DUEL Heroes ch9

The calm before the shit storm

After the race, Yusei found himself with double the work. After beating Bandit Keith, the Team had gained a new bike which left Yusei to fix it up to team standards.

Keith never would have given us a decent vehicle. Even if it had been close. If his own bike hadn't been unsalvageable, we would've been stuck with his sand-encrusted one.

And because Kiryu had only succeeded in a tie with Raphael, there weren't any new bikes from Orichalcos. Although, Raphael had given them a crate of spare parts and materials as a 'show of good will'.

A win would have forced Raphael's hand. Orichalcos would have had to escalate to save face. A win would have cost us more than a loss in the long run. We'd have lost respect among the bosses and our revenue because of it.

Yusei cleaned and sorted the parts they had received methodically, almost meditatively.

A draw was our best option. Nobody's pride was hurt, but we made our point all the same.

Then there was the damage that his own bike had suffered during the race.

Race days were always eventful, but typically not for him. Unless Kiryu decided to call in a favor, Yusei spent his time as the Team's pit crew during races. Or if he volunteered, like today.

Racing against the Bandits in particular was an inconvenience. They never presented Yusei with a challenge and he always ended up wasting time that could have been better spent. In the beginning, he had enjoyed the thrill of winning, of showing everyone that Team Satisfaction - that he - wasn't to be trifled with. Over time, simply winning had lost its luster.

The only thing about racing that gave him any thrill was pushing himself harder, faster, until he was winning by miles. Yusei half thought he could finish a race before his opponent even got off the starting line. And even then, the prospect of being in a race didn't appeal to him.

He didn't know what possessed him to volunteer to race for the kid. Most likely the same thing that had possessed him to be the kid's sponsor.

Bandit Keith's complaint was superficial and would have been easily overturned. There wasn't any reason to indulge him. There hadn't been any reason to stop Marik from being the kid's sponsor either.

Marik and Kiryu were thick as thieves lately. They were spending more and more of their time behind closed doors. With Kiryu's shrewd cunning and Marik's fiery passion, Yusei was uneasy about whatever it was they were planning.

Yusei, Kiryu, and Crow were the founders of the Team. He could have stood his ground, could have convinced Crow that the kid wasn't Satisfaction material. Crow was also worried about Kiryu's plans. It wouldn't have been difficult.

Yusei had reached the bottom of the crate. There were no more parts to check over, so he started to slowly store them wherever he could. There wasn't a lot of room at HQ; they'd need to transport them to the garage soon.

The same garage where he had first found the kid, caught in a stranglehold and getting wailed on. He'd thought Kiryu and Marik had lost their minds ganging up on the smaller teen. But then the kid had broken free, like it was easier than breathing, only to try and protect Yusei - instead of the logical response of running away immediately to save himself

The kid had an incredible lack of self-preservation. Picking a fight with strangers in back alleys, far from home, and for no real reason. The kid was lucky he'd found Team Satisfaction. Of the gangs that ran in Satellite, the Team was the most likely to grant mercy; the kid had gotten off easy.

"We can't exactly let him wander around Satellite. Just ripe for the picking for anyone else to snatch."

Marik had struck a chord. It was more than likely that if they hadn't taken him in, the kid would have continued wandering through Satellite without protection. Maybe that was why Yusei had given him a token when Marik tried to offer.

The kid had just stood there, wide eyed and barely paying attention as they discussed his fate. The kid was energetic and transparent in a way that was practically unheard of in Neo Domino. The only thing that the kid seemed to care about was getting his own motorcycle to play with.

"Hey, Yusei. When we win one of their bikes, could you teach me how to drive? I mean, for real, when we don't have a high stakes race looming over us?"

Yusei couldn't just stand by and let Kiryu and Marik…what?

Yusei looked around, noticing he'd been standing in the middle of the room for a while, and shook himself.

What did he care if the kid joined their Team? Interfering with Kiryu's plans too early would only cause more problems in the long run, and Yusei didn't need the extra headache. Crow looked after all the younger ones well enough, he could take care of the kid just the same.

He doesn't need my protection. He shouldn't want it.

Yusei's mood steadily darkened as his thoughts continued to run on unchecked. If he kept thinking about the brunette he'd find himself down memory lane.

Yusei moved to check on his ride.

She was in desperate need of a deep clean to get rid of all the sand she'd been through. She'd also taken quite a beating which also needed a looking at. Yusei worked on all of the Team's bikes, but his own cherry ride was a true beauty.

"That's what I've been calling your bike in my head. I can stop if you like?"

Yusei's hand slipped, his face on fire at the memory.

The kid didn't know what he was saying - was obviously nuts to be naming inanimate objects so quickly. And then to just brazenly admit to it. He wasn't trying to suck up, wasn't angling for something. The kid truly thought Yusei's bike was beautiful and called her as such like it was the obvious thing to do.

Yusei gave up trying to be productive. He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths. In and out. Somehow, Yusei had managed to work himself up despite the aggravating subject of his musings being nowhere in sight.

Get a hold of yourself.

He'd make sure the kid didn't get himself killed. He'd look after him just long enough for the kid to pass the trial period, and then Yusei would wash his hands of the whole mess. As long as Kiryu continued on his quest of seeking 'satisfaction' for the people of Satellite, Yusei would just have to trust him. Yusei had to have faith that whatever Kiryu and Marik were planning, it was something that would benefit them all.

Every person on Team Satisfaction cared for everyone else: one big, happy, violent family. Jaden would be just as safe with Kiryu looking out for him as with Yusei.

He's probably better off without me.

Against his best efforts, Yusei's mind provided him with all the reasons why Jaden was safer without him. Thanks to past experiences, Yusei knew he wasn't going to get anything else done there that afternoon. He threw his tools back into the box, hopped on his still dented Beauty, and left for the garage. An hour or two spent beating up scrap metal would help him get his head on straight.

