Akaya counted off the days of the past week in his mind, as he walked toward the tennis courts. One day of recovery from Nationals, to make sure no one had injured themselves in an excess of enthusiasm, as Yanagi-senpai put it. Three frantic days of learning what paperwork the captain of the tennis club had to take care of while the rest of the club sorted out their new rankings. Two rather boring days of proving that, yes, he was still the best player out of the first and second years. And third, too, barring Sanada-san and Yukimura-san, but that didn’t matter any more. One day to sit home and catch his breath and bite his nails.
And now here he was, for his first day as captain of this club.
He came most of the way down the stairs to the courts and stopped. He was fairly sure he could make himself heard over the noise of horseplay and half-hearted warming up, but he really didn’t want to invite comparisons to Sanada-san, who had been able to do it with no effort at all. So he just stood and waited. It worked. Quiet spread across the courts, and everyone drifted toward him. Akaya tried to banish his nervousness; he didn’t succeed very well. At least, he reflected, he could be reasonably sure he wasn’t showing it to everyone else.
“I’m not going to say this will be an easy year,” he stated, without preamble. “It won’t. Our strongest players are gone, and however hard we work it isn’t likely this year’s team will be as strong. We aren’t them.” He saw some grimaces, and a few expressions of resentment, but not many. It was an obvious truth that few, if any, of them could become what Yukimura or Sanada or Yanagi was. Akaya nodded, and raised his voice. “It doesn’t matter. What we are is Rikkai. We will win.” A murmur passed through them, and nods, sharp and proud. They were Rikkai; they might or might not be the best, but they would damn well try. “Regulars, stay here. The rest of you, get warmed up. I want first years playing against second years.”
The club scattered, chattering, first years either groaning or bouncing, depending on how confident they were. His new team gathered around Akaya.
“Inspiring speech, there,” Furuya said, with some sarcasm.
Akaya gave him a narrow look. “You want me to send a message up to the third years, so Sanada-senpai can come down to play you and you can prove me wrong?” he asked, secure in the knowledge that Furuya would sooner carve out his own liver with a spoon than do any such thing.
Furuya looked away.
“Didn’t think so. All right, we should have doubles pretty well sewn up through Regionals; most of our major competition have half pairs left. When we get closer to the tournaments, we’ll work more on that, but for now I want to focus on singles.”
“Kirihara,” Hiiyama interjected, quietly, and nodded off to the side when Akaya glanced at him.
Akaya turned to see an adult standing at the wall around the courts, watching them all. He thought he recognized the man as one of the coaches. What now?
“I’ll see about it,” he said. “Hiiyama, rotate the doubles players against the singles.”
His vice-captain nodded.
“Waste of what we’re best at,” Furuya grumbled, quietly. “Real doubles players never play as well in singles.”
Akaya spared a moment to be thankful, first that he only had one dedicated doubles pair to deal with, and second that Furuya’s partner, Chiba, could usually curb Furuya’s quarrelsomeness. “Learn,” he snapped over his shoulder. “You never know when there might be an accident that demands you play alone.”
After the hell of the past year, mention of accidents shut everyone up, and Hiiyama started to sort them out as Akaya stalked over to the man watching them.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
The man smiled at him, which surprised Akaya a bit considering his tone hadn’t been the politest. He examined their visitor a little more closely. Tall, but rangy rather than big. Dark. Pretty nondescript. The only notable features were a pair of sharp, champagne colored eyes. And the smile.
“Actually, I was wondering if I could help you. Kirihara-kun, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Akaya admitted, a touch warily.
“Suzuoki,” the man introduced himself. “The faculty advisor for the tennis club is doing a little reorganization this year, and I noticed no one seemed to be assigned to work with the junior high division. I thought I’d come see how things were going.”
Akaya smirked. He hadn’t been around for it, but he’d certainly heard the story from his senpai, about how the advisor had said the wrong thing to Yukimura-san and been run off. All the coaches had stayed well away from them, actually. He eyed Suzuoki, wondering whether he’d heard the story too.
