Title: El Alma del Tango

Author: Kiarene
Pairings: Sanada / Atobe

Rating: G
Summary: No other dance connects two people more closely than the tango.

Published: 13th August 2005
Disclaimer: I would love to own Atobe-sama and gang but I dont.

 

A/N: After a while, Sanada started to use his teammates first names. Its to be expected; they have been friends for so many years. Ive watched until episodes 178, so anything after that, Im just using my imagination and having fun. This chapter opens while Sanada and Atobe are still in their last year in Middle School.

 

 

El Alma del Tango

 

2nd Dance

 

 

Something very fundamental changed between us during the Junior Senbatsu Match that year. We were always rivals, but for the first time, we were partners.

 

When we were told at the very last minute that we would be playing Doubles 2, my back stiffened. Not only were we, who normally play singles, now relegated to doubles, Doubles 2 was traditionally considered the weaker pair. I half-turned to Atobe, expecting him to kick up a fuss. However, he only looked at Coach Sakaki, mouth tight, and gave a nod of understanding.

 

I was flabbergasted. How could Atobe, of all people, not feel offended? Insulted?

 

Looks like Sakaki wanted us to set the tone for this match, Atobe commented as we started warm-up, his tone careful. I exhaled angrily.

 

His brows dipped in a frown. Understand this. I dont like this anymore than you do because I *am* a Singles 1 player. But I also understand that

 

And it hit me, shamefully.

 

this is the coachs decision, I finished for him. That our teams victory comes first. He gave me a nod. We should always strive to do our best, no matter what we are asked to do.

 

Because of this, we *will* win. I said matter-of-factly.

 

Of course.

 

This was a team event, and while the traditional line-up was to send the weaker players first, that fails if the other team sends their strongest first. After all, the first team to secure three victories wins and it was sometimes useless to hold your ace players for last. Fudomine proved that against Hyotei during the district tournament. Ironically, many ace players in fact do not get a chance to play in tournaments because they were slated for Singles 1.

 

We took the lead initially. We knew the opponents were holding back; even so, a 40 lead was ridiculous. When they showed their power though, showed that they had been *toying* with us all the way as they evened the score, we were pissed. Especially Atobe. But hes not the kind to yell or do anything crass; he held it in admirably. Until I looked at his eyes and saw the hard tension there as the score climbed against us.

 

That was when he brought out the ace he had been saving, that astonishing serve. Everybody was stunned, including me.

 

The Tannhuser serve.

 

This time, I got a better look at it. It was a brilliant technique. Fast, powerful, and with the way it skimmed the ground like Fujis Tsubame Gaeshi, there was absolutely no way the other side could have returned it.

 

I turned to stare at him in awe. Atobe was frozen in his position, muscles straining and a look of absolute concentration on his face. He looked beautiful.

 

Something clicked during that game. I didnt do anything as Atobe worked hard to hold our service game. I could tell that the technique wasnt perfect yet and Atobe lost control of it a couple of times, but he held on. By the time he won that game, he was panting hard.

 

My respect for him climbed another notch. He pushed hard. I could do no less.

 

Even though he was noticeably more tired after that, he tried to hold up his end of the game. I looked at him, shoulders heaving slightly as he fought for breath, sweat running down his face, knowing he hadnt recovered fully from his service game. He was at his limit and I knew I had to cover for him, whether he liked it or not.

 

When I returned a ball he should have caught, he turned to me furiously. That was my ball!

 

Right now, winning the game comes first. Ill listen to your complaints after we win.

 

I looked at him, subtly reminding him of what we spoke about just before the game. The tango music we enjoyed at the concert ran through my head, and for a moment, it brought me back to that day. We were alone, the crowd fading in the background and the only thing I noticed was Atobe.

 

I was curt, even rude. But then, Atobe capitulated graciously. His anger melted away as he chuckled. He may be a diva, loved basking in the limelight, but he never lost sight of the goal, never placed his own glory over his teams. He took a moment to *think* about what I said instead of blowing up, and he realized the importance of our teamwork. Something else clicked at that point.

 

*We* clicked.

