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Scapegoat

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Title: Scapegoat
Author: Maggiemay
Muse: Mofaf1 as always
Beta – Jazzy, Barbara, Fluffy, Serena, Sarina, and any number of others.
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Ah well mentions of suicide and sex – some insanity – oh and uber cuteness.
Spoilers: None that I can think of.
Summary: Seto Kaiba’s first vacation… You knew it would never be normal right? Seto has lost his focus and Jounouchi finds him… Kidnapping, cat-dogs, hummingbirds and… well anyway you’ll see.

****

Jounouchi laughed and threw back his head joyously. There was nothing better than the hot sun beating down on him as the breeze whipped through his hair, while he sped down the Pacific Coast Highway in the brand new Lexus LF-A convertible. Powerful and sleek, the red rocket-on-wheels hugged every corner like a lover, the low purr of the engine vibrating in almost carnal pleasure.

He was on top of the world. The Malibu Finals had ended the day before and he’d actually beaten Kaiba- after years of trying he’d defeated Kaiba Seto. It was a banner day for Jounouchi Katsuya. And as icing on the cake he was starting on his annual vacation today. Okay to most people it wasn’t a true vacation, and he liked to call it, his ‘hobo’ getaway, but to Jounouchi it truly was a vacation.

There was no time line or set travel plans beyond a starting point and ending point. When he got to the end it was time to pick up his life again. He left his laptop, credit cards and everything but identification and a few hundred dollars in cash at his home. He’d drive until he got tired or hungry, stop and pick up an odd job or two to pay for more gas or food, then move on to his next stop, wherever that may be.

Sure sometimes he was recognized and treated like a celebrity, but when he explained he was on vacation most people were nice enough to leave him be. Of course this annual vacation hadn’t started out as a vacation. Six years ago he’d had a run of bad luck that left him completely broke. Hat in hand, he’d contacted Kaiba Mokuba.

Mokuba had worked some magic and Kaiba Seto had given in to Mokuba’s requests that Jounouchi be allowed to fly home with them – or so the blond had thought. But when he showed up at the airport at the time Mokuba specified, he’d ended up stranded and watching the Kaiba jet fade away in the distance. Instead of calling his friends, he’d simply put his thumb out and hitched a ride.

It had led to a hand-to-mouth existence that lasted for several months - months that had taught Jounouchi about the open, caring, and warm hearted people of America and more importantly about accepting himself. He loved America as much as he loved his native home, Japan. He’d taken a trip every year, and every year he’d learned more and more about his father’s homeland – his new home.

He’d only seen Kaiba at tournaments and dueling events since that time. At first he had been angry at the jerk for leaving him, but later he’d been grateful and he wanted to share that with the tall brunet. During that first meeting, Jounouchi had genuinely thanked Kaiba for leaving him at the airport and smiled warmly, to show no hard feelings.

Kaiba had obviously expected an attack because for just a moment he’d looked shocked, but then he’d quickly rallied, grunting, “Don’t mention it... ever.”

Of course the blonde hadn’t been able to resist smiling and agreeing “Okay.”

During the duel Kaiba had watched him oddly, as if he didn’t recognize him. Jounouchi, thinking the brunet felt bad about the incident, had started to tell him about the kind trucker who’d stopped to pick him up.

Seto stopped him after a few words, snapping “Shut up and duel. Don’t expect me to give a shit about you or anything you do. I can’t control what Mokuba does, but I won’t let you use him. If I never have to look at your ugly face or hear your braying again I’ll be the happiest man on earth.”

That had startled him, and hurt badly. Despite their bickering he’d always felt a connection between them. It was no surprise that he lost the duel. Since then Jounouchi had taken care that not a single word beyond dueling passed between them. Not even greetings at the obligatory parties or social situations they’d been thrown in together as top duelists. The blond always turned away as if distracted by a call of his name, simply waving his hand vaguely in the CEO’s general direction.

For Jounouchi it was simple. He’d been wrong in thinking that even though he and Kaiba were abrasive and competitive, Kaiba was someone he could count on, a kind of secret friend. During his first vacation he’d learned there was more; had accepted there was more. But, now that he knew Kaiba couldn’t be counted on as any kind of friend much less more; that the man hated him enough to leave him stranded, knowing he didn’t even have soda money after agreeing to take him home, didn't want to hear how he survived, then he wasn’t going to waste his time and emotions on someone who obviously couldn’t care less if he lived or died.

He’d cut the other man out of his life except as a duelist to beat. The ‘more’ was put away, hidden from sight. The feeling of connection was pushed down and ignored. He wouldn’t waste a moment on more pain. He made the hurtful decision to break away cleanly.

The break was so final that when Mokuba tried to contact him Jounouchi had sent a message via the ‘friend-of-a-friend’ network that he wanted nothing to do with either of them. Mokuba had made several attempts throughout the years that Jounouchi met with a stone wall and the black-haired Kaiba had finally subsided in the last several months. Kaiba Seto was simply a memory and a duelist to defeat. When the ‘more’ haunted him, Jounouchi simply accepted it as the ghost of what could have been.

Shelving the melancholy, he reveled in the knowledge that he had finally defeated Kaiba. It had been easier than expected. He hadn’t even had to use his secret strategy. He was now the second ranked duelist in the world. After years of being third rate, he was moving up. Yugi had better watch his ass.

With another laugh full of happiness, Jounouchi hit the gas and unleashed more of the six hundred ponies sleeping in the engine of his car. Music pounding from the twelve speakers, he roared through the California sun, a streak of red, black and gold.

As the ribbon of road unfurled before him, the sea waves crashing on his left, and the coastal towns flashed past on the right, his laughter faded and he could feel the tension and vague sense of letdown living inside him since he’d defeated Kaiba the day before.

He’d had many fantasies about Kaiba’s reaction to losing to him. They ranged from the tall brunet cursing Jounouchi for being better than him to the other kneeling at his feet in worship of his greatness, and almost everything in between.

What he’d gotten was a cool handshake and empty “Good game.” Then his nemesis had turned and, with a wave to the roaring crowd, strode calmly off the podium. Jounouchi turned immediately to his friends, laughing and shaking hands. Yugi had mopped the floor with him in the next duel, but that was expected. He was Moutou Yugi.

A gleam in the distance, silvery white, caught his attention. Automatically he slowed his car. The highway was a winding two lane road and he didn’t want to scare anyone who might be out for a slow coastal drive.

But as he drove he saw that the gleam wasn’t moving, and the closer he got the more he could make out. It was a car, a silver-white Volvo sedan. The closer he got the more concerned he became. It was on the road at a dead stop. He was still half a mile from it when he realized it wasn’t in the center of the road, but pulled to the side. In just a few seconds he was able to see that the fender was buried against a guardrail protecting a long sheer drop.

He slowed to a crawl, his breath catching as he took in the details. A blown front tire, nose crumpled into the rail, and what looked like a deployed airbag with bright red droplets on the metallic white material. Someone was hurt. Instinctively the blond pulled to a stop in front of the car. As he climbed out of his car he pulled out his prepaid cell phone and dialed nine-one-one. When the operator answered he said “Hi, I’m up on Pacific Coast Highway mile marker one-nine-three. There is a wrecked car and blood. I think someone's hurt but...” Jounouchi continued to give details as he scanned the area for the owner of the car – and the blood.

A streak of black on the beach across the highway caught his attention. He followed the moving blur with his eyes for a moment, letting them stop on a figure sitting upright in the sand. Said blur was jumping around the figure seated in the distance. Interrupting the emergency operator’s request for his name he said “I think I see the driver. I’m gonna go check him out. He’s sittin’ in the sand wearin’ a suit. I think he might be hurt.”

Ignoring the cautionary words from the operator he crossed the highway, hopped the guard rail and trotted towards the seated figure. The man didn’t seem to see the black streak that darted around him. “Hey! Hey guy! Is that your car? Are you okay?” He called. His breath faltered and his heartbeat picked up as details of the man’s appearance got clearer with each step he took. Brunet hair, body too skinny, and unnaturally still were all traits of someone he had just been thinking about. The blond recognized his defeated opponent in just a second. “Shit, it’s Kaiba.” Without thinking about it he closed his cell, dropped it into his pocket and ran as fast as he could to reach the still figure.

“Kaiba! Yo! Kaiba...” Worry made his voice harsh.

The brunet turned to look at him with empty eyes. Their barren expression was made more chilling by the blood smeared across his face. “What do you want?”

More worried by the absence of ice, or any other recognizable emotion, than the blood, he continued his forward rush. “Man, you’re hurt. You got blood all over you.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Quiet, stoic, it sent chills racing through Jounouchi. Just because he didn’t talk to Kaiba any more didn’t mean he wanted the man dead.

“Damn man, you must be more hurt than you look, ‘cause you...” He broke off when the black blur – now identified as some kind of small animal, cat, dog, rabbit or something, sniffed at his shoes and squatted on the tips. “Eww... Disgusting thing.” He jumped back hastily to avoid getting pissed on.

“Marking his territory.” A touch of bitterness in the calm voice brought Jou’s eyes back to Seto. Critically he eyed the other man. When all he saw was a superficial cut on his forehead and a bloody nose, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“Shit, you better get up before the... whatever the hell it is... decides to piss on you too.” Jou reached down to help the other man to his feet. Now that he looked at the brunet he could see he appeared physically fine.

“It’s a dog. A black Pomeranian with bloodlines that can be traced for two hundred years.” Seto ignored the offered hand and reached for the animal. “His name is Scapegoat.” In the first show of tenderness Jounouchi had ever seen him make, the brunet stroked the black hairball gently. “He’s five months old.”

“It... He’s yours? You have a pet?” Jou gaped at the brunet in amazement. He couldn’t picture the cold-hearted man with any kind of pet. A guard dog sure, but this little ball of fuzz was far from that. He looked like a black cotton ball with eyes and stubby little feet.

“He was a gift from a friend.” As if that explained everything. And perhaps it did.

“Oh.” Jou knelt beside the brunet and took the handkerchief folded neatly in the pocket of Kaiba’s suit, dabbing at the blood still smeared on the other man’s face. He was shocked when the normally prickly CEO didn’t take it from him or move away. “Yer a mess. I guess the ambulance will clean you up though. Wonder what’s takin’ them.”

“We are about twenty minutes from the nearest emergency services.”

“Yeah? How did you know that?”

“My GPS service informed me after the crash. It’s only been about ten minutes.”

“Oh. Well... uh... I...” Jounouchi was stuck for what else to say. He continued to dab at the blood.

“Don’t strain yourself talking to me. You’ve had nothing to say to me for years. I don’t need your pseudo-concerned platitudes.” If it had been said angrily Jounouchi would have simply left. But again the other man had used a voice empty of all expression.

“Kaiba did you hurt yourself? Maybe hit you head hard? ‘Cause you ain’t talkin’ like yerself.” Jounouchi shifted closer, running his free hand through Seto’s thick silky hair.

“How could you know anything about me? You never bothered to find out.” More emotion this time, a stronger hint of bitterness. But he didn’t pull away, much to the blond’s surprise.

Satisfied that there were no lumps or dents hidden in the brunet locks, he asked “Are you feelin’ okay? I mean...”

He blinked slightly when the other man leaned his head slightly into his touch and laughed. But the sound made his stomach clench and his throat tighten. There was no real humor in the sound. In fact if he hadn’t known it for a laugh he would have thought it a sob. “Kaiba...do you feel...”

Abruptly he was cut off. “Feel... no I don’t feel, okay? That’s the problem. I don’t feel good, bad, okay or anything else. I don’t feel anything at all. I haven’t in so long I’ve begun to doubt I ever did.” If it had been anyone else Jounouchi would have written them off as emo. But Kaiba – the Kaiba he knew – was the least emo person he’d ever known. Dramatic as hell, but no true emotion in it.

“Kaiba...” Jounouchi didn’t know what to say. He was sure that the CEO wasn’t talking about physical pain.

“Tell me...” The brunet hesitated for a moment then whispered softly. “Tell me what it’s like.”

"What's what like Kaiba?" He was confused and growing more alarmed each time the brunet spoke. This was not the Kaiba he knew.

"What's it like to be... happy?"

Jounouchi was completely stunned. What the hell was going on? Was Kaiba doing drugs? "Whaaaat? Kaiba, you're not makin' sense. You... you gotta know happy. You win at stuff all the time, you’re a genius, and you own half the world." This wasn’t a joke, but it couldn’t be real either... could it?

"I know success, achievement, and ambition. But... you smiled at me once and you... you radiated something I don't think I've ever felt. I've analyzed it and... it’s happiness. So answer me. What's it like to feel that... to feel happy?" The question was almost pathetic sounding and yet it was spoken in such a flat voice it stunned the blond speechless for a few seconds.

Then he said tentatively "Kaiba... happiness ain't something I can tell you about. You gotta feel it on your own. You must have somethin' that makes you happy. What about Mokuba?"

"Once, before time and misunderstanding got in the way, I loved him and he loved me. I cared for him as I would my own child. Some things brought me happiness I’m sure, but all I remember is responsibility and constant fear of losing him, the one thing I loved. Now I feel... resentment and anger. I gave him everything and asked for nothing in return. Then I... a And then he asked for the one thing I ever wanted for myself. I gave it to him of course." The brunet sighed wearily even as his lips twisted in a mockery of a smile. "Never mind Jounouchi-san. The emergency vehicles will be here soon. Please go on your way. I... wish you happiness."

Jou stood from crouched position and shifted as if to leave but something – that 'more' – was eating at him, pushing him to stay. Bending to pet Scapegoat he hid his concern and confusion. Kaiba couldn't have been serious could he? Jounouchi-san? What the fuck was that? He would have sworn to his dying day Kaiba would never address him with an honorific.

"Yeah well, my hobo vacation makes me happy. I just let it all go. I keep my cell for emergencies, a couple hundred in cash, and I just bum my way around the country, earning as I go. No route or nothin'. Just takin' whatever road I like. Nobody to answer to but myself. True freedom. Makes me happier than anything.” Jou turned to smile at the brunet, knowing he'd probably make some comment about his lack of plans or set itinerary. But his smile died as he caught a glimpse of yearning in the previously empty blue eyes.

"Sounds wonderful." Was all the Kaiba said. The yearning flickered strongly before being ruthlessly crushed by returning emptiness. Absently Seto patted his puppy as it sniffed at a few scattered drops of blood on his shirt.

Jounouchi was caught by the way Seto reassured the little dog. Yes there’d been tenderness, even affection, but it had been absent, almost mechanical. Like caring for the little pup was a routine, something he didn’t even notice any longer, offering comfort without accepting any in return. It was an odd moment for the blond, one of those seconds when everything became perfectly clear. Jounouchi had learned to take divinely inspired epiphany whenever given.

Kaiba was used to giving comfort and taking care of everything. The company, Mokuba, employee messes, and now a puppy. He did it on autopilot, taking nothing from it. As he’d said he didn’t feel anything... because in order to meet his responsibilities to everyone, he’d had to give all of himself.

Down to his bones Jounouchi knew he was right – and he knew that Kaiba was at the end of his rope. He’d spent so long taking care of everyone and everything else that he didn’t have any more to give. And he didn’t have anyone to care for him either. If he had, the brunet would not have been alone on the beach with just a dog for company. Compassion and determination lit Jounouchi as he came to a decision. Epiphanies were given for a reason and he wouldn’t doubt this reason. Kaiba needed... needed something he could give.

"It is..." Before he could stop himself he blurted, "Come with me! You’re not hurt and... And you need a vacation. We'll cruise the country together for a while. Maybe you'll remember how to feel happy."

Slowly, with genuine regret, the brunet head moved from side to side. "I can't..."

"Sure you can..." Not taking no for an answer the blond tugged at him until they were standing face to face. With quick hands he snatched the black fuzz ball from the sand and took off at a trot. "You gotta come get your dog."

Seto proved no match for Jou running on sand. The fact that he was hampered by dress shoes and injuries only made it easier for the fleet-footed blond to have the car purring as the brunet finally dashed across the highway and reach down to snatch the pup off Jou's lap.

When Seto bent over to reach the little black fuzz ball Jou moved Scapegoat to the passenger seat, forcing the brunet to reach across him. Quick as a wink Jou grabbed the off balance man and tugged him into the car and released the brake. In a cloud of black smoke and a blur of red the Lexus let go all six hundred horses.

Jounouchi expected his ‘victim’ to struggle and put up a fight. Instead the brunet calmly crawled off his lap and slid into the passenger seat, placing the furball carefully on his lap and reached into his jacket pocket for his cell phone.

“I’ll just let them know you will be dropping me off at the next town.” Cool and brisk, Seto didn’t bother to glance at him. If he had he would have seen the look of determination and something like regret flash across Jounouchi’s face before the blonde snatched the phone from his hand and chucked it out of the car. The last they saw of it was it glinting in the sunlight as it tumbled towards the waves.

That didn’t even cause the cool CEO to lift a brow. He simply gripped his collar and twisted the emergency satellite backup. Jounouchi caught his move and recognized the distinctive collar pin as an upgrade to the device he’d seen Seto wear on several occasions – occasions where that device had saved Seto’s ass. Before the brunet could do more than touch it Jounouchi grabbed it and ripped it out of the collar, tearing the expensive white material at the same time.

“What did that prove? When we stop, and we must stop, I will simply call my office.”

Jounouchi sighed and frowned slightly. That was true. He hadn’t thought this out well. He’d always been impulsive, and this was the worst yet. He’d fucking kidnapped Kaiba Seto. Not only was he rich and famous but the guy loathed him. At one time it might have been more but since then he’d made sure Jou knew of his disdain. Damn he hated being stupid. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and turned to face the impassive brunet. In the distance the wail of sirens could be heard.

“Kaiba...” He could curse his stupidity for the rest of his life, but he wasn't going to give up on the epiphany he'd received. He would do his best to work this out. After a second to reflect he tried to placate, only to break off and start again. “Seto... yeah I said Seto, get that look offa your face. We’ve known each other for years. I thought once that we were... well I was wrong but... well look, I know you hate me. You made sure I got it when I saw you after the airport incident – you made it plain you didn’t want me to talk to you ever again – so I didn’t. But damn it...” He broke off and snarled under his breath before continuing on recklessly. “Damn it I care about you. Dunno why but I do. And to be honest you scared me to death back there on the beach. You... you’re not right. This trip always fixes me up. Come with me... give it a chance. If... If you really want to go home after a week I’ll... I’ll never bother you again.”

“You don’t bother me now.” Seto turned his chillingly empty gaze on the blond. For a second a spark of desperation gleamed in their blue depths. “But I won’t argue.” A humorless smile touched his lips for an instant. “A day? A week? What does it matter? It all ends the same.”

Of everything Kaiba had said that day, that one statement told Jounouchi more than anything else about the other man’s mental state. The Kaiba Seto he knew didn’t believe in fate, would never allow anyone to take charge, and he sure as hell wouldn’t just ‘agree’ to leave Kaiba Corporation and Mokuba. Swallowing hard as the emergency vehicles roared past, he couldn’t help but wonder what they would have found if he hadn’t stopped. Would Kaiba still be sitting quietly on the beach while his puppy danced around him? Or would he be floating in the Pacific Ocean, his soulless eyes forever staring sightlessly into deep blue?

Forcefully shoving the haunting image to the back of his mind he put the car in gear and hit the gas. They had to get away, far away from the temptation of the ocean. Kaiba might change his mind again.

***

Matashi looked up from his paperwork as a dark amber light on his desk phone started to flash. With a gasp he stood, grabbing the jacket he’d shed off the back of his chair. As he rounded the corner of his desk at a trot, Aishira burst into his office. “GPS says airbag deployed. Satellite images are being downloaded. Emergency vehicles are twenty minutes from scene. They’ve already been alerted are en route.”

“Now the hard part. Let’s go tell Mokuba.” Apprehension for their friend made his voice a cool snap.

When they reached Mokuba’s office they found it deserted. A quick investigation told them that the black-haired vice-president had taken the day off and given his staff the day off as well. “Damn it!” Matashi snarled “What a day to take off.”

“He probably thought since Seto wasn’t here he could take a break. He knew we could handle it.” Aishira attempted to calm him down. He opened his cell phone and dialed Mokuba’s number. He huffed a breath and closed it again when it rolled to voicemail. He rushed back to his office and punched up the GPS on Kaiba Mokuba.

“He’s in the park at the roller coaster.” Matashi identified over his shoulder. “We’ll have Security bring him to us...”

Aishira nodded. “We’ll get the information he’ll need while we wait. Not a word though, not to anyone. This is not something strangers should tell him.” He checked the status of the download. “Download’s at eighty-seven percent. We’ll know more in about a minute.

It was the longest minute either of them had ever lived through. When the download finally completed Aishira loaded it into the viewer. The timeline picked up as of two minutes prior to the warning light set off by the vehicle monitoring system. The slow streaming video showed Seto’s silvery car as a shining speck on a black ribbon. Automatically he zoomed in for a better view. The best he could do though was a grainy, slightly out of focus image from about two hundred yards. “Fuck! It was at the wrong angle for close up.”

“We can see though. We should be able to tell what happened and if he is all right.” Matashi soothed.

They didn’t have long to wait. The car suddenly veered to the right, heading straight for a guard rail that protected a hilly drop. Even as they caught their breath in fright the car impacted with enough force to make the metal rail ripple like water, but the barrier held and the vehicle stopped. The airbag deployed exactly as advertised, protecting the blurry occupant from hitting the steering wheel.

As one they let out their breaths as the blurry driver sat for a few seconds, obviously gathering his wits before opening the door and stepping out. Something in the car caught his attention and he reached back into to vehicle. They watched as he pulled out a small tan box. They recognized it immediately. Scapegoat’s carrier. Even as Seto released the door and pulled out the black blob they knew was an energetic little pup, they were exchanging relieved looks. Seto was fine. Watching, still caring but a lot less worried they observed Seto crossing the street and climbing over the other guardrail, and stepping onto the small sandy beach. When he was far enough from the road, he set the black blob on the ground and sat down beside it. The download played for another three or four minutes before ending. There was another download in progress. It would take a few minutes.

Mokuba burst into the office in three. “What’s going on? I was...” He broke off with a pained gasp when he saw the amber light flashing. “What the fuck? Seto’s...”

“He had a car accident Mokuba. Not serious. We already have the satellite images. He was fine, sitting on the beach waiting for the emergency vehicles.”

Weak-kneed, Mokuba sank into the nearest chair. “He’s okay?”

“Yes, he...” But another light flashing on his small control board, blue this time cut him off. “His cell...”

“He probably dropped it in the water on accident.” Matashi reassured. “He was fine. We’ll play the download in...” Another gasp, this one more urgent as the emergency satellite beacon lit up all lights, then a single red one winked out. The satellite tracker had been lost.

Matashi was already opening the file while Aishira called the emergency services number. The video was reassuring. The blurry figure that was Kaiba Seto sat still and upright, occasionally moving his arm as the black blob ran around him.

Suddenly, from an angle just out of view another person, someone with light hair, entered the screen, running towards their boss. Tensely they watched the exchange, and the subsequent chase. As Seto left their angle of view Matashi eased back on the zoom. From far above they watched as the light haired person dragged Seto into his car and took off. The satellite continued to focus on the CEO from a distance. Matashi cursed as something tiny, not even discernible except for a metallic flash, flicked out of the car.

“His cell phone.” Mokuba snapped. Then horrified “And the link.”

In the next second, the Satellite focused downward, staying on the spot where they knew Seto’s kidnapper had thrown the satellite link device. Quickly he zoomed out, trying to keep the vehicle in sight. But the angle of the satellite changed to fixate and no amount of zooming would show more of the car that had disappeared around a mountainous bend.

“Aishira...” Mokuba’s voice was a thread of rage and fear. “Let them know that Kaiba Seto has been kidnapped.”

Matashi protested “They may not know who he is...”

Aishira hung up the phone slowly. “The police and FBI will be here as soon as possible. And according to the emergency operator the person who called in to report the accident identified Seto before hanging up on her. Also, emergency personnel are on scene. The car is empty and they reported blood in the car. Seto is hurt.”

***

Jounouchi glanced at his reluctant passenger every thirty seconds, unsure if he should make conversation or simply drive on. After a few attempts at conversation that netted him no more than a few grunts, the blond gave up.

Flipping on the music again, he tried to lose himself in the freedom of the road. A movement on the seat next to him. The pup was sniffing at the drops of drying blood on Kaiba’s shirt.

Ah Geez. Some caretaker he was. Jounouchi scolded himself. “Yer a mess. I’ll stop at the next station and get somethin’ to clean you up with. You can change inta some of my clothes. You have to be roasting in that suit.” All he got for his trouble was a faint shrug.

A few miles up the road Jou pulled into a deliberately quaint, nostalgic gas station. He popped the small trunk and motioned for Seto to hop out. “Bathroom’s are on the outside of the building, follow the signs. Wear whatever you want. There are some sandals and shorts in there. One size fits all so you should be okay. The shirts are cotton size large. I like ‘em roomy so I can move around.” He slid out to go prepay for the gas. “I’ll get a first aid kit and some food. What’cha want?”

A grunt was his answer as his reluctant guest grabbed the bag from the trunk and walked to the side of the building. Jounouchi watched him for a second then smiled slightly. Kaiba wasn’t going to take off. He’d left Scapegoat on the floorboard.

Inside the station Jou glanced around. Typical tourist kitsch. Retro neon decorations and icons from the nineteen fifties decorated a relatively modern gas station. A retro console television played an old black and white show. Along one wall was gallery of pictures of movie stars. All of them were taken right at this station. After a cursory glance Jou moved on.

He did some fast shopping, a first aid kit, wet wipes, sandwiches, macadamia nuts, bottled water, chips, suntan lotion, mosquito repellent, dry puppy chow, a small doggie bowl and on impulse, a small stuffed animal, perfect for a restless puppy to chew on.

Mentally groaning at the extra expenses he brought his purchases to the counter. A kid of about sixteen crouched down beside the counter fiddling with some kind of computer. “Be right with ya.” With a disgusted sigh the boy stood up. “Stupid piece of shit.”

“What?” Jou was used to the rudeness of American kids, but this was a little excessive.

The boy gave an apologetic laugh “Not you man. If you stopped for the bathroom, use the girl’s on the other side. Men’s is gutted for remodel. Some drunk drove through it.” He frowned down at the box at his feet. “This stupid computer. Gramps bought it to run the security cameras. He had to go to the doctor today so I thought I’d hook it up and play Warcraft. The processor’s too slow and not enough memory. Now it won’t talk to the cameras. Gramps is gonna be pissed. He likes to watch people come and go at the pumps. He gets famous actors who stop in all the time. They don’t come inside like they used to because they pay at the pump but he still gets their picture.”

“Ah that sucks. Add thirty in gas will you?” While the boy rang up his purchases Jou considered asking Seto to help. The techno-genius billionaire could probably have the system up and running in about two minutes. A reflection in the window behind the counter made him think the other man had come in behind him. He turned to explain when he saw that it wasn’t Kaiba himself, instead it was Kaiba’s image on the black and white screen of the console television. Whatever had been playing was preempted by a late breaking news story. The image of Seto was replaced by the scene he’d left just a few minutes before. Except that Seto’s car was surrounded by rescue and emergency vehicles and in the background several uniformed people were poring over both sides of the road.

Stifling a curse he turned to pay the boy. “Thanks.” The teen mumbled as he slid the cash into the drawer and knelt back to the computer.

The blond rushed back to the car, anxious speak to Seto. His passenger had just closed the trunk of the car. For a second Jou almost didn’t recognize him. The uber-cool business look was gone. The brunet locks were slicked back, obviously wet from where Seto had washed the blood from his cut out of his hair. Who knows maybe he’d been hot and needed to soak his head? A green and white striped t-shirt, faded and threadbare, hung loosely on his too thin frame, and a frayed pair of khaki shorts dipped low on his hips, clinging desperately, before skimming down to end about three inches above his knees. Scuffed leather-mesh sandals completed the picture of sartorial disarray. Blinding white skin told it’s own story. Too much fluorescent light and not enough sunshine. If Jou hadn’t known he was Kaiba Seto, he would have assumed the man standing beside his car to be a bum... One who hadn’t had a decent meal in a while.

Then the empty eyes fixed on him, a spark kindling in their depths, as if daring him to comment, and the image shifted from beach bum to Kaiba Seto. “Something?” The brunet asked in a not-quite-neutral tone.

“Nah, I was just thinkin’ you need to call Mokuba.” Jou explained awkwardly, sliding in the car and tossing the bag of supplies into Seto lap, accidentally squishing the puppy that had jumped up onto his master.

A yip, more startled than hurt, and the little black ball of fuzz wriggled out from under the bag and climbed up to perch on Seto’s shoulder.

“Oops, sorry Scapegoat.” Jou gave the dog an apologetic scratch behind the ear. “Seto, the... Damn get that look off your face. Get used to it. I’m calling you Seto. When I’m in the U.S. people call me Joey.” His passenger looked like he'd sooner suck a lemon then call him by that name, but damn it they’d known each other for years, at one time almost been friends, or so he’d thought. He was damned if he was going to call him Kaiba.

When there was no reply Jou dropped his cell phone on top of the bag of supplies and got out to pump the gas. “Call your brother and tell him you are fine and going on a road trip. Tell him you’ll call again in a week. There are only thirty minutes on the phone so be quick about it. Then fix your face while I pump the gas.”

Without a word Seto took the phone and dialed Aishira’s number. Mokuba wasn’t really an option. Things were too strained and he didn’t want to deal with another round of “Seto I want...” Aishira would get the message and he and Matashi would care for the business.

It was answered on the second ring. “Hello?” Ashira’s voice sounded so clear that it was as if he were right next to him.

“Aishira.” Seto didn’t bother with a greeting.

“Seto! Seto where are you?”

“I am fine. I am going on a road trip and will call again in a week.” He repeated mechanically. Without another word he disconnected the call. Dropping the cell into the center console, Seto patted his little Scapegoat with one hand and reached for the first aid kit. Judiciously he applied antiseptic cream to the open cut, and in his first thought of vanity in months, applied a two inch bandage across his nose. Sun exposure always gave him a crop of freckles across his nose. He had hated them for years. Who ever heard of a badass CEO with ‘cute’ freckles?

Shaking off the thought he closed the first aid kit and settled comfortably against the seat and closed his eyes. Scapegoat was a pleasant weight on his shoulder, the sun was pouring down on him, warming him even through his inadequate clothes. And his driver, he refused to think of him as anything else, was blissfully silent, even refraining from playing music. The only sounds he heard were the purr of the powerful engine, the whine of the tires on cement, the call of seabirds and the rhythm of waves crashing to shore. In a very short amount of time he was sound asleep.

Jou glanced over at his passenger. He’d made himself keep both eyes on the road for over half an hour. But it was killing him. Why didn’t Kaiba talk? Why... His thought was derailed when he saw that Kaiba was almost melted into the seat, his head lolling gently with the sway of the road. Dark lashes rested against pink cheeks. He was too pretty for words and Jou reluctantly put his eyes back to the road, only to jerk them back even as he was pulling over. White skin and pink cheeks? Anxiously Jou examined the sleeping brunet. With a sigh of relief he saw that the brunet was only slightly pink. There hadn’t been enough time to get a real burn. With a twinge of regret Jou hit the button to bring the convertible top up. While he was stopped he poured a bowl of water for the pup and gently picked him up off Seto’s shoulder.

The little dog all but dove into the bowl, drinking one full bowl dry and begging for more. Jou filled it again. The pup took a few laps then dunked his face and paws in as if to cool off. “Poor pup, I thought you were panting in Seto’s ear because...” Jou broke off as he realized what he was about to say. He wasn’t going to go there – wasn’t going to admit that he’d always wanted to pant in Seto’s ear.“You ain’t used to being out in the sun any more than he is.” Compassion wrenched his heart for the pair of them.

The pup looked up at him, water dripping from his fur, a comical look of ecstasy on his face. The look faded and pleading sparkled up at Jou. The fluffy, curly tail wagged for a few times. “I know... cold feet and water... you gotta pee.” Jou climbed out of the car and picked the little creature up. After the little dog took care of necessities, they were on their way again.

****

Aishira, Mokuba and Matashi were greeting the police and federal people when Aishira’s phone rang. He automatically reached to silence it, but froze at the unfamiliar exchange. “I don’t know who this is, but...”

“Answer it.” A dark suited agent ordered briskly. “Put it on speaker.”

Aishira nodded and hit both buttons simultaneously. “Hello?” His knees went weak and he would have fallen if Matashi hadn’t caught him, when Seto’s voice came over clearly.

“Aishira?” He sounded so close Aishira couldn’t help blurting “Seto! Seto where are you?”

His question was ignored though. Cool and unemotional, tones they had heard too often lately, Seto clipped “I am fine. I am going on a road trip and will call again in a week.” The call ended. Time elapsed seven seconds.

“Call him back!” Mokuba yelped, reaching for the phone.

Aishira gave it to him with shaking hands. In just a few seconds the mechanical recording of ‘this number is not in service’ came through the small speaker.

“What? But we just spoke to him.” Matashi shook his head in confusion.

“It’s a prepaid and only makes outgoing. Incoming is a second option, one obviously not turned on.”

“What? But...” Matashi stared down at the phone.

Mokuba interrupted “Wait, but you can trace where he was right? I mean...”

“To the nearest tower. But a seven second transmission... it will take days to get the proper subpoenas for all of the parties involved. And then it will take more time to sift through the hundreds of calls made at those exact second intervals.”

“What about where he bought it.” Mokuba wasn’t ready to let the cell phone angle go. There had to be a way to talk to his brother.

“We can trace the number to the company who bought it, then trace it to the phone and where it was purchased, if it was purchased and not stolen. And we will do that if necessary, however...” The agent paused for a moment, glancing at his partner. “I don’t think it’s necessary at this point. Seto Kaiba definitely called, he said he was alright and that he’d call in a week. He said he was going on a road trip.”

“My brother wouldn’t just take off like that.” Mokuba argued fiercely. “Besides we saw him get dragged into a car. It’s in the satellite images. We can show you...”

The officers and agents glanced at each other then the agent who’d spoken earlier nodded. “All right. Let’s view the images.” His tone made it obvious he was humoring Mokuba.

Aishira, after a fuming glance at the agent, led them to his office. “Seto Kaiba would never just leave for a ‘road trip.’” He snapped. “He has never taken a single unscheduled day off. He is never without his satellite locator. He didn’t choose to do so now. The images show his phone and locator being tossed away by whoever has kidnapped him. He was forced to say that.” He’d begun the playback as he railed at the official idiots.

As they watched the playback they had to agree. It certainly looked like the billionaire CEO may have been snatched. Agent Green sighed and took out his recorder. “We will need a copy of these downloads, and we need to take statements.”

Calmer, the three executives nodded. Matashi sighed and asked “What do you need to know?”

“Everything. Based on the nine-one-one recording, the person who is with your brother called in to report an accident, then when discovering that the victim was your brother, ended all communication. Do you recognize the person on the satellite pictures?”

Mokuba gave the man an incredulous look. “I can’t even tell if it’s a man. The images are black and white and grainy. This satellite dates back to my father’s time. When we stopped making weapons your country refused to let us update the satellite we have in orbit here.”

“The person is obviously male by his voice on the nine-one-one recording, also his carriage as he walks is masculine.” One of the officers pointed out.

“And someone who is familiar enough with your brother to recognize him at a distance.” Another agent pointed out as he continued to pore over the satellite images.

“My brother is internationally famous. He...”

“Knows him. Your brother knows him.” The only female in the room interrupted.

“What? Wh...”

“I am Special Agent Clark. I am a psychologist. I specialize in kidnapping and murder cases. My role is to support the family and uncover information that will aid in the successful return of the hostage, or the recovery of remains.” She said it bluntly, hoping to shock the younger Kaiba. There had been something, panic, guilt, something in the way the boy reacted. She just wasn’t sure what it was.

“Remains...?” Mokuba turned chalk white and sank slowly to a chair. “N... no... Seto...”

There were a few moments while Matashi and Aishira fluttered around Mokuba, trying to reassure him, all the while sending hate-filled glances at Agent Clark. She ignored them all and focused on the images, playing each part through two and three times.

When Mokuba focused on her with dark, desperate eyes, she reiterated. “ Your brother knows him.” Before anyone could deny the assertion she started reciting her proof. “Not only does the suspect identify him at a distance where recognition would be very difficult if he was not familiar with your brother, your brother’s shoulders tense. It is hard to see, but I think he clenches his hands too. A stranger wouldn’t evoke that reaction.”

“So you’re saying whoever took Seto is someone my brother doesn’t like?” Mokuba didn't see it, at least not clearly, but she was right there was something in the way Seto held himself.

“Not at all.” She corrected as she forwarded the images slightly. “He is annoyed or angry with him but... well see how our mystery man kneels down and touches him? It’s familiar. Strangers wouldn’t do that. And it would be instinctive for your brother to move away from this person if it was someone he disliked or didn’t know. Instead he is passive, accepting the touch.”

“He’s hurt.” Aishira protested.

“He was hit by the airbag as it deployed. The most damage he could have sustained, given the small amount of blood on the airbag and seat would be a bloody nose and maybe a superficial laceration. A concussion is doubtful.” She continued to study the replay frame by frame. When it reached the part where the suspect leaned forward and buried his hands in the victims hair she froze the frames. Kaiba’s posture had changed. She was an expert at body language and that small shift after almost perfect, eerie stillness, made her brain itch. “Here... Mr. Kaiba, is your brother homosexual?”

Mokuba froze and turned his gaze to his brother’s best friends. It was Aishira who answered. “He has dated both sexes, although no one that lasted more than a few dates. He was too busy with work and they were too demanding. Why are you asking? Do you think this is a hate crime?”

“Not at all. But watch.” She replayed the small segment. “See how, when the assailant touches him, examining his head for injuries would be my guess, his shoulders relax slightly and shift forward. He was enjoying that touch. When the other moved away he went rigid again.”

“I don’t see it.” Mokuba growled. “The picture is too bad. How could you possibly...”

“You are paying attention to the blur that is your brother. Pay attention to the shadows on the sand. Light and shadow do not lie or confuse. I use the shadows on the sand as a measure of movement.”

Matashi studied the images closely, his eyes narrowing with concentration. The third time she ran through the sequence he saw it. “You’re right. Seto is very reserved and guarded of his personal space. He does not allow strangers to touch him. But I see what you mean. And he does seem to shift towards the touch. Also, the casual way the other man reaches out - it’s as if he knows of the boundaries and doesn’t care. He is too concerned.”

“That’s bull shit! Matashi you’re seeing stuff not there. My brother has been kidnapped and you are trying to tell me he met up with an old friend? A boyfriend? What are the odds of that?” Mokuba saw what they were talking about, but it was impossible. There was no way. They were chasing shadows. Seto had nobody he'd be that relaxed around. If he did Mokuba would know it.

Aishira sighed, he just couldn’t see what Matashi saw. “Minimal. It is a good theory but Seto’s taste in men and women has never ran to blondes. He’s never been interested in anyone with light colored hair. All of his previous involvements were Asian with black hair.”

“Hair colors can be changed.” Agent Clark shrugged, but observed Mokuba carefully. There was something stricken, as if that statement hurt some part of him. “Do you know something different?”

Mokuba shifted and looked away. “N... no. I just... I don’t... I don’t know...” There had been a blond, one they both wanted and neither had gotten. But Jounouchi had written them both out of his life, refusing all contact. That particular blond wouldn't stop to help Seto ever.

“All right, so, Agent Clark, do you think Seto Kaiba has been kidnapped?” this from the team leader.

“Honestly I don’t know. It could go either way. The tape shows Kaiba shaking his head, denying the other man something, and then the other man hauling him up, snatching the dog, and taking off. Kaiba was in clear pursuit and was yanked into the vehicle without his permission. But was it something playful between friends? I can’t tell. At this point I’d call it a suspicious disappearance and put out bulletins asking for Mr. Kaiba to call home and clear up the misunderstanding.”

“Good enough.” The older agent nodded and turned to go.

“Wait, you’re not going to do anything?” Mokuba wailed.

“Of course we are. We are putting out bulletins and news casts.” The officer said patiently.

“You have it wrong. There is no way my brother would just take off like this. No way he’d ever...” Tears were welling as anger and denial contorted his face. “I can prove it. He’d never, ever just leave me or the company for more than a weekend. He never has.”

“Never?” that caught the psychologist’s attention.

“Never. He’s never taken vacation; he works six days a week. He... he... is always here. Even when he goes to duel it’s work. He doesn’t just leave... this is his life! Even his best friends are here, part of the business. He’s worked at this for over fifteen years. He started when he was twelve. Middle school, high school, even college, he worked full time after classes.”

The woman felt a shock run through her. Didn’t the young man know what he was saying? “Is this true? Not an exaggeration or dramatics?” She turned to the two older men. It was apparent that the words and their impact were sinking in.

Aishira, voice thin with realization whispered “Yes it's true that he’s never taken a vacation and he worked for years.” He swallowed the lump in his throat and, uncaring of their audience, buried his face in Matashi’s shoulder. “Seto...”

Matashi wrapped his arm around Aishira and nodded, “Yes. He’s never been interested in anything beyond the company. It represented security after being orphaned. His long term goal was to to become the largest entertainment company on earth.”

Showing that she was up on current events the agent nodded “So didn’t he accomplish that with the takeover of Disney?” She let that sink in for a moment then asked gently “Never been interested in anything else? Or never let himself be interested in anything else?” In an abrupt change of attitude she demanded “Let me see his office. If he expected to be back there would be something to show that.”

The room was meticulously tidy. Not a paper was out of place. The pens were perfectly aligned in the drawer. The wood desk gleamed with tidiness. Besides a bookcase, desk and two chairs there was no other furniture in the large room. No plants, sculptures, paintings, or pictures graced the area. “Not big on office decoration?”

“Seto considers it a waste of time and money.” Mokuba explained, wincing slightly. His brother sounded so cold.

“He doesn’t have a computer?” That surprised Agent Clark.

“Of course, it’s built into the desk. He looks down through the glass.” The agent was already at the desk, booting the computer. When the power button only flashed she looked up in question. Matashi hurried around the desk. “It is fingerprint scan protected.” The computer hummed for a moment then the in-desk monitor lit the clear glass top of the desk. Agent Clark, a dedicated techno-geek, couldn’t help but be impressed. She started to compliment Matashi when his expression made her glance down. A document had opened on the desktop. The first page was titled “Kaiba Corporation, Five Year Plan.”

“What’s wrong? Is it abnormal to leave a document open?” Rhetorical question because the man's expression said everything for him.

“Very abnormal. The security of this computer is such that when it scanned my fingerprints it didn’t boot into Seto’s desktop. It booted into the desktop he designed for me. I’ve never seen this document but the date/time stamp on it is the just a few hours before he left for the competition. I’m seeing a document he prepared for me just before he left.” He explained difficulty.

That was interesting, very. “Is it unusual for him to leave a document for you?”

“Not exactly unusual, but not normal. The problem is that we just finished our five year plan about six months ago. We defined projects, goals and our differing roles in the company.”

“I see. Then what disturbs you about this document?” But she was quickly scanning it. It was an easy to follow spreadsheet that laid out each step in the plan, with contingency and backup plans at the ready.

“It...” Matashi shook his head but not soon enough to hide a sheen of dawning panic in his eyes.

“What is it?” This was vital, she just knew it.

In a whisper that seemed to echo around the room Matashi rasped, his voice breaking. “He’s taken himself out of the plan. His duties are.... sp...split between the three of us.”

Mokuba and Aishira gasped. The police and federal officials shifted restlessly. Agent Clark nodded slowly and turned to Mokuba. “Log in to this computer.”

Matashi signed off and Mokuba pushed the button. This desktop was different. A mosaic of Kaibaland parks with a simple banner underneath. “Promises Kept.” Nothing further, no letter, no document, nothing but that simple statement. Whatever the meaning, Agent Clark knew it was painful. Mokuba Kaiba had flinched as if receiving a great blow. “What does it mean? Mister Kaiba what does it mean?”

“He promised me long ago, when we were at the orphanage, that we’d make the biggest amusement parks in the world and make them free for orphans. This desktop is telling me he kept his promise.” This time it was Mokuba's voice that broke.

“That’s it? There is no letter, no note, nothing? That seems strange to me.” Strange yes, and very telling.

“I...” Mokuba turned his head, burying it in Matashi’s shoulder. “We have been distant for over a year. We... we argued about my girlfriend...Now my fiancé. We announced our engagement four months ago.”

“I see. All right.” She gestured to Aishira. “Log in please.”

Mokuba, after a pained look at the image, shutdown the computer. Aishira placed a trembling finger on the button. The machine booted to a blank screen that loaded a video player. The camera played over a perfectly decorated Christmas tree. Under the tree were dozens of gifts. A beautiful woman, classically dressed in traditional Kimono and made up exquisitely came on screen. “Kaiba Seto! Put that camera down and open your gift!”

“Hnnn...” The deep voice of their victim reverberated around the room. “I like taking pictures and videos.”

“Yeah right.” A man snorted off screen. “You just like to make Peaches uncomfortable. Go open your present.” The voice was Matashi’s.

There was a barely audible sigh, then the camera was placed carefully on a table, left running as a figure crossed to the tree. The officers got their first look at their victim. Tall and slim, with meticulously styled brunet hair and pale elegant features, he would have drawn eyes anywhere. But when coupled with deep, cobalt blue eyes, he was riveting. The finely tailored business suit he wore only enhanced the feeling of fascination.

Matashi’s breath caught as he saw what he’d missed that Christmas morning. Seto looked over all of the gifts, all that they brought for Mokuba, and the one they brought for him. He hadn’t considered it odd at the time, they always splurged and spoiled Mokie, even though he’d chosen to spend the day with his fiancé. There was no disappointment in Seto’s eyes, nothing in his expression at all, except gratitude as he picked up their single gift and opened it slowly, as if savoring the experience.

The gratitude changed in a blink when a tiny ball of fuzz bounced out of the box and straight into his chest. Shock, dismay and something strange, almost like anger, flashed across Seto’s face in that split second, then his face smoothed into a smiling mask as Aishira squealed and clapped happily. “Isn’t he adorable? We thought he’d be perfect for you. He’s only four weeks old but is already weaned. They weaned him early just so we could give him to you today.”

Another flash of anger, barely there, then gone. Then Seto was cradling the puppy, smiling tenderly down at the teacup sized animal cradled in his long, elegant hands. “Thank you, he’s beautiful. Perfect. I’ve always wanted a puppy.” More clips followed, Seto and the pup playing in the yard, house training attempts, and the most heart wrenching of all, Seto curled up on his bed, the puppy sleeping across his neck.

“He really loves Scapegoat.” Aishira offered huskily. He was becoming scared for Seto. This was very odd. He had never considered Seto as lonely or isolated, but looking at the clips he could almost feel the pain and loneliness rolling off his friend. And now this kidnapping. He was snatched, they saw him taken. Yet the paperwork, the document, everything that they’d seen so far said that Seto had been preparing to leave them. He didn’t know what to think but he was worried and hurting for his dear friend. Seeking some kind of support he glanced at his lover, only to see Matashi’s eyes riveted to the screen, the same kind of sick realization dawning in his eyes. Instinctively he turned to Mokuba only to find the young man glaring angrily at the officers.

Mokuba cleared his throat, shame and guilt battling with righteous anger. They were all mixed with fear for his brother. The videos were a revelation too disturbing to deal with right now. “None of this means anything more than he was planning a vacation. We saw him kidnapped. I insist you find him.”

Agent Clark looked at her team leader, nodding slightly. She’d read the situation and had an analysis. “I think it would be more prudent to stick with our original plan of broadcasting that your brother has disappeared and may be disoriented due to an accident. Ask anyone seeing your brother to call in.”

“But...” The three protested as one.

“Until he calls again, or there is a ransom demand, he stated specifically that he was all right and on a road trip. This is the best we can do.” With a curt nod the team leader signaled for everyone to leave.

Outside the building the federal Agent nodded to the local officers. “We will handle this. Thank you for your time.”

“Yeah, tough for us in Florida to investigate in California.”

“Too right. Thank you for coming. We will send a report and keep you updated.” They shook hands cordially and the teams parted ways. As the three federal officers drove away, the team leader glanced over at Agent Clark. “Okay Jillian, I know that look. What the hell is going through your head?” When she opened her mouth to speak he shot her another look. “Keep it simple, don’t psychobabble me.”

“Okay then. Given what I know ofour victim - and I know quite a lot as my brother used to be one of the top duelists in the world, went by the name of Bandit Keith before he got his head blown off in a bar fight - Kibou Seto was a miracle child. A true genius in technology and in games. His parents were killed when he was eight. His parent’s family took the inheritance and stuffed him and his brother in an orphanage. He didn’t stay there long. Accounts of this vary, some people say that Kaiba Gozoburo went to the orphanage specifically to find the boy because his achievements were remarkable and highly discussed even then. He adopted them and began molding Kibou Seto into Kaiba Seto, a businessman of unequaled intelligence and power.”

