In middle school, a girl told Yusuke: “You never see anything until it hits you right in the face!”
He still has no idea what she was talking about. His reflexes are fine.
It happens in slow motion, yet ends in a split second.
Yusuke has had the wind knocked out of him before. Tensions were always high behind the closed doors of Madarame's shack, and of all of his pupils, Yusuke was the smallest. It made him an easy target.
But this is something else altogether.
Akira, no, Joker, already bleeding, tensing for a blow. Oracle shouting. Goemon like ice under his skin. Three steps to the left. An explosion of pain. Joker shouting.
Yusuke is on the ground, bracing himself with both hands. His body won't cooperate. He can't breathe and color is fading from the edges of his vision.
Oracle shouting. Panther shouting. The sick crack of magic putting broken ribs back together. Air in his lungs, the ground solid under his knees. He stands up.
The enemy freezes solid under Yusuke's counterattack, and shatters when Skull follows up.
The moments after the battle are bizarrely empty. Everyone is catching their breath, same as always, but no one is speaking.
"You took a hit for me."
Joker is still bleeding but he doesn't seem to notice. He's looking at Yusuke with something unspeakably fragile in his expression. This isn't Joker. This is Akira.
"Proudly," Yusuke says.
Akira hugs him. He can feel Akira’s mask pressing into his shoulder and the fierce, protective pressure of his arms around him. When was the last time someone hugged him? Was there ever a time when someone felt such a strong, positive emotion towards him that they wanted to express it so physically?
Or is Akira the first?
An unknown stillness in Yusuke's heart bursts into motion.
He returns the hug.
[Phantom Thieves Group Chat]
Yusuke: Akira isn't answering his phone.
Makoto: Maybe he decided to turn in early?
Futaba: Or he’s ignoring you.
Ryuji: Nah, he's at his part time job tonight.
Yusuke: Where does he work?
Ryuji: Dude, he probably won't appreciate you just showing up.
Yusuke: We were together this afternoon and he left his student ID behind.
Yusuke: I would like to return it before heading home.
Makoto: Well, that’s a different situation entirely.
Ann: He works in that flower shop in the underground mall!
The underground mall is cramped, with people and products filling implausible amounts of space. The voices melt into white noise that hums in Yusuke's bones.
He isn't sure if he loves this place or hates it.
Akira's flower shop is a bit out of the way, so Yusuke has to weave through shoppers for a while. It's easy enough to recognize amongst the other booths once he finds it. A splash of natural color against all the artificial pigments stands out.
The booth's floral scent doesn't quite overpower the mixed perfume, sweat and industrial cleaner that characterizes the underground, but it tries. Akira's manager, a young woman with understated makeup and chipped nail polish, is chatting with a middleaged salaryman. Akira is behind her.
And, oh, the picture he makes.
Features just a touch too common to be called handsome, framed by hair that can't quite be called curly. Cheap band-aids on two of his fingers. Meticulously clean apron but dirt under his nails. Expression almost solemn in its seriousness as he selects a flower for the bouquet in front of him.
Flower arrangement is an art form, but this is a tiny flower shop that provides primarily for those with angry girlfriends and sick relatives. As with everything, Akira offers it more dignity than that.
Akira turns around to hand the bouquet off to his manager. In the process, he spots Yusuke. Surprise registers around his eyes and slides into delight before it reaches his mouth.
Akira smiles and Yusuke realizes that this is what love feels like.
While he struggles to process that, Akira speaks softly with his manager and gestures once to Yusuke. The woman nods and smiles her permission, so Akira walks over.
“Were you looking for me?” He asks instead of a greeting. Akira makes it polite and innocent where it would sound like an accusation from someone else. Yusuke’s heart is pounding.
“I found your student ID after you left this afternoon,” Yusuke fumbles with his backpack, hands shaking. His voice is level but it feels like his soul is trembling.
“Oh, shit, thank you,” Akira sounds earnestly relieved. He has a tiny smudge of pollen on his cheek. Yusuke wants to brush it away, or maybe capture this moment on canvas so the pollen stays there forever, a tribute to the moment when he knew.
“You’re the only person they ever check for those,” Morgana’s sympathetic voice drifts down from the shelves above them. Yusuke had forgotten that he was around.
“Ryuji too,” Akira corrects calmly. Yusuke finds the card in his bag and holds it out for his friend.
“There you are,” He says, amazed his voice isn’t giving him away.
Their fingers touch when Akira takes his ID. Yusuke has to fight the urge to hold on instead.