Suzuoki eyed him back. “You don’t look like the type to bite heads off, but I understand the last captain didn’t either.”
That sounded like a yes.
“And you seem to have a pretty fractious bunch fairly well in hand,” Suzuoki continued, “so I’ll refrain from snap judgments, I think. Which leaves us with the real question: do you want my help?”
Akaya considered this. They had done well enough without either advisors or coaches for the past two years. But what he’d told the club held true here, too. The team didn’t have Sanada-san and Yanagi-senpai to put together training schedules for them anymore. Akaya wasn’t sure he believed Suzuoki would have the fine touch for it that those two did, but he knew for sure that he himself didn’t. He couldn’t turn away something that would help him strengthen his team.
On the other hand, he was used to the idea of working without interference, and didn’t especially like the idea of someone who thought he could override the team captain. How to tell whether this guy would be more trouble than he was worth?
A sudden thought struck Akaya, and he grinned. “How do you feel about paperwork?” he asked.
Suzuoki looked like he was biting back a grin of his own. “I’ll lend you my office, if you need a quiet place to work on it,” he offered, blandly.
Okay, not a stick in the mud, and not a pushover either. Akaya’s grin sharpened. He could work with that. “I might take you up on that. And yeah, I think I would like your help. Suzuoki-sensei.”
“Good.” Suzuoki leaned against the wall. “So, what do you need, Kirihara-kun?”
Akaya ran an absent hand through his hair. “Like I was telling them, I want to work on singles for now…”
Akaya was perfectly willing to admit when he’d been wrong. Well, maybe not perfectly, but he was lucky enough not to have voiced his doubts to anyone but himself, and therefore didn’t have to admit the mistake to anyone else, either. Suzuoki was turning out to be a great deal of help.
Of course, he also drove Akaya absolutely nuts, but that was at least half Akaya’s own fault.
“I think it’s time Ueda started practicing more often against you,” Suzuoki mused over his clipboard. “He’s starting to win pretty regularly against both Kuwabara and Tsunoda. He needs to work against someone with a stronger focus on technique.”
“He came along faster than I was expecting,” Akaya admitted, leaning on the wall beside Suzuoki where they could watch the team practice.”The climbing exercises you gave him really helped his speed.”
Suzuoki smiled. He never said Of course, but, then, the results said it for him. Akaya snorted.
“Now that singles are in hand, Kirihara-kun, have you noticed what’s been happening in doubles?” Suzuoki asked.
Akaya frowned. “I’ve noticed that Tsunoda and Kuwabara have seemed… a little odd lately. Distracted, maybe.”
“Mm.” Another smile. “I was working with the first years last week. Tsunoda is gravitating toward Sakamoto. They make a good pair; quite possibly a stronger pair than Tsunoda and Kuwabara. I expect Sakamoto will suggest the idea some time soon.”
Akaya winced. There were a lot of stories about his temper, he knew. And, for that matter, Hiiyama, while normally a quiet guy, could go off like a warehouse full of fireworks when pushed too far. But Sakamoto topped them all. Mouthier than Furuya, more explosive than Hiiyama, and meaner than Akaya when the mood was on him. Akaya occasionally had to wonder whether it was compensation for being small and delicate looking. He was also, however, an excellent doubles player, and had remarkable rapport with the few partners he really bonded to. What a mess. Akaya slanted a look at his coach and crossed his mental fingers.
“Do we allow that kind of ranking challenge in the middle of the year?” he asked, as innocently as he could manage.
Suzuoki raised his brows and looked back, amused. “I don’t know, Kirihara-kun, do we?”
Akaya sighed. Oh well, it had been worth a try. “I’ll look into it,” he muttered, leaning back on his hands.