She cleared her throat slightly, “Another version of the story is that Kaiba Gozoburo went to the orphanage as a publicity and good will stunt and the child, Seto, challenged him to a game of chess. If Seto won then Kaiba Gozoburo would adopt him and his brother.”

There was a muffled gasp from her supervisor but she plowed on. “Whatever the truth, Kibou Seto and Kibou Mokuba came to live with Kaiba Gozoburo, taking his name.”

“Why are you telling us this?” He knew his subordinate well, and there had to be a point.

“Because I believe the second story is true. You should remember the file on Kaiba Gozoburo. He never did anything altruistic in his life, but he was a master chess player. If a child defeated him he would have wanted that child in his control. Remember, his own child mysteriously disappeared. Rumors were rampant that the child didn’t live up to his father’s expectations so he ceased to live.”

“Well fuck.” Her fellow agent grunted.

“Yes. Now, if the second story is true, you see the beginning of a pattern. He promised his brother he would give him the biggest amusement parks in the world. Kaiba Gozoburo was a stepping stone.”

“He was just a kid.”

“A kid with an I.Q. larger than all but maybe two other people on the planet – and he knew it.” She shrugged. “From what we know the boy took to the new environment like a starving man to a feast. In four years he went from a scary smart kid to a terrifying twelve year old who could and did manipulate his adopted father’s board into a coup, getting rid of the old man and stepping into his shoes. There are different stories about what happened. The first is that the old man committed suicide. The second is that the apprentice succeeded the master by right of battle succession – he killed the old man.”

“Shit, do you think he did?”

“I don’t know. It could go either way.” She glanced over at her team leader, “If Seto saw him as a threat to himself or his brother he could have.”

“How the hell do you know all this stuff?” The most junior member of their team burst out.

“Kaiba Corporation has been on the federal watch list since the seventies. When the company took over Disney last year it piqued some interest. I was asked for an assessment.”

“Oh.”

“Could you just cut to the chase Jillian?”

“The chase. All right, based on my observations and studies I believe Kaiba Seto has lost his purpose, his focus. He’d completed his promise to his brother. It was the one thing that he’d ever allowed himself to see. With the promise complete he was without a direction. An intellect like his needs to be channeled. His boredom threshold is lower than a two year old’s. I think he started to go into a depression. The distance from his brother and the lack of understanding from his friends deepened it. Kaiba has always been alone. He’s never seen himself as important except as a way to fulfill that one promise. I think if he didn't go on vacation, he was planning on committing suicide.”

“But... but he’s rich, good looking, he’s got everything.”

“His office is Spartan saying he has no use for material things. He has no long term relationships, and even friends are kept from his true emotions. Without his focus he feels he has nothing.”

“Well fuck.”

“I don’t believe he was kidnapped. Oh coerced certainly, but I believe our kidnapper may have actually saved his life. I also think this trip will either give him a new purpose or cement his desire to end a life without purpose.”

“Well fuck.”

“I just hope our kidnapper realizes what’s going on.” Jillian mused.

“Why do you say that?” The team leader couldn’t help asking.

“Because of the way Kaiba responded. The tells were visible even on a shitty satellite image. Kaiba responded to the caring the other man gave him. I’m not entirely sure he’d leave that behind if he decided to go. He’s had precious little of it from what I can ascertain.”

“Well fuck.”

“So what do you suggest?” This was her supervisor, asking for a plan.

“Just what I said. Put out a missing persons on him, list him as possibly injured. Anyone seeing him contact the hotline. He will either come home or he won’t, but forcing him before he’s had time to direct that brain of his might just kill him.”

Showing once again his grasp of the English language her boss sighed “Well fuck.”

***

A change in rhythm woke Seto from his sound sleep. For a nanosecond he was confused, then the memories came with perfect recall, just as they had every day of his life. He was in a car with Jounouchi Katsuya, driving who knew where. It was dark and they were traveling on a two lane road that seemed buried in a dense wilderness. Unease crawled through him. He was used to the city. The passing landscape reminded him of the nightmare on Pegasus’s island. The too lush forests pressing in on him, his ever present panic and fear for Mokuba, his sense of failure at protecting his brother causing him to see monsters jumping out at him at every corner, real and imagined. He’d never been so frightened in his life as he had at that time. His fear had caused him to lose control and do the one thing he despised above all others. He’d cheated... he’d played a card that even now he cringed from. The Death Card... forcing Moutou Yugi to choose between losing the match or taking his life. The shame of that lived deep inside him today.

Before the uneasy feeling could morph to full blown fear he crushed it ruthlessly. That was over, there was no threat here. He could handle this. As he reassured himself he pushed the memory of that time, his failure, fear, and self-disgust at that failure back into it’s hidden corner. Practically, he reminded himself that he’d agreed to spend a week with the other man and irrational fears would not make him break his word. He was still Kaiba Seto. He didn’t know why he’d agreed except that it had been easier to agree than to fight. It hadn’t really mattered and now he’d given his word and was committed. But for that one slip, long ago, he was a man of honor.

What did matter was his pressing need to urinate. Calmly, as if he’d been awake all along and been silent only a few minutes he, ordered “Stop at the next station.” He could tell his companion was startled by Jounouchi’s quick indrawn breath. He felt a vague sort of amusement about that. A soft whimper in his ear reminded him that his Scapegoat was perched on his shoulder and probably in need of a break as well. “Scapegoat needs a break.”

A chuckle, so much deeper and richer than the boisterous laugh Seto remembered from high school, but still undeniably Jounouchi, answered him. “He’s had four breaks. One every two hours. He just had one about fifteen minutes ago. You slept through the last eight hours. If you gotta piss say so.”

“I have to piss.” Seto parroted mechanically. Oddly caught out at his prevarication he could feel a light heat rising on his cheeks. Defensively he scolded. “Don’t you know it is impolite to speak like that? Bathroom habits are not discussed in polite company.”

“Oh can it, Miss Manners. Since when am I ' polite' or 'company'? We are a couple of guys out on a long drive. Bathroom habits are gonna get discussed. You’re gonna rip one and so am I. If you need to go just say so.” Joey grinned over at him as he slowed the car, pulling it as close to the edge of the road as possible.

Seto sniffed. “Bonkotsu.”

“Yeah middle class all the way and proud of it. I might not be high-class like you but I know when to keep my mouth shut. Now go tinkle.”

“I’ll wait until we get to a station or rest stop.” Seto curled his lip at the blonde. As if he’d ever relieve himself on the side of the road like some... some... ill-bred dog.

“Suit yourself then.” Jou agreed with suspicious good nature. Seeming to hit every bump, Jou pulled back onto the road. “So, now that you’re awake, you mind filling the CD rack? There’s a CD case in the glove box.”

Obligingly Seto opened the box and pulled out the surprisingly large case. “What do you want to hear?”

“I like ‘em all so why don’t you pick a something you like. The player holds up to ten CD’s.”

A quick glance at Jou confirmed the man wasn’t joking. Seto opened the case and flipped through slowly as if considering the choices. In reality he was uncertain of what to choose. When he listened to music it was usually either of Mokuba’s choosing or based on his environment, to set a mood or please his companion. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d listened to music simply for the pleasure of it.

As he perused the contents of the case carefully he was surprised by not only the amount but the variety. He’d expected top forty pop, if he had expectations at all. But he found that the CD’s, some commercial and some obviously home cut, were meticulously labeled and organized into types such as American Blues, Pop, Humor, Zydeco, Rock, Metal, Instrumental, Classical, Be Bop and Japanese music of the same types. Then there was another section entirely, labeled simply “Friends.” It was larger than the other sections combined. Stifling a pang of something, he decided to leave that section alone. As he had never had to choose before he’d simply removed a disk randomly from each section and loaded the CD tray.

Only years of control stopped him from flinching when a discordant, rude, and vulgar note reverberated through the speakers. Then a squeaky voice began singing, if one could call it that. Before he could make sense of the jumble of nonsense words Jounouchi’s laughing voice broke over the ‘music.’ “Weird Al! Seto I never woulda guessed you were a Yankovic fan. Man that’s great. You do have a sense of humor.”

A tingle of pleasure sparked in Seto’s chest. He’d chosen well, and if it fostered a good impression on his host so much the better. Jounouchi didn’t need to know he hadn’t known ‘Weird Al’. Besides, now that he knew that the song was meant to be humorous he could follow it. A tiny curve touched his lips. He could appreciate good humor, or at least appreciate the genuine smile of pleasure on his driver’s lips.

Two hours later Seto wasn’t appreciating anything. His bladder was screaming and for the first time in longer than he cared to admit he was aware of his body’s need for fuel. With an inward sigh he adjusted the volume for the music. Before he could say anything Jounouchi slowed and pulled to the side of the small dirt track they’d turned on an hour before. “Okay last stop. Everyone out.” His smile flashed white in the dashboard lights, as he turned to look at Seto.”

“Last stop? Does that mean we are near the hotel? Is it hidden somewhere behind this...” He waved his hand “foliage?”

The gleaming smile faded and the blonde’s expression became quizzical. “What part of ‘hobo’ don’t you understand? We aren’t going to a hotel. We’re spending the night here. I got a hammock in the back I’ll string up between trees. You can sleep in your seat. The pup can sleep with you since the car is prolly safer for him. He’s small enough that some of the critters out here might eat him.”

“You’re joking.” Seto was sure this was some kind of trick or trap to humiliate him. Nobody would willingly spend the night out in some god-forsaken wilderness.

“Nah. I’ve done it every trip. See I like to take a night or two and shake off everything. Just camp out and get the feel of the road and the land.”

“If it’s money...”

“Don’t. Seto – damn how long’s it gonna take for you not to look like a screw-face when I call you that? - This ain’t about money or anything like that. It’s about reflectin’ on what’s inside me, what I need and don’t need, and appreciating everything I have. I don’t need a hotel with a bed and Jacuzzi, serving breakfast and offering laundry service. Nobody does. I can sleep on a hammock under the stars and be just as comfortable. I can get my own food and I can wash my own clothes. That stuff is nice, but I don’t need them... and for now I don’t want them either.”

Losing the fight against showing discomfort, he squirmed as his bladder threatened to revolt Seto snapped “What about my needs?” The night shrouded trees and plants were giving him flashbacks he didn’t like.

“Everyone has the same needs, it’s just how we prioritize them. And right now your biggest priority is findin’ a tree or bush to piss behind. Lose a little of your pride for once and go piss. It’s been at least twelve hours, maybe more. Just go.”

Reigning in his irrational emotions, unwilling to lose face he clenched his teeth until they squeaked and gritted. “I pissed at the gas station when I changed.”

“Nah, you didn’t. It’s gutted. Stop being stubborn. We are at least four hours from a bathroom. Just go. I promise I won’t peek.”

Without another word Seto flung open the door and stalked towards the nearest bush. He wasn’t going to argue any longer. If he did he would really lose his pride. He barely noticed the how loud his zipper sounded in the hush of the night, and it was only after his bladder stopped it’s agonized shriek that he realized Scapegoat was dancing around his feet, sniffing his ankles.

Not wanting the dog to step in his waste, he hurriedly tucked and zipped, then bent down to scoop up the fuzz ball. When he felt a warm wetness on the side of his hand where it gripped the pup’s belly he grimaced. Now he had his own and Scapegoat’s piss on his hands, and not a sink in sight. Pretending not to notice the shifting shadows around him, he cradled his pet to his chest and made his way back to the car.

Jou, no longer in the car, but several yards away, was humming to himself as he strung a rope hammock. Seto glared angrily and stalked towards him. “Hey, it sounded like you were releasing Niagara falls. Glad to see everything came out alright. Wet wipes are next to your seat. Trash bag is behind the center console.”

“Hnn...” He spun around to get the items. When he’d finished wiping Scapegoat’s belly and his hands with the ‘wet wipes’ he neatly threw away the lemon-scented, moist towelette.

Jounouchi was finished stringing the hammock and was kneeling on the ground digging a hole. “What are you doing?”

“Huh? Oh, this is a rock oven. It’s filled in until it’s needed. This is where our campfire goes and where we will cook our meals tomorrow.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yeah, you don’t find a perfect camping spot like this by accident. A Native American Shaman, from the Miwok tribe, showed me this place.” A sad smile flitted across Jou’s lips. “He was a great guy. He died last year.”

“Oh.” Seto didn’t know what to say. He normally didn’t waste time on platitudes and believed polite phrases were meaningless. The sadness on the other man’s face seemed to warrant more than that, so he stayed silent, petting Scapegoat gently. After a moment the sadness faded and Jounouchi bent back to cleaning out their ‘oven.’ Jou finished cleaning the rock lined hole and started a fire, he was humming again as the flames sparked to life.

Once the fire was going Seto relaxed slightly. The light from the fire drove the encroaching shadows away. Even in the moonlight, Seto found them disturbing. Now that he relaxed he remembered his body’s need for fuel. With a slight cough he asked, stated, “You mentioned meals. What’s for dinner?”

“Gut bombs.”

Seto shook his head slightly. “Excuse me?” Whatever it was, maybe he’d give it a pass and wait. Anything called bomb couldn’t be good.

“Meals Ready to Explode. MRE’s.”

Seto continued to shake his head. It didn’t sound any better the more Jounouchi spoke. Coming to a decision he declined “I’ll wait until tomorrow.”

“Don’t be an...” Jounouchi broke off and sighed, picking up a packet that he’d laid on one of the warming stones. “Look just try it. You should know me enough to know I don’t eat crappy food.” Seeing his dubious look, Jou stood and brought the pack to him. “Its freeze-dried pasta primavera. I made both packages for you because you didn’t eat your sandwich and you since weren’t awake I ate it. You eat while I feed fur... Scapegoat.” Quick as a wink Seto found himself holding two warm bags of re-hydrated food and Jounouchi was walking back to the car with the little dog carried in his hands.

Deciding to trust the blond he opened one of the packs, finding a small wooden spork inside. The first bite was a tentative nibble, the second a full bite, and by the third he was wolfing down the food like he hadn’t eaten in days. He devoured the packets where he stood, then sighed and wadded the foil bags together. Remembering where the trash bag was he turned back to the car.

When he got there he was amused to hear Jounouchi mumbling curses and Scapegoat’s distinctive growl. The blond was so intent on trying to feed the little dog he literally jumped a foot when Seto reached across and threw his empties in the trash. “Give it up.”

“What? Whatcha talking about?”

“He has been trained since the first day I got him not to take food from anyone but me.” Seto explained calmly, as he took the small bowl of kibble from Jounouchi’s hand and then carefully set in front of the tiny puppy. Proving his words, the little black fuzzball dove head first into the food. “See?”

“Yeah, but hey he took water from me.”

“One thing at a time. We are going to start training on water next.”

“Goddamn Seto that’s... that’s... I know you have control issues but fuck that’s wrong. What if you are home late or something. He’ll starve to death.”

“If something happens to me there are instructions to have him put down quickly and humanely. He would not starve.”

“Holy fuck that’s cold.” It was obvious Jounouchi was horrified.

Seto shrugged and leaned down to pet his little friend. He wasn’t going to explain to Jounouchi that the training had been necessary, that as the pet of a wealthy public figure, someone that had as many enemies as fans, the little puppy was in danger of being the target of someone’s hate. That eating from a seemingly friendly hand could lead to poisoning for no other reason than spite or jealousy.

The blond must have seen he wasn’t going to answer because he shrugged and stepped back towards the camp, pausing to invite, “When he’s done why don’tcha come back by the fire and we’ll talk a while before hittin’ the hay.”

“Talk? What do you think we need to talk about?” Seto could feel his defenses rising as they hadn’t all day. In his life when someone wanted to talk it meant they wanted to borrow money or ask a favor.

“Geez Seto, are you bein’ difficult on purpose or are you that clueless? Talkin’ is what people do for companionship, entertainment, and to get to know each other better.” He glowered over his shoulder, “And if you don’t quit screwing up your face, it’s gonna freeze like that. Then they’ll stick me in jail for ruining a piece of art. So cut it out already.” He stomped off, calling back “And come over here and talk to me.”

Seto was tempted to ignore the blond, after all they didn’t have anything in common and making casual conversation was a complete waste of time. But a rapid movement in the shadows, high in the trees, made him glance up into the shifting darkness above him. With a shiver he picked up his now full pup and hurried back to the clearing. Maybe a little conversation wouldn’t hurt.

Jounouchi had constructed a bench out of a fallen log and medium size stones. It wasn’t much but it wasn’t sitting on the dirt. Seto sat on one end, placing Scapegoat on his usual perch.

“Man he is well trained. Did you send him to a school or somethin’?”

Seto didn’t take offense. Most people would assume that. “No. I’ve trained him personally. I... enjoy spending time with him.”

“Oh, well it had to take a lot of time. Unless he’s a genius too?” Jounouchi joked.

“Above average but not a genius.” Seto smiled fondly and nuzzled his chin into the fuzzy ball under his chin. “But he makes up for it.”

“Yeah I can see that. You said a friend gave him to you. I’ve never heard you mention friends before. In school you said you didn’t need ‘em.”

“Everyone needs people, it just took me longer to realize it.” Seto admitted quietly. “I have two friends, Matashi and Aishira. Matashi is my Vice President in charge of marketing and Aishira is my costume designer.”

“Costume designer? You have someone design your coats?” Jounouchi’s eyes were wide, shining with shock in the flickering firelight.

“No, that is my clothing designer. Aishira designs costumes for the park staff and special events.” He rolled his eyes at the blond’s idiocy.

A chuckle surprised him. “I knew that. I was yankin’ your chain. You gave up those long trench coats about six years ago. Can’t say I was sorry to see them go. But I was always curious, how come they floated, and how come they had them hip things that stuck out like handles. you don’t know how many times I wanted to reach out and grab one just to see what you’d do.”

It was Seto’s turn to chuckle. It surprised even him to hear the laugh roll out of his mouth. “The ‘floating’ was cause by a negative static field. I had to wear a satellite tracker even then and the technology for smaller, solar powered devices didn’t exist yet. The coats had charged energy that fed the transmitter. To keep from getting shocked my clothes were charged in the same way – they pushed against each other.”

“No way, you’re kidding?” Golden eyes widened with laughter. “You're not. So you got rid of the coats as soon as the smaller batteries came out then?”

“Of course. I’d started to loathe the things.” Where that came from he didn’t know, but it was true. He’d never admitted it before, but he’d started hating the overly dramatic, flaring coats with a passion. When the small collar device had been perfected he’d had a personal bonfire with the stupid things. Before he could think the better of that he confided “I burned them all when I could.”

“I don’t blame you. Okay so tell me about the handles.”

“They weren’t handles. They were emergency disconnects. If something went wrong with the power source then I only had to pull one down and it would disconnect and shut down.”

“Wow. So did you ever have to use one?”

“No. The technology didn’t fail once.”

“Shit, if I’d known I’d have probably done something just to make you use it. You were way too uptight.”

“That was one of the main reasons security about my jackets was so tight.”

“No shit, you thought I’d do something to them?”

“No, I thought you’d try and end up fried. I hate the smell of singed dog hair.” Abruptly Seto broke off, horrified by what he’d said. He’d been enjoying this conversation with Jounouchi and he’d just ruined it.

Instead of taking offense the blonde laughed “Yeah probably. Electronics weren’t my thing unless it was video games. You always knew such cool stuff.” Seto was blown away by the admiration in the other man’s voice.

Curious and wary of a complimentary Jounouchi, Seto turned his head to assess the blond. He was surprised to see the man’s cheeks glowing pink in the firelight. A pink that deepened when Jounouchi caught him looking. Not resisting the urge to tease Seto quirked an eyebrow. “Really. What other stuff do you think I know that’s ‘cool?’”

“I’ll bet you know the stars. I tried to learn but I just can’t see the constellations. I even get Mars mixed up with the North Star.”

“I can triangulate my position from anywhere I can see the stars.” Seto agreed, casually leaning back to look up into the moonlit night sky. As he mapped the points he needed he sat up abruptly. “We... We were north of here. I thought we were headed north.”

“We were, but... well I didn’t want to take the coast highway. I decided to go through the mountains instead. I turned around and went inland, then decided to spend some time here. We only went about three hours north before I backtracked. We are about two hours south and east from where you joined me.”

“I know that.” Seto frowned slightly. “But backtracking is a waste of time.”

“Why? We don’t have to be anywhere, nobody is waiting and we have no set plan. This is a nice place Seto. Relax and enjoy it. When we want to we’ll move on.” He gave the brunet a pat on the shoulder and tweaked Scapegoats curled tail. “Let’s hit the hay. I’m tired and you’re looking kinda grumpy.”

The brunet watched intently as Jou banked the fire, making sure the active flames were too low to leap out of the ‘oven’ and that there was enough heavy wood in it to keep it going until morning. As the light from the fire died Seto rose, and turned to the car. Just as he slid into the seat, Jounouchi called softly “Sleep well Seto.”

He didn’t respond, simply glanced back at the now dim glow. A fast moving shadow at the front of the car made him jerk back sharply, his breath catching in his throat, as for one second a single blazing eye seemed to stare at him from deep in the recesses of the night. Stifling his fright, he gripped Scapegoat tight and continued to look around at the shadows and moonlight circling his haven. His eyes didn’t close until the rising sun chased away the vestiges of darkness.

***

Scapegoat’s whimper directly into his ear woke Seto from his uneasy sleep. Automatically he reached up to soothe the pup as he pulled himself into an upright position. “That time already?” Another whimper confirmed that it was indeed time to take the little pooch out for a morning walk.

He found Jounouchi seated on the log bench, grinding something on a long flat stone. “What are you doing?” There was a pleasant, toasty scent in the air. He glanced at the fire pit expecting to see something cooking. Instead all he saw was glowing rocks covering the hole. “And what’s up with that?”

“I’m grinding soap root. When I’m done we’ll be able to go to the little inlet and bathe without polluting the stream with man-made shampoo and soap.” He gestured to the rock oven, “That’s breakfast. They’re tubers, kinda like sweet potatoes, but chewier. I dug them this morning while you were snoring.”

“You expect me to eat...”

“Yes I do. Look Seto, I ain’t gonna lie to ya. I got more of the MRE’s but... well this place is special to me. By doing this, living the way my friend taught me, I’m honoring his memory and our friendship. I promise, I know what I’m doing. I won’t poison you and I won’t... look nothing I feed you is gonna be nasty. The natives in this area lived on this stuff for thousands of years. The tubers fed them when there was famine everywhere else. Just... just trust me okay?”

He hesitated then nodded shortly. It wouldn’t hurt, besides when in Rome... “All right, but if I get sick I expect you to take care of me.”

“Deal!” The blonde beamed a smile at him and laid down the stone he was crushing the root with. Holding the flat rock like a plate he jerked his head towards a thicket of tall grass. “Let’s go. We’ll use some of the soap to wash our clothes.”

“Wash our clothes? What are you talking about? With what water?” Seto knew that there were several bottles of water but not enough to wash their clothes or bathe.

“In the stream. Didn’t you look around last night?”

Feeling dumb was not something Seto liked. “Of course not. It was dark when we arrived. Even I know better to go wandering around in the woods after dark.”

“Oh... Yeah. I forgot. Okay follow me.” The blond took off like a sure-footed gazelle. Seto had to stretch his long legs to catch up. Scapegoat scampered along happily, tumbling over his feet and yipping at the new smells.

About ten yards from the campsite the grasses gave way to rocky downward slope. The slope gave way to a few feet of pebbled beach. “What is this?”

“It’s a small creek that comes off Vail Lake. The creek is actually U-shaped and turns around to go back to the lake but we are on the furthest curve of the creek. The lake is about two miles east. The resort area is another five miles down dirt roads.”

“So not four hours like you said last night.” Seto observed neutrally. But anger sparked slightly.

The blonde laughed at him. “Have you ever driven on strange dirt roads in the dark? No street lights or signs? Half the time the roads around here are little more than tire tracks. Four hours was a good guess assuming we didn’t run into the lake, a tree or any animals.”

He could see the point. His spark of anger flickered out. Grudgingly he nodded. “Fine. Where do I... I have to...” He fumbled to a stop and sighed in frustration.

“To?” Then Jounouchi chuckled in comprehension. “Take a dump? Gotcha covered. Go down behind those tall reeds. There is a kind of current that moves stuff away from here and there is a hot spring that bubbles through the rocks that acts like a bidet. You want to be on the left side of the rocks – aim over them to the right. Everything will be pushed away on the stream.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope. Go check it out. If it ain’t what you’re lookin’ for I’ll show you were you can dig a pit and what leaves to use.” A reminiscent smile, tinged with pain touched his lips. “Trust my you don’t want to use Poison Oak.”

“Leaves? I’ll use the wet...”

“No, you won’t. The chemicals on the wipes are not part of this environment and I won’t have your shit stinkin’ up my car. Use the stream or use the leaves.”

Seto could see the blond was uncompromising on this. Part of him respected the stance, but another part growled. “You were the one who brought me along. Deal with it.”

“I am. I’m going to teach you what you need to know. Now go check the stream. I think you will... okay maybe not like but damn it just go before I say something mean.”

Still growling, he turned down to check out the facilities. No matter what the idiot said he was not going to stand in his own waste. Hearing a soft yip, he belatedly turned back to catch Scapegoat, only to shake his head slightly. Jounouchi was kneeling on the bank of the stream, his shirt spread out on the rocks as he worked some of the crushed soap root into the fabric. Scapegoat was dancing around him yipping playfully as he tugged at the blonde’s shorts.

Leaving them to it he turned to examine the ‘facilities.’ Grudgingly he saw it would work very well.
When he returned Jounouchi was stripped to the skin, his shirt and shorts hanging on an overhanging branch while he scrubbed out his underwear. Scapegoat was sitting back staring at the blond as if in shock. In his world humans didn’t run around without their second skins

Seto was shocked too, and for the first time in more time than he cared to remember his breath caught slightly and his heart picked up a few beats. He must have made a noise, because Jounouchi glanced at him over his shoulder.

“Hey, did you need me to show you where to dig a hole?” A hint of mischief danced in his golden eyes.

“No.” He coughed slightly. “It was quite impressive. A stone age, primitive bidet. Crude but effective.”

“Yeah, well you gotta remember that the natives of America lived here for thousands of years without damaging their environment. It’s taken the ‘advanced’ Europeans just over two hundred years to fuck it up.” Jounouchi shrugged angrily. “They had all they needed; food, clean water, clothes, shelter. They had social structure and respected family. It’s too damn bad their ways are nearly gone. They could help with the mess our planet’s in now.” Efficiently he hung his now clean underwear next to the rest of his drying clothes.

“You sound like a tree-hugger.” Seto couldn’t resist teasing as he padded up to the blond. “But you just rinsed your clothes in the stream; the area is coated with the soap.”

“You don’t know what’s what so I won’t hold it against you. Strip and I’ll explain. Gimme your shirt. You watch and then you can do your own.” The golden blond regarded him thoughtfully. "You saw I only have one more set of clothes in the trunk. I'm okay running around Au Natural if you want to wear the third set while you're washing what you have on.

Seto hesitated for a second and received a quick eye roll. With a sigh he pulled the threadbare shirt off and tossed it to the other man. "If you're okay with it then I am too. As soon as we can though, we are getting a few more shirts and shorts."

“See your point. Slip outta the rest. You can do as you learn.” With a quick grin, the blond dunked the shirt in the water and wrung it out slightly.

Seto slithered out of his shorts and boxers before common sense could change his mind. Without a word he dunked the shorts and twisted the excess moisture out of them exactly as the other had done.

“Here’s the deal. This is a natural thing in this environment. It’s a root out of the ground. No chemicals or stuff. Yeah it lingers on the water, but it breaks down quickly and in fast moving water it actually nourishes the life in the water.” He shrugged “In still water like this it works as a kind of stunner for fish. It doesn’t last long because it breaks down quickly, but it will help us catch our food for today.”

That made Seto blink slightly. Very sophisticated multi-purpose plant. Perhaps it should be studied. Before he could question further Jou moved on.

“Okay, you don’t need a lot. Just a couple fingers full. Rub it into the center of whatever you’re washing then take the sides and scrub the cloth in on itself. See it makes a great lather. When you get the lather nice and thick work it through the whole thing. Rinse and hang it up to dry on the branch.”

They worked in silence a few moments, then Jounouchi jumped and yelp. “Holy fuck.”

“What’s wrong?” Seto glanced over to find the blond holding Scapegoat in his soapy hands, glaring. “What did he do?”

“He sniffed my balls and ass. His nose is damn cold.”

Seto couldn’t stop the laugh that broke from his throat, nor the instinctive comment. “Isn’t that how dogs greet each other? Sniff ass?”

Instead of getting angry, the blond gave him a smiling look, full of teasing menace. “Laugh it up, Jerk. I ain’t the one with a pervy dog. One day you’re gonna wake up and find him humpin’ that cute ass of yours, you just wait.”

Seto felt his heart start to trip again. Jounouchi thought he had a cute ass and last night he’d said something about his face. Maybe... “Jounouchi, I... You...”

Smiling brown eyes met his confused, questioning blue gaze. “You need to get the suds out. Rinse them where I do and let’s get cleaned up. And to answer the question you don’t know you’re asking; ask me again when you decide if you’re staying for more than a week.”

The pup still in one hand Jounouchi stepped into the creek, bringing the sudsy shirt with him. Seto, after a moment to gather his thoughts and admire the golden beauty of the blond’s skin in dappled sunlight, stood and followed. Copying his movements exactly, he rinsed his shorts and boxers and hung them on the branch. One part of him wanted to push ahead and ask, but another part wasn’t sure what to ask, and what he really wanted the answer to be.

His companion’s approving grin was his reward. He decided that if relaxing and going with the flow earned him that open smile, he’d do it more often. There were worse things in life than being smiled on with uncomplicated warmth.

***

"Damn Seto! Why does he have to be so stiff about everything? First he won't accept Rebecca, and now I can't even get on to our estate." Mokuba railed inwardly. "Why the hell would he change the voice and hand print access?" Pacing impatiently, tugging at his hair in frustration, he waited for a servant to let him into his once-home.

Matashi glanced questioningly at Aishira as they drove up to the gates and pulled to a smooth stop in front of the obviously fuming young man. “Mokuba, you didn’t have to wait for us. Where is your car?”

“Rebecca had an errand. I told her I’d wait for her inside.” He mumbled. No way was he going to explain that Rebecca had left him here after an argument about Seto’s security changes. She didn’t get it. Seto was his brother. He would never lock him out. And her argument that Seto didn’t have keys to their apartment was just stupid. She’d left in a huff saying she’d be back when she’d cooled off. “I didn’t wait deliberately. My voice and hand prints won’t open the gates. I think it’s malfunctioning.”

“What? When was the last time you used them?” Aishira was shocked. Only one person could change those settings and, unlike Mokuba, he believed the changes were deliberate. Seto’s security system was checked several times a day. The changes added weight to a suspicion forming since the day before in the back of his mind.

The memory of that evening was painfully vivid to Mokuba. “The last time I came here ..." he paused a moment to reflect on the scene, "was when Rebecca and I told him about our engagement. He... he didn’t... he wasn’t... He was very cold about it. Bitter and angry. He treated Rebecca like she was dirt. We left and I swore I wouldn't come back until he accepted that I was an adult and could choose my own wife.” The younger man shifted uneasily under Aishira’s disapproving gaze. That dark-eyed look made him feel ashamed. He had nothing to be guilty about. He was a man, not some misbehaving child. And Seto was even older. He wasn’t going to take responsibility when it was his brother who caused the rift.

Matashi bit back a gasp of shock and horror. That had been four months ago! He hadn't been to see Seto since? "It's been that long?" When the other man nodded slightly he flinched and reached for Ashira, needing his support to absorb the blow of how they had failed their friend. They hadn't known! But Mokuba... There was no excuse for Mokuba. He knew he was the cornerstone of Seto's heart. How could he be so careless about his brother's feelings? So heedless of the damage that kind of isolation would do to Seto? Gods! Was this blow, this isolation why Seto had been so distant? Why he was missing now? Swallowing back his pain Matashi gripped Aishira's hand tightly and looked away from Mokuba, unable to face the confirmation of his worst fears.

Seeing Matashi look away, Mokuba frowned and scuffed his feet as guilt welled up. That guilt, the way they were manipulating him, made his temper flare. He stormed hotly, “What did he expect after the way he treated Rebecca? I barely speak to him anymore unless its business related. I thought he'd pull his head out of his ass and come around once he saw how happy we were together. That we’d talk it out once he could see it through my eyes.” The frown became deeper and the anger faded. Softly he confessed. “I had hope for when he came back. Before he left he spoke to me for the first time since then. He said he... he wanted me to be happy.” Mokuba’s breath caught in his throat. “We have to find him. We have to get him back from whoever took him. Doesn’t he know I can’t be happy without him?”

“Too bad you couldn’t have told him that four months ago, or any time since.” Aishira snapped, as he laid his palm on the glass and announced his name. The gate opened readily. “The security is working fine.” He couldn’t resist that dig at the younger man. “Hop in and let’s go.” He said without holding back the harshness in his voice.

Mokuba winced and clenched his fists but didn’t answer. The other man was entitled to his opinion. He wasn’t right, but Mokuba had too much respect for Aishira to argue with him. Everyone was under a lot of stress. He could make allowances. They’d understand how wrong they were once they had time to think about it and Seto was safely back home. He climbed into the open convertible and settled on the back seat. Deliberately he changed the subject. Straining for a conciliatory tone he asked, “Why did you guys call me here? Have you heard something? A ransom note perhaps? Do you think Seto came home?”

Hearing the unconscious condescension below the surface of Mokuba's voice, Matashi nearly choked on his anger and disappointment with the boy he'd helped raise. Neutrally he explained, “No, but if he really did go on a road trip he would have a plan somewhere, sites visited researching his travels. He kept an emergency supply of cash in the safe. If he’s taken any we’ll know. He kept a ledger with the cash.” Surprise added to the anger and disappointment. Mokuba was far from dumb, but the way he was acting made him seem a simpleton. This should have already occurred to him. They should have been the one to receive the call to come to the mansion. Instead they had called Mokuba to find he hadn’t done a single thing to further the search for Seto.

Despite the neutral tone Mokuba felt the whip of censure. “Oh I knew that.” He just hadn’t thought of it. He hadn’t slept at all, was worried out of his mind, guilty as hell and simply hadn’t thought of it. Sighing he murmured “I’m just... I can’t think right now. I haven’t eaten or slept since yesterday when Seto's com-link died. Everything is so hazy. I... I've never dealt with something like this before. I... I’m sorry guys. I'm just so worried about Seto. And now Rebecca and I are fighting. I'm sorry. I'll try to get it together.” Genuine contrition filled his voice.

Aishira grunted slightly to show he’d heard. Matashi gave no response. They drove to the house in silence. The first place they checked was the safe. The money was gone. The ledger clearly noted the cash being deposited in a bank account labeled ‘Staff’ the morning Seto left.

“What the fuck?” Mokuba couldn’t hold his exclamation of shock. “He never took the money out of here, never put it in the bank. He said he never knew when it might be needed!”

Matashi and Aishira shared a grim look. They weren’t surprised as much as horrified at this further proof. Seto would have only removed the cash if he was certain he’d never need it. “Let’s check his computer.” Matashi turned from the safe.

As they walked through the large home Mokuba looked around, assessing it for the first time ever. Comparing it to the comfortable apartment he shared with Rebecca. “It’s empty.”

“What?” Startled, Aishira paused at the bottom of the stairs to look back at the young man.

Mokuba shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. “The house. I never noticed before, but it’s empty. I mean... the furniture is beautiful. The paintings and art fantastic. It’s all perfect. But...” He bit his lip. “But it could be a museum. There is no life. Seto isn’t here.”

Aishira nodded his agreement. He’d always felt that way about the house. That’s why he’d made sure to invite his friend over as much as possible. “Seto spends a lot of time at our place.”

“Oh.” Mokuba didn’t know what to say. Deep inside regret bloomed that he hadn’t invited his brother to his new home with Rebecca even once. How was Seto ever going to change his mind about Rebecca and him if he didn’t see that they belonged together?

At the foot of the stairs a beep from the intercom sounded. Aishira answered before he could. “Yes?”

“It’s me, Rebecca.” The woman’s voice was breathless and slightly impatient.

Aishira crossed and hit the button to allow her in, underlining the fact that Mokuba no longer had access to the gates. “We’ll meet you in the front hall.”

“Thanks.” More bad temper. Aishira glanced at Mokuba then Matashi with raised brows.

They waited in silence for the blond woman to join them. Mokuba greeted her with a quick kiss on the cheek. “We are going up to Seto’s room to see if he left an itinerary or anything on his personal computer.”

“Good idea.” She gave her fiancé a strained look before turning to greet the other men. “Matashi, Aishira.” She nodded slightly. It was very obvious she was uncomfortable around them.

Used to her attitude they mumbled polite greetings as they turned to mount the stairs. They didn’t owe her an explanation or apology of their lifestyle and love. Rebecca’s hang-ups about homosexuals were her own issue.

They ignored her talk about the paintings and furnishings as they went to Seto’s room. At first glance it was as beautiful as the rest of the house. Then the coldness of it, the stark barrenness sank in. Antiques and artwork, yes, but a total lack of personal items. It could have been in a hotel or museum. The one personal item, if it could be called such, was a silvery laptop computer sitting closed on a small desk.

Without hesitation Matashi and Aishira booted it up. A desktop loaded immediately. A series of icons dotted the plain blue screen. Curious, Aishira double clicked one that looked like a daisy. A colorful login screen loaded.

“Garden Party?” Mokuba read aloud. “What’s that?”

“It looks like a RP game.” Aishira hit the login button, glad to see that the username and password were auto-saved. Instantly the game loaded to a virtual lagoon with a large tree house and caves. Signs pointed to different areas. Before they could explore a chat scrolled on the screen. “Nosleep, I thought you quit. You gave all your stuff away.” Tigertuff greeted.

Matashi glanced at Aishira and typed “Not Nosleep. His brother.”

“Oh. Didn’t know Nosleep had a bro. Where he?”

“He went on a trip.” Brief and to the point.

“Oh ya. He said he was quitting the game cuz he was going away. Gave his stuff away. He coming back soon? I got something to tell him.”

“Maybe. But I’ll pass a message if you want.” Aishira responded, not sure if he would or not.

“Tell him my dad got a job at that place he told me about. At first my dad was kind doubting that a kid online would know about a job but he checked it out anyway. He got the job after the first interview. My dad is happy and mom hasn’t yelled in a couple days.”

“That’s great! What job was it? My brother always knows about stuff like that.” Aishira wanted to hear more. Maybe there was a clue here. Maybe Seto decided to visit his online friends.

“Yeah he always listened when I talked about my mom and dad fighting cuz dad lost his job. I talked to him, told him that most of my town was out of work. He asked what town and I told him. Nosleep said he heard about a plant coming in our area for a new game maker. A lot of people have jobs now. They bought the old Reisig building and had it all done in a month. Dad starts Monday.”

“Lucky! So how long you known Nosleep?” Matashi questioned. Aishira had pulled out a notebook and started taking notes.

“I met him here about a year ago. I am too old for this game now. It’s for kids under twelve. I’m twelve. But I came back to talk to him. I just hang here to talk to him.”

Wanting to encourage more conversation Matashi typed “?...?”

“He’s cool. And he is nice to everyone. Teaches the little kids how to play, gives them tips and stuff. Everyone thinks he’s a really cool big brother.”

As he read the gushing praise Mokuba couldn’t stifle his slight flinch. It was true. He had forgotten it, pushed it away, but Seto was just like this kid said. Always making time to talk, help out, and just listen. How could he have forgotten? Turning away from the group he crossed to stare out the window, images of the past playing in his mind. He barely noticed when Rebecca placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Matashi and Aishira continued to investigate the computer. They found four games, all with varying themes and age ranges, but their reception, when they logged on, was glad greetings, kids expressing joy that ‘Nosleep’ had returned and disappointed surprise to learn it was a brother on the other end of the keyboard.

Satisfied they’d gathered what they needed from the obvious games, Matashi turned to a folder simply named ‘History.’ Ostensibly a system file, History did not belong on the desktop, which drew their attention. A double click later and a list of album folders filled the screen.

With a quick shared look they opened the top album with a creation date over a year past. Thumbnails of blurred images and old looking photos filled the screen. A man and a woman, both bearing obvious resemblance to the Kaiba brother’s were dominant. Mokuba’s breath caught. “My mom and dad... our real parents. See there’s even a picture of me as a baby.” Shaking his head slightly he whispered “I didn’t know he had these.”

The next album was more old pictures, but more somber. The parents were gone and an odd utilitarian place was the backdrop for all pictures. Another album and the mansion in Japan, images of Gozoburo, a child Mokuba, servants and the lush gardens played across the screen.

The next album opened to a picture of Domino High School. The gap of years between was painfully obvious. Thumbnails of classmates, teachers, even cafeteria food, displayed perfectly. “Wow, nobody saw him take pictures?” Mokuba wondered. If they had it had never been mentioned.

“He once told me that he’d perfected a spycam in the spine of a book. Perhaps he...” Matashi shrugged. “He took a lot of pictures of one group friends. Jounouchi Katsuya, Moutou Yugi, Otogi Ryugi and...He seems fixated.”

“They were rivals back then. Of course he watched them. He wanted to discover Moutou Yugi’s weaknesses.” It made perfect sense to Mokuba.

Matashi, assessing the pictures, wanted to point out that Moutou Yugi wasn’t in most of the pictures. In fact there was only one constant. The blond duelist he recognized as Jounouchi Katsuya. “Lets move on.”

More albums and pictures. The images detailed Seto’s rise to the CEO of the world’s largest entertainment corporation. Scattered throughout the corporate pictures, the cityscapes at sunrise and sunset, the pictures of himself and Aishira, images of the blond duelist popped up constantly for years, then abruptly they stopped. If he hadn’t been paying close attention to any blond’s in hopes of finding an old friend or acquaintance who Seto might have gone with, he wouldn’t have noticed.

“Jounouchi Katsuya. What happened to him five - six years ago?”

Mokuba started, his eyes going wide before he controlled himself. “H... Happened? Nothing. In fact Seto lost to him the other day.”

“Did they argue or something?” Aishira caught the flash of something in Mokuba’s eyes. There was a story here.

“A... Argue? They fought all the time. Nothing new that I know of. Why are you guys asking about Jounouchi? He hasn’t spoken to us in years. When I tried to contact him he sent back a message not to talk to him again.” But Mokuba avoided their eyes, leaning over the computer as if to look at more pictures.

“He was a constant in all of the albums since high school. Then suddenly he’s gone.” Matashi pointed out. The knowledge that Mokuba knew more than he let on about Jounouchi Katsuya took root. “And Mokuba, you know something, I can see it. Why don’t you just tell us. It may help Seto now. If Jounouchi is the one who took him and it’s bad... Well the police should be told.”

Mokuba moistened his lips and sent Rebecca a quick glance. “I... I doubt it was Jounouchi. He made it plain he didn’t want contact from us years ago. He... he was angry about something, a harmless prank.”

“A prank? If it was harmless why would he stay angry for years? That’s not the Jounouchi I remember. What happened?” Rebecca asked, her eyes steady on her fiancé. She knew him very well and the look in his eyes was panicked. There was something going on here that made her stomach, already churning, clench hard with dread.

“Ah...” Mokuba forced a laugh. “He... uhm... he asked for a lift home. Hadn’t won enough for airfare and knew we were heading back to Japan. He believes Seto agreed, then took off without him.”

“Seto wouldn’t have done that. Not if he agreed.” Aishira pointed out the obvious, glaring in demand. “What really happened?”

“I uh...” Dark color washed up his features. “I... Seto told me that... Look do I have to go into this? I mean, it’s not important.” He definitely didn’t want to discuss this with Rebecca in the room.

“It’s apparent that something is going on. As the only blond we’ve seen in your brother’s pictures he is the obvious place to start.” Matashi snapped, frustrated at the younger man’s evasive attitude. He wouldn’t let Mokuba get away with it. Any little detail could be important. Besides Jounouchi Katsuya was the only blond to show up with any regularity in the photos. That had meaning.

Seeing the logic and no way out he decided to give them a half-truth. “I...” For another moment he hesitated, then with a gusting sigh lowered his head. “Seto said he wanted me to leave him alone with Jounouchi. He wanted to talk to him privately. I... I had a crush on Jounouchi and didn’t want my brother to... ruin my chances. I told Seto I wanted Jou for my boyfriend, that I loved him and thought Jou felt the same. Seto... nodded and suggested I take a different plane so Jou and I could be alone. Jou had checked out of his hotel and didn’t have a cell phone. He didn’t get the message to go to a different terminal and I had to hurry to the terminal where Seto was taking off. I got there just in time to see Jou rush out the door. Seto left early. Jou must have seen the plane take off because one minute he was ahead of me at the airport and the next he was gone. He thinks we left him stranded.” Mokuba squared his shoulders. “I tried to tell Jou what really happened, to tell him... well that I liked him. But he wouldn’t speak to me again. He hasn’t since that day.” He gave his fiancé a quick look. Her white face and pinched lips told their own story.

“I can understand him being angry but not for years.” Ashira noted.

Mokuba swallowed hard. “It was worse than just a lift. Jou confided that he didn’t have a penny. Not even enough for a phone call. He... He barely had enough to pay the bill at the hotel. He... He was basically homeless and penniless.”

“I... see.” Aishira had never been in that position but he could well understand the helplessness and fear that the younger man had felt.

Matashi sighed and tugged at his long hair. “Why didn’t Seto send a plane back for him? Or buy him a commercial ticket? Why didn’t you?”

Defensively Mokuba crossed his arms over his chest. “Jou disappeared. We had no way to get in touch. And Seto didn’t know. Still doesn’t. When I landed I went to talk to him about it and he told me never to mention Jounouchi Katsuya or my love life to him again – ever. And he’s stuck by it. Whenever I’ve tried to talk to him about anything related to Jou or my dating he’s told me to shut up or walked out of the room.”

Pieces of the puzzle were coming together. “There’s more isn’t there Mokuba?” Rebecca stepped forward aggressively. “And whatever it is caused what happened when we went to tell him we were engaged, didn’t it?” A picture was forming and it made her want to throw up. She was a genius and knew more about the Kaiba's than anyone on earth – including them. She'd devoted herself to the study when she found herself in love with Mokuba.

“He... that doesn’t mean anything. He was confused.” But Mokuba looked away guiltily.

“Oh it means something. He called you a cheat, accused you of breaking a loyal heart to be with a slut like me. I was there remember? You told him you guys got together didn’t you? He thought you were with Jounouchi and you’d left him for me. Didn’t he?” She glared at him demanding the truth. “Didn’t he?”

“What? Where the hell do you get that from?” Mokuba’s was stunned at her weird, huge, leap of logic.

To Rebecca it was perfectly clear. “You told him you loved Jounouchi remember? If there is one thing I know about your brother and about Jounouchi; they are both loyal and give their hearts forever. I have seen it too many times in their actions. Jounouchi towards his friends, and Seto towards you. It would never occur to him that you didn’t really love Jounouchi.” It was a positive statement. She knew it as well as she knew her own name.

“That’s crazy. No way could he have thought, all this time, that Jou and I were together. No fucking way.” Mokuba shook his head adamantly.

Rebecca also knew her fiancé. There was ‘no way’ Mokuba was this dense. “How would he know otherwise? He refused to discuss Jou with you; you never told him Jou wasn’t speaking to you. To him love is forever. What did he want to talk to Jou about that day? Do you know?” Rebecca was merciless. She was seeing a very damning picture and it infuriated her even as it destroyed her shaky illusions of love. Mokuba may have ruined his brother’s one chance at love and was acting completely clueless. It was an act she’d seen several times and wasn’t sure she believed any longer.

“He didn’t say. Just wanted to be alone with him. I thought he was going to bawl him out, maybe make fun of him for losing so badly. I didn’t want Jou to get angry so I...”

“Since when has your brother hesitated to do that to Jou in front of the world? This was different. And based on the pictures I see up to the point where you stepped in, I’d say very fucking private.” God why was Mokuba blind to what had happened? Couldn’t he see that he’d ripped apart something very precious to his brother? Was he really still such a child? Had she been wrong to get involved with him after all?

“You... you can’t be serious. There is no way Seto... and Jounouchi?” Mokuba’s voice was completely disbelieving.

Aishira had reached the end of his patience. He’d seen the innocent act all through Mokuba’s growing years. It was something that the boy had perfected and his brother had never seen through. “That’s bull shit. You are lying. You knew very well that Seto was interested in him. He probably told you. For whatever reason, you are trying to act like you didn’t know. But you can’t fool me. I know you too well. You are lying. Tell the truth or so help me I’ll knock it out of you.”

