The stage still scares me. It’s where I once lost everything.
The roar of the crowd was all he could hear, every ardent shout and cheer pooling in the depths of his heart and swirling dutifully up in his chest. The lights of the stage flashed on and off overhead, rainbow cyalumes mingled freely with their individually coloured brethren, and every member of the audience was adorned in something belonging to Knights, something that tied them to the energy and sheer life flooding this venue and its five awaited stars. The atmosphere was charged, nearly electric, every minuscule sound and movement merging cleanly with the next and creating a wholeheartedly present, perfectly unique form of love.
And yet something about the flickering lights and the calls of the audience tonight was achingly familiar, the colours and the noise surging and meeting one another in a charmed hello. Meetings could be faked, and hellos could be mere guises for jagged teeth and barbed smiles. There was something hauntingly sinister about this, something that made shivers wrack up his spine and sweat bead down the exact same trails, and maybe he was just imagining all this the way he imagined a thousand other things people claimed never existed, but maybe he wasn’t imagining a thing and all of this was deathly, terrifyingly real-
(It’s real, and they’ll never let you out.)
Panic shot through his body with the grace of a speeding blade- sharp, vicious and without a stitch of mercy. My skin. Everything was cold and bare, yet scrabbling at his arms and neck with frantic fingers and bluntened nails only brought a worse, more chilling realisation. My skin. Where did it go? He was a naked king not just because he was devoid of clothes, but also because the masses had nailed him to a stake and flayed him within an inch of his life, whips stained with blood and flesh and all those horrifying things they found so lovely. He was sure he’d put his uniform on back in the changing rooms with the rest of his unit, had done his buttons and zippers so perfectly just the way he’d been meant to, but his hands met air instead of fabric, and he felt suffocated and empty all at once. It’s gone, they took it, they’re going to-
(Don’t.) Lurching forwards into a wood-panelled wall, he clamped a hand tight over his mouth and tried not to retch, tried not to let that scream building up in his lungs make its way out into the open. He could feel his eyes painfully wide and his chest moving up and down far too quickly, breaths uneven and bones burning hot and ears being bathed in the chorus of a thousand spiteful shouts- the universe was a war, and the audience was an enemy. They yelled and hollered, threw hard, heavy things that left bruises on non-existent skin, chanted malicious rhymes that somehow always started with checkmate, checkmate. The stage supported- maybe even sabotaged- none other than a king and his bishop, the ones who’d created this dream that plunged straight into the workings of a nightmare.
(So where is that bishop now?)
Gone. The answer came from the depths of a head that wasn’t his, yet he pounced on it and grappled with its truth all the same. He left you, he left you all alone, and-
-or perhaps it was the king who’d left his faithful bishop to die, left him strewn across the battlefield in pitiful, torn-up pieces, never to be put together again. The single answer to his unspoken question multiplied into an endless stream of voices, bouncing and echoing and just like that, he was gone as well- gone from the flickering lights and muffled voices of backstage, and huddling beneath stone-heavy bedcovers in a dark, solitary room as he tried to tune the noises out instead. There was a cacophony of dissonant sounds yet also the complete absence of sound, the absence of charming melodies that usually filled his head but were now miles away, replaced with shouts and jeers and sentences he’d have his tongue cut out for saying. The audience was an enemy, and once it’d been angered, it never quite forgave. Grudges carried from soul to soul, war to war, stage to stage, and because of that-
His body was frozen to the spot, though his hands relentlessly trembled and his legs felt as if they were swaying, weak. The fear that bled through his veins was intense, palpable, as if it were clogging up his arteries and shoving its way up his chest and throat. He could see the cyalumes, see the people calling to all five of them from a distance, but all the sounds they made were sucked harshly out of his ears, maybe even the world itself. When the townspeople screamed out incomprehensible things, more often than not they were demanding a guillotine, and it would always be the king who lost his head.
You can’t go onstage.
(He’d forgotten that rule for far too long, and now it’d finally made a reappearance. To step out onto that blazing stage would mean putting himself at the mercy of people who wanted him dead, sticking his neck out for the hungriest of blades to take a chance with. Oxygen rattled terrifyingly in his lungs and throat, body pleading for air that it was getting far too little of. He had to breathe, had to sing, had to get out there and show himself to the world that did nothing but hate, hate, hate-)
(He had to keep his sanity, but he didn’t know if he’d be able to.)
