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Stars and the Universe

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"-ainwashed! Oh, for f-"

"Joker! Can someone smack him?"

"Can't - Persona! Eat this! - do it right now, Queen! Can someone else- Fox, would ya?"

"I'm on it! I'll-!"

"Damn- Fox, watch out- Joker's got a-"

Everything goes white.


 

There's something red and blurry just a few centimeters in front of his nose. Akira frowns, squinting to make sense of it, then realizes it's Skull's neck tie thingy. And that means the Metaverse. And- wait. His memory's really fuzzy.

"I got brainwashed?" he slurs out, trying to get to his feet. Damn, his head swims. Really, he almost prefers Despair to that... He would, if it weren't for the memories of syringes, buckets of cold water, drowning in air - No. No, no, no, not now. Focus.

"Yep, dude," Skull says, but there's something... something weird in his voice. Cautious. Not befitting his raw and brash self. Akira swallows, then accepts the offered hand and wobbles upwards, pretty sure that the mix of the ship's movements, after-effects of that Shadow guard's spell, and rapidly increasing panic won't let him fight or even explore for now. Skull loops his arm around Akira's back to hold him upwards, his fingers tight on his biceps.

"Anyone hurt?" Akira forces out, then follows his friend's line of sight and sees the rest of his team, sans Fox, huddled on the floor over something he can't discern, and then-

It clicks into place, like a picked lock. His insides twist in cold fear. He catches Queen's eye, and she bites on her lip, then jerks her head sharply and says,

"Fox tried to get you to snap out of brainwash, but you hit him with a flash bomb. It knocked you out, but he got the full blast of the explosion. He's mainly healed now, but it… really didn't look pretty." She motions at him. Akira dutifully stumbles towards her, then falls to his knees.

He can't surely tell if Fox is conscious - his breathing is rapid and shallow, eyes moving under screwed shut lids, and small whimpers of pain escape from his chapped lips - but, god, Akira does hope he's passed out. Mona presses a Life Stone to his bloodied jawline, then puts it away with three used up others and mutters a spell, Zorro's armor flickering into sight for a fraction of a second. A faint sheen covers Fox for a moment, but, even after it fades, Akira can still see shadows of burns where he had his face bared. Panther reaches out to squeeze his elbow, then mutters,

"Joker, you okay?" Her gaze, when he catches it, is weary and concerned. She's gripping a red-stained bandage.

"I'm all right," he says quietly, watching Noir browse through her supplies and come up empty-handed. "Just dizzy."

"Thank god you're fine, because we're out of any potions," Oracle says through clenched teeth, nudging Skull out of her way as she stands up. "I'm low on energy, so's Mona, and you don't happen to be able to cast any healing spells?" Without waiting for his reply, she says somberly, "Joker, I vote we bail out. Inari's still tripping balls, and everyone else's running on their last legs."

"Yeah, let's get out of here," Akira agrees, then gently joggles Fox's shoulder. When that doesn't wake him up, he moves to pick him up, Skull already by his side.

With Fox's surprisingly (and unhealthily) light body supported between the two of them and the rest of the team scouting their path for Shadows, they somehow make it to the entrance and then back to the real world. When the ground under their feet goes stable, Akira feels a small surge of relief at the lack of any potential witnesses, then motions towards a back alley and, with Futaba tapping her phone to check and disable any cameras, somehow transports Yusuke there and gently lowers him to the ground, alarmed by his pallor.

"Hey, man, come back to us," Ryuji grumbles, sitting on the balls of his feet. "C'mon, Yusuke, pal."

To their shared surprise, this rough beckoning somehow works, and Yusuke starts stirring, one hand moving to press to his forehead, then pauses and blinks.

"Is that...?" he says, almost meekly. "Is that you? What has… Huh?"

"You got hit during a scuffle," says Makoto, and Akira can't decide if he's grateful or sorrowful about such euphemism. "How are you feeling?"

"Mm, my head hurts... quite unnervingly." Yusuke frowns. "Was there a… very intense spark of some sort, or is my memory malfunctioning?"

When Haru and Ann fix him with uneasy looks, Akira inhales deeply through his teeth and admits,

"It was me. I got brainwashed and threw a flash bomb at you when you tried to rescue me." He bows his head. "I'm really sorry, Yusuke."

"Ah, don't concern yourself with this," Yusuke says offhandedly. "Such is the fate of people involved in activities like ours." He offers a lopsided smile, then says, innocent as usual, "Now that I appear to be in a more functional state, could we move to a brighter place? I find this darkness quite distressing."

For the second time in a span of ten minutes, Akira's blood freezes in his veins. He tries to say anything, anything at all, but all he can do is follow Yusuke's wandering, unfocused gaze.

"But it's not... dark..." Haru's voice dies, and she presses her hands to her mouth, the usual blush of her skin giving place to pallidness. "Oh no, no..." Makoto reaches to take her fingers between hers, but she's just as pale. Ann's lips part in shock, and Morgana lets out a distressed meow. Akira notices it all, but that's all he can do, just watch, unable to move.

"What do you mean?" Yusuke's smile wanes. There's fright dawning on his face too. "But then why can't I-" he sharply draws in a breath "-can't I see?"

"Fuck," Ryuji says emphatically.

"What now?" Ann whispers, barely audible, then turns her attention to Morgana. "Hey, s-say something! Explain!"

"I don't know!" Morgana bites back, his tail swishing wildly. "This shouldn't have happened, I mean, we healed him and all, such stuff shouldn't transfer from the Metaverse to the real world!"

"Maybe it has to do with cognition..." Makoto's voice trembles just as much as her frame, but the look she gives Yusuke is full of determination. "Listen to me. We're just a few meters away from a street light, to your left." When he obediently turns his face in that direction, she asks in a knifelike tone, "Are you sure you can't see it?"

"I am sure, Futaba!" Yusuke replies indignantly. "Was I ever to exagger-"

"It wasn't me talking," Futaba says bleakly. "It was Makoto."

All of the previous panicky energy visibly drops from Yusuke, leaving him staring into thin air, mouth agape.

"I can't see," he repeats. A fit of shudders overtakes him. "I- I can't- s-see-"

"Hey, it'll be fine, don't panic," Ryuji babbles, trying to force out a reassuring grin, then abandoning it after less than a heartbeat. Akira reaches out to clasp his hand over Yusuke's and, without letting go, pulls out his phone and calls Takemi.

"I'm contacting that doctor," he says out loud. "I don't know if she's still up, but we're going to make it all okay. I promise." He tightens his grip, trying to say I'm so sorry, but Yusuke doesn't react, just shivers harder, his pupils shrinking to the size of pinpricks. He grits his teeth, and Akira could bet all of his Personas that, if it weren't for that, he'd still be choking on those three words. Waiting for Takemi to pick up, he tightens his hold.

"Hey, Inari." Futaba sits by his side and takes his other hand. Yusuke attempts to make a questioning sound, but his hurried inhales and choking exhales - they break the noise apart into something terror-stricken. "Try to slow down. You'll faint. Breathe out, slowly... Yes, like this, but even slower. Okay. Now hold it... Good. Now, in. Okay. It's okay. We're all here." Her voice smooths out into something almost of dreamlike quality.

"We're here," Haru echoes, shuffling closer to Makoto. Akira hums in agreement, then scowls at his phone and puts it back.

"We got you," he says instead. "We got each other."

"I-I'm-" Yusuke tries, but Futaba makes a shushing sound at him.

"Later, Inari, ya dumbass. Try to calm down before rambling, okay?" She flaps her hand at the rest of Thieves. "Don't worry, I got him. Give us some space and go talk about our next step or something."

"Will you handle it?" Makoto asks, already getting up. Futaba flashes her a smile, but it's not as cocky as usual.

"Had my fair share of panic attacks." She puffs her cheeks. "Truth be told, I expected my hands-on experience with them to be useful for y'all guys much earlier." She waves them off, so Akira heaves himself up and obediently moves a few meters away.

Ann leans against a building's brick wall, sticking her palms into the pockets of her hoodie, a despondent grimace marring her features.

"So Takemi isn't responding?" she mutters, to which Akira shakes his head.

"It's almost ten in the evening, so she probably closed up already." He adjusts his glasses with a scowl. "Anyway, we can't let Yusuke go to Kosei dorms, especially by himself."

"Other people would flip their lids," Ryuji concurs. "Well, so what. Leblanc?"

"Sojiro'll understand. I'll text him right away." Akira composes a brief message, reads it aloud, then sends it. "Okay."

"Mm, I can't say I feel contented with us making such plans without informing Yusuke beforehand..." Haru tugs on the collar of her turtleneck, making Ryuji scoff fondly and reach over to pat her on the head.

"Listen, at least Akira's gonna feed him." Akira nods in affirmation. "Besides... do we have a choice?" Ryuji's playful-ish expression falls. "We can't go to a hospital, not..."

"Not without arising further suspicions," Akira finishes. "Akechi's suspicions in the worst case."

"In the most probable case," Makoto dubs, then sighs and takes a look at Futaba. Raising her voice, she asks, "How are you two doing?"

"My apologies," Yusuke calls back, still sounding shaky, but there's also the familiar trace of embarrassment. "Such behavior-"

"Inari."

"Ah, indeed." Resting his hand against the wall, he gets up, trembling like a leaf. "Anyway, I don't suppose my going back to the campus would be a wise idea..."

"Nope." Akira steps towards him and grasps his arm. "The two of us plus Futaba are going to Leblanc for the night, then to Takemi's." He makes sure to keep optimism in his voice when he says, "We promised we'll help you."

Yusuke nods wordlessly, his unaware eyes focusing somewhere around Akira's collarbone.

During the subway ride, he presses himself into Akira's side. As if looking for an anchor.


 

Even though he's roughly aware of what they're doing and what has happened, Sojiro, despite the late hour, grills Akira for at least ten minutes, apparently on the verge of calling an actual ambulance. Finally, he acquiesces, but not without promising to kick the team's asses, Futaba excluded, for endangering themselves.

During the entire argument, Sojiro drops a bag of groceries on the table and gives Akira brief notes on quick recipes for dishes easy to eat. So, Akira guesses, it's safe to say there won't be that much of a risk of actual ass kicking. When he says that, after the door closes after the older man and Futaba, a quickly whipped up bowl of chicken soup with rice set on the counter, Yusuke almost drops his spoon and actually chuckles.

"Well, Boss engaging in violence would surely be a sight to see," he jokes, then stops and scowls. "How bothersome. At least my inspiration was so very kind to dry out mere days prior, so I won't have to suffer this much." There's a crook to his expression, and his intonation falters. It's clear there are a few more things he wanted to say.