 

From that moment on, the match swung back in our favor. As singles, Im sure we could have won. But the other pair had experience as a doubles pair, while Atobe and I frequently clashed for the ball. Not literally, but there were tense occasions where we growled at each other for possession of the ball, blamed the other for losing a point. Thinking that if *I* had gotten it

 

But no more.

 

We started to work together. I took a chance and ran up to the net for an advance guard formation. Atobe caught on quickly, Fumbling at first, but we rapidly aligned in sync. We had no previously arranged sign-plays or formation, but a quick nod or glance, and we knew when to run for the ball, when to give.

 

We may not have played doubles before but we have led our teams, we knew how doubles work. Our experience showed.

 

When we line up like this, it reminds me of that day, Atobe commented during a lull in the game as we caught our breath.

 

No need to explain I knew which day. The music swelled. Heh. Youre right.

 

He smiled.

 

Lee and I exchanged a series of rapid volley; one of my shots broke through. Cassidy caught it but it was a clumsy lob. Immediately, I knew Atobe would not miss such a chance. Even as I was turning, he was leaping into the air, graceful and poised for his famous finishing move.

 

It wont work, I thought frantically. Cassidy would be able to

 

His eyes slid to mine for a split second but he continued in his motion. I scrambled behind him, ready to catch the counter volley from Cassidy. But watching Atobe, I noticed that his jump wasnt as high as it should be, not if he wished to smash

 

And I knew what to do. He didnt mean for it to work.

 

All eyes were on him and when I leapt up behind him to take the ball, he lowered his racket. It was a brilliant feint. This is what double partners do, I thought. Not only do they cover each other, they also set up the shots for each other. Atobe, with the way he could read a game, was a good game-maker. And, it occurred to me, that somehow, while watching Atobe all these years, I have gotten used to his play; I could read him. Like a partner.

 

Oy Sanada. Atobe smirked after that, the crowds cheering enthusiastically. That music has been running through my head for a while now.

 

Aa. Me too.

 

I knew how to tango; Im sure Atobe does as well even if I had never asked him. Its just the sort of thing I expect he knew. And tango we did, carried by the music, as we took alternate shots in a four-beat rally. Once we caught the rhythm, we *flowed*.

 

At match point, when he leapt up again at a chance ball, I ran behind him, ready to cover for him again. Noting that he was serious about the smash this time his racket arcing overhead with his usual power I prepared for Cassidys counter volley. And in a stroke of inspiration, I aimed my smash at Cassidys grip I had watched Atobe often enough to know how to do it.

 

Atobe didnt flinch as the ball sped past him, and catching the beat perfectly as Cassidys racket clattered to the ground, he leapt up again for the finishing smash.

 

It was a moment of perfect harmony.

 

~

 

The Americans played a good game and we were pushed hard. Of course we didnt like to admit it. When the coaches and teammates congratulated us, he merely smirked, composed as usual. I was my disinterested self. Our teammates commented we were cold, but we knew it was our usual style.

 

When I thought about it later, I realized that no, it was not our usual style. Something changed. He grated on my nerves initially, while he probably thought me a bore at first. As I grew to understand him, I started to accept his quirks. I started to respect him as a rival.

 

But we never had to work together. Even if we were on the same team, what of it? Team members jockey among themselves for the coveted positions. And Atobe and I were always Singles players.

 

But that day, I started to respect him as my partner. When my Rikkadai team members approached me later to talk about the match, I found myself strangely reluctant to elaborate. It became something else we shared, something private.

 

~

 

Atobe, I called.

 

End of the year, and school has just finished. The third years graduated and we were all now excited about going onto high school. The trees were bare, like the once bustling corridors and classrooms of the schools, waiting for the new year.

 

Atobe turned around, his bored expression melting into a pleased smile when he saw me. The weather was cold and he was wearing a my eyes widened a leopard print trench coat. I found myself smiling in amusement at the sight; it should have looked pretentious on anybody else but Atobe. Only Atobe.

 

Sanada. He stopped and allowed me to catch up. What are you doing here?

 

I shrugged. Nothing.

 

Atobe huffed lightly in laughter. Are you bored already, with no tennis, no school?

