There were places one did not venture alone in Tokyo in the nighttime.
It was the same in every city. Places like Kabukicho were fun--of a sort, for a sort--but that sort did not include the likes of Katsuki Yuuri after midnight in his work clothes and winter boots and cheap blue mittens. He knew his limits, and he knew the look of his mittens.
But then there were the places--perhaps singular to Tokyo, since Yuuri had been to many an American and Chinese and Thai city and felt nothing like the pull he experienced here--the places one simply could not avoid in the nighttime. These were magnetic places, where the lights did not turn off and the streets were flush with people regardless of the time of night, where being alone did not mean being alone. Shibuya was such a place.
Shibuya was where Katsuki Yuuri was when his phone rang unsilenced inside his bag, and he kicked over several aerosol cans of spray paint in his haste to shut it off. Shibuya was where he was when he swore lowly into the receiver in lieu of a greeting, and Phichit Chulanont returned the sentiment dryly.
“You’re late. Don’t tell me you're doing what I think you are.”
“It's one in the morning,” Phichit interrupted smoothly. “Get your ass home.”
“I will. Give me forty minutes--”
“Where are you?”
Katsuki Yuuri sighed. He cast a furtive look to either end of the corner and answered defeatedly, “Omotesandō.”
“Omotesandō,” Phichit repeated slowly. “I’ll give you twenty.”
“Twenty minutes, Yuuri. For god’s sake, are you in Shibuya alone?”
“Of course not,” Yuuri muttered, his replies verging on snappish now. “I have the entire silver factory entourage with me.”
“Don’t be a dick.” Yuuri heard the gentle spark of a lighter over the receiver. “Twenty minutes. Leave now please.”
“Don’t hotbox the flat again--” Yuuri began sharply, but Phichit interrupted him with a dismissive noise.
“No moral high ground allowed for the menacing vandal. I’m hanging up on you now.”
Phichit Chulanont hung up. Katsuki Yuuri tossed his phone back into his bag and flinched when it crashed against several more cans of spray paint. Fantastic. Work of a genius.
He kicked at a lump of black slush with the toe of his boot, for good measure.
And contrary to what he had been ordered, Yuuri did not pack up his things, nor did he leave immediately after ending the call. Instead he shook the aerosol can he hand been holding even when he took Phichit’s call and painted another swath of orange against the white brick. Steady breathing warmed the inside of the respirator, and the biting winter cold refocused its assault on his bare wrists instead.
He had been working on this, in secret, for a few days. By now it was damn near complete, and Yuuri had banked on finishing it tonight, before the unfinished and untitled work attracted too much righteous police attention. After all, he had been forced to abandon works for weeks that way, and by the time the local hype over a newly discovered Eros piece had died out, the drive behind Yuuri’s work had been gone. He knew better than Phichit the urgency of the situation, and that meant he could not stop.
(He’d often left those unfinished works to the local kids to tamper and tag, and the more aspiring of them had produced some of Roppongi’s best new graffiti over recently abandoned Eros pieces. But they were Yuuri’s works no longer, and he was much too attached to this current project to leave aspiring fifteen-year-old vandals to pick up where he’d left off.)
The brick he was vandalizing was new, even if the building was not. There was little about chic Shibuya which was visibly old, and this building was no exception. Scaffolding still leaned against the wall from before the brick restoration had ceased; last night Yuuri had climbed it in order to paint three meters up.
Tonight, briefly, he set down the paint. Stepped back, and studied.
Katsuki Yuuri’s professional art education was undoubtedly Western, but Eros painted in the Nihonga style. Such a conflict of fundamentals made his private work process more difficult, but it was also what had given the sprawling sprays across Shibuya and Shinjuku their fame. Nihonga was not done with spray paint, and even burners were rarely done in a style so elaborate--even in Tokyo. Even in Tokyo, no one in painted the subject matter Yuuri did.
His gloves were stained with wet orange paint. The second painted woman reclined against a dark chaise to which he would not have the time to add final touches tonight, even without Phichit’s newly instated curfew. Disappointment, again.
