Akutsu squinted in the bright sunlight as he stepped outside, letting the roof access door slam shut behind him. The crisp air slapped his cheeks and he could see his breath. Sliding his hands in his pockets, he ambled over to where a group of degenerates and delinquents like himself gathered around a heating vent and smoked.
Akutsu's third year at Hibari High School was shaping up to be the same as the last two years. Classes were a joke and he wouldn't bother attending if he didn't want to graduate. Back in middle school, Yuuki had accidentally found an exam with top marks in Akutsu's backpack. She'd been searching for cigarettes, as she'd run out. If he hadn't been standing there, bitching about her going through his stuff, he wouldn't have seen the look on her face when she'd seen the exam. He wanted to see that look again – Yuuki had enough shit in her life that she was always miserable – and graduating high school, when no one expected him to, was a sure way to do it. He was debating taking university entrance exams. Yuuki'd probably have a heart attack if he got into college.
Lighting a cigarette, Akutsu leaned against the retaining wall near the heating vent and listened half-heartedly to the conversation of his peers. He wasn't that friendly with them, but he fell in with the rough crowd by default. Natsushi was the unofficial leader – not that Akutsu paid any attention to him – and had his arm around his girlfriend, Asuma-san. The four goons, Takawara, Shindou, Kagurasaka, and Akito, shoved each other around and devoured food like pigs. Kitamara and his girlfriend Takaki-san shared a cigarette. The teachers let them smoke on the roof during breaks and lunch because it kept them from loitering in front of the school in the public eye.
"That slut, Mizuki Kotami, is screwing Jinobi-sensei," Takawara said.
Kagurasaka choked on his rice. Akito pushed Takawara into the heating vent. "No way."
"Tanami caught her giving head to him after club."
"Gross. Can you imagine sucking off that withered old prick?"
Laughter mixed with gagging noises. Akutsu ashed over the wall and stared up at the white clouds mottling the sky. The bang of the access door slamming shut brought his gaze around, as the others fell silent. Two first years cowered behind a third, who smiled as brightly as the sun.
Akutsu's heart thudded inexplicably in his chest.
"Akutsu-senpai!" Taichi Dan stood on the roof of Hibari High, wearing the school uniform. He bounded over as if two years hadn't passed since he'd last seen Akutsu. "I found you, desu!"
"Taichi," Akutsu pushed off the retaining wall to meet him, "what the hell are you doing here?"
"I go to school here now, like Akutsu-senpai," Dan said, latching onto Akutsu in a hug. Akutsu stiffened and looked down at the dark mop of Dan's hair that brushed Akutsu's chin. Dan had gotten taller and his arms felt solid around Akutsu's waist. Akutsu hesitated and then patted him clumsily on the back.
"I missed you, desu," Dan mumbled against Akutsu's chest.
Something tightened in Akutsu's gut and he shoved Dan away. The lingering warmth made Akutsu even more uncomfortable. "Whatever, brat. Shouldn't you be at Yatabuka High with the rest of the Yamabuki Tennis Club?"
Dan shook his head. "I wanted to play tennis with you."
"I don't play anymore, you know that." Akutsu became aware of the stares from his peers that the shock of seeing Dan again had blocked out. He tensed up and sneered at Dan. "And who said I wanted to see your ugly face again?"
"Hey, Akutsu, who's the runt?" Natsushi slouched up beside Akutsu with a nasty smile on his lips. The tips of his dyed-red hair hung over eyes that sized up Dan like prey.
"None of your fucking business," Akutsu said. He flicked his spent cigarette at Dan's feet. "Beat it, Taichi, before I beat you."
"Okay, desu," Dan said with disregard for the threat. "I'll wait for you after school and we can go to club together." He gave Akutsu another beaming smile and a half wave to Akutsu's peers. "'Bye Akutsu-senpai's friends." Turning on his heel, he tripped back to his own first year friends and was dragged quickly through the roof access door.
Natsushi slung his arm around Akutsu's shoulder and took a drag off his cigarette. "Taichi, huh?" he said. "Must be pretty close to you for you to call him by name."
