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Operation Reverse Burglary

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ANN. i have work today, can we go to mementos tomorrow instead?

MAKOTO. Oh, you have a part-time job? That’s very diligent of you.

ANN. eheheh (ノ⸝⸝⸝´∀`⸝⸝⸝)

ANN. tbh if you ever need some spending money lmk and you can come too! i can prob get you something. you’ve got a great bod and they can always use more girls

MAKOTO. …what exactly do you do for work…?

ANN. omg i’m a model haha that sounded real bad didn’t it

RYUJI. just a bit rofl

RYUJI. tomorrow’s good for me

REN. Fine by me.

YUSUKE. Unfortunately, I must decline.

YUSUKE. My body is revolting against itself. I lack the will to rise from my futon.

YUSUKE. I have spent much of the day huddled in my duvet, staring wistfully out of the window at the world I was once strong enough to take part in. I doubt that one night will make enough of a difference in my condition for me to be effective in battle.

RYUJI. dude whats up? u ok

RYUJI. you wanna talk about sthg we’re here

YUSUKE. What?

YUSUKE. Don’t be ridiculous. I have a cold.

RYUJI. well JEEZ

ANN. awww

ANN. u need anything?

RYUJI. a dude tries to be sympathetic this is what he gets

MAKOTO. Make sure you get enough rest. Are you eating all right?

YUSUKE. I would not turn down curry.

YUSUKE. In fact, it may be the only thing that would effectively heal me.

REN. omw

 

———

 

“It was full of paintings, Ann,” Ren said dolefully the next afternoon, stirring his iced tea with a spoon.

“I mean… yeah, I figured, that’s why I asked,” Ann said from across the diner booth, tilting her head. Her teasing question about whether Yusuke’s dorm room had looked like an art museum had landed like a lead balloon, and she exchanged a concerned glance with Ryuji. “Was it really that bad?”

“You want to know what he had in his room?” Ren asked, and held out his hand, counting on his fingers as he listed things off. “Paintings. Paint. A futon.” He wiggled the remaining two fingers meaningfully. Makoto winced.

“That’s it? I could see him being a minimalist, but…”

Ann frowned. “I can’t picture him painting on the floor.”

Ren paused, then pulled back his hand. “Okay. So he had a stool, and an easel. A pillow. Some clothes. My point is, when he left Madarame’s, he must not have had much to take.”

“He did show up to move into Leblanc with just one bag,” Ann said doubtfully, reaching down to feed Morgana a piece of bacon under the table. “I hope he’s doing all right.”

“Hey, you could always let him move in with you after all!” Ryuji teased, elbowing Ann in the side. She shoved at him, and a brief scuffle ensued.

Makoto wasn’t watching them, though. She was watching Ren, and she pressed her lips together thinly, all the sensors on her internal dashboard alerting. He turned in response to her stare, raising his eyebrows at her in a wordless question.

“You have that look in your eyes,” she said flatly.

“What look?”

“That look that says you’re planning something. Possibly something illegal. Almost definitely something audacious.”

“Absolutely I am,” Ren replied easily, leaning in. Ann and Ryuji followed suit, grinning; Makoto found herself swept along in the current, trying to hide a reluctant smile. Morgana jumped up next to Ren and put his paws on the table, ready to turn on his best stuffed animal impression if the waitress walked by.

“Here’s what I’m thinking…”

 

 

———

 

“Thanks for having me!” Ann chirped as she slipped off her shoes in the entryway of Yusuke’s room. “Glad you’re finally feeling better!”

“Thank you for coming,” Yusuke replied, eyebrows wrinkled. “May I ask what that is…?”

“Oh, this?” Ann said cheerfully, hoisting the large tote bag higher on her shoulder. It was roughly the size of a fifth grader, and bursting at the seams. “Just some stuff to make the place more comfortable!”

“I can’t accept that,” Yusuke protested as Ann squeezed past him in the narrow hallway.

“Not for you, for me!” she said breezily. She’d accurately predicted his protest, knowing that paired with his tendency to demand the unreasonable— bizarre favors, particular meals— was a paradoxical, prideful inability to accept what he saw as charity. “Ren said you were a total minimalist, and if I’m gonna sit in here modeling for hours, I wanna be comfy.” She set the bag down in the center of his room, looking around at the bare white walls and stacks of canvases with thinly veiled dismay. She was used to minimalism. Her parents, always design-conscious, were minimalists. The apartment she lived in was filled with smooth cupboards hiding hidden storage, sleek black and white furniture, and artful hidden lighting. (At least, until Ann had gotten free reign over the decor. These days, the couch was always piled with pillows and blankets, photos were taped up on the cabinets, and the sleek lines of the kitchen counters were usually ruined by scattered candy wrappers.) This wasn’t minimalism. This was just empty.

