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Sink or Swim

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“Forgive me for repeating myself,” Yusuke says, “but the Sayuri really does suit this place.”

Akira follows his gaze and looks over his shoulder as he dries his hands with a dishtowel. The painting brightens a previously dark corner; all that used to be there was… a street sign or something. It’s hard to remember, or to even imagine the Sayuri not being there.

“Yeah.” He turns back to the counter and brushes a couple loose beans into his hand, then drops them into the trash. “I’ve gotten used to having her around.”

“‘Her?’” Yusuke looks a little surprised for a moment before laughing quietly. “Indeed? I’m glad to hear it.”

The TV plays, barely audible over the thunderstorm raging outside, Yusuke toys with a napkin, and Akira busies himself with cleaning without really cleaning. They’re only watching the shop until Soijro gets back from getting cigarettes and then they’re free to go upstairs and watch that documentary.

“I think back to what Ann said about it,” Yusuke continues. “That the painting brought her comfort, as if she was back in her mother’s arms. Perhaps that’s why it feels right here.”

Akira straightens up from rearranging a jar on a shelf below counter. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Yusuke looks at him. Just a simple look, more contemplative than anything else, but with the smallest hint of a smile. “The love a parent has for a child – it was prevalent in this place too, even before I brought the Sayuri here.”

“That might make sense… if Sojiro was my dad.”

“And what does that have to do with anything?”

Akira scoffs and crosses his arms against the counter, leaning forward. “A lot.”

Instead of saying anything further Yusuke takes a sip of his coffee and surveys him over the rim of his cup. Sojiro brewed it before he left so it should be good, rather than the bitter stuff Akira gave him all summer.

Speak of the devil and he walks through the front door of Leblanc, shaking off his wet umbrella and carrying a plastic bag. Sojiro thanks them for watching the shop and exchanges words with Yusuke about the coffee while Akira takes off his apron. The two then head for the attic when a customer comes in, but not before Sojiro hands them the bag. Akira peeks inside as he make his way upstairs.

“Nice, snacks. He got you more potato sticks,” he says, handing them back over his shoulder.

“Ah.” Yusuke snatches them. “Excellent.”

Up in the attic, he takes the couch while Akira unplugs his console and hooks up the DVD player. The TV back home seems a far off luxury now, with the way you could have more than one thing hooked up to it at a time. Nostalgic charm for this old piece of crap wore off pretty quickly.

“You’ve decorated since I was last here.”

“Yeah,” Akira says vaguely. It’s hard to tell the white plug from the yellow in the darkness behind the TV. Only when he turns the TV on does he know he’s got them backwards.

“You kept the hamaya from our trip to the shrine.”

Once everything is taken care of, Akira dusts off his hands and drags the chair over. It’s not the most comfortable thing but it’s only polite the guest gets the couch. He doesn’t notice how dark it’s gotten until he sits down, but that’s fine. Better to watch movies in the dark.

“And the sculpture from the museum,” Yusuke says. Akira plants his foot on the table and pushes his chair back, balancing on two legs. His reflection in the TV stares back, a featureless shadow. Yusuke’s is there too, looking up at the ceiling. “And… the stars from the planetarium.”

The movie starts and the screen lightens, erasing all reflections.

“I had not realized I’ve given you so many gifts,” Yusuke murmurs.

Akira looks at him but turns away once their eyes meet.

“Yeah, well… you’re not the only one,” he says, pulling out his phone. There’s a message from Mishima. “I’m a popular guy.”

“So I see.”

It’s a name. The message, that is. No doubt someone horrible. The message marks itself read and Akira keeps staring at it, fingers hovering idle. Text stops looking like text, the movie stops sounding like anything comprehensible, and a presence persists just out of the corner of his eye.

Nothing can cover it up. No matter how Akira focuses on his phone, on balancing his chair, on the poor audio quality of his TV, Yusuke has this presence that just pushes its way through everything else. Even when he’s not there, it lingers in the things he keeps leaving behind. The night he stayed over, there might have been an unfamiliar scent left behind on the blanket he used – Akira only caught it faintly when he was putting the blanket away, and then a couple days later on Yusuke’s shirt when they were packed together in the subway. That was the day they went to the museum and Yusuke made him haul that goddamn nude statue back with him. Back to the place where the Sayuri watches over. A week later there was the hamaya, then the cheap glow-in-the-dark stars, and through all of it, Yusuke himself.

Yusuke, who keeps staring.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m thinking,” Yusuke says.

“About?”

“You.”

Then it’s Akira’s turn to stare. Yusuke sits forward, crossing his arms across his stomach. The potato sticks lay abandoned on the couch beside him, somehow a reminder of how simple this was supposed to be. Lighthearted, easy, just watching some art documentary together. But nothing with Yusuke is ever simple.

Akira forces a laugh. “Can’t get me out of your head, huh?”

“I suppose not,” Yusuke answers without so much as a smile. “You’re a curious person.”

“How so?”

“I’ve known you for some time now, yet I feel as if I don’t know you at all.” All his attention focused forward, Yusuke’s intense eyes bore straight through, seeing things that only artists see, no doubt. And that’s probably all this is; Yusuke sees him as just another concept to understand. “You’re quite adept at keeping an air of mystery about yourself.”

Akira snorts. “I’m just me. What more is there to know? You know how I got here; we told you all about it.”

“Yes. And that itself brings forth many questions. You are brave and upstanding, unwilling to ignore someone who needs help, even at the cost of your own wellbeing. A beautiful passion burns beneath your quiet exterior–”

“Wow.”

