Actions

Work Header

what is done in love is done well

Work Text:

A work of art is a confession.
Albert Camus

 

The first thing Yusuke notices that morning is that there’s clay on his paintbrushes.

It’s not a great way to start the day. The brushes were fairly new, too—recent additions to his hefty collection after the salesperson at the craft shop persuaded him into buying them. Yusuke hadn’t really needed the brushes, not really, but he had been looking forward to breaking them in and adding them to the family all the same.

He rubs his thumb over the bristles, caked in hardening clay, and sighs.

“Sorry, man,” his roommate says when Yusuke brings it up with him. He’s wearing a filthy DESTINYLAND TRIP 2015 t-shirt and a bandana wrapped around his forehead like a headband. Yusuke’s seen him in this particular outfit four days in a row now. “Materials just sort of fly around a bit when I’m in the zone, you know?”

Yusuke does know of the zone, although he has never splattered paint all over his roommate’s belongings in a fit of inspiration.

A few flecks on the wallpaper don’t count.

“I dare say these brushes have been completely ruined.” Yusuke sighs again, holding the base of his egbert brush like a pitchfork. “You’ll have to reimburse me for them.”

His roommate sucks in a breath through clenched teeth. “Yeah, about that,” he says. “I don’t have the money right now.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Maybe later, bro.”

A vague promise for an unspecified date. Yusuke isn’t sure how he can decline such a generous offer. Or accept it, for that matter.

He needs to get out of these dorms.

--

Art is becoming more and more of a shifting moon for Yusuke.

Inspiration used to come fast, striking like matches at any moment of the day or night, and the paintings would come in like beams of sunshine after the rain. Madarame had always said that true artists needed to live in squalor in order to not be distracted by opulence, and his former residence with its rotting floorboards and moody halls was anything but opulent. Then again, Madarame said a lot of things to Yusuke over the years, most of it now questionable knowing what he knows.

Still, it’s frustrating that Yusuke drew more under his care than he has since in the throes of his freedom. Maybe there’s just something about being in a prison—metaphorical, of course—that gets the creativity flowing. Nowadays, his imagination is at a new moon, a dark eclipse waiting for the stages of waxing. How long can he continue to wait?

Around him, the surrounding coffeeshop does little to encourage Yusuke’s artistic hungers. The hiss of the espresso machines, the chatter of patrons, the group of students researching in the corner booth, the outdated stained glass lamps hanging from the ceilings. All of it creates more of an ambience than it does inspiration.

“You could always stay with me,” Haru suggests. “I have more space than I know what to do with. And the house is so big, I doubt we’d ever bother each other.”

Yusuke looks down at his latte, considering the offer. He always likes spending time with Haru. She’s his only friend who never fails to pay Yusuke’s half of the bill.

“I suppose we could try it out,” he says. “At this point, I’m desperate for a better workspace.”

“Ooh!” Haru says, lighting up. “Maybe you could draw me!” She tilts her chin, smiling, like someone who is waiting for the camera flash to go off. “I bet something in my house has to inspire you.”

--

“Nothing in this house inspires me,” Yusuke groans.

He can’t put his finger on it, but if anything, his artist’s block has gone critical in Haru’s home. The design and the furniture is all perfectly nice, but it’s also stifling in its loyalty to minimalism, the modern touches keeping all imagination at bay, only neutral shades of black and white allowed. It truly is a puzzle for the ages that Yusuke could get more stimulating work done in Madarame’s dusty old house than in Haru’s opulent mansion.

“Maybe you’re just in your own head too much,” Ann suggests later in Leblanc, grabbing a sugar cube to dunk into her coffee cup.

“‘Course he is,” Ryuji pipes in. “It’s Yusuke. The guy lives in his own world.”

Yusuke wishes he lived in his own world, preferably a world he could plunder the endless creativity of, a fantasy world, one overbright with aesthetic prompts. He stares moodily into his glass of water.

Ann’s probably right, but there’s more to it than that. He discovered so much about himself and his artistic process thanks to Akira, who was, for all intents and purposes, his muse for those months he was here. His Theo Van Gogh, his brother in arms, his creative (and financial) supporter. Without Akira, too much of the progress Yusuke made with his art has gone alongside him. It’s amateur, he knows. A real artist doesn’t have their artistic fuel tied to the life of another; a real artist finds it deep within themselves, like plunging treasure from a well.

He truly is Van Gogh sometimes. The Thieves had banned it as his codename, but Yusuke still finds their behaviors coincidentally similar. Where is his Kee Vos, his Sien Hoornik? Where is his Agostina Segagori, or his Margot Begemann?

Yusuke tries to remind himself that none of those women were all that good at making Van Gogh happy. Still, they probably inspired many a painting. Was the pain worth the outcome?

Madarame would’ve said yes.

“Here,” Sojiro says, putting a coffee down in front of Yusuke. He does this sometimes, gives Yusuke a complimentary drink when he knows Yusuke needs it but can’t afford it. His kindness is always reminiscent of Akira, although that could also just be Leblanc itself that reminds Yusuke of him. “I don’t know anything about this art stuff, but don’t be so hard on yourself. You can’t always expect yourself to be some kind of Picasso.”

“He’s right!” Ann says. “It’s probably just all the pressure you put on yourself. Maybe you should just take a break from painting for a while.”

“Impossible,” Yusuke mutters. He doesn’t know how to explain that without art, the very nature of his being would likely explode, all his untapped emotions trapped without an outlet.

“Hey, maybe you should just paint Ann nude again,” Ryuji suggests, grinning.

“Ryuji!”

“Again?” Sojiro repeats, eyebrows high. He squeezes the bridge of his nose, thinking better of asking for an explanation. “I swear, I just don’t get what friends are these days.”

Ann, who is usually nothing but polite to Sojiro, all but yells, “Nothing happened! You guys are the worst.”

She slouches in her chair. Yusuke notes that she actually looks a little drained, her skin not as replenished as usual. Perhaps he’s not the only one in a professional slump.

“Maybe I could simply come to one of your photoshoots,” he offers. “And I could sketch in the distance.”

Ann turns to him, surprised. “You want to come to a photoshoot?”

The more he considers it, the smarter Yusuke thinks this idea is. The graceful bodies, contorted in eye-catchingly pleasing shapes, draped in fine fabrics and backdropped with captivating colors. “Yes, I would,” he says.

“Well.” Ann squints at Yusuke for a moment as if trying to work out an ulterior motive. “All right.”

--

The photoshoot is too much of a hurricane to go well. Yusuke had anticipated one, perhaps two cameras with quietly clicking shutters, while sensual models move from natural pose to natural pose, embraced by the spirit of the art they’re creating. What he gets instead is an onslaught of camera flashes and lightning-fast positions. Ann doesn’t keep a single facial expression in place for longer than two seconds. Yusuke has erased and redrawn and erased—ad infinitum—the page in his sketchbook six times.

“Wellll, what did you think?” Ann asks after the shoot is over. She’s caked in so much makeup that she looks about ten years older, if not like an entirely different person. Yusuke has to remind himself not to judge another artist’s canvas. Even if that canvas is just fine as is.

“It was… hectic.” He can still see some of those flashing lights behind his eyelids. “There are more people involved than I expected.“

“Eh, you kind of get used to it,” Ann says, playing with a pigtail. “Did you draw anything good?”

Yusuke thinks of his unsuccessful scribbles, none of them ever creating more than a third of a girl, just the bare bones of a human form. No emotion. No precision. “No,” he sighs. “I fear this isn’t the right place for me to find inspiration.”

Ann looks a little gloomy at that, although Yusuke can’t parse why. She fiddles with her barrette, getting it back into place.

“Do you want to go get some food?” she asks, eyes drifting to the line of restaurants down the street. “I always get hungry after these things.”

Yusuke’s wallet can probably handle one dinner. Probably.

“All right,” he says.

They wind up at the diner on Central Street. Being here is almost as nostalgic as being at Leblanc; Yusuke still recalls exactly where Akira’s wriggling bag, full of a complaining Morgana, used to sit on the table as they discussed their plans with the Metaverse. Yusuke thinks back on those days and tries not to romanticize them in retrospect.

He’s starting to learn that all periods of time have pluses and minuses. Same with all the time he used to stay at Madarame’s house—full of painting and wonder and tips from the man he regarded as one of the best artists in the world at the time, but also strictness and authoritarianism and oppressive silences, even more so now in retrospect.

“What you said earlier,” Ann brings up carefully. “About not being able to find inspiration?” She traces her finger over the rim of her teacup. “Is it my fault?”

The very question is outlandish. “Not at all.” No artist worth his salt could ever look at a statuesque figure like Ann’s and not bring her feminine allure to life on paper. “You don’t doubt your own beauty, do you?”

“It’s not that, but. Well.” She rubs at her cheeks as if hoping to wipe away the blossoming pinkness. “Maybe I don’t have enough… depth, you know? To make a real painting, I mean.”

Absurd. Ludicrous! Yusuke could laugh, loudly, uproariously. “So it is not the exterior you distrust, but the interior.” He studies her carefully. Misery runs rampant behind her currently uncharacteristically shy eyes. “Ann, with all due respect, I believe it is your own perspective that is shallow here, rather than you yourself.”

“You think?”

“Indeed. You make a striking subject.”

Ann scoffs. “Remember that one time we were all at Leblanc, and you told Ryuji that now that you know me, you wouldn’t be able to paint me beautifully?”

“Ah. Did you take that personally?”

Her eyebrows knit together as a wave of irritation climbs over his face. “How could I not?!”

“It wasn’t meant as an insult.”

“Well, it kinda was!”

“If I had painted you back when we first met, as we had planned,” he says, “it would have been a hollow painting indeed. But now that we have gotten to know each other… my artwork of you would be infinitely more authentic to your true beauty. Your true self, I should say. That is truly less about beauty and more about honesty.”

Ann seems tempted—by what, Yusuke isn’t sure.

“Maybe we could try it again,” she says.

“Have you truly model for me?”

“Yeah.” She briefly narrows her eyes. “Clothed.”

Clothes keep the soul unfairly hidden, Yusuke thinks but is wise enough not to say. A tickling of social manners graces him with the opportunity to not try and negotiate regarding the nudity. What Ann clearly doesn’t seem to realize is that art is as much about the true form as it is about the fabrics draped over it, and Rome has the sculptures to prove it.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s try it.”

--

On Sunday afternoon, Yusuke grabs his most coveted brushes, paints, and at least three canvases to stuff under his arm and haul onto the train with him to Ann’s house. He tells the very large room that Haru is sitting in drinking coffee, her petite frame juxtaposingly small in the middle of all the spacious luxury, that he’s off to try his hand at painting again, and she waves him off and wishes him luck.

Luck. Is that truly what he needs?

He ponders as much during the train ride. He’s not sure when the seasons changed so decisively, but the weather is overwhelmingly warm, pushing down into the train car with an insistence that leaves Yusuke fluttering at his shirt for air. If he is the moon, he’s still waiting to wax, to grow into his fullest potential. His sketches from last night, all horribly uninspired, weren’t all too encouraging.

Ann’s house isn’t a far ride. He’s only ever been there once before: a few days before Akira’s departure, when everyone gathered at Ann’s for a farewell party since Ryuji had insisted on bringing alcohol, ruling out Leblanc and the beady eyes of its proprietar within. He doesn’t remember too much of the interior; Ann had brought too many balloons, all of which obstructed the view, and the focus was mainly on Akira himself.

“Woah,” Ann says when she lets him in, eyes riveted to the art supplies he’s carrying. “Three canvases? You’re planning on screwing up that many times?”

“They’re not for second chances,” Yusuke explains. “They’re just in case inspiration stimulates me more than expected.”

“Okaaay.”

Although now that Yusuke studies over his overzealous haul—more than two dozen brushes made with different bristles and different angles, two sets of unused paints, and extra palettes—he can’t help but wonder if he’s jinxing all three of them.

Ann shuts the door behind Yusuke. She sticks her hands in the back pockets of her jean shorts.

“Sooo do you have a spot in mind?” she asks, surveying the house.

“Wherever you would feel the most at ease, I’d say,” Yusuke says as he unpacks. “I’d like to capture you at ease.” Different from the photoshoot, he thinks, which was trying so hard to be art that, in its desperation and complete ignorance of the meaning of true creation, completely overshot its goal. He wants Ann less made up, more like how he knows her himself: laidback, lounged, thumbs languid on her phone, leaning over a railing at the station, sunset colors illuminating her skin.

“How about here?” Ann asks, gesturing to her dining table.

Simplistic, with no real background to stimulate the eye, but perhaps that’ll work even better.

Yusuke nods. “All right.”

He sets up shop on the table until it looks less like an eating space and more like a Bohemian workbench. Yusuke always tries to retain order among his things, but sometimes it’s easy to be swept up in the flow, the fluency of his work when it’s arriving quickly and reliably.

He decides to go for dark-edged expressionism, heavy on the shadows, a secret tragedy within an enigmatic painting. Ann takes a seat across the table, chin propped up in her hand, eyes lazily roving about the room, looking for no exact target, while Yusuke sketches out the preliminary lines. He already knows it’s going to be a sublime painting. Complex. Breathing in its own right.

The first ten minutes are promising—whirls of color and rapidly flashing ideas, ones Yusuke struggles to articulate before they vanish. It seems the brushstrokes just won’t come fast enough, until suddenly, the blockages start clogging it all.

The painting doesn’t look quite right. Ann is depicted accurately enough—that is undoubtedly her nose, her hair, her mouth—but no depths or emotional resonance emanates from the painting. It’s little more than a child’s drawing in all matters but skill, which Yusuke exceeds in, but woodenly, with nothing to back up the substance of the paint, of the subject at hand.

He thinks of the Sayuri, of the sadness trapped there, of the unguessable black oceans of despair in her gaze that mystified him for years. It’s the love she holds in the painting, and the loss and the ache for the baby in her arms washed cruelly away by smudged paint, that he’s attempted to capture ever since he first laid eyes on it.

He considers his brush, his paint-flecked fingers.

“Ann,” he says, looking away from his canvas. “Have you ever been in love?”

She looks up from where she’s resting her chin in her hands. “Uhhh.” She seems to consider it. Her eyes droop a little in what might be disappointment. In herself, Yusuke wonders? “No, I don’t think so.”

“Hm.”

Yusuke goes back to painting, unaware of Ann’s expectant eyes following him. She huffs, briefly grabbing his attention.

“You have to share now too. It’s only fair,” she insists.

“I would’ve thought my answer was obvious,” Yusuke explains. “No. Not with a person, anyway. My passion for art comes close, I believe.” Not that Yusuke truly knows what being in love would feel like in the first place. The hollowness inside of him grows like a tree being carved from the inside out.

How can he ever expect to paint and capture that which he has never experienced?

“Art is your one true love, huh?” Ann says. She sets her chin back on her fingers. “I guess that’s kinda nice. It’s not like it can ever disappoint you like a person could.”

Yusuke only silently disagrees; to tell her that art has disappointed him more times than he can count in this last year—how coarsely it fails to express his emotions, how elusive it can be when he aches to paint most, how often it doesn’t meet his expectations—would be an explanation that would last all afternoon, and people are always telling him to be less verbose. Yusuke would rather talk too much than talk too little, considering words are yet another art form, one of infinite communication and wonder, but Ryuji’s rolling eyes, appearing whenever Yusuke speaks on a subject for longer than twenty seconds, says otherwise.

“Art is nourishment in a starved world,” he says instead. “But I wonder…”

He intends to trail off, to internalize his wandering thoughts, but Ann is looking at him with intense interest.

Yusuke lets his gaze drop. “...does it grab the soul the same way human connections do?”

He doesn’t know the answer, not fully. The two are related, certainly, but art draws inspiration from the love, companionship, trust, and fondness that sits between the connections made by people. If this were a chicken-and-egg situation, the connections would have to come first.

What is it about Ann that captured Yusuke in the first place? It went beyond her beauty, her sexuality. Perhaps it was her mystery, just like Sayuri’s, and the untouched sadness within. Yusuke doesn’t think anyone whose heart has never known sorrow has ever kept his attention for long.

He looks at his canvas. It seems his thoughts have run away, taking his paintbrush along for the ride and his painting hostage. His work has abandoned all its artistic merit in favor of blind havoc. Yusuke thinks the emotion he was favoring is sadness, but now that he’s snapped out of his painter's trance, it’s hard to be sure. The monster on the canvas seems more like his personal demon than Ann, that’s for certain.

“It’s no use,” he groans. His fingers go white around his brush—to snap it, to force it to cede to his will, to understand what it is he wants it to create. “I’m too… distracted to do this portrait justice.”

“Oh.”

“I have created little more than an eldritch caricature at this point.” Acting on impulse, he slices a giant slash of blue paint through the picture, cutting Ann’s distorted two-dimensional self in two. “I apologize.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Ann says gently. “We can try again another time, yeah?”

Her encouragement pulls a smile from him. “Your optimism is appreciated,” he says. “Perhaps I’m simply not worthy as an artist to adequately capture you, Ann.”

His open vulnerability seems to surprise her. He’s shown plenty of insecurity in his art in the past, verbally, spiritually, mentally, but perhaps she was never quite on the receiving end of it before. It was Madarame who always saw his uncertainties, after all, and Akira who saw his breakdown in the museum, the ups and downs of his process.

“We’ll try again,” she says once more, with conviction that reaches her eyes this time. “I can do better too. How about tomorrow?”

Yusuke accepts the invitation immediately. Art waits for no man. “Tomorrow it is,” he says, spirits already brightening. His first attempt may have gone poorly, but second drafts are always much better anyway. “Then for tonight, I’ll fare thee well.”

He grabs his canvas, fingers uncaringly smearing the paint, and packs up his things. Tomorrow will be a new day, a better day, and perhaps he’ll dream of a surpassingly strange world of whispering stars tonight and find inspiration there. He has high hopes.

He digs around in his pockets, keyring jingling as he searches for change. He frowns.

“What’s wrong?” Ann asks.

“Hm.” Yusuke pulls a few coins out of his pocket, thumbing over them. “I seem to have run out of money for a return ticket,” he admits.

“Wait, what?”

“Would you mind terribly if I stayed here for the night? A temporary arrangement, of course.”

Ann’s eyes widen. “What?”

Perhaps promising to shelve talks of her nudity would help his cause. “I mean nothing untoward,” he says. “I’d ask Haru to pick me up in the morning.”

She seems to consider his request, eyes scanning the room—wondering where he could sleep, or maybe wondering what he might snoop through out of curiosity. She crosses her arms.

“All right,” she finally says. “But you’ll have to take the couch.”

“Well.” He would’ve preferred the futon, but this may not be the moment to be picky.

