Disclaimer: Achingly not mine.

A/N: Written for SamCyberCat as her prize for her wonderful fanart of my fic Someday Out of the Blue (samcybercat (dot) deviantart (dot) com (slash) gallery (slash) (hash sign) (slash) d 2 l 1 6 d 6). She asked for 'a gen or rivalry fic between Jounouchi and Valon'. Hopefully this checks the right boxes. It kind of went its own way towards the end, but I'm actually pretty pleased with it. I had to do some research to iron out a couple of details, which is always fun. If you can finish a fic having learned something new it's always a plus.

Feedback is much appreciated, everyone!

The Kindness of Strangers

© Scribbler, June 2010.

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.

- Shirley MacLaine.

The new kid was blond, scrawny, and begging to get his ass kicked – three things that instantly counted against him at The Dumping Ground. Valon could see he was going to be trouble. Of course, at that moment the kid really was asking for a kicking, which spelled out 'trouble' better than the teacher in the remedial class with her stupid letter cards.

"You don't scare me!" Naturally, the new kid had chosen to yell this at Gorotsuki, the biggest, meanest bully in the joint. If scientists genetically crossed Neanderthals with scorpions and cabbages, they'd come close to Gorotsuki. "I dare ya to say that again. It'll give me an excuse to knee you in the balls a second time!"

"Ho boy," snickered Tetsudai. As ever, he was by Gorotsuki's side, ready to lay into this latest victim verbally the way Gorotsuki did physically. "Now you've done it. Now you've done it!" If this had been a cartoon he would have rubbed his hands in glee. He was that type; one of those weaker people who clung to bullies because the best way to avoid getting beaten up is to find others to throw into the firing line in your place. Valon despised him.

He despised Gorotsuki only fractionally more. Gorotsuki had been a bastion of malice since Day One for Valon – because as much as Valon liked his independence, Gorotsuki liked obedience. Valon was good with his fists, but he didn't beat up other kids unless they started it, which Gorotsuki often did. Valon preferred flying low, under the radar. Life was simpler when you didn't stand out and nobody expected anything of you. Gorotsuki, on the other hand, loved to be the centre of attention. He got off on the power rush of whaling on someone smaller, younger or weaker than himself. His reputation alone was usually enough to make kids wet themselves in fear. It was amazing anyone had managed to knee him in the balls a first time, without announcing he wanted a second opportunity. Idiot new kid. There were vegetables in hospital beds with more brains than him.

Maybe that was why Valon waded in to save him. It definitely wasn't because he liked the idiot. He didn't know the guy from Adam, and anyone stupid enough to throw his weight around on the first day deserved all he got. Valon remembered the bruises he'd received in his first weeks and months, before he landed enough punches for people to take him seriously despite his height. He probably should have left the new kid to learn the same lesson, but any opportunity to thwart Gorotsuki was one he couldn't pass up.


Gorotsuki looked up. His slow, ponderous gaze lingered a few moments before recognition surfaced. He had the new kid's shirtfront in his fist, and didn't lower him at Valon's approach. "You," he snarled.

"What do you want?" Tetsudai asked peevishly, like a secretary whose client was much too busy and important to be bothered with trivial matters.

"Put him down," Valon commanded.

"Make us!" Tetsudai replied, as if he had done more than just egg on the big bully.

Valon shrugged. He wasn't great with words. Tetsudai, however, expected him to talk some more. Valon heard it in the surprised whoosh of air from his mouth and nostrils. Tetsudai was completely unprepared for the fist in his gut. He didn't tense up or anything, so Valon's knuckles sank deep. Hell, if he was going to throw himself into the line of fire, he figured he might as well make sure it was worth it. With any luck, the little weasel would be peeing blood tonight.


Gorotsuki lowered the new kid enough for his toes to reach the floor. "Big mistake," he said. Then his eyes widened and he, too, let out a series of animal grunts and dropped to his knees. He let go of the new kid, but only to grab between his own legs.

The boy staggered against the wall for support. His nose was bleeding, but his grin was triumphant. "Gotcha!"

Valon stared between him and Gorotsuki. "You're either really brave, or really stupid."

"Can't I be both?"

"Both together will get you killed."

"Not me. I can whup any kid's butt."

"I wasn't talking about the kids in this place."

For the first time the boy's confidence seemed to waver, but he pushed back his shoulders and raised his chin. "The adults?"

"Fighting's against the rules," Valon said blandly, ignoring Tetsudai's whispering.

"Well, yeah, but –"

Valon ignored the new boy to kneel next to Gorotsuki. "Listen, turd-breath; I won't tell about this if you stay quiet too."

"Why should I?" Gorotsuki panted. "I didn't do nuthin'."

"Suuure. You were just hugging this guy to say hello, all nice and friendly. Don't insult my intelligence, G."

"He's dead. You're dead. You're both dead!"

"As if. You couldn't go three rounds with a fruit fly right now, and by the time you're upright again, every kid in here will know you got your ass kicked by this toothpick." Valon inclined his head at the new boy. "Could your rep recover from that? If people start to think they can win when they take you on, G, things could go real bad for you."

