Akutsu slapped the fresh box of cigarettes against the palm of his hand, packing them down. Around him, students filtered from the high school into the hot summer day, voices raised as they talked about stupid things like their classes and the homework they had to do. Sweat itched the nape of Akutsu’s neck and beaded on his upper lip. Leaning against the wall outside the shoe locker room, Akutsu waited for Dan to get his ass outside so they could leave.
Akutsu opened the box of cigarettes, pulled one between his lips, and lit it with a cheap green lighter. A passing teacher gave him a warning look, but under his defiant stare she said nothing and walked quickly away. The teachers knew better than to tell him what to do.
“Akutsu-senpai!” Dan called unnecessarily loudly, charging from the shoe locker room. He tried looping his bag strap over his head as he ran.
Akutsu caught Dan when the idiot inevitably tripped into him. “Watch it!”
Dan beamed up at Akutsu. “Sorry, desu!”
No, he wasn’t, but Akutsu let it slide. “What took you so long? It’s fucking hot out here. You’re lucky I waited.”
“Thank you for waiting, desu.” Dan sketched a short, polite bow before brandishing a neon orange flyer at Akutsu. “Look! There’s going to be a festival in Obi Park next week.”
Akutsu swatted at the flyer. “There’s always a festival in Obi Park this time of year, moron.”
Dan nodded. “I know, desu. Do you want to go?”
“No.” Akutsu pushed off the wall and started walking towards the school gates. He had to get to work. Dan’s slowness better not have had caused Akutsu to be late or he’d pound the kid. If the gas station weren’t in the same direction as Dan’s house, Akutsu wouldn’t have bothered waiting in the first place.
“But Akutsu-senpai,” Dan stumbled after him, waving the flyer, “it’ll be fun!”
Akutsu snorted. Festivals were an excuse for people to get drunk and eat like pigs. If he wanted a beer, he’d have one at home. “I told you no, brat.”
“I guess I’ll have to find someone else to go with, then,” Dan said, disappointed.
“You do that.”
A bleached blonde idiot on a bike rang his bell as he rode past. “Bye, Dan-kun. See you at practice tomorrow.”
“Bye, Ruuya-senpai!” Dan waved and speeded his steps to walk beside Akutsu. “Hold this, please?”
Akutsu took the flyer automatically as Dan began rooting around for something in his bag. He glanced at the flyer, crumpled it in a ball, and shoved it in his pocket. “Who was that?” Akutsu said, flicking ash on the sidewalk. He grabbed Dan by the collar when Dan started veering off into the street.
“That was Ruuya-senpai. He’s in tennis club with me, desu,” Dan replied, still focused on the inner contents of his bag. “I thought you knew everyone on the team, desu.”
“Why the fuck should I know who’s on the team?”
“You’re at all the matches, desu, cheering us on.”
Akutsu didn’t think Dan had known he’d been at the matches. He didn’t care that Dan knew, and he could go where he wanted, and his cheeks felt hot because it was hot. “You all suck. There’s nothing to cheer about.”
“I’ll try harder. Aha!” Dan took his ragged green headband from the bag and pulled it on. It immediately slipped over his eyes.
Akutsu grabbed Dan’s collar again before he went into the street. He thought Dan sucked less than the other players on his team, but Dan didn’t need to know that or he’d slack off and be an embarrassment to Akutsu. If Dan wanted to keep his national ranking, he’d have to continue improving his game.
Dan started to chatter about classes and homework and Akutsu tuned him out. Akutsu didn’t really mind walking Dan home, especially since it didn’t happen often with Dan’s tennis practice schedule. It was probably safer for Dan, anyway. Dan had gained muscle from playing tennis, but he was still small for a first year in high school, and too friendly for his own good. He’d get in the car with a pervert voluntarily, if the pervert asked nicely enough. Considering Dan insisted on hanging around Akutsu, the niceness part might not even matter.
Dan’s street loomed ahead – it was curious how they always arrived there so quickly, despite the distance – and Akutsu crushed his spent cigarette beneath his shoe. “I’m off at eight,” he said. “Call me if you have trouble with Aoki’s homework.” So maybe he’d been listening a little to Dan as they walked.
“Okay, desu,” Dan said, leveling a smile at Akutsu.
Akutsu gave Dan a light shove in the direction of his building when they reached the corner. “Get lost, brat.”
“Do your best!” Dan told him, and with a bow, practically skipped up the walk.