Ann shoots him a look that makes it clear this is definitely not the moment to be picky.

“The couch will be great,” he says. “When will the bath be available for me tonight?”

--

Ann’s couch is softer than the lumpy sofa in Leblanc’s attic he’s slept on before. It also smells gently of her—gardenia blossoms, strong and sweet perfume, and… chocolate?

Even so, it’s miles better than the dorms, which—looking back—somehow managed to be a downgrade from even Madarame’s homely shack of a house. At the dorms, there was too much of everything, a complete overload for the senses, noise and odor and mess in infinite amounts. Here, Yusuke is suspended in pleasant quiet, in sprinkles of Ann’s personality, present all around him in touches of design and decoration.

It occurs to Yusuke as he looks around through the night’s shadows that this is the first home he’s ever been in unsupervised. Madarame was an omnipresent being in his atelier, and the dorms were ruled by demanding RAs, and even Leblanc’s attic was watched over by Sojiro, but here in the Takamaki household, the lack of family, of guardians, is abundantly clear. Yusuke idly remembers Ann mentioning to him that her parents travel frequently for work. He wonders when the last time they came home is.

If Ann is upset about their repeated absences, she keeps it hidden. There are so many aspects of her life and personality Yusuke hasn’t captured in his drawings of her, so many bits and pieces he wasn’t even aware existed. He’s not actually sure what he was thinking the day he told everyone he knew Ann too well to paint her properly. Perhaps the opposite is true: he doesn’t know enough, and might never. A portrait of Ann from a year back would be hollow, missing so many vital parts of her, same as a portrait from a month ago.

He sits up and grabs his sketchbook, curious about his own theory. He flips through some of the drawings he did last year around May. The first few of Ann are ones he created from a distance in the train station, back when he had only just seen her, before they had ever met. Those might just be the worst sketches—drawn in a haste, in a desperation to capture the creature of beauty he beheld before she left the train, the lines jagged and urgent. The next few are improvements, but still half-baked work, a roughly carved statue with no finesse. Even the sketches he was proud of in the moment feel unfinished now, barely scraping past the surface of Ann’s being.

The door to Ann’s bedroom creaks open. Ann stands in the sliver of light visible through the ajar crack, peering out.

“You got everything you need?” she asks. She’s in socks and a bathrobe. The bathrobe has little dogs on it. Yusuke imagines Morgana’s scandalized expression and smiles.

“Do you have any extra pillows?”

She sighs. “Let me check.”

“And perhaps some tea before bed?”

The incredulous look Ann gives him in response lets him know his requests for tomorrow’s breakfast will probably be denied. The pillows, however, do seem to be feasible, and they come hurling at him as Ann tosses them from a hall closet.

“Tea’s in the kitchen cabinet,” she says with a pointed stare.

Well, he supposes he can’t expect every place to be as hospitable as the last. With the exception of the uncomfortable couch, Leblanc had been an especially nice temporary home, thanks to both Akira and Morgana’s company as well as the pleasant smell of curry wafting upstairs during the evening.

Yusuke would be happy to return, if not for how undoubtedly empty it would feel in that attic now. It reminds him again of how Ann is here alone too, no family to count on, no friends in the living room to fill the silence of the apartment.

Ann heads back to her room. A whiff of her shampoo falls over Yusuke as she passes.

“Ann,” he calls out before she can ease the door shut.

She tips it back open a smidge. “What now?”

“Forgive me if I’m overstepping,” he says, “but are your parents home often?”

“Oh.” She was obviously expecting a much more intrusive question. She slides her finger along a ridge in her bedroom door, nail absently scraping the wood. “I mean, sometimes. But it’s not like—they’re working, and I’m okay by myself. I’m not some little girl.”

“That’s certainly obvious,” he says. “I wasn’t implying that you were.” He looks absently around the room, at the picture frames by the bookcase, at the pushed in chairs at the dining table. “There were often times where I was quite lonely at Madarame’s atelier. The best times were when there were many of us, all conferring, all collaborating. But there were moments when there was nobody as well.”

It’s strange looking back at those memories now. They feel almost as if they happened to a different person, someone detached from Yusuke entirely. He could still be in that shack now, wilting, rotting, atrophying, besmirching the name of art by allowing Madarame to use him as a pawn.

Ann was one of the few who helped him out of that situation. And here she is, helping him yet again, in more ways than he can even fully articulate.

“Thank you again,” Yusuke says.

“For the extra pillow?”

“That, and for letting me spend the night.”

His genuine gratitude seems to surprise her. “Oh. Well, you’re welcome.”

Yusuke nods, and settles himself onto the couch. Ann watches him get comfortable under the blankets for a few more seconds, lingering as if wanting to say something, before gently easing her door shut.

--

By morning, Yusuke is helping himself to the fridge when Ann emerges from her room in rumpled pajama shorts, a tank top, and uncombed hair sliding over her shoulders.

She looks nothing at all like her presentable, usual self, sleep still clouding her eyes and making her softer, less put together.

Yusuke is struck with the sharp urge to capture this version of her—truly maskless, lacking all conventional beauty but still swimming in natural splendor—on paper.

“Morning,” she says as she traipses into the kitchen in pink, fluffy slippers. Yusuke must—he has to— “Hey, don’t let all the penguins out.”

She shuts the fridge door Yusuke has let hang open in his transfixed trance, frowning. Yusuke, in fierce obedience to his artistic desires, has no time to apologize.

“Please!” he implores. “I must get my brush immediately. This is the moment—the unique realism I have been striving to seize. Stay just as you are!”

“What?” She looks down at her clothes in alarm. “No!”

Yusuke has already sprung off his chair and to his supplies. He knew he brought those extra canvases for a reason, and now is the time to submit himself to his brush’s urges, to the swirls of color and half-born ideas swimming through his head, eager to be painted into being.

Realism isn’t the key here; instead he favors sharp, angular lines, cubism at its finest. Cubism attacks the very convention of art, just like how Ann, in her imperfect morning garb, is an attack on the archetypes of woman, on how women have been represented in art for all too long. What he has here—the depth, the truth, the rawness—will be absolutely revolutionary.

His strokes start off strong and powerful, no need for initial penciling or rough drafts. The colors he chooses are all bold and erratic, hot reds and taxi yellows, electric blues and lime greens. This painting will awe, this painting will dazzle, this painting—

—isn’t exactly what Yusuke wants it to be.

He doesn’t realize until he’s nearly finished that the flurry of color and power in his mind’s eye has completely clouded his perspective of the actual product, which has failed to live up to his imagination in each and every way. He is like a car running slowly out of gas: hurdling down a highway, fearless, before he’s—without realizing it—slowing and tuckering to a stop, left without any fuel.

He takes a step back, blinking, trying to examine the piece in a way that’s wholly unbiased. He finds the task impossible. The flaws shoot out at Yusuke like arrows, mainly the lack of focus present. The painting looks as if it was done by a madman, not a seasoned artist on the path to pure beauty.

It takes him a moment to realize that Ann is cautiously talking to him.

“Yusuke?” she asks. “Everything okay?”

The paintbrush in Yusuke’s hand droops. “No,” he admits. “I’m a fool—a charlatan of art. I fail to grasp even the most expressive moments, ones that call out to me, that dance in front of me.”

“Uh.”

Yusuke stands up, breakfast forgotten. He grabs the portrait like one might hold onto a shameful secret, smudging paint over his palms in his urgency. If he cannot paint even when he has the most perfect subject in his view, when the colors are alive and the light is fresh and strong, then what can he possibly hope to paint well?

“I must go,” he mutters. “I’ve—I’ve been bamboozled with my own eyes, my own haste—”

He needs a clearer head. He needs fresh air. He needs—he needs—

He’s going to need to call Haru to pick him up.

--

Inspiration sleeps among the people, just like it used to do in Mementos, so Yusuke goes back to the closest thing: the train station.

His old habit of people watching in the underground walkway is a familiar comfort. Travelers are the most unique people in the world, Yusuke thinks. With all their cultures and stories and societal expectations on their backs, Yusuke wishes all of them would walk just a little slower, just slowly enough for him to capture with his sketchbook.

Next to him is the couple that’s always here, pressed against the same wall Yusuke is, only a few feet away with their heads bowed close together. Normally, such a show of intimacy would urge Yusuke to draw, to immortalize their private moment of happiness on paper, but today, something about those two annoys him.

He taps his pencil against his sketchbook, frustrated. The last time he was caught in such a slump, Yusuke had found what had felt like an ironclad solution: discover, delve into, and paint the human heart and all the shades of the madness within.

The human heart is just such a slippery subject.

“Yusuke-kun?”

Yusuke looks up from his half-hearted doodles. In between the crowds of train-goers, Kawanabe is approaching, hand raised in greeting. He’s shed his cardigan in today’s heat, a heat that’s seeping even into the lower depths of the station.

“Kawanabe-san,” Yusuke says, standing up straighter. “What a surprise.”

“Or fate, perhaps,” says Kawababe, smiling. “I was planning on calling you soon.”

“Really?”

“I actually happen to have a proposition for you. The Center is holding an exhibition soon, and I’d very much like to have you display some of your work.”

Yusuke’s eyes widen. “Display my work?” He sputters. “No… surely there are others more talented.”

Kawanabe shakes his head. “Not from where I’m standing,” he says. “I was very impressed with Desire and Hope last year, and would welcome the opportunity to see more of your skills. How would six or so paintings sound?”

Six?

“All right, eight is also doable. I can guarantee you a section of the gallery. The exhibition is a spotlight on contemporary young artists with promise, so I believe you would fit in quite well. You’d have two weeks to prepare.”

Kawanabe has an almost disturbingly encouraging smile. Yusuke feels the deadline of eight paintings crawl up his pant leg like spiders. Aside from last year’s show, this would be the first time Yusuke’s signed his own name to artwork that would be displayed for the public eye to feast on. As infuriating as it had been, Madarame’s plagiarism let Yusuke hide behind his name, separate himself from his own work and the feedback it drew in, keeping him at a distance from all such pressures. It had been hard enough with Desire, harder still with Desire and Hope, and that had only been one painting.

“You’re up for the challenge, aren’t you, Yusuke-kun?” Kawanabe asks, jovial. “I’d be very pleased if you participated.”

It’s impossible, Yusuke thinks.

“Of course I’m up for it,” is what Yusuke says.

--

“Well, that’s exciting,” Makoto says of the news, smile earnest and completely missing the terror Yusuke is feeling over finishing eight exhibit-worthy paintings in little more than a few weeks. “Do you have any ideas?”

Yusuke shakes his head, miserable. “All I have been able to paint as of late has been Ann, but those works are hardly fit for an exhibition.” He sighs, long and heavy. They’re not even fit for someone’s bedroom wall.

“Why do you say that?” Makoto asks.

“They’re disgraces. Little more than illusions of the real thing, a poor man’s impression of beauty, of a true woman.”

He sighs, caught in the woe of his own words. He doesn’t expect the snort of laughter that comes out of Makoto.

“I’m sorry,” she says as his sharp gaze wheels on her. “But do they really have to be? You’re trying to turn Ann into some kind of goddess.”

Yusuke traces the coffee cup he’s already drained to the grounds. “She is.”

“No, she’s just a girl. And I bet she’d like it if you painted her like one instead of some… larger than life idol.”

The concept doesn’t quite reach Yusuke. He’s not one for stark realism—not in art, anyway. Reality was always just such a bland contrast to the world that lived inside paintings, especially when he was cooped up in the dark rooms of Madarame’s house. Even the Sayuri, realistically depicted enough, was still a fantasy, an enigma of a woman more than anything else.

Makoto takes in a deep breath, just like Yusuke remembers her doing before launching into brainstorming. “Maybe you just need better inspiration. Where do you usually get it?”

“Life, I suppose. Emotions. The deep webs of experiences we all dance around throughout our journeys,” he says. “And art, too. Art inspires art, after all.”

“Oh.” Makoto smiles. “Then I have an idea.”

The door to Leblanc jingles open, revealing Ryuji and Ann, and Futaba trailing along behind them.

“Hey! Sorry we’re late,” Ann says.

“Not a problem,” Makoto says, smoothing her hands over her skirt. “We were just talking about going to the National Tokyo Museum. There should be a Kuroda Seiki exhibition going on there this week. Should we all go?”

“That—that’s quite thoughtful,” Yusuke says, pausing to give Makoto a look of admiration. Sometimes he forgets just how clever she is.

“Sounds boring,” Futaba sighs. Her fingers are tapping away on her phone, rapidfire—how is she even managing to listen, Yusuke wonders? “But fine. I’ll come.”

“Me too!” Ann says. “That sounds really cool.”

Ryuji scoffs. “C’mon. You don’t hafta be lying about it.”

Ann bristles, hands crossed over her chest. “I’m not! I like art! Remember how excited I was to check out the Madarame exhibition when Yusuke gave us free tickets?”

“Oh yeah? ‘Cause I remember it more like you went with it just ‘cause you were flattered that Yusuke was asking ya.” He snickers. “Didn’t you even put extra makeup on that day? You were crushin’ on the guy.”

“Shut it!” Ann grumbles, elbowing him. “I was wearing the same makeup I always do, you just never pay any attention!”

“Yeah,” Futaba adds, off-handed, from the barstools. “He’s bad at that.”

“Maybe we should get going,” Makoto suggests, hastening to rise to her feet. “Come on, everybody.”

They go on their way to the station. Yusuke double-checks his bag for his sketchbook, and trails behind the rest.

--

The museum is pleasantly full by the time the lot of them arrive—not packed, but not dreadfully quiet either, with just enough noise to make the art feel alive, as if it were interacting with a living, breathing world rather than just its own frame.

The comfort of familiarity, like reuniting with an old friend, washes over Yusuke like warm bath water as they step inside. The paintings call to him, whispering, each fluttering of color and brushstroke of paint urging him to create his own Cafe Terrace at Night, his own Wheatfield with Crows. It was a marvelous idea of Makoto’s to suggest coming here.

The Kuroda Seiki exhibit is one of the busier halls. The western beauty at display here is so remarkably different from that of Japan or Rome or the Renaissance, each of them worshipping their own form of woman, their own female ideal. The Kuroda Seiki paintings and their subjects remind Yusuke of Ann: the artwork is of Japanese women, but painted in the style of western art, the blend of the two a refreshing, captivating thing. Ann is the same—a blend of cultures and experiences that have come together to create the complex beauty she is today.

He stops in front of Under the Shade of a Tree, eyes falling over the dappled sunshine, the blue wrinkles of the woman’s dress, the far-off look in her eyes, the wondrous reaching out of the fingers. What is she reaching for?

Yusuke raises a hand as if to touch the paintings, feel the paint like Braille, to treat each swath of brush against canvas like a foreign language that must be urgently learned.

“Uhhh. I don’t think you’re supposed to touch the paintings,” Ann says from behind Yusuke.

“Don’t worry. I was merely allowing myself to fantasize.” He lets his hand daydream, imagine what it would be like to touch not the painting, but the world inside it, to be kissed by the same sun filtered through the trees, to be as warm and languid as the summertime visible in the colors. “I would never dare—”

“I was just kidding,” Ann assures him. “Besides, Ryuji’s more the kinda guy who would go around jabbing at art.” She chuckles. “Or maybe Morgana. But only if he saw something he really liked.”

“Do you think that cat’s gotten over his obsession with treasure?”

“I don’t know…” Ann says. “I kinda get the feeling he’s the same as ever.”

“You may be right.”

They move on together to the next painting, slowly strolling.

Flowering Field,” Ann reads aloud.

The hues, all yellows and greens and browns, seem to throw a hazy filter over the painting, pulling it to nature with its dominant earthtones. Yusuke focuses on the soft cream of a woman’s bare leg, on the beige curves of another’s back.

“It was inspired by a piece of his teacher’s art,” Yusuke says of the painting. A dim sense of melancholy touches him as if with a pinprick. “Mentors… can create infinite inspiration, when given the chance.”

The next breath he pulls in is slightly strained.

“Yusuke,” Ann says gently.

Yusuke knows she wants to mention Madarame, but bringing him up feels counterproductive to his mission here today. His former Sensei has been nothing but the bath-plug stoppering the flow of his creativity lately, and to continue to sulk in his memory is downright foolish. He doesn't want to talk about Madarame.

“What do you think of the painting, Ann?” he asks, changing the subject.

“Oh.”

Ann turns fully to it, hopefully diving headfirst into the story it tells, the emotion it conveys. She puts her hands on her hips and looks, truly looks at it on the wall, examining and connecting beyond just a mere surface level glance. Her eyebrows pull together.

“It’s… kind of surreal,” she says. “Something about the color palette, I think? And maybe also the girls too. I actually thought they were fairies or something when I first saw it.”

“Mm. Perhaps they are.” That is the glory of art, that each individual can see different meaning in it. “I… very much enjoy your view on things, Ann.”

Does he imagine the pink color blooming on Ann’s ears? “Oh, but it’s not like I’m an expert,” she says quickly. “I don’t actually know that much about what makes good art.”

“Luckily, there is nothing out there to professionally declare art either bad or good.” He tilts his head, thinking. “One might say no art is ever truly bad, not if the painter’s purpose for it was pure.”

“No art is bad, huh?” Ann murmurs. She taps him in the ribs with her elbow. “But you won’t let me see the ones you’ve been painting of me?”

It’s his turn to color. “Those aren’t bad,” he says. “They’re horrendous. An affront to your character.”

He shakes his head, recollections of his own disappointment flooding him. He continues to the next set of paintings in an attempt to distract himself from his failed portraits of Ann, rounding the corner to where Kuroda’s triptych of Wisdom, Impression, and Sentiment is hung. Ann follows, standing beside him. When he turns to look at her to see how she’s regarding the paintings, her eyebrows are pulled together in annoyed slants.

“Don’t say anything,” she warns.

“About what?”

She points at the paintings, as if in accusation. “I know what you’re thinking.”

“You do?”

“Yeah! That if these women could do it, why can’t I, right?”

Yusuke looks at the art, at the three women, all nude, all representing their own world, their own spectrum of emotion. Each curve of muscle, each exposed flaw, is unequivocally part of the artwork. Yusuke doesn’t so much see naked women as he sees the women themselves, the very essences of their beings, the power of the composition.

“Actually, I was just admiring the effectiveness of all three paintings side-by-side,” Yusuke says. “But for the record, Kuroda fought quite hard to keep nudity in art during his lifetime. Many found it inappropriate, and museums often covered parts of his work with cloth. He encouraged his students to paint nude subjects, however, and stood by his aesthetics.”

“I can only imagine how well you two would’ve gotten along,” Ann mutters.