There was murder in Gorotsuki's eyes. "You're dead," he repeated. "And him. You should've kept your nose outta stuff that didn't concern you. I owe you for this."

"Try anything and I'll punch you so hard the tartar will fly off your teeth and they'll turn white again."

Tetsudai groaned.

"Him too."

Gorotsuki glared at Valon a moment longer, and then got his feet and slunk away. Tetsudai followed, head down, but his shoulders were rigid with loathing and pain. Valon knew this wasn't over.

What the hell was I thinking? He turned to the blond boy, who was also glaring at him. I mean, seriously? I just stuck a big target to my back and handed those two clowns a gun, and for what? This guy? I don't even know him! And he looks ungrateful.

"I could've handled them," the boy said on cue. "I didn't need no help."

"Shove it," Valon replied. "I wasn't trying to make friends." He walked away, intending to return to the rec room, where some kids had started one of the board games that still had most of its pieces, while others had a good enough card game going. The social workers had frowned when Valon tried to teach the younger kids poker. They called him a 'corrupting influence', which was a laugh with people like Gorotsuki and Tetsudai in here.

It took a few seconds – until he was nearly out the door, in fact – before the new boy spoke up again; as if he'd been testing Valon's statement of not wanting to make friends to measure the truth of it. "So why'd you do it? What's your angle? Why'd you help me?"

Valon paused. He thought about it. "Fucked if I know," he said, and shut the door behind him.

He didn't even bother asking the kid's name. There didn't seem much point. Judging by his treatment of Valon after nearly getting his face smashed by Gorotsuki, the new boy was someone who didn't learn from mistakes. If Gorotsuki got hold of the guy, he'd be in the infirmary soon enough – probably until his case came up before the board, and once they sent him back to his penitent family, Valon really wouldn't have to worry about him anymore

Social services for this district claimed all their accommodation facilities were 'child-friendly hubs of comfort for times of emotional turmoil'. Social services also talked a lot of bull. Their office workers probably mooed and wore bells around their necks, and gathered around the water cooler each morning to discuss the udders of the secretary on the fifth floor.

The children's home had an official name, but to everyone who counted it was just 'The Dumping Ground'. There were nicer homes in the region, where nicer kids were sent when they were removed from their families, but those kids shone with colours from a different part of the socio-economic spectrum. If you were whisked out of a crummy neighbourhood – the kind where even the guard dogs carried AK-47s and kept their heads down – you ended up here, which in many ways was even crummier. It was a receptacle for several nearby cities, too, so a lot of the time it felt more like a prison, and the kids in it fought to go back where they'd come from, even if they'd previously hated it. Anything was better than The Dumping Ground.

Valon's mom, unable to deal with what she'd made of her life, had done a runner a while back. His dad hadn't taken it well. After years of tonguing bottle rims to make sure he got every last drop of liquor, the man's hands were constantly scuffed from knocking around his only son and whacking random strangers in bars. He was a mean drunk, still agile in body but screwed up in the head. Valon knew better than to fight back – until one night his dad slammed him against the wall especially hard and the photo of his mom popped out of his jeans pocket. The precious picture didn't even have time to flutter to the floor before his dad snatched it up, saw her smiling face, and tore it to shreds.

Valon only had the one photo of his mother: a woman with frothy blonde hair and large blue eyes, which he remembered as always containing a hint of sadness, even when she smiled. It was a snapshot of him on her knee when he was five years old and she had taken him to the zoo. He didn't know where his father had been that day, but when he looked at that picture the taste of candyfloss and the sound of his mother's laughter came back to him. He had been so happy that day. They both had.

She hadn't laughed much in the following years. By the time she broke and ran, she didn't even smile anymore. She must have been devastatingly miserable to leave him behind – or that was what Valon told himself to stay sane.

He had kept the photo safe since the night she disappeared, convincing himself she'd eventually come back for him. Every time he looked at it, he repeated the words in his head, making up scenarios where she returned and took him back with her to the new life she'd made for them. She was just setting things up, he said, knowing it was a lie but not yet able to believe that of her. The photo had become synonymous with this thought. His father destroying it was, for Valon, like him destroy the last hope of seeing her again, just like he had destroyed her from the inside out. A red mist had descended over Valon, and the next thing he knew, he was waking up in hospital and being carted away to the care home with stitches in his scalp and a ringing in his ears that lasted three weeks. Apparently his father hadn't taken well to him finally fighting back, either.

Valon wondered about the new kid's story. The boy had the hallmarks of at least one abusive parent: nervous ticks, constant watchfulness, and the tense muscles of someone always poised for fight or flight. His knuckles were scabby, which told Valon he didn't take crap from other kids, but the additional scars said he didn't know how to pick his fights. Added to that was a boastfulness that overlaid everything about him. He walked around with his chin in the air, as if daring people to take a shot at it.

Valon had learned not to draw attention like that. Bullies loved proving themselves against truly strong people, and arrogance was a dangerous thing in a place like this. The new boy would learn soon enough.

They next saw each other at dinner, though they sat at different tables in the dining room. Valon watched the new boy covertly, trying to read him. The boy didn't just eat his food, he inhaled it like he wasn't sure when he'd next get a meal. By comparison Valon ate slowly, eyes and ears alert. Gorotsuki and Tetsudai, plus some kids who ran with them, were sequestered in the corner. They got up when the new boy left. Very subtle – not.

