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He is three years old when Sensei puts him in a room by himself. Three years, six months, ten days, and he is staring at an implacable blank wall, a corner between bookshelves with no decoration save a few stray cobwebs.

Yusuke doesn't remember very much about it later -- only what he was told. Sensei had been trying to concentrate on a particularly complicated piece, a landscape in oils with details that required hairline dabs under a magnifying glass. Yusuke had insisted on trying to get his attention in every way imaginable, shouting at the top of his lungs, scattering brushes like fallen soldiers, ripping down the photographs that had been taped up for reference. Being a problem in every way imaginable, until Sensei had had no choice but to discipline him, sending him away to sit for hours until he could behave.

Three years, six months, ten days. Yusuke has the exact figure memorized by now, because Sensei has reminded him of it every time he has sent him there since.

Yusuke is glad that he does. It's incontrovertible proof that Sensei cares: he remembers Yusuke's birthday dearly enough to count up from it, just as he remembers how deeply that first disappointment had wounded him. Yusuke's selfishness scarred his heart.

And so, ever since then, Yusuke understands: Sensei can't be blamed for taking the steps to get what he needs.

He is the atelier's first official student once disciples start being accepted again -- Yusuke's mother had demanded so much attention, Sensei explains, that any others couldn't be supported -- and serves as a model in more ways than one. Yusuke knows the list of Sensei's preferences, what foods to never touch in the fridge and which phone calls never to take. He is responsible to help explain the rules to the others.

Not all the students find the transition to be an easy one. Many of them question Sensei's behavior. Some of them expect more: more direction, more insight. More examples of process, both in inspiration and in direct demonstrations on the floor.

Today, it is up to Yusuke to help explain -- again -- how best to learn from Sensei. One of the recent students is not adapting well to atelier life. Yusuke does not know her name yet, only the title of the first piece he saw from her: a delicate landscape done in watercolor that depicted autumn leaves mixing into a sunlit river. Her most recent painting had only been half-complete, but Sensei had taken it under his own wing to finish the execution, willing to pity her so that its true beauty could be coaxed forth by his brush.

Since then, she has tried to hint at him obliquely with questions, tiptoeing around her actual thoughts. When he didn't respond to her ploys, she turned to the rest of the students, asking Yusuke in particular for insight.

"You have to ask questions directly," Yusuke explains patiently. "Sensei doesn't have time to play games. If he ignores you, it's 'cause you didn't ask correctly.”

She is older than Yusuke, taller; as a seven-year-old, he must crane his neck to look up at her, and it's hard to decipher her expression. He appreciates the puzzle of it: the slant of her nose, a pinch in the corner of her mouth, her eyes narrowed. Not beautiful enough to be Sayuri. Then again, nothing else is.

Her cheeks are flushed. The vibrance works wonderfully against the tones of her skin. "And what is the right way to ask, 'Sensei, why didn't you give me a chance to finish my own work?'"

An answer starts to try and piece it together out of Yusuke's mouth but never makes it, sentence fragments tossed together like a mosaic of sounds too broken to form a solid whole. "You... must be humble." That's what Sensei always tells him. That's what he reminds her of now. "Sensei gets to pick what he likes."

Now her anger turns to another emotion, her expression distorting and crumpling into a grimace. "This isn't right, Yusuke. Don't you -- don't you know that?"

She doesn't understand how lucky she is to be here. Sensei has said that most art schools in Japan emphasize following the footsteps of masters, learning how to recreate existing art before discovering your own. But here, in Sensei's atelier, students are allowed to explore new directions, to actively strike out in fresh directions. It's a hallmark of Sensei's portfolio, after all. He is a genius that encompasses all genres, and his pupils are reflections of his art.

Lucky, so lucky. They are all so very lucky to be with him.

Yusuke tells the other student this, and the rest of her outrage vanishes entirely, penned up behind the wall of whatever emotion replaced it. She does not challenge him further, however, and only reaches out to clench her fingers on his shoulder, shaking her head in a denial that goes unvoiced for once.

The older students are all like that, to a degree: resistant to Sensei's needs, inflexible, unwilling to trust. But they are kind to Yusuke, warm and radiant with life. They joke and play as Sensei never does. They ask what he wants to do, what books he likes; they're interested in Yusuke's thoughts, tease him for his intensity, and sneak treats to him on the side.

He enjoys drawing their faces over and over again, each one populating his sketchbook with their uniqueness. He watches them weep and scowl and frown, and -- over and over again, in a whispered undercurrent -- he hears: you know this isn't right, Yusuke?

When Yusuke is twelve, Sensei presents the world with a fresh collection, one which plays with exaggerated depth of field to depict wonders hiding in the threads of blankets, the contours of dried leaves, and in water drops on the rim of a bathtub. Each piece is familiar. They were all created by one of the students who had departed recently from the atelier, leaving behind the art world in exchange for a soulless job shuffling paperwork. Wanting to save the works from obscurity, Sensei had taken each canvas and painted new versions on top, applying his own twists on the ideas to elevate them. Somewhere, there is his unique touch. Somewhere.

Yusuke squints at one of the paintings, trying to remember the original so that he can identify Sensei's work, but all he can think of is how the other student's mouth had twisted in the corners on the day of his departure. How Yusuke's own mouth is doing the same now.

He cannot find the differences. He chooses to turn away first.

Sensei takes one of Yusuke's pieces into the next exhibition, and this time, two fellow students come to visit while Sensei is off celebrating. It's Yusuke's turn to make dinner, and he is occupied with scrounging rice out of the cupboards and trying to figure out what to combine it with. The best options are the standard ones: spare meat and vegetables and questionable sauce. Skipping meals is a routine that most of the students are accustomed to; the edge of hunger keeps a person awake and craving in more ways than one, seeking a distraction from their growling stomachs. Fancier food costs more, takes more time to prepare, and delays one from their work. Hunger is the cheapest garnish for food. It turns even mere rice into a savoury feast, particularly if it is the only meal to be had all day.

They catch Yusuke just as he's dubiously sniffing the sauce bottle, and wondering if he's imagining the whiff of turpentine. "Your piece is the highlight of the show, Yusuke. We all saw you working on it -- but Sensei's making up these stories about how he was inspired to paint it. Isn’t it driving you crazy?"

Yusuke lowers the bottle. "Sensei thought my work was up to his caliber," he reminds them. "How could I not be pleased?"

It's not a lie. It's not -- technically. He does wish his work could return to his hands. But he knows Sensei's character, as cleanly defined as calligraphy. Sensei speaks only the truth, with motivations as clear as black ink on white fibers. Yusuke knows him, knows why he does what he does. He needed that painting, and so Yusuke had to give it.

Over the years, Yusuke's protests have weakened, dwindled down to whispers, and often to nothing at all, keeping silent in order to spare himself the doubt. If he does not think about it, then -- he does not have to think.

You know this isn't right, Yusuke.