There was very little that the team did that could be considered 'illegal'. Yusei had his own personal set-up as a car mechanic on the fringes of the Hub. He was far enough from the slums to avoid being hassled by the other crews, yet not too close to be picked up by Security. Crow ran legitimate deliveries for various restaurants around the city in his spare time; the highest paying being the Oshiruko Noodle. The owner would even let them keep any surplus from the day.

While he didn't know what Mai did in her off time, Yusei knew enough not to ask. She always claimed she never showed up to HQ with any bruises she didn't earn. Yusei tried not to assume.

Yusei did know that what Kiryu and Marik, and sometimes Odion, got up to was closer to 'illegal' than he liked. He kept himself out of it despite the open invitation to join them. Each full member of Team Satisfaction was fully capable of supporting themselves without resorting to explicit law breaking. If he gave them enough time, Yusei was sure that the others would come around and put their skills to good use.

The problem was, they weren't on their own. There were also the kids that they had taken in. Not just Ruka and Rua, but also Rally, Crow's younger cousin, as well as the handful of four to five-year-olds that didn't know life before the Chaos; the children of the streets with nowhere else to go.

They had all those little mouths to feed and clothe. And then there was Martha, their surrogate mother, and her clinic. If it weren't for Martha, Ruka's medical bills would have been astronomical. Not to mention that no one on the Team approved of the Society's methods, and would have let the poor girl struggle on without treatment rather than let her go to one of their clinics.

It didn't sit well with any of them to take Martha's treatments for nothing. All the Satellite kids owed Martha a debt, which in turn made her bills Team Satisfaction's bills. They could all earn a little bit of money through traditional means, but their true cash cow was Satellite itself.

The city had all but given up on restoring Satellite to its former glory. Once a center of science and innovation, the city's beacon for the future, it was now just a pile of rubble. Since the Chaos, no one had ventured far enough in to salvage what had been left behind. Not officially.

Whenever they could, the Team went out in search of anything of value. Occasionally they would find abandoned caches of money or jewelry left by the families that had left for the Hub, but they mostly found things of the mechanical variety.

Team Satisfaction was quick to establish themselves as the scavengers of Satellite. Others had tried to loot from the slums before to little success. Even in its heyday, many of the labs had top of the line security systems all set to destroy whatever they guarded. After the Chaos, there was no one from the original labs left to disarm them. Of the few people capable of infiltrating them, even fewer cared to risk it.

Satellite had been left to rot. Any building still standing was only waiting for an unwary thief to crumble on their heads. Growing up in Satellite before and during the Chaos provided the Team with the healthy respect and caution that gave them their edge. It also didn't hurt that Yusei was considerably gifted with computers. He had yet to find a security system he couldn't hack.

In the early days, they had taken and sold anything they could get their hands on; even now they still did. But after the Team had grown, as well as their reputation, Neo Domino's mob families had taken an interest.

Kiryu said it was a sign that things were changing in their city, but Yusei knew that the game was the only thing that had changed. The mob bosses were too cowardly to try anything for themselves. But they also had deep pockets. Team Satisfaction was the crew you called if you were looking for something specific in Satellite. If the Team's price was too high, then you called another crew to take it from them.

Mako in particular was the best at determining which building held the best 'treasure'. He claimed it was because he descended from pirates, but no one really took him seriously. They'd all grown up together, everyone on the streets during the Chaos had. Clinging to his high seas adventures would have been better than the mathematics Mako so clearly excelled in.

If Mako were leading a salvage run, they were sure to find a plethora of devices and equipment. If they couldn't use them, they passed them off to the mobs for a price. If they were broken, they went to the twins for fixing. Recently the twins had started getting requests for upgrades. Crow was always quick to turn those down, despite Kiryu's protests.

"They're kids! Not your personal fix-it monkeys! They go to school, they play in the mud, they make friends. That's it!"

Yusei agreed with Crow whole-heartedly. Just because they had to grow up quickly didn't mean Kiryu had the right to force that kind of life on anyone else.

The Duel Monsters had been captured, defeated. Houses had been rebuilt. The people of Neo Domino City were in the process of rebuilding themselves. Soon, a whole generation would be born that wouldn't know what it was like to live in constant fear.

If Arcadia would do their damn jobs and close the damn portals. If Security weren't a bloated and corrupt waste.

Yusei swung his sledgehammer down with a bang. He'd convinced the others to help him drag the old car into the garage from their last salvage run. After four hours of constant abuse, it was nothing like the sportscar it had started as. Yusei would restore it, paint it, improve it, before finally selling her for triple the sticker price. But for now, he was content to wreck it.

He managed to beat his doubts and frustrations out with every swing of the hammer. As the car lost its shape, Yusei felt himself come back into balance. At last, he set the hammer aside with care.

Yusei could see all the options available to him regarding their new recruit. Potential recruit. He knew what a reckless charisma like the kid's was capable of. Crow and the twins had been taken in quickly, which was to be expected, and it wouldn't be long for the same to be said for the rest of the children. Mai and Mako were more surprising, but Yusei knew they were in part swayed by the pure rarity of a potential new member. The Team's roster had been static ever since Mad Dog had left, to the point that no one had thought that Kiryu would allow anyone into the crew at all even with all the recent disappearances.

It was the second time someone had left the crew, and it still left a bad taste in everyone's mouths.

No matter how uncomfortable it was going to be to mentor Jaden, Yusei refused to be the reason they lost another member. All the steps to making him a full member as quickly as possible were laid out before him, clear as day. Soon Jaden would be out of his hair and Yusei wouldn't have to remember anymore.

