Yuuki finally spotted her son’s crazy hair after wandering around the tennis courts for what felt like hours. The heat beat down on her bare shoulders and sweat dampened the tendrils of her short hair. Jin stood talking to a boy who was dressed in Yamabuki colors and a matching green headband. Yuuki was too far away to hear them, but she didn’t need to listen to know what was being said. She lived with Jin’s crude mouth and angry attitude daily. She tensed, hoping Jin wouldn’t raise his hand to the boy. Jin had never been physically aggressive towards her, thankfully, but she knew that others didn’t fare so well.
Jin did raise his hand, and Yuuki whispered, “Oh, no.” But instead of hitting the boy, Jin pointed to another kid wearing a white hat walking in their direction. Yuuki recognized the hat. It belonged to the Seigaku student who beat Jin in the tennis match.
Yuuki saw Jin walk away from the boys, the Yamabuki student shouting something after him. Yuuki hurried to meet up with Jin. “Jin!” Yuuki called, waving as she came around a tree. “I found you! I came here!”
Jin winced and stopped on the path. “What are you doing here, woman?”
“I wanted to see your big game,” Yuuki said, catching up to him. She looped her arm through his. “I’m sorry that you lost. You played very well.”
“Tch. Like I care.” Jin shrugged her off and started walking again. Yuuki had to hustle to keep up with his long strides. At fifteen, he was already so tall, and he had years of growing to go yet.
“When’s your next meet?” Yuuki asked. “I’d like to come to that one, too.”
“I quit,” Jin replied.
“What? Why? I thought you liked tennis.”
“Tennis is boring.” Jin pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “I didn’t want to play to begin with. That stupid old man made me.”
Yuuki highly doubted that. No one could get Jin to do anything he didn’t want to do. She’d enrolled him in tennis five years ago, after he’d quit the karate dojo, trying to keep him out of trouble. He ended up quitting tennis, too, after a few months. Still, he must’ve gotten some enjoyment from tennis, or he wouldn’t have picked up a racket again.
Jin lit a cigarette, which she hated, especially when he was wearing his Yamabuki uniform. She had to spend extra money on bleach to remove the yellow stains from the white uniform. “I wish you wouldn’t smoke.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Jin growled, shifting his tennis bag from one hand to the other.
Yuuki sighed. Don’t tell me what to do was a refrain she heard too often from her incorrigible son. He’d been brought home by the police on numerous occasions because of that attitude, bruised and bloody from fighting. She’d hoped that his voluntary involvement with the tennis club would result in a change in his behavior, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
Although, he had assisted that other Yamabuki student. Yuuki glanced over her shoulder. The two younger students had grown smaller in the distance. “Who was that boy you were with a few minutes ago? The little one with the headband.”
“Who, Taichi?” Jin took a drag on his cigarette and flicked the excess ash onto the sidewalk. “He’s nobody.”
Yuuki glanced back again. Jin had mentioned someone named Taichi several times over the two months he’d been in tennis club, usually accompanied by the words “stupid brat.” She’d taken it to mean there was an irritating first year in club and waited for the phone call telling her that Jin had beaten Taichi up. From what she’d just seen, though, Jin may have helped Taichi. It made her very curious.
“Give me money,” Jin demanded abruptly, holding out his palm. “I want to get something to eat.”
“I could make you something at home,” Yuuki said. Jin fixed a fierce stare at her until she relented. She opened her purse. “Okay. But pick me up something, too.”
“Get it yourself,” Jin said, taking the money.
“Jin—” she began, but he was already walking away. She clucked her tongue and closed her purse. Rotten, ungrateful child. She’d give him a stern talking to when he got home.
Whether he listened or not was another story.
Yuuki had completely forgotten about her curiosity over Taichi until Jin came home one day with a plate of cookies.
“Here,” Jin grumped, tossing a wrapped plate of cookies on the scratched-up kitchen table. He dropped his book bag on the floor and opened the refrigerator.
Yuuki blinked at the plate on the table. “Did you make those?”
“No. Taichi made them in Home Ec. and forced them on me.” Jin took out the carton of milk. “I fucking hate cookies.”
But Yuuki saw crumbs near his collar when he tilted the carton to his lips.
