Disclaimer: Amorously not mine.
A/N: Written for Grandlarseny, who won the Scrib!Fic Fanart Contest with her webcomic version of my Yuugi/Anzu ficlet, That Dress Looks Nice on You. The link to her comic can be found in my , give love, and feel better for ogling the cuteness. Hope this fulfils your request to your liking, babs!
And yes, I know this is not the right time of year to be posting a Valentine-themes fic, but since when did logic ever feature greatly in the way my brain works?
© Scribbler, June 2009.
You have to walk carefully in the beginning of love; the running across fields into your lover's arms can only come later, when you're sure they won't laugh if you trip. -- Jonathan Carroll, 'Outside the Dog Museum'.
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a young boy was fated to save the world.
Excuse me? Yes, that boy. The one with the bangs that would stab out his eyeballs if he fell on his face. Uh huh, the short one. You'd never get him into a line-up because nobody looks like this kid.
Oh yes he was! He was too fated to save the world. I know, I know, you wouldn't think it to look at him, but work with me here.
Actually, that's the response he got a lot. Most people didn't know he was special in the beginning. He gave no indication he was destined for anything more than a daily wedgie and a permanent empty space where his lunch money used to be.
Seriously. For this poor kid, ordinary would've been a step up. No fairy godmothers appeared at his naming ceremony, no prophecy cracked the heavens when he was born, and he didn't show any outward signs of being a hero. Heroes grew up big and strong, but this boy was small and weedy. You might've noticed. Heroes took up weapons as soon as they were able and marched off to fight evil, but this boy sat at home, alone, hoping evil would pass by and not notice him. Not many people noticed him, so it was entirely possible. He really was a most unremarkable creature.
What? Look, who's telling this story: you or me?
Underneath his unremarkable exterior, where nobody could see it because nobody looked, he was actually quite remarkable indeed.
You see, this boy had a very special type of bravery. It wasn't the kind that made young men want to be knights who fought dragons. It wasn't the kind that sent entire generations off to war. It wasn't even the kind that made persecuted people stand up for themselves against bullies and tyrants. Instead, it was the rare kind of bravery that only shows itself when it's needed most. This boy was brave enough to walk into the darkness without knowing what was there. He was brave enough to hold out his hand in friendship when he didn't know what might reach back. And he was brave enough to say goodbye when all he really wanted to say was: "Don't go."
He wasn't alone in his quest. Fate picked out companions who helped him while he worked to save the world. He had his very own Faithful Friend, Constant Comrade and Childhood Chum, and they followed wherever he led, even though he didn't have a sword, or a white steed, or even a dented suit of armour. As time went by, they became these things for him – they carried him out of danger when he got himself into it, they threw themselves at danger point-first so he wouldn't have to, and they protected him even when they were dented and crooked from past battles. Exposure to this boy's very special heroism bred courage in them too, until they were able to stand on the sidelines watching, instead of running forward and grabbing someone they loved back from oblivion.
But once upon a time, after the world was saved, the boy who saved it had another quest, which required another very special kind of bravery.
I can see that look in your face. I get the feeling you already guessed what this new quest was about. Possibly you've done it yourself. Just because it's smaller than saving the world doesn't make it any easier, does it? Whether it went well or not in your case, you know how stomach-churningly frightening that quest can be. Especially around the month of February, which is when our boy-hero scrunched up his special courage and stepped off the tightrope without a safety net.
He just hoped someone would be there to catch him before he hit the ground.
"I think I can … just about … reach it …"
"Give it up, man."
"No!" The vehemence in Yuugi's voice was startling. "Um, I mean, I worked too hard on … my science project. The science project that's in my backpack. I couldn't face making a new one."
"Uh-huh." Jounouchi sighed, rolled up his pants legs and started unlacing his shoes.
"What are you doing?"
"I hate walking in wet shoes."
"Wet shoes?" Yuugi realised what he was suggesting. "No, wait, you don't have to -"
"Y'know, it'd make this a lot easier if you just told us what's really in there that's so important."
Yuugi looked solidly at the ground. "It's my science project."
"You're a terrible liar, Yuugi. Seriously. Kindergarteners who eat paste lie better than you when they've got the stick in their mouths."
"It really is my science -"
"I'm guessing," Jounouchi went on, "it has something to do with all that pink and red crap you bought the other day from the craft store. No self-respecting guy buys those tiny pom-pom things and heart-shaped pink sequins unless it's really worth it."
Yuugi still said nothing, but his cheeks were beginning to turn a little pink themselves.
"Dude, considering the date today, and unless some new hottie arrived at school and we didn't meet her yet, it's kind of obvious."
His eyes traced the outline of each blade of grass.
"Oh, for crying out loud," Jounouchi muttered. "If you can't even tell us, how the hell do you expect to say anything to her?"
Honda could've mentioned how Jounouchi's own track record for telling girls he liked them wasn't exactly great, but decided that even six months after Dartz's defeat was too soon to bring up Mai. Admittedly, Yuugi's reason was different, because he talked to the object of his affections every day anyway, but right now that was probably the last thing the littler guy wanted – or needed – to hear.
Jounouchi yanked off his first sneaker, balled up a sock that walked the fine line between cheesy and crusty, and fell back as Honda slapped the back of his head. He sat up again with a scowl that could have melted iron filings.
"What the hell was that for?"
"Piss off. I'm the one going into the canal for him!"
"No, I mean you reek. You're burning my nose hair. What day did you changed your socks?"
"Day? You're supposed to change your socks every day?"
