Challenge – Chapter Four

Niou and Yagyuu settle into their partnership. Drama, I-3

Pairing(s): Yagyuu/Niou

It hadn’t taken any time at all to figure out that the months between when the third-years retired and when the school year ended were a time when the clubs could reorder themselves. A time to establish the new pecking order before another crop of first-years arrived, and everyone pecked on them. The tradition was a bit disrupted, this year, but, with the tests past and winter thawing, Masaharu started keeping an eye out. It had occurred to him that some of the very most and very least perceptive among the newly senior second-years might try something with either Jackal or Yagyuu, hoping to establish themselves as superior before the tournaments started and the doubles team’s win record made them untouchable. The mannerly ones were the obvious targets.

Masaharu didn’t know whether he was pleased or disappointed that it only took one incident to warn all like-minded sorts off of Yagyuu.

He had been waiting for it, and was in good time to turn a sharp eye on his partner when Nishio accosted him.

“Just because you’re a quarter of a Regular, don’t think you can give yourself too many airs,” the older student told Yagyuu, with a not very concealed sneer. “There are balls all over D court; clear them off so we can get more practice games going.”

Now that Masaharu knew what he was looking at, it was easy to see the tension in Yagyuu’s straight shoulders, the moment of hesitation and calculation over how much he would uncover himself by resisting. While the calculation was lovely, the hesitation wasn’t at all what Masaharu wanted to see in Yagyuu. No, it just wouldn’t do.

“You want a game, hm?” he asked, strolling past Yagyuu’s shoulder. “That’s good. It means you’re free to play one with me. Aren’t you? Senpai.” He had called people bastards in a warmer tone of voice, and Nishio gaped a bit to hear just how contemptuously Masaharu was addressing him. Masaharu scooped up a couple extra balls and sauntered onto a free court. He only had to wait long enough for Nishio to realize just how many people had heard the exchange. Ah, pride. It was such a wonderful motivator. It backed people into such tiny, little corners.

He served fairly gently, but his first return sang past Nishio’s ear, missing by mere centimeters.

“Damn,” Masaharu commented, mildly, “I guess Yanagi was right when he said I needed to work more on pinpointing. My precision is definitely a little shaky. Glad you were around to help me with this. It’s good to see senpai who take their positions in the club so seriously.” He smiled, slow and cold, as Nishio’s eyes widened.

It was an excellent game, altogether, Masaharu thought. And good practice, too. Yanagi really was right; he clipped Nishio several times when he hadn’t intended to. Though, on reflection, toward the end that might have been because Nishio himself was shaking so hard. Still. He should be able to allow for that kind of thing.

Masaharu moseyed back to Yagyuu, and ran a critical eye over him. Good; the tension was gone. And, while Yagyuu shook his head at Masaharu, there was a tiny quirk to his mouth. Maybe next time Masaharu would be able to convince him to participate.

“You do realize,” Masaharu murmured, “that you can be polite while still smashing them into jelly.”

“I’ll take that under consideration, Niou-kun,” Yagyuu said, coolly.

Masaharu grinned, and saluted his partner with his racquet, before going in search of something inanimate he could use for practice. Moving targets could wait a little, perhaps.


Slightly to his surprise, Masaharu found himself stopping as if his feet had stuck to the ground. He’d heard Yukimura use his there-is-no-possibility-I-will-not-be-obeyed voice on other people; this was the first time it had been used on him. That absolute surety really did have a remarkable effect, he reflected, turning. Something about the harmonics went straight to the spine.

Yukimura was looking at him measuringly. Masaharu raised his brows.

“Was that entirely necessary?” Yukimura asked. Since he sounded like he wanted a serious answer, Masaharu gave him one.


A corner of Yukimura’s mouth curled up.

“Succinct,” he noted, before he sighed and laid a hand on Masaharu’s shoulder. “Defend your partner; it’s an admirable motive. And small lessons in caution will be good for everyone. But I will not have members of my club harmed.”

Masaharu thought about the way Yukimura had phrased himself. There were some interesting possibilities embedded.

“And if it takes more than a little lesson to get the point across?” he asked, testing. Yukimura’s eyes narrowed and darkened.

“Then tell me. Our team will win; any member of this club who cannot support that goal wholeheartedly does not belong here.”

Masaharu was lost, for a moment, in admiration of Yukimura’s subtlety. Their vice-captain would not, of course, condone injury to those under his command. Of course, once someone left the club, that prohibition would no longer apply. And then Masaharu could do whatever he felt was called for. And everyone would toe the line when word of that got around. He’d been right earlier in the year; Yukimura did understand him. In fact, he chose, knowingly, to use Masaharu’s games, like Sanada’s temper, to his own ends. Masaharu appreciated that kind of playing with fire.

“Whatever you say,” Masaharu agreed, easily. Yukimura’s expression turned dry as he let Masaharu go.

“Come on,” he directed, “I’ll serve to you for your target practice— make it difficult enough to be worthwhile.”

