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under the skin

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The first time it happens, Izumi blames the adrenaline.

His heart is beating in his ears after a particularly good performance (he won’t call it perfect, it’s never that good), the cheers of the audience a shrill roar behind them as the curtains close. The curtains barely conceal them from the audience before the usual : Leo launches himself at whoever happens to be closest to him (this time it’s Tsukasa, poor brat) and smothers him with affection and proclamations of love and peppers his face with sloppy kisses that smudge any makeup they come into contact with.

Then, of course, Arashi joins in and picks up anyone in arms-reach, giving Chiaki a run for his money with the ferocity of the affection before quickly moving on to find another victim.

See, this in itself isn’t unusual for Knights — Izumi himself has been a favorite target for both Leo and Arashi for the longest time, and even Tsukasa has his moments where he gets excited and takes after his seniors — but what is unusual is Ritsu joining in.

Izumi could blame the adrenaline rush from a good performance, and it’s late enough at night that Ritsu is much more active than usual, but it’s still rather… forward of Ritsu to grab Izumi by the face and kiss him square on the mouth.

He’s gone before Izumi can react, and before he can say anything Leo is already on him, whining about how Ritsu is “stealing his Sena” or whatever.

Izumi’s heart is pounding in his ears, too loud to think. Leo effectively ruins his hair and lands his own share of kisses on his face as Izumi manages to start coaxing the unit toward their dressing rooms while complaining loudly about how clingy Leo is.

But really, this isn’t that strange for Knights. Ritsu can be quite forward with his affection in the rare moments he shows it; he often lays on the others’ laps, accepts Leo’s barrages of affection and Arashi’s bear hugs, and even occasionally gives his unitmates hugs himself.

What is strange is when Izumi becomes the person Ritsu regularly turns to after performances. It’s not always kisses — sometimes it’s one of his worn-down hugs where he drapes his entire body over Izumi’s back and rests his cheek on Izumi’s shoulder, other times it’s nuzzling into Izumi’s neck while Izumi complains about being sweaty — but it’s always Izumi first.

Maybe it’s because they’re the most mild-mannered in Knights (a lie that Izumi will continue to tell himself to avoid acknowledging that he’s just as unhinged as Leo, or worse, at times), or maybe Ritsu has simply found some sort of comfort in Izumi’s presence when he’s in Japan, making up for lost time or something.

Or, the cynical realist in Izumi’s head suggests, Ritsu may just be fucking with him, getting under his skin for kicks, pushing his limits to see when Secchan finally snaps.

But it doesn’t stop there, as Izumi catches himself reaching for Ritsu as well, and not just after performances. A kiss on the cheek from Ritsu with a murmur of “good luck” becomes a habit before they take the stage, and Izumi finds himself missing it when Ritsu skips that step.

Izumi tries not to think about it, as he has plenty of other things to worry about between his personal career and Knights’, and he doesn’t have time to get riled up over this game that Ritsu’s playing.

Besides, Izumi isn’t the best at handling relationships of any kind, if his past with Leo (or Arashi, or Makoto, or that time Yuuta became replacement-Yuu-kun) is any indication. So he tries his best to ignore it, and just accepts that he’s just going to be getting kissed by Ritsu a lot, because now it feels weird not to , but also because that’s “just how Knights is”.

The problem, though, is that it doesn’t just stop at being a simple before-and-after-performance ritual, and that makes the habit much harder to accept.

Ritsu starts seeking Izumi’s company around the office, too.

Sometimes it’s as simple as joining Izumi in the employee cafeteria in the mornings, with mumbled excuses like “Maa~kun is busy today, so I had to wake up on my own”, which Izumi doesn’t bother to call out as a lie, because he’s Mao’s roommate and he knows that Mao is never really “too busy” to go down the hall and wake Ritsu in the mornings.

If it weren’t for their new habit , Izumi may have believed him; he doesn’t want to believe that Ritsu is simply seeking him out for the pleasure of his company either, though, as Ritsu doesn’t simply “wake up early” to have morning tea with someone like him .

It’s all very confusing, and neither of them are stellar at communication.

Wherever Izumi goes around Ensemble Square, so long as it’s not a solo job, Ritsu often accompanies him; likewise if Izumi finds himself with little to do, he finds Ritsu.