Yuuri adjusted his facemask, and the plastic was slippery between his slick fingers. He shoved the aerosol can between the crook of his elbow and his ribs and removed his right hand glove to better reaffix the respirator.
But he felt his grasp on the paint can slip too late, and the sound of metal crashing against concrete echoed doubly in the chilled night air. Yuuri froze.
From a limited distance came low voices which did not match the easy buzz of usual nighttime Shibuya conversation. Yuuri clenched his teeth and swore. Phichit was going to kill him.
And sudden realization of the urgency of the situation sent him into motion. Yuuri dropped to his knees and scrambled for the can he had dropped. The cylinder skittered farther away when he wrapped his fingers around it and failed at finding purchase on slick aluminum.
Panic was quickly rising in throat. Yuuri dove again for the paint and dropped his glove.
Leave them. It was the rational solution. But the gloves (cheap as they were) were from his mother. The paint was expensive, and an incriminating purchase when bought too frequently. He couldn't leave them. He couldn't.
“Hey!” Not the salutary voice of a fellow artist, nor a curious layman. Cops. Yuuri sat back on his heels and glimpsed two of them, much bigger than he, and thought about how little he could afford to go to jail. He had not yet paid his rent this month. Phichit could not afford bail, nor did Yuuri entertain himself with brief fantasies that his family would be understanding about receiving a midnight phone call from their adult son, detained at a Tokyo police station on vandalism charges.
But he could not. Above Yuuri, in his imagination, orange paint turned to burning ice in the cold. He would never finish this work. The grief of that reality seized his heart, and he could not leave them--not the gloves, nor the paint, nor the art.
In his head, Phichit Chulanont’s voice. Artists are sentimental sons of bitches, aren’t we?
He was going to be arrested if he did not move. His poor mother would lose her mind. Mari would never let him live it down. He would also probably lose his job, but somehow that concern took a backseat to the many dry impressions of Yuuri shivering in an overnight jail cell which his older sister would perform at family functions for years to come.
Sign it. Then go.
Katsuki Yuuri scrambled to his feet. His bag sat, still opened, on the pavement. He snatched it up and seized from its contents a can of blue paint, signed the unfinished piece, and pressed the bag to his chest with a frantic prayer that he would drop nothing else.
And then Yuuri ran .
“You're thirty minutes late.”
“I’m sorry. I meant to text you.”
“Did you?” Phichit lay on his back on his mattress, hazy smoke swirling above his head. “Seems like a convenient lie.”
Yuuri blinked. It was a lie, but Phichit didn't necessarily know that. Yuuri wasn't obligated to admit anything. “Can I open a window please?"
Phichit gestured vaguely at the window. Yuuri took this as an affirmative.
“S’cold outside,” Phichit drawled, and Yuuri was content to think it just stoned small talk until Phichit continued, “Where are your gloves?”
“I--” Damn. Yuuri’s fingers were too cold, and his grip on the freezing windowsill was unsteady. He gave up, raising his hands to his chest in both indication of his failure as well as somewhat guiltless apology. He was bad at inventing mistruths. Innate creativity did not bear him that far. “I took them off. Before I got here.”
“Imagine that.” Phichit rolled his eyes. “I wish you didn't lie to me anymore.”
“In general?” Despite himself, Yuuri smiled. He prodded Phichit in the ribs with his sock until the latter sighed longsufferingly and shifted over.
Yuuri lay down beside him. There was paint on the ceiling--likely Phichit’s doing. There was always paint somewhere unusual, when it came to Phichit. He repeated, “In general? Or about the art?”
“Do you lie to me about other things?” Lazily, Phichit offered him the joint. Yuuri closed his eyes against the shadowy ceiling, took a pull, and then passed it back.
“No.” He laughed, quietly. “Just the art.”
“So where are your gloves?” Even stoned, Phichit was always unfortunately lucid when his being so directly disadvantaged Yuuri.
Yuuri said, “Dropped them. In Shibuya,” and left it at that. Mercifully, Phichit let the omission be. He brought his fingers up between their faces and fussed with a bit of Yuuri’s hair, partially because Phichit could never help but touch and partially because he knew (even if the latter was loath to admit it) that Yuuri liked it.
