A/N: This chapter is pretty much just short vignettes of people who are going to participate. I apologize for the messiness.
Lots of hinted pairings. Nothing too obvious.
No one ever knows what to say to those whose names have been picked from the lottery. As Tezuka and Fuji walk down the hallway, students part for them like the Red Sea, as if they had some contagious disease. No one can meet their eyes.
Who wants to look in the eyes of death, anyways?
They have a couple hours before the government takes them away. Following that are two days of training before they are shoved into the arena. Two more days to live, at least.
Fuji and Tezuka return to their classroom, where all their friends (even those not in the class) are sitting, waiting.
For a moment, no one speaks. There is nothing to be said or done anymore.
"I've obtained the full list of contestants," Inui finally breaks the silence.
Fuji manages a smile. "Oh, really? Let's hear it then."
And he begins.
"Atobe Keigo is one that you'll want to watch out for. I heard he volunteered, and he'll be out for revenge for last year…"
"Do we have any volunteers?"
Atobe knows them all better than they know themselves. He knows Shishido is having a heart-wrenching internal debate over whether or not to volunteer for Ootori. He knows that (though the proud redhead will deny it) it is tearing Gakuto apart to see his recent doubles partner and kohai standing on the stage. He knows that whenever Oshitari's lips tighten like a rubber band, like now, it's because something in his heart has already snapped. He knows Jirou can't sleep anymore, so his current slumber is a cheap ruse – because dreaming is so much better than this nightmare of a reality.
He knows that all of them, every last one of them is toying with the idea of stepping onto that stage. For revenge. For justice.
But the announcer waits, and none of them raise their hands.
'Weak,' Atobe thinks. 'You're all so weak.'
He raises his hand and snaps his fingers. The snap echoes endlessly, circles and circles of sorrow, like a pebble dropping in a boundless cave.
Everyone holds their breaths.
Atobe smirks. "It'll be me!" he declares loudly. Fearlessly.
No one applauds this time. 'They're too awed by my prowess.'
Atobe takes to the stage with the regality of a king.
He's always wanted to make a dramatic exit, after all.
"There's Ootori Choutarou, also from Hyotei. He won't be too much of a threat..."
"Ah, Shishido-san." The boy uses every last shred of willpower in his body to force a smile onto his face. He has to smile for him.
"You…" Shishido's expression is unreadable, except for his eyes. There is a dark turmoil straining against those eyes.
Shishido stops. After a moment, he flicks the younger boy across the forehead with a rough gentleness. "You fight good, you hear me?"
The sting of pain in his forehead is disappearing rapidly, and Choutarou presses the palm of his hand into it, wiling for the light pain to stay, to stay, because everything is disappearing out of his life and he needs to cling on to something, anything.
'Please don't go.'
All it takes is that little flick to put a crack in his fragile resolve.
He breaks, crying and sliding onto the floor.
"Choutarou! Oi! Get it together!" Shishido grabs him and lifts him up, forcing him to his feet. "Geez, if you're going to collapse from a little forehead flick, how are you gonna survive the thirty-five other people out for your blood in the arena?"
He chokes back his sobs.
"C'mon, this is lame," Shishido says, his voice gruff. He keeps his hands under Choutarou's arms, even though his kohai already standing. "You're a lot stronger than people think. You're a lot stronger than you think. You can win. So don't you dare give up."
'Because I will never give up on you.'
He just breathes, feeling the warmth of Shishido's hands through his jacket, wishing that Shishido would hold him and support him for a few seconds longer.
"Matoko Rie, from Hyotei, is captain of the girls' track team. She'll be fast and hard to catch…"
She halts to a stop, skidding over the blacktop.
"Rie-buchou!" A first year is staring at the stopwatch in her hand, eyes wide with awe. "You're really fast!"
She pants slightly, her hands on her knees. Her lips twist into a wry smile. "Fast enough to outrun a bullet?"
The first year stares, mouth moving but not speaking. "Uh… that is…"
She walks away. She doesn't need to hear the answer.
"Hiyoshi Wakashi's family teaches Kobujutsu…"
Gakuto sits down next to his friend. Neither of them looks at the other.
"So it's kind of lame, huh…" Gakuto finally scoffs. "The Games and all that."
"You'll be in there with Atobe and Ootori, you know."
"I'm not afraid of them," Hiyoshi says defiantly, his hands forming fists. "I'm not afraid of them."
'I'm afraid of the idea of killing them.'
The redhead shrugs, swinging his legs to the side. For a moment he pauses, wording his thoughts. "Atobe is strong, though…"
"So was Kabaji, and we all thought he would win."
