Fourteen


Summary: There's a lot of her mother in Kokoro's face. Just enough that her father's identity is obscured. But if you look closely, the proof is right there, in her eyes... so deep no-one cares to look. Slight Crow/OC, mostly gen. Rated for subject matter.

Warnings: Rated M for infrequent strong language and sensitive subject matter, including: criminal behaviour; underage drinking/sex; teenage pregnancy; and depression. Not a fluffy-happy fic by any stretch of the imagination.

Disclaimer: Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's is the property of Kazuki Takahashi, NAS, Konami, etc. This is a fan-derivative work not intended for profit, merely written for personal enjoyment. The closing poem is a stanza from "This Be the Verse" c. Philip Larkin.


Her name is Kasumi, and she has dyed-purple hair. Her roots are a sort of mousey brown. Crow knows this because she hasn't re-dyed it in a few months and the growth betrays her.

She wears it short, for a girl, purple strands hugging her ears and shivering against her jaw-line.

Crow nicknames her Zumi, 'cause Nezumi doesn't fit where Zumi almost-does. Like the shirts she wears. Too tight across the chest, too loose on the waist, an inch of midriff left bare between tattered hem and tattered jeans. Sometimes he sneaks glances at her when he thinks she's not paying attention, when they're rummaging through junk piles for the not-quite crap in amongst all the really-really-crap, and he watches how the swell of her breasts strains against the fabric. She is five months shy of fifteen. The female form is something unknown to him; he left Martha's before she could give him The Talk, and he doesn't really get the concept of puberty apart from as that thing which makes kids' bodies go all strange and halfway-adult while their minds scramble to catch up. He understands that bit, of course, even if he doesn't know why it happens.

Zumi gets flustered whenever she catches him staring. She says he shouldn't do that. Crow likes her, so he tries to stop. He does tease her, though, once, in the shadows of the dump when he's quite certain there is nobody else around. Asks if it's really that bad he finds her fascinating.

She pulls a strange face and tells him yes and no, and Crow wastes two days trying to figure out what she means by it.

Eventually he asks if she can teach him then, and she says why not, but at the end of the day she can only tell him the how and not the why.

~o~

Crow is still small for his age, barely brushing five feet (the static hair doesn't help much), and he's what Mitch calls "skinny as fuck". If Mitch hangs on the periphery of the gang then Crow is somewhere in the region of God-knows-where-anywhere-but-here-ha-ha. Zumi is closer to the centre than either of them, but is rarely allowed to help with the illegal stuff.

(Mitch says she obviously keeps her place through other means. He doesn't elaborate, but spits into his palm and grinds a fist into it with a wet squelching sound. Crow is savvy enough to realise what he means, and promptly punches him in the mouth. He takes away a tooth-shaped imprint across one finger and larger, fist-shaped marks across his skinny torso but Crow's too busy being smugly satisfied about the gap in Mitch's uneven teeth to care, 'cause people don't take the guy with a missing tooth seriously, not when he loses it to a punk nine inches shorter and almost half his weight.

(He knows that Zumi isn't exactly a blushing innocent, but frankly, to borrow one of Mitch's usual mutterings, he couldn't care a flying fuck two ways about it.)

At the end of the day's scavenging, he comes back with a bundle tied over his shoulder – the best of the not-quite-crap. This will go to the black markets. Some of it could rake in just enough to keep such a large group sustained, bartering not-quite-crap for tangible realities like food and that nectar of vital importance, beer. Some days he gets really lucky and finds valuable stuff, like an expensive watch tangled in newspaper or – and this one he keeps for himself – half a blueprint for the Security outbuildings.

He's small, and fast, and most of all he can read. That's more than can be said for half the gang, Zumi included. So he studies the blueprint, folds himself into corners and observes the routines of the Security guards, and after two weeks of observation he decides it's now or never. He slips in without being noticed, and steals away much the same. A sack of dried produce – tins, packets, that sort of thing – sits high on his back.

And now he knows the location of Boss' file. Blackmail isn't quite Crow's style, but he knows the streets and the way the gang works, and he figures he needs some sort of leverage to make sure he doesn't get screwed over now he's got a whole new game to play.

~o~

He thought Zumi couldn't teach him the 'why. It turns out he was wrong.

And it's strange, as their lips meet in clumsy not-quite tandem. As his hands tremble with uncertainty against that strip of bare flesh, and beyond the boundaries of cloth. As they progress to the point of no return. Beyond. It's uncertain touches and terrified half-gasps as he realises he doesn't quite know what to do and the quirk of her lips as she guides him into her.

