It wasn’t unusual to lose Yusuke in a crowd. Akira had taken to backtracking just enough to confirm that Yusuke had run off and parking himself on a bench or against a building, messing around on his phone until Yusuke tracked him down. The early spring breeze was brisk against his bare forearms, but the noon sun on his face kept Akira from minding too much. Yusuke was probably occupied marveling at some goods he’d seen in a shop window, so it’d do no good to text him. His impromptu shopping ventures had intruded on their plans on more than one occasion, but it was best to let them play out. Yusuke would catch up with him eventually.
Hopefully whatever toy he reappeared with wouldn’t be too unwieldy. Akira’s thoughts touched warmly on the huge naked statue Yusuke had gifted him in high school. It had been by far the most inconvenient of his possessions to transport whenever he moved, but its impracticality was its most charming feature. Even Ryuji felt it was welcome to a space in their shared living room. Akira hummed, content in his thoughts, and texted Yusuke anyway: a button mash of flowers and one eggplant.
The texts, as expected, went unanswered, and it was ten minutes before Yusuke approached with a pink shopping bag, offering broad gestures meant to catch Akira’s attention from a distance. His delighted grin pulled one out of Akira in turn, and Akira pushed away from the wall to meet him, gaze shifting from Yusuke’s warm face to his fingers, which held an uncapped tube of lipstick. The bullet itself seemed to be made of glass or jelly, and encased a small blue flower, perfectly visible through the delicate, smooth gel, which Akira could see very clearly after it had been shoved into his face. “Isn’t it magnificent?”
He didn't have a chance to answer before Yusuke had started in on an enthusiastic exposition on the lipstick’s color-changing properties and the artistry that went into designing elegant beauty products. Akira listened, eyes flickering between the shiny tube waving through the air and Yusuke’s unbalmed lips. It wasn’t the weirdest purchase Yusuke had ever made, not by a long shot, but it was the first of its nature.
Yusuke spent a good deal of the remainder of their walk admiring it, gaze fixed on the tinted jelly and the tiny flower within. It reminded Akira of the glass-encased rose from Beauty and the Beast. The small text on the box priced it at three thousand yen, but the spike of worry over how much Yusuke could not afford to drop that kind of money on three grams of beeswax was overwritten by the thought that it was the sort of gift you’d buy for someone else.
They rounded a corner, and then the white stone building of their destination was in view. This block was lined with cherry blossom trees, but it would be another week or two before they were due to bloom in this part of Japan. The bright blue of today’s sky made him hopeful for a few days of good weather; last year had given Tokyo a completely overcast flower viewing season, which had upset Yusuke more with each passing day. The trees were almost bare of petals by the time the sun had peeked out and Yusuke had been able to drag himself out of what had become a colossal sulk. He’d bounced back of course, with renewed vigor and an unkind word for his own moping, but Akira also just wanted to enjoy the cherry blossoms together. Romantic gestures always went over well. Even if Yusuke never noticed them for what they were, he’d go home with soft smiles and warm words and sometimes a bedtime thank-you text wishing Akira sweet dreams.
Yusuke was holding the tube up to the light as they walked, his exact expression so familiar, the face he always wore when admiring whatever strange object or creature had caught his attention. He hadn’t made any move to apply it. He wouldn’t, if it was supposed to be a gift. Akira wet his lips, ready to suggest he test the lipstick himself just to see what Yusuke would say.
He was still working up the nerve when Yusuke derailed him. With no prompting at all, eyes still on the delicate tube in his hands, voice level, lashes fluttering—Yusuke pitched his voice low as to not be overheard, and shyly admitted: “Akira, I’ve been thinking about love.”
It was similar to many other galleries Akira had attended. Yusuke, having made several prior visits to this particular showing, impatiently led Akira through the crowds of black suit jackets and high school uniforms. The harsh artificial lighting was a difficult adjustment after warm, easy sunshine, but Yusuke had already begun gesturing at an entire photography display while Akira was blinking the spots out of his eyes and trying to find the floor beneath his feet.
Conscious of Akira’s art illiteracy, Yusuke led him through the exhibit and assailed him with flowery commentary on the human condition and the value and purpose of form, color, and lighting for each piece they stopped to admire. The words washed through Akira like water through a fishing net. He was utterly absorbed in the shock of Yusuke’s last second disclosure, angry at the existence of the crowd and how the teeming gallery prevented him from initiating a proper discussion, and in his heightened state of distress, the time between each moment and the end of their gallery tour seemed insurmountable. The purple quality of Yusuke’s soliloquizing was charming as ever, but Akira was too preoccupied with running a mental list of every single woman he had ever witnessed spending more than two minutes in Yusuke’s presence, narrowing the list to those who would wear lipstick, and then narrowing it further to those who would actually appreciate it as a gift. His memory ended up being a lot better than he wished it was.