He did have a certain reluctant admiration for the way Suzuoki managed not to be conned into things like this. And he had to admit, the presence of a coach who was willing to let Akaya keep full authority over the team was a blessing. The entire club followed Suzuoki’s lead without thinking twice about it. But Suzuoki steadfastly maintained that Akaya had to lie in whatever bed he chose to make. Either he could shove off half of the administrative chores onto Suzuoki, and half his authority with it, or else he could keep one hundred percent of both.
It did not entirely help that Akaya was convinced that, if Yukimura-san knew about all this, he would gently point out that it was good experience for Akaya and that he could hardly fault the man for his integrity. And that Yukimura-san would then go somewhere else and laugh for a long time. Akaya wasn’t sure whether this would be better or worse than the stern lecture that would, no doubt, be forthcoming from Sanada-san if he knew. And he just wasn’t going to think about how Niou-senpai would respond. Altogether, he thought he was grateful that they were all busy studying for their exams.
He pushed off from the wall. “Well, no time like the present. Ueda! You’re playing a set with me, come on!”
Akaya was busy enough that December came as a surprise.
The visit came as a surprise, too, though it shouldn’t have.
“Kirihara-kun,” Suzuoki, put in, between last minute admonitions to Sakamoto at the end of the day’s practice, “you have visitors, I think.”
Akaya looked up, blinking, and around to see Yukimura-san and Sanada-san leaning against the wall, watching the club members trickle past on their way out the doors. He was torn between two such strongly conflicting impulses that, for a moment, he swayed on his feet. He wanted to hide behind Yukimura-san and beg him to take care of all this crap. He wanted them to go away, far away, from his team, his people.
He was vaguely aware of Suzuoki taking over the conversation with Sakamoto, and shook off the moment of disorientation before walking over to greet his erstwhile captain and vice-captain. Yukimura-san smiled as he approached.
“Akaya. We stopped by to see how you were doing. Things look well.”
Akaya, who had been feeling harried all day, laughed. “I guess so. Except for the paperwork. And maybe Sakamoto.”
Yukimura-san glanced over his shoulder to where Sakamoto was tossing his bright hair, restlessly, in response to whatever Suzuoki had said. “That one?”
“Yeah.” Akaya raked a hand through his own hair. “Temper like a powder keg, and you wouldn’t believe the mouth on him.”
Sanada-san snorted and gave him an extremely sardonic look. Akaya flushed and looked down, abruptly recalled to his relationship with Sanada-san as the order keeper of the old team.
Yukimura-san was a bit more polite about it, though his eyes danced. “Well, maybe he’ll be as good for your team as you were for mine.”
Akaya fought down a twitch as his world view flip-flopped again. Yes, it was his team here, now. Sakamoto was his problem, he was not their problem. Right.
Yukimura-san set him spinning again with a sharp look at Suzuoki. “And this coach? He isn’t giving any of you any trouble?” The hard edge in Yukimura-san’s voice said very clearly that he would step in if Akaya was having trouble. The thought that Yukimura-san still considered Akaya his to protect warmed Akaya like an embrace, but at the same time it was in conflict with everything he had spent months telling himself and acting on. Rikkai might not be as cutthroat as Hyoutei, but it was a lot wilder. If Akaya was going to succeed as captain, he couldn’t let himself be seen leaning on Yukimura-san’s strength.
“No,” he managed, “Suzuoki-sensei has been a lot of help.” He wanted to elaborate, but was afraid it would just draw him deeper into the spiral of clashing perspectives.
“Good. And the rest of the team? I remember you were a little concerned about Ueda.”
Responses rushed through Akaya’s mind. Well, yes, but I’m worrying differently these days, because they’re coming along, and Hiiyama can almost match me, his speed makes up for a short reach you know, but I’m worried because I’m measuring all of them against myself, because I’m the best there is, here, now, but will that be enough against the other schools, and what if my own edge is blunted exactly because I’m the best here, now, and I can’t bring them on enough and we lose?
Akaya couldn’t say any of it.
