Just like that, five years had somehow gone by.
Yusuke found himself pondering the thought in a moment between brushstrokes, when his hand halted, stopped by the invisible weight of a feeling pressing down upon his heart. His head turned toward the window as if heeding the beckoning of the warm late spring breeze, but he only looked without seeing, his attention still trapped behind him on the canvas. As the breeze mixed together the attic's scent of paint with the shop's familiar fragrance of coffee, that vague feeling materialized into something melancholic.
He loved painting.
Once, he was afraid that the love of painting would leave him. He feared that the hands taught by a fake would only be able to produce their own fakeries. He thought that the pure works he was able to create when he was young were far beyond his capability, even the memory of them tainted by the realities of the life of an artist.
But Akira showed him how to love painting again.
Thanks to Akira, he realized that the love of painting had never left him – and it probably never would. He was encouraged, but such a realization also left him feeling vulnerable. At the time, he hadn't been able to understand why.
It took a while. It came to him gradually.
In five years, there wasn't a painting he hadn't shed a tear over.
With each work, he uncovered something about himself. As his ability grew, he only became more vulnerable, peeling himself open bit by bit until every corner of his self was exposed.
Director Kawanabe, having become his new mentor, had once told him that a slump was just a period of metamorphosis. Those momentary feelings of worthlessness, of regret, and frustration... That dissatisfaction was the beginning of a change. Though Yusuke never again experienced a slump as profound as the first, what stood in his way felt frighteningly familiar.
He loved painting...
But tears alone weren't enough to support a living.
While Akira tended to the shop below, Yusuke used the attic for his painting. It was just as comforting there as it had been when it was still Akira's bedroom, but it also harshly reminded Yusuke of how many years he'd spent without making a meaningful contribution towards Akira's kindness. Usually, all he could provide him with was his presence.
He never thought there would be a day when he would have to consider whether he should use his own hands to severe love from painting.
He didn't want to show his face around Akira while he was thinking about such a thing. Even the thought of it seemed disrespectful when he considered how long Akira had been eagerly supporting him. It course ran counter to all of Akira's efforts. Akira loved his work so much, he'd been willing to let him stay by his side for that long without asking for anything in return. Still, Yusuke sensed the unspoken expectation of recompense.
That feeling of insufficiency intensified after he received a certain phone call.
It was from Kawanabe's gallery.
They said there was someone interested in his three-part work, Longing.
It was a strange piece. It was self-indulgent. To hear that there was someone who was interested in it, at first, Yusuke didn't know what to think. However, when the gallery coordinator described the potential buyer as a 'former fan of Madarame Ichiryusai', he immediately became suspicious.
The first painting was of Madarame's old shack. After it sat abandoned for a few years, the building was demolished. A new house went up in its place. A family moved in. A couple times, Yusuke went past and imagined the building that used to be in the plot where that new, happy home stood. It gave him an odd, unsettling feeling that wasn't too different from how it was when he used to think about the Shadows of Mementos roaming around the station's underground.
That place didn't exist anymore... But it was an inseparable part of him. In a way, it still existed inside of him.
When he put his brush to the canvas, he painted it as he remembered it, having not even a reference to work from. It was possible that it differed from the way it had appeared in reality, but he felt that the only way to capture its true image anyway was through his cognition of it.
Despite the tearful memories that were made within its grey walls, the sky he painted above its roof was a bright blue.
The second painting was of the train station. Even though he spent so much time there, there was a time when he felt somewhat wary of it. He went there to people-watch, but he found it difficult to draw them. He couldn't tell what they were thinking. The expressions on their faces weren't enough. After visiting Mementos, seeing the station overflowing with Shadows that belonged to the people on the surface, he became determined to understand them.
He wanted to understand himself.
Akira always came to find him there. Traveling along the dark tracks wasn't so bad when he had Akira's back in front of him to guide him. He showed him where he could find the light.
The third and final painting was of Yongen-jaya. Yusuke filled it with all of the warmth and happiness he'd found there. That picture could have been of anything as long as it conveyed that precious feeling; the hope found when gazing toward the future. When other people looked at it, he wanted its humble image to fill them with a sense of peace and comfort. If it inspired them to visit Yongen-jaya to search out that feeling for themselves, he would've felt successful.
It was a personal journey, but it was an incomplete picture. The journey didn't end there. The feeling of insufficiency inside of him was proof that there was still more he had yet to grasp.
So he named it Longing.
