„The cage protects the rabbit and confines it.”
Yotasuke was never good with other people, and he grew to know it well over the years.
The way they swarmed around, chatted about seemingly not much and everything at once… they had so many different rules that applied to different situations, so many expressions to learn and understand, and it was really easy to mess things up, being with others.
On many occasions Yotasuke learned the hard way he couldn’t really grasp what they wanted from him.
And the worst part was, they always wanted, and wanted.
When he was little, he didn’t speak much, just carefully observed everything around him. He was memorizing it, watching the world move, trying to understand all its complex rules; and it was an overwhelming world, with so many sounds, colors, faces and expressions…
Sometimes he felt he needed to have a way to deal with this multitude of things that made up the world.
That’s why grabbing a pencil and putting it against a piece of paper felt freeing – some of that stifling feeling of being overwhelmed evaporated with every line, every stroke. As he drew, he felt more in control; after all, holding a pencil or brush meant he was the one responsible the things that were in front of him, he chose shapes, colors, and the way to present something.
He never felt he liked drawing. It was more of an extension of himself, something that needed to be done in order to live in the world around him, an attempt to understand it a little bit, even if just to escape from it. At least at first, it was like that.
His mother’s praise, her voice full of awe, was what started it. “They say you’re really good at drawing, Yota-kun!”, she claimed with that unrelenting smile on her face.
Being a kindergartener at the time, he vaguely understood the meaning of those words – the thing he used to counter the overwhelming world in front of him was something he was good at. So good, his mother, aunts, teachers, everyone praised him for it. A talent, they would call it. A prodigy, they would call him.
It felt nice for the time being – he was special in the eyes of the adults around him.
So he continued to draw, and draw, and draw, because that’s what he always did, and capturing the shapes of things, figuring out their colors… it was calming. It meant he didn’t have to strain his mind trying to figure out what he was doing in this startling reality. He was the kid who drew, moreover, who drew good; if it meant they wouldn’t want anything else from him, he could just stay like that... right?
Except they still wanted.
“That’s good… but I think I like the previous one better”, his mother said on another occasion. This time, her words sounded harsh, even though the smile on her face remained.
His drawings had value, he slowly grew to realize. Some made people react in a certain way, made them sing praises, calling him “the next Picasso”. Some made them say he could draw better than that. Or they could draw better than that.
People wanted him to draw, but when he did, they still wanted more, wanted to see what they were expecting. They called him good, but the moment they didn’t like something he made, the sweet words of praise became sour. They were so inconsistent.
Still… drawing was what Yotasuke had, his armor in this world… he didn’t want to get rid of it it.
He kept drawing, even though his mother’s words stuck to him like an unwanted piece of chewing gum that after a while he wasn’t sure could be unglued.
Yotasuke was nine when he clumsily managed to read a book about astronomy. It used complicated language, but he still understood a lot more from it than other kids would, and it made him proud – he was studious, and that was surely something adults would praise him for, just like with drawing! Besides, learning new things was fun.
At night, his mind wandered through the cosmos, visualizing the far-away planets and twinkling stars. He wanted to know more. He went through encyclopedias, read what he could with his limited knowledge of kanji. Space was fascinating.
One morning, he drew a picture of a starry night and brought it to his parents, asking if they could buy him a telescope. Their apartment had a balcony, and he read a telescope, even a very simple one, could be a perfect tool to learn more about the stars.
His parents shared a look. Yotasuke couldn’t read their expressions, but he understood clearly enough a moment later, when his mother said:
“We’re not going to buy something you’re probably gonna lose interest in soon… But this is such a nice picture you drew! You should just keep drawing, Yota! That’s what you’ve always been good at!”
He should just keep drawing.
It was as if she was saying to him that he didn’t have a need for other interests.
...He should just keep drawing.
After that, Yotasuke never came to his parents asking for things again. Even when he saw children at school exchanging manga between themselves, or bragging about the newest gaming consoles at their houses. He was the kid who drew. The only things he needed were art tools.
