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yet while bleeding, he loved him still

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What was love supposed to be, Leo had never known.

 

For once, he thought love was the first note of the first piano he had ever touched. It was a beautiful, alluring sol. Leo’s finger barely pushed, and it came out soft and delicate, like the way a spring breeze could sound if it were a lullaby. Love was the feeling that enveloped his body on stage while his fingers danced around the piano, anything and anyone else be damned.

 

Then Leo realized that love was something he felt for his family; tender, warm, and protective. It was the affection coursing in his body, the notion of making his sister happy, singing and dancing like the idols they saw on TV, the remote in his hand as a microphone, and Ruka clapping and laughing cheerfully, singing along to the song. Their parents would record it with their phones, big smiles on their faces, and joy would burst in Leo’s chest, a feeling so warm it made his legs melt.

 

Love, Leo assumed in the only quiet place in his mind, sweat deliriously gliding down his skin, is happiness.

 

──────────

 

But when he saw him, Leo knew he was wrong.

 

Love was the fire in his heart when he spotted Izumi under the subtle glow of sunset.

 

Their meeting had been absurd: Leo was strolling around while Izumi was practicing a song—an impressive attempt, he thought, because the latter’s singing was awful, and every tune was all over the place. Leo could hear his voice from two doors away, and he had a brief image of the singer, which didn’t include a pretty face. But amidst the messy and strained voice, Leo caught a hint of beauty behind it, a raw diamond waiting to be polished.

 

He found the whole scene hilarious when he barged in, because the out-of-tune-singer was the most beautiful human he had ever seen.

 

And he also had the worst temper Leo had ever witnessed.

 

Izumi scowled at him. “I don’t need your critique.”

 

Even with furrowed eyebrows, he was still beautiful! How was it allowed for a human to be that gorgeous?  “Oh, come on! You have potential, you only need more training!”

 

“I’m fine on my own, thank you,” he snapped. “Now, leave me alone.”

 

But Leo wasn’t going to give in easily. No, not when there was something different about the way Izumi tried. He probably knew about the many years he would have to spend just to get his tune right. “I can train you for free!”

 

“It’s not a matter of money.”

 

“But you’ll get better with training!”

 

“As I said, I don’t need it!”

 

Leo took two giant steps closer. He needed to keep pushing. “But your singing is outta tune, you know, and it’s not going to get you anywhere! It’s awful!”

 

Izumi threw a chair at him. Leo almost stumbled if it wasn’t for his swift reflex. Through gritted teeth, Izumi said: “I. Don’t. Need. Your. Comment.”

 

Leo kept on insisting. Izumi threw things after things at him, yet none of it faltered his will. He dodged a book, a pen, an eraser, a bottle─and was even able to crouch down quickly when a thick dictionary came his way.

 

The same request slipped through his mouth. “Let me train you! I’m not leaving until you say yes!”

 

If there was one ability Leo could be proud of—other than his Midas touch on music, which was golden and impeccable—it would probably be his persistence. He was prepared to keep asking and asking and asking and asking until Izumi relented and agreed to be taught. One did not meet such beauty every time! Leo had to take his chances though his physical body was at stake.

 

Izumi stilled. He was glaring daggers at him, but Leo merely grinned. The rackets outside stood in the empty classroom, filling the space between them. After an impatient silence, which Leo counted with the taps of his toe against the floor, Izumi sighed and rubbed his temple furiously.

 

“Fine,” he mumbled. “But just once, okay?”

 

──────────

 

Once was not an existing word in Leo’s dictionary.

 

He asked for one more when Izumi told him this would be the last time they met, and pleaded for another when his new friend threatened to throw him off the window. Leo was afraid to let him go. He didn't want it to end, this little rendezvous between them; only the two of them in the quiet and dusty classroom after school ended, the rackets outside a melody to their arguments, papers with new songs scattered around them. The series of desperate pleas and empty threats went on like an endless stream until Izumi mentioned the word tomorrow in their conversation one day.

 

“Tomorrow,” echoed Leo, confusion on the tip of his tongue. “ Tomorrow.

 

“Why are you repeating it? That’s annoying.”

 

“Tomorrow!”

 

Izumi heaved out a sigh. “Yes, tomorrow. What is wrong with you?”

 

As usual, Leo ignored him, and Izumi shook his head. He was probably used to Leo’s sudden silence and abrupt motions. He had to be, Leo thought, because there was no other person who could accept his eccentric self. This school felt like a living hell before, with rows and rows of sinners who wanted salvation forged as songs from him, the devil himself. But Izumi descended from heaven like an angel, and school felt a little bit like the earth.

 

Was this what love was? Leo supposed so.