He never expected anyone to buy the paintings. He allowed the gallery to display them because he simply wanted them to be seen. Even though it was his story, he hoped that there would still be others out there who would see it and connect with it in their own way. After all, at its core, it was a simple story. It was easy enough to understand at a glance. Even though he often felt like just one small person, there had to be hundreds of others charting a similar course for themselves every day.
A past filled with bittersweet memories. The signpost between. The light upon the future's horizon.
There was someone who wanted to buy those memories...
In his heart, Yusuke already rejected the sale. The buyer's motives concerned him. If they figured out who he was, then there was a chance they were only interested in him for his sensational connection to Madarame. The paintings weren't what they cared about...
Although he wished for that to be the end of the matter, he felt it wouldn't be right to respond to their interest without speaking to Akira about it first.
For the longest time, Yusuke wanted to avoid letting his past influence his reception in the art world, but... There might've been no other choice.
He needed money.
Slowly, he'd been making a name for himself, but he had yet to achieve widespread notoriety. If using his story was what it would take to finally garner the kind of attention necessary to earn a living, then...
Then it was about time he finally swallowed his pride. Nobody cared about his ideas or his philosophies. They just wanted his story. It wasn't like he couldn't find ways to express himself while producing the kind of work that other people wanted to see... It would be like a personal challenge.
He could endure it. Just for a while, if he had to. Long enough.
Setting aside his work for the moment, Yusuke decided to head down into the shop.
Ann was visiting, enjoying a rare break from her busy modeling career. Futaba was there, too, as she frequently was. Yusuke would have liked to join them sooner had he not been so absorbed in the piece he was working on.
Having them there was going to be helpful. From where he was standing, there only seemed to be one option for him to take, so he wanted to hear their perspectives, hoping that they'd be able to look at it from an angle he was incapable of.
Knowing Akira, he'd tell him to follow his heart. There wasn't anything wrong with that kind of answer... It was just, with the state his heart was in, lamenting a decision he'd been desperately trying to avoid making, Yusuke wasn't sure his heart was even worth consulting.
Just thinking about all the time he'd wasted on his own self-important ideas made Yusuke feel sick. He couldn't fathom why Akira hadn't said anything. He was always so kind and supportive of his endeavors, it didn't make any sense. Yusuke was anticipating the day when Akira would finally look him in the eye and tell him that it was time to face reality. He knew that had to be what he was thinking. Akira must have just been too nice to come out and say it.
Down in the shop, all eyes were on him before he even reached the bottom step. Ann sat up in her booth seat and excitedly greeted him. Futaba was used to seeing him all the time, so she just raised a hand in a silent 'hello' without taking her attention away from her laptop.
Akira served a cup of coffee to a customer at the counter, then came around to join them.
The scene didn't quite feel complete without Morgana, but he was at home with Sojiro. He and Futaba usually traded positions.
“Whoa, look at you,” Ann said, looking him over from head to toe. “It hasn't been that long since I saw you, so how the heck did your hair grow that fast? It's unexpected, but it looks good.”
She was referring to the ponytail he had hanging over his shoulder. As the whole of his focus was devoted to painting, before he knew it, his hair had gotten so long that he needed to tie it back to keep it from getting in the way. It wasn't a conscious fashion decision.
Akira stood across from their booth and leaned back against the counter. “It does look good, doesn't it? A few of our more astute customers have even pointed out that he resembles the woman in the painting by the door. He's almost always upstairs, though, so he's become something of a local legend; the handsome, reclusive artist in the attic. He's actually great for business. Kids stop by here all the time now hoping to get a picture of him to prove that he exists.”
“You're joking,” Yusuke said, folding his arms across his chest. There was no way he'd believe an absurd story like that.
“I'm not,” Akira laughed. “Hang out with us for long enough and you'll see what I mean. At least now the kids know that they have to order something if they want to stay.”
Blindly reaching for her cup of coffee, Futaba's fingers searched the surface of the table before finding their target. With an embarrassed grumble, she finally took her eyes off her laptop screen and turned around toward Yusuke as she lifted the cup to her lips. “So?” she mumbled. “What brought you down from your roost?”
“Roost? I'm not a bird.”
“My bad. Inari's a fox.”
“I'm not-” Yusuke closed his eyes with a sigh. It was still impossible to win against her.
Still, he would've preferred that sort of banter over explaining what he came down for. In the time it took for him to make it down the stairs, he'd practically made up his mind, anyway. As much as it pained him, he needed to accept it.
Quickly adopting a concerned expression, Akira straightened up and moved forward to inspect him. “Yusuke? You alright?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes. I suppose I have good news.”
Futaba quirked an eyebrow. “You sure? You don't look too happy.”
