Life was much better now. All those times of turmoil paid off as he made his way up the ladder of life, bringing as many as he could along with him.
College life was much simpler than highschool though to his surprise. Other art students who understood his passion and what he truly craved was a breath of fresh air. The only big change was now he rented out an apartment with Ren, the one who’d brought him through thick and thin. There wasn't anyone he would be more honored to call his best friend, though maybe Da Vinci was a close second.
It was quaint. Normal even. Relationships seemed to be a bit troublesome however. He'd had a few things here and there with people, but never anything serious. No one managed to keep his interest too well and Ren already had his eyes out for a girl. One who thought of everyone but herself, even when times called for it. Her engagement had been broken off and she'd taken charge of her own life, taking on the burden her father unexpectedly left for her. It was no surprise he fell for her in the way he did.
Everyone moved past what had happened back then as best they could. The occasional mention from Futaba was as far as it went, only because she was still hard at work trying to decrypt the server her mother's research had been stored on. Something she still had trouble with even to this day.
Stepping into the room he smiled softly to himself. Maybe his piece today would have something to do with that. The past. That world. The things they had to recover from.
Those thoughts aside, in the air there was speculation of a new interesting model.
Shintaro, an eager freshman, said that he had burns. Scaring that never quite faded on the left side of his body and two healed wounds that looked as though he'd gotten shot. Even the left side of his face had been burned. One could only imagine the horrors the man had gone through. A house fire when he was younger? Maybe he was a serviceman and he'd gotten hurt trying to save the lives of others. He'd have to ask him when he got comfortable enough to join the group at their dinners after sessions.
He had wondered if such a thing was a birthday present. The way he spoke so cryptically but confidently about how it’d impress Yusuke had Yusuke more than intrigued about exactly who this chosen model was.
Today they agreed that they didn't want him showing too much, it was his first day after all. Scaring off a new model was the worst but the fault of that usually fell on Taiki. She was quite the passionate one and her art showed it. It was beautiful to those who were not depicted in it. If a subject couldn't take being seen in an unflattering light, she would absolutely destroy them. Even when she first came up to Yusuke for a portrait, she berated him for how uninviting his eyes looked. The fact that she'd pointed it out gave him cause to him reflect on himself.
Maybe that's why people always thought he was unapproachable.
Her aside, the new model had just stepped in. He didn't seem too much shorter than Yusuke. His stature was well kept. Toned but not too over the top. Though the black puffed out jacket probably did well to make him seem more built than he was. His brown locks were cut to his chin and framed his face as perfectly as they could. From the side, Yusuke could barely see his eyes, though he was a bit thrown off. There was not a scar on his face as far as he could tell.
“ You must be our new model. It’s a pleasure to work wit- “
As the man turned Yusuke felt his eyes widen and all the air was knocked from his chest as he stepped back slightly.
“ Surprise! “ Shintaro exclaimed. “ You were always drawing that same guy over and over so when I saw him I thought he’d be a perfect muse for you. They could be twins! “
Shintaro, always doing things without a second thought.
The model looked up to Yusuke with eyes just as wide and took a step back before turning his head to the side.
“ It’s a pleasure to work with you as well. I hope I can be a good model. “
The way he never made eye contact, how his voice was so timid. . .small. His natural eye color was obscured by contacts that simply dulled the color to a brown. It was unbefitting of him, but what could he say.
Shintaro was under the impression that this wasn’t actually Goro Akechi. Maybe just saying it would be fine but. . .then how would Akechi feel? Would they lose a muse before Taiki could even get to paint the many jarring flaws that this man had both in his appearance and in his personality?
Yusuke thought back for a moment. Did Shintaro even mention his name? Did Akechi even tell him? Was Shintaro just that excited about finding the muse Yusuke had mulled over many nights after that untimely day on the ship in a world where they fought demons with those of their own?
“ I figured since it’s your birthday you should get to pose him. What theme are you aiming for today? “
That snapped him out of his trance. Cheery as always. Ryuji if he’d been an art student who came from a cheerful household.