"The same thing happens with other fields of study, doesn't it?" he argues weakly, continuing on in his defense, though the other students are only watching him quietly. "I... should be honored for my art to be seen by so many, even as merely a contributor to Sensei's body of work."

They exchange a glance with one another, an entire encyclopedia of protest that has already been argued and won. "Even if that's true, Yusuke, no one knows it's your vision. How can you establish yourself as an artist this way? If you tried to strike out on your own now, you’d only get labeled as imitating him, because everyone thinks your style is his. He's taken your entire identity. He's taking everyone's."

"That's fine," Yusuke retorts blindly, blankly, staring into the fridge as the cicadas chirr a hurricane of white noise outside. "The art is what matters. We're here for the sake of art."

Over the years, as his exhibits have risen in popularity again, Sensei is often called away from the atelier. During breaks in his tours, he seeks out inspiration across Japan, strolling through the richest landscapes or the wealthiest city districts. At times, when his detractors are fresh in their latest round of libel, he must flee from the atelier to keep from becoming polluted by their petty malice.

It is shameful to admit it, but Yusuke finds that life is easier when Sensei isn't around. The reporters can be shooed away more quickly; he doesn't have to make as many excuses. The other students are more relaxed as well, and they laugh more when Sensei is absent, laugh and joke and draw whatever comes to hand, have competitions to see who can design the most absurd depictions of the latest popular manga characters.

The other students change everything when they are around. They are always present, giving the atelier life and vibrance like paint splashed raw across the walls, installation art on unprimed surfaces. The world that they live in -- the world that they create around themselves, shaping it from the ground up in defiance of all expectations -- is one which Yusuke can be happy in.

But the words in his mind resist being buried, bubbling up like mismatched paint mediums, the colors distorting the longer he tries to paint them over with coats of denial disguised as gesso.

During the summer of Yusuke's fifteenth year, the heat comes in fast and smothering. Like a futon comforter strapped to his body, he wears it as a second skin; even at night, he's never free, bringing cold, wet cloths to bed and feeling the sheets stick to his back.

In order to save on the electrical bill, Sensei orders everyone to shut off the lights and reallocate the fans and dehumidifiers to the storage rooms. Most of them disappear to his personal storage; this, too, Yusuke understands. His work is the most valuable of all.

"We can't paint if we can't see," one student grumbles, but the understanding is universal for once: too much humidity will warp the canvases. Preserving the climate triumphs over comfort, and at least some rooms are cooler.

The heat settles in without relief. Since everyone is stripping down to minimal layers, Sensei declares the next few weeks to be studies in human figures, and also that the students will save money by modeling for one another.

"He could have paid the bills three times over by now, instead of spending money on himself," one student hisses -- but they immediately silence when Yusuke whips his head around, trying to determine who spoke.

Human anatomy is a subject which every student is expected to start versing themselves on by the time they are twelve, so there are hardly any surprises waiting -- but there are students of both sexes in the atelier while Sensei remains absent, so a degree of clothing must be kept. Sensei cannot risk whispers of underage impropriety from a society that does not understand true art. The atelier is split down the middle, and the students are divided into each half.

The afternoons are worst on heat, but best on light for the atelier, so compromises must be made. The humidity is high enough to threaten canvas frames, so everyone has resorted to compressed charcoal and newsprint instead, pages crumpling like tissue paper beneath outflung arms and legs.

Yusuke's partner for most of the summer is a student his age, who has a fascination with Futurism. The style isn't particularly compelling, but there's a dynamic energy that can't be ignored. Angled triangles, polygons to block out what should be arcs of muscle. Implied motion and speed through colors and lines. Yusuke wouldn't choose it for his own focus, but he can appreciate the pursuit.

This time, it's Yusuke's turn to draw, rather than model. He crouches by the window, trying to catch as much of the light as possible. Both of them have pulled off their shirts already; enough sweat is beading on Yusuke's forehead that it threatens to drip into his eyes, and every stray breeze helps.

"I would like you to remove your shorts, if that is acceptable," he comments. "I need to draw your legs."

The other student obliges, wriggling out of his clothing. His boxer briefs have a distracting pattern of multicolored triangles -- almost worth pausing so he can change to plain white, but they can be worked around for now. The shape of his belly is accented by the thin dusting of hair running down from his navel towards his groin, and Yusuke takes the time to study the way the contours of his skin are made imprecise by sexual maturity.

"Do you wish we had mixed classes instead, Yusuke?"

"I am fond of women's breasts," he admits. "Their curves allow for numerous plays of light, and there is a challenge to reproduce their softness through color. Also, their roundness is nicely mirrored by the stomach and hips. It's a very effective setup for gesture work," he continues, frowning slightly as he tries to accomplish the same trick with his peer's lankier limbs.

The other student leans into the space between them. Yusuke lets his charcoal pause, frowning slightly to consider the new line of the neck, the negative space outlined by his trapezius. His collarbone is a ridge that pulls contrasts out of his flesh. Shadows slide over his skin as he curves his shoulders forward, the angles of his body changing now as he abandons his fixed pose.

"Hey, Yusuke." His tongue appears in a flicker, wetting his lips. "Do you... do want to fool around instead?"

Yusuke frowns, confused. There's no reason to skip out of drawing practice today, especially not to read manga or fold origami out of unused newspaper. No reason and no time -- it's critical to get a solid set of sketches down before the afternoon light vanishes. "Why?"

The boy flushes, fighting to keep talking; he drops his eyes and makes a half-hearted shrug. Whatever he is trying to say is clearly difficult for him. "I mean, do you want to -- do you want to touch me, Yusuke?"

The offer is appealing. "If you're certain that you feel comfortable with it," Yusuke observes. "It would make it easier to get the right pose. But only if you don't mind."

His answer is a strangled, swallowing noise -- but then a nod, and the boy allows Yusuke to reposition him carefully, using sterile touches to indicate he should lean further one way or another. Eventually Yusuke has him at the best angle to show off his back without obscuring his profile, and settles in to begin a fresh sketch.

"Art really is everything for you, isn't it," his peer laughs, but not sounding pleased while he does.

"It's the only thing I have," is the distracted reply, before Yusuke's mind can catch the words that have flown traitorously out of his mouth.

The boy's eyes don't match the rest of his body as Yusuke carefully rearranges himself to get a different view. They're narrowed, irritated, waiting -- but he doesn't break pose again. "Guess I shouldn't ask if you’re going to take off your clothes for me next, huh?"

Yusuke barely wastes any energy shaking his head. "If you still need the anatomy tomorrow, that isn't a problem -- I don't mind. But I'd like to get your pose down tonight if I can. There's a piece I've been working on lately, and you're just the right fit for the central figure. I need something to show Sensei this week. I'm too far behind as it is."

The other student's smile fades away. His weight shifts onto his hands, but it's not worth a complaint. "Are you ever going to stand up to him, Yusuke?"