 

The wind blew, a frigid breath that heralded the entry of winter, and Atobe shivered, drawing his coat tightly around himself. Are you cold? I asked in concern. He looked so slender it was no wonder he felt the cold easily.

 

Its nothing. If we start walking, Ill warm up.

 

Aa. Headed for anywhere in particular?

 

Not really. Atobe turned down a side street and I followed, curious. His tone turned pensive. Graduating from middle school got me nostalgic, I guess. Just had the urge to walk past Hyotei one more time.

 

Youll be back in Hyotei next year, wont you?

 

Yes, Ill be in Hyotei High School, but its not the same campus. We slowed down as we neared Hyotei. Youll go onto Rikkadai High School I presume?

 

Of course. I watched him as he came to a stop, hands in pockets as he stared towards the empty compound. The school gate was closed. Any regrets?

 

No, of course not He trailed off. Well.

 

He was silent for a long time. I should have been a better captain.

 

I startled at his whisper. It was the first time I had ever heard him insecure. What?

 

Hyotei won last year but this year, under my leadership, we were utterly humiliated at the District Tournaments and Kantou Finals. I know what the others say we only made it to the Nationals because Hyotei hosted it.

 

Thats not true, I retorted immediately. You were not playing in the District matches at all; I daresay that was your coachs fault for underestimating your opponents and sending in the reserve team.

 

But

 

Listen. I stepped in front of him and grabbed him by the lapels of his expensive coat. Your teams performance in the Kantou Finals was good; unfortunately you had bad luck to go up against Seigaku in the first round. But your team played well and that is whats important. In fact, people still talk about the match between you and Tezuka and I daresay people will still be talking about it years from now. It was definitive.

 

His eyes widened in shock at my words.

 

Your teams performance in the Nationals was brilliant.

 

His mouth twisted in part pride, in part bitterness. Yes they were good, werent they? But we *still* lost to Seigaku in the finals

 

It was a very close fight, I remembered clearly. It could have easily gone either way.

 

Everyone played beyond their limits in the Nationals; everyone surpassed themselves. I held his eyes, willing him to see what I myself took a long time to realize after the Nationals. We were *all* winners.

 

Atobe swallowed, clearly wanting to believe me. But compared to Tezuka, I

 

Its not about Tezuka! I yelled. Shocked, he fell silent.

 

You know what I think? I rarely lost my cool, but when I do, it was as if a floodgate opened. I think you were a superlative captain. You know why?

 

I leaned in, lowering my voice.

 

Its easy to be a good leader when youre winning, but when youre losing, when morale is flagging and when your team is just one step from giving up thats when a real captain shows his mettle. Tachibana did it when he pulled Fudomine back from last years disgrace. And you did it when you rallied your team *and* your school, not once but twice. And each time, Hyotei came back much stronger. *That* is leadership.

 

Feeling a bit dramatic but not caring, I swept an arm out behind me to indicate his school. When your team lost, did they ever doubt you? Did the school withdraw their support? Did your coach replace you?

 

No, Atobe breathed. His hands came up to wrap around mine, which were still fisted in his coat.

 

Do you still doubt your leadership?

 

No.

 

We stared at each other and slowly, I finally released my hands.

 

His lips curved up. Thank you.

 

~

 

I got a text message from him on New Years Day.

 

[See you on the courts this year.]

 

I smiled, knowing what he meant. Looking up at the fireworks, I wondered if Atobe was watching them too.

 

~

 

Surprisingly, or not, our paths started to cross more often. Schoolwork increased in high school and it was all too easy to lose contact with kouhai back in middle school, much less someone from another school, but we started to take the initiative to actively contact each other.

 

I knew Atobe liked to browse bookshops on Saturday mornings. He often found me Sunday evenings in the music shop near my house. I introduced him to the coffee that was sold in the caf just next to that shop. He made it a point to email me about Latin music concerts. I would email him with details about classical music, another favorite of his. Initially, I didnt like classical music much but it grew on me.

 

We talked about finishing that match.

 

~

 

Atobe leaned back in his chair with a contemplative look. We never got to finish our match, did we?

