Notes: This story breaks continuity just after Battle City.

A Friendly Wager

By: SilvorMoon

The telephone was ringing. Jonouchi gave a quiet snarl of frustration, throwing down a handful of cards as he scrambled to his feet. Up until that point, he had been making a concentrated effort to be quiet. His father had fallen asleep not long ago, helped along substantially by a bottle of rotgut. Asleep was the way Jonouchi liked him best, and he had intended for his father to stay that way as long as possible. The last thing Jonouchi wanted was for him to be awakened by some telemarketer wanting to persuade him to switch cable services or buy life insurance. He scrabbled through the piles of junk on the kitchen counter and finally managed to unearth the phone.

"What do you want?" he barked into the receiver.

"Jonouchi? Did I call at a bad time?" asked a small voice.

Jonouchi shifted gears so fast, it would have made a mechanic wince. "What? No! No, no, of course not! Any time is a good time for you to call, Yugi."

"Oh, good," said Yugi. "I was afraid I would be interrupting something."

"Nah. I wasn't doing nothing. Just sorting my deck, working out some new strategies, that kind of thing. Keeping out of trouble."

"You ought to come over to the store," said Yugi. "Honda and Anzu are here already. We've been wondering if you were going to show up. I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong."

"Aw, I just had to go buy groceries today," Jonouchi explained. It always fell to him to buy groceries, because if he let the grocery money fall into his father's hands, it would wind up being exchanged for stuff that came in bottles, and not the kind ketchup or soda came in. Anything that was left over would be gambled away on the turn of a card or the roll of a dice. Yugi knew all that - they all did - but it wasn't something they talked about regularly. "I'm free, now, though. I can be there in ten minutes."

"Great!" said Yugi. "You can sign up for the contest. Grandpa's out picking up the entry forms right now!"

"Contest?" Jonouchi repeated, perking up visibly. "What contest? I didn't hear anything about a contest."

"There's going to be another Duel Monsters tournament next weekend. Just a small one," said Yugi. "It'll be fun anyway. I really want to enter. It will be so nice to be able to play and not worry that someone's soul is on the line."

"Hm," said Jonouchi. "Who's sponsoring this?" If the answer was Kaiba Corporation or Industrial Illusions, he was prepared to head for the hills.

"Burger World," said Yugi. "They're about to release a line of Duel Monsters toys in their kiddy meals. They're doing this to advertise."

"Oh! That's okay, then," Jonouchi said. "All right! Count me in. This time I'm gonna totally blow away the competition!"

"I know you'll do really well," said Yugi.

"I'm not just going to do really well. I'm going to win! The grand prize has my name written all over it. You'll see," Jonouchi insisted. "What is the grand prize, anyway?"

"I don't know. Nobody knows," Yugi replied. "It's a big mystery. Nobody finds out what it is until the game is over. I really want to win so I can find out!"

Jonouchi laughed. That was so like Yugi. Material possessions, he could give or take, but offer him a mystery, and he'd stop at nothing until he'd solved it.

"Well, when I win it, I'll show it to you," he said, half-joking.

"You really think you'll win this time?"

"Of course! Hey, I'm one of the best Duel Monsters players in the world! I was a finalist in Battle City, wasn't I? I took second in Duelist Kingdom, didn't I?"

Yugi laughed. "All right, all right, I believe you! We'll play our best, just like always."

"Right," Jonouchi agreed. "Anything else is no fun. Hey, I'll see you at the shop in a few, okay? I've gotta pick up my cards, and then I'll be right over."

"Pick them up?" asked Yugi. "Did you leave them somewhere?"

"Nah. I dropped them on the floor when the phone rang. They're all mixed up. Later!"

He hung up the phone and set about gathering his cards, which had naturally fallen face- up, face-down, and backwards, and required a certain amount of straightening before they would be playable. As he attended to this task, he let his mind wander to the forthcoming tournament. He hoped there was something more to his words than idle boasting. He loved Yugi like a brother and was always proud of him when he pulled off his spectacular victories, but it would be nice if he could win a title or two, once in a while. When his cards were straight, he tucked them into their slot in his Duel Disk and tiptoed quietly out of his house, careful not to wake his father.

He need not have bothered. His father had been wide awake the whole time, and had heard every word he said.

In another part of the city, the news came not by telephone, but in the mail. Specifically, it came in a gaming magazine, which was lying on Bakura's kitchen table, mixed in with a jumble of junk mail, some bills, and a note from the local library saying he had books that were overdue. He was ignoring all of them.

Actually, he was ignoring almost everything, these days. Battle City had taken its toll on him, in one way and another, and he had not quite mentally recovered from everything that had happened to him. Probably it was the shock of thinking he was finally free of his dark spirit, only to have it return to him anyway, that was undoing him more than anything else. It seemed that no matter how often someone stepped in to pry them apart, his unwelcome tenant found his way back, and he was beginning to lose the will to fight.

Not that the Spirit of the Ring was being particularly unpleasant towards him. In fact, he had spent his first few days back in the residence doing nothing but sit in his soul-room and sulk. It was only after sulking had begun to gall him that he had come out to see what his host was doing, only to discover that he wasn't doing much of anything. He was barely bothering to eat, sat in class staring out at nothing, then went straight home, made a halfhearted effort at doing his homework, and spent the rest of his evening wandering around like a zombie. This bothered the spirit. The danger of the later duels in Battle City had hit home to him that Bakura was not immortal like he was - he could be sick and injured, and if those things happened to him in significant amounts, he could die. That was the last thing the spirit was willing to risk, but he had always deemed his power sufficient to keep Bakura alive and well. He could protect Bakura from hostile outside forces. Protecting Bakura from Bakura was something else again.

