Yusuke was an artist.
He could sketch life with coloured pencils so beautifully that his drawings – his art – seemed to leap off the page, he could sketch a person so precisely he seemed to capture their emotions and the sparkle in their eye in every stroke of his pencil. His hands and clothes were almost always smudged with pencil or charcoal or pain, he was almost never without his sketchbook, spending hours drawing in a quiet corner of the house, the record player singing quietly in the background.
When he was ten-years-old and always smudged with acrylic, he painted his bedroom walls ceiling to floor using every colour he had in his supply box to paint the walls into a beautiful flower field dotted with ponds filled with orange and white and black koi. He poured his soul into the beautiful blades of grass and the elegant flowers, he spent hours labouring over the koi’s scales and the way he wanted the water so shimmer. Once it was finished he wept with happiness and ran his fingers over his walls, trying to imagine the cool splash of water and the warmth of the sun on his skin – this beautiful field, his Elysium, was far from Market Chipping and miles past the Waste, bathed in golden sunlight and just waiting for him to come and find it.
If Yusuke was an artist and a dreamer, then Madarame was an artist and a realist.
Madarame painted over Yusuke’s beautiful field. He erased the flowers with a splash of spirits and a coat of white, crossed out the koi and the water and the grass with a scowl and a thick paintbrush as Yusuke sobbed and cried and begged. Madarame, the closest thing Yusuke had to a parent, had always been kind up until that moment; right up until Yusuke took him into his bedroom to show the man he looked up to his landscape and told him the story of that painting, seeking the praise he sorely wanted.
Once his wall was bare and splotchy, the vibrant colours trying desperately to break through a blanket of white, Madarame had turned to him and knelt to dry his tears and say, “There now. No need for tears, Market Chipping is your home. You have no reason to leave. Besides, that style was hideous.”
Bitterness buried itself deep in his stomach, and Yusuke merely nodded to Madarame before he was left alone in his bare and cold room, his only warmth and dream ripped out from underneath him like a rug. His hands shook as he stood up and took up the paintbrush Madarame had used to defile his work, staring at it a moment before he shoved it deep into a pot of sapphire blue and, with a wide stroke, painted a bright blue arc on his wall before dropping the paintbrush.
That arc stayed there for years, reminding Yusuke of that day as he resigned himself to painting playing cards and more traditional work under Madame’s scolding gaze, any work that his master did not like was immediately coated in white and shoved back at him to try again, but, as he was verging on seventeen-years-old the paint began to chip off and peel away, flakes of vibrant colours came off behind the white and with it Yusuke felt his own heart flaking away piece by piece until he felt empty and numb whenever he picked up a paintbrush.
And so, he worked in Madarame’s gallery, his work hung up under his master’s name and his master’s work hung up under his master’s name. He was surrounded by the smell of paints and charcoals, something he once loved, and drew in the small corner of the library with his favourite record playing in the background – but it wasn’t the same. Instead of beauty he drew anything else, grim caricatures of flowers and skulls and the cruel look in Madarame’s eyes.
It was Madarame, he believed, that cursed him. A playing card, L’empereur, slipped under his door at midnight turned his hair grey and his skin old and withered, with every movement his bones ached and was overwhelmed by a wave of fatigue. His hands shook and ached so much he could barely grip anything with much strength. He left under the cloak of night, a canvas pack tugged onto his shoulders, filled with food and clothes and a small box of paints and his sketchbook and pencils, and the card tucked into his pocket. If Madarame heard Yusuke leave, he didn’t try to stop him, and as Yusuke crossed the threshold of the Wastes he suddenly felt younger than he had felt in years, and a small, tentative smile crossed his lips.
* * *
As Yusuke sat on a rock, halfway up the mountain and two days into travelling, he wondered whether the stories about the Witch of the Waste and the Wizard Joker were real.
From the moment Yusuke was old enough to toddle around and understand cautionary tales, Madarame had filled his head with stories of how the Witch of the Waste roamed far from Market Chipping, stealing people’s souls and livelihood, and how the Wizard Joker was famed for stealing and eating the hearts of beautiful people. For years, these tales had prevented Yusuke from going past his garden and resigning himself to the fact that he’d never be able to the leave the manor he called home, but now that he was old and wanted for something it seemed like the perfect time to leave and seek whatever was calling out to him and drawing him closer.
Still, no one had seen the Witch of the Waste nor the Wizard Joker for years and Yusuke wondered if they were just something parents made up to stop their children straying too far from home. He couldn’t blame them – the Wastes were a harsh place, nothing for miles and seemingly never-ending – but all birds must fly the nest at some point. Nothing could prevent that.
The only hint of either of them existing were the ongoing rumours of a plume of black smoke from high above the Wastes, as though a large vehicle were burning coal and wood in the distance.
As he looked around he noticed that Market Chipping was nothing but a small glow of orange and yellow light beneath him, and that the rest of the path stretched out for miles in front of him. He sighed.
“How disappointing,” He muttered to himself, shivering in the cold wind. “I can still see Market Chipping. Old bones.” His legs ached beneath his woollen trousers, his joints grinding painfully together with every step, and he rubbed them as he looked around. “I wonder…”
His eyes fell on a large stick standing upright in a thicket of thorns and immediately lit up. Groaning as he hobbled over to it and began to pull. The stick stayed stock still as Yusuke grunted and dug his heels into the ground, using all his strength, until he fell back and the stick was pulled upright, swaying gently as Yusuke blinked and followed the stick upwards to meet a turnip head.
He yelped and immediately scrambled back and the scarecrow just stared at him as Yusuke managed, “Are- Are you magic?”
The turnip grin on the scarecrow’s face stared blankly down at him, but he felt the tingle of agreement deep in his bones.
“Oh,” Yusuke said, pulling himself to his feet. “Were you stuck? I thought you were just a branch.” It suddenly hit him that he looked crazy talking to a swaying magic scarecrow, and he flushed red, averting his eyes to the sunset. He blinked again and looked back to the scarecrow. “Can you find me a place to stay for the night?”
The scarecrow seemed to nod before it turned and hopped off over the ridge of the hill. Yusuke sighed and sat back down on the rock, trying to recover from his fright with the scarecrow as he breathed in the cool early evening air. His breath was a white mist in front of him as he rubbed his hands together and tugged his jacket closer around his shoulders, his head snapping up when a low rumbling began to grow louder and his mouth falling open when a large metal castle structure thing emerged from behind the ridge of the hill, the scarecrow leading the way in front of it.
“What the—” He breathed before he grabbed onto the scarecrow, realisation sinking in his stomach. “This is Joker’s castle! What are you thinking?!”
The scarecrow just nudged him onto the step with a walking stick, dropping it at Yusuke’s feet before it hopped off and left him alone on the doorstep of the Wizard Joker’s castle.
Sighing, Yusuke bent down for the walking stick, picking it up before he knocked twice of the door. It swung open for him as soon as his fist left the wood and he peering tentatively in the doorway before he stepped inside; jumping when the door slammed shut behind him. The room was musty and dark, the only light coming from the glow of a fire on the hearth and Yusuke immediately climbed the stairs in front of him to it, sitting himself down on the chair in front of it, sighing.
The warmth sunk deep into his bones and rid his skin of the chill of outside, and Yusuke soon found himself peeling off his jacket and his jumper to prop them on the back of his chair.
“You’re not Kurusu,” A voice said and once again Yusuke jumped, his head whipping around for the place where the voice had come from. “Down here. In front of you.” The voice came again and Yusuke followed the directions until he was peering down at the fire, his eyes widening as a face peeked out between orange and red flames. Blue flames made its sharp eyes and when it’s mouth opened the inside glowed the same blue – though this creature was made of fire, Yusuke could make out it’s features and immediately flinched back.
“Who are you?” Yusuke asked. “What are you?”
The creature huffed, and it sounded like the crackling of wood. “I should be asking you that, kid,” it said. “You’re not Kurusu and you’re not the Mishima kid. So, who are you?” It gave Yusuke a wicked grin. “Tell you what we’ll trade; you go first.”
Yusuke swallowed hard and settled in his seat, his hands rested on his knees. “I… I am Yusuke Kitagawa. Who are you?”
“Arsene,” It said. “And, Yusuke Kitagawa, you have quite a powerful curse placed on you. Who was it? Witch of the Waste?” Arsene asked and Yusuke blinked, shaking his head.
“No, not the Witch of the Waste. I had no idea he could even do magic,” Yusuke said softly. “Though I don’t suppose that matters now… I found a card, though.” He pulled the L’empereur card from his pocket, holding it gently for a moment before he frowned at Arsene. “How did you know it was a curse?”
Arsene crackled. “I’m a demon, kid, I can tell those things.” He stretched upwards, a hand stretching out from under a log, outstretched in front of Yusuke, who backed away at the proximity of the flames. “Could I see the card?”
Yusuke looked down at it before nodding. “Yes, I suppose so,” he agreed, his hand brushing Arsene’s flames as he handed the card over
The minute it touched Arsene’s hand it burst into bright white flames and Arsene flinched, his hand immediately retreating into his body and Yusuke clutched his scorched fingers to his chest, wincing. The ashes dissolved into blue sparks, and Yusuke watched with wide eyes as Arsene nursed the black scorch on his body, scowling at where the ashes once where.
“Of course that would be cursed too,” Arsene muttered to himself. “Stupid of me.”
Yusuke swallowed hard, deeply unnerved as he looked from the hearth and back to Arsene. “Uh… what just happened?” he asked, his voice wobbling. “H-How are you burnt? Why was the card cursed?”
“Whoever gave you that card put a curse on it,” Arsene explained, sighing. “I may be a fire demon but even I can’t stop myself from being hurt by magic. I’m made of it.” He just sighed again and rearranged his logs. “I assume the card was cursed because whoever cursed you put some sort of seal on the card. Who did curse you?”
“It was—” Yusuke managed before his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He swallowed hard. “The one who cursed me was—” He tried again, and this time his lips stuck together, he groaned in frustration. “The curse—” His breath was immediately cut off and Yusuke cried out, his foot coming down hard on the wooden floor beneath him.
Arsene snickered. “Seems whoever cursed you didn’t want you talking about it,” he said. “It seems like a tough one to break too.”
Yusuke nodded, his mouth as dry as sand. “Couldn’t…” He began desperately and Arsene glanced up at him. “Couldn’t you break the curse? You’re a fire demon, you could probably do it.”
Arsene laughed loudly, his flames raising high above him as his body heaved and his face contoured into one of amusement. Yusuke jumped back from the flames in surprise, his face dripping into a frown. “You’re rich kid. Me? Break the curse? Not likely.” He chuckled, his flames settling into a steady flicker around him. “I have one on myself.”
Yusuke’s eyes widened. “You do?” He asked in disbelief. “But you said you were a fire demon.”
“I’m a fire demon tied to a wizard,” Arsene clarified. “Why do you think I’m in this castle? I’m tied to the Wizard Joker; he is my master and goes out fishing every night while I make the water warm for his bath and keep the house running.” Arsene scowled, crackling and sparking dangerously. “I have the worst end of the stick. Therefore, it is my curse, I didn’t want to be this way.”
Yusuke leant back in his chair, shaking his head as he stared at Arsene. “I would have had no idea.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted you to,” Arsene replied. “But since you have a curse on you too I thought it would be okay to tell you. Just don’t let Mishima know that.”
Yusuke chuckled at that. “I won’t,” he promised.
Arsene grinned at him then and Yusuke sat up straighter at the serious look in his eye. “I have a proposition for you kid, if you’re willing to hear me out.”
“Shoot.” Yusuke said.
“Here’s the deal; I let you stay here, you cook and clean and earn your keep,” Arsene explained, flicking dangerously closer to Yusuke. “And help me break my curse, and I’ll help you break yours. Fair trade. Breaking a curse for breaking a curse. What do you say?”
“Why would a fire demon be offer me such a deal?” Yusuke asked.
Arsene scoffed. “I feel sorry for you,” he replied. “I may be a demon but I’m not heartless."
Yusuke thought a moment. Cooking and cleaning was nothing short of what he did for Madarame when he wasn’t painting and he could do easily, but breaking a curse would be more difficult. He wouldn’t even know where to start, and doubted there was a detailed instruction somewhere of how to break a fire demon’s curse. Despite this, Yusuke looked back to Arsene and thrust out a hand.
“Okay,” he agreed. “We have a deal.”
Arsene grinned wickedly and took Yusuke’s hand, the flames nothing but a warm flickering on his skin before he leant back into the fire and broke their grip, and, slowly, Yusuke felt the warmth sinking deep into his flesh and bones, sealing their contract,
He crackled. “Good deal, kid, looking forward to working with you.”
Yusuke just nodded and relaxed into his chair, suddenly too tired to speak.
“Go to sleep,” Arsene told him, his voice just a soft crackle as Yusuke’s eyes fell shut. “I’m sure you’ll meet Kurusu and Mishima in the morning; Just tell them you’re the new cleaner I hired.”
Yusuke nodded sleepily, barely a bob of his head, as he sunk into sleep.
* * *
Yusuke was jolted awake by the shout directly into his ear, groaning as he straightened up in his seat and peered right back at the boy with black hair who was halfway between scowling at him. He looked away and felt behind him for his coat and jumper and cane, immediately relaxing when he felt the familiar scratch of his jacket and the smooth curve of his cane, before he looked back at the boy with a look of contempt.
“No need to shout,” Yusuke told him. “I can hear you perfectly fine.”
The boy frowned. “You were sleeping.” He said. “Here. Inside. How did you get into the castle?”
Yusuke smiled and looked to Arsene, who was watching the exchange in rapt attention, a small smile glowing blue. “Arsene let me in, he hired me. I’m your new cleaner. You’re the boy, so you must be Mishima.”
“Yeah,” Mishima replied, scratching self-consciously at the bandage wrapped around his wrist. “Did Arsene tell you about me? Or Kurusu?”
“Arsene,” Yusuke replied. “I haven’t met the Wizard yet.”
Mishima smiled. “If you’re our cleaner then you better just call him Kurusu. That’s his name; Akira Kurusu. But only Panther and Skull call him Akira, so to be safe just call him Kurusu.” He babbled, Yusuke’s smile stretching the more he talked to Mishima. “If you’re our cleaner does that mean you make breakfast? Can we have eggs and bacon?’
Yusuke chuckled and reached out to ruffle Mishima’s black hair. “Yes, that does mean I cook. And that depends. Do you have raw eggs and raw bacon?” He asked and Mishima immediately jumped up and dragged a basket off the cluttered table as Yusuke stood up to observe the room around him.
It was filthy. The corners and rafters were littered with spider webs and what looked like entrances to mice and rats’ nests, and everything seemed to be covered in a fine layer of dust that left Yusuke sneezing and displeased. The dining table was littered with piles of books and papers and spells and seemed even dirtier than the floor, which was saying something as Yusuke could see Mishima’s footsteps in the dust. The sink was filled with dirty and dusty glasses and plates and cutlery and the walls were mouldy and covered in dirt. Yusuke wrinkled his nose as he reached for the last remaining clean pan.
Making this house clean and liveable would take a lot of work.
“Okay, Mishima, clear off the table so we can sit down and eat,” Yusuke said as he placed the pan over Arsene who began to protest. “And find clean plates and cutlery.” He continued before he glared down at Arsene who was trying to push the pan off himself. “Stop complaining!”
Arsene glared. “No! I refuse!”
“If you want me to break your curse you’ll be a little more compliant,” Yusuke told him and Arsene immediately grew still, still glaring. “There we go. That’s better.” He said with a smile as he began to place the bacon into the pan. “Good fire demon.”
Mishima snorted. “So much for ‘all-powerful fire demon’.”
Arsene growled at them both. “Watch it,” he said only to perk up when Yusuke cracked two eggs. “Can I have the eggshells?”
“Sure, go ahead.” Yusuke said, throwing the shells into Arsene’s waiting and open mouth.
Mishima immediately stilled and looked towards the door as it made a low sound and clicked open, and Yusuke followed his gaze. A dial that Yusuke had failed to notice when he entered the castle, switched from black back to green, and a tall man with curly black hair stepped into the house, his serious expression melting into a smile when he spotted Mishima and his eyes darted to Yusuke. Suddenly, Yusuke realised this man was Akira Kurusu, the Wizard Joker, and, flushing red, he looked away.
“Who’s this?” The man asked, the coattails of his black coat fanning behind him as he moved to stand beside Yusuke. “Arsene, you’re being so obedient. You must have quite the charm if you’ve gotten Arsene to behave.”
Arsene crunched the eggshells. “He’s feeding me.”
Akira chuckled. “Or that.” He said and when Yusuke looked at him he noticed dark circles under his eyes and that the corners of his mouth weren’t quite turned up. “Mishima and I will continue to clear off the table, I’ll leave you to cook…” He trailed off.
