A/N: These two scenes were not in the original story, so it took me longer to arrive at a point where I would stop tinkering with it and just post what I had. There's actually more to the last scene, but I decided to push it into the next chapter instead, and combine with another new scene. The more I putter with this story, the more it evolves into something almost entirely new. So I apologize if the updates take longer than anticipated.

A special thank you to those who have reviewed/favorited/followed this story. Your feedback means a lot to me.

Disclaimer: Still don't own it. Not quite sure even the inspiration for the story is mine since it's rattled around in my head for so long :)


BANG.BANG.BANG.

"Bakura! You home? Open up!" Jonouchi's voice brayed on the other side of the door, jolting Bakura awake. He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm as the pounding in his head subsided slightly, startled at the fresh wetness tracking down his cheeks. He didn't realize he had been crying in his sleep. Again.

"One moment," he groaned, rolling off the couch from his impromptu – and all too short – nap. Pins and needles prickled up his legs, buckling his knees. His attempt to brace himself met stiff resistance and the sudden flailing of his arms tugged as his new incision. He hissed sharply at both the fire erupting across his torso and the resulting crash to the floor.

Jonouchi heard the dull thud. "You ok?...Bakura?"

"'…fine…thanks…" came the faint reply. "…Sec…" A bit closer that time. The metallic scrape, clink and thunk behind the door indicated Bakura's arrival as he unlocked his safety chain and deadbolt. The door cracked open, and one bleary eye peered from the darkened apartment into the overly bright hallway. It reminded Jonouchi of the first day they met Bakura – the skittish teenager hiding behind the thick door, shuttering himself from the world for his protection. Or rather, for the world's protection from him.

"Hey," Jonouchi nodded his greeting. "Sorry to bug you…but…uh you dropped this…" he slipped Bakura's book through the narrow opening.

Bakura's eyes widened and brightened slightly as he accepted the textbook. "Oh! Thank you, Jonouchi," his gratitude – as always – sincere. He opened the door a little wider. "I didn't realize I forgot it."

Seeing Bakura's drawn and slightly unkempt appearance, Jonouchi questioned the wisdom in keeping him longer. He wanted to talk to him about what he observed, but perhaps now wasn't the time. Don't invite me in…

For his part, Bakura felt badly – Jonouchi lived halfway across town and probably traveled several bus stops out of his way to deliver the book. He turned it over in his hands pensively. He wasn't feeling up to visitors, but he didn't want to be rude.Don't say "yes…"

Don't invite me in.

Don't say "yes."

"Do you want to come in? Maybe have a cup of tea?"

"Sure."

Dammit!

Jonouchi stepped inside the dimly lit apartment and closed the door behind him, watching Bakura drop the book on the floor next to his satchel and pad towards the kitchen. He nervously thrust his hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet to toe off his shoes. Even though he knew it wasn't intentional – Bakura was naturally quiet and somewhat reserved in comparison to the rest of the group – he didn't like the awkward silence hanging between them. When confronted with silence, he usually blurted out the first – and often insensitive – thing on his mind. "So…what kind of cancer is it?"

Bakura froze, fear draining all feeling from his body and rooting him in place, "Huh?" He quickly regained his composure and feigned innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Bakura tossed a glance over his shoulder, plastering a placid smile on his face.

His eyes met Jonouchi's unwavering gaze. It pierced right through his façade and sent a cold shiver scurrying up his spine. The smile faltered. "I spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals visiting Shizuka when she was going blind. I saw a lot of really sick kids." Jonouchi tapped his collarbone for emphasis, "I know what a chemo port looks like. And I saw the incision from yours when Kojima ripped your jacket."

Bakura's eyes cut away to the floor. "It's nothing," he weakly mumbled.

"It's cancer, Bakura."

"Jonouchi…please…" he began to tremble.

"Please? What?"

"Please…don't…"

"Don't what?"

"Don't…say…" Bakura begged, choking back a whimper.

"Say what? Cancer?" As soon as the word left his lips, he regretted it; Bakura recoiled as if Jonouchi had physically struck him. "That's…that's really it…isn't it?" Jonouchi stammered. He suspected, but somehow saying it out loud – not to mention Bakura's reaction – made it more real. How bad? How long had Bakura known? "Why didn't you tell us?" he advanced on Bakura, his frustration and concern mounting. "Don't you trust us?"