There was no good reason why he couldn’t talk shop with Yukimura-san, and compare captainly woes with him, except that… it was Yukimura-san. He could feel himself slipping, falling back into someplace more comfortable, where all he had to worry about was his own game. He could feel himself stiffening, too, trying to pull himself back together under the sidelong looks of the lingering club members.
“Ueda’s doing much better,” he answered, as evenly as he could. “Like I said, Suzuoki-sensei has a lot of good ideas for training exercises.”
Yukimura-san tipped his head and gave Akaya a long, slightly quizzical, look before his eyes softened. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m sure your team will do well this year, Akaya.” He touched Akaya’s shoulder in parting, and swept Sanada-san out with him, leaving Akaya in possession of the tennis club’s domain. Akaya was fairly sure he’d done that on purpose, and reminded himself not to squander the gift by collapsing in a stressed heap or scuttling off to hide in the club rooms until he got a grip again. Instead, he took a long breath and strolled back to Suzuoki, as if to finish a discussion with him.
“Impressive,” Suzuoki commented, quietly. “I don’t think anyone has ever delivered such a sharp warning to me without saying a word.”
“Yukimura-san’s like that,” Akaya said, stifling a shiver.
Suzuoki looked him up and down, measuring. “Well, you’ve got your work cut out for you, haven’t you?”
Akaya mustered a glare. “Gee, thanks.”
“My pleasure,” his coach murmured.
The man really did drive him absolutely nuts. And half the time it wasn’t Akaya’s fault at all.
Akaya rather liked Suzuoki’s office. Of course, it wasn’t just his, several other teachers shared it. But at this time of day the other teachers had generally left, and Akaya could take possession of the extremely battered, brown armchair someone had wedged into one corner at some point, while Suzuoki worked at his desk. Akaya had no idea what he did with those stacks of books that were always threatening to topple across or completely off of his workspace; it looked more like research than grading or anything. The office was quiet and warm, though, and if the paper dust made him sneeze every now and then it was a small price to pay.
Akaya tossed yet another page of equipment request forms on the growing stack by the chair, and stretched his arms over his head. He could hear when his spine popped.
“I really, really hate these things,” he declared, glaring at the remaining sheets.
“Enough to get someone else to do them?” Suzuoki asked, as he often did when Akaya grumbled.
Akaya eyed his coach, who hadn’t even looked up from whatever notes he was taking. “Not quite that much,” he sighed.
“I have to wonder what you would have done if I weren’t around to keep reminding you of that,” Suzuoki commented, sounding amused.
“I’d have still done them, of course,” Akaya told him, absently, biting the end of his pen as he tried to remember how many cases of balls he had wanted to order, “only I’d have had to get someone else to listen to me complain.”
Now Suzuoki looked up, with a thin smile that glinted in his eyes. “You know, every time I think your basic immaturity is shining through, Kirihara-kun, you surprise me.”
Akaya sniffed. He’d spent far too much time baiting people, himself, to rise to that one. “This chair needs new stuffing,” was all he said.
“I wasn’t actually expecting you to accept the offer to do your paperwork in here,” Suzuoki told him, returning to his books. “Most people don’t seem to be comfortable spending much time in my office.”
“What, just because you’re abrasive, snide and enjoy punching people’s buttons just so you can watch them go off?” Akaya waved a dismissive hand. “I’m used to that, Suzuoki-sensei.”
Suzuoki leaned back in his chair and laughed. “Most people have to be drunk before they can be that honest with someone senior to them,” he noted, recovering.
Akaya gave Suzuoki his most engaging smile. “But, Sensei, you’re the only one I can keep in practice with, anymore.”
Another glint. “Yes, you do seem to be more stable when you have regular opportunities to mouth off to someone. It’s worth putting up with your insolence to watch you gain control of your team. And of yourself. Besides, you can be amusing.”
Akaya paused, looking down at the papers in front of him. Yes, he had been aware that Suzuoki was encouraging such a casual relationship because he wanted Akaya to succeed. “Thank you,” he murmured.
