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Whispers in the Dark

Chapter Text

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-kun!"

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.

"But I—"

"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—"

"You'll what?"

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.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Yuugi figured this was probably his fault. He should have known better than to take the shortcut.

It was late—nearing midnight, in fact—and his mother had told him time and time again that nothing good would come of wandering around at night. Yuugi would argue that he wasn't wandering, but that he was just heading home; he'd agreed to make a late night trip to the convenience store to pay the electric and gas bills on behalf of his grandpa, who'd forgotten to do it earlier in the day (and who would receive a sound scolding from Yuugi's mother if she found out), and he'd also spent longer than perhaps was strictly necessary picking out some sweets to bring home with him for a late night snack. It was the sweets that really did him in, Yuugi thought; he was too preoccupied by those and the music he was listening to through his headphones to notice the fact that someone had decided to follow him through the park.

But someone had, and though it was fortunate that he'd already deposited the bill payments before that someone decided to jump him (because how would he have ever explained that to his mom or grandpa?), it was still also true that getting jumped was awful regardless. Yuugi's headphones were ripped from his head before he had a chance to defend himself, and even though he grabbed the wire that hooked them to his portable CD player, his mugger used Yuugi's hold on them to yank Yuugi forward so that his face slammed into his mugger's fist. Yuugi was thrown back onto the dirt, his CD player dislodged from his jacket pocket, the headphone cord yanked right out in the process. His cheek throbbed where he'd been struck, and as he blinked the spots from his eyes and looked up he saw that his mugger not only still had his headphones, but was starting toward Yuugi as he reached into his own jacket pocket to pull something out—

"Hey! Get away from him!"

Yuugi's heart stilled, even as his mugger looked at something over his head.

He knew that voice.

Yuugi's mugger had barely two seconds to react before someone tore past Yuugi and crashed into him. Yuugi scrambled to his feet as both the mugger and—it couldn't be him, it couldn't be, but that voice, it had to be—his rescuer went down in a heap. Once the mugger was pinned—and it only took a second, probably because he'd been punched square in the face on the way down—Yuugi's rescuer pulled back a fist and slammed it into the face of the mugger, and even from his vantage point Yuugi could see the mugger's head crack back against the ground with enough force to bounce up again. It did him no favors; even as the mugger raised his own arms to try and defend himself, Yuugi's rescuer hit him again—and again—and again before he finally pulled back and climbed off him. Yuugi felt his stomach turn when he saw the blood smeared over the mugger's face.

"Had enough yet?" his rescuer demanded. The mugger coughed and sputtered, and said something that his apparently broken nose and dislocated jaw didn't allow him to communicate clearly. He rolled onto his knees to push himself onto his feet, but Yuugi's rescuer kicked him hard in the chest and knocked him onto his back again. "I don't remember saying you could get up," he said coldly. "I remember asking if you've had enough."

"Hey—" Yuugi said, but he went ignored. The mugger said something—and even slurred it sounded like a swear—and as he tried to get up again Yuugi's rescuer put a foot on his chest and held him down.

"What was that?" he asked, and the forced mildness of his tone sounded a lot more like mockery. "Didn't sound a whole lot like an answer to my question." He leaned forward, applying pressure against the mugger's clavicle, and the guy started to cough and gasp. "I said, have you had enough yet?"

"He has," Yuugi said, and he raised his voice a little in an effort to stop it shaking. "That's enough, it's more than enough."

The mugger seemed to agree with Yuugi. Even pinned against the ground he did his best to nod, and Yuugi's rescuer seemed satisfied enough that he relieved some of the pressure. "Good," he said. "I'm glad you've learned your lesson. Now what I want you to do is get the Hell out of here. Go straight home. And don't you ever even fucking think of doing something like this again, because next time?" He stepped off the mugger, who hesitated a second before he deemed it safe enough to scramble to his feet. "You can take what you got tonight and triple it."

The mugger said nothing. Instead, he threw Yuugi's headphones to the ground and took off running in the opposite direction, one hand cupped over his bleeding face. Yuugi watched him run for a minute before he looked toward his rescuer and said, "That was extreme. You didn't have to hurt him that badly."

"Yeah? Well, he deserved it. Probably would have done a lot worse to you if I'd waited another couple minutes." Yuugi's rescuer finally turned to look at him, and Yuugi felt his breath catch in his chest as their eyes met. "Speaking of, you okay? You're not hurt, are you?"

It was the oddest thing. For the past two months, give or take, he'd been gone. He'd never come back to school, and though Yuugi had thought about going after him—had thought about checking up at his apartment again, or checking some of their usual hangouts, or asking around—he hadn't. For two months it had been just as Jounouchi had said the last time they'd seen each other in the city: Like Jounouchi didn't even exist to him.

But here he was, and the way Jounouchi was looking at him, it was like the last two months hadn't happened. He'd defended Yuugi, just as he always had before (though with less restraint, Yuugi noted uncomfortably), and his eyes looked . . . warm. Unguarded. For how brutal the beatdown he'd given Yuugi's mugger had been, he looked genuinely concerned now, worried for Yuugi's well-being. And he had intervened, before Yuugi had even had a chance to know he was there. Before Yuugi's mugger had a chance to know he was there, for that matter. For the first time in two months, Yuugi could say with honesty that he was looking into the eyes of his best friend.

Inexplicably, he wanted to cry.

"Yuugi?" Jounouchi asked anxiously, but Yuugi shook his head and swiped the tears away, a little laugh escaping him.

"No, it's—I'm fine," he said. "Really." Jounouchi relaxed, and put his hands in his pockets. Despite the late hour, Jounouchi was still dressed in his school uniform, it seemed. It took a second, but as Jounouchi nodded and his expression shifted into one decidedly more cool, Yuugi realized that the uniform Jounouchi was wearing marked him as a student at Rintama. Yuugi's heart sank.

"Good," Jounouchi said, and Yuugi knew that Jounouchi was referring to what Yuugi had said, rather than what he'd realized, but the response still made his heart spike unpleasantly in his chest. "You really shouldn't wander this way this late at night, you know. Especially not with music playing. That creep isn't the only asshole who'll take advantage."

"Yeah, you're right. I figured as much the second he grabbed me. I just wasn't thinking." Yuugi bent down and picked up his CD player (along with the batteries that had been dislodged from its impact with the ground), and shoved it into his jacket pocket before he retrieved his headphones from where the mugger had dropped them.

"Well, maybe try to think a little more next time, huh?" Jounouchi said, as Yuugi put his headphones around his neck. "Are you heading home?"

"Yeah. I was on my way back when he grabbed me."

Jounouchi nodded once, and started off in the direction Yuugi had been going before—the direction that Jounouchi had come from, Yuugi noted. "All right. I'll walk you out of the park, at least. Game shop's not too far from that exit, so you should be safe once we're out of fuckboy alley."

"Oh—thanks," Yuugi said, and he smiled a little as he jogged a few paces until he could walk beside Jounouchi. Jounouchi glanced at him, but didn't return the smile before he looked straight ahead again.

Now that the surprise (and the joy, definitely joy) at seeing that Jounouchi still cared about him had faded, Yuugi could see that the Rintama uniform wasn't the only thing about Jounouchi that had changed. So caught up was Yuugi in looking at Jounouchi's eyes before that he hadn't even noticed his hair, though as they passed one of the streetlamps and he got a good look at it, he wondered how he'd missed it. It was so much shorter now; everything in the back had been cut so that there was only a tiny little bit of fringe at the nape of his neck, and his bangs were short enough that they had no hope of falling in his eyes. His hair still looked unruly—a little spiky, even, given the short flyaway strands here and there—but so much had been lost that Yuugi wasn't even sure Jounouchi could still run his hand through it like he always used to whenever he was annoyed or bothered by something. Maybe he could—Yuugi wanted to think it looked like there was still just enough on top for that—but he couldn't be sure, and he felt another swoop of despondency in his gut as he looked back at the ground. He couldn't imagine why Jounouchi had cut it all off like that. Maybe it was a dress code requirement at Rintama.

They walked in silence for a time—and that was another thing that was different, Yuugi thought, because comfortable silence hadn't necessarily been a rarity for them, but this felt more like purposeful, practiced silence on Jounouchi's part, especially since they hadn't seen each other in two months—but as they crossed the park's bridge, Yuugi said, "Hey, Jounouchi-kun, I wanted to ask you . . ."

"What?" Jounouchi's tone was flat, for the most part, but Yuugi could hear wariness, too. He swallowed before speaking again.

"What . . . happened two months ago? Why did you transfer schools?"

"Didn't I already tell you that's none of your business?" Yuugi had expected the answer, but it still stung. Jounouchi kept his eyes straight ahead. "Don't worry about it. It's got nothing to do with you."

"But I am worried," Yuugi said. "You don't look like yourself, and you haven't been acting like yourself, either."

"If I look like this, and I act like this, then given that I am me, doing this, doesn't that mean I look and act like myself?" Jounouchi asked flippantly.

Yuugi stared at him, opened his mouth to respond, and then closed it again. That sentence, he decided, was too much of a puzzle for him to unpack at the moment. They didn't have time. "You don't look happy," he said instead.

Jounouchi shrugged, but the muscles in his jaw looked tense. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine," Yuugi pressed.

"And even if I wasn't, what's it to you?" Jounouchi asked, as if he hadn't heard Yuugi at all. "Why do you care?"

"I care because you're my friend," Yuugi said.

Jounouchi snorted, and shook his head. "You really don't learn, do you?" he said. "I already told you something like three times two months ago. I'm not your friend anymore, Yuugi."

"You just saved me from getting mugged," Yuugi said. "And you said it yourself, that guy was probably going to do a lot worse than just rob me. Protecting me like that is not something someone who doesn't care about me would do. It's something my friend would do." His best friend, really, but Yuugi wasn't going to push his luck.

"Not necessarily," Jounouchi said, and Yuugi opened his mouth to argue when he said, "We weren't friends when you defended me from Ushio. Matter of fact, the last time we saw each other before that, I bullied you and stole a piece of your Millennium Puzzle."

Yuugi faltered. "Well, that's—that's true, but . . . but that was different from this."

"Yeah. You're right," Jounouchi said, and he smiled, but it wasn't at all like the smile Yuugi remembered. It was small and rueful, and Yuugi felt his heart splinter. "You're a much, much better person than I am."

"No, that's not what I meant," Yuugi said. "What I meant was that, back then, I really wanted—" The park gates came into view, and he shook his head. "That doesn't matter now. What matters now is you. You matter. You're my friend, and I want to help you, so please, just tell me what happened. Whatever it is, we can find a way to fix it together. I know we can."

Jounouchi looked at Yuugi askance, but he said nothing until they were through the park gates. Safely on the other side, Jounouchi took a deep breath and tried to run his hand through his hair. As Yuugi had thought, it wasn't nearly as effective as it once had been; he could still do it, but his hair was so short now that he mostly only succeeded in making it look more spiky, his fingers unable to get a real grip on his blond locks. Halfway through, Jounouchi seemed to catch himself in the habit, for he flattened his hair down again. Yuugi frowned.

"Look, Yuugi," Jounouchi said, "what happened doesn't change anything. Truth is, I probably shouldn't have gotten involved tonight, but I just couldn't let that guy . . ." Jounouchi shook his head, cleared his throat, and started patting down his pockets as he looked for something.

"It could," Yuugi said, and his breath felt short due to the force his heart was using to pound in his chest. Hope and fear were working in tandem to make his pulse race a marathon. "Just—come back home with me, okay? Just come home with me tonight. You don't have to tell me what happened if you don't want to—we don't have to talk about it. We can play some games, or watch TV, or—or do anything you want. It doesn't matter to me what we do." So long as you're safe, Yuugi added to himself.

But Jounouchi was shaking his head. He'd produced a small, cheap flip phone from his pocket, and when he flipped it open and glanced at the screen, he swore softly. "Can't," he said. "I'm twenty minutes late already. Fuck my life."

"Late?" Yuugi asked, as Jounouchi snapped his phone shut and put it back in his pocket. "For what?" Given how Jounouchi's dad was the one time Yuugi encountered him, Yuugi found it hard to imagine Jounouchi had a curfew.

Jounouchi scrubbed his hands down his face; he didn't seem to have heard Yuugi at all. "He's gonna be so pissed," he said, more to himself than anything from what Yuugi could tell, and an unhappy little laugh followed the statement seconds before Jounouchi turned and kicked the park gate hard enough to make a metallic clang echo through the night. "God fucking—!"

"Jounouchi-kun!" Yuugi said, and he knew without really thinking about it that the sudden alarm and anxiety he felt wasn't on his own behalf at all. Something was wrong, definitely, but Jounouchi assaulting the park gate was the least of his worries. Yuugi reached out to put a hand on Jounouchi's arm, to offer some sort of comfort, or consolation, or something, but Jounouchi shrugged Yuugi's hands off. Yuugi didn't let that deter him. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Jounouchi said shortly. "I have to go." Yuugi stared at him, aghast, as Jounouchi headed back through the park gates. "Remember what I said, Yuugi. What happened tonight didn't change a thing. Stay as far away from me as you can, got it? Pretend we're on opposite ends of the country if you've gotta, but just keep your fucking distance."

Two months ago, those words had stung like hot whiplashes. Jounouchi had seemed well and truly done with him, and no matter how much Yuugi had analyzed and ripped apart the Saturday that ruined their friendship in his head, he couldn't pinpoint a single thing he could have done that would have made Jounouchi so repulsed by his presence.

But now . . . Jounouchi had saved him from that mugger. Jounouchi had taken the time to walk Yuugi out of the park, even though it had apparently made him twenty minutes late for something. You're a much, much better person than I am, Jounouchi had said, and just now . . . Yuugi couldn't be sure, Jounouchi had shrugged him off after only a second, but he thought . . .

Yuugi thought he felt Jounouchi shaking beneath his Rintama jacket.

"Okay," Yuugi said, and despite the quick upward turn of Jounouchi's lips, Yuugi saw Jounouchi swallow as he turned away. "But only until I figure out a way to help you."

Jounouchi paused, his back to Yuugi. "I don't need help," he said. "And even if I did, I definitely wouldn't need it from you."

"Yes you do," Yuugi said. "And it's okay if you don't want my help. You don't have to talk to me, or hang out with me, or anything like that when everything's said and done. But I'm going to do my best to help you anyway, Jounouchi-kun. Whatever's going on right now, whatever—whoever you're going to see . . . I'm going to save you from it. I promise."

Jounouchi was quiet for a long moment. He raised a shaking hand halfway to his face, but then lowered it again, and curled his fingers into a fist before he finally turned back around.

"Yuugi," he said, and his voice broke on that one word, "just—give up, okay? Give up on me. There is nothing here worth saving."

It wasn't right. It wasn't right for Jounouchi, of all people, to beg like that, much less for him to beg Yuugi to give up on him. What was more wrong still, in Yuugi's eyes, was that Yuugi could tell Jounouchi genuinely believed what he was saying. Yuugi shook his head, and tried to fight back his own tears.

"Yes there is," he said, "and I'm going to. I'll prove it. You'll see."

Jounouchi stared at him for only a second more before he turned and practically bolted in the opposite direction, through the park. Yuugi watched him, and when he was out of sight, turned and started back toward home.

Tomorrow, he would tell Honda and Anzu what happened. Together, the three of them would try to work out some sort of game plan. Honda had seemed to know the one guy before, Yuugi thought. Maybe he would have some more information that would help. Even if he didn't, it didn't matter. They would figure something out. At the very least, Yuugi would.

He placed a hand on the Millennium Puzzle, and it felt warm beneath his touch.

He wasn't letting go without a fight.

Chapter Text

By the time he made it to Tayzr's American style bar, Jounouchi was nearly forty minutes late.

He didn't care. That was what he told himself, over and over again, as he ducked down the alley that led to the entrance in the back. He didn't care. He had gotten the job done, and that was what mattered. He did his job, there were no witnesses, the proof—the prize—still weighed heavily in his pocket. It didn't matter that he was late.

He picked the lock on the door and let himself in, and even though he didn't care about the fact that he was late, he still took care to shut the door quietly behind him. It was stupid. He should have slammed it, and he debated opening it again so that he could do just that. But he was already late (not that he cared), so instead he turned and made his way down the little hallway that led to the lounge in the back of the bar. The door to the lounge was closed, but Jounouchi could see the warm glow of the lights through a small, frosted window set into the top of the door. They were still there, then, not that Jounouchi really expected any different. He would have gotten a call if plans had changed. Jounouchi opened the door to the lounge without preamble, and blinked a little as his eyes readjusted to the warm lighting.

The main area of the bar had been dark due to it being past closing hours, but even when it was open and busy, the lighting was always dark and a little bit grim. The theme, or so he'd been told, was to replicate "American grit," whatever the Hell that meant. The lounge, reserved for the bar's most important patrons, was different. The lighting was warm orange, accentuated by the cream colored sofas and chairs, as well as the gleaming reddish brown wood of the table that sat in the middle of the seating area. Only two people were in the lounge when he entered: Hirutani and Matsumoto, one of co-owners of the bar who had yakuza ties, and whom Hirutani had decided to do business with.

How he had managed to swing this, Jounouchi had no idea.

He also didn't. Care.

"You're late," Hirutani said, as Jounouchi shut the door behind him. His tone was cool, but his eyes were narrowed in a way that betrayed his affected nonchalance. He was, as Jounouchi had known he would be, pissed. Jounouchi looked away.

"Sorry," he said, and he made sure to keep his tone casual. Without waiting for the cue to do so, he pulled the external hard drive he'd stolen out of his pocket and tossed it at Matsumoto. Matsumoto snatched it out of the air, and flipped it over in his hands. Whether he was inspecting it for damage or checking to make sure it was the right one, Jounouchi didn't know. Now that he'd retrieved it and handed it over, it wasn't his problem. He walked over and dropped onto the couch that was positioned along the left wall. Hirutani was seated on the center cushion of the one pushed against the back wall, and Matsumoto in one of the chairs; as far as Jounouchi could tell, this was the best he could do to put as much distance between himself and them as possible.

"I don't believe it," Matsumoto breathed, and then he laughed. "I'll be damned. You actually managed to get it."

"I told you he'd come through," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi looked up to see that Hirutani was grinning at Matsumoto. No doubt he was relishing in the pride that came a job well done, particularly since he didn't have to be the one to dirty his hands doing it. "Punctuality might not be his strong suit, but he was made for this sort of thing."

"It certainly seems that way," Matsumoto said, as Jounouchi clenched his jaw and started checking his pockets again. Cell phone, keys, wallet . . . damn it, where were his cigarettes? He needed a cigarette. "What did you say your name was, again?"

A beat of silence caused Jounouchi to look up, and he blinked when it clicked that Matsumoto had been speaking to him. "Oh, uh, Jou—tou. Joutou."

"Joutou?" Matsumoto raised his eyebrows, and once again, Jounouchi felt Hirutani staring him down. Jounouchi focused on pulling his cigarettes from the inside pocket of his jacket. He'd forgotten he'd stored them there so they'd be better hidden during school. "Odd name."

Jounouchi shrugged. "I've heard weirder."

Matsumoto laughed. "Fair enough. So, Joutou—how'd you do it? I want details. Did he cry?"

Jounouchi paused, the pack of cigarettes held loosely in his hand. "He didn't exactly have time to cry," he said slowly, and he looked up to see that while both Hirutani and Matsumoto were watching him, only Matsumoto's curiosity looked genuine. Hirutani's look was more appraising; he wanted to hear the story, but he also . . . Jounouchi took a deep breath. "Didn't feel like giving it to him. Thought my only job was to get that hard drive off him."

"It was. You did well." Matsumoto tossed the hard drive up in the air and caught it again. He smirked like a satisfied cat as he looked at it. "But you can't blame a man for wanting to hear the details of how it went down, especially given how tight of a hold he kept on this thing. I thought it'd be a lot more trouble getting him to cough it up. So, Joutou, I'll ask you again: How'd you do it?"

Jounouchi heaved a sigh, and pulled his zippo lighter from his pants pocket. "I popped the lock on his car door and camped out in his backseat until he got off work. When he left, I waited until he made it off the main streets on the way back to his house before I made him pull over. It was late, it was dark; there were few lights, no witnesses."

"Smart," Matsumoto said. Jounouchi ignored the compliment; it didn't feel very much like flattery.

"Made him get out of the car. Asked him if he had the thing. He asked how I knew about it, which told me I had the right guy and he definitely had the thing. I cold-clocked him, and—"

"One hit?"

"Two, if you count him hitting the ground," Jounouchi said, and both Matsumoto and Hirutani laughed. Jounouchi flicked his zippo open, then closed, then open, then closed again. Open, closed, open, closed, open . . . "Once he was out I got into his laptop case. He had that in an inside pocket." He'd also relieved the man of all the cash in his wallet, but Jounouchi figured that didn't need saying. He didn't need Hirutani demanding that he fork it over, not when he had bills coming up. "Last I saw he was still out cold on the concrete."

Matsumoto let out a low, impressed whistle. "Well, serves me right for doubting you could pull it off," he said. He leaned forward to grab the bottle of alcohol—what kind it was, Jounouchi couldn't tell—on the table, and slid it across the surface toward Jounouchi. "Here's to you, kid. Have one, on me."

Jounouchi didn't bother to hide his disgust. "Pass," he said.

Matsumoto looked at him in open surprise, and Hirutani spared him one acidic glare before he looked to Matsumoto with an apologetic smile. "You'll have to forgive my boy," he said. "He hasn't yet learned how to speak to his betters."

My 'betters,' Jounouchi thought disparagingly, as Matsumoto laughed. Show me someone who's better and I'll show you how I talk.

Then again, he thought, as Matsumoto and Hirutani moved on to another topic, while Matsumoto was a petty bastard with yakuza dealings and Hirutani was a backstabbing, blackmailing, drug dealing, sadistic, equally as petty asshole, they weren't the only ones he had a habit of mouthing off to. His stomach twisted as he thought of Yuugi's face that day two months ago when he'd ended their friendship, and his throat felt thick when he remembered how earnestly Yuugi had looked at him not a half hour ago, how he again harshly told Yuugi to stay out of his life even as Yuugi had the misguided notion that Jounouchi could—or should—be "saved." Yuugi hadn't known about the hard drive in Jounouchi's pocket, hadn't known about the money he'd stolen despite the fact that the hard drive was the only thing he'd been sent after. He hadn't known that, however much he viewed Jounouchi as a worthwhile friend, as someone good, Jounouchi was anything but. Yuugi was selfless, kind, and honest. He was everything Jounouchi could never hope to be, and yet, even before he had fallen right back into Hirutani's toxic spiral, Jounouchi didn't think he'd ever really shown Yuugi the gratitude he should have for that second chance.

Jounouchi lit his cigarette and took a drag. Maybe Hirutani had a point after all.

". . . look forward to future dealings," Matsumoto said, and Jounouchi looked up in time to see him reach across the table and shake Hirutani's hand. Both of them had stood up while Jounouchi was lost in thought, and Jounouchi figured that he was probably expected to as well, as a form of "courtesy" or "politeness" or "etiquette" or whatever. He leaned back further on the couch and exhaled the smoke from his cigarette.

Matsumoto looked over at him. "I also look forward to seeing what you continue to bring to the table, Joutou-kun. I'm sure we can expect great things."

"Sure," Jounouchi said. He supposed Matsumoto's definition of "great" differed from his own.

Hirutani walked Matsumoto to the door, and Jounouchi frowned as Matsumoto nodded and exited the lounge without Hirutani. It occurred to him only as Hirutani shut and locked the door that Matsumoto was the owner of the bar. Wasn't this backwards? Shouldn't they be the ones getting the Hell out of his place?

Hirutani turned and leaned back against the door, and his eyes were narrowed in seething rage as he stared down at Jounouchi on the couch. Jounouchi knew that look, and he suppressed a groan as he let his head fall back on the couch and shut his eyes.

His thoughts were torn between god fuck, here we go and I don't care, I don't care, I don't care, I don't

"Where were you tonight?" Hirutani asked. His voice was quiet, level, but it held all the tension of a suppressed spring. Jounouchi tapped his foot in a rapid beat against the floor to try and channel his excess energy, and took another hit off his cigarette before he answered.

"You know where I was," he said as he exhaled. He ashed his cigarette over the floor. The ash tray was all the way across the table; too far to reach for some near-yakuza sleaze's lounge. "I was getting that hard drive thing for Matsumoto."

"After that," Hirutani said. "You were forty minutes late. Where were you during that time?"

"On my way here," Jounouchi said, and it wasn't a lie, either. Aside from that little backtracked detour in the park . . .

"And that's all you did? You came straight here?"

Two months ago, when Hirutani had first pulled Jounouchi back into his gang, he'd told him to never ask questions he already knew the answer to. It seemed to Jounouchi that Hirutani was making himself out to be something of a hypocrite now, but he had a feeling that it wasn't going to be to his benefit.

"Yep," he said.

"And that blood on your hand," Hirutani said, and he nodded toward Jounouchi as his eyes flicked toward Jounouchi's right hand. "That came from nowhere, did it?"

Jounouchi followed Hirutani's gaze, and dread dropped in his stomach like a sack of lead at the sight of the blood smeared across his knuckles. He hadn't even thought about the blood that had poured from the nose of Yuugi's mugger in the heat of the moment, hadn't even considered that some of it had gotten on him, hadn't even thought about it because it wasn't like it was the first time he got blood on him . . .

"It came from the guy," he said finally, and he tried to focus on the staccato rhythm he was tapping out with his foot, or the fact that he'd almost finished with his cigarette and kind of already wanted another. "You know, that business dude I had to get the hard drive from. I told you I knocked him out."

Hirutani raised his eyebrows. "You didn't wear gloves?" he asked, and Jounouchi had to stop himself from squeezing his cigarette hard enough to crumble it in his fingers. Shit. "You left prints?"

"No, I wasn't dumb enough to leave prints. I had gloves on for that. I . . ."

"You what? You took off your gloves in the car, knocked the man out, put them back on to steal the hard drive, and then took them off again?" Hirutani asked, and Jounouchi really hadn't needed him to spell it out to realize how stupid it sounded. He took another drag of his cigarette. "You're a piss-poor liar, Jounouchi. I'm only going to ask you one more time. Where were you between getting that hard drive for Matsumoto and coming here?"

Jounouchi allowed himself a brief moment of bitter reflection on the fact that, despite apparently being a piss-poor liar, he'd managed to fool Anzu, Honda, and Yuugi well enough two months ago. On reflex, he reached up to run a hand through his hair, but stopped himself short when he realized it was a waste of time given how short it was now. He settled for raking his nails against the back of his neck instead.

"Fine, you caught me," he said. "I got in a fight in the park. Happy?"

"With who?" Hirutani demanded.

"Why does it matter?" Jounouchi shot back. "I got what you—what Matsumoto wanted. I ditched my gloves, coat, and the hat I wore in the water off the docks." Which sucked, because even if he wouldn't miss the hat, that winter coat and those gloves had been the only ones he owned. Winter was going to suck ass this year. "Mission accomplished, no evidence to tie me to it. So I got in a fight on the way back and was a little late. So what? Shouldn't matter so long as I got the job done."

Hirutani crossed his arms, his nostrils flaring. It was a warning sign, but one that Jounouchi didn't care to heed. "When I want your opinion on what does or doesn't matter, I'll ask for it. And don't," he snarled, as Jounouchi leaned forward to grind his used up cigarette into the table, "put that out on the table, you fucking dipshit. Use the goddamn ash tray."

"Oh sure," Jounouchi said, as he pushed himself up off the couch to walk over to the end of the table. "You'll pass coke off on middle schoolers, but god forbid I put my cigarette out on the coffee table. Nice to see you've got your priorities straight."

"One of us has to," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes as he ground his cigarette into the bottom of the ash tray instead. "Now answer my question. Who did you fight in the park?"

"My god, you sound like a jealous chick," Jounouchi said, and he pushed his voice up a couple octaves. "'Where were you tonight? Who were you with?'" He crossed his arms to stop himself for reaching for another smoke and gave Hirutani a caustic look in the face of the livid glare he was receiving. "If you're gonna act like my clingy girlfriend, at least buy me dinner first."

For all that Hirutani had pitched a fit about the prospect of Jounouchi putting his cigarette out on the coffee table, he had no qualms about stomping on it himself. With speed that belied his size, Hirutani bounded over the coffee table and shoved Jounouchi back against the wall.

"Watch your mouth," Hirutani snapped, and Jounouchi forced a laugh as Hirutani growled, "Last chance, Jounouchi. Who did you fight?"

"Last chance before what?" Jounouchi asked, and as Hirutani's lips pulled back in a soundless snarl that told Jounouchi he was about to reach for his knife, Jounouchi heaved an exasperated sigh. "Why the fuck does it matter? Why do you care? It was just a random asshole in the park whose face I decided to break. It's not a big deal."

"I carebecause you chose to piss away your time doing that instead of your job," Hirutani said. "You had one job—"

"And I did it," Jounouchi said, glaring right back in the face of Hirutani's furious scowl.

"And you did it halfway before you decided to piss off picking fights in the park, supposedly for no reason. You were told to get the hard drive and get back here. You did half of that—"

"Did you not see me hand over that hard drive when I walked in? Because if not, you could have fooled me from the way you were staring at me nearly the whole goddamn time—"

"When you walked in, forty minutes late. What part of this is too difficult for you to wrap your head around? Your job was to get the hard drive and get back here on time—"

"Because Matsumoto seemed real broken up that I got here late—"

"God damn it, that is not the fucking point!" Hirutani slammed his fist into the wall beside them. Jounouchi didn't flinch. Hirutani glared at him, teeth bared, before he shut his eyes and scrubbed his hand down his face, breathing through his teeth. "Do you have any idea what that looks like to a man like him?" he asked quietly. "Do you understand what it is that I'm trying to do here? What it is that I did here tonight?"

"I get that it's more of your usual bullshit," Jounouchi said. Hirutani opened his eyes to glower at him.

"Now that I've done this for him, he owes me a favor," Hirutani said, his words careful and deliberate. "I can cash in at any time. More importantly, he knows that I'm reliable. If he needs a service again, he can deal again to get it done. In return, he'll owe more. Those totals will stack. With more credibility comes more power. And given the influence he has, that is credibility and power that I can use." Hirutani narrowed his eyes. "Do you see now? Do you see what it is that I've done? Do you see what it is that you could have easily fucked up with the stupid ass way you decided to act tonight?"

Jounouchi gave him a flat stare before he pushed past Hirutani to head to the other side of the room. Space. He needed space. Room to breathe. "I see that you're going on about your accomplishments when you didn't actually do much," he said, and he made his voice as casual as he could given the way adrenaline was making his pulse spike. "All things considered, I'm pretty sure I'm the one any favors should be owed to."

Hirutani snorted. "Nice joke."

Jounouchi turned and raised his eyebrows. "Uh, excuse me, but who's the one that actually went out and got the damn thing? Because I'm pretty sure that was me."

"Who's the one that sent you?" Hirutani fired back. "Who's the one who knew that you'd be the best man suited for the job? Who's the one who is in charge?" Jounouchi bit his tongue to keep himself from replying, and in his silence Hirutani said, "You can fight, but that's all you've got. You're nothing unless someone with brains comes along to be your handler, and that someone is me."

Jounouchi was far from the smartest guy in the world, and he both knew and had accepted this fact a long time ago. But he still balled his fingers into fists as he glared at Hirutani and said in a low voice, "I can handle myself."

Hirutani scoffed. "Yeah, you handled yourself real well when you swaggered in here forty minutes late," he said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "You handled yourself real well when you decided it was a smart idea to give Matsumoto a dumbass alias when he asked for your name—"

"He's yakuza," Jounouchi said. "Or near enough."

"That didn't seem to matter a whole lot to you when you were mouthing off and ignoring him in equal turn," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi scowled at the coffee table. He didn't have a real response to that. "It didn't seem to matter when you were a stupid enough pissant to refuse the drink he offered you—"

"I don't drink," Jounouchi said sharply, because even if there was truth in that maybe he should have watched his mouth a little better to avoid bringing the yakuza down on his head, he wasn't about to chug booze for them. "You know that."

"What I know is that when a man like Matsumoto offers you something, you don't say no," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi held his ground as Hirutani stalked a few paces toward him. "You don't have the luxury of refusing someone like that. If he says drink, you drink. For that matter, if I say drink, you drink. I brought you in as my number two, but—and here's a refresher since you seem to keep forgetting—that means that I am still your boss. So if I decide to have you toss back a couple beers—or if I want you to have a drink with Matsumoto—guess what?" Hirutani took another step closer, and Jounouchi crossed his arms to keep from slugging him. "You're going to do it."

Jounouchi scoffed. "The fuck I am," he said, and fury flared in Hirutani's eyes. "I won't even drink soda around you after the roofie incident, much less—"

Hirutani rolled his eyes. "That was one time—"

"One time is enough, asshole!"

"—and it was almost a year ago. Get over it." Hirutani gave him a cold look. "Or don't. I don't really care what you think, Jounouchi. I care what you do. And what you're going to do is whatever I tell you to do, no questions asked or backtalk given. Are we clear?"

The appropriate answer, Jounouchi knew, as his heart worked double time to pump adrenaline into his muscles, was 'yes.' The better answer, the one that would stroke Hirutani's god complex and make him higher than an entire bottle of ecstasy could, was 'yes sir.' But, Jounouchi figured, what made him so stupid wasn't that he never knew the right answers. It was that he often knew what the right answer was, but then deliberately chose the wrong one anyway.

"Fuck you," he said.

Jounouchi was momentarily blinded as Hirutani's fist crashed into his eye. The force of the blow knocked him back, his leg smacking into the corner of the coffee table as his cheekbone throbbed, and he barely had time to blink the spots from his eyes before Hirutani swung again. Jounouchi jumped back a few steps, both to dodge the strike and to move into the open area on the other side of the table. More room to move, more room to fight.

The problem, if it could be called that, was that they were more or less evenly matched. Hirutani was stronger, but Jounouchi was faster; Jounouchi was able to weave and duck around blows that Hirutani couldn't avoid, even as Hirutani was able to better withstand Jounouchi's fists every time Jounouchi socked him in the face. Ten minutes into their fight and Jounouchi's head was throbbing while Hirutani's mouth was freely bleeding and his right eye was swelling, but still Jounouchi ducked under another one of Hirutani's swings to move back toward the center of the room, his fists raised to block if he couldn't dodge, and that was when he noticed the thing sticking out of Hirutani's pocket.

He looked up in time to see Hirutani's fist rocketing toward his face—

Jounouchi caught Hirutani's fist and used Hirutani's own momentum against him, dragging him back toward the wall. Jounouchi was briefly pinned, but he wrenched himself free to twist around Hirutani again, his free hand palming Hirutani's knife out of his pocket on the way. Hirutani grabbed Jounouchi's arm, but Jounouchi twisted in his grip and slammed his foot against Hirutani's kneecap, and the pain—however brief—was enough to make Hirutani let go.

Jounouchi flipped the knife in his hand.

He'd never really fought with weapons before. They were cheap, as far as he was concerned. People who relied on weapons were people who couldn't kick enough ass with their fists. There were exceptions to the rule, of course; he was no stranger to using pool cues or chairs when he was faced with too many opponents that had too many size advantages on him back when he was a punk middle schooler who had a habit of picking just that kind of fight. But things like knives, things like guns . . . they weren't his style. He was too good at what he did to rely on things like that.

But this had to end. Hirutani turned to face him, a dangerous grin tilting his lips, and Jounouchi ran his tongue along his teeth, tasting blood. Not just this fight—this whole thing had to end, and if he could end it here, end it now—

Once again, Hirutani came at him. Jounouchi skirted to the side, and when Hirutani turned, Jounouchi slugged him with his opposite hand. It wasn't his dominant arm, but it worked; Hirutani stumbled back, and Jounouchi pressed his advantage, throwing his full weight against Hirutani to knock them both down to the floor, Hirutani pinned beneath him. Hirutani's head was against the wall.

Jounouchi raised the knife.

He could end it. He could. One stab was all it would take. One to the throat. He wouldn't get up from that. If he stabbed—if he killed Hirutani—that would be it, it'd be the end, he'd be dead and Jounouchi would never have to—no one would ever have to—

He swallowed, tightened his grip on the knife handle. His hand was shaking—adrenaline—and he raised it higher—

It occurred to him a second too late that Hirutani had been oddly still, watching him—and his hesitation, his late realization, cost him. Hirutani shoved him back, and a half second later kicked Jounouchi hard enough in the ribs to, he was pretty sure, at least splinter some of them. Jounouchi was thrown backward, and when his back hit the floor he lost his grip on the knife. It fell somewhere, but he had no time to see where as Hirutani threw himself on top of Jounouchi, straddling him, pinning him, pain searing across Jounouchi's ribs at the added weight, one of Hirutani's hands around his throat, the other holding his right arm down—

God, he couldn't breathe; Jounouchi grasped at Hirutani's hand with his left hand, trying to pry Hirutani's fingers off his throat, only for Hirutani to squeeze tighter. With the way he was straddled, he couldn't kick him off; his head spun and every time he tried to breathe, tried to cough or choke or gasp for more air, all he felt was pain, more pain and he couldn't—he couldn't—he couldn't breathe and needed Hirutani off, needed him to get off, get off, get off get off get!

Jounouchi coughed and sputtered as Hirutani released some of the pressure—just enough to let Jounouchi breathe. Hirutani kept Jounouchi pinned beneath him, and as some of the dizziness faded, Jounouchi became aware of the fact that Hirutani was talking to him. Maybe he had been the entire time he had him pinned there.

". . . gave you the perfect opportunity, and you wasted it," Hirutani said. "You're soft, Jounouchi. Weak. You don't have it in you to kill. Not yet. It's in your best interest if you don't try, because unlike you, I won't hesitate."

Jounouchi glared at him. "I'm not—" His words were cut off as Hirutani tightened the pressure again, and he coughed when Hirutani loosened his grip.

"You are," he said. "Soft. Weak. Worthless as you are now for the things we're doing. For where we're headed. You want to talk about how Matsumoto's yakuza? Where do you think you'll be in a couple years, give or take? Provided you don't fuck everything up, of course."

Yakuza. The thought made bile rise in Jounouchi's throat, but then, that might've also been due to the guy strangling him. The last time Hirutani had him pinned like this—years ago, back in middle school—he'd held Jounouchi's arms, but it seemed that since then he'd learned—

"I'm done with petty gangs, Jounouchi. I'm better than that. You are, too—or you will be. Once I finally break you." Hirutani leaned closer, and Jounouchi ground his teeth together to bite back a gasp as pain flared in his cracked ribs. "I don't know what it's going to take to do it, but I'll find it. I'll break you, and then remake you. By the time I'm done . . ." He laughed softly. "The yakuza will be bowing to make way for us."

"Who says I want to be with the fucking yakuza?" Jounouchi spat, and Hirutani snorted.

"What makes you think you have a choice?" he asked. "In case you've forgotten—again—I decide your future. I decide where you go, what you do, how and when you do it. And I've decided you're to be my number two, no matter how many times you make me hurt you."

Jounouchi scoffed a laugh. "I make you—"

"Yeah, you make me. What the Hell else do you call this?" Hirutani shook his head in disgust. "You know the deal, Jounouchi. You know our agreement, and you continue to fight me. The sooner you give in, the easier this will be. You know that. I know that. If you weren't so damn stubborn, you'd admit it."

Jounouchi said nothing. He glowered at Hirutani for several long seconds, before Hirutani finally pulled back a little, his thumb stroking underneath Jounouchi's jaw.

"You'll learn," he said, and it almost sounded more like he was talking to himself. "One way or another, I will make you understand. And when you do, you'll be better for it." He met Jounouchi's eyes. "You'll see."

Hirutani pushed himself up, and once he finally—fucking finally—released his hold on Jounouchi's throat, Jounouchi pushed himself up, ready and raring to knock the shit out of him—

Only to have Hirutani stomp down on Jounouchi's ribs—his fucking ribs, god fuck!—and pin him back to the floor.

"You're done for tonight," he said coldly. "You're not ruthless enough. Not yet. You will be—I swear on my mother's rotting corpse I'll drag it out of you if I have to break every bone in your body first—but you're not yet. Give it up, Jounouchi. We're done here."

Jounouchi forced himself to smirk, and propped himself up on his elbows despite the boot on his chest. Fucking hell, if his ribs weren't broken before— "And then I'll get to cut your fucking throat out, right?"

Hirutani huffed a laugh, and turned away. Jounouchi watched as Hirutani picked up his knife, tossed it once in the air, and then caught it again before he slipped it into his pocket.

"You'll at least be able," he said. "But you won't."

Don't bet on that, Jounouchi thought savagely.

Hirutani made his way toward the door, unlocked it, and paused just before stepping out.

"By the way," he said, and he didn't turn to look back as he did, "if I find out that you were with any of your little Domino High friends during your random stint in the park tonight, then so help me, the next time you see them will be at their funerals." Jounouchi's heart felt frozen in his chest as Hirutani turned to throw a caustic smirk over his shoulder. "But don't worry. I'll buy you dinner first."

Hirutani left without another word. Jounouchi stared after him for a minute, and even if it hadn't been hard to breathe due to the pain arcing up and down his chest and throat, the panic that stalled his brain, lungs, and heart would have made it so anyway. He put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, trying to think, trying to force himself to think because no, no, there was no way, there was no way, he couldn't know, he couldn't, there was no way for him to—

Had there been anyone else in the park? There was the mugger; Jounouchi squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember the creep's face, but he couldn't. It was . . . he was just some guy. Some random guy, and the second he saw the guy start to pull that knife on Yuugi he'd bolted hell for leather across the park to take him down. He hadn't focused on what the asshole looked like, he'd only focused on making sure he couldn't get within five feet of Yuugi with that knife in hand.

But what if he was—no, he wasn't one of Hirutani's gang members, Jounouchi was sure of that. He would have said something to Jounouchi if he was, would have recognized him, would have made some cue to say he was one of—one of Hirutani's. But what if Hirutani still knew him? What if he recognized Jounouchi and just didn't tip off about it? What if he told? Jounouchi should have—he didn't know. He couldn't have killed him, obviously, but he should have found a way—some way—to make sure he'd keep his mouth shut.

Was there anyone else? Jounouchi raked his hands through his short hair, digging his nails into his scalp. He didn't know. He couldn't remember. He didn't think so, but he couldn't remember, he hadn't been paying attention, he was focused on Yuugi and how he had that hard drive, and Yuugi didn't know but if he did he wouldn't have said the things he did, wouldn't have believed the things he did, and Jounouchi should have told him because that would make him give up, which was what was best, but he couldn't bring himself to see that disappointment, that disgust he knew he deserved, but if someone saw them together and word got back to Hirutani, then Yuugi—

Jounouchi slammed his fist against the side of the coffee table. It didn't make him feel any better—actually, it aggravated the ache that was already in his hand—but he figured that was what he got, anyway. He took a deep breath. He needed—needed to calm down. He could handle this. He'd handled Hirutani for two months now, and in middle school before this. He could handle it, could keep Hirutani away from Yuugi. He couldn't do a thing if there were others in the park, but if he just—if he just did whatever for awhile, took whatever job was thrown at him without bitching about it, maybe kept some of his smart-ass comments to himself for awhile, that would be enough to appease him, enough to make him forget, or not care . . .

Jounouchi scratched his hands through his hair again. God, he hated it this short. He hated it, but if that was what it took to keep Yuugi and the others safe . . .

Right. Focus. He could do this. He pulled his hands away from his hair, and grimaced as he surveyed the damage.

His knuckles were split on both hands, blood smeared across them and his fingers. Hirutani's blood was on his clothes as well as his skin, Jounouchi's own was streaked across his face . . . blood, so much blood, all over him. More to come, no doubt, given what he had to do, even if he couldn't—wouldn't—couldn't bring himself to kill, even when his target was that psychotic son of a bitch. Part of Jounouchi—a part that sounded weirdly like Honda—wanted to reason that this was what made him different from Hirutani, that this was what separated them and made Jounouchi better, but no, that was wrong. Hirutani was one of the worst fucking people on the planet, and Jounouchi had had a chance to take him out, and he'd failed to do it. He froze. That didn't make him better, that made him weaker. And if Hirutani hurt Yuugi now, all because Jounouchi wasn't able to finish him off . . .

Then Jounouchi would kill him. Or so he thought, anyway, so he wanted to think as hatred made him grind his teeth and dig his nails into the floor, but after tonight's pathetic showing he wasn't sure he could follow through on the threat.

But it wasn't just that, Jounouchi knew. There was what he'd done earlier that night, before running into Yuugi. He'd broken into someone's car, assaulted him, stolen something and then handed it over to someone associated with the fucking yakuza. The worst part—the part that made Jounouchi want to vomit—was that it had been . . . not easy, but not too hard, either. The guy went down after one hit. He already had everything he needed to carry it out. And checking the guy's wallet for cash had been as easy and natural as it always had been in middle school, when he'd picked pockets down by the train station when money got tight. He was violent, selfish . . . how was he any better than Hirutani, really? Hell, how was he any better than the asshole who'd tried to mug Yuugi earlier that night? If anything, Jounouchi thought, he was decidedly worse.

'You matter,' Yuugi had said. 'There is something worth saving, and I'll prove it. You'll see.'

"You're wrong," Jounouchi muttered, and he wrapped an arm around his throbbing ribs as he pushed himself to his feet. Yuugi was wrong. There was nothing good here, nothing worth saving. And the sooner Yuugi realized that, the better off he'd be.

Chapter Text

When Hirutani awoke the next morning his head was throbbing, his mouth hurt and still tasted of blood, and his right shoulder and knee in particular felt like they'd be better off removed from his body altogether.

He'd gotten home late enough the previous night that all he'd given himself time to do was down the rest of the whiskey he had stashed under his bed before he'd passed out. The whiskey was for the pain as much as it was to soothe his nerves; he hadn't shown it back at Tayzr's, because there had been no need to make Jounouchi think he really stood a chance in the long run, but the little bastard had done a number on him. Jounouchi was fast, and though Hirutani was loath to admit it, where Hirutani had Jounouchi outmatched in terms of raw strength, Jounouchi had him bested when it came to skill. Had Jounouchi not pulled the knife, Hirutani didn't think he would have been able to pin him. It wasn't strictly necessary to pin him to win the fight—or to draw it, at least, because Hirutani was pretty sure he wouldn't have won—but there was nothing else quite like the feeling of having Jounouchi at his mercy like that, of crushing him against the floor as he struggled fruitlessly for his freedom and life, his pulse as frantic and fragile as a hummingbird's wings beneath Hirutani's fingers.

Yes, Hirutani thought, as he examined the ugly bruise around his swollen eye and the gash inside his mouth where his teeth had cut his cheek open in the bathroom mirror, that feeling alone made it worth it. The assured, definitive victory that came with it was only icing.

Or at least, that was what Hirutani told himself, but as he headed off to school he could admit that victory was ultimately a little more important. As thrilling as it was to dominate Jounouchi like that, the rebelling—the resistance—had to stop. Jounouchi had always been defiant, even back in middle school, and on some level, Hirutani supposed, that was part of what made him so valuable; he wasn't a simple-minded tool like the others, which meant that he could be trusted in ways they couldn't. He was the only one suitable to be Hirutani's right-hand, a diamond among plastic rhinestones.

But Jounouchi's defiance last night could have cost them relations with Matsumoto before they even begun, and the longer Jounouchi resisted—the more he fought—the more Hirutani wondered if he was ever going to truly have Jounouchi the way he wanted him. No, Hirutani decided, this had to end, and today was going to be the start of it. First, he'd smooth over the incident from last night and seal that wound up tight. No doubt Jounouchi would be sulking when he got to class—God and Hirutani both knew he hated to lose at the one thing he was actually good at—but if Hirutani downplayed what happened, Jounouchi would feel like a spineless little bitch if he kept complaining about it, which would get him to drop the pissy, sulky attitude in record time. Once that was done, Hirutani find whatever still inspired Jounouchi to fight and break it. It would be easy, he was sure. Easy enough to make Jounouchi his once he did that.

The problem was, he couldn't do that if Jounouchi wasn't there, and that day—of all days—he decided to cut school.

Hirutani texted him during all three of their morning classes, and received no response. He called him during the lunch hour, and still the phone went to voicemail. The pissiness, the sulking . . . that was to be expected. Incidents like last night's always left Jounouchi in a pissy mood. But Hirutani's early morning glee over last night's triumph all but completely faded in the face of Jounouchi's radio silence. As if last night hadn't made it clear enough, now it was beyond obvious he had to break whatever spurred Jounouchi to rebel like this, sooner rather than later. So when school let out, Hirutani dismissed the boys that crowded around him to ask after the day's plans, donned a pair of sunglasses to hide the bruising around his eye, and headed for Jounouchi's apartment.

The first time he knocked, there was no response. Through the cheap wood of the door, Hirutani could just barely make out the sound of a television playing inside, and so—ignoring the flash of anger he felt at the idea that Jounouchi was continuing to ignore him, even still—he rapped his knuckles against the door with a little more force. This time he heard someone shout something inside, in a voice that sounded too gruff to be Jounouchi's, though he couldn't make out the words and the door stayed closed. After waiting another thirty seconds to see if that would change, Hirutani knocked on the door yet again, and this time he could clearly make out the swear in the muffled voice before it was followed by the sound of heavy footsteps. The door was open in the next second, and for the first time in his life, Hirutani came face to face with Jounouchi's father.

"Who the hell're you?" the man demanded.

Hirutani wrinkled his nose at the smell of cheap beer that wafted off the man's breath. No wonder Jounouchi didn't want to drink, if that was all he had ever been exposed to. Well, Hirutani reasoned, that would change soon enough. Once Hirutani showed Jounouchi what better options looked and tasted like, he'd have him drinking—with yakuza or otherwise—in short order. For the moment, he swallowed his disgust at the smell of the beer Jounouchi's father chose to drink and forced a smile.

"I'm looking for Katsuya-kun," he said, and despite how using Jounouchi's given name—despite how using -kun to refer to him—made Hirutani want to gag, he made his tone as friendly and pleasant as he could manage. There was no need to screw his chances of getting past the human barrier before him. "Is he home?"

Jounouchi's father eyed him shrewdly. "Why you askin'? You one'a his little fuckhead criminal friends? 'Cause if so, lemme tell you, I—" Jounouchi's father blinked, and squinted at the leather ID holder that Hirutani had pulled out of his back pocket. "What's—?"

"I just need to ask him a few questions," Hirutani said smoothly. The ID wasn't real, and a close inspection would prove that well enough. But Jounouchi's father was clearly already drunk, even if he wasn't completely blitzed, and Hirutani held the fake police ID up only long enough for Jounouchi's father to see what it looked like before he returned it to his pocket.

A dark cloud of fury passed over Jounouchi's father's face, and he swore harshly beneath his breath. "Fuckin' piece of shit kid, gettin' the fuckin' cops, I fuckin' told—" He took a deep, angry breath before he looked back to Hirutani. "Wait here, I'll go get him—"

"No," Hirutani said quickly, and he grabbed Jounouchi's father by his shoulder as the older man turned back toward the apartment. Jounouchi's father gave him an indignant stare, and Hirutani forced another smile as he pulled his hand away. "You don't need to go through the trouble. I can get him myself."

Jounouchi's father eyed him for a moment, as if weighing whether or not he wanted Hirutani in the apartment. Finally, he snorted. "Knock yourself out," he said, and made his way back over to a ratty chair positioned in front of the television. "Last room at the end of the hall."

I know, Hirutani wanted to say, but instead all he said was, "Thank you," before he stepped inside and shut the door behind him.

The apartment was small, and mostly filthy. The living room in particular was bad; empty beer cans littered the carpet, and there was an open trash bag near the central chair that was just about overflowing. The coffee table was piled high with paper plates and takeout containers, and the threadbare carpet was littered in stains that Hirutani could only begin to guess the origin of. From what he could see of the kitchen, it wasn't in a much better state, what with the dishes piled up in the sink and the small card table and folding chairs completely covered with what looked like mail, more beer bottles, and used up cigarettes. Hirutani glanced at Jounouchi's father to see if the man was going to demand he take off his shoes at the door, but not only had Jounouchi's father gone back to focusing on whatever show he was watching, but he was still wearing combat boots himself. Satisfied that he wouldn't have to subject his socks to the filthy floor, Hirutani moved through the living room and down the small hallway to Jounouchi's room. The door was closed, but unlike before, Hirutani didn't bother to knock before he invited himself in.

Jounouchi's bedroom wasn't tidy by any means, but it at least wasn't filthy like the rest of the apartment. Barely bigger than a walk-in closet, Jounouchi's room was mostly taken up by his bed, which was pushed up against the wall beneath the window, and his nightstand, dresser, and desk chair (which still, it seemed, didn't have a desk to go with it). Clothes were scattered around the floor of the room, save for his Rintama uniform, which was tossed on the back of his desk chair, and one sock, which had somehow made its way to the lamp on top of the dresser. A sloppy stack of raunchy magazines was piled on the floor at the foot of Jounouchi's bed, and a faded dart board was pinned up on the wall just beyond them, one dart stuck in the bullseye, the others thrown on at random points around it. A completed model kit of some sort of anime character was on top of the dresser, along with a few other random items: a lighter, some spare yen, a broken pencil, Jounouchi's wallet, his keys, and an old yo-yo. The nightstand was similarly cluttered by Jounouchi's alarm clock and, Hirutani noticed with a thread of irritation, his cell phone.

But all of that was irrelevant compared to the real object of Hirutani's interest, and that was Jounouchi himself. Just as his father had implied, Jounouchi was indeed home, and he didn't hear Hirutani come in or hear the door shut behind him. This, Hirutani figured, was due to the headphones Jounouchi was wearing. Jounouchi was sprawled out on his bed, lying on his stomach with his head on his arms, cheap headphones blasting rock music into his ears at a loud enough volume that Hirutani could hear every word the singer was saying. With the Rintama uniform he should have been wearing thrown on the back of his chair, Jounouchi was dressed in a simple white t-shirt and torn jeans, his feet completely bare. Hirutani's annoyance over Jounouchi not wearing his uniform aside, he had to give credit where credit was due: The t-shirt allowed Hirutani to easily see the back of Jounouchi's neck, which was covered in thick, purple bruises in the shape of Hirutani's fingers. These marks wouldn't scar like the others Hirutani had left on him, but he felt a thrill of satisfaction all the same at how visible these ones were while they lasted.

Hirutani made his way over to the bed, and paused beside it when he noticed the picture resting on the corner of the nightstand, tucked halfway beneath the alarm clock. It was of four people, including Jounouchi himself, and Hirutani felt revolted annoyance burn like bile in his throat at the sight of it. In one motion, he slipped it off the nightstand and into his pocket. In the next, he reached out and tugged Jounouchi's headphones off his head, and his heart jolted unpleasantly as his fingers brushed against Jounouchi's blessedly short hair in the process.

Jounouchi started as though he'd been woken from sleeping, and when he pushed himself up on his arms to look and see who had disturbed him, his expression shifted from annoyance that told Hirutani he was expecting his father, to something that looked a lot more like outrage and panic. Jounouchi scrambled up to his knees, though the sudden movement made his face contort in pain, a sound that was half gasp and half cry escaping him as he wrapped an arm around his chest. Hirutani couldn't resist a pleased smirk at the sight, and as he dropped Jounouchi's headphones back onto the mattress, Jounouchi twisted around so that he was seated with his back against the wall, one arm still holding his no doubt aching ribs. Despite his labored breathing, Jounouchi's dark eyes were narrowed in confused, defensive anger.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Jounouchi demanded. His voice was hoarse, no doubt due to the same reason he had thick, furious bruises around his neck. If anything, Hirutani felt that this newfound raspy quality to Jounouchi's voice was something of an improvement.

"You weren't in school today," he said.

"Get out," Jounouchi snapped.

"You also didn't answer your phone. You know I gave that to you for a reason, right?"

"I said get out."

Hirutani put his hands in his pockets. There were so many things he could say to that—so many things he wanted to say—but having a repeat of last night's incident wouldn't help him. He needed to keep his cool if he wanted to reaffirm his control. "We need to talk."

"The hell we do," Jounouchi said. "How did you even get in here? My dad—"

"He let me in," Hirutani said, and surprise flashed across Jounouchi's eyes just long enough for Hirutani to catch it before it dissolved into petulant resentment. "Now let's talk."

"No. I don't want to," Jounouchi said.

Hirutani rolled his eyes. "This is the kind of attitude I'd expect from a middle school recruit, not my second," he said.

Jounouchi snorted. "Well, sorry I'm not sorry, but considering you tried to kill me last night—"

"Who was it that pulled the knife first, Jounouchi?"

"Oh, that's cute," Jounouchi said. "I started it, huh? Now who's acting like he's five?"

Hirutani took a deep breath through his nose. Control. He had to maintain control. However much Jounouchi might deserve it, Hirutani had to refrain from backhanding him across his smart mouth. "Why weren't you in school today?" he asked.

Jounouchi glared at him for a second more before he reached over to shut his Walkman off. That was a good sign, Hirutani thought. "Didn't feel like it," he said at last. "Going to work this morning was enough of a bitch without having to deal with school on top of it."

"Your ribs?" Hirutani guessed, and the scathing glare that Jounouchi shot his way told him that he was right. Hirutani bit back another smile. "Then why didn't you pick up when I called?"

"It was on vibrate. Didn't hear it." Jounouchi sounded thoroughly unconcerned, as if ignoring his phone was perfectly acceptable, and he raised his eyebrows at Hirutani. "There, you satisfied? Will you get the fuck out of my room now?"

"No," Hirutani said, and if he didn't already know that Jounouchi couldn't pull off the actual act, he would have described the look Jounouchi gave him as murderous. "I already said, we need to talk about last night."