The others will be happy for the extra pair of hands. Kiryu will be satisfied that his recruitment worked. There's a high chance he'll calm down enough to stop dealing with the mobs quite as often.

Yusei started clearing the garage as he thought about the possible positive outcomes of a new full-time member. There was no reason for him to have gotten so worked up. Yusei kept reminding himself of that as he cleaned and waited for Kiryu to show up. He had just finished clearing the last of his mess away when Kiryu walked in.

"I knew I'd find you here." Kiryu strode in, stopping in the middle of the room, as if his mere presence were enough to prevent Yusei from working on anything.

Yusei calmly leaned against a workbench, arms crossed and completely at ease. He made no move to ask how Kiryu knew where he'd gone to. He knew there was an after-race debrief. Yusei knew that Kiryu knew that Yusei would skip it in favor of working on their spoils. Yusei could predict exactly what steps Kiryu would make after the race and had timed everything down to the minute.

Yusei made a show of looking around the garage, all in-progress projects set aside, no tools in sight.

Kiryu smirked. "And you knew I was coming and finished just to talk with me. I'm flattered." Kiryu relaxed and mirrored Yusei, leaning against the hunk of sportscar. Yusei tried not to sigh.

He should have known Kiryu would want to talk about more than just the race. Now he would be stuck half-sitting on an uncomfortable table for the next thirty minutes. Maybe he wasn't as fully back to himself as he had thought.

"Orichalcos isn't behind the stolen parts." Kiryu stated. It wasn't a question, but Kiryu's way of looking for confirmation without relinquishing control of the conversation. Over the years Kiryu had become more and more paranoid that one of them was trying to replace him. The team had grown accustomed to it, but that didn't mean it wasn't tedious at times.

Yusei kept silent. It was the best course of action with him now. Kiryu didn't want to be questioned, he didn't want opinions or suggestions; just information or confirmation. Yusei didn't really know who had stolen from him so he waited.

"But that doesn't mean that they couldn't have if they wanted to. We've let them get too comfortable, we've gotten complacent." Kiryu spat. He wasn't looking at Yusei anymore, but through him. Yusei got the impression that Kiryu had been thinking about this for a while. With the stolen parts and the confrontation with Orichalcos, he finally had a chance to bring it up.

"We're not focused anymore. Team Satisfaction used to stand for something! When they ignored us, took advantage of us, Team Satisfaction was there to satisfy the people's needs!"

Yusei closed his eyes, nodding along with Kiryu's speech. He'd heard this all before, many times. The Team's tagline, their goal of protecting and satisfying everyone's dreams and needs, was a noble one. Kiryu was endlessly passionate about it and reminded everyone of their purpose often.

"But lately, I think we've forgotten that. The Bandits, Orichalcos, the fucking mobs, they don't give a damn about the people. They think they can take and do whatever they want. And we've let them."

Yusei sighed to himself at Kiryu's implications. He's going to say that we need to reassert ourselves as a 'force to be reckoned with'. I would prefer just another race, but Kiryu is going to want something more 'permanent' than that.

"We've already cost The Bandits two of their rides today. So really, they're down two players at the moment. We could use the opportunity to hit them again while they're down and cripple them for good. But I don't like the idea of leaving Orichalcos as they are."

Without having to look, Yusei knew Kiryu's expression was deadly. Kiryu had taken on a lot of responsibility as the Team's leader and Yusei didn't envy the difficult decisions that role came with. It had made his friend more brutal than he had been as a kid. There was no going back to the way things used to be and all Yusei could do was follow where Kiryu led, trusting in what he knew of his old friend.

"We have a golden opportunity to strike at Orichalcos. They'll be off guard now that they think they've pacified us with that race. Looking to take advantage of The Bandits as well, they won't be expecting us to go after them instead."

Yusei had to admit that Kiryu's plan wasn't a bad one. Raphael was smart. The Orichalcos leader would be looking for ways to increase his territory with The Bandits at a disadvantage. Raphael wouldn't be willing to risk anything against the Team, even with a new recruit weighing them down, and therefore wouldn't be prepared for Kiryu to move against them.

But Raphael is smart. He'll have something prepared just in case. Yusei held his peace, waiting.

"Of course, Raphael will be expecting us, so we won't be trying anything too drastic. Yet. We gotta get the kid up to fighting strength first."

Yusei did look up then, to gauge Kiryu's thoughts on his charge.

Kiryu had been staring at Yusei, knowing that he would get a reaction at the mention of the brunette. He smirked, smug that he'd gotten the silent teen to react. While Kiryu's words were disconcerting, they weren't unexpected. Yusei cursed himself for falling for it, though he wasn't sure what 'it' was yet.

"It will be a while before Keith is able to get his hands on another bike and get it ready for his crew. We'll let Raphael make his move and, in the meantime, you'll put the kid through his paces. He did fairly well this time around, but we need to make sure he's worthy of the gold." Kiryu tapped at his tattoo, like Yusei could forget. "By the time he's ready, Raphael will have worn himself thin waiting for us to move and he'll be too weak to stop us."

Yusei frowned. It was a good plan, just what he had come to predict from Kiryu, but he didn't miss the fact that their leader had skipped over the important part.

"From what?" Yusei spoke for the first time. There was no need to elaborate. Kiryu didn't have the patience to suffer obvious questions. It was best to keep things quick and simple; the better the chance Kiryu would deign to answer. Not that it was a guarantee.

"All in good time, Yusei. For now, just worry about getting the kid up to standard. I've got big things planned for us. We'll need all the muscle we can get." Kiryu stood slowly, each movement deliberate. Every inch of him exuded power, tightly controlled and fatal. In that moment, Kiryu seemed greater than what he was. As if he could stretch out a single hand and hold the city in his palm, every single person at his mercy.

