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Summer weather was the one to trigger it, more often than not.

It was logic, biology, a perfect science. With the unrelenting blaze of the sadistic sun came heat, and with heat came sweat. With sweat came salt, tiny crystals of delicate and desirable seasoning in restaurants and kitchens but merely invisible spawn of devils on skin, and with the very existence of anything in the universe came the hellish phenomena dubbed evaporation. Sweat evaporated, but the saltiness it left behind did not- it could be tasted when taken to with lips and tongue, it could be wiped onto fingers or gathered involuntarily, sickeningly under nails with layers of dirt and lotion as the body’s fragile owner dragged said nails over said body a hundred, two hundred, three thousand times over.

“Think about it this way- it’s all a chemical reaction,” someone had told him once, someone older and wiser and far more learned in fickle, stinging matters such as these. “Sweat causes salt. Your skin isn’t a fan of salt, so it reacts. And then you get, well-”

His entire body was on fire, burning and prickling at nearly every inch of him with something insistent, inherently vile. The itch hopped and leapt, leaving a neverending trail of biting sparks that sank into his skin with barbed, razor teeth and burrowed their way into his flesh. Sheets clung nauseatingly to his sweat-slick skin, as if determined to force him into sufferance for as long as humanly possible, and the back of his neck stung and chafed against his pillow where he’d scratched it raw in his sleep. The room was pitch dark, yet when he dragged his thankfully blunt nails over his forearms back and forth, back and forth, he could feel minuscule remnants of torn skin mingling with bits of dried blood. He’d have to check the futon for rogue smears of scarlet when the sun came up, and deal with it accordingly, but for now…

Too hot, too hot. The air was suffocating, this tiny practice room his class had chosen to spend the night in nothing but stuffy and humid. The ceiling fans had mercilessly decided just not to work the moment night had slipped its merry way into the day, and his groupmates, band of idiots as they were, had voted to sleep in this miniature circle of hell regardless. As if to add insult to the injury, all the doors and windows were kept closed, and oh, this complete lack of ventilation paired with undying heat and skin that threw tantrums at just trickles of sweat was not looking good for Izumi’s beauty sleep.

He was soaked in sweat, clothes more of a menace than they’d been in his entire life, and the moment the itch was forcibly stopped in one place through desperate nails over or into skin, it passed on the baton and started right up in another area. Wrists, throat, legs, sides- he found himself bolting breathlessly upright in his thick, disgustingly puffy bedding, hurriedly peeling his body off the sheets and kicking the rest of the heavy fabric away with a sort of franticness he couldn’t quite quell. The burn of salt-triggered skin didn’t let up in a slightest, and a frustrated gasp tore itself from his lips as he wrenched his fingers into his hair, digging sharply into his skull as the itch started up there, too, and it was just too much at once, every millimetre of his body prickling and stinging with phantom insects trooping right over his body with poison embedded in each of their microscopic feet. It was spreading, getting worse, cell receptors screaming out in pain as he tore his nails right down his neck, feeling himself wince and flinch away from his own delirious touch, but the pain only numbed the itch for a second- the latter came back in full force near-immediately after, and I can’t I can’t I can’t-

Nearly tripping over nothing as he scrambled to his feet, his breaths came quick and shallow as he dodged around his sleeping classmates and darted towards the nearby door. Fingers jerked and trembled as he fumbled with the doorknob, the maddening need to scratch that stubborn itch that marred his arms and chest making his eyes prick pathetically with tears as he kept his hands firmly away, and it took far too long for him to finally get the door open and stumble out into the cool, early-morning air that came a little after midnight but hours before dawn. The sudden change in temperature made his skin tingle, the lovely, tantalising coldness something that made his mind calm and shoulders slump in relief- but only for a moment. Within seconds the itch was back, maybe even worse than before, as if in aggravation of the practice room’s heat being robbed from it so quickly, its hell-bent fodder being removed in desperate spite.

Hissing out a shaky breath from between his teeth, Izumi slumped down onto the blissfully freezing concrete (it provided respite, just a tiny bit), back pressing harshly against the wall as he yanked at his hair hard enough for it to hurt, hard enough for that part of his body to keep itself sated as he took to the rest of his body with the sharpness that topped every one of his fingertips, his arms aching with how much he’d used them for this gruesome, infinite task. It hurt, it hurt, but not scratching would drive him veritably insane, and the brand of insanity that clouded over his mind when he caught glimpses of revolting red and grey clogged up beneath his nails was something else altogether. It’ll wash out, came the trembling, ragged thought as he tore at his shirt-sticky collarbones, his thighs that bore fleshy pink marks under the light of the corridor’s overhead lamps. It’ll wash out, it’ll come off, it’ll be over soon, this will all be over-

Will it?

There was no cure for this condition of his, and no pitiful welcome gift other than the feeling of sheer hopelessness that set in as quickly as the tide to the shore, but never left as easily. Adults claimed it’d go away as he got older, that his body would give him a rest and grow out of it eventually, but it never did, and perhaps it never would- if anything, the itch only got worse the older he got, and perhaps it was owing to the placebo of age itself. With more and more years of experience under his belt came knowledge, a greater awareness of how his condition worked, how to soothe it and prevent it- and that made it sting all the more, because even after trying everything he possibly could in the world, nothing worked. His level of helplessness was comparable to that of a newborn baby, and he was nothing but a worthless slave to this domineering, sadistic creature called his own skin. He’d never be able to stop it, never be able to rid himself of it-

Why me? he'd once asked the lonesome, fleeting skies as a child- and for all the time he’d waited, silent and quivering beneath the light of the watching moon, he’d never gotten an answer.