The lightest of nudges against his side made him flinch as if he’d been burned, a near-shriek wrenching its way from his lips as he stumbled backwards, heart pounding and ringing all the way up to his ears. Don’t. He could sense eyes on him, people staring at him in what seemed like concern but was definitely malicious, and every gaze made his skin crawl like an army of insects had been unleashed upon his flesh in a single go. Don’t, don’t. The view of the stage and its venomous audience sparked terror up his spine in ways it never had before- or perhaps it had, and he’d just been foolish enough to forget that, too. The screams of fans had always been hostile, and the glows of their cyalumes had always been blinding, nothing but ink-blooded accompaniments to the war chants that filled the frightful space. Don’t go onstage, don’t, you can’t-
“-something’s wrong,” came the muttered words from somewhere close by yet a hundred light years away, where Leo shouldn’t have been able to hear things from, but still agonisingly could. “You three go out first, hold the audience for a while and buy us time. I’ll handle him. Go. ”
He could see people nodding, but he couldn’t recognise their faces- what he did recognise were the boots they wore as they stepped out of the wings and onto that dreadful stage, which surely meant that Leo was meant to be going too, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t. “Leo-kun,” someone murmured, and he knew this voice, knew it in the most darling, intimate ways a person could know someone, but for once, it didn’t soothe him at all. “Leo-kun, get it together. We’ve got to perform, so-”
Perform? For an audience with murder in their eyes, stones in their hands, violence in their throats? That was nothing short of suicide, and surely Izumi had to know it- he’d been destroyed along with Leo all those years ago, after all. Shaking his head vehemently, Leo took a few shaky steps backwards, nearly tripping over his own feet as he did so. He couldn’t stay, he had to leave, had to grab his things and the people he loved and run as far away from this rotten place as he possibly could, but three of those beloved people weren’t here. His eyes flew over the backstage area, trying to pinpoint the right locations and coming up with absolutely nothing. Not backstage, not on the ceiling, not in Leo’s shaking, bloodstained hands, the shattered remnants of heavy opals and a golden crown sitting heavy in his palms and making him gag-
“Calm down, Leo-kun.” The words that were spoken and the hands that gripped his were rough, yet clearly trying to be gentle as the situation called for. The broken crown was swept away so quickly perhaps it’d never existed at all, and it was swiftly replaced by fingers curling around his own, some gloved black and some their fair, familiar selves. Leo held onto them for dear life, feeling like his heart would clump right out of his throat and into his awaiting mouth like some disgusting lump of flesh to be hacked out in disgust. He couldn’t feel his tongue, couldn’t taste the salt that seemed to be streaking down his cheeks and past his lips- “Tell me what’s wrong. I can’t help if you don’t talk, I-” Blue eyes left his to quickly look in the opposite direction, towards the shouts and the screams and the manic, blinking lights. A tightening expression, a muffled curse, worry that looked like it was drowning the person before him though neither of them had the liberty to change that- “We’re running out of time. Either stay here for the rest of the live or get out there with me and-”
“I can’t,” Leo gasped, and there, there. He could see the backs of their remaining three out on stage, capes fluttering and soles clicking and arms raised proudly high to answer the calls of the audience that wanted them dead, and they didn’t know. They didn’t know what a single crowd of people could do, didn’t know the truth that this monstrous world held in its hands, didn’t know that they were walking into a devious, conniving trap. “We can’t- they’re going to hate us, they’ll- we can’t, Sena. You have to call them back, we have to get them back-” He lunged forwards in open desperation, towards the stinging lights and nauseating roar of the crowd, because no matter how much they tried to hurt him, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t let any more of the people he cherished fall into the hands of the damned, not in the exact same way he’d once done to his own self and partner-
