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It was a dry and cold night. November was getting colder.

Yusuke rubbed the tips of his fingers against his palms to warm them before lifting a hand to grasp the door handle. He looked up at the 'open' sign hanging in the window, at the glow of warmth from beyond the glass that even made the narrow alley feel brighter, and he nodded to himself, feeling a surge of self-assurance fill up his chest. His feet, forming footprints in the infrequently tread-upon welcome mat, were where they were supposed to be.

Leblanc was his place, too.

He opened the door and stepped in, relieved to feel the warmth immediately embracing him. If he'd stayed out there for any longer, he was worried what would have happened to him. It was beansprouts for breakfast again, but beansprouts seemed to be insufficient fuel to keep him warm in the bitter weather. Each breath he took felt colder and made his body feel weaker. Without a friend to walk with, he could have easily passed out on the way. It wasn't good for his extremities either; as an artist, his fingers were everything.

Leblanc was like a safe haven.

When the boss noticed him, Yusuke raised a hand in a silent wave and went to one of the open booths in the middle of the café where it was warmest. He slid his bag off his shoulder and set it down next to him as he took a seat.

“Do you want me to tell him you're here?” Sojiro asked.

Yusuke folded his hands in his lap and looked down at them. “...I regretfully didn't tell him that I'd be coming. If he's still resting, then I would not want to interrupt his recovery. I'm sure he must still be quite exhausted after that ordeal.”

“Don't tell me you just came for the coffee,” Sojiro said, giving him a curious smirk that Yusuke didn't quite understand.

“I...” It was strange, but Yusuke couldn't remember exactly what made him want to venture through the cold to Leblanc. The only thing that resembled an answer was that mysterious warm feeling he'd felt when his hand touched the door. “I brought some things with me to work on, but I suppose your skepticism is not unfounded. I could have chosen anyplace to work, and yet my feet took me here.”

Sojiro's brows quirked up along with his smile. “You might be surprised. After what he's been through, I think he'd welcome your intrusion. Give me a second. I'll let him know.”

Watching as the boss went over to the stairs in the back to call for Akira, Yusuke linked his ankles under his seat and waited. He took a glance at the bag sitting next to him, but he decided that he shouldn't make himself at home in the booth if Akira was going to be joining him. Regardless of the café's small patronship, Yusuke didn't want to risk Akira being seen by anyone who could identify him. He'd heard from him that Akechi Goro occasionally stopped by there in the evening, around that hour...

An uneasy feeling crawled up his back and made him turn around to take a look at the door just in case, all senses on alert, his ears expecting to hear the dissonantly cheerful chiming of the bells on the door. But there was no one, thankfully.

After all of the risks they'd taken, it seemed silly for him to finally develop a sense of paranoia all of a sudden, but... It wasn't without reason. The others were surely feeling it, too – Akira more than any of them, most likely. The situation they were in was far more dangerous than any other they'd faced. Any small mistake could mean the end of their lives – and yet, it wasn't his own life that Yusuke was most concerned for.

When Akira finally appeared at the bottom of the steps, that uneasy feeling didn't subside. Seeing him with his hood pulled up in a place that was supposed to be his own home felt wrong.

Akira slid into the seat across from him and placed his hands on the table.

“Hey.”

Yusuke nodded, at a loss for words. When Akira looked up and greeted him, that familiar feeling of warmth returned, rendering him momentarily speechless. It had been that way for a while. It wasn't like he didn't understand what that feeling was. He'd admitted it to himself. He'd even said it out loud. Yet it caught him off guard every time.

“Love is a mysterious thing, isn't it...”

“Hm?” Akira's eyes widened slightly. What he said must have surprised him.

“My apologies. I was simply thinking to myself aloud.” Yusuke rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “More importantly, I'm sorry for arriving unannounced. I had no plans. I thought I might get to work on the card you last entrusted to me for duplication, so I picked up my things and decided to go somewhere comfortable. Wouldn't you know it, this is where I ended up. However, if you think it's too dangerous for me to be here, then-...”

“It's fine,” Akira quickly interjected. He reached across the table and put a hand over one of Yusuke's, effectively making his words stop short. “All of this pressure is probably harder for you than the others. They get to see each other at school, but you're dealing with it on your own. I'm sorry.”

It didn't sound right for him to be saying that.

Yusuke pulled his hand away. “You have nothing to apologize for. You may be the one at the center of the plan, but it was a plan we all agreed upon.”

Slowly, Akira took his hand back and placed it underneath the table. He cast his eyes down, thinking to himself, and played with the ends of the hair that fell in front of his glasses. After a long and quiet moment passed, he looked back up and put his hands back on the table, a small, apologetic smile on his face. “Still... I feel bad for making you worry – you more than anyone else. We aren't just friends. When I thought about what it would mean for you if I didn't come back...”