Yusuke smiled. “Yusuke Kitagawa. I’m the new cleaner.”
“I see,” Akira said. “I’m Akira Kurusu, though I expect these two already told you. It’s not much but there’s a bed under the stairs you can have,” he said, striding over to the curtain beneath the stairs and pulling it back to reveal a small bed. “And of course you have free roam across the house.”
“I’m Yusuke.” Yusuke nodded, extremely overwhelmed. “And, thank you, Kurusu.”
Akira smiled, a gentle hand resting on Yusuke’s shoulder. “Please, call me Akira, Yusuke.”
Yusuke nodded, staring intently at Akira before Arsene said, “The bacon is burning.” And Yusuke lunged to flip it over, the flames curling around the pan as Arsene laughed at his bashfulness and the way his face turned red in embarrassment.
Akira turned to Mishima, letting his hand dropping from Yusuke. “Please stack my papers and your homework neatly, I can’t have any spells or recipes being mixed up.” He told Mishima before he strode over and began to help the removal process as Yusuke cracked another egg and threw the shells to Arsene.
“Must like you to let you call him Akira,” Arsene said through the crunching of shells. “Normally he doesn’t let anyone call him Akira until he’s known them a while. Lucky. ‘Spect you’ll meet Ann and Ryuji soon, they’re Wizards like Akira; same apprenticeship under Madame Sae as well.”
Yusuke frowned. “Madame Sae as in The Royal Wizard Sae?” He asks, and when Arsene nods his mouth falls open slight. “Oh, what did I get myself in to? Witches and Wizards and fire demons…”
Arsene rolls his eyes, taking an egg from the basket to eat. “Don’t be so negative, Yusuke, with this many Wizards and Witches and fire demons you have more of a chance of being free from your curse.”
“More fire demons?” Yusuke repeats as Arsene bites into the egg and it shatters, dollops of the egg white and yolk splattering his front. “But I thought there was just you.”
“Nope,” Arsene said. “There’s more than one fire demon. You’d have to be stupid to believe otherwise.” While Yusuke was busy trying to internalise his reaction of Arsene’s insult on his intelligence, Arsene said, “The eggs are burning.”
Mishima immediately dashed over, chipped and worn plates in his hand as he thrust them to Yusuke. “Here you go!” he said and Yusuke took them with a smile of thanks, piling two eggs and two thick rashers of bacon onto each plate before he handed them to Mishima to place on the table. He sat himself next to Mishima, who was grinning down at his plate, and picked up the dented and chipped knife and fork, looking at them and sighing.
* * *
Cleaning the castle was a nightmare.
He had to scrub the tiles by the sink four times with cleaning spirits before he even managed to get a dent in all the dirt and lime scale that had layered up over the years of neglect, and the floor only shone after he’d washed it twice and had Mishima wax it. Arsene helped as best he could by heating up the water Yusuke needed for cleaning the state that was Akira’s bedroom and bathroom, and by warming the entire house so the spiders came out of hiding and Yusuke could sweep them out of the open windows. Yusuke found himself smelling of must and cleaning spirits for days after using them, and during that time Akira was barely present and only showed himself at dinner and breakfast if he bothered to show up at all.
He couldn’t hold it against him, really. Mishima had told him that Akira was in line for the position of Royal Wizard, and when Yusuke noticed the grim look on his face he asked if that was a bad thing.
Mishima had sighed and said. “He thinks it is.” Before he turned back to his book, and that had been the end of that.
It was an entire week of cleaning before the house was at a degree Yusuke deemed beyond acceptable and liveable. All the books and papers for spells were stacked neatly on the massive bookshelf near the dining room table, and the dining room table had been shoved towards the door to make room for a spell and potions table that was now littered with bottles and ingredients in what Mishima liked to call, ‘An organised mess’. (Yusuke liked to call it laziness and clutter). The tiles were shining and all the cutlery and glass and china were almost sparkling under the oil lamps, no spider webs covered corners and Yusuke had managed to lure the mice and rats out into Porthaven with food and a promise of a new home. The upstairs was just as tidy as the downstairs, all shining wood and neat bedrooms and organised bathrooms. He had managed to organise the library, and even Akira’s room before he was pushed gently out and the door was closed and locked, he got the message; don’t try to tidy Akira’s room, not matter how much he sorely needed it.
“Told you he wouldn’t appreciate it,” Arsene said as he strode back into the main room, a scowl on his face. “Doesn’t like people snooping in his business.”
Yusuke collapsed into a seat. “His room is filthy! It’s honestly awful.”
Mishima looked up from his book. “Kurusu doesn’t like people going in his room. Don’t know why though, I hardly ever see him in it. Cup of tea?” He asked. Yusuke nodded and Mishima continued as he poured tea into a rather fancy tea cup. “He’s always either in Porthaven, Kingsbury, the Wastes or through the black dial.” He moved away with the kettle, setting it next to the fire as he pushed the jug of milk across the table to Yusuke. “Only Akira knows where that dial goes.”
Yusuke poured milk into his tea and considered the door. “How does it work?” he asked. “The door I mean.”
Mishima grinned and stood up, striding over to the door and beckoning Yusuke to follow. Once he was at Mishima’s side he began to explain. “The colour on the dial corresponds to town it goes to. Blue is Porthaven,” Mishima said, turning the lock on the door handle. It clicked and Yusuke’s eyes darted upwards to the dial as it rung and spun until the golden needle pointed at the blue quarter. Mishima opened the door and Yusuke was greeted by the smell of the sea and a warm breeze. “See?
“How…?” Yusuke breathed.
Mishima grinned. “Magic.” He replied before he closed the door. “Red is Kingsbury,” he continued, repeating the action to change the dial to red and once again opening the door to let Yusuke poke his nose out. “And green is the Wastes.” He once again clicked the lock and the dial turned to green, the door opening to the foggy lands of the Wastes.
“What about black?” Yusuke asked as Mishima closed the door.
“Only Kurusu can open the door to black,” Mishima said with a shake of his head. “No one knows where it goes except Kurusu and Arsene; and Arsene won’t tell anyone.”
Arsene huffed from across the room. “I’m nothing if not loyal.”
Yusuke frowned as Mishima passed him and settled back down in front of his books, Yusuke followed and sat back down in front of his cup of tea, taking a delicate sip before he peered at Mishima’s book. “So, are you a Wizard like Joker then?” He asked and Mishima smiled softly.
“I want to be,” he said. “I’m his apprentice. I’m learning from the best.”
“Did Joker find you then?” Yusuke asked and Mishima laughed.
“No, actually.” He replied sheepishly, rubbing the nape of his neck. “I approached him. He found me on the doorstep of his castle and invited me in, he never told me to leave so I just kind of stayed. He began teaching me magic and so I began my apprenticeship.” He sighed and looked down at his books, fingering a piece of paper. “He gives me homework; I’m totally lost on this one.”
Yusuke smiled and placed his teacup down. “Let me hear it then,” Mishima looked doubtful. “I’m an artist. Making spells is just like an art, is it not? Maybe I could spread some light on it.”
Mishima nodded after a moment. “Okay.” He said. “It’s a bit long.”
Yusuke shook his head. “No matter.”
Mishima settled more comfortably into his seat, clearing his throat as he smoothed out the paper.
“Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair.”
Yusuke frowned, his eyebrows creasing together. “Are you sure that’s your homework?” he asked. “It seems a bit complex.”
“Kurusu always gives me weird poems and metaphors as spells to figure out.” Mishima said with a sigh. “So you have no idea either then?”
Yusuke shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mishima.”
“No it’s fine,” Mishima said with a grateful smile. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually.”
“It looks like a set of impossible things,” Yusuke said, raising his teacup. “Best of luck, Mishima.”
It was then that the door swung open on its hinges and Yusuke started, his head snapping to the door and immediately glaring when Akira stepped inside, his usual nonchalant expression on his face. He strode up the table and peered over Mishima’s book.
“Working on your homework?” He asked and Mishima nodded. “Good, I need you to look after the castle while I take Yusuke to Ann and Ryuji to see about his curse.”
Yusuke’s eyes widened as he stood up, not even feeling the ache underneath his skin. “Really?” he asked.
Akira nodded. “Yes, I want Ann to get a good look at you, see if she can figure out who placed the curse on you.” He continued, striding towards the door. “Grab your coat we’re going to Kingsbury.”
Yusuke scrambled up, grabbing his coat from the coatrack and pulling it on before he followed Akira to the door and out of it once it had been clicked to red. The streets were bustling and full of carriages, the windows were all stained glass and the doors were painted vibrant colours. He turned to Akira to speak and jumped back instead, thoroughly confused by the man beside him.
“A…kira?” he asked and the man turned, giving him a small quirk of his lips and a sly wink. “You’re disguised?”
Akira shrugged. “Of course, I don’t want to be noticed by any of the King’s guard; they’ll immediately send me to the Royal Wizard.”
Yusuke looked away. “Oh, yes. I see.” He frowned then. “Why are you ignoring the Royal Wizard?”
Akira sighed, an annoyed expression crossing his face. “She’s trying to make me her replacement. She’s retiring and she wants me to be the Royal Wizard.” Yusuke’s face immediately lit up, his mouth falling open. “She keeps sending messengers to me. It’s getting quite annoying.”
Yusuke floundered. “But! Becoming the Royal Wizard is a high honour!” he hissed. “And you’d be perfect for the job!”
Akira just made a sound of acknowledgement and raised his eyebrows at Yusuke as they turned into shop. The bell above the door rung out as the two stepped inside and a blonde woman looked up over the counter, a smile immediately spreading onto her cherry-red lips.
The shop was beautifully arranged, precious golden treasures and glittering jewels locked tightly away behind shining glass cabinets. The chandelier that hung from the ceiling was enchanted with an ever-glowing blue flame, flickering in a way that made the crystals hanging from the ceiling glitter and refract rainbows onto walls pasted with floral wallpaper. All the wooden appliances and surfaces in the room were so polished that Yusuke though that he could probably see his face on the surface if he leaned over one.
“Akira!” She cheered, jumping over the counter to greet Akira properly as he smiled back and tucked his gloved hands into his pockets. “You’ve not been back in so long; I thought you might have forgotten us.”
Akira chuckled. “I could never forget about you guys. Where’s Ryuji?”
“Around back, he’s trying to figure out a new potion,” she explained before she looked past Akira’s shoulder to Yusuke, her head titling to the side in interest. “Who’s this?”
Akira gestured to Yusuke. “This is Yusuke, he’s my new cleaner. Arsene says he has a curse on him, I thought maybe you could help."
The woman nodded and Akira stepped out of the way to let her pass. Yusuke realised that this woman was beautiful. Her blonde hair cascaded down her shoulders in two curly twin tails; Her eyes were big and as blue as the sea, filled with a certain mystic that Yusuke couldn’t quite place; The dress she wore was velvet, red and dipped low on her chest, trimmed with gold and with flowing sleeves.
She gave him a smile that immediately made him feel warm. “My name is Ann,” she said. “Ann Takamaki. Most people call me Panther around here. Who are you?”
“I-I’m Yusuke. Yusuke Kitagawa,” He mumbled, his cheeks flushing red as he looked her in the eyes and said, “You’re very beautiful Miss Ann.”
Ann just sighed and put a hand on her head. “You’re not flirting with me too, are you? I get enough of that from customers.”
Yusuke blushed as red as a lobster and immediately shook his head, suddenly very aware of how low-cut Ann’s dress was. “No! I’d never— Your beauty is something that should be captured!” Yusuke stumbled. “I would love to attempt to capture your beauty!”
Ann giggled then. “Ah, I see. An artist.” She winked at him. “Just so long as you’re not trying to flirt with me, then we’re all good! And I’d love for you to paint me one day.”
“T-Thank you!” Yusuke stuttered.
Ann frowned and turned to Akira. “I don’t get it,” she said. “He seems fine. Are you sure Arsene said he had a curse on him?”
Akira nodded. “He does. Let me show you.” He turned to Yusuke, who had been watching the exchange with curiosity. “Could you look in the mirror please?” He asked.
Yusuke nodded and walked towards the gilded golden mirror, immediately gazing into his droopy eyes and scanning his silver hair and withered skin. Ann gasped behind him, and, when he turned she was frowning considerably, scanning him up and down.
“That is a tricky curse,” She said. “Let me see what Ryuji has to say. RYUJI!” There was a crash and a yell of, ‘Whatever happen it wasn’t me!’ before a male with dyed blond hair scampered into the room, gunpowder and a look of immediate worry on his face.
Ryuji gazed at Ann uneasily. “I swear Ann, it wasn’t me.”
Ann rolled her eyes. “I’m not blaming you for anything, Ryuji, I need you to look at this guy.” She said, gesturing to Yusuke.
Ryuji’s gaze drifted to Yusuke. “Okay?” he said. “I’m looking at him. Looking… Looking… What exactly am I supposed to be seeing?”
“Oh god!” Ann groaned in exasperation, slapping her palm against her forehead. “Don’t literally just look at him! He has a curse on him, look at the curse.”
Ryuji laughed nervously rubbing the back of his neck. “I knew that.” He said before he strode over to Yusuke and leaned in until his nose was almost touching Ryuji’s. “Hmm, yup. That’s a strong curse; you can’t even tell anyone about it? That sucks man.”
“Understatement of the century,” Yusuke muttered.
“Yeah, I don’t know how to reverse this,” Ryuji said, turning back to Ann and Akira. “Whoever put it on him must’ve been powerful though.”
Ann nodded. “I don’t get it either, nothing seems to be the matter.”
“Thanks for the help,” Akira said as Yusuke looked between the three, blinking in confusion. “We’ll be getting back to the castle. Remember, I wasn’t here.”
Ann gave him a worried look. “At least stay for a cup of tea.”
“Thank you, Ann, but I really must be getting back to Mishima.”
Ann raised a delicate eyebrow, resting her hand on her hip. “You’re still teaching that Yuuki boy?” She asked. “How long has it been now? Four years?”
“Six,” Akira replied. “And he’s excelling. We really must go.”
Ann looked to Yusuke as Akira turned back to the door, hovering for Yusuke to follow, and gave him a smile. “Don’t be afraid to come back here if you ever need anything or just want to talk. Any friend of Akira is a friend of ours,” She glanced behind Yusuke worriedly. “Just make sure he’s alright for us. He may seem like a heartless man but he’s as good a friend as any. One of these days he’s going to work himself to death.”
Yusuke nodded and thanked Ann profusely before he followed Akira from the warm shop wordlessly, thoroughly confused and feeling considerably numb.
If nothing was the matter, then why was he still cursed?
* * *
Akira felt like someone had dumped weights of lead into his pockets as he pushed open the door to the castle, his breathing ragged as the door slammed shut behind him and he began climbing the stairs, every step leaving his limbs aching and causing feathers black-as-night to drift from his body and litter the floor in some sort of trail. As he moved towards the hearth, and towards Arsene, the feathers glittered, refracting like oil and seeming to swirl every colour of the rainbow onto the darkness of the feathers. He hobbled over to the chair in front of the fire, collapsing into the wood and sighing, his bird-like feet propped up in front of the hearth and his head tilted to the ceiling as his arms hung limply at his sides, far too tired to do much but try and catch his breath.
His entire body was covered in feathers, from head to toe, like a massive bird with a human face, and his hairline was replaced by smaller feathers, black powder down, that gradually thinned out into his natural skin.
“Yikes, kid, that looks rough,” Arsene said, gazing at his master with a somewhat worried expression.
Akira drew in a ragged breath and clenched his teeth, his body burning as the feathers melted back into his clothes and his wings shrunk back into arms, his three-toed bird feet fusing back into his brogues and the long feathers on his head forming his curly black hair. With a groan, he sat up, clutching his abdomen with his free hand.
Arsene raised a flaming eyebrow. “Y’know, if you keep flying around like that, one day you’re not gonna change back.”
“Don’t remind me,” Akira said, his voice hollow as he lifted two logs onto Arsene. “I found two others like me today. They tried to kill me.”
“Wizards?” Arsene asked. “Like Ann and Ryuji and you?”
Akira nodded. “Exactly.” A weird smile pulled at the corner of his lips. “They didn’t even recognise me as one of their own, just started trying to pull the flesh from my bones.”
Arsene sighed into the wood he was gnawing on, sounding oddly sombre for someone as fiery as he. “By the end of the war they’re not even going to know that they were once human, let alone change back into humans.” He said with a small shake of his head. “Tragic.”
“You’re not normally so worried about things concerning the war,” Akira said softly. “What’s gotten into you all of a sudden.”
“I may be a demon but I’m not the devil,” Arsene told him, a frequent turn of phrase that dripped like silver from his mouth, before he changed the subject. “Are you going to accept Sae’s summons?”