"I don't know. I shouldn't," comes the swift correction, the words half-stumbling out of Yusuke’s brain on autopilot. "Sensei only does it because he cares. He needs to be able to provide for us. We should be grateful."

The other student's lip curls, spoiling his expression. "Are you even listening to what you're saying, Yusuke?"

The mood is ruined. The student's body has lost its appeal; he is no longer beautiful. The shape of him has been lost somewhere along the way. Instead of a figure that could fascinate with the twists of its mortal form, all Yusuke can see when he looks at him is resentment, resentment and bile.

He finishes off the sketches with a few sloppy strokes, anger leaking into the work. There's no point in using this model any longer. He'll have to find someone else to help finish this: someone who won't bother with questions that shouldn't be asked in the first place.

Later that night -- using both moonlight and streetlight in a combination of luminosity intersecting -- Yusuke returns to his easel, and tries to remember what he had originally seen in the other boy, even if the reality was too flawed. He had wanted to paint a figure rising out of vines, the knobs of their spine mimicking the curled buds of newborn leaves. Not quite a birth -- a breaking free.

Restlessness drives Yusuke to back to the canvas. The oils are patient, allowing him to easily smooth them together. He has worked over every inch of this piece for days, and the colors are still wet and pliable, having had little chance to dry.

He sets the brush across the easel and steps back, falling automatically into critique stance, using the physical space between him and the canvas to redefine his role as a viewer. Confusion lingers in the piece, but also something else -- something rising out of the coils of earth and foliage, refusing to be trapped inside its shackles. Instead of limbs poking out through the vines, Yusuke has shifted the focus to the arc of the human spine instead, pushing out through the greenery and rising to bloom.

Even now, half-finished, Yusuke knows: it is the most stunning piece he has ever created.

Sensei will love it.

The air is tight in Yusuke's chest. The room is too stuffy. He grabs the nearest rag. Dunking it in linseed, he scrubs hard at the canvas, feeling the surface threaten to stretch permanently under the pressure. Oil oozes down his wrist. Colors smear and run. He scrapes and scrubs the paint off in wide swathes, destroying the brushwork; the canvas is ruined, half-washed and half-dried, dripping fluids off the easel and soaking through the dropcloth.

He finally slows to a halt, panting, and drops the rag by his feet. He cannot finish this piece. He does not wish to ever paint it again.

It's harder, after that.

Three years, six months, ten days is a figure Yusuke doesn't want to think about any more. The future of his artwork is a verdict he doesn't want to consider. There is nowhere for him to move forward to, and he cannot look at the past directly anymore, so he simply stares at his canvases -- as paralyzed as a child again, too afraid to move from the corner he's been told to stay in, face to the wall.

More and more students leave the atelier. Sensei offers reminders on how subpar they all were, how unfit for being true artists. Yusuke understands why he speaks so harshly -- he wants to understand why, he has become an expert at finding a thousand explanations for Sensei on his behalf, but it's harder and harder to voice them.

One student dies.

Eventually, there is only Yusuke and one other teenager left, and then just Yusuke.

After a week of silence, he feels like he's drowning. The atelier is too empty, too quiet. Sensei will not be back until late in the evening, if at all -- he had said something about spending the night outdoors to better study the moon -- and Yusuke is left waiting for the canvases to finish drying from their latest coat.

Instead, he finds himself sitting in the side room of his own accord, legs folded up obediently, being punished by a person who is not here to see it.

The bookshelves are dusty. There's an old cobweb high in the ceiling. Yusuke already took the spare manga out long ago, though he needn't have bothered; Sensei hasn't looked at this room in years.

Years. (Three.) Years, and he is still here in the atelier, as unchanged as a faceless manikin used to pose dutifully on command. There are so many things that Sensei has stopped paying attention to. If Yusuke got up right now and walked out the door, Sensei might not even notice that he is gone either.

If Yusuke got up right now --

He scrapes his fingers against the floor as a distraction, and the wood flakes into splinters, digging into his skin. The pain stops him automatically, flinching: he can't afford to damage his hands, not when he will be needed to finish more works for Sensei's exhibition. All the other students are gone. Yusuke can't fill a gallery all by himself.

He can't.

He picks at the splinters that haven't gone entirely under the skin, chewing on his fingertips to try and pry them free. Luck gets most of them out, but one goes particularly deep right in the center of his index finger, and hurts whenever he holds a brush. He grips with his knuckles instead, focusing on non-detail work during the healing process. Every single twinge is a reminder of how even a small act of rebellion does not go unpunished.

(Years later, he will remember this afternoon as his fingers leave bloody tracks scraped over stone, ruining himself for Sensei's art all over again, and the shame is almost enough to stop him even as Goemon hisses: do you care?)

In spring of Yusuke’s sixteenth year, he is in Sensei's car, traveling to see the gallery space for the next exhibit when he glimpses a young woman, beautiful in her proportions. Mathematical lines curve perfectly along each tilt of her hips. But then she turns her head and laughs to the person next to her, and the sheer warmth that comes out of her face, the affection --


-- Yusuke is out of the car before he knows it. Out of the car, and then out of his life in nearly the same headlong motion, as if the Shibuya line ran directly into the Palace, and all his days between were merely stops on the route, waiting for a fare correction.

The train only ends when Sensei -- when Madarame -- does. The Treasure is stolen; the Palace collapses. The atelier is abandoned. Yusuke stays at the dorms, and then abandons them too. Eventually, he wakes in Leblanc's attic, staring up at a dusty ceiling that is so much like the atelier that -- for a moment -- he wonders if the past few weeks have been merely a hallucination brought on by a surfeit of inspiration, a fantastical dream of freedom that must now be left behind.

He could stay here. It's no worse than the atelier, and in many ways, better; the food appears to be taken care of, and Akira has been surviving well enough. It's a mirror of his old life, relocated by a few neighborhoods over: school, the trains, and then hours of painting while sprawled out over aging floorboards. Here, too, he would once more be an orphan with no other place to go. Where he would be taken in by Akira and Sojiro, grateful to be given a home in whatever shape it comes in. Willing to do whatever it takes to stay there, to turn a blind eye to any flaws, and appease the one who houses him.

Just like before.

Just like Madarame.

Yusuke knows Akira would never stoop that far, claiming credit on his own for what the Phantom Thieves accomplish together, and Sojiro doesn't seem the type to dominate his household either -- but he already feels hesitant over their generosity, simultaneously wanting to respond as he has been taught and also struggling to resist it. It's not fair to them to react as if this was the atelier, and they are copies of his once-teacher. That's not why they saved him.

It's been six days since Yusuke left his childhood home. Six days since he destroyed himself forever for Madarame's art -- or longer. Perhaps it happened when he helped steal the Treasure. When he saw Madarame speak truth with his own eyes, or when the Phantom Thieves tried to infiltrate the atelier. When he first saw Ann.

When he first heard the words, You know this isn't right, Yusuke.

He sits in a tangle of blankets on Akira's couch and considers his options, laying them out like a perspective grid. Then, idly, as he has a million times before, he reaches for one of his sketchpads and begins to draw.

