Challenge – Chapter Three

Stress in school gives Niou the break in the game he’s been looking for. Drama, I-4

Pairing(s): Yagyuu/Niou

Masaharu was glad he waited for the right moment to turn his new key, though, because very shortly the entire school was enveloped in upset. If he hadn’t been inconvenienced by it, he would have basked in it. As was, there were a few annoyances countervailing his amusement and he considered the whole thing a break-even proposition.

Marui took exception more vigorously.

“Curriculum review!” he snarled, hitting his ball to balance on the net and then kicking the net to dislodge it. “One stupid administrator steps on his dick, and suddenly the entire school has tests piled up past our eyes. Why are the students suffering for this?”

“It’s the nature of the beast,” Yagyuu pointed out. “The provost embarrassed someone senior to him in the administration of our schools. His senior is, in turn, embarrassing the provost in as all-encompassing a manner as he can manage. We’re simply the medium of his revenge. The fitness tests would,” he added, less evenly than usual, “be a reasonable and even admirable step, if our preparedness was really in any question.”

Noting the teeth behind that statement, Masaharu placed odds with himself that whatever had happened to Yagyuu was the same shape as what was happening now. Had he played the part of the provost? Or just been caught in the wheels that time, too?

“In any case,” Jackal put in, “it’s probably a good idea to brush up on any weak subjects. We don’t want this affecting our team standing.”

Masaharu grunted, and cocked an eye at Yagyuu. They were class-mates, after all, and the help closest to hand.

“Social Studies for Science?” he offered.

“Reasonable,” Yagyuu approved after a moment. Masaharu did like it, that Yagyuu never backed down from any potential challenge or trap.

“You know, it’s a little scary when you two do that,” Marui told them. At two sets of raised brows he elaborated. “There’s probably a paragraph or two of explanation that you didn’t bother with, because you both already knew what you meant. Doubles Syndrome usually takes a little longer to set in, you know? You two are made for it. Lucky break, for you, there was such a push for doubles this year, or you might never have known.”

Masaharu threw back his head and laughed; he couldn’t help it. “Yes, it would undoubtedly have taken longer, otherwise,” he said, with a sly look at Yagyuu. “Fortuitous coincidence, that.”

“Fortuitous?” Yagyuu raised a brow at him. “Really?”

Masaharu grinned, pleased. He also liked Yagyuu’s subtlety. Their two doubles-mates would probably take it for genteel teasing, suggesting that Masaharu had sought Yagyuu out. Which was true enough. But, to Masaharu, it was another barb of challenge, asking whether he thought he could actually one-up his own doubles partner.

“Fortuitous,” he confirmed. “It brought so many important things to light.”

He had the distinct impression that Yagyuu’s eyes had narrowed. He gave back a limpid look, telling his target that, yes, he had discovered things Yagyuu would consider important that were not tennis. Important things had been the terms of the challenge, after all.

And it only made the challenge brighter, for Yagyuu to know he was coming.

It was a busy winter, while the entire school studied madly for totally superfluous tests. Masaharu supposed the third-years probably didn’t notice the difference, but everyone else, including all the teachers, were thrown into a flurry. He observed the tiny, subtle signs of tension under Yagyuu’s customary coolness whenever a teacher tipped over the edge of hysteria in class. He experimented with little tricks to focus the fuss on himself rather than on the “good students” the teachers increasingly relied on to keep control of the disgruntled student body and get everyone ready. Little things, like switching the rats for the final behavioral lab and seeing how long it took everyone to notice, so as not to actually trigger a complete breakdown. Well, not in anyone but Hikashi-sensei, who had really had it coming. And, when the focus shifted, he watched the tiny lines at the corners of Yagyuu’s mouth, and between his brows, fade to smoothness again, and smiled, and planned.

Mad flurry was not, they all learned, considered sufficient cause to slack off of tennis practice. Not by Yukimura, at any rate, and his steel determination dragged everyone else in his wake. The Regular members became a team of units: the doubles pair, the doubles team, the Mad Three. And the captain, almost an afterthought at times. It was only natural that they should fall into study groups along the same lines.

Masaharu and Yagyuu, as agreed, traded assistance, Masaharu tutoring in Social Studies and Yagyuu in Science.

With three weeks to go before the tests, Masaharu decided the time was right. Yagyuu should be stressed enough to crack, but not quite enough to seriously break Masaharu in turn.

“You know,” he remarked, balling up a successfully completed sheet of study questions and batting it into the air, “you should consider teaching as a career, if you don’t want to go pro.” He watched Yagyuu’s shoulders stiffen.


“Well you’re sure a lot better at teaching this than Hikashi-sensei,” Masaharu said. Then he offered a lazy smile to his study partner. “But being a teacher wouldn’t give you enough protection, would it?”

Yagyuu’s pencil stilled.

“I have to congratulate you on your camouflage, Yagyuu,” Masaharu continued, casually. “I don’t think a single one of them has figured out how nervous they make you. Or how much you’d like to rip their hearts out for that.” He stood and stretched, body welcoming the movement after over an hour of inactivity. “Gotta say, though, I like my way better. It’s more fun to make them nervous.”

Yagyuu’s head lifted, slowly, to look at him straight on. “Lack of control is your forte, Niou-kun, not mine,” he said, dead level.

“True, in a way,” Masaharu agreed, softly, “but it could be.” He prowled around the end of the low table, and Yagyuu watched him come without so much as a twitch. “How often do you want to just let go, Yagyuu?” he murmured. “How often do you want to let the teeth show and watch them flinch back? How often do you want to hammer all of your opponents into the dirt, not just the ones across a tennis net? How often do you want to laugh after you’ve done it?”