You should eat something, or you will get sick.

"Eh?" said Bakura to himself. It was the first time since his return home that the Spirit of the Ring had addressed him. He had been anticipating something sooner or later, but comments on his health wasn't what he'd expected.

You are starving yourself. I don't like it. Eat something or I will make you eat something.

"What's the point?" asked Bakura. "You'll make me do whatever you want, anyway, won't you?"

I am not your nursemaid. I refuse to spend all my time taking care of you like some little child with a doll. I have better things to do - and so do you, if you would make an effort to do them.

"Everything I want to do, you ruin it."

Instead of commenting on that, the spirit seized control of Bakura's body and scanned the room for something edible. The first thing he saw was a box of cold cereal sitting on the kitchen table, the kind with colored marshmallows and cheap plastic toys inside. The Spirit of the Ring didn't particularly like cold cereal, but he knew his host did, particularly any kind that involved cartoon animals in its commercials. He poured a bowl, and then went in search of milk and a spoon. He sat Bakura's body at the table, put a spoon in its hand, and released control. He stood back on the fringes of Bakura's consciousness, to see what he would do.

"I'm not going to eat it," said the boy. "You only want me alive so you can use me some more. I'm sick of it. If you want to use my body so badly, you can take care of it from now on. I'm not your nursemaid, either. If you're so powerful, take care of yourself."

The spirit turned this over in his mind for a while. This was beginning to get on his nerves. It had been one thing when Bakura stood up to him and fought him, but this passive- aggressiveness was shaping up to be far more irritating - and difficult to combat. It would have to be handled carefully, or this situation might become downright intolerable.

You might not realize this, but my goal in life is not to make your own a misery. As long as it does not interfere with my plans, you may do whatever you please.

"That's not how it used to be. You kept taking my friends away from me and putting them into lead figures. What did that have to do with your search for the Millennium Items?"

Hmph, said the spirit. That was different. All right. Suppose we renegotiate. Suppose I promise to let you have some time to yourself. You can do something of your choice - anything you like, and I won't interfere. Even spend time with that infernal Yugi Mutou, if that's what you want. If I let you do as you wish for a while, then will you behave?

"Hmm," said Bakura. The spirit smirked mentally; it was plain the boy was tempted. "Well... I suppose it couldn't make things any worse..."

His eye strayed to the stack of mail lying on the table next to his cereal. A flyer had fallen out of the gaming magazine. He picked it up and studied it.

"How about this?" he said.

A Duel Monsters tournament? Interesting... If the boy with the Puzzle is there, I will challenge him. Otherwise, you may do as you please.

"What? You said I could..."

You can spend all the time you wish with the boy, after I claim the Puzzle. Without that, he is no longer a threat to me.

"You won't send him to the Shadow Realm, or, or turn him into something?"

Not if you're going to make an issue out of it, the spirit snapped. My offer stands. Take it or leave it. I am growing weary of haggling with you.

"I'll take it," said Bakura quickly.

Fine. Now, eat your cereal. That sickly-sweet stuff is bad enough, but it's absolutely nauseating when you let it get soggy.

"It's not that bad," Bakura protested. He dipped his spoon into the bowl and scooped up a small mouthful of cereal. The spirit watched him intently as the boy chewed, swallowed, and repeated the process. The stuff didn't taste as awful as it usually did, which indicated to the spirit that this physical body he'd been borrowing was hungrier than he'd thought.

This is but a small sacrifice, after all, the spirit mused, as he retreated to his room. It was just one of those small maintenance things one had to do, once in a while, to keep things running smoothly. It wouldn't hurt to let the boy have a day off if it would keep him tractable.

And in the meantime, he might just get another stab at taking on his eternal enemy, and that was always something to look forward to.

When Jonouchi arrived at the Kame Game store, he found a merry gathering waiting for him. Yugi, Honda, and Anzu had taken a place at a card table, where the latter two were having a casual game with each other. Yugi hovered off to one side, cheering them both on. Honda had taken a bit more interest in the game, lately - since the near-disaster on Alcatraz Island, he had decided it wouldn't be such a bad thing to know how to play a little better. At the moment, it still looked like he could stand to learn to play a little better, since Anzu was beating him soundly. Aside from these three friends, Jonouchi recognized a few of his other classmates and an assortment of people he didn't recognize hanging around the card boxes. There seemed to be a lot of interest in a display set up near the checkout counter; people kept taking bits of paper from a pad attached to it.

"Hi, Jonouchi!" Yugi called. "Glad you could make it!"

"Course I made it," said Jonouchi. "What's up?"

"I'm getting my tail kicked, that's what's up," Honda said. He glared at his hand. "I really need to invest in some better cards..."

"You're doing a lot better, really!" said Yugi. "You're not getting all mixed up like you used to."

"He's still got a way to go, if he wants to win the tournament," said Anzu. She set a card down on the table, and Honda groaned. "I know I'm going to give it my best shot. I really want to see what that mystery prize is!"

"Maybe it's a lifetime supply of cheeseburgers!" Yugi guessed.

"Nah, I bet it's something really cool, like a new car or something," said Honda.

"Or a vacation package," Anzu suggested. "Like a round-the-world cruise, or a week in the tropics."

"I hope it's something like... a bunch of really rare cards!" said Jonouchi. "Then again, nothing like a good old fashioned cash prize."

