Challenge – Chapter Ten

The team brings the results to their captain. Drama, I-3

Pairing(s): Yagyuu/Niou

“I will go in first, and explain,” Sanada said, firmly.

Waiting through Yukimura’s surgery and post-operative evaluation had squelched all fears and uncertainties save the ones that related directly to their captain’s health. The news that he was well, and even expected to be strong again, soon, while joyful and welcome, had allowed smaller concerns to resurface. Sanada, in particular, was almost back to his usual, dour, stubborn, pig-headed self.

“It wasn’t just your loss,” Akaya said, softly, head bowed. Masaharu thought his double loss had shaken him pretty badly. Yagyuu thought it was more his strange awakening during his tournament match. Whatever it was, it snapped Sanada, at least temporarily, out of his self-flagellation. He took Akaya by the shoulder and shook him a little.

“Enough, Akaya,” he said, more gently. “You drove yourself well past your limits, all the way to collapse. There was no more you could have done. And if this had never come to you,” he paused, seeming to search for words, “your game would never have become real. Honorable losses are simply an invitation to win next time.”

Masaharu straightened from his slouch against the wall, and exchanged a surprised look with Yagyuu. He had heard Sanada say broadly similar things before, but never quite so bluntly, and certainly not any time this year. Apparently, Akaya wasn’t the only one who had gotten his attitude realigned by shock.

Akaya looked up, gaze solemn. “Yours, too, then. Sanada-fukubuchou,” he stated.

Sanada blinked, opened his mouth, and closed it again. A slightly unwilling smile took over his face, and he ruffled Akaya’s hair. “You’ll be a good captain, next year,” he said, a touch ruefully. Akaya’s ears turned rather red, and he lowered his eyes. Chuckles ran among them all.

“We are a team,” Yagyuu pointed out. “We win or lose as a team. It’s only right that we all be present.”

Sanada finally capitulated with a wordless grunt and turned to lead them down the hall to their captain’s room. They all filed in and arranged themselves around the bed Yukimura reclined in, looking a bit wan, but brighter of eye than he had for some time. Sanada stepped forward, and Masaharu could see his shoulders brace.

“Yukimura,” he started, low, “I have to ask your forgiveness.”

Yukimura tilted his head with a small smile. “What, for running late? I didn’t say so, but I thought you probably would.”

Masaharu winced, and caught Marui with a similar expression out of the corner of his eye.

“No,” Sanada said, struggling a little, now. “Yukimura,” he took a deep breath, “we lost. My… our promise to you is broken. Forgive me.” He looked aside, unable to hold their captain’s eye.

Yukimura looked at him for a long moment, and swept his gaze over the rest of the team as well. They shifted under it, none of them able to lift their eyes. Masaharu nibbled on his lower lip. Yukimura didn’t hold Masaharu’s soul in his hand, the way he did Yagyuu’s or Kirihara’s. Or, for that matter, Sanada’s and Yanagi’s. But Masaharu, who respected very little, respected his captain’s strength and insight. Having failed his trust made Masaharu squirm. If he felt like this, he was half surprised that Sanada wasn’t bowed to the floor.

“Did you play your best?” Yukimura asked, at last.

“Yes,” Sanada answered, sure of that, though Masaharu also heard an edge of helplessness in it, as if he wasn’t sure how both things could be true. Yukimura raised a hand to close over Sanada’s.

“Then there is no shame in losing. You gave everything to this match, even when I was not there to make sure of it. I’m proud of you. All of you.” His eyes moved over his team again, before coming back to rest on Sanada, and the absolution of his acceptance felt like a weight lifted. Everyone breathed again, and Masaharu observed spines straightening all over the room. Except for Sanada, who couldn’t have gotten his any straighter without the help of a rack; he was slumping to a more normal, human posture.

Yukimura tugged on Sanada. “Steal some chairs, and sit down and tell me about it.”

Masaharu slipped out with a grin, only to hear Yukimura’s laughing voice send Yagyuu after him. Yagyuu, the spoil-sport, smiled politely at a passing nurse and extracted extra chairs with ease. Masaharu mock-sulked at his captain when they returned, only be be laughed at again.

“Everyone tells me that the both of you have already had your fun, Niou. Surely you can skip terrorizing the hospital just for today.”

“Just for you,” Masaharu agreed, trying not to grin like an idiot.

They took turns, telling each other’s stories, and Yukimura soothed his singles players when those accounts brought up fresh anxieties.

“…actually made Jackal-senpai sweat, until Marui-senpai decided to show off again.” Thwap! “Ow!”

“Yagyuu was in a fine taking; exactly like Niou in a really foul mood, except he ignores Sanada when he’s pissed off…”

“…really nailed the other player. That was vicious, Yagyuu-senpai.”

“Do you really think you have room to talk, Akaya-kun?”

“…and don’t turn your back on that data specialist of theirs; he’s sneaky.”

“And considering the source…”

“It was interesting that Inui himself thought the result of the match came down to chance.”

“Do you wish to play him again, Renji?” Yukimura interjected. Yanagi looked down at his hands, obscuring the tilted smile on his face.

“I think so, yes,” he said, at length. Yukimura touched his wrist, and nodded firmly when he looked up. Yanagi’s smile un-tilted, and he nodded back. Masaharu decided, as the chatter picked up again, that Yukimura was pleased that Yanagi refused to back away from this challenge.

“…Akaya went completely around the bend,” Marui concluded his tale of Singles Two.

