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Proving to Myself

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-
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream-
-

Honda Hiroto had never been one to run away. He had been in over three hundred fights- that was only where he started to lose count- since junior high school and had never backed down from any of them. It simply wasn't even in his vocabulary or his capabilities- until now that was.

Where was Jounouchi? His friend must've also received the same challenge card issued by Jizawa- Thursday after school at the abandoned lot on the edge of the badlands.

He became used to answering the last few challenges on his own. Jounouchi rarely showed up these days. He was sure all kinds of rumors were circulating the badlands now. If Jounouchi continued to be this irresponsible, it was going to destroy the reputation they worked so hard to build.

Honda went to face Jizawa on his own after Jounouchi didn't show up at their usual meeting place after school. He was sure he could handle Jizawa on his own, even if Jounouchi wasn't there. What he hadn't expected was for Jizawa to ambush him with some of his buddies so he was lucky to escape with only a few bruises from that perspective.

He ducked into the next alleyway and behind a trash bin at the sound of approaching footsteps. The footsteps stopped a few feet away from the trash bin he was hiding behind.

"Where did he go?"

"He couldn't have gone that far. Could he?"

"At least we know it's true. Jounouchi doesn't answer any challenges that come on Thursdays."

"And Honda, that moron, is stupid enough to take them all on by himself."

They laughed and Honda clenched his fists. He was going to give Jounouchi a piece of his mind the next time he saw the blond, whenever that might be. Their reputation was going to be in shambles by the end of the week. What the hell was Jounouchi thinking, pulling a stupid stunt like this?

"It doesn't matter. Let's get back to Jizawa. If we're lucky, we can sell this information and make a little profit."

Honda listened as the footfall faded into the distance. He slammed his fist into the metal side of the bin and laid his forehead over his fist. After a few moments, the smell from the garbage began to irritate his nose and he was sure those who were pursuing him were finally gone.

He looked around and found he was near Jounouchi's place. He needed to talk to his "friend" as soon as possible. He didn't know what was going through Jounouchi's head right now but he was going to set the blond straight. He raced down the alley to the other end that led out onto Shimi Street before crossing to Ryoka, where Jounouchi's dilapidated apartment building stood.

Honda rounded around the side of the building- away from the suspicious glances of other pedestrians. The fire escape ladder was pulled up but that didn't deter him. He jumped and grabbed onto the bottom rung and hurled his weight up. He climbed four flights of stairs and stopped by the window right over the fire escape landing. This was the easiest part. He reached over and fiddled with the window lock that had been broken for as long as he remembered.

He pushed the window up and slid into the small living room area of the one bedroom studio apartment. The apartment was dark. That was strange since Jounouchi's father was usually around at this time of the day. He pulled the window back down and shook his head. They should really get that fixed since anyone could break into the apartment- not that they would find anything of worth to steal.

"Stop thief!" A dark shape lunged out of nowhere and charged at him.

Honda leapt out of the way as an aluminum bat made a dent in the wall behind where he stood seconds ago. "Oi, Jounouchi-oyaji! It's Honda!"

Jounouchi's father stumbled back with a drunken-like stagger that never left the older man- even when sober. The older man dropped the bat and squinted to see Honda better. Honda thought it best not to comment on how Jounouchi's father should have kept his hand on the bat since it seemed like such a stupid thing to drop his guard that easily.

"Hiroto-kun, is that you?" Jounouchi-oyaji mumbled.

"Yea, old man, it's me. Where's Jounouchi?" Honda folded his arms over his chest.

"He's not here." The older man picked up the bat and leaned it against the side of the wall.

"I can see that," Honda was beginning to feel annoyed again. "Are you drunk again?"

Jounouchi's father shook his head with a silly grin Honda had never seen before plastered across his face. "Nope, completely sober. I've been sober about three days now."

"Amazing," he muttered. It was an incredible for someone like Jounouchi's father to be sober for that long but he couldn't bring himself to actually care at the moment.

"Do you want anything to drink, Hiroto-kun? Soda? I think Katsuya just bought a box yesterday."

Without waiting for Honda's answer, the older man staggered into the small kitchenette to the side. Honda listened to the man rummage around the kitchen for a few moments. He didn't hear the usual clamor Jounouchi's father made when he was moving around the small apartment. When he returned, Jounouchi's father even brought a clean glass with ice. Amazing what sobriety could do for Jounouchi's father.

Honda decided it would be impolite for him to decline the older Jounouchi's hospitality. He pushed aside the glass and popped open the can of imitation cola. Jounouchi's father dropped onto the couch and Honda remained standing against the wall.

After a few moments of sipping cola, Honda broke the silence again. "So where is Jounouchi since he's not here?"

The older Jounouchi rubbed his eyes. "Is it Thursday?"

"Yea," Honda answered dryly. What was with the significance of this day of the week?

"Katsuya's always later than usual on Thursdays."

"But where is he?"

"I don't know."

"You're a great dad, you know that?" Honda rolled his eyes.

Jounouchi's father actually laughed. This was definitely a new phenomenon for Honda to witness. "I know he's not doing anything wrong. In fact, Katsuya wants me to go with him next week. Mutou-kun assured me Katsuya wasn't doing anything illegal and dangerous."

Honda's grip around his soda can tightened until the sound of crinkling aluminum echoed through the bare room. "You've met Mutou Yugi?"

The older Jounouchi nodded eagerly. "Such a nice young man and such a good influence on Katsuya. He's really been there for Katsuya since that whole thing at the Kaiba mansion…"

Honda gulped down the rest of the soda and crushed the can- wishing it was Mutou Yugi.

-
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
-

"HONDA HIROTO!"

Atashi Miyuki, his older sister, had the cry of a banshee that could awaken the dead if she tried hard enough. All in all, her vocal capabilities served her well enough at what she did best- bugging the hell out of Honda. The words rang through the small two floor house in the neighborhood just bordering the badlands.

"What the hell do you want, Miyuki?" Honda sighed as he sat up on his bed.

Honda immediately dodged to the side as his sister made a swipe at him with the feather duster. It had taken him years to develop the reflexes to do that.

"Would it kill you to call me 'Onee-chan' at least?" she placed her hands on her waist.

Honda didn't bother to reply as he turned back to his manga. He had been absorbed in his reading while lying on his stomach on the bed before she disturbed him. He didn't feel like he needed to pay attention to her. She was probably just going to bitch about him never cleaning his room or making the most of his time.

"I got a call from your English teacher."

"So?"

"You've failed all four of your tests this semester already, Hiroto."

"So?"

"You're getting tutored."

This finally got his attention. He sat up quickly on his bed. "A tutor? No."

"You have no choice. Fujiwara-sensei has one ready for you already. He'll find you in school tomorrow."

"No, you can't make me."

"I sure as hell can," she glared at him. "You will pass English this semester or you're out of this house. End of story." She turned and closed the door behind her.

Honda grabbed his manga without another thought and threw it at the door hard. It slammed into his door with a thud and fell to the floor.

"Go to hell, Miyuki, like Okaa-san did." He snarled.

-
Life is real! Life is earnest!
-

Perhaps today wouldn't be as bad as he originally thought. Jounouchi had showed up at his doorsteps just as he was sitting down at breakfast. The blond had not only eaten breakfast (because he was never one to pass over a free meal or food of any kind), but they had also walked to school together. That had been a long tradition of theirs for years (especially since Jounouchi's father was too drunk to get breakfast together at the ungodly hour of seven in the morning), which had come to a halt since…the Kaiba incident…

Honda wasn't sure which member of the Kaiba family he hated more.

His best friend snickered as he lamented on the horrors of his sister and the pitfalls of education. Jounouchi found the fact that he was required to meet with a tutor all too amusing for Honda's liking. Yet in moments like these, Honda could find himself forgiving his best friend for not being around as much as he used to be.