 

I shook my head, knowing where this was going.

 

He nibbled daintily at the biscuit that accompanied his coffee. Then, are you free this Sunday? We can meet at the street courts.

 

Im free. But the street courts are always packed on weekends, I pointed out.

 

He thought for a moment. How about the community lot beside the rail tracks? The courts there are quite run-down and not many people like to go there.

 

All right. I remembered that court; it was where I first played with Echizen. Echizen the first time I played against Echizen wasnt during the Kantou Finals but it was on that court. The Finals were postponed.

 

I found myself telling Atobe about the match. About how I beat him but he bounced back scarcely a week later.

 

Just like Echizen, Atobe gave a rueful laugh. His talent is scary and I have no doubt he has not yet reached his full potential.

 

I heard hes doing well in America, I murmured, a hint of envy in my voice. He will probably debut as a pro as soon as he comes of age.

 

I have no doubt about that as well. Atobe picked up his cup of coffee, swirling it thoughtfully before he took a sip. And you?

 

Me?

 

He looked at me over the rim of his cup. Do you have plans for playing professionally as well?

 

People have asked me that and I usually ignore them, leaving them to draw their own conclusions. But the quietness in Atobes question tugged at me. I I admit I have dreams of turning pro, but plans no. Its easy to say I want to play professionally, but there are a lot of other factors to consider.

 

Atobe blinked, gave me a slow smile. Youre very honest.

 

I looked at him shrewdly. I think you understand what I mean very well.

 

Atobe set his empty cup down with a clink, his gaze turning wistful. I would love to even have the chance to play professionally. But I cannot.

 

Aa. While Atobe was probably one of the few in our age group most likely to succeed as a pro, after Echizen, he also was the only heir to the Atobe fortune. It was not easy.

 

No. It would not be easy. But he shouldnt give up before he even tried.

 

However, the life of a professional athlete is short and your father will not retire for many more years. I tried to sound hopeful, but I also knew how familial ties could clip ones wings.

 

Maybe. Atobe pursed his lips unhappily. Do you think anyone else would turn pro?

 

From our age group you mean?

 

Yes.

 

I thought for a moment. Akaya Seigoku Who else do you think would?

 

Tezuka, Atobe said softly.

 

I felt myself frown in irritation. Looking up, I noticed the overcast skies with a grunt. Rainy seasons coming.

 

Atobe gave me an odd look, but let my odd behavior go. Even I didnt know what came over me.

 

You going anywhere after that? Atobe asked amicably. After the rainy season in June dried up, it was a favorite time for Japanese to travel in July.

 

Maybe somewhere cool to escape the summer, like Hokkaido. Tokyo is like a sauna in summer. I didnt sound too hopeful; I knew just about everybody else would have the same idea.

 

Hokkaidos popular in summer, Atobe pointed out. It will be very crowded.

 

If I cant go, I cant go. I shrugged. I pushed my plate across to him; Im not that fond of biscuits and I know he has a sweet tooth.

 

Atobe picked up my biscuit with a slight smile. Ive a cottage up in Hokkaido.

 

I raised a brow. Ive heard about, and seen, Atobes cottages. Tennis *teams* from rival schools have been invited to play with Hyotei at his cottages, and everyone was always fully pampered.

 

I was supposed to go with some members from my team, but Gakuto and Jiroh cant make it. Why dont you invite a friend as well?

 

Youre assuming I would go, I said flatly.

 

Wouldnt you? He grinned impishly at me. Damn his confidence. I knew I would it was an irresistible offer and I had no other plans for Obon week.

 

Invite Kirihara, Atobe told me. And bring your rackets.

 

Somehow Im not too surprised. Akaya would have been my first choice, considering the other people going on this trip. Atobe liked Akaya but was always indifferent towards Seiichi. And Akaya got along well with the Hyotei team; Ive no doubt he would have fitted in well there.

 

Anything else? I asked dryly, feeling distinctly steam-rollered. A common feeling around Atobe.

 

Atobe stood up, draping his jacket over his shoulders with a stylish swirl. Four oclock on Sunday. Dont be late.

 

~*~

 

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