“You know, I don’t believe half the things that come out of your mouth,” you reply, and it’s his turn to look at you, because he knows it’s the truth.
You first met him a long, long, long time ago, long before your other earliest memories, long enough that when you mention that you still remember the first time you spoke to him, your parents laugh, and say that there’s no way that could be true, you were much too young. But you remember, and he remembers, even if no one else believes you.
His hair was short, then, cut and arranged neatly in a way that all boys of his age kept their hair, because their parents still decided it for them and they were young enough not to care. But even then, it was a bright silver, bordering almost on white, and it was the first thing that caught your eye.
You were hiding behind your mother’s legs at that point, not wanting to speak to these strangers she was meeting, but when she moved away to hug the other woman and gush about how it had been a long time, you didn’t follow, because you were already looking at that hair. It was silky, and smooth, and the boy it belonged to was just a little shorter than you and was standing and staring back at you. You reached out, timidly, and caught a few strands of it, finding that it felt exactly the way it looked, and ignoring your mother and her old friend, and ignoring the girl that was just a little older than you and seemed to be astonished that you were more interested in her brother, you said, “I like your hair.”
“Thanks,” the boy said in reply, before he added, hesitantly, “I like your eyes.”
“Thanks,” you offered in return, and then looked at his face, and found that you liked his eyes back, gray as the storm and bright and beautiful. You liked his voice, too, as little as you had heard of it, and his skin, and the pair of soft gray ears atop his head and the furry gray tail swishing behind him.
You introduced yourself, then, and that was the moment you found out you liked his smile, too, clean white baby teeth flashing at you, dimples appearing in his cheeks.
“‘m Masaharu,” he said, and offered his hand, and you took it in a firm and solemn shake. “Wanna be friends?”
“Hey, are you free Saturday?” he asks, leaning against the counter lazily like he owns the house. “This new restaurant just opened, and I wanna try it out.”
“Sorry, I’m busy,” you reply, sorting through the papers in front of you and wondering if you can get rid of him.
“With what, studying?” he scoffs, and he yanks the pages out of your hand, even though you protest. “Come on, you should go.”
You close your eyes, trying to reign in your temper. “Won’t your girlfriend get jealous?”
“Huh?” He tilts his head to the side. “Oh, you mean Rena? She’s not my girlfriend anymore. We broke up last week.”
“So, you coming?”
“I already said I’m busy.”
“It seems like you’re only busy whenever I wanna do something with you,” he observes, and you meet his gaze calmly.
“Maybe I am.”
Masaharu lost the first of those baby teeth in first year elementary school, when he got punched in the face for you.
He was trying not to cry when you stomped on the feet of the bully and yelled at him to get lost or you would beat him up yourself, even if you got in trouble with the teachers later. Then you turned around and kneeled down in front of him and looked, just looked at him.
“Sorry,” you said at last, uncomfortably, because there was nothing else to say.
Masaharu looked at you and clutched his tooth tightly in one hand and swallowed more of the blood in his mouth. “S’okay,” he said, and he was lying. “It doesn’t hurt.”
“Why’d you do it?” you asked, because for the life of you you couldn’t figure out why Masaharu would get in the way so he would be punched instead.
“I didn’t want ‘im to hit you,” he answered, and you blinked. “‘cause it’s not nice to hit girls, that’s what Dad says whenever I wanna hit nee-san.”
You considered offering to hit her for him, because Saya was one of the most annoying people you knew (just because she was three years older than you), but decided that now wasn’t a good time. “Doesn’t mean you should get hit.”
“I didn’t wanna see you cry,” Masaharu said, and you blinked at him.
“I wouldn’t cry,” you told him, with perfect sincerity, and he looked at you blankly. “I’m not gonna cry, ‘cause there’s no point as long as you’re here. And you shouldn’t cry ‘cause I’m here.”
He smiled, then, even though there were still tears in the corners of his eyes that refused to fall. And you hugged him, and neither of you pulled away, because even though you thought boys had cooties and he thought girls had cooties, that was only for all boys except Masaharu and all girls except you.
“What’re you doing?” he asks, leaning over your shoulder to peer down, close enough for you to feel his breath on your neck.
You jerk away and glare at him, disgusted. “None of your business.”
He puts his hands up in a placating gesture. “Hey, I’m just curious.”
“And I’m not telling you anything.”
“Come on, don’t be like that.” He reaches out a hand to lay on your shoulder, but you slap it away before it can come close.
“Don’t touch me,” you hiss. It’s somewhat painful, and somewhat vindictive, when his eyes widen in response, but you turn away before you can see him react any more than that.
“Aren’t I supposed to be the closest person to you?” he says, and though the tone is light and teasing, he doesn’t mean it that way.
“I dunno. Aren’t I supposed to be the closest to you?”
You moved away the next year. Neither you nor Masaharu cried when you found out the news; you just retreated to a place where the two of you could be alone and sat in silence for a long while.
“You’ll come back, right?” he asked, and his tone was slightly forlorn.
“Dunno,” you answered honestly, before you hesitated and asked a slightly different question. “I’ll see you again, right?”
Masaharu beamed and replied, brightly and with full confidence, “Definitely!”
No matter how long it took, no matter how far away, no matter what you had to do to get there. The two of you would make sure to see each other again.
That day didn’t come for a long while, even if you sulked at first and refused to do anything out of spite, and even if you thought of Masaharu every day at first, and every moment of every day, and dreamed about him every night, you eventually… well, if not got over it, got used to it. You learned to live life like normal, albeit a normal where you jumped every time you caught sight of silver hair, and a normal when you sometimes started to comment to a person who wasn’t there, and a normal where he nearly became a voice in your head, so often did you imagine what he would say or do in a situation.
You stopped with the daily phone calls, after a while, because your parents got annoyed at the phone charges. And then you stopped with the weekly phone calls, because after all, shouldn’t you have friends closer to you and your siblings want to use that phone too and it’s not like you know each other all that well anymore—
When your parents asked where you thought you wanted to go for middle school, you already had an answer ready for them. Rikkai Daigaku Fuzoku, you said. It was competitive, it was an escalator school, and the university branch was one of the best. You would do well. You would have fun there. Their tennis team was excellent.
It was a good, solid choice. It was close to your new home in Kanagawa. Several of your friends would be attending as well, if they could make it in. Your family approved.
So, one week after graduating from Kanagawa Dai-yon, you matriculated into Rikkai Daigaku Fuzoku Chuugaku, and sat through the tedious assemblies and introductions and exchanged greetings and whispers of hushed conversation with people you knew from elementary. You said hi to Yagyuu Hiroshi and answered politely when he inquired about your health, you watched with some amusement the antics of the redhead and bald guy a few rows in front of you before they were given a stern talking-to by one of the teachers, you clapped when the blue-haired first-year representative finished his speech, and you spent more time than could be considered normal staring thoughtfully at the head of someone sitting in the second row, off to the right.
The person’s hair was silver, and messy, and long, falling to their shoulders at just the height where it would start to get in their way but where it was too short to tie back properly. Aside from the color, it was nothing like his had ever been, but the shade was exactly the same as his was. It brought back memories, vague nostalgia, and so you stared at it steadily and thought of him while the principal droned steadily on in the background.
When the speech was finally done, you stood up quickly in your seat to leave, but not quickly enough. The crowd swirled around you, effectively cutting off your view so you couldn’t see who exactly the person was, and you felt a strange pang of disappointment. It wasn’t like it was Masaharu, you told yourself, because there was no way Masaharu would be here, of all places. It was someone else, someone who looked like him in the vaguest, most common way they could.
When you entered your classroom, you took your assigned seat near the front, busying yourself with pulling texts and papers out of your bag and arranging them in your desk. You didn’t look around the room, nor did you look up until the teacher walked in and started taking attendance. You answered to your own name and very vaguely took note of the names of the others you could see, though you didn’t go out of your way to remember the ones you didn’t already know until—
You couldn’t help but jump in immediate reaction to the name, and your heart stopped for a split second. It’s unreasonable, you told yourself, and willed yourself not to turn around. It wasn’t like he was the only one in the world to have that name. And besides, it wasn’t like he would ever come here, and—
The sound of the door being thrown open, sliding with careless force, and you weren’t the only one to jump this time, though you were probably the sole person with the iron will not to turn around at the noise. Then again, maybe it wasn’t willpower so much as that you were frozen, focused on the impossibility, you had to be hearing wrong, because—
“Whoops,” a voice drawled casually, one that you knew so, so well, and this time you did turn around. The silver hair, the overbright gray eyes — he was looking straight at you, and the only thing unfamiliar about him was the lazy smirk on his face. “Sorry I’m late.”
The teacher sighed and scolded him; Masaharu nodded without really listening and moved over to the only empty desk, pulling the chair out and slipping into it. His eyes never left yours, and it wasn’t until you regained your composure and forced yourself to turn around that you broke his gaze.
It felt, almost, that as soon as you looked away he would vanish, because he wasn’t really here at all. And after all, how could he be? He would have to move so far to come to Kanagawa, much less choose the same school as you, and then to end up in the same class—
You probably didn’t make a good first impression, that day, on your teacher or most of your classmates, because most likely, it seemed to them like you were spacing out, and they would have been right. He wasn’t there, except he was. If you turned around, it would turn out it was all in your imagination. Why were you obsessing over this so much? Other than the complete, ridiculous coincidence of it all, of course, that was a given—
When first break came, you let out a long breath, staring pensively at the top of your desk. Now was your chance to verify that he was real, that you weren’t dreaming, or that you weren’t insane. But you didn’t want to, because if it wasn’t real, if it didn’t happen—
You jumped in your seat and whirled around before you could help it, your eyes seeking out the speaker automatically. Masaharu was smiling at you, amused, and your breath caught once again.
“Miss me?” he asked, dropping to his knees beside your seat and draping an arm around your shoulders. Part of you was screaming too close, too close while the other was telling you no, it was all right, wasn’t it? Because it was him, and after all, you’d known him for so long—
“Not at all,” you replied, and pulled away a little bit, unobtrusively, you hoped. “Why, did you?”
Masaharu grinned. “Thought you’d say that.” His eyes flicked over your head for a moment, gained a thoughtful look, and then returned to your face, and he smiled and dropped his arm. So he noticed your discomfort after all. “And so what if I did?”
“…I don’t know.” It’s awkward, you thought to yourself, because hadn’t it been too long since you had last seen and spoken to each other? What did you have in common now, other than five years ago? “What are you doing here, anyway?”
He chuckled, and you noticed his voice was slightly deeper than you remembered, and you didn’t know why you would still remember what he sounded like so… well. “Going to class, of course. What, would you rather I not be here?”
Your eyes narrowed a little in irritation. “That’s not what I meant.”
Masaharu stared at you for another second, still a hint of that smile lingering on his face, and then he sat back and spread his hands on the floor. “Yeah, I know. Dad was moving jobs, there was an opening in Kanagawa, and—” He made a vague hand movement and said nothing more, leaving it to you to figure out how much of a role he himself had played in where they ended up.
“And this school…?” you ventured.
There was a glimmer in his eyes that you didn’t like, one that promised trouble. But “Tennis,” was all he said, though you waited for another moment to see if he would explain.
“Tennis?” you repeated.
He nodded. “Tennis. What, never heard of it?”
“Of course I have,” you answered, a little too sharply, and the surprise registered on his face. “I play.”
You were really starting to hate that smirk, and you wondered where it came from, and what had happened to the boy you had known, that he had developed an expression like that. “A little.”
He looked like he didn’t believe you, like he thought it was more than just a “little,” and maybe he would be right. “We should play a game sometime, then,” he said, and stood up, this time half-leaning, half-sitting against your desk.
“Maybe,” you agreed noncommittally, and wondered. You wondered why you were so annoyed and wanted him to go away, and yet at the same time, desperately wanted him to stay because it had been so long. You wondered what had changed so much, and why, and if it was too late to hope for the way things had once been.
It probably was, huh? Things changed with time. People changed with time.
In the awkward silence, you glanced away, in the direction Masaharu had been looking before. There was only one person there, a pretty girl, short, with long black hair that fell to her waist and dark, expressive eyes. It was not hard to guess where he had been looking, and why, and suddenly the expression that had been on his face made sense.
“Hey, you know—”
You looked back at him, trying to hide the anger, trying to hide the — what was that? Jealousy? Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty, and you willed it away, because you didn’t need it and you certainly didn’t need to feel jealous of someone you didn’t know over someone whom you didn’t have any feelings for to begin with. “What is it?”
Whatever Masaharu had been planning to say died on his lips, as he hesitated just a moment. “…never mind.” You stared, and couldn’t help but blink, and he added hastily, “Maybe I’ll tell you later. Hey, can I come over?”
You blinked again, but when that didn’t make the world make more sense, figured it would simply be easier to ask. “Today?”
“Yeah.” He shifted uncomfortably, and for the first time, looked down at you with the first hint of doubt. “I mean, it’s not like we got anything better to do—”
Maybe you should have said yes. Maybe you should have suggested you reacquaint yourselves first. But you didn’t, and instead what came out of your mouth was, “Sorry.”
He looked puzzled at that, and you averted your gaze again. “…sorry,” you repeated. “It just feels like… I don’t know. Like I don’t really know you anymore.”
A pause, and then the feeling of something drifting against your hair — you looked up, and Masaharu withdrew his hand, an odd look in his eyes. “Maybe later,” you told him, and only then realizing you were echoing what he had said earlier.
“Sometime definitely,” Masaharu replied, and whatever he was feeling was quickly hidden behind a wink and an easy grin. The bell rang, signaling the end of break, and he lingered for just a second longer.
“Sorry,” you said, for a third time, distinctly uncomfortable, and weren’t sure if you meant it, or for what. “It’s just… you’ve changed a lot, you know.”
Masaharu stayed quiet, looking at you for a long moment, before he inclined his head just slightly. “I guess I have, huh?”
The teacher was glaring at him, possibly the only person not already in his seat, and Masaharu rolled his eyes and moved back to his place. His fingers lingered for another second on the top of your desk, and he murmured, almost too soft for you to hear, “You haven’t changed at all.”
And then he was past, leaving just a slight breeze behind him, the same way he had drifted out of your life.
“Did you go looking for trouble again?”
His hand moves up quickly to touch the cut on his cheek, but his automatic reply is, “Why would you think that?”
You barely glance at him, a disapproving frown on your face, but don’t answer his question; after all, he didn’t answer yours. “A street brawl?”
He leans casually against the wall, the grin on his face not reaching his eyes. “How d’ya know it wasn’t tennis?”
“The only one who plays that violently is Kirihara, and he wouldn’t do that to you.” Your gaze lingers on his black eye, and your fingers twitch, itching to reach up, to check the damage for yourself.
But you don’t, and instead you sigh, turning away. “Well, do what you like. There’s no point telling you to stop. It’s not like you would listen anyway.”
“What if it was one of those fights?” he calls.
You stop dead, and the look you level at him is frigid. “I would know if it was,” you respond. “And you wouldn’t dare go alone.”
He smiles, a secretive smile that you hate so much. “What if I’m not alone?”
Your eyes narrow, and that familiar jealousy twists in your heart. “I don’t care, as long as you survive.”
“As long as I survive…?”
“If you died,” you begin heatedly, “in battle, without me. I would never forgive you.”
He was different, that much became clear very quickly, and it annoyed you. It showed in how often you came into class and he wasn’t there, and didn’t appear for another twenty minutes, or for that day entirely. It showed in how he spoke to you, with a laziness and inattentiveness in his voice and expression that said he wasn’t really paying attention to you like he used to, like he didn’t really care, like it was all a huge game to him. It showed in how he flirted with all the other girls in your class, and in your year, and with half of the upperclassmen, and even if you couldn’t hear what was being said you could see how he draped himself over them and made them giggle and blush.
You hated it. You weren’t sure what it was, exactly — that he was so friendly with everyone else, that he didn’t seem to care about anything, or that you were no longer important to him. And you hated the way he still acted like he was your best friend, with all of the privileges, though he did nothing to earn that position for himself. And you were sure he knew how much you hated it, and yet nothing changed. He pretended not to notice, and continued to smile charmingly at everything female that looked his way (except you, you apparently didn’t deserve it) and continued to casually ask if he could come over, or copy your homework, or see the notes from the class you sat through while he was ditching again—
It didn’t take long before you were completely fed up with him. You didn’t want him to go away, not exactly, but you wanted to smack him, to yell at him, to do something to show him how frustrated you were, and make him better, change himself so that you could at least tolerate him. But that was selfish, and unreasonable, and you knew it wouldn’t happen, so you put up with it, and the best you could do was oppose him, in little things, at every given opportunity. He only went to your house, once, because you felt you owed his parents and your parents that much, but you made it clear you didn’t want to see him there again, no matter how many times he asked. You disagreed with him whenever he gave his opinion, no matter how small the matter. You wanted to push him away, you wanted him to stay, you wanted him to look at you again—
At some point, you stopped calling him Masaharu. The first time you did this, he didn’t even bat an eyelash, like he didn’t notice, and that hurt. And so you continued calling him Niou, until the first time he called you by your last name, and it sent a painful jolt through you. It was because he was aware of what had changed, and he didn’t care enough to bring things back to the way they were before, and he felt it was fine if he held the same distance from you.
“Nah, I don’t think it would work,” he was saying, one day, staring thoughtfully out the classroom window on one of the few days when he was actually present. His feet were propped up on the desk before him, and he was leaning dangerously back in his chair, and you were almost tempted to kick it out from under him so he would fall flat on his back.
“I think it would,” you replied as mildly as you could, since you weren’t really part of the conversation, just a casual listener, and Niou barely glanced at you.
“It definitely wouldn’t,” he answered, so confident and sure of himself that it made you bristle and want to antagonize him even more. “I mean—” and he pointed out the window, one slender finger extending to single out the tree that was the object of his, his friends’, and your scrutiny. “—look at it.”
“I’m looking,” you told him. “I’ve been looking.”
Niou rolled his eyes, looked exasperated. “The leaves aren’t dense enough,” he said. “All they would have to do is look up.”
“Then you just climb so high they can’t see you,” you pointed out nonchalantly. “And be quiet enough that they have no reason to look up.”
He stared at you with one eye closed, and you held his gaze steadily, unflinching. “Look, you think I would know this, don’t you? It’s my sort of thing. And I say you can’t climb up the confession tree and spy on people without them noticing you.”
“Well, I say you can,” you challenged, standing up abruptly, “and I’ll prove it to you.”
You stalked over to the door, resting one hand on the frame and glancing back at him; Niou looked at you blankly for a moment. “What, now?”
You tilted your head. “When else? Come on, we have time.”