"And what about you?" Honda smirked in return. "You're not exactly passing all your classes either."

"Actually, I am." Jounouchi replied smugly, puffing his chest out.

Honda threw the blond-haired boy a suspicious glare.

"Okay, just barely but I'm still passing. Anzu can be such a nag and she's been trying to get me and Yugi to concentrate on our work more," Jounouchi smiled gently at him. "I guess that's what you call a woman's touch."

Honda stopped dead in his tracks. The small smile that had graced his lips before had vanished. He had never seen his best friend wear such a content grin before. An insane sort of jealousy overcame him at that moment. How could a stupid transfer student and that runt of a boy do that for his best friend?

Jounouchi stopped not too far ahead and looked back at him with concern. Honda rarely saw those amber eyes as warm as that moment, not since Shizuka first left. He had grown up with the blond-haired boy and prided himself on the fact he knew and understood the blond better than anyone else in the world. They became who they were to protect their own when no one else would.

He had always envisioned Jounouchi to be the stronger of the two of them. Yet his best friend now stood there, gazing at Honda with some sort of strangely tainted innocence and stable calm- fallen victim to some delusion of peace.

"What happened to you?" The words didn't come out quite as angry as he had intended.

"Honda?"

"Why'd you change? Why'd you change for them?"

"I don't understand…"

"You're so…soft now…not completely, but softer than you should be. What have you let yourself become, Jounouchi?"

"Now you're being dumb, Honda." He rolled his eyes.

"No, that's you. How could you just let your guard down like this? We still have so many enemies. Just yesterday I was chased halfway across the badlands by some of Jizawa's guys."

Some of the previous hardness returned in the other's features, but Honda wasn't going to forgive him for yesterday so quickly.

"You're supposed to have my back. Where were you yesterday?" Honda snapped.

"Yesterday was Thursday, I had other commitments. I had to keep them." Irritation was beginning to bleed into Jounouchi's tone.

"Commitment, big word for you, who'd you learn it from? The whore or the shrimp?"

Those honey eyes darkened then. Honda wondered if he was goading his friend just to see if there was any of the old Jounouchi left. Judging from Jounouchi's clenched fists, there was still a bit there.

"Don't call them that. I don't appreciate you calling my friends names."

"Then what am I then?"

Honda watched as Jounouchi's expression softened again as a sudden comprehension assaulted his friend. His heart constricted once more.

"You'll always be my best friend, Honda. No matter what happens. We've been through too much together already. I need you and you need me. I'll always be there when you need me the most."

Jounouchi reached out, as if to touch his face. Honda stared and then turned his head away. Jounouchi's hand fell away as well, limp at his side.

"Honda…"

"Jounouchi-kun!"

The last person on earth that Honda wanted to see at that moment appeared at his friend's side looking like some deranged midget clown.

"Honda-kun…" Mutou Yugi gave Honda a slight bow and a hesitant smile that he chose not to acknowledge. Yugi then turned and tugged furiously at the sleeve of Jounouchi's school issued jacket. "We're going to be late!"

"What are you talking about, Yugi. It's only," Jounouchi glanced at his wristwatch with the cracked glass. "Shit! It's seven-fifty already! Let's get a move on it! Honda?"

"Go ahead. I'll just take my time."

"Honda-"

"Just go already!"

"Fine, but we'll talk later!" Jounouchi shouted back as he dragged Yugi away. "I swear!"

Today was not going to be a good day after all. As Honda watched their forms vanished into the morning crowd, he never thought he could hate Mutou Yugi as much as he did at that moment.

-
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
-

For many years, Honda and Jounouchi had been in the same class, but that was not the case this year. He knew the school done something to separate the two of them. They were ruining the school's reputation by fighting but that had always been the least of their worries.

Like most days, he arrived late. After Jounouchi ran off with that shrimp, Honda wandered near the school until the third late bell. The first teacher of the day, Fujiwara, gave him a stern look but no detention. He guessed it had something to do with the fact the English teacher was expecting Honda to submit himself to be tutored. The brunette scoffed and trudged down the aisle to his seat in the back of the classroom. Instead of paying attention to the lesson, Honda stared out the window. It was an arrangement that seemed to work for both him and most of his teachers, that way they could stay out of each other's way.

He couldn't wait for the bell to ring for lunch. He was going to slip away before this tutor could find him. He wasn't going to get tutored. Miyuki always made idle threats about kicking him out of the house but he knew she wouldn't though.

Fujiwara was asking the class to conjugate yet another set of verbs when the bell finally rang. Honda leapt out of his seat and raced for the door, but he wasn't quick enough. The teacher stepped between him and the door, smiling in that infuriating way. "Honda-kun, if you would please join Bakura-kun and me in the office," Fujiwara gestured to someone over Honda's shoulder.

Honda sighed. Fujiwara was just one of those teachers you couldn't escape no matter how hard you tried. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw another student rise from his seat to approach them. It must have been the Bakura that Fujiwara had called for.

They walked in silence down the hallway to the teacher's office. Honda had been called there several times before. Several teachers glared when he passed them, but he ignored them.

Fujiwara dropped his folders on his overcrowded desk squeezed into the back corner of the room. While the teacher sat down in his chair, Honda and the other boy stood facing the teacher. He snuck a glance at the other boy. He did know Bakura on a second glance, but everyone in Domino High knew the strange white-haired boy with amber eyes by face if not by name. Fujiwara watched them both with a thoughtful expression.

"Honda-kun, I'm sure you don't need me to tell that you're failing English right now," Fujiwara began and Honda scoffed. "You need help, Honda-kun. If you're not going to get it on your own, I'm going to get it for you."

"Look, Fujiwara-sensei, I don't know why you keep trying to help me but you and I both know that it's not going to make any difference," Honda replied lamely. "So let's not waste anymore of your or my or Bakura-kun's time."

Fujiwara squeezed the bridge of his nose. "I didn't want to do this, but you forced me to play my trump card, Honda-kun. I've been a friend of your sister's for years and she's asked me specifically to watch out for you. You know that the school separated you and Jounouchi-kun this school year to discourage delinquent behavior. Unlike Jounouchi-kun, you haven't shown any improvement in either your grades or conduct. They may remove you from your sister's care if you don't pull your act together."

Honda's heart seized. "What?"

Fujiwara looked around before lowering his voice. "I'm not supposed to tell you, but the Child Guidance Center has been looking into your case again ever since Jounouchi-kun's involvement with the Kaibas. They've seen that you haven't made any improvements under your sister's care and your school records aren't helping your case. They can only come to the conclusion that your sister's care isn't adequate enough."

"But it is!" Honda protested despite Bakura's presence. "She feeds me, puts a roof over my head, checks up on me, and everything."

"And you continue to give her a hard time," Fujiwara hissed. "Did you forget about your nephew? Miyuki-chan has her own child to raise and she shouldn't have to worry about you every other minute of the day. You're nearly a grown man, Honda-kun. Start taking responsibility for your own actions."

Honda glared down at Fujiwara. The English teacher had forced him into a corner. If he was taken out of his sister's care, he would be placed into a foster home- or worse, an orphanage. He had no other choice but to play the part assigned to him in the meanwhile. "Fine," he snarled. "I'll get tutored and try and pass this semester."

Fujiwara sighed and turned his attention to the other student standing before him. The teacher must know by then that would be the best he would ever get out of Honda. "Thank you for agreeing to this, Bakura-kun. I know you're giving up a lot of your free time to help Honda-kun here."

Honda didn't bother to hide his snort. If Fujiwara thought he was going to win Bakura some sympathy from Honda with that shit… He almost wanted to laugh at the thought.

Bakura spoke for the first time and Honda wasn't surprised by the soft, polite tone. "It's no problem at all, Fujiwara-sensei. I'm glad to be able to help Honda-kun."