 

──────────

 

No, no, no. Love was not that—scratch that, erase it from memory. One should not think about it because it was a mistake. That was not love.

 

Here was another proposal from Leo: love was Izumi, mouth chattering about how foolish Leo was, complaining about his presence in the hospital while feeding him pudding because Leo’s hands shouldn’t be moving too much.

 

“Are you an idiot?” he asked. “You are, aren’t you?”

 

Leo was supposed to be angry, wasn’t he? Izumi was calling him stupid (though it was a fact, as far as he knew, also Izumi had always been the smartest out of the two of them), and his head was pounding with newly made melodies in them, each begging to be freed—yet he could only smile with Izumi’s face so close and pretty, although the veins on his forehead looked like they would explode.

 

“Are you even listening to me?”

 

“You’re loud, Sena. Ssh!”

 

“Not louder than you.

 

“Hey!”

 

Now, that offended him. Because Leo had been trying his best to keep quiet, chanting in his brain the same spell over and over: this is a hospital, this is a hospital, this is a hospital, but every time Izumi visited, he wanted—no, needed to be loud.

 

He wanted his attention, and albeit it was never a difficult task, he liked it better when it came with bits of vex and contempt.

 

Leo folded his face into a petulant look, all sulky and pouty lips. “You’re always so mean!”

 

“Excuse me? I’m a nice person,” he said, as if it was matter-of-fact. “Now finish your pudding so I can go home.”

 

A nice person. Other people might not think of Izumi as such at first sight—on some occasions, he was nice, but mostly he was mean and full of sarcasm, and Leo doubted Izumi had ever thought before he spoke. But Izumi was kind, that much he could vouch for, that much Leo would gladly prove.

 

Kindness was not something Izumi could utter; for him, it was the way he would wait on Leo, the way he would listen to any rumble or grumble or gibberish Leo said. It was present in how Izumi’s gentle hands would peel a fresh apple for him to eat, feeding Leo without any rush even though he knew Izumi hated idling around. Izumi had always scolded him whenever Leo almost did something stupid, and that, Leo assumed while gulping down the pudding, was kindness in its own way.

 

And maybe that, too, was a form of love.

 

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Izumi had other friends. And somehow, Leo was very, very jealous.

 

One of them was a cat. A cat! Leo wanted to scream. He was damned jealous of a cat that he brought to Izumi. Its name was Little John, and it was a cute, fluffy little creature until it started to hog all of Izumi’s attention for itself.

 

They had just bathed the cat; when Izumi and Leo arrived around noon, the air was filled with a pungent smell, and Izumi swore it would kill him if they didn’t clean it as fast as possible.

 

Well, Leo was the only one who bathed him, though, because Izumi didn’t want Little John to scratch his face—Leo voluntarily agreed because even the picture of a slight wound on Izumi’s cheek was so horrendous his whole body shuddered in response. I’ll take the pain instead, he declared quietly as he braced himself. Sena is too beautiful! His divine beauty shall not be ruined!

 

Or perhaps Leo should let him be hurt a tiny bit. Sometimes pain could enhance one’s beauty, after all, like that one art where broken potteries were mended with gold and they became something glowy and shiny. Or like the time when Leo whirled his song off course but it turned out to be something better instead. He didn’t know if that was equivalent to beauty, but maybe. Probably.

 

One thing he knew with certainty was that cat scratches hurt a lot, precisely when it thought your face was land and started plowing. Leo decided his arms would have made a better sacrifice.

 

“Ouch!”

 

“You should have been more careful,” Izumi chided. He tapped on Leo’s face gently with an alcohol-soaked cotton, one hand holding his patient’s jaw in place. “How did this happen, anyway?”

 

“Cats,” Leo grumbled, “apparently, don't like water!” He glared at Little John, who was purring idly on Izumi’s lap. “And Little John is very violent. He had knives instead of claws!”

 

“Maybe you handled him roughly.”

 

Leo jerked when the alcohol brushed his wound. “I didn’t! It was because you weren’t there and he wanted your attention!”

 

“Well, you told me you can handle it alone.”

 

“I said could, Sena! Could!

 

“Just shut up and let me do my work,” Izumi complained. “I’m gonna leave if you keep on sulking like that.”

 

“Don’t leave me alone with this little devil!”

 

Little John hissed at his words, baring her claws at him like she would make his cheeks a post to hone them. Leo quivered in return, his hand found its way to Izumi’s arm and clenched the fabric tight. “See? See!”

 

“She’s a nice cat.” Izumi stroked Little John’s head gently. Leo swallowed his roaring envy. “Stop being so whiny and stay still, Leo-kun,” he sighed. “I’m seriously going to go if you move again!”

