Forming a connection. Niou and Yagyuu as doubles partners in junior high and high school. With romance. And tennis. (Divergent future as it deals with events which will take place in canon but have...
When they meet, at the start of the second term, there is no spark, no instant connection. Yagyuu experiences a moment of slight irritation when, on his first day at a new school, another student switches some of his books inside their dust-jackets so that he shows up to class having picked up the wrong ones from his locker. He shrugs and asks the girl sat next to him if he can share her book, and when he is called upon to explain why he receives a sympathetic look.
"Oh... that would have been Niou Masaharu," the girl explains apologetically. "He does things like that to new people sometimes. He's just odd." She casts a dark look over to a corner where a white-haired boy is sitting. Yagyuu spares him a moment's inspection and, when he looks up and meets Yagyuu's gaze, a polite but indifferent smile.
The boy -- presumably Niou -- has a calculating expression, and Yagyuu's indifference seems to anger him.
Yagyuu turns away and begins making notes, and does not think any more about Niou until he arrives at tennis practice, trying to decide if he wishes to join the club, and sees a mess of white hair amongst the first-years doing stretches.
He was right, Yagyuu realises quickly. Niou takes his indifference as a personal affront, or a criticism of his skills as a professional annoyance. The other boy is not sociable, but likes attention, and most people give it to him: either amusement or anger. Indifference is not a response he expects to his tricks, except from Yanagi Renji, who he appears to get on surprisingly well with. Yagyuu supposes that surprising Yanagi can't be easy, but he does catch himself wondering why Niou doesn't take this as a challenge.
A little longer at Rikkai, particularly at the tennis club, and the reason becomes clear. Yagyuu almost feels sorry for their captain, having to deal with three such second years; Yanagi may not command the same amount of respect as Yukimura or the level of fear people spare for Sanada, but it seems obvious that the two of them depend upon him. Niou does not care for Sanada, but listens to Yukimura, who listens to Yanagi.
Yagyuu, on the other hand, has no such shielding. Niou sees him as entirely fair game. Thinking about this, and considering how much time he's spent covertly trying to figure Niou out, he realises that he can no longer be said to be utterly indifferent to the boy. At least he has an interest in him, though it extends only as far as working out what makes him tick.
He wonders if Niou has realises that what was once genuine indifference is now a front.
It takes him longer to realise that all this time, while he has been trying to figure Niou out, Niou has been trying to figure him out. Their methods are very different, but their goals are the same, as is their motivation. Each finds the other to be an enigma, something which cannot be easily understood; each dislikes not being able to understand.
It's the first time Yagyuu feels something for Niou which could be called liking, rather than just interest. When Niou smiles at him from across the class, full of mischief but - for once - remarkably little malice, Yagyuu smiles back, just the faintest hint of amusement in his expression.
Towards the end of the term, they play doubles. Niou has always been a doubles player, which surprised Yagyuu at first, but the trickster can be co-operative when he wants; during a match he directs a focus towards his opponents which Yagyuu knows many would be terrified by, but so long as he is allowed to lead and to play his games, he is happy to have someone for support.
Yagyuu makes the mistake, in their first practice match together, of trying to dominate the game. He has always played singles in the past, and this does not come easily to him. Niou, who must have been practising it, imitates Yagyuu's own laser-beam -- and Yagyuu discovers how much a tennis ball to the back of the shoulder can hurt. Niou is lectured extensively by Yukimura, and slouches over to the bench where Yagyuu is sitting. He looks relatively unrepentant, though Yukimura has obviously guilt-tripped him somewhat.
"I'm not actually sorry, you know," he says, dropping onto the bench beside Yagyuu and adding in a curious tone, "did it bruise?"
"A little," Yagyuu concedes, and tries not to wince as slender fingers press against the spot the ball hit a little more roughly than is strictly necessary for an inspection.
"It's a bit swollen," Niou tells him. "Put some ice on it. Yukimura will be even more pissed at me if you have to skip practice for a few days."
