"You don't have to keep being nice to me Shiraishi-san. I know you were just doing it to win the game," Kirihara mumbled dejectedly as Shiraishi sat down beside him at the table for morning tea. He poked at his own steaming mug of sweet milky tea and snuck glances at Shiraishi's tea cup and the fingers lazily caressing it. The bandages that apparently covered a gold arm cuff were back in place and creeping down long fingers. Kirihara vaguely thought that Shiraishi had nice hands, even when covered.

"What are you talking about?" Shiraishi asked. But Kirihara knew that Shiraishi understood what he was talking about. He didn't know a lot about the Shitenhouji captain but Kirihara knew he wasn't stupid.

"Who would actually want seaweed hair like me? Especially you." The tips of Kirihara's ears tinged red.

"That's not true. I don't know if it would look good on me, but I'd still like to meet your stylist, see what he can come up with. Because that curly hair looks really cute on you," Shiraishi gave him one of his patented ecstasy smiles before taking a sip of his tea.

Kirihara was practically sparkling at the compliments. "Really?" He confirmed, "But it's not like I get anything special done with it. Just a weird fluke of nature." He hoped Shiraishi wouldn't be appalled or bored of him now that he knew he wasn't super stylish but just had weird genes.

Instead, Shiraishi leaned in toward him, "Wow. You're so lucky to have such naturally good hair. I have to use a ton of products in mine."

"Really? But it looks really good. Even after the match," Kirihara complimented. "That reminds me, Shiraishi-san, what's up with the gold cast? That's not really normal, is it?"

"Ah, well, that's a little embarrassing actually. And Shitenhouji's coach is a bit eccentric. We all are really. But it's not bad. Just keeps life interesting. Helps makes us stronger too."

Kirihara thought about that and took a sip of his tea. Shiraishi had brought it over earlier when he had joined him at his table. It was sweeter and milkier than he normally had it, but it was nice being looked after.

"How does it make you stronger?" Kirihara asked a little shyly from over his teacup and then thought it might sound insulting and rushed to clarify, "Well, I get that the gold band does... but how do your teammates help?" In Kirihara's opinion, Shiraishi was leagues above his teammates. And the only way teammates could help was by being strong so they could be overcome and defeated.

Shiraishi gave a small chuckle and reached over to pat Kirihara on the head. From nearly anyone else that would have annoyed him to no end, but coming from Shiraishi, well that was totally different.

"They're weird so they all have unique play styles and special moves. It's good to know how to defeat all kinds of attacks. Just look at Tezuka and Yamato-san's match," Shiraishi said, his hand sadly withdrawing.

Kirihara thought about Tezuka's match and how Yamato was obviously the weaker player. But his special move had forced Tezuka to give up a lot of points. And if Tezuka hadn't been able to break through it, then even all of his superior skills wouldn't have allowed him to win.

"It can also make tennis fun," Shiraishi added quietly. Kirihara wondered if that was true. He enjoyed tennis, but practice was hard and sometimes a little brutal. At Rikkai, losing just wasn't an option.

"Rikkai is more about extreme training programs than fun," Kirihara offered after another sip of his tea. He felt he had to offer something in exchange for Shiraishi's information. He wanted to keep the Shitenhouji captain's interest on him.

"So I've heard. You're all very strong players, aren't you? You must work very hard."

"Well yeah. Yukimura-buchou and Sanada-fukubuchou has mad us really strong. They don't accept losers so I've had to work really hard to catch up to their standards. And one day, I'm going to surpass them."

"Well if anyone can do it, I'm sure you can." There was a pause and Kirihara could see the slight hesitation on Shiraishi's face. It made him uncomfortable but he kept quiet, forcing the other teen to go on. "But you won't be able to unless you get that temper under control. And if you don't get it under control, you're going to destroy yourself Akaya-kun."

"But - " Kirihara began to protest. Didn't Shiraishi remember that he'd done just that!

"One match won't fix the problem. But it's shown us that you can control it and just what amazing things you can do when you do."