 

But even when Leo tried to, he couldn’t stop moving around and bickering with Little John, and no matter how many times Izumi threatened to leave, he still tended to Leo’s wounds until they were adequately covered with bandages. Leo caught a glimpse of himself in the window not too far from where they were, an orange-haired mess with plasters all over his face and arms.

 

“Don’t tease her too much,” Izumi said. He got up, brushing the dust and dirt on his pants. “She’ll scratch you again.”

 

“Thanks, Sena!”

 

“Take care of yourself, stupid. I can’t be there for you all the time.”

 

Leo watched as Izumi fixed his clothes and hair in the mirror, his full attention on himself. Little John frolicked around Izumi’s shoes, her purring sounds the only voice between the two.

 

“I know,” Leo uttered softly. He truly did. He had learned, somehow, that leaning on someone was not always a choice. From observing Izumi, he realized that it was a luxury—one the two subconsciously tried to give to each other. “I know that.”

 

“Hm? Did you say something?”

 

“I said that you were pretty, Sena!”

 

Izumi gave him a proud look. “I know that.” (Didn’t Leo just answer with the exact same phrase? He cheered inside.)

 

“Yeah! That’s why I love you!”

 

The haughtiness in his expression shifted to a confused one. “Thank you?” he offered. Leo grinned.

 

“Always, Sena. Always.”

 

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All his life, Leo had bought love with the perfectly crafted music he made.

 

He had never traded love with love, no; his love was undesirable—even when Leo had put his heart on display, beating and bruising for everyone to see. Even when it was carefully placed in a case without walls, an easy thing to rummage and raid. Even though Leo had worn his heart on his sleeve, welcoming anyone to take it away.

 

He wanted to be loved. He tried so hard to be loved.

 

Yet they still took everything but his heart.

 

No one wanted the easy heart of an idiotic king. Leo thought someone would, at last, settle in his open heart and make it a home. They did not have to knock, the door was always open wide, but every time he peered in, his heart was always a hollow space with only rusty songs inside.

 

He had only his heart and had lost his body—they ripped him to shreds, tore fibers and tendons and veins, fed themselves on his arms and legs, took out his brain, studied every cell under a microscope, and sucked out the marrow from his bones. Leo was a scattered skeleton by the time they left him alone, a woeful mess barely holding himself together, his heart the only remaining of his body.

 

A fate of a genius, one would say. This was the hefty price he had to bear for attempting to live among the ordinary people; to be used and destroyed was the purpose of his life.

 

He was not to be rescued, was he? No, Leo supposed not. He was not wronged, nor was he damaged from all the biting, tearing, sucking, ripping—no, Leo was merely serving. He was not here to be loved, he understood at last. Love was something he bought but not received. Love was, he decided, something one should leave at home.

 

But Izumi came when his ship had begun to sink. And out of the blue, his life made sense. And Leo knew right then, at first glance, he was alive to love him.

 

Izumi gathered what was left of him, turned Leo into a semblance of a human, and breathed life through dazzling smiles and tender melodies. He reached for his heart and carried it in two hands. Never did Izumi keep it along with his own heart. He held it gingerly, his fingers curled around it without touching—and Leo didn’t know what it was: affection, or disdain, or fear of something divine, that settled hesitation in Izumi’s movements, or was it perhaps because contrary to Leo, he was a man of layers and facades?

 

Leo would argue that he had seen him raw, his heart had. Those were only fleeting moments, the times whenever Izumi was undone, but Leo saw him. Izumi let him in so scarcely that every moment was sealed behind Leo’s eyes. He could play them vividly from memories, the taste of Izumi’s rawness so tangible even then. There was something behind those walls: a spark, a fire—passion that needed an ignition.

 

So Leo did. He ignited it. He fed the spark within Izumi with what was left of his body. He nurtured it into a blazing fire.

 

He turned his heart into firewoods until there were only ashes left.

 

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Leo understood now that he couldn’t just give his love to everyone. They wasted it. It was a horrible experience he didn’t wish to relive. But he knew one person who would use him, someone who would turn him into a weapon and not waste his potential away. Someone that could make him happy, even though it was only temporary.

 

Izumi wouldn’t accept his love. That far Leo knew.

 

Loneliness had engulfed him for too long that affection and devotion were a strange concept, Leo concluded. But mayhaps he would accept his offer to help. Maybe with a bit of coax, Izumi would place his hand over Leo’s.

 

He had been using Izumi’s beauty as a source of inspiration anyway, so it would only be fair if Leo paid him back.

 

A pawn in a game or not, Leo was still a king—and if he couldn’t be just, then he shall be ruined.

 

Here, on the stage that somebody orchestrated, Leo and Izumi were accompanied by three people. They were on a game of chess, pawns who breathed yet still did things as instructed.