So they often find themselves alone in empty practice rooms as a result, and Izumi realizes that practicing alone with Ritsu is a lot less stressful than practicing as a full unit.

There’s something much more relaxing about how Ritsu plays the piano line of their songs, compared to the high-energy way that Leo does it, or the rare but very utilitarian and proper way that Tsukasa does. Izumi can’t play the instrument himself, so he can’t really pin down why it is, but it’s just… easier.

“Relax your throat, Secchan,” Ritsu advises when they’re practicing a new song in which Leo wrote an entire solo for Izumi that’s far out of his comfortable range. It’s somehow easier to take the advice from Ritsu than it is from Leo, despite the words being the same. “It’s like this.”

They sit side by side on the piano bench, and Izumi watches Ritsu’s delicate hands play the melody leading up to the solo, then his soft voice takes Izumi’s solo with ease, where he pauses on the highest notes, holding them suspended for Izumi to learn. Izumi knows he should be internalizing how the melody sounds to reach that point, but he’s somewhat distracted by how easy Ritsu makes it sound.

He tries again, ever the perfectionist, and Ritsu is patient with him (though not without a healthy amount of teasing when Izumi’s voice cracks and croaks) as he repeats the lines over and over even after he’s finally stretched his vocal chords enough to hit the difficult notes with ease.

They sing the rest together, just the two of them, as Ritsu sight-reads the other solos and Izumi sings along with what he vaguely remembers from when Leo wrote the song. It’s messy, as they haven’t yet practiced it with the rest of the unit, but Izumi can’t help but think the clumsiness is charming — dare he say fun. He won’t admit it though, and he starts formulating his complaints before the last measures.

The song ends, Ritsu’s hands come to a graceful halt over the keys, and Izumi tears his gaze away from them to study Ritsu.

Ritsu’s already looking back his way, and the brief eye contact is all the warning Izumi gets before Ritsu leans in — the kiss is staccato and broken before it can be anything more than just a brush of closed mouths, just like all the others before it, but when Ritsu pulls away he seems frantic to gather his sheet music, moving much quicker than Izumi is used to seeing from him.

“Kuma-kun?”

“Good work today, Secchan,” Ritsu says as he stands, sheet music in hand. “I have to go meet up with Maa~kun-“

“Kuma-kun,” Izumi repeats, grabbing the hem of his shirt where it’s untucked. There’s many things that he could say, ranging from ‘it’s not weird if you don’t make it weird, because I won’t make it weird’ to address that their little habit has leaked outside of performance jitters, to simply ‘thanks for the help’, but Izumi wouldn’t stop Ritsu just to say thanks and Ritsu knows it. He settles with: “I’ll be in the dance studio tomorrow, if you want to come.”

Ritsu leaves without another word; Izumi tries to convince himself that it doesn’t make a difference if Ritsu shows up to the dance studio or not.

“Hey, Secchan,” Ritsu stretches out on the couch, settling with his head in Izumi’s lap. “What would you do if I bit you?”

Izumi rolls his eyes and turns the page of his magazine. “Well first, I’d kill you if you left any marks.”

“Ooh? And then what~?”

Izumi moves his magazine aside to look down at Ritsu. He’s sure Ritsu’s just messing with him, because sometimes he really can’t tell how much of these vampirism jokes are rooted in truth. He’s heard from Mao that Ritsu really does bite, and Ritsu has flippantly mentioned how some of their peers’ blood tastes, but Izumi doesn’t discount the possibility that even that is all part of the joke. The Sakuma brothers can’t even seem to agree on the apparent side effects of their supposed vampirism, so how’s Izumi supposed to know how he’d react if it really is true?

“You’re so weird,” Izumi says as he returns to his magazine. Why the hell is it so hard to find that interview Makoto did, anyway?

“I’m sure your blood is sour anyway. Just like you, Secchan.”

“Excuse me, I know it would be the best thing you ever taste.”

Ritsu shifts in his lap, but he doesn’t get up. “Hmm, Maa~kun’s was pretty tasty, though. You have some tough competition, Secchan~”

A flare of jealousy settles in Izumi’s chest… for some reason. He knows this is stupid, he’s just playing along with Ritsu’s weird vampire joke and it’s not that deep, but for some reason being compared to Mao makes him want to compete for Ritsu’s attention. This is strange in itself, because why should Izumi feel insecure compared to Ritsu’s childhood friend? It’s not like they’ve known each other that long, they’re not that close.

