Niou and Yagyuu are partners.
1. variation the first: those things will kill you if you don't watch out
When Sanada catches Niou smoking behind a tree during practice, he backhands him crisply, once on each cheek. The rest of the team stands by, silent; Kirihara twitches, Jackal looks away, but no one makes a sound of protest.
Yagyuu pushes up the straw of his thermos and takes a drink of water. It slides in a cool stream down his throat.
"I don't care if you keel over with shriveled lungs the day after we take the trophy home," says Sanada. There is no fury in his voice, which merely burns, the way a doctor's stethoscope burns against skin. "I don't care if you jump in a river at midnight. But before that day, your body belongs to us -- it belongs to the Rikkaidai tennis club, and you know the punishment for damaging school property."
Niou's head is still angled slightly to the left from the force of the second blow. His cheeks are beginning to swell, red handprints like a clown's make-up, but when he slants a glance up at Sanada, his lips look like they're trying to twitch up. "As a matter of fact, I don't," he says, and there is a collective indrawn breath from the audience. "I threw out the rulebook the day before I entered school."
Sanada looks almost pleased by this reply.
Marui screws his eyes shut.
Yagyuu twists back the cap of his thermos, returns it to his schoolbag, and waits.
They live in opposite directions from school. Yagyuu has visited Niou's home only once, a high-class apartment in the Ginza district that looks like something out of a home improvement magazine -- all glass and abstract metal sculptures, an occasional watercolor of sparrows and a sprig of plum blossom. The echoing space is sectioned off by hand-painted screens of delicate court ladies in their traditional robes while dominated by sleek black miracles of technology that Yagyuu has never seen anywhere else. He wonders what it must be like to live in such dichotomy, and is glad he doesn't know.
In contrast, Niou crashes at his own modest two-story townhouse so often that Yagyuu's mother tells him to inform her of 'that rascally Niou-kun's' visits in advance, so she can prepare an extra place for dinner. She's fond of Niou; Yagyuu gets the impression that she thinks Niou looks after him at school, safeguards her strait-laced son from the bad boys. His father is more discerning, recognizing Niou as one of the bad boys himself, and maintains a curtain of silence at the dinner table when they eat that is broken only by his mother's chatter and Niou's flattering replies. Kyoko-chan adores Niou, plain and simple. He hears wedding bells in her voice every time she speaks of him, and is always quick to hustle Niou away from her and off to his room, where Niou browses manga or plays the video games he brings himself while Yagyuu reads, and they don't speak to each other until Niou decides it's time to leave.
"You should go to the hospital," he says now, stranded at the school gates. Nearly all of Niou's weight is pressing against his shoulders, a burden almost too much to bear.
"But I want to go to Yagyuu's house," chants Niou in childish singsong, though the words are slightly slurred by his broken lip, the dried blood pulling tightly at skin. "Should and want can never be compared."
Niou wants too many things.
Yagyuu is willing, occasionally, to humor him. They hail a taxi, which takes a while, because cabbies don't like trouble and nothing looks more like trouble than Niou at this moment. He's dabbed away most of the blood with a damp handkerchief, but there is nothing to be done about the bruises, which are purpling splendidly.
Niou hums softly to himself in the cab, and Yagyuu catches the cabbie's eyes in the front mirror, trying to reassure him -- no, he's not crazy; no, he's not drunk; no need to worry about the upholstery. He doesn't think it works, because the cabbie doesn't draw out the trip, doesn't even try to stall at red lights, and they reach Yagyuu's house in record time. Yagyuu carefully counts out a massive tip in worn bills. The car zooms away the moment he slams the door shut.
"Hold still," he says, and continues to dab at the numerous abrasions dotting Niou's skin. The smell of iodine fills the air, drowning out the original pinewood scent of his room, and he tries not to breathe too deeply.
Niou submits to his ministrations with a roll of eyes. If left to himself, he would probably allow the wounds to fester until they begin to rot, then point them out proudly as marks of distinction.
Yagyuu presses down with unnecessary force.