Honda looked a little green. Wirth Jounouchi you never could tell whether he was joking about that sort of thing. Honda had memories of getting caught in a rainstorm when they were kids, when they'd run through the playground looking for shelter and got covered in mud. Honda's mother had sat them down in front of the fire while she washed and dried their clothes, but Jounouchi ended up going home in Honda's spare shirt and shorts after the seams of his own drifted apart with no dirt to stick them together.
Jounouchi looked down at the sock in his hand, then at the canal. "I guess I could wash them now -"
"No!" Honda said immediately. "That water's worse even than your sweat. And your sweat's, like, made of acid or something."
Suddenly Yuugi's bag shifted against the branch it had caught on. It gurgled precariously, the strap waving like mermaid's hair in the current.
"-ck!" Jounouchi finished. He scrambled to his feet, balanced on the side and swung his arms behind him like an Olympic swimmer trying for the gold. "You better appreciate this, Yuugi."
A twirling garbage bag whizzed by, end over end, trailing bits of old noodle and food packaging. It was going quite fast. Yuugi eyed it with alarm.
"No, wait, I changed my mind. It's not worth it. I can always make another … science project."
"Yeah, right. You really don't care about what's in that bag; which was why you were leaning so far out you nearly fell in twice." Jounouchi shook his head and sprang.
"Jounouchi!" Yuugi yelped. "You'll drown."
But he wasn't trying to swim for the sapling someone had uprooted from the sidewalk above and thrown over the side of the bridge. Yuugi's bag had snagged on it when the stray dog that lived in this area cornered him on the bridge. It was a friendly thing, but it was huge. When it leaped playfully at Yuugi it nearly knocked him into next week. His bag, held tight to his chest instead of on his back like usual, flew through the air with the greatest of ease and splashed down in the canal.
Jounouchi and Honda had gotten rid of the dog by giving it half of Honda's bento lunch, which it had taken to bury somewhere. They'd turned around to find Yuugi already down on the towpath below. He'd been frantic, but whatever was in that backpack, which he didn't mind risking himself over, apparently wasn't worth them doing the same.
Luckily Jounouchi's plan involved him jumping for the abandoned shopping cart sticking up halfway between the side and the half-submerged tree. It was too far for Yuugi, but Jounouchi's long legs made it easily. He clung on, hooking his fingers in the gaps between the wires on the side of the cart. His feet found purchase on the handlebar, as he crouched to get his balance.
"Dude," Honda yelled, "you so look like Gollum right now."
"Screw you!" Jounouchi shouted back.
"Say 'My preciousssss'. Go on, you know you want to."
"Be careful!" called Yuugi.
Jounouchi worked his way, hand over hand, towards the edge of the cart. He obviously intended to lean out, grab the bag, then retreat to where he could edge around and jump back onto the bank.
Unfortunately the cart wasn't the sturdiest of roosts. It moved under his weight, sinking lower into the mulch of garbage that had, over many years, actually raised the floor of the Domino Canal to the point where barges scraped their hulls when they passed over it. Jounouchi let out a yelp that was part curse, part wordless cry of alarm. He instinctively changed position to stop himself falling into the water, with the net result that his hands stayed hooked into the cart while his legs straightened and his feet spread to stabilise him.
"Yo, dude, quit waving your ass at us," Honda couldn't resist saying, even though he knew it wouldn't help. With Yuugi there was a point where you shut up, but baiting Jounouchi was second nature. It was what had gotten them through the worst moments of their lives: no matter what happened, the one constant was that one of them would mercilessly make fun of the other
Jounouchi growled, "Just you wait until I get back over there. Your ass won't know what hit it."
Both Honda and Yuugi stared at him.
"What?" Jounouchi paused while he replayed what he'd just said. "Wait, that didn't come out right. Let me just – aw crap!"
"Jounouchi!" Yuugi cried in alarm.
Honda's good humour vanished as Jounouchi listed perilously to one side. His friend scrabbled to right himself, but no dice. The shopping cart's left wheels came loose with a slurp, and Jounouchi was pitched into the stinking, brackish water. His shout turned into a burble as he went under, the cart rolling on top of him like metal walls descending over a wresting ring for a cage fight.
"Crap!" Honda echoed, dashing for the water's edge, and then running alongside it as Jounouchi's head broke the surface further downstream. "Dude, swim for it!"
"… think I'm doin-…" Jounouchi went under again. He thrashed, coming up for air and revealing handfuls of dark green weeds he'd pulled off himself. His head tipped back as he tried to keep his mouth and nose clear of the water. "Fu-"
"Front crawl! Backstroke!" Honda yelled helplessly.
Jounouchi made a vague attempt at swimming, hindered by the weeds, and then by the cart smacking into him again. He vanished in a tiny vortex of bubbles.
"We've got to get him out before he drowns." Honda glanced at Yuugi. "Dude, put your blazer back on."
"You'll drown if you try going in there too. Swimming's impossible in the canal." Honda looked back. Jounouchi hadn't come up again after the cart hit him. The stupid thing had carried on rolling in the water, coming to rest against one strut of the bridge, but there was no sign of any familiar blond head.
"But what should we -"
Suddenly Jounouchi broke the surface with a desperate gasp, as if he'd propelled himself up from the bottom. His mouth was wide, his eyes wider. He actually looked scared.
"Here!" shouted a voice. "Grab hold!"
A red and white striped rubber ring flopped into the water from above. There was a rope attached. Jounouchi blinked for a second, and then grabbed wildly. His arms hooked over the side of the ring and he leaned gratefully forward, levering his head and shoulders up out of the water. It sank a little, but at least he could breathe without struggling.
"Got it," he gasped.