Bakura's eyes went wide and his lip quivered. "No!...Yes!...I mean…" He looked confused…then suddenly devastated by the accusation. "I…I…" Words failed. Bakura raked his fingers through his hair and buried his face in his hands. Silent tears tracked down his cheeks.

Too little too late, Jonouchi realized he sounded more angry than concerned, as his brittle friend pulled away from him. Crap. Anzu or Yugi – hell, even Honda – would have handled that better. What would they do? What would they say to make this better? Was that even possible?

"Bakura –" he sighed, carefully hedging closer.

"I…just…I don't want to hurt you…any of you—"

"Hurt us? –"

"After everything he did –" Bakura's fingers fluttered to his arm, tracing the scar under his sleeve. Jonouchi recognized the compulsion – he had seen it hundreds of times the last few months. Yugi groping for the puzzle no longer hanging around his neck; Bakura fingering the scar along his arm. One a habit of yearning; the other, regret.

Jonouchi reached out, firmly grasping Bakura by his shoulders, and bending slightly to meet his eyes. Bakura guiltily avoided his stare. "You. Are. Not. Him."

"But—"

"But nothing. We're your friends.After all we've been through, you think it doesn't hurt us that you're avoiding us? Or you won't tell us that something's wrong? Or, worse – if you just up and disappeared one day and we didn't know why? We're worried. We want to help." Maybe not as eloquent as Anzu, but good enough. Jonouchi internally scoffed – a year ago, he would ridiculed her about her flowery "power of friendship" speeches; now he practically channeled them.

Bakura bit his lower lip. "You shouldn't have to deal with this. You don't deserve it."

"Neither do you."

"I do," Bakura uttered the barest whisper of a response.

"Wait…what?!" Jonouchi's mouth dropped. The hell…?

"It's true," Bakura heaved a sigh and shook off Jonouchi's hands. "I feel like I deserve this. You know, as punishment. Like karma or something. I put the Millennium Ring on. People got hurt. And I still kept it – I didn't...didn't get rid of it," his words started tumbling out of his mouth, "It's my fault he took control then got out of control and more people got hurt—"

"Don't you dare think—"

"If only I had tried harder. Thrown the stupid thing away. Fought more. Not listened to his promises—" Bakura spilled into barely suppressed sobs, frantic despair fueling his flawed logic and spiraling him further down the rabbit hole. "He said he'd help, but he didn't. I should have known. If I had been smarter…stronger—"

"Bakura!" Jonouchi seized the young man again, fighting the urge to shake some sense into him, "it took six priests, a pharaoh and a shit-ton of dark magic just to seal him away the first time. It took all of that, plus us to get rid of him again—"

"But I wasn't there!" Bakura's bitterly cried out, his tears finally erupting into open, heart-wrenching sobs. "I wasn't good enough…couldn't help…Yugi…Atem…" His breathing hitched, desperately trying to suppress the crying jag beginning to wrack his exhausted frame. "Couldn't…fight…him…couldn't help…then…and…now…this…I can't...I can't…no more…" Bakura's words trailed into drained whimpers and his chin dropped wearily against his chest as the tears continued to fall.

Shit.

Jonouchi's hands slipped off Bakura's shoulders and trailed down his arms. "Yeah…ok…you weren't there…but…but it's ok…" His words faltered momentarily, attempting to grasp something other than vague platitudes with which to comfort his friend. He reached Bakura's hands. They were shaking. Cold. Then he felt it. The answer. "You weren't there, because you had already beaten him once." Jonouchi clasped Bakura's left hand, his thumb tracing the thick, jagged scar along Bakura's palm. "You beat him. By yourself. With one hand tied behind your back – literally."

Bakura blinked, his tears subsiding, as Jonouchi's words cut through the dense fog of hopelessness that had been consuming him the past few weeks – too much information, guilt, and doubt slinking into every crevice of his mind; fear sinking its icy talons deep into his bones; and loneliness siphoning his strength from the very depths of his soul. So much so that he couldn't think straight, couldn't lift an arm to claw his way out of his self-imposed isolation and misery. And here was Jonouchi, with his usual reckless abandon, pummeling everything in his path and punching through the gloom to save Bakura from himself.