Matashi gasped, Rebecca choked, and Mokuba stared wide-eyed, moistening his lips again. “I... I... I’m not.”

Aishira stood up; for once the soft face looked hard and menacing. “Just because I dress like a woman doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass like a man.”

Matashi knew better than to interfere with his lover in this mood. Besides something in Mokuba’s expression told him that Aishira was right. “Look, you want Seto back you need to tell us everything.”

“It doesn’t pertain...”

“We don’t know that. Jounouchi is the only blond in these pictures. If he has cause to hate Seto – to hurt him – we need to know.” Aishira argued flatly. “Tell us.” The normally gentle man’s hands clenched.

Unable to meet that demanding glare Mokuba lowered his eyes again. “Fine. I knew what Seto wanted to discuss with Jounouchi. He said he was going to ask him out. It was so strange and improbable. I... I didn’t think it really mattered to Seto. I thought it was just an impulse. I... I told him I wanted Jounouchi too. That we were close... I... I... Anyway I told Seto I’d give Jounouchi the choice between coming with me or going with him. Seto agreed. I...” He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned to stare out the window. “I never got the chance. Jounouchi left before I could talk to him. The rest is true.”

The hard crack of Rebecca’s hand as it hit his face echoed loudly in the room. Mokuba’s eyes widened even as he stumbled back against the window. “Re...”

“You asshole. You’ve lied to me so many times! I told you when you asked me out I didn’t date guys who swung in both directions. It never ends well for someone. You always act so hurt by your brother’s attitude towards me, his attitude towards you. You have said it several times, he doesn’t date seriously. You had to know it back then. The one person he shows interest in and you decide you want him? You are a selfish prick Mokuba.”

“It wasn’t like that. I... I really liked Jou and I didn’t...” he tried to excuse what he’d done.

“Like isn’t love Mokuba. I thought you knew that.” Rebecca gave him a furious glare. “Love for your brother should have put your hormones in check. You should have told him the truth.”

“I tried! He wouldn’t let me. He refused...”

“Bullshit, just bullshit. If you had opened with 'Jou never got the message about the planes.' He would have listened. You know that.” Giving the black-haired man a furious look she jerked off her ring and threw it in his face. “I’ve lived with you for months. I’ve had doubts several times because you are a selfish ass at times. But this! What you did to your brother, Jounouchi, then and now combined with lies when your brother’s life may be at stake, just to save your pride. I’m out of here. Pick up your stuff tomorrow. If you don’t, I’ll throw it in the street. My apartment is still in my name.” With a flaming gaze she turned and stalked away, leaving a stunned group in her wake. With one more look over her shoulder she snarled, “Don’t bother to try to get in. The electronic locks will be changed in just a few minutes.”

Mokuba stared after Rebecca, his mind completely blank with shock. The slamming of the front door brought him out of his stupor. With a cry he raced after her, stopping long enough to scoop up the ring where it had fallen on the floor.

Aishira watched out the window as Rebecca peeled down the drive, Mokuba racing after her. “I like her now. She’s got guts and she knows both of them very well.”

“She’s too good for Mokuba though.” Matashi agreed. “He needs his ass spanked like the spoiled brat he is.”

“He’s not staying with us tonight. I can’t handle being around him.” Aishira was emphatic. He loved Mokuba but he couldn’t stand what he’d done to Seto. He needed time away from the selfish little snot.

“He’ll ask for a lift to a hotel.” Matashi didn’t agree or disagree. There had been too much drama and pain. He would follow Aishira’s lead in this.

“He can stay here. I'll reset all the security. It will do him good to feel the solitude, the loneliness that Seto felt here the last few months. Let’s go. We won’t find anything here. You knew that when we found the ledger. He wasn’t planning a road trip, he wasn’t planning to return ever again. We both know it. Now we can only hope that whoever he’s with can help him get past that.” Matashi stood and took the laptop. “I have an urge to play RPG’s tonight.” He smiled crookedly. “Who knows, maybe an old friend will log on.”

Aishira nodded and turned to the door. “Let’s go.”

Mokuba was waiting for them on the steps. Tears streaked his face as sobs shook his slender body. He turned to Aishira automatically for comfort only to find his target evaded his touch. He faltered, his eyes widening in shock. “Aishira...” He husked in disbelief.

The man ignored him, brushing past him without a word. Matashi hesitated, then nodded shortly. “We’re leaving. I suggest you stay here. You might learn something about Seto here.” Not saying another word he climbed into the convertible and with a roar of the motor, they left Mokuba standing on the steps of his brother’s home.

****

Seto had never really ‘just gone with it’ and found himself oddly uncomfortable. He always had a plan or agenda, always moved from one task to the next. He’d never simply chosen to rest on his laurels. He was rested, fed, bored and completely nonplussed on what to do next. They’d caught the floating fish and Jounouchi had shown him how to clean them. Then the hot rocks in their oven had cooked them to perfection. It had been one of the best meals his gourmand spoiled tongue had ever encountered. Even the nutty, chewy roots had been delicious. But since eating they had simply sat quietly, Jounouchi smothering the fire, he playing with Scapegoat and a stick. His little pup was sitting in the shade and he was getting restless. Logically he asked the man in charge. “What needs to be done?”

Jounouchi, in the act of stretching and popping his back, gave him a quick look. “Done? Nothin’ really. We got enough food for today and tomorrow, we’re clean and our clothes are drying. I’m gonna get dressed and go pick some flowers and stuff to feed the fire later for prayers. But you don’t have to help me.” Perhaps the blond saw the hint of disappointment he felt, or maybe he was just being nice, but whatever the reason he added casually “Yer welcome to come though. But as nice as it is seein’ you run around naked, you’re going to have to put clothes back on. There might be resort people out this far. Not likely, but why take the chance? I’ma wear my damp clothes. It’s hot today so the water will keep me cool.” The blond shifted and stood easily. “The fire's out. Want to wear the stuff we washed or get somethin’ fresh?”

When in Rome... Seto thought. But he didn’t really mind. “Toss those to me.” He was taken aback when the shorts hit him in the face, followed by the shirt and boxers. “Hey! What do you think you’re...”

“Please and thanks go a long way.” The blond had the audacity to remind him as he turned away to dress. Seto shot him an evil glare and dressed hastily. Scapegoat, seeing their activity, bounced to his feet and trotted over, dancing eagerly. He loved going for adventures.

Seto grinned down at his little pup; the enthusiasm shown by the exuberant creature was catching. Heart lifting he followed the blond as he started down a faint trail. “You know plants Seto?”

Seto found he barely flinched at the casual use of his name. “No.” He kept his answer brief. When would he have had time to study the botany of any place? Not that he’d ever had the inclination. But really when would he have time? He had been busy.

“Okay, look most of these plants are harmless to touch but a few can make you itch and give you a rash so I’m gonna show you the ones to avoid.” He caught the half-serious, half-teasing look the blond sent him over his shoulder. “You get a rash I’ll have to put lotion on you. I know you’ll hate that.” He paused and all teasing faded from his eyes. “And please Seto don’t eat anything, not berries, not anything. Don’t even chew on a stick. There are a lot of plants out here that can make you sick, even kill you if you reat them.” Seeing the spark of interest the blond turned to face him fully. “I will not tell you which, just don’t eat any of the plants and you’ll be fine.”

Seto faltered for a second. That statement caught his attention. Jounouchi couldn’t possibly know... could he? “As if.” But he looked away from the too-knowing gaze.

“Seto...” Jou broke off and gripped his neck in agitation. Seto could see this was very important to him. “I... Look I’ve... I’ve been where you are. I know what you’re feeling, what you were feeling on the beach. You don’t have to talk about it right now. you’re probably gonna deny it, so save your breath. Just... Just know that I’ve been there okay? And no matter what you think, I’m here for you. Always was ‘til you pushed me away. When you’re ready to talk we’ll talk. Until then take one minute at a time ‘kay?”

Seto kept his face averted, he didn’t want to look at the blond, didn’t want to see the pity he was sure he'd see. Jounouchi knew he’d reached the end and for some reason, pity or whatever, had stepped in. It should have made him angry, should have shamed him, but somewhere buried within the darkness at his core a tiny light flickered to life. Someone knew, someone noticed - cared enough to notice. Something not even his friends or brother had not done. That flicker of light fanned a small spark of his lagging spirit. “Hmph. Don’t compare us. You know nothing.” He couldn’t resist a small peek at the blond. A tiny grin crossed the expressively mobile features in response to his rebuff. His tiny spark had amused Jounouchi. Seto found himself torn between wanting to smile in return or turn away, and snarl. He settled for gesturing to a brightly colored blooming plant. “What are these flowers?”

There was silence for a moment, and if Seto had looked up he would have seen the tiny smile change to an understanding softness. “Salvia pachyphylla – rose sage– beautiful ne?”

Seto blinked, surprised to hear the Latin name. “Hnnn... You can read.” He deliberately needled.

“Read and write.” Jounouchi agreed cheerfully. “Stop picking at me. You got no need. I'm not going to let you get me mad. I told you, I've been there and that means I know what you're doing. Stop being afraid or whatever. Look for a purple flower growing on a stalk. Kinda looks like an iris, but not. I’m gonna get a few of these so when you find the purple flower let me know. I got a bunch of ‘em I want to use.” A sad smile crossed his face. “Oli meant a lot to me so I want to honor him right. He was the closest thing to a dad I ever had. There is a lot I want to express. I know he’ll hear me and understand.”

“You had a father.”

“Yeah, in Japan. Still do. But hes int't my Dad. There’s more to being a dad than donating some cum.”

Seto didn’t know what to say to that so he wisely changed the subject. “Purple, looks like an iris but not. Got it.” He nodded and turned to look around.

“Yeah, and don’t go wandering too far. I don’t want to have to find you. It gets dark fast here and even in California it can get cool.”

Seto rolled his eyes at the blond. He couldn’t help it. He was not an idiot. “What else besides the purple flower?”

Still giving him a cautious look that would have made a rambunctious toddler’s mother proud, Jounouchi nodded, “Look for a tree that has clusters of yellow and white flowers. The flowers are usually pretty high up because deer like to eat them. And a small bush, no higher than your knee with bright red blooms. Then there is a pretty pink and white stalk of flowers. Whatever you do don’t pick any orange flowers okay?”

“Got it. How many of each do you want?” He glanced down at Scapegoat as he danced around, nipping his shoes. The pup was anxious to explore. Seto found he was as well, much to his surprise. He loathed his fear of this place. He wanted to see it all. When night fell he would know there was nothing to steal his feeling of safety. Deliberately he turned his back on the concerned blond and strode off towards... whatever... his faithful puppy bounding through the plants beside him.

“Hey Seto! Two each should do it!” The blond called after him. Lifting his hand, Seto waved to signal that he’d heard. Eyes peeled for flashes of the required colors and plants, he went looking, completely unaware of the golden-eyed man who waited only long enough for him to crest the rise before ambling in the same direction.

Seto stalked along, glaring at the calm world of nature with eyes that challenged as they hunted. After a time though, the absence of sound - well, sound he considered normal - the absence of threats, and the simplicity of his surroundings soothed him. The sighing of the wind as it moved across the land, rustling the leaves and bushes, the occasional flutter of wings as he startled a bird, and even the low buzz of insects that flew around were noise, but a quiet kind of noise that he found straingely calming. Without thinking about it, he slowed his march to a relaxed stroll, and as time and the winds blew away his fear and anxiety, he slowed further, to a gentle meander. Beside him Scapegoat kept pace, only occasionally darting off to explore something that caught his attention.

Even the meander came to a halt under a tall spreading tree. Seto leaned there for a few minutes, breathing in the fresh air, perfumed by the plants around him. It was so gentle, so relaxed, and he was tired. He hadn’t slept the night before and with the peace and quiet around him, he decided to rest. Sitting down, he leaned against the scratchy tree trunk, called Scapegoat to him, and cradling the pup in his lap, closed his eyes and let the whisper of the wind take him away.

Scapegoat lay quietly in his master’s hands exactly as he’d been trained. It was hard, so very hard to lay still and not go looking around. He loved to play and explore, loved to feel the grass on his paws and smell the new scents on the air. This whole big open was so different. It called to him, making him want to forget what master taught him and run off, following scents he’d never encountered.

Bored and too excited to nap he watched as the other human, the one his master’s scent changed so strangely for, moved out of sight. Lucky human to get to go exploring. With a cross between a huff and a sniff he turned his back on the not-master human. It was too tempting to chase after him.

The birds chirped, the bees buzzed, and the bushes made all sorts of interesting rattles. Scapegoat couldn’t resist turning to look. Eager for adventure, his eyes scanned the low bushes for something fun to watch. A low snap, and a scent similar to the one he remembered from before master, from the time of warmth and softness, drifted across his nose. Instinctively he turned towards the sound and scent. Another like him crouched on the ground watching him with bright eyes.

Scapegoat was entranced. He’d hadn’t seen another like him since the before time. He’d smelled a few but never seen them. And this one was small, smaller than him, with a light fur that was a color almost the same as the master. The little other one rolled around, whining softly, inviting him to come play. Scapegoat whined back sadly. He couldn’t. Master trained him not to leave him.

For a while the other continued to wriggle and jump around, inviting him to play, but Scapegoat didn’t break his training. He knew his master would be unhappy. After a time the other gave up and wandered away. Scapegoat whimpered and lowered his muzzle to his paws, closing his eyes to the temptation around him. He wanted to play so much.

He was successful for about two minutes, then a yelp, far in the distance, but easily recognizable as the other from before reached his ears. Scapegoat stood quickly, his ears pricked forward alertly. He whimpered slightly when the yelp sounded again. Anxiously he turned to his master, nuzzling to wake him as he’d been taught. When his human simply sighed and patted him, and a third, longer, more pained yelp reached him; Scapegoat took off in a streak toward the sound.

****

Jounouchi checked the flowers and plants he’d picked. Perfect, exactly what he wanted. Carefully he tied them in the bundle he'd made of his shirt and tied the shirt to his belt loop. Glancing up at the sun he saw it was setting. It was time to wake sleeping beauty and head back to camp. Resisting the urge to wake his ‘princess’ in the time honored tradition, Jou decided to call out to the slumbering brunet. “Yo! Seto! Wake up man!”

When he didn’t stir he tried again. “Seto!”

Not a flutter of a lash. An idea struck and he yelled, “Kaiba, get your butt up.”

Instant wakefulness. Seto wasn’t used to someone using his first name to wake him up. Interesting and kind of sad but once Jounouchi thought about it, not really unexpected. “I was... sleeping.” Seto was more than a little surprised. Judging by the setting sun he’d been out for most of the day. It was odd Scapegoat hadn’t woken him to go to the bathroom. That’s when he realized. Abruptly he sat up, looking around sharply. “Where’s Scapegoat?” He stood and called “Scapegoat!”

“Last I saw he was sittin’ on your lap. That was a couple hours ago.” Jou started to look around too. A domestic dog in this area, especially a tiny ball of fluff like Scapegoat was prime eats for some of the larger local animals.

“Shit.” Worried now he started to walk around only to freeze when Jou snapped “Stop! Don’t move. I don’t know a lot about tracking but I know some. If you move around too much I won’t be able to see what way he went.” The blond knelt next to where Seto had snoozed the day away.

Careful golden eyes took in every print and track. “Okay, he kinda jumped off you, you can see where he landed. The way his tracks are tearing the ground up I’d say he took off at a run. Somethin’ scared him I think.”

Seto knelt beside the tracks Jounouci indicated. Now that he was looking, he could see what the blond was referring to. “How do you know these are his?”

“They’re fresh dog tracks. How many squirrel-sized dogs you think been around here in the last few hours?”

Nodding to show understanding, focusing on the ground, following the distinctive prints, easy to see now that he knew what to look for, he turned to follow the trail.

Jounouchi keeping a wary eye around them as well as checking to make sure Seto stayed on the right course, kept pace.

One part of Seto focused on the tracks while another paid close attention to the encroaching shadows as the sun dipped lower on the horizon. He hated himself for his weakness, but the falling darkness, with its shifting shadows and strange, unidentifiable sounds were pulling at his psyche, fear rising as the darkness continued to fall. Desperate to find his friend and seek the dubious shelter of the car, he started calling out with every other step, walking faster and faster.

Jounouchi must have picked up his increased urgency, because his pace increased as well. Seto barely noticed. Full dark was descending when he found his way blocked by a huge bush with long dark thorns. “What the fuck now?”

“Now we stop until sunrise.” Jou’s voice was calm and quiet. “There’s a tree a few yards back. I’ll make a fire and we’ll rest.”

“Fuck that I’ve got to find him.” Seto wasn’t leaving Scapegoat out in the dark alone.

“We don’t have a flashlight. He is black, Seto. We could walk right by him and not know it.”

“He’d bark if he could hear us.” Seto pointed out coldly.

“Yeah? What if he can’t? What if he’s hurt? Look...” Jou couldn’t see in the faded light, but he could tell that Seto didn’t want to admit that Scapegoat could be hurt or worse. “This ain’t... You’re not stupid. You know damn well that your little pup is like bait around here. There’s stuff out here that would eat him in a heartbeat. Hawks, eagles, even owls. And if the birds don’t get him then the ground predators might. Coyotes, foxes, wolves, and mountain lions. His best bet is to stick with the dog he hooked up with and hope they avoid the big ones.”

“Dog? What are you talking about?” Seto wanted to punch the blond for daring to suggest his Scapegoat was harmed or but shooting the messenger never helped anything.

“You've been concentrating on your pup’s tracks. You haven't noticed the other tracks going with him? They’re dog tracks, probably a pup by the size.” Weird that he’d have to explain to the normally observant Seto but Jou wouldn’t quibble about it. The brunet was under serious stress.

“Where would a pup come from around here?” Reasonable question for a man like Seto but Jounouchi shook his head as if Seto should have known the answer.

“Resort is only a mile away. The pup could be a from there; abandoned, stray or lost. Or it could be feral – a pup of a stray. Either case he’s leadinh your pup to wherever ‘cause you can see where Scapegoat stops and a couple times turns around and the other pup circles around him.”

“Shit.” Seto couldn’t believe he missed that. He must be going blind. “Probably some bitch in heat. I never got him fixed.”

“Uh... might be a bitch... but probably too young for heat. She’s maybe his size even though his feet are smaller.”

“How could you know that?”

“The tracks are closer together by ‘bout half an inch. Smaller body than Scapegoat but bigger feet means she’s got some growin’ to do.” He turned away from the wall of bush and thorn. “Let’s get back to that tree. I’ll start a fire. Since we didn’t eat lunch we still got that food and water.”

“I’m not...” Before he could snarl his denial Jounouchi rounded on him and grabbed him by the arm.

“You are! You ain’t ate or drank all day. Best case would be if the pup is from the resort. They might be curled up in some nice camper or even at the hotel. If the pup is stray or wild then it probaably belongs to a pack and they’re at the pack’s den. Either way they aren't going to be possible to find in the dark. So come on.” Unable to fight the logic or his own impending panic at the darkness around them Seto allowed himself to be half-dragged back to a tree he didn’t remember passing.

Pretending to glare in the distance, wrapping his arms around himself in a pose he hoped looked angry instead of terrified, Seto sat by the tree while Jounouchi dug a pit. He ignored the blond’s request that he gather fire wood. He knew his limits and wasn’t moving an inch away from the hard security of wood at his back. When it became obvious he wasn’t going to move the other man growled and stomped off into the starlit twilight.

Once Jounouchi was gone, the night descended fully. Darkness enveloped Seto, shadows of pitch black in the newly fallen-dark danced around him, strange noises, like scurrying steps of thousands of tiny animals surrounded him, twigs and branches snapped in a wind that suddenly seemed full of strange, dangerous smells, overhead he could hear the cries of night birds as they hunted for their prey, stuck helpless on the ground, and flickers of light darted randomly around him.

Clutching his arms tighter around him, he closed his eyes to shut out the sights and mentally told himself how weak, pathetic and stupid he was being. Afraid of the dark like a child, no control or intellect, cringing like an infant afraid to sleep without a nightlight. There was nothing to be frightened of. The noises were the wind, the smells were the grass, trees and flowers mixed with animal musk. He had nothing to fear. There was no predator out here who could harm him. He was being ridiculous.

Despite his inward litany of self-castigation his fear continued to rise. His heart began to hammer, his breath started coming in short rasping pants, and a fine tremor breaking his iron control began to course through his long limbs. The physical betrayal of his own body was too much for his tenuous control. Even while the rational part of his brain shrieked warnings he sprang to his feet, ready to run, to take flight to anywhere to outrun the demons besetting him.

Before he could take a step Jounouchi’s voice, sounding blessedly normal, grumbled “Don’t bother! I got plenty. Just sit down. I’ll build the fire.”

Only the first instant of paralyzing fear stopped him from whirling on the blond and bolting into the shelter his arms. But after a few frantic heartbeats he assumed a modicum of control and slowly sank to the ground. In just a minute a flicker of light sparked, then blazed. As it gave off a comforting glow the shadows retreated to the fringes of his mind. Unconsciously he crept closer to the light, driving the darkness back.

Jounouchi was aware that Seto had crept closer to the fire, but he withheld his comments. The man was worried and upset. Jou knew how that could be. Just because keeping busy helped him keep his mind off stuff didn’t mean it would help Seto. Plus, even in that worried state of mind and not knowing the area at all, hell not having been in a familiar habitat, the brunet had been coming to help so he had no reason to grumble. Carefully he warmed the wild yams he’d cooked earlier that morning.

Seto sat rigidly, staring at the flames as Jou warmed their dinner. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty. He terrified and mortified that the blond would see through the infamous Kaiba ‘stoic’ façade that was more the media and Jounouchi’s memories than in today's reality. When Jounouchi offered him a warm tuber, he ignored the gesture and continued to stare at the flames. If he took his eyes away from the light he would lose himself in the darkness again, he knew it. Worse, the blond would know it and pity him. He couldn’t live with Jounouchi’s pity.

Jou sighed and set Seto’s dinner aside. He’d try to coax him to eat later. Savoring every bite, knowing it would probably have to last him through a long day of searching tomorrow, Jounouchi slowly devoured what should have been his lunch. During his entire meal Seto didn’t say a word. The only way he knew the brunet was still alive was the slow even breaths and flicker of eyelashes. Girding himself for the blast of ice he was about to receive, he turned and gently placed his hand on the brunet’s shoulder.

“Seto you gotta eat something. You’ll need the energy tomorrow when we look for him.” Only the chirp of crickets answered him. Growling under his breath he shook the broad shoulder lightly. His touch was shrugged off roughly. “C’mon, you aren't doing anyone any good this way.” More cricket song. With a harsh sigh he snapped “Fine, but I’m going say my prayers and make my offerings. I refuse baby you any more today. For a grown-up genius you're acting like a stupid kid.”

With a huff Jou stood and stepped away from the fire, settling on an open patch of earth to center himself with the wind, sky, stars and earth. He needed to focus and open himself to the world around him and Seto’s pissy attitude would ruin this if Jou let it. He owed his friend more and he’d give it. In his frustration he missed the other man’s startled movement and Seto’s quickly controlled grab for Jou as he stepped away.

Seto barely stopped himself from jumping out of his skin when Jounouchi touched him. He hadn’t allowed himself to enjoy the warmth and slight comfort of that touch for more than a second before brushing it aside. It wouldn’t be good if Jounouchi felt the fine tremors of fear that were shaking his body. Using his peripheral vision, Seto watched the starlight-gilded blond sink down, crossing his legs and relaxing his arms, obviously focusing inward. A crackle in the fire sent shadows dancing and Seto’s heart racing. Desperately he brought all his attention back to the flames.

His focus was so intense he barely noticed when Jou began to sing in a low whisper as he fed the plants he’d gathered earlier into the devouring flames. Seto couldn’t distinguish Jou’s words, but the song's basic rhythm matched the dance of the fire. As Jounouchi slowly enriched the swaying flames with symbolic plants and herbs the flames seemed to take on life of their own, faces and forms dancing in time to the low chant. Pungent smoke began to swirl perfect synch with the fire-captive beings before circling them both, tugging at Seto's senses, pulling his mind into the beckoning flames, away from his fear and memories.

The flame creatures welcomed him with a heat that didn't burn, dancing around him joyfully, somehow lighting the inner darkness that seemed to weigh him down, allow him to float free and move among them, to feel their passion, their rhythm, closer than he could feel his own heartbeat. For the first time ever, his controlled mind relaxed its barriers and he felt and saw a whole new realm. Dancing within the flames he tried to recognize the shifting shapes and faces. But they eluded him, changing from one beat to the next, shifting from something or someone familiar to something or someone strange and exotic. Deep inside, a voice he recognized as that of the fire whispered 'Let them come. Only when you are truly free will they come.'

He didn't know what it meant, but he stopped trying to analyze and recognize everything around him. He was safe and warm, bathed in golden light. The dance of life surrounded him. He would simply accept it. Time and space had no meaning. Only the rhythm, the dance, mattered.

When the flames grew weary and began to wane, he cried with loss. His tears hissed as they hit the coals, and more of his companions disappeared. Pain and regret caused more tears, until they flowed like a rain from his eyes, snuffing out the flame, and still more tears flowed. He could see them now, falling to the ground, joining and merging, forming first a stream and then a river that raced forward, unfurling across the land under a dawn-lit sky. Low in the sky, flying over the river, was a great bird, it's wings spread in flight. Recognition poured through him - a Great Blue Heron, beautiful, regal and majestic. Somehow he knew the creature, knew the curve of it's wing and the way it would turn and look at him. It was as if he'd seen it before in a dream.

Far below where he hovered, on the river of tears, a speck floated, bobbing gently in the waves created as his tears continued to fall. As he watched the bobbing speck it became clearer, as if it were coming closer... or he were moving towards it... his breath caught as he recognized the second creature, another bird, a goose. Not a plain, brown and white goose, but one that was pure white with a black crest; a Snow Goose. He didn't question that knowledge any more than he questioned his knowing the heron.

Both birds were untamed, unfettered by anything or anyone. He could see their wild, unbroken spirit in the way they held their heads, the proud arches of their necks. These birds were strong and free.

A yearning rose from deep within, to fly as these creatures did, with no tethers to bind him. He wanted, needed, to know how they felt, to fly with them, unbound by anyone or anything.

Before he could stop himself he called out to them, asking them to show him their freedom, their strength. There was a hush in the world, even the winds blowing around him, supporting him aloft seemed to still. Then the majestic Heron turned and flew to him and the powerful goose rose from the water, coming at his call. He was stunned by their power and their strength as they flew to him, the heron flying on his left and the goose on his right. He tried to tell them why he called them, and his humility that they had come when he called. As they flew beside him he could feel a tingle of anxiety. For the first time it occurred to him that he couldn't fly as they did.

Touches softer than down and stronger than the wind told him he could fly as free as they and that they understood him. Words were not necessary. They would show him what he needed.

Following their lead, feeling wildness inside that he'd never acknowledged take hold, he dove forward, flying with the same reckless power he could feel emanating from his companions. Winds buffeted and clouds scuttled past. Far below the river of his tears flowed steadily onward, following his journey. Across the landscape he saw other animals, equally wild and free, watching him as he soared past. None joined them, but they all acknowledged him.

On and on he swooped through the sky, his companions keeping pace, sometimes guiding, sometimes following, but never taking his choice from him. More tears fell into the river. This time not tears of sadness, but tears of joy.

As if his tears were a sign, the great birds slowly began to descend, spiraling down to the ground to land gracefully. Seto knew, without words being said, that his time of flight had ended. Even as he fought the knowledge the Great Heron nudged him forward into a circle of dim golden light. Remorse pierced Seto, because he recognized it as the fire that had led him on his journey. He'd forgotten the joyful dancers in his quest for freedom. Now only a dim ember remained. Without thinking he reached for the glowing warmth, sighing contentedly as it embraced him tenderly. As the gentle warmth cradled him in safety he could feel exhaustion dragging him down. Trusting the warmth with the innocence of a child, he slipped into a deep sleep.

***

Jounouchi breathed deep, drawing in the last of the lingering scents in the air. The smoke had cleared and with it his pleasantly relaxed trance. He was vaguely disappointed at being unable to go further into the state that would allow him to see his animal totems, but he knew it was not necessarily his fault. Sometimes his guides were mischievous, sometimes shy, and sometimes they didn’t come when they weren’t needed. He took their absence as a sign that he was on the right path and not in need of guidance. His journey this time had been a trip through the past. Visions of Kaiba Seto had poured through him. On the surface Kaiba had been the same as he’d been in high school, but Jounouchi had learned from his own animal spirits, Eagle and Platypus, to read beneath the surface.

The sharp eyes of Eagle Spirit had shown him the chains, hidden and disguised, that bound the other man. The echolocation of Platypus had shown him the fears buried beneath the chains and strength. When he’d recognized the fear the vision shifted and he flew beside his eagle, a hummingbird dancing ahead of him. Joyous welcome poured through him as he recognized his spiritual father’s totem.

The tiny bird flitted around him, greeting him like an old friend and Jou knew that this wasn’t just his friend’s totem any longer. His friend had assumed the form of his strongest messenger totem. Eagerly he embraced the message the small bird was sending. Care for the spirit... the spirit must heal... Jounouchi heard his friend’s deep voice whispering all around him, directing him to watch Seto, to see everything, to help the pain of the other man. On both planes Seto began to cry and he felt the pain to his soul.

A great river of tears formed in the spiritual plane. Jounouchi knew that the river represented the tears, not just of Seto, but of all mankind. Far below him he could see a great Heron and a Snow Goose flying beside an ephemeral spirit light. He knew down to his own soul that it was Seto. His friend and guides were giving him a gift – the gift of understanding – Kaiba Seto. Not just his heart and mind, but his very spirit and soul. He knew he couldn’t interfere, only watch and wait.

While Seto’s spirit soared free, Jounouchi watched over him, rejoicing in the wild beauty that he was seeing. Seto was completely unaware of his presence. His own spirit guides told him that was how it must be, less Jounouchi himself become a chain to bind the awakening spirit. And he knew they were right. He’d learned his life lessons well. He would bide, watch carefully and guide gently, just as his own friend had done for him. Sadness pierced him when he saw the newly-freed spirit begin to descend. He’d wanted Seto to soar free for so much longer, to have that joy. But it was not to be. Gradually he returned to himself, for just a moment disoriented to find himself weighed down by his own body before reality kicked in and the spirit dream faded.

Tenderly he cared for Seto’s body, wiping the tears from his face, offering him sips of water to ease his transition back to earth. He was surprised and moved when the tall body lurched forward into his arms, obviously seeking comfort and acceptance as he fell into a heavy slumber. Heart aching with too many emotions to name, Jounouchi wrapped him in his arms, cradling him to his chest, letting the soothing sound of his heartbeat sink into Seto’s unconscious, knowing that the first return from the spirit realm was disorienting and filled with conflicting emotions.

With a sigh that was part pleasure, part pain and a bittersweet smile in his heart, he closed his eyes, leaned back against the tree and slept.

***

Seto awoke to a pounding in his skull and the annoying twitter of birds. As instant recall of the night before filled his mind he shook his head slightly. What the hell had happened? He knew full well he hadn’t flown with birds. A heron? A goose? It was ridiculous. Whatever that idiot had burned in the fire had... With a gasp he realized he was sitting against something warm and soft, worse, something – someone – was holding him in a firm embrace. As there was only one other human around... Abruptly he scooted back, falling out of the warm lap he was sitting in and onto the morning-damp earth in an ungainly sprawl.

An amused, familiar voice drawled, “Take it easy there Seto. I know my morning wood is impressive but it’s nothing to be afraid of unless you want it to be?”

That brought his gaze up to the blond in a hurry. The teasing grin and twinkling eyes made him snarl “What the fuck did you put in the fire last night?” He ignored the throbbing in his head and the teasing and stood quickly, resolutely ignoring Jounouchi’s prominently displayed ‘wood’ and his own suddenly tighter pants.

“Genius brains are showing again. I found some Peyote and some poppies. Not a lot, just a few seeds but it was enough to relax us both. Some other stuff too, but nothing else as potent. Some of the other stuff explains our wood though. They are sometimes used as aphrodisiacs. I only used a little bit of each though so the effects won’t last long. In the meantime, you go north and I’ll go south.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Seto figured his mind must still be fogged with ‘stuff’ because he just didn’t understand what the blond was saying.

“Hellooo? Wood? Aphrodisiac? I don't know about you but I’m feeling really uncomfortable. I need to take care of it, 'cause I am not around with blue balls all day. I’m going south and take the issue in hand. Unless you want to watch or help, you go north and do the same.”

Somehow the blond made it seem completely reasonable to discuss masturbating out in the open. Seto almost nodded in agreement before he growled and shook his head. “Fuck that!” When Jounouchi looked surprised and interested, Seto snarled as his face heated. That shit was really messing with his head. “God damn it not fuck me! Fuck that! Your dick can wait until we find Scapegoat. Then you can ‘go south’ all you want. Hell! Spend the day there. Whatever! Just... ugh! I’m going to look for Scapegoat.” Seto stalked off leaving a bemused, amused, and very interested blond staring after him.

Seto examined the wall of thorns where his pup's tracks disappeared. There had to be a way through or around, but on one side was a sheer cliff and on the other several large rocks. He simply didn't see a way around the huge thorn-laden bush.

Jounouchi watched Seto gather himself, obviously planning to step into the sharp edges despite his shorts and minimal shoes. “Seto wait. Come this way. There’s a wildlife trail going up through the rocks. We’ll follow it around to the other side.”

The brunet hesitated, then turned to where he’d indicated. Without a hesitation he stepped onto the faint path. “Scapegoat! Come!” He called sharply with every third step. Jounouchi, with a wary eye, followed him. The path hadn’t looked quite like a deer path. The grass had barely been disturbed, and he hadn’t found any cloven prints. He’d have to keep a lookout. He did not have a good feeling about this path.

They followed the path for several minutes before coming to a wide flat area. It was surprisingly clear of plants except for the ever present thorny bush. And clearly crossing the expanse were two sets of small dog prints. Seto didn’t waste a moment, simply continued calling, as he followed the clear tracks.

The open land gave way to long grasses, but still the pup’s passage was clear. For Seto it was a relief, but for Jounouchi, he was seeing a disturbing pattern in the path they were taking. It exactly paralleled the path of the pups as if something - something large enough to leave a trail - was following the pups, stalking them. Mentally he began to send up prayers for the safety of Scapegoat. If something happened to that puppy, he truly didn’t know what Seto would do.

Seto continued to walk briskly, calling for his pup. They were getting closer, he could feel it. He was expecting his companion to bound out of the bushes at any minute. Tail wagging, panting and probably filthy, but totally exhilarated and overjoyed to see him. Heart lifting at the mental image, eager to see the bright, shining eyes of his friend, he called out “Scapegoat! Heel Boy! Let’s go home.” Ahead of him he could see what looked like the perfect spot for a pup to hide. Thick grass and bushes surrounding several large rocks. He’d bet his clever little pup had hidden down in the rocks the night before.

 

When the little fuzz ball didn’t appear he picked up his pace from a walk to almost a jog. It was just like his friend to want to play hide and seek this morning. He just knew when he broke through the bushes the pup would bound out at him, barking in almost a laugh.

His anticipation and happiness died abruptly as he pushed through the shrubs. The reek hit him like a fist, stopping him from taking another step as icy recognition poured through him; blood. Distinctive, hanging in the air thickly like an invisible shroud. Seto swallowed back bile as the taste of death coated his tongue on each breath and made himself look for details. The scent was old, not putrid, and drying rust covered the torn ground where a battle had obviously taken place. Short and vicious, between Scapegoat - the dog's marks were clear - and another, larger animal. The tracks it left were larger than the palm of his hand, and heavy, dug deep into the earth. They told a story that Seto read as easily as he read programming code. His puppy had entered this clearing but had not left it. No small dog tracks leading away. The end of the story was clear.

Still he had to ask, had to know. “Jounouchi...” He asked in a thin voice. “What is it?”

“Mountain Lion. The M shape of the print and the size. They... Seto... the tracks end here. The cat weighs about seventy pounds. They’re fast and deadly. Alpha predators. If he didn’t eat them here he would have cached them somewhere. Seto we have to get out of here! It ain’t safe for us. This is his front yard, his hunting grounds. We’re like pizza delivery to him only we’re the pizza too. They’re man-eaters, Seto! We have to go now.” Jounouchi’s tone was urgent, almost panicked. A mountain lion was nothing to mess with.

“No.” Seto could see the evidence, see the blood and the tracks, but something in him wouldn’t let him stop. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He and Scapegoat were to be together. This shouldn’t have happened. He’d failed his friend and broken the promise he’d made to always protect him. “No. I have to see... I have to... we’re supposed to be together.” Without blinking, never realizing the tears falling from his eyes, Seto stepped back onto the trail of the great cat.

Jounouchi couldn’t keep back his sharp “Are you fucking nuts? Didn’t you just hear me? They kill men! They clamp on their necks and suffocate ‘em. Then they stick ‘em on the ground and eat off ‘em ‘til there’s nothing left. I ain’t no fucking catnip and neither are you.”

Repeating himself was something normally Seto hated but this time he didn’t notice when he did so. “We were supposed to go together.” Tears falling faster, Seto kept moving. If that wasn’t enough to freak the blond out, the flat, empty tone was back in Seto’s voice. This time the chills it gave him started at the top of his head and reached down to the soles of his feet. He knew absolutely that Kaiba Seto wanted to die, fully intended to find the lion and die like his little black dog, his friend – his Scapegoat.

Panic and pain crashed inside him. He couldn’t let that happen. He had to find something, anything to pull Seto out of his self-destructive cycle. But he’d never been able to influence the brunet before and he wasn’t sure where to start now. Going with what he knew of the past he asked “What is Mokuba doing these days?”

For several seconds Jou thought he wouldn’t answer, and then in that bone chillingly empty voice, the brunet said “I wouldn’t know. Since he and Rebecca got engaged we don’t speak.”

“Huh?” Okay he could work with that. It was probably one of the triggers. “Why not? Don’t you like Rebecca?”

“I couldn’t care less about her. He is a faithless cheat and...” Abruptly he broke off. Perhaps he heard what Jounouchi heard, a note of anger that corroded the emptiness. It buoyed him slightly. If Seto could get angry then somewhere he still cared. It was a link worth following.

“Hard words. What...” But his gambit stuck in his throat as the tall brunet came to a sudden stop, sending Jou crashing into his back.

Ignoring the other man, Seto gazed around him with dark recognition. He wasn’t any kind of specialist, but he didn’t need to be to recognize a killing ground. They stood in the predator’s kitchen. Bones from various animals, small and large, littered the area in random heaps. Mounds of earth rested side-by-side with pits where other bones and were half buried in the dirt. His stomach churned as he caught sight of a fresh mound. Scapegoat and his new friend were buried in that small mound. He knew it as surely as he knew his own name.

Pain tore through him and he took a deep breath to control his immediate desire to go to that pathetic little bump in the earth. Unconsciously he wrinkled his nose at the scent of dirt, old death and rotting carcasses, no longer blown away on the morning breeze, assaulted him. Insects buzzed and from far away, almost in a dream, he heard the birds that had annoyed him earlier chirping in the distance. But here the air was heavy, stagnant with death and decay. It felt like he’d never take another clean breath again.

Breathing as shallowly as possible, Seto looked around for signs of two-legged victims. He was half relieved, half disappointed when he didn’t see any obvious human remains, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Some of the mounds were large enough to hold a man. Whatever was in those mounds were not going anywhere. The gnawed and broken bones told him that the animals that had come here were dead or very near dead, and would be consumed by what he could only assume was the large cat Jounouchi had described earlier.

“Seto...” He felt Jounouchi step beside him, rubbing against him shoulder-to-shoulder. With a frown he turned to warn the other man away only to bite back his words. Jounouchi hadn’t ever deliberately hurt him, hadn’t ever done more than try to be his friend. Tenderness welled up inside as Seto realized this would likely be the last words he ever spoke to the blond. Did he really want them to be harsh when for years he’d regretted cutting the man off?

Tenderly he reached out and pushed the tumbled blond hair from Jounouchi’s forehead. “Sh... You understand right? I can see it in your eyes. You have to go now, go back the way we came. I don’t blame you for anything and I want to say thank you for what you tried to do. After everything that happened, you cared enough to try to help me when nobody else did. That means more to me than anything else. I thought... never mind what I thought. Go! I led you here, but I don’t want you hurt.”

Jounouchi stared up at the tall, proud man for a moment, his mind working furiously. Yeah he was scared shitless, but not just of the cat. He couldn’t let this happen. He wouldn’t let it happen. It wasn’t fair or right. Seto had been responsible, caring and yes, damn it loving, all of his life and he didn’t deserve to die like this. There was no way... Then an idea struck. Yeah it was dirty, but there were no rules in a fight like this. Ignoring what the brunet said, Jounouchi snarled, “You selfish, murderous asshole. You’re sending me off as bait? What the fuck? It’s out there right now, watching and waiting for one of us to be alone. I head off by myself and I’m cat-chow. You might want to die but I don’t. If we split up we both die. It’ll kill us both and we’ll have matching holes in the ground.” It was true – probably. But it was also a power play because Jounouchi knew Seto’s sense of responsibility would force him to see him to safety. Once they were back at the car Jou would grab Seto and bring him to the nearest psych ward. Screw holistic medicine and self-help, Seto needed some serious drugs if he was considering becoming walking cat-chow.

Horror and shock poured through Seto. Jounouchi was absolutely correct. There was no safe way for them to split up. They would both end up dead and that was not his goal. He was amazed he hadn’t seen it before. With a hard sigh at the delay of his plans, he nodded sharply “Fine we’ll both go back, but if the cat attacks you take off. I’ll distract it.”

Jounouchi wanted to argue, but decided against it. It was a huge concession and if they stayed together they would probably get out of this alive – both of them. If a mountain lion was going to attack an adult human it would usually wait until they were alone. “The resort is closer. We gotta tell them about the mountain lion. They usually aren't this close to humans so we have let ‘them know. It looks like he’s been here a while but they might not know about him.” Jounouchi turned back to the path they’d followed. “We’ll go this way. Not a chance in hell I’m gonna go into the trees. I want a lot of time to see it coming.”

Seto fell in step behind him, scanning the surrounding area closely. He had to get Jounouchi back to safety. As he stepped forward he kicked something that tinkled as it landed. He bit back a cry as he recognized a leather collar. It was filthy, stained with something he didn’t want to identify, but clearly a dog collar – with part of a leash attached as well as a set of tags. He bent and scooped it up, tucking them in his pocket. Perhaps the owner of dog who’d worn those tags would need answers. It wasn’t much, but it was the least he could do.

The trek to the campgrounds was silent. Both men were on the lookout for any sign of attack. Seto, to protect Jounouchi, and Jounouchi to protect them both. As soon as they reached the edges of the resort area they breathed twin sighs of relief. Seto gripped Jounouchi’s shoulder, spinning him around. “Take this.” He held out the collar with its jingling tags. “Make sure the owner knows... knows. I’m going back to look for Scapegoat.” It was a weak excuse and they both knew it, but when asked Jounouchi would relay it with absolute honesty.

Jounouchi stared at the brunet fiercely. Damn it Seto hadn’t changed his mind. The freaking idiot was going to see a shrink ASAP, even if he got there unconscious. “Do it your damn self if it’s so fuckin’ important to you.” Without giving the other man a chance to protest, he grabbed Seto’s arm and dragged him toward the building with the ‘Office’ sign. No way was he letting the depressed psycho go without a fight.

A pretty blonde girl at the desk smiled politely, just the way a hospitality worker does when confronted with potential guests. “Hi! Welcome to Lake Vail Resort! My name is Stephanie Arnault. What can I do for you?”

Jounouchi returned the smile for an instant before explaining “You have a mountain lion less than a mile from here. It took out our dog yesterday.”

The girl’s smile faded and she reached for the phone. “We’ve had a couple of potential sightings, nothing confirmed. What makes you think it’s a mountain lion?”

“The tracks are big cat tracks, distinctive ‘M’ shapes.” Jounouchi sent Seto a sidelong glance. “Found his cache area. Lots of mounds and bones scattered. Most are gnawed and chewed down. It’s a big one.”

The girl nodded to show she heard even as she spoke to someone on the phone. "Could you come to the office please? Customer needs to speak to you. You need to call Randy as well." A moment of silence, then "Okay thanks. See you in a minute. I'll bring them in to the office." She replaced the receiver in the cradle and nodded towards a door behind the desk. "Come sit in the office 'til my mom gets down here please? She's gonna call Randy, the Fish and Game Ranger to come over. My mom and me run it since my dad left." The girl shrugged and ushered them into an air-conditioned, distinctly feminine office. "Have a seat. It won't be but a couple minutes." The girl paused and glanced at them over her shoulder “Can I get you guys something to drink? Soda? Water?”

Seto started to murmur a polite negative when he realized just how thirsty he was and reversed his response. “Yes please. Water.”

Jounouchi concealed his surprise. Dying men didn’t have water as a last meal. “I’d like a glass of water too. We’ve walked a lot in the last couple days.”

“I’ll get you some room temp bottled then. You don’t want to puke. Too much cold on an empty stomach, after being in the heat can do that. At least that’s what my dad used to say.” With a quick nod she left them.

They were sipping appreciatively on their bottled water when a blonde woman surgically enhanced to resemble the girl at the desk’s older sister, strode through the door. Her bottle green eyes skimmed over them with lightning fast assessment, seeing their dusty, threadbare clothes and uncombed hair. Although she smiled politely, Seto could see the disdain in her gaze. It wasn’t an expression he was used to seeing on any face. Unconsciously his face assumed it’s most haughty mask, his lips twisting in a disgusted sneer as his blue-ice eyes bore into hers with absolute contempt.

The woman faltered, her face losing it's disdainful mask, eyes flickering with something that could have been apology. Seto didn't care. He kept his merciless gaze on her as she fumbled for a greeting. "Uh... Hello, so... sorry to uh... to keep you waiting. I um... I am Trish Arnault, the owner of the resort. How may I help you gentlemen?" Still faltering, she stepped behind the desk, her movements jerky and out of synch.

When Seto would have lambasted her with a comment doubting everything from her ability to help to her ability to breathe, Jou stepped in. “There is a mountain lion in the area. Its cache is less than a mile from here. Our pup went missing yesterday afternoon. We followed his tracks until nightfall, and then camped out overnight to get an early start. We followed his tracks until we found where he was attacked. The mountain lion... the ground was torn up and blood was... well we tracked the lion hoping our pup was only hurt or ... something. The trail led us to the lion’s cache. He’s been here a while and is active.”

“You know mountain lion tracks from say a bobcats?” It was obvious she was skeptical that a mountain lion could be that close.

“Yeah, size is a biggie. A bobcat’s track is no more than two inches. These were four and a half to five inches. Front and rear. Also weight. The depth of the prints... They were made by a heavy cat.” Jou explained patiently. He’d expected this. Mountain lions are rare and endangered, plus man-shy. They did not generally make their home near humans when there was a wilderness they could hide in.

A light knock at the door interrupted them. An older man in a pale green and khaki uniform stood holding his hat, looking at them curiously. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. I heard what you said. I’m Randy Arnault, the ranger here and Trish’s brother-in-law. Can you guys show me the areas you found?”

Jounouchi hesitated, glancing at Seto. Seeing the icy glare still directed at ‘Trish’ he figured it was safe enough. “Yeah, but I gotta tell you, bring a couple more guys with guns. This thing has a lot more mounds than is normal. From what I read they eat a big kill once every ten days. Bury it and eat off it. There were three large mounds. Two were freshly dug.”

“Large? How large?” Concern darkened the hazel brown eyes of the other man.

“Big enough to put a man in. And we know our pup wasn’t the only dog he’s gotten.” Jounouchi turned to the gimlet-eyed brunet. “Show him the collar you found.”

Without saying a word he took out the collar with it’s cheerful jingle of tags and laid it, with the chewed leash on the table. Their response was electric. The hotel owner gasped “Phoebe!” Her face turned bone white as she desperately grabbed it off the desk, her hands shaking so hard she almost dropped it. The ranger made a harsh, choked cry as the woman turned to him. “Oh god! Randy! It’s Phoebe’s collar and leash. It... he... Mountain Lion! Randy!” She babbled incoherently.

The ranger was dead pale too as he examined the collar and tags. “Yes, it’s Phoebe’s.” Without a word to either of the men he pulled out his radio and ordered people named Bill and Alex to bring ATV’s and to load them for large cat.

Just then the girl from the desk popped her head in. “Hey you guys want anything to ea...” Her voice broke off abruptly and she shrieked, “Phoebe’s collar! Mom where did you get it?”

The older woman was obviously beyond words. She simply gestured to Seto. The girl turned on him with wide begging eyes and frantic hands. “You found Phoebe. Where is she? And Dad – where is he? Why didn’t he come with you? Where is he? Tell me please?” She was gripping Seto’s shirt in white-knuckled fists yanking him half up out of his chair.