He glanced at the others, exchanged a few words, and they stayed behind in the classroom when he came over to you — good, exactly the way you wanted it. You shut the door behind you, maybe a little more violently than necessary, and stalked down the hall; Niou easily kept pace with you.
“Hey, you’re not really going to climb the tree, are you?” he asked, sounding for the first time just a little bit worried.
“Of course,” you shot back, and you couldn’t help your slight feeling of triumph. “How else am I supposed to show you you’re wrong?”
Niou was quiet for a long moment before he sighed. “Fine, whatever. Just don’t blame me when you lose.”
“I won’t,” you replied confidently. “In fact, I’ll bet you. Loser buys winner lunch for a week.”
Niou paused, then, and a competitive grin spread across his face. “You’re on,” he answered. You could tell he thought he’d already won. That was fine by you; you would just have to show him up.
This was, in retrospect, a very stupid idea. At the time, it was also a very stupid idea. You knew it, and Niou knew it, and yet neither of you discouraged you from what you were about to do. Instead, Niou “stood guard,” trying to look all casual and staying a good distance away from the tree, because it wouldn’t do for the two of you to be seen beneath it together. And when he called that it was all clear, you nodded to yourself, jumped for the first branch, wrapped your arms around it, pulled yourself up, and started climbing.
The confession tree was a large oak, and at least somewhat difficult for you to make your way up; you were tiring quickly, but you could still see Niou on the ground, and he could still see you, so you moved further up. The leaves grew thicker, creating a screen, but if you looked down you were sure you were still visible from directly below the tree, so you kept climbing, ignoring the scratches inflicted on your arms and legs as you went.
“You still alive up there?” Niou called, and you looked down to see that he was standing directly under the tree, peering up at you. “Guess so. I can still see you.”
“Barely,” you shot back, and tried not to think about how high above the ground you were. More than twice your height, now, maybe three if you really stretched it, and this was starting to seem like a bet you would lose. But you refused to lose, especially to Niou, and maybe if you went just a little higher—
“I can see up your skirt, you know.”
You twitched and considered going down and killing him right then and there. But it would take too much effort to get back up, so you settled for kicking a branch and sending a shower of leaves and small twigs down on him. Niou ducked, laughing, and you glared at him, opening your mouth to tell him just how much time he had left to live.
Then there was the sound of voices, and you froze, saying nothing. Below you, Niou stiffened, looking in the direction leading back to the school. He did nothing to draw attention to himself except to look, but apparently it was all in vain, because there was a pause and a light voice called, “Niou!”
“Yukimura,” he acknowledged, carefully not looking up at you. “Sanada. Yanagi. Hey.”
“What are you doing out here?” someone else asked, apparently amused. You peered through the leaves and found the boy, another first-year with brown hair, closed eyes, and a small smile on his face.
“Waiting for someone, maybe?” the first person teased, the shortest of the three, with wavy blue hair.
“Such a thing, at your age—” the last boy began heatedly, his eyes narrowed, and Niou snorted.
“Because you’re not our age, you’re actually thirty, right, Sanada?” Sanada sputtered incoherently and glared, and you had to try not to laugh for fear of giving your position away. “Nah, I’m not waiting for anyone.”
“Then I suppose it would be out of place to ask what you’re doing?” the closed-eyed boy queried.
Niou smirked, leaning against the trunk of the tree with his arms crossed. “Yep. Plus you’d probably rather not know.”
You sighed silently, wishing they would go away already so you could go back to what you were doing, and in addition, hoping they wouldn’t notice you, or else you’d be in heaps of trouble. You shifted your weight slightly, trying to get more comfortable in case you’d be here for a while, but—
But maybe you had gone too high, or maybe this was a really bad idea in the first place, or maybe Niou was right. Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, there was a sudden loud crack, one that made all four boys look up sharply. You couldn’t help but scream, and as you plummeted, all you could see was the realization and horror in Niou’s gray eyes.
And then suddenly there were no more branches whipping by and leaving scratches on your exposed skin, or bruises on your legs, and you experienced one more moment of sheer terror before you hit the ground.
There was a crack, almost an echo of the branch breaking earlier, except softer and this time accompanied by a sharp pain shooting up your arm. A gasp escaped your lips, and for an instant your vision went completely white. You gritted your teeth, willing yourself not to cry, and when you were able to focus on the world around you again it was to find Niou kneeling in front of you, worried and upset, upset like you’d never seen him, saying your name over and over and over again.
Later, you would think back and realize how much had really changed between you. Because even then, when you thought for a moment that you saw your best friend inside this stranger, even when his ears were pressed flat to his head from anxiety and his tail was curling and uncurling swiftly in agitation, he was still “Niou” to you, and the name that was on his lips, even when panicking, was not the same name he had called you by all those years ago.
“What were you doing up there?” Sanada asked imperiously, though you barely caught the words, and you doubted Niou even heard him.
“Not now,” the blue-haired one replied softly. “Renji—”
“Yes,” “Renji” answered, and without further prompting, walked away. You didn’t know where to, but you could guess.
The boy moved over to crouch down next to you, studying you calmly though with kindness in his eyes. “Are you all right?”
Somehow, sometime when you hadn’t noticed, Niou’s fingers had intertwined themselves with those of your good hand. Somehow, also when you hadn’t noticed, the pain had dulled to a low, throbbing ache, and so you were able to look the stranger straight in those clear blue eyes and query, “Who are you?”
He smiled. “Yukimura Seiichi. And I take it you’re (Your Full Name)?”
“How did—” But no, that smile said plenty. How did he know Niou? And was that how he knew you?
“Well?” he prompted, when you shut up and simply stared at him. “Are you hurt?”
“Not… not really.” At least, not that much, you reasoned, and tried to believe it.
Niou shot a glance at Yukimura, who nodded. “You should probably still go to the nurse’s office,” he said, quite matter-of-factly. “Renji should’ve told them you were coming. They’ll be expecting you by now.”
“Hey!” But Niou was tugging you up gently, and you followed reluctantly, getting to your feet and stumbling a bit. You followed Yukimura when he beckoned, walking still with Niou’s hand in yours, close enough that your shoulder bumped his.
“You can cry if you want, you know,” he murmured, softly enough that only you could hear. “I know it hurts.”
“It’s not that bad,” you replied, slightly affronted, though you didn’t know whether you said it because it was true or because you didn’t want him to worry. “And I said I wouldn’t, didn’t I?”
Niou said nothing to that, and you had to wonder if he remembered.
The bell rang shortly after you got to the nurse’s office, while you were being fussed over and ignoring the lecture on why you shouldn’t be climbing trees on campus in the first place. She took care of the cuts and scrapes that were visible, and mentioned something about calling your parents so they could take you to the hospital. Niou was uncharacteristically silent, and uncharacteristically serious, and when the bell rang, the nurse gave him a sort of “shouldn’t you go to class” look. Niou returned it with a noncommittal but rather telling look of his own and didn’t budge, though his grip on your hand tightened.
“I wanna tell you something,” he said in your ear, and his fingers just brushed the back of your shoulder. You shivered.
“What is it?”
“Not now,” and he traced meaningless, whimsical patterns on the fabric of your shirt. “Later. I’ll come over, okay? See how you’re doing.”
“You sound worried,” you answered, because you couldn’t help yourself.
Niou paused. “You surprised?”
“I didn’t know you had it in you to worry about me,” you said, and tried to sound as nonchalant about it as Yukimura had earlier. “Not anymore.”
Niou stayed with you for a while, until your mother came to pick you up, and apparently trusted the nurse to call the teacher and tell her where he was. Not that he seemed particularly bothered by the concept of being marked truant, in any case. When you were just rising to leave, he tugged at your hand once more, and when you looked back at him, said, “I’ll bring your bag and stuff over tonight.”
You tilted your head to the side slightly. “And then…?”
“And then we’ll talk,” he promised, and let go of your hand for the first time in the better part of an hour.
Sometime later, when you were already sitting in the car, you realized for the first time since you fell that your wrist really did hurt, and maybe everyone else was right after all. But you did have to wonder why it took you so long to notice — if you were that distracted by Niou, or if it wasn’t because of another reason entirely.
He was on his best behavior when he stopped by that night, greeting your parents cheerfully and with a smile that you were sure was fake. He came to your room this time, without so much as an invitation, but if this was anywhere near as important as he had hinted, you could let him have this for the sake of privacy.
He sat at your desk, not far from where you were curled up on your bed, and ran his fingers along the cast on your right arm. “Sorry.”
“You sound like you actually mean it,” you observed, and he looked up.
“Well—” Niou stopped abruptly, but you could guess what he was about to say. If he hadn’t accepted that bet. If he hadn’t let you climb.
But neither of you finished the sentence, and instead you asked, “So what did you want to talk about?”
He paused, looking at you thoughtfully, measuredly for a second. “Hold still,” he ordered, and that was all the warning he gave before he was reaching over, tugging at your sleeve and pushing it up. You yelped immediately, trying to bat his hand away, but he ignored you until the cloth was pulled all the way back and he could see your shoulder.
“Thought so,” he muttered to himself, and for the second time in one day, his fingers traced over the dark lines there. “Look at this.”
You refused to do as he said, instead staring intently at the floor. “Don’t need to.”
Niou hesitated before he started laughing, and then he flopped onto the bed next to you, a little too close for comfort (and you didn’t think you minded, except that was confusing, because shouldn’t you have minded…?). You frowned at him, disapproving and suspicious. “What’s so funny?” When he didn’t reply immediately, you changed your question. “How did you know that was there?”
“‘Cause I’ve got one too,” he responded, and there was a wicked glint in his eye as he pulled down his own shirt sleeve so you could just see the beginnings of a word.
You didn’t need to see all the letters to know what it read. It was the same as yours. It wasn’t so much the beginning that you could read, but a knowledge, somewhere inside you, that he was right. That the first three letters — “MER” — on his left shoulder started to spell out the same thing as those on your right.
MERCILESS. It had been a part of you, engraved into your skin, for as long as you could remember. It hadn’t always been there, that much you had been told, repeatedly, by parents who were one day surprised to find what looked like scars when there was never a wound. You were used to it, but you preferred to ignore it, to hide it, because it was strange and you didn’t understand.
You didn’t understand, but Niou did, and apparently he had the same thing.
“What does it mean?” you asked, and you couldn’t help the years of pent-up frustration that showed through in your voice.
“It’s a name,” he explained, and before you could hit him for being so enigmatic, “It’s our name.”
There was something about the way he said “our,” something that implied how deeply it was shared, that caused the word to hang in the air, to resonate with some sort of power. You felt, almost, if you reached out you would be able to touch it, that it was given actual form; but that was just stupid, so instead you asked, trying to hide your uneasiness beneath skepticism, “Our name?”
Niou chuckled, and you had the distinct, irritating feeling that you hadn’t fooled him in the slightest. “Yep. When people are born, they’re given a true name that they share with one other person in the world. My name is Merciless, and I share it with you.” He reached up, almost to brush the hair from your face, and this time you did draw away. He lowered his hand again. “You’re my partner.”
“…I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” you murmured, and half-meant it. Only half, because out of all people, you wouldn’t mind being tied to Niou. Half, because he was enough trouble already, and you didn’t want to get involved in any more. “How do you know this?”
“Someone told me, when they saw the name,” Niou replied vaguely, and you had the feeling you wouldn’t get any more out of him. “Y’know what it means to be partners? It means you’re tied together. Means you share a soul, that you’re each other’s most important person.”
“…you mean we’re soulmates,” you deadpanned.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Are you hitting on me?” you demanded, and when Niou merely snickered, you sighed, rolling your eyes. “I don’t believe you.”
You didn’t — you shouldn’t have — and yet that didn’t explain the word on your shoulder, or why you were so drawn to him even when you should hate him so much.
“You know, partners do something else, too,” he said casually. Too casually, and you returned your attention to him. “They fight.”
“We do that, all right.”
“Not with each other. Against other pairs.” Niou shrugged, holding up one hand and ticking points off on his fingers, not meeting your eyes. “They use Wordspells — you say something and it happens. There’s a Fighter and a Sacrifice. Fighter does the attacking, Sacrifice takes the damage. Something goes wrong, the Fighter takes care of the Sacrifice, heals them if they have to.”
It was true. Something was telling you that he wasn’t lying, but it was too unbelievable, too unreal. It didn’t make logical sense. It went against the laws of physics — why had you never heard of this before? — Niou was telling you that the two of you were soulmates—
“Maybe you should leave.”
You spoke suddenly, and when Niou looked at you, his expression was unreadable, though his eyes said he had been expecting this.
“Don’t like what you hear?”
“I don’t like being told I’m destined to be with someone who — who—” You didn’t finish the sentence, because you couldn’t, and didn’t know what to say. “…just go. Please.”
“If you say so.” He stood, waving one hand as he walked away, and though you were confused, you found yourself on your feet before he was through the door.
Niou paused, tilting his head back to regard you over his shoulder. “Hm?”
“…thanks.” And now it was his turn to look like he didn’t understand, and you elaborated grudgingly, “I wasn’t lying, you know. When I said it didn’t hurt.”
For a brief moment, a split second, Niou looked genuinely surprised. And then he grinned, almost as if in relief. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you at school.”
Then his footsteps were receding down the hall, and he was gone.
He never did claim his prize for winning the bet.
“What do you think it means?”
“Well, you won’t get anywhere from asking Kirihara,” you respond, and he chuckles.
“Fine, fine. Then I’ll ask you. You’re passing English, aren’t you?”
You roll your eyes, reciting a definition that you know by heart, and that you know he knows by heart. After all, you looked it up long ago, and it’s been engraved into your memory. “‘Merciless.’ Those who are unrelenting and act without kindness or sympathy for others.”
“It fits,” he says, after a beat, which isn’t really necessary for him to think but that he takes anyway, for dramatic effect or something.
“It does,” you answer.
“Hey, you agree!” He sounds delighted, and you almost wince at the feeling of happiness that wells up in you in response, because you should know better than to trust him. “You almost never agree with me. Why the sudden change?”
“Because I believe in the truth,” you say. “Unlike you.”
Then he’s close to you, his breath washing over your face and one hand twirling around your hair, and you do flinch back this time, a conditioned response. He ignores it, even as you hiss and your tail curls forward agitatedly, as if to push him away. “That’s mean,” he murmurs, his voice low, seductive. “You really are Merciless.”
“Only because you are,” you shoot back. And it’s true, what the two of you are saying, and you can’t help but think that your name, the most powerful weapon at your disposal, was never meant to be used this way, against each other.
The first time you played tennis against him was in your second year, on the night when Yukimura Seiichi collapsed.
It wasn’t the first time you felt what he was feeling, and you suspected that he had felt your own emotions before. But this wasn’t like those battles, where you would sense his headache that meant another pair was near, or he would pick up on your own pain afterwards. This time, it came in the form of a gnawing worry inside you, one that escalated into anxiety and sadness and maybe a hint of panic—
At some point, you couldn’t stand it anymore. You picked up your phone and dialed the first number on speed-dial. Yagyuu answered after the second ring, his voice carefully neutral — too controlled, you thought. “Hello, Yagyuu Hiroshi speaking.”
You didn’t mention that no one else was likely to answer his phone, except maybe Niou, when he stole it. “Yagyuu? It’s me. Where are you right now?”
A pause. “…Kanai General Hospital.”
“Is Niou there?”
“…yes.” Another pause, and then, “If I may ask, why—”
You cut him off abruptly. “I don’t have his number and I don’t want it. Thank you.”
“What are you planning to do?”
You didn’t answer his question. “Please don’t tell them about this.” And without another word, you hung up and glanced at the clock. If you left now, it was unlikely that you would be able to make it back before dinner. But still—
“I’m going out,” you called. “I might be back late, so don’t wait for me.” And as long as you didn’t clarify how late…
It took ten minutes to reach the station by foot, another fifteen waiting for the train and transit time, and a further five to get to the hospital from where you disembarked. From there — you didn’t know how, exactly, you did it, considering how big the hospital was, but you went where you thought they would be and where you thought the feelings were coming from.
You didn’t think, even for a second, that the reason they were at the hospital was because Niou was hurt. It was definitely someone else, because if it was Niou, you would know without doubt, and you would be able to feel something yourself other than irritation and maybe a little bit of worry.
When you walked into the waiting room, they all looked up, except for the girl curled up, apparently fast asleep, against Sanada’s shoulder. Your brief moment of “what the hell” passed quickly enough, however, and you stormed over to Niou, your ears standing up in frustration and your tail in a straight, rigid line behind you. He stared at you, eyes slightly wide in disbelief, and you stopped in front of him and grabbed him roughly by the wrist.
“Come with me,” you ordered, and pulled.
He resisted for a second, trying to stay seated, and you couldn’t help but notice how incredibly off-balance, how un-Niou he was at the moment, even though all eyes were on you. “Oi — Yukimura—”
That was who it was. You supposed you should’ve expected it; no one else would have incited such a reaction in him, except maybe you, and sometimes you even doubted that. You would get the details out of him later, when he was in a better state of mind. “You’ve been brooding. Let’s go, you don’t have a say in the matter. And bring your stuff, too.”
Niou got to his feet — partially because he didn’t have much of a choice, unless he wanted you to fall over — and looked around somewhat helplessly. Yagyuu sighed a little, adjusting his glasses, and you thought maybe he expected you would do this. “I’ll call you when we have more information,” he promised. Niou didn’t look like he was satisfied, but he came along anyway.
You walked in silence for a while, your hand still clasped tightly around Niou’s arm, hard enough to bruise, and him following him with at least more confusion than angst this time. “Where are we going?” he asked, after some time.
“I think it was around here,” you responded, not looking at him. That was all the answer he received, until you reached your destination, street tennis courts tucked into a residential area that were fortunately empty at this time.
Niou stopped, then, and stared. “Tennis?”
“Yeah. You wanted to play a match with me, didn’t you?” You let him go, finally, and opened the gate. “So let’s go.”
“Now?” he asked skeptically.
“I don’t know when else.”
“You dragged me away to play a game with me?”
You turned around, your eyes flashing, and accusingly pointed the racket you had just withdrawn from your bag at him. “So what? Are you saying you won’t? You’re a bunch of things I don’t like, Niou Masaharu, but I never knew you were the kind of coward who would run away with his tail between his legs at the first sign of a challenge.”
His expression twisted, then, with anger, and you were pleased at the sign of life. “That’s not it. Buchou’s in the hospital, they don’t know what’s wrong with him, everything’s falling apart, and you want me to play tennis?”
“I think,” you said, your voice heavily laden with irony, “that Yukimura would be the type to prefer you playing tennis than standing around doing nothing while you worry. Not that I know him anywhere near as well as you do.”