"You can't see a damn thing, yet you whine about not being able to paint?" Akira says, raising his brow, then curses himself and adds hastily, "I mean - sorry, that was rude. Your frustration is understandable, but-"

"But if this state of mine isn't temporary? As of now, I do have high hopes, but what if it's the end of my path as a painter? And as a thief?" Yusuke sets his cutlery down. The almost-relaxed atmosphere evaporates, leaving behind confusion, anxiety and so much guilt it's palpable. Akira takes a sip of his tea, wishing Morgana was here to relieve some of their fears, but it seems like he went on a stroll. His ability to sense tension was quite human, to be frank. Just as his skill in vanishing when needed.

"Then we will manage," Akira decides on saying after a while. "When we take down Shido, you could help from the sidelines, casting supportive spells or..."

"Anyhow… What about my art?"

To that, Akira has no answer. He bites his lip.

"Very well." Yusuke sighs, then runs his slender fingers over his face. "Then the only thing left to do is hope, correct? Hold onto this faith and not think about what may come does fate decide to fail us."

"Mm..." Akira puts the mug on the counter. Thinking out loud, he says, "Maybe it's just, I don't know, some sort of self-illusion? Like, your cognition is still fixated on that point when you got hit and then- placebo effect? Hm. And, when you fully realize you're not in the Metaverse, your sight will come back..." He trails off, instinctively crossing his arms to protect his torso, still spattered with fading bruises (kicks, punches, and then something inside him breaking- no, it's over, it's all over). Yusuke makes a thoughtful noise and goes back to his food.

"Then how do you explain the change of heart? It is permanent, after all." He waves his spoon in the air, then returns to slowly sipping on the warm broth.

"Well, the change of heart is more about, well, the heart than the body." Akira throws the wiper into the sink and sits in the booth, tapping Yusuke on the shoulder to make him aware of his presence. "And if the Shadow owners of Palaces are their, hm, true selves, then changing their hearts would result in a change in this world, too."

"And what about Persona users?" Yusuke pushes on, smiling again. Akira snorts, shaking his head.

"Maybe our Personas are like Shadows, but less murder-happy. Man, I don't know! It's not like we got a textbook on this stuff."

"But we got Morgana," Yusuke points out. "He's our best source of answers."

"Did someone say my lovely name in vain?" Morgana purrs, crawling through an open window. "Now, why don't you two wrap up and go to sleep?" he adds with a sly grin.

"That's not a bad idea, to be honest," Akira replies, stifling a yawn, then washes the plate and his cup and navigates Yusuke into the attic. Thankfully, Sojiro has brought a spare futon and set it on the floor, so all Akira has to do is hand his friend pajamas and, when he turns back to take off his own clothes, fret over the possibility of him slipping and splitting open his skull while changing into them. When the lights go off and Morgana lies down beside him, Akira steps into sleep while feeling pretty operative.

And then he opens his eyes inside a battle, a grenade in his hand, and his knife sails through the air, embedding itself in Noir's stomach. She coughs out blood and asks him, why would you do this to me; her eyes are hard. Panther snarls, moving to attack him, but with a flick of his hand she's torn apart by a Persona. And so is Queen. And Captain Kidd howls when Skull disappears in an explosion. And so does Mona. And Fox- no, that's Yusuke, not Fox. He's unguarded, maskless and unarmed, and when he raises his arm, all the spilled blood soars up. It moves, and Akira wants to yell at him, what are you even doing, but then the redness encloses the two of them. And it burns. It's flames, now. Akira watches the fire swallow everything.

He shoots awake, sweaty and uncomfortably aware of his frenziedly beating heart. On the other side of the room, barely visible in the sparse moonlight, Yusuke sighs through his sleep and buries himself deeper into his futon, palms loosely curled by his relaxed face. He's alive. He's safe.

Akira thinks about his dream, then it's his turn to have trouble breathing. Fuck.

"Fuck," he whispers, his thoughts bloody and visceral. A stray dog's barking comes from the outside, and in its lack of rhythm Akira finds something he can use to hold on. His throat feels dry when he, once again, looks at Yusuke and whispers, "If I had a choice, I'd never hurt you. I swear."

With those words and this realization, something in his chest sparks and expands, and Akira has to press his lips together to smother a gasp. It's... this emotion, it's something he can't name, identify as positive or negative, it's just there, both new and old, and-

"Go back t' sleep," Morgana moans, giving him a droopy-eyed glare, and, as the feeling goes out, he has no other choice but to comply.

Before his brain has another chance to mess him up with a nightmare, a sharp trill sounds off in the room, waking Akira up. He groans, then opens his eyes and checks his phone.

"Forgive me, I believe it's mine," Yusuke says from his spot, then manages to turn off the alarm. "Good morning."

"Morning." Akira throws off the duvet and sits on his bed, stretching his legs. "How're you doing?"

A pregnant silence is enough of an answer.

"I'm sorry," he says quietly. "Let's get dressed, eat something and go to Takemi."

In no more than half an hour later, they're already there, Akira envying Yusuke's unexpected zeal - but then, he was still going to school, so early mornings were normal to him. Unlike Akira, who spent most of the past week sleeping till late and licking his wounds. Pondering on that, he opens the door to the clinic and steers Yusuke inside.

"Good morning," Takemi mutters tiredly, barely looking up - until she sees their strange duo. Her eyes widen. "That your friend, Kurusu? What on earth has happened to him?" She tilts her head.

"Good morning," Yusuke says serenely. Takemi makes a face at him, then ushers them into the examination room without a word.

Locking the room behind herself, she slumps into her chair and gives them a long once-over. Akira notices the moment when she realizes what's wrong - she tries to catch Yusuke's eye, and when he continues staring at the wall behind her, she cocks her head just a fraction.

"He a Phantom Thief?" she finally says, her tone placid. "Let me guess, he got hurt during your... pursuits, so you decided to bring him here, right, Kurusu?" She puts her palm to her temple. "What a bother..."

"According to what I have been told, I was unfortunate enough to get in the way of a flash bomb," Yusuke explains politely, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. "Thanks to, among other things, your medicine, there wasn't any lasting damage but... Well."

"You can't see," Takemi states.

"I can't see," Yusuke repeats, and his neutral expression crackles. Akira shuffles towards him, the mattress creaking under his weight, and briefly touches his elbow. Yusuke turns his head towards him and gives him a small smile that's almost brave.

"Okay, Kurusu, get out," Takemi says resolutely. "Doesn't look like you have to stay, and if there's anything I'd want to ask, I'll call you, yes?"

Akira nods and gets up, but, before leaving, he rests his hand on Yusuke's shoulder. The other blinks in confusion, gaze cast downwards, but he does reach out to cover Akira's palm with his.

"It'll be okay," Akira says gently. "You're in good care."

"If you say so..." Yusuke sounds half doubtful, half incredulous, but Takemi chuckles fondly, so maybe she won't end up sticking needles wherever she can.

Akira sits on the waiting hall's floor and brings out his phone. His skin, where Yusuke touched it, feels warm.


The winter sun is already high in the sky, its dull rays falling through the tiny window into the hall, when Takemi opens the door and says blankly,

"I'm done."

Akira gets up, barely caring about the convo he was having with Haru, and slips behind the doctor's back into the room. Yusuke is sitting on the examination bed, looking crestfallen, and Akira clenches his fists so hard his nails leave stinging marks in the soft flesh.

"So…" he starts, trying to keep his voice under control. Takemi huffs and grabs her notepad.

"So I couldn't find anything. No damage, internal or external. Light malnourishment, but he said it's normal and being taken care of. Sure, I can't make any fancier tests, but from what I can tell, Kitagawa is in a basically minty fresh condition."

"But for one thing," Yusuke adds quietly. Akira swears under his breath.

"Okay. Maybe it's like I said yesterday. Maybe it's just… cognitively self-applied."

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Takemi chirps. "Geez. Kids those days. Anyway, there's nothing we can do, so just keep him fed and hydrated, all that jazz. Now…" her gaze abruptly sharpens. Akira realizes what's coming just a second before she says, "Kurusu, how is your convalescence going?”

"His what.” Yusuke straightens up, furrowing his brow. "Akira, you didn't mention anything of such sort."

"W-wait," Akira says helplessly, pushing his glasses up, but Takemi raises her index finger and continues,

"Of course my little guinea pig didn't tell anyone anything about what state he was in when that cute prosecutor dragged him to my clinic." She rolls her eyes, then addresses Yusuke, "If it weren't for her, your leader wouldn't be here today."

"Akira?" There's utter shock and, just beneath it, a hint of betrayal in Yusuke's voice when he turns to Akira.

"I- yeah." When Takemi gives him a stern look, he shucks off his shirt and presents himself to her professional care. "I did get… a few hits."

"A few hits, he says," mutters Takemi, examining his skin where the imprint of a guard's shoe has yet to fade. "Do you want me to expand on that, Kitagawa?"

Before Akira has any chance to protest, Yusuke nods, so pallid his skin is almost translucent. Takemi scoffs, unwrapping a bandage around Akira's lower torso, and begins listing off,

"Firstly - two broken ribs, one cracked. He got lucky and didn't end up with a pierced lung or, judging by the shape of the bruise, any inner harm from getting kicked with a steel-capped boot." She fetches a cooling pad and presses it to his skin. "You still in pain? No? Well, better safe than sorry. Where was I… A second-degree injury on his leg. I'm no pathologist, but it's easy to tell this was made slowly and deliberately - but it's mostly healed now." Turning to get a roll of gauze, she cracks a smile. "Your boy is a fighter. Just a bit more and he'd end up with a broken bone. Okay, furthermore - lots of other bruises, a couple of fractures on his pretty face, but they healed very quickly-" she pauses meaningfully, then waves her hand "-cuts here and there, and, when the attorney cutie dumped him here, he was high like a kite on a lovely mix of benzodiazepines. And you didn't know jack. Well, until now. You're welcome."

During Takemi's monologue, Akira doesn't take his eyes off Yusuke, who, with each new wound listed, twitches as if those cold words were knives to his stomach. When the silence falls, the look on his face bespeaks of despair almost as terrible as just before his Persona awakening.

"Does anyone but Takemi-san and Nijima-san know?" he finally says, barely audible.

"Boss does," Akira says uneasily. "I asked him not to tell anyone. Look," he sighs, "if we have to talk about this, let's do it in Leblanc, okay?" Putting his shirt back on, he gives Takemi an apologetic smile she ignores.