“I...” Seto frankly didn’t know what was going on or what to say, so he stuck to the truth. “I don’t know anything about your father or Phoebe. I found that collar at the mountain lion cache site. I brought it back thinking the owner might want to know what happened to their pet.” Too late he caught sight of Jou’s frantically shaking head. Sick with the realization of what may be going on he reached out to the girl only to find she had backed away from him, holding her hands to her mouth and shaking her head.

“No.... Daddy would have never left Phoebe out there alone. She was pregnant and he... He... He wouldn’t have left her.” Then the full import of what she said, of what she knew of her father and mountain lions hit her and she began to choke as she fought the gagging sobs of horror at what may have happened. Her mother’s wails joined in a cacophony of grief.

Seto mentally kicked himself for being an idiot then took matters in hand. “Shut up!” He ordered sharply to the keening women. “Right now you know that a mountain lion had hold of the collar and leash. That’s all you know. Save the tears and hysterics until they’re needed.” And hopefully he was long gone. Damn women were annoying with their screeching dramas. Deliberately he ignored his own choked and smothered grief for his little friend.

His hard tone silenced mother and daughter, terrified them too if the way they moved together and clung was an indicator. Seeing they were under control he turned to the ranger. “How long until your men get here?”

“The ATV’s are ready, they just had to grab the feline kits and get here. They are about three miles away. So they should be here in about ten minutes.” Though still pale, the man was holding it together. Seto could respect that. And right now he had other needs. Ten minutes would be plenty of time. “Fine. Where is the bathroom? I’d like to use the facilities.”

Surprisingly the girl spoke up. “I’ll show you guys.” She shot her mother and uncle a quick look, her eyes lingering on the collar still clutched in her mother’s hand. “Follow me.”

Seto and Jou both stood and hurried after the girl. Once they were clear Jou said “Thanks for showing us the way.”

“No prob. I hate pissing in the woods too.” She hesitated a second, her step faltering. “It really was a mountain lion?”

“Yeah.” Jou wouldn’t lie about it. He knew false hope would be crueler in the long run. “But that don’t mean...”

“I know but it’s likely. I... Phoebe was my dad’s dog. A pure blood Sheltie. When he disappeared we thought he ran off and took her with him. He... he and mom were fighting. He had a Hog with a sidecar and... And he jumped on it after the fight and took off. Phoebe jumped in the sidecar with him. She was pregnant and dad was as proud of that litter as anything.” She shrugged uneasily. “That was almost five months ago. We did a missing person’s report and there were tips from all over the state. Mom figured he took off and would come back when he cooled off. But he... he didn’t come back. She told me she was filing for divorce if he wasn’t back by six months.” Tears shimmered in her eyes. “Now he may never come back.”

“Touching. I need to use the facilities.” Seto intoned dryly. He didn’t know how to deal with her drama, nor did he have the emotional resources to take on anyone else’s pain.

That made her blink and look at him with a kind of hurt bewilderment. “Uh... yeah. The blue door on the left.” She said blankly.

With a brisk nod the brunet left the dumbfounded girl in the hall. Needing some kind of reassurance, maybe just that the brunet was human, the girl turned to the blond standing in the hall. She was further stunned when she saw the blond was staring after the man with a small smile on his face, as if he approved of his actions. She couldn’t contain her tiny squeak.

Jounouchi looked back to her with apologetic eyes, but still wearing that same smile. “Forgive my friend. He just lost his pup and...” Abruptly he broke off and shook his head, smile fading. “Nah, I ain’t gonna lie to ya. He’s a jerk and an asshole. He don’t deal with emotions and gets cranky when he’s around drama...” The smile peeped out again. “I’m so glad to see him bitchy.” Without explaining that remark, he followed the brunet into the bathroom.

Completely lost, Stephanie shrugged to herself and went back to her duties. Guys were so weird – even gay ones like those two. No wonder she preferred girls.

Seto was taking care of business when Jounouchi joined him at the urinals. The brunet braced himself for a session on being nice to girls whose fathers had been eaten. He was surprised when no lecture was forthcoming. The only sound he heard was the tinkle of piss on porcelain and a long sigh of relief. While washing up he peeked at Jou in the mirror. “You got a comment?” He didn’t care what the idiot had to say, not really. He’d just rather get it over with.

“Nope.” Jou tucked and zipped, then moved across to wash his hands.

Seto found that hard to believe. Jounouchi had always been a soft touch for women’s tears. Everyone knew it. He wasn’t going to believe that the second-rate duelist had changed that much. “Hnnn... Just spit it out so I can ignore it.”

“Nah, I haven't got anything to say about it.” He waited a second then added “But if I was gonna say something it’d be, ‘Damn its good to see you again, Kaiba Seto.’”

“What are you babbling on about?” That baffled Seto.

“Just that I miss your asshole attitude sometimes. I mean, I like that you’re all nice and polite and you’re not all fussy and shit. But it ain’t the Kaiba Seto I know, if you see what I mean? I’m kinda glad to see somewhere down deep you’re still an asshole ‘cause it means you haven't changed too much.” Casually he reached out and ruffled Seto’s hair. “Besides, I know why you did it. Tears and hysterics bug you and you felt bad for not pulling your punches. You may not have comforted them but you gave them what they needed to see this through. That’s more important than mopping up their tears.”

Seto grabbed the hand ruffling his hair, jerking it away and holding it tight. “Who said you could touch me?” If the idiot wanted an asshole he’d get one.

“I did.” Understanding lit the depths of his golden eyes. “Don’t force it. I want what you want to give. No more and no less. You don’t have to be anything but who you are for me. I like the guy I see in you. All of him, the asshole, the lonely man on the beach, and the person you're not even aware of yet that looks at me like I’m someone he cares about.” Tenderly he ran his free hand through the tangled locks, finger combing them into a semblance of order. “And don’t snarl at me either ‘cause it’ll just prove I’m right. You hate it when I’m right and it’ll make you mad.” He grinned wryly. “And don’t look so confused either. You’re too cute that way and I’ll do somethin’ you’ll punch me for.” Still grinning he reversed Seto’s grip on his hand and tugged him towards the door. “If you gotta take a dump say so now. We won’t see a toilet for a while.”

“I’m fine.” But he wasn’t. Inside there was a mix of confusion, fear, and just a touch of amusement. It felt wrong when his best friend, his Scapegoat, had just been killed. There was something wrong with him to feel anything close to laughter. Despite his misgivings, he didn’t remove his hand from Jou’s hold, allowing the blond to pull him along. He didn’t return the clasp, but he didn’t pull away either. Something that he was sure Jounouchi, the surprisingly perceptive and caring Jounouchi, had noticed.

Seto had expected two men with vehicles. What he found was four vehicles and six men, all of whom wore green uniforms and big hats. He couldn’t help but notice three of them carried pistols.

Ranger Arnault was all business as he explained why he’d called the men and relayed Jounouchi’s story. To emphasize his point he held up the stained collar with it’s frayed leash. The men looked at them with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. One of the other rangers nodded briefly and asked “Have you called the sheriff? And animal relocation?”

Randy’s expression was stricken as he realized how short he’d fallen on performing his duties. “Not yet. I thought we’d handle it.”

The other ranger shook his head. “Nah, best if we call the sheriff. He can record the area and any evidence. Relocation is a last resort but in this case it’ll be necessary. Too many kids come here. They can take possession when or if we tranquilize it.” He didn’t wait for the disturbed man’s nod. He called the sheriff right away. They milled around impatiently. A potential man-eating mountain lion was a lethal threat. They were anxious to get started.

“Alright guys check your gear and get back here. Make sure the rifles are loaded and make sure the tranqs are not expired.” The man’s gaze gained focus as he looked at the two civilians. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names.”

Jounouchi smiled “Understandable. I’m Joey Wheeler and this is Seto Kaiba. Our wallets are back with the car. We’re camping out about four miles from here on the bend at Horseshoe Creek.”

“Seto Kaiba? There was a broadcast about you on the police scanners. You’d had an accident and your family is worried.” Randy’s eyes widened in surprise, his gaze reassessing the brunet. He could clearly see the resemblance now that he knew what to look for.

“I called my family and told them I’d decided to take a road trip.” He shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal for the head of a multi-billion dollar company to take off on a moment’s notice. “I would rather they not find out where I am. I don’t want to be bothered. I’m on vacation.”

“Still weren’t you in some kind of accident?” The ranger was remembering the details.

“My tire blew out and I hit the rail. Joey drove by and asked me along for the road trip so I decided why not? I’d planned on a long rest and this was a great way to unwind.” He glanced sideways at Jounou- Joey. “I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

“Still... Maybe you should call again.” The ranger suggested as he turned to the blond. “Joey Wheeler from Hot Wheels and Cool Country Roads?”

A blush covered the younger man’s face. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Your camp over on the Horseshoe. It’s described perfectly. We didn’t think you’d come back this year. Oli died didn’t he?” There was sympathy and admiration in the other man’s expression.

Joey nodded shortly, obviously uncomfortable. “I miss him. Doing a memorial camp.”

“I see. Number six isn’t it?” Randy smiled faintly, but it didn’t lift the darkness in his eyes.

“Yeah. I uhm... I’d appreciate you not telling anyone please. My identification is in the car, like Seto’s. I... It would...” He broke off to gesture expressively.

“Got it. You’ll have to tell the Sheriff but I’ll just call you Joey and him Seth.” Seeing the move of rejection by the brunet he explained “Seto is not common and it’s being splashed around a lot right now.”

“Hnnn I will definitely call home. Call me Kai. I am originally from Japan and hold to that societal norm. Only close friends and family may use my first name and I despise the name Seth.” Seto corrected firmly. He didn’t appear to notice that he’d just implied he and Joey were close friends or family.

Joey did and a deep glow lit his eyes as tender smile flickered across his lips. Seto didn’t realize it, but he’d confirmed a long held hope for the blond. Even though the brunet had made a screw face at the use of his name, he’d never once protested Jou’s use of it. Kaiba Seto cared for Jounouchi Katsuya. He either didn’t realize it or was in deep denial. Jou could live with that – for now.

“Kai...” The ranger nodded slightly, caught by Joey’s suddenly luminescent gaze. “All right. I’ll introduce you guys by Joey and Kai.”

Seto turned to look at Joey and wanted to curse for the first time in who knew how long. With his golden eyes brilliant with some undefined emotion and the tiny smile tugging at his mobile lips, he was too beautiful for Seto’s vulnerable state of mind. The brunet fought the urge to step close and curl into the arms he was almost positive would lift to embrace him, public or not. If he was right then his need to be held would mean more to Joey than other people's opinions. He didn’t know why the other man cared but he was beginning to believe that he did. More confusion and tiny sparks of something he didn’t recognize danced through him. With a mumbled “Facilities.” He dashed back to the dubious calm behind the blue door.

Jounouchi watched him go, his smile growing wider. How had he ever thought Seto was impossible to read? The yearning and panic in those deep blue eyes had been as clear as a neon sign. Heart lifting like a helium balloon, he turned to the cluster of rangers to get names and ask questions.

Seto hadn’t returned when the sheriff arrived about ten minutes later. Jounouchi was just going after him when the brunet came out of the bathroom. “Hey the sheriff’s here. You okay? You don’t have to go. I can show them.”

“I’m fine. I decided to ‘take a dump’ as you so elegantly put it. I don’t want to have to relieve myself outdoors while a killer cat is on the loose.” Seto snapped, confusion and yearning firmly under control. Not looking at the blond he stalked back into the lobby.

Jounouchi controlled his urge to grab the other man and hug the stuffing out of him. That was the first time Seto said something that indicated a willingness to live of his own will. It wasn’t much but it was a damn sight better than a few hours before when the suicidal idiot wanted to be left for cat-chow. Jounouchi gladly followed, standing quietly next to him as they waited for the Sheriff to speak to them.

After a few minutes private conversation with Randy he nodded briefly and walked over to Seto and Jounouchi. “I’m Sheriff Travis. Ranger Arnault has already told me who you guys are. I’ll call you Joey and Kai as well. You two are riding with me. I’m in a heavy duty all terrain vehicle. It has an enclosed cab and is the safest. It also seats four comfortably. Randy will be joining us. The other rangers along with two of my deputies will follow us while you guys point the way. Under no circumstances are you to leave the cab of the vehicle. If there is trouble use the radio for help.”

“What about Relocation?” Randy asked as he joined their group. The other men had cleared out.

“They will be here within two hours. Deputy Campbell is an expert with animal restraint. He did four years with Relocation before coming to the Sheriff’s department.” With a curt jerk of his head, he motioned them to follow.

“Buckle up.” As the vehicle that was a cross between a tank and a four-wheeler rumbled to life, he reminded them with a grim look and keyed his microphone so all vehicles could hear. “Which way?”

“We came in from the west following a dry creek about half a mile down. No dense brush for several yards so we figured it was safe. There’s a shallow bank that you will be able to go up and you’ll catch the cat’s trail. It’s faint but there.”

“Lawson’s Gully. Okay, you heard him. Let’s head out.” The sheriff may have ordered them to head out but no vehicle moved until his rolled forward. As their convoy slowly crawled into the arroyo the attitude in the vehicle was so heavy Joey was startled when the Sheriff spoke, “Mister Kaiba, do you want to use my phone to call your family?” He picked up the small device and offered it over his shoulder. Couched as a question, it was clearly a demand.

Seto, reminded of what the ranger said about police broadcasts, took the phone and dialed in the call blocking code then Aishira’s private office line. It would roll to his cell if he wasn’t in the office. It was answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

Unexpectedly Seto felt a slight lump in his throat at the familiar voice. He truly cared for his friends. He didn’t want to tell them about Scapegoat. “Hello Aishira.” His voice was soft and vaguely unsteady.

“Seto!” The shriek was clearly audible to everyone in the ATV cab. “Where are you? What’s going on?”

“I thought I was clear about where I am. I’m on a road trip, taking a vacation. What is this about the police? Since when is a vacation a legal matter?” He wanted to sound sharp but instead it came out low, almost sad.

“Seto, you didn’t say! You never have before. We didn’t know! And... The satellite feed showed... it looked like you were kidnapped.” In the background he could hear Matashi murmuring urgently, then Mokuba’s loud voice demanding to speak to him.

“I wasn’t kidnapped. An old friend stopped to see if I was all right and invited me on his road trip. I was planning to be gone for a while, so I decided to go along. I... I need time to reevaluate.” Seto’s voice firmed and became resolved.

“Seto... I am... glad your old friend stopped to see you. If you need time for yourself then take it just come home to us.” Underlying knowledge and remorse shaded every word. Seto knew his perceptive friend had put together what he’d planned.

“I will enjoy my trip.” He promised softly. “And I’m glad he stopped too.” The loud voice of Mokuba intruded again.

“Seto...” Aishira’s voice was tentative. “Mokuba wants to speak to you. Do you want to speak to him?”

The question told him that his friends had figured out that he and Mokuba were not close any longer. “No. No, I don’t want to talk to him.”

“All right.” To the listening Seto there was a note of almost glee in Aishira’s voice when he told Mokuba that Seto didn’t want to speak to him. Then the loud voice turned to a shriek as Mokuba demanded the phone. He needed to talk to his brother. Seto didn’t understand, didn’t know that Rebecca had left him.

A clutch of panic and hard surge of anger ripped through Seto. Mokuba was free? Did that mean... Unconsciously he turned his eyes to the blond sitting next to him. Would Mokuba want Jou back? He immediately rejected that. He’d given up without a fight before, but hadn’t Mokuba proven he didn’t deserve Jou’s heart? Damn it, he wouldn’t give him up without a fight again. Jounouchi cared for him, he was almost positive. Given time and patience... His thoughts came to a screeching halt.

Time... If he carried through with his original plan then Jounouchi would never be his. He had no right to interfere with his life or finding happiness with anyone. In that instant he saw his two paths. The first led to an eternal rest, freedom from the empty loneliness that plagued him and a surcease of the heavy weights that dragged him down. The second path was rocky and filled with shadows and pitfalls, but at the end of it, shining through the shadows were glimpses of golden light and warmth that beckoned irresistibly. Without hesitation he took his first step on rocky ground. “Tell Mokuba I’m with my boyfriend. We don’t want to be bothered with his issues. Tell him to leave me and Jounouchi alone. He wanted the entertainment parks, they’re his. He can run them. He wanted Rebecca – she’s his as well. He can take care of her. She’s not my problem.”

His new boyfriend’s blond head swiveled so fast his neck gave an audible crack that nearly drowned out the three gasps from inside the cab. Seto watched Jounouchi's stunned look and pink cheeks with interest. He took the lack of protest as a good sign. “Now I’m going to help capture a mountain lion. Aishira, take care of Matashi for me.” Decisively he clicked the phone shut and handed it back to the sheriff. He didn’t take his eyes off his ‘boyfriend’ for a second. When Jounouchi’s mouth worked several times without uttering a sound he lifted a brow and asked coolly, “Comment?”

Dark color flooded Jou’s cheeks and his lips thinned before he shook his head and turned away. Seto fixed his gaze on the two men in front. He was interested to see an amused, smug smile pass between them. “You have something you want to say?” He challenged the older men.

Randy grinned wryly. “Not really. It’s just that now I owe my husband five bucks. I bet him you guys weren’t together.”

Sheriff Travis chuckled. “I’ll collect too.”

“Husband?” Seto asked softly. “You were married when it was legal here?”

“The first day. We weren’t taking any chances that they’d reverse the decision. Which they did.” Randy admitted.

“You guys been together long?” Joey asked.

“We got together our second year high school, almost twenty-five years ago. We fought like cats and dogs in elementary and junior high though. It was all the hormones. We didn’t know what to do with them all.” The sheriff bragged unashamedly.

Joey let out a low whistle. “Some record. How do you do it?”

“It helps that we both carry guns.” Randy chuckled. His laughter was cut short when a crackle on the radio and a man’s voice reported “Sherriff, this is Mason. Traner says he thinks he sees some scat on the bank. Don’t go up until we check it out.”

Immediately the vehicle slowed from a crawl to a stop. All other vehicles behind them stopped as well. Randy pulled out his binoculars and scanned the area they were to go up. “Right in the middle. You guys came down that way, did you notice any scat?”

“Nah, I didn’t see any. Lots of tracks though.” Jounouchi held out his hand for the binoculars. “May I?”

“Yeah sure. It’s the black dot about fifty feet away. It...” But Jounouchi had gasped and sat back. Hurriedly he pulled them from his eyes. He’d seen the pile of cylindrical-shaped waste as if it were just a few feet in front of him.

“Here you go.” As he handed them back to the ranger, he couldn’t stop his quick, apprehensive glance at Seto. Nimble hands plucked them from his hand. When the brunet paled and clenched a fist, Jou knew he’d seen what Jou had. Seen and recognized the black fur and tiny bones mixed with fecal matter that was all that was left of Scapegoat.

Without a word Seto handed the binoculars back to the sheriff. Jounouchi, equally silent, reached over and took his clenched fist in both palms, surrounding the bloodless, icy hand in supporting warmth. As they slowly crawled up out of the creek bed Jounouchi felt the flinch as the ATV passed over the small mound of refuse.

The sheriff, after a quick look in the mirror at their pale features, glanced at his husband for some guidance. One of the benefits of having been together so long was that a quick look said a thousand words. Randy didn’t know what was wrong but he was too focused on what lay ahead to worry about the scat.

****

Mokuba snatched at the phone as Aishira laid it in the cradle. When he heard the dial tone he slammed the receiver back down. “What the fuck? Why did you do that? I need to speak to him. I need to tell him...”

“He heard you.” Aishira said softly. “But Seto’s decided to take care of what he needs right now. And right now that isn’t you. He said to tell you that the parks are yours, you take care of them. Also Rebecca is yours as well – you take care of her too. Seto needs time for himself.” A cool, malicious smile curved Aishira’s generous lips. “He needs his boyfriend, Jounouchi. Get over yourself Mokuba. It seems Seto has.”

“Jounouchi? His boyfriend?” Mokuba’s voice cracked with disbelief. Then, clear as daylight, jealousy flashed across his features. In a blink, it disappeared and regret took its place. “Rebecca was right. He has liked Jounouchi all this time. I never knew but I...” He took a deep breath. “Call him back please? I want to tell him how sorry I am, not just about what I let happen with Jounouchi, but the last few months. I... I have learned a lot staying out at our mansion. It... I need to speak to my big brother.”

“I can’t call him back. The number was blocked.” Aishira knew some of the remorse he was seeing was genuine, but the use of the word ‘our’ and that flash of jealousy stuck in his mind. If Seto was taking time to heal instead of ending his life he could have all the time in the universe. Aishira would help in any way he could.

“Did he say where he was? What he was doing?” The black-haired boy was dogged in his attempts to get more information.

Aishira grinned at the absurdity that Seto had spouted. “He said he was going to capture a mountain lion.”

“Capture a mountain lion?” There was a moment of silence then Mokuba demanded, “What the hell does that mean. He can’t be seriously hunting big game? He’s never hunted in his life.”

“It could mean anything.” Aishira pointed out. “He could be laying a false trail, playing a new VR hunting game, or even a sexual game with Jounouchi – after all he is tawny, is he not? As are mountain lions. I have no idea at all.” Aishira glanced at the clock then at the silently amused Matashi. “I think it’s quitting time for us. I’ve got my own wildcat to tame tonight. Sakura is feeling restless.” Grinning at the anger and concern on the younger man’s face he ruffled the black hair affectionately. Yes he was pissed at the selfish, blind, immature little snot, but he still loved him. “I’ll call the authorities and let them know Seto contacted us. Why don’t you call Rebecca and see if she wants to play a game of cat and mouse.” Tugging his lover out the door, they left the baffled and confused young man alone... just as his brother had been alone too many times to count.

As Mokuba stood in the now empty room the silence closed around him. He could almost feel the weight of it pressing in on him. It had been the same at the mansion. So empty and silent. How did his brother stand it all the time? Pulling out his cell phone he automatically selected Rebecca’s number from his address book. A name and number a few lines below it made him pause. Moutou Yugi.

Yugi would know where Jounouchi is. The two were in constant contact. Two button clicks and three rings later a mellow, soft voice he recognized as the other man’s answered “Moshi, Moshi.”

“Yugi! It’s Mokuba! How are you?” He was careful to keep his voice upbeat and positive.

“Mokuba. It’s good to hear from you. I’m fine and how are you doing?” Courteous and friendly with a slight hint of reserve. A subtle difference from the attitude of the past four years.

“I’m doing fine. Congratulations on the win. How was your flight home?” Mokuba frowned slightly at the change.

A small hesitation then “Thank you very much. I have not returned home. I’m staying at Otogi Ryugi’s home in Malibu.”

“Really? That’s great. I didn’t know he had a home in Malibu. Maybe I could stop out and visit him sometime.” Still upbeat and positive, Mokuba didn’t quite know what to make of the reserve from Yugi. In the past the other man had always been warm and friendly.

“No, that would not be a good idea.” Yugi told him apologetically. “He lives with Jounouchi and Jounouchi made his desire to not have you around him quite clear.”

“Jounouchi lives with Ryugi?” That stunned Mokuba. When had they gotten together? Why hadn’t he heard it. The last he’d heard Otogi was with Honda Hiroto. Hadn't he attended their marriage a while ago? What had happened? Then another thought made him clench the phone tightly in his fist. Seto must not know that they were together. He knew Seto very well. Seto did not share.

“They’ve lived together for three years.” Completely unaware of the shock coursing through his listener he confided “I was worried it wouldn’t work for them but it does.”

Mokuba’s mind lit with fury. He controlled it with an iron will his brother would have recognized. With calculation partly earned and partly innate he began to gather information. “Three years. That’s a long time. So you are staying with them now. If you’ll let me speak to Jounouchi maybe we can have a talk, iron out our differences.” He forced a cajoling note to his voice.

“I can’t. He’s not here. He goes off once a year for a vacation; a road trip. During his trip he is completely inaccessible. I don’t know when he’ll be back but when he returns I’ll ask him to give you a call.”

The words ‘road trip’ made his hair bristle. “Inaccessible? I find that hard to believe. Surely Otogi Ryugi knows...”

“Not at all, Mokuba. He only knows the starting point – here at their home in Malibu and the end point – Key West Florida.” Yugi explained. “But Mokuba, Jou doesn’t want... Well it just wouldn’t be right to invite you to his home when he’s not here.”

“It’s okay Yugi.” The anger that raged through him was controlled with a steel leash, another trait his brother would have recognized. Mokuba forced himself to be friendly, polite. He might need more information and Yugi is a valuable source. “Thanks anyway. Well it was good to talk to you and congratulations on the win.”

“Thank you. Good to hear...” But Yugi was talking to dead air. Slowly he closed his flip phone.

Honda Hiroto looked over at him from the stove. “Mokuba. Damn! What did he want?”

Yugi forced a smile. “What he always wants. For me to help him talk to Jounouchi.”

“Damn he’s blind. Why can’t he see...?” But he was talking to the wall. Yugi had simply turned and walked away, unwilling and unable to hear criticism of the young man he’d fallen in love with almost four years prior.

Otogi Ryugi met his husband’s dark brown gaze with worried jade eyes. “Why? Just when Yugi was moving past that.”

“I don’t know. I know Jounouchi is almost over Seto and it’s taken him a lot longer. The Kaiba brothers pack a vicious punch.” Honda sighed and rubbed his hand down Otogi’s back. He couldn’t hold back the question. “Regrets?”

“That you stopped me from dating Seto? Or that you knocked some sense into me when I went after Jounouchi while he was on the rebound?” Green eyes twinkled up at him playfully.

“Both.” They’d been over this many time and Honda knew Otogi wanted to be with him, chose him. But sometimes... just sometimes... he wondered. He knew Jou didn’t want Otogi and outside of one drunken night, had never even considered sex much less a deeper relationship with his husband but...Otogi was beautiful, hot, exotic and everything Honda was not. He knew it.... relished it... and sometimes worried.

“Never.” The black-haired man pulled him into a deep kiss. “I may have considered screwing Kaiba and Jounouchi – but I only ever considered marrying you.” Otogi knew that Honda was insecure of him at times. He was more experienced, had more of a history, and had briefly considered liaisons with Kaiba Seto and with Jounouchi. That knowledge was enough to make the normally secure husband and lover twitchy. Otogi couldn’t change his past but he could reassure Honda that while he’d been with others temporarily, he’d chosen Honda forever.

Across the country Mokuba was mobilizing a private army of detectives to find his brother. No damn way was he going to let his big brother be hurt by a two-timing, scheming blond. Once he was sure his minions would do his bidding, bring both Seto and Jounouchi to him, he called Rebecca. She was a genius and she cared for him and Seto. He’d ask for her help in infiltrating the enemy camp and gathering more information.

Half an hour later he called for his private jet. Rebecca had been surprisingly difficult to convince and only after he’d bent the truth a bit had she agreed to help. Not a true lie, but an exaggeration. After all Jounouchi had hated his brother and in Seto’s vulnerable state of mind, he could very well be dangerous to Seto.

****

The puma’s caching ground was just as fetid and putrid smelling as they remembered. Even with the air conditioning Seto, already pale, turned grey and Joey could feel his gorge rising. One moment they were closing in, no real discernible smell, then as they broke through the bushes the malevolent odor of death and decay closed around them, choking out the fresh air, leaving them to gasp as revulsion crawled through them.

Randy’s breath caught at the distinctive smell of death and he shot his husband a quick, apprehensive glance. Sheriff Travis brought the ATV to an abrupt stop and keyed his microphone. “I want one shooter each ATV. The rest of you meet me in front of my vehicle – and be damn careful.” The cat, if there was one, should be gone, but he wasn’t taking any chances with his men. The rank smell in the air was death, but more, it was human death. Animals stank as they rotted, but humans, because of all the chemicals and toxins they put in their bodies, smelled worse, with a distinctive odor that permeated the area. They would find human remains. He was certain of that, but was the death caused by a mountain lion or something – someone - else remained to be proven.

Sheriff Travis looked over at his husband knowing exactly what he was thinking. “Randy, I want you to take these guys back to the resort. Stay with them until someone arrives to take their official statement.” It wasn’t much, but it was all he could do to protect his husband from seeing the remains if they turned out to be his brother.

The ranger knew exactly what his husband was doing and inside he was torn. He had seen what wild animals did to bodies. He didn’t want to see his brother like that. But at the same time he had to know. “I...”

But their blond passenger spoke up. “We aren't going back to the resort. We have go get the car and break camp. We’ll do our statements when...”

“You aren’t going to your camp. As of right now you are officially people of interest. If a puma is killing out here then it isn’t safe. And if a puma isn’t what’s killing... we have a few more questions for you.” The Sheriff didn’t elaborate.

“Wait a minute, you can’t...” Joey argued, but the sheriff simply shrugged.

“I can do as I must to keep everyone safe.” He opened his door and slid out. “Randy, make sure that they are comfortable. They will need clothes and toiletries for tonight. Handle it.” Giving his husband a caring look, his face losing it’s official mask for a moment he said softly, “I’ll call you when I know something.”

Wordlessly Randy moved to the driver’s seat and pulled the door closed. With a violent spin of the tires he reversed and then spun around. Jounouchi, ignoring Seto for the moment, snarled, “What the fuck? We found the site and we are some kind of suspects? We ain’t criminals. We need to get...” His mouth was suddenly muffled by Seto’s hand.

“Shut it.” The brunet ordered briskly as he took his hand away. “They are doing what they have to. A day at a resort won’t be bad for either of us. A shower is a good idea. We both stink and I would enjoy a bed to sleep in.”

“But Seto we can’t afford...”

“The Sheriff’s department will take care of it. Now shut up.” Dark blue eyes turned to him with a strange intensity. “I...” But Seto didn’t say another word. He didn’t have to. Joey could see it in his eyes. Seto was hurting too badly and couldn’t take any more.

Taking the hurting man’s hand in a gentle clasp, Joey nodded. Softly he whispered, “It’s gonna be okay Seto.”

“Liar. I despise liars. It won’t be ‘okay.’” Roughly he withdrew his hand. “Shut the fuck up if you’re going to lie to me.”

Jounouchi blinked in shock at the change in attitude. “Huh?” Then fury lit him. “You damn jerk, I was being nice. I ain’t no liar. If you say that again I’ll kick your ass into the next decade.”

The ride back passed in rigid silence. When they reached the resort, for the first time since they’d met on the beach, Jounouchi stalked away from Seto.

The rest of the day passed in a haze to Seto. He knew that to most of the people around him he seemed to function normally, but it was all automatic. In his mind’s eye he kept seeing the pile of refuse with its black hair and tiny bones. No matter how many times he tried to close the image out it came back to haunt him. When it did, the same sense of failure that he experienced in the dark rose to choke him, threatening to cut off his breathing and causing a stinging in his eyes.

At some point he became aware of Jounouchi watching him with eyes dark with concern and understanding. In the past it would have pissed him off but he was too overwhelmed with the loss of his companion to be angry. It helped that nobody else seemed to notice his... distraction.

They gave their statements individually, Seto first then Jounouchi. Seto was too wrapped up in his loss to notice that the officer merely took down their accounts, typed them on a laptop, printed them and asked for their signatures. But Jounouchi knew, by the brevity of the interviews, that they were no longer suspects. That could only mean they had found definitive evidence of the large cat being the killer of whatever – whoever - they had uncovered.

The resort was closed to the public and roads blocked. All other guests had been asked to leave. The only people who were left at the resort was a live-in cook-cum-waitress, Ranger Arnault, two sheriffs, the resort owner and her daughter. About an hour before sundown three trucks rumbled into the parking lot. One was conspicuously marked ‘Coroner.’ The other two were equipped with huge spotlights, each one large and bright enough to light up a city block.

Jounouchi watched them drive slowly past, his heart aching with sadness even as he took note of everything. A movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned to see Randy, his sister-in-law, and his niece huddled together in front of the office window, watching through the glass. From the expressions on their faces, the blurred tears and splotchy appearances, Jou knew that the missing Arnault had been found. It seemed to him that they clung together like survivors of a shipwreck, tossed about and battered, but still hanging on.

The woman employed to clean rooms and lend a hand cooking saw to their meal. It was simple, a sandwich and some fries, but it sufficed. Jounouchi inhaled his food eagerly while Seto picked at his, sipping water and staring down at his plate. He’d been silent, only speaking when spoken to, and for the most part Jou left him to his thoughts. He did all he could to reassure the blue-eyed man he was there for him, silent touches and caring looks, but he didn’t intrude. Seto was reserved and emotionally distant at the best of times, and it was going to be worse now. At least he wasn’t talking or acting suicidal. But that could and probably would change. Jou wanted to be ready for anything and he didn’t want to drive Seto further away so he watched and waited for the opening that would let him do more than just silently support.

It was full dark, almost nine o’clock, when Jounouchi stood abruptly. He was tired of waiting. Seto wasn’t coming out of it. If anything he was slipping further away. “I’m tired and we both still need showers. Let’s go to bed.” Blue eyes flickered to him for a moment then away. Wordlessly Seto scraped back his chair and stood to leave.

“I got clothes and stuff for us at the shop here while you were giving your statement. Randy told me to have them put it on the tab of the sheriff’s office.” Jou watched carefully for any sign of anger that Seto might give at him picking out his pajamas and toothbrush. He was out of luck. The only response the brunet gave was to stride away as if he hadn’t spoken.

‘Well shit.’ Jounouchi bit back his curse and hurried after the disappearing figure. Even though he rushed to catch up Seto was at the top of the stairs when Jounouchi reached the bottom. The door to the room they shared, with it’s two full sized beds, slammed closed when Jou reached the top of the stairs. “Well fuck. He is in full asshole mode.” The blond mumbled under his breath. “He has to be really hurtin’.” Grumbling, he fished around in his pocket for the swipe-card for the auto-locking door. It took him three tries to get the door open.

He charged in ready to snap Seto’s head off for being an asshole only to find the bedroom empty and the bathroom door closed. Even as he stepped to the door the commode flushed and a few seconds later the shower turned on. Anger dying, after all if Seto needed to use the bathroom it explained his hurry, Jou stepped back and turned to the bags of stuff he had laid on the bed earlier.

He took out the t-shirts and shorts he’d chosen for them tomorrow, made sure all the tags and stuff were off, then folded them neatly in the drawer. The shop hadn’t had true pajama’s, but they’d carried a selection of t-shirts and boxers that had kitschy sayings on them. For Seto he chose t-shirt that said ‘Somebody in California Loves Me’ with matching boxers. For himself he chose one with the slogan ‘My Governor can beat up your Governor’, again with matching boxers.

He laid the ‘pajamas’ out on each of their beds, then decided to put the toothbrushes, floss, paste, deodorant and razors in the bathroom. There was a shower curtain, besides they’d played together naked not too long ago. Seto could just suck it up if he had an issue. Even though his thoughts were full of bravado, Jounouchi opened the door silently, not wanting to intrude or upset Seto further.

He placed the hygiene items on the small countertop and backed out of the room, only to freeze in dismay as a hoarse, choked sob, barely audible over the shower, reached him. For a moment he stood there, suspended by indecision, and then another sob, quickly strangled off, made his decision for him. Without conscious thought he was shedding his clothes and climbing into the shower.

Seto didn’t remember leaving the dining room or his hurried flight. He only knew he had to get out of there before he vomited what little food he’d eaten. He’d barely made it to the commode before his stomach had emptied itself in massive heaves. A few choking gasps and dry heaves later and he heard the door open. To buy himself time, not wanting Jounouchi to see him like this, he’d turned on the shower full blast.

Once he was sure his body had finished its purging, he turned and stepped into the shower, not caring that he hadn’t removed his clothes, or the icy blast of water raining down on him. Tilting his head he caught some of the cold water in his mouth and rinsed the foul taste away and leaned weakly against the back wall of the shower. He wished he had the strength to push the mental pictures away. He had always had the strength and discipline in the past. But now... Now he just couldn’t seem to find the core of titanium he’d always relied on. There just seemed to be no strength left in him. All he could see or feel, think about, was the graphic image of black fur mixed with bones and... Desperately he tried to close it out, but his grief was stronger, and a sob broke free. Pressing his fist to his lips he tried to stop the rest of them that welled up, demanding release. He held it for perhaps a second, then it burst free, to be followed by another almost immediately.

He was too busy trying to stifle the sobs to do more than look up in shock when Jounouchi joined him in the shower. He was stopped from protesting by the blond’s sharp curse. “Fuck! What the hell? The water’s ice cold. and you still have your clothes on.” He must have flinched or something, because the tone softened instantly “Ah man, Seto when are you gonna let me in?” Warmth, shocking and sudden, enveloped him as he was wrapped in strong golden arms and spun under the now steaming shower spray. It lifted his lethargy slightly and he shifted in protest when Jou pulled his shirt over his head and went to work on the wet fastenings of his shorts. In just a few seconds Seto found himself completely naked. He couldn’t find more than mild concern in himself at his state.

His breath shuddered out of him as the slightly shorter man wrapped his arms around him, folding him into a tight bear hug. “Damn it Seto, put your head on my shoulder and let me hold you when you cry. And don’t try to push me away ‘cause the way I’m feelin’ right now if you try to show me how much you don’t need me I’m gonna show you that you do.”

The idea was absurd, ridiculous, and so tempting that Seto actually lowered his head slightly, and pressed against the offered shoulder. His sobs were muffled, and he didn’t hold on to Jou, but he did lean against him for support when the sobs grew so violent that his whole body shuddered and shook. He stopped fighting the desperate outpouring, his will battered by the pain. Grief poured from him in a torrent of tears. With the buckling of his barriers, a kind of euphoria poured through him, he could cry, he could hurt, Jounouchi would hold him. He didn’t have to be strong, he could let go. Finally he could let go. Tears and pain he’d repressed for years burst through, intensifying his sobs, and he didn’t fight the feeling, he didn’t care. He let it take him away, cleaning him from the inside out, rinsing away the darkness that had started to form when his mother had died, just days before his eighth birthday.

As his pain was released, the darkness receded slowly, fading with every teardrop. For what seemed like hours he continued to cry, but gradually the pain faded and his soul lightened. His tears and sobs slowed, becoming infrequent and less wrenching.

When he calmed, regained a semblance of control, he stepped away from the welcoming body and turned to face the spray, washing away the traces of tears. Even though he was relieved, his pain and darkness lighter than they’d been in years, his brain and conditioning were taking over again.

Ignoring the soft question “Seto, are you okay?” He stepped over the side of the tub-shower combo and reached for a towel. Without bothering to do more than wrap it around his head, he bolted from the bathroom.

He was confused, completely humiliated and enraged that he’d been so weak. He had no clue what to do or say. He’d lost it in front of Jounouchi... Jounouchi... The person he wanted for his own. He couldn’t believe his loss of control and dignity. Where was his pride? Jounouchi would think he was a pathetic loser crying over a dumb dog and feel obligated to be nice to him. Seto didn’t want pity or obligation. With a low moan he dove onto his bed and wrapped the comforter around him, pulling it over his head to hide from Jounouchi and from his own loss of control.

When Jou stalked from the bathroom and crossed to stare out the window, Seto hunched deeper into the quilt, expecting some sort of outburst or physical assault. He couldn’t deny a vague sense of disappointment when the steps passed in front of him and continued across the room.

Silence ruled for long moments. Seto continued to wait for Jounouchi to do something, anything to break the tension between them. And still nothing. Steeling his courage he peeked out of his comforter-cocoon fully expecting to find Jou’s pitying gaze fixed on him. He was disappointed and peeved to find that the gaze he needed was fixed out the window. Anger spurted through him. Seto was humiliated and weak. Why didn’t the blond throw that at him, or look at him with that gaze that said he felt sorry for him. Didn’t Jou feel sorry for him? Didn’t he care that Seto had emptied his soul in those tears? Frustrated, the cocooned man shifted and glared harder.

But the blond continued to look out the window, ignoring him.

Angrily, Seto began to mentally rail. How dare he ignore him? Wasn’t he the one to always say he cared? To say he wanted to be there? Hadn’t he been the one to climb into the shower and insist that he cry on his shoulder? Hadn’t he caused the breakdown? He wouldn’t have fallen apart if Jou hadn’t been there. Jou was the one who kept pushing. and now... Why did Jou think he could stop? Just because he’d left? So what? The blond claimed to know him, so he would have to know that even though Seto had ran he needed...

His thoughts came to a screeching halt. Of course Jou knew he needed him. But... Wait, Jou couldn’t seriously expect him to admit it could he? He couldn’t really expect him to... actually... own up to the feelings he barely understood? He was Kaiba Seto, not some weak woman. Jounouchi would have to understand. Again his thoughts derailed because he knew that the other man did understand him, better than anyone else on the planet.

If that was true then why the hell was he looking out the window instead of cuddling with him like he should be? Furious that the jerk had lied about understanding him, caring about him, Seto shed his cocoon and stalked across to the cheat. “Bastard. You don’t care about me.”

Mild golden eyes looked at him with silent inquiry. Seto blinked because just for a second the moonlight had given Jou’s eyes a strange appearance, almost like that of a patiently waiting predator. “You know better. I ain’t gonna fight with you about this. We’re both too upset. Go to bed and get some sleep.” It wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order and Seto reacted instantly, lashing out with a punishing fist.

Jou caught it a hair's breadth from his face. “Uh uh Seto. You touch me right now and things are gonna get physical. I ain’t feeling soft and gentle right now.” But he didn’t release the brunet’s slowly relaxing fist.

Heart thudding with possibilities, and an ache blossoming deep inside, Seto knew, with abrupt suddenness what he needed – what he wanted. Yanking his hand away, he glared at the blond for a moment, and then fast as lightning he cuffed him on the ear and spat “Liar.” The ache deepened to painful need as he rushed back to his bed and slipped back into his cocoon. Breathlessly he waited. This time Jou didn’t disappoint him. Even as he fought the removal of the comforter he breathed a sigh of relief. Jou did know what he needed... and would give it to him.

He fought even more when a blond avalanche landed on him, pinning him to the bed, struggling to hold his arms and body still. “Get off.” He tried to growl, to sound like his normal icy, intimidating self, but it sounded weak, soft, and not in the slightest convincing.

Jounouchi must have heard the desire in his voice, because he settled more firmly, finally catching and holding his arms. “Let me in. Tell me what you’re thinkin’ Seto. Tell me what you’re feelin’. Damn it, let me hold you, let me help you. You’re not alone. I’m right here. You just gotta let me in.” He entreated. And Seto wanted to. He could feel the yearning to open up to Jou deep in his soul. But he’d lost so much already. He’d been abandoned and betrayed by people who should have loved him. He couldn’t open to Jounouchi. He just couldn’t... He didn’t know how even if he could. He was so pathetic he even needed help with that. And damn Jounouchi! He knew it. He probably even knew that Seto was torn between elation and fear that he knew him so well.

The perceptive blond must have seen it, the fear, longing and the confusion that mixed with his pride’s denial, because he leaned down and gently kissed one of the new tear tracks at the corner of his eyes. “Trust me. Let me care for you like I’ve always wanted to.”

That caught Seto on the raw, opening an old, festering wound. That anger sparked an idea, a way to push the blond past his reluctance, past his emotional pleas and all the words. Seto knew words could trap and deceive. He needed more than words. “Liar.” Quick as a snake his head snapped forward, head-bashing Jounouchi in the mouth, splitting his lip. Blood began to flow.

The blow stunned the blond for a moment before anger and determination lit his golden eyes. “Oh fuck no I ain’t no liar. You are. You want me to care for ya. Hell you need me to care for you so bad it’s like a starving man staring at a steak.”

“Liar.” It was the only thing he could think of to get what he needed. Jou was taking too long. Couldn’t he see that Seto needed him now? It wasn’t a denial of Jou’s words so much as a denial of his claim of caring in the past. Nobody had cared for him – ever. He needed proof of Jou’s caring not just empty words.

“You want me to prove it to you don’t you? That's why you’re pushing me. You need proof of everything.” More blood dripped, falling onto Seto’s neck before sliding down to his shoulder. Somber consideration joined the anger and determination. “Don’t do it this way. Not... like this. We... Please just let me in Seto... Let me be there for you. Tell me what you need. Give me your feelin’s. Please.”

“I wouldn’t give you the sweat off a gnat’s ass. You. Are. A. Liar.” Blue-eyes fixed on Jou with a mix of demand, rage, pain and yearning so deep it rocked the blond to the core. “I despise liars.”

Anger and understanding lit the golden eyes to a brilliant hue. “You’re making this hard on both of us. Last chance Seto. You push me further and I won’t hold back on ya. You’ve pissed me off too much. Only thing stopping me from tearing your ass up is the tears on your face. They hurt as much as your words.” Jou sighed and leaned down to kiss the brunet gently, smearing blood across his lips. “Just talk to me Seto. You know, deep inside, you know I ain’t lying. Last chance...”

Seto struggled with the words. Goading him wasn't enough. Even hitting him wasn't enough... What did the blonde want from him? "Prove it." he finally rasped, a challenge as much as a plea. Maybe Jou would understand this too, like he seemed to understand everything else.

Half in despair, half in resignation, Jou watched Seto’s lips form the challenge. It echoed hollowly in his ears as his control unraveled. “Ah man Seto... That tears it. Why couldn’t you just say ‘I need you?’” He should fight something he knew was wrong, but how could he fight something that he had wanted for so long? How could he deny the need that was rolling off Seto in waves? Why should he when his body was bow-taut and straining with rage and a matching need?

Slowly, with purpose he shifted to grip both of Seto’s arms with one hand while his other stroked slowly across his cheeks, wiping away the tears and smeared blood. There was an instant of stillness that erupted into a short, hard struggle as Seto’s last defense was breached. It ended with both of them panting, Seto still pinned, and their bodies as closely entwined as possible. “Now... look at me and admit the truth. You need me Kaiba Seto... As much as I need you...”

“You...” Words failed Seto an incredible heat and feeling of rightness filled him. “I... We...” Golden eyes gazed at him intently, watching him with vast tenderness, waiting for his acknowledgment.

Unable to bear the gaze, he turned his head to look away, his gaze caught by their moonlight shadows on the wall. There was something odd about their shadows... Before he could figure it out Jou gripped his chin and turned him back to meet his gaze.

“Yes we... We Seto. You and I...” Jou’s rough voice was faintly breathless and strained. “You wanted this, pushed for it. I gave you what you wanted. Now give me what I want. Let me in Set.. Accept me and admit you need me too.” The anger was gone. All that was left was pain and yearning. Jounouchi wanted to be part of him. Seto was as sure of it as he was the sunrise the next morning. Jounouchi was his. Even as he struggled to find the words, they slipped away. He couldn’t say them yet. But he would show Jounouchi with his actions. And somehow he knew that his lover would understand.

A slight tug on his arms told him that Jou was far from certain of his response to this very unexpected event and was afraid he’d fight. As if he would. He wanted this, needed this, and had consciously pushed for it. Jounouchi, the scarily intuitive, knowing Jounouchi, had somehow managed to give him what he needed, even when he didn't know how to ask.

Giving him the only response he could, he lifted his hips and wrapped his long legs around Jou’s thighs, deepening the possession of his body, silently telling Jou what he needed to know.

A soft sigh and whispered as his arms were released. The ‘Thank you,’ told him that Jou really did understand his wordless communication. His gaze was drawn irresistibly back to the shadows, and Seto realized it wasn’t their individual shadows. but one that was joined, blended, one being.

It was probably a trick of the moonlight, but it closely matched his feeling of oneness deep inside. He tightened his arms and met the subtle rocking motion with one of his own. For now, and hopefully for a long time in the future, they were together. He wasn't naive enough to think that because he'd manipulated Jounouchi into sex that everything would be moonbeams and roses, but he also knew that the act of joining their bodies meant more than simply sex. It was a promise, a commitment, one they were both making.

***

Love was damned ironic, Rebecca conceded inwardly as she rode in the limo Mokuba arranged for them. And she should know. She’d been falling in and out of love since she was twelve. Here she was on her way to see Moutou Yugi, her first love, while riding beside Kaiba Mokuba, the man she’d hoped would be her last love. That hope had faded to disappointment though because of Mokuba’s immaturity. No way could she tolerate the selfish crap her ex-fiancé dished without even realizing what he was doing. The egocentric cruelty he’d shown to the person he was supposed to love more than anyone else, his brother Seto, had cemented the nagging feelings of doubt. It had actually been a relief to break it off. She cared for Mokuba, for the person he could be, but until he matured she couldn’t love him. And she knew herself well enough that she knew her heart wouldn’t wait on something that might never happen.

“You’re quiet.” Mokuba interrupted her reverie. He reached to take her hand, holding it gently. Blue-grey eyes sincere, he said softly “Thank you for coming. I know you’re still angry and didn’t want to.”