“It would have been a dream to be under his training, that much is certain.” Yusuke finds himself lost in the daydream for only a moment before refocusing. “Is there a reason you so vehemently defy the idea of posing nude? A sense of morality, perhaps? Or is it embarrassment?”

Ann shakes her head. A cloud seems to slip over her features. “It’s nothing like that,” she says, voice quieting. “It’s—there’s a reason. But here’s not the place to get into it.”

The heavy hunch to her shoulders speaks for itself, so Yusuke complies without further pestering. He knows that there’s plenty about Ann’s life that he knows nothing about, a fact which now leaves him feeling quite chagrined. He considers her one of his closest friends, one of the few Phantom Thieves who saw his entire life unfold that day in the Metaverse when all of his secrets—and Madarame’s—came tumbling down around him. The fact that he knows so little in turn about her most closely-guarded stories feels like a friendship misstep.

Regardless, she’s right. The middle of a museum exhibition is hardly the place to have a heart-to-heart.

“Hey, Yusuke,” Ann says, the somber edge to her voice gone. “Do you remember that painting we all knew you drew the day you invited us to the Madarame exhibit?”

“Of course.”

“What happened to it, do you know?”

Yusuke shrugs. “I haven’t seen the painting since. I assume it was confiscated by the police to be used as evidence during the plagiarism trial.”

“It was amazing,” Ann says. “I know you didn’t, but I loved it when I saw it.”

“It’s not that I dislike my own work,” Yusuke adds in. He doesn’t know quite how to articulate that anything he made under Madarame’s care feels oddly tainted now, like a gift from a friend long since fallen out with. “We merely have a… complicated relationship. Some days, I feel as if I am a wielding the paintbrush of god himself, and others… I feel like the hollow shell of a man, completely out of touch with my emotions.”

He stares hard at the painting in front of him, at all of them in this room, so brimming with feeling that they seem to grab reality by the neck and shake it, holding him and all the other museum’s visitors captive. They all have so much his own paintings don’t. They resonate; they speak. It isn’t until a minute or so passes that Yusuke realizes Ann hasn’t said anything in response.

“Ann?”

“Oh,” she finally says, eyes wide. “This stuff is really… intense for you, huh?”

“Indeed. Fatally so, I’d say.” His fingers ache for his sketchbook, not to create anew, but to imitate. Reproduction isn’t a talent, regardless of what Madarame thought of the practice.

“Dude,” Ryuji says, appearing between them and resting his elbow on Yusuke’s shoulder. “You gotta stop thinkin’ so much. Any minute now that noggin is gonna explode.”

Yusuke purses his lips. “I simply—”

“Nah, man. Listen.” He points at Morning Toilette. “That right there, what do you see?”

For the sake of Ryuji’s attention span, Yusuke tries to abridge his thoughts. “Beauty. Wonder. The very essence of nature, womanhood.”

“...right,” Ryuji says. “And you don’t think you could come up with somethin’ like that?”

“I doubt it.”

“Well, how could you? You don’t freaking know what any of those things feel like for yourself. You gotta paint what you know, right?”

The fact that Ryuji’s correct is worrying at best. Yusuke touches his chin, frowning.

“What was the last thing you finished you were really proud of?” Ryuji asks.

Yusuke thinks, immediately eliminating all of the simple sketches and penciled doodles he’s thrown together the last few months. It’s been rough lately, artistically. He feels like a chef cooking with an understocked kitchen, constantly forced to scrape together only whatever’s available, the ingredients translating into his low-level creativity.

“The piece Akira worked on with me, I suppose,” he says. He couldn’t possibly reuse that as one of the works for the upcoming exhibition, could he? Kawanabe definitely wouldn’t be pleased to see a rerun. “Desire and Hope.”

Ryuji’s elbow digs into Yusuke’s shoulder. “See? Those are things you’ve felt for yourself. You can’t expect yourself to be able to draw shit you know nothing about it.”

“Ryuji might have a point, Yusuke,” Ann says. “If you really want to paint something new, maybe you just have to experience new things.”

Yusuke shakes his head. It’s impossible to conjure up specific emotions just because one needs to be able to feel them. If they don’t come organically, the resulting work won’t be very authentic either. Not to mention that Yusuke’s on a deadline here—he doesn’t have time to go chasing after life experiences that may or may not stimulate his art.

He loathes that this logic—Ryuji’s logic, even—is making sense. Of course his lack of personal experience is biting him here. A painter has to be fully immersed in situations, feelings, ambiences, in order to accurately depict them, express them.

The thing is, Yusuke isn’t running short on emotions. As a matter of fact, he feels completely at the mercy of his windswept feelings at any point in the day, if only to give them the free rein to let him experience art, tragedy, drama, philosophy, whenever possible.

Growing up with Madarame—and then suddenly, not growing up with Madarame—lulled plenty of emotions out of him over time. Anger. Weakness. Sadness. Fear. Betrayal. Shame. Hope. Freedom. Forgiveness. The few left on the human spectrum that he has yet to have any firsthand experience with are indubitably small. One sticks out, however.

He’s completely undernourished in all matters of love.

“I’ll try to help, all right?” Ann volunteers.

“You’ll continue being my model?” he asks her.

She nods. “Sure. It’s been fun so far.”

“What are we talking ‘bout here?” Futaba asks, sliding up to the three of them. “I’m booored. When can we go to the Egyptian sculpture hall?”

“No way, man,” Ryuji complains. “I wanna stay here with all the nude chicks.”

Ann sighs. “Come on,” she says, grabbing Yusuke’s elbow. “We might as well leave him. This is the only time he’s ever going to see a naked woman anyway.”

--

They start with Yusuke’s next painting in earnest the following day. Ann swings by Kosei after school so they can utilize the art room, Yusuke having checked with the art teacher if it’s all right for him to stay late to work on a project.

It takes her a little bit to show up—the trains are always crowded after school lets out—but all the better, since any leftover students still around have left by the time Ann appears in the door. And as an extra plus, the sun has set just enough to influence the lighting, coloring the sky pink and orange and casting a magical glow through the windows.

That same light, nearly a warm sepia tone, touches Ann as she sits herself in front of Yusuke’s easel.

“All ready to get started?” she asks, dropping her school bag on the floor.

Yusuke hums, noncommittal, twirling a paintbrush between his fingers. The blank canvas is prepared in front of him, waiting. All that untouched white is both the most terrifying and the most tempting sight for an artist.

He paints her differently today—or tries to, anyway. He attempts to tap into that side of himself he’s been missing, the one affected by matters of the heart, by love, but even the pink hues he chooses as his prominent color are little more than a stereotype of the emotion he’s fumbling to capture.

Surrealism, he decides, is the new method he needs to explore. He’s been in post-impressionism’s box for too long. The painting he seeks is something grand, something powerful, something pushing outward like a cosmic force. Ann is all those things, but his interpretation of passion and love and tenderness... falls flat.

“How’s it going?” Ann asks after twenty minutes. She’s a very patient model—statuesque, almost, in dedication and beauty both.

Yusuke’s response is a noise of deflating defeat. “The end product I want is elusive,” he says. “Do you think it’s possible I simply don’t possess the talent?”

Ann scoffs. “To what? Paint?”

He shakes his head. “Paint you.”

That seems to shock her. Her eyes grow wide before she can hide it, but she recovers quickly enough, scooting close on the stool she’s sitting on.

Phases of the moon, he reminds himself. Imagination, creation, fulfillment—it must grow small and full in turns.

“It’s okay, Yusuke,” she says kindly. “You can take your time with this.”

He shakes his head again. “I can’t,” he tells her. “I need to have eight pieces ready for an exhibition in a mere couple weeks.”

Somehow, Ann’s eyes grow even wider than before. “What? You’re gonna be part of an exhibition?”

Yusuke nods miserably. “Yes. And my reservoirs of creativity—tragically empty.”

“I—that can’t be right, Yusuke,” Ann murmurs.

“It is,” Yusuke says, feeling tragedy creep up on him. He hides his face in his fingers. “I am unable to capture even the simplest of subjects with any depth. My days as an artist are numbered. Kawanabe will be so ashamed.”

Silence simmers between them. If Ann is fumbling for something to say, Yusuke is too wrapped up in his own despair to take notice.

“Uhhh, anyway,” she finally says, breezing over his inner turmoil like stepping over roadkill. “Do you already have some paintings in mind for him?”

“No. To saddle him with old pieces of work—it would be unethical. A false representation of my capabilities here and now. I want to create something new—dazzling.”

“But you… can’t,” she clarifies. He shakes his head, repulsed by his own incompetence. “What do you think would help?”

He wishes he knew. He knows it’s Ann—it has to be her. No one else brings the flow of inspiration forth like she does, sets a waterfall of creation into motion. From the first moment he saw her, he knew. She has the soul of his muse.

The rest should, by all accounts, be inconsequential.

Except maybe—

“Do you think I could stay with you?” he asks, resting his chin on his knuckles.

“Stay—stay with me? You mean like… move in?”

“Temporarily. Just until the exhibition. To complete my paintings.”

“You want to move in until you’re done painting because you think it’ll help you somehow?”

She sounds skeptical. That’s all right. Yusuke knows this could work; he just needs to sync his surroundings with Ann. See her surroundings how she sees them. Fall in love with the world she lives in.

“I’m exceedingly talented at hanging up laundry,” he offers. “Does that help?”

“No!” Ann stutters words to life, unable to string a full sentence together. Eventually, she manages: “You’re not moving in! One night was enough! Just—no!”

--

Yusuke packs up his things from Haru’s sixth guest room the next day. It doesn’t take long, considering he has all of five valuables, none of which anyone else would ever find remotely valuable.

No one liked Van Gogh until eleven years after his death, anyway.

“Are you leaving?” Haru asks, surprised, from where she’s making coffee in the kitchen as he strolls by with his trolley of things. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing at all. Thank you for your hospitality,” Yusuke says. Although the walls really could do with some color. “I’m staying with Ann until I can finish up my paintings.”

“You are?” She waits a beat, stirring her cup. “Does she know?”

“Of course. I convinced her of the idea yesterday.”

“That’s great,” Haru says, offering up an encouraging smile. “I’m sure you’ll make wonderful paintings. Are you using her as your subject?”

Subject. Subject indeed—sore subject. Yusuke is beginning to think deadlines are not his friend. They are the very thief of a virtuoso’s ingenuity, of a craftsman’s vision.

“I am trying to, yes.”

She peers at the multitude of canvases tucked into his trolley. “No luck so far?”

“Tragically, no. Take a look.” He pulls out yesterday’s canvas for her to see. The ugly splash of oranges and pinks and reds assaults the senses like a surfer’s wave to the face. “Look. The hues, the shapes—how could my brush betray me like this?”

Haru puts down her cup, hurrying around the kitchen island to get a closer look at the unfinished monstrosity.

“It’s amazing, Yusuke!” she says, voice high with praise. “So vivid and warm. I bet Ann adores it!”

“She hasn’t seen it.”

“She hasn’t?”

“She would think me a failure.”

“She wouldn’t!” Haru says, grabbing his arm tightly. “I promise.”

Yusuke pretends to consider Haru’s advice, but still packs the painting when she forces him to take it with him. His trolley is heavy with paint supplies by the time he gets on the train, holding his things close as the tracks shake him gently back and forth, and by the time he arrives at his stop, his mind is already churning with new painting ideas. Maybe the outdoors would help, or to draw at night, underneath the hot moon. If he closes his eyes, he can picture the sticky air, the sounds of chittering bugs, thriving in the moist warmth. Summer—now that is the season of love. Surely he can find what he’s looking to seize there.

“Oh. You did end up coming,” Ann says at the door when he arrives, more disappointed than surprised. She barricades the doorway with her arms. “Nothing weird. Promise?”

How absurd. Yusuke is just fine at reading social cues, and it’s not like he’s as vulgar as Ryuji, who would easily top him in a Worst Roommate competition. He’s just here to work.

“Are you ready to model?” Yusuke asks once she steps aside to let him in.

“Not yet. I want to take a bath first.”

“I can work with that,” he says. Gears of ideas start churning in his head. “Actually, a bathtub might be the perfect setting for a portrait. Perhaps you would—”

Ann wheels on him, eyes wild. “You promised!” she says. “I can’t believe I even have to say this, but—no painting me in the bathtub! Or the bathroom! Or whenever I’m not wearing at least three layers of clothes!”

She slams the bathroom door shut loudly enough to send a message after hastening off.

She doesn’t come out again until half an hour has passed, at which point the door opens with a puff of steam to reveal her: bathrobe-clad and with wet hair combed away from her face. The bathrobe is folded up very high around her chest, held in place by a white-knuckled hand.

She stands in front of him by the couch, frowning. “You’re not going to try and peek, are you?”

“I already looked around your place the last time I was here,” Yusuke says. “If I recall, there wasn’t much to peek into in the first place.”

Ann blinks down at him, blank-eyed. “That isn’t what I—never mind.” The tight grip on her robe relaxes. She sits down next to him, grabbing the remote. “Wanna watch a movie?”

He supposes one night spent away from being tormented by an empty canvas may do his brain some good before it short-circuits under the pressure. “Sure,” he says.

“Great! I’ll make some popcorn.”

She heads for the kitchen, emerging with more than just popcorn: a tray of sweets, a bag of chocolate bars, and a few pieces of loose candy.

“Is someone else coming tonight?” he asks, puzzled, as Ann unloads her armful of snacks.

“No, why?”

He points vaguely to the food, then thinks better of it. “No matter. Shall we start the movie?”

They get settled on the sofa as Ann peruses the movie selection. They argue a bit over the integrity of the cinematography of some of Ann’s favorites—arguments Yusuke knows he wins only in spirit, as Ann is steadfastly bull-headed in her opinions—before she shuts down the debate by choosing a romantic drama Yusuke hasn’t seen before, and therefore, has no means by which to criticize it. Still, Yusuke doesn’t exactly wield an open mind as the movie starts.

“This is truly a new level of atrocious,” he says conversationally, ten minutes in, after which he is promptly shushed.

He should have known. For all her inner and outer beauty, Ann has horrible taste in so many things, cinema included. It was just last winter when she had dragged him to a screening of Love, Possibly, a movie so crammed full of lousy dialogue and overly dramatic plot twists that Yusuke was amazed the audience didn’t protest the mere existence of such a slap in the face to genuine filmmaking by walking out.

He does remember Ann failing to hide her tears in the seat next to him, though, for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom. Wish fulfillment, perhaps?

Their hands briefly brush inside the popcorn bowl, the contact buttery. Ann scoops up an entire handful and quickly retreats from the dish.

Yusuke looks over at her: her drying hair, starting to puff. Her pale legs, bent at the knee where they’re propped up on the coffee table. Her lips, shiny from grease. She’s nothing like the pictures Yusuke would worship as a child, the Venuses and the girls with pearl earrings. She’s nothing like what he expected her to be upon meeting her either. She’s better, more complex, more real.

If he could only get her properly conveyed on canvas, she would surely jump right off the paper.

“Ann,” he says, quiet, when the film’s dialogue reaches a lull. “In case I haven’t said it before, thank you. I appreciate you letting me stay here.”

“Only until my parents come back,” she clarifies.

He refines it further. “Only until I finish my work for Kawanabe-san. Which, when considering my deadline, shouldn’t take long.”

“Right.” She keeps her eyes trained on the TV. “In any case… you’re welcome.”

The pieces of popcorn rustle against each other as she grabs for more.

By the time the credits roll, Ann is asleep, head tipped against the headrest of the sofa. Yusuke can’t really blame her: the movie was horrendous, even if it was her pick. Too many montages, not enough emotion. He’s tremendously good at identifying it as long as he isn’t examining his own work. Too often, his pieces are lacking, yearning to be more than they are, wishing they were more like the image of them he nurses in his head before failing to bring the details in his mind’s eye to fruition. It’s always like that—his mind creates a masterpiece, one that sneers down at the final product, a mere simulacrum, a skeleton, of Yusuke’s intention.

He tries to call back the confidence he felt with Desire and Hope. He knew it was exactly what it needed to be, and didn’t demand it to be more, or better. Perhaps he’ll never feel that assurance when painting Ann. It’s a mighty responsibility to paint a human being—any human being—when their very souls are at risk of being lost in the paper, but Ann is especially difficult to capture. She is unearthly, impalpable, unrestrained.

Before he can consider the conundrum at hand further, Ann’s head tilts to the left, lolling onto Yusuke’s shoulder. A thick mass of hair cushions her from Yusuke’s pointy shoulder bone. She smells sweet, like the mountains of sugar she ingested tonight.

He reaches, with some difficulty, for the remote, turning off the TV. It wou guy ldn’t be very reasonable to sleep like this, but Yusuke isn’t sure he has the heart to wake her from her peaceful rest. The face on his shoulder looks angel-like in its slumber, eyelashes casting shadows, lips slightly parted.

An urge reaches Yusuke, one to touch, to gingerly caress that stray hair away from her temple. His throat goes dry.

He does his best to maneuver her to the end of the couch into a more comfortable position. She snuffles, breathing only slightly interrupted by the jostling, but soon draws her hand under her cheek to burrow into place, unperturbed.

She is…

Divine. Ethereal. Celestial.

Yusuke makes as little noise as possible opening up his set of paints and getting a new canvas into place. The painting he’ll end up with will be Renaissance-worthy, a classic—he can see the title now: Sleeping Angel Disguised As Human. He zeroes in on all the details: the frizz of her air-dried hair, the expanse of her thigh exposed by her slipping robe, the dreams currently lying underneath the surface of her eyelids.

He paints in muted tones, in an impasto style, with thick smears of paint drying slowly. Something is bristling in his chest as he watches her sleep, hears her softly breathe, and he tries to channel that unidentified emotion into his brush, into each stroke of paint. He already knows it—this will rival Picasso’s Woman with Yellow Hair, Lichtenstein’s Sleeping Girl, Canova’s Sleeping Nymph. Yusuke’s mind spins, drawing him deeper into his work.

He paints until his eyes droop, his own dreams calling him. He sets the canvas aside to dry, confident of the work he’s produced, and curls up in the armchair, unwilling to disturb Ann’s space on the couch.

--

In the light of the morning, the painting looks absolutely nothing like it did last night in Yusuke’s drowsy haze. It’s gone from otherworldly to crude, from moving to uninspired. The Ann he’s depicted is once again correct spatially, anatomy all in the right places in the right sizes, but the skill underneath the technical aspects is lacking much of anything.

No one ever won any prizes for being able to paint an accurately-sized elbow.

“Did we fall asleep here last night?” Ann asks when she wakes up, eyes bleary, hair a mess. She rubs at her cheek, still sleepy, as she takes in their surroundings. “What’s that?”

