As the trio made their way towards the nearest railway station, they had no problem dodging around Security blockades. It made Jaden think this wasn't the first time the twins had done it. They were actually very good at finding random shortcuts that let them dodge around whole blocks of traffic from other citizens making their way home.
However, because of the Security lockdown, they still had to walk for almost two hours to get to the next district over to use the rail system. And then it was another hour before they could get tickets since everyone trying to get home at rush hour was also being diverted or delayed because of the rush of people escaping the riot.
For the next hour and a half, they were all packed into train cars like sardines.
Jaden passed the time by making funny faces at the kids over people's shoulders. Little by little, the car emptied until they were almost the last ones still riding by the end of line. They were on the south side of the Academy now and Jaden felt like he'd been traveling in circles all day. Yet again the teen found himself far from home as the sun was setting below the Wall. And once again he had no intention of going home anytime soon.
"Wow. You guys sure live a long way from the clinic. I can see why Crow and them don't visit often."
"Yeah, it's kinda a hassle. But it's worth it." Rua smiled at his sister to show her he wouldn't mind traveling all over the city, no matter how long it took, to get her better.
Jaden hummed to himself in agreement. There were a lot of big brothers in this city, it seemed. He wondered if the rest of the 'guys' were also big brother types. Maybe all older brothers were 'big brother types'. Some guy is just playing in the mud when one day, bam!, a little sibling and a certificate to the Big Brother Association.
I wonder if big sisters are the same way or if they act more like moms do.
The sky was turning a deep blue, dark purples where the clouds probably were. Streetlights were starting to turn on as they walked along, warm spots of orange to keep the growing shadows at bay. With each house they passed Jaden imagined what kind of family lived there and if it belonged to the twins.
That one had a blue door; the whole inside was painted blue in honor of the family hair color. This one had a car with the engine exposed in the drive; Crow had forgotten to put his tools away again. That one had toys strewn across the lawn; their parents had adopted a bunch of kids at once and had given up on getting anyone to put their toys away.
But the twins just kept walking. Jaden followed along until they reached a set of railroad tracks that separated the subdivision from the dark warehouses beyond.
"Uuh…guys? Are you sure you live out here?"
Rua and Ruka were already on the other side of the tracks. The street lights' glow didn't quite reach that far, leaving the twins half in shadow.
"Yeah, we live in Satellite. Got a problem with that?"
"No, no! That's fine. I just…" Jaden quickly made his way across the tracks. He could see why Martha had insisted Jaden go with them. The brunette was getting anxious himself. They were near where Jaden had fought off the purple robed guys. He didn't want the twins to be dragged off by a cult of child-nappers.
"I just thought you guys lived near Satellite. I didn't think people actually lived all the way out here." Jaden looked back at the city. He'd only taken a couple of steps, but it felt as if he'd crossed into another universe.
The difference hadn't felt that severe yesterday, but now he could see it. There were street lamps and even a couple of houses on this side, but there was no electricity to power them. Jaden could see some graffiti covering the walls as well as some crawling vines. The buildings weren't crumbling, but the bricks and cement were aging in the way things did with disuse.
As they walked further into Satellite, Jaden could see less and less. The sun hadn't sunk far enough for there to be moonlight yet, so he was forced to follow the twins as closely as possible. Rua took pity on him and slowed their pace. Jaden was grateful when Ruka worked up enough courage to take Jaden's hand before he could trip on anything.
Soon, the streets opened up around them and Jaden felt like he could breathe easier. If the buildings were farther away, that meant any hidey holes for creeps to be in were farther away too. He felt like he was wandering around an ancient cement forest, the skyscrapers around them whistling in the wind like trees.
It was into one of these tall buildings that the twins finally led him. The road they were on flowed and split around it like a rock in a stream, separating the hotel from the surrounding buildings. In its heyday, it would have been a beacon for weary travelers. As it was, Jaden was just happy they wouldn't be out in the open anymore.
"Welcome to our base!" Rua threw open the doors with a flourish. Ruka dropped Jaden's hand, stuttering an apology, then rushed deeper into the hotel. The lobby was mostly untouched, a few posters here and there. Somebody had left their jacket strewn over the check-in counter. Otherwise, Jaden half expected a team of bellboys to pop out at any second.
"So this is your 'base', huh?"
"Yep!" Rua beamed with pride, but then frowned and suddenly turned to face Jaden. "This is our secret base. That means you can't tell anyone where it is. Promise?" Rua held out a hand, face utterly serious. Jaden put on his best 'serious business' face and shook the young boy's hand. They held eye contact, Rua's grip surprisingly strong.
The young boy searched the teen's eyes for a second longer before breaking out in a wide grin.
"Alright! It's a promise! That means you're one of us now! C'mon, let's go see if there are any leftovers." Rua bounded after his sister.
"Woohoo! Food!" Jaden laughed, running after his friends.
Behind the lobby was drastically different than what Jaden had seen so far. Someone had put up a partition of tables and wooden planks. A blanket curtain served as a door. It almost looked like a barricade and now Jaden was wondering if he should be preparing for hordes of zombies.
Well, I don't see any bullet holes anywhere, but maybe they just like using melee weapons instead…
The twins were standing in front of the curtain, quietly listening to whatever was happening on the other side. Jaden crouched down behind them and whispered, "What's up?" Rua jumped in surprise but Ruka just looked worried, eyes fixed on the curtain.
"I-I think they're arguing about something. I don't wanna interrupt…" Ruka shuffled in place uncertainly. Jaden could tell that Ruka really wanted to go break up the fight, but maybe wasn't sure if she should. Jaden, however, didn't have any such reservations.
Jaden pushed through the curtains and strode straight into the room beyond. The twins were hissing at him to stop, but he had already caught sight of a familiar bush of orange hair.
"I'm telling you! We can't just barge into their territory! We'd start a war and the kids-!"
"Hey, Crow! I brought the twins home safe and sound for you! They also mentioned something about food as a reward?" Jaden smirked at Crow's shocked face. Whatever he and the others had been arguing about was suddenly forgotten.
When Crow managed to collect himself, his grin was large enough to rival Jaden's own. He laughed in surprised joy and caught the brunette in a headlock.
