The guy the gang had cornered outside of the herbal tea shop had all the hallmarks of a mama's boy cram school student: His hair was neatly combed and parted in the front so that his bangs, which were only just long enough to brush his eyebrows, swooped to the side; he wore his school uniform so that the perfectly tied knot of his tie was clearly visible, and the Seigo High emblem was displayed proudly on his chest; and his shoes were the cleanest white loafers Jounouchi had ever seen, to the point where they practically shined in the afternoon sunlight of the plaza. The guy, whoever he was, was clearly the type who wanted to pretend that he wasn't really a high school student, but was actually a businessman already—that his school satchel wasn't a school satchel at all, but was instead a briefcase that held whatever mind-numbing work he had to do. This kid, Jounouchi could tell, wasn't the type that would sit at the top of the corporate ladder, making the big bucks. This kid—who already had little beads of sweat rolling down his face as the gang crowded around him, leering and jeering at his expense—was only set to be another worker ant in the corporate colony of his choosing.
Jounouchi's mouth still tasted sour as one of the larger gang members shoved the kid back to the center of the little circle, and the old man from the tea shop weakly raised one gnarled hand in a feeble attempt to get them to stop.
"I—I really didn't mean—I was just looking to get some tea for my aunt, I—"
"'I was just looking to get some tea for my aunt,'" one of the gang members mocked, and the Seigo kid shut his mouth as the others laughed. "Not only can you not watch where you're going, but you're a total pussy, too! What a loser!"
The kid's face flushed bright red as the gang exploded into a chorus of laughter again—all of them except for Jounouchi, who huffed a sharp exhale to try and lessen his temper, and Hirutani, who stood beside him.
"Not having fun?" Hirutani asked casually. Jounouchi looked at him askance—and given how tall the bastard was, that meant Jounouchi had to look up, which made the whole thing a little worse—and scoffed.
"What do you think?" he said. Hirutani raised an eyebrow as a prompt to go on, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes before he looked back at the gang. Two of the gang members were pawing at the Seigo student's jacket to get it off, while a third had a hand around his satchel's handle. "This is fucking stupid."
Hirutani shrugged. "It's the sort of thing you would have enjoyed a year ago." Jounouchi had no response to that—more like, he wasn't going to dignify what Hirutani said with one, no matter how much ugly truth there was to it—and in the absence of one, Hirutani said, "Let them have their fun. This is more for them than it is for us. We have to let the boys get some exercise every once in a while, or else they get antsy. You know that." He paused, and then smirked. "Or if you've forgotten, let this be a reminder."
Hirutani was unperturbed in the face of the glare Jounouchi sent his way, and—seeing as how it wasn't doing him any good, and wouldn't do him any good considering what he had to look forward to—Jounouchi let the subject drop and looked back as the old man from the tea shop tried to intervene directly, and was shoved back toward his store by one of the gang members. The member in question was built like a cement wall, and he used enough force so that the old man's cane gave out from under him and he collapsed on the pavement.
Two days. It had been two days since Hirutani had pulled Jounouchi back into this little gang of his, and if he wanted to get really technical and count it down to the minute, it hadn't even been that. It would hit the two days exactly mark that evening; when the sun had just about set and it was the time most happy families sat down to dinner, that would be the two day anniversary of when Hirutani had cornered Jounouchi on the steps of his apartment building, and gave him blackmail in the form of his friend's lives to drop out of his current school and enroll in Rintama High instead.
Of course, enrolling in Rintama was really only the start of it, and even then, having Jounouchi attend the same school as he did—having Jounouchi in the same class as he was—was really just Hirutani's way of keeping an eye on Jounouchi at all times, of making sure that he had what he wanted. It was less of a goal and more of a method of operation. The real goal, and the one Hirutani hadn't been able to stop smirking like a smug bastard over achieving, was to get Jounouchi back in the gang and, more importantly, by his side. That was what Hirutani really cared about, Jounouchi knew, more than classes or schoolwork, and definitely more than the street brawls he let the gang initiate for fun, and the petty bullying he let them carry out in broad daylight because bystanders were too afraid to stop them. All that mattered to Hirutani—all that really mattered to him—was that he had Jounouchi along for the wild ride he had mapped out in his head, one that the stupid assholes in their shitty little gang had no clue about.
