"In these conflicts the hero is torn between his sense of duty (giri) and the dictates of his heart (ninjo). Sometimes one, sometimes the other wins out; but the result is usually death either way. There is rarely a reward for him." Faubion Bowers.
Sometimes, when he’s not watching out for himself, Sanada wishes that he was in love with Kirihara Akaya.
It’s not because Akaya has those naughty coal curls that fall into his eyes, or because when he smiles he looks like a candy store. It’s not because Akaya is experienced where Sanada is not and kisses girls open-mouthed, waving-tongued. It’s not even because when Akaya laughs, there’s this sound of the gutter, only it’s pink and sexual and nothing like a real gutter at all.
It’s only because it would save him being in love with Yukimura Seiichi – and that’s a huge deal worse. And even then, Sanada wishes it was worse because Yukimura is ill and therefore, completely out of bounds, but it isn’t that. It’s because Yukimura has him entranced with everything that he now hates.
Genichirou’s life is a platform, equally balanced between his needs and his duties. Any tilts always fall on the side of his responsibilities, because that is who Sanada is now. The club that he is looking after is a finely tuned machine, controlled and motivated by improvements of 5% and 10%. Pushing oneself is not a matter of blood and sweat, but mathematics. Sanada has a mathematical heart, and nurturing Rikkaidai comes easily to him. It is his biggest responsibility and it allows him to forget that he has needs – like a gokenin serving his Shogun. There is no room for the individual if the team want to win. Sanada doesn’t like his needs much, anyway.
Sanada’s needs tell him that Yukimura’s eyes shine in dim light and that when he dances, light bounces gently off the angles of his hips. Sanada’s needs tell him that his hands want to be there; thumbs skating the curves of refraction, holding the light in the valleys of his fingers. He doesn’t even know how to dance. Maybe, he thinks, with Yukimura it’d be different. Then again, his mathematical heart says, only two negative integers make a positive. He’d show Yukimura up. Yukimura knows how to dance; knows how to wind white beams around himself like a snake in the blinding desert sun. Sanada only knows how to tap his feet, and that doesn’t seem enough, somehow.
Sometimes, when he’s not taking enough care of his thoughts, Sanada hates being a man. He hates not being able to say any of this. He hates that he has to look at Yukimura and agree with him and reassure him that everything’s alright, when he can’t tell him that he misses him – not in a ‘I’ve brought you some fruit, my poor lamb,’ sort of way, but in a ‘if you weren’t sick now, I’d put that bed to much better use’ sort of way. The thought of saying such a thing brings a scowling flush to his face and he pulls his cap down, furious with himself. He hates thinking so much about things. He wishes he could just write Seiichi a letter, were it not so horribly feminine, and tell him how he feels. Maybe he could send him a card or something. “Morning, Buchou. Hope you’re feeling stronger today. Fancy a quick screw in the linen closet?”
“Fukubuchou,” Akaya scolds lightly from across the court. “I served straight for you, and you didn’t move an inch. If you’re giving me an ego massage, I’m going to get cross.”
“Apologies,” Sanada says, toeing the ball with one foot. “I’ve things on my mind.” He frowns at his unusual frankness. Perhaps he’s been out in the sun too long.
“You always told me that that wasn’t an excuse.”
“It isn’t. But you meant it in the sense of Kaori-chan’s legs. That’s a little different.”
Kirihara grins and escapes for a swill of bottled water, eyeing his vice captain out of the corner of one eye. Sanada had been in an uncharacteristically social mood for a few weeks now, and that could only mean one thing. He had a problem that he couldn’t solve. Only he was far too proud to admit it, and was more than likely hoping for someone else to pick up on it, and advise him. Not that he’d respond well on the face of it; Sanada has his dignity, after all, but Kirihara had often before given him sneaky hints on how to handle a situation, only to receive a deliberate cold front before a grateful quirk of the lips, some days later. Like that time Mami-chan had taken a bit of a shine to him; Sanada has been mortally afraid of her perky-breasted, big-eyed advances and Kirihara had advised him to tell her that he was just getting over someone. Somehow, he doubted that Sanada has made a great job of it, but by that time, Kirihara had found a much better use for her perky-breasted advances and she didn’t seem to mind Genichirou’s disinterest so much.
“So. I’m presuming your problem isn’t similar. What’s on your mind? Mami-chan hasn’t returned with a vengeance, has she?”
“No.” Sanada said, simply, resting his hand on the umpire’s stand, blissfully unoccupied. “I think you saw her off rather effectively.”
“It’s the curls,” Kirihara says, mouth around the tilted bottle. “Irresistable.”
