On the night after everything changed, Akira received a text.
“I'm coming to see you,” it said.
Earlier that day, he received many messages from his friends – the ones in Tokyo, his comrades. There were many words of congratulations, many pictures sent, many laughs, and surely a few tears that went unseen that stained the screens of their cellphones. It was a moment they all shared together despite being in separate places, at different schools.
He had yet to see what the next day would bring, but that moment felt exactly like the sort of turning point he'd seen in countless scenes that depicted the bittersweet metamorphosis of adolescence. Even if the others weren't there to watch him receive the piece of paper that proclaimed him a graduate and an honorary member of the real world, he had little doubt that they were living the same sort of scene for themselves with all of its excitement and uncertainties.
They were ready to open the door and take their first step, and he...
He was happy for them, but he wasn't there yet.
For him, the uncertainty was a little stronger. With the memory of his Persona held anxiously in a corner of his mind, he tried to remember what it was like to face the future with an unwavering sense of self. That massive and powerful Persona was his inner self, but even the memory of it came into question when he raised his head and faced forward.
All of that time he spent strengthening himself felt shallow and unsubstantial when he looked at reality.
The world between was gone, and so was Satanael.
Inside, it was hard not to shed a few tears for himself when he was released from the comfortable trappings of school life. The game he was used to playing was over and it was time to start a new one, but that meant starting all over from the beginning. In less than a year, he became a master within the Metaverse, but he was just a beginner in the game of life.
Watching his friends continue on along their chosen courses was like watching his party crumble. He enjoyed the time he spent with them so much, he didn't want to start over. Inevitably, no matter what direction he'd head in, he'd have to find new members to fill the vacant positions. But he didn't want to. He didn't want them to break up...
Each of them carried a piece of him. Watching them scatter was like watching himself be torn apart.
He couldn't tell them how he felt. He couldn't go saying things that sounded so self-centered. The story wasn't about him anymore, after all. Each of them were their own protagonists, heading off to discover their own new stories.
So that was why it was a bit perplexing to receive such a text.
He'd been laying in bed, Morgana asleep on his stomach. His phone vibrated and the screen lit up.
“I'm coming to see you.”
That was what it said.
Those words, Akira kept reading them over and over.
Regrettably, it had been a while since he'd seen Yusuke. They still talked, and it seemed like their feelings were still the same, but, with that turning point in view, Akira had found it too difficult to see him. School was demanding and it seemed even more demanding for Yusuke as he struggled to produce a portfolio for the prestigious art schools he was aiming for. After the help he'd given him, that seemed like the natural course of things, so Akira didn't feel right to interrupt its flow. His influence wasn't necessary anymore, so he felt like he'd only be overstaying his welcome if he continued to impose himself on him.
He'd seen that scene enough times to know where their relationship was headed. Like one of those tearful clichés in an afternoon drama, Yusuke would get on a train to somewhere and disappear into the distance, becoming nothing more than another memory. In his whole life, Akira never expected to be the person who was left behind on the platform.
So that was why, apart from his surprise and confusion, that text also left him hopeful.
If that was going to be their parting scene, then he wanted to do what those other protagonists always couldn't.
Even if it made him a terrible person, he wanted to shout “Don't go!”
He wasn't without direction, but the future just didn't look right if Yusuke wasn't in it. The others were important, too, but his heart kept obstinately clinging on to Yusuke. Days could pass where he heard nary a word from him, yet the thought of him was always there. Whenever Akira found himself slipping beneath a dark torrent of thoughts, the memories of the times they shared together were able to pull him back out.
There were times when he felt so overwhelmed, he just wanted to collapse. At those moments, he remembered when he extended a hand and told Yusuke to stand back up. It kept him from feeling discouraged, knowing that a simple gesture like that had been all it took to make Yusuke return to his feet.
Seeing someone fall down that many times to rise back up...
Even when he was alone, he didn't feel alone.
Yusuke was truly someone special. Out of all of his friends, out of all of their interactions, Yusuke seemed to be the one who left the most profound effect on him. Yusuke told him that he'd helped him see things differently, but Akira felt pretty confident that he was the one whose perception had been changed. When they met, he thought Yusuke was someone incomprehensible, but, by the time he was standing in front of the painting he helped him create, Akira realized that he understood him in ways his past self would have never even noticed.
Maybe that was art.
Or maybe that was just what it meant to grow up.
Either way, Akira was glad that he met him. And he was grateful. And he wanted to stay with him, to keep learning more about himself through Yusuke.
His old self used to be so jaded and spiteful after getting kicked around by adults who had the advantage over him. Becoming jaded was Yusuke's biggest fear, so it was sort of ironic that he sought help from someone who was wallowing in their spite. But, by helping him, Akira learned how to help himself. He didn't let go of his spite, and he knew that he would certainly never forgive Shido for what he did to him, but, even with that obstacle in his way, thanks to Yusuke, he learned how to live around it, in spite of spite.
He was sure that there was a part of Yusuke that would never forgive Madarame, either. There were good memories from the past, but they became tainted when the truth came to light. It would always be hard for him, being unable to determine how much of Madarame's kindness was sincere.
Yet, that person who struggled to restore his trust in others was the same person who was able to paint that brilliant picture of hope itself arising from the ugly side of human emotion.