"Yes, I'm afraid we do have to talk about this," mutters Yusuke, measuring each word, and Akira simply shrugs and, waving goodbye to Takemi, leads him outside.

The walk takes more time than if Akira was to go alone because he has to navigate between puddles and cracked sidewalk, but it means he has the time to observe Yusuke, soak up his composed expression and how his long, skilled fingers tighten around the sleeve of his hoodie. The smell of last night's rain still drifts through the chilly air, damp and earthy. Akira breathes it in, then, once again, glances at Yusuke, who seems a- a bit better. No longer like his world has slanted and risked toppling over, but his gaze is downcast. Akira looks the other way, guilt washing over him.

Inside the cafe, Sojiro gives them a long, judging gaze, then grimaces and slides Akira two fresh cups of coffee.

"No luck, huh?" he asks rhetorically. "Sorry, kid."

"There's still hope," Yusuke answers calmly, accepting the mug Akira pushes into his hands. "Thank you. Now, could we move to the attic and discuss Takemi-san's words, please?"

"Uh," Akira says, shooting Boss a meaningful gaze.

"Nope, I'm not getting you out of that one." Sojiro chuckles fleetly. "I knew Tae would rat you out, and bless her for that. You gotta trust your friends more, lad. Now get lost, my regulars will show up soon."

Apparently sensing the suddenly thick atmosphere, Morgana takes one look at them, then expresses an unexpected wish to observe the people in the Yongen-Jaya station and trots out of the attic with a curled tail.  Akira watches him go, then whips out his phone and texts the team. Nodding to himself, he says,

"Haru told me she's going to drop by in about an hour, hour and a half, and the rest will do that after the school ends, so, if you want to berate me, let's be quick about this. I... They can't know, okay?"

"No, Akira, do excuse me, but this," Yusuke gestures in his direction, with displeasure pinching his expression, "isn't even remotely okay." He halts for a split second, then carries on, "If my calculations aren't erroneous, you explored and fought in a Palace mere three days after being, allow me to be blunt, being outright tortured-!"

As Yusuke clenches and unclenches his fists, trying to regain his composure, Akira flinches slightly. Yeah, he was pretty foolish - but the end justifies the means. He supposes.

"If we wait for me to recover, Shido'll get us," he says softly. "So there's no other choice. I am the leader, after all, and you all depend on me. I can't let you down."

"Exactly." All the fight has vanished from Yusuke's voice. "We depend on you, Akira. Every single one of us, myself included, needs you. Losing you... would be a horrific tragedy."

"Guess we're in a predicament, then," Akira manages, trying not to overthink how Yusuke's meticulous inflection has cracked, and how his unseeing eyes fill with the unvoiced fear of something yet to occur.

"True." Yusuke leans back on the sofa, shifting a lock of hair away from his face. "At least... try to be careful."

"I promise." Akira thinks for a while, then says, "How about we agree to disagree and play some video games?" He pauses and closes his eyes. "Well. I play and you listen to my crappy descriptions?"

"I'm unsure whether it'll be a stimulating activity-" Akira suppresses a chuckle "-but I suppose we could try?"

"Then get over here," he helps him up, "and find yourself stimulated." At that, Yusuke grants him a swift grin of amusement.

In the end, Akira plays a weird PS4 game about murders and bears, making sure to point out each instance of messed-up-ness ('The blood is pink? Sounds outrageous, yet riveting...') and yelling at the meek protagonist when he fails to put his foot down with his classmates' antics. Yusuke listens, enraptured, occasionally asking a question or two about character design (which throws Akira off the loop for more reasons than one), and, just after finding a dead body in the main character's bathroom, Haru makes her way into the attic and says gently,

"Hello. How are you two doing?"

"Hi there, Haru." Akira waves to her lazily, then turns off the game and stretches out. "We're fine."

"Correct," Yusuke supplies, also getting up and almost falling down. Akira catches his wrist and pulls him to his feet, grimacing.

"I... see." Haru nods, then sets her stuff on the floor and says, "F-forgive me if I'm being pushy, but I thought Yusuke is probably missing art already-" the mentioned boy raises his brows "- so, in an attempt to help him somewhat, I've decided to bring my violin with me." She nudges the case with her foot.

"I didn't know you could play," Akira says in surprise. He goes to sit on the sofa, pulling Yusuke with him.

"Oh, I try not to show off too much with it..." Haru tugs on the sleeve of her sweater. "F-father was of the opinion that playing a musical instrument was befitting a lady like me... and I guess I do like playing."

"Interesting..." Yusuke mutters, folding his hands under his chin. "Then if I could ask you to play something?"

"S-sure." Haru smiles, then goes to pull out her violin. Resting it on her collarbone, she says, "It's already tuned, so let's begin." She brings the bow down, and Akira lets his eyes slip shut as the music encircles him.

The first piece, he recognizes - it's solemn and pulls on heartstrings, yet there are traces of hope, too. It makes him think about the first gleams of daybreak, light twined with darkness. Before he can ask about this piece, Haru ends and wordlessly moves to another. Her gaze, focused on the instrument, is faraway, and when Akira nudges Yusuke, the other boy nods in approval. The following song is lighter but just as calm. And the next is full of life. And then Akira lets his attention slip and simply enjoys the music, Haru's nimble fingers and small, private smile, and how Yusuke's leaning forward, completely captured in the music. He's smiling, too, and the sight of such a gentle expression fills Akira with warmth.

Around thirty minutes later, Haru lets her hand fall to her side, then says mildly,

"Those were classical pieces. Now... I would like to play something more contemporary." When they nod their agreement, she beams and resumes.

After just a few notes, Akira blinks, then stage-whispers,

"Is this a cover of this one English song?"

"I think so... I did hear it before." Yusuke dips his head in thought. "But the title eludes my memory."

"I like this one," Haru says with a grin, then pauses and starts again, but this time, her cheeks flushed, she sings, slowly and softly.

To Akira's even greater surprise, somewhere around the second verse, Yusuke joins her. His voice, while not as trained, is just as beautiful, steady and sure and... whoa.

With his eyes closed and a distant smile playing on his lips, Yusuke accompanies Haru, his deft fingers tapping out the rhythm on his knee. Some afternoon sun shines on him, coloring his face and weaving streaks of light into his messy hair. The look on his face is similar to the one he has when painting, turning the empty canvas into something alive, continuing on his path to find true beauty. And this time Akira notices this process isn't unilateral - when Yusuke loses himself in creating, it also affects him, covers him in an array of emotions. Concentration. Hope. Inspiration. He's smiling, and Akira, holding his breath, thinks this is art.

And then everything aligns.

Chapter Text

 

"I didn't know you could. Uh." Akira frowns at his reflection in the bathhouse's hot water. Now that the team meeting is over with, he finds it a bit hard to find words.

Around ten minutes after Haru stopped talking with Yusuke about the possibilities of the future joint music making, Ryuji barged into the attic, with a bottle of soda in his hands and Futaba, riled up and chasing on his heels, followed by Morgana and Ann, the girl gossiping with Makoto about something or the other. Their laughter filled the room with even more noise, and the tranquil atmosphere instantly went to hell.

Well. At least they made sure to bring snacks. It took Yusuke less than twenty seconds to let go of his indifferent composure and start happily nibbling on a pack of matcha-flavored pocky Ann pushed onto him.

"Okay, team," said Akira, watching Morgana stretch himself on Futaba's lap, his front paws touching Ryuji's knee. "We have about fourteen days left until the election, so we have to pull it together and make our way to the Treasure... despite Yusuke's condition." He barely managed to keep his voice even.

"True..." Makoto tapped her lower lip in thought, then casually stole Ann's cupcake. Ignoring her offended huff, she continued, picking on the crust. "We have only one letter of recommendation left to obtain. If I'm correct, we need to get it from that IT company president."

"I'll deal with him," Futaba rolled her eyes. "Won't take that much time, he sounds like a dingus."

"Oi, language!" Ryuji chided her.

"Look who's talking, mister 'effing shit' himself!"

"But you're a kid, for the love of-"

" Guys." Akira fixed them with a sharp look, then cleared his throat and resumed, "So, after we're done with that, we'll have to take care of that yakuza who threatened us before."

"More fighting... Ah, how thrilling!" Haru sipped her tea."Then our path to the Treasure should be more or less clear, am I right?"

"Yeah. I reckon that gives us enough time to go to Mementos and farm some cash. We're low on everything, and Morgana could use a new sword."

"You're right about that, Joker, I really dang could," Morgana verified.

"Cats with swords…" Ann grinned. "Never thought my life would come to this."

"Me neither," Ryuji agreed, bumping his shoulder with Ann's. "Phantom Thieves for the win!"

Akira steepled his fingers on the table.

"You all okay with this?" When almost all of them promptly agreed, Akira addressed the one exception, "Yusuke, what about you?"

"Well." He frowned. "As always, your plan is remarkable, but I do worry if I'll be of much help, if any at all."

"I don't think you'd want to stay it out, right?" When he nodded, Akira twirled his pen in thought. "Then... how about this. We keep you on the sidelines, and Futaba'll help you direct your attacks if we need you to join us."

"Sounds good to me," Ryuji chimed in, earning a scornful glare from Morgana.

"I suppose..." The vexed expression didn't leave Yusuke's features and was yet another pang of guilt Akira had to swallow. "Then, when is our errand likely to occur?"

"Today's Saturday, so let's say... Monday, after school? And on Tuesday we go to the Palace." Akira pulled out his phone and tapped open the calendar. "That'll leave us fifteen days till the deadline. If we send the calling card around sixteenth of December, we'll have plenty of time to prepare."

"I'll make the card," Futaba volunteered with a wicked smile. "I have a hella idea about how to majorly piss Shido off. Will need a bit of your help though."

"So that means we won't have to play around with a buncha newspapers again?" Ryuji asked animatedly and, when Futaba's grin grew even wider, pumped his fist in the air. "Hell yeah!"

"Just be careful, okay?" Akira warned her, then looked at his notes. "Okay. I think we're good as far as Phantom Thievery-"

"I thought we decided not to use that name," Makoto groaned, making Morgana and Haru chuckle.

"-is concerned." Akira gave her a bland smile. "Okay, is there anything else we gotta discuss?"

"I believe there is." Makoto shifted in her chair, then reached out across the table to sweep her fingers over Yusuke's. "How are you faring?"

Ryuji's expression fell.

"The doc didn't come up with anything, yeah?" he asked, running his calloused fingers through his hair.

