The Nature of The Beast

Hiyoshi Wakashi was behaving a lot like Atobe Keigo that morning, Akutagawa Jirou thought to himself. Six of the eight Hyotei regulars were sprawled out on the open bank near the courts, taking in the morning sun to ease the ache of the weekend's defeat. Nobody in Hyotei liked to see the team lose; their pride overruled their individualism at times and on the morning after Fudomine's victory against them, all were united in anger and shame. Jirou cocked his head to look up at his teammate, - the aspiring captain of the team -, as he loomed over their heads.

"It was a shocking defeat," Hiyoshi was saying, as though the loss were a personal injustice. The grass raked up underneath his heavy feet and his tennis shoes looked a little dirtier than normal that morning. "I can't believe Atobe-san didn't investigate who Fudomine might put forward before throwing in a sub-regular team. They're subs for a reason, after all."

Jirou didn't like the way Hiyoshi said '-san'. Somehow it seemed more offensive than honorific, when he said it.

"It's what we did the year before, and it worked perfectly then. There was nothing wrong with the strategy, Hiyoshi-san. Fudomine were a surprise to us, granted, but we more than made up for it in the consolation match. Jirou's match against Rudolph's Fuji Yuuta was nothing short of spectacular." Oshitari interjected from his position against a thick tree stump. His eyes were restful behind his glasses and one hand idly toyed with his shoelaces.

Jirou stretched himself out in the thick grass, turned his head upside down to offer Oshitari a small grin. "That was a fun game. We'll be alright, won't we? I mean - I know we let ourselves down a bit, but we've gotten through and we need to focus on Seigaku now. Tennis should be more fun than this."

"Nothing's fun when you lose, kid." Shishido interrupted, leaning back against the same tree that loomed over Oshitari's head. "I know you find being defeated terribly fascinating but not everyone does, alright? Atobe's probably getting the shit torn out of him by Sakaki-sensei, and I'm off the regulars for sure. You need to get with reality for one bleeding s-"

"Today isn't a very fun day, Jirou-san." Ootori said softly, closing a hand upon Shishido's elbow with surprising tenacity. "Wait until we get onto the courts, then it'll get back to normal. Everyone's a bit heated after the weekend and we need to put our energies into some good matches instead of wasting them bickering amongst ourselves."

"He's right, though." Gakuto commented in a nasal tone, lying on his stomach and kicking his legs backward and forward. "He'll be off the team faster than Atobe can say, 'Hey, where's my chauffeur?'"

"That's not helpful, Gakuto." Ootori replied in a clipped voice, eyes firm against Gakuto's petulant gaze. After a moment's pause, quiet resumed, and Shishido slanted an appreciative gaze Ootori's way. His friend shrugged it off with a wriggle of his shoulders and, looking up at the tall school building, palmed a hand over his forehead. "I wonder when they're going to be done with him in there."

"I wouldn't be surprised if they decide to replace him." Hiyoshi muttered, peevishly. "As a captain, he should have known better."

"They won't," Ootori responded quickly, as Jirou's stunned gaze caught his attention. "Sakaki-sensei may be cold, but he knows that Atobe-san is the best leader for Hyotei right now. He's not a coach or a data specialist, remember. The strategy was fine, we just couldn't have predicted that Fudomine were going to put their top three players against us. That's not Atobe-san's fault. Personally, if they decide to get rid of Atobe-san, I imagine that this team would crumble at least temporarily. We can't afford that, what with Kantou Regionals coming up so soon."

"Hyotei is cut-throat," Oshitari added. "But not stupid."

Gakuto's eyes moved from his doubles partner to Ootori's, gaze caught by the frustrated Shishido's effort to embed his fist into the bark of the tree. The heat was making them all restless and although he had never seen eye-to-eye with Ryou, he wouldn't have liked to be in his position. To be thrown from the regular team was not something any wearer of a Hyotei badge would be psyched about, but Shishido was particularly proud and his 6-0 defeat by Tachibana Kippei had been devastating. He was awaiting his final sentence; one that would come from the absent Atobe, and the long silences were doing him no good. As Gakuto eyed up his little team, he tried to imagine it without Shishido and couldn't. In all honesty, he couldn't see a Hyotei without any one of the people who stood before him. Each member seemed integral in their own little way, and Gakuto pushed the notion out of his mind that a new regular might soon be taking Shishido's place.

Hiyoshi was the sarcasm, the cynic, the devil's advocate. He was the only one among them who not only disagreed with Atobe 99 of the time but also despised him, by virtue that he had to defeat him to gain the captaincy. Whilst his grumbling ways weren't always disposed to harmonious team morale, Gakuto appreciated Hiyoshi's mediation of the idolatry that seemed a disease within Hyotei. Oshitari was the watchful eye; the one who never got involved in arguments but whose opinion often settled them. Oshitari was respected in the same way that Tezuka of Seigaku might be; the low-voiced way he delivered judgement seemed often to Gakuto akin to the voice of God, such was the faith in its true justice. Ootori was the softly-spoken social leader of the team. Although he was often referred to as a pushover with a gentle heart, all eight of the regulars knew differently. Ootori liked the team dynamic to remain friendly and considerate and was quite prepared to put his foot down when these needs were not being met. The steely look that could in a moment take over his kindly eyes was never ignored by his teammates and although eager to please, Ootori's confidence was quietly overwhelming. He fitted in with Shishido rather well; calming his hot spirit and balancing his polarised viewpoints. Shishido was the sort of person who allowed only for black and white and whose temper was just as discriminating. With Ootori's class and patience nearby, Shishido seemed to feel more settled and it was no surprise to Gakuto that the two remained firm friends. Jirou was the one who didn't fit, somehow. His ambition, his determination and his skill were all fluffy around the edges like an expensive pillow. There wasn't a bad bone in Jirou's body. He was mischievous, easily bored and quick to exhaust, but his character was innocent and he went out of his way to inject Hyotei with some cheer. It would be a mistake to assume him lazy or unskilled, but Jirou's heart lay more in being a member of a gang of friends than in a snobbish tennis team.

