"It's really cold today isn't it?"

"Yes, yes, isn't it? So unusual for this time of the year. I was shivering all the way from the train station!"

A white-haired boy sat perched on a desk, leaning against the window, his school tie loose and his shirt untucked. Three girls surrounded the desk for the conversation.

"Niou-kun, are you still cold?" one of the girls asked, resting her hand on the boy's arm. "You're wearing your blazer and scarf indoors."

Niou shrugged. "I'm wearing thermals as well."

The information made the girls giggle. "Seriously? Like those old grandpas?"

"Seriously. Look, I'll show you." Niou said, lifting his shirt, deft fingers undoing the button and zipper on his pants. The girls squealed and giggled, and Niou faked an offended look. "What, there's nothing wrong with thermal underpants!" he declared, unzipping his pants the rest of the way. "A guy's gotta protect his assets!" The girls laughed and blushed and told him to stop, one of them hiding her face behind the book in her hands.

"Could you be quiet please!"

The laughter died down a little and Niou did his pants back up. "Ladies, you shouldn't get too excited. Look how you've distracted class rep-kun." Niou waved at the speaker, looking totally unapologetic. "Sorry!" he said, then whispered something to the girl who still had her hand on his arm. That made her blush harder, hit him playfully on the arm and run back to her desk.

Yagyuu held back his frown and tried to concentrate on the exercise again. With the teacher absent, this period had become self-study and he intended to use it for that. But, with the likes of Niou Masaharu in the class - who had been sitting next to him for the past few years and the rest of this year, even - there was never going to be any peace.

On a typical weekday, Yagyuu would see Niou for ten hours: seven in class, three in tennis club practice. On Saturdays they attended the same cram school for two hours in the morning - the phenomenon of Japanese education, attended by nearly all students whichever school they went to. Most students went after school but, for those who had an intense club regime, there were Saturday classes. The one Yagyuu and Niou went to was not as much of a cram school in the "cram" sense of the word, but one where they were taught tips on tackling exam questions and other study skills.

Seeing each other more than they saw their own families meant they became an unlikely pair of friends, for a loose definition of the word "friends". On the tennis court, their play styles meshed together so well that each could play like the other was his own extended arm, but outside of tennis, they didn't connect nearly as much. They were close enough for Niou to wave and say "yo!" and for Yagyuu to reply with a nod when they passed by in the corridors, but not enough to visit each other's homes like Sanada and Yanagi. Enough to chat casually during club time and occasionally eat together, but not enough for Yagyuu to poke his nose into Niou's personal business.

Or perhaps it was all just Yagyuu's effort to keep a distance between them; they once were far closer friends than that.

He worked out the final answer and began checking his work. Only then did Niou start looking at the exercise. With only ten minutes left, he still managed to hand in the work before the end of the period, and he would get a decent mark for it, Yagyuu knew. Niou always did.

When the bell rang, Niou was the first one to rush out the door and Yagyuu spent ten minutes looking for him, eventually finding the boy at the vending machines. The teacher from cram school wanted Niou to call him because he missed last Saturday's class. Yagyuu passed on the message as he was told to.

"Oh, right." Niou didn't seem to care. He didn't even look up from the phone in his hand, his thumb busy scrolling through a message on the screen. But he stopped a few seconds later, noticing Yagyuu was till there. "Cheers."

A heartbeat later, he was looking down again, typing a message.

Niou didn't show up at cram school the following Saturday, but the teacher said nothing. When Yagyuu checked the class list, Niou's name was crossed out. After that, he was rarely seen at tennis practice. Yagyuu did not ask; it was none of his business.

Word started going around - first among the girls, then spreading to the whole class - saying that Niou was dating a girl. Someone insisted she saw them, twice to boot. Another said Niou's schoolwork was slipping and he had been summoned to the teacher's office the other day. A tennis club member then told the class that Niou had been missing practice with the captain's permission, at which point all sorts of speculation started flying around: did Niou get the girl pregnant? What did she look like? The witness couldn't say, she had been across the street both times, but Niou was easily recognisable and the girl had long, straight black hair and was quite a bit shorter than Niou. Judging from her clothes, she seemed to be the good, timid type of girl. Another girl in the class buried her face in her hands then, saying she could not believe Niou liked that type of woman. No wonder he never paid her any attention.

Yagyuu ate his lunch quietly and said nothing, eyeing the boy who had been standing in the doorway for the last few minutes. Niou was assessing the situation and determining how to approach this; he had the same sweeping gaze on the tennis court sometimes.

"Who's pregnant?"

Silence fell over as Niou strolled in, a smirk on his lips.

As always, Niou's presence instilled a mixture of excitement, fear and awe among the class. "Niou! You've got a girlfriend?" One of the braver students shouted out.

"Hmm?" Niou did not answer the question but instead led it on. "Have I?"

"Takahashi said you have!"

All eyes fell on the girl. She stuttered, her face reddening. "You had your arm on her shoulders, I saw yesterday! That was your girlfriend, right?"

Niou rolled his eyes and his palm rubbed his chin in thought. "Maybe?"

The answer extracted a collective gasp. Niou, the one who flirted with every skirt-wearing person in the school, actually "settling down" with someone - it was an incomprehensible concept. The non-denial was like a deathblow to the girls, who left one after another. All the boys wanted to know was whether Niou's girlfriend was pretty, which school she went to and how far he'd gone with her. Niou fended off each question and eventually the warning bell sounded, signalling the end of lunch break.

Yagyuu put his lunch box away and took out the books he needed for the next class. On the seat next to him, Niou was busy typing mail on his phone again.

A girlfriend could not possibly be the reason for Niou's absence. It had to be something much more important to make him skip club activities and make Yukimura and Sanada let him off the hook. And Yagyuu had already asked Yukimura about it. Yukimura said he was not at the liberty to disclose the details; Yagyuu would have to ask Niou himself.