Jin didn’t talk much about anything. He minded Yuuki somewhat, as long as she didn’t tell him what to do. Yuuki wanted to be close to him, but he continually pushed her away, and so she didn’t know much about his connection with Taichi. She knew he’d been in tennis club with Jin, but she wasn’t sure the relationship had extended beyond that until the police showed up on the doorstep with Jin in tow.
“Oh, no,” she said, as Jin pushed past her into the apartment. He had blood on his knuckles and on his school uniform. “What did my son do this time?”
“It’s all right, Miss,” the older of the two officers said. The surprise quickly left their faces at learning Jin was her son. “He’s not in any trouble.”
Yuuki found that hard to believe. “Really?”
“Yes, Miss,” he said. “He was involved in an altercation with three other kids, but witnesses say he was protecting someone by the name of…”
“Taichi Dan, sir,” the younger officer piped up.
“Taichi?” Yuuki said, surprised by the familiar name. “He’s all right, I take it?”
“Yes, Miss.” The younger officer blushed when Yuuki’s gaze shifted to him. “Your son stopped him from getting hurt.”
“However, while it is admirable that your son stepped in, the police cannot condone that type of behavior,” the older officer said. “Please see to it that it doesn’t happen again.”
Yuuki couldn’t promise that it wouldn’t, and so she nodded vaguely.
“We’ll be going, then,” the older officer said. “Thank you.”
“Miss.” The younger officer tipped his hat and blushed darker. He was kind of handsome. Yuuki might have asked for his phone number, if she wasn’t completely flummoxed by the fact that Jin had acted admirably.
Closing the door, Yuuki crossed through the small, square apartment and found Jin in the washroom. He glanced up when he heard her footsteps and scowled at her. “What do you want?”
“The officers said you aren’t in any trouble,” Yuuki said.
“I don’t care.” Jin dried his hands on a towel and tossed it on the pedestal sink. He kicked at the discarded uniform jacket on the floor. “Wash that. It’s got blood on it.”
Brushing past her in the narrow hallway, Jin retreated to their divided bedroom. Yuuki thought about going after him and asking what had happened, but she knew she wouldn’t get an answer. She picked up the uniform jacket from the floor and looked at the blood staining the front. “Taichi Dan, huh…”
Yuuki had been worried about this Taichi before, but if Jin was stepping in to protect him, maybe Jin liked him. Maybe they’d even be friends. He only had one friend that she knew of, Taka-kun, but with being at different schools and Jin’s attitude and disinterest, it wasn’t much of a friendship. Over the years, Yuuki tried not to push for him to make more friends, because that would only make Jin resist. She had about given up on the likelihood of it happening. But now, maybe he had finally met someone he found worth the effort to become friends with, if his rough edges didn’t scare Taichi off. Yuuki would have to wait and see.
Yuuki was finishing getting ready for work when Jin came around the dragon-etched privacy partition dividing the bedroom. “This stupid thing doesn’t fit,” he said, tugging at his sleeves.
Yuuki wished she had a camera handy. Jin looked adorable in his old yukata, even though it was way too small, exposing his forearms and ankles. “That’s because you’ve grown so much since you last wore it. It’s been more than two years, hasn’t it?”
“Hn.” Jin shoved the material off his shoulders and let it hang around his waist. Yuuki despaired at how big he’d become; he was such a man already and soon he wouldn’t need her anymore. “Give me money for a new one.”
“I don’t think I have enough cash, honey,” she said, reaching for her purse. “I don’t get paid until next week.”
“Never mind,” Jin said, stalking back to his side. “I didn’t want to go to the stupid festival with that damned brat anyway.”
Yuuki swore she heard disappointment in his voice and thought quickly. She padded barefoot across the tatami mats and stuck her head around the partition. “You didn’t let me finish.”
Jin had stripped to his underwear and he grabbed his shorts from a drawer to cover himself. “I’m changing, woman! Get out.”
“If you can wait until tomorrow, I’ll take you shopping for a new yukata and use the credit card,” Yuuki said before retreating to her side. She didn’t receive an answer and she left for work saddened by his obstinacy. Jin wouldn’t change his mind once he’d decided something.
Yuuki was completely surprised when she found Jin sitting at the kitchen table early the next morning, dressed and ready to go out. Over the summer holidays, Jin usually didn’t get up until noon.