Well, that was all well and good for Hirutani, but it had only been two days and Jounouchi was already sick to death of it. If it wasn't for the fact that he knew exactly what Hirutani would do if he did, he would have walked right then and there. Well, actually, he wouldn't have joined up again in the first place, but nearly two days into it, and that was something of a moot point.
The bystanders milling about the plaza were deliberately averting their eyes from the scene, aside from a middle-aged woman who helped the old man from the herbal tea shop to his feet, and the gang members had stripped the Seigo kid of his jacket and tie and were working on his shirt when a flash of gold caught Jounouchi's peripheral vision. He glanced over, more out of reflex or anything, and when he saw the item the sun had gleamed off—when he saw the person whose neck that heavy, golden pyramid hung around—he felt his stomach drop and his palms grow clammy, even as his throat ran dry.
"Something wrong?" Hirutani asked, and Jounouchi shook his head curtly before he stuffed his fists into the pockets of his jacket.
"No," he said, when Hirutani continued to watch him. "Everything's just peachy."
Hirutani was quiet for a moment before he made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat. "Whatever."
Hirutani didn't appreciate his sarcasm, Jounouchi knew, but men who had been riding cloud nine for two days straight didn't tend to press petty issues. Instead, Hirutani turned to watch as the Seigo kid fumbled for the satchel that had been taken from him, crying after the little bag of herbal tea leaves that was pulled from within, as well as the pencils and protractors that were dumped out onto the concrete.
The school supplies clattered when they hit the pavement, yet even as the Seigo kid bent over to pick them up and one of the gang members kicked him to the ground, Jounouchi couldn't really focus on what he was seeing. All he could focus on—all he could think about was how Yuugi was right on the other side of the plaza, so close to the garbage going on right in front of him, so close to Jounouchi even though he couldn't—he shouldn't—he couldn't get any closer. Jounouchi couldn't talk to Yuugi again. He couldn't so much as look at him. Even if that hadn't been one of Hirutani's unspoken rules, Yuugi was better off staying as far away from this fuckfest—and therefore, as far away from Jounouchi—as possible. He would be much better off if he just kept walking.
Maybe, Jounouchi thought, and he swallowed down the catch in his throat as he squeezed his fists ever tighter in his jacket pockets, if I don't say anything, or do anything, he'll pass me up and not see me. Maybe we can avoid this, save the—
Jounouchi took a deep breath through his nose and dropped his head, his fists clenched so tightly his fingers hurt a little. He should have known better than to hope Yuugi wouldn't see him, really.
Nothing ever went his way anymore.
The Seigo kid scrambled to gather the crap that had been dropped, shoving it haphazardly into his bag before he scampered off, his nose bleeding and his uniform jacket left behind on a nearby trash bin. Jounouchi kept his eyes on the Seigo kid until he was out of sight, even as he heard Yuugi's sneakers stamping on the concrete as he ran across the plaza toward him. With the Seigo kid gone, the gang members now had nothing to do, and most of them turned to stare in Yuugi's direction, nudging each other and chortling as they pointed at him. Jounouchi locked his jaw, but stared straight ahead.
"Hey!" Yuugi said, and as he slowed to a stop, Hirutani looked over at him, and Jounouchi chanted a steady mantra of go away, go away, please just get out of here in his head. "Why weren't you in school today? Why are you with those . . ." Yuugi trailed off, as if unsure of what to say, and out of the corner of his eye Jounouchi saw that Yuugi had Anzu and Honda with him. Jounouchi looked up at the sky, wondering not for the first time if there really was some kind of "higher power" out there, and if there was, why it seemed to hate him so much.
But even as Jounouchi was cursing the gods he was dubious even existed, the rest of the gang still had their eyes trained on Yuugi, Honda, and Anzu. In particular, Kurosawa—a sniveling douchebag whose greasy hair was always stuffed under a beanie cap no matter how hot it was outside—walked over to stand by Jounouchi's side, a slow smirk unfurling on his face.
