The rules of the Basement are simple: no stealing, no cheating, and no roughhousing unless moderator approved. If you don't want to lose, don't barter prized possessions at the card table. If you want to win, don't flirt with the woman spinning the wheel. If you can't follow the rules, you shouldn't be at the Basement in the first place. If you want to contest the rules, you can talk to Kaito-sama and see how far it gets you.

Haruhi learns all of this within seconds of entering the muggy, yellow tinted barn. Thirty tables are packed inside, five chairs each. The floor is littered with rotting straw, dirty playing cards, and watermarks. The stench of alcohol permeates the air. Haruhi pulls her shirt up over her nose, breathing shallowly until she adjusts to the potent odor. Tamaki moves past her, unbothered by either the smell or the noise.

When ten heads lift at once to greet him, she's not surprised. Nor does it offend her when he walks past her to the nearest table like she doesn't exist. She follows him to an old plastic table covered in Mahjong tiles. Her father plays the game in his spare time, and she has enough proficiency to know the player on the left is in trouble. His opponent is two tiles away from a full hand while he's floundering at barely half. His balding head shines with sweat. Whatever he's betting on this game, he's about to lose it.

"Make a move already," his opponent, a portly man with a full head of hair, exclaims.

The balding man grunts and picks up a piece. It's a dragon tile if Haruhi remembers correctly. That's the extent of her knowledge and she has no idea if his move is a good one. She watches the faces of her fellow onlookers. Nothing changes, leaving her to assume this is a basic play with no benefits or consequences. The same can't be said for the portly man, who places one tile next to the balding man's, earning a collective gasp.

"There's no way he just did that," someone says. "That's way too risky!"

She'd like to ask, but she doubts the answer would be simple or concise. Tamaki is back now anyway.

"Having fun?" he asks.

Haruhi shrugs. "It's a casino."

"More or less," he says. "No one has enough money for betting. You play for fun or you play for food."

A man and a woman playing poker nearby have a pile of vegetables on the table. The woman throws a full house and scoops everything up, leaving the man to fume and bemoan his loss. Another pair of mahjong players has a slightly battered but clean action figure for a prize. Something from one of those giant robot anime Haruhi never cared to watch, but all the grade schoolers went nuts over. Whoever wins will have a nice gift to bring home to their kid.

"What do you play?" Haruhi asks. Tamaki has his eyes on the blackjack table, more concerned, she assumed, with the men screaming at each other over a suspiciously placed ace of diamonds.

"Not this," he says cryptically, leaving her to mull it over while he defuses the situation. He does so expertly, removing the angrier of the men with a few choice words. The other he silences with a glare. They bow low and find new tables as far apart as possible.

Tamaki takes his time coming back, making sure they don't pounce on each other the moment his back is turned. Haruhi has found another poker table in the meantime. She walks around the circle of five players too absorbed in their game to notice her. She feels bad for the other four when she spots a player one card shy of a royal flush. Except maybe not, she thinks when she sees the man's unconcealed smug grin. Someone's never heard of a poker face.

"Going to sit in?" Tamaki asks, returning to her side.

"I'm just watching," Haruhi says. "I'm not much of a gambler."

"Except where your life is concerned," he mutters. She has no idea what he means by that, but the very large man rising from the table with death in his eyes gives her a hint.

"What the hell are you looking at?" His voice is like metal gears grinding together. It hurts almost as much as his hand clamped around her arm. "Peeking at my cards? Trying to cheat? Who put you up to it?"

"I was just watching you play!" Haruhi shouts, trying in vain to pry his fingers off.

"Likely story." He holds on tighter, ready to throw her down on the table and pummel her until she talks. A third hand appeared, wrenching the man off Haruhi with the barest hint of effort.

"Enough," Tamaki said, his eyes and voice so cold it's like the temperature in the whole room has dropped. He glares at the man, who is one head taller than him and muscular, but who immediately backs down. "Touch her again and you'll answer to me."

The man nods. "Yes, Kaito-sama."

