“Come on, Professor. It’s softball, not rocket science.” From the pitcher’s mound, Craig gave an overly animated demonstration of how to play the game. “This is the ball. That’s the bat. You hit the ball with the bat…then run. Okay? Got it?”
“Damned kid,” Ryuu mumbled as he stepped up to the plate. One more word and I’m flunking your ass.
There were far worse things he wanted to do to the chubby redhead with the cocky attitude but the humiliation of having struck out twice already wouldn’t allow him to do more than grin and bear it.
Ryuu gripped the bat tightly when he saw the ball leave Craig’s stubby fingers. Prepared, ready, and focused, he watched it lob through the air as if moving in slow motion and float past the bat he swung so fiercely.
“Shit.” He shook his head and laughed at Craig’s ridiculous victory dance on the mound. Keep laughing, you freckle-faced bastard. You’re getting a D on your next paper.
Ryuu walked back to the patch of dirt that passed for a dugout and handed the bat to Mark with the hopes he’d take it and move on. “Maybe I need glasses.”
Mark put his hand on Ryuu’s shoulder. So much for moving on. “Don’t sweat it, man. You’ll get the hang of it.”
“I doubt it.” Ryuu sighed as he crossed his arms and glared at Craig doing a rather impressive version of the robot dance. Your turn, Mark. Go. Go, go.
Mark gave Ryuu’s shoulder a squeeze and leaned close to him. “That’s why you should play with us more often.”
Ryuu couldn’t think of a way to get Mark’s hand off his shoulder without embarrassing him in front of his friends. He knew the guy had had a crush on him from the first day of class; those big blue eyes and perfect smile screamed ‘do me’ from the moment Mark Gooding stepped through the door. Ryuu’d been able to shrug off his flirtations so far and was lucky enough never to be alone with the senior, but there were only two weeks left in the term, and Mark was getting bolder.
“Damn, Mark, get up there or give the bat to someone else. I’m on a roll here,” Craig barked.
Mark rolled his eyes. “I’ll be back. I’m going to teach him a lesson in manners for you.”
“You do that.” Mark’s hand sliding down Ryuu’s arm was more than he was willing to put up with. He leaned to his right to put distance between them without caring if the others noticed or not.
Ryuu knew the remark about playing with the group more often really meant playing with Mark, but it wasn’t going to happen. Mark was an okay kid, but Ryuu was trying to make it through the end of the school year without having a talk with the guy. He didn’t want Mark to be distracted during end-of-quarter finals and wished to part on good terms.
Being unusually tall for a Japanese man, Ryuu was accustomed to dating shorter men, but there had to be a six-inch height difference between him and Mark. That was a little much. Mark was handsome with the muscular build and scraggly blond hair Ryuu normally liked on a man: a little on the sexy, wild side. Still, Ryuu wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. He hadn’t known the young man long before Ryuu got the impression Mark was the sort of lover who liked to leave bruises. That wasn’t Ryuu’s style by any means. Soft, hot passion was Ryuu’s thing.
Today wasn’t the first time Mark and his clique tried to get Ryuu to join in, and turning them down would have been easy. Why he cut his usual midmorning jog short to play a few innings had nothing to do with the horny Mark, however, and everything to do with the young man sitting under a tree nearby.
Ryuu’d seen the man walking through the university grounds in the pouring rain the week before, and he’d taken Ryuu’s breath away. A man like that would make anyone’s heart skip a beat, male or female. It was the long dark brown hair that flowed almost to his waist that sent Ryuu racing down the stairs of the Lillis Building that day. It was that same hair that caught his attention as he was running along the Willamette River that morning.
Ryuu managed to catch a glimpse of the stranger’s face, and his black T-shirt showed off his naturally tanned skin, but Ryuu wanted to see more. He was much thinner than the men Ryuu was usually attracted to, but there was something about him; something alluring. Getting a man’s attention was never a problem for Ryuu—they usually came to him—but he wasn’t sure how to approach this particular guy. Craig’s antics, Mark’s come-ons, and the humiliation of trying to play softball for only the third time in his life was adding to insecurities Ryuu wasn’t accustomed to.