The rope pulled taut. It led back up to the bridge, where the emergency post loomed tall and reassuring against the skyline. You'd have expected to find it on the towpath, but its distance from the actual canal was probably the only reason it hadn't been vandalised. That it made it difficult as a viable means of actually saving anyone in the water, though.
Honda had been taking this route to school for years. He must have passed the lollipop-shaped post a million times, but somehow he'd grown so used to seeing it that it had stopped registering. He hadn't even thought to flip up the protective sheath and yank out the life ring. Luckily, someone else had – the same someone who was hurrying down the embankment with arms held high so the rope didn't get caught on anything as it dragged Jounouchi back to the side. Staying on the bridge would've involved lots of upper body strength and hoisting him into the air like a worm on a hook – although maybe that would've been preferable to what was actually about to happen.
"Anzu," Yuugi said, halfway between delight and dismay. There was a smidge of panic in there too.
And well there might be, Honda thought. He could feel the heat from here. Anzu's face was thunderous. She looked like when Jounouchi put superglue in her shoes and didn't tell her before she put them on after school. Her knitted brows and pursed lips were almost as angry as the last time he and Jounouchi walked home with her from the Game Shop while Yuugi's mom was visiting. Anzu hadn't said a bad word against the woman, especially since Yuugi was so pleased his mother had worked a weekend to see him into her schedule. Still, Anzu's reproach had been so strong it almost buzzed in Honda's ears.
His eardrums began to tickle again now. He knelt to help her haul Jounouchi out of the water.
Jounouchi panted, just lying on his stomach for a second. Anzu patted his back, and then pulled away sharply when he pushed himself onto his arms, wheeled around and brought up all the disgusting water he'd swallowed. It sploshed loudly back into the canal. Honda wrinkled his nose. The smell of acid was overpowering even with the regular stink of disturbed water.
"Here," Anzu said, holding out a tissue. Why did girls always seem to have that sort of thing on them? "And one to dry off your face and hands."
"Thanks," Jounouchi rasped. "You really saved my bacon."
"Are you okay?"
He paused, as if seeking out the achy places around his body to make sure they were still intact. "Yeah. I think so. Head hurts like a fucker, though."
"But nowhere else? No broken bones? Not even a pulled muscle."
"You got hit pretty hard by that shopping cart. It could've given you a concussion."
"Not unless you can get a concussion from being hit in the shoulder."
"Good." With that, Anzu slapped him, hard.
"The hell?" Jounouchi stared at her. "I just nearly died!"
"You're not supposed to abuse the guy who just nearly died!"
"What the heck were you playing at?"
"I saw you jump into the canal. I could see from down the street. Was it some elaborate game of hopscotch that went wrong? One of those stupid 'manly' dares? Or have you finally just flipped your lid?"
"Uh …" Jounouchi's eyes flicked to Yuugi. Only for a moment, but Anzu noticed.
"Oh, no. No. No, no, no. This is too much, Jounouchi. Too. Much." Her hands clenched into fists. One was still holding tight to the rope. It had to be biting into her palm, but she gave no indication of pain. Her face was too set in a frown of epic proportions – the kind that barbequed cheerleaders and male chauvinist pigs at a hundred paces. Sometimes Anzu was scarier than any megalomaniac with glowing jewellery. "That's it, today is the day. It's finally happened. I'm officially going to kill you. And it's not going to be quick like drowning, either. It's going to be hideously long and drawn out, like a bingo tournament."
Given that Anzu informed Jounouchi 'this was the day' every other week, Honda wasn't too worried. The fact she'd just pulled him from the water implied she wanted him to stick around a little longer, too.
That didn't make her rage any less formidable. If there was one thing Anzu couldn't bear, it was the thought of anything bad happening to her friends – even if they did it to themselves, and even if they didn't mean to.
"You're not," she gritted, "telling me that Yuugi put you up to this."
"You can't possibly expect me to believe that."
"I mean, talk about unbelievable lies to get yourself out of trouble."
"I'm in trouble?"
"You bet you are. I can't believe you were so stupid and reckless and … and stupid."
"Hey! I'm not –"
"Don't you know how dangerous that canal is? It's full of weeds that could drag you under."
"I noticed -"
"Not to mention all the garbage people have thrown off the bridge. You could've cut yourself on anything in there. When did you last get a tetanus shot?"
"Whoa, wait a minute -"
"Of course, that'd be too responsible for you to consider. No, you just leap right in there like a little kid into a ball pool, Jounouchi. Go right ahead. Don't think of the consequences or anything."
"But I didn't -"
"And then trying to blame Yuugi, of all people. As if Yuugi would ever suggest anything so ridiculous. He has an actual brain."
"But he really did -"
"And still you're not taking responsibility for your own stupidity?"
"Will you just shut up for a second and let me friggin' talk?"
"That's it. Honda, help me push him back in."
"Actually," Yuugi interrupted, rescuing Jounouchi from the rest of Anzu's wrath, "it's sort of true."
"What?" She looked up sharply, as if she wasn't sure she'd heard correctly.
"My backpack fell in. Jounouchi was just trying to get it back for me."
She looked between him and Jounouchi, and then at Honda, who nodded, confirming the story in an effort to defuse the situation.
"All right. Supposing I believe you. Why did Jounouchi need to jump into the canal?"
"I didn't jump, I fell. You think I wanted to spend the day smelling like fish shit and dredgers?" Jounouchi sniffed experimentally at his sleeve. "Eew! And I thought the crusty ring around our toilet was bad."
"I doubt there are any fish still living in there," Anzu muttered, looking a little green at his words. "But I still don't understand. You didn't have to use stepping stones. Why didn't you just use one of those fallen branches to hook Yuugi's backpack and lift it out?"