So Yagyuu did, after school, carefully not asking why, only whether Niou would be going back to tennis practice in the near future.

Niou was packing his bag and mailing from his phone at the same time. "Gah. Shit." He looked up from the screen. "There's... stuff, sorry." he said with a half sigh, looking like he wanted to mean what he was saying, for once, "Can't go to club for pro'ly another few weeks. But you've been wanting to do more singles work anyway, right?"

The tone made Yagyuu pause. He regarded Niou for a moment, politely not staring at whatever Niou had been typing on the phone. "Is there... anything that you need help with?"

It was Niou's turn to pause, surprised. Then he smirked, his gaze falling from Yagyuu's face back down to his phone. "Nah, it's okay. Don't force yourself."

Yagyuu wasn't sure who that reply was intended to hurt, him or Niou himself. But he felt the sting anyway. "Fine," he said, nudged his glasses, and turned to leave before Niou's eyes could find his again.

When he arrived at practice, he saw a message on his phone: thx 4 ur offer neway, Niou had written, and Yagyuu wished he hadn't walked away earlier.

On a routine check at the rooftop as part of his prefect duties, Yagyuu didn't find any students hiding there to smoke, but he found Niou Masaharu curled up on the floor, clutching his phone. He was sleeping.

The wind felt icy. How anyone could sleep outside in such cold was beyond Yagyuu's comprehension. "Niou-kun," he said, crouching down. "Please wake up, Niou-kun."

Niou jerked awake. He looked unusually pale, the way he did when he overworked himself at tennis. He wasn't sleeping because he was lazy, but because of exhaustion. "Um. Yagyuu. 's lunch over?"

"Almost. Go inside; it's too cold out here." Yagyuu stood, offering a hand to pull Niou up. "I will take you to the nurse."

Niou accepted the help, rocking on his feet because he stood too quickly. "Not giving me detention?" He chuckled.

"Come on." Yagyuu opened the door.

"Not seeing the nurse." Yawning, Niou stumbled down the stairs, each step looking precarious. "Hate that bitch."

Yagyuu thought about it, then when they reached a landing, pulled out a key from his pocket. "Detention it will be, then."

Niou looked at the key.

"I am on office duty today," Yagyuu explained.

Niou could sleep in the Prefect Office for as long as he liked. The teachers only needed to know that Yagyuu had put him on detention.

Niou held his palm out. "Sometimes I just don't get you," he said. "But at the same time I think I actually do."

Yagyuu put the key in Niou's hand. "I could say the same."

The weather took a turn for the worse and tennis practice was cancelled. Yagyuu returned to the office and saw that Niou was still asleep, looking like he had literally passed out. His phone was on his chest. The black roots in his hair were longer than Yagyuu had ever seen; something was making Niou so preoccupied that he hadn't even bothered to keep his precious hair white.

If this was a year ago, Niou would have shared his problems with Yagyuu. There was a time when they were quite close, but that had ended. It wasn't Yagyuu's fault. Niou was just too sensitive, although perhaps "that is wrong" had been a poor choice of words, in hindsight. And the way Niou had fallen completely silent, before saying "yeah" and ending the conversation there was enough indication that he was deeply hurt, because Niou never agreed just to be agreeable unless there was no other option. But Niou could have given Yagyuu more time, maybe eased him into the subject more gently, then Yagyuu might have been able to formulate a more tactful response. Whatever the case, Yagyuu had given his honest opinion and he couldn't be faulted for doing that.

Though, sometimes he thought about it and still wished he had done better. And a part of him did understand that there was no "gentler" way for Niou to broach the subject. Gay was gay no matter what words were used to say it.

This was another reason why Yagyuu knew for a fact that Niou didn't have a girlfriend.

He didn't have the heart to wake Niou up yet. Getting Niou's schoolbag, he put today's handouts and the extra set of notes inside, eyebrows rising when he spotted an unfamiliar book.

When the phone buzzed and Niou jumped awake, Yagyuu was reading page 3 of Start to Sign! He put it back unnoticed as Niou checked his phone, and then the time. Niou swore, got up and rushed for the door, stopping only when Yagyuu said his name.

"Your bag."

Niou turned back to get it, stumbling slightly. Yagyuu caught him on the arm, noticing how Niou's face was suddenly red. "Are you all right?" he asked even as he felt Niou's forehead. "You have a fever."

Niou shirked away. "See ya tomorrow."

Yagyuu picked up his own bag. "I will send you home."

"You won't."

"I will. Let's go." Yagyuu wasn't stupid enough to make the same mistake twice.

The look that Niou gave Yagyuu was bored and wary, but it was difficult to guess what his real reaction was. He knew it was impossible to dissuade Yagyuu once Yagyuu decided to do something, though, and by the time there was a bus, Niou felt unwell enough not to argue anyway.

They sat next to each other, Niou leaning against the window, his eyes closed as the bus bumped its way towards Niou's home, not a word exchanged between them. When they got there, Niou stopped Yagyuu from ringing the doorbell. He got his keys from a pocket.

"Thanks. See ya tomorrow."

Niou didn't want him to go inside. Yagyuu breathed out deeply, accepted that the distance he had kept between them, which he now regretted, could not be closed anymore. "Take care -- "

The front door opened. A young woman peeked out, her hands on the side of the door, clutching.

Niou ignored Yagyuu and went in, gently pushing the woman, who Yagyuu recognised to be his sister, inside. Yagyuu stood for a while, bewildered and somewhat disappointed, before going back to the bus stop.

He was still waiting when Niou and his sister reappeared, apparently also taking the bus to somewhere. They paused when they saw Yagyuu.

"You really should not go out when you're unwell," said Yagyuu, trying not to gape at the way Niou's sister was clinging to Niou's arm.

"I'm fine." Niou didn't look at him.


"Just leave me the fuck alone!"