"I don't think we should play together again," Yagyuu says.
"You kidding? We'll be great."
"Niou, you just injured me because you didn't like my play style."
"So learn your fucking lesson and play like it's doubles next time. None of this singles crap."
Yagyuu gives Niou a confused look. "I'm a singles player." And anyone else would have expressed their displeasure with words. Well, anyone except Kirihara, perhaps.
"So learn a new trick. There's going to be no space for singles players in this team next year, not with the three demons and their little trainee force of evil."
"Why do you care if I get to play or not?"
Niou actually looked disbelieving at that. Yagyuu has never been on the receiving end of his what, are you stupid? look before. It is... interesting.
"I care if I get to play. Do the maths, Yagyuu. I need someone to play doubles with."
It's a challenge. Neither of them likes to back down, and so their doubles game takes shape.
Perhaps they understand one another somewhat better now, but there is still a lot about Niou which eludes Yagyuu entirely. At some stage during their practices a kind of unspoken agreement has grown between them. Niou is aware of when Yagyuu should be allowed to lead, and when he should not push Yagyuu too hard; and Yagyuu knows when to let Niou do as he pleases.
What he does not know is why Niou is prepared to give him even this much control.
They play doubles together, and they win. They are undefeated in official matches, lose only to the terrifying combination of Yukimura and Yanagi in Rikkai's practice matches, when their captain feels like testing them out.
Rikkai does not lose; they have a reputation to live up to.
When news of Yukimura's collapse reaches them, it only provides a greater focus towards the goal they already had. They must win, so that when (not if) Yukimura returns he will be proud of them.
"We must not lose," Sanada tells the team, his face serious and pale, as though he hasn't slept enough. "That is the law of Rikkai."
Niou and Yagyuu exchange a look. Niou's eyes are utterly serious, and Yagyuu understands that they are in this all the way -- together.
Niou will co-operate, whenever he thinks it necessary.
Spring gives everyone a much-needed energy boost after a too-long winter, full of hospital visits and worry. In Niou's case spring also brings with it a fresh wave of inspiration, somewhat to the frustration of the teachers, and the irritation of Sanada. Niou's tricks are rarely turned against the tennis club now -- Yukimura's distant influence sees to that, along with the fact that Niou has more sense of loyalty to the club than to the school as a whole -- but Sanada holds that it's the principle of the thing.
"While you are wearing the tennis club uniform you are representing the tennis club," Niou mimics when he tells Yagyuu about the latest incident, not sounding in the least bit repentant. "It was like getting a lecture from the headmaster."
"Perhaps if you tried not to provoke him..."
Niou shrugs, stretching lazily and leaning against the fence, closing his eyes against the sun. "I've never done anything to him."
"That's not the point. The only reason you haven't is because you're worried Yukimura would find a way to hurt you, sick or not." And Sanada doesn't need anything more to worry him, Yagyuu thinks.
"Hm. I suppose I'll grant you that much. Though I don't think Yukimura would go for physical pain, except the kind that makes you play tennis better... he'd prefer to make me feel four years old and stupid, probably."
Yagyuu has to admit that Niou is right. "Letting Sanada see you acting in an irresponsible matter is hardly better, Masaharu," he points out, his lips curving into a faint smile. How far can Niou push things? It's an interesting question, and one he has speculated about more than once -- sooner or later Niou's actions will provide him with a real answer instead of theoretical ones. He's interested, in a faintly morbid way, but perhaps it would be better tested when they had less at stake as a team.
"I can't help if it he happens to see the results of my more inventive pastimes so often," Niou says, his voice lazy and amused.
Like hell you can't, Yagyuu thinks but doesn't say, because he is Yagyuu. He knows Niou is aware of what he is thinking on this point, and that Niou will not mistake his views for disapproval. Anyway, he has been momentarily distracted by the way Niou looks in the late afternoon light, close to basking in the newly returned warmth. It's mostly a trick of the light, but Niou looks softer than usual. Yagyuu would like to think it's partly because Niou doesn't think of him as a threat now, and can allow himself to relax when it's just the two of them.