Tamaki lets go. The man has finger-shaped purple splotches forming on his arm. They resemble the bruises he left on Haruhi. She rubs them; they don't hurt yet but it'll get there. The next one to touch her is Tamaki, and his hand is soft. "Keep your eyes to yourself. You're just asking for trouble."

"Yeah, I can tell," Haruhi glances at her would-be assailant. His hulking form disappears into the crowd, his coattails swishing behind him. He clutches his arm and never looks back.

Tamaki takes his vacant seat, allowing the game to recommence without taking any cards for himself. The man to his left wins the pot and seems quite elated for having won a basket of turnips and three pears. Not that Haruhi is one to judge. She hasn't seen a pear since she was a teenager.

"Okay, who's in?" asks the card dealer.

Tamaki nods and five cards are dealt his way.

"I thought you didn't play poker," says Haruhi. One of the players from the last game has folded and she takes his chair. The dealer glances at her. She has nothing else to do and nowhere to go, so she mimics Tamaki's nod and is given her cards.

"Not for money," he says, studying his hand. He's directly across from her. She has no idea what he's holding and his expression is blank to the point of non-existence.

She covers her view of him with her cards. Warm as it is in here, his icy stoicism sends her temperature plummeting. Hikaru and Kaoru once brought a deck of cards to school and challenged people to play against them. Tamaki lost in four minutes due to his inability to keep a straight face. If he had a bad hand, he'd sulk. If he had a good hand, he'd preen. No one was surprised. It was just how Tamaki was.

Which means this is how Kaito is.

"Ladies first," he says, moving one card from the middle of his hand to the far right.

Haruhi has three twos in different suits and two red fives. Not a good hand at all. Their other three opponents are a skinny young man with a bowl cut, a middle-aged man with a paunch, and a fellow of indeterminable age who wears huge, thick glasses Kyoya wouldn't be caught dead in.

Haruhi puts down one of her fives, fairly certain she's playing the game correctly. Over the course of two turns, she ends up with nothing and Bowl Cut comes out the victor. The next game goes much the same way, except Glasses wins, and the man with the paunch cashes out, tired of losing.

Tamaki wins the third game and is about as pleased as when he finished the previous game in last place, which is to say not at all.

"Let's go to the blackjack table," he says, setting his cards down. "I'm getting bored."

He speaks with authority, and while that might work on his underlings, Haruhi is not one to be bossed around. "I'd rather stay here. You can go."

The men on either side of her inch their chairs away, their eyes firmly on their cards.

"I'd rather you come with me," Tamaki says.

"I'm not going to run the second you look away," says Haruhi. "There's a blackjack table right next to us. You'll be able to see me from there."

"Please come with me," he says, standing over her like that's supposed to intimidate her.

"No thank you."

He doesn't throw her over his shoulder and carry her outside for a stern lecture, though a strange part of her thinks he will. Hopes he will even. He glances to the side. Haruhi almost turns her head but manages to stop herself. She focuses on the game, perfectly nonchalant and bored with him.

"I'd rather not leave you alone," he says through grit teeth.

"I'm not going anywhere," Haruhi says.

"I know, but it would be better if we stuck together tonight." He looks again to his left. "There are people you wouldn't want to meet on your own."

"I thought this town was safe," Haruhi remarks.

He blows out air through his nose. Shakes his head. "There's no such thing as safe."

If he thinks he can make ominous statements like that and she'll fall on her knees, begging for his protection, he's destined for disappointment. Indeed, Haruhi answers his comment with a curt nod and goes back to playing. She's one card short of a straight and it's her move. The game continues with Haruhi floundering in limbo, never losing but stuck a hair's breadth from victory. She pulls another card she doesn't need and when she lifts her head, Tamaki's towering form takes up her vision.

"I thought you were leaving," she says, dropping a card into the pile.

"I'm waiting for you," he says.

"I don't need a babysitter." Haruhi throws her poker face out the window and grins like a maniac as she finally draws the card she needs. After winning the game she leaves, empty handed but satisfied. Tamaki is right behind her. "I said I don't need a babysitter."