Without a second thought he spoke. “ Death. “
Goro looked over to him and smiled that same smile he’d always flash on tv. Unnaturally unflawed.
“ That’s quite the heavy subject for a birthday piece. “
He spoke in an even tone, smile still stuck to his face.
“ It is but with the celebration of life already going I might as well welcome the inevitable death I’ll face. It’s much easier to make peace with if you simply accept it, wouldn’t you agree? “
Yusuke’s eyes were prying, searching for anything that could show what akechi’s true emotion was.
“ Oh without a doubt. Sometimes it’ll even reject you if you’re too welcoming. “
A harsh laugh with no humor behind it. A simple irony to anyone who stumbled upon a man with so many scars. A miracle for the one who’d known what had happened.
“ With a perspective like that I’ve no doubt that you’ll be an excellent muse. “
“ I plan to be. “
“ If it’s not too much trouble, you should join us afterwards. It’s my birthday and I’d love to get to know you over a few drinks and some cake.”
“ How could I disappoint the birthday boy? “
Akechi smiled up to Yusuke and Yusuke smiled back down to him. Shintaro and Taiki looked on questioning what they’d just seen.
“ . . .Daamn, i knew he was good but that’s a whole nother level. “
“ You’re hopeless. Let’s get to our easels. “
Taiki kept her eyes on the two and took her place between two other students, Yusuke’s easel directly across from hers. They started and looked onto the model with prying eyes, looking for anything they could latch onto and get inspiration from.
Yusuke had already taken off, his brush running wild over the canvas. A muse he’d lost was finally within his grasp, finally in front of his eyes, staring back at him. Taika and Shintaro were looking at the model with far more intrusive eyes. Yusuke was familiar with this subject, his emotions—fake and real—the unique color he tried to hide behind those contacts, and secrets no one outside of his friend group would ever come to know about Goro or whatever he called himself now.
Once they all were finished, Akechi pulled back on his jacket and pulled his hair up, looking over to Yusuke and the rest of the group.
“ Where are we going? “
“ Leblanc of course. “
Akechi’s face freezes up and he looks off to the side, sighing out softly. Yusuke tilted his head and looked to him a bit confused. Not a moment after did he realize the mistake he’d made. Akechi probably wouldn’t go there even if he knew he wouldn’t be recognized.
“ Ah- well I’m going out with everyone here later in the evening for drinks, just us, so perhaps you could join us then. “
Akechi visibly relaxed and looked to Yusuke apologetically.
“ That works well. “
Shintaro gently nudged Akechi’s arm and smiled. “ I can pick you up and take you with me. “
“ Well, I’ll see everyone there. “
When Yusuke walked into Leblanc he expected to be greeted by soft smiles and warm welcomes of “Happy Birthday” but that was far too tame of this group of friends. The moment both of his feet were in the door a small black haired girl stepped in front of him and threw confetti up into the air.
“ Surprise!!~ “ screamed all the rest who came from behind the counter, beneath the booth, and behind the sidewall.
Ren walked out from the kitchen and held out a cake that had a small easel figure on it and looked as though each person had made their own crude portrait of the birthday boy.
“ Happy birthday, Yusuke~ “
“ I can’t believe you’re 20 now. . .they grow up so fast. “
Futaba twirled the orange tips of her hair around in her fingers and feigned a cry. Yusuke scoffed and smiled, setting his things down.
“ How’s college treating ya this year? “ Ryuji wrapped an arm around Yusuke’s shoulder and looked up to him.
“ It’s been more interesting. The freshmen this year remind me a lot of how we used to be. “
“ Hey now, don’t you go and replace us. “ Ann chipped in and held her hand on her hip, looking to Yusuke as if she was scolding him.
“ As if I could. I’d never be able to find a group quite as unique as this. Now, I smell something wonderful upstairs and I haven’t eaten since this morning. “
As everyone went upstairs Yusuke stayed back for a moment and looked over the cafe for a moment before joining everyone upstairs.