The rest of the team -- the rest of the school -- believes that Yagyuu hauls Niou off to scold him after each successive transgression; he's such a model student himself, surely it must trouble him that his partner shares none of his own sense of ethics. Even Yanagi tells him to take it easy, and looks at him with something resembling sympathy.
The truth of the matter is that Yagyuu doesn't waste his breath; if Niou were the type to listen to lectures, there wouldn't be a problem in the first place. Yagyuu takes him home, patches him up, then sends him out to get hurt again. That is as far as his selflessness extends.
"There," he says, sitting back on his heels. "I'd give that at least a week to heal before asking for another beating." He packs scissors, gauze, cotton and iodine back into the medicine kit and snaps it shut.
"Yes, Doctor," Niou gives him a mock salute. "I'll play nice until the skin closes up."
"It's up to you," he shrugs and stands. They're in the center of his room, Niou still lounging in his favorite armchair, elbows akimbo over the armrests. "Just don't expect gentle treatment when I sew the cuts back up."
"You're a sadist, Yagyuu." Niou paws at the pocket of his uniform jacket, comes out with a lighter and pack of cigarettes. Yagyuu doesn't stop him when he taps one out, just walks over to slide the window open; a breeze carrying the scent of earth and fresh air wafts in, diluting some of the hospital smell within. "Can't see why everyone's afraid of /me/."
"Only because you're the greater menace to society," he says, knowing that Niou will take this as a compliment. Outside, the leaves of the banyan trees rustle, the clouds migrate, the grass bows down in a rippling wave. Inside, everything is still except for the smoke spiralling from Niou's fingers and lips.
This is a place where nothing changes.
Niou pushes himself up and walks over, bare feet utterly silent on carpet and wooden planks alike. "Care to share?" he says, offering the cigarette between his fingers.
Yagyuu turns his face away. "You smoke enough for both of us."
"Very true," Niou concedes, and doesn't ask again. He smokes quietly for about half an hour before announcing that time's up, he's ready to leave; there's no question of allowing Yagyuu's family to see him looking like someone out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
"Keep the cigarettes out of school," he says before Niou leaves through the window.
2. variation the second: seven with one blow
Niou rings his cell from some nameless bar down in Shinjuku while he's concentrating on population and main exports.
He presses the disconnect button. Two seconds later, the tinny beeps of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, digital version, sound again. He considers turning off the phone completely, but consideration of the havoc an unsupervised Niou can wreak stays his hand.
"I don't mind hanging up a second time," he says immediately upon picking up.
"You're no fun at all." Niou sounds blithe and buoyant, which usually just means that he's done something he's particularly proud of and gotten drunk in celebration. "Come out and play; the water's fiine."
"Do I even want to know why you're calling?"
"I just sent five college boys on a trip to the hospital. Being the generous guy I am, I decided I'd give you a chance to come over and bask in the light of reflected glory -- touching, isn't it?"
Glancing down at the geography workbook in front of him, he pens in another answer. "Go home, Niou."
"Can't," says Niou with some satisfaction. "The old woman doesn't let the smell of alcohol past the front door. She'd make me sleep on the doorstep."
"One night on the floor won't kill you."
"You are a cruel and cold-hearted man, my friend. Bet the girls won't be so fond of genteel, well-mannered Yagyuu-kun when word of that gets around."
"They seem to like you just fine," he says, then gives in, rubbing at the creases trying to form in his forehead. "Are you sober enough to call a taxi and give directions without making fun of the driver?"
"Don't know," says Niou, sounding intrigued by this idea. "Never tried."
"Try," he says, and disconnects again.
His parents were the ones that decided the layout of his room, and he's conformed so far to the original intended design. Built around it, adding touches and accents of his own, but never straying from the ground rules laid down in the beginning, because that simply isn't his style.
There isn't much to it, when all is said and done. Bed, desk, wardrobe, all the usual staples of a student's bedroom. A poster on one wall of the human body, acupuncture meridians listed in detail, the world map decorating another, the third given entirely over to books. (Niou's room, he remembers, is twice again the size of his, and cluttered over with so many clothes and pieces of litter that the floor space is approximately half.) Everything is in shades of green or gray, except for the armchair in the center of the carpet, which is a crazy electric blue and arrived one afternoon with Niou behind it.