"He's nothing." Akutsu shrugged off Natsushi's arm. "Just a kid I knew in middle school."
Natsushi exhaled smoke from between his teeth and he looked back at his other friends with a smile. "Then you won't mind if we mess with him a bit."
"Whatever." Akutsu shrugged, wanting to get off the roof and away from everyone. He didn't care what Natsushi or his crew did, so long as he was left out of it. Dan was old enough to take care of himself.
The hyena-like laughter that rose behind him was cut off with the bang of the door.
Akutsu ditched the rest of the school day and the following few days for no reason, until Yuuki's bitching became more annoying than sitting in boring classes. He wasn't surprised when Dan accosted him the second he set foot on school grounds. But Dan's black eye shocked him. "What happened to you?"
"I got hit with a tennis ball," Dan said. Akutsu frowned, sensing a lie. He knew Dan could outplay anyone at Hibari. Banji-sensei, in hopes of getting Akutsu to play tennis again, kept him updated on his former Yamabuki teammates. (Banji-sensei hadn't said a word on Dan's enrollment at Hibari, though. Now that Akutsu thought about it, perhaps Dan's enrollment was another way Banji-sensei was trying to get him to play, the bastard.)
"Where have you been, Akutsu-senpai? I waited for you after school, but you never came, and I looked for you every day on the roof at lunch—"
"I wasn't here," Akutsu cut him off, his concern vanishing with a wave of impatience. He pushed past Dan and entered the school.
Dan was immediately on Akutsu's heels. "You're here today, desu. You're coming to tennis club after school, right? I really want to play with Akutsu-senpai."
"I told you, I don't play." Akutsu exchanged his outdoor shoes for his indoor ones. "Stop bothering me and go to class."
"Okay, Akutsu-senpai, I'll go to class," Dan headed towards the first years' shoe lockers, his voice floating over his shoulder, "but I won't stop bothering you until you come and play."
"Heh." Cheeky brat, Akutsu thought, lips twitching. Adjusting his books under his arm, he caught a classmate staring. "What are you looking at?" he snapped and shoved the kid into the lockers as he passed.
The morning passed with mind-numbing slowness. Akutsu easily grasped the material in each class and he usually spent the time doing the assigned homework from the hour prior to keep from leaving. Teachers rarely made him answer questions; challenging delinquents was a good way to get their tires slashed, though Akutsu wouldn't bother doing something so juvenile. He preferred to do his threatening with his fists.
Lunch finally rolled around, and Akutsu loomed with a glower at the students lined up at the vending machines until they let him cut in first. He bought a drink and a candy bar, dumped his books in his next classroom, and made his way to the roof.
He found Dan sitting on the steps near the access door, with a bento and a smile. Muffled voices of other students drifted up from the hallways downstairs. "Akutsu-senpai, I brought lunch, desu. Now we can eat together."
Dan's black eye looked darker in the dim stairwell. Akutsu blamed sitting down himself because of it. "You should be eating with your friends."
"I am." Dan said it simply, handing Akutsu a set of wrapped chopsticks. Akutsu couldn't explain the weird feeling he got in response, a sort of tickle in his chest. He opened his drink and gulped it half down, hoping it would wash the sensation away. It wasn't like Dan's claim of friendship was new; Dan was Akutsu's kôhai in middle school, so why wouldn't he still be now?
Irritated with himself, Akutsu stabbed at the food in the bento balanced on the step between them. Dan, either oblivious or not caring about Akutsu's shift in mood, began jabbering on about the first few weeks of high school. He barely stopped to eat or breathe between sentences. It reminded Akutsu of the lunches they'd shared his third year at Yamabuki. All Akutsu had to do was grunt every so often, even if he wasn't listening, and Dan would continue speaking until lunch ended. It was familiar, comfortable. By the time the need for a cigarette needled him, the bento was empty, Dan was finishing off his half of the candy bar, and lunch break was nearing an end.
"I'm going outside for a smoke," Akutsu said, rising to his feet.
"Are you coming to club this afternoon?" Dan asked.