The young woman held on harder, pushed her face into the sleeve of Niou's school uniform. Niou turned his attention to her. "Shh. It's okay. Sorry, I don't mean to shout. Shh..."

She nodded, trembling, but forced herself to smile.

Yagyuu's bus arrived first. He reluctantly left, though he couldn't say why he felt that way. Or maybe he did know why - he could see Niou wanted help, but just didn't know how to ask for it.

Maybe Yagyuu could try to cross that space between them again.

Yagyuu went to Niou's house again the following day. Niou's older sister and younger brother were just on their way out. Recognising Yagyuu, the younger brother let him in. Yagyuu toed off his shoes, noting how quiet it was inside. Maybe no one else was in. He went up the stairs he used to walk a lot a year ago, and knocked on Niou's door before letting himself in.

In bed, Niou opened one eye to look at him.

Not saying a word, Yagyuu got the handouts, notes and homework for the day and put them on Niou's desk. Niou muttered a "thanks", or what would have sounded like one if his voice wasn't half gone.

Yagyuu helped himself to a chair and sat near the bed.

"Would you like to talk to me, Niou-kun?"

"No," Niou croaked.

"I am good at keeping secrets, if you remember. And I'd like to help you."

At that, Niou smirked. "What the hell for?" He sat up a bit to take a drink from a glass. "'s fine. I don't need you to do shit for me."

For a moment, Yagyuu didn't know what to say.

"Yagyuu, seriously. We're cool."

"We aren't, if you don't feel comfortable with talking to me."

Niou raised an eyebrow. "What's..." he coughed hard, trying to make his voice work, "...with you lately?"

It was a difficult question to answer. The simple, honest response was that Yagyuu missed the friendship they had, how they could depend on each other in their odd ways. And Niou was still the one who knew him the best. "You would only laugh at my answer," he adjusted his glasses, "so would you please settle for 'a friend in need is a friend indeed'?"

That made Niou laugh anyway, after a short, stunned pause. Then he quieted down.

"You can't tell anyone. I'll kill you if you do." His eyes found Yagyuu's. He struggled to speak, but carried on regardless. "I'd rather you tell people I'm gay than have this get out. You get? I'll kill you and anyone you've told."

Yagyuu nodded.

Niou took a deep breath. "My sister got assaulted."

It was the sort of thing one would only expect to see on television or read on the newspaper. But it happened to Satomi and it shattered her, leaving her too afraid to go out on her own, afraid of people, afraid even of loud noises. When she was alone, she constantly sent messages to her brothers and panicked if they didn't reply right away because she was afraid of being on her own, too.

Her voice was gone. The attack had damaged her voicebox permanently. Not being able to communicate made her confidence plummet even more. But she would not go to sign language class on her own; Niou had to go with her or she would not leave the house. Niou had to take lessons too, so that he could understand her without having to reach for pen and paper.

"So you have been taking her to class? And you are looking after her all by yourself?"

"Mamoru helps, but the kid's only thirteen."

"How about your parents?"

"Work? And who cares about a daughter anyway?" Niou popped some pills in his mouth and washed it down with water. "So, sorry about not going to tennis, but, yanno."

"I understand. And I'm sorry there isn't much I can do to help."

Niou smiled lopsidedly, shrugging.

"I can cover you on homework, though. That would be one less thing you need to spend time on."

Niou laughed. "You, model student. I can never make that connection."

"You know me better than most."

"I suppose there is a reason why we click."

Yagyuu responded to the grin with a small smirk. This felt good. The fact that Niou was gay seemed so trivial now. Why should he care which gender Niou liked? It was pathetic of him to have stayed away for so long.

"Is Satomi-san seeing anyone for her post traumatic stress?"

"They spewed some shit about a long waiting list."

"Would you like me to talk to my father?" Yagyuu rolled his chair closer. "He should be able to put you in contact with a suitable specialist."

"You can do that?"

"I will be discreet," said Yagyuu.

He stayed for a while, doing the homework for tomorrow at Niou's desk so that Niou could copy it right away. Niou fell asleep inbetween, but they still worked fast enough for Yagyuu to go home in time for dinner.

"Will you be going to school tomorrow?"


"I will see you tomorrow then."

"If you haven't caught my bug."

"I have a strong immune system." Yagyuu headed for the door. Niou flopped backwards into bed again.

"Good to have you back," Niou said to the ceiling, his voice small. "Thanks."

It made Yagyuu stop. He had never expected to hear heart-felt words from Niou. He couldn't even be sure if he heard them right. "Niou-kun..."

"I'm sick and delirious, 'kay? Now get the fuck out."

"I am sorry about what I said back then."

Slowly Niou shifted his gaze from the ceiling to Yagyuu.

Yagyuu bit his lip, but continued. A man had to learn to admit to his own mistake. "It was a reaction borne out of ignorance. But that's no excuse."

Niou snorted loudly.

"Yagyuu. Oh, Yaaaagyuu." He shook his head. "You were right. What you said. It is wrong. But have you forgot'n?" He arched an eyebrow.

Yagyuu thought about it. Ah. "You like doing the wrong thing."

"Exactly." Niou laughed a bit more. "Anyways, I'm over it."


"The whole thing. There's a girl I've got my eyes on. Guess that's what people mean by teenage confusion and all that, huh?"

Yagyuu didn't know what to make of this. "And you chose not to tell me this earlier?"

Niou took another drink of water. "What's the point if you're gonna diss me or be my friend depending on that sort of thing?"

The question stayed in Yagyuu's mind during his journey home. Niou was right. And Yagyuu found himself wondering about the girl Niou liked.

Doing homework in class, swapping to copy each other's answers. Yagyuu spotting a mistake on the board and Niou putting his hand up to shame their teacher. A hot can of dark roasted coffee, low sugar, from the vending machine on the way home, taken away by Niou as soon as the can landed in the dispense slot, then used to warm his face, or stuffed under his scarf. Yagyuu sighing, holding his hand out and saying, "Niou-kun, please give that back." Niou refusing, but not wanting one of his own either, even when Yagyuu offered to pay. Riding the same bus home, Niou getting off two stops before Yagyuu.

