After the incident in the garden, the doubles partners stayed together. Yagyuu was able to bond with the rest of the tennis team, with Niou's pushy help. The two often went to a nearby church, though neither was Christian. They went during the weekdays, after tennis practice, to avoid Sunday mass-goers. They would sit together on a stone bench, speaking quietly to each other and basking in the sunshine. The trees were a vivid green, and the gardens well-kept. It was here that Hiroshi felt the most peace. He and Niou could have stayed there forever, watching the trees cycle through time, the flowers wilt and bloom. Eternity had never been so close.
It was in this sanctuary that Niou first embraced him, and whispered, "Hiroshi."
The word hit like a ton of bricks. Without even realizing, he had fallen in love. Somehow, his friend had worn away his defenses, tore down his shields, and bypassed his guards. After believing his heart was unreachable for so long, a thief had stolen it away without a sound.
"One day, Hiroshi. I'll take you away from here."
Yagyuu searched feverishly through his chest of drawers. He found a worn, dark green notebook and looked for his mother's reassurance on the pages.
The winter has come, and my health is failing. I wanted to write for you, so that I could be there even when my body is gone. If you are angry at me for leaving you, then I am truly, deeply sorry. I wish things had turned out differently. I love you so much; the thought of leaving you is more painful than my disease. I know you are young, but you will find love one day, and they will feel the same. You will love without discrimination, just as you love every flower equally. When you are with your love, it will be as if time had stood still, just for the two of you. I wish you good luck in life and love, my only child. If you need me, I'll be waiting in these notebooks. Be happy.
They were sitting in the living room when Yagyuu suddenly rested his head on Niou's shoulder. When there was no objection, Yagyuu finally began to talk. For three hours, he talked, and Niou listened. His words poured forth relentlessly, exhausting him as he told about being abandoned by his father, losing his mother, and existing without notice at school. His pain of having only lovely flowers and words on paper to keep him company. Afterwards, Niou laid him down on the couch before covering him with a fleece blanket, smoothing his hair before getting up to make hot cocoa. They drank in silence, and when they kissed, it was of chocolate and lilac on a brightly cold Sunday morning.
Pictures are worth a thousand words, so people say. It was their last year of middle school when Niou first pulled Yagyuu into a photo booth outside of the movie theater. Hiroshi's face was made up of a closed-lip smile, the corners faintly turned up. His glasses reflected the flash, light glaring back harshly. Niou gave a white grin, a smirk crinkling his eyes.
Over time and many other photos, Yagyuu's smile gradually became less protected, and he began to look genuinely happy. His glasses continued to conceal his eyes, and no amount of Niou's pestering could convince him to take them off.
"Hey." Yagyuu looked up from his book to see a shadowed figure leaning against the door frame. He was sitting cross-legged in the center of his bed, the white comforter glowing brightly in the light.
"Afternoon, Masaharu. What's that?" Yagyuu gestered to the object Niou was holding. It was a Polaroid camera.
"Take off your glasses." A command.
"No." He responded automatically. A glance, then a surrender. "Fine."
Yagyuu reached up to carefully slid off his shield.
"Look at me."
Running a hand through his hair nervously, Yagyuu tilted his face to the camera. A click sounded, capturing his unprotected face.
"Thank you, Hiroshi."
When the picture developed, the two gathered around it. Yagyuu's expression was a strange mix of apprehension, a slight sadness, joy. His eyes were vast waters of emotion, his pupils wide and endless; his hair mussed. A smile pulled his lips open across his teeth. In the background, his room was decorated with paintings Niou had made for him. A vase of fresh-cut flowers sat by the window, and the sun was shining through to make squares of light on the hardwood floor.
When he went to Niou's house a few days later, the picture was framed and sitting on his nightstand. It was the first picture of him alone, happy.
After that shot was taken, Niou almost obsessively took pictures of Hiroshi, posing him in the garden, at the church, in his room, gazing out over the empty tennis courts at Rikkai. He collected them into a collage for Yagyuu's 18th birthday.
"What is it?"
"Run away with me?"
"Not yet. I can't leave yet."
"...When my flowers die."
Niou smiled sadly and understood. The flowers rooted in the earth were the only things that could keep him here. When the bond was broken, they would escape this crowded, lifeless city. He turned to the window and stared up at the sky.
They loaded their things into a small car a week after they graduated from high school, taking only what they needed. Yagyuu's garden had withered and died when a heat wave smothered the city. He climbed into the passenger seat and took one long last look at the house that was never a home. There would be no note waiting for his father when he came home from work. The engine started. Niou peeled away down the deserted street as the fallen leaves danced down the road. Flower petals blew across the surface of Yagyuu's glasses as the wind, sun, and Niou's ringing laughter spirited them away without a trace.