Disclaimer: Yu-Gi-Oh! was written by Kazuki Takahashi. All characters and concepts belong to him.
Notes: This takes place during the first chapter of the manga.
Why? Why? Why?
The word pounded over and over in Jonouchi's head. Actually, his head was currently doing more than a little pounding on its own. Ushio had done a thorough job on him, which added just another layer to Jonouchi's anger and confusion. It had been a long time since someone had beaten him this way, or beaten him at all. The thug had caught him from behind and bound his wrists before he could do anything about it, the coward. If he'd been man enough to face Jonouchi from the front, it would have been a different story. As it was, the fight had been woefully short, and Jonouchi had been forced to live through the humiliating experience of being tied up and pounded, with Honda there to watch. Not that Honda had been paying a whole lot of attention, since he'd been feeling a little battered at the moment himself, but still, it was embarrassing that there was anyone who had seen, almost as embarrassing as...
Jonouchi stopped, panting. He had been running, staggering and stumbling down the sidewalk mindless of his injuries, running into people and tripping over cracks in the sidewalk, propelled by an urge to get away, wherever that was. He didn't know where he was going, just as long as it was far away from that bloody patch of asphalt where the cords that had bound him were still lying on the ground. It had to be miles away by now, and he wasn't even sure which direction it was in anymore, but he could still see it as if it was right in front of him - blood on the sidewalk: his blood, Honda's blood... and Yugi's.
I don't get it. Why'd you do it? Forget why - how did you do it? You've always been a weakling. You're a coward. What the hell made you try to fight Ushio?
"Damn you," Jonouchi muttered. "Idiot. It's your own fault you got beat up. Why'd you have to do something so stupid as to get yourself beat up for no reason? It'll serve you right, whatever happens next."
Or would it be? After all, it had been only that morning that Jonouchi had been taunting him for never standing up for himself...
But I wanted him to fight against me, not for me, he thought. Boy, that sounds dumb.
He started moving again - not running, this time, but just easing along at a careful walk. Somehow his injuries hurt a little more now that he was no longer putting all his energy into running. He didn't worry about it. Physical pain, he was used to. Maybe not this much of it all at once, usually, but he could handle it. It was the mental confusion that he couldn't handle.
Okay, let's think about this again. Start all over. First, we pick on Yugi. Next, a big bruiser comes to save Yugi from us. Then, Yugi tries to save us from the bruiser and gets pounded. So now the bruiser wants to kill Yugi. I must have missed something somewhere.
He shook his head. This wasn't explaining anything, and thinking just made his brain ache more. The only clue he had was Yugi's protestation that he couldn't hurt his friends...
But that's stupid. I'm not his friend. Geez, he's gotta be pretty messed up in that pointy-haired head of his if he thinks I am... especially after what I did today...
Jonouchi cringed. Just that morning, he'd seen Yugi goofing around with that stupid-looking box - he'd thought it was a jewelry box, when he'd first seen it - and he'd decided to lift a piece from it, just because he'd thought it was funny at the time. From the other side of that afternoon, it didn't look quite as funny. Maybe it was stupid, but the stuff in that box was obviously important to Yugi. He'd called it his treasure. Jonouchi thought back to the moment it had all started, when he'd walked past the classroom door and seen that strange little kid, all alone, playing with puzzles like a child.
"Yeah, that was a good move, Jonouchi," he muttered, pausing to lean against a lamp post and rest a moment. "Stealing toys from kids. You're a big, brave guy, you know that?"
So now Yugi's puzzle, his treasure was ruined, and it was all Jonouchi's fault. And how had Yugi repaid him? By taking a beating for him, because in his own deluded little world, he thought Jonouchi and Honda were his friends.
Man, if only you knew, buddy, you would have stayed out of it. Hell, you probably would have jumped at the chance to pound me!
No, that wasn't right, either. He'd been trying to get a rise out of Yugi for weeks, now. He'd done everything: challenge him, insult him, even threaten him, and had never gotten any more reaction than protests that Yugi hated fighting. No, he wouldn't have tried to hurt Jonouchi for that. Probably all he would have done if he knew was to go shuffling meekly off to try to find the missing puzzle piece. The only answer that made sense was that, for whatever reason, Yugi had defended Jonouchi because he actually didn't want to see him hurt.