"I know what you said," he growls.

"Then why are you following me?"

"Call it a taste of your own medicine." He stays at her heels as she hovers around a koi koi table. She watches for a time, then moves on.

"So is that all you guys do?" she picks a piece of hay out of her shoe. "Play cards and gamble fruit?"

The ground literally shakes, her body vibrating from head to toe with the force of it. Screams rise. Haruhi hears them plain as day though she has no idea where they're coming from. None of the players have moved from their spots. Some smile and laugh, but not in the exuberant way a holler like that would require.

"It's the lower level," says Tamaki, making her jump. He's significantly closer than he was a second ago. She can feel the heat from his body on the back of her neck.

"The Basement has a basement," she mutters.

"If you want to go, I'm coming with you," he states. There's no ambiguity about it. If she tries to leave, he will follow.

"Maybe I want to go alone," she says defiantly.

"Maybe I'll drag you back to your room and tie you to the bed."

'You nasty S&M king,' the twins say in her memory. That was the night Tamaki shielded her from the thunder with a blindfold and earplugs. Of course, they had known it was an innocent gesture. They told her so after driving away without him. Just another trick to get the boss's goat. Rude as it was, it was one of their funniest moments. She always laughs looking back on it, and today is no different.

"What's so funny?" Tamaki's voice has gone lower and deeper.

The illusion shattered, Haruhi swallows and stands up straighter. "I'd like to go downstairs, please."

He holds her gaze far longer than necessary like he's psyching her out. The games and yelling carry on around them. Nobody cares to look up and see what their leader is doing. Or maybe they're just too frightened. However much time passes- there are no clocks in here- something has to give, and that something is Tamaki.

"Stay close to me the whole time we're down there." He walks to the cellar door in the back of the barn. It's hidden under a haystack. One side is cracked open, letting the voices in.

When Tamaki opens it all the way, Haruhi is nearly knocked off her feet. Once again, no one reacts, long since accustomed to the noise and able to block it out. Haruhi's ears adjust and she recognizes cheering. She takes a peek over the edge and sees men and women gathering around a fenced in arena. Two men are beating each other senseless, blood and sweat flying with every punch and kick.

One sweeps his opponent's feet out from under him. He sits on his chest to keep him down, but the second man is bigger. He throws him off easily and launches a counterattack, sinking his knuckles so far into the skinnier man's stomach, Haruhi can hear his ribs crack. They systematically destroy each other with abandon as the audience eats it up.

"What are they doing?" Haruhi leans in for a better look and almost slips, catching herself at the last second. "They're going to kill each other."

"I doubt it," says Tamaki. "They do this every week. It's bonding for them outside the bedroom."

"They're a couple?" That right hook sure doesn't look like something you'd give to a lover.

"The ring is where we go to let off steam," he explains. "We keep strict rules in play for every match. Nobody is out to kill. It just another way to pass the time."

"Do you ever fight?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you win?"

He smiles. "Sometimes."

The referee counts to ten and declares it the fight over. Everyone who rooted for the winner whoops and hollers; everyone against him boos. He helps the loser stand and checks him for damage. They lean in for a kiss, and that's the last Haruhi sees before they stagger out of sight. Tamaki starts down the ladder. It appears to be made of cheap plywood but it holds his weight.

"What happened to ladies first?" Haruhi quips.

"Good question," he says, and continues to descend.

Haruhi takes the top step. He waits at the bottom, fending off overzealous men too caught up in the action to see where they're going. As she reaches solid ground, his arms encircling her without touching.

A new fight has begun, this one between a man and a woman. The man is huge and muscle-bound, but the woman has speed on her side. She rushes him and slides under his parted legs, delivering a solid blow to his back while he's off guard. He lands in the dirt and the whistle is blown. The crowd loves it and they aren't afraid to show it. Haruhi covers her ears, but it's a pointless act. They'll be ringing for days after this. The fight goes on for ten minutes and ends in a draw. A man runs towards Tamaki and Haruhi, his whistle hanging from an overly long piece of string around his neck.