-but Izumi dragged him forcefully back, not letting him take more than a single step, and Leo felt his heart ripping, being torn into messy, bloody pieces like a child’s recycled ragdoll. “Let me go,” was the wracked scream that only began to steal its way from his throat before Izumi slapped a hand right over his lips, keeping his voice from leaking out. An arm wrapped tight around his torso, tugging him back against a searingly warmer one as he was pulled further back into the wings, out of sight of the audience and away from the rest of Knights. His ailing heart lurched with fear in an instant- if the world turned on those lone three out on stage right now, Leo wouldn’t even be able to see it, wouldn’t be able to lift a finger to help-
“Stay here,” Izumi gasped out, firmly blocking the elbow that Leo instinctively threw out as he tried to break his way free, kicking and struggling with all the might he could muster. “Leo, quit- Leo-kun. Stop fighting me, just keep yourself still and listen for one fucking second-”
“They’ll get hurt,” Leo choked out, straining against Izumi’s vice grip and frantically trying to push himself forward, towards the terrifying spectacle that triggered every one of his instincts and screamed for him to flee. “They’ll die, they’ll break, they’re going to- we can’t let them, Sena, the audience will- the stage is too big, they can’t-” if he and Izumi couldn’t survive such tiny, meagre stages on their own, how could those three people ever hope to survive this greater ring of hell? The pressure in his ears was unbearable, the bloodthirsty cries of the audience echoing in an endless mantra that made his entire body go cold, and he couldn’t let this happen to those beloved children of his, he couldn’t. “They’re going to get hurt, Sena, please, they’re going to die-”
“Leo-kun.” There was a sudden press of heat over the sides of his head, and just like that, every sound in the world whited out. It was nothing but muted warbling, auditory blurs that were somewhat there yet not quite at all, and Leo felt his breath catch in his throat as the blinding stage lights were blocked right out by the exact same person who had his palms pressed tight to Leo’s ears, deafening him from the ever-present calls of war. “I said to calm down. Everything’s fine, no one’s dying, so listen to me.”
You can’t be sure. Nobody could ever be sure- Leo himself hadn’t looked like he was dying up until the very end, until he’d snapped into yelling and shouting and barricading himself in the double-edged comfort of darkened rooms and blood-soaked sheets. They wouldn’t know those three out there were dying until they were already dead, until their strings were cut and they tumbled straight down to the scarlet-stained wood of the stage like a group of soulless marionettes. Leo parted his trembling lips to say that, but- “Shh, shh. I know,” Izumi whispered, and do you, do you, do you really? “I get it, Leo-kun. If the audience decides to turn on them, we won’t be able to stop them, and- listen, listen.” The quivering fingers that tried to pry those careful hands away were deflected, and Leo felt his arms fall helplessly back down- only to instinctively grip at the smooth, navy fabric of his lover’s uniform, and this time, his movements were allowed. “They’ll be fine, I promise. The fans are here to love them, not tear them to pieces. Nobody’s going to touch them, Leo-kun.”
“How do you know-”
“Because they aren’t us.” The words came so firm and sure Leo fell silent immediately, the laboured breaths in his chest nearly being taken away in the exact same sweep. “This isn’t our second year anymore, remember? I’m not saying they can’t get hurt, just…” There was a shaky exhale, and the palms over his ears loosened their hold, just a little. “Not in the exact same way we did. I won’t let that happen- none of us will.”
He wanted to believe that, wanted to believe it so badly, but his heart and mind refused to sync, one half of him pleading for relief as the other half frantically denied. "But what if-"
"I'll prove it to you."
...that could only mean one thing, and it made Leo's body go horrifyingly numb. The very thought of Izumi heading out onto that stage as well, ready to be subjected to the vilest of creatures and the loudest of jeers- he'd sooner die than let it become a reality, sooner throw himself out there so he could become a mangled corpse in Izumi's place. "No," he said tightly, hands flying up to grasp at the model's in a desperate feat, fingers trembling and trying to gain purchase over fair skin and familiar sleeves. "Don't, you can't- they'll hurt you again, and I-" and I won't be able to do a thing. He knew better than anyone that he was practically useless here in the wings, and while he'd willingly sacrifice himself for any of his little family's sake, his legs strained and wobbled and refused to move. His heart was right back in his throat, beating and fighting and making his eyes burn with panic and unshed tears, and he couldn't get rid of any of it, not a single thing- "Stay. You have to, you have to, it's an order from your-"
He choked on the very words, a palm darting up to clamp over his lips and keep himself from retching.