“And how was work?” he mused. “Professional art world still running you ragged?”
Yuuri smiled. He kept the smile even when Phichit’s hand closed over his mouth and jealously turned Yuuri’s face away from him, even when he made a scornful sound in his throat and muttered something which sounded like, “Smug bastard.” Yuuri laughed.
Phichit liked to complain about Yuuri’s white collar gallery job, but it was easy to see how he envied it. Thus Yuuri did his best to never disparage it, for Phichit Chulanont’s benefit.
“Work was good,” he said against Phichit’s fingers. After a playfully scornful moment, Phichit removed his hand from his mouth. “Yuko says I’ll like working the upcoming season, though I have no idea what she means by it. A surprise, I suppose.”
“Maybe it means she’s finally giving you a show of your own,” Phichit suggested lazily. “Though you’d have to grow a backbone for that to happen, wouldn't you?”
“Phichit.” Yuuri’s voice was low, equal parts sleepy and reproachful. They often did this, and often had this discussion. “You know I don't--”
“I know.” Phichit sounded admonished, for the smallest moment. His hand, which had toyed with Yuuri’s hair and clamped over his mouth and briefly traced dreamy images in the air above their heads, now settled audibly back on his own chest. His presence beside Yuuri was lovely and warm. “Hey. Don’t fall asleep in my bed again.”
“Mm.” He was exhausted, and now dangerously content. Phichit had reason to worry; Yuuri had tended a heavy track record of passing out in Phichit Chulanont’s bed uninvited since university. (Sometimes sober, usually chaste, but never apologetic--it was a charming description, and Yuuri wished it applied to more aspects of his life than his college sleeping habits.) “No promises.”
“How was work?”
“Don’t try and distract me,” he said petulantly, but Yuuri rolled onto his side and twined his fingers with Phichit’s, perching his chin innocently on his shoulder, and Phichit was distracted. It didn’t take much, with Phichit.
“Work,” he mused, turning his face so his mouth brushed Yuuri’s hair. “Work sucked.”
“Mm. Doesn't it always?” He closed his eyes. “Talk to me about it.”
“I’m evicting you immediately if you fall asleep in my bed again,” Phichit warned him, and Yuuri laughed drowsily.
“Too stoned for that,” he murmured, and it was less of a dig on Phichit’s habits more than it was a practical, innocent statement. Nevertheless, the irritation in Phichit’s retaliating scowl was nearly palpable. “Tell me about work.”
“Hm.” Phichit’s voice became finally conciliatory, then reminiscent. “Dumped a hot teapot on myself within the first hour.”
“Oh no,” Yuuri murmured, and Phichit Chulanont laughed.
“You sound very concerned for my wellbeing.”
“Mm.” Against his shoulder, Yuuri smiled. “You would have complained more if you were hurt.”
“I said don't fall asleep in my bed--”
Yuuri hummed drowsily, content in knowing that Phichit’s damning soft spot for a sleepy Katsuki Yuuri would keep him from shoving him off the mattress, or untangling their mess of limbs and demanding that he undress and find lonelier solace in his own bed. “Ah,” he murmured. “Too late.”
He fell asleep in Phichit Chulanont’s bed and when he woke the next day, the other side of the mattress was empty. Phichit had left him a note scrawled in marker (not an erasable marker, but a permanent one from the depths of his work apron pockets) on the fridge.
Good luck today! Here's to a show of your own. Beneath it, he had done a caricature of Yuuri in an artist’s respirator, laden with several oversized cans of spray paint, dressed in what Phichit often called his class traitor uniform: a modest two-piece suit which had not properly fit since Yuuri had returned to Japan and gained back his pre-college weight. Phichit had cut it more flatteringly to the Yuuri-caricature than it fit him in real life.
Yuuri was so thoroughly charmed by the mild vandalism as he dressed for work that he made himself late for the train when he snatched up the marker and left Phichit a fridge caricature of his own: a tiny, wide-eyed barista with blunt bangs, upending a steaming teapot on his black apron.