Ryuu looked over his shoulder to see the young man still sitting with his arms loosely wrapped around his bent knees, one wrist held by the other hand, and staring out at the river beyond the playground half full of hyperactive children. His hair flowed in the light breeze, but Ryuu was getting aggravated with how much of the man’s face that hair was hiding from him.
The crack of the bat made him turn to see the ball he couldn’t get close to soaring over the second baseman’s head. Mark was showing off his powerful physique as he rounded the bases, but the only thing Ryuu wanted to do was get away before he made it to home plate. Approaching a stranger in the park with students watching: not a good idea. Nope, not a good idea at all.
Ryuu ambled across the grass with every pickup line he’d ever heard or used running through his head. This is stupid. Yeah, he’s gorgeous, but he’s probably a student which means he’s off-limits. He’s probably straight too, which also means he’s off-limits, and there’s no way in hell a man like that is single…which makes him way off-limits.
The young man slowly lifted his head. Ryuu was afraid his knees would buckle. Gorgeous wasn’t the half of it. His nose sat perfectly on his oval face, and his dark brows were thin over what had to be the deepest brown eyes Ryuu had ever seen. Those eyes cut right through him and made him forget everything he’d planned to say. The man’s eerily blank expression and slight pinch of his brow gave Ryuu the impression he was being studied. He liked to be admired. Loved it actually. Why else would he spend so much time at the gym? But Ryuu wasn’t used to a stranger looking him in the eye for as long as this guy was.
“Hi.” The man’s monotone voice sounded young. Ryuu shuddered at the idea he’d been drooling over jailbait.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” The guy lowered his gaze to the ground Ryuu was pointing at. It wasn’t that difficult a question.
“No,” he replied as he turned his eyes to the river in the distance. The crinkle in his brow disappeared.
Ryuu sat with his back to the water so he could admire the man without being too obvious. He draped his left arm over his bent knee in a position that showed off his dedication to the gym, which usually got him more attention than what he was getting at the moment.
“My name’s Ryuu Tanaka.” He held out his right hand. “Just like redo but without the d
The pinch was back, more noticeable than before, as the man stared at Ryuu’s hand and slowly clenched his fingers.
Issues! This guy definitely has issues.
It was time to politely say, “have a nice day” and leave. Only someone with problems would have to think so hard about a simple handshake. After a moment the pinch released, and the guy finally took Ryuu’s hand.
Ryuu felt a rush at his touch. Daniel’s hand was smaller than his own. It was soft as though he’d never worked a day in his life and so damned warm. His grip was surprisingly firm for such a thin person, and issues or not, there was no way in hell Ryuu was going anywhere; not with the heat that handshake sent straight to his groin. Damn.
Daniel pulled his hand away and stared straight ahead again.
“Just Daniel? That’s it? No last name?”
“Do you need to see my ID?”
Ryuu smiled. Smart-ass, huh?
“No, Daniel will be fine.”
Ryuu liked how Daniel’s lips didn’t move much when he talked and how he had the type of voice that made people want to hear what he had to say. The lack of emotion on the young man’s face had Ryuu wondering if he ever smiled.
“I’m an associate professor at the U of O. Are you a student?” Please, please, please say no.
Thank you, God.
“Don’t tell me you’re still in high school.”
Score two for me.
“You know, I run along the river every day, but I’ve never seen you here before. Do you work around here?”
Daniel slowly turned to face him and spoke in one long, steady stream. “I didn’t graduate from high school. I’m not working right now. I’m not from around here. I don’t come here often. I’m twenty-four. I’m a Pisces. I don’t want to join the game. I don’t want to meet you for drinks later. I don’t have a girlfriend, and I’m not gay. Anything else you’d like to know?”
Ryuu laughed. “Well, that takes care of the basics…and the first twenty minutes of the conversation.” He leaned on his right hand. “Is there anything you’d like to know about me?” Ryuu saw that pinch again, but he didn’t care as long as Daniel kept looking at him.