-it's an order from your king.
He wasn't a king anymore. He hadn't been a king in so, so long, and he'd never felt lighter as a blessed result. Still, he sometimes felt himself reaching for the title and the backstabbing power it bestowed, be it out of habit or out of sheer necessity. He couldn't have been happier to pass on the crown, but passing it on also meant that someone he loved would have their head on the chopping block rather than his, if things went south. If he took other people's lives again, trampled all over their dreams again-
"We're knights, Leo-kun. We've got to take some risks." That's true, that's true, but- any ensuing thoughts were duly chased away by the feeling of cool fingers against his overheated skin, drawing a shaky breath from his lungs that suddenly meant he could breathe. He could breathe, and if he could breathe, then-
Hair was gently pushed back from his sweaty forehead, and a tender press of lips followed in the exact same place. “We’ll be back soon,” Izumi said softly, and Leo felt nerves coiled tight in his body loosen just slightly at the words, stupidly optimistic as they were. “All four of us. We'll come back, and then you'll see. Okay?”
And just like that, Izumi was gone. Rapidly blinking the veils free from his vision, Leo stumbled after him and stopped just short of the curtains separating backstage and the stage itself, biting his lip hard enough to keep from screaming his dissent as a flash of silver made his way to the other side. The idol was greeted by the roars of the crowd and frantically waving hands, things that could turn ugly if so given the chance-
Don't look at them. He tore his eyes away from the rabid audience and shakily focused on the things that mattered instead- a glint of fangs and a languid grin, a teasing wink as its owner blew her fangirls a kiss, hands reaching out to meet their audience from a distance, the hands of a king who was still inexperienced in some ways but still determined, strong. And then, on top of all of that...
"Sorry to keep you all waiting, my princesses!" Izumi called out, one hand raised high as if to command and answer the mingling syllables of their fans who called right back. "We've had a few royal complications, so one of our knights won't be joining us today. But," he continued, and the chorus of pouts and awws wavered, just like that- "Leo-kun wouldn't want his lovely princesses to be feeling down because of something like this, would he?"
"Oh, of course he wouldn't." The reassurance came with a level of confidence that would’ve have even Leo fooled, had he not already known Arashi’s words to be the truth. (Even if his audience spat on him, hurtled stinging rocks at him, he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to wish them ill- maybe it was a weakness, or maybe it was a strength.) “Nothing but the best for the ones who’ve come all this way to see us, so-”
"So call him back," Ritsu murmured, nothing short of seductive the way the words were spoken so smoothly, so sweetly into his mic and the audience screamed their approval. "Call him back with your smiles, and he'll know we're all waiting for him. Mm, just like that- I like that one, and that one, so cute I could just eat you all up-"
"Ritsu-senpai," someone chastised, and Tsukasa's cheeks were slightly pink as he made his way forwards. "I humbly request that you don't monopolise all our princesses this way. Some of us would also like to give them our love-"
So this is love.
Peeking out just a little more from behind the silky curtains, the visages of their audience were plain as day- bright eyes, upturned mouths, lips that shaped words of admiration rather than blatant hate. They were smiling, they were cheering-
-and this is real, too.
It was so real he could taste it, sugar on his tongue with a tinge of burnt caramel, sending a pleasurable rush through his veins and making him feel as if it’d never left. Music burst to life, music he’d written with his own sinful hands but others found their saviour, and the voices that sang the accompanying words could never be anything but beautiful. These people, these people he loved with all of his marred, thumping heart…
…perhaps they really never would be defeated at the hands of the masses the way he once had been, in ways that stole melodies from ears and gauged wounds into arms until a person was wholly driven to madness. Some villainous creatures would try, extending their claws and fangs in attempts to drag his beloveds down to hell with them, but when it all came down to it, they were knights first and foremost. Fighting back was in their natures, especially when the things involved were as important as this.
(And besides. Here in this place…)
(…there was none of that hate and jealousy that had threaded through audiences years ago, none of the shouts and boos that had become residents in Leo’s head for so, so long. Those horrid things had been present minutes ago, sure, but in just a bit of time, they’d been exorcised.)