Valon hooked his feet around the legs of his chair, as if anchoring himself in place. He wouldn't go this time. He would stay right here and keep his nose out of it. He hadn't even had dessert yet. They were having strawberry daifuku. Valon loved strawberry daifuku.


Damn stupid idiot of a – "Hey!"

Tetsudai looked around. "Not you again."

Gorotsuki narrowed his eyes. "You got a death wish, pipsqueak?"

True, Valon was short for his age and slightly built, but he marched up to them like a body builder who crushed cans against his skull as a matter of course. It paid to give the right impression. He had learned that lesson when skipping school to pose as a teenager old enough to work in the arcade near where he lived – or rather used to live. He'd been at The Dumping Ground for three months and neither he nor his father were anxious for him to go home. The arcade wages hadn't been much, but they'd at least ensured Valon didn't starve when his dad was too wasted to do anything but puke, sleep and wake only to puke some more.

Gorotsuki raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Nothing." Valon looked around. The new kid was nowhere to be seen. "Just wondering if I could bum a cigarette." In addition to other things, Gorotsuki was a heavy smoker. Valon didn't smoke – he had never had the disposal income to start – but it was something to say. Kids were always coming to Gorotsuki with 'protection money' paid in nicotine.

Gorotsuki curled his lip, but it was Tetsudai who answered. "Piss off."

"Hey!" Gorotsuki snapped. "Who said you could talk?"

Tetsudai fell back, cheeks pink. He glared at Valon like he was the one at fault.

Valon shrugged. "Whatever."

"You thought we were going after your boyfriend?"

Some of the other hangers-on sniggered. That was actually pretty witty for Gorotsuki.

"Well, I just didn't think blonds were your type, G," Valon replied.

Gorotsuki's face darkened. "I haven't forgotten my promise, V."

"An elephant never forgets, eh?"

"Joke all you want. You'll get yours."

"I'm shaking in my slippers. Seriously." Valon twiddled his toes so the cheap paper footwear they were all forced to wear crinkled noisily. His voice didn't rise above a monotone. "Ooooooh."

They heard one of the workers coming and broke apart. Valon wondered where that stupid new kid had gone. Then he wondered why he even cared – and especially why the hell he kept courting danger to help the guy.

The back of Valon's head hit the wall with a sickening crack. He had time to think this scenario was familiar, before hands grabbed his shirt collar to stop him sliding down. He blinked. The punch had scattered his wits enough that he was surprised not to see his father.

Oh yeah.

He should have known better than to try for a bathroom break so soon after Gorotsuki made his threat. The lummox was like a big vicious dog with a bone – just one thought in his head, plus the tenacity to hang onto it. Nevertheless, time and tide wait for no man. Bladder full and aching, Valon had left his room in the small hours, only to get yanked into a broom closet on the way back. He had a quip all ready to fire off at the choice of location, but Gorotsuki never gave him the chance.

Something was broken in Valon's mouth. He tasted blood and felt a small and sharp object, like a pebble, rolling around on his tongue.

Gorotsuki brought his face close. "Toldja I'd – ow, fuck!"

Valon grinned, blood dribbling down his chin. Bull's-eye. The broken tooth and an inherent talent for spitting great distances had made it a good weapon. A mixture of both their bloods trickled down Gorotsuki's nose, tracing a path around all the pus-filled boils of his acne. It looked like he was crying red tears.

"You little fucker!" he whisper-shouted. "I'm gonna kill you!"

"Wif or wifout depf percep-chun?" Valon slurred. "I hope 'at hurt. I'm g'nna have a heckuva dental bill." He swallowed the bloody spittle and made a valiant attempt at a grin.

"You're gonna be dead!" Gorotsuki snarled.

Tetsudai had his ear to the door, listening for a signal from the sentry they'd posted outside. He waved a hand for quiet. Gorotsuki waited. Valon could feel and smell his breath – mint toothpaste, plus the hint of smoke and potato chips. Only the smoke was a typical bully-type smell. Mint toothpaste was redolent of responsible kids who didn't want false teeth by the time they hit thirty, and Valon had always thought of potato chips as comfort food. He doubted he'd find the smell all that comforting after this. Great. Just peachy. He loved potato chips.

Tetsudai listened intently. Then he jumped back. A second slower and the door would have crushed his head against a shelf of cleaning products. The bottles rocked dangerously. If they fell it would be a mess of un-disguisable proportions, not to mention corrosive enough to melt flesh. Valon had failed chemistry, but even he knew mixing those kinds of chemicals was inadvisable.

"Hey, numb nuts!" said the boy who had opened the door. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"

"You!" Gorotsuki all but roared. He wasn't the brightest spark – unless you were talking about the really stupid kind that flared to life in the middle of a firework factory after someone spilled a barrel of gunpowder.

The new kid thumbed his nose with a grin that could only be described as 'shit-eating'. He raised his fists, one in front of the other, like a character in a cartoon. He even thumbed his nose and sniffed, dancing from foot to foot. "C'mon, put up your dukes."

"Are you kidding me?"