I guess there's only one answer. I'm not his friend any more than I'm the Emperor... but he's my friend.
The realization felt strange on him, as if he'd suddenly looked down to realize he was wearing someone else's clothes. He actually had to look down at himself to see if he hadn't turned into something different when he wasn't looking. He just wasn't used to having friends. He was used to having a gang, but that was different - it meant having people around him all the time, and gave him a group to be a part of, but it also meant that he wasn't completely his own while he was with them. There was always a leader looking down at him, telling him what to do and where to go and who he had to pound on next, even if he didn't want to. True, Honda was his friend, but... that was complicated. They had a shared background and similar interests. They had fought side by side. They almost had to like each other. But for someone who had practically nothing to do with him to sacrifice himself for Jonouchi's sake... that kind of unconditional devotion was hard to swallow.
He had heard of standing up your neck in water and dying of thirst, but this was the first time he'd ever fully realized what it meant.
My friend. Yugi.
He ran the idea around his mind for a while, letting it settle into place like a piece of that puzzle Yugi had been playing with. It was so strange, to think he'd had a friend all this time, and had never even known about it. While the sun dropped behind a screen of skyscrapers and turned the sky to inky blue, Jonouchi wandered beneath the street lights and thought. This wasn't the headlong dash of before, but a slow, careful procession, in which it might take ten or fifteen minutes to cover a block. It was the slowness of someone easing into cold water, moving a centimeter deeper at a time.
It was a ludicrous idea - him and Yugi! They were such a mismatched pair, it was difficult for him to even imagine how it would work out. How could they be friends? What would they do together? Jonouchi tried to picture himself walking down the school hallway, casually chatting with him, and felt that he had entered the twilight zone. He shook his head.
Well, I owe him a debt. He saved me when probably nobody else would. Don't I owe it to him to at least... try to treat him a little better? Just give him a chance... He raised his eyes, struck by inspiration. And I know just where to start.
Suddenly, he broke into a run. His injuries protested afresh, but he ignored them. He ignored everything as he raced onward, stumbled, picked himself up, and ran onwards. Nothing halted his forward motion until he had finally reached the entrance to Domino High. He slowed to a light jog as he entered the deserted school grounds. It was dark and silent there, and he cringed as he picked his way through the too-silent front yard.
This is so creepy... I hate being in buildings when everyone is gone... Dammit, Jonouchi, what kind of coward are you? Yugi was brave for you, so be brave for him!
Gritting his teeth and forcing himself onward, he made his way to the swimming pool. There was a high fence all around it, with a locked gate at one end, to keep students out when there was no one around. Once it had been open for students to use at any time, but a boy had drowned some years back when some playful friends had pushed him in as a joke, only to find out to have him strike his head on the concrete and pass out. Now the gate stayed shut tight after school hours. Fortunately, Jonouchi had some experience in these matters, and a bit of gentle persuasion, plus the careful application of a bent wire, caused the lock to release its hold. The gate swung silently open, and Jonouchi went in.
In front of him lay the swimming pool. He stared at it, feeling suddenly intimidated. There were no lights anywhere on the school grounds, and the water before him looked black as night, speckled only with the pale reflections of the stars. They wavered and warped softly as the water rippled. To Jonouchi, it looked like a great black void, or like the doorway to another dimension. He had the eerie feeling that anything that went in there would never come back out again. He hesitated a few minutes, shuffling up to the very edge and peering into the water. He could see his face reflected there, with his expression shifting around just like the stars. One moment, he could see himself looking frightened and confused, and then it would change to show him smiling gently. Then the smile would turn cruel, his eyes glinting hard and black. He pressed a hand to his face, but it wasn't changing at all, only the reflection. It was impossible for him to tell which reflection was the real one.
Enough stalling - just do it! he scolded himself. He took a deep breath, screwed up his courage, and jumped.
The water was cold, biting at his skin and turning his fingers and ears numb almost at once. The shock almost made him gasp - he opened his mouth, and the feel of cold water rushing into his mouth made him choke it back. Instead, he wound up swallowing a mouthful of chlorine-tasting poolwater. He tried not to think about what other ingredients might have gone into it and forced himself to open his eyes. The chilly water made them burn, and it was all he could do to hold them open for a few seconds at a time. The bottom of the pool was lit by a pattern of shifting lights shaped like the scales of a snake; they never lit any area for more than a split-second at a time. How was he going to find anything in this murky mess, much less something so small as a puzzle piece? Already his air supply was running out, and he was beginning to shiver with cold.