"Kaito-sama, I'm so glad you're here." The referee shakes like he's about to come apart at the seams. "I'm sorry, sir, but Mamoru and Toji are fighting next."

Tamaki runs a hand over his face. "Again?"

"I know, I thought they'd made up for good this time, but then Toji stepped in Mamoru's garden something or other. I didn't hear the rest." He hands over the whistle and bows respectfully at Haruhi before disappearing into the crowd.

"What was that all about?" Haruhi asks.

"You'll see." Tamaki puts the whistle on as two new men enter the ring. They must be a popular match-up as everyone screams like host club clients on cosplay day, so loud Haruhi can't hear a word Tamaki is saying.

"What?" she yells over the noise.

He jerks his head rather than shout back. There's a chair at the head of the ring, currently vacant. Forest green and rusted, It sits atop three crates and looks better suited for a beachgoer than the ref for an underground boxing match. Tamaki removes his coat and hangs it on the only available hook in a line of twenty. The crowd parts for him almost instinctively, granting their leader a quick and easy route to his post. Haruhi jogs to keep up, nearly running into an apathetic spectator. Where Tamaki inspires reverence, she receives only indifference. No one wants to make room for a random woman.

As Tamaki climbs atop the crates, the men in the ring circle each other like jungle cats on the prowl. Both are tall and well-built with mean faces. One is completely hairless and the other has a scar on his cheek. They grit their teeth, snarling like animals. It's enough silent trash talk to drive the crowd into a frenzy.

"That's Mamoru and Toji," Tamaki says, not specifying which is which. "They're in here every week. Always disagreeing about something, be it land, food or women."

"They must really hate each other," Haruhi observes. "Or are they a couple, too?"

"They're brothers," Tamaki fingers the whistle, bringing it close to his mouth. "I always oversee their fights so things don't get out of hand."

"Have things gotten out of hand before?" Haruhi isn't sure she wants an answer as Mamoru (or perhaps Toji) makes a neck slashing gesture at Toji (or perhaps Mamoru).

"Let's just say they know better than to break the rules when I'm around." Tamaki blows the whistle and the bald brother comes out swinging.

He hits the scarred one with a low punch to the chest. This is not illegal as Tamaki doesn't object and the crowd goes wild. The scarred one retaliates with a knee to the bald one's gut. They fall to the ground, a mess of tangled limbs, blind punches, and desperate kicks. Two women at the head of the ring scream the loudest. When the scarred one gets a lucky shot on the bald man's nose, one of the women lets out a squeal that could shatter windows.

"Yes, Toji! That's my Toji! Go go Toji!"

'Okay, so the scarred one is Toji,' Haruhi notes. 'Then the bald one must be Mamoru. Good to know…'

Haruhi used to yawn and go to bed when her father's friends came over to watch sumo wrestling. Age has not brought with it an appreciation for the sport of beating people up, and by round two, she's already bored. She's clearly alone in this sentiment, so she wanders a bit to stretch her legs, keeping within the vicinity of the referee's stand at all times. Whenever she looks back, Tamaki's eyes are on the match. It's when she looks away that the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and her muscles tense like a gazelle that knows its in the sights of a hungry lion.

She finds an empty chair next to two female spectators and settles in. Round two ends in a stalemate, as does round three, and at that point, Haruhi knows she's in this for the long haul.

By round five, the fight is winding down. Mamou's left eye is swollen shut and Toji's face is so purple he'd make a grape jealous. Tamaki blows his whistle as Mamoru jabs at Toji's face, then knees him in the stomach. Toji clutches his abdomen. He sways for a moment, then falls. The crowd begins counting, as they have several other times during the fight. By 'five' Toji's stopped struggling and gone still. At ten, Mamoru is declared the winner by knockout. Haruhi's polite claps are overtaken by a hundred raucous roars.

"Great fight, huh?"