“Are you going to stop being so nosey?” Akira asked, hauling himself unsteadily to his feet with a quiet groan of pain.
Arsene flickered. “I’m just saying, now might be a good time to go and see Sae.”
“I’m taking that as a no,” Akira sighed. “Heat up some water for my bath.”
Arsene groaned. “You’re lucky you’re my master,” He warned through devouring a piece of bark. “Or else I’d have eaten your eyes.”
Akira just chuckled lowly and strode slowly over to the curtain that covered Yusuke’s bed. After realising how open the bed was compared to Akira and Mishima’s bedrooms, Yusuke had insisted on putting up the green velvet for his own privacy, and so he didn’t feel like everyone was constantly peeping in on his while he slept. The thought brought a smile to Akira’s face as he gently lifted a hand and pulled back the curtain just a crack.
The firelight cast a gentle, orange glow over Yusuke’s sleeping form as it snuck through the crack, illuminating Yusuke’s blue hair and his youthful sleeping face. His sketchbook was lying abandoned across his chest and, careful not to disturb Yusuke, Akira picked it up to glance through it; finding chalk sketches of Arsene, and pencil drawings of Akira himself, and even a coloured pencil drawing of Ann. Akira chuckled, smiling fondly before he placed the sketchbook back onto Yusuke’s chest.
In sleep, Yusuke was as youthful as the day he had been cursed into an old man; his skin smooth and his hair colourful, his back no longer hunched over, and Akira scanned him with a careful gaze before another smile crossed his lips and he bent down slowly, gently grazing his lips against Yusuke’s forehead.
Pulling back, he left the curtain fall closed, Yusuke’s form disappearing from view as he turned on his heel and walked towards the stairs, longing for the warm water of his bath to seep deep beneath his skin and cure his bones of their aches.
* * *
Ann, Yusuke came to find, was more than just a pretty-faced witch.
She had a tongue like silver and could get anyone to agree to anything she asked them to do if she just asked sweetly enough and with a flutter of her long, golden lashes. He came to realise she hated the dresses she wore, all varying shades of red and all trimmed with gold, because of the way the neckline was cut, dipping right past her breasts so drastically she confided in his that she always felt someone was looking. (Yusuke was quick to assure her that people weren’t, but Ann just laughed somewhat sadly and replied that everyone looked.) Ann was a beauty in not just looks but intelligence, and she could guess what anyone wanted with just a blink of her hypnotising blue eyes, and Yusuke thought it suited her beautifully.
And Ryuji was a firecracker. (Quite literally.)
He spent all of his time in the back of Ann’s shop, surrounded by gears and parts and gunpowder, creating bombs that shot brightly coloured sparks at you when they blew up, and bewitching gadgets into acting of their own accord. He was always covered in a layer of gunpowder and motor oil, and the smell of burning lingered around him in his own aura and infected anyone who stood next to him. Ryuji was always excitable and eager to show off his newest invention, always thinking positively if it shattered or blew up in his face, and for that Yusuke was grateful – the castle had been filled with a sombre mood as Mishima struggled unhappily to figure out his homework, and Yusuke appreciated Ryuji’s positive outlook.
When Yusuke wasn’t cleaning the castle, or making sure that Akira hadn’t killed himself doing whatever he did through the black dial, he was at Ann’s shop, sketching and drawing and painting.
After days spent drawing random things in the shop quietly behind the counter, it had been with tentative words and a soft smile that Yusuke had approached Ann, asking if he could paint her, and she had immediately agreed. He laboured over her painting long and hard, wanting to capture Ann’s beauty as best he could and properly do her justice. Yet, somehow, there was always something not quite right about whatever painting he produced.
He didn’t know if it was because the eyes just didn’t quite sparkle, or if she seemed flat in colour, or if the painting didn’t leak her personality, but, no matter what, he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it.
Ann had taken the painting with much praise and a beautiful smile on her lips, hanging it proudly in her back room to look over Ryuji’s work space. (Ryuji had later admitted to Yusuke that having Ann watch over him all the time was ‘hella creepy’ and he felt constantly on edge, and so Yusuke had slyly moved it into the library. Ann hadn’t seemed to have noticed. Yet.) Although Yusuke felt himself glowing under her congratulations, a deep feeling of ‘not-quite-right’ buried deep into his gut in a way that he couldn’t quite place.
Yusuke growled, ripping another page from his sketchbook and crumpling it into a small ball, launching it into Carmen.
“Hey,” she huffed, taking the ball of paper delicately as Yusuke scowled down at his book. “I don’t take lightly to being hit over the head with a ball of paper, you know.” She said, shoving the ball in her mouth and swallowing delicately as she looked at Yusuke.
“Sorry,” he replied shortly.
Carmen frowned. “Now, what’s the long face for? Did Akira kneel over and die?”
Yusuke looked up from his book. “No, why? I thought you liked Akira.”
“I like Arsene,” Carmen replied. “I don’t care much for mortals. Except my Ann of course.”
“Of course,” Yusuke agreed in a monotone. “I’m fine. Just frustrated.”
“What over?” Carmen asked. “Is it boy or girl trouble? If not, I’m afraid I’m severely lacking in that sense.”
Yusuke considered Carmen for a moment as she stared at him, flickering magenta and red against the grey hearth. “I can’t get this drawing right, nothing I do seems to make it come out right.”
“Let’s see a drawing then,” Carmen said, and when Yusuke turned his book to Carmen she frowned, making a small noise of contempt. “I don’t see the problem, the drawing looks just fine to me.”
“But it doesn’t feel right!” Yusuke exclaimed in exasperation, slamming the book closed and putting his head in his hands. “Nothing feels right anymore and I don’t know why. I just want to be able to draw like I used to.”
Carmen considered this for a moment. “Maybe that’s the problem.” She said slowly as Yusuke looked up, a look of confusion crossing his face as he gazed down at her. “Don’t draw like you used to, draw like you would now.”
“W-What does that even mean?” Yusuke breathed. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Carmen shrugged, dragging a piece of coal from the bucket at her side before she looked back up at Yusuke. “I think you’re living too much in the past, dear,” she told him carefully. “Stop thinking of how things used to be and how you used to draw and start living where you are now.”
Yusuke watched her a moment before nodding slowly, “O-Okay,” he said. “I’ll try.”
Carmen smiled at him. “That’s it, darling.” She said before her eyebrows creased. “I meant to ask; do you like being in disguise, dear?’
Yusuke stopped. “What?" he asked. Disguise? I’m not wearing a disguise.”
There was a moment of silence where he and Carmen looked at each other before she burst into laughter, shaking herself back and forth before she waved a hand dismissively, managing, “Oh, never mind, dear. I was just being silly.”, before she turned back to the coal bucket, giggling quietly to herself.
Yusuke thought it strange but said nothing of it, instead turning back to his sketchbook and seizing up a pencil just as the door to the shop flew open behind him, causing him to jump up in fright as Mishima yelled, “I’ve got it! I’ve finally figured it out!”. Yusuke pressed a hand over his heart, trying to steady his heartbeat as he turned to glare at Mishima.
“What is it with people,” he huffed, trying desperately to catch his breath. “And trying to scaring the living daylights out of me with slamming open doors? Are you wanting to give me a heart attack?”
Mishima had the tact to look bashful as he rubbed the back of his neck, apologising quietly. “Sorry,” he said, moving to pat Yusuke gently on the shoulder. “But, guess what, I’ve finally figure out Akira’s homework for me!”
“God, I think I am actually having a heart attack.” Yusuke muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
“I’m sorry for that,” Mishima said in a hurry, already pushing Yusuke out of the door. “But I really, really need your help. We need to catch a falling star for the spell. Like, literally catch a falling star.”
Yusuke frowned as Mishima pushed him inside the castle and closed the door, switching the dial to green. “Is that even possible?” he asked.
“Yes, if you’re fast enough.” Mishima told him.
Yusuke gave him a deadpan look. “Yes, because the eighty-three-year-old man and the sixteen-year-old boy are surely fast enough to catch a falling star.” He said. “How exactly do you expect us to go fast enough to catch a falling star?”
Mishima grinned and held up a pair of old boots. “These.” Yusuke, once again gave Mishima a flat look. “They’re seven-league boots, you can cross any expanse of land in a second flat by taking a step forward.”
Yusuke blinked. “Oh, so they’re not just boots.”
“Of course they’re not just boots,” Mishima replied with a roll of his eyes. “You’ve been surrounded by magic for almost two months now, why did you think we were just going to go really fast in old boots.?
Yusuke scowled and stomped out into the Wastes, a smirking Mishima following closely behind, hopping one-legged with the boot on his right foot. Yusuke paused and Mishima took the opportunity to shove his foot in the boot too, and Yusuke, although alarmed at first, was quickly broken from his surprise by them zipping through the air and landing several miles away on a flat stretch of land, the darkening sky glittering silver stars above them.
They waited wordlessly together – the boot pulled off and placed to the side so they wouldn’t accidentally zip off into the horizon without the other – for that falling star, until, finally, when Yusuke’s breath was a white mist in front of him and Mishima was shivering violently, they spotted one.
“There!” Mishima cried and before he could stop him, he was halfway across the field with the seven-league boot, kicking it off to follow the star with open hands. Yusuke scowled as he scrambled to his feet, muttering, ‘So much for doing this together.’ before he began hobbling after Mishima as quick as he could.
By the time Yusuke reached Mishima, the star was hovering hand-level with him, only an arm’s reach away and lighting up a circular patch of grass around the two. For a star, it seemed anxious, and Yusuke’s arrival only startled it further as it crackled in fright, zipping around in front of Mishima.
“It’s okay,” Mishima promised it, his voice low and soothing. “I just want to catch you.”
“Why do you want to catch me?” It asked, anxious and terrified. “That’s not right. I’m meant to die.”
“I can save you,” Mishima promised. “If you let me catch you.”
The star seemed to quiver. “Why do you want to save me?” It repeated. “No, that’s wrong. I’m meant to die.”
“You don’t have to!” Mishima said desperately, thrusting his hands out. “Just let me catch you!”
“No!” The star cried, lunging for a pool of water nearest Mishima’s feet and diving away from his fingers. He lunged for it himself, but the star submerged itself it water, going out in a sizzle of white hot light and yellow sparks.
Yusuke watched as Mishima picked himself off the dirt, brushing off his knees. “Well,” Yusuke said. “That was disappointing.”
“Understatement of the year,” Mishima mumbled, looking at the pool of water sadly. “Why do you think it was so afraid of me? Of us?”
Yusuke shrugged. “No idea,” he said. His face softened when he noticed Mishima shivering and handed him the boot, shoving both of their feet into it. “Come on. Let’s get back to the castle and I’ll put on the kettle; maybe Akira will finally be home.” Yusuke paused, both he and Mishima’s feet propped up. “Er… which way is home?”
Mishima chuckled and turned them both to the right, and with two steps forward they were at the castle door and kicking off the boot in the doorway. Yusuke immediately busied himself with putting the kettle on, while Mishima returned to pouring over the poem looking even more helpless than the last time Yusuke had seen him looking at it.
“Now, Now,” Yusuke told him as he placed a teacup to the right of his books. “I wouldn’t go stressing over this too much. You could just ask Akira for a little help.”
“Ask me for help on what?” Akira’s voice asked as he strode into the room in dress trousers, shining shoes and a dress shirt half unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a pair of wire-framed glasses perched on his nose. Yusuke couldn’t help but stare. “What do you need my help with?” he repeated and Yusuke immediately turned away as Mishima thrust out the paper.
“This spell you set me for homework,” he said as Akira took the paper, scanning it over. “We tried to catch a falling star, I think this thing is impossi—”
“This isn’t your homework,” Akira said.
Mishima blinked. “What?” he asked.
“This isn’t your homework,” Akira repeated, looking up. “I don’t know how on earth you got your hands on this.”
“It was on the table,” Mishima said. “And it looked just like all the other homework you gave me in the past so I just assumed. Is it really not my homework?”
Akira nodded. “Really. Your homework was the skull,” he said, pointing to the bone on the bookshelf. “You were supposed to make it talk. Please tell me you didn’t try anything on the poem.” Akira said with a sigh, massaging the bridge of his nose.
“We tried to catch the falling star—” Mishima began before he was cut off by Akira’s head snapping up a dangerous glare fixing onto his face.
“You what?” he asked, his voice dangerously low.
Mishima nodded and continued. “Tried to catch the falling star.” He said.
“Did you succeed?” He asked, and Yusuke noticed that he suddenly sounded panicked, and that his eyes were fixed intently on Mishima, as if scrutinising him for nay lies he may be telling him. “Tell me, Mishima. Did you succeed?”
“No,” Mishima managed, his voice almost a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
Akira looked at him a final moment before sighed and turning away, dragging a hand down his face. “Don’t apologise, I shouldn’t have snapped.” He looked down at the paper in his hand and ripped in half and then in half again, continuing the action until the paper was just a handful of confetti. “Just don’t catch a falling star. Promise me that you won’t.”
“I promise,” Mishima agreed immediately, hesitating before, “But why?”
Akira strode over to Arsene, dumping the contents of his palm into the fire and watching as the paper confetti turned into ashes almost immediately. Slowly, he turned back to Mishima with a sad smile, the light of the fire casting an unearthly glow over his skin.
“Bad things happen to those who catch falling stars,” Akira said, before he turned and strode from the room, leaving Yusuke and Mishima speechless behind him.
* * *
Yusuke was rudely awoken to the sound of Arsene singing.
Groggily, he pulled back his curtain, pushing his hair back from his face with a barely complying hand as he squinted at the blur of blue, red and orange flames. He yawned, rubbing his eyes before he looked back at Arsene and glared, thoroughly annoyed about being disrupted from his sleep.
“What on earth are you doing?” Yusuke hissed, fatigue weighing him down like lead weights. “You’re going to wake everyone up!”
Arsene just giggled and crackled further, scattering pieces of scorched bark across the room with a swift arch of his hand. Yusuke watched them scatter helplessly, resigning himself to cleaning them up in the morning when he could actually function.
“Drink! Drink this sake! If you drink, this, the finest spear in all of the Land of the Rising Sun will be yours! Drink enough to show you are a true Kuroda warrior!” Arsene sang, his voice high and so off-pitch Yusuke had to smack his hands over his ears to avoid hearing it further.
Arsene’s singing dissolved into quiet mumbling and giggling and Yusuke finally removed his hands from his ears, blinking at him in disbelief. “Arsene, are you drunk?” He asked in shock.
“No,” Arsene mumbled, half turning to him and slurring his words. “I’m sober. Sober I tell you."
Yusuke rolled his eyes. “Right, and how can a fire become drunk?” He asked and Arsene grinned.
“If I told you that would be cheating! ~” Arsene replied in a singsong voice as Yusuke stepped out of bed to pull on his shoes and grab his coat from the hook hanging near him. “You should ask Aki, he might know ~”
“Right, by Aki I assume you mean Akira?” Yusuke asked.
Arsene nodded vigorously. “Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.” He said before he paused and snickered. “Ahh…” He sighed. “Ass.” Yusuke sighed, shaking his head lightly.
“Where will I find Akira?” Yusuke asked Arsene, who just pointed to the door and continued to giggle violently until Mishima trekked down the stairs, looking as tired as Yusuke felt. He felt his heart swell with relief as soon as Mishima’s head poked over the railing of the stairs. “Mishima, please keep an eye on Arsene. He’s drunk.”
Mishima nodded in agreement, yawning. “Where’s Akira?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” Yusuke said somewhat bitterly as he made his way over to the door. “Which dial, Arsene? Which dial did Akira go into?”
“Black,” Arsene said, his voice far too mellow. “But don’t tell him I told you.”
Yusuke just rolled his eyes and clicked the lock until the golden needle rested on the black side of the dial. Slowly, he pulled open the door and stepped inside, allowing the door to the castle to slam shut behind him as he walked forwards, pushing what felt suspiciously like brooms and buckets away from his feet, his hands thrust out in front of him to avoid falling over and disgracing himself. His hands met a cool, metal surface as Yusuke allowed his hands to roam the expanse of the metal before he found a handle, throwing his entire body against the door as he burst out into an alley.
This alley was littered with paper and strange pictures on the wall, and Yusuke felt like he wasn’t in Ingary anymore as he turned the corner from the alley and onto what seemed like a side street. Looking from side to side, he deduced that in whatever sorry state Akira was in, he couldn’t have gone far and decided to just stick to this street. Upon hearing a rather loud noise that he didn’t recognize, he leaped almost a foot in the air and ducked into the enclave in front of the nearest shop, his heart hammering in his chest and his cheeks flushing red in embarrassment. He had no idea why he felt so skittish, he had always been confidant and somewhat outgoing, never one to shy away from new experiences and people, but something about this… place he was in was so foreign. It made him feel like he was a stranger here; and he didn’t like it Not one bit.