The hallway of his apartment was decorated with drawings he made, school crafting projects he brought home, all selected by his mother. Every time they were visited by a family member or a guest, she would brag about how well he could draw and show his work off proudly.
It only solidified it in Yotasuke’s mind – the fact that they wanted him to draw, nothing else, and draw what was good, correct… in their eyes. It felt stifling.
Yotasuke’s insides slowly felt like they were filling with water, a wave washing everything else away.
At school his classmates said he was full of himself, with the way he acted about art. He never meant his words to be a way to brag or anything, though. After all, it was just how it was, and has always been.
He was good at drawing, so he drew. If others wanted to, they could draw too… but they only ever commented about how they could draw what he was drawing, and yet when he refused to draw things for them, they got angry.
He didn’t understand what they wanted from him, only knew they wanted.
Over time, Yotasuke found out he quite liked animals; their expressions weren’t as complicated as people’s, they were quiet and, unlike everyone around him, never wanted anything from him. If he wanted to interact with them, he could. If he wanted to walk away, he also could.
His new-found affection for animals almost made him want to get immersed in various books about them, maybe even join the animal care club once he went to middle school… he never did. He rarely got invested any more, despite reading quite a lot. He didn’t feel the need to, after his brief fascination with astronomy. After all, he should be drawing. That’s the thing he was good at.
The thing he...
His feelings didn’t keep him away from animals wholly, however. He’s taken a liking to sitting by the school’s animal enclosure and sketching. Unlike the time he drew at home or in class, trying to perfectly capture the shape of an animal felt different – he was observing a being whose behaviour he felt he could understand, so the drawing itself cultivated unalike emotions inside him. He wouldn’t have been able to tell back then, but joy blossomed in his chest while drawing them.
In middle school he remained the kid who drew. Shunned by his classmates since early days of education, he had no idea how to make connections, and it didn’t help his mother’s advice on the matter was “why don’t you draw something for them?”. Drawing, once his weapon against the world he didn’t understand, became a curse of sorts. Yet he couldn’t escape it, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to; he was good at it, after all.
Everyone knew him as “the art prodigy”, the one who’d definitely go to a drawing school, the one with talent.
The water’s filled him up completely, and Yotasuke’s insides have overflown.
He slowly begun to feel like he was empty.
He didn’t have interests beside art… somehow, it didn’t feel right. He couldn’t even call art his interest. It was what he did. He didn’t like it. He didn’t hate it.
He couldn’t read others. They called him rude, then demanded him to be outspoken. When he shied away from conversations, they called him unsociable. When he brought home good grades, his parents wanted him to paint something for some relatives’ sake. When he painted, they wanted a different painting. His teachers were proud to have “an art genius” in class, but also needed him to keep his grades up. They kept wanting things from him, but he didn’t understand.
Just like he thought back when everyone was just starting to call him a prodigy, people were inconsistent, and the world felt full of hypocrisy.
By the time he graduated from middle school he wondered, what did he have, besides this… curse? blessing? that defined him in the eyes of others?
He knew he had animals. He felt calm around them. His hand didn’t tire from sketching them for hours, and he felt satisfaction from doing so.
That’s why, when his parents got a house cat, he was happy, truly happy. Cats were easy to get. They didn’t like loud noises, and sudden movement. They didn’t need to be around people all the time. Yotasuke felt like he could really be himself in their cat’s presence. Just like other animals he always observed, the cat didn’t want anything from him – besides petting and snacks, that is, but those were the things he didn’t mind giving.
It wasn’t art the cat wanted from him, and that felt good.
High school brought more emptiness, but in a way, it begun to shift gears in the black-haired boy’s life.
Yotasuke’s reputation as the kid who drew followed him there, and that meant he was praised even more, admired by everyone, but also avoided, given his tendency to be blunt and his inability to interact with others.
By that time, he really found himself unable to define what he was feeling. Feelings were always hard, but back in a day, he expressed them more through drawing. Now he wasn’t sure. Something needed to change, but he didn’t know what and he didn’t know how.