Niou stared at you for another long moment before snarling and dropping his bag. As he bent down to withdraw his tennis racket, you smiled to yourself. It wasn’t that you weren’t worried about Yukimura — you rather liked the boy, for all that you knew so little about him — but it wasn’t like you could help him in any way. On the other hand, you could help Niou, and that was what you planned to do.
“I’ll serve first,” you called, hoping to save the slight trouble of having to spin the racket, and received only a grunt in response. You rolled your eyes, bouncing the ball on the ground a few times experimentally as you waited at the base line for him to be ready. It didn’t take too much longer before he was crouching diagonally from you, right on the line himself, and though his stance seemed to indicate that he was prepared, you knew better. It looked like it was only habit, that he was standing that way; there was a distinct lack of focus in his eyes, and his grip on the racket was a little too loose, that told you he was in no state of mind to be playing tennis.
That was fine with you. He would find out soon enough that he had to concentrate or face the consequences.
You threw the ball into the air, following it with your eyes. The bright lights on either side of the courts that allowed you to play at night were almost distracting, and potentially blinding, but you paid them no mind, waiting until the sphere paused, just for a moment, at the top of its arc.
Then you slammed your racket against it as hard as you could, fiercely enjoying the moment of contact as it sent a shockwave up your arm, and Niou blinked as the ball flew past his cheek and rattled the fence behind him.
He was looking at you with shock, this time, but you were already withdrawing another ball from your pocket and bouncing it against the court. “Pay attention,” you called. “If I mess up my aim, you might end up with a black eye.”
There was annoyance in his expression, now, and the beginnings of interest, but it still wasn’t enough. You shrugged half-heartedly and walked over to the left side of the court. “Let’s try that again. Fifteen-love!”
The ball soared into the air and then in his direction, faster than would be expected from someone as small and young as you, faster even than last time, you noted with pleasure. He missed it again, simply stood there as it flew past his face, a few long strands of hair floating in the wake of the wind as it passed. You sighed a little, shaking your head, and moved back to where you started; then you gave Niou a pointed look, and belatedly, he changed sides as well. “Thirty-love,” you stated, almost boredly, and served again. This time he moved, lunging for it just a second too late and missing, and you placed one hand on your hip and looked at him.
“I’m out of balls,” you told him pointedly. Niou blinked, once, before reaching for the nearest one and hitting it to you, and you caught it easily. “Try harder! At this rate you’re going to lose without putting up so much as a fight.”
Somewhat to your surprise, the corner of his lips tugged upwards, and he yelled back, “Don’t worry about me. Just serve again.”
You smirked in response, and thought to yourself that it was working. Except he was right, and you were worried about him — but maybe he was starting to focus, and that was all you were aiming for, really. “Forty-love!”
This time, the ball smashed into the corner of the service box; this time, Niou actually went after it, and managed to catch it on the end of his racket. You watched without moving as it went soaring upwards and landed in green, on your side of the court — but in one of the alleys, and you called with no small amount of smugness, “Out! That’s game. Change courts.”
Niou shook his head slightly as he walked past you, like he was shaking off his doubts. When he served, it went in, and that was about all you could say for his entire game. You returned it, and all his serves and shots, with ease, until the score was fifteen-love thirty-love forty-love game, two games to love, and you paused for a moment with your racket resting on your shoulder to eye him scornfully. When Niou looked at you, he was trying to pretend he didn’t care, but you knew. You could see his frustration building — over Yukimura, over how he was losing — and you knew just what buttons to press.
“What’s the matter, Niou? That can’t be all you’ve got.” He looked at you, silver rattail hanging over one shoulder, and you averted your gaze from him, talking more to the night sky. “Because frankly, you suck. How are you even a regular? Is everything I’ve ever heard about our legendary boys’ tennis team a lie? Because really, if they’re all as bad as you, I’m surprised you even managed to win one game.” You closed one eye, glanced at him patronizingly, because if there was one thing Niou hated, it was being looked down on. “What would Yukimura think if he could see you now?”
Anger, glimmering in steely gray orbs, and you felt another shot of malicious pleasure. Maybe this was what he felt all the time, riling you up, but at least you had the excuse of doing it for his own good. His fist was clenching, around another tennis ball, you noted, like he was going to throw it at you or smash it into your head or — or something.
But Niou would never do that to you, and the very fact that he was holding it told you so much. The thought that he could be this riled up about his captain twisted within you painfully, and you wondered if it would be the same for you, if you were in Yukimura’s situation. If he would care enough about you, even though it seemed like he didn’t give a damn, most of the time, that you were just a friend who hated him and happened to be his soulmate, yeah, so what, it didn’t mean anything?
But this time, like every time you thought that, you remembered the vulnerability in his eyes a year and a half ago, the way he had clutched your hand like he would never let go, and you couldn’t help but feel guilty for doubting that he cared.
“It’s my serve,” you said, to distract yourself from those thoughts, and also to remind Niou that his turn was over. He looked even more annoyed when he realized you were right, and tossed you the ball; you caught it and toyed with it thoughtfully as you stared at him.
“It’s not just you, you know,” you murmured softly, but you knew he could hear. “It’s called a tennis team for a reason. One person can easily drag the whole group down, reflect badly on them. If I can beat you so easily, what does that say about everyone else? Is that the limit of Marui’s genius? Does Yanagi’s data only go so far?” You paused.
“Don’t say it,” he warned, but of course, you paid him no mind.
“Is that all the legendary ‘Child of God’ is capable of?” you asked softly. “Then what would it matter if he’s sick, or hospitalized? Either way, he’s still a loser.”
He stalked up to the net, his eyes promising violence, even for you, and you took that chance to serve right past him. Then, when you moved to the other half of the court and figured he was close enough to the center line for it to count, you hit the ball again; this time, he reached out, catching it in his palm with no apparent effort, though the sight made you wince. Knowing how fast your serves could get, he would have a nice bruise on that hand tomorrow.
“What the hell is your problem?” Niou hissed, serious for the first time in so long, and you felt almost regretful that it took this much to get him to actually look at you.
“You’re my problem, Niou,” you replied, and were almost surprised at how true it was. Not just now, but ever since you met him again. You couldn’t truthfully say that he was the source of all your problems, but so much of your frustration derived from him — it would all be so much easier if he just—
You didn’t know. You didn’t know what you wanted from him, except that he was a problem, and he had to be able to do something to fix that.
“You agreed to play a game with me, didn’t you?” you challenged, half to distract yourself. “Then play, dammit. Don’t just stand there looking like a stupid lost animal that’s never even heard of tennis before. If this is all it takes to break you—”
You didn’t know what you were saying. You weren’t sure what was going to come out of your mouth. “—then you’re not worthy of being my Fighter.”
He stared at you, perhaps because it was the first time you had ever acknowledged what he had told you more than a year ago, that you were partners, that you were inextricably tied together. He stared at you, and you wondered why you felt like you should cry.
Then he smirked and lobbed the ball at you; you caught it, and from the speed and power behind it, he’d definitely thrown it with all his strength. “Fine,” Niou told you, turning and walking back to the base line. “Fine, I’ll play you.
“I’ll show you why we’re the champions.”
You couldn’t help but smile, just a little, while he couldn’t see you. This was no longer about Yukimura. This was about you, and he, and what you could and could not do, and it was better that way. It was supposed to be that way.
“Are you going to serve?” Niou called.
“I was getting to that!”
“Thirty-love!” And this time, when the ball sped away from you with a satisfying thwack, it thudded straight back into your court just as fast, a return ace that caught you completely by surprise.
“You were saying?” Niou asked, when you were stunned silent.
You shook your head. “A lucky shot,” you called back, though you knew it was nothing of the sort. “Thirty-fifteen!”
Maybe you would get your match after all.
You lost, six games to four, and you couldn’t tell from Niou’s face and the look in his eyes whether you were really playing that well against him or he was simply toying with you. But the both of you were breathing hard after the last rally, when he straightened up, triumphant, and announced, “Game and match.”
You didn’t respond, wiping the sweat off your forehead and looking up. It was already well past sunset; you had lost track of time, and you could only imagine how much trouble you would be in when you got back home. Niou approached the net, racket clutched loosely in one hand. “You were saying?”
“I was saying,” you responded dryly, “you shouldn’t worry so much about things you can’t control.” But you took the hand he proffered anyway and shook it, and maybe his grip was a little tighter and lasted a little longer than was necessary.
He ducked his head a little, as if reluctant to say anything. “Thanks.”
“Mm. It looked like you needed a little beating up.” The deadpan look he sent you said that he didn’t believe he needed any more abuse, but you ignored it. “Are you going back now?”
“Yeah. I wanna be there when they find out something. If they haven’t already.” You nodded a little and moved over to where you had haphazardly discarded your tennis bag and other belongings, including your cell phone with its muted ringtone. Checking the screen, you couldn’t help but grimace when “four missed calls” blinked back at you. You were definitely going to be in trouble.
“Hey, you know, you’re not half-bad.”
You looked up, slipping the phone into your pocket. You would call home in a few minutes. “Excuse me?”
Niou was leaning against the fence, and there was something piercing, scrutinizing in his gaze. “At tennis,” he elaborated. “Why aren’t you on the team?”
You opened your mouth to answer but realized you didn’t know. You knew why you hadn’t joined last year, something about climbing trees and a broken wrist, and this year — laziness, maybe? Forgetfulness?
Not wanting to be any closer to Niou than you were already?
But the last reason was stupid, and why would you want that? He was already the closest person to you, and the person you wanted to keep the furthest away. But you didn’t say that, and instead replied, “I’ll think about it.”
“Anyway,” and that smirk was back, something flirtatious about it that you didn’t like, “maybe we should play more often.”
You closed your eyes, hefting your bag over your shoulder. Things were back to normal, and you weren’t sure whether you were relieved or simply hated it. “I think your girlfriend would object to you spending more time with me than absolutely necessary.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Niou replied, and his voice contained only mild indignation.
“…huh. Could’ve fooled me.”
“You know, if you’re really that worried about people minding it—” He was in your personal space bubble, and you nearly pushed him away. Only the fact that he was Niou kept you from doing so — and only the fact that he was Niou irritated you so much. “—you could be my girlfriend instead.”
“I think,” and you had to work to keep your voice even, “I would object to that too.”
“What, you don’t love me?” He was close — too close, and you could feel his breath on your lips as he talked, and at this distance, you could see the flecks of blue in his gray eyes, even in the darkness. “You know, I…”
“I know, Niou,” you cut him off, and your heart twisted in a way that you weren’t sure was due to him, or yourself, or maybe both of you. “I just…”
He seemed to realize his proximity at that moment and stepped away, and you took in a breath you hadn’t realized you’d been holding. The night air was cool against your skin, and you wondered if you were blushing, because it certainly felt like it, and if he could see it. “…yeah, I get it.”
“Sorry,” you said, though you didn’t know what you were apologizing for, or really, which of you should be apologizing. “I should get going now. See you at school.”
“Want me to call you when they have word on what’s up with Yukimura?” he asked.
“No, it’s fine.” And then you blinked, turning to him. “When did you get my number?”
Niou looked vaguely nonplussed, pushing his messy hair out of his face. “Yagyuu gave it to me,” he answered. “Said he thought I should have it. Why?”
Yagyuu. Somehow, you felt you shouldn’t be surprised. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”
“See ya,” he called after you, as you stepped out of the brightly-lit tennis courts and back into the night.
“You remember Keira?” he asks, one day, out of the blue.
“Yeah.” You can hardly forget her.
“Well, rumor has it she went and eloped with some foreigner. Her family’s real mad.” He laughs like it’s the funniest thing in the world, but stops when he notices you’re not laughing with him.
“What’s wrong?” he wants to know, standing up and moving toward you. He lifts his hand, places it gently on your head next to your ear; it twitches, almost in a warning to him not to touch it, and he runs his fingers through your hair and cups your cheek.
You want to slap him. You don’t. “She was your first girlfriend.” The one he said wasn’t his girlfriend, when you told him that was who you thought she was. The one who he started dating a week later. The one you want to forget, maybe the first person you’ve ever hated — hated? Hate is such a strong word, maybe dislike, though dislike doesn’t nearly encompass all you felt — just because of what she was. She was a nice enough girl. You probably would’ve liked her fine, if not for that one simple fact, two words tacked on as an afterthought to her name, “Niou’s girl.”
You don’t know why you care. You obviously don’t want to be “Niou’s girl” yourself.
“Yeah. You do remember.” You step away, then, unable to stand the contact any longer, your heart pounding in your chest just from his touch. Your tail twitches, wraps around yourself almost protectively, and he looks down at it thoughtfully. You wonder if he understands why.
“You could’ve been my first girlfriend, you know,” he says, and leaves the sentence hanging. I almost wish you were.
“I know,” you answer, and though it won’t change anything, you know he hears what you leave unsaid. I do, too.
But it’s too late. The first time has passed, there’s no going back, and even if you were to do so now, it wouldn’t be the same. Because in the end, there’s a fundamental difference between the first girlfriend and the fourteenth, the first kiss and the fiftieth.
You never knew why you did so much for him, especially considering all he ever did for you. When did he ever help you? When did he ever do anything but hurt you, with his smirks, his words, his actions? You were so tired of seeing him in the school hallways with a girl hanging off his arm, a different one every week, or maybe they only changed every few months or so and you couldn’t be bothered to remember their faces because you didn’t want to know them. You didn’t want to know who was taking Niou from you — who you were letting take Niou from you.
But you did know that you were at the finals of the boys’ National championships. All of the girls’ tennis team was, whether to actually cheer for their school or their friends or swoon over the hot guys, and every time you heard Niou’s name whispered and giggled you wanted to slap them, but most of all, slap him. You did know that he played Singles Two, against Fuji Syuusuke, and watching him you remembered why you liked him so much (not love, because you didn’t believe in love; how could you when you hated him so much of the time, and when he clearly didn’t love you?). This was a different Niou than the one who accepted Valentine’s chocolates from every girl in the school with a stupidly sexy grin that he knew was stupidly sexy, just to watch them turn bright red, and there was a reason you never gave him anything on Valentine’s. This was a different Niou than the one who cornered you, sometimes, when the two of you were alone, and when there was intensity burning in his eyes and for that moment you were the only one in the world to him.
You wondered how many more times it would happen before you would snap. All you knew was that, when he was looking at you like that and almost, on the verge of, never quite telling you how much you meant, never quite uttering those words that would say he didn’t care about all those others, that it was you and only you — it was distracting. It was hard to remember how much you didn’t like his attitude, and hard to remember that you had nothing to gain from giving into him, nothing but falling to the same level as all those others he had dated before, seduced and used and thrown away.
(He isn’t really that bad, you heard whispers of in the halls. He’s actually pretty nice to them. He doesn’t like it when girls cry, so he tries to break it to them as gentle as possible. It’s not like he doesn’t care about their feelings—
Of course he doesn’t care about girls’ feelings, you thought back. You’re a girl, and look how much he bothers with what you feel.)
If you could ever apply the word “love” to Niou, it would be only this: You loved Niou’s tennis. You loved watching Niou play tennis, because he was perfectly in his element, and you felt like you were seeing his core, the heart of him that you only ever caught glimpses of otherwise, because he was too well-guarded the rest of the time. There was focus in his play, and determination, none of the flightiness or hurtfulness you had come to associate with him, and the only ruthlessness was directed solely at his opponent, with intent to win.
He didn’t. He lost to Seigaku’s Fuji Syuusuke, five games to seven, and maybe that was the first time you realized you had never really hated those girls before, not as much as you hated Fuji Syuusuke, just for putting that expression of shock and helplessness and frustration and anger on Niou’s face. (And maybe you didn’t really hate Fuji Syuusuke, because you could understand wanting to win, even if it was just in tennis, because sometimes you thought, for these boys, Tennis Was Life.)
He looked completely resigned when he collapsed onto the bleachers. He took Sanada’s slap in stride. And, the first moment no one was looking at him, when they were completely focused on Marui and Jackal and Kikumaru and Oishi, he stood up and walked away.
You might have been the only one who noticed. Certainly you were the only one who slipped out of your seat and followed him. He didn’t seem to realize you were there, as he walked out of the stadium, to where you could barely hear the noise of the crowd, and slammed his fist against the side of the fence.
It made a clanging, rattling sound; slowly, he withdrew his hand, did it again. Watching silently, you felt you couldn’t take it anymore, and you stepped forward. “I think I was the only one who saw silver.”
He whirled around at that, the wary expression on his face that of a cornered animal, telling you that he really hadn’t known you were there. That was insulting, in a way, but you knew he had other things on his mind. Slowly, the look faded, though he didn’t completely relax his guard; he dropped his hand to his side, and when he spoke, there was a bitter bite to his words. “Here to beat me up again?”
“Nah. Doesn’t work all the time.” You crossed your arms, leaning against the fence, and watched him. You saw the way his ears drooped, just a little more than usual, and how his tail hung limp and still, not in active motion like it usually was. Little signs that other people probably wouldn’t have ever caught. “Niou—”
“Don’t even start,” he cut you off, sharply. “The last thing I need is pity from you.”
You cocked your head, one of your ears flicking in interest. “How come? I figure you would think I’d be the best person to understand, seeing as, you know, I can feel what you’re putting yourself through.”
Niou laughed, and it was sour, and unkind, and forced. “You never show pity to anyone, ‘specially not me. Don’t want me to be the first time.” You sighed and said nothing, and he continued, with a short, almost angry glance, “What does that mean, anyway? That you ‘saw silver’?”
“It means I was the only one who saw you out there.” When he deadpanned at you, you smiled, and it was rare and notable because you almost never smiled at Niou.
“Stop being so damn enigmatic and tell me what you’re talking about.”
For once, you humored him and obeyed. “Everyone in the stadium, I think, was caught by surprise when they saw you out there, because they thought they would see Niou play. They never expected Tezuka to show up, or Shiraishi. And when they did, that’s all they saw.
“I think,” you began as you straightened up and started pacing, and Niou’s gaze followed you like a hawk, “it’s real easy to lose sight of someone, especially when they want you to — forget, that they are themselves. It becomes easy to take them for granted. It’s easy to just go, ‘Oh, it was Tezuka’ or ‘Oh, it was Shiraishi out there,’ but it wasn’t. It was Niou. It was you, and you’re neither Tezuka nor Shiraishi.”
“Stop talking,” he muttered. “It freaks me out when you’re this wordy.”
“Because I never talk to you otherwise?” You stopped in front of him, reached out to gently touch the forming bruise on his cheek. He winced at the contact, and his left ear twitched, the first real sign of life you’d seen from him. “It can’t be easy.”