That was a thought that Yusuke himself had been trying to not think about.

He finally had something worth treasuring. It was an extraordinary thing colored with all kinds of feelings he'd never experienced before. It opened his eyes to so much. A word as common as 'love' wasn't enough to express its magnitude.

Akira was even more than that.

Yes. And that was precisely why...

“I was never worried.” There may have been a lot at stake, but he'd been able to have resolve for a reason. “There may have been a worry in the depths of my heart, but it was overshadowed by my belief in you, Akira. Perhaps it was because you've filled my heart with colors my eyes cannot imagine, I felt an absolute assurance that you could accomplish even the impossible.”

Following that, Akira was quiet again. He stared with his mouth slightly agape, then blinked a couple times and covered his face with his hand.

“Damn.”

He was acting so strange.

“What is it?” Yusuke asked.

Akira slowly lowered his hand and cleared his throat. He tossed a tentative-looking glance over at Sojiro who was staring at them for some reason with a markedly suspicious look. Yusuke didn't think there was anything unusual about their conversation, though.

“That was just, um...” He shook his head and lowered his voice, tilting his head away from Sojiro so he couldn't hear him. “That was one of the most romantic things I've ever heard. Sojiro doesn't know that you and I are, uh...” He quickly made a gesture from himself to Yusuke and back again. “You know. So.”

Yusuke still wasn't sure he understood, but he supposed he should feel flattered that Akira thought that what he said sounded romantic. “I was just voicing my feelings, though.”

“That's the problem,” he muttered. With that, he pushed himself to the edge of the booth and got out. “Anyway – enough talking out here. You never know what kind of people are going to show up around here, so let's go up.”

Grabbing his bag, Yusuke slid back out of the booth and followed Akira. As they climbed the stairs, he watched his back, noticing the way that his shoulders looked a little straighter. It was like, despite everything he'd been through, he was able to carry himself even taller than before. He wondered if Akira noticed that about himself.

Those little thought-provoking details he noticed off-hand were just one of the things Yusuke loved about him. Like his favorite paintings, he seemed to discover something new about Akira every time he was with him. He was magnificent; a living work of art, constantly changing, evolving, becoming stronger and more lovely. Watching him effortlessly spread his wings made Yusuke aspire to obtain the same grace.

That sort of feeling... He wished that he knew how to express it simply. When he opened his mouth, there were too many words to choose from. It was even too much for the canvas. It made his brush feel heavy. It was too pure to be captured appropriately by clumsy words or brushstrokes, so he always hesitated.

Yusuke wished he could tell Akira how beautiful his wings were and how much he wanted to see him soar.

But all of those feelings failed to form words and fell short just like the fingers that failed to grasp Akira's shoulder as they reached the top of the stairs. Yusuke put his hand back down to his side before Akira turned around and he pretended like there hadn't been anything on his mind. It was too embarrassing and frustrating.

He was an artist. He should have been able to give those feelings a form and a name.

Maybe he needed more practice.

For the time being, he held that thought on his tongue and let it wait. He followed Akira into the attic and pulled over a chair for himself and sat down as Akira sat on his bed.

“What are you doing?” Akira asked.

“Huh?”

Yusuke looked down at himself, then back at Akira who was patting the open spot next to him on the bed. No matter how close they got, there were some boundaries Yusuke still had trouble identifying.

How close was too close? He always wondered.

He wanted to be as close as he was allowed to be. Text on a mobile phone screen, meeting eyes when in the company of their friends, the toes of their shoes nearly touching beneath a Leblanc booth, sitting that close to him on his bed...

There wasn't a ruler that could measure the appropriate distance between two people's feelings for each other, but something about the gentle expression on Akira's face made Yusuke believe that their distances were drawing closer.

Another voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Oi. What're you spacing out for?”

Yusuke looked down toward his feet. “Oh. Morgana. Hello. Have you been there long?”

“I was here this whole time! Pay more attention!” He turned up his nose with an indignant little sniff and began to walk away toward the stairs. “I'm going to go hang out with the boss. Don't go doing anything perverted with Akira while I'm gone, got it?”

Yusuke narrowed his eyes in confusion, getting the vague sense that he was being patronized. “Perverted?”

Morgana didn't bother to explain what he meant. After that, he flicked his tail in the air and vanished down the steps, leaving him alone with Akira.

Stretching out his legs, Akira leaned back on the bed and pulled back his hood. “It's fine. I would have asked him to leave us for a while anyway. I like Morgana and Sojiro's company, and it's nice when Futaba's here, too, but it's different when you're here. You remember what you told me about how I'm like... a soothing force in your life or something like that? Well, it's like that.”

Whenever he came over to Leblanc, their time together was usually spent quietly. Sometimes, Yusuke wondered if Akira really even enjoyed his company, but that tender expression of his was always there to dispel his uncertainty. He enjoyed their calm, quiet moments together as well. Whether they were looking at a book together or watching a documentary on Akira's old TV or just sitting near each other, sipping coffee, the atmosphere born between them allowed imagination to take flight.