They’ve just been spending more time together when Izumi is in Japan, that’s all. Izumi’s sure that Ritsu and Mao probably spend plenty of time together when he’s not around.

Izumi roughly turns a few more pages, trying to find that damned interview already. Why do gaming magazines have to be so long ?

“Secchan.”

“What?”

Ritsu sits up; Izumi misses the weight in his lap almost immediately.

“Wanna see if you’re better than Maa~kun?”

“Hmpf.”

Ritsu inches closer on the couch. He’s facing Izumi, leaning into his space with an arm sneaking between the cushions and Izumi’s back. Izumi can almost feel his breath on his neck — he wants to turn and face Ritsu, but he’s stubborn and doesn’t want to give Ritsu the satisfaction of knowing he’s gotten under his skin. He’s sooo annoying.

Izumi doesn’t push him away, though.

He’s almost startled when Ritsu’s head rests on his shoulder — perhaps he’d been expecting Ritsu to give up and leave, though he’s glad he hasn’t.

Hot breath hits the skin of Izumi’s neck and he fights back the urge to recoil as he braces himself for the pain he assumes would come with teeth sinking into his neck against his wishes.

But the pain never comes.

Instead, Ritsu presses a soft kiss to Izumi’s neck, oddly sweet for someone who’s been talking about biting him and drinking his blood. He tenses against Izumi’s side, and Izumi’s reminded of the day in the practice room.

He doesn’t want Ritsu to run off again.

So Izumi shifts, carefully, awkwardly putting his arm around Ritsu’s shoulders and resting his cheek against Ritsu’s hair. Arms wrap lazily around Izumi’s body, forcing Izumi to give up on his search for Makoto’s interview.

“What are you doing?” Izumi asks when Ritsu kisses his neck again. He swears he can feel Ritsu smiling against his skin.

Ritsu hums and settles against Izumi’s neck, relaxing against Izumi’s side. “Hmm, I wonder~?”

With how Ritsu normally behaves, Izumi often forgets that Ritsu is actually older than him; he’s reminded of this fact when he’s dragged to a second party on Ritsu’s birthday — he’s 20 now, and that’s something Leo (by Rei’s request) won’t let him miss celebrating.

It’s obscenely late at night and Izumi has things to do: he has to pack for his flight back to Florence in the morning, which means he has some cleaning to do in his dorm room, an extra skin care routine that will make up for the sleeping time he’ll have to lose to jetlag, and he was hoping he’d get to say goodbye to Makoto this time… but he also can’t miss Ritsu’s party. It’s Ritsu’s, after all.

But of course, being younger than Ritsu means that Izumi is one of the few people at the second party who isn’t allowed to drink — not that he would if he could, because it would ruin his schedule before his flight.

Izumi’s not entirely displeased with being there though, even if watching Leo to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself or make too much of a mess is annoying. Ritsu is with him and seems to be having fun, socializing with people more freely than he normally does; Izumi wonders how much Ritsu has changed since he moved, if what he thinks he knows about Ritsu isn’t entirely accurate.

Mao is nowhere to be seen; shouldn’t he be Ritsu’s highest-priority guest?

“He talks about you a lot, you know.”

Izumi jumps, startled by the sudden remark. Kaoru takes a seat next to him, passing him a cup. Izumi stares at it suspiciously.

“It’s just juice,” Kaoru assures him. “I’m following the rules, really!”

“Thanks,” Izumi says, taking the cup from Kaoru and taking a sip. Sure enough, it really is just juice. “What do you want?”

“Just came to chat, saw you staring at Ritchii, thought maybe you wanted a little company and gossip.” Kaoru shrugs. “But really, I think he misses you.”

Izumi keeps an eye on Ritsu, who is quite literally hanging onto Leo as the latter flits around the party. 

“Since when do you call him ‘Ritchii’?” Izumi tries not to let the jealousy seep into his voice.