"That's what you won last time," said Honda.

"Yeah, but I didn't get to keep it."

The sound of someone chuckling made everyone turn around. Yugi's grandfather was listening in on their speculations.

"So, you want to know what the mystery prize is, do you?" he said. "Well, I know what it is, but I'm not going to tell."

"What? No!" said Jonouchi. "That's not fair! You can't keep us in the dark!"

"Of course I can," he said. "The prize is meant to be a surprise, and that's how it's going to stay. Besides, it's much more important to play for the fun of playing."

"Oh, come on," Honda said. "Can't you give us a hint?"

"No," he said firmly. "I can, however, give you entry tickets, if you're determined to find out for yourselves."

"Count me in!" said Jonouchi.

"Me, too," said Yugi.

Anzu gave a half-shrug and held out her hand for one. "I don't see how it could hurt."

"And what about you, Honda?" he asked, as he handed out tickets to the other three. "Don't you want to give it a try?"

"I don't think so," he replied. "I'm not good enough yet. Besides, someone has to be there to cheer on everyone else, right?"

"You could be right," said Grandpa Mutou. "Still, I'll hold one in reserve for you, in case you have second thoughts."

"I'll keep it in mind," said Honda.

"Well, I'll tell you what I'm keeping in mind," said Jonouchi. "This is the tournament I'm gonna win! C'mon, Yugi - how about a practice round? Best two out of three."

"Okay!" said Yugi eagerly.

They scampered off to find some free space to play. Honda and Anzu watched them go.

"Think he'll make it?" asked Honda.

Anzu shook her head. "Against Yugi? Not a chance."

The bar was full of its usual occupants: a number of drunks, bums, loan sharks, and a certain amount of cigarette smoke. Very few people took notice of one more derelict shuffling into the dimly lit room. Mr. Jonouchi scanned the room with bloodshot eyes, trying to pick out a specific person in the crowd. For a moment, he didn't see who he was looking for, and felt a stab of disappointment. Then his eyes gradually adjusted to the gloom, and he was able to pick out an incongruous figure: a dapper man in an expensive suit, leaning against a wall and toying with a wineglass. Mr. Jonouchi gave a crooked grin and ambled over to him.

"Mr. Same!" he said. "Just the man I wanted to see!"

The man called Same raised an eyebrow. "And just why, pray tell, is that?"

Same wasn't his real name. Nobody seemed to know what his real name was, but the nickname "Same" had gotten attached to him, and stuck. He had been a fixture in this place and others like it for some years now, and made his living primarily by parting fools from their money in various ways - loan-sharking, card-sharping, and overseeing bets on everything from soccer games to drinking contests. Mr. Jonouchi was one of his regular customers, and as such, owed him a great deal of money for one thing and another. Seeing him smiling at Same was an unusual event.

"I've got a new proposition for you," Mr. Jonouchi said. "Something I guarantee will work this time."

"Oh, really?" said Same boredly.

"Yeah. You ever hear of some game called Duel Monsters?"

"Duel Monsters? Everyone has heard of Duel Monsters," Same replied. "It's a children's game. Don't tell me you're planning on taking it up. You need a sound mind for tactics to play that game, and you haven't got one."

"Oh, yeah? Well, let me tell you something - my boy Katsuya is a champ, one of the best in the world."

"You don't say," said Same flatly. He knew the younger Jonouchi fairly well, mostly through encounters involving Katsuya Jonouchi trying to keep Same's helpers away from his father long enough to scrounge up some money to keep them at bay. He was also well aware of his reputation as both a delinquent and a showoff. If he had told his father that he was a champion, odds were that what he really meant was that he'd played a couple of rounds in the school playground and had managed not to be beaten every time. "So, what are you proposing?"

"A bet," said Mr. Jonouchi. "I'm willing to place a bet on my boy to win that tournament."

"Is that a fact," Same said blandly. "How much are you willing to wager?"

The older man looked thoughtful. "How much do I owe you?"

"I believe the total comes somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred fifty thousand yen."

"Make it two hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand yen says my boy Katsuya won't lose a single round."

"Interesting," said Same. "That might just be worth my while. Very well, we will draw up a contract."

He sidled over to the bar and took out a notepad. Slipping a pen from his pocket, he wrote out two identical documents, stating the terms of the bet. They both signed both copies - Same with a flourish, Mr. Jonouchi with a shaky hand. Then Same folded up one sheet and tucked it into an inner pocket of his coat; several similar documents could be seen there, as well.

"This calls for a toast," said Same. "Bartender, another drink for me... and bring something nice for our friend, here. My treat."

The bartender nodded and poured another glass of wine from a dusty bottle, and placed something in a double old-fashioned glass in front of Mr. Jonouchi. The two of them touched their glasses together.

"Here's to familial loyalty," said Same.

"Hear, hear," Mr. Jonouchi agreed.

He drank deeply from his glass. Same sipped disinterestedly at his drink a while, but his "business partner" wasn't very interesting company. He slipped away, glancing back over his shoulder long enough to see the other man calling for another drink like the first one, and shook his head.

"This is going to be so easy, I should feel guilty about it," he murmured. Still, he had done too many things he ought to feel guilty about without having so much as a twinge of remorse; there was no point in starting now. Not when he was looking at easy money. He patted the sheaf of papers hidden in his pocket and wandered off into the smoke-filled gloom.

