"I'm back!" Crow walked straight up to Yusei and plucked the wrench out of his hands. Yusei blinked at his sudden lack of wrench before coming back to himself. Crow smirked as he watched Yusei slowly stand and stretch his legs. He had no doubt the other had been crouched over his bike since the Team had left.
"You figure out what's wrong with her?" Crow tossed the wrench around a bit, only glancing perfunctionally at the vehicle in question.
Yusei took his time before answering, carefully wiping his hands of grease and sweat. "There are a few components missing from the more 'unnecessary' systems. It would have taken me longer to notice if whoever took them hadn't also affected the safety protocols as well."
"You think it was one of us? Maybe the kids messin' around where they shouldn't?" Crow frowned.
"No. It happened in the city. It could have been anyone."
"Tch. Sure. Anyone with a detailed knowledge of motorcycles. Of our custom systems." Crow tossed the wrench down with a heavy thump. Yusei didn't comment, which was just as much an agreement as anything.
"Well, it's just about time for the race to start. Maybe Kiryu has managed to scare up some intel on our saboteur. Although I've got some ideas of my own."
Yusei threw a tarp over his ride and turned to Crow who was looking around the otherwise empty tent.
"By the way, where's Jaden?" Yusei's wide eyes and clenched fists were Crow's only hints that Yusei had completely forgotten about their new recruit.
Crow sighed. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. He turned Yusei around by the shoulders and pushed him out of the tent. "C'mon, let's go clean up your mess before he makes a bigger one."
"You think if I stare at it long enough it'll start making sense?"
The three of them had made their way to the farthest side of the gathering. The Wall and most of the bazaar were behind them. In front, nearly ten feet tall and looking like it had been there long before the bazaar was set up, was the 'board'.
The Board was literally a giant wooden sign. About two-thirds of it was covered in symbols. From where they were standing, Jaden couldn't make out any writing to explain what it was even for. But he could make out some metal spikes and burn marks, so he guessed that meant…something…
"I think if you stand there long enough you'll get sun stroke." Mako ruffled Jaden's head roughly. It almost turned into a wrestling session before Mai suddenly thrust a couple of water bottles in their faces.
"Now pay attention, sugar. The Board is like a scoreboard of sorts. After each race, the winner gets to add their team's mark to the board. The more marks, the higher your street cred."
Jaden looked at the board again and tried to count up who was in the lead. At most, there seemed to be only three separate marks, but he had no idea which one was theirs.
"Of course, the more marks you have, the bigger the target on your back."
"So we don't want marks on the Board? Why even race?"
"Because, kid." Mako pointed at Jaden, making his eye cross. "The higher your street cred, the more people come to you with jobs. And the more jobs you pull, the more money you get. Got it?"
"Got it. Nothing is simple in the criminal underworld." Mako huffed but Jaden only stuck out his tongue.
Mako and Jaden stood at attention, each with their own 'good student' face on.
"Each crew has their own special mark. The Bandits use stars as their motif. Those barbaric neanderthals even go so far as to brand all their members with it; like cattle."
Jaden looked to a group of people standing near the board. They were drinking and carousing at a level that was extreme even for the crowd they were currently surrounded by. Each one had at least one star shape branded somewhere clearly visible. Jaden noticed one person with a brand on their cheek and winced.
"So our mark is the color yellow?" Jaden held up his handkerchiefed wrist.
"Close, but not quite, sugar." Mai tapped her cheek with a wink. Mako was grinning, chest puffed out and smug. The sun glinted off the tattoo on his chest, sparking memories of Crow and Yusei's similarly shiny tattoos.
"I knew it! I knew there was something weird about those tattoos!"
"Hmm, yes, well, all full members of Team Satisfaction get a special gold inlay tattoo."
"We know a guy." Mako whispered conspiratorially.
"Where's yours, Mai?"
"Now, Jaden, a lady doesn't kiss and tell." Mai pinched Jaden's cheek. Jaden pushed her off with a chuckle and blush.
"Okay, so. Team Satisfaction, that's us, have tricked out gold tattoos and use…?"
"Giant metal spikes!" Mako interjected with a broad grin.
"And use giant metal spikes on the Board. Then there's the 'Bandits' who like stars and fire which they use on people and the Board." Jaden held up two fingers, counting out the crews on his hand.
"That still leaves the third crew, right? Unless there's more than three?"
"Sometimes we have a solo act come out and race, but you're right. The main three crews are The Bandits, Team Satisfaction, and Orichalcos." Mai's voice took on a dangerous edge at the mention of the final crew.
"No love lost with those guys, huh?"
"You could say that. There's no honor among thieves, and no one around here is anything close to a saint, but those guys! They're soulless demons!" Mai practically growled. She looked like she was on the verge of setting something on fire.
Somehow, I think a small fire would be the least she'd do if she ever really got going.
"Oookay…? And their mark is?"
Mako answered for Mai who looked too tense for words. He tapped his forehead. "If you catch 'em under a UV, you'll see it. On the Board they use a creepy pentagram type symbol. Got a huge stamp and use red 'paint'."
Jaden felt a chill run down his spine despite the scorching sun. It had risen to directly overhead, obliterating any natural shade, waves of heat rising from the ground to distort anything not directly in reach. Maybe within the comfort of his own room, Jaden would think back on today and call himself silly, but in that moment, he believed the worst.
Mai and Mako, Crow and Yusei, the Team, their whole world was completely different from everything he thought he knew.
Mai took a couple of deep breathes until she had calmed down some. "Mako and I need to go meet up with Kiryu, see what the set-up is today. You go run back to the tent and get Yusei. Keep your head down and be quick."
Jaden swallowed through his suddenly dry throat. "Right. See you guys in a bit."
He ran full tilt through the bazaar, dodging and weaving through the crowd as he went. A few people shouted angrily at him, but none actually tried to stop him. With every face he passed he tried to identify which group they belonged to.
Anyone who noticed his handkerchief quickly averted their eyes or nodded in acknowledgement. Those would be the regular thugs and foot soldiers for the street gangs and mobs. A few shouted unsavory remarks at him and a few attempting to trip him sported star brands. Some didn't have brands, only starred apparel like Jaden's gold. They must be new recruits as well. Sure are a lot of 'em.
But what really had Jaden on edge was the fact that he couldn't tell who was a part of Orichalcos. Anyone without a brand or golden tattoo was a potential member. Jaden had to give them reluctant points for being so clever; hiding in plain sight. Ready to strike at any moment, from anywhere…
Worried about a sneak attack from behind, Jaden wasn't prepared for a frontal assault. Pain came at his face out of nowhere, laying Jaden out flat in the sand.
Oooouch. Maybe I should have watched where I was going.
"Hey! Watch where you're going!"
"Did I say that out loud?" Jaden blinked up at the sky, gently prodding his face for bruises.
"What did you say to me, punk?!"
"Nothing. I think. Still trying to figure out which way is up."
Either I was going faster than I thought, or the heat is really starting to get to me.
"You better not be talkin' back to me, you little shit."