“I teach economics at the U of O. I was born and raised in Osaka, Japan. I’m thirty-one. I’m a Taurus. I’ve been in Oregon for eight years now. I do come here often. I don’t want to go back to the game either. I would ask you to coffee before I’d ask you to have a drink with me. I’m not in a relationship either, and I am
Daniel looked at the river, then back to Ryuu a few times. It was so cute. Yeah. I’m still here.
“Why are you talking to me?”
“Honestly, I came over here to hit on you, but you shot that down in a heartbeat. Does my being gay make you uncomfortable?”
“No. Does my being straight mean you’ll stop talking to me?”
“No. Every gay man should have at least one straight friend to keep things interesting.”
“I thought that was every woman should have at least one gay friend to keep her up on the latest fashions.”
“That’s true too, but I left my straight BFF in Japan, so she’s on her own.”
“She’s probably walking around in pink socks and green pants. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Utterly disgusted. Maybe I should have checked to see if she’s color-blind before I bailed on her.”
Daniel turned back to the river. “The odds of a woman being color-blind is over twenty to one compared to men, and that’s only if her father is color-blind too.”
That was fun. From choppy one-word answers to a speedy debate in no time flat. Daniel liked it too. Maybe? Ryuu wasn’t quite sure. “You’re pretty smart for a guy who didn’t finish high school.”
“If you thought I was stupid, would you still have come over here to hit on me?”
“Hey, Professor, you’re up.”
Ryuu turned to see Mark flipping the bat end to end in his hand. “Play without me. I’m just going to strike out anyway.”
Mark’s happy expression suddenly changed to a scowl, and he stopped flipping the bat. It was an unusual look for the young man who was always so cheerful, and it wasn’t Ryuu he was looking at. Ryuu turned back to see Daniel’s brows furrowed much as they had been through most of their conversation. To Ryuu it was cute, but he could see how a man like Mark would see it differently; challenging even.
Physically, Daniel didn’t stand a chance against a guy like Mark. Ryuu didn’t think Daniel was trying to start trouble, but his flirtatious student looked ready to pounce.
Ryuu waved Mark off. “I’m done, Mark. I’ve had enough for one day.” He was relieved when Mark turned away, but Daniel continued to stare.
“I wouldn’t go out with him if I were you.”
“I don’t date students, and unless you’re a black belt, you should stop glaring at him like that.” Ryuu’s tough teacher voice didn’t work. “Hey.”
Daniel flinched, and the pinch vanished when he turned back to Ryuu.
“Don’t look at him like that,” Ryuu said.
Daniel opened his mouth but didn’t say anything at first. He glanced at Mark, then back at Ryuu. “Like what?”
Oh walk away. I don’t need this shit. He honestly doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
Walking away from those eyes, however, was something Ryuu couldn’t seem to do at the moment. “You really need to work on your people skills.”
Daniel turned away. “He’s trouble.”
“Do you know him?”
“I know people.”
“Really?” Ryuu smiled and jumped at the chance to get off the subject of Mark. “So that would make you a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychic. Which one is it?” Daniel gave him a quick look that Ryuu categorized as his that was stupid
look before turning back to the river. “Okay, smart guy, if you know so much about people, what do you have to say about me?”
Daniel looked him square in the eye. “Your mother is British. I doubt many people know you’re gay, but you’d tell them if they asked. You usually get what you want. You don’t talk to your family about your boyfriends. You actually like being a teacher. You don’t like dogs but you don’t have a cat, and you think that guy is just flirting but he’s not.” Daniel glanced at Mark running the bases. “You should tell him you’re not interested.”
Ryuu was stunned at how close to right Daniel was. “How did you know all that?”
“You said you’re from Japan, but you’re too big, too tall, your English is too good, and certain words you say have a slight British accent. If your mother was an American, you would have proudly said you’ve been in America eight years instead of saying Oregon. If you were openly gay, you would have walked up to me instead of making a fool of yourself trying to play a game you suck at, and if you were completely in the closet, you wouldn’t have come over here at all. Not with your students right there. Your job was the first thing you said when you were rambling off stuff I told you I didn’t want to know, and you said the U of O twice since you sat down, so teaching is what you’re most proud of. You sneered at the German shepherd that went by a while ago, and I’m allergic to cats. If you had one, I’d be scratching my eyes out by now. And people who don’t get their way aren’t usually so full of themselves.”
