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A character piece set sometime before the Shinryuuji game, concerning Yukimitsu, because I luffs him muchly; and featuring Hiruma's squishy side (...it's a very short fic.) Warning only for such language as befits Hiruma. (Oh, and a complete lack of understanding of proper practice techniques, because, dude, football. Usually I'm a stickler for accuracy but I'd be embarrassed to know 'em. Besides, Hiruma's practices are hardly standard anyway.)
If the moon is full or half or new, Yukimitsu can't see through the thick cloud cover blotting out the night sky. It's hardly rained, an occasional few drops, just enough to wet the grass, slick field and he skids, fumbles the next pass. That's the one hundred and sixty-fifth ball he's missed tonight. He has caught some, but those he doesn't count. Like flipping through flashcards, taking out the ones you know, leaving only the failures to repeat, over and over until they eventually become successes. If not tonight, then the night after or the night after that.
It must be close to midnight, if it's not already past. The rest of the team went home an hour or two or more ago. He should be home himself, studying: he has a history exam tomorrow. But he should know enough of the answers already and besides, he is studying. He's studying harder than he ever has in his life, covered in sweat and mud and his legs ache and his back aches and he's got a growing bruise on his left elbow from when Kuroki tackled him into the blocking sled earlier today. It was an accident and Kuroki sincerely tried to apologize, the second before a couple rounds from Hiruma's Uzi got them back to practicing in a hurry.
He's alone on the field now, though, just him, and Doburoku, throwing him one pass after another between taking pulls from his sake jug. Yukimitsu feels guilty for keeping the older man out so late, working with such a hopeless case. But there's nothing to be done. He can't practice catching alone all the time; the pitching machine can't give him the variety of experience he'll need to manage in an actual game.
Another pass. He lunges; misses, his fingers barely brushing the ball, sending it spinning out of reach. A hundred and sixty-six missed passes. Doburoku doesn't say anything, though, just waits for him to be ready and throws again. Once in a while he'll call out advice, eyes on the ball, not your hands, or turn with your whole body, not just your head.
He doesn't bother repeating himself. Yukimitsu doesn't have to be told anything twice to remember it, but making his muscles obey what his brain understands is a whole other story. Another ball comes flying toward him, low this time, and he reaches out, throws his gangly body forward and crashes to the damp ground, more stains on his jersey, but the ball's in his hands and he's grinning as he throws it back. Doburoku gives him a thumbs' up, though he's looking tired. Guilt twinges in Yukimitsu's stomach again, erases his smile.
Next is a high pass, and he stares up at the ball, watching its arc—the math is easy, figuring out where it will come down; but getting there is harder, and he trips over his own shoes as he runs, ends up flat on his chest with the ball a good yard away from his outstretched hands. One hundred and sixty-seven. He picks himself up, picks up the ball and tosses it back, a wavering weak pass compared to Doburoku's experienced throws. But he won't be passing much, just receiving, so that's the important thing to practice. With more time maybe he could learn more—but there is no more time. This is his last chance.
He catches the next pass, and the one after that, and the one after that—on a roll, his gloved fingers flexed and ready, eyes focused not on Doburoku's squat figure at the other end of the field but on the ellipsoidal shadow of the ball. He's panting, pulse pounding, and he feels not at all like a student or a scholar but like an athlete. Like if he wants to do something, he can do it, will be able to do it whatever it is, mind and body both perfectly coordinated with his will.
The next pass that comes hurtling toward him—is wrong, Yukimitsu realizes. Too low, too fast, coming not on an arc but straight like a missile out of a rocket launcher, and the ramifications of that literary comparison do not escape him, even as he calculates the ball's velocity and tries to compensate. Tries to move himself faster into its path, but his unexercised body fails him once more, illusion of coordination shattered. He touches the ball, but not enough to get a grip on the rubber; it flips around his fingers like a living thing, squirms free to fall, fumbled.
One hundred and sixty-eight. But Doburoku didn't throw that pass. A pass like a missile, practiced to near perfection, and sure enough when he looks down the field he can make out the spike-haired silhouette of his team captain, outlined in white before the harsh field lights.