Upon arriving at the Nishigori gallery, Yuko passed immediate judgment on him.
“Late,” she said, like Yuuri couldn't possibly have known. She materialized behind him while boarding the elevator as he dropped his things (which he had juggled clumsily in his arms the entire commute on the train) on the floor, and she reached upward to fix some aspect of his hair. Yuuri shook his head.
“M’sorry. Missed my train.”
“When are you going to get a haircut?” Yuko asked. She retrieved Yuuri’s bag from the floor and slung it over his shoulder. “You have orange paint on your hands.”
“I’ll get a haircut when you pay me enough that I can afford one,” Yuuri said, and then he ducked. Blushed. “Sorry.”
“Bad night?” Yuko mused, and Yuuri shrugged.
“Met some cops in Ometesandō,” Yuuri mumbled. Yuko nodded, as if it was a perfectly understandable thing to complain to one’s boss about running into trouble with the law--and to receive sympathy, no less.
“They’re getting more serious about it,” Yuko said. “They didn’t like the last piece.”
“The last piece was unfinished ,” Yuuri said, “And I know they didn’t like it, because they painted over it a week ago.”
“I got photos,” Yuko promised. “Which reminds me--I wanted to talk to you about something. A few somethings, actually.”
Yuuri nodded absently. He caught his reflection in the metal panel of the elevator and frowned. Did he really look like that? So he did need a haircut. Maybe he could convince Phichit to give him one. “I have to talk to Takeshi about the Ji exhibit.” The elevator stopped, opened, and Yuuri stepped out. “Is an hour good?”
“Well--” Yuko attempted to stop the door from sliding shut with her hands, and when that didn't work she quickly withdrew them to avoid crushing her fingers between the metal doors. “Yeah, I guess--”
“Fantastic!” Was he sweating? Why was he sweating? Perhaps he was coming down with something. He decided that’s what he would tell the Nishigoris, should either of them decide to comment on the state of his dress or face or any other aspect of his person today. “I’ll see you then.”
And Katsuki Yuuri turned on his heel and fled.
It was not quite that he did not want to speak to Yuko. But any occasion which involved discussing Yuuri’s slightly more unsavory and much more illegal forays into the art world, especially in a professional setting, made him nervous. Yuko knew, of course--and so did Takeshi--but that did not make it potential conversation fodder for broad daylight. The white walls of the sprawling gallery were starkly accusing.
And he had orange paint on his hands. It might as well have been blood.
Rather than immediately scouring the place for Nishigori Takeshi, Yuuri ducked into the bathroom. He scrubbed his hands raw--dry already as they were from the winter air and the new absence his mother’s gloves had left in his life--and bloody in the sink, and still the orange paint remained. Yuuri felt his face heat up, watched his cheeks go red in the mirror. Shit.
He wouldn’t cry. But he would have to shake hands with Ji Guang Hong tonight with orange paint-stained fingers, and that would be humiliating. Yuuri already looked like a mess--he was steadily losing weight as well as the healthy, contented glow which had always made such weight flattering to him, he needed a haircut, and he couldn't remember the last time he had visited the optometrist. His prescription was bad--several years old at least--and Yuuri had taken to blinking too quickly and too often to focus his gaze. Phichit said he looked fine. Yuuri didn’t care for the way he said fine. It sounded like an ambitious euphemism.
But he couldn’t help it. Yuuri was tired, constantly. He worked in the afternoons and evenings and painted in the nights, and that left him the mornings for sleep. There were permanent dark shadows beneath his eyes. And he had grown paler now. Phichit had joked once while tipsy that he was nearly translucent at this point, and though it had been a harmless jest, the barb still pierced his heart at strange times. Katsuki Yuuri was a shambling mess.
(And he had been pretty , before. Yuuri was not vain but even he knew this much. He had been popular among the art department at school, even shy as he was. Phichit had set him up with several male students during their shared time at university, and even when Yuuri had ruined dates by being awkward and nervous and embarrassing, they had kept coming back. There was reason for that. Yuuri was not vain, but he was not stupid either.)