'I want a place to sit,' he'd said, 'and you don't want me messing up your bedsheets.'
Niou wants, wants, wants, and Yagyuu remembers something he read once, that you only desire what you lack. His wants are so numerous and overpowering that he seldom shows concern over those of others; it is something he does only occasionally for Yagyuu, rarely if ever at all for anyone else.
Yagyuu thinks sometimes that it's the switch that lies at the bottom of everything, bolstering their unlabelled and unclassifiable relationship. Niou doesn't care for the opinions of others, but he seems to see Yagyuu as something less than other, more an extension of self.
Yagyuu thinks sometimes that Niou is right. They were cut from the same cloth, constructed of the same pattern, except Yagyuu knows how to control himself and Niou knows how to enjoy himself. This is why he says things like "Keep the cigarettes out of school" and has a reasonable expectation of being obeyed; this is why he doesn't say things like "Don't smoke."
He rises at the sound of tapping on his windowpane, pushes it open to meet Niou's devilish and intoxicated grin. It's only slightly marred by the blood pouring down his face.
"Please tell me you at least had the sense to protect your wrists," he says as Niou climbs the sill. He's wearing his clubbing clothes -- vest, dogtags, leather pants, which look to be in danger of splitting apart at the seams -- that always add an immediate five years to his age. Yagyuu's tried them on himself as part of the switch, and found them the most diabolically uncomfortable devices of torture known to man.
Anyone who wears them to bar fights is either crazy or stupid, and Niou, for all his extreme distate for schoolwork, isn't stupid.
"Is that the kind of thing to say to a friend who's just narrowly escaped the jaws of death?"
Niou's cheeks are flushed, from drink or excitement or both. There's always something untamed lurking just beyond sight in his demeanor, but occasionally it comes to the forefront like it has now, like one nudge will send him hurtling off the edge into violence.
Yagyuu reflects at times that Niou was born at the wrong place, in the wrong age. He can picture Niou garbed head to foot in safari khakis, a big game hunter in the African wilds, answerable to no law but that of survival. Rifle raised to shoot. He thinks Niou would be happy to go one on one with a tiger.
It is only because he lives behind these modern bars of man-made justice that he needs someone to hold him back and diminish him.
"I'm more worried about the alcohol poisoning." He wrinkles his forehead at the smell, wondering for a brief moment if he can steal a leaf from the book of Niou's mother, then resigns himself to fetching out the medicine kit from its niche beneath the folders of past exams. "Three," he says firmly, extracting bottles and cotton. "One against three in the future. Four, and you run." He fishes out a few Disney character band-aids, then adds, "Sanada's going to blow a fuse when he sees you tomorrow."
"Sanada," says Niou, heading immediately towards his armchair where he sprawls like a life-size rag doll that mothers do their best to dispose of, "is a bloody old hypocrite. He's done worse himself."
"He's looking out for the best interests of the team. You won't be at the top of your form with one arm in a sling."
Niou glances up at him, eyes glinting with a light that belongs in the tangled vines and thickets of the jungle and not a city townhouse. "And when have we ever lost?"
Yagyuu is silent for a moment, disinfecting a cut with careful precision. "We will," he says finally. "No lucky streak lasts forever."
3. variation the third: la petite mort
It happens during the switch, after they step out of the washroom and just before they wander off to take over each other's schedules, which is why Niou, hair impeccably combed and eyes concealed behind lenses, is there to see the girl snake an arm around Yagyuu's waist and try to pull him down for a kiss.
It's reflex to push away. He doesn't even think when he's doing it, just steps backwards and out of the way before remembering that he's Niou now and Niou never retreats in the face of adversity.
He pastes on Niou's grin #3, the one that Yagyuu privately thinks is an invitation to a good hard slap, and says "I know I'm irresistable, but do control yourself in public, won't you? You're shocking my friend," slanting a glance over to Niou, who is struggling manfully not to burst into snickers -- nothing obvious, just the way his lips are pressed together disapprovingly and he turns his face away.
It looks the very image of offended gentility. It means he doesn't trust himself not to give the show away.