"What part of 'I don't fucking want to' do you not get?" Jounouchi said, and his face contorted in a brief wince as his voice cracked at the strain of raising it. "I don't want to see you, and I don't want to fucking talk to you. Leave me the hell alone and get out."

"What part of you feels good enough to make me?" Hirutani asked, and when Jounouchi did nothing but glower at him, he reached over to drag Jounouchi's desk chair over to the bed. He spun it around so he could straddle it, and after a moment, he heaved an affected sigh. "Look, that's why I want to talk. You're beat to hell. Last night wasn't a good night. I want to avoid an incident like that again. We can't keep doing this."

"You're right," Jounouchi said bluntly. "We can't."

Hirutani flashed a smile. "I'm glad you ag—"

"So let me go."

Blank shock replaced whatever pleasure Hirutani had felt with all the speed of a whip crack, but he could already feel the rising ebb of anger. "What?"

"I don't want to do this," Jounouchi said. "You know damn well I don't. I don't want any part of any of this bullshit you're doing. Last night, with the fucking—" Jounouchi's eyes flickered to his bedroom door before he lowered his voice, "—with the fucking yakuza, I—" He raised a hand as if to run it through his hair, apparently having not kicked that nasty habit yet, and then lowered it. "Dude, you know I don't want this. I've never wanted this. If I did, you wouldn't have had to blackmail me in the first place. So just give it up. Let's never ruin our days by seeing each other ever again. Okay?"

Hirutani felt at a loss for words as he stared at Jounouchi. It was true that in the past two months, Jounouchi hadn't been exactly thrilled about being on board. When push came to shove he could be counted on to do what he was told, but for the most part it felt like Hirutani had to drag him around by his collar in order to get him to do much of anything. Even so, for Jounouchi to so bluntly suggest that Hirutani cut him loose was . . . for all that Hirutani knew that he had to smooth things over and break whatever was still inspiring Jounouchi to fight, he hadn't realized that Jounouchi was this much of a flight risk, that he . . . that Jounouchi actually thought . . .

Hirutani narrowed his eyes, his fingers constricting around the hard back of Jounouchi's desk chair. "No."

Jounouchi gave him a look of pure loathing. "Fine," he said shortly. "Then good talk, glad we could settle that. Now get out and leave me alone."

"No," Hirutani repeated, and he struggled to keep his voice even. Calling Jounouchi a "flight risk" was extreme; there was no way that Jounouchi was going to leave him. Even putting it out there as a possibility was stupid, especially since he had Jounouchi here still basically asking permission. Hirutani flexed his fingers around the desk chair. There was a way to maneuver around this, he knew. Whatever Jounouchi threw at him, he could use to his advantage. Jounouchi had more skill when it came to fighting, but when it came to manipulation, Hirutani knew he had him beat.

"Why do you want to leave so badly?" Hirutani asked after a moment. "What do you think you have to go to that's so worth it?"

Jounouchi looked at him as if he'd asked why fish had to live in water. "Uh, gee, I don't know," he said sarcastically. "Maybe my old school—you know, the one I actually liked? How about my friends? It sure would be great to see them again."

"Last night in the park wasn't good enough, huh?" Hirutani asked, as he reached into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes and his lighter. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jounouchi go completely still, his eyes wide with what looked an awful lot like panic before he looked away.

"Don't know. I didn't see them," Jounouchi said. "Only guy I saw was the guy whose face I broke. If they were there, they didn't talk to me, so no, I'd say that wasn't good enough."

He was lying. Hirutani was positive Jounouchi was lying to him, but with no proof to back him up, he didn't have justification to kill them. He pulled a cigarette free from his pack and lit it. "If you say so," he said.

"I do," Jounouchi said, and he scowled as he sat up to open his window, each movement careful and deliberate—probably to avoid bothering his ribs any more than necessary. "And sit by the window if you're going to smoke in here. My room isn't your ash tray."

Given that the bed was pushed up beneath the window, that gave Hirutani no choice but to abandon the chair—which, really, was fine by him. He grinned as he moved over to sit on the bed, and smiled more broadly still as Jounouchi—apparently realizing what it was that he did—scooted over a little to put more distance between them. "Fine," Hirutani said. "Now answer my question. What is it you want to go back to so badly?"

"I already answered it, jackass," Jounouchi spat. Hirutani couldn't help but glare a little at the insult, and Jounouchi seemed to think better of his response, for he said, "My school, my friends—what else?"

Of course. His friends. It was funny, Hirutani thought, how obvious it was. Of course it was his little Domino friends, despite supposedly two months of being away from them. Of course it was the very same bargaining chips Hirutani had used to get Jounouchi to listen to him in the first place. They were useful as leverage, but Hirutani was beginning to think that the cons of keeping them alive were beginning to outweigh the pros of doing the same. One way or another, he had to get Jounouchi to listen to him without bribing him into it. He had to cut the dependence on Jounouchi's friends. He had to own Jounouchi wholesale, or else this was never going to work.

Hirutani took a drag from his cigarette. Fortunately, given things Jounouchi had said or done over the past two months, he already had a vague idea of how to handle it.

"Right. Your 'friends,'" he said through his exhale. He reached up to tap the ash off his cigarette through Jounouchi's window. "You know, I'm surprised you're still so attached to them after all this time. Surprised you haven't figured it out yet."

"Don't know what you're on about, but it's good for you I am, isn't it?" Jounouchi asked, and he folded his arms defensively across his chest as he threw Hirutani a caustic look. "If I didn't care, you couldn't hold them over my head anymore."

"True," Hirutani said, "but on the other hand, it's kind of sad to see you think that you'd still have a future there even if I let you go back."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Jounouchi." Hirutani looked over to meet Jounouchi's eyes, and he waited a second to make sure Jounouchi was listening before said, "Do you really think that the good little boys and girls of Domino High would want anything to do with you if they knew who you really are? If they knew what you've done?" Jounouchi blinked, and there was something in the surprise that crossed his face that almost looked like a wince that told Hirutani he'd hit a useful target. Jounouchi looked away, and Hirutani pressed the point harder. "Sure, Honda might take you back. He was always desperate to be with you. But that Mazaki chick dropped you full stop in the plaza two months ago. She knows what kind of guy you are. And as for that other twerp—"

"Don't," Jounouchi said, but his voice was more like a growl. There was warning there—a threat, albeit one without teeth given the state Jounouchi was in. Hirutani ignored it.

"Honestly, I'm kind of surprised he even followed you around to begin with. No one screams Domino High as much as him, except maybe Mazaki, but she screams Daddy's Little Princess more than anything else." Hirutani took another hit on his cigarette, and shrugged as he exhaled. "Then again, I guess that Yuki—"

"Yuugi."

"—kid could use a bodyguard, and you're a fine man for the job. Bet he wouldn't mind putting up with everything else about you if he could get that." Hirutani smirked. "Though I wonder how safe and protected he'd feel if he knew you broke into someone's car with the express purpose of mugging the driver last night? I wonder how keen he'd be to be best buddies with you if he knew you did a job for the yakuza? That doesn't really seem to fit into Domino High's squeaky clean bubble of safety. Something tells me he wouldn't like that very much, even from his bodyguard."

"I wasn't his bodyguard," Jounouchi ground out. "I was his—"

"Friend?" Hirutani interrupted, and Jounouchi snapped his mouth shut. "So you never protected him? Never had to keep any bullies off his tail?"

"Of course I did, but I didn't do it because I had to," Jounouchi said. "And it's not like he—that's not why we became friends, it had nothing to do with it."

"Oh? Well, color me interested." Hirutani reached up to ash his cigarette through the window again. Jounouchi was glaring at the opposite wall as if he wanted to set it on fire, the muscles in his arms taut, his jaw clenched. He was so on-edge Hirutani felt like laughing. "Tell me, then: Why did you decide to let him follow you around?"

"He didn't 'follow me around,'" Jounouchi snapped. "We hung out. Believe it or not, Hirutani, that's a thing people do when they're friends. Willingly. No blackmail necessary."

Hirutani ran his tongue along the gash inside his cheek again, as a reminder to himself to stay calm. "The story, Jounouchi," he said.

"I got in a fight with someone out of my league, and Yuugi defended me," Jounouchi said. "That's it, end of story."

Hirutani stared at him. When Jounouchi offered no further explanation, Hirutani said, "You . . . you were outmatched, and that . . . that kid defended you?"

"He got the shit kicked out of him for it, but yeah," Jounouchi said.

Hirutani nodded, and breathed a small sigh he didn't know he'd been holding as understanding brought him relief. The idea that someone could outmatch Jounouchi in a fight was troubling in and of itself, because if they could best Jounouchi, they could best him, but the idea that Yuugi could somehow be better in a fight than Jounouchi was . . . no, there was no reason to think about it. The idea was stupid, even if it gave Hirutani a better opening than a box of five hundred thousand yen on Christmas.

"Smart kid," he said. "Wish I could say the same for you."

Jounouchi shot him a look of pure annoyance, exasperation thick in his voice as he asked, "What are you going on about now?"

"You seriously don't see it?" Hirutani asked, and when Jounouchi did nothing but slightly raise his eyebrows over a nonplussed stare, he explained, "From what you're telling me, you got your ass handed to you, that kid defended you, and from then on you decided to be his sworn protect—I'm sorry, friend."

"Yeah, and?"

"And?" Hirutani forced an incredulous laugh. "Jounouchi. The kid is small, scrawny, and weak."

"He's not weak."

"He would snap like a twig if put in a fight with any one of our boys," Hirutani said, and he ignored the venomous glare Jounouchi sent his way. "But you're not any of those things. Despite apparently getting your ass kicked by someone bigger and stronger than you, you can handle yourself in most fights, and that Yuugi kid had to know it. So what does he do? He pretends to be the big hero and gets himself kicked around for your sake, and you fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Now he's got himself a loyal bodyguard, and he didn't even have to ask—you volunteered!"

Jounouchi stared at him for a second more, as if Hirutani had spoken in a different language and Jounouchi was trying to translate it back into Japanese, before he shook his head in apparent disgust. "You're out of your fucking mind," he said. "That's nothing even close to what happened."

"You sure about that?" Hirutani asked. He took one last drag on his cigarette before he tossed it out of the window. "Why else would that kid want to spend time with you, huh? Think about it. What about you could possibly appeal to someone like him?" Jounouchi clenched his jaw, and Hirutani saw his nails digging into his arms. Perfect. "Putting aside that genius manipulative streak he has behind those big doe-eyes, I said it before, he seems to be the model example of squeaky-clean Domino High. He's so polite, he's so nice, probably has a nice, warm, cozy, comfy home life, and plenty of cash if that gaudy necklace he was wearing is anything to go by—"

"What's your point," Jounouchi said flatly.

"My point," Hirutani said, "is that you're none of those things. You're rude, violent, and not very bright. Hate to break it to you, Jounouchi, but even your own parents can't stand you." A stricken look crossed Jounouchi's face as he swallowed hard, and there was something about the way his eyes were focused so firmly on his own jeans that told Hirutani he was making it a point not to look over. Hirutani waited only a few seconds to let his words sink in before he added, "What makes you think someone like him could?"

Jounouchi gave no reply. The seconds ticked by in silence, and Hirutani waited until a minute had passed before he said, "He wanted a bodyguard, and he got one. Best of all, you never even saw it coming. I'll admit it, I'm impressed. Almost wish I'd thought of it. Maybe you'd be a little more loyal to me if I had."

". . . If you want to do something that'll make me like you," Jounouchi muttered, though he was staring at the giant hole in the knee of his jeans as he said it, his fingers toying with the frayed edges, "you could try chugging a gallon of bleach. Down it all in one go, no breaks."

Hirutani snorted. "Nice try," he said. Jounouchi shrugged. "But anyway, point is. Even if he wanted you as his bodyguard at first, I still think he'd be pretty freaked by the things you've done already—by what you're really capable of. If he saw you for who and what you really are—the real you . . ." Hirutani shook his head. "There's no way he'd want anything to do with you."

"Yeah?" Jounouchi asked, but it sounded rhetorical. He let his head fall back against the wall with a thud. After a moment, he sighed. "Maybe." It wasn't really an agreement, but it was enough of one that Hirutani gave the ceiling a satisfied smile. It was progress, which was the best he could ask for at the— "But what about you?"

Hirutani looked over. "What about me?"

"I'm a completely worthless person, right?" Jounouchi asked. He hadn't lifted his head from the wall, so he was looking at Hirutani askance. "My own parents can't even stand me, that's how much of a waste of space I am. So why are you so goddamn obsessed with me? Why won't you leave me the hell alone?"

Hirutani kept his expression as neutral as he could, even as a sudden rush of adrenaline kicked everything into sharper focus, and looked Jounouchi straight in the eyes. He held the look for a beat before he said, "Because I think you're worth it."

Jounouchi rolled his eyes and looked away as he said, "Fuck off."

"No, I do. Why else would I put up with your annoyingly stubborn ass all these years?" Hirutani asked. "Yeah, you're pretty fucked up guy, Jounouchi. But I already know that, I've known it for years. I've seen you at your worst. But unlike the rest of them, I appreciate the worst of you. I know how valuable that is—how valuable you can be." A diamond among rhinestones, my most prized

"Is that right," Jounouchi said, and for once, Hirutani couldn't easily read the expression on Jounouchi's face—couldn't put his finger on what Jounouchi's slightly narrowed eyes were looking for, on what that thin line his lips made as he pressed them together was supposed to mean. But then, Hirutani figured, there was no reason to read too much into it. This was it. He had him now. Hirutani knew he had him. Jounouchi had no one else, and if Hirutani could sell him on this—and he could, and he would—then he had him. He had him, Jounouchi was his.

"Yes," Hirutani said, and he curled his fingers into Jounouchi's threadbare comforter as a reminder to keep his voice even—to keep it soft. "I don't think you realize yet that there's no limit to things that you—that we will do. We were always unbeatable as partners, Jounouchi. Unstoppable. And do you really think it has to stop where it did? That we have to stop?" Hirutani shook his head. "No. We can do more than that, can do better. Can be better, and you're a part of that. All of you. Even and especially the parts of you that no one else appreciates but me."

Jounouchi was still staring at him with that same unreadable look. "And you see worth in that, huh? You think I'm fine the way I am?"

"I'm the only one who does."

"Mm." Jounouchi was quiet for a second, and in his silence Hirutani's heart was pounding a victory beat in his ears. But after a moment, Jounouchi asked, "Then why'd I have to cut my hair?"

"Because it was disgusting." The words were out of Hirutani's mouth before he could stop them, and unwillingly, his eyes flicked to the flyaway, golden mess atop Jounouchi's head, a few strands already growing out to brush the tops of his ears. He at least didn't have the godawful fringe back yet, and it wasn't long enough anymore to accommodate wandering fingers, but— "And impractical. I told you—I showed you, in a fight it was too easy to—"

"Why does it matter what school I go to?" Jounouchi interrupted. "If everything about me was fine the way it was, then my choice in school shouldn't have mattered much."

"Because there was nothing for you at Domino High," Hirutani said, and he squeezed the comforter of the bed in a strained grip. He was losing control. He was losing control of this conversation, and Jounouchi— "Nothing good, no opportunities. Everything you need is at Rintama."

"Why does it matter what I do?" Jounouchi asked, and there was challenge in his eyes that Hirutani hadn't seen all afternoon, a knowing little glint in them that told Hirutani that Jounouchi now felt he was winning. "The cigarettes I smoke, or don't. The places I go, what I do there . . . what I won't drink, ever. Why do you care about any of that? If I was fine the way I am—"

"Because we have an image to maintain for the things we want to do, and you know that," Hirutani snapped, and though Jounouchi raised his eyebrows at the outburst, his expression didn't otherwise change. Hirutani took a deep breath through his teeth. He needed to calm down. Needed to regain control. Needed to not have a repeat of last night's incident. "I never said you were perfect. What I actually said was that you're a fucked up person that no one else wants, or that no one else would want if they knew what you really are." Hirutani looked Jounouchi dead in the eyes. "But I want you. Me, and no one else."

Jounouchi hummed a little to show he'd heard, and then he said, "So, this 'no one' you brought up—is that still an option on the table?" Some of the nearly overpowering desire to knock Jounouchi's teeth down his throat must have shown in Hirutani's expression, for in the next beat Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "Oh, whatever. Calm the hell down. It's not like I could take it even if it was. Not when you'd just use it as an excuse to go after Yuugi, Honda, and Anzu."

Hirutani blinked, his anger fading in lieu of confusion. He'd been sure of the progress they'd made—had seen it in the melancholy look on Jounouchi's face, had heard it in his defeated sigh—but this made it sound as if . . . "That would bother you?"

Jounouchi looked at him like he'd just drooled on the bedspread. "Yeah, obviously."

"Why? They don't care about you," Hirutani said. "You know this. We just went over—"

"That I'm a horrible fucking person, complete monster, yeah, yeah, I got it," Jounouchi said, and he waved one hand through the air dismissively. "Thing is, I don't care. Yeah, I'm pretty worthless. Like you, I kinda figured that one out for myself. But even if they know that, too, and want—or should want—nothing to do with me because of it . . ." He shrugged. "They're better people than I am. I got that. And they don't deserve to die." He fixed Hirutani with a hard stare. "So you're not going to fucking touch them, and neither are any of the other fuckboys we've got in this stupid ass gang of ours. And in return, I'll be good and do whatever piece of shit job you throw my way. Same deal as before. No take-backs."

Hirutani stared at him. Somehow, despite Jounouchi agreeing to stay . . . despite Jounouchi saying he'd be good and do his job . . . somehow, and Hirutani could not even begin to figure out how this had happened . . .

Somehow, it felt like Jounouchi won.

Hirutani wanted to snap something in half. Preferably Jounouchi's neck.

"Fine," Hirutani said instead, and Jounouchi shifted his position so that he was leaning back into the corner of the wall, though he couldn't stop himself from wincing, his breath hitching at the pain the movement caused him. Good. "But you better answer your damn phone from now on. I mean it, Jounouchi. Don't make me track you down again."

"Yeah, yeah," Jounouchi said. Hirutani glared at him a second more before he let his eyes trail down Jounouchi's chest, down to the ribs he was sure were swollen and bruised just beneath that thin white shirt.

There was one more thing he could do.

"Take off your shirt," he said.

Jounouchi shot him a look, and Hirutani noted with no shortage of pleasure that he looked alarmed. "Say what?"

"Take off your shirt," Hirutani repeated. "I want to get a look at your ribs. Did you wrap them?"

"No," Jounouchi said. "To both. All three. All three things you just said. No."

"Then I'll do it. Where do you keep your tape?" Jounouchi didn't move except to cross his arms across his chest, and Hirutani narrowed his eyes. "Jounouchi—"

"No."

"Didn't you just say you were going to do what I said so long as I left the Domino High brat pack alone?" Hirutani asked, and he didn't bother to keep the annoyance from his voice. If Jounouchi was going to be a little pissant not five seconds after agreeing to listen—

"Yeah, sorry, no, I draw the line at stripping," Jounouchi said flatly.

Hirutani bit his tongue. He wanted to point out that Jounouchi wasn't allowed to draw lines, so long as their deal held—that he was the boss, that Jounouchi was to do what he said, that he'd just agreed, again, to do just that. He wanted to draw his knife, because if he wanted to see the beautiful spread of bruises he knew mottled Jounouchi's skin just beneath that shirt, he didn't have to wait for Jounouchi to take it off. He could get it himself.

But no, he had to refrain from repeating last night's incident. He had to let things cool down for a little while first, until he could approach Jounouchi's stubborn defiance from a different angle to break it once and for all. The throb inside his cheek told him that well enough. So Hirutani said, "It's just your goddamn shirt, to take care of your goddamn ribs, so you don't have to spend over half a year healing and can get back in the game that much faster. This is business, Jounouchi."

"It's my business, and I'll take care of it myself. Last thing my ribs need is the guy who broke them trying to fix them," Jounouchi said. Hirutani glowered at him, but before he could say anything more, Jounouchi added, "I'm gonna get them taken care of tonight, all right? I didn't go last night because it was too late, and I haven't gone today because it's been too early. But I know a guy who can do it. I'm not gonna let myself be out of commission for six months or whatever, god damn. Like I'd ever let myself be down for that long around you."

Hirutani ignored the slight. Comparatively, it wasn't important. "Which guy is this? Who is he?"

"He's a guy, and he can help without making this seem suspicious," Jounouchi said. "The last thing I need to do is explain to a hospital how this happened." Hirutani was going to argue—because that wasn't an answer, or an acceptable one, anyway—but Jounouchi cut across him. "Just leave it, okay? Let me take care of it. You wanna be partners? Maybe stop being such an asshole all the time and treat me like one."

"Partnership only goes so far," Hirutani said. "And that's a privilege, not a right."

"So I've heard," Jounouchi muttered.

Hirutani watched him for a second more before he stood up. This was pointless. He should have known better than to think it'd be so easy—than to think Jounouchi could ever make anything easy—but it still stung to know that he was leaving with something less than a victory, particularly after the high he'd gotten last night. "Make sure you're at school tomorrow," he said. "And wear your collar up to hide the bruises." Well, that, and because it looked better than the half-assed way Jounouchi typically wore his uniform, but—

"Yeah, sure," Jounouchi said.

Hirutani ground his teeth, but otherwise showed no response. There was no need to let Jounouchi know he won any sort of ground; no need to give him the satisfaction. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said. Jounouchi said nothing, and so Hirutani crossed the room and let himself out, though he took the time to shut the door behind him.

Jounouchi's father was still conscious in the living room. He lifted his head up from the slouch he was in as Hirutani headed toward the door. "You done?" he asked, and he sounded confused. Whether it was because Jounouchi wasn't in cuffs or because he'd forgotten why Hirutani was there to begin with, Hirutani wasn't sure.

"I've got what I needed for today," he said, though really he only had half. "I'll be in touch."

Jounouchi's father grunted, and pushed himself up from the chair as Hirutani let himself out through the front door. Once the door was shut behind him, Hirutani reached in his pockets for his cigarette and lighter.

God damn Jounouchi. God damn him. Every single time Hirutani thought he had a break, every single time he thought he'd finally made progress, Jounouchi found some way to regress. No matter how many times he was punished, he still managed to stir up that defiant streak again, and again, and aga—

The words were indistinct, but sudden shouting erupted from the apartment behind him. Hirutani looked over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow, but a thread of amusement brought a smile to his lips as he lit his cigarette.

"Oh, by the way," he said softly. "Your old man thinks you're in trouble with the cops. Might want to watch out for that . . ."

Hirutani laughed under his breath as he made his way down the stairs leading away from the apartment.

Maybe he hadn't been able to secure Jounouchi the way he wanted to with that visit, no.

But at the very least, he thought he made sure to impart a very important lesson on why Jounouchi should never skip school.

Chapter Text

For the first time in he couldn't remember how long, Yuugi was impatient to get to school.

He left his house early, his breakfast half-eaten on the table, and tapped his foot as he waited for the bus to arrive. On the bus, he was no more patient; he groaned every time it slowed to a stop at a traffic light or someone's street, and tapped his fingers on the leather of the bus seat every time it gradually picked up speed to move again. When the school finally came into view beyond the pane of the bus window, Yuugi about sagged with relief. A glance at his watch told him that his bus was actually moving a little ahead of schedule today, but it still felt like he was late.

As he ducked and wove through the throng of students making their way to the school, Yuugi allowed himself a second to acknowledge how strange his desperation to get to class was. In a way, he supposed, it was almost like he expected Jounouchi to be back—like last night had changed everything to the extent that Jounouchi was going to be there waiting for him, just like he always had been before, a bright grin on his face and, quite possibly, a lewd videotape in his backpack. This wasn't the case of course, and Yuugi knew it. The ones he was anxious to see were Anzu and Honda. But last night in the park had changed things, at least to the degree that Yuugi now carried hope as secure in his chest as the Millennium Puzzle was around his neck, and so it was with no degree of caution that he threw open the door to his classroom, and once again felt relief and joy flood through him as he saw that Anzu and Honda were already there.

"Good morning, Yuugi!" Anzu said brightly. It was the same amount of overzealous cheer that she'd been using to greet him every morning for the past two months—the same amount of cheer that Yuugi knew she was using to try and counter the gloom he'd been feeling for about the same—and he twisted his backpack straps in his hands to remind himself that, as soon as they rescued Jounouchi, she wouldn't feel the need to force that much brightness into her voice anymore.

Two rows away from Anzu, Honda glanced up from the notebook he'd been studying, gave Yuugi a short nod, and then looked down again. As much as Anzu's overplayed enthusiasm bothered him, Yuugi thought that Honda's attitude hurt even more. After Jounouchi had left, Honda had become more withdrawn. He was still friendly, to a degree, but he wouldn't go out of his way to talk to Yuugi, and when Yuugi tried to talk to him, their conversations were short and stilted. It made sense, Yuugi supposed; they had never hung out without Jounouchi before, and their friendship had started so shortly before Jounouchi left. They never really had reason to talk to or hang out with each other without Jounouchi there to bridge the gap. In the end, Yuugi supposed, Honda was still Jounouchi's friend more than he had ever been Yuugi's, no matter how much Yuugi had wanted to think otherwise.

But that didn't matter now, Yuugi told himself, and he twisted his backpack straps again. Honda still would talk to him, if Yuugi asked, and besides, Jounouchi needed help. Honda was Jounouchi's friend. He'd listen, and they'd get Jounouchi back, and after that . . . after that, everything would go back to normal.

"Morning, Anzu," Yuugi said, and he pulled his backpack off to drop it on his desk before he made his way over to hers. "Hey, I need to talk to you and—"

"Yuugi, what happened?" Anzu asked, alarmed. Yuugi blinked at her, momentarily caught off-guard by how she could possibly know that something happened before he said anything, but when she crossed the aisle to reach out and gently touch his cheek—the one where the mugger had hit him, he remembered, the spot where he had a swollen bruise now—the reason for her dismay not only clicked, but gave him what he thought was a good segue into what was actually important. "Did you get into a fight? Did someone hit you?"

"That's what I was trying to say," Yuugi said, and he glanced over in time to see that although Honda was still staring at his notebook, it didn't look like he was actually reading it. "Listen, last night I ran into Jounouchi-kun in the park—"

"He hit you?" Anzu demanded, and it was almost astounding to Yuugi how quickly she could go from gentle concern to righteous fury. Anzu's fingers curled into fists, and if Yuugi didn't know better, she looked ready to march out of the school and head straight over to Rintama High. "Oh, that is the limit, I'm going to—"

"No! No, it wasn't Jounouchi-kun, he didn't hurt me," Yuugi said, and he raised his hands in a placating gesture. He looked over to see that Honda was openly staring at them now; his expression suggested that he was afraid, on some level, of what he was going to hear. "I got mugged—well, almost mugged last night. That was the guy that hit me. It wasn't Jounouchi-kun."

"Oh." Anzu frowned, her expression dubious. "You're not just saying that to protect him, are you? Because Yuugi, I swear—"

"If he was the one that hit me, and I wanted to protect him, why would I tell you I ran into him in the first place?" Yuugi said, and he felt a little bad at the impatience in his tone. Anzu was just trying to look out for him, but the longer they talked about this, the less time they had to talk about the actual problem at hand. Anzu didn't seem to have an argument for him, so he said, "I'm serious, it wasn't him. Actually, he protected me."

"He . . . protected you?" Anzu's face scrunched in confusion, and two rows over, Honda's expression was similarly confused, though tinted with wary hope.

"Yeah," Yuugi said. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. This guy attacked me, and before I had a chance to do anything, Jounouchi-kun jumped in and saved me. He came out of nowhere. I . . ." Yuugi glanced over at Honda again, and then gestured for Anzu to follow him over to Honda's desk. "Here, come over here. I want Honda-kun to hear this, too."

Honda closed his notebook as Yuugi and Anzu came over, and without waiting for a cue, Yuugi launched into the story of what happened in the park the previous night. He left out the part where Jounouchi had beaten the mugger without much restraint (as well as the part where he'd acted so coldly toward the guy that had attacked him), but otherwise he told them everything, from how Jounouchi had escorted him out of the park, to how panicked and upset Jounouchi seemed when he'd realized that he was late for something, and that someone was going to be angry with him for it. By the end of the story, Anzu was frowning, and Honda had his elbows on his desk, his fingers laced together, his brow furrowed in thought.

"Why would he do that, though?" Anzu asked, and she folded her arms loosely across her stomach. "Protect you like that, I mean. He said he didn't care about you anymore, and he did a good job of proving that back when he transferred, so why—?"

"I don't know, except . . . except I think he does still care," Yuugi said, and when Anzu gave him a skeptical look he insisted, "No, I think—I know he does, he has to. You weren't there last night, you didn't see—he was really worried about me when he thought I was hurt, he took the time to lead me out, and he—"

"But he said this doesn't change anything, right?" Anzu said. Yuugi pressed his lips together in a frown. "I don't know what he's going for, and this does seem to go against what he said before, but . . ."

"Honda-kun?" Yuugi asked, and Honda's eyes flicked up to meet Yuugi's, though otherwise he didn't show any sign that he'd heard. "What do you think?"

Honda was quiet for a moment. He looked away from Yuugi again, his eyes boring into his desk, before he finally spoke in a quiet voice.

"In middle school . . ." he began slowly. "Jounouchi was in a gang with this guy named Hirutani. Well, I guess he—it was kind of—Jounouchi wasn't really like the rest of the guys Hirutani had in his gang. They all followed Hirutani without a second thought, from the looks of things. Jounouchi kind of . . . did what he wanted. Sometimes he went with them, sometimes he didn't. He'd say he was with them, and he hung out with Hirutani, but he'd do things without them, too. He'd skip out, you know, if he wanted to hang out with me instead, or something." Honda laughed, short and humorless. "Hirutani never liked that very much."

"You mean you weren't in the gang with them?" Anzu asked. When Honda shook his head, Anzu said, "Huh."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Honda asked, his tone accusatory.

Anzu shrugged. "I always just figured that you were as much of a thug as Jounouchi, that's all."

"Gee, thanks," Honda said. Anzu shrugged again, and looked unapologetic. Yuugi cleared his throat, more to clear the sudden tension than anything else, and it seemed to be enough to get Honda to stop glaring at Anzu and get back on track with the conversation. "Anyway . . .

"Back then, there was this one time . . . it was near the end of middle school. Hirutani never liked me. I was always too close to Jounouchi, and Hirutani didn't like that I told Jounouchi to drop his ass and move on. But the guy was—you don't know, you can't get it, it's hard to explain if you weren't there, but he—" Honda made a gesture with his hands, his fingers flexing into half-fists, as if to accentuate his point. "He was so—controlling. It made sense for the rest of his dudes, I guess, since he had a gang, but it always seemed—different, with Jounouchi. I didn't like it, and I told Jounouchi so, and even though I'd never say as much when Hirutani was around, I think he knew anyway. And he hated me for it."

"He sounds like a real creep," Anzu said.

"You don't know the half of it," Honda said darkly. "Anyway, there was this one time last year when Hirutani tried to pick a fight with me because I kept hanging out with Jounouchi. Jounouchi found out about it and got involved . . . and before things could escalate, he invited Hirutani back to his place."

Yuugi exchanged a look of surprise with Anzu before he said, "But I thought . . . didn't you tell us that Jounouchi-kun didn't like to have his friends over?"

Honda huffed a short laugh, and like before, he didn't sound very happy. "Yeah." He folded his arms on his desk, and with one finger began to trace the old doodles and carvings left there by previous students. "I actually brought that up. Well, actually—Hirutani was the one that brought up going to Jounouchi's place. Said something about how, instead of fighting me, he could always just go back to Jounouchi's place with him. I said he didn't like having people over, because if Hirutani was actually his friend, he should know that, right? But Jounouchi agreed. He said that if it was Hirutani, it was fine." Honda's fingers curled into fists on his desk, and he swallowed as he glared daggers at the wood surface. "It was so stupid, but I—it was like he'd hit me. I don't think I've ever felt so betrayed. And of course that bastard Hirutani was gloating. He was thrilled. It was pretty obvious Jounouchi had picked him over me."

"Then what changed?" Anzu asked. "I mean, if he'd already chosen to stay with that guy—"

"I don't know," Honda said, and he leaned back in his chair, his arms splayed across his desk. He looked tired, but Yuugi didn't think the early morning hour had much to do with it. "A short while after that Jounouchi told me he'd decided to enroll here instead of Rintama. He didn't tell me why, and I didn't ask. I guess a part of me did want to know why—why he'd chosen Hirutani that day, why he'd made that exception for him—but I kind of ignored it in favor of accepting the way things were. Choosing to come here meant that he was choosing to leave Hirutani, since Hirutani was going to Rintama. He was finally getting away from all that for good. That was good enough for me."

"But he's back with him now, right?" Yuugi said. He'd forgotten about Hirutani in the park—but now that he thought on it, he was pretty sure that name had been thrown around two months ago, in the plaza. And there was that one guy, the one who'd walked up to fight with Honda, who'd patted Jounouchi on the back as they'd left . . . "Only, it doesn't seem like he . . ."

"Yeah, that's the thing. What you said happened last night—what happened two months ago—it reminds me of what happened back then." Honda tapped his fingers against the desk. "Back then, I was so pissed off. I just didn't get it, you know? I couldn't see why he insisted on trusting that creep, why he'd listen to him instead of me. It's not like his place was a cool place to hang out—I'd only been there once before, and never inside—but it was just that he'd see that we were fighting, or were about to, and he'd still pick Hirutani. I just—I never understood it.

"But now that I think about it . . ." Honda tapped his fingers in a slightly faster, more rhythmic beat. "He . . . stopped us from fighting. He intervened. And what he said got Hirutani to back off. I still wanted to fight, but Hirutani was satisfied." Honda paused, and then snorted. "Then again, of course he was. What Jounouchi said meant Hirutani got to have him all to himself, and at Jounouchi's place, no less. Probably the only thing that would have made him happier is if Jounouchi had handed him a leash and collar while he was at it."

"This . . . is starting to sound a little weird," Anzu said.

Honda cleared his throat. "Right. Sorry. Anyway, the point is, maybe it wasn't so much about choosing Hirutani over me, but more about stopping the fight. Jounouchi knew how to do it, knew how to get Hirutani to back off. And if we think back to two months ago, something similar happened. Hirutani wanted to fight me . . . and Jounouchi got in the way. He said something to get Hirutani to back off, to get him to leave."

"And he told us to stay away," Yuugi said. He leaned against the chair attached to the desk in front of Honda's, his heart beating faster with every passing second as the pieces finally started to click into place. "Last night, he seemed . . . scared. Really scared and upset. And he said that I was a better person than he was, but that I had to stay away. That I couldn't save him, that I had to give up . . ."

"So you think," Anzu said slowly, "that by telling us to stay away and acting like a huge jerk, he was actually trying to protect us?"

"Well, if he's with Hirutani, and we stay away from him, then that keeps us away from Hirutani, too," Honda said. "So it makes sense, even if I can't figure out why he'd go back to Hirutani after all this. I thought he'd changed, especially after . . ." Honda's eyes flickered to meet Yuugi's, and Yuugi's heart missed a beat at what he thought that look probably meant.

"I'm sure he has a reason," Yuugi said, and their classmates started to file into their chairs as their teacher entered the classroom. "He has to. Jounouchi-kun hasn't changed—not like this. He's still our friend, I know he is. And whatever this is, we just need to help him get away from it."

It took a second, but for the first time in months, Honda smiled at him. Yuugi couldn't resist the urge to smile back. "Yeah. If we can find him—get him alone—then I'm sure we can get him to explain what's going on in that head of his. We can handle things and help him from there."

"It'll have to wait until tomorrow, though," Anzu said, and when Yuugi and Honda both looked at her, she said, "I have to work today, and you guys aren't doing this without me."

"I have to do something for my parents after school today, anyway," Honda said, and he looked back at Yuugi. "Is that okay with you, Yuugi?"

Truthfully, it was a little disappointing, but as their teacher called for them to take their seats, he nodded. "Yeah. Tomorrow after school. Definitely."

Honda smiled a little again, and Anzu did as well. She was still wary, Yuugi knew, and was probably doing this mostly for his benefit, but that was fine. It was enough. She was still on the team, and together, the three of them would—

"Mutou-kun, Mazaki-san, take your seats, please!" their teacher said, and a few of the other students snickered as Anzu and Yuugi hastily made their way back to their own desks.

Hang in there, Jounouchi-kun, Yuugi thought, as he slid into his seat and pulled his textbook and notebook out of his backpack. Just give us another day. One more day, and we'll bring you home.

Chapter Text

The streets of Domino emptied out after nine at night. The only stragglers were those who either worked late or overnight shifts, or middle and high school gangs that felt the need to either hold or expand their turf. By ten thirty, gang members and other criminals were the only ones out to be encountered, ready to jump whoever crossed their paths in hopes of scoring quick cash, or proving themselves to rival gangs around them. But the thing about those people was that they tended to haunt more opportunistic areas; they straggled in the park or crowded beneath the underpass, just out of sight of the unwary but ready to pounce when prey presented themselves. For someone like Jounouchi, it was easy enough to find them if he wanted or needed to pick a fight, but at the same time it was just as easy to know which shortcuts to take to both avoid them and get to where he needed to be in record time. Domino was his city, and the benefit of biking various newspaper routes for so many years was that he knew six different ways to get from Point A to Point B, and the pros and cons of each. There was nowhere in Domino he couldn't get to, and no shortcut he didn't know about. So as he made his way to his "doctor's" apartment that night, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his sweatshirt and his hood pulled up to obscure his face and hair, not a single person tried to approach him. From Jounouchi's perspective, this was for the best; broken ribs or no broken ribs, he wasn't in the mood to play with anyone tonight, and that would show in the worst possible way if anyone tried to stop him from getting where he needed to be. After all, he'd already had to leave his own damn apartment from his bedroom window after his dad decided to lock and jam his bedroom door from the other side to stop him leaving; tonight really wasn't the night for anyone to try and start something with him.

The little swollen knot along his cheekbone where his dad had hit him earlier still smarted, but not as much as Jounouchi's pride did, especially as he caught himself checking to make sure he wasn't being followed by anyone each time he darted down a new side street. He wasn't doing this because of Hirutani. He wasn't going to see his "doctor" because Hirutani had insisted he wrap his ribs, or because he didn't want to find out what would happen if he showed up to school tomorrow without having done what he said he would. He didn't care what happened, and he definitely wasn't "afraid" of any "consequences." It was the same with his dad; he wasn't afraid of what would happen if he picked the lock on his bedroom door so he could go out, he just didn't want to deal with it.

Jounouchi paused as he rounded a corner, waited a couple of seconds, and when he was sure he didn't hear any footsteps, continued at a brisk pace.

He'd already been thinking about going earlier in the day, before Hirutani showed up. He hadn't lied when he told Hirutani he had a plan. He'd mostly trashed the idea because of the risk; if he was followed, if Hirutani found out . . . but the choice had more or less been made for him when Hirutani demanded to get a look at Jounouchi's ribs—not that he was doing this because of Hirutani, Jounouchi told himself firmly—and so he had to go. Besides, it would be safe. Hirutani wouldn't have any reason to be suspicious of the name "Sawashiro," would have no real reason to think anything of it. None of Jounouchi's friends would be there. He wasn't doing anything wrong, or breaking any rules—this was fine. It was fine. It would be fine.

Of course, he'd lied about one small (but important) detail and made sure he wasn't being followed anyway, just in case. Better to be safe than sorry (not that he was ever sorry, of course, because he wasn't, because Hirutani was an asshole and Jounouchi didn't care what Hirutani did or thought, but—).

The Sawashiro residence was an apartment on the nicer side of Domino. The small family that lived there wasn't wealthy by any means, but the man of the household—Hideki, Jounouchi thought his name was, or something close to it—was able to get some monetary assistance from his family every month, on top of the jobs that he and his wife had. With a dual income and at least some assistance, they were able to afford a nicer place to raise their kid—a much nicer place than Jounouchi's neighborhood, anyway, which Jounouchi was glad for. The last thing they needed was to get mixed up in the same trash circles he ran around in.

Which, of course, was why he shouldn't bother them at ten thirty at night, and he knew this even as he jogged up the stairs to their apartment, one arm wrapped tightly around his chest so his ribs would stop trying to kill him from the inside out. But even though he knew he shouldn't—even if he knew it was just another reason on top of many why he was an awful fucking person—he couldn't help it. He had to. There was no one else he could trust with this.

And besides, he thought, as he knocked on the door in a light, rapid beat, it'll be kind of nice to pretend for a little while.

It took only a minute or two before the door opened, and as he blinked in the sudden light from inside the apartment, Jounouchi found himself staring into the sharp brown eyes of Sawashiro—née Honda—Ayumu. A sudden flash of warmth spread through him at the sight of her; he hadn't realized how badly he needed to see someone safe and familiar until right that second.

"Can I help you?" Ayumu asked, and her eyebrows were raised a little over an unimpressed frown, her hand still on the door as if she was considering whether or not to slam it in his face.

Jounouchi knew she very well might, depending on his answer, and it only took a second for him to shake off the hurt that she didn't recognize him. It had been a year—or was it two?—since they'd seen each other last, and he'd changed a lot, anyway. He reached up and tugged his hood back, and as she blinked and a hint of dubious recognition passed over her face, he made himself smile a little and said, "Hey, sista."

"Jounouchi?" Ayumu's eyes widened as she finally realized with certainty who he was, but her expression darkened a second later as she huffed, "How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?"

Jounouchi's smile had been forced before—more of an attempt to appear nice and normal than anything else—but for the first time in months his lips twitched in a small, genuine grin, and he huffed a little laugh as he ducked his head. "Aw, come on," he said. "It's our thing."

"It's your thing, and it's annoying as shit," she said flatly, and she leaned forward to look past him down the walkway. "Why are you here so late? Is Hiroto with you?"

"Nah, it's just me. Actually . . . I need your help. Can I come in?"

Ayumu pulled back and gave him a shrewd look, her expression as calculating as it ever was whenever she had tried to tally up the trouble he and Honda had gotten into when they were younger. "What do you need help with? And what's wrong with your voice?" She sniffed, and then wrinkled her nose. "Never mind, don't answer. Cigarettes, Jounouchi? Again? Still? How many packs have you smoked a day to do this to yourself? You're only, what, fifteen?"

"Yeah," he answered, and his earlier warmth faded in favor of defensive annoyance. He'd forgotten that going to Ayumu would mean going before an interrogation squad, even if she was always a lot more reasonable than Honda's parents could ever hope to be. "But this isn't from smoking."

"Uh-huh."

"It's not. I only picked it up again recently, besides." Jounouchi raised a hand to run it through his hair his hair, pulled away when he was reminded—again—that there was no point, and jammed it back into his hoodie pocket. "Look, I—I just got kinda banged up, and I was wondering if you could help me out with it, 'cause some of it's kind of hard to take care of on my own. That's it."

"Didn't I teach you and Hiroto how to do this yourselves?" Ayumu asked. "Because I distinctly remember giving you the 'I'm Not Going to be Here to Do This When I Go to University' talk, along with the 'Stop Being Aggravating Little Twerps and This Might Stop Happening' talk, which was a two-part seminar paired with a great lecture on 'This is What You Get for Being Street Urchins'—"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Jounouchi said impatiently, and Ayumu folded her arms as she regarded him. "I got all that, but like I said, this one's a little hard for me to do by myself. It's why I need help."

"You're telling me my brother won't help you?"

"I'm telling you your brother can't."

They stared at each other for a minute, both of them unwavering, before Jounouchi sighed (and tried to bite back the wince at the pain that even that caused him). "Fine," he said. "It was stupid of me to come here anyway, I'm sorry. I'll—"

"No." Ayumu reached out and grabbed Jounouchi's arm as he turned away, and with an unceremonious tug she pulled him into her apartment. "Get in here, I'll take a look at . . . whatever it is."

Ayumu's apartment was small, but felt more cozy and warm than cramped. A few stray baby toys were scattered across the floor, and the living room at the very least smelled vaguely of some kind of incense. Jounouchi slipped his shoes off by the door, depositing them unceremoniously on top of the other shoes neatly stacked beside the welcome mat, before he accepted a pair of guest slippers from Ayumu. As he tugged the guest slippers on, a guy—Ayumu's husband Hideki, if Jounouchi remembered right, though he'd only ever seen the guy once or twice—stepped out from the hallway.

"Company? This late?"

"Yeah. My brother's little shit of a best friend," Ayumu said, and Jounouchi frowned at her, though he wasn't sure what made him frown more: the way she'd chosen to introduce him, or the fact that she was wrong about him being Honda's best friend at this point. "Is Jouji down?"

"Yeah, he just fell asleep," Hideki said. He looked over at Jounouchi. "Hi, you can make yourself at home. Ah, my name is Hideki. It's nice to meet you."

"We've met before," Jounouchi said, and he had to admit, he was a little proud of himself for remembering the guy's name. Hideki looked sheepish, and Jounouchi shrugged. "But it was only once or twice and it was a long time ago, so it's no big deal, man."

Hideki smiled. "Right. Well, I'm . . . should I make some tea? Or . . ."

"It's fine," Ayumu said dismissively. "This won't take long. You can go on to bed, okay?"

"All right. Well, I'll still be up for a little while if you guys need anything," Hideki said, and he raised one hand in a little wave toward Jounouchi. "It was nice meeting—ah, well, you know, um . . . yeah, I . . ." He cleared his throat, nodded, and then backed toward the hallway. His shoulder hit the corner of the wall as he reached it, and that seemed to be enough to prompt him to turn and dart down it properly.

"He seems like a huge dork," Jounouchi said, before he could help himself. Ayumu swiftly smacked him upside his head, and though Jounouchi knew it was well deserved (and no less than he'd expect from her), that didn't make it smart any less. He raised one hand to rub at the spot where she'd cuffed him.

"He's sweet, funny, and doesn't show up unannounced at ten thirty at night when people are trying to put their kids to bed," she said, and she started toward the hallway herself. Jounouchi followed. "He's already leagues ahead of you, so I wouldn't make fun."

"Mm, yeah," Jounouchi said, because he wasn't sure what else he was supposed to say to that—not when she had a point, anyway.

The small hallway had pictures of Ayumu's family decorating the walls, and three doors: one at the very end of the hall, one right next to it on the right hand side, and one on the left side, smack in the middle of the hall. This was the room Ayumu went to, and after she opened the door and flicked on the light, Jounouchi saw that it was a small hallway bathroom. There was a tub with a shower head in the very back, a toilet along the right wall, and a sink with a mirrored medicine cabinet above it right next to the toilet. Ayumu led the way into the bathroom, and Jounouchi shut the door behind him as he stepped in after her. The less Hideki could overhear of the conversation that was about to take place, he figured, the better, and they didn't need to risk waking up Ayumu's kid, either.

"All right," Ayumu said, and she put her hands on her hips as she regarded him. "What's the problem this time?"

"'This time,'" Jounouchi said, but as Ayumu gave him a look, he sighed. "Yeah, okay, that's fair. It's my ribs."

"Your ribs?" Ayumu frowned, and Jounouchi nodded before he unzipped his sweatshirt, and peeled it off to drop it on the sink. As he reached down to tug off his shirt, Ayumu's mouth dropped open in surprise, her brow furrowing in what looked like anger as she reached up to gingerly touch the bruises on his neck. On reflex, Jounouchi pulled away from her touch. "What . . . the Hell happened?" she asked.

"I, uh . . . well, here." Jounouchi pulled his shirt up and off, and gritted his teeth against the searing pain that flashed across his chest at the movement. His ribs would be fine, it would be fine—Ayumu would be able to take care of them, no problem.

But if she had looked surprised and angry at the bruises around his neck, her expression shifted to one of outrage as she looked at his chest. Jounouchi looked down, and yeah, he'd admit that it looked pretty gross; dark bruises were spread across his skin, and maybe he was imagining it, but his chest looked a little swollen where Hirutani's boot had connected with it. Well, he at least had the dubious consolation that it hurt a whole lot worse than it looked. That was something.

"What happened?" Ayumu repeated, and Jounouchi scratched at the back of his neck as he dropped his shirt on the sink with his hoodie.

"Would you believe I fell down the stairs?" he asked.

Ayumu looked up sharply, and Jounouchi could have sworn she was part hawk with how fierce that look was. "Was it your dad?" she asked.

"No. Well," Jounouchi glanced at the mirror, and gingerly poked the swollen spot along his cheekbone, "this one was, but the rest weren't."

"Then who?"

"Does it matter? I got in a fight, you know me. Happens all the time."

"Your ribs are broken and it looks like someone strangled you—which, by the way, sorry for the chain smoking accusation, guess I know why your voice is all effed up now. But this isn—"

"'Effed?'" Jounouchi repeated, bemused. "Didn't know you were one to censor yourself, sista."

Ayumu raised a hand as if to cuff him again, but her eyes flicked to his bruises and she lowered it. Jounouchi felt a swoop of shame in his stomach, and he crossed his arms loosely over it.

"I have a kid, you know," Ayumu said. "I'm trying to swear less. Hideki and I don't want to teach him bad habits."

"Probably for the best," Jounouchi said, grateful for the distraction. "Last thing we need is more bad-mouthed little brats in the world. I think me and Honda did enough of that for a lifetime back when we were kids."

"No kidding," Ayumu said, but she didn't return Jounouchi's grin. "Jounouchi, these aren't normal injuries. The broken ribs, maybe, if you got into a really bad spot, but these?" She reached up to poke at the bruises around his neck again, and once again, Jounouchi recoiled before he could stop himself. "Yeah, that's not normal. None of that is normal. So sit," she turned and pointed one firm finger at the edge of the bathtub, "and tell me what happened."

"Nothing happened," Jounouchi said, but he followed her direction and lowered himself onto the edge of the tub anyway. "I just—you know. Got in a fight I couldn't win. It happens sometimes."

"Not like this. Not to you, anyway." Something seemed to occur to Ayumu, for her frown deepened. "Hey, what about Hiroto? Is he okay? Why didn't he come tonight?"

"He's fine," Jounouchi said, and when her hard stare didn't waver, he added, "Honda's not involved in any of this. It's just me, I promise."

"Just you, huh?" Ayumu said, and when Jounouchi nodded she said, "And what exactly is the 'this' that you're involved in? Who did this to you?"

"No one. It's nothing. It's—" Jounouchi took a deep breath, and regretted it as pain spiked through his chest again. "Look, I can't really talk about it, okay? Can you just wrap these so I can go? You did tell Hideki it wouldn't take long."

"I—yes. No." It was strange to see Ayumu, of all people, fumbling her words, but any amusement Jounouchi felt at the sight faded into a frown as she shook her head. "I can't 'wrap those,' no."

"Why not?" Jounouchi asked, feeling indignant. "You're studying to be a doctor, unless you gave that up when you had your kid—"

"I didn't give it up, much as my parents wanted me to," Ayumu said. "I'm still going to school."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Sista always gets what she wants," Jounouchi said, and as Ayumu scowled at him, he quickly said, "But that's the point. You're training—studying, whatever—to be a doctor. You've been working toward this for years, and you're telling me you can't wrap my ribs?"

"That's why I can't—or won't, anyway," Ayumu said, and as Jounouchi opened his mouth to argue—though what he was going to say he didn't know, because he felt so floored by her refusal to help him that no words came to him—she said, "You don't wrap ribs when they're broken. It's medically unsafe. If I did that, there's a high probability that your condition would only get a whole lot worse."

Jounouchi stared at her. "What?" he asked finally. "Since when?"

"Since forever," Ayumu said. "Since as long as the human body has been the way it is. I know that it used to be standard practice to wrap broken ribs as a way to hold the bones in place while they healed, but the truth is that wrapping isn't necessary for the ribs to heal correctly, and the strain that the constriction puts on the body really isn't worth it. You need to breathe, Jounouchi, and in order to breathe your ribs have to have room to move with your lungs. At best, wrapping your ribs will stop you from taking deep breaths. At worst, it could cause you to develop an infection like pneumonia. In some severe cases, it's even caused lung collapse in patients who had their ribs wrapped incorrectly." Ayumu shook her head, and folded her arms across her stomach as she canted her weight to one side. "So I'm sorry, but no. I won't wrap those for you. I'm not going to risk killing you just because it hurts when you move."

Jounouchi stared at her, at a loss for what to say. He'd always heard that wrapping ribs was the way to go, always thought that was the right thing to do . . . but that didn't matter now. What mattered now—what made a chill creep down his back as his fingers squeezed the edge of the tub and he looked down to glare at the bathroom floor instead—was the thought of what would, or at least, what could have happened had he let Hirutani wrap his ribs earlier that afternoon. Did Hirutani know? Jounouchi doubted it. For as smart as he liked to make himself out to be, Hirutani didn't really know jack when it came to things like this. Besides, wasn't he trying to be nice when he said that? Jounouchi thought so. He'd talked about wanting to make sure Jounouchi healed quickly, not wanting to have him out of commission . . . Hirutani wouldn't have said all that if he was only trying to hurt Jounouchi worse.

But—

"Hey." Ayumu snapped her fingers in front of his face, and Jounouchi jumped, a hiss escaping through his teeth as his ribs protested the sudden movement. "Space cadet. You awake in there?"

"Yeah," Jounouchi said. "Sorry." But what was he supposed to do now? He doubted Hirutani would believe him if he explained, as Ayumu just had, that wrapping ribs wasn't safe. And if he showed up without it done, then after school, Hirutani probably would— "You sure you can't do it? There's no safe way to get it done?"

"The risks outweigh the benefits," Ayumu said, and she frowned at him. "Why does it matter so much? You look like your world just ended."

"I do not," Jounouchi muttered, and Ayumu rolled her eyes.

"Look, give yourself six weeks of rest and your ribs will be all better, I promise. Hell, go to an actual hospital and they might be able to give you a better prognosis than that. I can't really see how badly your ribs are effed up just by looking at them, but an actual doctor with actual medical equipment could."

"Yeah, no, that's out of the question," Jounouchi said. Well, there was nothing for it, then. If she wouldn't wrap them, he'd just have to take his chances. Maybe if he moved really slowly and did his best not to show any pain, Hirutani wouldn't notice . . .

"Then you're just going to have to suck it up, buttercup," she said, but even if her words were cold, and even if it had been a long time since he'd last seen her before this, Jounouchi could see the worry in her eyes as she watched him push himself up from the side of the tub. It was the same look her little brother used to give him all the time back in middle school.

"Yeah," he said. "Looks like it. Thanks anyway."

Ayumu handed him his t-shirt and hoodie from the sink, and they said nothing as he dressed. They were just as quiet as they made their way back out to the living room, but they were only halfway to the door when Ayumu stopped and doubled back.

"Wait a second," she said, when he turned to give her a questioning look. "I've got something you can use."

Jounouchi glanced at the titles of the magazines that were spread out over the coffee table and examined the incense holder on top of the TV as he waited, but Ayumu was only gone for twenty seconds, tops. When she returned, she tossed something small at him, and it was only when he snatched it out of the air that he realized it was an orange medicine bottle.

"Hideki got that when he had his wisdom teeth taken out," Ayumu explained, as Jounouchi examined the bottle. The label read 'hydrocodone' in large, bold print. "What they didn't realize is that he's too much of a baby to take big pills, so he barely took any at all. It should be good, and it'll help with the pain, at least to get you through the day."

Jounouchi looked up, and the small thread of hope he felt at the idea that the medicine would help better fake rib wrapping tomorrow allowed him to smile a little as he said, "Thanks, sista."

"Call me that again and I might take it back," she said, but that only made him laugh beneath his breath as he slipped the medicine bottle in his pocket. "And hey, follow the instructions on that thing, got it? Because I swear, if you O.D. or take it for kicks—"

"What kind of guy do you take me for?" Jounouchi asked, offended. She was so good at knocking any warmth he felt toward her right out of him seconds after she'd inspired it. "You've known me since I was twelve, you know I'm not a freakin' stoner." A reluctant dealer, sure—and more of a middle man, at that—but—

Ayumu gave him a nonplussed stare. "You wouldn't be the first kid to get hooked," she said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "All I'm saying is to be careful, okay? Use as directed. I'm not going to be the source of your addiction."

"Yeah, yeah. Noted. This probably won't last me the whole six weeks, anyway." Not that it would matter much. So long as he knew the name, Jounouchi was sure he could get more. The real question was whether or not he could get it without tipping Hirutani off.

"Make sure," Ayumu said, and as Jounouchi walked toward the door to swap his guest slippers for his actual shoes, she waited only a beat before she said, "You sure you're not going to tell me what's going on with you?"

"Nothing's going on with me," Jounouchi said. He shoved his feet into his shoes, and held the guest slippers out so she could take them. "I'm fine, it was just a fight, I told you."

"If it was just a fight, you wouldn't be like you are. I've known you since you were twelve, remember?" she said. She took the guest slippers from him, and he frowned as he looked over at her.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means exactly what I said."

Jounouchi didn't know what that meant, either, but as they stared at each other, it became clear that she wasn't going to tell him. He sighed; he really didn't feel like fighting with her. In fact, more than anything, he felt tired, but that was nothing new.

"Fine. Okay," he said. "Whatever. Look, just—don't tell Honda about this, okay? About me being here. Don't say anything about it to him."

Ayumu narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "Why not?"

"Just don't," he said, and when she continued to give him a suspicious stare that told him she wasn't going to do anything he said without reason, he said, "It'll be better for him if he doesn't know, okay? The less he knows—it'll make things harder if he finds out. Harder and worse, and—"

"Jounouchi—"

"I don't really know what'll happen if he finds out, but it won't be good. He's better off if he doesn't know about all of this. The farther he stays away from it, the better." Jounouchi twisted the door handle back and forth in his hand as he talked, but he kept his eyes on Ayumu. "So don't tell him about any of this, okay? Don't say a word."

"You're not making any sense," she said. "And since you don't see fit to actually tell me what you're talking about, I don't think you're in a position to tell me what I can or can't say to my own brother."