"Okay, so maybe I was a little off with the 'own size' thing, but at least I'm half your size instead of just a third, like that guy." He nodded at Valon. "Put him down, fuckface."

"You're gonna regret calling me that," Gorotsuki growled.

"According to you, I'm gonna regret a lot of things, but so far the only thing I regret is not kicking your nuts so hard they flew out the top of your head."

The grip on Valon's front tightened. Breathing was becoming an issue. He would have pulled the new kid's trick and kicked up between Gorotsuki's legs, but the bigger boy had him pinned with the weight his whole body, so he could barely move at all. Panic stirred at the helplessness of his position, but he refused to let it show. Instead, he watched the exchange for something he could use to his own advantage.

Tetsudai edged around the blond boy, clearly heading for the door until a fist shot out, so fast even Valon could barely track it. The new kid didn't look in Tetsudai's direction, but still managed to clock him. Tetsudai crumpled, conscious but incapacitated.

"My thongue!" he yelped. "I think I bith off my whole thongue!"

"You're still talking, aincha? Now quit squealing while I take care of fuckface here – unless he's too chicken to fight someone directly instead of just ambushing 'em. How's about it, fuckface? Wanna dance?"

Gorotsuki opened his mouth to reply, but he had been looking away too long. Valon took his chance. It meant more pain, but smashing his forehead into the side of the big lug's skull was satisfying in a visceral, oh-my-God-my-face-ahh-my-fucking-face kind of way. Valon slid back onto his feet, knees watery, and covered a cough as he sucked in air. Gorotsuki staggered away, ricocheted of the shelf and tripped, landing heavily on his back.

"You're dead!" he snarled, his threats ever the height of imagination. "You're so un-fucking-believably dead you don't even know how dead you are yet – aaaaaaargh!"

Afterwards, Valon would swear he didn't know it was going to happen. He couldn't swear he was sorry, though, which counted against him. In all seriousness, the state he was in, there was nothing he could have done to stop the bottles falling, but that didn't matter. What mattered was Gorotsuki's scream when they tipped sideways, badly fitted lids popping off. The liquids inside spilled all over his face, neck and chest. The stink was revolting – acid and burned sausages. In all the years that followed Valon could never tolerate the smell of ammonia without hearing that cry and his stomach threatening to spew in glorious Technicolour.

"What did you do?" Tetsudai demanded, sitting up. "What did you do?"

"It was an accident!" Valon replied.

"Sure it was. You're deader than dead is dead! Dead!

"Quick!" Working on instinct, Valon stumbled towards the blond boy, catching him in a clothesline tackle and dragging him along. "Run for it!"

He should have left the guy. It would have made more sense to leave him. That way he could have taken the rap while Valon escaped minus just one tooth and his dignity. Yet for some reason he grabbed the blond boy and kept hold of him. He had come to Valon's rescue, and that demanded repayment. Principles could be such a pain in the butt. Sometimes Valon really thought he'd be better of without them. Life would be simpler, for sure, if he only looked out for himself.

They skidded down the corridor. The sound of doors being flung open echoed behind them. Valon's room was closest. He stopped by it and shoved the blond boy onward.

"Go on!"

"But my room's on the other side of the building!"

Valon cursed. He made a snap decision and pushed the boy inside ahead of him. Still gasping a little, he looked around for a good place to hide. The closet? No, with the clothes already in it there was no room. The open plan design gave few other options.

"You have to hide," he hissed.

"Under the bed?" the boy suggested.

"You'll fit?"

"I can try."

"Good enough." Footsteps thumped down the corridor. Valon waited for the blond boy to roll into place before clambering into bed himself, belatedly checking to see if any of the cleaning products had splashed on his pyjamas. It hadn't – thankfully.

He burrowed under the bedclothes and waited to see if anyone would come to check in here. Would Gorotsuki implicate him? He could still taste blood and feel the place where his tooth used to be. Should he have run like that? It had been instinctive. No way was he going to be punished for fighting back when Gorotsuki would have cheerfully rearranged his face if he hadn't. Nevertheless, if he – if they – were caught it would look really bad. Nothing guiltier than fleeing the scene of a crime, even if the crime itself it had been an accident, and come as a result of its victim trying to commit a crime of his own. Karma wasn't a good defence in a court of law and it wouldn't be here either. You didn't have to be psychic to know arguments like 'He had it coming' or 'He brought it on himself' would fly as well as a granite airplane.

From under the bed came a low whine. "Ooow …"


Valon listened as the sirens arrived, and the adults ordered curious kids back to bed. Red and blue lights flashed around the curtains from the driveway outside. Unfamiliar voices spoke too softly for him to make out actual words, but Gorotsuki's moaning was recognisable. Valon's alarm spiked when he also heard Tetsudai, but nobody threw open his door to frogmarch him out for questioning.

More doors opened and shut. The corridor emptied of footsteps and voices. Eventually the ambulance pulled away down the drive and the last nosy parkers were hustled back to bed. Valon stared at the ceiling for a long time, until the last noises were gone and silence reigned once more. No doubt the adults wanted to keep a lid on this until morning. Fine by him; except now he had a different problem to worry about.

