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Coming Home Part One

Chapter Text

Egypt: December 23, 1992

Ishizu Ishtar was not a traitor. She had a sworn duty to her clan, to the gods themselves, and she’d done the only thing she could in order to uphold that duty.

“Prayers of forgiveness tonight?” Shadi asked.

She ignored the robed man and simply moved to the next candle in line. She cupped her hand around the top, bringing the white candle she held close enough to light its sister. Methodically, she lit the next candle in line, the next, and the next. Shadi said nothing until she completed the row. The friendly firelight cast a warm glow over the cold yellow stone, easing something in her spirit.

“Prayers are often ineffective if unaccompanied by action.”

A drop of wax touched her finger, burning the skin. She returned the candle she held to its rightful place at the head of the line, but she couldn’t take her eyes from the spot of red it had left on her knuckle.

“I suppose I could speak forever. You’ll never hear.”

She’d done the only thing she could.

There was no need to explain herself to anyone, least of all her visitor.

Ishizu knelt at the room’s altar, smoothing her white dress and tucking it beneath her knees. She took a deep breath and slowly raised her arms, but before she could speak, Shadi moved in front of her, standing directly in the altar like a nettlesome tree sprouting through the stone.

“At the least, tell me how your actions will affect the girl.”

“Your precious girl,” Ishizu muttered. She touched her throat where the Millennium Necklace weighed against her collarbone. “My sacred vision is not for frivolous uses. You may have thrown away your duty for such, but I will not.”

His blue eyes were cold. “So saving your brother would have been frivolous. Well. Happy birthday to him.”

“Don’t—!” She stopped herself short, lowered her hand, smoothed her dress once more.

She was not a traitor. The gods knew that. Her father knew that.

Someday, Marik would understand.

She raised her arms, closing her eyes. “Horus,” she whispered reverently, “Great Falcon of the Sky and Lord of Healing, I ask protection for my brother.”

Shadi snorted, cutting her short. Her fingers curled in; she lowered her fists and looked at him through narrowed eyes.

“Get out.”

“You haven’t looked.” He shook his head, stepped out of the altar. “I should have known; you have misused your gift from the start.”

“It is not a gift,” Ishizu said. “It is my sacred duty. I am above self, above passions, above the entrapments of humanity. My service is to the nameless pharaoh at the will of the gods.”

“Above the entrapments of humanity . . .” Shadi stared around at the curved line of candles, at the altar. “Sure you are, child.”

“I am not a child. I am—”

“You’ve walked this earth for seventeen years.” His eyes returned to hers. “I have lived your years a hundred times over and more.”

Ishizu pushed herself to her feet, almost losing her balance as her dress tangled beneath her. Hot color stained her face and neck. “I know your age. I know all that has happened in the world, all that will happen.”

His eyes crinkled, and his mouth curved; he seemed almost ready to laugh at her, to mock her. “You could if you looked, but fear has clouded your vision.”

“You know nothing of—”

From beneath his robe, he produced an artifact, a short trunk of gold with arms to either side that each dangled a small platform. The same Eye of Horus that decorated her necklace looked back at her from The Millennium Scales. Ishizu’s breath caught; she’d known Shadi possessed the scales, of course, but she’d never seen them in person.

He extended the scales, held the artifact just in front of her heart.

Ishizu froze in place. For a moment, the scales only quivered. Then a shimmering white feather appeared in one basket. The empty basket sank below it.

“Your heart is heavy with fear,” Shadi said. “Or would you care to contradict my knowledge again? Were I to invoke the shadows in your next trial, the price for imbalance would be no casual embarrassment.”

She backed away, and he tucked the scales out of sight once more. The shadows in the room seemed larger, closer.

“I have seen,” she admitted, “darkness in the pharaoh.”

Shadi’s gaze softened. He reached out to touch the last candle in line, but his ethereal fingers passed directly through the wax while the candle burned on, unaffected.

“There is darkness in all of us,” he said.

“Not like this.” She licked her lips. Though her father was miles away with Marik, she expected him to leap from the shadows at any moment, to beat her for such insolence. “He strikes at everything. He punishes.”

“How far have you cast your gaze?”

“Far enough.”

Ishizu had been raised with prophecies in place of bedtime stories, had been told over and again how the nameless pharaoh had once halted a darkness that would have swallowed the world, how his spirit would return to complete the victory, and how the tombkeepers were privileged to guard the Valley of the Kings, the seven sacred artifacts, and the prophecies themselves until that day arrived. On her own twelfth birthday, when she had tied the Millennium Necklace to her throat, when her father had said, “Look, and behold,” she had seen the future completion of the Millennium Puzzle by a small Japanese boy her brother’s age. She had seen the return of the pharaoh’s spirit to the world, and her heart had nearly broken with joy.

Until she’d seen what came next. Then she’d averted her eyes.

Now, she averted her eyes from Shadi in the same way.

“After the pharaoh’s rise,” she said, “the bearers of the sacred artifacts shall seek him. Seven items will be joined in the child’s hand, and by the gate of the gods, the Millennium Darkness will at last and ever be sealed.”

“That is a prophecy,” Shadi said, “not a vision. Unless you have seen the seven items come together.”

She said nothing.

He said, “I thought not.”

After the pharaoh’s awakening, she had seen the way he darted from the shadows to do battle, the games he played with souls on the line. She heard the awful whispers of darkness in his wake, saw the bloodlust that edged his eyes.

It was the Millennium Eye which sought him first. The holder threatened the pharaoh’s vessel, trapped the soul of someone vulnerable to make him dance. Had it been possible, the pharaoh would have lashed out immediately, but the eye took refuge on an island, sat behind carefully constructed walls that could only be breached by following his rules. So it was that Ishizu saw a dock, a cruise liner, heard the sound of the ocean and the chatter of tournament players ready for competition. The pharaoh stood at the railing with the others, looked out over the waves to an island overgrown with trees and crowned by a castle. She saw within the castle to where the Millennium Eye glinted from its empty socket. The man bearing it smiled and raised a glass of red wine in a toast as if he could see her.

The Millennium Ring snuck aboard the boat, cornered the pharaoh in the first night of the island tournament with none of the subtlety that marked the eye. Though the pharaoh escaped on a temporary victory, the pointed daggers of the ring strained against their container, waiting for another chance to be set free. Two items, both hostile, neither claimed with the pharaoh’s victories.

And Ishizu couldn’t understand why she wasn’t there—why she hadn’t seen herself approach the pharaoh, surrender her necklace, offer her aid.

Shadi was there. Within the castle, he approached the pharaoh’s vessel, cast his judgments, offered his counsel. But he did not surrender his item. Nothing transpired as it was meant to, and three items remained a mystery. One of those was Ishizu’s. One was Marik’s.

So Ishizu stopped looking. Since the tombkeepers should have been first to fulfill prophecy, clearly the problem was within her own walls; she recognized it in her rebellious brother. Marik needed only to accept his fate as a tombkeeper. Then the future would right itself.

“All will happen as it must,” Ishizu said. She knelt at the altar again, extended her hands, and felt the candlelight warm her skin. “I have done my duty.”

“I never doubted that.” Shadi’s gaze moved to the ceiling. “But I continue to hope for the day when duty bows to conscience, not the other way around.”

“You speak blasphemy—”

But he was gone.

Ishizu swallowed in the silence. Then she closed her eyes, returning with confidence to her prayers.

Chapter Text

Japan: July 22, 1996

“You’re bluffing!”

Yori Yoshida smirked at the accusation. She pulled a card from her hand, flashed the face of it at her opponent, and slapped it down on the mat. Touma laughed, lit cigarette bobbing. Yori’s opponent grunted in frustration and threw her Duel Monsters cards down.

“Told you not to bet against her,” Touma said, blowing a pointed stream of smoke at the upset woman.

The woman swore and dug in the pocket of her shredded jeans until she pulled out a handful of money. After counting, she tossed six bills on the bare cement floor.

“One more for poor sportsmanship,” Yori said. Though she was still smirking, her eyes were deadly serious.

The woman opened her mouth to protest, but Touma had his eyes on her as well, and in the end, she was smart enough not to argue with her superiors. She flung another twenty to the ground, gathered up her cards, and stormed off (tripping over her folding chair in the process).

Yori packed up her own deck before collecting her winnings. As she folded her worn playing mat, the single overhead lightbulb flickered. She glanced out the window at the black sky, then checked the time on her cell phone. The duel had taken a little longer than expected but not enough to disrupt her schedule.

“Sure you don’t want a place in my crew?” Touma offered her a cigarette. “We could run a pretty good scam with that game of yours.”

She declined. “I don’t cheat.”

“Sure you don’t. You’re just that lucky.”

“What can I say?” She shrugged. “I’ve had enough tough breaks in life; isn’t it fair I get some luck, too?”

“If you think that’s how the world works.” He tucked his pack of Camels back into his bomber jacket.

Yori slid her playing mat into the deck pouch on her belt, snapping it shut. The next bus out of town was leaving in an hour, just enough time for her to grab her bag, buy the ticket, and go. Not to mention the small room was already clogged with smoke, and she was more than ready to take her leave. Touma was nice enough as long as she paid her rent, but he was no one worth sticking around for.

As she turned to go, he spoke again.

“You know the thing about luck?”

She glanced over her shoulder.

He tossed his cigarette on the floor, crushing it under his heel.

“It runs out,” he said.

She left.

When she arrived at the bus station with all her worldly possessions in a duffel bag over her shoulder, the ticket attendant looked up with half-lidded eyes.

“Where to?” he grunted.

“Domino City,” Yori said, handing over the fare. Her sleeve caught on the edge of the counter, revealing a glint of gold. She retracted her arm quickly, tugging the fabric back down to cover her bracelet.

The worry was pointless; the attendant deposited her money in a drawer, punched a few buttons, and waited as her ticket printed, never giving her a second glance.

“Not much in Domino,” he said. He slid the ticket through the window.

She lifted it and gave it a little wave. “That’s the idea.”

++++++++++

After the fifth time someone tried to steal his Millennium Puzzle, Yuugi Mutou decided two things: he needed to keep the puzzle with him at all times, and he needed to replace the rope it hung from with something that wouldn’t chafe.

As he settled the sleek new chain around his neck, he laughed at himself in the mirror. He would have drawn less attention wearing a Rubik’s Cube; the puzzle was about the same size and half as subtle—it was an inverted gold pyramid adorned with the Eye of Horus. He couldn’t hide it under his shirt, and even people who didn’t know its real value wanted to steal it for the shiny gold factor alone.

“What do you think, partner?” Yuugi asked.

He sensed Yami appear, but the spirit didn’t cast a reflection in the mirror, so Yuugi had to turn to see him.

“It looks heavy,” Yami said quietly.

In truth, it was. Even before adding the chain, wearing the puzzle usually made Yuugi’s neck ache by the end of the day. But he smiled.

“It’s not so bad,” he said. He plucked at the chain to demonstrate. “It’s some kind of special metal—lightweight but tough. Cost me everything I earned working with Grandpa in the store last month, but it’s supposed to last forever.”

“Forever,” Yami repeated, his eyes unfocused. “Imagine that.”

“Something wrong?” Yuugi frowned.

Yami blinked, then shook his head. “It’s likely nothing of concern. Just a passing sense.”

“A sense like something’s dangerous?” Yuugi gripped the chain with both hands.

“More a sense that something is approaching.” Yami gave a small shrug. “As I said, it’s likely of no concern. Forgive my mention of it.”

Yuugi let out a sigh, shaking his head. “If you’re sure.”

Things had been quiet ever since they’d come home from the Duelist Kingdom tournament in March. Quiet was nice; Yuugi wanted things to stay quiet. Quiet allowed him to eat breakfast without the awful tight feeling in his stomach that always came with danger. Quiet meant he could spend time with his friends without anybody getting hurt.

And speaking of friends. Yuugi glanced at the alarm clock on his nightstand.

“Ryou’s coming over any minute.” He grinned. “We’re going to meet the others at the arcade. Do you want to split the time?”

Yami smiled. “No, thank you. Enjoy yourself.”

“If you’re sure,” Yuugi said again.

Just then, his grandpa called out from downstairs, “Yuugi, Ryou’s here.”

“Coming!” Yuugi grabbed his school jacket from the bed, shrugging it on. The jacket at least sort of helped with the puzzle dilemma.

“Hey, do you think—” Yuugi stopped mid-sentence because when he turned, Yami was gone.

They’d have plenty of time to talk later. Yami had said it was nothing to worry about, so for now, everything was fine. Everything was quiet. Yuugi glanced in the mirror one more time, running his fingers up the back of his hair to fix a wayward spike. Then he hurried out of his bedroom and down the stairs into the main area of the game shop.

Ryou stood near the door, paying rapt attention as Grandpa showed him the newest order of Duel Monsters cards in stock, but as Yuugi arrived, he glanced up and gave a little wave.

“Did Grandpa show you the new earth-attribute monsters we got in?” Yuugi pointed to the next shelf over. He jammed on his sneakers. “There’s a Doki Doki.”

“He did,” Ryou said, smiling somewhat apologetically, “but I’m afraid I’m only collecting dark attributes for the moment.”

“You build your deck with whatever cards best suit you,” Grandpa said, pointing at him with the stack of cards he held. “That’s every man’s right.”

“Thank you.” Ryou gave a little laugh. “Shall we be heading, then?”

Yuugi nodded and moved to the door. The bells along the handle jingled as he pushed it open.

“Next time I get dark attributes in, I’ll have Yuugi let you know,” Grandpa said. He stuffed the cards he’d pulled out back on their proper shelf, waving as they exited. “You kids have fun!”

“Thanks, Grandpa! We will!”

The bells jingled again as the door swung closed behind them, and it added an extra spring to Yuugi’s steps. Those same bells had been on the door as far back as he could remember; the three days he’d spent in Duelist Kingdom had been the longest he’d ever gone without hearing them, so ever since returning, he’d had a greater appreciation for the music of home.

“Say, Yuugi?” Ryou folded his arms behind his head, smiling up at the empty sky. The direct sunlight made his long white hair a little blinding. “Remember that fellow with the zombie deck from Duelist Kingdom? I think I’d like to add some of that bloke’s cards to my collection. I have more fiends than zombies, really.”

“I was just thinking about Duelist Kingdom, too,” Yuugi said.

“Yeah?” The albino lowered his arms. “I’ve been doing it rather a lot lately. I’ve just sort of had this sense—”

“Like something’s coming?” It was a good thing he’d already had breakfast because Yuugi could feel the beginnings of that familiar, awful pinch in his stomach.

“You too?”

“Kind of.”

They waited at the street corner to cross. Despite only one car passing, the light took forever to change. As they neared the arcade, traffic would pick up and there would be more pedestrians, but for now, they were still at the quiet end of Domino City.

“It’s eerie, innit?” Ryou tugged on the hemp cord around his neck, pulling the Millennium Ring from its place beneath his shirt. “This thing’s been sort of humming today, so I thought maybe it’s a new item come to town.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” Yuugi swallowed. The pinch had grown slightly more pronounced upon seeing the Millennium Ring. Unlike his puzzle, the ring was flat, and it took its name from the hollow gold ring that made up most of the artifact. Inside the ring was a triangle marked by the Eye of Horus, and five dagger-like pointers dangled from the bottom half of its outside edge. It looked like an Egyptian dreamcatcher, but Yuugi knew from experience that it let all the nightmares through.

Not that it didn’t have its good uses. If Ryou searched for something, the pointers would rise to direct the way. In Duelist Kingdom, the ring had led them through an underground maze when they otherwise would have been trapped forever. So it wasn’t all terrifying—as long as Ryou was in control.

“We could search for it if you want,” Ryou said, a spark of excitement touching his brown eyes.

Yuugi shook his head. “I think I just want to go to the arcade.”

It was a little pathetic of him, but his encounter with the Millennium Eye had nearly cost him his life, not to mention everyone else it had put in danger. The same could be said about his first brush with the ring. It wasn’t a track record that encouraged him to ask for more.

Ryou seemed to realize his mistake, and he dropped the ring beneath his shirt again. “Right, well, that’s likely to be more fun. Not to mention . . . safer.”

“Hey,” Yuugi said, trying to lighten the mood again, “at least yours can go under your shirt. I tried that with the puzzle, but I looked like some kind of backwards hunchback.”

Ryou’s mouth twitched. “Well, at least you didn’t put it in your back pocket—better a hunchback than a hunched backside.”

They both laughed, easing the mood.

As they rounded a corner of the sidewalk, a sudden voice called out, “Hey, would you look at that!”

They turned to find a purple-robed man seated behind a narrow table at the mouth of an alley. In addition to its purple tablecloth, the table had a large crystal ball, a few boxes of cinnamon incense, and a stack of blue-backed cards.

The man leaned forward with a wide, welcoming smile. “You fine boys seem like Scorpios, am I right?”

“I’m a Virgo, actually,” Ryou said. His nose crinkled with his smile. “But I think they sort of lied about that strong personality I’m meant to come with.”

“What about you, young man?”

Yuugi pointed to himself. “Me? I don’t know. Are these the star things?”

The man made a grand gesture with both hands, waving them forward. Ryou stepped up to the table immediately. After a moment of hesitation, Yuugi followed.

“When’s your birthday, son?” the man asked.

“June fourth.”

“Ah, just last month. Happy belated birthday. You’re seventeen?”

“Thanks.” Yuugi smiled. “I’m sixteen.”

“A big year for you, then.”

Yuugi almost laughed. “You have no idea.”

Finally solving the Millennium Puzzle in January had set his life on a roller coaster with no end in sight.

The fortune teller held up a hand. With the other, he made a big, sweeping motion across the cards, spreading them in a line down the tablecloth. He frowned in dramatic concentration—which made Yuugi and Ryou share a smile—before selecting a facedown card from the line.

“You,” he said, lifting the card with its front toward Yuugi, “are a Gemini.”

 The face of the card showed two identical men mirroring one another. Yuugi swallowed hard when he saw it. It didn’t mean anything, but it was eerie nonetheless. He gripped the chain of the puzzle.

“You are a multitalented individual,” the man said, lowering the card slightly so he could speak over it. “Good at most things and master of more than one. Despite that, you are conscientious of your shortcomings, and you never boast. You care deeply about the people in your life and would sacrifice anything for their safety and happiness.”

Even though it was a gimmick, Yuugi felt his face go red.

“That’s Yuugi.” Ryou smiled softly.

“Here,” the man said, extending the card with a wink. “I get the feeling you like cards. Happy birthday.”

Yuugi accepted the card and stared down at the face of it. The two men stood back to back, looking out at their black border with resolute expressions. It was almost—

The table heaved upward, catching Yuugi in the shoulder and knocking him to the ground. The table was cheap plastic, so it didn’t hurt so much as it startled him. He struggled to untangle himself from the tablecloth.

Ryou let out a cry that turned Yuugi’s blood cold. He finally wriggled out from under the mess, stumbling to his feet only to see the fortune teller standing with his arm around Ryou’s throat.

“Alright, kid,” the man said, all gentleness gone from his expression. “You’d do anything for your friends, so let’s have your puzzle.”

Of course.

Yuugi should have known.

How could he not have known?

“Let him go,” Yuugi said fiercely.

“What was that?” The man tightened his grip, and Ryou gasped for air.

“Run, Yuugi!” he choked out.

The man tightened his grip again.

There was no one around, no one to call for help. So there was only one thing Yuugi could do.

“Okay, okay!” He yanked the chain over his head and held it out. “Let him go.”

//Yuugi,// Yami spoke in his mind. //I sense distress. Do you need me?//

The man stepped forward, dragging Ryou.

//There’s a man here,// Yuugi said silently. //He’s—//

Then the fortune teller yanked the puzzle from his grasp and, in the same motion, threw Ryou on top of him. Yuugi hit the pavement for the second time in the space of a minute, losing his breath in a rush. He saw the man run for the alley, and Yuugi knew he had to chase him now or risk losing the puzzle forever.

“Ryou,” Yuugi choked out. “Can you get help?”

But Ryou was already back on his feet. His expression twisted in a sneer, his soft brown eyes growing sharp as they trained themselves on Yuugi. The glow of the Millennium Ring was visible through the white stripes in his shirt.

Perfect. Exactly what Yuugi needed at this moment. He was on his own, then.

He pushed himself to his feet and took off running after the man.

Behind him, Ryou cackled. “The pharaoh got an even more useless vessel than me! Better get it back, little Yuugi!”

Yuugi ignored the spirit of the ring. He ran between the buildings where the man had disappeared, barely catching a glimpse of him turning a corner ahead. Their chase wound its way past run-down buildings to a series of abandoned construction sites and fences. Hopefully the man wasn’t planning to jump a fence. Yuugi was well aware of his own short stature and how much trying to scale a fence would slow him down.

He was such an idiot.

Such an idiot.

The man ducked through a large hole in a chain-link fence. Yuugi gasped in a deep breath and forced himself to run faster, bursting through the hole in the fence into an open yard.

The man was nowhere to be seen.

Yuugi came to a stop in the yard, craned his neck, looked in every direction.

//Yami?// he called out desperately, but he heard nothing back. The slight pressure on his mind from their mental link was absent.

There was a small, derelict warehouse at the other end of the yard. The man might have hidden inside. But why corner himself when he had the clear lead?

It could be a second trap.

But Yuugi didn’t have a choice either way.

He gulped in air and ran for the warehouse.

++++++++++

Domino City was the eighth place Yori had decided to start life over in, and with all her prior experience, she’d turned moving into something of an art form. The first thing she did after stepping off the bus was put on her charming face as she spoke to a few locals: Hi, my mom and I are new in town, your dress looks great, what’s the best place to eat, etc. After a few minutes of small talk, she’d say, “This area seems so nice. In Nagoya, we lived in a really dangerous neighborhood, but I’ve heard Domino doesn’t have those.”

At that, person after person dutifully stepped up to tell her exactly which areas of the city she should avoid. After three different accounts agreed on the same neighborhood as most dangerous, Yori found it on a map, hitched her bag up on her shoulder, and started walking.

She got a feel for the city as she passed through it. Lots of quiet parks, sparse traffic, even an empty promenade—Domino had more space than people to fill it. That was fine with her; it was what she’d been hoping for after the last few sardine-can cities. She could see the skyscrapers on the horizon that marked the business district, but overall, Domino was a flat place filled with trees and ocean breeze.

Even without a map, it wasn’t hard to tell when she’d reached the dangerous part of town. She could smell the change and see it in the eyes of the few men she passed; it was the same in every city.

She turned from the sidewalk into a narrow alleyway between buildings. She wound her way through the concrete maze, taking note of which buildings were apartments, which were abandoned, which were in disrepair, and so on.

“You lost?” a woman called out from above.

Yori stepped to the side, craning her neck to look at the woman hanging out her second-story window. She tapped a lit cigarette, eyes expectantly on Yori.

“Not with my eyes open,” Yori said.

“Well you should get lost.” The woman gestured. “This territory’s taken.”

So they recognized one another.

“What?” Yori spread her arms wide. “No room for one more? I’d be happy to create a vacancy.”

The woman laughed, which turned into a coughing fit. She waved her hand to disperse her own smoke.

Yori waited for her to recover, then said, “Who do I talk to?”

“Katsuma, but he doesn’t do much talking.” The woman pointed at a building across the way.

“My kind of man,” Yori said. She heard the woman laugh-cough again as she moved away.

Unfortunately, after about ten minutes, Yori had to admit something unsettling: She was lost. Or at least she seemed to be. In the last three years, she’d never gotten lost, not even in new cities—and yet she kept going in circles, always coming back to the same broken fence with its open lot.

Most frustrating of all was the fact that she knew she shouldn’t be lost. The woman had pointed her to a visible building. Yori could see it still, and she had set off for it confidently at least four times only to wind up right back at the same clump of weeds next to the same busted chain link. The previous back alleys had been easy to navigate; there was no reason this side of the neighborhood should suddenly become a maze.

Her wrist itched, and she scratched at the skin beneath her bracelet. The bracelet was warm to the touch. She pulled her sleeve back, raising an eyebrow at it.

“Are we gonna do this now?” she asked. The hollow eye twisted in the gold strands stared back at her, empty as ever.

The bracelet was unnerving at best. Sometimes it would heat up. Sometimes it would glow. It had fit her wrist perfectly her entire life even though she had definitely changed sizes while it didn’t seem to. But it was important to her, so she kept it, and whenever it started misbehaving, they had these stare downs that did nothing except make her feel even crazier about the whole thing.

Just as she had the thought, a faint golden haze pulsed to life around the bracelet as its warmth increased to an uncomfortable level. Yori growled to herself, yanking her shirt sleeve down over her hand, though she could still see the glow through the fabric.

//YUUGI, RUN!//

The voice erupted in her mind like someone screaming from all sides at once. Yori gasped, clutching both hands to her head. In an instant, her switchblade was in her hand, and she swung wildly from side to side, looking for the source.

But she was alone.

Heart still pounding, Yori retracted her blade, slid the knife into her pocket once more. The bracelet glowed more brightly than ever. She needed somewhere to get out of sight to figure out what was happening before someone dangerous noticed and took advantage of her distraction.

She ducked through the hole in the fence, entering the lot. A quick glance told her two things: One, there was an abandoned warehouse. Two, it wouldn’t be any good for hiding because it was on fire.

Smoke trailed from the small window at one corner of the building, growing thicker by the second. Because of course. There was no reason things shouldn’t get more inconvenient. She’d have to get out of the area before the firefighters arrived; the last thing she wanted was to get involved with authorities of any kind.

But just as she turned to retreat through the fence, the door to the warehouse burst open, and a man ran out trailing flames. He screamed a continuous wail, barreling directly toward her. Yori shouted for him to drop, but he’d lost his mind to the panic.

She stepped to the side and kicked the back of his knee as he passed, sending him sprawling to the ground. He was wearing a robe that had already lost most of its hem to the flames, but nothing else had caught fire yet.

“Roll!” she shouted, but he just lay there screaming, clawing at his head with both hands.

She dropped to her knees next to him, unzipped her duffel bag, and snatched the first piece of fabric she touched. She threw the shirt over his legs, slapping her hands across it until she was sure the flames had been smothered.

The man’s screams died away into moans, but he still clutched his face.

“You’re gonna be fine,” Yori said in the best impression of a calm voice she currently had. “Is there anyone else in the building?”

“He’s in my head,” the man moaned, fingernails digging into his forehead and cheeks. “He’s in my head!”

“Okay.” Yori worked very hard to keep the calm impression going. “Anyone in the building who’s not in your head?”

The man continued to moan, and if there was anyone else, she didn’t have time to waste. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, dialing 119. The dispatcher thanked her for reporting the fire and for her quick response to the situation.

“There might be other people still inside,” Yori said.

“The response team will be with you soon,” the woman said. “They’ll be able to help anyone else.”

“But I’m here now.”

“Ma’am, don’t—”

Yori hung up, dropping her phone in her duffel bag.

“Hang tight,” she told the man. She stood and looked at the warehouse. Thick black smoke now poured from three windows.

She looked down at her bracelet, still pulsing with light. “If you’re good for anything,” she said, “now would be a good time.”

Then she entered the burning building.

Chapter Text

Joey Wheeler was far from a worrywart. He found that most of the time life took care of itself if he just let it be. There were only two things he worried about, and they were both people—his sister, Serenity, and his best friend, Yuugi. He had good reasons for both.

“Shouldn’t they’a been here by now?” he asked again, standing on tiptoe to peer down the street.

“Yuugi probably slept in,” Anzu said, on the verge of a smile. She kept her eyes on her cell phone as she attached a sparkly pink dangle thing to the plastic.

Tristan checked his watch. “It’s almost three o’clock.”

Anzu’s smile bloomed. “My statement stands.”

“Call the game shop,” Joey said.

Anzu shrugged and dialed, tucking her short hair back before she put the phone to her ear. She moved down the street to a quieter spot.

“I’m sure it’s nothing, man.” Tristan checked his watch again. “Maybe they helped Grandpa with something before they left.”

Joey nodded, but he wasn’t convinced. Something in his gut said it was time to worry. He kept his eyes on the street, searching for that familiar, wacky hair.

Anzu made her way back to them, and the look on her face confirmed what Joey felt.

“Grandpa says Ryou got there early.” She gripped her phone. “They left almost an hour ago.”

Tristan’s expression darkened. “Okay, let’s search.”

Joey was already moving.

++++++++++

Yori moved quickly into the building. The fire had started in the left back corner of the warehouse; she could see the flames through the smoke, high and angry. The floor was bare except for scattered piles of metal scraps, but there were wooden crates and pallets stacked against the walls that made easy fuel for the fire. Four concrete ceiling supports blocked her full view of the room.

“Anyone in here?” she shouted.

Her answer came in the sound of coughing. Since she couldn’t see the person, they had to be behind one of the pillars. Since they hadn’t made it out already, they also had to be either trapped or injured, which meant they were probably on the side of the building where the fire had started.

Her eyes stung from the smoke. Sweat had already broken out on her skin.

You could die here, she recognized suddenly. The thought hadn’t occurred to her before running in, and it was a little late now, so she told herself it wouldn’t happen, covered her face with her sleeve, and ran toward the flames.

She found her missing person easily—a boy her age or a few years younger. He clung to a chain fastened to the corner pillar. For a moment, she thought he’d been chained there purposely, then she realized he wasn’t fastened to it, just clutching it with both hands. He didn’t even seem to know she was there, and his coughing was almost non-stop.

“Hey, I’ve got you.” Yori grabbed him under both arms. But when she pulled, he still clung to that chain, refusing to move.

“Can’t—” He coughed, choked on the air. He was more than halfway to unconscious. “Without my—I can’t—”

“Kid, it’s not worth it. It’s just a—” Yori stopped cold. There was a gold pendant on the chain with a familiar hollow eye at its center that bored into her soul.

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “Okay, I’ll get it. Let go.”

He looked right at her, and his soft eyes were so grateful, her heart gave a weird twist to the side. He released the chain, sinking to his knees. She’d probably have to carry him out. After she got the . . . thing.

Whoever’d fastened it to the pillar meant business. The pendant had a loop on top where it had been threaded onto the chain, the same loop someone had hammered a steel bolt through. Yori couldn’t tell by looking how deep the bolt went, but it really didn’t matter; she didn’t have anything to take the bolt out with, and she certainly couldn’t break it. If the pendant was anything like her bracelet, there was no hope of breaking it off its loop either.

The concrete was old, cracking around the bolt. A small chunk of it had broken off completely. If she could find a lever—that was her best chance. Maybe the only chance.

She darted to the closest scrap pile, digging through it until she found a length of straight rebar.

A loud CRACK drowned the roar of the fire as a section of the ceiling collapsed behind her, engulfing her in smoke and ash. She covered her face with her sleeve, coughing.

If she was smart, that was her ticket to leave.

If she was smart, she never would have entered.

She ran back to the kid and his pendant. She threaded the rebar through the eye of the bolt until a quarter of it was braced against the concrete on the opposite side. She pressed her foot against the pillar, gripped the bar with both hands as close to the pendant as she could, and heaved backward.

Another CRACK. The square rectangle of light that marked the exit disappeared in a cloud of smoke. She coughed and heaved again. The bolt gave—then stopped abruptly, still clinging in the concrete.

But it had moved. She could do this. She focused on her back, tried to pull with more than just her arms.

At the same moment, her bracelet flashed with light, and someone was pulling with her.

The bolt ripped from the splintered concrete, sending Yori crashing to the ground. The pendant, chain, and rebar all clanged to the floor. Yori leapt back to her feet, yanking the bolt off the bar. The kid had completely collapsed, so she draped his arm over her shoulders, grabbed him around the waist, and hauled him up. She stumbled, nearly falling, but the person who’d appeared not a moment before was there again, taking the kid’s other arm, pulling with her. Together, they dragged him from the building into the open air.

And air had never tasted so good.

As soon as they were clear of the warehouse, Yori sank to her knees, giving in to a coughing fit. Tears slid down both cheeks, and she closed her eyes in an effort to relieve the burning.

She could hear the sirens.

She forced her eyes open again, settling the kid on the ground. He still had a pulse, his chest rising with faint breaths.

The other person leaned over him worriedly. Yori looked at him for the first time, starting in surprise. He and the boy had identical school uniforms and the same red and blonde edges in their spiked black hair. They were either brothers or unnaturally close friends.

Several firefighters rushed around the side of the building. The rest of their crew was probably already working at the street side of the warehouse. They called for paramedics.

“Good thing you came when you did.” Yori coughed, looking at the stranger.

He flinched away like she’d popped out of the ground next to him. When he met her gaze, his wide eyes were a beautiful but startling violet.

Paramedics rushed in, so Yori scooted back to give them space. After confirming his pulse and checking for burns, two of them loaded the boy on a stretcher, and another moved to help Yori.

“I’m fine,” she said, standing. “Just a little dizzy.”

Despite her protests, the man herded her along to the ambulance with the others. Nobody said a word to the stranger who’d helped her even though he stuck right by the boy’s side. They skirted behind the line of active firefighters, who had abandoned the warehouse as a lost cause and were only ensuring the fire wouldn’t spread to nearby buildings.

Another set of paramedics joined them, carrying a stretcher with the first man Yori had helped. He moaned faintly, tugging against the restraints that held him down. Red scratches marred every inch of his face.

“What’s your name?” the pesky paramedic asked as they waited for the two stretchers to be loaded.

“That isn’t his bag.” Yori pointed at a medic carrying her duffel. “It’s mine. I dropped it when I helped him.”

“We can sort out belongings at the hospital,” the medic said.

“I’m not going to the hospital.” She moved to take the bag from him, but he hesitated, looking at the man she assumed was his team leader—the guy who’d dragged her along.

“She probably doesn’t need to go.” The leader pulled a stethoscope from his own bag. “How long were you in the building?”

“Maybe a minute tops,” Yori said even though it was definitely longer.

“Let me check your lungs.”

He had her take a few deep breaths, then nodded. “Minimal smoke inhalation. Drink lots of water. Take it easy. Do you have any idea how the fire started?”

“It was already going when I got here.”

“You should have waited for professionals.”

“Probably. I’d like my bag back.”

“Any identification?” the medic holding it asked.

“It has a tag on the side that says ‘Angel.’” Yori raised a fake ID from her pocket. “That’s me.”

The medic checked it, nodded satisfaction, and handed it over. As she zipped it up and slung it over her shoulder, the leader asked, “Do you know either of these men?”

“No,” she said, “but he does.”

She gestured at the violet-eyed stranger, still standing watch over the boy they’d saved. Once again, he started.

The paramedic frowned, glancing between her and the ambulance.

“Who?” he asked.

And she realized—

Her stomach dropped to her shoes.

“I meant the kid,” she said quickly. “I talked to him before he collapsed.”

“Did you get his name?”

“His name is Yuugi.” The stranger spoke for the first time, staring at her with those intense eyes that pierced her soul. “Mutou.”

No one reacted. No one heard.

Yori swallowed hard.

“Yuugi Mutou,” she said.

The paramedic made a note of it and insisted on getting her contact information. Fake name, fake number, and since she didn’t have a fake address prepared yet, she told the truth that she was new in town but lied that she was staying with an aunt. A firefighter confirmed there was no one else in the building, so the paramedics finished packing their ambulance while the red flames overtook the warehouse roof to lick the sky.

Yori just stood there, staring at the stranger until they closed the ambulance doors. The siren wailed, and the ambulance pulled into traffic.

She watched it until it disappeared.