"You should," Dan said, gathering the trash. "Tennis is fun."
"Tennis is boring." Akutsu thumped Dan lightly on the head. "Later."
Later became the next day at lunch, and the next day, and the next. One month became another. Akutsu had tried and failed to get Dan to stay with his other friends. "I see them all the time in class," Dan had said. "I only get to see you at lunch. Unless you joined the tennis team…"
Akutsu had no plans to play tennis again, so he put up with seeing Dan regularly at lunch. The bentos were worth suffering through Dan's chatter. Climbing the stairs, Akutsu wondered what Dan-san had packed today. Dan's mother would make enough for two, but never asked Dan whether his mother knew she was feeding Akutsu or Dan's other friends. He knew better than to ask a question that would get a shitty answer.
Akutsu rounded the last jog in the stairwell and found that Dan wasn't in his usual spot. It was odd; the first year classes were closest to the stairs and Dan wasn't one to get into trouble with the teachers. Akutsu leaned against the stair rail, debating how long to stick around before going outside for a smoke.
And then he realized he was acting like a girl waiting for her boyfriend.
Disgusted with himself, Akutsu stalked up the stairs and shoved open the access door with more force than necessary. Pebbles crunched underfoot as he stepped outside into the spring weather. Immediately, he spotted the missing Dan, pinned in a headlock by Takawara as Shindou flicked food from the bento at him. Akutsu's annoyance spiked.
"Hey, Akutsu," Natsushi called, a malicious grin curving his lips. He lifted his hand from Asuma-san's shoulder and pointed at Dan. "We found something of yours."
The others on the roof, including Kagurasaka, Akito, Kitamara, and Takaki-san, laughed. Takawara must've loosened his grip on Dan as he laughed, too, because Dan squirmed free. However, he didn't rush over to Akutsu. Instead, he angled his chin and clenched his fists. "Give me back that bento."
He got hit in the face with salmon roe.
Cackling laughter rose from the rooftop. Akutsu wasn't in the mood to put up with this crap. Dan had dug his own grave by following Akutsu around. Akutsu was about to leave when Dan spun on his heel and strode with stiffly held dignity across the roof. Food dripped from his cheek and dotted the front of his uniform. He walked past Akutsu, eyes bright not with tears but with challenge and anger.
Pride in Dan nudged Akutsu's bad humor aside a little. Guess the kid had grown up some.
"What's this?" Akito said, drawing attention to something behind Akutsu. "Does he think he's going to take us on?"
Akutsu turned to find Dan had picked up a broken branch roughly the length and width of his forearm. What the hell was Dan thinking?
Tossing something small into the air from his other hand, Dan brought the branch arm back, leapt up, and swung. A pebble flew past Akutsu. He turned quickly, tracking its path. The pebble smacked the bento, knocking it from Shindou's hands. A second pebble, hit so hard the sound stung Akutsu's ears, whizzed by an instant later and clipped the square edge of the bento box. The bento spun upon impact like a Frisbee. But instead of flying any which way, it sailed with precision to the exhaust vent Akutsu always stood beside, landing on top of the vent with a skid that stopped just short of falling off the far side.
"Akutsu-senpai," Dan said, his voice tight and terse and not like Dan at all. It rubbed Akutsu uncomfortably. "That bento was our lunch, but I don't feel like eating anymore. You can do what you want with the rest."
Dropping the broken branch on the rooftop, Dan pulled open the access door and went back into the school.
"Damn," Akutsu muttered, impressed and unsure what to do next. Akutsu was the one who either took charge – usually with his fists – or simply took off. But Dan hadn't needed him at all, hadn't even giving him the opportunity to refuse. Trust Dan to break the rules once more.
The Hibari Tennis Club was a joke, and Dan's playing was even worse. Akutsu skulked in the shadows of the bleachers surrounding the rundown courts, cigarette butts littering the ground by his feet. Akutsu had listened to the ridicule and poorly hidden awe from the others during the remainder of lunch over the way Dan had controlled the bento using only a rock and stick. Akutsu knew from Banji-sensei that Dan was a good tennis player, but that shot had taken a lot of skill. Curiosity had bitten at Akutsu the rest of the day and he'd hung around after detention to see Dan at tennis practice.
