Challenge – Chapter Two

Niou and Yagyuu become a doubles pair, and the game continues. Drama, I-3

Pairing(s): Yagyuu/Niou

True to Masaharu’s prediction, or perhaps it had been a threat, he and Yagyuu played together more and more frequently over the next weeks. They, and the other two Masaharu had noticed as the best among the first years, always excepting the Glorious Three, worked their way through the ranks of the second years’ various doubles pairs undefeated. Masaharu was finally enjoying himself, even if their opponent pairs still weren’t much of a challenge. Only the remaining Regular pair could even take them two out of three.

The fourth of their little party, Marui, preened amusingly about that.

They learned fairly quickly that it was best to keep the styles mixed. Yagyuu with Jackal had excellent communication, and immense power, but a vital spark was missing. Masaharu added this to his list of Yagyuu-notes, that Yagyuu’s aggression on the court didn’t show equally with every partner. Masaharu and Marui spent more time in competition with each other than with their opponents. As long as they kept it mixed up, though, they walked right over just about everyone.

They didn’t get really slaughtered until the Munificent Three decided to get in on the action. Masaharu wasn’t the only one who was surprised that they could sweep the court in doubles almost as thoroughly as they did in singles.

Since winning was clearly out of the question, Masaharu concentrated on losing by a reasonable margin, and took the opportunity to observe their various combinations.

Sanada played baseline for Yukimura; no surprises there. In something of the same fashion, Yanagi played cautious to Sanada’s aggressive, making no effort to contain Sanada but clearly understanding him well enough to pick up any openings. The combination that really dazzled Masaharu, though, was Yanagi and Yukimura, because the speed and flexibility of their play was astonishing. By now everyone was getting used to the supernatural accuracy of Yanagi’s data, and it applied well to doubles. But this was the first time Masaharu had seen Yukimura play doubles, and it was clear he had that same instinct for his partners that Yagyuu did. He never looked; he always knew.

Masaharu couldn’t help but grin, even though that match left him flat on his back. Maybe, if he could find the key, if he could really understand Yagyuu, the two of them could play like that.

After an exceedingly brief consultation with the new captain, Yukimura called their little gang of four over.

“We have one seasoned doubles pair who will be playing as Regulars for the upcoming year,” he told them. “It would be difficult to choose a single pair from the four of you to take the second doubles slot, and since you work smoothly as a unit, we aren’t going to. I would like to select the pair best suited to a given school, as we play next year, shifting as necessary. Will that be acceptable to all of you?”

Masaharu opened his mouth to ask a pointed question about why it was Yukimura making all these decisions and announcing them, and not the captain standing, silent and uncomfortable, behind the Trinity. He closed it again, with a smooth look, at Sanada’s burning glare.

“Quite acceptable, Yukimura-kun,” Yagyuu answered, coolly. Jackal nodded. Marui eyed Masaharu.

“It is extremely unlikely that the Niou-Marui pair will be called for,” Yanagi murmured. Masaharu wondered if he was the only one who heard the sardonic edge. Marui merely blew a bubble of gum and shrugged.

“Sounds fine to me,” he said, though Masaharu was fairly sure he was a bit annoyed not to be playing singles. Well, Marui could play singles with him, and that would keep their self-proclaimed genius busy. For himself, Masaharu waved a hand toward Yagyuu.

“What he said.”

Yukimura looked at him, head tipped to one side, for a long moment before he nodded. Masaharu had the unnerving, and unusual, sensation that Yukimura knew about the competition of wills and ingenuity between Masaharu and Yagyuu. And had chosen to permit it.

Honestly, he was starting to wonder why they hadn’t just made Yukimura captain this year and had done with it.

Their faculty advisor was the only stumbling block to the plan.

“This is… irregular, Yukimura-kun,” the man said, disapproval dripping from his voice. All four of the doubles crew looked back at him with equal disfavor.

Yukimura smiled.