"Hey," whispered the problem. "Is it safe to come out now?"

"I think so."

"Good. Your bedsprings are crap and you need to lose weight. My face looks like I ran into an electrified fence." Slowly, the blond boy emerged, crawling like an army commando. He pushed himself to his feet and stretched his arms above his head, revealing a stripe of pale ribcage. "Think I can get back to my room without anyone noticing?"


"That sounds like a no."

"How good are you at shimmying along gutters and drainpipes?"

"Are you freaking serious?"

Valon wasn't sure, actually. A horrible thought had sprung into his mind. "In your position, I think I'd be more worried about what the other kids would think if it got around you snuck out of my room in the middle of the night and in the morning my mouth was all swollen."

The blond boy blinked. It took a few seconds for him to get it. "Fuck!" he finally cursed as comprehension dawned on him too.


"That's not what I – oh man, gross! I ain't no powder puff!" The boy frowned in thought. "But if I don't get outta here, they may connect my empty bed and me hiding out in your room with that dumb-ass bully."


"Whatever. Fuckface is just as good a name, especially after that stuff hit him." He winced. "His face really may be fucked now."

"Serves him right," Valon said coldly. "Don't look at me like that. He's been heading for a fall ever since he started throwing his weight around, trying to make himself look like the big fish in a little pond. It was bound to backfire sometime. Always does. Just our bad luck we were there when it happened. It wasn't our fault." He said this last sentence with extra emphasis. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't.

"Yeah, I guess, but …" The blond boy shook himself, like a dog shaking its coat of water after a dip in a particularly nasty pool. "That noise he made was something else, man."

Valon couldn't disagree, so instead he turned the conversation elsewhere. Damn principles again. "Thanks," he muttered. "You turning up like that stopped him whaling on me." He probed the gum where he'd lost his tooth. "But how did you know –"

"That you needed help? I was on my way to the bathroom when I saw them grab you. I told that kid on the door they were doing a bed check and he bolted faster than … something that runs really fast." At Valon's look the boy protested, "Hey, it's late and I'm tired. I was having a really good dream about my sister before this happened."

"You're worried about people thinking you're jonesing for bone when you're having dreams about your sister?"

"It's not like that!" He seemed to realise his volume was climbing louder than was safe and forced it back to a whisper. Fury radiated from his words like heat from a jet engine. "I was dreaming about going home and us all being a family again, you sicko. A proper family too – my sister could see as good as anyone else, my dad never touched the sauce, and my mom actually wanted m-"

"Quiet!" Valon hissed, ears pricked. Did he just hear …?

The door opened a second later – not enough time them to do anything but jump instinctively apart. Valon cursed himself the moment he did it. Way to look guilty.

"I knew I heard voices. What are you doing in here? This isn't your room. You may be new, but you were made aware of our strict policy about not being in others' rooms after bedtime." The light snapped on. "Hang on – is that blood on those sheets? What on earth have you two been up to?"

Valon exchanged a look with the blond boy, whose expression was a perfect mirror of his own: Oh crap!

'Salacious behaviour'. What a crime to have written on your permanent record. Salacious was a word that conjured up images of secret trysts, wantonness, debauchery under cover of darkness and … well, humping that which should not be humped. It would almost have been better to have 'responsible for facial mutilation of another resident' on his record. At least that would have made him sound tough. 'Salacious behaviour' just made him sound like a faggot princess – which was, he learned, the entire point.

The authorities of this district weren't the most progressive. As a port town, public opinion had been heavily influenced by the West for centuries, and the permissiveness that had spread across much of the rest of Japan in modern times had taken much longer to reach into the hearts and minds of those in charge here. It wasn't a case of accepting technology or the comforts of modern living, like in some remote rural towns, but the behaviour they were willing to tolerate was considerably behind the times. It didn't matter to them that homosexuality was generally accepted in wider Japan: on their turf it was Wrong. If they had no legal footing to use against it, then they just had to manipulate what laws were available to make sure their brand of justice was served. They couldn't punish someone for being gay, but they could certainly punish them some other way.

This mindset worked for The Dumping Ground when Valon and the new boy were hauled before the chief administrator. There had already been enough scandal for the place, with its rough reputation and even rougher residents. The incident with Gorotsuki was a public embarrassment they could do without, since it was serious enough to merit investigation by the authorities. They couldn't deal with a teenage sex scandal as well. From the moment the two boys were discovered, no matter how much they protested and tried to claim their innocence, their fates were sealed: they had to go. The Dumping Ground was where problem kids went, but perverts were someone else's problem.

Luckily, the blond boy was thirteen. Since the age of consent in Japan was thirteen, at sixteen Valon had escaped the word 'paedophilia' appearing in his file, but only by the skin of his teeth. The chief administrator was anxious to attribute blame and dole out punishment as quickly as possible. Two incidents in the same care home, on the same night, right under the staff's noses, was more than they could handle, so shifting one off their books came high on their list of priorities. Gorotsuki's accident was the more pressing matter, especially since the media loved anything that gave them an excuse to print gruesome pictures and provoke public outcry. Valon and the blond boy needed to be gone before that happened, so there was less muck available to spread.