He himself; well, where did he fit in? He was a bitchy, petulant and often scornful personality, who supplied Hyotei with more than its fair share of elitism. Gakuto hated to see his team lose and although he didn't plan to go pro with his own game, seeing Hyotei sitting at the top of the tree was of vital importance to him. He hated boastful members of other teams and often stood at the forefront of practises, using insults and barbs to motivate his teammates.

Oshitari's gaze finally deferred to the window; the last of the little team to look up. Ootori's face had taken on a characteristic worried tone, and even Hiyoshi was standing, arms folded, awaiting the now fifteen-minutes delayed arrival of their captain. Gakuto wondered, hands under chin, why Atobe had been chosen as the one. The main actor amongst this wild variation of characters; the binding force, the striving figurehead. Where had it happened, that Atobe had taken root as the central column in Hyotei's willowy, frail building? The tree stump that held the branches upright, kept the leaves from dusting the dirty ground? The flower that reached, carrying petals, toward the burning sun?

"He'll be alright," Ootori murmured. "Whatever happens, we'll support him."

"And here I was thinking that Hyotei were selfish glory-grabbers." Hiyoshi commented wryly. "Even I would rather beat Atobe into the ground and take his place than have him removed before I get the chance."

"We're all individuals." Jirou commented, his eyes glazing over as he twirled a daisy between finger and thumb. "And individually, we all respect him."

"Most of us, anyway." Gakuto added, with a sly look in Hiyoshi's direction.

"If something falls on us, we'll all take it, okay?" Ootori's voice, ever measured and predictable. "We may be a bunch of tyrants thrown together into a melting pot, but we're a team in a funny sort of way. I won't let him take all of this on his own. We're all Hyotei. We'll lick our wounds and carry on - and we'll beat Seigaku. We'll wipe the floor with them. Agreed?"

"Does this mean I have to be nice to him whilst he's chucking me off the team?"

"A little courteousy wouldn't go amiss, Shishido-san. Don't call him an asshole like you did when he suggested that your temper wasn't a great asset to the tennis court."

"He called me a tempestuous wankpot!"

"I'm sure he meant the same thing."

"He needs our support," Jirou interrupted, throwing the daisy over his shoulder. "And we wouldn't be Hyotei if we rejected him."

"Yeah," Gakuto agreed. "And imagine what those piddly fucks at Seigaku would think if they knew we were ignoring our captain, for crying out loud."

"Call it selfishness. Call it pride. Call it caring. Call it saving your reputation. Call it whatever you like," Oshitari intoned from his corner, getting to his feet. "But for one reason or another, it's in all our interests to save Atobe's neck. To keep him as a rival, a benchmark, a friend, a teammate, or a sugar daddy. I don't care what word you use. What's important to me is that we stop sitting here discussing it like girls and get on with it. Shishido-san, go practice your grovelling. You're going to need it. Hyotei isn't Hyotei without your hysterics. The rest of you; who's up for getting started on the courts? There's no point in us ambling around as if we're awaiting his funeral. Let's go on with it."

"Good point well made." Shishido remarked as he lolled off, swinging his racket in deranged circles with one wrist. "There's no point in making his ego any bigger, after all."

"Absolutely." Gakuto jumped to his feet, slung his hands into his pockets and headed off for the court. "Great captain, but..."

"...thinks he's God." Hiyoshi muttered darkly, following Gakuto out with a bowed head.

"We can start with the supportive attitude anytime you like, guys." Ootori finished, his voice riddled with sarcasm.

Accepting Ootori's outstretched hand, Jirou watched as his team dispersed over the grass and onto the court. He observed as Oshitari easily caught up Gakuto, swerving a hand over his head so as to emphasise his slight build. The screeched response was familiar and comforting. Hiyoshi followed them both with a shake of head; disapproving, biding his time, a snake in the grass. Ootori and Shishido made their way in the opposite direction, the former determined to teach the latter the delicate art of the apology. He remained rooted to the spot for a few seconds, pulling out his t-shirt from his sweatpants, and sighed. He didn't think any other team was as high-maintenance as this. They had a strange sort of companionship; one riddled with dramatics and uprisings and dangerous mightiness, but when the chips were down, Jirou doubted that any other team had the united spirit that Hyotei did. It wasn't that they lost their individuality, he figured. Shishido would still be bad-tempered, Gakuto rude, Hiyoshi demanding, Ootori calming and Oshitari knowing. It was just that when Hyotei were down, Shishido would become determined, Gakuto motivated, Hiyoshi ambitious, Ootori supportive and Oshitari guiding. Sometimes, the very qualities that made them threatening Kings also made them nurturing paupers. Perhaps Shishido was right after all, about the world being black and white. In light, Hyotei was black and searing with obsessive determination. In darkness, Hyotei's eight moons came out in full force, seeking their return to dawn.

Jirou wouldn't say that being defeated terribly fascinated him. But this air of vulnerability gave him a reason to believe that Hyotei weren't such a horrible lot, despite what other people said. He liked them all better, really, when they lost.

Slowly, he trekked out behind Hiyoshi toward the sun-dappled court.