 

It was ironic how things turned out to be like this.

 

“Sena, always disappointed, always unhappy!”

 

Izumi’s eyebrows furrowed. Leo spoke again before he could say anything.

 

“How can I get you to smile for me?” he asked. “Should I just destroy every single thing that doesn’t please you, every single person you don’t acknowledge?”

 

Because he would do it. He would gladly banish anyone who stood on Izumi’s path. Leo would hunt down anyone who hurt Izumi and make them regret it. His hands were ready to be tainted with the blood of the sinners who did anything wrong, despite realizing it would turn him into one too.

 

But Leo was already a sinner—had been one ever since he made his songs into weapons. He had lost heaven, all its glory and paradise. It was only a matter of time until the angel would toss him aside from the story.

 

Until then, he would fight this war. Until then, he would turn the road red with their enemies’ blood.

 

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There was his heart. Bleeding in Izumi’s hands, yet still beating rapidly.

 

Was this what love truly is? A violent, corrupted thing? To feel one’s heart shattering, yet keep holding on to a sliver of projected hope? Was it always a bane from Aphrodite, who took out her wreath on the gods and cursed them with painful, futile love?

 

Leo wondered why he was so stubborn about staying. This—whatever it is—was eating him alive. He didn’t know what it was, but love was what he once named it. Love.

 

Love, then. Love was devouring him whole.

 

Ousama. Ousama. OusamaOusamaOusama. Who is the king Izumi had been calling? Was it him, a boy playing king who assumed the position after killing his own people? A king Leo couldn’t recognize? A king who had never acted like one?

 

Leo-kun, he wanted to say. Call me Leo-kun, Sena.

 

If he didn’t call him that—if even Izumi forgot Leo’s name, how would he be able to survive? Would Leo even remember who he once was?

 

Whose fault was this? Who broke their once glimmering youth, turning it into an irreversible mistake?

 

It’s not Sena’s fault, Leo thought, yet his mouth couldn’t stop raining down the blame on Izumi, even though the trace of it left a sour taste on his tongue. “All I wanted was to fulfill your dreams!” Leo yelled out. “Enough messing around, smile for my sake already!”

 

Izumi was the only one he needed. Leo wanted his smile—he yearned for it all: Izumi’s smile, laugh, happiness. They were the only ones who kept him functioning.

 

But now that it disappeared, now that he couldn’t see them, Leo had lost his way.

 

Why was he alive? Should he have blamed God for giving him his breath?

 

He once thought that Izumi was the sole reason behind his existence, but now that it had come to this, did he even matter to Izumi—

 

“All because you were my friend. Someone equal to me, someone important, my very first—”

 

—so he did matter.

 

Funny how it took Izumi their downfall for him to confess. It was too hilarious that Leo had to hold back his laugh. After all this time! Only when none of it counted anymore did Izumi willingly say that he loved Leo.

 

Their game of chess had reached a dead end. Checkmate. The king had fallen, and the knight was destroyed by their own dreams. Leo realized he was under a guillotine; the edge of the blade was caressing his skin softly like a lover would, ready to behead him at any given time. He knew the people in the audience, they were the ones he wronged and stole from. He drained them for his own delight, and now they were waiting for his demise.

 

Why did they have to dream, anyway? Why couldn’t they be content with what they had? Why couldn’t they just be Leo and Sena or Sena and Leo instead of a king and his knight?

 

How did it all turn into this? Their once perfect picture of youth, now a memory filled with pain and agony? The love in his view was gentle, yet in proof it was tyrannical and poisonous.

 

Love is deplorable, he swallowed bitterly. He was blinded by it, he couldn’t see that Izumi treated him similarly to how the others had. Leo should loathe him—Izumi and his dreams and the way he ruined their lives. But he had loved him too much to realize he needed to stop.

 

I hate you, Leo almost screamed out. I hate you, and I love you. You’ve ruined us, you’ve burned what we once were into ashes. You’ve turned us into wreckages of a broken dream. You made me a weapon but forgot to take care of me.

 

Yet I let you. I allowed you, and I loathe myself for it. I loved you so deeply that I chose to forsake myself.

 

Leo gave his heart one last glance. It was thumping, alive, pumping blood albeit the blood it was losing. He marveled at it: the sight of his heart outside his body, unsteady yet breathing. Losing its own mind yet grasping around for Izumi’s affection.

 

How stubborn, he laughed silently. How rock-headed we both were. So young and stupid and naive. Broken and bent, never to be mended ever again. His blood was leaking out everywhere, a sword pierced on his heart, driven by his own hand. He was destroying himself while blaming Izumi. In order to stop corrupting their youth, Leo had to kill himself.

 

Yet while bleeding, he loved him still.