It was almost like the old days. It was almost like they had never been apart.

One evening, sitting in Niou's living room, Satomi approached Yagyuu when her brother was in the kitchen. She handed him a piece of paper.

Thank you for helping Masa out. I know I'm a huge burden.

Yagyuu was about to reply when she gestured for him to wait. She wrote another line. Sorry about that time at the bus stop. I didn't recognise you, Yagyuu-kun. You haven't visited for a while.

She had changed the topic. Yagyuu felt a bit helpless about that, but he smiled anyway. "But now it is just like before."

Satomi nodded. Masa told you about me? She wrote, glancing up at Yagyuu.


The doctor said I had a referral from a Doctor Yagyuu. She took a step back and bowed. Not wanting to take credit and embarrassed about Satomi finding out, Yagyuu rushed to his feet and bowed back.

Their heads bumped together with a loud crack when they rose at the same time.

"I am so sorry! Are you -- " Yagyuu rubbed his head, at the same time trying to see if he had hurt Satomi. She was doing exactly the same thing. A grin spread over her lips, then she began to laugh soundlessly, her eyes squeezed shut because of the pain as well as the hilarity of the situation, losing the formality she had earlier. At this moment, she looked carefree and beautiful.

Niou came out of the kitchen holding two glasses of chilled green tea to find his sister and his best friend laughing together. After a pause, he turned back to get a third glass.

Just before Yagyuu left that night, Niou said he hadn't seen his sister this happy for a long time. He clapped Yagyuu on the shoulder.

"Whatever it was you did - thanks."

Yagyuu tried comparing Niou to clams, locked boxes, sealed books. Fascinating those who love puzzles, frustrating to friends and enemies alike, and rewarding if they opened up. But he couldn't find a suitable comparison. Niou wasn't like a murder mystery novel, because Yagyuu wasn't going to put him aside once he found out the truth - not again, anyway. And trying to understand him was not like a treasure hunt; Yagyuu wasn't looking for rewards.

Although sometimes it did seem like Niou treated it as a game.

"What do you think?"

They were at Denny's. Marui was still making his order and the girls had gone to the toilets together, the way girls always did. It wasn't a triple-date as such, more a group outing, but Niou did tell Yagyuu beforehand that the girl he liked was going to be there. The problem was he deliberately didn't say which one she was and Yagyuu didn't want to make the wrong guess, nor did he want to admit he had no idea.

He nudged his glasses. "I don't know her enough to have an opinion."

"Huh..." Niou had a half-amused look. "Tell me why I'm not convinced?"

Marui finished ordering his food then, and turned to his friends. "What? What did I miss?"

"You only ordered one dessert," said Niou after giving Yagyuu a look. Yagyuu knew that look. It meant: this is between you and me. This meant Niou was still Niou, who would talk about girls' breast sizes and flirt with the teachers and tell dirty jokes, but when it became personal, he kept it very personal. Niou didn't talk about himself - Niou didn't share.

Yet, both times - a year ago, and now - Niou chose to tell Yagyuu.

Yagyuu wished he could somehow let Niou know how much he appreciated that.

When the girls returned, squishing themselves across from the boys in their booth seat, Yagyuu tried to see which one Niou was looking at the most. The one called Takewaki, he decided after a while. She was about the same height as Niou, had hair that was shorter than his, styled with a bit of gel. Not giggly like the other two, but the sort that knew how to have a good time.

At the end of the meal, the girls suggested going to see a movie. Marui advocated. Yagyuu caught Niou checking the time and realised Niou had to go home. He tugged Niou aside.

"I can accompany Satomi-san to class." Yagyuu took out his phone and started typing a message. It was the first time in weeks that Niou socialised with anyone and he deserved to have the full day off. "If she doesn't mind."

Niou tried to stop him. "It's -- "

"Don't you trust me?" The question wasn't serious, and Niou returned Yagyuu's smile. Satomi's reply came within seconds, saying she would be happy to go with Yagyuu.

Niou pressed his mouth into a thin line, his face unreadable.

"Good luck with Takewaki-san."

A pause, then a smirk slowly surfaced on Niou's lips. "You're good."

Yagyuu answered the compliment with a smile, then returned to the group and said he had to leave.

On his way to meet Niou's sister, Yagyuu's phone beeped with a message from Niou: <3. Yagyuu snorted quietly and replied with a :).

Winter officially arrived and the third year seniors retired from tennis club. The university talk that began long ago now intensified. Friends started to isolate themselves from one another, too busy preparing for the entrance exams in a few months' time. Yagyuu was the same, but instead of going to cram school more often, he had quit. Saturday mornings were spent with the Nious, either studying with Niou or taking Satomi out.

Satomi was emotionally unstable, but improving. She was starting to find her feet again and determined to get better, Yagyuu could see it in her eyes. He admired her and enjoyed her company.

Where's Masa today? Satomi wrote.

"On a date, I think."

He's seeing someone? I didn't know.

Yagyuu was a bit surprised that even Niou's family had no idea. "I don't know much at all. She is not from our school."

Satomi nodded, her left arm still tightly hooked with Yagyuu's and her right hand writing into the notepad on her lap. The bus's movement made her words messy. She was getting quite good at sign language and Yagyuu sometimes saw her and Niou converse in it, but Yagyuu himself could barely sign anything beyond basic greetings. Masa keeps himself to himself, always.

Satomi's thoughtful face looked just like her brother's. She caught him staring, stiffened and blushed, pulling her arm away. Yagyuu apologised.

A girl from school asked Yagyuu if he knew Niou was seeing anyone and what type of girls Niou liked. Yagyuu said he didn't know, and told Niou this when he was staying over for the weekend at the beginning of winter break.