Whatever mountain Jaden had run into hauled him up by the sweatshirt, throwing up and down into disarray again. Jaden was then face-to-face with the most biker thug-looking biker to ever thug. The man had a leather vest, of all things, and tattoos done in the 'classic' style of pin-up girls and fiery skulls. Then there was the overall aura of 'tough guy' that came with a three-day scruff and a two-week lack of showers. The man was also sporting sunglasses, a scowl, and a star brand on his neck.
"I think you owe me an apology before I take it outta yer ass."
"Pfft! Wait. What? Are being serious right now?" Jaden laughed in the man's face. "Dude, phrasing."
The man took a second to catch up with what was so funny. When he did he only got angrier. He fisted Jaden's hoodie tighter, bringing the teen closer to his face and further from the ground.
"You ain't got no idea who you're messing with, do ya, punk?"
Jaden tried to use the man's grip on him to lever himself up a bit. His throat was still sore from the last time and he really didn't need a round two.
"I think we skipped over the introduction part. You could say that nobody knows who we're messing with." If Jaden could see through sunglasses, he'd say that the man's eyes narrowed at him with suspicion. Since x-ray vision wasn't one of his powers, Jaden could only say the man just looked confused.
"Who's your big brother?"
"I'm…an only child?" The man shook him harshly, jarring Jaden's brain again.
"No, dipshit! Your boss, your handler, the guy in charge of your skinny ass!" The man shook him again, harder. Jaden could almost feel his teeth rattle with the force. It took more effort than he expected to push the dizziness away. He wasn't sure when his eyes had closed, but when Jaden opened them again, spots were dancing everywhere he looked.
"You know, you're not a very nice guy. And my daddy told me not to talk to strangers, so I think we're gonna have to cut our little talk short." Jaden felt the man tense, probably about to throttle him, and Jaden took his chance.
Jaden dug his fingers into the inside of the man's wrists. The combined pressure and pain forced him to lose his grip on Jaden's hoodie. Jaden didn't let go yet though, only adjusted his grip so he didn't twist his own arms when he walk-kicked his was up the man's torso. One foot planted in his stomach, the other kicking him square in the jaw had Jaden in a neat backflip to land just out of reach. It was a near perfect maneuver, only the residual dizziness causing him to stumble.
"As much fun as this was, I've got places to be, so—"
"You're gonna pay for that you little shit!"
Jaden had managed to knock off the man's sunglasses, leaving no doubt that he was royally pissed off. The man was rubbing at his chin and Jaden found himself hoping it would leave an ugly bruise.
"Jaden, what the hell?! I thought I told you to stay out of trouble!" Jaden turned to find Crow, followed by an angry looking Yusei, making their way through the audience Jaden's plight had drawn.
"I guess it was too much to hope I'd get out of this without you noticing." Jaden relaxed his stance, scratching his cheek with embarrassment.
"How many times does this make it that I've saved your butt now?" Crow asked, smirking. Crow and Yusei stood on either side of the brunette. Jaden found he liked having them as backup, seeing as he was only just noticing how many more Bandits were standing around.
"This shit yours?" The man gestured at Jaden. He was still angry but had reigned in his temper enough to pretend to be 'civil' with Crow and Yusei. He'd obviously noticed their golden tattoos and was attempting to act with caution.
"Yeah. What about him?" Crow draped an arm around Jaden's shoulders, eyes sharp as he eyed the Bandit.
"That…recruit of yours assaulted me. Just mindin' my own business when he comes and tackles me outta nowhere."
Jaden snorted. Crow shot him his own sharp-eyed glare in warning.
"I demand compensation for the emotional strain he's put me through." The Bandit crossed his arms over his chest, smirking in triumph. "I demand satisfaction."
Jaden rolled his eyes. "He just thinks he's so clever, doesn't he?" Jaden muttered. Next to him, Crow grimaced but nodded.
"Let's have ourselves a little wager. It is race day, after all." The Bandit spread his hands to encompass their surroundings. He was talking to the crowd now; needless to say, he was sparking many excited whispers. "Me and the kid. He wins, we'll forget this ever happened. I can be a reasonable guy." He affected a humble tone, winking at a woman nearby for good measure. "But if I win, you let me take him off your hands. Kid like him needs someone to teach him proper manners." When he smiled this time, there was too much malice for his assumed 'kind' persona.
"I'll race you." Yusei stepped forward. Jaden remembered when Yusei had done the same against Kiryu earlier that week. He wondered if this was going to turn into a habit.
The Bandit frowned. "I challenged the kid."
"The kid is a new recruit. He doesn't have a ride yet. He doesn't even know how to ride." Crow interrupted.
"Ha! You recruited a kid who doesn't even know that much?! He ain't a kid, he's a freaking baby!" The Bandit laughed, practically in their faces.
"Then you wouldn't mind if I took his place. Even the odds, make it more interesting for all of us." Yusei continued undeterred.
"Heh, whatever. You even the odds and I'll up the stakes. You win, and the baby can have one of our bikes. We'll be sure to leave the training wheels on." Their audience laughed again at Jaden's expense.
"This feels more like school bullying than the actual school bullying did." Jaden muttered.
"I win, and we get him and your bike."
"What?! No! I'll-!" Crow smacked Jaden upside the head to shut him up.
Jaden rubbed the back of his abused head, gaping at Yusei. He didn't know how he felt about the other's interference. It was true he had no way of racing on his own, but for Yusei to risk his own bike…
The Bandits had already left before Jaden had a chance to renegotiate.
"Great. Just great. The hits just keep coming." Crow punched Jaden in the arm, just light enough not to bruise. "Thanks for making my life more interesting, Jaden."
"My pleasure…I think."
Crow chuckled, seemingly at a loss for words. "Come on, then. Time for a crash course in driving."
"Were you watching the same challenge that I was? I thought Yusei was racing?"
The crowd had started to disperse now that the show was over. Crow and Yusei wasted no time in doing the same. Jaden rushed to catch up, looking between them in confusion.
"He challenged you. I can only help." Yusei answered. Jaden turned to Crow when it was clear no further answer was coming from his 'sponsor'.
"Which means," Crow looked reprovingly at Yusei, "that you and Yusei will be riding tandem again. Just like this morning, only this time you'll be driving. Try not to make my life too interesting, alright?"
Jaden's answering grin was too large to inspire any confidence. "No promises, man. No
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Just our luck you had to start shit with Bandit Keith of all people."
"I don't really care who he is. There's no way he can beat me and Beauty!" Jaden threw an arm around Yusei's shoulders. The height difference made it a bit awkward, but Yusei didn't shrug him off so Jaden just threw the other around Crow so he wouldn't feel left out.
"You do realize that if you do lose, you're officially a part of The Bandits; brand and all."
Jaden ignored Crow's worrying in favor of Yusei. "Uh, yeah. That's what I've been calling your bike in my head." Jaden confessed. "I can stop if you like?"
"…no. That's fine. Do whatever you want." Jaden smiled at Yusei, glad to have approval for the nickname.