Oblivious to Akira’s distress, Yusuke led him along in the same manner he always did. The familiarity added yet another layer of displeasure to the moment. These were supposed to be relaxing days, the peace tainted only by the occasional art-related lament or encounter with a condescending old person. Instead, Yusuke had dropped a bomb on him seconds before they reached the throng funneling its way in and out of the gallery building. At a loss, Akira spent his unofficial tour texting distressed emojis to Ann, who was awake despite the late hour in America. He would have liked to call her, just to hear her complain about the other models at the agency and feel buoyed by her warm, playful voice, and distract himself from the immediacy of his thoughts.
It was usually easy for Akira to sink into the gallery atmosphere: the noisy groups of school girls, the lingering scent of paint and linseed oil, the incredulous side-eyes from rich old men, and Morgana fidgeting in the bag over Akira’s shoulder had been the whole of countless day spent at Yusuke’s side. He wished Morgana hadn’t run off to Futaba’s today; they wouldn’t have been able to talk, but at least his warm little body against Akira’s back would have grounded him and offered a measure of comfort.
By the time Yusuke was leading him through the second half of the main room, Ann had sent him enough rows of hearts, sparkles, and piles of poop to calm him down. He took a deep breath, feeling a bit embarrassed at the prospect of articulating the cause of his panic to her later. Nothing would change in an hour. He would ask Yusuke afterward over hotpot or sushi or whatever Yusuke was in the mood to eat. As it was, Akira was wasting their day together. His phone returned to his pocket.
Meanwhile, Yusuke had long since realized Akira hadn’t been listening to him, and was regarding a portrait in silence. Akira fretted for a moment—his renewed attention would be accepted without commentary if he tried to play it cool, but—“Sorry. Phone’s off now.” The easy nod he got in return made Akira duck his head. He almost wished Yusuke expected more of him, at least enough to get annoyed at being ignored, but he knew it had less to do with Akira than Yusuke’s own personality. It was something he wanted to help Yusuke out of, not reinforce. The thought made his gut twist, and the black and blue portrait before them reared with a judgmental frown. “Something came up. What’s this one?”
This gallery was uncommon among others Akira had visited in that there was more than a single room to explore. As they rounded the final corner, Yusuke lighted a hand upon his shoulder and stopped dead. Akira attempted to pull him out of the way of the irritated gallery patrons with a guiding touch, but his hands were seized before he managed.
They were smack in the middle of the hallway, the pads of Yusuke’s thumbs pressed to Akira’s knuckles. His hands were cold as ever, and he loomed close, close enough that Akira had to drag his eyes up Yusuke’s throat to meet his eyes. Such an intense gaze was waiting for him once their eyes met that Akira jerked a step back before he could think, nearly tripping an old man and getting an earful from the nearby security guard in the process.
Akira distracted from the burning of his cheeks by guiding Yusuke with a firm grip on each shoulder until they were well into the next room. No longer obstructing traffic and drawing attention, he eyed Yusuke’s hands, now clasped in a nervous gesture and out of reach. The ghost of Yusuke’s cool touch lingered.
“The piece I wanted to show you is up ahead. I have a confession.” His lashes fluttered disarmingly as he spoke.
Confession. Thinking about love. Wanted to show you. Akira resisted the urge to groan. The artist couldn’t see the forest for the trees, sometimes. Akira was used to it; there was more exasperation than hope in the weight of his sigh, but that didn’t mean he liked when the topic was shoved in his face. He doubted Yusuke would be this smooth on purpose, anyway.
It was rare for the tone of Yusuke’s delivery to indicate the gravity, so Akira wasn’t apprehensive at least. The last time Yusuke had looked so nervous, all he had wanted was company during a park excursion. It was more common for Yusuke to outright demand the absurd or unreasonable. Stripping, for instance, or buying expensive new amenities for his own home just so Yusuke could enjoy them during his visits. “Go ahead.”