The atmosphere of Mementos began to look different to Akira after he saw Yusuke's painting. The nasty feelings that gathered in Mementos weren't there because they needed to be combated, Akira realized. Those feelings manifested there because they got out of hand, causing hearts to become warped. Had he let himself sink into despair, he would have surely birthed a Shadow in that place. Instead, those feelings empowered his Persona.
It was just a matter of perspective.
Realizing that made a world of difference.
So... He couldn't let him go.
Being unable to see Satanael, he feared that he might fall into that place without realizing. Even if the Metaverse disappeared, somewhere, the Velvet Room still had to exist. Somewhere, there was still a world unseen by human eyes. So there was a creeping fear that he might close his eyes one night and again awaken in a dream to see himself staring back at him with hollow yellow eyes.
He needed Yusuke to be there.
He needed him to be there, to simplify the world for him with that perceptive sense of his. It may have seemed like eccentricity from the perspective of those who were too jaded to understand, but Akira had been one of those people before, too.
After he saw the way things could be, filled with light and hope, Akira didn't want to go back. There were no promises that said he couldn't get sent back behind bars. If he weren't careful, he was afraid he'd become his own jailer.
So that one text held an important significance. It was everything.
All of the complex feelings he'd been holding up to that point laid on his chest that night as he burned his eyes with the brightness of his phone, reading those words over and over until even their meaning became hazy, blurred by hopeful hesitance and uncertainty.
In the morning, Akira awoke with his phone still clutched in his hand. Overnight, it ran out of battery and wouldn't respond at all when he tried to turn it on.
He looked down, meeting eyes with Morgana who was perched on his chest.
“G'morning,” Akira returned. He couldn't do much more than raise his head while Morgana was on top of him.
“I saw you looking at your phone last night,” Morgana said. He dragged his tongue over the back of one paw, then sleepily scratched behind an ear. “I fell asleep before I could ask. Was it something important? You had a pretty terrible look on your face.”
Akira squinted but decided against forming a retort. Instead, he picked up Morgana and set him aside so he could sit up. Even with the weight of Morgana off his chest, there was still something else, but... When he looked up, the feelings that had felt so overwhelming the night before began to dissipate.
On the wall in front of his bed hung Desire and Hope. It was a fairly large painting and that was conveniently the only place where it would fit, so he saw it every morning upon waking up. Somehow, one glimpse of that painting had been enough to keep him feeling encouraged for the past year.
Waking up every morning, having to go to a separate school, being away from them... It was difficult. Going back to the way that things used to be was even harder than transferring had been.
“I wonder why Yusuke gave me that,” Akira said, speaking of the painting. He knew that he was just avoiding Morgana's question. “He paints so much... He probably didn't have anywhere to put it.”
Morgana's tail thumped rhythmically against the top cover. “Or maybe he gave it to you because he knew that you liked it. Even if he had the space for it, I bet he wanted to give it to someone who appreciated it instead of letting it collect dust in a corner. Art's supposed to be looked at, isn't it?”
He had a point. Yusuke didn't make anything simply for his own indulgence.
“You got a text from him, didn't you?”
Morgana's perceptiveness caught Akira off guard. He nearly choked on his own breath.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stood and took his phone with him to the charger on top of his desk. Relieved to see the battery charging symbol appear on the screen, he let out the breath he'd been holding and wearily rubbed the back of his neck.
“Yeah. It was from Yusuke. He said he's coming to see me.”
“When? Today? That's so sudden...!” Morgana's surprise quickly toned down as he considered who they were talking about. “Well, it is Yusuke, after all... So what was that face for? You should be happy to see him. Aren't you two still...?”
“Yeah,” Akira answered quickly. His eyes slowly wandered to the floor and he wondered if he'd answered too quickly. “I mean... I think we are. It's been a while, and now... Now, with him suddenly saying that he's coming to see me, I'm kind of afraid he's coming to say goodbye.”
Morgana's tail slowly stopped its thumping and his ears drooped. “Oh... Right...”
Everybody else was already busy with their future. He didn't have anything, though. Akira could tell that his parents were disappointed, but they were very lenient with him. As long as he helped around the house or looked like he was putting effort into seeking employment or further education, they wouldn't get on his back about it.
Yusuke had probably been accepted to all of the schools he applied for. He'd been stressing out about it, but Akira kept assuring him that any school would fight to receive someone as exceptionally talented as him. Setting aside all of Madarame's lies, it was undeniably true that he saw Yusuke as a valuable mind.
As much as he wanted to tell him to stay... That morning, Akira woke up feeling differently.
If Yusuke wanted to pursue further education, then he was going to support him. He couldn't hold him back. Even if they had to be separated again, the brilliant light in Desire and Hope meant that they would always be connected by something that surpassed distance.
“Hey...” Morgana leapt off the bed and came closer. Gently, he pawed at the bottom of Akira's pant leg. “You aren't going to be alone.”
“You're right... I know that.”
Still... It was possible to feel lonely even in a crowd. Even with Morgana there next to him, Akira felt unsure. He wished that he knew anything about art just to give himself a reason to follow Yusuke. Standing there in the middle of his room, he just felt like he was spinning his wheels, going nowhere. He wanted to step outside again, but he didn't know where he'd be going, and he didn't know if he wanted to move forward without Yusuke or any of the others by his side.