"Thanks, man. Also, you should probably put on more sunscreen. Your face is turning red." Jaden peered at Yusei's face with concern.
"Yes. I'll do that…" Yusei picked up the pace, walking out from under Jaden's arm.
Jaden smiled after him. "I think I'm starting to grow on him."
Crow snorted. "Yeah. Like a fungus." Jaden shouted in mock outrage, leading to the two of them chasing each other as they ran to meet up with the rest of the Team.
One quick explanation to Mai and Mako later, and they were all on the same page. Yusei had pulled Kiryu away to explain the situation, leaving Jaden in the hands of both a worrying Crow and an anxious Mai. Mako was taking everything in stride, trying to get the rest of the Team to place bets.
"Would you knock it off! You're making me nervous!" Mai yelled, almost directly in Mako's ear.
"Gah! Pipe down ya harpy! It's just a bit of harmless fun. We gotta make money somehow!" Mako grimaced, rubbing his ringing ear. "Besides, at these odds our winnings will be in the deep end!" Mako held up a wad of money and paper slips as proof.
"Oh yeah?" Mai asked slowly. The idea of making money was more pleasing than the thought of the race itself.
"Yeah! I got 50-1 on Jaden to win." Mako said with a glint in his eye.
Mai pulled her own wad of cash from her big...hair. "That high, huh? I'll take that bet. Here, 100 on Jaden to win. You better be good for it, fish boy."
Mako had already known that Mai was a gambling woman at heart; it didn't matter what the odds were, Mai was going to take them anyway. He took a memo on another slip of paper, handing it to Mai before stuffing the lot into his headband. "Pleasure doing business with you!"
Mai smirked as she put the rest of her money away. "Trust me, darling, the pleasure will be all mine."
Mai can store stuff in her shirt. Mako has his headband. I wonder if Crow can hide stuff in all that hair of his…
Crow eyed Jaden's staring with concern. "You alright in there, Jaden?"
"Y-yeah! Uh—just wondering how good my odds were. Sounds like they're pretty high!" Jaden nudged Crow with a wink. "Trust me, you guys'll be raking in the dough after this."
"Hmm, not exactly, sugar. The odds are that high because we expect you to lose." Jaden huffed with indignation.
"Well! See if I do anything nice for you guys again!"
"There's nothing nice about it. You're not doing us a favor, Jaden. We're keeping you from getting stabbed in the back." Crow's forehead was still wrinkled in concern, but that didn't seem to be the reason why he was so tense. He barely acknowledged Mako or Mai when they left to collect 'more suckers for the pot'.
They were all back at the Board, only now there were motorcycles of all shapes and sizes lined up beside it. As they waited, the crowd slowly retreated, leaving a clear definition between the crews and the rest of the population. Now that he was left with only a clearly brooding Crow, Jaden had the chance to observe the people around him.
Jaden looked around to see Bandit Keith and the rest of his crew on their left. They were just as loud and obnoxious as before, only now Bandit Keith was reclining against his bike. He laughed along at his crew's roughhousing, but when he noticed Jaden watching, Bandit Keith gave him a little wave and a smile. Jaden felt at once belittled and dismissed in under a second.
"That guy doesn't really seem the type for stabbing. More of a 'brute force' kind of fella."
"You're not wrong, but that's not what I'm worried about." Crow took a deep breath, then turned to Jaden. They stood face to face, making direct eye contact and forcing Jaden to pay attention to whatever Crow was about to say. Jaden had only seen Crow this serious before when it came to protecting the twins.
"Bandit Keith uses these races, debts, whatever he can, to get as many people in his crew as possible. He treats them like garbage because they're expendable." Crow's voice was low but filled with the intensity born of fury. "He does whatever he wants to them because there's always another punching bag waiting, but no one can ever leave.
"That brand is a sign that only the Bandits can harm them, that they belong to Bandit Keith. And he doesn't like losing what's 'his'." Crow spat out his words with disgust. "If you lose, then we can't protect you anymore. Nobody can."
Jaden opened his mouth to object but Crow quickly cut him off.
"And you can't just 'decide to quit'. The minute you do, we'll find your broken body on our doorstep."
Jaden gulped at the thought. "I believe you. Can't exactly say I'm planning to lose, but thanks for the heads up." Jaden gripped Crow's shoulder tightly. There was a dark worry in his friend's eyes, like he knew things were going to end badly and was powerless to stop it. "But I would feel much better about it if you believed in me too."
Crow smiled, but it was strained. Obviously still worried about the race, Crow turned away to glower anxiously again.
Dang. I thought that was a perfect inspirational line. Better work on that. He wasn't going to get any better results if he tried again, so Jaden went right back to scoping out the competition.
Now that they were all gathered together, it was easier to pick out who was a part of Orichalcos. They all had a ton of useless belts integrated into their clothing.
Sure, they were wearing leather like everyone else, but they were wearing extra leather. Leather boots, leather pants, leather jackets. Jaden was too far away to tell, but they all could have been wearing leather shirts as well. Then there were the leather belts on top of that.
Jaden started counting the number of Orichalcos members, wondering how many cows it took to clothe them all.
"I take it Orichalcos would force me to wear nothing but leather? I think I'd rather wear all purple."
"What?" Crow was startled out of his brooding by Jaden's sudden comment.
"The Bandits are covered in stars, which isn't too bad, but I like a good circle in my wardrobe now and then. Maybe stripes." Jaden put his hands behind his head, staring up at nothing. He certainly wasn't watching Crow for a reaction.
"Mai and Marik wear mostly purple all the time. But that could be because it goes so well with their blonde hair and purple eyes. By the way, are those two related?"
"No…" Crow eyed Jaden carefully.
"Then again, you wear a lot of orange. Do you do that to match your hair color or do you just like orange? Yusei has dark hair but his jacket is blue like his eyes too." Jaden kept rambling even as Crow's eyes grew wider and wider.
"Really, all of Team Satisfaction is very well self-color-coordinated. Mako's got that blue headband to match the blue eyes. I bet he wears a lot of blue, too. You know, when he wears clothes." Jaden took a breath to wink at Crow before staring at nothing again.
"I really like my hoodie. All the warmth and swag of a hoodie, but no annoying sleeves to get in the way. But, does that mean I need to dye my hair? Maybe I can just start wearing red contacts. That would be pretty intimidating. What do you think, Crow? Should I dye my hair or wear contacts?" Jaden smiled fully at Crow, smug when the other could do nothing but stare. Crow was completely blindsided by Jaden's sudden stop.
When his brain finally caught up, Crow chuckled. "You'd look ridiculous as a redhead."
Jaden smiled brighter. The worry was starting to fade from his friend's eyes; still there, but not all consuming anymore. "Really? I think I could pull it off."
"No way. You'd be a giant, ridiculous tomato. Only true badasses can pull off being ginger." Crow tousled Jaden's hair, pushing him down a bit and wrecking his 'innocent' pose. Jaden moved with the noogie to shove at Crow's face in retaliation.