To steady his heart, he turned to the window behind him, wiping condensation from the glass so he could peer inside, his heart almost leaping into throat when he spotted Akira slumped over the bar, a mug in the basket of his arms and a bottle of something lying only a reach away. Yusuke dove towards the door, scrambling with the handle only to find it was locked.
“Oh, come on!” Yusuke said desperately, looking up to peer hopelessly into the glass of the window. “Unlock stupid door! I need to get Akira!”
The handle gave way beneath his hand, and, although Yusuke found it odd he disregarded it for now, he darted inside to curl his body over Akira’s, shaking his shoulders gently.
“Akira?” Yusuke asked, his voice high and reedy in his worry. “Akira? Are you alright?”
“He’s just drunk,” A male’s voice said and Yusuke looked up into the eyes of a middle-aged man with a rather impressive goatee. “I swear I locked that door. Are you magic like Akira here?”
Yusuke shook his head violently, his eyes falling back to Akira and clutching the sleeves of his coat more closely. “No, I’m just normal.” He managed before he blinked and looked back at the stranger. “Who are you? How do you know Akira does magic?” The longer Yusuke talked the higher his voice went in his panic and he felt himself unravelling as he clutched at his hair. “What’s going on?”
The man immediately ducked around the counter, lowering Yusuke into a stool next to Akira and pushing a mug of something that was warm and smelt bitter into his hands. “It’s alright, kid, calm down.” The man told him in a voice that managed to get Yusuke enough to sip whatever was in the mug. “I’m Sojiro Sakura. I own this coffee shop, Leblanc, and I’m—Was Akira’s guardian.”
Yusuke nodded, though his hands were shaking, swirling the contents of his cup. “Is that what this stuff is?” He asked shakily. “Coffee?”
Sojiro nodded. “Yep, Akira’s rather fond of it. Though I think he’s been putting sake in it when my back was turned, judging by how drunk he is.” He picked up a dirty mug, wiping it clean as he studied Yusuke, an eyebrow raised. “So, you come from the same place as Akira? You his friend?”
Yusuke nodded slowly. “Yes. No. Well…” he stuttered before he shook his head, pausing as he tried to formulate a proper reply. “I’m his cleaner.” He said finally and Sojiro nodded in understanding.
“I see, well you do have a name, don’t you?” he asked teasingly and Yusuke flushed red, a small smile crawling over his lips. “Your parents didn’t just stick you with one profession from birth? Cleaner?”
Yusuke chuckled, waving a hand dismissively. “No, no. My name is Yusuke.” He said.
“Nice to meet you, Yusuke.” Sojiro replied with a smile before he nodded to Akira. “Do you wanna take him upstairs? The attic is still cleared out for him.” Sojiro noticed Yusuke’s hesitant look and continued, “I’ll wake you both up early so he can get back to his place before Leblanc and the streets really start livening up.”
Yusuke felt himself practically melt in relief, giving Sojiro a tired and thankful smile as he stood up and hooked one of Akira’s arms around his shoulder. “Thank you, Sojiro.”
“No big deal,” Sojiro said, walking around the counter and to a door at the back of the room, opening it wide so Yusuke could usher both himself and an unconscious Akira through the doorway. “As much as he’s annoying and drops in at inconvenient times, I really care for him.” He paused a moment. “Just don’t tell him I said that.”
“I won’t.” Yusuke promised, bidding Sojiro goodnight before the door swung shut and he faced the stairs.
Yusuke guessed it took about thirty minutes to half-drag, half-lift Akira up the stairs and onto the floor of the attic, and it took about ten minutes more to dump him face-first on the bed. Only then, much to Yusuke’s chagrin, did Akira magically wake up, his head snapping up to meet Yusuke as he settled himself on a futon next to the bed.
“Yusuke?” Akira mumbled, rubbing his face in a way that pushed his glasses halfway up it and revealed the red indents of where the bridge had pressed into the sides of his nose too hard. “What’re you doing here?”
Yusuke rolled his eyes and leaned over to slip the glasses from Akira’s face, resting them on the shelf beside him. “I came to collect you,” he said as Akira groaned and clutched his head. “Arsene’s drunk. And so are you by the looks of it.”
“’Stupid wizard, stupid magic,” Akira groaned. “Stupid Arsene. Don’t wanna be the Royal Wizard, stupid Sae.”
Yusuke raised an eyebrow at the outburst but chose to ignore it, tucking Akira’s duvet around him. “Yes, stupid wizards, but now, it is time to sleep.” He told Akira. “You’ll feel better in the morning. Maybe. Probably not.”
Akira lifted his head groggily, squinting at Yusuke. “Where are you gonna sleep?” He mumbled, his voice barely audible. “Not on the floor.”
“Yes on the floor,” Yusuke insisted.
“No,” Akira wailed, his voice raising an octave as Yusuke hurried to shush him. “You’re a person Yusuke.”
Yusuke gave Akira a deadpan look. “Thank you, brilliant observation, Akira.”
“You can’t sleep on the floor,” Akira continued, his voice slurring the longer he talked. “You’re not a cat, or Arsene. You’re a person and I rather like you.” Yusuke tried not to flush at Akira’s words and failed miserably. “Come on, sleep on the bed with me.” He said finally, wiggling over to give Yusuke room.
Yusuke’s jaw dropped. “Akira, I don’t think that’s appropriate—”
“Appropriate?” Akira repeated loudly. “Sod off! What’s platonic bed-sharing between bros?”
If possible, Yusuke’s eyebrows almost disappeared into his hair line as his eyes widened in shock. “I’m sorry,” He stuttered, trying to prevent his voice from shaking or his jaw dropping to the floor. “But did you just call me your ‘bro’?” He asked and Akira groaned once more.
“You’re missing the point, Yusuke!” He wailed, and Yusuke found it hard not to imagine Akira as a screaming toddler. “You’ll catch a cold or something equally as dreadful if you’re sleeping on the floor. Just sleep up in the bed with me.”
Yusuke sighed, massaging the bridge of his nose with delicate fingers. “If I sleep in the bed with you will you stop yelling and go to sleep?” He asked.
There was a moment of silence where Akira turned back into the pillow before mumbling, “Yes.”.
Yusuke stood up, crawling into bed next to Akira and pulling the duvet over them both, settling his head against the pillow as Akira burrowed his face into the crook of Yusuke’s neck and threw an arm around his body, trapping him flush against Akira. Yusuke had to stop himself from jumping whenever Akira’s warm breath hit the back of his neck. “There,” Akira mumbled against his skin. “That’s not so bad, is it?”
Yusuke didn’t even dignify himself or Akira with a response as he turned and shoved his face into the pillow, allowing his eyes to fall shut.
It seemed only moments later that Yusuke stirred again, this time to someone shaking his shoulder gently and thrusting a teacup in his face. Groaning, he sat up and took the cup, barely being able to thank the person properly before he downed the scalding liquid; hardly caring about a burnt tongue. Upon looking up again, he noticed a girl sitting at the end of the bed, studying he and Akira with careful eyes.
Yusuke raised an eyebrow. “Who’re you?” he asked.
“Futuba Sakura,” the girl replied. “Who are you?”
“Yusuke Kitagawa.” Yusuke said, leaning over to hand the teacup back to Futuba. “You know it’s rude to stare.”
“You know it’s rude to insist others are staring,” Futuba replied with a wicked smile and Yusuke smiled back at her.
He raised an impressed eyebrow. “Touché."
Futuba smiled, nodding her head towards a still-sleeping Akira. “So, why are you and Akira sharing a bed?”
“He wouldn’t shut up unless I slept next to him,” Yusuke said, sending a glance to Akira. “He seemed rather against letting me sleep on the futon.”
Futuba nodded slightly, tugging her legs up on the bed to hug her knees to her chest, considering Yusuke’s words. “Right, well Sojiro told me to wake you up.” She nudged Akira’s limp body with a foot, causing him to groan and finally stir. “So get this guy out of bed and there’s coffee downstairs.”
She hopped lightly from the bed, padding to the stairs before she was stopped by Yusuke’s voice. “Futuba?” She looked up. “Thank you.”
Futuba gave him a soft smile. “Don’t mention it. Also, you thank people too much.” She said before she darted down the stairs, leaving Yusuke alone to wake Akira.
Yusuke turned to Akira, shaking his shoulder gently as he groaned and pulled himself up, a hand rubbing at his eyes as he peered blearily at Yusuke. In that moment, with early morning sunlight colouring the tiny attic pink and orange, Yusuke couldn’t find Akira anything but beautiful, even with his black curly hair stuck up in all directions and his general dishevelled appearance, and he smiled tentatively as he reached for Akira’s glasses. Slowly, he unfolded the legs and pushed them onto the bridge of Akira’s nose, making sure that the legs were behind his ears as he pushed them to sit comfortably on his nose with an index finger.
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Yusuke told him softly.
Akira blinked at him, reaching out with delicate fingers to Yusuke who, with his heart hammering in his chest, allowed Akira to push his hair back from his eyes and tuck it behind an ear. Staring at him so intently that Yusuke felt that Akira could see every inch of him, even the parts he tried so desperately to hide, and he swore he could see all of Akira as well – as they sat there, feeling all the numbness and sadness each other had experienced over the years they had not known each other, Yusuke felt Akira meet him where he stood.
“Yusuke,” Akira said, his voice husky in waking, and Yusuke met his gaze. “You’re beautiful.”
In an instant, all the air rushed out of Yusuke’s lungs, leaving him breathless and blushing pink underneath Akira’s gentle fingers. The tightness in his chest was a peculiar feeling, one that he’d never experienced before, and as Yusuke pressed his hands to his mouth, almost melting under Akira’s gaze, he felt himself glow with pride because Akira Kurusu, the Wizard Joker, found Yusuke Kitagawa, resident painter and cleaner, beautiful.
Even just thinking the word in correlation to himself was foreign. He had never once felt beautiful or pretty or handsome, he was always the spinster, and considered himself absolutely average in every way; from his hair to the way he put on his trousers in the morning. It seemed that nothing else mattered in that moment except for the way that Akira looked at him – like he was every star in the sky. And then he remembered the curse. He remembered his withered skin and starlight white hair, his crooked back and grinding joints, and his heart fell to his stomach, looking down to the rumpled sheets as he lowered his hands to his knees, clutching them into fists.
His happy smile turned into one of sadness, a downcast expression crossing his face. “I doubt I could be beautiful, but thank you for saying so, Akira.” Yusuke said, clambering out of bed. “Futuba and Sojiro are waiting downstairs. We should hurry.”
“Yusuke…” Akira breathed, and, when Yusuke glanced back, he noticed a pained look on his face. “Yusuke.”
“Come on,” Yusuke repeated, already halfway to the stairs. “They’re waiting for us.”
He didn’t wait for Akira’s reply as he fled, his chest squeezing uncomfortably as he skipped down the stairs two at a time and slid into the empty café, immediately locating the two cups of coffee with a note propped up against them, swiping his sleeve over his tearful eyes before he picked one up and downed the contents. Akira walked in shortly after, picking up the second mug and quickly emptying it, setting it next to Yusuke’s mug.
“Are you ready to go home?” Akira asked him gently and Yusuke looked up and nodded, a smile stretching his lips.
“Yes,” he agreed as he followed Akira to the door. “Let’s go home.”
Akira smiled back, leading Yusuke from the shop and back into the alley and the storage closet, emerging into the cosy interior of the castle only to be immediately attacked by Mishima; who had darted up to hug Akira and Yusuke close around the waist.
“You were gone for hours!” He wailed. “I thought you’d left!”
Akira winced and chuckled, ruffling Mishima’s hair fondly. “I’d never leave you, Yuuki,” Akira told him gently. “Or Arsene or Yusuke. We’re all a family now, and I’d never leave family.” Yusuke’s heart swelled at being considered part of a family. It was mismatched and a little odd, but their family none the less, and Yusuke loved it with all his heart.
“I’m sorry, Mishima,” Yusuke apologised, carding his hands through Mishima’s hair. “I wasn’t meant to be gone so long.”
Mishima looked up at Yusuke. “Just so long as you’re not going to leave…”
“Me? Leave?” Yusuke laughed. “I don’t think any of you would let me leave even if I wanted to.”
“So you’ll stay?” Akira asked carefully and Yusuke met his eyes with a wide smile.
Mishima squealed and threw his arms around Yusuke’s neck, clutching his close as he bounced on the balls of his feet, leaving Yusuke laughing as he tugged him in for a warm hug.
Arsene groaned. “Could you keep the noise down?” he asked. “I have a killer headache.”
“So do I,” Akira said lowly, rubbing his temples as he went as pale as a sheet. “Now you mention it, I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
Yusuke’s eyes widened. “Not on my polished wooden floor you’re not!” He shrieked, pulling a bucket from under the dining table and thrusting it under Akira’s head right as he bowed his head to throw up. Yusuke’s nose wrinkled as Akira finished, clutching the bucket to his chest. “Right, you can go right to bed.”
“I can’t,” Akira protested weakly. “I have things to do.”
“What sort of things?” Yusuke asked. “Surely we could do them for you."
Akira swayed on his feet as he shook his head. “No, you couldn’t.”
Yusuke rolled his eyes as Arsene crackled. “You should really consider seeing the Royal Wizard soon.”
“I was trying to ignore that,” Akira said through gritted teeth. “I hoped that maybe if I pretended that she didn’t exist she’d stop sending me those blasted notices.” He eyed the pile of letters near the door all adorned with the King’s seal. “Obviously not.”
Yusuke looked at Akira in exasperation. “Just tell her you don’t want to fight for her! Nor become the Royal Wizard!” He said. “It’s not exactly hard.”
Akira gave Yusuke a look. “Trust me, I’ve already tried.” He said. “And also there seems to be the trifling matter that the Crown Princess is missing and the Royal Wizard seems to think that I’m the one most adept at finding her.”
“Then what do you expect us to do? It’s not like any of us can march up to the castle for you and tell her that you’re not going to become the Royal Wizard or any of that nonsense.” Yusuke said with a sigh, and, upon looking up, he noticed a wicked scheming look on Akira’s face. He raised an eyebrow. “What’s that look for.”
“That’s it!” Akira cried, thrusting the bucket into Mishima’s hands before he gripped Yusuke by the shoulders. “You’ll go the palace and pretend to be my father! You’ll say your son is too cowardly to show his face there himself and that’ll finally get her off my back!”
Yusuke blinked at Akira before his jaw dropped. “You can’t expect that to actually work!”
“I’m sure it will,” Akira reassured him gently. “And I’ll follow behind you a little later to make sure no harm comes to you. Does that sound alright?”
Yusuke’s eyebrows creased together in worry as he gave Akira a weirdly forced smile, quite unsure of what he had gotten himself into.
* * *
As Yusuke strode up to the steps of the Royal Palace, Yusuke realised he was severely out of his depth.
The streets were littered with the King’s Guard in their shining uniform, and soldier boys flirting shamelessly with pretty girls in frilly dresses, it was all Yusuke could do to push through the thick crowd towards the shining marble palace where eventually the crowd had thinned out until he was standing far from the stairs just staring up at the stained-glass windows in terrified awe.
“Where’s Akira?” Yusuke muttered to himself, his hands clasped in front of himself. “He said he’d be following…” A warm weight pressed against his leg and he glanced down, his gaze falling over a black and white cat that was rubbing its head against his ankles. “Is that you?” He whispered to it and it looked up with wide blue eyes. “Right, let’s go in.”
As Yusuke took a step forward, a carriage materialised next to him carried by strange men in uniforms that covered their faces, and he watched as the carriage swayed forwards and the men melted into puddles of black goo. It was all Yusuke could do to yank the cat off the floor as the goo pooled around his ankles.
“No vehicles within twenty feet if the palace!” A guard called from the top of the stairs.
A groan of annoyance came from the carriage before the door was thrown open and a young man stepped out. Yusuke watched him carefully and with an open mouth as he straightened his cufflinks and glanced at Yusuke, hardly expecting to see the face of Madarame peering at him.
“You!” Yusuke hissed, scowling fiercely before he dropped the cat, turned on his heels and marched towards the staircase, leaving Madarame in the dust behind him. “Go to hell!” Yusuke yelled back at him, giving him a rather rude gesture as he began to climb the stairs.
Madarame chuckled. “Now, now, there’s no need to be so obscene!” He told Yusuke as he took to the first step, huffing and puffing with the strain. “If anything I helped you!”
“You cursed me!” Yusuke snapped, being drawn from the argument by a mewl from the cat. He sighed, still scowling, and climbed back down the stairs to lug the cat after him, finding Akira growing heavier with every step he retook – though, somehow, he still managed to overtake Madarame. “You left me like this!”
Madarame let out a wheezing chuckle. “And look at how happier you are!”