She indicated the pile of wood and bark stacked haphazardly behind a bush on their side of the canal. It was all that remained of an ancient tree that use to dip its branches into the water, until its own weight finally uprooted it, prompting the council to dismember it so it wasn't blocking the way. They hadn't gotten as far as actually disposing it the pieces, though, and so the many pieces of convenient wood sat staring accusingly at the boys, like girls at a party whom nobody had asked to dance.
Jounouchi made a strangled noise. "I … we … they …" He stared up at Anzu. "I think I may just throw up again now."
"I get the same urge every time I look at you," she replied, so fast Honda half-wondered whether they'd scripted this encounter beforehand. "You can't go to school like that. And by the way, before I forget, I'm really mad at you three for walking to school without me. You told me you had a ride with Mrs. Mutou, but I when I went past the store Grandpa came out and asked why I was avoiding you guys. He told me she isn't due for a visit until next month."
Honda knew why Yuugi had lied, and why they'd backed up the lie. It was the only sure-fire way to keep Anzu from asking questions about why they had to go without her, and early. There weren't many reasons that would get Jounouchi to Domino High ahead of time, but helping a friend was definitely one of them. Likewise, there weren't many things able to convince Anzu to walk to school alone that wouldn't offend her, but Mrs. Mutou topped the list.
The only potential spanner, however, had been if Anzu discovered she'd been lied to. They'd all agreed that Must Not Happen, since the entire point of the exercise was to increase happiness, not smash it to bits.
Now Anzu was mad, but more than that, she was hurt. Honda wasn't any great shakes at reading people's expressions, but even he could see it in her eyes. She was upset and worried and insulted and relieved, all at once, so the jumble of emotions had put on a cloak of anger before entering the world. He couldn't blame her, he supposed, but a large part of him also supposed he liked his spleen where it was, and that distraction was quicker than appeasement or apologies.
"You lied to me," Anzu started.
"We had to talk," Honda said simply. He ignored Yuugi's blank look and the suspicious one from Jounouchi. "Guy stuff."
"Since when have you guys ever kept me out of the loop when it's important? Since when have you had to emotionally blackmail me to leave you alone? Bringing Yuugi's mom into it was low."
"Since it's guy stuff. And not guy stuff like sports and chilli-eating contests. Guy stuff like … stuff girls aren't supposed to know about."
"What?" Anzu looked nonplussed.
Honda sighed. It was a good thing dignity was already a thing of the past in their group. "The way they separate off guys and girls in seventh grade for assemblies about … guy stuff and girl stuff."
Anzu's eyes rounded. "Oh. Oh." Now she looked embarrassed. It was an improvement on before, but not by much.
Honda was a shitty liar. He was already convinced she knew he was lying, but he couldn't blow Yuugi's cover at this stage. Yuugi had waited so long already, it wouldn't be right. This wasn't Honda's secret to tell, and although he suspected Yuugi wouldn't be pissed if he did spill the beans, Honda wouldn't have forgiven himself. It was stupid and emotional, and so, so pathetically girly, but the thought of the little guy's face made the words stick in his throat.
Man, Honda thought, he was going soft in his old age. Maybe there was more than he'd thought to that adage about how having girls as friends unlocked your feminine side and made you girly by proxy. He resisted the urge to see if he'd developed moobs.
"So we wanted a bit of privacy, and we weren't likely to get any at school," he finished.
Anzu's cheeks had pinkened. "If you'd told me-"
"See, the difference between girl stuff and guy stuff? Girls shout about their feelings and write to magazines for their problems to be printed so everyone can share in them. Guys really don't want anyone to know what they have to discuss any part of it. Ever. Then Braniac over here," Honda nodded at Jounouchi, "went and ruined it all by letting you know anyway."
"Hey, it wasn't me who -"
"Can it, dude."
Something in Honda's voice must have gotten through, because Jounouchi actually did as he was told. For once. With incredibly bad grace and a pouting lower lip you could rest a pint glass on, but still, he shut up. He even folded his arms, until they squished and he was reminded of why school (and the journey to it) had been brought up in the first place.
"I only got one uniform," Jounouchi muttered.
Honda sighed. "I've got a spare you can borrow."
"Right now?" Jounouchi said sceptically.
"Duh. Back at my place."
"You'll be late if you go back there now," said Anzu.
"Well I can't go to school like this," Jounouchi complained. "I reek worse than my old man's morning breath."
Anybody else would have taken this state of affairs as an immediate excuse to throw a sickie, but not Jounouchi. Honda knew it wouldn't even have crossed his mind. Notwithstanding the fact all the truant officers knew his face after his stint in Hirutani's gang, what – and who – awaited Jounouchi back at his apartment meant school was actually a reprieve. He hated the work, but six hours a day away from the smell of beer and cigarettes was like a little slice of heaven, and one of the many reasons Honda would never, ever protest if his buddy needed a place to crash and didn't want to explain why.
Anzu sighed. "I'll go with you to Honda's house. His mom knows us both, and I can cover for you when we get to school. I have good credit with all the teachers."
"But Anzu -" Yuugi started, the first thing he'd said in a while.
She tapped the side of her nose, which must have meant something in Super Sekrit Girl Language, but left all three boys blinking uncomprehendingly. "The teachers will believe me if I say I was visiting the old folks' home on the way to school and the visit ran long. I do go there some mornings as part of a community outreach programme, so it'll sound legitimate. The teachers will think you're an altruist, Jounouchi, instead of a nitwit who fell in the canal."
"They'll think I'm a what?"