Morgana disappeared for a moment, scampering away with a purposeful stride. He scrabbled his way up Akira's dresser and hopped onto the surface. When he found what he was looking for, he returned, holding it in his mouth.
Akira leaned down and took it from him.
“Oh yeah... This is...”
“The key you received from Lavenza,” Morgana said. “I don't know everything that's troubling you right now, but try to remember what she told you. You're the forger of your own path. The power you have is unbreakable. Because of the everlasting bonds you have with your friends, even if you feel yourself beginning to wander, you won't get lost, no matter what. So... Please, Akira, believe in yourself the way you believe in them.”
He was right.
Morgana was absolutely right.
Hearing it put so simply, Akira felt silly for doubting himself.
“I'm sorry, Morgana.” He put a hand on top of his head and messed up his fur.
Morgana yowled and swatted at his hand. “D-don't be embarrassing! I-I'm just doing my job, remember? I gotta keep an eye on you so you don't go turning into a delinquent.”
“That won't happen.”
“Good.” He flicked his tail around, grinning a satisfied, toothy grin. “I'm glad you understand.”
“Still...” Akira stood back up and curiously inspected the key he held. “Why do I have this? It was the key to my cell, but also... It's like my key to the Velvet Room, isn't that right? So... Is it really possible for me to go back there? I remember seeing doors to the Velvet Room in Tokyo, but I haven't seen any here. How am I supposed to use this key without a door?”
Walking around him, Morgana leapt onto the bed and curled up, making himself comfortable. “A key is a thing that grants you access to a place. That's all it is. The fact that it was entrusted to you says to me that you're still recognized as someone who can enter the Velvet Room. Whether you physically have it or not is sort of irrelevant at this point. They gave it to you, so that means the door may appear in front of you again in the future.”
Shaking his head, Akira placed the key back on the dresser. “So what does that mean? Do you think they'll send me on another mission to save the world?”
“Maybe,” Morgana said. That hadn't really been what Akira had been expecting to hear. He hadn't been serious, but Morgana sounded serious with his answer. “Like they said, there are others who entered the Velvet Room before you. I don't know anything about them, but it seems to me like they must have had their own purpose they fulfilled. If the world requires the return of the master Phantom Thief, I'm sure they'll send out the call to you again.”
So there really was something for him to look forward to...
Ears twitching, Morgana picked up his head and asked with a cheeky voice, “You wouldn't mind, would you?”
Akira grinned. “Who do you think you're talking to?”
Morgana chuckled to himself. “That's the leader I know.”
Akira felt like he understood what Morgana had been trying to say by telling him all of that.
His friends were the bonds that freed him from his cell. In a sense, they were the key. So it really didn't matter if he held the key or not. It didn't matter if they were there in front of him. Even if they were gone, he wouldn't go stumbling back into his cage. Remembering their strong belief in him, he couldn't even shut himself back in.
The door was permanently open.
Just when he thought he might be okay, though, troubling thoughts tried to interrupt him again.
Akira clenched his jaw and turned away.
It was just...
He knew that he had many excuses for why he felt the way he did, but there was one truth greater than any excuse he tried to fool himself with. When the road before him became clearer, the only sight he saw was that of Yusuke's back, walking away.
“Morgana...” He didn't want to turn around and show Morgana the pathetic look on his leader's face. “I'm going to miss him.”
“Who? That goofball?” When he didn't get a response back, Morgana took a moment, weighing the atmosphere. “Yeah...” he muttered softly. “I know what you mean. Things feel different when he's around, don't they?”
Akira just nodded, remaining facing the other way.
Before he met Yusuke, he probably wouldn't have even been able to say that out loud, that he'd miss someone. In that respect, Akira didn't know if that made him stronger or weaker than he used to be. He certainly felt more one way than the other when he thought about it for more than five seconds.
If it only took him five seconds to sink back into depressing thoughts, he didn't want to imagine what years without Yusuke would be like. He'd already held his breath for one year. He was suffocating.
Would he really be alright if he let him go...?
A part of him still felt like he'd really regret it.
“I guess whatever happens, happens,” Akira said, leaning back on the same old thing he used to tell himself. It worked for him in the past. He hoped it would work again.
Suddenly, he heard his mother's voice calling for him.
“Akira! Someone's here to see you?”
He turned back around toward Morgana. “She sounded confused...”
“Must be Yusuke.”
Whatever happened, that day was going to be important. Akira dreaded finding out where it was going to go, but he also couldn't keep standing in one place. Already, he felt like his limited time with Yusuke was ticking away. He needed to hurry up.
So he got dressed as quickly as he could, trying not to be too indecisive about what he chose to wear. Once his feet were at his bedroom door, he faltered and doubled back for his phone. Despite how much time he thought he spent sulking, the battery was still in the red, so he had no choice but to groan and leave it where it was.
He went to the front door hastily with Morgana following closely behind. When he got there, his mother turned around and... was smiling.
And Yusuke was there, too, also smiling.
...Whatever he did, he must have charmed her.
That was good. He was afraid that Yusuke might do something to freak out his parents. Akira totally understood him, but he knew that other people often didn't, and his parents could be a little... narrow-minded in some aspects. He figured that their influence was part of the reason why it took him a while to warm up to Yusuke's eccentricity in the beginning.
“Uh- Mom, this is-”
“Oh, don't worry. He already introduced himself,” she said. As she turned to leave them, she placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a look that Akira read as proud. “Why didn't you tell me you were friends with an artist?”