Jounouchi glared at her. "You care about him, right? About keeping him safe?"

"Of course I do."

"Then don't tell him. Because if you tell him, he's likely to do something stupid, and that won't keep him safe. So don't tell him, Ayumu." She looked a little taken aback, and Jounouchi took advantage of her surprise to add, "Please."

She was quiet for a moment, and Jounouchi didn't know if she'd agree. Finally, she said, "It's pretty late. You should get home."

That wasn't an agreement, but it wasn't a refusal, either, and Jounouchi had known her long enough to know that he wasn't going to get a better deal than that. He nodded once before he wrenched the front door open, and stepped back out onto the walkway.

"Hey, Jounouchi," Ayumu said, and Jounouchi turned back to look at her. He couldn't really read the look on her face this time, but he thought he saw some of the same concern she had shown him in the bathroom. "Watch out for yourself, all right? And whatever's going on . . . I hope you work through it."

That was a wasted hope, Jounouchi knew, but he wouldn't tell her that. He forced a thin smile. "Thanks. You take care of yourself—and Hideki and your kid and all—too."

Ayumu smiled wryly at him. "Jouji's enough of a handful on his own without adding myself or Hideki into it," she said. "I've actually been thinking about pawning him off on Hiroto for some babysitting. He can take him to an amusement park or something—I hear KaibaCorp's opening a new one next month. Maybe if you're feeling better by then . . ."

"Honda'd be enough of a bad influence on the kid without adding me into the mix, don't you think?" Jounouchi said. Ayumu's smile faded, but her expression looked a lot more like pity or sadness than irritation, and he turned away. "I'll, uh—I should go. Thanks again for the meds and stuff."

"Yeah," Ayumu said. "No problem. See you, Jounouchi."

Jounouchi raised one hand in a wave without looking back. "Bye, sista," he said.

He looped around the stairway banister and took the stairs two at a time, ignoring the pain that jolted in his ribs with every step he took. As nice as it had been to be there—as nice as it had been to be somewhere that felt like a little safe harbor, if only for twenty minutes—it couldn't last. Not when Ayumu was so suspicious of what was going on. Not when staying there longer—or worse, actually telling her—could put both her and her family in danger. Not when his selfishness could get her hurt, or worse, if Hirutani somehow found out and decided to retaliate anyway, even though she technically wasn't part of "the Domino High brat pack."

No, the time for pretending that everything was okay, however poor of a job he'd done at it, was over. Tomorrow he would have to go to school, and face Hirutani . . . and see how long he could get away with pretending he'd wrapped his ribs when he hadn't.

Jounouchi took a deep breath through his teeth.

He didn't care. He didn't. He really didn't care what Hirutani said, or did, or thought, but . . .

He was going to fake it anyway. He was going to do his damned best to fake it, and see how long he could get away with it. Jounouchi squeezed the little bottle of hydrocodone Ayumu had given him like a good luck charm buried deep in his hoodie pocket. He was going to fake it until he could make it, and hopefully, that little bottle could see him through.

It was all he had anymore, anyway.

Chapter Text

The following school day passed with all the speed of Yuugi's grandpa shuffling up an icy slope in the dead of winter.

It was Yuugi's own fault, he knew. His mother had always been fond of telling him that the more impatient he was for something, the longer it would take to arrive; that if he put his mind to other tasks—such as, she didn't know, completing his chores or focusing on his schoolwork—then what he wanted would come before he realized it. But if he stared at the clock, willing the second hand to move faster, trying to force the minute hand to move without needing persuasion from the ever-ticking second hand, then it would slow to a crawl because he was too aware of it. "You don't like it when people stare at you, do you?" Yuugi's mother had always said. "Then don't stare at the clock. Time is bashful; it can't act with you staring at it, and staring is rude besides."

Yuugi didn't think that time was a sentient enough force to know whether or not he was staring at its pieces, but he did know that every time he looked up at the clock during class, his teachers' voices nothing but a muted drone in the background, the second hand seemed to be moving slower and it looked like the minute and hour hands were stuck altogether.

So by the time the end of the day finally came, Yuugi was sitting on so much pent up adrenaline that he knocked his books off his desk with his haste to get them into his bookbag, and barely paid attention as his classmates laughed and his teacher sighed. Fortunately, he thought, Anzu and especially Honda were just as anxious to go as he was. Anzu already had her things packed by the time the bell rang, and Honda didn't even bother to put his books in his bag before he stood up. He just shouldered his bag, tucked his books under his arm, and nodded to Yuugi as he headed for the door.

Honda led the way out of the school, his long strides taking him ahead of Anzu and Yuugi, though Anzu didn't have as much trouble keeping up as Yuugi did. The plus side, Yuugi thought, of Honda taking the lead was that it meant the other students more or less made a path for them through the halls; all Yuugi had to do was hasten to follow in Honda's wake until they got out of the school and free from the crowds. The downside was that, due to Yuugi's determination to keep up and get on with finding Jounouchi as quickly as possible, he didn't have time to pull back when Honda came to an abrupt stop just outside of the school doors. Yuugi slammed into Honda, which wasn't too different from running headfirst into a tree, and if Anzu didn't reach out to grab his arm, he figured he probably would have been thrown back onto the ground.

"Honda-kun?" he asked, frowning. He waved to Anzu to show that he was all right, and when she let go of him, looped around so that he could peer up at Honda's face. Honda was staring straight ahead, at the school gate, his face scrunched in what looked like suspicious confusion. "What is it?"

"My big sister," Honda said, and when Yuugi looked back at the school gate he spotted the girl leaning back against it.

The girl definitely looked older than them, Yuugi thought—at least old enough to have been out of high school for a couple of years, but maybe more. She had one foot kicked back against the brick column on the left side of the gate, and her hands were thrust into the pockets of her black leather jacket. When she looked over and saw them, she jerked her head in a nod that felt like both an acknowledgement and a summons.

"I didn't know you had a sister," Anzu said, and she stood up on her tiptoes a little to see over the swarms of students milling around them.

"Yeah. I don't know why she's here, but . . ." Honda heaved a sigh. "Hang on, guys. This shouldn't take long, hopefully."

"We'll go with you. I want to meet her," Anzu said. Honda grunted to show that he'd heard, but otherwise didn't look at either of them as he made his way to the gate.

Honda's sister stared at them the entire time they made their way to her, and although Honda opened his mouth to say something as they neared, she beat him to it once they were near enough so that she didn't have to shout. "Hey. Where's Jounouchi? Is he here today?"

Yuugi's heart skipped like a startled cat at the sound of Jounouchi's name—because whatever he'd expected Honda's sister to want to talk about, Jounouchi wasn't it—and a quick glance at Honda told him that Honda was just as bewildered as he was. After a second, Honda frowned, and shook his head.

"He doesn't go here anymore. He transferred. Why are you asking?"

Honda's sister regarded him in silence for a moment. Her lips were pressed tightly together, and though she and Honda had the same eyes, there was something scrutinizing about her expression—something severe—that Yuugi wasn't used to seeing from Honda, at least not anymore. After a moment longer she pushed off the wall and turned to face Honda straight-on.

"I'm asking because he showed up on my doorstep late last night after getting his ass kicked six ways from Sunday, and I wanted to make sure you're not wrapped up in the same things he is. If he doesn't go here anymore, I guess that gives me my answer."

"He what?" Honda demanded, at the same time that Yuugi cried, "He was hurt?"

"He went to you?" Honda pressed, before his sister could answer either of them. "He showed up at—he actually went to your place, when he won't talk to any of us? He went to you when he won't talk to me?"

"Nice perspective you've got there," Anzu said dryly.

"H-How—you said he was hurt?" Yuugi said. Honda's sister hadn't paid either Yuugi or Anzu much mind when they had first walked up—had barely spared either of them a glance before she focused her attention on her brother—but she looked at him now, her stare unreadable. "What do you mean by that? Is he okay? What happened?"

"No," Honda's sister said bluntly, and before Yuugi could ask which question that 'no' was in response to, she said, "He looked like a beaten dog, and that was before I saw the bruises and broken ribs." She looked back to Honda as Yuugi's heart throbbed—broken ribs, Jounouchi had broken ribs?—and said, "Whatever he's mixed up in, it's something bad. But you said he transferred. Was that a while ago?"

"Yeah. Two months ago," Honda said. He'd sounded irate before—indignant, more like, at the idea that Jounouchi had apparently visited his sister after cutting Honda out of his life—but his voice was tight now, quieter, and when Yuugi looked over he saw that the intensity of Honda's stare matched his sister's. "What else was wrong with him? I mean, besides the ribs."

"Well, it looked like he'd been strangled half to death. Honestly, it looked like someone tried to kill him," Honda's sister said, and Yuugi regretted the yakisoba he'd chosen to eat lunch, because he now felt a little sick. Jounouchi was . . . he had . . . "His injuries looked to be about a day old, if I had to guess, but he wouldn't tell me anything. He kept insisting it was just a fight." She snorted. "Yeah, right. I've patched up enough of his fights to know that this wasn't one of them. Not a normal one, anyway."

"His injuries were a day old?" Anzu asked, and when Honda's sister nodded, Anzu looked to Yuugi. "You didn't say anything about that."

"He wasn't . . . he wasn't hurt when I saw him," Yuugi said, and he swallowed to try and make his voice stronger. He hated how shaky he felt. Jounouchi was the one who was hurt—not him. "Not like that. He was upset, and it seemed like something was wrong, but he attacked the guy who mugged me and beat him with no problem. He couldn't have done that if his ribs were broken, right?"

"Considering he couldn't even get his shirt off without cringing last night, I'd say no," Honda's sister said.

"Then it had to have happened after," Anzu said. For how dry she'd sounded when teasing Honda before, her eyebrows were knitted together in concern now, and she worried her bottom lip between her teeth in thought.

Honda turned to Yuugi. "Yuugi, you said he was really freaked out when you saw him, right? That he seemed scared of something?"

Yuugi nodded. "Yeah. When we got out of the park, he looked at something on a cell phone and then panicked." Even now, two nights after the fact, was easy to recall how Jounouchi had seemed to tune him out, but how it hadn't felt purposeful, how Yuugi hadn't felt shut out so much as Jounouchi seemed shut in. He remembered how Jounouchi turned away, how he kicked the park gate, how Yuugi could swear, even now, that he'd felt Jounouchi tremble a little under his Rintama jacket— "He said he was late, and that someone was going to be angry with him for it."

"I bet I know who that someone was," Honda said darkly. He took a deep breath and covered his face with his hands, and though his voice was muffled Yuugi still heard Honda growl a little in the back of his throat before he said, "Son of a bitch," and scrubbed his hands down his face.

"So, you do know what's going on, then?" Honda's sister asked. She sounded cool, almost detached, but she raised her chin a little as she regarded her brother, her eyes severe. "Because Jounouchi told me you weren't involved. He swore it."

"I'm not. I wasn't. I am now," Honda said. His sister pulled her hands out of her pockets to fold her arms across her chest, her feet planted shoulder-width apart.

"No you're not," she said flatly.

"Excuse me?"

"I said, no you're not," Honda's sister repeated. "This is exactly what I was afraid of, what I knew—" She stopped, and then huffed a laugh as she shook her head. "What he knew would happen. Damn it, I never thought I'd ever say this, but Jounouchi was actually right and I should have listened to him."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Honda demanded, as Anzu asked, "Right about what?"

"He told me not to tell you," Honda's sister said, and she nodded toward Honda as she said it, though Yuugi would bet money that Jounouchi would have similarly forbidden her from talking to himself and Anzu as well if he thought there was a chance of her doing so. "He said if I told you, you'd do something stupid. Of course, I figured if he could conveniently forget that he's not supposed to call me 'sista,' I could conveniently forget that he didn't want me to tell you—but it looks like he was right, anyway. I shouldn't have." She gave Honda a hard look. "I said it before, but just in case you missed it the first time, here it is again: Whatever he's involved in is bad. Really bad. This isn't anywhere close to the stupid bullshit you two used to get up to in middle school. I don't know what's going on with him, but what I do know is that I've never seen him screwed up like that, and that's enough to tell me this is something you don't need to get yourself involved in. Stay out of it, Hiroto."

"You think I don't know how bad this is?" Honda demanded, and he sounded offended. "I've known from the start that nothing good would come from this, and that's why I have to help him. I can't just leave him—"

"You have to," his sister said, and when Honda gave her an appalled look and opened his mouth to argue she said, "Look, you know I've grown fond of that little twerp over the years. I don't want anything bad to happen to him, but it looks like something already has and I can't let that happen to you."

"It won't happen to me," Honda said in a hard voice. "It's not the same for me as it is for him."

"Damn right it isn't, because you're not getting involved," his sister said. It was hard to say now which one of them looked more vehement, but as Honda curled his fingers into fists his sister said, "At least not directly. Since you seem to have such a good idea of what's going on, have you thought about talking to the police?"

"His dad's a cop," Honda said tersely.

His sister blinked, and said in a confused voice, "Jounouchi's?"

"No. Hirutani's."

"Oh." Honda's sister frowned, and she looked thoughtful as she said, "Isn't that the kid you hated so much in middle school?"

"Yes," Honda ground out.

"What does he have to do with this?"

"More than you know. Listen." Honda took a deep breath. "I have to talk to Jounouchi. I can't just leave him with that psycho. If things are really as bad as you say, then that's all the more reason to drag his ass out of there, kicking and screaming if I have to. Especially if he's only doing it becau—"

"And if you get hurt?" his sister challenged. "Supposedly you can't go to the cops, so then what? You're running in half blind because you're worried, and I understand that, but I can't let you do it. Not when there's a good chance you'll end up like him, or worse."

"I'm telling you, it's different for me—"

"And I'm saying the same, but for different reasons. You're staying out of it."

"Like hell I'm—!"

"I'll tell Mom and Dad!"

If it wasn't for the situation, Yuugi might have laughed at how Honda actually took a step back, his eyes wide in an expression of mingled outrage and fear. "You wouldn't dare," he said.

"Watch me," his sister said.

"Is this . . . actually an effective threat?" Anzu asked. Like Yuugi, she'd seemed to think it was best to let Honda and his sister hash things out on their own once the conversation turned to Honda's involvement, but the stricken look on Honda's face compelled her to speak up. Her tone suggested she didn't know whether she should laugh or not. "Because I can't believe this is really working outside of a mov—"

"They'll ship me off to military school!" Honda said, ignoring Anzu completely. As his sister's threat settled in the horror in his expression gave way to pure fury, but his sister stared back, her gaze unyielding.

"At least if you're at military school you can't get caught up in whatever's going on with Jounouchi," she said, and Honda opened and closed his mouth as if to form words, but all he could manage was furious sputtering. "I'm serious, Hiroto. If you chase after him and get caught up in all this, I will tell them. And that's not the only thing I'll tell them, either. Don't think I don't know about the softcore porn you have stashed in the loose ceiling tile in the bathroom."

"Seriously?" Anzu said, disgusted, as she rounded on Honda, whose face flushed red. "You actually—? Ugh, no, why am I even surprised? It's practically impossible to find a guy here who's not a complete perv. I'm starting to think Yuugi's the only one."

Yuugi's face was no less red than Honda's, and he coughed as he turned away, willing the subject to drop with every fiber of his being. He didn't know what Anzu would say if she found out that he was the one who'd purchased most of those manga for Honda, but he did know that he didn't want to find out.

Fortunately, it seemed Honda didn't want to linger on that subject, either. "Sister," he said, and though his voice was steady, it held a strong air of forced calm. "I know you're worried about me, and I appreciate it. But I can take care of myself. I—"

"Like Jounouchi could, right?" Honda's sister said, but somehow, this was different from all she'd said previously. Yuugi thought she sounded almost sad; her eyes looked somehow softer than before. "He's been on his own for a long time and I get that it made him feel invincible. And you know what, in some ways, he was right. I'll admit, that kid impressed me sometimes, and not just because he was no slouch in a fight. But he can't handle this, if last night is anything to go by. It's too much for him. And if it's too much for him, it's too much for you."

"Are you saying I'm weaker than him?" Honda asked, his forced calm gone.

"I'm saying you're the same as him, except a little less rough around the edges, despite how you try to play," his sister said, the hard edge back in her voice. "Jounouchi thought he could handle himself because he had to handle himself. You, as one of the few good side benefits of our parents being micro-managers, never actually had to do that."

"I don't think that has anything to do with this."

"I think it has enough to do with it." Honda's sister hissed an irritated sigh through her teeth before she massaged the bridge of her nose as if trying to will away a headache. "At least in the sense that if you get involved in this, I'm going to tell Mom and Dad everything and then some. I'll make them get you out if I have to, even if it gets you shipped off to boarding school. At least you'd be safe there."

"I'm safe here!" Honda burst out, and his sister gave him a grim look.

"You will be, so long as you stay out of it." Honda continued to glare heatedly at her, but his sister looked away from him so she could glance at both Anzu and Yuugi instead. "I have no idea who you people are," she told them, "so I really have no say in what you do. But if you know what's good for you, you'll stay out of this, too."

"Thank you for your concern," Yuugi said, and he bowed a little to her to show he meant it, "but I can't do that."

Honda's sister gave him a disappointed look as she said, "On your own head be it."

Anzu said nothing. Yuugi looked over to see that she was staring at the ground, her lips twisted in a frown as she canted her weight to one side. If Anzu was on the fence, then with Honda barred from participating, that meant he would be on his own . . .

He swallowed, and dug his nails into his palms as he clenched his fists. No, he wouldn't back down. It didn't matter if he had to go alone. If it were him—if he was the one in trouble, Jounouchi wouldn't give it a second thought to save him. Jounouchi wouldn't be afraid, and neither was Yuugi. He was going.

"I have to get back. I promised Hideki I'd pick something up for dinner on the way home," Honda's sister was saying. Yuugi looked up in time to see her jab her finger at Honda's chest. "You. Remember what I said. Be good."

"Yes, sister," Honda said through gritted teeth.

His sister flashed him a wan smile as she turned away. She made it no more than a few paces before she turned to walk backward, calling as she did so, "Oh, by the way! You're going to babysit Jouji in a couple weeks! Maybe take him to an amusement park or something."

"What?!" Honda cried. "Since when am I—you can't just order me to babysit!"

"Do you want me to tell Mom and Dad about your porn stash?!" she yelled back. There were still a few students milling around the school grounds, either waiting for their friends' after school clubs to let out or waiting for their own to start, and all of them turned to look at what Honda's sister had shouted as Honda's face burned red. "Listen, I'll give you advance notice! You can take him near the end of next month or something."

"Yeah, yeah!" Honda said, but embarrassment made his voice crack, and Yuugi wasn't sure his sister could really hear it. She seemed to get the message anyway, because she grinned again before she turned back to walk down the street properly, her hands back in the pockets of her leather jacket.

There had been many times growing up when Yuugi lamented the fact that he was an only child, but now, he felt grateful for it.

"Your sister is . . . interesting," Anzu said, as a means to break the silence more than anything else. Honda's face was still flushed, even though the students around them had gone back to what they were doing before. "She seems cool, if a little . . ."

"Tough?" Yuugi suggested.

Anzu nodded. "Yes," she said, in a tone that carried an unspoken 'let's go with that.' "Tough."

"She's something," Honda muttered, and he scrubbed his hand across his face again, as if trying to will his blushing to fade faster.

Anzu looked over at Yuugi. Now that the moment for commenting on Honda's sister had passed, her eyes were a bit wider with anxiety again. "What are you planning on doing?" she asked. "It sounds like Jounouchi's in a lot of trouble, but now that Honda's out of the running—"

"Who says I'm out of the running?" Honda demanded. Both Yuugi and Anzu looked over at him in surprise.

"Your sister, for one," Anzu said.

Honda scoffed. "What my sister doesn't know won't get me shipped off to military school," he said. "She doesn't live at home—with our parents. She moved out a while ago. So long as I don't go visiting her in the dead of night with injuries like a certain someone, it shouldn't be too hard to keep it from her."

"Well, probably not," Yuugi agreed. "But you did tell her . . ."

"That I'd be good. That can mean a lot of things." Honda sniffed. "Besides, if I get Jounouchi away from Hirutani and the rest of the goon squad, I'd say that's being pretty good, wouldn't you?"

Yuugi would say that, but he also felt bad knowing that he was encouraging Honda to lie to his sister. So he said nothing, but Honda seemed to be able to interpret his (and Anzu's, for that matter) silence anyway.

"Listen," he said, "Ayumu is my sister, and I love her. I'd do just about anything for her, and that includes babysitting that brat of hers, even if I complain about it. But I can't on this one, okay? She may be my sister, but Jounouchi's like my brother, too, and I—" He cut himself off abruptly, his lips pressed tightly together as he swallowed.

"And you . . . love him?" Anzu said, and there was a hint of teasing in her voice.

Honda cleared his throat. "And I can't just abandon him," he said.

"Because you love him," Anzu said, starting to smile.

"Shut up," Honda said, and Anzu was definitely grinning now. "The point is, I'm not giving up that easily. I'm going out there today, and I'm going to do my best to find him, whether Ayumu likes it or not." He paused, and then cracked his knuckles. "Maybe I can say hi to Hirutani, too."

"Hopefully it won't come to that," Yuugi said. He was ready to do whatever it took to get Jounouchi back—and was relieved that Honda was still on board—but if they could settle the matter without fighting, all the better. It was bad enough that Jounouchi was hurt already; Yuugi didn't want Honda or Anzu to get hurt, too. "But okay, let's go then. Rintama should have let out a little while ago, right?"

"Probably at the same time our school did," Anzu said.

"Yeah, and provided he hasn't landed himself in detention somehow, that means he could be anywhere," Honda said, and he finally shoved his books into his bag as he started walking again. "Come on. We've got a lot of ground to cover before nightfall."

Yuugi looked over at Anzu, and when she flashed him a small, encouraging smile to match his own, he turned back to hurriedly match pace with Honda.

Chapter Text

Jounouchi had done two-thirds of what he had been told to do, which in all honesty was one-third more than Hirutani had expected.

When Jounouchi had shown up to school that morning, he'd done so with his jacket buttoned and the collar up to hide the bruises around his neck. Seeing that he'd followed the instructions he was given for his uniform filled Hirutani with a sense of gratification that carried him through their morning classes. It was made all the better by the fact that Jounouchi's voice sounded a lot better, too, so that he was able to pass the lingering raspiness off as allergies or the start of a cold. Sad as it might have been to hear the damage fading, it was better if they didn't have too many people asking questions about it.

All the same, Jounouchi was Jounouchi, and it seemed he couldn't slip by without some measure of defiance. Hirutani had no way to prove it, but he was pretty sure Jounouchi had lied about getting his ribs taken care of. He was decent about hiding it, Hirutani would give him that. But after many years spent studying it, Hirutani was well versed in Jounouchi's body language; he could easily pick up on the smallest wince that pinched his eyes, or the sharp downward turn of his lips as he fought not to cringe. He noticed how carefully Jounouchi moved to avoid jostling his injuries, and how he seemed more sensitive to sudden movement as the day went on. He noticed, too, how Jounouchi gasped and choked back a yelp when Hirutani "accidentally" backhanded his chest (and oh, how pissed Jounouchi had looked a second later), though he figured belatedly that it wasn't an accurate test, because even wrapped ribs probably hurt when they were smacked.

Still, Jounouchi had at least shown some measure of obedience by wearing his uniform the way Hirutani told him to, and so Hirutani figured he could let the ribs slide for now. The fact that Jounouchi had obeyed at all despite seemingly winning the argument the previous day proved that the incident at Tayzr's was all but smoothed over, and that despite appearances Jounouchi was well on his way to total compliance. It was a slow process, to be sure—a gradual one—and every setback was as painful as using pliers to remove teeth without anesthetic. But Hirutani was a patient person; he knew the value of playing the long game. No matter how long Jounouchi bucked and resisted, eventually, he would break. And when that day finally came—when he got Jounouchi to submit to him at long last—then all of the time and toil Hirutani put into him would be worth it.

With fractured ribs, Jounouchi couldn't fight—or he could, but he would be at a disadvantage and Hirutani couldn't risk his condition getting any worse than it already was unless the reward for doing so far outweighed the consequences. For that reason, Hirutani decided to bench him, more or less. Jounouchi could handle business transactions that weren't likely to escalate into fights, whether it was drug trafficking for Hirutani, or meetings with Matsumoto. That would give him time to heal, as well as keep him busy and their plans moving forward. As an added bonus, with Jounouchi running more mundane errands, they would have less reason to fight and more opportunity for Hirutani to work Jounouchi over to consensual partnership. It might be easier, he thought, to do things this way—the "nice" way. Positive reinforcement, he'd heard it called. Given that negative reinforcement kept setting them back, and given that Jounouchi had such a strong attachment to his sweet little Domino High groupies, Hirutani thought he could try giving it a shot, and benching Jounouchi for a few weeks would give him a good opportunity to do just that.

So while Jounouchi handled a deal over at Seigo High after school, Hirutani waited for him just outside of a café not too far from their neighborhoods. He sat at a table on the edge of the outdoor seating area, relaxed despite the wary stares other café patrons gave him when they thought he wasn't looking, and nursed a can of iced tea as he scanned the crowds of people milling about the plaza. They were mostly students, oblivious as they went about after school activities or sneaked off to illegal part-time jobs, but there were some business men and women out as well, enjoying a mid-afternoon break or—in the case of more than one shifty looking couple he spotted—probable illicit rendezvous. He snorted, and took a drink of his tea as one such couple tried to discreetly hug behind a shop sign. Of all the illicit things they could do, they chose to waste their time on extramarital affairs. Some people had no ambition.

He was debating whether he should preemptively order a coffee for Jounouchi, or whether he should wait until Jounouchi got there to do it (because that was a "nice thing" to do, wasn't it? Getting him coffee?) when he spotted them across the plaza. Jounouchi's Domino High friends—the Mazaki girl, that kid Yuugi, and Honda—were walking . . . not towards him, per se, but toward the street on the other side of the café which led to Jounouchi's neighborhood. It could be a coincidence, Hirutani knew, as he watched Honda lead Mazaki and Yuugi across the plaza. They could have easily been going somewhere else. But given who they were, they could have just as easily been headed to Jounouchi's place, and Hirutani narrowed his eyes as he watched them walk.

Whether it was because he could feel Hirutani staring at him, or whether it was coincidence and he just happened to look at the café at the right time, Honda made eye contact with Hirutani as he drew parallel to the table. The sight of him seemed to startle Honda enough to make him stop in his tracks, his eyes wide and his mouth open a little in surprise, but as Hirutani laughed a little at how damn shocked he looked, Honda's expression darkened and he looked past Hirutani, scanning the other tables at the outdoor seating area. Looking for Jounouchi, if Hirutani had to guess.

Honda squared his shoulders, and with an expression that suggested he had to choose between swallowing a live spider or making out with a stag beetle, turned to say something to Mazaki and Yuugi. They were too far away for Hirutani to see what they were so passionately discussing, but he didn't care too much about whatever it was regardless. He slipped his phone out of his pocket, and—careful to keep it under the table so that they wouldn't be able to see what he was doing—he sent a quick text to Jounouchi: 'Change of plans. We'll meet at my house instead.'

Jounouchi might not get his coffee this way—or maybe he still would, depending on how long this took—but Hirutani couldn't afford to take any chances. He didn't want Jounouchi anywhere near them.

He looked up in time to see Honda headed toward him, apparently having decided to swallow the spider. Mazaki and Yuugi hurriedly followed in his wake, Yuugi looking apprehensive, Mazaki looking like she wanted everyone to know she was ready for a fight. Just as Honda reached the table, Hirutani felt his phone vibrate, and he looked down to check Jounouchi's response:

'k'

Hirutani snorted. Jounouchi's texting was as ugly as his hair. They really needed to work on it.

Honda yanked back the chair on the other side of the table, and dropped into it with all the aggressiveness of a territorial pit bull. He glowered at Hirutani, but Hirutani merely offered a mocking smile in return as he slipped his phone back into his pocket.

"Well," he said, "this is a surprise. Of all people to drop in, never thought it'd be you, Honda. You or your little squad." Hirutani glanced at Yuugi and Mazaki, the latter of which wrinkled her nose like she was offended to be called part of Honda's squad. If that was the case, Hirutani couldn't say he blamed her. "Have you decided to join me after all? If so, I think I might have a spot for you as, oh . . . my thirty-seventh. Thirty-fifth if you're feeling feisty."

"I'd rather slit my own throat," Honda said, looking revolted.

Hirutani reached into his pocket and pulled out his knife. He flipped it once before he set it on the table between them, the handle toward Honda, and bared his teeth in a wide grin.

"Be my guest," he said.

Honda didn't reach for the knife. He barely even looked at it. Instead, his arms crossed firmly across his chest and his dark eyes fixated on Hirutani's face, he bluntly said, "What did you do to Jounouchi?"

Hirutani had figured that this visit was about Jounouchi—there was no other reason Honda and the Pussycats would pay him a visit, after all—but the way Honda phrased that question was interesting, to say the least. He leaned back in his chair, and after a moment he said, "I don't know what you mean."

"I mean—" Honda began, and though the hesitation was brief, it was enough to tell Hirutani that Honda was treading carefully, as he should. "Why is he hanging out with you again? Why did he transfer?"

Hirutani laughed a little as he took another drink of his tea. As he set the can back on the table he said, "Didn't he already tell you that's none of your business? He made his choice. Why don't you leave him to it?"

"What does it look like I'm doing? Because it sure as hell doesn't seem to me like I'm bugging Jounouchi about it, considering he's not even here right now to hear it." Honda paused, and then said, "Where is he, anyway?"

Hirutani shrugged. "I don't think that's any of your business, either."

"But you know, don't you?"

Hirutani didn't know what made him smile more: The answer he was about to give, or the accusatory stare Honda was giving him across the table. "I always do."

Honda laughed, the sound short, incredulous, and scornful. He, too, slouched back in his chair, and gave Hirutani a disparaging look.

"I wish I could say 'I don't believe it,' but that would be a lie," he said. "What the hell is your deal, Hirutani? Why are you so obsessed with him? Why won't you leave him alone?"

"Why am I . . . ?" Hirutani began, and then he laughed. "Why are you? You say that I won't leave him alone, but you've been following after him like a lovesick puppy since middle school."

Honda's mouth dropped open, his eyebrows scrunched together. "Like a lovesick—?"

"That's it, isn't it?" Hirutani said, and he grinned like he'd just had a great epiphany. In truth, whether he was right or not didn't matter; the more he threw Honda off his game, the easier it would be for Hirutani to win. "You're in love with him. That's why you're so desperate to be with him—why you kept following him around back in middle school, why you always looked so heartbroken whenever he ditched you . . . and even now." Hirutani smirked. "It's been two months and you're still asking after him like a desperate ex. It's pathetic, Honda. No more than I'd expect from you, given . . . well, you, but it's still sad."

Silence—from their table, at least—followed what he said for a long moment. Honda looked affronted at Hirutani's suggestion, though the shock value seemed to be wearing off by the second, and as it did his expression settled into something resembling flat disgust. Mazaki looked disturbed from the outset, though Hirutani thought she looked more put-out with him than Honda. As for Yuugi, he was frowning, but he looked more concerned than anything else as he shot a glance Honda's way.

"Yeah, so, let's set a few things straight," Honda said finally. "First of all, I have a type, and that's cute, sweet, and soft-spoken. Jounouchi is none of those things. Actually, he's the opposite. Pretty sure it's safe to say I'm not 'in love' with him."

"You're pretty sure?" Hirutani asked. Honda's glare was sharp enough to rival Hirutani's knife, but otherwise he ignored the jab.

"Second, if we're going to talk about anyone being desperate to be with him, I think you need to take a good hard look at yourself. Or do you not remember threatening to murder me last year because you thought I was spending too much time with him?"

Hirutani took another casual sip of his tea, and then said, "Think I might remember something like that. Was that before or after he invited me back to his place so we could get away from you?"

Hirutani bit back a smile as Honda ground his teeth together, and Mazaki put her hand on Honda's shoulder—a show of support, Hirutani thought, and one that was mildly surprising given how she'd acted so far. Maybe he'd misread her.

"Before," Honda bit out, and now Hirutani allowed himself to smile, because it was so good to hear Honda admit it. "But I'm starting to think that's not actually how it went down. Not from Jounouchi's side, anyway."

"Well, I'd say you could ask him, but seeing as how he doesn't want to talk to you . . ."

"Is it that he doesn't want to talk to me, or that you don't want him to talk to me?" Honda asked.

Hirutani pretended to consider it for a second before he said, "You just asked the same question twice."

It took only a half second before Honda reacted. He sat up and slammed one of his hands on the table with enough force to rattle Hirutani's can of tea and cause his knife to spin a little. On top of startling both Yuugi and Mazaki to the point where they both said Honda's name in tones that were half-alarm, half-reproach, the sound was loud enough to attract the attention of the other café patrons and a few people on the street—including, Hirutani noticed, a police officer seated down at the other end of the café.

But if Honda noticed that his outburst had attracted attention, he didn't show it. Leaning forward on the table, he snarled, "God damn it, why are you like this with him? What is with this obsessive need you have to control every aspect of his damn life?!"

There was more than one way to answer that question, and a large part of Hirutani wanted to point out that he wouldn't have a need to control Jounouchi's life if Jounouchi could be trusted to manage himself and get things right from the jump. But instead of saying that, he simply said, "I just like to keep a hold on what belongs to me. That's all."

His answer caused surprise to briefly flicker across Honda's face, but the look was gone a half second later, and was replaced by the same withering look he'd shown before when Hirutani said that he always knew where Jounouchi was. Mazaki and Yuugi, on the other hand, looked appalled, and Yuugi was the first to find his voice.

"Jounouchi-kun doesn't belong to you," he said.

"Should I have written my name on him?" Hirutani asked, and then paused. He'd posed the question sarcastically, but now that he took a moment to consider it, the idea didn't sound half bad. Pens and markers were impermanent, and a tattoo gun wouldn't be satisfying, but he did have his knife . . .

Yuugi looked scandalized. "No, that's—no! That's not what I meant."

"How can you even say that with a straight face?" Mazaki said, and she took a step closer to the table as she did so. Honda put out one hand as if to stop her from getting too close, but she ignored him. "It's obvious that's not what Yuugi meant. What he meant is that Jounouchi is a person, and you can't just lay claim on a person. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Wrong with me?" Hirutani asked, and between Yuugi looking less intimidating than a frustrated baby squirrel and Mazaki looking no more dangerous than the annoyed captain of a pep squad, he had to work to keep himself from laughing. "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm not the one failing to understand a very simple concept."

"Yeah, and what's that?" Mazaki asked, as Honda gave Hirutani a look of caustic disbelief.

"Jounouchi is mine," he said. Mazaki huffed an incredulous laugh as Honda glared at him, and Yuugi furrowed his brow. "And nothing can change that. The sooner you understand it, the better off you'll be."

"Then why do you treat him the way you do? Why do you hurt him?" Yuugi asked. Hirutani thought he could hear suppressed anger in Yuugi's voice now, but that didn't make him any more intimidating than he had been before. "He's miserable. He doesn't want to be with you, or do any of this. If you really want—"

"He's miserable, huh?" Hirutani crossed his arms as he regarded Yuugi, and leaned back in his chair to give the impression of casual interest. "How did you manage to work that one out?"

"It's obvious just by looking at him," Yuugi said, his voice rising a little. "And even if it wasn't, he sai—"

"Yuugi!" Honda said suddenly, and Yuugi's eyes widened as he snapped his mouth shut. But it was too late for that—far too late. Hirutani could hear his blood starting to pound in his ears, and he balled his fingers into fists in the crooks of his arms to keep himself steady.

"He said . . . what?" he asked mildly. Yuugi pressed his lips tightly together. "He told you that he was miserable and didn't want to be with me? Is that it?"

"Not in . . . no," Yuugi said, and Honda put his elbows on the table and braced his forehead against his laced fingers. "He didn't—"

"And when was this?" Hirutani demanded, and if Yuugi had resembled a baby squirrel before, he looked like a young rabbit caught in a trap now. Hirutani fought to keep his tone light—pleasant, even, to invite Yuugi to share—but it was difficult to do when his fingers itched to shake the answers out of Yuugi by force. "It wouldn't have happened to be during your little rendezvous in the park the other night, would it?"

"I—no," Yuugi said, and he shook his head as if to emphasize the point. "That's not—no, it wasn't."

"He didn't tell you that when you met him in the park?" Hirutani pressed.

Yuugi looked more certain now—more relaxed, if only marginally. "No."

"But you did meet him there."

It was more of a rhetorical statement than a question, and Yuugi seemed to know it. He opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out. It didn't matter, anyway; the second Yuugi set to denying what conversation took place in the park, rather than showing confusion over the fact that Hirutani brought up the park to begin with, told Hirutani everything he needed to know. Any confirmation after that was only icing.

He knew it. He knew it. He knew that Jounouchi had lied to him about the real reason why he was late. All of that insistence about a pointless, random fight, all of that insistence that he hadn't seen his friends at all—it was all one big lie, told multiple times, straight to Hirutani's face. And now he had proof of it in the form of more or less explicit confirmation straight from the mouth of one Jounouchi sought to protect. Hirutani would have said that it was the irony that made him laugh beneath his breath, the sound short and harsh, but he knew himself well enough to know that it was actually due to the molten rage coursing through his veins.

"That fucking filthy little liar," he spat. Hirutani slammed his hands against the table and shoved his chair back from it as he stood up, and gave Yuugi a thin-lipped smile before he reached for his knife. "Thank you, really," he said. "You've been so helpful."

"What are you—?" Yuugi began, but Honda cut him off as he, too, stood up from the table.

"Where are you going?"

"Not that it's any of your business, but I'm going to go have a little talk with my second," Hirutani said, as he slipped his knife back into his pocket. "Maybe teach him a little lesson about why it isn't smart to lie to his superiors."

Hirutani circled around the table to leave, but Honda stepped in his path. Honda was barely taller than Jounouchi, and thus had to look up to meet Hirutani's eyes, but this didn't seem to bother him. "Leave him alone," Honda growled.

"Honda," Mazaki hissed. "Remember what your sister—"

"I don't think I will," Hirutani said, and it was just as well that he ignored Mazaki, he thought, because Honda didn't spare her a glance either. "What I do with him is my business. Not yours."

"It damn well is my business," Honda snapped. The nearby café patrons were staring again, and one or two of them got up to leave as if they could see where the situation was headed. "You're not leaving here just to go hurt him. Get off his case and leave him alone."

Once again, there were multiple responses Hirutani thought of to give, one of which involved no words, but instead a dislocated jaw for Honda. But, mindful of all the witnesses, he refrained from following through on that lovely impulse and said instead, "You have a dog, don't you?"

Honda blinked, caught off-guard, before his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Yeah. So what?"

"So, let's make a deal." Hirutani stepped closer, and lowered his voice just enough to make sure Honda had to listen a little harder. "When I tell you how to train your bitch, then you can tell me how to train mine."

For just a second, Hirutani thought Honda wasn't going to respond. He turned away, his lips pressed together as if he was holding himself back from saying something, and took a deep breath through his nose. For just one second, it seemed as if Honda was going to give up and walk away despite his clear fury.

In the next second, he'd thrown his entire body weight into a left hook that slammed straight into Hirutani's mouth.

Several customers at nearby tables screamed and leaped out of their seats as Hirutani was thrown back, and a crowd of people from the street started shouting and crowding closer to watch the fight unfold. Yuugi and Mazaki were shouting something, too, but Honda seemed to ignore them completely in favor of throwing himself at Hirutani. One of his hands grabbed the front of Hirutani's uniform while he pulled his other fist back, but Hirutani grabbed Honda's wrist in one hand, caught the thrown punch in the other, and swung him around to throw him bodily at one of the (now vacated) tables behind him.

The table skidded back across the patio when Honda collided with it, but Honda managed to brace himself against it well enough so that he remained on his feet. Hirutani held his ground, waiting, and when Honda came at him again—

"All right, hey, that's enough, fight's over!"

Honda froze, his fist still drawn back, and both he and Hirutani looked over as the police officer Hirutani had noticed before made his way across the patio to them. The café patrons who hadn't fled hung back behind the officer, watching, and several onlookers from the street let out disappointed groans upon seeing that the fight was interrupted.

"You mind telling me what you think you were doing?" the officer asked Honda, who only seemed to realize just then that he should put his fist down. He jammed his hands in his pockets.

"Solving a problem," he said flatly.

"Street fighting on business property and causing a disturbance, more like," the officer said. Honda said nothing, and the officer shook his head before he turned his scowl on Hirutani—but then blinked in surprise. "Kimio-kun. I didn't recognize you from back there."

"It's been a little while since we've seen each other," Hirutani said, though in truth he couldn't tell this officer from any of the others that worked at his father's precinct. He didn't make much of a habit of paying attention to people who were irrelevant to him, generally. But it never hurt to pretend when the situation called for it, and he figured that this one did if nothing else, even if it meant he had to put up with being addressed by his given name. He glanced over at Honda in time to see Honda turn his eyes skyward, clearly realizing what a mistake he'd made by taking the bait, and held back a smile. "Sorry for causing trouble. You know how things just get out of hand sometimes."

The officer gave him an uncomfortable frown. "I'd say this was a bit more than out of hand . . . you could have done real damage, someone could have gotten hurt . . ."

"But no one did," Hirutani said, and he made a point to reach up and touch his fingers against his split lip to wipe away the blood. "Well, except for me." The look Honda gave him was scathing.

The officer was still frowning. "That may be so, but . . . I'll still have to bring this up with your father. You can't be fighting in public like this. It isn't right."

Hirutani smiled. "That's fair." It wasn't as if his father would bother doing anything about it. Not when he needed the information Hirutani could get for him.

"As for you . . ." the officer said, and he rounded on Honda again as both Yuugi and Mazaki spoke up.

"Officer, please, it wasn't his fault—" Yuugi said.

"Hirutani started it—" Mazaki chimed in.

"I was right across the patio the entire time. I saw well enough who threw the first punch," the officer said, and his voice was far harder with either of them than it had been with Hirutani. Both Mazaki and Yuugi closed their mouths, and Mazaki gave Hirutani an icy glare as the officer looked back at Honda. "You instigated the fight here today, and we have a whole crowd of witnesses that can testify to it. I'm going to need you to come with me, son. We'll call your parents from the station."

Honda looked as if the officer had just condemned him to death, and with an edge of desperation in his voice he quickly said, "My parents work during the day. They're not home."

"Both of them?" the officer asked, surprised. Honda nodded. "Well, I always hate to bother people at work, but there's no getting around it, then. We'll give their offices a call. Come on."

"They don't have office phones," Honda said, and when the officer gave him a skeptical look he added, "They don't work in offices. They have more . . . practical jobs."

It was clear from the officer's expression that he didn't buy it. "We have to call someone who can come get you," he said impatiently. "A parent or legal guardian—someone like that."

"My sister," Honda said, but even as he blurted the answer he looked as if he wasn't entirely happy with that option, either. "We can call her. She'll come bail me."

The officer nodded, looking relieved. "Fine."

"Officer, please, you can't seriously be arresting him," Mazaki said, and Hirutani raised his eyebrows as she pointed his way. "He didn't do anything wrong. This guy is a total creep, and he—"

"He started a fight in the middle of this establishment," the officer snapped, all pretense of friendliness gone. Mazaki scowled at him. "I saw it happen, so did everyone else. I'm not arresting him, besides; I'm just taking him down for some questioning and then I'll release him to his parents."

"Sister," Honda corrected. The officer sighed.

"Yes, sister," he said. "Now let's go. As for you two," he pointed at Yuugi and Mazaki, "don't cause any more trouble. You either, Kimio-kun. I'm already not looking forward to having to talk to your old man about this."

"Yes, sir," Hirutani said.

Honda turned to give him a venomous look. "This isn't over," he said in a low voice.

"Want some assault charges with that phone home?" Hirutani asked, and followed his taunt with a laugh. Honda ground his teeth together.

"Let's go," the officer said firmly, and he grabbed Honda's shoulder to steer him off the patio.

The crowds started to thin as the people watching realized the incident was over, and Hirutani turned to find Mazaki glaring fiercely at him while Yuugi stared at the ground. Yuugi's fingers were curled into little fists.

"He's right, you know," Mazaki said coldly. "This isn't over. You haven't won anything."

"We'll see," he said airily. "For now, I have something to do, so if you'll excuse me." This time, no one blocked his path, but as he drew level with them he paused to say, "By the way, thanks again for the help today. I'll have to find a way to repay you. I'll have someone get in touch with you when I figure out how to do that, and we'll play again then."

"Yes," Yuugi said, as Hirutani stepped off the patio. Yuugi still hadn't turned—hadn't so much as lifted his head—but there was still something about his voice that gave Hirutani pause. "We will. I'm looking forward to it."

There was definitely something different about him—a harder, or sharper edge to his voice than before. But he still hadn't looked up, Mazaki had a hand on his shoulder as she whispered something to him too low for Hirutani to catch, and Hirutani had to meet with Jounouchi anyway, so he turned and kept walking.

The little scuffle with Honda and the resulting conversation with the police officer had given Hirutani time to calm down just enough so that he could view the situation rationally. Jounouchi had lied to him, and he would absolutely be punished for it, but the punishment would have to wait. Jounouchi was still smarting from the fight at Tayzr's the night before last; getting into another brawl with him so soon would do nothing more than set them back yet again, and also ran the risk of making his injuries even worse. Hirutani needed him to heal and get back in the game as soon as possible, and that meant not thrashing him again less than two days after his last beating, no matter how much he might deserve it.

Hirutani took a deep breath and reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. If he was going to speak calmly with Jounouchi—if he was going to act like nothing happened, like the only lie he suspected or knew about was the one about his ribs—he needed a smoke first. His fingers brushed against his pack, but he also felt something else bunched up against it. Frowning, he pulled out a bent, folded photograph—the one, he realized, that he'd swiped from Jounouchi's nightstand when he had dropped in yesterday. He'd forgotten to shred it like he'd planned. He smoothed it out to look at it as he walked, his gut flipping uncomfortably as he did so.

The picture had been taken in a shop of some kind—the one Yuugi's family owned, if Hirutani had to guess. Yuugi sat up on a glass counter, beaming at the camera as he flashed two "v for victory" hand signs. To his right was Mazaki, leaning back on one arm as she held up the same sign with her other hand. On the far left stood Honda, leaning back against the counter with his arms folded and a little smile on his face, and to Honda's left—smack dab in the middle with Yuugi—was Jounouchi.

Jounouchi had one arm thrown around Yuugi's neck, forcing Yuugi to lean over a little into the hug, though from the way Yuugi was grinning, he didn't seem to mind very much. Jounouchi's other hand was tucked into the pocket of his Domino High school jacket, and there was something about his pose that suggested both of his hands had been in his pockets before, until he spontaneously decided to throw his arm around Yuugi in a one-armed hug. At the time the picture had been taken, Jounouchi's hair was still disgustingly long and shaggy; it was a haphazard mess, falling over his ears and into his eyes, which—due to the lighting, or maybe something else—were so bright they looked a little golden. He was beaming at the camera, same as Yuugi, but there was something a bit different about it—something that suggested he might have actually been laughing when the picture was taken.

Hirutani heaved a sharp, irritated huff, and squeezed the picture so tightly it crumpled a little in his fist.

They had met once in the park. That he knew for sure, and he knew also that it was Yuugi that Jounouchi had met with—Yuugi at the very least. Hirutani hadn't thought much of Yuugi before; he seemed docile enough, and certainly shrimpy enough, and annoying at that. He'd always figured that Jounouchi just let him hang around out of pity.

But if Jounouchi was protecting him enough to lie for him—if he was meeting with him—and from the looks of this photo, if they were close enough for Jounouchi to laugh and hug him like that . . .

Yuugi was more of a problem than Hirutani had realized. It wasn't just Honda. They both had to be dealt with. Mazaki too, just to be safe.

But Hirutani was a patient person. He knew how, and was more than willing to, play the long game. Killing them now wasn't good enough—it wouldn't be effective enough. At best, it would make Jounouchi more sullen and uncooperative. At worst, it would make him outright and wholly defiant, and then Hirutani would have to kill him, too.

No, it wasn't the right time yet, though it would be once he was sure that he had Jounouchi all but well and truly broken. It would be the final test, the final thread to snap. When Jounouchi was finally ready to submit to him—when the only reason Jounouchi writhed under his knife was because of an involuntary response to pain rather than purposeful resistance—then he would finish off the little friend squad once and for all.

But for now, he thought, as he used his lighter to set the photo on fire before he dropped it in a nearby trash can, he could wait.

Chapter Text

'Change of plans. We'll meet at my house instead.'
'k'

Jounouchi had long since determined that trying to figure out Hirutani's logic was more difficult than deciphering a trigonometry textbook written entirely in English given how batshit crazy he was, but in this case his reasoning had seemed pretty clear. If Hirutani wanted to meet at his house, obviously that meant he was already there and couldn't be bothered to make the trip to the coffee shop. There was no other reason to change the plan so suddenly, as far as Jounouchi could tell.

Hirutani wasn't there, though, and after a few minutes Jounouchi carefully lowered himself onto the porch steps to wait. Another few minutes more and he pulled out his zippo lighter to fiddle with it, trying to determine whether or not smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves was worth worsening the lingering pain his throat.

His entire life aside, there was nothing wrong, he knew—no reason for him to feel so antsy. The deal at Seigo High had gone over well enough. Seigo was a school for wealthy kids, the sons and daughters of prosecuting attorneys and corporate executives—rich snobs that already owned the world even though they knew nothing about it. They were easy targets for people like Hirutani—and like Jounouchi himself, he supposed, with another agitated flick of his zippo—because they were desperate to prove themselves as something more than pampered princes and princesses, yet they lacked the life experience to stop themselves from stumbling straight into danger. Case in point, he'd made 44,152 yen off two seniors alone, all for a half-filled bottle of ecstasy that, knowing how these rich kids were, probably wouldn't last them two weeks. Hell, two weeks was probably generous; Jounouchi would give them one before they were crying to Hirutani for a refill. No doubt they'd share what little they had just bought with their friends, which would not only cause them to run out faster, but would have the added "bonus" of scoring Hirutani some new customers. Meanwhile, other kids at the school would notice what was going on, would become curious about Hirutani's "business," would want in and would gladly offer up their services . . .

Jounouchi snapped his zippo shut with more force than necessary. Seigo High was easy. Grunt work, really. Kids who went to Seigo were all a bunch of silver spoon sucking, naïve little idiots who were practically begging to throw their lives away. It was sickening.

But even so, he'd done his job. Everything was fine on that front, which was why he didn't understand why he couldn't shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong. Hirutani hadn't said when he would meet Jounouchi at his house, Jounouchi supposed, and he pulled his phone out of his pocket to check again. No, there was no time given—just a message that plans had changed. Jounouchi had assumed that meant that Hirutani would already be there waiting for him, but then, it was wrong of him to assume that Hirutani would do anything other than what he explicitly said he was going to. Even then, there was nothing to stop him from lying.

All the same, he felt restless, like there was a reason why he was left there to wait while Hirutani was off doing god-knows-what, and a bad one at that. He waited another five minutes before he reached for his phone again, and was about to shoot Hirutani a text (something along the lines of 'wtf its ben lyk 30 mins' or 'r u fukin w/ me rn' or 'fuk this bs im out,' he thought) when Hirutani finally rounded the corner at the end of the street. Jounouchi snapped his phone shut and shoved it back in his pocket with his zippo, and reached in his other pocket for Hirutani's money as he stood up.

"About fucking time," he grumbled when Hirutani was within earshot. "Why didn't you just have me meet you wherever you were instead of sending me here if you were going to—" Jounouchi cut himself off as Hirutani drew to a stop in front of him, and though Hirutani raised his eyebrows, Jounouchi's attention was focused more on blood smeared across his chin. "Did you get in a fight?"

"I had something I needed to take care of. It had nothing to do with you," Hirutani said coolly.

Jounouchi doubted it. Before, he'd had a nagging sense that something was wrong—an anxious feeling that caused him to bounce his leg as he waited, his stomach twisting in on itself. Now it was more like a steady, low-key alarm buzzing in his head; his heartbeat sped up, and adrenaline made every one of his senses sharper so he could fight his way out of a bad situation if need-be. Hirutani said it had nothing to do with him, but like every other word that came out of his mouth, that felt a whole hell of a lot like a lie.

"What did you do?" Jounouchi demanded.

"Didn't I just say it had nothing to do with you?" Hirutani said. "It's been less than fifteen seconds and you're already pissing me off. Don't push me, Jounouchi."

"You looked pissed when you walked up," Jounouchi retorted, but then he sighed, and bit back a wince as his ribs smarted. Had he known he was going to spend a stupid amount of time waiting, he would have stopped by his dad's place to take another painkiller. "Fine, whatever. I've got your money, so—"

"Not here," Hirutani said, and he held up a hand as Jounouchi pulled the thick bundle of yen from his pocket. "Let's go inside."

Jounouchi frowned. "Why? I'm just handing this over and then we're done, right? What do we have to go inside for?"

Hirutani had already turned to head up the steps to his front door, but when Jounouchi spoke, he went still. After a moment, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, he said, "I told you to come here for more reasons than just the money. We're going inside to discuss them. Now do as you're told, and don't question me again."

Jounouchi couldn't help the mutinous glare he sent Hirutani's way, but he did bite his tongue—and with it, the 'fuck you' response that would have led to another fight. He shoved the money back in his pocket and bit his tongue a little harder to help fight the urge to wrap an arm around his aching ribs as he made his way up the steps. There was no need to telegraph the fact that he hadn't wrapped them with bandages, after all. Hirutani followed after at a casual pace, and didn't once look at Jounouchi as he pulled his keys out of his pocket to unlock his front door.

Hirutani's house had two floors, but in all honesty was not that big. The stairs that led up to the second floor (which was really more of a landing with two bedrooms and a bathroom) were directly in front of the door, so close that when Hirutani opened the door, it brushed against the banister. In lieu of a foyer, the entrance opened on the living room, and diagonally across from the door Jounouchi could see wide opening that led to the little dining area and kitchen. It was cleaner than Jounouchi's apartment, at least (not that that was hard to accomplish), but Jounouchi figured that if it was all on the same floor, it probably wouldn't be that much bigger.

The television in the living room was on when they entered, and as Hirutani shut the door behind them, a middle-aged man—Hirutani's father—twisted around on the sofa to look at them over the back. Jounouchi glanced at Hirutani in time to see a look of surprise flicker across his face, replaced quickly by a scowl.

"Oh, Kimio," Hirutani's father said, and though his tone was pleasant enough, Jounouchi thought he looked a little nervous. "Good, you're home. We need to talk." Hirutani's father glanced over at Jounouchi and smiled a little. "Jounouchi-kun, good to see you."

Jounouchi gave a curt nod in response, but didn't return the smile. Hirutani's father blinked, as if surprised by Jounouchi's reaction, but Jounouchi couldn't see why. It wasn't as if Hirutani's father had ever given him a reason to be friendly.

"What are you even doing home right now?" Hirutani demanded, but before his father could answer, he huffed a sharp sigh. "Fine, I'll humor you. Jounouchi, go wait in my room. I'll be up in a minute. And leave your shoes down here. I shouldn't have to tell you that, but . . ."

"Yeah, whatever." Loath as he was to look like he was following any order, Jounouchi ditched his shoes by the door before he made his way up the stairs, automatically reaching for the railing as he did so. This served two purposes: One, it gave him something to squeeze so he could further resist the urge to squeeze his ribs every time they throbbed in protest at his movement, and two, it gave him an excuse to stick close to the sides of the steps, avoiding the squeaky spots in the middle. He gritted his teeth so that he could move quickly and lightly, on the balls of his feet, and with this and the way he avoided the creaking centers, he was able to move silently enough that neither Hirutani nor Hirutani's father seemed to notice that he'd stopped near the top of the stairs, crouched low so he could listen.

"He's a moody one, isn't he?" Hirutani's father said, and Jounouchi scowled, particularly as he heard Hirutani's response.

"He's always like that. What do you want?"

"I got a call from Officer Tanikawa down at the precinct," Hirutani's father said. There was definite trepidation in his voice now, Jounouchi was sure of it. "He said you got in a fight a little while ago, down near the station plaza."

"And? He should have told you I didn't start it."

"He did—"

"Then are you asking if I'm pressing charges?" Hirutani snorted. "I might. Haven't decided yet."

Jounouchi frowned. Since when would Hirutani care about doing something like that? If anyone had pissed him off enough to actually fight them himself—something he rarely did nowadays, with so many obedient little helper monkeys ready and raring to do it for him—it was more like him to want them to deal with them personally, rather than pawn them off on the police. At the least, if he was going to bust someone, usually he framed them for something bigger.

". . . not that," Hirutani's father was saying. Jounouchi shook his head a little and forced himself to focus. "You know I'm—you need to stay out of trouble, Kimio. Trouble like this, trouble like—I can't exactly explain it away if you do something in front of an officer. And there will be a day when I can't make all your problems—"

"I don't have problems aside from you wasting my time with this," Hirutani cut in coldly. "I also don't remember asking you to do anything for me recently. Not like you asked me to get you a list of names of the high ranking members of Kamenashi's gang."

"Kamenashi's gang?"

"Your suspects in the train muggings." Hirutani walked the rest of the way out of sight, and Jounouchi heard him scoff. "It's been two weeks and you still don't know their leader's name? Did you even try, or were you just waiting for me to get the information for you?"

"I just didn't put it together right away, what you were talking about," Hirutani's father said. The defensiveness in his voice was pathetic.

"Sure," Hirutani said. The smugness in his voice was disgusting, too. "Well, there's your list, old man. I did your dirty work for you. Again. You can thank me by staying out of my business, and—if it's really necessary—getting your little cop friends to do the same." There was a pause. "Though I suppose Officer What's-His-Face helped speed things up today. Maybe I'll send him a pastry basket as thanks."