Art was his life. Art was his curse. Art was his blessing.
What was he? A vessel for creating art?
How did he end up like that?
“Yota, look at the shirt I bought! I’m sure it will look great on you!”
“Yota, they said on parent-teacher night you don’t want to go on a school trip! You should go, maybe you’d make friends?”
“Yota, why don’t you unlearn that habit of holding things the wrong way, you’re a teenager already…”
“Why aren’t you doing it like that, instead…?”
His mother didn’t understand. She pushed him, constantly, told him to draw this, wear that, go there, act in a certain way, dress in a certain way… Yotasuke knew she meant well. He loved his mother, and as he grew to realize much later in his life, she did a lot of things with good intentions. Most parents meant well when it came to their kids.
But… meaning well didn’t mean she was making right decisions regarding him. Didn’t mean she was being a good parent, no matter how much she loved him.
She forced her ideals, her expectations onto him, and then was surprised when he was unsociable, when he didn’t have friends, hobbies… when the only real “teenage” thing he did was playing on a Switch console he got for his birthday.
As time went by Yotasuke realized more and more that a part of his emptiness came from the fact he almost never did things for himself, because his mother would tell him otherwise, in her sweet, yet accusatory voice.
She wanted him to fit in with her ideal so badly, she didn’t even realize she was partially responsible for him ending up being the exact opposite. But it was alright, in her eyes. He was good at art, after all.
When the time came for him to choose the course path he needed to take in high school, Yotasuke chose the advanced education course, not art.
His mother was surprised, so were his teachers, but they didn’t say anything – he had good grades and studied well, there was nothing to stop him from doing what he did.
It was one of the first big decisions that he made on his own. A change. Just to prove to them, to his mum, that he could do something else, that he wasn’t only the kid who drew…
He kept drawing though.
He always kept drawing, after all.
Becoming friends with Haruka Hashida was another surprising change that happened to Yotasuke in high school.
Although… “friends” was a word he wouldn’t use to describe their relationship at first. Hashida was nosy, and he seemed to be well-known by everyone, and, despite his peculiar personality, people seemed to like him. An opposite to Yotasuke, he still managed to stick by his side, unsettling smirk plastered onto his face.
It was overwhelming, having someone beside himself, someone to go eat out with, talk about art, visit a museum with… it wasn’t unpleasant, though. He finally wasn’t all alone, even if he remained unsure of how to feel about it.
“Takahashi-kun, you’re going to an art university, right?”, his teacher asked while giving out career path forms. It wasn’t really a question, more of a statement. Yotasuke felt Hashida’s eyes on himself as he nodded and looked down at the paper in front of him.
Of course he was going to art university.
He always knew he was going to go into art, in one way or another.
...then why was he on the advanced academic course? Why try do hard if he’s gonna end up with art anyway? What was it all for? Doing all of this just to prove himself suddenly felt nonsensical. Everyone wanted him to go into art, he himself wanted to… maybe? Or needed to? Thoughts swarmed in his head as he wrote “Tokyo University of the Arts” as his first school of choice on the career form.
...why did he still feel so… empty? Art was all he had. It was always there. He couldn’t feel much towards it any more. He knew it was good though – he was good at it. An art kid. A prodigy. There was no other way for him.
His mother proposed cram school when he was in his second year of high school. “You’ll need it to get into Geidai!” she said while they were eating dinner.
Yotasuke didn’t think he particularly needed it, those kinds of places taught you how to draw what needed to be drawn to get in, what the examiners wanted to see, and he, now almost 17 years old, was sick of everyone wanting something.
Besides, he was good at art, he looked at enough pieces to know it – there was no way he wouldn’t get into Geidai.
Still, Hashida was also going, and Yotasuke hated the thought of how much pressure would there be in his apartment if he refused to attend cram school.
For most part, it was just as he expected. People making art fit for the examination, teachers guiding them towards said art. But, there was a piece that didn’t fit into the whole puzzle.