It's a man speaking. Tall and well built with shaggy black hair, five o'clock shadow, and a long, pointed nose. He's dressed in farmer's garb and decently attractive, but he's also in Haruhi's space and she'd be much more willing to talk to him if he took three steps back.

"It was fun," she says politely. Two men in black shirts attend to Toji, peeling him off the floor and throwing his limp body over their shoulders. His feet drag as they carry him out of the ring. He moans through swollen lips and Haruni winces sympathetically.

"Your guy lost, huh?"

Haruhi starts. Her new friend hasn't left yet. "My guy? No, I don't know him."

He chuckles, and of course, there just happens to be another vacant seat right next to her. "I meant were you betting on him. I had three watermelons on Mamoru myself."

"Gambling isn't my thing. I'm just watching."

"Then you're a lot smarter than me. I swear, I'm going to have to start betting my persimmons next." He laughs again. He does that a lot. "I'm Rando, by the way."

"Haruhi," she says with a slight incline of her head. "Nice to meet you."

"Likewise," he grins. "So, how's your night going?"

He keeps asking questions as Haruhi's answers become shorter and less enthused. So far, he hasn't said or done anything to put Haruhi on alert, but her father always taught her to trust her gut around strange men. Right now, her gut was saying she should not engage and leave as soon as she had an opening. He starts into a riveting tale about his persimmons as Haruhi pretends to listen and searches the crowd for Tamaki. He's still at his post and hasn't looked her way once since the end of the fight. She's on her own.

Rando finishes the story- the punchline is that the seeds were actually okra or something- and Haruhi takes the opportunity to get up and stretch. She makes a show of it, yawning so hard it infects the people close by. "Sorry, I'm a little tired. I should go home."

"No problem," he says, much to Haruhi's relief. Maybe her gut was wrong this time. "I'm pretty beat, too. We can walk together."

Or not.

"I actually live in town. It's probably too out of the way for you."

"I don't mind. Always nice to have a beautiful woman on my arm. Maybe I can show you the sights."

"I've already seen them, thanks." She's running out of excuses and they both know it. Rando reaches for her hand, even as she pulls them both behind her back. She doesn't think he's dumb enough to cause a scene in a room full of men high on booze and adrenaline, but one can never underestimate the reckless idiocy of the human mind.

At her words and closed off gesture, Rando's smile disappears. He purses his lips, folding his arms over his chest like she's some strange anomaly he can't wrap his head around. "Look, Haruhi, there's something I need to say. I know you and Kaito-sama have a thing going on. I've seen you together and I've heard the rumors. I'm not saying they're true, but you should know, you really can't trust that guy."

Haruhi's jaw clenches. It's like he wants her to hate him "Is that so?"

"Don't get me wrong, Kaito's a good leader," Rando talks like he's never been told to shut up. "He's just got a darkness about him. He's seen things, done things. He never goes anywhere without that knife of his. Probably why he never had a girl before you. I don't know what kind of arrangement you have with him, but for your own sake, I think you should reconsider. You never know what a man like that is capable of-"

"Shut up."

It's hard to hear anything down here. Everyone is screaming. Everyone wants another fight. They volunteer themselves or their friends to get in the ring, but it's all static to Haruhi. She holds Rando's gaze, much as she'd like to look away. He stands there, mouth agape and head tilted back like he's been blown away by her words. "What did you say?"

Haruhi's heart pounds. "I said, shut up. Don't talk about him like that. You don't know the first thing about him."

"I know more than you," Rando fires back, hands on his hips like he's scolding a naughty child. "I've been in this town for three years. You only met him a week ago. Just because you're shacking up with him doesn't make you special. He could've any girl in this town whenever he wanted."

"That doesn't mean anything to me," Haruhi says. "You can call me whatever you like, but trust me on this, I know when someone isn't worthy of my time."

She turns away from him and leaves. That should get the point across. Tamaki is on his feet, his back to her as he speaks with a man holding a clipboard. He doesn't have the machete, contrary to Rando's belief. She still remembers the way it gleamed in the firelight before that prisoner's blood painted the silver blade red. Haruhi shivers but pushes the memory away. She's within arm's length of the stand when Rando grabs her.