Something tightens, twists within him at the mention of Kabaji's name. He brushes it off. "Matoko got picked too. I'd choose her as an ally. Any girl who can outrun Shishido has got have a chance in the Games."
His eyes light up in recognition. "Matoko-senpai? She came by the dojo a few times in middle school." Then they harden again. "But I don't need any allies."
Gakuto nods absently. Allies were a double-edged sword in the Games. He exhales angrily. "Atobe is a jerk. He could have volunteered for you. Instead, he saved that Toudou girl."
Hiyoshi doesn't answer. He knows why Atobe didn't volunteer for him. They are more alike than people think.
Gakuto glares at the ground some more. Then he kicks him lightly and offers him a smirk."Gekokujyou."
Hiyoshi returns the smile. "Aa. Gekokujyou."
"Kite Eishirou is known as the 'Killer'. You'll want to watch out for both him and Hirakoba Rin. They're both trained in Okinawan martial arts…'
Suddenly, the shadow appears in front of him. Hirakoba almost stumbles backwards as Kite emerges in front of him. He was always the best at the shukuchi method.
There is an ominous flash of light on Kite's rectangular lenses. Hirakoba feels a trickle of sweat drip down his brow. There is no way to explain how piercing, how deadly, how suffocating Kite's glare is. He's completely frozen.
Kite's voice is low and dangerous. "You better be ready."
"Morioka Izumi, the other girl from our year… she's vice-captain of the school's kyuudo team. Close combat will be her weakness…"
There was a thud as the arrow sank deep into the target board. Perfect bull's eye.
"Your condition is great as usual," Miyuki says. Her face softens. "I reckon you actually have a chance at the Games."
She stays silent.
"You could really win this, you know."
"Miyuki," is all she says. She places a hand on the other's shoulder, the contact light and ethereal, as if she was already vanishing from this world.
'It's been an honor serving as your vice-captain.'
"Kimura Suzume… the second year girl that volunteered for Oshiro. She's been getting into street fights since middle school. One of those punks. Be careful around her."
"Momoshiro." She waits expectantly. After a second, "You're not going to throw me a pity party?"
He doesn't know what to say. Two years of being in the same class as her, and he never, ever thought she would be the type to throw her life up for someone else. It just shows how much he doesn't know about the people beside him, he thinks. "You… that…" he swallows. "That took a lot of guts."
"I have a lot of guts. You'll see when they spill 'em in the Games."
He grimaces at the squeamish image, at how casually she throws it at him. "But… still. You didn't have to do that." You didn't have to sacrifice yourself.
She shrugs as if it was no big deal. "I've got a much bigger chance of winning than Oshiro-senpai does."
That's not it.
Her voice is suddenly serious. "Oshiro-senpai is too good, too nice. She wouldn't last five minutes in there. You remember that red-haired kid that was from our school last year? She'd end up like him."
Immediately, he clenches his fists to quell the bile rising in his throat. Of course he remembers that red-haired kid. 'Eiji-senpai…'
Cheerful, happy, Kikumaru. He never stood a chance.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Momoshiro still heard his screams.
He meets Suzume's gaze, and something passes between them then – a look of understanding, of acceptance.
A missed chance of friendship.
She tosses her hair, turning away. "If you're betting this year, I'd bet on me."
As she walks away, Momoshiro calls out, "Hey, when you win, I'm treating you to burgers."
She gives him a casual wave in return. "No pickle on mine."
It is an empty promise, but they both know that.
"Inui?" Fuji asks as the black haired boy pauses in between turning the page.
"Why are you telling both of us this?"
Inui looks at him. Then he turns his head and looks at Oishi – the dull-eyed, ashen faced boy beside him. He'd never been the same after his best friend's death. In fact, right now he seems to hover between life and death, fading from this world in his despair. And Inui knows that losing both Tezuka and Fuji would kill him.
He grips his pencil tightly, locking his jaw.
"One of you has to win. One of you has to come back."
"Sanada Genichirou. Do not let him get to a sword. If he manages to get one, your success rate will fall fifty percent."
"Sanada…?" Fuji opens his eyes. "Didn't we play him in a tennis tournament?"
"Aa," Tezuka responds. "Three years ago." It seems like a century ago.
"Right. He was the one with the really fast swing, right?"
"His family teaches kendo,' Inui warns. "That's why he can swing the racket with that much speed. If you think that's fast, imagine what he can do with a katana. You must not let him get a sword."
"Duly noted," Fuji says lightly, smiling.