“Fine for you to say,” Akaya grumbled, “I barely remember a thing about it. Just… it was just…” he trailed off, uncertainly.

Yukimura held his eyes. “You can tell me later,” he offered, gently. Akaya nodded, biting his lip.

“And that kid…!”

“He paid for it pretty hard, though.”


“He was,” Sanada paused, looking grim, “unexpected.”

“Someone like that is difficult to calculate or account for,” Yagyuu noted.

“That doesn’t make losing to him any more acceptable,” Sanada insisted. Yukimura sighed.

“Sanada,” he rapped out, the bite of command that none of them had heard in too long back in his voice, “you know there’s more to it than that. Have you completely forgotten what I said on this subject last time?”

Sanada, Masaharu was intrigued to note, glanced sidelong at Akaya. A slight flush surfaced along his cheekbones. Was that where that little bit of advice in the hall had come from?

“I remember,” he murmured.

“Good,” Yukimura stated, definitely.

Finally, a nurse came to chase them out, saying that it was time for Yukimura-kun to rest.

“I should be released in a few days,” he told them, happiness coloring his face, “I’ll be back soon.”

“We’ll be waiting for you,” Sanada answered. “It will be good to have you back again.”

The team bounced or strolled or stalked their way home, according to personality, breaking off toward their houses once they got back to their own neighborhood. As Masaharu and Yagyuu reached their turn-offs, Yagyuu paused, turning very slightly toward Masaharu.

He was getting better, since Yukimura pointed it out, at reading these little incitements for what they were. Masaharu gave his partner a half smile, and asked, “Mind some company for a while?”

“It would be welcome,” Yagyuu answered, cool as if he hadn’t just silently asked for some. Masaharu ran a hand through his hair, laughing to himself at the two of them.

While he’d really had something a little more vigorous in mind, and suspected his partner had as well, when he nudged Yagyuu onto his bed and followed him down they somehow stopped there. Lying, wrapped around each other, almost fully clothed, they simply held on and breathed together, watching the sunlight from the window creep off the bed and onto the floor.

“Is it over, do you think?” Yagyuu asked, at last, barely whispering in the silence. He didn’t protest when Masaharu twined a hand into his hair, drawing his head down to Masaharu’s shoulder.

“This part is, yes,” Masaharu answered, looking up at the ceiling. “I think Sanada will calm down again, some. And Akaya, too, long enough for Yukimura to take him back in hand. And you?”

Yagyuu shivered, and his arms tightened around Masaharu. Masaharu didn’t normally ask such things so bluntly, but, then, normally he didn’t have to. He honestly wasn’t sure how stressed or relieved or, possibly, over the edge his partner was right now.

“He’s coming back.” Yagyuu’s whisper was harsher, choked. “That’s enough.”

Masaharu tightened his hold in return. “You know, it’s a good thing I’m not the jealous type,” he said, against his partner’s temple. Yagyuu laughed, at that.

“Of course you are,” he contradicted, firmly. “Our teammates are the only people you’re willing to share me with. The last time anyone else so much as touched my arm, if I recall correctly, you made everyone think he was challenging Sanada one on one; he could barely pick up his racquet the next day.”

“He had it coming,” Masaharu growled. Yagyuu raised his head and looked down at him.

“Case in point,” he noted rather dryly.

“Mutual monopoly,” Masaharu shrugged. “It’s only fair.” Yagyuu’s eyes sharpened.

“Do I have a monopoly on you?” he asked, softly.

“I thought that was obvious,” Masaharu told him, raising his brows. “It isn’t as if I play tricks for anyone’s benefit but my own and yours.”

“Only you,” Yagyuu chuckled, “would measure it by such a standard, Niou.”

Masaharu made a pleased sound, to hear his bare name in his partner’s mouth, and an even more pleased one when Yagyuu leaned down and kissed him, long and close.

The day Yukimura returned, he was almost mobbed by his delighted club until Sanada barked for everyone to get back to work and the ingrained habit of dangerous months sent them all scattering out of Sanada’s path. Yukimura’s brows lifted a bit, at that, and, when Sanada avoided his gaze, his eyes narrowed. But he seemed willing to set it aside for the time being.

Masaharu reflected, a touch smugly, that he would not wish to be Sanada at any time in the near future. Not, of course, that he ever had wished to be someone so utterly humorless. Casting an eye over the team, he catalogued Jackal as relieved and Marui as gleeful. Not much surprise on that second; Yukimura was generally indulgent of Marui’s histrionics as long as they didn’t interfere with his playing. Sanada was apprehensive, in his own iron-faced way, while Yanagi seemed… exasperated? Now that was unusual. Akaya, predictably, was floating somewhere around cloud nine, and Yagyuu was quietly, subtly glowing. Masaharu grinned.

“Hey,” he nudged his partner, “want to ask Yukimura and Yanagi for a match?”

“If Yukimura-san has no specific plans for the team, today,” Yagyuu agreed, smiling faintly.

Feeling his partner’s glittering, charged presence reach out to fold around him, as they fought to counter the other pair’s combination, Masaharu could barely keep from laughing out loud. Yukimura was back. They were all back, released from their fear and agitation and distraction, back to the place they belonged. Now they could face Seigaku’s challenge properly.

When they took their first game from Yukimura and Yanagi, Masaharu and his partner shared an identical, gleaming smile.

Yes. Everyone was back where they belonged.