Yusuke got up and moved himself to the bed, next to Akira.

Once he was that close, though, something caught his attention. He reached for the collar of Akira's shirt and pulled it back, revealing a dark purple bruise on his shoulder. Akira didn't flinch or attempt to hide it. It wasn't like there was any question of where it came from. Still... Even if it was expected, it was shocking to see with his own eyes.

“Those bastards,” Yusuke muttered. “How dare they lay their hands on you.”

“Thankfully, the ones on my face were pretty light. I don't know if you noticed, but I'm wearing makeup.” He put a hand down on the space between them and brought his face closer for Yusuke to see.

Rather than searching out the places covered by makeup, Yusuke found himself distracted by the alluring length of Akira's lashes and the fullness of his plush, heart-shaped lips. They looked so inviting, he felt himself being drawn closer, pulled by an invisible force until his lips lightly met Akira's.

It was astounding how easily the distance he perceived could be closed.

At zero distance, Akira's clever grey eyes said so much. His lashes lowered ever so slightly as he pressed forward, stating his earnestness with the firm press of his lips. That lingering question that always plagued the back of Yusuke's mind, the one that made him wonder whether he was worthy, was silenced every time Akira looked at him that way. While Akira's lips communicated his desire, his eyes expressed a breathtaking sense of unguarded trust.

He was vulnerable. Even Joker, his savior, was a person capable of bruising beneath the mask.

Yusuke wanted to handle him gently.

“You were right, Akira,” Yusuke said after parting from his lips. He shook off his hesitance and placed his hands on Akira's shoulders, meeting his eyes directly. “If anything happened to you, I fear an irreparable wound would have been left upon my heart. You are the world to me.”

Akira looked away, pushing up his glasses. His cheeks turned a shade of red. It was an innocent color, conveying the honesty of his feelings.

Akira may have known how important he was to him, but Yusuke felt like he needed to tell him with his own words. He wanted him to know his gratitude. For all that he'd given him, for the impact he'd made on his life, Akira was irreplaceable.

“Thank you,” Akira said. His voice sounded softer and he looked more tired, like he'd been hiding it until then. It wasn't that surprising. Anyone would have been exhausted after what he'd been through. It was more surprising that he was able to put up such an act, perfectly pretending like he was unaffected by it. He must have done that for the sake of the others, concerned that he'd make them worry about him if they saw him in pain.

“There's no need for you to pretend around me. There may be many things I fail to grasp, but I know what it's like to hurt. I don't think you have anything to gain by hiding your pain like this. It would be unwise for you to proceed with the infiltration until you're feeling more steady.”

He may have been speaking out of turn...

That didn't seem to bother his leader, though. He gave a soft laugh and leaned back, resting his weight on his palms. “You're weirdly perceptive sometimes. Have you figured out how to read my mind?”

“No. I'm just reading your expressions. I think I've come to understand the feelings of those around me more thanks to the myriad of emotions your eyes possess. They contain a wealth of valuable knowledge for me.”

“I don't know how you manage to say these things with a straight face... You know, that's why people call you weird.”

Yusuke tilted his head curiously. “Is there something strange about the way I talk?”

For a moment, Akira just stared. Then he sat up and shook his head. “You know what? No. There's nothing strange about it. I find your feelings a lot easier to understand than most people's because you say what you mean. You're invested in understanding yourself. Other people aren't like that. They just expect you to understand them even when they don't understand themselves.”

“So communication is a complicated game of interpreting hidden meanings. Perhaps I'm not very good at it, then. I've unfortunately heard the word 'pervert' a lot lately...”

“Well. It's not always that deep. In your case, you just need to learn to read the air...”

“Read the air...”

He sighed. “...It's hopeless, isn't it?”

Yusuke held his chin in thought. “Is it not the same? Understanding the hidden meanings in what people say...?”

“You miss a lot of the things that are right in plain sight. Maybe you should shift your focus and try to examine the surface level more. That's important, too. Just keep working on that perception. It feels like you're on the cusp of a breakthrough.”

“Really?” He felt so accomplished. He didn't know why, but it felt like Akira was praising him. His social skills must have improved after all. “The surface level... You may be right. I find myself so concerned with the meanings of my work, I must be applying the same to life, but I shouldn't lose sight of life's many dimensions.”

Akira showed him a smile. It did things to Yusuke's heart, getting it all twisted up in his chest. “You'll get there. I mean, you already managed to win me over without that.”

“You're just willing to put up with my eccentricity...”

“What you call eccentricity, I call sensitivity and thoughtfulness.” He touched Yusuke's jaw with the tips of his fingers, then leaned in, placing a kiss to his lips as if to turn his words into a sealed promise. “Really. It's not a weakness. I feel better with you here. I also didn't think about what the consequences could be until after the fact.”