"Good, good. I've taken enough of your time already. I trust you two are mature enough to decide on the schedule and meeting place on your own. I see no need for my intervention." Fujiwara waved them away.

"In other words, I better not need to butt in," Honda translated under his breath.

They walked together down the hall until they reached the end of the corridor where there weren't any other students. Honda folded his arms over his chest and turned to face the pale boy.

"Well? I suppose you already have a schedule in mind and everything." Honda spoke with his patented I-don't-want-to-listen-to-you-but-I-have-to-so-just-get-it-over-with voice he usually reserved for Miyuki.

Bakura smiled shyly at him. "Actually, I wanted to know what days were good for you. I didn't want to make any assumptions since you might have other responsibilities too."

"Whatever days," Honda shrugged. "How good's your English anyway?"

Bakura lowered his gaze. "I don't mean to brag, but I have a 98 average right now and I lived in England until just a few years ago."

Honda looked away in disgust. "Right, whatever." He knew Bakura's type, the uptight student with a personality duller than their textbooks. There was no way he could look forward to this.

"How about we start today? Just to see where we need to work on. Does the school library after school work for you? I promise not to take too much of your time. I know it's Friday and you must have better things to do."

Honda looked out the window instead. It was a brisk January day and Jounouchi's birthday was coming up. "Sure, whatever."

-
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
-

The final bell of the day rang and the teacher barely managed to assign the weekend homework before the first students started for the door. In the midst of the chaos, the class representative was trying to organize the class for the closing bow and the clean-up detail of the day. Honda had an appointment he had to keep at the library.

Bakura was nowhere in sight when Honda gathered up all of his belongings, so he assumed the boy must have gone ahead to the library to find a table. He swung his bookbag over his back and stepped out of the classroom. He was a bit surprised to see Jounouchi waiting for him by the door.

"Honda?"

"What?" Honda snapped as he felt his previous anger rising at the sight of his best friend.

"We need to talk. Rooftop now."

"Fine," Honda strolled right past Jounouchi and toward the stairs. He watched with some mild amusement as certain students scurried obviously out of their path. At least their reputation at school was still safe for the time being.

There was never anyone on the roof once class ended. Honda watched as Jounouchi dumped his schoolbag on the ground and slid down to sit against the fence. He never understood how Jounouchi could act so ridiculously casual no matter what the situation.

"What's it that you want to talk about?" Honda remained standing across from the seated blond.

Jounouchi suddenly looked nervous as he lurched forward and braced against his propped knees. "Why are you so angry?"

"Besides the fact, I've had to face the last few challenges issued on my own. Besides the fact, I have to pass this semester. Besides the fact, I've lost my best friend to a little shrimp. You tell me, Jounouchi, which reason should I be most mad about?" Honda snapped.

"Honda, I'm still your best friend and I'll always be. Yugi and I both have a lot to work through since that whole thing with Kaiba. I know I haven't been around as much as I should be but, I'll be there when you really need me." It seemed like Jounouchi wanted him to genuinely understand, but Honda wasn't inclined to.

Honda snorted. "Are you done imitating those counseling sessions I used to have to go to? The fact is we have a reputation to protect and you're either with me or not."

"There are more important things than our reputation now," Jounouchi jumped to his feet and growled. "I don't see why you're so worked up anyway, you're not the one still living in the badlands. You had your sister to take you out of that hellhole. You don't have to go back to it every day like I do."

"That's exactly why I stayed!" Honda shouted and leapt forward to grab the blond's shoulders and pinned Jounouchi's back to the fence. "For you! We're brothers, Jounouchi! We're brothers by everything and in everything but blood. I wasn't going to turn my back on you after all those years. Did you really think I enjoyed fighting?"

Jounouchi squeezed his eyes shut. "No," he said very quietly and slumped against the fence. "That was me. It was always me who was picking a fight with some jackass or another, you were just watching my back."

Honda let go of his friend and stepped back. "What happened to you, Jounouchi? What happened to you at Kaiba-yaro's mansion?"

It was wrong for Jounouchi to look this defeated.

"I'm not ready to talk about it," Jounouchi turned his head away.

"But you'll talk to Mutou about it," Honda snarled.

"That's where you're wrong. I haven't told Yugi either," Jounouchi shook his head. "There's a lot of things I have to work out but by myself. Nobodies' going to do that for me."

"I've heard enough," Honda turned. "In the end, you're just won't share the load. You don't consider me a brother like I do you. I'm done. I have to meet our tutor now."

Jounouchi didn't stop him and Honda never expected him to try. He figured he must have kept Bakura waiting for about ten minutes now- if not more. He closed the door leading to the staircase and sighed, but stopped when he came face to face with Bakura. The pale boy stared at him with a strange expression and even stranger amber eyes that shone in the light of the winter's early setting sun.

"You shouldn't have used me as an excuse there." Bakura spoke and it sounded just a bit more confident than before.

"That's none of your business," Honda snorted. "Are we going to do this or what? The sun's about to set."

Bakura opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. The boy shut his mouth reluctantly and looked away sadly. "Just go home. We'll figure this out tomorrow then."

Honda didn't need an invitation engraved in silver. He raced swiftly down the stairs and jumped the last few steps to the landing. When he looked back up, Bakura was staring out the window in the door that led out to the rooftop- at Jounouchi.

-
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
-

Bakura Ryou came home to a dark and empty apartment as always. He slipped out of his shoes and crossed the length of the living room to greet the family portrait sitting on the shelf, "I'm home," but as always, there was no one to answer him.

He stopped to examine the photo- something he hadn't done for a long time now. He was five when the entire family took that picture and his mother was still healthy. Funny how in a span of almost a decade, the entire picture had been reduced to one person- him.

He checked the answering machine on the end table and was surprised to find he had a message waiting for him. His finger hovered over the play button before hitting it.

"Ryou, I know I said I was coming back next week, but we've made a recent discovery. I probably won't be able to come home this month after all. I'm sorry."

And that was all to be heard from his father. He had been living alone for almost two years now and he was used to it. He looked around the two bedroom apartment equipped with bath and kitchen and decided it could have been much worse. At least, he had a roof over his head… He hesitated to think of where his older brother was at the moment. No, this was enough, even if the silence was so deafening that even turning on the television or the radio did nothing to alleviate it.

He could invite Honda to the apartment. He wasn't sure how open the other boy would be to the idea. But Ryou was hard pressed to come up with another place for them to study at. He didn't think the school library was going to work out in the long run.

He walked into his room and dropped his bookbag by the side of his desk and pulled out his schoolbooks. After carefully laying them out on his desk, he sat down to start on his homework due tomorrow. He sighed and rested his chin on his propped up arm. He tried to concentrate on the work before him but found his mind wandering back to the scene on the school roof.

Everyone at Domino High School knew that two of the strongest and toughest students were Jounouchi Katsuya and Honda Hiroto, and everyone knew they were all the more formidable together. They were delinquents and most students did everything in their power to avoid either of the two. However, Ryou knew they weren't bullies. It was true that they've been caught fighting on school grounds more than a dozen times, but it was always with other delinquents or bullies. They had never been caught picking on a defenseless or weaker student nor have there been claims made of that sort.

That was what made Jounouchi and Honda different from the other delinquents in school- different from the bullies who harassed Ryou about his strange hair color or studious nature. Ryou admired the strength of the pair. Until this year, he had only seen them from afar. This year, Honda was transferred into his class and Ryou couldn't help but become fascinated with the brunette.

Honda wasn't a diligent student nor was he very sociable in general. Yet, Ryou believed he had witnessed a softer and more caring side to Honda Hiroto today. Honda was loyal to Jounouchi, if nothing else. He called the two of them brothers and Ryou imagined them to be brothers-in-arm. He shook his head when he realized what a romanticized idea that was. The fact remained though: Jounouchi and Honda were best friends through and through.