Now, he couldn't figure out why he'd bothered at all. Dan's playing was sloppy, uncoordinated, and that stupid, faded green headband that he continued to wear kept slipping over his eyes. This was the kid that'd helped lead Yamabuki to Nationals last year? He left holes open that his opponents soon started taking advantage of; he broadcast his shots and more times than not returned them to the same spot; and worst of all, he acted like it didn't matter that he repeatedly lost in such a pathetic manner.
The longer Akutsu stood there, the more pissed off he became. Either Banji-sensei had lied to him or Dan was playing badly on purpose. Akutsu didn't think Banji-sensei gave enough of a crap about him to lie, even though he wanted Akutsu to play tennis again. That meant Dan was playing badly on purpose. He had to be. Akutsu wouldn't put up with such a sorry excuse for a tennis player in his life.
After practice, Akutsu waited while Dan spoke extensively with the bug-eyed coach, Kudo-sensei, who'd been watching the entire pitiful display. The sixteen other members of the club had gone home by the time Dan said goodbye to the coach.
"About time," Akutsu said, making his presence known when he stepped out from under the bleachers.
"Akutsu-senpai!" Dan's face lit up with a smile that irritated Akutsu's stomach, making it flip. "Did you come to join the tennis club? Kudo-sensei—!"
"Shut it!" Akutsu clamped his hand over Dan's mouth, cutting off his words. The coach continued obliviously on his way.
Dan's eyes laughed at him over the broad expanse of his hand. Akutsu scowled and cuffed him. "I don't see what's so funny, runt. This tennis club is an embarrassment."
Dan shrugged. "Kudo-sensei thinks we'll be fine with more practice."
"You shouldn't need more practice." Akutsu grabbed the racket tucked under Dan's arm and began unbuttoning his own uniform jacket. "Get back on that court and show me you went to Yamabuki."
"Okay, desu!" Dan tripped over his feet scrambling to get another racket from his bag, which was leaning against the tall, rusty, chain link fence surrounding the three tennis courts. He took out a can of bright yellow balls as well and met Akutsu in the center court. The slowly setting sun burnt in the distance.
Akutsu bent and stretched. His leg muscles burned lightly at the pull. He had a kickboxing bag in his bedroom that he used regularly, a gift from Yuuki in a futile hope of keeping him out of fights.
Dan removed his warm-up jacket again, leaving it by the emptied can of balls. He tucked two balls into his pocket and bounced the third on the face of his racket while he waited for Akutsu. The ball rose to exactly the same height and rebounded in the exact same spot with every bounce. Total control. Akutsu narrowed his eyes.
"Call it," Akutsu snapped, spinning his racket on the hard surface of the court. His anger was returning. He'd find out shortly if Dan's shitty playing had been real or not.
Dan won the serve. With a grin, his dark mop of hair hanging over the headband that slipped dangerously over his left eye, he took position at the line, drew his arm back, and tossed the yellow ball into the air. The game was on.
It immediately became apparent that Dan knew what he was doing. He wasn't as good as Akutsu had been his third year at Yamabuki, but he had skill enough behind his smiles and enthusiasm. Akutsu's body remembered tennis like he'd never been away, as if it'd been waiting for him to pick up a racket again. His speed and reflexes weren't as quick, but they also weren't half-bad, thanks to the kickboxing. His warm up with Dan proved they could both outplay anyone at Hibari (and that Akutsu could kick Dan's ass easily). So what the hell had Dan been doing at practice?
"Kudo-sensei is working on each club member's weak points," Dan told him when he asked. "Regular drills can only help so much, desu, and everyone really wants to get better."
"How do you expect to play your best at meets if you're busy babying those inept fools?" Akutsu said.
"Oh, I don't get to play at meets," Dan said, pushing at the faded headband as it slid down over both eyes. "Only third years get to play as regulars. We have six of them, and they rotate between the two doubles spots and singles three."
