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though far away (we're still the same)

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Summer fades into autumn, and autumn becomes winter, and Tsukinaga Leo doesn’t come back.

Izumi tarnishes Knights’ reputation, and the straight-laced newbie asks about their missing king with stars in his eyes, and Tsukinaga Leo doesn’t come back.

Leo is gone, but Knights is still his unit, his castle.  All of their songs are his, and that doesn’t change even when his throne is vacant.  The flash drives start arriving sometime in September.  New songs in ink-smudged envelopes with no return address, no name—only Knights written in a messy, familiar script across the back.

(Part of Izumi is relieved that Leo is composing again, but a bigger part of him hates that Leo doesn’t return to the home he’s worked so hard to protect.  Because his songs are Knights’ weapons, but their king—Leo—is so much more valuable than any sword.)

Graduation comes and goes.

Izumi packs his bags and moves halfway across the world, as if the physical distance will be enough to help him forget every mistake he’s ever made.

Ensemble Square is thriving.  Knights doesn’t need him.  Izumi is their dark past, and Ritsu and Arashi and Tsukasa—they shine so brightly without him.

(Or maybe he’s just running away again.)

(Idols are supposed to make people smile, and Izumi doesn’t have the right to be an idol after taking Leo’s smile away.)

Singing and dancing and performing—he’ll leave all of it behind and become the world’s best model instead.  Just him, his worthless pride, and his pretty face.

Izumi tries, and he fails, and he tries again (and again, and again).  He gets therapy.  He tries.  He fails.  He finally, finally succeeds, just a little.  Past regrets still linger in his mind, and some nights find him curled up in bed, cranking up the volume of old songs (his songs, the ones written for only Izumi) because he doesn’t want to hear his own thoughts, but he survives.

Four years later, Kobe is much the same as he left it.  It’s almost like no time has passed at all

Snow-covered streets and tiny twinkling lights greet him.  The warmly-lit shops are full of last-minute shoppers, the sidewalks home to happy couples basking in each other’s warmth as their breaths condensed in the air.

(He was always weak to the cold.  Would smile and laugh as Izumi scolded him for slipping the icicles he called hands into Izumi’s pockets because Sena’s hands are nice and toasty~)

“How have you been, Izumi-chan?”

They’re at dinner—Izumi, and the three people he had come to care for once upon a time.  Arashi is as beautiful as ever, and the old nickname leaves something in his chest aching.

He’s missed her.  He’s missed all of them, but—

Between the playful banter and inside jokes, the easy laughter and casual affection, it’s clear that Izumi is an outsider now.

(There was no way all of them could have been this close back then.  Not with Izumi as their makeshift leader.  Not when he himself never felt like he truly belonged after Leo left.)

Sure Izumi had kept in touch for a while, after graduation.  But time and distance and obligations left them drifting further and further apart, and now Izumi doesn’t remember the last time he heard their voices outside of a broadcasted live.

So when Arashi asks how he’s doing, well.  There’s only one acceptable answer.

“I’m good,” he says, swallowing the bitter taste in his mouth. 

The taste—it lingers, even as he takes the last bite of his meal.  Even as they pay the bill, as he accepts Arashi and Ritsu’s hugs, as he pinches Tsukasa’s cheek for old time’s sake and waves them goodbye with a promise to attend their Christmas Live next week.

Izumi thought he was better, was under the impression that he could return to his hometown for the first time since graduation without drowning in memories of him, but he’s spent the whole night thinking about how this is the Knights Leo had always dreamt of.  And it’s not fair that a boy he knew for less than two years can haunt him like this.  Leo had shown him love, showered him in affection until Izumi was addicted, and no one else has been able to make him feel the same warmth since.

If Izumi closes his eyes, he can pretend he’s 17 again.  Alone at the beach, walking along the shoreline, thoughts of him swirling in his mind.  But he’s 22 now, and the beach is the same, and a part of him is still a little bit in love with a ghost.

(Leo had died with a sword plunged through his chest, betrayed by his own knight.)

Which is why he can hardly believe his eyes when he spots the figure standing in the waves.  It has to be a trick, some sort of hallucination—surely god is just mocking him at this point, but.  Izumi knows.  He would know him anywhere.