The next weekend came with what seemed to everyone who had entered the tournament like glacial slowness. There had to be at least a month, Yugi felt, between the day he'd filled out his entry pass and the day when his grandfather finally called to him to hurry up and come get breakfast, or he'd be late for the tournament. Yugi had already been up for two hours, hanging around his room and sorting his cards.

I don't think you were this excited before the other two tournaments you were in, his other self commented.

"That was different," Yugi explained. "Those were serious. This is just for fun. I like fun."

He heard the spirit chuckle softly. Yes, I know. And sharing my destiny has cost you opportunities to have fun. It's time you had a chance to relax and enjoy yourself.

"You can play too, if you want," Yugi offered. "We can take turns."

We'll see. It might be fun for me to watch you play instead of the other way around.

Yugi smiled. "Well, maybe you're right."

"Are you coming or not?" his grandfather called from downstairs.

"I'm on my way!"

He pocketed his cards and went racing downstairs.

Approximately two hours later, Yugi had been fed, and he and his grandfather had convened with the rest of the group at the game store's front door. Together, the five of them made the journey to the stadium where the tournament was being held. Normally, it was the site of assorted shows, like circuses or sporting events, but for this, it had been turned into a dueling arena fit for a king of games. The group had to fight their way inside against the surging tides of humanity that was trying to force its way through the narrow opening into the stadium. Inside, they found yet more chaos. Everywhere they turned, people of all ages were clamoring for a piece of the action. Yugi listened to the chorus of incongruous voices - young and old, happy and worried - as they echoed around him.

"Mommy, I want a balloon!"

"Dammit, I can't find my ticket..."

"Hey, look, they've got cards for sale! Better get some while we can."

"Do you think that spiky-haired kid is going to be here?"

"Let's buy popcorn!"

"Anybody know where our seats are?"

"Go get 'em, Kohaku! Make us proud!"

Yugi's head turned this way and that as he tried to take in all the sights. There were vendors selling balloons and souvenirs of every kind, plus stands where one could buy popcorn, candy, and drinks. A huge display of cards was set up against one wall, surrounded by eager patrons. Someone had erected a few displays featuring life-sized monsters in battle with each other, and a few people wearing costumes were allowing children to get their pictures taken with their favorite warriors.

Look over there, his partner prompted him.

Yugi looked just in time to see a glint of silvery-white hair, and recognized it as belonging to Ryou Bakura. He thought about calling out to him, but changed his mind. He regretted the fact that he couldn't be closer friends with the quiet boy who loved games as much as he did, but the fact remained that the Ring was no longer in his possession, and there were no illusions in his mind as to where it had gone.

We'll have to watch our step, said the Spirit of the Puzzle. With so many people packed so closely together, this would be a very bad place to start something.

Yugi silently agreed. He had wanted this tournament to be fun! The last thing he needed was to wake up Bakura's darker self and make things complicated.

"Hey, Yugi, look at that!" said Jonouchi, pointing. "They've got a card shop over there. Whaddaya say we check it out before the games start?"

"Do we have time?" asked Anzu.

"Don't worry. There's nearly an hour before you have to be in your places," said Grandpa reassuringly. "Tell you what, I've seen some friends I want to talk to, so why don't we split up for a while? We can meet back here later."

The others decided that this was a good idea, and they agreed to meet up again in forty- five minutes under a statue of the Dark Magician Girl that was easily visible from most parts of the entry hall. With this in mind, the group split up to follow their own interests.

At the card stall, they found an impressive display of cards, ranging from a selection of common cards that could be purchased with pocket change, on up to rare and valuable cards in locked cases that could only have been purchased by someone like Kaiba, who had hundreds and thousands of yen to spend on a single card. The group looked with longing and admiration at these rare gems, but eventually decided to spend their money on packs from the latest series of boosters. Then they pulled away from the thickest part of the crowd so they could open the packages without being trampled by the next round of eager shoppers.

"Hey, I got a good card!" said Yugi, holding it up and admiring it.

"You always get good cards," Honda said, riffling through his own collection. "Hey, these aren't half bad, either. I can use this..."

"I have all these already," said Anzu, frowning at her new cards. "Anyone want to trade?"

Jonouchi wasn't listening. He was staring at something out at the fringes of the crowd, looking strangely worried.

"Hey, guys," he said. "I just thought of something. I'll be back in a sec, okay?"

Without waiting for an answer, he hurried off into the crowd.

"What's with him?"Anzu wondered.

"I don't know," said Honda, frowning, "but I'm going to find out. Wait here while I go see what he's up to."

Meanwhile, Jonouchi was making his way doggedly through the crowds, keeping his eyes on the man he had seen lurking in a corner. The man wore a ragged brown coat that looked like it hadn't been washed since the day it was bought, along with a hat so battered that it was difficult to guess its original shape or color. His face sported the prickly growth that came from not being shaved for three or four days, and he was taking swigs from a soft drink bottle, though Jonouchi was willing to bet the stuff was anything but. Jonouchi broke through the thickest part of the crowd and descended on him. The man's sluggish wits couldn't react fast enough to do more than splutter as the boy seized him by the collar and hauled him roughly into a corner. Jonouchi turned him loose, making him stagger, and glared at him with fire in his eyes.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded.

The man looked up at him with an expression of wounded innocence. "I heard you were going to be competing here, so I just came to watch. Can't a man come to cheer on his own son?"

"That's bullshit," Jonouchi snapped. "You didn't care when I was in the national tournaments. You didn't care when I was at Duelist Kingdom. You didn't care when I was in Battle City. Why the hell would you care that I'm in some dinky little tournament run by a hamburger joint?"