Flesh against flesh, and the impersonal concrete floor underneath them.

The rasp of their breathing. The faltering rhythm of sex.

And then it's over, and he still isn't quite sure what happened and how they got here. They dress in awkward silence.

He gets the feeling that nothing will quite be the same between them again.

~o~

Four months later (she's fifteen now and terrified like he was so long ago), she comes to him with her eyes full of tears and her purple hair faded and the roots coming through stronger than before, and all Crow can think is that she and Mitch have been fighting again. It's all they ever do. Kasumi hates him and Mitch doesn't care about her and Kasumi just wants to find a way out. But there's no way out in the bottom of a bottle. Crow's angry with her, so, so angry. She deserves better than that two-faced bastard. Deserves better than this wretched life of junk-scavenging and law-breaking and violence. He wonders what would have become of her had she grown up a mere three districts over.

It takes two words to convince him he's dreaming and that none of this is real. Because she can't be.

Kasumi begs him to believe her. She doesn't know what to do, and she doesn't want to drag him into this but Crow is the only person she can trust, she says, on the brink of crying once again, and he hugs her – he's gained an inch of height over her now, though still as skinny as ever. Her fingers press into the slight hollows between his ribs when she wraps her arms around him. She sniffles, pretending to not be scared.

She is fifteen and terrified and carrying Mitch's child.

~o~

She whispers into the night, "You're not supposed to split from the gang."

But Crow decides fuck the so-called rules, fuck their fucked-up society and fuck them. He's getting out of here while they've got the chance. Kasumi can't do this alone, and he'd be a shitty excuse of a human if he didn't help her out. He knows a place in the west side of B.A.D., a relatively quiet region in comparison to the rest of this decaying island, close enough to the Security outbuildings to complete the journey in a little over five hours. Only a short distance from the Daedalus Bridge. Neither of them have much money, but despite their financial situation, the last thing he wants is for Kasumi to go through her pregnancy in some rickety shack. He goes on the hunt. There has to be something. After digging around a little he discovers a mostly-sound building where the landlord – a nervous balding man with a constant squint – can offer two connected rooms on the fourth floor. They're not especially large, but at least they have shutters in the window frames. There is a mattress in one corner, lifted off the ground by two pallets, and each of the six floors offers a communal bathroom (sink and toilet only, they wash out of buckets) and a kitchenette. Luxury compared to what they're used to, and he reckons it'll be good enough. Perhaps they could even turn it into a home.

(He misses Martha and Yuusei and Jack, but he can't go back, not yet.)

That first month, he manages to pay the rent by scraping together every last yen he tucked away during his time with the gang. While pitifully little, it at least ensures that they keep the roof over their heads. From his interactions with the landlord, Crow comes to the conclusion that the old man cares little about payments being made on time. Only that it happens, sooner rather than later but 'eventually' is good enough too. Maintenance of a property like this takes dedication, and if it means they'll have running water (he doesn't count on clean, so makes sure to boil what they intend to consume) Crow's willing to make the effort.

Sometimes he leaves tins of vegetables and packets of rice where the landlord will find them. Anonymous donations, one could say – why stop at a few people when he can help out more? – though everyone knows who's behind the appearances of food outside their doors.

Except now he's out of yen and out of luck. People attach themselves to the gangs for a reason; the pseudo-pawnbrokers down at the markets tend to pay better to the ones they trust. The gangs are reliable in that they'll always bring in "income", and what guarantee can a skinny punk like Crow offer? Nothing, that's what, so he gets ripped off more times than he cares to count. They barely scrape by, the second month, despite hitting up all their old haunts and scrounging not-quite-crap from the junk piles and desperately, desperately trying to keep themselves going.

He thumbs through his cards in the darkness, holds up to the moonlight the one which is his namesake – D.D. Crow – and slowly starts to formulate a plan. There's always another way, he tells himself, over and over until the words consume him. He doesn't have to surrender himself to scrounging and scraping.

He will duel, and he will win.

~o~

One raid gone wrong and the game is up.

The mark across his forehead itches, an M shaped yellow stain, and he definitely can't go showing his face to Martha like this. She would be so ashamed of him. He lies on his bunk in a Security jail, staring at the underside of the mattress above. He hadn't expected to be found. Boss' revenge, he supposes. Kasumi told him, all those months before, "You're not supposed to split from the gang."

