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"That didn't count!" Michiko shouted, waving her racquet wildly. The tennis ball she'd failed to hit was rolling further and further off the courts, but the tiny redhead was too busy arguing to chase after it.
Sachiko rolled her eyes, and pointed her own blue racquet at her younger sister. "It did too count. I hit to you, it went over the net and then you missed. How doesn't it count?"
"I wasn't ready!" Michi tried to fold her arms, but couldn't do it with her racquet in hand. Instead, she put her free hand on her hip, imitating their older brother's 'I'm greatly annoyed at you' stance. "You didn't say you were going to hit it right away."
Ten-year-old Sachiko was starting to regret ever agreeing to practice with her sister. While she had faith in her own abilities – and the fact that her brother and his boyfriend kept telling her she had natural talent – Michiko sadly did not possess the same skills. However, that didn't deter her from trying to win, by any means necessary. Including, Sachiko thought wryly, deciding that every ball she dropped was discounted by a technicality known only to Michiko. Being the more relaxed and easy-going of the two, Sachiko really didn't stand a chance against Miki-logic. She tried to argue anyway. "Michi, I threw the ball in the air. You watched me do it. That means I'm in the middle of serving."
"I still wasn't ready!" came the insistent reply, and Sachiko rubbed her head tiredly.
"Fine," she said, wanting to drop the whole thing. Miki could and would argue for the next hour if someone didn't be the mature one. "We'll start over. Go get the ball." Michiko grinned the grin of the one who had gotten their way, and turned on her heel, dropping the racquet onto the court as she jogged onto the grass, searching for the ball. Sachiko counted down. "Three... two... one..."
A plaintive – and predictable – cry broke the momentary silence. "I can't find it!"
Sachiko could never be accused of not knowing her sister. "Of course. Hang on," she called, and set her own racquet down. Maneuvering around the net, she joined her sister on the grass. A glimpse sideways showed her brother still deep into a match with Momo-chan on the far court. It had been the only free court available when they'd arrived almost an hour ago, but the college kids that had commanded over the area had left twenty minutes ago. That meant she and Michi could play for a while, until their brother beat his friend into the ground. She swung her gaze around into the grassy fields that lined the back end of the court. "Jeez, Mik, why didn't you get the ball before you started whining?"
"I wasn't whining," Miki stated with a mild glare in her direction. "And if you'd waited until I was ready, the ball wouldn't be lost."
Sachiko rolled her eyes. There was no arguing with Michiko when she'd decided on something. 'Kaya-niichan had said something about choosing your battles once, and this seemed like a good time to try it out. "Fine, fine. Check over there by the bushes. Maybe it rolled underneath."
Michi scampered over and promptly stuck her head under the lower branches. Two seconds later - "Ow! Sachi, my hair is stuck!"
Sachiko snickered and moved to help untangle her sibling. Once her hair was free, she gave her sister's t-shirt a tug, guiding her into backing out of the brambles. Michiko squirmed free and held up the scuff-marked tennis ball proudly. "I found it!"
"Finally!" Sachiko stood up and brushed off her knees, reaching over to help clear the debris from Michiko's pant legs. "Let's go try that again."
"Okay!" Michi grinned and raced around her.
The courts held a surprise for them, though. Two boys, big ones, were standing in their place. The tallest one had Sachiko's racquet in his hand. Sachiko glared and stormed over. The fact that they were considerably larger than her didn't slow her down in the slightest, but then, her brother was always telling her she had a short fuse. "That's my racquet!"
"Oh, really?" The boy holding her racquet sneered at her, swinging it in a way that could have been casual, but seemed threatening to Sachiko who suddenly found herself re-evaluating the size difference between them. "This quality racquet is too good for a squirt like you."
"It's my brothers racquet," Sachiko said firmly. Intimidated or not, she had no intention of letting some goon steal her brother's lucky blue racquet without a fight. She shot a glance at the far court, but her brother was too far away to hear what was going on, and when Akira-nii was in the middle of a game, it took a lot to break his concentration. "Give it back."
"Or your brother will beat us up, right?" The ugly boy – his face was all pock marked and gross-looking, Sachi noted with disgust – raised his hand threateningly. "Get lost."
"Give it back!" Michiko shouted suddenly. Sachiko whirled around; the other boy had circled behind, and had grabbed Michi's racquet – which happened to belong to Akaya-nii. "It's not yours!"
"It is now," the other, pudgier boy said. He swung the racquet, just missing Michi's head by about a foot. "You heard my pal there. Get lost before you get hurt!"