...She was impressed?
“Wait, didn't I tell you?” Akira gestured over his shoulder, toward his room. “He's the one who painted the painting in my room.”
Her eyes widened. “If you two are the same age... You couldn't have been older than sixteen when that was painted! I think I need to go have another look at that painting.”
As she hustled away to go admire it, Morgana stepped in to take her place beside Akira at the door.
“Good to see you again, Yusuke. You're looking well.”
“Ah. Thank you, Morgana. It's good to see you as well.”
He really did look like he was doing well. Even if it were just a momentary thought, Akira felt terrible for feeling bitter. He knew that Yusuke had to be capable of taking care of himself, but Akira liked taking care of him. Seeing that he was well made him feel kind of... unnecessary.
Yusuke's expression became a little concerned-looking as he raised his chin and looked at him.
Akira opened his mouth and struggled to find the words to greet him with. Instead, there was just an apology. “Uh... I'm sorry for not answering you back last night. I fell asleep with my phone in my hand. The battery ran down, so...”
Yusuke's eyes widened slightly, looking surprised. “Really? Was that all?”
“Y-yeah. Sorry about that. It's still dead,” Akira said, patting his empty pockets to prove it.
Clutching the bottom of his shirt, Yusuke shut his eyes and let out a long sigh. “Thank goodness...”
Morgana sat down and scratched at his side with one of his hind legs. “What's with you? Were you afraid that Akira was ignoring you?”
Unclenching his fists, Yusuke straightened his clothes and glanced back up nervously. “Yes. After I received no answer, I tried to explain myself. I was awake almost all night awaiting a reply...”
“All night?!” Morgana yelped.
Oh jeez... “Now I'm really sorry about that,” Akira muttered. He was amazed that Yusuke was able to look so refreshed after a night of no sleep. He must've had something motivating him. “Do you want to come in and sit down?”
“Actually...” His voice was quiet. Leaning to the side, Yusuke looked around him into the house, probably checking to see if Akira's mom was anywhere within earshot. “I was thinking that we should go somewhere where we can talk privately. It's a nice day. Perhaps we could go for a walk.”
Akira looked down. Morgana looked up at him.
With a nod, Morgana got up and began heading back. “I'll keep an eye on your mom and make sure she doesn't faint over Yusuke's art. Looks like he's got himself a new fan.”
He was going to feel lost without Morgana there, but it was alright.
“Okay. I'm trusting you, Morgana. See you in a bit.”
There weren't many places for them to go. Akira's hometown was scenic, but it was all right there. There weren't many places where they could go to be alone. There weren't any crowds for their voices to get lost in. They weren't just two in a number. The place where he lived felt both spacious and yet too small; a place that held many secrets and also laid them all bare for those who knew where to look.
That might've been why he grew up and became so quiet.
He didn't feel confident speaking there. His voice sounded the same as it did in Tokyo, but it echoed off the houses and apartment complexes and returned to his ears to give him the opportunity to doubt himself. Had he stayed there, he probably would have never noticed, but he found himself actively thinking about it while Yusuke was next to him.
Yet still, even being aware of the difference between himself as he was and the person he used to be, Akira found it hard to say anything.
His words remained sealed away as he and Yusuke walked the road that led away from his house. It didn't take very long before they reached the ridge that overlooked the nearby bay. It was a sight he saw nearly every day, but it somehow felt nostalgic after the time he spent away, like it wasn't his sight anymore. As brightly as the water in the distance sparkled, it didn't comfort him the way it used to.
His feet slowed and Yusuke came to a stop a moment after him and looked back.
“Here should be fine,” Akira said, gesturing to the low wall along the sidewalk.
Yusuke looked up and absently turned in a circle, investigating their surroundings. “This is nice. The way the sakura trees cast their shade over the sidewalk... The luster of their petals, their delicate fragrance, the sparkling sunlight upon the waves at the horizon... Mn. A truly magnificent view, though perhaps too difficult to capture from one perspective...”
Was he looking for a place to talk or was he looking for something to draw...?
Akira rubbed the back of his neck. It wasn't that warm, but he felt like he was sweating. “Wasn't there something you wanted to tell me?”
“Ah.” A certain look crossed Yusuke's face, but Akira had trouble discerning its nature. While Akira took a seat along the concrete wall, Yusuke remained standing in front of him. He linked his hands behind his back and lowered his gaze. “Yes. I'm not very good at delivering news. As it turns out, I received acceptance letters from every school I sent an application to.”
Though, saying that, he didn't look as happy as he should've.
“Wow. Congratulations. I'm happy for you.” Akira cursed himself for how badly he failed to sound genuine, but he was glad to have gotten it out without adding anything unnecessary.
“A-ah. Thank you.”
“Then... I guess this is it.”
Yusuke finally took his eyes off the ground and looked up at him, seeming confused. “Hm? What's what?”
It was kind of cruel if he was really going to make him say it, but there didn't seem to be any avoiding it.
“This is... goodbye.”
“Goodbye? Akira-... Do you not understand why I came to see you?” Giving a shaky laugh, Yusuke moved himself closer to him. The nervousness Akira thought he saw in him was disappearing. “I suppose you wouldn't understand if you hadn't seen the rest of my messages. Then, I should explain.”