"There's no need for that," Hirutani's father said, in a tone that suggested he couldn't tell if Hirutani was joking or not. "And—see, Kimio, it's not that I'm not . . . grateful for your help, it's just that you make things harder when you do things like—"

"It was one little incident in the plaza," Hirutani said, and all amusement was gone from his voice now. "It wasn't even an actual fight. It was more of a skirmish—an annoyance."

"You seem to get in an awful lot of—"

"Name the last time I received a call home from one of your little friends. I won't even ask for a list, I just want one other time."

"They aren't my 'friends'—"

"That doesn't sound like an instance of me upsetting them enough to get a call home."

Hirutani's father sounded frustrated. "The frequency isn't the issue, it's the—the thing itself. You do a lot of things, and I let you get on with it because most of the time you keep it to yourself and I'm sure it's just something you're—you'll grow out of it, plenty of boys your age do—"

Hirutani laughed, cold and loud, and Jounouchi was glad for it, because it masked the sound of his forehead hitting the staircase railing.

"The only thing I'm 'growing out of' is wasting my time in the little leagues," Hirutani said. "Speaking of which, I have business to attend to. Make sure you don't disturb us."

"Wait, Kimio—" Hirutani's father began, but the rest of what he said was lost on Jounouchi. Not wanting to deal with fallout of being caught eavesdropping, Jounouchi turned and bounded silently up the rest of the steps. Hirutani's room was the first door off the landing, and while it was shut tight, Jounouchi twisted the handle and pushed it open to slip inside and flick on the light with the same level of stealth he'd used to get up the stairs.

Hirutani's house was, for the most part, clean, but his bedroom was so pristine it felt sterile. It started with his bed; there was nothing wrong with making it up, and knowing Hirutani he probably did each morning, but it was made with such meticulous care that it looked like something out of a furniture magazine rather than a bed someone actually slept in each night. At the least, the comforter was stretched so tightly over the mattress Jounouchi thought he could bounce a coin off it. He was almost tempted to try.

The bed was pushed up against the back wall, flipped opposite from how Jounouchi kept his. A wicker laundry basket was positioned at the foot of the bed, and though the lid was closed, Jounouchi figured that the basket was the reason why there were no stray clothes on the floor or any of the other furniture in the room. Well, that, and the dresser and closet; a wooden dresser was to the right of the door, and the closet—complete with wooden sliding doors—was built into the right wall. There was nothing on top of the dresser, not even a single loose yen. Nothing remarkable about it at all.

The walls were bare and painted white. The carpet was cream colored, and felt plush under Jounouchi's feet despite how old it had to have been. Despite Hirutani's cigarette addiction, the room didn't smell like smoke, nor was there an ash tray anywhere in sight. The only piece of furniture that had anything on it was the desk to the left of the door, and even then, it only had the bare minimum: a computer monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse that was positioned dead center of the mouse pad, too perfectly to be anything but deliberate. A low, steady hum from the computer tower told Jounouchi that Hirutani had left it on, even though the screen on the monitor was dark. The top shelf of the desk had things on it, too—books, specifically. They were lined up in a neat row, held in place by a metal bookend like the kind used in libraries, and—Jounouchi rolled his eyes—sorted by author.

Despite it sounding as though Hirutani had ended the conversation with his father, he didn't come up right away, so Jounouchi assumed that whatever Hirutani's father had said to stop him had worked. Jounouchi carefully lowered himself into the desk chair to wait, and after a second or two, felt his attention drawn back to the computer. It felt like a trap, really. Jounouchi wondered if Hirutani remembered that he'd left his computer on when he ordered Jounouchi up the stairs—if he'd thought about it, or if he'd been too distracted by his father to care. Regardless, the temptation to see what Hirutani had been doing the last time he was on it was strong, even though he knew that Hirutani would be pissed to find Jounouchi going through his computer regardless of what he'd been doing last. Then again, Jounouchi mused, as he reached for the mouse to wake the computer out of sleep mode, Hirutani was always pissed, so what was he risking, really?

"What are you doing?"

Jounouchi jumped, his hand on the mouse and a barely restrained yelp in his throat as pain spiked through his ribs at the sudden movement, and looked to the doorway to see Hirutani there, apparently having entered just as soundlessly as Jounouchi did before. Jounouchi pulled his hand away from the mouse to fold his arms loosely across his chest, more in an effort to look casual and hide his labored breathing than anything, and shrugged.

"Nothing. Thinking about downloading some porn, maybe."

Hirutani regarded him for a half second more before he snorted and shut his bedroom door. "Cute," he said. "You're wasting your time. You don't know my password."

"I could guess," Jounouchi said, and he hated how relieved he felt that Hirutani was letting the subject drop so easily.

"No, you couldn't," Hirutani said. He set his schoolbag on the foot of his bed—and even that he positioned carefully, perfectly lined up against the laundry hamper—before he turned to Jounouchi. "All right, hand over the money. Let's see what you got."

Jounouchi pulled the bundle of yen from his pocket and slapped it into Hirutani's outstretched palm. Hirutani quickly sifted through it, and his eyebrows knitted together over a frown after his second count.

"This is it?" he asked. "Did you sell the second bottle?"

"No," Jounouchi said, and when Hirutani gave him a suspicious glance, he pulled the second bottle out of his pocket for proof before he set it on the corner of Hirutani's desk. He didn't like touching it any longer than he had to. "Couldn't get a buyer."

"Really," Hirutani said, and it was clear from his tone that he didn't believe a word of it. Considering that he was lying, Jounouchi couldn't fault him for this.

"Really," he said all the same.

The truth was, as Jounouchi knew Hirutani suspected, he could have sold it. Even now he could picture the girl who'd been interested—could remember the way she'd held her books close to her chest, the way she'd chewed her lip because she knew she was doing something she wasn't supposed to, but was summoning all her courage to do it anyway. She'd barely looked old enough to be in high school, to be honest—Jounouchi would have pegged her for middle school at most—but time spent around Yuugi had taught him that appearance wasn't everything when it came to age. Still, no matter how old or interested she was, Jounouchi couldn't—wouldn't—sell to someone like her. Not when she looked at him with those wide, innocent eyes. Not when she kept having to tuck her long, reddish hair behind her ear because of the way it kept falling into her face. No, he wouldn't—couldn't—sell to someone who looked like her.

So he'd told her that he was out, that he had nothing for her. She'd been disappointed, but years later when her mind and body weren't destroyed like those of her classmates, she'd be glad for it. It was the one halfway decent thing he could do among all of the other disgusting things he did.

Of course, Hirutani wasn't happy with him for it, but it also seemed like he wasn't willing to push it. Instead, he huffed a sigh and shook his head before he walked over to his closet, and slid the door back just far enough to reveal a little safe in the bottom. Jounouchi tilted the desk chair back on two legs to try and see, but Hirutani's back was too broad for Jounouchi to be able to see what code he entered before the door was open.

"You can go back tomorrow," Hirutani said, without turning. "See if you can get someone to buy it then. If Seigo fails, try Musashi public."

Jounouchi let the desk chair fall on all fours again. "Musashi's a junior high."

"I know that," Hirutani said, as he closed the door to his safe and stood up.

Jounouchi glared at him. "I'm not you. I don't sell to middle schoolers."

"You do if I tell you to. But if you really don't want to sell at Musashi, then you'd better make something work out at Seigo," Hirutani said, and after he closed his closet door, he walked back over to Jounouchi. He didn't seem bothered at all by the way Jounouchi was willing him to drop dead with a look alone. "More importantly, I have a job for you."

"Another one?" Jounouchi asked, and this time his tone elicited a glare from Hirutani.

"Yes, another one. Is that a problem?"

"Depends on what it is."

Hirutani scoffed. "As if you have a choice either way." He paused a moment as if to let his words sink in—as if he needed to, when Jounouchi was already well aware that was the case—before he said, "I got a call from Matsumoto last night. He didn't tell me the details, but apparently the yakuza have been working on an overseas acquisition for the past few months on behalf of a wealthy client. They're about ready to make the exchange, and he wanted to know if I had someone who could do it for him. I volunteered you."

Jounouchi raised an eyebrow. "Sounds important. Don't the almighty yakuza want to do it themselves?"

"It'll look less suspicious if they can get someone our age to make the actual trade, for whatever reason. You'll be giving the money straight over to Matsumoto once the deal is done, of course." Hirutani paused a moment, and then said, "You realize I'm not asking you, right? I'm telling you that you're doing this."

Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I got it. So, when does this go down? Who's this 'client' I'm meeting?"

"Didn't I just tell you I don't have the details?" Hirutani asked. Jounouchi was about to point out that he couldn't do jack without them when Hirutani said, "You're meeting Matsumoto next week to go over them. I gave him your number, so he'll be in touch."

"Awesome," Jounouchi said flatly.

"I'm glad you agree," Hirutani said, his tone just as flat. It was clear that he didn't appreciate Jounouchi's lack of enthusiasm. As with all things Hirutani, Jounouchi didn't care. "But that said, we need to talk about what you're going to wear."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me," Hirutani said, as Jounouchi continued to stare at him in disbelief, he went on, "If Matsumoto wants to meet you in a public place, you can't go dressed like that. Given his age, it'll look weird if he's out with a high school student, and that uniform makes you stick out like a sore thumb."

"So I'll go in normal clothes, whatever," Jounouchi said.

"No, not 'whatever,'" Hirutani said sharply. "I've seen your 'normal clothes,' Jounouchi. You're a mess. You need to wear something decent when you're meeting with a man like him—something nicer. Business casual, if you can swing it."

This time, it was Jounouchi's turn to scoff. "Yeah, you know me, I've got nice clothes just pouring out of my closet."

Hirutani looked as if this physically pained him. Jounouchi wished that was the case. "Then we'll have to get you something presentable," he said. "I'd lend you something, but anything I have would be too big on you. It'd be counterproductive."

Usually, Jounouchi would let this go. He'd say "fine" or "whatever" and leave it up to Hirutani to, he didn't know, shove a bag of clothes into his arms at some point before his meeting and tell him to go change. But the idea of being lent clothes riled Jounouchi, because two and a half months ago, he would have been able to borrow something suitable from Honda. It was what he'd done when they'd gone to Ayumu's high school graduation, after all. Jounouchi didn't have anything suitable for a graduation himself, but once he'd hit his growth spurt he and Honda were within centimeters of each other's heights. Borrowing something nice had been easy.

But he couldn't do that now. He couldn't even talk to Honda now, and the primary person to blame for that was standing right in front of him. It made him more than just a little bitter.

So even though he knew he shouldn't, even though he knew it was just as much of a wrong choice as the one he had made back at Tayzr's, he said, "Great, we get to go shopping. That's just how I like to spend my afternoons. Think we could maybe get our nails done after, Hiru-chan?"

His mockery came at a price; he didn't have time to react before the back of Hirutani's knuckles slammed against his mouth hard enough to cut the inside of his lip against his bottom teeth. As he was still seated in the desk chair, Jounouchi at least wasn't knocked to the floor, though he did have to hook his foot around a bar at the bottom of the desk to keep the chair from toppling over backwards. He tasted blood, but even as his neck throbbed at the sudden bout of whiplash it received, he still felt it was kind of worth it.

"Damn it," Hirutani swore, and he laughed softly. Jounouchi looked up to see him shaking out his hand. "You made me lose my temper after all."

"Yeah, I made you," Jounouchi said, and he massaged his jaw. He knew he kind of did bring this on himself, but he still never liked it when he was blamed for things Hirutani did.

"Yeah, you did," Hirutani said, and his tone was accusatory. "As you always do. I'm starting to think you like pain."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Jounouchi asked. Hirutani didn't reply. After another beat of silence between them, Jounouchi said, "Well, if that's everything, then I think we're done here. See ya."

Jounouchi pushed himself up and crossed over to the door, but he didn't manage to get it open more than a crack before Hirutani reached over his head and slammed the door shut, his fingers splayed flat against the wood.

"I don't remember dismissing you," he said coldly.

Jounouchi took his hand off the door handle and took a couple steps back. He hated when Hirutani got in his space like that. "What more do you have to bitch at me about?" he demanded. "I gave you the money, we already went over your stupid job for the stupid yakuza—how are we not done?"

"We're done when I say we're done," Hirutani said, and he turned to stand in front of the door much like he had at Tayzr's. Just like the room at Tayzr's, Hirutani's bedroom had no windows, which meant there weren't any alternate escape routes Jounouchi could take advantage of. "But it's funny you should bring up the question of what I have to bitch at you about, because your attitude would be at the top of the list."

"This again," Jounouchi said, and he took the sacrifice of a stab of pain in his ribs to heave an exaggerated sigh. "Yeah, yeah, I need to watch my mouth, stop mouthing off, shut up and do my job, yadda yadda, I got it. So can I go now?"

"It's not just that, though that would help your case," Hirutani said. "It's your lying I'm more concerned about."

"My lying?" Jounouchi asked incredulously. "What the hell have I lied to you about?" A lot of things, to be entirely fair, but it wasn't as if Jounouchi was going to own up to any of them that easily.

Hirutani didn't answer at first, and after a few beats of silence Jounouchi was about to ask him if he even had an answer, or if he was hoping that Jounouchi would confess to some imagined crime on his own. But before Jounouchi could say anything of the sort, Hirutani lunged forward and slammed the palm of his hand against Jounouchi's chest with enough force to throw him backwards.

For the first few seconds—minutes?—Jounouchi wasn't sure what he'd hit, if he'd hit the floor, or the bed, or—or something else, he didn't know. White hot pain splintered through his already fractured ribs, sudden and violent enough to make his head spin as he gasped and wheezed for air. He rolled over to brace himself on his forearms, head bowed, and it was only then that he realized that whatever he had landed on was soft. The bed, then—he'd hit the bed. He coughed, and the resulting agony in his chest caused nausea to roil in his stomach.

"You didn't get those wrapped like I told you to, did you?" Hirutani asked mildly.

"Fuck y—" Jounouchi tried to say, but his throat felt choked and his words died in a strangled wheeze. He coughed again, and shut his eyes to try and fight against the bile he could taste in the back of his throat. "I'm gonna puke on your bed," he gasped out at length.

"Do it and I'll kill you," Hirutani said, in the same mild tone he'd used before. "What did I say before? I said I wanted you to heal quickly so you could get back in the game. I told you to get your ribs taken care of specifically for that reason. Do you want to be on the drug beat forever? Do you want to spend the rest of your life on the bench?"

Six weeks of rest. That was what Ayumu had said. Six weeks of rest, but Jounouchi couldn't even go one day without getting hit in the chest twice. Jounouchi pushed himself up on his hands, and finally turned to level a scathing glare at Hirutani.

"You don't know that I didn't," he spat. "Anyone with broken ribs is gonna hurt when they get hit in the chest, asshole. And for someone who wants me 'back in the game,' you really seem to like hitting me there."

"Fair enough," Hirutani said, and he nodded toward Jounouchi. "Let me see it, then."

"What?"

"If you got your ribs wrapped like you say you did, then you should have no problem letting me see the bandages. So take off your shirt and jacket. Let me see."

For a few seconds, they sat in silence. Jounouchi had one arm wrapped around his stomach, held loosely, but enough so that he could at least block another strike if Hirutani decided to hit him again. But as the seconds passed, and Hirutani seemed intent on waiting for Jounouchi to follow through with the command to strip, Jounouchi said, "I . . . can't."

Hirutani looked like he'd expected this. "Because—"

"My doctor said not to."

That brought Hirutani up short, and he gave Jounouchi a dubious look. "Your doctor told you not to show me your bandages?"

"He said it could, uh, cause them not to heal properly. You know, better to keep the bandages from getting exposed to air—"

"You're a fucking idiot," Hirutani snapped, and Jounouchi knew that, but he still hated to hear Hirutani say it. He scowled. "Take off your jacket and shirt or I'll do it for you, and considering the state you're in, you are really not going to like it if we have to go that route."

"I wouldn't like it even if my ribs weren't broken," Jounouchi said. Hirutani said nothing. Jounouchi heaved a sigh through gritted teeth. "Fine, I didn't—I didn't wrap them. Happy?"

"No," Hirutani said bluntly. "I'm not happy that you disobeyed me again. Why would you think that would make me happy?"

"I meant are you happy I owned up to it," Jounouchi bit out. "Look, my doctor said that he couldn't wrap them because it's bad to wrap broken ribs. It makes it hard to breathe and stuff. Believe it or not, I like breathing. Big fan of it, actually."

Hirutani narrowed his eyes in a suspicious stare. "Who's your doctor?"

"Uh—ah, Takada," Jounouchi said, blurting out the first name that came to mind. When Hirutani raised his eyebrows, he added, "Hayate. Takada Hayate."

Hirutani was quiet for a moment before he said, "That's really his name? That's the name of the guy you saw about your ribs?"

"Yep."

"So if I looked him up, I'd be able to find him? I could make an appointment for myself if I wanted?"

"Well," Jounouchi said, "maybe not. He's a family friend. Doesn't really like to take on patients he doesn't already—"

"So in other words, you were lying to me again just now," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi snapped his mouth shut. "See, Jounouchi, that's the problem we run into when you lie to me. Now I'm going to assume everything you say is a lie. Tell me, are there any other lies I should know about? Anything else you want to own up to? If so, now would be the time to do it. This is the last chance I'm giving you for leniency."

It was so obvious what Hirutani wanted Jounouchi to say that Jounouchi would have laughed if it wouldn't have felt like driving an ice pick into his chest. "No," he said. "I don't fucking lie all the time, or whatever it is you're implying. I haven't lied about anything else."

"Hmph." Hirutani closed his eyes and shook his head, and there was something that was almost pitying about his expression that made Jounouchi's blood run cold. He couldn't already know—there was no way he could know, but for him to look like that— "Fine. Have it your way."

"I will," Jounouchi said, but at this point he wasn't sure what "his way" was—or at least, he wasn't sure what Hirutani thought "his way" was. There was no way Hirutani could know about the meeting in the park. The only people who did know were Jounouchi and Yuugi, and given that Jounouchi wasn't about to admit to it and Yuugi probably couldn't pick Hirutani out of a line-up (and would have no reason to talk to him even if he could), there was no way Jounouchi could think of that the information could have gotten back to him. So he was bluffing in an attempt to get Jounouchi to trip and fess up. He had to be. There was no other explanation. But—

"But that doesn't let you off the hook for your other lies," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi forced himself to focus. He could worry about what Hirutani did or didn't know later. "I told you to get your ribs wrapped. You said you were going to do it. You lied. So take off your jacket and shirt; I'll do it for you this time to make sure it gets done."

"No," Jounouchi said, and as Hirutani's eyes narrowed into a livid glare, he continued, "I already told you, my doctor said you can't wrap ribs because it stops you from breathing. Somehow I don't think not breathing is going to help me heal any faster."

"We already established you were lying about your doctor," Hirutani said.

"You established that. I never said a thing about it. In fact, I'd say the opposite considering he's a very real doctor who not only exists, but also told me he wouldn't wrap my ribs because he didn't want to kill me." Jounouchi raised his eyebrows in a challenging look. "You looking to kill me, Hirutani? Is that it? 'Cause let me tell you, there are faster ways than making my lungs collapse, or giving me pneumonia or whatever." Jounouchi lifted one hand so he could start ticking the ways off on his fingers. "You could shoot me. You could stab me. I know for a fact you gave a handful of your little helper monkeys police issued stun guns a few months ago."

"Our little helper monkeys," Hirutani said, and the vomit Jounouchi felt in his throat didn't have anything to do with the pain-induced nausea this time, "and I've considered it, but it'd be a waste right now. I have so much more to teach you."

"Right," Jounouchi said caustically. "Well, if it's all the same to you, I'm sick of learning for today." He pushed himself to his feet, and swallowed down the bile that, this time, was caused by the tenderness in his ribs. "So since we've sorted all this bullshit out, I'm going home."

Hirutani blocked the way. "We still haven't taken care of your ribs."

"And we're not going to. They'll heal on their own," Jounouchi said. As he had been outside when he realized that Hirutani had lied to him and that whatever he had been doing previously was probably nothing good, Jounouchi felt a surge of adrenaline rush through him. It eased the ache in his ribs just enough to make it easier for him to concentrate. Fighting his way out now probably wouldn't do much good in the long run, but at least if he could get himself out of this one situation— "Get out of my way."

"Don't tell me what to do. You don't have that right," Hirutani said. He nodded toward the bed. "Sit down and do as you were told."

Jounouchi glanced at the door before he looked back to Hirutani. Making a straight run for it wouldn't work, but maybe—

"Jounouchi," Hirutani said, a note of warning in his voice, and in that second Jounouchi made his decision.

He stepped around Hirutani as if he expected to make it in a straight shot to the door, and when Hirutani pushed him back toward the bed—just as Jounouchi knew he would—Jounouchi used the newly created distance between them to immediately launch himself forward so he could throw his entire body weight behind a punch aimed straight for Hirutani's solar plexus. Whether it was because Jounouchi's attack was too sudden or because Hirutani didn't expect him to attack like that when his ribs were broken, Jounouchi wasn't sure, but either way, Hirutani didn't anticipate the attack quickly enough to block it. He doubled over, swearing a blue streak through wheezing breaths, and Jounouchi took advantage of both Hirutani's temporary incapacity and the adrenaline rush he still had to bolt toward the door, wrench it open, and all but fling himself down the stairs.

Hirutani's father was still in the living room, but he didn't have time to say more than, "Hey, is Ki—?" before Jounouchi yanked the front door open and threw himself through it. He didn't even bother to shut it all the way behind him. Adrenaline would only get him so far, and he needed to take advantage of it and get as close to home as he could before it wore off. Preferably he could get inside his apartment, though since his dad still thought Hirutani was a cop, probably that wouldn't be enough to stop Hirutani from going in after him anyway. Then again, he wasn't sure what Hirutani would really be willing to do there, given that Jounouchi's dad couldn't be counted on to sit around and do nothing like Hirutani's could.

It didn't matter, anyway. Hirutani didn't seem to be chasing him, and despite living so close by, Jounouchi only made it halfway before he had to stop, his ribs throbbing so badly he felt dizzy. He wrapped both arms around his chest and sank to his knees, fighting against the urge to throw up, or pass out, or throw up and then pass out. The last thing he needed was for someone to find him in a pool of his own vomit.

God, but this was pathetic. He'd stopped in the middle of a sidewalk three streets over, and he leaned against a fence that lined someone's yard. Since when was he this weak? It wasn't like this was any less than he deserved, but just two nights ago he'd been able to give Hirutani a solid beating before he made the mistake of going for the knife. Now he could barely run two blocks without being rendered completely worthless. Well, more worthless than he already was, anyway.

Jounouchi was about to push himself to his feet again—because no matter how useless he felt, he still had to get home—when he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket. Dreading that it was probably Hirutani with an order to go right back (that he would ignore, of course, because seriously, he was fucking done for the day), Jounouchi pulled his phone out of his pocket, and frowned at the unknown number that was splashed across the screen. No one but Hirutani had his number, except . . .

Jounouchi flipped his phone open, and after he swallowed to make sure he could talk without puking, he said, "Hello?"

"Joutou-kun!" Matsumoto said warmly, and Jounouchi sat back against the fence and put his elbow on one knee, his forehead braced against his open palm. "I'm glad I reached you. Is this a good time to talk?"

Chapter Text

It wasn't until she passed by his table for the fourth time that Anzu recognized him.

She had been too preoccupied to really take much notice of him the first few times, she reasoned. He was seated down by the far end of the restaurant in the third to last booth, and given that it was the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday, Burger World was slammed. She was too busy running drinks and meals to her own tables, or helping fetch napkins or drink refills for coworkers' tables to pay him much notice, especially since neither he nor the guy he was sitting with seemed to have ordered anything. But on her fourth time passing his table on her way to the back to get a replacement bottle of ketchup after a customer's four year old emptied the previous one out onto the floor, Jounouchi leaned back in his seat, one arm thrown out over the back of the bench as he regarded the man seated across from him, and Anzu stopped in her tracks.

It was definitely Jounouchi. She was sure of that the second she got a good look at his face, but he looked different enough that Anzu thought maybe preoccupation wasn't the only reason why she didn't notice him at first. His hair was a lot shorter, for one thing; although it brushed his ears on the sides, he had taken a lot off the top and it no longer fell into his eyes in the haphazard way she remembered. It was more clean-cut this way, but something about it still looked a little off, much in the same way his clothes did. In lieu of a school uniform or the t-shirts and beat-up denim jeans she remembered him sporting on their off-days, Jounouchi was wearing a button down white shirt and—from what she could see of his legs beneath the table—black slacks. His shirt didn't seem to be tucked in, and he'd left the top two buttons undone, but the clothes were still nice—sharp. There was nothing wrong with them, but something about the ensemble still felt a little—

"Hey, burger girl!" Anzu jumped a little as her customer's voice rang out from across the crowded restaurant, and as she turned, she saw that three of her female coworkers did the same. Her customer only had eyes for her, though, as he waved one large, annoyed hand in the air. "Where's our ketchup? You gonna stand there all day or what?"

Anzu forced a smile, and in the most cheerful voice she could manage, said, "Coming right up, sir! I apologize for the delay!"

The man huffed and dropped back in his seat, looking no less annoyed than before as he said something in an undertone to his wife. Anzu gritted her teeth, and barely bit back the addendum that if he had taught his kid some manners in the first place, he wouldn't have a ketchup shortage problem to begin with. Her job was to deliver speedy service with a smile, after all. Anything other than that—any scowls, any sighs, or any well-deserved lectures delivered straight to rude, belligerent customers—would make her lose her job long before she'd saved up the money she needed for New York. Anzu took a deep breath and exhaled it in one short burst to try and relieve the tension she could feel building in her chest, but any tension she released came right back the second she turned around to find Jounouchi staring at her.

He didn't look at her for long; the moment her eyes met his he looked back to the man seated across from him, and shook his head a little when the man asked him something Anzu couldn't hear over the noise in the restaurant. That didn't particularly bother her. What bothered her was that she couldn't really make out why Jounouchi had been looking at her like that. He must have heard her voice, but he knew she worked here. He probably saw her before she noticed him. But even considering that, he hadn't looked surprised, or upset, or . . . anything, really. She supposed he'd only looked at her for a few seconds, but those few seconds weren't really enough for her to get a read on what he was thinking.

As she dodged around one of the grill cooks in the backroom and made her way to the condiment shelves, she snorted. Even if he did have semi-fancy clothes and a neater haircut, he was still Jounouchi. Whatever he had been thinking about, it couldn't have been that deep. She was giving him too much credit.

Even so, despite how impatient her customer had been, she walked a little slower as she made her way back to his table after digging a fresh bottle of ketchup out of one of the boxes on the condiment shelves. It was still too loud for her to hear what they were talking about, but at least this way she could get a better look at the guy Jounouchi was with.

He looked too old to be a student, that was for sure, Rintama High or otherwise. If Anzu had to guess, the man was twice their age, give or take a few years. His hair was short and brown, as nondescript as the five o' clock shadow he had around his jaw, and in stark contrast to the rose-colored sunglasses he was wearing despite the fact that he was indoors. Considering how sensible the rest of his business casual appearance looked, Anzu felt the sunglasses were more than a little odd. There wasn't very much time to contemplate them, however; she looked up in time to see her customer standing up again, his eyes trained on her, and she quickened her pace, holding the ketchup bottle up where he could see it to placate him before he could shout at her again. But as she passed by Jounouchi's table, she saw the man in the sunglasses pull a manila file folder from the leather satchel at his side, and hand it across the table to Jounouchi.

"Here you go!" Anzu said as she reached her customer's table, and she slammed the bottle down with a little more force than necessary. Judging from the looks on her customers' faces (all except their four year old, at least, who looked like his birthday had just come early), none of them appreciated it, but Anzu plastered a bright, plastic smile on her face regardless. "Please let me know if you need anything else!"

"Smarter waitress, maybe," her customer muttered to his wife, and his wife tittered an agreement beneath her breath.

New York, New York, Anzu chanted in her head, as she squeezed her fingers into tight fists at her sides and walked away. You're doing this for New York . . .

But paying for dance school in New York was a faraway problem. As much as she needed this job now to make sure she would have the money for then, then wasn't still for another couple of years yet. There was a much more pressing, more current problem sitting in a Burger World booth, scowling at something contained in a manila folder.

After the disastrous meeting with Hirutani a week ago, they hadn't made any progress looking for Jounouchi. Honda was grounded after being taken in by that police officer; from what he'd told Yuugi and Anzu at school the next day, he had been able to reason with his sister enough so that she didn't out everything he did to their parents, but she'd still revealed enough that Honda was pretty sure he was grounded until his next birthday at least.

"They'll probably ease up so long as I'm quiet for the next couple of weeks," he had said. "But if I'm caught doing anything against the rules of my grounding, that will add another couple of months to my sentence."

With Honda grounded, that left Yuugi and Anzu, and while Yuugi didn't want to give up, Anzu was wary about continuing on with just the two of them. Hirutani was dangerous. Even if Honda's sister hadn't told them as much, the confrontation they had with him outside of the café said enough on its own. Anzu had meant what she said when she said that it wasn't over—if nothing else, she didn't want to stand for someone talking about another person like they were chattel—but she also didn't think that she and Yuugi had the same odds in a fight against Hirutani if it came to physical blows like Honda did. She would still fight if she had to, but she didn't want it to come to that if it could be avoided.

But Yuugi was adamant, and so on days when she didn't have to work, they went out to look around the city, with a promise made between them that they wouldn't do anything if Hirutani was there. It was a decent compromise, anyway; Yuugi agreed not to go off on his own, and Anzu agreed to keep looking even though Honda was under parental lockdown. Anzu still didn't want to confront Hirutani again, but at least now she didn't have to worry about Yuugi doing it by himself. All the same, despite spending Anzu's free afternoons searching, they hadn't been able to so much as spot Jounouchi even once . . .

. . . only for him to turn up here, at her job, talking to some strange man she had never seen before.

Part of Anzu wanted to call Yuugi, but her cell phone was in her purse back in the employee office. There was no way she could go back and get it, especially with her manager cracking down on phone usage while on the clock (which was stupid, Anzu thought bitterly, and entirely Chiaki's fault; why did he have to be glued to his phone all the damn time?!). But she couldn't do nothing, either. If she went back to school tomorrow and told Yuugi that she saw Jounouchi at work and didn't do anything about it . . . well, she could already picture the look of confusion and dismay he would give her. She didn't think she wanted to face that for real.

So she turned and skirted along the counter to where Chiaki leaned up against it on the other side, not-so-discreetly checking his phone down by his waist. She cleared her throat when she was near enough, and he hastily shoved his phone into the pocket of his work pants before he flashed her a smile that was one third dimples, two thirds impish.

"Mazaki poppy!" he said, and as he always did whenever he greeted her, he said 'poppy' in English to make it rhyme with her name. "This is a surprise. What brings you my way?"

"Oh, you know. Just our job," she said, and gestured at the busy restaurant around them. Chiaki looked at the swarm of customers and coworkers briefly before he turned his smile back to her. She had to hand it to him: For a guy who she knew for a fact had no real intention of dating any one particular person, he was a pretty dedicated flirt. Two could play at that game. She put on a winning smile of her own and placed her elbows on the counter as she leaned forward. "Hey, Chiaki-kun, do you think you could do me a favor?"

"Oh, I'm Chiaki-kun now, am I?" he said, and he mimicked her pose, chin on laced fingers and all.

"If you do me this favor," Anzu said, as sweetly as she could. "I want to do a table swap. Table seventeen for table . . ." Anzu thought over her current tables, remembered how the one grouch with the ketchup-loving child had muttered about wanting a smarter waitress, and said, "Twelve."

"Seventeen?" Chiaki blinked, and then laughed. "Have you seen seventeen? They're not ordering anything. Not that I'm really complaining, because it's less for me to do, but . . ." He gave her a shrewd look. "Is that why you want it? Less work?"

"No," Anzu said quickly. "I want a hard sell. If I can get those guys to be paying customers, then Himura-san will give me more hours. I mean, if that won't convince him, then nothing else will, right?"

Chiaki snorted. "You bet. If there's one thing he loves more than a kiss-ass, it's a kiss-ass that's also a hard and dedicated worker." Anzu scowled at the implication that she was a kiss-ass, but before she could counter it, Chiaki said, "All right, you've got your swap, but only because you're cute as buttons and I can't say no. You know how cute girls are my weakness."

"Cute everything is your weakness," Anzu said, but she returned Chiaki's smile even as he shrugged to give her the point. "Thanks, Chiaki. I owe you."

"Aww, lost the -kun already?" he said, and put out his lips in a mock pout. Anzu stuck her tongue out at him as he added, "You said I'm taking twelve, right?"

Anzu opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment, her boorish customer did it for her. "Burger girl!" he shouted. "Hey, burger girl—we need another thing of ketchup!"

Anzu turned to see that the child had once again wrested control of the ketchup bottle, and had done a great job of adding another puddle to the lake of ketchup already piled on the floor beneath the table. Relieved that she was losing the pain of having to deal with that mess on top of gaining the opportunity to talk to Jounouchi, Anzu beamed.

"Actually, burger boy will be helping you now," she said brightly, and she grabbed Chiaki's arm to push him lightly toward the table. "Go on, help the man with his ketchup problem."

"I—what—no, wait, I take it back. I want my table back!" Chiaki cried. Anzu wagged her finger at him as she started down toward the other end of the restaurant.

"No can do, Chiaki-kun. No fair trade-backs."

"You never said that before we made the trade! Hey! Mazaki poppyyyy!"

Chiaki's whining fell on deaf ears as Anzu darted around one of her coworkers leading a family of six to their table. She was relieved to see that not much seemed to have changed between Jounouchi and his companion; at the least, neither of them looked ready to leave. As she approached their booth she reached into the pocket of her work skirt to pull out her notepad and pen, and put on her biggest smile when she drew level with the table.

"Hi!" she said, and she tried to infuse her voice with the same upbeat attitude she'd used with Yuugi for the past two months, rather than the manufactured I-wish-I-could-poison-your-fries cheer she greeted most other customers with. The man in sunglasses looked up, his eyebrows raised but an easy smile on his face, while Jounouchi's eyes remained fixed on whatever he was reading inside the manila folder. "We hit a bit of a snag with our table rotation, and so your previous server has been assigned to another table. I'll be taking over as your server for the remainder of the afternoon."

"So long as there aren't any other scheduling snags, right?" the man in sunglasses asked, but his tone was light—teasing. Anzu felt her smile become a little more forced all the same.

"Right!" she agreed. "So, I see you haven't had anything to drink yet—might I interest you in something? We have water, several different soft drinks, some alcohol so long as you're of age—"

"Oh, I'm fine," the man in sunglasses said. He looked to Jounouchi. "Joutou-kun, how about you?"

Joutou? Anzu furrowed her brow, but Jounouchi didn't look up. It didn't look like he was really reading whatever was in the folder, either; his eyes had been stuck on the same spot since she had stepped up to the table.

"No," he said, voice flat.

"Looks like we're good on that front," the man in sunglasses said, unruffled by Jounouchi's attitude. Anzu pasted a smile back on her face—however weird that name was, and whatever reason Jounouchi had for apparently using it, it wouldn't help for her to show open confusion over it—and focused her attention on Jounouchi. If there was one way she could get through to him—or at least one way she could get him to actually look at her—it was with food.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "We're actually running a promotion this month with two new flavors of milkshake: green tea and red bean. They're both great, but I'd personally go for the green tea, if I were you. It's definitely the best milkshake you'll find anywhere in Domino."

"That's a pretty bold claim," the man in sunglasses said.

"So, what do you think?" Anzu pressed, and as she kept her eyes on Jounouchi, the man in sunglasses looked to him as well. "It's pretty hot outside, still. A milkshake could help you cool off."

"Pass," Jounouchi said, still not looking at her.

"Well, all right, then!" Anzu said, and she squeezed her pen a little tighter. "Maybe milkshakes aren't the best thing. How about some food? We have some specials going on right now. Right now, chef's recommendations start with the apple burger, which is your typical burger topped with a grilled cinnamon apple for a bit of sweetness with your spice. It comes with a side order of fries, of course."

"Not interested."

"Okay, then how about our meat beast royale? Can't go wrong with that," Anzu said. "That one has one beef patty, one chicken filet, and a pork patty, topped with red miso, green onion sauce, three different cheeses starting with—"

"Still not interested," Jounouchi said through clenched teeth. Anzu returned the favor in kind.

"That's fine, we have plenty of other options! How about—"

Jounouchi closed the manila folder and slammed it on the table in the same motion. "What part of 'I don't want anything' did you not get?" he snapped, glowering at her. Anzu tried not to look caught off-guard by his sudden outburst. "I'm not hungry, screw off."

"Since when are you not hungry?" Anzu demanded. "You're always hungry. There has to be something you want."

"Always?" the man in the sunglasses asked, sounding interested. He looked between them. "Do you two know each other?"

"Yes," Anzu said, at the same time that Jounouchi gave a very vehement, "No." The man in sunglasses raised his eyebrows, and while he looked even more intrigued than before, Jounouchi looked like he was trying to set the table on fire with his mind alone.

"He's, ah, a regular customer!" Anzu said, and she spun her pen between her fingers as the man in sunglasses looked back to her. "I see him in here all the time, so I'm just surprised he hasn't ordered anything, that's all."

"Really?" the man in sunglasses asked. Anzu nodded. "That's funny. He seemed pretty reluctant to come here when I suggested it."

"O-Oh, really?" Anzu asked, and she hoped her laughter didn't sound as nervous as she suddenly felt. Jounouchi had picked up the manila folder again, though he didn't open it, and his fingers squeezed it so tightly Anzu thought he might end up punching holes in it. "Well, that would explain a few things! I mean, I haven't seen him in here recently, but he used to come all the time—"

"What happened?" The man in sunglasses turned his attention to Jounouchi, his chin propped up by his hand, his elbow on the table. "Sounds like there's a story here. Is there a story?"

"No," Jounouchi said. "Just a really annoying waitress."

Yuugi, Yuugi, Anzu chanted in her head, as she resisted the urge to throw her pen at Jounouchi's face. You're doing this for Yuugi . . .

"Aw, come now, don't be like that, Joutou-kun," the man in sunglasses said. "She's just doing her job."

"Pretty sure her job is to not annoy her customers into never coming back," Jounouchi said. The man in sunglasses opened his mouth to reply, but Anzu cleared her throat.

"You know what? You're right. I'll leave you to whatever it is you're doing, then," she said.

"Good," Jounouchi said.

"But I'll be around in case you do decide you need anything, so let me know if you do, okay?"

"Won't happen, but sure," Jounouchi said. The man in sunglasses gave Jounouchi a bemused look before he turned to Anzu.

"We'll keep it in mind," he said.

Anzu gave him one last, quick smile, cast a glance at Jounouchi—who, once again, was steadfastly looking at the table rather than her—and then turned to head toward the back, scribbling an order down on her notepad as she walked.

Jounouchi could turn down the idea of food, but if he was anything at all like she remembered, then there was no way he could turn down food that was right in front of him.

Anzu couldn't remember what Jounouchi liked, exactly, but she jotted down what Yuugi usually ordered and slipped it in with the other orders her coworkers had lined up for their tables. That accomplished, she hunted down her manager and made sure she could take her break once the food was done—a feat that took some work, to be sure, but was made much easier once Anzu bent the truth and told him that she got Jounouchi to actually order something—and then went to check on her other tables while she waited. Fortunately, her other customers weren't nearly as fussy as table twelve; aside from needing a couple refills on drinks, they were more than happy to be left alone, while Chiaki was still busy trying to clean the Lake Motosu-sized ketchup spill off the floor beneath table twelve. Anzu felt bad, but he had agreed, and besides, she could always make it up to him later.

Once her order was up, Anzu checked with her manager one last time to make sure it was all right for her to take her break, and then brought the tray out to Jounouchi's table, where she set it down without preamble. Both Jounouchi and the man with sunglasses looked up, and Jounouchi glowered at her.

"The cooks accidentally got another customer's order wrong and made this by mistake. Usually we'd just toss it out, but I figured since you hadn't ordered anything, you might want it." Anzu slid the tray over toward Jounouchi, but the most he did was move the manila folder out of the way. He didn't make a move toward the food. "Go ahead, have at it."

Jounouchi stared at it for a second, chewing the inside of his cheek, but then he shook his head sharply and folded his arms. "No. I don't want it. Take it back."

Anzu had only been friends with Jounouchi for about three months before he transferred, but in those three months, she'd never known him to turn down anything edible, especially if it was free. She stared at him for a second, thinking maybe she misheard him or he misunderstood, before she said, "You don't have to worry about paying for it. It was our mistake, so it's on the house."

The dark look Jounouchi was giving her didn't waver. "I said no. Get out of here."

Anzu opened her mouth to ask him what the hell his deal was (because really, she was seriously starting to doubt Yuugi's version of whatever went down in the park), but before she could, the man in sunglasses spoke up.

"What's the harm in accepting a little food? It's free. Unless it's poisoned, it can't hurt, and somehow I get the feeling it isn't poisoned." He leaned across the table, then, and in an undertone easily audible to Anzu despite the din of the restaurant said, "I think she likes you."

Anzu opened her mouth, but the shock and actual offense she felt at the suggestion left her at a loss for words. The look on Jounouchi's face was similarly dumbfounded, but he found his voice faster than Anzu did, his expression as dry as his tone when he spoke.

"Pretty sure her feelings for me are the exact opposite of 'like,' unless by 'likes' you mean 'wishes would get hit by a bus.'"

"You don't think this is a good way to get a guy's attention?" the man in sunglasses asked, and he swiped a fry off the plate, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. Anzu frowned.

"I think whatever she's up to is something I'm not interested in," Jounouchi said, and he gave Anzu a pointed look.

The last thing Anzu wanted was for anyone to think she was interested in Jounouchi—or at least, interested in him like that—but she also knew that she couldn't let an opportunity go to waste when it was practically handed to her on a silver platter. With another mental reminder that she was doing this for Yuugi, Anzu slid into the booth next to Jounouchi and grabbed his arm in a hug as she did so, holding him tightly as he tried to pull away. He gave her an affronted look.

"What the hell—"

"I'm that transparent, huh?" she said, and she forced a giggle and ducked her head a little bit so she could look at the man in sunglasses from beneath her bangs. "Well, you know how it is. When we're on the clock it can be a bit hard to be direct, but I am technically on a break now, so . . ."

"So you're free to be as open as your heart desires," the man in sunglasses said, and a Cheshire grin split his cheeks from ear to ear. Anzu locked her jaw in her own smile as she nodded, and the man laughed. "Well, who am I to stand in the way of young love, hm? You enjoy your break. I'll let you kids get on with it."

"We're not—" Jounouchi began, but the man in sunglasses cut him off as he stood up.

"Don't worry about it. We were just about finished talking, anyway. If you have any questions, you know how to get in touch with me. Otherwise, I trust you to be able to take care of it as discussed." He nodded toward the pair of them with a smile and said, "Good luck," before he turned to make his way out of the restaurant. Jounouchi waited until the man was out of sight before he turned to Anzu, and he looked no less cold than before.

"Get off me," he said.

Anzu released him immediately, more than happy to pull back, though she didn't move from her spot. "It's not like I really meant any of that. I just needed an excuse to sit down," she said.

"Yeah, whatever," he said. Anzu said nothing, and after a minute he said in an exasperated tone, "So, are you gonna move or not?"

"Not," Anzu said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes and turned to scowl out of the window.

"Great."

She had been standing too far away to really get a good look at him before, aside from his new hair style and outfit, but now that she was seated right next to him—now that she'd had a chance to get a good look at his face—Anzu could see that Jounouchi . . . didn't look well. There were dark circles under his eyes that suggested multiple sleepless nights, and maybe it was her imagination, but he looked a little thinner, too—or at least, he felt a little bonier when she grabbed his arm, though Anzu supposed it wasn't like she'd ever hugged him before he transferred to gain a point of comparison. All the same, despite his clean haircut and nice clothes Jounouchi had an overall haggard appearance, and so she nudged the tray of food a bit closer to him. He looked at it askance, but didn't move to take it.

"Come on, eat something," she said, more gently than before. "You look like you could use it."

He shook his head minutely, and turned to stare out of the window again. "Not hungry."

"Since when are you not hungry?" Anzu asked, all too aware that she was just repeating their conversation from earlier. He didn't answer, and her frustration—frustration that she'd felt since that first day in the plaza months ago—began to bubble to the surface again. "Are you not allowed to eat in your little gang or something?"

"I'm allowed to—" Jounouchi started, clearly annoyed, but even as he turned to argue with her he seemed to think better of it. He made a little growling sound in the back of his throat before he looked away again, and reached down to pull something from his pocket. Anzu wrinkled her nose in disgust when she saw that it was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. "We can smoke in here, right?" Jounouchi asked, but he didn't wait for her permission before he pulled a cigarette from the pack and flicked his lighter open.

"Why do you want to? Since when you do smoke?" Anzu demanded.

Jounouchi shrugged. "Few months now. If it bothers you, you can get the hell away from me so I can leave." He took a drag on the cigarette and exhaled, thankfully turning away from her before he did.

It did bother her, but not just because she didn't like the look or smell of the smoke. She scrunched her fingers in her work skirt to brace herself against her annoyance and said calmly, "I want to talk to you."

"Well, I don't want to talk to you," he said, and Anzu curled her fingers a little more tightly in the fabric of her skirt. "Thought I made that clear . . . what, three months ago now? And didn't you get it then? Pretty sure you said you'd gladly stay the hell away from me. Whatever happened to that?"

"Probably the same thing that happened to you promising you'd stay away from Yuugi," Anzu snapped before she could help herself.

Jounouchi's attitude of quiet irritation was gone in a flash. He whipped around to stare at her, his eyes wide and wild. "What?"

His sudden reaction was startling, but once her surprise faded, Anzu only felt the same frustration and annoyance she had felt since she first approached the table and he blew her off. Even if he had been gone for three months, and even if he was in a gang now, he was still Jounouchi. No matter how wild he looked, there was no reason to be afraid of him.

"Yuugi told Honda and me what happened in the park last week," she said, and there was no mistaking the growing panic in Jounouchi's eyes now, though Anzu didn't see a reason for it. "He said y—hey, what the hell?!"

In one fluid motion, Jounouchi grabbed the cup of soda from the tray with his free hand and threw it to the floor hard enough to break it open. The lid and straw skittered across the tile as soda and ice sprayed everywhere, some of it splashing onto Anzu's ankles beneath the table. Everyone nearby—from the other customers in the restaurant, to Anzu's coworkers, to Anzu's manager—turned to see what had caused the disturbance, but Anzu was the only one paying attention to them. Jounouchi, apparently satisfied with having thrown the cup to the floor, was taking another drag on his cigarette.

Anzu's manager was not nearly so composed. He stared at her with bugged eyes from behind the counter, his face flushing unpleasantly.

"Mazaki, what do you think you're doing over there?!" he snapped, but he seemed to realize in the same breath that there were still some customers watching, for he cleared his throat and tried to force his voice to adopt a more pleasant tone. "Being on break doesn't mean you can . . . do thingslike this!"

"I didn't—it was an accident," Anzu said, and her manager's nostrils flared. "It was just a clumsy slip, it won't happen again—"

"It better not," her manager said, and he checked his watch. "You have twenty more minutes." With that, he turned to head down to the other end of the counter, calling for one of Anzu's older coworkers—Hanako—to clean up the mess before someone slipped. Anzu felt bad, but she allowed herself only a second to make a mental note to make it up to Hanako later before she whirled on Jounouchi.

"What the hell was that for?" she hissed. "Are you trying to get me fired?"

"I was trying to get you to shut up," he said, in a voice just as low as hers. Anzu furrowed her brow, but before she could ask why he wanted to get her to shut up so badly—and why he couldn't just tell her to shut up, rather than throwing cups like a child—he said, "What did Yuugi tell you? Don't get into specifics," he added sharply, as she opened her mouth, "but just—you know. Generally. Did he tell you . . ." Jounouchi bounced his leg beneath the table, clearly agitated, and took another hit on his cigarette. He turned away to exhale before he said, "What—exactly, but non-specifically—did he say?"

Anzu stared at him for what felt like a full minute before she had to ask. "How am I supposed to tell you anything 'exactly, but non-specifically?' What in the world does that mean?"

"Just—" Jounouchi made a waving motion in the air, as if trying to magically make an explanation appear, and when none came he sighed, a strange wince crossing his face as he did so. "You know. Just avoid saying anything about . . ." He dropped his voice low enough so that Anzu only really caught the next word because she read it off his lips, "Me."

It still didn't make any sense, and Anzu wasn't sure why he was being so ridiculous about it, but after sighing herself she did her best to accommodate. "He said he nearly got mugged in the park, and then y—um, he didn't. He said he was escorted out of the park, and then sent on his way back home."

"He said all that, huh?" Jounouchi asked. He didn't seem at all relieved by her explanation. If anything, despite the fact that she had fulfilled his weird request, he looked more agitated than before.

"And more," Anzu said. "A lot more. Want me to get into the specifics?"

"Didn't I just say I didn't?" Jounouchi grumbled, and he tapped the ash from his cigarette into the little tray provided on the table.

"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. That's what all three of us have wanted to talk to you about for the past week, but we haven't been able to find you," Anzu said. "Yuugi—"

"Where did he tell you this?" Jounouchi demanded suddenly, and when he looked back at her his eyes carried the same intensity he'd had when she had first pointed out that he hadn't stayed away from Yuugi like he said he would. "And when? When and where was this?"

"What does that matter?" Anzu asked, indignant that he had interrupted her.

"Never mind that, just answer the question," he said.

"Forget that, I deserve to know why I'm being interrogated," Anzu said. "What the hell is going on with—"

"Anzu, for the love of—!" Jounouchi said loudly, and a few nearby customers looked over at his outburst. He ignored them. "Just answer the damn question! When and where, and was there anyone else besides you and Honda around when he did?"

"It was at school," Anzu said shortly. "In the morning, before homeroom, the day after it happened."

Jounouchi tapped his cigarette against the edge of the ash tray again, but it wasn't necessary to ash it this time. Instead, he tapped it in a rhythmic, quick motion like he would a pen against a desk, his eyes unfocused as he thought.

"Who else was there?" he asked after a moment. "Anyone?"

"I don't know," Anzu said crossly, and he glared at her. "Some of our classmates, maybe? I really wasn't paying attention to anyone else considering what Yuugi and Honda had to say."

"This is important," Jounouchi ground out. "I really, really need you to remember who else was there."

Anzu tossed one hand in the air. "I don't know. Hanasaki-kun, maybe—he usually gets to class early, but he sits in the back. I think Ribbon-chan was there too, since she has library club prep in the early mornings even though the club doesn't officially meet until after school."

"Anyone else?"

"I really don't know, I wasn't paying attention. Why does it matter?" Anzu snapped, and Jounouchi brushed his free hand back over his hair, spiking it up a little more in the process given how short it was. "Nice haircut, by the way."

Either he was too aggravated to accept a compliment, or her attempt to curb their mutual irritation by saying something nice backfired completely. The look he gave her was resentful. "You really can't tell me if there was anyone there besides Hanasaki and Miho?"

"I don't think there was. People came in while we were talking, but they did their own thing. No one really paid attention to us, if you're worried about someone overhearing." Jounouchi was quiet for a moment as he took another drag on his cigarette, and after a moment Anzu asked, "Now are you going to tell me why you're freaking out at me like this? Who are you so afraid of? Hirutani and the rest of his creeps go to Rintama with you, don't they?"

Jounouchi gave her a sharp look. "You know his name?"

"Of course I do. Honda told me," she said. The meeting with Hirutani himself outside of the café was on the tip of her tongue, but she bit it back. Jounouchi looked so antsy at the idea that one of her classmates could have overheard Yuugi's story that she thought he might upend the table if she told him they had actually spoken with Hirutani. Besides, she added to herself, given how much of a whackjob Hirutani is, no doubt he already told Jounouchi himself. Thinking about how that conversation must have went down put Jounouchi's behavior into perspective, and Anzu felt a pang of sympathy for him.

"Of course he did," Jounouchi muttered, and he heaved another sigh. As he did, another barely constrained wince crossed his face. Anzu frowned, suddenly remembering what Honda's sister had said.

"Hey, how are your ribs doing?"

"My what?" Jounouchi looked up at her, and Anzu resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She knew he had heard her.

"Your ribs," she repeated. "They're hurt, right? Honda's sister told us."

"You met sista?" Whether Jounouchi was intentionally dodging her question or not Anzu wasn't sure, but his surprise seemed genuine, and Anzu couldn't help the fact that her lips twitched into a little smile even as she tried to give him a reproachful look.

"Yeah, and I don't think she likes that you call her that, by the way. She said you keep 'accidentally' forgetting not to."

Jounouchi waved her off. "Yeah, yeah—but wait, why did you meet her? When did you meet her? And she told you about—" Realization seemed to hit him then, and he groaned, letting his head fall back against the back of the booth seat with a light thump. "God damn it, sista, I asked you to do one fucking thing for me—"

"If it makes you feel any better, she regretted not listening to you," Anzu said.

Jounouchi cracked open one eye to peer at her as he said, "Good."

Anzu didn't answer him right away. Instead, she took a moment to mull over her thoughts, letting him stew in silence as well, before she said, "Look, Jounouchi . . . I know a lot has happened over the past few months. I don't know the specifics of all of it, but I know enough to know how horrible it has to be for you. But whatever's going on, if you'll just let us in, we can help. Even if it's been a few months, we're still friends—"

"No," Jounouchi said abruptly, and it was as if Anzu had dumped a bucket of ice water on him for how alert he suddenly looked. He ground his cigarette into the bottom of the ash tray to put it out, and in his haste he knocked the tray just roughly enough so that some of the ash from inside spilled over onto the table. "We're not. I can't be here. I have to go."

"Go where? Why?" Anzu didn't move, even as he turned to face her, probably about to ask her to do just that. "Why can't you be here? This is a public place, you have just as much of a right as anybody to—"

"You're here," he said, and Anzu scowled.

"So it really is about that Hirutani creep, then, isn't it? Listen, he—"

"I don't think anyone's . . ." Jounouchi sat up a bit straighter to look over the other people in the restaurant, chewing the inside of his bottom lip, and he shook his head as he sat back down. "But I can't say for sure, not when anyone could've . . ." He ran a hand over his hair again, and cast his eyes over the table. "I need something just in case he—"

"He can't get mad at you for this," Anzu said firmly. "You haven't done anything wrong besides throw a soda on the floor. He has no right to hurt you just for being—"

"I'm not the one he'll—" Jounouchi's eyes fell on a glass container filled with seasoning for fries tucked away behind the stack of menus lined up against the window, and he reached out and swiped it in the next second. He tossed it a little in his hand, and gave it a smile of grim satisfaction. "This'll work."

"That will work for what?" Anzu demanded, a sudden swoop of foreboding in her stomach. "Jounouchi, what the hell are you about to do?"

He glanced over at her and said quietly, "For what it's worth, I'm really sorry about this."

"Sorry's not good enough," Anzu said, and she made a grab for the seasoning container, but he held it up, out of her reach, as he shifted to kneel on the booth seat. "Jounouchi—!"

Jounouchi hauled his arm back and threw the seasoning container as hard as he could toward the electronic menu screens posted up behind the counter. It smashed into one of them hard enough to not only splinter the screen and cause it to flicker out due to the damage, but to shatter the seasoning container itself, which rained glass shards and seasoning down on several of Anzu's unfortunate coworkers, who had been behind the counter at the time. They screamed and ducked out of the way, but they weren't the only ones; a few children cried out in alarm, one infant bursting into tears at the sudden sound, while several adult customers had cried out in reactions ranging from blustering anger at the sudden fright to disapproval at the disturbance. For her part, Anzu was struck with horrified disbelief that was so strong it left her momentarily stunned. For his part, Jounouchi was not. The second the seasoning container left his hand he reached down to swipe the manila folder off the table, and since Anzu wasn't moving, he clambered over the table and onto the back of the other booth seat, ignoring the startled, indignant cries of the customers seated at the table on the other side. Several of Anzu's coworkers called out to Jounouchi, and Anzu's manager was making his way across the restaurant while shouting at Jounouchi to stop, but he ignored them all as he bolted toward the door. He was gone before anyone had a chance to stop him.

Unfortunately, while Jounouchi could leave, Anzu had to stay, and if her manager was angry with her over the spilled soda, that was nothing compared to the look of livid fury he gave her now as he finally reached the table.

"Mazaki," he said in a shaking voice, and he pointed a finger toward the back room. "My office. Now."

Dread flooded Anzu as she pushed herself up from the booth seat, and she followed his instruction without a word. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at her now, and when she glanced over to table twelve, she saw that Chiaki was giving her a look of mingled concern and awe, while just beyond him Hanako was shaking her head in disapproval. But even as dread and embarrassment combined to try and push the beginnings of tears into her eyes, Anzu felt a shock of anger as well, and that gave her the strength she needed to hold them back.

This wasn't her fault. Even if she got fired, this wasn't her fault, and she, at least, had done the right thing.

But if she did get fired, and if this set her back on saving for New York, well . . .

Whatever his reasons were, whatever had inspired him to do something so stupid, once they helped Jounouchi get out of the mess he was in—if they could help him get out of the mess he was in—she would personally see to it that he paid her back in full.

Chapter Text

Matsumoto's instructions had been very precise and clear. At two a.m. on September 29th (or September 30th, technically, but who was splitting hairs?) Jounouchi was to meet with the yakuza's wealthy client in the storage room of the bakery near Domino Museum. There, the wealthy client would hand over 1,373,130 yen, and in exchange, Jounouchi would hand over the package that Matsumoto had included in the manila folder he had given Jounouchi at Burger World—the unopened package, Matsumoto had been sure to stress, because the wealthy client had made it very clear that wanted the package to remain sealed. Once the transaction was completed, the wealthy client would leave, and Jounouchi would wait five minutes before he was allowed to leave himself.