“You’re welcome,” his coach answered, quite evenly.
And, of course, all this just made Akaya think of the other person who wanted him to succeed. The one he couldn’t face. He could deal with Suzuoki, and his sardonic sense of humor, and his silent sharpness, and his casual, unbending demands. Suzuoki kept his distance. Akaya could manage that. What he couldn’t deal with was Yukimura-san’s passionate caring.
Which was another good reason for sticking around Suzuoki’s office after practice. It minimized his chances of encountering Yukimura-san, and having to see that understanding look as Yukimura-san let him escape with nothing more demanding than a few pleasantries. It spared him having to see the flash of worry or almost-reaching-out that the understanding covered up. Which was a good thing, because damn it hurt to watch that. Akaya shifted, uncomfortably, in his chair. He didn’t like not being able to answer when Yukimura-san reached for him. But as soon as he did answer, he was overwhelmed again, and there went all the sureness and centeredness he needed to deal with his team. It wasn’t that he lost self-control; after all, that was one of the things Yukimura-san had helped him find.
It was just that, when he answered Yukimura-san, Yukimura-san became his center.
And when Yukimura-san had been his captain, that had been fine. But it wasn’t now, and Akaya wasn’t strong enough to stop it. On bad days, he wondered if he ever would be.
“Are you going to fill out those forms, or just brood at them in hopes they’ll spontaneously combust?” Suzuoki inquired.
Of course, there were also good reasons for not sticking around Suzuoki’s office. Akaya glared as best he could into the sun slanting in through the windows.
“It’s getting late. I’ll finish them tomorrow,” he declared, gathering up the stack and shoving it into his bag.
“See you tomorrow morning,” Suzuoki said, agreeably.
Akaya trudged out of the building and across the grounds, muttering to himself. “… really annoying … thinks he’s so cool … thinks he knows everything … worst part is when he does …”
“Ah, here he is.”
“I was starting to wonder whether you were planning to camp out in there, tonight!”
Akaya started at the familiar voices, and blinked to find Niou-senpai and Jackal-senpai falling in on either side of him.
“Senpai? What are you doing here?” he asked.
“We haven’t graduated quite yet,” Jackal-senpai pointed out, sounding amused.
Niou-senpai draped an arm over Akaya’s shoulders. “Thought you’d get rid of us that easily? Think again.” He grinned down at Akaya with just a hint of friendly malice.
Akaya sighed. “As if Suzuoki-sensei, and his bad sense of humor, wasn’t enough,” he shot back with as much forlorn resignation as he could manage.
Akaya ducked out of Niou-senpai’s hold, laughing, and nipped around the other side of Jackal-senpai. He paused there, and looked up, curious. “I thought you didn’t like looking after me, Jackal-senpai,” he said, a little hesitant.
“I’m remembering the reason why,” Jackal-senpai noted, dryly. But the exasperated gaze fixed on Akaya was warm. Akaya smiled, and ducked his head a little.
“Someone mentioned that you’ve been staying late,” Niou-senpai provided, recapturing him by the ends of his scarf and reeling him in. “We thought we’d see how you were doing. Maybe drag you out for a while.”
“If I can’t avoid you, the least you can do is feed me,” Akaya agreed, pleasantly. The conversational tone of this insolence earned a gratifying double take; it was a trick he’d learned from Suzuoki.
Niou-senpai arched his brows and gave Akaya a long, slightly unnerving look. “Hmm.” An even more unnerving smile. “Let’s hit the University Cafe, then. You look like you’ve been studying way too hard for a second year. We can get you some coffee, too.”
“Food first,” Jackal-senpai specified, firmly. “I’ve seen Akaya on caffeine before, Niou.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Niou-senpai demanded.
“The problem is more your threshold for what you consider an adventure,” Jackal-senpai told him. “If you want someone who will let you run wild, get Yagyuu.”
Akaya let himself be swept along, feeling a little better about the whole world.