“Leo-kun.”  His voice comes out shaky, barely louder than a whisper.  It’s hard to talk when his throat is tight and his chest even tighter, but his legs are moving, closing the distance.  Seawater seeps into his expensive leather shoes, soaks the bottoms of his designer slacks, but Izumi doesn’t care because—

“Leo-kun!”

Is it possible for a heart to stop beating?  Leo turns to face him in one fluid motion, and memories of all the silly improvised dances he used to do—during rehearsals, in their bedrooms, anywhere with enough space to move—come rushing back.  Water splashes around him, droplets glistening in the moonlight as he meets Izumi’s gaze.

Wide, vivid green eyes.  Hair like flickering flames in the wind.

Five years later, the cute boy Izumi once knew has become devastatingly beautiful.

“Se… na?”

The familiar way Leo’s always said his name stops Izumi in his tracks.  He repeats it in his head—Sena, Sena, Sena—until his name doesn’t sound like a name at all.

“Is it really you, Sena?”

God.  If seeing Leo didn’t already make Izumi feel like dying, hearing how choked up he sounds definitely would.  “Yeah.  I-it’s me, Leo-kun.”

The words are barely out of his mouth, but Leo is already in his arms.  Izumi doesn’t think twice before returning the hug.  He had spent so much time pushing Leo away back then, but now he never wants to let go.  And wouldn’t it be nice if time stopped right now?  When all that matters is the feeling of Leo’s shaky breaths against his ear, Leo’s hands clutching the fabric of his shirt, the softness of Leo’s hair as Izumi gives into temptation and lets his fingers comb through the silky tresses—it’s longer now, tied back in a half ponytail.  His other hand finds the small of Leo’s back, holding him close until there's no space between them at all.

This—this is the easy part.  The part where years’ worth of repressed feelings surge forth, breaking his carefully constructed dam, dampening the anger that bubbles up.  The part where he can crush Leo to his chest and pretend they’re okay, pretend that the tides can carry away the hurt like it hasn’t been five fucking years.

But it has, and eventually Leo steps back.  “Sorry, sorry, I just…  I heard your voice and I couldn’t believe it!  It really is you, Sena!”

Izumi tries to find the right words, fails, makes a small noise in the back of his throat.

“I’ve missed you!” Leo grins almost like he used to.  Then, quieter: “I… I’ve really, really missed you.”

Liar.

Ah, there it is.  Izumi—he’s.  He’s angry.  He’s pissed off.  He… God, he wants to hit something.  He bites his lip instead, clenches his fists, takes a deep breath.  Had Leo really miss him?  Inhale.  No texts, no emails, no calls—just radio silence as Izumi crumbled under the weight of leading his unit.  Exhale.  He hates this.  Hates feeling like this.

Leo’s the only one who makes him feel like this.

“Sena?”

“Fuck.  I—ugh, g-give me a moment.”

Was five years not enough?  He’s finally standing in front of you.  Are you going to let him walk away again?

Leo waits.

Inhale, count to ten, exhale. 

Why didn’t you come back?

Repeat. 

Was I not good enough?

Again.

I’m sorry.

“I’m sorry.”  Before anything else, Izumi needs to say this.  He needs to apologize—for using Leo, for not noticing the ways he was hurting.  For breaking him.  He can be angry later.

Leo smiles, but it’s wrong.  It’s not the same smile Izumi loved.  “It’s okay!  It wasn’t your fault, Sena, really!”  He pauses, looking like he wants to stop before opening his mouth to speak again.  “I was just a coward.  I abandoned you and our kingdom because I couldn’t take it anymore, so you had to fight really hard all by yourself… Thank you, Sena, for protecting Knights.  I’m sorry I couldn’t come home.”

(I’m sorry I couldn’t come back to you.)

It starts to make sense, then.  Leo doesn’t blame him at all, and that makes Izumi feel even worse, honestly.  But he doesn’t want to talk about it yet. 

“Where did you go?” he asks instead.

In a second, Leo’s face brightens again.  “Outer space!  And lots of other places, but space was the coolest cause I met an alien!”

