A/N: For fyerigurl's (very, very very belated) birthday. hallotharIloveyou. And I'm seriously so so sorry for the wait it was just that Niou was being a donkey and I was seriously flopping all over the place with this and I'm so scared that you won't like it or something but this is all of me to you okay, because you are amazing and together we are like slasher films going opposite directions. ...I have no idea what I'm saying anymore. Please enjoy!
you are a deceptive front above my head;
For a long time, Niou has known her as 'Marui's girlfriend'.
On the day he bumps into her at the convenience store, she raises an eyebrow and tells him that not calling her by her real name is rude.
So what's your name? Niou asks, a grin spreading across his face.
She stares at him and as she does, he watches the large camera hanging around her neck swing. I've been going out with him for how many months now and he still hasn't told you my name? I'm surprised he hasn't babbled to the entire world yet, wow, is her response, but Niou recognizes the fondness he sees, weaved into her facial features.
He's Captain Failure; always has been.
That's still rude, though. Not calling me by name.
It'd help if I knew what it is.
I'm not going to tell you if you're going to give me attitude, Niou Masaharu. She says his name like it is a bad taste in her mouth, like black licorice and rotten fish. He rolls his eyes in return.
Fine. He stops, clears his throat, and sticks a hand out. She studies his face carefully.
My name is Niou Masaharu. And you are—
I am Marui's Girlfriend, she mocks, rolling her eyes and tossing her bangs out of her eyes. Niou likes the way her hair shines in plastic reflections and the way her dimples dip into her cheeks, like finger imprints of the times he's seen Marui poke at them. The camera lens stares at him, and he looks away.
Don't give me that. He scoffs. I'm asking for your name. Tell me yours or I'll hit you with this pack of—Niou looks to the side quickly—Strawberry Pocky, he finishes.
She sees the different light in his eyes, the sarcastic bore in his features, and crinkles her face up in a smile.
Then she tells him.
He walks on the tips of moonbeams, the icy floors of facades. The layers of anonymity and familiarity, a walking contradiction in the different consciences of beings.
Niou blinks, and misses match point. Yagyuu raises an eyebrow. That was unfortunate, Niou-kun, he comments absently, tossing a towel over to his partner. You usually don't pay attention to people outside the court. Yagyuu gestures behind them, and when Niou turns around he sees Marui's Girlfriend waving at him mischievously with the familiar camera hanging around her neck; he scowls in response.
You made me miss match point, he complains. I never miss match point. And you did not just wax poetic while I was playing tennis.
Should I wax lyrical instead? Or maybe I should wax philosophical, to make you miss every other point, too.
Marui, your girlfriend is pissing me off, Niou calls.
Bunta! Niou watches her face light up, watches her affection surge forward to meet his teammate.
She was waxing poetic at me, Niou tells him. And she made me miss match point. I could have won.
Marui laughs. She used to wax Shakespeare at me, you know.
I like literature, is her only response. Then she spins around. Her brown eyes meet Niou's own, and the stare is fierce, the intent pulsing at him.
With layers of hollow shells
And a cry for help.
You need to stop doing that, Marui tells her, patting her head affectionately. This is a tennis court, not a haiku tournament.
I love you too, is her flippant response. Bye bye, Niou Masaharu! She snaps a picture before waving and slips an arm through Marui's own.
Niou on the other hand, is wide-eyed, is like terror's mercy above his head, like lightening striking every nerve in his body, like the crumbling remains of stone and steel. Niou is the distilled emotion, floating in the spaces and small gaps between the essences of everything and yet nothing.
The most frightening part of Niou at that moment is the single nerve that travels through his body, through to his legs and his feet and his toes, all around in an endless detour of paths and every-which-ways. The striking thought that Marui's Girlfriend had seen through him within mere hours when Niou himself had been searching for sixteen years.
Her voice echoes in the hollow spaces in his mind and it is almost haunting, like an old memory being resurfaced and the conscience residing in him that never wants to see it again.
Niou, look, I know you're in some sort of funk right now, but—
I'm not in a funk. Who told you I was in a funk?
Okay, so you're not in a funk. But your head is somewhere else today. Marui hesitates. Is it something she said to you?
If it is, then I can talk to her about it, whatever it is, and—
Why do you like her, Marui?
The redhead is taken aback, Niou knows, but by the silence that follows, he knows that he's thinking about it.
