"Akutsu-senpai!" A waving hand rose into sight before disappearing again behind the crowd of people on the platform. "Akutsu-senpai! Over here, desu!"
Hands stuffed in his pockets and glaring at anyone who looked at him, Akutsu Jin elbowed his way through the morning commuters waiting for the train. The hand popped up again and waved frantically. "Akutsu-senpai!"
"Quit it, runt, I'm right here," Akutsu said, pushing past a couple with their arms around each other's waists and reaching Dan Taichi.
Dan beamed, shoving the green headband he wore back into place. "Akutsu-senpai! You made it."
"I told you I'd be here," Akutsu grunted, looking for the train. The corrugated overhang shaded the waiting passengers from the bright sun peeking through the clouds. Birds flew in and out from under the eaves, cheeping loudly at one another. A candy wrapper tumbled over the tracks, pushed by the fresh breeze that ruffled the tips of Akutsu's spiked gray hair and felt cool on his bare arms.
Dan fiddled with the zipper on his Yamabuki tennis jacket, zipping it up to his chin. "You could have changed your mind."
"Shut up and be grateful that I haven't yet." Akutsu almost hadn't come to begin with; if Dan started needling him, he'd leave. Tennis had a hold on him, still, and he hated that it controlled him. He'd heard that Echizen Ryoma had returned to play at Nationals, though, and wanted to see what that brat had learned at the US Open.
The rumble of the approaching train made the crowd of commuters press forward. Akutsu grabbed Dan's arm as he stumbled. "Careful, idiot."
"Sorry, desu." Dan bounced on his toes in excitement. "Here's the train, desu!"
The train stopped with a high-pitched grind of the brakes. Several sets of doors slid open and the throng surged towards them. Akutsu kept a tight hold on Dan's arm so they wouldn't get separated. Dan would call for him otherwise, with embarrassing loudness, and be a nuisance on the train trying to reach his side.
The seats were already jammed full with the morning commuters. Men and women in business suits and uniforms held onto the overhead straps and more crowded the aisles. Akutsu forced his way to the opposite side of the train by the other set of doors. An older man wearing a patterned tie inched away, giving Akutsu space. Dropping Dan's arm, Akutsu leaned a hip against the dividing wall, facing the grime-streaked windows set into the unopened doors. Dan stood slightly behind him and was quickly hemmed in by adults.
The train doors dinged before sliding shut. Akutsu adjusted his balance as the train lurched and pulled out of the station. The air quickly became heavy and stifling. No one spoke to one another or on their cell phones, as it was impolite. The faint strains of music could be heard from earphones somewhere close to Akutsu. A cough made people shift away. Akutsu tapped an impatient finger against the side of his leg as he watched the city fly past the window.
A strangled gasp caught his attention at the same time as Dan pressed himself against Akutsu. "What are you doing?" Akutsu said in undertone, glancing over his shoulder.
Dan's eyes were huge and his face was brilliant red. "Nothing, desu."
"Then don't hang on me." Akutsu turned back to the window. Gray and brown buildings loomed over the tracks, blocking the pale sun creeping higher in the sky. Akutsu needed a cigarette. He shifted his weight as the train slowed, coming up to a station. A gust of wind hit the back of his head as the doors opened and more people crowded into the car.
"Ah!" Dan yelped and plastered himself to Akutsu again.
Akutsu scowled irritably. "Will you quit it," Akutsu said, half-turning, intent on shoving Dan away. The panic reflected in Dan's wide eyes stayed his hand. "What's wrong?"
"Someone keeps grabbing me, desu," Dan whispered, his face red again. "I don't like it."
Fury slammed through Akutsu. His head whipped up and the passengers closest cringed at his murderous look. He yanked Dan into the small space in front of him, his other hand closing in a fist. A pervert was about to die. Only, who was it? There were eight or nine men within arm-distance and any one of them could've groped Dan. Akutsu would just have to beat them all until he got a confession.