"Hey," Kurosawa said, and he plucked his cigarette from his mouth with two fingers. So far, Jounouchi had done a pretty good job of not picking up the habit again—it was too expensive, he couldn't afford that shit—but right now— "You know that guy? He's talkin' to you . . ."
For a second—for one throb of his pulse—time itself seemed to freeze.
There was a moment that every gambler could recognize where he suddenly became aware that the entire game rested on a single move, a single decision. To fold or to throw everything in, to make the shot or choose something safer. Gambling relied on chance for the most part, but it also relied on a gambler's gut instinct to recognize that chance. Jounouchi, though he didn't gamble himself due to how much trouble that had gotten his old man into, knew the feeling well, and this was it. This, right here—everything rested on this, on what his answer to that question was. Right here, right now, the choice—and the power, he knew, as one look at the stare Hirutani was giving him told him—was his.
Jounouchi took a deep breath, and ran a hand through his hair.
"Yeah," he said. "He goes to Domi—my old school." Surprise and understanding flashed across Kurosawa's face, but Jounouchi only gave him a glance as he turned to face Yuugi. "I'll handle this." Better him than the rest of them. Better him than Hirutani. Better to end things now than to run the risk of Yuugi chasing after him and getting hurt.
"You sure?" Kurosawa asked. "'Cause I'd be glad to—"
"Kurosawa," Hirutani said sharply, "Jounouchi said he'd handle it. Let him."
"Yes, sir," Kurosawa said, and his voice was that same, reedy little squeak it always was whenever he spoke to Hirutani. Jounouchi hated Kurosawa's voice. He hated Kurosawa. He hated the entire gang, and Hirutani, and more than anything he hated the way Yuugi was looking at him right then, his eyes wide, confused, pleading, and hopeful.
But still, if he was going to make this work—if he was going to pull this off, and he needed to, for Yuugi's sake—then he had to sell it as best he could. He fixed Yuugi with the coldest glare he could manage in return.
"What do you want?" he demanded, his voice flat.
Yuugi looked a little taken aback, either by Jounouchi's question or his tone, but he recovered quickly. "I—what are you doing out here, Jounouchi-kun? Why weren't you in school today?"
"Why do you want to know?" Jounouchi asked.
"We were worried," Yuugi said, and it took every bit of willpower Jounouchi had not to look over Yuugi's head at Honda and Anzu. "It's—"
"Why?" Jounouchi interrupted, and when Yuugi opened his mouth to answer, cut across with, "What I do is my business, not yours. So what reason have you got to be 'worried' about it?"
Once again, Yuugi looked taken aback—confused, maybe even a little hurt. "Because . . . we're friends," he said.
It was another moment on a knife edge, dependent on the right call, the right shot. Jounouchi could feel Hirutani's eyes burning into the back of his head, and could feel his own nails, short as they were, digging into his palms. Jounouchi closed his eyes briefly, took a deep breath, and made the choice.
There was really only one to make.
"Not anymore," he said.
Behind him, the gang let loose a low chorus of "ohhhh!" with a few "snap!"s thrown in there. Jounouchi ignored them. All he could see was the stricken look on Yuugi's face; it was as if Jounouchi had actually hit him.
"W-What?" Yuugi asked.
"I said," Jounouchi said, slowly, deliberately, doing his best to block every single other person there out, "I'm not your friend anymore. So leave me alone, got it?"
If Yuugi had looked hurt before, he looked like he was about to start crying now. He opened his mouth to say something, and whatever it was, Jounouchi didn't want to hear it. He just wanted Yuugi to end this, to leave, to give up, to not drag this out—
"Where's this coming from all of a sudden?" Anzu demanded, and he should have known, Jounouchi should have known that it couldn't be this easy, that she wouldn't stay quiet. "A couple months ago you were all ready to be buddy-buddy with him, and now you're just going to drop him? What's the matter with you, Jounouchi?"
"I thought I'd give it a try," he said, and forced a smirk as he looked up to meet her eyes. She was furious with him. He didn't blame her. "Decided I didn't like it, so I changed my mind. I'm trying something new now."