"Jaden! Good to see ya! You guys get into any trouble on the way here?" Crow ruffled the brunette's hair, letting himself be pushed back when Jaden struggled out of the headlock.
"Pfft! As if! Ain't nothin' gonna happen with Jaden on the job!"
"Ha! Yeah, of course." Crow smiled, throwing a companionable arm over the other teen's shoulders. "But if you're gonna stay for dinner, I should probably introduce you to the rest of the gang." Crow gestured to the half circle of people Jaden hadn't acknowledged yet. "This is Odion and—"
"Oh, we've met before."
Jaden had barged into the room so fast he hadn't even paid attention to who Crow was arguing with. He did his best not to flinch at the familiar voice, but it was a close thing.
"So, have you changed your mind, kid? Ready for that ride?" Marik smirked, incredibly amused by the whole situation.
"Uuh…hey. Long time no see…" Jaden felt the blood drain from his face. His forced smile was merely a sorry shadow of its former self.
Craaaap. This is great, just great.
"Sooo, Jaden. How's your throat? We're weren't too rough on you, I hope." Color returned to Jaden's face in a hot blush. His throat wasn't as sore anymore, the bruises expertly hidden by his hoodie although it was a struggle to turn his head naturally without wincing; in fact, it was a minor miracle no one had noticed anything all day. But the reminder of how badly he'd been beaten, was it really only yesterday?!, bruised Jaden's already wounded pride.
Crow looked between Marik and Jaden. When he turned to Jaden, his eyes were guarded, and the brunette could feel Crow tense beside him. "You two…know each other?"
There was more than just suspicion and anger in the older teen's voice, but Jaden decided he didn't really care to find out what it was. I'm just grateful he doesn't know about the fight. How embarrassing! Marik smirked, about to respond, before he was cut off.
"Oh dear. Marik honey, you haven't been taking advantage of this poor boy, have you?"
Jaden turned to face the new voice and found himself blushing for a whole new reason. A tall figure with long legs and big…hair, draped herself over the other blonde. If it weren't for the fact that the woman was so pale compared to Marik's naturally tanned tone, Jaden would have said they were related. The woman also wore a purple outfit that complemented her purple eyes and boasted bare arms, as well as bare legs, making Jaden wonder if they weren't actually wearing some sort of uniform.
Or maybe they just have the same stylist. I should probably start keeping a tally of bluenettes and people with purple eyes.
"Of course not." Marik winked at Jaden. "The kid gave just as good as he got. Seemed to be enjoying it as much as I was. Right, kid?"
Jaden wasn't sure what was going on, but he wasn't going to get out of it without repercussions. With all the innuendos and weirdly attractive people everywhere, it seemed he was going to have to live with having 'awkward reactions' to blondes wearing purple. Among other things…
His brain was quick to remind him of a different 'awkward reaction'. The kind that included attractive people with dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and badass leather jackets. Jaden sent a quick farewell to his sanity and hoped that he'd at least be able to control his blushing in the future.
"Well, he certainly does look like he can take quite a lot. But," The blonde leaned forward, inexorably drawing Jaden's attention to her large…hair. "I'm sure you're also quite the giver, right, sugar?"
The arm around Jaden's shoulders tightened, dragging Jaden's attention away from the two leering blondes. He looked to Crow and tried to figure out if this was how things usually went down: if the blonde gangsters flirted with everyone or if Jaden was just 'lucky'.
Crow's face seemed to be conflicted. His eyes constantly darting between Marik and the woman, perhaps trying to decipher what had really happened. He looked to the last person in their small circle, a tall, dark, and imposing man, but found even fewer answers there. Crow subtly shifted his weight to put himself between the group and Jaden.
"Knock it off, you two. Jaden might think you're being serious." He kept his voice light, but the tension remained.
"As much as I adore teasing young men, I'm more curious how our little Jaden made it all the way out here." The blonde woman stepped away from Marik to lean down and look directly into Jaden's face.
Jaden was surprised the woman didn't comment on the palpable heat coming off his face. He looked away from her…big hair, but still caught a glimpse of her smug smirk.
"I-I…I told you, I walked the kids back from the clinic." Jaden stuttered. He turned to Crow to try and shift the group's focus somewhere else. "I'm surprised you weren't there to pick them up 'Big Bro'."
The thought actually hadn't occurred to him until that moment. Crow had struck him as the big mother hen type, and with the DM attack and the riot shortly after, Crow leaving the kids at the clinic was practically unthinkable.
Even if they couldn't go home, he would have at least gone to check on them, right?
Maybe the DM had done more damage than he'd thought, and Crow hadn't been able to reach the kids. Maybe he had been on his way when Jaden had decided to walk them home himself.
Jaden felt a pair of eyes boring into the side of his head but refused to acknowledge it. Marik was still focused on him and Jaden wasn't too interested in finding out why quite yet.
Maybe the kids weren't supposed to come back here tonight. I think Crow was planning on confronting these guys alone.
Jaden didn't want to think about what he had inadvertently walked into, but he was suddenly glad that he had. He knew that Crow had some kind of 'tough guy' reputation that had protected the kids at the school but facing so many potential gangsters by himself…Jaden was just glad he was there to provide back up.
Especially if Marik is involved… He wasn't sure about the other two, but Jaden wasn't going to underestimate them again. Whatever it is they came here for, they're not—
"Ah, Kiryu was already in the area, so he was gonna check on the kids. Should probably call him, now that you mention it." Crow muttered the last bit mostly to himself, but Jaden wasn't paying attention anymore.
"W-what? Kiryu was..!" Jaden reeled in surprise, dislodging Crow's arm.
Crow raised a quizzical brow at the younger teen before frowning and turning to glare suspiciously at Marik. Said creepy blonde was still slouching, unperturbed by the situation, and staring straight at Jaden.
Jaden could feel the blood draining from his face, stomach roiling. Denials ran through his head, but the truth was staring him in the face. Marik, Kiryu, and …whoever these new people were, they were the ones involved with illegal activity. They were the ones who stole Security cycles and beat up well-meaning Heroes in disguise. There was no way that Crow, that the twins, were involved with anything like that.
"Aw, man! Really? You sent Kiryu to come get us?" Jaden nearly jumped out of his skin at Rua's sudden appearance at his elbow. As it was, he merely flinched into the silent, imposing figure on his other side. Jaden smiled apologetically, but the man hardly blinked.