“The gallery called my cellphone. They said that there's someone who's interested in purchasing Longing.”
“What's that?” Ann asked.
Akira's eyes lit up with recognition. “Oh, I think I remember.” He took a moment, trying to recall it. “Didn't you make that one ages ago? If I'm remembering correctly, that was the one that was made up of three paintings: Madarame's shack, the station, and Yongen-jaya. They were great paintings. I remember how reluctant you were to part with them. I could tell how important they were to you, but... I guess I can understand why it also would've taken them this long to find a home.”
Yusuke nodded again. “That's true. They were probably too personal to be considered broadly relatable. Unfortunately, I'm unsurprised by who's interested. The gallery described the potential buyer as a former fan of Madarame. He probably saw the first painting of the shack and figured out that I must be one of Madarame's former pupils. They said that he wishes to speak with me before purchasing the piece. Apparently he wants to buy it so he can donate it to the Shoto Museum of Art. I have some suspicions regarding his motivations...”
“Ah, I see,” Futaba said, wagging a finger. “You think he's trying to use the story of you and your old teacher.” Her face fell as she realized what that meant. “Crap, you didn't want to let that happen, did you? Something about 'artistic integrity' or whatever... Are you gonna turn him down?”
“I... don't think I should.” Yusuke held his arms close to himself and stared down at one of the cracks in the floor between his feet. “That piece has been there for a very long time. It's just taking up space at this point. I thought for sure they would have tried returning it to me.”
Akira's eyes narrowed, fixed on Yusuke. “I don't think you should let that affect your judgment. If selling your work to this person goes against what you believe in, then you should definitely turn him down. Why are you so willing to compromise all of a sudden?”
Yusuke opened his mouth, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. Admitting it to himself was painful enough. Putting it into words for them would have been worse. Inside, he fought to find an easier way to explain his conflicting feelings, but nothing felt adequate. Even though he recognized the reality of his situation, he had the feeling that his reasoning would come out sounding like an excuse.
He just wanted to give back. He didn't want to give up.
“Uh... Inari doesn't look so hot.” Futaba pushed her laptop over and she moved farther back to make room for him at the end of the booth. “Here, sit.”
Letting out an exhausted sigh, Yusuke took the offered seat. He sunk down heavily and rested his arms on the table.
“Is it really that sudden?” he wondered aloud. “Making art to make money... There isn't anything wrong with that, is there?”
“Of course there isn't,” Akira said as he moved closer to the table, “but this seems different. You weren't seeking recognition when you created that piece. I understand your hesitation to sell your work to an ex-fan of Madarame, but what's this about money?”
Yusuke didn't want to admit how heavily his decision was being swayed by his desire to repay him. He'd already made it obvious, though. Akira could tell that his heart wasn't in it. Anyone who knew him would've thought the words coming from his mouth sounded strange.
“I must've forgotten to mention one other crucial detail,” Yusuke said. He needed to convince him. “On top of donating the painting, the buyer also wants to change the title from Longing to Success. The title's shallow, but if he bought the piece, it's not like I could stop him from doing whatever he pleases with it. If he plans to use my story and make the piece famous by placing it in a museum, then... Well, I'd probably have to thank him.” Yusuke forced himself to smile as he looked up at Akira. “For such a hopeless piece, this turn of events isn't so bad, is it?”
Akira looked disappointed.
“That doesn't sound like you...”
That face wasn't surprising to Yusuke, but it was still difficult to look at.
But it was alright. He was sure that Akira would thank him once he was successful.
The brief silence that crept into the space following their words was broken when Ann let out an astonished sound. While they were talking, she had been busily searching for something on her phone.
“The Shoto Museum of Art... Now I remember. I've been there before,” she said. “It's a museum celebrating local art. There's no doubt that's why he wants to donate it to them... It's a really popular tourist spot, so they see a lot of traffic from people who want to learn more about Tokyo and Shibuya. If your work received permanent residence in a place like that, it would be seen by hundreds of interested people every day.”
Futaba excitedly sat up in her seat. “S-Seriously?! Whoa... And if there are people who recognize the story in the paintings... Inari would become famous in no time!”
“Hold on,” Akira said.
Everyone stopped and waited. It sounded like Akira had realized something.
“I think I get it... Being in that museum, it might become famous, but I don't think that's the buyer's intention, necessarily. He's trying to say something with the new title.” He continued, explaining his thinking. “I get the feeling that Yusuke's negatively equating success with fame, but they're not the same thing. Madarame's fame was built by stealing the hard work of his students. He may have been famous, but his stolen success was what led to his failure. Just try comparing that to the paintings of Longing.”