She’s looking at the canvas Yusuke’s staring at in disappointment. He would have preferred to not mention it to her at all.

“Another failure,” he says, shielding it from view.

“What do you mean?” she asks, still squinting, waiting for her eyes to catch up to the daylight. “Did you—you didn’t draw me while I was sleeping, did you?”

“You were an angel,” he says by way of explanation. It seems to soften some of the hard lines on her face. He stands by his statement—even now, in the morning, golden sun streaming through the windows, the light burning the outline of Ann’s unbrushed hair, he’s convinced of it. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not a painting that’ll see the light of day anyway. It’s little more than another reminder of my inadequacy as an artist.”

He heaves a heavy sigh. He awaits a rub to the shoulder, a sympathetic smile. What he doesn’t expect is Ann’s extremely unimpressed frown.

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?” she asks. “So you’re in a slump. Artist’s block, or whatever.”

She says it in a way that’s remarkably blase. A slump is the kiss of death for an artist who gives into it, who lets themselves wallow in their own obstacles for too long. It’s always much easier to put down the brush than it is to pick it up.

“How do you propose I take a stand against it?”

“I don’t know,” Ann says. “Maybe you just need the right setting.” She glances around her living room. “I know I wouldn’t be inspired by this place.”

She droops a little. Yusuke thinks he understands, maybe. This apartment might mean nothing to her but silence, an absent family, empty room after empty room. Perhaps they could both do with a bit of fresh air.

“You may be correct,” he admits. “I have somewhere in mind.”

--

The way the sunlight streams through the trees in Inokashira Park is mesmerizing, hypnotizing, begging to be painted. It reminds Yusuke of the paintings he was admiring at the Kuroda Seiki exhibit, the way man and nature both glowed as equal subjects, neither outshining the other, but rather working in noncompetitive harmony.

He intends to do the same today, even if it will be an act of witchcraft. He has all the necessary factors needed at hand: clement weather, the free time of the entire day, his sketchbook, and Ann.

They find a spot by the river underneath the coverage of a tree. Even out of the glow of the sun, Ann is radiant, outdoing all of the vibrant grass and flowers among the riverbank.

The sounds of nature around them inspires calm. The swaying of leaves in the wind, rubbing against each other. The chirps of birds and insects. The flow of the river water underneath the hot sun.

Yusuke closes his eyes. Barely more than one week, he thinks, hand wrapping tightly around his pencil, scolding himself for having done so little. Only a little more than one week until the exhibition.

He opens up his sketchbook, determined to at least cobble together an idea for a painting. A deadline makes for very poor motivation—if anything, it seems to do the opposite, plugging his enthusiasm entirely. An artist’s work will never be authentic when the incentive is money or fame or praise. The will must come from himself, from his own core.

He looks at Ann, lounging in the grass, pulling study materials out of her bag. In her are a hundred paintings. A thousand, maybe even more. Yusuke just has to discover them.

He doesn’t get very far in ten minutes. He starts over at least three times, dissatisfied with the shapes he’s putting together. Ann seems to notice soon enough. She slides just close enough on the grass to keep one eye on his sketchbook, watching his process. Or rather, his lack of a process.

“No luck, huh?” she asks.

Yusuke sighs, letting it speak for him.

Ann’s silent for a moment. When Yusuke looks at her, she’s biting the inside of her cheek, thinking.

“Hey, do you remember what Ryuji said?”

“About... being unable to paint an emotion I have no knowledge of?”

“Yeah.” She scoots closer still, and then her hand, like a bird tentatively approaching, envelops his carefully. “Close your eyes for a sec. Pretend this isn’t me. Pretend it’s someone you care about. That way.” He shuts his eyes. She squeezes his palm, fingers trailing along his knuckles. “How does it make you feel?”

Yusuke’s eyebrows pull together. “That way?” he repeats.

“You know. That way.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know.”

Ann’s answering huff tips into the realm of annoyed. “Haven’t you ever had a crush on someone, Yusuke?”

A crush.

“...oh.”

“So? How does it make you feel?”

Yusuke swallows. He’s not used to such a touch. He’s not used to crushes either, so much so that he’s really not sure if he’s ever had one. Perhaps it’s his upbringing, or perhaps it’s just Yusuke himself, too out of touch with such matters of the heart to fully understand them.

He remembers, when he was younger, seeing some badly behaved boys running around, taunting girls, tugging on their hair, showing affection in what Yusuke hardly even believed to be affection, just boredom. He can't recall ever feeling like that, or doing such a thing. The closest he ever got to identifying what he believes is a crush is Ann, who captivated him from day one. So much so that he ran after her in the train station, a man half-possessed, fervent to understand the woman he knew was fated to be his model, his Sayuri.

“I’m… not sure,” he says honestly.

He focuses on the sensation of Ann’s soft hands brushing over his, her skin warm, her touch light. He’s not sure he can pretend it’s a touch that belongs to anyone else. He can smell Ann’s perfume, can hear her careful breathing. A shiver touches the base of his back.

“Strange,” he finally says. “It makes me feel quite… strange.”

“Strange bad?”

“Strange… new.”

Yusuke flexes his fingers, brushing them against Ann’s. If he had to put a color to this feeling, it would be… bright. Holographic. A splash of many colors, all of them daring to be felt as strongly as the last. He lets Ann thread their fingers together and squeeze his palm.

“Then… let me try just one other thing, okay?” Ann asks. She’s close enough that Yusuke can feel her words exhaled on his chin.

“All right.”

For a few moments, nothing—just the far-off sounds of chirping birds—and then Ann’s lips are pressing lightly against his, barely leaning forward.

A kiss. She’s kissing him, tilting closer so their noses don’t bump, chapsticked mouth aligned with Yusuke’s. Something about it is completely different than how Yusuke’s perceived a kiss to look and feel in artwork, when it’s frozen in marble or canvas into something motionlessly austere. Instead it’s rather warm and… thrilling. More colors explode behind Yusuke’s eyelids.

She pulls away slowly, tentatively. It takes Yusuke a few seconds of silence to realize he ought to open his eyes again. Ann’s hesitant gaze meets him when he does. The sun is an almost dizzying halo around her shoulders, gleaming through the leaves.

He’s never kissed anyone before. He had no idea it would feel—like that.

“Well?” Ann asks. She rolls her lips into her mouth before releasing them again. “Did you feel anything?”

He looks down at the pencil he’s lost amid the grass, rolled between a few weeds. He grabs it, groping for his sketchbook—yes, his sketchbook, that’s what he should be doing now. Drawing. Concentrating.

“I… did,” he says, but how to put that into palpable shapes, a finished work, is beyond him. “I’m not sure what, though.”

Ann looks away. She seems almost embarrassed, quick to let go of Yusuke’s hand and grab her own knees, eyes focusing in on the river.

“Maybe you don’t have to know,” she suggests.

“Ah. I suppose you’re right.” He examines his sketchbook, turning to a new page. Watercolors would be perfect now, if only he had them on him. They would capture this summertime haze, this prickling, blossoming feeling in his chest, the sensation of Ann’s kiss. “All I really need to do is feel.”

She nods. She may not be an artist in her own right, but she still understands the methods, some perhaps more than Yusuke does.

He picks up his pencil, drawing preliminary lines, trying to seize the ambience of the moment. He draws Ann from the side, making sure to include the afternoon light of the sun and the spikiness of the grass, but also the intimacy of what just occurred.

Only a smidge of what he needs is missing.

“Ann,” he says, waiting for her head to tip up in question. “Would you mind if I held your hand while I sketch?”

The request seems to surprise her. “You—you want to hold my hand?”

“Just for a bit.”

She extends it. Yusuke can see the barest of trembles in her palm before he aligns their fingers together. Something about the touch is soothing. Yusuke doesn’t remember the last time—if ever—he’s held someone’s hand.

It’s making him feel things. He’s not sure he can put them into words. Putting them onto paper might be sufficient, though. He plays with the round bones of Ann’s knuckles, much like she did to him, but more slowly, more deliberately. He lets the feel of those knuckles instruct him on what to do. The softness of her skin. They’re telling him a story, a story he can illustrate if he concentrates hard enough.

He draws, undisturbable, immovable, for an hour, and later that night, while Ann is showering, he paints it to life.

At least, he tries. It never quite reaches the stage of life. It struggles, it claws, and it cries its way up from the grave of Yusuke’s talent, but he doesn’t manage to resuscitate it properly. He uses one, two, three, four canvases in an attempt to do it justice, to tweak the shading and the colors used, to spin the scene itself on its axis, but it won’t do. The final products are weak, wizened comparisons to the lively creation in his head, the one bursting with love. None of them elicit a feeling even close to what Ann’s kiss did.

--

“The pressure is probably a part of it,” Makoto says the next day as she tidies up the Student Council Room. “You’re putting too much of it on yourself because of your deadline.”

Yusuke’s eyes rove over the trophy display, the victor’s ribbons, while Makoto stacks chairs. The glass of the cabinet is cool against his side, pleasantly so after the hot train ride from Kosei.

“Possibly,” he says. “But I’m not sure how to circumvent that.”

“Maybe… just try to remember that you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself when you draw?” Makoto suggests. “It might not be as easy as it sounds, but it’s worth reminding yourself.”

He does enjoy himself while drawing, though. He lets himself live the emotions, the feelings, and encourages the very atoms of the paint to connect with him. He draws, and draws, and it isn’t until he’s finished that the enjoyment drains away upon seeing what he’s created.

Yusuke thinks of yesterday’s afternoon by the lake and can nearly feel that same sun’s heat again, that same pressure of Ann’s lips against his.

His phone buzzes in his pocket. He fishes it out just in time to see a message notification flashing on the screen.

Ann @ 4:02pm: dont forget to grab nori 4 sushi dinner 2morrow :)

Yusuke @ 4:03pm: I thought we could do it together.

Yusuke @ 4:03pm: I actually came to Shujin to pick you up.

“Yusuke?”

Yusuke looks up from where his thumbs are poised on his phone. “Hm?”

“Did you hear what I said?”

“That I… needed to remind myself to enjoy my art.”

Makoto’s lips twitch into a smile. “After that. I said that you might want to try broadening your subjects beyond Ann.”

“Oh. I have no intention of doing that.”

“How come?”

Yusuke looks into the display case again, admiring the shine of the sun against the pane of glass. He rubs his thumb over a smudge. He could easily paint others: he could stand in the train, like he used to, and wait for the lines of someone’s face to bring his pencil to life. He could go back to Haru and paint her among her luxurious couch, highlighting the fluff of her curls with every stroke of his brush. He could do it, but he doesn’t want to.

“I can’t imagine anyone besides Ann being my model,” he admits. “I cannot explain why, though. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

The look Makoto gives him is purely indulgent now, like a mother watching her son riddle out a math problem. “Is it?”

He considers it. “I assume it’s because our bond is growing deeper,” he says. “I do feel as if my work is improving as a result.”

“Oh?”

“The emotions I experienced after Ann kissed me do feel like what I need to be expressing through my paintings,” Yusuke murmurs.

“Hold on,” Makoto interrupts. Her eyes are blown wide. “You and Ann kissed?”

“Yes, in the park.” At Makoto’s shell-shocked expression, unmoving, he adds, “It was Ann’s idea. It was meant to draw new emotions forward to put into my work.”

“I see,” Makoto says, although it doesn’t quite sound like she does. She sounds stunned, but as if she’s trying hard not to be. “And… does that change anything for you?”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Yusuke muses. “My work can only improve from this point onward.”

Makoto sighs. “I wasn’t exactly talking about your art, Yusuke.”

His phone buzzes again.

Ann @ 4:08pm: youre at shujin???

Ann @ 4:08pm: is this bc you dont have grocery $

Yusuke @ 4:08pm: That is one of the reasons, yes.

Yusuke @ 4:09pm: But I also figured it would be enjoyable to do it together.

“Is that Ann?” Makoto asks. She says it in such a way that suggests she already knows the answer.

“Yes, it is,” Yusuke says. “We’re collaborating dinner plans.”

“Dinner plans?”

“Yes. It makes sense for the time being, given I’m staying with her.”

Makoto’s grip falters on a chair she’s stacking onto a table. She quickly grabs it before it can topple. “Oh,” she says, in a voice much too high. “You are?”

Ann @ 4:11pm: where are you? i’m by the front

Yusuke glances at Makoto. “My apologies,” he says. “Do you mind if we continue this conversation at another point in time? Ann and I were planning on going grocery shopping.”

Makoto’s voice goes higher still. “Of course not,” she says. Her smile is too strange for Yusuke to completely understand. “You two have fun.”

--

Yusuke picks the movie that night. He chooses a French film, one praised for its aesthetically gripping compositions and artistic flair. They have to use subtitles, which Ann gripes about until about halfway through.

“The French language is sooo…” She exhales dreamily. “...romantic. I wish they taught it at Shujin.”

“It’s certainly very pleasing to the ear,” Yusuke agrees. “But the visuals are truly where this film shines.”

Yusuke lets himself get lost in the soundtrack, the colors, the scenic transition shots. The crunching of Ann popping candy next to him is, surprisingly, not a bother, but rather fits into the ambience of their movie night, along with her feet pressed against his legs and the volume of the TV being too loud.

He wishes, without being able to explain why, that he was holding her hand again. The memory of doing it at the park haunts him like a teasing ghost. The warmth of it, how comforting it was to brush his thumb over her knuckles, over her smooth fingernails.

She doesn’t fall asleep on the couch that night. She stretches her arms and then heads to the bathroom after the movie ends while Yusuke transforms the couch back into his bed. The now-familiar scent of Ann’s perfume comes to him from the couch cushions as he gets ready to sleep. The smell is calming, a silent reassurance, rolling more strongly through him with every breath.

It would be even stronger, he thinks, if she was right next to him, sleeping curled by his side. It’s a worrying thought to have as he drifts off to sleep.

--

Five days left. Yusuke stares at the calendar, at the tiny boxes separating himself from the art world’s ultimate judgment. The exhibition is less than five days away, and his moon has yet to turn full. How long does he need to wait?

Five days. Zero paintings.

“Hey,” Ann says, snapping him back to the task at hand. Chopping cucumbers for the sushi. Yes. “You okay?”

“No,” he says. Rather, he feels like the world is starting to crumble around him and his empty well of creativity. It’s a miracle he hasn’t fallen prey to nightmares yet. “I don’t have much time left.”

“Might wanna rephrase that, Yusuke. It’s not like you’re dying.”

Ann has the audacity to laugh a little. How she can chuckle in the face of Yusuke’s most mountain-like challenge is baffling. He looks down at the cucumbers, the juice of which has liberally pruned his fingers.

“Here,” she says, dumping the seaweed wrappers in front of him. “Focus on this.”

She continues to occupy herself with the rice while Yusuke tries to follow orders and direct all his concentration onto the sushi. It’s not a bad distraction, as far as menial tasks go. Yusuke has found that a routine rather suits him. Having a place to consistently return to after school, one that isn’t overrun by irresponsible dormitory roommates and their bad influence friends, has been enjoyable. It’s a comfort, a routine. It’s like their movie evenings, or taking the train home together after school.

“I have to say, Ann,” Yusuke says, “I will miss our little arrangement when the time comes to end it.”

“Arrangement?”

“Yes. You allowing me to stay here with you,” he explains. “The habit of cooking together has been nice as well. It’s given me a glimpse into a life I’ve never had before.” He touches his chin, considering. “The couch, however. I could do with a softer couch. A bed, for instance—”

“I’m not getting you a bed,” Ann interrupts sharply.

Yusuke sighs. He resumes his chopping. The pot of rice on the stove bubbles along.

Eventually, Ann adds, softer than before, “I guess I sorta like it too. It’s nice having someone here to hang out with all the time.”

“I’m glad you agree. The companionship has been… invaluable.”

This time, Ann’s silence seems more touched than irritated. It reminds Yusuke of when they had barely met and just taken down Madarame’s Shadow. Yusuke had no place to live and Ann was steadfast in her refusal to let Yusuke move in with her. It’s oddly vindicating to know that she’s changed her mind about Yusuke’s qualities as a roommate since then.

“Yeah,” she says. Her stirring of the rice has slowed considerably. “You haven’t been as weird as I thought you would.”

“Pardon?”

“It’s been fun to have you around.”

Now that’s a compliment Yusuke doesn’t hear all that often. He’s not quite sure what to do with it. It sits in his stomach like a fulfilling meal might.

Where will he go, when this inevitably comes to an end? The kindness of his friends has been an invaluable resource, but it isn’t one he wants to milk dry. He thinks about what he always wanted as a child: an atelier of his own, full of light and waiting easels. It was a dream of independence, of open and free innovation. Now that dream feels like it’s missing something. Yusuke just isn’t certain what.

Not that he should even be entertaining thoughts of art studios and his own apartment right now. If his art career continues as it has been lately, he should get used to life under a bridge and painting chalk art on the sidewalk for money.

“Ann,” he says. “Do you know what it is you’d like to do after graduation? Where you’d like to go?”

Ann’s hand stutters to a stop over the pot. “Yeah. I mean, sort of.”

“Are you staying in the city?”

“I’d like to,” Ann says. “Can’t really imagine living out in the country, to be honest.” She laughs a little. “Although I definitely couldn’t afford rent on my own.” She keeps stirring. “What about you?”

Yusuke shakes his head. He doesn’t really know; even if he’s aware of what he wants, that doesn’t mean it’s feasible. “I’m not sure,” he says.

“Yeah. I get that.” Ann knocks the rice off her wooden spoon. “All I really know is that I don’t want to be somewhere alone, you know?” She says it casually enough, but her voice is a bit smaller than usual. “Crazy how lonely you can feel even in a big city like this.”

Yusuke makes a noise. Of course you can be lonely, even when surrounded by people, even when there’s no earthly reason to be. He still remembers the feeling well from back when he was Madarame’s pupil; none of the kids at Kosei ever so much as spared him a glance back then.

But Ann—she should never have to experience that. Ann is captivating, entrancing, celestial.

Yusuke wonders—would it be appropriate, he considers—how would she react to the suggestion that they continue living together after high school is over?

“Rice is done,” Ann says, squeezing her way next to him with the pot in hand. “You want to be the one to spread it?”

Yusuke has to bodily blink away straying thoughts of furniture shopping with Ann next to him, ooohing over velvet settees and decorative pinboards. Rice. Right. Yes.

“You can do the honors,” he says, stepping aside to let her work.

--

Ann is an easy model to work with. Perhaps they’re all like that, but something about Ann is just… malleable. It’s as if within her slumbers the nugget of Yusuke’s talent that he needs to coax out, and all it truly takes is for her to sit in the right spot, with her arms in the perfect places, with her legs tilted just so.