“Well… I just hope you didn’t spend too much money.”

“Relax! It was all stuff I had lying around anyway.” She knelt in front of the bag and pulled out a small beanbag chair, followed by a cheerful yellow rug. “Hmmm… what do you think? In front of the window, or under your painting stool?”

Yusuke opened his mouth to argue, then sighed with a half-smile. “Well, I’m bound to spill paint on it if it’s under my easel. How about in front of the door?”

“Perfect!” Ann placed it where the short hallway met the small room and beamed at it, hands on her hips. “Hey, are you allowed to put nail holes in the wall?”

“No,” Yusuke answered, eyes narrowing.

“Good thing I brought tape!” Ann knelt again in front of her bag, this time pulling out a coiled ball of wire that turned out to be a length of string lights. “Where’re your plugs?”

“Now this is just decorating,” Yusuke protested again, and was surprised when Ann nodded.

“It sure is,” she said firmly, the bulbs lighting up as she plugged them in. Yusuke noticed that they were in the shape of little stars. “When I get home after a tough day, getting back to my room and sitting on something comfy and looking at my decorations cheers me up.”

“Artist studios are traditionally bare…” Yusuke offered, although he was starting to get the feeling this was a battle he was going to lose. Ann was on her tiptoes; she was tall for a girl, but still couldn’t reach the thin strip of wall above his large picture window.

“Sounds fake!” Ann tossed over her shoulder as she strained to stretch her arms higher. “You’re always talking about finding inspiration. What’s inspirational about bare walls? D’you have a box or something?”

Yusuke did not, so instead he took the lights from her. If he stood on his tiptoes on top of a textbook, he could just barely reach to tape the lights up along the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Ann handed him tape and watched with satisfaction as the warmth of the bulbs lit the stark white wall.

“See? Better,” she said smugly. Yusuke sighed, but he smiled, too, as he stepped back to survey the decor.

“It does add a certain charm,” he admitted. “A cozy room to come back to… yes, you’re right. I never would have thought of it on my own.” He cleared his throat, embarrassed. “Now, can we please get started?”

And they did, although Yusuke was hard-pressed to get her to model any pose that wasn’t ‘lounging comfortably on the bean bag’.

 

 

 

“Lift it up— no, not that much!”

“Turn it— no, the other way—“

“I’ll turn, you stay still—“

“Excuse me, sirs, but—“ At the moment the out-of-breath station attendant arrived at the train door to tell Yusuke and Ryuji that they weren’t allowed to carry a desk on the subway, Ryuji was finally able to nudge his end over the gap and dart in behind it. The doors closed, the train pulled out of the station, and Ryuji found a moment to wave cheerily at the attendant, who was just doing his job and probably didn’t deserve a couple of teenagers fancying themselves moving men throwing the 8:35 PM train off-schedule.

Yusuke rested his arms on the legs of the desk, which had been stood up on one end out of a very slight amount of consideration to the other passengers. “We don’t have to transfer before getting off at your apartment, do we?”

“Nah. Eight stops and we’re there.”

“It was quite a stroke of luck, for you to find a desk in perfect condition on the side of the road.”

“Sure was,” agreed Ryuji, who had been scouring the neighborhood bulletin boards along his school commute for days. “My mom’s been complaining about the way hers wobbles for ages now.”

“However, you could have warned me when you asked me to meet you that your favor would involve manual labor.”

“You would have told me where to stick it.”

“I most certainly would not have. I just would have eaten beforehand.”

“Ma’s had the slow cooker going all day. Should have beef stew ready by the time we get there.”

“Ah. Consider my complaints retracted. It’s not a bother to have one more?”

“Nah, she never minds me bringing friends by,” Ryuji said with a cheerful slap on his shoulder. “Besides, she’s been warned.”

Ryuji had, in fact, warned his mother, and gone over the plan three times. When he and Yusuke arrived at his third-floor apartment, sweating on the doorstep, Ryuji’s mother came out with a measuring tape, only to find that there was no way the new desk would fit in the corner where her old one sat, and their entire errand had been a waste except, perhaps, for giving the boys a decent tricep workout.

“But come in and have some dinner anyway,” she said, not quite understanding why Ryuji was going through such a rigamarole just to get his friend to accept some free used furniture, but perfectly willing to facilitate any of Ryuji’s attempts to put some good out into the world.