Akira, sitting on the sofa beside Yusuke, touched his arm in something meant to be a comforting gesture, then shook his head.

"Nope."

"We do theorize that... my current malady may pass in time," Yusuke said neutrally. "But, as of now, we make do. You need not worry."

"But with your school..." Ann twirled a strand of hair over her finger. "You already missed a day, didn't you?"

"We'll figure something out," Akira intercepted. "In the worst case... we will figure something out," he repeated.

The looks the team gave him weren't exactly convinced, but there was no malice in them either. They swiftly changed the topic to Akechi - Ryuji got a new high score when it came to making up new, creative taunts - and, when all that was left of their feast was a bunch of plastic wraps and empty packages, the team bid Futaba, Yusuke and Akira goodbye and strolled towards the subway station. Their vigorous bickering was heard for at least five minutes more. Shaking her head, Futaba scrubbed the toe of her sneaker against the floor, then prodded Akira and announced,

"Okay, I think I'll run along too. You two..." her expression grew tender. "Stay safe."

"We will try to."

Watching her skip her way to the entrance with entirely too pleased Morgana perched on her head, Akira turned to Yusuke and asked,

"Would you want to go to a bathhouse?"

"With great pleasure," Yusuke nodded, then, without much thought, grabbed onto Akira's forearm and got up, with an air of absolute ease. It was... enticing.

When one of the Thieves gets hurt during a battle, there isn't a place for the traditional Japanese aversion to physical touch. Even Haru, who was in all respects raised the ideal, proper Japanese lady, all perfectly calculated angles of polite bows and empty smiles, forsakes ideas of boundaries and personal space without a second thought for the team. When she needs assistance with an ugly cut, Ryuji moves to stick adhesive tape to the back of her neck, gloved fingers on bare skin. And she easily does the same for the rest of the team, like placing a revival bead to Makoto's clavicle in a silent prayer for her to wake up. The same goes for everyone. Akira himself once had to help Ann with bandaging an awful cut on her stomach and not lose it over the fact she had to peel off the upper half of her suit. And, yeah, such proximity has carried over to the real world and stayed , like Makoto hooking her ankle around Futaba's during meetings, Ryuji ruffling everyone's hair, Ann's fingers behind Morgana's ears... They stopped thinking much of it. Besides, it is nice. Having someone who would be physical with you. It's a really nice thing.

And yet, when Akira's sitting in the bath tub and struggling with the gap between what he wants to say and what is befitting to say, he barely deals with the fact that, if the tub was just a few centimeters narrower, his knees would be touching Yusuke's, so it's. Yeah. It's hard not to overanalyze.

"Could you clarify?" Yusuke tilts his head. The tips of his hair are wet enough to stick to the bare expanse of his neck. Akira's gaze slips downwards - he's still way too skinny, but at least not as if to fall over - then he composes himself and specifies,

"I, well, didn't know you could sing."

"Ah. Well, I can't, not truly." Yusuke crosses his arms, his  face going sour. "A... A few years ago, Madarame had asked me to prepare a painting based on a record album he had received for his work - at least that was what I was told. Little did I know it was, in fact, a commission he had earned a significant amount of money for." His fingertips dig into his forearm. "That deed of his notwithstanding, I found myself trying to follow the singer's voice to get into a proper spirit. One of Madarame's so-called pupils discovered me during such a time and claimed I wasn't that terrible." He rolls his shoulders. "But that isn't relevant, in any case."

"I see." Akira pinches his nose. "If you say so..."

"I do say so," Yusuke replies, his tone a tad firmer. "I am perfectly aware of my mediocre yet existent ability to carry a tune, but visual art is the one to which my being belongs, so if-" He cuts himself off.

Yep. There goes more guilt. Akira feels even shittier.

"I'm really sorry, Yusuke," he whispers. The other boy solely offers him a shaky smile, then leans back to rest his head on the tub's edge. The stiff silence that follows is only disturbed by their breaths, the regular hum of the water heater and muffled j-pop music coming from the bathhouse owner's iPod.

In this absence of sounds, Akira tries to imagine himself in Yusuke's place, being unable to devote himself to something he has built his life around. To something that allows him to turn his feelings into tangible things that won't make one curl in immaterial pain. And, if that's what painting is to Yusuke, then Akira wonders about how much he has been bottling inside himself for this entire time.


 

Their second shared morning begins on a sour note. When they used the laundromat yesterday, the dryer has breathed its last halfway through, so Akira had no other choice but to hang Yusuke's jacket and his own pants in his bedroom and cross his fingers they'd dry off during the night. But of course they didn't. Nothing ever works in our favor, Akira decides when going through his shirts to find something that'd fit Yusuke. Finally he comes up with an oversized hoodie he accidentally packed when moving to Tokyo and deposits it by Yusuke's futon (the boy's still asleep, or pretending to be). For a moment, he doesn't get up from the crouch, and looks at Yusuke. That thing , soft and affectionate and entirely too intimate, ebbs and flows inside him once again. Before doing something creepy,  Akira straightens up and goes downstairs to check the fridge's contents.

It's raining outside, fat droplets splashing against Leblanc's door and dusty windows, and this dull rumble puts Akira on edge. He takes three turns to get all of the ingredients prepared on the table, persistently forgetting to pull out the carton of milk or a cherry jam jar.

"The hell," he murmurs to himself, spreading butter on a slice of rye bread, then turning to check how the coffee's going. Taking advantage of Sojiro's absence - he left him a note that today he's going to take Futaba for a medical checkup - he adds cream to his first cup and takes a long sip of it, expecting the familiar taste to soothe his anxiety. It doesn't. Of damn course it doesn't. And Morgana didn't even bother to show up to distract him with small talk.

When Akira's almost done with the breakfast preparations and debating over today's plans, he hears careful steps coming from the stairs. He raises his head to see Yusuke, one hand on the railing and another on the wall, barefooted and doubtlessly lost in thought.

"Morning," Akira says anyway. "There's food."

"Good morning," Yusuke says with a curt nod, then, having reached the bottom of the staircase, makes a tentative step towards the interior of the cafe. Akira quickly crosses the distance to assist him, but Yusuke shakes his head wordlessly and makes his way to the counter, moving as if he was wading through deep water - god, that's actually accurate.

He barely manages to move away when Yusuke stumbles over his own feet - Akira steadies him just in time, holding onto his shoulders with utmost care.

"You have my thanks," Yusuke says hollowly, then puffs an unamused laugh. "How pathetic... As of now, what am I even good for, huh."

"Hey, it's fine," Akira says, alarmed. "It happens to all of us. You really don't have to beat yourself up over such trivial shit."

"Do I." Yusuke sighs. He doesn't seem to be willing to pull away, simply stands like this, half-leaning on Akira, limp fists hanging by his sides. The hoodie hangs loosely from his lanky frame. "Yet... I do fear I'm at least partially correct."

"I'm sorry," Akira can only say.

They let go of each other and, after guiding Yusuke into the bar stool, Akira pushes the plate towards him, not forgetting to announce that, and returns to his drink. The silence congests around each of them, separating and paralyzing. They each own a different space. That thing hanging in the atmosphere, it's what stops every word he'd like to say before he can think of it.

Even the coffee has lost its taste.

This billow starts to thin out when Yusuke's done with the food and nods his head in silent thanks, then clears his throat and says, his voice unusually down-to-earth,

"I presume it would be proper to consider what you'll do with me if I don't heal in the nearest future."

He runs the pad of his thumb over his mug's upper edge, and Akira finds himself tracking the motion when mulling over their options.

"How long can you stay here without your dorms' resident assistants realizing?" he asks in the end.

"Hm." Yusuke folds his hands in his lap. "My dormitory is affiliated with a very... peculiar school, after all, which doesn't truly care about societal norms, so I think I could hazard a guess... around a week more?"

"Okay." Akira gets up to fetch them more coffee, and an idea pops into his mind. "What do you think about this - we ask Sojiro to call your school and say you had an emergency somewhere pretty far away, like in, let's say, Tochigi?"

"Maybe somewhere else," Yusuke wrinkles his nose in distaste.

"You city boy," Akira drawls out, mimicking the Fukuoka accent his grandma has, then regains the previous gravitas and says, "okay, I'll text Futaba and have her ask Boss to do it. Now… If you being unable to see isn't temporary in the end, what will you do?"

"Claiming this to happen during the ride back and faking amnesia?" Yusuke accepts the offered mug and drinks from it slowly. "Hm. That... does not sound convincing, doesn't it?" Despite the steadiness he emanates, his hands are shaking.

"We have Nijima-san on our side," Akira dismisses it, then, deciding not to mince his words anymore, blurts out, wanting to get it over with, "but what about your art?"

Almost instantly, Yusuke's almost-serene expression falls. He grips onto the cup, and the curtain of flourishing dread of unknow flashes between them.

"I... My word, Akira, I have no godly idea," he mumbles. "It's nearly impossible for me to imagine life without... without being able to pick up a brush and let it be my guide in the world of yet undiscovered beauty." His shivers worsen, and Akira curses himself.

"I'm sorry," he says out loud, almost stuttering. He takes a step forward and leans his hands against the countertop. "I'm so sorry, this is my fault. I'm so incredibly sorry."

"Akira, I- I apologize, but, please, do not misunderstand me." Yusuke visibly pulls himself together, then, fiddling with the seam on his hoodie's sleeve, says with utter sincerity, "You don't need to repeat yourself, for I am not truly capable of blaming you. Between the safety of you and our team, and my art, health, even life... I don't think I'd choose the latter that readily." The firmness of his voice contrasts the way a soft smile appears on his lips.

If his regret, regret over all that can be lost, felt like being stabbed, those words remind Akira of getting kicked - but there's no pain. Just... his breath escapes from him in a sharp gasp. The affection he has for Yusuke - it blooms into something warm, so warm it's almost burning, almost suffocating. It's the first choking gulp of air after drowning, or the moment when the dry land reborns.

It's shifting, groundbreaking, and it's dangerously close to something beyond what members of a family feel about each other.

"But you miss it," Akira retorts when the waves smooth down. "You miss painting."

"I didn't say otherwise," Yusuke confirms. "I long for thousands of things after mere two days…. although not only painting. For example, yesterday, when you were playing that game..." He pauses and absently sips his coffee. "Your descriptions were astoundingly natural for an amateur, yet they were lacking something beyond sole observations."

"And that was...?" Akira falters.

The smile Yusuke gives him speaks of fondness and gratitude, and something else; something that Akira now recognizes.