Yusei blinked and the vision faded. Kiryu had great and terrifying ambition, and the drive to follow it, damn the consequences. Yusei kept a careful eye on his friend as he made his way to the door. Yusei would never let anyone know how nervous Kiryu made him sometimes, that he was always nervous over what went on in Kiryu's head.

"Keep a close eye on this one, Yusei. We don't want you losing our new trump card." Kiryu tossed his parting remark over his shoulder and left.

Yusei waited until the sound of Kiryu's bike had faded completely, then picked up the sledgehammer again. He now had more anxieties to work out of his system before he left.

"Geez, Homeschool! If I had a pad like this, I'd never leave!" Jou launched himself over the back of the couch, making it onto the cushions by a hair.

"Hey! Make way or be crushed!" Honda grinned before leaping after him. He landed on the blonde, bouncing them both off and onto the floor in a tangle of limbs.

Jaden had initially moved the living room furniture out of the way to make room for activities, but now he was glad he had thought to move anything at all. There was no way the furniture would have escaped the two wrestling teens.

"Gee, I hope they don't break anything. I don't want us to get you in any more trouble with your dad." Syrus stood back with Jaden, watching the wrestling match.

"No worries, Sy. I'm already grounded for the next three days. They can't make it any worse. Promise."

"If you're sure…" Syrus shuffled uncertainly.

Jaden just grinned like he didn't have a care in the world. Because, at that moment, he didn't. He really was grounded. There was no way of getting out of it after missing curfew after the riot. Not to mention going missing for most of the following Saturday.

But he was making real headway into investigating Team Satisfaction and the other gangs. He could already bust them all for leaving the Wall without permits, as well as black-market trading and gambling. He still had to find something that wouldn't also implicate Martha, Crow, or the kids. …And maybe Yusei…and Mako and Mai.

Maybe if I can prove that the Team is just trying to make a living in the slums, they can get a pardon. Then everybody wins!

Jaden knew sticking with the Team was going to lead him into more trouble, especially with his dad, but it was exactly where he wanted to be.

"Eurgh! Get yer smelly feet outta my face!"

"Not unless you admit Security is better than Arcadia!"

Jou gasped in outrage, spluttering when Honda attempted to shove his foot into Jou's nose. "Never!"

Although this could make a good run for best place to be. Better than hanging out at school, definitely.

Jaden looked around at his living room, really taking in for the first time how large and expensive it must look to his friends. And quiet. Jaden didn't regret hanging out with Crow and Yusei, but he was sorry that it meant having to be stuck home alone. Again.

"W-well, I brought the homework you missed Friday. Are you sure it's okay for us to be here?"

"Oi! Shut up! If Jay says we can hang, then it's cool! Don't blow this for us!" Jou scrambled out from under Honda to hiss at Syrus.

The shy boy shrunk into himself and Jaden was quick to pull him into a one-armed hug. "Like I said, Sy, no worries. What my dad doesn't know won't hurt him. Just relax, okay?" Jaden took the homework and set it out of the way. Syrus had been thoughtful enough to bring it to their 'boys only' hang out and Jaden didn't want it to get crushed in the danger zone that was Honda and Jou, still flailing about on the floor.

"Now, what was with all the texts yesterday?" Jaden walked around the couch and propped his feet up on Jou's back. The blonde knocked his feet away with a huff and a smirk. Syrus cautiously took a spot on the couch and Jaden couldn't help but smile. The two taller teens had sacrificed the couch for the sake of making Syrus comfortable; Jou and Honda may be loud and obnoxious most of the time, but they were still good friends with their more reserved pal.

Jou was smiled widely, opening his mouth to speak when Honda cut him off. "Don't ask! He's been bragging all weekend! It's been torture!"

Jou shoved at Honda's head, only frowning a little. "Eh, yer just jealous. While you're stuck spinnin' yer wheels I got a job outside the Wall." Jou pointed to himself with a thumb, supremely proud of himself.

"You—outside…how?!" Jaden didn't mean to sound as incredulous as he did. He didn't want Jou to be insulted, but all Jaden could think about was the black-market bazaar and all the mobs and gangsters he'd seen 'outside the Wall'.

If Jou was there…if he saw me! Aw, man! Jaden was panicking but no one noticed, too focused

on Jou's story.

"Yup! Ain't it awesome? And I got to meet the new Heroes! They're not all they're cracked up to be, personality-wise, but they're badass!" Jou was practically gushing Hero-worship.

Jaden forced himself to relax. He was getting ahead of himself. If Jou had been at the race, there was no way the blonde wouldn't have confronted him then and there.

Eeeeeasy Jay. Don't go flying off the handle into blind panic at any little thing. That's no way to keep a secret. You're lucky no one in the Hero Department has had a chance to ask about anything yet. Clearly, we need a better poker face. Jaden gave himself a mental slap and made himself pay attention.

"The DMC is so cool! Well, not the guy who runs it, he's kinda creepy, but the dragons! Dude!" Jou was shouting and waving his hands around with excitement. Honda was doing his best to duck, scowling, but even Jaden could tell that the shark head was happy for his friend.

"Dragons?" Jaden knew about the Duel Monster Center, of course, but he'd never been there. There was never any reason for Flame Wingman to be called out there, so he'd never gotten the chance.

"Yeah! Pegasus, that's the weirdo in charge, he says the dragon types are the touchiest with who they let into their enclosure. Says I've got a way with 'em." Jou was preening now, and Jaden had to chuckle.

"Sure. A way with shoveling their shit." Honda broke Jou's grinning with an elbow jab to the gut. Jou pouted and shoved back a little harder.

"Shaddup! Y' don't know what yer talkin' about! I heard some of the other guys talkin' about how they were glad they didn't have to go in there no more. Said the dragons used to use them for target practice and I haven't even been singed once!"