Jonouchi witnessed the faintest glimmer of reason – and maybe hope – finally lighting Bakura's soft, dark eyes.

"You. Beat. Him," Jonouchi carefully repeated, "just like you will beat this."

"Only, this time, you won't have to fight alone."


Honda's here.U on ur way?

Still Bakuras.U guys go w/o me.

Bring him w/u! :) I wanted 2 invite him 2.

Gonna b a while.Go ahead.

Everything ok?

Everything certainly was not ok, but at least Bakura had calmed down considerably. Or maybe just worn himself out. Besides, Jonouchi didn't want to worry Yugi. And it wasn't his place to inform them of Bakura's condition, anyway. Bakura needed to do that himself, when he was ready.

Yeah, catch u l8tr.Have fun!

Jonouchi pocketed his phone as Bakura returned from the kitchen, balancing a serving tray in his hands. He was still amazed at how quickly Bakura regained his composure from a few moments earlier, excusing himself and retreating to the kitchen to putter around and prepare the promised tea. Then again, he's had…years?...of practice.

In addition to the teapot and cups (a matching set, no less), Bakura supplied an assortment of pre-packaged cookies, arranged on a plate. "Aw…you didn't have to go to all that trouble, Bakura," Jonouchi balked.

"I don't mind," Bakura smiled gently, though the smile didn't quite touch the corners of his tired, red-rimmed eyes. "It gives me something to do." He handed a steaming mug to Jonouchi before retreating to the far corner of the couch with his own tea, tucking his knees against his chest and curling his pale fingers around the warm cup. He blew on the hot liquid.

Jonouchi tentatively sipped his own drink, suppressing a grimace. A little too sweet. Bakura.Figures.He smirked. Casting a sideways glance at the teen, he took stock of Bakura's appearance – already a wisp of a boy (and, Jonouchi believed, the youngest in their circle of friends), maybe he did look a bit thinner than usual – but then again, his buttoned-up clothes usually hung off of him. He may have been more pale than normal…hair a little duller. Bakura looked up and caught Jonouchi staring – his eyes, much like his hair, had lost their luster. "Do you want to talk about it?" Jonouchi ventured, grabbing a second cookie from the tray.

"Not really," Bakura stared pensively into his cup. He had yet to take a sip of his tea. "No…yes…I don't know…"

"Ok." Given Bakura's recent outburst, Jonouchi decided against pressing the issue. They sat in mutual silence, drinking their tea and munching on the crumbly cookies. Jonouchi was on his fourth by the time Bakura had unenthusiastically nibbled halfway through his first.

Bakura sighed deeply. "Hodgkin's," he finally admitted.

"Huh?" Jonouchi sputtered a mouthful of cookie, not sure he heard Bakura speak over the sound of his own chewing.

"Hodgkin's Disease. Lymphoma."

He'd heard of it. Jonouchi's mouth dried up and the cookie seemed to turn to concrete. He swallowed hard. "Oh. I see." Now that Bakura opened up a little bit, countless questions began flooding his mind. However, he did not want to upset his fragile friend again, so against his nature, he forcibly pushed them back down. Except one. "How bad?"

Bakura shrugged. "They use words like 'cautiously optimistic,'" he rolled his eyes. "It's a nice way of not telling you you're not going to die, because you still might, but not telling you that you will die, until they tell you you're terminal, at which point it's too late to do anything anyway." Uncharacteristic bitterness tinged his voice, a departure from his usual amiable nature, alarming Jonouchi slightly. Even during Battle City, when he had been possessed, stabbed, nearly struck dead by a God Card, and pawned in a Shadow Game, he recovered relatively quickly, his kind, optimistic personality back to normal within a few days. He must really be hurting…

"Bakura," he lowered his voice, hesitant to ask, "are you in pain?"