That was the only way they could be. They had no other choice in the matter. It had quite literally been do or die. The only outcome worth giving thought to in the moment was the favorable outcome in which Akira convinced Prosecutor Nijima of his innocence. The thought of what could have happened if everything fell through wasn't worth thinking about, yet it was an inevitable thought nonetheless. Anyone who skirted that close to death would surely feel the fear of what could have happened with the wrong step.

Thinking about it chilled Yusuke's blood in his veins, but his emotions blazed when the smug face of that phony ace detective resurfaced in his mind. “That Akechi Goro... If we meet him again, I might not be able to control myself.”

“Now that I know he wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet in my head... I can't blame you.” Akira gave a humorless laugh.

“You can count on me to watch your back. Nevertheless...” Yusuke lightly touched his shoulder and scowled. “I wish I had been there. I know you said you're alright, but are you really? You said that they drugged you. That almost prevented you from following through with the plan. How about now? Have all of your memories returned?”

“How would I know if I've forgotten something if I can't remember it?”

He had a point.

Akira laughed. “Don't worry. I don't think anything's missing now. I've been keeping a record of my daily activities for my probation. Everything I've done is written down in that journal, so I won't forget.”

“Even our dates?”

It looked like Akira choked on the air for a second. He pounded himself in the chest and regained his composure. “...Not in such detail, no. I plan on giving it to Sojiro when my probation's over, so I don't think it would be appropriate if I wrote down... certain things. Rest assured, I remember it all. And if you aren't convinced, you may feel free to remind me.” He gave him a wink.

“Is there something in particular...?”

Akira pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an amused smile. “Oh, Yusuke... You might be the only person my charm doesn't have an effect on.”

A hand was lifted. The tips of Akira's fingers ran down his arm, raising goosebumps along the skin beneath Yusuke's sleeve. A totally different kind of warmth began to swell inside of Yusuke as Akira moved himself closer. When their thighs pressed against each other and Yusuke felt the curve of Akira's hip against his side as he snaked an arm around his waist, the meaning of that wink became evident and Yusuke realized which memories he was suggesting he remind him of.

“O-oh. So you-... R-Right now? Here? A-Akira-”

Intending only to put some distance between them to first discuss what exactly he had in mind, Yusuke put his hands on Akira's waist, but that one careless action made Akira's playful expression unexpectedly crumble into one of pain. The moment his hands touched him, Akira doubled over, protectively putting his arms around himself. It looked like it was just a reflex, but Yusuke couldn't help but feel stupid for having touched him without thinking.

“I-... I'm fine,” Akira said, already putting on a smile to stop him from worrying. “Really. It's just bruising. I visited the doctor at the clinic and she said that it's nothing to worry about. I'll be ready whenever the others want to infiltrate-”

Yusuke grabbed the bottom of Akira's shirt and lifted it up.

“Nothing to worry about...?” The large, sickly greenish-yellow and purple marks surrounding his stomach didn't look like nothing to worry about. Any amount of contact seemed like enough to put Akira in severe pain. Yusuke couldn't imagine him being ready to infiltrate Shido's Palace in such condition. It irritated him that Akira thought he could hide the severity of his injuries, but that wasn't what bothered Yusuke the most.

Knowing that they had planned on killing Akira in the end anyway, the extent to which they tortured him beforehand was truly sickening.

It didn't matter how Akira stood in their way. They were adults. They weren't on the same playing field.

It became ever more evident to Yusuke that the people they were dealing with were monsters.

Akira kept his head lowered, appearing ashamed of himself after being found out. He must have known that he'd disappointed his expectations. There were in fact times when he expected Akira to put himself first.

“Perhaps you really do need reminding.” Yusuke placed two fingers beneath Akira's chin and tilted his head up enough to make their eyes meet. He stared down into the grey depths of Akira's eyes and refused to let him look away. It was incredible how much of him he could see when they were that close. It was as if he were looking straight into him, catching a glimpse of the tender heart of rebellion that trembled within. “Akira. I expect you to treasure yourself as much as I treasure you.”

For all those times that Akira had taken care of him, giving him shelter and food and so much more, the least he could do to repay him was remind him of his importance. Yusuke knew that Akira would never ask him for anything in return, but he wanted to give to him. Since he lacked wealth, the only thing he had to offer was his heart and a reflection of the kindness he'd been shown.

His lips met Akira's without hesitance, the distance disappearing once more. As their breaths mingled, he closed his eyes and imagined himself melting into the soft warmth beneath him, blurring and mixing together with Akira like paint. If they were a color, he wondered what they would be. He was still searching for the way to express that feeling, and he planned to keep searching until he found it, no matter how long it'd take.