Something good has to come out of this hellish year.
It can't be said to be their fault, really -- they won their match, after all -- but the entire team feels the loss against Seigaku. Sanada tries to take all of the blame on his own head, but noone else agrees with him. It has been a difficult year, and more than a few people have realised that Sanada's reaction to Yukimura's illness indicates stronger feelings than friendship. Niou has realised, which means Yagyuu knows; although the trickster has been remarkably cautious in his use of the knowledge.
Yukimura's absence changes a great deal. Rikkai's team is brilliant but not stable, Niou explains, although Yagyuu could have figured that out for himself; without Yukimura to act as their centre of gravity, things become unpredictable.
Kirihara and Sanada are the obvious examples of this. Though everyone is dissatisfied with their own performance, the lack of control experienced by Kirihara and Sanada's barely contained violence are the things which people remember.
They still have a focus to work towards, even now -- they have made it to the Nationals so although their pride is wounded they haven't failed as completely as they might have. Even the burden of having to explain their failure to Yukimura does not seem as severe when they arrive at the hospital to be greeted by the news that their captain's operation was a success.
Yagyuu can see the tension drain from Sanada, and the rest of the team visibly relaxes, too; Yagyuu is taken by surprise when Niou's arm drapes across his shoulder. He looks around to find that the trickster is looking at him, and that the odd softness in his face that Yagyuu has noticed from time to tim over the past year is back. Yagyuu smiles at him, open and honest.
For a little while, relief outweighs guilt.
The return of Yukimura, even weak and flanked by nurses, means the return of stability. He attends practices, although he is watched carefully -- noone will allow him to exceed his limits. This is easier said than done, and Yagyuu gathers that most of Yukimura's training is done outside of club practice hours, with only Sanada for company. During practices he is mostly just a presence, observing and giving advice. If he is harsh, they know that they deserve it.
The first day they see him pick up a racquet is almost painful. It's not that he's bad -- he must have practised enough with Sanada to get himself somewhat back in shape -- but they all remember him as brilliant, and now... he's still too thin, they can see that when he removes his jacket, and his breathing becomes laboured too quickly. They can see his frustration. Sanada is there to reassure him and help him take things slowly.
Yagyuu suspects their captain would have hospitalised himself again otherwise.
If there's anything he regrets about Yukimura's return -- and he feels guilty for even thinking such a thing -- it's that Niou's vulnerability and openness is hidden away again. He feels like he's been trusted with a part of Niou that noone else sees over the past year, and now it's been withdrawn again. It feels like they're back in second year again, playing games with each other, never showing the other what they really feel.
Eventually, the world returns to the way it was always meant to be, and the team watches as Yukimura stands across the court from Seigaku's Tezuka, breathing hard but not at his limit. His brilliance is back, and they have all fought hard to reach this point, but now it's his job to seal it for them. Yukimura-Tezuka, four games all, advantage Yukimura. Then Yukimura serves, and it's beautiful, graceful, purely Yukimura. He's really back.
Tezuka is good, makes him fight for each point, but there's a feeling of inevitability now. "It must be like fighting against the tide," Niou mutters, his eyes never leaving the court. He sounds proud, echoing what they all feel, and Yagyuu takes a chance in moving closer to him, putting a hand on Niou's shoulder as they watch. Niou doesn't pull away, and Yagyuu is relieved.
Their third nationals victory means more to them than the other two put together. It puts everyone on a euphoric high, after everything they've been through. Everything Yukimura has been through.
Yagyuu cautiously puts an arm around Niou's shoulders -- it could always be explained as nothing more than friendly, although Yagyuu is not physically affectionate with his friends. It isn't as though he's certain how he intends it, anyway. But he knows by now that Niou is important, even if he doesn't absolutely understand the trickster. What understanding he has he gained slowly; worked for. It's a small victory of his own, and he is proud of it.