The patio of Ann’s apartment is fairly cramped, but there’s enough room for chairs for two people and Yusuke’s supplies. It’s mostly the plants that are in the way—a way to bring nature into the city, Ann had said—some of which Yusuke delicately scoots aside. One pot in the corner is a Finnish plant smuggled into Japan a few years back. Yusuke had nearly forgotten just how many places Ann’s seen, lived in. There is so much of her he wants to capture, but to cram it all into a painting would be chaos, an unfettered, schizophrenic mess of a portrait.

After dinner, the light outside is ideal. Ann hangs her legs over the railing to give Yusuke extra space. He pulls out one of his watercolor palettes, then reconsiders, tapping his thumb on the dry squares of colors. They all have craters in the centers from overuse. He’ll have to buy new paints soon, which means he’ll have to cut back on hair conditioner for a while.

“Let’s do gouache,” Yusuke decides.

“Hm?”

“It’s a bit heavier than watercolor, but can still be rewetted. The chalk in the paint changes the consistency, though.” He pauses. “Are you interested in this, Ann?”

She shrugs. The strap of her camisole top has slid down her shoulder. “Not really. But it’s kinda fun listening to you go on and on about it. You get really into it.”

“Mm. Well, I could say the same about your modeling,” Yusuke says. “You seem very dedicated to the craft.”

“You think?” Ann shifts in her lawn chair. “Thanks. You know, I didn’t think I would, but… I actually think I like modeling for you better than for photoshoots.”

“How come?”

“I’m not really sure. I guess when all those cameras are clicking, I know I’m just… something to sell? But when you paint me, I feel more like…” She stops. Her hand reaches out to touch one of the planters hanging over the edge of the rail. “A piece of art, I guess. It’s… sweet.”

Yusuke wants to say that Ann’s a piece of art—no, a masterpiece, a museum’s gem—regardless of whether or not he paints her. Instead, he looks down at his palette, chipping off dried spills of paint with his thumbnail. Something about sharing that out loud feels oddly as if he would be laying out a piece of his heart.

He starts painting. His cup of water—quickly muddled with color—is a panther-patterned mug. Ann’s, no doubt. Perhaps a reminder of their wild past.

Looking at her now, Yusuke can still see the leather catsuit, the shiny mask. The look of determination in her eyes before battle. She was always such an impressive sight, like Joan of Arc entering a warzone. That warrior still lingers, even now with her draped over a lawn chair, skin shiny with sweat, the moist summer air clouding her hair and drooping her eyes.

Her gaze is cast out over the neighboring apartments, but her mind is elsewhere. Yusuke tries to paint what he sees—Girl Regarding Tokyo Summer Evening—with the utmost respect to the details, to the long shadows cast around the patio, to the soft green-yellow glow in the air, to the frayed denim of Ann’s shorts.

He dips his brush into the water before dragging the barest of pigment over the canvas. He paints the start of a leg, both of which are elegantly stretched out before bending over the metal rail. Ann’s foot bops along gently to an unheard melody. Her hand is curled over her knee.

Lucky hand, Yusuke thinks. The thought is gone, like a ghost, the minute he notices it.

A mosquito buzzing by his ear brings him back to his work. He swats it away, attempting to focus on painting the line of Ann’s thigh just right. There’s something very soothing about being able to slowly, sensually, slide a brush for one long stroke. Pointillism will never be Yusuke’s forte. Singular dots are far too aggressive when compared to the gentle care made with lengthy brushstrokes. Ann is a subject that deserves the extra care, to not be rushed.

The mosquito buzzes again, brushing over Yusuke’s earlobe. He jerks aside, trying to dispel the discomfort.

It doesn’t go, though, even after the mosquito zips off for the next patio. Yusuke tries to focus on the shading of Ann’s kneecap, but something is awfully tight within him, seized up. Taut.

He drags the paintbrush down, creating her calf. The image has come somewhat to life since he began: there is a real girl there now on canvas, even if so far she is little more than a girl hovering in the air in a state of summertime repose. But her angles, her lines, all long and lean and drawn with meticulous effort, are right.

Yusuke shifts his legs, and suddenly, he knows where that tautness is coming from.

He stops painting. His pants have gone tight, strained, and his midsection has gone awfully hot, prickly around the edges. His brush hangs suspended in the air, frozen, as Yusuke tries to will his body to listen to reason, to mediate the inappropriate arousal away.

Ann notices that he’s gone stock-still. “What’s wrong?”

Yusuke looks down. He examines the dilemma as clinically as possible. Ann seems to follow his line of sight, because that sharp inhale of her breath—followed by a tiny, nearly inaudible oh—is a clear indicator she’s taken notice of the situation.

“Uh,” she says carefully. “Yusuke—”

“Excuse me.”

He hurries back inside, palette clattering as he puts it down on the ground. This isn’t a problem he’s ever had before while painting. Such things have no purpose in art, no use in the creative process. They’re hindrances, burdens of man, obstacles between humanity and artistic enlightenment—

He tries to will the erection away. Pray it away. He’s not even certain where it came from—the mere pleasure of creating art? That would be, admittedly, a first. He closes his eyes, clenches his fists, and tries to think neutral thoughts. Distracting thoughts. Ann’s kneecap keeps interrupting.

The patio door slides open behind him.

“Um,” Ann says. “Do you… want to maybe… take care of that?”

Take care of that. He’s absolutely mortified. Yusuke turns to look at Ann, catches one glimpse of the sheen of sweat on her collarbone, the scoop of her tank top, and turns sharply away again.

“I only require a moment,” he says in a remarkably level tone. “Please.”

“Uh. Sure.” A pause. “Should I go?”

Ann’s thigh. Her bobbing ankle. The strap of her shirt, sliding down her arm. Yusuke dragging his brush along paper to recreate all of this. What is happening to him?

“Please,” he says again, almost choking on the word.

“Okay,” she says, voice high, and flees.

--

Ann doesn’t mention the incident on the patio, much to Yusuke’s relief. It’s more than just a welcome consolation to see her treating him as usual—except for perhaps a slightly overly chipper attitude to disperse the tension—when he finds her cooking breakfast the next morning. He fully expected her to barricade herself into her room for the next year, if not throw Yusuke out on the streets, so to have her actually look Yusuke in the eye is promising.

He wants to tell her that he’s just as vexed as she is, that he’s just as flabbergasted as to how that happened in the first place, that his erection wilted away out of sheer shame after a few minutes, but he’s just too dumbfounded to make enough sense of any of it to actually discuss it. Also, he has the distinct feeling that that conversation would not be well received.

He’s never had a problem drawing the line between art and attraction. Even when he first met Ann and roped her into modeling for him, clothed or nude, he didn’t see her as anything but his project, his piece, his subject to bring to life on paper. Has that changed?

He doesn’t have the luxury of time to figure it out. His paintings are due too soon to stop and wade through whatever disobedient path his libido is taking.

--

“So how’s the painting going, Picasso?”

Yusuke is fairly certain Ryuji has no idea who Picasso actually is. As a matter of fact, Yusuke would bet the paltry amount of money in his wallet right now that Ryuji couldn’t pick Picasso out of a line-up, much less engage Yusuke in a meaningful discussion about the artistic integrity of Picasso’s Blue Period. Yusuke silences his words of derision with another bite of monjayaki.

Luckily, Ann voices his derision for him. “Do you even know who that is, Ryuji?” she says, folding her arms across her chest.

“Nah. But Yusuke knows enough about art for the both of us.” He turns back to Yusuke to repeat his question. “So, how’s it going?”

Yusuke sighs. The way Ryuji eats with his mouth open is so grotesque. Smack, smack, smack. It’s about as inelegant as his own work feels to him these days.

“Slower than I’d like,” he admits.

“What’s stoppin’ you?”

He shrugs. If he knew, he’d fix it. “It’s… a slump, I suppose.”

He hates the word slump. It implies such inactivity, such sloth. The moon—he prefers that analogy greatly. He’s merely waiting to be full again.

“Why don’t you just draw Ann naked?” Ryuji suggests. His eyebrows wiggle suggestively, and Yusuke is horribly reminded of what happened on the patio. He pushes that mortifying memory aside. “Scratch that off your bucket list if nothing else.”

“Ryuji!” Ann hisses. “Stop bringing that up!”

“What? You don’t want to help the guy?”

“I’ve already asked,” Yusuke says. “She declined.”

“Yeah, not too surprised to hear that.” Ryuji downs the last of his soft drink. “Gotta take a leak. Be right back.”

He shoves his way out from the table and heads for the bathrooms. The mood he leaves behind is strangely melancholy. Yusuke tracks the source of it back to how Ann’s picking half-heartedly at her food, cheek resting in her hand.

“Hey,” she says after Ryuji’s well out of earshot. “You know why it’s such a big deal for me, right?”

“Posing nude?”

“Yeah.” She doesn’t look at him. She looks firmly at her plate, at the napkin dispenser, at the couple one table away feeding each other bites of food. “You remember the first guy the Phantom Thieves took down? Before you joined us. Kamoshida.”

“Vaguely,” Yusuke says. “He was one of your teachers, correct?”

She nods. Just from her eyes, Yusuke can tell she’s being transported back to an unhappier moment. He knows the basics of the story, of why they targeted him: Ann’s friend was being victimized because of his repeated abuse, extending to nearly everyone under his volleyball training. The rest of the details are fuzzy; all Yusuke truly knows after that is that he deserved to have his heart stolen.

“He was,” she says. “But he also—it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t as bad as what happened to Shiho, but.” Her shoulders hunch in like that of a wounded bird, expression going glum. “He was always trying to get me to go with him. Always calling me, always touching me in the hallway between classes. Telling me I should wear less because I should be showing off my figure.”

She fiddles with the hair tie around her ponytail, little more than a nervous tick.

“You see where I’m going with this, right?” she asks, voice small. “All he ever saw me for was my body. Even his Cognitive version of me was just a dumb obedient sex doll. Everyone always sees my body first.”

Oh. Oh. Dread fills Yusuke like a faucet filling a sink.

“And you… think I’m the same,” he says slowly, the weight of the implication sitting heavily in his stomach.

Never once did he consider his art to be on par with the objectification of women, the sexualization of the innocent. He isn’t Kamoshida, and has no intention to become one, but to insist on a distinction Ann herself doesn’t feel would make him nothing short of an oppressor.

“It’s not that,” Ann says. “Not anymore, at least. Maybe when we first met.” She finally meets his gaze. “It’s just... something that I haven’t really gotten over yet. It’s not you.”

“Oh.” Perhaps that last bit is meant to make him feel better, but it doesn’t. Yusuke scrapes his nail along the edge of the table. “And there’s nothing I can do to help?”

He’s not surprised when Ann shakes her head. The Metaverse is gone, and with it, the ability to change hearts. Although, really, what would be the point in targeting an already changed Shadow?

Besides, Kamoshida’s gone by now. He’s paid for his crimes, wallowed in his great regret, and there’s little left to do now to make him repair what he broke. Not that Ann is broken or in need of repairs. But before Yusuke is a painter, an artist, he must be a friend. Besides, a Phantom Thief does not exploit the vulnerable. Their leader would never forgive him.

“All right,” he says, voice firm. “I won’t ask anymore.”

She seems almost surprised by his answer. “Oh,” she says. “Thanks.”

Ryuji struts his way back over from the bathroom then, wiggling into the booth. “What’d I miss?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Ann says very quickly.

“Right! We were talking about Ann being naked.” He grins. Or rather, leers. “What’s the plan now? Full-frontal, or maybe just partial?”

“I believe I can find other ways to capture Ann’s beauty,” Yusuke cuts in. “Besides, my slump may come to an end soon now that I’m staying with her.”

“...wait, what?”

“Yes, she’s been exceedingly generous.”

Ryuji leans forward on the table, eyes wide. “You’re living together?”

“We aren’t living together!” Ann says hotly. “He’s just staying with me. Temporarily.”

“For real? Damn. Didn’t even know you were that nice, Ann. Fuck, ow!” Ryuji pulls his leg up onto the booth to rub his shin. “Okay, I take it back. You’re freakin’ mean.”

“Can we just eat, please?” Ann says, diving into her plate with much more force than necessary. Yusuke doesn’t think that salad is going to put up much of a fight.

When he looks up from the lettuce savagery on Ann’s plate, he notices Ryuji shooting him a look. He tilts his eyebrows toward Ann. Widens his eyes. Adds in a few hand gestures that Yusuke can only guess are gang symbols. He squints.

“Is something the matter, Ryuji?”

Ann’s head whips back up. Ryuji straightens up like a boy caught doodling on a school desk. “Nah, nah,” he’s quick to say. “So how’s everyone’s food?”

--

After monjayaki, and after Ryuji heads to the gym to beef up before it closes for the night, Yusuke and Ann grab crepes and wander through Shibuya. The summer heat isn’t as stifling today, leaving behind lukewarm air and a soft breeze by the time sunset rolls around.

Yusuke isn’t huge on very sweet things. The crepe in his hand, although folded to perfection, wouldn’t have been his first post-dinner choice. (Porridge, really, is the perfect candidate for the job.) Ann, however, seems to contemplate getting a second.

“It’s just nice to have dessert, you know?” she says as she ends up standing in line again. This time, strawberries and fresh cream. Yusuke’s half-eaten chocolate crepe is still in hand, waiting to be finished. “Really makes dinner worth it.”

Yusuke’s usually grumbling stomach would say that dinner makes dinner worth it. Not that he’s been underfed lately. Ann is a big fan of snacks, snacks so expansive they morph into meals. Meals that Yusuke’s definitely going to miss when he moves out.

He finishes his crepe in time to watch as Ann’s eyes light up as she gets her second handed to her. That’s far too much cream to be even aesthetically pleasing; the crepe is bulging like an overstuffed pillowcase in Ann’s hand, begging to be relieved from its pancake casing. He makes a square lens of his fingers, focusing in on the ripeness of the strawberries peeking out the folds. They match Ann’s lip gloss.

“You see art in everything, don’t you?” Ann asks.

Yusuke lowers his hands. “Unintentionally, yes. It’s both a blessing and a curse.”

“Why a curse?”

Yusuke shakes his head. It’s something his art teacher at Kosei says to him sometimes: don’t forget to look with your eyes, not just your paintbrush. A reminder that all the world’s not a still life, and all the people in it not just subjects. That there exists more in each moment, each scene, than just the potential for art, but the potential for life too.

It’s a lesson he never would’ve learned had it not been for the Phantom Thieves. Before then, so much of life had only been for painting, and not living.

He looks over at Ann. She has a slight smear of whipped cream by her mouth. He reaches out, unthinking, to swipe it away. She watches his thumb with rapt eyes as he reaches for a napkin to clean up.

“I’m not always able to appreciate the simplicity of a moment,” he admits. “I’m too wrapped up in my passions.”

“Well. That’s better than having no passion at all, isn’t it?”

He supposes she has a point. They continue walking down Central Street, past the bookstore, past the music shop. The evening is starting to blanket the daylight, tinting the sky dark pink.

“Ann,” he says. “What’s your favorite work of art?”

“Me?” Ann lowers her crepe for a second. “Oh. Uh. I’m not really sure.”

“There must have been a painting you’ve seen that’s spoken to you at one point.”

She seems to think on the matter. Yusuke knows his education at Kosei is especially geared toward the fine arts, but surely Shujin offers at least a semi-adequate education? To leave out the great painters of history would be a crime.

She rolls her bottom lip into her mouth. “There’s one that comes to mind. I don’t know what it’s called, though.” She squints, recalling it to memory. Yusuke can imagine the shapes in her mind’s eye, the fantastic colors. “I saw it in a textbook. There’s a couple dancing. I remember her having this big red hat.”

“Is she wearing a white dress?”

“I think so. Do you know it?”

Dance at Bougival,” he murmurs. He’d recognize that description from a mile away. “It’s Renoir. I should’ve known. You do have an affinity for the French.”

He pulls his phone out to Google it, showing it to Ann.

“That’s it,” she says.

“What do you like about it?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. The feeling it gives me, I guess?” She scratches behind her ear. “It makes me want to dance too, you know?”

The power of Renoir. Will Yusuke’s paintings ever evoke such want in someone, such dreams?

He vaguely recalls studying Renoir’s works a few months ago for school. The man in Dance at Bougival was Renoir’s friend, and the enchanting young lady a popular model for artists of the era. Marie-Clementine Valadon, if Yusuke’s memory serves correct. She went on to become an accomplished painter herself.

Perhaps he ought to teach Ann how to paint?

Yusuke points out the curve of their figures. “Take note of their positions. What do you think he’s whispering to her?” he asks.

Ann hums. She slides closer to get a better view of Yusuke’s phone until they’re shoulder-to-shoulder, huddled over the painting. Yusuke takes it all in: the woman’s arm wrapped passionately around the man’s neck, the red bristles of his beard, the barest of hints of her slipper underneath her in-motion dress, the line of her eyes to the flower on the floor. Yusuke’s never cared too much for this painting before, but he’s examining it with new appreciation now, knowing that Ann likes it.

“I think he’s… telling her how much he likes her hat,” Ann says.

“Do you really?”

Ann gives a little laugh. The sound is sweet, just like the crepe. “I don’t know. What do you think he’s saying?”

Yusuke considers it, touching his mouth as he thinks. He looks into the eyes of the girl in the painting on his phone as if waiting for them to turn up at him. “I believe he’s telling her that he loves her.” He looks a bit longer. “Although… I’m not sure it’s something she wants to hear.”

“Only way to find out is to tell her, right?” Ann says.

When Yusuke slides his phone away, he finds Ann glancing at him. There’s something as inscrutable in her eyes as there was in the girl’s in the Renoir.

It should be easier, parsing emotions out of real life, out of three-dimensional people with thoughts and feelings and bodies not made of canvas, but Yusuke finds himself floundering. You aren’t allowed to stare as long at people as you are at paintings to riddle them out. You aren’t expected to spend hours deciphering what exists in the sublevels of their gazes, their glances.

Perhaps this is what’s always drawn him to paint Ann. The need to let himself study her, commit the details of her body language and facial expressions and daily life to memory. Do it in a way he understands, with paint and brushes.

What would it be like, to be the bearded man in the painting, frozen forever mid-twirl? And is Ann thinking about what it would be like to be the young woman in the hat?

“I suppose so,” he says. He doesn’t trust himself to say more.

He turns away from Ann; something in his chest is burning.

--

He lets the spirit of Renoir’s painting inspire him, and truly buckles down for the last seventy-two hours of his countdown. He all but locks himself into Kosei’s art room and forces himself to paint, paint, paint.