Valon suspected they knew Gorotsuki's injuries hadn't been an accident, but that was the story they were going with. It would have looked even worse if infighting at The Dumping Ground was so bad someone could be maimed before staff realised it was going on. In was in everyone's best interests if he was written off as a pervert and sent away before the media could use him as another example of how crap the place was.

Everybody's interest but his own, that is.

Nobody listened. No matter how many objections his raised, nobody paid attention. He didn't see the blond boy after they were spirited away to isolation rooms, but he suspected it was the same for him. They were scapegoats; a security risk and unpalatable as well. The Dumping Ground was like a servant trying to curry favour with its master after being caught asleep, not only while someone dipped into the cookie jar, but smashed it afterwards. They had already decided on the crime and the punishment; now it was just a case of filling out the right paperwork, holding it up for inspection from the local authorities, and asking for protection from the national investigation as a reward – Here, master, see what we did with the icky pervert? You hate perverts, don't you, master? We did good, didn't we? So will you help us keep our jobs, master? Will you? Valon and the blond boy were sacrificial lambs – and they hadn't done anything like what they were being accused of!

"If I'm going to be punished, at least let me earn it fair and square!" Valon yelled when he was told. "We didn't do anything. I don't like guys and neither does he. We're not gay, we weren't –"

"You wilfully and knowingly attempted to lead that poor boy astray," said the nurse, only just managing not to shudder. "I think you've done quite enough already, without telling lies as well. Now lower your voice, calm down, and don't add any more delinquency to your repertoire, or things could go very badly for you."

Valon gaped. "Lead him as-… are you shitting me? You make me sound like some … some child molester! I didn't do anything!"

"Only because you were interrupted before you could. I told you to keep your voice down. Also, please refrain from such foul language. There's no need."

"There is a fucking need! I'm being accused of molestation – no, I'm being punished for molesting a kid, even though that guy was like twice my size so there's no way could've done anything, which I didn't –"

"I think it's time for some tranquilisers if you don't calm down, young man."

So that was it then. They couldn't be punished for being gay, so this was the story they'd run with instead. The blond boy was cast as the victim, while Valon found himself in the role of sexual predator; and all because he helped the kid out against a bully who didn't know when to quit. There was no way either of them could have known how far things would spiral, or how much further they were going to descend.

Therapy. Rehabilitation. Psychiatric assistance. Those were what awaited Valon in his future. Each one filled him with dread. Give him a straight death threat any day, he could handle those.

The blond boy was considered too young to know what he'd been doing. He had been tricked by a 'known disruptive element', according to Dumping Ground staff. They talked like Valon made a habit of searching out impressionable, fey boys and tempting them into his room at night with a trail of candy. The blond boy was removed to another care home until his family came to claim him. Valon later heard how the boy's father, after learning some other boy had tried to 'corrupt' his son while in care, was motivated to clean up his act and home enough to get his son back, however briefly his stint in clean living lasted after the boy was home.

Well fan-fucking-tastic for him; he got to go home. Valon had no such luck. His father had wanted nothing to do with him since the social workers took him from his hospital room. He was now thrown onto a ward for disturbed youngsters at the local sanatorium, where he was told he would 'get the help he needed'. He felt like pointing out that homosexuality wasn't some unnatural mutation, or some disease to be 'cured' by quack doctors, but figured it wouldn't help his case. They'd probably use what he said against him, claiming it proved he was gay and, by corollary, that he had tried to do … whatever to that boy. Instead, Valon stuck to his story of innocence. Even though nobody listened, he doggedly insisted it was all a giant misunderstanding. After the argument with the nurse, he even brought Gorotsuki's name into it. Better to be branded a violent juvenile delinquent than a child molester – juvie had fixed terms and you got out eventually, but get yourself branded a whacko, especially one dangerous around kiddies, and you may never see daylight again.

"Young Gorotsuki already told us that what happened to him was an accident," said the chief administrator.

"Say what?"

"We know you were nowhere near him when he was hurt."

"But my tooth –"

"Wasn't found where you said it would be. Now come along, Valon, stop trying to distract us from one crime by confessing to another."

"But I really did –" Valon stopped, suddenly comprehending what Gorotsuki had done. And he'd thought that guy was slow? Gorotsuki had got his revenge, all right. Valon may not be dead, but with his future looking the way it now did, he was as good as. "That bastard!"

"Hmm, maybe we should look into the possibility of Tourettes as well. You curse an awful lot."

"I have a fucking lot to fucking cuss a-fucking-bout! That bastard!"

"Valon, sit down. Sit down."

"Gorotsuki, you bastard!"

"Nurse! Nurse, get in here, quick! He's going mental!"

"Oh, is that the technical term for it now?" Valon practically frothed at the mouth with the injustice of it all. He had been railroaded, manipulated, used as the brush in a damn whitewash. He imagined Gorotsuki, scarred but laughing at the thought of little Valon trapped in a mental institution for the rest of his life. The thought sent him into a red-rimmed fury "This isn't fair. I didn't fucking do anything except fight getting my ass kicked and try to help out that damn kid from being bulli– hey, leggo my arm! Leggo my … my …" The world blurred and slewed sideways. All the strength evaporated from his limbs.