++++++++++

Joey doubled over, panting, bracing his hands on his knees as he waited for the light on the crosswalk to change. An off-duty ambulance drove by. He swallowed hard, telling himself it wasn’t an omen of anything.

Across the street, he saw a familiar white head of hair.

“Ryou!” he shouted, waving his arms. The light changed, and Joey raced to him.

The albino turned, a dazed expression on his face.

“Where am I?” he asked.

Joey had to take a deep breath to keep himself from losing his temper. Ryou was the politest kid anyone could ever meet, but sometimes he was a complete ditz, always with terrible timing.

“’Bout a block from the game shop,” Joey said. “Where’s Yuug’?”

Ryou blinked slowly, jaw dropping at the same rate. He looked up and down the sidewalk.

“I don’t . . .” He swallowed. “We got separated, I guess.”

“You—” Joey bit it off with a growl. “It’s fine, man. Help us find him.”

Ryou bit his lip. He looked so stricken that Joey couldn’t help slapping him on the shoulder.

“It’s fine,” he repeated. “We just gotta find him. Now.”

With a nod, Ryou grabbed the cord around his neck, pulling the Millennium Ring into the open. He gripped both edges and closed his eyes. It started to glow.

Joey took an involuntary step back, watching the pointers on the ring as they quivered. For some reason, he could just imagine one of them springing up to stab him in the eye or something.

“Joey!” Anzu shouted. She and Tristan hurried to catch up. Joey was the fastest runner of the group, and he’d gotten a little carried away in his search. “Grandpa called!”

“Hold up,” Joey said.

Ryou opened his eyes, the glow on his item fading.

Anzu and Tristan reached them, and before either of them could speak, Joey saw the tears in Anzu’s eyes.

His mouth lost all its moisture at once. “What happened?”

“Yuugi’s in the hospital, man,” Tristan said, face grim. “He was in a fire.”

“No,” Ryou burst out. “I mean, he can’t be—I was just with him, I swear, not a moment ago—”

“Then we’re going to the hospital,” Joey said.

“Grandpa’s on his way already.” Anzu swiped at her eyes. “He said he’ll let us know which room.”

“What happened?” Tristan demanded, looking at Ryou.

Ryou shook his head, eyes wide. “I—I don’t—”

“They got separated,” Joey said. “Let’s go.”

He stepped to the edge of the street and waved his arm at a cab.

++++++++++

Yuugi’s consciousness roused to the sound of beeping. With a slight groan, he reached out to shut off his alarm clock, wishing for another hour to sleep, but he couldn’t find the stupid thing.

“Yuugi.”

Yuugi blinked his eyes open. The room wavered for a moment before coming into focus. All white. All sterile.

“I’m in the hospital?” His voice rasped out, barely audible. He moved his tongue around and swallowed. That helped.

Yami nodded, seated beside him on nothing but air.

“You’re okay?” Yuugi choked out. His eyes stung.

Yami nodded again. “I’m not the one in a hospital bed,” he said gently.

“I’m so sorry—”

“Hush,” Yami said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yuugi?” a new voice said.

Yuugi lifted his head to see his grandpa standing in the doorway. Yami disappeared.

“You’re awake!” Grandpa hurried forward. He nearly crushed Yuugi in a hug, but the boy soaked it in. After pulling back, Grandpa gripped his shoulders, looking him up and down. “How are you feeling?”

“My throat’s sore.” Yuugi attempted a smile.

Grandpa managed it better. “I spoke to the doctors just now, and they said you’ll be fine, but you need plenty of rest.”

At a sudden realization, Yuugi grabbed his grandpa’s hands urgently. “Is the girl okay?”

“The one who pulled you out? She’s just fine. They said she didn’t even need to be admitted.”

“She’s not here?” Yuugi swallowed, the action scraping all the way down his throat. “But I didn’t say thank you.”

“I’m just glad she helped,” Grandpa said.

Yuugi nodded, but he still felt the disappointment like a rock in his chest. “How did you know I was here?”

Grandpa frowned. “The doctors called me, of course.”

Yuugi matched the frown. “But how did they know to call you?”

“After that girl gave them your name, I’m sure they simply looked me up in the phone book.”

“Oh, obviously.” Yuugi tried for a laugh. “Guess I’m just kind of lightheaded.”

He did feel lightheaded, but that didn’t change the fact that he knew he’d never given the girl his name.

Grandpa pulled back, adjusting his seat on the edge of the bed. “What were you doing at an old warehouse of all places? What happened?”

Yuugi ran his tongue over his teeth and looked away. He was saved from answering by yet another voice.

“Yuug’!” Joey shouted as he rushed through the doorway. “You scared the livin’ daylights outta me!”

He skidded to a halt next to Yuugi’s bed, his grin lighting the whole room. Yuugi couldn’t help a wide return smile.

“Joey,” Anzu hissed, close behind. “It’s a hospital. Keep your voice down.”

“You okay, man?” Tristan elbowed Joey out of the way. “You didn’t get burned, did you?”

“I don’t think so,” Yuugi said. He glanced down at himself but just saw blankets. At least he could still feel all his limbs. He scooted into a better sitting position, careful of the IV in his hand.

“Just some heavy smoke inhalation,” Grandpa confirmed. “He’ll be just fine.”

Yuugi noticed Ryou hovering near the door, arms hugged tightly across his chest. When their eyes met, Ryou inched forward. “Yuugi, I’m so sorry, I didn’t—”

“It’s not your fault.” Yuugi smiled. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“How did you guys get separated?” Anzu asked.

“I got distracted by a street vendor,” Yuugi said without missing a beat. “I should have said something, but I didn’t think, and when I realized Ryou was gone, I figured we’d just meet up at the arcade. Obviously, I didn’t quite make it.”

Ryou gave him a small smile. Better than anyone, Yuugi knew what the albino was going through. He wasn’t about to throw his friend under the bus for something he couldn’t help.

Joey’s eyes were stormy under his bangs. “How’d you get in a fire?”

Yuugi shrugged.

“Someone after your puzzle?”

“The tune’s getting a little old now, I’ll admit.”

Anzu walked over to the small table beside Yuugi’s bed. His soot-covered clothes had been folded and left there for him, the puzzle on top. She touched the bolt still stuck through the puzzle’s loop.

Yuugi waited for the inevitable question, but instead, she said, “I’m glad you got out.”

“We all are,” Joey said fiercely.

And because he didn’t want to go through the details of everything, Yuugi simply nodded.

“I’m going to speak with the doctors again and see about taking you home,” Grandpa said, pushing himself to his feet.

“Thanks.” Yuugi winced. “I could really use a shower.”

After hearing him swear up and down that he was okay and that he’d keep them updated, his friends were finally satisfied enough to head home. Ryou lingered until the others had gone. The monitor beeped Yuugi’s vitals into the silence.

“It wasn’t so long this time,” he said finally.

“It gets better as you go.” Yuugi glanced at the puzzle. The empty eye stared back. “It won’t be so disorienting, and then you’ll get some awareness on the other side. Give it long enough and you’ll know what’s happening even when you’re not in control.”

Ryou stared down at the ground. A section of hair slid forward over his shoulder. “Unless he never lets that happen.”

“He can’t stop it,” Yuugi said firmly. “You’re stronger than he is; it’s your life.”

“I don’t feel stronger, mate.” Ryou looked up, and he smiled. “But I trust you.”

They shared a moment of comfortable silence before Ryou gave a nervous chuckle.

“Um, also.” He felt around in his pockets before withdrawing a handful of the fortune teller’s cards from each side. “I found these in my pockets afterward. I think he’s sort of . . . klepto. Last time, it was gum.”

Yuugi snorted. “At least he doesn’t go for shiny things.”

“Don’t give him any ideas.”

Against his better judgment, Yuugi said, “Do you have the Gemini card?”

Ryou sorted through cards until he nodded. “You want it?”

“Sometimes it’s nice to have a physical reminder not to make the same mistake.”

“I get that.” Ryou handed over the card, and Yuugi tucked it between the folds of his street clothes.

As a nurse entered the room, Ryou hurriedly shoved the rest of the cards back into his pockets.

“Alright, young man,” the nurse said, smiling at Yuugi. “Let’s get you home.”

“Stay safe, Yuugi.” Ryou gave a little wave, heading for the exit.

“You too,” Yuugi said.

Grandpa clapped Ryou on the shoulder as he passed, although he had to reach up to do so. “Be careful on your way home,” Grandpa said. “I don’t want to see any of you kids in danger.”

Ryou nodded and left.

The nurse unhooked Yuugi from his IV and bandaged his hand. As she removed the nodes tracking his vitals, he said, “Do you know the name of the girl who saved me? Or a way I could contact her?”

She consulted his chart. “Paramedics marked her name as Angel. Apparently the contact information she gave was fake. If not for the other patient’s confession that he started the fire, she would have been a suspect, but as it stands, I’d say it’s still best to stay away.”

“If she was trying to be a hero or get something out of it,” Yuugi said, “wouldn’t she have stuck around?”

“You never know with these adrenaline-junkie types,” the nurse said. “Maybe she gets off on the thrill of the rescue.”

She made a few notes on the chart, then cleared him to go. Yuugi changed back into his street clothes behind a dividing curtain. He worked the bolt free of the puzzle and stared at it for a moment. Goosebumps patterned his arms.

“You’ll never get that free,” a voice in his memory sneered. “So you can either be smart and get out or stay here to melt with the almighty pharaoh.”

He hung the puzzle around his neck and dropped the bolt in a trash can.

Chapter Text

FOUR DAYS EARLIER

Egypt: July 18, 1996

“Patience, Marik.” It was the answer to every question, appropriate to every occasion. Be it his desire to go aboveground or his quest to understand tradition, every supplication led to that miserable response: “Patience, Marik.” He’d heard it from his father, from his sister.

Now he was hearing it from Odion.

“Have some patience, Master Marik,” Odion coaxed. “The report won’t take long.”

“Patience won’t get me my missing god card,” Marik said, “and it won’t get me the pharaoh’s head on a stick, so really, what good is it?”

“It’s at least good for the rug.” A flicker of amusement appeared in his eyes.

Marik stomped a foot down on the rug in question, daring it to protest in any way. But he stopped pacing and moved to the window. He snatched the drink he’d left on the sill—though the gathered condensation on its surface almost made him drop the glass. He shook it to agitate the top layer of orange pulp before taking a swig. Then he swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and set the frigid drink down once more.

“Look at them out there.” Marik watched the street below. The masses of people ebbed and swelled through the market, shrinking as groups eddied to view the goods of specific vendors and expanding as they rejoined the human river. It made his eyes itch.

“What am I looking at, master?”

Marik had long since given up on telling Odion to just use his name. It wasn’t Odion’s fault, after all; it was difficult to break the blood lessons of twenty-plus years.

“The sheep.” Marik pressed his fingertips to the glass until his nails turned white and red.

Odion moved to stand next to him.

“They seem more akin to fish, don’t you think?” He peered through the window. “Look, I believe that one jumped.”

Marik couldn’t help himself; he laughed. He pointed at a corner stand where a man sat with a crystal ball and a lifetime’s worth of incense.

“What do you think that one would say about my fortune?”

Odion’s good humor vanished. It was rare enough to begin with, but the reasons it would suddenly disappear were a mystery Marik had been trying to puzzle out for years. He could remember a time when Odion’s smile had been commonplace; these days it was like lightning over the desert, mysteriously come and quickly gone without a trace.

A twinge passed through Marik’s back. He restrained himself from raising a hand to it, reminded himself harshly that the scars were old, that the sensation was only in his mind because he was jittery and frustrated. He reached for his drink again and let the cold in his throat wash away the irritation of his back.

The door to the room opened. Marik whirled around, his drink sloshing over the edge of its container, splashing down his fingers.

“Well?!” he demanded of the useless servant just hovering in the doorway.

“We’ve confirmed her destination,” the Ghoul said, frowning, “as Domino City, Japan. But it’s a place of nearly no importance.”

“Oh, it’s important all right.” Marik set his drink down once more. He shook his fingers, flicking droplets of juice to the floor.

“She has no return trip scheduled,” the Ghoul continued. “What could possibly keep her there?”

Marik licked the remaining juice from his thumb and smiled gruesomely.

“Destiny,” he said. “Come, Odion.”

He exited the building, Odion and the Ghoul in tow. The stench of the city hit him immediately, the mix of rotting fruit, sunbaked meat, and henna dyes that left their fingerprints on every street market. Marik withdrew the Millennium Rod from where he’d tucked it through his belt. The gold orb on top caught the sunlight, and the Eye of Horus stared greedily into the crowd ahead.

But Marik already had his targets in mind.

With confident strides, he made his way to the fortune teller’s table. The man’s arms and lips smiled wide.

“What have we here?” he said, completely oblivious to the power that should have sent him screaming. “Let me guess—a young Scorpio?”

Marik raised the rod, and it flashed with more than the sun. The man’s eyes glazed, the Eye of Horus glowing on his forehead before fading.

“Pack your things and head to the airport,” Marik said. “Catch the first flight to Japan, then take the fastest way to Domino. Scour the city until you find the boy who wears the Millennium Puzzle.”

As he spoke, he planted the image of the puzzle in the man’s mind. It would be more recognizable to him than his own face.

“Then report to me,” Marik said, “and we’ll have our first game.”

“Yes, Master Marik.” The man bowed woodenly. He opened a large bag and began stowing his incense.

Satisfied, Marik turned back to the street. A few curious eyes jerked away, as if they’d never noticed anything. Let them notice. Marik was not one to hide in the shadows; that business was for tombkeepers.

“Gather the local Ghouls, Odion,” Marik said. “Meet me in an hour. I’ll tell you where.”

Odion nodded and moved away. The Ghoul who’d brought in the report followed him.

Marik spun the rod between his fingers. The sunlight glinted off the gold item in his hand, the gold bands on his arms, and turned the air itself gold with the reflection. It was intoxicating.

He headed for the harbor. It took him a while to find the man he’d previously scouted, but Marik was never one to lose interest in his targets. Eventually, he found the captain lounging in an employee room, off-duty.

“Employees only,” the man grunted when Marik burst in.

Marik raised the rod. He felt the heat of the Eye of Horus on his forehead like sunlight.

“My men and I would like to go on a cruise,” he said, “and you’d very much like to take us.”

Just as it always did, the gratifying response came: “Yes, Master Marik.”

Marik laughed to himself. The rod was warm in his hands, and the future was hot on the horizon. After more than three years of preparation, his moment to shine had arrived.

“Your move, sister.” He smiled out the window at the ocean. “Lead me to the pharaoh.”

++++++++++

A gentle breeze stirred the hot air across the tarmac, shimmering every hard edge. Ishizu was used to blistering heat, however, so she merely wrinkled her nose beneath her veil. At home, the hot air carried a magical scent of sand and fragmented memories, but there was nothing magical about the heavy stink of tar, grease, and exhaust at the airport.

“Good afternoon, Miss Ishtar,” said an unfamiliar voice.

Ishizu turned to see two men approaching her from a small airport vehicle. Keeping her eyes on the suited strangers, Ishizu raised a hand to brush her necklace. The men vanished from her sight for the briefest moment as images flashed through her mind.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said as they drew to a stop next to her. She inclined her head. “I am glad the museum takes this investment so seriously.”

They hesitated before the same speaker gave a knowing smile. “We were told you weren’t expecting us, but I guess no one else knows about this, do they?”

“They do not, Mr. Gamal,” she agreed, although her heart panged. There was no way Marik didn’t know. Even without the use of her necklace, she was certain of that. “And in order to keep things that way, I believe the fewer members of security staff we have, the better. I already have a private guard at my disposal, and although I appreciate the museum’s concern, adding both of you to my escort will increase attention more than protection.”

The man’s smile turned down at the edges, his muscles visibly tensing beneath his suit jacket. Impressively, he didn’t demand to know how she knew his name or the information about his assignment.

“Unfortunately, ma’am, we’ve been hired by Mr. Tadashi, and only he can terminate our assignment.”

His companion nodded expressionlessly.

Ishizu considered the matter. The biggest threat to her actions was Marik, and since she was certain he already knew about her movements, there wasn’t much point in arguing.

“Very well,” she said simply. “As long as we’re on the subject of Mr. Tadashi, you may inform him that I am well aware of the surprise press conference he has planned, and I would be happy to make a public announcement for the exhibit on the condition that he gets me in contact with the CEO of KaibaCorp.”

The two men exchanged glances. The curiosity must have burned, but they simply nodded. Usually the knowledge she acquired with her necklace inspired a much stronger reaction in people.

Not far from their position, a group of airport workers loaded large, unmarked crates into the cargo bay of an airplane. As soon as they finished, Ishizu and her newly expanded security detail would board the airplane and fly to Domino, Japan, where she would then make public sacred knowledge her family had kept private for generations. Her father would have considered it a betrayal worthy of death.

But her father’s opinion no longer mattered.

“KaibaCorp?” the second man, Rashida, asked, his curiosity proving just a bit too much.

Ishizu smiled. “The CEO’s name is Seto Kaiba. It is of the utmost urgency that we speak.”

++++++++++

Japan: July 22, 1996

After nearly three years heading a major corporation, Seto Kaiba had lost count of the many things he’d learned to stomach—deals with corporate, soulless suits; criticism about his age from everyone, their step-uncle, and their goldfish; even death threats in various forms, to name just a few.

Something he would never get used to, however, was the uncanny ability of the press to turn up with information about any secret, no matter how carefully he thought he had it guarded.

“Mr. Kaiba!” another reporter shouted. She didn’t even bother to push her way through the group and instead raised her microphone above the heads in front of her. “Is it true this is your response to Pegasus Crawford’s Duelist Kingdom tournament four months ago? Is this an attempt to strike back at your former business partner?”

“I never have been nor ever will be business partners with Pegasus Crawford,” Seto said, keeping his form rigid and his face blank. He’d learned all too well that reporters would twist the smallest signs of body language to suit whatever emotion they wanted. If he scratched his eye at the wrong moment, an article would pop up in the tabloids with news of a secret love affair between himself and Pegasus, proven by the way he burst into tears at the very mention of the man’s name.

Of all the stress that came with running a business, the press was the worst of it.

“But KaibaCorp and Industrial Illusions once had a business deal involving your holographic gaming technology,” another reporter piped up. “What can you tell us about that?”

“No comment.” Seto’s voice was curt. This was old news, and anything he had to say on the matter had already been said in interviews a hundred times—minus the fact that Seto now owned the controlling interest in Pegasus’s company. He’d made the purchase under an unknown front company specifically to keep it out of the spotlight. It was only fair considering Pegasus had tried to take over KaibaCorp through much more sinister avenues.

A new microphone shoved itself into Seto’s face. He raised an eyebrow at the carrier, but the overweight man was not deterred.

“Without an Industrial Illusions deal, will KaibaCorp no longer be producing tech related to Duel Monsters despite the company’s intention to hold a Duel Monsters tournament?”

Seto waited for his personal security guard, Roland, to push the man back before he made his response.

“My company will continue to develop and release the highest-grade holographic technology to improve the gaming world.”

The original woman was back, reaching her arm at an unnatural angle, ready to fall forward at any moment. “Mr. Kaiba, will you be holding this tournament on your upcoming eighteenth birthday to celebrate your transition into adulthood?”

There always had to be a dig at his age. Always.

When he’d transitioned KaibaCorp from a weapons tech company to a gaming tech company, their stock had plummeted almost beyond recovery. According to the press, he was a fifteen-year-old egotist abusing his adoptive father’s hard-earned power in order to play childish games in an adult’s arena. The words differed in each article, but the idea was the same, and Seto had clipped each journalist’s inflated opinion out of the various magazines and stored them in a folder in his office for a two-fold purpose: to remind him where he started and to remind him to prove them wrong.

Almost two years after he took the reins, KaibaCorp released the Duel Field, which introduced augmented reality technology to everyday gaming. The public fell in love, and the company not only matched its former value but grew beyond it.

Yet the critics still griped. Seto refused to sell his technology for military purposes, which was the biggest source of censure. Gozaburo Kaiba was insufferable, they would say, but he cared about his country, as a man should. As long as Seto produced technology for everyday living but held out on national defense, he would always be seen as a child playing games in an adult’s arena, no matter how revolutionary he was about doing so.

The age bait was paltry, and Seto refused to take it. When he made no response, one of the reporters shoved their microphone at Mokuba, who stood just behind Seto.

“Mokuba, your brother is an international dueling champion. If he hosts his own tournament, will you be participating to follow in his footsteps?”

It was an appeal to pride in two directions. Mokuba was younger than Seto had been when he took over the company, and the press was hoping for either an outburst that he was going to show Seto up or that he was nothing like his brother; either one would be confirmation enough for the tournament with the added spice of family drama.

They underestimated Mokuba even more than they’d underestimated Seto.

Mokuba kept his face expressionless and, without hesitation, said, “No comment, sir.”

Seto allowed himself a smirk. But he’d been delayed long enough, and however the press had caught wind of his secret, it was out, so he might as well use it to his advantage. Time to dangle a carrot.

“At this time,” he said, drawing all attention instantly, “I am not releasing any information about a Duel Monsters tournament my company is holding.”

It didn’t take two seconds for someone to jump on the bait.

“Mr. Kaiba, does this mean you’ll release information at a later date?”

“So you confirm the reports that KaibaCorp is hosting a tournament?”

“No further comments,” Seto said. Let them chew on that for a while and circulate the rumors until he was ready for an official press release. He nodded to Roland, who began to clear a path through the mob, allowing Seto and Mokuba to stride through the center of the group to their waiting limo.

Once safely locked behind tinted windows, Seto expelled his breath in a rush.

“How’d the press find out about your tournament, Seto?” Mokuba asked, eyes glued to the window.

From outside, Seto could still hear the snapping cameras and shouts of his name. He scowled.

“Secrets are their paychecks,” he replied. He pressed a button on the console that opened an intercom connection with the limo’s cab. “Roland, swing by the Domino Museum on the way home.”

“Yes, sir,” came the instant reply.

Mokuba whipped his head around. “Why the museum?”

“Something sparked my curiosity.” Hopefully it wouldn’t be a waste of his time.

KaibaCorp headquarters was only a few blocks from the museum, so the trip was quick. Upon arriving, Seto stepped out but motioned for Mokuba to stay.

To Roland, he said, “Stay with him. I won’t be long.”

“Yes, Mr. Kaiba.”

Mokuba stuck his head out the window, lips down in a pout. “Why can’t I come, Seto?”

Seto eyed the sign by the door advertising a new Egyptian exhibit. “Because I don’t trust this woman.”

He gripped his silver briefcase, ascending the museum steps. Two burly men stood guard at the glass doors. Sunglasses concealed their eyes, but Seto could feel the twin gazes. He kept his head up and gave them his best cold stare in return, pleased to see them tense up. Mokuba always joked that he should trademark his “Kaiba Glare.”

As the automatic doors slid apart, Seto moved his eyes to the interior of the building. A woman stood in the entranceway, decked out in gold bracelets and bands like she’d stepped out of the Egyptian exhibit herself.

And he saw the choker on her neck.

And he recognized the golden eye.

And a headache pulsed to life in his temples; he should have just gone straight home.

“Ishizu Ishtar, I presume,” he drawled.

The woman inclined her head without moving her dark blue eyes from his. “I had hoped you would be gracious enough to speak with me yourself rather than passing my call through three secretaries.”

She obviously lived in a pyramid back in Egypt—she’d have to live under a giant rock if she thought CEOs of international corporations answered their own phones.

“My time is worth more than you can afford,” he said, “and you’ve already wasted a minute of it. You get four more before I’m gone.”

Ishizu surveyed him for another moment before turning away. “Come with me.”

The Egyptian woman led him through a door marked for employees only and down a dark staircase. He kept his eyes narrowed on her the entire time. The years in KaibaCorp had also taught him to expect an attack from anyone, no matter how non-threatening they seemed.

The lights ahead of them turned on automatically, illuminating the large storage basement.

“Tell me, Mr. Kaiba.” Ishizu turned to face him. “How much do you know of ancient Egypt?”

He gave her a half-lidded stare. “I’m into technology,” he said. “Not mummies.”

“How ironic.” She smiled, and his headache grew more pronounced. “But perhaps I may appeal to your modern sensibilities with a different approach.”

She led him to the edge of the storage room, where a set of glass cases protected three massive stone tablets.

“Tell me, Mr. Kaiba,” she said. “How much do you know of Duel Monsters?”

Seto’s eyes widened, and he took a step closer to the first glass case. The carvings on the tablet within had been divided into individual boxes, and though they were crude, he recognized a few of the depictions. One showed the profile of a man with pointed ears in armor, grasping a sword.

“Celtic Guardian,” Seto murmured, gripping the handle of his briefcase tighter. Another carving drew his gaze, this one of a man with an ox head. “Battle Ox.”

Ishizu had her eyes on the carvings as well. “Years ago, Pegasus Crawford visited a sacred tomb in Egypt. His hope was to understand the afterlife and, if possible, gain power from Anubis to return his deceased wife to mortality. Instead, he discovered a darker power—that of the Millennium Items.”

Seto’s interest had died somewhere around “sacred tomb,” and Ishizu must have noticed the look on his face because she shook her head.

“But as you say,” she said, “you are not ‘into’ these aspects of history. To summarize matters, Pegasus was exposed to this tablet and others like it, the remnants of an ancient war fought in Egyptian souls. He drew inspiration and created a modern card game. A personal favorite of yours.”

“Duel Monsters.” Seto shrugged. “Interesting origin, but I already knew Pegasus was nuts, so I hope you had more purpose in bringing me here than just story time.”

Ishizu moved down the line and clicked her nails against the glass on the third case, a mysterious half-smile on her face. “Perhaps this will spark something.”

Seto narrowed his eyes, moving to stand next to her. His breath caught in his throat as he stared up at the jagged stone tablet. A familiar figure stood out on this tablet as well, but not a duel monster. It was Yuugi Mutou—all the way from his weird puzzle necklace to his crazy spiked hair to his favorite monster, the Dark Magician, engraved above him.

Seto rounded on Ishizu with his Kaiba Glare. “Time’s up.”

Ishizu didn’t get the message. In no rush, she said, “The person you see engraved on this tablet is an Egyptian pharaoh. You have come to recognize him under the name of his mortal vessel—”

Seto was already walking toward the staircase.

“Mr. Kaiba,” she said sharply.

“If you ever contact me again,” Seto tossed over his shoulder, “you’ll find yourself in police custody under suspicion of terrorist activities. Then we’ll see how much time you lose from a prank.”

“No interest in possessing a god card, then?”

Seto halted, his foot poised on the bottom step. He ground his teeth.

“What?” he said, hoping he wouldn’t hate himself in a moment for taking the bait.

“I told your secretaries there would be something of great interest to you here. The reference was not to a feature of the exhibit.”

Seto glanced over his shoulder. Ishizu hadn’t moved from the glass display, but she held a Duel Monsters card aloft, poised between two fingers. Even across the distance between them, the depicted monster’s eyes pierced Seto’s core.

Seeing that she had his attention again, Ishizu gestured once more at the stone tablet.

“Observe the uppermost carvings,” she said.

Seto dragged in a deep breath and approached the tablet again. The top quarter of stone had been filled with three monster carvings: a snake-like dragon, a hulking golem, and a crowning phoenix.

Despite the rudimentary skill used to capture them, the carvings dried out his mouth. His insides seemed to shrink under their gaze, just as they had when he’d looked at Ishizu’s card.

He turned back to the card now. With the artistry and detail enhanced, the hulking blue golem seemed ready to step from the card and reach for Seto’s throat.

Ishizu’s gaze was steely. “The depictions you see before you are of three god monsters, created in Egypt’s time of need to aid the pharaoh. Against all sound counsel, Pegasus also depicted these god monsters in his game. It took the lives of most of his production team before he realized his error. He attempted to destroy the cards, but once invoked, the gods refused to be silenced. In the end, he delivered the three cards to me.”

“Right.” Seto scoffed. “What makes you so special?”

“I am of a lineage powerful enough to control the gods,” she said. Her eyes narrowed on his. “And my birthright pales next to yours.”

Seto’s narrowed in return. “I’m not big on bloodlines. Might be a result of the whole adoption thing. Might be because what you’re suggesting is ridiculous. That card might be the most powerful thing to come to Duel Monsters, but it’s still just a card.”

“Then witness for yourself.” She extended the card. “I gift Obelisk to you.”

As much as Seto wanted to play it cool, he took it without hesitation. As soon as he grasped it, a static shock traveled from his hand to his elbow, numbing the nerves in his fingertips. The title at the bottom of the card read Obelisk, the Great War God.

Seto looked up, fire in his eyes. “This is the part where you offer to complete my set.”

“I’m well aware you’re a collector.” Ishizu touched her necklace briefly. “But you are not the only one. The other two god cards were stolen from me by the leader of a group of rare-card-hunters called ‘Ghouls.’”

“So we’ve finally reached your motivation. You want me to get the other two god cards back for you.”

“On the contrary, Mr. Kaiba. If you are able to retrieve the god cards, the set is yours. I hold you under no obligation to return any of them to me.”

Seto frowned. “Then what do you get out of this?”

For a moment, her eyes unfocused. “We profit nothing from fulfilling destiny. It is simply as things must be.”

“O-kay.” Seto slid the god card into the hidden pocket of his violet duster. “That would be my cue to leave.”

Her gaze came back to him. “You will soon hold a tournament in this city.”

Seto rolled his eyes. “Funny how I haven’t made the announcement, yet everyone already seems to know.”

“The leader of the Ghouls has an iron will. If you open your tournament to the public, as you plan to do, he will come to claim what he views as rightfully his.”

Seto smirked. “Let him come.”

In point of fact, her mention of destiny didn’t ring completely false. Seto had already outlined his tournament rules, and one in particular was so perfect for his new situation, he might have said it was divinely designed.

If he believed in such things, anyway.

“Seto.”

Seto startled at the informal address. He frowned, but Ishizu continued before he could say anything.

“For all your intelligence”—her voice was quiet now, but her eyes were piercing—“you put a great deal of effort into ignoring the obvious. But no one can escape their destiny.”

It was unnerving to say the least. Seto didn’t know what she meant, and he didn’t care to find out.

“We’re done here,” he snarled.

He left the museum without a second glance.

Chapter Text

Yori found a pay phone just down the street from the warehouse, a phone book dangling from the metal stand by a flimsy chain. She flipped through the weathered pages until she came to “Mutou.” There were only two family entries: Bato Mutou and Sugoroku Mutou. Bato had no children listed, but Sugoroku did. Yuugi Mutou, no personal number. The address was for a game shop.

She glanced up the street. The shadows were lengthening already; she was losing the afternoon fast. Unless she wanted to sleep on the streets, she needed to get her position in town sorted out by nightfall. That meant finding the Katsuma guy and making a good impression. Or at least a strong one.

The hollow eye on her bracelet stared at her. Eight cities and this was the first one with a lead. Maybe that was worth one uncomfortable night.

First things first, though—she was covered in grime and ash. She flipped through the phone book again until she found the closest bathhouse. Then she started walking.

++++++++++

Washing away all the ash and smoke helped Yuugi breathe easy again for more than one reason. He’d thrown his clothes directly into the washer and started the machine, and a few spritzes around the house with an air freshener had taken care of any lingering smell. After his shower, he changed into pajamas because he more than deserved it, even if he looked ridiculous wearing the puzzle over the light blue flannel.

The game shop was minutes from closing, so he didn’t worry too much when he made his way downstairs in his pajamas.

Sure enough, the store was empty except for his grandpa, who was busy sweeping behind the register.

“Dinner’s on the table,” Grandpa said. “It should still be warm. Hand me the dustpan?”

Yuugi grabbed the dustpan from the counter and crouched down, holding it steady for the broom.

“You should eat!” Grandpa protested.

Yuugi laughed. “I can help out first.”

Grandpa shook his head, sweeping a thin pile of dust into the pan. While Yuugi emptied it into the trash, Grandpa tucked the broom into the narrow cleaning cupboard by the shoes.

As Yuugi handed off the dustpan to join its companion, Grandpa asked quietly, “Did you want to talk about today?”

Yuugi swallowed. He glanced around at the shop, and it suddenly felt smaller than it ever had before.

“Not yet,” he said.

Grandpa nodded. “I’ll still be here tomorrow.”

Just then, the music of home sounded, and the front door swung open. Without thinking, Yuugi ducked below the register, face burning. He should have waited until after the shop officially closed to change into his pajamas.

Grandpa chuckled, then turned to the customer.

“Welcome to the Kame Game Shop. What can I help you find?”

“Are you Sugoroku Mutou?” She sounded young, which made Yuugi blush harder. If it would have been an old lady shopping for kids or grandkids, he could have ducked quickly into the adjoining room without too much embarrassment, but there was no way he was moving with a girl his age in the store.

Hopefully she wouldn’t come near the register. Or buy anything. Or stay long.

“Him I am.” Grandpa hooked his thumbs through the straps of his overalls. He gave a knowing smile. “Did someone refer you?”

Why did his pajamas have giant stars on them, anyway? It had seemed like no big deal in the store. He’d been a naïve fool in the store.

“I’m looking for Yuugi, actually.”

Yuugi’s heart stopped.

A moment passed in silence, then Grandpa said, “You’re Angel, aren’t you?”

“That’s what they call me.” She sounded almost embarrassed.

Not as embarrassed as Yuugi felt. But he took a deep breath and stood.

She didn’t notice him at first because Grandpa had walked out from behind the register to pull her into a hug. Her wide eyes and stiff posture said she hadn’t expected and wasn’t comfortable with the action.

“Thank you,” Grandpa said, voice breaking.

“Um, yeah. Of course.” She gave him a tentative return hug. Her cheeks darkened, so at least Yuugi wasn’t alone with the blush.

Grandpa stepped back and beamed at her. She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, glancing over her shoulder at the door. Angel had scarlet red hair, the half-inch-or-so of black roots betraying it as dyed. Her eyes were dark, and her clothes were plain, and she looked nothing like an adrenaline junkie or a thrill seeker.

“How did you know my name?” Yuugi asked.

She looked up at him, and he slapped a hand over his mouth, his entire face burning more than ever.

“I’m sorry!” he burst out. “Thank you! I wanted to start with thank you, and I never got a chance at the hospital, and then I didn’t think I’d ever see you—”

“It’s okay,” she said. The corner of her mouth twitched, her shoulders relaxing. “You don’t have to thank me. I was hoping we could talk.”

She lifted a hand, hesitated, then scrunched back her right sleeve.

The Eye of Horus looked out at Yuugi from the Millennium Bracelet.

“Oh . . .” Grandpa exhaled, and Yuugi noticed a tremor in his hands. “I think we’d better sit down. I’ll make some tea.”

Angel glanced at the door again. Yuugi couldn’t really blame her—they were still strangers, and if her Millennium Item brought her half the trouble his did, keeping the exit close by was always a good idea.

“We can sit in here,” he offered. “I’ll bring in some chairs.”

She hesitated for a moment longer, then said, “Tea sounds nice.”

Grandpa switched the sign on the door to “Closed” before disappearing into the other room. Yuugi desperately wanted to change into something less embarrassing, but something told him if Angel was left alone too long, she’d bolt, so instead, he pulled three folding chairs from the downstairs storage room, set them up quickly, and planted himself in the one next to the register. Angel perched on the edge of hers, her eyes roaming the small room. She’d brought a bag with her, which she’d set on the floor beside her chair.

