nothing too sensitive, if that is what you are insinuating. I cannot promise I will be able to get back to you at appropriate intervals, however.”

Yosano nods, idly adjusting her jacket. “Fine by me. We’ve only gone on two dates—I’m not exactly expecting you to live at my beck and call.”

“True, but as removed as I admittedly am from modern dating etiquette—” however aware Kouyou ever had been of any dating etiquette “—I am under the impression that it is not exactly proper to disappear without warning in situations such as these.”

“Ah, that much is true. And I do appreciate you letting me know.” […] “If you don’t mind me asking—and if you know, of course—when did you think your schedule would clear up a bit?”

“Things shall likely clear up for me around summer break. You are off for the same period of time that Kyouka is, no?”

“Technically,” says Yosano, shrugging. “Club activities and everything are still running, though, so I’ll still be at school most days, but my schedule is a bit more flexible. Since yours, well, isn’t—” she swivels her wrist “—I’ll follow your lead.”

Kouyou anticipates that this is a sentiment that shall be echoed several times if this is to proceed into the future, but she doesn’t entertain that train of thought for any longer lest her feet outright freeze. “I am grateful for that, I suppose.”

“It’s the least I can do, really.” Yosano’s hand twitches like she wants to pat Kouyou’s arm before reconsidering the motion. Kouyou is grateful for that as well—and decides not to consider what else she is about it. “And in the literal sense, I am following your lead right now.”

So she is—and when Kouyou looks up, seeing just how far they’ve gone, it’s to see the entrance to the station appearing in the distance, the bright sign beside the building drawing a quiet ah from Yosano. Her steps don’t falter, nor does she speed up or slow down, but the minor shift in her posture as they approach is clear nevertheless. Kouyou steadies her pace to match. When Yosano halts and turns to face her, she too stops altogether—and is promptly almost bowled over by a man skirting past, who calls a brief apology that Kouyou ignores save for an icy glare at his back.

With a small smile, Yosano nudges at Kouyou’s elbow, gesturing her slightly to the side. The contact startles Kouyou, but she settles her shoulders and exhales as she follows.

The section of the sidewalk they relocate to isn’t a great deal more private, but it is at least quieter, distant enough from the foot traffic that Kouyou is able to filter everyone else out. She peers down at Yosano, who stares back up at her.

“Well—” they say in unison, both then stopping to blink and recover before Yosano huffs a laugh and Kouyou tilts her head down to swallow one of her own.

Yosano doesn’t get a chance to speak nor even gesture Kouyou on; instead, Kouyou moves past the fumble to ask, “Haven’t you a train to catch?”

“Ah, I’ve still got—” Yosano glances around, eyes catching at last on a nearby clock “—twenty minutes or so. More than enough time to properly wish you goodbye. Besides, if all else fails, I can probably walk back to my apartment.”

“If you do end up needing to do that, then I advise you to avoid the majority of southern Minato Mirai.”

“Let me guess—unscrupulous business going down there tonight?”

“So I hear,” says Kouyou, casting a glance around. It doesn’t seem that anyone is close enough or paying enough attention to eavesdrop and glean anything of use, but one never knows in a city like this.

“Mm. The building is pretty far from there, but I appreciate it anyway.”

“It never hurts to be too cautious,” says Kouyou, eyes crinkling, and Yosano nods, vaguely sage. Kouyou’s mouth twitches, but her mind is soon drifting back to what Yosano had said moments earlier. “What is this proper goodbye you spoke of?”

“Nothing too official, really. Just—well.” Yosano holds a fist to her mouth and clears her throat. “I had a lovely time tonight, just as I did last time, and as I hopefully will next time. I hope you enjoyed yourself too.”

Kouyou restrains herself from itching at the sudden prickling feeling across the back of her neck. “I believe I have made that as clear as I am capable of.”

“I guess so.” Pursing her lips, Yosano folds her arms as much as she can. The disapproving look she fixes Kouyou with lasts all of fourteen seconds before it melts into a sharp grin and a bat of the wrist. “Ah, fun as it is, I won’t torture you any more than I have to.”

“How kind,” says Kouyou dryly. Her eyes dart toward the light of the station. “As with most things, I suspect it is far better to be early than late, so I may as well bid you a good night now, Yosano-sensei.”

“Wait, wait. One last thing.” Before Kouyou can so much as blink, Yosano is stepping forward, close enough into Kouyou’s space that Kouyou instinctively leans back. Yosano, too, doubles back at that. “Is it all right if I touch you?”

With some difficulty, Kouyou forces her arms to go slack. “In what way?”