“Change me back,” Yusuke huffed, his lungs threatening to jump out of his throat. “I don’t want to be an old man forever, change me back!”
“You think it’s that easy?” Madarame snapped, his lip curling back to reveal his teeth. “Even if I wanted to change you back, I don’t know how.” With his chest heaving, Madarame drew to a stop as Yusuke reached the last twenty-seven stairs. “Help me!”
Yusuke glared fiercely at the stairs in front of him, hardly being able to keep Akira up in his arms. “Oh? Did you suddenly remember how to break my curse?” He said. “Because if not, then I have no reason to help you!”
“I told you!” Madarame wheezed. “My talent lies in casting curses, not breaking them.”
Yusuke reached the top of the stairs and kneeled over, releasing the cat as he clutched at his knees trying to catch his breath. He glanced behind him to watch Madarame with a glare, straightening up to brush the wrinkles out of his blouse as he walked to the top of the stairs, his hands clenched into fists at his sides.
“Are you really going to be taken out by a set of stairs?” Yusuke shouted down to Madarame. “I expected more from the Witch of the Waste!”
Madarame chuckled weakly. “So you finally figured it out, huh?”
“All those years, all the abuse I suffered because of you…” Yusuke said, his knuckles turning white as he clenched his fists tighter. “I accepted it because I wanted to be like you. I wanted to create something as beautiful as the Sayuri, and I worshipped you for it. But…” Yusuke drew in a shaking breath. “You’re nothing but a sad old man! Hungry for money and fame while doing nothing to earn it!”
Madarame scowled up at him. “I’ll wring your neck boy!”
“No!” Yusuke shouted, and Madrame was knocked back by the force of it. “I will no longer be your servant. I refuse! You can’t touch me; I have the higher ground and I finally have a family. One that cares about me.”
“You think you didn’t have a family?” Madarame said, letting out a bellowing laugh as he reached the last twenty steps. “You’re not my child. I knew your mother personally, and I offered her my tutorage. She was always so sickly…”
Yusuke felt the flames of anger burn fiercely in his chest as he glared down at Madrame. “You will not talk ill of my mother!”
“She painted Sayuri for you, Yusuke,” Madarame told him and Yusuke froze, his eyes growing wide. “A mother immortalising her love for her child. Such a sweet gesture for the child she loves…”
“You told me my mother died in an accident,” Yusuke said, his voice low. “Was that a lie too?"
Madarame had indecency to laugh. “No, it was an accident.” He assured, a cruel smile stretching onto his lips. “I just accidentally forgot to offer her medical treatment in my panic when she collapsed for a seizure in front of me. Understandable, some might say.”
“You… monster let my mother die in vain, all because you wanted the work she created for me,” Yusuke repeated, his voice laced with bitterness. “You are despicable. Go to hell!”
“You wish,” Madarame hissed as he reached the finally step.
Yusuke turned on his heel and strode into the palace, the cat following closely on his heels. The palace, if possible, was even more magnificent inside than it was outside; it was all velvet and golden trim, expensive looking carpets and golden gilded furniture. He was guided into a small room by a servant boy, and Madarame pushed past him to sit on the only chair in the centre of the room – breathing heavily – as the cat trotted away and around a corner.
“Akira!” Yusuke hissed lowly, already following it. “Come back!”
“Please,” A young voice said and Yusuke’s head snapped up to meet a young boy’s eyes as he smiled and opened a mirror. “This way.”
Yusuke nodded and complied, stepping into the room with the cat in front of him as the mirror clicks shut behind him. The room he finds himself in is a magnificent greenhouse, filled to the brim with plants, enchanted flowers, and an earthy scent that seems to ease his discomfort. In the centre of the room stands a massive chair, and Yusuke walked towards it, standing in front of it and bowing deeply.
“M’lady,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The woman waved him up. “Please, we’re all friends here. You may call me Makoto.” Yusuke looked up into eyes startlingly red-brown and a soft smile from a girl that wasn’t Sae, he floundered a moment and Makoto noticed this, chuckling quietly. “My sister is otherwise occupied with the war; I’m sitting in for her in the time being.”
Yusuke nodded in understanding. “I see, well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Makoto.”
“And you, Yusuke… Kurusu, is it?” She asked and Yusuke nodded, this time in agreement. “So you’re the infamous father of the Wizard Joker. My. You’re a lot younger than I thought you’d be.”
Yusuke takes the teacup thrust into his hands by a servant boy. “Excuse me?” he asks.
“Oh, I see, a curse,” Makoto hummed with a careful smile, taking the teacup from the table next to her delicately. “That makes more sense.” She waved a hand and a chair materialised behind Yusuke, drifting forward until the pressure from the chair digging into the back of his knees caused him to fall backwards into it. “I think now, we shall be more comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Yusuke said, biting hard on his lip as he watches the cat jump up onto the arm of Makoto’s chair, curling close to her arm. “Is… Is that your cat?” He asked.
Makoto smiled and stroked its fur carefully. “Yes, his name is Morgana. I had him take you here.” Yusuke raised his eyes to the heavens for his stupidity and cursed himself for his foolishness as Makoto sipped her teacup. “I take it Akira will not be joining us?”
“No,” Yusuke said. “He’s awfully lazy and a completely useless son. He doesn’t clean his own house and his room is a tip, he practically begged me to come here today out of his cowardice.”
Makoto’s brows creased together. “That’s… disappointing to hear.” She said. “Akira was my sister’s most prized student; she was very fond of him.” She paused for a moment, a small smile stretching onto her lips. “But most importantly, he was my friend.”
Yusuke raised an eyebrow. “Your friend?” he asked and Makoto raised her own eyebrow back at him. “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“No, it’s alright.” She told him softly. “I suppose you already know the most of it. Like Akira, I too had my heart taken by a demon, most of us at the Academy did. They called it a rite of passage, but once you’ve had your heart stolen you neglect to feel anything.” She smiled down at her teacup, carefully swirling the contents. “You can no longer feel the warmth in your chest of love and kindness, there’s just a part of you that feels so empty and numb.”
“Akira had his heart stolen?” Yusuke repeated in disbelief. “And Ann and Ryuji too?”
Makoto nodded. “Yes. Those three did the passage first, and the rest of us followed along; too afraid to complain.” She sighed unhappily, looking back up at Yusuke. “Mr. Kurusu?”
“Yes?” Yusuke asked.
“Akira is extremely dangerous and powerful, especially for one without a heart.” She said. “I fear that as well as having his heart taken he lost something else just as important – his humanity. If he continues this way, he may end up like the Witch of the Waste.” She waved a hand and a boy stepped forward, she tilted her head towards him. “Bring him in.”
Yusuke’s eyes snapped to the mirror as it clicked open and a boy was wheeled through on a chair, Yusuke could only assume that this… teenager on the chair was the Witch of the Waste but they looked nothing alike. The boy on the chair had long brown hair and wide brown eyes, his broken gaze cast downward as he clutched his grey robes closer to himself.
“Is this…?” Yusuke began and Makoto nodded.
“The Witch of the Waste,” She agreed. “His name is Akechi Goro.”
“What did you do to him?” Yusuke asked as Akechi trembled in his seat.
Makoto gave him a distasteful look. “I stripped him of his magic, and of his disguises.” She explained. “He was corrupted from his demon, but now he is broken from his curse and remains a young boy. He was greedy, and he paid for that with his magic.” She turned back to Yusuke then, a grim look on her face. “We can no longer look past Wizards and Witches such as Akira and Akechi and the greed they harbour. If he reports to my sister and vows to use his magic, then she will break his curse with his demon like she did for me. If not, I shall strip him of his magic.”
Yusuke’s hand shook on his teacup and, as he stood up, he dropped it, his shaking hands clenched into fists as he glared at Makoto. “Enough!” He cried and Makoto just raised an eyebrow at him. “Now I know why Akira was so hesitant to come here… Everything here, it’s a trap!”
The fire of anger licked up his chest to his mouth until he was almost sure he was spitting fire. “You lure people here with an invitation and then strip them of their magic! If anyone here is heartless, it is you!” Yusuke pressed a hand over his heart, his voice growing louder the more he spoke. “Akira may be difficult to understand, selfish and cowardly, but his intentions are good. He just wants to be free.”
Yusuke shook his head slowly, feeling every smile Akira has sent his way as warm as sunlight and the soft caress of pushing his hair back from his face so perfectly. “He doesn’t need your help to break his curse! He can fix his problems with his demon on his own.”
Makoto looked at him so carefully Yusuke swore she was scanning his soul, and it was then that a small smile crossed her lips, her eyes lighting up in the absolute certainty that she was right as she said, “Oh, I see. I understand now. You love him.”
Yusuke felt her words like an arrow to his heart and he recoiled, retreating into himself. The fire in his chest dies and he feels empty again. Numb.
Akechi stirred, his head snapping up as he reached for Yusuke’s sleeves, tugging them violently. “Is Akira coming?” He asked, his voice filled with delight. “I want it. I want his heart – it’s mine.”
Yusuke pulled Akechi off his clothes, resting a trembling hand on his shoulder. “Akira isn’t coming. Calm down.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Makoto said with a small smile, leaning forward on her seat. “After all, we have you here, Yusuke Kitagawa.”
Yusuke’s eyes widened, his heart falling as Makoto continued to smile at him, and then it hit him, realisation sinking in his stomach. She knew he was lying from the start – she knew he wasn’t Akira’s father – and she was playing him like a fiddle, calculating all his replies before he even said them. Panic begins to rise in his throat, his heart thudding painfully in his chest. A loud sound of an engine broke Yusuke from his panic and he looked up as a figure leapt from a hovering flying machine, crossing the grass to the greenhouse and striding inside. Yusuke immediately recognises her as Makoto’s sister Sae, the Royal Wizard, she smiled at Makoto as she crossed over to the chair.
“Good afternoon, Makoto,” she greeted and Makoto smiled back.
“Good afternoon, Sis,” Makoto replied. “How are the war meetings?”
Sae sighed and brushed her ashy hair back from her face. “Exhausting.” She glanced over to Yusuke. “Who is our guest?”
“Mr. Kurusu, Akira’s father,” Makoto introduced and Yusuke bobbed his head. “And the Witch of the Waste.” She gestured to Akechi curled up in his chair.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Yusuke told Sae.
“And you, Mr. Kurusu.” She said before she turned back to Makoto. “Now, we have much to discuss, mostly about the use of magic to win this war…”
Yusuke’s head snapped up as a door, palace side, swung open and the Royal Wizard strode in, a small scowl on her face, followed by two servants. Yusuke stared at Sae Niijima, his eyes wide, before they darted back to the other Sae. They looked identical, right down to the hair on their head.
“Makoto! What did I tell you about leaving the greenhouse door open!” Sae Niijima said as she strode over. “Anyway… turns out I’m going to preoccupied all week, could you do all my appointments for me?”
Makoto smiled, nodding her head. “Of course, Sis.”
Sae Niijima looked up into the eyes of her clone and grinned. “Your clones are improving! Well done, Makoto.” She praised, pressing a chaste kiss to her sister’s head before she turns on her heel. “That’ll be all. See you later!”
Makoto watches her go with a smile and wave before she turns back to Yusuke and the Other-Sae, and Yusuke feel his throat close, almost overwhelmed by the humid air surrounding them as she turns to the Other-Sae.
“Trying to disguise yourself as my sister, Akira?” Makoto asked. “That’s bold, even for you.”
Other-Sae grinned and in a blink of and the disguise was gone, replaced by Akira grinning down at Makoto. “I do aim to be unpredictable.” He said, wrapping an arm around Yusuke’s shoulder and tugging him close, giving his upper arm a reassuring squeeze. “I reported, and now Yusuke and I must leave.”
Makoto scowled, standing up and slamming her walking stick on the floor. In an instant, she is engulfed in blue flames and the floor beneath Yusuke seems to disappear as the panic and fear infects his mind like a deadly disease. Water fills his vision and, panicked, Yusuke realised that Makoto summoned a sea to engulf and drown Akira and he, and he clutches desperately at Akira’s shirt, bubbles escaping his lips in flurries. He is hardly aware of Akechi grasping onto his trouser as before the water melted away into open air.
Yusuke can’t breathe, his throat filled with air and the salty tang of sea water, but he finds Akira is grinning next to him.
Makoto’s voice is disembodied, floating menacingly on the wind. “It’s time to show Yusuke what you really are, Akira.”
Yusuke squeezed his eyes shut as the stars scattered around him and Akira, only opening them when the wind didn’t cause them to weep. The stars danced around them both, sending sparks onto the hem of Yusuke’s trousers as Akira clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes as his teeth turned sharply into fangs, his hair melted into fine black feathers, and his arms stretched into great black wings. It was then that Makoto appeared, smiling in satisfaction as she pulled back her staff and Yusuke’s eyes widened, throwing himself in front of Akira.
“Akira!” He cried and in an instant, he felt as though he was flying, realising the staff had caught nothing but his jacket; ripping it from his arms.
Akira flew them up and up, until they transcended the night sky of the illusion all together and crashed through the glass roof and Akira melted back into a human figure, all of them landing safely on the flying machine Yusuke assumed Akira had hijacked. With a click of the switch, the wings of the vehicle began to beat and it lifted from the ground, just as the cat darted from the open door of the greenhouse and leapt onto Akechi’s lap. The palace grew smaller and small beneath them as they disappeared into the clouds, finally pushing forward once Akira was sure they were out of sight.
“Did you have to bring those two?” Akira asked Yusuke.
Yusuke huffed. “I didn’t exactly have a choice!” He snapped as Akira lifted his hand and slipped a ring onto his finger.
“Now, take the wheel,” Akira ordered and Yusuke immediately placed his hand on the steering wheel, a million voices in his head screaming at him for not being cautious. “They’re gaining on us. The ring I gave you will lead you back to the castle, you just need to summon Arsene with your heart. I’m giving you fifteen minutes of invisibility.”
“I don’t know how to fly this!” Yusuke screamed and Akira just smiled, bending down to press a kiss to Yusuke’s cheek.
“I’m sure you’ll do great, bye!” Akira cheered, and, with a sweep of his arm, a transparent illusion of the flying machine with Akira on it separated from the real flying machine and hummed off into the distance, taking the fleet of soldiers with it.
Yusuke muttered very colourful words at Akira before he finally gripped the steering wheel with determination, screaming as he almost crashed right into a tree before he steadied himself. The ring on his finger glowed a brilliant blue before a tiny pinprick of the blue light stuck out in front of him into thick grey clouds, presumably leading him back to Arsene and Akira’s castle. As the rain began to fall, thick and heavy, around him, it seemed that the minutes he spent flying melted into hours, and it was only when he was soaked to the bone and shivering did he finally reached the castle. A sense of relief filled his senses until it turned into one of panic after realising he had absolutely no idea how to land the flying thing.
Just as he was contemplating this, the castle’s mouth opened wide and swallowed the flying machine, sending it crashing into where Yusuke’s bed had been and spraying rubble onto Arsene. The machine immediately stopped, it’s nose all bashed in at the front, and allowed for Yusuke, Akechi and Morgana to climb from the back.
Yusuke immediately turned to push it out of the hole in the wall, straining his arms. “Oh, come on,” He muttered as Mishima joined him in straining to push the fling machine. “Move you stupid, ugly thing!”
The wings stuttered to life and stirred about in the rubble before it flew backwards and fell from the castle, buzzing off into the distance. Arsene glared at him.
“You just had to crash through the wall,” Arsene muttered as he picked rubble from his ashes. “Akira’s wall. He’s gonna be so mad.”
Yusuke scowled as he picked splintered wood from his hair. “Oh, be quiet,” he sighed. “Maybe he won’t notice if I hang up a curtain…”
“News flash,” Arsene said, glaring at Yusuke. “He’s going to notice.”
Yusuke pointed a finger at Arsene who immediately backed off. “You… I’ll deal with you later,” Yusuke decided, already pulling his mattress out of the rubble to collapse on top of. “First, I need to sleep.”
* * *
Yusuke sat on the edge of the kitchen table, clutching Morgana close on his lap as Akira drew a chalk sigil on Yusuke’s perfectly polished floor. Mishima was to his right, watching Akira move with eager eyes and an excited smile while Akechi had seemed to resign himself to ignoring everyone around him; still bitter about being stripped of his magic.
“Right,” Akira said as he straightened up, brushing his chalk-covered hands over his black trousers in a way that made Yusuke flinch. “That should do it. Arsene, are you ready?”
Arsene gave the castle a distasteful look and shuffled onto the fire shovel Akira held stretched out for him. “As ready as I’ll ever be.” He said with sigh.
Yusuke frowned and turned to Mishima. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Kurusu’s remodelling the castle and changing the dials.” Mishima explained. “He draws the sigil on the floor and has Arsene line the castle up with the sigil outside and he has all the ingredients for changing the bewitchment of the castle.” He shrugged. “Pretty simple.”