He looked intimidating, with his pierced ears, bleached hair and kind of weird eyes. He seemed like the opposite of someone who would be interested in art. And what he painted wasn’t even that good. Yotasuke supposed he didn’t start drawing long before he begun attending cram school.
And yet, Yatora’s goal was also Geidai. He acted so aloof, had a strange personality, and Yotasuke couldn’t figure him out.
Why did someone like Yatora Yaguchi need to go to an art university, if he seemed to have everything else Yotasuke lacked – friends, outgoing personality, a future full of possibilities, everything to choose from… and yet he wanted the same path as the black haired boy.
Moreover, he used words like “genius” and “talent” towards him, seemingly being like everyone else, yet he always got excited about hanging out with him... it made Yotasuke feel weird, confused. Yatora made him… all complicated inside.
That’s why, when he had a chance to tell Yatora about exam art, about how the whole cram school idea was built on a premise of matching the tastes of the examiners at the entrance test, it felt good. The surprise on the other’s face gave Yotasuke a similar feeling to when he was just starting to paint – like he was in control. So did leaving the cram school, to his mother’s disappointment.
Similarly, when he told Yatora that the other had everything, why would he even need to choose art, during their visit at Geidai, he felt oddly satisfied. He’s never been able to express his feelings that clearly before.
The feeling only lasted for a while though, as he later slowly grew to regret it.
Getting to know Yatora more meant understanding he wasn’t who he seemed at first glance. Yotasuke slowly begun to notice, starting with their visit to the shrine on New Year’s, that the blond’s outgoing personality was more of a cover-up, same with his delinquent image. He still couldn’t fully figure him out, but during that outing he realized Yatora was kind of awkward, and didn’t really like big crowds that much, and he often times got emotional over very small things.
Things that weren’t something people would usually get emotional over, like Yotasuke getting irritated with him. The black-haired boy observed others enough to know that Yatora’s behaviour stood out from the so-called norm.
The blond also continued to surprise him.
“I like you Yotasuke-kun. But I also hate you so much, it makes me sick.” Yatora told him, and in the cold of the winter night it sounded oddly warm, despite the weirdness of it.
Yotasuke didn’t understand why he became such a person for someone like Yatora, but he knew he couldn’t look away from him. There was something, some sort of a thread connecting them, even though they were the most unlikely people to get involved with each other. Or maybe it was because they were so different?
The New Year’s outing tired Yotasuke out, his mother roped him into it in the first place, it was cold and loud and too much, but…
Yatora’s words made it better, somehow.
The Geidai exams were taxing, to say the least. Even for someone like Yotasuke, who was certain he’d pass, the constant pressure and everything that surrounded that small period of time made them almost unbearable to withstand.
He knew everyone struggled in one way or another, still, finding Yatora on the staircase, barely hanging on before the second exam even begun was something he certainly wasn’t expecting.
He surprised himself with the way his thoughts raced, concerned for the blond, as the other looked at him and mumbled something delusionally. He mistook Yotasuke for someone… His condition must’ve been really bad.
Yotasuke found himself baffled by this new side of Yatora – totally consumed by anxiety, barely hanging on, yet pushing forward. It was still the same delinquent, calling him “confident” at the end of the day, spouting some words about art that Yotasuke thought untrue… but he seemed…
It was hard to describe.
Yotasuke thought Yatora didn’t have a place in the art world, simply because he could have any world he wanted. Not like the black-haired boy himself, who was empty, had nothing but art…
Yet watching Yatora during the exam, seeing his painting of the nude model, Yotasuke understood him. The blond fit in with everyone, but it wasn’t really who he was.
When Yotasuke, bombarded with people wanting something from him, closed himself off and tried to oppose it, even though a part of him still fulfilled other’s expectations, Yatora did everything he could to be the person others expected him to be, even though his rebellious looks would suggest otherwise. And just like in Yotasuke's case, it wasn’t who he was. That’s why he needed art.