“Oh, he hasn’t told you? We’re pals, and he even gets along with Rei-kun better now. I must’ve picked up the nickname from Koga-kun though, haha~”

Ritsu hadn’t told him; Izumi realizes suddenly that Ritsu doesn’t talk about himself much at all, especially since Izumi graduated and moved.

But sure enough, when Izumi watches Ritsu mingling with the others, he’s not actively avoiding Rei anymore. He’s chatting with people that Izumi didn’t think he even knew, and Izumi can’t help but think that Ritsu looks happier than he did before, and more confident and independent.

He’s a little disappointed that it took so long to notice.

“Senacchi? Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Izumi finishes his drink. “I think I’m going to go to bed though, my flight is early.”

He bids Kaoru a stiff farewell, discards his cup, and starts toward the stairs up to the dorms — before he gets far, as if he’d been watched as he left the party, a soft, familiar voice calls out to him.

“Secchan?”

Izumi turns and finds Ritsu following him down the hall, looking a little unsteady on his feet. He rushes over to hold Ritsu up.

“Kuma-kun, why’d you leave your party? You’ve already passed your room, too.” Izumi can’t help but fuss over him.

“No point if Secchan’s not there,” Ritsu mumbles. He wraps his arms tightly around Izumi’s waist and nuzzles his neck, shameless with his affection in the middle of the hall.

Izumi awkwardly shuffles them back down the hall toward Ritsu’s room, thanking Keito in his head for putting Ritsu on the first floor. If Ritsu doesn’t want to be at the party anymore then the least Izumi can do is make sure he gets to his own bed safely. “Weren’t you having fun?”

Ritsu nods without removing his face from the crook of Izumi’s neck. “But Secchan is leaving soon…” the end of his sentence is mumbled too quietly for Izumi to hear.

They reach Ritsu’s door and Izumi manages to get Ritsu to unlock it, then he hauls Ritsu over to his bed and coaxes him to loosen his grip.

“Secchan,” Ritsu calls softly once Izumi convinces him to lay down. “Can you stay a little longer?”

Izumi knows he can’t. He has things to do, though he also feels guilty about leaving Ritsu alone so suddenly after being the reason he left his own party.

“I’m sorry, Kuma-kun. I have to pack-“

“Do you have to go back to Italy?”

Ritsu’s expressions are much less filtered now, Izumi notes as he watches Ritsu’s mouth twist into a pout and his eyebrows knit. Ritsu grips his hand; Izumi sees a little of the old Ritsu now.

“You always think about work, Secchan. You’re just as bad as Maa~kun.”

“Kuma-kun, I-“

“Would you stay if I asked you to, Secchan?”

Izumi doesn’t know what to do. He can’t just leave to go pack, at least not in good conscience, and his little chat with Kaoru has made him realize that he’s really not noticing things that he should, especially about Ritsu.

Ritsu’s hold on his hand falters.

“I’m sorry, Kuma-kun,” Izumi pauses. Trying to figure out a compromise when he’s used to doing things his own way all the time is difficult. “I could take you to my room. Isara’s there, you know-“

“I don’t want to bother Maa-kun,” Ritsu argues, “and I don’t want Secchan to leave me. I miss you.”

Izumi doesn’t know how much Ritsu had to drink, but he assumes that that is something Ritsu hadn’t meant to say out loud, as Ritsu’s eyes go wide after the admission as the words seem to echo in the dimly-lit room.

“I’ll be back soon, though,” Izumi offers weakly, taking Ritsu’s hand again and sitting on the edge of the bed.

Ritsu rolls over to bury his face in his pillow. Izumi can make out a muffled “not soon enough”, followed by more unintelligible grumbling.

Izumi’s at a loss; they sit in silence for a long moment before Ritsu removes his face from the pillow.

“Can you stay with me just for tonight?” Ritsu asks, almost timidly. Izumi feels his hand shaking; he doesn’t have the heart to say no, but-

“Kuma-kun, my flight is in-,” Izumi checks his watch, “six hours, and I still have to pack-“

“Fine,” Ritsu huffs, suddenly releasing Izumi’s hand and turning over in his bed. “Bye, Secchan.”

He’d expected to at least be able to say good night pleasantly; Izumi rises from his seat on the bed and pauses. It feels almost cruel to leave Ritsu like this, regardless of whether or not it’s his birthday.