Akira is the unwitting subject. He sleeps without any sense of restraint, arms spread and legs wide. Morgana is a delightful exhibit of curves and fur, feet twitching occasionally in his dreams.

At first, Yusuke thinks to possibly wake Akira -- but no, getting the other Thief's form pinned down comes first. Painting one of the people who helped bring Yusuke to this new world would be the most fitting symbol of restarting his life properly. Perhaps he can thank all the Thieves properly with portraits someday. Their figures and their Personas together -- personal gifts, of course, never to be exhibited publicly, but truly intimate in his understanding.

Capturing Akira is harder than expected, now that Yusuke has a purpose. He begins with the basics, loose shapes and gestures, gathering everything together under the auspice of ovals and curves. Then, when the shapes feel too fluid, he tries again: rectangles and sloping lines, opposing curves and angles. It feels as if Akira shifts underneath Yusuke's gaze without even moving. He refuses to be documented, even while holding perfectly still.

Yusuke is quiet, but after an hour, Morgana stirs anyway, stretching and jumping down from the bed so he can give himself a proper grooming. He gives a skeptical look when he sees Yusuke's attention aimed in his direction, but since the focus is clearly on Akira, he begins his morning bath.

"Akira has such delicate bone structure," Yusuke murmurs aloud, whisking lines to describe the jawline next. "Do you think he would mind if I undress him in his sleep?"

"Are you kidding?" Morgana sputters, and Yusuke pauses to glare at him for the noise; the last thing he needs is to ruin the tableau now by waking Akira up. But when he politely resumes drawing, Morgana huffs and prowls over to stare pointedly at the paper, as if afraid Yusuke has taken liberties on the page instead of real life.

Missed opportunities, Yusuke thinks reluctantly, and then sets the graphite aside.

In truth, he hadn’t accomplished much. None of the sketches of Akira have real life in them; he would not consider a single one to be compelling, let alone beautiful. The essential spirit is elusive; Akira is not like anyone else Yusuke has ever met. He is not like Madarame, and Yusuke does not know how to even begin understanding his intentions.

He does not know where to begin with most of this world, in fact. Yusuke knows to shy away from those who would seek to use him again, but he still cannot look at Madarame without seeing a hundred ways in which he received encouragement, or reasons why it would be possible to believe Madarame once cared.

So: it is clear. Yusuke must leave Leblanc at once, and come to understand people first. Perhaps, then, he will be able to paint their natures perfectly, recorded on paper with no surprises at all.

Art is Yusuke's first goal in his new life, and he is Akira's.

The other Thief is always around in the days after Madarame, which Yusuke is confused about, and only gradually understands. Ann and Ryuji have family, and existing ties to Shujin’s fellow students. Yusuke does not. The loss of Madarame takes away the only living figure who has been a constant in his entire life. It is not as debilitating as expected -- an earthquake that only rattled the windows, instead of swallowing a city whole -- and he muses over his own resilience with curiosity. Training as an artist might be to thank for that, with so much exposure to the concepts of deconstruction on multiple levels. Identity included.

Perhaps it is simpler: the Phantom Thieves are here now.

As the leader of them all, Akira's personality remains a source of uncertainty. Yusuke is wary and wanting all at once: though Akira has proven himself willing to fight oppression, that does not exempt anyone from selfishness. His presence is just as commanding as Madarame's had been, but he rarely exercises his authority without being asked. He's confident -- just shy of arrogant, or possibly all the way over into full-blown egotism and Yusuke's simply too dazzled to see it, blinded into seeing only a fuzzy outline of a person against the sun.

Despite his best intentions, Yusuke finds himself slipping back into old habits anyway, gravitating towards all the methods that Madarame taught him for deference -- and, each time, Akira swiftly breaks them. He serves Yusuke first when he makes curry. He walks from station to station whenever Yusuke's short on train fare. Yusuke passes over drinks even while still thirsty, until Akira catches on and starts pressing the cans back into his palms, warm from hours in Morgana’s back seat.

Akira's refusal to claim things leaves Yusuke disquieted. Frustrated. Relieved at the same time, delighted at the lack of restriction -- but wishing, almost, that Akira would take the lead and simply seize what he wants, proving himself to be human and fallible at last. Or at least to criticize, giving an indication of how Yusuke falls short in his eyes and how much improvement is expected.

Compared to the others, Yusuke's Persona feels so lacking sometimes. Goemon cannot heal, and it seems that nearly every Shadow holds fires in their hands, breathing flame instead of air. He finds himself reeling in battle almost every other fight. Akira scoops him up off the ground whenever he staggers, and Yusuke is always grateful to lean on his arm even as he wishes he had never been so weak in the first place.

There is one very rough evening where he wonders if the reason Akira does not demand more is because Yusuke is not good enough -- but he forces himself to come back to reality. Akira doesn't pressure Ryuji or Ann to give up things they need for his own benefit. Instead of a strict line of leader-to-subordinate, they're simply a bunch of students together, trying to figure out the best way to direct the Phantom Thieves and advance their own personal causes.

Akira is not Madarame. Yusuke reminds himself of this, over and over. Akira will not take the things away from him that make him who he is.

And he stays with Yusuke, not abandoning him for more fascinating company, even as Yusuke hears chime after chime on Akira's phone while others plead for his attention. He asks detailed questions about the dorms one afternoon, and Yusuke is baffled why it's important to confirm that there is plenty of room to sleep, work, study. He can endure far worse conditions. Surely Akira is already aware of this.

When Yusuke protests over coffee at Leblanc, Akira offers a crooked smile. "You're stronger than most people expect, you know."

Yusuke snorts in disdain. "Were that truly the case, I would have stood up against the corruption my Sensei had embarked upon on without needing the Phantom Thieves to save me from it."

Akira is kind enough not to comment on the slip of the tongue. “You still listened to us in the end. Some people would have kept denying everything, even with the evidence right in their face.”

"It was in my face," Yusuke corrects sharply. "All those years, I turned a blind eye. And if it hadn't been for Madarame's other students, I wouldn't have recognized your help for what it was either. If I had truly been alone all those years with him, I would have done anything to protect him, no matter how vile his acts." He shakes his head violently, setting down the cup roughly enough that coffee laps at the rim. "Madarame was the whole of my world. There would have been no one else to love, save him."

The bleakness of that utterance hangs in the air.

Neither of them mention the truth that is even worse than that: that, if the Thieves had not come when they did, Yusuke would have ended up that way regardless. He would have willingly shut away the memories of his peers forever, all to keep himself sane while withering further into death.

Akira reaches out and flicks off the coffee timer. "Then we should make sure you fall in love with as many people as you can," he says blandly. "Just to spite him."

It is a daring challenge on Akira's part. More because of Yusuke’s awareness than anyone else -- with the ugliness running rampant in the world, manifesting itself in greed and malice and more, there are rare examples of grace. The truth of human hearts is on display every time the Thieves step into Mementos, fascinatingly beautiful and viciously ugly at the same time, and he needs nothing closer than that.