She met the gaze squarely, her eyes cool and distant. “I’m thinking about what you said. Mokuba, the only reason I’m here is because you said you needed my help finding Seto, that you knew he was in danger and that Yugi had information he wouldn’t tell you. Don’t think I’ve changed my mind about us. It’s over.” Briskly she pulled her hand free. “I care for you, but I don’t think I love you any longer. I’m not even sure I like you that much.”

That shocked Mokuba. With a gasp he shook his head. “’Becca love doesn’t die like that. Not true love, not like ours.”

“Mine did. So I guess it wasn’t true love.” Turning her head she saw they had reached their destination. “We’re here.” She observed needlessly.

Mokuba, still reeling under the impact, reached for her. “Becca..”

“Don’t touch me Mokuba.” She ordered coolly. With a brisk nod to the driver as he opened the door, she stepped out of the car. She was at the door when the black-haired man caught up.

Her finger poised on the doorbell, Mokuba pleaded “Wait, Becca please, we have to talk.”

“No, there’s nothing more to say. We are here for your brother remember? His safety is more important than anything. That’s what you told me when you asked for my help.” She reminded Mokuba of their conversation and the reason she agreed to help him. Deliberately she pressed the bell.

The door was answered before she lifted her finger. Honda Hiroto, dressed in a pair of swim trunks and flip-flops stared at them in almost anger. “Rebecca! Mokuba!” He greeted brusquely. The tall man didn’t shift to let them in. There was no welcome in his attitude.

“Hiroto, it’s good to see you.” She smiled and her ‘trouble-antenna’ quivered. There was something very wrong. “Sorry to stop by unexpectedly, but this is urgent. A matter of life and death.”

Hiroto lifted his eyebrows expressively then sighed. “Be right back.” He turned and closed the door in their faces. Rebecca blinked at the blatant rudeness and her sense of wrongness tripled. A quick glance at Mokuba’s face told her he wasn’t nearly as shocked at the man’s behavior as she was.

“Do you know...” But she cut off her question when the door opened and Hiroto stepped back and motioned them inside, his dark eyes glaring. Without a word he spun and led them through the spacious interior outside onto a back deck.

Otogi Ryuugi and Yugi were sitting side-by-side on a lounger, both slathered in sunscreen, wearing shorts, floppy hats and sunglasses. Tall ice-filled drinks, glasses sweating in the heat, sat beside them. Rebecca licked her lips as she realized that she was thirsty. Expectantly she turned her gaze to Hiroto only to gasp slightly in shock as the older man moved to stand behind the pair on the lounger, resting a hand on each of their shoulders in obvious reassurance. What was going on here?

It was Yugi who broke the uncomfortable silence. In a very un-Yugi manner he addressed Mokuba coldly “You were asked not to come. Why are you here?”

Mokuba flushed dark red but answered steadily. “I need to find Jounouchi.”

Rebecca saw the Yugi’s slight flinch and the tightening of Honda’s hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. That had hurt Yugi. She knew Yugi very well and the tiny move was as clear as a neon sign to her, even if Mokuba didn’t seem to see it. The bad feeling was getting worse. Deliberately she stepped away from Mokuba, angling herself between the factions.

Otogi answered with cutting firmness. “Yugi told you on the phone we don’t know where he is. He goes on a road trip this time of year. He has no set itinerary or plans that we know of. We know where he starts and ends.”

“That’s bull shit.” Mokuba dared to argue. “He doesn’t fall off the face of the earth. You guys live together. You have to know something. Where has he gone in the past?”

“We ‘live together’ in the same house. It doesn’t mean he confides everything to us. He gives us a lot of privacy and we return the favor. He says married people need it and he needs the quiet for his work. He takes care of the house when we travel, which we do a lot. He has an ‘in-law’ suite with his own kitchen and bathroom.” Honda bit out sharply. He didn’t like the way Mokuba said they lived together like they were a couple or something. That kind of crap could cause problems if the lie was repeated. Otogi and Jou were in the public eye a lot. Bad publicity was just that – Bad.

Mokuba swallowed down his harsh retort. He didn’t believe the other man for a second, because who could be around a hottie like Jou and not want to lay him down? But he didn’t argue. Instead he changed tactics. “Fine! Where does he go?”

“He never goes to the same places twice.” Otogi told him. “It’s the new adventures that he’s looking for. Why do you need to find him? What is so important that you came all this way dragging Rebecca along?”

Mokuba tried to word his response properly. He didn’t want to put their backs up, but he couldn’t think of a way to express his concern without accusing Jounouchi of being dangerous to Seto. When Rebecca spoke he shot her a grateful look.

“Seto has been missing for a few days. We believed he’d been kidnapped at first, but he’s called in twice saying he was on a road trip. The last time he called he said he was with Jounouchi.”

Yugi nodded “I saw that on the news but yesterday they said he was okay and called off the bulletin. So it’s okay now, right? Why are you still looking for him?”

“He... he was injured in the crash. He may need medical attention.” It sounded lame to Mokuba and he knew it.

“Jounouchi will give him all the care he needs.” Otogi’s voice was soft and approving.

It put Mokuba’s back up. “He’s not a doctor. He...”

Otogi and Hiroto chuckled and Yugi explained their amusement. “Not a doctor, but a Holistic Practitioner of Ayurveda. He’s also studied psychology for the last five years. He is more than capable of giving Seto what he needs if he is injured.”

“Aerveda? What the hell is that?” Mokuba scoffed, deliberately mispronouncing the word.

Rebecca angled herself further away from Mokuba. “It is a form of alternative medicine that deals with all aspects of healing. Not just physical, but mental, spiritual, diet, herbs, lifestyle and exercise.” She gave him a pointed look. “It’s been around for over five thousand years. It must hold some validity.”

Yugi sighed and stood up, crossing to Mokuba and gently touching his arm. “I know you’re worried but really, he will be fine with Jounouchi. Jou has... grown a lot in the last few years.”

The black-haired man smiled slightly. Yugi could always be counted on as peacemaker. “I want to believe that but...” He let his voice trail away for a moment, as expected Yugi took the bait.

“But what?”

“It’s just that he cut us off so completely. He never gave us a chance to explain. It’s like he hated us. Seto is very vulnerable right now, perhaps even depressed, so I...” He bit his lip anxiously “I don’t want him hurt. I’m afraid Jou might hurt him out of revenge or anger and it might push my brother further away.” He disclosed anxiously, wanting to regain their trust and sympathy. He had to find his brother no matter what.

The duelist champion nodded in agreement. “I’ve noticed the last few times I’ve dueled him his heart wasn’t in it. And the last time, when Jou beat him, I felt he was hurting terribly. He disappeared before I could talk to him.” A smile lit Yugi’s amethyst eyes. “But you don’t need to worry about it. If he’s with Jou then he is safe. Jou doesn’t want revenge and he isn’t angry either. If you’re talking about the airport incident, he is grateful. You guys leaving him there was the best thing that ever happened to him. He found himself during the time he worked to earn a ticket home.”

“Found himself? What does that mean? And if he’s not pissed about it why did he cut all contact? Why didn’t he want me to call him?” That genuinely confused Mokuba. “Besides, how did you know about that?”

The gentle touch on his arm withdrew and Yugi retreated back to the lounger, sinking slowly down next to Otogi. “How did I know? You told me. Don’t you remember?” Yugi’s voice had a faint tremor. One that he controlled immediately. “Four years ago, after the Maui Invitational.”

Mokuba’s mind drew a blank for a moment, then a fragment of memory dawned. “At the bar. I was still underage, but they let me have a couple supposedly ‘virgin’ Mai Tai’s. The bartender thought it would be funny and profitable if I got drunk in public. I knew someone saved me from that but until just now I didn’t know it was you. Sorry Yugi, I barely remember that night. I don’t even remember getting to my room.” He admitted with an embarrassed laugh.

His laugh died as Yugi turned parchment white and Otogi and Honda both pressed close to him in what looked like comfort. Had he done something wrong? Said something out of line to Yugi? Forcing a light note he asked, “I wasn’t too much trouble was I? It was the first time I’d ever been drunk. I’ve learned to avoid it.”

“No...” Yugi’s voice was thin and cracked. But the next instant it firmed to normal tones. “No not at all. Back to Jou and Seto. I told Jou the truth about that when he mentioned it almost a year ago. He knows that you told your brother that you guys were going to get together and wanted to be alone.”

“He knows?” Mokuba’s voice was the strained one now. “What... was he... I...”

“He laughed Mokuba. It was funny to him. If you had pulled that and he’d gotten on the plane with you that day he’d have kicked the shit out of you. He hadn’t accepted his ‘dual spirit’ at that time. Dual Spirit is his way of describing his bisexuality. He’d just broken up with Mai, his only girlfriend since high school. She dumped him because she said he was too obsessed with defeating your brother and she was tired of it. He was seriously raw over it. That’s why he had such bad luck during that time. He was fighting the knowledge that she was right.”

“He didn’t know he was bi?” the concept was foreign to Mokuba, who’d known of his sexuality from the time he was about ten.

“Knowing and accepting are two different things.” Yugi said softly. “When you guys left him at the airport he... he had to hitch hike and take odd jobs. He met a Native American named Oli who taught him how to accept his feelings and who he was. Jounouchi went on what he called his first Road Trip. It wasn’t just a physical trek from place to place and job to job. It was a spiritual journey. He learned a lot about himself and other people.” Still in that soft voice he explained as best he could. “If Seto is with him, he is safe. And if he is in pain or having issues, Jounouchi is probably the best person for him.”

“What makes you say that? A spiritual journey doesn’t mean he hates my brother less. He has always hated Seto.” Mokuba still didn’t believe it, but he needed more information if he was going to find his brother.

“No.” Yugi corrected with a slow shake of his head, amused knowledge gleaming in his eyes. “He has never hated your brother. He’s always tried to get his attention, his admiration, and he’s always tried to force contact. When he saw that the same desire for contact wasn’t there, he did what he could for Seto. He severed all ties to him – including those with you.”

“That’s bull shit. So you are saying Jounouchi looks up to my brother?” He couldn’t stop the disbelief from coating his voice.

Rebecca sighed at his stupidity. “You aren’t hearing them, or maybe you don’t want to. After all you do want Jou for yourself don’t you? Simple admiration won’t do what Jou’s done. And you aren’t using your brain at all. You still won’t admit what you did was wrong and you still won’t see what’s in front of your face. Jounouchi fought with your brother at the same time he was fighting himself over being bisexual. What do you think that means? I remember Jounouchi from that time. He was not even tempered or self-aware. He was aggressive and pugnacious. He acted impulsively and usually didn’t examine his own motives.” She blew out a frustrated breath at Mokuba’s blank look. “He was fighting a war on both fronts and taking out his feelings on what he saw as the cause of his frustration. Your brother.”

When his eyes widened with comprehension she continued ruthlessly “And later Jounouchi backed away, severed all ties to Seto, even though it hurt him to do it, because he thought that was what Seto wanted. What does that say to you? Think Mokuba.”

“You guys think he liked my brother?” He glanced at Rebecca. “You’re saying he wanted to be with him?”

The blonde woman rolled her eyes. Mokuba was being deliberately stupid. It was his favorite act and she was damn tired of it. Before she could rip into him she was interrupted.

“We know he loved him. Has been in love with him for years.” Honda corrected sharply. “If Seto gets his head out of his ass long enough he’ll find that out. Now that your questions are answered and you know that your brother is safe, please leave.” The tall brunet glowered at him, eyes glinting with anger and something that looked like disgust.

“Wait but... Where are they? I want to talk to Seto, make sure they are okay. You guys must know where he goes. Or where he’s gone in the past.” It was a good diversion tactic. It didn’t address their delusion about Jounouchi loving Seto and it got to the point. He wasn’t going to be swayed. He had to make sure Seto was safe.

“Of course we know where Jounouchi has gone on his trips. You would too if you bothered to check it out.” Otogi picked up a book laying by the lounger. “Read this series – Start with book one.”

“Hot Wheels and Cool Country Roads?” He frowned slightly “What does that book have to do with anything?”

“Jounouchi writes the series based on his Road Trips under the pseudonym Joey Wheeler. The same Road Trip your brother is taking with him. He never visits the same place twice, but you can get an idea, maybe get lucky. Now it’s time for you to leave” With a nod he turned to usher Mokuba out.

Reluctantly he turned to go, glancing at the blonde woman over his shoulder. “Coming Rebecca?”

“Nah, He said you, not me. I’m going to stay and visit awhile. I’ll cancel my hotel reservation and make one closer. I want to stay on the beach.” She shrugged off her ex-fiance casually. Not watching as Otogi almost muscled him off the deck and back towards the door.

“No hotel necessary Becca.” Honda smiled down at the blond woman. “We have a spare room that faces the ocean. You’re welcome to stay.”

Otogi returned just as the quiet purr of the limo rumbled down the driveway. “Yugi...”

“I’m okay ‘Togi. It was what I needed to know.” The spike-haired man stood, picking up his almost empty glass. “I’ll take another drink – Long Island ice tea this time. Mai Tai’s make me sick.” Otogi gave his husband a speaking glance. Without a word Hiroto followed him back into the house.

Rebecca stared at Yugi for a moment, making a few connections. “Something happened in Maui?”

Yugi shrugged and glanced pointedly at her bare ring finger. “I won’t ask why you aren’t engaged if you won’t ask what happened on Maui.”

“Deal.” Rebecca gave him a small smile. They both knew Yugi had just confirmed her suspicions and neither was going to address the issue.

Otogi returned to find the two discussing hieroglyphs that predated all other known writings. He handed them their drinks, both Long Islands, and sat down on a chaise to wait for Hiroto. The tall brunet smiled at them as he offered the quick snacks he’d whipped up. Ignoring their conversation he deliberately interrupted. “What’s up with Mokuba?”

Rebecca sipped from her glass then lowered it to her lap, “He is jealous and immature.”

“Jealous? Of what?” Otogi asked quietly.

“Seto, Jou, everything.” She sighed and shook her head. “I assume you guys know about the plane ride fiasco?” Only Yugi nodded. Honda and Otogi shook their heads. She shrugged, “Jou had a run of bad luck and couldn’t afford a flight home. From what Mokuba said he didn’t have money for even a phone call. Seto agreed to give him a ride then asked Mokuba to let them have some privacy to ask Jou out. Mokuba told him that he wanted Jou too and he’d give Jou the choice. He never got the chance to ask but he told Seto that Jou chose him anyway. Seto took off. Jou saw him leave and walked away from them both, not knowing about it.”

Yugi sighed and murmured, “So Mokuba was after Jou even back then.”

“Yes. But I’m not sure...” She hesitated for a second, biting her lip. “I’m not sure it’s Jou he’s jealous of or truly after.”

Yugi blinked at that, recoiling slightly. “He’s jealous of Seto? His own brother?”

“Yes. ~His~ brother. He is possessive and completely irrational about it. Mokuba lived with me for months but got furious that Seto changed the locks. I know for a fact that he would keep constant check on him. Even though they were not speaking to each other he would make sure he knew what was going on with his brother practically every minute of the day. I thought it was concern, but now that I’ve had a chance to think about everything, I think Mokuba has a very deeply rooted Oedipus Complex.

“What?” Otogi laughed. “Seto is a man and his brother – not his mother.”

“Seto and Gozoburo are the only parental figures he has ever had. Gozoburo was bigger and more dominant for many years. He assumed the ‘father role’ and Seto took on the ‘mother’ characteristics. If you follow that reasoning then it makes sense that Mokuba has developed an Oedipus Complex for Seto despite their being male siblings.” Rebecca rubbed between her eyes. “It also explains why he dabbles with homosexuality and why he ruined the relationship between Seto and Jou. He is jealous.” She nodded and abruptly downed her glass. “Really sucks for me though. When I figured it out I realized why he was with me... Vagina Envy, the reverse of Penis Envy in girls, And... My mind is the only one he has come across that has a comparable I.Q. to Seto’s.”

Yugi downed his as well. “Yeah it explains a lot to me too.” Standing, he held out his hand. “Let’s go get more drinks. I think we need to get drunk and forget about Oedipus.”

“Yeah... Cold drinks in the hot California sun... Let’s party.” Her voice was light but her eyes were somber as she took his hand.

Hiroto glanced at Otogi then sighed and nodded, pulling them both up. “Sounds good.” He grinned wryly “But arrange for your stuff first. No offense but seein’ you naked ain’t something any of us want.”

“Fucking fags.” She quipped playfully, feeling the effects of the alcohol. “I’m over men anyway. Know any cute lesbians?”

“We do actually. Ishizu is in town for an exhibit...” Honda laughed lightly, and then laughed harder when the blonde woman arched an interested brow.

“I’ve always thought she was hot as either Kaiba. Wonder if she’s a screamer...”

Yugi, surprising everyone including himself, chuckled. “According to Anzu she is.”

Rebecca leaned forward, her eyes glinting with curiosity. “Anzu huh? I thought you two were going to be together forever. What happened?”

Yugi hesitated for a moment, lowering his head, staring at his glass. Then took a deep breath and whispered softly “Maui.”

“Well shit. I hope someone knocks the crap out of that little snot.”

Honda chuckled and lifted his glass “I'll drink to that.”

***

Seto woke to his nose twitching to the smell of coffee. As he opened his eyes he was aware of darkness surrounding him, it wasn’t sunrise yet, and that the place beside him was empty. For an instant uncertainty danced through him, only to be chased away by the bone deep connection he felt from last night. The smell of coffee and a missing Jounouchi meant that his lover was looking out for him again. Warmth flooded him as he realized how much he enjoyed that thought. Jounouchi cared for him.

A shadow on shadow movement caught his attention and he realized Jou was sitting on the window seat looking out, sipping coffee. That made Seto chuckle to himself. Okay so maybe Jou did take care of him, but there were times when he took care of himself too. Even if that meant bringing himself a cup of coffee, a huge on by the look of it.

Feeling playful and slightly cold, he slid out of bed and padded across to the shadowy figure. He was surprised when Jou didn’t turn to look at him but instead leaned forward to open the blinds fully. That’s when Seto saw that the sky wasn’t full dark as he’d thought, but a predawn lightness was creeping across the sky. He stared at the fading darkness for a few minutes silently, then glanced down at the seated blond. Just as he expected the golden eyes were watching him with that same, odd, patient predator look from the last night. This time he knew what the other man wanted. Casually, as if he’d done it every day of his life, he reached for the massive coffee bowl. His fingers skimmed the tingling warmth before Jou moved it away. “You think you get m’coffee?” His voice was a low rumble.

Seto did his best to give Jou a begging look, with wide eyes and a pouty lip. He knew he hadn’t pulled it off when golden eyes lit with laugher. “You have to be desperate to imitate Yugi that way.” The blond smiled and held the cup up for him to take.

Nudging the proffered cup aside, Seto inserted himself into Jou’s arms, turning so he sat between the blond’s legs, his back resting against Jou’s slightly fuzzy chest. He couldn’t resist a small sideways glance at his lover, asking permission, “I’m cold.” Guiding the cup held in an obviously surprised grip to his lips he sipped the hot coffee and relaxed into the warmth and welcome of Jou’s body. A strong arm coiled loosely around his waist, telling him that he didn’t need to ask.

“Mmm...” His hum of appreciation was two-fold as he felt a soft kiss dropped on his shoulder and the heat of the coffee. “What are we doing?”

“Watching sunrise. It’s gonna be beautiful.” A soft whisper told him.

Seto couldn’t remember the last time he’d paid attention to the sunrise, if he ever had. Sipping more before guiding the cup back over his shoulder towards Jou’s lips he settled back and prepared to watch it, wondering if he would be able to understand, to see, the beauty Jou did.

Just as the sun lit the morning sky in radiant orange, yellow, and pink in a timeless display, Seto gasped, not from the beauty, but from the soft words his lover mumbled into his neck. “I love you.”

“Jou...” He didn’t quite know what to say. His heart was hammering, his skin shivering, goose flesh rising. “I...”

“Shh... It’s okay. I know you’re not ready to love anyone yet. I wanted to say it out loud, here and now, because... because it’s symbolic. Our first day together as lovers. A new beginning. I want to start out with you knowing that. I love you. I have for a long time and I... I just wanted to tell you...”

Seto knew deep inside that it was true. If love hadn’t been at the base of Jou’s actions he wouldn’t have shown him the caring and respect he had. Pity didn't respect. It baffled him. If Jou loved him why had he chosen Mokuba? Why had he cut off all contact? And why hadn’t he let Seto know? Jounouchi knew him, as much as he hated to admit it, the blond knew his reactions. He had to have known that Seto was interested, wanted to be with him. Why... Why...?

“Why?” He couldn’t keep the question in. Things would have been so different for both of them if Jounouchi hadn’t chosen Mokuba.

“Why do I love you? Who knows?” He felt the blond shrug behind him. “Might as well ask why the sun rises. It just does. Don’t think too much about it. It’ll rot your brain.” Another soft kiss on his nape. “I don’t want you to feel pressured or tied. No strings or anything. I love you, but you don’t owe me nothing. It isn't something you control and it’s only your business ‘cause I want you to know that I’m here for you. I don’t want to tie you down. I love watching you soar free.”

Touched and oddly angry, he started to protest. “That’s not...” But Jou was on the move, uncoiling around him and standing. Bereft, he turned his gaze to his lover.

“When I got the coffee Randy was down there. They found his brother’s body. It was in one of the mounds. He wasn’t buried deep and no real evidence that the cat had done more than take a taste. He said that they found the cat prowling around our camp and were trying to tranquilize it.” The deep, loving tones lightened to practical notes.

“Our camp?” Seto’s voice choked in his throat at the thought of the danger he and Jou had been in. “It was stalking us?”

“I gave Randy the keys. He’s having someone drive the car to us. Seems like staying here was a good thing, don’t want to mess that up. We can go as soon as the car gets here. Glad we showered last night.” Jou’s voice was uneasy, rushed, and he kept skipping topics. It made Seto wonder what was going on. But it was also cute, reminding him of the Jou he remembered from high school At the same time Jou's lean, toned body brought the new memory of their second shower the night before. It made his heart flutter and his groin tighten. Jou was incredibly beautiful and didn’t have a modest bone in his body.

 

“The shower was great.” Seto smile widened and became slightly wicked at the thoughts of that intimate time of learning and exploring each other. There had been no awkwardness or shyness. Just the heartfelt desire to know each other. By the time the shower was through there wasn’t an inch of his body that Jou hadn’t explored, tasted, claimed. He felt completely accepted

His smile seemed to embarrass Jou because he noticed Jou’s eyes went bright and slightly shy, and his cheeks burned dark red. The picture was so adorable it made his heart clutch just a bit. Before he could say anything the bashful man hurried into the bathroom. Seto was amused. Last night Jou had been lovingly aggressive, not letting him hide anything. This morning’s shyness was charmingly unexpected. He supposed a love confession could do that to anyone.

A feeling, effervescent and buoyant, flooded him. Jou loved him. They were connected, bonded, lovers in every sense of the word. The sunrise was as beautiful as Jounouchi had promised, and deep inside Seto was happy. He was unfamiliar with the emotion, but he recognized it instantly. He was happy and he was loved. Yes the happiness was tinged with grief for his lost friend, Scapegoat, but it didn’t destroy the bubbling joy he was experiencing. It somehow made it more precious.

Movement outside the window caught his eye. A pickup, with a wildlife logo on the door was making it’s way slowly towards the resort leading a small convoy of ATV’s and other vehicles. Hurriedly he found the clothes Jou bought for him and dressed, sliding on the sandal’s he’d kicked off mindlessly the day before. He wanted to see the cat if he could. He wanted to see the creature that had stolen his best friend. Calling out to Jou that he was going downstairs, still tucking his shirt, he bolted from the room.

He was waiting in the parking lot when the truck pulled to a stop just a few yards from him. In the back of the truck he could see the top of a cage but no pacing, prowling mountain lion. Randy hurried by him, rushing to the back of the truck. Seto followed, fully prepared to mow over anyone who said he couldn’t see the beast.

His first glance inside the cage made him gasp. “What the hell?”

“Yeah our thoughts too.” Was the animal relocation's’ specialist’s comment.

“But there is no way. It didn’t kill a man. It’s... and if it has eaten...”

“She, not it. And no. The cause of death of the man found is undetermined yet. She probably found the body, dragged it back, and when she couldn’t eat it, buried it. It looks like she did the same with a couple deer as well.” The man agreed.

“But why is she in this condition?” The mountain lion was literally skin and bones. Emaciated, with her ribs showing clearly through a sparse hide.

“Her canines were removed. She can’t rip and tear food. It has to be small prey, bite sized. And her claws have been removed. Modified exotic turned loose in the wild.” Helpless fury shone from the man’s eyes. “It ought to be a crime.”

“What do you mean?” Seto didn’t know anything about exotics or modified, but...

“Some people keep big cats as pets. But to make them safer they have their claws removed, and their canines - their fangs. They can’t tear up prey, can’t eat anything larger than a bite. And without claws they can’t rip them either. All prey would have to be small enough to bite without tearing. Poor thing, she is used to humans too. She actually was laying in the seat of a car batting at a CD case. The car is torn up, looks like she chased prey into it. Dints and scratches plus she chewed on one of the seats.” Seto ignored that, instead focusing on the cat.

“If she has an owner why is she here?”

“Don’t know who the owner is or was. She could have run away or she could have been dropped. I stopped by here because Randy has a chip scanner. Hopefully we can find the owner – if they had a chip inserted.”

Randy, who’d been silently appraising the animal, handed his hand-held scanner to him. “Let’s see.”

In just a few seconds there was a beep and Randy was calling in the number displayed. Two minutes later he closed his phone. “She is listed as surrendered to J.S. Rescue.” The man’s already gaunt face was grimmer.

“Damn. J.S. This girl just can’t get a break.” Sighing, the man turned to go.

Seto, who’d been watching the cat with narrow eyes, caught his arm. “What do you mean?”

“J.S. Rescue was listed as a big cat rescue haven until a few months ago. A donor wanted to see the facility and drove up to check it out. The people who ran it said they didn’t want anyone there because it upset the cats. But the potential donor went anyway. Said he got a bad vibe. When he got there he found dead cats all over the place, bones, excrement, and most of the cats kept in cages.”

“Wait...” Seto was thinking fast. “I remember that. They closed the place down and pressed charges.”

“Right. Animal cruelty. They got slapped with a few thousand dollar fine. No jail time. There are no laws about the care of exotics. They made millions off donations and from selling the hides and kittens. They packed up and moved to another state. Probably doing the same thing and there is nothing we can do about it.” He looked over his shoulder at the pathetic cat lying in the cage. “Most of their animals had to be put down. She probably will be too.”

“What? Why? Rescue and sanctuaries...”

“Not enough of them. She is sick and will have to be healthy before she goes to a reserve. We don’t have the funds or facilities to care for her.”

Seto stared at the man for a moment, assessing his honesty. A low rumble, almost like a purr came from the cat, inside the cage. Foggy golden eyes looked up at him with an expression of recognition and yearning. The cat did know humans and wanted to be with them. Drugged out of her mind and near to starvation she still purred at being around them. “Loan me your cell phone. I will take care of this.”

The people standing around him got their first glimpse of the Seto Kaiba who’d single-handedly become the CEO of the world's largest entertainment company. In less than seven minutes he’d arranged for the top exotic veterinarian in the country to come care for the cat. When she was well enough she would be moved to a home in Florida. All bills were to be sent to his attorney, and would be paid promptly.

Jounouchi arrived to see Seto stroking the muzzle of probably the most pathetic animal he’d ever seen through the bars of a cage. It looked like any breath would be it’s last. “That’s the cat?”

“Long story.” Seto replied, not looking up from where he was holding the cat’s eyes, trying to give it reassurance. “She didn’t kill anyone.”

“Uh Seto, that thing ate Scapegoat.”

“She needed a good meal.” It seemed heartless, but it wasn’t. She had been doing what she needed to survive. Seto could understand that. The real culprits were the ones who’d set her loose, or forced her to run. He would deal with them personally, and with great relish.

“Shit Seto that’s cold.” Jou was obviously aghast.

“No. You haven’t seen cold yet.” He said softly. “I understand her is all. She wanted to survive so she did what she had to. I've been there.” Jou didn’t know what to say so he closed his mouth and simply watched.

Randy watched too, surprised by what he’d seen in the last few minutes. At first he had written them off as drifters, then Seto as a ‘rich bitch roughing it’ and Jou an artist living the ‘rough life.’ But now... now he didn’t know what to think. The brunet had shown compassion and empathy not just in flexing financial muscle but in his caring touches to the weak animal. And Jounouchi... he was an interesting mix. While they’d fixed coffee together he’d been impressed by the knowledge and down-to-earth attitude of the other man. But there was a kind of spiritual wisdom as well. Wisdom seldom shown by young people. The young blond had used that wisdom to comfort him when he thought he couldn't be comforted. Hearing his husband tell him his brother was dead had been a blow and the writer had actually managed to help him.

He had a feeling that wisdom was going to be put to the test as soon as the blond heard the news. No matter how wise, a guy was still a guy, especially when it comes to their toys. “Joey, your car should be here soon.”

“Really? Cool.” But the blond didn’t take his eyes off the brunet and cat.

He cleared his throat slightly. “Yeah. Uhm, hey Joey, the cat was actually captured in your car. The guys mentioned some damage.” They hadn’t just mentioned it. They’d been torn between laughter and tears at the condition of the car.

The blond head turned to him sharply, “Damage? What kind of damage?”

“I haven’t seen it.” Randy evaded carefully. The mix of apprehension and anger in his golden eyes was easily understandable. According to his guys the car was a wet dream and obviously something Joey took pride in, or it had been.

“When will it be here? Why isn’t it here now?”

Randy didn’t want to tell him that one of his men had gone into town to get a couple replacement tires where the cat had flattened them. She may not have her canines but her other teeth were sharp enough to puncture sidewalls and gnaw off valve stems. “Uh... Manpower issues.” He glanced away, towards where the law enforcement men were congregated. “I’ll just go talk to my guys.” He ducked away, making a fast escape.

“Shit, I wanted to leave right away.” Jou grumbled softly even as worry spread through him.

“We can’t.” Seto gave him a cool, challenging look over his shoulder. “The veterinarian team from Los Angeles will arrive here in about two hours.”

“What? How?” Jou knew it was true, Seto didn’t lie. But he didn’t see how because they were hours from L.A.

“Helicopter. The vet is arranging it. They will be in the air as soon as possible. They are coming to assess her. If she is safe for flight they will fly her back, if not they will arrange for suitable care until she can be safely transported.” Seto acted as if it were perfectly normal for him to arrange for the care of a sick mountain lion.

“Oh... Okay. So she’s going to be your new pet?” that boggled Jou’s mind. It made a kind of macabre sense but still.

“Don’t be ridiculous. When she’s well I’m going to give her to Matashi and Aishira or someone I know will care for her. Understanding her is one thing, but forgiving is another subject. I respect her need to survive but I don't forgive her.. She killed my friend. She needs a stable, caring environment and I don’t think I could give her what she needs.”

Now that made sense. Nodding slightly he stepped next to Seto and gazed down at the pathetic heap. Golden eyes flicked to him for a second. The power and raw need in those eyes made Jou’s breath catch and falter. Wordlessly he reached through the bars and patted the thin hide.

“Hey Seto...” Jou glanced over at the taller man. “I... I gotta question for ya.”

“Mmm... What’s up?”

“You know what a locavore is?” The question was obviously more than academic based on the blond’s serious tone.

“It’s a new word. Added to the dictionary in two thousand seven I believe. I never read the meaning. Too trendy to be interesting.” Seto turned to watch him, taking his hand from the cat, when the blond stepped away from the truck and took a few steps back. “Why? What does it mean?”

Jou smiled crookedly and tugged at his hair. “It kinda means that you eat stuff that grows within’ a hundred miles of where you are.”

“Okay,. so you are a locavore?”

“Yeah and no. This trip, how I decide where to go is kinda like that. I wake up and decide what I want to eat then I... I just drive to where I know they got what I want. Sometimes it takes a couple hours and sometimes it takes a couple days. It depends on what way I navigate and if there are any places I want to stop on the way.”

“I see. So you really don’t use a plan. You let your stomach lead you?” Seto couldn’t help it. He snorted and laughed with amusement. It was so completely ‘Jounouchi.’

Dark red colored Jou’s cheeks. “I... I was on my way to San Francisco Bay Area to get some Dungeness Crab when I bumped into you.”

“Kidnapped me you mean.” Seto grinned as the redness spread from Jou’s cheeks down his neck and up to his forehead. But he didn’t give the totally embarrassed blond a chance to respond. Smiling slightly he leaned forward and brushed his bristly cheek against Jou’s. “Thank you.”

“Uh... welcome. I... Do you want to navigate? I pick the destination and you decide the route? But you gotta allow for some adventure.” Jou had thought about this long and hard this morning. Without Scapegoat to distract him, Seto needed something to occupy his busy mind. Hopefully planning routes and ‘adventure’ would help.

A knowing smirk ghosted the brunet’s mouth. “You’re taking care of me again.”

“You gotta problem with me taking care of my lover?” It should have been playful or mock-belligerent, but it came out soft and just a little uncertain.

Direct, steady look. “No. No problem with it at all.” Then, “Any route as long as it’s interesting and allows for adventure?” Seto clarified his new role.

“Yeah, and try to stay off the interstate highways. We gotta use ‘em sometimes but I like the back roads.” The dark color was fading to pink. It was a real pity that Seto liked Jou tomato red.

To bring back his favored color, Seto, the playful imp he’d always squashed in the past poked his head out and quipped softly. “Mmmm I know – You can take my back road as often as you want. Last night was... great.”

As planned the color flooded back and Jou choked and gasped. “Uh... Th.. Thanks... Uhm... for me too.”

Seto stifled his inward chuckle, ready to tease again when the other man stiffened and started to swear. “What? what’s wrong?”

Jou’s strangled yelp of “My car...” was his answer.

“Your car?” Seto became aware of the low powerful purr of the engine and swung his gaze around to see what had caused that tone. His breath left him in a whoosh at the sight of the once pristine, gorgeous vehicle. Scratches, dents and dings covered the hood. Several large cat prints dotted the surface, the convertible top listed off one hinge, and from his angle he could see one of the headrests was chewed on, the leather gaping open and the filling spilling out. “What the hell happened? She doesn’t have fangs or claws.”

“She has teeth though and she can chew. Also she... is quite heavy despite her emaciated condition.” Randy explained quietly as he joined them.

“My car...” Jou repeated hoarsely. The vehicle rolled closer, coming to a stop just in front of them. More damage became evident. The steering wheel had been gnawed on, the glass was covered in paw prints, gear stick gnawed in half, back of the passenger seat was smudged with unidentifiable, smelly substances. Jou moaned low, sounding almost like he was going to cry. Seto turned to give comfort or something when a blur of movement on the floorboard halted his attention. It had looked like... but...

A sharp bark, dear and familiar made his knees weak and the sight of a small fuzzy black head poking up on the seat made his heart freeze in shock before bounding with joy. “Scapegoat.” He breathed joyously even as he jumped to scoop up his small friend. Ignoring the matted hair and stench permeating the little dog he cradled him close, crooning softly as the small pink tongue darted all over his face in greeting.

“Jounouchi!” He called happily, turning to his lover. “It’s Scape... Oh.” The blond wasn’t paying him any attention. His golden eyes were staring at the car in heartbroken devastation. Shifting his precious friend slightly, he moved back to the blond. “Jounouchi... Jou it’s okay. We’ll call the insurance company and get it fixed. It won’t take more than a couple days. C’mon Jou...”

“My car...” the blond whimpered, tears making his voice wobble in a distinctly unmanly way. Cradling his black-haired precious one against his chest Seto snagged his other arm around Jounouchi’s waist determined to guide him away from the sight of the once gorgeous car.

Several things happened in rapid succession. Scapegoat barked sharply, squirming to get down, a second, shriller bark came from inside the car, and the mountain lion chuffed loudly. The ranger that had driven the car climbed out holding a small reddish-brown bundle of fur. “Your pups were lucky. We found them hiding under the seats. Not sure how they got in the car because we were told they had wandered off but the mountain lion sat on top of the seat and couldn’t get to them. They were safe from the puma and the puma kept the other predators away. If you look at some of the tracks you can see that a few of them tried to get to them. So the cat kept them safe, protecting her food.”

Seto was staring at the squirming bundle of fur in the man’s hand. It was indeed a pup. Not his pup but definitely a pup. He remembered Jou saying that Scapegoat had followed another dog, but he hadn’t given the other animal much thought. Even as he watched the small canine squirmed and fought the Ranger’s hold, straining towards where the cat continued to chuff.

Ignoring Jou’s whimpers he released the blond and stepped forward to take the struggling animal. Immediately Scapegoat barked and whined, licking the other pup. He was ignored as the animal strained to get away. Following the instinct that was seldom wrong he stalked over to the truck where the mountain lion struggled to rid herself of the drugs and lift her head. Ready to snatch the small dog back if he were wrong he set the pup inside the back of the truck. Like a shot it rushed to the cage, whining and yipping. The cat relaxed and shifted, placing her muzzle against the bars.

The ranger gasped and moved to grab the small animal, but it was too late. Amazed, they watched as the pup began to lap at the cat’s face, growling what sounded like greetings. A long, rough tongue flicked out, catching the pup in a long caress, one that it leaned into.

“What the fuck?” The odd sight was enough to bring Jou out of his abstraction. Cats didn’t kiss dogs they considered food... Did they? Was she taking a taste?

Seto’s mind, sharpening by the second, made several connections. “The man who disappeared had a Sheltie that was pregnant. By the look of that pup I’d say it is a purebred Sheltie. The mother may have been injured in the crash, or maybe it precipitated her labor, but whatever happened, this pup survived. Judging by the look of the Puma’s teats, I would say it’s possible she nursed it as well.”

“What? How do you get that? I mean... okay maybe they’re friends but...”

Randy spoke softly “We found Phoebe’s body in the same hole as my brother. There were also four small skeletons. If this is Phoebe’s pup, it was the only one to be born. The other’s died with her.”

Seto nodded “Probably died giving birth, pup lived and the cat found it and raised it. It’s not unheard of for a cat to nurse puppies. You said she’d been given to a place that bred exotics. Perhaps she was pregnant and lost the kittens, which may be why they dumped her. The puppy needed a mother. She needed a kitten.”

“That’s way out there Kai.” Randy mumbled, and then sighed, “But watching them, it’s possible. She is still sick and weak, but she is trying to groom the pup. It also explains why she stayed in the car, not protecting her food, but protecting her young.”

“What? But...” The other ranger was staring in shock. “Are you saying she put them in the car for safety?”

“Yes. To her, domesticated as she is, that car meant security. Especially since it had the scent of a new puppy all over it. Humans, to her, mean safety.” Giving the cat a compassionate look that few on the face of what everyone on the planet had ever witnessed, Seto said softly, “She wanted to go home. She wanted her baby safe.”

Jounouchi was staring at him with a mix of awe and understanding, his agony at the state of his car forgotten for a second. “You... you get her don’t you?”

“I know what it was like to be abandoned in a place where nothing was as it had been. I know the fear and need to return to what was safe. I know what it’s like to have to protect someone you love.” Seto admitted softly. Gently he rubbed Scapegoat. “And I know how it hurts to lose something you care about.” He turned to look at Randy. “What happens to the pup? Will your family want it?”

“No.” Randy didn’t hesitate. “I won’t even mention it to them. We don’t know for certain it’s Phoebe’s pup and... And Phoebe’s litter was one of the reasons they were fighting when he stormed out. It would be too painful.” At Seto’s questioning look he held up his hands in supplication. “I have three pets, the most allowed by law so I can’t take it.”

“I see.” Seto gazed at the pair thoughtfully. “I think it would be best emotionally if the pup stayed with her but I’m not sure if physically it’s a good idea. She was fighting the drugs and wearing herself out to reach the pup. It might be best to separate them. I’ll ask the vet when they get here.” Giving his wide-eyed lover a quick squeeze he turned back to the resort. “Let’s go call your insurance agent.” Before Joey could melt down again, Seto dragged him off. One arm still cradling Scapegoat and the other tethered tightly around the blond’s waist.

They barely made it through the entrance when Randy dashed in after them, holding the other pup and their wallets. “Thought you might need these. They were in the glove box.” He hesitated a second then sighed. “Will you do me a favor?”

“Depends on what it is.” Seto allowed cautiously as he took his own eel skin wallet and handed Jou the battered nylon and Velcro one.

“Keep the pup with you? As soon as you guys left the cat started snarling and snapping at it, trying to drive it away. It’s too hot to keep in the car and I’m sure if I give it to one of the officers or animal control guys it’ll just go to the animal shelter. You said she might be going with the cat so...”

Seto stared at the struggling, growling scrap for a second, then sighed. “Fine, but only for the cat. Jou go make your call. I’ll deal with these two.” Taking a deep breath he wrinkled his nose. “First thing’s first. A bath for both of them – and something for parasites.”

“A bath? Kai... that’s a feral dog. It’s never had a bath and doesn’t know humans. It...”

“We’ll go back to the room from last night. I’ll need shampoo. See what you can do about parasite removal and prevention. I’m not living with a smelly dog or fleas even for a few hours.”

“Uh... okay. I think there is some stuff that my brother used for Phoebe. I’ll send it up to you.”

“Thank you.” Dismissing the other man, he turned to gaze at the blond tucked against his side. “Go make your call. Use the phone at the front desk. I assume you have the number of your insurance agent?”

The dark gold eyes widened and pink colored Jou’s cheeks. “Ah... ah... Yah I know her number. I... uhm ... I’ll go call.” He stammered uncomfortably before bolting across to the phone.

Curious, but not unduly alarmed, Seto turned to the stairs, both pups held firmly in his determined grasp. Now that Scapegoat was safe, it was time to get him presentable. He hated smelly dogs and these pups reeked of death, feces and unpleasant things he couldn’t name and didn’t really want to.

When Jounouchi joined him, Seto was turning the air blue with his curses. Scapegoat had obviously picked up a few bad habits because instead of the docile, well behaved pup he’d been, he was a disobedient termagant who charged, growled and barked whenever Seto tried to force a very skittish wild pup into the bath.

Seto had more water on him than either of the pups. His arms and hands bore scratches and bleeding bite marks, and he was ready to strangle both of the little terrorists. Scapegoat was jumping wildly at the side of the tub, trying to get out of the warm water and the feral dog was backed behind the commode growling, snarling and snapping at Seto’s hands.

Jou couldn’t hold back his chuckle. “Shit Seto, you're letting it kick your ass?”

That pissed the brunet off even more. He shot the laughing blond an aggravated look. “You can do better?”

“Move your ass. I’ll get it. You deal with your baby. He looks like he could take a bite out of your butt.” He didn’t wait for the kneeling man to move; instead he leaned over and plucked the cringing animal up by the scruff of the neck. Instantly the growling, snarling behavior stopped and the pup curled into a half moon shape. “It’s not used to humans picking her up and animals don’t like their bellies touched. Gotta do it like momma does.” Casually he knelt and put the small dog in the tub next to Scapegoat. The little black dog calmed down. “There’s your friend, Bud. Now let’s get you both all clean.” He grinned and handed Seto the bottle Randy had given him. “Here you go sport. It’s got a detangler too. Randy sent up the groomin’ stuff that belonged to Phoebe.”

“I’ll do Scapegoat. You have it.” Seto eyed the wild creature darkly, wondering if he could drown the beast and get away with it.

“Get that killer look outta your eyes. I’ll do it, but you owe me.” Jou grinned at the disgruntled look Seto gave him before reaching for the hand held shower head.

Once the other dog was near Scapegoat calmed to his normal self, much to Seto’s relief. He soaped, rinsed, and repeated three times before he was happy with the look and smell of his pup. In that time Jou managed to coat the pup, the tub, and himself with dingy brown bubbles dotted with dead fleas.

Seto’s smug relief died a swift death when he tried to take his pup from the filthy tub. The wild dog yelped and Scapegoat wriggled from his grasp, falling back in the scummy water. “Shit.”

“Got that all off... I think.” Jou grined and released the drain plug. “Gotta change the water and rinse some more. She’s doing great though. She’s only scared; she’s not trying to hurt me. Just warning me.”

“She?” That made Seto arch a brow slightly.

“Yeah. I checked while I was washin’ her tail. Fleas kinda hang out where it’s warm. We both know ass is hot.” Jou gave him a grin tinged with hentai thoughts even as his cheek pinkened slightly.

That made Seto smile slightly. His lover was a blushing flirt. He’d have to remember that. Such an interesting dichotomy. Jou blushes one time and flirts shamelessly the next. It’ll be fun to discover what he could do to cause both reactions. Smiling slightly in return, he allowed his gaze to drift down the curve of Jou’s back to rest on his meaningfully ass. “Care to prove it?”

The flirty smile faded. “Uh... Seto... About that. I... uhm... I don’t bottom, not ever.”

“Liar.” It came out before he could stop it. He knew for a fact that Mokuba liked to be both top and bottom. Jounouchi had bottomed for Mokuba or the relationship would not have lasted as long as it had. Why Jou would lie he didn’t know but he wouldn’t allow it.

Anger and something like regret blossomed in Jou’s eyes. “I’m not lying. I...” A yelp from the pup he was working soap into brought his gaze back to his task. “We ain’t talked about our pasts, but I’m gonna tell you ‘cause you gotta right to know. When you feel like telling me yours I’ll listen.” He took a deep breath, and paying close attention to his task, opened his history. “Ya know I was with Mai all through high school, even for a while after that. She dumped me ‘cause I was too hung up on you, and it left me raw. I ain’t gonna lie about anything; I loved her like a friend and lusted after her like a dog. I didn’t want to see what she said was right.” He sighed slightly “After you and your brother left me here that time, I...” At Seto’s sharp breath he glanced at him. “Still don’t know about that do ya? Mokuba never told ya.”

“I know what I need to.” Seto’s breath sawed out unevenly. He wanted to know, but was afraid of what he'd find out.

“Nah, you don’t. I didn’t know it until Yugi told me a while ago. See, I saw your plane leave and thought you left me behind knowing I didn’t have a nickel on me. That was meaner than I knew you could be. If you’da said no right off, okay. But you don’t go back on your word. I respected that about ya.” He scooped water over the pup almost mindlessly. “But to me, you broke your word. I was mad, and yeah I was hurt. I always thought I could count on you when the chips were down. So I got the hell out of the airport and put my thumb in the air. I didn’t know that Mokuba wanted... well he wanted to get with me and told you we were getting together.”

Suds rinsed and still vaguely brown, he emptied the water and began to soap up the pup again. “It woulda been a bad scene if Mokuba had tried anything with me. I didn’t accept who I was until after I met Oli. He took me on a spirit journey, and he explained that...” A sharp sigh then “Seto do you ever think we were raised to think about things wrong? About sex and gender and roles in society?”

“I’ve thought that for years.” Seto was holding on by a thread. What Jou was saying was that he hadn’t chosen Mokuba? That he hadn’t ever been involved with Mokuba? That wasn’t possible, Mokuba would have told him, wouldn’t have lied to him in the first place.

“Oli explained that his people believe that some of us are born with dual spirits that are both male and female. People like that aren’t bad or sick, they are gifted, blessed. I kinda got that. It fit with what I felt, what I am. I met Oli a few days after you left me here. If some guy had come on to me at that point, when I was still raw over Mai, still confused about my drive to be around you, and my denial about my bisexuality, I’da probably knocked the shit out of him. Mokuba included.”

“I... see.” Seto was confused and wasn’t sure what to say. His conception of the past had been totally skewed. “But you are okay with it now?”

“Yeah, I’m good with thinking both sexes are hot. I’ve had two guy lovers, including you, and four female lovers. Truthfully, I can swing either way, but I am picky about the guys, I like skinny brunets. Girls, well blondes of course. With big chests.”

“Oh.” He thought about it for a minute. “May I ask a couple questions?”

“Yeah, I guess. But you may not like the answers.” Satisfied that the pup was as clean as possible Jou lifted her and wrapped her in a towel, trapping her paws so she couldn’t scratch him. Seto automatically did the same for Scapegoat.

“Where are they now? Your lovers.” It was important to know, but damned if Seto knew why. They were past, history. What mattered was them, now.

“Mai is married to Varon, they live in England. Raymond, my other male lover, is with Eliza, another of my female lovers, the last I knew they were in up north of here. Narcissa is studying at Princeton living with one of the professors, and Rhia ... Rhiannon is on her way here.”

Carefully, Seto stood and walked into the bedroom. With exquisite control he placed his towel dry pup on the floor. Warily, Jou did the same. “Seto...

“I’m waiting patiently, and I am not a patient person.” Not for the world would he admit that fear and betrayal were fighting with his iron control. Had Jou found him so lacking in bed that he’d called for his other lover?

“She is my insurance agent. I... we dated casually for four months. About a month ago she started talkin’ about taking time off work to come with me on this trip. I... I didn’t want her to come and told her not to bother. That’s how I knew it would never be more than casual. I was going to use the time away to let the relationship die. After I told her not to bother she made a scene and stomped out. I ain’t seen her since.”