Ryou made up his mind. He was going to help Honda no matter what it took. He was going to tutor the boy to the best of his ability and give it a hundred and ten percent. He was going to help Honda repair his friendship with Jounouchi. Ryou wasn't friends with Mutou Yugi, but he was acquainted with the boy from class B since they both played Duel Monsters. He had even known Kaiba Seto on a more superficial level before he left for Tokyo. He would find a way to bridge the gap between Honda and Jounouchi with Yugi's help.

"Yes," Ryou nodded to himself. "I'm going to help Honda-kun pass English if it's the last thing I do."

With those thoughts in mind, he dove back into his work with renewed fervor. He had a diagnosis test to make after this. Maybe he could convince Honda to let him tutor the other boy in other subjects besides English as well.

-
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
-

Honda tapped his pencil- Bakura's pencil actually- against the table impatiently. He had been doodling on the library table before, but the other boy had scolded him for it. Bakura was checking over Honda's paper and then they would talk about the actual tutoring schedule. He sighed and looked toward the clock on the wall again. It was almost one o'clock. He had been here for almost an hour now but he could think of ten thousand other places he'd rather be on a Saturday afternoon.

His gaze moved away from the clock and its second hand moving in an agonizingly slow speed to the white-haired boy sitting across from him. Bakura Ryou wasn't what Honda had expected. Sure, Bakura was every bit the nerd he imagined, but there was one thing that set this boy apart from the rest of the school. He wasn't afraid of or disgusted with Honda. Even Mutou Yugi was nervous in Honda's presence.

"Honda-kun, is everything alright?" Bakura put the paper down and looked at him with concern in his amber eyes.

Honda gave a start and blinked in surprise. Then there was that. Bakura addressed him as 'Honda-kun' without a hint of mocking, like they were truly friends. "I'm fine. So?"

"Well, it's not as bad as Fujiwara-sensei would have me believe," Bakura chewed on his lower lip. Honda wanted to snort. Bakura had marked his paper with so much red it looked like it was bleeding. "The problem is you have trouble with the nuances of the language and that's where you fall into trouble. English is all about the nuances and the exceptions."

"Think you can get me to pass English?" Honda asked languidly.

Bakura's lips thinned in determination. "I will."

Bakura must either have great confidence in his own ability or Honda's. Honda thought it would have to be the former. "What's the schedule then?"

"Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday," Bakura replied. "Although, the week right before any test, I would like for us to meet every day."

Honda bit down on his tongue to keep from protesting or exploding. He reminded himself that he had no choice but to endure this. He didn't want to end up in a foster home or an orphanage. He was going to pass, even if it was only by the skin of his teeth.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Bakura bowed his head. "How do you feel about that schedule? Will that work for you?"

Honda wondered how long Bakura was going to keep surprising him in this manner. "Yea, sure, whatever."

Bakura leaned in over the table. "Are you sure? I don't want to keep you from your other responsibilities."

Honda laughed and rolled his eyes. "Stop pretending to be so dense, Bakura. You know exactly what my other 'responsibilities' are. I guess I'll just have to hold off on them until some other time. Not like I can do much on my own."

"I think you can do anything you set your mind on, Honda-kun…"

Honda blinked as he tried to comprehend the simple reply. For a moment, he almost believed Bakura had meant what he said. For a moment, he almost believed that Bakura believed in him. Such a moment never lasts.

-
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
-

After the first tutoring session, Honda decided that Bakura Ryou was one nosy bastard. It simply became unbearable during their second session:

"How are you doing with that equation?"

"Have you talked to Jounouchi-kun recently?"

"No, do you need me to show you how to do this one?"

"You should talk to Jounouchi-kun."

Honda banged his fist down on the library table. "Enough!"

Bakura blinked in surprise and dropped the book he was holding up to show Honda the example. "Honda-kun? What's wrong?"

Honda couldn't remember the last time he felt this frustrated. How could Bakura just stare at him with those trusting wide eyes as if Honda hadn't just yelled at him? "Just enough," Honda gritted his teeth. "Stop acting like you actually care, you wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for Fuijiwara."

Bakura bent over to pick up the book from the floor and Honda watched as the white-haired boy caressed the spine of the book. "True, I would have never approached you if Fujiwara-sensei hadn't arranged for it, but I really do want to help you, Honda-kun."

"And that?"

"What?"

Honda slammed his hands down on the table and stood. "That! Stop treating me so nicely, stop acting like you're my friend. We're not friends, understand?"

"I know," Bakura muttered. The quiet words made Honda stop and stare at the other boy long and hard. If Honda didn't know better, Bakura almost looked disappointed. "I would like to be though…"

Honda blinked. He didn't think he understood. "What?"

He watched as Bakura forced a hesitant smile and said, "I would like to be friends."

Honda stared at the white-haired boy. "I don't understand."

Bakura smirked. "Well, I wouldn't be tutoring you if you had book smarts."

"Why?"

"Just because," Bakura's smile seemed to become more genuine without every passing second.

Honda continued to stare at the other boy. Bakura was a puzzle to him and he was one that Honda had no hopes of ever solving. As Bakura pointed out, intelligence wasn't his strongest suit, but he had always figured his instincts counted for more. All in all, he just couldn't understand Bakura at all. The frustration he felt before just melted away into this hazy inability to comprehend.

"I've had enough for today," Honda grabbed his coat off the back of his chair. "I'm going home."

"You should at least get Jounouchi-kun a nice birthday present," Bakura called after him. "His birthday is this week."

Honda stopped but didn't turn. "How did you know?"

"It's a secret," was the only reply he received, though Honda could hear a hint of mischief in the other boy's tone.

Honda was tempted to turn around and demand an answer but he didn't. "Yeah, I'll do that."

If he had looked back, he was sure he would have found Bakura's smile was even wider than ever.

-
Be a hero in the strife!
-

Honda considered going to see Jounouchi. The only problem was he never knew where to find his best friend anymore. He couldn't call to ask either since Jounouchi didn't have a telephone in his apartment. Jounouchi-oyaji didn't use it and it would just be another way for the bill collectors to harass them so it saved them some money and trouble in the end.

A birthday present for Jounouchi… Despite the fact they had been friends for so many years, Honda always found that Jounouchi to be impossible to shop for. He stopped at the corner and furrowed his brow together in concentration. There was no way he could give Jounouchi what he really wanted, Honda didn't have the power to bring the dead back to life.

He looked up and spotted a small game shop across the street. He had seen those American playing cards that Jounouchi had picked up as a hobby recently. No doubt, that was due to the influence of Mutou yet again. He sighed and crossed the streets. It wouldn't hurt to take a look.

A bell sounded overhead as he pushed open the door. The shop was a bit dim and lit mostly by the light coming from the day outside. The shelves were cluttered with games and figurines, and a couple of cut-out figures leaned against the wall to the side. A sleepy looking old man was slumped over the counter in front a set of stairs leading up to a second floor.

Honda sauntered slowly up to the counter. He leaned against it and peered at the cards laid out behind the glass panel. He spotted some playing cards with English captions in the upper left corner. Were those the Duel Monster cards Jounouchi was so into these days?

"Looking for something in particular?"

Honda looked up and over at the old man leaning uncomfortably close to him. "I'm looking for a birthday present."

"Are you looking for something in particular?"

Honda shrugged, "I don't know, tell me about those Duel Monsters cards."

The old man's eyes seemed to light up. "Duel Monsters is an underground favorite with a number of gamers in the area. It's not nearly as popular as the Duel Masters playing card (1) since they've never been translated into Japanese. You won't find them anywhere else, we're the only shop to carry these cards in all of Domino City!" The old man puffed his chest proudly and pounded his fist against it before breaking into a fit of coughing.