Mortified or not, Anzu still sighed hard enough to uproot another tree. She reached to grab his ear, the way she usually did when dragging him unwillingly from place to place, then hesitated. The repulsiveness of the water and gunk caking his body was too much.
"You need to clean your teeth and wash your mouth out before you catch some horrendous disease," she advised. "And scrub your face." She squinted at him. "Maybe with lye."
Since Jounouchi didn't know what lye was, he didn't react. Instead he exchanged a glance with Honda, who shrugged.
"Fine with me, dude. Just don't tell my mom you nearly drowned, or she'll never let you leave. You'll be wrapped in cotton wool and handcuffed to the table in front of some nourishing broth before you can sneeze."
Honda's mother, a maternal woman whom he suspected had discovered a way of existing on pure determination, had semi-adopted Jounouchi as a second son years ago. It all stemmed back to one summer when they were kids, and Jounouchi's father left him alone in the apartment for a week. The man didn't go anywhere special, he just didn't come home, and Jounouchi was forced to survive as best he could. Honda's mom dropped Honda off for them to go skateboarding together, saw the filthy state of the place, and scooped up both boys with speeches about social services and police involvement.
Of course, given the nature of the neighbourhood, social services hadn't cared sufficiently to do anything, but for a brief period after his return, Jounouchi's father had picked up his act, if only to get 'that damn harpy with the big mouth' off his back. Eventually he'd slid back into his old ways, and Jounouchi had ended up back where he started, but with an open invitation to treat the Honda home as his own. Only stubborn pride, the thought that without him around his father would get his kicks withholding the alimony that maintained Shizuka's healthcare, and a basic inability to leave the man to choke on his own tongue had prevented Jounouchi from moving in permanently. Every passing year just made Honda's mother more protective of him.
"He's a thug and a hooligan," she'd said more than once, "and his grammar is atrocious, but he has a good heart. You could do a lot worse for a best friend, Hiroto."
She liked Anzu for entirely different reasons. Honda's mother thought Anzu was a good influence on 'her boys' and welcomed the feminine presence in their lives the same way she welcomed Yuugi's gentleness as 'a breath of fresh air' after all their 'yobbish behaviour'. Despite it being the height of uncoolness, Honda didn't really mind that his friends had his mom's approval.
Anzu and Jounouchi departed, leaving Yuugi and Honda at the side of the canal.
"We're going to be late," Yuugi observed sadly.
"Sorry, dude." Honda cast about even though he knew it was no use. "Looks like your backpack's history, and your Valentine's Day card with it."
"How did you -"
"Yuugi, just because I have pointy hair doesn't mean I'm a pinhead. It was easy to figure out. It's February 14th, you were desperate to get to school before Anzu, and you nearly had kittens when your bag went in the water. Considering you're already on your third backpack this semester, it had to be something inside the bag that had you so worried. You handmade a card, didn't you?"
It took a moment, but finally Yuugi mumbled, "Yes."
"And I'm guessing the reason you made us get up so early, and deliberately didn't want her walking with us this morning, was so you could leave it in her desk before she arrived. There's no other way you'd tick her off by letting her think your mom didn't want her in the car." Even though, probably, Mrs. Mutou wouldn't have offered Anzu a lift.
The polar opposite of Honda's own mother, hard-edged Mrs. Mutou knew instinctively that Anzu didn't like or agree with the way she treated her only son. Unfortunately, also unlike Honda's mother, Mrs. Mutou was a ruthless woman who had no compunction about embarrassing Yuugi by mistreating his friend just to let Anzu know the dislike was mutual. Also, to let her know who was boss.
Mrs. Mutou hated competition, and despite the fact months could go by with no contact, she still expected to be placed first in Yuugi's affections when she did stop by. She was used to being top of the heap and didn't like upstart teenage girls throwing a spanner in her idea of how the world should be. Social niceties had no place in the big business, and Mrs. Mutou was Queen Bitch of the Boardroom: scarily efficient, determined to have her own way no matter what, and as expressive as a tire iron. Basically, she was as far from her only son as was possible without becoming a different species.
Honda had only met Mrs. Mutou once, but he wasn't likely to forget her anytime soon. She'd looked and him and Jounouchi like they were worms wriggling on a pointy blond hook. She hadn't looked at Anzu at all. At the time it had struck Honda as odd that Yuugi's oldest – and at one time only – friend merited such treatment, until he figured out what made Mrs. Mutou tick.
Yuugi's mom had reacted to her husband's death by turning inward, returning to the career she'd given up when Yuugi was born. She'd coped with the corrosiveness of her grief by spending all her energy on her work, leaving no room for her family or emotional connections that would remind her of what she'd lost. By the time it became clear she was cutting herself off from them completely, it was too late, she'd already moved to the city, and Yuugi had his own room at his grandfather's.
Yuugi's mom had become cold, distanced from almost all her emotions, and didn't take well to being told she was wrong. Taking into account Anzu's habit of telling people exactly that if they were hurting others, especially her friends, Honda could see why the tension was so thick between them you could cut it with a baseball bat.
Yuugi was embarrassed by the way his mother acted, but she was still his mom, and despite everything he still loved her. It made things awkward, to say the least. You took Yuugi along with all his baggage, and he had as many ordinary-world problems as he did magical. If it had been anyone but Anzu, Honda suspected they would have given up and walked away a long time ago.
Which, actually, led neatly to Yuugi's massive crush on her, and the topic of the current conversation.
"Am I right?" When Yuugi didn't say anything Honda changed tacked. "Am I not wrong?"
"You're not wrong," Yuugi muttered.