"I'll do it next time!" Kirihara declared vehemently. Empowered by Shiraishi's faith in him.

"I look forward to it," Shiraishi replied before moving the conversation back onto other topics that Kirihara found completely captivating.

Who knew that plants and bugs could be so interesting!

-0-0-0-0-

"Congratulations on making it to the third court, Kirihara," Yukimura said. He fell into step beside Kirihara as they headed out of the break room and into the quiet hall.

"Thanks Yukimura-buchou! Did you see my match? It was amazing playing with Shiraishi-san. I got really angry but I didn't go insane. Did you know he's called the bible of tennis?" Kirihara gushed and Yukimura could practically see the boy sparkling. It was a little disturbing but cute.

"Yes, I've heard of it. He's a very well rounded player." Or was before he unveiled and took off that ridiculous gold band. Just how many stats it affected, Yukimura couldn't judge from half a doubles match.

"Yeah! I hope I can be like that. And he likes my hair!"

Yukimura wondered how they moved so quickly from tennis to hair but it was a nice change to see Kirihara so enthused so he went with it, curious to see where this would lead. "Really?"

"He wants to go to my salon. I thought he was just being nice but he told me over tea that he meant it. He's so cool Yukimura-buchou."

And with that, Yukimura's niggling thoughts came to the forefront and Kirihara's enthusiasm was no longer cute. Kirihara wasn't just hero worshipping Shiraishi, he had a puppy crush on him.

That was annoying. There was no time for those types of distractions.

"I'm sure he is. But don't get too attached. You might have to play against him to secure your place," Yukimura warned. He didn't want Kirihara to be distracted from his tennis or get hurt.

Kirihara frowned, probably remembering how he had had to play against Yanagi. That he was only here because Yanagi had forfeited the game. Something that had initially annoyed Yukimura, but he could, in a way, understand Yanagi's logic. There was no point leaving behind a legacy if the new captain wasn't able to shoulder the burden. That's why he was sure that he had to get Kirihara's focus back on the matches. He couldn't expect Shiraishi to act as self-sacrificing as Yanagi.

"But as long as I give it my all on the courts, it won't matter what we do off it, right?" Kirihara eventually asked.

"Could you really go all out against him?"

"Of course! I want to win! I might not be able to win against him yet, but just like with you Yukimuira-buchou, I won't rest until I defeat you all. Because I'm going to be the best and the strongest player here. Just wait!"

Yukimura shook his head slightly. Kirihara had a lot more to work on before he could realistically overtake him, or Shiraishi but the words were encouraging. At least Shiraishi's sweet words hadn't affected his drive but still, there were other ways to get distracted on the court. But that part of the conversation would probably be better saved for Shiraishi.

"I guess I'll have to trust you. But Shiraishi's not the only one who likes your hair."

"Really?"

Kirihara didn't look quite convinced, so Yukimura gave a small smile as he gave Kirihara's head a pat. "Why don't you head to the gym and I'll meet you there. I want to do a few laps around the courts first to work on my stamina." He had made a miraculous recovery from his previous illness but everyone in Rikkai knew that he was still rebuilding his previous strength and stamina. It had been a long fought battle, but he was sure it was almost over.

"Okay, but don't push yourself. With Sanada-fukubuchou and Yanagai-sempai gone, it's up to me to look out for you."

"Of course. Now get going before we get in trouble for not finishing our training program for the day."

"Yeah yeah. But when you get to the gym, I want you to tell me what you know about Shiraishi-san's tennis!" Kirihara had called the last of the sentence back toward Yukimura as he raced off down the hall.

Yukimura spared a moment to smile after his difficult second year and then turned to head toward the courts. He was sure Shiraishi had headed out that way and he suddenly had the desire to clear a few things up with the Shitenhouji captain.

-0-0-0-

Shiraishi was starting his fourth circuit around the courts when he passed the main buildings and spotted Yukimura doing stretches. Their eyes met and Shiraishi recognized the look being sent his way. The captain of Rikkai wasn't pleased with him. Which was too bad because Shiraishi didn't think he'd been doing anything wrong. Yukimura was the first to look away due to a change in position but Shiriashi hardly considered the matter resolved.