“Do you like games?” Yuugi asked.

“I like Duel Monsters,” she said. For the first time, he noticed the deck pouch on her belt.

“Me too! I play a lot of games, but Duel Monsters is special.” His hand automatically moved to where he kept his own deck, but of course he wasn’t wearing a belt. Still, he grinned. “You’re in the right place for that.”

She circled a finger in the air, gesturing at all the shelves of cards beneath Duel Monsters posters. “So I see.”

In the other room, the sharp whistle of a teakettle pierced the air.

Angel rubbed her bracelet. She glanced at Yuugi’s puzzle, then looked away.

“Your friend told me,” she said, plucking at her sleeve. “That’s how I knew your name.”

Yuugi frowned. “Ryou?”

“Is that his name?” Her gaze was suddenly intense on his, like his response had validated something.

“I didn’t realize he followed me,” he said. “I thought he . . .”

“He got there after I did, but he went in the ambulance with you.”

That didn’t make sense. Of course, Yuugi had been unconscious, so he wasn’t sure when Ryou had regained control, but—

Angel’s dark eyes still bored into his. “No one else could see him.”

It couldn’t be.

It couldn’t be.

Could it?

“I hope you enjoy Oolong,” Grandpa said, entering the room with a tray of three steaming teacups. Normally, Yuugi would have leapt to his feet to help with the tray, but he was frozen in place.

“I do,” Angel said. Her eyes were still on Yuugi.

Grandpa set the tray on the counter and handed out cups. Yuugi curled his hands around the hot ceramic, staring down into the golden depths while a different kind of gold lurked at the bottom edge of his vision.

//Yami?// he reached out.

Although Yami didn’t speak, Yuugi felt his attention like a gaze from across a room.

//The girl who saved me is here,// he said.

Yami appeared instantly. At the same moment, Angel, who’d been in the middle of accepting her teacup from Grandpa, started in surprise, dumping hot Oolong down her shirt.

She jumped to her feet, apologizing, and Grandpa hurried to grab a towel from the tray, apologizing, and Yuugi just sat frozen again, a smile growing on his face.

“You can see him,” he said. “You really can.”

“What?” Grandpa paused before setting Angel’s nearly empty teacup back on the tray.

Angel scrubbed at her jeans with the towel and used it to squeeze tea from the front of her black shirt. But she kept glancing at Yami while she did.

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Yami said. His voice was tentative, like he expected her not to hear.

But she waved him off and said, “It’ll wash out.”

Yuugi’s smile hurt his eyes, and he didn’t miss the breathless look on Yami’s face, which was more expression than the pharaoh usually showed in spirit form.

“I seem to be missing something,” Grandpa said.

“Angel can see Yami.”

“Not Ryou?” Angel said at the same time Grandpa said, “Of course.”

Yuugi gestured at Yami while he kept his eyes on Grandpa. “Angel, Yami. Yami, Angel. What do you mean, ‘of course’?”

Angel handed the towel back to Grandpa as she resumed her seat. He gave her the last teacup, which she took with exaggerated care.

“It’s an effect of the bracelet.” He smiled gently. “I would assume you’ve seen spirits before.”

She swallowed. “Just one. I thought he was an imaginary friend. I haven’t seen him since . . . Well, it’s been a while.”

“How did you come by the artifact?” Grandpa kept his eyes on the tray as he asked, gently tipping the empty teacup at its base. Yuugi noticed that same tremor in his hand as before.

“It was a gift from my mom.” Angel shrugged. “I assume she picked it up from a pawn shop or something. That was kind of her thing.”

“A pawn shop . . .” The teacup stilled, and for a moment, Yuugi almost thought his grandpa’s eyes were watering. Then the man looked up with a smile. “At any rate, I imagine you’d like to know more about it.”

“That’s why I came. I’d never seen anything like it until today.”

“Oh boy,” Yuugi said, “are you in for a story.”

Grandpa sank into his chair with a long exhale. Yuugi and Angel sipped at their tea as they waited for him to gather his thoughts.

“I wish I could guarantee you answers,” he said finally, tugging at the knot that held his black bandana in place over his frazzled gray hair. “I’ve dedicated years of my life to studying the Millennium Items—many archaeologists have, but even culminated together, our information doesn’t add up to much. Mainly speculations.”

“So that’s what these are?” Angel gestured between her bracelet and the puzzle. “Millennium Items?”

“A somewhat misleading name,” Grandpa said, “since the items are roughly three millennia old.”

“Come again?”

Yuugi smiled. “Grandpa carbon-dated the puzzle when he uncovered it in Egypt. He used to be an archaeologist before he retired.”

“My master’s was in game theory,” Grandpa said, “and then life got away from me, as it has a tendency to do.”

Angel stared down at her bracelet. “This thing was with the mummies?”

Yuugi laughed.

“The items were lacking a mummy, to be precise,” Yami said, speaking for the first time since his appearance. Normally he would disappear when Yuugi held conversations with other people; this was the first time he’d stayed.

“What do you mean?” Angel frowned.

“Yami’s here?” Grandpa said, showing the same pleasant surprise Yuugi felt.

“Forgive me,” Yami said. “Mr. Mutou can explain better than I.”

For a moment, Yuugi thought he would leave after all, but he stayed, and Angel turned her attention back to Grandpa.

“No mummy?” she said, raising her eyebrows.

Grandpa’s face grew more serious. “The seven Millennium Items are believed to have been created by a pharaoh who lived roughly 3,000 years ago. And no, unlike his contemporaries, he was not mummified upon his death. Instead of a body, his tomb was the resting place of the items.”

“What happened to him?” Angel asked.

Yuugi pointed sheepishly at Yami.

“What?” Angel’s eyes widened, showing a halo of white. “Really? A pharaoh?”

“Recently retired,” Yami said.

Angel laughed, as did Yuugi; it was possibly the first time he’d ever heard Yami make a joke.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Angel said, eyeing Yuugi, “but why do you look like the slightly shorter twin of an ancient pharaoh?”

“Black magic,” Yuugi said, fingering part of his blonde fringe, “called hair dye and gel. I figured it was easier to change my look than to have my friends wonder why I was two people.”

“That’s how you looked as pharaoh?” Angel nearly spilled her tea again as she pointed at Yami’s spiked, tri-colored hair.

“One can only assume.” Yami touched the back of his neck. If he weren’t in spirit form, Yuugi was certain he would be blushing. At least he wasn’t wearing Yuugi’s pajamas. His spirit form always reflected what he’d last worn in the physical realm, which happened to be Yuugi’s school uniform.

“Oh, Egyptian nobles were very particular about their hair,” Grandpa said, getting the spark in his eyes he always got when talking about history, “so much so that many of them shaved bald in order to wear wigs or headdresses that could be designed to their liking and changed according to occasion. And after putting a great deal of thought into it, I believe I have a theory about the color.”

“Grandpa, you’ve put a great deal of thought into Yami’s hair?” Yuugi grinned mischievously while Yami shot him something that could only be described as a dirty look.

The wonders just kept coming.

Grandpa pushed on. “The black is likely natural, of course, but red is the color of the god Osiris’s beast form, who was said to be a protector to the pharaoh. By the same token, gold is representative of the sun god, Ra, who was believed to be partially incarnated into each new pharaoh.”

“So it’s a double-edged sword,” Angel said, trying so hard not to smile that her nostrils flared. “Trendy and tributary.”

“Say what you will,” Yami said.

Truth be told, Yuugi had loved his hair from the moment he dyed it. Tri-colored hair made him stand out, sure, but it also made him feel confident. He couldn’t be lost in a crowd. He couldn’t be ignored.

“I like it,” Angel said, letting her smile show.

“At any rate,” Grandpa said, “we digress. The items were created for an unknown purpose, and each has respective powers.”

“If mine lets me see ghosts”—Angel pointed at the puzzle—“what does yours do?”

“The puzzle houses the pharaoh’s spirit,” Yuugi said, his face heating again. “It also can’t be taken against my will, though that hasn’t been very helpful up to this point.”

“Yeah, I get that from the fire today.” Angel’s expression darkened. Yuugi was afraid she’d ask for more details, but then her eyes shifted to her bracelet, and she leaned back like it might hiss. “This thing doesn’t have a spirit in it. I mean, I would have noticed that by now, right?”

“As far as I can gather, only two items contain spirits.” Grandpa held up a finger for each. “The Millennium Puzzle, which holds the pharaoh, and the Millennium Ring, which we assume holds a past enemy of his.”

“You assume?”

Yuugi gripped his teacup. “He showed up while I was at Duelist Kingdom with my friends. He wanted to crush the pharaoh in a shadow game. And that’s the thing—he specifically knew about the pharaoh.”

“Enemy. Gotcha.” Angel shook her head. “By the way, congrats on winning the Duelist Kingdom tournament. I do remember seeing those big announcements; it’s just, you looked different. You looked more like . . .”

She trailed off as she glanced at Yami, and he rubbed the back of his neck again.

“Right. Yep. Mm-hmm.” She went back to drinking her tea.

Grandpa smiled. “The puzzle seems to help maintain the illusion that the pharaoh is Yuugi, but once you know the truth, the differences become obvious.”

The room sat in comfortable silence as Yuugi and Angel both finished off their tea. Grandpa stood to collect the cups, but as he took Angel’s, he hesitated.

“Angel, are you new in town, by any chance?”

She stiffened, casting a quick glance at the black duffel bag by her chair. Yuugi blinked, wondering what had led his grandpa to that conclusion.

“Uh, yeah,” she said finally. “I am.”

Grandpa gripped the cups. He was quiet for a moment, as if debating, before he seemed to come to a decision.

“We have an extra room upstairs if you need somewhere to stay. Would you be interested?”

Yuugi’s jaw dropped. Grandpa hadn’t rented out the upstairs room in years. Between the dirt collection and the highly vocal obsession with beavers, their last tenant had been obnoxious in the extreme. Grandpa had sworn he’d never have another one, that the lower income was worth the peace of mind.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t—” Angel hurried to her feet.

Grandpa held up a hand. “I’m not trying to be overly polite, and if you have another place worked out, there’s no pressure. But if you’re willing to work around the store here and there, we can arrange a good deal on rent, and the extra hands would do me good.”

Angel didn’t immediately move to protest. She glanced again at her bag.

Yuugi had just assumed she lived in town. Even if she was new, he would have expected her to have somewhere to live with her parents. But maybe she was older than he’d assumed—nineteen or twenty and here on her own. If that was the case . . .

He jumped to his feet. “Please stay!”

Naturally, he liked Angel a lot—she’d saved his life and everything—but the plea was for Yami’s sake.

“It’s a private bedroom with its own bath,” Grandpa said, “and you’ll have your own key so you can come and go at whatever hours suit you. You’ll be able to use the kitchen, entertainment room, and laundry. You could even get those clothes in the wash right away, before the stains set.”

Angel rubbed her bracelet. Then she smiled.

“You know how to make an offer,” she said. “I’ll stay.”

And it didn’t escape Yuugi’s notice that the biggest smile in the room was Yami’s.

Chapter Text

Several unbreakable rules had kept Yori alive on the streets for four years. Most of them revolved around interactions with others, such as never start a fight without power or leverage, be useful to more than one big dog in case one decides to bite, and be courteous when you can but be ruthless when you can’t. It was a code of conduct on the streets that separated the wise from the dead, especially for those surviving alone instead of joining a gang.

When she’d first run away from her foster home, she’d thought it would be best to stay away from people—like there was some magical, isolated bubble she could survive in. It didn’t take long to realize that relationships were more important in her life on the streets than they’d ever been before. Survival was more about the people you knew and how you made yourself useful to them than it was about any kind of personal skill. She nearly starved before she got the message, and after that, she took many a serious beating along the road to implementing it.

Not to mention one giant pothole by the name of Haku. The mistake that still haunted her nightmares.

But she was still standing, and these days, interactions came naturally to her: who to bribe, who to avoid, who to befriend. Yuugi Mutou wouldn’t have made any of those lists normally, but the Millennium Item business changed things. The room offer changed them even more. It would have been stupid of her to refuse, especially after she and Sugoroku worked out the full details of how much she would help in the shop and how much rent she would pay. For a slightly cheaper price, she likely could have stayed in Katsuma’s territory, but it would have been a huge downgrade in safety and quality, and Yori had finally reached a point in life where she was ready for a step up rather than down.

After all, her eighteenth birthday was right around the corner. Her intention in coming to Domino was not the usual “stay for a few months, then move on”—this time things were big picture. Maybe even permanent, if she got lucky.

And so far, she’d been very lucky. Sugoroku and Yuugi were the most respectful roommates she’d ever had. Sugoroku’s initial rules held true; she was free to come and go whenever she wanted without any questions or obligations. She set her own schedule of when to help out in the shop, and he accepted it.

At the end of her first week in the store, she and Sugoroku unboxed a new release of spell cards, and after she’d finished clearing room for them on a shelf, he said, “Have you ever seen this one before?”

He extended a card to her called The Price of Time. The card showed a clock face where the hands had been replaced by a cross. Yori shook her head.

“It’ll be good for you in a pinch. Here you go.”

Yori had to ask twice before she was sure he was giving it to her for free.

“You’ve earned it!” He chuckled. “You’ve really brightened this place up—not to mention the wonders you’ve done for my back.”

And Yori smiled and said thank you even though she knew her assistance was minimal at best.

The biggest reason for that was Yuugi. No one in the Mutou household could get overburdened with anything if Yuugi was in the room (or even within shouting distance), including Yori. It didn’t take long before she’d lost track of how many times she’d heard Yuugi’s chipper voice say, “I can help!” He carried laundry, chopped vegetables, washed dishes, guided customers, ran errands, and more, not only without complaint but without invitation.

At first, it had bothered her. She was used to give-and-take relationships on the streets, where people only acted with distinct expectations, and she became repeatedly frustrated trying to understand Yuugi’s motivations for helping so much. But Yuugi didn’t look for what he could get out of something before acting; he also didn’t keep a mental tally in order to call in return favors later.

Yuugi was just kind, and that was the whole of it.

She’d rarely encountered that before, certainly never lived with it, so it took some adjusting. But after a while, she looked forward to seeing him bounce around. There was a constant warmth within the game shop that had nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with Yuugi.

Outside the game shop, life in Domino was much the same as other cities she’d encountered, but her first impressions of the city stayed true; Domino had room to breathe. It also had a rich park culture. Even on weekdays, the parks were regularly filled with street performers, snack carts, and other vendors.

It was in South Bridge Park that she found her second relationship in Domino, with a band called Purple Hearts. Her luck continued to hold because, just as the Mutou family gave her the best living arrangement she’d ever had, Purple Hearts gave her the best income. The four existing members of the band were experienced street performers, and when Yori sang fearlessly from the crowd at a morning performance, they recognized the opportunity to add female vocals to the group. She was on the stage for the next song, and after she showed off with a guitar, she was in the band for good.

So it was that Yori made her first hundred dollars in Domino without betting on a duel. She’d never managed that in any past city. Normally, her music interests got pushed to the side because she didn’t own a guitar or other instrument, and no one was interested in paying an acapella singer on the sidewalk corner.

“You ever think of going professional?” Jiro asked after their third performance together.

“While awake?” Yori gave a self-deprecating shrug.

“That’s where we’re heading.” He eyed her seriously. “Think about it.”

It took a lot of effort for Yori to keep her emotions calm after that. The only thing that managed it was the thought that everything in Domino was too perfect. Any day, a tsunami would come crashing in to wipe Domino off the map, or an over-diligent police officer would recognize her, or these people she’d met would suddenly wake up and be normal. However it came, there was a storm on the horizon. There had to be.

But the days kept passing, and somehow, the sky stayed clear.

Yuugi tried to get her involved in activities with his friends, but she drew the line there. Just because she was having some luck and enjoying herself didn’t mean it would be wise to blow her low profile completely out of the water. So she smiled politely when Joey, Tristan, Anzu, or Ryou came into the game shop, but when they did, she hit the streets.

On one such occasion, just before she made it out the door, she heard Tristan say, “That Angel chick sure is skittish, isn’t she?”

When Yori glanced back, it wasn’t Tristan’s eyes she met.

It was Yami’s.

Then the door swung closed, and he was gone. All the way from the game shop to the park, she couldn’t get his piercing eyes out of her mind.

If she was keeping a low profile, Yami was keeping a nonexistent one. Most days, she never saw him at all; it was just Yuugi bouncing around the game shop, helping where he could, hanging with his friends over summer break. But every once in a while, she would turn to find him suddenly there, standing just over Yuugi’s shoulder, regarding her with those beautiful violet eyes that gave nothing away. He never said anything, and whenever he was caught staring, he always disappeared quickly.

Twice, she tried to speak to him, but even a simple hello got stuck in her throat. It was such a strange situation; she could see him as clearly as anything—as real as Yuugi, as real as the precariously balanced games stacked on every shelf, as real as her own hands. Yet at the same time, he wasn’t there. Not in the same way everyone else was. If he would have started a conversation with her, she was positive he would have been as easy to talk to as anyone else, but with just the silence between them, all she felt was strange, and it stopped her words.

She’d been living at the game shop for three weeks before she found a way to break that silence.

Just as she finished bagging a set of Mahjong for a customer, Yuugi came skipping through the front door, returning home from a day out with his friends.

“I got the mail!” he chirped. He waved it over his head like a surprise gift, then paused to hold the door for the customer, inviting the man to come again.

“Anything good?” Sugoroku asked, flipping the store’s sign from “Open” to “Closed.”

Yuugi spread the envelopes across the counter, picking through the stack. Yori untied her apron, tossing it on one of the hooks in the cleaning cupboard. Just as she was about to head for her room, she heard Yuugi give a small gasp.

When she glanced back, all the careless energy had drained from his face, leaving a fierce expression she’d never seen him wear. He lifted a crisp white envelope from the pile. Both sides had been embossed with an overlapping K and C.

Yami appeared as suddenly as always, but for once, his eyes weren’t on Yori; they were on the envelope.

Sugoroku moved to stand with Yuugi, regarding the envelope with the same kind of severity.

“Looks like he’s decided it’s time,” the old man said.

“What’s this?” Yori asked, unable to help it. The way they were reacting, the piece of mail was either a lottery announcement or a ransom note. Without realizing it, she directed her question to Yami, since he’d appeared between her and Yuugi.

And he answered: “It’s from Kaiba.”

The name seemed familiar, so Yori could only assume he was one of Yuugi’s friends or a customer of the shop.

Yuugi tore the envelope open, withdrawing a single sheet of thick blue cardstock. The silver lettering was bold and clear: Yuugi Mutou, Domino City Plaza, August 16, 7:00 PM.

“Sounds like he’s calling you out to fight,” Yori said.

“He is.” Yami’s voice was quiet, his expression dark.

“Seto’s holding a Duel Monsters tournament,” Yuugi said, gently tucking the invitation back into its envelope. “It’s all anyone can talk about lately; it’s supposed to be bigger than Duelist Kingdom. Guess he’s ready to officially announce it.”

“That date is this Friday.” Sugoroku smiled. “Better get your deck ready.”

Yuugi gripped the envelope. He turned to look at Yami, and the two of them nodded at each other.

Then Yuugi disappeared.

If Yori would have been holding tea, she would have spilled it. She’d grown used to Yami popping in and out of existence, but this was the first time Yuugi had ever done it.

Yami now stood where Yuugi had been. His outfit had been updated to Yuugi’s sleeveless black shirt and leather pants. He unsnapped the deck holder on his belt, withdrawing his deck like a cowboy drawing his revolver.

“I’ve been saving some cards you might be interested in,” Sugoroku said, as if nothing had happened. “You said you wanted to improve your traps. Top box on that back shelf.”

Yami moved to the indicated box. While his back was turned, Yori leaned in close to Sugoroku and hissed, “You can see him now?”

Sugoroku chuckled. “Of course. Anyone can see him when he isn’t a spirit.” He raised his voice a bit and continued, “Yami, if you can’t find anything you like, just shout. I’m going to start on dinner.”

He moved into the adjoining entertainment room, then disappeared through the kitchen doorway.

Leaving Yori alone in the game shop with Yami.

++++++++++

Yami focused very deliberately on the task at hand. He tugged the box from the shelf with one hand, keeping the other at the ready to brace anything that might be dragged with it. Then he carried it to the counter, set it on the clear glass, and placed his deck beside it. He deliberately kept his eyes from wandering, deliberately kept his mouth from running away.

“So, what kinds of games did they have in Egypt?” Angel was suddenly at his elbow, helping him unpack the contents of the box.

It would be rude to ignore a direct address.

“I’m, uh, uncertain.” His face had a strange tingle in the skin.

“What, pharaohs weren’t allowed to play?”

“I’m also uncertain of that.” Yami snuck a glance at her. She’d tied her red hair up in a ponytail that brushed her neck, but two shorter sections still hung free, framing her face.

“What do you mean?”

After retracting the last bundle of cards from the small box, he set the empty container on the floor at his feet.

“I’m afraid I have no memory of Egypt,” he said, deliberately keeping his voice casual.

He removed the first stack of cards from their cardboard half-sleeve, but even as he thumbed through the collection of traps, he couldn’t focus on what any of them said.

“I’m sorry.” Angel’s tone made his heart thump painfully.

He tried once more to focus on the cards, with no improvement.

“Hey,” she said, leaning forward to catch his eye, “why do you avoid me?”

He fumbled the cards; half of them dropped to the floor.

“Are you afraid of me?”

When he crouched to gather the cards, she knelt as well and handed him a stack. Her eyes were right on him, waiting for an answer.

“No,” he said, forcing himself to look at her rather than the cards, “it’s not that.” He swallowed. “You’re the first person to look at me without ever seeing Yuugi.”

He’d grown so accustomed to hiding in plain sight that it was unnerving to have someone he couldn’t hide from. It made him feel exposed, like he’d been wrapped in a cloak without ever realizing it until she’d suddenly torn it off.

She could have laughed.

She didn’t.

She looked down for a few moments, silent and still. Then she said quietly, “My name isn’t Angel. It’s Yori.”

He blinked.

“I’ve used Angel for the last two years,” she said. “You’re the first person . . . It’s not exactly even, but it’s something.”

She stood and offered him a hand. Even though he didn’t need to, he took it, pulling himself upright. She smiled; it made his heart thump in a different way.

“What kind of trap cards are you hoping for?” she asked, freeing a second stack.

He shook his head, turned back to the cards. “I’ve been working on a few strategies to prevent or delay the summoning of a monster, since so many duelists rely on one strong monster to win.”

“Let’s see what we can find.”

They fell into silence as they searched. Yami stole repeated glances at Yori and found himself relaxing more each time. She may have considered the gesture of sharing her name a small one, but he didn’t. She’d gone out of her way to help him feel comfortable when she’d been under no obligation to do so—just as she’d gone out of her way to help Yuugi in the fire when she’d been under no obligation to do so.

“What about this one?” She held out Chain Destruction for his approval. “It’s not targeted at a single card, but it would cripple duelists who rely on duplicates.”

He smiled, tapping his deck. “I already possess one.”

“I’ll keep looking, then.”

In the end, they made it through every stack without success.

As they packed the cards into the box once more, Yori said, “I can see how you won Duelist Kingdom.”

Yami frowned curiously.

“It doesn’t take much to tell if an expert is really as good at something as they claim,” she said.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “You haven’t even seen me play.”

“Duel me sometime?” She smiled, and he recognized the sharp glint in her eyes.

She was right; it didn’t take much.

“Dinner’s ready!” Sugoroku announced, causing Yami to nearly evacuate his skin. The old man laughed as he entered the room. He slapped Yami on the shoulder. “Find anything good?”

“Plenty good,” Yami said, waiting for his heart to settle. “Nothing quite a match, I’m afraid.”

“Well, we’ll keep looking. Tell Yuugi supper is waiting.”

Yami nodded, but the pit of his stomach felt cold. Ordinarily, he had no problems surrendering control on mortality.

“Would you care to join us, Angel?” Sugoroku asked.

Yori shook her head, just as she always did. “I’ll be fine on my own, thanks.”

“Just know you’re always welcome.”

//Yuugi.// Yami brought his awareness to their mental link. //Dinner.//

Yuugi’s cheerful voice was immediate. //Oh, I hope it’s okonomiyaki!//

Just then, Yori smiled. “Talk to you later,” she said.

The cold feeling faded, and Yami nodded.

Then the switch happened, leaving him standing among the staircases and passageways he called home.

Chapter Text

If Yuugi’s seven-year dedication to solving the Millennium Puzzle proved anything, it was that he was patient enough to wait for solutions. He’d spent three unsuccessful weeks trying to convince Yami to talk to Angel before the answer fell in his lap.

Or, more accurately, arrived in the mail.

“Look at this snobby invite he cooked up!” Joey shook the blue cardstock as if threatening it. “Even the ink smells like money!”

“Yeah, it’s like Kaiba’s rich or something,” Tristan drawled.

“Hey,”—Anzu held up a hand—“I’m just glad Kaiba’s invitation was actually polite. Unlike Pegasus.”

“What, not a fan of blackmail?” Tristan shook his head. “Typical.”

Even Yuugi managed a laugh at that. It helped that Duelist Kingdom felt further away than ever now that he had a real tournament to look forward to.

“Is it by invitation only?” Ryou asked. “I’d heard a rumor it would be open to the public.”

Tristan snorted. “Elitist Kaiba? I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even let anyone buy KaibaCorp merchandise without an invitation.”

Yuugi shook his head. “Seto’s not elitist. He built an amusement park last year that’s only open to orphans and underprivileged kids. He funds it completely out of pocket.”

“Only open to certain people?” Tristan turned his palms out. “My point stands.”

“I’m with Tristan,” Joey said. “Rich-boy tries to look good for the press, that’s all.”

“I don’t think he even likes the press,” Yuugi mumbled, but he didn’t push the argument. He knew Seto was a sore spot for Joey in particular. “Anyway, didn’t you get an invitation, Joey?”

“I ain’t got squat!” Joey tossed the invitation on the table and plopped down on the couch next to Tristan. “I checked the mail right before I came over.”

“I’m sure it’s simply delayed,” Ryou said. “Kaiba wouldn’t invite the winner of Duelist Kingdom and not the runner-up.”

“Yet again,” Tristan said, raising his eyebrows, “I return to the ‘elitist’ idea. You’re not getting an invite, man, and it has nothing to do with skill; Kaiba doesn’t like you.”

“Yeah, well, Rich-boy can stuff it. I’ll enter his tourney whether he wants me to or not.” Joey grinned. “Anyway, I got an announcement of my own.”

“I knew something was up.” Anzu pointed at him. “You were way too nice to that guy who almost bowled us over on the sidewalk.”

Yuugi had an idea of what was coming, but he waited to be sure.

Joey opened his mouth but didn’t speak, letting the silence draw out.

Tristan elbowed him in the side. “Spit it out, man!”

Joey snickered, then spread his arms dramatically. “My sister’s comin’ to Domino!”

It was what Yuugi had hoped to hear. He leapt to his feet to give Joey a high five. Anzu gave him a hug. Joey beamed through it all.

“Congrats, man!” Tristan slapped him on the shoulder. “I know you’ve been waiting for this ever since March.”

“You made it possible,” Joey said, eyes fierce on Yuugi. “I know I said it a bunch, but there ain’t enough thank-yous in the world.”

Yuugi’s whole face burned. “You earned it, Joey, and I was never in the tournament for the prize money anyway.”

“When’s her surgery?” Anzu asked.

“Next Saturday. She’s got one more treatment this weekend, and then she and my mom are flying in next Friday. Mom’s staying with my grandparents through recovery.”

As Joey spoke, Yuugi spotted movement in the other room. He excused himself quickly, darting into the game shop just as Angel was about to slip out.

“Wait!” he said. “Can I ask a favor?”

She turned, hand on the door. “Need something from the store?”

“Nope.” He smiled. “What are your plans Friday?”

“Friday—isn’t that your tournament announcement?”

“I was thinking it could also be the day Yami gets a tour of Domino City from someone really confident and capable.”

“You’re referring to yourself?” The corner of her mouth quirked up. She glanced at the doorway to the entertainment room. “Why me? Any of your friends can see him when he’s not a spirit.”

“It’s because you can see him when he is,” Yuugi said.

She considered for a moment longer before nodding. “Friday at South Bridge Park. 10:00 AM.”

Yuugi shot both hands in the airs like fireworks. “You’re incredible! Thank you!”

After a passing smile, she was out the door.

Yuugi floated back to the entertainment room, grinning ear to ear. Any puzzle could be solved if he just had enough patience to wait for the solution.

“I am hurt!” Tristan declared just as he re-entered the room. “How many fights have I saved your hide in? How many times have I cleaned graffiti with you in detention? Yet you would deny me the right to meet your cute sister?”

“I’m denyin’ because you think she’s cute before you even seen her.” Joey puffed up his chest. “As big brother, it’s my job to sit in the hospital room with the shotgun an’ make sure no one flirts with Serenity ’til she’s eighteen.”

Tristan trapped Joey in a headlock. “What if I just sneak in while you’re gone?”

“I’ll put a warning shot in your crotch,” Joey growled. He squirmed around in Tristan’s grip, wrestling back.

Anzu rolled her eyes, and Yuugi shrugged sheepishly. While the other two boys twisted themselves into impossible, pretzel-like positions, Ryou stood and stretched his arms over his head.

“Shall I set the table, then?” the albino asked, holding up his Dark Master binder.

“I can help!” Yuugi said.

“I forgot my dice at home.” Anzu checked her phone carelessly. “But I’ll just use Tristan’s since he doesn’t want to play anyway.”

“WHAT?” Tristan cried, choking at the same time. “Fine, I surrender!”

“Say it twice!” Joey crowed.

“I surrender!”

Yuugi laughed. As he helped Ryou pull the table into the center of the room and arrange the campaign pieces, he focused on his mental link.

//Joey’s sister is having her eye surgery next week,// he said. //The tournament winnings were able to pay for it all.//

//I’m glad,// Yami replied, warmth in his tone. He’d been happier since the tournament invitation had arrived the day before.

Yuugi couldn’t wait to see how he would be feeling after Friday.

++++++++++

When Joey got home, he checked the mail for the third time that day, but the tournament invitation didn’t magically appear. He should have known better than to hope, but it still boiled his blood.

He paused outside the apartment door, listening for any noise from inside. All sounded quiet, so he slipped the key from his pocket and turned it in the lock—only to realize his dad had left it unlocked. Again. It was almost a good thing the man had already sold anything they ever had worth stealing.

Joey flipped the living room light on, though it barely illuminated the dingy apartment. He’d been needing to replace two of the bulbs for over a month, but he wasn’t so sure he wanted a better view of the place. He picked his way around the scattered, empty beer bottles, wrinkling his nose at a new spill under the folding table; he’d have to clean that up quickly, but he had something more important to take care of first.

He tugged the two envelopes that had come in the mail from his back pocket and unfolded them, tossing them on the table between a bunch of cards and a crusty bowl. The new power bill had come in, along with an over-limit fee on one of his dad’s credit cards.

Joey ducked into the kitchen and forced open a half-broken drawer. He pushed aside the random cooking utensils, feeling around the back until his fingers hit the hidden cash box. Nowhere in the house was really a safe place to hide money, but his dad raided Joey’s room for cash most, so the kitchen was at least better than that. And it wasn’t like the man was going to cook anything in the next century.

Joey peeled the required bills from his stash before replacing the box in its hiding place. Despite being paper, the money felt heavy.

When Yuugi had chosen not to claim the Duelist Kingdom prize money and it passed to Joey in second place, Joey had told his friend that Serenity’s operation and treatment cost the full $30,000. In truth, Joey had pocketed nearly $7,000 extra. His dad hadn’t even tried to hold down a job in the new year, so without the Duelist Kingdom money, they would have been evicted shortly after the tournament.

Obviously, he could have told Yuugi the truth, and Yuugi still would have given him the money. But then he would have worried, too. It was the worry Joey lied to avoid. As if he’d ever put more on Yuugi’s plate than the guy had to deal with already.

But Joey had a worry of his own—it had only been five months since the tournament, yet his stash was more than half spent. He couldn’t afford to cover everything until he graduated, not without his dad helping at all.

At least, not without winning another tournament.

The details of Rich-boy’s tourney were yet to be announced, but it had to include a cash prize. There was no way Rich-boy could resist flashing his money around. This time, it wouldn’t come down to Yuugi passing on the prize; this time, Joey would win it himself, fair and square.

The phone rang just as Joey was filling out the return envelope on the second bill. His throat tightened. Probably one of his dad’s “friends” again, calling him out to spend more money and drink more booze.

He lifted the phone from its cradle and waited in silence.

“Hello?” said a timid voice.

A grin split Joey’s face wide open. “Serenity!”

“Joey!” She sighed in obvious relief. “I called earlier, but no one answered.”

Joey straightened up, phone in one hand, receiver in the other. He moved away from the table to peer out the window, but there was no sign of his dad, so he could afford to talk.

“Sorry, I was out with the gang,” he said. “But hey, I kicked a big gargoyle’s butt and saved Anzu, so there’s that.”

His sister giggled. “I wish I could play with you.”

“Who says you can’t? We could make a character while you’re here. Everyone’s pumped to meet’cha anyway.”

“Really? Can I be a gnome?”

“You can be whatever you wanna be. An’ we’ll kick all the gargoyle’s butts together.”

“I can’t wait!”

“Hey, you know what else is happenin’ while you’re here?” Joey puffed his chest out even though she couldn’t see. “A shiny new Duel Monsters tournament.”

“Really?!” Serenity squealed. “I’ll get to see you compete?”

Joey couldn’t help a laugh. His whole face burned, but it was a proud burn. After Duelist Kingdom, Serenity had said over and over how much she wished she could have seen him duel.

“Count on it,” he said.

“I wish I was there already.”

“You an’ me both, sis.”

“Mom keeps asking me how I feel every two seconds. It’s making me even more nervous about everything.”

“Don’t worry.” Joey’s hand tightened around the phone at the mention of his mom, but he kept his voice light. “My little gnome sis is gonna kick this gargoyle surgery into next week. After this, you’ll be seein’ better than ever.”

“You really think so?”

“Whole-soul swear it.”

“I wish I had—”

The apartment door slammed against the wall. Startled, Joey’s fingers slipped on the phone, and it hit the carpet with a thump. Beer bottles clattered as his dad kicked them aside to enter the apartment.

“Wha’s this mess, boy?”

Joey yanked the phone up by its cord.

“Is that Dad?” Serenity’s voice just barely reached him from the receiver before he hung up.

“Hey!” his dad barked. A bottle smacked against the point of Joey’s shoulder before dropping to the floor with the others. “Look at your mess.”

“My mess,” Joey muttered without moving his teeth. His shoulder ached.

His dad closed the door with more force than he’d used to open it. His burly form filled the entryway, his alcohol-diluted pupils boring into Joey from sunken eyes.

And Joey suddenly realized the bills were still sitting on the table in plain view.

He’d gotten carried away on the phone.

He’d gotten stupid.

“I’ll clean it up,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm.

His dad grunted something unintelligible and kicked at another empty bottle. It spun on the carpet like the Time Wizard’s roulette, coming to a stop with the mouth pointed at Joey.

“. . . ’s the phone?” His dad swayed unevenly, flexing his hand, which probably felt useless without a bottle in it.

“No one.”

Despite being drunk to the point of falling over, his dad stepped forward and landed a hard slap directly across Joey’s ear. Joey flinched back.