"Unbelievable," Anzu said, disgusted.
"Something new?" Honda said. Jounouchi looked over to see that Honda was staring at him, and that, too, was unsurprising. But as unsurprising as it was, it was still upsetting; that stare meant Honda didn't believe a word that Jounouchi was saying, and that wasn't good. Jounouchi needed him—all of them—to believe every bit of it. "With him? This isn't new, Jounouchi, and it's not you, not anymore. You gave this up, remember? You're past this."
"Pretty sure that's not your call to make," Jounouchi said. "In fact, I'm pretty sure it never was. Not in middle school, and not now, unless you've suddenly decided you're man enough to handle it, and if that's the case, let me let you in on a little secret: You're not, so don't even bother."
Honda glared at him. "Jounouchi—"
"Jounouchi-kun," Yuugi said, and Jounouchi forced himself to look back at Yuugi again, only to see that Yuugi looked nine kinds of desperate, which made Jounouchi want to throw himself under nine kinds of buses. "Hey, look, I—I don't really know what's going on here, or what happened, but whatever it is, we can talk about it—"
"No, we can't," Jounouchi said, and Yuugi snapped his mouth shut. "I already told you it's none of your business. What part of that didn't you get?"
"I just—I don't understand what changed," Yuugi said in a small voice. "Everything seemed fine on Saturday—"
"Well, it wasn't," Jounouchi said. "So leave it, okay? Leave it, and me, alone. Just stay out of my life."
"With pleasure," Anzu said, and Jounouchi didn't need to look at her; he could hear the loathing in her voice. He could relate. "Come on, Yuugi, let's go."
"No," Yuugi said, and Jounouchi shut his eyes again, wondering why, why Yuugi couldn't just listen to Anzu, why he couldn't just let her— "Wait—Jounouchi-kun, you said everything wasn't okay on Saturday, right? So something must have happened, then—something at school, or when we hung out afterward . . . something I did. Right?"
No, Jounouchi wanted to say, because of all the things Yuugi could—or should—have thought about the situation, that was the worst. God, no. "Drop it, Yuugi."
"Just tell me what I did wrong," Yuugi pleaded, and Jounouchi hated, hated, hated to hear Yuugi sound like that, hated that he had to— "Whatever it is, I'm sorry, but I can't fix it if I don't—"
"I said to drop it," Jounouchi said, a little more loudly.
"I said drop it!" Jounouchi yelled. He looked at Yuugi just in time to see Yuugi flinch, and Anzu put her hands on Yuugi's shoulders. Jounouchi turned away. He couldn't stand to look at Yuugi anymore. He didn't deserve to, anyway, and besides, he was pretty sure that if they looked at each other for too long, then Yuugi would see right through him, and he couldn't have that. "God damn it, just—get out of here. Stay away from me. I don't want to see you, I don't want to talk to you, and I sure as hell don't want you anywhere near me, okay? Stay as far away from me as you can possibly get. On the other side of the city, even, if you can manage it."
Out of the corner of his eye, Jounouchi saw that Yuugi was staring at the Millennium Puzzle. Yuugi was squeezing it—the Puzzle, his treasure—for all it was worth, and Jounouchi swallowed and forced himself to look away when he saw what looked like tears fall on it. ". . . I . . ."
"We're done here," Jounouchi said, and he turned his back on Yuugi to look back at the gang. Hirutani was practically glowing. In that moment, Jounouchi was pretty sure Hirutani was the second person he hated most in the world.
"Wait!" Yuugi said, his voice choked. "Jounouchi-kun, please, wait—!"
Jounouchi had taken no more than two steps when he felt Yuugi's hand on his arm, and—because he had to, because if he didn't then one of the others would—he turned with just enough force to shove Yuugi off him. Yuugi stumbled, but he didn't fall (thank god), though the look on his face told Jounouchi that he was hurt just the same anyway.
"Don't fucking touch me," Jounouchi snarled. "Don't touch me, don't look at me—from here on out, I don't exist to you, got it? Just stay the fuck away, for good."