"You," Yusuke says simply, laying his hand on the countertop. His pinky touches Akira's. "Forgive me if this sounds off, but I will confess, considering it's, if I'm reading the atmosphere correctly, an honesty hour. I found myself having a liking for watching you and more than that. And that may be what I miss more than painting."

With that said, Akira can't help but put his palm on Yusuke's and hope it conveys what his dumb, overly expressive face is showing. Somehow, this feels incomparable from the previous touches. Yusuke nods, his expression growing more tender and vulnerable than he ever seemed to allow himself.

A spark of sudden, mutual, wordless knowing passes between the two of them and, everything harmonized like notes of a violin piece, they lean over the counter, towards each other. Akira can only notices how long are the other's eyelashes, so long that shadows form underneath them, before his lips are on Yusuke's.

It feels like the daybreak, a new page written in a book. Akira closes his eyes and brings his free hand to Yusuke's cheek, takes in the cool softness of his skin and the homely taste of Blue Mountain. The other boy makes a soft, pleased noise. Their noses brush. It's- real, it's all real, bending over Leblanc's counter and kissing Yusuke, it has happened, and it's reality. It's seeing the last sakura flower gliding towards earth or hearing a snippet of a favorite song when commuting. It's a technicolor moment of peace inserted between adrenaline, blades and risking their lives for the greater good.

They don't break apart, not really, Yusuke simply rests his forehead against Akira's and asks, his breath warm on Akira's mouth,

"If I could ask you... when did you realize that... Ah. Since when?"

"Dunno. Does it matter?" Akira whispers back. "You?"

"Perhaps when you announced you need to give yourself over. Or on the day you saved me." Yusuke's eyes are still closed, Akira realizes, and he strokes his thumb over his cheekbone. "Does it matter?"

"As long as we have this... Nope. Now, how about we move upstairs and continue?"

"We don't have anything planned for today, am I right?"

"Well." Akira laughs quietly. "Not until now."


 

If he squints just enough, Akira can see the faintest glow coming from the stars taped to the ceiling just above his bed. It's nothing like being under the night sky, but it's also not like he's about to complain, not with Yusuke curled up by his side, his head on Akira's shoulder. Sighing fondly, Akira runs his fingers through Yusuke's hair, already mussy after the events of the past five minutes.

Just as they got upstairs, hands tangled together and cheeks flushed, they ended up on the bed and resumed their impromptu make-out session, slowly but steadily exploring each peak of bared skin and soaking in shared warmth. To no surprise, Yusuke turned out to be awful at kissing, unsure and prone to pausing every so often, but, hey, Akira doesn't have that much experience to scoff. He himself only had a two weeks long relationship with his classmate, which ended after she grew bored of him, and a jittery ten minutes in a closet during the summer camp with an upperclassman that only led to Akira realizing he doesn't care about the gender of his partners. So Yusuke is the third person Akira ends up making out with - while Akira himself is Yusuke's first.

At least both of them learn quite quickly.

However, when Akira decided to run the risk and moved from Yusuke's mouth to the underside of his jaw, the other boy jerked so hard he almost threw Akira from underneath himself, promptly putting an end to that particular venture.

"I'm sorry," he said sullenly. "I'm afraid that... this particular act was a bit too overwhelming for me."

"Don't worry," Akira replied with a small smile. "We can take our time. Now c'mere." He held onto the front of Yusuke's hoodie and pulled until he complied with a fond huff and lay down by his side. Akira looped his arm around his shoulders and allowed his fingertips to brush the other boy's scalp.

"Is that okay?" he asked quietly. Yusuke let out an approving hum, then pressed his temple to Akira's collarbone and stayed like this, with his eyes closed and one hand gently resting over Akira's heart.

Looking away from the stars, Akira breathes out easily and feels his chest expand under Yusuke's careful touch. Somehow, this sensation makes perfect sense to him.

He has never been one to believe in destiny, yet Akira can't not think that maybe this is just how his life was meant to go. Maybe the incident with Shido was written down somewhere, and so was meeting Ryuji, then hearing about Madarame's deeds, then everything that followed. Or maybe that all was just his choice, his universe, infinite in its littleness.

No matter what, it all feels... stable. Normal. Being here, lain down on the covers, sharing warmth with Yusuke and hearing him take measured breaths. In and out. Alive and mostly fine. Akira turns his head to brush his lips over Yusuke's brow.

"Hm? Is anything the matter?" The boy frowns.

"Nope. I was just thinking."

"Care to share?"

"Well." Akira stretches out his free arm, then shrugs. Like hell he'll come out as a sap, at least not for now. "Nothing, really. What about you?"

Yusuke tenses up, then murmurs,

"I'm trying to imagine how you are looking right now. Whilst my imagination is impeccable, I wonder how many details in my mental vision of you I am missing." With great carefulness, he reaches out and glides his fingers over Akira's jaw, then cups it gently. "Forgive me for, I guess, ruining the atmosphere, but I... deeply wish I could see you." Before Akira has the chance to apologize, Yusuke, probably sensing his stirring, shakes his head and adds, "Please, try not to blame yourself. That bomb could have hit any of us, you included, and it simply was me to be the closest one. It is how it is," he gives him a hapless smile. "At least it was just me."

"Just you?" Akira repeats, placing his hand over Yusuke's.

"Let's say Makoto was the one to suffer my fate." He closes his eyes in thought. "Her sister wouldn't be pleased with such turn of events, and I suppose she could withdraw her help. Haru, on the other hand, has the entire company to supervise, and were something to happen to her, it wouldn't go unnoticed, and could make Akechi," he pronounces the name with such a disgusted voice Akira can't help but crack a smile, "wary of us. Ryuji has told us that his mother is moderately perceptive, Ann has her job and caretakers, and, if Futaba had sustained an injury, Boss... Well." Yusuke shrugs, then adds without much care, "You all have your families, whilst I'm alone. What has occurred fairly was the best worst possibility."

Hesitantly, Akira strokes his thumb over the top of Yusuke's palm. Hearing him say words like this, with so much flippancy, makes him wonder with numb horror how long he'd survive if the Thieves didn't stop Madarame in time.

"But you know you're not alone, though," is all Akira says in the end. Yusuke huffs, then breaks out a fond smile, his cheeks turning pink. It's really adorable, if someone asks Akira. It's really heartwarming.

"I- yeah. I know."

He lets his fingers slip to Akira's neck, where he absently toys with his curly hair. His body arches closer towards him, as if Yusuke feared breaking contact even if for an instant. Akira smiles, then presses a kiss to his temple.

"You're such a cuddle bug," he says into his hair. When Yusuke starts, Akira chuckles and tightens his hold around him. "No, you don't have to move away."

"R-right." When Yusuke relaxes and leans into him, his nose brushes Akira's neck. "Thank you for allowing me to do this."

"Same goes to you." To that, Yusuke laughs, his voice lower and happiness more visible than ever before.

"When my mother was there..." His expression grows calmer, but not sad. "From what I remember, she was a bit like me, too, in this matter. I have this particular memory... She was resting on the tatami; its smell was quite offensive for my child self. I wanted to ask her about something, but then I saw she was sketching. I..." Yusuke pauses, creasing his brow as he gathers his words. "When she noticed me, she had me sit on her lap and watch her work. Not even a week later, she has passed away." Now there is a lilt of sorrow in his enunciation. Akira's lips brush his cheekbone.

"I'm sorry," he says, softly, almost silently. Yusuke shrugs again.

"Don't be." He blinks, his gaze wavering. "As you said, I am no longer alone."

Just as he's about to say something sarcastic yet affectionate, Akira hears his phone buzzing on the windowsill where he dropped it beside his glasses. Sighing, he reaches out for it, not letting go of Yusuke, and makes a face at the screen.

"Futaba," he groans. "She asks if Morgana's here."

"Well, if he was indeed here, I'm positive we would have heard quite a lot of comments about our recent activities," Yusuke responds with utter sincerity. Snorting, Akira types out a reply. No more than ten seconds later, a new message appears. The blink of light hits Yusuke and Akira sees his pupils narrow. Huh. That can be a good sign, right, eyes reacting to stimuli again...

"She says that he probably got locked in her room..." He winces. "Wait, but can't he pick locks? Ugh, nevermind." He nudges Yusuke gently. "Get up; I gotta go grab spare keys and check what he's doing."

"If you have to..." Yusuke gathers himself up with a sullen frown. Then he slips and, as he's trying to regain his balance, elbows Akira in the ribs.

Pain flashes. Akira's vision blanks out.


He's on the floor. But the chair- he was in a chair, right? His wrists ache. Handcuffs. Skin peeling off. Did they take them off? Yeah, that makes sense. They know he won't fight. Can't fight. Hurts, it hurts. Akira struggles for his breath. Gasps. So he can breathe. Good. In, out. It hurts. His ribs must be broken. It hurts so damn much-! He whimpers, then bites his tongue. Be quiet, or they'll make it worse. Blood.

"Akira!"

His name. That's his name, right? He knows the voice. Is it Akechi? Did he come earlier? Maybe he's here to kill him. Maybe he decided not to wait. Akira's head swims. Terror. Pain. He squeezes his eyelids shut.

"Akira, please!"

That's- god, it's not Akechi. It's Yusuke. Did they get him? Did they get everyone? Are they gonna kill them too? Akira finds his voice and chokes out,

"G' away!"

Maybe Yusuke isn't handcuffed. Maybe they don't care about an accomplice as much as they do about the leader. He can get out, save them. Escape. Abandon Akira; he deserves it for pulling them into this shitstorm. God, he fucked up. The concrete feels weirdly warm underneath his splayed out fingers. But that's really not fucking important.

"Run!"

He waits for a kick, a punch, a punishment for making an unwarranted noise. It doesn't come, but someone grabs his forearm. Pain. Akira tries to pull away, but the hold is firm. No, no no no . Please. He barely holds on. The needle pinpricks sting, fresh and bright and- and-

"Akira, please, please!" Yusuke's voice shakes, it's so damn weak. Did they strangle him? Break his fingers? Drug him too? Or is he already dying? Is that it? That gotta be it. He's dying, and they brought him here to break Akira's resolve. He's the only one left. They killed everyone he tried to protect.

He fucked up.

"I'm sorry," he manages. "I'm so sorry, please, I'm sorry. Let him out. Please. I'll talk, I'll say anything you want, just let them go."

"Akira, listen." The grip on his arm loosens, then disappears. "It's not- whatever you are experiencing, it's not happening. Please, listen to me. You're safe. Try- try to breathe slower. Could you?"

This time, Yusuke sounds a bit calmer, if still frightened. Akira tries to follow his words and lengthen his exhale. Then inhale.