The bed had been abandoned and they were both using futons on the floor. It wasn't much harder than Yagyuu's stiff mattress at home, but Niou was used to his soft bed and kept moving around to make himself more comfortable.

"It appears that nobody is convinced that Satomi-san is your girlfriend... do you want to use the bed instead?"

"Your girlfriend. And naw." Niou finally chose to lie on his side, half his face sinking into the plush pillow. "Unless you'd rather me to."

Yagyuu wasn't sure why Niou said that, but he was more concerned about the first half of what he said. "Satomi-san and I are not dating."

"Matter of time. The way you guys look at each other makes my skin crawl, seriously."

Yagyuu didn't respond. Had he really? It didn't sound like Niou was joking.

"You're alright, I suppose. Just be really careful, yeah? Coz, you know."

"I honestly do not see your sister that way, Niou-kun."


They went quiet. Yagyuu's eyes were starting to adjust to the darkness and he could see quite well after a while. Niou was staring at him in a weird way.

"Niou-kun," he said with a half sigh, "really..."

"Have you done it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Have you had sex."

Yagyuu gasped. "With your sister? No!"

"In general, I mean. With girls."

The surprise question made Yagyuu blush, but the lack of light hid that well. This was the sort of topic people talked a lot about in school, but the setting was different right now, and his best friend deserved more than silence as an answer. "N-no... not all the way."



"Still pretty good."

Without his glasses to play with, Yagyuu scratched his neck instead. "How about you?"


Now that was a surprise. Yagyuu was expecting Niou to have a lot to brag about. "Not at all?"

"Nope." Niou looked away when Yagyuu's brows knotted lightly, as if he could tell what was going through Yagyuu's mind. "Not with anyone."

Suddenly Yagyuu realised what Niou meant by Yagyuu probably not wanting him to sleep on the floor, or, rather, not sleep next to him. Because Niou had liked boys for a while and might have done things with them.

Yagyuu decided he had to say something to get past this bad moment. "It is better to wait for the right time."

Lying on his back now, Niou closed his eyes. The conversation was over, it seemed. But Yagyuu didn't think Niou would bring this up for no reason, at least not if he was speaking with this sort of tone.

"Is this something to do with Takewaki-san?"

Niou said nothing.

"I know I didn't do well the first time, but if there are things you want to talk to me about, you can." Yagyuu waited a while, but there was just silence. He breathed out deeply. "Good night."

The next morning, Yagyuu woke up to find Niou trying to bleach the roots of his hair by himself, and helped him with it. After that, they went to town with Satomi and Yagyuu felt his heart flutter when she chose to hold on to him rather than her brother. Hands in his pockets and face half hidden behind his scarf, Niou fell back a little to walk behind them. Yagyuu didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.

Later, Niou stole his hot coffee at the vending machine again.

Masa's on a date again?

Yagyuu nodded. If this was anyone else he would have said it was irresponsible to go out so often when one should be studying for exams, but Niou rarely got serious about anything or anyone this much and Yagyuu felt it would be wrong of him to comment. Besides, Niou was Niou. He could close his eyes and still breeze through the exams.

The cafe was very quiet, the type Niou would wander into and buy a large americano, insist on having the paper cup even though he was eating in, and then fall asleep in the darkest corner until Yagyuu was done with his prefect duties so that they could hang out. Satomi most definitely wouldn't sleep like that in public though.

I want to meet his girlfriend. Satomi wrote. Yagyuu knew enough to pick out "want", "meet" and "girlfriend" if she had chosen to sign, but that wasn't something she liked to do in public either. It drew attention which she couldn't handle right now.

Yagyuu took the notepad and wrote his response, so that they would looked more like a couple playing a romantic little game and not highlight Satomi's muteness. I have met her once only. She seemed smart. Short hair, quite tall, well-dressed.

Sounds a bit like you... She pulled her hand back when Yagyuu gasped and tried to take her pen. Then she wrote again, grinning ear to ear: What sort of well-dressed? Posh? Urahara-kei? OL?

Yagyuu tried to remember exactly what Takewaki wore the day they met, but could hardly even recall her face. The girl who Niou liked was only a name to Yagyuu.

Was that just because of Niou's habit of keeping what was personal truly personal? Just how important was she to make him keep her like a secret from family - from even Yagyuu?

Could it be that Niou loved her?

Yagyuu picked up the pen.

I don't remember. I would like to meet her again.

The ball rolled away on the other side of the court. Yanagi lowered his racket.

"Two sets to one. Your match."

Niou dropped himself to the ground, laying spread-eagled. "You can keep trying; no one beats us at doubles. Not even you."

"I thought we had you, for a minute. I think I shall just blame my partner." Yanagi smiled. Sanada scowled.

The pair who lost cleared the court. Yagyuu sat down beside his partner. "Good game."

"I'm so fucking exhausted. But fuck, this feels good."

"It's been more than two months since you last played. You'll need to work to get back into it."

"Yeah, well." Niou rolled onto his side. "You guys still play much?"

"Our three monsters do. I join in on the occasion." The corners of Yagyuu's mouth turned upwards by small degrees. "It's not quite the same without my usual partner."

Niou seemed a little embarrassed by that statement. He rolled away from Yagyuu, onto his back again. "You said you wanted to try singles."

"That was a long time ago, and it was a lie."

Niou turned his head enough to look at Yagyuu, wordless.

"Ah, just in case you get asked, obviously you had spoken to the captains about your absence, but to the rest I said we had an argument."

Niou stared for a while more, then frowned, sitting up. "No wonder Akaya asked me the other day if we'd patched up. Was wondering what the kid knew."

"Oh, not that."

"So what kind of argument did we have?"

"I don't know. Perhaps we fought over a girl?"

A darkness flashed in Niou's eyes, then it was gone. Yagyuu saw it, and Niou knew Yagyuu saw it, but neither said anything.