"Aha! That why y'don't talk t' me anymore? Because I'm not ginger?"
Too distracted by Jaden's antics, they didn't notice when one of the leather-decked bikers swaggered over.
Crow was immediately tense again. No, not tense, stiff with the effort of restraining himself. "I don't 'talk' to you cuz you're not enough of a person to qualify for human speech."
Jaden winced. "Oh, ouch!"
The newcomer clutched at his chest like he'd been struck. "You wound me, Crow! Straight to the heart, y'did." The Orichalcos biker stumbled for added effect. He sent a roguish wink at Crow, only earning himself a heated glare in response.
"Why don't you go and take a flyin' leap, Valon?" Crow crossed his arms across his chest, knuckles white from clenching his hands so tightly.
"As you wish, darlin'. What'll I get in return?" Valon walked up to Crow, still smirking and only just out of the shorter teen's reach.
Crow coiled impossibly tighter, growling at the other biker. "Fuckin' nothing you sonuva-!"
"Such colorful language, and from such a pretty lil' package. What would the kiddies say if they heard ya talkin' like that?"
Crow was practically seething. Jaden wasn't sure if he was imagining the steam coming out of his ears or not. Red hair or red eyes, Crow's definitely got a red face. Jaden stepped up to Crow's side, mirroring the angry bird's stance and lightly brushing against his shoulders. If there was going to be a fight, Jaden wasn't going to stand by and watch. Crow relaxed marginally at Jaden's show of solidarity.
Valon narrowed his eyes at Jaden. He quickly covered his displeasure with a rakish smirk, leaning slightly out of Crow's space to take in the other brunette.
"You must by the new kid. Don't say I envy ya, but I gotta thank ya for givin' us a chance at a fair shake."
"Yeah? And how's that?" Jaden tried to match Valon's conversational tone but kept a wary eye on him nevertheless.
"Didn't'cha hear? You guys were supposed t' be racing us t'day. That paranoid ace of yours got everybody convinced that we've been takin' your gear."
"Come off it! You and the rest of the dumbasses over there wouldn't know a spark plug from a spatula!" Crow was barely keeping a hold of his temper and Jaden was enjoying every second of it. It was a good thing the twins weren't at the race.
For his part, Valon looked like he was trying to figure out whether he was insulted or impressed at the insult, when another Orichalcos member walked up.
"As if we would ever stoop to stealing your second-hand parts." The new Orichalcos biker had the fashion sense of Marik and Kiryu combined-long leather coat and exposed midsection-that Jaden was slightly surprised by his posh accent.
"Ha! Is that why you've been hanging around our garage for the past month? Or why you've been tailing me all week?"
"Nah. I just like the view." Valon winked again and Crow snapped.
"I am gonna kick your motherfucking-!" Crow didn't finish his threat before lunging for Valon's throat. He managed to land a single punch before Jaden could haul him back.
"Ooh, I like 'em fiery." Valon eyed Crow in a way that made Jaden nervous.
"Dumbass." The other Orichalcos biker muttered, rolling his eyes.
"Bastard." Valon shot back with a grin.
Crow was still struggling, trying to get at the 'smug dick!', and yet only Jaden seemed overly concerned by the situation.
"Does this always happen with you two?" Jaden asked, slightly out of breath. Crow had a lot of anger to fuel his thrashing while Jaden's strength was starting to fail.
"Honey, you have no idea." Jaden sighed with relief when Mako and Marik took the redhead off his hands. Mai had reappeared with the cavalry just in time.
"Those two have always been trying to outdo the other. It was a fairly standard rivalry until Valon lost his mind. There'd have to be something wrong with your head if you were chasing that level of hate." Mai gestured at Crow, still struggling to get in another hit. "Right, Allister?"
"You're all crazy." Allister glared back at Mai's smirk. "Kiryu is insane. Following him is the fastest way to get yourself arrested. Or better yet, killed."
Crow's outburst and slow gathering of Orichalcos and Team Satisfaction had gained the attention of the rest of the assembly. Jaden was glad not to be the exact center of attention while still able to have front row seats. Allister turned his gaze to settle on Jaden.
Aaand here we go again. At least I'm making a big debut if not a good one.
"You should be thanking the kid for the change today as well. Raphael is tired of suffering your unfounded claims against us."
"You can take that bullshit and shove it up your ass!" Marik pushed his way into their conversation to confront Allister. Something had shifted in Marik's stance that sent Jaden back to their fight. Back to the alley. Marik swinging wildly with bright blood and a sharp smile on his face.
"This can't be good…"
"We're missing parts, whole motorcycles, people! And each time it's been your filthy paws all over it!" Marik grabbed Allister by the neck, yelling in his face.
Allister gripped Marik's arm harshly but didn't move or try to break his hold. "Let go of me! Or it's the last-!"
"You wanna fight!? I'll give you a fucking fight, bastard!"
The gangsters watching on were all shouting at the top of their lungs, egging them on. They didn't care if there was a race or a brawl; now they wanted blood. Jaden looked around for something to distract the bikers.
The crowd was screaming, no help there. He couldn't appeal to the other members of Orichalcos. Mako was busy with Crow, and Mai was watching on with a grimace.
"Can't you stop them? Before they do something stupid?" Jaden looked out to where the city was, hazy in the desert heat. He couldn't make out anything and could only hope that the same went for them. They were on the opposite side from the Duel Monster Center, but there was still a chance that someone was also on patrol on their side, that someone would see their giant gathering and send Security out to get them. It hadn't been a big deal earlier, but now the thought only added to Jaden's anxiety.
"Unfortunately, no. They both outrank me."
Jaden ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "Augh! This is way too confusing. I'm gonna need a map, a chart, or something to keep up with all this!"
These connections, history, power struggles, whatever, are getting dangerously close to soap opera levels.
Marik was still holding Allister by the neck. In the short time Jaden had been distracted, Allister had slowly started turning purple. Valon was truly pissed off as well, but even he stayed out of it.
Jaden could only imagine the sadistic smile Marik was treating the Orichalcos members to.
Jaden could feel the tension shift in the Team behind him. He kept an eye on the three before him and waited for the situation to change instead. If things were to deteriorate to an actual fight, he wanted to be ready for it.
If Marik kept it up, or if Valon decided to intervene, he knew both crews would join in. Jaden didn't know what their 'rules' said about brawls but there was a good chance the Bandits would capitalize on the chaos, too. Then there were the rest of the gangsters already whipped up to a frenzy…
I've already had one riot this week and I don't need a repeat.
Jaden was startled by a sudden familiar hand on his shoulder. "Hey, Yusei. Glad you could make it." Kiryu shoved Jaden into his sponsor, making a beeline for Marik.
"Marik, stand down. This isn't how we settle our problems." Kiryu stood next to the blonde but made no move to physically stop him. "Not yet, anyways."
Allister was suddenly coughing and cursing, a sign that Marik was calming down. But still Marik held on, not backing down completely.
"We will settle this. Maybe not today, but we will get satisfaction for what they've done."