"Yes, yes, good. Once again, please."

As minutes pass, their flow only interrupted by Akira's trembling wheezes, more of his surroundings come back into his senses. He's in the attic, curled into himself on the wooden floor.

In, out.

Yusuke is sitting on the balls of his feet around a meter away from him, paler than a ghost, his shaking hands folded on his lap. His eyes flicker, searching for Akira in vain. Ah. Right. The flash bomb.

In, out.

They're safe. He's safe. Mostly, but that's enough. Pushing himself up to a sitting position, Akira pants out,

"Fuck." He's sweated through his shirt, and now it uncomfortably clings to his back. Some of the tension persistently lingers in his limbs. "Shit."

"A-are you okay?" Yusuke shakes his head. "No, of course not. I'm- so sorry, Akira."

"Don't worry. 's not your fault." Akira runs his hands over his body. No new aches, and the one from before has already faded away to nothing. Good. "It's not anyone's fault but Akechi's."

"But if it wasn't for my idiotic carelessness..." Yusuke doesn't finish. Akira eyes him, then reaches out to take his limp hand.

"Don't move," he murmurs. Yusuke nods, biting his lip.

Examining his long fingers, Akira tries to recollect himself. His heart still rattles in his chest like a dying butterfly, and the flashing memory of pain, drugs, slowly dying passes through his thoughts. He shudders, then holds on tighter.

There's a small patch of faded blue just by the second knuckle of Yusuke's ring finger. He probably got it after throwing himself too deep into painting, the pigment still staining his skin. It's just a shade away from copying the color of Fox's gloves. Maybe that's why, that's probably why Yusuke didn't wash it off, seeking comfort in this tidbit of familiarity. Typical of him, the unique man who's either mistaking the forest for trees, or finding universes in a grain of sand. Either not even bothering about or throwing all of himself into every new thing he discovers. A person of such intensity it makes him vulnerable. Akira finds himself comforted by this familiar eccentricity.

And maybe Yusuke can fling his katana around and bury Shadows in ice, but, as Akira watches him droop his head with a carefully dispassionate expression, he also needs to be protected. Hell. All of the Thieves do.

"You sound a bit better," Yusuke says after a while.

"Huh." Akira realizes his breathing has finally slowed down. His nerves don't feel aflame anymore, too. "Yeah, I do. I do feel better."

"That's good," Yusuke says, his voice devoid of energy. He still won't raise his head. "You went through something not dissimilar to... that pathetic display of mine from two days ago, correct?"

"First, it wasn't pathetic. It was a panic attack. This shit happens, and you don't need to put yourself down over this." Akira brings Yusuke's hand to his mouth and kisses his fingertips. "Secondly, I think it was more of a... flashback, I suppose?" He frowns, trying to recall what he heard about them. "It'd... make sense, I guess. I went through things that- "cold water, gruff voices, the smell of his blood " -weren't... exactly pleasant. Some things ought to cling on to me, prolly."

"Flashback," Yusuke echoes. "Not exactly pleasant. Akira, by god..." He pulls his hand away and cradles it to his chest, eyes widening. "And you seemed to be doing so well. Until..."

When Akira opens his mouth to refute somehow, Yusuke's features twist in a grimace of wrath and hatred, and then-

The sudden thump of his fist against the ground makes Akira jerk, then stare at Yusuke in mute shock. Before he has the chance to do anything, the other hits the floorboards again, and again, and then releases a hiss of pain.

"So Madarame was right, after all." His voice, however, doesn't waver. "I really do bring ruin to everything I touch."

"Holy shit, Yusuke…" Akira breathes out. He- he can't find his words, how on earth is he even supposed to- This can't be real, can it? What Yusuke said- he can't mean it, yes?

"Wh- Did Madarame say that?" Akira finally manages. The Joker part of him seethes. "Did he really say that to you?"

"He didn't have to." Yusuke absently tugs the hood over his head. When Akira once again grabs his hand, still resting on the floor, he doesn't appear to notice. His skin is reddened and hot where his long fingers crashed against the hardwood.

"Is that what you think?" Akira takes a look at the forming bruise. Hollowness fills his gut. Is this what Yusuke has been pushing into himself, pushing until it was too much? "Yusuke, listen. That's- god, that's so far from the truth it couldn't be further."

"Is that so?" Yusuke laughs. It's short, stifled, and sounds more like a sob than anything else, apathetic and dying in his throat. "I- I do feel otherwise. I brought you pain, both physical and emotional. As of now, Phantom Thieves will not gain anything from keeping me around, and that may never change. And have you ever heard of a blind painter? So the only two things I'm capable at has gone to waste. Yet me being hit was still the best option. Moreover…" He takes a deep breath, then continues in that same, disconnected voice. Akira doesn't think he ever heard him speak so much. "If it weren't for me, Madarame would surely not have used several promising artists to his advantage and causing death of one of them. Therefore, that's my fault, and I do not know why there wasn't any retribution for that. Perhaps you should have let him be. Allow him to continue until draining and getting rid of me."

"But you would end up dead," Akira says, just as numbly. The hole inside him expands. It's fear, anger and grief all at once. It's nauseating.

And then Yusuke looks up with sincere confusion and merely says,

"So?"

The rain anews. It taps on the window, quiet and unassuming. The scent of coffee is faint upstairs, yet still discernible. There is some weak aftertaste of blood in Akira's mouth. And it's all his version of normal.

And those small parts of present scrape against the edge of Yusuke's casual confession.

And then, with his eyes fogging over and a thoughtful nod, he makes it even worse.

"Perhaps that truly would be the best option, all things taken into account."

To that, Akira can't even imagine a proper reply, so all he does is lean forward and gather Yusuke in his arms, holding him as close as possible. The boy makes a surprised noise into the arch of Akira's neck, then repeats,

"It would be better." His measured vowels start to slip. "It- it really would. I know this. There's truly- I-" The next sound he lets out is a gasping sob.

Akira starts humming the song from yesterday as the first droplets of tears fall on his skin. This time, there's nothing else he can do.

Chapter Text

The soft clitter-clatter of claws on the roof makes Akira refocus on his surroundings and crane his neck to look out the window. Sure enough, Morgana's huddled on the window sill and fiddling with the lock, his whiskery features scrunched up in annoyance as the weighty rain droplets cause his fur to stick to his sides. When he enters the attic, he opens his mouth to say something, then notices the two boys - and pauses, one paw still raised. Looks Akira in the eye.

"Is he alright?" Morgana says, his voice soft enough to barely break the carefully upheld silence. He flicks his gaze to Yusuke, whose form loosely, limply, curls around Akira's, his head on the other's lap, tilted to hide his expression.

Akira presses his lips together, then runs his hand over Yusuke's messy hair and waits one, two, three seconds. When there's no movement but for his chest raising with meticulously regular breaths, Akira whispers back,

"I have no idea." Probably not, but those unending minutes when all he could do was to hold Yusuke and be, simply be there for him, should stay private between the two of them, tucked away and only reopened during nightmares. At least, that's what Akira thinks. That's what he'll do. Hide yet another thing away. Seems he's becoming very skilled at that. He barely represses a wry smile.

Morgana appears to buy his words, guessing by the way his expression smothers down to tired worry. He hops down to the mattress and nudges Yusuke's shoulder blade with his nose.

"Hey, Fox. We're here, by the way. Just... remember that, okay?" Flopping down on the covers, he gives Akira a baleful look. "Now I can't even chastise you for not asking why I was gone, after seeing this."

"'s fine," Akira says. "Guess Futaba locked you up, and you were feeling too lazy to get your ass here."

"Yeah, that's how it went." Morgana chuckles briefly, but the amusement fades from him like coffee stain scrubbed off plastic. "You two... Should I pry into what happened between you two?"

"Dunno." Akira shrugs. "Don't ask me." Morgana nods, then lays his head on his outstretched paws, a small, sad purr emerging from his throat.

They stay like this, three exhausted thieves, each submerged in a separate world, until shadows grow long.


 

In the late afternoon Futaba sets herself up in the attic and chats with Yusuke (who comes back to life, although is withdrawn and more silent than ever) about the plans she has for a calling card. That means Akira manages to drop by Untouchable, when he exchanges things the team managed to dig up during the last excursion for a few crumpled one thousand yen bills, then goes to Takemi. She asks him about Yusuke and adds an extra box of painkillers to his purchases.  The way she talks with him is similar to Iwai's - in a muffled, rushed voice, every so often she pauses when she looks around the waiting room, as if expecting Akechi to kick open the door and gun everyone down at a moment's notice. But, not even for a fraction of second, she doesn't drop the defiant look.

The night is quiet. Almost serene. Morgana doesn't say a word when Akira pulls Yusuke into the bed with him; finds himself a new spot by Akira's bent legs, crawling under the quilt and radiating warmth.

And then, with the morning being a blur of crappy video games and reheated grilled cheese, they go into Mementos.

"Our setup will be," Akira says, putting his hands in the pockets of the coat and frowning at the gloomy subway corridors, "Noir, Queen, and Morgana on the frontline; Skull will step in if someone gets tired; Panther..." He pauses and tries not to look at her, wary of his expression. She nods anyway.

"I will watch over Fox."

"My apologies," Fox says quietly. "I truly am a hindrance as of now."

"Shut the hell up," Oracle interrupts, her nose wrinkled in exasperation. "No self-depreciating talk in this house. If we need you in the battle, you will be in the battle, and be listening to me. I can direct your attacks with a surgeon-level precision."

"Glad we got that resolved," Skull says before Fox can object, then grins. "Let's go then."

"Let's go," Akira echoes, watching Panther take Fox's arm and mutter something to him, making him crack a smile as she guides him to the van.

They take care of three requests Mishima has slipped them throughout the month, and manage to get to second to the lowest floor. When Shadows stop giving them a wide berth and instead circle around the bus, Akira makes the call to go to a higher floor and rest there. After enough curry to feed an army comes the time to pick on random Shadows for exercise and cash.

At one point, when both Noir and Skull are dead tired and washed out of power, Akira has Fox join the fight to throw a few spells. All of them connect, and Oracle looks immensely proud of her directions.

"Okay, that's enough for today," Akira proclaims when he's done collecting the loot the Shadow has left, watching Mona cast a widespread healing charm. "We made progress, and we could make more, but tomorrow we gotta go the Palace. Are you fine with that?"

Everyone nods. The atmosphere, while still tense, fills with energy and mindful joy. There's hope, Akira thinks to himself. There's hope.