You didn’t have to explain what you meant, and he shrugged half-heartedly. “I’m good at it.”
“Yeah, but it’s still gotta be something you work at.” You frowned. “How long did it take, Niou? To get so good at being them?”
“Probably not as long as you’re thinking—”
“The point is,” you interrupted, “you played well for Shiraishi. Tezuka too, I think. And isn’t that more than good enough for Niou?”
Niou shook his head. “Not for Sanada.”
“Considering how he barely beat Tezuka this time around, I think he doesn’t exactly have room to talk,” you replied acerbically. He chuckled, and actually sounded like he almost meant it this time. “So—”
You shrugged. “Don’t let it get to you. It’s not like Rikkai’s gonna lose, anyway. I mean, Marui and Jackal are the top-ranked doubles pair, and then there’s always Yukimura, and if he loses to some first-year brat it’ll be, like, the apocalypse or something.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that I lost.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that you did well,” you shot back, and almost immediately regretted it. You never complimented Niou, not for any reason, and you flushed, averting your gaze. You were never really one to give pep talks, so the ensuing silence after possibly the peppiest talk you’d ever given was even more awkward. You stared at Niou, and as if sensing your discomfort, he smiled pleasantly. Niou did not do pleasant. It was somewhat terrifying.
“I still want to punch something.”
Threats, when combined with that entirely too innocent look, made you quite suspicious. “Yeah, that makes sense. You can go ahead. Just as long as it’s not me, and you don’t hurt yourself — or, well, hurt someone who’ll hurt you.”
The smile vanished. You started feeling nervous, and then before you could even blink, a fist was launching itself in your direction. You froze, and it connected squarely with the fence behind you. Before you could recover — to yell at him, to punch him yourself, to storm away if this was the thanks you got — he was leaning down and his lips were crashing into yours.
Whatever delusions you may have had, whatever vague, half-hearted, incomplete ideas you may have harbored about kissing Niou (because if it wasn’t normal to fantasize about kissing your best friend, which he wasn’t, it made more sense to fantasize about kissing your partner), they were pretty much all just girlish daydreams about someone you had a crush on (because that was all it was, since there was no way you loved him and you were loath to admit you even liked him that much). If you thought Niou would be gentle, you were never expecting these circumstances; if you thought your first kiss would be memorable, well, it was.
He was clearly frustrated, you could tell by how aggressive he was — the way his mouth moved against yours, with painful, hungry force, the way one of his arms wrapped immediately around you and pulled you flush against him. He tasted salty, and sour, his lips chapped and broken and rough, and you were reminded of the sweat streaming down his face as he served and smashed and volleyed relentlessly under the hot sun. His fingers slipped up the back of your shirt, running in light, uneven circles across your skin, making you shiver and causing your back to arch at the contact, pressing you further against his body.
You didn’t know how, but your mouth opened to allow him entry; you didn’t know how, but one hand was clutching his shoulder, and the other somehow found and intertwined with his. The tip of his tail brushed against your fingers, on your wrist, along the inside of your arm, furry and tickling and almost distracting until your own tail swatted it away and they sort of curled around each other, leaving you free to focus on Niou, and how he licked teasingly at the corner of your mouth for a second and made you whimper, and how his tongue danced across your palate before tangling with yours, playful and mischievous and dominating, and the way oxygen no longer seemed necessary, not so long as he kept kissing you like that, and holding you like that with one callused palm spread along your back and the other tight, so tight, like he never wanted to let go of your hand—
Why had you never done this before? Why hadn’t you let him?
You were dizzy when he drew back, spots dancing across your vision, and you heard him utter a soft curse; you rather felt the same way, and still the taste of him lingered in your mouth. He looked winded, and the thought occurred to you that he probably had ample experience that he was putting to good use right now, but you couldn’t bring yourself to care. There was something different in his eyes as he looked at you, something you couldn’t identify, not when he was still so close and his hands were still so warm against your skin.
“We would have won by now,” he growled, as the shouts from the courts grew louder, though you were only vaguely aware of them, “if it hadn’t been for me.”
“Niou, just shut up,” you breathed, and shifted your grip to his collar so you could yank him down again.
“Good morning,” he says cheerily, and his arms go around your waist and his chin atop your head.
You bite back the urge to curse and instead stiffen, and you know he can feel your reaction. “It’s not.”
“Why?” he asks comfortably. “Because it’s raining?”
“Because I had to get up early for tennis practice that was cancelled because it’s raining.” He laughs, and you add, with a definite bitterness, “and—”
“Because you don’t like being greeted by me first thing in the morning?” Your tail twitches irritably, but you say nothing — you don’t need to say anything, because he knows.
“Don’t you have some other girl you can do this with?”
“Probably,” he agrees, entirely too easily.
“Then why don’t you go bother her? You don’t need to lose another girlfriend this month.”
He hums softly, hugging you tighter. “But she doesn’t squeak when I do—” He cuts off the sentence there, nipping lightly at the side of one of the soft ears atop your head, and you can’t help it, you do squeak. It flicks automatically, to get out of his reach, and you pull forcefully away from him, glaring. He spreads his arms, all innocence, and continues, almost sorrowfully, “She doesn’t have them.”
“You know I hate it when you do that,” you hiss.
There’s a glimmer of slight mischief in his eyes as he replies, “It wouldn’t be a problem if you just lost ‘em.”
“I’m not like you,” you snap, and walk away before the morning can get any worse.
You’re not like him, because your ears and tail actually mean something to you. You’re not like him, because the bond you share actually means something to you.
Three weeks after the tennis tournament nationals concluded, two months before the end of the fall term, Yagyuu came up to you and asked, with a somewhat odd note to his voice, if you’d seen Niou today.
No, you had responded, you hadn’t. It wasn’t unusual; you didn’t go out of your way to seek Niou, after all. He was the one who came searching for you, if only to poke and prod and ask if he could borrow money, or to hang off you, or to just lurk, silently and thoughtfully, for a while, shooting occasional odd but very meaningful glances in your direction. For the most part, you ignored him, though you had long since given up avoiding him.
“Ah,” Yagyuu said, and left it at that.
“Why, is something wrong?” you asked, without too much actual worry. If there really was something wrong with Niou, you would know.
“Not… necessarily.” But there was something in the way he hesitated that made you wary. “You may be unhappy with him. Still, you should probably come see for yourself.”
“Okay,” you agreed, not entirely sure what was up. But you followed him to class 3-B anyway, the homeroom Niou and Marui shared, and paused in the doorway, scanning for the familiar head of silver hair.
It didn’t take long to find him, even though you had never been to his class before; hair like that did stand out, after all. He was resting his chin on his hand lazily, listening to Marui chatter, and though he appeared to be completely unaware of it, he was also the subject of a number of whispered conversations and glances from around the room.
Almost as soon as you noticed him, you knew what Yagyuu had wanted you to see. You knew why people were talking. Because prominently absent from Niou’s head — absent, but still present on almost all the people in the room, and in fact, in most of the school — was a pair of dark gray fuzzy ears.
You knew Yagyuu was Niou’s best friend, or as close as he could come to calling anyone his best friend. You didn’t know how much Niou had told him about the two of you, if he’d spouted some nonsense about you being soulmates and destined or whatever, or if Yagyuu knew about pairs and fighting and that you were Niou’s partner. You didn’t know if Yagyuu knew anything at all, besides what he had discerned himself, which could have been anything, given the many inconsistencies in how you and Niou generally acted toward each other. But you did know Yagyuu was the only person who saw, the only person close enough to hear, when your eyes widened and you hissed venomously, under your breath, “I hate him.”
Without wasting another second, you turned on your heel and stalked off — not running away, but quite clearly fuming, and if you were about to cry, well, no one but you would ever know. Yagyuu watched your back as you left but knew better than to follow. And inside the room, probably wondering at the sudden rush of emotions he was feeling, Niou looked up.
He didn’t follow, either. Why, you would never know. Whether it was because Yagyuu stopped him — because he realized you would murder him first — or because he simply didn’t care, you were alone when you made it up to the roof and wondered why you even bothered with him.
You didn’t talk to him for the rest of the term, and not for lack of trying on his part. Whenever he dropped by your class, or any of the usual places during break, you weren’t there. Whenever he met you in passing, before or after school or in the halls, you would brush past him like he wasn’t there.
At the very least, he had the sense not to try to catch you at home. And the single time he dropped by tennis practice to try to get your attention, you shrugged off the hand he laid on your shoulder with a glare.
“Fuck off, Niou,” you snapped. Maybe it was because he was surprised by your vehemence, but he left you alone after that, and maybe you wished he had tried a little harder.
Not long afterward, your school posted an opening for a one-term exchange program farther north, in Hokkaido, for the coming winter semester, though you would be back a couple weeks before term ended due to graduation and all. You jumped at the opportunity, though you weren’t sure why. Maybe you thought you would appreciate the chance to get away for a little while, to where everything was unfamiliar and where nothing reminded you of him. Maybe it was the best way to keep from having to face him.
Maybe you were just running away.
You debated not telling anyone you were leaving. Certainly you didn’t want to tell him. In the end, though, you decided it would be cruel to leave all your friends completely in the dark, and let one or two of them know you were going to be far away. Notable was the fact that neither of those friends was male, nor did they have any particular connections to the tennis team.
It didn’t work, anyway. You couldn’t be distracted that easily. Every time you saw a flash of silver, your heart would jump, even knowing that it was impossible for him to have followed you here, only for you to be disappointed when you discovered that it belonged to yet another elderly person.
Why did you care so much, you wondered? It would be so much easier on you if you could just accept that the two of you were better off just as friends, or acquaintances, or that you should just lose contact and become once-upon-a-time-best-friends. And every time you thought that, you would catch another hint of silver, or hear another voice that wasn’t at all like his, but just close enough to make you jump, and you would turn, hoping to see him—
Why was he such an idiot? Why were you such an idiot?
When you came back to school, the week before graduation was slated to occur, Niou was waiting for you in your homeroom, and you couldn’t deny the fact that your pulse accelerated just from the sight of him. He stalked up to you — ignoring the fact you were blocking the doorway, ignoring the bell as it rang, signaling that he was late and the teacher would very soon get mad at the both of you — and stared down at you, looming, you thought.
Maybe you should’ve been afraid of him. Maybe you should’ve been angry, but at that moment, all you could feel was relief, and all you could think was that it was so good to see him again.
“Where the hell did you go?” he snarled, and you blinked up at him. You were standing close to him, close enough to see how those gray eyes were snapping, to be bothered by the long, messy strands of hair falling out of place around his face, and you were struck by the temptation to lightly touch the mole on his chin, to run your finger across his lips.
“I was in Hokkaido for the term,” you answered, and couldn’t find it in yourself to be mad at him, not when you were so glad just to see him again.
(You were pathetic. But maybe he was pathetic too, getting mad at a girl he barely knew anymore for practically no reason—)
“I know that,” Niou growled, and then apparently reigned in his temper and repeated, “I know that. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I—” A thousand different reasons ran through your head, the foremost among them being “I didn’t want you to know.” But true as it might have been, it was childish, sulky, and not what you wanted him to hear.
“…I figured it didn’t matter. Since you wouldn’t care either way.”
Of all the reactions you expected, you didn’t think he’d recoil, didn’t expect the hurt in his eyes, though it was only there for a second before it was masked again. He seemed to collapse in on himself after that, as he sighed and averted his gaze. “Is this still about… that?”
You had no doubt you were talking about the same subject. “Of course, unless there’s anything else you’ve done in the past several months that would make me hate you, and then I should probably know about it.”
“Look.” He dropped his voice, and his expression was sincere, earnest — so much so you actually believed him. “I’m sorry, okay? And I know it’s too late to take anything back now, but…”
You waited, and when it became clear he wouldn’t continue, prompted, “But?”
“The next time you — go somewhere, do something like that, tell me.” And when you raised an eyebrow and didn’t say anything, he admitted, looking distinctly uncomfortable, “I was worried.”
And maybe for that, if nothing else, you could forgive him.
“This is not,” he says, and his words are slurred, coming out slow and with long pauses between them, almost as if for thought, but you know better, “a normal, healthy relationship.”
You pause only to give him a deadpan look. “No, whatever gave you that idea?”
“I mean it,” he continues, almost whimsically, and waves his cup around for emphasis; you grab it and set it firmly back down on the table before it spills everywhere. “Thanks. But, y’know, this — this — this thing. Love. Pair. Whatever. This thing we’ve got, messed up it is. I mean.”
“You sound like Yoda. That’s a sure sign you’ve had too much to drink.” You sigh, standing up and looking down at him. “Come on, we’re going home before you pass out on me.”
“We can fix it, y’know.” That makes you stop and stare at him, and those gray eyes are fogged over with drink, but they’re looking straight at you. “We should. ‘Cause messed-up things should be fixed, before they break any more.”
“Maybe it’s too late for that,” you murmur, as you slip a few bills out of his wallet and leave them on the table.
“No. Never. I wanna try, do you wanna try?” He picks up the cup and downs the rest of the drink, and you close your eyes. “‘cause the two of us together can do anything, right? This love stuff. I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…”
You resist the urge to groan and laugh at the same time. “No. None of this ‘family’ stuff.”
“Don’t you wanna try?” he asks again, and when you hesitate, he leans up and kisses you.
He misses at first, drunk as he is on more cans of beer and shots of vodka than you want to count, and his lips slide down the side of your nose, but you stay still and eventually he gets it right. He tastes overwhelmingly of alcohol and cheap cigarettes, neither of which he’s supposed to be having, but neither of which you ever tell on him for. But underneath all that, you can taste him, distinct and sharp and sour, a taste you’ve experienced once twice thrice before, unmasked by alcohol and smoke and all the other poisons he drowns himself in.
His drunken kisses are nothing like his normal kisses, you reflect. It’s not that you’ll take what you can get; it’s just that these days, this is what you do get, whether you want it or not. You wonder if he’s just taking what he can get, and this is all he’s capable of stealing from you, and you wonder if he remembers these in the mornings through the fog of the hangover you never quite manage to get him to drink enough water to prevent.
He slumps against you, and you shake your head at the thought of having to drag his unconscious body back to the car again. This is exactly what you were hoping to avoid. But before you stand up, before you even considering calling Yagyuu for help (because no matter how many disapproving looks you’ll get, he’s the one least likely to give you trouble when all is said and done), you pause, looking down at the head of silver hair resting against your shoulder.
“You know, I kind of wish you’d say those things while you’re sober,” you whisper, brushing a soft, feather-light kiss against his forehead. Then you stand and prepare yourself for the duty of once again dragging him home.
High school was very much the same as middle school, all things considered. Same classes, only a little harder. Same school, practically, since it was still Rikkai Dai, just Rikkai Dai in a different incarnation. Same people, only a little more mature — at least, in most cases.
Niou, you thought, didn’t mature very much at all, at least not where you could see.
First year passed relatively uneventfully, with nothing more interesting happening than Kirihara occasionally coming by and complaining about how boring the tennis team was after everyone graduated, and he couldn’t wait till he did too because then he could play against the really strong senpai again. Niou turned sixteen on December 4 of that year, and though he didn’t really have a party, he asked if you wanted to hang out with him.
You didn’t really know why you said yes. Maybe you had your suspicions, even then. But that was the first time he took you to a bar — to have a few drinks to celebrate, he said. And when you protested and said that he was underage, he shrugged and said that just a couple wouldn’t hurt, and after all, it was his birthday. Wasn’t he allowed to have a little fun?
You didn’t know why you gave in. But you did, and that night was the first of many that you took him back home when he was drunk, made sure he made it in one piece, prevented his hangover the best you could and came up with a cover story for his family, though you thought his sister suspected and his mother knew but had long since given up controlling him. He never thanked you for it, and you never mentioned it.
You didn’t know when he started smoking, nor did you know where he got the cigarettes, and you never found it in you to ask.
There was so much you didn’t know. There was so much you had given up on, in retrospect, that you would never be able to take back. What would you have done differently, if you had the chance to do it all over again? What wouldn’t you have done differently?
There was no right answer to that question. All you could do was watch as he drifted further away from you, and you pushed him further away.
It came as a surprise to you, one day, when you came out of tennis practice to find Niou leaning against the clubroom wall with his arms crossed, apparently waiting for someone. Since none of the girls he was interested in were in the tennis club — nor, doing a quick check, did he currently have a girlfriend he could be expecting — you stopped, looking at him with one eyebrow raised. That he was here at all was one surprise; the other was that he was here earlier than you, which didn’t seem that surprising until you took into account that the Rikkai boys’ tennis team, of all levels, had People In Charge who liked to squeeze practice out of every possible minute allowed to them by the school. (You liked Yukimura well enough, and Sanada too, in his own odd way, but they were downright terrifying where tennis was concerned, sometimes.)
The point was that Niou was standing there, he was smirking at you, and you had absolutely no clue why he had come.
“What are you doing here?” you asked mildly, hefting your tennis bag on your shoulder. You were testing the weight; the heavier it was would be inversely proportional to the length of this conversation, you reasoned.
“Waiting for you,” he replied promptly. You thought that was it, but you weren’t about to tell him.
He glanced around for a moment, as if making sure that no one was watching, before he stepped closer to you, leaning his forehead against yours. Your breath caught in your throat — an involuntary reaction that you hated, but probably had no chance of breaking — and your ears flattened to your head, but he ignored that, instead taking your hand in his own.
“Happy birthday,” he murmured, and your eyes widened. “Let’s go somewhere.”
“Wha—” You remembered, you thought to yourself, but once again didn’t say it. He remembered, even when you had momentarily forgotten. “…I have to drop this off.”
“We’ll stop by your house first,” Niou promised, and he tilted his head, dropping a quick kiss on the end of your nose before backing away, your hand still clasped in his.
“What about yours—?”
“Yagyuu’ll take care of it,” he dismissed, leading you away, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for his poor doubles partner even as you followed.
“And tennis practice?”
He paused, then, and sent you a wicked grin over his shoulder. “Yukimura knows better than to stop someone from doing what they want on their significant other’s birthday,” he said mischievously, and you rolled your eyes.
“You mean he knows better than to stop you from doing what you want when you’re in this kind of mood.”
Niou shrugged, and added, completely out of the blue, “You know his sister’s in love with Sanada, right?”
“S’why fukubuchou didn’t try to stop me either,” he finished casually.
You blinked, taking a moment to process that, before you groaned and covered your face with one hand, much to Niou’s amusement. “You don’t mean—”
“Yeeeep.” He burst out laughing, probably at your expression. “Man, you should see the look on his face sometimes, when he’s with her. Dunno if they’ve figured it out yet, though. Yukimura seems to find the whole thing hilarious.”
