Title: Kirihara Akaya

Author: Stormy1x2 ( travelingstorm )

Prompts: 61 – 70

Pairings: None

Spoilers: Senbatsu Camp arc

Warnings: Language.

Notes: Yukimura is still in the hospital over the course of the Senbatsu Camp arc and the days immediately following it, even though his surgery was a success. We never hear differently in the anime (and don't quote the manga at me – frankly I do not care, as I've never read the manga, so let it GO) and I'm using the excuse that he's still doing intense physical therapy to get himself back into shape after months of being bedridden and weak. Also, some dangling plot threads start to get tied up here as we start heading into the home stretch.

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061. Winter

Akaya missed class the next day. His father didn't care – hangover notwithstanding, he was still a responsible businessman, and so he'd been out the door to catch his flight at seven am, not even bothering to wake up his son to say goodbye.

Akaya woke up at eight-thirty, not having fallen asleep until sometime well after four in the morning. He'd sat up for most of the night, alternating stares at the paper he'd retrieved from the living room floor soon after regaining the use of his legs, and staring out the window, wondering dazedly where his mother was at that moment.

She'd left. Not even a word for him, her son. Akaya didn't blame her for leaving – she'd put up with a lot, especially over the last few years from her bully of a husband, but then, he shouldn't have been surprised that he didn't warrant an explanation. When was the last time they'd really talked?

Akaya stared out window again. The sun was steadily rising – it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day, which made no sense to him. It was summer, but Akaya felt as cold as if he had been thrust directly into the middle of winter while wearing a t-shirt and shorts. His phone played the ending from 'Dragonball Z' and he blinked at it, lying on the dresser next to his bed where he'd automatically placed it the night before. He picked it up but didn't answer.

Yanagi calling. Two missed messages, one from Sanada, and the other from Yanagi again. They were probably alternating calls. Kirihara gently set the phone down, and curled back up under his blankets, turning his back on the room. The school would probably call within the next hour when he didn't show up, but it was an automated message that he'd delete. His dad was gone anyway, and Kirihara knew he wouldn't be back for at least a week, if not longer.

This was not good. He'd been selected as a participant in the Goodwill Games. He had to step up his practice and polish his game in preparation for the competition ahead. But at the moment, he couldn't bring himself to care.

The phone stopped ringing.

Akaya stared at the wall for a long, long time before his eyes finally closed.

Word Count: 388 / 25733

062. Spring

"Still no answer?" Niou appeared behind Yanagi silently, almost cat-like in his movements. Peering over Yanagi's shoulder, he shook his head at the lack of messages in the inbox. "Wonder how many laps this'll cost him?"

Marui came over, dropping his jacket on the bench and then smoothly bringing his hand up in a continued motion to smack Niou on the arm. "Can it, laughing-boy." Turning his head to Yanagi, he blew out a bubble of strawberry pink gum, snapping it twice in rapid succession. "Think the kid's okay?"

Yanagai frowned at the screen. He and Sanada had been taking turns trying to reach Akaya all through practice that morning. Subsequent calls at lunch had also gone unanswered. Niou had made a strategic run to the school office and had somehow – Yanagi had made a vow to never again ask how Niou accomplished his little self-imposed missions – gotten a hold of the attendance sheets for Kirihara's classes that day. Yanagi was not ashamed to admit he had become a tad... concerned, when he saw 'Absent' marked on every sheet.

"He was fine yesterday," Niou reflected. "Why shouldn't he be? He made the team."

That was a fact. Kirihara had been in a positive mood when he'd been dropped off at home after Senbatsu camp had ended. Somewhere between yesterday afternoon and this morning before practice, something had obviously happened to the second year.

Renji considered the situation carefully. Akaya had looked healthy enough – he certainly didn't seem sick or unwell at all. The last time Akaya had been sick during a practice was last Spring when Yukimura had sent the boy home after he'd shown up barking like a seal from bronchitis.

"Why is everyone standing around?" Sanada appeared next to him, almost as quietly as Niou's approach had been. "Twenty laps, everyone!"

Niou groaned but grabbed Yagyuu by the arm and dragged him towards the courts. Marui and Jackal shrugged and followed suit. Yanagi stayed where he was, pen between his teeth, absently nibbling on the lid as he pondered the situation.

" Renji." Sanada glanced at him, eyes dark beneath the brim of his cap.


"Is there a chance that Akaya might have been more seriously injured during his fall at camp?"

Obviously Sanada was thinking along the same lines he was. "Anything serious enough to prevent him from showing up – or at the very least, to keep him from calling – would have manifested before now. The fall happened on the second day of camp. That was five days ago."