“Think I’m stupid?”

“No, sir.” Joey kept his eyes down.

“I ain’t.”

“There’s gyudon in the fridge,” Joey said, hoping to distract the man.

“Shut up.” And then Joey’s heart stopped as his dad said, “Wha’s this?”

His dad lifted the two envelopes from the table. Joey hadn’t finished sealing the second one yet; the money inside it was plain as day.

His dad’s eyes smoldered. “Hidin’ money, Joey?”

Whenever his dad managed to remember his name, Joey was in for a real beating.

Still, he never learned. “It’s for bills.”

His dad’s fist caught him right in the chest. Joey stumbled back, coughing.

Over the years, he and his dad had worked out a system. His dad had learned that open-handed strikes left no lasting mark, so he saved slaps for the boy’s head and face while delivering anything heavy to Joey’s arms, chest, or back. Joey, in turn, filled his wardrobe with jackets to wear whenever he wasn’t in his school uniform.

For a long time, he’d never bothered hiding the bruises because he was always getting into fights that would explain the marks away. After Yuugi turned Tristan and him around, though, it had become necessary. Even Tristan didn’t know; in their gang-fight days, he used to make jibes about Joey going off for fights on his own and leaving Tristan out of the fun. Joey never bothered to correct him. It wouldn’t do any good.

“Told you I ain’t stupid,” his dad snarled. “Only one of us payin’ bills in this house.”

It was always like this—his dad talking like he’d clipped sentences from a responsible businessman magazine even though he was so wasted he couldn’t even get an interview anymore, much less a job.

Because he was still an idiot, Joey opened his mouth, but his dad saw it coming and backhanded him across the jaw. Joey stumbled again.

“None of yer attitude!” his dad snapped. He seized the money from the open envelope, shoving it in his pocket. Then he tore the first envelope open and emptied its contents as well.

Joey grimaced, nails biting into his palms. For a fleeting moment, he imagined how freeing it would be to tell somebody. Maybe he could live in the game shop with Yuugi or in a spare bedroom at Tristan’s.

But he knew reality. Reality was if he told anyone, his friends would get help because they were good people. Cops would go after his dad, which would mean his mom and Serenity would get dragged into the whole mess as well. He couldn’t do that to his sister. Even in a best-case scenario, his dad would go to jail while Joey was sent to his mom. America. Even though he’d get to see Serenity every day, he’d never see his friends again.

Joey wasn’t about to sacrifice his real family for the sake of comfort.

His dad grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and punched him in the stomach. While Joey wheezed for breath, his dad searched his pockets. When he didn’t find so much as a coin, he shoved Joey to the ground, kicking him in the ribs with finality.

“Just remember who keeps you fed and alive, boy,” he said, heading for the door again now that he had more to spend.

“I do,” Joey huffed. That one got him another kick, but he didn’t care. His dad was more worried about getting back to the casino than he was about teaching Joey his place. That would change after the money ran out again, but for now, the door slammed, leaving Joey alone once more.

He exhaled in a long breath, straightened his shoulders, and slowly climbed back to his feet. The remains of the bills were scattered on the table. Nothing some scotch tape couldn’t fix. As he gathered up the paper, the phone loomed in the corner of his vision.

“Sorry, Serenity,” he muttered, face burning.

He headed for the kitchen again.

Chapter Text

If Yami were to decorate a house, he would never paint in yellow. Not that anyone asked, and not that he would ever decorate, but still. Never yellow. The thought crossed his mind sometimes after spending days in the puzzle staring at the endless yellow-stone staircases and faded doors. There were only two colors in his soul room, the predominant being ancient yellow, the rest being shadow gray. If he could change only one thing in his existence, he’d paint the interior of his home ocean blue. Not that—

//Yami, come here!//

Yuugi’s voice startled him upright. He appeared immediately at the boy’s side, ready for any challenge.

But all he saw was a dozen or so shirts spread across the boy’s bed.

“Yuugi?” He frowned.

Yuugi beamed, gesturing at the scattered clothing. “Which one do you like?”

The alarm clock on Yuugi’s bedside table said 8:15 AM. Yami blinked. If given the choice, Yuugi never arose before 11:00 AM. Even that was considered early. Not to mention the boy wasn’t even in pajamas. He’d already donned his best pair of trousers with a sleeveless white undershirt.

“Am I dreaming?” Yami asked. He’d never dreamed before, but he knew Yuugi described the experience as disorienting and nonsensical.

“No,” Yuugi laughed. “Come on, pick one!”

Yami stared blankly at the collection of shirts. “I have . . . no preference on how you dress.”

“Seriously? Even when you get stuck with my outfits?”

“I was under the impression you preferred your school uniform, even on off days.” Yami shifted uncomfortably since Yuugi had already altered said uniform for his benefit. He’d discovered early on that he enjoyed wearing the jacket draped across his shoulders like a cape rather than the way it was meant to be worn, and after he’d misplaced it twice in violent confrontations, Yuugi had attached snaps to the underside so that it could be fastened securely to his shirt.

“Well, yeah, because I’m lazy and it matches.” Yuugi shrugged. “But not for special occasions!”

Yami blinked again. “Is this a special occasion?”

Perhaps Yuugi had mentioned something previously, but Yami had no recollection of—

“Ah,” he said, realizing. “The tournament announcement.”

“Sure.” But Yuugi’s smile seemed to betray something devious. “So pick one.”

Once more, Yami found himself facing a fabric opponent he didn’t know how to reckon with. Finally he pointed to a black sleeveless shirt with red lettering that said “It’s Time to Duel” under a stark white clock with no hands.

“That one”—he hesitated—“I suppose?”

Yuugi’s grin seemed satisfied. “Good choice!”

The boy tugged the shirt on over his head before stuffing the remaining choices in his closet. He opened a dresser drawer and felt around until he extracted two socks the same length.

Yami watched him, frowning. “Yuugi . . . is there something I should be aware of?”

“What?” Yuugi scoffed. “No.”

With no good reason to doubt him, Yami shrugged the matter off in favor of a new topic. “Will your friends be joining us for the tournament announcement?”

“Some.” Yuugi hopped around on one foot to pull a sock on, switching for the other. “Joey wants to come. And Ryou said if it’s open to anyone, he’d like to participate. He’s been working really hard on his deck lately.”

“Will . . . Angel be joining us?” Yami had expected Yori to share her name with Yuugi and his grandfather shortly after their conversation, but Yuugi had made no mention of it in the few days since. Knowing she’d trusted him alone felt strangely pleasant.

Yuugi fell over.

“Yuugi!” Yami’s eyes widened. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine! I don’t know anything about Angel! Are my shoes under here?” Yuugi’s upper body disappeared beneath the bed despite the fact that he’d never once stored his shoes there.

Yami had assumed his question was innocent enough since Yori was obviously a skilled duelist, but Yuugi’s reaction led him to believe there was indeed something he should be aware of.

Awake early in the morning. Concerned about his outfit. A special occasion. Panic at the mention of a name. The details were exactly consistent with one previous occasion. It had been a different girl, but still.

“Yuugi.”

Yami waited until Yuugi’s head reappeared from under the bed. The remnants of color in his face further confirmed things.

“Enjoy your date.” Yami smiled. “Please alert me when the time arrives for the tournament announcement.”

“It’s not what you think!” Yuugi squeaked.

Yami winked. With barely a thought, he was back in the puzzle, surrounded by all that ancient yellow. Once there, he sank onto the edge of a staircase, sighing. Although he disliked admitting it, the strangely pleasant feeling had been replaced by a strangely achy one.

++++++++++

­­­­­­­­­Yori saw Yuugi approaching from far off—his hair certainly made a statement, even at a distance. She nudged Jiro in the shoulder, gesturing with her other hand.

Jiro grinned. “That your friend?”

Shinji gave Yori a silent thumbs-up, which was the most enthusiastic she’d ever seen him. She broke from the band and crossed the grass to the sidewalk. She had to wave a few times, but Yuugi finally saw her and hurried forward.

“Glad you could make it,” she said, but he had his eyes closed, forehead wrinkled in concentration.

Then, just before he reached her, it wasn’t Yuugi anymore. Yori smiled; this time she wouldn’t have spilled any tea.

Yami blinked. First at her, then around at the park, then down at his shirt.

He opened his mouth twice before any sound came out. Then he said, “This . . . isn’t the tournament announcement.”

“Glad you could make it,” Yori said again, her smile still in place.

“Pardon me.” Yami turned abruptly away, one arm folded across his chest, the other shielding his face. By the way his expression changed a few times, he seemed to be in a silent argument with Yuugi.

Yori wasn’t surprised in the least that Yuugi hadn’t let Yami in on his plan. Yuugi seemed like the type who would plan surprise birthday parties for friends and leave anonymous gifts at their doors. It was just his nature. After letting it go on for a while, she reached out to tap Yami on the shoulder. He started in surprise, turning those stunning eyes on her.

“You good?” She raised her eyebrows.

His arms lowered. “My apologies. Yuugi failed to inform me that his date with you was not a . . . date.”

The tips of his ears reddened.

She hesitated on the verge of asking if he wanted it to be a date. In the end, she swallowed and nodded toward the small stage where Purple Hearts had nearly finished setting up.

“Come on,” she said.

He followed her back to the band, where she introduced him to each of the members.

“Yami?” Akari frowned, twirling one of her drumsticks between her fingers. “Like, ‘darkness’? That’s not really a name.”

“Hey, now, let’s not get into name meanings.” Jiro shooed her back to the stage. “I’ll be the lamest one here.”

“Our names are practically the same,” Shinji pointed out emotionlessly.

“And none of us can top Angel,” said Reo.

Yori gave a weak smile at that.  As the other band members climbed on the stage, she leaned close to Yami and said in an aside, “Yori’s actually a boy’s name. It’s the same character as ‘reliable.’”

“I have no memory of my true name,” Yami said. Before Yori could do more than blink, he added, “If I may ask, why ‘Angel’?”

“My gang leader used to call me his angel.” Yori could still picture the man’s towering frame, the fire tattoo that circled his thick neck. “It wasn’t as flattering as it sounds, but it was a turning point in my life, so I kept it.”

The full nickname had been “avenging angel.” She’d been his cleanup member, sent out to challenge anyone he didn’t like or who undermined his authority. Under his leadership, she learned the art of humiliating people and getting them to raise the stakes higher than they ever wanted to on a bet. Under his leadership, her fighting skills grew tougher and dirtier. Under his leadership, she became the darkest version of herself—because that was what it took to survive after Haku.

And then came the day she walked away. She’d never been in a gang since and never would be again, and she’d dropped the “avenging” but kept “Angel” to remind herself that she could do better than just survive.

“Mic check, one, two, three! Paging Angel to front stage!”

Yori turned to see Jiro grinning at her. The beginnings of a crowd had formed as the band warmed up. It was still early in the day, so only five people had gathered, but that number would double once they started playing and then continue to grow.

“I’m assuming this is your first concert,” Yori said.

Yami said, “What’s a concert?”

She laughed. “You’re in for a show. Stick close to the stage.”

She hopped onto the small platform. After adjusting her mic stand and testing quickly for sound performance, she strapped on Reo’s guitar. He’d already tuned it, so she just did a small warmup.

“Alright, everyone.” Jiro shaded his eyes, leaning forward to dramatically scan the few gathered people. “Who’s a returning fan?”

Three people raised their hands; Yori recognized one of them as a girl who’d approached Shinji twice already for autographs. Shinji recognized her as well and gave a minuscule wave. She looked ready to melt.

Jiro continued to speak to the audience, telling a few jokes to get them relaxed before the performance. Yori kept her eyes on Yami. He stood at the edge of the crowd, hands in his pockets, and he smiled faintly as Jiro spoke.

She knew barely anything about Yami, but she knew how much one good day could mean to someone. So that was her hope—that she could give him at least one good day. And she meant to start it off with her best stage performance.

++++++++++

Yami had no doubt heard of a concert before. There were many topics he’d heard of in passing or filtered through Yuugi’s memories, but without firsthand experience, most were lost through the cracks.

He was glad concert was one of those; the experience of discovery was thrilling. ­­­­­­­­­­­­He’d heard music before, mostly as background noise for games Yuugi and his friends played on the TV. The live music Purple Hearts played was nothing like that—this music vibrated the very air around him, resonating with his heart until it thumped in rhythm with the drums.

The lead singer, Jiro, commanded the crowd with undeniable authority. They moved as he moved, and there were even moments when he extended the microphone and they sang. Yami couldn’t bring himself to join, but he tapped the rhythm out with one foot, happily strung along with all the rest.

Most of the time, his eyes stayed on Yori. She’d left her hair down, and the red dye gleamed dully in the morning sun. Her eyes were vibrant, her smile bright. The music she commanded from the instrument in her hands rang out the main melody of each song, and occasionally, she added her voice as a background to Jiro’s. The harmonies raised goosebumps on Yami’s skin, as did her gaze whenever she caught his eyes across the crowd.

Said crowd grew with each song, and the more people joined, the more boisterous the atmosphere became. Cheers and whistles became as commonplace as applause, and each time Jiro extended the microphone to the crowd, the response grew louder. More and more people also deposited tips into an open guitar case at the front corner of the stage.

After the applause calmed from the most recent number, Jiro freed his microphone from its stand, walking to the edge of the stage. He joked about traffic and university classes, which earned him laughter from the crowd, along with a few shouts of agreement.

“Alright, enough about me.” He glanced over his shoulder, grinning. “Time for a special song. Angel wrote this one herself, and you guys are its first-ever audience. What do you think of that?”

He extended his mic to catch the uproar. Yami clapped until his palms turned red.

A steady drumbeat kicked up while Jiro returned to his mic stand. Yori brought in a light guitar melody. Then she leaned close to the microphone, her voice ringing out through the crowd:

“A glanced first meeting,

And my heart starts beating

For the first time since that day.”

It was the first time she’d carried the melody solo, and the notes crashed over Yami like a wave, clear and refreshing and full of the power to move. His breath caught in his throat as he realized Yori’s alias had a double meaning, whether she intended it or not.

“Can I buy you coffee?

Can we whisper softly?

Never thought things could go this way.”

Her eyes found his in the crowd. She smiled. Jiro leaned into his microphone, his voice now supporting hers for the harmony.

“One night, then two—

Is this really true?

A summer walk

Under fading blue,

And I turn to you,

And I say—”

Everything but Yori’s voice and guitar dropped into silence.

“Stay.

We could do this forever, just

Stay.”

The song continued, but Yami’s mind couldn’t move past those words and their haunting sound. He barely came back to himself in time to applaud the finish.

Jiro called for another round of applause for Angel, which the crowd gave enthusiastically while Yori bowed. Then the band launched directly into the next number, another upbeat melody. While the song played, Yori shrugged off the strap for her guitar, and Reo stepped away from his keyboard. He took her place at the front microphone, bringing the guitar smoothly back into the flow of the music. At the same time, Yori hopped down into the audience. She came to a stop in front of Yami, hand extended.

“Dance with me,” she said, voice raised to be heard over the music.

His eyes widened, and he shook his head fiercely. But she took his hand anyway.

“I’ll teach you!” she said. She pulled him forward to the open area between the audience and the stage. Several crowd members cheered them on, and another couple joined the space now that the invitation was open, already moving to the music.

Yami’s palms began to sweat, but Yori was patient, guiding him through where to put his hands and feet. She taught him a simple two-step pattern, dipping their joined hands on every other step, and after repeating it a few times, his pounding heart calmed, and he managed a smile. She stepped back and lifted his arm, twirling under it. Then she twirled him in the same way. He couldn’t help it; he laughed. So did she.

As the song ended, she kept her grip on his hand, pulling him through the crowd toward the sidewalk. He glanced over his shoulder.

“You’re not going back on stage?” he asked.

“What, you thought this was the only thing we were doing all day?” She gestured at the sky. “Domino’s a big, wide world, and we have to cover it all by sunset.”

Such an arrangement was definitely Yuugi’s doing. Yami should have been considerate, should have spoken up to say Yori was under no obligation to show him around the city when she could have spent the time performing—something she obviously excelled at and enjoyed.

But for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to do the considerate thing.

“Lead the way,” he said.

And she did. She led him through the rest of the park, pointing out the best vendors. They saw landscape street artists, craftsmen who sold custom buttons, and entire carts of shirts printed in English. There was a man who carved wooden chopsticks right there at his table, spreading sawdust to the breeze. They crossed the bridge that gave the park its name, and Yori pointed out a black-and-white koi fish nearly half her size in the water below. A multiplicity of food smells scented the air while a cart roasting chestnuts sent up gray plumes of smoke.

One table had a game involving cups that Yori said was sometimes rigged. When Yuugi had dropped Yami into this situation, he’d said, “The money in my wallet is for today. If I find out you didn’t spend any, I’ll be really upset!” So Yami sat at the table and handed the man a bill. In return, the man burst into a grin and began shuffling a small red ball between the cups. Yami watched carefully, and when the man spread his arms, he pointed to the cup on the far right.

“Lucky!” the man crowed, popping the cup up to reveal the ball. He placed a bill down to match Yami’s. “Go again?”

Yami got lucky three more times before he called it quits. The man’s congratulations seemed genuine, so Yami let him keep the money.

“There’s the King of Games for you,” Yori said. She offered him a dango skewer she’d purchased at a nearby cart. “Congratulations.”

Yami shrugged off the praise. “King of Games” had been the title awarded to the winner of Duelist Kingdom. It was something befitting Pegasus’s ego, as meaningless in the long run as any other trophy.

He bit into the dango, filling his mouth with sweet flavor. He was so startled, he stopped walking.

“This is delicious!” he declared after managing to swallow.

“So you like sweets. Good to know.” Yori finished her final dango, tossing the skewer in a trash receptacle. “On to the next stop.”

They left the park behind and crossed a few streets to an area of stores packed together like a deck of cards. Yori drew him to different windows, pointing out interesting displays at a toy store, a boutique, and an antique shop. They watched a dance class practice through the window of a studio.

“Anzu enjoys dance,” Yami commented. “Yuugi says she plans to travel to America after graduation to pursue a career on Broadway.”

Yori tilted her head. “Does Yuugi have a career in mind?”

“He says he’ll likely take over his grandfather’s game shop. What about you? Will you sing professionally?”

“It’s an option.” The glint in her eyes said it was more than that.

Yami smiled. “You have a beautiful voice.”

She stared at him for a moment. She tucked her hair behind her ears, adjusting it across her shoulders.

“Thank you,” she finally said, voice quiet.

Then she led him down the line of store fronts to a game shop called the Devil’s Crown. It was at least five times the size of the Kame Game Shop. They wound their way through the store’s color-coded aisles until they reached a large section dedicated to Duel Monsters.

Yori pointed to a sign marked “Trap Cards.”

“Thought it might help your search,” she said.

Yami was already flipping through the available options. The majority overlapped with the Kame Game Shop’s stock, but a few stood out as different. He studied a card called Lightforce Sword before nodding. He considered a few more possibilities, but in the end, Lightforce Sword was the winner. He also picked out two silver-foil booster packs just to see if he’d get lucky.

He made his purchase, and they exited the shop.

“I’m glad you found something good,” Yori said.

“Yuugi will be pleased as well.” Yami beamed. “The deck we both use is one we’ve built together.”

Neither booster had cards he was interested in, unfortunately, but the second pack had a warrior-type called Gearfried the Iron Knight. Joey used warriors, and Yami was fairly certain he owned a Gearfried; he might be interested in adding a second copy to his deck. Yami would ask Yuugi to pass the card along, just in case.

He tucked the new cards into his deck pouch. It would be difficult to choose which forty cards he’d take into Kaiba’s tournament. His mind was already racing through new combinations.

“How would you like to take that trap for a test drive?” Yori asked.

While Yami had been lost in his thoughts, she’d led them around the corner to an arcade. Yami had never actually been inside one before, although he knew it was a favorite location for Yuugi and his friends.

He blinked. “People duel in arcades?”

“People play all kinds of games in arcades,” she said. “I’m sure they have a dueling spot.”

She hooked a thumb through her belt behind her own deck pouch. The challenging smirk on her face was clear, and he couldn’t help but wonder what mysteries her cards choices would reveal about her. In his experience, dueling was the surest way to learn someone else’s mind.

He smirked back. “Then I accept your challenge.”

The inside of the arcade buzzed with light and sound. Kids of all ages played matches against a variety of machines, sometimes in groups or pairs and sometimes alone. Yori spoke to a worker, and the man led them upstairs, where Yami was shocked to discover they had an entire Duel Field in its own isolated room. It was much smaller than the ones he’d used in Duelist Kingdom but impressive nonetheless.

“You’ll have the upper hand here,” Yori said as they cut each other’s decks. “I’ve never used holograms before.”

“Never?” His eyebrows shot up. “My first duel was on a field in the basement of KaibaCorp. I’ve never known anything else.”

“So you and this Kaiba go way back.” She extended his deck to him, swapping it for hers. “What’s the story?”

“That day?” Yami hesitated. Normally, he found no reason to speak anything but the truth, but under her gaze there were suddenly things he never wanted to admit to.

But she was waiting.

“It didn’t end well,” he finally managed.

“As in you lost?”

“As in . . . I believe he was in a coma for several weeks.”

To his shock, she took it very much in stride. “He must have been a real bastard.”

His wide-eyed stare seemed to make her realize something.

“Sorry.” Color darkened her cheeks. “I just . . . I put a guy in a coma once, too. I didn’t think.”

And maybe that should have shocked him even more.

Or at the very least made him wary.

But it didn’t.

“What’s the story?” he asked gently.

Her voice grew quieter. “He paralyzed this kid I knew—tricked him into a solo confrontation and snapped his spine. Sometimes that’s just how it goes, but I couldn’t stay out. The kid was . . . well, he was like Yuugi. Kind.”

Yami already knew the lengths he was willing to go against anyone who injured or threatened Yuugi.

“Kaiba put Yuugi’s grandfather in the hospital because he wouldn’t sell him a rare card,” Yami said. “He’s changed since then, but we don’t bring out the best in each other.”

It wasn’t really enough credit. Seto Kaiba was the only person Yami had ever faced in a shadow game who had actually taken a penalty and become better for it. And Mr. Mutou’s heart attack had been a result of being overwhelmed by the holographic technology; Yami couldn’t say Kaiba had orchestrated or counted on it. But he also hadn’t been bothered by it.

“That’s surprising.” Yori frowned. “Yuugi talked like he was a friend.”

Yami gave a small shrug. “Yuugi is kind, as you said. He extends friendship to those anyone else would turn away.”

“I noticed his group of friends has quite the variety.” She shook her head. “Including us.”

“Indeed.” Yami looked down, swallowing hard.

As he started to walk away, headed for the blue side of the Duel Field, Yori’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. He glanced back.

“Earlier you said . . .” She hesitated, released his shoulder. “You said you don’t remember Egypt.”

Yami shifted. All he could think of for a moment was yellow.

“I have no memory before the night Yuugi completed the Millennium Puzzle. Even the first days after that are . . . hazy.” Nightmarish may have been a better term, but once again, he found himself unable to admit certain things. “All I know of my origin comes from the knowledge of Mr. Mutou. After conversing with him, you know as much as I.”

Yori tapped her deck. She nodded once, then snapped it back into its holder.

“This duel’s gonna have to wait,” she said. “There’s somewhere we have to go. Now. Before it closes.”

And before Yami knew it, they were back on the street, headed for the Domino Museum.

Chapter Text

Yori had heard a rumor of the Egyptian exhibit while talking with the band, but it had been a passing comment, one she’d quickly forgotten. The back of her arcade dueling ticket had an advertisement for it, which reminded her just in time. Now she could only hope the exhibit would be useful instead of a waste; she would hate for Yami to get his hopes up only to learn nothing.

And he did have his hopes up—she could see it in his eyes as he studied the sign just outside the front doors of the museum. They bought two tickets at the kiosk, the attendant wishing them a happy visit.

“Here’s hoping,” Yori muttered.

The glass doors slid open, and they entered.

The exhibit had a lot to study, and since there were only a few other people wandering the museum at the same time, there was plenty of room to do so. Each wall had glass cases filled with carvings, relics, and pages of the Book of the Dead. Square display cases showed ancient weapons worn with time and rust.

An entire stand had been dedicated to the Eye of Horus symbol. Yori only meant to skim the information, but she found herself pulled into the story of Horus, the child of Isis and Osiris who grew up in isolation while hiding from his usurping uncle, Set. When Horus came of age, he challenged Set in order to reclaim his father’s stolen throne, and Ra declared the two gods would need to prove who was the more worthy ruler. During the eighty years of trials, Horus lost an eye but, in the end, emerged victorious. His remaining eye became a symbol of protection, and he himself was seen as a benevolent defender of suffering children who flew on falcon wings to bring swift comfort and healing.

After reading the full story, Yori studied the eye on her bracelet and found it a little less creepy. A voice from her earliest memory whispered, “Its purpose is to watch over you, to help you watch over yourself,” and the remembrance made her smile.

In the largest chamber of the exhibit, rows of mannequins had been set up to model what clothing looked like in different eras of Egypt. Yori skimmed the plaques until one made her smile.

“Found you, Pharaoh,” she said, gesturing for Yami to come over.

The set of mannequins before her modeled clothing styles from 1550–1069 BC.

“You were somewhere in this time period, right?”

“The puzzle was at least,” Yami said. “Mr. Mutou couldn’t exactly carbon date me. Not for lack of trying—he took a DNA swab. Apparently my mortal form is disappointingly modern. And 21.1 percent Southern European, somehow.”

Yori laughed. She leaned in closer to the plaque and read, “‘Called the New Kingdom, this time period marked the height of Egyptian power in the world. All of Egypt prospered under the rule of some of its greatest pharaohs.’ Sounds like the right time period to me.”

“I appreciate the optimism.”

Two of the mannequins showcased commoner’s clothing, while the pair next to them were dressed as nobility. Yori studied the clothing on the male noble, then had to bite back another laugh. He wore what could only be described as a white mini-skirt with an overlapping gold apron, the outfit completed by a pair of delicate white slippers. She glanced at Yami, with his sleeveless black shirt, leather pants, metal-studded shoes, and collection of studded belts and arm bands, not to mention his buckled choker and the thick silver chain carrying the Millennium Puzzle.

Trying to picture Yami trading his goth look for the white mini made her bite her tongue harder, trying to conceal the amusement.

“I suppose I must have looked something like this,” Yami said behind her, obviously eyeing the same mannequin she’d just studied.

She had to turn her burst of laughter into a small coughing fit so she wouldn’t offend him. She excused herself to the water fountain. Once there, it took her another few minutes to fix her composure.

On her way back, she found Yami sooner than expected. He stood next to a door marked Employees Only that had been cordoned off by a chain.

“There’s something here,” he murmured. “I can feel it.”

Yori didn’t miss the faint glow around the puzzle. At least her bracelet wasn’t joining in.

“If we get caught in an employee area, we’ll probably get kicked out,” Yori said. “Seen everything you need to see in the rest of the exhibit?”

He nodded.

Yori cast a glance in both directions, but there were no employees in sight.

“Then let’s go,” she said.

They both stepped over the chain, and Yami opened the door. Yori had expected a lounge or employee room, but it seemed to be a staircase to the basement. They stepped into the darkness, following the stairs down. Yori guided herself with a hand on the cold concrete wall.

Just before they reached the bottom, automatic lights switched on to illuminate a large storage room. There were a few statues that clearly belonged to the exhibit, perhaps removed for cleaning. Two large crates had been stacked in the corner.

But the most striking part of the room was along the wall.

She and Yami approached the three giant tablets silently.

“Seems like a pretty big thing to leave out of the exhibit,” Yori murmured, staring at the faded yellow stone. Each one of the tablets was bigger than anything upstairs.

Yami’s eyes widened as he gestured at a carving. “This is the Celtic Guardian.”

Yori focused on the carvings themselves. Although she wasn’t familiar with the Celtic Guardian, she quickly caught Yami’s meaning.

“These are . . . duel monsters,” she whispered. She recognized a few that were in her own deck, such as Sangan.

A new voice spoke up behind them: “My pharaoh.”

Yori’s heart jumped up to strangle her throat; she was ready to fight even before she made a full turn. But the woman who’d addressed them stepped forward and bowed herself to the floor.

“Oh, uh, please don’t.” Yami’s face and ears turned red.

The woman stood. She was decked out like one of the exhibit’s mannequins. Her black hair had sections banded in gold, and a gold chain circled her forehead like a modest crown. She wore a long-sleeved, white dress that left her shoulders bare, drawing attention to the gold necklace resting just above her collarbone—a necklace marked with the Eye of Horus.

“Is that a Millennium Item or are you just Egyptian?” Yori asked, realizing immediately it was one of the stupidest things she’d ever said. Definitely the most culturally insensitive.

Rightfully, the woman ignored her. Her dark eyes were fixed on Yami, though she seemed at a loss for words.

Yami didn’t seem much better off, but he caught his breath first.

“Do I know you?” he asked gently.

The woman swallowed. She bowed again, thankfully just her head this time.

“My name is Ishizu,” she said. “My family have long been servants of the nameless pharaoh.”

“That’s me?” Yami looked a little sick at the thought. Yori couldn’t blame him; nothing about his situation was easy to swallow.

Ishizu gestured to the far tablet. Yami and Yori moved to stand next to it.

After a moment of silence, Yami gave a long exhale.

“I suppose that’s a yes,” he said.

Despite the fact that it was rough lines in stone, Yami’s image was unmistakable, especially since he still wore the Millennium Puzzle. He stood facing a figure Yori didn’t recognize, a brazier between them. The second man held a short staff topped with a winged orb; the orb bore the Eye of Horus.

“You came seeking answers,” Ishizu said.

“I had hoped one of those would be my true name.” Yami shook his head. “Seems my luck is poor.”

“I apologize.” Ishizu bowed her head again. She did that a lot. “My family has protected the sacred records for centuries, but all refer only to the nameless pharaoh.”

“Sloppy record keeping,” Yori murmured to herself, but inside, her heart twinged.

“Do you know . . .” Yami faltered. He gripped the chain of the Millennium Puzzle. “Do you know how I came to be here?”

“I know the key that will unlock that answer. It is what I have come to tell you.” Ishizu stepped forward, her confident demeanor a bit sudden considering her subservience not a moment before. “Observe the three uppermost carvings.”

Yori didn’t move her gaze an inch from Ishizu. The woman made no sudden movements, gave no indication she was planning to do anything but talk. Still, better safe.

“You have already realized the ancient origin of Duel Monsters.” Ishizu didn’t seem to notice Yori’s scrutiny of her. “These three carvings are monsters as well, cards infused with the power of the gods.”

Yori’s gaze flickered up for the briefest moment, but it was enough to make her shiver. The three carvings seemed to meet her gaze, to stare down in judgment.

“Obelisk, the Great War God; Osiris, the Great Storm God; and greatest of all, Ra, the Great Sun God.”

“They sound great,” Yori drawled. Ishizu shot her a glare, but Yami’s lips twitched.

“These three beasts,” the Egyptian woman pressed on, “were created in ancient Egypt by a council of the gods in order to aid the pharaoh. In our day, their collected power will open the gateway within the Valley of the Kings. There, you will find the story of your past and how you came to be sealed within the puzzle.”

“Or you could just tell him,” Yori said.

Ishizu’s eyes narrowed. She said nothing.

“You said you’re guarding sacred records.” Yori shrugged. “If all they say is, ‘Hey, tell the pharaoh to get three special monsters,’ seems like someone really could have condensed all those ‘sacred records’ into one mildly hallowed memo.”

“Do not mock my culture, heathen.” Ishizu’s necklace flared with light, and she took a threatening step forward.

The abrupt shattering of her helpful façade startled Yori into a breathless laugh. She stood firm. “Well . . . glad we’re past the false pleasantries.”

“I have no words to exchange with you. Had you any semblance of honor or duty, you would not be here.”

It was Yori’s turn to narrow her eyes. But before she could speak, Yami rounded on Ishizu.

“No one insults my friends in front of me,” he said.

Ishizu retreated a step. There was fear in her expression, but her voice held strong. “This girl is a friend only to her own interests, my pharaoh.”

“I won’t warn you again.”

And Yori thought maybe she should chip in, since they were talking about her, but for some reason, she couldn’t come up with any words. She didn’t need anyone to protect her; she’d learned to do that just fine on her own. But Yami’s gesture wasn’t because she needed protecting.

It was just kind.

Ishizu gripped her necklace before bowing her head once more.

Yami let the silence drag out for a few moments before speaking. “How do I obtain these god monsters?”

“Attend Seto Kaiba’s tournament,” she said, eyes on the ground. “Win, and you will have what is needed to unlock your past.”

“Thank you for your time. We’ll take our leave.”

Yami headed for the stairs, and there was nothing for Yori to do but follow. Ishizu remained silent as they left.

After they reached the main floor, Yori stepped in front of him, forcing him to a stop.

“Don’t leave,” she said. “Not on my account. Not when you’re finally getting answers.”

She didn’t know what Ishizu’s problem was when they’d never met before, but it seemed to be with her alone. If Yami were to go back without her, Ishizu would likely open up about all kinds of things.

Yami’s intense eyes pinned her to the spot. “I don’t need answers at the expense of the people I hold dear. Besides, she told me where to go next. That’s enough to keep moving and certainly more than I had before.”

“But . . .” Yori’s protest faltered. She wanted to say they’d just met. She wanted to say he was being irrational. She wanted to say something that would backpedal the day and give her a chance to think twice before getting involved—because somewhere between the morning in the park and the afternoon in the museum, Yami’s company had become the best part of being in Domino. And that was a dangerous attachment to have.

Yami looked up at the museum’s skylights.

“It’s not quite sunset.” He smiled. “What’s left in the wide world of Domino for us to see?”

Nothing, she tried to say.

I can’t, she tried to say.

But all she could think of was how she’d come to Domino to make a more permanent life. All she could think of was her room in the game shop and the band’s stage in the park.

All she could think of was the look in Yami’s eyes when she’d spoken to him outside a burning warehouse and the look in his eyes when he’d turned on Ishizu to defend her.

So she said, “Dinner. But it’s dessert that will really blow your mind.”

And he said, “Lead the way.”

++++++++++

As a businessman with a packed schedule, Seto was more than used to skipping meals, but it never made him any less cranky to do so. He’d already missed lunch for the day, and he’d hoped to snag a quick dinner before the tournament announcement, but that hope had disappeared with his secretary’s reminder of the meeting he now sat in.

The man before him, Ogai Tanaka, clicked a button on his little projector wand, bringing another graph to the massive conference screen. He adjusted his tie for the millionth time, switching the remote to his other hand, wiping his palm on his slacks.

“And as you can see, this is our software revenue for last fall alone.” Mr. Tanaka gestured at the graph before adjusting his tie again. Once more and the fabric would likely tear straight through, which would at least be more entertaining than the presentation. “Quite impressive, wouldn’t you agree?”

Seto didn’t agree, and his eyes let the man know.

“Of course, our company is still growing, and software is a competitive market.” Mr. Tanaka let out a laugh that splintered at the edges. He hurriedly opened a folder on the polished conference table before him, sifting through the papers inside.

“I have some estimates here”—one of the papers slipped off the edge before looping to a resting place on the carpet—“that our experts project would be KaibaCorp’s revenue increase were you to accept the alliance. I think you’ll see our companies could be highly profitable to one another. Allow me to just . . .”