“Perhaps,” he allowed, “but it will ensure the best possible performance of the Rikkai team.”

“I am not as sure of that.”

Masaharu stopped paying attention to the blowhard and started paying attention to Yagyuu. He was standing close enough for Masaharu to feel the tension slowly winding up that straight, poised frame. It was noticeable enough for Masaharu to wonder whether it was all because of the insult to their abilities, or if there was some other element.

“There is a proper way of doing things, Yukimura-kun, and this is not the way our team does things,” the advisor concluded.

Afterward, Masaharu always remembered that as the moment they all found out what it meant to have Yukimura as their captain, even if he didn’t have the title yet.

Yukimura’s eyes narrowed and glinted, the smile fading as his mouth hardened.

“You may continue to think that, if you wish to be remembered as the one responsible for Rikkai’s loss at Nationals this coming year,” he stated, and the husky voice was chill and precise as a surgical scalpel. “I do not think you wish that, though. You will understand, therefore, that I will lead this team to victory. And you will not interfere.”

Masaharu felt his jaw dropping, and noticed, distantly, that he wasn’t alone. Even he didn’t talk to the teachers like that. Yukimura’s forms were perfectly courteous… except that he was definitely giving orders. And whatever resistance the advisor might have been able to muster in face of that cold, diamond sharp surety folded when Sanada stepped to Yukimura’s shoulder and added his own, much less subtle, glare to Yukimura’s.

As the advisor hemmed and hawed and retreated, Yagyuu let out a breath that caught Masaharu’s attention again. All the febrile tension had drained out of him, and he was looking at Yukimura. For the nth time, Masaharu damned the glasses that concealed half the nuances of Yagyuu’s expression, but the line of his mouth was suddenly uncertain, almost trembling.

Yukimura turned back to them.

“Please don’t be concerned. The reservations of outsiders will not affect you, and after a few wins I expect even those will fade.” His voice was gentle again, to match the warmth of the look he always gave the team.

Yagyuu bowed slightly. “We will not fail, Yukimura-san,” he stated, quiet but definite.

It was only by a great effort of will that Masaharu kept from gaping again. Yagyuu was always proper, of course, but proper was not the same as respectful. What he had just heard, for the first time, Masaharu realized, was respect. Yukimura was, of course, adept at bending people to his hand; Masaharu had watched him do it all season. But he’d never expected Yagyuu to succumb. Not the reserved, self-sufficient, distant Yagyuu Hiroshi.

So why now?

He chewed over the question as they returned to practice, and every interaction between Yagyuu and Yukimura added to his bemusement. Yagyuu wasn’t fawning, the way a lot of the less talented players did; he wasn’t treating Yukimura like some kind of avatar. He was simply attentive and respectful and…

…at ease.

Masaharu was so boggled he missed a swing and Marui snapped at him. Masaharu swiped the bubble out of Marui’s mouth with the next ball and went back to pondering.

At ease, as if some defensive tightness had loosened. Masaharu considered that thought. Defensive? Certainly, Yukimura had defended them, and quite sharply, too. Was Yagyuu reacting to that? But why would he feel he needed defense against a teacher, for crying out loud? All the teachers thought he was perfect.

Of course, the thought came to him, the opinion was not mutual. Now that he had something to compare it to, he could see the pattern of contempt in the way Yagyuu dealt with the teachers. Hostility, even, albeit muffled under those perfectly correct manners. A grin spread over Masaharu’s face as he contemplated it.

Yagyuu, the Perfect Gentleman, the apple of the administrative eye, had a problem with authority.

Masaharu chuckled out loud, earning a wary look from Marui. He loved irony almost as much as he loved a challenge, and this one was magnificent. He wondered what had happened to set Yagyuu so against order-giving adults, and to cause him to conceal his dislike so strenuously. No surprise that Yukimura had captured his allegiance, after defending them from one of the enemy so vigorously.

Now, now Masaharu thought he had the key.