"I'm sure Anzu would've loved it. Girls adore all that soppy cr- stuff." Honda sighed, his reserves of placatory words all but dried up by his earlier deflection of Anzu. "C'mon, we'd getter get going."
"Do you think we'll get detention?"
"We should run."
"Yeah," Honda agreed, not increasing his pace.
They reached the gates just in time to hear the last peal of the bell echoing away. A monitor lurked behind a pillar, ready to jump out at them as they passed. The guy seemed disappointed that they weren't more surprised – or upset – by his sudden appearance. Honda reflected, not for the first time, that your perception of threats could get really skewed after you'd survived near-death experiences, being turned into a robotic monkey, having your soul stolen, and several brushed with the apocalypse. Compare to that, a detention slip was like being bitten by a daddy-long-legs.
Yuugi sat looking disconsolately at Anzu's seat during roll-call. Neither he nor Honda volunteered her location, lest the school call the old folks' home to check and discovered the story was all a big fat lie.
It was probably a damning indictment that the teacher just glossed over Jounouchi's absence, which made Honda feel royally pissed on his friend's behalf. Jounouchi may not have been the best student, but his attendance was okay and he deserved for people to at least wonder where the hell he was when he went AWOL.
Morning recess rolled around, but there was still no sign of either Jounouchi or Anzu. Honda didn't have to look at Yuugi to know he wasn't concentrating during History class. When Mr. Hanahige called on him to read aloud, Yuugi didn't even have his book open. He stumbled to his feet amidst the laughter of his classmates. Just because he had gained enough self-confidence to compensate for a lifetime of being a wallflower didn't mean Yuugi couldn't still become an object of ridicule, just like everyone else. High school really sucked that way.
"Page sixty-four, Mr, Mutou." Mr. Hanahige's mouth didn't appear to move beneath his handlebar moustache, but the words came out loud and clear, frosted with irritation.
"He's too busy mooning over Mazaki's empty desk," sniggered Mikata Teki, a vicious creature in lipstick and false eyelashes despite the school's policy about make-up. She was the resident Queen Bee of Domino High, and Anzu was one of the few girls who didn't capitulate to her. Mikata never lost out on a chance to belittle Anzu or her friends, knowing with a predator's knack for spotting weaknesses that one was as good as the other.
Someone made kissing noises, which just set everybody off again. Honda turned to glare, but his rep had never been very strong compared to Jounouchi's, so it had the same effect as throwing petroleum on a campfire.
"Uh-oh, looks like we made Honda mad," Mikata simpered. Behind her sugary tone and sweet smile her eyes were hard. They reminded Honda of nobody so much as Mrs. Mutou. "Whoopsidoodle."
"Miss Teki," snapped Mr. Hanahige.
Honda turned back to face front. He just wasn't threatening enough anymore, if he ever had been away from Jounouchi. Jounouchi, at least, had the memory of Hirutani to bring up if he needed it. Honda's own stint as a member of the School Beautification Committee would never truly be forgotten, and reared its ugly head in times like these, when he could really use the clout being a real thug brought.
Then he remembered Ushio, and what had actually happened to Hirutani, and thought that maybe being a retired Beautification Committee member wasn't so bad after all.
Lunchtime arrived. Yuugi lingered, but only long enough for the rest of the class to clear out.
"Something's wrong," he said simply. "I can feel it."
Honda had to admit he had a bad feeling too. "We'll check at the school office. They'll have called Anzu's house by now." Jounouchi's apartment, too, but the less said about that, the better. The last time the school made contact there, the secretary had nearly fainted from the number of blue words crammed into the brief phone call. Jounouchi's dad hated to be disturbed.
However, the knot of tension in Honda's gut eased when they left the classroom and saw a familiar blond hair coming towards them.
"Yo." Jounouchi flicked a lazy salute. Honda's spare uniform looked freshly pressed, right down to the collar and cuffs. The fact Jounouchi hadn't untucked the shirt from his pants the way he usually did told Honda where he'd been all this time.
"So, shit-eater, how many of my mom's muffins did you eat?" he said by way of greeting.
"No clue what you mean, man." Jounouchi smiled wickedly. "I never saw no muffins."
Honda groaned. "You mean she baked waffles for you?"
"Nope." Jounouchi held up the plastic baggie he was carrying. "Melonpan. All crispy and warm from the oven. She wouldn't let me leave until I'd cleaned myself, like, everywhere – even in my ears, which was totally gross – and while I was in the shower, she baked. And talked to Anzu, I think. They looked all chatty and female when I came back downstairs – y'know, like they'd been confessing stuff to each other and keeping secrets from the big bad menfolk? Man, I swear Honda, your mom should've been a chef. She called the school and said there'd been a family emergency, then just kept serving me food. Said I looked hungry and I'd been through such an ordeal I shouldn't even think of leaving yet."
"You told her you nearly drowned, didn't you? You fucker. You knew she'd go all-out in the kitchen the moment she smelled a reason to fuss over you." Apparently missing school was okay if it involved mountains of food and a prolonged stay in Honda's warm kitchen, which always smelled of cooking and baby formula.
"Where's Anzu?" Yuugi craned to look around Jounouchi. "Is she with you?"
"Nah, she beetled off to some committee meeting or other. You know what she's like."
Anzu was an active member of so many societies it made all their minds boggle, especially since she'd somehow been able to rise through the ranks of them all. Ever since Egypt and Atem leaving, she had thrown herself into regular life with the doggedness of someone possessed – which might explain why it had taken Yuugi until now to pluck up the courage to do anything about his crush on her. You couldn't be wishy-washy with Anzu. If you were, she just barrelled straight into you at top speed on her way somewhere else, and you found yourself steamrollered by the weight of her personality.