"Oh, come on! You've only been there for one day. How hard can it be?" Honda scoffed. Jou looked ready to start another wrestling match when Syrus spoke up.

"You do everything by yourself? They couldn't have gone this long without a…dragon expert." Syrus hesitated but finished with a small smile. Jaden gently nudged Syrus for his subtle ribbing of Jou.

"Nice one." Jaden whispered to Syrus, causing another smile.

Jou nodded magnanimously, assuming the air of a 'dragon expert'. "There is another guy who comes in once in a while, but he ain't reliable at all. Everyone makes such a big deal when they mention him, but I don't see why. He ain't so special." Jou sniffed.

Jaden snorted at Jou's superior tone. He shared a knowing look with Honda. "Yeah, it's not like he's the only one who's got a way with dragons, right?"

"Ri—what?" Jou blinked, caught off guard. Jaden and Honda laughed at his confused look, even Syrus chuckled at Jou's expense. Jou looked around at them, pouting. In the face of their laughter he could do nothing else, not wanting to spoil everyone's good mood.

"Alright, alright, ya got me. Whatever. I still got a better job than you bums." Jou tried to save face but smiled along good naturedly.

Jaden kept his comments to himself, managing to keep a blank face this time.

"As impressive as you having a job is, that's not why we're here." Honda said after they had all calmed down.

"You mean I got the full library of emojis 'cause you wanted to give me my homework? Gee, thanks." Jaden grinned at Honda who only smiled back, not to be put off.

"No, that's why Syrus sent you a, most likely, incredibly polite request for us to come over." Honda winked at Syrus who was avoiding looking at anyone, embarrassed at being so predictable.

"I gathered you all here to discuss strategy."

"You gathered us here?!" Jou exclaimed.

"Shush. Don't question the master." Honda held up an imperious hand. Jou huffed.

Jaden held up a hand. "Nope. Still confused. Strategy for what?"

Honda put his hands on his knees, leaning forwards, eyes intense and building the tension expertly. "Duel strategy."

"Gah! We are here for homework! What kinda master are you?" Jou threw his hands up in exasperation.

"Don't you pay attention to anything, ever? It's all over the web!" Honda pulled out his phone and started scrolling. "There's chatter going around that Kaiba Corp. has got something big planned. Aha! Here it is!" Honda shoved his phone in Jou's face, making him go cross-eyed to try and read it. Jaden reached out and swiped the phone before the blonde could shove it away again. Jaden held the phone so he and Syrus could both read it.

"Elusive CEO is spotted at racetrack, sparks and barbs fly." Syrus read out the tagline like a question. There was a blurry photo of, presumably, Seto Kaiba talking to who Jaden guessed was The King, Jack Atlas. Standing between them were two smaller figures that were slightly familiar.

"That's Seto Kaiba, creator of the duel monster card system, the richest and most powerful man in the city. He never goes out in public. This is big!" Honda snatched his phone back and started scrolling again.

"That person in the photo runs a blog called the Scoop. They always get the best dirt on everything that goes on in the city. She was right there and the only thing she posted was this!"

This time Jou took the phone from Honda before he could shove it in anyone else's face. "'Two weeks from today. Noon. The Hubcap. Bring your deck.' Seto Kaiba.' What the hell?"

"It's a challenge! He's gotta be planning some kind of event. Something secret, which means it's gonna be life changing."

"Riiiight." Jou wasn't convinced. He tossed the phone back in Honda's general direction. "Which means duel strategy?"

"Exactly! Kaiba's rich. And that means there's gotta be a prize, right?" Jou perked up at that.

"A prize for what? It could just be new cards, y'know." Honda whirled on Jaden, pointing a finger directly between Jaden's startled eyes.

"That's the attitude of someone who doesn't want to win. And we want to win, don't we?"


"Yeah!" Jou jumped up, fists pumped and eyes blazing.

"I said, we want to win, don't we?!" Now Honda was shouting, fist raised to the ceiling.

"Y-yes?" Syrus answered, unsure, but still caught up in the moment.

"That's the spirit, Sy!" Honda grabbed Syrus' arm and dragged him to stand with him and Jou. He used his grip to force Syrus to fist pump as well. Syrus went with it, used to their antics and glad to be included. Jaden shrugged to himself and jumped up to join their impromptu power ranger line-up.

"Yes! Together, there's no way we can lose!"

Jaden let himself get swept up in their enthusiasm, shouting along with Jou and Syrus. If this were a tv show, there'd either be a rain of flower petals or crashing waves behind us. I think I'd go for an erupting volcano.

"So, are we just gonna stand here or are you guys gonna help me build a deck?"

Jaden spent a few minutes deflecting their incredulous questions on his lack of deck before they settled down again and got to work. They worked out a passable deck from what Jaden had lying around the house and established a practice schedule. It was going to be a challenge to balance school, Hero work, the Team, and duel practice. When the others left, Jaden made a promise to himself. No matter what, he was going to make time for all of his friends.

Breaking News. Flame Wingman to make guest appearance next week at the Arena. Sponsored by Kaiba Corp.

Flame Wingman spotted downtown today assisting the Fire Department. Shown here carrying a child and three small kittens from the burning building.

Rumors continue to spread of mysterious figures and their connection to the recent rise in missing persons. The public is reminded to use caution as the investigation continues.

Today's sign: Virgo. Keep your eyes open and your mind sharp. Your universe is in flux; major changes are coming your way. Stick to those you trust and hang on tight! Lucky numbers include: 7, 3, 59, 16

Flame Wingman: Hero or Menace? 100 people surveyed. The results may surprise you!

Are you anxious? Nervous? Paranoid? Talk to your doctor today to see if Zen is right for you! Zen! Peace and quiet in the palm of your hand.