His fingers continued to rustle through the strewn papers while Seto’s eyes turned to the clock on the wall.

Time was up.

He stood, halting Mr. Tanaka’s flurried movements immediately.

“I appreciate your proposal,” Seto lied, as business etiquette dictated he should, “but I have another matter to attend to. At this time, KaibaCorp is not open to partnership with anyone. However, if you’re interested in changing your proposition, new investors are always welcome.”

Mr. Tanaka reached for his tie, stopping just short. “That’s very gracious, Mr. Kaiba, but I don’t think I’m authorized—perhaps if you looked at the offer again—”

“Your employer undervalues you.”

The man blinked. For once, his movements were still.

Seto leaned forward, hands braced flat on the tabletop, eyes narrowed. “More than that, he undervalues me. When he assigned you to this presentation, he told you it would be cut and dried, didn’t he? A sugar-dipped lie to trick the kid-CEO into rejuvenating a dying company with funds while earning nothing in return.”

All energy drained from the man’s frame, but it was a relaxation rather than a deflation, and that brought a smirk to Seto’s lips.

“This is your first post-graduate job.” Seto straightened again. “You earned a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence theory from Todai with a dissertation on household-task AI that was worth less than the paper it was printed on.”

Mr. Tanaka blanched, but Seto pressed on without pause.

“No reasonable dissertation advisor should have allowed it, but yours insisted on it because he’s barely more useful than a sack of sand and only interested in the easiest path forward. Your original proposal was on AI within VR, and your initial research was far from lackluster; in fact, had it continued, it may have become something groundbreaking. So tell me, considering how your base competence is tempered by your complete inability to challenge authority, why should I hire you?”

The man blinked. “H-Hire . . . ?”

Seto waited.

In the silence, he glanced at the clock again.

So much for that.

“When I accepted this meeting on the grounds that you would give the presentation instead of some marketing flunky, I had hoped it would be worth my time. Tell your employer if he attempts another deceitful trick to revive his pathetic business, I’ll send him under myself.”

While the man floundered, Seto pressed the company logo embroidered into the collar of his white trench coat, activating the hidden radio. There was no need to say anything since Roland stood just outside the door.

Sure enough, the double doors swung open to reveal the guard, waiting with Seto’s silver briefcase in hand.

As Seto met Roland at the door and claimed his briefcase, he added a final comment of, “When you have your things together, my secretary will show you out.”

Mr. Tanaka stared after him, mouth working soundlessly. Seto headed for his helicopter, Roland in tow.

They hadn’t made it to the end of the hall before Mr. Tanaka shouted after him.

Seto waited.

The breathless man ran to catch up and immediately dropped his upper body in a bow. “I deeply apologize, Mr. Kaiba.”

Seto glowered. “I’m not interested in apologies. Just results.”

“Of course.” The man straightened. He didn’t touch his tie. “I would be an asset to KaibaCorp. Allow me some way to prove it.”

Not the strongest job pitch but certainly more backbone than he’d shown previously, which demonstrated genuine desire to work for Seto’s company.

“Let’s start with a portfolio,” Seto said. “My hiring manager will be in touch.”

Mr. Tanaka bowed again, and Seto left the man behind, entering the elevator at the end of the hall. Roland pressed the button for the roof.

“So the business deal was actually a job interview,” Roland said after the doors slid closed, “and here I thought Takuo I.T. was looking for a handout.”

His expression remained as stoic as ever, and his dark glasses hid anything his eyes might expose.

Seto smirked. “Your mistake.”

He climbed into the waiting helicopter, settling a bulky headset over his hair while Roland coaxed the machine to life.

“Mokuba called while you were in your meeting,” Roland said over the internal radio. The chopper’s blades hummed in the background.

Seto shook his head. Mokuba had called twice already to ask if he could leave tutoring to come along while Seto made the tournament announcement. If he would put the same kind of dedication into his summer studies that he put into supporting Seto, people would be calling him a child genius, too.

Not that Seto had any room to talk. He was well aware that earning a college degree would be beneficial to his own credibility as well as that of his company’s, something he could easily do if he would just apply himself. But he found rigid academia a nuisance at best, and more than that, his pride couldn’t stand applying himself to something useless for the sake of other people’s expectations, not when there were so many important things he could do and only one lifetime in which to do them.

Roland took off, guiding the helicopter into the heart of downtown Domino. Policemen lined the streets, diverting traffic from the plaza Seto had designated as his announcing spot. Masses of people filled the empty roads and sidewalks like so many ants waiting for orders from their queen.

While the helicopter descended onto a rooftop, Seto popped open his briefcase to display an array of gadgets. He replaced his bulky headphones with a clear, noise-cancelling earpiece in each ear, turning the helicopter’s roar to silence. He clipped a matching clear microphone to the inside of his collar, a thin wire trailing from it down to a small box on his belt. He spread a green cloth over the seat behind him and attached a custom-made broadcasting camera—a black rectangle the size of a business card—to the back of the pilot’s seat, facing him. He activated a green-screen program on the camera, testing it by broadcasting to his laptop.

The program was faultless, if he did say so himself. The green background turned to a flawless white with the blue KaibaCorp logo, and when he spoke, the special microphone captured only his voice, cancelling out anything at a louder decibel. He may as well have been sitting in a recording studio instead of the backseat of a helicopter.

“Ready, Mr. Kaiba?” Roland asked.

Seto smirked. “I’m always ready to change the world.”

++++++++++

Ice cream was, without a doubt, the greatest-kept secret of the modern world. Yami went back for a second cone before Yori had even finished half of her first.

He declared the chocolate to be better than the strawberry, adding, “It’s even better than a good duel!”

Yori nearly choked on her ice cream, so he’d perhaps made the declaration with poor timing.

He ate the last bit of waffle cone, savoring the way it crunched. Three was a lucky number, he reasoned, so he purchased one more chocolate cone.

“Looks like we should have just started with this.” Yori tossed her first wrapper in the trash. She didn’t go back for a second, which was slightly baffling.

“Save the best for last,” Yami said. “Isn’t that the rule?”

“Speaking of”—she craned her neck to see the large clock in the plaza center—“it’s almost 7:00. How do you think this is going to go down?”

“Knowing Kaiba?” Yami shrugged, taking another large mouthful of ice cream. After swallowing, he continued, “Something of a spectacle.”

The sidewalks and streets in their area had been packed with people. The ice cream cart wasn’t the only vendor that had taken advantage of the turnout, and a large number of people were snacking while they waited. Yami didn’t see any familiar faces in the crowd yet.

But then again, he wasn’t looking.

Twice, he’d told himself to alert Yuugi that it was time for the announcement, and twice, he’d backed down. Yami had never felt this kind of selfishness in his heart before, and he couldn’t help wondering how Yuugi did it—how did he share his life with what seemed to be so little effort? When Yami’s time in the physical realm had been limited only to battles, it had been easy to surrender control each time a conflict ended. But now there was something more, something Yuugi experienced daily.

“You’re melting,” Yori said.

Yami realized a bit of his ice cream had turned to liquid, dripping down his thumb. He took the napkin Yori offered him to clean his hand. Then he finished his cone before he could lose more of it.

After steeling himself, he said, “I need to alert Yuugi. Things should begin any minute.”

“That’s fine.” Yori raised her eyebrows. “You’ll still be here as a spirit, right?”

Right, of course. And there was nothing wrong with being a spirit. Except the lack of ice cream. Or physical sensation. Or being seen.

But Yori could see him, and so could Yuugi. Couldn’t he be content with what he had?

//Yuugi,// he said. //The tournament announcement should begin any moment.//

It took the boy a moment to respond. //Is Angel still there?//

//Yes. I haven’t seen Joey or the others yet.//

//Okay, tell me later how it goes!//

Yami’s heart pinched, and he took a deep breath, but at the same time, he couldn’t help a small smile. Unlike Yami, “selfish” didn’t exist in Yuugi’s vocabulary.

//Yuugi, it’s alright,// he said. //This is important to you, too.//

To his surprise, Yuugi was silent.

“You make faces when you talk to him,” Yori said. She had a soft expression as she pointed between his eyebrows. “And you get wrinkles.”

Yami rubbed the space between his eyebrows. “Our mental link requires a bit of concentration. Though not as much as staying manifested as a spirit.”

Her eyes widened. “I’m sorry; I didn’t even think about whether that was difficult or not.”

“It’s worth it.” Not that he’d ever done it much until she came.

Yuugi’s voice suddenly returned, quiet and serious. //Yami, I’ve had sixteen years. Let me give you a day.//

Yami’s heart thumped, painfully real in his chest. And he didn’t have anything he could say except, //Thank you.//

“I guess it’s just me,” he said, sliding his hands in his pockets.

Yori bumped his shoulder with hers. “Nothing wrong with that either.”

Before he had a moment to enjoy it—

“Welcome, duelists!” a familiar voice boomed above them.

Yami pursed his lips. “There’s Kaiba.”

Yori scanned the sky, as did most of the people near them. The sun had already faded beyond the horizon, but the sky still clung to plenty of light, and nothing broke the expanse of gray.

“Where is he?!” a nearby man shouted, staring intensely at the clouds as if he would find Kaiba standing atop them like a god.

Yami took Yori’s arm gently and pulled her closer to him, pointing beyond the tall lamp-post that had blocked her view to a giant advertising screen. It flashed with the KC of the KaibaCorp logo. After a few seconds, the logo vanished to reveal a teenager in a crisp white coat and black shirt.

“The city you’re standing in is currently known as Domino,” Kaiba said, a gleam in his eyes like sunlight on a frosted window. “Enjoy it while it’s here because in exactly two weeks, this area becomes Battle City.”

Battle City. The words were echoed by dozens of voices before excited cheers began rising from the crowds.

“This tournament will be capped at three hundred entrants. Those of you who received special invitations are the best duelists in the world, and fifty of those slots are reserved for you. I look forward to the competition you’ll offer.” Kaiba’s smirk increased; a few murmurs broke out about the arrogance of his challenge. “The rest of you strays who want to wander in with the big dogs, try to keep up. Battle City will crush everyone who can’t take the pressure.

“Because this is a tournament of the most elite,” he continued. “I’m implementing a few new rules. First, all tournament duels will be carried out using KaibaCorp’s new Duel Disk.”

He lifted his arm to reveal a silver metal cuff that branched into a blue-and-red-patterned wing. The wing carried five rectangle outlines with slots underneath for set cards. The top of the cuff displayed a small digital screen above a deck holder.

Yami smirked; while at Pegasus’s castle, Kaiba had challenged him to a duel using a prototype of the Duel Disk. Yami didn’t have to use the new one to see the first model was a trinket compared to the finished product.

“Be prepared.” As Kaiba snapped a deck into place, the thin screen glowed to life, green numbers scrolling up from 0 to 4000. “My Duel Disks are not for the weak. With one, you’ll experience Duel Monsters like never before. If you don’t have the guts to stand through the shock, you will break, and good riddance.

“As for the second rule . . .” He held up what looked like a clear, plastic playing card with a computer chip imbedded in the center. “Each duelist will be given one locator card with their Duel Disk. The loser of a duel must forfeit their locator card to the winner; it takes six to make it to the tournament finals, and only the first ten finalists will be accepted.”

So it would be a race. Ten people out of three hundred.

Kaiba’s eyes narrowed at the screen, his empty smile promising murder. “A warning to cheaters. Although Duel Disks may be freely used outside the tournament for personal duels, information from both locator cards and Duel Disks is transferred directly to KaibaCorp satellites. If you obtain your locator cards illegally or tamper with your Duel Disk in any way, it will self-destruct, and you will not receive a replacement. But by all means, if you think you can outsmart me, go ahead. I’ll enjoy the fireworks.”

A few people laughed at that, but there were also some faces in the crowd that looked ready to take their chances. Yami didn’t envy the results they’d have.

“Finally,” Kaiba boomed, “this tournament will include an ante rule. Each contestant must ante up the rarest card in their deck during every match, which the loser forfeits with their locator card upon defeat. That means the final winner of the tournament will walk away with a collection of rare cards in addition to the $50,000 prize.”

Hundreds of voices broke out at that, a tangle of mutters and shouts.

Yami clamped a hand over his deck pouch, tense at the thought of losing his Dark Magician. His initial response was one of heat that Kaiba still hadn’t learned true respect for his cards. But it was quickly followed by a realization—the ante rule was how he would obtain the three god monsters spoken of by Ishizu. And he couldn’t hope to gain great power without risking something along the way.

The giant screen flickered back to the KaibaCorp logo, drawing everyone’s eyes. Not a moment later, a helicopter rose into the air above the building, Kaiba poised in its open side with one foot on the landing strut. Somehow, his intense gaze seemed to penetrate the distance between the machine and the crowd.

When he spoke, his voice still echoed from the sound system, clear and piercing.

“All other tournament rules and regulations will be outlined in the guide included with your Duel Disk. Registration opens one week from today, and if you don’t make it in, that’s your loss.” His eyes narrowed on Yami, as if speaking to him alone. “See you in Battle City!”

The helicopter lifted away as the crowd erupted in cheers. Yami’s eyes trailed after Kaiba, and he gave a shallow nod.

He would accept the challenge—he would win Battle City—in order to discover his past.

Chapter Text

Yami didn’t say anything for most of the walk home. Yori didn’t mind; she figured it was best to leave him to his thoughts after so much had happened in a single day. Not to mention she was still trying to take it all in as well.

So with both of them a little out of it, it was no wonder she didn’t realize they were being followed until it was too late.

It was the rhythm that gave it away—the sound of multiple sets of feet keeping a pattern that was too careful, too focused. By the time Yori heard, she could tell the group following them was too close to run. If she’d been by herself, it might have been a possibility, but a two-person escape was never as fast unless coordinated. Unfortunately, she could also tell the group was too big to turn and fight. Again, if she’d been alone, things might have been different.

“Trouble,” she whispered, bumping her elbow against Yami’s. It was the only warning she could give him.

He gave a small jolt, and at the same moment, a voice behind them said, “Hey, kids. How’s the evening stroll?”

She and Yami came to a stop, turning to find five dark figures in the path behind them, each wrapped in a purple cloak that seemed to mirror the pooling shadows.

“I was told this treasure hunt would be challenging,” the same man said, lowering his hood. The streetlight above him caught on a black Eye of Horus tattoo in the center of his forehead. “Yet the X falls right in my lap on the first night out.”

“Hey, nice costumes.” Yori scoffed. “Most gangs just go with matching jackets or bandanas, but you’re really invested in making a statement. What do we call you, the Cloaked Clowns?”

Unfortunately, the man’s only reaction to her taunt was a lazy smile. So they weren’t dealing with a hotheaded gang; they were dealing with professionals. Possibly even hired professionals, based on the man’s statement.

“Gonna let your girlfriend talk for you?” The man eyed Yami. “No tongue of your own?”

Unfortunately, Yami did react to the taunt.

“Leave her out of this.”

“Ah, but she’s so anxious to be in this, hurling insults with her first breath.”

“You haven’t heard an insult yet, honey.” Yori smiled sweetly. “Leave now, you won’t have to.”

“There’s a bounty on your head,” the man said, still addressing Yami. “A prize for whoever can best torment the boy with the puzzle. Gee, I like prizes. I wonder how tormented you’d be if I cut that sharp tongue out of your girlfriend.”

“I said leave her out of this,” Yami snarled. “Your fight is with me.” His voice crackled with a power that raised the hair on Yori’s arms. If she didn’t know better, she’d say the shadows around him gathered in on his iron stance like reverse ripples.

“My master’s fight is with you,” the man said. “I’m just the happy messenger.”

He nodded, signaling the men around him to charge. Yori braced herself for a fight, but before the first goon even reached her, the leader threw a knife that opened a line of heat across her shoulder. The knife clanged to the sidewalk behind her, red with her blood.

She tried to recover in time to meet the first punch, but she was too late. The fist caught her in the chest, knocked her off her feet.

Just as she hit the ground, Yami’s Millennium Puzzle flashed gold.

And everything turned black.

++++++++++

It had been five months since Yami had last conjured a shadow game.

After he’d first been released from the puzzle, his awareness had been hazy at best, only truly picking up during the first encounter with Pegasus, when the man had stolen Mr. Mutou’s soul. Throughout Duelist Kingdom, Yami had tried desperately to connect with Yuugi, both to get a firmer understanding of his surroundings and to better help the boy out, but Yuugi had kept a wall of distance between them.

After their battle with Kaiba on the Duel Castle tower, Yami thought he understood why. For a few seconds, he’d lost his mind completely, so caught up in the hunger for victory that he’d thrown morals to the wind. He’d scared Yuugi. He’d scared himself.

“Kill me, Yuugi!” Kaiba had screamed, standing at the edge of the tower, ready to fall. “Kill me if you can!”

And Yami could have. If Yuugi wouldn’t have stopped him, he might have.

After that duel, the haze of those early days began to clear, leaving Yami with memories of battle after battle in the shadows.

“What is this devilry?” the cloaked men’s leader demanded.

One shadow game had been against a bully who’d forced Yuugi to pay larger and larger amounts of money in order to prevent the man from hurting his friends. The man’s penalty had left him hallucinating everything around him as cash. It took him six months to recover.

“This was supposed to be an easy target,” another man growled.

One shadow game had been against Joey’s former gang, who had strung him up like an animal after he quit and tortured him with electroshock weapons. Their penalty had electrocuted all of them. The leader never recovered.

“Yami?” Yori’s eyes were bright against the shadows.

One shadow game had been against a death-row criminal who’d escaped from jail and taken Anzu hostage. His penalty set him on fire.

He never survived.

The black mist at Yami’s feet hummed a tuneless echo of power that called to some deep part of his soul. Shadows rose at his back, pawing at him like a cat after food.

Devour or be devoured—the unspoken rule of the darkness.

“We’re here to play a shadow game,” Yami said.

“A game?” The leader scoffed. He drew a second knife from under his cloak. “If you think your pathetic illusion can fool me, you’re mistaken. My master holds a greater power than you could dream of.”

“Is your master the one”—Yami narrowed his eyes—“who trapped my partner in a fire?”

The man’s sneer said it all.

“I’m glad you brought a knife,” Yami said. “You’ll need it.”

The muscles in the man’s arm tensed, poised to throw. But when he raised his hand, the shadows before him reared up with a banshee’s shriek, staring at him from red skulls beneath the mist. His eyes widened, and his mouth hung open; the blade almost slipped from his fingers.

Yami smirked. “If you do not play the game, the shadows will swallow you whole.”

A shudder passed through the man’s frame before he gathered himself. He drew back a step, lowering his arm.

“Seems the treasure has teeth. Very well. I’ll just win your little mist game. You’ll still suffer in the end.”

“I may,” Yami said. “But it is not my game; it is yours—decided by your actions and the weakness in your heart. Only by overcoming that weakness will you triumph.”

The man bared his teeth. “Explain the game already.”

A thrill of excitement raced up Yami’s spine. The shadows whispered their game to his mind in a language he had never learned, yet understood. The darkness pressing against him both made his skin crawl and left warmth in its wake.

“We each have one knife” —shadow strands twisted through Yami’s fingers, braiding themselves into a blade identical to the leader’s—“and one partner. Choose yours.”

The leader raked his eyes over his men, then jerked his head to the side. “Vihaan.”

One of the men lowered the hood on his cloak, revealing the same Eye of Horus tattoo, and stepped forward.

Yami turned to look at Yori. She was on her feet again, and though he couldn’t read her expression, she moved to his side before he said a word. He stared at her shoulder.

“You’re bleeding,” he said quietly. The shadows whispered something cold.

She shook her head. “It’s shallow.”

“Get on with it,” the leader snapped.

Yami pointed to the left, and the shadows pulled apart like spider webs to reveal a large timer on a shelf of air.

“We’ll each stand with our legs apart. When the timer buzzes, we get one throw; the person able to embed his dagger closest to either of his own feet without hitting one will be the victor.”

The leader snorted. “This is a kid’s game. A ridiculous test of masculinity.”

“It’s a test of trust,” Yami said. “You didn’t wait to hear the final element: We’ll each be blindfolded. The only way to make the throw is to rely on the guidance of your partner.”

The shadows twisted around Yami’s empty hand, turning to cloth beneath his fingers. A matching blindfold appeared for the leader, and his shoulders twitched as he looked at it, his face breaking into a wide smile.

“This is all?” He let out a burst of laughter. “Vihaan, step back. I’ll do this myself.”

Yami’s eyes narrowed. “Are you certain you wish to reject the partner afforded to you by the game?”

“I’ve been throwing knives longer than you’ve been alive, kid. Any throw I make, I can make blindfolded.” He sneered. “And if this is the test you measure yourself by, I’d like to break your spirit.”

“The weakness the shadows have found in your heart is a lack of trust in the people you call your friends,” Yami said. “Even knowing that, will you continue alone?”

The man had already set his feet wide and was in the process of tying his blindfold. “Stop talking and make your throw.”

Yami knotted his own blindfold, adjusting the fabric across his eyes. He stepped his feet apart.

As soon as he did, his legs went numb. He let out a startled gasp, hearing something similar from the gang leader.

“What is this?” the man snarled.

The timer began buzzing its countdown.

Yami could feel nothing from his chest down, as if he’d been severed at the torso without pain. The shadows whispered in his ears, and he suddenly couldn’t remember if he’d stepped his feet shoulder-width apart or wider. Had he stepped them apart at all?

A steady hand gripped his shoulder, grounding him to reality. Yori’s voice was warm on his ear as she said, “Get ready.”

Her other hand wound firmly around his wrist, her arm braced on his, ready to guide his arm through the throw.

The timer stopped with a DING.

Yami relaxed into Yori’s guidance, allowing her to send his arm out wider than he felt it should go. When his elbow straightened, he released his hold on the knife, sending the blade shooting down. The instant before release, he was certain it would pierce his foot, certain she would laugh and say it was what he deserved for starting such a game in the first place.

But he released anyway.

He felt solid ground beneath his feet again.

And the leader shrieked.

Yami pulled his blindfold off.

The leader’s knife had impaled his right foot.

Yami’s knife had embedded itself in the shadows not an inch from his right shoe. If he’d released when he felt he should, he would have been in the same position as the gang leader.

“I’ll kill you, kid!” the leader screamed. He produced another throwing knife from under his cloak and sent it hurtling toward Yami, but the shadows dissolved it in the air between them, red skulls cackling.

Penalty, they hissed. They swarmed forward, mouths open wide for the leader.

Yami’s puzzle flashed.

The darkness vanished, the harsh street lights glaring down on them once more.

The leader clutched his foot, blood visible around the knife he still hadn’t removed. His wide eyes darted around the street.

“Since you are so eager to be on your own,” Yami said, “the shadows have granted your wish.”

One of the cloaked men tried to catch the leader’s attention, but he didn’t react. He couldn’t see the man. He couldn’t see any of them.

Yami turned piercing eyes on the remaining men. “Would anyone else like to challenge me?”

They beat a hasty retreat, two of them dragging their leader even as the man shrieked about ghosts.

But as they left, one of them still had enough bravado to throw out, “Our master is coming for you! He’ll meet you in Battle City!”

“Let him come,” Yami murmured. He dropped the blindfold he still held, and when it touched the ground, it dissolved into mist.

++++++++++

They were walking in silence again. Yori knew Yami wanted her to say something, was waiting for her to speak—he kept shooting worried glances her way. She tried, but she couldn’t think of any words.

He held the door for her at the game shop, and she stared into his eyes a moment longer than necessary. They were his normal striking color.

During the game, his violet eyes had been streaked with the red of blood.

“Welcome back, Yuugi,” Sugoroku called out from the adjoining room as they entered. “How was the tournament announcement?”

He stepped into the room just as Yami said, “Mr. Mutou, sir, Yori’s been injured.”

Yori blinked. She looked down at her shoulder to where her fresh cut was still oozing blood. With everything that had happened, she’d completely forgotten the wound.

And suddenly, she understood the worried glances. Her heart twinged.

Sugoroku’s eyes widened. “. . . Yori?”

Yami’s face paled. “I-I meant—”

“It’s okay,” Yori said. When she’d told Yami, she’d been prepared for Yuugi and Sugoroku to learn as well. The fact that he’d kept it a secret even when she didn’t ask him to was just him being kind again. “It’s my real name. Sorry I didn’t say anything for so long.”

Sugoroku shook his head. “No, no, it’s fine. Come in the kitchen; I have a first aid kit.”

She followed him through the entertainment room to the kitchen. He opened a cupboard, taking down a small container full of bandages, ointments, gauze, and other supplies.

“Thanks,” Yori said. She had bandage wraps and super glue in her room, but it seemed pointless to argue, especially when his supplies were much better than hers anyway.

She glanced over her shoulder; Yami hadn’t come with them.

She cleaned the cut quickly before covering it with an adhesive pad. The damage to her shirt bothered her more than the damage to her skin, but it was the exact reason she always bought (or stole) cheap clothes. Life on the streets was brutal to all fabric types.

“What happened?” Sugoroku asked quietly.

“Just got caught off guard by some punks.” She packed the bandages and alcohol wipes back into the kit. “They ran scared in the end—nothing to worry about.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Can’t even feel it anymore.” She plucked at the torn fabric. “I’ll have to mend my shirt, though. Thanks for the bandage.”

She turned to leave.

“Yori . . .”—Sugoroku hesitated—“was it?”

“Yeah.” Yori shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “Angel is a nickname I picked up a while back. Sometimes even I forget.”

He tugged at the knot of his black bandana; Yori’s relaxed expression turned strained as she tried not to think of the other man she knew who wore a bandana to keep his hair back.

“May I ask you something else?”

“Sure.” Any distraction was welcome.

“You’ve been here nearly a month now. I’ve never . . . heard you speak of your parents. Not after the day we met.”

Her cut ached. She rubbed her shoulder gently. On the day they met, he’d asked her where she got the Millennium Bracelet, and she’d answered with an easy lie. She had buckets and buckets of easy lies—stories she’d rehearsed and perfected over the years, some to keep her safe and others to fill the gaps she liked to pretend didn’t exist.

She could tell another easy lie now.

Or she could tell the truth.

She could still picture the gang leader laughing as he said he could do things on his own. She could hear Yami’s voice: “The weakness the shadows have found in your heart is a lack of trust in the people you call your friends.”

Most of all, she could feel Yami’s arm against hers, feel the way he relaxed into her grip, trusted her to guide him through something that could have injured him permanently.

No one had ever trusted her like that before. Not in any of the years she could remember.

“I’m an orphan,” she said, throat burning.

“Oh, my dear girl.” Sugoroku stepped forward and wrapped her in a hug the same way he had the day she’d saved Yuugi.

Except this time, it was a little easier to hug him back.

“It’s fine.” she said, and it was still the truth for the most part. “Happens to a lot of people.”

He pulled back, looking her fiercely in the eyes.

“You found your way here,” he said, “and I want you to know that this home is yours as long as you want it.”

That made more than her throat burn. All she could do was nod.

She traced her way back to the main room. The store was empty. She jogged quietly up the stairs, but instead of turning toward her room on the left, she turned to the room on the right and knocked.

After a moment, the door opened to reveal Yami.

“I’m glad it’s still you,” she said.

His shoulders relaxed. The faint light from the stairway softened his violet eyes.

“I’m glad you’re glad,” he said.

They sat on the floor together with their backs against the foot of the bed, and though it felt weird to be in Yuugi’s room, Yori was grateful for the privacy. The moon shone right above the skylight, casting soft blue light across their knees.

A small altar occupied one corner of the room, a beautiful hinoki stand that supported a framed picture of a man and woman standing together outside the game shop. Yori recognized Yuugi’s faded eyes in the woman and his wide smile in the man. As she’d told Sugoroku, being orphaned happened to a lot of people, even the best, like Yuugi.

But it wasn’t being an orphan that was hardest for her.

Yori stared at her hands. “Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone?”

Yami nodded.

She pressed her fingers together until she felt the ache all the way to her elbows.

“When I was a kid,” she said, “an orphanage in Wakkanai found me on their doorstep. I didn’t know my parents’ names; I didn’t even know my own. All I had was the bracelet on my wrist and two Duel Monsters cards in my pocket, even though the game wouldn’t be released to the public for another six months.”

She took a long, slow breath, held it, then released. “The cops put out a half-hearted search that yielded nothing, so the orphanage told me to pick a name and get in line to be adopted. That second part never happened.”

Yami’s eyes were wide and bright. “You have no memory of your past either.”

She gave a pained laugh. “I wish I could say I’m telling you this to be empathetic.”

“Why are you telling me?”

“I wanted you to know.” She swallowed hard. “I trust you, too.”

After a breath of hesitation, Yami reached out, fingers brushing Yori’s hand. She turned her palm to meet his.

This time, the silence between them was comfortable and calming.

Chapter Text

After Yori bid Yami goodnight, she headed to her room to change out of her torn shirt. But rather than putting on pajamas, she pulled a new long-sleeved shirt over her head, crept down the stairs, and exited once more into the night.

The streets were empty, illuminated only by moonlight and the occasional puddle of yellow beneath a street lamp. As she walked, she spun the gang leader’s throwing knife between her fingers; she’d stowed the knife in her pocket after the shadow game because only an idiot let a free weapon go to waste. The knife wasn’t large, but it was well-balanced and weighted to throw with a lot of force.

Without her bracelet running interference, she found Katsuma’s building easily, even in the dark. A burst of crass laughter from inside told her business hadn’t closed for the evening.

She slammed the door open, smiling sweetly at the dimly lit interior.

“Knock, knock,” she said.

The six gang members inside scrambled to get their bearings, swearing like sailors, reaching for weapons. In the chaos, it was easy for Yori to take down the two boys closest to the door. Her best guess for Katsuma was a guy near the window who looked older than most of the others and had draped himself in gold chains. He barked an order at a girl near him, which confirmed her suspicion.

Yori strode forward. The girl swung a punch at her, but Yori twisted to the side—grabbing the girl’s wrist with one hand and the back of her neck with the other—and used her own momentum to send her crashing to the ground.

Then she had Katsuma by his collection of chains. She ducked his punch, shoving him up against the wall. She yanked her handful of necklaces up, twisted it, and speared her throwing knife through the loop into the wood behind him, pinning him in place with barely enough room to breathe. Not a moment later, she had her own switchblade in her hand, blade pressed just below his Adam’s apple.

“Everybody back down,” she said, eyeing the two girls still standing. They raised their hands in surrender.

Once satisfied, Yori brought her eyes back to Katsuma, who was practically steaming at the ears.

“Katsuma, is it? If not, this is gonna be really awkward.”

“What do you want?” he snarled.

“There’s a new gang on your turf. Forehead tattoos, purple cloaks—hard to miss.”

He sized her up, keeping his mouth shut.

“Look.” She lifted her knife from his throat, held both hands up. “Gesture of goodwill. I’m here for them, not you. They’re after my friend, and I don’t stand for that.”

He stared pointedly at her deck pouch. “Your friend a duelist, too?”

“None better.”

“That’s why. White collars with dirty tactics. They sell rare cards to underground collectors. Tell her, Hibiki.”

One of the younger boys near the door grimaced. “I just lost my Minerva to a group yesterday. Don’t know how they knew I had it, but they did.”

Yori could hazard a guess at that. If Hibiki was anything like she was, he paraded his best card for street cred constantly. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d lured people into duels—or into betting more than they could afford—by telling them her trump card.

“What do you mean ‘a group’?” She frowned.

“They run in packs of four or five, call themselves ‘Ghouls,’” Katsuma said. “At least three groups so far, probably more coming with that tournament. It’s gonna be a feeding frenzy. You and your friend should keep your heads down until it all blows over.”

Yori smirked. “Probably. Who’s their boss?”

“Their ‘master’?” Hibiki scoffed. “Bunch of freaks.”

“Haven’t seen bossman yet,” Katsuma said. “Come tournament time, sure we will.”

“Where are these clowns camped?”

Katsuma shook his head slightly, as much as his chains would allow. “Don’t know that. Only pop up at night, though.”

Naturally. Their appearance would draw attention during the day, not to mention the added scare factor from ambushing people in the dark.

She eyed a line of purpled skin on Hibiki’s neck. “Hey, your bruises from them?”

His scowl was her answer.

“If I see your Minerva, I’ll drop it back here,” she said. She yanked her throwing knife out of Katsuma’s chains, freeing him. “Thanks for the help.”

He rubbed his neck. “Won’t get anywhere going after them alone. You need a family at your back.”

“I’ve got one.” Yori smiled. She headed back to the game shop.

++++++++++

“Ghouls?” Yuugi’s eyebrows shot up. “And they’re after rare cards?”

“And you,” Yori said (Yuugi was still adjusting to thinking of her by her new name). “So just be careful, okay? Don’t go out at night.”

Yuugi scrubbed harder at a spot on the glass. The early afternoon sun slanted through the door of the game shop, pooling his shadow beneath him. He tried not to think of fire.

“I’ll be careful,” he promised. “How’d you learn all this?”

“I hear people talk.” She gave a strange smile. “Warn Yami, too?”

He nodded. “I will.”

She stepped around him, ready to head out the door. It wasn’t uncommon (she was out on the street more than she was ever in the game shop) but Yuugi didn’t quite like what he saw in her eyes.

“You’re not going after them, are you?” he asked, grabbing the handle so she couldn’t open the door.

She hesitated just long enough to tell him the answer.

“You can’t tell me to be careful and not be careful yourself!”

“Okay.” She gave a small laugh. “That’s fair. But we need to know what we’re up against. I can get more information and still be careful.”

Yuugi’s eyes widened because she hardly ever used the word “we.” From the very start, Angel—or Yori—had been constantly polite but also constantly aloof. She declined every invitation from Grandpa to dinner and every invitation from Yuugi to play games with him and his friends.

There was only one invitation she’d ever accepted.

Yuugi’s grin split his face from ear to ear. “So yesterday actually went really well?”

It had been nearly midnight by the time Yami relinquished control the night before, which was a good sign, but he’d said barely a word about the date. He’d talked about the Egyptian exhibit, tournament announcement, and shadow game in a facts-only style. And although Yuugi didn’t want to make him uncomfortable by prying, his curiosity was nearly killing him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yori said, but her cheeks had pinked.

Yuugi giggled.

Someone tugged on the door from the outside, startling him. He saw Ryou’s confused face through the glass and hurried to swing the door open.

“Sorry, Ryou! I was just cleaning.”

“No worries, mate.” The albino stepped inside with a smile. His hair was barely clinging to its low ponytail, and he’d apparently been in too much of a hurry to put in contacts since he had on his square, black glasses. “Sorry I’m late; I got caught up painting the new miniatures. Want to see?”

Yuugi nodded so hard his fringe spikes bounced against his forehead.

Yori took her opportunity to head for the door again, but Yuugi quickly lifted a hand.

“Wait! You haven’t really met Ryou, have you?” He grinned, hardly able to breathe past hope. He’d introduced her to all his friends, of course, but only as a group and only in the three seconds of passing she gave him before she booked it from the room.

Yori rolled her eyes, but she didn’t bolt. Yuugi grinned.

“Ryou, this is Yori. That’s her real name.”

“Ryou Bakura. It’s a pleasure.” The albino smiled warmly, extending his hand.

After a moment of hesitation, Yori took it. She nodded.

“If you’re ever up for it, we—” Ryou’s voice cut off in a hiss of pain. Gold light flashed through his shirt, and he yanked Yori’s sleeve up to reveal the Millennium Bracelet. His eyes were sharp, the sharpness Yuugi recognized all too well.