After a shower in school, Niou swung his bag over a shoulder and announced he was going home.

"Wanna come with?"

"Your brother is looking after things for the day?" Yagyuu picked up his bag and copied what Niou did exactly, just because he could. "Let's go to mine."

Niou had not been to Yagyuu's house for a long time, but once they settled down it was back to the usual routine, Yagyuu at the desk and Niou on the bed, contacts off and glasses on, studying. Niou was the kind to make a joke out of school in front of people, but attend cram school and study hard at home. In a sense he wasn't too different from Yanagi, except Niou didn't let anyone know he liked learning and did math for fun. Anyone except Yagyuu, that was. Yagyuu couldn't say when it was that their relationship changed from mere friends to... whatever Niou saw him as now that made him decide Yagyuu was allowed to know he wasn't the person he often projected himself to be, but it was probably something very early on. Sometimes you meet someone and you just know that someone will be special.

But Yagyuu wasn't the only special person in Niou's life anymore. He deserved it, because he had rejected Niou that one time Niou was brutally honest about himself, but it didn't mean Yagyuu was going to just sit there and watch someone else take his closest friend away. Takewaki could try whatever she liked, but it was Yagyuu's bed Niou was on right now.

He stopped writing. Niou seemed to have sensed something and looked from his notes to Yagyuu, whose eyes were fixed on him. He stared back, the arch of his brow and the tilt of his head exactly like his sister's when she was curious.

The wheels in Yagyuu's head turned quickly. What to say? "Someone from cram school sent me the notes from the recent classes. Would you like a copy?"

"Yeah, why not."

"I'll print them out at school."

Niou went back to his textbook. Yagyuu told himself to stop thinking like a ten-year-old.


"You know what girls are like. Ask them to come home with you and they worry about the parents. Tell them your parents aren't in and they think you're gonna rip their clothes off."

Yagyuu chuckled.

They sat in the living room, chatting. The parents were out late and nobody knew where Niou's little brother was, presumably out with friends again. Yagyuu meant to leave earlier after spending the evening studying in Niou's room, but Satomi knocked on the door, shaking like a frightened animal.

With familiar people around her, she looked better after a while and asked Niou about his girlfriend. Apparently she had asked him before about bringing Takewaki home.

Niou frowned when Satomi signed something. "You're about as subtle as my hair," he said, then added for Yagyuu's benefit, "we're not bumping into each other."

"If Satomi-san feels she is up to meeting new people," Yagyuu adjusted his glasses, "I think it would be a good thing."

Girls are okay.

"What the hell's with the sing-along; you two rehearsed this?" Niou didn't look impressed.

"I guess we're both curious about Takewaki-san."

Niou looked Yagyuu straight in the eye, so much so that if Yagyuu didn't know better, he would have guessed this whole "girlfriend" thing was a lie - Niou usually lied to people in the face; it was when he looked away that he could be speaking the truth.

"Right, right, I'll try okay? Fucking hell." Niou stood and headed for the stairs. "I'm going to bed. You guys enjoy yourselves."

Yagyuu stayed with Satomi until she was tired enough for bed, then knocked on Niou's door.

"I am going home. Sorry about earlier."

"Ngh... what for?"

"Causing you stress. I meant no harm."

"Whatever. 's fine... see you at school..."

"Is everything all right?"

"Yeah. Just... now's a bad time."

...Oh. Yagyuu smirked. "I'll be going. You enjoy yourself."

Inside the room, Niou laughed. "Fuck you."

"I'd like to see you try."

Yagyuu didn't realise what he was doing until Satomi appeared from her room opposite, dressed in her night gown.

He moved away as naturally as he could after having pressed his ear to Niou's door for the last few minutes, reflexively trying to hide from Satomi's gawking by adjusting his glasses. He signed good night and left the house as fast as he could without running.

That night, he could not sleep until he gave in and jerked off, Satomi's eyes on his skin and Niou's moans in his ears.

"Fuck it's cold fuck it's cold fuck it's cold fuck fuck fuck fuck!"

Yagyuu sighed, went to the vending machine at the street corner, inserted some coins and pressed a button. A palm-sized can of hot coffee dropped into the dispense slot. He took it, went back to Niou and put it under Niou's scarf, adjusting the material and tucking the ends in.

"Ooooh." The mist of Niou's breath brushed Yagyuu's skin. "Thanks mom." He grinned at Yagyuu's unimpressed face.

Yagyuu lowered his hands. He shouldn't have done that. That wasn't what normal friends did. Niou allowed it because Niou had always allowed Yagyuu a bit more into his personal space than others, and that was because -

Because what? Because he knew Yagyuu was a possessive bastard who was starting to hate the idea of Niou having a girlfriend - or, to be more specific, being in love with someone?

No, Yagyuu wasn't possessive. If he was, then he wouldn't have withdrawn himself from their friendship back then.

But if he pulled everything apart and analysed every word, every gesture, he had stepped away because he was angry at Niou for having found a whole new world to play with that he wasn't a part of. It was wrong for no reason other than that Niou was growing up before Yagyuu was ready for it. That was childish selfishness. Jealousy that was carefully disguised as something as irrelevant as morals.

It didn't mean Yagyuu wanted Niou now. Perhaps Niou was even right when he said it was only a matter of time before Yagyuu and Satomi started dating. But even then, he couldn't just let anyone come along and -

"Yagyuu," a female voice said. "I remember. We all went out together once."

Yagyuu smiled. Ah yes, so this was what Takewaki looked like. "Nice to see you again."

Somehow Niou had arranged the three of them to hang out for the day. Satomi couldn't make it because of a doctor's appointment having been moved forward. Takewaki was a few minutes late to the theater, where Niou and Yagyuu were waiting. Easily she slipped her arm in Niou's, and made fun of him for wrapping his scarf up his face.