Akira had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently his own irresponsibility was to blame for their misunderstanding, but, from where he was sitting, he couldn't see how it was supposed to be a misunderstanding at all. If Yusuke had been accepted to all of those schools he applied for, then surely he'd be leaving eventually. Whether or not he came to say goodbye, Akira was prepared to see him walk away in the end.
He didn't want that, though. So he sat there, back straight, and listened, hoping to hear something that could put that fear to rest.
Becoming more comfortable, Yusuke started to explain. “Right now, I'm staying with Kawanabe Akiko, the director of the Japanese Art Support Foundation. I'm sure you remember him. After graduating, I had no place to go, but I remembered his offer and contacted him.”
“Didn't he want to become your patron?” Akira asked.
“Something like that, yes... Before, I wanted to do everything my own way. I thought that it would be terrible if I relied on someone else. However, as I was preparing my applications, I realized something. By choosing a college, I'd be doing the same thing. All of them sent back letters that tried their best to win my favor. The reason for their flattering words was not ambiguous to me, especially when my money was not their interest. It became apparent to me that my skill as a young artist was seen by them as a trophy. Teaching me was not their principle concern.”
“How does Kawanabe play into this?”
“As a man of the industry who was also familiar with my concerns, his opinion was invaluable to me. I wanted him to tell me if my skill was sufficient as it is. When it came to technique, I felt like a school might have nothing left to teach me.”
“And he agreed with me,” Yusuke said. “For the kind of person I am, he believed that coursework would only be stifling.”
“So then, what did you do about the acceptance letters?”
“I rejected them.”
That hadn't been what Akira had expected at all.
After the way Yusuke had worked so hard to assemble his portfolio, he thought for sure that Yusuke was serious about attending college. The thought of anything else hadn't even crossed his mind.
Just like him, there must have been some complicated things on Yusuke's mind that he hadn't been able to put into words at the time. While he was working hard, he must have also been asking himself what it was all for.
“After talking more with Kawanabe-san, he helped me understand the path I should take,” Yusuke said. With confidence restored, he took a seat next to Akira and showed him a smile. “Akira, it's because of you. The only way I had been able to move past my slump and improve was by examining myself and the people around me. If I want to get better and create more heartfelt works, then I can't let myself be held down by an institution. I have to go out and see the world. That is what I wish to paint.”
Although his heart wanted to be hopeful, Akira tried to keep himself from getting excited before he had all the facts. He was still skeptical. “If you want to see different places, then doesn't that still mean that you'll be leaving?”
“Actually, after my talk with the director, he suggested that I take you with me.”
Akira's heart leapt to his throat in surprise. “Me? Why would he say that?”
“Perhaps because he realized how important you are to me.” With his cheeks turning a light pink shade, Yusuke delicately brushed his hair away from his face and tucked it behind his ear. “I've spoken fondly of you, and you were always there by my side during my slump, so he witnessed your commitment. If it's alright with your family, I'd like for you to accompany me.”
“Wait. Where? And how?”
Akira had a lot of questions. While this turn of events was exciting, it was a bit too much to swallow all at once. Meanwhile, as usual, Yusuke was acting like the outrageous things that came out of his mouth were totally obvious.
“Kawanabe-san has agreed to fund my travel expenses - yours as well, should you agree to accompany me. As for where... I was hoping you would decide. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm imposing. This is your decision. It's just, after you told me about how you had no plans of your own, I thought...” He paused suddenly, then waved his hands around in front of himself apologetically. “B-but if my assumption was incorrect, then-”
He needed to stop him. And thankfully, Yusuke did stop.
Akira leaned in and put his arms around Yusuke's shoulders before he could say anything else.
Pressing his nose to Yusuke's shoulder, Akira took in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. He felt tired, as if he'd been running away from the common sense that would've made all of his worries look irrational.
“I missed you.”
After a moment, Yusuke recovered and tightly wrapped his arms around Akira's waist. “Thank you, Akira.”
He was at it again.
Yusuke didn't need to thank him for things like that... But the greedy part of Akira that loved to be treated with importance gratefully ate it up.
“Alright. I'll help you out again. Although, it's kind of funny. I feel like you're the one who's helping me this time.” Akira parted from him and sat up with his hands in his lap. “I've been thinking lately – about a lot of things. Last night, after I read your message, I got the impression that you were coming to say goodbye, so it was all I could think about. I... didn't know what to do. I was thinking about stopping you.”
“That sounds like you.”
“Really? I'm not sure that's a good thing, and I don't know how I feel about somebody pointing it out,” he said, laughing uncertainly.
“As a thief, it's in your nature to horde treasure.”
“Are you calling yourself a treasure,” Akira asked rhetorically. He knew that Yusuke was just trying to sass him. “Well. It's not like you're wrong. You're one of my most precious treasures, Yusuke.”
Lips pressed together tightly, Yusuke looked at him with nervous eyes that skirted here and there. It looked like he was trying to contain his happiness. Holding in that much emotion was making his eyes glisten a little. Akira wanted to tell him that he could say what was on his mind, but he enjoyed that look too much to make a comment.
Instead of saying anything, Yusuke scooted closer, hesitantly stopping halfway, leaving some space between them. Knowing how badly he probably wanted to close the distance, sharing that feeling himself, Akira moved over the rest of the way, pressing himself up against him, shoulder-to-shoulder. For good measure, Akira took his hand from his lap and placed it over Yusuke's.