“Then how…” But trying to figure out how Sanada’s mind worked would probably get you nowhere, so you wisely decided to give up. “Kind of sad, isn’t it?”
He shoved his free hand into his pocket but didn’t untangle the other from yours. “What is?”
“That they manage to make this… thing work out for them. When we seem to be so horrendously bad at it. Even Sanada.”
Niou was silent for a second. “I’m trying, okay? What d’ya think we’re doing right now?”
You smiled. “I guess. Hey…”
“Don’t thank me before we’ve even done anything.”
“…I wasn’t going to. Where are we going?”
“Where do you want to go?” he countered, and you snickered even as you thought.
“An expensive restaurant, maybe…?”
“…oi. You’re only saying that because I’m paying.”
“You’re paying?” you asked, feigning shock, and laughed when he glared at you.
“Look, if y’really don’t know, I’ll just pick for you, and you don’t want that.”
“Are you admitting to having horrendously bad taste?” you replied, only half-joking, and Niou regarded you with slight offense.
“No. I’m just saying, if you don’t want my wallet to do the talking…”
“Ah, the legendary empty wallet of Niou Masaharu. Any money that may enter it is swallowed into the black hole and never seen again.”
“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. Keys?” He turned down your driveway; you weren’t surprised to note that he knew exactly how to get to where you lived, despite how rarely he’d been here.
“What’re you going to do, duplicate them?” you asked, even as you dug in your bag for a moment, extracted them, and handed them to him; he took them and twirled them around his finger by the keyring before holding them up, eyeing them closely.
“Huh, not a bad idea…” You smacked him, and Niou winced, inserting the appropriate key into the lock and opening the front door. “I’m home!” he called impishly, and you rolled your eyes, dropping his hand as you kicked off your shoes.
“This isn’t your home,” came the automatic reply, from an unseen person in the kitchen, and you wondered if your father realized he was speaking to Niou or if it was just in response to the unknown male voice.
Niou was undeterred, however. “I’m kidnapping your daughter for her birthday,” he informed everyone within hearing distance cheerfully. “I promise to return her safe and in one piece! …relatively!”
“How can anyone be ‘relatively’ in one piece?” you hissed, and he winked as he turned to you, though the amused tilt of your ears said that you weren’t nearly as annoyed as you acted.
“That’s what we’re trying to avoid finding out,” he replied, with an air of smug mystery around him that made you want to hit him. So you did, lightly and across one cheek, and hid your grin when he held up a hand to his face in mock-hurt. “Come on, just dump that on the floor or something.”
“I’ll leave it in my room,” you decided.
“…I’ll go with you!”
“You,” you answered, quite firmly, “are staying here.” And though he pouted and protested (not really, because he knew when you had no intention of giving in), you ignored him, in favor of running the short distance to your room.
You were intercepted on your way back by your father, not quite halfway between the front door and your room. He said your name, quietly enough that you had the impression he was attempting not to be overheard, and you blinked. “Yes?”
“I don’t think you should hang out with Masaharu anymore,” he informed you, and any traces of happiness you may have had, from it being your birthday and from Niou actually doing something about it, vanished.
“…why not?” Though it was pretty obvious why not. You had told yourself the “why nots” over and over and over by this point, and yet you couldn’t bring yourself to act on them.
“That boy is trouble,” he murmured, sending a shifty glance behind him. You couldn’t help but think that it was useless; if Niou wanted to eavesdrop without being seen, he would, and no one would ever be the wiser.
“That boy is one of my oldest friends,” you replied, an undercurrent of anger in your voice, and yet you were aware of the hypocrisy in your statement. Saying he was one of your oldest friends implied that he was still a friend. You didn’t know what he was to you now, but no sane person would classify it as “friendship.”
“Then maybe you should consider not being friends with him anymore.”
The very thought — the idea of not talking to Niou ever again, of not giving him a passing glance in the halls, of avoiding him entirely, made your blood run cold. Stupid. That was what this Fighter/Sacrifice/pair thing was — stupid. Because even if you didn’t love him (and even now, you weren’t sure if you did), the very thought of being separated from him had the same emotional equivalent as the thought of the apocalypse. More intense, maybe, because it was so much more realistic, so much more plausible.
“He’s only going to drag you down, you know.”
“I know,” you found yourself saying. “But that’s why someone needs to be there with him, to keep him from falling all the way.”
You stepped past him, intending that to be the end of this conversation, but hesitated when he said one more thing.
“Does it have to be you?”
Yes. Yes, it did, because you were sure, as you had rarely been sure of anything else in your life, that you were the only one who could effectively influence him so strongly. Sometimes you wished it weren’t that way, for your own sake, for selfish reasons, but—
“Let’s go,” you said when you reached the door, putting on your best fake smile upon seeing Niou.
He blinked. He probably saw through it easily enough; you didn’t know why you bothered. Whether you pretended nothing was wrong, or you let it show plainly… he would be able to tell either way. It was a lose-lose situation, but he wasn’t about to ask here. “‘kay. See ya later!” he called past you, and then beckoned you to follow him. This time, you noticed that he kept a careful distance between the two of you, and it was almost enough to make you miss the rare physical contact you had had on the way here.
You let out a long sigh once you were a few blocks away from home, only then noticing how tense you were. “Sorry,” you apologized.
Niou shrugged. “S’okay,” he answered, and you tilted your head, one of your ears perking up. You had been expecting him to ask what you were saying sorry for, and the fact that he hadn’t…
“…you heard, didn’t you?”
“Eh. Wasn’t hard.” Which left you wondering if he had purposely tried to eavesdrop, but you didn’t ask.
“It’s understandable,” he pointed out, his hands in his pockets again as he stared up distantly at the sky. “I mean, you’ve got me, juvenile delinquent, likely to die before age twenty, only not failing school ‘cause I wanna stay on the tennis team. And then there’s you, honors student, perfect attendance record, still getting hundreds in like all your classes even though you’re on the tennis team. ‘Course it’d be weird. ‘Course he’d think I’m a bad influence.”
“…I think that’s something of an exaggeration,” you answered. Niou ignored you.
“And then,” he continued, and flopped one hand around in emphasis; you stared at it, reminded overwhelmingly of a dying fish out of water. “The only reason we’re even still around each other is because we’re s’pposed to be partners or something like that. And really bad partners we make, too, considering we don’t talk half the time and I’m probably the person you want to kill most.”
“Only when you’re hitting on someone,” you added, leaving off the optional “not me,” considering how often you wanted to kill him when he hit on you, too. The look Niou gave you translated to something like, “that’s pretty much all the time.”
“We,” he announced, pretty cheerfully all things considered, “are fucking dysfunctional. I think it’s time we accepted that and moved on. Cotton candy?”
You blinked, caught completely off-guard. “What?”
He draped an arm around your shoulders, pulling you close, and if you tensed up and your tail began waving in agitation, well, you didn’t pull away. “I’ve decided where we’re going!” he said, and you were only slightly weirded out by the change in demeanor. “Unless you have a moral objection to roller coasters and Ferris wheels. Or something.”
“…we’re going to the amusement park?”
“Pretttty sure we don’t have those things at school,” Niou agreed, ruffling your hair with his free hand and making you yelp. “So? How ‘bout it?”
“I’m fine with it,” you admitted, and it was worth it to see the way his face lit up.
“We don’t have much time, but we can get dinner there too…” He trailed off, looking thoughtful, and it only then occurred to you that this was probably your first official date with Niou. The concept shouldn’t have made your heart skip a beat, but it did, and you were definitely annoyed that you could classify it at as such. When did you get so pathetic?
A while ago, apparently, or at least before you started asking yourself that question, which you seemed to have been doing a lot lately.
“Hey, are you really okay?” you questioned.
Niou barely spared you a glance for that, gray eyes scanning the street for the next bus. “Yeah, course. Are you worried?”
You bristled, and it showed in the fur on your ears and tail standing up on end. “Why would I be?”
He did laugh this time, and as he turned away, you thought you heard him mutter something like “tsundere.” Just in case you were right, you deliberately stepped away, out of his reach.
“I would’ve thought you would like somewhere else, is all,” you continued, some time later when you could already see the bright lights of the park. “The beach, or something. The amusement park seems more Marui’s thing.”
Niou paused, looking surprised for some reason you couldn’t even begin to guess at, before he shrugged it off. “We can go there later, if you like.”
“Do we have time?”
“Sure we have time,” he dismissed. “Besides, what could be better than a romantic moonlit walk on the beach on your birthday?”
You considered smacking him but decided it was too much effort. “…there’s no moon tonight.”
“Huh?” He glanced up and feigned a look of disappointment when he saw you were right. “Damn.”
“Let’s just go,” you suggested, laughing — and you thought that it had been a while since you had laughed like that in Niou’s presence. From the smile on his face, he thought the same.
You did end up buying cotton candy, though roughly a quarter of the pink fluff ended up in Niou’s hair for reasons that you preferred not to discuss, and reasons that the roller coaster attendant probably preferred not to hear, considering the way he stared at you when you got off, though you adopted your most innocent face and Niou was as nonchalant as could be. You weren’t supposed to bring food on the ride, but, well, Niou had his ways, and this was what he got for surprising you. How the two of you ever ended up in the Tunnel of Love would forever be a mystery, as would how you got out, both soaking wet and nowhere near the swan you entered the ride on. And then, when he suggested one last ride before dinner and heading home, you agreed.
“Ferris wheel?” he stated, more than asked, and you nodded.
“It’s a classic.”
Niou mussed up his hair, looking vaguely thoughtful. “For couples, yeah. You would kill me if we stalled at the very top, though, huh?”
“Of course not,” you replied blandly, even as you got in line, a little closer to Niou than would be considered normal among casual friends.
“Yep. It’s just… two people would get on, only one would get off.” And when he still looked at you uncomprehendingly, you smiled and leaned closer to him dangerously. “They would never find the body.”
He stared down at you, unimpressed. “There’s only so many places you can hide a corpse in one of those cars, ya know.”
“And I think the other passengers might freak out if they saw someone strapped to the roof,” you said thoughtfully. “Oh well. There are other ways to be creative.”
He chuckled, nodding at the attendant as you passed and slipping inside the closed car after you, shutting the door behind him. You sat in silence for the few minutes it took everyone to board and the wheel to start properly moving, and then you stared out the glass wall at the pattern of lights that was the city stretching beneath you. A slight smile alighted on your face as you started tracing out patterns with your finger, and as Niou leaned over curiously, you explained. “Look — you can see places you recognize if you really try. Over there’s Rikkai Dai, I think, see the fields and buildings? It’s mostly dark, but it seems like it’s in the right place. And then those are the street tennis courts where we play sometimes — they’re really brightly lit — and that means I live somewhere over there, and you…”
Niou chuckled, softly and throatily, and you stopped, entirely too distracted by the sound. Your eyes met his in the reflection in the glass, and you saw amusement on his face — a rare, genuine amusement. “You’re having fun, aren’t you?”
You frowned, tilting your head to the side. “I should hope so. It’s my birthday.”
“Mm. Happy birthday.” His arms wrapped around your waist, pulling you closer to him, and you found for a stifling moment that you couldn’t breathe. It had nothing to do with your lungs being constricted, you soon came to realize; it was just the effect of Niou’s presence, an effect that he had every time the two of you were alone.
“I like my present,” you said, jokingly, hoping to lighten the mood, for there was suddenly a tension, almost an expectation in the air.
“I haven’t given it to you yet,” Niou replied distractedly, nuzzling into your hair. His cheeks brushed against your ears, and they flicked in response.
“You mean there’s more?” you demanded. Niou merely laughed and didn’t reply, instead gently closing his lips on the edge of one of your cat ears. You yelped, twitching violently, and tried to pull away, though Niou’s grip on you merely tightened. “Hey!”
“Relax,” he purred, and you subsided, sulking.
“Don’t do that,” you murmured, and he shifted, pulling you back so his chin rested on your head.
“I think they’re cute, you know.”
“…so were yours,” you grumbled, refusing to meet his gaze. Outside, there was nothing in your line of vision except the stars; the wheel had paused in its cycle and left you at the top of the world. “…I should’ve been the one to take them.”
“Probably,” Niou agreed. You couldn’t bring yourself to be angry at him, not right now, and he bent over and placed a kiss on your forehead. That made two today, as many as any day ever before, and then he was letting you turn around so you could look at him properly, your eyes meeting slate-gray burning with suppressed frustration and need—
You were the one who closed the distance between the two of you this time. You were the one who kissed him first, sweetly and gently and innocently, and he responded in kind, as much as Niou ever could do sweet and gentle, when he was all rough and ragged around the edges himself. You couldn’t help but think that this was what a first kiss was supposed to be like, but you didn’t mind your first kiss, and you didn’t mind this either.
“Happy birthday,” he whispered, when after a few seconds you drew away simply to look at him.
“Would you be doing this,” and already your voice was breathless, and you knew there was desperation in your eyes, desperation to match the longing in his, “if you still had a girlfriend?”
A slight flash of indignation, then, and — “You’re more important than any of them,” and your mouths met again and his lips were chapped and gentle on yours.
It would’ve been nice if you could’ve done that every year. It would’ve been nice if the world didn’t conspire against you, if your family didn’t hate him, if his (girl)friends didn’t hate you.
It would’ve been nice if Niou was different, and you were different, because then maybe it would’ve worked out for more than just that one night a year. But then Niou wouldn’t have been Niou, and you wouldn’t have been you. Before you knew it, things were back to how they always were — Niou hitting on all the girls, Niou causing trouble, you ignoring Niou in favor of school and tennis, you glaring at all those who gather around him and giggle.
Sometimes you play tennis. Niou learned, quite quickly, to dodge the ball in the first three games, because it would be invariably aimed at his head at high speeds.
Merciless. Those without kindness. Those without sympathy for others. Those who are cruel and unrelenting.
Niou is cruel, you can say that without hesitation, and you can almost blame him for it. But what’s harder to admit is that you are a hypocrite, and you are cruel, too, cruel in that you push him away so much.
More and more, he calls you, casually, to suggest you hang out at night. More and more, you make up excuses to your parents and go with him. And then he spends a few hours drinking, and getting increasingly unintelligible and increasingly reminiscent and increasingly flirty, with you and anything within a ten-foot radius that possesses breasts and two legs and sometimes, if he’s really really drunk, the breasts are only optional, until you can’t stand it anymore and wonder if you should just bring a frying pan with you so you don’t have to wait for him to pass out, you can cause it at your own convenience.
You ask him, once, out of frustration and anger and desperation, why you still go. He laughs in response and says it’s because you’re afraid no one else will, and you’re afraid of what will happen to him if he’s alone.
No, you want to answer. Not what will happen to him. What he will do.
Yagyuu knows what he does. Yagyuu knows him better than anyone, you reason (including yourself? Excepting yourself? You ignore all qualifiers), and Yagyuu doesn’t betray him. He just stops Niou before Niou gets too far. Sometimes you make Yagyuu take care of it for you, even though you feel slightly guilty about it, because it’s not your fault and it’s not something you should have to deal with alone. Yagyuu always gives you disapproving looks, but you know they’re not directed at you but at Niou, at least not fully. If they are aimed at you, you can easily tell the question—
“Why don’t you do something about this?”
“Why don’t you stop him?”
“Can’t you control him better?”
But they apply to him as well, so he never voices them, just goes along with Niou. And if you see Niou in the morning with a hangover, at least he’s alive, and if he’s miserable, at least it’s only because he has a hangover.
At some point, he grows less careful with the smoking, too. You grow to hate the lingering stench of cigarettes on his clothes, the taste of it in his mouth, and all you can think is carcinogens mutagens nicotine tobacco tar. The first time that list of words, drilled into your head since grade school, comes up, you flinch, you draw away involuntarily, and you see the hurt in his eyes.
After that, you kiss him less often, and he smokes more. Considering how rarely you ever had the opportunity to be alone with him before, that says a lot. Considering that he has no job and relies on his parents and is still in school and actually wants to stay on the tennis team, you don’t know how he affords it.
He says it isn’t a pack a day. You think, “Yet,” and don’t ask how much it is.
Second year in high school is boring, compared to second year in middle school, and you can still remember dragging Niou out to the courts one night and glaring at him, and showing up to the girls’ tennis practice the next day, flustered and somewhat reluctant — “I know it’s a weird time for this, and I know it’s not really a good season, but I want to join the tennis club.” All of the excitement comes from Niou; most of the excitement in your life, ever since you met him, and re-met him, has come from Niou. But it’s not really been excitement you want, you think to yourself, and grimace when you realize you have to use both hands to count the number of illegal activities Niou has done in the past month alone.
It’s one night in March, near the end of the school year, when the soft knock comes while you’re sleeping. You probably don’t register it at first, lost as you are in a separate state of consciousness, but at some point, you roll over, half-waking, and hear it again. It could almost be in your dreams, with the volume so low and you so tired, but you crack open an eye anyway. The sound comes again, persistent, and this time you narrow it down to your window.
The window itself is slightly clouded, and if you focus, you can just see outside, trees and part of the neighbor’s house and maybe a bit of sky. Then what you can see is blocked, by a head of silver that glints in the moonlight, and you’re suddenly fully awake.
Though his face is shadowed, and though you can’t hear him through the glass while he’s attempting to be quiet, you can tell what he says anyway. (Could you read lips before this? Is it just him? Who knows.)
“Hey. Let me in.”
He should be glad this is one of the few nights you forgot to close the blinds, you think to yourself. But then you slide out of bed, pad over to the window, and undo the latch.
“Thanks,” Niou says as he slides in, landing with a soft “thump” next to you; you stare at him, and if it takes a few seconds for you to formulate a response, that can be attributed to your having just woken up.
“…what happened to my screen?”
He grins, and it’s full of mischief and life and pure Niou. “Outside. I’ll put it back on later.”
“How did—” you begin, but subside, shaking your head. “Never mind.”
“Don’t want to know?” he asks, amused, and leans against the wall, watching as you close the window again before you turn to him. His eyes sweep slowly over your form, to your feet and back up, lingering with his grin growing just a little bit wider, and you flush, stepping away from him.
“Not really, I guess.” You frown, backing away to your bed and sitting down. “Are you drunk?” Because you can catch just the slightest whiff of alcohol coming off him, and you’re not quite sure whether it’s just your imagination, what you’re expecting to find…
“Not really,” Niou mimics, and chuckles quietly when you glare at him. “I’ve had a couple. Not really drunk.”
“That’s unusual,” you murmur, and don’t bother trying not to look accusing. “You always get smashed whenever I’m with you.”
“Yeah, well.” He shrugs. “You weren’t.”