It had almost been a week since the race in No-Man's Land. A week since his fight with Kiryu and Marik. A week since he'd lost control as Flame Wingman. It had been over a week since gaining new members for Arcadia, since his first solo Hero attempt. Since he'd started going to public school.

In almost two weeks Jaden had met so many new people. Friends at Arcadia like Kenzan who knew him as the face of the Hero Department but liked him as a person in spite of it. New friends like Jou and Honda, like Syrus: a welcome relief who knew nothing about his super alter-egos. He'd also met Crow, Mako and Mai, and the twins. In under two weeks he had become a part-time member of Team Satisfaction, full of new people and potential friends who he could really let loose with. People like Marik and Kiryu. Like Yusei.

There were still those who didn't support the Hero Department, still people who would rather join the Society of Light and cause trouble. Despite the increased Duel Monster appearances, Jaden was still benched and only called in for minor disturbances or public appearances.

Flame Wingman was the most powerful Hero and yet still underutilized in the department. Jaden did well in class, but his Satisfaction 'duties' held him back from truly excelling. He had made a lot of friends but was still on his own at home.

Jaden had found everything he wanted, but nothing had changed. Not really.

Not one of his friends knew the whole truth. He couldn't tell his classmates or the Team about his abilities, for all their sakes. He couldn't tell Syrus and the others about the Team for the same reasons. Jaden had thought about at least telling Kenzan about his race but was worried that the rookie would spill to his 'superiors'.

Brodie still hasn't come around to Team Jaden. No need to give him more reasons to hate me.

Jim and Aki at least knew about his attempts at 'vigilantism'. They weren't going to rat him out to Divine, but they also didn't agree to his going out solo either. Jaden had yet to get spotted in the news again after the Bubbleman incident, but the less he talked about going out on his own, the less chance the others had to guilt him out of it.

Jaden slumped against the school's flagpole, letting his weight carry him to the ground. He pulled out the dummy deck the guys had made for him. Jaden sighed.

"I can't hang out with the twins during school since there's no time." Jaden said to himself. He shuffled through the deck, feeling restless. "Can't hang out with Crow or Yusei near the school. Not sure how well-known gang members would go over on school grounds." Jaden groaned, his head making a dull thunk against the metal pole.

"Not that either of them have time for me anyways!" Jaden glanced down at his new cards and felt his frustration rise. He'd been practicing every day for the past week, but he still couldn't get a hang of his dummy deck. He covered his face with the cards and groaned again.

"Golly! What a sad sack!" "What a lump, just sitting there all alone!" "Lazy! Slacker! Not like our Boss at all!"

Jaden peeked over his cards for the new witnesses to his frustration. What he found was the last thing the Hero expected.

"No one's like our Boss!" "Not even close!"

Floating around his head were three familiar duel monster spirits. They continued to circle the teen, throwing insults and compliments to their boss, oblivious to Jaden's curious gaze.

"Our Boss is the smartest!" "The strongest! That's our Boss!" "Wonderful! The best! The meanest!"

Jaden chuckled. "I don't think that last one's a good thing."

The three spirits jumped in surprise but rallied quickly in defense of their boss. "Yes, it is! No one is meaner than our Boss! He's the scariest, the worst!" The three spirits yelled over each other, floating closer in an attempt at being intimidating.

"Don't you mean 'the best'?" Jaden struggled not to laugh at their zealousness.

"The best at being the worst!" The three sported identical wide triumphant smiles and Jaden gave up trying to hide his laughter.

The spirits pulled back slightly in response, confused. Quick glances at each other, shared shrugs and smirks, and soon human and duel spirit were laughing together.

"Haha! Your 'boss' must really be something. I can only hope to someday be as awesomely terrible as him."

"Train all you want, pipsqueak, you'll never beat our Boss." The yellow one boasted, still grinning.

"With three great hype men like yourselves, I'm not sure it'd be a fair fight if I tried. My name's Jaden. Who're you guys?"

"Ojama Yellow!"

"Ojama Green!"

"And Ojama Black!"

"Together, we're the Ojama Brothers!" The three little spirits posed, a definitely choreographed formation, complete with spotlight and sparkles to the complete bemusement of their captive audience.

"Heh, nice to meet you guys." Jaden smiled. He couldn't help but find the Ojama Brothers kind of adorable. There was just an unfair amount of dedicated passion packed into their small spirits. He wanted to show them off to all his friends and protect them from the world at the same time. "And who is your Boss?"

"He should be here any minute!"

"He doesn't like it when we bother him during class. He's scary when he gets angry." Both Green and Black shivered at the thought, eyes wide.

"Here he comes!" Yellow pointed somewhere behind Jaden. All three Ochjama Brothers raced off over Jaden's head shouting for their boss.

"What the…Chazz?! No way!" A huge unbelieving smile broke over his face, the surprise sending him to his feet.

There hadn't been another opportunity to talk to the moody teen since the twin incident. Weevil and Raptor still sent him dirty looks and put disgusting and questionable things in his locker, but Chazz had acted like Jaden was completely invisible. It was almost exactly like the first day of school, if not for the occasional 'slacker' sent his way. Even then, Chazz insulted him like some mysterious force in the universe had compelled him to say it rather than the fact that Jaden was in the room.

Jaden hadn't given up though. Every relationship had its rough spots; theirs was just rougher than others. Even if they couldn't be friend friends, at least they could have a mutual respect.

The role of arch-rival that slowly becomes a best friend through the power of friendship and character development is still open!

"Chazz buddy! Over here! How ya been?" Jaden jogged over to stop in front of the other. The Ojamas had been ringing a bell for a while and seeing them float around Chazz's head brought it all back.

The Ojamas had been at lunch the day Jaden and Syrus had sat with Rex and Weevil. Chazz hadn't made any sort of acknowledgment of them then. When Jaden had tried to bring it up again at gym that same day, he'd gotten a gut punch in return. Then after that was the fight…

This is my last chance. No holding back!