If I don't find this thing soon, I'm gonna end up in the hospital! Where is it? Just let me find it and get out of here!
It was no use - he could see nothing but shifting lights and shadows. He stayed under as long as he could, anyway, casting about desperately for a glimpse of it. At last, he was forced to surface. He came up gasping, shaking water from his hair and blinking rapidly. The night air that had felt cool before was now strangely warm on his skin, in comparison of the water.
"This is stupid," he muttered. "There's no way I can find that one puzzle piece in this huge pool in the dark! I'm getting out of here."
He began to paddle towards the edge of the pool. As he looked down, he caught sight of his reflection again. The wicked glint in his eyes was back; his mouth, hanging open as he worked to catch his breath, was warped into something like a victorious laugh. It was so menacing that he found himself trying to back away from it, but of course, his reflection followed him. He closed his eyes.
"All right, all right," he sighed. "One more try."
He dove back under the water again. After being out of it for a moment, it felt ten times colder than before. He was shivering almost uncontrollably, now, and every move took great effort. The water dragged at his clothing, so that he felt he was hardly moving at all.
I have to find it, he told himself. If I don't, I'll never be Yugi's friend...
A spark of light caught his eye, and he turned toward it just in time to see it twinkle again. A stray shaft of starlight had, for an instant, struck something shiny, something that glimmered even in the murky water. He paddled towards it, kicking wildly and waving his arms without any care for technique. At last, he drew close enough to see it plainly. It was a bit of golden metal with the design of an eye worked into its surface. It lay there staring at him, as if it knew everything that was going through his mind. He would have sighed with relief, if he hadn't been underwater. Instead, he reached out and managed to close his hand around it. It felt strangely warm in his grasp. He rose to the surface with his face raised to the sky, so that the first thing he saw was the vast expanse of lights against the darkness. He smiled a little.
First part down, he thought. Second - and hardest - part to go.
He finally found the Kame Game Store by looking it up in the phone book. He had never been there, of course. He would have considered such things too childish for him to ever want to enter a game store, and he had never before felt the need to know where Yugi lived. Now he looked up at it and reflected that it was no wonder Yugi had turned out the way he had, living in a place like this. It was enough to turn anyone a little odd. Admittedly, it did look interesting. Maybe one day, after this mess was cleared up, he would come back... just to poke around a little, to satisfy his curiosity.
He couldn't go in now, though. The front door was closed and obviously locked. It was possible that Jonouchi's skills could have convinced it to open for him, but he imagined that would get him into even more trouble than he was in now. He stood there for a long while, dripping on the sidewalk and staring at the closed door and the darkened windows - and also the lit windows upstairs, where he hoped devoutly that Yugi was still staying. If he had gone out into the night to deal with that thug Ushio, well... it might turn out that whether or not Jonouchi had managed to retrieve the missing puzzle piece was a moot point, because Yugi would still never get it back.
While he was still deciding what to do about this, and wondering if he was really going to stand here on the doorstep all night waiting for Yugi to come out, the door opened. For a split second, he felt like turning around and running away, as he realized he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do next. What was he going to say? "Yugi, I realize I was a total jerk towards you, and also I stole your prized possession from you, but now that you're going up against the wickedest dude in the school and you'll probably get cut up so bad I'll be able to watch the sun rise through you, I thought I'd give it back to make you feel better"?
The problem was solved for him, though, as he realized that this was not Yugi. At least, it couldn't be Yugi unless worry had aged him sixty years overnight. He was a living image of what Yugi would look like when he was old and gray. He stood about Yugi's height, and his hair showed signs of the same strange spikiness that plagued Yugi's. He walked out and began busily sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store. Seeing that he was being ignored, Jonouchi walked up to him.
"Excuse me," said Jonouchi. "Are you... related to Yugi Mutou?"
The old man leaned on his broom and looked up at him. "I'm his grandfather. Are you related to him?"
"Er, ahhh..." Yep, this guy was related to him - only someone in that family could be that weird. "I'm in Yugi's class at school."