They talked and played around like old times. Makoto had bought drinks for herself, Haru, and the birthday boy. All the younglings watched in envy as they talked fondly about the taste.
Yusuke quieted everyone down for a moment and moved to stand up, a stern expression on his face.
“ Oh, this can’t be good. . .” Makoto leaned forward and let her chin rest on her hands.
“ It’s not bad either. It’s just something I doubt we saw coming. “
“ Did Yusuke get a secret girlfriend or something? “ Futaba teased and chuckled laying over the bed.
“ Wouldn’t you love to know, but no, that isn’t the case here. I saw Akechi. “
The room went silent and everyone just stared with wide eyes.
“ You mean. . .the one who dropped off the face of the earth after everything? “ Ann looked on in awe as did everyone else.
Ren looked to Yusuke a bit conflicted and sighed out softly.
“ It’s best to leave him alone. Unless he comes back to us, it should be assumed he doesn't want us to interfere with whatever life he’s living now. There’s no retrying the case from my understanding and I already served the time for it. “
Yusuke looked back with tight lips and nodded. Akechi had willingly entered that class hadn’t he? He agreed to drinks after too. Even in the few years passed, everyone still looked to Ren as a leader. It was hard not to when he was so intent on becoming a politician who helped people lead better lives. What he was doing wasn’t going against what Ren wished.
After Ren’s take on things the group left it alone. They went back to talking about their lives. Ann had started training to take over her family's business. Futaba had made some progress recently, however small it was, it brought her closer to the truth about what her mother did and the things they’d experienced over that year in the other world. Ryuji managed to get into college on an athletic scholarship. No one ever thought he’d have a fondness for baseball but after being begged to play during his last year at Shujin he found an unknown passion for it. Haru was still doing damage control. Having to deal with the Sugimura family still trying to drag her father’s name and company through the mud had taken its toll on her yet she still persisted in clearing it. Makoto had started making her way up the ranks. She’d risen to an inspector in such a short time, hardly anyone could believe it. Ren was studying political science and interning for Yoshida, one of the most influential politicians of their time.
And lastly, Yusuke. His paintings had taken off during his freshman year. Many wanting to buy but he’d never conceded. He knew what they wanted them for. Having a painting made by the poor abused pupil of Madarame was all they cared about. He could have simply made a single stroke and these people wouldn't hesitate to give him 300k yen. He promised himself he wouldn’t stoop so low and taint his work like that. However, Ren had managed to convince him to let galleries put them on display, paying him to do so. A commision every now and then didn’t hurt, though he usually did put his school work to the side to get them done as fast as he could if only because the money was quite good.
When things started to wind down Yusuke’s mind couldn't help but drift to what it was Akechi did. He showed up out of nowhere for a paid modeling gig. Surely it had to be more about the experience than the pay itself but Akechi never seemed to be into art and hopefully he wouldn’t need to do it just for the money. He’d have to ask though doing so on a night like this where he’d probably pay for his drinks. He wouldn’t go overboard, not that he planned to anyways.
As everyone started leaving out and saying their goodbyes, Ren pulled Yusuke back for a moment and held him until everyone left.
“ Yusuke. . .you know I support you, right? “
“ I’ve never doubted it since I became friends with you. “
“ I don’t want to sound dismissive. . .but he’s been your muse for a while now, even in some of your newer artworks, it's usually him. Are you sure it’s not just something you wanted to see? “ Ren leaned up against the wall as he looked to Yusuke’s eyes.
Yusuke took a deep breath and looked down to his hands.