Either Akaya had gotten sick overnight and forgot to call, or he was deliberately skipping practice. Akaya was a brat a good percentage of the time, but he was also a seriously dedicated athlete who had just won a prime position to play for Japan in an international tournament. Mentally, he crossed off 'skipping' in his mind. Something had to be wrong.

"Sanada. I think it might be prudent if we paid Akaya a visit after practice today," Yanagi said quietly.

Sanada frowned, but nodded in agreement.

Word Count: 511 / 26244

063. Summer

Sanada strode confidently up the walkway to Akaya's home. Renji trailed a bit behind, taking in the entire front of the house and committing it to memory, as was his habit. Sanada didn't hesitate as he reached the front door, and smartly rapped on the wooden paneling three times, before ringing the doorbell once.

After a few minutes, Renji's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "I don't believe there's anyone home." A quick view of the carport revealed no vehicles, though there were oil stains and various articles strewn about that indicated the Kirihara household possessed at least one automobile.

Pulling out his cellphone, he scrolled through his phone book, searching. As he had done with all the Regulars, Akaya's cell phone had been put under speed dial. His home phone however, was not called nearly as often. He dialed and waited. The phone rang from somewhere inside the house. After fifteen rings, he disconnected. "If someone is home, they're determined not to answer."

Sanada frowned. Instinctively, he tried the door. It was unlocked. His eyebrow raised, and he glanced at Renji. "What do you think?"

Renji thought quickly. There was a slim chance that perhaps Akaya was either ill or injured enough to be unable to answer the phone. "I think we'd best be sure."

"Very well." Sanada opened the door partially, and leaned his head in very slightly. "Hello? Kirihara-san? My apologies for intruding."

Nothing. Renji exchanged another look with Sanada, and then suddenly pushed the door open, slipping inside. Akaya's father was frequently on business, so that would probably explain his absence. Akaya's mother could be out shopping. But as for Akaya himself... Renji was now past concerned, and was heading straight into 'worried' territory.

A quick scan of the hallway and the connecting living room revealed a surprisingly large number of empty beer bottles. Many were overturned, leaking stale alcohol over the surfaces they'd been left on. Shards of glass caught the light from a crack in the curtains and twinkled merrily at them.

"Akaya?" Sanada called out, eying the room with distaste. Nothing.

"As much as I dislike adopting Niou's penchant for breaking and entering, I think we should check Akaya's room, at the very least," Renji suggested quietly. The entire scene disturbed him. Something had happened, and he wasn't sure what. He would feel better once he saw his kouhai in one piece.

"Agreed." Sanada abruptly turned and headed for the stairs.

Akaya's room was simple enough to find. The door was open, and tennis gear, posters, action figures and clothing seemed to be trying to crawl through the doorway. Renji scanned the room. "He's not here."

"Then we should leave," Sanada said brusquely.

"Before we do..." Renji pressed the speed dial number for Akaya. It rang and went to voice mail, but there was no ring coming from inside the room, or the house, as far as he could tell.

Once back outside, the front door closed but left unlocked (if Kirihara had left the house without his key, they did not want to prevent him from being able to go inside), Sanada sighed, and rubbed the brim of his hat.

"What do you suppose the odds are that he's out with his parents?" he asked wearily.

"Small. Very small. But there's always a chance." Renji closed his eyes, reviewing his data, pulling his facts together and running through them again. "Akaya's father is frequently away on business, often for days at a time. He never takes Akaya with him, though I do recall Akaya once mentioning his mother went during a conference that had extended the invitation to include spouses."

Sanada nodded, absorbing the data. "Continue."

"Akaya's mother works during the day but is home at night. There is a chance she is working overtime, or is out shopping or running other errands, of course."

"Of course."

"Akaya is not answering his cell phone. I did not hear it in his room, which means there is a ninety-three percent chance it is with him. He is not here, nor was he at practice or school, so we can rule out the grounds." Renji sighed. "Frankly, Sanada, he could be at one of the places he frequents, like the cake shop he and Marui go to on Sundays, or the street courts three and a half blocks from here. But he could also be out somewhere with his mother. If he was sick, he could be at the hospital."

"Then why wasn't the school notified?"

Why, indeed. Renji rubbed his brow. Though it was past six o'clock, the summer heat was still causing sweat to bead his skin. "I don't know."

Sanada shot him a rueful glance. "It's not often I hear you say that."

"True. And I sincerely wish it wasn't so, in this particular case."

"I agree." Sanada checked the streets again – no doubt, looking to see if their wayward teammate was somewhere in the distance, heading for home. "What do you propose we do?"

Renji was already dialing. "Talk to Yukimura."

Word Count: 843 / 27087

064. Fall

It was early afternoon by the time Akaya realized he couldn't stay in bed any longer. His body was protesting the hours of inactivity with sore joints and muscles, and so he got up even though he didn't really want to.