Time is ticking like a bomb on Yusuke’s shoulder. He has to work. He has to make these paintings work.

“You’re not eating paint in there for sustenance, are you?” his teacher asks during the fourth hour of his marathon painting. He has the gall to chuckle. “If only all students were as dedicated as you, Yusuke-kun…”

Yusuke huffs under his breath. If they all were, he’s fairly certain the school would combust like a popped balloon. This type of ragged dedication is born only of pressure, pressure that sounds like a whistling kettle in Yusuke’s head.

His teacher comes closer, stepping up behind Yusuke’s chair. “Hm,” he says, examining the painting. “Interesting use of saraffito.” He pauses. “Your subject… she looks familiar.”

Yusuke makes a dismissive noise. He doesn’t have time for this. He needs to get into the zone. “I’ve painted her before,” he says.

“Of course,” his teacher says knowingly. Knowing what, Yusuke doesn’t know. “It never takes long for young love to infiltrate an artist’s inspiration.”

“Hm,” Yusuke says. He’s still trying to find the rhythm of his concentration when the implication of his teacher’s words settle in. “Wait. Young love? Ann isn’t my... girlfriend. Just my muse.”

“It’s okay, Yusuke. Every artist’s been known to go a bit sweet around the brushes, if you catch my drift… not that you’d always notice it! Nobody would’ve thought back in those days that Woman on Couch was actually Manet’s mistress…”

He keeps talking. Rambling, more like it, lost in his own storytelling. Ryuji’s accused Yusuke of doing the same plenty of times before, so perhaps this is a common denominator for all artists. Yusuke tries to tune him out as he goes off into a tangent about painting

His teacher doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If only these paintings really did exude the volatile, all-consuming power of young love Yusuke’s been trying to capture. Each time it seems to just slip from his hand like grains of sand.

“...Edvard Munch used to plumb the depths of his love life for his work too, although his was more of a tragedy than a romantic comedy, as you no doubt know, Yusuke, although I imagine a young handsome man like you has no shortage of romantic encounters himself…”

What is it he’s missing? What about any of his multiple paintings hasn’t clicked into place? No matter the technique he uses, or the colors, or the brushes, the intensity is always lacking. The hook that every piece of art needs to inspire attention and conversation, not there.

He just has to keep working. Keep pushing, and eventually, the tap will flow. The tap has to flow. He looks over at the pile of scrapped paintings lying in an undignified heap by the feet of his easel, all of them failures. Sheer statistics would say that he has to hit gold eventually, but then again, statistics have no business in the mystique of art.

His teacher claps him on the shoulder, squeezing with encouragement. “But I won’t go on forever,” he says, although Yusuke doubts this. “Just try to empty your mind and let your brush lead the way, Yusuke. Keep up the good work!”

Empty your mind. That’s easy advice to give when not on the receiving end of it. Still, Yusuke won’t disrespect the wisdom of his teachers. He closes his eyes, only vaguely taking note of footsteps and his teacher shutting the door behind him to leave Yusuke alone with his thoughts and his paintings, like some sort of artist’s horror movie.

He tries to push his thoughts out and away, banish them from his stressed mind. Become one with his brush. He lets every invasive idea float aside, and what’s left behind is Ann. Her smile over a too-stuffed crepe. Her hand twined with his in between blades of green grass. Her trying to hide her tears from Yusuke as they sit on her couch watching the happy ending of a romantic movie. All these memories are pushing feelings forward, emotions Yusuke can not identify or name. He’s hoping he doesn’t have to name them—just paint them.

--

Twenty-four hours before the exhibition, after waking up slumped against his easel in Kosei’s art room, dazed and lost, Yusuke comes to a grim realization: none of his paintings of Ann are usable.

He lines them up, stares at them all. They’re colorful, yes, and different, yes, like a gang of ragtag children, but that’s it. They’re not special. They’re not the best he can do. They’re not Ann.

There’s something missing, something he can only grasp at, like a snowflake drifting out of reach.

He stacks the canvases together, mind reeling. He can’t present these, not to people, not to Kawanabe. And he’s certain not even Renoir, even Warhol, even Utamaro could throw together eight masterpieces in one measly day.

Yusuke’s been careless. Slapdash. Not an artist worth his salt, that’s for sure.

He’ll have to tell Kawanabe he failed to live up to his challenge. Later in Ann’s bathroom, brushing his teeth, he thinks about how to phrase this. Excuses pile up on his tongue, but Yusuke swallows them back, disgusted by their very presence. It would be a coward’s doing to hide behind lies now. The truth of the matter is that his talent has abandoned him like a child left motherless in a cart at a supermarket. What’s left is an empty man, hollow save for his own disappointment.

He stares at his dejected face in the mirror over the sink. What he sees is wretched, an ouroboros of despair. Would that he could stay in this bathroom for the remainder of the week. If not year.

His dignity keeps him from doing so, and when he emerges, Ann is sitting at the kitchen table, stirring a glass of ice tea. She looks up when Yusuke enters, and although he can only imagine that she takes immediate notice of his miserable expression, she doesn’t comment on it. Yusuke listens to the clink of her spoon against the glass, the sounds lacking rhythm. He can’t bring himself to sit down, not in this moment of utter defeat.

“So,” she finally says after a few moments of silence. “The exhibition is tomorrow, right?”

Yusuke swallows. “It is.”

“...do you have your paintings ready?”

He shakes his head. “I’m afraid… I have not succeeded.” He would elaborate if he didn’t feel so completely wrung out, like an old dish rag. He is the old dish rag of humanity, incapable of creating so much as an adequate portrait of a beautiful woman. They would have skinned him alive during the Renaissance. “None of them are right. They’re all mistakes—failures.”

He finally drops into a chair opposite Ann. She’s stopped stirring her tea. As a matter of fact, she looks nearly as downtrodden as him, like a woman surrendering. “Yusuke… I think it’s pretty obvious what the problem is.”

He blinks. “It is?”

She pauses. He can see the swallow move through her neck. “It’s me. I just don’t inspire you.”

Yusuke vigorously shakes his head. “No. On the contrary—”

“I don’t. Otherwise all those paintings would’ve worked out. I mean, it’s been one attempt after another. It’s obviously me.”

“Ann, I can assure you...”

“Can you think of a better reason?”

He can’t think of a reason at all. It all should have been right—the girl, the place, the time. The far more logical conclusion is that he’s the issue, but Ann doesn’t seem interested in hearing rebuttals. She’s getting to her feet, eyes downcast.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Maybe someone else would’ve been better, and you would’ve gotten your paintings done.”

He wants to say words, but they’re not quite coming to him. They sit in his throat, not sure how to be expressed.

“I’m sorry,” she says again. She sounds like she genuinely believes she’s at fault here, which only makes it all the worse.

She pushes her chair in, all but running from the kitchen. Distantly, Yusuke hears her bedroom door closing.

She doesn’t come out for the entirety of the evening. Yusuke sits in the living room, on the couch he’s been camping out on, feeling like a delivery that’s been sent to the wrong address, horribly out of place. He considers approaching her door, gently knocking, perhaps speaking to her through it, but thinks the better of it. If she wanted to talk to him, she would come out. She doesn’t.

He’s never been the best at picking up social cues, but this one feels painstakingly obvious to him, settling in his gut like cold stones. He’s unwanted here now, which, considering their agreement, makes sense. He wasn’t supposed to overstay the amount of time it would take him to prepare for the exhibition. The exhibition is nothing but a cruel shadow hanging over Yusuke’s head by now, certainly nothing to look forward to.

He packs up his things. He’ll apologize for leaving without a word later.

--

“Oh, Yusuke,” Haru cries when Yusuke shows up on her door. Or rather, when he makes it through the security gate and the camera checkpoints. “What happened?”

It’s almost a shame it isn’t raining, Yusuke thinks as he hauls his things inside Haru’s home. It would certainly complete the image of a ravaged, demoralized soul wandering about in misery. If only there was a moor nearby. His passion has forsaken him, and he still hasn’t found a way to break the news to Kawanabe, much less how to lift the burden of blame from Ann’s shoulders.

Haru hurries to make him a cup of coffee after he sets down his belongings. His shoulders are aching. A collection of canvases isn’t particularly heavy, but it is a bit unwieldy, especially when faced with a packed train and plenty of shoes eager to kick aside things taking up room. Looking back, Yusuke should’ve let them be trampled. It would’ve been a mercy.

He moodily drinks his coffee while Haru coaxes the story out of him and tries to console him with soft pats to the knee.

“She’s probably just upset with herself,” she reasons when Yusuke tells her of Ann’s reaction. “Maybe wait a little bit. Let her realize she’s not to blame.”

“Of course she’s not,” Yusuke says. The very idea is absurd. Ann is the backbone of everything he creates, the seed of inspiration that was his responsibility to nurture into a blooming flower. “I’m the failure. The dud, the deadbeat of the art world. Cut down long before I could make a difference with my brushstrokes.”

The tragedy of the situation is seeping into him. If Ann was here, she would be telling him off for being dramatic. Haru only pets his shoulder like she’s attempting to soothe an agitated cat.

“Don’t say that,” Haru beseeches. “Perhaps you’re just being too critical. Your paintings are probably lovely.”

“They’re not,” Yusuke groans.

“Are you sure? They always say an artist is his own worst critic!”

“Perhaps. But this time, the critique is well-founded.”

Yusuke stares, zombie-like, into the distance. He’s not sure how he’s managed to disappoint so many people—Kawanabe, himself, Ann. How could he possibly explain to her that she’s not where the onus of fault belongs, not when she is so infallibly lovely, striking, fairy-like in her mystical wonder.

“You just need some sleep,” Haru says, gingerly prying the coffee cup from his hand. “Things will look much better tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s the exhibition,” Yusuke moans.

“Things will look better,” she says again, although with slightly less confidence.

He nods along, too tired to explain why she’s so indubitably wrong. If anything, things will probably look worse. A better man, a less treaded-upon man, would stay up all night willing his brush to work, for the creativity to flow, like awaiting the break of a dam, but Yusuke’s motivation has been completely drained out of him, leaving nothing but a shell of a boy behind.

“Are these them?” Haru asks.

Yusuke glances over to see her sorting through his canvases. Surely there’s a fireplace somewhere in the dozens of rooms of the Okumura mansion; they can be used as kindling.

“Horrible, aren’t they?” Yusuke says, laughing without mirth. He gets up, that idea of going to bed sounding more and more appealing. The sooner today—and tomorrow—is done, the better.

“No… Yusuke, look at this one! It’s spectacular!”

She begins hefting a huge portrait out from the pile to admire it. Her awe seems earnest enough, but Yusuke can’t bring himself to feel little more than bitterness for the painting she turns his way.

It’s wrong. They’re all wrong.

“I believe the plan of going to bed has some worth to it,” he murmurs.

He lets Haru squeeze him in a show of support, tucks himself into the microfiber silk sheets, and tries to fall into a fitful sleep. Ann’s scent is missing when he tries to breathe it in.

--

Yusuke awakens to a gray ceiling that fits his mood and state of mind perfectly. Not Ann’s apartment. Not Ann’s couch. Somehow, this huge bed and its Okumura-approved mattress are not as cozy as Ann’s sofa and her mismatched pillows.

He lays in bed for a few self-deprecating minutes, willing the pillows to swallow his sorrowful excuse of an artist’s soul. At no point does the situation seem to brighten, the outlook to soften. To make matters worse, the kitchen is empty when Yusuke finally peels himself out of the sheets. Haru’s nowhere to be found. She hasn’t even left coffee in a carafe for him, on this most deplorable of days.

Yusuke supposes it’s fitting, really.

The trip to the exhibition is miserly. It’s only his integrity that brings him there, although a very real part of him—the coward—wishes he could break the news to Kawanabe later, perhaps over the phone, or through a letter of apology. Doing it in person at the very exhibition he was supposed to supply amazing art for will be a shameful experience at best.

Yusuke can already imagine the empty room, meant to be full of his work, but instead: stark empty, vacant frames, no art to share. He feels quite berated even without yet being told off.

The train to the museum rocks back and forth. Clack-clack, clack-clack, go the tracks. They might as well have lyrics to go with them: not enough, not enough. He needs to do better, given he ever gets the opportunity again.

And Ann. He doesn’t know where to begin. His head is a swamp of cotton whenever he tries to find a spot to start, whorls of dizzying emotion clouding his judgment and reason. Is he meant to apologize? To allow her time to cool down? To express to her again, and again, how utterly captivating she is?

At this point, she may not believe him, and it’s possibly his fault.

The museum’s lobby is packed with milling crowds when Yusuke arrives, all waiting for a ticket. Dread fills his stomach. What will they all think of his empty section, of the blank walls, the missing art? He feels his throat work, reluctant, as he swallows.

“Ah, Kitagawa-san,” says one of the museum employees, whisking him away from the long line. “We’ve been waiting for you. Right this way.”

The fact that they’ve been awaiting him makes him feel, if at all possible, much worse. He’s lead through a shortcut that bypasses the ticket entrance, bringing him straight to the halls of art.

He just needs to find Kawanabe and explain—or apologize, rather. Yusuke hastens through some of the exhibits looking for him, but finds many of the areas sparse with passersby until he reaches a decently-packed room. Yusuke stops, frozen, when he gets a glimpse of just where he is.

A poster has been propped up in the doorway, reading YOUNG ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: YUSUKE KITAGAWA. And the walls—they’re full of paintings. His paintings. His paintings of Ann, his failed works, his disasters.

Yusuke’s heart thuds in his chest. How did this happen?

He spies Kawanabe near the wall to his left, examining the painting he did of Ann at the park. He’s not the only one—the room is full of people chattering away about his art, praising it, admiring it, discussing the nuances of the brushstrokes. Yusuke all but rushes over to Kawanabe in his blind panic.

“Kawanabe-san,” Yusuke cries. “Please—let me explain this.”

Unprofessional—inexcusable. That’s what Madarame would say. All those times he scolded Yusuke for taking too long with his paintings, for not delivering work that was truly museum-worthy—they ring through Yusuke’s ears like asps carrying a foul memory, hissing, biting.

And then Kawanabe turns to him, clapping a hand to Yusuke’s shoulder. “I wasn’t sure you were ready,” he says, a smile appearing, “but you proved to me, whole-heartedly, that you are a real artist.”

What?

“How can this be?” Yusuke mutters, beside himself.

“I was impressed by your last work, obviously, but I was a tad worried you couldn’t rise to the challenge of an entire solo collection. But each painting here… multi-faceted, spiritually three-dimensional, alive. They’re something special. You don’t lack experience or heart as I thought you might in your young age, my boy.”

What?

The words roll out of Yusuke’s mind like tumbling marbles. This couldn’t—it simply can’t be right—how could all these works, all these failed pieces match up to Kawanabe’s standards? And not just him, but the dozens of people here, all observing his art, smiling at it, frowning at it, pointing at it, feeling emotions because of it.

He looks at the little name placard underneath one of the canvas. Yusuke Kitagawa it reads in finely carved Times New Roman. And they’re all like that—every single one in this room, all his. Not Madarame’s.

Something is in his throat; it may be his heart.

“I—you must know,” Yusuke admits in spite of himself. “I wasn’t sure about these paintings. I found them incomplete.” Then again, when is an artist’s work ever complete? He turns to Kawanabe, hopeful. “May I ask what you liked about them?”

“Certainly,” he says. “The techniques are superb. The skill is more than evident. And more than anything else, I can feel the motivation.”

“The… motivation?”

“Yes.” Kawanabe gives him a special, private little smile. “These sorts of paintings only come from one place, one specific place, deep inside the fickle heart.”

“But…” Descriptions of his own inadequacy escape Yusuke as he tries to explain. “I failed to capture her beauty.”

“Beauty?” Kawanabe huffs. “What of it? Art doesn’t need it. As a matter of fact, art has had enough of beauty. What art needs is emotion. And these here have it.”

“You think?” Yusuke says, half-terrified. He’s too afraid to ask what emotions Kawanabe sees.

He tells Yusuke anyway. “Everyone in this room here can feel it. The reverence. The respect, the admiration. The love.” Another gentle, knowing smile graces his face, but he spares Yusuke the embarrassment of eye contact as he adds, “This is what happens when the artist falls for his subject. Only one smitten with his muse could have ever grabbed her spirit like this.”

When the artist—

“I don’t understand,” Yusuke says. The words fumble over his tongue as he tries to find them. “The woman in the paintings—she’s not—I’m not—she was just my inspiration.”

Kawanabe waves him off. “Don’t worry—it’s nice to see. Love and art have always gone hand-in-hand. They are truly the best combination in the world of creativity.”

He sighs, pleased with the splendor of the room, if not his interpretation of the art inside it. Yusuke is at a loss for words. He looks at his own artwork with fresh eyes, as if it is being made new in front of him, at every curve of Ann’s collarbone and every color of her creamy wrists, at the eyes he had previously thought empty, motionless, a mockery of the real thing.

Is this what he was missing? What he thought each painting was without? The artist’s awareness of his own affections?

Love and art. Are they together here? Did he not realize earlier?

“Like Apelles and Campaspe,” Kawanabe says, appreciative. He reaches out for a parting handshake, then tucks a business card inside Yusuke’s palm as he pulls away, the movement too slick to even be registered in time. “In case you don’t have it yet,” he says. “Feel free to call me at any time. We can discuss your future—no games this time around, I promise.”

Yusuke can barely find his voice through his surprise. “Thank you, Kawanabe-san.”

He nods, then wanders aside to chat with an acquaintance, leaving Yusuke to stand, starry-eyed, awed, at what exactly just happened.

Apelles and Campaspe. The painter who was granted Alexander the Great’s favorite mistress upon falling in love with her after painting her nude. The message that those whose love is inspired by beauty are the most worthy of their love being returned.

Is Ann his Campaspe? Has she been all this time?

Haru rounding the corner and hurrying up to Yusuke breaks him out of his train of thought. Underneath her proud smile is a hint of sheepish guilt.

“Oh, Yusuke,” Haru says, touching his arm. “They’re all so beautiful, just like I knew they would be.”

“Haru,” he says. There’s a bruising confusion fogging his brain, one that’s in disbelief at his own ignorance, but it’s starting to clear up. “I believe… I may be in love with Ann.”

Did he just proclaim that out loud? Did his own tongue say the words?

Haru seems as shocked as Yusuke, her eyes wide. “Oh!” she squeaks out after a moment’s processing. “That—that’s incredible, Yusuke!”

“Is it? I’m completely lost as to what I’m meant to do next.”

“Well, telling her would be a good start,” Haru says. “And show her these paintings! She would be amazed!”