“About time you got up,” Jin said with a scowl. “I’ve got better things to do today then wait around for you to take me to the store.”
At first, Yuuki didn’t know what he was talking about, but then it hit her – the yukata. Jin still wanted to go to the festival with Taichi. Amazed and heartened, Yuuki smiled and smothered him in a hug.
“Oi! What are you doing? Get off me!” Jin pushed against her, but not too forcefully. He’d never been that aggressive towards her.
“I’ll go and get my purse,” Yuuki said, fighting the urge to muss his goofy hair. She was so happy. Her son actually cared about doing something. She wondered if she had Taichi to thank for it.
Yuuki opened the apartment door as she slung her purse over her shoulder and stuffed her feet into her shoes. She was running late and would have to hurry to make the train, to get to work. She rushed out the door and barreled right into Jin. “Oh!”
Jin caught her by the arms and steadied her. “Watch it,” he growled.
“Akutsu-senpai, be nice.” A tiny teenager with bright eyes and a caring smile peered around Jin’s elbow. “Hello! Are you okay, desu?”
“I’m fine,” Yuuki said. She was more stunned that Jin didn’t snap at the boy for telling him what to do. “I’m Jin’s mother, Yuuki.”
“I’m Taichi Dan. Nice to meet you, desu!” Taichi said, bowing. The green headband he wore slipped over his eyes.
So this was Taichi. Yuuki had a vague recollection of him from the tennis courts a few months back, but she hadn’t seen him up close. He seemed to be the exact opposite of Jin: small, polite, and cheerful. “It’s good to meet you, too.”
“Come on, Taichi,” Jin said, stepping around Yuuki and entering the open door.
Taichi bowed to Yuuki again. “Um, goodbye, desu.” He smiled again and slipped past her into the apartment.
“Dinner’s in the refrigerator,” she called before the door shut. Yuuki wished she didn’t have to go to work. It was the first time Jin had ever brought anyone home with him. She was thrilled! She hoped Jin would bring Taichi home again another day, so that she could find out everything she could about Jin’s new friend.
“Where’s that ugly shirt you bought me for my birthday?” Jin shouted from the bedroom.
Yuuki looked up from the bills she was paying at the kitchen table. “It’s in my closet. Why?”
Jin didn’t answer. He came into the kitchen wearing the black and white small-checked shirt, along with his nicest black pants, a minute later. “I need some food to take with me.”
“Where are you going?” Yuuki asked. She rarely saw Jin in anything other than a t-shirt or his school uniform. She wanted to tell him that he looked handsome, but knew that was a sure fire way to make him change clothes.
Jin began opening and closing cabinets. “To Taichi’s for dinner.”
Yuuki smothered her smile with her hand. Jin had gotten dressed up to go to dinner. He must want to make a good impression on Taichi’s parents, which was amazing. Being in a friendship was having a positive influence on Jin. She hoped it lasted.
“I can whip up a dessert really quick,” Yuuki said, rising from the table. “You’ll only have to ask Dan-san to put it in the fridge when you get there.”
Yuuki didn’t receive a call from the Dans or the police, but she wasn’t sure if dinner went all right until Taichi showed up with the clean pie dish the next day.
“Good afternoon, Akutsu-san!” Taichi said brightly, after Jin let him into the apartment. Jin followed Taichi into the kitchen. “Excuse my intrusion.”
“Hello, Taichi-kun,” Yuuki said, putting aside her cleaning rag and cleanser. She’d been scrubbing the kitchen sink. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“It’s nice to see you, too, desu!”
Behind Taichi, Jin rolled his eyes.
“I brought back your pie plate, Akutsu-san,” Taichi said, holding out a bag. “Thank you for making the dessert. It was delicious, desu.”
“I’m happy that you liked it.” Yuuki pulled off her rubber gloves and took the bag. “And please, call me Yuuki-chan.”
Taichi’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that, Akutsu-san.”
“It’s okay. Everyone else does,” Yuuki assured him. Being called Akutsu-san made her feel old.
“But it would be very disrespectful, Akutsu-san,” Taichi said. “Right, Akutsu-senpai, desu?”
Jin shrugged. “Call her whatever the hell you want. I don’t care.”