The way she makes you see thinks, maybe. She's small but fierce and feisty and she takes amazing pictures and she's a lot of fun to be around. But she says exactly what's on her mind. She says the words that you need to keep going. And she's cute, Marui adds, grinning.
What, you like her? Marui teases. I can see why you would.
Yeah, Niou says absently.
Marui's head snaps up. What?
I can see why I'd like her too.
Marui relaxes. Oh, yeah, he sputters, letting out a nervous laugh. Totally. Don't go falling for her now though, stupid.
You're stupid, Niou says. Your taste in women is tacky.
Does this mean you're feeling better?
I'll feel better once you go buy me a coffee.
...You ass, those things are expensive.
You've been staring at me all day, she points out. Are you creeping me? Because I can totally do without it.
Niou scoffs; as if he didn't know already. Marui's Girlfriend rolls her eyes and raises her camera to point the lens at him and press the silver shutter. Stop looking at me, Niou complains.
Who's looking at who now?
That's it, Niou deadpans. He stands up, straight and determined, and points. You, he barks. Twenty laps around the court. After that, you have a five-minute water break. Go!
Marui's Girlfriend says nothing. Niou narrows his eyes and pretends to adjust his imaginary glasses. Don't let your guard down, he adds. A perfect imitation of Seigaku's Tezuka Kunimitsu. Anyone would be impressed with it.
What are you trying to prove, Niou Masaharu?
Niou's Tezuka Kunimitsu doesn't react. He narrows his eyes and lowers his hand. Marui's Girlfriend's gaze is fierce and piercing. Her hand drops her camera so the leather band hangs loose around her neck and the camera swings freely, securely attached.
What are you trying to do, by imitating him?
He says nothing.
She looks at him, but somehow it feels different. The gaze she directs into his eyes isn't that of usual smile, her usual sparkle, her flare. It is of uncertainty and distrust and insecurity. And when a girl looks like that, the next logical thing for Niou to do is to make a swift transition into Yagyuu and be 'gentlemanly' about her concerns.
But this time, conjuring Yagyuu up from the different moulds that he had carved into himself doesn't work, and he stands there for a long, long time, staring in her eyes to find a twinge of unfamiliarity beneath the bane of existence.
Who are you, Niou Masaharu? Who are you?
And he should know the answer to the question. But at this point, he doesn't know whether to shrug how Jackal would or smile like Yukimura or even look away politely without properly answering the question like Yagyuu often does.
So Niou becomes himself for a little while—mischievous and intelligent and sometimes so, so vulnerable.
Marui's Girlfriend watches him, and her eyes soften.
There you are, she chuckles. I found you.
Niou stares at her for the first time through naked eyes.
Gradually, he begins to take notice. The way his hands grip the tennis racquet when he's preparing to hit a slice. The breath he takes before throwing the ball in the air to serve. The adrenaline that pumps through his blood when his muscles tense right before a smash.
Slowly, he learns that the power rippled under the layers of skin is something Yagyuu has. He learns that the laugh he makes when he's won a match sounds nothing like Marui's. He learns that not everything can be resolved with a smile, like how Yukimura does all the time (because sometimes, it hurts too much for him to smile, and wonders if Yukimura feels the same).
Somewhere along the way, Niou is no longer a collection of assorted identities, no longer a form he's taken on with different qualities and aspects of others around him.
Your play has changed, Sanada tells him one day after practice, holding out a towel.
Niou takes it gratefully. And?
Sanada thinks about it for a moment. It's not a bad thing, he finally says. There have always been times when I've wondered when I'd stop playing people like Tezuka, and start playing Niou Masaharu. It's a nice change.
Niou is startled into silence. You were being very verbose just now, he comments.
I have my moments, is all Sanada says, and Niou grins.
From a few meters away, he can hear the clicking of the shutter of a camera and pretends he can see a smile—one meant for him and him only.
It was selfish of him, but it was him.
And he notices things about her, too. But it's on one particular day when he fingers are laced together with Marui's, the sun bright and tangled gold in their hair. Her hair shines a golden-coloured brown and as he approaches, Marui waves him closer. Marui's Girlfriend notices him and points up. The last two flowers of the large cherry tree behind the courts are already in bloom. She twists her head to grin proudly at the two of them, obviously pleased. She raises her camera and tilts it upwards so the lens points straight at them, caught in a moment of rare beauty.
You're beautiful, Marui whispers into her hair. The statement embeds itself in Niou's gut and he realizes that it is often she is simply, randomly beautiful.