“–and yet there’s a calmness about you that makes people feel safe. An unjust system explains your situation, but it doesn’t explain why you entered into it alone. Downstairs, you…” Yusuke looks thoughtful for a moment, his eyes glancing off to the side while he sorts out whatever it is he wants to say. “What kind of relationship do you have with your parents?”

Akira doesn’t laugh this time. “Are you my therapist now?”

A pause, then Yusuke smiles softly. “Perhaps I worded it poorly. What I mean to say is… you are untethered to anything in your past. A person such as yourself easily gathers people around you, and yet I have not once heard you speak of the friends you left behind, nor of your family.”

The bell jingles downstairs and Leblanc’s door shuts quietly. Customer voices float up the stairs, familiar and friendly, met with the gentle bass of Sojiro’s voice. In the attic, there’s nothing but the sound of the rain, of the documentary, of an old man standing in front of a piece of art and speaking of its creator’s life.

“The answer’s always in the question,” Akira says, turning back to the TV.

And that’s that. Yusuke stays silent this time. He sits back, drawing one knee to his chest and wrapping his arms around it. They finally start watching the documentary, Yusuke finally opens his potato sticks, and there’s that simplicity Akira had thought they would have from the beginning.

Yet it’s just static noise, barely more than the sound of the rain hitting the roof. 

Akira sighs.

“I had a girlfriend.”

He tries not to notice the way Yusuke’s attention is automatically caught. Even though he does. Even though it feels a little good.

“We weren’t really close or anything,” Akira continues, rocking his chair back to nearly the tipping point. “But it was her house I was heading home from when I got arrested; her mom got home from work early, and…”

“A girlfriend,” Yusuke repeats quietly, lowering his eyes to his potato sticks. “Yes, of course…”

Akira stares but he doesn’t show any sign of lifting his head, so there’s nothing to do but continue on.

“You’ve always lived in the city, right? Thing’s are different in the country; everyone knows everyone. Spend your time with a criminal and you might as well be a criminal yourself. During the whole court process, everyone stopped talking to me. My girlfriend said it’d be too hard to do the long distance thing, but… we both knew that wasn’t the reason.”

“How despicable,” Yusuke says, finally looking up. “Did they truly believe you would assault someone?”

“Doesn’t matter; the label’s still there. They were looking out for themselves. My parents, too, for agreeing to send me out here, Sojiro for only taking me in for the money… that’s what people do, they use each other.” Akira puts his phone back in his pocket and takes off his glasses to rub a hand over his face. “That’s what we’re fighting against, right?”

“Yes,” Yusuke smiles.

It’s hard not to smile back.

“Anyway,” Akira continues, “it’s no big deal. The only reason I don’t talk about it is because I don’t care. It’s not the tragic backstory you think it is.”

“I’m not looking for tragedy,” Yusuke says, “I simply wish to know more about you.”

“Why?” Akira lifts his chin, smirking down his nose. “Don’t tell me you’re falling for me.”

The same kind of teasing he does all the time, and had Yusuke laughed along or brushed it off, it would have been like every other time.

“Falling for you?”

Instead, he lowers his eyes and touches his chin, looking thoughtful.

“That’s…”

The awkward pause drags on. And on and on and on. Akira lets his chair fall to all fours and it resounds like a gunshot. It’s on him to defuse the atmosphere; Yusuke’s lost in his own head.

“Well, I can’t blame you,” Akira says, getting to his feet. “I’m a charming guy.”

“You are,” Yusuke muses.

Akira’s heart skips a beat. Every word digs this hole bigger and bigger.

He turns away. His glasses case is around here somewhere. Focus on that.

There, on the shelf beside his bed. Next to the shogi piece from Hifumi. One of many gifts from one of his many new friends – and when they became friends rather than just people he’s using, he doesn’t know. Everything is easy when it’s shallow but he’s felt the water level rising for a long time now.

Akira puts his glasses away and turns around. Yusuke’s on his feet, taking a tentative step towards him. The plastic stars glow above them, the only source of light other than the TV and whatever floats up from the café.

“What was your girlfriend like?”

“What? Why?”

“I can’t help but wonder what kind of person would catch your interest.” The slightest frown creases Yusuke’s brow and he takes half a step forward. “What do you love in another person?”

“That’s a broad question.”

“Then give me a broad answer.”

Yusuke shifts his weight to one leg. A strand of hair falls out of place and he reaches up to fix it. Akira follows his fingers. Over his shoulder, he sees the hamaya hanging on the wall.

He can never dance around the situation with Yusuke. If he’s sarcastic then it’s taken literally, if he’s avoidant then the artist’s mind moves on to something more stimulating. He has to be sincere if he wants to be understood – and the scariest part is finding that he does. When the waters rise Yusuke doesn’t offer a hand to help him out, but instead climbs in with him. The only thing left to do after that is learn to swim.

“I can do you one better,” Akira says.

Another step forward brings them closer than ever, carried by instinct and guided by a hand against Yusuke’s neck.

The kiss is every bit as assured and full of itself as its instigator, yet Yusuke responds in kind, gripping Akira’s wrist and humming against his lips. His enthusiasm tips the balance of control and nearly bends Akira backwards. Between that and everything else assaulting his senses – the rain against the roof, Yusuke’s familiar scent, the taste of salt, the lack of oxygen – his knees almost buckle out from under him. The only thing that keeps him steady is the arm Yusuke slips around his waist.

Yusuke pulls back to get a look at his face, looking from eye to eye. For once Akira has no idea what he sees. Whatever it is makes him smile.

“You have quite the way with words,” Yusuke says, so close that their lips brush.

Akira laughs breathlessly.

“I have a lot to say to you.”

“I can hardly wait to hear it.”