When they were sitting that close... It was difficult not to kiss.
They were in public on a narrow street where anyone could see them, but neither of them felt particularly concerned by that when their lips met.
Breathing in the delicate fragrance of the sakura trees that surrounded them, feeling the warmth of Yusuke's breath against his lips, Akira got the feeling that he would never forget that moment. It was a picture he was going to treasure forever, probably.
When he pulled away, he looked at Yusuke with a light smile, feeling like some of the balance had been restored. Yusuke bashfully returned his smile. He was always so nervous and modest when it came to his feelings – feelings of love – and it was something Akira loved about him. He was kind of perfect just the way he was – as off-center and weird and whimsical as he was. Akira remembered hearing once that the best art was the kind that was allowed to be messy and show its mistakes, and that charming little piece of wisdom seemed to be just the thing to describe what he and Yusuke had.
There was great authenticity in a moment like that...
“I knew I should have brought a sketchbook,” Yusuke mumbled to himself, looking disappointed in himself. In the next second, his face suddenly brightened. His hands went to the bag he had tucked under his arm and he quickly unzipped it. He pulled something out and extended it to Akira. “I almost forgot. I brought you a gift. However you answered, I planned on giving this to you.”
Akira gave it a look and raised an eyebrow curiously. “What do you mean? Isn't that a sketchbook?” Since Yusuke looked so insistent, though, Akira accepted it from him. Setting it in his lap, he put his thumb along the pages and quickly flipped through them, expecting it to be blank. “Wait-” But it wasn't blank. “Wait, you can't give me this. Don't you need this? It's filled with drawings. I can't take something like this, can I?”
“It's alright,” Yusuke assured him. “I have so many sketchbooks – stacks of them. Once I'm finished with one, I rarely go back to look at it again. The ideas keep flowing, so I don't even have the time. Once one is finished, it's served its purpose for me. I know that some other artists sell their sketchbooks, and... It might be in my interest to sell my own, but I'm too sentimental. Even though I don't look at them, I'd find it too difficult to part with them.”
“But you're okay with giving one to me?” Akira asked.
“Well, it's you. Giving it you, I feel like I'll be able to see it again if I want to.”
But Yusuke was okay with giving it to him, no matter how he answered him... Akira could have turned him down. The implication there made Akira's heart ache. It made him feel foolish all over again.
Yusuke's smile softened. “This sketchbook... I found it while I was cleaning out my dorm room. It fell off a stack and opened to a certain page. It was like a sign. As soon as I remembered what was in this sketchbook, I knew that it belonged in your hands.”
A certain page...?
“I dog-eared that page,” Yusuke said.
Akira ran his index finger over the tops of the pages and found the one he was talking about. Unsure of what to expect, he flipped it open. What he saw on that page made his heart stop for a moment.
Drawn in pencil, imbued with life in Yusuke's graceful, gestural style, was Arsene.
Just when he was afraid of forgetting what he looked like...
“Do you not like it...?” Yusuke sounded anxious, misinterpreting his reaction.
Akira shook his head and rubbed at his eyes. If he wasn't careful, he was going to end up getting the pages wet. It caught him off guard. The picture made Arsene look exactly like Akira remembered, but he was sure that if he'd tried putting a pencil to paper, he wouldn't have been able to draw him as perfectly as Yusuke had.
“Thank you, Yusuke. This is exactly what I needed.”
“There's more, you know.” Yusuke leaned over him and flipped it to the next page, a drawing of his own Persona, the gallant Goemon. “This whole sketchbook is filled with drawings I made in the Metaverse. There's a bit of everything.”
He wasn't kidding. As Akira continued to turn the pages for himself, he found drawings of their friends' Personas, some of his own other Personas, Shadows, the mysterious atmosphere of Mementos and the Palaces, drawings of him and the other Phantom Thieves in their costumes... It was all there. It was like a hand-drawn album of all of his memories of the Metaverse.
“Thank you... Yusuke...” Akira held his palm to his eyes and breathed in to hold himself together. “Last night, I was thinking about how frightening it is, graduating. I was worried that all the things we told each other might've just been words. 'We'll always be together'? 'We won't forget each other'? It felt hard to believe in naïve words like those when I was watching everyone moving along... I was even afraid that I would start to forget the things inside of me, like Arsene and Satanael.” Carefully, he closed the sketchbook and held it against his chest. “I thought I was going to have to start all over again at level one.”
Looking out at the sky beyond the ridge, Yusuke crossed one leg over the other and put his hands on his knee.
“I was thinking about that, myself,” he said. “After I had all of my things packed away, I stood in the middle of my empty dorm room and looked around at the white walls. Whenever I headed next, I knew I'd encounter more empty walls... However, as I was standing there, I realized something. As barren as that room appeared to my eyes, it wasn't empty. Because I was there, it was filled with my presence, my thoughts and feelings. Even with everything else packed away, I was still carrying my own experiences. When I first stepped into Kawanabe-san's guest room, I smiled to myself and thought about the life I brought to that empty room just by being there.”
Letting go of another breath, Akira let his shoulders relax. He felt tired. And kind of stupid. “Hey... Yusuke. Can you stay with me? Like, forever?”