Now, more often than not, he looked sickly. Yuuri hated it. Such made him miss university, which did objectively make his current situation sound a bit miserable.
He stared at himself so intently in the glass that he did not notice the shadow behind him until a large hand clapped him on the shoulder. Yuuri jumped, barely kept himself from crying out, and slammed his cracked and bloody hands against the porcelain sink.
“Whoa, Katsuki. Sorry!” The hand, which belonged to Nishigori Takeshi, did not remove itself from Yuuri’s shoulder. Its owner laughed. “Didn’t mean to scare ya.”
Yuuri leaned willowy against the sink. He was breathing heavily. “S’okay,” he muttered, because it mostly was. Takeshi liked to touch, that was all. Usually he didn’t mean anything by it. “Sorry.”
“Yuko said I’d find you hiding,” Nishigori Takeshi said loudly, because he did everything loudly. Yuuri did not flinch, nor pull away. He thought this was rather accommodating of him. “Your hands look like shit.”
“S’paint on them,” Yuuri said quietly, sheepishly. “I was trying to get it off, before meeting with Ji.”
“Well, at the least you’ve disguised all the paint,” Takeshi remarked, ever brash and rarely ambivalent. “Though the blood is a bit off-putting.”
“Lost my gloves.” Was he going to rehash the entirety of last night’s conversation with his best friend now with both of his employers? Yuuri was exhausted. He already wanted to go home. He wanted to not have to think. He wanted to paint. “The winter--winter dries them out.”
“Mhmm.” Yuko’s husband was tall and wide, generally much larger than Yuuri himself. Yuuri was not intimidated by him anymore, but perhaps he did find Takeshi’s presence a bit suffocating here in the small men’s bathroom, with his hand firmly squeezing Yuuri’s shoulder. Katsuki Yuuri shifted on his feet.
“Um--about the Ji meeting--”
“Right!” At last, Takeshi let him go. He gestured expansively, ushering Yuuri finally out of the bathroom. “I wanted to tell you--well, really to ask an artist’s opinion--not that Yuko and I aren't artists, of course, but I tend to trust your objective view on things--by the way, Yuko showed me your newest Ometesandō piece--it’s incredible, Yuuri--”
Unfinished , Yuuri insisted in his mind, wringing his bleeding hands out over the empty space before him. Unfinished Ometesandō piece. Even though Tokyo’s audience hardly distinguished between the finished and unfinished works anymore. The disregard for that distinction had started to drive Yuuri out of his mind, a bit. It taunted him now.
Because when was the last time he had finished a piece, to the extent he’d wanted to? When was the last time he had liked one? The young, chic populace of Tokyo might have loved the work of Eros, but what did that mean if Yuuri did no longer? Was there such a disconnect between intent and execution? And what was he doing here? Working a gallery job to pay rent, letting his own work rot unfinished in the alleys in Shibuya? Was that what artists did? Was Yuuri a real artist, if he couldn't even own up to it?
What had Phichit said? Maybe it means she’s finally giving you a show of your own. Though you’d have to grow a backbone for that to happen, wouldn’t you?
Yuuri realized quite lucidly that he was panicking, but it was not as if there was anything he could do to stop it. It was a Tuesday morning. The gallery hadn’t even opened yet.
Katsuki Yuuri suddenly felt like there was a very thin, very strong hand closing around his throat. He tugged at his collar, loosened his tie, and said, “Takeshi.”
“Yeah?” Yuko’s husband stopped speaking for a fraction of a moment. Then he began again. “Are you alright, Yuuri? You look like you might be sick.”
“I think I’m going to be,” Yuuri whispered, and then the room began to spin. Weakly, he said, “I believe I need to go home.”
“But the Ji exhibit--”
“Takeshi.” Dizzily, Yuuri blinked. “Actually, I don't think home is an option. Do you mind if I--”
“No, no.” Nishigori Takeshi gestured at him urgently. “Please don’t throw up in the exhibition rooms. Take care of it.”
“Thank you,” Yuuri whispered, and then he was walking very quickly and carefully, and then he was running, and he had barely shoved his way back to the men’s bathroom before he threw up.