Next to his clean laundry on his bed, Akutsu found the wrinkled festival flyer, along with three lighters, a handful of yen, and two unused tickets to a movie he and Dan had been going to see until Akutsu punched someone in line and was ejected from the theater. Akutsu remembered that Dan, like usual, hadn’t shown disappointment in missing the movie and had simply suggested they do something else. But Akutsu had been pissed off, had told Dan to go home, and had stalked off to find a real fight.
Guilt was for wusses who cared about what other people thought, and Akutsu certainly didn’t give a crap. He threw the tickets in the trash, tossed the lighters in his desk drawer, and pocketed the yen. He picked up the wrinkled flyer. The neon orange color was nearly as blinding as one of Dan’s smiles.
He called Dan. “Be ready to go to the stupid festival by noon.”
He hung up before Dan could say anything in reply.
Akutsu had half the week to change his mind about the festival but he never did – even with Yuuki’s damned cooing over how he looked in a yukata – and he showed up on Dan’s doorstep at 11:30, hungry and hot. Summer had started and, with it, the temperature had climbed even more. Wearing the white and black striped yukata with sandals helped, but he could already feel the sweat dampening along his spine.
He rang the bell, and Dan’s little sister answered the door. She and Dan looked a lot alike, with the same bright eyes and similar face. It always made Akutsu uncomfortable, because he wanted to kick her like one of those annoyingly cute puppies. The urge fled the moment he saw Dan come up behind her, though Dan reminded Akutsu of one of those puppies, too. It was confusing, and he didn’t like it, and so he tried not to come to Dan’s house that often.
“You ready?” he asked Dan.
“Yes, desu.” Dan slipped on his sandals and called over his shoulder, “I’m leaving!”
“Have a good time,” Dan-san called back from somewhere inside. “Try not to stay out too late.”
“Why can’t I come, too, nii-san?” Dan’s sister asked, with a whine in her voice.
“Because Akutsu-senpai only wants to be with me,” Dan replied.
The way Dan said it, so matter-of-fact, struck a strange cord in Akutsu. What he’d said was the truth – Akutsu didn’t want to hang around with Dan’s snot-nosed little sister – but for some reason Akutsu felt like it was more than just that.
Akutsu shook it off and lit a cigarette as Dan called goodbye again and came outside. Dan’s light green yukata had a black pattern on it and the hem brushed the ground. He fixed the headband slipping over his eyes and smiled happily at Akutsu. “I’m so excited, desu! I’m going to eat takoyaki, yaki soba, okonomiyaki, ikayaki, yakidango, daifuku, watermelon—”
“You’d better not expect me to pay for all that,” Akutsu grumbled, heading for the stairs.
“No. I have money, desu,” Dan said. He hurriedly fell into step beside Akutsu and Akutsu caught him as he promptly tripped on the hem of his yukata.
Akutsu gave him a sharp look. “Careful, idiot.”
“Sorry, desu.” Dan gathered the yukata material and held it above his ankles, to walk freely.
Obi Park was already packed by the time they arrived. Food vendor stalls lined the walkways, their brightly colored signs strung between the posts over their counters. The scents of the different foods cooking blended together into a disgusting burned fish smell that caused Akutsu to wrinkle his nose. Game stalls were stationed in the middle of the park, each crowded with screaming brats wanting the giant prizes that could rarely be won. At the far end of the park, kite fliers walked between families and friends sitting on blankets and enjoying their food.
Dan grabbed hold of Akutsu’s sleeve the moment they joined the throng of people entering the park. Akutsu didn’t shrug him off. The idiot would get lost in seconds if he weren’t attached. “This is so exciting, desu!” Dan said, wide-eyed and beaming.
Akutsu grunted in response and got into line at the Kawamura sushi stand. He could see Kawamura-san prepping the dishes while his son doled out the plates. Akutsu’s stomach growled as he tried to wait patiently to get to the front. Dan kept jumping up and down beside him, trying to see the other vendors. “Quit it!” Akutsu finally snapped.
Dan stopped jumping with a moue that changed back into bright smile when they reached the counter. “Hi, Kawamura-senpai!” he said.
“Hello, Dan-kun,” Kawamura greeted and smiled with friendly enthusiasm at Akutsu. “Are you enjoying the festival?”
“We just got here,” Akutsu said at the same time Dan exclaimed, “Yes!”
Kawamura looked amused, and Akutsu wanted to punch him. Instead, he ordered, not giving Dan the choice in what they were having. Granted, he ordered omakase, which put the choices in Kawamura’s hands, but he was hungry and Kawamura-san’s sushi was always good.