“Can I surprise you?”

“…if it is brief, noninvasive, and not too forward, then I suppose so.”

“Well, it might depend on your definition of forward, but—I’m sure you know what to do if you’re not all right with this.” That prompts a frown from Kouyou, but before she can say another word, Yosano is glancing around and then leaning in and up to press a swift kiss to Kouyou’s cheek.

The touch only lasts a handful of seconds, but to Kouyou, it feels like something of an eternity. Her shoulders stiffen, as does most of the rest of her body. She stays still, unsure what to do with such a gesture—she can barely recall the last time she was kissed at all, let alone under these circumstances—but making no moves to break the embrace. Yosano’s lips are feather-light, applying almost no pressure at all, but a tingling sensation spreads across Kouyou’s cheek regardless, voyaging from the pinpoint of contact all the way toward her nose and jaw. She can’t decide whether it’s pleasant or not. Though Kouyou is somewhat certain she isn’t blushing, an embarrassed warmth seems to descend upon her.

The air around them is still; the only sound beside the rustling of passersby too far to notice them is Kouyou’s breath, hitching against her will and then smoothing itself out. It calls all the more attention to the heat climbing her neck, not entirely able to be blamed on the weather. She lets out a low, steady exhale and lets her shoulders sag with it.

When Yosano steps away, she’s still smiling, but there’s a note of concern in her eyes when she tilts her head. “Too fast?”

Kouyou’s eyes fall shut. To keep herself from bringing up a hand to brush her fingers over the still-buzzing patch of skin Yosano’s lips had grazed, she curls her hands together at her waist. “Not necessarily. It was simply… unexpected.”

“Of course,” says Yosano, and though Kouyou hasn’t yet opened her eyes, she can hear the broader, sharper smile in it. “I’ll warn you properly next time, then.”

“Of course,” echoes Kouyou before she can think too deeply about it. She shakes her head to herself and lets her eyelids rise, chancing a pointed look at Yosano, who is averting her gaze as she tucks her hair behind her ear. Judging from her smile, it seems to be out of slyness rather than modesty. “You are that confident about there being a next time, then?”

Yosano flicks a glance in her direction again. “I’m an optimist,” she says evenly.

Kouyou isn’t certain how true that is, but she supposes in comparison to herself, many are. “I am not,” she says in just as level a tone, thinning out an instinctive smile, “but I have already agreed to see you again, have I not?”

“So you have.” Yosano reaches up to adjust her glasses, eyes soft around the edges beneath. “I look forward to that—and to learning when it’ll be,” she adds with a quiet laugh.

As does Kouyou; she doesn’t say this, only inclining her head in as blatant an agreement she can manage without an outright verbalization. “I shall contact you at my earliest convenience. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your evening.”

“You too.” Smile ever wider, Yosano exhales and takes a careful step back, edging closer to the station. “I know I said so last time, too, but say hi to Kyouka for me, if you don’t mind.”

“I do not mind in the slightest, and neither shall she.”

“Good, good,” says Yosano. She hovers there a second longer before clearing her expression and nodding, brisk. “Well, goodnight, then, Ozaki. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kouyou lowers her head, just short of a full half-bow. “Goodnight, Yosano-sensei.”

Her voice is far softer than she intends it to be, but the grin it earns from Yosano prompts her not to attempt to repeat or add onto it. With no more than a short wave, Yosano is turning on her heel and starting toward the station, cutting a clean path through the crowd with her skirt and jacket flowing after her.

In the silent darkness of the evening, Kouyou feels her hand drifting upwards, raising so her fingers brush against her cheek. Her skin is warm and tender beneath her fingertips.

She shakes off a smile and reaches for her phone.

- i did not anticipate a scene that opens with kouyou lamenting the heat being posted in the middle of a heat wave in my area, but that is how it turned out it seems. - ono is named after ono no komachi, an early heian period waka poet; her wife is named after fukuda chiyo-ni, an edo period haiku poet. neither the daughter nor ex-husband are explicitly named, but they are respectively named after edo period poet ema saiko and fellow early heian period waka poet (and real-life ono's rumored lover, though this is mostly unfounded) ariwara no narihira. ono is also the subordinate that kouyou mentioned in the last chapter -- her ability allows her to manipulate salt water only under extreme duress/emotions. i almost got cold feet about centering a scene around ocs, but ultimately i didn't have time to change it and this is so ridiculously self-indulgent to begin with so whatever at this point lol. anyway, thanks so much for reading! see you next week! if you have time to spare, thoughts are always very much appreciated <3 twitter: @chuuyasyndrome
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