“ I know how it seems. He’s been my muse for as long as he has because there’s. . .been an endless inspiration i’ve found in him, even if he isn’t here in front of me but. . .one of my classmates found him in one of the other modeling sessions our group has set up and he thought it’d be a good idea to bring him in today since. . .he’s my muse. If you want to see him, you can come to the bar and sit in the back. He’s joining me and my art group for drinks since he didn’t want to come here. “
“ I have to stick by my own principles. I’m sure if he saw me you’d lose your muse permanently. You know how he is about things being done behind his back. He took up your offer, enjoy it. “ Ren pushed himself off the wall and hugged Yusuke. “ I think there’s a reason he didn’t run away from you. It’s best you hold onto him while you can. “ He let out a softly chuckle and pat Yusuke on the butt. “ Don’t get too drunk birthday boy. “
Yusuke smirked softly and nodded before grabbing his things and heading out of the cafe to the station. There was a reason everyone was still looking to Ren for guidance.
As he boarded the train he sighed out softly, looking to his phone. Shintaro had almost 25 unread messages. If he didn’t get a response he would keep going. Thinking back on it, Shintaro was more a mix of Futaba and Ryuji. Their love child if they had one.
Opening the message thread showed Yusuke 4 pictures of Goro, Shintaro, and Momo all drinking and enjoying themselves. Most of what Shintaro had texted was about Momo being able to come. She was the big sister of the group. A senior and someone who was already managing galleries and setting up exhibits. If you had troubles you could talk to her and if you wanted to have fun she was ready without hesitation. The evening was bound to be interesting with her attending.
Once he’d arrived he looked around and found the group. He smiled softly and walked over. Shintaro had already ordered a drink for Yusuke and saved a seat for him. When he took his seat, Momo hugged around him softly.
“ Happy birthday Yusuke!~ You can finally drink with us~ “
She looked to him before handing him his drink.
“ A toast to the birthday boy!~ “
Akechi looked across and held up his drink, clinking it together with everyone else’s before taking a long drink of it.
“ How was the party?~ “
Shintaro nudged Yusuke gently.
“ You save any cake? “
“ Not for you~ “ Yusuke looked to the menu in deep thought and tilted his head to the side. He wanted to try something a bit strong.
“ Pick whatever you want Yusu. We’re all pitching in to pay for you. “
Taiki took a seat on the other side of Akechi.
“ Oh you don’t ha- “
Yusuke was interrupted by most everyone saying ‘ It’s your birthday’, ‘Loosen up’, etc. Akechi pointed to a drink on the menu that was described as sweet and sour. He smiled softly.
“ The smell of it is really nice. It’s something easy to start off with. “ Akechi rested his head in his hand and there was already a light blush to his face. “ It’s has a fruity taste to it as well. “
“ Ah, the description of it does make it sound more my style of drink. “
“ You do seem like you’d like the more fruit oriented drinks. “ Akechi chuckled softly and from there the evening kicked off.
The bar was chatty, people going in and out until the later hours of the night. Momo was the first to leave after having her fair share of drinks and trying to make sure work the next day wouldn’t be dreadful. Shintaro had rested on the table and Taiki had been ranting at him and he was just smiling and nodding along. It was obvious he was out of it and Akechi just sighed out.
“ Guess my ride is gone. “
Yusuke looked on a bit apologetically.
“Shin can’t handle his alcohol at all. It’s late, if you want to catch the last train you should head out now. It was nice seeing you again, Akechi. “
“ I. . .I enjoyed it too. Thank you for inviting me. “
“ I meant to ask earlier, is there a. . .reason for you joining the sessions? “
“ Oh that, ah- money. It might not seem like much but it’s enough to get a person by for a bit. “ Akechi moved to get up and slid Yusuke the money for his birthday drinks. “ I’ll see you Tuesday. “
Yusuke kept his eyes on him as he left and sighed out. So this was Akechi now. He seemed looser than before even though he’d been so tense at even the mention of Leblanc and the others.
He couldn't help but think on it the whole way home and even once he’d settled in, his mind ran wild with ideas. Ren made a small dinner and he'd idley talk with Yusuke over the events of the day. When he brought out a whole strawberry shortcake Yusuke's eyes lit up and all thoughts of the day disappeared into the savory taste.
He had time to think over everything later.