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A Dangerous Game

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Stale breath on the back of your neck. Claws scraping over concrete.

        You're running...again. Air burns as it's pulled into heaving lungs.

        People stare, confused as you rush past. Polished loafers slapping the sidewalk. A frail girl booking it as if her life depends on it--because yours does. Perhaps they assume you're late for a bus home after cram school.

        Father was supposed to pick you up but, like always, he forgot. Too caught up in paperwork and business calls.

        Fatigue drags at your muscles, they feel like lead. You can't flee forever. You'll eventually run out of steam.

        The people on the street can't see it. The monster hunting you, snarling and snorting as it leaps over benches and darts around lamp posts. It's almost like it's toying with you. Playing an amusing game of cat and mouse. It could have you in its clutches in one bound if it really wanted.

        Can't anyone at least smell it though? A stench like rotting fruit wafting by.

        "Hey, watch it!" A man cries, scandalized when you clip his shoulder and almost lose your bag.

        Are you hallucinating? Delusional? Why does it feel so real?

        Through tears, you make out a neon sign, faint in the sunlight.

GAMES

        In big, bold lettering. The building is smaller than the newer complexes surrounding it. It looks out of place with faded orange paint that's begun to peel off and wooden trimmings that look ready to fall apart. There's an OPEN sign hanging out front.

        You're drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

        The door sticks at first. A loud growl from behind sending chills through every nerve. You nearly crumple to the ground but another tug and it swings open with a bang. You stumble inside without bothering to close the door, falling to your hands and knees as sobs overtake you.

        Surely this is it.

        For what seems the longest time all you can hear is the blood rushing through your head. Heart pounding. Breathe ragged. The cool tile is unpleasant on your bare knees.

        A furious roar sounds over the rush of traffic.

        Slowly, you turn just enough to catch a glimpse of the beast over your shoulder.

        It's a mass of rippling muscle and greasy fur. A sharp grin stretches across its ugly mug as it paces before the entrance, gnashing yellowed teeth. For some reason, it won't even attempt to cross the threshold.

        "Are you alright?!" The worried voice is familiar. "[Surname]-chan?!"

        It's..."M-Mutou-san?" Mutou Yuugi? The kid who always spends breaktime alone at his desk? You're a first year and he's in his third but he's famous for being kind of a dork so...but you've never really spoken all that much. If it wasn't for the messy, multi-colored spikes you probably wouldn't recognize him. He's concerned, violet eyes staring down the monster as he comes out from behind the shop counter. He doesn't seem afraid, at least not as afraid as you are.

        "You can see it?" You've never met anyone else who could. For the longest time you've been assuming something was wrong with you and you alone.

        "You too?" He's frowning. A hand is thrust in front of you. It takes a second to process he's offering to help.

        You shake like a leaf as he lifts you to your feet. "I-I'm so, so...sorry." You barely manage to get out, clutching to him like a lifeline.

        He shakes his head, blond bangs swaying. Does he dye them? You've never seen the roots growing back dark. "It's alright, it can't get you in here. There're wards."

        You don't know what that means. Wards? Like symbols and seals?

        "What are you doing?! Close that door, foolish boy!" A stout elderly gentleman slams it closed, muttering curses under his breath. He must be Mutou's grandfather. There's a strong resemblance. Both of them sport coarse, wild hair and their eyes are the same shape and striking color. Being vertically challenged must also run in the family, not that you have much room to talk.

        "Sorry, grandpa..."

        "Now, what do we have here?" Grandpa Mutou shuffles over, hands clasped behind his back.

        It takes a moment before you realize he's addressing you. "I was ju-just on my way home and...and that thing..." It's always uncomfortable for near strangers to see you in such a state. Red, tear-stained cheeks and all.

        "How about something to drink?" Grandpa Mutou pulls at the straps of his overhauls. They're pretty ugly. Who would want denim stained green?

        You nod and let them lead you towards the back of the shop. The store doubles as their home. While not the fancy dwelling of people with money, it's cozy and welcoming. The storefront itself is just a haphazard collection of toys and, of course, games. The shelves full to bursting with knickknacks. They don't stock any of the popular stuff kids obsess over. It's mostly trading cards and other niche odds and ends.

        They must have a lot of trust in their customers since the only thing separating their living quarters from the shop is an archway behind the cash register.

        "Do you like tea? I do." Grandpa Mutou shuffles around the kitchenette, searching every cabinet for a pot to boil water. There's already a half-pot of coffee sitting by the microwave. He's made the wise decision not to offer caffeine to relax over.