Yusuke rallied himself, nodded, and made a grand, sweeping gesture at the far side of the exhibit, nearly clotheslining an old woman in the process. The entire wall was dedicated to a series on love by a single artist, he explained poetically, and had reinvigorated the throbbing something of his artist’s soul, leading him to reevaluate his technical and thematic something something. He was difficult to follow when he got so worked up, but Akira understood the gist. The paintings were arranged with the trailing, naturalistic chaos of stepping stones across a stream, bridging the viewer from one phase of life to the next, and told the story of the viewer himself as he discovered his own path through life. This was true according to Yusuke the Art Expert; Akira the Part Time Barista saw a bunch of nice paintings of cool shapes nailed to the wall at random.
They stopped to admire each one, and Yusuke explicated the significance of each in great detail. They were, to be fair, very striking, utilizing brilliant imagery of the cosmos, the sort of thing that resonated deeply with Yusuke. Akira couldn’t help a doofy grin from stretching his face, thinking of how Yusuke’s interest in the universe as an artistic subject stemmed from their planetarium trip all that time ago in high school. They had made it a point to never go too long without revisiting the place together, but they’d be due soon. Maybe once summer started up and they were in desperate need of the air conditioning.
This painting symbolized innocent boyhood, that one was the loneliness of self awareness, this one was the first great loss in your life, that one was finding yourself through connections with others. Akira gave this one a weighty stare, considering the ribbon-like tendrils trailing after the lone figure like the tails of a kite.
At length, they reached the last in the series, the largest and brightest. There was a powerful burst of color and light blooming from the center, embracing a figure caught in the frenzy of wildflower growth. It was as if the painting had captured the the millisecond before the subject burst beyond the confines of its body, as a root would burst from the tiny flowerpot in which it had been planted. Akira didn’t know anything about technique or color theory, but looking at the painting made him feel like the world was rolling out at his feet like a red carpet.
At his side, Yusuke had fallen silent, too enthralled to speak. They regarded this painting together for some quiet minutes. It was unlike Yusuke to contain himself for so long, but when Akira glanced over, his eyes were far away, caught up in some private struggle.
When he spoke at last, it wasn’t to offer any explanation of the technique or subject matter. Perhaps he could sense for himself that Akira understood it as well as it could be understood; his expression was soft and thoughtful, his voice reverent. “Its title is Falling Awake. It’s very profound. I find myself unable to articulate the great many things I feel when I look at it.”
Sensing a measure of expectation, Akira cleared his throat. “Yeah, it’s… deep.” Yusuke’s nod of agreement was sincere instead of deprecating. Maybe he just wanted to encourage any paltry efforts Akira was able to make in the realm of art critique, but on the other hand, Yusuke was too guileless to make any real attempt at positive reinforcement. “I like the movement. Hm, it’s…” He affected thoughtfulness, using the seconds it bought him to channel Yoshida and will something eloquent out of the depths of his psyche. “Like a flower. Growing in space. It’s a metaphor for—blooming somewhere barren.”
Instead of mirroring Akira’s internal cringing, Yusuke raised his brows in surprise and delight. “Yes, yes, that’s it.” Yusuke turned to the painting with fresh enthusiasm. “It’s the final step of the journey. Love has bloomed, and offered itself like a rose.”
The words went straight to Akira’s cheeks, coils of heat making his skin prickle. That word again. “Uh-huh.”
Yusuke was gripping the fabric over his heart, looking pensive and distant. He’d always had such a complex relationship with the subject of love. His mother’s painting had guided him like a distant lighthouse for most of his life, and he had been raised by an abusive extortionist he couldn’t bring himself to hate even after learning of the man’s part in his mother’s premature death. He periodically mentioned never talking to anyone outside of the former Phantom Thieves, and to Akira’s knowledge, Yusuke had never pursued anything related to dating. There was a good chance he’d managed to have an experience or two—it was difficult to believe that every last one of the people who threw themselves at Yusuke on a daily basis had been deflected—but Yusuke wasn’t exactly tight-lipped, and Futaba, who couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, still snooped everyone’s phones on occasion. If Yusuke had ever been in a relationship, it was all too likely Akira would have heard about it at some point.
He fiddled with a curl, remembering his fake dates with Makoto, and how they had been kept private. But that wasn’t the same, was it? If it were Yusuke, if it were real, wouldn’t somebody tell him?
Around them, the gallery was lively with conversation, relevant and otherwise. It afforded them a measure of privacy by virtue of not standing out in the throng. This was insufficient in the way of comfort, however, when Yusuke turned to face him with an air of finality and announced, “For that, I need you, Akira.”