Akutsu couldn't take it any longer. Dan should not be at Hibari, wasting his skills on a team that couldn't even make it past three matches and him not getting to play at meets at all. Akutsu smacked the flat of the racket on the top of the net. "One set match. If I win, you're transferring to Yatabuka High where you belong."
Dan cocked his head, like a curious puppy. "What if I win, desu?"
"Heh. You can have whatever you want," Akutsu laughed. "And no weaseling out of it, either. This is a man's bet. Agreed?" He held out his hand.
"Agreed." Dan shook Akutsu's hand with a firm grip. He smiled suddenly, not one of the beaming ones that brightened Akutsu's day for some inexplicable reason, but one that reminded Akutsu of his own smiles right before he went in for the kill.
"Call it," Dan said, spinning his racket on the court. Akutsu told himself he was imagining things and won the serve.
Dan bounded away from the net as Akutsu jogged to the serving line. When Akutsu turned around and saw Dan across the court, he sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth. Gone was the exuberant kid who tripped over his own feet. In his place was lean, hungry athlete, bouncing on his toes with a conservation of movement. The faded green headband was pushed up, crowning the top of his head, holding back his mop of hair completely from his face. The corners of his lips were curved in anticipation.
Holy shit, Akutsu thought, and then he served.
The match was over almost before it began. Dan kicked his ass in six hits, three serves and three returns. Akutsu wasn't as fast as he'd used to be, but that was— that was—
The beaming grin returned as Dan skipped to Akustu's side of the court. "I won, desu!"
Akutsu's gaping mouth smacked shut. He shook his head hard and demanded, "When did you learn to play like that?"
Dan shrugged. "I was in the tennis club at Yamabuki. Banji-sensei is a very good coach."
Akutsu hadn't thought Banji-sensei was that good. Unless Dan was a natural player and Akutsu simply hadn't known it. Akutsu thought back to his third year in middle school and vaguely remembered Dan practicing Echizen's Twist Serve with some degree of accuracy. He also knew Dan had been a regular at Yamabuki and that they'd gone to Nationals last year. Still…
"Akutsu-senpai," Dan said, a hint of wiliness dancing in his bright eyes. "I won, and that means I get whatever I want, desu?"
Akutsu had walked right into that one, hadn't he? "Yeah," he said. He wouldn't go back on his word, even though he knew what was coming. He closed his eyes and dropped his chin with an inward sigh, waiting for the sentence that would doom him to playing tennis for Hibari.
He was completely shocked, therefore, when a pair of warm, slightly chapped lips pressed against his own.
Akutsu reared back, eyelids flying open. The sudden, rapid drum of his heartbeat thundering in his ears nearly drowned out his own shout. "What the hell?!"
Dan's cheeks bloomed red, but he stood his ground with that idiotic fearlessness he seemed to have when it came to Akutsu. "Want to bet on another match?"
Akutsu slammed the apartment door shut behind him. He ignored Yuuki as he made a beeline for his bedroom.
"You're home late. You haven't been out fighting have you—?" Her voice cut off with the slap shut of his bedroom door. Tossing his backpack on the floor, he sat on the edge of the bed, dropped backwards, and crossed his arm over his face.
Dan had kissed him.
Akutsu couldn't believe it. Dan had kissed him. Kissed him. On the mouth. Like he was a girl. Kissed him. After shoving the tennis racket at Dan with enough force to knock him back a few steps, Akutsu had taken off from the courts with the speed of someone freaking out. He hadn't been able to stop thinking about it since it'd happened. Dan had kissed him!
Akutsu cursed for the thousandth time as his pulse started racing again. It wasn't supposed to do that! Dan had kissed him. He should be disgusted. He should want to scrub his mouth with a bristle brush. He should want to bash Dan's skull into a pulp.
"Jin…" Yuuki tapped on the door.
Yuuki didn't listen. The door slid open and the overhead light turned on. "Jin, is everything okay?"
"Leave me alone." Akutsu sat up and glared at her as he dug for the cigarettes in his inner jacket pocket. The package was empty, as he'd smoked them all on the way home.