“I see.” Relief coiled through him. Jounouchi wouldn’t ever do that to him. He was just as committed as Seto was. They were together. The insurance agent could go to hell. He’d help her get there if she pushed too hard. “Hopefully she will know how to keep her professionalism.”

Jou hid a sigh when Seto’s eyes lost their turbulent cast and became hard and determined. His lover was obviously not threatened by his ex-girlfriend. “She seemed okay on the phone. She’ll be here in about three hours. She was on a call not far from here.”

“Hnnn...” Seto eyed the drying dogs closely. The wild creature was drying out to look almost pretty, if one liked foxes. “Kitsune.”

“Eh? Oh her... Yeah Kit is a good name for her. She’s half kitten and looks kinda like a fox.” Jou knelt and rubbed the pup gently behind the ear, ignoring her flinching half-growl. “What do you think Kit?” When she nipped at his finger without drawing blood he took that as approval. “What about you Scapegoat?” The black-furred pup looked up at him somberly as if considering before yipping. “Okay so Kit it is.”

“Jou... don’t grow attached. It may be leaving when the vet takes her mother.” Seto warned.

The blond shrugged and gave him a speaking glance. “We’ll see each other again no matter what. You're gonna be takin’ care of her and I plan on stickin’ close to you ‘til you kick me to the curb.”

“Hnn...” His heart, already light, filled with warmth at the affirmation of commitment. They were together. “Okay then. Let’s go downstairs and see if there is anything to eat. I’m sure we could all use a meal.”

 

***

The distinctive thwomp thwomp of a helicopter brought Seto to his feet just as they finished eating. “The vet made good time. I’ll go speak to them. Will you bring the pups?”

“Yeah. It was nice of them to let us use Phoebe’s pen outside. Not that the dogs appreciated it. They are sure loud.”

“Scapegoat isn’t. That... Kit is howling like a banshee. Perhaps we should change her name to Banshee.”

“Don’t even go there.” Jou glowered, then chuckled, “but she sure is loud ain’t she?” It was a rhetorical question.

Seto nodded and stood, giving him a small grin. “I’ll see you outside.”

Jou waved and pushed back his chair. “Yeah, see you in a few.”

The vets were everything he expected. Competent, caring, dedicated, and knowledgeable. The best his money could buy. They examined the awake, if not spry, puma with concern and not a little rage while Seto explained about how they’d found her and the pup.

Allen Baxter, the junior vet, a young man of about twenty three, started to speak. “I’ve never heard of...” But was cut off by an older veterinarian, a man in his fifties, with scarred hands and gentle eyes.

“It’s not unheard of actually. There are a few cases of large cats domesticated enough to adopt other domestic animals. If this little girl is one of a line whose ancestors have been born in captivity for generations then she is as domestic as a house cat. It’s rare to find one, most of the old lines have died out because of interbreeding, cruelty and trophy hunting, but it is possible. It’s also possible that she is simply a rare case, a big cat who is sociable and learned to like the society of humans and other domestic animals.” He stared down at the wreck of a once majestic animal. “It doesn’t really matter why, what matters is that she did, and she deserves health and peace. Mr. Kaiba, you will be seeing to her care after she recovers?”

“No... I will give her to the most loving souls I’ve ever met. My best friends, Matashi and Aishira. They have a large home with fenced acreage bordering the Florida Everglades. No neighbors to alarm and almost five miles for her to run.”

“I see. They know about exotic pet care?”

“Not at all. But I’ll give you their number and you can arrange for the best tutelage. Is she strong enough to fly back to Florida?”

“No. She is very run down. I wouldn’t risk such a trip with her in this condition. The flight out of here is probably her limit and she’s only going to be in the air a little while. Perhaps in a month, when she is stronger.”

“I’ll call Matashi and Aishira. I think they will want to be part of her recovery, and it will help with the bonding. What about the pup?”

“You say she snapped at the pup when humans walked away. It may be instinctive then. If she thinks she is going to die, and she very well might, she would drive the pup towards safety... in this case humans.”

“So it’s best to keep the pup away?” Seto needed to be clear on this.

“I’d say... probably for a few weeks, until she’s strong enough to know she’s going to live. Puma kittens stay with their mother for over eighteen months.”

Seto nodded “So, it’s best for her if she sees we are going to take care of the pup but not let it go with her?”

“I think so. If she starts to pine I’ll contact you. I assume you will be taking care of it?” The doctor’s eyes moved to where Jou was standing quietly holding both pups. “I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“Yeah, she can stay with us. I’m Joey Wheeler. Nice to meet you.” Jou nodded.

The doctor gave him an appraising look, one that filled with recognition. “I’ve enjoyed your travels. So you won’t be going alone this time eh?”

“Nah, Seto, Scapegoat and Kit are going along for the ride.” Jou smiled while Seto gave him a curious look.

“Sounds like a fun time... uhm... If you’ll let me see her?” The vet took the pup and gave a quick exam. “Healthy, a little thin, but I’d rather see thin than fat. Wild...” He chuckled as he removed his scratched and bitten hand. “Feral animals are difficult to train after a certain age, but I think she’ll be okay with the right kind of environment.”

 

“Yeah, about that...” Jou shifted uncomfortably. “Y’know we’re on a road trip. I... uh... Camping out and stuff. Is that gonna be okay?”

“Just keep your eye on her, use a leash, and don’t let her run off with any packs of dogs and she’ll be fine. It’s not ideal, but as long as Mr. Kaiba, you and the other pup are constant she should develop bonds.” Jou read it as a positive sign when the little pup only growled when he took her from the vet.

The older vet nodded briefly to his protégé. “Let’s get the cat loaded.” He turned his gaze to Seto and Jou. “Take the pup away. We’re going to have to sedate her and put her on an I.V.”

Seto nodded and, cradling Scapegoat close, herded Jou and Kit back to the hotel.

****

The pups were in the kennel the helicopter fading in the distance, and Seto was enjoying a cup of coffee with Jounouchi in front of the large picture window overlooking the parking lot when a red car, an exact duplicate of Jounouchi’s before the puma mauling, pulling small silver a tag-along camper, drove into the lot, parking illegally across four spaces.

A tall blonde woman dressed in a black mini-dress, thigh high leather boots, and gold chains that hung from neckline to hem, climbed out. She didn’t bother to look around; she stalked to the hotel with the grace and purpose of a predator closing in on a helpless victim.

Amusement and mild appreciation for a woman who had the balls to dress like she was going to an L.A. nightclub while out in the wild turned to curiosity when Jounouchi sighed and rose to his feet. “You know her?” A premonition crept over him.

“That’s Rhiannon, my insurance agent.” Jou’s voice was mildly concerned. “She... She looks upset. I’ll handle it.” Without a backwards glance at Seto he crossed to the woman.

Seto watched with curiosity and growing impatience as his lover dealt with his ex. Why the hell Jounouchi put up with her pathetic attempts at sexual invitations that dissolved into tearful pleadings, he had no idea. But it was getting on his nerves to watch his lover touch the woman’s arm gently, pat her back consolingly, and whisper intimately into her ear. Damn it what did Jou think he was playing at? He’d better get rid of her ass before Seto gave them both reason to cry.

He was glaring down at his cup, mentally envisioning the ways she’d scream in agony, when Jou sat back down, dropping a set of keys on the table. “Sorry I kept you waiting.”

Blue eyes snapped up to him with laser-like intensity. “What the hell took so long?”

“Rhiannon... Well when we hooked up her asshole boyfriend had just walked out on her. She was hurting pretty bad. I kinda knew he was back when I turned her down before. I hoped he’d get back with her if I wasn’t in the picture. She is upset ‘cause he invited her to a party last night. She spent the night with him, and this morning he tossed her out, saying thanks for the memories. She... When I called she was looking to run away from that.” He shifted slightly and picked up the keys. “She’s gonna go stay with her sister for a week or two.” A grin that was only partially feigned crossed his lips. “She brought us a fresh car and a camper that sleeps four with a table for meals. You get the dogs, I’ll get the packs. Let’s hit the road. I’m cravin’ Dungeness Crab.”

***

A pungent odor woke Seto from his sound sleep. He recognized it immediately from the time before Scapegoat had been house trained. An instant later his pup’s distinctive whine snapped his eyes open and he sat up, in a heartbeat groaning and grabbing at his lower back. Damn he was sore and didn’t want to move. But based on the smell inside the camper and Scapegoat’s whine he had to get moving before he had a second mess to deal with.

Dogs handled, and his own personal issues dealt with by way of the small packet of quick dissolve pain reliever Jou had thoughtfully left for him on the table, he looked around the camper in surprise. It was sparse, clean and tidy. Their meager clothes folded neatly in the small place. There was nothing for him to do. Jou had seen to it all. A small note sat beside a bottle of water. Frowning, he picked it up letting his eye linger on a printed map of the town sitting under the water. Where had Jou gotten that?

‘Morning Seto,

Or is it afternoon? You were out hard so I decided to let you sleep in. You drool in your sleep! Just kidding. You looked too tired to wake up, plus you are cute when I’ve worn your ass out.

It’s not quite sunrise and I’m going to see if I can get a job on a fishing boat. Crab for dinner tonight!

Half Moon Bay is a nice place so you shouldn’t have any problem staying out of trouble. Take the dogs to the beach or whatever you want to do. They’re gonna be restless and Kit’s a digger, check the carpet near the door. If you get bored you might want to run out to the farmers market. See if there’s anything you want to stick in the crab boil. If you don’t want to do anything, hang out and rest.

Love Jou.

P.S. Relax and HAVE FUN!!!!!’

“Hnnn... idiot. Go for a walk, check out the farmers market. Have fun? Who the hell does he think I am?” He grumbled aloud. Scapegoat barked in agreement. Smiling he knelt to play with the pup. When Kit backed away warily he ignored her and concentrated on his little friend.

That lasted all of ten minutes before the pup went back to play with Kit. With a sigh he tossed himself back down on the bed and willed himself to sleep. It should have been easy. He’d willed himself to do many things in the past, but in just a few moments his eyes popped open. The pups were scrabbling with each other, growling playfully and pouncing. The breeze through the window Jou must have opened earlier, carried a hint of the sea and the sound of people talking in the distance. He simply couldn’t focus.

Abruptly his isolation closed around him. Sadness welled in his throat. He was alone again. He wanted... needed Jou. Where was he? Jou loved him. Why was he alone again? A wave of doubt rose. Jou left him? Had he done something wrong? Disappointed him? They were together weren’t they? So why had his lover left him?

Fighting the doubts he stood and grabbed the note Jou had left like a lifeline. Jou loved him; he said it and showed it. He was being stupid, something he hated. “Have fun? Fuck, I’m not even sure what it means.” And that was pathetic. With a growl of disgust at his own pitiable state, he snapped leashes on the frolicking pups and left the small camper determined to ‘have fun.’

With a sigh of exasperation, Seto flopped down on a bench. He was completely oblivious to the bright blue sky and expansive stretch of ocean spread before him in an endless panorama. ‘Have fun’ he grumbled to himself sarcastically. ‘How the fuck am I supposed to do that?’ He complained under his breath. God knows he’d tried. Playing fetch with the dogs sounded fun, but it had turned into an all out chase as the idiot bitch took off the split second he dropped her leash. He’d been tempted to let her go and claim innocence but his own little Scapegoat had chased after her. He was beginning to doubt the intelligence of his dog. After a hot, sweaty run through the town that had ended on the beach he figured he might as well walk along and relax, maybe look for seashells. He remembered doing that with his parents before Mokuba was born. This time all he got for his search were uncomfortably sandy toes and, with a grimace down at his shirt, seagull vomit all over him.

Growling under his breath he glared at the dogs flopped at his feet. Stupid kids! Thinking that over the counter shit could make birds explode. Anyone with half a brain would know that they’d just vomit the alka seltzer back up if it gave them problems. Too much youtube and television and not enough brains.

He continued to glare at the pups as he remembered the teen’s attitudes. Rude, insolent, disrespectful in a way he’d never experienced. The boy’s father needed to break out the rod because those brats were seriously spoiled. He was too old to kick their asses like they’d deserved. They knew it and got in his face, daring him to lift a hand to them. They’d call the cops and he’d go to jail. He had to settle with giving them the patented Kaiba glare of death. It had bounced off their egotistical, stupid hides like a gnat off elephant hide. Just remembering the twin boys and how they’d run off when he demanded their names made him want to hit something - hard.

Hard – as in the blow that had just hit him upside the head. Snarling he jumped to his feet and turned, ready to beat someone into the ground only to be met with the familiar blue gaze of his own blue-eyes white dragon. For split second he froze, then shook his head in bemusement - the kite version of course.

Picking up the plastic kite by the string he turned his head and followed it back to the owner. A girl of about twelve was spooling up her string as she ran towards him with an expression of apology, desperation and a hint of fear. He just glared as she got closer. When she was still a few yards away she burst into speech. “Oh man! Sorry! Are you hurt? Are you okay? Do you...”

He cut her off brusquely “I’m fine. You should be more careful.” His voice was harsh with the frustrations of the day.

The girl froze at his tone and flinched slightly. “I... I’m sorry.” She bit her lip and sighed. “I really was trying to be careful but... well I suppose you want to talk to my mom now?”

At her quickly hidden fear he gentled his voice. His bad day wasn’t her fault, “You just need to be careful.”

“Yeah. I guess I’ll give up on flying the stupid thing.” She glared at the kite in vexation. “I can’t get it off the ground. My brothers were supposed to help me but they took off.”

Brothers? That brought his sharp gaze back to the girl for an assessing look. Mentally he compared the girl’s bright red hair and dark blue eyes to the twins that’d had coated him in seagull vomit. Their hair had been lighter and their eyes darker, more hazel blue, but yeah, they had the same nose and chin. “I would very much like to meet your mother and brothers.”

That made the girl pale, a light dusting of golden freckles stood out on her cheeks. “I...” Her shoulders slumped slightly before squaring as she swallowed hard. “Yeah, I guess. It’s after lunch time anyway so... Yeah, well follow me.” With a pugnacious, defiant set to her shoulder and a proud tilt to her head she stalked away leaving Seto to follow.

Impressed at not only her desire to take responsibility for her actions, but her proud attitude, Seto tugged the dogs to their feet and followed smartly.

He was vaguely intrigued when she led him away from the cluster of houses and down into a lively business area. She bypassed several shops before turning into a small patio restaurant. When he hesitated slightly she glanced over and explained. “Mom owns the place. She’s the cook too. Why don’t you sit down. We don’t have any customers so...” She gestured to a chair.

He sank in the chair just as a tall, curvy woman in her forties, dressed in beachcomber professional chic came through the swinging door. “Hi. Welcome to The Kite and the Heron.” She handed him a menu and smiled. “Can I get you something to drink before you order?”

“I...” He started to explain when the girl interrupted him. “He’s not here to order. Don’t get your hopes up. Ty and Mark took off and I tried to fly the kite alone. I hit him with it and he wanted to talk to you.”

The warmth drained from her eyes replaced with wary apology. “I see. I’m sorry, were you hurt?”

“I’m fine.” Originally his goal had been to tell this woman off, but now, he didn’t have the desire. Maybe it was the obvious concern she had for her daughter, maybe it was the spark of admiration he felt for the girl, or perhaps it was the mural of a Great Blue Heron bringing back the good feelings from his drug induced ‘spirit walk’ but whatever it was, his ire drained away and he smiled cordially. “Actually I wanted to compliment you on your daughter. She took responsibility for what happened and apologized, then offered to bring me to see you. A lot of young people would be...” he broke off as the twin teens from earlier schlepped onto the patio. “Rude and completely disrespectful.” Okay so he’d decided to let them off, but he couldn’t deny the thrill of satisfaction as they paled in recognition and heard his words.

Their mother, completely oblivious, smiled with happiness and relief. “Thank you!”

“Just the truth.” He gave the boys a gloating smirk, amused to see them squirm. “Your daughter is most admirable.

Seeing the direction of his gaze and slightly discomfited by his smile, she turned to see her sons standing behind her. Instantly she flew into ‘bitch’ mode, as they liked to call it. “Boys! I told you to stay with your sister! You owe her and this nice man an apology. If you’d...”

“Not necessary, not for me.” Seto smiled again. The boys squirmed and turned red. Okay so maybe there was something to the old axiom of killing your enemy with kindness. Reaching for his wallet he decided he was hungry enough to eat. He would pay by card as he hadn’t carried any cash and only carried the cards for ease of identification when he’d... abruptly he cut off that thought. That was all behind him and he wouldn’t dwell on it. His future was Jounouchi not a black abyss. “I’m not sure which of these cards will work.” And he wasn’t. His brother may have canceled them or if the police were involved then they may be tracked. The thought gave him pause. He didn’t want to be found. He was where he wanted to be, with his lover.

Ignoring the card carrier he pretended to check for the cash he knew wasn’t there. “Sorry.” Feigning a sigh he shook his head “Left my cash back at the camper today. Otherwise I’d be happy to eat here.” He sniffed lightly. “Whatever you’re cooking smells delicious.”

The woman switched from scolding her sons to beam at him. “I make the best food around.” She boasted proudly. “We had great business until...” She trailed off.

“Until?” He prompted. He didn’t know why but he was curious.

One of the bookends answered, pointing rudely “Until she needed forty thousand in braces. Dad had to go to work in San Francisco at a company with benefits. He’s a java programmer with Puzzle Rings, the online gaming company.”

Seto was confused for a moment. Anger flared when the girl’s hand flew to her mouth and shame colored her features. He glared at the heartless boy for half a second before his mother rounded on him. “It wasn’t her fault! How many times do I have to say this? We needed the insurance for everyone not just her. The restaurant wasn’t making enough to cover it, not with my pre-existing. Now apologize to her again or I swear you won’t see your computer for a month.”

The boy mumbled a forced apology and glared at the floor. Seto broke the tension by asking softly “So, how did his leaving cause you to lose business?”

Hard look fading to melancholy, she smiled at him. “The Kite and the Heron. It’s a play on words. You noticed the stand next door? It’s a kite stand. Everything here is driven by tourists. My husband used to put the kites in the air with the daily special or coupons written on their tails. The street performers are further down, about three blocks. All of the tourists go where the entertainment is. The tourists would come, and the street performers too. He’d fly six to eight kites a day. We have prevailing winds from the ocean so they stay up very well. He’d watch them but for the most part. Well now with no kites we get very few customers.”

Seto turned slightly and looked at the twins. “You guys don’t know how to fly the kites?”

The boy who’d been silent up until then glared sullenly at him. “Of course we do. We just have better things to do than stick around here flying kites.”

“Better? More important?” He allowed disgust to show in his icy gaze. “What’s more important than helping to care for your family?”

“We didn’t ask to be born! If they couldn’t take care of us ~ her ~” he glared at his sister then switched his venomous gaze to his mother. “They shouldn’t have had kids. We aren’t the parents here. It’s their job.”

Seto’s eyes narrowed and he inhaled sharply. It was almost exactly what Mokuba had said to him one time when he’d asked his little brother to take on more responsibilities at Kaiba Corp. He hadn’t replied, had wanted to give his brother the freedom he desired, so he’d bit his tongue and shouldered the responsibilities. But it had festered and many times he’d thought of what he should have said. Now he had the chance. Not with Mokuba, but here with these boys. “Really? Their job? Their job to make sure you have a computer, make sure you have brand name clothes, make sure you have health care? All things a lot of people don’t have. Millions of kids don’t even have parents much less things you take for granted.” Seto was cool, dispassionate, but every word heartfelt. It bounced off them like gnats off a rhinoceros's hide.

“You don’t know shit. We don’t care about this place! We had a good life, friends, everything we wanted in L.A. And just because she wanted to come here and start this place we had to give it up. We don’t want to be here and we won’t help keep this dump open. We want to go back to L.A.”

Seto glared but their mother waded into the fray. “Boys...” The argument was obviously an old one. The woman sighed and sank into the chair beside Seto. “This is my dream. I want it more than almost anything. Why...”

“This place is a joke. It stinks like fish all the time. The birds shit on you walking down the street and the people here are so stupid. The teachers are all fucked up hippies from the sixties and don’t know shit. We want to go home.” The aggression died and both boys stepped forward, wearing identical pleading looks. “We know they’ll hire you back at the studio. C’mon Mom, lets go home.”

Instead of the apologetic look he expected the woman to wear her face hardened. “You know that’s not an option. You want to go back to your druggie gangster friends. It’s not happening. And you can’t run away again – if you do I’ll send you to your uncle’s place in Montana. Nothing but cows and tumbleweeds. You...”

“Moooom...” The boys whined in unison. “It was just a little weed. And we didn’t do any. We just want to go home.”

“Not an option. Now, I’m going to go call your father. Maybe he’ll come get you guys so you can go up to the city for a few days.” When they growled a protest, which she ignored, she nodded to Seto and stalked from the room.

The girl glared at her brothers for a second then turned to Seto. “Well if you’re going to see all that I guess you should know our names. I’m Amy Spiedel. This is Mark and Ty, my brothers. They are identical twins but Mark is the one with the scar above his eyebrow. My mom’s name is Ramona and my dad is Jason Spiedel.”

“Ramona Spiedel...” He mumbled softly. “She worked for a studio. Pixar? With Disney?”

“Yeah. And she gave it up to work here.” The un-scarred twin, Ty, gestured around disparagingly.

“Quite a change. She must have wanted to do this very badly.” He observed mildly. “Why don’t you help her out?”

“Why the fuck should we? When this dump fails we will get the hell out of here. It can’t happen soon enough. That’s why we...” Mark stomped hard on his brother’s foot. He didn’t want Ty to admit that they’d been causing trouble and driving tourists away from this end of the block.

But Seto knew. He’d been in business too long not to see the pattern. “Amy, could you please bring me a glass of ice water? I’m a little thirsty.”

“Sure... uh...”

“Call me Kai.” He smiled as the girl ran off. The smile died as he turned his gaze back to the boys. “I don’t have time to be discreet, and I don’t believe it will work on you. We all know what you were doing on the beach earlier, and I had planned to let it slide. I’ve changed my mind. You both are spoiled jerks. Let me enlighten you – you were feeding that stuff to brown pelicans – endangered brown pelicans. That carries jail time and stiff penalties here. If you don’t help your mother – fly kites – wash dishes – or any fucking thing else she needs I will report you. You are both seventeen, close to eighteen, and based on what your mother said, you have records. You will...”

“Fucking asshole! You can’t prove a goddamn thing...” The second twin snarled, lifting his hand threateningly.

Seto didn’t hesitate; he stood fluidly and in blurred movements sent them both flying back to land on the floor. “Asshole I may be, but I wasn’t the only witness. If I stroll back there I am sure I can convince some of the shop owners to report you, especially after I explain what you were doing and how it affects their potential for customers.”

When they sprang to their feet, Amy walked back into the room. She froze for just a second then turned to look at her brothers. “Dad will be here tomorrow. Mom just got a call from Teri. The whale trawler will be pulling into port in about an hour. She recommended the watchers eat here. They may not come, but we may get a few. They are a Japanese tour group and mom is going to need our help.”

“No way! I ain’t...” Ty protested only to shut up when Seto moved slightly, just a simple flexing of his arms, but it was clearly a reminder. “Fuck it. I’ll wash dishes. I ain’t speakin’ to no foreigner. I can’t understand them most of the time.” With a huff he stalked off.

Seto, his mind ticking over the possibilities, looked at Mark. “Can you get the kites in the air before sundown? High enough for the trawler to see?”

“Duh.”

He nodded shortly. “Fine, the tails were used for advertisement in the past, and will be again. I will write up a few things in English and in Kanji. That will...”

Amy was staring at him with wide eyes. “You write Kanji?”

“I am Japanese. I was raised in Domino, Japan until I was eighteen. I...”

Amy didn’t let him finish. She just whooped and called for her mom. When the woman came in at a trot, the girl’s words almost tripped over themselves to get out.

Ramona Spiedel gave him a thorough inspection then nodded. “Will you help us tonight? Waiter? You keep tips and I’ll pay you three dollars an hour. Plus you get a free meal.”

“I... uh...” That was beyond what he’d intended. He glanced down at the pups lying at his feet. “I have them. I don’t...”

“I’ll watch them while I watch the kites. It’ll be cool. Besides, you’re kinda skinny. You need to eat and mom’s the best cook around.” Amy smiled winningly, putting all of her charm behind it. It wasn’t enough to sway him, but it told him she would be an almost unstoppable force when she was older.

Making up his mind, he nodded once. “Fine, I’ll stay and help. Let’s get these kites in the air, and then I will go leave a note for my companion. He’s gone to work on a crab boat today. He has a craving for Dungeness Crab.”

“Oh...” Amy bit her lip “Well he’s going to be disappointed. The crab pots are going to be mostly empty today. There was a weird tide last night. They headed for deeper water. They’ll be back tomorrow or the next day.”

“You know a lot of things.” Seto observed as she unrolled a length of cloth and handed it to him.

“Yeah, but you know why too. I can tell. You’re like me. You’re brain is always on, always learning and remembering.”

“I know, but how did you know about me?” Amy was perceptive but he didn’t think it was that.

The girls grin was sharp and surprisingly wicked. “Everyone knows who you are Seto Kaiba. Even if they don’t recognize you dressed like a bum. I knew when I saw you on the beach.”

Seto’s eyes narrowed on her dancing eyes. “You knew me when you hit me with the kite.” The full scope of what she’d done gave him pause.

“Yes.” She admitted it cheerfully. “And I knew you were my mom’s boss before she quit, even if she never met you. Besides I saw you on the news the other day.” She shrugged. “I thought that you’d either offer her a job back or buy a partnership in the restaurant to get her to work for you again. Everyone knows you want only the best and my mom’s the best at cooking and at animation scripts.”

“It was a scam? Even your brothers?” He could clearly see her plot; it amused him and vaguely pissed him off.

“Nope. I just hit you with my kite and let things fall in place. Sometimes things work out great. My brothers messing with the seagulls and pelicans were a lucky coincidence. I wanted to laugh when you knocked them on their butts.” Her bravado died and she met his gaze candidly. “I did what I had to do. My mom needs help and you helped her. Thanks.”

Seto nodded again, uncomfortable with being manipulated but warmed by her gratitude. He understood that the end justified the means, but he didn’t care to be a means. Without another word he bent to write the Kanji invitation to the whale watchers.

***

Joey made it back to the camper just before sunset. He was tired and slightly sore. Dungeness crab fishing had been a bust this day because of some tidal surge. Of course the captain he’d worked for today hadn’t mentioned it until they were out to sea. But that was okay. He’d had a great day fishing and listening to fish stories. Captain Mac had been a treasure trove of tall tales and wisdom all mixed with the smell of bait and the chug-chug of his engine. He’d also been a man of honor. If Joey came back and worked for him the next day he would get his pick of the crab haul. That promise, the stories, and the adventure had been payment enough for Jou, but the fifty bucks the man had slipped him was icing on the cake. He’d use it to take Seto out for dinner, someplace as nice as their limited wardrobes would allow. He had the perfect spot in mind and only needed to clean up and change.

Grinning he opened the door, expecting to see the tall brunet sprawled on the bunk, maybe cuddling a pup or two. What he found was a small note stating Jou was to come to The Kite and The Heron. An X was marked on the map of the city he’d left for Seto earlier. The location made his brows lift in surprise and a grin cross his lips. He’d seen the kites flying as they had chugged in to port. The tails of the kites had streamed out, the words and characters only becoming clear as they tied the ship. Kanji and English had proclaimed specials and wonderful food, welcoming travelers. He’d actually thought of going there if they couldn’t find someplace fancier. Now that he thought about it, of course Seto would want to check it out, but it went to show just how much they had in common. Putting the note carefully in his wallet, he hummed a low tune and grabbed a clean set of clothes, heading for the public showers at the campground. He didn’t want to smell of bait when he saw Seto.

After his shower he felt ten pounds lighter and the ache in his muscles was down to just a twinge. With a jaunty whistle, he sauntered out into the soft California twilight in search of his lover and good food.

He expected to find Seto sitting at a table reading a newspaper or maybe playing with the pups. He was surprised and completely baffled to see his tall, slim, boyfriend decked out in a sky blue cotton shirt, his khaki shorts completely covered by a long, dark gray canvas apron, standing in the middle of a crowded patio restaurant holding a notepad, obviously taking the order for the table.

Grinning slightly, he sat back to watch Seto work, only to sit up straight and stare with wide-eyed admiration as he saw his lover’s exceptionally fine ass framed in khaki and black canvas. The ties of the apron and the border of charcoal were incredibly sexy. He’d thought he was too tired for sex, but at this moment all he wanted was to drop those loose shorts and see what Seto’s perfect ass looked like highlighted by just the apron and strings. Based on the discreet and not so discreet looks Jou saw on various faces he wasn’t the only one feeling that way and the slight sway to that sexy ass told him that Seto knew as well. Watching with no small amount of possessiveness he enjoyed the look of his lover. His pleasure was brought to an abrupt halt as he caught a small flirty curl of Seto’s lips as he pivoted to speak to one of the men overtly ogling. That smile made his heart contract slightly. For all they had made love, Seto had never given him that little grin.

“Well hell.” He mumbled under his breath as he forced himself to relax back onto the half wall that served as the boundary around the patio restaurant. He knew he had no right to be possessive. Yeah they were lovers, but he knew that Seto didn’t love him, knew it was only going to be temporary, until the sexy brunet found his feet again. Thinking it was real or forever for Seto was a sure way to heartache. No matter what Jou’s personal feelings or needs were, Seto’s were more important. Besides he couldn’t force love. He knew all that, told himself it hourly, but it didn’t stop him for falling deeper and deeper for the man he’d loved for years. And it didn’t stop the twinges of jealousy at seeing his lover smiling flirtatiously at someone else.

With a mix of pain and pleasure he watched Seto work the overcrowded area. He didn’t get to watch for long though, because the dark blue gaze lifted and scanned in his direction, picking him out effortlessly. With a quick jerk of Seto’s chin Jou found himself sliding off the wall and wending his way through the crowd. “Hey. Uh... Nice apron.” He couldn’t keep the leer off his face.

Blue eyes shining with amusement met his gaze. “Pervert.” But it was a laughing whisper. Jou barely noticed the young girl stepping up to them until she spoke.

“The pups are sleeping Kai.” Jou turned to find her looking at him critically. Before he could speak she said “I’m Amy. You’re Joey, Kai’s friend. He said you’d help if we needed it when you got here. We need it. I’ll get you a shirt and apron. C’mon.”

Jou ignored his twanging back and shoulders, gave Seto a smile and a nod to say it was okay with him. “’K.” Without another word he followed the girl to a back room.

A sky blue shirt, exactly matching Seto’s, hit him in the chest. “Here’s the shirt. Apron’s on the top shelf. Grab one and put it on.” The girl’s tone was brisk and just a bit bossy.

“Thanks, uh Amy.” He gave her a questioning look. “Where can I change?”

“Here’s okay. I’ll step out.” She shrugged and exited, closing the door firmly behind her.

In less than a minute Jou’d changed shirts and slipped the apron on, tying it in a comfortable knot. Amy was waiting when he stepped out of the small room. “Okay whatcha need?”

“My mom’s in the kitchen, through that door. She’s the chef.” The girl pointed to an open window in the wall that led to an obvious kitchen. A wide ledge with plates full of steaming, delicious food made his stomach growl loudly. Even as he watched, Seto smoothly filled a large tray with four of the plates and carried them to a table. “Kai is our waiter. My brothers are washing dishes. I’ll get you the busing cart. If you could bus the tables and bring the dishes to the kitchen? Kai and I can handle the orders and stuff. Unless you know about waiting on tables and speak Japanese too?” She hesitated a minute, biting her lip and obviously thinking.

“Yeah I speak Japanese. I grew up in Domino. And I’ve worked as a waiter before. I could do more for you if let me wait on tables.”

“Then you take orders and deliver, I’ll do the busing.” She gave him a tiny smile. “Thanks.” She handed him an order pad.

Seto stopped next to him on his way to pick up another load of plates. “The four tables on the right are yours. Numbers two, four, six, and eight. I have the four on the left. One, three, five, and seven. I’ve taken their orders and water. At least one of their orders should be up, perhaps two. If you’ll go grab a tray, then introduce yourself and...”

“Got it. Go take care of your customers.” Grinning slightly, he allowed his gaze to flutter over the tall brunet. “You owe me big though.”

“Yeah, yeah, and I always pay up. Get to work blondie.” Seto gave him a slight grin.

After that it was full tilt. The eight tables were constantly full. Amy barely had time to trundle the bus cart over before someone else was sliding into an empty seat. Of course she hurriedly cleaned and apologized, but her words were brushed aside with polite phrases of understanding and gratitude. The food tasted better than it smelled, and it smelled heavenly. The glow of the patio lights and the cheerful voices rising and falling in a mix of languages gave the atmosphere the feel of an international garden party. Several street performers, drawn by the activity, came up to play music and give performances, much to the delight of the diners.

Jounouchi kept a weather-eye on Seto. The patrons were friendly, boisterous, and slightly rowdy. The Japanese spoke was a mix of regional accents that shrieked all levels of society. He knew Seto’s snobby attitude when it came to some things, and he wasn’t sure if the brunet could lower himself enough to be a decent servant. After just a few minutes of watching, he saw he had nothing to worry about. Seto was blending as well as any chameleon. Too well in some cases. Jou couldn’t help frowning when he noticed Seto laughing with the same guy he’d been smiling at earlier. Before he could do something stupid, he turned away quickly to take another order.

Seto, still chuckling at the quip his customer made, glanced over at Jou’s sharp move. Seeing the blond smiling at a customer, chatting about the food he gave his customer an absent smile as he let his eyes linger on his sexy lover, he wondered how he was going to pay Jou for the work and had to forcibly pull his mind out of the gutter it immediately slipped into. Through sheer strength of will, the first he'd felt in a long time, he focused on his job. He had the rest of his life to be with his blond.

At ten thirty Jounouchi sighed and looked around the small restaurant. The tables were cleaned, the floor swept, and the lights were low. Seto came through the swinging door with a tray laden with bowls of something that to Jou, who'd last eaten a sandwich aboard the fishing trawler, smelled like ambrosia. “Hey one of them better be for me Kai.” He was careful to use the name Seto had been using all evening.

“You'd be so lucky.” The brunet taunted, but he set the tray on a newly cleaned table and sank into the chair, motioning for Jou to sit as well. “Eat.”

Gratefully he dropped into the offered chair. “Man what a night. I was hopin' to go to a restaurant tonight but...” He grinned slightly “not like this.” Giving his lover a grin he picked up the spoon and dug into the thick seafood stew.

Seto gave him a quick glance. “Thank you for your help.”

Jou didn't bother to do more than grunt. The food was exploding on his taste buds and his belly was almost crying with ecstasy.

Ramona and Amy Spiedel joined them, carrying bowls of their own. The twins Mark and Ty chose to sit at a different table. “Thank you both for your help.” Ramona started formally.

Jou waved his hand, shushing her. He didn't want to hear anything right now. He was eating.

Seto chuckled and shook his head slightly at his lover. “Forgive him. He spent the day fishing. I think he left his manners on the boat.”

Amy slurped her food delicately. “Yeah, you didn't get any Dungeness crab today though. Weird tide.”

Hunger abating slightly, Jou nodded. “Captain Mac told me that – after we were out to sea. But if I go back tomorrow and help out I get my pick of the crab.”

Ramona's spoon hit her bowl with a loud clatter. “You went out with Captain Mac?” She shot her daughter a glance, but the girl was already in motion.

Jou didn't see the problem. “Yeah. Got some good fish too. The nets were pretty full even with the weird tide.”

Amy hurried back in carrying a tray with three more steaming bowls of chowder on it. She placed it on the table and gestured “Have some more.”

“We heard that Captain Mac had a great day. More than double his usual haul.” Ramona commented softly. “How many people were with you guys?”

“Huh? Oh just me and him.” Jou put his empty bowl on the tray and took another. “Man this stuff is great. It's got everything. Shrimp, scallops, potato, onion, fish, cream, and stuff I don't know.”

“Mmm I call it rimasugli.” she grinned sheepishly “Italian for leftovers.”

Jou chuckled richly as he gulped down more of the delicious food. “Whatever you call it, it's fantastic.”

Seto placed his empty bowl on the tray, stacking it under Jou's empty. He was pleasantly full so he ignored the other two steaming bowls. “How much did you guys catch?”

Jou shrugged, but Ramona glanced at Seto with questioning eyes, as if to ask why he didn't know. “Captain Mac sold almost half a ton of fish today. He normally only gets between three hundred and five hundred pounds.” The steady regard grew more intense. “Mac has a bad back, and even with the diesel reels its hard work for one person to haul in the nets. You must have been tired. And now you've spent all evening on your feet here.”

Jou finished his second bowl and eyed a third wistfully. But he controlled his urge to eat more. He didn't want Seto to think he was a pig. Amy caught his look and snorted. “Eat. I got it all for you. Everyone knows Captain Mac don't give his workers lunch except a cheese sandwich and a soda.”

When he hesitated more Seto picked up one of the bowls and plunked it in front of him. “Eat.” He growled. He was furious. Jou hadn't told him about his day, hadn't mentioned being hungry, or even that he'd worked alone. If he'd known he would... His thoughts came to a screaming halt. Jounouchi hadn't had the time or opportunity to tell him. Seto wanted to kick his own ass for his stupidity. He had volunteered Jou without checking with him. He should have known Jounouchi would be tired. Seto wanted to kick himself for being a heartless bastard.

Jou retrieved his spoon and dug in. He wasn't going to argue. He wasn't starving but his body had burned a lot of fuel today and he wanted to stoke up a bit. Eating more slowly, he nodded his thanks to them.

Ty, sitting with his brother Mark, chose that moment to interrupt. “Amy, bring us some too. We're hungry.”

“Get it yourself. You didn't work on Captain Mac's boat and you had to be forced to work here. I ain’t your slave.” Typical sister reply. Ramona backed up her daughter and headed off the impending fight by saying softly “Get your own. She's done twice as much as both of you put together. Your father will be here tomorrow and you can explain to him why you think she is a slave.”

Evil glares and mumbles punctuated their trip back to the kitchen. They were back in just a few minutes with more bowls. Rather than take their own seats they joined the table. Seto, still furious at himself for treating Jou so badly, eyed them suspiciously. They both wore looks that boded ill for someone.

“So... Where did you guys come from?” Ty made it sound like a casual question, but it set off alarm bells to everyone listening. The boys had been by turn sullen and rude throughout the evening and this turnabout was very suspicious.

“We came up from Malibu.” Jou answered, his tone equally casual, but he laid his spoon down as his head came up alertly. Seto was sure he was the only person to see the wariness filling the golden eyes.

“Malibu's a cool place. Great beach and lots of hot babes.” Mark observed, keeping his voice low key.

Jou grunted noncommittally, picked up his spoon and carefully took a bite. Had the boys been watching they would have seen he bit down with slightly more force than needed for the tender food.

“Mark...” Ty mock reproved. “They wouldn't know about hot babes. They're fags.”

His mother gasped “Ty!”

“What?” The boy's look was mockingly innocent. “You didn't know? They were checking out each other's asses all night. Couple of times I thought they were going to go for it right then and there.”

Snarling, she rose from the table. Seto, not up to drama, still caught up in his mistreatment of Jou, motioned her back down. “Please Ramona. Sit down.” Giving the boys a calm look, he asked “So? Fag is not our preferred noun but it is accurate. Jou and I are lovers, life partners. When we can we will be legally joined.” Seeing the sly looks fade to red-faced confusion, he smiled slightly “We don't need your approval to live our lives. Our sexuality is our business and not yours.” Giving Ramona a small smile he said softly “I assure you, Jou and I are discreet and don't indulge in PDA.”

“Like I care about that.” Ramona was still upset. “If you wanted to kiss you were more than welcome to. What pisses me off is their bigotry. They were not raised to be that way. They...”

“Are trying to wound us and you because they are spoiled and selfish. I wasn't going to mention this to you but now I really think I should. Today, before Amy bumped into me, I met your sons down the block. They were feeding seagulls and pelicans alka seltzer. I wasn't the only one to see them do it and you probably know that the brown pelicans are endangered and protected. I believe they were trying to drive customers away. No customers want to be puked on by a sea bird.” He hesitated for a moment then shrugged as the boys erupted into a vicious, top-of-the-lung, cursing match.

Jounouchi, his appetite ruined by the stupidity of the boys and infuriated by the blind cruelty of his lover shoved his bowl away. Before he could follow through with lambasting the brats a sudden rapid fluttering filled his ears and he froze as a story unfolded in his mind. As quickly as the beating of tiny wings started, it ended and he knew, from the story he'd seen, what he had to do.

With grim purpose he stood suddenly, catching the entire table unaware. Leaning forward, his eyes glowing amber in the night he growled “Enough. You’re a couple of pricks who need to learn to respect your mom and care about your sister. You feed off each other like maggots on rotten meat.” Turning to Ramona he caught her gaze and said softly, compellingly, “You have options – use them. Separate them and let them grow to stand alone. Your brothers, the tragedy will repeat if you don't.”

Ramona stared at him for a moment, her expression oddly arrested. “You... how did you know...”

“A hummingbird told me.” Grabbing Seto's wrist he dragged the stunned brunet to his feet. “We'll see you tomorrow.”

Seto allowed himself to be towed along behind his lover for several yards before putting on the brakes. Jounouchi simply released him and continued on his way. “Get the pups. I will see you at the campgrounds.” Without another word the blond was swallowed up by the suddenly oppressive darkness.

When he and the pups got back to the camper, a low light was blazing, but Jou was already in bed obviously trying to sleep. Deciding they would talk in the morning, Seto squeezed in tight beside the warm body of his lover and sighed tiredly. The unease he'd felt in the last few minutes faded when Jou instantly spooned around him, mumbling sleepily into his neck. “Love you Seto.”

When he woke Jou was already gone again. He was mildly irritated about that, but a bright spot was to see that there was no smelly mess for him to clean up. Dressing hastily he took the pups for a walk. Maybe it was because he was more familiar with the area, maybe because he was more relaxed in his surroundings, or maybe it was because he knew he had something specific to do, but for whatever reason, Seto found himself actually enjoying the morning necessity walk. After using the bags Jou had insisted they use to dispose of the evidence, Seto decided to wait on his shower and just enjoy the crisp morning air.

He wandered along, okay was dragged along, by his two rambunctious companions for a while as they investigated palm trees and mysterious things only they could smell in the sand, then almost as if they were in tune with Seto's mood, turned towards the street where the Kite and the Heron was. As he reached the end of the block, he saw that the building was dark except for the lights burning upstairs. Not wanting to intrude, he turned back to the bench he'd been sitting on when Amy had hit him with the kite.

He was a bit hesitant about sitting down when he saw an older gentleman sitting on the bench, feeding a small bag of bread crumbs to a flock of seagulls and pelicans... and a large white bird. A small shiver raced through him as he recognized a snow goose. It looked remarkably similar to the drug induced vision he'd had. Unconsciously he drew nearer. “Is... is that a snow goose?” Dumb question but he couldn't help it. It was a snow goose, but what was it doing here?

The elder turned and glanced at him over his shoulder, his expression of annoyance calling him an idiot before he opened his mouth. But surprisingly, the annoyance faded and a small smile of welcome creased the lined face. “Yes, he was injured when he landed here back in January. He wasn't well enough to continue the migration. I... I took him home and patched him up. He has chosen to stay for now. He will probably leave when the migration returns.” There was affection, sadness and acceptance in his face as he explained.

“Oh. Seems ungrateful.”

The old man shrugged slightly. “I love him, but he has to do what makes him happy. He'd be miserable not able to fly free and I'd be miserable seeing that. I want him happy. If that means flying away and forgetting me then I'll just look up at the sky as they fly over and enjoy knowing he is there and happy.” He hesitated a moment then smiled slightly “I'll cherish him while I can and always miss him when he goes.”

He didn't know what to say response to that so he kept his mouth shut. In a moment the older man cleared his throat slightly. “Saw you yesterday. You were helping out little 'Mona and her family.”

“Hnn... They needed it.” Pink was creeping into his cheeks. For some reason he was embarrassed that the older man had noticed him helping out.

“Yeah they did.” The man smiled and stuck out his hand. “I'm Artie James. Retired fisherman.” As they shook hands, 'Artie' nodded towards the Kite and the Heron. “I've known 'Mona since she was a little tyke, barely bigger'n that goose. It's good to see she's come back.” He sighed “That girl of hers is just like she was. Pretty, smart as a whip, and a good worker.” He pursed his lips in unconscious disapproval. “The boys are a different story.”

Seto grunted noncommittally. The old man shot him a knowing look. “Saw you get puked on so you know what I’m talking about. Those boys...” He shook his head slightly. “If the people here didn't care about 'Mona, them boys would find themselves in a cell pronto.”

“I wondered why they weren't reported.” He allowed thoughtfully. “But if everyone cares for her, why doesn't she have any help?”

The old man was quiet for a moment then answered candidly “Most people tried, but the boy's run 'em off either with rudeness or graffiti and worse. Can't prove it was them, but everyone knows. It tore a lot of people up so much that we just quit offerin'.”

“I see.” He thought for a moment then nodded and stood. “I think that situation is going to change. But she will need more help than ever. At least to fly the kites....” He let the words trail off on a half questioning note.

“Well hell, if things change, I'll fly the kites myself. And my wife is lookin' for somethin' to do. She never worked outside our house, keeps it spic-and-span, so she is a champion dishwasher.” He grinned at Seto, approval and hope shining at him. “Only reason we stopped helpin' to begin with was because the boys spray painted our garage and broke out the window in our car. My wife was home alone because I had to go out of town for a hearing aid appointment. Scared her half to death because it was the middle of the night and they were loud.” He shifted uncomfortably. “She called the cops but they were gone by the time they got there. Know it was them all right, 'cause the one boy dropped a key chain. When my wife recognized it from when she was visiting with Ramona, she said it was hers.” He hesitated, and then added “It was Amy's.”

That pissed Seto off. Okay he'd already been pissed at the boys, but this was beyond the scope of youthful stupidity and spoiled selfishness. This crossed into another realm. Terrorizing an old lady and framing their little sister for it. “Did your wife return the key chain?”

“Nah. She's been too afraid to go down there.” He tossed the last of the crumbs to the birds. “Those boys are mean and she's just a little thing. Always has been, and she just had hip surgery so she's not getting around too fast. Walkin' okay but not....”

“I see.” Seto stood abruptly. “Bring the keychain to the restaurant will you? It may help Ramona to make a decision about her sons.” Tugging the pups, who had been crouching on the ground staring at the birds avidly, he stalked off towards the Kite and Heron.

Artie pocketed the empty plastic bag and chuckled as he saw the determined stride of the younger man. Ramona's problems were gonna be fixed whether she liked it or not. Putting some gitty-up in his step, he hurried to speak to Alma. Maybe he could coax her down to watch the fireworks.

The lights were on downstairs in the restaurant so Seto tied the pups in the kite stand and knocked on the kitchen door. In a few moments it was opened by a red-faced, tear-stained Ramona. Ignoring the look he smiled his most winning grin. “Hey, I thought I'd see if you needed any help setting up for lunch today?”

She looked at him blankly for a moment. “Oh Kai...” Suddenly her face crumpled. “I... no...” then she began to sob. “No... We won't be opening today... or any other day...”

“What?” He was honestly surprised, but under it the rage he'd been suppressing began to grow.

“I...my... I have to give it up. My... sons are so unhappy and want to... and my husband won't... I...” Incoherently, she sank into hysteria and threw herself into his arms.

Just then Mark and Ty clattered down the stairs “Yo Mom! What's for breakfast? We're starved.” Seto looked up from the crying woman and glared at the boys. They were smug, confident, and totally spoiled. When they saw him their look became even more confident, and sly meanness, never far away became pronounced. Mark yelled “Dad, Dad, come quick. Some guy is here making Mom cry.”

A heavy pounding of footsteps sounded and a man dressed in jeans and a designer polo shirt pushed down the stairs. “What the fuck are you doing? Get away from my wife. Mark call the cops.”

Seto stepped back from the crying woman and held up his hands in peace. Ramona straightened and turned to face her brood. “Stop it. Mark you'll do no such thing.” She ordered, her voice firming as her sobs died away. “Kai stopped by to see if I needed help with lunch today. I started crying and he was calming me down.” She glared at them with blood-shot eyes. “Kai wouldn't hurt me ever.” There was a note in her voice that said that someone else had. “Kai this is my husband Brad Spiedel. Brad meet Kai. He helped us yesterday.”

Brad glowered slightly but offered his hand. “Thanks for all your help.”

Amy rushed down, pushing through her brothers and brushing by her father. “Kai! I'm so glad you're here. You'll never guess what they've done!”

“Guilt tripped your mother into giving up her lifelong dream?” Seto asked rhetorically.