He must have been speaking louder than usual; there was a group of girls in Akira’s peripherals who abruptly fell dead silent. Resisting the urge to glance over at them took up the very last dregs of his self control, most of which was assigned to keeping his voice level. His internal temperature must have spiked by ten degrees. “What.”
“Romantic love has thus far eluded me. I believe it is time I ‘put myself out there’, as they say.” Akira gaped, heart racing, as Yusuke bulldozed on obliviously. “I would like to request your help. Your personal interest in the success of such a venture is not an insignificant factor. I know I would be able to trust the sincerity of your effort.”
He adjusted his glasses just for the chance to shield his face, lowering them again after realizing they were shaking. Yusuke stood in patient silence, clinical and detached even as he discussed—romance? dating? Dating Akira. As a project, or a bullet point on a bucket list, was that right? He hesitated to accept the idea that Yusuke could be so insensitive, but maybe Yusuke thought he was doing Akira a favor by coming to him instead of someone else. Akira was self aware enough to realize he would’ve been wildly jealous, even if he had considered himself ‘moved on’ for quite some time now. It’s not like Yusuke had gotten any less attractive over the years. He took a shuddering breath, let it out slow. “’Personal interest’. What do you mean?”
“You’ve always supported me, Akira.”
The words were spoken with deliberate weight, Yusuke’s gaze piercing, nailing Akira to the floor. He rubbed the back of his neck, eyes averting. At least Yusuke wasn’t saying it outright. It wasn’t like Akira was crushing anymore; he shouldn’t feel so flustered. “It’s not a big deal.”
He was given a soft smile in return, as if Yusuke was humoring the downplay. “You seem to be an expert on the subject of love. Really, there couldn’t be a more perfect fit. It’s natural I would come to you.”
The protest building in his throat felt like it would only surface as a wordless scream, so he swallowed it back down. “So that’s the vibe I give off.”
“Please take care of me,” Yusuke said, and Akira nodded to a spot on the wall.
They left the gallery slowly. People would stop Yusuke to flirt with him, or Yusuke would spend a few more minutes gazing at a piece he especially enjoyed. Akira considered the jilted expressions of the three flirtatious girls on his way out. In his own opinion, Akira had little to offer in the way of parsing romantic relationships. If Yusuke wanted to date somebody, Akira could give him that experience. If Yusuke just wanted to feel loved, Akira wasn’t sure how he would humor the request while keeping his sanity. If Yusuke wanted to feel what it was like to love someone else—well, Akira wouldn’t be able to do anything toward that end. Clearly.
His past relationships were a lot of sitting and listening, buying presents, and tagging along on whatever excursions, and by the time they ended he realized his girlfriends hadn’t known him well at all. There hadn’t been any major catastrophes, but it wasn’t a stellar resume either. He really had no idea how Yusuke had built him up as some kind of relationship guru, especially since he had never once spoken to Yusuke about his love life. At least Akira had plenty of experience helping people with their problems; usually all they needed was some emotional support and someone to listen. He’d be able to give Yusuke that.
He wasn’t so sure about the rest of it.
As they left the building, Yusuke’s attention fixed itself on a large group of dog owners across the street, standing at the entrance to a park and laughing with one another. He pulled out his sketchbook in the middle of the busy sidewalk and started sketching, and Akira leaned against the building’s facade and let him inhibit foot traffic by himself.
From that angle, Akira could see the sweeping black lines take the form of a single woman’s smiling face. He thought of Ann and the handful of other girls Yusuke had fixated on during the time Akira had known him, and his own smile slowly dropped. I need you, Akira. He’d never been particularly subtle, but it wasn’t as if Yusuke had ever shot him down directly, or even hinted that he knew what Akira wanted. Up until now, Akira had been content to entertain the thought that Yusuke just… hadn’t noticed, hadn’t had a chance to decide whether it mattered to him that Akira was interested. And now he was dealing with the fact that Yusuke would exploit his crush for an art project.
Well, he’d also come to terms with Yusuke’s disinterest a while ago. The suddenness of the request was just messing with him. He’d be fine by tomorrow.
The pencil between Yusuke’s fingers quivered delicately, like a flower in the wind, filling in the page with elegant strokes. He held the instrument like an ink brush, head bowed and back straight, hand moving feverishly, muttering to himself. The cherry blossom tree above him wouldn’t bloom for another few weeks.
Akira groaned, knocking his head against the unyielding brick behind him, forcing his gaze to the rich blue of the sky overhead. It really was a beautiful day.