The shushi was only the beginning of their meal. They went from vendor to vendor, getting everything Dan had said he’d wanted to eat, until Dan’s wallet was empty and Akutsu was pretty sure he’d puke if he had to have another bite. Dan seemed unaffected by the amount of food he’d inhaled. The brat would probably continue eating if he had money. Akutsu wanted a cigarette and to crash for a few hours.
Neither was to be, as Dan dragged Akutsu by his sleeve toward the games. “Look at all the games!”
“You don’t have any more money.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t watch, desu.”
Dan watched loudly, clapping and cheering every time someone else won, commiserating with those that lost, telling them, “Maybe next time, desu!” Akutsu got bored fairly quickly, choosing a post to lean against and watch Dan through half-slit eyelids. After smoking three cigarettes, Akutsu’d had enough of Dan’s supporting other people, took out his wallet, and paid to play the game himself.
Dan actually got quiet, which pissed Akustu off, until Akustu won a small, stuffed Domo. Then, Dan said with reverence, “Akutsu-sempai is the best,” and Akutsu let him have the stupid prize and decided the feeling in his chest was from heartburn.
They wandered on, Dan clutching the Domo in one hand and Akutsu’s sleeve in another. “Oh, look! It’s Kawamura-senpai!” Dan said, gesturing ahead of them.
Sure enough, Kawamura, holding drum batons, was hovering over four people surrounding the goldfish game. Not that it was much of a game. You got a small net and a bowl, caught a fish, and took it home. You may as well buy a fish from a pet store. Akutsu thought it was stupid.
Akutsu and Dan joined Kawamura. “Couldn’t handle working?” Akutsu jibed, but Kawamura merely grinned in response.
Oshitari, Mukahi, Inui, and Taki surrounded the fish tank, taking turns trying to catch a fish. Inui nattered on about the data of catching one successfully. “Speed and water resistance are our two main obstacles in capturing a fish in the net. The shape of the fish and its scales allow it to pass through water efficiently, while our nets are not designed to be as fluid. The best method would be to put the net into the water and let the fish swim into it, instead of chasing the fish with the net.”
Akutsu thought it was a dumb idea. The fish knew to not swim into a net. He watched with undisguised contempt as they dipped their nets into the tank and waited. He couldn’t believe how stupid they were.
Someone bumped into Dan hard enough to send Domo flying. “Oh no!” Dan said, as Domo flipped end over end and landed with a splash in the fish tank.
All four had fish in their nets immediately.
Akutsu snorted, both in disbelief and amusement. “Dumb luck,” he murmured, glancing at Dan. Dan appeared crushed, which darkened Akutsu’s mood immediately. “What?”
“Domo-kun is all wet,” Dan said, pointing.
Akutsu looked back at the tank. Domo was floating facedown in the middle of the water. He hissed in annoyance, snatched Domo from the tank, and wrung the water from it. Domo was misshapen and still damp when he handed it back to Dan. “There. It’ll dry. Now, stop looking like that.”
Dan’s expression brightened on command. “Thank you, desu!”
“Whatever.” Akutsu brushed off the thanks, nodded to Kawamura in goodbye, and walked away from the group. Dan trip-jogged after him, hanging onto Akutsu’s sleeve.
Akutsu found them a place to sit by the kite fliers and lit another cigarette. Dan leaned against his arm, watching the kites dance in the sky. Akutsu should really push him away, but Dan was always touching him or hanging on him or using him as a prop and Akutsu had stopped truly caring about it when they were in middle school.
“You coming over tomorrow?” Akutsu asked. On Sundays, when Dan didn’t have family things, they usually got together to do the homework due on Monday. Akutsu suspected Dan did all his homework the minute he got home from school during the week, but he always seemed to have things to work on at Akutsu’s.
“Of course,” Dan said, and there was that matter-of-fact tone again.
This time, it made Akutsu uncomfortable. He took a drag on his cigarette, glaring at a dragon-shaped kite carving S-shapes against the white clouds overhead. “Why do you sound like that?”
“Like what, desu?” Dan asked, glancing at him.
Akutsu gestured sharply with his cigarette. “Like you expect to be with me.”
“Where else would I be?”
The answer pissed Akutsu off. “Anywhere else, you idiot!”
Dan blinked at him with doe eyes. “But why?”
Akutsu couldn’t believe Dan’s reply. “Because I don’t like you and don’t want you hanging the fuck around all the time.”