"He's so boring! He almost never talks to us, and when he does, all he does is preach about 'satisfaction'." Rua smirked at the still reeling teen. Jaden recovered enough to stick his tongue out at Rua in retaliation. "I'm glad you showed up instead, Jaden."
Jaden knew the kid wasn't trying to be sentimental, but his heart still melted a bit at the blunette's honest words. He ruffled the kid's hair just hard enough to cover the potentially sappy moment. Something about these kids just makes me wanna pinch their cheeks and wrap them in sweaters. I wonder if that's how Crow feels all the time?
"Alright! Pump the brakes would ya?" Crow interjected looking slightly put out. "I know how I know you, Jaden. But how the he—heck do you know Kiryu? Or Marik, even?!" Crow gestured wildly at large as if Kiryu would suddenly appear from the shadows to answer everything if he just waved his arms enough. He wasn't quite flailing yet, but the possibility for wayward limbs was increasing.
The lack of information was getting to him, and Jaden could appreciate that Crow was the Big Bro in charge, but there was no way Jaden was going to enlighten him.
Jaden glanced around, trying to spot which dark corner Kiryu might pop out from.
The woman raised a bemused brow at the red head. She crossed her arms and stared at him, obviously waiting for something. Crow flushed, but stubbornly refused to back down.
"You remember, Mai! I told you about the naïve idiot that tried to stand up to the Society punks at the school but got his butt handed to him instead." Crow crossed his arms as well, staring down the blonde woman as if she were going to argue with him.
Jaden's first reaction was to take offense at Crow's quick recap. He wasn't sure which part he should object to first: the 'naïve idiot' part, or the use of the word 'tried'. He didn't want to get on any gang's hit list as a potential threat, but at the same time, Jaden had his pride. He was a Hero after all and Heroes didn't get their 'butts handed to them'.
Because I totally stood up to Chazz and them…It just…didn't look as successful as it was…
"He got his ass kicked?" Crow frowned at Marik's choice of words, breaking off his staring contest to shoot the other blonde a dirty look. "Are you sure we're talking about the same kid, here, Crow? The Jaden I know is a spunky little shit who knows how to throw one hell of a punch." Marik sent a look to the intimidating man that had worry tingling down Jaden's spine again.
He really hoped that wasn't some sort of signal for "let's try to kick his ass again; make sure to take his lunch money this time."
"Kiryu was actually pretty impressed." Marik tacked on almost off-handedly, as if Kiryu's opinions were inconsequential.
Jaden could feel the atmosphere around them still. Marik was leading up to something, and Jaden just knew it wouldn't mean anything good. Whatever was going on here definitely wasn't going to turn out well for him.
"He was thinking about recruiting the kid. The crew has been spread a bit thin lately," Marik shot Crow a look. His mouth twisted in a grimace but he didn't say anything as Marik continued. "And like I said, Kiryu was impressed."
Now they were all staring at Jaden. The three gangsters looked ready to start 'recruiting' then and there, and the twins looked excited for some reason, waiting for Jaden's response.
What the hell?
Jaden turned to his last of hope of defense. Crow was a reasonable man. Or at least a sane one. Surely he would know how to get him out of this situation. Or at least knew a back way out.
Crow sighed, rubbing his forehead against an oncoming headache.
No one commented on Crow's word choice.
"We have been a bit short-staffed on deliveries lately. Security has really been on us and we can't use the local talent for drop-offs anymore." Jaden gaped at Crow, stunned by each word that came out of his mouth.
Crow exhaled loudly through his nose. He rolled his neck and shoulders in a burst of movement, startling Jaden out of his stupor.
"I guess I could use Jaden for some simple stuff; give the other guys a break for once." Marik quirked a brow. Crow huffed and rolled his eyes in response. "Or help with whatever it is you two do."
Jaden looked between a suddenly exhausted Crow and smirking Marik.
"Super. Kiryu will be happy to know you approve."
"Tch. As if you weren't going to do it anyway. Don't you guys have better things to do than stalk high schoolers?" Crow grimaced, crossing his arms.
"Well, after Mad Dog left, we've had a bit of a 'security' problem ourselves." Marik frowned a bit at the thought before smirking again. "Besides, high school boys are the best." Mai chuckled her agreement. Crow flushed, ready to argue back when—
"Helloooooo!? Guys. Remember me? The 'kid' you're trying to recruit for, what? Exactly?" Jaden waved his arms in as many faces as he could to get their attention.
"Well, kid. That happens to be on a need to know basis. Consider this a trial run. Get the job done and keep your mouth shut and you're in the clear."
"A trial run for what? What exactly are you 'delivering'? And to who? Does this have anything to do with that warehouse yesterday? Was that what you meant by 'security problems'?" Jaden kept going, voice rising, not giving anyone a chance to answer. "Is this a gang? Like a real, 'once a gang, always a gang' thing? Is this some kind of whacked up initiation?" Jaden could feel himself working up to a good rant, his voice gaining sass as he went, but really, there was only one thing he really needed to know.
"If I say yes, does this mean I get my own motorcycle?!"
There was a beat of stunned silence before everyone was laughing. Jaden only pouted a little bit. He was completely serious about the bike and wasn't above some underhanded tactics to get his way. At least when it came to potentially stolen parts for probably illegal vehicles.
"We'll work our way up to that. For now, you can just ride with me." Marik winked, and while Jaden was still weirded out by that, he could tell the other was only joking.
Nevertheless, he let the blonde throw an arm over his shoulders. In for a penny, in for a pound, he guessed. Whatever Jaden thought he knew, whoever he thought Crow and the twins were, whoever he thought Marik was, there were too many things happening right now to figure it all out. Worst case scenario, Jaden could always activate the trackers he always kept next to his deck; twenty minutes, tops, and Security would be knocking down their doors.
"Do you even know how to ride a bike?" Crow asked teasingly. Jaden stuck his tongue out at the ginger.
Best case scenario, Jaden would uncover Marik and Kiryu as the grand theft auto kings, get Crow and the twins their own apartment next to Martha's clinic with the reward money, and keep one of their recovered motorcycles as his new Hero-mobile.