The house was empty, of course. Quiet too, except for the phone that rang periodically but he let it go, having no desire to defend himself from school officials who no doubt wanted to know why he was not gracing them with his presence.

The stillness of the house unnerved him, so he threw on a pair of black track pants and an old t-shirt. It was too warm outside to need a jacket, so he left it behind. About to walk out the door, he considered retrieving his racquet from the hall closet, but decided not to. For the first time that he could remember, he had no urge to play tennis.

He had a dim idea of where he was going. The idea had struck him as he'd laid in bed most of the day, though he hadn't thought about actually getting up and physically going. But now it seemed like a good idea, and he shook off the stiffness in his legs by easing into a slow, loping jog.

His destination wasn't close by. In fact, by the time he arrived, he was soaked in sweat and gasping for air – an amazing feat for someone who was routinely set to running upwards of fifty laps per practice for various rule infractions. He doubled over, sucking air into his lungs, even though Yanagi had told him over and over again that that position did not benefit his breathing at all. That thought reminded him of where he was supposed to be; a glance at his watch showed him that back at Rikkai, afternoon practice was well underway.

"Anou... K-Kirihara-san..." a timid voice cut through the babble in his head, and he looked up to see a short boy wearing an enormous headband standing in front of him. Kirihara's eyes narrowed for a second, and then widened slightly as his memory served up a picture of the boy standing with the rest of the volunteers on the podium, the first day of camp.

"Dan Taichi," he said roughly, his guess confirmed when the boy furiously nodded his head up and down like a bobble-toy.

"Yes, desu... Kirihara-san, what are you doing here, desu? Can I help you with something? Are you looking for someone?"

Dan Taichi may have had big Bambi-shaped eyes capable of stopping most people in their tracks and making them want to coo over and take care of him, but Akaya was immune. He'd spent a good portion of his time at Rikkai perfecting that same technique on his sempai. "Where's Sengoku?"

"Sengoku-sempai?" Dan's eyes grew even wider. "What do you want with Sengoku-sempai, desu?"

Kirihara growled, and the boy suddenly turned, and sprinted off across the grounds. Kirihara contemplated following him, but his muscles were still trembling from the long run from district to district. It didn't matter anyway, because a few minutes later, he heard a nasal-sounding laugh break out, and a familiar voice say his name.

"Kirihara-kun!" Sengoku stood in front of him, flashing that toothpaste smile in his direction. His hair flashed in the sun, the same burnished red as leaves in the fall, and Kirihara had no doubt Sengoku was deliberately positioning himself to catch that light for that exact purpose. "To what do we owe this honor?" Behind him, Dan Taichi peeked out nervously, watching Kirihara warily.

Akaya opened his mouth, and then closed it. His hands fisted by his side, and he shook his head. Then he sighed, raised his eyes to meet Sengoku's and shrugged, trying to look nonchalant, but knowing that he wasn't quite succeeding.

"I... kinda need to talk to you."

The complete look of surprise on Sengoku's face was nearly worth the trip in itself.

Word Count: 671 / 27758

065. Passing

Sengoku watched the second year curiously. 'Surprised' was not the word he'd use to describe what he'd felt when Taichi had skidded to a halt in front of him, fairly exploding in his excitement to tell him that Kirihara Akaya was on the grounds and wanted to talk to him. 'Flabbergasted' was a more accurate phrase. Or 'stunned.'

Well, whatever the reason, it had to be something bad. He seriously doubted the Rikkai player would run all the way from his district to theirs unless there was something pushing him big-time, and he'd never believe the 'just passing by' line. Rikkai was an hour bus ride away, for Kami's sake.

Kirihara, still breathing heavily from his long run, was alternating his gaze from Sengoku to the ground, to Taichi and back to the ground again. Taking pity on him, Sengoku spoke without turning around. "Taichi? Would you mind going and getting a water bottle for Kirihara-kun?" He smiled, when Kirihara looked up at him. "That's a long run, and we don't want to be improper hosts by letting our guests get dehydrated. What would people think of Yamabuki then?"

"Yes, desu!" Taichi snapped his hand up in a decent salute, and sprinted off again.

Akaya watched him leave, eyes narrowed. "Have you guys tried Ritalin?"

Sengoku snickered. "Nah. We kinda like Taichi the way he is."

"Whatever." Akaya shrugged.

"How 'bout we take a walk?" Sengoku suggested, gesturing to the empty track field nearby. The cross country team did neighborhood runs in the afternoon, and the soccer team had an away game that day, which meant no one was using the track. "You can do a proper cool down instead of standing here letting your muscles cramp up, and we can talk at the same time."

Kirihara nodded, and let him lead the way over.