There’s something about his tone of voice that makes you look at him, and something in his face that makes you suspect. “You weren’t with Yagyuu, either, were you?” Niou looks away. “You weren’t with anyone.”
“Well, there was the bartender, and that guy getting drunk after work — bet he was a government official or something, but he didn’t seem to care ‘bout me, and then one really hot chick—”
You cut him off, not really wanting to hear more. “Not what I meant. Why didn’t you call one of us?”
Niou is silent for a moment. “You don’t want me,” he says. “And Yagyuu always looks unhappy when he does come.”
You take a deep breath and wonder if he maybe is a bit drunk after all. This isn’t something that ever gets brought up while he’s sober, after all. “I would’ve gone with you, if you told me.”
“That’s different,” he answers calmly, analytically, in control. “Do you want me?”
“I—” He always knows how to ask the difficult questions, and you hope he can’t see your expression in the dark. It’s something you’re not sure of yourself. You want him by your side. You don’t want to deal with his annoyances. “Yes. No. I… I’m not…”
“I know,” Niou tells you, and the way he says it is almost accusing. “‘Cause I want you. I have for a long time. And y’know what, I’ve never felt like you’ve really been with me before, even if you’re kissing me and—” He stops, and starts again with an effort.
“You don’t want me,” he says, clearly, each word piercing into you, and you know he’s not drunk. You’ve never seen him more sober. “If you did, you would’ve had me, a long time ago.”
You duck your head. But what about me, you want to ask. You clearly don’t want me, either, that’s why you go after the rest of the female population of the world—
But you don’t say that, as the only word that can escape you, at that moment, is, “Niou…”
“What?” he asks, challengingly, and you wince.
“Sorry,” you apologize, and mean it, though you can’t find it in you to say anything else. You can’t explain exactly what you’re feeling — that he is the person you care about most in the world, but he makes it hard to care about him. That more than anyone, you want to stay with him, but you can’t stand the way he is most of the time. That maybe you even love him, but why should you, when he doesn’t love you back?
Love is not smiling at every pretty girl along the way. Love is not getting a new girlfriend every other week. Love is not meeting your soulmate and then proceeding to fool around with everyone but her.
Niou stares at you, and then maybe he relaxes somewhat. “I’m sorry, too,” he admits. “I didn’t come here to yell at you.”
You snort. “Well, whatever you came here to do, you’re doing a damn bad job of it, unless it was just to wake me up in the middle of the night so I would get annoyed at you. Which I am.”
“Nah, that wasn’t it either.” He shakes his head. “Never mind. Isn’t a good time for this. Look, can I stay the night?”
“I kind of think this isn’t a good time for that, either,” you respond. You mean it to be joking, but it comes out sounding serious, and you find yourself wondering how much you meant it.
Niou grimaces. “Probably not,” he agrees, and then looks you straight in the eye. “I just don’t wanna go home.”
You can imagine why. It can’t be easy on his parents, having to deal with a kid who’s inclined to stay out late nights, probably doesn’t come home some mornings and doesn’t even bother to call, and half the time, when he does come back, he’s dragged home drunk and half-passed out by friends who make their excuses and leave as soon as they can.
“Why don’t you sneak into your room?” you suggest, as ironically as you can. “You seem to have little issue with entering mine.”
He shrugs. “Don’t want to,” he repeats, without elaborating, and meets your gaze firmly. Quietly, he adds, “Please.”
Maybe that’s what does it. You sigh. “Suit yourself,” you reply, and flop down onto your side and roll over, so that you’re no longer facing him.
You can feel him smile. “Thanks.”
You hear the sound of him shifting, approaching you, and you add as an afterthought, “You’re sleeping on the floor.”
“Aw, but you said to suit myself.” You roll your eyes and don’t answer, and the next thing you know, he’s leaning over you, his lips gently brushing your ear.
“Niou!” you yelp, as loudly as you dare for fear of waking someone.
He hums softly. “Yes?”
“Touch me again and I’m throwing you out.”
His only response is a laugh, and then his fingers are ghosting across your cheek, tucking a few strands of hair back. “Good night.”
You don’t say anything, and a moment later, you hear him getting settled on the floor.
You don’t know how you fall asleep that night, listening to his soft breathing in the same room, a scant few feet from you, but you do. When you wake up in the morning, he is gone, and the only sign that he was there at all is the window screen leaning against the wall.
It isn’t that you’re completely uninterested in anyone except Niou. It isn’t that no one’s ever asked you out before, because they have. It’s just that you’ve always turned them down, for a variety of reasons, and if other people are inclined to call those reasons trivial, well, they’re entitled to their own opinions, and you are entitled to date only who you want.
It isn’t until third year, when you realize with some suspicion that it’s been a full year since any guy has tried to hit on you more than a couple times, and when you decide you’ve had just about enough of your partner having a romantic life that’s more than enough for the both of you, that you finally figure you might as well go out of your way to get a boyfriend. You’re over Niou, you tell yourself. You don’t need him. This isn’t to prove anything, not to him or to yourself, just…
You don’t need a reason, and if you thought you had one, you know he would only laugh at you for it.
There’s one guy in your class who’s caught your attention before. His name is Satou, he is cute, his short dark hair falls messily around his face in a rather endearing way, and he is nothing like Niou. He is kind, and he has a sweet smile. That smile is what caught your attention in the first place; you wish Niou’s smiles were half as genuine.
When you ask him out, his green eyes widen, and as he says yes, he turns a little bit pink. It amuses you, and you find yourself thinking that you wouldn’t mind dating him. (But isn’t it supposed to be more than “wouldn’t mind,” isn’t it supposed to be “like”? Maybe it would even be like, if it wasn’t for Niou.) It’s a rather low-key relationship, sort of relaxed, and it’s not that you go out of your way to keep it quiet, it’s more that it isn’t really a big deal.
You go out to lunch one Saturday, and you enjoy teasing him and stealing his French fries. The next week, you wander through the mall exchanging friendly banter and occasionally ducking into shops to see if there’s anything interesting. Maybe this is what a normal relationship is like, you find yourself thinking. Maybe this is what you and Niou would be like, if you could stand each other under normal circumstances.
On the third date, on your doorstep after a casual but enjoyable dinner, you kiss him. Or, rather, it starts by him kissing you, which takes you somewhat by surprise, but you don’t really have a problem with it so you just go along. It isn’t a bad kiss, clumsy, awkward, sweet. In some ways, it’s better than the few times you’ve kissed Niou. But, on some other level, it’s much, much worse. All this time, there’s been some sort of feeling, niggling at you, that something is extremely wrong. It’s not Satou — he’s nice enough, you like him, etc., etc.. But still, you couldn’t help the feeling of unease, all this time you’ve been with him, that something is fundamentally wrong. And from the instant your lips meet his, that feeling intensifies, becomes overpowering. No this is wrong what are you doing it shouldn’t be this way—
You can’t stand it, so you break the kiss first. And from the way he smiles at you afterwards, he didn’t sense a thing.
The next day at school is a little awkward for you, though you try to pretend it isn’t. You talk to Satou, you grin at him, and when you begin to think that maybe it was all in your imagination, Niou stalks into your class during first break. He looks around, and his gaze alights unerringly on you, and then at the boy next to you, and snaps, “You’re Satou, right? I wanna talk to you for a sec. Come with me.”
You exchange a glance with said male and blink. “Um…”
“Alone,” Niou enunciates, and there’s a firmness in his words and in his glare that serves to convince you, despite your misgivings.
When Satou comes back a few minutes later, he looks troubled and deeply thoughtful, though he refuses to tell you what’s on his mind. It’s when he’s walking you home, in an uncharacteristic silence, that he breaks the news.
“I think we should stop seeing each other,” he says, and you blink, not fully comprehending.
“That guy…” Satou begins, his brow creased. “Niou-kun. Who is he to you?”
“Niou?” You grimace at the reminder. “A real nuisance, that’s who he is. What, did he say anything to you?”
“…if you love someone.” Satou pauses. Your heart skips a beat. “You should tell them, shouldn’t you? Instead of… you know. Ignoring it. Going out with someone else.”
You give up, you really do. “Tell him that.”
“I don’t know what’s happened with the two of you, but it’s something you should keep in mind,” he says, and you sigh. “…I’m sorry.”
You try to smile. “What’re you apologizing for? I should be the one saying that to you.”
Satou shakes his head, completely serious. “Anyway. Good luck.” He stops walking; belatedly, you do so as well, as you realize that you’re in front of your house.
“Um, Satou-kun—” Instinctively, you reach forward, laying a hand on his arm. “If you don’t mind my asking. What did you and Niou talk about?”
The grin on his face is definitely pained. “…he, um, told me to stay away from you. For my own good.”
You curse under your breath. “I’m going to kill him.”
The next day, it’s your turn to show up at Niou’s homeroom. You find him with one arm draped around some girl you don’t know, whispering something to her as she blushes; you don’t waste a second, storming up to him. “Come with me. Now.”
He glances up at you lazily. “Hm?”
You don’t have the patience to deal with this, so you reach down, grabbing him by his collar and hauling him upright. The girl squeaks as he lets go; you ignore her, instead hissing to Niou, “You know what. Now come on.”
You release him only so he doesn’t choke as you drag him away. You probably cut off circulation in his arm, dragging him by his wrist until you reach the art room, the closest place that will offer you a place to speak (or scream) without being eavesdropped upon; only then do you let go of him and turn to him with your strongest glare.
“What the fuck did you do?” you hiss.
Niou shrugs, doesn’t even pretend not to know what you’re talking about. “Talked to him, that’s all.”
“You threatened him,” you bite out, still looking at Niou like everything in the world is his fault — which, as far as you’re concerned, it might as well be.
“Oh, he told you?” He doesn’t appear to be too concerned with your anger. “Did it work?”
“Yes, it worked — hell!” You spin around, slamming him against the door. He flinches, and you’re pleased to see the first sign of something other than complete composure from him. Your hand impacts the metal beside him, hard, and you continue heatedly, “What did you go and do that for?”
“‘Cause I didn’t want you going out with him,” Niou replies, bitterly, and your eyes narrow.
“And why not?”
Niou doesn’t reply; he doesn’t have to, because you already know why not. It’s because he’s a possessive bastard, even when he doesn’t own you, even when you’re barely his, and that in a way that should by all rights make him yours. But he isn’t yours, and you’re pretty sure he would deny being yours, so that means you aren’t his. “What makes you think you have any right to interfere with my love life?”
“None of them deserve you,” he says smoothly, though you can see the beginnings of anger snapping in his eyes.
“Yeah, well, I think you and every girl stupid enough to fall into your trap deserve each other,” you answer, leaning up, closer to him. Neither of you seems to notice how small the distance is between you. “Stay out of my way, Niou.”
“Why should I?” he replies, rebels.
“Because I stay out of yours.” It’s true, it’s painful, and you realize that you hate it. What you want to do is exactly what Niou did to you — to get up in the face of any other girl he shows interest in, every other girl, and make it crystal clear that they’re not wanted.
You’re jealous. Niou’s jealous, too. The only difference between you is that he acts on that jealousy, while you do nothing except hate him for it.
“Then maybe you shouldn’t,” Niou answers, seething.
“Yeah,” you reply, unable to stop yourself, continually digging yourself further and further into this hole that you’ve made, the hole that separates you from him. “Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should kill every girl you ever kiss, and maim all the ones you’ve dated, and threaten anyone who even gets within ten feet of you—” You stop abruptly, staring at him with dawning comprehension. “Then again, that’s more your job, isn’t it?”
Niou stares back at you, and from the grim look on his face, the absence of any sort of a denial, you know you’re right. “Maybe it is.”
“How long?” you question softly. How long has he been playing the part of the jealous boyfriend? How long has he been scaring away everyone who shows even a shred of interest in you?
He shrugs. “Does it matter?”
No. It doesn’t. “I can handle myself, Niou, so stay the fuck out of my business.”
“I don’t want any of them dating you,” he says angrily, and as he exhales, you feel his breath on your face, on your lips, and you think idly that it doesn’t smell like cigarettes for once.
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to date you,” you respond, and though he doesn’t show it, you know there are few things you could’ve said that would be more hurtful. “So you can have the girls that chase after you, the groupies and the sluts and the ones who giggle whenever you so much as look at them, because they’re all you deserve.”
“And you won’t get anyone.”
You laugh, but it comes out strange, and you can’t tell whether it’s more of a snort or a pained choke. “Yeah right. Even you don’t dare threaten everyone I show interest in. What if it’s Marui next? Or Yagyuu?”
It’s Niou’s turn to laugh, a nasty, humorless bark that for some reason sends a shiver up your spine. “Yagyuu wouldn’t have you,” he says, and for some reason that offends you, and you snarl. He stares fearlessly down at your face, less than a foot away, and continues, “You know that exchange student staying with him? She’s why.”
Almost immediately, you grasp what he’s talking about, and it hurts even more. “Yeah?” The two of you continue to gaze at each other, and you refuse to back away, even though you’re beginning to get uncomfortable; there’s almost no distance between you. “It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? That they barely know each other and it works for them, and yet you can’t even get it right.”
“No,” Niou answers, calmly, firmly. “We can’t get it right.”
Those words are the ones that ring true, and you hesitate for just a moment. You know he’s right. Even if this messed-up relationship, if it can be called such, is because of his actions, you’re to blame, too, as much as you don’t want to admit it.
You growl, deciding this conversation is over. You reach past Niou, grabbing for the handle of the door and throwing it open forcibly; as he had been leaning on it, he stumbles, grabbing at the doorframe but still not quite managing to keep himself from falling over. People in the hallway pause to stare, but you ignore them, stepping over his legs and walking away, fully intending to leave without another word.
At least, that’s what you planned. Something else occurs to you, and reluctantly, you pause. Do you really want to…? But no, he’s noticed that you’ve stopped, so you glance over your shoulder and ask.
“Oi, Niou. What’s it like when you kiss someone?”
“Huh?” He looks disgruntled as he frowns at you, pulling himself to his feet. “Shouldn’t you know?”
“That’s not what I meant,” you snap, still angry at him. “Someone who… isn’t…”
You see realization enter his eyes, realization and understanding, and before he even says anything you know.
If it’s it the same for him, if he feels the same intense wrongness that you did, then why would he ever be with anyone else?
Less than a week later, Yukimura seeks you out after tennis practice to talk to you. He isn’t smiling when he catches you, shortly after you’ve changed back into your school uniform, and that’s what tips you off that it’s something serious.
You know what he wants to talk about. There’s only one reason he’d go after you, and only you.
You’ve prepared a thousand excuses for whatever he may want to ask, but he doesn’t actually say anything until you reach a small café, a few blocks from the high school, where he suggested you go. He orders a coffee, and you a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and only when the waitress is out of hearing range does he turn to you.
You sigh. “Let me guess. His performance has been negatively impacted blah blah don’t know if he can stay on the team blah blah do I know what’s wrong?”
Yukimura shakes his head, to your mild surprise, and doesn’t even ask who, or clarify. “No. He’s mostly doing fine, which is… kind of unexpected.”
“Unexpected,” you repeat.
“I’m not stupid,” he says softly. “I know what he’s been doing.”
“How much of what he’s been doing?” you query. When Yukimura doesn’t answer, you look away. “Then does that mean Sanada’s stupid? I mean, he hasn’t gotten on Niou’s case yet. I can see it now. ‘Illegal activities! Tarundoru! You’re underage, concentrate on your studies. Tarundoru. And your tennis. Tarundoru. Especially your tennis. Tarundoru.’”
Yukimura does crack a smile at that; in fact, he has to hide a laugh behind his hand. “Something like that, maybe. But…”
“…yeah, I know.”
“He’s killing himself,” he says, softly, and you can’t meet his eyes.
“Sometimes I think he’s killing me.”
Yukimura says your name, then, but you don’t respond. You haven’t talked to Niou since that last encounter. You don’t particularly want to, and you have the feeling he doesn’t either. “I think you’re killing him, too.”
“That makes a hell of a lot more sense than it should.” You frown, forcing yourself to look at him again. “Sorry. I’m always like this—”
“—wherever he’s concerned. I can understand that,” he finishes. “Sanada says his grades are falling, too, probably because he’s not in class so much. At this rate, we might be forced to kick him off the regulars.”
“It’s because he doesn’t care,” you murmur.
“About anything other than tennis.”
Yukimura waits while the waitress places your orders in front of you and thanks her with a soft smile; the moment she’s gone, the smile disappears again. “I think he cares about you.”
You laugh, but it’s hollow, meaningless. “Are you trying to play relationship counselor or something? It’s nice of you, but I don’t really see it working.”
“Why do you stay with him?” Yukimura wants to know. You blink. “It doesn’t seem like… you really enjoy it. Is it to keep him from falling further?”
You shrug, halfheartedly, and stir sugar into your tea. “Maybe. I guess. Or to slow it, or something.”
“Can’t you try harder?”
“You can’t stop the inevitable.”
“It’s only inevitable because you make it that way,” Yukimura tells you, and you’re surprised by the sharpness in his tone. “The both of you.”
“Maybe we do,” you reply noncommittally, and stab into your cake, an excuse to break away from the conversation and think. Maybe you love him, maybe he loves you. The only problem is that to get anywhere, the both of you would have to try — and you’re not sure you have it in you to try hard enough. Not when you never know what Niou will do next, and not when you never know when you’ll get fed up again and do something… something stupid.
As if following your train of thought, Yukimura says, “I think you should try.”
“Maybe we should,” you answer, just as vaguely as your previous statement, and you think you see him look actually irritated. It’s a shocker, since you’ve always considered Yukimura to have miles of patience, as long as tennis isn’t concerned.
“Don’t you want to?” he questions, and you open your mouth but hesitate and don’t say anything. “…I think he does. If he’s that… insistent that you don’t get a boyfriend.”
“If he’s this possessive now, I don’t even want to think how bad he would be if we were actually dating,” you murmur, and then blink as something he said strikes you. “Wait, you said—”
“Yes?” Yukimura prompts, and there’s something like a glimmer of amusement in his eyes.
“How do you know what he’s like?” you demand suspiciously, and something in his demeanor tips you off. “Yukimura! Were you eavesdropping?”
He gazes steadfastly out the large glass window front of the café beside you and sips his coffee in what you believe to be an attempt to hide his smile. When he sets it back down on the platter, he explains, “Sometimes I like to paint during lunch, if I have time. In the art room.” He stops there, meaningfully, and you groan.
“It’s all right.” He pauses, and then continues, rather mildly, “You were being pretty loud anyway. I think everyone in the hall could hear you, but most of them didn’t stick around to listen.”
“…oh well.” It’s not like there’s anything you can do about it now. “What did you think?”