It was no different now, as he stared up at the passive, expressionless orb far up above, his hands continuing to scratch but his mind barely registering the rawness of his wounds any longer. He’d regret this in a few hours, when the hands of the clock bypassed its current three in the morning and signalled the proper start of another gruelling day, and right around then, Izumi’s scalp would ache and his arms would sting and his legs would feel like they couldn’t support him any longer.

His head prickled sharply, and his fingers darted up to sink deceptive bluntness into the itch so blindly, so desperately a wave of pain scraped right over the sensitive state and made him wince. He felt his skin give, felt the harrowing sting in that particular spot intensify further as he hurriedly wrenched his fingers away, joints trembling like an invalid’s as he raked his gaze over his digits under dim, yellow lights. Tiny scabs from previous, barely-healed wounds clung to the undersides of his nails where he’d unwittingly ripped them open, and his stomach lurched in an almost-gag at the texture of it all that was suddenly inescapable, the red of blood that was suddenly so sickeningly bright when no longer cloaked by darkness. Scrambling to his weakened feet again and nearly losing his balance in the process, he frantically shook his hands as if to shake the layers of disgust from his body, but the tiny pieces of dried scarlet and ever-so repulsive skin wouldn’t come off as easily as that. He needed something sharp, maybe thin, or just some traditional soap and water that would hopefully, hopefully-

“Sena?”

Flinching away from the voice in such close proximity was pure instinct, as was the broken, unheeding noise that wrenched itself from his throat as he stumbled backwards in shock. Feverish blinks made the world flicker as his right arm reflexively dropped to dig his nails into his left, almost a defence mechanism- and no, no, he’d just managed to calm down for a whole second and here he was, inciting the itch and making it worse again-

“What’re you- stop, stop that.” The words turned unnaturally harsh as footsteps quickly started towards him, and his mind was a foggy haze and his body was (maybe) swaying in mid-air with exhaustion, but his wrists were stinging and his forearms were stinging and his shoulders were-

(What exactly was he doing, again?)

“Stop, don’t- Sena, stop, stop.” Don’t scratch, it makes it worse, came the unbidden instructions in his head, the exact same words he’d heard over and over ever since he’d been old enough to understand them, the words he told himself day by day but never had the strength to heed. “Sena, listen to me, listen-” fingers closed tight around his wrists in a hot, suffocating grip, dragging them forcefully away from where his nails tried to rip into fragile skin some more, if only to try to tame the burning itch that never deigned to vacate its unwilling home.

Izumi sensed something slipping, something snapping, and then his breath was catching involuntarily in his throat and he was lashing brokenly out, every second those hands stayed fixed on his wrists making his skin blister and come savagely aflame. He could hardly bear the sickening sensations of his own hands on his own skin, so those of a stranger's made his breaths stutter in his lungs and his stomach turn. “Don’t touch,” he choked out, shoving himself bodily backwards and away from this interfering person and dragging his wrists protectively back to his chest, but they couldn’t stay there for long- the itch was back, and it had to be attended to with nails that were filed down but sharp as knives nonetheless, hands that ached with effort but knew better than to allow themselves to stop.

He was crumpling to the floor again, breaths quick and desperate as he scratched at his thin, some-parts bleeding skin with trembling hands and fingers. The night was quiet, almost peaceful save the pressure beneath his skin and within his skull, the need for the itch to leave, to disappear, for every inch of this stupid, sordid world to come crashing down around his ears. Seconds passed, followed by minutes, hours, days-

-and then it was over.

A shaky, gulping breath of air made it through his parted lips and down his painfully raw throat, back slumping against the wall with foolish, temporary relief. His chest moved painstakingly up and down, cold air finally providing pure solace rather than the double-edged care it once had. Every exposed patch of his body had been scraped completely raw, he knew, and he’d pay for it the next time he got into a shower or sweat enough for all that disgusting, damned salt to seep into all his self-inflicted cuts and wounds, but he’d burn those bridges when he got to them. For now, for now...

...his cheeks were damp, and he shakily wiped the tears away. It was over, everything was over, the itch was gone and the pain was minimal so everything was perfectly fine-

“...Sena?”

He literally jumped at the sudden, quiet call of his name, head whipping around to stare wide-eyed at the boy who sat a metre or so away from him, legs crossed and head tilted as if he’d been waiting all this time- oh, fuck. “Leo-kun,” came the syllables all in a rush, and Izumi quickly tugged his arms tight to his body in some attempt to hide the reddened marks and bumps that marred them from his fellow first-year’s watchful gaze, felt anxiety threaten to prickle into something wholly uncontrollable before frantically tamping it down. “How long have you- did you see-”

The words lodged hot and heavy in his throat, asking a question he already knew the answer to- did you see me in that sort of state?