And she was always so busy these days. Though Honda knew it was hazardous to his health, he saw parallels with Mrs. Mutou in Anzu's actions. He wondered whether she was distracting herself while she waited for the wound of Atem's passing to turn into scar over. Other times he just thought she liked being bossy and had found multiple people who'd willingly submit to her bossiness. Either way, he could understand why Yuugi felt like he was still competing with Atem even after he was gone.
Not that Yuugi had ever said that in so many words, but somehow Honda knew. He was a little surprised himself, but he knew that fact as fully as he knew his own mind.
"But she's okay?" Yuugi persisted.
Jounouchi gave him a surprised look. "Yeah. Why shouldn't she be?"
" … No reason." Yuugi's relief was almost palpable.
"Jeez, man, take a chill pill." Jounouchi had, apparently, forgotten all about the contents of Yuugi's backpack, or even what day it was – rectified when Mikata Teki walked past with an armload of red roses.
"Someone just left them in my shoe cubby. Aren't they gorgeous?" She giggled dazzlingly. Everything Mikata did was beautiful. She was an incredibly attractive girl.
Yeah, with a heart of concrete. Honda ignored the sly look she shot Yuugi, watching to see his reaction to the flowers. Mikata hated Anzu, so by corollary she hated anyone who felt more for Anzu than herself.
"Of course, not everyone can expect to be doted on by so many admirers. I'm so blessed. I hear some girls don't even get one. Personally, though, I'd find that preferable to getting a Valentine from the wrong person. Can you imagine, someone crushing on you who's totally incompatible? I'd just die. Especially if he couldn't see it for himself. I'd have to, oh, skip school or something, just so I didn't have to talk to him."
The group around her giggled. As was the way with a lot of beautiful girls, Mikata had surrounded herself with girls who were all less pretty than herself. There weren't any true ugly ducklings in the bunch (her sense of style probably couldn't have withstood a pair of lemonade-bottle glasses or a few rolls of fat too close to her), but their faces were all plain in comparison to Mikata's, their hair duller, and their laughter not quite so tinkling. Their only true purpose was to make her look better. Still, they followed her from place to place like puppies hungry for scraps.
Really, it was no wonder Mikata disliked Anzu so much. Her entire way of life was based on superficiality, being fashionable and staying part of the worshipped In Crowd. Anzu didn't let regular fashions affect her own eccentric dress sense, valued what lay beneath appearances, and had cast off the In Crowd years ago when she finally realised her friendship with Yuugi was worth more than being popular.
She hangs out with us, for fuck's sake, Honda thought. That's as far from popular as you can get in this place.
There was living on the periphery, there was the Out Crowd, and then there was Yuugi and his friends – the kids who played children's card games in public, looked like a series of breakouts from the Failed Batch of a haircare factory, and thought nothing of badgering international CEOs like Seto Kaiba and Ryuuji Otogi without a hint of respect. What irked Mikata most was that none of them seemed to care about how uncool they were, and she often spent a proportion of her day trying to teach them the error of their ways.
Well, that and she was just a garden variety mean bitch.
Yuugi reddened. He got what she meant. It was hard not to. Mikata knew nothing of what had happened on the way to school, but she'd spotted his feelings for Anzu the same way Jounouchi and Honda had. Apparently the only person unaware of how he felt was Anzu herself, which just made Yuugi even more vulnerable right now. Yuugi was great at blaming himself for everything that went wrong, or thinking he didn't deserve what went right. Mikata's words had obviously struck home in a spot that wore a crown and used to call him 'aibou'.
Jounouchi rolled his eyes. "You know what I hate?" he said loudly. "Stupid stuck-up girls in ugly shoes."
"Oh look," Mikata deadpanned, "it's trying to be witty."
"Oh look," he shot back, "it's trying to be human."
The gaggle of girls rumbled ominously. Nobody attacked their Queen Bee and got away with it. Mikata was horrible, but it was better to have her on your side than against you – or so they thought. Not one of them could be accused of thinking outside the box. Yet another reason they'd made it into her pack of pets.
Mikata yawned prettily, covering her mouth with one bejewelled hand. One ring was shaped like a heart, another like a red rose, and the one on her thumb had the sideways figure of eight that symbolised eternity. Each one came from a different admirer, and each one had indubitably arrived today.
Honda grumped. He hated Valentine's Day. He didn't invest much credence in it himself, but maybe that was because he'd never been anyone's Valentine. Maybe your perspective changed once someone had cut out some crepe paper and written you a soppy message in glitter. Maybe not. Maybe if he got a card with Shizuka's handwriting on it he'd change his tune.
Or maybe he'd just pick his teeth out of the wall when Jounouchi punched him into it for having designs on his sister.
Regardless, Honda knew other people took it seriously – very seriously – and they almost always got hurt. Valentine's Day was an excuse to peel back your chest, crack open your ribcage and hang a bull's-eye on your heart.
Honda started to herd Yuugi away, but Yuugi pulled back. Then he did something totally unexpected.
He marched up to Mikata, looked her straight in the eye, and said, "I'm sorry."
"What?" Mikata blinked at him.
"All those admirers of yours. I'm sorry about them."
"What are you talking about, dweeboid?" she demanded, her delicate mask slipping for a second.
None of her minions knew quite what to do, either. Yuugi looked so sincere, but what he was saying was too odd for them to process. Plus, it was difficult to think of those big purple eyes as a threat the same way you could Jounouchi's sneer.