"Er, well, I'm just trying to make up for lost time," his father mumbled. "You know, mend bridges, that sort of thing. Or is it fences that you mend?" He swayed a little on his feet.

Jonouchi glared at him, not believing a word of it. He had only half-listened to his father's slurred protests, focusing instead on his hand, which was fingering a scrap of paper that Jonouchi could see protruding from his pocket.

"Give me that!" he said.

He grabbed for the paper. His father tried to cling to it, but Jonouchi was stronger and faster, not to mention steadier on his feet. He pried the older man's fingers off of the paper and snatched it away. His eyes scanned its contents, as his face twisted in disgust.

"'The undersigned hereby wagers the sum of two hundred thousand yen that the duelist known as Katsuya Jonouchi will not win a single round at the upcoming Duel Monsters tournament....' A bet?" he said incredulously. "You came here because of a bet?"

"Nothin' wrong with a little friendly wager," said his father.

"This isn't a little friendly wager! Dammit, we don't have this kind of money! We've never had this kind of money! You're out of your mind!"

"You don't understand, boy! It's just a calculated risk. Trust me, boy - once you win this tournament, all our troubles will be over. This is enough to pay off all our bills and have plenty left over."

"Is that all I am to you - a way to make money? Money for you gamble away again?" Jonouchi shook his head incredulously. "I swear, I'm going to kill you myself this time!"

He shot out a hand, maybe intending to hit him or choke him; even he wasn't sure entirely. He was surprised when his father's own hand came up to strike it away. Now it was the elder Jonouchi whose gaze was aflame with anger. His breath still reeked of cheap alcohol, but he was standing straight and steady now, and Jonouchi was shocked into taking a few steps back.

"Now, you listen here, boy," he snarled. "You're forgetting who's in charge of this family. This is your problem now, too. If Same comes after my blood, he'll go for yours, too, so you had better take this seriously! You are playing in this little game, and you're going to win! You fuck this up, boy, and maybe Same won't be the first one to take a piece out of your hide, got it?"

Jonouchi stared at him a moment, trembling, chest heaving as he tried to keep his breathing steady.

"Bastard," he hissed. He had heard a lot of foul names in his time, many of them directed at him, but right now, none of them seemed vile enough. "You... you complete bastard."

His shoulders slumped. He could call his father all the names he wanted, but the fact remained: he was stuck. The deal had been drawn up, and there would be no getting out of it now - not unless someone had the decency to kill Same, which Jonouchi doubted would happen anytime soon. He was in a position to know that Same was well-guarded by his cronies. Just now, it was very tempting to try anyway.

"All right," he said at last. "I was planning on winning anyway, so you can go ahead and play your stupid games if you want to. But don't expect me to bail you out again if things go wrong. You can face Same's goons on your own this time."

"They'll come after you, too."

"Maybe so... but I've got people who'll watch my back. There are people who care about me enough to want to protect me... even if you're not one of them."

He turned on his heel and stalked off, not waiting to see what effect that final jab had. A voice in his mind that he tried not to listen to told him it might not have done anything at all.

Meanwhile, Honda had been eavesdropping on the entire conversation from behind the safety of a billboard. As soon as he saw his friend turning away, he dove back into the crowds and fought his way back to the others. They watched him approach with concern in their expressions.

"What was that all about?" Yugi asked. "You look... worried."

Honda hesitated. Something told him that this was a matter that he shouldn't meddle in too deeply. Jonouchi's father had always been a sore spot with him, and the last thing Honda wanted was to cause his friend any more pain than he was already feeling by blabbing his secrets.

"That's disgust you're seeing," he said. "Jonouchi's dad is here, and Jonouchi went to warn him off. It wasn't a pretty picture. You're lucky you weren't there."

The other two nodded in understanding. They had met Jonouchi's father once, and were in no hurry to do it again.

A moment later, Jonouchi rejoined his friends. He had taken his time getting back to them, trying to force down his anger and fear and get his usual carefree expression back on his face. He almost managed it, and his friends pretended not to notice anything was wrong.

"Hi, guys," he said. "What'd I miss?"

"Nothing much," said Anzu. "We were just swapping cards, that's all."

"We should probably go get back in touch with Grandpa, anyway," said Yugi. "It's almost time for the contest."

Jonouchi nodded without comment, and allowed himself to be led back to the meeting place. Even as they did so, they heard a voice over the loudspeaker saying, "Attention, contest participants: the preliminaries will be starting in fifteen minutes. All contestants should present their entry tickets to the nearest attendant to be shown to the dueling areas. I repeat, the preliminaries will be starting in..."

"You all had better hurry!" said Grandpa Mutou, as the four of them came into view. "Has everyone still got their tickets?"

"I have mine!" said Yugi, holding his up excitedly.

"Me too," Anzu added, fishing hers out of her purse.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," said Jonouchi, with unusual seriousness.

"I'll be rooting for you guys from the stands," Honda said. "All of you guys! May the best man - or woman - win."

"Thanks, Honda!" said Anzu brightly. "Come on, guys! We don't want to be late."

She grabbed Yugi's arm and hauled him off, with Jonouchi trotting along after them. The last thing Yugi heard as he was dragged away was Honda calling for Grandpa to hurry and get some popcorn before they had to go to their seats. Then Yugi was pulled around a corner, and they were lost from sight.