For several reasons, Masaharu was happy to note that not all the new first-years were inclined to roll over for the older students. Still, he had to wonder about the extent some of them took it to.

“What’s up?” Marui asked, as he and Jackal arrived to find just about the entire club gathered around a single court.

“One of the first-years challenged Yanagi, Sanada and Yukimura, right in a row,” Masaharu told them. “Have to admit, the kid has guts. Not too many brains, maybe, but plenty of guts.”

“He’s still standing?” Jackal asked, sounding intrigued. To date he was one of the few who could manage that feat; Masaharu swore he had extra lungs tucked away somewhere.

“Yes. He’s actually very good,” Yagyuu noted. Yukimura’s return flashed past his challenger’s foot. “Not good enough to win,” Yagyuu added, “but quite skilled.”

“Yanagi drove him absolutely frothing mad,” Masaharu put in, “but the kid actually got one game off Sanada. The iron face unbent enough to look a bit impressed.”

The first-year didn’t quite manage to finish the game standing, instead sprawling full length on the court in a futile effort to return Yukimura’s last serve. That did not seem to stymie him, though, and he raised burning eyes to the victors and spat that he would be the best.

“I think Niou was right about the guts to brains ratio,” Marui commented, punctuating his judgment with a bubble.

“He will be an impressive player, though,” Jackal pointed out.

Masaharu grunted in response, distracted by the flash of red in the first-year’s eyes. That was different. An anger reaction?

“He will be joining us,” Yagyuu predicted, quietly. When the other three turned to him in surprise he nodded toward the court. “Look at Yukimura-san.”

Sure enough, while Yanagi looked contemplative, and Sanada looked saturnine, just as usual, Yukimura had the gleam in his eyes and the faint curve to his mouth that meant he had found something interesting. He stepped over the net, took the newcomer’s wrist and pulled him to his feet.

“Try, then,” he answered the boy’s assertion. “I’ll look forward to it.”

The first-year seemed a bit taken aback by this approval. Or, Masaharu thought, perhaps by becoming the focus of Yukimura’s full attention.

“I believe Yagyuu is right,” Jackal said, thoughtfully. “I only hope Yukimura can keep such a wild player in hand.”

“That,” Masaharu predicted in turn, “will not be a problem.”

Later in the day’s practice, he tracked down Yanagi.

“So, O Master of All Data, who’s the kid?” he asked, slouching against the fence next to their data wizard. Yanagi looked amused.

“I take it Yagyuu noticed Seiichi’s interest?” At Masaharu’s sidelong look he added, “The chance is about eighty-five percent that he will correctly gauge what Seiichi is thinking at any given moment.”

“One of these days,” Masaharu sighed, “I’m going to get used to you doing that.”

“Our challenger is Kirihara Akaya,” Yanagi told him. “He has some impressive experience already. His greatest weakness at present is his temper, as I expect you noticed.” Now it was Yanagi’s turn to shoot Masaharu a sideways look; Masaharu grinned into the distance. “He will be a good addition to the team, if he can gain some control and refine his skills. I estimate the latter will take six months.”

Masaharu made a note of the fact that Yanagi did not hazard a guess how long the former might take.

This year’s round of tournaments had finally started. And Masaharu was bored again.

“Yagyuu-Niou pair, 6-0!”

“When are we going to get a decent challenge?” Masaharu grumbled as they fished out water and ignored their totally unnecessary towels.

“These are only the district preliminaries, Niou-kun,” Yagyuu pointed out. “I doubt there will be much, here. Are you in such a rush to court the possibility of defeat?”

“What?” Masaharu tipped back his head to grin at Yagyuu. “I want to see my partner shine. Where’s the crime in that?”

“Most codes of law would likely consider it to lie in your definition of ‘shine’,” Yagyuu noted, but his tone was light.

“Do I want to know what you two are talking about?” Marui asked, as they watched Sanada tearing through his opponent like a tall, dark bandsaw.

“See? Marui wants to see too,” Masaharu blithely reinterpreted, ignoring the sudden choke that had Marui scraping bubblegum off his nose. “And we do have one more team to play today…” He trailed off, suggestively.

“Hmm.” Yagyuu looked down at him, and Masaharu would have laid odds that his eyes were glinting behind those glasses. “I suppose they are our opponents, after all. Perhaps, a little.”

Marui eyed them both for a long moment before declaring, “I want to be very clear that whatever is about to happen is not my fault in any way.”

Masaharu smiled at him broadly enough to make him edge toward Jackal. “Of course not.”

Masaharu was aware that the bounce in his step as they moved to their next match was drawing attention. He didn’t care in the least. Though he did have a bad moment when Yukimura drew them aside just before they went out. He wasn’t going to stop them, was he?

“Niou, I think it would be a good idea if you let Yagyuu set the pace of this match,” Yukimura suggested. Masaharu gave him a patient look. It was abundantly obvious that their vice-captain was, tactfully, saying he didn’t want them to draw this match out the way Masaharu had been doing in an effort to entertain himself.