It was nine in the morning. The incident rather set the tone for the rest of the day.
Phichit was cooking when Yuuri came home in the evening. The wine bottle next to which Yuuri set his keys was already uncorked, and Phichit had set out two empty glasses in preparation for Yuuri’s return.
Phichit’s tone was cheerful when he asked, “How was work?”
Yuuri could not muster the energy for a verbal response. While Phichit was turned to the stove Yuuri circled his arms above Phichit’s hips and buried his face into the crook of his neck. “Mm,” he said, and that was as coherent as it got.
Phichit hummed. “I see.” He did not disentangle Yuuri from the rest of him when he moved, stepping carefully to the other side of the counter so he could pour out a glass of wine. When Yuuri at last lifted his head, Phichit removed Yuuri’s right hand from his chest and pressed the stem of the glass between his fingers. “Drink.”
Yuuri had already drank, while at his meeting with the Chinese artist Ji Guang Hong this evening. Professional artists drank wine like it was water, and even though Yuuri did not care for the dry wines the Nishigoris favored, he had subjected himself to the displeasure of an extra glass solely to loosen the set of his shoulders. (He had far outmatched Ji in his alcohol consumption, which in retrospect was probably for the better. Yuuri hadn’t realized how young the kid was until he had shaken his hand, and realized the Chinese artist was trembling.)
Yuuri separated himself hesitantly from Phichit, leaned against the empty side of the counter, and began to nurse his new glass of wine in silence. Phichit did not push or prod him with questions. Phichit simply continued to cook.
Katsuki Yuuri loved his best friend for many reasons, but this was one of the most important: for all he loved to talk, Phichit knew Yuuri’s boundaries, and he respected them above all else. Silence was comfortable with such a roommate who knew when and for how long to employ it, and he communicated instead in small glances and touches, stepping here around Yuuri when it was necessary, guiding him with one hand against his hip away from beneath the cabinet Phichit needed at the moment, smiling equally softly and brightly when occasion and Yuuri’s expression called for either.
And when Phichit did speak, it was about wholly innocent things. He did not mention the gallery or Yuuri’s very obvious state of disaster. He did not mention the Eros works, or the fact that he had probably passed the Omotesandō piece on his way back from work like Yuuri had, and found it partitioned off from the rest of Shibuya with police tape. Phichit Chulanont did not mention art at all.
“Want to watch a movie after dinner?” he asked lightly, bumping Yuuri’s hip with his own. He had begun to portion out whatever he had made for dinner--there was pork in it, and basil. “Or go for a walk?”
“Walk would be nice,” Yuuri murmured. “If it's not too cold.”
“Never too cold with wine in you,” Phichit replied, plucking from Yuuri’s hands his half-finished glass and spiriting it away to the table. When he returned to pour himself a glass, he smiled. “But only if you want to.”
Softly, Yuuri nodded. Phichit slung an arm across his shoulders and whispered against his temple, “Listen, don't worry. Whatever happened, he probably still thought you were charming.”
Charming seemed condescending, and Phichit appeared to realize it. He added, “Or more likely, he was distracted by how you manage to pull off such a hideous suit so well.”
Yuuri felt himself blush. He had forgotten that he had not changed since coming home from work. He tugged shyly at his black tie, loosening it from around his neck. “Phichit,” he muttered, but he was smiling slightly now. “Thank you.”
Phichit Chulanont hummed. He watched as Yuuri made his way to his bed in their studio apartment, shedding his tie and unbuttoning his dress shirt as he went. While Yuuri changed (quickly and unabashedly in the open) into house clothes, Phichit said, “Nishigori tell you that surprise yet?”
“No.” Yuuri ran a hand through his hair and a large portion of it fell over the lenses of his glasses. “But could you cut this for me tonight?”
“Before or after the wine?” Phichit asked with a grin, and Yuuri shrugged, as if it didn’t matter to him. “Yeah. Of course.”
“How was work?” The apartment smelled like paint. Yuuri studied briefly the work Phichit had begun on the far wall, so far little more than a calculated mess of colors--green bleeding into black and blue, starkly complementary purple and orange. “What are you starting?”
