Yagyuu doesn't like being touched.
Individuality -- The aggregate of qualities and characteristics that distinguish one person or thing from others.
Duality -- The quality or character of being twofold.
There is a recurring dream he has. He doesn't know when it started, only that it comes, especially on those nights he is fraught with tension and exhaustion, and when it comes it doesn't let go until it's over.
He arranges his life into strict schedule until tension and exhaustion only happen to other people.
Yagyuu doesn't like being touched. It's not so much the contact itself he minds as the marks it leaves behind: wrinkles on smooth clothes, heat on cool skin, the way it turns him for a few seconds into someone other than himself.
He's spent too much time chiselling this image into its present form to take kindly to disturbances of his work, and it's easy enough to discourage casual gestures of affection, draw a barrier of politeness around himself like a cloak; most people respect courtesy and don't willingly tread across its sacred borders.
There are, of course, exceptions. In his first year, he was pulled behind the equipment shed by a tennis club sempai he'd beaten by too large a margin during practice. He hadn't hit his growth spurt yet, a short, reedy looking kid with thick glasses and neatly combed hair, no back-up, prime bullying material by all accounts to judge by appearance. Yagyuu knew what was in store before they turned the corner, but wasn't quite prepared for the feeling of being pushed up against the paint-coated planks of the shed, breath huffing out in a rush, splinters catching at the cloth of his shirt, a large hand that radiated heat fisting at his collar.
"You think you're so perfect? Little teacher's pet, you think you're exceptional? You think it's fun to make a fool of your betters?" It had been difficult to breathe, not so much because of the pressure on his chest as for his repugnance towards the moisture blowing hotly across his face. He thought, to breathe that in would kill him.
Niou had turned up then, Niou aiming a tennis ball at the back of the sempai's head, while Yagyuu saw it coming and kept his mouth shut. He doesn't quite remember how it ended -- he only commits the important things to mind, tossing out sewage with merciless finality -- but that was the beginning of their beautiful friendship, their mutually beneficial relationship; it was the day he became Niou Masaharu's accomplice.
When the captain called them together for an explanation and the sempai accused Niou of unprovoked attack, Yagyuu told, not the truth, because the third-years would be lenient with the truth, but a believable lie: "Inoue-sempai was trying to extort money from Niou-kun; Niou-kun acted only in self-defense", the full force of his top form goody-two-shoes image backing up the veracity of his words. There were bruises on Niou's brown skin, not a remarkable occurence, but they added to the effect.
Niou was triumphantly acquitted.
Later, when Niou leaned in and told him, "You're /vicious/," he hadn't bothered to deny the term, because Niou's eyes were lean and mean and impossible to fool.
"I don't like being touched," he'd said, wiping his face with a towel, then folding it neatly into a rectangle. He didn't look at Niou, who stood too close, sleeves almost brushing, easy insouciance in his stance even at twelve years old.
"Perfect little gentleman, aren't you?" There was no more than the usual malice in Niou's voice, the same dose of amusement he gave the captain. "Bet I could make you unlearn some of those manners."
"Would you like to try?"
He thinks of that challenge now and realizes, with the clarity of hindsight, that that was the turning point, the making or breaking of their future amity; two goats crossing a bridge, white and black, and one had to give way or both would fall.
Niou made that decision. Niou has always been the one who controls the trajectory of their relationship.
"Some other time," he'd said, and sauntered off with a wave.
They are partners, on the court and off, each only half of a duo though they rarely meet apart from practice. When Niou performs some fresh and unspeakable outrage, it's Yagyuu their classmates come running to, Yagyuu at whom the teachers shake their heads.
"I'm not his keeper," he tries to say at first, but they merely smile, sigh, look as though they'd pat his shoulder at the least encouragement. He understands: he's been selected for nanny service, and given the charge, who wouldn't feel sorry for him?
"You can keep him in line. He listens to you."
It's such a preposterous idea that he picks at it for an entire afternoon, attention wandering in Chemistry class, only nine marks scored out of ten on the Classical Literature quiz. The answer comes to him when he passes Niou in the hallway between periods, going in opposite directions, and Niou responds to his nod with only a grin and lazy lift of hand before moving on.
The point is that Niou doesn't touch him. Niou touches /everyone/, from the girls he teases into laughter or fury to their dreaded fukubuchou himself, from stray dogs to bristling teachers, but he gives Yagyuu his space, and has since they first became conspirators.