Honda rolled his eyes and waited for the old man to recover. Suddenly, he heard the sound of pounding footsteps from overhead and then coming down the flight of stairs.

"Jii-chan! Are you alright?"

He recognized the voice and tensed accordingly. Mutou jumped the last few steps and ran straight to the old man's side. The little shrimp led the old man over to the stool and made him sit.

"Jii-chan! How many times do I have to tell you if you're not feeling well, you should let Okaa-san or me take care of the shop? Your body's not what it used to be." Mutou scowled his grandfather.

"I'm fine, Yugi. I was just telling him about Duel Monsters." The old man protested.

"You," Mutou glared at the old man- so the shrimp did have a bit of bite. "Stay there and I'll take care of the customer." He turned around and stared at Honda, his eyes widening in surprise. "Honda-kun!"

Honda made a noncommittal sound and pushed up on his arms. He rose to his full height and glared at the smaller boy. "Your family owns this place, Mutou?"

Mutou nodded nervously and glanced over at his grandfather out of the corner of his eyes. Honda rolled his eyes before smirking. He leaned down to Mutou's level and whispered, "Calm down, Mutou. I'm not going to do anything to you while the old man's here."

Mutou jumped back and stared up at Honda in horror. He raised an eyebrow as the short boy stuttered something incomprehensible. "You're too easy, Mutou. I have better things to do than waste time on you." He turned and started to walk away.

"Wait, Honda-kun!"

Honda just ignored him and continued to walk. Something grabbed onto his sleeve and Honda whirled around furiously. "Let go, Mutou."

"No," Mutou shook his head. "You're making Jounouchi-kun unhappy. Why do you have to be so cruel to him? He already has enough to worry about."

"Let go now, Mutou!"

"No, you have to fix whatever you did to Jounouchi-kun!"

Honda laughed bitterly. "You think this is because of something I did to Jounouchi? You're so wrong that it's sad. It's not what I did to him or even what he did to me. It's all about what you and that wretch Kaiba did to our friendship. Everything was fine before the two of you came and ruined it," he pushed Mutou back hard. "You stole my best friend. You're ever bit the disaster everyone calls you."

Mutou stared up at him with the most pathetic gawking expression and Honda sneered. Mutou sank to his knees and muttered, "I didn't mean to. I didn't mean to."

"It doesn't matter if you meant to or not because the fact is you did." Honda swung open the door and relished the sound of it hitting the wall hard.

"No," Honda heard from behind him and the smaller hand reattached itself to Honda's sleeve. "No, you're wrong."

Honda furiously tugged back his arm, but the other boy refused to let go. "I'm warning you, Mutou."

Mutou's eyes shone like the sharp edge of a knife. "I haven't done anything to you or Jounouchi-kun. You, on the other hand, haven't done anything for Jounouchi! You say you're his best friend, but where were you after he was taken by Kaiba Noa? Where were you during the preliminary hearings that Jounouchi-kun had to endure?"

Honda twisted around and grabbed Mutou's collar with his free hand. He easily lifted the shorter boy off his feet, yet Mutou didn't look afraid. For the first time, Mutou showed no fear towards Honda. "Why aren't you shaking, Mutou?" he hissed.

"I don't need to be afraid of you," Mutou held his head higher. "You're the coward."

The verbal blow struck Honda hard and he intended to pay Mutou back in full. Ignoring the fact that Mutou was still clinging to his other hand, he balled it into a fist and drew it back to strike the smaller teenager. Mutou didn't even flinch at the prospect of what's to come.

"Stop!"

Even if Mutou's grandfather hadn't interrupted when he did, Honda didn't think he would have been able to bring himself to hit Mutou. There was something about Mutou's steady gaze that made Honda hesitate.

Because he speaks the truth, a nasty little voice whispered in Honda's mind.

He dropped Mutou and stormed out of the tiny shop.

-
Trust no future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act-act in the living present!
-

"Bakura-kun."

Ryou looked up at the sound of his name and then smiled, "Good afternoon, Anzu-san."

Mazaki Anzu placed her hands on her hips and frowned slightly. "How many times do I have to tell you it's just Anzu? Even Jounouchi calls me that."

"Ah," Ryou diverted his gaze back to the front of the room where Fujiwara was questioning Honda for a second. "Can I help you with something, Anzu-san?"

Anzu sighed loudly and held out a thin notebook. "I'm returning the history notes that Yugi-kun borrowed from you. He says thank you."

Ryou took the book and placed it on his desk. He couldn't resist the urge to sneak another peek at Honda. He wished he was at Honda's side, but Fujiwara-sensei insisted on talking with the other boy alone.

"So it's true."

Ryou blinked in confusion and turned his attention back to Anzu. "What?"

Anzu smiled and leaned forward over the desk behind Bakura's. "About you and Honda Hiroto."

"What about us?" He tensed up and glanced nervously around. Was someone spreading rumors about them?

"That you're tutoring him," she sighed. "What else would anyone say about you two?"

He relaxed and smiled. "Yes, I am. He really needs the help."

Anzu frowned, pouting almost. It was a cute expression. Bakura could see why Yugi liked her so much. "I don't see how you can do it. Get along with Honda that is."

"He's not so bad. Honda-kun's just a bit rough around the edges."

"Jounouchi's a bit rough around the edges. Honda Hiroto is…" she trailed off.

Ryou narrowed his eyes. "I won't allow you to say anything rude about Honda-kun."

She stared at him. "I just don't understand why you're so protective of him, Bakura-kun. I know he's Jounouchi's friend and all, but…"

"You said it yourself. Honda-kun is Jounouchi-kun's best friend. You don't think Jounouchi-kun's that bad of judge of character, do you?" He snapped.

"Of course not," she protested. "I'm just trying to understand why he's so worthy of your…respect… I don't want you to get hurt anymore than Yugi-kun or Jounouchi."

Ryou stared down at the floor in horror. He had completely misunderstood Anzu's intentions. Anzu wasn't like some of the other girls in the school and he couldn't understand why he would think otherwise even for a second. Lifting his gaze from the floor, he found it moving once again in Honda's direction.

"I've always admired him, Anzu-san," Ryou began very quietly. "When I first came to this city about two years ago, I had no one but Aniue (2). It didn't really matter to me though, I was fine by myself. The bullies saw me as an easy target. One day, a few of them cornered me in the yard and started taunting me. I didn't respond to them because I was used to it, but they became angry when I wouldn't react and tried to hit me. That was when Honda-kun stepped in and stopped them."

Ryou closed his eyes before continuing, watching as the events played out once again behind his eyelids. "I told him I could take care of myself, but he said that didn't matter. He said he couldn't stand to see people pick on others for no good reason. He said I wasn't a rival or a threat to them and he wasn't going to let them get away with throwing their weight around for nothing. He wasn't defending me, Honda-kun just hated to see that kind of behavior. I only respected him more because of that. I was nothing like him. I was just a shell of a person. He made me want to change all that, to become more like him. I wanted to be able to stand up for something, for someone, like he did."

"Bakura-kun…"

Ryou smiled softly at her. "He made me a better person, a far better person than I had ever been. He doesn't know that but I'll forever treasure him for that. I won't let anything or anyone harm him if it's the last thing I do. I'll protect him in whatever way I can."

She pushed herself off the desk and moved around it. She enveloped him in a tight hug and he swore he felt the dampness of tears at the base of his neck. "Anzu-san?"

Her words were muffled, but he could still hear them clearly and they warmed his heart. "You are a good person, Bakura-kun. You're a wonderful and caring human being so don't ever forget that."

"All thanks to Honda-kun." Ryou returned her hug briefly.

She pulled away and quickly wiped away the tears gathered at the corner of her eyes. "Don't you dare tell Jounouchi I cried."

He laughed softly. "I wouldn't dream about it."

She gave him a brilliant smile. "I guess we both have someone we want to protect with our lives. Let's do our best, Bakura-kun."