His eyes blinked back open when he felt Akira's hands tugging on the front of his coat. It was surprising how warm the typically cold attic felt after a moment's worth of embracing. With an apology spoken softly against Akira's lips, Yusuke parted from him and stood briefly to remove his coat, hanging it over the back of the chair at his desk.

It was just something small, but Yusuke couldn't help but take notice. He forced Akira to wait another moment as he stood back, forming a frame with his fingers to admire the commonplace beauty of that sight. It was something self-indulgent, he was sure; the kind of sight that would only appeal to him and would be lost on anyone else who saw it. But that was what made it so special, seeing something of his placed casually among Akira's things. He could imagined himself fitting into Akira's life in much the same way. Lately, he was just as much a fixture of the café as the Sayuri hanging on the wall.

Yusuke nodded happily to himself and breathed in the attic's lingering fragrance of coffee.

“I love it here,” he said. “And the most beautiful thing about it is that it doesn't have to be here. I feel like I'm getting closer to understanding something. Do you remember when I said that I wanted to capture the same purity as that of the Sayuri? I thought for certain that my answer would be found in what subject I chose to express that purity through, but that is not the case. This place feels special to me now, though this room is no different from the way it was the first time I set foot in it.”

“Not sure I follow,” Akira said, laying himself down on the bed.

“A personal feeling.” He could explain it in a way that even Akira could understand. “It may not matter what I paint as long as I paint it with my feelings. If I pour everything into my work, regardless of the subject, the viewers will feel what I feel.”

“Doesn't that go without saying?”

Yusuke sighed. “Yes. It sounds simple and obvious, but simplicity is actually a deceptively delicate nuance all of its own. An amateur could have made the same assertion, but to understand it is another matter. This must have been what led to the success of Desire and Hope...”

“True. I really felt that one.”

“That work already looks immature in my eyes. My painting does not need to be abstract in order to communicate an abstract feeling. It can be more simple than that... That is the 'purity' of the Sayuri that I wanted to emulate.”

Simplicity. In other words, honesty. That was what he'd been searching for.

With that realization, Yusuke felt like he needed to return to the dorm at once and begin work on his next piece, but he knew better than to be so hasty. His haste had been what had caused him to foolishly believe that Desire was a work of genius. Compared to his winning piece, it was no more than the scribblings of an eager child. In comparison, the work he planned to create from the feelings inspired in him by Akira would be his life's greatest masterpiece.

Thinking of it that way, he almost felt intimidated by it.

But just as his feelings for him continued to evolve, he could create one masterpiece after another, each infused with their own shades of love.

There was no rush. As long as love continued to burn within his chest – as long as Akira continued to smile for him – he would have infinite inspiration.

“When you love someone, what do you say?” Yusuke asked, returning, sitting down on the edge of the bed. He looked down at Akira, expecting what sort of answer he'd receive.

As expected, Akira said, “I love you.”

“Exactly. That's all you have to say.” He held a hand over his chest, looking at Akira warmly. “My apologies if this all sounds like it came out of nowhere. I was trying to figure out how I could capture the feelings you give me. I thought they were so complicated, but the truth is that my feelings are surprisingly simple, aren't they? I love you. Just by saying those words out loud, I feel the whole spectrum of that feeling. That's all that needs to be said.”

“I love you.”

“Yes, exactly.”

Akira grabbed his sleeve, laughing. “No, I'm really saying it this time. I love you, Yusuke.” He gave a tug and Yusuke followed him down, laying down next to him, close to his side on the narrow bed. Akira's eyes looked as if they were sparkling. “You're so weird, but that's what I love about you. You think about these things that nobody else would think about. I can't believe you spend so much time just thinking about how I make you feel...”

“Isn't that normal?” Yusuke placed his hand back over his chest, feeling his heart clench just thinking about how special that feeling was. “Isn't that why there are so many love songs? Isn't that why there are countless poems and books and films about love? I get it now. It isn't a tired subject at all. It's a feeling worth sharing and repeating endlessly. If the world's other face looks like Mementos, then I see what value there is of love in this world. If I have it, then I'd like to share it.”

Getting onto his side with a slight wince, mindful of his bruises, Akira brought himself closer and put an arm around Yusuke's waist. “You're so good.”

Was he? Yusuke thought it was just another thing that went without saying. It would have made him feel selfish to keep such a splendid feeling all to himself when he could have been using it to make others happy. He wanted to return what Akira and the Sayuri had given him.

“Hey...” Akira glanced up, blinking cutely, his lashes batting his cheeks. “What happened to reminding me? And don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about.” As if to make sure that Yusuke would have no doubts, he moved his hand down his back to grasp his hip and press them against each other.

“Gosh. I don't know, Akira. What are we going to do on the bed?” he asked, giving him an innocent smile.

“Are you teasing me?”

“I am.”