For the most part, Jounouchi had followed these instructions to the letter, at least when it came to getting to the bakery on time. He had, of course, opened the package—which was really nothing more than a small envelope—the second he had gotten back home. To be fair, he could say that he hadn't destroyed it; all it had taken was a letter opener slid under the flap and the envelope opened easily enough, allowing Jounouchi to dump the three Duel Monsters cards contained within out on his bedspread. They, too, were unharmed. Near as he could tell, instructions or no instructions, he hadn't really done anything wrong.

With fifteen minutes to spare until the designated meeting time, Jounouchi sat on the end of a long metal table, facing the door that led to the back alley behind the bakery. The storage room was surprisingly spacious, and somewhat barren at that. The floor, walls, and ceiling were all concrete, and the walls themselves were lined with metal shelves that stretched all the way to the ceiling and were stocked with things like cardboard boxes of ingredients and unused plastic containers. It was quiet, save for the steady hum of a refrigerator unit in the back, and the relative silence combined with the late hour made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. To distract himself from how creepy the otherwise empty room felt, Jounouchi picked the manila folder up off the table beside him, and flipped it open to look through the papers inside again.

The client's name was Kaiba Seto. At fifteen years old, he was both a high school student at Domino High and CEO of Kaiba Corporation, taking over after the previous CEO's untimely death. The Duel Monsters cards he had sent the yakuza after cashed in at 457,710 yen a piece, and had been acquired through three separate overseas "transactions": one in America, one in Germany, and one in Hong Kong. According to the report, the previous owners of the cards were corporate executives themselves, but meetings and dealings with Kaiba Corp in the previous months had driven their corporations out of business and the CEOs themselves to financial ruin. It was only after their empires crumbled around their feet that any of them had sold their cards (for a significantly lower price than the yakuza was getting for them, Jounouchi noted with disgust), and the American had thrown himself off the roof of his old corporate skyscraper shortly after making the transaction.

All of that—1.3 million yen, three bankruptcies, and a suicide—over Duel Monsters cards. It was a little mind-blowing to Jounouchi, and not in the good way.

He set the folder to the side again and picked up the little envelope that served as the package. He hadn't bothered to reseal it, so it was easy enough to open the flap and slide one of the cards out into his palm. It was one he recognized, at least—one he had recognized the second he had dumped it out onto his mattress. The Blue-Eyes White Dragon was the one card Yuugi's grandpa valued above all else, the one he refused to sell no matter what. Priceless, he'd called it. A treasure, just like Yuugi's Millennium Puzzle.

With the notes about bankruptcies and suicides surrounding these cards sitting on the table beside him, Jounouchi wasn't so sure he could agree.

Oh sure, the card was pretty looking, he supposed. Each one was backed with holographic foil that shimmered in the fluorescent lights above as he turned the card this way and that. It was powerful, too. Jounouchi had only played the game for about four days himself, but he still knew that high attack points equaled great strength and almost certain victory. For sure, none of the cards he had stuffed into his sock drawer at home could match this one in terms of raw power. But despite the intricate detail painted into every curve of the dragon's scales, and despite the three thousand attack points which were sure to blast through any monster set against it, Jounouchi couldn't really view it as anything more than grotesque. Much as he knew he was the last person to be judging anyone's morality given the things he had done, the fact that some apparently felt this card was worth driving others to suicide for made the whole thing taste pretty sour.

Still, he mused, as he tilted the single card he held side to side to watch the light sparkle across the foiling, sucks I can't sell them myself. 1.3 million yen . . . bet Kaiba's not the only rich bastard who'd pay like that for cards like these.

In fact, Jounouchi had done a little bit of research. Throughout the past week, he slipped out of class under the excuse of needing to use the restroom, or go to the nurse's office because of a headache, so that he could dip by the library to use the sole computer they had there to do a quick search. It had taken several days of excuses like this, especially with how slow the school computer was, but from what he found out, the Blue-Eyes White Dragon was, at present, one of the rarest and most sought after cards in the game. No one knew how many there were in the world (though Jounouchi knew now there were at least four), but supposedly it was the strongest card currently available, at least as far as monster cards went. (The members of the Duel Monsters fan shrine Jounouchi found had quickly disintegrated into an argument over whether or not trap cards could count as "strong" in relation to monster cards, and whether that meant that the strength of the Blue-Eyes White Dragon was actually devalued, but he hardly had the time to waste on reading through all of that, especially since by the fourth day Hirutani was starting to get suspicious of his "daily migraines.") From the looks of things, 1.3 million was a fair asking price for three of them, and when he thought about what it would be like to have that kind of money—what would it be like to be given that kind of money and allowed to keep it—Jounouchi had to admit that the temptation to say he lost the cards and then put them up for sale was more than a little tempting. 1.3 million yen would, after all, pay off his father's debts. They could move on, start from a clean slate. It would cover that, easy . . .

But no, no. Even if he tried to sell them, the yakuza wouldn't let him get away with it. They might not pay their messenger, but Jounouchi was sure they wouldn't hesitate to shoot everyone he loved.

"I thought my instructions not to open the package were clear."

Jounouchi had left the door slightly ajar, as per another one of Matsumoto's instructions, and it was for that reason he didn't notice that Kaiba had entered before he heard his voice. He looked up to see that Kaiba was glaring at him from the doorway, dislike etched in every line of his face and in the stiff set of his shoulders under the long coat he wore, and Jounouchi felt a similar curl of loathing unfurl in his gut.

He'd only ever spoken to the guy once or twice before, and that was probably why he had forgotten until that moment how much he really, really didn't like Kaiba Seto.

Jounouchi shrugged, and slipped the card back into the envelope as Kaiba strode across the room, the door swinging shut behind him. "I've never really been one to listen to instructions," he said breezily. "Besides, doesn't matter so long as you get all three, right? That's what you're here for."

"It matters if you've gotten your filthy fingerprints smudged all over them," Kaiba snapped, and it took every ounce of Jounouchi's willpower not to crumple the envelope in his fist. If Kaiba was worried about fingerprints, Jounouchi would love to see what he thought of the cards being crumpled into little balls.

"Don't worry," he said acidly, "your precious cards are just fine. I didn't even touch the holographic parts." Much, anyway.

"For your sake, I hope that's true," Kaiba said. Jounouchi rolled his eyes, but Kaiba's own had narrowed, something akin to recognition flashing through them. After a brief pause, he said, "I know you. Aren't you one of Yuugi's little friends?"

Jounouchi swallowed, and squeezed the edge of the table in his free hand as he pressed the envelope flat against its metal surface with his other. It was true, at least as far as this bastard Kaiba was concerned, but it still took a moment before Jounouchi was able to bite out his answer in a low voice. "No."

A pleased smile twisted Kaiba's lips as he said, "Good."

Jounouchi wanted to slug him. The urge was nearly overpowering, and he gripped the table a little tighter to fight it back. However much his first impulse said that Kaiba would deserve to swallow his own front teeth, there was more than one reason why it would be bad for him to instigate a fight, beginning with his still-healing ribs and ending with how upset the yakuza would be if he beat the ever-loving hell out of their most recent wealthy client. Besides, Jounouchi thought bitterly, it wasn't as if Kaiba was wrong.

So instead of decking Kaiba like he so badly wanted to, Jounouchi cleared his throat and picked the little envelope up off the table. "Whatever. I really don't think who I am is the issue here," he said. "These cards are, right?"

Hunger glinted in Kaiba's eyes, his lips stretching in a grin so wide it bared his teeth, but as he reached out to take the envelope Jounouchi jerked it up out of his reach. Kaiba's smile was gone in an instant, his eyes glued to the envelope Jounouchi held above his own head, and this time, Jounouchi was the one who grinned as he held out his other hand.

"Uh-uh. Money first, rich boy." Jounouchi curled the index and middle fingers of his free hand in a 'come at me' gesture. "Pony up."

Kaiba's eyes flicked down to meet Jounouchi's, and his stare was so icy it could have frozen a volcano. "I could kill you for that," he said.

Jounouchi scoffed. "I'd like to see you try," he said. "'Course, even if you succeeded—which, trust me, you wouldn't—somehow I don't think the yakuza would appreciate being stiffed for this much cash." Kaiba didn't seem to have a response, likely because he knew what Jounouchi was right, and Jounouchi set the envelope on the table behind him, his hand still holding it in place. "You give me the money, I give you the cards. That's how this works."

"Hmph. Fine." Kaiba lifted the briefcase he was carrying and shoved it out at Jounouchi. Jounouchi gripped the handle with one hand, and after moving the manila folder and envelope containing the cards out of the way, he slid back across the table so he would have room to place the briefcase in front of him. As he did so, he made a face.

"A briefcase?" he said. "Really?"

"I can understand if someone of your caliber has difficulty understanding how to use one," Kaiba said, and Jounouchi dug his fingers into the leather as he ran through all the reasons in his head why he shouldn't use the briefcase to smash Kaiba's nose back into his skull, "but I assure you that it's quite simple. You'll want to first start by unlatching the clasps—"

"Yeah, I know how to use one, thanks," Jounouchi snapped, and he flicked the clasps open before he pulled back the lid of the briefcase. It was like something out of a movie; stacks of cash were piled neatly inside, each one secured by a strong paper band. "I just meant it's pretty stupid of you to use one, not to mention pretty cliché. How am I supposed to look carrying something like this down the street at two a.m., huh?"

Kaiba's lip curled. "You would look out of place carrying something like that no matter the hour," he said, and Jounouchi squeezed the first stack of bills so tightly it crumpled a little in his fist. "But I wouldn't concern yourself. All you're doing is dropping it off, and few people are out this late."

"Yeah, and I'm sure someone like you knows all about what kind of people are out on the streets late at night," Jounouchi spat.

"I admit they're not my contemporaries, but I think they're the least of your concern." Kaiba's eyes narrowed. "Give me the cards."

"In a minute. I have to count this first to make sure you've paid enough." Jounouchi flipped through the first stack, which contained ten thousand yen, and set it to the side. When he reached for the second and started flipping through that as well, Kaiba yanked it out of his hands. Jounouchi shot him a heated glare. "Listen, asshole—"

"Each stack has ten thousand yen," Kaiba interrupted scathingly. "There are one hundred and thirty-seven stacks in the briefcase, along with a little extra to make up the difference. Multiply ten thousand by one hundred and thirty seven and then add the yen contained in the smaller stack, and you'll have your answer for how much I've paid you." His face twisted in a sneer. "I realize that being the yakuza's lapdog doesn't exactly require higher education, but I should think that basic arithmetic and problem solving should be something that even you can—"

The briefcase hit the floor as Jounouchi threw himself off the table, his hands slamming into Kaiba's chest with enough force to throw him back several paces. His attack was sudden enough that Kaiba didn't have time to defend himself, and even as Jounouchi's ribs gave irritated pangs with every deep, angry breath he took, he glowered furiously in the face of Kaiba's annoyed stare.

"Shut the fuck up," Jounouchi snarled.

The look Kaiba gave him was saturated in condescension. "Or what?" he asked. "You'll attack me like the ill-tempered dog you are? Somehow, I think your yakuza masters would hate that just as much as they would hate me shorting them." His eyes flicked to the briefcase on the floor, as well as the stacks of money that had been scattered across the concrete. "Nice job spilling that, by the way."

Blood pounded in Jounouchi's ears. Every word out of Kaiba's mouth felt like further justification to shatter his bones beneath Jounouchi's fists. His face would be the easiest to break, but it also had the potential for ending the fight too quickly. Bashing in his face, especially if he fractured his skull against the concrete, could render him unconscious, and that was no good. It wouldn't be as satisfying if he couldn't feel every—

Kaiba snapped his fingers, and the sound forced Jounouchi to refocus on the present. "You may not have a life, but some of us have work in a few hours," Kaiba said coldly. "Hurry up and count the money."

It would be so easy. So easy to beat him so he could barely stand—

But he wouldn't. Kaiba wasn't wrong when he said the yakuza wouldn't approve. Jounouchi didn't much care what they did to him, but there was always the risk they would go after his friends instead—that they would hurt his friends to teach him a lesson, while keeping him alive for future use. There was no guarantee they even knew who his friends were, given that Yuugi and the others weren't technically his friends any longer, but he wouldn't put it past Hirutani to have passed that information along to them, even if Matsumoto still didn't seem to know Jounouchi's actual name. His own safety be damned, it didn't matter how small the risk was; Jounouchi wasn't willing to gamble with his friends' lives.

He took a deep breath, ignored the ripple of pain across his chest, and turned to stomp over where the money had been spilled. He knelt down and dumped the briefcase over to dump the rest of it on the floor, and then—keeping in mind that all but the slightly thinner stack contained ten thousand yen—he started counting them as he slipped them into the briefcase. More than once he had to start over, because between the sour mood already clouding his thoughts and Kaiba's impatient, patronizing stare making his temper even worse, he kept losing track of where he was in the count.

When he was finally through, and was sure that every yen was accounted for, he slipped the manila folder in with the money and closed the briefcase up tight. Only then did he pick up the envelope containing the Blue-Eyes White Dragon cards from the table and hand it over to Kaiba.

Kaiba snatched the envelope out of Jounouchi's hand as though he thought Jounouchi would pull it out of his reach again (and to be fair, Jounouchi was tempted). But while his movements were hasty and rough with the envelope, when he slid the cards out of it, he held them almost reverently. He spread them between his fingers like a fan, examining them in the light, and a manic smile spread across his face.

"Finally . . ." he breathed. "Finally . . . I've waited so long . . ." Quiet at first, but growing in intensity, Kaiba started to laugh. It wasn't quiet laughter, either. It wasn't a chuckle, or a disparaging scoff. It was full, cacophonic laughter, triumphant and gleeful and somehow awful, and the sound of it made the hair on the back of Jounouchi's neck stand on end again.

"Uh, you okay?" he asked. More like, was he sane, but considering what Kaiba had done in order to get these cards—cards, Duel Monsters cards, of all things—in the first place, Jounouchi was pretty sure the answer to that was "no." But as Kaiba's laughter subsided, he fixed his mad smile on Jounouchi.

"Better than," he answered. He looked back at the cards, and his expression looked almost delirious now. "I finally have everything I've fought for—everything I need. My time is at hand." He closed his eyes, and took in a deep breath before he released it in a satisfied sigh. "He doesn't stand a chance now."

"Who doesn't?" Jounouchi demanded. He couldn't say why, but the alarm he'd felt at Kaiba's deranged laughter felt a lot more like a warning now. Somehow, he got the feeling that he had just done something very wrong—well, more wrong than doing a job for the yakuza, anyway. Kaiba opened his eyes to look at Jounouchi again, and his sickening smirk didn't waver.

"That has nothing to do with you," he said smoothly. He slid the Blue-Eyes White Dragon cards back into the envelope before he tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of his coat. "You just be a good dog and take my payment back to your masters. Our business here is done."

White hot rage flared through Jounouchi again as Kaiba turned and started toward the door, and his nails dug into his palms as he clenched his fists. Before he could stop himself, he said loudly, "You know, considering what you did to get those fucking cards, I really don't think you're in any position to be flinging insults."

Kaiba paused just before the door, and turned to look back. "Considering what I did?" he repeated, and a little smirk curled on his lips. "All I did was make a business transaction. Your employers provided me with a product I was interested in, and so I bought it. That's all."

"I read the report," Jounouchi said. "One of the guys they got those cards from killed himself."

"And?" Kaiba asked. "That has nothing to do with me."

"Are you seriously trying to pull that right now? He killed himself after your company drove him out of business, which—conveniently enough—happened right before the yakuza went after him for his Blue-Eyes White Dragon card." Jounouchi narrowed his eyes. "It's not hard to put two and two together and figure out what happened, rich boy. You drove him to suicide."

An odd spasm contorted Kaiba's face for a moment, before his expression settled into a hard, frigid glare. "Business, as with all things, is a game," he said quietly. "That man played, and he lost. He made the choice he felt was suitable as a result of his loss. His blood is on his own hands."

"Incredible." Jounouchi huffed an incredulous laugh. "People like you make me sick."

"Likewise, mongrel," Kaiba spat. He wrenched the door open, and slammed it shut behind him without another word.

Jounouchi glared at the door for a few seconds, his heart still pumping fury and adrenaline fast through his veins, but in the next breath he brought his fist down against the side of the table. Far from making him feel better, all he succeeded in doing was hurting his hand, but he didn't really care. If anything, he wished the table could put up more of a fight. Maybe then he would have an excuse for hitting it more—one hit for every time Kaiba had called him a dog that night.

The worst bit, Jounouchi thought, as he leaned back against the table in lieu of striking it and tried to get his temper under control as he waited out the five minutes he had to hang back, was that he couldn't really spot the lie in what Kaiba had said. Oh sure, Kaiba was an asshole—there was no denying that. But it was a good thing that Jounouchi wasn't friends with Yuugi. Hirutani's threats aside, the things that Jounouchi did—from drug dealing, to theft, to assault and battery, to doing jobs for the yakuza—showed that he really was the worst kind of person. People like him didn't get to be friends with people like Yuugi, and with any luck, Jounouchi getting Anzu fired from Burger World would be the final push Yuugi needed to see that Jounouchi was someone he was better off without.

And as for being the yakuza's dog, well, that was what Hirutani wanted, wasn't it? For all his talk of grandeur, they had to work their way up first, and that meant doing things like this. That meant meeting with bastards like Kaiba, who didn't care if people lived or died so long as he got what he wanted. It meant, ultimately and eventually, being the one to pull the trigger for people like that.

Jounouchi ran a hand through his hair—as best he could, anyway, given how short it still was, despite Hirutani already sniping that he needed a trim—and fought back the bile in his throat before he turned and swiped the briefcase off the table.

He would make the drop at Tayzr's, as instructed. Matsumoto wasn't going to be there, but Jounouchi could pick the lock easily enough and leave the briefcase in his office. He would do that, and his job would be done, at least for the night. He would have yet another completed item on his growing rap sheet.

But after that, he would go find some of what Kaiba had called his "contemporaries." There were still gangs out prowling the streets this late at night—older high school, early college kids who took refuge in both audacity and their newfound adulthood. No doubt he could find some of them lurking around the bars that were still open, and he knew they would be willing to tussle the second they noticed he was looking at them the wrong way. He couldn't beat the shit out of Kaiba, because doing so would risk pissing off the yakuza, which could lead to Yuugi's head on a chopping block, depending on how much they knew and how badly they punished for things like that. But picking a fight with random punks who, at the end of the day, were only marginally better than Jounouchi himself was?

Well, Hirutani would probably still be pissed, given that even one good hit to Jounouchi's ribs would knock him from two weeks of healing back to zero, and Jounouchi was choosing to do this of his own free will to boot. But at this point, given the situation he was trapped in and the fact that he was stuck on course for a future that he really did not want, Jounouchi couldn't bring himself to care about what Hirutani would do to him for it. Just as he had so many times in middle school, Jounouchi felt that he needed to pick a fight he could actually win for once, the consequences be damned.

Besides, if nothing else, this would give him something else to focus on for at least a little while.

Chapter Text

There was a decrepit old warehouse on the outskirts of Domino City, down past the train station.

There were a lot of old warehouses down that way—an old factory, too. In decades past, the little district was one that had boomed with business, mass producing something in order to bolster Domino's economy. Shipping materials, maybe military weaponry of some sort—no one really cared to remember anymore. Decades ago, one of the buildings had caught fire, and the damage was irreparable. Some of the buildings had collapsed entirely. Others, like the decrepit warehouse now commonly occupied by a high school gang, had been severely damaged, but still left standing. No one really ventured out to the old factory district anymore, especially not with so many rumors about gang activity surrounding it. It was out of the way besides, and there was nothing of value down there. No shops, no businesses. Nothing but ramshackle buildings and gangs who knew you were too far away for anyone to hear your cries for help.

In truth, Jounouchi didn't know the full history of Hirutani's warehouse. For all he knew, this was the one that had caught fire. It was near enough to the old factory, that was for sure, and it had more holes than his old sneakers. On days when it rained, the floor ended up covered in puddles big enough to be little ponds, which spilled over to make the rest of the floor slick. But although he didn't know the full history of it, he knew enough. He knew that, in middle school, he and Hirutani were the ones to find it, back when Hirutani wanted a base to congregate in that was away from prying parental eyes. Back then, that was all the warehouse really was: a place for their dumb little middle school gang to call their own, somewhere to hang out, or figure out whatever it was that they wanted to do that day. More than once, Jounouchi had taken a nap there. More times still, they had lured rival gangs there in order to fight with them on home turf. Jounouchi didn't think he would ever forget the time he pounced on a high schooler from the catwalk when he was thirteen. The guy was from Seigo, and the look on his face was so shocked that Jounouchi had actually laughed as he started whaling on him. Back then, everything had seemed so simple.

Perched on an empty oil drum, Jounouchi leaned back against the wall, and took a lazy drag on his cigarette.

At some point between the end of middle school and the start of high school, Hirutani had changed the purpose of the warehouse. What was once a hangout or "base" became, as Hirutani so cheerfully put it, "execution grounds." Jounouchi didn't know this when he first agreed to join back up. Granted, given the circumstances, it wouldn't have mattered if he had, but it still wasn't something he was particularly amused to learn. The fact that he learned it by accident made the whole thing a bit worse. He had shown up to the warehouse thinking it would be an out of the way place for him to take a breather and maybe relax a little, only to find some poor bastard strung up on the metal hook near the back, bruised and bleeding and defenseless. When he had demanded the kid be cut loose, Hirutani had asked if Jounouchi wanted to take his place. Jounouchi didn't know the kid at all, and figured he was probably from a rival school gang, but he hated to see people who couldn't defend themselves be beaten and tortured like that, so he had said, "Sure."

That was back in August. On the plus side, Jounouchi had relearned just how to press Hirutani's buttons by that point, and so he got him to send the rest of the guys home before they participated too much. On the not so plus side, he got pretty well acquainted with Hirutani's knife that day. At least, he thought, as he blew a smoke ring in the air and ashed his cigarette on the floor, Hirutani had chosen places easily hidden by clothing.

But with the warehouse being retooled into "execution grounds," Jounouchi couldn't figure out why Hirutani had decided to meet there now. They never met there, not anymore. They met at J'z, or whatever other bar struck Hirutani's fancy at the time (but never Tayzr's, unless it was just the two of them; Hirutani seemed to think the rest of the gang would give Matsumoto the wrong impression, as if they were noisy children being taken to a fancy dinner party instead of a high school gang being taken before a yakuza affiliate). But earlier that morning, Hirutani said they were going to the warehouse, "for old time's sake." He said they had something to do there—that there was someone they were going there to meet.

"You starting something with another gang?" Jounouchi had asked, his eyebrow raised. "Huh. Thought you were past that by now. Usually you let them come to you."

"Oh, they came to me. Believe me, they're the ones who started this," Hirutani had said. "I'm just going to finish it."

That didn't really tell Jounouchi anything, except that he was probably going to string some poor bastard up by the wrists again, at which point Jounouchi was going to have to get involved because he still didn't like to see anyone rendered defenseless like that. There was no honor in a fight fought against an opponent that couldn't hit back. Besides, what could Hirutani do to him, really, fuck his ribs up even more? Jounouchi had somehow avoided doing too much damage to them in the late night scraps he'd been in over the past week, but they still had weeks of healing to go and hurt like a raging bitch. Hirutani would be hard pressed to do anything worse to them.

But if this was supposed to be an ambush, it wasn't a very good one; several of their members milled aimlessly around the floor, one of them kicking a spare tire that had been thrown down, another pair of them playing some sort of coin spinning game. Hirutani stood nearby, leaning back against the wall, looking casual and patient as anything as he waited. That was weird enough, but what was weirder was the fact that he had felt the need to bring a gun, tucked in the waistband of his pants and more or less hidden by his sweater. Their gang had a few of them, Jounouchi knew, mostly because Hirutani had brought it up more than once, as if he was trying to bait Jounouchi into asking for one. Well, he should have known better. Jounouchi didn't use weapons, much less ones as cheap and cowardly as guns. But Hirutani did, and had brought one along that very day, but if he was going to do his long, drawn out, torture style of execution, Jounouchi didn't see why he needed it. A gun would end things too quickly.

Well, whatever the case, he had one and Jounouchi didn't know why, but he figured he would find out soon enough. He took one last drag on his cigarette before he tossed it into a stagnant puddle on the floor. Even if he didn't, he supposed it didn't matter too much.

But as if his tossing away the cigarette butt was a cue to start, another one of their members suddenly ran through the open hole in the wall. Jounouchi raised his eyebrows, but otherwise didn't move, even as the kid—a middle schooler, Jounouchi thought, fresh faced and eager to please and completely clueless about what he was getting himself into—turned a bright smile to Hirutani.

"Hirutani-san, we got 'em! Are—is it okay to—?"

"Of course it is." Hirutani pushed off from the wall, and the other members of their gang who had been milling around stopped what they were doing to move closer to the center. Jounouchi stayed where he was. "It's what we've been waiting for, isn't it? Bring them in."

Them? Jounouchi thought, feeling mildly curious as the kid bobbed his head in an excited nod before he turned and bolted back through the gap, shouting something at people Jounouchi couldn't see. He's only got the one torture hook. Maybe he's itching for an actual fight. Fine by me, but I thought he wanted m—

Jounouchi's thoughts cut out so fast it was like his brain was a computer that had been unplugged from the wall.

It was Yuugi.

Yuugi, and Anzu, and Honda.

Yuugi was held by a mountain of a kid named Mochizuki, a senior that Hirutani had recruited from Seigo High thanks to Jounouchi's efforts at spreading the business there. Mochizuki had one beefy arm locked against Yuugi's throat and the other wrapped around Yuugi's chest, and had hauled him bodily off the ground. Yuugi tried kicking him, but his efforts were useless; all he succeeded in doing was slamming the heels of his feet against Mochizuki's thighs. Jounouchi could see a gun tucked into Mochizuki's waistband too, visible through the folds of his shirt.

Anzu was restrained by Kurosawa and some rat-faced punk named Nezumi, who Jounouchi knew went to Domino High with Anzu and the others. Kurosawa held Anzu's arms behind her back, while Nezumi had one hand on Anzu's upper arm, and held a gun Jounouchi knew—felt, hoped—he was too much of a coward to actually use in his other hand.

Honda was also held back by two people: Yamada, who was around the same size as Mochizuki (which was only a couple sizes smaller than Ushio had been), and Sato. Yamada had one of Honda's arms yanked up behind his back and the other pinned lower, while Sato—unlike Nezumi—kept the muzzle of his gun pressed against Honda's temple. While Anzu was able to struggle herself almost free until Nezumi reminded her he had the gun, Honda seemed to be complying for the most part, though the look he was giving Sato was one filled with loathing.

"Welcome," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi's attention snapped back to him, the numb roar in his head starting to shift into angry, frantic static, "to the execution grounds."

"You—" Honda started, but—his heart pounding more forcefully in his chest now than it had all week—Jounouchi bounded off the oil drum and interrupted him.

"What the hell is this?" he demanded loudly, and he flailed one arm in the direction of Honda, Yuugi, and Anzu as he said it, ignoring the flash of pain through his ribs. Hirutani turned to look at him, a smirk curled on his lips. "What the fuck are they doing here, Hirutani?"

"They're my guests," Hirutani said, and his smirk grew. "In a sense, anyway. I can't say I particularly care to give them the gift of warm hospitality." The other gang members laughed, but Jounouchi curled his fingers into fists. He could already feel his whole body shaking.

"Let them go," he snapped, and he turned back toward Mochizuki, Kurosawa, and the others as he said more loudly, "Get the fuck off them!"

To their credit, Kurosawa and Nezumi actually looked apprehensive. Yamada and Sato looked confused, while Mochizuki made no sign of moving.

"No," Hirutani said, and Jounouchi looked back to him. "They're not going to do that. See, letting them go would be counterproductive to me making good on my promise—which reminds me, I forgot." He gave Jounouchi a patronizing smile. "I hope you'll forgive me for not buying you dinner beforehand. With all the preparations here, it slipped my mind. Mind if we take a rain check? We can even go right after this, if you want."

It was like Jounouchi had been plunged into a frozen lake in the dead of winter. He knew what Hirutani was talking about—of course he knew, but he couldn't—he didn't understand how—he had to lie. He had to play dumb. It shouldn't be too hard for him, all things considered, but Hirutani could always—no. Jounouchi couldn't think about that. He had to try. He had to at least try. "What?"

"That was our deal, wasn't it? If I found out you met with them in the park that night, I was going to kill them, but I'd buy you dinner first." Hirutani pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He took a drag and exhaled the smoke before he shrugged and said, "But like I said, I forgot about the dinner part. It slipped my mind. So, tell you what: Once we're done here and you've learned your lesson, I'll take you out to wherever you like."

"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Jounouchi said, and he hated how his voice shook. "I already told you, I never—"

"Remember three weeks ago," Hirutani said suddenly, "when I asked you if there were any more lies you felt like fessing up about? I specifically asked you if there were any more lies I should know about, and you said no. You looked me in the eye and told me there was nothing." The thin smile on Hirutani's lips didn't reach his eyes at all. "You were lying, even then. After I specifically told you not to. Even as I told you that it was your last chance to fess up and tell me the truth, or else things would get a lot worse because I was done being lenient, you looked me in the eye and said no, there was nothing."

"Because there wasn't anything," Jounouchi ground out. "I wasn't—"

"Liar!" For a moment Hirutani looked furious—livid. But then he huffed a laugh, and his mocking smile returned. "Do you remember how that day started, Jounouchi? How our meeting started, anyway. Do you remember what happened when I first walked up to meet you in front of my house?"

Jounouchi did remember, and even as the pieces started to click together in his mind, he fought against their meaning. "You looked pissed about something," he said in a low voice.

Hirutani nodded indulgently. "Exactly. I looked pissed about something. As it turns out, I was pissed about something. And here's the best part: You were right to ask me what it was that day, because as it turns out, I told a little lie of my own. It did have everything to do with you."

"Big surprise," Jounouchi said. "Now are you gonna—"

"That day," Hirutani said, and he raised his voice a little to speak over Jounouchi as he pointed toward Honda and the others with his cigarette, "I was paid a little visit by the Domino High brat pack over there."

"Brat pa—?" Anzu interjected indignantly, but her words cut off in a yelp as Nezumi jabbed the barrel of the gun into her side. Jounouchi whipped around to tell Nezumi off, but before he could, Hirutani continued on.

"They came over to talk to me as I waited outside of the café for you to finish up at Seigo. They—well, our good ol' pal Honda, mostly—said they wanted to have a word."

Jounouchi imagined that this would probably be what it felt like if he was suddenly brought face to face with a unicorn. He could understand what he was being told, but it made so little sense that his brain didn't want to comprehend it. He looked back over at his friends, and he saw that Anzu's mouth was pressed into a tight frown, Yuugi was grimacing in what was either pain or chagrin, and Honda's jaw was locked in the way that told Jounouchi that Hirutani was telling the truth, even if Honda didn't want to admit it.

"How—why?" Jounouchi asked, and he couldn't stop his voice from rising. "Why would you do that? You fucking idiot, why would you—?!"

"We wanted to talk to you," Honda said, and Jounouchi shut his eyes and he put a hand to his forehead.

"First of all, I told you I was done with you. Second, if you wanted to talk to me, then why the fuck would you talk to him?!"

To his credit, Honda at least looked regretful. "I just wanted to see if—"

"Does it matter?" Hirutani asked, and there was a thread of annoyance in his voice, as if he didn't like that Jounouchi was talking to Honda for the first time in months. Jounouchi supposed that was probably true. "The point is, your friends over there came to have a little chat, and when they did, Yuugi—that is his name, right?" Hirutani smiled as Jounouchi glowered at him. He seemed to take Jounouchi's silence as an answer. "Yuugi told me something interesting. He told me that you had a little rendezvous with him in the park."

"No he didn't," Jounouchi said, more because he couldn't—wouldn't believe that if he could help it. Honda wanting to square off against Hirutani, sure, that was believable. Hirutani and Honda had despised each other since middle school, and there was no chance of that ever changing. If Honda had the misguided notion that Jounouchi's situation could somehow be changed (a notion given to him by Yuugi, no doubt), then it made sense that he would want to confront Hirutani. Honda, stupid bastard that he was, wouldn't realize how easily that could get him killed, even if Hirutani wasn't the one to do the deed himself.

But Yuugi, even if he told Honda and Anzu about what happened in the park, wouldn't tell Hirutani. He had no reason to. He wouldn't—he wouldn't do something like that. That one little fact was the only thing that gave Jounouchi hope, the only thing that gave him the strength he needed to keep up the bluff. Yuugi wouldn't say that. He would have no reason to say that. There was no reason for him to sell Jounouchi out like that, especially after Jounouchi told him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away. He wouldn't . . . he couldn't

"Yes he did," Hirutani replied, and his voice was far too calm for Jounouchi's liking, amusement gleaming in his eyes. "But you don't have to take my word for it. I did bring him here, after all. Why don't you ask him yourself?"

Jounouchi didn't want to. His mouth felt dry, and he felt sick as he realized his reluctance was because he already knew the answer, much like he had every time he asked his dad if his mom was ever coming home when he was a kid. But he had always forced himself to ask then (at least until the denials grew violent), and he forced himself to look over to Yuugi now, hoping and praying to gods he wasn't really sure he believed in that Yuugi would shake his head and deny what Hirutani was saying.

But Yuugi didn't. As he tugged fruitlessly on Mochizuki's arm to try and get himself free, he turned a pair of guilt-stricken eyes on Jounouchi and gasped out, "I—I'm sorry, Jounouchi-kun, I didn't mean—"

Hirutani laughed as Jounouchi turned away.

"That answers that question, doesn't it? Either your little friend there is a liar, or you are. Which is it?"

Jounouchi clenched his fists so tightly his hands hurt, his eyes aimed at the ground. "It's not what you think," he bit out after a moment, and Hirutani chuckled again, the sound cold and cruel.

"It doesn't matter what it was. I don't give a damn whether you specifically chose to meet there, or whether you just happened to pass each other by chance and said hello. What I care about is the fact that you did meet there, however it happened, and then you lied to me about it. Repeatedly." He was quiet for a moment before he added, "You should know by now what I do to liars. You should also know by now that I don't tolerate secrets being kept from me, especially when they're yours. I mean, work with me, Jounouchi, it's not like this is new. We've known each other since middle school. You know how I operate."

Jounouchi kept his eyes on the ground. Maybe if he could really sell it— "I'm sorry—"

"Don't apolo—" Honda started, sounding indignant, but Hirutani spoke over them both.

"Sorry isn't good enough. I told you that if I found out you met them in the park, the next time you saw them would be at their funerals." Jounouchi looked up, and his heart turned to ice as Hirutani tossed the remnants of his cigarette on the ground, and pulled his gun from his waistband. As he did so, he shrugged. "Granted, this is an execution rather than a funeral. I let you see them still alive, at least. I'd say 'consider it a gift,' but there's a reason for that."

"You can't be serious," Anzu said, and her tone was a blend of outrage and rising panic. "You can't seriously be planning to kill us. You're—you're still in high school, you're no older than us! I know you play tough with your little gang, but there's no way you could actually commit murder—"

"Believe it or not," Hirutani drawled, and he held his gun up so that it was braced back against his shoulder, "there's no age requirement for taking a life."

"No, but there's a definite guts requirement, and I doubt you can meet it," Anzu snapped. The bravado in her voice didn't do a very good job of concealing her fear, particularly since her temper was fueled by it. "Besides, what are you going to do when the cops show up, huh? Even if daddy can get you out of an assault charge, murder's a whole different story, and on top of that, guns are illegal, so all of y—"

"Why don't you take a moment to think about where I got these American-made beauties, and then ask yourself again if you really think I'm worried about them being found," Hirutani interrupted.

Anzu furrowed her brow. "American-made—?"

"Moving on," Hirutani said, and when Jounouchi looked over when he felt Hirutani's eyes on him again. "I said at Tayzr's that I would kill all three of your little Domino friends if I found out you had met with even one of them in the park. That was the plan, but to tell the truth, you've behaved yourself over the past three weeks. For the most part, anyway. You have been getting into fights this past week, which is pretty damn stupid of you considering the fact that you're still healing." Hirutani gave Jounouchi another condescending look. "Really, you know better than that, too."

"It's pretty rich of you to lecture him on that when you're the one that beat the shi—" Much as Anzu had broken off when Nezumi jabbed his gun into her side, Honda's voice unwillingly broke off as Yamada yanked his arm up higher behind his back. Any more, and his shoulder would probably dislocate from the look of it. Before Jounouchi could take more than a single step toward pulling Yamada off Honda himself, Hirutani spoke up.

"And what would you know about that, Honda? I don't remember saying anything like that at our little meeting, and Jounouchi wasn't injured when he met Yuugi there in the park." Hirutani raised his eyebrows. "Is there something more I should know about?"

"Maybe the fact that Honda's known us both since middle school and knows there's no one else that could actually hurt me?" Jounouchi said, before Honda had a chance to say anything. Hirutani gave him a scrutinizing look. "Doesn't take a lot to put two and two together in a situation like this."

"Hm. Maybe not." As Hirutani dropped the subject, Jounouchi thanked whatever was listening that, at the very least, Ayumu wouldn't get thrown under the bus as well. "Oh well. It doesn't change what I was saying before. You've done a pretty good job of behaving yourself over the past three weeks, Jounouchi, and I think that deserves to be rewarded. Positive reinforcement, and all. So I'll give you a choice."

"A choice?"

"Yes. You see, you technically only lied to me about this twice. Well," Hirutani tilted his head, as if to acquiesce a point, "three times, but only directly lied about it twice. Once at Tayzr's, and once at your place. When I asked you at my place, I didn't bring this up specifically, so I can let that one slide. Considering that, and in light of your good behavior, I will give you a bit of leniency. You can spare one of your little pals, while the other two get the bullet. One for each lie." Hirutani smiled broadly. "So go ahead. Choose. My treat."

If being told that Honda had decided to sit down for a talk with Hirutani was like being presented with a unicorn, then the ultimatum that had just been laid out for him was like being handed a book in a foreign text, with Japanese print above every word. He understood the words, knew exactly what Hirutani's conditions were, but somehow he still couldn't wrap his head around it. "You can't . . . you can't be serious," he said at last, and it barely registered to him that he was repeating Anzu's words of before.

"You do know how I love my jokes," Hirutani said, and a few of the gang members milling about laughed nervously, as if they weren't sure whether or not they were supposed to. Both Hirutani and Jounouchi ignored them. "You know better than to say something like that. You also know better than to keep me waiting. Tick tock, Jounouchi. We don't want to be here all day."

There was an odd ringing in Jounouchi's ears that he knew didn't have anything to do with the environment around him—not really, anyway. "You can't ask me to—"

"If you want advice," Hirutani said loudly, as if he hadn't heard, "then I'd recommend picking Mazaki. She's not half bad, once you get a good look at her. I'm sure we could find some ways to have some fun."

More than a few of the gang members started laughing, this time with more confidence, and Jounouchi shot a glare their way in time to see two of them bump their fists together.

"Screw you!" Anzu yelled, and Jounouchi looked over at her in time to not only see that Yuugi was glaring furiously at Hirutani from Mochizuki's hold, but Kurosawa ran his tongue across his grinning lips as one of his hands slipped around the curve of Anzu's hip. Jounouchi felt his blood boil.

"Watch your fucking hands, Kurosawa!"

Kurosawa jumped, and a disgruntled expression crossed his face as he pulled his hand away from Anzu's hip. "Fine, fine," he grumbled. "Sheesh, wasn't even doing anything real. All this time and you're still never any fun, Jounouchi-san—"

"Don't talk that way to your superior," Hirutani barked, all traces of affability gone, and this time, Kurosawa cast his eyes to the ground, his posture rigid.

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

"That's better." Hirutani looked back to Jounouchi, and quick as anything, his thin lips had curled back up into a cruel smile. "So, have you decided? Which one is it going to be, Jounouchi?"

Jounouchi swallowed to try and make his throat a little less dry, his voice a little stronger. He could do this. He could. There had to be a way for him to do this— "No."

"No . . . ?" Hirutani prompted, his eyebrows raised.

"I can't—" Jounouchi reached up to run a hand through his hair, yet caught himself halfway when he saw Hirutani's eyes narrow. He jerked his hand back down to his side. "You can't make me choose to kill two of them like that. It's sick."

"I'm not making you do anything. You did that all by yourself," Hirutani said, and then he shrugged. "But fine. If you're having such a hard time making the choice, I'll make it for you. Let's see . . ." He pursed his lips in mock consideration and tapped the barrel of his gun against his chin for a moment before he smiled. In a slow, deliberate movement, he aimed his gun at Honda, and while Honda swallowed but otherwise did his best to stand up straight, both Yamada and Sato suddenly looked very nervous. "I think the first one will be—"

"No!" Jounouchi bolted between Hirutani and Honda, standing directly in the path of Hirutani's gun. If Hirutani had looked a bit bothered when it looked like Jounouchi was going to run a hand through his hair, he definitely looked annoyed now.

"Jounouchi—" Honda started.

"Move out of the way," Hirutani said, and there was enough command in his voice that Jounouchi was sure every other gang member in the room wanted to follow it, even though they weren't the ones he was addressing.

"No," Jounouchi said again. "Just—stop. Knock it off. You've done enough."

"You don't get to tell me what to do. I thought I already made that clear." Hirutani narrowed his eyes. "Do you want to go back to all three of them? Because if so, that's fine by me. We've got more than enough resources to take care of three bodies."

"You freaking—" Anzu started furiously, but Jounouchi cut her off.

"That's not what I want and you know it. You've made your point, all right? I get what you're trying to say. I fucked up. I know it, I accept it, it's done. But you don't have to hurt them because of that. They don't deserve to be punished because I fucked up."

Hirutani stared at him for a second, and then he laughed. "Jounouchi, Jounouchi, Jounouchi," he said, as if Jounouchi was a child who had just expressed fear over the notion of the tooth fairy. "I don't know how, but you've somehow managed to miss the point. I'm not punishing them by doing this. I'm punishing you."

"By killing them. By murdering them," Jounouchi said, and he fought to keep his temper down. Losing it wouldn't help Honda, or Yuugi, or Anzu. It would only get them shot faster. He had to play Hirutani's game, and for once, he had to play it right. "How is that not hurting them?"

"Oh, I expect it'll hurt, at least if I don't manage to kill them in one shot. But that's not the same as punishing. Punishment teaches a lesson, and this time?" Hirutani bared his teeth through his smile. "I'm going to make sure you remember it."

Force was out of the question, because even if he managed to take Hirutani down before he could fire his gun, Nezumi or Sato could still shoot Anzu or Honda, and it wouldn't be hard at all for Mochizuki to snap Yuugi's neck. Reasoning didn't seem to be working, either, but that wasn't surprising; there was never any reasoning with Hirutani, and apologies could only take a man like him so far. Apologies weren't gratifying enough on their own. Hirutani was too greedy for that.

So that left Jounouchi with one last option—well, two. One wrong one, and one right one, and as always, the distinction was clear. The only thing different now was that, unlike every time before it, making the right choice no longer felt impossible, or even difficult. It came with being the dreck of the earth, he thought. It left you with no pride left to swallow, no dignity hurdle to climb over first.

"I'll remember it just fine like this. This is lesson enough," Jounouchi said in a quiet voice, and he fought to keep his voice steady—soft, non-threatening. Hirutani scoffed a laugh, clearly not buying it, and so Jounouchi clasped his hands behind his back so Hirutani couldn't see his nails digging into his palms, kept his eyes on the ground, and added, "So please don't hurt them . . . sir."

It was one of those moments where, despite the fact that no one else had been saying or really doing anything, everything felt somehow quieter and stiller than it had before. He still wasn't looking up, but Jounouchi could feel everyone's eyes on him—could almost feel the disbelief, the confusion, the dismay and disgust. But he focused on none of them save for Hirutani. Hirutani was the one he had to win over. Right now, with his friends' lives on the line, Hirutani's reaction was the only one that mattered.

"What did you just say?" Hirutani asked, and his voice was just as soft as Jounouchi's had been before he added, "Say it again. Louder."

"I said," Jounouchi said, and as requested, he raised his voice a little, "I get it. I'll do whatever you want from now on, no complaints given or questions asked, so please don't hurt them, sir."

After a beat of silence, Hirutani laughed, but there was so much euphoria and triumph in his voice that the sound was half laugh, and half cheer. "Oh my god," he said, and even as his laughter subsided, the thrill in his voice did not, "I've waited so long. You have no idea how long I have waited to hear you say that."

"I can guess," Jounouchi muttered, but Hirutani didn't seem to have heard him.

"Really, Jounouchi, you've just made all of my hard work worth it. This is, and I'm not exaggerating, the best day of my life." Jounouchi flicked a glance up to see that Hirutani was indeed beaming at him, but he could only hope that newfound cheer meant he'd be granted one last grasp at mercy. "Thank you, oh so much."

"Go to hell," Honda snapped, and Jounouchi took a deep breath. "Jounouchi, you don't have to—"

"Honda, shut up," Jounouchi said.

"Yes, Honda, shut up," Hirutani added, and though Jounouchi wasn't looking back at him, he could imagine the exact way Honda was likely grinding his teeth in rage in that very moment. Hirutani heaved a satisfied sigh. "Well, in light of this leap of progress you've just made, Jounouchi, I think you're due for one more reward, so I'll give it to you. One—just one."

Jounouchi waited for a moment, and when Hirutani didn't clarify, he asked, "Uh, and that would be . . . ?" After a second, he caught himself and hastily added, "Sir?"

There was still a trace of condescension in Hirutani's smile, but mostly he just looked immensely pleased. "I just told you, weren't you listening? Just one." When Jounouchi continued to stare at him, Hirutani nodded his head toward Anzu, Yuugi, and Honda. "You've got the number down to one now. Pick two to spare, one to die, and then we can all go home." He paused, and then chuckled. "Well, except for the dead one, of course."

Jounouchi's heart sank. He hadn't realized how high he'd gotten his hopes up—how much he'd let himself believe, even subconsciously, that he had actually won. But even if Hirutani was now saying he would let two of them go—even if Jounouchi had "gotten the number down"—letting even one of them get hurt, especially because of him, was—he couldn't— "Are you serious? That's it?" he demanded, and Hirutani's smile faded a little. "I give you everything you want, and that's it?"

"Isn't it enough?" Hirutani asked. "I could always kill all three."

"You're still trying to kill one, so no, it's not enough!" Jounouchi said, and as Hirutani made a face at his sudden tone and volume, Jounouchi tried to wrest his temper back under control. "I'm giving you everything you want," he said. "I've given you everything you want, so what else is it? What else can I do? What more do you want from me?"

"You know exactly what I want from you."

"And I've given it to you, best I know how. So—"

"You still need a punishment," Hirutani said, and as Jounouchi opened his mouth to reply, Hirutani spoke over him. "Look, I appreciate the progress, I do. But I can't have you thinking that you can cross me with impunity just because you give me a big pair of doe eyes and say you're sorry. You have to learn, and a little scare won't cut it. But following through? Well, I think that will make the lesson stick a lot better."

"I told you that this will make the lesson stick well enough," Jounouchi said.

"And I told you," Hirutani replied, his voice low, "that when I want your opinion, I'll ask for it. Now pick someone, Jounouchi. It's getting late."

Nausea rolled in Jounouchi's stomach, and his head felt light. Giving in and calling Hirutani 'sir' just like he had always wanted had been the last card Jounouchi had to play, and even that wasn't enough. Force was out of the question, because that would get at least one of them killed, if not all three. Reasoning hadn't worked, and neither had abandoning the last shreds of defiance and therefore dignity he had. He was officially backed into a corner, completely out of options. No matter which angle he looked at the situation from, someone had to die.

And as he accepted that thought, another possibility—or an answer, really, the only answer, the only move still left for him to play—flared to life in his mind, as if he suddenly noticed a stone left on the Go board that he had forgotten was there.

"Someone has to die," he said aloud, and he looked up at Hirutani, his heart bounding like a shocked rabbit in his chest. "Right? Someone—one person—I have to pick one person to die as punishment for what I did, right?"

"Yes," Hirutani said, and he tilted his head with a bemused smile. "Did you suffer a concussion in your little scrap last night? You seem to be having an awfully hard time understanding simple concepts today."

"I'm fine. My head is fine." Jounouchi took a deep breath to steady himself, but it wasn't really necessary. Somehow, despite how panicked he had felt just a few moments before, this made him feel calm. It was the knowledge that he was right, he thought—the fact that he knew he was doing the right thing. He was doing the first—no, second, because returning that piece of Yuugi's Puzzle had been the first—worthwhile thing he had ever done in his life. "Okay," he said, and he knew as he said it that it really was. It was okay. "I've got it. I'll do it."

"You'll do it?" Hirutani said, and he raised his eyebrows as Jounouchi started forward. Jounouchi nodded, and Hirutani looked positively delighted. "A surprising change in attitude, but I like it. It was about time you were ready to participate for real."

"You can't . . . this isn't happening," Anzu said, but Jounouchi didn't look at her; he just kept walking forward. "Jounouchi, you don't want to do this! I know you don't! And you don't have to! We'll—we'll be okay, we'll think of something. You don't have to listen to that creep!"

"She's right," Honda said. "Man, I know you. You're not—you're not like him. You don't have to do this!"

Yuugi was silent, but that was just as well, Jounouchi thought. He wasn't sure he could keep from saying something if Yuugi started shouting at him, too.

"Well, here you go," Hirutani said, and he flipped the gun in his hand so the grip was angled toward Jounouchi. "Be my guest."

For the first time in ages, Jounouchi felt a grin of his own quirk his lips. It was funny how Hirutani, for all that he always claimed to be the only one to know who Jounouchi really was, didn't get him at all. "You've got that backwards," he said, and he grabbed the gun so he could flip it back around, forcing the grip back against Hirutani's palm. "That's for you, man. I don't want it."

Hirutani furrowed his brow. "Then why did you bother to walk over here? You could have given me a target from over there."

Jounouchi shrugged. "Thought this would make it easier for you. It's harder to hit a target from far away, and I don't know how good of a shot you are." The look Hirutani gave him was still uncomprehending, so Jounouchi took Hirutani's wrist, and raised it so that the muzzle of the gun was pressed against his own forehead. "There you go. Fire at will, sir."

Hirutani's face was blank with shock as he stared at Jounouchi, unmoving, and for a prolonged second everyone else in the room was silent. Then, with a voice that cracked as it rose in volume and pitch, Yuugi said, "You . . . you can't—!" At the same time, Jounouchi heard Yamada and Sato swear, though the words were obscured by what sounded like a struggle with their hostage.

Hirutani, however, shared none of the others' alarm. His expression contorted with disgust and annoyance. "Don't be a stupid asshole," he snapped, and pulled the gun away.

"I'm not," Jounouchi said, and as Hirutani tried to aim the gun at Honda and the others, Jounouchi stepped directly in its path. "You told me to pick someone to die, right? One person, you said. So that's what I'm doing. I pick myself."

"You can't pick yourself, you fucking dipshit," Hirutani said, and once more he tried to aim around Jounouchi, but Jounouchi blocked his path again. Hirutani made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. "Get out of my way."

"That would make it harder for you to kill me, and as far as I'm aware, it's my job as your second to make your life easier," Jounouchi said. The look Hirutani gave him was venomous. If Hirutani being blindsided by Jounouchi's plan was funny, then the fact that he looked so pissed off now when he had looked like he had been crowned king of the world just a few minutes ago was hilarious. "Come on, then, get it over with. Shoot me. You know you want to."

"This is crazy—"
"Jounouchi-kun, don't—!"
"Jounouchi!"

Anzu, Yuugi, and Honda in turn were all shouting at him, but Jounouchi didn't look back. He couldn't. Just like before, Hirutani's reaction was the one that mattered now. If Hirutani got the victory he wanted—or a victory, at least, even if it wasn't the one he had planned on at first—then all of this would be over. Yuugi and the others would be let go, because they'd no longer be of any use as hostages or leverage. Even Hirutani's enmity with Honda wouldn't have a point anymore, once Jounouchi was out of the picture. It all came back to him, in the end, so once he did this—if he could pull this off—then they would be—

"What I want is for you to do as you're fucking told for once in your goddamn life," Hirutani said, and then he laughed a little, the sound lacking any warmth or humor. "Every time we make a little bit of progress, you always take several steps back. Why is that, Jounouchi? Why can't you ever just behave?"

Jounouchi shrugged. "Just another thing that's wrong with me, I guess. There's a whole list. You know that better than anyone, right?" He flashed a flippant smirk before he added, "Sir?"

Hirutani snorted. "Don't I ever."

"So? Come on, then. Shoot me!" Jounouchi spread his arms wide to give Hirutani more of a target. The chest wouldn't make it as quick—it was likely to hurt more—but in order to get Hirutani to shoot, Jounouchi thought he was going to have to piss him off, and while that would be easy enough to do given that Jounouchi provoked him all the time on accident, enraged psychopaths didn't tend to be the best shots. "It's what you want, right? To win? You've always wanted to, ever since middle school. So here you go, Hirutani: You win. Go ahead and take your prize. Shoot me. Kill me. Free target, right here."

Hirutani said nothing. He clenched his jaw so hard that Jounouchi could see a muscle jumping in it, and squeezed the grip of the gun so tightly his knuckles were pale.

"Well?" Jounouchi asked, and he raised his eyebrows. "What are you waiting for? What, do you not have the guts? Are you chickening out?" He laughed, and a spike of pain through his ribs made him wonder whether a bullet would hurt worse than that. Maybe it would be about the same. "Wow, for someone who talks so big about being yakuza, it sure says a lot that you can't even kill one mouthy subordinate."

Seething rage, not unlike what Jounouchi had seen at Tayzr's, flashed through Hirutani's eyes as he hissed, "Shut up."

"Or what?" Jounouchi challenged. "Because it seems to me like no matter what I say or do, you can't kill me. And if you can't kill me, even when I'm sitting here giving you a free and easy target, then what does it say about you? Besides the fact that you don't have any balls, anyway."

Jounouchi recognized the look in Hirutani's eyes now; it was the same one he always had right before he snapped. All Jounouchi had to do was push a little more . . .

"And I don't know about you guys," he said loudly, turning to the rest of the gang in the warehouse, "but I wouldn't have much confidence in a leader who can't even kill someone who's surrendering. Fact is, he might talk big, but it doesn't seem he can walk it. I don't know." Jounouchi spun back to face Hirutani, and put his hands in his pockets. "Maybe you all should follow me instead."

That did it. In one fluid movement Hirutani grabbed him by his arm and threw him bodily against the wall as Honda and the others shouted something he couldn't make out. Jounouchi's back slammed against it, the wind knocked out of his lungs as his ribs seared with pain from the impact, and in the next second Hirutani's hand was around his throat. Jounouchi fought to keep his hands by his sides—he couldn't fight back, couldn't even try if this was going to work.

"So you want to die, is that it?" Hirutani hissed. Jounouchi forced a smirk.

"Do you not have ears on top of not having balls?" he taunted. "'Cause that's a pretty impressive feat. You should submit yourself to be studied for science, I'm sure they'd love to do a study on—" His words choked off as Hirutani shoved the barrel of the gun into his mouth, and now he had to wrestle against both the instinct to throw Hirutani off him and his gag reflex.

"NO! You son of a bitch, let him go!" Honda screamed. Hirutani was too big for Jounouchi to see around him, really; Anzu and Yuugi were blocked from his sight entirely, and he could only get a glimpse of Honda from beneath Hirutani's arm. But that glimpse was enough; he saw Honda thrashing back against Yamada's hold, even as Yamada hissed something and Sato pointed his own gun directly at Honda's face. "Get the hell away from him, you fucking—!"

"Hold him down!" Hirutani shouted over his shoulder, and Jounouchi could see over him just enough to see three of the other gang members, none of whom Jounouchi knew the names of but all of whom were sasquatches, charge across the room toward Honda.

"Get the fuck—get off—" Honda's words were cut off as he was presumably dogpiled, but after a moment he still cried out, "JOUNOUCHI! Jounouchi, fight! Don't just stand there and let that bastard kill you! Don't let him—you have to—!"

The barrel of the gun in his mouth prevented Jounouchi from saying anything in response, but even so, his reply sat on his tongue right against the warm metal of the revolver: And have him kill one of you instead? No dice.

"Last chance," Hirutani said quietly. It occurred to Jounouchi then that Hirutani's ice green eyes were going to be the last thing he saw before he died. "You can still pick one of them, you know. It's not too late."

Jounouchi laughed a little around the barrel of the gun, and raised one hand to flip Hirutani a hand gesture that they both knew from American movies to be the equivalent of 'fuck you.'

Hirutani's lips twisted into a furious snarl, his breathing ragged, and snapped the hammer of his gun back with his thumb. Reflexively, Jounouchi shut his eyes—

And a gunshot rang out in the warehouse.

It took a second or two for Jounouchi to realize he was still alive—that the gunshot hadn't come from the barrel stuck in his mouth, but from across the warehouse instead, which explained all of the startled and panicked swearing. Hirutani looked over his shoulder, and Jounouchi shifted the barrel of the gun into his cheek with his tongue, straining to look around Hirutani to see what was going on. After only a half-second, Hirutani laughed.

"Well, would you look at that," he said. "Baby's got a gun."

Jounouchi squirmed to look around, and for the second time that day shock rendered his mind numb. He knew what he was seeing—logically, he could comprehend it—but he couldn't understand it, couldn't reconcile it with what he knew to be the truth.