High school, first year
High school is peculiar. They go from being the national champions to being first-years again, supposedly bottom of the pecking order. "But I'd like to see the second or third year who could keep Yukimura in check for long," Niou mutters on the first day as they listen to their new captain talk about the high standards of Rikkai Dai and /upholding the reputation of the tennis club/. If Yagyuu felt sorry for the captain they had in their second year of Junior High he absolutely pities this one, having to deal with a newly recovered Yukimura -- not to mention seven out of eight of the players who made Rikkai's Junior High team so feared.
When one of the third years asks him if Niou is actually as much trouble as it looked like he would be when he was beginning Junior High, Yagyuu responds with polite incomprehension.
"I simply can't imagine what you mean," he offers apologetically. "I play with Niou, but there's been no difficulty."
"Ah, I'd just heard he had a bit of a reputation." the older boy replies, looking a bit uncomfortable. Yagyuu wonders what his name is; he can't remember it. He wasn't at Rikkai for the first year of Junior High, so it's probable he's never met the other before.
"I can assure you, I have always found him to be perfectly agreeable," he says, neutral but apparently sincere.
When Niou emerges from around the corner after the third-year departs, he's obviously fighting down laughter. "You should get an award," he tells Yagyuu. "Perfectly agreeable, indeed. You're no gentleman. If you were, you'd have warned him. Given him a sporting chance or something."
"If he believes that you will be no trouble then he deserves anything he gets," Yagyuu returns, amused. "I have no obligation to save the foolish from you."
"That's my doubles partner. Loyal. Unfaltering. Doesn't get in the way of good dishonest fun."
"Unless I think it will get you suspended."
"Yeah. There is that... I make sure not to tell you about those plans," Niou grins, and Yagyuu decides that there's about a 50-50 chance that this is actually the case. He does not want Niou to be suspended, or removed from the tennis club, although by now they are close enough that they would almost certainly not loose touch because of such a thing. This doesn't make it desirable.
"I trust you to look after yourself," he settles for. I trust you. Thousands wouldn't, and they'd be right not to.
Niou just nods. After the last year, they trust one another deeply. What the rest of the world thinks doesn't matter, because the rest of the world doesn't actually know anything about them; both of them work to keep it like that, in their own ways.
High school, second year
Until now they have barely questioned the nature of their relationship, Yagyuu realises. Although he is far happier to touch Niou than anyone else he knows, and far happier to allow Niou to touch /him/, they've never done anything which definitively crosses the boundary between friends and...
Yagyuu can't finish that sentence, even in his head. If there is a single respect in which he is a coward, it is this. But it doesn't matter terribly much: he an Niou have a functional relationship, and if the nature of this relationship is somewhat atypical for Yagyuu then this can be put down to the fact that Niou is his best friend. It doesn't have to mean anything else, or so he is content to keep believing.
It begins to seem as though Niou may have other ideas. Niou generally does.
Yagyuu finds himself alone with Niou even more than usual, finds that he is being teased, provoked. Not with malice any more. He understands that this is all entirely deliberate; that Niou is testing him. Trying to work out what exactly Yagyuu wants.
It was simpler when they were younger. They were doubles partners first, then best friends, and they weren't interested in much beyond that - not consciously.
"Thinking too much," Niou hisses, very close. Yagyuu does not jump or give any such undignified reaction, but he does look up, intending to give a sharp response about Niou thinking too little - even though he knows how far it is from the truth - until his eyes meet Niou's, barely five inches away. He can't think of a thing to say. "You're no fun when you do that," his doubles partner continues before he can collect his wits, but Niou's voice doesn't sound quite right. Too tense.
When Niou kisses him barely a half-second later it's not exactly great - they're inexperienced and Niou's teeth knock against his own, and in any case Yagyuu is too shocked to respond much - but he knows with absolute certainty that he wants to do it again.
The implications still scare him.
He's just had his first kiss, and it was with another boy. He enjoyed it.