“If you… don’t have any plans, can I make you dinner? To say thank you. My shift’s over in 20 minutes.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
Leblanc is dimly lit after closing. Yusuke appreciates how the shadows puddle under tables and creep from stools, creating a feeling something like liminal space. It looks quiet, in spite of Morgana's voice and the sounds of Akira's cooking.
It soothes the dull, cottonmouthed headache Yusuke usually has by this time in the evening. There's something permanent about the firm borders of light and darkness that's almost as good as the scent of curry spice.
Morgana is saying something about honey. Yusuke's fingers are cold.
Time slips by and Akira sets a plate of curry and rice in front of Yusuke. The lighting softens the color of his eyes and illuminates the exact curls of his hair, but only on the left.
"It smells delicious," Yusuke says, admiring the way Akira's quiet smile makes feelings well up in his chest. Nothing like Sayuri, but art in motion nonetheless.
Akira sets his own plate on the counter next to Yusuke's and sits down. He doesn't take the apron off.
Yusuke wants to take it off for him. For a brief, all-consuming moment, the only thing he wants to do is take all of Akira's clothes off.
Then Morgana hops up onto the table and the impulse fades as fast as it arrives, leaving Yusuke feeling existentially dizzy. Akira is four bites into dinner before Yusuke remembers there's food in front of him.
Being in love is more distracting than Yusuke could have ever imagined.
Walking past a coffee shop sends his world off-kilter. Any coffee shop. All because a quiet, thoughtful boy carries the scent of one with him wherever he goes. Sense memory has turned out to be a formidable foe.
It turns his life into a maze of mood swings and flashes of inspiration. One moment, he's contemplating a project or admiring the scenery. The next, someone walks by with their morning coffee and Yusuke is left drowning in daydreams.
If he pressed his face into Akira’s neck, would the delicate skin there smell the same as his clothes?
He loses countless trains of thought this way.
The question of how to proceed haunts him. All the romance advice he’s ever been given was specific to men interested in women, and the internet is… less than helpful. He’s now vividly aware of what a doujinshi is, but no closer to puzzling out his love life.
His answer comes in a moment so bizarre he’s briefly convinced he imagined it.
A shadow asking what kind of girls Joker likes. Joker looking it right in the eye.
“I like men.”
It throws Yusuke off almost as much as it throws the shadow off.
“Dude, were you serious back there?” Skull asks afterwards, visibly awkward but still leaning on Joker’s shoulder, same as he always does.
“Mhm,” Joker hums, fidgeting with his hair. “Girls too, but um. Yeah.”
“Oh. Okay, cool. Weird way to tell us, but good on you, man,” Skull says, shrugging. “If anyone gives you a hard time, let us know, ‘kay?”
Later, Yusuke will think fondly of the warm, gradual smile that takes over Joker’s face as the acceptance of his friend sinks in. For now, he’s still reeling with the knowledge that this might actually work out.
Yusuke makes plans for his confession.
More accurately, he daydreams about moments so dramatic they may have never happened outside of dramas. He takes all sorts of things into consideration. What time of day would be most romantic? Should he express his feelings through artwork or words? Is privacy more important, or a scenic location? What clothing should he wear on his chosen day?
He’s thinking about this while he walks with Akira from Leblanc to the train station one night. He’s feeling warm and content after a delicious dinner prepared by the person he likes, so it’s only natural that his confession would be on his mind. The sun is setting, soft oranges and pinks peeking around the taller buildings. This is good lighting for a confession. He should consider it.
They’re only a few minutes from the station when Akira suddenly stops. Yusuke takes a few steps before stopping himself, turning around.
“Is something wrong?” Yusuke asks, adjusting his bag on his shoulder.
“I like you.”
The whole world stops along with Yusuke’s heart. Akira is looking at the ground when he blurts out the words, but he meets Yusuke’s eyes almost immediately afterwards. His face is flushed and his eyes are serious behind his glasses.
“I don’t know if you’re interested in guys but— I like you. Please go out with me.”
The sunset curls around this moment like a snake, and Yusuke knows beyond a doubt that he’ll never capture it on canvas.
He closes the gap between them in two strides and grabs Akira’s hands. Hope and surprise spark into life on his face.
“I like you too.”
It seems too simple to express the enormity of feeling Yusuke is experiencing. But it makes Akira smile beautifully, warming his eyes and outshining the fading sun.
“Oh, thank god,” Akira says, almost laughing. He squeezes Yusuke’s hands. “Would you like to do something after school tomorrow?”
“We could do it now instead?”
Akira flushes darker and his eyebrows fly up for a second.
“Oh. Oh, just a date,” He laughs nervously. “Morgana will kill me if I don’t get home for bed. So… tomorrow.”
It hurts to let go, but Yusuke smiles the whole train ride home.