Dan Taichi came running back as they hit the track, handing over the water bottle with a happy burst of, 'Here you are, desu! Is there anything else I can do, desu?"

Sengoku dismissed Taichi with another grin. The look Kirihara gave Taichi was one of confusion mixed with wariness, the kind he often saw on the faces of people forced to deal with small children while waiting for them to attack. "I promise you, he's harmless."

Kirihara was too busy guzzling the water to retort verbally, so he settled for shooting him the finger, making Sengoku laugh out loud.

"You're too damn cheerful," Kirihara said finally, dropping the empty bottle to the ground. Sengoku ignored it. They could pick it up on the way back, unless Taichi skittered out and scooped it up for them.

"I try to be," he replied. "I find it makes my outlook on life more positive."

Another snort came from Kirihara's direction, but the boy didn't say anything else in response. Sengoku raised an eyebrow, waiting a minute, before shrugging and starting to walk the track. Kirihara hesitated a split second before joining him.

"So..." Sengoku said, at the hundred meter mark. "You planning on telling me what inspired this little visit, or am I going to have to guess?"

Kirihara's jaw tightened; Sengoku could see the tendons in his neck bunch. "You... we're friends, right?" He glanced quickly at Sengoku and then turned back to the black rubber of the track. "I mean, at Camp, you said..."

"I am sincerely honored to count you as one of my friends," Sengoku assured him quickly. This truly was getting interesting.

"Yeah... friends... friends talk, right?" Kirihara's cheeks had a faint splash of pink highlighting them. "About... things."

"They do."

"About... serious things?"

Sengoku studied Akaya's profile out of the corner of his eye. The pink was fading away, but the bleakness in the boy's eyes was not. Not for the first time, he wondered what on earth had brought the unusually-solemn boy so far away from home. And why, he thought curiously, isn't he talking to his teammates instead of me?

"I don't want them to know," Kirihara said bluntly.

Oops. Apparently he'd said that out loud.

"You don't consider your teammates friends?"

Kirihara shot him a look that plainly said he thought that was a stupid comment. "Of course they're my friends. But they might tell someone. They're..." He stopped, biting his lip.

"Too close," Sengoku finished for him.

Kirihara shot him a look of surprise, and then nodded. "Yeah."

"I see." The redhead folded his arms behind his head as they walked. "So, what serious things did you want to talk about?"

"I... " Kirihara looked frustrated. He tried again. "Back at camp... you made a comment. About people not being allowed to hurt me."

"I did," Sengoku agreed cautiously.

"You sounded like you meant it."

"Of course I meant it. No one deserves to be hurt for no reason. Not you, not anyone."

Kirihara looked at him, staring hard. "You said it like you knew what you were talking about."

Sengoku faltered slightly under that determined gaze, and he swallowed hard, painfully. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath to regain his composure. Briefly, he thought about lying, denying Kirihara's words, but not only would that insult the younger boy's intelligence, it would also make him close up. Something told him that would not be a good thing.

Coming to a decision, he opened his eyes, looked back at Kirihara evenly and then nodded. "I did. I do."

Suddenly, the hardness melted away from Kirihara's eyes, leaving behind nothing but utter misery and confusion. Years seemed to slip off him, leaving him looking younger then he had before, and Sengoku wondered again, just what had brought this proud young man to this level of desperation.

"Tell me?" Kirihara asked quietly, beseechingly.

Sengoku studied him and saw a mirror of himself, the way he'd been years ago. He had the same look of inner torment that had taken Sengoku years to overcome. If it was truly that bad, Sengoku wanted to help in any way he could.

Maybe something good could finally come of what had happened to him all those years ago.

Word Count: 1018 / 28776

066. Rain

Sengoku Kiyosumi was five years old the first time his parents left him at Uncle Kenji's house while they went on a two week vacation in Thailand. His uncle had patted him on the head, told him to stay in his room and play quietly, and not to bother him.

His mother called him 'Kiyo', but his uncle called him 'Sumi-chan', and Sengoku hated that name because it reminded him of a little girl named Kasumi in his preschool class who used that nickname and tried to ruffle his hair when he wasn't paying attention.

Kiyo played in his room – in reality, the guest bedroom of his uncle's house – with the toys he'd brought until his tummy rumbled. He decided to go downstairs and ask Uncle Kenji to make dinner.

Uncle Kenji wasn't in the living room, but Kiyo was too hungry to look around for him. He was five years old, and mommy had always said he was a good helper in the kitchen. He could get his own food.

In the process of getting the cookies from the upper shelf (via the kitchen chair), Kiyo accidentally knocked the box into the sink filled with soapy dishwater, rendering the cookies uneatable. Getting milk from the fridge was a bigger disaster – his stubby, five-year old fingers couldn't handle the big heavy carton, and he dropped it. It splattered open upon impact, milk spreading across the linoleum like white rain puddles.