Was it strange? Disgusting? What kind of thoughts are running through your head, what kind of damage control has to be run-

“It isn’t contagious,” was what he settled on first- it was always the safest bet, putting the shallowest fears of the ignorant to bed before tackling the slightly more difficult things. “You won’t catch it, or anything, so- don’t worry.” Don’t flinch away when you touch me, don’t be afraid that these singing, painful sores will wind up on your own perfect skin. It was always easier to simply push people away before they got close enough to see this and left of their own accord, but Leo was beyond the stage where wool could be pulled over his eyes. Something had to be done about it.

"That isn't what I was worried about," Leo muttered, pretty emeralds trailing over the spots on the model's skin he knew were bad, making something in his stomach twist. "Other stuff is more important- are you okay?"

The obvious answer was no, but also yes, because- "This is normal," Izumi said flatly, and if the constant, underlying itch that lingered just a fingertip away beneath his skin made him irritable, then Leo was just going to have to deal with it. "I'm used to it, so it's fine. Don't go thinking of me as some kicked puppy, or something."

"I never would, Sena." A hand reached out as if to brush over his shoulder, and Izumi instinctively recoiled- his no touch order hadn't rescinded itself yet, and might only start to chip away at itself in a few hours, when he was a hundred percent sure frazzled mind and oversensitive skin would be able to deal with it. Leo halted his movement in mid-air, something flickering in his eyes as he undoubtedly remembered that particular boundary- and then he was pulling away again, allowing Izumi a soft sigh of relief. "You said this is normal. What is it?"

There was an endless explanation to this, enough information jam-packed into his desperate head to write entire articles on it, but he settled for simple. "Skin condition. Moderately severe. It got too hot inside that room to sleep, so I left and ended up out here." He waved a hand, pointedly ignoring the way his tired limb protested the action. "That's all. There's nothing else to it, it's not a big deal."

Leo seemed to consider this, fingers tapping slow melodies against the concrete floor. "So… sort of like an alien thing?"

The question was meant to be innocent, Izumi knew- that was how everything regarding Leo generally went. But the words still stung, irrational as it was, and Izumi found his lips curving down into a scowl as he snapped back, "Eczema, idiot. I'm not a fucking alien from one of your storybooks or movies just because my skin is as much of a brat as you are."

Silence. Perhaps that had been an overreaction, but perhaps the idea of Leo seeing him differently just because of this mess was also a hundred times worse than any other consequence.

“...we could get cold drinks?”

Izumi blinked once, twice. (That was a new one.) “Cold…?”

“Drinks, yeah. From the vending machine,” Leo clarified, and that was a surprisingly apt solution- Izumi sometimes found himself trudging downstairs to the machine on the ground floor for freezing beverages as well, the icy liquids serving as a sort of remedy to his overworked body. “It’s the heat, right? So a drink should help to cool you down a little, and maybe you’ll be able to sleep better. We could open all the practice room windows, too, to let some breeze in- nobody’ll know or care if they’re all fast asleep. Which they definitely are.”

This kindness…

It wasn’t foreign, but it was definitely rare. Nobody liked to waste their time and effort on an inconvenience, especially when they knew it could never be cured for good- there was no point in indulging a child who continued to run rampant twenty minutes later, as if he’d never been bribed or rewarded in the first place. If it were anyone else suggesting all of this, Izumi might have fought back, denying his need for weakness and stubbornly getting his way, but for whatever reason, if it was Leo...

“...yeah. Okay,” Izumi mumbled, and the smile Leo gave him in return was so wide and impossibly bright he wanted to turn away. “Just- could we-” he felt himself hesitate, not wanting to ask something as simple and menial yet overly vulnerable and important as this, but then he chanced a look at his own hands and his shoulders tightened, signalling that he didn’t have a choice. “Could we- stop for me to wash my hands first?”

The dirt, the blood, the layers of skin he’d torn off time and time again with his own hands, these hideously sullied nails. Sometimes he painted them so he wouldn’t have to look at what got underneath them when he scratched and scratched, but enough of that forceful ritual and the coloured polish just chipped off, anyway, and he was left no better off than how he’d started. Having to look at the aftermath of his own disaster was never pleasing, and if he looked at it he’d think about the itch, and if he thought about the itch it’d come back, and-

“Anything for you, Sena.” Pushing himself up to his feet, the composer looked at Izumi expectantly to follow.

(As if he still had the faith in Izumi to follow him.)

He couldn’t find it in himself to smile, not yet- but the sentiment was there as he gave a silent nod and got to his feet as well, and Leo wordlessly led him out into the gentle coolness of the night.

•••

“-this stall down the street nearby, they say it’s really good. They’ve got sticky buns, yam cakes, meat dumplings...”

All of that did sound good, Izumi had to admit. He hadn’t had much for lunch today, and his stomach was already protesting the lack of nutrition despite the school day being only three quarters over. Still, every good proposition came with a sizeable dealbreaker, and Izumi didn’t always have the luxury to ignore it. “A roadside stall?”

"Yeah, those pop-up types." Leo looked at him curiously, pausing his half-baked doodle of Albert Einstein in Izumi's math notebook to give his companion his full attention. "Not a fan of that kind of food?"