"Then you better not touch him," Anzu growled, and a few of the gang members started wolf-whistling and making cat calls as she started forward, the whole lot of them laughing like the jackasses they were. "Because I swear, Jounouchi, if you ever come near him again—"
"Haven't you been listening? That's not gonna be a problem," Jounouchi said. "I don't want anything to do with any of you anymore. You're the ones that started this, remember?"
"And we'll be the ones to finish it, too," Honda said, and he looked more pissed than Jounouchi could remember seeing him in recent memory. Honda started forward, and Jounouchi shifted his stance, though he kept his hands in his pockets. He could do this. He could fight Honda. And maybe if he did, Honda would— "One way or the other, you're either gonna spill whatever happened, or you're coming back with us. I don't want to do this, but if I have to, I'll—"
Jounouchi stiffened at the sound of Hirutani's voice, and looked over to see Hirutani striding toward them. Honda stopped in his tracks. Hirutani looked as casual as he ever did, even as he dropped his cigarette to the ground and smashed it into the concrete with his foot, but Jounouchi could see the hate in his eyes.
"I'm getting tired of this little sideshow," Hirutani said. "Jounouchi's already said he wants nothing more to do with you. I know how desperate you are to be with him, Honda—"
"I'm desperate?" Honda said.
"—always have been, even in middle school. To be honest, it was always pretty sad. You never could keep up, no matter how hard you tried." Hirutani grinned. "But that's a lesson you seem to have forgotten. Tell you what: I'll give you a refresher right now, free of charge. My treat."
"No," Jounouchi said sharply, and both Honda and Hirutani looked over at him. "That's not necessary. We're done here. Let's go."
"I think it's up to me to decide what is or isn't necessary, Jounouchi," Hirutani said coolly. "I'm the boss, remember?"
"Yeah?" Jounouchi said. "Well, it seems to me that there are exceptions to every rule. Or are you forgetting what we talked about before?"
Hirutani stared at him for a long, tense minute before he finally snorted. "Fine," he said, and turned away. "Let's go, then. Back to J'z."
"Right," Jounouchi said, as he tried not to let his relief show on his face, or give away just how fast his heart was racing. He looked over to see that Honda was staring between him and Hirutani, suspicion bright in his eyes, and Jounouchi knew that if they spent any more time there—if he gave Honda any more time to think on it—there was a good chance he'd figure it out. So he said, "You got lucky, Honda. Don't expect it to happen twice. Back off so it doesn't have to."
"Jounouchi," Honda said, and even if Hirutani had been off the mark before, Honda did sound a little desperate now. "Come on, man, you're not—"
"Bye," Jounouchi said, and he spun on the ball of his feet and made his way back over to the gang in long, quick strides, so that none of the other three—not Honda, not Anzu, and definitely not Yuugi—had a chance to say anything more to him.
It was over.
It was done.
And he'd never see them again.
"Man, those Domino twerps are annoying as hell," one of the gang members said, as Jounouchi reached them.
"You shoulda knocked 'em out," another said.
"I'd be happy to do it for you, next time, if you want," Kurosawa chimed in.
Jounouchi glared at him. "What I want," he growled, and his tone was enough to make Kurosawa recoil a little, "is a goddamn cigarette. Someone give me one."
"Here," Hirutani said, and he extended his pack toward Jounouchi. He was smirking, practically radiating with triumph, and Jounouchi hated it—hated him—as he pulled a cigarette from Hirutani's pack.
"Lighter," Jounouchi snapped, and one of the boys—he didn't care to look to see which one—tossed him a zippo. He snatched it out of the air and flicked it open. He hadn't smoked in years, had refused even when Hirutani had offered him one at the start of this Hell two days ago, but now—
He looked over his shoulder. It had only been a few seconds, but a few seconds was long enough. No matter where he looked through the crowds that had started mingling back in the area now that it seemed the fight had broken up, Yuugi was nowhere to be found. He was gone.
Jounouchi lit the cigarette, took a drag, and tossed the zippo back in the general direction of whoever had thrown it at him.
He hadn't smoked in months, and to be honest it was disgusting, but he needed it now more than he ever had back then.