A crowd was gathering around the two boys, who were standing ten feet away from each other and screaming at the top of their lungs. They were both wearing Duel Disks, and were also getting rather red in the face from yelling.
"I hate your guts!" bellowed Dinosaur Ryuuzaki, falling back on the old standby.
"Oh, yeah? Well, I hate you more!" Insector Haga shouted back.
"I'll hate you until I die!"
"I'll hate you even after I'm dead!"
"Well, I'll teach all my descendants to hate you!"
"You're never going to have ancestors!" snapped Haga. "No girl in the world would want to marry you!"
"Look who's talking!"
"Humph! I'm going home," Haga grumbled. He turned and stomped off.
"Well, fine, then! Be that way," snapped Ryuuzaki. He stomped off in the opposite direction. The crowd, robbed of their entertainment, began to disperse. Haga scowled at them all as if they were personally responsible for his dissatisfaction.
Stupid people. Someday they'll be flocking around me for a different reason! Someday...
He rode the train home. He and Ryuuzaki didn't live in the same city, but there were ways around that, and trains were the quickest. He rode home in sullen silence, trying not to catch anyone's eye. There was a time when he'd reveled in attention, but just now, it was better to be anonymous, rather than "that kid who never even made it to the finals". He would rather believe that they simply hadn't noticed them than have them notice him and gloss him over.
He escaped the crush of the train station and hurried to his apartment the best way he knew how - head down, eyes to the ground, moving like he was in a hurry and didn't have time to stop and chat with anyone. These days, it mostly worked more often than not. He wasn't sure if that was because he'd perfected his technique, or whether he was such old news that there wasn't even any fun in picking on him anymore. When he arrived home, he opened his door and was hit with a wave of perfume.
"Mom?" he called. "Don't you think you're laying it on a little strong tonight?"
"I just had a little accident with the scent bottle, dear," his mother called back.
She made her grand entrance, and he tried not to cringe. It wasn't that his mother was a terribly unattractive person; it was just that she was a person pushing forty who was trying to look like a person pushing twenty. She would look much better if she didn't insist on wearing everything too tight, too bright, and too short, and slathering herself with makeup in an effort to make herself look younger. Her hair was dyed, too, in a color that did not quite look right with her skin tone. There were days when he wished he could drag her down to a beauty parlor somewhere and guard the door until she'd been forced to don something more natural.
"Going out again?" he asked tiredly.
"Yes, dear, that's right. I'm having dinner with Mr. Sugimoto. You don't mind looking after yourself for the evening, do you?"
"I don't like him. He always winds up getting drunk, and you have to drag him home," Haga muttered. "You're better off without him."
His mother looked hurt. "He really is a nice man, if you'd just get to know him a little better! I'm doing this for your own good, you know. Just try to be patient, please?"
"Humph," was all he said.
He hid in his room, waiting for the sounds that meant his mother had finally finished doing whatever she was going and had gone out to her date - meaning she had gone out to fling herself at some unfortunate male in the desperate hope that he'd marry her. Haga's father had left them when Haga was about six years old, and ever since then, she'd been on a campaign to provide her son with a father once more. He had tried to convince her that he was just fine, that she didn't need to put them both through this embarrassment, but she had not listened to him. When she wasn't out husband-hunting, she tended to lavish attention on her only child, and poured out money to buy him whatever he wanted. Some of the best cards in his deck were a result of her largesse.
As if cued by that thought, she knocked on Haga's door, and he opened it resignedly to have her push some bills into his hand.
"I'm going out now," she said. "Just buy yourself something nice for dinner with this, all right? And take your friend Ryuuzawa with you."
"That's Ryuuzaki, Mom," he snapped, "and he's not my friend."
"Well... have a nice evening anyway, all right? I'll try not to be back too late."
She fluttered off, still smelling much too strongly of perfume, tottering on her high heels. Haga waited until she was gone, thinking to himself that Mr. Sugimoto wasn't going to need to drink to work himself into a stupor; the perfume would do the job for him. As soon as Haga was sure he was alone, he reached for the telephone and punched some numbers.
"Whaddaya want? Whoever you want, they're not home," said a voice on the other end of the phone.
"It's me," Haga answered.
"Oh, you," said Dinosaur Ryuuzaki. "Mom leave you on your own again?"
"Yeah. You want dinner?"