Jonouchi found himself being herded into a maze-like construction of cubicles. It would have been, he thought, the perfect place to train lab rats, provided that said rats were about five feet tall. It was not the ideal place for someone like Jonouchi, who preferred to be able to move freely and distrusted small, enclosed areas where he wouldn't be able to put up a fight. Not that he was expecting to have to do a lot of hand-to-hand combat during an amateur card tournament, but he had reasons for suffering from a certain amount of paranoia.

Stay focused, he scolded himself. This is a bad time to go to pieces!

The attendant he'd been following escorted stopped abruptly, checking a number on his notepad against a number stamped on the side of one of the cubicles.

"Yes, this is it," he said. "You'll be having your first match here. Remember, this is just a preliminary. This round will decide whether or not you'll enter into the main round of competition, based on how many life points you have at the end of the duel. Only the players with the highest scores will proceed to the next phase of the tournament, so even if you win this part, you still might not go forward."

"What? That's not fair!" Jonouchi protested.

The attendant shrugged. "I didn't make the rules! This is the establishment's way of making sure we have a manageable number of players, so this thing won't take all week. Just do your best."

Jonouchi shuffled into his cubicle, muttering about people who knew more about hamburgers than Duel Monsters. He slumped down into the stiff-backed chair that had been provided for him, crossed his arms over his chest, and did his best to look sullen. The attendant ignored him.

"Just wait for the bell to chime," he said. "At that point, you can draw your first cards and begin the duel. You have a few minutes to prepare. Good luck!"

The attendant wandered off. Jonouchi gave a resigned sigh and decided to take the man's advice and prepare. In his case, since his deck was as organized as it was ever going to be, he took a moment to size up his opponent. It was a boy of about twelve, by his best guess, looking wide-eyed and excited by all the activity. He was sizing up Jonouchi curiously.

"Hey, didn't I see you on TV?" he asked.

"Mighta, yeah," said Jonouchi, privately pleased.

"Yeah, I remember you now! You went all the way to the Battle City finals, and you didn't even have a God Card like the others. You're really good."

"I'm all right," he said. "How about you?"

"My friends say I'm good. This will be my first tournament, though..."

A chime sounded overhead.

"Guess now's your time to find out!" said Jonouchi.

They drew their first hands, and Jonouchi scanned his cards. He had been hoping to draw something impressive right off so he would be able to finish the match quickly, but it looked like Fate didn't want to make things too easy for him - and just when "too easy" was what he needed most! Well, he would do the best he could. He set Masaki the Legendary Swordsman on the field in attack mode and watched to see what his opponent would do.

The boy scanned his cards a moment, an expression of faint worry on his face. At length, he selected a card and set face-down on the field.

"Your turn," he said.

I wonder what that's all about, Jonouchi thought. It's got to be a trap or something... or does it? Only one way to find out!

He played his next monster, Little Winguard, and sent it to attack his opponent. He expected to encounter resistance of some sort, but managed to do nothing worse than take 1400 life points off of his opponent's total. He shrugged and attacked with his Legendary Swordsman as well, bringing the boy's life points down to 1500. Then he laid a spell card face down.

"Your move," he said.

The boy drew a card, and an expression of relief swept over him. He played the Dark Blade in attack mode, swiftly wiping out the Little Winguard. Then he activated his spell card - Dian Keto - restoring 1000 of his life points. Jonouchi gave a sigh of relief. It was nice to have something to fight that he could see. Granted, it was stronger than his one remaining monster was, but he could cope with that.

"All done?" he asked.

The boy nodded.

"Good. Then I start my turn by sacrificing Masaki the Legendary Swordsman to summon Garoozis!"

The new card was laid out on the table. True, the new monster had only exactly the same amount of attack points as Dark Blade, but that could be fixed. All he needed was to trigger his spell card, and things would be different. He flipped over his Angel Dice card and activated its effect.

"C'mon, let's have some good numbers..." he pleaded.

The dice fell: a two. Jonouchi sighed.

"Well, better than nothing, I guess," he said.

The unfortunate Dark Blade cringed as the newly empowered Garoozis attacked, wiping out its life points and setting the boy's down to seven hundred. The boy watched a moment, waiting to see if Jonouchi was going to pull any more surprises. Jonouchi only nodded in his direction, encouraging him to make his next move.

"Go for it," he said.

The boy nodded, taking a deep breath. He drew his next card and began riffling through his cards, and then riffling through them again. At last, he squared his shoulders and placed a card on the field: Lizard Soldier, in attack mode. Then he sat back and crossed his arms.

"Your turn," he said.

Jonouchi stared at him a moment, wondering what was going on. The Lizard Warrior had only 1100 attack points, exactly seven hundred less than Garoozis, and seven hundred was all he had left. It didn't have any special effects, and there were no spells or traps on the field. It was crazy! The least he could do was play his monster in defense mode and try to buy himself some time...

Unless he knows he doesn't have anything that can save him, Jonouchi realized. This is his way of going down fighting.

He looked up and met the boy's eyes. The boy nodded.

"Right," said Jonouchi. "Garoozis, attack the Lizard Soldier!"

The two reptiles clashed a moment on the field, and for a moment, the Lizard Soldier's shield held firm. Then it shattered, and the small dragon was sliced in two. Garoozis raised his sword, howling his victory, before fading into the air. The game was over, and Jonouchi was the victor. The two young men shook hands over the table.

"That was embarrassing," said the boy. "I usually don't play so badly."

"What was all that with you skipping your turn, back there?" Jonouchi asked him.