His uncle came in from the backyard and saw the mess. Before Kiyo could say anything, his uncle's hand connected with his backside so hard he was propelled across the floor, sliding painfully into the legs of the kitchen chair. His uncle screamed at him for making a mess, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him up, dangling him from his painfully tight grip. He shook Kiyo violently, dropping him to push his nose in the spilled milk like he was a chastised puppy. When he let go, Kiyo skittered away on all fours, leaving his raving uncle in the kitchen to clean up the mess.

He'd huddled in the spare bedroom until he'd finally fallen asleep. The next morning, his uncle acted like nothing had happened, and had taken him to preschool. For the rest of the two weeks, he'd only blown up if Kiyo made a mess, and Kiyo learned very quickly to clean up after himself. His uncle told him not to tell anyone; that if he did, people would come and take him away from his mother and father. Kiyo didn't want that to happen, so he agreed that he would be a good boy, be careful, and not say anything.

Upon their return, his parents had been happy with the new respect Kiyo seemed to have for his belongings. His mother praised him for being so neat and tidy. Obviously her brother-in-law was a good influence on her son, and so she had no reservations about leaving Kiyo with Kenji several more times over the next two years.

Soon after Kiyo turned seven, his mother had an emergency at work. She called Kenji to come over and act as a last minute babysitter. Kiyo tried to stay in his room for the entire night, but eventually he had to go to the bathroom to get ready for bed. He accidentally squeezed too much toothpaste out of the tube; it squirted out into the sink. When he tried to wipe it up, it just spread around even more.

Uncle Kenji came in and started screaming at him for causing trouble. He pushed Kiyo roughly out of the way, and Kiyo hit his head on the toilet as he fell. Blood was streaming down the side of his face, but his uncle was too preoccupied with cleaning up the toothpaste in the sink. When Kenji did finally notice, his first concern was that the blood would stain the tiles on the floor.

By some miraculous act of the gods, his mother came home sooner then expected. She had been horrified at the sight of Kenji muttering angrily and roughly scrubbing blood off the tiles in the bathroom, with her sobbing, blood-stained son curled up in a ball behind him.

The police and her husband were called. Uncle Kenji had been taken away for evaluation, and Kiyo had been taken to the hospital to get stitches. Not long after, they asked him if anything like that had happened before. Kiyo had been afraid to tell them – afraid that Uncle Kenji has right, that someone would take him away. It took a long time before the entire story came out. His parents held and soothed him as he cried out his hurts.

After he'd calmed down, Kiyo was given a very gentle yet firm talking to about what was and wasn't allowed to happen to him. His mother had cuddled him, his father laying a protective hand on his son's shoulder even as he held his wife with the other, and they both told him several times, "No one is allowed to hurt you." Those words had repeated over and over again in his head, becoming a mantra he would murmur to himself. He clung to them, drilling them into his memory as hard as he could.

No one is allowed to hurt you.

That was something Kiyo would never forget.

Word Count: 892 / 37666

067. Snow

"So where is he now?"

Kirihara's tone was casual, but Sengoku, used to long years of deciphering Akutsu's various growling intonations, easily picked out the hard line of steel embedded in his words.

"Living somewhere else," Sengoku said, shrugging. "He was diagnosed with OCD and mild schizophrenia. He served time in a mental hospital instead of jail. Then he got out a few years ago and moved away. He's better now that he's on his meds, but my mother doesn't want him near us. I can't say I disagree."

"What about your dad?"

"Visits him once a year, mainly to make sure he stays on his meds, and to make sure he's okay." Sengoku blew out his breath in a sigh. "I don't really blame him so much, anymore. I mean, he was a sick man. But I'm glad I don't have to deal with seeing him."


Sengoku stopped walking. Obviously surprised, Kirihara stopped and turned around, looking at him in confusion. "Sengoku?"

"I just spilled my guts about something I've been trying very hard not to think about for a long time," Sengoku said quietly. "That means you owe me. And I want to know what you came here to tell me." He had his own suspicions, but he was getting a little tired with the hedging.

Kirihara scowled. "I'm getting there."

"Not fast enough."

"I know, I just..." Kirihara abruptly flopped to the ground, folding his legs and propping his chin in his hand. He waved at Sengoku. "Sit. I'm tired."

Snorting back an amused laugh, Sengoku joined him. "So? Spill."

Kirihara leaned back on his hands and unfolded his legs, stretching them out along the length of the track. "My parents suck."

Sengoku didn't say anything.