“Dunno,” Phichit said. It was a lie, but Yuuri didn’t push for the truth. “Just painting to paint, I guess.”
“I see.” Phichit was not an exceedingly private person. On the occasions when he was, Yuuri recognized that it was for good reason.
“Work was fine,” Phichit continued. “No teapot debacles.”
“Debacles.” Yuuri echoed the word, just to taste it. He realized that he was lingering on the far side of the apartment and ducked his head in embarrassment. He made his way over to the table and sat somewhat mechanically.
Phichit smiled quietly, and when he too sat at the uneven dining table and lifted his wineglass to his mouth, Yuuri placated him with a gentle smile of his own.
Yuko materialized behind him in the morning, laying a firmly guiding hand on her shoulder. Yuuri hadn’t been about to bolt (though he had been making a habit of avoiding Yuko whenever possible lately), but the strength of her grip suggested that she had entertained her doubts.
“Takeshi needs help in the back. With the Ji works.”
But it didn’t appear that Takeshi needed help. There was a chaos of activity in the storeroom, workmen hefting carefully wrapped paintings and packaged sculptures and all manner of expensive irreplaceable pieces of art off of temperature-controlled trucks and into the temporary storeroom. Takeshi was engaged in bored technical conversation with a woman with a clipboard (she didn’t work for them; Yuuri did not recognize her face), but he turned immediately when a pair of men set a wooden case too heavily down onto the floor.
“Careful, please,” he snapped. “Expensive works, you’ll remember.”
“Sorry, sir,” bowed one of the pair (white, tall, spoke his Japanese with an accent Yuuri could not place but which was distinctly European). “Yes, sir.”
Yuuri watched them carry on for several more moments, steeling himself in the flurry of activity, before he stepped forward and touched Yuko’s husband’s shoulder gently.
“Takeshi,” Yuuri murmured. “Yuko said you wanted me.”
“One moment please,” Takeshi said to the woman with the clipboard before turning to face Yuuri. “Yuuri! Yes! Though I had thought she might follow you down--”
“She’s, um,” Yuuri said, when it was evident Takeshi was looking to Yuuri for explanation on the whereabouts of his wife, “I don’t know where she went after I left.”
Nishigori Takeshi waved a dismissive hand. “Doesn’t matter, she’ll come eventually. She was the one who wanted to keep this from you in the first place--of course, the Seoul sculpture, I’m well aware of the provenance on that, does he expect us to smash the damn thing? No, no, go on--”
“I’m sorry,” Yuuri said, more quietly. “She wanted to what?”
“One moment please,” Takeshi said distractedly, to Yuuri now. Yuuri doubted he had registered what he said. He nodded once and stepped away.
Most of the crates were stamped in Mandarin, a reasonable number in Japanese ( TEMPERATURE SENSITIVE , these read, KEEP IN STABLE 10 DEGREE ENVIRONMENT) , and one more in Russian. Yuuri watched the unloading process proceed with muted interest. He knew the relative contents of each crate--the Ji works, a few Fujiwara prints, as well as a number of extremely popular-among-the-art-world Lee sculptures on loan from the artist’s secondary studio in Tokyo.
He knew because it was Yuuri’s job to know. A year ago Yuko had bestowed upon him the lofty title of Assistant Curator of the Hasetsu Art Center (that is, the steadily growing chimera of a gallery-museum they had opened in Tokyo which bore the name of Yuuri and Yuko’s hometown). It was a job for which he had been wildly underqualified, even after completing his graduate schooling in Japan, and as primary curator of the center Yuko often took the reins and generously put Yuuri’s name down in the exhibit credits. Such dynamics often produced these surprises --in this particular case, the appearance of this temperature-regulated crate stamped mysteriously in Russian.
Someone laid a hand on his shoulder. Nishigori Yuko said, “One of many, if the everything goes as planned.”
Yuuri turned. “I don’t understand.”