"This is gonna be so awesome! You can hang out here all the time after school!" Rua said excitedly. Jaden smiled down at the kids. He couldn't help but be excited too. Satellite had so many fun places to explore, and if he could get the twins to show him around, maybe Jaden could more easily find bad guys to bust.
"Wait 'til you see what I've been working on in the garage! Big Bro Crow says it's not ready yet, but-!"
"What is he doing here?"
"Hey man, nice of you to show up. Join the party." Crow greeted the newcomer. Jaden looked up and tried not to look surprised. The guy just kept coming up like a bad penny.
Rua bounced excitedly toward the new arrival. "Yusei! Jaden's gonna be part of the team! Do you think-?"
"Marik. What is he doing here?"
"Don't look at me." Marik shrugged, the picture of nonchalance, but kept an eye on Yusei.
"He…He walked us home from Martha's." Ruka flinched a little when all eyes turned to her, but she didn't back down. "He's our new friend." Rua nodded decisively at her side.
Yusei didn't react as far as Jaden could tell. His eyes flicked from one small face to the other, blinked, but didn't move. There must have been some sort of acceptance in the look as the twins were suddenly smiling broadly at each other.
"He's not joining the team."
"But Marik said-!"
"Come on, Yusei. What's the problem here? He's old enough, not a kid like these pipsqueaks." Rua huffed indignantly at Marik's verbal jab, but stayed quiet. "We can't exactly let him wander around Satellite. Just ripe for the picking for anyone else to snatch. Besides, Kiryu already gave the okay. Crow doesn't have any objections. Not to mention the kid already agreed."
No one spoke, no one moved; Jaden sighed to himself. And here I thought the tension had left for good. My mistake. Jaden eyed the line of Yusei's shoulders; he looked as if the tension in his body was directly connected to the tension in the room.
Jaden blinked, suddenly realizing that he was staring at Yusei's bared shoulders and quickly averted his eyes. It was merely a reflex, but he berated himself for it. So what if the man wasn't wearing the leather jacket? It wasn't like he was naked or anything. Jaden looked back at Yusei and Marik and forced his attention back to the conversation.
Yusei's shoulders were still tense, so he assumed that Marik had won this round. He couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy for Yusei. It was late, and if his grease and oil-stained attire was any hint, he hadn't been prepared to entertain company, let alone 'unwelcome' company. Unfortunately, Jaden had missed out on whatever they had decided on.
"Then it's settled. Now, since this is just a 'trial basis', you just need to wear our colors and it'll be official." Marik moved to take off one of his necklaces when something was suddenly shoved in front of Jaden's face.
"Take it." Jaden looked down at the dirty rag then back up at Yusei. His eyes were boring into Jaden's, intense and focused. He raised a single brow in confusion, looking down at the rag again. I can't even tell what color it's supposed to be…
"Ah…no offense but…"
"It's fine, Jaden. You can have one of mine." Crow was quick to interrupt. He was trying to pull something, most likely gold, from his pocket all while trying to glare down everyone else. Over all it did nothing to diffuse the tension in the room.
"Take it." Yusei hadn't flinched. He was still staring Jaden down as if he could force him to accept the rag by will alone.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jaden could see Marik contemplating Yusei with a frown. Apparently, whatever was happening, Marik hadn't seen it coming. Slowly, he moved away from Jaden to stand next to Odion. Jaden and Yusei were left in a standoff, the rag between them, the rest watching on, waiting.
What's the big deal? It's just a rag, right? Why does this feel so…final?
"I'll just…wash it first, yeah? It's kinda…brown, right now…"
Still, Yusei was staring. Jaden could do nothing but stare back as he slowly took the rag. His attention was riveted, the rest of the room falling out of focus. This close, Jaden could almost see what the others must have been seeing the entire time.
Yusei always held himself so confidently, almost cold. But there was no hiding the emotion in his eyes. The taller boy was scared, apprehensive? Maybe it was nervousness. When Jaden took the rag, the fear didn't leave, merely shifted to something closer to anxiousness. Somewhere in the corners, Jaden thought he saw something like sadness, only deeper.
Mai clapped her hands decisively. "I think that's enough drama for me today. I need to go find myself something fun to do." Mai winked at a flustered Jaden and sashayed to wherever Yusei had come from. "See you around, kid!"
Jaden had completely forgotten about Mai and the others. Rua and Ruka were high fiving, glad to have their new friend accepted into their group. Crow looked to be equal parts confused and content at the current proceedings. He waved an acknowledgement at the parting blonde but continued to smile to himself.
Marik and Odion seemed to have left sometime during the exchange. Jaden thought it was a little strange but didn't mention it. If the others were going to ignore it then so would he. He wasn't ready for the atmosphere to tense again. Jaden turned back and half expected Yusei to have disappeared as well.
But no, he was still there, still standing incredibly close and still staring at him…wait, no. He was staring at the rag that he was still holding up awkwardly. Jaden fumbled, trying to tie it around his wrist while holding his gaze on Yusei. Once secure, Yusei seemed to deem him satisfactory and left without another word.
Jaden turned to Crow for some kind of interpretation of the past events, but was answered only by Crow's disgruntled arm waving as he huffed to himself.
"I swear, these people are gonna be the death of me." Crow mumbled. "Ugh, I give up. And don't you have somewhere to be?" Crow asked. Jaden looked around, bemused, and shrugged. Crow sighed again, making Jaden smirk at his expense. "Home. Don't you have to go home?"
Ruka giggled at Crow's exasperated expression. "Aw man! I did it again! My dad is gonna kill me for breaking curfew after he specifically told me not to." Jaden groaned, clutching his head in despair.
He'd just been warned that morning to behave, and then he goes and does not that.
"I missed curfew, joined a gang—I JOINED A GANG!" The thought of how his dad would react to that little tidbit had Jaden collapsing to the floor. "I'm a dead man."
"Pfft! Who knew you were such a drama queen?" Crow squatted down by the brunette's head and roughly tousled his hair. "Got a phone?"
Jaden continued to bemoan his fate, handing over his phone without question.
"He's never gonna let me outta the house after this! What about school? Aagh! And I made so many new friends too!"
Rua patted Jaden's head solemnly. "Don't worry. We'll visit you on the weekends."