This is not how it's meant to go, although he's known in the back of his mind that this would happen for a while. He just never dared to define it, to admit (even to himself) that he seems to be gay. That he's fallen for his doubles partner.
"Is it really so bad?" Niou asks when Yagyuu fails to say anything. "I guess I should leave, huh?"
Niou looks, if anything, grateful that Yagyuu hasn't broken his jaw for presuming. It's not that/, Yagyuu wants to say, or maybe, /no. Stay. But he just stares at Niou until the other boy shrugs and turns away.
Niou doesn't do anything so dramatic as refusing to attend club practices any more, but he doesn't speak to Yagyuu when he can avoid it.
"Work it out," Yukimura tells them after a week, brutally honest and openly annoyed. "You'll be on reserve otherwise. At best."
"Can I try singles again?" Niou asks.
Yagyuu wants to punch him, and restrains himself only because of the awareness that it's his own fault they're a mess right now. With Niou, what is proper is not a concern as it is with anyone else; but the knowledge that he is the one at fault makes him hold back.
Yukimura gives Niou a dangerous look. "You've been the best doubles pair we've had for the past three years. Maybe one of the best doubles pairs out there at this level. Work it out."
Niou doesn't argue, but he doesn't look at Yagyuu either.
Yagyuu feels like a piece of himself is falling apart.
"You got me, I'll admit," Niou says. They're getting changed, having run laps until well after practice ended for being, in the words of the captain, highly uncooperative. Yagyuu is studiously avoiding looking at Niou, but he can feel Niou's eyes on him, and it makes him feel edgy, ill at ease. "I actually thought you gave a fuck for a while there."
Yagyuu packs his tennis clothes away neatly, focusing on his bag; but then everything is put away, he has nothing to do, and Niou is still watching him. Waiting for a response.
"Guess I was wrong."
Yagyuu's hand tightens on his bag. He has to say something, or he'll lose Niou entirely, if he hasn't already.
"No," he says, very quietly. "You weren't wrong." He cares. That much is (painfully) obvious. But he can't control this. He has always considered control to be the most important thing.
But when he really thinks about it, what can he control about his doubles partner?
Niou isn't moving. The entire room seems still, uncomfortably so, until Yagyuu can't stand it any more and finally turns to face Niou. Niou, who looks confused, upset and much more like an ordinary boy than his usual detached self.
"Then..." Niou tries, but breaks off.
"Let me think about it?" Yagyuu asks. He almost hates how calm his voice sounds. Like he actually doesn't care, even though his chest feels tight with anxiety. Niou looks at him carefully, trying to read him; at length he nods, and Yagyuu can breathe again.
Maybe this will be alright if Niou accepts that he will have to work himself up to things slowly.
He thinks about it. He can't stop thinking about it.
In his mind it's not straightforward. He thinks in Niou's mind it must be; Niou can take complex problems and dives straight through them towards a solution so quickly that Yagyuu sometimes struggles to follow, as though it was the easiest thing in the world. It's unfair that he seems able to do this with both numbers and people, but he wonders if Niou has miscalculated on this one.
It's becoming obvious that he, for one, isn't going to get any flash of insight on this situation. This is just what life is like, he supposes. It seems there's a vast gap between acting in an adult manner and being able to deal with adult issues.
But things between him and Niou aren't the same as they were before, although they're playing doubles well enough again; and he knows he could still lose Niou very easily.
The fact that he does not want this to happen is what finally motivates him, weeks later.
"I've thought about it," he tells Niou. The spiky-haired boy is walking slightly ahead of him through a park - a short-cut on the way home. At Yagyuu's words, he freezes, and Yagyuu gathers his courage, steps forward, slides an arm around Niou's waist from behind. "I think we should try," he adds, whispered into Niou's ear.
"Took you bloody long enough," Niou says, and the next moment Yagyuu is being kissed, right there in the middle of the park where anyone could see.
They get it mostly right this time.