Yuko smiled. She tipped her head in a way that invited Yuuri to follow her, and stepped delicately among the crates to the Russian-stamped one. There she beckoned to the museum technicians hovering at the edge of the mess and pointed. “Can you open this for me, please?”
Yuuri had watched many unveilings of artworks during his employment at the Hasetsu Art Center--it was largely the job description, after all--and he would be remiss to say he was bored of it. He did not think one could be bored of such a thing, and that was not just the old idealistic trappings of a college art student speaking for him. Katsuki Yuuri lived art, breathed it, and perhaps he did not share such as intimate relationship with it as those artists of decades past whose lives the pursuit of art had laid open and destroyed, but he reckoned he was fairly attached to it.
But even so. Something about this crate seemed different from when Yuuri had overseen all the others. He watched the prying open of the cover with bated breath, and halfway through the process he realized that his heartbeat was a rabbit’s one.
And then it was open.
The technicians removed with sterile gloved hands the delicate opaque wrapping around what appeared to be a large thin frame.
For a moment, Katsuki Yuuri stopped breathing altogether. Then he turned to Yuko, quickly enough for whiplash, and snapped, “How?”
“I knew he would like it,” Takeshi called across the room from his conversation with the clipboard-carrying woman, and Yuko laughed.
She said, “Magic.”
The work was a large chromogenic photograph: two young men standing before a viciously spired red building in a busy public square. The two of them looked to be in their early twenties, and they were kissing.
It was the type of eyes-closed, hands-tangled-in-hair, desperate-mouths kissing which Katsuki Yuuri had a few times experienced, though every time he looked at this particular piece, which he felt as if he had never known. The shorter of the men was smiling. In the near background stood a young woman, coat flapping in some immortalized wind around her calves, with a hand brought softly over her mouth.
Across the work was scrawled in large, red English letters, “THE AIM OF ART IS MORAL PERFECTION.”
It was a Nikiforov piece, a few years old now, and one of Yuuri’s favorites. Again, he demanded, “How?”
“Minako’s still out throwing around her reputation in Europe,” Yuko said, like it explained everything. Yuuri was not so easily assuaged. Okukawa Minako was indeed a household name in Tokyo, a woman who had made a name for herself in performance art as performance art was just making its own name in Japan. She had lived in Hasetsu too, and been casual friends with Yuuri’s mother. When Yuko had married and ventured to start a business in Tokyo, Minako had backed her endeavor with more than sufficient funds.
But this-- this was on an entirely different scale. This was a Nikiforov . This single work cost roughly as much as the entire inventory of the Hasetsu Art Center since its foundation.
Nishigori Yuko rocked back on her heels. Her smile was roundly satisfied.
“And you want to know what else?” she prompted, and Yuuri nearly shook his head because this was already so much , and why were they always so hellbent on rocking him to his core at ten in the morning anyway?
He kept having to stop himself from reaching out to the Nikiforov and touching its frame, just to prove it was real. Yuuri shoved his hands in his pockets.
“What else could there possibly be?” he asked weakly.
“We’re showing this in partnership with the Ji works. If the reception fares well, we’ll have ourselves a full summer Nikiforov exhibition.”
There had only been one Nikiforov show in Tokyo, years ago. Yuuri hadn’t attended, because he had been in America at school at the time, and he could never have afforded a ticket in the first place. It was an elite event--black tie cocktail party, one night only, typical bourgeois bullshit. (Yuuri had always entertained secret opinions that Nikiforov, twenty-two at the time and newly internationally famous, should have known better. But who was he to pass judgement? Yuuri was far from famous.)
“Which means,” Yuko continued, “that Viktor Nikiforov will be present at the opening night of the Ji Guang Hong exhibit, of which you are in charge.” She paused to give Yuuri and his violently trembling shoulders a critical once-over. “You’ll just have to remind me to give you the company card to buy yourself a less horrible suit before that happens. How does that sound?”
“Yuko--” He feared his legs were going to go out from under him. Yuuri felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and this time did not find Takeshi’s tactile pass at comfort in any way grounding. “I don’t…”
“Surprise, my dear,” Nishigori Yuko said warmly. “Let’s make it a good season, why don’t we?”