Somehow, it seemed, Yuugi had—Yuugi had gotten ahold of a gun. Mochizuki's gun, Jounouchi thought, if the way Mochizuki was staring at him in shame and rage was anything to go by. He must have fired it to get himself free, though it didn't look like anyone had been shot. On the contrary, it seemed that the surprise of the gun firing had allowed Anzu to free herself from Kurosawa and Nezumi at last, and Honda likewise had gotten out from the guys that were pinning him down, and was now standing halfway between them and Hirutani and Jounouchi. But Yuugi—Yuugi was—

Yuugi had his index finger through the trigger guard of the revolver, and as he sauntered—sauntered—forward, he spun the gun around it before he finally caught the grip in a confident hold. A wide smirk was parting his lips, and the look he was giving Hirutani was nothing short of patronizing and manic.

He was Yuugi, but . . . he didn't look a thing like Yuugi.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Yuugi said, and he didn't sound like Yuugi, either. This was—there was something wrong, like Jounouchi was looking at Yuugi's reflection in a rippled pond. "I believe I was promised a game."

"Heh. A game?" Hirutani turned partway to face Yuugi, though he kept his gun in Jounouchi's mouth. The ball should have been in their court now, at least temporarily now that Yuugi—of all people, Yuugi, the guy who hated violence—was armed and Anzu and Honda were no longer held at gunpoint, but somehow, Jounouchi could feel panic beginning to flutter in his chest again. "You really think this is the time to play, kid?"

"I couldn't think of a better one," Yuugi said, "especially now that all the pieces are in place. Well, except for one." Yuugi nodded toward Jounouchi, though his eyes were still focused on Hirutani, and said, "Get your gun out of his mouth. You'll need it for our game."

"And who says I want to play?" Hirutani asked. His eyes narrowed. "Who said you had any right to speak to me at all?"

"You did, don't you remember?" Yuugi asked. "Back in front of the café, you said that your people would be in touch, and then we would play. Well." He spread his arms wide. "Your people got in touch with us, as promised, and now we're going to play what I like to call a shadow game." His wild smile returned. "Come on, Hirutani! It'll be fun. And if things go your way and you win, you'll never have to worry about me talking to Jounouchi-kun ever again."

Jounouchi didn't know what a "shadow" game was, but he did know that no matter what Yuugi was planning on doing with it, the last thing he wanted was for Yuugi to play a game with a gun. "Yuu'i—!"

"Color me interested." Hirutani pulled his gun free from Jounouchi's mouth at last (something Jounouchi was glad for, if only because it was really hard to speak in complete words with the barrel of a gun lodged between his teeth), but as Jounouchi started forward, Hirutani put a hand on his chest to force him back against the wall. "Tell me, what sort of 'game' do you have in mind?"

"Oh, it's an easy enough one," Yuugi said, and he spun the gun again before he lifted it, and placed the muzzle against his temple. Jounouchi felt his blood run cold. "Have you ever heard of a game called Russian roulette?"

Whether Hirutani had or not, Jounouchi didn't care. The important thing was that he knew what that game was, and the ice in his veins turned to fire as he shoved past Hirutani. Honda moved a few paces closer to Jounouchi, and Anzu had moved much closer to Yuugi, though Jounouchi barely paid either of them any mind.

"Yuugi," he said, and he couldn't keep his voice steady or down as he spoke. Yuugi glanced at him once, but then looked back to Hirutani. "Put the gun down. Put it down now!"

"No," Yuugi said, and then he raised his voice a little. "So, Hirutani, are you ready? Oh—and you carry a knife, don't you? Pull it out—we'll need it for a little bit of an extra challenge."

"An extra challenge, hm?" Hirutani pulled his knife out with his free hand, but Jounouchi spared him only one look before he turned back to Yuugi.

"Yuugi, I mean it, I'm serious," he said, but still Yuugi didn't look at him. "Put the gun down and get out of here! Now!"

"I said no," Yuugi said, his voice a little louder, a little firmer than Jounouchi had ever heard it before. He had been determined when speaking to Ushio, but this—this was different. Jounouchi couldn't explain how, but it was different. "The game has just about started, and neither of us can back out now, nor can you interfere. Stand back."

"The hell I will! You could die!" Jounouchi cried. "What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you acting like—"

"It's as I told you, isn't it?" Hirutani said, and Jounouchi looked back at him, uncomprehending. "Back in your room. I told you there was more to him than that sweet little innocent act he put on. Granted, I never expected something like this, but . . ." Hirutani shrugged. "I was right, all the same."

"Put the knife on the floor between us," Yuugi said, ignoring him. "We'll use it as an additional roulette. We'll each take turns spinning it. Whoever the blade points toward will have to pull the trigger of their gun. Once they do, provided they're still alive after, they'll spin the knife to determine the next shooter. If it lands on the other player, then obviously, the other player shoots. But if it lands back on the one who spun it . . ." Yuugi shrugged. "Well, then they better hope Lady Luck favors them in other ways."

"Interesting." Hirutani smirked, but for what was perhaps the first time in his life, he did as instructed. Jounouchi tore his eyes away from him to look back at Yuugi.

"I don't know what's going on," he said, and Yuugi shot him a frustrated look. "I don't—I don't get what's up with you, if it's the stress, or panic, or—or what, but Yuugi, you can't do this. Don't do this. Don't fucking gamble with your own life like—!"

"Jounouchi-kun, I know what I'm doing," Yuugi said, and he looked back to Hirutani. "Now stand back. I already told you, you can't interfere in a shadow game."

"The hell I can't! You're not going to do this!" Jounouchi said, and he started forward, hoping Yuugi still had the safety on his gun, hoping he could wrench it away without putting Yuugi in even more danger—

But he made it no more than two steps before Yuugi said, "Honda-kun!"

Jounouchi barely had time to turn in Honda's direction before Honda was on him. He flailed against Honda's hold, but Honda looped his arms under Jounouchi's, restraining him in a half nelson.

"Honda!" Jounouchi snarled. "Get the hell off me!"

"So you can try to get yourself killed again? No thanks," Honda said.

Yuugi nodded toward them, and interrupted Jounouchi's furious oath by saying, "Get him out of here."

Honda hesitated for only a second before nodded. "Right. Jounouchi, come on—"

"No!"

Jounouchi wasn't the only one to say it. Honda froze in the process of trying to drag Jounouchi out of the warehouse, and both of them looked over to see that Hirutani had his gun aimed directly at Honda's face. Jounouchi twisted out of Honda's hold just enough to make sure that he was standing between Honda and that gun.

"Hirutani," Yuugi said, and if the situation were any different, Jounouchi might have laughed at how everyone in the warehouse turned to look at him now, in time to see that Yuugi had his gun trained on Hirutani. But somehow, the gun didn't seem like much of a threat; there was something about Yuugi's eyes, and about how the light filtering in through the broken windows glinted off the Millennium Puzzle that seemed considerably more intimidating. "The rules of the game state that the only one you are allowed to fire at is yourself. If you shoot someone else, that amounts to cheating, and cheating will earn you a penalty game." In a flash, Yuugi's manic smile was back. "But go ahead. Make my day."

Much like he didn't know what a "shadow game" was, Jounouchi had no clue what in the hell Yuugi meant by "penalty game," and he knew that Hirutani didn't, either. But if that mattered to Hirutani, he didn't show it. Instead, after a moment of consideration he lowered his gun, but not before he spat acidly, "Don't get comfortable. I'll come find you when this is done."

"Bring it," Honda said, his tone just as disparaging. He grabbed Jounouchi again, this time by his upper arm instead of in a half-nelson, and once again started to pull him toward the large hole in the warehouse wall. "Jounouchi, come on, let's go."

"No," Jounouchi said, and he planted his feet as firmly in the concrete as he could, throwing his weight in the opposite direction to pull against Honda's grip. Honda clenched his jaw.

"Jounouchi—"

"I said no, damn it! Yuugi!" As Jounouchi turned back toward Yuugi, Honda wrapped his arms around Jounouchi's shoulders in a bear hug, dragging him back, and even as his ribs screamed in protest Jounouchi thrashed against his hold. "Yuugi! Put the gun down, you can't do this, you'll die, you can't—"

"Jounouchi," Honda snarled, "stop fighting—!"

"The hell I—let go of me, Honda! Yuugi!"

"Yuugi will be fine—"

"He's got a fucking gun to his head, what about that looks fine to you?!"

"I—I don't know, but you're my priority right now, okay?" Honda said, and Jounouchi was so appalled that for a moment, all he could do was stare, his resistance slack. "Right now, it's my job to get you to safety, and that's what I'm gonna do."

"Have you—-are you out of your fucking mind?!" Jounouchi cried. "I'm nothing! Yuugi is—!"

Honda gave another ferocious tug and swung Jounouchi closer to the hole in the warehouse wall. It wasn't fair, Jounouchi thought, as he slammed his elbow back against Honda's jaw. Honda released him, cursing profusely, but before Jounouchi could make it another three steps Honda pounced on him again, dragging him back. It wasn't fucking fair, because he used to be able to take Honda in a straight fight, but his ribs were killing him, and he was exhausted, and he hadn't eaten anything since dinner the previous night, and he felt dizzy and Yuugi and Hirutani were emptying all bullets save for one from each of their guns—

Jounouchi twisted out of Honda's hold again, but Honda grabbed his arm and yanked him back. He used the momentum to spin around to put himself between Jounouchi and Yuugi, and before Jounouchi could move around him again, Honda said, "Dude, I'm really, really sorry about this, but you're not leaving me a choice here."

Jounouchi opened his mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean, but before he could Honda's fist slammed straight into his stomach. Combined with the pain already arcing through his ribs, the blow was enough to knock the wind from his lungs with brutal force and double him over, bile rocketing up his throat as dark spots exploded in front of his eyes. Honda caught him around the chest again, and Jounouchi was vaguely aware that this time he was a little gentler, but he wasted no time in hauling Jounouchi through the gap in the warehouse wall, out into the sunlight and around the corner where they were out of sight. Only then did Honda release him, and Jounouchi staggered away a few steps to brace himself against the wall, wheezing.

"I'm sorry," Honda said again, and Jounouchi tried to snap something in response, but all that came out was more coughing. He couldn't—god, it was so hard to—! "But you know, that's just all the more reason for me to get you out of there. It shouldn't be that easy for me to overpower you."

Jounouchi scowled at him. "You didn't—"

"I did," Honda said. He looked upset, but Jounouchi didn't think he looked angry; with the way his eyebrows were pinched together in the middle and how red-rimmed his eyes looked, he looked more distressed than anything. "The sucker punch made it easier, but it wasn't necessary. My sister was right, you're in bad shape."

"Sista can bite me," Jounouchi said, and Honda pressed his lips together in a thin line. "She wasn't supposed to tell you anything, and look—"

"Yeah, and I screwed it up by doing the exact thing she told me not to," Honda said, and he sighed. "Look, the important thing is that we get you away from here. We can sort everything else out and figure out what to do after that."

Jounouchi glared at him. "There's no way in hell I'm leaving as long as Yuugi's—Anzu!" Honda blinked in surprise, but quickly turned to follow Jounouchi's line of sight to Anzu, who rounded the corner of the warehouse to meet them. "Where's Yuugi? What's—"

"He wanted me to come out here and check on you," she said, her cheeks flushed a little pink. "They're still playing. Those other creeps are watching."

Jounouchi had figured out well enough on his own that no one had died yet, given that he hadn't heard a gunshot, but the idea that Yuugi was actually going through with it—that he was playing, that he was leaving his own life up to chance, that any second now he could have a bullet lodged in his skull, made his legs feel like wet pool noodles. He clenched his fists to try and steady himself before he said, "Right. Well, I'm going—"

"No you're not," Honda said, and as Jounouchi started forward, Honda blocked his path. Jounouchi glowered at him.

"Honda. Move."

"No. You're not going back there," Honda said, and this time he did sound angry, his voice rising right along with his temper. "Look at yourself! This is—he's killing you—"

"He's going to kill Yuugi if I don't—!"

"Yuugi decided to—"

"Because of me—!"

"Yuugi will be fine!" Anzu said, and both Honda and Jounouchi turned to look at her, though she was looking only at Jounouchi. Her eyes were bright, and the flush still hadn't faded from her cheeks. "I know it might seem kind of hard to believe right now, but trust—"

"How can you say that? How can you be okay with this?" Jounouchi demanded, but even as he whirled on her, Anzu stood her ground, her shoulders back and her chin raised defiantly. "He could die, Anzu. If he comes up unlucky on the draw, he will—!"

"He won't," Anzu said, and even as her voice shook a little, she sounded sure. Jounouchi couldn't understand it. "Not when he's like this. I don't really know what's going on myself, or how to explain it, but he's different right now than how he usually is. It's almost like he's—his voice is—he's done this before, he's played and won a game like this before, he saved—!"

"You're not making any sense!"

"I know that, but you just have to trust me—trust him! He knows what he's doing, Jounouchi, you just have to—"

A gunshot rang out from inside the warehouse, and anything Jounouchi might have said in response—any argument he had prepared, any question or rebuke—was dashed from his head as suddenly as the birds that fled from the nearby rooftops. In that second, he was paralyzed; his thoughts were a disordered maelstrom, jumping from Yuugi to no no no to you can't to this can't and over and back again so quickly he couldn't make sense of them—couldn't make sense of anything, because this—this couldn't be—he couldn't be—Yuugi couldn't be, he couldn't—!

Screams erupted from inside the warehouse—howls of exultation or horror, Jounouchi couldn't tell—and they were enough to shock him past the blind, numbing terror he felt so that he could shove past Honda and bolt back around the corner of the building, toward the entrance of the warehouse, toward—

Yuugi.

Yuugi—safe, whole, and alive—walked out of the warehouse as several others, Mochizuki and Nezumi among them, shot past him and charged back toward the train station, as if eager to put as much distance between themselves and the warehouse as possible. But Jounouchi paid them no mind; he couldn't, not when Yuugi was—he was—!

Jounouchi put his face in his trembling hands. God, but he felt like he could cry from relief.

"Well, he lost," Yuugi said bluntly, and Jounouchi looked up as Anzu hurried past him to Yuugi's side. Even though he won—even though he was alive—Yuugi was frowning, and his lips were puckered in a little pout. "It's a little disappointing, actually. I was hoping he'd cheat . . ."

Jounouchi opened his mouth to say something—what, he didn't know, because what could he say after what Yuugi had just done?—but before he could Kurosawa appeared in the opening of the warehouse, his eyes wide and that stupid beanie he always wore askew on his head.

"Jounouchi-san!" he said, and both Yuugi and Anzu turned to look as well. Honda stiffened by Jounouchi's side. "Hirutani-san is—" Kurosawa looked to Yuugi, and his face contorted in a hard glare. "That little bitch there—"

Before Honda could stop him or Kurosawa could finish his sentence, Jounouchi crossed the remaining three paces forward so that he could tug Yuugi behind him to shield him (mostly, anyway) from Kurosawa's view.

"Get inside," Jounouchi said, but Kurosawa's eyes flickered between Jounouchi and Yuugi, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"What are you—?"

"I said, get inside!" Jounouchi snarled. Kurosawa flinched, and though he still looked mutinous he turned and did as he was told. Jounouchi looked back—back at the train station, back at the open spaces between the other warehouses, through which Mochizuki and the others had ran.

Screams wouldn't carry as far as the train station to attract attention, but gunshots?

"You need to leave," he said, and he turned back to look at Yuugi, Honda, and Anzu as he said it. Yuugi blinked a few times, looking dazed (and Jounouchi didn't think he had moved him that roughly when he pulled him back, but he supposed he hadn't been thinking much in terms of his own strength at the time), while both Anzu and Honda frowned.

"What about you?" Honda demanded.

"I need to take care of things in there," Jounouchi said, and he jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the warehouse as he said it. Honda opened his mouth to argue, but Jounouchi looked back to Yuugi and spoke before Honda could.

"Yuugi, I can't—I don't really know what to say. Well, that's a lie, I do, but—" Jounouchi ran a hand over his hair, mussing it, as Yuugi gave him a look that spoke of confusion and lingering disorientation. "Look, you need to get out of here, okay? As fast and as far as you can. Find someplace you can say you've been since school let out, all three of you."

"But why—?" Yuugi began.

"We're not leaving—" Honda said hotly, but Jounouchi cut him off.

"Just go!" he snapped, and before Honda could argue further Jounouchi turned and made his way back inside the warehouse.

The others, apparently following the directive that Jounouchi had given to Kurosawa, were still gathered inside. Most of them were gathered around a single spot, back where Hirutani had stood before, blocking whatever was there—and Jounouchi had a good guess, and if he was right he was glad for it, but he had to be sure—from view. Jounouchi spotted the gun Yuugi had used and Hirutani's knife on the floor, and more than anything he wanted to go retrieve both of them right that second. But before he could, he had to take care of the first problem, and that lay in the agitated helper monkeys standing before him.

"What do we do?" one of them—the formerly bright-eyed middle schooler from before, Jounouchi thought—asked in a trembling voice. "Jounouchi-san, he's—he's—Hirutani-san d-died, and—"

"He was killed, more like—"

"Shut up!" Jounouchi yelled, and Sato shut his mouth with a snap, though that didn't remove the ugly scowl from his face. The gang stared at Jounouchi now, and he knew—had known when he first ordered Kurosawa back in the warehouse—that since he had been second, Hirutani's death now made him first. It wasn't a role he wanted, or one he saw himself using after this, but for now? For now, he needed it.

"First of all," he said, and he raised his voice a little for the cowards cringing in the back, "what happened here wasn't a murder. Hirutani wasn't killed. As far as any of you know, he committed suicide."

"He would never—" Kurosawa started, but Jounouchi raised his voice even more and spoke over him, even as he took a step closer. Kurosawa scooted back an inch.

"Second of all, none of you were here today. You don't know how it happened, all you know is what you heard, and you don't even know who you heard it from, got it? You couldn't pick your informant out of a fucking line-up. If anyone asks, you don't have any idea what went down. S'far as you know, he got a little cocky with his gun and it misfired."

"Why are you—?"

"Third of all," and now Kurosawa was within arm's reach, and the boys standing around him wisely started putting distance between themselves and him, "you've never seen any of your three former hostages in your life. Those guys from Domino High? Except for that little rat bastard Nezumi, none of them were here. You don't know them, you've never seen them, you aren't even aware they exist from here on out, and they had nothing to do with this, you understand me? If anyone asks, you've never seen them before in your goddamn miserable lives."

"I can't believe you—"

"And lastly," Jounouchi said, and he grabbed the front of Kurosawa's oversized coat before the little bastard could scramble away, "if any of you decide to do otherwise? If any of you decide to mouth off to the cops about what happened here today and sell some story about those guys from Domino High and how you think they're responsible for Hirutani's death?" Jounouchi looked straight into Kurosawa's eyes, and tightened his grip on Kurosawa's coat as Kurosawa grasped at his wrist. "Then you can trust me when I say that by the time I'm through with you there won't be enough of you left for the coroners to figure out who you even were, much less who left you like that. Oh, and if you think you can just get me arrested and be safe that way? Better think again. I've been doing a whole lot of things for people a hell of a lot more powerful than Hirutani ever was. I've got more than a few favors I could call in to take care of trash like you. But go ahead, Kurosawa." Jounouchi shoved him roughly backwards, and Kurosawa flailed his arms as he tried to keep his balance. "Finish what it is you've been trying to say this whole time. Go ahead and share it with the fucking class."

Kurosawa said nothing. His face was so pale that every single freckle he had stood out in stark contrast on his cheeks. Even if he did suspect that Jounouchi was bluffing about his favors, there was no way he would dare to call him out on it.

Jounouchi glowered at the rest of them. None of them said anything, and after a beat of silence he said, "Make sure the fuckboys that ran out of here get the message. Find them before they do something you all will regret, got it?" A mumbled assent ran through the group, peppered with more than a few "yes sir"s that made Jounouchi's skin crawl, and when he was sure none of them were going to argue (despite how some, like Kurosawa and Sato, looked like they still wanted to), he said, "Good. Now get the fuck out of my sight, and if you ever go near anyone from Domino High again, so help me, I will end you!"

He had to raise his voice to speak over the sound of their shoes squeaking and smacking on the concrete floor as they stampeded toward the opening in the warehouse wall, and Jounouchi waited until the last of them—the little middle school kid, whose face had looked green as he scampered past Jounouchi—was gone before he turned back to the gun and the knife on the floor.

Part one of clean-up was done. That just left part two.

Years ago, back in middle school, when they had first framed a high school student belonging to a rival gang for drug possession, Jounouchi had asked whether or not it would do any good. After all, the kid was innocent. That had to be easy enough for his lawyer to prove. Hirutani had laughed, and told him how the courts had a conviction rate that was only one percent off perfect.

"Anyone who's arrested and tried goes to jail, or worse," Hirutani had said. "So do yourself a favor and don't get arrested."

The gun had Yuugi's fingerprints on it. So did the knife, if Jounouchi had correctly understood the rules of the game. Both weapons tied Yuugi to the scene, and when—not if, he knew, but when the police decided to investigate, if this was the evidence they found—

Jounouchi scooped the gun up and clicked the safety back on before he slipped it into the waistband of his pants, and covered it with his shirt. Hirutani's knife was easier; it thankfully didn't have any blood on it, and so he was able to slip it straight into his pocket without worrying about cleaning it off first.

And that only left—

The body.

It was strange to see Hirutani laying there like that. Dead—completely harmless. Blood pooled around his head, matted a little in his ash blond hair, and—careful to avoid getting blood on his shoes—Jounouchi nudged Hirutani's shoulder with his foot. In all the horror movies Jounouchi didn't like to watch, this would be the moment when Hirutani would reveal that he was still alive—when he would jump up and grab Jounouchi's leg to reveal, in the most dramatic fashion possible, that the nightmare wasn't over yet. But nothing happened. He didn't stir. And Jounouchi felt nothing but a strange sense of surreal disconnect, like this wasn't entirely real, even though he could see that it was.

"Hmph." Jounouchi nudged Hirutani's shoulder with his foot one more time—just to make extra sure—and when he received the same lack of response as before, he turned away. "Bye."

There was no response, of course, but all in all, Jounouchi preferred it that way.

He exited the warehouse and started to make a sharp right to head toward the wharf, but the second he stepped foot through the gap in the wall Yuugi, Honda, and Anzu all jogged over to him. Jounouchi's eyes widened, and before they had a chance to say anything he demanded, "What are you all still doing here? I told you to go!"

"We couldn't leave you," Yuugi said, and Jounouchi swallowed at the look on Yuugi's face. He looked confused, maybe even a little hurt. Jounouchi hated to hurt him, but—

"Those guys all booked it," Anzu said. She had her arms wrapped around her stomach, betraying how strong her voice sounded. "Good riddance."

"We should leave," Honda said, but Jounouchi looked back toward the train station, his stomach sinking as the faint sound of sirens reached his ears. "Jounouchi, let's go."

"No," Jounouchi said, and he took a few steps back to put more distance between himself and the three of them. "I have to go. So do you, but—somewhere else. Like I told you before, get somewhere where you can lie and say you've been there since school let out. Maybe Yuugi's, or Anzu's, or—"

"Come with us!" Yuugi said, but Jounouchi shook his head. "Jounouchi-kun—"

"Yuugi," Jounouchi said, and there was so much he wanted to say—so much he needed to say, but he didn't have time to sort through it all, barely had time to say anything, much less— "What you did for me today—I—I don't think I'll ever be able to thank or repay you enough, but—"

"You don't have to," Yuugi said, and the strange thing was that he looked a little confused again, even as he smiled reassuringly. "You know . . . what happened doesn't change anything."

Jounouchi stared at him for a second—and only a second, with how those sirens sounded louder and therefore nearer—before he huffed a hollow laugh and shut his eyes. "You're right," he said softly. "But not in the way you mean."

"What?" Yuugi's smile was gone and his brow was furrowed in worry again when Jounouchi opened his eyes, but Jounouchi turned away.

"You three need to get out of here. If anyone asks, you didn't see me or anyone else today, and you were never here, got it?"

"Jounouchi-kun, wait!"

"I can't!" Jounouchi whirled back to face him, and much as he had months ago, back when he had first told Yuugi to stay away from him, Jounouchi felt his own heart splinter at the heartbroken look on Yuugi's face. "I don't—I don't have a lot of time left, okay? If I don't—"

"What the hell does that mean?" Honda demanded, and Jounouchi resisted the urge to put his face in his hands. He didn't have time for this, he really—

"Yeah, that Hirutani creep is—he's—dead, right?" Anzu asked. "So why don't you come back with us if you want us to get out of here so badly? What's stopping you?"

"I don't have time to talk about it," Jounouchi said, and Anzu threw up her hands and turned away as Honda and Yuugi stared at him with varying expressions of frustration and dismay. "Just—if you know what's good for you, and if you really want to help me, you'll get somewhere where you can have an alibi for the past few hours. Go to the game shop, or sista's, or—" The sirens were loud enough to be at the train station by now, and Jounouchi felt his heart fighting to beat out of his chest at the idea of the cops—of Hirutani's father arriving to find Yuugi anywhere near Hirutani's corpse. "Look, just go!"

"Fine," Honda snapped, and Jounouchi was about to thank him when he said, "but when you're done with whatever it is you're doing, you come by my sister's too, okay? If nothing else, even if we're not there, you can use her phone to call my place. She can make the call so my parents put you through to me." After a half second, perhaps noticing Jounouchi's confusion, he clarified, "I'm grounded. Probably until I'm twenty at this point. So just—go to Ayumu's when you're done, okay?"

Jounouchi paused. Honda was staring straight at him, and in all the years they had been friends, Jounouchi couldn't ever remember lying to him—not directly, anyway, and not about anything important. But with the sirens fast approaching, and the gun and knife on him, he knew now that he didn't have much of a choice.

"Yeah," he said. "Sure thing."

Honda relaxed, but only marginally. Yuugi still tried to start toward Jounouchi, but Honda put a hand on his shoulder to stop him, and Jounouchi took the chance he knew he had and booked it for the wharf again.

The good news was that the abandoned warehouse district wasn't too far from the wharf. That, along with the fact that Domino was his city and he knew just about every shortcut there was to know, meant that when he pushed himself past the burning in his chest and the fatigue in his limbs, he was able to make it to the docks in record time. Despite—or maybe because—it was early evening, there was no one really around; the wharf was quiet save for the sound of lapping waves from the sea, and the far off cries of birds circling the waters or docks, looking for food.

Jounouchi stopped running once he reached the wharf (not that he had much choice, given the searing pain across his ribs that made him feel like vomiting), though he kept a brisk pace until he reached a square-shaped, wooden rectangular pier stationed not too far from a large ship that rarely, if ever, actually left port. It was the same pier Jounouchi had used the night he needed to ditch his coat, hat, and gloves after stealing the hard drive for Matsumoto, although that night, he had simply dropped his clothing into the large space cut out of the center of the dock, so that he could push his coat, hat, and gloves down beneath the sea water. Now he walked all the way to the far edge, so that he was standing beneath a massive anchor that was fastened to the wooden beams constructed over the pier. After he cast one more furtive glance around to make sure that no one had decided to wander up the wharf while he was walking, Jounouchi pulled the gun from his waistband with one hand, secured the knife in his other, and hurled them both out into the sea with all his strength, one right after the other. Both the gun and the knife spun through the air in wide arcs, the sunlight catching each of them for just a moment before they hit the water with satisfying splashes, and Jounouchi waited until they sank beneath the waves and the ripples from their impacts faded before he let himself relax.

Part two of clean-up was officially complete. There was no way anyone could retrieve either weapon—no reason they would have to look in the water—and even if the gun or the knife somehow washed ashore, and even if seawater couldn't remove fingerprints from metal, well . . . Jounouchi's prints were on them now, too. Given that he was positive he was going to be the first suspect the police went after, the fact that his prints were now on the second revolver gave Yuugi another layer of cover. He was safe, or at least as safe as Jounouchi could make him.

Jounouchi was in no hurry to get home, but even though he took his time and even took advantage of the side and backstreets in an effort to avoid running into Honda or the others again by accident, he still made it back to his building before any cops made it there. In truth, Jounouchi didn't know how long it would take for them to go after him. He supposed it depended on how quickly Hirutani's father found out. In any case, after the way his dad went ballistic when he thought Hirutani was a cop that had come calling, Jounouchi didn't really want to deal with the fallout of actual police officers knocking on the door. For that reason, he only climbed the stairs halfway before he sat down, and reached into his pockets for a cigarette and his zippo. It probably wasn't the brightest idea to light up when he knew cops could come calling at any time, given that he was still a minor and all, but it also wasn't like he had much to lose anymore.

For now, as he struggled to get a light for how badly his hands were still shaking, he figured all he really had to do was wait.

Chapter Text

The police arrived at Jounouchi's apartment building around a half hour after he did—after he had finished one cigarette, and had wisely dropped his pack and zippo off the side of the railing and into the bushes below. He watched the lone cop car pull up from his vantage point on the stairs, and crossed his arms over his stomach so he could shove his hands into the crooks of his elbows to hide their shaking. His heart felt like an agitated rabbit imprisoned in his chest, and the lack of air in his lungs made him want to take deep breaths to try and fill them despite the throb in his ribs every time he did. Instead, he settled for trying to breathe evenly through his nose as two officers—neither of them Hirutani's father, he noted—climbed the first set of stairs and stopped on the landing at the bottom of the second to crane their necks back and look up at him. He had to at least try to look casual.

"Are you Jounouchi Katsuya?" one of the officers asked.

Jounouchi shrugged. "Maybe. Who's asking?" He was proud of himself for how calm he sounded, even as the officers crinkled their noses in distaste of his attitude.

"The police," said the other cop, and Jounouchi snorted a laugh that lacked any real humor. "You're wanted for questioning in the death of Hirutani Kimio. We're going to need you to come down to the station with us."

Jounouchi tried to feign surprise. He raised his eyebrows, and forced as much false confusion into his voice as he could muster. "What do you want to question me for? Didn't he kill himself? That's what I heard, anyway."

"Kid, we're the ones who ask the questions," said the first officer, as the second reached around his own waistband for something. Whether he was reaching for a weapon—a stun gun, maybe—or something else, Jounouchi couldn't tell. "Now come down here or we'll be forced to come up there and get you."

"I just don't get what you want to question me about a suicide for," Jounouchi said, and he leaned back on the steps. He hadn't heard anything from his dad's apartment the entire time he had been waiting there. The walls of his apartment building were paper thin, and so he thought that if his dad was conscious, he would have heard something: the TV channel changing, or something breaking as his dad clumsily dropped it, or at least his dad shuffling around the house like some kind of booze zombie, but there was nothing. His dad was probably passed out, then, or just not home, but either way, Jounouchi wasn't concerned enough to "go quietly" even if he knew how his story ended already. "I wasn't even there, you know? You'd be better off asking someone else."

He didn't have time to finish his sentence before the second officer charged up the steps, skipping every other one. Jounouchi offered no resistance; instead, he raised one arm so that the cop could easily haul him to his feet, and allowed himself to be spun and shoved against the apartment building so that his hands could be yanked behind his back. Metal cuffs were locked tightly around his wrists a second later, and Jounouchi grimaced for two reasons:

One, the officer had locked the cuffs too tightly, and Jounouchi could tell that his hands were going to be numb by the time they reached the station.

Two, he had a lockpick in his back pocket that he could easily reach, but he had a feeling that if he unlocked his cuffs he would be in for even worse than he was going to get, and so the lockpick was doing nothing more than taunting him with what he couldn't—or shouldn't, at least—have.

The officer who had cuffed him pushed him toward the stairs, and while Jounouchi managed to retain his balance for the first few steps, the fact that his arms were restrained behind his back screwed his balance beyond recovery. He slipped on the fourth step and tumbled; he managed to hit one of the stone edges of the stairs with his shoulder, and as gravity dragged him down to the bottom he tried to flip his legs over his head in a clumsy attempt to right himself. It didn't work; all he succeeded in doing was bashing his legs against the building wall and the railing, his arms, head, and back smacking against the stairs with every roll. He landed in a heap at the bottom, and he wasn't given a chance to right himself before the first officer reached down and hauled him unceremoniously to his feet.

"Well," Jounouchi said, his voice breathless and strained, as the first officer dragged him down the last set of steps and the second officer followed them down at a casual pace, "we're off to a great start, huh?"

"Get in the car, tough guy," the first officer said, but rather than push Jounouchi at the waiting patrol car like the second officer had shoved him toward the bottom of the stairs, he dragged him over to it. Jounouchi did his best to force a laugh, but his ribs—now throbbing from repeated impact with stairs on top of their still healing state—were unappreciative.

"Yeah, a real great start. Hey," he turned to look back as the officer opened the back door on the patrol car, and shifted his grip to try and push Jounouchi inside, "while you're questioning me about things that had nothing to do with me, are you gonna question me about that thunderstorm we had the other night, too? I heard it did some damage, with lightning and whatnot. So while you're questioning me about things I didn't do, like other people's suicides, maybe you could—"

"Just shut up and get in!" said the second officer, as the first officer shoved Jounouchi inside, and smacked Jounouchi's head on the top of the car as he did so.

Jounouchi could have been wrong, but he was pretty sure the officer did that on purpose.

The ride to the police station took longer than he expected—about twenty minutes, if he had to guess—but was uneventful. Neither of the officers said a word, either to him or to each other, and the windows were tinted so he couldn't easily see out of them. It was just as well. He settled back against the seat as best he could, and—despite the fact that they weren't looking back at him—tried not to grimace every time they went over a bump that jostled his ribs just enough for them to smart again.

He could say at the least that this was what he had expected—what he had been waiting for, what he had made sure wouldn't happen to Yuugi—and that it was a first. He had never been arrested before, and a stupidly hopeful (with emphasis on "stupid") part of Jounouchi wanted to think that maybe a clean record would afford him some leniency. Of course, just because his record was clean didn't mean he was, and he knew that even though he hadn't actually murdered Hirutani there were plenty of other things he should confess to and be booked for, even if he wasn't decided on whether or not he actually would. But as far as the officers arresting him knew, his record was clean. He had never been brought in before, had never even been warned before given that he was usually smart and swift enough to get away from any crime scene before the cops showed, and so there was a stupid part of him that wanted to hope that maybe that would entice them to believe him when he said he had nothing to do with it.

Of course, it was a police officer's kid that had been killed, and he was, well, him, so the smarter part of him knew that he didn't have a popsicle's chance in Hell. It was just as well, he thought. No more than he deserved for a host of other things, really.

When they arrived at the police station, the officers still said nothing to him. Both of them got out of the car, and the second one lingered by the headlights while the first opened the door to the backseat and yanked Jounouchi out.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," Jounouchi said, as the officer proceeded to drag him toward the station doors. "I can walk on my own, you know. It's not like I'm going anywhere."

"Oh, you're going somewhere. Just not somewhere you'll like," the officer said, and Jounouchi smirked.

"So what book did you get that line out of? Because it sounded scripted enough to be off a daytime drama or some—ow!"

"That's why you should watch where you're walking instead of shooting your mouth off," the officer said, and he pulled Jounouchi away from the door jamb he had pushed him into in order to guide him through the doorway instead. The second officer, walking behind them, didn't bother to hide his snickering. "In you get."

"Yeah, yeah," Jounouchi grumbled. If his grumbling bothered either officer, neither showed it.

The police station was small. Fluorescent lights that felt too bright to be humane glared overhead, made worse by the off-white laminate tile that made up the floor. There was a small desk that seemed to serve as a reception area to the right of the entryway, behind which an officer was seated upon a low stool, and beyond the reception desk Jounouchi could see long rows of identical dark grey, metal desks that he supposed served as workstations for the other officers and detectives. The first officer jerked Jounouchi to a stop in front of the reception desk, and without preamble the second officer began to pat him down and check his pockets. It took him only a second to relieve Jounouchi of his wallet, keys, and cell phone.

"Hey, I—" Jounouchi started, but as his arresting officers and the officer seated behind the reception desk turned to look at him—the second officer in the process of handing his phone over to the officer seated behind the desk—he stopped and said instead, "Never mind."

"That's what I thought," the second officer said, as the officer behind the desk took Jounouchi's phone. Jounouchi gave him a dirty look as the second officer turned the one behind the desk and said, "You'll want to have someone check the contacts on that—recent calls, that sort of thing."

"Yes, I know how to do my job," the reception officer said. The second officer gave the reception officer an equally as caustic look, but it lasted only a second before the first officer shoved Jounouchi past the reception desk and down toward a door at the other end of the room, and the second officer followed.

It was stupid to feel bothered that they had taken his cell phone, Jounouchi knew. The brief flare of agitation he felt when the second officer handed it over was nothing more than a reflexive reaction, and not even an instinctual one, at that. He didn't care about it. He had never cared about it. He hadn't wanted the damn thing in the first place. But he had learned to keep it on him at all times, even if it was on vibrate, even if sometimes he pretended not to notice it vibrating when he got a call (and aside from a call here or there from Matsumoto, there was only one person who ever did, so—), and he supposed that was the reason why he felt so tetchy now, why part of him wanted to double back to go get it. He was supposed to have it on him, but it didn't matter now. He didn't need it anymore. He just wished there was some way he could convince the latent anxiety he felt of that.

The door the first cop had shoved Jounouchi through led to a small, bare hallway, at the end of which was a large, steel door. The second officer moved forward to open it with keys he pulled free from the belt around his waist, and once the door was open, the first officer shoved Jounouchi inside.

There was a noticeable temperature drop the second he was shoved into the room. It was concrete from floor to ceiling, and in the middle was a metal rectangular table with three chairs pulled up to it: two on one side, and one all by its lonesome on the other. Jounouchi could guess which one was his for the taking. A light with a bare bulb hung above the table from a tarnished chain, but what bothered Jounouchi more was the rusted metal loop that curved up out of the surface of the table by the lone chair, particularly as the first officer pushed him toward it.

"Don't try anything," the officer warned him, and a second later Jounouchi felt the cuff release from around his left wrist. He sighed in relief at the lack of pressure, but there was no time to celebrate it; the officer yanked the cuff up and slid it under the rusted metal loop on the table, and once the handcuff chain was linked around it, slapped it right back on Jounouchi's wrist. Jounouchi almost laughed, even as the officer pushed him into the chair.

"What was I supposed to try?" he asked, as the officer headed toward the door. The second officer had lingered in the doorway the entire time. "And seriously, is this necessary? I haven't tried to fight you once." He paused, then added, "I mean, I could probably take you if you wanted to go a few fair rounds, but—"

"Considering what you've done, you're in no position to be saying anything, much less making threats," the second officer barked from the doorway. Jounouchi raised his eyebrows, trying to look as innocent as he could.

"And what is it I've done? I thought I was just here for questioning."

Both officers gave him looks of deep disgust, but shut the door behind them without another word. Jounouchi heard the lock click again, and this time he did laugh a little to himself as he dropped his forehead to the table. There he was, literally handcuffed to a table, and they still felt the need to lock the door behind them.

"At least they're thorough," he muttered, but somehow that thought didn't afford him any comfort.

- - -

There were no clocks in the room, and Jounouchi didn't have a watch, so he couldn't say how long he sat alone at the table, the stale chilly air raising goosebumps along his arms despite his sleeves. But by the time the door finally opened again and seven different officers filed into the room, Jounouchi thought that maybe a half hour had passed. It was about the time he usually grabbed dinner, he thought, if the way his stomach felt like it was starting to eat itself was anything to go by. His recent habit of skipping breakfast and lunch was coming back to kick him in the ass now, but what else was new. It wasn't like making good decisions was exactly something he could put on his résumé.

He sat up straighter as the officers crowded into the room, and scanned each of their faces as they gathered around the table. Once again, he was surprised to see that Hirutani's father wasn't among them. The two officers that had arrested him weren't there, either. But even if Hirutani's father and the two bundles of joy that hadn't arrested him weren't there, the rest of the officers didn't seem very friendly. If anything, most of them glared at him as they stood around the table, two of them dropping into the chairs on the opposite side. One of the ones who sat down, whom Jounouchi mentally dubbed Officer Geezer, looked so old he had to have one foot in the grave already, with the other on a banana peel. The other, serving as Geezer's polar opposite, had a round face and boyish cheeks. Jounouchi decided that, to complement Officer Geezer, this one looked like an Officer Tater Tot. Well, tot, really, given that he looked like a kid next to the aged sack of bones beside him, but a basket of tater tots didn't sound half bad at the moment given how hungry—

"Your name?" Geezer wheezed, and he dropped a notepad down on the table as he pulled a pen out of his pocket. Jounouchi ripped his mind away from fantasies of tater tots, or fries, or a nice burger (or at least a cigarette to stave off his appetite for another hour or so) to try and focus on what was being asked of him, but when he finally processed what it was Geezer had said, he was pretty sure he heard wrong.

"What?"

"What is your name?" Geezer said, and he spoke slowly, but with the type of deliberation that made it less likely he was talking slowly because it was hard for five thousand year old tortoises to move with a sense of purpose, and more like he thought Jounouchi was a concussed five year old. Jounouchi made a face.

"What, like you don't already know? Tweedledee and Tweedledum seemed to when they arreste—ow!" On reflex, Jounouchi tried to rub at the spot on the back of his head where an officer standing behind him had just smacked him, but with his hands still cuffed to the table, the most he did was yank the chain against the iron loop and cause the cuff to bite into his wrist. He twisted around to glare at the officer that had hit him, and received a stony glare in response. This one had a patchy mustache that, even in the half-light he was cast in, looked like it was a shade or two lighter than his hair. It was so ugly that it easily stood out as his most defining feature. "What the hell do you think you're—?"

"Answer the question," Mustache said coldly, "and watch your mouth."

"Maybe you should watch your hands, then," Jounouchi retorted, and though he ducked as Mustache swung at him again, he ended up ducking straight into Mustache's other hand, which clapped against the side of his head. "Son of a—!"

"Son, this will go a lot easier if you just cooperate," said an officer standing near the door. He was smiling in a way that Jounouchi thought was probably supposed to be comforting and fatherly, but given that Jounouchi didn't exactly have the best experience in that area, he couldn't tell for sure. Still, he hated it when anyone called him "son," and so no matter how friendly the officer thought he was being, Jounouchi couldn't see him as anything other than a patronizing asshole—or at least a big enough tool that he would probably take up an entire box.

"Cooperate how, by telling you things you already know?" Jounouchi asked, and Toolbox nodded, smiling that same damn falsely sympathetic smile as before. Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "Fine. Jounouchi Katsuya. Happy?"

"Age?" Geezer asked, and Jounouchi groaned.

"Come on, like you don't already know tha—damn it, knock it—!"

Instead of smacking him, this time Mustache flicked Jounouchi's ear. It didn't really hurt, but it smarted a bit and was annoying, and once again Jounouchi's reflexes kicked in as he tried to reach around to smack Mustache's hand away. The handcuffs once again prevented him from doing anything, and Jounouchi released a growl of frustration as he leaned forward on the table and curled his fingers into fists.

"Violent tendencies," rumbled an officer that looked like a squat garden gnome standing in the corner opposite from the door. "You'll want to make sure to mark that down."

"I am writing," Geezer said, and he was, but he had stopped writing to turn and reply to Garden Gnome, as if unable to do more than one thing at a time.

"We know, we know," said Toolbox patiently. He then looked back at Jounouchi. "Son, your age?"

"Fifteen," Jounouchi snapped. Toolbox's smarmy smile grew, and Jounouchi almost wished that he had lied just to make their lives a little more difficult for asking stupid questions.

"Which school do you go to?" Geezer asked, and this time Jounouchi heaved a sigh, ignoring the pang in his chest as he did so.

"I'm wearing the uniform still," he said, and as he sensed Mustache raising his hand for another strike behind him, he said, "Rintama High."

"Not a bad school. That's where Kimio-kun went to school, isn't it?" asked an officer with a buzz cut on the right side of the room.

On the left side of the room, standing down the wall from Toolbox, an older cop with a snaggletooth nodded. "Yep, it was."

"I thought about going to school there, but my parents sent me to Seigo High instead," Tater Tot piped up, and though he wasn't sure what, exactly, it explained, Jounouchi felt that Tater Tot being a Seigo graduate explained a whole hell of a lot. "I always thought Rintama looked like a nice school, though. I always liked their uniforms!"

"Nice—?" Jounouchi started, because even in middle school he knew that Rintama High didn't have a reputation for being nice, but before he could say anything Snaggletooth cut in.

"Yeah, nice except for the delinquent problem," he growled, and though Jounouchi felt strangely grateful that at least one of the cops in the room recognized Rintama for the trash-infested excuse for a school that it was, he didn't miss how Snaggletooth eyed him distastefully as he said it. He rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, the delinquent problem," he said. "And I'm sure you think your precious little Kimio-kun knew nothing about that."

"What he did know about it, we're sure he learned thanks to you," Garden Gnome said, and Jounouchi snorted a laugh.

"Right. Thanks to me." He tried to fold his arms across his chest, was stopped by the cuffs he had somehow forgotten about yet again, and settled instead for leaning forward on the table. "So, got any other jokes you'd like to share? Seriously, room full of guys, I'm sure you can come up with some—"

This time, Mustache opted to shut him up by grabbing the back of his jacket and hauling him roughly backwards. The cuffs cut into his wrists again, but that was miniscule in comparison to the spike of pain that shot through his chest at the unexpected jostling of his ribs. Jounouchi's face contorted in a wince, and he found himself briefly winded even as he glared over at Mustache, who gave him a dirty look right back.

"We're not here to joke," Mustache said icily. "We're here to question you about a murder."

Jounouchi knew they were, but he wasn't going to give in that easily—not when he had kept up the pretense of playing dumb to Officers Tweedledee and Tweedledum before. He raised his eyebrows. "Murder? Pretty sure you mean suicide."

"I'm pretty sure you mean that's what you want us to mean," said Buzz Cut.

Jounouchi looked over, and despite his situation, couldn't help the smirk that crossed his own face. "And I'm pretty sure you mean that you want me to mean that's what I want you to mean."

Tater Tot screwed up his face in confusion, but while Buzz Cut did scrunch his nose in a scowl, he also drew his shoulders back and fixed Jounouchi with a challenging look in turn. "I'm pretty sure you mean that you want us to mean that we want you to—"

"Do you think we're stupid?" Snaggletooth snapped, and Buzz Cut shut his mouth with a click despite the fact that Jounouchi was the one Snaggletooth was glaring at.

Jounouchi shrugged. "That depends. Do you feel stupid?"

"Well, that depends, too," Tater Tot said, and Jounouchi leaned away from the backhand he saw Mustache raise out of the corner of his eye. "Do you feel like a murderer?"

Tater Tot's eyes were big and blue, and his voice sounded so youthful and innocently curious that Jounouchi almost laughed at how ridiculously out of place he was in that tiny, cramped, freezing room. But instead of laughing, he said bluntly, "No."

"Oh." Tater Tot sat back, confusion apparent on his face, as if he had actually expected a different answer.

"What sort of fruit do you like?" Geezer asked abruptly. He had been slowly and steadily writing the entire time, and only now did he pause in his meticulous note taking to look up at Jounouchi, who stared back. He wasn't the only one, either; all eyes in the room had turned to the aged turtle of a man seated in front of the notepad.

"Uh . . ." Jounouchi said, as Geezer blinked owlishly at him. "Say what?"

"Fruit," Geezer repeated. "It's a food item that typically grows on plants and trees—"

"I know what fruit is!" Jounouchi said loudly. He didn't know whether he felt more exasperated or offended that Geezer seemed to legitimately think Jounouchi didn't know what fruit was. "I meant, why are you asking?"

"You don't need to know that," Snaggletooth said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "Just ans—"

"Answer the question, yeah, yeah," Jounouchi said. He tossed up one hand, at least as best he could given the cuffs, and let it fall back against the table. "I don't know. Oranges, I guess."

"Oranges?" Toolbox repeated.

"Yeah, oranges. You know. Satsuma oranges." Toolbox continued to give Jounouchi a perplexed look, and Jounouchi gave him a scathing one in turn. "What, am I not allowed to like satsuma now? Is that a crime, too? Gonna give me twenty-five to life because I like citrus? Or are satsuma oranges the favorite fruit of serial killers or something?"

"You've got a real mouth on you, you know that?" Garden Gnome said, and if he could have, Jounouchi would have tilted his chair back on two legs. He settled for stretching his legs out beneath the table, and his feet kicked against the ankles of either Geezer or Tater Tot. He didn't care which.

"Well, I'd hope so, since I couldn't talk if it wasn't real," he said. Buzz Cut rolled his eyes, and Jounouchi grinned. "Aw, you don't appreciate my jokes? Too bad, since I'm the only one willing to tell any."

"We're not here to joke," Mustache said again, just as coldly as before.

Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know. You're here to question me about a murder that was actually a suicide. Hey, I'm curious: Does wasting your time like this get the police chief off your asses? 'Cause I can only imagine how hard it must be to sit on them and not do any actual work with him riding you all the ti—"

Jounouchi had known, on some level, that his smart mouth was going to earn him another smack, but he still felt unprepared when Mustache boxed his ears. The resulting pain was enough to make him gasp and curl forward, his chest braced against the table as his wrists strained against the cuffs to shield his ears against the damage they had already taken, and when the pain subsided enough for him to get his bearings, he looked back to send a baleful glare Mustache's way.

"Do you treat all of your guests like this, or am I just special?" he asked.

"Only the ones who deserve it," Mustache replied.

"Careful not to leave a mark," Garden Gnome said, and Jounouchi turned back to give him an incredulous look. Of all things, that was what he was worried about? "We don't want people asking questions."

"Like they would of this one," Mustache said.

"Still, all the same."

Jounouchi opened his mouth to say something about the absurdity of it all—about how they were apparently fine beating on guys who couldn't fight back, so long as they didn't leave evidence—but before he could, Geezer spoke up again. "How do you take your ramen?"

"Okay, what is with these questions?" Jounouchi demanded. He still wanted to talk about the police brutality subject some more, but with the questions once again looping back around to food (and his stomach rumbling loudly enough at the thought of it to make Buzz Cut and Toolbox smirk), he couldn't resist asking about it any longer. "I thought you were here to question me about a murder, not what kind of food I like."

"So you admit there was a murder, then?" Snaggletooth asked, and Jounouchi shot him a nasty look.

"No, but that's what you said I was here for, so—"

"You didn't want to answer questions about that, though," Tater Tot said, and his wide eyes and tone conveyed just as much innocence as ever. "You said you didn't feel like a murderer."

"That's because I don't, because I'm not, but that—"

"Then you should answer the ramen question!" Tater Tot said brightly. "Just tell us a little bit more about yourself. We're curious."

"Curious," Jounouchi deadpanned. "Right." The gathered officers continued to stare at him, and as Geezer opened his wizened mouth to ask once again, Jounouchi sighed loudly and said, "I don't know, I don't really care. Something with meat. Something without miso, 'cause that's sick soup."

"Sick soup?" Toolbox said.

"Are you gonna repeat everything I say? Are you part parrot?" Jounouchi asked caustically. "Yeah, sick soup. Soup for when you're sick. Did your mom never make you miso soup when you were sick as a kid?" Jounouchi's mother certainly had, before she left, and while his father wasn't exactly keen on keeping the tradition up, the few times Jounouchi fell ill after his mother walked out, he did his best to mimic her recipe.

"She did, I just wasn't sure what you meant by that at first," Toolbox said, and he smiled that same patronizing smile from before. Jounouchi wished he could knock it straight off his face.

"What clubs are you in?" Geezer asked, once again changing the subject without warning, rhyme, or reason, and Jounouchi turned his eyes to the ceiling as he said:

"None."

"So you have no after school activities?" Toolbox asked, and Jounouchi snorted.

"That's usually what that means, yeah." Not exactly in his case, but . . .

"Plenty of time to commit a murder, then," Buzz Cut said, his tone grim, and Garden Gnome nodded.

"No alibi."

"No moral character to speak of, either," Snaggletooth said, and Mustache snorted in what sounded like agreement.

"'Scuse me for not realizing that being part of the Go Home Club meant you were a murderer," Jounouchi said. "Tell you what, you have a good number of kids at a lot of other schools that you should be questioning, then. For instance, all the rich bitches at Seigo that rebel against Mommy and Daddy by daring to go to the mall after school instead of staying after to pad out their college applications—"

"Actually, Seigo High has a pretty good turnout for after school clubs and activities," Tater Tot said. "When I went there, I—"

"No one asked you," Jounouchi snapped, and Tater Tot closed his mouth, looking hurt.

"Your temper doesn't help your case," Buzz Cut said, and Jounouchi spread his arms as wide as he could, his palms turned up to the ceiling.

"What case? I haven't even done anything!"

"That you'll admit to," Snaggletooth said, and Jounouchi gave him a hard look.

"Damn straight."

"So you did do something, but you won't admit to it?" Tater Tot asked, and Jounouchi opened his mouth to reply, yet then closed it again, his lips pressed together in a scowl. That was a trap, and one he'd nearly blundered straight into, at that. Well, if Tater Tot wanted to trap him, then he would have to try harder, because Jounouchi wasn't so stupid as to fall for something obvious like that.

But in the wake of his silence, Geezer asked, "What type of music do you listen to?" and Jounouchi had to resist the urge to let his head fall against the table.

So the questions continued for the next handful of hours—maybe five, maybe more. It was hard for Jounouchi to tell. The conversation, if it could be called that, felt circular with the way the questions bounced from random and pointless to focusing on trying to get him to admit to Hirutani's murder. More than once Mustache assaulted him again, with only the occasional reminder from one of the other officers not to do anything that would leave a visible mark (and, once or twice, a half-hearted request to stop from Toolbox). Geezer steadily wrote down Jounouchi's answers all the while, his gnarled hand scratching the words onto paper, and it was only when he had filled the little notepad he had brought with him that he finally heaved himself out of his seat.

Geezer, Jounouchi reasoned, was the highest ranking officer in the room, though the only way he could really tell was how all of the other officers turned to leave when he stood up. Mustache shot Jounouchi one more disgusted look before he stomped toward the door, while Garden Gnome and Snaggletooth didn't so much as look at him. None of the officers said anything when they left, in fact, except for Toolbox, who said that the two officers that would be directly handling his case would be in for more questioning sometime after that.

"So sit tight until then," he had said, and Jounouchi had rolled his eyes.

"I was thinking about doing some push-ups or jumping jacks instead, but hey." He had pulled fruitlessly against the chain hooking him to the table. "I guess I could sit tight if you really want me to."

Toolbox had smiled at him, but had said nothing more before he shut and locked the door behind him.

The plus side of the group questioning was that, despite the topic being discussed, it had been something to distract Jounouchi from his current predicament. For example, aside from the times the questions wrapped around to what food he liked, it was enough to distract him from his hunger. With all of the bodies crammed into the tiny, windowless, concrete room, the body heat was enough to distract him from how cold it was. And although they kept trying to get him to admit to Hirutani's murder—as if he even had been murdered, when he really hadn't, and even if he had been it was only kind of—it had been enough to distract him from the lingering anxiety he felt over the fact that they had taken his cell phone, along with the reminder he kept giving himself that he didn't need it anymore, because Hirutani was dead even though it still didn't really feel like it.

That was the weirdest part, Jounouchi thought, as he leaned forward on the table and put his chin on his arms in a useless effort to get comfortable. How many times had he fantasized about Hirutani meeting a gruesome, painful death? How many times did he kick himself over failing to kill him back at Tayzr's? (Something which he would have never forgiven himself for had that game of Russian roulette gone any differently, because if he had managed to stab Hirutani to death at Tayzr's—or hell, if he had just been able to die properly back at the warehouse and not screw that up like he did everything else—Yuugi would have never had to play such a stupid, dangerous game in the first place.) He had known since June that everything could go back to normal if Hirutani could just have the decency to die. He had thought about shoving him in front of a train more times than he could count—had thought about all the times back in middle school when one or both of them could have been killed, and had wondered if maybe, just maybe, he could have avoided all of this had he tripped Hirutani up during one of those times, or if he hadn't doubled back and watched the bastard's back like the friend he thought he was at the time. More times than he could count over the past three months, he had wanted Hirutani dead more than anything.

And now he was, but it didn't feel like he was. Nothing felt normal, or better. Even back at the warehouse, staring at Hirutani's corpse, he had only felt a detached sense of acknowledgement. There was some relief there, when Hirutani didn't wake up. There was definite relief, and thanks given to gods Jounouchi wasn't sure he believed in, that it was Hirutani who had taken the bullet instead of Yuugi. But he had expected—he had thought there would be something more. An overwhelming sense of joy, a desire to celebrate, and the absence of the constant, suffocating feeling of hopelessness and stress he had carried with him over the past three months. That was what he should have felt, he knew. All of this—well, Hirutani's death, anyway—was what he had wanted. It should have fixed everything, or at least a good chunk of it, but instead it didn't feel like it had fixed anything at all. Maybe it was because he was currently handcuffed to a table in a police interrogation room, Jounouchi thought. Or maybe it was because he knew that Hirutani was only half of the problem, while he was the other half, and nothing could go back to how it was before because he knew now what he hadn't really acknowledged back then. He scowled, and buried his face in his arms.

Whatever the reason was, it wasn't doing a damn thing to make him feel any better.

- - -

At some point later—it felt like an hour at least, though it could have been longer—the door opened again. It took all of Jounouchi's effort to summon the motivation to lift his head, but when he did and he saw who entered, he felt nausea that had nothing to do with hunger unfurl in his gut and constrict his throat.

Two officers had entered the room. One was Toolbox from the group questioning session. The other was Hirutani's father.

"Before we begin, I want to make sure you're clear on how this is all going to work," Toolbox said, as he took a seat on the other side of the table and set a laptop before him. Hirutani's father sat next to him, a manila folder in hand, his eyes fixed on Jounouchi's face. Jounouchi stared right back. "The initial detainment period for any criminal is forty-eight hours. With that said, we are currently working with the prosecutor's office to receive a twenty-one day extension for your detainment, in order to provide ourselves with ample time for investigation and questioning. Once that extension is granted, the prosecutor in charge of your case is likely going to want to question you himself, but until then, as the detectives in charge of investigating your case, we're going to be leading the questioning from here on out. Does that all make sense, son?"