With a grin, Akira leaned in and gave him a kiss, surprising Yusuke with a hint of teeth, tugging lightly on his bottom lip. “That's mean. I'm injured, you know. “

“Amusing. So you'll admit it when it's convenient for you?” It wasn't amusing at all, really. Yusuke took the matter quite seriously. No matter how Akira treated it, he was going to treat him with all the delicacy Akira neglected showing himself.

He threaded one of his legs between Akira's and shifted himself closer still, finding a way to fit them together more comfortably. A soft, surprised-sounding gasp escaped from between Akira's lips and Yusuke felt his ears burn. Knowing that he was responsible for that sound gave him another feeling that he'd been previously unfamiliar with. It was a sort of pride and excitement that brought forth an eagerness to please. It made him want to hear more.

There was only so much he could capture with a brush. Though he could mix a color to perfectly match the shade of red in Akira's cheeks, Yusuke wondered if there were any way he could visually express a sound.

If he were to paint Akira as he saw him at that moment, with his eyes half-closed, his lips parted and moist, his body relaxed in a pose of submission, would whoever viewed that work be able to imagine the sweet sounds he made?

While a part of him was desperate to find the answer, there was another new, unique part of him that adamantly refused the idea.

That image was his. He was willing to share the overflowing love showed to him by Akira, but the passion he found between them in such a private moment felt as though it should remain private. Almost childishly, he wanted to wrap that intimate image of Akira up in his arms and keep it all to himself. It didn't need to be painted, as much as he wished to release the feeling it gave him. He didn't doubt that he could find a way to share it, to express it, but there was something special – something that made Yusuke grin a little secretively to himself – in knowing that his eyes held a magnificent sight that would be seen by no other.

Akira said that he knew how important he was to him, but Yusuke could only hope that he truly understood the depth of his value. Although at times he wondered whether he deserved to even stand beside him, Yusuke also felt like there was no one else in the world who could possibly value Akira as much as he did. If he had a worth to Akira, he wanted that to be it; his endless devotion and gratitude.

So he would indeed remind him, however it would take, even if he needed to start simply with the touch of his fingertips upon his skin. It didn't feel like it would be enough, but they had time. As long as he looked after Akira, he imagined that they would be together for a long, long time, and he would have more than enough chances to show him.

“As long as we're quiet, no one will know,” Akira said, glancing over Yusuke's shoulder toward the edge of the stairs.

The atmosphere around them came rushing back in, reminding Yusuke of the reality they were in. It was so easy to get caught up in his own head while he was entangled in the warmth of Akira's arms. From the moment he laid down with him, he'd even forgotten all about how cold he'd been. Even the tips of his fingers burned with a desire to touch.

He nodded silently to let him know that he understood. Down in the store, Sojiro had to be busy. There were some distinct sounds of work being done in the kitchen. Even if there weren't many customers left to distract him, he would probably be occupied with preparing the next morning's curry. He and Akira were probably safe for the time being.

That 'probably' was sort of exciting in its own way... That was certainly another something he'd never given thought to until Akira.

They had to be quick and quiet.

Akira moved against him, moving his hips in a way that made Yusuke let out a somewhat embarrassing sound. At least it wasn't loud enough for anyone downstairs to hear. He didn't mind terribly as long as Akira was the only one who heard him make those kinds of sounds. Even so, he sealed his lips and tried not to let out any others as Akira pressed their hips together, rubbing against the leg Yusuke had between his legs.

At times, Akira could be so devilish. During the day, he appeared unassuming beneath those thick glasses, but Yusuke knew better. There was another side of him lurking inside that only came out in full when they were in the Metaverse. When they were alone together, he caught glimpses of it and wondered whether that was Akira's true self or just another facet of his persona.

Although he wanted to take his time and undress Akira so he could gaze upon his inspiring form, he knew that it wouldn't be wise if they were trying to be secretive. He thought he'd left a pretty good impression on the boss, so it would have been unfortunate if he suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs and found him tearing Akira's clothes off...

In that case...

It was best not to overthink it. Simple was best, as he'd discovered.

Heeding Akira's soft, panting breaths, Yusuke slipped a hand between them and placed his palm over the front of his pants. Akira's body stiffened slightly for a second as if he were trying to hold back, but he gave in quickly, rubbing himself against Yusuke's palm, getting himself worked up. Any grace and confidence Yusuke had in his touch was suddenly lost when he felt Akira touch him in return.

He used to think he was great at holding his composure. He always held his head up everywhere he went and spoke with irresponsible confidence. Until he met Akira, he didn't know what humility was. He didn't know what it was like for his words to fail him, for his eyes to instinctively be drawn to the ground, for his heart to skip a beat. Had it not captured his heart whole, he could have mistaken it for weakness.