It's an exchange, Yagyuu understands, one of the perks of being Niou's accomplice, not because Niou's afraid of defection or betrayal but because there's a quirky sense of justice buried beneath all those layers of mischief. You do this for me and I do this for you, and we both win against the world. He hassles Yagyuu in other ways, makes fun of his clothes, his deferential manners, his penchant for hot tea, but he doesn't pull pranks on Yagyuu and he doesn't touch him.
Easy enough to mistake for respect, and he no longer denies it, just says "I'll be sure to talk to him," and files it off as yet another way Niou complicates his life. It's for the best, he thinks. They don't exchange gifts, birthday, Christmas or otherwise, but Niou has already given him what he needs most.
In the dream, his hands are the first things to come apart. They drop cleanly from the wrists, no mess of blood or bone, and rest on the ground as if waiting for him to pick them up.
As he bends over to examine them, the forearms follow, leaving his elbows bare and unattached, looking forlorn. By this time he already has some idea of what's to come, and can either stand his ground or try to run, both choices he has taken in the past. Neither brings escape.
In their third year, Niou comes up with a new game, one Yagyuu isn't sure he can join in. He should in accordance with the unwritten clauses of their contract, but for once he can't say if the benefit outweighs the loss.
It's partially his own fault. He falls asleep in the library over Tokugawa Ieyasu's Life and Times, lulled by cushions and air conditioning, the soft rustle of turning pages and scent of aging paper, waking only when he senses his glasses being removed. His quick, instinctive snatch meets nothing but air and a blithe "Ah-ah, go back to sleep, Yagyuu-kun." The outlines of Niou's face are fuzzed by myopia, but he can hear the smirk in his voice, the delight of a trick well-played.
Straightening, he looks directly into where he guesses Niou's eyes to be. "Enough, Niou," which usually would be enough -- there are limits he won't be pushed past, flags he uses to mark them out, and this is one: go further and the rules are out; further, and I will fight you to the end.
Niou shuts up but doesn't return the glasses, merely stands there staring at Yagyuu (he assumes; for all he knows, it might just as well be the bookshelf over his shoulder that's drawing Niou's attention) for so long that he brushes a hand across his face to check for sleep wrinkles. Then Niou drops the glasses on his open library book -- if it had been anyone else, he thinks, Niou would've pried their fingers open and pressed the glasses in himself -- and waits for him to don them before saying
Looking out into the newly focused world, he finds only Niou's ecstatic, almost delirious smile, and a chill that has nothing to do with air conditioning.
Niou describes the plan to him as they head off for practice, passing through shade and sunlight beneath the ginkgo trees. He glances around at the peaceful schoolyard, boys and girls chattering together innocently with no clue that there's a lunatic in their midst, and for the first time since the first time, he considers warning them. "No."
"C'mon, it'll be fun. Think of it -- an entire school to fool. And you'll get to sport a decent hairstyle for a change."
"Yagyuu." And there it is, what he'd been dreading, the knowledge that this is another bridge, and Niou might not be so obliging this time. Niou has his own limits, and they've just reached one. "I want to do this."
His cold gray eyes are blazing.
Every time in the past when Niou has spoken with that tone, that expression, Yagyuu has given way; every single time without fail. He feels the instinctive urge to step aside once more -- what's the harm? it's just a game -- but a deeper instinct holds fast, clings screaming to the certainties that bind his world together, the knowledge that this isn't a game for him, and what Niou is asking is impossible.
"I can't," he says, the simple truth.
Niou doesn't argue with him. "I want to do this," he repeats.
They continue towards the courts in silence, and don't speak to each other at all for the rest of the day. Jackal and Marui are so spooked that they win 6 - 3, while Yukimura casts thoughtful looks in their direction but doesn't interfere.
That night, he dreams.
This time he runs. There is no point to it -- this knowledge is graven into his mind, though his memories are concealed in nebulous haze -- but to stay put with the resignation of a sitting duck is unacceptable; therefore he takes the more exhausting route and runs with his arms amputated at the elbow.
For a while the remaining portions of his body continue intact, and he thinks maybe, maybe this time (this is what he thinks every time) -- and it is precisely at the first surge of hope that his arms leave his shoulders.