An hour ago, the very idea would have been laughable. Now—no, it is still laughable. If the paintings speak his intentions as clearly as Kawanabe thinks they do, if it is so easy to read his affection off of them, it would be unwise to have Ann see them, not yet. The possibility of it all going wrong sits heavy in the air.

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “That would surely be a mistake.”

Haru’s mood takes an abrupt dip from cheerily encouraging to sternly demanding, in the same way a mother’s would. Yusuke feels the color drain from his face as she stomps her foot in front of him. “You have to tell her! It would be an insult for you to leave her in the dark after all this! She deserves to know, just as you deserve to be happy!”

“Be happy,” Yusuke repeats. Something flutters inside his ribcage. Ann—of course she is his ticket to just that, and more. Color and wonder and facets of the human experience he could only ever marvel at from a distance before. “Of course,” he murmurs. “You’re right, Haru. A true artist would never run from the source of his inspiration, no matter what awaits him as a repercussion.”

Haru’s face lights up again. “That’s the spirit!”

Yusuke fumbles for his phone. “I’ll ask her to come. To see the splendor—the fruits of her modeling labor.”

“That’s, uh. Not quite necessary.”

“Hm?”

“I, well. I already texted everyone earlier to come see your work,” Haru admits. She worries her bottom lip. How she can go from ferocious mother to apprehensive girl is a truly daunting transformation. “And… I believe she’s already here.”

“She is? How do you know?”

“She’s right over there.”

Yusuke whips around. There is, indeed, Ann: she’s standing in front of one of the paintings of her, the one Yusuke made that first day in her home. She hasn’t noticed him yet, but he’s noticed her. The quiet awe in her expression. It reminds him of the time she complimented the artwork at Madarame’s exhibition, the one that was truly his. This time, his stomach doesn’t twist unpleasantly at having to lie. Instead, it draws itself up into his throat, speeding up his heartbeat.

“Ann,” he calls out, hastening to approach her. He thinks of the day he went running after her in the train station, desperate to reach her in time; he feels that same urgency now. “You’re here.”

“Uh, yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?” Ann says. “Although—these paintings—I thought you didn’t want to submit them.”

“I didn’t.” He glances at the painting in front of Ann again. Next to him, a couple is murmuring about it: notice the gigantic blue slash, used by the artist to convey that his sorrow is keeping him from her. Yusuke swallows. It truly does seem to be obvious to everyone, save himself. “Do you like them?”

“Do I like them?” Ann scoffs. “Yusuke, they’re amazing. I don’t know why you didn’t want to show them to me before.”

“I—didn’t think they were worthy.”

His explanation doesn’t seem to explain much to her. She looks around the room, incredulous, folding her arms across her chest. “Well, then I’m glad you changed your mind.” A softness touches her. “I… like the way you painted me. The way you see me.”

“What a silly thing to say,” Yusuke mutters. “I guarantee you the rest of the world sees you the same way, if not better. Almost too beautiful to properly capture in art itself. Art can all too often be lifeless, stale, but you…”

He trails off. He feels he could wax poetic about Ann’s beauty for hours, internal and external, but there may just be an easier way to do this. Haru flashes him two eager thumbs up from a few feet away.

“I love you,” he says—or rather, the words tumble out like spilled marbles. Ann’s eyes double in size, but he continues; the marbles are already in motion. “It seems so obvious now—I have been in love all this time, and it is of little surprise. You have brought to my work something it has never possessed before, and myself as well. I am but a humble artist, who has nothing to yield but his brush, but I have been using it all this while to tell you the truth, to send a message—that I love you. Overwhelmingly.”

Usually, by now, someone—typically Ryuji—has interrupted his monologue, but this time, his words stand unopposed. Ann stares, mouth open, captured by her own surprise.

“W-what?” she says, voice nearly missing.

Should he repeat it again? Should he keep talking? He’s too out of his element to know.

“Are you serious?” Ann asks.

“Direly.”

He realizes he ought to give Ann a chance to process, even if he’d really rather have a straight answer right away. Not that he’s even asked a question. His insides are burning. His skin is on fire with the preemptive heat of rejection. Yusuke looks around at the room again, at all the oblivious people enjoying the collection, a collection he made for Ann without meaning to.

“And you’re sure?” Ann persists.

“I am.”

He’s starting to worry about that expression on Ann’s face. The surprise is fading, but he can’t figure out what’s replaced it. Yusuke wants to turn around, to see anything else, but he holds fast. The artist wouldn’t cower. The artist must own his work, his feelings, his desires.

The artist must also remember that the woman he is madly in love with is his friend, who may need some time.

“Ann,” he says, taking a hesitant forward. “If I have—”

She doesn’t let him finish. She pitches herself forward until her nose is buried in his chest, her hands curled around his sides, pulling the fabric of his shirt into fists. He’s too bewildered to do much but blink the first few seconds, but eventually, he catches on and wraps his arms around her. The height difference is oddly endearing.

“Don’t say anything,” she says, firmly, the words muffled into his chest. “I can’t believe you said all that in front of all these people.”

“I… don’t think anyone was listening,” Yusuke says mildly.

“This is so embarrassing,” she says, but her hands are digging hard into Yusuke’s sides, like she’s worried he’ll retreat. “Did you seriously mean all of that?”

“You think I’d lie about such a thing?”

“No, but—it’s just. Hard to believe.”

“Hard to believe that I’m absolutely enamored by you?”

“Shut up!” she says. Yusuke can’t help but smile; he can practically feel how warm her cheeks are against his chest. From this angle, he can smell her shampoo, can rest his chin atop her soft hair, and is more than tempted to do so.

Is this what a rejection is? He’s finding it difficult to find proof that it is.

“Wooooooo!” comes a familiar voice from the other side of the room. Ryuji is approaching, clapping like he’s at a baseball game and is trying to be noticed by the big screen. “Man, you did it. These paintings are sick, dude.”

Ann jerks away as Ryuji comes close and ruffles Yusuke’s hair out of place. Yusuke really wishes he wouldn’t have, and not just because his hair was quite nicely combed beforehand. Ryuji slings an arm around his shoulder, and in the wake of his loud praise, Makoto and Futaba approach as well.

“Not bad, Inari,” Futaba says. Her phone isn’t out, which Yusuke takes as a compliment in of itself. “Although I kinda feel like Ann did most of the work.”

“You’re not wrong,” Yusuke says.

“Oh, stop it,” Ann says. She bumps her shoulder into Yusuke’s, staying close afterward.

Makoto watches the interaction with the observational gaze of a principal, seemingly pleased. “How about we all go to Ginza and get some sushi to celebrate Yusuke’s exhibition?”

“It was hardly my exhibition,” Yusuke hurries to say. “I was just one of many featured—”

“Come on, man, now’s not the time to be modest,” Ryuji says. “Besides, any excuse to go get sushi is fine by me.”

“Yeah!” Futaba says. “And we’ll send pictures to Akira to show to Mona. He’s gonna get soooo jealous of the sushi.”

They all make for the exit, Ryuji already loudly declaring what sushi he’ll be ordering, with Makoto reminding everyone to stay in budget. At the rear of the group, Ann nudges her wrist into Yusuke’s. The gaze she turns on him is soft, private. It sends a zap through Yusuke’s chest, followed by an urge to grab a paintbrush once again.

He hasn’t finished painting her. Not by a long shot.

“Hey,” she says, quietly enough to not be overheard. “I’m proud of you.”

“That’s…” Yusuke smooths down the hair Ryuji disrupted. The back of his neck is getting oddly warm. “I’m happy to hear that.”

Her hand slips into his, so fast that he can only imagine she had to work up the nerve to do so. It reminds him of the afternoon they sat at the park under the tree, the air warm, the river whispering, the feeling of Ann’s lips on his.

He laces their fingers together properly.

--

Sushi ends up being an all-evening event. They haven’t really gone all out like this since Akira left Tokyo, and the sushi is—somehow—even better than they all remembered.

Halfway through dinner, Futaba in a heated argument with Ryuji over her sneaking sushi off his plate, Makoto gets to her feet and raises her glass.

“If I could have all of your attention for a moment,” she says. “I think Yusuke deserves a toast after his successful exhibition.”

The table collectively lifts their glasses. Yusuke is rendered speechless—he’s never been lauded quite like this for his art before, not even at school, and certainly not by Madarame. Art is an ever-evolving challenge, a form of expression that will never be truly finished, and to have it be so earnestly praised leaves him numb, dazed.

Makoto smooths her skirt down before she starts speaking. “We’re all very happy you found your passion, and that we all found you. You’re a valuable friend to all of us,” she says.

“I bet Ann agrees the most, eh?” Ryuji stage-whispers to Haru. “Ow!”

“Anyway,” Makoto says, strengthening her voice. “To Yusuke!”

“To Yusuke!” the table choruses.

The strings of Yusuke’s heart go tight. A few years ago, trapped in the dark, dilapidated walls of Madarame’s home, he never could’ve dreamed up such a scenario, such a life. Friends, food, laughter, art, life, romance, all coexisting together. Madarame taught him only one passion could thrive at once, that only one talent could afford to be fed. He was wrong.

And love is here, too. The missing arrow in his artistic quiver, the missing experience in an arsenal of emotions. One person is responsible, and Yusuke feels his heart swell with the gratitude. To put it into words would surely not be enough.

Haru ends up covering the bill after protests from Ann and Makoto go dismissed, after which everyone takes turns congratulating Yusuke before getting ready to head home. Haru gives Yusuke a particularly tight hug.

“I’m just so glad you’re not mad,” she squeaks.

“Hm? Why would I be mad?”

“Oh! Never mind.” She busies herself fiddling with her zipper and smoothing her hair over her blushing cheeks.

Her strange behavior sets off a lightbulb in Yusuke’s brain. Something occurs to him.

“By the way,” he says slowly. “You wouldn’t know anything about how my paintings came to be at the exhibition, would you?”

“Oh.” Haru goes even pinker than before, cheeks the same shade as her jacket. She fidgets with a lock of hair, looking aside. “I may have had something to do with it.” At Yusuke’s gasp, she hurries to explain. “I knew they had to be part of the exhibition! They were so special, even if you didn’t believe it. I had to make sure they would be submitted in time.”

“You took them to the museum for me?”

She straightens up. “Yes! And I’d do it again! You wouldn’t have done it yourself, and if nothing else, Ann deserved to see your work!”

“I’ll concede on that count,” Yusuke admits. “Although I don’t condone the sneaking around.”

“It was for a good cause,” Haru insists. “I’ll apologize if you really want me to, but—” She stops, looking over to where Ann’s packing up the leftover sushi in a take-out box. Haru giggles, pleased. “I don’t think you do, all things considered.”

“All things considered?”

Before Haru can respond, Ann is tapping Yusuke on his shoulder. She leans in a few inches.

“Hey,” Ann says, voice low. “Can you come back with me to my place?”

“Your place?”

She nods. “I’d like to talk to you.” She looks furtively around, as if expecting Ryuji to be eavesdropping over her shoulder. As if on cue, Haru starts rustling the rest of them up, distracting them with strategically loud talk of exotic coffee over at Wilton. “About… stuff.”

Stuff. Yusuke’s up for that.

“Of course,” he says.

--

Ann’s apartment is exactly as it was yesterday when Yusuke fled the premises, but Ann herself is acting completely different. Nervous, Yusuke decides is the right word. She keeps fiddling with loose strands of hair, reclipping her barrette over and over, taking a painstaking amount of time to turn lamps on.

Yusuke finds his usual spot on the couch. He’s not sure when that happened, a usual spot, but Ann still gives him a long, unreadable look as he gets comfortable.

“If this is about me taking off yesterday, I apologize,” Yusuke says after he’s slid off his shoes.

“It’s not,” Ann says quickly. “I wanted to ask about… what you said.” Back to the hair fiddling. “Did you mean it?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“At the museum,” she explains. “What you said to me.” She looks as if saying the words aloud will physically pain her.

“Oh.” If Yusuke was hesitant to admit it before, he isn’t anymore. The cat is out of the bag, so to say. The confession is out there, and he sees little point in taking it back, even if Ann wishes he would. He’s not sure yet, what it is she wants—the hand-holding points to one option, but he has yet to hear her return the words. “Yes, I meant it. That would be a horrible thing to joke about.”

She huffs. “You’re telling me.”

“You believed me to be bluffing?”

Ann takes a seat in the armchair, legs tucked closely together. “No. I just—wasn’t sure.” She glances at Yusuke again—that same deep, unswerving stare. “I love you too.”

She says it so quickly, so casually, Yusuke nearly misses it. He blinks, trying to mentally rewind. Did he hear that correctly?

Ann shoots to her feet. “Wait here.”

She all but runs to her room. It feels as if an eternity passes before she reveals herself once again, leaving Yusuke with nothing but his own thrumming adrenaline. When did that get there? Did her confession bubble it to the surface? There’s something very surreal about someone telling him they love him.

Although there’s something even more surreal about seeing Ann, clad in nothing but a silk bathrobe, in the doorway.

Yusuke blinks. The mirage doesn’t fade. Was something untrustworthy in that sushi? He blinks again.

“I want you to do it,” Ann says. There’s an intense determination in her eyes. “I want you to paint me. Naked.”

“Oh.” Yusuke’s can feel his blood pressure spiking. When the hallucination still doesn’t flicker away, he lets himself look properly: the thin fabric slung over Ann’s shoulders, the loose knot around her waist, the exposed V of skin down her chest. The situation hits him like a brick to the face.

“Well?” Ann says. She seems annoyed by his lack of a response, legs shifting. “Do you want to or not?”

Yusuke jumps to his feet. After their conversation over monjayaki, he had closed the possibility off, but if Ann is offering—

“Ann,” he says, remembering all too well the sourness of why she hadn’t wanted to before. “Are you quite certain? I thought—”

“It’s okay,” she interrupts. “I trust you.”

“Oh.” His vocabulary doesn’t seem to extend much further than that today. He watches as she turns a few lights off, leaving the room dim, hazy. Yusuke feels like a man at sea, merely bobbing along with his own panicked nausea. Canvases—brushes—does he even have any here?

His extras might still be around. He brought little less than an army’s worth of supplies when he came to live with her, and he might be able to find some spare tools in that stack. Not his best paints, certainly not his biggest canvases, but now is hardly the time to be finicky about details.

“Stay there,” he says, frenzied, and runs off to locate what he needs.

Ann is sitting on the armchair when he returns, everything necessary scooped up into his arms. The dusky lamplight she’s bathed in is already stirring Yusuke’s imagination. The shine of it—of her—is nearly biblical in proportions. He grabs his brushes with shaking fingers.

“Are you sure?” he feels the need to ask again.

She nods. Her words—that she trusts him—ring in Yusuke’s ears like a song. He watches, bewitched, as she slides the bathrobe off her shoulders.

And down. And down. And down.

It drops to the floor, a pool of silk by her feet. She isn’t looking at him, not at first, but after a few moments of silence, of hypnosis, she turns to him.

“Don’t just stare, dummy!”

Right. Art. Art. How did Yusuke ever intend to concentrate through this? He forces himself to redirect his focus to the blank canvas in front of him, but it’s not the canvas that’s beckoning him, it’s Ann. Her light, her body, her godlike skin. She was meant to be etched in art, immortalized in marble, sketched and sculpted and molded into creations of stone and pastels, but right now, Yusuke doesn’t know where to start. Her bare arms, the angle of her knees? Her milky thighs, the arch of her back as she sits? The fullness of her chest, the shadows on her stomach?

He mixes the paints, looking for the right hue for her skin-tone in this low light. He’d be doing a better job of it if he could focus properly, but he keeps looking up, distracted, bespelled by the blush on Ann’s cheeks. What witchcraft this must be—what sorcery

He holds his paintbrush, smeared with the porcelain shade of her pale skin, like a disillusioned man with his sword. For the first time, its purpose feels oddly secondary.

“What is it?” Ann asks, hesitant, when she picks up on Yusuke’s inactivity. Her hands are nervous where they’re laying in her lap.

“I…” He comes to the source of the matter slowly. “I don’t want to paint you right now.” He watches her eyes widen, just barely. “I’d much rather touch you.”

“Seriously?”

“If that makes you uncomfortable—”

“Get over here,” Ann cuts in.

He drops his brush, hurrying to stand. He steps closer, but he flounders, all too aware of his own inexperience. He’s never sought out such things before, never even had an interest, but now that he’s faced with them, he’s unsure. Will instinct alone guide him?

“I’ve never,” he starts to disclose, but Ann shushes him, playing a finger over his moving mouth.

“I kinda figured,” she says. “But it’s okay. I haven’t either.” She pulls him close enough that he’s kneeling by the armchair, in close proximity of so much, her hands winding into his hair. She’s still pink with embarrassment—or is it perhaps something else? “Just start by kissing me, okay?”

That he can do. He licks his lips, remembering the sensation of the last time they kissed. That same sun’s warmth spreads over him now, tingling, and it grows hotter as he leans in to kiss her. She makes a noise—something soft, contented—and Yusuke finds himself writing odes to her body, the sounds it creates, colors and shapes and sonnets all at once bursting forth. He wraps his arms around her, delirious with the feeling of her smooth skin, of the curves of her bare spine under his fingertips, playing over her vertebrae like piano keys.

She is everything. If Van Gogh was alive now—if Da Vinci was, Matisse, Michelangelo, Vermeer—they would all be queueing up for a single glance at her eyes, her smile, and Yusuke has it here and now all to himself. Spoiled, that’s what he is.

Ann sinks down off the armchair and to the floor until she’s in his lap, breaking the kiss only to breathe. It’s a good idea, breathing, and Yusuke’s glad one of them has the presence of mind to do it. He kisses her again after a fast inhale, addicted to the feel of her mouth against his, leaning in closer to taste her.

His hands find her hips, like grounding points. His approach is sloppy, too impassioned, but he can’t muster up the desire to slow down, to dilute his enthusiasm for the sake of precision. Sex is like art, meant for coloring outside the lines and experimenting with wild techniques and letting the pull of his intuition lead him. He lets himself dream of painting on Ann’s skin as his mouth explores her neck, her jugular, the bones of her clavicle, where he’d go soft and feathery with the brush, and where he’d press hard and firm with the bristles. Where the colors would swirl and meet with one another, where the strokes would coalesce. How it would be to watch the paint drip off of her in the shower later.

He lets his mouth travel lower, tasting, licking, discovering. He doesn’t even realize he’s murmuring artistic praise into her skin until Ann’s tapping him on the scalp.

“Hey,” she warns. “Don’t go into one of your weird artist trance thingies right now.”