Taichi appeared torn. Yuuki tried to encourage him. “Having ‘Akutsu-san’ and ‘Akutsu-senpai’ in the same house might get confusing. I don’t mind going by ‘Yuuki-chan’.”
“But it would still be impolite,” Taichi said, brow furrowing. He lit up suddenly. “I know! I’ll call Akutsu-senpai ‘Jin-senpai’ instead!” He turned to Jin. “Is that okay, Jin-senpai, desu?”
Yuuki watched the color creep into Jin’s cheeks. “Whatever, brat,” he said gruffly and headed for his room. “Come and find me when you’re done being an idiot.”
“Okay, Jin-senpai!” Taichi turned to Yuuki again and beamed. “Now, I can call you ‘Akutsu-san’, Akutsu-san, desu.”
Yuuki no longer cared what she was called, because Taichi had breached the wall of Jin’s defenses and she couldn’t be happier. She concentrated on putting the bag on the counter until the urge to hug Taichi lessened. “That’s fine, Taichi-kun. I should call your mother and thank her for having Jin over for dinner.”
“My mom said Jin-senpai could come over any time he wanted,” Taichi said, shoving his drooping headband back into place. He leaned in a little and added with childish confidentiality, “Dad says Jin-senpai looks like a thug, but I told him Jin-senpai was the greatest senpai ever and not to be mean.”
Yuuki wanted to hug Taichi again. Jin saved him by yelling irritably, “Oi, Taichi. Quit fucking around and get in here already.”
“Coming, desu!” Taichi called. He bowed politely to Yuuki. “Excuse me, Akutsu-san.”
Yuuki watched as Taichi scampered off to the bedroom, and then she took the dish from the bag and started making another dessert. Taichi deserved more pie.
“Heh! Got you.”
“I’m not going to let you, desu.”
“I got you!”
“Shut up, brat.”
“Ha-ha! I won, desu! Eeee-hee-hee-hahaha!”
Taichi’s laughter tumbled from the living room, as Jin pinned him beneath an arm and knuckled his head. The control pads for the video game were discarded on the floor in front of them. The television flickered with obnoxious colors, declaring the game over. Yuuki peered unobtrusively through the open doorway on her way past.
Taichi had become a fixture in the apartment, which Yuuki didn’t mind. She had prayed for this sort of friendship for Jin for years. Taichi’s bright personality countered Jin’s darkness, and while Jin was still as surly as he’d always been, he was no longer heading straight down the road that led to jail or to the grave.
“Pick up your damned controller. We’re having a rematch.”
“I’m going to beat you again, desu!”
“Tch. Not a chance.”
Yuuki smiled and left them playing together.
The word “Mom” had Yuuki running from the bedroom as much as the sheer panic in Jin’s voice. Jin hadn’t called her Mom since he started middle school.
“MOM!” Yuuki’s stocking-clad feet slipped on the floor as she careened into the entryway. Jin’s face was white with terror as he stared at Taichi cradled in his arms. Blood coated Taichi’s forehead and ran down his nose and cheek. More blood stained the fronts of Jin’s and Taichi’s uniform.
“Taichi-kun!” Yuuki gasped, rushing over.
Taichi smiled faintly. “Good afternoon, Akutsu-san, desu.”
“Jin, bring him into the bathroom,” Yuuki said, buttoning her work blouse as she hurried in that direction. She glanced over her shoulder in the doorway to see that Jin hadn’t moved. “Jin!”
Jin jerked his gaze from Taichi and looked lost in fear for a moment before he started moving. His sneakers squeaked on the floor as he carried Taichi to the bathroom. Yuuki kept the first aid kit in the cabinet above the laundry, outside the bathroom area. She also fetched a washrag and a dry towel.
Jin had set Taichi on the closed toilet lid and hovered anxiously in the open doorway to the washing area. Yuuki set the first aid kit on the edge of the sink and wet the washrag. She crouched in front of Taichi, worry pinching her lips. “What happened?” she asked, gently wiping the blood from Taichi’s face. She hoped Taichi didn’t need to go to the hospital.
“I tripped on the stairs and hit my head on the railing, desu.” Taichi hissed when she dabbed his forehead with the wet washrag.