Michi gasped and backed away. Sachiko raced over and wrapped her arms around her little sister, pulling her close. The two boys laughed, obviously amused at the fear they were instilling in the young girls. Sachiko bit her lip and looked down the court again. No one was paying any attention at all, and her throat was too closed up to scream for help.
"Sachi..." Michi's voice was wavering, tears welling up in her eyes. Fear shone clearly from sky-blue eyes, and Sachi knew her own face was reflecting the same thing. She didn't know what to do.
Suddenly a shadow fell across the court, and a low, growling voice cut through the laughter like a knife. "What the hell is going on here?"
The two boys looked around in shocked surprise. Michiko beamed broadly, and Sachiko let out a relived sigh.
Akaya-nii was there.
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Akaya was running late. Normally, this wouldn't bother him one bit, except he was late for a tennis date with Akira. His partner wasn't known for his patience – hell, neither of them were – which meant he'd probably get a game started with someone else, leaving him to smash balls off the wall while he waited. Which as an exercise, was good practice, but was a hell of a lot more boring than actually playing a game.
The only thing worse would be the girls. If he was unoccupied, that meant he was a free target for the girls to badger him into training them. Now, he loved Sachiko and Michiko. Really, he did. But he was not meant to be a trainer of children – he barely had the patience to coach himself through something. Not to mention, Michiko - adorable child, really she was - had the god-awful habit of whining worse than a first year after a round of Sanada-inspired sprints whenever she lost. As the child could barely hold the racquet up, let alone properly, it meant she whined a lot.
Coming up the stairs, he scanned the far courts – yup, just like he'd suspected. Kamio was already into a match with the dunk-smash idiot from Seigaku. Akaya sighed. There was no help for it. Until Kamio beat the bristle-headed fool into the ground, he was stuck with either a wall or two mini-misfits, wherever they might be. They weren't watching the game, which was not so surprising when the courts were empty. They had to give them up to real players, so they took advantage of them when they could. Checking the courts one by one, he blinked as he took in a strange sight.
Michiko and Sachiko were at the opposite end of the open-air courtyard, down by F-court. Two large teens were standing over them looking threatening even from a distance. One of them was swinging a raquet dangerously close to Sachiko's head. The little redhead jumped back, and the sight of it caused a low snarl to start building inside his chest. He began jogging over, feeling a familiar red haze falling over his eyes as he heard Michiko whimper Sachiko's name. Sliding to a halt at the end of the court, racquet already in hand, his voice bit out harshly, "What the hell is going on here?"
Sachiko and Michiko snapped their heads around, looking at him in relief, but Akaya barely acknowledged them. His focus was on the two brutes in front of him. Both of them were taller than he was, leading him to assess them as high-schoolers. Bigger, but not necessarily more dangerous. The uglier one rested what Akaya recognized as Kamio's racquet on his shoulder, the edge rubbing against greasy black hair. That was just... utterly. Disgusting. "What's it to you, asshole?"
"Yeah," sneered the fatter one, twirling a red racquet Akaya dimly realized was the spare he'd lent to Sachiko. "Mind your own business."
Akaya let loose one of his old, feral smiles - one he hadn't consciously loosed in quite some time. It was a familiar feeling, letting his rage bank into controlled burn, one he could direct without losing his head completely. He could feel his eyes narrowing into slits, seeking out his prey before him and he licked his lips in anticipation. "I am," he growled. Like a whip shot, his own racquet snapped out and aimed in Sachiko and Michiko's directions. "They are my business."
"Really," smirked Ugly, waggling his eyebrows and leering in a grotesque display of wobbling jowls and bobbing zits. "Robbing the cradle, huh?" The racquet brushed against his hair again.
Akaya snarled at the sight and with a speed that would rival Kamio, yanked a ball out of his pocket, lined up a serve and smashed it at the idiot, striking his wrist with an audible smack. The boy yelped, fingers opening automatically as a nerve reflex, dropping the racquet to the ground as he groped at his wrist, cursing in pain.
Sachiko, seeing her chance, dashed forward to scoop the racquet up – but before she could back away, Ugly had let go of his own wrist, reached down and grabbed hold of her arm instead. "Let me go!" she cried out, tugging uselessly. Ugly tightened his grip, knuckles turning white against the tanned skin of Sachiko's arm, and she whimpered in pain.
Kirihara's heart clenched at both the sight and sound, and he knew his eyes had gone full red. His fingers clenched tightly on to his own racquet, squeezing and releasing. "Ooh," he chuckled darkly, eying him as a predator does its prey. Indeed, he suddenly felt very much like his old sempai's jungle namesake, aching to sink his claws into the suicidal moron that had had the audacity to attack one of his cubs. "Very, very bad move."