Yagyuu could hardly be breathing, he was so still. Masaharu knelt over Yagyuu’s folded legs, and delicately plucked off those frustrating glasses. Yagyuu’s eyes were narrow, ice-colored, glinting with danger. Masaharu smiled, entranced.

“I know how much you want to,” he breathed. “I can see it.”

That assertion was the last straw, as he’d half expected it would be to someone who put so much effort into such a smooth, grippless front. There was a blurred moment of motion, and then Masaharu’s back hit the floor, violently enough to drive the air from his lungs. The hand holding the glasses was pinned, hard, to the floor beside him, and Yagyuu’s other hand was on his shoulder, thumb curled rather tightly over his throat.

“Do you really know?” Yagyuu asked, low and harsh. “Do you really want to?”

Rage blazed in Yagyuu’s pale eyes, and his expression, for once, was raw and open. Sharp, sweet thrill swept through Masaharu to see that unleashed passion, the thrill for which he had played this game. He had touched this actinic blaze in the calm Yagyuu; he had found the way to call it out. Oh, yes, he wanted to see this more often.

To do that, though, the first step was to keep Yagyuu from doing him serious bodily harm. So Masaharu did the last thing Yagyuu probably expected at this point. He relaxed under Yagyuu’s hold, let his head drop back on the floor, baring his throat, lowered his lashes over his eyes.

He had known from the start that Yagyuu liked a challenge as much as he did; the corollary was, often, that Yagyuu would not pursue an opponent who offered no resistance.

His faith in his own ability to understand another person was once again vindicated, as Yagyuu’s grip gradually loosened, and his weight left Masaharu. When Masaharu opened his eyes, meeting Yagyuu’s gaze was still rather like standing in the way of a laser, so he lay still for another few moments just to be on the safe side. He sat up, slowly, when Yagyuu made no further move, and offered back the glasses with a slight quirk of his mouth. He was pleased, though a bit surprised, when Yagyuu simply held them. Squinting at the lenses to try and tell their strength, Masaharu decided he must be close enough to be in focus.

Yagyuu was eyeing him like a tiger trying to decide whether some sharp-clawed creature would be more trouble than lunch was worth. Masaharu gave him a brilliant, wolverine’s smile, and he snorted.

“What,” Yagyuu enunciated, precisely, “was that in service of?”

“Why, my partner’s sanity and well being, of course,” Masaharu said, easily.

The ice-flash glare narrowed again.

“And my own entertainment,” Masaharu admitted. “Did you know that you’re magnificent when you drop that bland mask of yours?”

Yagyuu blinked.

“Beautiful like lightning,” Masaharu murmured, hearing his own voice go just a bit dreamy and not really caring. The exaltation of being amidst or around that kind of powerful, unruly, brilliant violence was something he treasured. He found it so rarely, and the chaos sparked by his little deceptions was really nothing to it. “You should do it more often,” he concluded.

Yagyuu made a scoffing noise and turned, abruptly, away.

“What did happen?” Masaharu asked, quietly. Yagyuu’s spine straightened with a nearly audible snap. “The better I know what it was,” Masaharu pointed out, “the better I can turn it aside from you.”

If the wolverine had suddenly asserted it was a butterfly, the tiger might have given it a similar look to the one Yagyuu was now giving Masaharu.

“And the better I can turn it aside,” Masaharu continued, reasonably, “the more often you’re likely to let go. It works out for everyone. Well,” he added, thoughtfully, “perhaps not our opponents, so much. But that’s their problem.”

Yagyuu had several gradations of socially polite smiles, but this was the first time Masaharu had seen one so clearly rooted in suppressed laughter. Yagyuu toyed with his glasses, for a few moments, looking pensive. Masaharu thought he might be considering the case of Hikashi-sensei, who would not be teaching again for a while after Masaharu had arranged for a good deal of extra caffeine to find its way into the man’s morning coffee and then switched the colors on all his notes and tabs. Just the colors. The resulting cognitive dissonance had produced a very nice little breakdown. No matter how wound up the man was getting, Hikashi-sensei should never have tried to make an example of Masaharu’s failures of scientific knowledge, especially when Masaharu had already been in a foul temper from losing three sets in a row to Yanagi. Totally aside from Masaharu’s personal satisfaction, the incident probably made for good credentials right now.

“It was a science teacher, actually,” Yagyuu said at last. Ah, irony struck again. Masaharu congratulated himself on the accuracy of his instincts; perhaps Yagyuu was rubbing off on him. “I showed, a little too clearly, that I was better at the material than he would probably ever be. He took exception.”

There was another stretch of silence, which Masaharu refrained from breaking.

“I spent the rest of the year pulling ridiculous punishments for the slightest infraction, and rapidly became a pariah among the students. None of them wanted anything to splash on them. I can’t,” Yagyuu said, thinly, “quite blame them.”

“Thus the Perfect Boy front,” Masaharu murmured, chin in one hand. Yagyuu inclined his head. Masaharu considered for a long moment before he decided not to bother asking whether Yagyuu had been one of those students who liked his teachers and was liked by them, previous to this rude awakening. He was fairly sure it was true; only betrayal would drive the fury he’d seen in Yagyuu’s eyes. He leaned forward and touched Yagyuu’s chin, ever so lightly, with his fingertips, to make his partner look around.

“It won’t happen again,” he stated. “If you’ll let me.”

“Let you what is the question,” Yagyuu noted, but amusement flickered in those clear, cutting eyes. “It could be interesting, I suppose.”

“Eminently,” Masaharu agreed, compressing his exhilaration at all the wonderful, new possibilities into a gleaming grin.