They once again became quiet.
“I haven't seen it yet, but it's all about Yusuke, isn't it?” Ann asked, thinking out loud. “I don't know what someone would be trying to gain by exploiting Yusuke's story for him at this point. That wouldn't make sense. If that were all they cared about, they would have chosen to name it something like Fame instead.”
Futaba grumbled in confusion, scratching her head. “Mnn... Okay, sure, but why do they want to put it in a museum?”
“Is it unreasonable to assume that he just wants it to be seen?” Akira asked. He sounded awfully confident, like he was determined to prove him wrong. “By changing the title, the meaning of the work changes... But I don't think it takes away from it. It draws out the work's message of perseverance. In the end, that third painting of Yongen-jaya doesn't say anything about fame or wealth – Yongen's as modest as it comes. The 'success' is probably referring to personal achievement.”
Finally, Yusuke was starting to understand what he meant.
Fame and success... They weren't the same thing.
He hadn't spoken to the buyer yet to hear his thoughts, so there was a chance his intentions for the piece were pure. It was just hard to look at it that way. The piece was intrinsically tied to his past. Everything about the situation had him thinking that the buyer was out to exploit him.
But... That might not have been the case.
The piece had been hanging in the gallery for ages. To think that someone may have seen it and felt moved by its lonesome history... To think that they simply wanted to remove it from there and take it somewhere where it could be seen by many people...
Doing so, in a sense, would satisfy its desire and erase its longing.
Thinking of it that way, the title change made a lot more sense.
“You aren't just trying to convince me, are you?” Yusuke asked skeptically. He didn't want to foolishly get his hopes up. “And- Weren't you against selling it? Now you're for it? M-Make up your mind!”
Reaching behind him, Akira grabbed his own coffee off the counter and took a calm sip. “I know how you are, and I think that anyone who looks at your paintings understands what kind of person you are, too.”
It felt nice, seeing him smile.
Without speaking to the buyer, it felt too soon to feel at ease, but Yusuke already felt lighter. If the piece's purchase truly led to such a noble means of success, then he may have been worrying over nothing. As usual, it seemed he'd been overthinking things. As usual, Akira had found a way to reassure him.
“I like it,” Ann said.
“Yeah, me too,” Futaba agreed, grinning.
Yusuke played with his hands nervously, his face feeling warm with embarrassment. “Th... Then it's settled. I'll agree to meet with him to discuss the transaction. But I think I should at least alter the price for him if he seriously intends to buy the paintings.”
Ann made a face. “Um, Yusuke, you know, it's tacky to raise a price after someone intends to buy...”
“Raise? No, I think I should lower it. I never expected anyone to be interested. In fact, at the point I saw it hanging in the gallery, I made them change the price because I thought it looked boorish in comparison to the other works around it. I didn't want it to go to waste here, but I didn't know how I felt about letting anyone purchase such a terribly self-indulgent piece. That's why I set the price at two million.”
Akira spat out his coffee.
A few customers looked in their direction.
“Is that in yen...?” Futaba asked slowly, eyes wide.
Ann looked around frantically like she was worried that she'd misheard him. “T-... Two million yen?! Yusuke, hold on, you can't change the price!”
Yusuke couldn't understand why they were so surprised. “It's one million for the first painting and one million for the second. The third... doesn't have a price. Each one was labeled with their cost, but I strictly specified that they would have to be purchased together as one piece.” He leaned back in his seat and rubbed the back of his neck, brow furrowing. “But it's unreasonable... I can't ask for that much. That figure was never meant to be taken seriously.”
Ignoring personal space, Futaba climbed over him to appeal directly to Akira. “You have to do something! Make Inari stop!”
“They're right,” Akira said, eyes serious as he wiped the coffee off his face with a napkin. “You shouldn't change the price.”
Yusuke was just trying to do what he thought was right. Although he knew he could use the money, that was far more than he would need. It didn't feel right to suddenly make that much off of one piece, especially since he'd changed the price at the last second. It had just been a whim. It didn't feel right to accept it.
Deep down, he worried that he would end up becoming the type of person who cared more about the price than the painting. Such a steep figure projected an arrogant impression. That wasn't who he wanted to be.
“If I ever hope to provide anything... Even if the price is dishonest, you do deserve a large share of the earnings for all the trouble I've put you through. I haven't been able to carry myself. As I am now, I'm no better than a freeloader.”