"Fuck you," the thug snarled, jerking Sachiko around again. She yelped, stumbling but not falling due to the tight grip. "Gimme that racquet and then all'a you get the hell out of here before someone gets hurt."
Akaya ignored him and looked directly at Sachiko, grinning fiercely through the pounding blood in his veins, the haze across his vision. "Run."
She stared back at him, wide-eyed with pain and fear, but nodded. Akaya felt a rush of pride for the girl at not losing her head and being able to understand what she needed to do.
Ugly looked confused and angry. "What the hell?"
Akaya fired off another shot, just as fast as the last one, and this time it struck Ugly dead-center in his face. His nose exploded in a fountain of blood and he howled in agony, releasing Sachiko completely to grip at his face. Blood streaked through his fingers and he fell to his knees, blinded by pain. Sachiko skittered away on her hands and knees, scraping them up but apparently not caring if her speed was any indication. She got to her feet, taking off at a run, shrieking for her brother.
Fatboy tried to come to Ugly's rescue, lunging at Akaya, who stepped sideways and stuck his racquet between his pudgy legs, tripping him up. Fatboy hit the ground stomach-first with an 'Oof' and a thud that Akaya imagined could be heard all over the court. Then he was there, flipping Fatboy over before he had a chance to recover. He straddled the bloated belly, knees kneeling painfully on the thugs flabby arms, pushing his own racquet handle firmly across his throat.
Everything froze. Ugly was still whimpering, flailing a bit as he tried to touch his nose without actually touching it. Fat tears mixed with snot and blood and slid down his face in a pathetic display. Fatboy was wailing in pain too, as Akaya's knees dug into his arms that were braced against unforgiving concrete. The racquet across his throat wasn't helping either, cutting him off at times as Akaya alternated between pressing down and releasing the pressure.
Akaya grinned down at the boy he had pinned. "Still wanna play some more?"
"Let me up you freak!" Fatboy howled.
"That wasn't nice." Lifting the racquet off his neck completely, Kirihara cocked his head and then raised his arm up high. A phrase from an old English movie he'd seen once before came to mind, and he grinned again, feral and unrestrained. "Say g'nite, gracie."
"Akaya!" The shout came from across the courts, and Kirihara looked up. Kamio streaked across E court, a black and red blur, skidding to a halt in front of them. Behind him loped Momoshiro who was looking equal parts confused and angry. Sachiko was directly behind him, and she detoured to the right, going back to her sister's side. "Akaya, stop. That's enough."
The red haze was still there. Akaya really, really wanted to hurt the irritating pustule that had tried to hurt that which he considered his own. He glanced over at the side and saw Sachiko hugging Miki. The imprint of Ugly's hand blazed out from her arm like a disgusting brand in livid red. His rage frothed inside him, straining at his mental leash. "I'll decide when it's enough," he said, surprisingly calmly, looking back down at Fatboy who was starting to sob in earnest. Putting the maggot out of its misery was the least he could do. His arm flexed.
"They're done," Kamio stubbornly insisted. He stepped forward and Kirihara jerked his head at him, glaring viciously.
"Are you trying to tell me what to do?"
"Kamio…" Momoshiro spoke quietly in the background. The warning tone of his voice clearly indicated he thought Akaya was off his rocker and likely to hurt someone. Kirihara might be inclined to agree, particularly when he was this provoked, but his target certainly wouldn't be his boyfriend. If Momo-the-moron thought that was enough to make him attack Kamio, then he was a bigger idiot than he had given him credit for. Thus, Kirihara ignored him. So did Kamio.
Kamio moved even closer and crouched down next to Kirihara. He lay one hand on Kirihara's raised arm, looking him in the eyes. "Please. Enough. It's okay now."
How Kamio could feel mercy towards such a lesser creature - and one that had attacked his sisters, no less - was a miracle he felt the thugs did not deserve. But he wasn't very good at ignoring Kamio at the best of times, particularly when he used that tone of voice. Kirihara snarled and looked back down at the pathetic, whimpering blob beneath him. Completely undeserving of his time. He snorted and then lowered his arm, hopping from his knees to his feet. "You," he snarled at Fatboy. Deprived of destroying his prey, he settled for intimidation. "Get up."
Shivering, crying, the teen did as he was told. Kirihara pulled away from Kamio, walked over to Ugly and yanked him to his feet. Then he aimed his racquet at the pair of them. "If I ever see you here again making trouble for anyone, I will finish what I started here today. You got me?"
