~ kittykittyhunter ~
The January snow fell in slow drifts, dusting the heads of the people who traversed Tokyo's streets. Two tall, adolescent boys maintained a hostile silence as they advanced towards a café. One wore a severe expression and a dark bandanna. His counterpart appeared to be equally angry.
Smiling darkly, Kaidoh Kaoru opened the café door. "After you."
Momoshiro Takeshi gave a curt nod. He strode inside.
The pair found themselves faced with familiar rivals: at a nearby table sat Kamio Akira, Fudomine's vice-captain and celebrated speedster. The boy was flanked by two teammates. On the left sat Ishida Tetsu, a junior famed for his powerful shots. On the right was Ibu Shinji.
Kamio rose in greeting. "Kaidoh, Momoshiro – it's good that you two could make it."
Rubbing the back of his head, Momo said, "The note we received a few days ago sounded pretty urgent. So – what's up?"
Kamio sighed and sat down, indicating that the boys do the same. Kaidoh and Momo pulled out their chairs, and Kamio solemnly began, "Tachibana-san will be graduating soon, and so will your sempais."
"That's only natural." Momo blinked. "Uh… I guess there's more to this?"
"Why," suggested Kaidoh, "don't you shut up and let him speak?"
"No one asked your opinion Viper –"
"You'd be lucky to have my opinion –"
Ishida interrupted, "Do you know who's going to be the captain next year? Has that decision been made yet?"
It was as though someone had prodded Momoshiro with a pin. His shoulders sank. "Well, it looks like the Viper's going to promoted… of course, I've been chosen as the vice-captain which counts for a lot – it's not like they're saying I'm useless or anything…"
As Momoshiro trailed off and turned to the window, Ibu asked, "Does he always start muttering like that?"
No one commented.
"I'll get to the point," Kamio said. "You won the Nationals. Next year, there's going to be a huge burden on your shoulders – you can't afford to let Seigaku down. Tachibana-san raised Fudomine from the ground, which is why I'll have a similar test next year. I have to live up to his reputation."
"That's a challenge I'll proudly accept," answered Kaidoh. His irises glinted. "Whether or not you can meet your school's current standard… that's an obstacle you'll have to overcome on your own terms."
"He's not disagreeing," said Ishida, "still –"
The café door opened.
"Ah – there they are!"
"Eh? They haven't ordered food? What kind of attitude is that?"
"I assumed Fudomine are poor, but Seigaku too?"
Momo twisted in his seat. He stared. "Aren't you two… from Yamabuki?"
"You say that as though we don't know who we are." The smile faded from Kita Ichiuma's face. He frowned at the seated group and shook his head. "You DO remember who we are, don't you?"
His teammate laughed, slapping Kita's shoulder. "Of course they do," he said cheerfully, "just in case they've forgotten – I'm Muromachi Toji, and this is Kita."
"It says a lot about your confidence if you need to introduce yourselves to people you've played in the past," Kamio said sourly. "More importantly… what are you doing here?"
Kita chuckled. "We're here for the meeting, naturally."
"Oh," replied Momo. He turned back to Kamio with raised eyebrows. "You shouldn't invite people and then pretend they're strangers."
"I didn't invite them," Kamio answered. "That's the whole point."
Kita and Muromachi exchanged a glance. "That's not the message that got back to us," said Muromachi. "That younger Fuji said that you were having a meeting for all the guys who were going to be captains next year, so Kita and I decided to come along. You made it pretty troublesome, not even disclosing the location –"
"And how in the world did Fuji Yuuta find out about this?"
"That part explains everything," Kaidoh said gruffly.
A low cough escaped from Momo's throat. "It sounds as though Mizuki-san might have been at the bottom of all this."
Kamio rolled his eyes, but that did nothing to deter Yamabuki's regulars. Soon the seven were seated (at somewhat of a squash) around the table. Kita and Muromachi insisted on buying croissants and bagels, so it was a while before Kamio could resume speaking – the juniors were too busy cramming food into their mouths. "As I was saying," the redhead proceeded, "it will be shameful if we let down our captains and teams. We need to be successful. I think it would be a good idea to trade training techniques."
"Hear hear!" cried Kita. He took a theatrical swig from his hot chocolate. Then he added, "I'm kind of suspicious that Dan-kun might surpass us and become the captain… I wouldn't be surprised if that was Coach's decision." His mouth twisted into a grimace. "Though now that I think about it, if I returned to school and showed them what a brilliant captain I'll be, I would definitely be selected."