“Did you lose your mind?  Listen, if you don’t wanna talk about it…”

“No, no!  I really met an alien, Sena!”  Leo waves his arms around like a little kid, as if that’ll somehow make the whole story more believable.  “She even taught me the alien greeting uchuu~

“Right.  Okay.”  Arguing about the existence of aliens isn’t going to get them anywhere, so he might as well just file it away as another one of Leo’s eccentricities.

“You don’t believe me, but that’s okay.  I’ll introduce you next time they come back~”

The implication doesn’t fly over either of their heads if the hand Leo offers him is any indication.  I’ll introduce you next time.  Like they’ll still be in touch.  Like they’re going to be apart of each other’s lives again, just like that.  Like Izumi isn’t going back to Florence in a few days.

Izumi takes it.

“Wahaha~ Come on, I’ll tell you about all the other places, too!” Leo says, leading them out of the water.

They sit side by side facing the ocean.  Sand clings to his wet shoes and pants, grainy and uncomfortable.  But then Leo reaches for his hand again and laces their fingers together, and there’s sand in every nook and cranny, but it’s nice.

“Is this okay?”  Leo’s voice is softer now—nervous, almost.  His eyes are fixed on the stars, but he can’t hide from the moonlight that catches the pink on his freckled cheeks.  “I like holding your hand.  It’s reassuring.  You’re very warm, Sena.  I’ve always loved that about you.”

“Don’t just say things like that,” Izumi says, but he doesn’t pull away.  “It’s embarrassing.  Also, your hand is way too cold.  How long have you been out here?”

“Hmm… I don’t know!  You’re right, though.  I didn’t notice it before, but I’m actually freezing!”

Izumi huffs, but lets go of Leo’s hand to unwind his scarf.  “How did you not notice?  Idiot.”

“Waaaah, is Sena gonna give me his scarf?”

“Shut up,” Izumi says, wrapping the scarf around Leo.  He carefully untucks his hair from the fabric, the gesture feeling altogether too intimate.  “I-I’m just letting you borrow it for now.  So you don’t get hypothermia and die.  Because you’re stupid and decided to stand in the ocean in the middle of winter.”

“Wahaha~ You should be more honest about your feelings, Sena~”

Izumi meets Leo’s mirthful expression with a glare, but he still laces their fingers together again.

“Not all of us can be as blunt as you.” 

Leo shrugs.  “I just think it’s easier to tell people how I feel, ya know?  I don’t wanna waste time dancing around feelings when I can be doing more important things.  Like composing!  Or spending time with Ruka-tan!  She’s still su~per cute~  I don’t get to see her a lot anymore, but she’s always in my heart!”

“She should be in university now, right?”  It’s strange to think that the cowering little girl in his memories is all grown up.

“She goes to school in Osaka, so not too far from here, but I have to travel three whole hours to see her,” Leo says.

Osaka’s not too far from Kobe.  Izumi shouldn’t be surprised Leo didn’t stay in the area—he was the first one to run away, after all—but the fact that he knows nothing about Leo’s current life hits him all at once.  “What about you?  Where did you end up?”

“Some stuffy school in Tokyo.”  He sticks his tongue out and flops back onto the sand.  “The people there are bo~ring.  I hate it!”

“It doesn’t suit you.”  The words are out of his mouth before he has a chance to stop them, but Leo is the last person he expects to be in higher education.

“Mm.  Only a few more months.  Then I can… I can do whatever I want!  Wahaha~ Isn’t that great?”

Looking down at Leo, Izumi doesn’t miss the quick rise and fall of his chest, the moisture that makes pretty green eyes glisten.  “What do you want to do then, Leo-kun?”

Leo blinks, finally letting go of that forced smile.  “I…” he starts.  Pauses.  Swallows.  “I don’t know, Sena.”

The distressed, lost look on Leo’s face is one he’s seen in the mirror.  He was in Leo’s position a few years ago.  Unsure of himself, of his future.  Scared.  “It’s okay not to know,” he says, squeezing Leo’s hand.  “You’re a genius, aren’t you?  You’ll figure it out.”

“But what if I’m not?”

“Look, I know what it’s like to be average, and you’re far from that.”

“I don’t think you’re average at all,” Leo says.  He peers up at Izumi through long ginger lashes, and there’s something in the way Leo looks at him.  As if Izumi is truly something special.  “You’re the moon, Sena.”