"My mom never wanted kids, you know? But that's what people do when they get married. I don't blame her for not taking any real interest in me, or the things I do, but she still sucks." Kirihara's eyes were half-closed, staring fixedly at his sneakers. "My dad is a real genius when it comes to business. Everyone wants him to come solve their problems, so he's gone a lot. When he's home, he's pissed off over everything. Hell, I don't think he wanted kids either, but like I said, that's just the way things are done, right?"

Sengoku folded his arms, head tilted to one side. "They hit you?"

"Yes. No. Well, not like what you mean. It's more like I get a smack down for mouthing off, or for failing a test, or whatever. I never been hospitalized or nothing – just bruises and stuff." Kirihara barked out a short, dry laugh. "Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. I mean, if they cared enough to hit me, that's obviously proof that they cared about me in some way, right?"

Sengoku didn't like the way Kirihara was using the past tense. "What happened?" He prodded gently. Something must have, to make Kirihara break out of a pattern of bottling things up, and force him to go on a two hour run to find someone who would listen.

He was right.

"Mom's gone. Took off while I was at camp." Kirihara's voice was suddenly very controlled, his words clipped and terse. "I came home and found my dad at the bottom of a bottle. He left this morning on a business trip. Don't know when he'll be back."

He hated being right. "He left you alone?" After the thirteen year old learned that his mother had left? Sengoku suddenly wanted very much to meet Kirihara's dad and show off the boxing skills he'd picked up over the past few months.

"Not the first time," Kirihara said bluntly. "Won't be the last." He snapped his gaze on to Sengoku's like twin laser beams. "I'm not telling you this because I want you to do anything, got it? I just... needed to tell someone. Someone who... " He stopped, and his eyes dropped again.

"Someone who knows." Sengoku finished his sentence again. "I understand." And he did, in a way. Kirihara could talk to him for the same reason Sengoku had found it almost disturbingly easy to tell his own story to the Rikkai player. Rivals in tennis, they were suddenly brothers in their own spilled blood.

They sat their for a minute before Sengoku's phone went off. He jumped, and then answered it. It was Minami – practice was over, and Sengoku owed him extra laps for ditching the last half.

Kirihara was pulling grass out of the ground next to the track. "I should go," he said. He stood up, brushing dirt off his track pants.

Sengoku had the feeling Kirihara was embarrassed over his mini-breakdown. Not that it had been much of one, but then, they still didn't know each other well enough in other ways to trust each other with an emotional outpouring. "You gonna be okay?"

"Of course." The tone again, implied that Sengoku was an idiot for assuming otherwise.

Sengoku held out his hand. "Phone," he demanded, fingers wiggling. Kirihara blinked, but handed over his cell phone. Sengoku tisked when he saw all the missed calls. "You should answer when people call," he said, entering his own cell number into Kirihara' s phone. "It's rude to just ignore them."

"Shut up."

Now that sounded like the Kirihara he knew. "Call me if you wanna talk again."


Sengoku glared at the second year. "I mean it."

"I said I would, didn't I?" Kirihara glared right back at him, before it dissolved into a smirk. "What, don't trust me?" He put a hand to his chest. "I'm hurt that you could ever think me capable of lying to you."

"Oh yeah, pure as the driven snow, you are," Sengoku muttered. "At least text me or something when you get home, so I know you didn't throw yourself in front of a bullet train, okay?"

"Yes, mom." Kirihara sketched a salute. "See ya 'round."

"Brat," Sengoku said, but it was with affection, and he waved amiably at the boy until he disappeared. Then his smile turned into a more contemplative frown as he took out his own cell phone. He wavered over it for a while, tapping his finger against the plastic casing.

Finally, he came to a decision and he searched his address book for a phone number not many people knew he had. The line rang once before someone picked up on the other end. Sengoku spoke first.

"Hey... it's me."

Word Count: 1047 / 38711

068. Lightening

Sanada was frowning heavily as he and Renji made their way through the hospital. As a last resort after checking Akaya's home, they had double-checked the street court near Rikkai again. When they didn't see their missing teammate, Renji wound up giving in and texting a message to Sadaharu to keep his eyes open. Inui was not quite on his level when it came to data collecting electronically, but he had excellent observational skills – and his teammates were rather easily led into situations to gather data on his behalf – usually by crashing private practices and property. If Akaya was anywhere near Seigaku or the surrounding area, Renji had no doubt Sadaharu would know.

Yukimura had told them to come back to the hospital when they'd phoned him earlier. Despite his lingering weakness, he was still the captain of Rikkai, and therefore demanded to be a part of what was going on.