Marik finally released Allister who was quick to step back and join the safety of his gathered crew.
"You-! You freak!"
"Allister. Is that any way to talk to our friends? Mind your tongue." A seriously buff dude had joined the group. With the way Allister and Valon quickly muttered their apologies, Jaden thought it a safe bet he was their leader.
Bandit Keith, also finally deciding to join the party, swaggered over to the other crew leaders. Kiryu dismissed Marik with a flick of the hand leaving the three crew leaders standing together, surrounded by screaming gangsters and backed by their own teams.
"We're all looking forward to your race today, Keith." The man said, acknowledging the Bandit leader.
Man, 'Keith' just sounds wrong without the 'Bandit'.
"Isn't that right, everyone?!" The man abruptly turned to the frenzied mob with a wave, earning an almighty roar of approval. The buff dude held it for a long minute before making a sweeping gesture for silence. And got it.
"…holy shit." Jaden gaped at the Orichalcos leader with awe and a little trepidation at the power he wielded. "Now that's what I call respect." The hand on Jaden's shoulder clenched tighter. Jaden looked over at Yusei with a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Yusei. I'm not going anywhere. There are other things more important than 'respect'." Yusei's grip relaxed.
"Thanks for the glowing approval, Raph. Not that I need it." Bandit Keith sneered. The man nodded, smoothly accepting Bandit Keith's boast and brushing it off at once.
"But there's no reason we can't settle things between us as well." The man turned to the shortest crew leader.
Seeing the two rival crew leaders next to Kiryu, both obviously older and more experienced, Jaden was struck by how young they all were. Everyone he'd met and seen in Team Satisfaction was a teenager, or not too far from it. Wandering through the bazaar, Jaden hadn't seen many people below their late twenties either.
How did a bunch of teenagers become one of the most powerful biker gangs in the city?! Pft! And they call me 'kid'.
"What did you have in mind?" Kiryu asked.
And Kiryu hasn't even broken a sweat! Man, I wanna see how he'd react to a reprimand from Divine.
"Why don't we have our race anyway? Bandit Keith versus Jaden and Yusei, you and I as well."
"Nothing fancy. First to the green checkpoint and back, wins. The bosses already approved it. It has been a while since the three of us have raced together."
Kiryu hesitated and Jaden could feel everyone holding their breaths in antici—
And the crowd went wild. Absolutely ape shit. Jaden winced, desperately covering his ears to no avail. There was rushing and more shouting all around him as the crews dispersed to their bikes. Jaden gratefully followed Yusei's guiding hand, keeping his own over his poor ears. When the cheering had begun to die down a bit it was quickly replaced by the roar of engines.
"Racing Bandit Keith, I get. He's pissy and I'm an easy target. Racing Orichalcos, I get. They stole our stuff and we want it back." Jaden was thinking out loud while Yusei made himself busy with some last minute adjustments to Beauty.
"What I don't get is why the 'bosses' have to approve it. I thought this was a 'biker gang' thing."
Yusei grunted but continued with whatever it was he was doing.
"At least you were listening this time." Crow stood next to Jaden, both watching Yusei while they waited.
"Come to your senses finally?" Jaden smirked at the ruffled bird.
"Tch. Shut up and pay attention. It's a give and take. The bosses decide who gets the jobs, so they can request or veto certain match-ups. If we tick them off, they can decide not to give us any at all. By the time they'd've decided we've learned our lesson, we'd have no choice but to take whatever they gave us and thank them for it."
"Of course, that doesn't mean we can't 'delay' the other crews' deliveries if a certain gang has it out for us." Marik seemed back to his old mischievous and mostly harmless self. "And even if we do have to race someone we know we can't beat, it's not exactly like there're any rules." Marik winked. "If the big dudes didn't give us the okay, we'd be runnin' each other into the dirt all the time. Then nobody gets paid."
"So watch your back out there."
"No problem, Crow. That's what I have Yusei for! Ouch!" Crow had slapped Jaden upside the head again.
"Yusei'll have his hands full making sure you guys don't crash."
"So little faith. Why'd you even agree to let me join the Team?"
"I didn't think you'd get in this much trouble this quickly." Crow sighed.
"Well, it was gonna happen sooner or later. How often do you guys have these races?"
"About once a month or so. Just my luck you joined the day before." Crow muttered.
"Only 'official' races." Marik pointed out. "We all come out here all the time to plant traps on the courses. So look out for those!" Marik was smirking again.
"You guys must have a lot of time on your hands. Jobs to pull for the 'bosses', rivalries to uphold, planting traps. It's a wonder you find the time to eat."
Marik put Jaden in a friendly headlock. "And don't you just love it? The danger, the rush, of it all." He breathed in deeply as if the smell of danger was literally in the air. "Aaah. It's beautiful." Marik gave his prisoner a noogie which had Jaden struggling to escape even as he laughed along with it. He did have to admit that Marik was on to something.
Jaden tapped out of Marik's light hold. He didn't want to ruin his good mood, but Yusei was finally done tweaking things.
"Here. I've added a two-way transmitter to your helmet. You won't need to shout, and I'll be able to guide you as well."
Jaden took the proffered helmet and put it on. He took Yusei's word for it even though he couldn't tell if anything had actually changed. He looked to Beauty, Yusei already astride her, with apprehension.
He really wanted to drive her. He really, really, really, wanted to drive. It was only now becoming clear that maybe it wouldn't be as easy as he'd thought it would be. But motorcycles couldn't be that different than regular bicycles. Two wheels, handlebars for steering. There was an engine to deal with and whatever the onboard computer was used for, but those were the only differences. Right?
"The controls on my right control acceleration and deceleration. The left are used for shifting gears." Yusei pointed as he went on. "This is the throttle, acceleration. This lever near my foot is the rear brake, the one by my hand is for the front brake."
"There are two brakes?" Jaden asked.
"Yes. This is the clutch, use it with the left pedal to shift gears. Remember, pull the clutch, ease the throttle, shift, then release." Yusei moved quickly through his instructions leaving Jaden sufficiently lost.
"Wait, release the shift? What do I do with the clutch?" Jaden eyed the motorcycle, feeling betrayed.
I thought we were cool, Beauty. Why do you have to make things so difficult?
"The key is to be as smooth as possible with every movement. Too quick on the brake and we'll go over the nose. Too slow on the throttle and we'll stall."
"We wouldn't want that…"
"You'll need to tuck down as far as you can to reduce drag but make sure you can still see where you're going."
"…right." Jaden tried to keep up without forgetting what Yusei had already told him. He didn't think Yusei would have time to review things mid-race.
"You don't just steer with the handles."
"You also steer with your rear wheel and you'll also need to lean into the curves."
That's it. I give up. We're going to lose, I'm gonna let Yusei and the others down, and this is going to be the worst day of my life.
"Of course, we're racing on sand, so you'll also need to—"
"Geez, Yusei. He's not gonna become a pro in five minutes. No matter how good you are." Crow guided Jaden to sit in front of Yusei. Marik looked on and snickered.