Once the blood was washed away, Yuuki could see that Taichi had a rapidly purpling lump on his forehead. A cut sliced the lump, from hitting the railing. It wasn’t a terrible wound, but it continued to bleed.
Yuuki dropped the bloody washrag in the sink and opened the first aid kit. In the mirror’s reflection above the sink, Yuuki could see Jin watching Taichi like a hawk.
Yuuki bandaged Taichi’s injury the best she could, using her experience patching Jin. She wasn’t Taichi’s mother, though, and Dan-san might want him to see a doctor. “I’m going to call your mother, Taichi-kun. You just sit here, all right?”
“All right, desu.”
The telephone was in the living room. Yuuki dialed the Dans’ phone number and after several rings, the answering machine picked up. She left a brief message, but was still concerned. Perhaps she’d best call Taichi’s father at work.
“—idiot trips over nothing?” Yuuki heard Jin saying as she neared the bathroom.
“I’m sorry, desu.”
“Stop saying that. I don’t care about your fucking ‘sorry’s.”
Yuuki was disappointed in Jin. It wasn’t Taichi’s fault that he tripped. She opened her mouth to scold Jin when she reached the door and saw Jin standing with his arm around Taichi’s shoulders. Still seated on the closed toilet, Taichi leaned sideways against Jin’s stomach with his eyes closed.
“But if you fall like that again, I’ll hurt you myself,” Jin grumbled. He noticed Yuuki in the doorway and moved away from Taichi abruptly. Taichi grabbed the toilet to keep from tipping over with the sudden loss of support.
Jin glared at Yuuki and pushed past her, out of the bathroom. “I’m going to get changed.”
Yuuki knew she’d embarrassed him by witnessing the soft moment. He’d probably act nasty over the next few days to make up for it, but Yuuki had seen for herself that Jin cared about Taichi like he hadn’t cared for anything in a long time.
“Taichi-kun,” Yuuki said, pretending she hadn’t seen anything, like a good mom. “I couldn’t reach your mother at home, but I still think I should talk to one of your parents. Do you know your father’s work number?”
“Jin,” Yuuki called, adjusting her necklace so it hung nicely above her cleavage. She smoothed her blouse, hoping her date liked her outfit. “Do you want me to make you dinner before I leave?”
“No. I’m going to Taichi’s.”
Yuuki walked around the partition, fixing an earring in her ear. Jin was lying on his futon, wearing his black trousers and a white button-down shirt that he’d bought to replace the “ugly” dress shirt. He was frowning fiercely at what looked like a woven bracelet dangling from his hand.
“Do you need me to make you something to bring?” Yuuki asked.
Jin jerked and hid the bracelet at his side. “Stop coming over here, woman,” he growled, rolling to his feet. He stuffed his hands in his pockets.
Yuuki ignored his snippiness. “Do you need me to make you something?” she repeated.
“No.” Jin skulked over to his desk, where a small bouquet of flowers sat. “I already got this for Dan-san.”
Yuuki smiled, pleasantly surprised that Jin was following manners. Little changes like this made her glad Jin and Taichi were such good friends. She patted her hair. “How do I look?”
Jin glanced at her, lighting up a cigarette. “Like a hooker.”
Yuuki came home from work and tiredly kicked off her shoes in the entryway. Her feet ached from being on them all evening, waitressing at a family restaurant. Her ears were still ringing from the birthday party that had occupied her section for two hours.
Wandering into the kitchen, she was surprised to see Jin sitting at the table, fiddling with the woven bracelet that had been knotted around his wrist for weeks. It was late, and by now he was normally hiding out in his room. “Hi, sweetheart. What are you doing up?”
“Nothing.” Jin pushed away from the table and carried his mug over to the sink. Papers were spread on the kitchen table, and Yuuki picked one up.
“Entrance exam applications? You’re taking high school entrance exams?”
“Yeah. So what? I’m going to bed,” Jin said over his shoulder, as he stalked out of the kitchen.
Astounded, Yuuki sat down in Jin’s abandoned chair. Several high school applications lay on the table. A few of them were filled out. “Oh, Jin,” she whispered emotionally. She’d had a time of it getting him to remain in middle school for his third year. He’d wanted to get a job and get out on his own as soon as possible. Now, he was planning on taking high school entrance exams.