Ryou nodded.

"I have to get back to my class now. I'll see you some other time, Bakura-kun." She waved over her shoulder and ran out of the classroom.

Ryou jumped when he heard Honda speak, "I didn't know you knew Mazaki."

"Yugi-kun and I both play Duel Monsters so I'm acquainted with Anzu-san by association." He turned and smiled up at Honda.

"I see… so that's how you knew about Jounouchi's birthday." There was a hard expression on Honda's face.

"Honda-kun…" Ryou reached out and brushed his hand against Honda's arm. He wondered if something had happened. "Are you angry?"

Are you mad at me for being associated with Mutou Yugi in any way?

Honda gave a startle and shook his head before quickly looking away. "Forget it. Are you ready to leave? Fujiwara finally got tired of trying to lecture my ears off."

Ryou wanted to ask Honda about Yugi, but the subject was perhaps better left untouched. "He's just looking out for you."

"I know but it doesn't mean I have to like it. So, library?"

"No," Ryou threw a mock glare at the taller boy. "We got kicked out and banned last time, remember?"

"Right. So where are we going to?" Honda crossed his arms over his chest.

Ryou just smiled, "My house."

-
Heart within, and God o'erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
-

"Nice place." Honda had rarely been to a place as nice as Bakura's apartment. But after looking around the apartment, it seemed barely lived in. It felt too cold and impersonal to him.

Bakura took both of their jackets and hung them up in a closet to the side. He pointed to the leather couch flanked by matching loveseats and armchair, "Please have a seat, Honda-kun. Would you like something to drink?"

"A coke?" Honda furrowed his brow. Did someone like Bakura even drink soda?

"I'll be right back." Bakura walked off to what must have been the kitchen in the next room over.

One wall of the room was nothing but a large window overlooking the streets below. The other three walls were covered with photos of ancient ruins. Honda recognized pictures of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. A wire shelf was filled with various strange knick knacks and a few more picture frames. Honda walked over and picked up an arrowhead before looking at some of the photos.

Two of them were two white-haired boys and another blond-haired girl playing together in the park. One of them, the younger white-haired boy, had to be Bakura but the two other…siblings, maybe? He looked over at the last photo- it was a family portrait. There was a tall man that looked nothing like Bakura standing at the shoulders of a delicate woman with all of Bakura's features. To either side of the seated woman, Bakura and his older counterpart stood. The youngest girl was seated in the woman's lap. They were all smiling so happily.

"That's my family."

Honda jumped. He placed the arrowhead back on the shelf and turned to Bakura. The other boy just smiled sadly and handed him a can of soda.

Honda snatched it and opened it. After taking a big gulp, he said, "You really look like your mom."

The other boy's smile grew even sadder. "I know. Chichiue always says that about Aniue and me."

Honda looked back at the photo. Upon closer examination, the older white-haired boy looked out of place with his slightly miffed expression. "Your older brother? How come I've never seen him around? I can't imagine I could miss someone with hair that stands out like yours."

"Aniue isn't here anymore."

Honda barely caught Bakura's words. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"No," Bakura shook his head. "You misunderstood. Aniue left about two years ago as soon as he turned eighteen. We haven't heard from him since."

Honda nodded awkwardly. This really wasn't any of his business… "He looks like he can take care of himself."

He swore he heard Bakura mutter, "Unlike me."

Honda took another drink from his soda before continuing, "I'm sure the rest of your family misses him just as much."

Bakura walked past him and picked up the picture frame. "It's just Chichiue and me now."

"I'm sorry, are your parents divorced?" Why was this conversation still going on? This was none of Honda's business and the situation was just becoming awkward.

"No, Hanaue and Amane-chan passed away years ago. Chichiue is in Jerusalem right now. It's just me most of the time…"

Honda frowned and watched as the other boy caressed the figures in the photo gently. Bakura was even worse off than him in many ways. Either Miyuki or Sempai was always around, even if they were always annoying him about his schoolwork or something else. He even had Takaharu- that brat. It was then that Honda recalled that Bakura didn't have any friends in school.

"How can you stand it?" Honda knew he shouldn't be asking such a question but he couldn't help himself.

When had Bakura Ryou become this interesting to him?

"Stand what?" Bakura tilted his head to the side.

"Being by yourself, having no one at your side." He gestured fruitlessly as he struggled to find the right words without offending Bakura.

When did he start to care about Bakura Ryou's feelings?

The white-haired boy placed the frame back on the self before turning to face Honda fully. "Because I'm not as good a person as Honda-kun is."

"What?" Honda was flabbergasted by Bakura's reply. "What do you mean?"

Bakura walked over to the couch and sat down. He started pulling out books and setting them on the coffee table in front of him. Bakura looked up and smiled, "We should start. It's getting late."

-
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
-

Ryou sighed as he saw Honda's attention beginning to wander again. The first test since he started tutoring the brunette was tomorrow. It was true that it was an unusually nice January day, but they needed to concentrate. Honda had to pass this test.

"Honda-kun."

The other boy only blinked.

"Honda-kun." Ryou cried.

Honda gave a start and shook his head in confusion. "What?"

Ryou sighed again. "Honda-kun, you have to concentrate. The test is tomorrow and we need to show Fujiwara you've improved," he tossed his head back and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "I know how you feel, I'm feeling a bit cooped up too."

When he lowered his head again, he was surprised to find Honda staring at him with an intense expression. "What is it? Do I have something on my face?" He rubbed his cheek.

"No, it's just…"

"What?" Ryou asked curiously.

"Let's go out." Honda blurted out suddenly.

Ryou felt the blood rush suddenly to his face. Opening his mouth to speak, he found his tongue was tied. He closed his mouth and swallowed before trying again, "Par…pardon?"

"Let's get out of here," Honda gestured to the rest of the apartment. "And go out for a while. We've been studying non-stop. I'm not the only who could use a break." He planted both hands on the tabletop. "You need one too."

"But the test," Ryou protested weakly. Didn't Honda understand how important this was?

Honda reached across the table and grabbed his hand. When he stood, he pulled Ryou up with him. After dropping the hand, Honda picked up both their discarded jackets and shoved Ryou's against his chest. "Come on, we're going out for a bit."

No matter how much he protested, Ryou couldn't deter Honda and they were out on the streets in less than five minutes.

"Where do you want to go?" Honda looked back as he dragged Ryou through the streets.

Ryou didn't answer at first as he stared at their intertwined hands. Honda's hands were warm and protective. They were hands that had fought and been injured for the sake of others. Ryou was sure he would follow Honda to the end of the earth and back, "Doesn't matter, anywhere you want."

Honda stopped at the corner to think for a second. He turned to Ryou again. "How about we go to a movie then? The new Jean Claude Magnum film is out. I always go see those with Jounouchi since they're his favorite, but…" Honda trailed off.

Ryou tensed and set his lips in a firm line. He made up his mind and walked ahead of Honda. "Let's go then. We're wasting daylight. You still have three pages of English exercises to complete after this."

"Do I have to?" Honda sulked.

He laughed and Honda smiled. Honda took the lead and guided Ryou towards the movie theater just a few blocks away.

Ryou reached into his jacket pocket but he couldn't find his wallet. "Wait, Honda-kun, we have to go back. I don't have my wallet."

Honda tossed Ryou an easy-going smile over his shoulder. "I'm not letting you get away so easily so don't worry about it and just trust me."

Ryou's heart was pounding and butterflies fluttered at the bottom of his stomach. His hand felt sweaty in the hold of Honda's larger one. Lowering his eyes to the pavement to hide the flush of red on his face, he knew he could trust Honda to lead him. He was surprised when Honda suddenly veered him to the left and into an alleyway. "What? Where are we?"

"We're going to sneak in." Honda replied in a matter of fact manner.