"Valentine's is about love – or it's supposed to be, at least. I'm not sure any of those guys actually want to show you that they love you. They might be saying the words, but they're not being truthful. I think they may be trying to buy you and your time for a while, and I'm sorry they're cheapening things that way. Telling someone you love them isn't supposed to be a means to an end, or a way of making you do something for them. Not even you deserve to keep hearing 'I love you' with your ears and not your heart. So … I'm sorry you're getting so many Valentines. I really am." And with that, he walked away.
Mikata stared after him. A few seconds later she snapped back to herself. "Is that supposed to be meaningful? Hey, dweeboid, is it?"
The girls around her muttered. The words 'bike sheds', 'how did he know?' and 'notches' floated over until Mikata turned a wrathful look on them and they fell silent.
Yuugi walked past a stunned Honda and Jounouchi. They exchanged glances and hurried after him, but not before Jounouchi had stuck out his tongue, pressed the tip of his thumb against his nose and waggled his fingers at the girls.
"That was so cool! You totally flame-grilled her, dude."
"I wasn't trying to be nasty," Yuugi said quietly.
"That's the best part! You flame-grilled her bony ass and you weren't even trying!"
"Jounouchi," Honda said, looking at Yuugi's downcast face, "shut up."
"Uh, Yuugi?" Jounouchi said after a moment. "The cafeteria's that way."
"I don't want to eat in there today. You guys can if you want to, though. I'm heading outside."
Honda thought about the coloured streamers that would be festooned everywhere, and the hand-made friendship bracelets with the names of boyfriends and girlfriends picked out in beads, which would be carried in little heart-shaped baskets between tables – a small business venture set up by some girls in the lower school. They were running a Valentines Day special and would, no doubt, be hawking their wares even now, as they had been for the past few weeks as part of their Young Enterprise project.
Honda shrugged. "Jounouchi already got some food. He can share."
"No sharesies." Jounouchi held his melonpan close to his chest.
"Like I'm supposed to believe Mom didn't pack you a bento as well?"
Jounouchi opened his mouth and then shut it again.
Yuugi continued to trudge disconsolately through the corridors. Honda found himself possessed of a sudden urge to squeeze his shoulder or something – some kind pf physical contact that would make him feel better. If it was Jounouchi he'd shadow-punch him, but, again, the differences between his two friends were undeniable. Yuugi used to get punched on a daily basis, and it wasn't meant as any affirmation of friendship.
"Cheer up, dude," Jounouchi said, reading into the silence as well. "It'll all be fine."
"I didn't want it to be fine," Yuugi murmured. "I wanted it to be special. I waited all this time, thinking she was pining for … well never mind that part. But I finally get up the nerve, put in all that effort, and then ruin it just because I couldn't keep hold of my backpack because of a dog. How stupid is that? How pathetic is that?"
"Could've been worse." Jounouchi shrugged. "Could've had homework in there that I hadn't copied yet. Ow!" He rubbed his arm and glared at Honda.
"That's Anzu's word."
They reached the shoe room, still bickering. They were making so much noise that for a second they didn't notice Yuugi hadn't taken his shoes out of his cubby-hole. He was staring at them, a strange look on his face.
"You okay, Yuugi?" Honda asked eventually. "Ow! Jounouchi, quit it!"
Jounouchi stopped hitting him with the baggie of smashed melonpan crumbs. "What?" He looked sideways. "Yuugi?" Then he looked at Yuugi's sneakers.
There was a little red envelope balanced on top of them.
A little red envelope with familiar loopy handwriting on it: To Yuugi.
Honda didn't realise he was smiling until Jounouchi elbowed him in the ribs.
"Dude, you look retarded like that. Quit showing so many teeth."
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Katsuya Jounouchi, the height of diplomacy and political correctness.
Honda elbowed him back. "Yeah, well you look like a freeloader with no melonpan."
"You think this is gonna stop me eating it? You don't know me at all."
Actually, Honda did know him. He knew his friends disturbingly well, considering there was a time he wouldn't have considered befriending any one of them. He knew Jounouchi was just as jazzed about that little red envelope. He knew the sender was just as worried about rejection as Yuugi had been, which accounted for this fabled 'committee meeting' they'd heard nothing about before, but which had conveniently given her an out so she didn't have to watch him open it.
And he knew Yuugi wouldn't say it, but he'd want to read that little red envelope in private. It had taken a lot of courage just to get him to today, but it would take even more for him to pick it up, open the flap, draw out the card and read what was inside.
Anzu wasn't the type of girl to send Valentine cards out of pity for those who wouldn't get any otherwise.
"C'mon," Honda said, gripping Jounouchi by the elbow and dragging him away.
"What? This is just getting good."
"We have an appointment."
"Sure. You really thought I was going to let you eat all that bento on your own? My Mom always packs more than even you could ever eat."
"You already got a bento she packed for you!"
"I fed it to a dog." Honda glanced over his shoulder. Yuugi hadn't moved. Yet.
Jounouchi followed his gaze. "Oh. Right. Uh, sure. But I get to keep all the pickled plums."
Honda shook his head, but he was still smiling like a loon. "Whatever, dude."
Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs
When Mr. Hanahige called on him to read aloud, Yuugi didn't even have his book open.
-- Hanahige is the Japanese word for 'moustache'.
"Melonpan. All crispy and warm from the oven."
-- Melonpan, also known as Melon pan, Melon buns or Melon bread, are inexpensive, sweet bakery products popular in Japan, Taiwan, and China. They're made from an enriched dough covered in a thin layer of crispy cookie dough. Weirdly, despite their name and the fact they look like cantaloupes, they're not traditionally melon flavoured.