Even with Izumi's penchant for avoiding any foods that went above room temperature, he didn't dislike them. "That's not it," he muttered, and really, the truth was worse than anything he could ever come up with. It was straightforward, ridiculous- road stalls usually meant no electronic fans and the like, not a single source of coolness to be found within the area. Heat from the bun and dumpling steamers would rise and coalesce with the tepid air as well, and Izumi would be a fool not to know that his skin would not have mercy on him. "It's too hot, so I can't- won't go." (If he said can't it might seem like he was whining, making excuses, so the best course of action was a different sort of refusal.) This wouldn't be a long conversation, anyway- Leo would likely drop the subject, since planning anything else would be far too much of a hassle involving someone like Izumi, and he wouldn't have asked if he weren't determined to get that roadside treat at any cost, be it by himself or with a partner by his side. It was simple math, much like the equations Leo was currently desecrating in his math homework. 

"Where do you want to go, then?”

Einstein's hair had been halted, half drawn. Izumi tore his gaze away from the clumsy, graphite-smeared portrait and met Leo's expectant expression. "What?"

“We don’t have to get the roadside thing. We could go to a cafe or something, too.” Leo spoke as if this was an obvious option, and Izumi found that he couldn't quite speak at all. “That place down the block’s got air conditioning, so it’ll be fine, right?”

“But that's a whole block away,” Izumi said weakly, because he wasn't so much of an idiot as not to pose geographical oppositions when needed, even if his tongue felt a little like it was about to fall off. “And I’m not a- I can’t be some kind of-” spoiled brat. That had always been the phrase used to describe children who kicked up a fuss over simple things like temperature and sweat, never mind how much agony it put them through to stick it all out. “It’ll be easier for you to just go get the thing you want by yourself, I’ll just-”

“I want to do something with you.”

(...how the hell was he supposed to argue with that?)

He had to give it a try, anyway. “We’ll have to walk there.”

“Yeah. And?” Leo raised an eyebrow, pencil going back to shading Einstein’s bushy head, and Izumi fought the urge to literally groan aloud.

“It’ll be hot. It’s boiling out today, and I’ll sweat buckets, and my skin will react, and I-” his throat tightened, and he could feel the discomfort setting in already- the phantom heat in his clothes, the deadly itch in his skin. “It won’t be pretty. I’m not good at- at controlling it yet, so I’ll be scratching at my arms and stuff a ton, and- people will stare. You don’t want that when you’re out, so-”

“Don’t care,” Leo cut in, and confounding as it was, maybe Izumi should have expected this sort of response. “I’m used to being stared at, and if you want, I can make so much of a racket nobody’ll even glance at you. And if someone does look at you funny, I’ll walk right over and punch them in the face.”

(-it’s disturbing to watch, Izumi, so try to keep it down low. Nobody wants to see something like this, okay? There’s a good boy.)

He was used to the disgusted looks he got as he took to his arms and neck with forcibly blunt nails and a sort of desperation that passersby couldn’t ever deign to comprehend, because they weren’t him- they hadn’t lived a single life with this stubborn skin of his, had never had to think of peeling every inch of their body off with a sharp, thin knife, if only to bring relief for just a second. There were also the people who looked at him with pity, as if they had any right to think of him as some poor, god-forsaken child, and if anything, that pissed Izumi off more than anything else.

Leo was neither of those two types of people, however.

Some thoughtless part of himself having already given in, Izumi heaved a sigh, slumping heavily back in his chair. "Please don't make a racket. Or punch anyone."

There was a bright, supremely non-reassuring laugh that made Izumi’s lips want to curve upwards anyway as Leo slung an arm around his shoulders and nuzzled his face into his hair in that weirdly affectionate way he always did, and much as the heat his body exuded had the potential to be suffocating, Izumi didn’t pull away too much- Leo always knew to let go after a second or so, anyway. "No promises, Sena. We'll just see how it goes!"

•••

Food was something bold, questionable.

The taste of meat was bland on his tongue, not because the dish was inherently so, but rather because every one of his senses save physical touch had taken a definite back seat. It was difficult to concentrate on chewing and swallowing an adequate amount when he had trouble even holding his chopsticks, hands impulsively switching between dropping the wooden utensils and picking them up, taking a single bite before jerkily halting to drag his nails up and down his overheated body to scrape over burning arms, a stinging neck. An electric fan whirred overhead, already cranked up to its highest setting, but it wasn't enough- nothing ever was, really.

He couldn't focus, couldn't think. He'd lost his appetite a long time ago, any twisted desire for sustenance he'd previously had having completely given way to the glaring need for this trembling, nearly bleeding ordeal to stop. It was time-consuming, overbearing-

His throat hurt. (It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Be it from scratching at that fragile column one time too hard at a very wrong angle, sometimes leaving his stomach lurching as he gave a startled cough, or just the ongoing pressure of frustrated brute force and nails over something that wasn’t biologically meant to be a target, it happened weekly at minimum. Daily when things got really, really bad.)

Just the sight of his half-eaten meal was revolting, and he pushed it away with a shaky hand. He wouldn’t be having a single mouthful more, that much was clear, lest he choke himself accidentally- or perhaps of his own accord. The food was all cold now, anyway, and it’d end up getting binned the way food often did, loath to waste ingredients as he was. (He knew he should eat regardless of how it tasted, regardless of how his skin burned and crawled at the very idea of it, but he didn’t. He’d deal with the hunger pangs later- that was another problem for another time.) This was nothing but a waiting game, and a sadistic one at that- he’d carry out this pointed ritual of sharpness-turned-blunt over skin as many times as it took, until his body was weak and pathetically fragile in defeat- or perhaps it was a slim, barely-there victory, as the persistent itch finally began to subside, only for it to be aggravated, soothed, aggravated, soothed- and forcefully subsided once again.