"Hey, don't walk away from me!" His face is bright red, the veins in his neck bulging. Haruhi pries at his fingers, but he's even stronger than the man at the card table.

"Let go of me," she hisses, pulling so hard it feels like her arm will be ripped out of the socket.

Rando grins. There are those alarms she should've gotten earlier. "Maybe I don't want to."

He pulls her closer, wrapping his other arm around her. He doesn't try to kiss her. He seems to get off just on overpowering her. She struggles and cries out in vain. She blends in too well with the crowd and no one hears her-

"Excuse me."

-but everyone hears that.

Tamaki towers over them like a giant. If not for the boxes elevating him, Haruhi might think he was. His presence is massive enough without the added height. His eyes are shadowed in the dim yellow light, his hair tied back loosely with whole sections falling free in his face. At first glance, he's not the slightest bit perturbed by the hands crushing Haruhi's wrists, or the single tear leaking out the corner of her eye. Then he steps off the crate and walks toward them. Like before, the crowd parts for him, putting as much distance between themselves and Tamaki as possible. All sounds have ceased except for his boots on rock.

"What's going on here?"

Haruhi doesn't know if he's addressing her or Rando, but up close she has to amend her earlier thought that he didn't care. She'd seen several nature documentaries about the world's deadliest predators. Every one of them would run in fear if they saw Tamaki.

"Nothing, Kaito-sama," says Rando, letting go of her arms. Haruhi stumbles away from him. Checking her skin she finds his nails have ripped into the soft flesh. A bead of blood drips down to her wrist.

Tamaki sees it too, and the air around him grows cold. "I'm guessing you never learned the right way to treat a woman."

Rando shrugs. "We were just chatting, sir. No big deal."

"Just chatting." Tamaki remains stock still, moving only his eyes as he addresses Haruhi. "Is that what this is?"

"No," Haruhi says firmly, glaring daggers at Rando, "it's not."

"You heard her," Tamaki says. "I think it's time you went home, Rando."

Everyone holds their breath. Haruhi does too, though she doesn't know why. She read a study once about the power of conformity and the need to fit into accepted social norms, no matter how foolish. She decides that's the reason for the fear blooming in her stomach and not the promise of death in Tamaki's eyes.

Only Rando is immune, or else too stupid to recognize danger. "What if I don't want to? I'm perfectly happy staying right here."

He points at the ground for emphasis, but Tamaki is unmoved.

"I won't ask you again," he says, taking one step forward. "Go home. Now."

"Or what?"

Someone behind Haruhi whispers, "He's dead."

"Rando, if you'd like to take this somewhere else," he takes another step, "I'm happy to oblige."

"Oh, I'd rather keep it here." Rando stands as straight as his spine will allow, but even with Tamaki now on the ground, he's a few inches shy of meeting his eyes. "In fact. Why don't we make this a little more interesting."

He nods at the empty ring. Haruhi's stomach twists. There's no way he means what she thinks he does.

"You don't want to do that," says Tamaki. It's too late for diplomacy, though. Rando already has his shirt off.

"We're gonna need a new ref over here," he shouts into the crowd. "Who's ready to watch me beat the great Kaito-sama to a pulp?"

He throws his shirt aside and climbs into the ring. The walls surrounding it are three feet high and made of plywood. They shake under his weight as he launches his heavy body over. He stomps around in the dirt like a sumo wrestler, even though he's at least a hundred pounds too light. He looks more like he's killing ants than gearing up for a fight.

"Can we just go?" Haruhi tugs on Tamaki's sleeve. This place has long since stopped being fun.

"What's the matter, sweetie?" Rando shouts at her, pounding on his chest. "That pretty mouth need something else to do?"

Tamaki moves towards the ring, throwing his whistle to a man in the crowd. "Sugui, take over."