In response, the boy showed him his hand, and Jonouchi understood at once. Without being invited, he reached out and flipped over the boy's deck, spreading it out on the table, and was not surprised at what he saw. The entire thing was so cluttered with spells, traps, and high- level monsters, it was a wonder he had managed to get anything on the field at all. Some of the cards in there were quite strong, and could have done serious damage to Jonouchi if they'd ever been put in play, but their owner had never been able to scrape up enough cards for a sacrifice.

"Yep, that explains it," said Jonouchi. "You need to clean up your deck!"

"I know," the boy replied. "I just wanted to have my strongest cards for the tournament... I guess I put in too many."

"Well, next time you'll know better!" Jonouchi said. "Oh, well. It's been fun! Maybe we'll play again sometime, and maybe you can get some of this cool stuff on the field."

The boy grinned. "Okay!"

Jonouchi grinned back. So far, so good - but the hardest matches were still yet to come.

The hallway was nearly empty. It was an amazing fact, considering how many people were crammed into this building, but most of those were currently occupied with the contest. The majority of the players were still on the playing field, and the few who were already done had been escorted back to the lobby, which was a much more interesting place than this stark hall. Most of them were content to stay there while they waited for their scores to be announced. Likewise, most of the audience was either up in the stands watching the players battle it out, or were back in the main entrance hall to either congratulate or console their favorite duelist. The arena staff was likewise keeping a watchful eye over the remaining players, watching for cheaters and collecting the finished players. All that was left were these two people.

"He did pretty well, don't you think?" commented one, the younger of the two.

"He was lucky, that time," said the older man. "He won't be able to rely on just luck forever. From now on, he'll be fighting against players with real skill."

"Not that he doesn't have some skill of his own," the young man replied. "So, what do you think? Full steam ahead with the plan?"

The older man nodded his head solemnly. He reached for something in one of his pockets and passed it to his companion. As it passed from hand to hand, the light caught the face of a card.

"If all else fails, use this," he said. "It's not the best solution, but used correctly, it might just turn things around."

"I get it." He stuffed the card under his coat. "Let's just keep an eye on things. This whole thing might just take care of itself, but if it doesn't..."

The older man nodded. "If it doesn't, this card is just what we need to get Jonouchi out of this tournament."

Jonouchi and the others reconvened in the entryway, where a large video screen had been set up. Any minute now, it would display the lists of scores, and the players would see who had made it into the first round of the tournament. Most of the crowd was getting fidgety as they waited for their scores to be tallied.

"Hey, Jonouchi, how did you do?" Anzu asked him.

He flashed the victory sign. "I rocked! See, I told you I have this tournament all wrapped up! How did you do?"

"Well enough, I think," she answered. "I didn't embarrass myself, anyway. I'm just worried about Yugi. You know how he is - he's always winning by the skin of his teeth."

"Yeah, but those are against really good duelists," said Jonouchi. "This is kid stuff. The guy I dueled didn't know what he was doing. Honda could have beaten him!"

"Did I hear my name mentioned?" called a voice. Honda pushed his way through the crowds, looking a bit as if he were swimming as he tried to move people out of his way. Grandpa Mutou strolled easily in his wake.

"We were just talking about you," said Anzu. "Jonouchi was just saying it was a shame you didn't enter - isn't that right?"

"Wha? Uh, yeah, that's right!" he said, taking the hint.

"Where is Yugi?" asked Grandpa. "Hasn't he gotten here yet?"

"Not yet," said Jonouchi.

"I haven't seen him either," Anzu admitted.

"Hey! Hey! Over here!" a voice in the distance piped up.

All heads turned to see a pair of hands bouncing in and out of view over the crowds. It was the only way tiny Yugi could make himself seen. Jonouchi and Honda carved their way through the mob and managed to drag Yugi back to where the others were.

"Whew! I'm glad that's over," said Yugi. "I hate crowds! I always get squashed."

"Did the duel go all right?" asked Anzu.

"It went all right, I think," Yugi replied. "We won't know for sure until the scores are posted, though. How much longer? Does anyone know?"

Grandpa Mutou glanced at his watch. "They should be coming up soon. Ahh, here we go!"

Even as he spoke, the screen began to flicker, and soon rows of names appeared - one hundred and twenty-eight, to be exact - arranged in order of their high scores. Jonouchi scanned the list just long enough to make sure his own name was there, and was gratified to see that he was in the top ten. Anzu and Yugi's scores were both safely in the middle of the selection. A miniature celebration broke out as everyone congratulated everyone else.

"Well done, all of you!" said Grandpa Mutou. "You deserve a reward for making it this far. There's an hour before the main tournament starts - how about we go down to the snack bar for burgers? I'll buy."

No one could argue with that proposition, so the five of them worked their way in the direction of the arena's restaurant. Unfortunately for them, it seemed that half the people there had the same idea. It took quite a long time for them to get through the line, order their food, and find a seat in the dining area. They eventually gave up the quest as futile and sat outside on the steps instead.

For a while, it was quite a merry gathering. Anzu was happily retelling the details of her duel, and Grandpa was continually putting in his opinion on various cards and strategies they had used, while Yugi kept pulling the conversation back to the topic of the mystery grand prize. Jonouchi, however, was uncharacteristically quiet, eating his food without seeming to realize what he was doing. He kept picking up his drink and sucking at the straw without seeming to realize his cup was empty. Honda watched him worriedly.

"You okay, bro?" he asked.

"Huh?" said Jonouchi, coming out of his daze.