Dan laughed – laughed! – at Akutsu. “Yes, you do, silly.”
Akutsu’s mouth hung open, aghast from not only the laughter but from being called ‘silly’. His hand curled into a fist, getting ready to strike Dan, when Dan abruptly changed the subject.
“Oh! I forgot to tell you! I’m going to America during summer break, desu!”
Akutsu’s first response was to stare befuddled at Dan. His second response was that he didn’t want Dan to go. Which meant that Dan was right, and Akutsu was fucked. “Good,” he said belligerently, refusing to pay lip service to his new awareness. “Don’t come back.”
Dan giggled and leaned against Akutsu’s arm again.
Akutsu missed Dan. He hated it.
Dan had been gone for three weeks, vacationing in America for the summer break. When he’d first left, Akutsu had been glad. Akutsu wanted to prove that Dan’s presence in his life wasn’t something he’d miss. Before Dan had entered high school, they hadn’t seen each other every day. It had been maybe once or twice a week, to play tennis, or because Dan felt like dropping by Akutsu’s home.
The first week without Dan went fine. Akutsu was busy with extra work hours, hanging out some with Kawamura, and otherwise doing what he wanted.
The second week, Akutsu was bored. He still worked a lot, but hanging out with Kawamura got old and doing what he wanted by himself wasn’t much fun.
The third week, Akutsu admitted to himself that he missed Dan. He missed Dan coming around to bug him. He missed having Dan with him when he went out to the movies, or to eat, or the arcade. He missed Dan’s constant chatter when they were doing nothing but sitting around Akutsu’s room. He even missed the brat’s clinging.
He hated it. When had Dan become such a constant in his life? It was almost like he needed Dan to be around. It was horrible. Akutsu didn’t do need.
Yuuki thought it was cute. “Taichi-kun will be back before you know it,” she told him before pinching his cheek.
Akutsu lightly swatted her hand away. “Shut up.”
“You’re such a sweet boy.” She wasn’t even sarcastic when she said it.
Akutsu didn’t know what to do about the whole Dan thing. They were more than three years apart in age. Akutsu might be going to university next year, if he could be bothered. Dan was bright and bubbly. Akutsu thought everything was stupid. They shouldn’t even be friends.
But they were friends. Good friends. In fact, Dan was the closest friend Akutsu had. Akutsu shared things with Dan he would’ve otherwise taken to the grave. How had that happened without him putting a stop to it?
Akutsu couldn’t come up with an answer.
Dan came back a week before school resumed session, happy and talkative and clingy and so Dan that Akutsu had to tell him off and kick him out.
Dan was back the next day.
Akutsu let him in.
Akutsu leaned against the wall outside the shoe locker room, waiting for Dan to get his ass outside so they could leave. His breath was visible and he hunched into his coat. The December air was crisp and uncomfortable. He wanted a smoke, but he didn’t want to take his hands from his pockets. A teacher glanced at him as she walked out the door. He glared back, and she walked a little faster.
“Akutsu-senpai!” Dan charged from the locker room, slinging his bag over his bulky coat. “Here I am, desu!”
“About time,” Akutsu groused. They fell into step, heading towards the school gates. He’d better not be late for work, or he’d pound Dan. “What did you get on Aoki’s test?”
“Ninety-two!” Dan bounced excitedly, nearly falling off the sidewalk. Akutsu snagged Dan’s furred collar before he ended up in the street. “Thank you for your tutoring, Akutsu-senpai, desu!”
“Hn,” Akutsu grunted in reply.
Dan started chatting about the questions he got wrong, about his other classes, and the homework he had to do. Akutsu half-listened, trying to keep warm and keep Dan from falling whenever they hit a slippery spot on the sidewalk. When they reached Dan’s house, Dan told him to wait.
“It’s too damned cold—,” Akutsu started to tell him, but Dan had already dashed inside. The door closed in Akutsu’s face. Akutsu swore, and waited.
“I’m back, desu!” Dan flung the door open and held out a thermos. “Here. This will warm you up on your way to work, desu.”
Akutsu shook his head, taking the thermos. “Is it hot chocolate or coffee this time?”
“It’s a surprise.” Dan giggled, waved, and closed the door again.
Akutsu barked a laugh. “Brat.” He tucked the thermos under his arm, shoved his hands into his pockets, and continued walking to work.
Akutsu and Dan were friends. So what? Anyone else should be as lucky as Akutsu to have someone like Dan in his life.