He strips his coat and his shirt, leaving only a black wife beater. Haruhi wants to call him back because this is stupid and macho and the exact opposite of what Tamaki Suoh would do in this situation. He should be talking to Rando, telling him what a crass, ungentlemanly brute he's being; making him see the error of his ways with words, not fists. Tamaki Suoh is not a 'fists' kind of person.

Right?

He folds his arms and they definitely weren't that big ten years ago. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Rando takes a stance, bouncing around like a novice boxer. "Come on, bitch. Hit me! I'll give you one for free if you dare."

Tamaki glances at the new referee. He hesitates for all of a second, then blows the whistle. Rando bluff charges and jabs at Tamaki's face, getting no reaction. Tamaki drops his arms to his side, hands balled. His face is blank; Mori at his most deadpan would look dramatic in comparison. This is clearly more offensive to Rando than trash talk would be. He throws a punch which lands on Tamaki's cheek, knocking his head back. Haruhi squeaks, not unlike a girl pretending to be scared of horror movies so her boyfriend will hold her. To think, she used to laugh at those girls.

"You're really sure about this," Tamaki says. There's a small cut under his right eyes. Rando packs a punch and Haruhi is one hit away from jumping in the ring and ending this farce once and for all.

"I'm sure you're a bitch," Rando sneers. "Think you can take a hit? Well, there's more where that came from, pussy. Just you wait. Once I'm finished with you, I'll take Haruhi back to my place. Give her a real good fucking like a real man-"

Three seconds.

That's how much time Haruhi counts between Rando on his feet and Rando on the ground. He's flat on his back, his face caved in, no longer smirking. Before the cheers get too loud, Haruhi thinks she hears him gurgle. Replaying all three seconds in her head, she can tell Tamaki was not graceful. Hunny and Mori's fight two weeks ago (God it feels like so much longer…) was just as much about poise as it was about hits, almost like choreography. Tamaki isn't like that. He doesn't have years of training on his side like a real martial artist. What he has is raw power and the will to use it.

He circles Rando's prone form like a jungle cat about to feast on its helpless prey. His chest rises and falls rather noticeably, and somewhere deep in Haruhi's hindbrain, she wishes he was shirtless. He rests his foot on Rando's chest. "Had enough?"

A hiss issues from Rando's mouth. He tries to sit up, but he doesn't have the strength. Tamaki narrows his eyes as he leans over, saying something in Rando's ear that Haruhi can't make out. His hair covers his face so she can't read his lips. He walks across the ring and exits through a door Haruhi never noticed before now. Someone hands him his discarded clothes as multiple hands reach out to pat him on the back.

"Have Uragiru escort Rando to the jailhouse," he tells Sugui. "We'll need to have a talk with him later about his behavior."

"Yes, Kaito-sama."

His boots leave deep indents in the dirt; his shoulders are hunched; his fists tight. He seems to challenge anyone foolish enough to face him. Come and do what Rando couldn't. Just try…

"Let's go," he says. He doesn't look at Haruhi or slow down, but she finds herself falling in line behind him.

"What did you say to him?" she asks.

"I told him to practice more," Tamaki says. It sounds like a lie.

He makes her go up first. Haruhi misses the first rung twice before she steadies her foot. She climbs all the way up as a new fight begins, but that's the last thing she wants to hear right now. The sound of Tamaki's knuckles connecting with Rando's nose is still too fresh. She'll never forget it.


Nagato used to be a salaryman. He used to wake up in the morning, take the train to a sterile grey box of a building ten blocks away from his house, and spent the next eight hours getting repeatedly hung up on by people who didn't want to buy shares in a candy making startup. His boss was a stick thin weasel of a man who always smelled like his secretary. His wife loved to talk about how successful her high school boyfriend was.

It was a life as mundane as they came, but it was his. Right up until the world went to shit, that five a.m. alarm was the one constant he could always trust to be there for him. It made The End a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, society had crumbled and most of the world's population was dead. On the other hand, his soon to be ex-wife, who'd left him eight months prior for a VP or something, had been killed when looters raided her house and found her defending her Mercedes Benz with all the love and devotion of a mother. Nagato was not ashamed to say he'd cracked open a beer.