"I had so many plans! I'm too young to be a shut-in!"
"Would you pipe down already?"
Jaden craned his head back to see Crow had already dialed, waiting for someone on the other end to pick up.
"What are you-? Wait! Don't-!"
Crow shushed him, gesturing vaguely at him to 'pipe down'. Before Jaden could make a grab for the phone, the twins had tackled him back to the ground. They were stronger than Jaden would have given them credit for but no match for his superior skills. However, before Jaden could free himself Crow was talking again.
"Hello! Is this young Jaden's father?" Crow had pinched his nose, pitching his voice higher. He sounded completely ridiculous and Jaden could only watch on in horror. "I just wanted to call and say how wonderful your boy is! With all that hullabaloo downtown today and young Jaden decided to help my two youngest. Walked them all the way home!" Crow wasn't being believable in the slightest. His dad was never gonna buy it.
At this rate he won't believe a word I say. I might even get stuck with a 'babysitter' again.
"Don't hold it against him if he's just a tad late. I couldn't let him go without a little reward for his trouble. You truly have raised a wonderful boy. Have a good night!" Crow hung up and finally looked back at the buried brunette. He smirked. "There you go. All fixed."
"Fixed?! How?" Jaden wanted to yell, but really, what would that help? Somehow, he didn't think that trying to get angry while being glomped by a couple of small children would be very effective. "That was probably the worst Martha impression I've ever heard." Jaden wasn't sure if he was trying to tease Crow or reprimand him. Martha was a nice lady and deserved better from her children.
How could he grow up without knowing how to impersonate his parents?
Crow shrugged. "Does it matter? Not like he knows what she actually sounds like." Crow tossed Jaden's phone on the dog pile. "I'll get you a sandwich or something for the road. Hurry up and get home before I have to save your butt. Again."
Mention of food had the twins scrambling up and out the door. Jaden was left only mildly trampled in the process. He took Crow's offered hand with a rueful smile.
"I put my number in your contacts, by the way. Just give me a call if you need an excuse for tomorrow."
"Wait. What, now?"
Crow threw an arm around Jaden's confused shoulders and started dragging him to the promised sandwiches. He rolled his eyes. "Geez. Were you listening at all? Tomorrow. No Man's Land. There's gonna be a race. That's where you'll make your big debut as a member of Team Satisfaction."
"Right. That. Yeah, I'll be there. Totally." Jaden worried the 'gold' rag at his wrist.
Crow shot him a disbelieving look, but Jaden didn't notice. He was too busy trying to put one foot in front of the other.
Dead. Dead. So dead. So so so dead.
Jaden was grateful that he had spent most of his childhood in the Hub. Constantly bustling at all hours, so many new people to meet, things to do and new places to go. Every day he had something new to do as a Hero or even as a regular kid. Even so, Jaden spent most of his time either at Arcadia working with his duel monsters, or at home. Surrounded by people all the time, no matter where he was in the Hub, and yet he was lonely.
His favorite movies, tv shows, and comics always talked about the power of friendships. Sometimes friends led the protagonists into some wacky situations, but to Jaden it only heightened the appeal.
Jaden had never dreamed that having friends would be so much trouble.
He'd gotten a message from Crow to meet him and the others at the Wall near their HQ, and now he was descending his twenty-story apartment building at five in the morning. A little agility boost from Avion made things easier, but Jaden was almost startled off the building when his phone buzzed again.
"Just…a second." The phone buzzed again. "I hear ya, already! Nagging's not gonna get me there any faster." It continued to buzz in defiance.
Finally at the bottom, Jaden hid in the alley by his building to catch his breath. He let Avion's energy fade away, collapsing to the ground as the wave of exhaustion hit him.
"Alright, what is it?" Jaden pulled out his phone to scroll through his new messages.
There was one from Syrus from last night, asking if he had any plans that weekend. A whole bunch from Jou and Tristan about something or other. The messages were all very enthusiastic, but incomprehensible through all the exclamation points and emotes. Jaden shot off a group message promising to hang out tomorrow.
Preferably something low risk and not so far away.
Jaden heaved himself up with only a little struggle. He hadn't quite regained enough duel energy, but it would have to do if he were going to make it to the gang's HQ on time. He was determined to be on time for once.
"This wouldn't be a problem if I had my own motorcycle…" Jaden took off at a sprint despite his body's protests.
Maybe he could convince Crow or Marik into letting him take one of their bikes for a little joy ride before the race. Just the thought had him sprinting even faster.
"Come on, Crow! Just a quick one?"
"I said no, Jaden. I'm busy. Why don't you ask Marik or even Odion? He's got a ride."
Jaden handed Crow another mysterious box. He tried to hit the red head with his puppy eyes, but Crow was having none of it. He hefted the box one handed, thwapping Jaden with the other.
"Not happening. I'm already hooked up and besides, this," Crow stowed the box in the small trailer hitched to his bike, "is the last of it." Crow stepped back to admire his work.
"Thanks for the help, Jay. Now we're all ready to go!"
Crow's smile was infectious. Jaden couldn't help his whoop of excitement.
"Finally! Let's get this show on the road!" Jaden made for Crow's bike only to be stopped by said bird.
"Hold it. Where do you think you're going?"
"Uuuh..?" Jaden gestured to the group of bikes and their riders. Most were already seated and idling, waiting for Crow and his cargo to be ready.
"I thought I was riding with you?"
Crow quirked a brow at Jaden. "Nooo. You're going with Yusei." Crow took pity on him and asked gently. "Didn't he talk to you this morning?"
Jaden shook his head no, slightly mystified.
"Right. Of course he didn't. Smart guy probably knew he could put it off and make me do it." Crow sighed.
"That," Crow pointed to the clean rag from yesterday, now a bright gold with small detailing barely visible, again wrapped around Jaden's wrist, "is your ticket to the race. It shows everyone that you're part of our gang. Team Satisfaction. Don't take it off." Jaden nodded quickly. "Since Yusei was the one who gave it to you, that puts him in charge of you. If you find yourself in any kind of trouble, which you better not be," Jaden gulped and nodded again. He did not want to suffer the most likely embarrassingly public wrath of Mother Hen Hogan.