        You sit beside his grandson at a well-worn breakfast table. It could fit four people but it's been pushed against the wall so that only three seats remain.

        "Do you need to call someone?" Mutou asks, twiddling his thumbs.

        "I'll just, like, send a text." You sniff, picking at the hem of your pleated skirt. A standard article for most uniforms. You don't want your voice to betray you if you end up calling. You shoot a message to your mom.

Can you pick me up? I'm at Kame Game Shop.


       
Grandpa Mutou is by the stove, waiting for the pot to start whistling but he's watching the two of you 'discreetly'.

        "Is this the first time?" Mutou wonders with a hint of nervousness. He might not want to pry too deep but curiosity is a powerful thing.

        You'd transferred to Domino High because you kept having 'episodes' at your previous school. Freaking out over 'nothing' is apparently frowned upon. Causing disturbances in order to escape was the last straw though. Your parents had been so disappointed. "No, they chase me a lot...actually."

        He shares a look with his grandfather then places a hand on your arm, so gentle he almost isn't making contact. "Hey, it's alright. They're pretty scary but they can't get to you in here. I promise."

        Grandpa Mutou places three mugs on the table. The subtle, flowery aroma of chamomile mingling with his black sludge. He sighs as he eases himself into the only remaining seat. "You probably have a lot of questions."

        You almost burn your tongue on the first sip, impatient. "I thought I was just crazy. Maybe I still am!"

        The wizened man takes a gulp, brows furrowed. "You really don't know anything about monsters then?"

        A flood courses through your mind. There's so much you'd like to know. "Are they really...real? Where do they come from?" You try not to fire everything off at once.

        Grandpa Mutou leans back with a heavy sigh, fingers tapping along the wood grain. "They're quite real but...as for where they come from? That's another thing entirely. A lesson for a different day."

        You want to scoff and press him for information. He probably has a good reason for not going into detail though.

        The younger Mutou perks up. The smallest of smiles curling his lips. "Wanna be let in on a little secret of mine?"

        The screech of nails sliding down glass interrupts whatever else he was about to say. You jump, sloshing tea over your hand. The heat stings. The monster glares through the window. A long, slimy tongue lolling out its mouth.

        "I have something really cool to show you!" Mutou yells as he stands, almost toppling his chair. You're practically dragged up a flight of stairs to his bedroom and away from the monster circling the house.

        He immediately goes red when he realizes that you, a girl and strict acquaintance, is now a witness to his disorganized mess. Discarded socks, unmade bed, and random toys sprawled all over the place. It could be worse, you've seen worse. "Uhm, do you like puzzles? I have a very special one."

        "I guess." You sit on the edge of his bed, observing him in full for the first time as he digs around the top drawer of his dresser. His hair is black but there's a reddish sheen to it that's most evident towards the tips and quite obvious when the light hits it right. He has pretty thick eyelashes for a boy too. His mesmerizing purple irises seem to change depending on the lighting, day, and his current mood. Other kids have teased him for being feminine but besides the baby fat still clinging to his face, he's otherwise pretty masculine, with a sharp jawline and neat profile. He's just unlucky enough to be...small.

        There's bruising on his cheek and a split lip with dribbles of blood still clinging to the corner of his mouth. "Are you okay? You look like...like someone roughed you up."

        There's no cheer in his short bark of laughter. "Maybe. It's not a big deal though." He's found what he's looking for. A golden box engraved with...hieroglyphics? It glitters in the fading orange sunset that falls through a skylight. It must be nice for him to lie in bed and see the stars at night.

        "Was it Ushio? I know it was, he was hassling Jonouchi and Honda today. He's always picking fights." You cross your arms with a huff, feeling a bit guilty you didn't notice the fact he'd been hurt. Now that you're beginning to calm down, pulse slowing, things are coming into focus. "That bully and his made up club."

        Mutou shrugs, opening the box. "It's not a big deal, really. Just a misunderstanding. But here, look!" He sits cross-legged on the floor, showing you what's inside the box. A pile of geometric shapes. They fit together somehow but it's hard to tell what they're supposed to create.

        "Wow, it's pretty. Is that real gold?" You muse, entranced. It certainly looks like the precious metal.

        The mood has changed somewhat. The atmosphere no longer sufficiently awkward. Mutou is obviously proud of his puzzle. "Well, it's an ancient magical artifact pulled from an Egyptian tomb...so, yeah, my bet is it's real gold!" He picks out a piece and holds it up for examination. "I haven't been able to solve it yet but it always helps me feel better to concentrate on it. Like a lucky charm."