"What are you still doing out here, fucking baldy?" Hiruma inquires, as Yukimitsu jogs over to the sidelines with the ball. "Practice ended three hours ago."
"I told you, he's been doing extra with me," Doburoku says.
"I missed seventeen years," Yukimitsu says. "That's a lot of makeup work."
Hiruma's eyes narrow to green-cast slits, the only look he has that's even more dangerous than the wide-eyed, sharp-fanged demon grin. Yukimitsu automatically checks the quarterback's hands—no artillery at present, but he doesn't dare stand down his guard. This is Hiruma. But Hiruma does nothing, just says, "You think you can make up for seventeen years in a couple months? Even the Death March isn't enough for that."
"I saw that much in your catch there—you realized it was different but you reacted too slow. You don't have a receiver's instincts, fucking baldy. And you're not gonna learn those in a month, even practicing twenty-four hours a day. It took the fucking monkey longer than that, and he had some catching skill to begin with. You'll never do it."
Yukimitsu doesn't let his shoulders fall, keeps his back straight. All the long hours of exercise are at least helping improve his posture and he's not going to lose that. "I know," he says again.
"You think I'd keep some fucking deadweight benchwarmer with no skills on this team?" Hiruma asks.
"No," Yukimitsu answers. "You wouldn't." And stares straight ahead, not letting the lump in his throat show on his face. Last chance.
No, really, his last chance had been months ago, at the top of Tokyo Tower, and he'd failed it. He's never told anyone, but he's always known he failed it. There had been one sliver of ice left in the bag as he opened the door but by the time he fell inside he knew it would have melted. Must have melted, by the immutable laws of science. So the single crystal floating in the bucket could not have been his success.
He hasn't told anyone because no one would believe it, but Hiruma was the only one near the bucket—and Hiruma can move so quickly; on the field his sleight of hand with the ball will fool TV cameras, and an ice cube is much smaller. No one would have seen, but it's the only way, and Yukimitsu's known it from the beginning. He's known from the moment he joined the team, though it took him much longer than that to understand why.
But no one else knows. "The hell are you talking about, idiot?" Doburoku sputters. "This kid's been working his butt off—"
"Get out of here, you fucking drunk," Hiruma says. "No need for you anymore."
The knowledge is always there in the back of his mind, how he has no right to be here, how much he owes their demon captain for this chance that he didn't deserve. He would have sold his soul for it, but Hiruma's never asked. Never demanded, so instead Yukimitsu can give his soul to what he wants for himself, and makes sure he never wavers. Never allows himself to squander this chance that he shouldn't have at all.
But he's always known that it wasn't by right of his own self that he's here. If Hiruma now regrets that choice, if Hiruma takes it back, then there's nothing he can do. It's not reneging on a bargain when no bargain was ever struck.
And no one, devil or angel, can take from him his memory of the past months, can take away the sweat and pain of the Death March or the hoarseness of his throat from cheering with his teammates or how deep and well he sleeps every night after these practices. He'll grieve to walk off the field forever; he'll cry, and hate the weakness of his body, the weakness of seventeen years lost to things he didn't truly want and never really cared about. But to Hiruma he can give nothing but unconditional gratitude.
"I understand," Yukimitsu says, calm over Doburoku's outraged noises. "I'll just—"
And he lifts his foot to walk over the line, off the field, the final step. Only to have his way barred by the shining black barrel of a high caliber rifle.
"Where do you think you're going, fucking baldy?" Hiruma asks. "If you understand, then get your shiny ass back on the field."
Hiruma's finger taps impatiently on the trigger. "Move it! We don't have all night and we're going to need whatever time we have left. Your catching's fucking pathetic."