It was tiring. Exhausting. He wanted to collapse into his arms and fall fast asleep, slumped over the table just like that, but that’d centre all his body heat into a single, suffocating area, so he didn’t.

There was a gentle brush of fingers over his shoulder, and he flinched away without a thought. “Sorry,” came a voice that really did sound apologetic for once, and then there was something being set down in front of him, a china bowl filled with a form of nourishment that teased at Izumi’s overworked senses with its enticing scent. Soup, was the obvious explanation, and the model found himself instinctively grimacing, turning his head away. 

“Just a spoonful,” Leo prompted, neatly sliding into the seat opposite Izumi to fix him with a look that said please in the most heart-wrenching, adorable way. “If you like it, you can finish it, and if you don’t, I will.”

It didn’t take a genius to know that Leo wouldn’t give in anytime before his lover did, especially here in their apartment where there was nowhere else to run. Sighing, Izumi lifted the accompanying spoon with his thumb and index finger, rocking it back and forth within the gently swirling liquid. Simple miso with tofu, seaweed…

He chanced a sip, and oh, this isn't so bad.  

The soup was cold enough not to send his body temperature hiking up and make him want to rip into his skin and drain all his blood cleanly out, but also warm enough to still be appetising and not an immediate object of disgust- warm enough for the taste of it to be proper and real. He was finishing the entire bowl within a minute, something previously ignored in his stomach finally settling and calming itself like the rest of him. This would, at very least, be just enough to keep himself sated until he felt up to eating properly again. Setting his spoon back into the now-empty bowl, he chanced a careful glance up at Leo, expecting a mouthful of words, a stream of predictable teases-

-but none of that came. The composer cocked his head slightly to the side instead, eyes not leaving Izumi's, and the latter could read the question on that bright, currently tranquil mind as easily as breathing- better?

Perhaps he wasn't lying when he gave a small, single nod.

•••

Clothes were suffocating.

It was a strange thing for a model to say, for a model to think- surely someone who made a living off precious swathes of clothing and alluring new fabrics should revere such objects, such elements of their very existence that made them appealing, beautiful. Izumi had to admit that he did hold a fondness for these sorts of things, their use of covering up things no one wished to see a form of blessing at times, but there was no love without hate, and no coin with only one side. Long sleeves were preferable but tepid, masks were a staple but brought with them their trademark rawness and rash-

He wanted it all off. Even the softest of fabric chafed at sensitive skin, leaving red marks and bumps that sometimes bled when scratched too hard or often. Cloth pricked and burned at his thighs and collarbones, everything somehow sharp but leading to insistent itching rather than pain, and in moments like those, pain was preferable. Pain was centred in a single place, and could be ignored by simply doing other things to take one's mind off it, or alleviated by rubbing or pressing someplace else- but itch drove a person to madness in ways that were unique to its own, sickly self. It was a vile, nauseating creature in its own right, consisting of frantic, disgusting things that scuttled all over one's skin, and the bloodthirsty critters couldn't be seen or heard, but they were there- and they'd never, ever leave. They couldn’t be spoken to or bargained with, for they had no voice of reason- and under enough of their influence, the mind residing in their host’s body would lose their own voice of reason, too.

Stop, stop, stop-

Freezing cold showers were the only things that brought about any relief at all, but over his course of life he'd learned to dread those, too. His skin was always scratched raw, and stepping under the water at full blast made everything sting in a strangled fit to kill him, all in a single blow. His arms, his legs, his neck, his scalp- it all hurt, making him instinctively wince away from the water that was both his saviour and his personal sadist. Showers got shorter in duration the worse his skin became, because there was only so much of that belligerent pain he could bring himself to deal with in one self-induced sitting. Some days he forwent any sort of soap, just hurriedly rinsing himself off the most he could bear so he felt clean before getting the hell out of there- back out into the hot, muggy air that started the age-old cycle all over again.

(He had a shoot scheduled for tomorrow. He'd be modelling winter clothing, which was both a blessing and a curse- the layers would be thick and stuffed with heat for their intended purpose, and Izumi could only hope the venue's air conditioning was up to scratch- but long sleeves and hems also meant that he wouldn't have to sit through that long of a makeup session to cover up any exposed slivers of his marred, tasteless skin. He could see his designer shaking her head in disappointment already, nonetheless.)

Stepping out of his blissfully frigid shower with a soft sigh, Izumi pointedly ignored the full-body mirror he passed by as he made his way out of the bathroom. He'd more or less gotten himself dried off beforehand, only leaving his still-damp hair as the usual final challenger. It was a long-inlaid routine, sitting himself at the edge of his bed and carefully toweling the remaining part of his body dry as a familiar, childish instruction played daintily in his head- pat and fluff, Izumi, pat and fluff. Yes, just like that- go at your skin and hair as vigorously as your father does with his own and all your outer layers might just peel off. Then, at the foreseeably bewildered (and maybe a little terrified) expression from a still-learning six year old- a laugh, and an amused smile laced with fondness that sometimes only mothers could manage. Kidding. But I’m also being serious- your skin can’t take that sort of brute force, so do it carefully, okay?