Sanada wonders briefly whether Yukimura would be swayed. Seiichi hasn’t ever showed a preference, either way, for men or for women, for sweet or for rugged. Naughty or nice. Sanada hasn’t the slightest idea what turns him on and he supposes this ignorance is for the best. All the girls in the school, it feels like, fancy Kirihara. Not many of the guys pay him too much attention, other than for his tennis. Jesus, he thinks. Yukimura would nail you to the wall for even considering that he’d fuck our second year, our baby of the team. He can’t see it, he supposes. Not Yukimura’s long limbs around Kirihara’s stout, elfin frame. Not their dirty talk; not their hard, rough fucking. It feels wrong. It doesn’t look right. But then – imagining himself in his Captain’s arms hardly works better. Sanada frowns into the evening sun.
“Perhaps I should grow my own hair.”
“Take the cap off first. Why? You want Mami-chan now?”
“No, of course not. I was…never mind. Are you ready to continue?”
“Of course.” Kirihara comes to a stand, throwing the bottle clumsily at his tennis bag. “Someone else, then?” He swings his racket once, circling his wrist.
“Someone else?” Sanada asks cautiously, steady in his own court; staring the younger player down. This is a victory he knows how to win. It is more comfortable to talk of such things with a racket in his hand. Perhaps that it the secret. Men can say anything during a match. Atobe screams Tezuka’s name and it counts for nothing, Ryoma comes out of his shell of indifference with quips and jibes, Eiji and Oishi conduct themselves like lovebirds and nobody bats an eyelid because they’re Golden Pair. Tennis has a way of disguising reality, or at least putting it to one side for a time. The stoic can find passion; the hot-headed can locate calm. Lovers can kiss in accommodating strokes and enemies can have hateful sex across the net. Even at Rikkaidai, home of cold ambition, there are streaks of red across the courts. Sanada remembers playing Yukimura last year and suddenly realises that he knows precisely what turns him on.
“Someone else,” Akaya repeats. “On your mind. I didn’t think Samurai thought about growing their hair.”
“You’re thinking of their shame in cutting it, you idiot,” Sanada responds with his hard backhand. “Don’t you ever pay attention in history?”
“Bo-ring.” Akaya says with a double-fisted forehand stroke that surprises even him. “Anyway, you’re changing the subject. Unless you mean to talk about Samurai.”
“Why would I want to talk about Samurai?” Sanada gives the ball a loose tap that sends Akaya scuttling, surprised.
“Dunno,” he gasps, as he lunges for it. “Loyalty to the one above, maybe. Hierarchy of love. Isn’t that what tennis, Rikkai, is all about?”
“Maybe.” Sanada concedes, hitting a sharp backhand over Akaya’s shoulder and nodding to the victory point. “I expect we all think about Seiichi a lot.”
“You’re the only one who calls him by the first name.”
“I’m closest to him.” Sanada shrugs, waiting for him to serve. “Don’t you go getting ideas. He’s your Buchou. Don’t be disrespectful.”
“I wouldn’t,” Akaya muses, serving a high volley across the net, and Sanada believes him. Kirihara is obedient with those he trusts and Yukimura takes the sole place in Akaya’s life as someone he admires. Kirihara has a rough spirit which Seiichi took time to temper, and the resulting affection on the younger man’s part is something that Sanada envies, almost. Kirihara is freer with his emotion; always touching Seiichi’s hands, gentle-voiced and optimistic. He brings news that Yukimura smiles at, indulges, needs. If Akaya loves him, Sanada is sure that Yukimura knows it from his words. He remembers watching Yukimura playing Kirihara, last year, and realises that it wasn’t the same – there wasn’t that light in Seiichi’s eyes, like when…
“You live like you play.” Kirihara says, suddenly, as if the thought has just occurred to him. Sanada, midway through a slam, is momentarily startled and its power is compromised. His mood squirms angrily and he stares at Akaya, eyes a little narrowed.
“You live like you play. All shut-off and aiming for perfection, only perfection doesn’t really exist in your head. It’s unattainable. You’re just playing to plaster all the walls over and make the best game you can, instead of tackling your weaknesses.” He nibbles his lips pink and almost, almost winces under the look Sanada gives him.
“Who are you to tell me how I play, Akaya? You’ve forgotten your place.” Sanada’s voice is unaccommodating, rigid. The truth runs fluid and molten through him and he hates it; hates that liquid tickle. Like Yukimura’s scolding. Like I hear you’re not playing like you used to. So wild. So much love of the game. Are you seeking a different victory now?
Kirihara shrugs, more bravely than he feels. “I’m sorry. You play brilliantly, you know you do. I just…don’t repress things. It makes you stuffed up like a head cold. Whatever you want to say to Yukimura-buchou, he’s waiting for it. He’s cleverer than you give him credit for. We all are. You’re really frightened of losing this, his…we all are. But there’s no need to be so screwing sacrificial. We’re not in medieval Japan, Fukubuchou. You’re not a tragic warrior in a Kabuki play, in love with a seedy girl.”