Yeah. Because sooner or later they'll catch up to you and fuck you over, fuck your life over. He brushes fingers over the criminal mark, tracing the slight raised edge of the yellow. He knows the principle. So long as they have this on you, you'll have no chance of a normal life—and guess what, asshole, it ain't never coming off, says the miserable moping git in the bunk above. For Crow, there is a more pressing concern. He can't get honest work now he's marked. The sorting plants refuse to employ those with a criminal record – turning a blind eye to the fact that almost everyone in Satellite is viewed as such by the outside – and by their standards, this mark counts for everything.

He closes his eyes and thinks of Kasumi. Seven and a half months pregnant now, she has developed an irrational fear of leaving the sanctuary of the twin cramped rooms. She manages to convince herself that Mitch – an old ghost, one Crow hasn't thought of for weeks – will track them down if she leaves. (Crow doesn't bother asking the obvious question: why would he go to the trouble?)

A week later he's allowed to go free. The mark on his forehead tells a different story: he will never be free again. He looks the bastards in the eye as he is escorted from the compound, and holds his head high.

~o~

The baby is a tiny thing that feels almost weightless in his shaking arms. Crow holds it as though the slightest pressure would shatter its limbs like glass. The top of its head is soft, and looks strange. For a moment he starts to worry until Nawaki-san, their neighbour from the fifth floor, explains to him that it's just how babies are, and her skull will become firm as she gets older.

"She's going to be okay, right?" Crow asks, his voice hushed by nervousness and a worry he would wake the sleeping baby if he dares speak any louder. Settling against the wall, he watches her face and the twitch of movement behind closed eyelids. What could she be dreaming of? His eyes skitter away from the infant to the dozing form on the mattress, and when Nawaki-san asks, he isn't sure who he's asking about. "Either. Both."

"It wasn't too difficult a birth. Your… sister? She should be fine. She may take a little while to adjust but that's normal." She chuckles a little at Crow's concerned frown. "As for the child… You say she's premature but she seems perfectly healthy. Perhaps a little on the small side," she concedes after a moment, "but this is hardly unusual… Why, she can't be more than two weeks early! There's no need to worry so much."

Crow looks back down at the baby. Only two weeks…? But no, that can't be right, he reasons, since that would bring everything to eight months and that's… that's… it just doesn't make sense, but the newness of it all stays his tongue.

Her name is Kokoro.

Time passes. Being a dad – even by proxy – is harder than Crow ever expected. He wonders just how Martha did it, took up the mantle of parenthood with such patience. Some days he just wants to run away. He knows he could. He could walk out, leave at any moment.

(He won't.)

Kasumi whispers her liturgy of doubts in the background and flinches away from the open window. She retreats into a corner, holding Kokoro with the same terrified stiffness Crow had three weeks before, until he shuffles bleary-eyed across the room and closes the shutters, blocks out the sun.

"I'm not cut out to be a mom," he hears her whispering to the crib in the middle of the night, "I'm not ready for this, I'm going to hurt you," this last one murmured so quietly he doesn't know if his ears deceive him or not.

She can't bear to be left alone with the baby for fear of somehow hurting her. She frets and worries whenever Crow leaves. She's so fucking needy and still a kid herself, fifteen and a mother and so, so scared. Crow is fourteen going on forty. He stares down at Kokoro, strokes the lengthening fuzz of hair – reddish brown, he wonders how, since Mitch's is dark as pitch.

Her eyes are grey now, not the infant-blue they once were. Kasumi's eyes aren't grey, nor Mitch's.

(Crow's are.)

(He doesn't notice the truth.)

~o~

Kokoro is two months old today. Happy two months to her.

Crow's mood isn't particularly charitable today. Today he finished his third flush through the "re-education program" (waste of time). He trudges home much like the two times before, skinny fourteen-year-old frame bent almost double against the gale howling across one of the docksides. It's not much of a dock. Aren't docks supposed to have more ships? He glances up at the Daedalus Bridge as he passes by, then pauses. The structure beckons. He braces his hands against the wooden barriers erected in front of the bridge's base. A mere formality. They won't stop people from bypassing them and continuing up the bridge—not that anyone does. Only one man has ever crossed. Crow tips his head back and breathes in the bitter tang of salt, wondering what became of that legendary man whose tale he murmurs to Kokoro in the night, when he is desperate to break the monotony of silence.