Jounouchi didn't spare Toolbox a single glance, and despite how dry his mouth was, he fought to keep his voice even—neutral, innocent. "Questioning about what? Like I said before, I haven't done anything."

"You committed—" Hirutani's father started to say, but even as Toolbox raised one hand to silence him, he stopped himself mid-sentence and pressed his lips tightly together. He finally tore his eyes away from Jounouchi's face to look at the folder he had brought into the room with him, and after a second he pulled out a thin stack of stapled papers, and slid them across the table toward Jounouchi, along with a pen. "We need you to sign that," he said.

Jounouchi knew the second Hirutani's father pulled the papers out of the folder that he had no intention of signing anything, but he picked the papers up off the table to give them a glance over anyway. He got no more than one paragraph in before he snorted in disgust and slid the papers back across the table. "No."

Hirutani's father glared at him. His eyes were the same shade of ice green his son's had been. "We aren't asking for a favor."

"And I wouldn't give you one even if you were," Jounouchi said flatly. On reflex he pulled his arms back to fold them, but was stopped for what felt like the six hundredth time by the handcuff chain catching on the iron loop soldered onto the table. "That's bullshit. I'm not signing it."

"It's just a report on what happened," Toolbox said. Jounouchi looked at him, and all it took was one look at the man's placating expression to know that if this was a Good Cop, Bad Cop situation, he had taken on the role of Good Cop. Given his simpering behavior from before this wasn't surprising, but it wouldn't be enough for him to win Jounouchi to his side.

"It's a confession," Jounouchi said, "and seeing as how I didn't do anything you're saying I did, I'm not gonna sit there and sign it like I did. I'm not stupid."

"You murdered my son," Hirutani's father said. Once again Toolbox raised a hand as if to quiet him, but this time Hirutani's father didn't so much as glance as his way.

"Your son murdered himself," Jounouchi shot back. He wasn't sure if "murdered" was exactly the right word to use, but seeing as it was the first one to come to mind—

"Kimio would never do that," Hirutani's father said, his voice rising.

"Well apparently he would, because he did," Jounouchi snapped, and then he sat back in his chair. "Or so I heard, anyway. I wasn't actually there, so—"

"You weren't?" Hirutani's father said. He sat back himself, and as much as he had always seemed like a pushover before—as much as Hirutani had always bossed his father around easily enough—there was something in his tone and expression now that made Jounouchi's mouth feel dry, that made his breath feel caught in his chest. It took him a second, but he realized that he felt the same way he did whenever he knew that Hirutani had caught him in a lie.

Unfortunately, being handcuffed to the table made that more than a little difficult.

"No," he said, and he forced himself to look straight in Hirutani's father's eyes. There was no way he would let this man make him quail or back down.

"Oh, that's interesting," Hirutani's father said, and he opened the folder again. After a moment he pulled out another official looking report, and slid it across the table toward Jounouchi. "Considering how we found your fingerprints on the gun we found at the scene and all—the same gun that matched the ballistics markings on the bullet that killed him, and all."

Jounouchi didn't need to look at the papers that had been slid across the table to him—and he couldn't, for a moment, even see them; as if someone had suddenly turned on a projector that displayed a movie on the table's surface, all Jounouchi could see for a second was the grip of Hirutani's gun as he extended it to him, and his own fingers closing around it before he flipped it back and pressed it against Hirutani's palm, the sunlight filtering in through the broken windows glinting off the dark grey metal of the barrel, the tarnished silver of the chamber—

"You were there," Hirutani's father said, but his voice sounded distant, even as Jounouchi blinked rapidly to try and pull himself from the warehouse and back to the present—to the chill of the interrogation room, the metal cuffs cutting into his wrists, the pins-and-needles feeling in his legs from being seated for so long—

"I . . ." Jounouchi shook his head. He was there, but now he was here—here—and he had to focus. "Yeah, I've been—" He cleared his throat. "I've been there before, so what? Hirutani might've handed me his gun once or twice. He handed me a lot of stuff at different times. Doesn't mean I was there that day. Today. Yesterday. Whenever. What time is it?"

The look Hirutani's father gave him was scathing. "I don't know what kind of idiot you take me for—"

"The kind who's a shitty enough cop to need his son to solve cases for him, and is now trying to charge me with murder because of a suicide," Jounouchi said promptly.

Hirutani's father's face flushed an ugly shade of puce. He opened his mouth to respond, but for a second, no sound came out. Toolbox took advantage of the silence to clear his throat a little and lean closer across the table.

"Son, I know it's in your nature to make light of the situation, but it's as I told you before: Things will be a lot easier for you if you cooperate. Signing the form we gave you would be a good start. Giving us all the information you have about the situation would also help. We just want to clear up the situation, that's all."

"I already told you that I'm not signing a confession, so you can quit bringing that up now," Jounouchi said, and Toolbox sighed. "What more do you want cleared up? I already told you it was a suicide, and you decided you didn't believe me, so I'm not sure what else you want me to say."

"Well, if you're so sure it's a suicide, maybe you have some reason to believe that," Toolbox said. He placed his forearms on the table and loosely laced his fingers together. "We have reason to believe it wasn't a suicide, as you say. Now, whether you killed Kimio-kun or not, with your fingerprints on the murder weapon it looks that way, but if you have other information that would be pertinent to the investigation that could clear you—"

"Like?"

"Like, say, the name of another suspect we hadn't considered," Toolbox said, even as Hirutani's father snorted and muttered something under his breath Jounouchi couldn't catch. "We know that you and Kimio-kun knew a lot of different people, and for all we know there were a lot of people at the scene that day. So if you know what happened—if you have a real statement you'd like to give, some information if you really weren't the one to do it—then we would be willing to listen to that. If you know who did kill him, now would be the time to say it."

Jounouchi stared at him. He wondered if the disbelief he felt—distantly though he felt it—was visible on his face. "I already told you Hirutani killed himself, and now you're trying to get me to throw some other poor bastard under the bus for it?"

"We know he didn't do that," Toolbox said patiently, as Hirutani's father opened his mouth to argue.

"Yeah? Then it seems like you know about as much as a pair of drunk babies," Jounouchi said flatly. Toolbox looked appalled, and Hirutani's father grinded his teeth together. "He killed himself. End of story. And even if he didn't? Even if there was someone involved?" Jounouchi laughed darkly. "You'd have a better chance of getting me to swallow a cyanide pill than ratting them out to you."

If Toolbox hadn't looked appalled before, he definitely did now. He puffed out his cheeks in a long exhale as he leaned back in his seat, and rolled his wide eyes up to the ceiling. Hirutani's father continued to glare at Jounouchi, and he looked livid, but it wasn't the same livid glare Jounouchi had received so many times from Hirutani himself. Instead of the scathing look burning with rage hot enough to render his eyes dry, Hirutani's father's eyes looked bright and strangely wet.

"He was your friend," he said in a low, raw voice. Jounouchi scoffed.

"Your son didn't have friends," he said coldly. "What he had was a squad of fuckboys that hung off his every word like obedient little helper monkeys."

"But you were different," Hirutani's father said, and Jounouchi couldn't explain why, but in that moment he felt an almost blinding fury sweep through him, his pulse pounding furiously in his ears. He clenched his fists upon the table. Hirutani's father didn't even know him, and he sure as hell didn't know his son, so how he thought he could— "You were his favorite. He always liked you more than his other friends." How he could possibly know, or pretend he knew— "So what did that make you?"

Jounouchi ran his tongue along his teeth, breathing in deeply through his nose. After a moment, when he had his temper under the best control he could hope for, he said in a quiet, taut voice, "Vice-captain of the fuckboy squad."

Hirutani's father opened his mouth to say something—and if the look on his face was any indication, Jounouchi knew that whatever it was wouldn't make him feel any less pissed off than he currently did—but before he could, Toolbox cut across him. "All right, this line of talk doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. Why don't we talk instead about what happened yesterday?"

"Yesterday? So it's—was—already yesterday, huh? What time is it right now?" Jounouchi asked again. Toolbox glanced at his watch, but before he could answer Jounouchi added, "And when do I get to talk to a lawyer, or my dad, or—anyone? Don't I get a phone call or something?"

Not that a phone call would do him much good, considering that he didn't know any lawyers, and even if his dad was sober enough to realize he hadn't come home, he was likely to be more pissed than worried over the fact that Jounouchi had gotten arrested. But neither Toolbox nor Hirutani's father knew that, even if Hirutani's father suspected. For all they knew, he had two loving parents who cared very much about the fact that he hadn't come home after school, and Jounouchi felt it was worth pointing that out, even if it wasn't true.

"1:43—a.m.," Toolbox said, his clarification added quickly when Jounouchi raised his eyebrows. "And you're allowed legal counsel once the twenty-one day extension is granted. I warn you, though: Most defense lawyers I know only offer free consultation for the first hour."

"Great," Jounouchi said, and whether it was because he was trying to be fatherly again or because he took amusement in Jounouchi's less than enthusiastic tone, Toolbox smiled.

"You can call your folks then, too. I'm sure they're worried about you."

"Yep." It wouldn't grant him any favors—not if they were going to wait until a full two days had passed before letting him call anyone—but Jounouchi didn't see any harm in keeping up that particular lie. Even if he was only fooling Hirutani's father and Toolbox (or even if he was only fooling Toolbox), it was kind of fun to pretend regardless.

"Of course, if you wanted to make things easier on all of us, we could bend the rules a little to let you call early," Toolbox said, and Jounouchi raised one eyebrow as Hirutani's father gave Toolbox a look of outrage. Toolbox ignored him, and instead slid the confession papers back across the table to Jounouchi. "If you go ahead and sign that so we can move things along, we'll let you call your folks early. Maybe even see about getting you in touch with a good lawyer."

Jounouchi didn't even bother to touch the confession document. "No."

Toolbox heaved a suffering sigh. "Son, we're just trying to clear things up—"

"How many times do I have to tell you I'm not stupid before you get it? That's a confession, and I'm not signing it. And before you say it's not," Jounouchi added, as Toolbox opened his mouth, "you wouldn't be talking about getting me in touch with a lawyer if I wasn't going to be confessing to a murder I didn't commit by signing that thing. No thanks."

"I only brought up a lawyer because you did."

"And I only did because you have me handcuffed to a table while you accuse me of murder at nearly two in the morning." Jounouchi sat back in his chair. "Funny how these things work out, huh?"

"No," Hirutani's father said bluntly, as Toolbox opened the lid of the laptop he had brought in with him and powered it on.

"Well, then why don't you tell us what you were doing yesterday afternoon?" he said, as the laptop fans whirred and the sound of the start-up jingle rang through the room. "You say you weren't at the crime scene even though your fingerprints say you were, so if you weren't there, then where were you?"

"I was around," Jounouchi said, and as both Hirutani's father and Toolbox gave him looks of varying incredulity, he said, "Other places. I was around other places, uh . . . doing stuff. Elsewhere."

"Around other places, doing stuff elsewhere," Hirutani's father repeated, though it wasn't as if Jounouchi needed his words repeated back to him to realize how stupid they sounded. For all that he had told Yuugi, Honda, and Anzu to get somewhere where they could secure decent alibis, he hadn't really bothered to think up one for himself.

"I don't know—I do a lot of things, okay?" he said, more to try and stall for time to think up something specific he could have done (that wouldn't put him at the scene) than anything else. "I do stuff all over Domino all over time. What, you expect me to remember every little thing?"

"We expect you to remember what you did less than twenty-four hours ago when a murder took place," Toolbox said, and for all that Jounouchi didn't really like him, he couldn't exactly fault Toolbox for the deadpan tone in his voice.

"Suicide," Jounouchi said. Maybe he couldn't fault Toolbox, but he could still correct him.

"Murder," Hirutani's father said. His eyes were hard as he glowered at Jounouchi, and Jounouchi glowered right back.

"Suicide."

"Murder."

"Sui—!"

"Let's just agree to disagree on that for right now," Toolbox said, and to his credit he kept the impatience in his voice to a minimum. He gave Jounouchi a stern look over the laptop monitor. "Son, whatever you believe this case to be, I need you to understand something right now. Right now, this looks like a murder investigation to us. You look like our prime suspect. You have not offered us anything remotely resembling a credible alibi, and you are still—" He looked at his watch, "—about forty or so hours away from being able to call for legal consult."

"As if there's a defense lawyer in Japan who would take this case," Hirutani's father muttered under his breath. Jounouchi shot him a dirty look, but considering the "victim" was a police officer's son, he couldn't exactly deny the truth of it, either.

"It's in your best interests to cooperate with us in figuring this out," Toolbox said. "Give us all the information we need, sign what we tell you to, and—"

"Do I have to start saying 'no' in other languages before you get it? I only know it in Japanese and English for sure, but I could probably guess at others if that would help you understand," Jounouchi said loudly, and while Hirutani's father's scowl didn't waver, Toolbox sighed, short and sharp.

"You may feel that way now, but I'm telling you this as someone who wants to help you, signing would be in your best interests. Cooperate with us, and we can work out a deal for you."

"Yeah, he really looks like he wants to work out a deal," Jounouchi said, and he nodded his head toward Hirutani's father. The glare he was receiving, if possible, became somehow colder, and Toolbox looked at Hirutani's father askance. "Why is he even here? Isn't there some kind of law about being too close to the case or something? Conflict of interests, or whatever?"

"He was my son," Hirutani's father said, and his voice wavered a little. It was another thing that made him different from his son, Jounouchi thought—something that put Jounouchi at ease, if only a little. Hirutani's voice would have never shaken like that. "My family. And you're telling me, considering that, that you think I—"

"Yeah, exactly," Jounouchi interrupted, and Hirutani's father squeezed the folder he was holding. "It's not like you've got a reason to be fair, now does it?"

Hirutani's father slammed his hands on the table, but whether it was because of his exhaustion or because of his refusal to show any kind of weakness in the face of interrogation, Jounouchi didn't flinch. "You murdered my son, and you want to talk about fair—?!"

"I didn't murder any—!"

"Both the chief prosecutor and chief of police," Toolbox said, and he raised his voice so that he could be heard over Jounouchi, "have approved it, provided any investigative work he carries out is thoroughly examined by both another detective and the prosecutor in charge of the case, and provided any interrogations he carries out are carried out in the presence of another officer—me. You're going to get a fair shake, son. We just all decided that it would be right to let him make sure that he has a hand in finding justice for his son."

"'Justice.' Right." Jounouchi snorted, and reclined against the hard back of his chair. His entire body felt stiff, and the cold metal of the chair did nothing to abate that. Nor did it help him feel any less exhausted, any less hungry, or any less like he might agree to sign the damn confession paper if it meant he could at least have a cigarette after. Not that he would let them know that, but . . . "You know what would be justice? If you accepted that his son was an asshole who did the world a favor by committing suicide and let me go."

Hirutani's father's nostrils flared, and he opened his mouth to retort, but much as he had at multiple times through the interrogation process, Toolbox held up one hand to stop him, and fixed Jounouchi with a speculative look.

"What do you mean by that, son?"

"I mean exactly what I said. He was a bastard, his old man here knows it even if he won't admit it, and the world is better off without him."

"And you?"

"What about me?"

"How are you now that he's dead?" Toolbox asked, and before Jounouchi could ask him what the hell he meant by that, he followed with, "Would you say that you're better off?"

Jounouchi would, but even as he opened his mouth to say as much, he closed it again. It was as obvious of a trap as the one that Tater Tot had presented him with back in the group interrogation session, and even without the obvious bait, the truth was that it was because Hirutani was dead that Jounouchi was now handcuffed to a table in a police interrogation room, likely headed to prison for a murder he didn't commit. There were a dozen other crimes he could go to prison for legitimately, but even if he confessed to them all, he knew that this was the one they were going to work the hardest to nail him on. This was the one that would make him the most unsympathetic to the public. Draw him up on drug trafficking charges, and the public might cry that he was just a kid who could be rehabilitated. Label him a murderer, and the public was more likely to sing that it was good that he was behind bars. Handing them a motive on a silver platter would just make it easier for them to swing that, and no matter how tired he was—no matter how much he was doing his best to choke back the yawns that kept trying to crawl up his throat—he wasn't going to do that if he could help it.

But his silence and expression must have said enough, because Hirutani's father made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat and shook his head while Toolbox typed something into the document he had open on the laptop. As much as part of him didn't want to know, Jounouchi wished Toolbox would spin the laptop around so he could see.

"Let's go back to what you were doing yesterday afternoon," Toolbox said. "Now, you say you were around the city, doing things, and that you can't recall what it was that you were doing, but—"

"I was hanging around my apartment complex," Jounouchi said, and Toolbox raised his eyebrows as he looked back at Jounouchi.

"You were at home?"

"Yeah, kind of. Not really 'at home'—I wasn't in my apartment, but I was, you know, around." Jounouchi waved one hand dismissively, and the handcuff chain made a soft clinking sound as it knocked against the iron loop. "My dad was home, so I didn't want to go up there."

"You don't get along with your father?"

Jounouchi shrugged. "Well enough." It wouldn't exactly help him to keep up the lie of having parents who were worried if he admitted to the truth of it, after all. "But I just didn't want to see him right then."

"I see." Toolbox took down more notes on the laptop while Hirutani's father gave Jounouchi a look that said he clearly didn't believe a word Jounouchi was saying. Jounouchi wondered just how much Hirutani had told him. "Was there anyone else around? Anyone who can confirm you were there, as you say?"

"Dunno. Maybe. I wasn't really paying attention." Jounouchi turned his eyes to the ceiling as Toolbox once again typed his response into the laptop. The laptop keys were loud, and there was a crack along the ceiling that ran from a back corner to the center. He wondered if it leaked when it rained.

"Well, that doesn't do a lot to help your case, but it at least moves us further along in this investigation," Toolbox said at length. Jounouchi lifted his head to look back at him. "And now that we have what you're claiming as your alibi, we can talk more about the murder—"

"Suicide."

"—in—ah, see, son, that's why it's important for us to talk about it." Once again Toolbox smiled at him, and Jounouchi thought that Toolbox really was trying to be fatherly and comforting. He also thought that maybe it wasn't just his lack of experience with smiles of that nature that made the gesture fail; the fact that Toolbox kept repeatedly accusing him of murder probably had something to do with it, too. "You're insistent it was a suicide, but we think it was a murder. Maybe if we talk through it, we can come to some sort of agreement."

"Unless your idea of an agreement leads to you letting me go, I doubt it," Jounouchi said.

"We'll see," Toolbox said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "Now as we said, we found your fingerprints on the murder weapon—the gun. This puts you at the scene and puts you in possession of the murder weapon, so we've drawn up a few scenarios that we think led to Kimio-kun's death. Maybe you can help us figure out which one is the correct one."

"Sure," Jounouchi said sarcastically. "I'd be happy to help."

"Great." Toolbox smiled again. "Well, let's see. First, I think it's important you understand just how your prints were found on the murder weapon. Hirutani-san, if you would?"

It was obvious that Toolbox was talking to Hirutani's father, but hearing the words "Hirutani-san" come out of anyone's mouth made an unpleasant feeling snake down Jounouchi's spine. If either of the officers across the table noticed, neither showed it. Instead, Hirutani's father reached across the table to grab the report he had slid toward Jounouchi earlier, and he flipped to the second page to show a poorly printed computerized image of the revolver Hirutani had used.

"Your prints were found on the grip," he said, and he tapped his finger along highlighted parts of the image that Jounouchi guessed were supposed to stand in for his fingerprints. "The way your prints were positioned show that you held it, just as one would if they were going to fire."

"So?" Jounouchi asked. He leaned forward a little to get a better look at the image, doing his best to not remember the weight of the gun in his hand, or the taste of metal in his mouth when Hirutani had shoved the barrel inside. "I don't see anything showing my fingers were on the trigger at any point. Then again, that's a pretty shitty picture, so who knows? Maybe I missed something."

Hirutani's father made a face at him. "We found prints on the trigger, too."

"Were they mine?"

Hirutani's father was quiet for a long moment, and just as Jounouchi was wondering if he was actually going to lie and say yes, he said, "No, but—"

"Then how can you say I killed him? I told you, I had nothing to do with it. He killed himself." Jounouchi shot Hirutani's father a satisfied smirk as he sat back. "How far away was the gun when it shot him, anyway? If he killed himself, I bet it was pretty close. Have you guys figured that part out yet?"

"It was point blank," Toolbox said, as Hirutani's father swallowed hard. "There was gunpowder burn around the entry wound that told us that much. But—"

"So what you're saying is that you think he stood there and let me shoot him at point blank? That this guy, who you think wouldn't kill himself, just stood there and let me kill him?" Jounouchi laughed. "Man, you geniuses are even dumber than you look. You'd be good fits for his little gang of helper monkeys."

"You forced his hand," Hirutani's father said, his voice low but his eyes bright. "You made him hold the gun and then you forced him to—"

Jounouchi scoffed. "Yeah, I forced him. You're aware that he was a sasquatch, right? There's no way I could force him to do anything. If we're talking physical strength, then I hate to say it, but he overpowered me every time. There is no way I could force him to shoot himself or anything else."

"Then you convinced him to do it somehow. You made him, you convinced him—"

"That's even less believable than saying I forced his hand!" Jounouchi said, and he couldn't help but let another incredulous laugh into his voice. "No one could convince Hirutani to do a damn thing, and you know that just as well as I do." No one except Yuugi, anyway, except for the part where Yuugi hadn't exactly acted like Yuugi back at the warehouse—not during the time when he had convinced Hirutani to play along, anyway—but Jounouchi wanted to think about that about as much as he wanted to think about how it had felt to tongue the barrel of the gun into his cheek.

"You could," Hirutani's father said, and Jounouchi scoffed again. "He liked you, you were his favorite. He—"

"Yeah, he 'liked' me," Jounouchi said caustically. Like earlier, Hirutani's father's words made him curl his fingers into fists on the tabletop, his nails digging into his palm. "He liked me so much that every time I said or did something he disagreed with we ended up getting into a brawl, one of which resulted in him breaking my ribs—which are still healing, by the way. Oh, and let's not forget that afternoon at your fucking house where I had to get the hell out as fast as possible so he wouldn't be able to make me strip for him. Yeah, that was fun." Toolbox's eyebrows rose so high it almost looked like they would touch his hairline, and he wasted no time in typing furious notes into the laptop while Hirutani's father stared at Jounouchi with slightly bugged eyes. "But yeah, go ahead and tell more stories about how I could convince him to do anything. Sounds like a pretty nice fantasy, if we're being honest."

Toolbox sucked in a breath that made his cheeks bulge before he released it loudly. "Okay, well," he said after a moment, "why don't we talk about that?" When Jounouchi gave him a questioning look, he added, "Tell us a little more about your . . . relationship with Kimio-kun. Maybe that can help us better figure out what happened yesterday afternoon."

Jounouchi ran his tongue along his teeth, and turned his eyes to the iron loop that secured his handcuffs to the table. "There's really not a whole lot to say," he said, but then again, it wasn't as if he had much choice. It wasn't like he was going anywhere, and it didn't seem like Toolbox or Hirutani's father were willing to let him go any time soon. If nothing else, maybe this could at least convince them that whatever motive he had, there was no way he forced Hirutani to do anything.

So with another heavy sigh, he started talking.

- - -

It was five a.m. before the interrogation was finished—or five minutes past, specifically, according to Toolbox's watch.

Jounouchi was informed when the interrogation was through that it would resume in a couple hours, and it was for this reason that they weren't putting him in a holding cell (as was customary) or transferring him to the detention center downtown (which would be done once the forty-eight hour period was up, according to Toolbox). They did, at the very least, unchain him from the table so that he could use the bathroom down the hall. Hirutani's father had stormed out of the interrogation room as soon as Toolbox said the interrogation round was over, and Toolbox himself said that he had to go process the interrogation notes before they could resume questioning. For this reason, Tater Tot was put in charge of Jounouchi as he got his ten minute break from the interrogation room, and while he relished his ten minutes of reprieve in the cramped little bathroom at the back of the police station, Jounouchi could have sworn he heard Tater Tot whistling cheerfully just outside.

The bathroom he was allowed to use was smaller than the interrogation room, but at least it was warmer. There was no shower, so despite how grungy he felt the best he could do was wash his face off in the chipped sink and rinse his mouth out with handfuls of water. He was so tired his face felt rubbery, and the only thing he could think when he looked at his reflection in the streaked mirror was that between his wan complexion and the dark circles under his eyes, he looked just as bad as he felt. Whether it was from fatigue, hunger, cigarette craving, or something else his hands were shaking a little, and as he tried to steady his nerves he ran a hand through his hair, which was just barely long enough to do so again. At the least, he thought, there was no one who would bitch at him about that anymore. Who knew how often prisoners even got haircuts in prison. Maybe they didn't. Maybe eventually his hair would grow so long that even he couldn't stand it. Wouldn't that be funny?

The idea didn't sound very funny to him at the moment, but then, Jounouchi supposed that maybe he was just too tired to laugh. Too tired, and too annoyed at Tater Tot's damn whistling. How could anyone be that cheerful in a place like this?

Given that he had been seated at the interrogation table for so long, part of Jounouchi wanted to ask if he could just remain locked in the room without being handcuffed to the table when Tater Tot led him back. On the other hand, exhaustion made him feel a little dizzy on his feet, so all he really wanted was a nice bed to stretch out on (or a couch, or a park bench—he wasn't picky, really). For this reason, sitting sounded better than nothing, and so he didn't fight or even argue when Tater Tot gestured for him to resume his place at the table, nor did he resist when the handcuffs were hooked around the iron loop soldered onto it again. Sitting was better than nothing, and besides, it wasn't as if he wasn't used to sleeping sitting up. He did it often enough in class, anyway. And hey, wasn't that another little speck of silver lining? When he got sent to prison, he wouldn't have to go to school anymore. Prison had to be better than Rintama High.

It was somehow that thought, more than any other, that pulled another half-delirious laugh from his lips as he rested his forehead on his arms in an attempt to get some semblance of rest before interrogation began all over again.

- - -

At some point while waiting for the next round of questioning to start, Jounouchi fell asleep. He knew this because he was awoken the second a glass of ice cold water was dumped over his head.

"Fucking son of a—!" His swear was half-shout and half-gasp as water ran into his eyes and seeped down the back of his shirt. His first instinct to get away from the water that had splashed over him led to him once again pulling uselessly against the wrought iron that held the handcuff chain in place, and the heaving breaths he took in response to the shock of ice water being poured on him caused his ribs to smart several times over. It took his sleep-fogged brain a second to remember where he was, and to process why he had water dumped on him in the first place, but as the by-now familiar sight of the interrogation room registered in his brain and he caught sight of Hirutani's father setting the glass he had used on the table, everything clicked into place. Jounouchi took a minute to let his heart slow down, and when it did and he caught sight of what had clattered onto the floor, he glared at Hirutani's father.

"Ice cubes? Really? Did you really have to put fucking ice cubes in it?"

"I wanted to make sure it would be cold enough to wake you up. Sometimes the water here can be lukewarm," Hirutani's father said. His tone was blasé enough, but Jounouchi had spent enough time around his son to recognize the malice in his eyes.

Hirutani's father resumed his place at the table, the same folder as before in his hands, as Toolbox entered the room with a weary smile. Toolbox had the laptop tucked under one arm and a to-go cup of what smelled like coffee in his other hand. Just as Jounouchi was wondering if it would be possible to actually commit murder in order to get that coffee away from Toolbox (because by this point Jounouchi was so tired he actually felt sick, and the fact that the ice water did nothing but make the freezing temperature of the interrogation room even worse did nothing to help matters), Tater Tot slipped in the room, a tray of food in his hands. Even before Tater Tot set the tray on the table, Jounouchi could see that the food wasn't much: It was only a small bowl of white rice and a boiled egg. Regardless, when Tater Tot slid it across the table toward him, Jounouchi attacked it. He didn't care that his ferocity elicited laughs from Toolbox and Tater Tot, nor did he care that Hirutani's father scowled impatiently at him from across the table. As pitiful as the breakfast was, it was food, and since he hadn't had anything to eat since dinner the night before last (his own fault, sure, given how terrible his eating habits were nowadays, but still), he didn't particularly care what it was: He was going to devour it before they had a chance to change their minds.

Tater Tot waited in the room while Jounouchi wolfed down his breakfast, and whether it was because of the meager amount he had been given or because of the speed at which he ate, it didn't take him very long to do so. He had polished off the rice and egg before Toolbox's laptop had finished booting up, and Tater Tot smiled as cheerfully as ever as he took the tray and left the room. Jounouchi leaned over the table so he could wipe his mouth on his sleeve, and tried to ignore the way his stomach still felt emptier than was comfortable. He had eaten something, and he wasn't going to give any of them (and especially not Hirutani's father) the pleasure of hearing him ask for more just so that they could tell him no.

"Ready for another round of questions?" Toolbox asked, as if they were playing a game instead of interrogating him about a murder. He took a sip of his coffee, and Jounouchi gave him a disparaging look as he said:

"Does it matter if I am?"

Toolbox smiled as he set his coffee cup back on the table. "I suppose not. Hirutani-san, would you like to get us started?"

"Gladly." Hirutani's father pulled the same confession papers out of his folder as he had before, and Jounouchi made no move to even touch them as they were slid his way. Hirutani's father said nothing about them, either. Instead, he pulled another stapled set of papers out from his folder, and tapped them against the table a couple of times (as if to straighten the stack, despite the fact that it was stapled) before he said, "We need to talk to you about your other charges."

"Other charges?" Jounouchi raised an eyebrow. "What do I even have first charges for? I already told you that I didn't do anything."

"Son, we have a motive, means, and opportunity on you," Toolbox said, and much like Geezer had before him, he spoke slowly and patiently as if he thought Jounouchi was particularly slow child. "You might as well just drop the act and cooperate. It'll make your life a lot easier."

"I'm not going to 'cooperate' when you assholes are accusing me of something I didn't do," Jounouchi snapped.

Toolbox shook his head sadly and said, "Don't say I didn't warn you," before he took another sip of his coffee and gestured for Hirutani's father to speak.

"Over the past two hours—"

"Two hours? What time is it?" Jounouchi asked, and he ignored the dirty look Hirutani's father sent his way. Toolbox glanced at his watch.

"7:25—a.m., of course."

"Of course." Jounouchi had to resist the urge to let his forehead hit the table again. He had barely slept for two hours. Hunger and everything else aside, no wonder he felt sick.

"Like I was saying," Hirutani's father said testily, "over the past couple of hours we were reviewing currently open cases. We've got more than a few of them, especially more than a few pertaining to high school students—"

"Which is why you always had Hirutani solving them for you, right?" Jounouchi said. The look Hirutani's father gave him would have been lethal coming from his son.

"Kimio never 'solved' cases for us."

"Oh right, I forgot. He just found your suspects, found your evidence, told you where and when to go, basically handed everything over while you took all the credit—"

"We took another look at the Ushio case and thought it looked interesting," Hirutani's father said loudly, and if there was anything that could surprise Jounouchi enough to get him to shut his mouth, it was that.

"The what case?"

"I thought that name would sound familiar to you, seeing as how if anyone knows what happened to him, it's probably you," Hirutani's father said. Jounouchi furrowed his brow and didn't reply, but the erratic skip in his heart told him well enough that he probably wouldn't like what he was going to hear next. "Back in April a student at Domino High School, Ushio Noburu, was found having some sort of mental break or psychotic episode outside on the school grounds. Hallucinations, violent fits whenever officers and medical officials tried to apprehend him—he was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Domino General. He's still there."

"Yeah? So?"

"So, Ushio-kun didn't have any history of psychosis or any other sort of mental disorders. His school records look pristine. In fact, from what we gathered from school officials, not only was he a model student as far as his grades went, but he was also a model student as far as behavior went. He helped curb bullying and misconduct in the school halls. I'm sure Domino High has missed having him around."

"Yeah, he helped 'curb bullying,' all right," Jounouchi said. "Did a real great job of it when he was tossing around ninety-pound kids and threatening them with knives."

"No one could figure out what happened to him, but something had to have. Toxicology reports didn't turn up any traces of drugs in his system. He doesn't seem to be getting better. His parents are worried sick, but they want justice. And that's the thing." Hirutani's father set the papers on the table, and his elbows followed suit. He laced his fingers together as he leaned forward. "From what we know, and we know quite a bit more now, the last person to have any sort of problem with Ushio-kun—the person who had a problem with him the day before he was found having that episode out on the school grounds—was you."

Jounouchi stared at Hirutani's father for a long moment, positive that—however much he resented being treated like he was slow or hard of hearing by the various officers that had interrogated him—he just wasn't understanding what was actually being said. He was pretty sleep deprived, after all. Sleep deprivation did things to a person's brain, and it must have just slowed his down, because there was no way Hirutani's father was suggesting that he had actually done anything to Ushio. There was no way, Jounouchi was sure, that Hirutani's father could be stupid enough to suggest it.

But Hirutani's father stared blithely back at him, and when Jounouchi glanced at Toolbox, he saw that Toolbox was watching him, too. This was enough to make Jounouchi huff an incredulous laugh.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," he said.

"I know that you fought with him the day before," Hirutani's father said. "And I know that he attacked one of your friends, too, at Domino High. That would give you enough reason to want revenge. And since we know now you'd be willing to kill—"

"I didn't kill anyone," Jounouchi snarled, and though he knew it wasn't for lack of trying—because really, if he had it in him, he would have stabbed Hirutani to death back in September—his current state and the new accusations being slung his way made his patience a little too thin to care about the distinction. "And I sure as hell didn't do anything to Ushio. What do you even think I did, huh? What do you think I possibly could've done to send him to the fucking psych ward?"

"Well, that's what we were hoping you could tell us," Toolbox said, and he took another sip of his coffee. Jounouchi just stared at him, too appalled to form a coherent response. "As Hirutani-san said, this case has been open since April. We have been looking for both the culprit and the method, but until now we've turned up empty on both. Unless you can provide us with a sound alibi for the night of April 5th, you would have had opportunity, and the fact that you fought with Ushio-kun the night before means that you had motive as well. So with that in mind, all we need you to do is tell us what you did." Toolbox gave him another simpering smile. "If you tell us, it could even help the doctors help him. I know you fought with him, but enough is enough, don't you think, son? His parents really have gone through a rough time with their only son in the hospital for this long."

Jounouchi stared at him for a few seconds before he laughed again, humorlessly, and pressed his palms against his closed eyes. "I don't even know what to fucking say."

"What you did would be a good start," Hirutani's father said.

Jounouchi slammed his hands flat on the table so that he could glare heatedly at Hirutani's father, who actually jumped a little at the sound of the impact. "I didn't do anything—"

"You fought with him—"

"Yeah, I did, and he beat the ever-loving shit out of me. If I could drive a guy insane, don't you think I would've done it when he was beating the shit out of me?" Neither Hirutani's father nor Toolbox seemed to have an answer for that, and so Jounouchi added, "How do you even know about that, anyway? I didn't think anyone did besides me, Ushio, H—and two other guys."

It probably wouldn't hurt to mention that Honda and Yuugi were there, but all the same, Jounouchi figured it was better safe than sorry. There was no reason to make Hirutani's father or Toolbox think they had two other suspects, especially when there was no way either Honda or Yuugi had anything to do with whatever had happened to Ushio.

"Kimio told me," Hirutani's father said, and Jounouchi wondered why he even had to ask. Of course it was Hirutani trying to fuck him over from beyond the grave. Of course. "I was working on the case and he knew it, and he said you had fought with Ushio-kun the day before. He said he didn't think you had anything to do with it—didn't seem to think you had the ability—and given you were his best friend I didn't pursue the lead, but—"

"I wasn't his best friend," Jounouchi bit out. It wasn't the most pressing issue he had on his plate, considering all the stupid charges they were trying to slam him with, but that was at least one battle he could win.

"I can figure that one out well enough on my own, seeing as you stabbed him in the back and murdered him," Hirutani's father said.

Before Jounouchi could reply, Toolbox held up one hand again. "We should stick to the subject. Jounouchi-kun, do you want to tell us about what you did to Ushio-kun on the night of April 5th?"

"I didn't do anything to him," Jounouchi said, and Toolbox sighed.

"Then why don't you tell us where you were on the night of April 5th?"

"I don't know. I was . . ." Jounouchi pulled against the handcuff chain again as he instinctively tried to run a hand through his hair, and sighed. "I was at the school for part of it."

"Where Ushio-kun was found, as it happens," Hirutani's father said, as Toolbox took down more notes on the laptop.

"Yeah, but I didn't do anything to him, and I wasn't even where he was," Jounouchi snapped. "I was in the pool."

"The pool? At night?" Toolbox asked, and he seemed surprised enough to look up from his laptop. Jounouchi nodded, and looked down at the table. "What were you doing in the pool so late at night? Were you on the swim team?"

"I already told you that the only club I was in was the Go Home Club," Jounouchi muttered. "So no, I wasn't on the damn swim team."

"Then what—?"

"I had to get something, that's all." Silence met what he said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "I dropped something in the pool that afternoon and I had to go get it. It's no big deal, it has nothing to do with . . . this."

Though he supposed it did, if only indirectly. Bullying Yuugi had caused Ushio to target him, which in turn caused Yuugi to defend him, which led to Jounouchi realizing not only what a worthless bastard he was, but also that he could turn his life around—that maybe, if he fixed his mistakes and tried hard enough moving forward, he could be someone worthy of defending. Yuugi was a genuinely good person. He was courageous, he was kind, and he was clever and creative. He was everything Jounouchi wasn't, everything he had never been, everything he did a damn good job of showing he wasn't every time he picked a fight with a bunch of street punks, or bullied someone like Yuugi just because it was obvious that he treasured something, that he had something to hope for when Jounouchi himself never did. When he pulled the piece of the Puzzle out of the pool, despite the fact that the water had been freezing since it had been early spring, he had felt like it was a sign. The Puzzle piece wasn't lost—he could find it, he could return it. And if he could fix that mistake, who was to say he couldn't change other parts of himself, too? Who was to say that he couldn't be better? Maybe he wasn't all bad. Maybe he could be good, too, even if he would never be as good as Yuugi was. Maybe he wasn't a completely lost cause.

That was what he had thought, anyway. But even though Yuugi had, for whatever reason, seen fit to befriend someone like him (and man, apart from Anzu and Honda, did Yuugi ever have a bad taste in friends—but then again, considering that he once thought Hirutani was a decent guy, Jounouchi supposed he wasn't one to talk), it was pretty obvious that there was nothing good about Jounouchi. The fact that the Puzzle piece he had tossed in the pool was still there when he went to go get it was a fluke, a freak chance, a one in ten billion gamble that not even his piss-drunk dad would bet on. It didn't mean anything, and especially not for him, particularly since it wouldn't have been in the pool to begin with if he hadn't thrown it in there in the first place. No, it was just like he had told Yuugi a month ago, on that night in the park: There was nothing about him that was worth saving. If anything, maybe it was a good thing they were sending him to prison on a bunch of fake charges. At least this way he couldn't find some other way to accidentally put Yuugi, Honda, and Anzu on the chopping block again.

But even if it was a good thing, that didn't mean he had to like it.

"Well, being at the pool sounds like a nice story, but it still means you were at the school where the incident occurred," Hirutani's father said at length. "And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the other open cases we think you had involvement in."

"Oh really?" Jounouchi said, and he tried to sound as scathing as possible, though he wondered how many of them had anything to do with jobs he had done for Matsumoto on Hirutani's orders, or how many had to do with kids from schools like Seigo who had become addicted or accidentally overdosed on drugs he had sold them. (Not that any kids had died, as far as he knew, but if they were pointing fingers for hospitalizations, then . . .)

Hirutani's father opened the folder wide, and smoothed the crease in the middle so that it would stay open. Then, after licking one finger so that he could easily turn the papers over within, he began counting them off. "Kobayashi Akihiro, a television director from ZTV, was found wandering around the parking garage of the television station back at the end of April after having been blinded. Not totally blinded, as the doctors and Kobayashi-san himself have it; he says he sees things in censor mosaics. Still." Hirutani's father shook his head. "The security cameras in the parking garage seem to have run into some kind of glitch at around the time the incident probably occurred; there's brief footage of Kobayashi-san heading to his car, but then everything goes to static. Still, we know that he was filming a special at Domino High earlier that day, and while the station chose not to air the special due to Kobayashi-san resigning because of his impaired vision, we did watch part of what he had recorded months ago, and I reviewed the tape during the two hour break we had. They might have already edited the footage with mosaic, but the student threatening to kill the assistant director sounded an awful lot like you."

"So what? He's not dead, is he?" Jounouchi said, and he fought to keep his voice level. "And the assistant director's not the director, so . . ." Then again, though it had been months ago, he seemed to remember leveling a similar threat at the sleaze that had ordered such a brutal and ugly attack on Yuugi, too. And if he remembered correctly, said sleaze had said the camera was still filming at the time . . .

"No, but if you threaten one you could just as easily threaten the other. It's motive, anyway, if they called for your friend to be assaulted," Hirutani's father said.

"Oh, that's real nice. Throw me in prison for making threats, but do nothing to the guy who calls for high school kids to be beat-up for no reason," Jounouchi said.

"Well, Kobayashi-san has been permanently blinded, it seems. That's punishment enough, don't you think, son?" Toolbox asked.

"I think you should stop calling me 'son,'" Jounouchi said. Toolbox looked a little taken aback, but said nothing.

"Then there was the Inogashira case from back in May," Hirutani's father said, and he selected another paper from the file. "Inogashira Gorou, a third year student at Domino High, was found dead on school property from full-body third degree burns, inside and out. From the looks of things, he caught fire while standing near a large iron cooking plate. We found traces of gunpowder at the scene, but no fingerprints. Inogashira's body was burned so badly that we were only able to identify him because a couple of his teeth could still be used to compare against his dental records."

"Gross," Jounouchi said flatly.

"His body was found at the same site your class was going to use for the school festival," Hirutani's father said. "And from what we learned from interviewing the faculty, he had a quarrel with your class over that spot, it sounds like. So, you want to tell me what you had to do with this one?"

"Nothing, but you're not gonna believe that, are you?" Jounouchi asked bitterly.

Hirutani's father sat back in his chair and gave Jounouchi a withering look as he asked, "What do you think?"

"Now, we need a bit more information on these three cases—we don't have them as airtight as the case we have on you for Kimio-kun's murder—but you should be aware that's two counts of murder on your plate, son," Toolbox said, apparently not having heeded Jounouchi's suggestion from before. "Not to mention whatever it is you did to Ushio-kun and Kobayashi-san to leave them in the states they're in. You really should consider cooperating with us, and you can begin by signing that document we showed you yesterday." Toolbox nodded toward the confession on the table, though Jounouchi still made no move to sign it. "You should know that most judges are more lenient when they can see the defendant feels true remorse for what he's done. I've seen many reduced sentences that way."

"But I don't feel sorry because I haven't done anything," Jounouchi said. "You got a signature paper for that?"

"Only the one that will serve as your death certificate when you hang for this," Hirutani's father said.

That was enough to stun Jounouchi into appalled silence. He actually felt his mouth drop open a little, even though he couldn't think of how to respond to that, but before he had a chance to figure it out, Toolbox spoke up again.

"But in the meantime, why don't we go back to talking about Ushio-kun while you think about signing that document and saving yourself some trouble later on down the road? Go ahead and tell us what you did when you met with him that night at the school. What happened between you two?"

And so it continued on for hours. Although neither Hirutani's father nor Toolbox could come up with a satisfying answer for how Jounouchi drove Ushio to madness or blinded the television director, both of them insisted that he must have had a hand in it no matter how much he insisted that he had no clue what they were talking about. The worst part, Jounouchi thought, was that he didn't think it really mattered to them whether or not they figured out how he had supposedly done it; they already felt they had Hirutani's case in the bag, and they were just scapegoating him for the others to up their number of closed cases. More than likely, they probably figured the prosecution could slip it in, and the judge either wouldn't notice or wouldn't care that it didn't make sense before he or she passed judgment. It would make the police look good for finally solving a ton of cold cases, would make the prosecution look good for bringing a criminal to justice . . . no, it probably didn't matter what Jounouchi did or didn't say. It certainly didn't seem to matter what he did or didn't do.

Lunch was served at noon (much to Jounouchi's surprise), and was the same meal as breakfast: white rice, a boiled egg, and this time a glass of ice water to go with it. (Jounouchi suspected that his "alarm clock" was supposed to have been his breakfast water, but he didn't ask and no one said anything.) Questioning resumed after the small lunch break, and continued for a few hours more until an officer Jounouchi didn't recognize opened the door to the interrogation room. Jounouchi, Hirutani's father, and Toolbox all looked at the new officer, but the new officer didn't so much as glance Jounouchi's way before he signaled to Hirutani's father and Toolbox.

"Both of you, I need a word. It's about the suspect."

"I'm just 'the suspect' now, am I?" Jounouchi asked, but none of the officers paid him any mind. Instead, the most Toolbox did was shut the lid on the laptop (like Jounouchi could get to it anyway, with his wrists handcuffed to the table as they were) before he followed Hirutani's father out of the room.

As the last one to leave the room, the responsibility fell to Toolbox to shut the door, and he didn't—at least, not right away. Evidently having believed the talk would be a short one he left it ajar, and Jounouchi strained back in his chair to try and see through the little crack in the door, curious about what was being said about him. Whatever it was, he didn't have a chance to hear it beyond Hirutani's father shouting, "What do you mean, he's—?!" for at that moment that Toolbox seemed to realize that he had left the door ajar, and he quickly yanked it shut with a sharp snap.

Jounouchi drummed his fingers on the table as he waited. The confession document had been left there in front of him, though the pen was too far across the table for him to reach. He wondered what the reactions from Hirutani's father and Toolbox would be if they returned from whatever little spat they were having in the hallway to find that he had signed it. He could imagine Toolbox managing a few crocodile tears of faux-fatherly joy at the fact that he had finally "cooperated." Hirutani's father would probably smile like a smug snake in a pale imitation of the smirk his son could pull off. Jounouchi didn't want to give either of them the satisfaction of seeing that he had given in, especially since he had a feeling it wouldn't do much good anyway. Giving in hadn't made Hirutani agree to let Honda, Anzu, and Yuugi go back at the warehouse, and here it seemed he was likely screwed either way. Still, if pretending to be sorry for crimes he hadn't committed would get him a lighter sentence—if it could maybe get him some mercy—then maybe it was worth it. On the other hand, Jounouchi didn't really know what he had to live for, beyond a lifetime of miserable part-time jobs and a bunch of gambling debts he had no hope of paying off in his lifetime. As the thought came to him, he snorted. There was another sentence he was burdened with for things he hadn't done. What were the odds, really?

The door opened again as Jounouchi was debating whether or not he could twist himself enough to get his leg on the table (and then use his foot to kick the pen his way—not that he wanted to sign the damn confession, because he didn't, but he just wanted to see if he could get the pen). Thankfully, he hadn't even started to try twisting himself into a pretzel yet and so he was saved the embarrassment of being found like that, but the look Toolbox gave him was grim anyway.

"Fun chat?" Jounouchi asked. He leaned across the table to see if Hirutani's father looked as pissed as he had sounded earlier, but Hirutani's father was nowhere in sight. Before he could ask about it, Toolbox pulled a key from his waistband and unlocked the handcuffs from around Jounouchi's wrists. Although the left handcuff had been unlocked a few times in order to temporarily release Jounouchi from the table, the right one had been cuffed since he had been arrested, and Jounouchi massaged his wrist as he shot Toolbox a questioning look.

"You're free to go," Toolbox said.

The words themselves were easy enough to understand. They were small, the sentence was short, and the words made grammatical sense when put in that order. All the same, Jounouchi found himself staring at Toolbox for a second before he said, "I'm what?"

"Free to go," Toolbox repeated, and when Jounouchi continued to stare at him he said, "The prosecutor's office decided not to press charges, and if they're not pressing charges and taking the case to court, then the case is dropped and we have no reason to hold you. Or well, we could—we could continue investigating the case against you—but the chief prosecutor said there isn't a point since they won't be bringing charges against you regardless, for any of the cases. So you're free to go."

Jounouchi only had a faint idea of how the legal system worked—he knew that it was biased against the defendant in all cases, and that the prosecutors and police tag-teamed the defendants to the point where most defense attorneys were viewed as hopeless saps—and whatever knowledge he had didn't prepare him to understand the logic behind what Toolbox had just said. So he said, "Not that I'm complaining or anything, because I'm not, but . . . why?"

"They just didn't seem to think we had a real case against you," Toolbox said, and he gave a thin smile that definitely didn't reach his eyes. "So they figured it was better to let you go, rather than face a loss in court because a defense attorney would have an easy win." He stepped aside and motioned to the door. "So you're free to go, son. You can pick up whatever we confiscated from you at the front desk on your way out."

After another second or two of watching Toolbox for any signs of laughter or exclamations of 'just kidding!' to follow what he had said, Jounouchi slowly pushed himself up from the table. So many hours of sitting left him feeling stiff, but he managed to twist and crack his back enough so that walking wouldn't be too uncomfortable. Stiff muscles were the least of his worries, anyway. Being released so suddenly felt like a trap. How was he supposed to know that Toolbox wouldn't tackle him the second he left the room so they could add another charge to his file? How was he supposed to know Hirutani's father wasn't waiting right outside with a taser to use on the "escaped prisoner" the second he tried to leave?

But Toolbox made no move to stop him, and he didn't say anything else, either. And because he felt more stupid the longer he lingered there in silence with Toolbox, Jounouchi turned and walked out.

Hirutani's father wasn't waiting just outside the door, and when Jounouchi walked back down the long, bare hallway that Tweedledee and Tweedledum had railroaded him down the previous day (at least, he thought it was still just the previous day), he exited the door on the other side to find the police station just as it had been the day before. There were some officers seated at the computers on the desks, there were some milling about, and there was one behind the reception desk near the door. But Hirutani's father was nowhere in sight, and no one seemed to pay Jounouchi any mind as he headed toward the reception desk. Even the reception officer ignored him when he walked up to the counter, so focused was he in typing something into the computer.

"Uh, excuse me," Jounouchi said. The reception officer glanced at him, yet then went right back to typing. "I was brought in for questioning yesterday, but they've released me now. So . . . I need my stuff."

"Name?"

"Jounouchi Katsuya," he said. The officer made no sign that he had heard him, merely kept typing whatever report he was working on into the computer, and Jounouchi fought to keep the impatience from his voice as he said, "It was just my wallet, keys, and phone. So if I could get them back—"

The officer abruptly swiveled on his stool in order to yank open the bottom drawer on the other side of the desk. From inside the drawer he received a clear plastic container, not unlike the ones that had held various baking supplies and ingredients in the backroom of the bakery where Jounouchi had met with Kaiba. The officer dropped the container on the desk, and with the huffy air of someone who had been interrupted while doing something important to do something trivial instead, yanked the lid off before he held the container out to Jounouchi.

"There you go," the officer said, as Jounouchi reached into the container to retrieve his keys, phone, and wallet. (He realized after he had already stuffed the phone into his pocket that he probably should have left it there, and he felt a little ashamed for taking it, though he reasoned he could just as easily drop it in a trashcan somewhere on his way home.) "You're free to go."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I came to get my stuff," Jounouchi said. The reception officer had already dropped the now empty container back into the drawer and turned back to the computer, his fingers already skirting quickly along the keys, as if Jounouchi had ceased to exist the second he had his stuff back. Well, as far as Jounouchi was concerned, when it came to anyone from the Domino City Police Department, that was probably for the best.

As he turned to leave, Jounouchi caught sight of two things. One was the clock, which said that it was just after 4:30 in the afternoon. The other was Hirutani's father, who was glaring at him from across the station. He was standing by one of the desks, his arms folded and an expression of hate twisting his face, yet although he looked like he wished Jounouchi would spontaneously combust right then and there, he didn't move to do anything.

That was the main difference between Hirutani and his father, Jounouchi thought, as he turned toward the door. Hirutani wouldn't have just stood there sulking. He would have done his damnedest to stop Jounouchi from leaving, no matter what the prosecutor's office said. Hell, just the day before, he had been ready to shoot Honda if it meant keeping Jounouchi in the warehouse—and would have, probably, if Jounouchi hadn't gotten in the way and Yuugi hadn't reminded him of the rules of their game. But Hirutani's father wasn't a man of action. He never had been. Had he been, maybe he would have taken a more active role in his son's life. Maybe he wouldn't have told himself that Hirutani's behavior was "just a phase." Maybe, just maybe, his son would have turned out differently, and wouldn't be lying in a morgue somewhere right then.

Or maybe Hirutani was just damned from the start, no matter what his father did. Jounouchi guessed he didn't really know, and he had no way to find out.

Autumn brought two things with it: Chilly air that wasn't properly blocked by Jounouchi's still damp Rintama jacket, and a sun that started setting at around four in the afternoon. As Jounouchi stepped through the police station doors (and still no officers tried to stop him, even though he half expected them to), the sky was painted with broad strokes of orange and pink from a sun that was already partially hidden by the city's more prominent skyscrapers. Jounouchi shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and tried to pull it a bit tighter around himself, but he took no more than three steps toward home before a voice called out from behind him.

"It's about time they finally released you. I was starting to think you wouldn't make it out before nightfall."

Jounouchi turned, his eyes wide. "Matsumoto?"

Matsumoto, dressed in one of his typical suits and dark-colored sunglasses, was leaning back against the wall of the police station, a cigarette held between two fingers and a satisfied cat smile on his lips. He pushed off the wall when Jounouchi addressed him and sauntered over, and as he did he said, "Nice to see you out among the free, Joutou-kun."

"Why are you—how did you—" Answers to both of his questions clicked in Jounouchi's head then, and he stared at Matsumoto in confused shock as he blurted, "You?"

"Me," Matsumoto said, and he grinned ever more broadly as he came to a stop beside Jounouchi. "Me and a few associates of mine, anyway. It was a team effort."

"But how did—how the hell did you even know? They didn't give me a chance to call anyone, and—wait, did they already put this on the news?"

"Nah, nothing like that. When they confiscated your phone, they ran the contacts and recent calls. Standard procedure, they do it to check and see if they can gather anymore evidence for your case. It just so happens that one of the people you've spoken on the phone with relatively recently was me." Matsumoto's smile became something more akin to a smirk, and he reached out to give Jounouchi's shoulder a friendly pat. "As luck would have it, the officer who made the call is one who—well, let's just say I've had more than a few dealings with him. He told me all I needed to know, and given that I know a guy who knows a guy who works in the prosecutor's office, we were able to work a few more deals to make sure your case got dropped. It took a night of work, but we managed it." Matsumoto smiled around his cigarette as he took another drag, and after he exhaled a puff of smoke into the air he said, "The Mistress of Good Fortune sure has taken a shine to you, Joutou-kun. I'm afraid your little lady friend at Burger World might have some fierce competition."

Though his mind was still reeling from the idea that Matsumoto—Matsumoto, of all people, Matsumoto—had gotten him out of what seemed like a lose-lose situation, that last sentence brought much of his shock up short. "Anzu is not my 'lady friend,'" he deadpanned.

Matsumoto laughed, and clapped Jounouchi on the shoulder again before he started across the street, away from the police station. Jounouchi didn't particularly want to follow—of all the people he wanted to walk home with, Matsumoto wasn't even on his list, much less near the top—but Matsumoto was walking in the same direction Jounouchi would need to take to get home anyway, so he did.

"She could be, if you would allow yourself to live a little," Matsumoto said, as Jounouchi fell into step beside him. "Have a bit of fun, enjoy the ladies and pleasures of life. That is one of the perks of being one of us, you know. Eventually, given enough time, you'll find you have more pleasure on your hands than you know what to do with."

"I'm not—" Jounouchi began, but he cut himself off even before Matsumoto looked over. It wasn't like what he was going to say was a lie, but a little voice of common sense in the back of his mind that he so often deliberately disobeyed pointed out that it probably wasn't smart to denounce the connection that had just busted him from police custody. It didn't matter, regardless; Matsumoto seemed to know what he had been about to say.

"Not yet, but you could be. You've already done more than most kids your age. You're one of the most promising candidates I've seen in a long time, and I'm not the only one who's excited about you. To be honest, there was a bit of a struggle last night over who would get to keep you when all was said and done."

It was as if Matsumoto's words slammed the emergency brake in Jounouchi's brain. Not only did he stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk, agitating the throngs of people around him who were on their way home from work and hadn't bothered to take public transport or their own cars, but for a second it was as if the din of the city had been put on mute. All he could hear—all he could think about—was what Matsumoto had just said, as if those words were running on repeat through his head, and the more they had a chance to sink in the quicker his heart drummed in his chest, a hot flush breaking out over his skin despite the chill in the autumnal air. Every instinct in his body was screaming at him to run, but when Matsumoto turned to look back at him, Jounouchi curled his fingers into fists and stood his ground instead.

"No one gets to keep me now that all this bullshit is over," he snapped. "I'm done, okay? I'm fucking done. Hirutani is dead, and I'm done, so you all can take your money and your connections and whatever else and shove it, because I'm out. For good."

Matsumoto stared at him, and Jounouchi shifted his stance just enough so that he could be ready in case Matsumoto tried to turn it into a fight. He didn't feel like fighting—didn't feel like doing much of anything beyond taking a hot shower and then collapsing into a bed for the next two days—but he wasn't about to get out from under one bastard's thumb just to be leashed by another if he could help it. But while every muscle in Jounouchi's body was tensed for a fight, Matsumoto didn't seem inclined to take it that far. Instead, after only a moment of staring at Jounouchi, Matsumoto burst out laughing.