If it was just that once, then he'd let himself accept the money for the sake of repaying Akira. If the exposure helped him become known, he wouldn't have to worry about what he was charging in the future. As long as he was able to continue producing paintings in his own way, he could charge fairly.
Once again, Akira was looking at him that way, like he'd said something wrong.
“Is... that what you think?”
Yusuke stared at the surface of the table, feeling his heart sinking, uncomfortably settling somewhere at the bottom of his stomach. He pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead, but closing his eyes wasn't enough to block out the anxious noise in his head. “I wish I could live without money. I've tried living that way so far, but I've just been a strain on you. Consider this my way of repaying you for all the time you've spent in vain while waiting for me to become famous.”
“That was never-...” Teeth clenched, Akira cut himself off with a frustrated sound. “Yusuke, you clearly chose that price for a reason. When it comes to your work, you think about every detail. How could it not have meant something? 'Compared to the valuable and costly experiences of the past, the future can't be given a price.' Wasn't that what you were trying to say? Someone who was able to afford it understood that what you put a price on wasn't the paintings.”
He wasn't wrong.
A thought like that had passed through his mind back then. After telling himself so many times that it didn't even deserve to be displayed in the gallery, he eventually convinced himself. He'd even forgotten how reluctant he'd been to part with the piece.
It was as important to him as everything else he created.
Setting aside her phone, Ann took a thoughtful sip of coffee as she pondered the situation. “I think Akira's totally right,” she said. “And, you know, if that person called himself a 'former' fan of Madarame's works, he might have realized that it was never Madarame he was a fan of. He probably wants to see the real artist succeed. Or maybe he regrets contributing to Madarame's cruelty. There must be a reason why he's willing to pay that.”
Under the table, Futaba lightly prodded Yusuke's leg with the toe of her shoe. “You gotta talk to this guy. Madarame ripped off a whole bunch of his students, right? For all you know, this guy could've spent years wandering all over Tokyo looking for the style that matched his favorite pieces, trying to figure out who really made them.”
The more Yusuke thought about it, the more stupid he felt. He'd made up his mind without thinking things through. There were a lot of things he'd overlooked.
“That's... possible. I suppose I'll have to speak with him to know the whole story.”
“Yusuke.” Akira placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently as he looked down at him with a warm, reassuring gaze. “I'm proud of you. Really. I loved those paintings, so I'm glad they'll be seen. They deserve to be.”
Yusuke looked at his lap to hide his face, feeling ashamed, still finding it hard to believe that they'd changed his mind so easily. “Thank you, Akira. You deserve that money for everything you've done for me.”
“Would you cut it out?” The laugh Akira gave was followed by a fond sigh. “I appreciate what you've thrown my way here and there, but it isn't necessary. With the way we live, Leblanc is enough. Money isn't going to corrupt you, you know. If you want to make me happy, then keep it for yourself and use it the same way you've always used your money. Put it towards making more art.”
“But... two million yen... That's so much...”
That was way too much. There were some expensive tools he had his eye on, but they weren't anywhere near that much. If it were left up to him, he had no idea how he'd spend it all. Despite his fears, he knew in his heart that he wouldn't spend it frivolously like Madarame. An astounding amount like that would probably last him a long, long time.
It would make a lot of art...
“Just use it wisely. I probably don't have to tell you that, though,” Akira said. Setting his cup on their table, he leaned down and kissed Yusuke on the cheek. “You've always made the most of what you have.”
“So if Inari gets famous... he'll make even more money... and he'll be able to make lots and lots of paintings! Sounds like a win-win to me. If I were you, I'd call the gallery back and meet with that guy right away.”
Ann sighed dreamily. “Imagine Yusuke holding an exhibition in that same department store across from the station. How awesome would that be? Seeing advertisements all over the station with his name...” She rested her cheek in her palm with a smile. “I still remember how moved I was when I saw the piece there that belonged to Yusuke. Even if it hadn't had Madarame's name attached to it, it was a piece that obviously deserved to be displayed. It was so powerful.”
They were already painting the kind of future he'd been too afraid to envision for himself. And they sounded so happy.
“Being famous... I don't care about that,” Yusuke muttered. He kept his face hidden against his palm. Even though his eyes were closed tightly, he could feel tears trying to escape. “Part of why I've always admired the Sayuri is because of its modesty. It doesn't seek attention. Would fame diminish that quiet kind of beauty?” He shook his head, lowering his hand. “It may not be possible for the real Sayuri to be acknowledged by the world as it is now, but I know that if I had the chance, I'd want to share it. I would want it to be seen by the entire world. I know it may sound presumptuous of me, but I think... I think she would have said the same for me.”