Desire is what he sees there, and records it faithfully. The painting is exquisite. It leaves him smug with the certainty that he can present a vision that no other artist has shared before, for who else has the ability to travel into the Metaverse?

One afternoon -- as he is flush on victory, just finished with the last brushstrokes and ready to display the masterpiece in the next exhibition -- Yusuke catches Akira surreptitiously checking his phone before setting it aside.

"I cannot be the only person who needs to see you," he insists, reaching over Akira with the intention of shoving the phone directly into his hands. "You should attend to everyone else as well."

Akira is faster, inexplicably; Yusuke did not see him move, and yet his fingers are resting on the inside of Yusuke's wrist, holding it in place with a touch that is both softer and less yielding than steel.

"No," Akira insists quietly, his gaze pinning Yusuke through like a knife. "I'm fine staying here."

Akira makes opening up to him as effortless as breathing. He draws pieces of history out of Yusuke as smoothly as pigment diffusing slowly across a wet cloth, seeping from one corner to another until the whole rag is tinted pink. Madarame is a frequent topic of discussion, full of riddles of a man whose kindness was so wrapped up in his ambition that it’s impossible to judge authenticity. Yusuke asks about Akira's home life too, which seems to startle him; the other Thief answers in vague noncommittals until Yusuke finally risks a direct query.

"Your parents -- what did they think about all of this? Were they upset? Or did they not care?"

"Neither," Akira answers, which is a little surprising: all the other Thieves have had systematic issues in their lives, and part of Yusuke had wondered if Akira's silence about his family meant they were part of his. "My parents have always treated me like an adult. They don't talk down to me, but I have to fix my own mistakes. Whenever I screw up, they don't bail me out, but they don't punish me either. They always let me figure out my own way through."

The revelation is worth mulling over. Yusuke digests it alongside sips of his evening coffee. Akira had refused any help with the dishes, telling him instead to relax at the counter. "Even with all that's happened?"

This question earns an easy nod as Akira rinses another plate. "That's why they haven't contacted me while I've been out here. I get living expenses and school fees transferred over, but everything else... that's up to me. And yeah, I know I can handle it. I'd rather have that freedom and their trust in me. But, at the same time," he trails off, letting the sound of running water fill in the gap, "it's... nice to have people around."

"It was the same thing with Madarame's other students," Yusuke acknowledges. The coffee tonight is mellow; Akira prepared it by a method he called pour over, and had tended to the grounds with the same smooth grace as a potter coiling clay onto a wheel. "He left us alone to handle most matters, but we always had each other whenever problems would come up. Their assistance was critical, even if only for another set of ears.”

Akira finishes up the sink, and shakes water off his fingers. "I meant to ask you about that," he admits. He moves to fetch a dishcloth next, but dries his hands on autopilot while his gaze darts back over, strangely challenging and wary. "Some people can deal with things fine when they're on their own. I didn't know if that was the case for you."

It is. Yusuke knows that it is; he's taken care of himself for years when Madarame was away on endless trips and no other students were around. Cooking, washing, issues with the house. Reporters ringing the bell. He knows how to be on his own.

But he remembers the difference between the atelier full and empty, between rooms with company and without.

This time, he has the power to decide.

"I value the time you spend with me.” Akira blinks rapidly, as if surprised; Yusuke continues to choose his words with care. “I understand that I must continue to be exposed to people, in order to learn more about them and how to touch the heart. You are consummate in this instruction. Please continue."

Tension eases out of Akira's shoulders, so subtly that it hadn't even been noticeable until he leans his hip against the counter. "Sure," he replies, finishing with the dishcloth and flourishing it in the air with a snap. "I think I can manage that."

He pours a cup for himself, and then slides onto the chair beside Yusuke, not bothering to shed his apron. "I've always thought that artists were really cool," he confesses, a touch wryly. "Artists all get to be rebels. You pursue your own ideas of beauty, no matter what anyone else thinks."

"That's what it should be," is Yusuke’s mournful reply. "Instead, I chase applause."

Akira acknowledges the point with a rueful half-tilt of his chin. "Approval is something to crave," he shrugs. "At least, acceptance can be."

"Madarame once said that, so long as he was alive, there would always be a place for me in his home. I recognize now that his words were far less benevolent than I had imagined." Back once again to his former teacher, as most of the conversations between them instinctively go, twisting around like birds perpetually navigating home. "But... there were so many times that I took comfort from hearing that. I would never return to the atelier, of course, but having a place to be is..."

"My attic is always open to you," Akira states in a deadpan.

Just like that, the tension is severed; Yusuke is forgiven once more for dwelling on the past, and again granted the boundless generosity that seems to come from Akira as easily as breathing. The gift is enough to strike him speechless. He nods, and hides it behind another sip of coffee.

"Having someone give you a place in their lives can mean everything," Akira offers into the silence, reaching for the sugar and adding enough to his own coffee that Sojiro would surely protest. "And adults are the first people to do that in a kid's life. But that also means they can get away with so much more, because you never know if there's another alternative. My parents taught me to not to put up with that -- that adults aren't excused from their behavior just because they're older. But they also taught me that you should be powerless in front of something bigger than you are, if you want to survive. That sometimes you have to just accept what happens to you, and endure punishments from those who are stronger."

Inwardly, Yusuke finds himself tensing; he knows that same advice. The students in the atelier had all been crushed by rules like that.

Akira lifts his chin, letting his gaze wander into the distance, an abyss that only he can see amidst the shelves of Leblanc. His expression is remote, serene.

Shadows paint the jagged outlines of a mask against his skin.

"I figure, to hell with all that."

As the summer rolls on, hot temperatures waxing and waning in ferocity, the Phantom Thieves are no closer to being painted than before.

Yusuke begins more serious attempts after the art exhibition where Desire is exposed as the cheap attempt it truly is. Makoto on Johanna is a particularly potent combination: machine and woman, organic and inorganic married together. Acrylic dries in blue streaks across his fingers after one afternoon spent in monochrome, and he spends the rest of the day peeling tiny flakes off, examining the speckles left behind in the crevices of his knuckles.

But here, too, Yusuke finds himself failing: in hoping to create portraits that the other Thieves would enjoy, he simply seeks to chase their praise as well. Madarame's criticisms leer like drunken spectres in his memory. Yusuke can remember a thousand tiny corrections to his work, guidelines that were whispered over and over until he finds himself clinging to them now in hopes of finding praise.

Nothing too radical. Nothing too obscene. The audience won't like that. Draw something elegant, Yusuke. I know you can do it.

Inspiration used to flow freely in clear, precise outlines. Yusuke's brush followed a course that had been penned by beauty. Not money, or pride, or despair -- only beauty, rising above the darkness of humanity to remind it of a better day.