"Trouble in paradise?" Kirihara asks pleasantly, and Yagyuu makes a note to toss him to Niou before remembering why that's currently infeasible. He settles for telling Sanada that Kirihara has been slacking off of late and it might be a good idea to up the intensity of his training sessions, it wouldn't do for him to tarnish the Rikkai image, would it? Kirihara glares at him for a week, but learns to keep his mouth shut.
They still aren't talking beyond the necessary discourse -- "Sanada says we're slotted for clean-up duty today." "Australian formation this game?" -- until Yagyuu feels like the unspoken words between them could fill an ocean, each wave a declaration of I can't, I want, no, yes. Please.
Once he comes across Niou heckling a girl in his classroom -- for History notes, if Yagyuu's any judge, since the History teacher has taken to giving surprise quizzes every few classes against a backdrop of student lamentation. He usually borrows off Yagyuu, but now there is The Situation to account for, and he hasn't wasted time in finding a new provider.
Yagyuu watches as he props himself up against the girl's desk, leaning in, ponytail dangling so that it almost brushes her face. He sees the blush shooting up her cheeks. Niou's pranks always have a gentler edge when it comes to girls -- he makes them scream and slap him, but he doesn't make them cry, so they're far more tolerant of him than the male half of the population, and not a few even crush on him. He used to amuse himself reading out the love notes to Yagyuu in high falsetto.
"It's the bad boy image," a classmate told him once, giggling. "You just want to take him in and cuddle him, maybe even reform him a little, you know? Just a little, not too much. But he doesn't listen to any of us." She'd let out a sigh, envious and admiring. "You're so lucky, Yagyuu-kun."
He's pondering the absurdity of it all when Niou turns his head and catches sight of him. He half expects Niou's gaze to move on, dismissing him the way they've been dismissing each other for the past few weeks, but Niou has never been predictable -- their eyes lock, and something shifts, hardening, telling him that Niou's made up his mind; a decision has been reached.
He leaves before the bell rings.
In most of his dreams, there are two Yagyuus -- one on the outside looking in, one on the inside looking out. Whatever happens in the dreamscape to the insider, the outsider is always there, serving as an anchor, a beacon calling him back.
In this dream, there are half a dozen Yagyuus, and all of them are on the inside. He can still feel his hands, forearms, upper arms, each as a separate entity, but they are no longer his, belonging only to themselves. He is being diminished piecemeal.
When his feet go, he stumbles to the ground.
Staring into the darkness that serves as a backdrop to this slow dissolution, he passes time by wondering how long it will take to come fully undone.
Niou strolls up to him before first period.
"Oi, Yagyuu," he waves, ignoring the excited murmur caused by his appearance, the glances darting furtively their way. This is the first time Niou's stepped into their classroom for three weeks, and they're all waiting to watch the show.
"Niou-kun." He closes his textbook and tamps down his surprise, knowing that it simply can't end this easily, as if it really were just a children's game they're squabbling over, an offhand proposal that hasn't gone through. They've taken this issue well beyond frivolity, and while the breach is inconvenient, neither side is prone to surrender.
His senses remain alert as Niou walks up to the desk, then perches on it as his rightful territory, long legs splaying out while he grins like a wolf. "History notes," he says, stretching out a hand. "Gimme."
"I thought you'd have made other arrangements by now," but he flips through his binder and extracts the relevant pages, placing them in Niou's open palm. If notes are the only ransom demanded for the end of this war, he'll count himself lucky.
"Yours are better," Niou shrugs, then leans in closer until his breath actually stirs Yagyuu's hair. Suddenly the rest of the class becomes very busy. "No one takes notes like you do, Yagyuu-kun," he breathes, and lays his empty hand on Yagyuu's shoulder.
Yagyuu stiffens. For a moment his mind freezes into immobility, the well-oiled cogs and wheels that move it along short-circuiting. This is the sky dropping down, the Red Sea parting, swine sprouting white feathers from their backs.
The laws of physics are immutable, and Niou does not touch Yagyuu.
He's twitching away before the decision registers as a conscious choice, and Niou watches his movements without bothering to follow, still with that same considering smirk, the same predatory eyes, speaking without words in the language they use to communicate in during matches.
'I don't like making you uncomfortable.'
And then, closely following, 'but I will if it gets me what I want.'
Yagyuu understands. They've been playing doubles together for three years; there is no mind he understands better than Niou's. By refusing to aid Niou in his prank, Yagyuu has broken his side of the covenant, and, in consequence, marked himself fair game.
Niou is giving him a choice: two paths, each neatly marked.