Pat and fluff, pat and fluff. The habit had been trained into him well since childhood, a calming sort of ritual in a life that was anything but. Silver strands were tended to with perfect care, his mindful movements more of a necessity than a luxury, but that was only for him to know- it was infinitely better for people to think he was just unnaturally fussy with his hair and skin for the sake of vanity than for them to discover the mocking truth, after all.

-there was one person among the very few who did know the mocking truth, however, who was currently flopping right onto the bed without invitation and swiftly tugging the towel from Izumi’s hands before he even had the time to blink. “I’m bored, I’ll dry your hair.”

“No, don’t- Leo-kun,” Izumi admonished, hurriedly turning to try to grab the towel back, only for his boyfriend to neatly dodge and hold the dampened swathe of cotton as far away from his own body as he possibly could like the absolute preschooler he was, all to prevent his prized contraband from being seized. “Quit it, you can’t- you don’t even know how to-”

Leo blinked, flipping the heap of cloth idly back and forth in the air. “I just have to sort of- dab with the towel, right? Or gently massage, make sure I’m not too rough with the skin, and all that.”

...what the fuck.

Perhaps just how floored he was by Leo somehow knowing that sort of information for whatever reason was showing on his face, earning himself a wide grin from the ball of mischief and utter love sitting by his side. “I’ve been with you a long time, Sena. I pick things up. C’mon, let me try it just one time, and if you hate it, you can kick me out right away.”

Were Izumi not so helplessly smitten for this boy, he might just have pushed him out a window. (He might have done it a long time ago.) “Fine,” Izumi relented with a sigh, letting his shoulders slump in acquiescence as Leo gave an endearingly loud whoop in response. “Just this once, alright?”

“I’ll make you change your mind,” Leo cheerfully replied, and then he was settling neatly behind Izumi and bringing himself up onto his knees to get to a better height. It was an easy thing, letting his eyes fall absently shut as his lover got to work, everything careful and gentle and all those words that weren’t usually used to describe Tsukinaga Leo, but were doubtless as of now. Slow, soothing motions, each one delicately conscious of its own self as a soft, humming tune started up, and maybe he’d fall asleep just like this, with Leo’s stable presence behind him and the tenderness of his ministrations.

He was warmly brought back down to earth by a lingering press of lips to the top of his head, followed by another kiss to the nape of his neck. Giving a slight, pleasured shiver, Izumi turned, mind a little foggy with calm as he languidly blinked at Leo with the air of someone trying not to doze off. Leo had done… perfectly, actually. It hadn’t been the quickest job, inexperienced as he was, but it was definitely its own special brand of relaxation.

Leo smiled a little like a satisfied jungle cat, cute and smug and leaning in to gently bump their noses together as he folded the used towel over an arm. “Think I could do this more often?”

Rolling his eyes, Izumi gave him a light peck on the lips in assent, in reward. “I’ll think about it.”

(That was most definitely a yes.)

•••

"Ready yet, Sena?"

Not in the slightest. The words were unspoken yet their meaning carried effortlessly nonetheless, and Izumi dimly registered his boyfriend poking his head into their bedroom to see what was up. The telltale sensation of a certain gaze fixed unwaveringly on him was something familiar, and he fought not to bristle at the sheer obviousness of it as feet padded steadily over the hardwood floor, slowly nearing where Izumi stood before the full-body mirror on the inside of their closet door. Tugging his hair this way and that, Izumi paid the sounds and fresh presence no mind, simply keeping his eyes on his own reflection.

Skin flaked off far too easily, where he himself was concerned. Eczema was, at its root, notorious for the ordeal of ridiculously dry skin, and his body didn’t seem to see the merit in proving such ideas wrong. Even after being diligently attacked with moisturiser and whatever sorts of lotions or ointments he could think of employing in tandem, tiny flecks of skin came right off and got into hair and onto shirts with just an absent-minded rub over his neck, a temperature-driven drag of nails over his skull.

He was fortunate, he supposed, to be born with hair that went silverish under the light and the ability to carry off at least somewhat light-coloured clothes- but when it all came down to it, even the smallest specks and pieces of white could be identified in the midst of metallic hair, and versatile as his wardrobe was, darker colours still suited him best. There was never a true guarantee of whether people could see the bits and scraps or not, whether they could catch the crude imperfections that snuck their way into softened strands and onto even softer fabric. It made his skin crawl to even think that people were watching him roam around with skin-coloured speckles decorating his hair and clothes when they weren’t supposed to, what Leo liked to playfully call his ‘over-self-consciousness’ taking a sharp hike upwards every time people glanced at him and whispered, looked his way and gave quiet laughs that were probably coincidental, but maybe weren’t.

It was a common practice to spend at least fifteen minutes to half an hour in front of a mirror before leaving home, worriedly checking over his hair and shirt, running his fingers over his scalp and forehead to make sure everything was pristine and perfect. On summer days it was a fruitless cause, however- for every minute he spent getting rid of tiny pieces of skin, a hundred more made their way down with every sweaty yank of hair, every desperate dig of nails into skin. There was no end to this disgusting cycle, this inherent sense of paranoia that wouldn’t leave his body no matter how hard he tried to quell it. No matter how many times he let his gaze fall from the mirror before looking back mere moments later, the end result was always the same- agonising prickles of heat paired with painstakingly marred hair, the constant, niggling feeling that there was always something more even when he couldn’t find a problem in plain sight, the baseless source of nausea at the idea that he’d somehow missed something, that he’d be walking out into the world with a target on his back in just a few seconds, and he wouldn’t even be aware of it-

“I could just tell you if there’s anything in your hair, you know.”