Yuuki frowned at him, coming closer. She put her hand on his forehead. "Your face is flushed. Are you sick?"
"No." Akutsu batted her hand away. "Get out. I don't want to talk to you."
"Is it a girl?"
"Will you get out?!"
Yuuki laughed as Akutsu leapt to his feet and manhandled her out the door. "It is a girl that has you all worked up! Has my Jin fallen for someone? Did you two get into a fight—?"
Akutsu slammed the door shut behind her. Her giggles continued in the hall, drifting off as she walked away. "Damn woman," Akutsu muttered, hating that something so stupid could make her laugh happily like that. She didn't do it enough, but Akutsu wasn't about to prolong it by telling her what Dan had done to him.
Dan had kissed him.
With another curse, Akutsu banged his forehead against the wall next to the door, heat rising up his neck to cover his cheeks. Why the hell did Dan do that? Why was he still thinking about it?
"Argh." Akutsu banged his forehead against the wall again. It didn't help. He didn't know what would, except going back in time and not making that bet.
That's right. Dan's phenomenal tennis playing was a factor in turning Akutsu's life upside down. Shoving away from the wall, Akutsu stepped over the piles of clothing on the floor and went to his desk. He didn't remember reading about Dan's skills in any of Banji-sensei's letters, but he also hadn't read all the letters. Some he'd shoved in a drawer unopened, not in the mood to read them at the time.
Akutsu found fourteen unopened letters from Banji-sensei. He dropped into his desk chair and tore into them. A few were dated from two years back, right after Akutsu began high school, urging him to join the tennis club. One from last year was about the regulars on the Yamabuki team, which included Dan, but made no mention of how Dan played. Another was regarding Echizen, trying to tempt him into wanting a challenge.
Nine envelopes in, Akutsu unfolded a letter and a newspaper clipping fell into his lap. It was a black and white photograph of Echizen and Dan shaking hands over a net. The caption read: Echizen Ryoma defeats Dan Taichi 7:5 to win the National Middle School Tennis Singles title. In the margin, Banji-sensei had written: Echizen 69-0, Dan 68-1.
Akutsu's jaw dropped. Dan had a record of 68-1 last year? Sixty-eight wins and one loss? He won every game he played minus the one against Echizen at Nationals? A quick scan of the letter showed the rankings of the top ten players from that year. Dan was listed as the second in the nation in middle school tennis. Second in the fucking nation.
"Heh!" A laugh escaped Akutsu and he shook his head. "That little shit." He'd been had without even knowing it. It also brought back the question of why Dan was at Hibari – and playing tennis poorly – instead of attending a high school with a great team. He'd have to demand a real answer from Dan at school tomorrow. And find out why the hell Dan had kissed him.
Dan had kissed him.
Akutsu cursed again as his heart tripped a beat. He'd managed not to think about it for all of five minutes. Shoving the letters away, he shut the drawer with more force than necessary and threw himself back on the bed with his head under the pillow. It was going to be a long night.
Akutsu almost didn't go to school the next morning, but Yuuki's twittering about his new girlfriend while he was in the kitchen had sent him running out the door. He'd come close to shutting her up by saying Dan was the girl. Knowing his mother, she'd probably find it cute. She'd always had a soft spot for Dan.
Dan brightened when he saw Akutsu lurking near the first years' shoe lockers, and Akutsu blamed the quickly drunk coffee for the warmth that bloomed in his stomach. Tossing and turning all night hadn't given him a clearer head when it came to Dan's kiss. It did make him want to pummel Dan for causing such turmoil, but not until he got some answers.
"Come with me," Akutsu said, grabbing Dan's arm and dragging him back outside. The morning sun filtered through the clouds. Chattering filled the air from the students entering the school. Akutsu led Dan away from the main building towards the maintenance shed.
Behind the weathered shed, blocked from view, Akutsu rounded on Dan. "I should punch in your face."
Dan's eyes widened and he clutched his schoolbooks to his chest. "What did I do?"