What Yagyuu understands is that neither brings escape.
In the final stage, there is nothing of his body left. He drifts, a fractured awareness of sight/scent/sound/taste/touch, each resenting the others, helpless until morning and consciousness come to retrieve him.
This is what the dream tells him: that the chains binding his self into one are brittle and breakable, and once they do, the he as he knows himself will no longer exist; he will be without identity.
This is what the dream tells him: that his concentration must be focused inward and ever inward, centered upon himself, and to be distracted by outside influence will be to snap the chains by his own hand.
This is what the dream tells him: that he must never be touched.
It comes down to logic, of course. No single prank can hold Niou's flittering attention span for more than a week, while it's all too plausible that he'll enjoy making Yagyuu's life a living hell from now to graduation.
The boy's washroom is large and airy, relatively clean for a public lavatory. There is a line of sinks down one wall, urinals down the other, stalls lining the third, which they don't bother with because Niou locks the door after them.
Watching their reflections on the dirty glass above the sinks, he reads anticipation and intensity from Niou's expression, nothing from his own.
"I brought gel," says Niou, pulling a bottle out of his schoolbag. "Flat-lens glasses for me, contacts for you, though we'll have to hope no one looks too closely."
"Yanagi?" he murmurs, reflecting that having someone on their team who knows everything about everyone, from shoe size to eyesight, can be inconvenient at times. There are spider-web cracks running across the plaster in the ceiling, a bare patch of cement on the ground where a tile's been kicked loose.
Niou grins at him. "You're so smart, Yagyuu-kun. Now strip."
There's a beat before he responds. "Maybe you've never noticed, but school uniforms," he gestures, "tend to be identical. Hence the word uniform."
Niou points first at the rumpled shirt under his suit jacket, then at Yagyuu's neatly-pressed outfit that looks like it just left the dry-cleaner's shop. "We could probably crumple yours up a bit, but unless you brought an iron to school, mine's going to stay wrinkled."
He always makes perfect sense when he's plotting. With a sigh, Yagyuu shrugs off his suit jacket and places it on the counter once he's sure it's dry, then pulls off his vest. The static ruffles his hair. When he reaches for his tie, Niou says, "Wait."
"A problem?" he raises an eyebrow. This part of the procedure is routine; they've undressed in front of each other often enough in the locker room. It's the next part that gets tricky, and he's trying not to think about it.
"Let me do this," says Niou, "let me -- " and without finishing the sentence, he reaches out for Yagyuu's glasses, the fluorescent lights shining white on his skin.
Yagyuu shies away automatically. "What -- "
"I won't touch you." Niou's fingers are careful as they lift the metal frames, and it's more to keep him from brushing skin by accident that Yagyuu remains still.
Niou's face becomes a blur once the lenses are gone. He hears a clatter as they're placed on the counter, wants to tell Niou to wait, take care, except Niou's already reaching for his tie, and the soft pressure at his throat keeps him silent.
Niou is as deft at undoing a tie as he is at preparing paint-bombs, slipping a 'gift' down someone's neck. Yagyuu shouldn't be surprised; he isn't, not really, but for some reason it's hard to breathe. He remembers the first meeting, the body pinning his down, /to breathe that in would kill him/, and thinks, if only he knew.
He doesn't move.
The tie comes loose in a slither, flies haphazardly towards the sinks. Part of Yagyuu's well-ordered mentality flinches back at the untidiness, but is gradually giving way to something else, anticipation, fear, a thrum of foreign excitement. So here it starts, the descent, and he wonders how far it will go.
A flick, and his first button comes undone. Niou keeps true to his promise; not a brush of skin against skin, just the insubstantial weight of fingers and his buttons springing apart one by one, the front of his shirt opening like a surrender. The air blowing across his bare chest makes him shiver, and once he starts, it's impossible to stop; this is it, the slow disintegration.
By the time Niou slips the shirt off his shoulders, he's shuddering.
Niou, to do him justice, doesn't comment. It's impossible to make out his expression from the blur, but his fingers are light as they comb through Yagyuu's hair, loosening it from its neat coiffure.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair," Niou murmurs, amusement humming low in his voice without malice. Yagyuu thinks that the words are more appropriate than Niou knows as he tears Yagyuu from the ivory tower of himself, peeling away each layer like knocking bricks from a wall, creating an upward path to scale in case Rapunzel's braid proves too short. Niou's instinct has always been unerring, his determination inflexible.