Amy nodded, impressed but not surprised. “Yeah. I thought for a while that it was gonna be okay, but Dad stuck up for them. Says Mom's being hysterical and if she'd just be a parent and show some discipline the boys wouldn't be in trouble all the time.”

Ramona's face turned dark red and Brad's went umber before he snapped angrily, “Amy that's enough. You had no business listening to that conversation and you sure as hell shouldn't repeat it to a stranger.”

“He's not a stranger! He's the one who can fix this mess.” She was unwavering in her conviction.

Ramona sighed, “Honey I know you like him but...”

“Mom you're planning on asking for your old job back aren't you?”

“Yes. I'm sure Pixar would hire me back. I...”

Before Seto could say anything there was a knock on the door. Amy answered it quickly, hoping to avert a full blown shouting match. “Artie! Alma! Hey! How you guys doing?”

“Hey shortie. We're good. Saw your dad was home and came by to talk to him and your mom. Can we come in?”

“Kinda crowded, but okay.” The girl stepped back and let them into the cramped kitchen.

The elder couple stepped into the room, smiling greetings to Brad and Ramona. “Sorry to bother you so early, but we wanted to catch Brad before he left again. He's only been here a couple hours in the last month or so.” Buried deep inside the words was a subtle accusation that had the younger man flushing slightly.

“Busy at work.” He mumbled.

“Arrive Saturday morning leave Saturday afternoon or night. Back in the city all day Sunday.” Alma nodded “You need a day of rest after working all day and caring for your family for a few hours.” The old woman's voice was completely understanding, and yet even Seto flinched under the whip.

Ramona couldn't deal with more stress and she could see a storm brewing in her husband's eyes. “What did you need Alma? Artie?”

“Oh Honey we need to ask you when you're going to pay for the damage to the house and car?” Alma had been inclined to just return the keys, but now, given what they'd heard while standing outside the door, she was going to let the hoodlums have it with both barrels. She felt bad for Ramona, but she was doing it for the girl's own good.

“Damage...” Ramona's face went blank. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh you know! About six weeks ago when my house and car got vandalized. Remember? I had chest pains I was so scared, but the doctor said it was just a panic attack?”

“I... yes but why would we pay for...” Her voice trailed off as realization dawned and horror took it's place. “You can't mean... they did it?”

“Ramona, the only reason they didn't get arrested is because we knew you were having enough troubles.” Artie said softly. “Normally we wouldn't come to ask for the money because... well we know you'll make it right. But, with my hearing aids and Alma's surgery, things are a little tight and we can't afford to wait. Our deductible is seven hundred dollars on the house and five hundred on the car. The glass was just under that and the house took four hundred because it was some oil based stuff that had to be blasted before the paint could be redone. I got the receipts. Comes to seven hundred eighty-two dollars and twenty-two cents.” She hesitated a moment then sighed “My emergency visit I paid for too. We've used a lot of medical with Artie's hearing aids and we don't want our premiums to go up. It's twenty-three hundred forty-one dollars even. the total is three thousand thirty-one dollars and two cents. ”

Over three thousand dollars in damages? “I...” It was all too much for Ramona. Her sons hadn't done that, had they? How could they have? They weren't that bad surely? They'd been caught holding drugs, sure. And yes they'd admitted to giving the seagulls alka seltzer in the past, but that was all just boredom and high spirits. They wouldn't hurt Alma and Artie, destroy their property would they? They were friends, good friends, and up until a little while ago, had been helping with the restaurant. “They couldn't have...”

Amy looked at the elderly couple as her sharp brain put it together. “They were pissed you were helping out and wanted you to stop. They scared you away didn't they? Just like they drive away customers with puking birds and stuff.”

“Shut up!” Mark and Ty yelled in unison. “We didn't do anything to anyone. We were just having fun with the birds.” As a unit they turned to their father. “Dad... We didn't. We swear.”

Alma glared at the punks, ready to peel a strip off their hides but before she could say a single word Brad growled sharply, “You don't have any proof of anything. Don't come here expecting us to pay your bills or thinking you can blame my sons for something some punks did.”

Wordlessly Alma held out the key chain. Amy recognized it instantly. “Mom, that's mine. It came up missing... Mom it came up missing the same time as their house got damaged. Remember? Alma called and said she couldn't come in because of what happened and I had to unlock the pantry, but I didn't have the keys? You were on the phone to Alma when I borrowed yours. Remember you said you'd seen them on the counter the night before and one of the boy's must have borrowed them?” She glowered at the twins “But they denied it. My keys have been missing ever since.”

“I found these in the garage next to my car.” Then Alma corrected “Or rather the police found them and when I saw... well I knew they were Amy's. I told the police they were mine.”

Mark laughed loudly, “Amy broke windows in a car? And painted a gang tag on their house?”

That made Artie glance at him sharply “How did you know it was more than one window? We've only spoken of one. The second was already cracked and we figured it was our responsibility. And how did you know it was a gang tag? We covered it right away with white paint.”

Ramona had had enough. She could see the unrepentant pride in her sons. They had done this and not out of boredom or high jinks but out of a desire to ruin her dream for their own selfish, self-destructive goals. They had hurt their friends and tried to destroy her dreams by injuring innocent people. It was beyond enough.

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, steeling herself for what she was about to do, then with resolve, opened them to glare at the three most important men in her life. “Brad, I've changed my mind. I am not closing the restaurant. I'm sending Ty to Montana with his uncle. Mark can go back to San Francisco with you. You both can visit on weekends and Ty will visit for a few weeks in the summer. Amy and I will stay here and run the restaurant.” With a flaming glare that completely silenced the eruptions around her, she ordered harshly, “Get out of my kitchen, I have a restaurant to prepare for lunch. Brad, you go get the kites in the air. Amy get the veggies and start cutting. Kai, go sweep the dining room. Mark, go pack. Ty, go do research on the weather in Montana, I think you are going to need a new wardrobe – we'll go to Goodwill and see what we can find.” Picking up a giant knife, it's blade glinting with a razor sharp edge, she started her work.

When they would have argued she simply looked at her husband, “I'm not changing my mind. You can see it as clearly as I do – I know you too well. Either we do it my way or all three of you can live in the city. That is your choice.” With a precise slice she cut an apple in half. “Don't bother to waste my time with an argument.”

Brad, his expression a mix of rage and disbelief, grabbed his sons and dragged them from the room.

Seto left them to it and hurried out to sweep the dining room. Despite trying to drag it out, he was done in too short of time for his liking. Reluctantly he went back to the kitchen, completely unsurprised to see his employer sobbing on Alma's shoulder while Artie and Amy hovered patting her shoulder.

“Dining room is done. What else?”

Ramona lifted her head and swiped her tears. “Nothing. Lunch won't be for another couple hours. I'll fix us some breakfast.” While she cooked she explained why this was so hard for her. “Alma and Artie already know. Amy has heard of her uncles but she doesn't know everything. I... I need to talk about this to get it straight in my head.” She blew her nose on a paper napkin then went to wash her hands before continuing.

“I had a set of twin brothers. Mark and Ty are named after them. Brad was their best friend in school. They... they were very high-spirited and spoiled but my family couldn't see it, especially my mother. They started using marijuana when they were twelve and it went downhill from there. Truancy, animal cruelty, disrespect for adults, vandalism, petty theft. It went on for years with my mom and dad 'saving' them from their 'high-spirits', until when they were eighteen, they stole a car. It went off the bridge and they were both killed - drowned. Crack and alcohol were in their systems and probably caused the accident. If they hadn't been high and drunk they would have lived.” She dished the plates expertly. “My oldest brother had already moved to Montana, married into a ranching family. My mother died less than six months later of a broken heart. My dad disappeared after her funeral. I was sixteen and he just left me at the cemetery never came home.” She smiled sadly and shook her head. “Brad's family took me in but to this day I don't know where he went off to.”

“So they are paralleling their uncles.” Seto said neutrally. He didn't comment on her father leaving her. There was nothing he could say that would make any difference to her pain, but mentally he made a note to check into it.

“Yes. And like your friend said last night, it will happen again if I don't do something. I won't... I won't let them die like my brothers did.”

“Then you are making the best decision.” He smiled slightly. “And it saved me the hassle of telling you not to give up your dream to go back to Pixar. They won't hire you. Nobody connected with Disney or Kaiba Corp, will.”

She was instantly outraged. How dare he say that? “What? Why would you say that?” That was a little outside the limits of what her professional pride could tolerate.

Seto just smiled slightly. “I know Mokuba Kaiba very well. A phone call would end it. I'd make that call before I'd let you give up your dreams.”

“Mokuba... But he isn't running things. The older one is... Starts with an S...Seth? Sam?”

“Check again. Seto is not in charge any longer. He handed it to Mokuba. And I grew up with him; you could say we are close as brothers.”

Still wearing that enigmatic smile, he sat down and waited for Alma, Artie, Ramona and Amy to do the same. After a moment Ramona bit off a choked sob as another tear spilled down her cheek. “So I really have no choice.”

As Amy slid into her chair she smiled widely “Nope. Told you he was the one to fix it.”

Ramona hesitated, biting her lip. “Should I call them in to eat?”

Alma gave her an incredulous look. “Are you nuts? You have to stand firm or they will try to change your mind. They are old enough to know how to feed themselves.”

Ramona, small smile breaking through her tears, nodded “Yes they are.” She nodded again, more emphatically and used a napkin to blow her nose. “Let’s eat. We have a lot to do. Kai the kite tails are in the dryer. I washed the entire marker out of them – good thing we use washable markers. As Brad hasn't come in to get them I assume he hasn't got the kites in the air yet. After you eat could you make up more tails? I'm doing something special tonight. I'll write it down. ”

Seto nodded, not bothering to answer around the mouthful of apple pancakes he was tucking into with relish. With a slightly guilty thought he wondered what Jou had eaten for breakfast before dismissing it as he took another greedy bite.

***

Jounouchi scratched at the vague itch behind his ear and turned to smile at the captain. “Hey Cap'n Mac! How long til the next pot? I want to grab a bite of my breakfast while they’re still fresh.”

The grizzled old seaman gave a dramatic shudder. “Boy, I like my seafood fresh but not still floppin'. You go ahead though; we are about fifteen minutes from the next group of pots.”

Jou sat down next to his bucket of live rock prawns. Pulling out a package of soya sauce he'd learned to keep in a pocket on his adventures, he ripped a tiny tear in the corner and set it on his knee, then pulled out his razor sharp knife. With quick, efficient, obviously practiced moved he grabbed one of the prawns, sliced the head off, peeled the shell, and de-veined it in just a few seconds. Slicing it to transparent thinness, he placed the meat carefully in the plastic bag he'd carried his earlier sandwich in. After repeating the process several times, and filling the plastic bag, he squeezed just a few drops of soya sauce into the meat, and using his fingers, scooped up the thin slivers a few slices at a time. He pretended not to notice the vaguely green look his captain was giving him. Not all Americans knew how to eat good sashimi.

“Hey Capt'n Mac. Tell me about them fish, the ones with teeth?” He asked.

“Sheepshead fish are common but kind of freaky, and hard as hell to catch. Their mouths are very tough so hooks don't work and their teeth... they look like human teeth and they pack a mean bite. Keep your fingers away from them.”

“Yeah, common? We got some halibut and some striped bass. What was the other one?”

“Sturgeon - we threw it back because they were too small to keep. They grow to be huge and the ones we caught, barely three feet long, weren't legal.”

“Yeah? I just thought they were not good sellers or good to eat. What's legal size?”

“Forty-six to sixty-six inches and you have to have a sturgeon license. Which I do.” The old man smiled slightly “Was time when that wasn't so and you could pull out a sturgeon as big as eighteen feet. I remember when my dad and me caught a monster, over seventeen feet. Took both of us to reel 'em in. We was line fishin' too. It was the summer just before he died...” Jounouchi felt the thrill of anticipation and a surge of warmth as the old fisherman went off on a glory-days fish tale and memory of his father. This was why he'd come here, why he'd chosen Capt'n Mac. Not only was he an interesting character but he was a living encyclopedia of the history of fishing in this area. What the man didn't know wasn't worth knowing, and what he did know could probably fill several books. Settling more comfortably as he ate his brunch of prawns, he listened attentively to a story that told more of history and fishing than any book ever could. For just moment he wondered if Seto was enjoying his day, then he resolutely turned the thought away. Seto needed to find himself without Jou tying him down. He would help his lover soar even though he knew that the injured dragon would fly away from him when he was healed.

Enjoying the tang of the ocean breeze and the hard work of hauling pots and casting nets, Jou threw himself into the experience with joy and enthusiasm, and if somewhere deep inside a corner of him grieved, nobody but he knew it.

At the end of a hard day he glanced up to see the kites flying high. Just as he'd expected, invitations and specials written in kanji and English streamed in waving banners behind the colorful kites. “Looks like the Kite and the Heron tonight.” He observed as he tied the boat at the dock.

“Ramona makes good food, but you need to get those crabs on to boil.” The weather beaten old captain hesitated for a second then asked “Were the guys that helped at the restaurant your friends?”

“Kai is my friend. I helped at the restaurant too.”

That made the man squint at him in shock. “You helped out last night after we got back? And you showed up here before sun up? No wonder you're not as spry today.”

Jou shrugged and blushed slightly, “Yeah, well Kai asked and they needed the help. I wasn't too tired or anything.”

The man gave him a straight look under beetling brows. “You were beat and all you talked about was you friend Kai yesterday. I hope he knows how much you care for him. Not many so-called friends these days would pull a night shift after working the nets all day.”

“Uhn...” Jou didn't quite know what to say to that so he bent back to the rope.

Seeing he'd embarrassed the young man he relented, “You go on now. Take that bucket of crab down to 'Mona's, and take the blue one I set aside too. Use the deep wheelbarrow to cart them through town. Tell 'Mona that Mac's comin' for a crab boil.”

“Uh won't she get mad? I mean...”

“Boy I've known that girl since she was in her momma's belly. I'll bring a third barrow of crabs as soon as I've gotten the rest of our haul in to market. Send one of those twins of hers down here for a second. Just one mind you. Two is askin' for trouble, and you be sure to come with whichever boy you choose.”

“But... the restaurant...” Jou felt he should protest.

“Amy and 'Mona can handle it. Now get on before they get too deep into the dinner hour.” He shooed the other man along.

Jou made quite a sight, pushing a huge, deep, wheelbarrow full of live crabs and rock lobster, some of which were trying valiantly to escape, through the quaint streets, or he assumed he did by the looks he was getting. Then one woman came out of her tackle shop and called, “Where you headed?”

Knowing it was more than where, but who, what, and why as well, he called back “Mac is sendin' crab and lobster up to Ramona's place, three loads.”

Delight lit the serene face. “A boil! Haven't had one in over a year! You tell 'Mona that Sherry's bringin' the spices. I'll have Randy bring a bushel of veggies over.” Still smiling happily the woman spun away.

From then on instead of odd looks, people called out from the doorways and across the street, “Tell Mona I'll bring some fresh bread.” and “Tell her I'ma bring a keg of ale.” A dozen or more people all gave their names and what they would bring by the time Jou made it to the Kite and the Heron he wasn't sure he'd remember them all.

Seto was just serving their one customer when he noticed Jou pushing a massive cart of some kind up to the patio. “Joey, what...”

The blond held up his hand indicating the need for a moment as he huffed to catch his breath. “One sec.” He rasped as he set the cart down and bent over to rest his hands on his knees. Artie, seeing the strange man, and the kites not needing any further assistance, strolled over to get the scoop. “You bring your own supper?” He asked, not quite joking as he scooped an escapee crab back into the barrel.

Only slightly breathless now Jou shook his head. “I'm Joey, a friend of Kai's. I've been working on Cap'n Mac's boat. He sent these to Ramona, and I'm...” His voice died away as Artie called out “Ramona! Get out here! You got a visitor.”

Ramona stepped out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “Visitor? What...” Then her eyes fell on Joey and the wheelbarrow. She smiled in genuine welcome. “Joey! You had a good day with a haul like that.”

“Yeah we did. Captain Mac said to have one of your boys come down for a second load and he's bringin' a third. Oh and Sherry is bringing the spices and Randy is bringing veggies. Also Mike is bringing a keg of ale, Billy is bringing a fruit can, someone else, maybe Jack or Robbie? Is bringing fresh bread. There are about four others but I can't remember their names. Tom? Ellen? Rick?”

Joy and laughter lit her face. “A boil. And don't worry about names and what they'll bring. As long as they come it's enough.” She turned to Artie. “Get the kites down; we won't be having those specials tonight! Change of plans. We're having a Crab Boil beach party. I'll start the bonfire and get the pots ready for boiling. Kai, bring several loads of stuff down to the southern edge of the beach, Amy will show you what and where. I'll also call Gwen and let her know what's up.” Yelling as loud as she could, she called “Amy! Ty! Mark! Brad! Get down here now.”

Her husband was the first one down and onto the patio. “What is it?”

“Crab boil beach party. Consider it a sendoff. You head on down with Ty to get the two other barrows of fish off Mac please. The rest of us will be setting stuff up here.” Seeing the wide-eyed look from her sons and the slight look of anticipation on her husband's face, she made a shooing motion with her hands. “Oh and pick up some grilling fronds will you? And stop at the market and pick up a couple dozen stripers or cats. Might as well do it right.”

Knowing from the past what was going on, remembering the happiness and wanting one such memory with his family before it was scattered, Brad nodded and clapped Ty on the shoulder. “Let’s get going.”

“Amy, go print a few signs directing people who come to the restaurant to go to the beach. Also make a few arrow placards so people can follow the signs. Four should do it.” She turned to look at her son, Mark. “You can go up to the attic and get the blankets. Old brown chest in the corner. You can't miss it. There are about eight blankets in there. We'll spread them on the beach for people to sit on. They have been modified with ties so that they can be staked down.” When the boy turned to leave she warned softly “No funny business or I will spank your ass in front of all of them, child abuse laws or not.” The boy stiffened, whether in affront or irritation at being found out was anyone's guess, but he did stalk off to the attic.

Spying Alma who'd just come out of the kitchen to see what the fuss was, Ramona squealed like a little girl, “Crab boil.”

Alma's face, already a maze of wrinkles, became more wizened as she smiled widely. “Great! I'll run and get a couple of cords of driftwood I’ve got set-up at the back of the house.”

Artie, done with the kites, holding Scapegoat and Kit's leashes, joined the group. “We will go get the wood and bring it down to the south point. We'll use the skid and dune buggy. Kai'll be there to help unload.”

Jou smiled and offered “I can help too.”

Ramona stepped up to that. “You'll do no such thing. You've worked all day to catch our meal. You will take it easy.” She hesitated, and then sniffed delicately. “Well take it easy after you shower and change. Most people won't mind the smell of fish but they will draw the line at bait. You go shower and change, then head back here for a nice drink and some of the best food you'll ever taste.”

Blushing, he nodded. “Yes, Ma'am.” He mumbled and cast Seto a quick glance. He'd wanted some alone time with the tall brunet. They really hadn't had a chance to talk, and Seto's declaration of them being life partners had really upset him. Not that he didn't want to be Seto's life partner, it was just that he didn't want the brunet to feel obligated to a relationship that was probably only going to exist until Seto was strong again, strong enough to realize he truly didn't want an unambitious, holistic healer and wanderer like Jou knew himself to be, in his life. They needed to be honest with each other and other people. Seto was a public figure and the brunet claiming openly that they were life partners could bite him in the ass. Seto would normally know this, but he wasn't thinking straight so Jou could cut him some slack.

Kai caught his look and gave him a tiny smile. They hadn't spoken but they had all the time in the world for greetings. “Joey, would you mind taking the dogs? They've been tied up for most of the day.”

“Sure.” Giving everyone a smile he took the leashes from Artie and knelt to greet the ecstatic Scapegoat and wary Kit with gentle pats on the head and scratches behind their ears. “Let’s leave them to it and go shower and change.” He told the dogs. With a wave he strolled off.

Ramona gave Kai an exasperated look. “I told you I don't mind if you are together. Why didn't you give him a hello hug or something?”

That made Seto jump slightly. It had never occurred to him to hug Jou in greeting. “Huh?”

“You guys are together. He just spent all day working to bring us dinner and you didn't even tell him thanks or...” She blushed slightly, “Look when my hubby has been gone for a while I make sure he knows I miss him. I kiss him first thing just to tell him so.”

“Your husband is gone all week.” Seto pointed out, although he could see her point.

“When we lived together he could have been gone just a few hours and he was the same way. Even after all these years...” She broke off and sighed. “Never mind, it's not my business.” With a shrug she waved him towards the side of the restaurant. “The storage shed out back has four large silvery aluminum trash cans. They are only used for beach parties. Go get them please? They stack together and are lined. You will have to wash them out with the hose. When Mark comes down Amy and you two head out. If you could stay and help Artie and Alma with the wood? I'll be down directly.” Bustling, the older woman hurried away. That was that. He turned and sprinted to the storage shed. They had a lot to do it seemed.

****

Seto looked around in amused admiration. He'd never been to a spur-of-the-moment party much less involved in the organization of one. He hadn't known what to expect, and he was pleasantly surprised. Everything had flowed together smoothly and in less than an hour two bright bonfires lit the beach, ringed by blankets of chattering, laughing people. Large metal pots were just coming to a boil over the fires, and around the edges of the blankets two large, shining trash cans were full of a mix of fruit and alcohol. Seto took a sip from his own large cup and smiled. The taste could probably never be duplicated, but it was the best drink he'd ever had. Fruity, sweet, with the punch of alcohol nicely muted, only coming out when eating the fruit that floated freely in it.

Across the blankets from the fruit punch were several coolers of bottled water, soda, and other non-alcoholic drinks. Chests of ice held fruit, bread, veggies and other assorted sides, condiments, utensils, cups, plates and bowls. Despite the haphazard organization, everything was there... including a mix of music and entertainment provided by the street performers. Discreetly set next between two chests was a commercial water cooler bottle. Inside Seto could see the glint of coins. Donations weren't asked for and nobody was expected to give, but if you could it was obviously appreciated.

Restless despite the entertainment and the tempting smell of good food, Seto paced to the path where more people, tourists and locals, made their way to the beach. Jounouchi should return any moment and he wanted a few minutes to greet him privately. It had disturbed him that he might have been remiss when he'd seen his love earlier.

He had to wait another fifteen minutes before his lover showed up. Unsure of what Jou would accept in such a public area, he leaned forward and brushed his hand over Jou's fingers in a subtle caress.

Jou smiled up at him. “Hey! You didn't have to wait for me here.”

Blue eyes crinkled slightly in a small smile. “I know that. I wanted to.” His breath caught slightly at what Jou was – or rather was not – wearing. “Going swimming?” Painted-on cut off jeans that were barely legal, flip-flops, and smile were wreaking havoc on his heart. Maybe they should go back to the camper...

“Nah. I'm a little sunburned is all. This is all I could find that didn't bug me.” Jounouchi shrugged and moved past him on the path, brushing against him lightly, making his racing heart skip a few beats. Seto hoped his reaction wasn't too obvious.

Clearing his throat slightly he fell in step beside the blond. “Where are the dogs?” It seemed like a good question.

“Too many people here for Kit to be comfortable. They're inside the camper playing with some of the toys.” Taking a deep breath he changed the subject. “Man that smells good. I'm starving.”

Seto grinned and held up his cup. “This is pretty good too.”

“Yeah?” Quick as a wink Jou snitched his cup and downed it in just a few gulps, slurping down the soft fruit as he drank. Grinning, he handed the empty cup back and chuckled “Yer right. Lets go get some more – and some food. Did I tell you I'm starving?”

Seto took his empty cup back and rolled his eyes. “When aren't you? I swear you eat more now than when you were in high school.”

“Nah, about the same. I got a high metabolism so I gotta keep the calories in.” Jostling his lover playfully he teased “Ya eat more than back then. I've seen you eat more in the last week than I ever did in three years of school”

That made Seto blink. “You saw me eat back then? I usually only ate at home around Mokuba.” No need to explain that with his enemies he'd been a bit paranoid about poison and retaliation from his adoptive father's cronies.

“Just a couple times. Saw you drink a can of hot coffee from a vending machine and saw you eat apples a couple times.” He grinned. “It was one of the things that made you so hot to me. You'd like savor every bite, like you was getting' the most out of it, enjoying the flavors to the fullest.” The grin faded and a slight huskiness took over. “I knew you'd be like that with a lover if you decided you needed one.”

Blushing slightly, although from embarrassment or arousal at Jou's blatant words, Seto wasn't sure. He didn't know what to say and was thankfully was saved from having to answer by Ramona calling out “And here he is! Joey, Cap'n Mac was just telling us about your day. You really made prawn sushi?”

"Sashimi! Sushi is the rice!" Laughing, the blond grabbed his hand and towed him towards the large pots of boiling crab and fronds of roasting fish. “Ya never had sashimi? Man are you missin' it. I'ma get a plate and drink then I'll see about makin' some up. I'm sure I saw some prawns in the barrows.”

Captain Mac chuckled and shook his head. “Nah, you sit down. We got plenty. Them prawns are goin onto skewers so...” The grizzled fisherman turned to Alma “Don't just stand there woman! Get the working men some food!”

Alma glared at him for a moment before announcing huffily “Yer my cousin, not my...” Then her voice faded away and she stomped off.

Artie gave him a laughing glance. “Never known how you did that.”

“Never will either. Cousin's know where the bodies are buried.” He gestured for Jou to take a seat. “So sit already. Who's this long drink of water?”

“This is Kai.” He said it simply. They hadn't discussed the life partner issue and now wasn't the time to do so.

“Oh yeah? He the one you talked about? The one you've liked for a long time?” The old man snorted derisively. “If you call six years long. When you been at it forty years or more then tell me about long.”

Jou grinned, used to the crusty exterior. “Yeah, Yeah. Well I ain't an old buzzard like you.”

“Disrespectful pup. I oughtta...”

“Food!” Jou shouted, ignoring the bristling sea captain to take the overloaded plates from Alma.

Kai blinked and dropped next to his lover. “You can't eat all that. I'll help”

Jou glanced up, his brows meeting in a pseudo-frown over laughing golden eyes. “Wanna draw back a nubbin? Touch my plate.”

Ignoring the dire threat, Seto picked up a frond and carefully unwrapped the hot fish inside. “Hmmm I need a fork or chopsticks.”

“Thief!” Then proving he didn't mind at all ordered “Use your fingers.” Unconcerned about manners or anything else, Jou fell on his feast like a starving man.

After a second he followed suit. He'd taken a few bites when Ramona's husband walked over and handed them both cups. Chewing quickly he tried to clear his mouth so he could introduce the man, but the other man just grinned slightly, the tension around his eyes fading slightly “I'm Brad Spiedel, Ramona's husband. You met my family yesterday.” With a casual wave he turned back to his wife and daughter. His sons were nowhere to be seen.

The party was still in full swing, the crab pots only emptied once, with plenty more waiting to go in, when Seto looked away from his lover, currently trying to limbo, and glanced down at Amy as she flopped next to him on the blanket. Silently he lifted an eyebrow in query.

She grinned at his expression, perfectly readable in the flickering bonfire light. “Having fun?”

“Yes.” His glance returned to his lover, now waiting in line to limbo again.

“He's funny.” She shrugged. “And nice I guess.”

“You forgot beautiful.” It was true, and Seto was proud of his lover, not to mention frankly turned on by the way he moved and twisted his body. Joey was very flexible, something he wanted to put to good use.

Knowing she was being ignored and not liking it a bit, she snipped “Take a picture, it lasts longer.”

Instead of giving her a set-down that she knew she likely deserved, the genius brunet nodded “I would love to. I don't have a camera, but if I did...” He shrugged slightly.

That made her sit up a bit. Here was something she could do to repay him, plus get some alone time with him. She freely admitted to admiring Kaiba Seto, not just the waiter who'd helped them out, but the genius businessman as well. She knew she was too young for him and that he was involved with Joey, but time would take care of both of those issues – hopefully. “You want a camera? I got an old one that my mom bought me last year. It works okay, but it takes film and has all these lenses and stuff. I wanted a digital camera.”

“I can't take your ...”

“Mom said since I didn't use it she was going to sell it at a yard sale this summer. So it's no big deal.” Standing she smiled puckishly, reminding him of a young Mokuba. Heart catching with a mix of fondness for his brother and sadness at the way things were between them now, he stood up and nodded “Okay, but only if your mom agrees first.”

“No problem.” She yelled out “Hey mom! Kai likes to take pictures; can I give him my old camera?”

Without glancing up from her assessment of the Limbo dancers, she called back, “Yeah, go get it. It's in that junk box under the stairs.”

“See.” Amy gave him a smug look. “Let's go.” Grabbing his arm she tugged him towards the restaurant-cum-home.

While they walked she asked about what was uppermost in her mind. “You think she'll really do it? Split the boys up?”

“Seems like it.” He answered noncommittally.

“Dad'll talk her out of it.” Amy shrugged fatalistically. “He always does. They'll work out a 'compromise' that gives the jerks exactly what they want in the end. I see it all the time.” Shaking her head she sighed “It's already started. Dad's mooning all over her, being lovey-dovey. She's a fool for that kind of stuff.”

“Hnn... Your mother seems like a smart woman. I'm sure she'll do what's best.” This was not a conversation Seto wanted to be having.

“She's like Joey is with you. One look and she caves.” She glanced at him curiously “I kinda thought that would bore you. It would me.”

“My relationship with Joey is not your concern, but you are wrong. Joey doesn't 'cave' at a look. He is one of the strongest men I know.” He corrected firmly.

The girl laughed as if he'd said the funniest thing is the world. “Yeah right! Kai, he came in last night so tired he could hardly stand. He'd been hauling nets that weighed over a hundred and fifty pounds all day yesterday, and the pots were about forty each, empty. Plus doing the lines and cutting the bait. Anyone who wasn't a complete push-over for you would have told you to get bent when you volunteered him to work at the restaurant. He did help but not 'cause he wanted to be nice to us, but because he wanted to do it for you. And tonight! I'll bet all he wanted to do was have a quiet crab boil and some rest because he's probably still tired from yesterday and did an even harder day today. Yeah, he's gone on you, and you didn't even have to ask.” She turned to stare up at him as he came to a sudden stop. “What's wrong?”

“I... nothing.” Sure Seto knew Jou had worked hard, but for some reason the blond's warmth and vibrant personality hid the fact that he was exhausted. He must be, because Amy was right, just listening to Jou's day made his muscles ache with sympathy. “Let's get the camera and head back.”

“Yeah, you wait out here. The boys are in their room, grounded because of what they did to Alma and Artie. If you come in they'll probably get nasty.” With a quick turn she raced the last few yards to the restaurant and dashed inside.

She was gone less than five minutes and when she returned she was breathing hard, having obviously run both ways. “Here you go.” She held it out triumphantly. It was an old leather case about the size of a football. Seto could see several small pockets closed with zippers and ties. A long shoulder strap made for ease of carrying. He reached for it eagerly. Of course he recognized the distinctive logo. A Canon EOS. He'd considered buying one for himself a few years ago only to talk himself out of it, telling himself that the world was moving to digital, there was no need for a film camera any longer.

“I... Are you sure?” He asked even as his hands closed around the worn case.

“Yeah. I don't use it. It works really good, even has batteries and film in it, but I wanted a digital.”

“The cost? I can pay...”

“Don't be stupid. Mom bought it at a yard sale for a couple bucks. You've helped us enough that a two dollar yard-sale special is the least we can do.” She grabbed his arm and tugged him around. “Let’s go! There is a flash and a night lens in there. If we hurry you might be able to catch Joey still doing the limbo.” She dashed off, dragging him behind.

Seto chuckled and allowed himself to be towed, stretching his long legs to keep up. The nostalgic pang returned as he was reminded again of his little brother.

The party was still going on, just as loud, possibly louder. The limbo had reached knee level, but Joey wasn't dancing. Instead Seto found him curled on their blanket, arms pillowing his head, fast asleep. With an arrow of remorse piercing his heart, he knelt down and gently brushed the tumbled blond hair back. “Hey Jounouchi, lets go back to the camper.”

The blond woke up instantly. “Huh?” Then he saw Seto hovering over him. “Oh hey. Where'dya get to?”

“Amy and Ramona gave me a camera. I went with Amy to pick it up.”

“Camera huh? You like to take pictures?” He squinted curiously at the leather case, obviously still slightly groggy.

“Yes, I do. But that's not important. Let's go back to the camper. You're exhausted.”

Jou sat up quickly, stretching briskly. “Nyam, just a little power nap. You ain't danced yet and you barely ate anything. Lets...”

“I ate more than enough.” Seto thought fast. What Amy said was true. Jou really cared more about him having a good time then getting the rest he needed. One part of him wanted to smack the blond, but another, long ignored and neglected part, rejoiced in knowing that his lover cared that much about him. Not that he'd ever take advantage, but it made him glow inside. He'd examine that feeling later. Right now he had to take care of Jou. Allowing his perfect posture to slump he leaned forward and whispered “Please can we go? I'm tired and I want to rest but...” He glanced furtively over at the party “I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.”

Jou blinked up at him for a second, assessing him, then nodded slowly “Yeah, okay sounds good.” He staggered to his feet and called out “Yo! Everyone! It's been great, but it's time for the great fisherman to hit his rack. We're heading out tomorrow after lunch so...” He waved in a wide arc. “G'night everyone.”

Swaying slightly, whether through the results of alcohol or exhaustion, nobody knew, the blond turned towards the path. Seto, after a quick wave to the mass of people, wrapped his arm around Jou's waist to steady him, and together the staggered down the path.

Scapegoat was ecstatic to see them and Kit simply glared at them from beneath the small table. Seto took thirty seconds to pet his little friend. In that time Jou had simply dropped his jean cutoffs and crawled naked into the bottom bunk, sprawling out limply.

Giving his lover a concerned glance, he checked the door and window, making sure the locks were secure and the screens were in place, before pulling down the blind. With luck they would both sleep late. Seeing how Jou took up every available inch of space on his bunk, Seto crawled into the top bunk and settled down. He didn't expect to fall asleep right away, but his eyelids fell closed within seconds.

He was dreaming, he knew he was, yet it felt so real. He was soaring high above the California coast. Flying just to the right of him was a creature he recognized instantly, his heron, and on his left, his great snow goose. It felt right that he soared between them, swooping and diving before ascending to heights that would make even his blue-eyes white dragon dizzy. He felt so free, so alive; better than he had in... Ever. No chains bound him, no weights dragged him down. He was free, beautifully free.

His flight continued for time uncounted as he explored the world and everything in it. Then, unexpectedly, a tiny creature, a hummingbird, appeared beside him, keeping pace with his dizzying speed and acrobatics. Happiness at the new friend made him throw back his head and laugh in sheer joy. They flew together for a time until, inexplicably, the hummingbird slowed, fell behind him. Missing his little friend, he turned to see where the small creature had gone. For an instant his breath caught and his flight stalled. The most beautiful creature he'd ever seen flew behind him with his new friend fluttering around him.

Determined, he caught his free fall and zoomed straight toward the shimmering bird. As he approached bright intelligent eyes the color of polished gold watched him with an expression of joy and pain. Completely unreserved because he knew, absolutely knew, that this golden eagle would never harm him. The caring and love in the familiar gaze gave him the confidence to fly close, brush along the softer than-down-feathers. The golden bird returned the caresses tenderly before, with a challenging cry, sped forward in a complicated series of loops and dives that dared him to follow. With a trumpeting laugh, Seto hurtled himself forward into the wide blue, chasing the elusive gold eagle.

It could have been seconds or decades that they flew together. Sometimes side-by-side, sometimes one leading and one following, and sometimes just by keeping each other in sight, but there was no doubt in Seto's mind that they were together. The magnificent creature was his.

They were flying low, enjoying the look and feel of the land and each other when the hummingbird suddenly let out a shrill cry, one echoed by the heron and a deep call from the goose. It was so sudden, so jarring, that it brought Seto out of his dream with an abruptness that had him falling out of the top bunk. Instead of crashing painfully to the floor, he landed on something warm and decidedly softer than the floor, although still firm.

“Ooof, fuck! What a wake up. What the hell is going on? My dream was so strange but it woke me!” Seto exclaimed.

Jounouchi was already in motion though, sliding on his cut offs and flip flops. “Strange? I'd call it great but...” Then Jou broke off and started to curse. “Fucking goddamn motherfucker I knew it!.” He scooped up the dogs and threw open the door. Eerie dancing light flooded the small camper. “Shit Seto take the dogs and hold on tight. I gotta move the camper now.” Without another word beyond a few swear words, Jou dashed out, slamming the door behind him.

In a few seconds the car engine purred to life, and just as Seto realized what was happening the camper started to move. He fell back on the lower bunk, clutching the dogs tightly to his chest. He didn't know what was going on but light filtering into the camper was weird, dancing and moving in a way that was hauntingly familiar. As soon as the idea struck he turned and opened the blinds. He couldn't control his gasp of dismay. The campground was alight with a strange flickering glow. Then he shook his head. No, not lights. Flames. There was a fire at the campground.

Seto put the dogs down and slid on his shoes. As soon as the camper quit moving he jumped out and closed the door behind him. “What the hell?”

A hard plastic square hit him in the chest. Automatically he caught it. “Seto use the phone and dial nine-one-one. I'm goin' back to get people up and out of there.” Jou ran back towards the campground.

Like hell he'd wait there. What was he some kind of wimp? Dialing as he went, he made the connection, gave the information, and then ran for the nearest camper. Jou was already there, rousing the owners. Seto took the next, pounding on the door. There were ten campers total. Jou and Seto managed to get to all but the last one, getting the owners to move them before they could become engulfed.

The tire of the last camper ignited just as they reached it. By mutual agreement, the broke in the door. The small area was rapidly filling with smoke and they didn't waste time. They dropped to the floor and crawled back to where they knew the occupants would be. Seto picked up the woman and slid her on his back; Jou did the same for man. Both victims were unconscious with labored breathing. Drawing deep breaths from as low as they could get, Jou and Seto crawled out as rapidly as they could.

As they reached the door they hand walked down the steps, breathing harshly, coughing from the smoke, the entire back of the camper lit up. The heat was intense, and even though Seto was in several feet away, he could feel his skin blistering. He didn't want to think about what Jou was going through even closer.

Several fire and rescue personnel rushed to them, taking their burdens and hauling them to safety. A paramedic crew was waiting with oxygen masks and soothing towels to cool their skin. Seto noticed that Jounouchi refused treatment until he saw Seto was being cared for. It wasn't obvious, but it was distinctly there. Again that warmth flooded him even as he fought the urge to smack the blond upside the head for stupidity. The couple they'd rescued were loaded into ambulances that wailed off into the night.

Seto was surprised to find himself separated from Jounouchi and cornered by a very grumpy, obviously pissed-to-be-awake, uniformed man. There were no courtesies at all beyond the asking of his name, which Seto answered automatically. The officer's response to his name was a snarled “What the hell happened?”

He could sympathize with the man even while he glowered at him. “I woke up from a dream-turned-nightmare and accidentally woke my friend up. I was confused by the strange light but he recognized it was a fire and ran to move our car and camper to safety. As soon as we were safe I called nine-one-one and we both ran to the other campers waking everyone up. The last camper we were too late so we went in and got them out.” He kept it to the point. He didn't give courtesy where none was accorded.

“That's it? Just a couple of Samaritans huh?” The cop was deliberately disbelieving. The stenciled gas cans left at the place where the fire had obviously started told him it was arson. Strangers in town were more suspect than locals. "Just happened to have a nightmare and woke up?" A distinct sneer twisted the cops' lips.

“Hnnn, not really. I wouldn't have bothered if Jounouchi hadn't run back.” It wasn't true of course, but this cop was making him feel defensive and angry. His automatic response was to don his cold, ruthless mask. “I've told you what happened. If you have more questions speak to my lawyers.” With a gimlet-eyed stare he dared the idiot officer to attempt to speak to him again.

The cop's eyes widened slightly before his training kicked in. He tried to restore a cooperative atmosphere with a practiced show of humor. Might as well try to keep this on a friendly footing, even if all he wanted was to cuff the arrogant asshole. More flies with honey and all that crap. “Ah man I pissed you off. Let's start again. I'm Trooper Tulman. Nice to meet you Mister Kaiba.” The placating smile deepened. “Your friend, Mister Wheeler, warned me not to push you too hard or I'd find myself dealing with a real prima donna.”

That caught Seto off guard. He hadn't seen Jou since they'd been separated for treatment. He glared harder and spun on his heel stalking away to find his lover. He wanted to tell him just what he thought of being left behind while Jou went to rescue people, and now he had 'prima donna' to discuss. Seto had been nothing but accommodating on this trip and no way was Jou going to get away with labelling him a diva or the like..

The officer mumbled a curse word under his breath and hurried after him. “Okay! Sorry! I took my temper out on you. Will you answer just a few more questions?”

Seto ignored the man and continued to search for Jounouchi in the mass of people milling around the now contained fire. He had nothing to say to the useless person. If the jerk officer wanted to speak to him he could do so through his lawyers. He'd already said so once hadn't he? Seto detested repeating himself.

Trooper Tulman was rapidly losing professional cool. This guy was a real hard ass, ignoring him like he wasn't even there. Most people had some kind of respect or fear for the law but this guy showed neither.

Too late he realized he should have listened when he was warned. The blond who’d asked if he could check on his dogs had actually spun around and told him what to expect when he'd said he was going to speak to the other 'hero.'

Joey Wheeler had seen his bad temper at being woken at three in the morning and tried to head off trouble. “Don't piss off the tall brunet guy, Seto Kaiba, or you’re gonna have a real problem getting his statement. He pays a ba-zillion people to handle shit for him so he ain't gonna put up with attitude even from a cop. He almost barbecued his ass rescuing people and he's gonna be in a bad mood.”

That hadn't given the trooper too much concern at the time but now the cop wished he had listened. Ruefully he shook his head. Seto Kaiba was a world famous personality, recognized in households around the globe but he was still subject to the same laws as anyone. Money didn't talk in his town but the guy's attitude and sheer presence, even filthy and bedraggled, did affect things. That and his mention of lawyers.

He had doubted the guy was actually Seto Kaiba and ignored the warning. What the fuck was a guy like that doing in a camper in Half-Moon Bay? His apprehension combined with tiredness from the earlier party, added to the obvious arson of the fire made him curt to a person he recognized belatedly he should have been polite to. A quick thorough look made him sigh. The soot-smudged brunet was the recently missing, now found, fourth richest man on earth. Just as the blond had warned, Seto Kaiba was not cooperating and it was the trooper's own damn fault. He would kick his own ass if he could. Seeing the tall man moving away, obviously searching for something, he scurried after him.

“Mister Kaiba, wait up! I have a few more questions.” He was, of course, ignored. He had a feeling he would really have to speak to a team of lawyers to get his questions answered. He was about to give up when he saw his quarry stop abruptly. Lengthening his stride he hurried to reach the other man before he changed his mind.

As he neared Kaiba he realized that the brunet hadn't stopped for him. Instead he was staring intently at Joey Wheeler, who was making his way through the crowd towards them. He was still a few feet from Kaiba when the blond reached his friend.

As Kaiba started to speak, the trooper wished he knew Japanese because whatever the brunet was saying, it sure sounded like he was furious.

“What the hell did you think you were doing running into a fire to play hero?” Seto stormed as soon as Jou was in earshot. He deliberately dropped into their native language because of all the people around.

“Kinda obvious.” Jou mumbled as he watched his lover keenly. Seto was pissed but there was more going on. “What's got your panties in a knot?”

For a second the world hazed red around the edges and anger poured through him. Calling on his inner strength he clenched his fists and snarled. “You threw me the phone and expected me to 'stay' like some kind of coward. How dare you treat me as less than a man?”

Jou concentrated for a moment then shook his head slightly, admitting softly, “I didn't expect you to stay. I expected you to help. I threw you the phone so you would have to call. It would buy me a few seconds to get ahead of you so I was first in. Your legs are longer and you run faster so I needed a head start.”

“First in?! Why would you...” He trailed off as he realized it was more of Jou taking care of him. “Oh! You...” His fists uncurled and all but a small spark of his anger died.

Jounouchi smiled slightly. “You're mine now remember? I love you and...”

“Idiot.” But tears of happiness gleamed in his blue eyes. Nobody had cared for him in so long, cared enough to shield him, to care for and protect him. It was vaguely annoying but it still made him glow with warmth. He was genuinely loved.

Jounouchi reached out and gently pulled him into a tender hug, careful of the blisters and raw skin. Seto returned the embrace with arms that clung desperately to the heat and warmth offered so freely. It was a strangely tender moment. One the officer was hesitant to interrupt. He was glad when a woman he recognized as Ramona Spiedel coughed from behind the embracing men.

Joey stepped back and turned to face her, but kept his arm around Seto, although both of Kaiba's arms dropped to his side as he spoke to the woman. “Ramona.”

“Everything okay? I just got here.” Her gaze was flitting over the burned camper, grounds and shower facilities.

“Couple on the end had to go to the hospital. Don't know how they are, but they were unconscious when they rode away.” Joey elaborated.

“Are you guys...” She broke off as her daughter burst into their group.

“Kai! Kai!” Anxiously she grabbed his arm. “Are you okay?” Urgently she tugged him away from Jou and inspected him. “You're not. You have blisters all over and your skin is red.”

“Minor annoyances.” Seto gave her an indulgent look. She was so very like Mokuba it made his heart twist. “I'm fine. We got our camper and car out without any problems.”

She ignored the reassurance and turned to her mother urgently “Mom, they need to shower and rest. Can they come park at our place? Use our shower and stuff?”

Ramona nodded and sent them both warm looks. “Of course you are both welcome.”

Gratefully, Joey nodded. “Thanks a lot.” Seto added a soft thanks as well.

The officer stepped forward to forestall the tall brunet and get his answers when Seto Kaiba turned and met his gaze head on. “Trooper Tulman, I've told you to contact my lawyers. I will not speak to you. Do not attempt to violate my rights further.” Without another word to him, indeed the CEO turned from the law man and held out his arm to Amy Spiedel. “Show me to the showers please?”

Amy's giggles floated back to the remaining group as the two strolled away. Joey sighed and shook his head at the state trooper. “Told you not to piss him off.” Offering his arm to Ramona, he grinned winningly at the older woman, making her blush. “Don't suppose you got any crab left do ya?”

Ramona's laughter floated back to the officer as he stood dumbly watching them go. He was still standing there when they strolled out of sight. His commander walked up to him and asked “Did you get the heroes's statements?”

“Such as they are. I pissed off Seto Kaiba and he demanded I speak to his lawyer.” No point in hiding it. Pissing off someone with the wealth and status of Seto Kaiba was akin to pissing off a movie star but with political repercussions. He knew this could and probably would affect his career.

His ranking officer let out a soundless whistle. “Man you stepped in it. You try to apologize?”

“Of course. He just walked away. The asshole acted like I wasn't even here. I was tempted to cuff him but...”

“Not worth it. Where did he go? I'll go smooth his feathers.” It wasn't something he enjoyed but he knew he would do it. Schmoozing came with the territory when a man moved up into administration.

“He went off with the Amy and Ramona Spiedel. Seemed really friendly.”

The older man grunted “Shit I have to talk to them anyway. A witness says he thought he saw one of the boys running away from the area about the time the fire started. This could get ugly fast because Ramona used to work for Kaiba's company so they're probably old friends. You really fucked up.” Without another word he spun and strode off towards the Kite and the Heron.

Ramona and Joey caught up with Seto and Amy as they reached the restaurant. Amy pushed the door open and ushered them in. “Hey Dad, it was the campgrounds on fire.” She yelled before sputtering to a stop. Her father, Mark and Ty were sitting at the prep table. “Oh hey! I thought you guys would be upstairs. When I left you were saying you were going up to get Mark and Ty was trying to get you to let him sleep.” She confided “Mark sleeps like the dead.”

Seto's sharp gaze flicked over the boys, lingering on their faces for a moment. “And wearing his makeup too.” He commented coolly, surprised to see both boys pale instead of one of them flush with embarrassment.

“What are you talking about?” Brad Spiedel asked, confused.

“Mark is wearing concealer on his scar. It’s how I've been able to distinguish one from the other.” Seto explained.

“Why...” He broke off to examine his sons carefully. Sure enough the scar was concealed. Uncertainly he asked “Mark? Ty?” He suddenly wasn't sure which was which. Ten minutes ago he would have said who without a doubt but... “Why are you trying to look like Ty?” He asked the one he thought was Mark.

The other boy rubbed his brow, wiping away the concealer. “It was just a joke. We wanted to see if you guys could tell us apart without the scar.”

A knock at the door made everyone turn to the door. Ramona answered, her eyes widening to find a state trooper on her doorstep. “Michael! Is there something wrong?”

“Well, I need to speak to your guest for a few moments, and then I need to talk to you and your husband.” He said respectfully. “May I come in?”