"Yusei, keep your feet on the pedals. Jaden, tuck your legs up as far you can. Not now! Stand up and steady the stupid thing 'til Yusei says."
Jaden stood awkwardly on his tip toes. He wasn't quite tall enough to reach when he was that far forward. Yusei was taking up the majority of the seat, as he still needed to reach the foot controls, which left Jaden to practically straddle the computer screen.
"Now's not the time for modesty, kid! You're gonna have to get right up in there if you wanna win!"
"Quiet from the peanut gallery." Crow snapped at Marik over his shoulder. "But he does have a point." This he said to the two on the bike. "Yusei, could you…?"
Yusei wrapped an arm around Jaden's waist and pulled. Now Jaden was almost sitting in Yusei's lap. He didn't dare to check how close they were now in case he accidently knocked their helmets together.
"That's more like it! This just might work!" Crow stood in front of the bike, directing Jaden's attention to where he was pointing. "Twist this to go fast. Pull that to stop. Pull this one when Yusei says and you should be good to go!"
Crow was running off to his own bike before Jaden could thank him.
Jaden looked down the line of motorcycles. Kiryu was on his black demon of a bike to his immediate left, Raphael on his other side. Jaden couldn't get a good look at Raphael's bike, but both racers held themselves with calm confidence. They were completely at odds with the manic crowd behind them.
To Jaden's right, Bandit Keith and his crew were revving their engines over and over again. Jaden didn't think all that nonsense was going to be any help, but it certainly lent itself to their aesthetic. The Bandits were a pack of ravenous dogs, straining at the leash to be set free.
He heard a small crackle come from the helmet and assumed Yusei had activated the radio. "You think this'll work?" Jaden asked.
"Failure is not an option."
Jaden gulped. "Hardly inspiring words." Jaden tried to rev the engine, to get used to the feeling, but wasn't comforted at all. He expected a reaction but still wasn't quite prepared for it when it came. It was one thing for him to ride with Yusei, to think about what he wanted him to do and feel vindicated when Yusei acted as Jaden had expected.
He felt his hands shaking and revved again to give them something to do.
It was something else entirely to know that his thoughts wouldn't be tempered by an experienced proxy driver. Well, mostly, anyway. This was a team effort after all.
A wave of relief and appreciation washed over Jaden at the thought. He was immensely grateful to have Yusei at his back. Jaden kinda wanted to give the quiet guy a big hug.
"Thanks for sticking up for me back there. I know I'm your responsibility or something, but, thanks." Yusei didn't respond; Jaden didn't expect him to, he just knew he needed to say it.
The mob bosses, 'sharks', his brain hysterically corrected him, had made their way to stand in front of the line of racers. They each looked just as colorful of characters as everyone else he'd met, but Jaden ignored them. The robed figure was slouched just behind the others. As if he hoped to be inconspicuous.
As soon as this is over, I'm back to undercover hero mode. Being a part of the Team was too exciting to investigate two criminals at once.
One of the sharks held up a flag and they were all revving their engines in earnest. All eyes were glued to every twitch of the white fabric.
Jaden was shaking, sweating with the heat and nerves. His jaw ached with how tightly his teeth were clenched. He was nervous beyond words, afraid, but so, so excited. His stomach fluttered with butterflies, his heart fit to beat out of his chest with anticipation.
I think I'm gonna barf. This is gonna be a blast!
"On my signal." Jaden nodded. Yusei's voice was coming in loud and clear over the radio. It was just like listening to Divine or Jim during training. He just had to trust that they wouldn't do anything to get him hurt, that they knew what they were doing. It didn't even cross Jaden's mind to wonder when he had begun to trust Yusei in the same way.
"Ready…" Yusei's voice was a deep and calming sound in Jaden's ear. Jaden's world narrowed down to only that voice and the open desert before him. The butterflies had settled, and his mind was clear. He was focused; he was ready.
Jaden gradually applied the throttle, smoothly as Yusei had told him. He lifted his feet to rest over Yusei's, careful not to apply too much pressure there.
Jaden responded, just as slowly applying the clutch with his left hand. He could feel Yusei shift them through the different gears. Something wasn't quite right, and he quickly eased on to the throttle again. They had already shot past the spectating bikers and were still gradually gaining speed. He ducked down over the bike so that only his eyes peeked over the windshield. Yusei moved with him, a comforting weight against his back.
"Stay close to Kiryu as much as you can. We're going to use his draft to gain more speed, then we'll make our move."
Carefully, Jaden turned until he was trailing behind their leader. Raphael and Bandit Keith weren't much further ahead, both vying for first place.
"And what's our move?"
Yusei looked over Jaden's shoulder at Kiryu. He tapped his helmet twice, receiving a nod from their leader. Yusei tucked his head back down against Jaden.
"I know a shortcut."
"Ha! I knew I liked you for a reason! Just give the word, boss!"
As a group they made their way through the desert. The dunes weren't too high yet, so they were able to gain incredible speed. Soon the sand changed to dusky stone, until eventually they were surrounded by canyon walls. The path was still wide enough for the four of them, but it was getting narrower all the time.
"We're coming up on a branch. Don't ease off the throttle, just lean as far right as you can."
I can see why they were so worried before. This place is probably the worst kind of maze.
The branch wasn't so much a fork in the path as a sharply curving exit ramp. An incredibly narrow exit ramp.
At Yusei's signal, Jaden threw his weight into the turn. Their wheels rode the outer edge of the curve, their helmets just grazing the wall opposite. Jaden kept his eyes on the path in front of him and pointedly ignored the voice in his head screaming for him to stop.
He didn't release the throttle, but he didn't accelerate either, keeping their speed steady through the turn. They pulled out of the turn without a scrape. Jaden let out the breath he didn't know he was holding with a startled laugh.
"Holy shit. Holy shit! Yes!" Jaden whooped and was only a little sorry that Yusei got it directly in his ears.
"Stay focused, Jaden. We're not finished yet."
"I'm focused! Super focused. So incredibly awesomely focused! Bring it on!" Jaden was still shouting into his helmet, but Yusei didn't tell him off.
I bet he's just as thrilled as I am!
"Don't get ahead of yourself."
Jaden was only a little miffed that Yusei wasn't enjoying this as much as he was starting to. Of course, it was only because of Yusei's instructions that they hadn't slammed into the canyon wall.
Without prompting he pulled the clutch and felt Yusei down shift gears. The path Yusei had chosen for them was narrow, full of twists and turns. It was slightly off putting to feel Yusei using the rear brake for the turns without Jaden making the conscious choice. Still, they were making good time and Jaden couldn't stop grinning.
"I think I'm starting to get the hang of this! Hey, Yusei. When we win one of their bikes, could you teach me how to drive? I mean, for real, when we don't have a high stakes race looming over us?"
"What did I just say?"
Jaden huffed but pressed on. "'Don't get ahead of yourself.' But seriously! I'm obviously a natural, you're an amazing racer, together we'd be the fastest things on two wheels! Nobody would be able to touch us!"