Then he was facedown on the floor.

Yuugi blinked, his mind racing to catch up.

“Ryou!” he shouted, still reeling. He dropped to his knees next to his friend.

Yori had one hand planted on the back of his head, the other twisting his arm behind his back, her knee pressed into his spine. Then her mind seemed to catch up as well. She released him and stepped back. Ryou let out a small moan as he raised his head, glasses crooked across his face.

His eyes were the soft brown of normal Ryou again.

“I’m sorry,” Yori said, face flushed. “I just thought you were. . . . Are you okay?”

“I’m alright, mate,” Ryou assured her, straightening his lenses and rubbing his nose. He blushed as he sat up. “I don’t know what came over me, sorry.”

Yori didn’t stay for more than that. The bells jingled behind her.

Yuugi could see the front of Ryou’s shirt trembling. He could make out the faint gold outline of the ring.

“Hey, did you make a miniature of the white mage’s apprentice?” Yuugi asked, trying to distract him. He grabbed Ryou’s fallen bag and held it up. Maybe if he could connect to Ryou—

The Eye of Horus glowed beneath Ryou’s bangs, sputtering like a car engine attempting to turn over.

“Ryou, it’s your life!” Yuugi said desperately.

But Ryou turned to him with sharp eyes and a wicked smile. The Eye of Horus flared before fading.

“Sorry, little Yuugi,” the spirit of the ring purred. “Ryou isn’t home right now. Would you like to leave him a message?”

“Yeah.” Yuugi felt heat from his own Millennium Item. “A message to kick you out!”

//Yuugi, is everything alright?//

//I’ve got this.// Yuugi didn’t mean to be so abrupt, but maybe if he stayed himself, he could still reach Ryou.

The spirit of the ring threw back his head and laughed. He grabbed the chain of Yuugi’s puzzle, dragging the boy forward by his neck. Yuugi winced but stared fiercely back.

“Your friend can get rid of me the day you get rid of the pharaoh,” the spirit said. “I’d like that day to come as soon as possible; you’re the one delaying things. So how about it?”

And for a moment, all Yuugi could see was fire, and all he could smell was smoke.

“No?” The spirit twisted the chain in his hand, strangling Yuugi until he was gasping for air. “Then you’ll pardon me if I go on my merry way!”

He yanked the puzzle to the side, slamming Yuugi into a set of shelves and releasing him in the same movement. The door rattled as he hit the street.

Yuugi’s vision wavered, spots of black bursting in the sunlight. He coughed, bent forward, struggled to catch his breath. It took him a few seconds to realize Yami was crouched beside him, asking if he was alright.

With Grandpa out on errands, Yuugi wasn’t supposed to leave the store, but he could only guess where the spirit was headed.

“Gotta call . . . Yori,” he coughed out.

Yami took control, and relief washed over Yuugi immediately. It was temporary, of course—as soon as he returned to physical form, any injuries or pain would return. But for now, it at least allowed him to talk. He recounted what had happened.

He’d been an idiot again. After everything that had happened at the end of Duelist Kingdom, after Pegasus had been found half-dead with the Millennium Eye ripped from its socket, somehow he’d still forgotten how dangerous the spirit of the ring could be. He’d walked Yori right into an encounter with him.

After starting work at the game shop, Yori had written her cell number under the register for Grandpa. Yuugi directed Yami to it, and then Yami punched it carefully into the phone.

If things weren’t so urgent, Yuugi would have done something to celebrate Yami’s first phone call.

“Hello?” Yori’s voice echoed from the phone, slow and wary. Yami had the receiver far enough from his ear that Yuugi could hear her clearly.

“Um, hello,” Yami said, gripping the phone tighter than necessary and glancing around as if looking for a teleprompter to tell him his lines.

If things weren’t so urgent, Yuugi would have done something to celebrate Yami’s obvious crush.

“Yami?”

“Yes. Something just happened; Yuugi and I are afraid you’re in danger.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I saw him. The spirit.”

Yuugi’s entire frame sagged in relief. The bracelet’s powers were among everything else he’d forgotten.

“The ring has the power of finding,” Yami said. “He’ll likely stay on your trail until he’s cornered you. We think he’s after all the Millennium Items, though we don’t know why.”

“I can handle myself.”

“Yori”—Yuugi wasn’t even sure she could hear him, but he had to ask—“it isn’t Ryou’s fault, so please—”

Apparently she could. “Don’t worry; I won’t let anything happen to the real Bakura.”

“Thank you.” He looked down. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”

“You think the best of people and forget the worst. I’d be sorry if anything ever made that change. Hey, gotta go. I’ll be home later.”

And even with everything happening, Yuugi felt warm when she called the game shop “home.”

“You’re certain you’ll be alright?” Yami frowned.

“You trust me, right?”

Yami closed his eyes briefly, releasing a pent-up breath. “Yes.”

“Then Bakura and I will be just fine.”

She hung up, and the phone emitted static for a few moments before Yami replaced it in its cradle.

++++++++++

Yori had planned on scouting out the Ghouls, but having Ryou Bakura chase her into their den would do nothing good for either of them. After just experiencing her first shadow game the night before, she also wasn’t eager to let him corner her somewhere unprotected. Maybe it was only Yuugi’s puzzle that could arrange such things, or maybe it was a power every item had; either way, now was not the time to gamble and find out.

After leaving the game shop, she’d taken off running, weaving through the nearby neighborhoods in case the spirit had any ideas about giving chase, but now that she had Yami’s warning about the ring’s power, trying to lose him would be pointless.

That left her one option: a trap.

So she made her way straight as she could to downtown Domino, and within the hour, she was standing on the museum’s front steps.

An enemy of the pharaoh—that was how Sugoroku had described the spirit within the ring. Which meant the logical thing to do would be to pit him against a servant of the pharaoh.

She bought a ticket for the exhibit, and the woman at the ticket counter recognized her.

“Back again?” she said. “You must have really loved it!”

Yori saluted with her new ticket. “You could say it changed my life.”

She entered the museum, immediately making her way to the basement door. She had to wait for two guests to meander past before she could try it.

It was locked.

Yori glanced in both directions before lifting her shirt and tugging her lock-picking kit from her waistband. The lock barely put up a fight before clicking open. She replaced her picks and hurried down the darkened steps to the basement storage room. The lights flipped on overhead to show some of the statues missing from the previous day. The tablets hadn’t moved.

“Hey, Ishizu,” Yori called out. “The heathen came back to play.”

No one answered.

Yori walked up to the three giant tablets, examining the last one in line once more. The god monsters stared down at her, and under the too-realistic gazes, she felt a small tremor in her legs.

She let her eyes rest on the carving of Yami rather than the gods. She hadn’t noticed the day before, but he and the other figure were in the middle of a duel. At least, she could only assume it was a duel. Yami stood with one arm extended toward his opponent while the other man mirrored the pose. Monsters had been carved above each of them. The opponent had a dragon of some kind. Yami’s monster looked like the Dark Magician, and she’d heard Yuugi talk about having one in his deck.

With everything that had happened, Yori hadn’t had time to put much thought into the idea of her favorite game originating in ancient Egypt. Had it been a game for them, too? Or something more? For just a moment, she wondered if the magic of the Millennium Items was a remnant of some greater magic that had once made monsters come alive. Based on her experience in the shadows with Yami, her imagination didn’t have to stretch far to picture it.

“Why have you come?” a voice behind her asked.

Yori turned to face Ishizu, who stared her down with an icy glare.

“I thought you could tell me more about the items. Specifically yours, mine, and—”

“I believe I was quite firm when I said I had no words for you.”

Yori smiled, but it was an empty expression. “Why the hate? We just met.”

“In your experience, yes.” She touched her necklace. “But in mine, I have seen you a hundred times.”

So the necklace had something to do with . . . time? Or . . .

“I don’t get it,” Yori said, shrugging. Ishizu seemed like the type to keep explaining if prodded, especially since she held herself like a queen among peasants.

And sure enough—

“My Millennium Necklace allows me to gaze across the centuries, to behold lost events no human eyes ever witnessed, even to view the truth that has yet to transpire.”

“Oh, so you can see the future. Got it.” Well, wasn’t that nifty.

“I see all.”

“So you aren’t actually a humble servant of the pharaoh like you pretend to be. Shame, since I was sort of counting on that.”

Ishizu’s eyes narrowed.

“I mean”—Yori spread her hands—“if you really can see all, then you could have told Yami his past when he asked. You could have told him his name. But you didn’t, so either you can’t see it all or you just don’t care about your pharaoh.”

Ishizu had stiffened as she spoke, but then she relaxed.

“Taunts, tricks, games.” The woman shook her head. “Your specialty. But it wasn’t always; you learned at the feet of a master, a master with eyes of gold. Tell me: How did that alliance turn out for you?”

Yori’s heart slowed.

And her breath slowed.

And her hands curled into fists at her side.

Ishizu smiled. She brushed a finger across her necklace. “Since I’m certain your next argument will be that I could have learned such information any number of ways, allow me to inform you of something even you did not know. Your death was slated by the gods for October 25th, 1988. Were it not for interference from an arrogant soul, you would not be standing here open-mouthed today.”

Yori knew the date well; it was the day she’d been found on the orphanage steps. It was the first day she could remember.

“The hell do you know about me?” she snarled.

“I know saving your life cost Shadi his own,” Ishizu said, “and I know the sacrifice was not worth it.”

Yori crossed the room and swung a punch at Ishizu’s face, but the woman dodged aside. She avoided the second and third attempts just as easily, as if she knew exactly how Yori would attack before she moved. When she dodged a fourth time, something tangled in Yori’s legs, sending her crashing to the ground. What looked like a broom handle had been sticking out from behind one of the remaining statues, unnoticed by Yori and somehow avoided by Ishizu even as she retreated backward.

“It’s no use,” Ishizu said. “I can predict everything you will do before you do it.”

When Yori looked up at the woman lording over her, she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye.

“Everything?” Yori huffed. “Then how come you didn’t predict him?”

Ishizu whirled around just as Ryou Bakura bared his teeth in a smile. The Millennium Ring shuddered against his chest.

“Two Millennium Items for the price of one,” Bakura said. “My lucky day.”

His ring flashed with light, and the basement filled with shadows.

Chapter Text

Japan: October 25, 1988

It was cold outside. Her breath puffed in the air, and the seat was cold beneath her skirt. As the swing moved her gently forward and back, she dragged her shoes on the ground, exposing the sawdust beneath the light touches of snow. She couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen snow before, but she knew it was snow just the same.

It was cold outside, but she didn’t want to go inside. She could see the curious faces pressed to the window, the wide eyes pointed at her like spotlights. She could see the headmistress and the cops huddled together on the other side of the orphanage yard, talking about her.

“What’s your name?” they had asked.

“Where are your parents?” they had asked.

“As if I don’t have enough problems already,” the headmistress had said.

She dug her hands deeper into her jacket pockets, burrowing into the collar, breathing through the soft fabric. Her eyes hurt.

“It is a lonely world, isn’t it?” a gentle voice said.

She twisted in her jacket, peeked out at the swing beside her. Not a moment before, it had been empty. Now it held a white-robed man in a turban. He had pretty gold earrings and warm blue eyes. She thought maybe she’d seen him before, but she couldn’t remember his name.

No surprise there.

“Get lost,” she mumbled.

“If I do, then we’ll both be lonely again.”

If he stayed, he was going to ask her name, just like everybody else. He was going to ask her things she couldn’t answer, and her eyes were going to hurt more and more until she couldn’t hold it back anymore.

“These are my swings,” she said even though they weren’t. Nothing was hers. “You can’t be here.”

“Then I should get proper permission.” His expression was softer than the expressions all the other adults wore. “May I call you Yoriko?”

She sat up straight with a jolt. Her heels dug into the sawdust, bringing her to a stop.

“It’s a nice name, isn’t it?” he said. “Yoriko Yoshida.”

“I don’t like it,” she lied. She didn’t know if it was hers, but it was something. She peeked at him again; it didn’t seem like he was teasing.

“Just Yori,” she said. “That’s better.”

“Yori, then. My name is Shadi.”

“Are you cold?”

For a moment, his face fell. But she didn’t want him to be sad, and she didn’t want him to leave.

“Want to play a game?” she tried instead. She pulled two brown cards from her pocket, each marked in the center with a black circle. The front of each card was different, decorated with flames and stars and illustrations. “I have these cards. I think they’re for a game . . . maybe?”

He smiled. “They are. But you’d best hold on to them. One day, they’ll be very important for you, and it’s up to you to protect them.”

She tucked them into her pocket again, careful not to bend the edges.

“Your bracelet, too. It’s very important.”

“The eye is creepy.” She grimaced at her sleeve.

“Its purpose is to watch over you,” he said, “to help you watch over yourself. You’ll have to do a lot of that. You’ll have to stand on your own, even when it’s hard. Can you do that?”

“Are you my dad?” The question just burst from her before she could stop it. It was dumb to ask; nobody else needed to ask.

But still, she held her breath as she waited for the answer.

“No, I am not.” He looked sad again. He reached out, placing a gentle hand on her black hair. “And it is cruel you should be asked to go through this life without one. My own father was a very special man. His example still leads me today.”

“What was his name?” she asked.

He pulled his hand back, looking up at the clouded sky when he answered, “Shada. He was a loyal priest to a mighty king, all the way to his death. Now it seems my own loyalty has matched.”

“Oh.” She didn’t understand what he was talking about but thought it might be rude to say so when he’d been so nice. “I can do it,” she said instead. “I can stand on my own.”

“I’m certain you can,” he agreed. “You have strength of character nearly unparalleled.”

It felt a little less cold outside. She smiled.

“Although I wish my assistance could be greater, there is one final gift I may give you.”

“What’s that?”

“You were born on this day in 1978. Someday, you will encounter someone who shares your birthday. The gods have declared that the two of you can make no difference in the outcome of foretold events, but I believe differently.” His blue eyes were piercing. “I believe in you.”

“Hey, kid,” the headmistress snapped, nearly scaring the girl out of her swing. “You’re gonna go with the cops while they search for your parents. Hopefully you never come back here.”

The girl glared up at the grumpy woman, then turned to Shadi again. “Will you come with me?”

“I cannot.” He shook his head. “You must stand on your own.”

“You’re too old for imaginary friends,” the headmistress snapped. “Stop goofing off and go get in a police car.”

The girl stared back and forth between Shadi and the headmistress, eyes wide.

“You can do it, Yori,” Shadi said.

And then he disappeared.

The swing made no movement to show he was ever there.

The headmistress grabbed the girl by her collar and sent her marching toward the police. She spent that day at the local station, but by nightfall, she was back at the orphanage. After a week, the cops said it was pointless; they would keep a missing person’s report open, but the girl was an orphan good as any other.

When the headmistress told her to pick a name, the girl said her name was Yori Yoshida, and her birthday was October 25th, 1978. The headmistress called her full of imagination, but the information got recorded anyway.

Yori never saw Shadi again, and she learned to stand on her own.

++++++++++

Japan: August 17, 1996

Despite the shadows dragging at her limbs, Yori stood to face Bakura.

“Hey, Ryou,” she said.

The spirit of the ring hissed at her like a cat. Unlike Ryou’s tame hair, his stood in hackles at all angles, more platinum than white. Every bit of him was angles—eyes, nose, jaw, every feature sloped to a dagger’s point. He was the pincushion to Ryou’s pillow.

And he looked ready to stick a pin or two in Yori’s eyes.

“You know full well I am not my host,” he said.

“Are you still upset about how I smashed your face into the floor?” Yori said. “Because in my defense, you grabbed me first.”

Off to the side, Ishizu looked almost as peeved as the spirit. “You led the ring here?”

Yori still wanted to hold Ishizu at knifepoint until she spilled everything she knew. But it would have to wait.

“I wanted to just point him to your bedroom while you slept,” she said. “But this was my second-best option.”

Bakura snickered. “I’d assumed this game would be tricky, taking on two enemies at once, but we’re all enemies here, aren’t we? How refreshing.”

“Not everyone.” Yori stared into his eyes, trying to see past them. “Ryou isn’t my enemy.”

In the past, any time her bracelet glowed or reacted to things had always been random. She’d never activated it on purpose before.

Time to start learning.

Bakura smirked. “Too bad he’s all tied up at the moment. The three of us will just have to play without him.”

The shadowed mist stirred, and Yori felt cold darkness brush against her ankles.

Meanwhile, Ishizu was having a moment of crisis, staring with wide eyes at the shadows all around them. “I wasn’t meant to cross paths with the ring here. He was meant to see the exhibit during Battle City, to—”

“Ah, the necklace user,” Bakura said dryly. “As dull and shackled as ever.”

“Can she really see the future?” Yori asked, because if the spirit had answers, she might as well ask.

“Each item is limited by the imagination and strength of its user,” Bakura said. “So I imagine she doesn’t see much at all. All the more reason it should be in my hands. Your bracelet, too.”

Yori smirked. “What, you want my bracelet so you can see yourself better in the mirror each morning? It might help with your hair, at least.”

Bakura scowled, though adjusting his glasses at the same moment ruined the intimidation of it. “You think all the bracelet can do is see spirits? Fool.”

Good to have confirmation that trying to reach Ryou wasn’t so far-fetched after all.

“Time for the game.” Bakura pulled a deck of Duel Monsters cards from his pocket. “If I win, you’ll both hand over your items to me.”

“And if Ishizu or I win,” Yori said, narrowing her eyes, “you don’t get to manifest unless Ryou Bakura gives you permission.”

He nearly dropped his cards.

“I refuse to play a shadow game,” Ishizu snapped. “The spirit of the ring has a destiny to fulfill that I cannot interfere with.”

The shadows latched onto her arms, rushing up her torso to shriek at her face from either side. She flinched away.

“What was that, Ishizu?” Yori smirked. “I think the shadows won’t take no for an answer.”

Bakura jabbed a finger at Yori. “You cannot set the outcomes in a game of my making. You are ignorant of the rules amongst the shadows.”

“Funny.” Yori unsnapped her deck holder, lifted her cards to match his. “I was here just last night, and I got a good look at how things work. You’re bound by rules here just as much as the people you challenge. So you can either accept the terms we both put forward, or you can get swallowed. Your choice.”

Bakura snarled. He started a twitchy overhand shuffle on his deck.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Yori shuffled her own cards smoothly.

“Unlike a full duel,” Bakura said, eyes glinting, “this game will be decided by a single hand.”

The shadows shrieked once more at Ishizu, dragging at her arms.

“Better get with the times, honey.” Yori smiled sweetly. “You can either help a heathen or die over your ego. Both options are great for me.”

Ishizu shook her hands free, wiping them delicately on her sleeves.

“It appears I have no choice.” The shadows created a deck in the air next to her, which she lifted between her pointer finger and thumb.

Yori gave her a half-lidded stare. “They’re cards, not pastries. Have you ever even played before?”

Ishizu sniffed. “All Millennium Item holders are drawn to the modern incarnation of ancient power.”

“You know what would save you a lot of breath? Adding the word ‘yes’ to your dictionary. It’s all you had to say.”

Even Bakura smirked at that. He and Yori drew the top five cards from their decks. He put the remainder in his pocket while Yori slid hers back into its holder. Ishizu finished her riffle shuffle before drawing her own hand of cards. The rest disappeared in smoke.

“Now that we have our respective hands,” Bakura said, “we’ll all take one card blindly from each opponent. The final hand will be ours to use as we please. Last man standing wins.”

“You meant ‘woman,’” Yori corrected. “Don’t worry; I gotcha.”

“Is there ever a moment in your life,” Ishizu said, “when you don’t look down on everyone around you?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Yori scoffed. “Were you talking to yourself?”

As she spoke, she arranged the five cards in her hand. There were two in specific she refused to lose. Unfortunately for her, that was the exact number that would be extracted.

“Hey, Ryou,” she said, extending her cards with the backs toward Bakura. “The last card on your right is for you. Yuugi would want you to have it.”

Bakura scowled. Just by speaking, she was already in his head. He might take the card she’d indicated, but he was just as likely to do the exact opposite and take the card on the other end. His third most likely option was to try for something “unexpected” by taking the card directly in the middle. She’d placed the two cards she couldn’t afford to lose on either side of the middle card, the least likely spots for him to take after her statement. If he chose either of those placements, her luck was just bad.

“You’re trying to trick me,” Bakura growled. “You think by pointing a card out to me with my vessel’s name, I won’t take it.”

He snatched the card she’d indicated. She smirked.

The card he’d taken was the quick-play spell card Rescue. When a monster was engaged in a battle that would destroy it, the player was allowed to substitute a monster from their deck to be destroyed instead.

Yori laughed at the look on Bakura’s face.

“Oh, darn, you don’t have a deck, do you?” She smiled, but at the same time, she focused on her bracelet, willing her words to carry to the spirit currently trapped inside the ring. “Ryou, I promised Yuugi I’d rescue you, so you’ve gotta help me out however you can.”

“You’re starting to really bother me,” Bakura said. “When this game is over, maybe I’ll cut off your hands so you can never duel again.”

He held his cards out to her.

“As if that would stop me,” she said.

He held one card more tightly than the others, pinched between his thumb and the knuckle of his pointer finger. She hovered her fingers over the card on the end, saw the satisfied glint in his eyes as confirmation, then snatched the card next to it—the one he’d been gripping.

“Your head, too.” He glared at her coldly. “For good measure.”

The card she’d taken was an insect-type monster called Man-Eater Bug [450/600]. It would have been a perfect card for Bakura—if set facedown, it could activate a special effect when flipped to destroy the monster attacking it, regardless of any difference in attack or defense points. Since Bakura knew what it was, she wouldn’t be able to trick him into attacking the card the same way.

But there were other ways to get players to attack.

Ishizu stepped forward next. Bakura took a card from her hand while she took a card from his. No hints from either of them as to what they’d lost or gained. For all Yori knew, Ishizu might now hold the Rescue card.

When Ishizu held her hand out to Yori, Yori dangled her fingers above the cards without choosing.

“Is this a good card for me in the future?” She pointed to the one in the middle.

Ishizu’s eyes were cold and empty. It was just up to luck, then.

Yori took the card second to the left. It was a continuous spell card called Gravekeeper’s Relic that could be used to protect any Gravekeeper monster from battle damage, which would be dealt as direct damage to the attacking player instead. Too bad she had no Gravekeepers in her possession.

Yori held up her hand, and Ishizu took her Monster Reborn card, the spell card that could resurrect a monster of her choice from the graveyard.

So Yori’s luck wasn’t always spot on, but she hadn’t lost either of her trump cards, and she still planned on winning.

“We will each have 100 lifepoints in this game,” Bakura said. “To lose, you must have zero lifepoints and zero monsters on your field. Both requirements must be met.”

The three players stood in a rough triangle with plenty of open space between them. The shadows cleared beneath each person’s feet, revealing a number counter at 100.

“The turn style is free for all.” Bakura’s eyes glinted, the brown touched by streaks of red. “So I hope you’re quick on your feet.”

Another counter appeared in the center of the field between them. In the silence, it counted down from five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Yori slapped Man-Eater Bug facedown in front of her, turned sideways for defense mode. Just as she’d hoped, the air supported it as if it were a dueling mat. She set a trap card behind it.

Bakura summoned Keldo [1200/1600] in attack mode. The shadows rose, twisting themselves into the form of a fairy puppet with a shield. He commanded it to attack, and it swooped toward Ishizu.

Ishizu had summoned Goblin Zombie [1100/1050] in defense mode, and the shadowed zombie burst apart with a shriek under Bakura’s attack, but Ishizu’s lifepoints remained.

Yori flipped her trap card, Puppet Strings, which could be triggered at any point during an opponent’s battle phase. Threads of shadow looped around Bakura’s monster, dragging it like a marionette to Yori’s side of the field and forcing it to attack. It raised its black shield and slashed it down over her facedown card, flipping Man-Eater Bug and triggering its effect. Both monsters burst into smoke.

Bakura glared at her.

She smiled back. She slapped down her next card.

Then a lance of pain shot through her head. The counter below her dropped from 100 to 0.

“Gravekeeper’s Curse [800/800] inflicts 500 points of direct damage to my opponent when summoned,” Ishizu said emotionlessly. Her monster swayed like a lifeless puppet before her, kneeling in defense mode. “I also summon Gravekeeper’s Priestess [1000/1500] in defense mode.”

Even knowing Ishizu didn’t like her, Yori had hoped she would be more focused on the spirit—the actual enemy. Maybe Ishizu thought she could win against both opponents. Or maybe she was more spiteful than Yori had imagined. Either way, Yori would have been better off facing Bakura on her own, but it was too late.

“You lose,” Ishizu said.

“You wish,” Yori shot back.

The card she’d set just before Ishizu’s attack activated, and a massive black dragon rose from the shadows, eyes gleaming red as the skulls in the mist. His tail swung right through Yori, and the darkness passing through her skin felt both feverish and icy at once.

Dante the Fire Dragon [2900/2600], one of the two cards Yori had found in her pocket that October day, one of the two cards she’d protected with her life to this point.

“Hey, buddy.” She grinned at the twisted shadows. “Looking better than ever.”

Her earlier guess had been right; she could feel it in her soul. Whatever version of Duel Monsters had existed in ancient Egypt had been something like this—bringing monsters to life with magic.

She wished she could have seen it.

Ishizu let out a sudden cry.

Bakura smirked, hand still poised over his trap card, Just Desserts, which dropped her lifepoints by 500 for each monster on her field.

“Perhaps a bit overkill.” He chuckled. “But what can I say.”

Her lifepoints dropped to 0.

So Bakura had the upper hand in lifepoints. One of his remaining three cards was the useless one he’d taken from Yori (if he still had it), but that meant he had two other cards that could be anything. Two were already set on his field, one in his hand.

With no monsters, it was worth the gamble.

Yori ordered an attack. Her dragon roared, sending a line of black fire across the field.

“Trap card, activate!” Bakura shouted.

His trap card flipped, revealing Zoma the Spirit [1800/500] in defense mode.

A trap monster. Yori had never seen one before. She cursed.

Dante’s attack blew Zoma away, and the trap monster shrieked, but nothing else happened. Likely his effect would have damaged her lifepoints when destroyed, but Yori had already run out of those.

Bakura slapped down the final card in his hand, summoning Ultimate Obedient Fiend [3500/3000] in attack mode.

The colossal fiend rose from the shadows, staring at the field from eyeballs all over its body.

Yori gaped. She’d never heard of a monster with so many attack points that wasn’t either a fusion monster or a ritual summon. With only five cards, two of which weren’t suited to his deck strategies, Bakura never should have been able to conjure something so powerful.

“This monster can’t attack unless I have no cards left in my hand.” Bakura raised both empty palms, wiggling his fingers. “Perfect timing, wouldn’t you say? Your items are mine!”

His fiend had 600 more attack points than her dragon. And she only had one card left. Even with its effect, she wouldn’t be able to make up the difference.

No—wait. She had two cards left because she had the spell card from Ishizu. And Bakura’s final set card on the field had to be—

“ATTACK!” Bakura screamed, pointing directly at Yori. The fiend reached for her dragon’s throat.

It was too late.

“You lose,” Ishizu said again. She sounded so smug, as if she hadn’t thought it through enough to realize she would be next. If she could have actually seen the future, she could have seen that Yori had a way to save them both. If she’d only had ten seconds more.

Then Bakura’s arm swung unexpectedly, pointing at Ishizu instead. His eyes bugged behind his glasses as he stared at his hand, but his fiend turned obediently, bringing its fist crashing down on Gravekeeper’s Curse. The monster was obliterated in a smoking crater.

“What?” Ishizu gasped.

For an instant, Yori could see the soft brown behind Bakura’s sharp eyes. Her bracelet was hot on her wrist.

She didn’t need more than that.

She set both of her remaining cards on the field. “Activate continuous spell card: Gravekeeper’s Relic!”

Bakura’s fiend brought its fist toward Ishizu’s final monster.

Ishizu’s arms hung limp at her sides, as though she’d already swallowed her defeat before it was served.

Yori was never bringing Ishizu to a fight again.

At the last second, Gravekeeper’s Priestess dodged the attack while Ultimate Obedient Fiend smashed its fist into empty air. The shadowy priestess held a black ankh in her hands, the result of Yori’s spell card, and when she raised it, Bakura doubled over with a hiss.

His lifepoints dropped from 100 to 0.

“No!” he snarled. “Attack the dragon! Attack the dragon!”

But as the fiend swung back, Yori was already activating her second card.

If Bakura’s set card wasn’t what she thought it was, she would lose her bracelet. It was a gamble that might cost her everything.

But she hadn’t kept it from thieves and thugs—hadn’t kept it from even Haku—to lose it now.

“Equip spell: Magician’s Release!” Yori raised a hand, and her final card lifted. Her dragon’s shadowed form melted away, leaving a human magician in its wake. His crimson eyes glowed with determination as he snatched a black staff from the shadows.

He met the fiend’s attack head on, and the field erupted in shadowed flames.

Magician’s Release was the second card Yori had found on that day, the second card she’d always protected. Dante the Fire Dragon was a beast-type monster who could also be special summoned as a spellcaster; Magician’s Release was the equip card that brought out his spellcaster form.

And raised his attack points.

Both monsters dispersed into smoke, leaving a stunned Bakura visible behind them.

“With Magician’s Release”—Yori smirked—“Dante goes up 200 attack points automatically and another 200 for every spell card on the field.”

On her field, she had the continuous spell card she’d used to save Ishizu, which put Dante at 3300 attack points, but Bakura’s spell card was the one that had tipped the scales to 3500—the useless Rescue card he’d set on the field to clear his hand so that his monster could attack.

“Your monster was destroyed as well!” he snarled. “You lose.”

“That’s true,” Yori said. She hadn’t managed to raise Dante’s attack above the fiend’s, only to tie it. But she pointed at Ishizu, who was gaping like a fish. “She’s the winner, and if you recall, the terms I set when we started were for if either Ishizu or I won. She didn’t specify an alternative, and neither did you, so the agreement holds.”

The shadows cackled in the darkness, egging her on. She crossed the field and grabbed Bakura’s Millennium Ring, shoving the Eye of Horus in his face.

“So from now on,” she growled, “you can wait in the ring like a good little boy until the host you treated so carelessly says it’s okay for you to come out and play.”

The spirit of the ring glared daggers at her, and the ring itself shivered in her hand, but the shadows were already clawing their way up his body, and she knew there was nothing he could do to back out.

She released him and stepped back.

The Millennium Ring flashed, returning them to the museum basement with its harsh fluorescents and ancient statues.

And it was Ryou Bakura standing in front of her, with his soft features and his warm smile.

Before she knew what was happening, he threw his arms around her in a hug. She nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Hug Yuugi,” she said, patting him awkwardly on the back. “He’s the one who fought for you first.”

“I will,” the boy whispered. When he pulled back, she realized he was wiping tears from under his glasses.

“Besides,” she said, softening, “I couldn’t have won without you.”

He nodded, still rubbing at his eyes. He turned away as if embarrassed.

After the shadow game had dispersed, the cards they’d used had fallen to the floor. Yori gathered them up, sorting hers from Ryou’s. She gently brushed the front of Dante the Fire Dragon and Magician’s Release before tucking her cards back into her deck pouch with the others. She handed Ryou’s cards back to him.

Ishizu hadn’t moved since the end of the game. The Egyptian woman was just staring at Yori, jaw open, eyes wide.

Yori raised an eyebrow. “Got something to say to me?”

“How . . .” Ishizu’s eyes moved, focusing and unfocusing. “I saw it. When we first started, I saw him summon his fiend. I saw that neither of us had a stronger monster. There was no way to win. How did you . . . ?”

“Sounds like you forgot there’s more going on in life than what you can see.”

Ishizu’s eyes flashed, and she gripped her necklace.

“It was my mistake,” she said coldly. “I should have looked far enough to verify the conditions of loss were met. You still enacted an inevitable future.”

“Look.” Yori laughed humorlessly. “Your problem wasn’t anything to do with a Millennium Item power—your problem was you didn’t even try to fight. You took a Monster Reborn card from me. If you’d have played it, you could have revived one of your monsters after Bakura’s fiend destroyed it. You could have kept fighting.”

“There is no purpose in prolonging a battle that will still end in defeat.”

“You know what else?” Yori snapped. “Monster Reborn wasn’t the only card left in your hand. You had another one, too. I don’t know what it was, but that’s two perfectly good cards you just dismissed from the start. Monster Reborn is a spell card—if you’d have set it on the field, if you’d have decided to try something, then my dragon wouldn’t have needed to sacrifice himself to save you. We could have won even more definitively. But sure, ‘no purpose in fighting.’ You keep lying to yourself, and maybe it will make you feel better until the day the floor falls out for real.”

“You know nothing of what is to come,” Ishizu said.

“I know we’ll talk again. If you’re still against me, you won’t enjoy it.”

“Your actions are of no consequence.” Ishizu smoothed her dress and turned away, facing the ancient tablets. “All events are already foretold.”

Like a whisper, Yori heard Shadi’s words from all those years ago: The gods have declared that you can make no difference in the outcome of foretold events.”

“Come on, Ryou.” Yori jerked her head toward the stairs. “This place is for statues only.”

“But I believe differently. I believe in you.”

She followed Ryou out of the museum and into the fresh evening air.

Chapter Text

Things were different around the game shop, and Yuugi couldn’t have been more thrilled.

It had started when the spirit of the ring went after Yori for her Millennium Item. After she’d given him the penalty of being confined to the ring, he’d started haunting Ryou. Up to that point, Ryou had never heard his voice specifically, and he’d had only foggy memories of the moments when the spirit was in charge. But the spirit started speaking in his mind during the night, keeping him awake for hours. When they would hang out as friends in a group, the spirit would appear and disappear at random, getting right in his face, preventing any chance for Ryou to interact normally with others.

Yuugi noticed something happening, as did the others, but Ryou kept insisting he was fine, even after a scare so intense he lost his footing and opened a gash on his arm as he tried to catch himself on a bike rack.

After three days of it, Yori saw Ryou in the store, witnessing the spirit’s harassment for herself. With a smile that made Yuugi want to take cover, she told Ryou, “Hey, let me borrow the ring for a day.”

Ryou handed it over.

And a day later, she handed it back.

And Ryou said he didn’t have any more problems after that.

The day Yori returned the ring, Yuugi had all his friends over for a Monster World session. For the first time, Yori asked if she could sit in—“to make sure the spirit behaves himself.” She got a proper introduction to all his friends with her real name, and although Tristan griped that she should have been honest sooner, Joey said she just should have joined the game sooner. Anzu suggested Yori could take turns playing her character. In signature style, Yori declined, saying she was content to watch.

Then Ryou spoke up shyly to say he had a character already created that she could use to join the current campaign. He showed her the white mage apprentice figurine.

While Yori was obviously on the fence, Yuugi gave Yami a tiny mental nudge. Yami immediately appeared and said, “I can assist you with strategies if this is your first time playing.”

Then Yori said yes.

Yori joined the table between Yuugi and Ryou, and as the game progressed, she and Yami huddled close as he explained how the dice rolling worked and gave her pointers on using her character’s abilities.

“Hey, Yuug’,” Joey said, keeping his voice low as he eyeballed Yori, “is she . . . talkin’ to herself?”