“H-hm?!” Yusuke turned to him with wide, startled eyes. “Wh-wh-wh-what's this about, now? F-forever? A-A-Akira, is this... A-are you...?”
“Don't get ahead of yourself.” Did he think he was proposing? It was still too soon for that. They were too young. “I just need you. That's all. I think I was blowing things out of proportion in my head because I couldn't admit something that simple to myself.”
“Simple, you say...?” His voice became quieter as his words trailed off, then he leaned closer, a smile on his lips, warmth in his cheeks. “Well, it means the world to hear you say those simple words to me.”
Laughing, Akira lifted a hand and placed it on top of Yusuke's head, gently petting his head. He seemed to like it. It reminded him of Futaba...
Realizing that Yusuke enjoyed hearing the things he thought about him, Akira felt encouraged to try saying more.
“You make me happy, Yusuke, and... And I feel like something's missing when you aren't around. You're not like anyone else, but... that's... what makes you so special. I didn't know a thing about art before I met you, but now I see it everywhere because of you. I know how you are, so you probably think I'm exaggerating, but I mean it. After all this time, I think I'd feel disappointed in myself if I didn't tell you how important you are to me.”
Yusuke's brows came together and his lips quivered. If he hadn't been on the verge of tears before, then he definitely was that time. Even when he didn't say anything, he was so honest with his feelings. He couldn't hide them.
Akira laughed gently and reached up again to give Yusuke's head another pat. “Hey, don't cry.”
“M-my apologies. It's just...” He looked away, face red. He leaned into Akira's touch and looked up at him from below his lashes, his voice soft with tender emotion. “No one's ever been so kind to me.”
“Come on. That's only natural. I mean, I'm still your boyfriend... Aren't I?” Even if he knew the answer, that question Morgana planted in his head made him feel nervous.
“Of course.” Yusuke leaned in more. Closing his eyes, he pressed his forehead against Akira's and grasped his hand. “I love you, Akira.”
At its strongest, love could be kind of painful. As he'd been searching for something to blame for his uneasy feelings, Akira had totally overlooked the pain he'd been putting himself through to protect the thing he cared about most. Being separated from Yusuke would have been painful for the simplest reason – because he loved him. It was a relief to know that Yusuke had the same thought on his mind. Even if he planned to go out and see the world to broaden his canvas, he couldn't leave without looking back first.
It almost felt too convenient, but Akira wasn't going to question Yusuke's decision. He was glad that Yusuke had found the confidence to ask him.
Akira supposed he had himself to thank for that. He couldn't discredit the ways he'd helped Yusuke grow, the same as how Yusuke had helped him.
Tucking the sketchbook under his arm, Akira stood. He used the hand in Yusuke's to pull him up to his feet with him. He didn't know what he planned on doing, but he didn't feel like sitting still anymore. His legs felt anxious to move. There were places for them to be, and he wanted to start out right away.
Lifting a hand, Akira ran a finger over his bottom lip in thought as he looked down the street toward the bend where the road dipped and disappeared around the corner. His hand was still there in Yusuke's. His palm felt warm... It was something impossible to ignore, interrupting all of Akira's other thoughts. They weren't far from his house and there was a chance of being seen by people who recognized him, but his fear of consequences was gone.
He was free.
Somehow, that fact had managed to escape him while he'd been wallowing in his self-indulgent melancholy.
“You know...” He rubbed his chin and turned his head to look at Yusuke. “On my last day in Tokyo, Sojiro said that he'd be waiting for me to come back so he could serve me another cup of coffee. Pretty sure it was about more than just a cup of coffee...”
“Of course. He and Futaba are always talking about you. They can't wait to see you again.”
“That's-” That wasn't what he meant, but that was really touching. “No, like, I think he wants me to be the one who takes over Leblanc. I could tell. Once he realized how much I liked his coffee and his curry, he started getting more serious about teaching me about the shop. I mean...” Akira toed at the ground with the front of his shoe. “He was right. Whenever I thought about what I'd be doing career-wise, I kept drawing a blank. There isn't anything I feel like I have a passion for... But I like people. And I do like Leblanc's coffee and curry...”
“You'd be willing to take over the shop?”
Akira gave a slow nod, feeling more confident about it after talking about the idea out loud. “Some of my best memories were made there.”
Yusuke squeezed his hand. “I can paint anywhere. If that's where you want to be, then I'd be glad to join you,” he said. “That also happens to be where the Sayuri resides. How fitting it would be for me to also remain attached to that place.”
Finally, a picture of the future was taking shape in Akira's mind; one where he was with Yusuke in the place where they met, living out the kind of charmingly ordinary days he enjoyed most. A life like that was his favorite. It seemed mundane and uneventful in its averageness, but he'd lived through enough of those days to feel like an expert who could point out all of their subtle differences.
He didn't want to aim big.
That kind of future was special enough to him. If he could be happy, then he'd be able to consider his life a success. His precious days there with Sojiro and Futaba had taught him how to rebel quietly.
After a moment, Yusuke acquired a contemplative expression. “Do you think it would be safe for you there, though? There are a lot of people with a grudge against you.”
“They can try me,” Akira said, grinning. “If they come for me, I'll give 'em hell.”
Yusuke laughed. “That's the spirit, leader!”