"You look out of it," Honda said. "More than usual, I mean. You know, if you've got a problem..."

"I'm okay," Jonouchi assured him. "Just - you know, psyching myself up! I've really got to buckle down and be serious if I'm going to win!"

"Okay. If you're sure," said Honda.

"Trust me! There's nothing wrong... nothing that couldn't be fixed by a trip to the boy's room," he added, glaring at his empty cup. "I'll be back in a minute, okay?"

He scampered back into the building, leaving his friends looking more than a little concerned. He cringed a little as he caught the look in Yugi's eyes, but he shook it off. Honda was asking a few too many questions, and Jonouchi wasn't entirely sure about giving out answers. He knew his friends would gladly help out in any way they could, but that was the one thing he didn't want right now. He knew how to dodge Same and his lackeys by now; there was no point in letting the rest of his friends get into trouble. Even if he lost, the worst that would happen was that his father would get a few nasty threats, and maybe be forced to pawn off a few appliances to cover the debts. It had happened before, and as long as his father kept up his habits, it would probably happen again.

"This isn't your problem, guys," he said. "It's barely even my problem."

He sighed. The strange thing was, he really did love his father. It was just that there were times when he didn't really believe the man he was living with was his father. His father was someone he dimly remembered from a long time ago, someone who had drowned in a whiskey bottle and left Jonouchi to cope with this awful parody of him. Jonouchi had a deep, private dream, one that he never would have confessed to aloud, that someday his father would finally drink himself to death, and Jonouchi would be adopted into Yugi's family.

I don't want anyone to sacrifice anything for his sake, Jonouchi told himself. He's not worth it. I can deal with this on my own...

No, there was no point in telling anyone else. At best, they'd still be worried, and at worst, they might drop out of the game or purposely let him win. He didn't really think Yugi would do that, not after all the times they had dueled each other in the past, but he might decide that this duel wasn't important enough to finish if Jonouchi needed the victory more. As for Anzu, there was no telling what she'd do to bail a friend out of trouble. No, he absolutely couldn't tell either of them.

Besides, between the excitement and downing a large caffeinated beverage in a short amount of time, he really did need to go to the bathroom.

He made his way to the men's room to deal with this article of business and collect himself a bit. As it turned out, collecting himself ended up being a wasted effort. As he was exiting the men's room, he caught sight of a dark-haired man in a nice suit. Probably there were a lot of those in Domino City, but the sight of this particular one was enough to make Jonouchi start backpedaling in a hurry. It was too late. Before he knew what was happening, Same had him by the collar.

"What's the matter? Not happy to see me, Katsuya?"

"Don't call me that," said Jonouchi, brushing the man's hand off his shoulder. "Actually, don't talk to me at all."

"I'll make this brief," the man replied. "I'm sure that by now, your loudmouthed father have told me about the little game we're playing."

"He mighta said a thing or two about it, yeah."

"Then I suppose you know what's expected of you."

"I know you're betting on me to lose," said Jonouchi. "Pretty stupid, if you ask me."

"I think I can rest easily on that score," Same replied. "I have been in this business a long time. I'm very good at figuring odds. Frankly, I don't think they're in your favor."

"Then you don't know much about Duel Monsters, do ya?"

"That remains to be seen. If this turns out to be a profitable venture, I may look into it more deeply," Same said. "As things stand, I have only one thing to say to you. I fully expect you to do everything in your power to win. It wouldn't be amusing for me any other way. However, I have a certain amount of money invested in your failure, so if I get any hint of any idea that you might be resorting to unethical practices to achieve a victory..."

Jonouchi took a moment to work that out.

"You think I'm going to cheat?" he spluttered indignantly.

"It's a possibility," said Same mildly.

"Listen, buster, I didn't go through everything I went through just so some scumbag loan- shark can accuse me of cheating! I fight all my duels fair," Jonouchi declared. "I never sunk that low, no matter what was on the line, and I'm not going to do it now just because you're trying to swindle money out of my old man. You're going to do it anyway, so why should I care?"

"As you wish," Same replied. "Just keep in mind that I will be keeping a close watch on you. If you or your little friends get up to any mischief, I'll find out about it, and I will be ready to enforce the rules if I have to.... Well, have fun!"

With a mocking salute, he turned on his heel and glided off. Jonouchi made a face at him as he left.

Well, isn't that just what I needed to top this day off, he thought bitterly. Same breathing down my neck. Great.

At least this particular obstacle wouldn't be a difficult one to dodge. All he needed to do was what he was planning on doing anyway - give it his all and hope for the best. Still, this made it all the more important to keep his friends out of this mess. There was no telling what Same would decide counted as "cheating" or what he would decide to do about it if the issue came up. The idea of Same's goons coming after Yugi or Anzu or even Grandpa Mutou was one he'd rather not think about too hard.

It'll be okay, he told himself. All I have to do is keep them from finding out. Piece of cake, right?

Meanwhile, out on the steps, the rest of his group were finishing off their snacks and simply taking a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet before the next round of competition... all but Honda, who was quietly staring up at the sky, lost in thought.

That knucklehead, he was thinking. He ought to know better than this, by now. We could help him if he wasn't so stiff-necked. Oh, well, knowing him, he won't be able to keep a secret for long.

He looked thoughtfully at Yugi and Anzu. They would want to know about this, if only for the chance to provide some moral support. He sighed. He hated to go blabbing a friend's secrets, but sometimes there were extenuating circumstances.

Maybe I ought to go ahead and tell them.

To Be Continued...