"Except for one thing," said Muromachi. He sipped his tea. "Since I'm at this meeting too, I'll challenge you!"
"We'll see about that!"
Just as the pair threatened to break into a squabble, the café door opened once more.
"Sorry about my lateness," said Fuji Yuuta. In the doorway the brunette cut an impressive silhouette. His shoulders were square and it was clear that his endless training was paying off. "I had a few errands to run this morning. They weren't things I could put aside." He began unravelling a knitted scarf from around his neck – Momo frowned at the blue garment, certain that he had seen that same colour somewhere around Seigaku. Fuji Yuuta pulled out a chair with one foot and collapsed onto the seat. "What's the plan?"
"The plan?" Kamio echoed. "How many people do you think will turn up?"
Yuuta said sternly, "You wrote the note. We're the next generation: let's begin our own legacy. I didn't realise being a speedster meant your memory fades as quickly as your stamina."
"Are you picking a fight?"
"In any case," interrupted Momo, "does that sound like a sentence that Kamio would ever put together? He's not exactly – poetic."
St. Rudolph's representative scowled. "Mizuki-sempai showed me the note and told me to be here. And here I am."
Kamio sighed. "Fine, fine…"
"I suppose at St Rudolph, the younger Fuji really is the only candidate for captain," said Kita thoughtfully. "I can't remember who else is on your team –"
"If you ever call me 'the younger Fuji' again, I will crack your head open with a racquet."
"Little violent, aren't we?"
Yuuta bristled. "Besides, it's not like you guys are outstanding players! You clearly copy other people's hairstyles and you – why are you wearing sunglasses INSIDE?"
"Maybe I have sensitive eyes," Muromachi said dangerously.
"If you lot don't keep your voices down, we'll be thrown out." Ibu Shinji bit into his croissant. He continued morosely, "Nevertheless, it would be unfair to throw us out on the grounds of bothering other diners, since we're the only people who are actually here. And it would also be unreasonable to say that we're troubling the staff, since we're only disturbing each other. All the same, it will only be a matter of time until we're back out on the streets in the harsh winter, with nowhere to go…"
Yuuta whispered, "Has he – lost his house?"
Kamio looked disgusted. "Nope. That's the kind of guy he is."
The café door opened. The time, the whole crowd surveyed the entrance expectantly.
"You're all here," said Hiyoshi Wakashi dully. He was followed by two students who were considerably taller than the boy – Ootori Choutarou, a skilled doubles' specialist, and Kabaji Munehiro, one of the most powerful players on the circuit. Hiyoshi looked at the seated students for a moment. "Let's cut to the chase."
"You just walked in and you're acting like you own the show?" Kamio was rising, curling his fists. "Don't think you're better than us because you're Hyoutei!"
"I don't," said Hiyoshi. "I think I'm better than you because – I'm better than you."
Kamio snarled; Ootori said hastily – "We haven't seen this many different faces since Nationals! How are you all?"
His diplomatic words were lost when the café door crashed open once more.
"SORRY I'M LATE!" They heard stomping feet – and a curse as the boy collided with Kabaji. "Argh – move out of the way!"
Kabaji turned mildly.
Kirihara promptly sidestepped into view. "Hi!" He waved one hand.
"You're kidding me." This came from Kita, who looked around for support. "What is he doing here? The rest of us are local, but Rikkaidai are in Kanagawa for crying out loud –"
"What's that got to do with anything?"
Hiyoshi sighed. "How are you, Kaidoh?"
"Fine. And you?"
Kamio glanced between the pair, then returned his attention to the group in general. "Is that it?" he probed. "Or have we got any other juniors who are gonna crawl out of the woodworks?"
Muromachi conducted a quick headcount. "There are twelve of us," he said brightly. "So I think you can crack on with the real meaning behind your meeting. What's this all about, Kamio?"
"Yeah, Kamio," Momo leant on his elbows, suddenly interested. "Why did you call us all here?"
"What gives, Kamio?"
"Tell us, Kamio."
"Bah." The vice-captain folded his arms, glaring at each individual – even Ishida, who stared in confusion, and Ibu, who began murmuring something inaudible. "For one thing, most of you guys invited yourselves here. And for another: you're getting carried away. I came here to talk about swapping strategies; I'm not sharing Fudomine's secrets with you lot."
"Hah." Kirihara smirked. "Why would we want your strategies? If they were useful, you would have got to the Finals!"
Kita snorted derisively. "That's quite bold of you, considering that Seigaku are sitting right here."
"So what are we doing then?" Momo asked. He locked his hands behind his head and gave a sheepish grin. "Since this many people have gathered together, it seems stupid to waste this opportunity."