Yukimitsu is used to his brain keeping up faster than this. He feels like he's lunging to catch another ball, only this one is coming at the speed of sound and is invisible to boot. "But—but you just said—no matter how much I practice, I can't catch up to Monta—"
Hiruma's mouth widens in a death's head grin, gaping and demented in the glaring florescent light. "You'll never catch up to the fucking monkey. No one can. But I already got him on the team; why'd we need another one? One's plenty. You don't need to be a fucking genius receiver for this; you just need to catch the balls I throw at you. Which is why you don't need to be practicing with the fucking drunkard here," and he aims a kick at Doburoku, which the older man agilely dodges.
"Catch the balls you throw?" Yukimitsu repeats.
"We keep practicing every night, you should be able to manage that much in time."
"But—you're going to be practicing with me?"
"How else are you gonna learn what you need to?" Hiruma asks. "It's my passes you'll be catching, and the fucking drunkard's don't match."
Doburoku nods, and Yukimitsu, recalling that low-flying missile, has to agree. But for Hiruma to waste even more time with him, when his classmate has his own practicing and homework and God (or other) knows what else to do—"Why? I don't have the instincts or the skills—"
"The hell? What kind of shit-for-brains captain would keep a zero player with no skills?" Hiruma lifts one hand off the gun, taps a long finger to the side of Yukimitsu's head. "No skills? You think I'm some aimless moron, fucking baldy? No one stays on this team who I can't use. You're going to get to the level of catching that you need to be useful. I'll kill you if you don't."
That's not exactly a joke; Hiruma's grin is not a teasing grin, all razor sharp teeth bared, and he's got a gun less than ten centimeters from Yukimitsu's stomach, after all. But Yukimitsu grins back anyway. He can't help it. If he doesn't get to at least that level he's going to die anyway in the trying, so it doesn't matter.
Doburoku's shaking his head, but he's grinning a little too. Yukimitsu has seen that smile before. About a week ago, when the trainer made him take a breather from another midnight practice session, gave him a bottle of water and told him to drink to slowly, sitting with him on the grass. That night was clear and they looked up at the stars, Doburoku drinking sake, Yukimitsu idly and unconsciously identifying planets and constellations and testing his memory of the English names, until Doburoku interrupted.
"You're getting better," he said. "Even if it doesn't feel like it now."
"Oh," Yukimitsu said, because it didn't. But a trainer would know what he was talking about.
"Some people have natural talent," Doburoku said. "Some people are born geniuses; and then some people try and train and practice harder than anyone else, and still aren't the best and never will be. Some people are cut out for sports; some people are born with the instinct to catch, or to run, or to throw. And some aren't." He took a drink from the jug, went on, "But some idiots keep trying anyway, because it's what they want to do. Until they're good enough to use what they do have. You're not the first one I've been up with all night, every night."
"I don't want to be the best," Yukimitsu said. "I just want to be good enough to play with everyone."
And Doburoku smiled then, the same smile he's smiling now, and said, "That's not good enough for this team, you know."
He's right, Yukimitsu knows, looking at his team captain now, the gun gleaming, and all his fangs. But he's going to be—he has to be, because Hiruma didn't let him fail before when he should have, and he won't fail Hiruma now.
Because Hiruma watches him, and sees that he has no instinct and will never be the best no matter how he tries, and yet doesn't look down on him with empty offers of pity or sympathy. Because when Hiruma throws his straight fast pass (devilishly fast, remarkably aimed; but not the best, not as fast or precise as the best quarterbacks' and it never will be, will it?), Yukimitsu watches, and sees hundreds of long nights of practice guiding and strengthening that arm, and he can't look down on such effort by failing to catch it.
Because being the best is impossible for him. But he doesn't have to be; neither of them do. He just has to work until he's good enough. Good enough for Hiruma, for what he needs to do, for the team.
Good enough to play isn't enough. He'll be good enough to win.
"We're going to the Christmas Bowl!" Yukimitsu screams into the wind, as he runs back onto the field alone under the lights. A thin cry, with him breathless from practice, not enough to reverberate over the empty school grounds. But before it can die away, he hears it echoed behind him, amplified to a ferocious howl in Hiruma's defiant inflection.
"We sure as fuck are going!" the quarterback hollers to the cloudy sky. "YAHA! Catch it, fucking baldy!" and he throws the ball.
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