"Your friends were just telling me about how awesome you are! You've been holding out on me!"

Chazz sneered. "What are you talking about, slacker?" Chazz roughly shouldered past Jaden who simply turned with the momentum to walk at Chazz's side.

"The Ojama Brothers! I forgot I saw them at lunch a while back. They're pretty cool once you get past the speedos."

"Gasp! He thinks we're cool!" "Hey! Don't insult the official Ojama sports wear!"

"Whatever speedo wearing freaks you talk to certainly aren't any friends of mine." Chazz scoffed. He kept walking, eyes closed, nose in the air. "Now get lost before whatever slacker diseases you're carrying in your unnaturally poofy hair rub off on me."

Jaden patted self-consciously at his hair, pouting. "Hey, you're one to talk. How much product do you use to get those spikes anyways?"

"Please. This is completely natural. Now, if we're done talking beauty tips, buzz off!"

Oooh, nice try Chazz. But I'm not letting you off the hook that easily!

"I guess if you don't wanna tell me your style techniques, that's fair. But how about we swap duel techniques?" Chazz didn't make any outward sign, but he did slow his step enough for Jaden to know he had gotten the moody teen's attention.

Aha! I knew it! No one can resist duel monsters!

"Your boys were just telling me that you're the one to beat at this school."

Chazz flinched and then sped up again. They had almost reached the street and Jaden was running out of time to get Chazz to open up.

"I don't have any 'boys'! Only underlings like Rex and Weevil. They can't hold a candle to my skills but at least they're loyal and competent enough to not associate with low class, third rate losers like you!" At the end Chazz had turned to point a finger at the pest following him.

"Oh yeah! Boss is always hanging out with the purple guy and the one with glasses." "Definitely not as cool as our Boss!" "They should just give up now, right Boss?"

Chazz didn't stop glaring at Jaden, but his left eye started up a steady twitching. The Ojamas continued praising their Boss and slowly circling closer and closer to Chazz's head.

Jaden really couldn't have stopped the chuckle that escaped him just then.

"Well, they certainly seem to agree that you could use better friends at least."

For a split second Chazz's gaze flicked to the circling duel spirits before he exploded.

"There isn't anything there! You're the monster that sees those abominations everywhere! The duel energy in the atmosphere has rotted your soul! It's twisted everything about you to make you…you…wrong! You're the freak! You! Not me!" Chazz was shouting now, his face almost twisting with the effort and disgust. He pushed Jaden away, so caught up in his vehemence that he didn't seem to realize he could have punched the other boy just as easily. Chazz barely took a breath, glancing around to make sure that the other students that had begun trickling out of the school weren't close enough to hear yet.

The enraged teen swirled on the three duel spirits that had scattered a few feet away at Chazz's outburst. He made eye contact with each Ojama before closing his eyes tight with a disgusted grimace. "Even if I was sick enough to see those deformed monstrosities,"

"Hey now, that's kinda—"

"There is no way in heaven, hell, or this light-forsaken place we call Earth that I would be 'friends' with such pathetic, worthless, mistakes of nature—"

"Woah, that's too harsh—"

"Like these deformed, speedo-wearing perverts." Chazz finished. The Ojamas were in tears, wailing and crying for their Boss, clinging to each other for comfort.

"Chazz, come on, man. That's no way to talk to people…spirits, who obviously care for you so much."

The Ojamas' sniffling let up a bit at Jaden's words in hope.

"Shut the fuck up and get out of my sight." Chazz shot another venomous look at the distraught Ojamas. "All of you."

And with that, the Ojamas disappeared with one last pleading wail.

Jaden was shocked. He'd never seen a level two duel spirit disappear completely like that. He hadn't seen many level twos, sure, but they usually came and went as they pleased. They simply floated away or faded into little puff balls if they were particularly tired. Never just disappearing entirely.

"Chazz! That was completely uncalled for! They were just trying to be your friends…I think…" Jaden reached out and spun Chazz to face him again.

He was just so angry on behalf of the little spirits, Jaden felt he had to defend them. But the look on Chazz's face was so devoid of shits to give that Jaden was at a loss on how to continue.

"You can't just…treat people like they're nothing! Like they're less than you or something just because they're different than you. Everybody has a different…talent that makes them special. You can't just…just…" Jaden flailed, losing steam and his train of thought. He recoiled a bit realizing that he was drawing a crowd again. "It's not right."

Chazz scoffed. "How naïve. To think we're all the same. Because we're not." Chazz cut Jaden off before he could respond. He had noticed the crowd too. "Some of us were born to a higher privilege. Others, well, they have different roles to fill." Chazz took a step back, ostensibly to remove himself from Jaden's face, but more accurately to pull in the onlookers.

"Some of us were born into the Light; some of us were raised into it. It protects us and saves us from the dangers that surround us all. From the dangers that the government, that Arcadia, refuses to destroy." Chazz wasn't just talking to Jaden anymore, truly he had found a new topic to shout about. Jaden was sure he would be completely ignored at this point if not for Chazz using the ruse of their initial conversation to keep going.

"Every day we're bombarded with these duel 'heroes' and their propaganda. But what good are they? Those monsters are no different than the ones they claim to 'protect' us from. What good are they when we're all left with the bill for all the damage they caused? And they act like we should be grateful!"

Someone shouted an agreement from the crowd of students, making Jaden jump. As he looked around, he noticed that many were nodding along with Chazz's speech. The passion in his voice was creating a fervor in them.

But Chazz was wrong! Heroes weren't evil and neither were the duel spirits.

Although I admit 'duel monster' IS a bit misleading.