Dinner was the promised beef stew, as well as plenty of rice, a side dish or two, and conversation which went roughly as follows: What a charming and polite boy! And Kosei, really? There must be a story there, you two hanging around together! Well, you may have the brains, but you’re skin and bones, what are they feeding you over there? No, take more, I insist. Oh, that’s kind of you, but I’m no cook, hunger is just the best sauce! Here, come back around finals to whip Ryuji into shape and I’ll make you a whole pot… and so on, and so forth.

Once Yusuke had been stuffed to bursting and been sent away with three meals’ worth of leftovers, besides, he and Ryuji stood outside, staring at the desk.

“Down to the curb?” Yusuke said, eventually, still slightly off-balance from such a concentrated hour’s worth of cheerfully maternal attention.

Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck. “Man, that’s a waste. Why don’t you just take it? You don’t got one, right?”

Yusuke hesitated. “I don’t, but…”

“But what?”

“I don’t really need one. I’m used to an ascetic lifestyle.”

“You and your aesthetics. Dunno how a desk would ruin that, though.”

“No, I said—“

“Seems to me it’d just give you a backache. ‘Sides, it’s got drawers. You could put paints in them, or whatever. Organizing your shit seems pretty aesthetic to me.”

“It’s ascetic. It means a simple lifestyle which limits worldly possessions.”

“Huh.” Ryuji thought about adding that to his mental dictionary for a moment, then discarded it. “Betcha Van Gogh had a desk.”

“Van Gogh severed his own left ear with a razor.”

“Yeah, but he also painted some sick stuff. I like the one with the stars. ’S kinda trippy.”

Yusuke stared at him, open-mouthed.

Ryuji, taking that in exactly the spirit it was intended, said defensively, “What? I can’t look at paintings? You’re always going on about Van Gogh this and Monet that, figure I should try to keep up.”

Yusuke furrowed his brow, looking chagrined. “I didn’t mean…” He trailed off, looking at the desk, appearing to think more about it than Ryuji had ever thought about any piece of furniture in his life. “I still have a lot of changing to do,” he admitted, expression clearing slowly. “But I’ll start by taking this desk, as an expression of goodwill from a friend who attempted to understand my interests.”

“Aw, thanks, man. Mostly I just want it off my porch, though,” Ryuji lied, grinning.

 

 

 

Makoto kicked at Yusuke’s door with her foot gently, as her arms were otherwise occupied. It took only a moment before Yusuke opened the door, his open smile of welcome quickly replaced with utter befuddlement.

“Excuse me, please, I’ve had a long walk and this is heavy,” Makoto said, pushing past him in a way that brooked no argument.

“Good afternoon. What is heavy?”

“My sister has been replacing some of our old kitchen equipment. I asked her if she wanted to sell it to a used goods shop, she told me to do what I like with it, so here I am.” She set the cardboard box down on the floor, removing a four-liter hot water dispenser.

(In reality, the conversation had gone like this.

MAKOTO. Sis, there’s a sale on Zojirushi water heaters this week. Can we get a new one?

SAE. What’s wrong with ours?

MAKOTO. It’s been leaking. Remember? I told you a few weeks ago.

SAE. Oh. Sorry, I forgot.

SAE. That’s fine. Pick a new one up. You know where the household money is.

 

Makoto had carefully washed and cleaned their old water heater, which was working just as perfectly as it had been the past three years, and packed it in a box for transport. Yusuke’s dignity would probably be offended if she tried to just buy him one, and his eyes were too sharp to be fooled by an ‘It’s used, really,’ applied to a clearly brand-new appliance. Anyway, there was a sale, and she’d ended up paying half the cost with her pocket money in the end, besides.)

“You and Ryuji and your dry cup noodles. It makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it,” Makoto continued, setting the heater on top of Yusuke’s small countertop and kneeling down to plug it in.

“It’s a perfectly fine snack,” Yusuke protested. “There’s a small kitchen on the ground floor of the dorm, so I could easily heat them up in the microwave if I needed to. It’s just that sometimes, you want something crunchy, but nutritionally speaking, spending a hundred yen on a bag of chips—“

“Nutritionally speaking, cup noodles are cardboard,” Makoto interrupted, using one of Yusuke’s three mismatched mugs to fill the heater bit by bit with water from the bathroom sink. “Don’t try to tell me those dehydrated peas have seen sunlight in the past ten years. And a microwave can’t heat water for tea. It gets too bitter, and there’s no way to regulate the temperature.”