 

"Lovebirds?" Ignorant to Akira's sputtering, Yusuke slips out of his sweater. "What an odd term."

"He can suck it," Akira says after he's done cursing Morgana, then hands Yusuke the t-shirt he'd been using as pajamas top, after the damn cat has shed all over the previous one the night before. "How are you feeling, by the way?"

"Functional," Yusuke decides after a while. "Although... my arm does still hurt. But only slightly!" he adds quickly.

"Yeah, sure. I'm gonna check it right now, okay?" When the other nods his yes, Akira runs his fingers over an almost-faded bruise and watches Yusuke intently. "Hm. We can go to Takemi, but, in my inept opinion, it doesn't look bad."

"I don't think there is a need to trouble this woman too often," Yusuke says, carefully taking Akira's hand into his. "After all, I could assume she's getting quite tired of having to take care of us two time and again. How about we decide in the morning?"

"Sleep is the best doctor, after all," Akira quotes Morgana, then throws his folded jacket on the chair and, not letting go of his friend, topples onto the bed. Yusuke makes a small, surprised noise, almost a squeak, when he loses his balance, but then laughs and makes himself comfortable. Pushing himself up on his elbow, Akira watches Yusuke stretch all over the mattress, all long limbs, bundled up shirt and shadows of eyelashes falling on his cheeks, moving as he blinks rapidly. Then Akira leans down to kiss him.

"You're smiling," Yusuke whispers without moving away. His voice is soft. "Am I right?"

"Of course you're right." Akira rolls his eyes, but his tone doesn't darken. "How could I not be smiling?"

"True." Yusuke sighs, his eyes fluttering shut as he reaches out to lay his hand on Akira's cheek. "It is one of the sights I miss. One of the many. I... would like to see stars and the universe one more time. But," he adds when Akira tenses up, and why is he still so peaceful, "as long as you're here, I cannot shake off the conviction that, in every turn of fate, I will be alright."

"That's a lot of faith you're putting in me," Akira says flatly, to which Yusuke huffs an offended breath.

"Do trust me, my trust in you couldn't be baseless after all we went through together, after all. So try not to sow unnecessary doubt within yourself."

"Yeah, well." Akira coughs, then throws a spare pillow in the direction of the light switch. When the darkness falls around them, warm and familiar like a worn blanket, Yusuke stills his fidgeting and, after mere minutes, relaxes into the other boy's side. His breathing slows down, and Akira, phone in his hand as he's browsing chat logs, can't help but wonder at how natural it all feels.

The sleep comes unexpected, but not unwelcome. It's like falling, all over again. It's just a part of what will happen, has to happen. It's another droplet in the ocean.

And, when the morning shine spills into the attic, fresh and damp from the dew and night rain, the first words Yusuke says are,

"Akira, I may be incorrect, but I believe I can see the light."


 

Despite all the rush their lives are full of, it takes two whole days until Akira can allow himself to trust Yusuke enough to let him be on his own for longer than ten minutes. While he still didn't pick up his sketchbook, he slowly walks the entire perimeter of Yongen-Jaya, hand occasionally sneaking out of the pilfered hoodie's pocket to rest against a wall as, presumably, his surroundings go hazy. Akira sits on a bench, Morgana purring quietly by his side, and watches Yusuke watch the world once again.

"There has been a tremendous improvement, if compared to what was but three days ago. Soon enough," he says, turning back to them and crinkling his eyes in a gentle smile, "I may be able to go back to Kosei's dorms."

"A shame," Akira chirps, making Yusuke laugh in surprise. He gets up and goes there to nudge him playfully. "Morgana makes for a terrible heater, and the nights are getting frosty, y'know."

"If the repercussions of my escapade won't turn out too harsh, I shall try my best to ensure you don't catch a cold whenever the danger of you meeting such appalling fate appears." Yusuke laughs again, and, when they go back home, he still remains close by Akira's side.

The next day, the Thieves raid the Palace again. They deal with the yakuza cleaner. Akira watches Fox draw a phoenix without any excuses. It takes him longer than it would just a week ago, the strokes slow and the shading careful, but, in the end, it does come out beautiful.

In-between a physical attack and evading a nasty little spell when the fight happens despite their hard work, he makes a mental memo to ask Oracle for a photo of his boyfriend's masterpiece-

And forgets when Akechi dies. When Ryuji almost dies. When their trio comes back to ruined Leblanc.

And life goes on-

And they all almost die. Akira lies on a sidewalk, barely keeping himself from writhing in pain, and listens to seven different, terrified voices which scream and beg and ask for an explanation, any, please-

When between fading (fading out) and waking in the Velvet Room, his mind drowns in a memory of the day of sending a calling card. He watched the broadcast too, sitting in the Leblanc with Sojiro and Yusuke.

"Wow," Sojiro said after Joker's defiant declaration. His expression, however, belied his words, all worry and fear. "You kids don't know how not to show off, huh."

"It was your daughter's idea," Yusuke replied with a placid smile. "Quite astounding, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, sure." He shakily tapped out a cigarette from the box and excused himself, leaving the two boys alone. As soon as the bell chimed, Yusuke's smile fell, and he leaned forward, dragging his fork through the plate of curry.

"What's the matter?" Akira felt like this time it was him to miss a cue. "And don't tell me it was nothing."

"It was n- Ah, well." Yusuke shrugged, his lips tight. "It's a trivial matter, but I found it quite hard to properly... see the color of your eyes on that broadcast."

"I thought you were getting better."

"I am, though. Were I to see this video yesterday, I'm not certain I would have been able to recognize where your mask ends and the skin begins. Tomorrow my fears will be extinguished, too, but, even so, I..."

"I'm sorry," Akira said, quietly, and got up from the booth to sit by Yusuke and lay his hand on his.

"There is no longer any need to be," Yusuke chided him. He let go of his fork and reached out to rest his hand against Akira's cheek and pull him closer. "It's in the past."

"Yeah. I... yeah." Akira smiled. "You're right. We gotta focus on the present, right?"

"Right."

And, waking up in the cell and grasping to stay alive, Akira thinks about those words, and thinks about what he wanted to say but didn't.

We're somehow still alive, after all, and alive we will continue to be.

Chapter Text

Even with the air conditioning blowing lukewarm breeze at his face, staving off the exhaustion, Akira finds the air inside Sojiro's car kind of crispy. It's- it's not bad, though. It helps with making this whole situation kind of more and less realistic at the same time.

He takes in the view out the window, at the streets of Yongen-Jaya. When he first came here, just about a year ago, they appeared bland and bleak; now he can't help but pick up on all the splashes of color he was devoid of while in the juvie. An idol poster on the pole here, a flowering plant on the window ledge there... Akira adjusts his glasses, smiling a little, and looks back at Sojiro as the car comes to a halt in front of the Leblanc.

Spotting the familiar sign, almost smelling the coffee, Akira feels virtually dizzy with relief and joy. He did it. They did it. He's back home now.

"So," Sojiro says nonchalantly, lighting up a cigarette, "get off. Your friends are waiting."

"I- yeah, just..."

Friends…

Yep, there goes the pleasant atmosphere. Akira folds his hands, glowering at the worn car mat under his sneakers.

"Are... all of them here?" he asks, trying not to sound too anxious. Sojiro, however, does give the impression that he has picked it up anyway, judging by the way his brows pull together.

"The art kid- I mean, Yusuke, he's there too." Rolling his eyes knowingly, he clasps Akira's shoulder and squeezes it. "He missed you. All your buddies did. So be a man and get the hell out of my car before I have to use force, okay?"

"Don't kill me, please," Akira deadpans, sarcastic out of instinct, then opens the croaky door and stands on the sidewalk. Putting his fists in his pockets, he watches Sojiro park a few meters away, then peers at the door.

"Get a hold of yourself," he mutters to himself, then, before he ends up subjected to another admonishing, presses on the cold doorknob. He barely steps inside the cafe before he finds himself with his arms full of screeching Futaba throwing herself at him, nearly toppling him down.

"You utter asshole!" she shrieks into his ear, her grip tightening around his chest. "You absolute-!"

"She's right, yanno," Ryuji adds before getting up from the booth, Ann and Makoto following. Haru, sitting by the counter with Yusuke, grins and hauls her companion up.

And there's no way, even with finding himself in a middle of a group hug, Akira can't not remark on a pair of sunglasses folded by an unfinished cup of green tea, or a walking cane propped against the wall.

"'s nice to see you guys," he says, hoarsely. They harden their hold on him, and, just a few weeks earlier, it'd hurt, with his ribs being broken then and all, but now...

Ah, who is he kidding. It still hurts, for more than one reason, because he could heal. He had the chance to heal.




With Morgana's smelly form curled on his lap and a plate of familiar curry striking him as just too damn good, Akira forgets, just for flashes of seconds. Makoto floods him with questions about how he was treated in his confinement, and, whenever he mentions something less than perfect, Ryuji punches the seat behind him, earning a disapproving tut from Sojiro and making Haru crack a smile. Ann is joking around, a whole damn lot, and her elated grin and her cheerful, sing-song tone are refreshing in their vivacity.

Futaba stays mostly silent, crouching in the booth with her arms around her legs, and so does Yusuke. And Akira can't do otherwise than observe him more than the others, how he fidgets and nods.

When there's a lull in the conversation after Makoto is done with her interrogation, he finally speaks up.

"It's over, isn't it?" he says. "We've been released of our duties." He keeps his eyes half-lidded, so it's neigh impossible where his gaze is directed. Perhaps that's intentional.

"So it seems," Morgana chimes in, pawing for a piece of sushi until Haru discreetly pushes it his way. "We're done."

"That sounds depressing," Ryuji mumbles behind a can of soda he cracks open. Taking a deep, slurping sip, he sets it back on the table and gives Akira a once-over. "And we haven't even talked about how this dude'll go back to his folks in what, a month?"

"Jesus Christ, Ryuji!" Ann elbows him, none too gently. "Yeah, the mood's already ruined, why don't you set it on fire too, you jackass?"

"Good game, Sakamoto," Futaba adds flatly.

"I believe derailing our dialogue has been my fault, not his," Yusuke protests meekly. "I apologize for-"

"Calm down" Akira says, raising his palm to quieten them, then realizing it's the gesture he always uses - used, god damn it - as Joker. "All of you were just stating the truth. Yes, we're done. And... yes, I'll be... going to my parents' soon." He doesn't say, going back, or, heaven forbid, going home.

"That's just how it is..." Makoto sighs, then stirs her cup of coffee, perhaps with slightly too much force.