"You kissed me!" Akutsu winced at how loud the words sounded, even though he'd been keeping his voice down so as not to be overheard.
"Oh." Dan's face colored and he looked away. "You said I could have anything I wanted if I won, desu."
"And you cheated to win, too." Akutsu's sweaty hand tightened on the strap of his backpack. "I found out your record last night. You were sixty-eight and one. Yet there you were, playing like you weren't second in the nation."
"Don't be sorry," Akutsu said. "Just—why did you come here instead of going to Yatabuki or any other school with a real tennis club?"
"Because," Dan lifted his forthright gaze to Akutsu, and Akutsu's heart thumped hard against his breastbone, "I wanted to play tennis with you."
The world around Akutsu narrowed and squeezed the breath from his lungs. The volumes spoken in the simple sentence stunned him. No one had ever wanted to be with him like that before, and really, he hadn't cared. Until now. "Taichi—"
The first bell rang, muffled by the distance. Dan sidestepped around Akutsu. "There's the bell. I have to get to class."
"Wait!" Akutsu snagged Dan's arm, stopping him. "You can't say something like that and then leave."
"I'll get in trouble if I'm not in class, desu," Dan said. "You'll be in trouble, too."
Akutsu felt annoyed all of a sudden, as if he'd been expecting something and didn't get it. He let go of Dan. "Fine. Whatever. Get lost."
Dan glanced at him. "Are you coming?"
"No," Akutsu snapped. He turned and headed in the opposite direction, towards the school gate. He needed to get away from Dan and his confessions and feelings, and he wasn't in the mood to put up with the teachers and their crap.
He couldn't escape his own head, though, and he found himself right back at school around the same time tennis club started practice. He watched from the shadows of the bleachers as Dan played terribly again. But this time Akutsu could see the skill it took for Dan to control the game, helping his opponent's weak spots only, instead of playing lazily. It was still a waste of talent, in Akutsu's opinion, and he made that clear to Dan when he stepped out from under the bleachers after practice ended.
"You shouldn't be playing tennis at this shitty school," Akutsu said. Dan's smile at his appearance made his collar feel tight and he tugged open the buttons.
"It's worth it if I get to play with you," Dan said cheerily, Akutsu's old headband slipping down over his right eye.
"Don't say things like that," Akutsu growled, heat climbing up his neck. Now that he knew what it meant, it made him uncomfortable, more so than Yuuki's pride in him for passing the entrance exams and going on to high school.
"But it's true, desu," Dan said.
Akutsu snatched the racket from under Dan's arm. "Shut up and let's play already."
"Okay, desu!" Dan beamed and bounced off to fetch his other racket. When he came back, the headband was holding his hair off his face and spots of color painted his cheeks. He rocked on his toes in front of Akutsu. "Are we going to bet?"
The desire to say yes was instantly on the tip of Akutsu's tongue, even though he knew he'd lose. And when he lost, Dan would probably kiss him again. And Akutsu wanted it. His stomach dropped around his knees as he realized the truth – he wanted to lose.
Akutsu's palms began to sweat. He wanted Dan to kiss him. He wanted to kiss Dan. Holy hell, he wanted to kiss Dan.
"Akutsu-senpai?" Dan titled his head, worry creasing his brow. "Are you okay?"
What was he, insane? It was Dan. Sure, he liked the brat and would even count him as a friend – not that he'd ever admit it out loud – bringing the grand total up to two.
But he'd never wanted to kiss Kawamura. So why the hell did he want to kiss Dan?
Akutsu licked his lips and looked around. No one was there but Dan and himself. No one would see if he did it. Maybe if he did, he'd learn it was disgusting and things could go back to normal. Yeah, that would do it.
Deciding to get it over with, Akutsu cupped Dan's chin, ignored the hitch in his chest, and covered Dan's lips with his own.
Dan made a soft sound of surprise and clutched Akutsu's arm. Dan's lips were still just as warm and slightly chapped, but Akutsu didn't jerk away this time. Instead, a fine tremor ran through him that coiled into the familiar stirrings of desire as Dan started kissing him back.