He looked over at Gin as they turned a corner, "Looks like I'm going to be having a friendly chat soon," He commented.

Gin gave a snort, "Friendly?"

"Maybe," Shiraishi said with a shrug not worried about it.

"You were expecting it," Gin pointed out.

"True. But didn't think he'd hunt me down so soon for it." He thought he'd had a bit more time to figure out how he was going to placate Yukimura. Because he knew, without a doubt, that Yukimura would have concerns about his interactions with Kirihara and want to sort it out. That was just the sort of captain Yukimura was.

"Worried?" Gin asked. As they reached the halfway point, Gin nodded towards another path that would lead them way. If Shiraishi was worried, they could divert course and avoid going back to the main building. But Shiraishi didn't think running away would help. And he wasn't afraid of Yukimura. He had a healthy respect of the captain as he did many of the nationally ranked players but it wasn't anything close to resembling fear.

"I'll be fine. And if not, you can be the witness for the police reports." He grinned and Gin gave a small chuckle before taking the hint and slowing his pace to fall back with a group of players behind them.

Shiraishi, now solo, turned the last corner and headed back to the starting area where Yukimura was jogging in place and looking as if he were doing nothing more than the finishing touches to a thorough stretching. Shiraishi knew better and had to admit that he did feel a little flattered with the attention.

"Shiraishi," Yukimura said, as he fell in beside Shiraishi as he made to pass.

"Yukimura." He slowed his pace slightly to better allow them to talk as they ran. Something that he was sure Yukimura noticed.

"I wanted to congratulate you on your match with Kirihara this morning."

"Thanks. It was a good game. Hopefully we can see court 6 play soon."

"I'm sure we'll be making a challenge soon enough."

They ran in silence for half a lap until Yukimura looked at him again, "I wanted to thank you for what you did with Kirihara."

"I didn't do it for you." He hadn't. He hadn't even really done it for Yanagi, though that's who the promise was to. It was for Kirihara. Because he could tell that Kirihara really loved tennis, despite all the demons now attached to the game. And Shiraishi felt that nobody should lose that love just because of a few issues that, with the right guiding hand, could be cleared up.

"I know. But still, as Kirihara is part of my team, I'm thanking you as one captain to another."

"No need. We're at a national training camp and right now Kirihara is a junior on the same team I'm in. It's natural to want to guide someone who needs help." The dig was gentle but still there.

"Of course. But now that you've helped him, I'm sure you don't want to waste any more of your time on him. So I'll make sure to dedicate more time to his training personally." Yukimura's words were cordial but the tone was frosty and Shiraishi was sure that more than one Rikkai team member would bow under the force of it. Shiraishi just gave a smile.

"He's still in my court team so I'm sure I can help him more. Besides, I think it was your dedicated training that made him into what he is to begin with. I've heard the stories about Rikkai's training regime but didn't think you'd push things that far. Or let Sanada do it in your absence."

"Are you questioning my training tactics?" Yukimura had won 2 nationals and placed 2nd in a third with those tactics. Obviously, he felt that the Rikkai training tactics had proven themselves and didn't need justifying. Shiraishi disagreed.

"Yes. And Yanagi did too. He's the one that asked me to look after Kirihara. Told me that since I had experience working with large personalities that I could help him." Shiraishi looked at his fellow captain and made sure to catch his eye, "I made a promise." And he kept his promises as best he could.

Yukimura frowned before he composed himself. "He had no right to do that."

"From where I"m standing, it was a good thing he did. Kirihara was on the path of self-destruction. He still is. But if we work together instead of against each other. We can save him. Make him stronger, maybe even stronger than us."

"Why would you do this? It has to be more than a promise."

Shiraishi wasn't surprised that Yukimura didn't trust his intentions. Shiraishi sort of thought that Yukimura was born out of his time. That Yukimura should have been some sort of Shogun. The type that trained hard and wasn't afraid to deal out harsh punishments and force his followers to become stronger. Better to hurt them himself than see them injured on the battlefield. The type that didn't easily make alliances and didn't trust them when he did. It didn't make him a bad leader, the national titles proved that. It just made him a leader not suited for everyone.