Renji ran over the data in his mind. Akaya had missed school and both tennis practices. He was not answering his phone. His parents were not home, and the house had been in a severe state of disarray. It was that state that had Renji convinced that the family had not packed up and gone on an impromptu vacation. Akaya's father was most likely gone on business. Akaya could have been skipping. But with that line of reasoning, Renji would have expected Akaya's mother to be home. Warm and overly friendly, she was not, but she was a person who followed proper etiquette in public, and she had never failed to call the school when Akaya had been sick before.

"It's about time you two got here," said a tired, yet amused voice.

Renji looked up, belatedly realizing they'd arrived at their destination. On the bed, still pale, but looking so much better than he had before his surgery, was Yukimura, smiling patiently at them. "Seichi?"

The blue-haired boy held up his small phone. The one he technically wasn't allowed to have inside the hospital, but hid from his nurses. "I know where Akaya is."

Renji and Sanada exchanged rueful glances. Somehow, this was not completely unexpected. Yukimura ability to learn what was going on was nearly legendary. Sanada tilted the brim of his hat, looking at his captain. "Where is he?"

"At Yamabuki. He's on his way back now." Yukimura smiled benignly at them. "I think it would be nice if someone were to go meet him and make sure our wayward teammate is okay."

Renji recognized that tone, and nodded briskly. "Why didn't you let us know?"

"I just got off the phone with Sengoku-kun," Yukimura replied. "I assumed you were nearly here as it was."

Renji could accept that, though what Yukimura was doing talking with such familiarity to the vice-captain of a mediocre team like Yamabuki was beyond him. "I'll go and check on Akaya," he said, bowing slightly before leaving the room.

Word count: 492 / 39203

069. Thunder

Akaya toed off his shoes at the doorway. His mother obviously wasn't there to lecture him about wearing his shoes in the house, but Akaya took them off anyway. The house still reeked of stale alcohol, and despite the exhaustion that tugged at him, he knew if he went to bed, he'd only be staring at the wall again.

Grabbing a couple of garbage bags from the kitchen, he went into the living room and began cleaning it up. He opted to toss all the bottles into one bag and sort through them later to see what he could take back to refund at the store. The rest of the wrappers, broken figurines and beer-soaked magazines went directly into the trash.

He was making headway with the stains on the coffee table when he heard a knock on the front door. Before he could stand up, the door opened and a loud voice boomed, "AKAYA?"

He froze, half-convinced his father had lied about his business trip and had come home. Then he realized the voice didn't have the same crack to it that his father's did, and a relieved sigh escaped him before he could stop it. He got to his feet just as Renji entered the living room. Both of them started at the sight of the other.

"Nice manners," Akaya said awkwardly, after a tense minute. "You always barge into people's homes without an invitation?"

"Considering that this is the second time today I've done so, I would say there is strong evidence suggesting that this does seem to be turning into a habit." Renji was looking him up and down, as though verifying Akaya was in one piece. "Are you all right?"

"Just peachy," Akaya said, shrugging. "Look, I know Sanada's probably pissed that I missed practice. I'll be there early tomorrow and run extra laps, okay?"

He was stunned when Renji glared at him. "Sanada is more worried than angry, Akaya. As was I, Yukimura, and the rest of the team. Did it not occur to you to call someone? Or at the very least, answer your phone?"

Akaya blinked, not expecting such an angry barrage, especially coming from Renji. "Worried...?"

"You missed morning practice. You did not show up at school. No one called the school to say you'd be out. No one was here when we came to check on you, yet the doors were unlocked. The living room was filled with garbage, broken pieces of glass, and beer bottles. You were not answering your phone." Renji's voice was rising with every point he counted off. "Yes, we were worried. What did you think would happen?"

Akaya sat down on the newly-cleaned coffee table, completely past surprised and shooting straight into chagrined. "I didn't think..."

"No, I dare say you didn't." Renji folded his arms, and took a deep breath. "What were you doing at Yamabuki?"

That brought Akaya's head snapping back up, fire lighting his eyes. "How the hell did you know that? Did he call you?"

"I assume you're referring to Sengoku-san, and no, he did not contact me. He called Yukimura, who sent me to make sure you're all right." Renji settled himself on a chair across from Kirihara's perch on the table. "Would you like to start at the beginning?"

Akaya looked at him, and then looked at his hands, dangling between his knees. All his fight was gone, drained as suddenly as though a biological plug had been pulled. Between the stress of his situation, a night of very little sleep, two very, very long jogs across districts, and his near emotional breakdown with the Yamabuki player, he had no resources, no defenses left. Renji was not the person to verbally spar with when you were at anything less than one hundred percent – he was the only person known to even schmooze details out of Yukimura's doctors despite strict doctor/patient confidentiality, and put them together to create whole pict—no, entire landscapes of understanding. He was just too worn out, too worn thin to even begin to think of a way to sidetrack the brilliant analyst in his living room, and so he did the only thing he could.