Yusuke hesitated. Makoto allowed herself a small, hidden smile, and knew she’d won. She’d seen Yusuke enjoy Leblanc’s coffee on many occasions, but when it came down to it, there was no way that a boy so familiar with traditional Japanese arts would be able to resist a properly brewed cup of tea.

“It’s just that I brought some samples that I picked up at the supermarket this week, but you know how green tea gets if you brew it too hot…”

“Undrinkably bitter,” Yusuke said, closing his eyes briefly. “Very well. I surrender. Perhaps this is a luxury I can bear to live with.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” said Makoto, whose kitchen included a dishwasher, four burners, a microwave, a rice cooker, and enough dishes that the dishwasher was run when it was full, not when there was no longer anything clean to eat off of. She bit her lip, and then asked, “Is it really a luxury, though? I mean, even at Madarame’s, surely…”

“We had a kettle.” Yusuke crouched down and retrieved Makoto’s tea samples from the cardboard box. “And a rice cooker that might be older than me. It generally worked, and there was generally rice. The range functioned by its own mysterious rules.”

“…I see.”

His lips tightened, and he dropped the tea bags into his two remaining mugs. He stared at them pensively for a moment, like an oracle studying the tea leaves for what the future held, then appeared to come to a decision. He looked at Makoto, a wry smile on his face. “That being the case, if you ever happen across a reasonably priced rice cooker, or portable hotpot, or perhaps even a griddle… I think that would be a luxury I could bear to live with as well.”

 

 

 

Very little escaped Futaba’s notice, and in September, after she’d leveled up her bond with the team, she demanded to know what the secret mission was that they kept alluding to was.

“Well, Yusuke…”

“That undercooked string bean?” Futaba interrupted, rolling her eyes. “What’s wrong with him now?”

“He’s not very good at taking care of himself,” Makoto explained. Ren nodded, setting down his metal file. He was sitting at his desk teaching Makoto how to make lockpicks, while Futaba, legs curled up under herself on the couch, monopolized his ancient gaming system. “We’ve been trying to help out when we can.”

“Oh. That’s all? Sounds boring.”

Makoto was about to reply when Ren nudged her in the side and shook his head, indicating she should let him do the explaining.

“We’ve been seeing how much stuff we can get him to accept without him noticing we’re working together. Ryuji’s on top of the leaderboard, he got him a desk.”

Futaba perked up, her demeanor completely changed now that it was framed in a way that made it clear there was the potential to irritate Yusuke beyond belief. “Sounds fun! I’m in.”

Makoto sighed, Ren laughed, and a week later, Yusuke found himself in Futaba’s room, holding a cardboard box with a resigned air as Futaba stood precariously on top of her desk, pulling manga volumes off of the top shelf of her bookcase.

“I don’t have any need for these,” he complained, as she dropped in another four volumes with a clunk.

“It’s not about you! It’s about me,” she replied, rubbing her chin as she decided which volumes to part with. “Sojiro said he won’t buy me any more until I get rid of some old ones to make room,” she lied, as if Sojiro had the capacity to refuse her anything at all. “Read ‘em if you want, they’re pretty good, but otherwise just store them for me!”

“I suppose it’s a little nostalgic.” Yusuke picked one volume up out of the box. “I haven’t read manga in years, not since I was a child. If I’m not getting out of this house without half a library either way, perhaps I’ll take you up on that after all.”

“Oh. Well, in that case…” Futaba turned back to the shelf, peering at the titles in a new light. She’d belatedly remembered that this wasn’t about filling Yusuke’s room with useless junk, it was about filling Yusuke’s room with useful junk. She selected the first and second volumes of a few different series, tossing them down to Yusuke, still waiting patiently with the box. “Okay, I don’t read much shoujo but this one’s a classic, you can see everyone else aping her art style for like a decade. And this one’s got some pretty unique panel layouts. And this one’s my favorite so you have to read it but if you spill anything on it I’ll never forgive you. I used to trace over it all the time when I was like eleven and wanted to draw fanart oh my God hold that thought, I just remembered something! What’s your laptop like?”

“Nonexistent,” Yusuke replied, taking the change in topic in stride.

Futaba turned around, wobbling a bit as she jumped ungracefully off the desk to the floor. “Criminal. Kosei probably has a computer lab, right?”

“Of course. I think it was renovated sometime in the past few years, so the computers should be fairly new.” He watched as Futaba pulled a box off the bottom of her shelf and dug through it, tossing aside several cords, CD cases, and something that might have been a soldering iron. They landed seamlessly among the other odds and ends littering her floor, a practical lesson on entropy. “What are you looking for?”