Twice since solving the Millennium Puzzle, Yuugi had attempted to tell his friends about Yami. Each time, he was vague and unhelpful, leaving them more confused than anything. The first time he’d tried to explain things, he hadn’t even been sure Yami was a separate person because everything was so blurry, so he’d simply called the spirit “the other me.” The second time, during Duelist Kingdom, he’d tried to explain that Yami was a spirit in the puzzle, but his friends could only see a more confident Yuugi and thought he was trying to be modest by attributing the confidence to his artifact like it was a good luck charm. Since then, Yuugi had just kind of left things unvoiced, especially since most days, he was just himself.

But even if it was confusing, even if he didn’t know how to explain when they couldn’t see, he didn’t want to lie to his friends.

“She can see Yami,” he said. When Joey gave him a blank stare, he continued, “The spirit of the pharaoh, um, in the puzzle. The one who helped me beat Pegasus. Yori’s Millennium Bracelet lets her see him.”

And Yuugi thought things would be awkward, but Joey merely shrugged.

“Oh, it’s an item thing,” he said. “Gotcha.”

Yuugi could see Tristan looking a little awkward on the other side of the table, and Anzu had on a curious frown, but it was still a step in the right direction.

“Hey!” Joey barked, pointing at a mesa just to the left of their character group. “I wanna look for treasure in the rocks!”

Ryou checked his notes. “There’s a 60-percent chance of a monster encounter.”

Joey shook his dice menacingly over the table. “Come on out, beasties.”

Ryou made a dice roll, three monsters appeared, and they were off again.

After that, Yori became a regular feature of their Monster World games, and she always greeted the gang when they hung out at the game shop. She still wouldn’t go out to the arcade with them, but once when Yuugi was alone, she tapped him on the shoulder before asking if she could borrow Yami for a few hours.

Later that day, Yuugi found a ticket stub for the arcade in his pocket. Yami admitted they’d gone out for a duel, though he wouldn’t say who’d won.

Yuugi smiled. “You really like her, don’t you?”

And Yami wouldn’t admit that either, but his face said it all.

Sometimes when Yuugi helped around the shop while they were between customers, Yami would appear, and he and Yori would stand together at a shelf, discussing one game or another. He convinced her to show off her musical talents, so she brought home a guitar one day and played a few songs in the evening while Yuugi and Grandpa cheered like they were at an outdoor concert.

“You’re really very talented,” Grandpa said, expression serious. “You should consider a career in music.”

“Funny, you’re not the first person to say that.” Yori looked at Yami with a smile.

Yami somehow managed to keep a straight face as he said, “When so many wise people agree, the counsel is likely sound.”

“As a matter of fact, Your Majesty,”—her smile widened—“there’s a big concert the band wants to do next month with the chance for a record deal, so maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“Can we come?” Yuugi asked, bouncing in his seat.

She raised her eyebrows. “Would you want to?”

When all three of them chorused yes without pause, she ducked her head, but the color in her face was still visible.

And the next night, when Grandpa invited her to dinner, she didn’t say no.

After dinner, she caught Yuugi’s attention, but when he said he’d get Yami, she shook her head.

“I thought you and I could do something together,” she said, holding up a box of checkers.

He was so surprised, he almost fell over.

“I know it’s pretty simple for the King of Games.” She shrugged. “But outside of Duel Monsters, there are maybe two games I know how to play, and this is one of them.”

Yuugi grinned. “I love checkers!”

They cleared off the table together and set up the board. He beat her twice in a row, and she called for a rematch each time.

“This was my dad’s favorite game,” he said as he turned one of the red pieces over in his hand.

“Do you mind if I ask . . .” She hesitated, but Yuugi was used to the unspoken question.

“Car accident. I was eight.” He smiled. “But I have Grandpa, so it’s not all bad.”

“You don’t have to smile,” she said gently. “I’m an orphan, too.”

His breath caught in his throat. After a few turns in silence, he said, “In that case, some days are harder than others.”

Yori nodded. He cornered her final piece for a third win.

“If it helps any,” she said, “your dad taught you a killer checkers game.”

He laughed. “One more round?”

“Oh, I’m gonna keep playing until I beat you.”

And she did.

So with everything good happening at home, it was no real surprise that registration for the tournament crept up on Yuugi without his knowledge. When his grandpa woke him early on a Friday to tell him Joey and Ryou were downstairs, he thought maybe something bad had happened.

When he stumbled down the stairs while still pulling his socks on, their grins told him otherwise.

“Geez, Yuug’, I don’t know how you slept with all this excitement,” Joey said. “I been up since dawn, but the shop don’t take people ’til after 9:00.”

“The tournament!” Yuugi cried, face flushed with the realization.

“You didn’t forget, did you?” Ryou raised his eyebrows. “Just yesterday those girls in the shop asked if you’d be the champion defending his title.”

“Well, yeah,” Yuugi said, yanking on his shoes, “but the tournament’s at the end of the month, and I didn’t think—”

“No worries, pal.” Joey grinned wickedly. “But if you ain’t on your toes, someone else might steal that King of Games title right out from under you!”

Ryou gave a knowing smile. “The way you tried to steal those girls and wound up scaring them off?”

“Hey!” Joey turned a wounded expression on the albino. “I was winning ’em over with my shovel-ris charm.”

“It’s ‘chivalrous,’ Joey.”

“I knew dat.”

“Little wonder they were startled.”

Joey took a swipe at him good-naturedly. Ryou ducked aside.

“You all set, mate?” he asked Yuugi, who had turned to glance back up the stairs.

“One second.” Yuugi pulled his shoes off again and hurried back upstairs, knocking at Yori’s door.

No one answered; she must have already gone out for the day. Somehow Yori managed to be both a night owl and an early bird at the same time. It was a skill Yuugi couldn’t imagine possessing.

If she was planning on registering for the tournament, maybe she’d already headed that direction. Yuugi wished he would have asked sooner, but there was nothing to be done in the moment.

“Okay,” Yuugi said, pounding down the stairs once more. “Let’s go!”

++++++++++

Joey was nothing if not excitable. The promise of a good duel would have him grinning until his face split. The idea of seeing his sister would have him walking on air. The idea of competing in a tournament alongside his best friend while his sister could see him—not blurred, not dark and out of focus, but as sharp and clear as he could see her—well . . .

That was like shooting his soul straight to heaven.

“Alright, Joey Wheeler’s here!” he announced to the long string of wannabes trying to take his place in the tournament. “Second place at Duelist Kingdom! Run now if you’re too scared to face me in Battle City!”

A few people in line glanced at him curiously, then went back to their various conversations.

“Wow, look at the size of the queue.” Ryou stood on tiptoe, peering ahead to where the line wrapped around the block. “And I thought we were arriving early.”

“I’m sorry, guys.” Yuugi bit his lip. “If I hadn’t slept in—”

“No worries,” Joey said. “A little wait ain’t killer. Let’s get in line.”

It wasn’t until they traced the line around the corner and down the street and around the next corner that they realized how long it really was. None of them wanted to say it, but they knew spots in the tournament were limited, and there was no way of telling how many people had already registered.

Someone shouted Yuugi’s name, and they all turned to find Yori jogging toward them.

“Hey, I saw you walk by,” she said. “What are you doing over here?”

“We’re registering for the tournament,” Yuugi said.

“You’ll never get in here,” she said, stating what they’d probably all been thinking.

Ryou shook his head. “This is the only option, isn’t it?”

Yori jerked her thumb back the way they’d come. “Follow me.”

She led them a couple of blocks away to another game store that had been transformed into a registration spot. Unlike the previous shop, this one had no line. Instead, it had a suited bouncer at the door and a sign in the window that read Elite Battle City Registration: Duelists Must Show Invitation at Door.

“This is the spot for you, Yuug’,” Joey said, trying to ignore the sharp taste in his mouth. He slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Me and Ryou can head back to the other line.”

“I can’t do that,” Yuugi said, face stricken. “What if you don’t get in?”

“You guys have obviously never done this before, have you?” Yori said.

Joey frowned. “Done what?”

She gestured for them to follow as she marched confidently up to the guard. The three boys exchanged a glance, then did as directed.

“Invitation,” the guard rumbled, his voice low and powerful, like an idling engine waiting to be kicked into action. A black cap shaded his face, sunglasses hid his eyes, and his suit was bulging at the biceps. As if that weren’t enough, he had a baton in a loop through his belt.

Yuugi swallowed, seeming to shrink next to the guard’s bulk. He drew the white envelope from his jacket and held it out like a peace offering. The guard eyed it without moving, then nodded, attention turning to Joey.

“Invitation,” he rumbled again.

He looked like an insect with big black eyes—an insect ready to bite Joey’s head off and carry it back to the hive for his queen.

Joey grinned, spreading his hands innocently. “Come on, pal, don’tcha recognize me? I’m Joey Wheeler, the runner-up of Duelist Kingdom!”

He might as well have said he was Pegasus’s personal toilet cleaner for all the guard looked impressed.

Yori rolled her eyes, stepping in front of Joey.

“What my friend meant is it’s already blazing hot today,” she said, “and for all its wealth, I’m sure KaibaCorp doesn’t pay you enough to stand out here in the sun checking bratty kids for envelopes.”

The guard gave a grunt. “If you don’t have an invitation, get out.”

“I have three.” She held her hand over her heart, then flipped her fingers like a magician.

Like a magician because when she did, a clump of bills appeared between her first two fingers.

Hundred-dollar bills to be precise.

Joey gave a strangled yelp before Yori brought her heel down on his foot. He bit his tongue, waiting for the guard to whip out his baton or radio someone to come arrest them. Then Kaiba could fly down on his helicopter to laugh while they got dragged away in handcuffs.

“I’ll inspect those invitations, if you don’t mind,” the guard grunted.

“Of course.” Yori slipped the bundle of cash into the guard’s palm, and he tucked it in his pocket.

“Looks in order to me.” He nodded toward the door.

Joey inched forward, afraid that at any moment, he’d get his head bitten off after all. Yori pushed him ahead of her, forcing him into the shop after Ryou and Yuugi.

The instant the door closed, Joey hooked an arm around Yori’s shoulders, a grin nearly splitting his face in two.

“That was insane!” he hissed, his stomach doing backflips. “How’d you know that would work?!”

She gave a quiet laugh. “You learn to read it in people. With an event this big, KaibaCorp obviously had to bring on temporary staff to manage everything, so taking a bribe won’t jeopardize his job since he’s not on the permanent staff. Not to mention he didn’t even check Yuugi’s invitation for a name. That envelope could have belonged to anyone—it could have been empty. My ‘invitation’ was worth more to him than Yuugi’s.”

“I can’t believe you just carry around hundreds of dollars,” Ryou said, eyes wide like he was still recovering.

“I don’t.” She shrugged. “It’s his own money; I swiped his wallet while he was focused on Yuugi and Joey.”

“You what?!” Joey struggled to keep his voice at a whisper. She’d pickpocketed the guy who could have bitten her head off at any moment.

“I put it back,” she said. “I didn’t even keep a tip.”

Joey had to lean against a shelf to catch his breath. It was a good thing the shop door wasn’t glass and he couldn’t still see the guard.

“What happens if he realizes?” Ryou whispered, looking a bit green.

“He won’t. He’s not the type to count or transfer money in public—he didn’t even count it when I gave it to him.”

Yuugi smiled, but it seemed a bit weak at the edges. “That was really impressive, but we could have just gone back to the other line. We didn’t need to be dishonest.”

Yori’s smile faltered at that, color staining her cheeks.

“Meh, don’t worry about it, Yuug’,” Joey said. “It didn’t hurt him none. ’Sides, I really should have an invite!”

He scowled at an imaginary Seto Kaiba, though it was quickly replaced by an evil smirk as he thought of the look on Rich-boy’s face once he found out Joey’d made it into his fancy tournament after all.

Yuugi seemed to accept the point—or at least didn’t want to push it further—and he led the way down an aisle of the store, following arrows that had been posted on the shelves. It felt spooky to be in a big store devoid of customers. After a minute, they reached a service desk, where a worker in a bandana looked like he was dozing behind the counter.

“Yo, pops, wake up!” Joey rapped the counter a few times with his knuckles.

The man stirred, then opened his eyes. He gave a faint smile and rose from his chair to approach the computer. “My apologies. You must be here to register. Your name?”

He looked to Yuugi first, so Yuugi cleared his throat and answered. The man typed for a moment, then turned the screen so they could see the display. A picture of Yuugi filled the right side of the screen; the left showed a Dark Magician [2500/2100] card, a list of tournament names with Duelist Kingdom at the top, Yuugi’s name, and at the very bottom, eight stars identical to the ones that marked monster levels in Duel Monsters.

The cashier pointed to each part as he said, “Here you’ll see all the professional tournaments you’ve participated in, listed most prestigious to least. This is the rarest card in your possession, there’s your name, and this is your ranking compared to other duelists.” He gave a low whistle. “Eight stars is the highest rank—you’re the first I’ve seen with it.”

Yuugi only frowned. “Why all this?”

The man pointed to a stack of white Duel Disk boxes on the shelf behind him. “When you register for the tournament, the Duel Disk you receive is linked to you by a personal ID made up of this information. I don’t understand all the specifics, but it’s to help with organization and prevent cheating.”

“How does Kaiba get all this information?” Yori asked, and though her voice was calm and curious, there was something dark in her eyes that meant business.

The man spread his hands helplessly.

“He’s Kaiba,” he said, and Joey had to nod at the wisdom of that.

“Part of it is collected by Duel Fields,” Yuugi said. “Seto said something once about how they’re all linked to the main KaibaCorp satellite.”

The cashier turned back to Yuugi. “Does everything look correct?”

Yuugi nodded. The man pulled the top Duel Disk off the stack, pushing the box across the counter. When Yuugi backed away, Ryou stepped up.

The information for Ryou was much more lackluster than Yuugi’s. His rarest card was something called Dark Necrofear [2200/2800], and he’d been in one local tournament with Yuugi as well as one in Warwick, England. He’d been rated at four stars.

“Four stars is the lowest I’ve seen for a duelist with an invitation,” the cashier said. “No offense.”

“None taken.” Ryou smiled. “I’m not the best yet, but I’m learning.”

“Still, your rare card isn’t too shabby,” the man said as he handed over a Duel Disk. “Dark Necrofear is marked here as a forty-copy card.”

Yuugi nodded. “Same as my Dark Magician.”

“Meaning there were only forty copies made?” Yori asked.

Yuugi nodded again.

“Isn’t that a lot better than ‘not too shabby’?” She laughed. “Maybe I’m out of the loop, but I thought most cards had hundreds or even thousands of copies.”

“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Joey said, chest inflating like a puffer fish. “Watch this.”

He strode up to the counter. “Joey Wheeler’s the name. You’re gonna need katakana.”

“Ah, a foreign name. There was a French girl in here half an hour ago, had the last name ‘Valentine.’”

Joey grinned. “Mai?!”

“Oh, you know her. Duelist Kingdom sure brought a lot of international duelists together.”

The man frowned at his screen, clicked the mouse, then typed again.

“Mai made it to the finals of Duelist Kingdom with us,” Yuugi said to Yori, smiling. “You’d like her.”

The cashier tugged at his bandana, then shrugged and met Joey’s eyes.

“Well,” he said. “This is you, I guess.”

He swung the screen to face them, and Joey almost swallowed his tongue.

The picture was from his first year of grade school. He had both front teeth missing, his left eye swollen and bruised from a fight with a bigger kid. Grass skids marked the front of his gray T-shirt, and he was grinning like an idiot.

Joey could remember the day well, and he could also remember his mom’s reaction to the pictures. After she’d yelled at him good, he’d been sure to tear them all up. So how did Seto-freaking-Kaiba get one?

The mockery didn’t end there. His tournament listing had only one entry: Loser of Duelist Kingdom. His name had been posted as “Joseph Wannabe Wheeler,” and he had a half-star rating.

The only thing correct on the whole page was the picture of Red-Eyes Black Dragon [2400/2000] as his rarest card.

Joey clenched his fists at his sides, nails digging into his palms. He took a deep, growling breath.

“Wow.” Yori’s eyebrows nearly touched her hairline. “Should I ask?”

“While we were at Duelist Kingdom,” Joey said, “Kaiba showed up to duel Pegasus outside the tournament. Yuug’ and I had both worked hard and beat a lot of tough opponents tryin’ to make it to the finals, so his attitude about walkin’ right in with no price pissed me off. I challenged him to a match, and he wiped the floor with me.”

Each word scraped his throat. At least he could accept that he’d lost, but Kaiba never got tired of rubbing his face in it. Any time they saw each other, Rich-boy had to stare him down just like he’d done at the end of their duel, taking Joey back over and over to that moment when he was kneeling at Kaiba’s feet.

But this time would be different. This time he would crush that arrogant stare, and Rich-boy would be the one left kneeling. In his own tournament, no less.

“Do you really have a Red-Eyes Black Dragon card?” the cashier asked. If Joey didn’t know any better, he’d think the guy was about ready to drool.

“Sure do,” Joey said roughly. “And that is a five-copy card. Who’s a wannabe now?”

“For reference, miss”—the cashier waved a hand vaguely in Yori’s direction—“a forty-copy card might sell for five-hundred bucks straight across, maybe a thousand if you get a collector who’s really looking. A five-copy card, on the other hand, and you’re closing in on a million to the right buyer. You’ve heard of Kaiba’s dragons, right? This is Red-Eyes; those are Blue-Eyes, even rarer, and it’s rumored Kaiba spent almost nine million dollars to get the complete set of three. That’s like two Lambo Roadsters—I’m talking the really high-end ones—but it’s three trading cards.”

Of course Kaiba had to have him beat even in this.

“Well, joke’s on him,” Joey muttered, “’cause I may only have one, but I didn’t pay a cent for Red-Eyes.”

“Joey won it off a regional champion in his second duel at Duelist Kingdom,” Yuugi said to Yori, startling her out of her wide-eyed stare at the cashier. “And he’s only been getting stronger since.”

Joey grinned, hooking an arm around his best friend’s neck. “That’s right! Me ’n Red-Eyes are gonna toast our way to victory in this tourney, just you watch!”

The cashier handed over a Duel Disk, and Joey raised the box triumphantly.

Rich-boy could just watch. Joey would go all the way in this tournament; he’d prove to everyone exactly what he was capable of, and he’d get the money to survive the rest of high school in the process.

Everyone could just watch.

“How about you, miss?”

All eyes turned to Yori, the only one who hadn’t registered.

Chapter Text

In all honesty, Yori hadn’t really thought through her shadow game with the spirit of the ring. Most of it had been based on instinct, the same way she lived most of her life. So she felt extra responsible when things became worse for Ryou afterward. When she asked to borrow the ring, she was no longer playing things by ear; she had a plan. A plan with two phases.

Phase One: The Civil Approach.

Yori wasn’t about to hang the ring around her neck at the risk of demonic possession, so she sat in her room, held it between both hands, focused on her bracelet, and tried to reach the spirit with her voice.

He definitely heard—she could tell because of the return snide comments he shot out—but he didn’t manifest or listen to anything she tried to say.

Phase Two: The Non-Civil Approach.

She took the ring to a small studio in town where they taught glass-blowing on the weekends. After picking the lock on the door, she turned on the light in the back room.

Then she turned on the furnace.

She also gave the spirit a play-by-play of all her actions from the time she reached the studio.

“I know this is for melting glass,” she said, “but it should work just as well for gold, right?”

//YOU WOULDN’T DARE,// he screamed in her mind. The resulting headache only made what she was doing easier, and the fact that he screamed without action confirmed her suspicion that he couldn’t actually do anything without a host.

She held her hand out toward the furnace. “Mmm, it’s getting hot. I thought it would take longer.”

//MY VESSEL MADE YOU PROMISE TO RETURN THE RING.//

“About that.” She shook the ring so it jangled. “I told Ryou I’d give it back because that was what made him hand it over. Not because it was true.”

//YOU DON’T HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO KILL ME.//

She laughed so hard she had to lean over to catch her breath.

“All it takes to kill you,” she said, “is a quick toss. A toddler has what it takes.”

She opened the door to the furnace. A wave of hot air billowed out.

The spirit appeared next to her. His frizzy hair looked like it had been through a lightning storm, flaring out on all sides; she’d seen a cobra with its full hood flared before, and it looked much the same.

“Cut the charade,” he hissed. “You threw your bleeding heart to the shadows for a boy you’d barely had one conversation with. I’ve lurked in my host’s mind long enough to know how soft the lot of you are. You can talk and play big all you want, but I know the overripeness of your soul.”

She stepped close, bringing her harsh eyes inches from his.

“Your host,” she said, “is a boy who would love a stray dog even if it chewed his leg off. He and Yuugi are a breed apart, and in your black soul, you know that. If everyone was that good, you wouldn’t exist, and neither would I.”

She tossed the ring in the open furnace.

“I’LL STOP HAUNTING HIM!”

She tugged on the cord she’d kept wrapped around her finger. The ring retracted like a yo-yo, barely heated.

She held it up, dangling it in front of the spirit’s ashen face.

“I can get into this place at all hours.” She smiled sweetly. “Next time it goes in the furnace, it doesn’t come back out.”

He bared his teeth at her.

But she knew he believed it.

Plan: Success.

Luckily, the ring’s cord hadn’t been burned by her escapades, so when she returned it to Ryou, he was none the wiser.

“Let me know if he bothers you again,” she said, “and I’d be more than happy to have another heated discussion.”

But after dealing with the ring, Yori still had a spirit problem. One of a completely different nature.

It went by the name of Yami.

Whenever he would pop up, her heart would start pounding—and not in an about-to-spill-tea sort of way. She learned Monster World purely because of his offer to help her with it, and although she thought the game was not bad, the company was better. She looked for excuses to talk to him at the game shop, and even when they didn’t discuss anything important, she always wanted the conversations to last twice as long. He repeatedly encouraged her to take Yuugi to one of her concerts until, finally, she borrowed Reo’s acoustic guitar for an evening and played a few of her original songs at home.

As she packed it back in its case, she noticed Yami studying the instrument.

“Ever held a guitar?” she asked.

He shook his head. Yuugi didn’t need more invitation than that to disappear, leaving Yami in the physical world. Grandpa had already headed upstairs, so it was just the two of them.

So Yori had Yami sit on a chair while she showed him how to brace the body of the guitar on his thigh and where to put his fingers on the fretboard. She taught him an E-major chord and an A-major chord, then had him strum back and forth between them on a four-beat rhythm. She sang the first line of a song while he played, and he only fumbled once.

“See that?” She smiled. “Now you know how to play an instrument.”

He chuckled, rubbing the tips of his fingers where the strings had already worn bright red grooves. She showed him the bullied fingertips of her own hand.

“I don’t get to practice as much as I should,” she said, “so it’s a little rough. If I had my own guitar, I’d be in better shape.”

“Will you get your own?”

“Eventually. I’m saving up.”

He played the E chord again, smiling down at the instrument.

“When I do get one,” she said, “I’ll give you a real lesson.”

He met her eyes. “Can you teach me to play the song you sang in the park?”

“Of course.” She frowned slightly. “Why that one?”

“It resonated with me.”

He handed the guitar back to her, and she settled it in the hollow of the case, closing and snapping the lid.

“That song . . .” She hesitated, heat burning in her face. But she’d already started the confession, so it was pointless to stop. “This’ll sound cheesy, but I had a bad relationship once, so I stayed away from love songs. That’s the first one I’ve written since.”

He contemplated that for a moment, hands braced on his knees.

“What changed?” he asked.

“I came to Domino.”

He smiled.

So as the days passed, her spirit problem got worse and worse.

The day registration for Battle City opened, Yori tagged along with Jiro to an auditorium at Domino University just after 7:00 AM. It was the place the Battle of the Bands would be held in September, and with a record deal on the line, Jiro wanted to scope out the territory ahead of time.

“Our lighting is all state-of-the-art, of course,” the student showing them around explained. He gestured at the impressive control panel before him as if it fully supported his words. To Yori, it just seemed like a whole lot of buttons and switches waiting to be played with.

Jiro leaned forward, glancing between the controls and the looming glass window before them that looked out on a polished stage.

“We have a disco ball, patterned spotlights, strobe lights—you name it.” The student flipped a few of the switches to illustrate, bathing the stage first in green lights, then in red. Another switch sent a white spattering of lights in a wide arc across the empty auditorium seats.

“I want to walk the stage,” Jiro said.

He walked it from side to side, and then from front to back. He shaded his eyes against the lights, sweeping his gaze over the audience seats. He muttered to himself about equipment placement and visibility. At one point, he told Yori to stand front and center, and then he jumped down and moved to various places in the auditorium, yelling for her to move to the left or right as needed so that he could get a feel for the audience’s view.

When he seemed satisfied, he climbed back on stage.

She raised an eyebrow. “You brought me to play Barbie since you couldn’t be in two places at once?”

“Naturally,” he said, not even glancing at her. He was too busy studying the rafters and squinting at the various lights suspended above the stage. After another minute, he finally met her eyes. “Well, not just that. I need your advice.”

Yori tightened her ponytail. “This isn’t really my area of expertise. I think it’s a great place to play a show, but I couldn’t tell you if it’s better or worse than other venues.”

“There’s this girl,” he said.

“Oh.” She lowered her arms. “That kind of advice. I’m not great with that either.”

“I’ve asked her out four times.”

She winced, embarrassed for both him and the mystery girl. “Maybe stop asking?”

“The thing is she likes me just as much. She kissed me first, and whenever she says no to dating, she isn’t mean about it. She’s just . . . sad.” He rubbed his shoe across a scuff on the stage. “She finally told me last night it’s because of the band. Every other time, I thought. . . . Well, her family spends more on their dog than mine does on all three kids.”

Yori frowned. “What’s wrong with the band?”

“Her dad’s famous, but he’s a waste of space. He’s on his fourth wife and his second rehab center. She says she can never date any guy in the entertainment business because she would spend every second worrying that he was cheating on her, among other things.”

Yori gave a low whistle. Jiro continued to rub at various marks on the stage, hands in his pockets, staring at the ground.

She wished she had some kind of profound advice.

Or even semi-useful advice.

“I’m really sorry, Jiro. I’m, like, the worst person to ask about this—I have zero good relationship experience.”

Even that felt like an understatement. Her relationship experience was the same kind that might be gained by falling into an open pit and surviving the spikes only to be eaten by the starving lion.

He glanced up at her. “So that guy you brought to our concert isn’t your boyfriend?”

She gave a half-hearted laugh, and suddenly she was the one studying the wear and tear of the stage. If Jiro’s situation was impossible, what did that make a relationship with the 3,000-year-old spirit of a pharaoh?

“Just a friend,” she said. She had to swallow against the sudden tightness in her throat.

Jiro raised both eyebrows. “I know the feeling.”

“It’s not the same.” Yori shook her head. “There’s literally zero chance of a relationship with him. Less than zero. Negative zero chance.”

“I know the feeling,” he repeated.

Yori abandoned it as a lost cause and looked away, staring intently at the empty auditorium, at the hundreds of darkened seats. She thought of all the people who would file in for a show, fill the seats, then leave them empty again. The people would come and go over and over and over, and the seats would get more and more ragged, but they would still be there. Just sitting there. Empty.

“Something about impossible relationships,” Jiro finally said. “Don’t they just make you want them all the more?”

“I have to go,” Yori said.

She used the tournament registration as a distraction, and for once, she was relieved not to see Yami when she saw Yuugi. His friends were upbeat, particularly Joey, which helped her push everything else to the back of her mind.

But soon enough, they were all looking at her expectantly—store clerk included—and she realized that by shoving everything to the back of her mind, she’d forgotten to make one important decision.

Whether or not she was going to compete in Battle City.

“You’re up, Yor’,” Joey said, jerking his thumb at the counter.

“Name?” the clerk asked, fingers poised to type.

“Um,” she said. Then she shook it off. Over the last few minutes, it had become obvious she needed to register, if for one reason only. She could worry about the actual competition later.

After taking a quick breath to regain her composure, she put on a smirk. “Can you look up a rare card instead of a name?”

The clerk shrugged. “I can try. It’ll probably give me a list of names, so you’ll still have to tell me which one is you.”

The fact that he didn’t much care whether she had any proof of identity confirmed the suspicions she’d had since walking in—that and the way he kept adjusting his bandana’s position on his forehead, pushing it down on his eyebrows every few minutes.

“Here’s my card.” She slipped Dante from its place at the top of her deck, holding it up for the clerk to see—although she stayed well out of his reach.

“Huh, you got a dragon, too.” Joey tilted his head to peer at her card. “Never heard of that one.”

“I haven’t either,” Yuugi said. “We’ve never had one in the store.”

“Looks powerful,” Ryou said. “Eight stars.”

Meanwhile, the clerk’s eyes grew wide and greedy. Yori stared back at him expressionlessly. He turned the computer screen for everyone to see.

“Well, this must be you, then,” he said.

The name on the ID profile was “Avenging Angel.” She’d expected her tournament column to be empty, but instead it said Underground Duelist. She’d been given six stars. The picture was very recent—taken just days earlier when she’d fought her first match on a Duel Field, against Yami.

Kaiba really should have marked his fields with a warning that they would gather personal information on duelists. She didn’t appreciate the candid shot of herself in what had been a very private match.

“Wait a sec.” Joey squinted at the image of Dante the Fire Dragon on the screen. “I ain’t readin’ this right. Does that say . . . one copy?”

He whirled to face her, jaw halfway to the floor.

Yuugi’s jaw matched. “I knew Pegasus kept one-copy cards for his private collection, but I didn’t know he ever released them to the public!”

Ryou seemed to take it best, smiling widely. “Good show! Did you win it off someone?”

“Dante has always been mine,” Yori said, keeping her eyes on the clerk, “and he always will be.”

The man smirked. “Confidence. That’s good. You’re in for quite a battle, aren’t you?”

She narrowed her eyes. “You tell me.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know.” He waved his hands carelessly. “I’m no duelist myself. I just enjoy watching the professionals.”

No duelist—that she believed. But he’d sure rattled off the prices on rare cards with ease. And Dante would be worth more than everything he’d mentioned, possibly even combined.

The man slid a Duel Disk box across the counter to her and adjusted his bandana once more on his eyebrows. “You kids enjoy the tournament.”

Yori slid Dante back into her deck pouch, snapped it shut, and tucked the white box under her arm. She felt the clerk’s eyes follow her until she was out of view.

They exited the shop into sunlight, passing the guard who might possibly have been dozing standing up, and all the way down the street, Joey kept gaping at Yori.

“Maybe we should get some brunch,” Ryou suggested. “There’s a café just down—”

“Duel me!” Joey shouted, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, pointing at Yori.

“You can’t have my dragon,” Yori said flatly.

His eyes bugged in his head. “You’re gonna ante it up to every duelist in the city next week, but you won’t let me take an early crack at it?!”

“Joey . . .” Yuugi said, looking a little sheepish.

Yori narrowed cold eyes on him. “Why don’t you just trade me straight across? My Dante for your Red-Eyes?”

The fact that he hesitated made her expression soften.

“Cards are personal,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the number of copies or the attack power.”

“I know that,” he ground out, “but . . . man! Just once, I thought I was top of something.”

“We could thumb wrestle if you want.” She smirked. “You might come out on top.”

“Eh, shut up.”

“So . . .” Ryou pointed to a side street. “Brunch?”

“Sounds good to me,” Yuugi said.

They all headed to Ryou’s café. Yuugi insisted on the meal being his treat to celebrate everyone registering for the tournament. Joey ate enough for three people while Yori was still insisting that just a bubble tea was enough for her.

“I just don’t have much of an appetite today,” she said.

“The idea of Battle City is quite nerve-wracking,” Ryou said. “This will be my first big tournament, too. And with holograms no less.”

She managed a smile. “You’ll do great.”

After eating, Ryou and Yuugi headed out early, saying they had to meet Anzu and Tristan for a mangaka fansign event. When Yori asked Joey why he wasn’t going, he said his sister was having eye surgery in the morning and he’d promised to spend the night in the hospital with her. Despite the serious news, there was a light of anticipation in his eyes.

“You guys close?” Yori asked, fishing her straw around to catch the three pearls left in her cup.

“She keeps me going,” he said.

“We all need someone like that.” She tossed her empty cup in the trash and reclined in her seat, eyes on the sky.

After a minute or two of silence, she said, “I don’t know if I’m going to participate in Battle City.”

“Yeah, I kind of wondered.”

She sat up in surprise. He had on a type of smirk she’d never seen him wear around Yuugi. It was a familiar expression—she wore it herself most days.

“You’re the free-spirit type, ain’tcha?”

“Not exactly what I would call it,” she said.

“Call it what you will.” He shrugged. “You fight things on your own turf with your own stakes. Organized tourney is a scary thing.”

“You’re street, too?” She raised her eyebrows. Not to be insulting, but she wouldn’t have tagged him for it. He seemed too reckless, too carefree, and sometimes just plain too dumb.

“Used to be.” He stretched his arms over his head, reaching for the clouds. He yawned. “Me an’ Tristan.”

Tristan made more sense. He still had the wary aura.

“Yuug’s the one turned us around,” Joey continued.

Yori smiled. “No surprise there.”

“He’s one of a kind,” Joey said seriously. “Tristan and I used to bully him. Me especially. The way he smiled at everyone—the bullies, the jerk teachers, the lowlifes—it pissed me off big time. The guy had no friends, no parents, no money, no grades higher than a C, and he was still all smiles all the time. It made me realize how ugly I was inside. So I finally took what was most precious to him, a piece of the Millennium Puzzle he’d been working for years to finish, and I chucked it out a window where he couldn’t find it.”

Yori’s eyes widened—not because there was any surprise about Yuugi’s character, but because she almost couldn’t believe the surprise about Joey’s.

“Yeah, I know, right?” Joey said, noting her expression. “I was a piece of work. And I got what was comin’ to me; there was this big hall monitor at school, a real hulking guy, cornered me and Tristan for bullyin’. Gave us the beatin’ of a lifetime. But halfway through, Yuugi shows up, and he steps right in front of both of us and says, ‘Don’t hurt my friends.’”

“Of course he would,” Yori whispered, picking at the edge of the table. She could hear Yami’s words again: “Yuugi extends friendship to those anyone else would turn away.” And her soul felt the truth in why Joey had bullied Yuugi because sometimes when she looked at Yuugi, she felt keenly how much ugliness was inside her, too. He was someone who would defend a bully; she was someone who would throw a soul in a furnace.

“The hall monitor was a piece of work, too,” Joey said, “and he went, ‘Your friends? Then you’re in this with them,’ and he started beatin’ Yuugi just as bad.”

He sucked in a breath, blew it out slowly. There was a shine in his eyes.

“Sometimes,” he went on, voice hoarse, “I still can’t believe it. There he was. This little guy that barely came up to my knee—the geek that even geeks picked on. And he was takin’ a beating for me. And I ain’t done a thing to deserve it.” He shook his head. “So me an’ Tristan changed that day. We never talked about it ’cause there’s some stuff you don’t gotta say out loud. When a guy like Yuugi wants to be your friend, you don’t pass that up, and you don’t ask questions; you just take it. Whatever it takes, you take it.”

Yori bit the inside of her cheek to keep her eyes from betraying her.

Then Joey’s eyes were locked on hers, sharp and intense. “I don’t know much about this tournament, but I know something’s up. I know Yuugi’s fightin’ for something important. So even though I’m participatin’ for my own selfish reasons, I’ll fight for his, too. And if it comes down to it, if that’s what it takes, I’ll put his first.”

He stood, pushed his chair in with his foot, and grinned at her. “So, you know, do what you gotta do, and don’t pass this up. That’s what I’m sayin’.”