A small sense of satisfaction went through Yagyuu when Niou batted her hand away and said the scarf stayed where it was.

The two of them made a good looking couple - fashionable, smart, fun. And they were a couple, not a lie made up by Niou as Yagyuu had hoped, because although Niou could act, he would have had to try very hard to find a girl who could act equally well and didn't mind pretending to be someone's girlfriend.

They picked a movie to watch and got seats right in the middle, Yagyuu and Takewaki sitting either side of Niou. Takewaki lifted the armrest, her fingers laced loosely with Niou's.

Yagyuu leaned over a little to reach under Niou's scarf and retrieve his coffee.

"How ungentlemanly of you," Niou said, tugging his scarf down a bit. "You shouldn't bring your own drink to the movies."

"My bad." Slim finger pulled the tab open. Yagyuu took a long drink, then held the can at Niou. "Have the rest."

As Niou finished the rest of the tiny can, Yagyuu responded to Takewaki's slightly awkward and confused look with a smile. Then he spent the duration of the movie playing with Niou's rat-tail.

Yagyuu half laid on the floor and stuck his head under Niou's bed, then got his phone for illumination when he couldn't see a thing. He spotted where his eraser had rolled off to, and also something else.

Niou noticed what he was doing and swore.

Yagyuu weighed his options and crawled back out slowly. "Nobody would ever expect you to hide magazines somewhere as obvious as under the bed."

Niou laughed uneasily, eyes hidden behind half-mirrored glasses that were the same style as Yagyuu's. "Those are really old. Should get rid of them before bringing the girlfriend here, heh... what the fuck are you doing?"

Smoothing his hair back down, Yagyuu sat on the floor, a magazine in hand - last month's issue, but he didn't point that out. He flicked through it, pages of naked men blurring in front of his eyes. "I am curious." He looked up at Niou when it was snatched out of his hands.

"Don't fucking make fun of me!"

"Is that what you think I'm doing?"

"If you've got a problem you fucking tell me about it. I've put up with your mocking enough!"


"What you did in front of my girlfriend. You think I don't notice? Trying to tell her I'm gay? Is it fun? Can't you just leave it alone?" Niou stood from his chair. Yagyuu did the same. "If you're disgusted, fine. Why come back and get under my skin and make yourself matter? I'm not fucking playing this game!"

The words crashed like waves in Yagyuu's mind. He couldn't tell what was really happening, except that Niou took offense at what he had been doing and had reached the end of his tolerance. "I think... Niou-kun, we're misunderstanding each other."

Niou shook his head, his voice dropping a little. "You can help my sister. You'll be a good guy for her. But leave me alone. I'm dating the girl you picked - what more do you want from me?"

Pieces started to fall together, and fall apart. Yagyuu took a step forward, trying to catch them. His voice was soft. "No. No. Stop talking for the moment. Listen to me, let me explain."

Niou pulled away when Yagyuu tried to grasp his arm. His eyes were wary, tired, defensive. "Go on."

How should he explain something he could not even explain to himself? "I never intended to do any of the things you've said, and I don't know why I've come across that way. There are things... that I do not understand myself. But I -- "

Niou's door flew open. Satomi stood outside, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, as if wanting to speak. But she could not. She said something with her hands instead. Niou's face changed, showing horror and sadness that he could not hide at this moment. "No no no no no," he shook his head repeatedly, but instead of replying with words as he always did in front of Yagyuu, he chose to sign.

Something was happening. Something that Niou didn't want Yagyuu to know. Something was cracking, like thin ice breaking up underfoot, but silently, threatening to shatter any moment.

Satomi dropped her hands, stepped back, turned around. Niou tried to catch her on the shoulder, but she was faster, slipping back into her room and locking the door. Niou growled in frustration.

"'Neechan." He knocked on her door, leaning on it. "Open up."

No response.

"It's not like that. Come on."

Nothing. Just silence. Niou slid along the door until he was sitting down, his forehead still pressed against his sister's door.

"'Neechan," he said again, flinching when something heavy was thrown, banging on the wood. But he didn't move away. When sounds of quiet sobs filtered through, he drew a shaky breath and softened his voice. "Please. Believe me."


Niou looked up. Yagyuu was standing inches away from him. He looked away. "You should go."

"What happened?"

"I can't talk to you right now. You really need to leave." Niou closed his eyes.

"But -- "

"We'll talk later, okay?"

There was nothing Yagyuu could do but leave.

Yagyuu called Niou several times in the next few days, but Niou didn't pick up.

The next time he saw Niou was at a clothes store a week later. Takewaki was there too, her arm hooked in Niou's as they browsed the rails. Niou's hands were stuffed deep in his pockets. He smiled lopsidedly when he saw Yagyuu.

"Yo," he said in greeting. Beside him, Takewaki's smile was uncertain.

"Niou-kun, Takewaki-san. Shopping?"

"Break from revision, more like."

"I still have not given you the notes."

"You can email them to me."


"So..." Niou cocked his head at Takewaki once. "See ya around, hm?"

Yagyuu nodded, tense and polite. He had thought about a lot of things in the past few days, but this was not the right place to talk about them. But there was one thing. "Can I have a minute?" he looked at Takewaki. "Just need to borrow Niou-kun very quickly."

They moved to one side of the shop.

"Is everything okay with Satomi-san?"

"Bloody hell." Niou's shoulders sagged as he visibly relaxed. "Just call her and ask her out."

"I will give her a call then."


"And is everything okay with you?"


"I suppose now is not the right time to talk. Can I call you later on?"

"It's fine. I get what you were saying. We're cool."

They weren't, Yagyuu knew, because Niou looked at him in the eye when he spoke. They would have to sort things out later. But for now, he accepted the response and watched Niou and Takewaki go. He knew what he had to do next.

Satomi had a box with her. It was square, about half the size of a shoebox. She put it on the table, then pushed it towards Yagyuu. Clueless as to what was inside, Yagyuu tilted his head, and Satomi gestured for him to open it.