Crow continued, satisfied Jaden was suitably intimidated. "Yusei will be the one to take responsibility. The rest of the Team can help out, but Yusei has final say until you're a full member."
Jaden gulped nervously. Things were getting a lot more serious than he'd thought they'd be. He tightened the handkerchief until it was nearly cutting off circulation.
"Don't worry about it too much. Just think of him as a sponsor of sorts. Just do everything he says, and you'll be fine."
"And…if I don't?" Jaden frowned a little. He wasn't sure how he felt about taking orders from someone he barely knew.
"Trust me. It's better if you do…" Crow trailed off, eyes drifting to somewhere behind Jaden. He followed Crow's gaze to see Kiryu looking back at them.
"Right. Let's get this train rolling already. Got a big day ahead of us!" Crow shoved Jaden towards Yusei's bike with a smile.
Jaden shook off the sudden chill and tried to ignore the feeling of being watched. He could worry about Kiryu and the Team's mysterious boxes later. He had a new friend to win over.
Yusei was already mounted and ready to go, engine roaring. Jaden almost thought he'd have to shout louder when Yusei handed him a helmet in greeting.
"You got it!" Jaden was too excited, finally getting a chance to ride, to let Yusei's curtness bother him. Today was going to be an adventure in all sense of the word.
"Do you know what you're doing?"
Jaden seated himself behind the taller teen. "Yeah, pretty sure I just sit here and hold on tight, right?"
Yusei glanced back briefly, calculating.
"Is this…am I supposed to sit in front?" That couldn't be right. Yusei didn't answer, instead leaning forward to let Jaden wrap his arms around him.
I don't think I'll ever be able to keep up with what this guy is thinking. Today is gonna be a long day.
By some unknown signal, everyone was suddenly moving down the deserted streets, picking up speed. Jaden clutched at Yusei's waist like his life depended on it. It didn't, but Jaden couldn't convince his body of that fact. He at least managed to keep his eyes open as they went.
He could see Crow's yellow bike and mini trailer just ahead of them. He was being flanked by Marik's low-riding chopper and the tall quiet guy from yesterday's, Onion?, more practical one.
Jaden knew they were protecting the crew's cargo, but he still had to laugh. They looked like they were protecting the Prime Minister with how close they were.
Jaden knew Kiryu was at the front, scouting and leading the way, but he and Yusei were towards the back, so he couldn't tell who else was there. That morning he had tried going around to the others to introduce himself, but with little success. Before he had been caught by Crow for box duty, no one had given him a chance. Mai was nice enough to snag him a protein bar, give a quick hello, and awkward hug, but even then it was like she had somewhere else to be.
Crow said Yusei is my 'sponsor'. Does that mean he's supposed to show me around? I don't think I remember that part in the Godfather…Maybe there's a difference between 'families' and 'teams'.
If Yusei was the only person he was 'allowed' to ask for answers, then he was going to get a truckload.
Jaden started making a list. First on that list was what exactly Team Satisfaction did. Crow had mentioned deliveries, and when he found Marik and Kiryu the first time they were talking about stealing more motorcycles. Jaden kept coming back to the chop shop idea. Stealing vehicles and boosting parts to sell for profit. But could that really be all? Marik had also said something about having a 'muscle problem'. Maybe they were also in the private security business or the 'protection' business.
Jaden felt his stomach roil at the thought. He'd never committed an actual crime before. Except maybe 'vigilantism', but that was also his day job. If anything, he was just working overtime.
He wanted to stay on the Team for as long as possible. Work his way into their inner circle so he could help put away bad people and protect the city. But if he had to hurt someone to do it…
Jaden wished he could talk to someone about it. Crow was out of the question. He couldn't talk to the guys at school; he didn't want to drag them into his mess. Maybe Jim or Aki? But, no, he had started going out on his own to prove himself as a solo Hero. He couldn't break down now and ask for help; it hadn't even been a week yet!
They're just a small-time motorcycle gang on the outskirts, selling spare parts. Piece of cake. I can do this. I can do this!
The caravan of motorcycles continued to head away from anything resembling civilization. Abandoned buildings turning to abandoned warehouses. They could have been occupied warehouses, but Jaden couldn't be sure. If you've seen one industrial park, you've seen them all.
Although I will say this is the most colorful one I've seen so far.
They were still going at speeds, so everything passed by in a blur. But if he followed what they passed Jaden could make out all kinds of fantastic shapes. Brightly colored graffiti, blinding yellows, fiery reds, and glowing greens covered every surface. The buildings, sidewalks, the street-everything-was a veritable menagerie of color.
The wall towered above them, casting the area in shadow, and Jaden realized that the graffiti was literally glowing.
All too soon, they left the awe-inspiring chaos for a pitch-black tunnel. They had left the street level and were now traveling through the sewer systems. The dim orange of the others' tail lights was the only thing Jaden could make out in the darkness. The roar of so many engines in such a small environment, all sound bouncing off the walls, had grown to deafening levels.
Yusei made a sharp turn, forcing Jaden to tighten his grip even further. He tucked his head against Yusei's shoulder, eyes tightly shut. He couldn't see or hear anything, but he could still feel the leather-clad body against him, the hard cycle beneath him. He was powerless, forced to trust Yusei to guide him through.
A part of him rebelled at the thought of relinquishing so much agency. But another, wilder, part of himself reveled in it.
"Come on, Yusei! We need to go faster!" And somehow, Yusei heard his urging over the din, pushing them even faster through the unknown.
The wind whipped through Jaden's sleeveless hoodie, working with the force of their speed to push him backwards; he only held on tighter. He willed Yusei to go even faster. To somehow break the laws of physics and reach a new realm of speed. The wildness within him growled for more.
And then, they were flying.
The darkness was erased by the light of the sun. Jaden was blinded for only a second, unprepared, and when he regained his senses they were flying through the open sky, a red demon between blue sky above and golden sand below.
Sparkman could run faster, Avion could fly further, and Flame Wingman higher. But nothing could compare to this feeling of power, of pure energy and impulsiveness. This feeling of freedom.
Jaden threw his head back and whooped out his elation to the sun. He almost lost his grip completely when they landed. His heart was trying to hammer its way out of his chest, limbs shaking with adrenaline and the effort of holding on so long, and he just knew he was grinning like a lunatic. Not a single part of him cared.