His response came delayed, distracted as he was- the meaning of Leo’s words only occurred to him a long five seconds after they’d been uttered, and even then, they made no sense. “What?”

“I’ll tell you if stuff gets in your hair or shirt,” Leo reiterated, stepping behind Izumi to give his shoulder an idle kiss, green eyes meeting befuddled blue in the mirror. “Or I’ll just help you get it out myself.”

“But that’s-” strange, odd, practically nonsensical. “It’s gross, Leo-kun, you don’t want to-”

Leo frowned, and Izumi got the irrational urge to run a gentle thumb over his brow to prevent such a thing. “It’s just skin, isn’t it?”

“Well- yes, but-” he was duly at loss for words, all from a single rhetoric that shouldn’t have meant all that much at all. He settled for something simple, learned- “It’s weird.”

“I’m weirder,” Leo said with an uncaring shrug, and then he was pulling back and taking one of the model’s hands in his, lifting it to press a chaste kiss to his knuckles and making Izumi’s cheeks flush as the closet doors were nudged shut and he was tugged towards the doorway. “You look fine, Sena, and I’ll make sure you stay the way you like, so don’t worry about a thing.”

It was a lot less daunting being out and about when he had someone else to watch his back, so to speak. Less restless fingers reaching up to run through unseeable strands, fewer compulsive glances at his own reflection in storefront mirrors. He could rest easy knowing that he didn’t have to worry about strangers giving him off-put looks because of those strange, pale flecks clinging to hair or fabric, for the person by his side had sharp eyes and was attentive when it counted.

Pouty lips, a vaguely confused expression- it’s just skin, isn’t it?

Maybe, Izumi silently mused as Leo energetically pulled him from this store to that, eyes bright and joyful with every inch of the world he found in his hands to love and admire- maybe that really was all this body of his had to be.

(If it was just skin, rather than revolting or unorthodox or an absolute eyesore, then maybe, just maybe, it’d be a little less of a pain to live with.)

•••

Were his looks not essential to his livelihood, he might have considered ripping all his hair out.

He was considering it, actually. Sticky, sweaty, wholly uncooperative; heated air curling around his fingertips as he tugged it this way and that. Everything stinging and itching in a fit to singe him to cinders when he as much as wound a strand of softness taut around his index finger, the crippling sensation of hair tickling his face with derision making him want to peel every inch of skin off his aching skull and fling it into a pool of washed-up ashes. Deceptively sparkly grey powder dappled with the inherent bloodiness of roses, flowers being watered with remnants of the dead that nobody else would see-

-he dragged his nails desperately up and down, left and right, scarring cleanly over his face, his throat, his scalp, every step of it perpetuating a vicious, repetitive cycle. Every movement was sharp, as if he was taking to himself with a prettied blade, cool air flitting over every flesh-pink mark in separate, pleading warnings that he didn’t have the time to heed. There was the faint yet distinct sound of footsteps as someone neared the room, then their presence was smothered in a form of definitive silence.

Noiselessness. Quiet.

“Sena-”

Izumi grit his teeth, body blindingly tense and coiled with frustrated energy as he dug his nails piercingly into thin, frail skin, trying to fight the urge to rip them straight down in a fit to draw hot, seeping blood. "I'll fucking kill you if you tell me not to scratch."

(He’d draw blood anyway, whether he tried to prevent it or not. There'd be a sudden, unnaturally there sort of sting, and when he pulled his hands away there'd be scarlet under his nails and staining his skin and-)

("It isn't that hard," some stupid, snot-nosed kid at his modeling agency had once said, when a middle schooled Izumi had turned up for work with red, angry scratch marks all over his forearms and cheeks a similar colour not with blush or cold, but with rawness and long-dried tears. "If it's such a pain, then just don't scratch. Simple as that.")

(Izumi had nearly hit him for that one. But he was a good, law-abiding child when it mattered, even when people said the most idiotic things that warranted responses like please shut up and you don't know what you're talking about and if it were that easy, don't you think I would’ve just stopped all this and gotten myself out of hell already?)

(-don’t you think I’m already trying?)

(He'd silently walked off to go get his skin coated in makeup, instead. Models weren't meant to be so horribly imperfect in ways like this, after all- at the very least, not where other people could see them.)