"You didn't seem so concerned with propriety in the lab yesterday," she whispers, running one finger down his arm. Now that he's had a chance to look her over, he sees that the girl is pretty, buxom, nothing special; they've both been propositioned before by superior specimens. The full softness of her breasts presses against his ribs.
Around them, students are goggling, trying to feign disinterest as they walk past and failing miserably. It's only a matter of time before a teacher happens by.
Niou coughs, and Yagyuu knows that he's on the verge of losing it.
"I wasn't aware yesterday of your spectacular lack of skill in giving head," he says, and before she can catch her breath or start hitting him, he's moving down the hallway towards his -- Niou's -- classroom, leaving Niou to dole out insincere apologies in a sober tone.
After sliding into his seat, alert for any surprises that might have been left behind, he digs out his cell and sends a message.
'You owe me dinner.'
He stops by a drugstore on the way home that day and, upon reaching his room, stashes the purchases inside Niou's medicine kit. Then he starts combing his shelves for sex ed texts.
Yagyuu arranges his books by subject, and the subjects by the English alphabet: astronomy is on the highest shelves -- he finds that particularly apt -- as well as anthropology, architecture, biology, running through literature and paleontology all the way up to zoology.
The medical books are somewhere in the middle. Psychology is on the third to last shelf, and makes up an entire row.
His father has visited his room only once during his three years in junior high, an occasion that neither has reason to remember with fondness. He recalls lowering his eyes to conceal his astonishment, his father standing so stiffly in the doorway that he might as well just have given up and fidgeted.
"Your friend," he'd said -- never one to beat around the bush, and what would he think, if Yagyuu told him that he shared that in common with the 'friend' he tried to pretend didn't exist? Yagyuu doesn't know. He isn't one to make his parents uneasy if it can be helped. "I'm a little worried about him."
His father is a doctor, of internal medicine rather than psychiatry, but with enough knowledge of the subject absorbed during his med school years to sense something awry. He'd hemmed and hawwed, then suggested psychiatric diagnosis, specialized institutions, all in a roundabout manner suitable to the treatment of a distasteful matter.
Yagyuu is his son, though; Yagyuu is Niou's partner, and he knows how to deflect inquiry and tell convincing lies. He'd spoken politely and dismissively for fifteen minutes straight, all the while thinking of the things Niou wants, and the things Yagyuu can give him.
His father left with a warning and hasn't troubled him on the subject again.
He wonders occasionally if he's doing the right thing. The books have very specific instructions for this kind of situation, but the chance of successful treatment is low, while the percentage of losing Niou's trust if he interferes is 100%; Yagyuu doesn't have to ask Yanagi for the statistics.
You desire only what you lack. Yagyuu is willing to give him the switch, a small taste of discipline, self-control, the ability to care about people other than himself. His gift to Niou is a fragment of his life, and Yagyuu thinks, surely this is enough.
Yagyuu is fifteen, and brilliant, and thinks he knows best.
Niou arrives long after conventional dinnertime with a carton of fried chicken which Yagyuu dislikes for the dripping oil, but he is a fifteen-year-old boy and the sight of all that food disappearing into Niou's stomach is enough to make him snag a few pieces for himself.
Before digging in, he roots out his earlier purchase and tosses it over to Niou, who holds it, nonplussed, for a second, then explodes with all the mirth he hadn't been allowed to release back in the hallway. Tears squeeze out under his eyelids, and breathing appears to be a difficulty.
"P-please, please tell me you bought these yourself."
"I did." He concedes this frankly if only because he knows it'll kill Niou that he hadn't captured the entire process on film. "Use them next time."
Niou tosses the box into the air, catches it on the downward fall. It takes him a while to recover his composure, and when he straightens, his lips are still twitching. "How do you know I didn't use them the last time?"
Yagyuu merely levels a look at him, and he starts chuckling again, proffering the carton with a shaking hand.
The chicken is drippy and it is oily, and Yagyuu nearly wears out a box of tissues trying to get rid of the persistent stickiness. It is not an unqualified success.