Now everything blurs together in a crude mess. It is a humiliation that has been performed with just cause, writing the grand tale of Yusuke's own ignorance and his slide into Madarame's ways.

His former teacher's lessons are impossible to shake.

He sets aside time to trace Sayuri one afternoon, hoping to recalibrate his art by returning to the source. Sojiro says that Akira is already out somewhere -- grumbling excuses about some other part-time job -- but Futaba brings a laptop down to keep company on the other side of the booth, and Sojiro brings her coffee and toast, with plenty of extra slices for Yusuke.

Between bites of bread and jam, Yusuke dutifully shapes the lines of Sayuri on the page. The exercise has always been soothing in the past, doubly so now that the hand of his mother has been revealed. But Akira's face keeps intruding, skewing the smooth pencil strokes off-track, and finally Yusuke sets his sketchpad aside entirely in order to brood over coffee.

While partial inspiration has been wrestled together for all the other Thieves, Akira's portrait has made had no progress. It is impossible to pin Akira down to only one demeanor; like his thousand Personas, he harbors a thousand forms of rebellion. He is so unlike Madarame, who dominated through strict law. Akira melts rules with a touch, waving them away like so much smoke. Every time Yusuke is near, he feels drawn to their leader, as if he is one of Akira's Personas and can be summoned with a glance.

Even with the work of the Phantom Thieves ramping up each day -- the Phan-Site exploding under the weight of sudden popularity -- Akira continues to come and see him. It's unexpected, but not unwelcome. Yusuke can't imagine why he merits so much attention; the only crisis he is experiencing is that of his art. Futaba, for instance, surely has more need of assistance -- and Akira has given him so much already. Yusuke cannot expect more.

But Akira continues to come, regardless, and he smiles, and sets his phone to silent as he touches the back of Yusuke's hand with deft fingers that have slipped past all defenses like moth wings at midnight. He suggests museums, parks, shrines, and stores. Whenever Yusuke hesitates -- thinking of schoolwork or Phan-Site requests -- Akira dangles the offer of food. His treat.

Pragmatism wins out: Yusuke always goes.

Akira is there as well when the gallery lights bathe Desire and Hope in radiance, and include Yusuke in their touch. Kawanabe's offer of foundation support is a good one: funding, a home, guidance. A place to be.

But Yusuke declines, and Akira smiles beside him, and Yusuke finds he does not regret his decision one bit.

"Do you wish to visit Mementos?" he suggests one November afternoon as they navigate the Ueno galleries, judged silently by portraiture. It seems proper to offer something back -- other than the stars decorating Akira's ceiling or the occasional statue -- and admission to Mementos is free.

Akira glances over, one eyebrow crooked; Yusuke can almost see the list of latest requests being mentally reviewed and dismissed. "Mishima's still promising another lead for us. We should probably wait to go until then. And I'm in no rush," he shrugs, drifting between exhibits while Yusuke is drawn behind in his wake. "There's only one request we could tackle right now, anyway. Hey -- is this photographer new? What do you think about her stuff?"

Yusuke isn't the only person to ask. Nearly all the Phantom Thieves have texted Akira before about regular Mementos practice. Spending time together is only part of it, as is wanting to train and experiment with their new powers -- but also wanting to keep track of Akira, whose ability to juggle private lives has quickly reached terrifying levels. No one is entirely sure where he goes sometimes; he explained it once as having five part-time jobs before correcting it to four, and then three, and then just studying and quickly changing the subject.

Makoto's convinced that he's waging a one-man war against scheduling using the world's best calendar app, but Futaba says she's never found it. All the Thieves have started messaging Akira obsessively after school in hopes of catching him before he vanishes. His phone's GPS reportedly has him all over the place.

But Yusuke's not sure about the truth of those suspicions either, because whenever he had texted in the past -- no matter what hour -- Akira's reply had always been that he was available. Even now, he claims to have plenty of spare time whenever he stops by Shibuya, appearing like magic out of the sea of commuters. There's no hint of other commitments. Not even concern over if their targets' hearts have changed or not, which should logically drive anyone else mad with worry, and only seems to make Akira concentrate that much harder on hopping three different train lines before midnight.

All that attention for Yusuke, and still there is no explanation why. Akira's encouragement is a river that shows no signs of running dry. Desire and Hope would not exist without him; Yusuke's art would not have been reawakened. So much dedication deserves to be matched, and the only thing Yusuke can think of is a painting that might support Akira the way that he has been in turn: to bequeath hope, strength, courage, every emotion that has been kindled in Yusuke's soul, nurtured carefully back to life from how it had been smothered in the atelier.

Akira, too, is someone to watch over and help sustain. He is as precious as the inspiration Yusuke has chased for months.

The thought of not being able to do so twists Yusuke's heart.

After several misunderstandings with a number of travelers in Shibuya's station -- each of them had had similar features to parts of Akira, and Yusuke simply needed them to hold still long enough -- he breaches the matter directly. "Would you be willing to model for me sometime, Akira?"

His eyebrows lift dubiously, but the corner of his mouth makes a small, wry tilt. "Like Ann?"

Yusuke blinks, confused by a question with such an obvious answer. "No, of course not," he asserts dismissively. "Your body shapes are entirely different. I would have you sit without a chair, I believe, and allow your legs to dominate the frame."

"Ah." Akira seems to understand, though there may be a hint of dismay. "Worth a try, I suppose."

"Perhaps you should spread your legs for me," Yusuke adds encouragingly, in case there is any concern over too stoic a pose. "That would provide a much more dynamic angle for viewers."

He goes over the basics with Akira, outlining what to expect. Short periods of holding still, with rest periods to allow for stretching. If there's discomfort in any way -- physical or otherwise -- speak up immediately. Some padding on the floor, since Leblanc's attic is hard wood. Light clothing for this particular set, the more form-fitting the better.

Akira chooses shorts and rolls up his sleeves, waiting for his cue. A sheet provides a neutral background for the time being; Yusuke unrolls a spare, letting it tumble over the edge of Akira's mattress before checking the lighting. It's hardly an innovative choice -- Akira might as well be posing in front of a dropcloth, or a blank wall -- so Yusuke pulls back the left corner, exposing the underbelly of the bed, and get promptly distracted by debating if the darker patch on Akira's left side creates a contrast that's either ominous, or mere foreshadowing.

Akira, thankfully, humors the whole process in silence.

After the third break -- Yusuke knows better than to overstrain a model -- Akira rotates his shoulder ruefully."“I didn't expect that to be harder than hiding from Shadows." He winces, and then crawls over to peer at the sketches that have stacked up so far. "Do you have a title in mind?"

"'Insolence.'" The word is there without even having to reach for it. Yusuke had mulled over a few options the day before, but now that Akira is here on the floor, it is clear that only one suffices.

Akira's chuckle comes out in a surprised cough. "I guess I'm a good choice for the subject, then."

"The title was chosen for you," Yusuke corrects, focused on the graphite. "Your own actions are the cause."