(Knights helped. Listening to them speak, listening to them sing- it made him believe that soon enough, he’d be able to join them once more.)
Countless songs took their turns for glory up on stage, and his trusted knights didn’t falter even once- not when they were singing their own lines, and not when they were singing his. By the time the final, striking note of the night rang out in the venue, Leo felt a little more like a person again- like a human being again, one who was a criminal and a genius and all those contradicting things, but first and foremost an existence with blood pumping through its body, a heart beating stubborn and true. Goodbyes were bid, promises were made, and then footsteps were returning backstage, the loving roar of the crowd escorting them every step of the way-
“Tsukipi.” The name was spoken in a single breath, Ritsu stumbling straight into him the moment the curtains swished shut. “What’s going on, what happened- are you better? Still bad? Secchan said-”
“Don’t bombard him with questions right away, Ritsu-chan,” came a soft sigh, though the moment Leo caught their resident vampire in his arms, he was being pulled into an enormous hug by Arashi herself as well, the three of them a pseudo roll of sushi. It was nice- hugs like this always were, and the more people involved, the better. “You’re warm, good, it looked like you were freezing to death earlier-”
“Running a fever, more like,” Izumi scoffed, striding closer to them with an arm slung around Tsukasa’s shoulders. (If asked about it, he’d immediately let go and attribute it to the on-stage high, so Leo didn’t ask- just let himself smile and reach out a hand.) “He was a literal furnace, I thought he was going to pass out- no, don’t drag me into your gross, sticky hug, we’re all sweaty-”
“Then getting just a little more sweaty shouldn’t be a problem,” Ritsu grinned, helping to tug the silver haired model straight into their little microcosm despite his protests. “You too, Suu-chan. No one gets to escape the cuddle pile.”
“Don’t call it a cuddle pile- Kuma-kun, get your teeth away from my neck.” Laughter rang easy and clear as fingers curled into clothing, ruffled at hair, pulled each other closer into this haven of theirs with all the love they could muster. It was a miracle they hadn’t all tumbled to the floor yet, with all the weight they were leaning onto each other and supporting in equal amounts. On the off chance that Leo did lose his balance and threaten to fall, no doubt one of these people would catch him before he hit the ground- that, he knew for sure.
The gold fringes on his uniform’s shoulders were lightly tugged at, and he turned to curiously gaze at their youngest, at their king in response. Usually-neat hair mussed from both performing and their messy hug, lavender eyes firm yet endearingly earnest- “Leo-san. Calm as we may be now, I must ask if… if things really are alright. You seemed rather agitated earlier, and…”
“And we were worried,” Arashi piped up, eliciting a grumpy, noncommittal noise from the other side of the five-way hug that earned Izumi a swat on the shoulder. "Oh, come on, you were literally the one who stayed behind to help him-"
“Yeah, and that’s-”
The words came natural, almost unintended, his brain not even realising he’d said them until they were already out of his mouth. “Love you guys.”
(He meant it, with every fibre of his being. These people who’d taken him by the hand and dragged him up from the depths of despair, turned once-burning stages into places of light and splendor once again- he’d never feel any other way.)
There was a loud, exaggerated “Tsukipi,” all three syllables just as teasing and affectionate as ever- and then he was letting out a surprised huff of air as he was squeezed even tighter in their existing hug, their three non-graduates making it their personal mission to steal all the air from his lungs with their might. Ritsu smiled at him like this had been the plan all along, headbumping his chin as if he were a cat. “You know the answer to that already.”
“He’d better,” Izumi muttered, grudgingly tightening his arms around this family as well and making everyone cheer. “We haven’t gone through all this trouble for him to not know we love him-"
“I believe we should have recorded this entire exchange, for Sena-senpai may never say that aloud again,” Tsukasa said dryly, the rest of them huffing with laughter- save just one person, of course. Then came the half-baked threats regarding extra practice hours or high-level sweet bans, but the pink in Izumi’s cheeks rendered all of that null, and every one of them knew it. Unceremonious laughter, ticklish nudges of arms and sides, a whole lot of warmth and coziness that washed away all the blood and emptiness of before…
As long as it’s them, as long as it’s us-
We’ll definitely, definitely be alright.