"Akutsu-senpai, don't," Dan said, laying a hand on Akutsu's chest. The train doors dinged as they slid shut. "I don't want you to get arrested."
"Don't tell me what to do," Akutsu growled, but after baring his teeth at the men around them, he corralled Dan further into the corner made by the doors and dividing wall, bodily blocking him from unwanted touch.
The train jolted as it pulled from the station and Dan bumped his nose on Akutsu's chest. Akutsu steadied him reflexively with a hand on his hip. Dan's fingers curled in the material of Akutu's black t-shirt. The scent of strawberries from Dan's shampoo slowly cooled Akutsu's temper. The tight lines at the corners of Akutsu's eyes and mouth smoothed. The train rumbled beneath his feet, roaring down the tracks.
With the fade of anger, Akutsu became aware of the warmth Dan radiated. He nestled perfectly beneath Akutsu's chin. Akutsu's stomach clenched at the soft brush of Dan's thumb back and forth on his abdomen, the thin cotton of his t-shirt an ineffective barrier to the feeling. The train vibrated beneath Akutsu's hand braced on the window. His other palm sweated where it clasped Dan's hip.
Dan glanced up and offered him a small smile. Akutsu's heart thumped against his ribcage. Thmp-thmp. He swallowed thickly, jerking his gaze to the dirt-streaked window.
The ride stretched on. Akutsu became more aware of Dan and more uncomfortable with every minute that passed. Dan hummed quietly, lost in his own world, not seeming to realize Akutsu's distress. By the time their stop arrived, Akutsu was an internal, jittering mess. He forced his way off the train and onto the platform. Immediately, he lit a cigarette. The hit of nicotine did nothing to calm him.
"Akutsu-senpai," Dan bounced off the train and latched onto his elbow, "we'd better hurry. The matches begin soon, desu!"
Akutsu jerked his arm free, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and strode towards the exit. He didn't know where the fuck his reaction towards Dan had come from, but ignoring it – and Dan – was the fastest way to make it disappear.
Dan naturally ignored the fact that he was being ignored and bounded alongside Akutsu with his usual exuberance. "What do you think Seigaku's order will be? Hyotei is playing, too. Do you think Hyotei is Seigaku's first opponent, desu? Do you think Tezuka-senpai will play Atobe-senpai, desu? Tezuka-senpai has fully healed, right? I heard he went to a doctor in Germany, desu. I wonder if he knows German. Was school all in German? Did he even go to school, desu…?"
Akutsu smoked two cigarettes during the walk from the train station to the tennis park. Families and schoolmates grouped around the tournament board before heading for various courts. Akutsu shoved through the throng of people until he could see the board. Dan's head popped up from under his arm. "Oh! Echizen's playing first! And your friend Kawamura-senpai is playing right after, desu."
"Hn." Akutsu ground his cigarette butt under his shoe. So, Kawamura was playing, too. Akutsu might have to stick around to watch his old friend's match.
They made their way into the stands, sitting high and at the end of a row. Akutsu propped his feet on the metal row in front of him and leaned back until his shoulders were against the row behind him. Folding his arms, he continued ignoring Dan's jabbering and scoped the purple-wearing players of Seigaku's opponent. It was hard to pick out their ranking. Schools participating in Nationals used different strategies than normally, as proved by Echizen playing first and Kawamura being paired with Seigaku's tennis genius Fuji for Doubles Two.
Akutsu looked over to where Seigaku had gathered. Echizen appeared as indifferent and above it all as he had before the US Open. Akutsu scoffed. He acknowledged that Echizen had skill, but Akutsu still wanted to knock Echizen's—
Akutsu sucked in a sharp breath, jolted from his thoughts. "Akutsu-senpai," Dan said, but the rest was lost, as Akutsu stared at the hand on his thigh. Dan leeched onto Akutsu constantly – an action that was both insanely brave and insanely stupid on Dan's part, as Akutsu hated unwanted touch. Normally, he got pissed, shook Dan off or shoved him away, but today he found his stomach clenching and his heart speeding up.