Yukimura reclines in his chair, his eyes thoughtful. “Truthfully? I think you’re both being stupid, and the best method would probably be Sanada’s. He would hit you both and try to knock some sense into you.”
You choke on your tea, and he laughs at your reaction. “You are kind of hopeless, you know.”
You pull a face. “Thanks for the encouragement.”
“Really, it’s something you should work out yourselves. And you should definitely try.” The look Yukimura levels at you then reminds you why he’s the tennis team captain. It’s not just the charisma, but the strength behind it — and that unexplainable way he has of making people do what he wants.
“Mm. It’s hard, though.”
“No one said it would be easy,” he replies. “Even when it seems like the path’s been laid out for you, there’s still too many places where it can be derailed.”
You stare at him, seeing the Yukimura that you doubt anyone but the tennis club really ever catches a glimpse of, and you think to yourself that he would know that better that anyone, wouldn’t he? You shake your head and mutter, absently and without really thinking, “Sometimes I wish you were the one I fell in love with instead.”
Yukimura looks surprised at that, his mouth forming a small “o,” and you blink, snapping out of it. “Oh! I’m — sorry. I know that it’s not really fair of me, and you have someone, but—”
“I do,” he cuts you off, “and I wouldn’t trade her for the world.” He smiles a little and adds, sympathetically, “I understand where you’re coming from, though.”
“I hope you don’t. It’s a really twisted place to be, believe me.” You sigh and push away your empty tea cup and plate. There are still a few crumbs of cake left, but you’re not Marui, so you don’t feel the overwhelming urge to pick up every last one of them.
“You know what’s really sad?” Yukimura blinks, tilting his head in a “go on” gesture. “I’m jealous of you.”
“And,” you interrupt, “I’m jealous of Yagyuu, too. I know it’s stupid, since his Fighter—” You stop abruptly. “…but I saw them, the other day, and even if she… even if she can’t remember. They looked happy together, which I guess is more than you can say about me and Niou.”
He sighs. “…I’m not really sure how to answer that.”
“You and me both.” The waitress deposits the bill on the table; you dig out enough money to cover your part of the check and stand, looking down at him. “Hey, thanks for today.”
“I didn’t really do anything,” Yukimura replies, and you can tell he means it.
You shake your head. “…mm. If that’s what you think. Thanks anyway.”
Later that night, you dial a number in your cell phone that you’ve never called before. It rings seven times, and you almost think you’ve got the wrong number, or he’s changed it, or he’s not going to answer, when there’s a click and it’s picked up.
“What do you want?”
It’s spoken in a lazy drawl, with more than a hint of annoyance in the tone; there’s not so much as a “hello,” or a “how are you,” but you don’t care. You know the voice, and that’s enough for you to feel relieved.
“When’s the next time you’re gonna go to that bar?”
“Why?” Defiance, challenge, surly anger. “Are you planning to stop me?”
“No.” You take a deep breath. “I want to go with you.”
There is silence on the other end for a good few seconds. And then, for the first time in more than a week, you hear him laugh.
Graduation from high school is on a clear, cloudless day — one that is perfect for making memories, or sending you out into the world, or whatever anyone would like to call it. Friends are chatting that may never have the chance to see each other again, or at least not as often; even if you do attend an escalator school, there are always those who choose to go elsewhere at the next level, whether to study abroad or to try a different university or to attend a school that specializes in their prospective field of work.
You’re staying in Rikkai, and most of the people you care about are staying in Rikkai, so you don’t see the need to have a long, stirring, and ultimately pointless farewell with any of them. You slip away as soon as you are able and, alone, walk down the path leading to the school gates, intending to be home before anyone realizes you’re gone.
There are people you know on that path, and try as you might, a few of them recognize you and call out greetings; you nod and speed up your steps, not particularly in the mood to converse with any of them. The entirety of Rikkai’s tennis team is there, too, standing smack in the middle of the path, and you note with some amusement that Kirihara looks rather like he’s trying not to sulk. You move towards the line of trees, attempting to sneak past them as unobtrusively as you can, but it doesn’t work.
Yagyuu is the one whose gaze alights on you first; he nudges the boy next to him, and Niou looks up. A slight smile edges its way onto his face; you roll your eyes and walk faster, but don’t acknowledge him in any other way.
A second later, your phone rings.
You debate not picking up, since you know perfectly well who’ll be on the other end; after a moment, when it continues its silent, insistent vibration in your pocket, you sigh and give in.
The moment you bring it to your ear, his voice purrs, “Tonight at eight okay with you?”
You don’t even glance over. “You’d drag me along even if it wasn’t.”
He laughs. “Just think of it like a celebration! See you then.”
You hang up without another word, slipping your phone back into your pocket; at the same time, not far from you, you hear Marui’s voice saying loudly, “Oi, Niou, what’re you doing? Put that away!”
“It’s graduation, you can wait a little while to make your phone calls,” Jackal adds, his voice considerably softer but still audible from where you are.
Their words are met with another laugh, the same as you heard just a few seconds earlier, except this time unmarred by static and fuzz. “I dunno about that! This one’s probably gonna get away unless I do something right now.”
And without quite knowing why, you growl and pick up your pace, not slowing down until the school is well out of sight.
He stops by your house at ten minutes past eight that night; he’s earlier than usual, so you’re not quite ready, and it’s another five minutes before you come down. He teases you for that too, of course, but you only scowl at him and hold out your hand.
He looks at you, eyebrow raised, like he doesn’t know what you’re after. “What?”
“Keys,” you deadpan, and don’t budge, hand still outstretched.
“It’s my car,” he replies mildly, one hand running gently over the top of the steering wheel.
You roll your eyes. “Yes. And it’s your sorry drunk ass I’m going to be hauling home later tonight. So give me the keys if you want to get home.”
Niou sighs exaggeratedly and hands them over, sliding across into the passenger’s seat as he does so. “Fine, fine. You’re uptight today.”
“I just don’t like the thought of spending my graduation night babysitting, that’s all,” you reply as you sit down, close the door, and insert the key in the ignition. “Even though I expected it.”
“You could drink too, you know,” he suggests, as you step on the gas and pull away from the curb.
“And leave it to either a drunk you or a drunk me to drive us back. I think I’ll suffer sober, thanks.”
He makes idle small talk on the way there; it’s something of a long drive, but you suppose it isn’t easy to find a place that’ll serve alcohol to minors, or at least that will believe Niou is of age without asking for ID. It’s one of the great mysteries of the world how he got this beat-up Acura anyway, or rather, why his parents decided to buy it for him. You know you wouldn’t trust Niou with a car of his own; occasionally it saves him from getting into trouble, but you don’t want to think of how much more trouble he’s ended up in as a result. Come to think, you don’t know how he ended up with his license, either, but as he isn’t dead yet, you suppose it means he is theoretically able to drive. You like to think that you’re theoretically able to drive better, though, and Niou has never bothered to disagree.
You know the place well by now, and you’ve grown to hate it as such. When you pull into a parking spot in a filthy, dark lot downtown, Niou gets out immediately, striding confidently toward the closest door. You follow after making sure the car is locked, wrinkling your nose at the stench — alcohol, vomit, more that you could identify but don’t want to and some that you can’t identify and don’t ever want to be able to. You follow after Niou, trying not to look overly suspicious as you do so, and find that the scowl that is perpetually on your face whenever you visit here is already in place.
The room is low, dimly lit, with a few scattered tables and chairs made of cedar, worn and splintering. Surprisingly, the floor is more or less swept clean, unlike the outside, though the odors still seep inside and permeate faintly through the air. Next to the bar itself, a set of stairs leads upwards; you’ve never been on the second level, and from what little of the comings and goings you’ve seen, you’re sure you never want to be. There are a few people already present, who glance up when the door opens and the bell above rings — an almost ironic sign of cheer — but they return to their own business quickly enough upon seeing the flash of silver. Regulars, then; regulars never bother with Niou.
You nod to the bartender as you sit down at the bar, a few seats left from directly across from the doorway; here, the strong smell of alcohol overrides the more dubious ones from outside, and as much as you dislike the former, you have to admit it’s preferable. He glances up from the newspaper he’s flipping through and nods at you before turning his attention to Niou. “What’ll you have? The usual?” he asks the boy directly; he’s learned and accepted long ago that you’re never going to order anything.
“To start out with,” Niou replies cheerfully. The balding man nods and sets about making whatever crazy concoction Niou likes best, and Niou slides into the seat next to you, propping his chin up with one hand as he watches. “You know, we graduated today.”
“Did you?” The bartender pauses only cursorily to look at you; you’ve never bothered to learn his name, and he probably doesn’t know yours, though you’re willing to bet he and Niou are on first-name terms. Best buddies, the two of them, really. “The both of you?”
Niou smiles, and it’s almost vicious. You remain silent, noting that he doesn’t ask which level you just graduated out of. “Mmhm. So we’re here to celebrate!”
You’re here to celebrate, you think, but say nothing.
The bartender smiles thinly and passes a glass of some sort of dark liquid to Niou — you can’t see properly in this lighting — half of which he downs in one gulp. “Going to do something special, then?”
“Get drunker than usual,” he answers, too happily.
“Your sister’s going to kill you,” you murmur softly, crossing your arms. Niou glances at you, but he gives no other indication that he heard.
Anxiously, almost as if trying to relieve the tension between the two of you, the bartender asks you, “You gonna have anything?”
It’s been a while since he’s asked that. “The most non-alcoholic thing you have in the house,” you reply, your voice heavily laden with sarcasm.
You receive a fingerprint-smudged glass of stale water for your efforts. You don’t particularly want it, and you have to exercise an effort not to pull a face when you sip it, but there’s nothing else for you to do while you wait for Niou.
He gets progressively drunker, and progressively more incoherent, and progressively more open. This, you think, is probably the only time he’ll ever talk about feelings. Damn stupid feelings. You bet anyone who’s ever been here on the same night as him knows that he’s in love with you, and that he thinks you’re in love with him, but it’s never managed to work out because you’re both… well, you could use any number of words straight out of his mouth for this one, and all of them would be more or less accurate. You bet the bartender thinks you should get over your issues and sleep together already and that would solve all your problems (which it wouldn’t, far from it; it would probably only cause more). Between his ranting and his raving and his telling you that you should do something, it’s never gonna work this way, it’s not supposed to be like this—
Yes, you think, as you taste the water on your tongue and grimace when the bartender isn’t looking. Everyone in the fucking vicinity whenever he gets drunk has to listen to his issues, which at any given time seem to consist of you, you, you, and you. What does he do when you aren’t here? Poor Yagyuu.
“Ya know what you should do?” he slurs. You don’t even look at him.
“C’mon, you know—”
“Niou, I said no.”
“—hate it when I—”
“That doesn’t mean I want them gone,” you snap, and stop abruptly when you realize everyone in the room is staring at you. A second later, and they’re all busying themselves with something else.
“Y’do,” he replies sullenly. You consider knocking him out yourself and leaving before this night gets any worse. “From me. And y’said so.”
“When?” you demand.
He looks up at you, eyes misted over, but when he speaks, his words are as sharp as daggers, flying like the darts he is so skilled with. “Once,” he says. “But you think it. You feel it all the time.”
You stare at him for a long second before you bury your face in your arms, taking a deep breath. Why? “Niou, you suck.”
“Never mind, forget I said that!”
“Why won’t you?” he manages to get out.
“Because I don’t want to,” you respond, and while not exactly true, it’s not really a lie, either. You don’t want to. Not when it’s like this, not when it’s pure lust, and the feelings behind it are still too tangled and repressed to mean anything.
“I’ll just. Someone else. Y’know.”
“I know,” you say, and can’t keep the bitterness out of your voice. “I’ve known for years. It’s what you’ve been doing for years.”
“‘Cause I can’t have you.” Another glass empty. You wonder how much alcohol it would take for him to die of alcohol poisoning, decide the bartender would know better than you, and the man’s not saying anything. “‘long as I can’t have you. Them.”
“Well, you’re not getting me,” you snap, before you can help yourself. Niou stares at you, and your words seem to penetrate through his drunken cloud, enough so that you can see the hurt in his eyes.
He gets more and more incoherent. He drinks more and more, gets up, starts wandering around, in loopy circles and waves and nothing approximating a straight line. At some point, people come downstairs, he attempts to hold a conversation, they smile and look amused and eventually excuse themselves when they notice you staring fixedly, meaningfully. At some point, a few girls come down too, one by one, none of them with their ears or tails, and he hits on them, and they giggle and don’t seem to care if he’s drunk, don’t seem to care if you’re looking at them like they should die on the spot and stay out of everything you know. And at some point, they flirt back, and it’s only a few more minutes before one of them is focusing exclusively on him, looking just a little more serious, and there’s no longer any such thing as personal space, because there’s barely any distance between his mouth and her ear when he speaks, and her hand is sliding comfortably down his leg, and her body is pressed against his and he has an arm around her shoulders and she’s throwing a leg around his waist and he’s completely forgotten you’re there.
They stand up, soon after, and though he’s weaving and stumbling, she is sober, and she guides him with care. It isn’t far, from the table to the stairs, and that is when you’ve had enough.
That girl isn’t you. That boy isn’t yours. And the ugly jealousy, eating away at you, makes you want to scream, to bang your head against the table, to kill her, to kill him, to kill yourself.
You stand up abruptly, and the bartender looks at you. “Sure you don’t want anything to drink?” he asks, and you detect concern. It’s almost touching, but anyone with a shred of humanity would be concerned for you in this situation, especially if his drunken ravings were true and you really did love him.
(You don’t. You sure as hell don’t, and when you tell yourself this, in this situation, you can almost make yourself think you believe it. Why should you love him? You hate him, the stupid son of a bitch.)
“I’m fine,” you answer, and belatedly, you dig in your pocket and toss the keys onto the counter. They fall there with a clatter, and the balding man whose name you don’t know, will never know, looks at them. “These are his. Make sure he gets them whenever he’s done.”
The bartender takes them, slips them into a drawer, goes back to looking at you. (It’s not sympathy, it’s pity. You hate pity, too. You wish he would stop looking at you like that. It’s all because of him. If it weren’t for him—) “What about you?”
“I’m going home,” you reply, and turn around, stalking away without so much as glancing back.
It takes you a while to get to a bus stop that’s still in service at this time of night, and even longer of simply waiting, sitting alone in the dark, for the right bus to come. If you had expected him to come after you, you would have been disappointed. But you didn’t, and you’re sure he hasn’t even realized you’re gone.
Sometime between when you step on the bus and deposit your fare, looking around to find that you are alone save for the bus driver, and when it arrives at the stop a few blocks from your house and you get off with a thin smile and thanks, you realize that you’re trying not to cry.
At around two-thirty that night, you jolt awake violently with the feeling that something is horribly wrong.
The red numbers of the digital clock tell you that you have no reason to be awake at this hour, but you ignore them for the time being, trying to calm yourself. You roll over, trying to slow your heart from its rapid pace and your breathing so you don’t hyperventilate. For some reason, you’re sweating — cold sweat, you think to yourself. You can’t think of anything that could be wrong, though; most probably, the reaction is because of some nightmare. You frown, placing one hand over your forehead. You can’t for the life of you remember what you were dreaming about, though, or why it was so frightening.
There’s no helping it now, so you sigh, close your eyes, and attempt to go back to sleep. It’s a long time in coming, and when you do drift off, it’s into a restless state halfway between sleeping and waking that doesn’t afford you any rest at all.
An hour and a half later, an hour and a half of tossing and turning and feeling each second tick by, you receive a phone call. You don’t know what led your cell phone to still be on for apparently no reason and in your room at night. You don’t know why anyone would call you at four in the morning. All you know is that you hear a strange buzzing and rattling, and it takes you a long moment to realize that it’s the sound of a phone on vibrate.
Why you can even hear it when it’s halfway across the room is anyone’s guess, but you do, and you don’t hesitate for a second in getting up to answer it. You turn it on, bringing it up to your ear and querying, softly and mindful of the people still sleeping, “Hello?”
“(Your Name)?” It’s a female voice, one you don’t hear too often, and so it takes you several moments to place it. You’ve definitely heard it before, though not recently…
Ah, that was it. Niou’s older sister. “Saya? What is it? Do you know what time it is?”
Not like you were sleeping that well or anything. And, you realize with a growing sense of unease, she wouldn’t call you this early in the morning for no reason. In fact, she probably wouldn’t be up this early in the morning unless something had happened, and the only thing you can think of is—
As if reading your mind, she replies, and you realize for the first time that her voice is choked. “It’s Masaharu. He’s — there’s been an accident.”
You sit down abruptly on the edge of your bed, partially because you feel like your legs have turned to jelly under you. “—what?”
“I don’t know—” Her voice cracks, and it’s a moment before she recovers. “There was a car crash. The other person’s all right, but—”
A car crash. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how, or why, and suddenly you’re glad you’re already sitting down. For a moment, the world blurs around you, black spots dancing around your vision, and your chest tightens; it takes all of your self-control not to pass out. So this is what it feels like for the world to end, you think; maybe it’s somewhat overdramatic, but there is no other analogy you can use to describe what you’re going through right now. And then — that was what that was about, that was why you woke up so suddenly, that was what was wrong. Whatever the thing you have with Niou is — whatever the bond is supposed to be — it was trying to warn you, to let you know that something had happened, and you didn’t know better and you ignored it—
Saya is saying your name again, sounding concerned, and you shake your head roughly. “Is he… okay? I mean—”
No. You seriously doubt it. No, he isn’t. The question is whether he will be all right, and you don’t know that for sure.
She doesn’t answer for a moment, a split second, and that’s all that you need. You’re on your feet again automatically, almost robotically, pulling out clothes and checking for other things you might need to bring with you. A note, you think distractedly. You should at least let your family know that you’ve gone, so they don’t wonder when they wake up and find you not here. And money, you’ll need to take a bus or something…
“I’m coming,” you tell her, before she can say anything, when the pause stretches on for too long. Your tone is unnaturally calm, brisk, and you feel like if you stop moving, if you stop for a moment to think, you’ll shatter.
Saya hesitates and tells you where. You thank her and end the call, and it’s less than five minutes later that you’re heading out, locking the door behind you. You walk to the bus stop, even though the little voice in your head nags at you to run; you wait patiently until a bus going in the right direction comes along, and then you board, paying the fare and sitting down.
For the second time in as many days, you’re alone on the bus, save for the driver. For the second time in as many days, you want nothing more than to curl up and cry… but you don’t. You do curl up, wrapping your arms around your knees and burying your face, but you don’t cry. You won’t, you resolve, not until you see him for yourself. Not until you know how bad it is, not until you know for sure what you’ve done.