Ryuu smiled despite the not so subtle insults. “You’re a people watcher. I am impressed. I mean, not like the usual just-checking-people-out watcher. You’re one of those…damn, I can’t remember what my buddy used to call them.” Ryuu snapped his fingers a couple of times. “Analytical observer. That’s it. My roommate in college was always rambling off about how there’s a reason for every little thing people say or do. How they can say yes but their expression when they say it really means no. I didn’t pay too much attention to him. He was a real conspiracy nut, claiming the governments of the world were using the workings of the human mind to control people.”
“He was right,” Daniel said flatly. “Social security and phone numbers are designed according to how many numerical digits the human brain can memorize within a sequence. It gets more twisted from there.”
Ryuu put his hand up. “Don’t tell me. I think I’d rather live in ignorance.”
“That’s what they’re counting on.”
Daniel was such a smart-ass. He was cute too, but even sexy people watchers sitting under trees get it wrong sometimes. “That was good. You got all that just by talking to me for what…ten minutes? Too bad you’re wrong.”
Was that a hint of a scowl? Daniel didn’t like to be told he was wrong. Good to know. “My mother is Japanese, and my father is British.”
“Tanaka isn’t British.”
“My father’s parents died when he was two. Tanaka is the name of the Japanese man who raised him. You were close, though. I’m still impressed.”
The sudden eruption of cheers behind him distracted Ryuu from the conversation. He spotted Mark frantically waving his teammate around the bases. “You’re wrong about Mark too. He’s just a kid with a crush.”
“He put his hand on you three times since you started playing to let everyone know you belong to him. You should tell him you’re not interested if you’re not stringing him along.”
“I don’t string people along. And if you’re not gay, how come you’ve been watching me?”
Daniel cocked his head to the side. “People watcher, remember.”
Ryuu couldn’t stop smiling. Daniel was warming up to him. That little tip of his head, the hint of sarcasm in his voice, and the slight bob of his eyebrows a few minutes before; he was showing a little more emotion with each passing moment. It was subtle, but Ryuu liked it. Daniel was definitely the kind of guy he wanted to get to know better.
“I told you I’m not going out with you, so you can wipe that dorky smile off your face.”
“I can’t help it. You’re probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met.”
Daniel looked away. “You should set your standards a little higher.”
Ryuu was surprised by the hint of self-deprecation in that statement, and he could see what little of Daniel’s personality that had come through was quickly fading. “Hey, I’ve got a joke for you.”
“I don’t like jokes.”
“Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyway.” Ryuu scooted a little closer to test his boundaries and was elated when Daniel didn’t move an inch. He considered himself a good storyteller, and he was rather animated when he told jokes. Seeing Daniel smile was going to make his day. Hearing a laugh would make his year.
“Little Red Riding Hood was skipping through the forest and out jumped a rabbit and said, ‘Little Red Riding Hood, go back home or the big bad wolf’s going to lift up your dress and suck on your titties.’” I said titties. Why is he not smiling?
“Little Red Riding Hood reached in her basket and pulled out a gun. ‘No he’s not, I’ve got a gun.’” Ryuu continued despite Daniel’s unchanged expression. “So Little Red Riding Hood goes skipping along and out jumps a fox. ‘Little Red Riding Hood, go back home or the big bad wolf’s going to lift up your dress and suck on your titties.’ Little Red Riding Hood reached in her basket and pulled out her gun. ‘No he’s not, I’ve got a gun.’” Ryuu’s palms started to sweat. Daniel’s face was as blank as ever, and it was too late to stop. He decided to skip the last verse before digging himself any deeper.