“Well yeah,” Ann said, smiling. “The Sayuri is a lot more than just a painting. There's no doubt she would have been happy if she knew that her greatest work was still spreading beauty to the world.”
To the world...
Yes, if he was able to share his happiness with the world, then money couldn't corrupt, then fame was just a word, then he'd be successful.
“Uweh!” Futaba yelped and jolted back when he suddenly collapsed against the table. “Is he dead?!”
Yusuke felt a hand on his back lightly rubbing in circles.
“He's fine. I'm used to it,” Akira said, amused. He leaned down again, pressing a kiss to Yusuke's hair. “I'll go with you to meet the buyer whenever you're ready. Relax for now. I'll make some coffee and curry for you, okay?”
Yusuke wasn't able to say anything, but his stomach responded for him with a loud, hungry growl.
“Alright, I'll take that as a 'yes'. Just give me a moment-” The bells on the door chimed, stealing Akira's attention away. “More customers. Or... Maybe they're here for you.”
Tiredly, Yusuke lifted his head off the table and sat up to see who had entered. He wasn't exactly sure what Akira was talking about until he recalled the part of the conversation they'd had when he first came down the stairs. The two girls wearing Shujin uniforms who were standing in the doorway looked like they were looking for someone. When their eyes connected with his, Yusuke realized that Akira might have been telling the truth about his 'legend'.
As they approached the table, Ann cupped a hand around her mouth so she could speak to him quietly. “Just act natural or whatever.”
Natural? What was that supposed to be?
He had no idea what the rumors said about him, so he didn't know what they were expecting.
He just got done telling them that he didn't care about being famous. He didn't want to be known for anything but his art, and he was afraid that the local rumor-obsessed kids were only interested in him for his looks and eccentric habits.
Before they could make it to the table, Akira blocked their path with a sneaky grin on his face.
“What're you two having?”
One of the girls sent a skittish glance at those who were sitting at the table, then bravely brought her eyes up to meet Akira's. “Th-The usual!” she replied a little too loudly.
The taller girl with sullen eyes was preoccupied, staring at Yusuke. “Hey, isn't he-” The first girl elbowed her in the side to stop her from saying anything unnecessary. “Ack-... S-Sorry, um... I'll have what she's having.”
“Got it. Make yourselves at home,” Akira said, beaming happily. “And to answer your question – yes, he is. Just don't pester him, alright? He's had a rough afternoon.”
“Alright, thank you!” they said in unison.
Akira was only a matter of feet away, behind the counter, but Yusuke already felt lost without him. He was being confronted by two young girls and he didn't have a clue what he was supposed to do. As the seconds awkwardly accumulated, he started sweating as he fought to avoid their expectant stares.
When he failed to think of anything to say, Futaba shoved his shoulder. “Jeez, you're hopeless. Introduce yourself!”
Had she lost her sense of empathy? For a former shut-in, she was awfully pushy.
“Mn. Very well... I'm Kitagawa Yusuke. I live with the new manager, so I use the attic here to paint. I don't know what sort of things you've heard about me, but I can assure you that I am not a strange person.”
“That's the biggest lie I've ever heard,” Futaba muttered.
“Do you two want to take a picture with him?” Ann asked them. “I can take it for you, if you want.”
The two looked at each other. The shorter girl with glasses was the one who replied.
“N-No, it's alright. We don't want to make him uncomfortable. I know everybody else at school is trying to get a picture, but...” She jumped slightly and waved her hands around. “D-Don't get me wrong! You're really good-looking and we would love to have our picture taken with you, but...! Um, would it be possible for us to see what it's like upstairs instead? We don't want to intrude either, but we're really interested in knowing what your paintings are like. They're more mysterious than you are.”
Was that true?
That was a terrible shame.
Somehow, in all of the time he'd spent there, none of the shop's frequenters knew what his art looked like? That realization made Yusuke feel horrible. He'd spent so much time promoting his name through galleries, he'd forgotten the value of sharing his work in familiar places. It made him feel like a hypocrite.
“Absolutely,” he said, suddenly feeling energized. He got up from the booth. “Come with me.”
Futaba grabbed him by the back of his shirt, pulling him to a halt. “Whoa, hold on a second there. Aren't you at least a little concerned about how it would look for you to invite two high school girls into the attic? I'm coming with you, pervert.”
There may have been no winning against her, but Yusuke couldn't just stand there and let her say something like that in front of strangers.
At least the two girls didn't seem to be fazed by her wording. They simply stared at him curiously, waiting to be escorted.