“This!” Futaba held up a black and silver drawing tablet, about the size of a standard sheet of paper. “I got it for my birthday one year, but never really used it so it’s still basically brand new. Gimme a minute, I’ll make you a pen drive that’ll run an art program…”

“I can’t take that,” Yusuke protested as Futaba shoved it towards him. She rolled her eyes and let go of it, forcing him to catch it before it hit the ground. He held it carefully in his hands in the way of people uncomfortable with modern electronics, as if it were made out of china or possibly nitroglycerin. “It’s too much.”

“Well, it’s not for free,” she scoffed, waving a hand as she plopped down on her computer chair and spun around to face the screen. She pulled up a torrenting program and dug into her desk drawer for a pen drive large enough for her plans. “You can pay me back in fanart. With the going rate of commissions, you will have paid me back in, like, ten images? Better brush up on Featherman!”

Yusuke furrowed his eyebrows. It was a very obvious trap Futaba had led him into, but the trouble with Futaba was that you could never tell whether the obvious trap was just a cover for a second, sneakier trap.

“What are you putting on that pen drive?”

“Photoshop! I told you.”

“So this isn’t an excuse for you to install a virus, or make a, a ‘backdoor’ into Kosei’s network?”

“Nnnope.” She spun the chair around, arm thrown casually over the armrest in a way that had more in common with a crash test dummy than a chill person going about a chill day. “Why would I do that? It’s just a school. What could a school have to interest me? Grades, address lists, names of prominent donors, blackmail material on the up-and-coming generation of privileged movers and shakers…”

“Futaba.”

“Fine!” Futaba threw her arms up in the air, admitting defeat. “You caught me. Photoshop, and that’s it. Promise.”

Yusuke nodded, satisfied.

He hadn’t known Futaba long enough yet to know that the second trap was usually just sneaky enough to dissuade people from looking for the third trap.

 

 

 

 

“I’m sorry, magpies?”

“They steal shiny objects,” Yusuke explained to Ren’s puzzled face. “There must be a nest nearby. Twice this week I’ve woken up to ‘presents’ on my windowsill. A small golden lucky cat one day, and a jar of quite nice silver paint the next.”

“Those seem heavy, for magpies,” Ren pointed out.

Yusuke shrugged expansively. “The world is full of mystery.”

Morgana, sitting on the windowsill washing his face, studiously ignored the both of them.

 

 

 

 

Haru had never gone hungry a day in her life, and didn’t quite understand why Yusuke wouldn’t simply let her buy him groceries.

“He doesn’t like feelin’ like a charity case,” Ryuji pointed out, as they sat alone together in Morgana’s backseat, having been switched out of active battle for a rest. Ryuji had his arms casually slung over the seat in front of them, chin resting on them, while Haru sat with her usual perfect posture as she drank coffee from a thermos.

“That wasn’t my intention,” she replied, a troubled look on her face. “But when he mentioned making whole meals out of supermarket samples…”

“One, I’ve gone along with him to do that, it’s pretty fun. Variety, y’know? Two,” Ryuji continued, counting on his fingers, “It’s not like he couldn’t put aside some cash to buy food if he wanted, the way he talks all the time about buying art supplies. I dunno, it’s like, he’s got this pure-ass tunnel vision where he thinks that putting money into anything but art is a waste. He’ll mooch for a bit, he’s always eating at Ren’s, but then if people buy him shit too often, he gets guilty, since he figures he’s used to going without anyway.”

“That explains it, I suppose,” Haru said doubtfully. “We went out for sushi the other day and had a lovely time, but when I offered to take him out on a regular basis, he got very strange…”

The idling purr of Morgana’s engine momentarily increased in volume, and then his voice echoed around them. “I’ll go out to sushi with you any time, Haru!”

“Well, yeah, I mean, dude doesn’t want a sugar mama,” Ryuji pointed out, as Haru patted Morgana’s headrest. “He’s got his pride. You gotta get sneaky about it, like we do.”

Haru listened, somewhat surprised at Ryuji’s perception of the situation; then she thought about it, as the active party tumbled back into the van; then that night, she spent some time researching on the internet, before texting Yusuke her request.

A week later, they sat on the Shujin rooftop together in the weak fall sunlight. (It had been easy to sneak Yusuke up the back stairs, and even though she technically could have signed him in at the main office as a guest, this felt more daring.)