Confused she stepped back and motioned him in. “Sure. Michael, this is Joey Wheeler and Kai...”

“Seto Kaiba. I know already.” The officer smiled and held out his hand. He was confused by the way Ramona gasped and took a step back and the atmosphere thickened.

Seto took command immediately. “I've already spoken to the other officer. I have no further statements to make unless it's through my attorney.” His tone and expression were pure ice and pride. The commander knew he'd get nowhere.

Unexpectedly he got help from the blond 'hero.' “C'mon Seto, I know you’re tired but give the guy a break. He just needs to get the paperwork done. If we don't get it done we won't be able to leave tomorrow- today.” Coaxingly the blond smiled into the frigid eyes. Michael was surprised the man didn't turn into an icicle from the arctic chill of deep blue eyes..

“I am not tired. I am pissed off at the rudeness of the other officer. We had just saved several people from being burned to death, narrowly missing dying ourselves and that person acted as if we were at fault somehow.” It still galled him that the other officer had dared to insinuate such a base, stupid thing.

“Sir, Mister Kaiba, I apologize. The other officer was following procedure. The first person on a scene, to report a scene, especially an arson scene, is automatically suspect. We have a witness who saw someone running away from the scene about the time it started, you are completely clear.”

Seto sneered at the man. “Fine, I'll say it again. I woke from a dream and accidentally woke Joey. He recognized the light in the camper as fire and ran outside, moving our car and camper. Then I called emergency services and together we ran to get the other campers out.”

“Okay, did you see anyone running around who shouldn't have been there? See anyone running from the scene?”

“No. I was actually in the camper when Joey moved it. The fire was already spreading through the shower area when I called emergency.”

“So you didn't see anyone running away.”

“I've already said no.” He nodded sharply “I need to shower. Amy will you show me where I can wash the smell of smoke and ashes off?”

“Sure K... Seto.” Giving everyone a small grin, she led the way upstairs.

Joey took a deep breath, wrinkling his nose slightly at the smell of burning and gasoline. “Whoo I'm ripe too. Maybe I should go outside and air out so I don't stink the place up.”

Ramona shook her head at him like he was one of her kids. “Don't be stupid. Just sit here and let me get you some ice water. Your voice is very raspy.”

“Any hope for some crab?” He teased.

"I have some classic Boston clam chowder. Creamy and smooth, perfect for your throat.” She bustled to the large commercial refrigerator. “Anyone else want something?”

There was a murmur of 'no' around the room, with only her husband saying 'yeah, sounds good.'

While Ramona bustled at the stove Brad turned to Michael. “You said you needed to speak to our guest and us. What else did you need?”

“Mmm... Ramona I saw you at the fire, you and little Amy. Were your boys there too? I didn't see them.” He asked carefully. This was very crucial.

She answered absently “They were home with Brad. We were having a family talk about the future. Brad is taking Mark to San Francisco and Ty is going to stay with his uncle in Montana. Brad can use the company when he's in the city and Ty is going to help with the ranch. With the drought out there my brother can use all the help he can get.”

The trooper pursed his lips “I see.” And he did. But his compassion for the family couldn't interfere with his duty. “So you both were here?” He switched his gaze to the boys.

Brad stepped in front of his sons. “Yes, they were both with me sitting right here for over an hour before we heard the sirens. Why are you asking?”

“Well Brad, if you say it then I'll believe you, but I have a witness who swears he saw a boy matching your son's description running away from the camp just a few minutes before the nine one one call.”

“My son's? Both of them?” Incredulous he stared at his old friend.

“No just one.” He scratched his neck and sighed. “He saw a boy about seventeen running away and he swears he saw him turn down this street.”

“Who is accusing my son – and which of my sons?”

That made the man shift uncomfortably. “Well it was a tourist. Someone who'd fallen asleep at the beach.”

“Someone who was shitfaced claims to have seen a boy of about seventeen running away from the fire. You immediately come here with bullshit like this?”

“Brad, your boys are troublemakers. It...”

“Get out old friend. My boys would never do this and it shows what kind of friend you are that you come here just because some drunk hallucinated a running boy turning onto this street.” Brad was went from incredulous to outraged in just a few heartbeats. “And don't come back unless you have evidence!” Anger in every stiff line of his posture, Brad crossed the room and threw the door open. “Get out!”

Michael sighed and walked out. He knew that he had likely lost one of his oldest friendships but he had to do his duty. And his regret wouldn't stop him from arresting the man-boys who'd stood there watching him with sly, smug eyes.

Ramona, who'd been watching her husband and sons with wide eyes, slowly place the bowls of soup in front of her husband and Joey. Uncertain of what to say she moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. “Brad...”

He looked at her with fierce eyes. “Our boys weren't involved.”

Again she wet her lips. “I... Are you sure?”

“Of course I am. They were here with me!” He practically shouted at her. Ramona caught the smug look that passed between the boys.

“I...”

“Dad wait.” Amy came to the top of the stairs. “Are you sure? Remember Mark was wearing concealer. Did you see both of them together before the fire started? How long after?”

There was a moment when confusion knit his brow, then it cleared. “Of course I did. Concealer or not I know my sons.”

Amy stared at him for a moment then sighed and shook her head. “Then why do Ty's jeans stink like gasoline? Why are there matches in the pocket? He put them in the hamper and when I got fresh towels and washcloths the bathroom smelled like a gas station. I pulled them out and turned on the vent but...”

Ramona saw the sheer panic and rage contort her son's face and for the first time genuinely feared her sons, feared for her daughter. “Toss them down to me Amy.” She ordered softly, stepping between the stairs and her sons. She wouldn't put it past them to charge the girl.

Amy tossed the wadded up jeans down to her mother. “The matchbook is in the front pocket. I didn't touch it, just saw it sticking out.”

The smell of gasoline and a hint of smoke overrode the pleasant smell of clam chowder mixing with Jou's pungent smoky smell. Ramona turned and held the jeans out to her husband. The dark, oily spots of gasoline stood out against the faded material in sharp relief. “Brad did you see both of them at the same time?”

Brad took the jeans slowly, staring at the damning evidence with eyes widening with pain and disbelief. “Ty? Mark?” He questioned softly.

Mark laughed nervously “It's not what you think. We were here with you! That must have happened earlier. It...” But the three of them had been together all day except for when Brad had gone to the beach party and the boys had stayed home. And as he thought about it, he couldn't say for certain he'd seen them both before the fire started. In fact, Ty had argued about going upstairs and waking Mark. Buying time? Brad didn't know but he didn't like the path his mind was taking.

With a heartbroken sigh he squared his shoulders and faced his sons. Time to get to the bottom of this. “First, last, and only chance to come clean. If you lie about this we'll throw you out with the clothes on your back.” With eyes hard and empty with betrayal and pain. “You started the fire. I want to know what the fuck you were thinking?”

Ty opened his mouth to say something, but Mark beat him to it. “You know we were here.”

“I know one of you was here. The other was starting the fire.” He corrected flatly. “I...” He held out a hand to his wife. “We want to know what the fuck you were thinking. People could have been killed.”

“People were hurt. What were you thinking? If Kai and Joey hadn't...” Ramona blinked and trailed off. “Kai and Joey were staying at the camp...” She swallowed back the nausea suddenly rising in her throat. “You wanted to hurt them because you blame them for me sending you both away.”

Joey stood suddenly, scraping his chair back noisily, reminding them that he was still in the room. Everyone looked at him with varying degrees of shock. Joey rolled his head in a circle, cracking his neck loudly. He glared at the boys for a moment, seeing past the youth to the corruption beneath. “Yeah, that's sounding right. See I didn't tell the cop everything I know. Was going to talk to Seto about it first. I was awake before Seto. The dogs barking woke me from a fantastic dream. I looked out the window to see what was upsetting them and I saw your kid, dunno which, but he was wearing jeans and a dark shirt, standing beside the showers. He was holding something in his hand. I saw it spark so I guess it was matches. It sparked twice so I guess he lit two and tossed them on the ground and it burst into flames. That's when Seto woke up. I was too worried about getting everyone to safety to talk about it then and there.” He gave Brad and Ramona a solemn look. “I didn't say anything to the cops because... well I was a kid in trouble once.”

“You're a liar.” One of the boy's yelled. “We were here. You're a lying fag. You just wanted to butt fuck me and are mad that I turned you down.” He was still screaming invectives when his father pulled out the pack of matches and flipped it open. Two torn stubs attested that two matches had been used.

In a move so fast it blurred, Brad – their supporter and champion – swung out and backhanded the screaming teen. There was a horrible crack, then thud as he hit the ground. White with fury the betrayed father ground out harshly “You are the liar. More, you are a spoiled little shit who blames everyone but himself for his troubles. You are just like your uncles. You deliberately tried to hurt people you were pissed at and you didn't care about the others who got hurt as well.”

Ty, in the process of lifting his brother to his feet, denied fiercely “That was an accident. We didn't mean for anyone else to get hurt but the fags. They ruined everything. We had a plan that would have got us home. All we want is to go home.”

“You were home.” Ramona cried softly. “This is home now. You didn't even give it a chance.”

“Fuck this place. We hate it here and want to go back to L.A.” Mark hurled back, tears pouring down his face from the pain of his father's blow, but rage crackling like a nimbus around him.

Seto, now clean, but wearing the smoky clothes from earlier observed from the top of the stairs. “If those people die you will both go to jail for murder. As it is you can be prosecuted for arson and destruction of private property not to mention conspiracy to commit murder.”

“Fuck you. This ain’t your business.”

“No thanks, murderous schoolboys aren't to my taste.” He sneered. “And on the contrary it is very much my business. I am one of the people you attempted to murder. I have a lot to live for and...” His eyes glinted with a look of absolute ferocity. “It was my lover you tried to kill. For that alone I would see you rot in prison.” His lips took on a disdainful curve nobody mistook for a smile. “Perhaps there you will learn to appreciate 'fags.' You'll both make pretty bitches.” His voice cold enough to form icicles. “Joey, you will have to shower elsewhere. Perhaps the police will have a shower at the station.”

Ramona gasped and reached out to grab his arm as he strode past. Giving her a look that froze her to the core, cementing in her mind once and for all that the tall, shy, helpful man who'd worked with her so easily was truly Seto Kaiba, he shook her off and continued through the group.

These were her sons. Ramona knew that she had to do something. “Please. Kai – Mister Kaiba. Please let us deal with this. Let us...”

“Like you did when they were trying to kill seagulls? Abusing and neglecting their family?” Cutting coldness and relentless ice. Not even a hint of bending in his attitude showed through.

Recognizing the futility she let her hand fall to her side. “I...”

Brad drew her back into his arms and stared at the brunet with assessing eyes. “You're a businessman. Can't we make a deal?” What his boys had done was horrible, but they were his sons. He had to protect them.

Seto turned to look at the desperate man. “A deal? You think that I would 'deal' when it comes to my lover's life? The lives of myself and others? What do you think you could possibly offer that is worth those things?”

Brad swallowed hard. He hadn't thought of it like that. His sons were screwed up. He shut his mouth and watched silently as the tall brunet took the blond's arm and pulled him toward the door. Amy dashed forward, grabbing his other arm. With eyes pleading for something, anything, she begged “Kai... Seto... Please, won't you please... can't you... fix this?”

For an instant the icy gaze pinned the girl, then inexplicably softened and a gentle hand caressed Amy's hair in a soothing gesture. They had no way of knowing that the girl had touched the part of him that loved his brother to the point of doing anything for him. Images of his brother superimposed over the girl's pleading face. With a heavy sigh he nodded slowly. “All right. I...” He blinked and the images faded. “I can't do anything about what's happened Amy. But it will go better for your brothers, for your family, if they turn themselves in. We will hold off going to the police for four hours or until we hear that the injured people die. At that point we will have no choice. They have until that time to take responsibility. If they run – If your father and mother send them away – we will go to the police immediately.”

“But can't you...” She started to plead again.

He shook his head slowly, “They have to take responsibility. They hurt people and caused a lot of damage. It... They brought this on themselves.” He dipped his head slightly, and turned away. “Ja ne.” He said softly as he tugged Jounouchi from the room.

They were almost back to the crowd milling around the burned campground when Seto stopped abruptly. “Well?”

“Well what?” Jounouchi wasn't sure what was going through Seto's mind but he was sure it was complicated. He frankly didn't feel up to dealing with it. He was exhausted, both mentally and physically.

“Are you going to tell me I did the wrong thing? Right thing? What?” Seto was agitated and it showed. He normally didn't second guess himself like this.

“I think you did the only thing possible. I also think you did good getting out of there when you did. Those kids needed a beating. They were trying to hurt us and didn't care who they hurt to do it.”

“Kill not hurt.” Seto corrected. “You hurt with glass outside the steps or something non-lethal. Fire is lethal and they know it.” He sighed and leaned his head back to look at the stars. “They were trying to kill sea gulls and pelicans, and if we asked around I'd bet there have been quite a few pets gone missing. Baby serial killers.”

“Ain't that a bit extreme? I mean...”

“I've seen it before, that kind of madness. It was in my step-father's eyes. He enjoyed destroying people. They have just a touch of it in them. Perhaps it's reversible, perhaps not. But I won't stand by and ...”

“I understand.” Jou whispered softly. Seto knew about monsters because he'd lived with one. Of course he would react harshly to being the target of two budding sociopaths. “And I agree with ya. They need to take responsibility for what they did. You gave them time to 'fess up, so now it's up to them.” He sighed and shook his head hair out of his eyes, lifting his hand to push it further back.

Seto caught the tremor in his hand. “You're exhausted. Let's get back to the camper. You rest; I'll take care of the pups and...” He broke off as Jou suddenly sprinted off. “Jou what is...”

“I left 'em in the camper. Their gonna be...” Jou didn't need to elaborate. Both pups were bound to be upset with all the sirens, noise and commotion. At the best hysterical and at the worst destructive. He sprinted after the running blond.

Thanks to having to stop to unlock the door, Seto entered directly behind Jou. They'd both envisioned the worst, with the cots destroyed, the carpet shredded, and the dogs hysterical. What they found was Scapegoat huddled in a ball under the cot and Kit, teeth bared in a snarl reminiscent of her mother, standing protectively in front of him.

“Hey Seto close the door will ya? They might bolt.” Jou didn't make the mistake of reaching for the dogs.

“Got it.” The door swung shut and instantly Scapegoat bolted from behind Kit and literally climbed up Seto's legs, ignoring the bare skin and using his claws as hooks. Seto after a quick wince scooped the dog off his thigh and cradled him close, soothing him gently. Kit stared for a moment, then in a surprise move, bolted to Jou, jumping high enough that his quick grab saved his upper thighs from severe scratches.

Moving as fast as he could, Jou folded the table and bench down and out of the way, pulled the mats and blankets off the cots and folded the cots away, opening the cramped space in the camper to it's largest capacity. Using his free hand and foot he scooted the mats together and nudged the pillows into place.

“What are you doing?” Seto was confused.

“They are too upset to be on the cots and they need us to reassure 'em. We can lay on the floor with them between us. I'm too beat to stay up holding a dog.” That reminded Seto of the tremor of exhaustion he'd seen in Jou's hand.

Hoping his love took the hint he dropped onto the makeshift bed and put Scapegoat down. Jou was a right beside him as he sank down, placing Kit between them, but careful to keep his hand on the half-tame pup. The dogs stayed tense, growling and grumbling for several minutes, but the soothing closeness of warm bodies pressed together had a rapid effect on Jou. In moments he was sound asleep.

Seto watched as sleep claimed his lover, his heart smiling at the smudged cheeks and peaceful expression. He'd been so tired he hadn't even bothered to wash. Figures Jou would be more concerned about the dogs than himself. Fleetingly he thought his lover needed someone to look after him, protect him from giving too much of himself. As quickly as the thought came he dismissed it. Jou was strong and more than capable of looking after himself and anyone else.

Relishing the ability to do so, he twined his long legs with Jou's and scooted close enough to nestle his head into the crook of the sleeping man's neck, totally encircling the still tense pups. In just a few moments they were all sound asleep.

The sun rose and hours ticked passed unheeded by the sleeping huddle. They probably would have slept the day away if a soft knock at the door hadn't roused the sleeping pups. A sharp pain on Seto's arm brought him awake. Sitting up, he took in the situation. Kit was standing by the door growling, Scapegoat was nuzzling his arm apologetically. Another knock at the door made him frown and stand up. He patted his pup and nudged the wild thing away from the door with his foot. As silently as possible, he opened the door and stepped out, careful to keep the dogs inside.

“Artie, Alma. This is a surprise.” Not really, because of course the Spiedels would send some kind of emissary.

Artie shifted uncomfortably and mumbled something vaguely incoherent, but Alma came right to the point. “The boys turned themselves in. They are being charged with Reckless Arson. They can get anywhere from sixteen months to four years. They will be fined and have to pay for the damages, plus the cost of containing the fire.”

“What of the people injured?” Seto was not concerned for them personally, but it seemed odd there were no charges.

“They weren't injured. A little smoke, but they were both passed out drunk. They will have to replace their camper as well.”

“Good. Reckless Arson? Why Reckless?” It seemed an odd term.

“Reckless...” Alma turned to her husband imploringly. She didn't want to explain this. She had hoped he wouldn't ask.

“Reckless means they did it on purpose but without intent to harm people. If they intended to hurt someone they would be charged with Malicious Arson. Their sentence would be four, six, or ten years.” Artie explained softly. He'd spent an hour with Ramona at the police station then with the public defender. “They admitted to wanting to build their own bonfire.”

“I see.” Seto's eyes narrowed and became glacial. He didn't know it but his expression was every bit as ruthless as it had ever been. It caused the old couple to quail and back up. “So they get away with attempted murder by confessing to a lesser charge. We are supposed to accept this as justice?”

Alma swallowed hard and stepped forward again, catching his hand in her gnarled old fingers. “Mister Kaiba... Kai, they are kids. They made a mistake and are scared to death. It should be enough. It will be enough. When they are done with their time they will have learned. Can't you give them a chance to learn?”

“They are monsters who would have hurt and killed anyone in their way.” His voice was harsh with pain from a past dealing with a monster, pain he'd denied and hidden away even from himself. He glared angrily, his expression unyielding. “If it were up to me I'd see them get the maximum penalty before they can cause more pain.” A sudden barking behind him gave him the perfect out. “Excuse me I have to take the dogs for a walk.” Turning his back on the elder couple, he slipped into the camper.

A quick glance told him Jou was still out like a light, and the pups dancing around his feet let him know that they truly did need to go for a walk. Attaching their leashes, he slipped out the door again, relieved to find the older couple gone. Old anger and pain fueling him, he set off on a brisk walk.

Jou waited a couple minutes, and then crept to the window. Seto was disappearing around the corner towards the beach. Judging by the stiff set of his shoulders and the rapid clip, his lover had a lot of energy to burn. The older couple had really caught the asshole side of Seto. He'd been tempted to step in, but realized that Seto had to do this on his own, had to face the pain they brought. Not just the pain of someone trying to kill them, although Seto didn't seem too upset by an attempt on his life. He was more upset that he – Jou – could have been hurt. As much as he wanted to shield Seto, Jou also knew that most of the pain and rage didn't come from the actions of the boys. It came from Seto's past, all the pain and betrayals he'd never let himself show his feeling for. His lover had a lot to work out. It would take time.

Jou knew he couldn't take away the old pain, but he could stop the regret that Seto would feel once he worked everything out. Hurriedly he washed the soot and smoke from his skin, careful of the burns and blisters, then applied a quick rub of antibiotic lotion. He dressed hurriedly, grimacing at the faint smell of smoke in his hair, dressed in slouchy shorts and flip-flops, and left his shirt off. The blisters would pop and stick to it. He didn't want that pain.

He poked his head out, double checking to see if Seto was on his way back. Seto was nowhere in sight so he slipped out of the camper and hurried in the opposite direction his lover had taken.

Seto returned to find a freshly showered, shirtless, Joey just waving goodbye to the same officer from the night before. A smile bright with welcome lightened his brooding heart. Before he could ask, his lover nodded to the retreating figure. “Gave him my statement. He took it down on a laptop and I did an electronic signature. High tech cops! Let’s go get some food.” Then the grin widened. “NBS Rocks.” With a deft flip he tossed Seto the map with a red pen tucked into the crease.

Confused Seto glanced down and blinked at the small red X in the north east corner of California. “Uh... our next destination. You want to eat rocks? You picked a great place for it. Nearest town is about a hundred miles away.”

“Not just any rocks.” Jou laughed at him, shaking his head “Pure sugar rocks. You have to know about it. It's a very high end rock sugar candy. Made by hand at the Natural Beauty Settlement – NBS Rocks.”

Seto nodded as the details clicked “Privately held company. Produces gourmet hard candies by hand, the crystalline properties are billed as healing, and the addition of herbs add to that image. Brilliant marketing. Get healthy while enjoying sugar.”

“Yup, that's the one. Got some old friends there. I feel like some candy and it's time to blow this place. It's gonna be uncomfortable for a while. The townspeople know that we didn't do anything wrong but we are outsiders so they're gonna want someone to blame for them messing up. I don't want it to be us – Or at least I don't want to be here to give them a target.” He scooped the dogs up and tossed them in the back of the car. “Camper is all set. We just gotta get some gas and you hafta pick the route.” He smiled at the vague look of confusion on Seto's face. Leaning close he brushed a soft kiss against the tight lips. “Its cool Seto. I asked the cop. Everything here is taken care of and we are free to go.”

The brunet hesitated for just a moment, then nodded, opened the door and slid into the seat. Jou gave him a wry grin and hopped over the door, hitting the plush seat with a loud whoosh. The crackle of paper in his pocket reminded him and before he could forget he plucked out the slightly crumpled envelope and dropped it on Seto's lap. “Your wages. Amy and Ramona sent them. And don't argue because I think they needed to do it.” A quick flick of golden eyes before Jou started the car. “Besides you can save it for when we get to Vegas. You can use it for a stake in the games and treat us to a hotel room” teasing smile “if you win enough.” Seeing the slight flexing of the other man's jaw, Jounouchi decided that he'd teased enough. “So, gas first. Where to next?”

“Hmmm... You get the gas. I want to look at the map.” Seto grumbled, still not entirely sure leaving was the right thing to do. It felt incomplete.

Seto's first instinct was to plot the quickest route. But even as his eyes traced the roads, he hesitated. Jou said he wanted adventure and fun. They really had no time line and nobody was expecting them. Why hurry? Discarding the discipline of a lifetime, he traced his eyes over the map, pausing here and there on cities and park listings. Sacramento valley was beautiful. He'd seen it once when he'd flown over it in a helicopter on his way to a meeting. He put a small tic mark there. Then continued to look. Locke, a historic town of Chinese settlers, still original, was something he'd been curious to see. Another check mark there. Napa valley was known for it's wine and it's lush scenery. Perhaps a drive through there? Another small mark. For a few minutes he lost himself in finding areas of interest or curiosity. Some things had such promising names! Paradise? Who wouldn't want to go there? And Weed? Perhaps they could try Weed. Seto had never used marijuana before, knowing its effects on the brain, but honestly what could going to a town named Weed hurt? He was curious about it. The peyote had been an uplifting experience, maybe Weed would be too. Smiling slightly, he put another check mark. A volcano? Lasson volcano? That seemed suitable since Jou was hot as lava.

While Jou pumped the pre-paid gas, Seto continued to make small check marks. Soon more than a dozen covered the map. When Jou slid in next to him, he glanced up sheepishly. “I...uh...”

Jou looked the map and chuckled approvingly. He'd been worried Seto wouldn't get it. He could see he had nothing to be concerned about. Seto had outdone himself. “Great! Why don't you just connect them in the order you want to go! You're the Navigator.” He could see Seto preen in his praise and it gave him a warm glow to know he could make his love feel good. A quick turn of the key and the powerful engine purred to life. “While you do that I'll get the top up.” At Seto's look of surprise he gestured to his back. “Sunburn on top of blisters ain't good.”

Seeing the common sense in that Seto bent back to the map.

Top in place, Jou reached back and scooped up Kit, settling the tiny dog on his shoulder. Scapegoat whined for half a second before Seto snatched him up and set him in his accustomed perch. “Okay we're set. First stop is the Curvaison Estate Wines on Durig Street – Napa.” He smiled slightly. “I need a drink.”

Jou gave him a grin and hit the gas. “Load the CD player Babe. Make it hot!”

Seto pulled out the case, giving him a sidelong look. “You don't think we've had it hot enough?”

“Hell no! Never too hot.” Ignoring the road Jou gave him a look that invited him to relax and live. “Hot as the sun Baby.”

Seto blinked at that. Jou had called him Babe and Baby twice in less than a minute. That was... weird and vaguely offensive. But the look and smile were... loving and inviting. Giving him a small glare, tempered with the quirk of his lips, he ordered “Don't call me that.”

“Sure thing Sweetcheeks.” Jou needled deliberately. Yeah he loved Kaiba, and yeah Kaiba was messed up, but damn it he was still Kaiba – and Jou was still himself. With the returning of Seto's spirit, it was time for Seto to see that Jou was still – Jou – the same boy who'd teased him in high school was still around inside the man.

A bonk on his head made him grin. “Don't call me that either.” Seems the old Seto was still around too.

“Whatever you say Honey Buns.” A blast of loud, hard music answered him. Completely familiar with the music, and happier than he'd been in years, Jounouchi began to sing along with the music - loudly. After a time, a deep rich voice, hesitant at first, then strong and equally loud, joined his.

Seto was enjoying himself, the breeze in his hair, even if it came from the windows, was refreshing. The pups had moved to the back seat and were wrestling with a toy that had somehow found its way there. Jou was still humming with the music, once in a while commenting on the scenery. Seto was perfectly content. All too soon for his taste they turned into the entrance to his chosen destination.

Jou glanced over at him and smiled slightly. Seto wasn't even bothering to hide his reluctance to go in to the sharply designed building. “Change your mind? We can drive on?”

“I just... I want to go in and sample the wine but...” He shrugged slightly. The modern architecture and upscale look was too much like before. “But it looks too...” He hesitated a minute “Pet unfriendly.”

Jou caught his meaning and nodded. “Yeah, it's fancy looking. Let's go look for someplace more casual so we don't hafta worry about leavin' the dogs in the car.”

Stifling a sigh of relief, at what he didn't know. Seto agreed. “Sounds good.” He waited a heartbeat then grinned “Baby.”

The blond snapped his head around so fast it was a wonder he didn't get whiplash. “Hey! You...”

A bonk on his head and laughing “Drive Babydoll!” Was his answer.

Not in the least put out by the endearment, because to be honest, Jou would have been happy with anything Seto chose to call him, he put the car in reverse and pulled out of the parking lot.

Half an hour later they sat at a picnic table shaded by a huge green umbrella. In their hands they held glasses of perfectly chilled white wine. Beside them, leashes staked to the ground, their pups bounded through grass and flowers. “Hmmm...” Jou yawned and gazed out over the rich green landscape. “I never knew grapevines were so pretty.” He gave his lover an encouraging look. “You should take a picture.”

Seto looked away from the brilliant green landscape to glance at Jounouchi curiously. “Picture? I...” then he remembered the camera. “Oh the camera's in the camper.” He sighed regretfully, but was too content to open the camper up to go get it.

Jou grinned and shook his head. “Nope, it's in the trunk. I put it in when I packed up. Thought you might want it.” Giving his love a quick wink he stood and stretch, picking up his empty glass to return to the bar.

To Jou's discerning eye, it looked like Seto hadn't moved an inch, although his glass was over half empty. Deftly he slid the camera next to the glass and slipped onto the bench across from him, setting his own glass of sparkling apple juice on the table. Seto grunted what Jou assumed was a thank you, even as he reached across for Jou's glass. After a quick sip, the glass was set back down. “Hmmm...”

“Designated driver.” Jou grinned cheerfully. “So, what are all them little pockets and stuff?”

“Lenses I think.” Blue eyes flickered slightly. “I haven't had a chance to look at it yet.”

He watched for a few moments while his lover opened each pocket methodically, pulling out the lenses and laying them on the table in order. The camera came next, as well as several black cylinders. He chuckled when Seto gave a small crow of triumph as he pulled a small book from the bottom of the leather bag. “Users guide huh?”

Seto gave him a smirk. “Owners manual.” He corrected. “And it has a section of lenses.”

“Cool. So you gonna take my picture? Do I gotta say 'cheese?'” He asked, hamming it up with a big, toothy smile. A distracted hum answered him. Now that was new. He hadn't seen Seto focus on anything except Scapegoat and himself with that kind of interest since finding him on the beach. Maybe this was something his love needed. “I'm gonna take the dogs for a walk in the vines. You stay and play with the camera.” He could have saved his breath, because Seto just hummed again, his eyes moving avidly over the book. Grinning Jou unfastened the leashes and set off to explore the vines.

Seto finished the small, but surprisingly comprehensive book in short order. Closing it decisively he looked up, ready to share his discoveries with his lover only to blink and look around uncertainly. Jounouchi had left him alone? He was alone again? As soon as the thoughts crept in he shook them off. Of course not. Jounouchi had probably just taken the dogs for a walk. In fact he vaguely recalled something like that. He'd been focused on the book at the time but... then it hit him like a ton of bricks. For the first time in his life his sharp, ever attentive mind had failed to record every aspect of everything going on around him. His photographic memory had failed. For long moments he sat dumbfounded. Then as his shock faded relief and happiness took its place. He had never explained it, not even to himself, but deep in the recesses of his heart he'd felt that his perfect recall more a curse than a gift.

Who wanted to remember every single detail of every moment of their life? Not just the things that involved them, but the license plate of a car randomly driving by, or the color, design and horrible feathers of some visiting parent's hat from first grade. Not just Mokuba's first steps or his first words, but the voices and words of the neighbors arguing or the faces of people they passed on their way to the store. That was the world Seto had lived in forever, and now, in this place and time, with Jounouchi – perhaps the person he most wanted to see and remember – he discovered that his 'gift' was fallible. Hopefully it would become more so, so that all he saw and remembered were the important things, like Jou's smile while the pups played at his feet. And if not... If he became more normal and forgot, then he would have pictures. For Seto it wasn't a sad realization but a liberating one. He wouldn't be responsible for the keeping memories, he only had to make them and take pictures like any normal man. Perhaps that was why he was so drawn to photography. It was the normal way to keep memories, and normalcy was something he'd had precious little of in his life.

Lighter than he had ever have imagined, Seto picked up his camera and stood. He was going to find his lover and make some memories to put on film. They were memories worth keeping. Jounouchi chasing Kit and Scapegoat, tripping over vines and sprawling in the deep green and purple foliage. The pups pouncing and Jou throwing back his head in laughter. The pups scampering after a butterfly, Jou gazing out over the vineyards as sunset, haloed by the deep orange red and gold of the day's last rays. Seto was disappointed when he ran out of film. There was so much he wanted to capture.

That night as they lay pressed together in the small, single bunk, dozing after the long day, Seto broached the subject. “Hmm...” He nuzzled into the blond head resting on his chest. “Tomorrow we have to stop and get film for my camera.”

Jou, on the verge of sleep, mumbled, “As long as your wages cover it. We're on a tight budget and I have to get gas tomorrow.”

“I'll call the toll free number and make sure my cards are still working. If Mokuba hasn't shut them down we don't have a problem with money.” To Seto, it was that simple. But his statement brought Jou up in such a rush he cracked his head painfully on the bunk above them.

“Seto! You can't...” He yelped even when holding his head in pain.

“Relax I didn't say I'd use them for gas or food or anything. Just film – and the dogs. Look you didn't count on us and we should pay our own way. I don't mind earning as we go. I like it.” He grinned crookedly and shrugged slightly. “But I... I need...” Giving Jou a serious look he said, “Yes need to try it, try to take pictures. It's... I have always loved photography. I even had a camera I built into my books at school. I've never been able to indulge myself before and I... please? It... I can't explain but when I have a camera in my hands it's like... like I'm flying.”

Jou pretended to think about it while he caught his breath. Realization pierced him as sharply as a blade. Seto had asked his permission! Seto had given him the choice to take away something he obviously loved. That was... that was... wrong. Gods, that was so wrong! Was he as bad as Mokuba and Gozobuttface? No fucking way would he ever... And he had to let his love know that.

Seto doing something he loved for the sheer love of doing it was... breathtaking. Seto enjoying life - maybe for the first time in his entire life - was something precious and rare. It made Jou so happy he could have cried. Of course he didn't tear up. Instead he cleared his throat slightly and tumbled them from the bunk. He ignored the 'oof' and curses coming from the startled brunet and kicked the bunk in the folded up position then sat up, straddling Seto's waist. "You don't have to ask me that. You are your own person. My rules don't have to apply to you. I've been an ass to force you to live like me on this trip. You can do whatever you want from now on. You want a hotel you get one. You want some fancy restaurant, go. But..." He shook back his blond head and smiled down into the wide blue eyes. "But don't expect me to change who I am either. I love you for you. And I love you for trying to live like I am. But I realized something just now when you said please... I was controlling you just like every fucking body else has." Framing the stunned face with strong, calloused hands he rasped, "I'm sorry. I can't tell you how sorry I am without crying so just... I'm sorry. I don't want to control you. I want to love you. So get film if you want. Get anything you want. You don't need to ask me but I'm asking you to please keep me informed okay? I kind of like knowing what you're up to."

"Jounouchi..." Seto honestly didn't know what to say. His lover had just given him Carte Blanche to be... himself. No rules or conditions, no stipulations or promises. Just... be himself. It was stunning, amazing, and terrifying. He'd always had rules and structure, always had someone to answer to or a goal to meet. Now, in just a few seconds he was free of all that. It was dazzling and so frightening he didn't know which way was up. "I... don't... You don't say sorry. I needed you to help me see my way but now... now... I need... I'm..." Elated terror stole his voice. He didn't need Jou to save him any more. He didn't need anything but... he was so used to structure, it was as if he were free falling. Panic made his heart race and the need to run, irrational as it was, filled him.

"Shh... I get it. I really do. When you are ready to talk we will talk." Seeing the blue eyes fill with fear, tears and warmth Jou realized his love, so unused to emotion, was becoming overwhelmed. Seto was so fragile right now, so unsure. He could easily bolt back into his emotional wasteland and depression. Jou wouldn't allow that. He had to do something to ease things, to put Seto back on a comfortable plane. Going with what he knew would give the closeness and support and distract him from the storm, he leaned forward and brushed his lips across Seto's trembling mouth. "I think you are in dire need of distraction. You look like you are going to fly apart. Fly apart in my arms. I promise I'll catch you and keep you safe."

Desperate for an anchor in his spinning world Seto wrapped his arms around Jou's middle, clinging tightly and nodded jerkily. "Please... I..."

A lovingly knowing smile smile crossed his lips. "You know, I never knew you loved photography but I get the feeling you've liked it for a long time. Tell me about it. When did you start taking pictures?"

For a second Jou could see the brunet teetered on the edge of flight, then as their gaze caught and held the panic faded and an iron thread control took over, only to be replaced by a curious light that seemed to mix pleasure and pain equally. A wistful look filled his eyes. "My mother bought me a camera to take pictures of Mokuba before he was born. It was just an instant one, disposable, but she said that I was going to make memories to share when he was older, because I was going to love him so much.”

"Sounds like a good mom. She found a way to bring Mokuba into the future and share the joy." Jou soothed, running his hands lightly down his love's back, careful of the blisters from the fire.

"She was amazing." Seto cleared his throat slightly as the memories rose from deep inside him. "She was like me, or maybe I should say I take after her? Her mind, her gifts, are passed to me. She... she was warmer, more loving, than I could ever be, but she got me, even though I was different, because she was like me." The brunet explained quietly.

Jou nuzzled the dark tangle of hair. "I could argue that and probably win because where I'm standing you are the most loving and giving guy I've ever met. But, she was your mom and belongs on a pedestal so I'll leave it."

Seto shook his head. "You are a lovesick fool if you think that." He sighed and nuzzled Jou's chest. "I've destroyed companies, ruined people's lives." He hesitated and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Killed people directly and indirectly."

Jou stayed silent for a long moment feeling the tension in the long body against his, knowing that Seto was waiting for rejection or something from him that would validate his own feelings. Instead of an indictment, Jou simply waited for more as he continued to stroked Seto's back.

When it became obvious that he wasn't going to answer, Seto levered up in a seated position, glaring down at him in a mix of defiance and fear. "Well aren't you going to say anything?"

"What do you want me to say? It's been speculated that you killed your step-father for years. I saw your scars when they were still pink and healing instead of white and faded. If he caused those scars I'd kill him myself if he were alive." Jou sat up and ran his finger across one of the almost invisible marks. He met Seto's eyes head on with absolute sincerity. "Sometimes people stray so far from their humanity that their souls cry out to be released from the animal in control. Killing such a tortured soul is not murder, it's mercy."

Seto gasped slightly, his own eyes widening as the new idea filtered through him. He'd never considered what had happened, what he'd done, as mercy.

While the genius brunet processed that piece of information, Jou continued calmly. "You run a successful, profitable business and are the fourth richest man on the planet. You have made make-or-break decisions for most of your life. Those decisions affect thousands of people. Not always in a good way. I've known that for years. It hasn't changed my feelings for you yet."

Seto's blue eyes widened further and then narrowed, shock and something like wonder filled them. "You honestly mean that."

"I can't promise never to lie to you Seto, because everyone lies. I mean, if I give you a neon pink tie for Christmas you are going to lie and say you love it, and if you wear something that makes your ass look flat I'm going to say you look great. It's the way things are. Little things to avoid hurt, yeah I might lie, but the big stuff I won't lie to you about." Jou promised solemnly.

Seto stared at him for a moment, then nodded slightly. "I accept that. Although if my ass ever looks flat I expect you to tell me." The levity faded. "Jo- Katsuya, I need to clarify something in my mind. I know it's probably moot to you but I need to know definitively, I need you to say it flat out."

The blond head dipped slightly in acknowledgement. "What do you need to know Seto. I don't have any secrets from you."

"You said you had only one male lover besides me, Raymond, and you also said you only top, never bottom. I... I know you even said that if Mokuba had tried anything with you, you would have reacted violently, but Mokuba told me something different. He said you chose him and he never told me anything different. You say you weren't with him, but he... I believed him for years. It's hard to change my mind." Seto looked down at his hands, vaguely surprised to find they were clenched into fists. Consciously he relaxed them. "Please tell me what happened."

"I don't know what happened with Mokuba saying that stuff and he's the only one that can tell you, but I'm being straight with you. I have never been interested in your brother that way, never even considered him sexually." Jou reached into his pocket and pulled out the phone. "I'm not the one to clear this up Seto. Call your brother and ask him. Then you will have the answers I can't give you."

Hesitantly, Seto took the phone. "Won't that be me not trusting you? Won't you get mad?"

"No. If he lies I'll call him on it, if he tells the truth we can both be happy he is not a liar." Jou smiled slightly. "He's been the center of your heart for years and I'm barely on the fringes. Just call him."

The brunet hesitated another moment wanting to debate the 'fringe' statement, but in the end decided to call Mokuba and end the uncertainty once and for all. He flipped the phone open and dialed the number he knew by heart. To his relief it was answered on the first ring. "Hello?"

"Mokuba, it's..."

"Seto! Where are you? I'll come get you right away. You escaped Jounouchi didn't you? I'm sorry I wasn't able to find you sooner, just tell me where you are and you will be rescued as soon as possible." Mokuba's words tripped over themselves in his eagerness.

"Wait! Mokuba didn't Aishira and Matashi tell you I was on vacation?" Seto frowned, a heavy crease lining his brow.

"Vacation! You don't have to protect Jounouchi any longer now that you've escaped. Just tell me where you are."

"I didn't escape Mokuba, there was nothing to escape from. I'm on vacation with Jounouchi Katsuya. We will be gone for a while longer. Get hold of your imagination little brother. I'm fine. I don't need rescue, I want answers." Seto made his voice as stern and firm as possible. His little brother was prone to flights of fancy that rivalled Doctor Seuss at times.

"But, but, Seto? A vacation? You've never taken one. What's going on?"

"It's about time then don't you think? Nothing is going on except that I have fulfilled my promise to you Mokuba, and now I'm going to find out what I want, find a promise to give to myself and my lover." Seto caught the sudden luminosity in Jou's amber gaze and smiled slightly. "I have some questions for you though. Your answers aren't important to that promise, but I dislike contradiction that is easily explained, you know that."

Mokuba's voice sounded shaky and young when he answered, "Oh, okay. Uhm, tell me where you are and I'll come talk to you."

"No need. I want to be with Katsuya and no offense, but I want to be alone with him. You're old enough to take care of yourself and live on your own. I want to enjoy my empty nest for a while before filling it again with mine and Jou's little chicks."

"Nest? Chicks?" Mokuba's voice was incredulous. "Seto are you on drugs? Has Jounouchi given you something to fuck with your mind? Tell me where you are, I'll bring you to a hospital right away."

"I'm fine and outside of some very nice wine, influence free. My question is simple. Why did you tell me you and Katsuya were lovers?" Seto deliberately worded the question to make it sound like he knew the exact opposite.

"I never told you that." Mokuba denied. "I even tried to tell you that I hadn't been able to talk to him that time but you cut me off and you told me not to discuss my love life with you ever again. So I let it go."

"So it's true? You left him in a strange country without a penny to his name? Did you try to find him, to help him?" Seto was shocked by the lie by omission. He could see how it played out but if Mokuba had said just once that he hadn't spoken to Jou then the misery and separation of the last few years would have been different.

"I tried to catch him but he disappeared. I didn't know where to look." His voice was pure agitation, but Seto knew his brother's scheming mind.

He might love the brat and have some blind spots, but not when it came to this. He had trained Mokuba to prey on weakness, to create the weakness if none existed. "You wanted him dependent on you." It was a flat statement, not a question. "You were going to try to manipulate his needs into some kind of relationship." Fury lit Seto. Yes he had taught Mokuba those tactics, but he'd never suspected his brother would use them to hurt someone they considered a friend, a potential lover. "Mokuba that's little better than rape." He rapped out as his fury took over. "You were going to force him."

Mokuba sounded equally outraged "I never would. I was going to play the hero is all. I'd never blackmail someone to be my lover. I'm not like you - I don't have to pay for it or bribe people."

It was a low blow, lower than any ever dealt before, all the more painful because of the truth in it. Quietly, Seto said "Now I know what you truly think of me. I also know who to believe - Katsuya. Goodbye Mokuba." He clicked the phone shut and carefully laid it on the floor. With as soft mewl of pain, he hurled himself into the strong golden arms held open, waiting for him.

A continent away Mokuba Kaiba hurled his phone across the room and watched with satisfaction as it exploded against the wall. "Damn Jounouchi! What the hell is he doing to my brother? Nest? Chicks? Lover? He wants to spend time with a lover instead of me? That's bullshit, pure bullshit." He was completely oblivious to the tears streaking down his cheeks and the snot dripping from his nose.

A soft, feminine cough from the door of his office spun him around. Special Agent Clark stood in the doorway watching him with cool, dispassionate eyes. "Pardon the interruption Mister Kaiba, your secretary isn't at her desk, and as I heard your voice I came in."

"Oh." Mokuba wanted to yell at her, but remembered the training drilled into him by his brother. "I'm sorry, you caught me at a very bad time. Please excuse me while I clean up." He didn't wait for the psychologist to speak, but turned and hurried into his private bathroom. He took just a couple minutes to wash his face and tidy his hair, then returned to find the woman staring out his windows. "Forgive me, but what can I do for you?"

"Actually, I'm here to talk to you about your brother. I expected him to contact you soon, but this is sooner than I could have predicted. I overheard your discussion." At his disgruntled looks she pointedly looked towards the open office door. "Speaker phone and open doors are not good for privacy."

That made Mokuba blush slightly. He rarely made those kinds of mistakes, but he'd been so excited to see the blocked number come up, knowing it was Seto, that he hadn't taken appropriate precautions. "What about my brother?"

"Originally I came to inform you that the case was officially closed and to have you sign for the return of your satellite images. After I heard the conversation between you I decided to talk to you about your brother." She smiled slightly. "I'm a fully licensed psychologist and I assure you completely discreet."

The young Kaiba stared at her with disdain. "You aren't suggesting my brother needs mental help are you?"

She laughed slightly. "Oh no, I'd say he's well on the way to healing. He's looking forward to a future and he's making decisions based on what he wants rather than the promises he made to others. I liked hearing he was looking for a promise for himself. It means he's giving himself a goal, a long term goal. One that includes a partner and children from the sound of it." She sobered and gave him a direct look. "He's getting all the help he needs. I think you're the one who needs help."

Mokuba didn't even stop to consider the possibility. The stupid bitch just crossed the line. He'd have her job and her 'license.' "Get out. I won't listen to your shit. If you're that hard up for money I suggest you sell it on the street because by the time I'm done with you, you won't be a cop or a shrink."

She tilted her head and smiled slightly. "You're a spoiled brat who needs a spanking. I offered to help. Feel free to get me fired. What I just heard is worth plenty to the tabloids anyway. I will be able to sell it for millions. Mokuba Kaiba in love with genius brother, Seto Kaiba hiding out from brother's unnatural fixation, oh and Mokuba Kaiba, jealous of brother's lover. Those are all accurate headlines aren't they? From what I've seen and heard. I'm an expert in these kinds of things, and” her smile widened, "I'm sure there are people, - ex-lovers, your ex-fiance, - who will no doubt back me up."

"Fuck you, Bitch." Mokuba lost his composure, shouting his rage and fear. How dare she taint what he felt for his brother. She didn't know a damn thing. They belonged together, they had always been together, the two of them against the world. It was as simple as that. It wasn't like what she said and she can't prove otherwise. "Nobody will agree with you. Not Rebecca, not anyone."

"You're wrong you know. I've seen in the paper a few times where your girlfriends say the relationship ended because they couldn't compete with the closeness you two shared. A few have mentioned how your brother indulges your every whim. It looks bad Mokuba. I'm sure the public will believe it." Her look became cunning, "Of course there is one way to make sure I don't spill what I know."

Mokuba had known this was coming. He was going to pay the bitch, pretend to go along with her terms, then destroy her. "What would that be?" He grated out. As if he didn't know. He wondered how many zeroes were going to be on the check.

"If you were my patient I'd be bound by patient confidentiality." She grinned at his startled look. "No cost except time of course. I will see you at my office Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, four in the afternoon. Don't be late." She didn't wait for his agreement, just waved and turned to saunter out of the room. If he hadn't been so furious, he'd have noticed that she had an enticing wiggle he'd always found irresistible in women.

He was still mentally snarling when Matashi and Aishira strolled into the room. "Mokuba!" Aishira scolded when he didn't respond to their greetings.

That brought him out of his angry fugue. "What? Oh hey guys."

Aishira's eyes flicked to the remnants of his phone. "If you hadn't destroyed your phone you would know that we are on our way to California. The parks there need some oversight and we have to assist in caring for the mountain lion Seto rescued and gave to us."

The younger Kaiba jolted. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"For someone who claims to love Seto you haven't paid attention. It's all over the news how Seto Kaiba helped in the rescue of an exotic pet who had been turned loose in the wilds of a southern California mountain region. A tamed mountain lion. The vet he contracted to heal it called us. Seto left instructions that we were to be given first choice in adopting the poor kitten. We're flying out now to see the creature and get training on how to care for it properly." Matashi gave him an impatient look. "I've been dealing with calls from various organizations wanting to know if Seto would assist them in their animal right's campaigns. Didn't you get my memo this morning?"

Mokuba coughed slightly. "I haven't had time to read anything not marked urgent. I don't understand how Seto gets anything done!" He frowned and glowered at the remnants of his phone. "I should have asked him when he called, and now I'm going to have to get a new phone, something else I don't have time for."

"Maybe if you rolled out of bed and into work before ten in the morning? Seto was always here before six." Aishira pointed out with a small bite to his normally soft voice. "And if you stay later than three? Seto stayed until eight or nine."

Bristling, Mokuba snapped back "If I did that I wouldn't get any sleep or have any fun."

"Sounds a lot like your brother's life doesn't it." Aishira fired back ruthlessly. "He said the parks are yours. Take care of them like you should Mokuba. We're headed to the west coast to check on the parks there for a while. We've appointed interim managers. Check your email for the information." The tall handsome man, smiled almost vindictively and tugged Matashi around, leading him from the room.

With a furious sigh, Mokuba reached for his office phone. If he had to be miserable in the office his previously 'for show only' secretary was going to have to start earning her keep. She could start with getting him a new phone, and calling Seto's secretaries and ordering them to start work in this office. Just because Seto was on missing supposedly on vacation didn't mean the executive admin staff could loaf around. He didn't believe for a second that the call he'd just received was of Seto's own free will. Something else was going on. It had to be. Seto would never leave him, would never believe Jounouchi over his own brother.

***
AO3 wants me to break it up - here ends part one on AO3