"Ha! That's code for 'yes', isn't it?" Yusei's amused chuckle came in clearly over the radio. Jaden pushed them as fast as he could; he wanted to finish the race as soon as possible even more.
Soon the winding path grew wider but no less winding. What used to be dusty sandstone wall had turned to something more solid and rock like. If Jaden didn't know any better, he would have said they had entered a cave system. A quick glance up at the open sky confirmed that they hadn't.
"How close are we?" Jaden wasn't sure how far they had gone, but it had definitely been a while since they'd left the bazaar.
"We're back on the main path now. We'll be there soon. Hold on."
Yusei wormed a hand up to the computer under Jaden's chest. His questing fingers tickled, but Jaden kept himself tucked down and waited it out. He didn't want to break form and lose whatever lead they might have gained.
"Alright. I've activated the tracking system. It'll show you the surrounding area for a ten-mile radius. It'll also tell you if the others start to catch up."
Jaden glanced down quickly. The screen had changed to a topographical map that moved along with the red dot in the center. There were two other blue dots behind them just on the edge of the map.
"So we're either in the lead, or someone's snuck ahead of your shortcut."
"Unlikely." Jaden snorted. Yusei sounded offended that Jaden even considered that one of the others had outsmarted him.
"Then we're winning! What d'you say we make it a truly embarrassing loss?"
"You should be able to see the green checkpoint marker on the map now." Jaden glanced down again to see that a yellow diamond had appeared at the top of the map indicating the green checkpoint. Jaden kept the color difference to himself.
I'll tease him about it after we win.
"Be careful. The closer we get to the checkpoint, the more dangerous it'll be."
"Oh yeah. Marik mentioned the booby traps you guys like to set."
"Among other things." Yusei was uncomfortably ominous.
"'Other things'? Should I be worried about a landslide or something?" Jaden looked at the canyon walls, calculating. They were much higher than he remembered them being. If it weren't so close to noon when the race had started, they would have been racing in the dark.
If I were an obnoxiously confident biker gangster with a thing for branding people, tnt-powered landslides would definitely be my trap of choice.
Jaden turned his attention back to the path in time to swerve around a ghost.
"What the-!" Jaden's heart was back up to jack rabbit speeds with the fear-induced adrenaline rush. The area was shrouded in shadows, a grey twilight that must have started playing tricks on him.
"Relax. They're just spirits."
"You mean I almost ran over an actual ghost?!" Jaden restrained himself from shouting out an apology.
"Duel monster spirits."
More whispy puffs of white smoke started to appear. As they got closer to the checkpoint, even more started to clog the air around them. A few fully formed duel spirits drifted around further above their heads. When they got closer to those, they would disappear entirely.
I guess they don't like motorcycles.
"Right. I knew that. Duel monster spirits." Jaden flushed at his embarrassing, but reasonable, reaction. He hadn't expected to see any duel spirits this far from the city.
"Don't pay them any attention and they won't bother you."
"Wait, you can see them? All of them?" Jaden asked, surprised. He hadn't seen any level two spirits hanging around the Team. He hadn't seen any at the bazaar either, in fact. He'd assumed the duel spirits had sensed something about the 'bad company' that they didn't like. Now he wasn't so sure.
"Yes." Yusei was reluctant to answer but Jaden was exhilarated.
Maybe I can convince him to have a friendly duel with me. Talk about duel monster spirits and whatnot. I should get some practice with a backup deck before dueling at the Academy…I should get a backup deck.
"We're coming up on the checkpoint. Get ready." Another look at the map showed that the checkpoint was a large open space with only one entrance. Jaden prepared for another sharp turn as soon as they cleared the entrance.
When they did, Jaden was almost startled into forgetting to turn at all. The ground, the walls, the entire clearing was glowing a bright, sickly green. The spirit balls, the glow, and the utter lack of any dark contrast gave the area an ethereal feel that Jaden did not like at all. He could feel his own duel monsters squirming uncomfortably as well.
Jaden grit his teeth and pulled them sharply into the turn. Jaden's knee was almost scraping the ground as they rounded the outside. His heart leapt into his throat when he felt Yusei let go, shifting almost completely off the bike.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Jaden held tight. If he jerked too soon he might unbalance them and send them skidding into the wall.
They completed their about turn, coming back to an upright position. Only when Jaden felt Yusei was back were he belonged did he hit the gas again.
"Are you trying to give me a heart attack?! What the hell was that?!" Everything had been going so well up until the sudden shock of glowing rocks and surprise duel spirits. Jaden did not appreciate Yusei pulling any more surprises.
"We needed proof."
"We needed proof that we made it to the checkpoint. I grabbed a rock."
Jaden swallowed his anger, huffing out his frustration violently. "Well, okay, fine. Just, a little warning next time. Cool?" Yusei didn't answer, but Jaden knew he had made his point well enough.
The yelling might have been a bit of an overreaction. Now that he thought about it, it made sense that they'd need to prove that they'd been to the checkpoint. And it wasn't like Yusei was just going to barrel roll off in the middle of the race, in the middle of nowhere. But still!
Way to freak a guy out!
The echoing of the motorcycle off the canyon walls was rapidly becoming louder. Jaden looked down to see that the blue dots had grown to three and were closing in.
"Eyes up, Jaden. Find an opening and stick with it." Jaden eyed the other racers as they drew ever closer. Kiryu and Raphael were neck and neck, trying to pull ahead of the others before the checkpoint entrance. Bandit Keith was just behind, looking for his own opening to shoot ahead.
The trick was going to be trying to time it when Kiryu was ahead, so he could force Raphael back, while also making sure they made it past before Keith moved into the opening with the same idea.
Jaden exhaled slowly. "I am a leaf on the wind."
He didn't know what kind of racers Kiryu and Raphael were. Defensive, and they'd move out of his away; aggressive, and Jaden would find himself losing a game of chicken. He didn't know how to predict what they would do either. He could make a good guess on how quickly Bandit Keith would respond to a perceived opening but didn't know his style either. Or how fast his reflexes were in the chance he didn't see Jaden coming past the two in front of him.
Jaden focused on the engine beneath him. Let the energy and confidence from his deck fill him. He watched the others draw closer and closer. Jaden held steady and waited.
Kiryu pulled ahead.
Jaden pulled on the throttle harshly and leapt towards Raphael. Raphael slowed, drifting into Kiryu, forcing the Satisfaction leader faster. Jaden shot past just as Bandit Keith moved to take advantage. Jaden swerved to avoid a collision when the other refused. It all happened in a matter of seconds.
They were clear.
"Yes! I made it!"
"Can I open my eyes now?"
Jaden laughed, incredulous and ecstatic over his near impossible move. His high was ruined by a loud screech of tires from behind them.
"What is he doing now?"
Bandit Keith had pulled his own maneuver and was now speeding up to them again.
"Doesn't he need to get a glowy rock?"
"He's coming to take ours."
"He can do that?"