“You said this was called… urban gardening?” Yusuke asked, as he emptied his tote bag of Haru’s odd requests. The ends of a few bunches of bok choy; the white parts of green onions, roots still attached; a few stubs of carrot; an empty plastic miso container, carefully washed.

“You sound suspicious! It’s a real thing, don’t worry. I wouldn’t ask you to save your food scraps and bring them all the way here without a reason.” Haru picked up the miso container and turned it over in her hands. “Yes, if we poke holes and use the lid as a drainage tray, this should do nicely. I can’t convince the household staff that it’s sanitary, even though it’s becoming so popular these days… I’ve wanted to see if it works, but I think if I started leaving vegetable ends in bowls of water around the house, they’d be thrown out before I could blink!”

“A terrible waste,” Yusuke agreed solemnly. He listened with interest as Haru explained the simplicity of it, poking holes in the bottom of the plastic container with a pocket knife she pulled out of her school bag. It had a pink pearlescent handle and a four-inch razor sharp blade. You never know when you’ll encounter a rogue hedge in need of pruning.

“You don’t place them directly in soil?” he asked, as Haru set the green onions in a plastic cup from the cafeteria half-full of water.

“They need to root first,” she explained. “Don’t worry! I’ll send you home with plenty of soil. The bok choy needs about three days, the carrots a little longer. You change the water every day, or you risk attracting insects…”

She showed him the proper firmness with which to pack the soil into the miso container, and gave him strict instructions on how to tell if the plants needed more water or sun. “Thank you so much for helping me with my experiment!” she said with a smile as they stood up, ready to leave, Yusuke holding a purloined cafeteria tray of vegetable cuttings in water.

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” he said, eyeing the vegetables with interest. Haru could have sworn she could see his mind whirring with the possibilities of this perpetual motion machine of vegetables. “Really, I should be thanking you.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, patting his shoulder. “Just promise to tell me how they taste!”

 

 

 

Yusuke couldn’t explain it.

Ren had stopped by earlier in the day, after they’d gone together to an exhibit at the National Museum featuring traditional Japanese dolls. It had sparked some ideas in Yusuke about branching out into 3D art, and they’d had a productive discussion about it that lasted nearly two hours— although now that he thought about it, Yusuke realized that he had been talking for probably three quarters of that time. Was that it? Had he been distracted? But certainly even while sketching out an idea for an exhibit that might require special permission from the sculpture professor he hadn’t been paying that little attention to Ren. This was their last excursion together before Ren left Tokyo, after all, not the time to be inattentive.

And yet the fact remained that there was now a chocolate fountain sitting in the corner of his room.

Yusuke stared at it, befuddled. It was too big to hide in a pocket. It was even too big to hide in a backpack. He was quite familiar with it; it had sat in the corner of Ren’s room for months now. When he’d texted Ren to ask, he’d received only a “too big to carry on the train home” and a spinning gif of the Phantom Thieves logo.

Well, apparently it was his problem now.

Filling it with chocolate would be wasteful and expensive, but perhaps he’d ask Haru about water gardens.

 

 

 

As for the rest of the thieves, they took the episode with the fountain to mean that most of Yusuke’s actual practical needs were taken care of, and they had permission and encouragement to go freeform.

 

 

 

“Hand over your mouth!”

“Like this?”

“It’ll do! Okaaaaay… next! Heart hands!”

“I don’t know how to—“

“Thumbs together, nails together, okay that’s close enough out of time just smile— okay! Next is full-body do a victory pose come on hurry—“

Yusuke heroically attempted to keep up with the next thirty seconds of rapid-fire pose instruction from Ann as the purikura machine marched forward relentlessly. Finally, the tinny recorded voice cheerfully told them to proceed to the left, and they exited the booth, Yusuke feeling like he’d just narrowly won a random encounter battle.

Ann steered him towards the decorating screen and shoved a pen in his hand; he looked at it curiously.

“What’s this for?”

“You decorate the photos! Stickers, doodles, cute effects— it’s the best part!”

Ann cheerfully picked out a few backgrounds. Yusuke interrupted her to tell her to choose the argyle pattern over the hot pink cheetah print, a request she merrily refused. As the screen changed over to the decorating menu, Ann frantically began stabbing at the screen, throwing hearts and sparkles every which way, while Yusuke carefully scrolled through pen styles.

“There’s a time limit, you goof!” she exclaimed, elbowing Yusuke in the side. “Come on!”

“But I need to think about—“

“No you don’t! Just plop in whatever looks good when you click it!”

A hundred and twenty seconds later, Yusuke put the pen down, this time feeling as though he’d just competed in the fifty-meter dash.