"Relax, Joutou-kun. It's a figure of speech!" He took one last drag on his cigarette before he dropped it to the sidewalk and ground it beneath his shoe. A few people shot him dirty looks, but—perhaps because of the way he was dressed—no one bothered to say anything. "I meant that if you wanted to keep working for us there was discussion on who you would be working for. I, of course, felt that I should get to call dibs, given that I have known you the longest and you've already done work for me. But one associate of mine, Watanabe, was insistent that you should work for him. He seemed to think he had dibs given that whole gambling debt situation." Matsumoto's eyes were shielded by his sunglasses, but his tone suggested he had rolled his eyes. "The way he was talking, it's like your name was the one on the books."

Some of the tension left Jounouchi's shoulders as Matsumoto laughed and waved his concerns aside, but at the mention of a gambling debt, any calm that had managed to work its way back to his heart and through his limbs dissipated again. "Gambling debt situation?" he asked sharply. "What do you mean by that?"

"What do you think I mean?" Matsumoto said flippantly. He turned and started walking again, the crowd doing their best to give him a wide berth as he made his way down the center of the sidewalk, and Jounouchi followed. "Your old man is pretty far in debt, isn't he? Something like 800,000 yen deep?"

The last time Jounouchi had checked the notices, the exact number was 827,300 yen, but Matsumoto was close enough. "How do you know about that? What's that got to do with—"

"Come on, Joutou-kun. It's obvious, isn't it?" Matsumoto said as they came to a pedestrian crosswalk. The signal light across the street was red, and so they waited on the curb with the rest of the crowd as cars zipped through the intersection while they had the right of way. "Gambling—for money, anyway—is illegal in Japan. So if someone happens to own an underground casino or gambling operation, they're going to be—"

"Yakuza," Jounouchi said, and a bit of his nausea from earlier returned as Matsumoto flashed him a grin.

"Exactly. I knew you were a smart kid."

The crosswalk light changed to green, and they started across with the rest of the pedestrian swarm.

"But that doesn't explain how you know about it," Jounouchi said. "My old man can't be the only one in debt because of gambling. So how the hell do you know about it? Were you one of the guys my dad gambled with?"

"Nah. Gambling isn't exactly my scene—it's not what I handle. Watanabe's the one who handles gambling around here—he's the one more or less in control of your old man's debts." As they reached the sidewalk on the other side, Matsumoto pulled his pack of cigarettes from his pocket and tapped it against his opposite palm. "It came up when we were talking last night. It's why he thinks he should have dibs on you—because, according to him, you might be interested in making that whole debt thing . . ." Matsumoto pulled a cigarette free from the pack and gestured vaguely in the air with it before he said, "Disappear."

Whoever Watanabe was, he wasn't wrong. The idea of eradicating his father's gambling debt—the idea of finally not having to worry about those notices that showed up every month, with the thinly veiled threats and the interest charges that promised the debt would never, ever go away no matter how many years he spent making minimum payments—was one that occupied many of Jounouchi's daydreams. But although he was nowhere near a genius, Jounouchi wasn't completely stupid. He knew that he couldn't make the debt "go away" by doing something as simple as mugging a man for an external hard drive, or selling three Duel Monsters cards to a filthy rich egomaniac for 1.3 billion yen. Whatever job he sold himself to the yakuza for would require something worthy of the 830,000 yen reward, and whatever it was—as tempting as the idea of that reward was—Jounouchi was pretty sure he wanted nothing to do with it.

Matsumoto seemed to read hesitation or deliberation into Jounouchi's silence, for after a minute he added, "Of course, if you were interested in that, you would be working for Watanabe, not me. I can't say what he'd have you do. His division is different from mine—different sorts of jobs entirely, if I had to say. But I can put in a good word for you, see if can get an idea of what you'd be going into, if you were interested."

"I'm not," Jounouchi said, and he jammed his fists deeper into his jacket pockets. "I already told you I'm out, and I meant it. It was Hirutani that wanted all this yakuza bullshit, not me."

Jounouchi's mouth had run away with him again, as his common sense reminded him that it was probably not wise to call it "yakuza bullshit" when that very same "yakuza bullshit" was the reason why he wasn't still in that interrogation room. But once again, Matsumoto didn't seem to take offense. He heaved a disappointed sigh.

"If that's what you really want, but it's a waste of great talent if you ask me," he said. "And a good opportunity, though I would be the last person to want to shove you off onto Watanabe."

How good the opportunity was depended on who was asked, Jounouchi supposed, but then, the fact that he and Matsumoto had different opinions of "great" had already been established a month ago back at Tayzr's. Either way, he didn't want to think about his father's debt or what he could do to get rid of it anymore, and so as they continued down the street, he opted to change the subject to the only other thing that was on his mind.

"So how did you do it, anyway? Bribery? Blackmail?"

Matsumoto glanced over at him, and it only took a second for him to realize what Jounouchi was talking about. "Oh—bribery, mostly. You'd be amazed at what people are willing to do when they see you're ready to line their pockets. Actually, I used some of what we got from that transaction you handled for us a week ago. Thanks again for handling that, by the way. I know Kaiba-kun isn't exactly the easiest person to deal with."

"Understatement," Jounouchi muttered, and Matsumoto snorted a laugh.

It didn't surprise him that bribery was Matsumoto's tool of choice. As ready as he had been to use Jounouchi as his attack dog when it came to getting hard drives and other items from potentially skeevy businessmen, rumors had circulated about the yakuza paying off the cops for years. Jounouchi had never known how true those rumors were—there were vehement people on both sides of the argument—but out of all the ways he thought he could have found out, getting released from police custody via a payoff was not one he would have bet on.

But as much as his father was in debt to the yakuza already, and as much as he barely had 10,000 yen to his name, Jounouchi couldn't stand to think he owed someone, much less someone like Matsumoto. So although he didn't really want to know what the answer was, he asked, "So, how much do I owe you? You want the full amount back, or . . . ?"

"If I said yes, would you be able to pay me?" Matsumoto asked, and the look on Jounouchi's face must have been answer enough, for he said, "I didn't think so. No, consider this one to be on the house. You did handle Kaiba-kun for us, and as I said, you're a promising young talent. None of us wanted to see someone as bright as you waste away behind bars or worse."

"Even if I had killed Hirutani?" Jounouchi asked. Matsumoto looked at him askance. "You don't know that I didn't."

"Yes I do," Matsumoto said. Now that they had started down a less populous street, Matsumoto finally lit the cigarette he had pulled out of his pack earlier. The smell of the smoke was sharp and inviting—comforting, somehow, even though it wasn't Jounouchi's usual brand—but even that wasn't enough to distract him from the topic at hand.

"How?" he demanded. "You weren't there when he died. You don't know what happened." At the least, Jounouchi used what little hope he had left to believe that Matsumoto didn't know the truth of what happened. It was all well and good for him to believe that Jounouchi hadn't done it, but not if it got Yuugi thrown under the bus instead.

"When you got that hard drive for me, I asked you if that bastard Hamanaka cried. You said no, because your only job was to get the hard drive from him. You hit him hard enough to knock him out in the first round, so he didn't have time to cry, or fight back, or do anything else that would make you have to hurt him worse."

"So?"

"So if you were the type to kill, Joutou-kun—if you were the type to kill for reasons other than accidental self-defense, you wouldn't have approached the situation like that. Sure, plenty of men get jobs done quickly. But in my experience, men who kill for selfish gain are ones who take pleasure in lording what power they have over others. They gloat. They brag. You didn't do either of those things. You knocked him out, took the hard drive, and left." Matsumoto took a hit from his cigarette and exhaled the smoke into the air. "Whatever your relationship was with Hirutani-kun, nothing in your actions led me to believe you would have spontaneously murdered him in cold blood."

Jounouchi didn't know what to say to that. He didn't know how Matsumoto had gleaned all of that meaning from the simple answer he had given back at Tayzr's, nor could he say whether Matsumoto's assessment was correct or not. As much as the rapid succession of left-field surprises had jolted his brain into some semblance of alertness, he still felt too exhausted to puzzle it out.

Either way, Matsumoto took advantage of Jounouchi's silence to speak again. "And I suppose it's only fair to say I have one other reason to believe you didn't do it, too. I have security cameras installed in my lounge—hidden ones. I saw the fight you had with him that night, how you took his knife and failed to follow through." He looked over with another crooked smile, and Jounouchi scowled at him. "I figure that if you couldn't do it back then, in the middle of an actual fight, you couldn't do it in a situation where there were no signs of a struggle. It just doesn't seem like you."

"Thanks," Jounouchi said, and he didn't mean for his tone to sound so sarcastic, but Matsumoto took it in stride anyway.

"Thanks for ashing your cigarette on my floor. I'm sure the cleaning staff was happy to see that the next day."

"No problem," Jounouchi said, though he did feel bad for whatever staff member had been assigned to clean the floor Matsumoto obviously couldn't be bothered to clean himself. Matsumoto laughed a little beneath his breath again.

By that point, they had reached the corner of the street that led down to Tayzr's. Hanging a left would lead them to the bar, whereas going straight would eventually lead them to Jounouchi's neighborhood. Matsumoto stopped on the corner, and Jounouchi stopped with him, though he knew what Matsumoto was going to offer before the man opened his mouth, and knew exactly what his answer was going to be before the question was asked.

"Want to stop by my bar and have a drink to celebrate your newfound freedom? On the house, of course."

"No," Jounouchi said, and—mindful of the manners he hadn't shown the last time this offer was given to him—added, "Thanks."

"Suit yourself. I only thought I'd offer." Matsumoto tapped his cigarette so that the ashes fell to the ground, and even accounting for his sunglasses and the dim light of the setting sun, the look Matsumoto gave Jounouchi seemed speculative. "That's all any of this is, you know that, don't you? An offer. An opportunity. You don't have to do anything, and it's worth keeping in mind that anything after this isn't going to come free, but you're a sharp kid with a lot of promise, and we have a lot we could offer you, if you decide you're interested."

Jounouchi couldn't say why it hit him so powerfully in that moment, nor could he honestly say that he hadn't always known the truth, on some level, even if he hadn't openly acknowledged it. But as Matsumoto took another drag on his cigarette, and as the orange glow of the evening sun hit his sunglasses, Jounouchi said, "You aren't just a yakuza affiliate, are you?"

Matsumoto smirked around his cigarette, and even as he blew the smoke into the sky, his smirk didn't fade.

"Guys like me," he said, "are very good at reaching out to kids like you."

It wasn't the most direct answer Jounouchi had ever heard, but that didn't matter much. It was as direct as he needed it to be.

"Well, I'm not interested. This is the last time we're gonna see each other, if I have my way," Jounouchi said. "No offense."

Matsumoto shrugged. "None taken. Like I said, we have a lot of opportunities for you if you ever change your mind—if you, say, decide you do want to make your old man's gambling debts go away, or if there just so happens to be an expensive medical procedure you need money for because you can't afford it on your own—but that's up to you. We'll wait for you to come to us." Whether it was because of the look on Jounouchi's face or something else, Matsumoto smiled. "Until then, Jounouchi Katsuya."

Matsumoto clapped his hand lightly against the back of Jounouchi's head, more to muss his hair than anything else, as he turned and started down toward Tayzr's. Jounouchi opened his mouth to say something—anything—but his voice died stillborn in his throat, and he couldn't seem to get words to form themselves in coherent sentences in his brain anyway.

It was a coincidence. It had to be a coincidence. Matsumoto was just listing off things people would need money for, that was all. Jounouchi was dirt poor, and his dad had them so far in debt there was no way Jounouchi was going to see them out of it in this lifetime. If there was some kind of special surgery he needed, there was no way he could afford it. That had to be all Matsumoto meant. That had to have been what he was thinking of.

But as Jounouchi turned and started toward his apartment—as he started dragging himself home, his feet taking him to his favorite back alleys and side streets on autopilot—he couldn't help but feel that such reassurances were nothing but empty words. There was no way Matsumoto could know, but to say something that specific—to hint at that, when it was something that Jounouchi himself had been thinking about for a while—

There was no way of knowing when it would come up. Jounouchi couldn't say that he remembered Shizuka's ophthalmologist appointments very clearly, given that he had last attended them back in grade school, but from what he did remember no doctor had ever been able to give an exact age at which she would go blind. All they knew is that she would, unless she had surgery to correct whatever was wrong with her eyes. Up until his mom had walked out and taken Shizuka with her, that was always one of the most frequent topics of dissent between his parents. His dad, bastard that he was, thought it was just cause for putting Shizuka up for adoption, because no matter when she went blind, they wouldn't be able to afford the surgery. His mom always said that putting Shizuka up for adoption wasn't an option, because she was their child and their responsibility, and that maybe if he spent his money on something other than booze and gambling they could save up money for Shizuka's eventual operation. Well, expecting Jounouchi's father to spend his money on anything other than booze and gambling was a pipe dream, and eventually the divorce happened and Jounouchi's mother walked out anyway. Jounouchi had been ten at the time, and he hadn't heard from his mother since then. He had tried sending letters to Shizuka at first—tried to remember his grandmother's address, or at least look it up—but he never heard a response back, and realized that since Shizuka's eyesight was going bad, she wouldn't be able to read anything he wrote anyway. With everything he had been up to in middle school, he had figured that she was probably better off without hearing from him regardless, and if she hadn't been better off without him in her life back then, well, she definitely was now.

But she still needed surgery, probably. Jounouchi didn't know when. Maybe she already had it, if his mom had managed to make more money without his dad bringing her down. Maybe the time had already passed, and she didn't have it, and she was blind already. Or maybe she wouldn't need it for more years to come. That was the preferable option, the one that loosened the knot in his chest whenever he allowed himself to dwell on thoughts of Shizuka. The idea that Shizuka still had years and years of eyesight left, and that in those years and years, either he or his mom would be able to scrounge up the money for her operation, definitely made her deteriorating eyesight seem like a much more manageable problem. Well, that, or the idea that Shizuka had already had her eye operation, but somehow Jounouchi had a feeling that wasn't the case.

The reality was, Jounouchi had no way of knowing what Shizuka's life was like—no way of knowing how her eyes were doing, or how soon she would need her operation. He didn't even know if she would be able to tell him when she did. What he did know was that if he got a call next month saying that it was time for her operation, that she either had to have it or she would go blind and she couldn't afford it, he wouldn't be able to help her. He was strapped for cash and could barely support himself as it was; there was no way he would be able to afford her surgery, even if he got two more part-time jobs on top of his paper route. And with that being the case, if the time came . . . if she needed her surgery, and he couldn't help her any other way . . .

The last thing he wanted was to be a yakuza lapdog. The idea of selling himself to them made bile burn in his throat. But if it was to help Shizuka—if it was the only way to help Shizuka, and if that really was what Matsumoto had been getting at, if he knew something Jounouchi didn't—then . . . did it really matter what happened to him?

Jounouchi's absorption in those thoughts, coupled with the fact that he had walked the same path home more times than he could count, led to him paying so little attention as he made his way home that he didn't really process the trek at all. He knew he had walked it—it was obvious enough that he did, once he made it home—but as he was jerked from his thoughts by the seemingly sudden appearance of his apartment building looming before him, he found that he couldn't remember the walk home, despite the fact that he had just done it. It was just another sign that he needed to sleep for a couple of days, he thought. He shouldn't be startled by his own apartment building, especially when it was in the same place it had always been, ever since he was a kid. That was just stupid. But as he stifled a yawn and started toward the staircase, he realized—belatedly, and with no ease of comprehension at what he was seeing—that it wasn't really his apartment building or the speed of his trip that had startled him, but was instead the person sitting cross-legged at the base of the building wall.

It was Yuugi.

Yuugi was seated near the entrance to the staircase, right next to the bushes, playing with something that looked kind of like a Rubik's Cube except that every piece was silver, and at the moment it looked more like a bunch of misshapen, uneven pieces glued together than a cube. Jounouchi watched Yuugi work the toy for a moment—watched as he pushed this or that piece in, and twisted another around to slide it into place on the other side—before he finally started forward again. He didn't have a concrete idea of what he was going to say, nor did he know why Yuugi was even there, of all places, when it would have made more sense for him to be just about anywhere else—but as he neared, Yuugi looked up, and their eyes met.

"What are you doing here?" Jounouchi blurted, as Yuugi opened his mouth to say something. Yuugi closed his mouth and watched Jounouchi for a second, but then he smiled faintly as he set the toy he had been fiddling with aside.

"Waiting for you," he said. "If you don't mind, I was hoping we could talk."

 

Chapter Text

The first thought that crossed Yuugi's mind when he laid eyes on Jounouchi was that Honda's sister and Anzu were right: Jounouchi didn't look well, and that was putting it gently.

That was the first thought after the startled realization that it was Jounouchi he was looking at, anyway—and it took a second for Yuugi to realize this, a second for his brain to process the fact that the haggard person who stood before him was in fact the same person that used to greet him with a smile brighter than the sun each morning before the school day started. Yuugi hadn't had a chance to get a good look at Jounouchi at the warehouse the day before, both because of how quickly everything had happened, and because the gang member that had held him hostage used a chokehold so tight that Yuugi spent half his time trying to loosen the arm around his neck in a vain attempt to breathe. But now there were no gang members to hold them hostage or threaten their lives, Yuugi wasn't shaking off the lingering disorientation that always came from his blackouts, and with Jounouchi just standing there instead of trying to make a quick escape, Yuugi could see just how much of a toll the last month had taken on his best friend.

His hair was a little longer than it had been in the park a month ago, and Yuugi supposed that was a plus, even though it still had a ways to go before it reached its previous length and volume. But even as it graced the tops of his ears and his bangs brushed his eyebrows, his hair looked limp and lacked any luster, a far cry from the fluffy mane he used to sport. His eyes weren't much better, either; even though they had widened in surprise upon first seeing Yuugi, there was no spark in them, none of the light or life that Yuugi remembered seeing, and as a result the brown color that had always looked so bright before looked dull by comparison. This wasn't helped by the dark circles under his eyes, made stark by his waxen complexion. If anything, the bags under his eyes—when combined with his pallor, his unkempt hair, and disheveled Rintama high uniform—just made him look all the more exhausted.

But gawking at Jounouchi wouldn't do either of them any good, and that wasn't the reason why Yuugi had waited in front of his apartment building all day, besides. He opened his mouth to say something—a greeting, he figured, would be a good place to start—but he barely had time for his lips to form the first word before Jounouchi cut him off.

"What are you doing here?"

Yuugi didn't know what he had expected Jounouchi to say to him, but as he felt himself caught off guard for the second time in under a minute, he knew that whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't that. But as quickly as his surprise came, it faded, and was replaced by a twinge of exasperation at himself. Why hadn't he expected that? After all, as far as Jounouchi knew, Yuugi had no idea where he lived—and on top of that, even if Yuugi did know where he lived, what reason would he have to sit outside of the apartment building? It wasn't something he had ever done before, nor was it something he had told Jounouchi he had any intention of doing. It was no wonder that Jounouchi still looked a little bewildered as he stared at Yuugi, even though the outright shock had faded from his expression in favor of subdued disbelief. Yuugi smiled faintly, hoping that he could put Jounouchi at ease at least a little, and set the Rubik's Mirror Blocks Cube he had been keeping occupied with aside.

"Waiting for you," he said. "If you don't mind, I was hoping we could talk."

Jounouchi stared at him for a long moment, the only sound between them coming from cars a few streets away. All of the disbelief and shock had faded from his expression now, completely overtaken by the fatigue that had worn down the rest of his features, and this, Yuugi was sure, was the reason behind the blank stare and silence he was receiving in response to his invitation to talk. It wasn't because Jounouchi was going—or even wanted—to say no. It wasn't because he was upset to see Yuugi. No, he was just tired. That was all.

". . . Talk," Jounouchi said finally, and he said it slowly, like he was still unsure that he had heard Yuugi correctly. Yuugi nodded, and that seemed to be enough to kick through the cobwebs of exhaustion still clouding Jounouchi's expression and mind. He cleared his throat and ran a hand up through his hair, but the gesture was stilting and awkward; his hair still wasn't quite long enough for him to thread it through his fingers like he used to, and his arm jerked partway through, as if he was going to stop himself yet thought better of it at the last second and followed through anyway. Yuugi thought he remembered something similar happening at the warehouse the day before, except Jounouchi had stopped himself that time. Yuugi could only guess at why. "About, uh—what do—how long have you been waiting here? How'd you know I was out?"

"I didn't," Yuugi said, and when Jounouchi didn't respond, clarified, "I figured that whether you were home or out, you'd probably have to leave—or come home, I guess—eventually. Either way you'd pass by here, and I figured I'd catch you when you did."

"So how long have you been waiting?" Jounouchi asked, and Yuugi felt embarrassed heat creep along the back of his neck. Once again, it was a reasonable enough question—one that he should have expected, one that he should have thought about while he was whiling away the hours trying to solve the Mirror Blocks Cube—but he still found himself wishing for a sudden, loud, interrupting distraction to save him the trouble of having to answer it.

"All day, mostly, except for when I took a break to go get food or something." Jounouchi continued to stare at Yuugi as though he had suddenly pulled a living, breathing alien out of his chest, and in an attempt to try and lessen the awkward tension between them, Yuugi forced a laugh. "But you know, it's not like I really had anything going on today anyway, and I really do want to talk to you, especially since you never came by Honda-kun's sister's place last night—"

"Right. Right." Jounouchi pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes before he scrubbed both hands down his face. This only succeeded in making him look even wearier than before. "I said I'd do that, didn't I. Honda pissed, then?"

"Yup," Yuugi said. Jounouchi took a deep breath and released it, his face contorting into a little wince as he did, and turned his eyes to the sky. After few seconds of silence Yuugi tentatively asked, "Where . . . were you, anyway? If you don't mind me asking."

"Police custody."

Jounouchi's answer was immediate, and yet somehow still nonchalant, as if he was telling Yuugi what his favorite ice cream flavor was instead of saying that he had been in police detention the previous night. The speed and casual grace of his answer was enough to tell Yuugi that he hadn't made it up, and the sudden jolt of fear that struck his heart was enough to make Yuugi's voice spike up in pitch when he responded.

"What? For what?"

"Murder. Questioning about a murder, anyway. They thought I killed Hirutani."

Jounouchi sounded completely unperturbed, and looked it, too, as he looked over at the stairs of his apartment building, his hands in the pockets of his Rintama jacket. But even if he wasn't bothered by the fact that the police had taken him into custody on suspicion of murder, Yuugi was. Even if Yuugi couldn't remember precisely what had gone down at the warehouse—even if he just had Anzu's and Honda's words to take for a good chunk of it, with the rest lost to a blackout that he was scared to talk to any of them about—he knew enough to know that Jounouchi hadn't killed anyone. He scrambled to his feet before he had a chance to think better of it, and curled his trembling fingers into fists as Jounouchi looked over and blinked curiously at him.

"They can't—they can't do that," he said. "You didn't do anything wrong! I was there, I'll go tell them—"

"You won't tell them anything. As far as they know, you had nothing to do with it, and we're gonna keep it that way," Jounouchi said sharply. He suddenly looked more alert than he had since he had arrived, but unless Yuugi was imagining it, he also looked a little afraid. "Everything's fine now, okay? They wouldn't have let me go if they still thought I did it. I'm fine, so you just stick to your alibi and pretend that whole thing never happened, all right?" Jounouchi paused, and then—in a voice that suggested he was a little reluctant to learn the answer—asked, "You . . . did get an alibi, right? Just in case? You and Honda and Anzu?"

"Yeah. We went to Honda-kun's sister's place, like I said." As the tension melted from Jounouchi's shoulders, Yuugi added, "She, ah, wasn't too happy about the idea of lying to the police if they asked her where we were, especially when Honda-kun wouldn't tell her why, but—"

"But she'll cover for you anyway, because that's just how she is," Jounouchi finished, and Yuugi nodded. "Good ol' sista." He yawned then, though he covered it with the back of one hand, and blinked blearily a few times as if to clear his vision as he looked back toward the stairs of his apartment building.

He really did look exhausted—beyond exhausted, even, completely worn down, and it made sense if he had spent the night in police questioning. Part of Yuugi wanted to just pick up the conversation after school the next day, and that part of Yuugi insisted that he should, because Jounouchi was clearly in need of a good few hours of sleep at the bare minimum. But another part of Yuugi, a more insistent part, knew that he had waited there for a reason. He still remembered with far more clarity than he wanted to how it had looked when Hirutani had shoved that gun into Jounouchi's mouth—and how willing, even eager Jounouchi had sounded when he had baited Hirutani into it. Yuugi wasn't sure if he had ever felt that scared before in his life, even taking into account all of the bullies he had faced over the years and combining them into one. Sleep was important, and Jounouchi did need his rest—but this was important, too.

"But anyway, I was hoping we could talk today since you didn't—couldn't—come by last night," Yuugi said, and Jounouchi looked back at him, blinking again as if to pull him into focus. "Maybe we could go somewhere more private—?"

"Oh. Uh, yeah. Sure." Jounouchi's response was less than enthusiastic, and he looked away as he said it, raking a hand through (or over, Yuugi supposed) his hair again. But even though the prospect clearly didn't excite him, he had still agreed to it anyway. Yuugi felt as though a weight had been lifted off his chest, like it was suddenly that much easier to breathe, and he realized then just how much worry he really had carried that Jounouchi would push him away again, even as he had tried to tell himself he had no reason to be afraid. "But can you, uh—"

"What?"

"Can you wait for maybe twenty minutes?" Jounouchi made a face that looked caught somewhere between embarrassed and uncomfortable as he turned back to Yuugi. "I'm kinda grody from being in questioning all night, so I just wanna shower real quick. If you've got the time, anyway."

"Yeah, that's fine," Yuugi said, and he smiled to show he meant it. The corners of Jounouchi's lips twitched a little, but it was so faint Yuugi wasn't sure that was what he really saw, and in any case, Jounouchi didn't smile back. "I'll just wait here. After all this time I'm pretty good at it, right?"

"Yeah. Sure," Jounouchi said absently. "I'll be right back."

Jounouchi turned and started toward the stairs that led up to his apartment, and—as he said he would, and because it wasn't like he had much else to do—Yuugi sat back down at the base of the wall and picked up the Mirror Blocks Cube again.

The easy part, or what Yuugi assumed would be the easy part, anyway, was out of the way. Jounouchi had agreed to talk. And even if he, for whatever reason, decided not to come back—if twenty minutes passed and there was no sign of him—Yuugi at least knew that he was home now, and therefore knew that he could risk knocking on the door without Jounouchi's father being the only one to answer it. Not that he would, because Yuugi was pretty sure that Jounouchi would keep to his word, but he could, if it came to it. If Jounouchi, say, fell asleep in the shower, Yuugi could go get him.

But that still left their actual talk. Yuugi twisted one of the pieces of the Mirror Blocks Cube around with a bit more force than needed to, and straightened it when he accidentally shifted it out of place. There was a lot they needed to talk about, so much that—now that the opportunity had presented itself—Yuugi didn't really know where to begin. There was all that had happened in the warehouse, with Hirutani and Jounouchi's attempted sacrifice and the fact that Yuugi, Anzu, and Honda were brought there in the first place, but there was everything that happened before that, too. There was Jounouchi's transfer to Rintama, and whether or not he would transfer back; there was whatever had happened that had led to his broken ribs and his trip to Honda's sister's; there was the fact that he had been off the grid for at least two months before the night in the park, but how he had seemed so closed off that night even as he saved Yuugi from that mugger . . .

There was a lot, basically, but in the end Yuugi supposed it all boiled down to the same thing. He just wanted to make sure Jounouchi would be okay. So long as Jounouchi was okay, everything else could wait.

True to his word, Jounouchi was only gone for about twenty minutes. Yuugi heard him descending the stairs before he saw him, and so by the time Jounouchi rounded the corner to come out to the street again, Yuugi had already stood up and stowed the Mirror Blocks Cube in his jacket pocket. But although he had known that Jounouchi was coming, when Yuugi turned and laid eyes on him, he still felt his heart jump in his chest.

Before, Jounouchi had looked terrible. He still didn't look well, but now that he had cleaned up, he did look a little better—and, given the state he was in, looking a little better made a big difference. His hair looked lighter and fluffier after being washed, and his eyes looked a little brighter, a little more alert. Instead of wearing the ruffled school uniform he had been wearing before, he was now dressed in jeans with large holes in both knees, a denim jacket, and a grey t-shirt that had the Siam Shade logo splashed in black across the front. Yuugi felt a little thrill as he realized that it was the first time he had seen Jounouchi wearing something other than his Rintama uniform since June.

"Ready?" Jounouchi asked. Yuugi nodded, even as his eyes fell to the dark grey travel mug Jounouchi held in one hand. Noticing his gaze, Jounouchi gestured a little with the cup and said, "Coffee," by way of explanation. That, Yuugi figured, was probably the reason why Jounouchi looked a little more awake, even if he did still look more exhausted than not.

"I figured we could go someplace more private," Yuugi said, and he put his hands in the pockets of his own jacket to avoid fidgeting too much. For Jounouchi's sake more than anything, Yuugi didn't want to look nervous. "It doesn't have to be completely private, but I figured it might be better to go somewhere off the street. Maybe—"

"I know a place," Jounouchi said, and he started past Yuugi to head down the street. Yuugi hastened to fall into pace beside him. "Come on. It's not far."

"Okay, sounds good," Yuugi said. Jounouchi showed no reaction that he had heard him; he simply took a drink of his coffee and kept walking.

They walked together in silence, and in many ways, it reminded Yuugi of that night in the park a month ago. Jounouchi had been quiet then as well, aside from the times Yuugi had tried to prod him into conversation. Then, as now, he hadn't offered up anything of his own, and Yuugi kept noticing little details the longer he observed him. Back then he had noticed Jounouchi's short hair, and now he noticed that Jounouchi seemed to keep his eyes on the ground as he walked, rather than looking straight ahead. But the main difference, Yuugi thought, was that a month ago Jounouchi's silence had seemed purposeful; back then it had been as though a wall had been constructed between them, or perhaps a door, one that Jounouchi had thrown his weight against and was refusing to open even if he would sometimes speak through the wood. But the quiet between them now felt more tired than stolid, like Jounouchi had been drained of whatever he had used to keep that door between them shut tight, and just didn't have the strength to make his voice heard through it anymore. Yuugi wasn't entirely sure which brand of silence was worse.

Whatever the case, Jounouchi was being truthful yet again when he said their destination wasn't far. He led Yuugi around the block and down a side street to a little playground that was surrounded on three sides by a low brick wall topped with cinderblocks. The playground itself didn't seem to be much; it consisted of a swingset that had two rubber swings suspended by rusted metal chains, a plastic jungle gym with a dirty slide and a fireman's pole, and a roundabout constructed entirely of unpainted metal that, once again, had red spots of rust littering the hand grips. A deep bed of gravel surrounded the playground equipment on all sides, no doubt to provide at least some cushion to the kids who would go flying off the swings, miss the fireman's pole as they tried to slide down it, or get flung off the roundabout. But whether it was because any children in the neighborhood had already gotten bored of the little playground equipment they had, or because their parents had determined that the playground was too dangerous for their kids to play on, or because of the evening (and therefore supper-time) hour, the playground was completely abandoned save for the two of them. Jounouchi walked over to one of the low walls and hopped up to sit on it, and Yuugi—figuring the wall was as good a place to talk as any—walked over and jumped up to join him.

For a moment they sat in silence, with the only sound coming from the faint squeak of the swingset chains as the wind lightly jostled them. Yuugi searched for a place to start—for something to say to prompt Jounouchi into conversation, even though he had so much he wanted to talk about he could hardly figure out what a good leading point was—but before he had a chance to say anything, Jounouchi spoke up first: "I'm sorry."

"Huh?" Yuugi looked over at Jounouchi, but Jounouchi wasn't looking at him. Instead, his eyes were focused on the lid of his travel mug as he gently ran his thumb along the rim. "For what?"

"For what?" Jounouchi repeated, and he huffed a small, incredulous laugh. "For everything. Where to start? I've been a complete asshole to you since June. Especially in June. Everything I said back then, I—"

"It's okay," Yuugi said, and this time Jounouchi did look at him, but only for a second before he shook his head and looked away again. "You had—"

"No it isn't. Nothing I've said or done has been 'okay,'" Jounouchi said, and he squeezed the travel mug a little more tightly. "I was a complete bastard to you, Yuugi. I shoved you, and I said—well, you were there. You know. And I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Yuugi said again, but as Jounouchi opened his mouth to retort he added quickly, "I know you didn't mean it. You just—you had to, right? Because of Hirutani."

"I didn't have to," Jounouchi said quietly. "I could've pretended I didn't know who you were. Could've said I'd never seen you before in my life. Could've left before anything else happened—anything worse. Could've let . . . hell, I don't know." Jounouchi ran his hand through his hair again and tried to grip it, but it didn't seem to be long enough for that yet. He let his hand fall back down on his lap. "I thought I was making the right choice, but all it did was hurt you, and for what? He ended up getting a hold of you anyway because I fucked up again two months later. Go me."

"You mean when you saved me in the park that night? That's what Hirutani was upset about, right?" Yuugi asked, and Jounouchi nodded, but then made a face as if in disagreement.

"Yeah, kind of. He was pissed because I 'met' with you in the park, but also pissed because I was late, but also pissed that the reason I was late was because I was with you in the park, and finally even more pissed because I lied about it and couldn't cover my tracks right." Jounouchi snorted. "Only I would be dumb enough to show up with blood on my hands and not expect him to ask questions. I'm such a fucking idiot."

"You're not," Yuugi said, but Jounouchi gave no reply. "Besides, it's my fault he found out about that anyway. He didn't know that we talked in the park until I accidentally told him. I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. You didn't know it was supposed to be a secret. And I'm the one that decided to get involved in the first place. I knew how dangerous it was for you, and yet I—"

"But if you hadn't, that mugger was going to hurt me, right?" Yuugi interrupted, and Jounouchi fell quiet again, his only response a small nod. "So I'm glad you did. Everything's worked out now, and I didn't get mugged or hurt back then. You were just protecting me. You didn't deserve to get hurt for that."

"Yeah, well. Doesn't change what followed, and anyway, that's not the point. The point is, I'm sorry for what I said and did to you, especially back in June. I didn't mean it, but that doesn't make it any better. I'm sorry."

"It's really okay. I'm really not upset about it anymore," Yuugi said, and even allowing for that brief moment of uncomfortable fear he had felt when Jounouchi had said that he didn't have to say the things he did, Yuugi found that it was true. Ever since that night in the park, he had hardly thought of that day back in June—and when he did, when he ran over the day again and again as he tried to pick up on anything he might have missed, it was more to realize just how much Jounouchi had avoided meeting his eyes that day, just how desperate Jounouchi had seemed to remove himself from the situation. However it might have felt in June, when it seemed as though Jounouchi had started to hate him for reasons Yuugi couldn't puzzle out, Yuugi knew now that none of that had been real. Jounouchi hadn't changed; none of what he had said was really him. That, more than anything, made it more than easy for Yuugi to move on.

But even if he had, it didn't seem that Jounouchi had. Jounouchi fell silent again, staring at the travel mug in his hands, but his eyes looked unfocused and Yuugi couldn't tell if it was because of preoccupation or fatigue. Either way, sitting in silence wouldn't get them anywhere, and the faster they talked through this, the sooner Jounouchi could go get some sleep.

"Are you going to come back to school?" Yuugi asked. Of all the things they needed to talk about, he figured that was the easiest place to start. The easiest question, with the least complicated answer.

Or so he had figured, anyway. Jounouchi was quiet for a long moment. Yuugi looked at him askance, watching him, and when Jounouchi finally answered, it was in a carefully measured tone of voice. "I'm not sure that's the best idea."

"What? Why not?" Yuugi asked, and he couldn't help the fact that his tone came out as more than a little startled—that it sounded more like a demand rather than a question. Jounouchi's lips curled into something of a sardonic smirk, a far cry from the bright and warm grins Yuugi remembered—the ones that always inspired him to smile back himself, before he could help it. It was much closer, he thought, to the little rueful smile he remembered from the park.

"Do you really think the good boys and girls of Domino High would benefit from having someone like me around?"

"Yes," Yuugi said immediately, and Jounouchi scoffed before he took another drink of his coffee. "Why wouldn't they—we?"

"Because I'm a pretty fucked up guy, Yuugi. Always have been, even if I didn't really . . . see it before." Jounouchi glanced over, but rather than looking directly at Yuugi, his eyes had trailed down to rest on the Millennium Puzzle. "Even if I thought that maybe I could . . ." He shook his head and looked away again, drowning the rest of whatever he had been about to say with another swig from his travel mug before he muttered, "Whatever. Doesn't matter."

"Yes it does, and no you're not," Yuugi said. Jounouchi looked at him askance, his expression skeptical. "How can you say something like—?"

"Because I am. Normal people—good people don't do the things I've done, and it sure as hell isn't easy for them. Not the way it is for me. I'm a natural." He spat the word like it was something toxic he had dropped in his mouth by mistake, his face twisted in a grimace around the taste of it. "I'm not good. Never have been. There's a reason my own parents don't even want anything to do with me, you know? My mom—"

"Who cares what they want?" Yuugi demanded, for while he had never met Jounouchi's mother, the mention of Jounouchi's parents brought to mind the thrown beer bottle that had nearly hit Honda in the face last June—the one that Jounouchi's father had meant to strike his son. Whatever Jounouchi's mother was like, Yuugi couldn't help but think that his father's opinion couldn't be worth very much. "I want you around."

Jounouchi went rigid the second the words left Yuugi's mouth, his fingers constricting around his coffee cup, and Yuugi wondered if that was the wrong thing to say. Maybe he shouldn't have said something that was borderline insulting toward Jounouchi's parents, or maybe Jounouchi misunderstood him. Thinking about it now, Yuugi supposed his word choice wasn't the best—that maybe it sounded a little strong. Heat started to creep up into his cheeks at the thought of it, and (particularly given the way Jounouchi had swallowed and was now glaring at the travel mug in his hands) he decided to steer the conversation onto a safer, but no less true, track.

"You're not a bad person," he said, less forcefully this time. "You said good people don't do the things you done, but the opposite's true. Bad people don't do the things you've done."

Jounouchi relaxed as Yuugi changed the subject, but for all that the sudden tension left his shoulders, a rueful chuckle left his lips right along with it. "No, bad guys do exactly the things I've done. Trust me on this one. I've met a lot of 'em, and there's not a whole lot of difference between me and them when you get right down to it."

"That's not true," Yuugi said. "I've met a lot of bad guys too, and—"

"Really? What bad people have you met? School bullies?" Jounouchi asked, and Yuugi frowned and said nothing. "School bullies and Hirutani. Well, the school bullies are nowhere near as bad as the guys I know, and as for Hirutani . . ." Jounouchi scratched his thumbnail along the rim of the travel mug, drawing it back and forth as if trying to wear a groove into the plastic. "Well, it's like I said. When it comes to the things he did, and the things I've done, there's not a lot of difference when you get right down to it. It was a lot of the same jobs, really."

"There was a ton of difference! How can you even—"

"There really wasn't. I did a lot of the same shit he did, just on different days. I even did some shit he didn't, but that's just because he knew it was easier to make me do it than to get out there and do it himself. Figured he'd make himself look like a bigger man by calling the shots behind the scenes, as if that changed anything." Jounouchi scowled at the travel mug. "Not that it makes a difference whether he called it or not. I'm still the one that did it."

"You're not like him," Yuugi said fiercely, but Jounouchi still wouldn't look up at him. "I know I didn't know him very well, but I know what Honda-kun said and I know what I saw at the café and at the warehouse—"

"Honda doesn't know about all the shit I've done," Jounouchi said. "And neither do you, so—"

"—and I can tell just from that little bit that you're nothing at all like him, Jounouchi-kun. You say you did a lot of the same things, but he would never—"

"You know what I was doing that night we met in the park?" Jounouchi said suddenly, and Yuugi shut his mouth, feeling an anxious sort of tension unfurl in his gut at the way Jounouchi had raised his voice to interrupt. "You know what I had already done, what I was on my way to do?"

"What?"

"I was on my way to deliver some kind of external hard drive thing to someone—" Jounouchi stopped himself abruptly and swallowed before he continued a bit more calmly, "—someone dangerous. Someone bad. And you wanna know where I got it?"

"Where?"

"From a businessman's briefcase after I mugged him." Yuugi waited, and when Jounouchi saw that Yuugi wasn't going to interrupt him, he continued. "I popped the lock on his car when it was still in the parking garage, I waited until he was on a dark street away from any businesses, I made him stop his car, made him get out, confirmed he had the thing, hit him hard enough to knock him out, and then I robbed him. Took his cash, too, even though I didn't have to, even though that wasn't 'my job,' because apparently I'm just that kind of guy." Jounouchi looked over at Yuugi again, his eyes hard, his expression and tone suggesting at once that he was being both deadly serious and sincere. "Would a good guy do that?"

Yuugi swallowed. "Not necessarily," he said quietly.

Jounouchi scoffed. "'Not necessarily.'" He hopped off the wall and patted his pockets down, as if looking for something, but whatever it was he didn't find it. "Let's see if you keep believing that, because believe me, that's not even the half of it."

What followed, without any prompting from Yuugi, was an impassioned and scornful recounting of all the crimes Jounouchi had carried out over the past several months. Yuugi listened quietly as Jounouchi told him about homes and offices he had broken into, cars he had hotwired or sabotaged ("See, it only takes brains to fix a car," he said, "but you can be as dumb as me and still break the damn thing by popping the hood and screwing around with the engine for long enough"), drugs he had sold and the teenagers—kids their age, or maybe only a little older—who had gotten addicted to them, people he had mugged, and (though he kept the details extremely vague) dealings he had and jobs he had done for people Yuugi suspected might be yakuza, though Jounouchi wouldn't say for sure.

By the end of it, the rap sheet was nothing if not extensive, and Yuugi stared at the Puzzle as he traced the cracks between the pieces with one finger. When Jounouchi was finished, Yuugi took a minute to collect himself, and then voiced the only question on his mind—the one he had to ask, because he couldn't rest until he did, even though voice shook under the weight of his reluctance.

"Did you . . . ever kill anyone?"

"No."

Jounouchi's answer was quiet, but immediate enough that—just as he had known it earlier when Jounouchi had said he had been in police questioning—Yuugi knew it was true. The stress he had felt over the possibility left him in a sigh as Jounouchi walked back over to hop up on the wall again, his shoulders hunched and his head down as he kicked his heels back against the bricks.

"Not for lack of trying, though," he said after a moment. Yuugi gave him a questioning look, and though Jounouchi only glanced at him briefly (and from the corner of his eye, no less), it served as enough prompting for him to go on. "After we met that night in the park, I got in a fight with Hirutani. Things got kinda outta hand, and I took his knife." He laughed disparagingly and ran a hand over his hair. "Lot of good that did me. I couldn't follow through. Not only did I fail, but all I had to show for it was . . ." He trailed off, and vaguely gestured at himself with one hand before he let his hand fall back against his thigh. "Just another fuck up to add to the list, I guess."

Jounouchi wasn't looking at him, having chosen instead to stare at either his hands or the ground as he talked. By this point in the conversation, his lack of eye contact wasn't surprising in the least. But even as Jounouchi looked at the ground, Yuugi looked at what he could see of Jounouchi's face, seated beside him as he was. With this new piece of Jounouchi's story, something Yuugi thought he had already knew now burned with a little more clarity, and his fingers constricted around the edge of the cinderblocks he was seated upon, his fingernails scraping against the stone.

"He really hurt you, didn't he?" Yuugi asked quietly.

Jounouchi shrugged. "I started it. Wouldn't have happened if I didn't take the knife, anyway."

"That's not what I meant, but that wasn't your fault, either," Yuugi said.

Jounouchi looked over at him, his brow scrunched in confusion, but now Yuugi did look away, staring down at the gravel pushed up against the base of the wall instead.

Jounouchi looked and sounded completely worn down, despite any signs of frustration or impatience that flared up now and again. Hirutani had broken Jounouchi's ribs, yes, and if what Honda's sister had said was true, he had also tried to strangle him. But the damage ran deeper than that—much deeper, even if Yuugi was only just starting to realize how much—and so while he couldn't quite bring himself to say he was happy that anyone was dead, he could truthfully say that when it came to Hirutani, he wasn't sorry.

Upon seeing that Yuugi wasn't going to elaborate, Jounouchi looked back out at the playground, and grabbed his travel mug from where he had set it on the wall beside him. "Yeah, well. Now you know. You know about all the shit I've done, and then some. And now you see it, right? Why you're better off without me? Why I'm not this great guy you think I am?"

"No. I don't see that at all," Yuugi said, and Jounouchi rolled his eyes.

"Yuugi, come on—"

"No, I really don't," Yuugi said, and this time he was the one to raise his voice—an effort to get Jounouchi to listen to him and not interrupt, or at least to make his point sound more firm. "You keep saying you're a bad guy, but I don't see that. Yeah, you did bad things, but that doesn't mean that you're a bad person."

"A good guy wouldn't do the things I did."

"He would if he didn't have any other choice," Yuugi said. "You only did those things because Hirutani told you to, didn't you? Because if you didn't, he'd hurt you, or he'd hurt one of us, right?" Jounouchi didn't answer. "That doesn't make you a bad person, Jounouchi-kun. It just makes you someone who did bad things because you were in a bad situation."

"That doesn't excuse it," Jounouchi said. "I hurt people, Yuugi. I hurt a lot of people, and the things I did—"

"I didn't say it excused it," Yuugi said. "I just said it explained it, and that it proves you're not a bad guy. The fact that you're so upset about it proves you aren't a bad person. Bad people don't feel guilty about the things they do. Hirutani never did, did he?"

"No. But big deal, I feel guilty. I still—"

"So, see? And Hirutani would probably never sacrifice himself for someone else, would he?" Yuugi pressed. "If, say, you—if someone was going to kill you, he wouldn't have taken your place, would he?"

Jounouchi snorted. "Are you kidding? He always looked out for number one. Number two was just a bonus."

"You see? He wouldn't, but you did. When he was going to kill one of us, you tried to take our place. You—he—" Yuugi swallowed past the sudden catch in his throat. "He was really going to kill you."

Jounouchi shrugged again. "Better me than you."

"That's not true," Yuugi said sharply. Jounouchi kicked his foot back against the brick of the wall once more, the movement slow and rhythmic.

"Yeah it is. But it doesn't matter anyway, because you . . ." He frowned, and for reasons that had nothing to do with anything Jounouchi had yet said, or anything Yuugi himself had said, Yuugi felt his mouth go dry. "You decided to play Russian roulette with him. Not that I'm not, you know, grateful for what you did, but you know that's the dumbest thing you've ever done in your life, right? You could've died, too. Easily could've, if that game had gone wrong."

Yuugi forced a laugh, and rubbed a hand along the back of his neck, and tried to breathe against a sudden bout of heart palpitations. "Yeah, I guess it . . . I guess it was. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Jounouchi said, but before Yuugi could say anything more he added, "But what . . . happened back there, anyway? I couldn't see with the way he had me pinned against the wall, but even after that, you . . ." Jounouchi looked over at him, and against his will Yuugi turned to meet his scrutinizing gaze. "You weren't acting like yourself."

Yuugi licked his lips and swallowed to try and coat his dry throat, and looked back down at the Millennium Puzzle. The low, red-violet light of the sunset, combined with the streetlamps that had flickered on due to the late hour, cast an odd shine on the gold. Somehow it looked brighter than it should have, Yuugi thought—almost ethereal, otherworldly, and while he had always known that it had some kind of powers (the power to grant wishes, he had always thought), more and more he had come to feel unnerved and almost a little afraid of the power it seemed to hold over him.

"Yuugi?" Jounouchi prompted.

"I don't really know," Yuugi said, and he ran his fingernails along the grooves in the Puzzle. "I don't . . . remember."

"You don't remember?"

"No."

It was the same thing he had told Honda and Anzu on their way to Honda's sister's place, when Honda had asked for more details about what had happened after he dragged Jounouchi out of the warehouse. Yuugi didn't remember, not in the least bit, no matter how much they probed him or how hopeful (and then confused, disappointed, and pensive all at once) Anzu looked. He remembered being held in the gang member's grasp, remembered Jounouchi taunting Hirutani and baiting him into murder—remembered how terrified he had felt, and remembered feeling that familiar sensation of lightheadedness that made his vision abnormally bright and vivid for just a moment before everything distorted and then went dark. He remembered how he had fought against that feeling because he didn't want to pass out, not right then, not when Jounouchi could die—but also how he had finally succumbed to it as Hirutani shoved the barrel of the revolver into Jounouchi's mouth, as Honda had screamed and thrashed against his captors and Anzu turned her head away so she wouldn't have to watch. After that he remembered nothing until he was standing outside of the warehouse and everyone except Hirutani was safe and alive.

"But you . . . how can you not remember?" Jounouchi asked. Yuugi pressed his lips together and didn't answer, and after a moment Jounouchi said more quietly, "Yuugi, I don't . . . it doesn't really matter what the answer is, as long as it's true. I mean, whatever it is, you saved my life, so . . . it's fine. But I just—I just have to know the truth, for my own peace of mind, you know? I just have to know that you're being honest with me, and that you're really . . . you." He laughed a little, humorlessly. "Not that I can really ask that, I know, and not that it really matters, considering, but . . ."

"No, it's okay," Yuugi said. Jounouchi said nothing, waiting for him to go on, and after a few extra beats of silence Yuugi took a deep breath and said, "It's . . . it's because of the Millennium Puzzle, I think."

"The Millennium Puzzle?"

"Yeah. Ever since I solved it, I . . . there have been times when I . . . when I passed out, I guess, and I . . . I never remember what happens during those times. But I don't think I—or my body, at least—was really unconscious. I think that, during those times I can't remember, there was a . . . another me that walked around and did stuff." Jounouchi was silent, and Yuugi squeezed the Puzzle a little more tightly to stop his hands from trembling. "I didn't want to say anything to anyone because I didn't know if it was true, and if it was true then I—I didn't want anyone to think I was crazy, or creepy, or to—to stop being my friend, especially since, well, we had just started being friends, but now that this happened, I . . ." Yuugi took a deep, shaky breath. "I guess I . . . I can't hide it anymore, so . . ." Yuugi cleared his throat. "That's . . . that's what happened, I think. That's why I don't remember."

"Oh." Jounouchi fell quiet again after that one word, and after a few seconds (and while his hands were clenched around the Millennium Puzzle so tightly the edges dug into his palms and his fingers started to ache), Yuugi forced himself to look at Jounouchi out of the corner of his eye.

His heart seized in his throat when he saw that Jounouchi was smiling.

"What are you—?"

"I should've known it would just be something like that," Jounouchi said under his breath, and he ran a hand over his hair again. "I mean, I don't know how I could've guessed, but . . ."

"Jounouchi-kun?"

"It's just another Yuugi, right? Like . . . I don't know, another you, a different you," Jounouchi said, and Yuugi nodded as Jounouchi looked over. "So what? That might be another you inside of you, but you're still you. You're still the Yuugi I know. Always have been, always will be, right?"

"Yeah," Yuugi said, and the sudden wave of relief he felt was enough to almost make him laugh at the fact that, just a few minutes ago, he had been terrified of telling Jounouchi the truth.

"So that's that, then," Jounouchi said, and he looked back out at the playground. "So long as you're still you, that's all that matters to me."

Yuugi bit his bottom lip in an attempt to contain both the smile that was struggling to break free, and the light sting of tears in his eyes. "Thanks," he managed after a moment, though his throat felt a little strangled even as he said it. "I feel the same way—about you, I mean. So far as I'm concerned, as long as you are who you are, too, we'll always be friends. Right?" His words were met with silence, and Yuugi frowned as he looked over at Jounouchi, who had drawn his legs up so that the heels of his feet were braced along the edge of the wall. He had wrapped his arms around his legs, his chin on his knees, and the travel mug was held loosely in one hand. "Jounouchi-kun?"

No response. Jounouchi was still staring out at the playground, his soft smile completely gone, replaced by a deep-set frown, his brow furrowed. After a few seconds of staring at the jungle gym like it presented a riddle he couldn't figure out the answer to, he shook his head and put his forehead against his knees.

"How can you want to?" he asked. "I—Yuugi, you hate violence. You hate it, and I'm one of the most violent guys you know. The things I've done, the people I've hurt—I've hurt a lot of people, and you know that now. You know it, I told you. So how can you sit there and say you still want to be friends with me? How—why do you want anything to do with me at all?"

"You didn't do those things because you wanted to," Yuugi said, and Jounouchi snorted as he shook his head again.

"It doesn't matter," he said, and when he lifted his head it was to glare at the playground equipment with an expression that bordered on hatred. The hand not holding his travel mug curled into a fist so tight his arm shook a little. "Doesn't change the fact that I did—"

"It does matter," Yuugi said, and as Jounouchi shook his head again, Yuugi raised his voice a little. "Your reasons, your motivations matter—"

"No it doesn't. I hurt people, a lot of people, and it doesn't—"

"You did, but not because you wan—"

"That doesn't stop them from being—"

"You were being blackmailed!" Yuugi cried, and not only did the volume of his cry border on a shout and make his voice crack, but Jounouchi actually jumped a little as he turned to look at Yuugi. Yuugi swallowed, both to give himself time to choose his next words, and to give himself a moment to calm down a little. He hadn't realized until that moment that Jounouchi wasn't the only one shaking. "It matters because you were being blackmailed with our safety. You wouldn't have done any of that—you didn't do any of that because you wanted to, and that matters when it comes to deciding what kind of person you are. If you were a bad guy, you would have hurt people because you wanted to. Because—because you wanted money from them, or because you were just—I don't know, just because. But that's not what happened. You hurt people, and you did bad things . . . but only because you were trying to protect us. Maybe you're right, and that doesn't excuse it. But it explains it, and it shows you're not a bad person. You won't do any of that again, will you? You don't want to, right?"

"No."

"Then see? I know you aren't a bad guy, Jounouchi-kun, because given the choice and the option—given a situation where you're not being blackmailed—you don't want to hurt others. You don't want to mug people, or sell them drugs, or—or any of that. You only did it before because you wanted to protect us. You were ready to—to die for us, just yesterday, because of that." Yuugi squeezed the edges of the cinderblock wall top again, his fingernails digging into the stone, fighting back against the tears that stung at his eyes. "You had to make a lot of tough choices, and no matter what you chose to do, someone was going to get hurt. I don't know all the details, but from what I do know, I think a lot of those times the person that got hurt was you. But you chose it anyway, just to protect us." Yuugi looked down at the Puzzle, and after a couple seconds said, "So I don't think you're a bad person at all. I think you're a good person who did bad things because blackmail doesn't really leave a lot of room for actual choice. But I don't think you're bad, and I don't hate you. I feel the exact opposite, actually."

Jounouchi was silent for a long moment. By this point, the sun had all but set; the sky was painted a deep indigo, and the first pockets of visible stars were already peeking out from behind the clouds. The evening air was cool, and a small but strong breeze caressed Yuugi's cheek on their side of the playground as it teased the swings on the other side.

"I don't deserve you," Jounouchi said finally. His voice was soft, and when Yuugi looked over, he saw that Jounouchi was staring down at the gravel, his expression weary and somehow forlorn.

"That's for me to decide," Yuugi said, but he faltered, then, as he studied Jounouchi's downcast expression—as it occurred to him that they had been more or less arguing since they sat down. He was pushing Jounouchi—pressuring him—and that wasn't why he had chosen to wait outside of the apartment building all day. It wasn't what he had wanted to do. Whatever he wanted, what mattered most was Jounouchi's wellbeing, and so Yuugi took a deep breath to steel himself before he said, "But if—it's your choice. I meant what I said before—at least, I think I said it, that night in the park. If you don't—we don't—you don't have to come back to school, or be my friend if you don't want to. If you really do want to end things, then . . . I won't stop you. I just want to make sure you're okay. So if you really don't want to be friends anymore, then—"

"Are you crazy?" Jounouchi turned halfway on the wall so that he was facing Yuugi, and his expression—the sheer disbelief, bordering on indignation in his eyes and the part of his lips—was enough to make Yuugi's heart lift. "Of course I do, that was never the—"

Yuugi couldn't say precisely what made him do it. He didn't plan it, or spare so much as a single thought to the action before he did it. But as Jounouchi spoke—as his facial expression gave away what he was going to say before he even said it—Yuugi brought his feet up onto the wall so that he was crouching instead of sitting, and then threw his arms around Jounouchi's neck in the securest hug he could manage. The force of his hug rocked Jounouchi back a bit, but he stayed steady on the wall, and Yuugi—realizing in that moment that he was not only touching Jounouchi, but hugging him for the first time in months without being pushed away or rebuffed—held him just a little bit tighter.

"I'm sorry for everything that's happened," he said. "I know it hasn't been easy for you, and nothing I can say or do will make what happened go away. But you don't have to punish yourself, Jounouchi-kun. Hirutani hurt you enough already. If you want to come back, then please, come back. I've . . . I've really missed you. We all have."

Jounouchi was completely still in Yuugi's arms, and when he finally spoke it was only to say, his voice gruff, ". . . Little tight there, buddy."

"O-Oh. Sor—" Yuugi loosened his grip and started to draw back, but before he could Jounouchi looped a hesitant arm around his shoulders, and drew him close again in a gentle one-armed embrace.

"I've really missed you, too," he said quietly.

Yuugi smiled against the denim of Jounouchi's jacket. He held Jounouchi for another moment more, and when he pulled back at last he was unable to wipe the smile from his face. He took one of Jounouchi's hands in his own, and gave it a light, reassuring squeeze.

"Then, Jounouchi-kun . . ." he said. "Let's go home."

It took a second, and Jounouchi looking down at their hands (slowly flexing his fingers as Yuugi laced them together with his), but when Jounouchi looked back up and met Yuugi's eyes and smile, he finally nodded and softly smiled back.