So even when his breath stuttered and his fingers lost their grasp, he was not dismayed. There was a comfort in knowing that he could expose his vulnerabilities to Akira. Even if he didn't explain those thoughts out loud, he knew that Akira understood and would never betray his trust. It was liberating, knowing that he could be transformed – that he could lay beside him with red in his cheeks, with want in his eyes – and Akira would still see Kitagawa Yusuke.

As Yusuke lifted his palm, he moved his fingers to the waist of Akira's pants and lifted his shirt again to have another look at the bruises along his stomach. That time, Akira didn't look away, like he'd been listening to his thoughts. Those marks didn't make him less of a leader. They proved how much he was willing to withstand for his companions.

“It must have hurt a lot.”

Akira's gaze was distant for a moment, perhaps remembering his time in that dark, underground room. “Not really,” he said. Noticing the surprise his answer evoked, he tried to explain. “I wasn't thinking about myself. They were asking me questions about what I'd been doing, but my thoughts were on all of you. I don't think it was as noble as that sounds, though. I felt like I was dying. I think I just stopped caring about myself and became more worried about what would happen to the rest of you.”

“You... utter fool!”

Akira stared in confusion. “Wh...?”

Yusuke wrapped both of his arms around him tightly. That time, he didn't care if it made Akira hurt. Part of him hoped that he would feel it. “I never want to hear you say anything like that ever again.”

Akira didn't say anything. He just stayed close to Yusuke, his face hidden against his shoulder. After a moment passed, he lifted an arm and wrapped it tightly around Yusuke's waist to return his embrace, holding his other hand against his chest.

Adults like Shido believed that rebellious youths were a useless commodity. If Akira allowed himself to pay attention to the likes of them, he would have been consumed and thrown away.

The fact that he was still there, even bruised, meant that he still had some use left in him. To Yusuke, that use was limitless.

“Contrary to popular belief, I don't think there's anything heroic about sacrificing yourself. Do you think that would make the ones left behind happy?” Yusuke tightened his hands in the fabric of Akira's shirt. “I still want to eat more of your curry and drink more of your coffee. I want to visit many new places with you and make new memories. I want to see the world in new ways. I still have to paint your smile. So fight for yourself.”

For a second, Yusuke wondered if Akira was still listening or not. He was being awfully quiet.

Eventually, Akira pulled back, looking away with a sheepish look on his face. “I don't know what to say. That actually sounds like legitimate advice. Th... Thank you, Yusuke.”

“'Actually,' you say? As if there should be any doubt in your mind!”

“More importantly...” Akira lifted his hips and grinded against him, drawing a surprised yelp from Yusuke. “If Morgana ends up walking in on us, I swear...”

Despite Akira's insistence, Yusuke could tell that he hadn't really minded their brief distraction. The corners of his eyes looked a little damp, showing that his words had reached his heart. He must have been eager for them to move along before he made himself look uncool.

...Was that what Akira had been talking about when he told him to read the air?

Then he was willing to take mercy on him.

Gently, he ran his palm down Akira's side, avoiding his bruises. His touch rewarded him with the satisfying sound of a relaxed sigh. As he leaned in and pressed his lips against Akira's, their hands worked at the front of each other's clothing, blindly undoing buttons, pulling at zippers, fingerstips at last meeting with the bare skin underneath.

Before, when he spoke about passion, he had been just a child. After the first time he experienced true passion firsthand, he realized how immature his idea of passion had been. It was that feeling of heat that overwhelmed him as Akira's soft fingers wrapped around him, that made it difficult for him to breathe as their tongues caressed. He had no doubt that there was even more to it than that, but it was hard to fathom when it was already so consuming.

But he reveled in it every time, finding something new in each sensation. He tried to keep his eyes open for as long as he could to get a good look at Akira's heated expression before he succumbed to the feeling of need that made his toes curl and his eyes squeeze shut. Just the feeling of Akira's hand around him was almost too much, he could hardly imagine what it would be like if they took things farther. But they would eventually. He had no doubt. And that thought was enough to make him moan into Akira's mouth.

“We have to be quiet, remember?” Akira said, breaking away for a second, his voice rough.

Yusuke nodded emphatically. He already wanted to tell Akira about all the things he wanted to try with him in the future, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to hold it together if he started thinking about that.

Sex...

It still sounded like such a foreign concept in his head. He used to spend so much time alone in Madarame's altelier, he just... never thought about it. His mind was always occupied with art. But all of a sudden, his mind was constantly being occupied with thoughts of art and Akira and the things they could do with each other and the beautiful art that would result from those new experiences. It was a circle.

“Sorry,” Yusuke said quietly. He tried to focus, moving his hand over Akira in the same way Akira was touching him, falling into the rhythm with him. The thoughts continued to come, though, making him feel anxious. Breathing harder, he rubbed his leg between Akira's and tightened his hand a little, hoping for him to do the same. “I was just... thinking that we should have sex.”