The person was stepping closer, gruesome as the proximity was, and then the breeze from the overhead fan was casting over him in a fluid gust and sending hair fluttering over his cheeks, his eyes, his forehead. A strangled sound wrenched itself from his lips as the world flickered in and out for a brief moment, and then his eyes squeezed tightly shut as trembling fingers flew upwards to drag those stinging lacerations of silver away from his skin, every strand he forcefully pulled back being replaced by another twenty every millisecond. Harshly yanking at the top of his skull did next to nothing, only sending fresh surges of pain darting through his head as he scrabbled at his neck, his wrists. He’d wanted all sense of feeling to leave those places earlier, but now nothing was worse than the tiny slivers of poison streaking over his face as hair danced and twirled, every strand drawing fresh beads of blood in his mind’s eye. His stomach churned and breaths hissed unsteadily between his teeth with every stifled gasp, and if he didn’t get these disgusting points of contact out of his face in exactly two seconds he was going to tear his nails straight into his windpipe and-

“Sena. Look at me for a second, come on-”

"What the fuck do you want," Izumi bit out, fingers trembling as they sank themselves into the skin just above his collarbones, a fragile-feeling place that he might just rupture with a single dig too hard. Good, maybe if he tore into that essential-seeming area it'd draw enough blood and pain to distract him from other things, other parts of his body that were begging to be deftly torn into themselves-

"Use this." Something small and vaguely sparkly was thrust in his direction, and as his fingers fumbled to grab ahold of it he found that it wasn't all that small at all. A black hair clip, decently sized and horribly decorated with pink and orange glitter, and oh, Izumi knew exactly where this was going and he didn't have to like it.

"I'll look like a fucking idiot," he managed to force out admist every shuddering breath, every torturous flick of hair over raw, sensitive skin. Any logical human being would surely be abandoning all rational thought of their appearance and putting their offered aid into use by now, but if Izumi was going to die, he wasn't going to die wearing a children's hair clip. "I'm going to-" rip my throat out, and it'll be entirely an accident. The itch was creeping over every damned patch of skin, making his entire body tremble with revulsion and apprehensive energy, hands desperate and needing to do something about it but never knowing what. "I can't- please, just-"

Stop. Just stop, stop, let me be free of this broken play, this mangled script it can't help but abide by-

"Give it to me," Leo said firmly, striding forwards and neatly plucking the hair clip from Izumi's quivering fingers. He was being tugged forwards by the collar of his shirt, then, not out of roughness but out of consideration- his boyfriend made sure his fingers didn't as much as brush over a single bit of Izumi's skin, only coming into contact with suffocating fabric and the clean, cool plastic in hand. Izumi flinched violently backwards as fingers did touch him, then, the necessary press of warmth feeling searing hot against the side of his head- "Shh, it's okay, it's fine, Sena." There was a quick, deft movement and a soft click, and then Leo was stepping back again, hands empty, and oh, this was so much better.

Izumi heaved a shaky sigh of relief as he stumbled heavily back against a nearby wall, the coolness of evening air against his face some form of absolute heaven when not obstructed by menacing strands. One side of his hair had been neatly tucked behind his ear as the other had been pinned properly out of the way with that blasted hair clip, and his body was finally on its way to calming down as a result. No more stinging points of contact, no more constant overstimulation from every inch of his skin imaginable- it was as if he could finally breathe again, air coming hard-fought and shaky through his lungs and his fingers battled the urge to scratch at sadistically teasing skin again, the sort of itch that lingered in the aftermath because it never truly left to begin with. If he just squeezed his eyes tightly shut enough and tried not to think about it, if he just dug into the flesh of his palms hard enough to pull his mind somewhere else, somewhere that hurt a little more-

A soft, broken sob wrangled its way from his throat as he slumped bodily down onto the floor, pressing his face into his trembling hands. The action centred his body's heat all into a single point, threatening to make him boil over in agony for the thousandth time, but he was practiced enough and tired enough to maybe, maybe not care this one, single time. The coldness from the fan was finally setting in, anyway, slithering over the drying sweat that layered over every inch of his body and making him shiver even as his internal temperature remained up, up, up. Another desperately stifled sob, another fought urge to claw his fingers frustratedly into his hair, nails scratching tightly at the fabric of clothing instead, and the salt from his tears stung at the rawness of his skin, cheeks prickling and sending sparks of pain darting wherever they pleased. He was sick of this, sick of this tiring existence that was his own self and all the downfalls he bore, whether he chose to be born into them or not, and above all-

-he needed some sort of contact, body crying out for the presence of another human being yet also vehemently rejecting the idea. Being held would signal the press of another body right flush to his own, the heat from another living being seeping into his flesh and drawing disgusting fodder for the creatures that lived so religiously beneath his skin, and-

"You're fine, Sena. It's all okay."

Somehow, the quiet, optimistic words both soothed his heart and sent more tears streaking mercilessly down his cheeks as Leo carefully arranged himself by his side, back against the very same wall and their bodies close but not too close. There was a gentle bump of shoulder against his own, and his breath hitched fearfully on instinct- but while his body trembled he didn't jerk too badly away, and that was surely a good sign. "Tell me if it's too much," Leo said softly, and then he was gently curling an arm around Izumi's waist, pressing the two of them a little closer and it was hot, too hot but Leo was also familiar and comforting and everything the model needed to just calm down a little. A shaky, uncertain breath made its way out of Izumi's lips, body ruthlessly torn between pushing closer and pulling away, and a featherlight kiss was planted to the shell of his ear in a small, unobtrusive anchor. “Five or six minutes, and you’ll be all cooled down. I’ll count for us, ‘kay?”

They stayed just like that, heat mingling with cold and their breaths coalescing with the ever-changing air, and perhaps it really would be fine, if only for this single moment. If things later went south and fire bled into his skin and nails found their bitter way to cloth and blood once more, all with the knowing sting of flowing tears and pretty, lovely reassurances, then- well-

-he'd deal with it when the time came. Inevitably, inescapably-

(This was all just collateral damage, after all.)