“That was positively freeing,” he said in wonderment. “I feel somehow connected to the inner wellspring of my soul. You’re right— I have been overthinking lately, even in my sketches, forcing myself to achieve perfection with my first pencil line. How did you know that I needed permission to cleanse myself of my self-inflicted pressure?”

“Um?” Ann said sheepishly, bending down to retrieve the photo sheets as they slid smoothly out of the machine. “Honestly? I just thought your bulletin board was too bare, and you needed some fun pics. But I’m glad you got all that out of it!” she reassured him hastily, as he began to take on an expression similar to a scarecrow having an aneurysm.

 

 

 

“Futaba.”

“Inari.”

“I appreciate your company, now that you’ve enrolled in Kosei.”

“Samesies.”

“You know I don’t mind you coming to my dorm room during your free periods.”

“Wouldn’t stop me if you did mind.”

“However, I may have neglected to set some ground rules. What is that?”

Futaba, comfortably ensconced on the bean bag, Kosei jacket halfheartedly folded on the floor next to her, rustled in her bag before tossing another chocolate in her mouth. “What is what?”

Yusuke pointed to a poster taped up on the wall. It featured a group of anime ninjas, although you wouldn’t know it by their bright clothing. The center ninja was wearing orange, and flashing a peace sign at the viewer. Futaba followed his pointing finger, raising her eyebrow and replying “Oh, that,” as if it had just occurred to her. “It’s art.”

“Art.”

“Art.” She popped another chocolate in her mouth, chewing it smugly. “I’m expanding your horizons.”

That is not art.”

“Sure it is. Someone drew it, didn’t they? Someone probably went to animation school for years, working their way up the ranks until they were trusted with drawing an exclusive poster for an anime magazine. They probably waited their whole life for this opportunity. And you say it isn’t art! Shame on you. Open your mouth.”

“Why?”

“I wanna see if I can get a chocolate into it from over here.”

Dignity and appetite warred in Yusuke’s mind.

Appetite won in the end, although Futaba’s poor aim meant she mostly just bounced chocolates off his nose and ears until she got bored.

 

 

 

Yusuke paged through the magazine article on street art with delight growing on his face. Before he even reached the end of the photography section, he looked up at Ryuji, eyes gleaming.

“Thought you’d never ask,” Ryuji said with a grin before Yusuke even opened his mouth. He pulled a can of spray paint out of his backpack and shook it purposefully. “How many colors you need to do Shido getting his ass handed to him by Joker?”

“I was thinking more of a meditative piece on concrete’s war on traditional yet more fundamentally ephemeral architecture,” Yusuke said stiffly; then, because against all odds he did have a sense of humor, “Six. Five, if I plan carefully.”

“Right on. You do your thing, I’ll watch for cops, and if we’re lucky Makoto won’t have to yell at us for getting arrested.

 

 

 

TO: y.kitagawa@yahoo.co.jp
FROM: queenmakoshark@docomo.ne.jp
SUBJECT: free samples in Yoyogi park farmer’s market

Now that I have your attention, have you looked at those job listings I sent you? I know, I know, art is a passion, your creativity can’t be bought and sold, your lifestyle requires eight uninterrupted hours per day to commune with the muses, but you graduate in four months and I’m not going to let Ren let you sleep on his couch for the next ten years. I’ve attached a few more, too, it looks like there are a few museums looking for guides, things like that. Knowing you you’ll have impressed them into giving you something more interesting in about three months, and it’ll be more relevant than working retail.

I found some apartments, too, I’m sending you a document with the links. You should be ok if you don’t care about living near a station. The 53k yen one is in a shared boardinghouse but the common kitchen looks modern. I think the 61k is a good deal if you can manage it, it’s small but I can’t imagine you needing that much space.

Sorry about the e-mail address. Ann thought my old one was boring and Futaba won’t let me change it back. Hide yours from them at all costs.

Good luck,
Makoto

PS There aren’t that many free samples but they have really reasonable produce prices, and at the end of the day they discount heavily.

 

 

 

“Minus five points for almost killing him,” Futaba decided, marking it down on the whiteboard hidden behind the Phantom Thieves flag in Ren’s old attic room.

“As I told him, I really don’t think it’s a genuine Monet,” Haru protested somewhat guiltily. “I didn’t expect him to turn so purple!”

 

 

And on, and on.

 

———

 

Ren knocked on the door to Yusuke’s dorm, slightly out of breath after taking the two flights of stairs two at a time. He’d been slacking somewhat since his Phantom Thief days; Ryuji had literally run circles around him, their first trip to the track after Ren had showed up back in Tokyo with two suitcases and the ink still wet on his diploma.