"We should enjoy the time we have left." Haru nods, resolute. Akira forces out a grin.

"We will. That's a promise."

They smile and agree to it - and, when Akira reaches out to grasp Yusuke's hand, making him perk up a bit more, he's really close to the point of believing that everything's going to be okay.




Only when he's back in his bed, with Morgana snoring as he's stretched out on the windowsill (and using his phone as a pillow), and with Yusuke mere centimeters away, breathing calmly into the early night, Akira finally can shake off the unease that has been cloaking him throughout the evening.

"Hey," he says. He realizes he doesn't know what else to say, so he wavers and brushes his fingertips over Yusuke's hair.

"Hello," Yusuke says serenely. "What is the matter?"

"Nothing, I just…" Fuck. When did he get so awkward? Just a few months - months! - ago, the words would fall into place and pass through his lips without any doubts, all quick and true. And now he's intently watching Yusuke, who's frowning in confusion, and can only say, very lamely, "I just wanted to know how are you."

It's dumb. It's so, so dumb. All of his friends guaranteed he's caught up with their lives, telling story after story, all small and making little sense without context, and Akira could gleam that Yusuke has recently left the hospital, was allowed to stay in Kosei until graduating, and found the rehabilitation (Akira grimaced at this term, recalling a prison cell filled with otherworldly blue shine) quite irksome. Nothing personal, but nothing im personal, too.

"Well," Yusuke begins, then lets out a brief, dry chuckle. "Despite all those unpleasant occurrences of the past year's ending, I am… alright."

"You're dealing with, uh, this shit, yeah?" Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Cutting straight to the chase, ain't you, Kurusu.

"How vulgar," Yusuke chides him, but without his usual passion. His grip on Akira's shirt tightens. "But you're correct." He smiles, and it doesn't feel like just a hesitant try to reassure Akira, it's way too sincere. "I am indeed dealing with this shit." Okay, that one was, undoubtedly, an attempt to brighten him up. Akira gives a little laugh, to which Yusuke's smile turns proud. It's childish, of course, but that's also the second time Akira heard him actually swear. First time he heard him being optimistic in nigh two months, which is, in a way, like getting a heavy weight off his shoulders, all joy and alleviation.

"I'm glad," he confesses, chasing the lightness of this moment. "I'm very glad and relieved you're fine."

"Was there another option?” Yusuke shakes his head in exasperation. "As long as you're by my side, both you and the rest of our companions, everything will turn out okay. I said so before, didn't I?"

"Yep."

A cloud of tranquility blankets them. Warm and on the verge of stepping into sleep, Akira thinks that, in the end, it could've gone worse. Sure, that possibility always exists, but he's positive things will work out.

And much, much later, he'll realize he was right.

Chapter Text

In opposition to quite a great deal of emotions, helplessness has always had particular corporeality to it, in Yusuke's opinion. While joy's lightness slips through his fingers, sorrow resembles vacuity instead of something real, and anger is but flashes of ice and violence, helplessness crushes his chest and steals each breath. It skirts the line of actual, physical pain.

"Akira, please!"

His heart in his throat, Yusuke tries to get up from the bed, but his hand misses the edge of it, and he loses his balance, crashing to the floor. It's not a long fall (and, even if it was, it would not matter), but the suddenness causes Yusuke to freeze, rapidly blinking as instincts take over and try to chase away the darkness. To no avail, of course.

Then he hears Akira gasp out,

"G'away!"

This - this isn't right. Something isn't right, something has happened, and it has to be disastrous, for, throughout the abundance of battles and skirmishes, Akira never, ever!, sounded like that, scared and vulnerable, begging, and even now, when he does not speak, the way his breaths wheeze in and out- And what Takemi-san said. Bruises and broken bones. And how Yusuke slipped, merely a minute ago, and hit Akira, albeit not out of ill will, yet- Oh.

His unraveling thoughts crumble into nothingness.

Oh.

For a moment of unknown length, Yusuke cannot recognize anything, any sound or any sensation. The obscurity spreads, enveloping him in a stare of utter- nothing. There's nothing. This, everything, isn't happening. It's not dissimilar to that jolt of realization, when you look at your hands or see your reflection, that you exist. But he cannot view anything, so that pull comes from- from-

The previous helplessness mixes with a sudden (but oh so familiar) wave of self-hatred, and Yusuke feels sick as it overpowers him. It's beyond vile. His entire being is repulsive.

(Scratch your skin off, his mind advises. Set it on fire and blot out this ugliness. Give birth to beauty with your death.)

"Run!"

Oh, god. Akira. (His soft voice and even softer lips, not so long ago). Snapping out of his distasteful bout of self-pity, Yusuke pushes himself upwards and feels around, until he finds Akira's forearm and holds onto it, tight. Doesn't let go, even when his friend tries to pull away. The warmth of another human body becomes his anchor to this reality - once again.

It's important to make amends, so, despite the thorny loop of anguish coiled around his neck, Yusuke forces out,

"Akira, please, please!"

His voice is shaky enough to break. How disgusting.

"I'm sorry," Akira replies, and his voice shouldn't have ever sounded like that, this close to begging, each inhale coming with a hitch. "I'm so sorry, please, I'm sorry. Let him out. Please. I'll talk, I'll say anything you want, just let them go."

"Akira, listen…" Yusuke trails off.

The vague, dazed tilt to Akira's pronunciation sows the seeds of perplexity, causing Yusuke to slacken his grip on Akira's arm, then withdraw it completely.  What is he even talking about? It is as if he forgot where he is… The sudden realization comes with a recollection of Futaba's small, warm hand curled around his, the way she spoke so very quietly, and the impression of drowning in air, unable to control his breathing or to stop quivering. A panic attack, she called it with a hint of gloomy mirth.

"It's not-" Yusuke stops briefly, recollects his words, then, careful to keep his voice as gentle as possible, continues, "whatever you are experiencing, it's not happening. Please, listen to me. You're safe. Try- try to breathe slower. Could you?"

Another raspy gasp, but a bit easier. Then, a shaky exhale. This is what Futaba did, right? He isn't making things even worse - right? He isn't destroying yet another thing, stomping on the debris, soaking it in kerosene and flicking a lit match on it - right? Can he tell that to himself? Can he even believe himself?

No, no, of course not. But he shall never permit himself to stop trying to fix his transgressions. So, with Goemon nudging a warm feeling of fake calmness his way, Yusuke looks back to Futaba's guidance and, with utmost care, walks Akira through… whatever has befallen him.

Minutes pass. At least, he thinks so. It could be hours, or seconds. He can only divide this flow into jagged shards of time. In this lack of any light or color, the silence disturbed only by two sets of breaths and faraway buzz of late morning life, everything seems fragile and more breakable than a sheet of thin wet paper under a thick bristles of a brush. Pulling even farther away, Yusuke carefully sits down in a proper position, linking his hands at his lap and, despite how much he abhors himself for such inanity, lets his gaze wander around, as if it could find Akira and lock onto him, bring him back.

When he starts debating reaching out, there's a quiet shuffling noise, then a hoarse,

"Fuck. Shit."

"A-are you okay?" The worlds are barely out when Yusuke realizes how foolish they are. He shakes his head. "No, of course not. I'm- so sorry, Akira."

"Don't worry. 's not your fault." He says this with conviction, weak but apparent, yet… he is mistaken. He must be mistaken.

Then - something about Akechi, but Yusuke doesn't catch that. Doesn't feel like asking for repeating, simply states,

"But if it wasn't for my idiotic carelessness..." He breaks off, having lost track of this sentence that shouldn't have ever had to occur. All of this - shouldn't have ever become tangible.

Before he has the chance to apologize again, there's a soft, hesitant touch on his hand, fingers slipping between his.

"Don't move," Akira says. Yusuke nods - and doesn't move. Doesn't speak. Tries his best not to think, to banish those thorny vines of bleak musings from his mind.

He focuses on not focusing hard enough that it takes him a while to notice that, in the meantime, the weary roughness has gradually vanished from Akira's, now almost slow and serene, breaths. With little feeling in his lips, he remarks on that, and receives an affirmation, and, for no fathomable reason, gets even sicker with himself when Akira adds that he's feeling better. However, he finds the tidbit of energy to keep that repulsion away from his voice, when he questions, queasy with something akin to morbid, self-loathing curiosity,

"You went through something not dissimilar to... that pathetic display of mine from two days ago, correct?"

"First, it wasn't pathetic. It was a panic attack. This shit happens, and you don't need to put yourself down over this." A kiss to his fingertips accompanies this reassurance that should be believable - yet is anything but. Maybe… things like that do happen, but they shouldn't have. It's a display of childish cowardice, improper for a member of the legendary Phantom Thieves. However, Yusuke doesn't voice this viewpoint, wary of causing any further distress. "Secondly, I think it was more of a... flashback, I suppose?"

Oh, god.

"It'd... make sense, I guess. I went through things that- " his breath hitches " -weren't... exactly pleasant. Some things ought to cling on to me, prolly."

How can Akira speak with such flippancy, when it's audible how shaken he still is? After all that he went through in the past weeks? Takemi-san's words come back with full force, and, this time, instead of making him shiver, Yusuke imagines how Akira must look like, hidding wounds and bruises under soft, loose clothes. It's so, so easy to visualise him during the trip to the bath house, just yesterday, the pale span of his body mottled with lilac smudges, cuts the color of summer sunset; bearing the signs of the battle he fought defenseless, and if Yusuke could get his hands on Akechi, he - he doesn't think he would hesitate long before wrapping his fingers - which held Akira's not so long ago - around his throat and squeezing, and the wrath seething within his chest will spill out soon enough.

"Flashback," Yusuke repeats, dumbly, helplessly. Wrath turns to hatred. "Not exactly pleasant. Akira, by god..." Hatred twists and prickles, asking to be let out. He frees his hand from Akira's grip. "And you seemed to be doing so well. Until..." And then it overbrims.

The pain is sudden, but too dull to bring any relief.Again. Still not it. Again. Not enough. Never enough, but the sharp inhale still slips through his lips.

Not enough to feel salvation, the weary kind one gets after being appropriately punished. Not enough to stop loathing one's entire existence. Not enough to- to be less of a mistake, someone who tries one's best but fails, can't do anything without messing it up, can't stop relying on anyone while spouting foul lies about finding own path, and- Not enough. Just like him, a blind artist, unable to protect people he loves.

At least the anger fades, leaving him empty. Yusuke breaths out, then says without any heat,

"So Madarame was right, after all. I really do bring ruin to everything I touch."

Little else matters.