Izumi quirks a brow, waits for Leo to elaborate.

“I told you back then, didn’t I?  Sena’s pretty no matter when, just like the moon~ Even when you’re not with me, it’s like I can still bask in your gentle glow.” Leo extends his arm—the one not connected to Izumi—towards the sky, slim fingers spread wide.  “I just have to look up, and it’s like you’re there, in a way, helping to draw out inspiration.  Did you know it’s harder to see the moon in Tokyo?”

“That doesn’t make sense at all,” Izumi says.

“Mm, maybe not, but I don’t need the moon tonight cause you’re here, and you’re way prettier, Sena~”

Heat blossoms on his face, his ears, the back of his neck, and Izumi wills himself to stop blushing like a goddamn schoolgirl in front of her crush because he should be used to being called pretty. 

(The way Leo says it is different, though.  Always has been.)

(Plus, it’s not like Leo is his crush.  There’s still a lot to unpack, and Izumi’s not sure if he wants to open that can of worms.) 

But then Leo smiles again, just the smallest curve of those thin, perfectly shaped lips, and okay.  Maybe there’s something there.  A feeling.  A fondness.  Something that makes his pulse quicken and his palms sweaty.

“Is it bad, to be average?” Leo asks.

“Hah?”

Of course it’s bad.  Who wants to be average?  Izumi’s spent his whole life desperately trying to be something more, something special.  To be average is a death sentence.  Average people are ignored.  Forgotten.  Of course geniuses like Leo wouldn’t understand.

“I wanted to be average.”  It’s whispered like a confession.  “Those guys in Chess, they were only using me for my songs, right?  They didn’t want to be my friends.  And when it was just the two of us, my music became our weapons.  Ones that would kill our enemies and drench us in blood.  Wouldn’t it have been better, if they didn’t exist at all?  All my songs.  Then maybe you would still be smiling.”

All the warmth leaves Izumi’s body in at once.  Wrong, wrong, Leo’s so fucking wrong.  “Stop being stupid.  That’s… that’s not it at all.  Your songs, they make people—they made me—happy.  So don’t say you’d rather be average, it pisses me off.”

“I could write a million songs if you’d smile for me again, Sena.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Izumi says.  “... you didn’t stop composing, though.  You sent us songs, back then.”

“You knew they were mine.”

How could I not?  “Who else would be sending them?”

“Wahaha~ You’re right, you’re right.”  Leo hums a little, fingers tapping out an unknown beat against his stomach.  “Did you like them?”

“They weren’t bad.”  I wished they were you.

Leo laughs.  “Good!  I’m glad… I’m glad I was able to make something you didn’t hate.  I’m glad I was useful, even if I couldn’t be there.”

Useful.  Like a tool.  Like something that’s thrown away when it breaks.  “For a genius, you’re really fucking dense, huh?  I… you know you’re more than just the songs you compose, right?  We were friends.  I didn’t just like you for your songs, so you can stop acting like you’d be nothing without them, got it?”

His heart is pounding, threatening to beat right out of his chest because he’s said too much.  But this is something Leo needs to hear.  This is something Izumi didn’t—couldn’t—say, before it was too late.

Leo doesn’t respond.

For a stretch of time, all he hears is the crashing of the waves and Leo breathing next to him.  In what should have been an awkward lull, Izumi feels strangely at ease.  Leo—he’s still Leo.  The important parts of him, the ones Izumi thought were lost forever, had survived.  And it’s so easy to let himself be swept up in Leo’s tempo again, to not think about how long they’ve been sitting on an empty beach.  Judging by the way his eyelids begin to droop, it’s late, and his skin will surely make him pay for it tomorrow.

Then, finally, Leo says, “Thank you, Sena.”

“Yeah, whatever, don’t make me say it again, okay?  You-you should head home before you get sick… Take better care of yourself, Leo-kun.”

“I’ll try.”  Leo moves to unwind the scarf, but Izumi shakes his head. 

“Keep it for now.”

“I’ll give it back next time, then.”

Before they part ways, Izumi adds his new number to Leo’s phone.

(Leo never deleted his old number, still has a picture of him holding Little John as his contact photo.)

 

The text arrives before Izumi reaches the station.

Leo-kun: lunch tomorrw??