Yuuki didn’t know why Jin had changed his mind, but she’d work extra hours to insure he could go wherever he wanted. Yuuki grew misty-eyed and touched the papers on the table. High school!
Yuuki heard Jin and Taichi’s voices as they came inside after school. “Welcome home,” she called from the living room. She was curled on the couch beneath a blanket, keeping warm on the dreary day. Rain beat heavily against the windows. She was glad she had the night off from work.
“Pardon the intrusion, Akutsu-sa—choo!”
The sneeze made Yuuki unfold herself from the couch. She found two drowned rats struggling out of their soaked uniforms, making puddles on the entryway floor. “What happened to your umbrella?” she said, picking up the boys’ book bags.
“It blew away, desu!” Taichi said, grinning. “I almost blew away, too!”
Jin grabbed Taichi’s wet undershirt and yanked it over his head. “Stop talking, stupid. I want to get dry.”
“I’ll make you both some hot chocolate,” Yuuki said, heading for the kitchen. She took the books and papers from the book bags and spread them on the table to dry. They hadn’t gotten too wet, being protected by the bags.
Once the tea kettle was set on the burner, Yuuki collected the wet clothing piled in the entryway to put in the dryer. She glanced in the bathroom as she passed. A towel draped over Jin’s shoulders and he was rubbing Taichi’s hair with another.
“That’s enough, Jin-senpai,” Taichi said.
“You’re gonna get sick if you walk around with a wet head, and then you’re gonna get me sick and I’ll have to kill you.”
Yuuki shook her head fondly and dumped the clothing in the dryer. After turning the dryer on, she started back for the kitchen and halted abruptly when her mind registered what her eyes had glimpsed in the bathroom as she passed again. She took two steps backwards. Her gasp was covered by the humming of the dryer.
Jin and Taichi were kissing.
It wasn’t a grand, passionate kiss like Yuuki sometimes allowed her dates to give her. Jin and Taichi’s lips were simply pressed together; an innocent kiss of two inexperienced middle-schoolers and Yuuki was reminded sharply that for all his size and mannerisms, Jin was still just a child. Taichi stood on his toes, bracing his hands on Jin’s bare chest, with his eyelids squeezed shut. Jin’s hands were still on the towel around Taichi’s head.
Jin pushed Taichi back abruptly and pulled the towel over Taichi’s face. A bright pink flush stole across Jin’s pale skin. Yuuki ducked out of sight when Jin looked around self-consciously. “Obnoxious brat.”
Taichi’s giggle was muffled by the towel.
Yuuki slipped away unnoticed, retreating to the kitchen. The kettle whistled and she mechanically began making the hot chocolate, her thoughts elsewhere. She’d never even dreamed that Jin might like Taichi in that way. How could she not have known something so important?
But no, wait. Had she missed it, or had she simply not seen what was right in front of her? Since the beginning of the school year, Jin had been changing little by little. She’d thought it was because he’d gained a new friend. But she knew how he treated Taka-kun and Jin considered them to be friends. With Taichi, things had been different from the very start.
With Taichi, Jin had been falling in love.
Yuuki stirred the chocolate, added marshmallows, and tried to figure out what to do. She wasn’t sure that she liked the idea of Jin being in love with another boy, even if that boy was as sweet at Taichi.
Taichi bounced into the kitchen, swimming in a borrowed sweatshirt and nearly tripping over the cuffed hems of a pair of track pants. Jin followed more sedately, all traces of his blush gone.
Yuuki set the hot chocolate on the kitchen table and smiled faintly. “Here you are.”
“Thank you, Akutsu-san!” Taichi said, reaching for a mug.
Jin batted his hand out of the way. “I’ve got them. Go sit down before you trip and fall on your face.”
“Okay, desu!” Taichi pulled up his pants and led the way into the living room.
Yuuki watched from her spot in the kitchen as Jin and Taichi settled on the couch with the videogame plugged in. Taichi said something she couldn’t hear, and Jin threw back his head and laughed. Her heart lifted and eased. Jin was happy, and that was a change she’d been waiting for, for a long time.
Making her decision, Yuuki poured herself a mug of hot chocolate, added some marshmallows, and went to join them in the living room. “I get to play the winner.”
Taichi cheered, while Jin rolled his eyes. “Whatever, Mom.”