        "Ancient magic?" At least he's trying to distract and make you feel better by sharing something important to him. Whatever lurks outside feels farther and farther away by the second.

        "It's supposed to grant the wish of whoever solves it." Mutou dumps the pieces on the carpet and lines them up. "Grandpa says the archeologists who found it all died mysteriously. But I haven't met any curses yet!"

        What? Death? Curse? Suddenly it isn't so pretty and more so foreboding. He seems to think it's cool though.

        "Why keep it around if it's so dangerous?" You squeak.

        He grins. "I want my wish granted!" Then a thought occurs to him. "But you have to promise to keep it a secret."

        You nod, "Of course."

        He fiddles with the pieces, trying to stick them together. It's quiet for the most part save for you occasionally pointing out where a piece should go. I don't even want to know how they got this weird haunted magical thing in the first place.

       "It's almost like it wants me to solve it now! It's never been so easy!" He hums, forehead creasing as all distractions are zoned out.

        "You've almost got it!" A pyramid begins to take shape as each part clicks together.

        "Yeah, but...I think a piece is missing!" Mutou proceeds to search through the dresser. Turning over clothes in every drawer. His desk is next. He's trying not to let it show but there's panic bubbling up to the surface. It must be hard to have worked so long only to get stuck.

        "Maybe it rolled under the bed." You're reminded of the bruises on your knees when the skin scrapes against the rug. You blindly wave your hand in the shadows, hoping to grasp something small and cold. There's only a dusty Rubiks cube and some discarded mangas. Mutou is biting his lip and twirling a thick strand of bangs around his finger. "Don't do that, you'll make the cut worse."

        He tugs at the lock of hair, flicks his tongue over the split as if to clean it. "It can't be gone!"

        There's a knock, Grandpa Mutou leans against the doorframe. He has a kind smile but his brow is furrowed. "I came to check in. [Surname]-chan's mother is here."

        You've likely overstayed your welcome already. "I'm sorry for being an inconvenience." You give a curt bow.

        Grandpa Mutou shrugs. "Not at all." He then notices his grandson's tense disposition. "What's wrong?"

        Mutou's shoulders slump. "A piece of the puzzle is missing! I was so close to finishing it!"

        Grandpa Mutou chuckles, grabbing his grandson's hand and placing something in it. "Hard work pays off. A young man dropped this off earlier today. You must've lost it at school."

        Mutou gasps, seeing the missing piece returned. "Thanks, grandpa!" He gets a pat on the back before grandpa turns to leave.

        "I'll tell your mother you'll be down in a minute." His voice calls as he disappears.

        Mutou sits back down and takes a deep breath, preparing to put the last piece in place. You want to see the finished product before you leave.

        "What's your wish?" You ask, a bit sudden, making him pause. He's taken aback you're even curious.

        "If...if I tell you it'll jinx it, right? Besides, it's kind of embarrassing." He mumbles, scratching his neck.

        There's a hush that falls over the room as the final piece slides into place and the puzzle is whole. A beautiful golden pyramid with some sort of eye symbol on the front. The motif is familiar but you can't place where you've seen it before.

        You're about to get up and go home when it begins to glow.

        "Is that supposed to happen?" You shift back, leaning against the bed. Maybe there was a curse after all!

        "I-I don't know!" Mutou holds the puzzle, the harsh light burning brighter and brighter until it fills the entire room.

        You squeeze your eyes shut and curl into a ball. It's quiet and still for what feels eternity. When the burning light dissipates you peek through your fingers. Everything looks the same as it did before.

        Except for Mutou.

        There isn't anything immediately different...not in particular. Perhaps it's just imagination, but the very air around him is odd.

        "Mu-Mutou-sempai?" Your voice is a mere peep but he whips around to face you. His features are sharper, older looking. His eyes, which seem a deeper shade, go impossibly wide.

        "[Name]?!" Is...is he tearing up? He then starts babbling in a language you don't understand or even recognize. Since when were we on a first name basis?

       "Are you okay?" Should you call for his grandpa? Make a run for it? Mom's already here and she's probably wondering what's taking so long.

        He stumbles towards you, getting a little too close for comfort. You would move away but the bed is pressing against your back. He smells like mint. He places a hand on your face, thumb brushing across your cheekbone. All you can do is stare, dazed, as he leans his forehead against yours, noses almost brushing. He breathes in deep and continues rambling in that strange tongue, voice cracking.

        And then he kisses you.