He gave up.

With a final sigh, he looked up at his sempai, and told him the truth.

Word Count: 729 / 39932

070. Storm

Kirihara picked up another tennis ball and looked across at his target. The tiny 'x' painted dead center on the practice wall was nearly invisible, but he could hit it with nearly embarrassing ease. Two years of training against that wall made it so he could probably hit it in his sleep. In order to increase the difficulty, Akaya had taken to practicing with two balls at once, hitting the first with a forehand, and the second with a backhand, and continuing the rally until he slipped up.

Renji was no doubt back at the hospital, informing Yukimura of Akaya's current situation. Or he was at home, phoning in his report. Or he was at Sanada's, who was talking to Yukimura on the phone as fast as Renji could tell him the details. Either way, once the three of them had the details, it would only be a matter of time until the rest of the Regulars knew. Things that upset the balance of the team were shared, in the hopes that the weight could be borne a little easier. Unfortunately, Akaya didn't see how they were going to be able to help him. He had a feeling he hadn't seen the worst of it yet – like this moment was the calm before the storm. Kami only knew what was going to happen when his dad got back next week.

He was still trying to adjust to the fact that his mother had left. Permanently, it seemed. She had always been a bit cold and distant to Akaya, but she had also been a steady, constant presence in the house. And no matter how much she may not have wanted to have kids, as he'd told Sengoku, she'd always made sure he had everything he could need. He'd never wanted for any material thing. And without the sounds of her moving around downstairs, the house seemed unbearably empty, which was why Akaya was still on the street courts at 10:00 at night.

He shook his head and bounced the tennis ball slowly. He had to focus, get his concentration back. The Goodwill Games were a week away – he needed to be ready. He threw the ball up in the air and fired the first shot off, bringing his racquet back up almost immediately to send the second one after it. But his aim was off this time, and the first ball ricocheted back at an angle that would leave him unable to return in time to hit the second one.

Catching the second return, he turned to head off after the first ball, and stopped short as he registered the familiar person standing there. "Marui-sempai."

"Hey kiddo." Marui tossed him the ball. "Kinda late to be practicing."

Akaya caught the ball automatically. "What did Renji do – call everyone on the team and inform them all personally?" His fingers tightened on the tennis ball, angry at the thought. He knew they'd all find out eventually, but it was almost like Renji was trying to spread the news as fast as he could.

Marui looked apologetic. "Sorry, Aka-chan, but I was visiting Yukimura-Buchou when Renji came back to tell him and Sanada what was going on. He'd texted that he found you, but wanted to tell the story in person. Since I was there, I got the full scoop." He shrugged. "If it makes you feel any better, no one else knows yet. Renji will probably tell Yagyuu and Niou tomorrow."

"I don't see why everyone needs to know," Akaya said petulantly. He whirled around, tightening his grip on his racquet. "S'not like anyone can do anything about this."

"True 'nough," Maru said agreeably. "But at the very least, we can keep you from being alone. I mean, I don't know about you, but I can never sleep very well when there's no one else around." He held up his backpack, blowing out a large bubble with an obnoxiously loud POP as he did so. "C'mon Aka-chan. If I don't get at least seven hours of sleep, no amount of sugar is gonna keep me going on the court tomorrow."

Akaya stared at the schoolbag, pride warring with a need for someone, anyone, to keep the loneliness at bay. "I'm not a baby," he said weakly.

"Never said you were." Marui slung his bag back over his shoulder. "This is me being a good sempai. Be thankful I volunteered. Sanada felt as Fukou-Buchou, it should have been his responsibility to babysit you, and then you'd really be sorry. He'd have you up at 5AM with him, doing katas to 'clear your mind' or some bullshit like that."

"Sounds like I dodged a bullet." Akaya put his racquet in his tennis bag, tucking the two tennis balls into a side pocket. Then he looked seriously at his teammate. "Thanks, Marui-sempai." His face was flushing bright red, he just knew it was.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm the greatest." Marui walked over and slung his arm over Akaya's shoulders, picking up the bag for him. "C'mon, we have time for cheese popcorn and the last half of Supernatural."

"I hate American TV shows," Akaya grumbled, but let his sempai drag him off.

"If you studied your English more, you wouldn't mind it."

"Yanagi-sempai and Sanada-Fukou-Buchou have already gotten on my case about my grades. Don't you start."

"Someone's gotta watch out for the team baby."

Akaya let a small smile slip on to his face, though he hid it from Marui. He was lucky to have seven people watching his back.

Word Count: 934 / 40866

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End Notes: Obviously, Sengoku's backstory is of my own creation. shrugs It suited my purpose and I had it in mind a long time ago. Constructive feedback is always welcome.