"Don't worry, lad," said the nurse who had brought in the hypodermic. "We'll soon set you to rights."

"Whah decade iz thissssss?" Valon slurred, slumping backwards into a pair of unwelcome arms. "And why won' en … enny … 'nybodeee lissen t'meeeee ….?"

"Exposure to better influences, that's what he needs," they decided over his head, as if he wasn't there. They bandied around textbook phrases like they were going out of style, some of which he heard as he faded in an out. He was kept sedated like he might turn Hannibal Lector and bite off someone's nose – or tell his story to someone who would listen. Once again he had knotted the exact noose they needed, just the right size for his own neck, and handed it to them. "Active role models … Clean living … Morality osmosis … Exemplar activities … Positive reinforcement."

"Y're th' nutty ones," Valon huffed. "Not me. 'M perfec-lee sane. Gorot'ski, y'bastard. Din' even know tha' kid's …"

He kept on protesting, objecting, disputing and arguing his innocence. He kept it up until the day a woman wearing a wimple and black habit was ushered to his bedside. He didn't rise to greet her. He didn't even sit upright. He reclined against his pillows, hands behind his head, the better to roll away if he needed to block out yet more twaddle about what was wrong with him. What was wrong with him could be cured very easily: with freedom and someone actually listening. Plus, if he didn't move at all, nobody could claim he was acting hostile and nobody would drug him today. He had grown to hate the drugs.

"Hello, Valon," the woman said. She had a soft voice and a kind manner, but he wasn't fooled. A lot of the nurses with hypodermics were softly spoken as well. "I'm Sister Mary Catherine."

"So now they're hoping God will beat the depravity out of me?" he snorted. "This just gets better and better."

The nun turned to the two orderlies who had accompanied her. "Could you please leave us for a minute?"

They were reluctant, but she was quietly firm.

"Are you sure you want to be on your own with me?" Valon snidely asked when they were alone. He had his own room, off the main corridor. The windows were barred to stop anyone jumping out, and everything with a sharp edge had been removed. It had been that way since he arrived. They must have a lot of suicide attempts here, he thought. He could see why. The sanatorium was more depressing than the 'before' picture in a Prozac advert. "Haven't you heard? I'm dangerous." He twinkled his fingers. "Woooooooh!"

One of the orderlies put his head around the door. "Everything okay in here?"

Valon rolled his eyes, as the nun replied, "Yes, thank you. We're both fine."

"Just checking, Sister. You need us -" He eyeballed Valon. "- for any reason and you just shout. We'll be in here quicker than frog spit." He retracted his head and let the door click shut, but not all the way.

"A regular poet," Valon muttered.

"You sound very bitter."

"Can you blame me? So, how is this going to go?"

"How is what going to go?"

"Do you perform an exorcism? Make me pray for forgiveness? Hit me over the head with a bible? What?"

She frowned. "This isn't an intervention."

"Could've fooled me." He snorted and looked her square in the eye. "Do you know how long I've been in here?"

"Eighteen months."

"So you can guess why I'm a little, shall we say, jaded about this whole 'healing process' baloney. I'm a little surprised they haven't brought you people into it before. Maybe they think you're all pushovers. Whatever you do, it can't be worse than the electro-shock therapy or the sensory deprivation tank."

For a second she looked stunned. "You underwent those? How old are you?"

"Seventeen. Well, technically seventeen years, one month, fifteen days and –" He didn't have a watch, but there was an old wind-up alarm clock on the bedside cabinet. "- seventeen hours, twenty-three minutes. I'm the only one who celebrates my birthday, so I have to keep track of when it is, and the days blend together in here."

"But those therapies, you're too young to undergo those."

"Someone better tell the mooks in charge about that. I'm a guinea-pig for anything they feel like; or that's how it seems from where I'm standing. My pop signed over custody to the state. I belong to the people pushing the buttons and holding the needles, and they've tried everything in their power to stop me being whatever they've labelled me as this week." He snorted again, entirely without humour. "They can't seem to make up their minds. Sometimes it's to stop me being gay. Sometimes it's to stop me 'corrupting' minors. Sometimes it's for aggressive behaviour. Sometimes it's for Tourettes. Sometimes they don't even tell me what they're trying to heal. And the funniest part? I'm not gay, I'm not a child molester, I'm not a paedophile, I'm not a rapist, I'm aggressive and foul-mouthed because they locked me in here and stuck me full of chemicals like a druggie pincushion, and the only reason I'm in this mess is because I wasn't a selfish asshole and I didn't walk away when I saw some kid getting the snot beaten out of him. I tried to put a bully in his place and ended up signing away my reputation and my life. So if I sound bitter, it's because I am. Go ahead, Sister; try and heal me. Just don't expect it to work."

The nun stared at him for a long time. "I'm actually only here as part of an outreach programme for troubled youths," she said at last. "To give them someone unconnected with the sanatorium to talk to. There has been a trend of distrust towards therapists here."

"Y'think? Everything you tell them gets used against you – even the stuff you say in confidence. You're not allowed secrets when you're crazy."

"I knew little about your case before I stepped into this room. I try not to judge people based solely on other people's stories, and certainly not before I've had the chance to meet them myself."