So Shiraishi had to get Yukimura to agree to this alliance of sorts and to trust him if he was going to help Kirihara and keep his promise. Which meant making him understand.

"At Shitenhouji, I've met a lot of interesting players. And seen a lot of weird training regimes. And well, it's rubbed off on me. I don't see the world as rivals. Just challenges to overcome and learn from. And if I make Kirihara stronger and become stronger too then it's worth it."

"I don't like the way you control him," Yukimura said as they started their second lap. Shiraishi noticed that the pace had increased.

"What? With compliments? It's not that strange."

"It's more than a compliment. And you know it."

"It's a little harmless flirting. Besides, he's adorable." And that was no lie. While he wouldn't want to give up any of his teammates to do so, Shiraishi would gladly have Kirihara on his team. He was sure that once he got over the shock of the differences he'd fit right in and he'd flourish.

"I think he has a crush on you now. And it's going to distract him from his tennis and get him hurt. I want you to back away now," Yukimura said catching Shiraishi's eye. And this was going to be the sticking point. He knew how much focus Yukimura demanded from his teammates when it came to tennis. 100%. No time for any distractions.

"I wouldn't say anything to him I didn't mean or wasn't willing to follow through with. You don't have to worry about him getting hurt. At least not from me." Or worse than how you and your team has hurt him, Shiraishi thought but wisely didn't add. Kirihara wouldn't be so susceptible to a few compliments if he wasn't starved so badly for them.

"Are you saying that we harmed him?"

"Is that what you thought I said?" Shiraishi asked with a smile.

"It's what you meant."

Shiraishi shrugged and they managed another lap in contemplative silence, the pace picking up at every bend until they were full out running.

"I still don't like you encouraging his feelings. There's no time for anything but tennis here," Yukimura said. He was sweating slightly now but his voice still came out clear.

"I'm pretty sure it's up to him." Shiraishi was sweating too and he hated that he was breathing heavier now. But he had been running longer and these laps weren't short.

"He's young."

"So are we."

"He needs to focus on his tennis. He won't defeat his demons if he doesn't."

"Focusing on his tennis is what gave him demons."

"It gave him an outlet," Yukimura countered and slowed down the pace so they jogged the last bit to a cool down area. "You were looking tired."

"I'm not but if you need the excuse I can be," Shiraishi said but did take the chance to breathe deep while slowing to walk. "And he doesn't need an outlet like that. He needs to control it and use that side of him safely."

There was silence again as they began their stretching routine. Yukimura seemed to be in thought and Shiraishi decided to leave him to it.

"Okay. I'm willing to say that Yanagi had a point. But only about Kirihara needing help with his tennis. But I don't like it being you and I don't like your methods."

"You don't have to like it. But as long as it works you should support it." Shiraishi sat on the ground and started stretching his legs. "Give me a hand?" He asked reaching out to the ground.

He watched as Yukimura moved behind him and then closed his eyes as he felt Yukimura's hands on his back and the push was much more gentle than he'd expected.

"Alright. As long as keeps his focus on tennis and his control keeps improving I'll go with it. But I'll keeping a close eye on the two of you."

"Shouldn't you be focusing on your tennis?" Shiraishi asked and was answered with a hard push down that made his muscles protest.

"Don't push your luck," Yukimura warned before his hands retreated and he moved back into sight.

"But it's so much fun," Shiraishi teased and then stood.

"I just hope you're as good as you think you are." With that Yukimura strode off in the direction of the training room.

Shiraishi just shrugged and went back to his stretches. Working with Kirihara wasn't going to be an easy challenge, but he was sure it would be fun and very fulfilling to get to know the young man better.

"Safe to return?" Gin asked as he stepped up beside Shiraishi and started his own cool down routine.

"Unless he's off setting up some long range weapons. Let me know if you see any laser dots on me, will you?" He asked and with a chuckle they both went back to their training.

END.