This earns a second laugh, which sounds simultaneously amused and aghast. "Really flattering now."

Perplexed by whatever connotation he must be missing, Yusuke glances over, only to discover the exact expression he's been seeking on Akira's face: a rounding of the mouth, a curve to the cheeks, eyes soft.

"Yes," Yusuke blurts. "That's perfect! Yes, keep looking at me, just like that!"

And Akira does.

For hours, Yusuke draws -- and though the expression shifts through subtle inflections, like sun filtered through a forest canopy, Akira keeps looking directly at him, as if Yusuke is a Treasure and he cannot risk him sliding away.

Akira comes again the next day. The day after that one is raining, and only Futaba can guess at his location -- but he reappears again on Friday, and Yusuke brings his sketchpad to Leblanc to watch Akira clean the cafe, memorizing the shapes of his body as it stretches and distorts through the glass siphon bulbs.

The cafe is warm, though the November draft sneaks in with every swing of the door. The scrape of the pencil against the page is hypnotic with its melody. Akira brings over a cup of coffee at some point, setting it down in careful distance away from Yusuke's elbow. At times, he refills it, warming the liquid whenever it has begun to grow cold.

Eventually, Yusuke blinks, startled at the time -- all the other customers have already gone home, and Akira is engaged in the washup.

But the coffee remains fresh. Akira has been brewing steadily all evening, a parade of flavors to entertain the stomach, even though Yusuke is the only one left. As Yusuke accepts a refill, Akira smiles -- and again, there's a flash of something in his face, something that makes Yusuke want to cradle it in his hands like a candle to keep himself warm by.

It is not exactly Sayuri's expression, but there is something equally potent that he is discovering instead, that he must be discovering there, for Akira never wears those inflections around the rest of the Thieves. At times, hints slip out when he idly plays at catching Morgana's tail, or when Futaba tugs on his sleeve, or when Ryuji suggests they all get out of Morgana while in Mementos and try to keep pace by running.

But nothing like that lives on Yusuke's pages yet. Each sketch germinates well at first, then rising to attempted bloom -- only to be thrown away as another failure.

When Akira is captured at the end of November, Yusuke's art dies in his chest. He stares at his canvas, and reminds himself that this, too, is an illusion, a mere deception on Akira's part. Even so, all he can bring himself to paint is a single black bird, flying in a pure white void -- towards freedom or oblivion, he cannot tell.

The suicide announcement comes soon after that.

On the evening of Akira's return, Yusuke paints color washes on every canvas he has spare, letting hues trickle down like watercolor. Rainbows blur into amorphous clouds that abandon all boundaries, describing landscapes straight out of fantasy. The colors flow and melt, ebbing gradually into one another so that it is impossible to tell where one ends and another begins, and Yusuke relishes every single layer.

The focus of their portrait attempts becomes more disjointed after that, as though Yusuke's gratitude at Akira being alive has overwhelmed his imagination, and left him only able to draw in fits and starts. He makes good progress on a sketch where Akira is sitting on the edge of the bed, one leg crossed, eyes challenging as he inclines his head towards the viewer. Then, the next day, Yusuke finds his pencil drifting towards a different stance where Akira is looking over his shoulder into the distance, too busy to focus on the people watching him.

Frustrated, he makes a request at the start of the next session, half-expecting it to be denied automatically. The weather is colder now that it is December, after all, and temperatures are a concern even with the kerosene heater. "Would you be willing to allow me to sketch you with less clothing on, Akira? I have seen you in the bath, but I understand it is different to be scrutinized. Again, if you feel uncomfortable, I would request that you speak immediately."

Remarkably, Akira considers, and then reaches for the hem of his shirt. The shorts go next, dropped on the floor and kicked aside. His fingers pause at his briefs, and he glances up: half a challenge, half curiosity, an expression Yusuke has seen a hundred times before right before he goes leaping into nothingness and dares the rest of the Thieves to follow.

Yusuke starts to shake his head dismissively at Akira's concern, to say, whatever you are comfortable with won't bother me, but the shapes of the words stick in his throat, leaving him to swallow their sounds down. It’s something in Akira's eyes. They're interested, keenly so, as if Yusuke is the challenge he must seek to capture next in a maze of Palace corridors, as if Yusuke has been hiding and fleeing all this while, and Akira must call him out to give him a shape.

Then Akira seems to succumb to pity, lifting his hands away from his waist. "This is fine. I promise."

Yusuke's lips suddenly feel very dry. He wets them once, a nervous touch of his tongue. "We'll use the sheet to help you keep warm. Go ahead and pull it over you as needed."

Discipline helps Yusuke keep his composure for the first half hour, losing himself thankfully in the work. During the second break, however, he studies the results with a frown.

"Is it all right if I arrange you, Akira?"

Startled, Akira lifts his head, but Yusuke holds up a calming hand. "I will only seek to move you as little as possible. Regardless, if you feel discomforted, please tell me at once."

Only after Akira nods does Yusuke lean forward, applying light pressure to a knee to shift it out. Akira's leg tilts open, following the touch. The sheet slips over his thighs.

Yusuke does not look. He is careful not to look.

Instead, he slides closer by necessity so that he can change the angle of Akira's elbow next. With precision, he rests his fingertips against Akira's arm, and then slides them delicately down, tracing along the muscle to guess at the best way to drape both wrists off the bed. It feels shockingly good to touch Akira, his body warm against Yusuke's skin, the reassuring weight of him nearby. So close beside Yusuke, and alive --

And then, suddenly, Yusuke realizes that he has been running his fingers in small lines up and down Akira's skin, in a way which has nothing to do with art at all.

Fooling around, he suddenly thinks, a flash of summers past, a kid's phrase that should have far cruder words. He agrees with it anyway, suddenly understanding the urge to speak even when the language is imperfect. Fool around.

Do you want to fuck me, Yusuke?

As if seared, Yusuke jerks his hand away, recoiling fast enough that he twists the sheet under his hip and nearly pulls it off Akira entirely. This is not the right thing to do to an art model, clothed or unclothed. Models should never be made to feel exposed sexually, to be an exhibit without consent. Even Madarame, with all his flaws, was responsible enough to teach his students that.

There is only one thing to do. "Akira," Yusuke announces firmly, eyes averted, slightly nauseous for the betrayal of decorum. "I am afraid that I -- I do not have the correct focus for painting today. My apologies, but we should stop here. Please forgive me."

With that, he gathers himself to literally and figuratively disentangle himself from the sheet. At least he has already pulled his hand away to give Akira a respectful distance again -- no, he has not, because Akira's fingers have followed along, sliding up Yusuke's sleeve and along his shoulder, a touch as equally intent as the first had been.

Yusuke freezes. His skin feels hot enough to ignite. Even if he wanted to interpret the interest as real, social cues have been easy to fail in the past. There's an entire list of glares from people that still have no clear meaning. He has already confused family affection for romantic, and Yusuke's chest clenches as he realizes he might be mistaking this gesture as well.