He lets one long finger trail over the curve of her breast, the cage of her ribs on her side. The way her body trembles into his touch is fascinating.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he promises. “I have other things at hand at the moment.”

To demonstrate, he cups her breasts, marveling at the reaction: Ann’s hips jolt, her mouth falling open in a tiny little gasp. He tightens his grip into a gentle squeeze, thumbs stroking over her pebbling nipples. He’s glad she’s already free of all clothing—stopping to remove all of it would be quite an inconvenience—leaving her as an uncharted map, begging to be wandered. His mouth drifts lower still, tongue flickering over the heaving plane between her breasts.

He’s still admiring the glorious access of her nudity when her hand fists into Yusuke’s button-down, displeased. “It’s not fair,” she says. She sounds a little out of breath, and Yusuke feels a thrill spin him. “If I’m gonna be naked, you better be too.”

If that’s all it would’ve taken all those months ago to get her to pose nude for him—a quid pro quo, so to say—he would’ve stripped down that first day in Madarame’s shack. “Very well,” he says.

He unbuttons his shirt, dropping it on the floor, while Ann unbuckles his belt. Her hands are shaking, just barely, but it reminds him of something nonetheless. He blankets her hand in his own.

“If you’re uncomfortable,” he starts, remembering Kamoshida, remembering the lost look in her eye when she told him about it all.

She shakes her head before he can continue. “I’m not,” she promises him. The conviction in her tone is firm enough to assuage him. “All that other stuff—that was different. This is you.”

He blinks. “It is me,” he says.

“I know.”

He kisses her again; it feels impossible to not. Yusuke doesn’t do anything by halves—he dives into everything without abandon, driven by obsession and ardor and accomplishment. He’s never been able to deny himself his art, driven mad by the very idea of doing it, and not doing it, and he imagines Ann will be the same for him, something he’ll crave and desire with the dedication of a man on a mission.

She crawls off of him long enough to let him shuck off his pants. He’s never been naked in front of anyone before, but if shame is meant to come, it doesn’t reach him. He feels like the other half of a Renaissance painting, Ann the rest, their bodies an ode to the affectionate human form.

He presses her into the carpet, laying her out underneath him, when he kisses her again. Her breathing’s gone slightly ragged, body arching up into his, pushing her warmth upward into him. Her chest against his, her fingernails pressing into his sides, her breath hot in his mouth, is a dizzying experience, although Yusuke doesn’t feel in danger of exploding into fireworks until she reaches down and tentatively touches his newly exposed length, stroking him.

Pinwheels of colors—blasts of brushstrokes—yes

“This okay?” Ann whispers.

“Overwhelmingly okay,” he rasps, eyes fluttering shut. “Ann—”

His hips stutter, pushing upward into her grip. Amazing how even he himself isn’t above the desires of man, like he always thought he was for the sake of art. Art! All the artwork in the world feels trivial now, as it could never hope to capture the ecstasy between them, the crackling electricity, the volcanic passion. Ann’s hands are warm on his body, stroking, coaxing, torturing.

He won’t let himself be selfish, though. He wants to return the favor, leave Ann gasping and writhing by his own hand. It’s an urge he’s never had before, but now that he has Ann beneath him, a vision in her own right, he’s consumed by it. He returns his attention to her chest while she teases her fingers around the head of his cock, Yusuke licking, sucking, testing what makes her tense with unexpected pleasure the most. She isn’t one to be upstaged, however, her handiwork tightening, speeding up.

It’s too much. It’s much too much, especially for someone like Yusuke, who has gone untouched for seventeen years and isn’t prepared to last.

“A-Ann—”

He can’t stop the rolling in his midsection, the groan ripped from his throat, the fluttering of his muscles as he comes. It strikes him hard, giving him no room to breathe. This euphoria—this rapture—it’s too big for his body to contain, and it spills out, like paint splattered on a wall.

In the wake of his elation comes a bone-deep relaxation, as if all of the sailor’s knots in Yusuke’s muscles have loosened. He rolls his shoulders, breath coming out of his mouth in pants. Only vaguely, he registers Ann’s hands slipping off of him.

“That was—exquisite,” he says, worshipful, as he kisses the apple of Ann’s cheek, the side of her mouth.

“Really?” she asks.

Words alone won’t do her justice. “Please. Allow me to see to you as well.”

“U-um, I mean.” Her eyes look up at him, tentatively pleading. “If you want to.”

Yusuke makes a noise. Of course he wants to, what an absurd concept to assume the opposite. He kisses her again, and again for good measure—her lips taste of an addiction he doesn’t intend to shake—before moving southward, hands cataloguing every shiver and shudder they’re creating. Ann’s body is like a musical instrument, quietly asking to be played, to be loved, making the softest of music with the gentlest of strums, vibrating and humming up into his touch. Even now, even after being spent from his orgasm, Yusuke feels her tiny gasps and arching leg hooking around his back stirring interest back into him.

But now isn’t the time to worry about himself—no, it’s time for him to focus on Ann, on her lithe form, on her reddened lips and arching torso. He moves his mouth along every rib, every curve, every stray freckle.

“You truly are my Campaspe,” he murmurs into her thigh, kissing spots at random, reveling in the marks that bloom forward when he softly bites, the blooming reds and purples painted there by his mouth. “I should’ve known…”

She shudders up into him. “I don’t—I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

He stops his ministrations for a painstaking moment. “It makes me Apelles,” he explains, matter-of-factly.

“Still don’t—never mind,” she says, threading her hands into his hair. “Just keep going.”

He hums. He continues the trail along her thigh, snaking around the curve of her leg, hands stroking her knees, her smooth shins, and it isn’t until he realizes where his trail naturally ends that he finds himself at something of a loss.

He’s merely been exploring Ann’s body so far, touching, caressing, feeling every inch of her, but there’s more to all this than that. His lack of knowledge on the details of intimacy hang over him like a leaky umbrella.

The fingers in his hair carefully brush through the strands. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

“I’m afraid I may be under-educated in these matters,” he confesses.

“Oh. Well—here.” She props herself up on an elbow. “Just follow my lead, okay?”

She grabs his wrist, guiding it closer, then lightly seizes two of his slender fingers, leading them down, down, until—

Oh. Yusuke is the one to gasp when she presses his fingertips into herself, a wet heat waiting for him. Perhaps he ought to be watching them, memorizing the movements, but he can’t bring himself to tear his eyes away from Ann’s face, her flushed skin, her parted lips, her hooded eyes, pupils blown wide with pleasure. To paint now would create a horribly inconvenient intermission, but Yusuke knows his night will be sleepless in an effort to recreate these emotions, these images, on blank paper. The pink of her lips, the golden light of the lamps in her hair, the trust in her gaze. Yusuke feels as if he’s looking upon something of a treasure. He feels irreversibly in love.

“There,” Ann says. “Just—there.”

She shifts her hips, hand sliding away from Yusuke’s. Without the training wheels of her touch, he’s slightly lost, but he doesn’t mind; he may be little more than an adrift tourist now, but soon enough, he’ll be a local. He slides his fingers out just enough to feel the tightness of her around him, then curls upward on his way back in.

Her breath hitches. “Fascinating,” Yusuke mumbles, and does it again.

She clutches at him this time around. How many other secret switches does she have? His goal to find them all intensifies into a burning need. His length begs for mercy between his legs, throbbing once more. Ann seems to take notice too.

“Yusuke,” she moans. “Yusuke, do you—you don’t have a condom, do you?”

His fingers still. “Oh.” He slips them free. “Oh no.”

“It was a long shot,” she admits. “Hold on.”

She springs to her feet, leaving Yusuke missing the patch of warmth left behind where she was stretched underneath him. She hurries to her room. Next time, Yusuke thinks, he’ll have to be more prepared, not that he has any idea where to start. The 777? Perhaps Ryuji would come with him? No, no, that’s a terrible idea.

Ann’s door croaks shut as she comes back to the living room. There’s a foil square in her hands she deposits in Yusuke’s. The fierce blush has come back to her face with a vengeance.

“Here,” she says. She’s gone slightly shy in the few seconds she was gone, and Yusuke feels, in some soft underbelly he has, he ought to remind her of something.

“I’m in love,” he says again, just in case she’s forgotten. For clarification, he adds, “with you.” He touches her shoulder, thumbing a strand of her hair. She’s looking at him like he’s just descended from another planet. “And I’d like to make love to you.”

“Um.” She licks her lips. Yusuke follows the movement. “I… I’d like that too.” She groans, annoyed—at herself, or possibly at Yusuke, or maybe even the situation itself. “Why do you have to say it like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re just so—never mind.” She shakes her head. She grabs the condom back from him, tearing it open. “Can I?”

He nods, watching with rapt attention as she rolls it onto his cock for him. She hasn’t done this before, Yusuke thinks, as she slides it into place with a telling amount of inelegance, but she still moves with a startling amount of certainty. Is it Yusuke she’s this sure of? His heart surges like a flare has been lit at the mere suggestion.

She crawls into his lap, hand finding his cock again, stroking it carefully. The look she gives him is unwavering, straight into his eyes, with an intense amount of fervor. Her thighs are warm where they settle onto his.

“This okay with you?” she asks.

He touches the small of her back. “As if it could ever be anything but,” he says. “Ann—please.”

She nods. He won’t admit it out loud now—later, perhaps—but he’s horribly glad she’s taken the lead, showing him exactly what it is he needs to do to make it good for her. She lifts herself up on her knees, lining him up with her entrance. Yusuke’s heart skips a beat.

There’s a surprisingly little amount of resistance as Ann sinks down on him. His brain scatters—splitting into a thousand incoherent pieces, all useless to him here and now. His hands skirt down her sides, settling on her backside, worshipful in his touches of her flexing behind as she rolls on top of him. Maddening little noises keep escaping her mouth, small gasps and whimpers that Yusuke finds himself letting go of too, although his are deeper, rougher, coarser.

When Ann settles on him fully, she leans her forehead against his shoulder, her breath hot against his chest. Her grip on Yusuke’s forearms has gotten tight.

He reaches for her waist. “Ann—”

“Just give me a second,” she says. “I’m not used to this.”

Yusuke nods. He’s fairly certain he’d grant Ann anything right now, regardless of plausibility. He schools himself into staying still, into waiting for her go-ahead, and busies himself with the radiance in front of him: he cups Ann’s face in his hands, stroking the flushed skin of her cheeks, kissing the overheated flesh of her neck. She pants what sounds like his name once or twice, the sound of it intoxicating, before she grabs him by the hair and kisses him.

“Okay,” she says when they pull apart, breathing heavy, and starts to move.

Ann’s rhythm isn’t the smoothest, but it’s still like a drug, twisting Yusuke’s innermost core. Her forehead has begun to shine with the exertion, with the pleasure, and Yusuke delights in sweeping errant hair away from her face as she rises up on her knees and slides back down once more. The art is bubbling up inside of Yusuke again—it’s all you, he wants to tell her. She is at the nucleus of everything he creates and wants to create.

“Tell it to me again,” she says, tipping their foreheads together, noses touching.

“Tell you?”

“That you love me.”

Who is he to deny such a request? If Ann had decided Yusuke was fit to love, fit to kiss, and he himself is embarrassingly, wholly in agreement, why hold back? He draws her close, looking for the extra breath to speak.

“I love you,” he says. They’re words he’s never spoken prior to today, but they come out easily, with all the smoothness of truth. “Hopelessly, carelessly, hysterically.” He finds his spot in the crook of her neck again, nosing hair aside to kiss the spots he left earlier. They’ve turned soft red, little landing strips for his mouth to find again. “Fiercely, histrionically, tragically… shall I continue?”

“Maybe later,” she says, winding her hands into his hair. “Kiss me for now.”

He does. Her hips are singing a symphony against him, undulating onto his cock, Ann angling herself closer. He reaches for her, kissing her with a slowness her movements have long since lost. Her hair is so soft around his fingers, her skin so soft, her mouth so soft, the moment so soft, and he’s living it, not observing it, not painting it, not existing outside it.

Wetness prickles at his eyes. He blinks it away until he realizes they’re tears, springing from the wellspring of his soul, the depths of which are weeping in surprised joy at this very moment. To feel such a thing, to love such a woman—he never thought it possible.

“You are… magnificent,” he tells her, barely finding the oxygen to do so. “To think the will of the gods has been on my side all this time—unbelievable.”

Will he get to keep this happiness? He moves in tandem with Ann, rocking up when she rolls down, holding her face like it’s a precious treasure, a light a scarred world has yet to lay eyes upon. She’s doing the majority of the work here, body rolling onto his like a boat wild in the waves, but Yusuke must be doing something right on his end too if the sharp whimpers escaping Ann’s mouth are any indication. It’s possible he has some natural talent for this, which is amazing, astonishing, because he was sure all his natural talent was used up in matters of art.

But now isn’t the time to think of art. The heat of their moving bodies is bringing sweat to Yusuke’s temple, to the line of his shoulders. This is infinitely better, somehow, than the wizardry of Ann’s hand on him, the hot clench of her around his cock like sparks of static in his heart. The need builds up in him again, crashing, brimming over—

“Ann,” he says, pulling her even closer, close enough to press his face into a mass of her hair, breathing in her scent, her everything. The next moans she lets out are breathed straight onto his neck, vibrating there. “Ann, you—you—”

It’s possible he’s run out of adjectives in this moment. It’s a loss of knowledge that’s never happened to him before, but his brain is blanking, turning into nothing but white noise, but the sounds of Ann’s hitches of breath and the feel of her core taking him all the way in. His own breathing goes heavy, the strain of holding himself back scratching at him. Ann is slick around him, yielding his every touch, like he’s meant to be here, tangled with her, having her sag against and grip onto him.

His entire being goes lava-like when Ann comes with a cry, hips losing rhythm, and it’s all over for him too when Ann whispers his name by his ear. His second release of the night knocks him over just as hard as the first.

The world sways slowly back into place, like a roller coaster coming to a stop. Ann is breathing hard in his arms, just like she used to after a fight in the Metaverse. It really is a remarkably similar feeling: the triumph after a victory in battle, and the sweet release of a mind-boggling orgasm. Yusuke waits until his body has unraveled before breathing out the exhale locked in his throat, feeling Ann do the same.

There’s a chance he will never feel as in love as he does in this moment. That, or there’s a chance he’ll only fall harder and harder in love from this point on. He tips his thumb underneath Ann’s chin.

“Ann,” he says when she looks him in the eye. “Are you all right?”

The smile she gives him is a tad sluggish around the edges. “Yeah. More than.”

She tucks herself into her neck, holding on tightly. He wraps his arms around her as well, stroking her heaving back. They breathe together for a while, heartbeats slowing down in tandem, before she untangles herself from him.

No sooner has she climbed off of him and Yusuke gone soft before a new desire strikes him.

He strokes her warm cheek. Have her eyes always been such an enchanting blend of blue and green?

“Are you still up for a painting?” he asks.

--

It’s very warm when Yusuke wakes. Strangely warm.

Even stranger: the hair in his mouth. Blonde hair.

It takes a moment for it all to come back to him. The—not a failure—exhibition, Kawanabe’s admiration, Yusuke’s confession to Ann. The subsequent sushi dinner, the trip back to Ann’s apartment. Attempting to paint her. Not painting her at all until much, much later, in favor of…

Ah, yes. His ever-present nudity is another reminder, and Ann’s as well. They relocated to Ann’s room last night and got settled into her bed, but had ultimately been too tired to bother with clothes.

He’s never been in here before. The room is distinctly Ann, tumbled shoes peeking out of her ajar closet door, a crowded vanity table in the corner, photos of all their friends tucked into the pin board on the wall. The sheets in here smell even more of Ann than the couch did. The scent soothes and arouses Yusuke in equal measure.

Outside the nearest window, a bird is chirping. The sun is streaming in, creating new light vastly different from the glow of last night’s lamps. The moist heat of a summer day hasn’t quite arrived yet. The world looks different from yesterday evening, and not just in daylight alone. Ann, curled up underneath the blanket, pressed against Yusuke’s chest, might just be the most surreal part of it all.

Entranced, Yusuke lets himself trace the line of her jaw with one feather-light fingertip. His touch trails down to her shoulder, her arm, her elbow, all the way down to her wrist. He’s just circling her wrist-bone when her knuckles twitch, her body slowly waking.

She shifts on the bed, turning onto her back. Yusuke watches as the same catching up to reality plays like a hologram behind her eyes, how she takes it all in: their positions, their nudity, what they did last night. Her gaze locks briefly onto his. She blinks a few times, as if checking if he’ll disappear.

“Hi,” she says, in a voice still deep from sleep. An uncomfortable chuckle comes from her throat. “Morning.”

“Good morning.”

The soft laughter continues. “Ha, ha… can you believe what happened last night?”

“I can,” Yusuke says. “And I’m rather glad it did. What about you?”

Ann looks at him, eyes wide, then quickly looks to his ear. She is remarkably charming when embarrassed. Back to his eyes, but only for a second. Then to the wall. “How can you just—say that so easily?”

“It’s the truth,” he says. He curls his hand carefully over where her hip is covered by the blanket. “Have you… changed your mind?”

“No! No, I just.” She rubs at her eyes, wiping the sleep away. When she looks at him again, it’s with a clearer gaze. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Me neither,” Yusuke says. “Perhaps we could learn the rules together?”

His words seem to be the right ones. A certain calm spreads over her, like sunshine after rain. She finds his hand, curling hers around it. Her smile is sweet, winsome, speaking her affection for her.

“Let’s do it,” she says.

--

YOUTH FLOODS THE ART SCENE

Many aspiring young artists were on display last weekend at the National Art Center in Tokyo, where a bigger audience than any of them had ever faced before admired their works of art. High museum attendance led to thousands of visitors feasting their eyes on what the imagination of Japan’s modern youth is capable of.

One such artist, 17-year-old Yusuke Kitagawa, stood out from the rest. His collection of pieces, all an ode to an unnamed model, touched upon the indescribable sensations of forbidden love, blooming affection, and the passion of fresh yearning. These themes were all displayed in his compilation of eight pieces, many of which were completed in differing styles, from cubism, realism, impressionism, western approaches, and traditional Japanese methods, showing the world that he is the creative full package many believed his mentor, the disgraced artist Ichiryusai Madarame, to be. Critics were impressed by Kitagawa’s mature interpretation of love and ardor, as well as his complex use of techniques to bring the emotion of his work forth.

When later questioned about his collection, Kitagawa said, “I am very lucky to have the support of the most stunning creature of beauty in the world as my model and muse,” in reference to the elusive woman in the paintings. When asked if the woman and himself met through his art, he responded, “I saw her, and knew this was it.”

What was Kitagawa referring to? “Everything,” according to him.