That’s why he had to choose it.
In a way, Yatora was as empty as Yotasuke.
“That’s irritating. You went and got better in the short while I wasn’t looking.” he told Yatora on a break during the exam, and he meant it.
The other was a better artist, and for the first but not the last time Yotasuke felt that the connection between them wasn’t solely based on their differences.
Yatora cried and thanked him, and Yotasuke wondered why was it only him that made the blond act this way.
They both ended up passing the exam.
University has proven to be quite a challenge, in a different way than Yotasuke expected.
He got in on the first try, just like everyone, including himself, expected, he was working on assignments like the teachers wanted him to, he was doing everything like he always did.
And yet, it didn’t feel right.
He remembered the first time he felt Nekoyashiki-sensei’s eyes on him. He didn’t understand what she wanted.
The art kid, the prodigy, he got in because of his art, which has always been good, it was the thing that he had against the world around him...
Or so he thought.
Yatora’s shaky expression and shifting eyes as he told him about the rumours were going to be etched into Yotasuke’s mind for a while.
“There’s a rumor that every year, the person who has the highest score on the center exam is unconditionally accepted into the university...”
It wasn’t Yatora’s fault. He only spoke about what he’s heard. But Yotasuke couldn’t handle it, he felt as if his whole world was crumbling around him. He said some harsh, horrible words, and then stormed off.
His art… it was a lie? He…
All his life, he’s been making art. It turned into a curse that followed him around, the thing he couldn’t, didn’t want to escape, even if the tried, even if he attempted to go in a different direction…
But it turns out he did escape it. He got accepted because of his brain, the fact he went into the advanced academic course. It wasn’t his art. They looked at it, and at him, and wanted more.
“This isn’t what we want from you.”
It felt horrible, as if he was stripped off of the only thing that he thought he had. Without art, who was he? He told Yatora he didn’t need to go into art before. Well, did he?
Who was he, really?
He wanted to drop out.
Between the revelation, his mother, Yatora’s talk about talent, of all things… he thought he couldn’t handle it any more. He felt like a fraud.
Even the thing that calmed him down usually, animals, turned out to not be as easy to understand as he thought they were.
The little girl at the rabbit hutch made him think. He loved hanging out with rabbits, and thought he understood them; but he was pushing himself at them, convincing himself they were his friends, when in reality they’ve just been animals, dependent on him fully…
Walking into their cage meant he was in control… was that why he wanted it? With everything he knew falling apart, he wanted some sense of stability… was he always like that? Was that why he liked animals so much…?
Through all of his life, he believed people to be inconsistent. Hypocritical. Yet now he felt that he was the same way.
He didn’t understand the world the same way most people did, yet in his attempts to block it out he still did what they wanted. He rebelled against conformity, yet conformed. Art was always his armor, but also his prison, and even when he said he wants to escape it, in the end he didn’t. And when it turned out his art wasn’t the only thing he had, he suddenly wanted it to be.
“Yotasuke-kun, do you like drawing?”
The gears turned further, and he begun to change.
It was small, really. But he’d never have expected forming another connection with someone, and yet there he was, becoming… sort of friends with Okamoto? They both liked gaming, and animals… it was surprisingly nice and easy.
He’d never have gotten to the point of becoming such casual aquaintances with someone if it wasn’t for everything that crashed and burned around him. It was still burning, he felt. But he felt the inside of him change; he wore different clothes from the ones his mother chose for him. He talked back to her, even though it backfired. But it was good, maybe. Maybe she realized some things, too. He wasn’t sure, but…
The fact that when he’s shown Yatora his rabbit drawing, the other understood him… just like with Yotasuke understanding the blond’s art earlier. The thread connecting them tightened. It was also different, between them, but it was a good change.
He never particularly liked drawing. He didn’t hate it, either.
But… drawing rabbits, when he was in the deepest ditch in his life probably… he felt good about it.
And even though after all this time of getting to know Yatora he still wasn’t sure why he involved himself with him that much, he felt like he liked the feeling of it being so, too.