Clearing his throat, Yusuke made room for Futaba to also slide out of the booth and he led them up the stairs, feeling like some kind of tour guide. It was unexpected, but also kind of fun. He didn't think his work area was something worth beholding, but there were a few finished pieces up there for them to see.
Once they were in the attic, Futaba stopped in her tracks when she noticed what was hanging on the wall. When she whirled around toward him, the look on her face was either that of concern or distress. Both, perhaps.
The taller girl approached the large red banner hanging on the wall, tilting her head as she inspected it. “Oh, isn't this...?”
Voice lowered, jaw tight, Futaba got up on her toes to get closer to him. “What the heck is that doing here?” she asked, jerking a thumb at the conspicuous Phantom Thieves banner on the wall.
“Hm? The banner? Akira took it down when he left, but he put it back up when he took over the shop. I think it's there for its nostalgic value. I enjoy looking at it while I'm painting. It's encouraging.” He gave a secretive laugh that the girls wouldn't have been able to understand. “Why are you so surprised? Aren't you a fan of the Phantom Thieves, too?”
Futaba slowly backed away, attempting to act natural. “Y-Yeah, of course.” She glanced at the two girls. “I'm curious how you guys were able to recognize it, though. Aren't you a little young to be fans?”
“Hey, they had fans of all ages!” indignantly replied the one with glasses. “We were in grade school when they were active, but we were super into them. I was even a member of the Phan-Site. The Boss has told us all about them because he went to our school during the Kamoshida incident.”
Rumors around Tokyo had a frightening staying power...
It was nice to know that they had remained in the hearts of their fans for a long time, though.
The two tentatively wandered a little farther into the attic, looking here and there, taking it all in carefully. They were acting like they were inside a museum; quiet and respectful, just as interested in the half-empty tubes of paint littering the floor as they were in the finished pieces he had propped against the wall out of the reach of the sun. As the taller girl crouched by one to look at it more closely, her friend approached the easel with the piece he'd been working on.
Next to the easel was a small table where he kept the tools he used most frequently. She took notice of the photo he was using for reference and looked at it for a moment before looking back up at the canvas.
The painting differed from the photo in many ways, its form and atmosphere influenced by his style and aesthetic sense. He was trying to imbue the painting with the sort of feeling he felt inside during the moment when he took that picture.
The shop below, Akira behind the counter, a gentle expression on his face.
Yusuke couldn't imagine selling the piece. He made it for himself simply because he wanted to. Every time he saw that tender smile, it was like seeing it for the first time. That was what happiness looked like to him. Although he wanted to share it, he wanted to hold on to it...
That must have been why.
As he stood there earlier, the wind blowing back his hair, he thought about all the images accumulating within himself and feared that they would never be seen by others' eyes.
“This is what I've been working on currently. Please keep in mind that it's a work in progress,” he said.
It was just a simple picture. He thought that he'd be the only person who could appreciate it. So he was surprised. It looked like she understood what he was trying to convey.
“It's not quite what I expected, but the feeling's the same...” She clasped her hands behind her back, a faraway look in her eyes. After a moment, she turned around. “Are you not the one who made the painting by the door?”
“That's...” Yusuke trailed off, his voice becoming distant as he thought about how difficult it would be to explain the painting's origin. Since she sounded interested, he wished that he could tell her everything about it, but he knew that it was best to keep it to himself. “The person who made that painting... isn't here anymore. I'm just the one who brought it here. It's very dear to me.”
“I can tell.” She moved closer to the canvas, adjusting her glasses, staring closely as if dissecting its parts. She may have been young, but she had the eye of an aficionado. “This style is different, but there's a similar feeling in the artistry. It feels very warm. I don't know if you have plans for this painting, but since it has the Boss in it, I hope you consider putting it somewhere in the shop.”
It felt strange to hear someone of her age referring to Akira as the 'Boss'. Akira may have officially taken over the shop, but it was still a bit surreal. Time moved too quickly. To Yusuke, Sojiro was still the Boss. At the rate time seemed to be passing him by, he was going to turn old before he even had time to notice.
It made him happy, though. He didn't mind the thought of getting older as long as there were kids like them.
“Thank you. Perhaps I shall,” he said. “I think he might like that.”
Futaba hopped up and put an arm around his shoulders. With their height difference, that meant she had to drag him down to her level. “Hey, one of his works is going to be displayed at the Shoto Museum of Art soon. You should tell all your classmates about it and make them go see it. It's a big deal for him, so it'd make him real happy if a bunch of people showed up. Take your parents, too! Take your dog!”