"There," says Niou, finally satisfied, and steps back with the air of a maestro viewing his finished composition. Yagyuu turns, searching for a mirror, and though he can only make out vague outlines -- his bare torso, a wild burst of hair framing his naked face -- it sinks into him as sluggish realization: he is no longer himself. And if this is so --
He turns back to Niou, who's stripping with casual efficiency, a much swifter process than his disrobing of Yagyuu. It isn't long before he's tossing his wrinkled shirt to Yagyuu and heading for the one discarded on the counter.
Niou's shirt smells like him, is Yagyuu's first thought as he draws it on, finding the fabric smoother and softer than he's accustomed to. Now Yagyuu smells like him, too, is the second. He buttons it up to the third button, not bothering to tuck in the shirttails, then reaches for his tie and loops it into a careless knot, the same he's seen on Niou's neck for the past three years. It feels odd to leave his neck bare like this, open to attack, but then, no one in his right mind would go after Niou. Being ignored by him is sufficient blessing.
Leaving his vest where it is, the jacket comes next, then a dollop of gel to maintain the spikes, and as he finishes twisting a small ponytail into place, he realizes that he's done.
Niou, surprisingly, is still struggling with the tie. "Fuck, Yagyuu, how do you not strangle yourself each morning?" he says, trying to tug it straight and keep it loose at the same time.
Yagyuu rolls his eyes and walks over, undoing Niou's half-hearted attempt and tying it back so that it's presentable, giving it one final pat as he finishes. Most of the tension has left him. He's acting for Niou, now, and Niou treats these things as trivialities. "Better stop wriggling if you don't want the game to be up within the first few minutes," is all he says.
"I knew you'd gotten the better end of the deal," Niou grumbles. Yagyuu ignores him to wrestle with the contact lenses, which he's never used before but understands the basics of. It takes a while, but he finally works both in, blinking them into place. The world sharpens back into crystal focus, every speck of dirt on the floor visible, every scrawl of graffiti across the toilet stalls legible; apparently he needs new glasses, though how Yanagi knows this ahead of him he doesn't care to speculate.
He turns toward Niou, opens his mouth to say I'm done, are you ready, can we go? and stops, because he sees the unthinkable.
He sees himself.
Yagyuu stares at Yagyuu, standing straight and stiff in impeccable uniform, eyes hidden by the light reflecting off his glasses. He can't read his own expression.
Yagyuu stares at Yagyuu. The other doesn't move. In his mind an idea begins to form and solidify, gaining force and weight as he understands the next step to this transformation, the closing of the circle. This is him, he thinks, the shell within which his mind resides, whole and complete.
He steps closer, watches as Yagyuu (Niou, a portion of his mind whispers, it's just Niou, but he ignores it) cocks his head to one side, regarding him with what is probably curiousity, if he knows himself well enough.
They're finally standing toe to toe, nose to nose. Yagyuu doesn't back away, which is a telling slip -- Yagyuu should back away, but doesn't, and he takes advantage of this lapse to reach out and trace a line down Yagyuu's cheekbone, feeling it like warm velvet against the pad of his finger. That garners a reaction; Yagyuu's breath hisses out, and his eyes flash behind the glasses, but he doesn't move, and more amazingly, he doesn't come apart.
He cups Yagyuu's face with both his hands, sliding them down, down the proud column of neck, pressing them into his shoulders, sharing his heat and rumpling the perfect line of the uniform's crease, and still Yagyuu remains intact, doesn't burst into a thousand flying pieces.
He thinks: I can be touched.
And then, a further realization: I can touch.
And when Niou, trembling, pulls his mouth down to his, he doesn't resist and doesn't fall back, just leans into it and drowns in the headiness of heat and contact and not being alone for the first time in his life.
The bell rings. He draws back, an instinctive reaction. "We'll be late for practice."
Niou stares at him, cheeks flushed, still wearing his face, and finally starts to snicker, doubling over in an unsuccessful attempt to muffle his snorts. "You can take Yagyuu out of the starch, but you can't take -- "
"Shut up," and they bicker all the way to the tennis courts, just as usual, discussing the things each will say and the tricks Yagyuu will play on Niou's behalf, and underneath it all Yagyuu knows that the next time Niou throws an arm around his shoulder in thanks for borrowed notes or celebration of a game well-played, he'll frown and he'll fidget, but he won't pull away.