Crow swallows – this is extremely stupid – and clambers over the barriers. The wooden boards echo with creaks and groans underfoot. The sky is a dark purple-grey smear threatening rain. Climbing the bridge – it is steep, so steep that he has to cling to the railings as he climbs – he comes to a halt barely two feet from the edge. He stands as tall as he is able, despite the wind buffeting him like some ragdoll and the stinging taste of salty air.

He spreads his arms wide. He doesn't know what he's doing, really, but he can feel words tearing themselves from his tongue and stabbing in accusation at the blur of city on the other side of the water. The wind tries its best to dislodge him. He is stubborn. He does not move. He resembles a madman as he stands there, shouting at the empty gulf, arms flapping. Perhaps, in the haze his life has become, he is a little mad. Why else would he scream at the sky, "You won't stop me. One of these days I'm gonna fly!"?

His madness falters when the sound of running feet pierces past it to rational thought. He turns around. There's a boy, tall and lanky in a way Crow will never be, sprinting up the bridge towards him. He wears red, and Crow reckons he's either brave or stupid or a mixture of both, wearing such bright colours in a place like this. He ignores his own obnoxious yellow. "Who the hell are you?" he splutters, wavering on the brink.

"Don't jump—" the boy says, then grabs his wrist and attempts to pull him away from the edge. Crow is too stunned to resist. What is this guy saying?

"I'm not gonna jump! God, that'd be fucking pointless. And who the hell are you anyway?" He remembers how he used to mock Jack's tendency to cover up weakness with bluster. Funny that he's now doing the same thing. He twists free from the taller boy's grip – he must be a couple of years older than Crow, and now that he looks, the guy seems familiar in the sense of recurring-stranger familiar. Some name beginning with a K.

"I've seen you before." The boy accepts his lack of suicidal intent but refuses to let go of Crow's wrist. He continues to tug on the captured arm. Crow trails in his footsteps like some sort of dog while the boy tows him back to solid ground. Wind howls around them and forces them to bend against it. The boards are slick with salt-spray. Crow almost loses his footing; the older boy slips twice. The second time Crow pitches forward and loops an arm around his waist, pulling back, moments before the boy manages to do something stupid like bash his head against the railings. His reaction was born from instinct, not camaraderie. The boy stumbles over a Thank you regardless.

He sinks into the shadow of the barriers as soon as they're both back on solid concrete, dragging his legs up to his chest and resting his head against his knees. Now he's thinking clearly he wonders just what possessed him. Just what had prompted such reckless behaviour? For a moment he feels like he's about to throw up. The boy sits beside him. Crow turns his head away. Part of it is down to the churning tide of nausea in the pit of his stomach but there's a bit of him that wants to ignore all other people for a time. He just wants to wallow in his misery for a bit – is that too much to ask for?

Apparently so. The boy glances at him sidelong and slowly says, "You are Crow, right? From Sector D. I've seen you over at the warehouses, dueling. I'd like to duel you some time. You seem pretty good. Satisfying to watch, at any rate!"

Crow almost tells him to fuck off. Almost.

"My name's Kyosuke," he continues, taking the tilt of Crow's head to be one of interest rather than polite indifference. "Listen, Crow – you ever need a hand, come find me. People like us have to stick together—"

Crow interrupts him with a snort. "You don't even know me."

"I know enough." Crow looks at him, then. Kyosuke is grinning, eyes alight with good-natured humour. "You and me come from the same mould. You're not happy just existing, are you? Well," Kyosuke stands, staggering a little when the wind buffets him, "I'll see you around, Crow. Take care of yourself."

With that, he takes off into the gathering darkness. He pauses only to toss a lazy wave back to Crow. Then the red shirt is swallowed by Satellite's hungry alleyways, and the lifeline thrown to him already feels like it is slipping away.

Crow hauls himself to his feet and takes off in the opposite direction. The first plinks of rain dot the concrete. One lands on his brow; it trickles down his face like a tear. He ignores it.

Time to go home.

Fifteen minutes of walking later, Crow stumbles up four flights of stairs with a weary, ponderous gait. He braces his hands against the wall and breathes slowly, deeply. Then he tries the handle. He doesn't have a key, but disturbing the landlord seems like a bad idea at 3am. To his surprise, it opens. He closes the door behind him and fumbles for the light. Toggling the switch does nothing. Either the bulb has blown, or power has cut out – again. He traces a path along the wall. He has a candle somewhere, and a lighter in his pocket, and put the two together and he'll get light. He wrinkles his nose as the apartment's smell hits him, like shit and stale piss and booze – on the ceiling, courtesy of someone above, a damp patch that smells of beer– and behind that, a smell that reminds him of day-old dead rats.