"No rules." Jaden could hear the distaste in Yusei's voice.
"Let's give him something to chase, shall we?" Jaden smirked. They still had a good lead on Bandit Keith and if he wanted their glowy rock, Jaden was going to make him work for it.
"Don't think about him. Keep your head down and find the fastest path possible."
"You got it, partner."
Jaden focused inwards again. Let the sensations around him flow past and the energy from his deck fill him. It wasn't unlike the feeling when he fully fused with his monsters, but less all consuming, more simple.
He followed Yusei's instructions for turns and shifting gears. They found a groove and flowed with it. When they left the sandstone canyon, Jaden took a chance to look back.
"Oh come on!"
Bandit Keith was nearly on top of them.
Damn it! I thought I was doing so well, too!
"Don't give up."
Jaden smirked to himself, although it might have been closer to a fond smile. "At least you believe in me. You should give Crow some tips." Jaden looked back, trying to catch Yusei's eye. He'd met Yusei a total of three times, only twice if Yusei was the one doing the counting, and each time he got a different impression from the other teen. This Yusei, the one giving him advice, the one who was a solid presence he could count on to have his back, was his favorite so far.
Glancing back, he noticed something else.
"I take it that 'no rules' thing includes weapons?"
Yusei didn't even look back to check. "Keep going."
Jaden gave a mental shrug and did as he was told. Bandit Keith would have to catch up if he wanted to reach them with his weirdly thin bat. Which wasn't as impossible as Jaden thought.
"Eat this ya' damn brats!" Bandit Keith pulled up alongside them and swung. He didn't have a lot of mass to swing around, but he was able to compensate by being a fully-grown man. The first swing dented the rear panel, just missing the rear wheel. The second landed with a dull thump on Yusei's back. Jaden felt the impact through Yusei as well as his grunt of pain.
"Yusei! Hang on!" Jaden swerved wildly through the dunes, trying to shake their attacker.
"Stop! The fastest path is a straight line. You'll only waste fuel at this point. You won't be able to lose him."
Jaden grit his teeth but stopped swerving, keeping an eye on Bandit Keith. As soon as that bat went up, he was going to start swerving again.
"I don't want you getting hurt because of me!"
"I'm fine. Keep going."
"Damn it! I could do this if we could just go faster!"
"Hn. I'm still missing some parts. I'm sorry."
"Don't! Don't even. It's not your fault Bandit Keith can't run a clean race."
As if summoned, Bandit Keith was back again. "Hand over the rock and nobody's gonna get hurt!" Bandit Keith swung again. Jaden swerved just enough to save Yusei's back, but not enough to spare the bike another dent.
"There ain't no way I'm losin' to a damn baby that's still got his fuckin' training wheels!"
Jaden ground his teeth, growling with frustration. He was powerless to do anything except try to avoid Bandit Keith's hits.
"There's gotta be a better way to win!"
"The sooner you cross the finish line, the sooner this is over." Yusei sounded out of breath and another wave of anger rolled over Jaden. A wave of anger that jump started his Hero-grade problem solving skills.
"Yusei! Are there any traps you guys laid around here?"
There was a slight hesitation before Yusei answered. "Yes…there's a trip wire ahead and to the right. Run over it and it activates a sinkhole. But Keith has to be the first one through for it to stop him."
Jaden grinned and floored it. "That's perfect! Remind me, what exactly do I have to do to win the race?"
"You, your bike, and proof from the checkpoint need to cross the finish line before your opponent."
"And by 'your bike' you mean the bike you started the race with?"
"Then there's no problem. Pass me the rock."
"Trust me! This race is in the bag!" Jaden held his breath and waited for Yusei to try and talk him out of it. When he felt Yusei slip the glowy rock into his pocket, Jaden had never been more glad to be wrong.
Jaden wasted no time in grabbing the rock and holding it aloft. "You want it? Come get it!" Jaden headed straight for the trip wire, now clearly marked on Yusei's map.
"Yer gonna pay for this, brat! I promise, this is gonna hurt you more'n it'll hurt me!"
Jaden smirked back at Bandit Keith and hoped the man could see it under his helmet. "Somehow I doubt that!" Jaden went as fast as he dared to keep Bandit Keith out of range, but only just.
Once again Jaden pulled his focus inward. The energy from his deck filled him, only this time he tugged harder. Not enough to transform, at least not without direct contact, but enough to direct the energy where he wanted it.
He'd never had reason to attempt a partial fusion before. Had never thought it possible until earlier. For his plan to work, he was going to need a little help from Bubbleman.
Alright. This is weird.
Jaden could feel Bubbleman on the edge of his mind. At least, that was how he would explain it to someone who had never fused with a duel monster before. Without skin contact, Bubbleman couldn't…fill the same place Jaden was to complete the fusion. But the energy he used did boost Jaden himself.
It felt like making a cake. Jaden was the cake tin, Bubbleman's energy and abilities the cake batter. They just hadn't gone into the oven yet.
Or something like that.
Whatever it was, Jaden could suddenly see everything in high definition. If he let himself, Jaden knew he would be able to see the individual grains of sand in the dunes. Without Bubbleman there to temper things, Jaden could see too much and had to struggle to focus on what he needed.
"You know the number one safety tip for riding motorcycles, Keith?"
Bandit Keith had caught up with them again. He had almost pulled up completely alongside them, getting ready to swing at Jaden this time.
"Wearing the proper headgear!" Jaden pulled back and launched the glowy rock at Bandit Keith's face.
With the help of Bubbleman's increased perception and accuracy, the glowy rock nailed the edge of Bandit Keith's unfastened helmet at just the right angle to force it to spin, obscuring his vision.
Right on time for Jaden to run through the trip wire and set off the sinkhole. He yanked the front brake and twisted the throttle with his palm, sending them into a sharp drift to avoid the trap entirely. Bandit Keith didn't know what hit him.
"Hell yeah!" Jaden slowed to a crawl to watch Bandit Keith frantically leap off his bike. The man was cursing up a storm as he watched his bike slowly sink into the sand. She didn't go very far before stopping, but she wasn't coming out anytime soon either. Bandit Keith turned to shout insults back at them.
"Pretty slick, right? Up top!" Jaden held a hand out for a congratulatory high five.
"Jaden. We need a new rock."
"Like I said, not a problem! I can see it from here, can't you?" Jaden put the high five on hold and slowly drove them to where he could clearly make out the glowy rock nestled in the warm sand. Safely away from Bandit Keith and the sinkhole.
They stopped to pick up the glowy rock; no heart stopping maneuvers this time. Jaden held it up triumphantly. "Well?"
Yusei stared at Jaden. He stared at the glowy rock resting in his hand. Then back to Jaden.
Yusei sighed in defeat. He closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them again, Jaden liked to think there was a little bit of respect hiding in those dark blue depths. Yusei held up a hand and Jaden slapped it.
"Yes! Now, let's get back and claim our prize!"
Jaden stuffed the glowy rock back into his pocket, and with Yusei's blessing, sped off to the finish line.