Perhaps this new stage in humanity's history was exactly what he needed. Where his old life was spent in the doldrums, his new life was endless excitement. Every day was a fight for his life. He'd stabbed, shot, and even burned more men than he can count if he used all his fingers and toes. Every now and then, he'd join his buddies from Togawa's caravan in robbing passers-by of their food. He finally understood why the bigger kids on the playground always stole his cookies. God, it was a rush. He was finally powerful, a force to be reckoned with. All it took was the end of the world to bring out the true Nagato.

Yet now he sits with his back against a cage, a rifle in his lap and a discarded can of peas near his foot, and he's never been so bored.

There are either thirty-seven or forty-one peas left. He counts a third time and gets fifty. Whatever. He stands up to kick it, pretending it's his wife's severed head. Someone stirs within the cage and he taps the barrel of his gun on the bars, just in case one of the boys had any funny ideas.

"Lights out," he growled at them. He'd been working on his scary voice for months and he had it down pat.

There's a moan followed by one of the four shadows twisting. It rolls on its side and curls into a ball. The other three hover over it.

"Please, Nagato," says the unnaturally boyish voice of their star attraction, "Kao-chan is sick. He needs medical attention."

'He needs to shut the fuck up is what he needs,' Nagato thinks. Unfortunately, much as he'd love to ignore their whining, Togawa's orders were clear. No dying allowed as long as they were useful.

He grumbles to himself as he grabs the keys. If it were up to him, all four of them would be in a ditch right now. They were way more trouble than they were worth and dammit, he wanted to go back to the hunting parties. Last time, they caught a pair of young girls and he'd missed all the fun. What a joke.

"Back against the wall," he says, aiming his rifle at them. They oblige without question, arms raised and hands open like good little pets. The sick one whimpers and cries like a baby. His twin scowls as Nagato slaps him, and he decides one day he'll kill them first. "You're faking it, aren't you? Looking for an extra crumb of bread at breakfast. I'm onto you, you little-"

Everything in 'Kao-chan's' stomach comes up and lands on Nagato's shoes. They were brand new, fresh off a headless man who didn't need them anymore. Nagato screams and drops the gun. He immediately dives for it, but it's too late. Four bodies- yes all four- crash into him. His entire world becomes hands and teeth and a broken nose that's never going to heal right. Before he loses consciousness, as the 'sick' twin wraps his hands around his throat, Nagato thinks for the first time in years how nice a cubicle sounds.


They're free.

They.

Are.

Free.

The air is cool and the sky is clear, and Hunny is running at top speed with Hika-chan, Kao-chan, and Takashi at his side. Hika-chan whoops and Kao-chan joins him. Takashi smiles at him. He thought the plan would fail and Hunny knows how glad he is to be wrong.

Just up ahead, Togawa and his men are drinking by the brook. They found a wine cellar the day before, untouched for a decade, and they'd been celebrating ever since. Even sober, they would've had no chance. Their former victims tear through them like tissue paper, driven by either weeks or years of abuse. While Takashi dispatches three at once and Kao-chan beats the first man he sees to a pulp, Hunny finds Togawa in a heap next to a raised root. He's lucid enough to run but it's so dark. he can't see two feet in front of his face.

Hunny lifts him by his neck, relishing the fear in his eyes like no Haninozuka ever should. Their clan was one of honor. A Haninozuka did not gloat, he did not hold grudges. A Haninozuka used his strength to defend the ones he loved, not take revenge. Most importantly, a Haninozuka never took a life. To do so brought shame upon them, no matter how justified.

And so, with the only family he has left flanking him, Hunny brings Togawa in close. "What's my name?"

He's shaking so bad, he can hardly speak. "Uh…Hunny... Haninozuka?"

Hunny glances at Takashi. He understands what must be done and after this, they'll never speak of it again. Wherever the Haninozuka and Morinozuka clans are now, Hunny prays they'll forgive him.

"Not today," he says, drawing back a fist.

Today, he is free.