"What! We can't do that!"

"Come on, live a little. You didn't bring your wallet, and Jounouchi and I've snuck into this theater dozens of times before. It's easy and we've never been caught before." Honda let go of Ryou's hand and leaned back against the wall next to the theater's employee exit.

Honda's words made Ryou's breath catch in his throat. There was an implicit sort acceptance hidden in what Honda said. It made Ryou feel honored more than anything else, to be able to share in these things that Honda and his best friend did exclusively.

"How do we get in then?" he asked quietly.

Honda smirked in a triumphant manner. "I'll go in first and make sure the coast is clear. You just wait here."

Honda opened the door and slipped into the theater. About ten minutes later, Honda still hadn't returned and Ryou was beginning to worry. Had Honda been caught? After all the times he'd done this, was Honda finally caught on the one occasion he came with Ryou? Ryou gathered his courage and reached for the door. He jumped back when it suddenly swung outwards. Honda's head poked out from behind the door.

"What took you so long? I was worried." Ryou muttered.

"Sorry, but it's fine now. Come on."

Ryou took a deep breath and followed. He had never done anything like this in his entire life. This was the sort of thing his brother would do, but not Ryou. The hall was empty and he could hear the muffled sound of movies through the wall. Honda grabbed his hand once again and led him into the hallway with the theaters.

"The Jean Claude Magnum movie is already half-way through. Do you mind or do you want to watch something else?" Honda asked.

A poster caught Ryou's attention out of the corner of his eyes. Looking up, he saw that the next showing was just about to start. "How about that?" he pointed hesitantly to theater number four.

Honda furrowed his brow together. "Tokyo Godfathers (3)? An anime?"

Ryou nodded. "It's the newest movie from Kon Satoshi. I've heard really good things about it, but if you don't want to…"

Ryou watched as Honda paused to think about it. The other boy glanced at him before smiling, "Well, since you're trying something new today, it wouldn't kill me either."

He didn't think he would ever let go of Honda's hand unless they were pried apart by a crowbar.

-
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
-

"I guess it wasn't so bad." Honda admitted as they exited through the way they entered.

"Wasn't bad? I could have sworn I saw you cry a bit at the end." Bakura teased.

Honda glared at the shorter boy, but Bakura's smile only widened. He looked up at the sky and sighed. It was already dark. "I guess we should get back to studying then."

However, they couldn't get out of the alley because of the group of people blocking the entrance. Honda immediately stepped in front of Bakura but the other boy continued to peer curiously over Honda's shoulder. "Jizawa."

"Ah, Honda, where's Jounouchi today? You found someone new to play with?" Jizawa sneered.

"I don't have time to play with you, Jizawa. Out of my way." Honda growled.

The group stepped forward with Jizawa in the lead. "I'll tell you when you're done."

The first of the goons broke away from the group and rushed Honda. After ducking a punch thrown at him, Honda rammed forward into his attacker's solar plexus, concentrating all his strength and momentum on that one area. His attacker flew back and collapsed against a trash bin.

Bringing his fists up to shield his face, he challenged, "Anyone else?"

Bakura sidled up to his side and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Let's just go, Honda-kun."

"It's not that simple," he hissed. "They're not going to just let us go."

Jizawa and his goons chuckled. One of them moved forward and grabbed a fistful of Bakura's hair. "Who's this? Is it a girl? It's kind of hard to tell."

Before Honda could react, Bakura reached up and smacked the offending hand to the side. "I'm very much a man, now leave us alone."

"Ehh…" the goon raised an eyebrow, "You got guts, pretty boy. Let's see how much after I beat you into a pulp."

"Leave him out of this!" Honda screamed.

Bakura suddenly drew his arms around as if he was trying to hug himself before swinging his upper arm down to block the incoming punch. Then in one fluid movement, he snapped his hips and punched with the other fist drawn close to his side, sending the goon stumbling back. Honda stood frozen to the spot where he stood as he watched Bakura draw both fists up to his face and kicked forward. All of Bakura's moves flowed from one into another with practiced fluidity.

"Aniue taught me a lot of things before he left. He was a double black belt for a reason." Bakura never let his guard or fists down. "Anyone else care to try?"

"Impressive indeed, it only goes to show that those you least expect are always the most dangerous." A long shadow fell over the entrance of the alley and Honda tensed.

He turned very slowly to meet the gaze of a young woman in her early twenties leaning against the brick wall with a lit cigarette was caught between her long but delicate fingers. Her eyes were a deep violet that matched the color of her two-piece suit and her blond curls fell to her waist.

"I'm sorry boys, but I need to talk with Honda Hiroto-kun first." She said before taking a drag from her cigarette. "I'm sure you can lend him to me for a bit."

"Says you," Jizawa growled. "We got here first so back off."

She sighed and reached inside her jacket. Everyone tensed, waiting to see if she was drawing a gun. Instead, her hand emerged with a bundle of yen notes. She sneered and threw them at Jizawa's feet. "I believe that should be more than enough compensation for a bit of Honda-kun's time. Don't worry, I'll return him unharmed, if he chooses to cooperate that is."

One of Jizawa's goons bent down and retrieved the money. He unfurled the bills and began counting. By the time he was through, his jaw was hanging open. "Jizawa, there's over 50000 yen here."

"Give me that!" Jizawa immediately snatched the money from his subordinate. He eyed the bills suspiciously for a few seconds before pocketing them. "Alright, onee-chan. You can do whatever you want with him, he's doesn't mean anything to us."

Honda seethed over the indignation of his position. He had just been sold like cattle, and not just him, Bakura too. He watched as Jizawa and his people scurried away and vanished around the corner. Honda moved closer to Bakura since he didn't know what this woman had up her sleeves. Normal people didn't go around with that much money just to save a few delinquents from getting roughed over.

"What do you want?" Honda snarled.

"Like I said, I just want to talk with you Honda-kun." She smiled with painted scarlet lips.

Drawing Bakura behind him, he shook his head. "I'll pass, onee-chan. I'm sure you have better things to be doing than talking with a low-life delinquent like me."

Her smile widened and flicked her cigarette to the ground. "But I insist."

"Honda-"

Honda spun around in alarm, but he wasn't quick enough to save Bakura from the large bulky man. The smaller boy struggled in the man's headlock. The man grunted and lifted Bakura until his feet was dangling. Bakura made slight choking sounds as he tried to breathe normally over the strong grip around his neck. Honda cursed as he caught sight of the gun pressed against Bakura's side. Who were these people?

"Let him go," Honda growled. "He has nothing to do with this. You want me, right?"

She strolled past Honda and drew another cigarette from the carton. "We'll take him along as insurance. I appreciate your cooperation, Honda-kun."

Honda glared furiously at the woman and wished she would just drop dead. She rummaged through her pockets- most likely for a lighter. The man holding Bakura hostage pocketed his gun and flicked open a lighter with his free hand while still holding his hostage. Honda swallowed. He couldn't fight against that, especially when there was a gun involved.

"Thank you, Sawatari." She leaned over and lit the end of her cigarette. She turned to Honda and blew a wisp of smoke in his direction. "Shall we be going?"

Honda had no choice but to follow. He could have gotten away on his own but he wasn't going to leave Bakura behind. There was a limousine waiting by the corner and the bodyguard moved ahead to open the door. She stepped in first and crooked a finger at Honda, "Please come in."

Honda hesitated for a second. There was no way to escape once they got into the limousine. He lost his footing when a sudden force slammed into his back and he fell onto the seat right across from their kidnapper. He twisted his body around just in time to catch Bakura, who Sawatari had just tossed into the limo like a ragdoll. They were so close that Honda could smell Bakura's soap.

"Watch what you're doing!" Honda screamed furiously just as Sawatari slammed the door. He tried to sit up but their legs were entangled. "Move Bakura, you're heavy."