Yusuke scowled. “Pets can't enter. Probably.”
Morgana would find a way.
The other girl stood up, patting down her skirt. “We'll definitely go.” She pointed at one of the paintings she'd been looking at; an older, abstract piece inspired by the landscape of Mementos. “I don't know what the heck this is, but it's awesome. I've got chills.”
“Hey, do you think you could visit our school?” asked the one with glasses.
“Shujin? For a lecture, you mean?”
He looked at Futaba. She looked at him and shrugged.
Excluding that extraordinary time when they used the large screens in the station square to announce the return of the Phantom Thieves, he'd never spoken in front of a large number of people before. Just thinking about it made him break out in a sweat, but a part of him also liked the thought of spreading his ideas to an auditorium of impressionable minds. Based on what he heard from Akira and the others, Shujin Academy was lacking in the art department. If he could help encourage even one student...
He nodded. “Mn. Very well. I'll see what I can do.”
The girl gave a small fist pump. “Awesome!” She pulled over her friend and made her bow her head. “Thank you for letting us have a look around, um... K-Kitagawa-sensei!”
Her unexpected politeness struck him swiftly in the heart and sent him straight down to his knees.
“Heavens...!” He gasped, clutching his chest.
“Oi...” Futaba stood next to him, tapping a foot. “Get up. You're an artist – haven't you ever heard anyone call you 'sensei' before?”
She was right; it wasn't the first time someone had referred to him as such. But those who called him 'sensei' were artists, curators, and other members of the art world. Many of them were his senior. It was a simple formality to them. It was completely different to hear it coming from those who were younger than him. It was the first time he got the sense he could actually be someone's mentor.
Steadying his breathing, Yusuke pushed himself up and tried to return to a dignified appearance.
“I'm not accepting pupils at present, but I do appreciate your enthusiasm. You may visit me here whenever you wish – shop hours permitting.”
They bowed again, thanking him profusely.
Suddenly, Yusuke had an idea of how he might spend that two million.
If Madarame had been honest and put even a fraction of his earnings towards teaching... The pupils who had given up in frustration might have continued. It was a wonder that he'd managed to continue with only the strength of his own determination. It wasn't that he loved painting more than the others. He'd just become adept at hiding his eyes from the truth.
But his eyes were finally clear. He acknowledged that Madarame's mistakes weren't just mistakes. It wasn't fame that made him stray from the right path. That destructive detour was his own choosing.
Yusuke was glad that the girls were heading back to the stairs, otherwise they might've noticed the way he was trying to fight back tears.
He and the others had already shown Madarame the wrongs of his ways, but Yusuke didn't want to stop there. The path was illuminated before him. He wanted to right those wrongs by spreading even more good than Madarame had taken away.
He'd been so foolish...
What a selfish thought to think that fame would corrupt him and his aesthetics.
In the twisted world within his teacher's heart, Yusuke heard his true thoughts. To Madarame, his students were his tools. Fame was success. At the time, even then, Yusuke had vehemently rejected that idea. Perhaps he hated it simply because he was afraid it could've been true.
He was ashamed of how weak he could be.
The truth was right there; the happy, proud feeling in his heart. Even if he came to doubt himself again, he had friends with whom he shared everlasting bonds who would remind him of what was right.
“Inari.” Futaba waited a few moments, staring at him. “Inari, they went downstairs, you know. What're you doing standing here with that stupid look on your face?”
“I'm thinking about how stupid I was.”
“Ah. 'Kay. Makes sense.”
She waited a few more moments before pushing him toward the stairs.
Back down in the shop, Ann greeted their return. There was also a very appealing dish of curry and a hot cup of coffee waiting for Yusuke at his place at the table. Futaba slid into the booth and Yusuke returned to his spot after her, eager to begin his journey to curry heaven.
As he picked up his spoon, he looked up, hearing the sound of voices, and watched as Akira served the girls their coffee.
He looked so lovely in that apron.
Setting down his spoon, Yusuke held up his hands, forming a frame with his fingers, and watched Akira as he talked with the girls.
That piece he was working on... It would feel a bit redundant to hang it in the shop, but he thought it would be nice if it gave others a glimpse of the Leblanc he saw.
He wouldn't have even had the privilege of worrying about such petty things had it not been for Akira.
As he slowly lowered his hands, the others looked at him and asked what was on his mind. With a light shake of his head, though, he let go of the thought. It wasn't worth dwelling on what might have been, especially when what he had was something vastly more deserving of his attention.
“Don't worry,” he said.
He was already successful.
He had been for a long time.