"I am so doing this again! Let's go Yusei! We got a race to win!" Jaden leaned forward for a better look, one arm wrapped around Yusei's chest for balance while the other pointed to what he assumed was their destination.
Oh please, God and whatever other higher powers are out there, let me be in the race!
When they finally stopped, Jaden was more than a little surprised by what they found.
"Is there a city all the way out here? I think I would have heard about people living outside the Wall." Jaden jumped off the bike, craning his head around to try and take everything in at once. Between the dunes were huge tents and stalls, flags flapping in the wind. There were people everywhere, bustling and shouting, a fair approximation of the Hub, only rowdier. Now and then a fight would break out and no one seemed to care, as if it were a regular occurrence.
"You didn't know people came out here at all before yesterday." Yusei said.
Jaden startled out of his gaping. "True. But this is awesome! Are they all here for the race?" Jaden trailed after Yusei as he led them over to where Crow and the others were setting up their own tent. Jaden was practically vibrating with excitement.
He could see some stalls that were selling trinkets of every shape and color. There was a simply fantastic smell coming from somewhere that Jaden was determined to investigate. And the motorcycles! Jaden wasn't sure if it was the smell of food or the thought of seeing so many machines race across hot sands that had him drooling.
"Why else would they be out here?" Yusei asked.
Jaden took off his borrowed helmet, flushed, and laughing lightly at himself. "Good point. I guess they could just be trying to get the perfect tan." Yusei huffed in response and Jaden counted it as a laugh in his favor.
I guess I'll be the one doing most of the talking in this relationship.
"Everyone can't be racing today, right? Or is this some kind of free-for-all scramble? Fifty go in, but only one reaches the finish line?" Jaden eagerly checked out the competition. None of the other bikes looked as intimidating or impressive as theirs; they'd win easily.
Once Yusei had properly parked, he gave Jaden a nice long look. The kind of look that Jaden assumed meant 'I can't believe the words that are coming out of your mouth right now and I don't know what to do with them now that they have'.
Or, he was thinking about how awesome a fifty man, no holds barred, free-for-all would be and wondering if Jaden had any other brilliant ideas.
Gonna need to work on my Yusei-ese, but until then…
"So, when does this scramble-race start and which bike is mine?" Jaden asked with a smirk. Yusei was saved from answering with the sudden reappearance of Crow.
"Easy there, tiger. Let's see how you handle yourself on the sidelines and then we'll see about getting you your own set of wheels." Crow clapped a hand on Jaden's shoulder, doing absolutely nothing to curb the brunette's enthusiasm.
"Kiryu went ahead to the board to check out today's line-up. Me and the guys are gonna go to the bazaar and see what we can sell. You comin', Yusei?" Crow took the spare helmet from Jaden to toss at the silent teen. Said teen caught it and turned back to their impromptu 'garage' with barely a blink.
"I have some tune-ups to make. I'll be here."
Crow sighed. "Him and his bike. One little hiccup and he's obsessed with 'tune-ups' for weeks." He patted Jaden consolingly. "Sorry, Jaden. Looks like you're stuck here. Good luck."
Jaden tried not to feel too much like an abandoned puppy as he watched Crow and the rest of the Team leave.
"And don't get into any trouble while I'm gone!" Crow shouted over the crowd before he was completely swallowed up. Jaden waved back quietly, thinking to himself.
Today might be a 'trial run', but this was still his debut, after all. They couldn't keep him holed up the whole time. How was he supposed to prove himself worthy of joining the gang if he couldn't do anything?
A quick check on Yusei confirmed that he wasn't going to be leaving any time soon. Jaden plopped himself down and resolved to gather as much information as he could.
If nothing else, I've at least found where the black market likes to hang out. Espionage is easy!
There weren't many interesting stalls or tents nearby. Most looked to be other personal tents. A few had the same idea as Yusei and were working on their rides, preparing for the race.
However, there was one stall that was selling spare parts. Jaden couldn't help but wonder if they were stolen like the ones that he suspected were in the Team's mystery boxes. He ducked and bobbed his head for a better look at the merchandise when he noticed it.
"They use their own decks as currency?! That's…that's sick!" Jaden felt his deck pulse in its holster with righteous outrage and agreement.
Yusei grunted, eyes never leaving his task. "It's stupid."
Jaden turned back to the 'garage', unexpectedly pleased to hear Yusei's less than flattering thoughts.
"So, I take it you don't barter, then?" At least we can agree on something.
"No. They're just duel monster cards. They have no use outside an arena and no monetary value except at pawn shops and with select duelists. You can hardly use them to purchase necessities. Bartering with cards is impractical."
Jaden pouted. "Not exactly the reasoning I was hoping for, but I can work with this!" He moved to crouch next to Yusei's tool box, careful to stay out of the way, but still close enough to watch him as he worked.
"If you don't barter, and you don't race, what do you do for fun out here?"
Yusei put down his wrench, reaching for a different tool instead. Jaden nudged the intended tool closer to his searching fingers. He snickered softly to himself as Yusei refused to take his eyes off his bike. The other teen seemed completely oblivious to everything but his bike.
Jaden continued to surreptitiously hand him the other tools while he waited for an answer. Yusei's tinkering was intriguing enough, and he could be patient…for a while.
From what Crow had said, he assumed Yusei spent a lot of time upgrading and 'tuning' his bike. Jaden could see why. Yusei's bike was, for lack of a better word, beautiful.
She was a stunning cherry red, detailing done in a clear silver that practically shone. Jaden felt a pang at the thought of all the dirt and sand they had already made her go through. She was a classic and deserved only the best. Jaden watched Yusei's steady and methodical movements, taking his time to make sure all was as it should be.
Jaden nodded approvingly at Yusei's treatment of her. They were obviously of the same mind when it came to the motorcycle.
Set between the handlebars was a screen that Jaden had completely forgotten about. He remembered the first time they had 'run into each other', thinking that Yusei was trying to deploy oil slick or something.
It must be for real time updates, gps, a communicator, and whatnot.
Jaden peered at the tailpipes suspiciously. If Yusei could fit an onboard computer, then who's to say there wasn't room for oil slick? Maybe a few banana peels at the very least. He occupied himself with what other tricks Yusei could be hiding in his two-wheeled beauty, but his patience could only take so much. There was adventure waiting to be had only feet away and Jaden was getting antsy.