Yusuke raised an eyebrow and looked back to Akira. “Yes,” he agreed sarcastically. “Of course.”
“On my mark!” Akira called, thrusting his left arm directly out to the side of him, palm down, and Yusuke waited.
It started with the air; it grew muggy and humid, so hot that Yusuke found it hard to breathe, and then all at once the consistency changed to that alike to water, and he felt the electricity beneath his fingers tips and underneath his skin in a way that made all the hair on his body stand on end. Akira’s own hair and the trailing sleeves of his white blouse floated up, dancing gently in the air as it grew hotter and hotter until Arsene exploded. He was an inferno of blue, green, red and orange flames, his face stretched out so much by the impact that he seemed sinister, almost demon-like, and the force expelled so much air it was all Yusuke could do to continuously brush strands of his hair from his face. Akira was a blur of colour, obscured by the fire that leaked off Arsene and the pure light coming from the sigil he stood on, and Yusuke watched in wonder as the scene unfolded in front of him.
The room around them bent, distorting his surroundings in way that reminded him of the mirrors at the carnival Madrame had taken him to when he was five, and twisted until new doorways and windows and furniture popped up where nothing was before. The hole in the wall twisted and became a new window, the room around them widened and new bookshelves slammed into the room from the walls, a new door popped up opposite the stairs, the white paint of the walls changed to wallpaper, and the ceiling grew higher until Yusuke was sure he wouldn’t be able to touch it even if he was standing on the table.
The end of the move is punctuated by a train rattling the newly formed window.
“That’s us done, you can get down now.” Akira said and Mishima immediately leapt from the table, running around the room with a joy alike to a child on Christmas morning.
Yusuke stepped down from the stable gently, walking tentatively over to the window to peer outside it. His heart stopped in his chest and his eyes widened at the sight of Markey Chipping lay out in front of him like a blanket, a familiar scene from the back room of Madarame’s art gallery in town – a place where he spent most of his nineteen years of life.
Akira rested a hand on his shoulder and Yusuke turned to him, his mouth falling open, as he smiled. “I added another bedroom,” he said, guiding Yusuke to the door opposite the stairs and throwing it open for him to step inside. “This way you don’t have to sleep behind a curtain and you actually have a bedroom door.”
Yusuke stepped inside the room and turned to look out of the window. “It’s perfect for a cleaner,” he said softly, before he turned to Akira with a smile. “Thank you.”
Akira returned the smile. “I want you to see something else,” he said, already striding from the room. “Follow me.”
Yusuke followed immediately, watching as Mishima chased Morgana around a courtyard from the open door, before he and Kira came to a stop before the front door. Upon observation Yusuke noticed the colours of the dials had changed; instead of red, yellow, green and blue, there was now yellow, orange, purple and black.
“Yellow is Market Chipping, orange is the Wastes, black is Japan and purple…” Akira trailed off as he clicked the dial over to the purple quarter, turning back to grin at Yusuke. “I’ll let you see for yourself.”
When the door opened and he stepped out from grey stone to lush green grass, Yusuke’s eyes widened and he clasped his hands to his mouth, unable to speak. In front of him was a perfect image of his Elysium, with vibrant flowers and blue ponds filled with koi, and a sky as blue as azure. Everything down to the fine details on the flower’s petals was exactly how Yusuke had imagined it when he was ten-years-old, naïve and blind and all he hoped for was his master’s approval, and his eyes filled with his tears and his throat closed as he walked forwards into the patches of flowers, breathing in their sickly-sweet scent and the summer air as he choked down his sobs with a smile.
“Everything here is so beautiful…” He whispered as he gazed across the sparkling water. “How-How did you know?” he asked.
Akira gave him a small smile. “I saw your sketchbook one night; you were trying to recreate this image.” He gestured across the scene in front of theme. “I asked Akechi and he allowed me to take a sliver of his memory, just enough to create this for you.”
Yusuke turned to Akira slowly, his eyebrows creased at the centre. “You did all of this for me?” he asked quietly. “Why? I-I don’t understand…”
Akira took Yusuke’s hands in his own, smoothing his thumbs over Yusuke’s skin so gently and giving him such a kind and adoring look he was afraid he’d start crying again. “Because I care for you,” Akira told him bluntly. “You’re the most spectacular person I’ve ever met. Strong and brave and absolutely beautiful in every form.” Yusuke felt his cheeks warm up at Akira’s words. “You deserve your happiness, Yusuke.”
Yusuke let out a small laugh as he brushed tears from his eyelashes with the back of his hand. “No one’s ever told me that before.” He said. “That I deserve something.”
Akira smiled and tugged gently on Yusuke’s hand. “I have something else for you. A cabin,” he said, gesturing to a small white building just down the hill from them. “Let me show you.”
Yusuke allowed himself to be directed to the cabin by Akira, skipping over small streams and giggling when the icy water splashed his ankles, all the while holding gently onto Akira’s hand. It was only when they reached the glossed door to the cabin did Akira let go to push Yusuke forward to push open the door. When he did, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Inside the cabin was an artist’s wonderland, covered in easels and canvas and tile, and, as he stepped inside, his eyes caught a paint-splashed dresser that housed every supply Yusuke would ever need to use the canvas and materials around him.
“This cabin was where I spent my childhood,” Akira admitted, walking in to stand just behind Yusuke. “But I refurbished it for you. I figured you’d need somewhere to paint that wasn’t too cramped and where you wouldn’t have to worry about making a mess.” Yusuke turned and threw his arms around Akira’s neck, tugging him close and pressing his head against Akira’s shoulder, sobbing softly as Akira hugged him back just as hard, resting his head on Yusuke’s shoulder, as he stroked Yusuke’s hair.
“Are you alright?” Akira asked in a panic, pulling away to look to Yusuke’s eyes. “You’re crying?”
Yusuke laughed, tears rolling down his cheeks before he wiped them away with the back of his hand to no avail, the tears just kept coming. “Of happiness,” he explained. “This is the best gift anyone has ever given me; a field of flowers, a cabin to paint in. Nothing could compare.”
Akira laughed then too, pushing hair back from Yusuke’s face as he cupped it gently in his hands. “I’m glad you like it, though it was a bit alarming to see you cry.”
“I’m sorry,” Yusuke said softly. “I didn’t mean to alarm you. I was just… overcome with emotion.”
Akira shook his head. “No, no. Don’t apologise. I don’t mind if you cry if you’re happy about it.”
Yusuke smiled then as Akira’s thumb brushed his cheekbone. “People may say you are a heartless man, Akira Kurusu, but out of all of us, I am sure you have the biggest.” Yusuke said and Akira looked taken aback. “You are flawed, much like everyone, but you don’t let this get in the way of what matters most. I don’t think you’re a coward, or selfish, you’re human and you’re perfect, and you mean the world to me.”
Akira stared at him a moment before a smile crept across his lips. “To hear all that from you makes me the happiest man alive,” He told Yusuke before he offered him his hand. “Should we head back to the castle? Everyone’s waiting.”
“Okay, let’s head back.” Yusuke agreed as he once again too Akira’s hand, his chest glowing with a warmth that he can’t exactly place. “With all these flowers, we could just as well open up a flower shop.”
“You could, if you wanted,” Akira said. “We have the shop in front of the house too. We could make it a flower shop.”
Yusuke grinned. “I think I’d like that very much,” he said, running ahead of Akira and throwing open the door to the castle. “Let’s get everyone to help collect the flowers! Family bonding!” He poked his head inside the door, smiling at Mishima. “Mishima, grab the buckets and Akechi, we’re going to collect flowers.”
Mishima wrinkled his nose but did as Yusuke asked, Akechi and Morgana trailing out after him as he entered Yusuke’s flower field. “What are we going to do with all these flowers?” He asked as he handed a bucket to Yusuke and one to Akira. “It’s not like they’re exactly edible.”
“We’re going to open a flower shop,” Yusuke told him with a small smile. “And you can sell your magic and I’ll sell my paintings.”
“That sounds like a splendid idea!"
Yusuke and Mishima froze, simultaneously looking down at Morgana, who looked back up them with a smile.
“D-Did the cat just talk?” Mishima asked in disbelief and the confusion immediately melted from Yusuke’s face, his words melting into a laugh. Mishima looked between Morgana and Yusuke in a panic. “How are you so calm about this?!”
“You’ve been a wizard’s apprentice for however long and you’ve never once heard a cat talk,” Morgana said with a frown, his head tilted to the side. “How unfortunate. Yusuke, I’m assuming you’re wanting the buckets in the courtyard once we’re done?”
Yusuke nodded. “That would be best, thank you Morgana.”
Morgana just grinned and turned on his heel, immediately bounding up to a children’s bucket and taking it between his teeth to a small patch of flowers a little way from the group. A bucket was shoved into an uncooperative Akechi’s hands and Mishima immediately go to work beside him, making sure he didn’t pick any weeds on purpose. Akira handed Yusuke a bucket and together they walked down to the river, picking the smaller and more delicate flowers that grew on the bank.
Yusuke filled the bucket with a small amount of the river water to keep the flowers fresh and Akira followed him. Soon they were both sitting cross-legged on the grass, flower picking forgotten in favour of Yusuke crafting Akira a flower crown.
It was a beautiful ring of baby’s breath, lilacs, pansies and daises, and once Yusuke was done he placed it atop Akira’s untameable curls and smiled, only for Akira to pick a lilac beside him and tuck it behind Yusuke’s ear.
“You seem happy,” Akira said, and Yusuke looked up.
“I am,” He said, looking back towards Mishima and Morgana. “And it seems like they are too. Who knew Morgana could talk.”
Akira smiled. “I did. I enchanted him that way, back when I was still learning; I’m surprised the spell is still working in all honestly.” He paused, thinking. “It seemed… stronger, the magic. But Makoto is a strong Wizard, I wouldn’t underestimate her power.”
Yusuke nodded, picking more of the baby’s breath to drop into his bucket. “Makoto said you and he were friends… back when you were in the academy.” He said, trying to remain as nonchalant as possible despite almost burning up with curiosity.
“We were. I guess we still are,” Akira replied with a shrug. “We don’t talk much anymore. Not since… well, she probably told you.”
Yusuke nodded again, hesitating. “Akira… did you swallow a falling star?” he asked and Akira froze, looking up to Yusuke with wide eyes hiding hurt. “Makoto told me it was what they made the students do as rite of passage. She said… that you did it first.”
Akira looked away. “I… I did, yes.”
“I’m sorry,” Yusuke said, gently resting his hand on Akira’s arm. “I didn’t want to pry. It’s just… I’m worried about you.”
Akira raised an eyebrow, frowning at the bucket. “Worried about me? Why?”
“Because you don’t talk to anyone,” Yusuke said with a slight sigh. “You don’t talk to me or Ann or Ryuji or Mishima. You don’t tell us anything or how you’re feeling on any given day. I didn’t even know your heart was stolen by a demon until yesterday, nor that you could become a bird.”
Akira put his head in his hands, taking in a shaky breath. “I didn’t want you to know because you’re only one who has seen me as anything more than heartless or a demon,” He looked to Yusuke with a look on his face that almost made Yusuke’s heart break. “You think I have a heart of gold and when you look at me like… I’m the only one in the world, then I can almost believe it.” He squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his hands into fists so hard his knuckles turned white. “But I’m not. I’m a monster.”
Yusuke scrambled over to Akira, taking one of his clenched fists in his hand. “You’re not a monster,” Yusuke told him desperately. “You could never be a monster."
“But I am!” Akira said, and he sounded so small and broken that Yusuke just wanted to hug him close and whisper sweet things into his hair until he believed every honey-dripped word about him that fell from Yusuke’s lips. “I’m a monster and I don’t deserve any of this. I don’t deserve you, or Mishima… I don’t deserve your worry, and I don’t deserve to be happy.”
“Everyone deserves to be happy,” Yusuke said softly. “Until a few months ago I didn’t think I ever deserved to be happy, but you changed that. And you especially deserve to be happy, you’ve been through so much…”
Akira lifted a hand from Yusuke’s resting it over his heart. “How can I be happy when I don’t feel anything? What should be here and beating is not because I was a stupid kid who wanted magic for selfish reasons.” He looked to Yusuke, tears filling his eyes. “I should look at Mishima and my chest should fill with warmth because he’s a great kid and deserves more than half-hearted praise, I should look at Arsene and feel kinship, and I should look at you…”
The hand that was rested on his heart was suddenly caressing Yusuke’s face, pulling him closer until their foreheads touched, his breathing shaky. “I should look at you, and my chest should squeeze so hard I couldn’t breathe, I should look at you and feel butterflies in my stomach and feel warmth spread from my fingers to my toes.” His eyes squeezed shut as he scowled. “But I don’t. And what kind of person am I if I don’t feel anything?”
“You’re still a person,” Yusuke said, leaning back to cup Akira’s face in his hands. “We can break your curse and work on feelings together. You don’t have to do everything alone.”
“There’s no way to break my curse,” Akira said, his voice hollow. “I should know. I’ve tried and I’ve tried and nothing ever works.”
“I could help you,” Yusuke begged. “I want to help you. Please, Akira, let me help you.”
Akira looked up into Yusuke’s eyes and where he once saw a sparkle he saw nothing but an empty void, and a small smile stretched onto Akira’s lip. “You can’t help anyone who’s way past saving.”
Yusuke frowned, his brows creasing together as a thought came to mind. “Is that what this is about?” He demanded.
“What?” Akira asked.
“I have this inkling that you’re going to leave us,” Yusuke said, all the concern and guilt in his stomach melting into anger and bitterness. “Is this what all the ‘I’m way past saving’ and ‘I’m a monster’ bullshit is about? So that it won’t kick me quite as hard in the dick when you up and leave me and Mishima and Morgana and Arsene alone?” Yusuke shook his head, leaning away from Akira. “Because I’m not just going to stand here and watch you throw yourself away.”
“Yusuke,” Akira said, reaching for Yusuke’s hand. “I’m not leaving you. Or Mishima, or Morgana or Arsene.”
Yusuke snatched his hand away. “If that’s not it, why are you pushing me away?” He asked. “I want to help you. I don’t want to see you sad, I want to see you smiling and happy.”
“I’ve gone for years without asking anyone for any help,” Akira replied with a shrug. “Why should now be any different?”
Yusuke laughed almost manically, knotting his fingers in his hair. “Because we all need help sometimes; And there is never any shame in asking for it!” Yusuke untangled his fingers from his hair and sighed, rubbing his hand over his face. “Akira. I just never want you to feel like you can’t talk to anyone or ask for help when you need it. I’m just… worried.”
Akira took Yusuke’s hands in his, gently rubbing his thumbs over Yusuke’s knuckles. “I know you are, and I’m sorry for making you worry about me.” He said softly. “The last thing I wanted to do was make you worry.”
“Idiot,” Yusuke sighed. “I’m always going to worry about you. Nothing will ever change that.”
“Don’t, I’m not worth worrying over.” Akira said. “I’ll be fine.”
“If you think you’re a monster, at least know that I don’t think you are.” Yusuke said. “To me you are the kindest and most amazing person and wizard I have ever met.”
Akira chuckled and the air around them seemed lighter. “You can’t say that; you’ve only met four wizards.”
“Yes,” Yusuke agreed with a small smile. “And Makoto is one of them. You must’ve done something pretty amazing to be so high in my favour.” Slowly, he got to his feet, brushing his trousers off before he picked up the bucket. “I’m heading back to the castle, take your time.”
Akira nodded. “Okay.”
As Yusuke walked back to the castle, his bucket of pretty flowers clutched close to his chest, he felt his heart break just a little bit inside of him.
* * *
When Yusuke strolled into the courtyard days later, he was overjoyed to find most buckets of his flowers fresh and sprouting new buds from meristems, but he was distraught to find that his bucket had decomposed into the foulest smelling liquid he had ever had the displeasure to smell – the silver lining was that this liquid, as horrid as it may have been and as much as it made Yusuke want to throw up, was a rather potent weed killer. He took great joy in throwing it over all the weeds sprouting up between the cracks of stone in the courtyard. It wasn’t long until Mishima and Morgana came out to join him, sitting just inside the castle to avoid being weed-killed themselves and to enjoy the scene of Yusuke muttering colourful words at the weeds as he doused them in the weed killer.
“You know,” Mishima began and Yusuke spun around so quickly he almost weed-killed his shoes. “Muttering at that at weeds won’t get Akira to be any less of the man he is.” He told him gently. “Maybe you should invest in a better boss.”
“Maybe you should keep your nose out of my business,” Yusuke snapped before he turned back around, biting his tongue the next time he found himself muttering about Akira to the withered weeds.
Morgana grinned. “No need to snap,” he said. “We’re only trying to help.”