"Sure. Are we hitting the Calorie Burger again?"
"Burgers, nothin'! I need sugar."
"Right," said Ryuuzaki. "Meet you at Haneoka's, then?"
"I'll be there in fifteen."
He hung up the phone without bothering to say goodbye - as always, it was a race to see who could hang up first, so they could prove who didn't want to talk to the other more. Then he shoved the money in his pocket and went to catch the next subway train.
I could save some money by just not bothering to come home.
At least one of the things his mother was generous with was money for transportation. He and Ryuuzaki lived a fair distance apart, so if they wanted to meet - which they didn't, but arranged to do anyway - they had to meet each other halfway. Thus, a series of burger joints, curry take-out spots, and ice cream parlors received a pair of regular patrons.
Ryuuzaki was waiting for him at the front door.
"You're late," he said. "I've been waiting for you forever. What's the idea inviting me to dinner if you can't even be bothered to show up on time?"
"It wasn't me! It was the stupid trains," Haga snapped. "Just shut up and get inside, or you can buy your own dinner."
They went inside. It was mostly empty, with only a handful of inoffensive people who never seemed to notice the two fallen duelists, which was why Ryuuzaki and Haga frequented the place. Haneoka's regular customers were usually adults with small children, who usually didn't bother anyone, and the occasional pair of sweethearts who were too wrapped up in each other to make trouble for anyone else. The only one in the building who knew the two of them played Duel Monsters at all was the girl who ran the cash register, the daughter of the couple who owned the place. Haga knew her name was Chizuru, and she had naturally curly hair and wore glasses and was nearly his age. She'd asked for his autograph once. He had no idea if she still had it now, but she was still nice to him - probably, he figured, because he spent so much money here.
"Hi, guys!" she greeted. "What'll it be? The usual?"
"Chocolate chocolate-chip, with marshmallows," said Ryuuzaki.
"You got it! In a cup or a bowl?"
Ryuuzaki asked for his ice cream in a bowl. Haga ordered the biggest banana split on the menu, and, once he'd ordered it, dove into it with reckless abandon.
"Hey! You're gonna make yourself sick, you dork!" said Ryuuzaki.
"Don't care," said Haga around a mouthful of half-chewed banana. "I said I needed a sugar fix, and darned if I'm not going to get it!"
Ryuuzaki nodded sympathetically. If they had been adults, they probably would have been in a bar somewhere collecting empty beer bottles. As things stood, they had to make do with ice cream. Ryuuzaki rearranged the pattern of marshmallows on his sundae.
"It ain't our fault we're in a rut," he said. "We woulda carried off the big prizes at the Grand Prix if it wasn't for that snooty snob in the purple suit. He was a cheater - everybody saw that. Him with his stupid golden castle cards... he was probably cheating the whole time just to get to the top! We coulda taken him in a fair fight any day."
"You bet we could!" Haga agreed.
"I'm telling you, one of these days we'll get into a tournament where the odds aren't stacked against us, and then we'll show everyone who's really boss! We'll take out that punk Yugi, and Kaiba, and Jonouchi, and everybody! All we need is one break, and then we'll get it all back."
"Seriously, we'll have it all! The publicity, the bright lights, the adoring fans, the girls... We're totally going to make it big someday. Of course, I'll make it bigger than you, but I'll invite you to some of my parties, so that's okay. I'm nice that way."
"The heck you will! No way are you going to come out better than I am!" said Haga. "Remember, I'm still Japan's national champion. Battle City was just a local tournament, so it doesn't count."
"So you lost a local tournament."
"So did you! And at least I don't have lame hat hair like you."
"At least I don't have stupid bug-eyed glasses like yours. And you're one to talk about haircuts. You look like someone stuck a bowl over your head and shaved everything else off. And you have no fashion sense."
Ryuuzaki twined the cord of a necklace he was wearing through his fingers; the pendant was a small fossil of a shell embedded in a chunk of rock, where it had been lying for tens of thousands of years. Haga had given it to him for his birthday, and had made a great point of how much money he'd spent on it, and how Ryuuzaki wasn't worth it. A few months later, he had given Haga a chunk of amber with a bug caught in it, with its own little display stand. He'd made a show of how it had cost a whole fifteen yen more than the fossil did. Haga said, what did he want with a stupid old rock with a dead bug in it anyway? He kept it on his desk where he could look at it when he was supposed to be doing his homework, and hid it whenever Ryuuzaki came over. He'd been in a panic last week, because he'd hidden it and forgotten where he'd put it, and turned his room upside down looking for it and gotten in trouble with his mother. It finally turned up in the bottom of one of his winter boots.