"Oi, hand that over," says Niou finally, patience wearing thin, and when Yagyuu ignores him, he reaches out to tug Yagyuu's fingers over unceremoniously and lick them clean, one at a time.
The room is filled with the scent of chicken oil, a brief stink of sweat underneath; for various reasons, Yagyuu's room never smells like himself when Niou is in it.
Turning away, Yagyuu closes his eyes. He can feel his lashes tremble.
When Niou finishes, he looks up and says "I'm much better at it than that girl, you know," in a tone that cannot be described as anything but provocative.
"That," snaps Yagyuu, tugging himself free with a jerk, "was unsanitary." He can sense Niou's gaze on him, sharp and appraising like he's measuring Yagyuu for a collar, and deliberately raises an eyebrow instead of backing up against the wall despite the prompting of instinct.
Niou maintains eye contact for what feels like hours, then shrugs and notes "The chicken's getting cold," with surprising gentleness. He doesn't ask, and Yagyuu doesn't say no. They finish the rest of the carton together in silence; Niou takes the trash with him when he leaves, and Yagyuu keeps the window open to air the room.
Because he doesn't say no, he knows that one day Niou will ask.
He knows that next time he will say yes.
4. variation the fourth: know no difference 'tween mine and thine
Niou drapes a winter scarf around Yagyuu's neck before practice, says it brings out the color of his eyes. His fingers are ice cold and send up goosebumps on Yagyuu's skin.
Yagyuu, caught by surprise, lets him tie a loose knot in it before stepping back. "My eyes are black," he says with quiet amusement, "just like everyone else's."
"But you're not like everyone else," is Niou's response, and Yagyuu doesn't know what to answer to that.
The scarf is soft, thick, has that fresh-out-of-the-shop smell, and comes from Burberry. The price tag makes Yagyuu's lips tighten. "You could have bought me a dozen pairs of colored contacts instead."
"You should know better than to worry about that," says Niou, shrugging with genuine indifference. "It's not like I paid for it."
For a moment, Yagyuu wonders if he's misinterpreting the statement. Then he hopes that he is. "It was a gift?"
"You could say that."
"Would I be telling the truth if I did?"
Niou doesn't lie to Yagyuu, because there isn't any need. He grins now, stretching out like a cat, the very picture of feline unrepentance. "Come on, now; everyone knows that you're the brains of the operation."
The wind is chill despite the scarf; Yagyuu wraps his arms around himself and tries not to shiver. He never tugs on the leash outside. If Niou ever decides to slip it one day, all he has to do is stop visiting, and Yagyuu won't push; they are both aware of this.
"Come over to my place tonight," Yagyuu says.
Yagyuu is a brilliant student at every subject, but his best subject is the one that doesn't come up during exams, the one called human nature.
Man is an animal and society is a cage. Yagyuu has nothing against being caged as long as it means frequent grooming and regular meals, and he is allowed to keep his cage clean, free of filth. He is the kind of animal that zookeepers like best, the kind that rates superior treatment.
Niou doesn't take kindly to cages; he breaks the locks, sneaks through the bars, slips away like there's some fundamental inability in him to remain confined. He prowls the streets of the zoo in perfect freedom and will until the day he is caught.
In this world, wild animals on the loose are shot if proven intractable.
What Yagyuu does is set up a lure on those occasions when Niou is in danger of brushing with authority, and sooner or later Niou comes slipping through the bars, curling around him with a lazy yawn and sharing his cage until growing restless once more. The zookeepers can spot no discrepancy; they are, after all, of the same species. Yagyuu ties a leash around Niou's neck, and shortens it slightly with each transgression so that he will never commit that transgression again.
The leash is becoming very short; one day, Yagyuu thinks, it will break.
They enter together through the front door for once, allowing Yagyuu's mother to fuss over Niou and reprimand Yagyuu for not preparing her. They exchange anecdotes about him over dinner, while his father's gaze is hard and cold as they move from his son to his son's friend; Yagyuu pretends not to notice, Niou doesn't care. The meal is a feast of culinary marvel, and it all tastes the same going down.