"Yuseiiii!" Jaden whined. "Talk to meeeee! Let's go do something!" No response. "You're not gonna stay here the whole time, are you?" Yusei hummed in response.
Jaden huffed with frustration. He looked for something to give Yusei instead of his next intended tool, before deciding it wasn't worth it. Beauty didn't deserve to suffer just because Jaden was bored. He was still listlessly helping Yusei when Mai came back.
"Whew! I always forget how dry it is out here. Those boys better come back with something good this time."
Jaden jumped up in a flash and threw himself at the blonde's feet. "Mai! Save me!"
"Aaw. Sick of tall, dark, and brooding already?" Mai cooed.
"Not exactly. Just bored outta my skull. Please, please, tell me I can go anywhere but here!" Jaden begged. He really did like helping Yusei with Beauty, but not when there was so much else to explore.
Mai hummed, pretending to think. "Welll, I suppose I could help you out. But we have to get Yusei's permission first." Jaden's heart sank. Yusei was lost to the world, there was no way they were going to get permission.
"Don't worry, kid." Mai patted Jaden's check. "Watch and learn." Mai swept past him to drape herself over Yusei. She was bent nearly double, her big…hair right up against Yusei. Jaden averted his eyes with a blush.
"Yusei~. Would you mind terribly if I took the kid out for a walk? It won't take a minute."
Jaden snorted, quickly covering it with a cough at the affronted look on Mai's face.
"Hmph. Well, it worked, didn't it? Do you wanna come with me or not?"
"Come on then. You can be my escort." Mai smiled, offering her arm to Jaden who was still kneeling in the sand.
"Of course, m'lady!" He took her arm with a little flourish.
Mai's eyes glittered with delight. "Oh, you'll do splendidly." She purred. "Now, we just need to collect my baggage and we can be on our way."
Jaden looked around at the mostly empty tent but didn't see anything that looked like it would belong to the blonde.
"HEY! Freaky fish guy! Get your ass over here! We're leaving!" Mai shouted, making more than one person jump.
"I AM NOT A FREAKY FISH GUY!"
Jaden watched as a tall, bronzed, and shirtless man walked up to them, grumbling as he went.
"And would you stop shouting, you harpy? I swear, yer gonna make me go deaf one of these days."
Jaden recognized the man's golden tattoo marking him as part of Team Satisfaction. His bush of dark hair sticking up from his skull was also familiar from that morning, but that was it. There wasn't much for Jaden to recognize, considering he could almost swear that there hadn't been a shirtless guy riding with them before.
Which meant he had waited until they were underneath the unforgiving desert sun to take off his shirt. The jury was still out on 'freaky', but weird was definitely applicable.
"Oh, stop complaining." Mai looped her free arm through the 'freaky fish guy's' and started pulling them deeper into the sea of tents.
"Young Jaden here has gallantly volunteered to escort me for today's race."
"Hey! I thought I was escorting you!" The guy pouted.
"Relax. Having two young men all to myself is better than one." Mai pecked the guy on the cheek, turning his face a dusky red under his tan. "So stop complaining and let's go find some fun!"
Mai was a veritable whirlwind of motion. One minute she was fawning over jewelry, the next she was arguing over the quality of one engine part or another. The 'bazaar' was a giant collection of gearheads in steel Nirvana.
At some point, Mai snagged their little group some grilled meat on a stick for lunch and scared them up a bit of shade while they caught their breath.
Jaden learned that 'freaky fish guy' was actually called Mako, and that he was, in fact, neither freaky nor a fish.
"I just like swimming. Is that a crime? Geez!"
He'd also learned that the majority of the stalls were run by one gang or another but not any of the 'real crews'. Turned out there were mobs in Neo Domino that did not revolve around motorcycles. They came out to the races to sell their 'acquired' wares and flex their 'political muscles'. Mai explained that the mobs and small-time gangs were dangerous in their own right, but under no circumstances was he to associate with any of the other crews.
Team Satisfaction, along with the other major crews, were the middle men between the mobs, the city, and any other 'customers'. Each crew had their own way of doing things and were constantly trying to outdo their competition.
"No deal goes down in Neo without one of the crews being involved. That's why we have the races. Let's the boys strut around a bit; show those dirty fat cats who's the best in town."
Jaden licked his hands clean of the last of his meat stick, turning the new information over.
"Sooo…it's like a job fair?"
Mako threw his head back in laughter. "I like this kid! Nothing gets past you, huh?" Mako ruffled Jaden's hair.
"Yeah, it's like a job fair, horse racing, and high stakes poker all rolled into one." Mako pushed Jaden's head down to whisper in his ear.
"Don't let their smiles fool you, kid. These guys ain't nothing but sharks." Jaden nodded seriously. Mai merely rolled her eyes at their antics.
"Look! Here comes a bunch of them now!" Mako whisper shouted, pointing dramatically across the crowd.
There was a group of men moving through the crowd, a small no man's land of their own moving with them. They all looked just like Jaden expected of mob bosses. Big, intimidating, and with an air of promised pain if you got on their bad side. More than a few were wearing tailored suits.
They must be dying in this heat. They sure do look the part though.
Near the back of the group there were three figures in purple robes. Jaden felt a jolt go down his spine when he spotted them.
"Uuh, who are those guys?" Jaden asked as cautiously as he could.
"Huh, haven't seen those guys before. Must be new."
Mai looked over and frowned. She tracked the figures as they went by. "You stay away from those men. They can only spell trouble for you boys."
You don't know the half of it.
If the robed men were this involved with the criminal underground, Jaden was even more convinced that he was on the right track.
"Come on, boys. It's about time we went to the board. Don't want to miss the big event."
Mako and Jaden jumped up with simultaneous shouts. "Yeah! Finally! Let's go!"
Jaden would worry about the robed men later. They could wait until after the race.
Not gonna lie, this one could have been put out earlier. Gonna blame that on a desperately needed vacation and lack of computer on said vacation. There's at least another chapter and a half written after this one which I'll try to get out as soon as inspirationally possible. But! I got Yusei and Jaden to hang out for longer finally! Gee I hope people are still reading this….