"There's also Kirihara Akaya. They call him the devil."
The boy is hunched against the wall in the hallway, his head on his knees. He is curled up into a tight little ball, as if trying to shut out everything, trying to pretend that it all wasn't happening.
"Oi, Akaya," Marui tries. "Come on. It's not that big a deal, you know."
"Sanada-fukubuchou is going to be there. He'll take care of you," Jackal murmurs. "And Hayashi-chan is super fond of you, so she'll look out for you too."
"I can't do it…" came the muffled response. "I can't…"
Everyone in the school is already putting money on Akaya to win, after seeing his violent performance on the tennis courts.
But they don't know how after every match Akaya is shaking, shaking with fear and disgust and self-loathing over what he's done, and how he simply can't—he just can't-stand hurting other people.
How he hates the color red – red like his eyes, red like the way his skin flushes, red like the blood that paints his victims.
Marui and Jackal know, though, so they huddle a little closer.
He may be called a devil, but that's really just a name.
"That's all I have," Inui finally closes his book.
"Wait," Fuji says, frowning. "That was only four schools. There should be two more."
"I don't…" Inui fumbles. "I don't have any research on those contestants, so…"
But Fuji's fast, and in a second, the notebook is open in front of him. "Hmm…"
"Fuji…" Inui halts.
He scans the names quickly. "Kite… Atobe… Hmm… who's this? Yamabuki… Akutsu Jin…"
"Akutsu?" Kawamura says in surprise. "Did you say Akutsu?"
"Ah," Fuji turns to him. "Do you know him, Taka-san?"
"Yeah… sort of," His eyes cloud with memories. "He came to this dojo I went to once. He's a really good fighter, but he doesn't play by the rules."
But there are no rules in the Games, except kill or be killed.
Fuji nods, and goes back to scanning the names. "Sengoku Kiyosumi, Minagawa Reiko, Soto Tetsuya…"
Then suddenly, his eyes catch on a name on the bottom. His whole body freezes up. He feels like he is drowning on his own breath –god, he can't breathe—his lungs are contracting, squeezing his chest and forcing his heart to hammer desperately against his ribs. He can't move, he can't move.
Time comes to a standstill.
The only thing he can do is stare and stare and stare – even though he's trying so damn hard to tear his eyes away - at those black letters, spelling out the last name on the list.
"You have a high probability of winning…" Yanagi says.
Sanada resists the urge to snort. "Really."
"Higher than most of the other contestants," the brown-headed boy informs him. "There's that girl from Yamabuki and the boy from Higa Chuu… but your chances are good."
He looks out the window, staring at absolutely nothing. "Last year you said Niou had high chances."
"Niou,,," Yukimura points out gently. "Would've won. We all thought he would win."
They were all so sure he would win. There were only two people left in the arena. And Niou had the gun.
It would've been so easy.
Instead, he faced the camera and gave the whole world the middle finger. Then he pressed the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
'I'm done with playing your games.'
It was the first time he heard Yagyuu scream, Yukimura remembers. It made sense. Niou was the only person who could ever shatter his 'gentlemen' image in the first place.
Abruptly the guards arrive to take the contestants away. Sanada rises, and with that, both Yanagi and Yukimura get to their feet as well. It is such a simple gesture – borne of respect and friendship, but it strikes something deep within him.
Suddenly, he turns.
"Renji. Yukimura. Can I ask something?"
He hesitates. "Earlier…when you were going to volunteer… were you trying to save me, or Akaya?"
'Or,' Sanada suddenly realizes that there is a third possibility, a more obvious possibility that he overlooked. 'Or were you planning on dying in the arena with me? The three of us, together?'
Yukimura and Yanagi exchange a glance, and after a brief pause, it's the Master that speaks.
"Genichirou, you don't want to have these kinds of thoughts plaguing you in the arena."
It's obvious what his message is.
'You don't want to know.'
Sanada nods stiffly.
Kirihara joins him, his nose runny and his eyes red from crying. Marui reaches over and ruffles his hair one last time. It used to bug him so much when his senpai did that. Now he wishes that Marui will never stop.
The guards lead them out. As they are about to exit the room, they hear Yukimura's voice. It is soft and hard at the same time, with a warning edge, just like the orders he gives during practice.
"Always win, Rikkaidai."
Sanada wonders if this is the one command that he will fail to obey.
A/N: My main focus will probably be on Tezuka, Fuji, Sanada and Kirihara.
I recently was hospitalized and just got out today. Also, it's my birthday in four days. You know what would make me happy? Reviews.