Chizuru breezed over, carrying a tray with some drinks on it.
"You boys still doing okay?" she asked.
Haga suddenly became terribly occupied with trying to get a walnut unstuck from his spoon. Ryuuzaki said, "We're fine, thanks."
"I thought you two could use something to drink to wash down all that sticky stuff," she said, putting the drinks on the table in front of them. "No charge for you boys. You're good customers."
She gave them a sunny smile and walked off. Ryuuzaki kicked his companion's leg under the table.
"Ow! What'd you do that for?" asked Haga, rubbing his sore leg.
"You should have said something! She totally digs you, man!"
"She does not," said Haga. "She just butters me up because I spend money here."
"If she's in it for the money, what is she giving you free drinks for?" Ryuuzaki asked. He took a slurp of his soda to emphasize his point. "She is kinda cute. If you don't want her, I'll take her!"
Haga looked up, blushing and snarling. "Back off! I saw her first!"
"No way, bug boy! I hear chicks only go in for higher life forms."
"Fat chance you'd have with anyone, then! Closest you ever got to a girl was when that Mai Kujaku tricked you out of your room, and then made you follow her around like a servant back on Duelist Kingdom."
Ryuuzaki blushed. "I was just... stringing her along."
"Surrrrrre you were. You just keep telling yourself that, lizard breath."
"You didn't even get that close, four-eyes. Closest you got was having her come watch you get tromped by Yugi."
"Yeah, well, she watched you get tromped by that Jonouchi guy, and he's not even as good as Yugi. So there."
Ryuuzaki laughed bitterly. "So that's it. We get to prove who's best by who got beaten by the highest-ranking player, is that it?"
"Hey, we come closer than most people! We'll probably be legends someday," said Haga. Most of the ice cream was gone; he was in a slightly better mood. "Yeah, that's it. Legends! We fought the King of Games, live and in person. Well, I did, anyway. Most people can only dream of being good enough to play in his league. That's something, right?"
"Yeah, it's something, all right," said Ryuuzaki. He marveled at the wreckage of the banana split. It eternally amazed him that a tiny guy like Haga could eat so much at a sitting. "Feel better now?"
"Yeah. I needed that."
"Same here, I guess. Now what?"
"Wanna go to the arcade?"
"Nah. I haven't got any money on me."
"Then you can watch me."
"Watching is boring. Wanna go back to my place? We can watch movies."
"Your taste in movies is awful," said Haga. He knew. He'd watched all of them with him, at some point or another. Ryuuzaki had a taste for slasher flicks and war movies; Haga preferred science fiction. Usually they compromised on anything where lots of things got blown up.
"It's better than yours!"
"That's what you think!"
"So what are you planning on doing, huh?" Ryuuzaki asked. "Just going home?"
"Mom won't be back yet. She's never home on time when she goes out with Sugimoto," he said with a grimace. "They always turn up past midnight, with her saying he drank too much and couldn't possibly go home alone..."
"Wanna crash at my place?" asked Ryuuzaki. "Dad's working and mom's gone to some kind of spa. Nobody will know you're there."
"You snore," Haga pointed out.
"So do you!"
"Well, you snore louder! And your feet stink! You yank the blankets up over your head and leave your stinky feet hanging out."
"So, you coming over or not?"
"Might as well, seeing as how there's nowhere better to go. But I pick which movie we watch."
Ryuuzaki rolled his eyes. "Bet I can guess. You pick the same one every time!"
"So get some better movies! Only a troglodyte like you would have nothing but a bunch of stupid movies about people getting killed."
"What have you got? A bunch of movies where people kill each other in between using long words that probably don't even mean anything. I say, if you're going to kill somebody, just kill them and be done with it!"
"That's because you're an ignorant cretin!"
"Yeah, well, you're an eggheaded snob!"
"You're a grunting caveman!"
"You're an idiotic invertebrate!"
Still arguing with each other, they exited the ice cream parlor. Haga panted a little as he tried to yell and keep up with Ryuuzaki at the same time. After all, he'd promised to hate him forever, and that meant he had to be there with him the whole time.