Lifting the lid, Yagyuu found paper. Note paper, scraps, receipts, paper napkins, every bit of paper he and Satomi had used to converse in the last few months.

"What does this mean?" Yagyuu did not want to guess. He had had enough of misunderstandings.

Read them.

Perplexed, Yagyuu took the piece of paper on the top. "I met Niou-kun's girlfriend yesterday. It's a shame you couldn't go." "Is she pretty?" "Yes. They look good together."

Satomi took another piece from the box. "He doesn't tell me much either. I guess that's just the way he is." "A boy full of secrets." "Exactly."

"I've watched you play at tournaments. You're very good!" "Niou-kun and I have been playing together since very early on in junior high. We have good dynamics."

"I'm exhausted. Signing is so hard." "It is. I've started learning from a book, but I'm nowhere as good as you or Niou-kun."

Every single time they talked, Yagyuu had brought Niou into the conversation.

Yagyuu looked up. Satomi pressed her lips together, waiting for him to speak.

"I don't know what to say."

She took one of the pieces of paper scattered on the table and wrote on the other side.

I am not a substitute for my brother.

"I know," Yagyuu said.

You are going to have to choose.

Yagyuu read the words, but said nothing.

Satomi put her pen away. Very slowly, her hands moved. I don't like you, and I don't need you.

Yagyuu lowered his eyes, because he knew she didn't want to be seen crying. He replied, the palm of one hand facing down, the other hand resting on top, and then raised towards his face.

Thank you.

Mamoru will take me today.

"Uh... okay."

Good luck.

"What for?"

You'll see.

Niou watched his siblings leave, perplexed. Yagyuu stayed quiet until they retreated to Niou's room.

"Your roots are showing." He pointed at Niou's hair.

"Huh. My damn hair grows too fast."

"Sit down. I will do them."

It was an old routine. Niou sat down, probably still uncomfortable from that conversation they never finished, but said nothing. Yagyuu stood behind him, pulled off the rubber band that held the rat tail together, then ran his hands through Niou's hair. For the amount of chemicals it had been treated with, the hair was fairly soft, and surprisingly thick.

Niou stiffened.

"That argument you had with Satomi-san was about me, wasn't it."

Niou tried to turn around, but hands on his shoulders discouraged him.

"I don't like Satomi-san," said Yagyuu, completely matter-of-fact. "My feelings were confused for a while, but I only admire her. She knows this. She is far stronger than you think."

Fingers rested on Niou's scalp, massaging, but Niou wasn't relaxing at all.

"Niou-kun." The hands stopped. "Break up with Takewaki-san."


"I am asking you to dump your girlfriend."

A faint rustle. Yagyuu bent down, arms sliding to rest on Niou's shoulders, glasses in his hand. "Niou-kun."

By now, Niou knew what was happening. He turned his head and let Yagyuu kiss him.

It was awkward and difficult. It shouldn't be different from kissing girls, but it was, because this kiss mattered. Yagyuu stepped around a bit more to make the angle easier, and Niou solved the problem by standing up and holding Yagyuu against him. Lips met again, a tongue flicking out, seeking permission. Yagyuu allowed it.

Something sparked and ignited when Niou slipped his tongue inside Yagyuu's mouth. Yagyuu felt his breath stolen, his body heat up. The arms around him tightened and nudged until Yagyuu's back hit a wall, then Niou was right up against him, their bodies pressed and mouths meshed together hungrily, tongues stroking, hands searching, slipping under the shirt to touch and feel, inexperienced but eager. Niou's mouth left Yagyuu's, dropping kisses all over Yagyuu's face and neck as his hips pushed, his cock rock hard. Yagyuu could feel it digging into him, and his own wasn't flaccid either.

"Yagyuu. Mmm. Yagyuu," Niou whispered against the crook of Yagyuu's neck, his breath hot and damp, his voice even more erotic than that time Yagyuu eavesdropped on him masturbating. "I want you so fucking much..."

It was when hands went to his ass and squeezed that Yagyuu realised what they were doing, what it would lead to if they didn't stop and the fact that he wasn't prepared for it yet. It took tremendous willpower, but he grabbed hold of Niou's hands and pulled them away. Niou stopped, looked at Yagyuu as if he was in a trance, and then drew a sharp breath.

"Fuck. Oh shit. That was way too fast. Shit. Sorry."

Yagyuu snorted, leaning back against the wall for support because his knees were shaky. "Only a little."

Niou's eyes searched Yagyuu's, still uncertain. "But... okay?"

"More than."

Niou laughed weakly, relieved. He bent down until his forehead was on Yagyuu's shoulder.

"Fuck, I'm hard."

"I noticed."

"Wow. You... I just -- wow. Just wow."

"My thoughts exactly."

"Oh why is it so cold? Oh why is it so cold? Why is it so fucking cold? Cold cold cooooooooooold!"

Listening to Niou sing his complaint to the tune of TV commercials, Yagyuu couldn't help but chuckle, especially since one side of Niou's face was swollen from being slapped by Takewaki not hours ago.

"It is fucking cold, la la la la fucking cold! My balls are freezing off, la la la!"

It was the coldest day of the year so far. Even Yagyuu could feel a headache coming on because of how cold his ears were. Home was not a long way away though, and at the next street junction was a vending machine. Once Niou saw it, he literally pushed Yagyuu towards it. This time though, when the can dropped out Yagyuu made sure Niou couldn't take it from him.

"Bastard! Give me that! I'm injured because of you, treat the injured with love! Tenderness! Warmth!"

Niou shut up when Yagyuu pulled him in for a hug.


"Warm now?"

"Um. Yeah."

Yagyuu could hear the satisfaction in Niou's voice. This was, after all, what Niou had wanted all along.

He smiled, opened his coffee and drank it over Niou's shoulder.