Akira's whole body jolted. Yusuke felt his cock twitch against his palm. “R-right now?” He looked around frantically. “It's too late... And if we tried to do that here...”

“I wasn't talking about right now.” He let go of him for a second and placed his hand on Akira's side to make him calm down. “That was quite a telling reaction, though. You're interested?”

Akira put his hand over Yusuke's and made him move it back down. “Obviously I'm interested. I thought-... You really want to?”

“That's what I said.”

Something of a growl came from behind Akira's clenched teeth. He switched hands and grasped Yusuke's hip and stroked him more firmly, forcing Yusuke to turn his face into the pillow to hide the sound he would've made. Akira's interest must have been piqued. He leaned closer, brushing his lips against Yusuke's ear, his breath hot. “Maybe it isn't too late. Maybe this is perfect. It's really cold out there, you know... I wouldn't feel right making you walk to the station at this time of the night while it's so cold.”

“Wh-what are you suggesting?” He pressed himself into Akira's palm, trying to chase the movements of his hand, his pulse quickening, becoming louder in his ears.

“Stay here,” he breathed, running his tongue over the curve of Yusuke's ear. “We can let Sojiro know, and I can tell Morgana to stay downstairs. He'll understand. Once the store is closed, we'll be the only ones here... You'd like that, wouldn't you? It'd be much better than going back to your cold dorm all alone.”

“Y-you make a very appealing argument...”

Whether or not he was going to be able to last a second round was the real question, however. Any inkling of the cold had been forgotten; his body felt like it was burning up. As Akira continued to detail the things he would want to do with him, painting a vivid image in Yusuke's head, he felt himself drawing nearer to the edge. Or maybe it would have been more accurate to describe it as drawing nearer to combustion.

He was far too flustered to respond any further. The only thing he could do was seal his mouth against Akira's to put a halt to his embarrassing words. Their legs tangled and he boldly repositioned his hand, taking Akira into his palm along with himself. Each slight movement of their hips brought forth more of that exquisite heat, stoking it further, making it rise to an almost unbearable degree.

When it finally became too much to withstand, Yusuke broke away from Akira's lips and pressed his forehead against his shoulder, clenching his teeth, swallowing the undignified sound that he was sure would have tried to escape. Despite himself, he kept moving his hand, pushing himself past his limit just so he could have the satisfaction of seeing Akira as he also reached pleasure's pinnacle.

It didn't take much longer. He tried to act all cool and experienced, but he was just as weak to the beckoning of release. The most adorably helpless expression crossed his face at the moment of climax. Yusuke did his best to commit that look to memory so he could sketch it later.

Once he came back to his senses, Akira pushed himself up with some effort and climbed over him to reach the box of tissues he left near his bed. He cleaned himself up quickly and kindly extended the same to Yusuke and even helped him straighten his clothes to make him look more presentable for when they spoke to Sojiro.

A thought crossed his mind as he watched Akira rise from the bed to dispose of the tissues in the wastebin, notcing the way he gingerly held a hand to his stomach.

“Akira... On second thought, I think you should rest.”

Lightning fast, Akira whipped around to stare at him, a rebuttal ready on his lips. “Wait, but-”

Yusuke held up a hand and sat up, putting his feet over the side of the bed. “It's alright. I'll stay here tonight like you suggested, but I don't want to put any additional strain on your body. It would be hypocritical of me after I lectured you so strongly, don't you think? I feel more than satisfied for now. As soon as you've recovered, we can do anything you want. Consider it a promise.” He crossed one leg over the other, thinking. “...Perhaps, after our next infiltration.”

Akira sat down next to him, elbows on his knees, and rested his chin over his threaded fingers. “Raising the stakes, huh? Alright. It's a deal.”

He could wake up early and go down to the station and get back to the dorm in time to change before-

“I'll walk you to the station tomorrow.”

“But-”

Akira straightened up and turned to him with a timid smile. “Let me do that much, alright?”

Ah... That smile.

His bag with his sketchbook was still across the room in the place where he left it next to the chair. Yusuke wanted to sketch that particular expression while it was right there in front of him, but... He chose not to. It was alright. He decided that he didn't have to.

As long as he remembered the feeling it gave him, he could paint that smile in anything.

“Okay.” He stood back up, ready to let the boss know that he would be staying the night. “I'll allow it – if only because I'm afraid of passing out in the cold if I go alone. Speaking of which, you should make curry for me tomorrow morning. With two extra helpings of rice. And coffee – I've been falling asleep at my easel a lot lately.”

“Maybe you're the one who needs to take better care of yourself...”

“What was that?”

“N-nothing... I'll make the curry.”

The next day was already looking warmer. And the day after that as well, all the way into the future.

Someday, Yusuke was sure that he would find a way to repay Akira for the curry and all the love he'd been given. That day didn't feel far away. He'd find a way to convey the feeling that words failed to express, starting with a smile of his own.