After dinner, Kyoko is eager to show off her new ballet routine to Niou. Yagyuu puts a stop to it before his father can. He ignores his sister's pout to lead Niou away, up the stairs and into his room. Niou doesn't head immediately for his chair this time, which is unusual; instead, he walks over to the window and presses both palms against the glass, his breath fogging up the clear panes.
"Do I finally get a scolding this time, Dad?"
Yagyuu shuts the door behind them. He takes in the proud, slouching line of Niou's back, his unruly hair, his absolute disdain for regulation showing in every bony angle, and he wonders how Niou will survive once they outgrow childhood.
This isn't the tale of Robin Hood and his merry men. In this day and age, no quarter is given to outlaws.
"Niou." He speaks abruptly, not wanting to have this conversation but yielding to inevitability as he always has, "Next time, just -- " there is no other way to say it, so he uses the only words he can, "don't steal."
There can be no compromise this time.
Niou's reaction is both minute and intense, a volcano still dormant yet sending signals of impending eruption. He stiffens without turning around, but Yagyuu fears suddenly for the window, and for Niou's hands if they should push through.
"Don't," and Niou's voice is low, sweet, dangerous like a slender tongue of flame, "think that you can order me around."
He keeps his posture relaxed, fights to keep his own voice free of bitterness. "And here I was thinking you had at least some respect for my intelligence."
At that, Niou turns, an efficient swivelling of the hip, all the promise of his physical prowess in that leashed movement, and the look he fixes upon Yagyuu is both brilliant and brutal.
"But I don't want to be a good boy," he says, "so what are you prepared to offer in exchange?" He takes one step forward, two, closing in at a deliberate and implacable pace, and his eyes as they light up are the yellow-gold of a tiger's. It sends the visceral thrill of being stalked by danger tingling up Yagyuu's spine, evoking an answering surge of adrenaline, but he stands his ground even when Niou's hands close around his shoulders and doesn't back away. They are partners for a reason. "What will you give me?"
Yagyuu knows Niou's flaws, his whimsies, his pleasures and dislikes. He's tended him when hurt and watched him as he slept, impersonated him in school and in his own home; he's studied every facet of his partner's personality, desirable and not, and he realized one day between one moment and the next that this partner with whom he shares his life is a giant hole, that nothing that goes in will ever be enough.
He tilts his head, flicks Niou lightly on the forehead, pushes him back. "Don't be a fool," he says, and moves away.
For a moment, Niou just stands there, expressionless. Then he tosses back his head and laughs, loud and clear and boyish, and the sound dispels all the building tension in the room.
"You'll have whiter hair than mine if you keep this up, Yagyuu," and there is endless affection in his words, his crooked smile, danger averted. He throws himself into the armchair, fishes out the Gameboy from his schoolbag and proceeds to ignore Yagyuu completely.
Yagyuu seats himself at his desk. His textbooks are organized in one neat pile, ready to be opened. It's just another typical night for Niou and Yagyuu, in this room which he's sealed in amber, one fragile moment in time that he's trying to stretch as far as it will go.
The high school entrance exams are looming on the horizon, and after high school there will be college, graduate school, work. The tennis team will go their separate ways. He doesn't see Sanada or Yanagi giving up tennis, but then he hadn't foreseen it of Yukimura, either, who is proof positive that life is neither kind nor forgiving, nor does it take into account the plans of men. Jackal struggles each semester just to pull tuition together, Marui has two younger brothers to care for, while Kirihara is spiralling downwards in a pattern he finds very familiar, except Kirihara has no one to pull him back.
Niou may scorn schoolwork, but he has a brilliant mind and with Yagyuu pushing from behind, surely he can pass any academic hurdle the institutions choose to throw at him; if not, cheating is always an option. Having no pet subjects of his own, surely he'll consent to join Yagyuu in Yagyuu's choice of study. Keeping in touch won't be that difficult. And as for the rest of it...
Yagyuu wonders what he'll do the day Niou comes to him covered in blood that isn't his own, when Niou steps off the edge of the precipice into a chasm of unforgivable sins. Will he merely take him in, wash away the blood and the evidence, tell him not to kill again? Will Niou listen?
He thinks he will. He hopes that Niou will.
Everything else lies in the future.