“And how are you trying to help exactly?” Yusuke asked bitterly.
“Well for one we’re trying to get Akira to join you outside instead of leaving him to sulk in his room,” Mishima offered, with a nod as Yusuke’s head snapped up. “And we’re trying to help by not letting you mutter at the weeds.”
Yusuke scowled. “I am perfectly fine mutter at the weeds thank you very much!”
“Not if you keep muttering Akira’s name,” Morgana said. “Some would call that infatuation.”
“And some of those people would be pretentious butts,” Yusuke said back as he splashed the weed killer onto the peonies, watching with malice as they instantly withered. “Oh, damn it!”
Mishima sighed. “I liked the peonies.”
“Oh, if you liked the peonies so much I might as well sodding grow you some for your bedroom!” Yusuke growled, stomping over to a particularly clumped together patch of weeds. “And I’ll grow Morgana some catnip, and while we’re at it we might as well grow Akira some balls.”
Mishima and Morgana snickered. “Why, Yusuke you’re so foul-mouthed today!” Mishima said, trying to bite back his laughter. “What’s gotten into you?”
Yusuke slammed down the bucket with a glare, whirling around to Mishima and Morgana with a foul scowl. “Oh, I don’t know! Maybe it’s because Akira is suffering and he doesn’t feel like he can talk to any of us about it,” Yusuke said with a snap, flailing his arms wildly as he rambled, his voice growing hoarser and hoarser as tears welled up in his eyes. “Or because now I know Aresene is the demon that stole his heart, or because everything around me is spiralling into madness and I can’t even think of anything else besides the fact that Akira is out there almost killing himself while I’m sat at home worrying about his wellbeing and the fact that I’m in love with him.”
With a big gasp Yusuke finished, turning away with wide eyes as he clasped his hands over his mouth. “Oh God,” Yusuke cried in anguish. “I’m in love with him! I can’t believe I’m in love with him!”
Mishima shared a worried look with Morgana. “Well this is a bit more dramatic than we had hoped.”
“I refuse!” Yusuke yelled, seizing up the bucket of weed killer to dump angrily on a patch of weeds. “You hear me Akira! I refuse!”
Morgana scoffed. “What do you mean, you refuse, you can’t refuse yourself into not being in love with someone.”
“Really?” Yusuke asked with a scowl. “Watch me try.”
“Look at it this way,” Mishima said, tucking his feet just inside the doorway. “Now you’ve admitted that you love him, maybe you can talk to him about it; he may just feel the same way.”
Yusuke laughed bitterly. “Akira, loving me? Not likely,” he said with a dismissive shake of his head. “I’m not beautiful or pretty, I’m old, and all I’m good at is cleaning and painting.”
Mishima looked at him in disbelief. “Yusuke? Are you serious? You are beautiful, and you’re good at so many things! For goodness sake, you’re magic, can’t you see?” Yusuke blinked at him, pausing in his weed-killer throwing. “You talk your magic into things; you talked your flowers into weed killer with your colourful muttering, and you talked the flying machine to life again.”
“You talked my voice into me,” Morgana said and Yusuke’s head snapped to him. “You did when you thought you were talking to Akira; it strengthened his fading bespellment.”
“That’s absurd,” Yusuke said half-heartedly. “I can’t be magic. I’m not like you… or Akira. I’m nobody.”
Mishima shook his head. “No, you’re somebody. You’re Yusuke Kitagawa, painter, dreamer and wizard.” He gave Yusuke a soft and sad smile. “I just wish you could see that.”
Yusuke paused, hesitating before he placed down the bucket and walked carefully towards the stairs, passing Mishima and Morgana by when they moved aside from him. He moved towards the door, clicking the door to orange and throwing it open only to scream and slam it closed again, causing Mishima and Morgana to star and scramble into the main room to see Yusuke leaning heavily against the door, breathing as if he had just run a marathon.
“What was that about?” Mishima asked.
Yusuke swallowed hard, forcing a wobbling smile onto his face. “I believe we have a guest,” Yusuke said before he turned and threw open the door, revealing a very tall scarecrow standing just beyond the doorstep, swaying gently in the wind. “May I introduce, Turnip Head.”
Mishima gave Yusuke a look. “Is that their name?” He asked. “Turnip Head?”
“I don’t know,” Yusuke shrugged. “I made it up.”
The scarecrow seemed indignant at that, swaying just a bit more violently, Morgana eyed it. “I don’t think they’re very pleased about the nickname.” He said.
“Well, then what would they like to be called?” Mishima asked.
The scarecrow let out a series of high pitched creaking sounds and Yusuke winced, eyeing Mishima and Morgana. “I don’t know about you two, but I got absolutely none of that.”
Morgana’s face lit up with a grin. “You should try talking the scarecrow into speaking.”
“And how exactly would I do that?” Yusuke asked, raising his eyebrow.
“I don’t know!” Morgana said in exasperation. “Look, just talk to the scarecrow like you talked to me.”
Yusuke eyes Morgana doubtfully but turned to the scarecrow and offered it a shaky smile. “Right, well… what are you doing just standing around, offer something useful to the conversation!” Yusuke said.
Mishima frowned. “That was a little rude.”
“Well, excuse me if casting spells isn’t my strong point!” Yusuke snapped before he faced the scarecrow once more. “If anything you should raise your voice and talk louder, you know. What’s your name?"
My name is Haru, the voice came, filling the empty air around them with a feminine, bell-like voice. You didn’t have to be so rude about it.
Yusuke sighed. “Sorry, I’m relatively new to the whole casting magic thing.” He said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Haru, and thank you for finding me place to stay.”
Haru sighed. I appreciate the apology, and the thank you. She swayed lightly. It’s quite miserable out in the Wastes, I’m glad I was able to find you here.
“Would you like to come inside for a cup of tea?” Mishima asked before he realised himself and flushed red. “Or I guess to just stand… next to the fire…” He sighed. “Would you like to come inside?”
Yusuke stifled a laugh and Haru let out another sigh. Me liking to come inside and actually being able to come inside are two different matters entirely. She said in a matter-of-fact way. Your Wizard Joker put a pretty powerful ward on his castle and my curse is too strong to get past it, so here I am. Stuck on the wrong side of the doorway and in the wrong body.
Morgana frowned. “Wait, cursed?” He asked.
Yes, Haru said in a tone that made it evident she was annoyed at Morgana’s words. How many scarecrows have you come across that can move of their own free will and talk when prompted? I mean, you’re a talking cat; cats can’t talk unless prompted. Haru swayed in the direction of Yusuke. I assume it’s this one who made you talk.
“Exactly the one,” Morgana replied with a nod.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Yusuke asked.
Haru ignored him. He’s got a powerful curse on him too, though I don’t know why he hasn’t broken it yet. She sniffed loudly. Unlike the rest of us, he can actually break his.
Yusuke blinked. “Wait, what?” he asked. “I can break my curse?”
Haru turned to him and Yusuke could feel her confusion surrounding him. Of course you can. I just sort of assumed you liked being in disguise.
Ignoring Haru’s protests, Yusuke closed the door, leaning back against it once it was locked firmly shut, staring up at the ceiling and desperately wondering why he hadn’t broken his curse already. To his distress, he didn’t have an answer.
* * *
Yusuke was just about to retire for the night when the bombs began to fall on Market Chipping. He was quick to pull Mishima and Morgana away from the windows, suddenly frightened of them being showered in glass from the impact of the bombs. Akechi was the only one who remained unperturbed by the thought of bombs falling on them, chuckling quietly to himself as Yusuke placed Morgana down in a chair and peered carefully out of the window.
“I wouldn’t stand so close if I were you,” Akechi said and Yusuke started, turning to him with a frown. “Arsene isn’t strong enough to protect the castle.”
Yusuke whipped around to Akechi, crossing to room as if he were gliding across the air to take the man by his shoulders. “What have you done to Arsene?” Yusuke asked in a panic, looking over to notice that he was barely a blue flame, smothered in wood and ashes. “You… horrible man! What have you done to Arsene!”
“A slug slithered in here,” Akechi said with a cruel smile. “So I fed it to Arsene. Is that so bad?”
“A slug?” Morgana asked as Yusuke’s eyes widened as a realisation hit him.
His jaw dropped. “You knew that slug was from Sae Niijima! You fed it to Arsene on purpose…” Mishima caught Yusuke just as he was about to lunge for Akechi. “I should wring your neck! Or feed you to Arsene. You led Sae’s minions right to us, and all for what?”
Akechi smiled and Yusuke wanted to smack it right off his face. “For what I wanted all along,” he said. “Akira’s heart.”
Yusuke shook his head slowly, lunging for Akechi again. “Oh, you son of a…” He flailed his arms in Mishima’s hold, trying to lend any hit he could on Akechi. “I should have tossed you of that flying machine when I had the chance! This is what I get for trying to be kind.”
“Kindness only leads to unhappiness in my experience,” Akechi said and Yusuke scowled. “That’s just how it is.”
Once Mishima was sure Yusuke wasn’t going to maim Akechi, he released him and backed away, checking all the doors and making sure the locks on the windows were fastened. “Or maybe you’re just a sad man who wants selfishly for something he cannot have. All you’ve ever known is greed and selfishness; you’ve never experienced true happiness, true sadness, or love.”
Akechi raised an eyebrow. “And you think you have?” He asked, smiling when Yusuke opened his mouth and found he couldn’t reply. “You wouldn’t know love if it smacked you in the face.” Akechi’s eyes widened when he noticed the look Yusuke’s face, and he laughed so loudly and clearly that Yusuke found himself glaring at his feet his hands clenched into fists. “I understand, you’re in love with Akira, and you think he’s in love with you.” He shook his head. “Let me tell you, Akira’s never been in love; he hasn’t got the heart for it.”
“You don’t know anything about Akira,” Yusuke said slowly, his voice low and dangerous.
“And you think you do?” Akechi asked him.
Mishima poked his head around the door to the courtyard. “I’d love to let you two continue this enlightening discussion,” he began, bitterness evident in his tone. “But we kind of have a bigger problem.”
Yusuke glared at Akechi and turned to Mishima. “Go check on the shop, I’ll handle the courtyard.”
Mishima nodded and headed to the front shop before Yusuke crossed the distance of the floor to the courtyard, striding outside to peer up at the sky. What was once the inky blackness of night was now stained orange with fire and clouded grey with ash, the stars obscured by the planes flying overhead; every time it released a bomb from its confines the ground beneath Yusuke’s feet shuddered and groaned and he afraid it would fall away underneath him. Embers fell like stars from the sky, and they burnt him when they touched his skin.
“We have a big problem!” Mishima yelled as he rounded the corner to the shop, followed quickly by several figures that seemed to be made out of black goo.
“Get behind me!” Yusuke called, pushing Mishima behind him as a bomb went off nearby, almost knocking both of them off their feet. “What’s the shop like?”
“It’s fine,” Mishima replied, picking up a brick to throw at the goo-men. It didn’t seem to faze them and passed right through them. “Though the streets destroyed. The hat shop across the way is on fire, and I think the bakery too.”
Yusuke cursed beneath his breath casting his gaze up to the sky just as the whistle of a bomb falling filled his ears and as a dark shadow wrapped itself around the metal casing. Through the blackness, the feathers of the figure shined every colour of the rainbow and Yusuke watched as the bomb fell into the courtyard, blowing up on impact. Rubble and dust went everywhere, and behind Yusuke he could hear the window and china inside the house shatter – it seemed that all at once everything went silent as the air filled with settling dust and inky feathers, and as Yusuke pulled himself away from the wall, his gaze immediately softened at it fell on Akira.
“Akira,” He mumbled, climbing over the rubble to throw his arms around Akira’s neck, hardly caring that he was half in his demon form and almost two entire heads taller than him. “You came back! You were gone for so long… I thought you’d left.”
Akira brushed Yusuke’s hair from his face with a soft smile. “I could never leave you, Yusuke. And even if I wanted to, I’d doubt you’d let me.” Yusuke laughed at that, burying his face into Akira’s chest before he could see the tears in his eyes. Akira stroked his hair. “I’m sorry, I should’ve come sooner.”
Yusuke pulled back to give him a smile. “You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”
Akira smiled, tucking an arm and a wing around Yusuke’s shoulder as he lead him inside, releasing him when he arrived in front of the hearth. He held a hand over Arsene’s flame, drawing it upwards until Arsene was a purple smudge and he gagged, coughing up something with a puff of smoke and multi-coloured sparks.
Arsene gagged. “Akira, the Witch fed me something gross. I feel awful.”
Akira turned to Akechi, who only smiled and settled down more comfortably in his chair. “Now, was that slug a gift from Niijima?”
“Of course it was,” Akechi replied with a sigh. “I don’t exactly have the magic to do it myself. It snuck in when that lot was talking to the scarecrow, I just gave it to Arsene.”
Arsene glared at Akechi. “I almost died! That was almost murder!”
“We should sit down and have a good heart to heart,” Akechi said to Akira, completely ignoring Arsene’s grumbling. “Then finally you can give me that heart you promised me all those years ago.” He flashed Akira a smile. “Well overdue if you ask me.”
Akira shook his head. “I’m not giving you my heart, but I’ll have to deal with this matter later.” He turned to Yusuke. “Stay here, Arsene will protect you from Niijima’s henchmen, I’ll stand guard out front.”
Yusuke watched as Akira turned and treaded softly towards the stairs before his mind caught up with him and he dashed forward, hugging Akira from behind. “Don’t go, Akira,” Yusuke begged, his eyes threatening to well up with tears. “Don’t go out there; it’s too dangerous.”
Akira turned back to look at Yusuke. “More bombs are coming, and Arsene is too weak to protect the house.”
“Then let’s run!” Yusuke said desperately. “You don’t have to fight.”
“I’m tired of running away,” Akira said, turning around to caress Yusuke’s face, careful not to scratch him with his longer, claw-like nails. “I don’t want to run away from my problems anymore. I’ve decided I’m going to break my curse because of you; as long as you and Mishima and Morgana don’t think I’m a monster then that’s all I need.” He cupped Yusuke’s face gently, and he leaned into the touch. “And I have something I want to protect – it’s you.”
Yusuke’s eyes widened and with a flurry of feathers, Akira was out of the front door and gone, disappearing into the night’s air as the door slammed shut behind him. Almost instantly, the thumping of the goo-men on the door began, trying their best to knock their way into the castle. Yusuke dashed forward and clicked the dial to the orange, throwing open the door and running out into the pouring rain of the Wastes to gaze down upon Market Chipping as it went up in flames and was turned to rubble by bombs. He could immediately pinpoint the shop by finding the building most covered in black goo and he steeled himself before he turned and marched back into the castle, beginning to prepare everything that would be needed for his great plan.
“Arsene, I need you to move the portals!” Yusuke said, and Arsene looked taken aback.
“I can’t move the portals without Akira’s help,” Arsene reminded him. “It’s impossible."
Yusuke turned to glare at him. “Well you need to try. We have to get away from the shop.” He said as an idea came to mind. “Never mind, scrap all that, I’m going to take you out of the castle.”
Arsene froze, his mouth dropping open before he let out an eardrum breaking, “What?!”
“Are you crazy?” Mishima asked him as Yusuke shoved a coat in his hands and told him to put it on Akechi. “You can’t take Arsene out of the castle!”
“It’s our only chance.” Yusuke said as Akechi was eased out of his chair and out of the castle. Once everyone had vacated, Yusuke grabbed the ash scoop and held it out towards Arsene. “Hop on.”
Arsene shook his head furiously. “No, Nope. Only Akira can take me out of the hearth.” Yusuke, severely fed up with Arsene’s complaining and lack of compliance, scooped Arsene onto the scoop and began to walk towards the door. “Crazy man with a shovel! You do realise if you take me outside that door, it’ll collapse?” Arsene asked him in disbelief and Yusuke grinned.
“Good.” He said, turning himself around so that Arsene was still inside the doorframe while he was outside it, and, after a deep breath, Yusuke pulled him out. The castle collapsed in on itself in a swirling vortex, practically melting as it fell apart and scattered bolts and pieces of wall everywhere, groaning as it went. Yusuke brushed his hair back from his face with a free hand. “Right, that was anticlimactic.”
You all need to stop complaining about theatrics so much. Haru’s voice came and Yusuke whirled around, protecting Arsene from the rain with his own body. This looks like a hell of a mess; I hope Akira won’t make you clean up this one.
Yusuke laughed. “Knowing him, he’ll make me.” He teased, a smile stretching his lips. “Haru, help me find a way in.”
Haru hopped a little in front of Yusuke, calling out when he saw a decent sized hole hat lead into the hearth. Slowly, they all filed back in and Arsene was shoved on the stone of the hearth, given wood to burn through as he was dripped on by leaks. He scowled his way through his first plank. “Now that we’re here what do you want me to do exactly?” Arsene asked.
