Challenge – Chapter Seven

Disaster strikes for the whole team. Drama with Angst, I-4

Pairing(s): Yagyuu/Niou

After such a golden autumn, no one expected what happened in the heart of winter. Yukimura himself said afterwards that he had thought the tingling was merely pinched nerves, and had made an appointment with his doctor. At the time, all Masaharu knew was that he heard his captain’s voice falter, saw his partner’s head snap up, heard Sanada’s sharp exclamation, found himself running, with the rest of the team, to where Yukimura had crumpled to the ground.

“He’s still breathing, but his pulse is uneven,” Yanagi reported, tense, as Jackal sprinted for the cell phone in his bag and called an ambulance. “I didn’t see him hit anything when he fell.”

“He didn’t,” Yagyuu seconded.

“Then what’s wrong?” Sanada asked, voice ragged. Yanagi closed a hand, bruisingly tight, on his shoulder.

“I don’t know, but you have to keep the club calm until the ambulance gets here,” he told their vice-captain.

Sanada’s head bent, and Masaharu was close enough to see the muscles of his jaw standing out as he clenched his teeth. He drew in a quick breath and nodded.

“The rest of you, get changed. We’re following him to the hospital,” he said, tightly, before turning away and calling the club to order, dismissing them for the day.

Masaharu remembered the rest of the day as an appalling blur in which random moments of panic stood out: a paramedic calling urgently for oxygen; Akaya shivering against him as they sat in a waiting room; the date on a sports magazine, three months old; the chill of Yagyuu’s hands when Masaharu folded them around a can of coffee.

When a doctor finally emerged, though, it was Yagyuu who took one look at Sanada’s hunched form and went to meet him; Yagyuu who explained that Yukimura’s parents had been called, but they, his team, were the only ones there for him at the moment; Yagyuu who wormed the diagnosis out of the doctor and carried it back.

Relief made Masaharu lightheaded, as he listened to Yagyuu’s account of the information he had extracted. Guillain-Barre, very unlikely to be fatal, Yukimura had already regained consciousness though he was still very weak. Then the bombshell. Up to a year for recovery in severe cases. This was a severe case.

The team stared at each other, stunned. Their captain would be away from them? Most likely the entire year? The sight of Yukimura being wheeled past, pale and still, wiped away any lingering fantasies of a quick return, though.

It was too much for Sanada, who called after him with a promise that the team would wait for its captain, would remain undefeated for him. A promise like a charm for Yukimura’s recovery; if they kept faith for him, surely he would return. Masaharu could see the tremors running through Sanada’s body, see the terrible tension in his bowed head and tight fists. Yanagi stepped to his side, clasped his shoulder, and, when Sanada looked up, nodded firmly, giving himself to the promise as well. Akaya, the baby of the team, who would now be playing in every match when the new year began, stepped forward, and nodded, just a touch tremulously. The doubles players, with barely a glance at each other, stepped forward as one.

The tension drained out of Sanada, and he closed his eyes, swaying slightly against Yanagi’s supporting hand.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

The team slowly regathered themselves, leaning on each other more heavily, now that the one who had lifted them all up was gone. The winter was a nightmare, as one month, and then two crawled by, and Yukimura remained hospitalized, largely paralyzed, often on respirators. The mood of the team darkened, and Masaharu began to wish for the new year to start so that they would have outsiders to take out their accumulated stress on. Even when Yukimura began to regain some strength, and the worst fear lifted, the prognosis remained poor. He would be a long time recovering.

In March, Sanada and Yanagi drew up a tentative training schedule, which included, to everyone’s initial dismay, weight training. Wrist weights, to be precise, worn all the time. The vast complaints of Masaharu’s shoulders indicated that it was a good idea, in a sadistic kind of way.

“We’ll work up from lighter weights to heavier ones,” Yanagi explained, as he handed the pocketed bands out. “Thanks to our location, we have always had to face most of our strongest competition twice: once at Regionals and again at Nationals. The schedule aims for peak performance starting toward the end of Regionals.”

The mood was somewhat lightened by the gathering to move Yukimura back home, during Spring Break. He was coherent, and smiling, and pleased with them. He was also far weaker and clumsier than any of them had ever seen him before.

“It isn’t as bad as that,” he finally told them, probably exasperated by the dour expressions surrounding him. “Just watch. I’ll be back with you for Nationals. I promise.” He then proceeded to regale them with descriptions of his physical therapist, who was apparently psychic. She had listened to his goals, taken a long look at him, and utterly forbidden him to go anywhere near a tennis court without her presence.

Masaharu had to snicker at that. “She’s got your number,” he told his captain, who actually blushed, faintly.

The team started the new school year in a strange mix of hope and fear, confidence and screaming tension, brilliance and darkness. Masaharu couldn’t help thinking there would be trouble sooner or later.

The first time Sanada lost his temper, they all knew there would be trouble.

One of the third years, a player who was in the pool of alternates, should any of the Regulars be… absent, made the mistake of trying to excuse his loss to a second year and collected an abrupt and vicious backhand. Silence fell over the court like an iron bar.

“There can be no losses. Not for us. Not this year,” Sanada said, cold and hard.

And then Yanagi was there, with a hand on his shoulder, drawing him away, speaking quietly. The doubles players, just switching after a match, drew closer to each other. Masaharu had seen Marui’s start of shock, felt Yagyuu, beside him, freezing with a tension he had largely shed over the past year.

“He’s totally snapped,” Marui murmured.

“Not totally,” Jackal objected. “But Sanada has always been a harsher leader than Yukimura; and now he leads alone.”

“Indeed,” Yagyuu agreed, tone distant and chill.

Jackal and Masaharu exchanged a glance. They would have to shield their more tightly strung partners when possible, and in Yagyuu’s case, at least, that would mean keeping him away from Sanada as much as possible when either was on edge.

If they agreed to this.

That knowledge passed among all four of them. They had to choose, and they had to choose now, whether or not to break ranks over this. Either they could seek to restrain Sanada, probably by appealing to Yukimura, or they could accept his ruthlessness in the name of their common goal and give themselves over to his command without question.

Any other options involved breaking from the team, and that was unthinkable.

Yagyuu was the first to voice a decision.

“We will await Yukimura-san’s return undefeated,” he said, evenly, repeating the promise Sanada had given their captain.

Masaharu nodded. If Yagyuu could handle it, he could certainly handle it.

“This will change who we are,” Marui noted. After a long moment of silence, though, he shrugged and blew a bubble. “No losses, hm? I can deal with that.”

Jackal nodded without speaking.

“All right, then,” Masaharu sighed, and looked around to catch Yanagi’s eye. He made a quick gesture to the four of them and nodded. Yanagi smiled with uncommon relief and nodded back, before he returned to soothing Sanada. Akaya, standing beside the bench Sanada had been steered to, arrested Masaharu’s gaze before he turned back to his partner.

The pattern hit him with the force of a premonition, as analysis lying latent until triggered sometimes did. This was where there would be a problem. With their youngest, most volatile member, the one who did not have a close supporter within the team.

The one whose restraining voice was now gone, and whose second mentor was sliding headlong into a dangerous frame of mind, and whose other teammates had just agreed to ride along for the trip to hell.

And if there was a damn thing that could be done about it, Masaharu didn’t see what it was.