Akutsu stood abruptly, startling Dan. "Where are you going, desu?"
"Somewhere else. You stay here." Shoulders tense and hands curled into sweaty fists, Akutsu hurried from the stands and the courts. He found the restrooms, ducked behind the building, and leaned against the chipped-stone wall.
He fumbled to light a cigarette and cursed viciously. He thumped the back of his head against the wall. "Fuck," he muttered. He didn't need this crap – whatever it was. Shoving off the wall, he left the tennis park for home.
The ringing phone interrupted Akutsu's concentration and he growled as his character swan-dived off a cliff. Throwing the game control pad on the floor in disgust, Akutsu climbed to his feet and snatched up the receiver. "What?"
Kawamura was at the other end of the line. "What'd you think?"
"Think about what?" Akutsu rifled through the papers and books on the desk, looking for a fresh pack of cigarettes.
"My match," Kawamura said.
"I didn't see it."
"You didn't? But Dan Taichi said you were with him—"
"I was, but I left."
"Oh. Okay," Kawamura said. "Did Dan know that you left? He seemed to be waiting for you in the stands after Seigaku's matches."
Akutsu grunted. "Like I care." Placing blame on Dan quashed the twinge of conscience. Dan knew how Akutsu was and shouldn't expect anything different. "Is that it?"
"Do you want to come over later?"
"Cool. Later, then."
Akutsu hung up and left his bedroom in search of cigarettes. Yuuki probably had some in her room across the hall. She hated when he went through her stuff, but she was at work and he didn't give a shit.
Yuuki's bedroom was as plain and messy as Akutsu's own. Baskets of clean laundry stacked along one wall instead of a dresser. Dirty clothes were kicked to the side. Her unmade bed had a stained comforter that was nearly worn through from age. A collection of perfume bottles, make-up, and a butt-filled ashtray covered the metal TV-tray that doubled as a nightstand. He checked around the bed before going to her closet. Uniforms hung side-by-side with dresses she wore on dates. He searched the pockets of her uniforms, with no luck. On the floor of the closet were several beaten up shoeboxes.
Grabbing the top most shoebox, Akutsu opened the lid and scowled at its contents. A small camera some guy had given her last Christmas sat inside, along with a stack of pictures. Akutsu had told her that, as long as he didn't have to pose or smile, he didn't care how many pictures she took of him. Maybe he should've said something else. The topmost picture was of him sleeping, his hair hanging limp over his forehead and a line of drool dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
He took the stack of pictures from the box, intending to burn the most embarrassing of them before Yuuki showed anyone. She had several of him sleeping – the wench – and a bunch of him lazing around, watching television or playing video games. A few had Kawamura in them. Many more had Dan.
Akutsu frowned at the number of snapshots she'd taken of him and Dan together. Dan was all over him, too, in nearly every picture; wrestling with Akutsu over the game controls, draped over Akutsu's shoulders, burrowed against him in front of the television, sleeping with his head on Akutsu's lap. What was worse was that Akutsu didn't look annoyed in any of the shots. In fact, in a few, he was smiling, and not mockingly, either.
Akutsu tolerated Dan in a way that someone did a puppy. He'd gotten used to Dan inviting himself over to the apartment constantly and being happy around Akutsu no matter what Akutsu's mood. Yuuki adored Dan and gladly lavished attention on him when he was around, a plus for Akutsu because then she left him alone. Dan beamed at Akutsu in one picture, green headband drooping over an eye. In another, Akutsu looked fierce and ready to fight the world, his hand on Dan's misery-bowed head.