“So Little Red Riding Hood goes skipping along and out jumps the big bad wolf and he says, ‘He-he-he, Little Red Riding Hood. I’m going to lift up your dress and suck on your titties.’ Little Red Riding Hood pulls out her gun, lifts her skirt above her waist, and says, ‘No you’re not. You’re going to eat me like the book says.’”
Daniel stared at him with that blank look. It felt like an eternity of awkward silence, and there was no rock to crawl under.
Eventually, he saw the corner of Daniel’s mouth turn up in the most amazing crooked smile. It wasn’t the laugh Ryuu was hoping for, but the way his eyes lit up for just a moment and how he was looking to the ground as if he were trying to hide made Ryuu fall in love with the guy. With his smile anyway.
“You’re sick,” Daniel mumbled.
“Maybe, but you have to admit that was funny.”
Daniel nodded. “That was pretty funny.” There was still a hint of a smile on Daniel’s face when he looked up. “I hope you don’t tell that joke to your students.”
“No, but the ones they tell me are worse than that.” Ryuu pretended not to hear the first drops of rain hitting the leaves above them. Not now!
Daniel looked up at the sky. “The rain’s starting again.”
“It’ll pass quickly. We should be dry under here.”
Daniel shook his head. “It’s going to rain all day.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a cloud watcher too. Can you tell what the weather’s going to be just by looking at the sky?”
“No, but I know how to read a weather report.”
Ryuu tried to think of ways to keep the conversation going without sounding desperate as Daniel rose. Ryuu got up and wiped the grass from the butt of his shorts. “It’s Oregon, it always rains.”
“It’s supposed to get worse.”
Daniel was only a few inches shorter than Ryuu but it wasn’t until they were standing he realized how thin Daniel was—and not in a healthy way. The way his eyelids fluttered when he stood made him appear weak or dizzy.
Daniel not only had issues, there was something physically wrong with him. No matter what, Ryuu wanted to spend more time with him. “Do you want to go over to the covered benches?”
“I’m going home.” Daniel put his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and turned toward the parking lot with his head down.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Ryuu said as he came up beside Daniel.
“I don’t have a car.”
“Then I’ll give you a ride.”
Daniel stopped suddenly. “It won’t look good for you to drive off with a guy you just met.”
Ryuu felt a chill roll down his spine. He’d forgotten eight of his students had seen him approach the man, and when he looked over his shoulder Mark was paying more attention to the two of them than the equipment he was shoving into the bag. “Students talk about teachers all the time. It’s no big deal.”
“Bye.” Daniel took a step away.
That’s it? Just bye and he leaves.
“Daniel.” Ryuu put himself between Daniel and those in the ball field. “Can I at least have your number?”
“I don’t like phones.”
Ryuu was getting desperate. “I want to see you again.”
“I like talking to you.”
“What makes you think I like talking to you?”
Ryuu smiled at his abruptness. Daniel wasn’t mean or rude; he was just brutally honest. “Because you didn’t tell me to go away.”
Daniel raised his head enough to look Ryuu in the eye with that lopsided smile half hidden by his hair. “You’re not as smart at you look.”
“Listen, I’m not trying to turn you to the gay side, but I don’t come across people like you every day. Meet me here tomorrow, after—“
“Thank you, Ryuu.”
“For trying. You’re a nice guy, but some people aren’t worth it.” Daniel turned away.
“Wait.” Ryuu took a step with his arm out but couldn’t manage another. “Ah shit.” Daniel was right about his reputation, and he was proud of his career. It wouldn’t look good to chase after Daniel with students right behind him. Ryuu was forced to stand there and watch the man walk away. “See you around, Daniel,” he mumbled. One way or another, Ryuu was going to see him again.
Daniel was intelligent, unique, intriguing, mysterious, and possibly too far out there for Ryuu’s tastes, but the only thing going through his mind was how nice it was to hear Daniel say his name. Issues? Maybe, but nothing Ryuu couldn’t handle. Sick? Definitely, but medicine could help with that. Not gay? Disappointing but no problem. They would never be lovers, but a good friendship sounded nice. He turned and hurried toward the others as the rain started coming down harder.