All Jaden ever wanted to do was protect people. If he happened to have superpowers, that just made things easier. Jaden knew that if all the Heroes in Arcadia woke up with no powers at all, they'd still give their all to help. But he couldn't say that now. Couldn't defend his friends against the very rhetoric that forced them to have their own alter egos.

"Why do we have to suffer these freaks with their superiority complexes? Why are they special? How are they different than the hardworking people who risk their lives every time they leave their homes?" Dark eyes bore into Jaden's own, daring him to say something. He tried, he truly did, but nothing came.

Because Chazz was wrong. Duel spirits weren't bad, the people who saw them and used duel energy weren't freaks. They simply were. They existed and there wasn't anything anyone could do about that. They weren't evil, they weren't good, they just were, and their existence caused many people pain. Because Chazz was right. The Arcadia Department existed to prevent the duel monsters and spirits from terrorizing humans, yet every time a portal opened, every time Jaden and the others fought, there was damage.

"People are in danger every day. People like your parents. Like your older brothers and sisters. Your neighbors, your cousins. The old man who lives down the street! Arcadia puts them all at risk!"

"That's not fair! Arcadia heroes saved the city from that dragon just last week! You can't say that wasn't something…worthwhile!"

"Yeah? Well, what about the rubble they left behind? That part of the city is still covered in holes." Chazz scoffed.

"We still don't have electricity at my house!" "My bike got crushed!" "My dog hasn't come home yet!" "My uncle got his leg broken!"

Jaden swiveled, trying to put a face to each voice that spoke up. If he could, then maybe he could make a report and fix things faster. He'd never filed paperwork before, but he'd do his best to try.

Chazz stepped up into Jaden's space, talking lowly so the crowd couldn't hear.

"You see that, slacker? Duel monsters, duel energy, Heroes? They're nothing. Seeing spirits doesn't make you special, doesn't make you a hero. It makes you part of the problem."

"You're wrong." Jaden stared right back, refusing to back down. His options for retaliation were limited, but that had never stopped him before. Chazz 'tch'ed and grabbed Jaden by the collar. The angry teen practically snarled in Jaden's face.

"Oh yeah?! And what makes you so sure about that? You think you're better than me? You think you're stronger than me? You're not! I'm the best duelist in this whole damn school! You can't beat me! I'm a Princeton!" Chazz was visibly shaking now, screaming in Jaden's face. "You're not special! You're not better than me! You're nothing!"

Chazz shoved Jaden, sending him crashing to the ground at his feet.

Jaden stayed where he fell. He'd been on the ground a lot lately; he was starting to enjoy the view. "I don't think any of those things, Chazz." Jaden continued to stare up at the sky as he spoke. "I think we're both special because we can see duel spirits. We're the same."

When Jaden did finally sit up, he could see the effect his words had on the other. The angry teen, usually so pale and stoic, was now a mottled red, seething. Like he had been holding his breath in a wrestling match with a particularly stubborn fitted sheet. Jaden had the fleeting thought that Chazz looked both like he was ready to cry and punch Jaden straight in the nose.

"There's no way I have anything in common with a pathetic slacker freak like you!"

Jaden took his time getting to his feet. There was still an aggressive buzz about the crowd but no real intent to do anything with it. Chazz had shown before that he was willing and able to act violently, but without backup, Jaden was sure he could turn that energy elsewhere.

"Well, if you're so sure. Why don't we have a duel?" He said it so nonchalantly Chazz merely spluttered in response.

Oooh, what I wouldn't give to know what insult he had planned next. I bet it would have been a good one.

"Pfft. You must be out of your mind." Chazz said when he had recovered a bit.

Jaden shrugged, unconcerned. "Why not? You said so yourself, you're the best duelist at the academy. Why not put your deck where your mouth is and prove it? Jaden smirked, finger guns blazing. "Whatchya got to lose?"

Chazz seethed for a full second before answering. "You're on, slacker! I'll show you what it means to be a full member of the Light!"

The crowd, previously simmering with anger, had morphed into suppressed excitement. The public eye was a fickle thing; as long as there was entertainment handy, they didn't care what form the blood took.

"Be here tomorrow at three. If you're not there on time, you forfeit."

"What? You don't wanna duel now? Ya chicken?"

Chazz's face turned a different shade of red. "As if! I'm simply giving you time to kiss your duel career goodbye. As soon as everyone sees how badly I'm gonna whoop you there's no way you'll be allowed back at the academy." Then he scoffed, back to his effortlessly antagonistic cool-guy self. "Besides, I need to make sure I use my weak cards for your duel. No point in revealing all my tricks against a loser like you."

The crowd parted when he turned to strut away. Jaden shouted at his back before the other could get into the shiny car that had suddenly appeared.

"I didn't know the great Chazz had any weak cards. You better watch out cuz I won't be going easy on you!"

Chazz's shoulders were tensed up around his ears when he turned and shouted, "Just don't be late, loser! Because tomorrow, it's time to fucking duel!"

A year….a freaking year?! That's how long it takes me to update? I really hate me sometimes. Anyways, I hope this chapter makes up for it? Was sitting at almost-posted for a couple of months because my beta pointed out a timeline question which sent me spelunking through past chapters for date stamps. A look into the author's mind: a single word can delay an update for months. I. Hate. Me. There's no way for me to avoid this in the future, my brain is my brain, but if you guys could let me know if ever something doesn't make sense, that would be a load off both me and my beta. Third party beta-ing. ;)

Anywho, this sudden update is all thanks to the wonderful MizukiKimura. Never have I ever had someone go to the length you did just to send a review. Not saying this tactic will always have such quick results, but its definitely a way to get me moving.

The day of, the week after, years later, authors live on heartfelt feedback of any kind. So, hint hint, nudge nudge, go review your favorite fics; let the authors know how much you enjoyed their work. :)