"What are you suggesting?"
"Seigaku, Fudomine, St. Rudolph, Yamabuki, Hyoutei, Rikkai." Momoshiro ticked the teams off on his fingers. "Between us, we're sure to think of a great idea!"
"Then let's go." Kaidoh's chair scraped backwards: the next moment, he was standing up. "There's nothing productive about sitting in a café all day."
"I haven't ordered my cake yet!"
"Forget it, Kirihara."
They crunched outside, and without anyone giving the official battle cry, they became embroiled in a snowball fight. Kabaji proved to be a defensive fortress; Muromachi ducked when under attack from Ootori, fearing that the junior could replicate the Scud Serve without a racquet. Hiyoshi swerved and spun, moving on the flats of his toes – it did no good: Kirihara's arm shot out, and the martial artist found himself in a heap of slush.
"I'LL DYE YOU ALL RED!"
"NO YOU WON'T!"
Kamio's speed could not be dampened – he crossed the street as swiftly as an arrow, hurling snowballs from behind a lamppost – then he was using Ishida as a human shield – Yuuta threw a snowball that would have clouted Kamio's face – Ibu intervened, valiantly taking a shot for his vice-captain. Ishida gave a dramatic cry of remorse, and Kaidoh announced, "You're all idiots."
Kita stole his bandanna.
The war continued to rage. Now Momoshiro was leaping into the air, gaining a tactical advantage; Kita was screaming for his life, trying to avoid being strangled by a rampaging Kaidoh; Hiyoshi stood in one spot, launching snowball after snowball – whenever one came in his direction, Kabaji deflected the attack with a flick of his fingers.
Finally they wiped the snow and from their faces and hair, analysing each other grimly. There was no clear victor. The boys nodded, reaching a truce.
"Would someone please explain what you're doing here?"
"Again?" Kita asked. "I suppose... as you can see, our group is filled with guys who will be captains someday. It's too awkward to approach our sempais about this kind of problem, so we decided that the best person to talk to would be you."
"Right," said Aoi Kentarou uncertainly. He shrugged his shoulders. "You do know that I was appointed as captain, right? I didn't do anything special to earn the position."
"That doesn't matter," said Fuji Yuuta. "You're a freshman and you're captain – that counts for enough."
Aoi didn't look entirely convinced.
Momo grinned and gave the boy a thumbs up. "Do your best," the junior suggested. "You led Rokkaku all the way to the National tournament, so we'd appreciate your help."
Aoi glanced to his side, where Davide stood with a pained expression. Blinking, Aoi went on, "I'm flattered that you all felt I was a good person to talk to – honestly. I guess I'll give you my personal philosophy…"
After a lot of debating, arguing and negotiating, the twelve juniors had found themselves journeying towards Rokkaku. It was fairly early in the afternoon. Kamio studied Aoi carefully, waiting to hear what expertise he would impart.
The young boy leapt onto a bench. He could see all thirteen juniors. The travelling second-years had been impressed to find that Rokkaku had its own swarming playground; after gauging the mood of their peers, the boys had thrown themselves at the swings and slides. Now they were standing before Aoi, attentively.
"To be good captains," began Aoi, drawing himself up to his full height, "the first thing you must ask yourselves is, Why do I play tennis?"
"For a way to kill time."
Aoi nodded seriously. "All very good reasons," said the boy. "But the most important purpose for playing tennis… is to impress girls."
Apparently, Aoi did not notice that Kirihara's mouth had fallen open at the freshman's revelation, or that Fuji Yuuta's brow had creased. "That's right!" cried the captain enthusiastically, punching the air. "Think about it! To a girl, there can be nothing more attractive than a guy who can lead his team to victory – it represents dedication, talent! If you guys learn to be successful captains, you'll all be able to go on dates easily! Am I right?"
"Yeah," said Kabaji.
"What do you mean?" demanded Kirihara. "What a waste of time!"
Kamio was intrigued. "Actually, what Aoi is saying makes a lot of sense. Life must be easier for charismatic and victorious captains."
Momo glared. "Is that what you think?"
"Thanks for your input," said Kaidoh, hands deep in his pockets. "We'll be sure to remember how things work at Rokkaku."
"Yeah," Kita agreed warmly. "Today, I learnt an important lesson."
Davide ran a hand through his mane of hair. "Don't lessen the value of the lesson by listening incorrectly." After a slight pause, he smiled and added, "Heh."
Hiyoshi whacked Amane's head.
Hyoutei's future captain had an old score to settle.