He locates the candle. It takes him three attempts to start up the tiny flame on his lighter, and when he touches it to the wick he almost singes his fingers. Mumbled curses disturb the quiet. Crow sets the candle down in the middle of the room and stumbles to Kokoro's crib. Lifting her out – she's soiled herself, recently it seems – he sighs over her irritable whines (the sound she makes when she's just too tired to cry) and mutters, "Come on, kiddo, let's get you cleaned up a bit…"

Despite how the apartment stands still, only boy and baby to disturb its hush, Crow feels an oppressive shadow that lingers, one that no amount of candlelight can disperse. He props the main door open with a chunk of brick. There's nothing in the apartment worth stealing; he keeps his cards with him always. Kokoro whines again. Holding the little girl close, he hurries out into the corridor. The darkness crowds him. The bathroom light doesn't work either, but he knows the cramped space by touch. The baby calms a little once the cause of her discomfort is gone, and manages an almost happy croon at the feeling of cool air against her skin.

Now she's no longer making that irritating whine, Crow manages a small smile. "Atta girl." She burbles and makes a sound that reminds him of spit-bubbles. He can't see them, but the wet plop is familiar. Crow knows kids. He knows what they're like, and how the younger ones have a seeming obsession with what their bodies can manage. It's not like they have much else to amuse themselves with in a hellhole like this… Kokoro squirms, not wanting to lose the sensation of air on skin. He scolds her gently. "You know it's necessary," he tells her, scooping her back into his arms. She starts blowing bubbles again.

Crow shuts the bathroom door and retreats to the apartment. It's quiet. He calls into the death-quiet, Kasumi. No reply comes. Kokoro ceases her bubble-blowing and makes a small sound he is too tired to decipher – she might be tired or hungry, he can't tell, still drained from his encounter with the boy called Kyosuke. Her tiny fists flail fitfully. He starts to rock her, gently, humming fragmented songs he half remembers from his time in Martha's care. Seven years, half his life, have been eclipsed by the uncertainty of foster-parenthood.

He hears a faint creak.

Kokoro mewls and whimpers as he places her back in her crib, tucking a ragged blanket around her limbs to keep her from kicking too much. Crow moves away. The candle gutters as he disturbs stagnant air.

Again he calls out, Kasumi.

Kasumi!

—Zumi?

The old nickname spills readily from his lips despite months of neglect. His hand hesitates against the door-handle. It is stiff.

It doesn't want to move.

He manages to turn the handle.

The door stays put.

Gritting his teeth with frustration, Crow shoves at it with his shoulder. There is a scraping sound. It opens, only an inch or so, but enough for a narrow finger of light to spill into the gap and throw Zumi's staring face into sharp relief. She is hovering just behind the door, her face streaked with the lines of old tears, a bruise forming against her temple. Her eyes glassy and vacant. Her mouth open in what he thinks might be shock.

Kokoro's mewling builds into a ragged wail.

Crow swallows down the angry words that want to burst out. He pushes the door a little more, slips through the gap once it is wide enough. He undoes the knots in the rope she's used to keep the door shut. She sags into his waiting arms, head resting against his throbbing shoulder. Crow closes his eyes, only for a second, before looping an arm under her legs, lifting Zumi with a grunt of effort. She's not heavy, but struggling with the door while carrying her isn't easy. If only she would put her arm around his shoulders, he could carry her easier – but she remains unresponsive. Her eyes take on a shadowed, haunted cast as her head lolls forwards.

He shuffles into the main room and lowers Zumi onto the mattress. He casts around until he finds a blanket, and drapes it over her, up to her waist. His breath shudders in his throat. He takes two steps into the center of the room, kneels, blows the candle out. The main door is still propped open, and with a last look back—

Half falling, half stumbling, he clatters down the stairs. Crashes into the wall at the bottom, dazed and reeling. His hands seek out the landlord's door and batter at the peeling wood, rap-tap-bang-bang-bang—!

"I don't know what to do," he tells the landlord, who answers the knocking with a bleary grumble and a deeper squint than usual. "I… I—oh god—I don't know what to d-d-do—"

A hand on his shoulder. Words tumbling into his ears; he doesn't know what they mean. Crow shudders.

"T-There's been a suicide," he whispers. "Fourth floor. I don't know what to do."

~o~

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you."

Philip Larkin, "This Be The Verse"


End

Thanks to Heleentje for a preliminary reading and for putting up with my babble.