“I need you to get the castle to move again.” Yusuke told him.
“Move again?” Arsene repeated. “Are you crazy?! There’s no chimney, I’m being dripped on and the wood is all damp; how exactly do you propose that we get moving again?”
Yusuke grinned at him. “I know you can do it,” Yusuke told him. “I’ve never seen someone with so much spark.”
Arsene looked at Yusuke before he sighed. “Fine, but I need something of yours.”
“Huh?” Yusuke asked. “Why?”
Arsene rolled his eyes. “I can’t do it by myself.” He gave Yusuke a sharp look up and down. “How about your eyes?”
Yusuke paused, patting his body for anything immediately of his that he could hand over to Arsene, it was when he was searching his pockets that he found the playing card. L’empereur glared at him in the flickering of Arsene’s fire and he immediately thrust it out to him.
“Is this enough?” Yusuke asked as Arsene eyed it carefully.
“That depends,” Arsene said. “Is it going to burn me again?”
Yusuke shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Arsene reached out and immediately swallowed on it, chewing hard on the paper. Yusuke watched in fascination as Arsene shrunk in size before becoming a plume of pure fire that lifted the roof of the castle. It was then that everything began to break; what was left of the floor splintered, and outside Yusuke could hear all the metal bits and plaster falling from the castle until all that was left was the smallest room needed. What was left of the castle sped off across the Wastes, Haru hopping along beneath it.
Yusuke turned back to Arsene with a grin. “You’re brilliant, Arsene!”
Arsene smirked. “Tell me something I don’t know.” His smile stretched then, the edges of it flickering blue. “Imagine what I could’ve done with your eyes, or your heart.”
Akechi’s eyes lit up. “I’ve found it!”
That was all the prompting Akechi needed to reach through the fire to grab Akira’s heart, and Yusuke watched it in shock as the castle began to fall apart again. It tumbled down the side of a hill, off balance as the walls around them were reduced to rubble all the while Akechi was hugging the heart close until he was completely engulfed in orange flames.
“Put it back!” Yusuke demanded, stumbling to his feet to reach Akechi. “Stop ruining everyone’s lives for once and put it back!”
Akechi only smiled. “I finally have Akira’s heart and— it burns!” Akechi’s smile melted into a frown that turned into open mouthed screaming, a sound so horrible that Yusuke immediately pulled himself away from Akechi, releasing him as the flames licked at his clothes. “It’s burning me!”
In his desperation, Yusuke grabbed a bucket full of water and threw it at Akechi, hardly realising his mistake until the floor broke apart under his feet and he was sent tumbling down the side of the hill with Morgana as Mishima cried out for him. Everything passed him in a blur as he fell, clutching Morgana close to him as a sort of comfort, until all of a sudden he was lying on his back at the bottom of the canyon, Morgana at his feet as tears welled up in his eyes.
Slowly, he managed to sit up, looking at the rubble around him before he burst into tears, pressing his hands to his mouth to avoid sobbing to loudly as his body shook with the force of it.
“Morgana,” He managed through his sobs, his voice wet and filled with guilt. “What have I done? I poured water on Akira’s heart. Arsene’s gone.” His eyes widened as he looked at Morgana, pressing his hands over his mouth in shock. “No… what if I’ve killed Akira too?”
The air was still and warm, damp and humid, and tasting of earth and rock as he cried, tears dripping down his cheeks and hitting the floor with dull sounds. The walls of the canyon surrounded him like prison walls, tripping him and making him feel oh so small.
Morgana hesitated. “You did what you had to do.” He said finally.
“I love him,” Yusuke admitted, tears streaking town his soot-stained cheeks. “I love him Morgana. I couldn’t live with myself if he died because of me.”
A soft ringing filled his ears and Yusuke looked down at his hands, noticing the ring on his fingers was spilling blue light like a fountain spilled water and vibrating gently. He watched it with wide eyes, clutching his hands close as a small jet of blue light pointed directly to his left, and he turned to it immediately, scrambling up to remove the rubble from whatever the ring was wanting him to get to. It was only when Yusuke had managed to pull everything away did he realise it was the door from the castle; the dial was stuck on black, and when he pulled it open there was not the flower field staring at him but a black emptiness.
“Morgana,” Yusuke sat and he looked up. “Wait here for me.”
Morgana nodded. “Okay."
Yusuke lifted a hand into the blackness, finding it was less emptiness and more shadow, rippling and bending to his touch like water would. He took in a deep breath and stepped forwards into it, immediately melting into the blackness. It wasn’t long until he reached a room, and Yusuke recognised it as the cottage in the flower field almost instantly, his shoes made no sound on the stone floor as he walked across the room to the door, throwing it open and stepping out into the chilly air of the night. Above him, the stars drifted across the sky, shimmering every colour under the rainbow as they travelled over the roof of the cottage, shining brightly.
His eyes drifted across the grass and he gasped as his eyes fell on Akira; or who he assumed was a younger Akira. Younger-Akira only came up to his elbow and wore wire framed glasses, a stark difference to the Akira he knew in the present. He too was looking up at the sky, studying the stars as they travelled the night sky as if they were seasoned explorers – until, all around them, the stars began to fall.
“I know where I am,” Yusuke breathed. “I know where I am! This is Akira’s childhood.”
The air grew still as Yusuke ran down the steps of the cottage and began to dash across the field, dragging his shoes through the mud and hardly caring when his trouser legs grew damp and muddy; trying desperately to get as close to Akira as he could, though it seemed he was just getting further away. The stars that met the water skipped along the surface before dying in a fizz of technicolour sparks, the ones that hit the grass made holes that threatened to suck Yusuke up, and he dodged both of them before he stopped dead as all the stars died, almost sinking into the mud.
He turned to Akira as a bright light filled his vision, a star falling directly from the heavens to land in Younger-Akira’s hands and explode in multi-coloured sparks. Yet, instead of dying, it talked to him and Akira talked back – Yusuke could almost hear the words, a small whispering at the back of his mind.
‘Why did you catch me?’ The star seemed to say.
Younger-Akira smiled. ‘Because I want to make a deal.’
Confusion buzzed thinly in the air. ‘Why?’
‘Because,’ Younger-Akira said simply. ‘I felt sorry for you.’
‘Sorry for me?’ The star repeated.
Younger-Akira nodded. ‘Yes. It must be so sad to be a star; to fall so beautifully and to die so quickly. Don’t you want to live?’
The star considered it a moment. ‘I think I would like to live.’ It decided.
‘So will you make a deal with me?’ Younger-Akira asked. It nodded. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I don’t have one,’ The star told him. ‘But you can give me one if you’d like.’
Younger-Akira thought for a moment. ‘Arsene.’ He decided.
Slowly, he lifted his hands to his lips and swallowed the star whole – and in turn, swallowing the only light in the entire field - and Yusuke watched as he coughed once and twice, kneeling over and hands clutching at himself until he pulled out a ball of orange and red flames from the left side of his chest; staring down at it as he pulled his hands away. Realisation hit Yusuke like a truck as his ring shattered and the ground opened up underneath him, threating to swallow him whole and drag him down into the darkness.
Yusuke looked back up at Younger-Akira. “Akira! Arsene!” He yelled and his voice seemed to echo and bounce off every side of the memory. “It’s Yusuke! I know how to help you now! Find me in the future!” Younger-Akira and Arsene turned to him, their eyes wide with surprise until the darkness swallowed Yusuke whole and he found himself striding towards a small pinprick of light. He stepped through the air as quickly and as normally as he would have if he was walking on solid ground, the more he moved closer the larger the pinprick of light grew, until he realised the light was the doorway he had originally entered through.
When he emerged from the shadow, the door closed in on itself, collapsing behind him. In front of him was a mound of feathers, and, with his heart breaking, he quickly identified the mound of feathers as Akira. Morgana scampered between Yusuke’s ankles.
“He just appeared here a little after you left,” Morgana told him. “He’s just… waiting.”
Blood was dripping from all parts of his body, and he was even larger than before, it was all Yusuke could do to stride forward and push the feathers away from his face, giving him a soft smile. It seemed that he was unresponsive, and that if he had waited any longer his human face would have been gone in favour of his more demonic face that he took in this form.
“I knew you’d find me,” Yusuke said, leaning up to press a soft kiss on Akira’s lips. “I hope I didn’t make you wait too long. Can you take me to Arsene? And Mishima?”
Akira stretched out his wings and stuck out a foot, which Yusuke immediately stepped on as Morgana leapt from his feet to curl around his neck. With a few big flaps of his wings, Akira had lifted off the ground and they were soaring high above the walls of the canyon and flying towards the moving grey dot just in Yusuke’s line of vison – as they came closer he was quick to realise that all that was left of the castle was a single square of wood and two legs, and Mishima, Haru and Akechi were balanced precariously on it, trying not to tumble off the rickety platform.
The minute he landed and Yusuke had stepped off his foot, Akira collapsed and the feathers melted off of him, drifting away into the breeze and leaving an unconscious human Akira in its wake.
Mishima was immediately at his side, checking him over for injuries and scars. “Is… Is he dead?” He asked carefully, his voice wobbling as he hands shook.
Yusuke shook his head. “No.” He told him before he strode over to Akechi, who just hugged his hands closer to himself; Arsene nothing more than a flickering and flaming blue ball. “I need the heart now.”
“You can’t have it,” Akechi protested, clutching the heart closer to him. “It belongs to me. It’s mine, fairly and truthfully.”
“You took it,” Yusuke reminded him. “Akira needs his heart more than you do.”
Akechi scowled at him. “What? So he can be happy and in love?” he asked. “Even without having a heart Akira had one, and I never had a heart, no matter how much I tried. Now I have one, and it’s all mine and you want to take it away from me.” Akechi let out a frustrated huff of breath. “That isn’t fair.”
“I don’t know if you’ve realised, but life isn’t fair.” Yusuke replied and Akechi blinked owlishly at him, shocked by the reply. “Now,” he thrust his hands out. “The heart.”
Akechi hesitated before he placed the heart into Yusuke’s hands with a wistful sigh. Yusuke turned away from him immediately, able to look at him as he cradled the heart as carefully as he could before he knelt down next to Akira – it was like the fluttering of a bird’s wings in the palms of his hand, so gentle and almost oozing the innocence of childhood.
“Arsene?” He called gently, and the small flickering of blue flames grew into the familiar orange and red ball of Arsene.
“Yusuke,” Arsene replied, his voice nothing more than a harsh croak. Yusuke’s chest squeezed painfully. “I feel totally awful. Like I’ve swallowed a ton of lead… and I feel oddly damp.”
Yusuke gave him a reassuring smile. “That’s okay. If I give Akira his heart back, what will happen to you?” He asked, frowning slightly. “Will you be okay?”
Arsene frowned, wincing as he flickered dangerously slowly. “I think I’ll be fine if you do it. You did throw water on me earlier.” He flashed Yusuke a grin. “If I do die, just talk me back to life; I’m sure it’ll work.”
Yusuke laughed and took in a deep breath, holding Arsene over Akira’s chest. “Please, let Arsene stay alive, and please bring Akira back.” He whispered to it before he pressed it gently into Akira. It dissolved into him and from it, Arsene sprung free, nothing but a colourful spark.
“Finally!” Arsene crackled, dancing over their heads. “I’m free!” He cried before he shot off into the sky, disappearing with a flash of blue light.
The platform underneath Yusuke gave way immediately, crashing now that Arsene wasn’t there to steer what was left of the castle. It slid down the side of the hill, gaining speed until Haru leapt in front of it, trying desperately to stop the platform from catapulting the group into the canyon below. By the time the platform drew to a stop, wedged between two pieces of rock, Haru’s pole was just a stub and she fell limply back onto the platform, one of her pristine white gloves falling from her wooden frame.
“Haru!” Yusuke cried, cradling her stick body and turnip head carefully. “Oh Haru, your pole… we’ll get you another one. We’ll fix this.”
Unsure of what else to do, he leant down to press a kiss to her head and Morgana scoffed. “That isn’t exactly something you can kiss better.” He said.
Yusuke turned to him to glare before the bundle of sticks and clothes in his arms leapt up at its own accord, twisting and turning into a small ball of light until a young girl popped from it, looking severely dishevelled as she anxiously fixed her feather hat and twisted a curl of her hair around her finger, bending down to pick up her glove and ease it back into her hand.
She gave Yusuke a look, her brows furrowing in concern. “My, you do look a mess.”
“Haru?” Yusuke asked in disbelief, his hands still outstretched as if cradling her.
Haru grinned, nodding her head. “The one and only. Thank you for breaking my curse, by the way, and it seemed you finally broke yours too.”
“What broke your curse?” Mishima asked, his eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“True love’s kiss,” Haru said and Yusuke almost choked on his breath. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be like that. True love doesn’t have to be romantic you know; it seems I’ve grown rather fond of you all.”
Morgana snickered. “Oh, ‘Fond’, is it?” He asked. “To me, ‘True love’, sounds like a lot more than fondness.”
Haru sighed. “I hate to be the dramatic one here but it seems I’ve fallen in love with you all.”
“Don’t worry, Haru,” Mishima said with a smile. “I’m sure we all love you too.”
Akira coughed, his face creasing up until he finally calmed down enough to open his eyes and pull himself up, wincing and groaning as he did so. Yusuke was over him in an instant, helping him sit up. “My chest,” Akira said as he clutched at it with a hand, his brows furrowed in confusion and discomfort. “It’s so heavy. I feel terrible.”
“A hearts a heavy burden.” Yusuke said wisely before he launched himself forward to wrap Akira in a tight hug before he pulled back and immediately punched Akira gently on the shoulder. “You idiot! You could’ve gotten yourself killed, what were you thinking?”
Akira reached up to cup Yusuke’s face. “I told you, I want to protect you.” He said softly, a smile crossing his lips. “You matter more to me than anything else. More than my health and my life. For you, I’d risk everything.”
Yusuke stared at him a moment, only to look down once his eyes pooled with tears and laugh, bringing his hands up to his wet eyes, digging into them with the balls of his hands. The tears, no matter how hard he wiped them away, did not stop. “Stupid,” Yusuke breathed, looking back up at Akira with a tearful smile. “How do you think I feel when you’re out risking your life? Not knowing if you’re going to come back in once piece. It tears me apart, and I can’t help but love you regardless.”
Akira’s eyes widened, sitting up completely to pull Yusuke onto his lap, now cupping his face with two hands. “Yusuke,” Akira said in disbelief, his thumbs gently stroking the curve of Yusuke’s cheek bone. “You love me? Why?"
“Why?” Yusuke repeated in disbelief. “Because you’re kind hearted and always going out of your way to do things for others, even if they hurt you in the long run. Because I love the way your hair looks in the morning, and how you roll the sleeves of your shirt up to your elbows.” He reached out to cup Akira’s cheek, biting his lips as he fought back tears and smiled. “Because you look at me and see everything that I want to be, because I look at you and see nothing but perfection; and when you smile the entire world falls into place. I love you, Akira Kurusu, with all my heart.”
Akira stared at Yusuke before his own tears pooled in his eyes and he laughed, clearly and happily, flashing perfectly white teeth. “You’re so perfect, Yusuke,” Akira told him gently, pushing strands of blue hair back from his face. “I love the way you never give up, I love the way you look at me, and, God, I love you so much. More than I can say, and with my entire heart and soul and every fibre of my being.”
Yusuke laughed, a hand held over his mouth. “It seems that the great Wizard Joker has stolen my heart.”
“If you’re not more careful, I’d eat it too,” Akira teased, nuzzle his nose into the crook of Yusuke’s neck and pressing a small kiss there. “Devour it whole.”
Yusuke smirked. “And I’d gladly let you.” He said.
“Though I think we’ll have a problem,” Akira said, tucking Yusuke’s hair behind his ear. “Because You’ve stolen my heart as well.”
Yusuke grabbed the front of Akira’s blouse, bring his lips to his with a tug of his shirt. This kiss first kiss between then was well overdue, tasting of soot and stars, and he wouldn’t have traded this kiss – high above a cliff on a wooden platform after Akira had almost died, surrounded by their family – for the stars. Yusuke was warm above him, his heart beating gently in his chest, and as Akira looked at Yusuke, stroking his finger over the curve of his cheek he felt it – the warmth in his toes and the squeezing of his chest. His lips trembled into a wobbly smile, his eyes burning with the heat of tears.
He pressed his forehead against Yusuke’s, squeezing his eyes shut as tears slipped form his eyes and made tracks through the soot on his cheeks. He gasped and felt every piece of joy in him rubbing together to make a spark, and he looked at Yusuke and saw the stars and the moon.
“Yusuke,” Akira said, his voice hoarse from crying. “You’re beautiful.”
Yusuke smiled, and, for the first time, he believed it.