Bakura planted his hands on Honda's chest and pushed up. "I'm sorry, Honda-kun." The white-haired boy froze suddenly as he glanced down at Honda.

Honda narrowed his eyes as he looked up into Bakura's strange expression. He had never been a position like this before and… He didn't know what to make of it. He felt wisps of Bakura's long hair brush against his cheek and realized it felt as soft as it looked. Bakura's weight was heavier than he thought, but it wasn't as uncomfortable as he claimed it was. Who knew there was such depth to such a seemingly dull person?

Bakura moved off his chest slowly, as if he didn't really want to. Honda pushed up on his forearms before sitting up. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the woman seated across from him. He felt Bakura move closer to his side and take Honda's hand. "What do you want with us?"

The smoke from her cigarette hung heavy in the air. "Just you, Honda-kun."

"Why me?" He studied her carefully to determine if she was carrying a gun too. This situation could deteriorate quickly if Honda didn't act right.

"Tell me about your friend, Jounouchi Katsuya-kun." She took another drag from her cigarette.

Honda clenched his jaws together. "I have nothing to say about that bastard. He's not my friend anymore, not since he got cozied up to Mutou."

Bakura gave him a bewildered look and his grip on Honda's hand tightened.

"Eh?" she smirked. "So it's true that the two men gang of the badlands has broken up. Jounouchi-kun hasn't told you anything about his relationship with Kaiba Seto?"

"Why would I know anything about Kaiba-yaro?" Honda turned his head and glared spitefully out of the window. He tried to catch the street name as they flew past but he couldn't. Where were they? "Why don't you tell me this? Who are you?"

She crossed one leg over the other and smiled as her skirt rode up. "Kujaku Mai. Are you sure you have nothing to say about your former friend?"

He narrowed his eyes. "Absolutely nothing."

Kujaku glanced over at Bakura to the side. "Are you absolutely sure? It's not right to lie to a lady and if I find that you're lying, something unpleasant might happen to your friend here."

He sneered. He didn't know why this woman wanted to know about Jounouchi, but he wasn't going to just let her do as she pleased. "Do whatever you want, he's just my tutor."

Kujaku smiled again. "Eh, you're very interesting, Honda-kun. You'd probably do well if you came and worked for me."

He growled under his breath. What the hell had Jounouchi gotten himself into now? That boy just couldn't stay out of trouble and once again, Honda would have to bail his sorry ass out. "No thanks, I have no interest in selling my soul to the yakuza."

She tapped her finger against her chin while studying Honda. He kept his expression steady but guarded. Kujaku Mai wasn't going to get what she wanted out of him. She smiled and shook her head. "That's really too bad then. I'll ask one last favor of you, Honda-kun, don't interfere with my business."

The limousine came to a sudden stop. Honda tensed in preparation to fight.

"Now get out of my car. I don't need a little street rat dirtying the interior," she flicked her cigarette at Honda and he bit down a hiss when it burned against his cheek. "That's all you'll ever be, a good for nothing street rat."

Honda pushed Bakura toward the door. "Yakuza are the rats, I'm just a punk." When Bakura didn't open the door, he reached over and did so. "Move it already, Bakura."

Bakura scrambled out of the car and Honda followed calmly. Kujaku grabbed his hand just as he pulled one leg clear of the car. "Pray that we don't meet again, Honda Hiroto."

He sneered at her in return and jerked his hand out of her loose grip. "I don't pray." He stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind him. He glared after the car as it vanished into the distance.

"Honda-kun…?"

Honda sighed. Now he had to explain himself to Bakura. No doubt he must have thrown Bakura off with his bastard act. He turned and opened his mouth to explain but stopped when Bakura reached up to caress the slight burn on his cheek. Honda shivered under the gentle touch.

"You're so brave, Honda-kun, the way you acted and stood up to her." Bakura muttered what seemed to be an admiring tone to Honda.

"You weren't fooled by my act for a second? Was I that transparent? Do you think that woman bought it?" Honda ended his questions on a slightly frantic note.

"No," Bakura exclaimed. "I almost believed what you said about Jounouchi-kun, but I knew better than that. I believe in you, Honda-kun. I know you would never do anything to hurt Jounouchi-kun even in the situation right now. I know you're a good person no matter what." Bakura applied a bit more pressure to the burn and Honda winced involuntarily. "Does it hurt?"

"I'm fine," Honda grunted.

He suddenly felt something wet on his cheek. He turned his head and caught Bakura's hand against his face. He pulled it away and saw two fingertips glistening with saliva.

"I was just worried about the burn. Since we don't have any rubbing alcohol on us, I figured that saliva was better than nothing," Bakura began babbling with pleading eyes. "Please don't get mad."

Honda sighed. "How can I get mad at you when you look at me like that? I don't get you at all, Bakura."

Bakura just smiled and replied, "It's a good thing tomorrow's test isn't on me then."

Honda felt his heart constrict painfully in his chest. In the past two weeks or so, he had become accustomed to Bakura's kind words and encouraging smiles. No one had ever treated him in the same way Bakura did- as if he was truly precious. Looking down at Bakura's hand held in his, Honda had to wonder if he had said all he did to protect his tutor from danger and not Jounouchi.

"Come on," Honda held fast to Bakura's hand. "I'll walk you home."

Bakura nodded shyly and for that moment, Honda almost believed he'd be willing to give his life to protect this person. The only problem was that almost belief refused to go away afterwards.

-
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
-

Ryou forced his arms to lie perfectly still as he faced Fujiwara-sensei. The teacher sighed and held up a test paper- Ryou's test paper. He bit his lips when he saw the large 70 marked on the head of the paper.

Fujiwara-sensei lowered the paper before asking, "What happened, Bakura-kun? You've always done so well. Why the sudden drop in grades?"

Ryou bowed deeply and didn't straighten up. "Forgive me, Fujiwara-sensei, I just couldn't concentrate. I promise I'll do better on the next test."

"Stand up," Fujiwara-sensei sighed. "I'm not angry, Bakura-kun. I'm just concerned for you."

"And I thank Sensei for you concern." Ryou scrambled to reply but paused before asking, "How did Honda-kun do?"

Fujiwara-sensei fished out another test paper from the pile and laid it on the desk. Ryou breathed a sigh of relief after he saw the 80 scrawled on top of the page.

"I'm very pleased with the progress Honda-kun has made, but we can't allow him to fall behind either. This should satisfy the Child Guidance Center for now."

"I'll make sure of that."

Fujiwara-sensei frowned. "Are you sure? I don't want you to fall behind in your studies either, Bakura-kun. Is tutoring Honda-kun distracting you too much from your own school work?"

Ryou shook his head furiously, "I'll be honest and admit that it's stretching me a bit, but I want to do this. I want to be able to help Honda-kun in whatever way I can."

"Fine, but you will tell me if he becomes too much of a burden." Fujiwara-sensei ordered.

Ryou smiled with absolute confidence, "He could never be a burden to me." He bowed again before exiting the teachers' office.

Honda was waiting for him outside. Ryou hadn't expected it but it warmed his heart for some strange reason. The other boy crossed his arms over his chest and tried to appear aloof. "What did Fujiwara want?"

"You passed the test, Honda-kun. You did even better than me."

Honda gaped at him. "You're joking. I actually did better than you," He stepped forward and placed a hand on Ryou's forehead. "Are you sick?"

Ryou swatted Honda's hand away but he could still feel the hot imprint of the hand against his face. "I'm fine. It was just a fluke." He started down the hallway and Honda followed.

"Does that mean I have to tutor you now?" Honda asked flippantly.

Ryou lightly slapped Honda's shoulder. "Don't get cocky now. We still have a long way to go. I'm not done with you yet, Honda Hiroto, so you're not going to get away that easily."

-
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
- "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
-


The Stay With Me arc continues with Trial By Fire