There was one picture, though, that made Akutsu curse quietly. The angle of the shot meant Yuuki had taken it from the hallway. Dan and Akutsu were in the kitchen, with Dan standing at the stove, his back to the camera. Akutsu was leaning against the counter beside him, arms folded, but watching Dan with the softest expression on his face. Shit, anyone looking at the picture would immediately think Akutsu liked Dan. Like-liked him.
Akutsu crumpled the picture into a ball. He didn't like Dan that way. He couldn't. Akutsu didn't believe in that sort of crappy emotionality. Dan meant nothing more than a pet that demanded attention.
Taking all the pictures from the shoebox, Akutsu went back to his room to burn every single one of them.
"Akutsu-senpai," Dan's cheery voice interrupted Akutsu's nap, "I have lunch!"
"Fuck off." Akutsu tensed and opened his eyes. Slouched against the stairwell wall, alone on the roof of Yamabuki Middle School, he thought he'd be undisturbed for a while. No one but Dan would approach him so casually.
Dan sat on his knees beside Akutsu and opened the white box containing lunch. Two sets of chopsticks crossed the top of the fresh food. He held out one of the set to Akutsu. "Mom made you the sashimi."
"I don't want any. Go away," Akutsu said sharply. He didn't want Dan near him, or he might have to acknowledge the unburned stack of pictures hidden under his bed, with a wrinkled one on top.
"Lunch is important, desu." Dan took Akutsu's hand, and Akutsu's pulse picked up speed as the chopsticks were pressed into his palm. "Eat!"
Sunlight brightened the white of Dan's uniform and haloed the crown of his dark head. He smiled at Akutsu and Akutsu's stomach did a funny flip. Akutsu jerked his gaze away, swallowed thickly, and wiped his dampening palms on his pants. The smooth wood of the chopsticks rolled against his hand.
Dan's face appeared suddenly in front of him and Akutsu's head thumped against the wall as he reared back. Leaning forward on his knees, Dan frowned concernedly at him. "Are you all right, desu? Do you have a fever? Your face got all flushed."
Akutsu felt like he had on the train, with Dan's nearness. The explanation as to why was obvious now that he'd seen those damning photographs. At some point his tolerance for Dan had turned into something else entirely.
But maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was just confused about what real friendship entailed. It's not like he had ever really cared about someone other than himself before and that pervert on the train must've triggered the affection.
Dan bumped their foreheads together. The edge of the headband rubbed against Akutsu's skin. Dan's breath was warm on Akutsu's face. "You're not hot, desu."
Thmp-thmp. Akutsu's heart thumped loudly in his ears. Dan's face was slightly blurred from being so close. Thmp-thmp. Akutsu inhaled shakily and smelled the orange Dan must've eaten during morning break. Thmp-thmp.
With a tilt of his chin, Akutsu caught the words with his lips, and his chest seized in fear. Dan gasped softly against his mouth. Akutsu stared at Dan cross-eyed, the warm pressure of the kiss tingling along every nerve ending. It wasn't just friendship.
Akutsu shoved Dan away abruptly and looked sharply to the side. His cheeks and neck burned. Clenching his fists, he fought his racing heart and the urge to run like a sissy. When he dared to glance at Dan, he found the brat beaming with a smile that eclipsed his face. "Don't look at me like that, runt."
"Akutsu-senpai likes me, desu," Dan stated around his idiotic grin.
"Shut up and eat your lunch," Akutsu grunted, fumbling for a cigarette from the pack in his pocket.
"And stop smiling like that."
"Okay, desu," Dan repeated cheerfully. But the smile remained, and he sang under his breath as he ate. "Akutsu-senpai liiiikes me. Akutsu-senpai liiiikes me."
Akutsu lit up a cigarette, took a long drag, and admitted silently that, yeah, he guessed he liked Dan that way. "You ditching with me tomorrow to go watch Nationals again?" And maybe this time, he wouldn't leave.
"Yes, desu! Seigaku advanced and so did Hyotei. I wonder when they will have to play each other, desu. We should watch Hyotei, desu. Don't you think so, desu…?"