They nodded, blubbering out apologies before stumbling away, propping each other up. Akaya watched them leave, feeling the blood in his veins still boiling. He turned back and stared at Kamio, the girls and Momoshiro, all of whom were staring at him like they were expecting him to turn on them next.
Kirihara blinked. Michiko was pointing at an odd-looking puddle on the ground. Her tiny nose wrinkled up. "He peed his pants," she said, shaking her head with the confident air of one who was properly toilet-trained.
Her innocent comment broke the tension, and suddenly Momoshiro doubled over laughing. Kamio shook his head chuckling, and even Akaya had to grin. Then he shook himself. "I'll be back in a bit, okay?" He looked at Kamio who nodded back. Kamio knew Kirihara needed to get the last of the anger and tension out of his system. Wall-balls would be best, safest.
He turned, grabbed his racquet and walked away.
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Kirihara kept up a steady rhythm against the wall, pushing himself to move as fast as he could. The faster he moved, the more energy he burned off, and the less he would feel like going back to find those two fuckwits and beating them to death with their own arms. The demon inside him was awake, no longer roaring for blood, but still churning his insides, making him growl with each impact his strings made against the ball.
"Scary, scary," commented a voice from behind him.
Kirihara growled and slammed the ball against the wall one last time. It rebounded out of his reach – he didn't even make an attempt for it – as he turned around to glare at Momoshiro who casually leaned his racquet out and let the ball hit, letting it settle neatly on the crossed wires. "You got something to say?" he snarled. The demon was only being held back by the last threads of his control.
Momo held up his hands defensively. "Easy there," he said calmly. "I figured you didn't need a crowd so I offered to come and check on you."
"I don't need checking on." Kirihara pulled another ball from his pants pocket. "Are we done?"
"You sure don't make it easy for people to like you, you know." Momo waggled a finger at him. "You're nearly as antisocial as the Snake."
Akaya snorted, momentarily derailed. "And you're nearly as stupid as Niou-sempai. What's your point?"
"So cruel, Kirihara, so cruel!" Momo's eyes crinkled with amusement. "I was impressed at how you managed to control your temper back there. I thought you were going to crush that moron's skull into a paste."
"'Kira doesn't like it when I maim people in front of the girls." The demon was restless but seemed to be settling reluctantly.
Momo blinked. "Ah…"
Kirihara shook his head wryly. "That was a joke, Momoshiro." He tossed the ball into the air and settled back into his rhythm, albeit a lot calmer this time. "I don't do that shit anymore."
"But your eyes turned red," Momo objected.
Kirihara gave a one-sided shrug even as he returned a light forehand to the wall. "I was angry."
"That happens every time you get angry?" Momo asked. He sounded disbelieving.
"No," Akaya let out an irritated huff of air. "Just when I'm that angry."
There was silence for a moment, save for the steady thudding of a tennis ball against a wall. Then Momo chuckled out loud. "The look on that guy's face…"
A reluctant smirk tugged at Kirihara's lip. "Friggin' pansy," he muttered. "I can't believe he pissed himself."
"I can't believe I didn't join him," Momo said candidly.
Akaya caught the ball and turned to look at Momo who had a rueful grin on his face. "Huh?"
"You're a scary guy, Kirihara," Momo said, shrugging. "I'm not ashamed to admit it. But then—" His grin grew even wider. "—I just need to remember that this display had been triggered in the defense of two little girls being bullied." He winked at Akaya. "You're a softie."
Akaya spluttered. "I'm…a what? The fuck I am!"
"Maa, maa – don't get over-excited," Momo said waving his hands in the air. "Are you about done killing the wall?"
"I guess that's a 'no'." Momo chuckled. He popped the ball off the strings, tossed it back to Akaya – who caught it automatically, mouth still opening and closing in shock – and rested the head of his racquet on his shoulder. "I'll go tell everyone you still need a cool down."
"No," Akaya growled. "I need a smack down, and you just volunteered." He raised his own racquet and watched with amusement as Momo yelped and began to back up, babbling apologies before suddenly wheeling around and sprinting off. He shot a look at the wall, then at the retreating Momo – and grinned evilly. Twirling his racquet over his head, he howled "Die Momo!" and gave chase.
Momo shrieked like a little girl and sped up, dashing right past Kamio, his sisters, and Ryoma – all of whom, save for Kamio, were watching with wide-eyes. Akaya met Kamio's eyes briefly as he passed them and winked before picking up the pace. The demon was back under control. This time.