It was okay for him to feel those things.
Such feelings were new, unexpected… filled his chest, his insides… for the first time since he could remember, he didn’t feel empty. He had something.
Feeling brave and blunt and worn out from his complicated emotions and the depressive episode, he agreed to go out with Yatora. And that… that was probably the biggest step he’s taken thus far.
Their outing in Shibuya was overwhelming, to say the least.
After they’ve wandered around museums and the sun’s begun to set, Yotasuke realized he’s never really been out this late, ever, and it frightened him a bit. There were lots of strange people, sounds and smells, the atmosphere that Yotasuke wasn’t sure he enjoyed, and it made him anxious.
But Yatora, right next to him, seemed anxious as well. It calmed him down a little.
The more time he spend with the blond delinquent, the more he realized… Yatora was easy to talk to.
His planned responses to other people, the small sigh of relief whenever an interaction went as planned – these were the things Yotasuke understood. And the more he learned about his life, his behaviour, the more he realized all the ways he was mistaken about Yatora Yaguchi.
Yes, he talked way more than Yotasuke did, and often babbled nonsensically, but it wasn’t unwelcoming anymore. Back in cram school, the black-haired boy felt like they belonged to two different worlds. That feeling has vanished now.
Also, he noticed, his taller friend was looking at him differently, too.
It was subtle, but he felt oddly relaxed around the blond now; it didn’t only feel like he understood Yatora, the other seemed to understand Yotasuke as well.
And so he told Yatora about himself. Things he’s never shared with anyone. Things about his mother, the way he felt confined by what people constantly wanted from him, the things Nekoyashiki-sensei said to him, his troubles with understanding everyone’s feelings and expectations. How art helped him, but also made him feel empty.
The blond nodded and hummed in response to everything he’s told him. It wasn’t much, but once again, Yotasuke felt understood.
Being understood by the other was the best kind of feeling.
Yatora told him things too. About how he struggled to be what people wanted him to be, so much so that he forgot who he was. About discovering art. His parents. His home. His friends, and how they’ve changed his perspective. The way he struggled to figure out himself, the way he felt about his paintings.
And Yotasuke understood, too.
His heart felt full. A certain feeling was starting to take shape inside of him, and deep down he knew it was something that has been there for a while - he simply never acknowledged it.
When they strolled through Shibuya at dawn, he only saw blue. And all of this, Yatora’s presence by his side, the tranquility of the scenery around them, the realization that his friend never wanted anything from him like others did, he just was there, and what he wanted was for Yotasuke to just… be…
To exist in this blue world.
Yotasuke knew there was more change awaiting for him in the future.
And Yatora’s reddened face as he told him he’d probably end up remembering this day ten years from then assured him that it’s going to be okay. That maybe, just maybe, it wasn't only his heart that felt full as the first beams of sunlight hit their faces.
Yotasuke was never good with other people, but it was alright to be that way. It was alright to be himself, and to cherish his feelings. He didn’t need to be empty. He didn’t need to let go of art. What he needed is to learn how to exist not only as an “art kid”, not only as a “genius”, but as himself, Yotasuke Takahashi.
He didn’t drop out. The outing with Yatora kept him afloat. How and why, he wouldn’t be able to explain, but whenever he laid down to sleep he could visualize the blue Shibuya in his head. He could feel understanding.
That’s why he stopped thinking, and just painted a piece for the final examination of his first year of university.
„The cage protects the rabbit and confines it. That’s the kind of painting this is.”
He painted for his sake. Not for the teacher’s, his mother’s, or anyone else.
Art always protected him, but over the years it confined him. But it was going to be okay.
Hours spent gaming with Okamoto. His decision to take down the drawings his mother displayed in the hallway. Going to art galleries with Hashida and Yatora, and just letting himself feel things…
Trembling hands, giving Yatora the sketch of a rabbit. Blush on the other’s face. His heart beating fast, filling him with new, tender feelings.
It was going to be okay.