"I see," said Yugi's grandfather. "Have you come to visit him? It's a bit late for that. Besides, he doesn't seem to be feeling well tonight. He's been locked up in his room all evening. Not that that's unusual, but he's barely spoken a word to me all evening, and he hardly touched his dinner..." The old man trailed off and looked at Jonouchi shrewdly. "You wouldn't know what's wrong with him, would you?"
"No. I mean, yes." Jonouchi's old habit of denying everything nearly tripped him. He took a deep breath and tried again. "I mean, it's not my fault, exactly. Well, maybe it is a little, but not much. The truth is, there's a goon at school who's been picking on him."
"I thought it might be something like that," said the old man with a sigh.
"Yeah. There's this guy, Ushio... he's demanding that Yugi bring him two hundred thousand yen, or else he'll come after him with a knife... him, or someone he cares about."
"I see," said Yugi's grandfather. "I can see why Yugi would be bothered. He has so few friends, I think he'd go to any lengths for any friend he had."
"I know he would," said Jonouchi.
"Well, I can take care of the money, if it will keep Yugi safe," the old man replied. "It's the least I can do. Thank you for telling me. Maybe with your help, we can get this straightened out."
"No problem," said Jonouchi. "I owe him."
The old man raised an eyebrow. "Do you?"
Jonouchi found himself put on the spot. His cheeks grew warm, which made him scowl - hopefully the light was low enough that no one could tell he was blushing!
"Yeah," he said. After a moment's internal struggle, he blurted out, "That guy Ushio isn't the only one who picks on him at school. It's me, too. I did something to him, and I want to put it right." He reached into his pocket and took out the puzzle piece. "This is Yugi's. I'm giving it back."
He dropped the trinket into Mr. Mutou's hand. The old man studied it a moment, his expression unreadable.
"Yes, I think Yugi will be glad to have this back," he said, making the puzzle piece disappear into a pocket. "What's your name, boy?"
"Jonouchi - Katsuya Jonouchi - but don't tell Yugi I was here. He doesn't have to know about this."
"Katsuya Jonouchi. I'll remember that. Listen, then, Jonouchi. Your coming here tonight was a good thing. You've probably saved Yugi a lot of heartache. It takes a lot of courage to admit you've done something wrong, and to try to undo it. You didn't have to come out here and tell me about that Ushio, either. This is the way a real friend would act. I'm glad you did these things, Jonouchi. And Yugi would be, too, if he knew."
Jonouchi found himself smiling, just a little. "Maybe. Maybe I'll tell him... someday. My own way, my own time. When I've done a little more to earn the right to call myself his friend."
Yugi's grandfather shrugged. "Suit yourself. For now, I'll give Yugi back this puzzle piece, and do what I can to protect him from Ushio. It's up to you to do the rest."
"I will," said Jonouchi. "Thanks. Thanks a lot! I mean it."
"Don't thank me. You did it all yourself. And for now... you might step aside, so I can finish my sweeping."
"Sure. See ya 'round."
Jonouchi tossed off a casual wave and began walking off.
"Young man, wait a moment!"
Jonouchi stopped. "What?"
"If you don't mind my asking... why are your clothes all wet?"
Jonouchi sighed. "It's a long story."
A few minutes later, Jonouchi found himself standing on the corner of the block, looking back at the Kame Game Store. The light of a street lamp shone softly down on him, and on the dark windows of the shops all around him. Despite the heaviness of his wet clothes, he felt strangely light.
I did it, he thought. I gave it back. Yugi's going to be okay - his grandpa will look after him now, and he'll have his puzzle again, and everything is going to be okay. I did real good tonight. Whaddaya know, Jonouchi did something good for once. Hm. I could get to like this... His eyes strayed back to the light that marked Yugi's room. You're in for a surprise, Yugi. From now on, you've got yourself a friend, a real friend.
He turned and began walking slowly towards his own home. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a plate-glass window. The reflection was smiling gently, and it did not change. Jonouchi walked off with a spring in his step.
With his back turned to the shop, he didn't see another boy slipping out into the darkness of the night, with a very different sort of smile on his face. Jonouchi had paid his debt to Yugi, and now someone else was about to get his comeuppance...