Izumi sighs and checks his watch again. If he skips the extra skin care routine, throws his stuff in his suitcase, foregoes hunting for Makoto before breakfast, and asks Eichi for a ride to the airport… he could get away with spending a few more hours with Ritsu, though he cringes at the idea of napping in his day clothes.

“Kuma-kun,” Izumi touches his shoulder. “Kuma-kun, make room.”

Ritsu turns his head to level Izumi with a suspicious stare, but ultimately scoots over enough for Izumi to lay down beside him.

“What are you doing, Secchan?” He asks as Izumi starts adjusting the pillows and sheets around them. Once Izumi is satisfied (or as close to satisfied as he can get, because he’s laid in Ritsu’s bed with his clothes on and Ritsu’s pillowcases are definitely going to leave his hair frizzy), he throws an arm over Ritsu’s body, leaving it up to him to decide what to do with it.

“I can spare a nap,” is all Izumi says in response.

Ritsu turns to face Izumi, and Izumi can’t help but feel a bit vulnerable like this, like Ritsu is studying him more than usual and he’s lost his defenses because he’s in Ritsu’s domain now — hesitant fingers caress Izumi’s cheek, lingering for what feels like a small eternity, and Izumi closes his eyes just before soft lips meet his, nothing like the over-excited bursts of affection he’s used to.

Izumi pulls Ritsu closer, partly just on instinct and partly because he realizes then that the kisses don’t just mean nothing anymore.

Perhaps they’ve meant something for a while, and he’s just been too stuck up his own ass to notice.

Returning to Italy has never been this difficult before.

Izumi busies himself with tidying the apartment — Leo left the place a disaster before they left for Japan, and since Leo chose to stay in Japan a while longer to help with some compositions, Izumi feels he’s fully in the right to get the place up to his standards again.

But cleaning the apartment isn’t a task that can distract him forever, unfortunately.

He wants to call Ritsu, just to check up on him, partly feeling guilty that he hasn’t actually asked him how his life is going at Ensemble Square. He wants Ritsu to tell him what he’s up to, who he’s been hanging out with, what he does in his free time now that he’s been out of school.

Ritsu seems to know so much about him, but Izumi suddenly feels like he knows nothing about him.

Hell, Izumi thought until the night he stayed with Ritsu that he was still in love with Mao, and maybe Ritsu still is, but clearly Ritsu’s been giving Mao more space and this is the first Izumi’s heard about it.

His apartment is spotless, meals are prepped, all of his meetings with agents and photographers are scheduled for the rest of the week; Izumi has nothing to do but stare at his phone, as if hoping Ritsu will call or text him if he’s watching the screen.

It’s unlikely, considering the time difference between Italy and Japan.

Izumi drafts a text himself:

“Hey, what are you doing? I miss you”

Then he deletes it and tries again:

“Good morning, Kuma-kun! Thinking about you, what are you doing today?”

Too stiff.

“Hey Kuma-kun I was just thinking and realized that I have no idea what you’ve been up to or who you hang out with now or what you do for fun and I really want to know how you’re doing because I’m worried about you but also I really miss you and want to hear your voice so could you call me ASAP?”

Way too much… Izumi’s been trying to work on that. So he sends nothing.

He switches to his texts with Makoto, which is just an endless string of sent messages filled with emojis that Makoto sometimes reads but never replies to, and he sends a fresh string of hearts and kissy faces for the hell of it before closing his phone again.

If only he knew Ritsu’s schedule, he could call him and hear his voice again, but Izumi doesn’t want to interrupt Ritsu when he’s working, or even encourage Ritsu to start slacking off like he’s prone to doing. Or used to be prone to doing, Izumi has no idea if he’s better about that now or not.

He’s not sure if he’ll make it through the month without Ritsu’s voice.

“Hey, Secchan, you never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“What would you do if I bit you? What would you do if I wanted to drink your blood?”

Izumi straightens up from his stretch. They’re in an ES dance studio, getting some familiar one-on-one practice time, though neither has mentioned what happened on Ritsu’s birthday, and Izumi has been trying not to make it too obvious that he’s been desperate to spend time with Ritsu since he landed in Japan.

He wonders if he’s succeeding.