Dan's hand slid up Akutsu's arm to curve around Akutsu's neck. The tennis racket in his other hand bumped Akutsu's leg. The kiss deepened, and Akutsu lost himself in the feel of Dan's mouth against his. Kissing had always been a boring means to an end, never the starting fuel for more. Hunger nipped at him, want growing with Dan's equal aggression. He wrapped his arm around Dan, tennis racket dangling from his fingers, and hauled Dan close.
The evidence that Dan was just as affected by the kiss shocked Akutsu out of it. He shoved Dan away abruptly, face heating and breathing ragged. He looked around again, to make sure no one had seen how much he'd enjoyed kissing Dan. And shit, he'd enjoyed it a lot.
Akutsu dragged his hand through his hair and glanced at Dan. The grin Dan wore made Akutsu want to punch his teeth in. Or kiss him again. Fuck. "Stop smiling," he snapped.
Dan pressed his lips tightly together, but the delight remained in his eyes. Akutsu growled. "This doesn't mean anything."
"Okay, desu," Dan said, and clamped his lips together again.
"So don't go getting any ideas that it does."
"Because it doesn't."
"I mean it."
It was obvious Dan didn't believe him. Akutsu didn't really believe himself, either. "Fuck," he muttered and fumbled for a cigarette.
Dan lost control of his lips and smiled.
Akutsu squinted in the bright sunlight as he stepped outside, letting the roof access door slam shut behind him. The heat soaked through his summer uniform, making him glad it had short sleeves. Lighting a cigarette, he headed over to his favorite spot by the non-operating heating vent.
Takawara, Shindou, Kagurasaka, and Akito had their heads together, looking at a dirty magazine spread open on the vent cover. Asuma-san and Takaki-san were rolling their eyes and talking trash about the four's lack of chances with anyone female. Kitamara was currently suspended, but Akutsu hadn't noticed his absence until someone mentioned it. Leaning against the retaining wall, Natsushi flicked his lighter open and closed, surveying everyone with bored eyes.
"You're just jealous that you don't look like this," Akito shot back at Takaki-san, tapping the magazine.
Takaki-san scoffed. "Because it's my dream to look like a skanky ho."
Shindou turned the magazine page and laughed. "Check out the fatty."
"Gross," Kagurasaka said, making a disgusted face. "Who let that near a camera?"
"She probably broke the lens after it was taken," Shindou chortled.
"Maybe the cameraman was blind," Takawara said and shuddered. "Turn the page, man, before I go blind, too."
Braced against the retaining wall overlooking the school ground, Akutsu glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the roof door opening. The disconcerting happy feeling that had been plaguing him sprang to life again when he saw Dan trip outside. He took a drag from his cigarette and wondered when the feeling would stop. He had to get bored sometime, didn't he? Though it had been months now and he still wanted to be with Dan for some reason. Yuuki called it love. Akutsu pretended not to hear her because she was probably right.
"Hey, it's the tennis freak," Natsushi said, drawing the others' attention. "It's been a while since he came up here. We should give him a welcome party." He smiled with malicious intent.
"Leave off," Akutsu said, stabbing out his cigarette. "He's not bothering anyone."
Natsushi eyed Akutsu speculatively. "I thought you didn't care if we messed with him."
"I changed my mind." Akutsu pushed off the wall and loomed over Natsushi with an unspoken threat. When he saw Natsushi was properly cowed, he headed to where Dan stood waiting for him by the door. He ignored the voices that sprang up in his wake and glowered at Dan instead. "What took you so long?"
"Miura-bucho had a lot to say, desu," Dan said, holding their bento in the crook of his arm. "You should've been there, too."
"Don't push it." Akutsu opened the door for them both. He'd left their drinks in the stairwell in the shade. "You're lucky I even show up for tennis club."
"But I know why you do," Dan teased in a singsong voice as he passed Akutsu, heading inside.
"Yeah, yeah." Akutsu figured it was as much of a confession of his feelings that Dan would ever get. "It's because I want to play tennis with you."