"Yay for you," Valon deadpanned. "Does that mean if I ask nice you'll go away?"

"Not quite."

"Can you get me out of here?" Sarcasm dripped from his words.

"Would you like to get out?" she asked, apparently in all seriousness.

Valon rolled his eyes. "Do dogs pee up brick walls?"

"Yes, but not electrified fences."

He boggled for a second. Had she really just said that? Weren't nuns meant to be all uptight and repressive?

A small smile played around this nun's mouth. She was a lot younger than the stereotypical nuns of Valon's imagination, too. The smile vanished when she leaned forward and asked gravely, "Valon, you don't strike me as an insincere boy. I get a … for want of a better word, I get a good vibe from you. That may make me sound rather New Age-y, but so be it. I'm not here under anyone's authority but the highest; I have no hidden agenda, I'm answerable to nobody but God, and He isn't in the habit of punishing people who don't deserve it. His will is worked through his servants. So I'll ask this once, and whatever you answer, I'll believe, and I'll do everything in my power to help you. Did you do any of the things they say you've done?"

He looked at her, and got a strange sense of airlessness, as if the entire universe was holding its breath. He wanted to fire off another snide comment, but swallowed the urge. This woman was naive and just wanted to help. It wasn't her fault his expectations had been beaten so low they'd practically hit the seabed. In Valon's world, denying his crimes was like claiming you weren't a witch in seventeenth century Salem.

"No," he said. "I never did it. I'm not a saint – I've done bad stuff before, including fighting – but not what's written on my records."

The nun nodded and got to her feet. She didn't say a word, but knocked on the door and left when the orderlies opened it. They looked in at him, suspicious. Valon had a reputation.

"She's still in one piece, fellahs," he said. "Safe and sound, the same as when she came in."

"You just watch it," snapped one man.

"Yeah," added the other. "Watch it."

It was like Gorotsuki and Tetsudai with a few extra years and more than a few extra pounds. Valon rolled over, putting his back to them, and did the only thing that afforded him any real peace: he went to sleep.

Valon had not learned much from his father. Mostly the lessons had been variants of 'do not turn out like this guy', but one incident stood out in his memory. He had been about five or six, and his dad had got on board with some crazy scheme a pal of his had cooked up. Valon's mom had been doubtful, but even she couldn't stand in the way of her husband's good mood. Valon remembered how she'd squealed as he twirled her around the living room, singing 'We're In the Money'.

"Life lesson time, kiddo," his dad had said breathlessly, pulling Valon onto his knee and wagging a finger in his face. "If the wind is blowing your way, whatever you do, don't turn your head and spit."

The scheme had tanked, taking a lot of their savings with it, but Valon came away with a clear memory of his mother's laugh and his father's pearls of wisdom.

Now the wind had changed. He knew it when he came into the sanatorium director's office and saw that nun sitting there. And he knew, when the director started talking about outreach programmes and community service, that the worst thing he could do at this moment would be to spit at the lifeline he was being offered.

"It would be under strict conditions, of course," the director sniffed. "You would have to read and sign a declaration of acceptable behaviour, which you would stick to during a probation period. You would also be answerable to Sister Mary Catherine, and she would provide a character reference at the end of your tenure on the scheme, with the option to re-engage you if your placement was successful."

"I'd get to go outside?"

"To work at her church, and under strict supervision, obviously," he added, as if Valon thought he was being given a tube of lube and a free pass to the local orphanage. "But yes. You would be bussed there each morning and brought back each evening."

For once, the suspicion and its implications didn't bother Valon. He looked between the director and the nun. Eyes as clear as water met his. She nodded, smiling encouragingly. The director smiled too. It might have been more effective if the expression hadn't totally missed his eyes. She had made good on her promise to help Valon, and the director was poised to take it all away again if he screwed up.

"So what do you say, boy?"

Eighteen months was a long time to be cooped up like this. Valon's shoulders pulled back; he sat up straighter and found himself also nodding like one of those dogs people put on the parcel shelf of their cars.

"I say," he said, speaking to the director but looking at the nun, "you won't be disappointed."

Her eyes crinkled when she smiled. If she hadn't been in that ugly habit, she may have qualified for 'babe' status. In it, however, Valon would have said she looked like some sort of angel, except that was way too soppy for a tough guy like him.

"I'm sure we won't be." She offered Valon her hand, ignoring the way the director flinched, as if she was sticking it through the bars of a wolf enclosure after they'd been starved of food for a week. Or eighteen months. "Perhaps we should reintroduce ourselves; my name is Sister Mary Catherine."

Valon took her hand. He got that sense of airlessness again. "Hi," he croaked, still processing the repercussions of this. He wasn't religious, but he knew what an olive branch was when you were sinking in a tar pit. "I'm Valon."

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

- Tennessee Williams.


Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

"You couldn't go three rounds with a fruit fly right now."

- Stolen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

They were having strawberry daifuku. Valon loved strawberry daifuku.

- Daifuku are Japanese sweetie-cakes consisting of a small round mochi (glutinous rice balls) stuffed with sweet filling,

"Someone better tell the mooks in charge about that.

- 'Mook' is Timon's favourite insult in The Lion King and its various follow-ups.