The Other Side

Kirihara deals with a stressful practice and finally snaps. In a good way. Drama, I-3

“We would have won if I’d been playing with him!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t have the reach to counter Chiba.”

You don’t have the speed!”

Akaya tried to unclench his teeth before he gave himself a headache. “Both of you be quiet,” he growled. Niiyama and Tsunoda shut up but didn’t stop glaring at each other, Niiyama’s eyes fiery and Tsunoda’s chill. Akaya throttled down the urge to whack them both over the heads with his racquet, and never mind that Tsunoda was tall enough he’d have to reach for it.

Sakamoto leaned against the fence, staying out of it for all he was worth, and Akaya wished once again that he knew whether that was because Sakamoto didn’t care or cared too much. He’d really like to figure out whether he could use Sakamoto to quash these fights or not. Right now he was stuck doing all the work himself, and it was getting old.

“I don’t suppose, just possibly, for the good of the team you’re both allegedly a part of, you could actually agree to share Sakamoto’s time instead of using him as your tug-of-war rope?” he asked with tired sarcasm, raking a hand through his hair.

“Yeah,” Furuya muttered from where he was fetching a water bottle, “after all, you had really good examples of sharing this past year, right?”

Akaya knew it had been a long practice, and that everyone was tired. He knew that when Furuya was tired he sneered more than ever. He knew it was now his responsibility to keep his temper when everyone else didn’t. But in the shocked silence following Furuya’s remark, Akaya could hear the singing rise of his own blood pressure and feel the clenching tightness in every muscle that meant he was going to break something very soon.

“Furuya,” he gritted out, enunciating carefully, “you will not say things like that, here.”

Later, Akaya would place the look on Furuya’s face as nervous bravado. At that moment, though, he saw only defiance and it tinged his vision in red. It had been more than a long day, for him, it had been a long four months. Rage hovered in the back of his mind, bright and gleeful.

“Or what?” Furuya shot back. “You’ll get Sanada-senpai to come down here?”

Akaya’s pride reared up, hauling him away from the edge. He would not be less than those three, and this court was his now. These people belonged to him, and it was his choices that would steer this team. Suddenly Furuya’s question, his doubt, was another opponent, and Akaya’s focus snapped around the question the way it closed around an opponent’s game. Ice washed through Akaya’s mind, replaced the red with stark clarity. “I am the captain of this club,” he said, very softly. “You will not say things like that in front of me.”

Furuya gave back a step and glanced away. “Yeah, fine.” His expression was unnerved, now.

Akaya turned away, dismissing him as the cool edge of his thoughts suggested something about the original problem. He swept a look over the three in front of him.

“Niiyama,” he said, at last, “I’m pulling you out of doubles. Your skills are solid enough there, you need to work on singles for a while. When I’m confident you’ve made a good start,” he continued over Niiyama’s choke of protest, “I’ll rotate Sakamoto out to singles and we’ll see how you and Tsunoda do as a pair.”

“What?!” Niiyama nearly screeched, blue eyes a bit wild. The look on Tsunoda’s face wasn’t any more sanguine.

“You’re the one who wanted a place on the team so badly,” Akaya rapped out. “Act like it. Or was I wrong about what you want? Because if I am you can leave now.”

Niiyama inhaled sharply and his chin came up. “Yes, Kirihara-buchou,” he said though his teeth.

Akaya swung his racquet up to his shoulder. “Good. Then come play a set with me.”

Niiyama’s eyes widened and then narrowed, and he followed readily. Akaya nodded to himself; better Niiyama focus that competitive streak on him than on Tsunoda.

And it did seem to do some immediate good. Niiyama’s game was as flamboyant as ever, but more efficient than usual. A stronger opponent drew him out. Akaya thought about that as he pulled out a ball for his next serve. Was this what Yukimura-san had seen, looking at him?

For one moment he was disoriented, as if he had stepped around the other side of a one-way mirror and seen a familiar room from a skewed angle. How had he gotten to be on this side? Akaya took a deep breath and pushed the strangeness away. He had a player who needed him to do this, to stand back and watch and think how to teach Niiyama something he might not want to hear.

Hmm. That did suggest something, though.

Akaya looked across the net and let himself lean into Niiyama’s anger and aggression. The edges of the world tucked in around them. “Niiyama!” he called.

“Yeah?” Niiyama shot back, eyeing him.

“Focus,” Akaya ordered. “Because I’m not holding back with you today.”

Niiyama’s eyes widened and whipped around to follow the serve as it tore past him, and snapped back to Akaya. His lips tightened, and Akaya saw it—the first surge of Niiyama’s intent pushing back against him.

“Much better,” he murmured to himself.

Suzuoki was waiting for him when they came off the court and Akaya dismissed practice. “Very nice,” he observed.

“Mm,” Akaya answered, taking a long drink. In the end, Niiyama had pushed him harder than he’d expected. “It’ll do for now. Though I wonder what will happen when I pair him with Tsunoda.”

“They’ll do well, as long as they have a reason to,” Suzuoki predicted, watching those two fall in on either side of Sakamoto. “You might consider arranging some practice games against rival teams for them.”

“Now there’s a thought.” Akaya tallied up teams that still had seasoned pairs in his head. “Wonder if Fudoumine still wants to draw and quarter me.”

Suzuoki snorted, having gotten that whole story out of Akaya weeks ago. “Well, how good are you at pretending to be reformed?”

“Hey!” Akaya glared. “Though, you know,” he added as Suzuoki chuckled into his cigarette, “I wouldn’t mind playing him again.”

Suzuoki’s glance sharpened. “Tachibana?”

“Yeah. I feel like I got short changed, after what I saw of him at Nationals.” Akaya frowned. He’d like to know why Tachibana hadn’t shown his strength during their match, too. “Besides, I need someone besides my own team to practice against,” he concluded.

“Good call,” Suzuoki approved. “Though it wouldn’t hurt you to depend less on your opponent’s spirit to raise your own.” He smiled, dryly, as Akaya blinked at him. “Consider it, Kirihara-kun.”

Akaya made a mental note of it, but most of his thoughts were on the bus schedule to Tokyo. Good competition, that would help. That would make him feel more familiar to himself, again.