Akira halts with equal swiftness, spotting the hesitation as quickly as a Shadow's flicker in the darkness. "Yusuke. I'm sorry. Tell me what's wrong."

The possibilities are horrifying if he assumes incorrectly. A friendly overture. Platonic comfort. Nothing entirely, nothing and no meaning at all. Yusuke shuts his eyes and tries to speak, to breathe around the vise in his throat.

"I believe I would like to kiss you instead," he whispers. "And if that is not the right kind of love -- "

Akira's other hand slides up against the back of Yusuke's neck, and pulls him in.

Yusuke seizes him back, clumsily, half his mind trying automatically map out the visual tangle of the both of them together: hips and ribs and wrists, all with their own mass and volume. Limbs, jumbling in amateur impatience. His eyes open again, seeing the world masked through curls of Akira's hair.

The world is full of diffused light -- light and shadow of the sheet as it is pulled entirely off the bed and off Akira's legs as he kneels, tugging Yusuke closer. The thickness of his erection is clearly outlined against his briefs. Yusuke lowers his fingers to stroke along Akira's thigh, earning a sharp inhalation that only encourages him to do it again. The sight of Akira's body begs for exploration; a thousand bursts of inspiration burn in Yusuke's head, and he wants to suddenly try them all.

He answers that desire by holding Akira tighter everywhere he can reach, starving for every opportunity for contact. Every inch of Akira's body is aesthetically beautiful, and it is beautiful pressed against him. Even the jerk of Akira's hips when Yusuke finally palms his erection, making a startled moan as he promptly pushes back against the touch, silently asking for more.

And more is exactly what Yusuke does. Again, and again his hand moves, sliding over the fabric until he gives up and pulls impatiently at the briefs. Akira takes the hint, pausing long enough to hook his thumbs into the waistband and yank it down, finally allowing every inch of himself to be touched.

He is amazing.

Muscle tone and bone structure and angles that make Yusuke want to run his hands everywhere, as if to shape a copy out of clay. A softness along the belly and arms. A flexing of the throat when Akira sighs, and Yusuke brings his mouth to Akira's neck to taste the drumbeat of his pulse. He matches Yusuke's hunger with his own; fingers that have stolen a thousand valuables from Palaces now work on the buttons of Yusuke's shirt, slipping them free so deftly that it feels like the cloth is simply being brushed away from the skin.

But once Akira has finished unzipping Yusuke's pants, he's the the one to stop, suddenly tense and careful. "Is this okay?"

At the question, something breaks in Yusuke's throat; any answer would be choked and unintelligible. In all his life, he never expected to be asked for permission in a room filled with splintering wood and dust and dropcloths, a room in which he could be told three years and to accept punishment instead of all this warmth that Akira is pouring out, giving to Yusuke endlessly without asking for anything back.

And Akira is still waiting, poised as carefully as if he were in the middle of a room with Shadows all around him, with only an endtable for cover -- and Yusuke laughs and tugs him over, rolling him so that he’s the one watching Akira sprawled on the sheet, eyes hopeful and wide.


Akira is taken away before Yusuke is ready.

He makes the decision on his own, on Christmas Day. This time, Akira is the one who disappears while Yusuke is the one sleeping, dreaming in his dorm room and helpless to the world. Tomorrow is Christmas, Akira had whispered the night before, but Yusuke had thought it had meant a different kind of assurance; he had closed his eyes peacefully with Akira breathing deeply beside him.

Yusuke is not the only one torn between mourning and resistance. The thought of overturning a court case is far less daunting than it might have been before, when he was trained to bow his head and accept relentless demands. He is out of the atelier forever. Six days or six months or three years later, and he has embraced the role of defying society. He has learned to have a taste for saying no.

As January passes, Yusuke devotes himself to helping track down the one witness who could contradict Shido's original testimony. But in the downtime -- when the other Thieves are chasing leads, and there is little else to do other than to return to his schoolwork and pretend that he knows nothing of stealing hearts -- he takes out his pencil and draws.

Only in Akira's absence has the most important fact come to light: the reason he cannot be captured perfectly in a single portrait is because he shows Yusuke every aspect of himself. Exhilaration, disappointment, mischief or impatience -- Yusuke is lucky enough to see them all.

Akira is richer than a single smile. He has given Yusuke thousands.

Yusuke draws all of them, all that he can remember. The lines of Akira's body swim from sketchbook to sketchbook, page to page, eternally running ahead. There are so many that Yusuke feels like he could chase him forever -- except Akira has always chosen to stand right beside him, always in arm's reach.

Until now.

Instead, Yusuke summons Akira's image into reality on the paper, as if ink and graphite are vehicles for freedom: so long as he is here in Yusuke's art, Akira will never be truly kept imprisoned.

In February, just as Akira is being released, everything is finally ready.

Leblanc is quiet late that evening -- Sojiro clearing his throat and making excuses to leave, while Morgana is already headed for the door -- and then it's just Yusuke and Akira, alone for the first time since the latter's imprisonment. The two of them, rather, and the wrapped canvas beneath Yusuke's arm.

"Boss was kind to give us the evening," Yusuke says, awkwardly, not sure what would seem properly romantic. It's the first Valentine's Day he's ever spent with someone. He'd left the chocolates his schoolmates had given him back in the dorms; somehow, it hadn't seemed right to bring them along.

But Akira solves the problem by closing the distance, murmuring Yusuke's name as he slides a hand behind his head and brings his mouth to meet him. His apron is damp from washing dishes, as are his fingers as he kisses Yusuke again and again, re-exploring all the lines of his body as if seven weeks has turned them both into strangers.

After they have both retreated to the attic -- miraculously not damaging the painting while stumbling up the stairs by degrees, and then miraculously not damaging the bed in shared enthusiasm -- Yusuke unwraps the canvas and lays it out for Akira's eyes.

"I meant to have it ready for Christmas," he admits, still regretful for the lapse. "However, we were all... occupied by other matters."

If Akira is disappointed, he does not show it. "This is incredible," he marvels, touching the painting's frame gingerly as if to prove it is real, fingers skimming lightly over the corners. The glance he offers next playful, better suited to be worn with a Thief's mask. "I didn't know you had enough sketches for something like this. You didn't find a different model to finish it with, did you?"

"No need." Pairing reassurance with motion, Yusuke reaches out to take one of Akira's hands, turning it over and bringing the wrist to his lips. "I have everything already in memory."

This piece will never be part of an exhibition, but only one pair of eyes needs to see it. The design had been painstakingly crafted from the simplest charcoal sketches, all the way into graphite and oils. In the center of the canvas, two shapes tangle together, their figures blurring and undefined, rich with colors impossible to find on any human being. Their hands are entwined, legs bent and tucked against each other. But the one unmistakable point of clarity is the laughter on both faces as they challenge the viewer and all the world with wild exuberance, not caring who might judge them for their rebellion together.

And there, on the back of the canvas, is penciled the simple title: Defiance.