The door swung open; “Ren!” Yusuke said with genuine delight, before stepping aside to let the other boy in.

“Sorry I missed the graduation ceremony,” he said, slipping off his shoes.

“Nonsense,” Yusuke replied firmly. “It’s only natural you would attend Shujin’s. While I regret both were held on the same day, nevertheless I find myself grateful your own graduation was last week.”

“You didn’t miss much,” Futaba piped up from her seat on a by now well-worn beanbag chair as the two boys entered the main part of the room. “Ceremonies are boring.” Constrained by the formality of the day, she’d worn her Kosei uniform properly for once, but by now she was lounging comfortably, ribbon loosened, shirt untucked, and blazer tossed somewhere into the recesses of the room.

The room. Ren gazed around, a half-smile on his face. It was a world away from the first time he’d visited Yusuke’s dorm, a stark empty space with cardboard boxes for furniture. Fairy lights twinkled over curtains, waving in the warm spring breeze; a desk in the corner was covered with trinkets. Yusuke’s indoor garden had spread, perched on three levels of a metal shelf, drinking up the sunlight that shone in through the large windows. Half the room was still taken over by canvases and art supplies, but anything else wouldn’t be right, and at least the rest of the room looked like a place someone actually lived in. Canvases in a bare room spoke of poverty and frantic devotion; canvases in a home spoke of a life well-lived, furiously splattered onto canvas.

“Before I forget—“ Ren dropped his bag on the floor and knelt to pull out an envelope. “Sojiro wanted me to give this to you.”

Yusuke took the envelope curiously; when he opened it, though, and looked inside the card, he fixed Ren with an accusing stare. “I can’t take this. It’s too much!”

“Take it up with the boss,” Ren said patiently, evading his attempts to hand the envelope back. “It’s not just you, he gave Ryuji and Ann a little something too. Said to tell you to use it to buy something for your new apartment.”

The others weren’t too long in coming; Ryuji and Ann came in together, having finally escaped the hugs-and-photos part of graduation, as did Makoto and Haru. Morgana flopped lazily out of Haru’s oversized purse. When faced with an afternoon of staying hidden during a boring ceremony, he’d jumped at Haru’s offer of fresh tuna sashimi prepared by her home chef, and currently looked as though if he ate any more tuna, he’d turn into one.

“I haven’t seen you in ages! Did I congratulate you yet, Mr. Museum Guide?” she said, having heard the news about his upcoming gainful employment from Makoto. A reasonable paycheck, free access to exhibits, and enough spare time in the evenings to attend classes part-time and work on independent projects: Makoto had tried to argue that should have earned her points on the board, because she was nothing if not competitive, but Ann had pointed out that if they started counting intangibles like “employment” and “cheap apartment listings”, Haru would pull out ahead in “plus ones to high society events with extensive h’ors d’oeuvres buffets” and the whole thing would be moot.

Once they were all settled, perched on cushions or sprawled on the floor comfortably, Yusuke cleared his throat.

“I’d like to start by thanking you,” he said, once he had their attention. “These past couple of years… I did start to notice eventually. The leftovers, the decorations, the furniture… it was planned, wasn’t it?”

“For a given value of ‘plan’,” Makoto allowed.

There was a general noise of agreement. “It got away from us somewhere,” Ren added, with a slight smile.

“Nevertheless,” Yusuke said. “Thank you, honestly and truly. Not even so much for the physical items as for showing me I was worth your time and effort. It was a lesson that I hadn’t known I needed to learn.”

“Well, you never ask for anything, man,” Ryuji said, from where he was lying on the floor. He stretched his legs out to prop them up on the beanbag, only for Futaba to shove them off. “We had to go nuclear.”

“Asking for things… yes,” Yusuke said, hitting his open palm with his fist. “Another area in which I was sorely deficient. There’s no cause to be shy when asking for support from friends, and I thank you all for teaching me that.”

Ren nodded, with a satisfied smile.

“And so we arrive at the reason I called you all here today,” Yusuke continued smoothly. There was a stack of canvases leaning against the wall next to him, and he leaned them forward now to reveal several dozen flat cardboard boxes.

He pulled them out with a flourish, and Ren was suddenly unfortunately, hilariously aware of what he was going to say next.

“Being as my current luxurious lifestyle is entirely your fault, and also being as I need to be out of the dorms by noon tomorrow, I hope you’re ready to spend the rest of the afternoon helping me pack.”