Izumi stands and helps Ritsu to his feet. “You never gave me a reason to think you were serious. How am I supposed to know what I’d do if you bit me when I don’t even know for sure if it’s a legitimate possibility? Asking about hypotheticals is soooo annoying.”

“Oh~? So you want me to bite you to prove I’m serious?”

Izumi shrugs and starts the music. “I never know if you’re serious, Kuma-kun.”

They run through the song once, with Izumi watching Ritsu carefully to see if he can keep up with the new choreography.

Ritsu stumbles on a particularly tight spin; Izumi catches him before he falls.

This is the closest they’ve been since the morning Izumi left for Florence — Izumi wants to let them both fall to the floor and make up for all the lost time they missed while he was abroad; instead he pulls Ritsu upright and backs away.

“Use your arms for better momentum, the more you bring them in the tighter the turn will be.” Izumi knows that Ritsu knows this by now, but it never hurts to reiterate for the sake of perfection.

Ritsu runs through the sequence again and again, while Izumi makes adjustments to his posture and points out the errors in his footing, but even when Ritsu technically has the dance correct, perfect even, Izumi isn’t satisfied.

“You’re frustrated, Secchan.”

Izumi sighs. “That obvious?”

“I think it would help if I bit you~,” Ritsu teases.

Izumi still can’t tell if Ritsu’s just messing with him; he’s not sure if he’ll ever know, but he has nothing to lose besides some dignity trying to find out.

“Sure, whatever. Go ahead, but if you leave marks I’ll be pissed.”

Ritsu just stares at him. “Are you serious?”

“That’s my line.”

Ritsu approaches Izumi, reaching for his hands; Izumi tries not to seem too excited when he intertwines their fingers, though Ritsu squeezes their hands when he does.

Never breaking eye contact, Ritsu brings both of Izumi’s hands up to his face, and Izumi thinks for a second when he catches a glimpse of Ritsu’s fangs that he may bite his wrists — which Izumi can’t help but think is terribly intimate, possibly even more so than his neck.

Then again, so is sleeping together and kissing and—

Ritsu doesn’t bite though, instead just kissing Izumi’s hands before dropping them again and backing away. “Just kidding~”

“I missed you,” Izumi blurts out, as if afraid he’ll never get the chance to admit it if he doesn’t say it at this very moment.

Ritsu freezes and his eyes widen before narrowing again, just barely enough for Izumi to notice. Izumi catches him fidgeting with the hem of his t-shirt.

“More than you missed Yuu-kun?”

Izumi still loves Yuu-kun, he doesn’t think he’ll ever not , but he can’t deny that he only sent Makoto one text the entire time he was in Florence, while he craved Ritsu’s voice every. Single. Day.

Izumi nods, reaching for Ritsu to pull him close again, because now that he’s within reach Izumi feels greedy. Ritsu rests his head on Izumi’s shoulder, a familiar position by now, as he wraps his arms around Izumi and grips the back of his shirt.

“I missed you too.”

Izumi wonders how this kind of affection came to feel natural for people so prickly and standoffish. He takes a moment to simply enjoy it; Ritsu is a comforting weight against him, not overly warm, and a pleasant size to hold.

“Would you stay if I asked you to, Secchan?”

Realistically, both of them know the answer already. Izumi can’t stay in Japan forever, he has a career to tend to in Italy, and even when they’re both in the same country there’s no guarantee that they can see each other all the time.

Izumi can’t say yes, but he also doesn’t have the heart to say no, because he’d like more than anything to be able to stay where he can hear Ritsu’s voice and learn more about all the things he’s missed. 

He knows the question is more than literal, so he can’t give a literal answer anyway.

When Izumi doesn’t respond after a minute, Ritsu pulls back to study his face with the same calculating stare that he always has when he’s figuring things out about Izumi that Izumi can’t even put into words, as if looking under his very skin.

Izumi half-expects Ritsu to make a move then, because it’s become a habit, but when Ritsu doesn’t close the distance—

Izumi lurches forward, anticipation ruining his grace as he bridges the gap to kiss Ritsu, his hands coming up to rest on Ritsu’s shoulders as if fearing he’ll run away once Izumi opens up to him.

But Ritsu doesn’t run; Izumi feels his lips curve into a smile against his own.