Giving Yusuke's hand a squeeze, Akira started to walk, wandering farther down that road, looking out over the water in the distance that sparkled with the brightness of the afternoon sun. The air felt clearer. His step felt lighter. Yusuke's warmth was still in his hand. All of their memories were there, too, tucked under his arm.
Akira didn't have a word for the way he felt, but he knew that he probably hadn't felt that way since he last parted with everyone. It made his chest ache in a pleasant way.
“That's right,” he said, smiling to himself, his feet gliding over the smooth pavement. “I'm Joker, infamous leader of the notorious Phantom Thieves.”
It felt like he'd successfully stolen back his own heart.
“And I'm...!” Yusuke stopped himself, reconsidering. It wouldn't have been wise for him to loudly proclaim his affiliation to the Phantom Thieves. So, instead, he lowered his voice. “Fox.”
He sounded like a little kid excitedly playing hero. Akira was happy to see that he still had his enthusiasm for the team.
They walked for a while longer and eventually came to a stop at the side of the road. They reached the end of the houses, and if they kept going, they were going to end up at the water. Since he was still holding Yusuke's hand somehow, Akira got the irrational urge to just keep going, to leave all of his things behind and go wherever they wanted to go.
...But it would've been rude of him to forget about Morgana like that.
“When shall we go?” Yusuke asked.
“Whenever. You said you wanted my parents' permission, though.”
Apparently Yusuke had forgotten. “Oh... Yes. That would be nice. I want them to think of me favorably.”
“H-hold on.” Akira finally let go of his hand so he could spin around and look at him head-on. “You're making this sound like... It's like you plan on asking them for permission to marry me. That's not the same, you know.”
Yusuke looked like he was thinking about it too seriously. “Hm. Yes. Well, I do want to do things the proper way.”
“It's not the same! Don't ask them. We're just going to tell them.”
“Already?” He looked shocked.
Akira squinted. He got the feeling that Yusuke had interpreted his words in his own way again. “...Wait, no, not that! We're going to tell them where we're going. We don't need their permission for that.”
“Is there something wrong with telling them that we're involved?”
“Th-that's not the matter at hand here!” His face felt hot. Akira knew he had to be blushing. “We'll tell them about that eventually. For now, I'm going to follow you and help you with your art. I'll study the local food and coffee where I can. By the time we make it back... I think I'll be ready then.”
He wasn't putting it into words, but...
He was serious about marrying him, wasn't he?
“Very well, then,” Yusuke said, appearing to be satisfied with that.
Like unexpectedly being hit by the sunlight, the way Yusuke was looking at him made Akira want to look away. The affection he saw on his face was too strong. Just by looking at him, he could see everything Yusuke felt and could hear everything Yusuke wanted to say.
“Akira... I think you've given me more than you know. Wherever we go, I promise to do the same for you. When we return, I hope to see you still smiling. If I can be the one who put it there... Then maybe there won't be a need for me to paint it.”
As embarrassing as it was, Akira felt grateful to hear him say that. He didn't doubt Yusuke's sincerity, but his own heart was always wavering anxiously with uncertainty. It helped, being able to hear his feelings so clearly. Those words and their honesty shot through him, going deep, making him imagine a future where Yusuke's proudest work was that of the smile he put on his face.
Akira almost didn't feel worthy.
But it was being offered to him, right there, with a palm facing the sky.
Akira put his hand back in Yusuke's.
“Let's go to Nikko,” he said.
Yusuke tilted his head, brows together.
“You want to stay in Japan?”
“Start small, Yusuke.” He didn't want Kawanabe to think that Yusuke was being irresponsible with his funding by choosing to immediately head halfway across the globe. If Yusuke wanted to see a lot, then it was going to be wiser for them to work their way slowly from one location to another.
There was no better place than a place close to home. Nikko couldn't have been more than two hours away from where Yusuke was staying.
“Nikko...” After a moment's thought, he didn't seem to find it so disagreeable. “Hm. Seeing that Japanese art is my area of expertise, Nikko's traditional aesthetics may indeed make it a fine place for me to start. I've heard that the scenery is especially beautiful on rainy days, so now would be the perfect time. Hm... Yes, that would be very romantic.”
“It's not supposed to be a date.”
“Hm? A... A date...? Would you like to make it a date?”
“Th-that's not what I said!” Trying to regain his composure, Akira turned his head and cleared his throat. “But that might not be so bad – between our studying...”
His gaze fell to his hand in Yusuke's.
Unpleasant memories resurfaced from the back of Akira's mind, but they appeared just to remind him that as quickly as things could take a turn for the worse, they could be changed for the better.
He was the one who had that power. The key was in his hand.
He didn't know where he and Yusuke would find themselves in the future, and he didn't know to how far that future extended, but that was... Alright. It would be fine – because they were together, with the power they gave to each other. That was enough to carry them.
By the time he returned to his small hometown – by the time he saw that scenery again – Akira wondered if he would find it even more nostalgic. The thought of leaving behind the comfortable, familiar things of the past didn't seem like something frightening to him as long as he held on to the one familiar warmth that would turn the unseen future into his new home.
He'd already seen what it could do.
It was strong.
He just had to believe in it and keep trusting.
“Let's go,” he said. “Morgana's probably wondering how we're doing, and I bet my mom is going to have a lot of questions about your art that only you can answer.”
“Yes, let's go,” Yusuke said.
With the sun over their shoulders, with petals floating through the air, together, they made their way back.