(Oh, Niou thinks. Fuck. My life.)
—that is how he falls in love.
Somewhere along the way, he hits a wall. The frustration hits a limit one day when finally, he hits an imperfect Laser Beam across the court in a stance that isn't Yagyuu's, but isn't his either. The ball bounces out, and he forfeits the match with the foul taste of bitterness and a kind of anger that swirls and bubbles like a pit of lava and a fierceness that tells him he's angry and confused.
Why the hell are people so confusing to be, he thinks bitterly, and throws his racquet to the ground. Why the hell am I so confusing to understand, even to myself? This is stupid.
It's hard, isn't it?
He doesn't have to look up to know exactly who it is.
I'm wallowing in a pit of despair, he says. Can't you see?
The footsteps are quiet but her presence is near. He can hear the quiet weight of her camera swinging like a pendulum as she crouches next to him and folds her arms across her knees.
But you need me. You need this, right now. Did you honestly think I wouldn't notice? I might be stupid, but I'm not that stupid, Niou Masaharu.
No I don't, he thinks, and he wraps his arms around her frame to rest his chin on her shoulder and sit in the shattered lull of silence. I don't need you, and I don't need this, he tells himself. But his hold only tightens and his breathing quickens and he can feel the many lies pulsing through his blood, his veins, his entire being.
Stop pretending. You're not fooling anyone, Niou Masaharu. Not on the courts, and certainly not in real life.
Shut up, he tells her, and kisses her full on the mouth, and it's a kiss that hurts, a kiss that is full of confusion and lost roads and mingling breaths, a kiss that doesn't mean anything and yet means absolutely everything. He feels infinite in that moment, and she lets him, because he's always been selfish, always been greedy and stupid and this is him, and out of all the moments she'd captured of him, this is the one she wants to keep, in that small space next to her heart because in this moment he is Niou Masaharu and nobody else.
But she can't, and he knows that, and she pushes away because it hurts to keep pretending.
Bunta, she whispers feebly. She doesn't mean to say his name, but it comes out anyway; the natural roll of her tongue like layers of unfamiliarity and the only one that slides out. I like him, she continues to say. A lot. More than you, maybe.
Niou shrugs, and a little bit of her hurts when he does. I know, he replies.
I don't love you. I don't. I can't. I—
You don't, Niou tells her, grips her by the shoulder so hard that it hurts, a pain that constricts her bones and muscles and everything in between. You don't.
No, he whispers. He thinks of Marui.
She holds his gaze with her own solemn one. I don't.
She breathes. And he, with her.
Are we okay? She asks him the day after. He knows what she's talking about even without her voicing it.
Yeah, he says, to her and to himself, too. Yeah, we're okay.
(Except, Niou thinks, when he waves a 'see you tomorrow' in her direction—I'm not.)
Hey, I loved you once too, you know.
She stares at him, and he grins. And somehow her senses tingle and her fingers reach the shutter of her camera and a flash goes by, a millisecond's worth of a time frame. She lowers the camera and he cocks his head to the side inquiringly.
It's true, he continues. And I might still be in love with you—just saying.
She smiles, holds up her camera. You know, she tells him, running her fingers along the sleek surface, all the pictures I took of you were you. She rolls her eyes when he quirks an eyebrow. Well, I'm proud of this collection, she says loudly, and swings around so that she's not facing him.
What, you've got nothing to say about my confession?
There is a pause. All of a sudden seconds feel like eternities and milliseconds infinite amounts, like a pressed image of the definition of atmosphere hanging to the four corners of the sky, tilting on an eighty degree angle. Somehow, as silence hangs in the air in between them, the space between them shifts, adjusts to a higher degree of whatever it is that feels right. She turns around then, and for a second, he doesn't understand the expression on her face—a mixture of regretful happiness, an emotion that he could never imagine to mirror, for as long as it existed.
I knew, she whispers. I know.
He catches her words in the wind and watches when Marui arrives, a handful of baked pastries in one arm, watches her as she takes his other, and keeps on watching until Marui turns, doughnut shoved in his mouth, and waves at Niou, as though picking up a lost memory from eons ago.
Niou laughs out loud and ignores the sting of his nonexistent tears and turns around to walk—away from publicity, away from there. He imagines her smile, the warmth of her skin, the tone of her voice laced with the lack of falter, the presence of a nonexistent weakness. He keeps imagining until it's too much and he can't, so he keeps walking; doesn't look back.
His tomorrow isn't behind him, anyway.