Giri and Ninjo.
“That’s enough.” The words are a verbal slap as Sanada turns away, leaving the balls askew on the court as he packs his racket away. “We’re done here. If you’re not here to play tennis, then I don’t have time for you.”
“In art as in life, huh, Fukubuchou.” Akaya says coldly, turning on a heel and grabbing his bags; open, papers fluttering in a furious grip. “You don’t play anything. You work tennis. Everyone’s told me what your match with Yukimura-buchou was like. Everyone goes on and on about how aggressive you both were, and how passionate. Stars of Rikkai’s future, they said. Well, I sure don’t see it anymore. Only in him.”
“And let’s face it – when you’re less passionate than a man in a hospital bed, who has nothing to do all day but count his losses, then you’re really rock bottom, aren’t you.”
Kirihara’s voice is softer now, and he falls into line with Sanada with apologetic steps. Sanada doesn’t really know why he lets Akaya get away with quite so much. Possibly because Yukimura loves him. Perhaps because he keeps the younger part of him sane. Maybe because it’s easier to be lenient when they’re alone together and he can be something close to a friend rather than an ogre. Kirihara knows where the line is. He no longer undercuts Sanada’s professional authority. But it’s been hard to get him out of the habit of giving him a lashing opinion and sometimes, Sanada wonders whether he has the right to censor him. Whether any man has the right to censor another. Yukimura had once told him; it’s how a man treats his inferiors, not his equals and though Sanada can’t remember the context, he thinks that the Captain would want him to listen to Kirihara.
“I’d sooner be the way I am than the way you are, hot-headed brute.” Sanada mutters, almost affectionate. It is impossible to describe to a thirteen year old that he felt his passion for the game die when Yukimura entered hospital and tennis became another responsibility. Hard to explain that his life is a balance where once it weighed entirely in Yukimura’s favour; all heat and awe and lust. Impossible to say that there is no honour in loving a man, in wanting a man, who is not physically able to return your feelings or your lust.
“At least I’ve told him that I love him,” Akaya adds, with a sharp nod that annoys Sanada. “He really likes you. Why not stop being so hell-bent on tradition, and, I don’t know, take him dinner or something.”
“Are you trying to convince me to ask him on a date?”
“Well, no. I just know that he really hates the fish fingers they serve him for dinner.”
“He never was a fish fan.” Sanada comments, remembering the Halloween dance of last year, remembering the music, the way Yukimura wrinkled his nose upward at Genichirou’s suggestion that they split to a sushi bar. Sanada always hated the school dances. He couldn’t dance, looked idiotic in costume, felt self-conscious and Frankenstein’s-monster-clumsy. Unlike Seiichi, with the dim light in his eyes and the light on his hips and the swaying on the dance floor. All in black, the loose trousers and the tight top and the little plastic horns on his head, borrowed from first-year-hoping-to-garner-favour-Kirihara. Akaya had been watching intently from the sidelines, hands interlocked with a girl-angel. Sanada had remained somewhere behind him, aloof, maybe a touch possessive. Feeling the ache of wanting to place his hands on light-cutting hips, drip down the diamonds on the back of Yukimura’s snaking body. Tearing his eyes away, he’d never seen what Kirihara had; the flicker of Seiichi’s gaze towards him.
Yukimura had loved passion; thrived on it. Lights, music, splashes of red in his life, the feel of grip tape wearing thin his palm. Playing with Sanada had been hedonistic; a bloody struggle between equal players, desperate for the victory, battling over the next year’s Captaincy. A Captaincy that seemed now bittersweet, with Yukimura trapped between four blank walls and Sanada in a role he no longer cared much for. Maybe he would go and see Seiichi. Maybe he would go to see him, and the words would be just there on his lips, just…inching out into the white room, with its white bed, and maybe there would be colour again – colour on Seiichi’s face like the lightning had splashed over his body, last year.
“I’ll take him something he’ll enjoy,” Sanada says, simply. “Steak, maybe. He always did like steak.”
“Carnivore,” Kirihara taunts, but Sanada knows he means something different. Blood and flesh eating. Predator. Heartbeat and chasing. A lost world.
Giri and Ninjo.
There were Sanada’s needs and his responsibilities. Yukimura and he had once fought over this Captaincy, and this team. And now, it was all that was left to show of him. Serving their sick Captain was a duty. Rikkai was his balance, his responsibility. Kissing Yukimura meant tipping the balance. Fucking Yukimura meant abandoning it entirely. And there was no honour in betraying a man who hadn’t the strength to get you back.