“You know, you could just say you don’t want me to play with my food,” he pointed out.

Yukimura laughed. “I’ll remember that,” he promised.

“Is there a particular reason we should take this one quickly, Yukimura-san?” Yagyuu asked.

“This is one of the stronger teams here,” Yukimura told them. “It would be a good thing, both for Rikkai as a whole, and for the doubles team in particular, if you were to make an impression, here.”

Masaharu and Yagyuu looked at each other. Masaharu chuckled. Yagyuu adjusted his glasses.

“Of course,” he murmured.

“Enjoy yourselves,” Yukimura told them, with the sharp smile he wore when he played.

Masaharu could barely hide his glee as he observed the subtle relaxation in his partner, shoulders looser, breath deeper, head higher. The bright, furious sense of Yagyuu’s presence pooled around him, charged the space between them, snapped across the net to lick at their victims. Masaharu shivered, delighting in it.

When Yagyuu let go, the smoothness of his front turned fluid and hot as molten glass, and, even if it burned to touch, Masaharu loved to immerse himself in it.

They took the set, 6-0, in a glorious sweep of speed. And Masaharu almost laughed out loud when Yagyuu congratulated their opponents, quite straight-faced, on a good game.

“What did I tell you?” he asked, as they strolled back to the benches. “Jelly.”

Yagyuu laughed, low in his throat, danger and fury satiated for the moment, leaving him languid until he regathered himself.

“As you say, Niou-kun.”

It was probably a good thing, Masaharu reflected, that Yagyuu had clued the doubles team in about Yukimura’s fascination with Kirihara. Otherwise they might have wondered what on earth their leader was doing spending so much time on a non-Regular now that the tournament season was in full swing. As it was, they quietly made space for him among them. Masaharu, in particular, liked to watch him practicing, especially with The Exalted Three. Admittedly, Kirihara didn’t have Yagyuu’s brilliant purity, when he let go. For Kirihara it was something more shadowed. But Masaharu enjoyed watching it all the same.

He toyed, for a while, with the idea that the kid genuinely was possessed. Whatever it was that happened, when his eyes went red, it both freed his reserves and seemed to detach his brain. Masaharu certainly couldn’t come up with any other explanation for the way Kirihara played such a deliberately dirty game when he was like that, even against Yukimura.

Yukimura, of course, took it all in stride, though he’d had to have a word with Sanada to keep him from pounding Kirihara into a pulp the first time he’d seen it happen. Masaharu sniffed at the memory. As if Yukimura couldn’t do it perfectly well himself, if he thought it needed doing. Though, he glanced at Yagyuu, standing at the fence beside him, he supposed there could be reasons for defending someone stronger.

This afternoon looked like a quicker match than usual. Yukimura was getting used to that sudden change in Kirihara’s level, probably. In fact… Masaharu eyed the return shots Yukimura was making.

“Yagyuu,” he said, on an inquiring note.

“Yes,” his partner agreed, “Yukimura-san is reflecting Kirihara-kun’s body shots, though he returns them just shy of actually striking. He’s provoking him.”

Masaharu whistled. If he’d ever doubted Yukimura had a cold streak, this would have disabused him of the idea. The last ball skipped between Kirihara’s feet, and he stumbled to his knees and stayed there, panting and shaking, probably with anger. Yukimura came around the net, but this time he did not pull Kirihara back up. He knelt down in front of him, grabbed his chin, and forced his head up to meet Yukimura’s eyes.

“You will never defeat me,” Yukimura told him, low and sharp, “unless you can control that strength instead of merely letting it loose. Do you hear me?”

“I…” Kirihara swallowed with some difficulty, green gaze wide and clear, “I hear you, Yukimura-fukubuchou.”

Yukimura nodded, and released him, dropping the towel he had picked up on his way past the benches over Kirihara’s head.

“Remember it.”

As he walked away, Masaharu and Yagyuu shared a look and moved toward the motionless Kirihara.

“You really managed to put your foot in it today, kiddo,” Masaharu observed, mussing Kirihara’s hair through the towel. Kirihara swatted at his hand and emerged with a petulant look. Masaharu shook his head. Half the time, being around Kirihara was like sitting next to a ticking bomb, and the other half it was like having a bratty but cute little brother. Possession really seemed as reasonable an explanation as any other. He hauled Kirihara over to a bench to clear the court.

“Will you listen to what Yukimura-san says?” Yagyuu asked, gently, passing over a water bottle. Kirihara blinked up at him, caught in the middle of drinking.

“Of course,” he said, a little blankly, as if wondering what other course of action there could be. Yagyuu smiled, satisfied, and Masaharu chuckled.

“He’s something else, isn’t he?” he remarked, only a touch ruefully.

The three of them shared slightly sheepish grins before the captain called all the Regulars to gather around.