Bakura pulled his knees closer to his chest. One of his hands relinquished its hold on his tea cup and lightly traced the chemo pump under his shirt. "A little," he quietly confessed, "but more from the procedures, blood work and that sort of stuff. They give me medication to manage it, but it just makes me tired." He took another shaky sip of his drink. "I read the chemo side effects can be bad…" A hint of fear replaced his cynicism and his eyes grew distant.

"So…when's your first treatment?"

"Tuesday…"

"Wow…um…do…do you want me to come with you?"

"Huh?" Bakura's full attention shifted back to Jonouchi. "Oh no, no, thank you, that's very kind, but it's ok – I don't want you to miss any school and get in trouble. The school already knows, so they're working with me on my classwork and grades. No offense, I doubt they'd be so accommodating for you," he smiled wryly.

"Fair enough," Jonouchi smirked back. Bakura practically tripped over himself with such politeness that even the mild jab came off as little more than an ordinary observation. However, had Honda said it, they'd probably be scrapping on the floor at this point. "Well, at least your dad will be there, right?"

Bakura blinked, clearly puzzled. "My father?" his brows knit together, "he's not here."

Jonouchi remembered Bakura explaining to them the first day they met that he lived alone – in fact, he was slightly jealous that Bakura had this sweet apartment to himself, especially in comparison to his own shabby living arrangements with his old man. He even said as much. "I know you don't live with your dad, but he'll still go to your appointments with you, right?"

"Well…no…he's gone."

"Seriously?" Granted, Jonouchi's dad hardly qualified as "Father of the Year," and even Yugi's dad spent most of his time in America on business, but he bet either of them would be right beside their sons if they were in Bakura's situation. "I can't believe he's not coming home to be here for you."

"I don't think you understand," Bakura murmured, finishing his tea and setting the empty cup on the serving tray.

"What's not to understand? He should be here." He found it difficult to keep the rising anger out of his voice.

Bakura just shook his head and somberly rose to his feet. "Come with me." He beckoned Jonouchi to follow him down the hall towards the bedrooms.

Jonouchi drained the last dregs of his drink and set it aside to trail Bakura. He was disturbingly all-too familiar with the first room in the corridor and hoped they were skipping it. Chancing a glance into the room as they walked by, he noted it looked largely untouched since his last visit - except the Monster World table lay under a sheet. Half completed figurines, small hand-held carving tools and splattered paint cluttered a rough work bench residing next to Bakura's tidy study desk, computer, and bookshelf. Along the far wall, the curio of Monster World miniatures with their soulless (he hoped) eyes stared him down as he passed. Jonouchi involuntarily shuddered and took a quick half step forward to catch up with Bakura.

Next came the bath. Even in the darkened room, Jonouchi perceived the shadowy silhouettes of a startling number of prescription bottles lined up on the sink. He cringed – no wonder Bakura ate so little lately – he doubted even he'd have much of an appetite after cramming that much medication into his system and choking down the water needed to swallow all of it.

The last door was closed. Bakura's hand hovered over the knob. "Sorry, my room's a bit of a mess right now," he apologized before turning the handle and swinging open the door. Jonouchi suspected Bakura's "bit of a mess" would qualify as his "immaculate." Bakura flipped on the light; he was not mistaken. Other than a slightly rumpled, unmade bed and open closet door, Bakura's room was neater than Jonouchi's had ever been in his lifetime. Tastefully simple, decorated in pale blues and subdued grays with splashes of navy and a chunky sea-green throw tossed on the foot of the bed, it felt very soothing, cozy and, just…so…Bakura.

Jonouchi followed Bakura over the threshold into the bedroom. A powder-soft, woodsy aroma wafted to his nose. He didn't recall Bakura wearing any sort of cologne…

His eyes followed Bakura's movement to a small, satiny maple table tucked into one of the room's corners; it seemed a little more ornate and out of sync with the rest of the décor.

Bakura knelt in front of the table and began tenderly arranging the contents. Jonouchi drew closer to examine them. Two white candles. Recently extinguished incense. A plate of oranges. Partially wilted flowers in a slender vase. A carefully folded letter emblazoned with Bakura's elegant handwriting.

Three little Monster World figurines bearing a striking resemblance to Bakura.

Three photos. Father. Mother. Sister.

"Jonouchi, meet my family."