What you’ve done…
It takes a long time to get there, too long, but when you do, you thank the driver, this time with a slight waver in your voice. She looks at you but says nothing, certainly not to comment on your behavior during the trip; then again, the fact that you’re disembarking at the hospital probably says it all.
You follow Saya’s instructions to the letter, weaving in between buildings until you come to the right one; then you hesitate in front of the sliding glass doors for a moment. You don’t want to go in. You don’t want to admit that something’s happened (but it has, it’s undeniable, you can feel it in your bones), you don’t want to face them.
You don’t want to wait any longer.
You don’t want to think of Niou — your Niou, Masaharu — as he must have been, two hours ago, in the twisted metal wreck of that dark blue Acura, bleeding and broken and nothing like the Niou you know, or knew. None of the life, or energy, none of the smirks or tricks and no hint of the lazy drawl, the tease in his voice—
The door opens in front of you, and you look up, startled, to find Saya looking at you. She says your name, questioningly, and you look at her and blurt the first thing that comes to mind.
“Why did you call me?”
She blinks, taken aback — and then smiles. Given, it’s a worn, thin smile, but it’s a smile all the same. You think she understands what you mean — out of all people, why you? Why were you the first one she phoned? What made her think — know — that you would want to know, you would want to be here (because you do, you do, even when you don’t, you want to be near him especially now), maybe more than anyone else ever could?
“Because he loves you,” she says, and it’s your turn to blink. “It shows. You’re the one he’s always thinking about.”
At those words, you feel yourself crumple. Saya sees, and she takes your hand gently. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”
You follow without saying anything; the rest of Niou’s family looks up and sees you when you enter, but they don’t speak to you, nor you to them. All you do is nod, and pry yourself away from Saya, and sit down in the chair in the further corner of the room you can manage. And it isn’t long before you curl up, like you did on the bus, and focus on trying not to cry.
Saya’s right. You know it. Not just because she’s really close to him, even though he’s been getting in so much trouble lately, even though he’s been drifting further and further away from his family. It’s because you’ve always known, just like Niou’s probably always known that you love him, even though you can’t stand him sometimes, even if you say you hate him, even if you think you do.
You love him, more than anything, and that’s why. That’s how you’re able to hurt him more than anyone else, and how he’s able to hurt you, and now…
You don’t ask how bad it is. You don’t ask what news they have. All you know is that Niou is still alive — for now — because you can feel him, breathing, the beat of his heart. And you know that he’s not well, and that he’s still unconscious, because it hurts every time your heart contracts. It hurts, and you want it to stop, but you know it won’t. Maybe not for a long time, maybe not ever.
You don’t know when they arrive, except that it’s at an hour far earlier even than the early morning tennis practice. All you know is that you’ve been waiting forever, when suddenly there’s a hand on your shoulder and someone in front of you, and you look up to see familiar blue eyes.
“How are you?” he asks, kindly, and you shake your head wordlessly. Yagyuu is lingering just a little ways behind him, watching you with a closed expression, and the others, all of them, even Kirihara, are there as well, carefully not staring at you.
“If he dies…” Suddenly you can’t speak anymore, because it feels like there’s something in your throat, and you can’t get the words out. Yukimura waits while you get ahold of yourself and finish quietly, “…I will too, you know.”
Silently, Yagyuu sits down beside you. Yukimura nods. “…we know. But he won’t.”
“‘Words have power,’” you quip. “If only they could change the world that easily.”
Yukimura sighs and leans against the wall, staring vacantly down the hallway; you recall Niou telling you once that Yukimura hates hospitals. You can understand why, but he’s here now, and he’s doing the best he can for his team and for you, isn’t he?
“…it’s my fault.”
“It’s no one’s fault,” Yagyuu replies, in a clipped, precise tone. He hesitates, as if about to add something, but leaves it off, and for that, you’re glad.
“…no. It’s my fault.” You bury your face in your hands so you don’t have to look at them; you can feel Yagyuu and Yukimura staring at you, but luckily, everyone else is too far away to hear. You don’t know if you can take it, if everyone knows. “…it was graduation, so he went drinking. I went with him. He—” You stop abruptly, and only continue with an effort. “…I got annoyed at him and left early. And after that—”
Yagyuu sighs deeply but is silent. Yukimura shakes his head — that makes sense, maybe I should’ve known — and says, quietly and persuasively, “It’s not your fault.”
“I know it is, dammit, don’t try to make me feel better!” you snap. It’s loud enough to catch the attention of everyone in the room, and they all stare at you; one of the nurses looks up and makes a shushing noise, and you flush.
“…sorry,” you murmur. “But I will. Die, I mean.”
“Niou-kun will be fine.”
“Maybe if you got every Fighter in the world to say that, I would believe it.”
You drop your head back onto your arms, signaling the end of that conversation. Neither Yagyuu nor Yukimura says anything else, but they continue to stay near you, and you guess that’s all you would ask of them anyway.
The clock says it’s not long after that when the doctor comes out and inquires after anyone here for one Niou Masaharu; you don’t move, and Marui’s voice, curious and in front of you, asks, “Oi, aren’t you interested?”
“He’s still alive,” you respond, your voice muffled.
“It’s fine, Marui,” Yukimura answers softly. “Let’s go.”
A few more minutes, and footsteps approach; this time, you dare to look up, to see that the two have returned.
“He’ll be fine,” Yagyuu says without preamble, and you breathe a sigh of relief you hadn’t been aware you were holding. “In all likelihood. Though he was rather badly injured.”
“He’s still unconscious,” you reply. Yagyuu blinks, once, and smiles slightly; you don’t know why, nor do you know why Yukimura seems amused as well.
“…in any case,” Yagyuu continues, adjusting his glasses, and you could swear Yukimura snickers. “They’re only allowing family to see him right now.”
“You’re going, then?” you guess, and he nods, though he continues studying you intently. “Mm. I’ll see you later.”
“You’re staying here?” Yukimura asks.
“Just for a little longer.”
“There’s no point,” Marui chimes in, from where he had been eavesdropping a short distance away; you shake your head.
“…still. I think I’ll stay.”
He shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He starts walking toward the door and pauses. “Hey, if you hear anything else, call us or something, okay?”
“Sure.” If you remember.
Marui wanders off, dragging Jackal and Kirihara with him, and you look back at Yukimura.
“Don’t blame yourself,” the captain says softly.
“It is because of me, though,” you reply bitterly. “And if I had talked to him earlier…”
If you had talked to him earlier, maybe things would have been different. Maybe you wouldn’t have left him alone. Maybe you wouldn’t have been at that bar in the first place.
“You should stop that,” Yukimura scolds lightly. “He’d be angry at you if he heard you.”
“He can be as fucking angry at me as he likes for the rest of his life if it lasts longer than the next week!” you snap, and wince at your own words. “…sorry.”
“…you should talk to him.”
“Are you going to do it this time?” Yukimura asks, and you look away.
“…I don’t know when ‘this time’ is gonna be,” you admit. “…see you later.”
Yagyuu rises to his feet, a distinctly odd look in his eyes. “I’ll be by this afternoon,” he says, and you avert your gaze.
“…if I’ll still be here.” But you will, and he knows it, and Yukimura knows it. None of you say it, though.
Why are you so stupid?
You bury your face in your hands and listen as they leave. Truthfully, you don’t know why you’re staying. It’s not like there’s anything you can do, and it’s not like they’ll let you in to see him or anything, either. Maybe it’s just that you want to be as near to him as possible, and this is as close as you’re getting. It’s not like you’ll be able to sneak into his room, or anything, especially not when you don’t know which room is his and how you’ll get into it if it’s not on the first floor.
You’re not sure if you fall asleep, or if you sit there, listlessly waiting for nothing, for a while. After all, you got less than four hours of sleep this morning, and it’s been overall a stressful day. All you know is that, when Saya appears in front of you and says your name, you jump and look at her with eyes that are bleary, and not just because of sleep or lack thereof.
“Room 4543.” And when you stare blankly at her, uncomprehending, she sighs. “Go,” she urges, and her voice is gentle.
“But—” You falter.
“There’s no one else there at the moment,” she promises, and smiles slightly, a secret smile. You don’t ask how she managed to get everyone else away.
“I thought it was family only,” you point out, and to you, your voice sounds uncharacteristically weak, timid.
Saya frowns a little, but there’s a mischievous glint in her eye that reminds you strikingly of her brother. “You’re our cousin, aren’t you?” she asks innocently.
For the first time today, you feel the urge to laugh rise within you. It’s almost hysterical, and is quickly gone, but you rise to your feet. “…thank you.”
“Mm.” She watches you keenly, and you almost squirm, feeling yourself under some sort of judgment. “You’re taking this harder than anyone else.”
“The rest of you aren’t to blame for it,” you bite out, and even though you’re grateful to her, it still doesn’t override the desire to see her gone.
She ignores your comment. “You should tell him you love him.” You freeze, and Saya adds, with just a hint of mirth, “I think it would make things easier for you two. Better, even.”
“Why does everyone—”
“Because it’s true,” she interrupts. “Don’t you want to be happy?”
You don’t have any response to that, and so you simply brush past her, heading for the elevator.
You find the appropriate room with only a little difficulty and once again find yourself hesitating in front of the door. What’s the point? You know he’s still asleep; it’s not like he’s going to be waiting to yell at you or something the moment you step inside. It’s more like… you don’t want to see him, like this.
(But you do. You want to see him more than anything. And isn’t that one of the things you’ve always wanted, to see him—)
You cut off that train of thought and push open the door before you can quite lose your nerve.
The inside of the room is still, impersonal, silent save for a soft beeping noise. You glance at the heart monitor and just as quickly look away again; instead, you choose to seat yourself next to the bed, and can’t help looking over Niou with a critical eye. Both arms are bandaged, one with an IV; his breathing is even enough, but there are shallow cuts on his neck and face, presumably from broken glass. Any other injuries are hidden beneath the sheets, or you just don’t have the experience to see; you’re sure Yagyuu would do better, but he’s not the one who came in here technically without permission.
You push a few strands of straggly silver hair out from his face; your fingers brush against the gauze on his forehead, and his shallow breath washes over your palm. “Oh, Niou,” you whisper, and are only partially surprised when you find tears dripping down your face.
It’s been a long time since you cried, you think, almost wildly and not entirely coherently as you draw back and attempt to wipe them away. When was the last time? Years, and years, and years ago. Before you met Niou, the second time. Before you left him, the first. Yes, maybe around then, more than a dozen years ago now. You told him you wouldn’t cry, after all, that you had no need to as long as he was with you.
Well, he’s with you now, and you’ve broken that promise. You broke it for him. In the end, he’s the only one with the power to hurt you this much, isn’t he?
You hear him the first time, and you hear the beeping of the monitor speed up, and you hear the curse as it escapes his lips. “Dammit! Stupid thing.”
“Niou,” you murmur, but your voice is hoarse.
“That’s my name,” he replies easily, and pauses. “Shit — are you crying?”
“No!” you reply automatically, indignant at the disbelief in his voice. Even though it’s a lie, and it’s a lie that quickly becomes clear when you sniff and try to wipe the tears away again, as subtly as you can. But there’s really no way to make such an action subtle, and when you open your eyes again to glare at Niou, you find him staring at you in open amazement.
“You are,” he states, rather than argues, but before you can formulate some sort of angry retort, he looks away, scowling. “Dammit,” he repeats, more softly this time.
You don’t know what he’s thinking, so you look down. “…I’m sorry,” you respond, though your throat has gone tight again, and a few more drops fall onto your hands, clenched in your lap.
Niou laughs harshly. “For what? Me being an idiot?”
You can’t even find it in yourself to snap at him. “No. For leaving you there. I should’ve known—” Your voice breaks, and you’re unable to continue again.
“Oi, don’t…” He sounds alarmed, now, and you’re shaking, your fists clenched so tightly your nails are digging into your palms. “What are you talking about? It’s — stop crying!”
“I’m sorry,” you repeat, and bring your hands up to your face this time, barely able to contain your sobs.
“Don’t… stop it. Look at me.” One hand is on your arm, slim fingers wrapping around your wrist, and you feel the slight scratch of the bandages against your skin.
“Don’t cry,” he orders, and there’s a desperate edge to his voice. “I don’t like it when — just. Stop.”
You can’t, but you let him tug your hand away, let him clutch it gently in his own. And all you seem to be able to do is apologize, over and over again, until Niou sighs and asks, with what would almost be anger but is overlaid with too much worry to be described as such, “Didn’t you tell me you wouldn’t cry?”
“I—” You gulp, trying to catch your breath, but it refuses to come, and you shake your head. “I know. I’m sorry. I said I wouldn’t—”
“—as long as I was here,” he finishes for you. “And I’m here. So don’t cry. I don’t—” Niou stops abruptly, and his grip on your hand tightens, and you blink several times to see him biting his lip. “You shouldn’t cry ‘cause of me.”
“It’s not because of you!” you snap. Even though it is. You don’t know what you’re crying for, because you hurt him or because he is hurt.
“It is,” he says, with absolute certainty, and then pauses and looks slightly sheepish. “What happened, anyway?”
“You don’t remember?” Probably a combination of the alcohol and the shock, though probably mostly the alcohol — you shake your head again and try to explain, and it’s one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to put into words. “We went to the bar. You got drunk. You…”
Sensing your inability to say anything, Niou shakes his head, and winces a little afterward. “Yeah. I remember that part. Keep going.”
“I left early,” you continue with an effort. “Gave your keys to the bartender. And a few hours later, you…”
“…I take that to mean I don’t have a car anymore,” Niou says at last. You shake your head, refusing to look at him. “…fuck.”
“Stop apologizing, it’s not like you and it’s freaking me out.” He gives you a glare, though it isn’t really much of one, since the look in his eyes says he’s not really trying, he doesn’t really mean it. “I should be the one who’s sorry.”
You honestly don’t know what he’s talking about. “For what?”
“For doing that to you.” Niou stares thoughtfully at his other hand, the one not currently wrapped around yours, and drums his fingers against the bed restlessly. “I was really fucking drunk, but that’s not an excuse. I still shouldn’t have…”
What a strange role reversal, you think, and blink to clear your vision again. “No. It’s — it’s okay. It’s just that you—”
“I’m the one who should be saying sorry,” Niou says again, enunciating like that will get it through your head.
“I’m not the one in the hospital,” you point out.
“Technically,” he begins, but stops when he sees the look on your face. “…eh. I had it coming.”
“The point is,” he all but snaps out, “stop crying. I don’t like it when girls cry, ‘specially not you. And not when it’s my fault.”
You try, you really do, but the tears won’t stop coming. “How did we get to this?”
“Get to what?” he asks, and his voice is soft, almost gentle.
“To — I don’t know.” You shake your head, biting your lip as you look at him. “We were supposed to be partners, right? Best friends. Soulmates and all that. And yet—”
“And yet we fucked it all up.” The ceiling is suddenly quite interesting, for both of you, it seems. “Sorry about that.”
This time, you can’t quite bring yourself to tell him it’s not his fault. “…I am, too.”
“I think it could’ve worked,” Niou muses, somewhat regretfully. “If we tried harder.”
“Might be too late for that,” you respond. “It’s been six years, after all.” Six years of hating each other, of sniping at each other, of yelling and anger and not being able to tolerate…
“I don’t think it is.” He lets go of your hand, but only to reach up and gently touch your face, using his thumb to brush away the tears. “Stop crying.”
You shake your head, clasping your hand around his again. “I’m sorry.”
“I love you, you know.”
At that, you have to laugh, though it hurts and you’re still crying. “I think those are the drugs talking.”
“They aren’t,” he replies, with full confidence. “Pretty sure I’m not on any. Or they’re wearing off. I have a hell of a headache.”
Your eyes widen slightly, and you stand up, letting go of his hand. “Um, do you want me to—”
He cuts you off. “Nah. It’s not like I dunno what a hangover feels like.”
You’re struck speechless, and Niou rolls his eyes. “What, did you think it was something serious? You can’t drink that much in one night and not have to deal with it later, y’know.”
You glare at him, and he chuckles. “As I was saying. I — look, don’t make me repeat myself.”
You hesitate, recalling his earlier words. “…why now? I mean, there were so many times before when you could’ve…”
“But I didn’t,” he answers, almost casually. “So I figure now is a good time to start.”
“Did you know?”
“…yeah.” You close your eyes, and the tips of his fingers touch, just lightly, on your eyelids. “I did. Did you know I—”
“Stop,” Niou interrupts. “You’re gonna ruin your tsundere image. Too much dere.”
“Niou!” But you’re laughing for real this time, and Niou is smiling, and maybe this was the way things were meant to be.
“So,” he repeats, and pauses.
“Do you think we could—”
“Hm. Yeah.” Niou closes one eye, looking at you thoughtfully. “I mean, if we don’t, it’ll just get worse. And I don’t fancy the thought of a repeat incident.”
“Yeah, that would be — yeah.” You sigh. “I really am sorry.”
“Me too.” He drops his hand away from your face at last. “But you’re kind of cute when you cry, you know.”
“…Niou, that’s kind of…”
He rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Next time, just make sure they’re happy tears, all right? So you can keep your promise.”
“You can start by asking me out,” you mutter, not sure if he hears you.
But he catches it all right, and with a sly grin, asks, “Next Friday okay with you?”
“I’m not sure you’ll be able to make next Friday. And you shouldn’t stand me up.” He gives a one-shouldered shrug, amusement glimmering in storm-gray eyes, and you grin. “Hey…”
“Yeah,” Niou replies, apparently thinking along the same lines you are. “We’re Merciless, aren’t we?”
“Those without kindness or pity, those who are unrelenting.”
“Doesn’t mean we have to be Merciless to each other,” he says, as if pondering out loud. “Don’t think we were supposed to be.”
“Maybe we lived up to it a little too well,” you suggest.
“Eh. Probably.” Niou glances at you. “Kiss me?”
You can’t hold back your snort. “Sorry, I don’t know how the hospital people would like incest and I’d rather not take chances.”
“According to your sister,” you begin, trying your hardest to keep a straight face, “I’m a long-lost cousin or something.” When Niou looks blank, you add, “Family only.”
“…dammit!” You’ve rarely seen him look more annoyed. “Fuck that. You’ll come by every day, right?”
“Isn’t that asking a little much of me?” But you smile at the deadpan look he gives you, and it feels more real, more alive, than it has for a very long time. “Fine, fine. And…”
You lean forward, brushing a kiss against his forehead, and are pleased both at the way he stops breathing for just a second and there’s a sudden spike in the rate of the heart monitor, and he curses again.
“I won’t leave you,” you promise, and this time, it is one that you fully intend to keep forever.