Then he left.

And she sat alone at an empty table.

After a while, she pulled out her Dante the Fire Dragon card, staring at it. She knew what Yuugi would be fighting for in Battle City—the three god monsters and Yami’s memories. If she joined the fight, she would risk losing part of the only identity she had. If she stayed out of it and let them fight alone, she would risk losing the new identity she was building.

And either way, the longer she stayed in Domino, the more she was already losing herself to a relationship that could never end well.

She replaced Dante in her deck and left the café.

Chapter Text

It was a long walk from one end of Domino City to the other, so Joey stopped along the way at an old man’s corner shop.

“Hey, Wheeler!” the old man greeted. “Haven’t seen you in this area for a while.”

Joey grinned. “I been keeping my nose clean, old man. Can’t say the same for you—look at this mess you got.”

The side of the shop had been tagged in red spray paint. Joey had done something similar once upon a time, but after changing his stripes, he’d come back to clean it up, and he’d worked a few days free to make up for it. The old man was surprisingly chipper and forgiving, so Joey still made his way over to buy a soda or a comic once in a while, and the old man let him do odd jobs for cash when he needed it.

Joey rolled up his sleeves. He would have taken his jacket off completely, but one of his biceps was still sporting a big yellow bruise that hadn’t completely healed, not to mention the state of his ribs, not that those would have been visible.

“What color you want the wall this time?” he asked.

The old man smiled. “May as well go with the theme.”

He got Joey a bucket of red paint, a roller, and an apron, and Joey had the wall done within an hour. Afterward, the man treated him to a soda and sandwich.

“Got a proposition for you, Wheeler,” he said while Joey munched. “You’re on your last year of school, aren’t you?”

Joey held up a finger, then rolled it. When the old man only raised an eyebrow, he swallowed quickly before clarifying, “Finish this one after the summer, then one more. I ain’t seventeen yet.”

“Oh, I thought you were a bit older. Well, still. I could use a more permanent set of extra hands around here, if that’s something you’re interested in.”

Joey nearly snorted his soda.

The old man smiled. “I can speak to your school to help you get permission, and you can work around your class hours until you finish. It won’t be much pay, I’m afraid, but I’d sure appreciate it.”

Joey nodded so fast his head almost fell off, and he bowed best he could at the table. He’d tried to get part-time jobs before, but either his reputation or his attitude had gotten in the way of each one.

“Can I start after the tournament?” he asked. When the old man didn’t understand, Joey explained about Battle City (perhaps emphasizing his dueling prowess beyond what was technically true). He showed off his new Duel Disk, and he and the old man oohed and aahed when Joey strapped it on and the wing lit up red before fading.

They discussed some more details of the job before the old man had to help a new customer. Joey rubbed a hand over the Duel Disk on his arm. It wasn’t as heavy as he’d expected it to be, and the cuff fit snugly, as if it had been made for him. He grabbed the Battle City rulebook from the box (ignoring the thick waiver packet of all the terms he agreed to by using it). He intended to just look at the section on the Duel Disk, but before he knew it, he was reading the whole thing.

“Hey, Wheeler,” the old man called out, startling him. “You gonna stay all night?”

With a sinking feeling, Joey realized how much time he’d wasted without knowing. The sun had already set, and the shop cast warm yellow light out into the street.

He swore, struggling to pull the Duel Disk off his arm and shove it back in its box.

“Gotta go!” he shouted.

“See you after the tournament!” the old man said.

“I’ll be here!” Joey waved over his shoulder as he took off running.

That is, if he could manage to keep any of his commitments ever. Serenity would be so disappointed if he showed up late, but he didn’t have cash on him for a cab.

He could still make it if he cut through an older part of the city. He didn’t like to without Tristan to cover his back because there were still some gangs out there with a grudge against him, but he told himself if he just booked it, he would be able to make it through without a problem.

He hopped a fence and cut through some narrow alleys. There were fewer streetlights in this part of town, but it was probably good not to see some of the things he was stepping in.

Just as he’d almost cleared the neighborhood, Joey turned a corner and came face to face with a group of cloaked men.

It wasn’t any gang he recognized, so maybe he could weasel his way out.

“Yo, people, outta the roadway before I crack some knees,” he snapped, trying for a tough-guy bluff.

One of the men tossed back his hood, revealing stark blonde hair around harsh-cut features. He had some kind of round tattoo on his forehead, but it was too dim to make out any details.

With the bleached hair, Joey couldn’t tell for sure how old the guy was, but he was definitely too old to be running in this territory. In fact, he was too old to be running Domino at all. Domino wasn’t prime real estate or anything—the police were tight on drug busts and black-market deals. Any gang in Domino was made up of young punks just trying to be tough.

“Look what fell right into my lap,” the man said. “I was on the hunt for a Crush Virus, but you’re even higher on the list.”

“You don’t need a virus, pal.” Joey smirked. “I can put you in the hospital for free! It ain’t far from here, you know.”

The man sneered. “Wannabe Wheeler has some fight in him, I see. They say small, powerless dogs bark the loudest.”

His words chilled Joey’s blood. Wannabe Wheeler had been Kaiba’s title for him on the computer, and Rich-boy had taunted him with the dog comparison face-to-face at Duelist Kingdom. After he fought dirty against Yuugi at the castle, Joey had tried to clobber the jerk. Tristan stopped him just before he could, and he would never forget the way Kaiba turned cold, robot eyes on him and said, “So the beaten dog can still bark. If you keep going like that, Pegasus will cut your throat and tear out your vocal cords.”

“You have something you don’t deserve,” the man continued. “I’m here to claim it.”

“Dat so?” Joey hefted the Duel Disk box under his arm, wondering if he could lob it at the guy and run. But he wouldn’t know how to get a replacement, and it would only take care of one out of the five guys.

“Red-Eyes Black Dragon,” the man said.

Joey blinked.

“We are the Ghouls,” the man went on, “and I will be your opponent tonight. We’ll use Duel Disks and the Battle City rules, so whoever loses also loses their rarest card. Meaning I will walk away tonight with your Red-Eyes.”

Silence hung in the air for a moment.

Then Joey smiled.

Then he laughed.

The Ghouls exchanged a look.

“I don’t see anything particularly funny,” the leader grumbled.

Joey waved a hand. There was a fever in his blood growing hotter by the minute. Corporate Hothead Seto Kaiba didn’t like the fact that Joey had joined his tournament and come back for a rematch, so he’d thrown money at the problem as usual and hired a bunch of thugs to fix it. No wonder they looked so out of place.

Well, if he thought Joey Wheeler was going to back down from a little challenge or just hand over his best card to a hired thug, Rich-boy had another thing coming.

“I’ll duel,” Joey said, popping open the lid to his Duel Disk box. “But when I make you eat dust, you gotta promise to go crying back to your boss.”

The man’s eyes widened at that.

“Heh, surprised I figured it out? Just ’cause that ego maniac thinks I’m stupid don’t mean nothing.”

The man threw one side of his cloak over his shoulder, revealing a Duel Disk already strapped to his arm.

“If you manage to ‘make me eat dust,’” he said, “I’m not worthy to crawl back into the master’s presence.”

The term of address nearly made Joey hurl.

“Geez, he must be payin’ a lot to get you to grovel that hard.”

Joey fastened the Duel Disk to his arm again, tossing the box aside. He snapped his deck into place beneath the lifepoint counter, which caused the screen to blink to life, scrolling from 0 up to 4000.

“You know nothing of the master,” the man growled. He extended his arm, and the Duel Disk ejected two small devices, which glided down to rest on the pavement at either side of the alley. They whirred for a second before a metal covering slid open at the front like a robotic eyelid to reveal a clear surface that pulsed with a faint rainbow glow.

Joey narrowed his eyes. “Nah. He don’t know nothing of me.”

He held out his arm in a copy of the guy’s action, and his own Duel Disk sent out the two little robot things—holo-projectors, the rulebook had called them. It was a good thing he’d unintentionally studied up.

He’d still be a little late to the hospital, but he’d have a great story for Serenity when he arrived about how her brother beat the odds with the deck stacked against him.

“Let’s duel,” he snarled.

++++++++++

It didn’t take the Ghouls long after sundown to come looking for Yori. Of course, she helped them out a little by camping on a bench in plain sight wearing her Duel Disk. She could have put up a billboard that said See Duelist Below, but she figured it was best to stay subtle.

 She saw the group coming from a block away; the cloaks made them hard to miss. The sky hadn’t fully darkened yet, so everything had hazed edges, and they almost looked like mirages in the summer heat.

“Whaddya know, boys,” one of the cloaked men said as they reached her, giving a toothy smile. The dim light caught on his protruding cheekbones and shadowed his sunken eyes. “Looks like we caught a big fish.”

Yori stood to face them. “You can’t call yourself a fisherman if the marlin jumps on your boat.”

“High opinion of yourself.” He chuckled. “Why don’t you duel me, then, and prove how tough you are?”

“Not interested,” she said flatly. “There’s only one person I’ll duel—your ‘master.’”

The Ghouls all exchanged glances.

“So how about it?” she said. “Take me to your leader.”

“You’ll duel me,” the sunken-eyed man said, tossing the edge of his cloak over his shoulder to reveal a Duel Disk. “We’ll use Battle City rules.”

Yori smiled sweetly. “Maybe you didn’t hear me.”

She stepped forward, brought her arm up, and cracked the man in the nose with the metal wing of her Duel Disk. Howling, he dropped to his knees, hands clutched over his face.

“Once more.” She swept her gaze across the four other men. “Where’s your leader?”

They exchanged another glance, but none of them said a word, which meant one of two things: Either they were all incredibly stupid, or they were all incredibly scared. She hadn’t done enough to make them scared yet.

She pulled out her switchblade, pointed it at the kneeling Ghoul.

“I didn’t want this to get messy,” she said, “but if your master’s too chicken to face me, I could just return you to sender in little pieces.”

The man closest to her dove forward, trying to grab her. She sliced open the back of his wrist, stepped aside, and kicked him in the knee. He crashed into the first Ghoul, sending them both face-first into the grass.

“Who is this ‘master’ guy?” she demanded, brandishing her knife so the rest of them could see the blood on the blade. “Why is he so worth your loyalty?”

Still no answer. Two of the remaining guys looked ready to run. One seemed to be debating an attack.

“What about your tattoos?” Yori tried. “Does your boss have a Millennium Item?”

That got their attention.

And she finally realized what they were actually scared of.

She yanked her shirt sleeve up, exposing the braided strands of gold around the hollow eye.

“I’ll show you mine,” she said. “You show me yours.”

The three remaining Ghouls turned tail and ran. Even the first guy stumbled to his feet, hands still pressed to his nose, and staggered after them.

So much for that. After her first experience facing the Ghouls with Yami, she’d expected all of them to be as brazen as the knife thrower, but apparently, they came in all types.

A low chuckle grabbed her attention, and she turned as the one remaining Ghoul rose from the ground. He leaned heavily on the leg she hadn’t injured, and his eyes had rolled up in his head, the color nearly gone beneath his eyelids.

The tattoo on his forehead glowed gold.

“You wanted so badly to meet me.” He spread his arms wide, blood dripping from his wrist. “Here I am.”

Yori’s eyes widened as she suddenly remembered another man, a man writhing on the ground and clawing at his face while he screamed, “He’s in my head!”

“Bossman.” Despite herself, her fingers quivered. “Thought you’d come in person.”

“With my Millennium Rod, I have no need,” the man said. “I am everywhere my Ghouls are.”

“Neat trick.” She gripped her switchblade as her heart pounded. How could she fight someone who only appeared by controlling other people?

“I recognize you,” the man went on. “You were with the pharaoh before. And you wield the Millennium Bracelet. How fascinating.”

“You’re after the pharaoh?” she said, unable to really focus on the words as her mind raced. She’d intended to challenge the Ghoul leader to a shadow game in order to get him to call his men off Yuugi and Yami, but if he fought a shadow game through another person, she had no way of knowing if he’d be bound by the consequences.

“I’m after a great many things. As are all.”

He smiled, and his head tilted back, the dim light catching on the whites of his eyes, sending chills down Yori’s spine.

“Now,” he said, “I’m after you, too.”

She tensed, ready for an attack. But the man merely chuckled.

“Our battlefield is not here; it is declared by that Duel Disk on your arm.” He leaned forward, sagging into his injured leg. “You want to face me in person? Find me in Battle City. Watch out if I find your friends first.”

The man collapsed in a heap, as if his marionette strings had been severed.

Yori took a deep breath and shook her hands. She backed away from the collapsed figure until she felt comfortable, then turned and made her way down the black street. The buildings around her slumped on their foundations, a feeling her soul echoed.

The Ghoul leader could control people’s minds with his Millennium Item, and Yori still didn’t know if hers could do more than communicate with spirits. Beyond housing Yami, the puzzle didn’t seem to have much use either. Yami needed the tournament to get his memories back, and she couldn’t tell if bossman knew that or if he’d chosen Battle City as his arena out of convenience. She didn’t even know why he was after the pharaoh or what he hoped to gain.

She looked down at the Duel Disk on her arm. Joey had been on the money when he’d pegged her at the café; Yori was happy to fight battles on her own ground under her own rules, but walking into fights where the enemy held all the cards was just suicide.

“Don’t pass this up,” Joey’s voice said.

Yori sighed. She pressed a button to unlatch the Duel Disk, pulling it from her arm. She was knee-deep in a mess and wading deeper with every moment.

++++++++++

Sonomi Wheeler ran a frustrated hand through her hair as she stared down her daughter, Serenity.

“He’s coming, Mom,” the girl insisted. “Joey promised he was coming tonight, and if he isn’t here, it means something bad happened. Maybe something with Dad.”

Or it just means he’s exactly like his father, Sonomi thought.

It had been eight years since she’d seen her son, but she could remember all too well how he took after his father. The way he started fights at school, the way he threatened anyone he didn’t like, the way she feared he would hurt Serenity anytime she wasn’t looking. He was his father’s carbon copy—blonde hair, brown eyes, violent temper.

He even shared his father’s gambling addiction; the money he’d used for Serenity’s surgery had come from some tournament. If Sonomi’d had any other way to come up with the funds herself, she never would have accepted it. She still wished she could have at least gone to a doctor in America, but with Joey paying, he’d chosen a specialist in Japan, and she couldn’t argue without endangering her daughter’s health further.

“Serenity,” Sonomi said gently, reaching out to brush the girl’s hair off her forehead, “I know you love your brother very much, and I know you want to think the best of him, but a promise from Joseph means nothing.”

From the time he could talk, Sonomi had heard nothing but false promises from her son. She could hear his voice in her memory from each day he came home battered and bloody. Each time she got a phone call about the other children he’d injured. Each time he disobeyed her at home. “I’ll try harder, Mom.” “I won’t do it again.” “I didn’t mean to, honest!” The time she found out he’d stolen from a store, the time the school called to say he’d cheated on a test, the time he started the house on fire while she was at work. The excuses were the same each time, and each time, there was another promise to be better. Yet the events continued to pile up.

The final straw was the day he took Serenity.

Serenity shook her head vigorously. “Joey always keeps his promises to me. Always.”

Sonomi’s voice hardened. “Sweetheart, stop. It’s almost midnight. You need to sleep so you’re rested for the surgery.”

“I won’t sleep until Joey gets here!” Serenity’s brown eyes flashed, bringing an unwelcome resemblance of her father into her soft, innocent face. She pressed herself back into the hospital pillows, pulling her knees up to her chest.

Sonomi took a deep breath, forced herself to be calm.

“He isn’t coming. And so far, he’s done nothing but upset you, so maybe that’s a good thing. Let’s just get some rest.”

Serenity bit her bottom lip, her eyes narrowing. She reached for the phone at her bedside and dialed in a number. Sonomi’s chest tightened.

“Put the phone down,” she ordered. The last thing she wanted was for her husband to hear her baby girl’s voice. When she took Serenity and ran all those years ago, Elliot Wheeler hadn’t seemed to care, but Sonomi could never fight back the fear that he would suddenly decide to come after them.

“Put the phone down,” she repeated, because Serenity had made no move to obey.

“Not until I hear Joey’s voice.”

Sonomi reached behind the phone stand, unplugging it from the service cord.

Serenity’s knuckles whitened around the dead instrument. “You can’t keep him away from me.”

“I haven’t done anything to try. Joseph isn’t coming, and it’s better that way. The doctor said you need to be relaxed for the surgery, and you’ve been nothing but tense since I let you call your brother the first time.”

“That’s because Dad burst in and Joey hung up! What if Dad hurt him?”

Sonomi swallowed, the familiar lie heavy in her throat as she said, “Your father would never hurt Joseph.”

“How can you be sure? I saw him hit you, Mom! How can you be sure he isn’t hurting Joey?”

“Okay, this conversation is over. You’re going to bed.” Sonomi adjusted the covers around her daughter’s feet even though the girl still had her knees pulled up.

“Not until Joey gets here!”

“Serenity, that’s enough!”

A firm tap sounded on the door before an orderly stepped into the room.

“Is everything alright?” He pasted on a fake smile of etiquette. “We do have nearby patients, and I must request that we not disturb their rest. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“No. Everything’s fine.” Sonomi switched off the lights in the room.

Serenity’s eyes burned in the pale moonlight through the window. “I won’t have the surgery tomorrow. I won’t have it unless Joey’s here with me.”

Chapter Text

Yuugi heard the phone in his dreams, ringing and ringing until it finally roused his conscious mind. Not a moment after he opened his eyes, the noise stopped.

He blinked and rubbed a hand across his face, trying to figure out why his nightstand was missing from the side of the bed—until he realized he was sprawled across his covers with his feet on the pillow. It wasn’t an uncommon situation; he was a heavy sleeper, and the more stressed he was, the more he tossed and turned.

After Yori’s news the previous night about the leader of the Ghouls and his Millennium Item, there had been plenty of stress to go around.

“Yuugi!” Grandpa shouted from downstairs. “Phone’s for you.”

Yuugi wriggled backward until he could reach the cordless phone on the edge of his dresser. The voice that answered his groggy “hello” was no one he expected.

“You’re Yuugi Mutou?” the girl asked. She sounded younger than him, but maybe that was because her voice also wavered, like she was scared. “Yuugi Mutou from Duelist Kingdom? The winner?”

“Yes,” he said slowly, though it was hardly how he liked to think of himself and even less how he liked to be greeted by total strangers. “I’m sorry, who is this?”

“Oh, thank goodness!” Her voice cracked around a sob. “Joey’s told me all about you, and I didn’t know who else to call.”

“Joey?” Yuugi repeated with a frown.

Then recognition dawned in his mind, and he bolted upright, barely managing to catch himself on the dresser before he fell off his bed.

“Serenity!” he half-shouted, a grin breaking out across his features. “You’re Serenity, right?”

“Yes! Is my brother there?”

Yuugi’s grin deflated. “No. Isn’t he with you? He had plans to meet you at the hospital last night.”

She took a deep, shuddery breath. “He never came. I even called home, but no one answered. I-I think maybe our dad—”

She cut off abruptly. Yuugi could hear voices in the background, like someone was arguing in her room.

“Please,” Serenity whispered. Yuugi’s heart clenched at her broken voice. “Please find him. Something’s wrong, I just know it.”

He swallowed hard, but before he could reply, a different voice came on the phone.

“You’re Joseph’s friend?”

Yuugi stiffened. He’d never heard anyone call Joey by his full name outside of teachers on the first day of class. It sounded harsh and judgmental, especially coming from the cold voice of the woman now on the phone.

“Yes, I am,” Yuugi said proudly.

“I don’t care where he is or what he’s doing that he thinks is more important than my daughter, but you get him here, you hear me? Get. Him. Here. Serenity refuses to have the surgery without him, and I will not have him ruin her only chance at sight after everything else he’s done.”

Yuugi’s jaw went slack. He pulled the phone away from his ear enough to stare at it. Joey’s mom. It had to be. And yet he never would have guessed if she wouldn’t have named Serenity as her daughter.

Joey never talked about his parents. Yuugi had a sinking feeling now about why.

“He has one hour until the doctor leaves,” Joey’s mother said, her voice loud enough Yuugi could still hear it. “He has to be here in less than an hour—he owes Serenity that.”

The phone went dead in Yuugi’s hand, and it fell from his loose grip. It bounced on the mattress without a sound.

“Yami?” Yuugi said, voice hoarse. He cleared his throat and gripped the front of his rumpled pajama shirt. After a quick glance around the room, he spotted the puzzle on the floor, half-hidden under his bed. He leaned over, dragged it out, then draped it over his neck.

//Joey’s in trouble,// he said. Trouble was the only thing that could keep him away from Serenity.

And they only had one hour to fix it.

Yami was there instantly, and Yuugi explained the situation while he yanked on the first street clothes he could find.

He grabbed the phone again, dialing Anzu’s number, heart in his throat as he waited to hear her voice. When she answered, he gave her a quick version of the story and told her to tell Tristan and Ryou.

“We ate at a café yesterday,” he said. “Ryou knows where. It’s the last place I saw him, but Yori stayed after we left, so I’ll talk to her and let you know if she knows anything different.”

“We’ll find him, Yuugi,” Anzu said. “Don’t worry.”

But they both knew it wasn’t very reassuring.

Yuugi ran down the hall and banged on Yori’s door, praying she hadn’t already left for the day.

“One second,” she called out.

“Joey’s missing!” he said, because he didn’t have any seconds to spare.

She opened the door a heartbeat later. “What?”

Yuugi had to do a double-take. She was in a pair of black yoga pants with a light green tank top that must have been her pajamas, and he realized he’d never seen her arms bare before.

Because he definitely would have noticed the scars.

She had a cross-hatching of raised scars on both arms, scattered in different places, all different lengths. The most eye-catching set was just above her right elbow. The two puncture marks were unmistakable; she’d been bitten. Unless she’d lived somewhere with spiders the size of plates, it had been a snake.

Yori stared at him pointedly.

“What happened?” she repeated.

“Joey never made it to the hospital last night,” Yami said. “If he doesn’t arrive within the hour, his sister’s surgery will be cancelled.”

Yuugi shook himself out of it. So much for not wasting a second.

“Did anything happen at the café after we left?” he asked.

Yori frowned. “He left not long after you guys, and he was definitely excited to see his sister.”

The words pinched Yuugi’s stomach.

“I don’t know what could have happened,” he said. “Serenity means everything to him.”

Before he even finished, Yori’s eyes widened.

“This is my fault,” she whispered. “I didn’t think . . .”

Yuugi swallowed. “What do you mean?”

“The Ghouls from last night,” she said. “I didn’t hunt them down; they came after me. The clerk for the tournament registration was a Ghoul, possibly the guard, too, and he was feeding the others information on who had the rarest cards. That’s why I showed him Dante. I was baiting a trap, but I didn’t think—Joey’s card was rare enough they probably went after him, too.”

“Ghouls . . . ?” Yuugi’s heart fell.

“Would they have done anything to him?” Yami asked, voice hard. “The Ghouls after us were out for more than rare cards, but if Joey did encounter a group, there’s a chance their tactics may have been limited to dueling.”

“They just wanted to duel me,” Yori said. “I’m the one who took things more seriously.”

Yami frowned. “So win or lose, he still should have reached the hospital. Unless he refused to surrender Red-Eyes, and they escalated tactics.”

“I can find out more.” Yori’s eyes narrowed. “Just gotta track down some cloaked clowns first. I don’t know how much I can do in only an hour, but I’ll try.”

“Be careful,” Yuugi said. “I don’t want any more missing friends.”

She nodded, then disappeared back into her room. Yuugi hurried downstairs and pulled his shoes on. He made one more phone call to Anzu, and she told him Tristan had borrowed his brother’s motorcycle to search the places he and Joey used to hang out.

“He’s just about to leave,” she said. “Ryou and I thought we could search between the café and the hospital, but there’s a lot of ground to cover.”

“I can meet you,” Yuugi said. He hesitated. “Tell Tristan . . . there’s a chance Joey might have been cornered for his Red-Eyes. Maybe . . .” He hated to say anything against his friend, but he knew Joey well, and finding him was most important. “He might be hiding if he lost.”

“I’ll tell him,” Anzu said.

Yori crossed the room behind him, dressed in street clothes. The bells for the door jingled.

“See you in a minute,” Yuugi said. He hung up.

Grandpa offered him some cash. “This is serious, right? Take a cab.”

“Thanks, Grandpa.”

“Call if you need anything.”

Yuugi nodded. Then he headed out the door, too.

++++++++++

Tristan Taylor swerved around a car—ignoring the horn that blared behind him—and roared down a narrow alley. Sweat beaded on his neck beneath the edge of his helmet, and he clenched his teeth until his jaw ached. He twisted the throttle tight enough he came close to wrenching the whole thing right off the handlebars.

What Yuugi had said made sense; Joey had pride issues. Honestly, so did Tristan, but sometimes Joey took it to the max, and it always seemed to be when it was most important not to. Like in Duelist Kingdom. After Kaiba trashed him in a duel, Joey had gone into a revenge frenzy. Even the mention of Kaiba’s name got him worked up to the point he couldn’t think past payback. His obsession had led to them all getting trapped in a cave they might never have escaped without Bakura’s ring.

It had been the same story when Tristan fought by his side through their gang years—Joey got all hung up on the way Yuugi didn’t react to his bullying. It ate him up until he drew the attention of the one guy in school everyone knew to stay away from.

Luckily things had turned out good on that one, but Joey still had a problem.

Usually Tristan just let the dude be, let him blow off steam, make a fuss, mope around, whatever. Let him work it out on his own. But this time, the stakes were too high for Tristan to stay silent.

He skidded his motorcycle to a stop on the walkway that bordered the beach. Impulse wanted him to shove the bike over in the sand, but he forced himself to lower the kickstand, park it like a sane person (mostly so his brother wouldn’t kill him later). He dropped the helmet on the seat. The keys bit into the palm of his clenched fist even through his glove.

His guess about Joey’s hiding place was, of course, spot on. Joey loved sulking on the beach. Tristan had seen the familiar green jacket and wild blonde hair down by the water’s edge before he even came to a full stop on his bike.

Now he stalked across the beach toward his moron of a best friend. The sand sucking at his feet only darkened his mood.

“Joey,” he snapped as he approached.

Joey made no response.

No way he didn’t hear.

As soon as he was within reach, Tristan kicked Joey’s leg. The blonde climbed slowly to his feet but kept his eyes averted.

Tristan sucked in a sharp breath. The left side of Joey’s face had darkened to different shades of bruise, and dried blood outlined both his split lip and a cut on his cheek. Another crusted spot of blood peeked out from beneath his bangs. The skin just above his collarbone had discolored from a chokehold.

In the past, they’d faced fights together. He had more friends now than he’d ever had then, yet here he was, bleeding alone on a beach.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Tristan demanded.

Joey shrugged and took a step backward, his gaze never leaving the sand. Tristan stepped forward to match.

“Hiding out on the beach to lick your wounds after a scrape—is that manning up? Is that who Joey Wheeler is?”

“Shut up,” Joey mumbled, but there was no heat in the words. There was no emotion at all. Just empty air.

Tristan took a deep breath, struggling to bring his own voice under control.

“Alright, man,” he said slowly. “I get it. Some guys jumped you, right? They fought dirty?”

“Hired thugs.” That same empty tone. Joey touched his broken lip with the back of his thumb. “Lost my Red-Eyes.”

“I’m sorry.” Tristan shook his head. “Really, Joey, I’m sorry. But we can get it back. We can figure something out. I don’t get how this kept you from your sister.”

Joey closed his eyes. Mumbled something incoherent. They stood in silence for a few moments until Tristan glanced at his watch. They had less than fifteen minutes to get to the hospital.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ll deal with your Red-Eyes later. Serenity’s waiting for you.”

Even before he finished speaking, Joey was already shaking his head, turning away.

“I can’t go.” He hunched his shoulders, burrowing into his collar.

“Why the hell not?” Tristan exploded. “You’ve got me completely stumped, dude. I have no idea why you didn’t come to any of us for help after the fight, why you’re out here alone, why you’re abandoning Serenity of all people—what are you doing? You should be at the hospital right now. You should have been there hours ago!”

Joey did that same stupid head-shake, and words suddenly failed Tristan, so he stepped forward and put all his weight into a fist to Joey’s face.

Sand sprayed as Joey’s shoulder plowed into the soft ground. For the first time, Joey swung his eyes to meet Tristan’s, and they snapped fire.

“This is Serenity!” Tristan said, as if he could force Joey to wake up to everything that name was supposed to mean. “You lost a card—she’s about to lose her sight. Do you remember Duelist Kingdom, where you laid it all on the line to help her? Now look at you, choking on revenge against Kaiba, or how rare your deck is, or whatever this is really about.”

Joey kicked at him, but he was out of reach. The blonde shoved himself back to his feet, scattering sand from his clothes. He took a swing, but Tristan caught his arm before it hit. They stood there, facing each other, breathing hard, Tristan’s hand tight around Joey’s fist.

The light in Joey’s eyes was wild. Tremors ran through his fingers.

“She’s right,” he finally said. This time his voice was far from empty; it was deeper than the moment.

Tristan frowned. “Serenity?”

“Mom.”

Tristan loosened his grip, then released his hold altogether. Joey wrenched his arm away, stumbling in the sand.

“Right about what?”

“Me.”

The word hung between them, full of meaning Tristan had never heard and wasn’t sure he wanted to get into. He’d always known Joey had a messed-up family, but he’d never pried, never asked why his mom left or why Joey never let anyone meet his dad.

After all, if Tristan had problems in his own family, if he had a controlling mom or a spineless dad or a brother trying to hide an addiction, he wouldn’t want other people busting in like it was their business.

“She always said I was just like Dad,” Joey continued in a husky voice. His eyes were wet. “Violent, arrogant, better off dead so I can’t hurt other people. I go meet her like this after eight years”—he gestured at his face—“and she’s right again.”

The silence returned, and Tristan swallowed hard.

He could still remember the day Joey had transferred into his class in grade school. While the teacher introduced him and had the class practice saying “Joey,” Joey had stood tall and worn a sneer too wide for his face.

It hadn’t taken the full lunch period on that first day before someone made fun of Joey’s accent. As soon as it happened, Tristan had pushed the offender’s bento onto the floor, snapped his chopsticks, and sent the kid scampering.

“You’re half-American?” Tristan had demanded in English. When Joey’s eyes had gone wide, Tristan had said, “Me too.”

They’d fought side by side for years, and Tristan had even followed Joey into scrapes he didn’t understand or like.

This time would be no different.

He stepped forward, gripping Joey’s shoulders hard, trying to put more force into his words. “She’s wrong, Joey. She’s a hundred percent wrong. You proved that when you fought for your sister in Duelist Kingdom. You can prove it again today by going to support her, but you know what? Forget your mom. Don’t do it for her, even to prove her wrong. Do it for Serenity.”

Joey stared at him. Slowly, his shoulders relaxed. His ragged breathing evened out, and the pain behind his expression faded.

“Come on.” Tristan smiled. “You’ve got a promise to keep.”

++++++++++

The doctor had told her not to cry. He said crying would irritate her eyes and cause swelling that could interfere with the surgery.

So Serenity didn’t cry. Because she knew she would have the surgery—Joey would come, and she would have the surgery, and her sight would be restored to what it used to be. Before the world’s colors shifted, before she lost her depth perception, before it hurt to focus on anything for too long.

And as soon as she had her full sight back, the first thing she wanted to see was her brother’s smile.

When the doctor said he had other patients and would leave in an hour if Serenity didn’t accept the surgery, she swallowed hard and steeled her nerves. Her mother threatened her, threatened Joey’s friend Yuugi, threatened the doctor, but nothing changed. Serenity had already decided.

As the minutes of the hour ticked by, her throat tightened. Her eyes burned. But she carefully blinked back the mounting pressure. Joey would come. He would. He would come. If there was one person she could count on no matter what, it was Joey.

“Serenity,” her mother whispered, sitting on the end of the bed where she’d collapsed from her pacing. She seemed limp and empty, like a puppet dropped on a shelf. The clock read five minutes to the hour.

Serenity closed her aching eyes, tightened her fisted hands in the sheets.

“Serenity, you can’t . . . I can’t—”

Without warning, her mother’s voice broke into a sob, then another. Serenity opened her eyes. Her mother was hunched over at the foot of the bed, clutching her face in her hands. Serenity covered her mouth, biting down hard on her thumb. If Joey didn’t come, could she really . . . ?

But without Joey, she couldn’t face the nightmare—the fear that she would close her eyes for the surgery and never see anything but dark again. The procedure wasn’t a full guarantee. It could leave her blind in one or both eyes.

Serenity closed her eyes again, feeling the ache of holding back tears all the way through her skull.

On the beach. She could smell the salt in her memory, feel the soft sand between her small fingers. For her seventh birthday, Serenity had begged for a trip to the beach. Her dad gave her that scary look and said nothing. Her mom said it wasn’t safe. It wasn’t close. It wasn’t convenient. When they were both out, Joey took her hand in his, grinned that wild grin from beneath wild bangs, and said, “I’ll take you.”

While the white foam curled around their lopsided sand castle, Joey held out his pinkie to her and said, “Whatever you need, Serenity, forever. You can count on me. It’s a promise.”

The very next day, her mom had locked her in the car, and they’d driven away, leaving Joey behind. Serenity could still see Joey’s tear-streaked face, his arm outstretched to catch a car that was already too far gone.

She took a shuddering breath and twisted her pinkies together, clasping her hands in front of her face, holding on to that day at the beach.

Whatever you need.

“Serenity.” This time it wasn’t her mom—it was the doctor.

You can count on me.

Serenity bit her lip, but she slowly looked up at him. His face had creased into a frown.

“Time’s up,” he said gently. “I need to start the surgery.”

It’s a promise.

She would never have another chance. Serenity knew that. If she turned down the surgery now, her eyesight would continue to grow worse until she woke up completely blind. But if it went wrong, she would be blind before the end of the day.

“But—Joey,” she whispered. “Please. He isn’t here yet.”

“I’m sorry, Serenity.” Doctor Yamamoto’s voice was still gentle but unyielding. “It’s now or never. Please allow me to start.”

When Serenity had drawn a picture for their dad and he’d thrown it in the trash without a glance, it had been Joey who’d pulled it out. He carefully smoothed out the creases from their dad’s cold grip and asked if he could keep it. Serenity didn’t have to ask to know that he still had it to this day.

He did so many little things that made her feel confident.

“Serenity.” Her mother’s eyes were red-rimmed and desperate. “You have to.”

When Serenity had nightmares as a child, she never went to her parents for comfort. She always snuck into Joey’s room across the hall, and they built unbreakable castles out of his blankets while he wielded a paper sword to keep the monsters out.

“Just say yes,” the doctor said, “and we’ll start.”

When her mom had taken her to America and then finally allowed her to call Joey for the first time, she’d cried so hard she couldn’t speak. At the end of their conversation, Joey had said, “You and me? We’re gonna beat all the monsters. You hear me, Serenity? All the monsters.” It was what helped her face the monster of starting school alone or the monster of an empty house when her mom worked late and she missed Joey so hard it hurt.

And this was one monster she just couldn’t face without him.

“I can’t.” She forced herself to look at the doctor, and a single tear slipped free. “I can’t have the surgery without Joey. I can’t.”

The doctor sighed, shaking his head. He motioned to the nurse and started to leave the room.

“Please!” her mother burst out, jolting to her feet. “Please, there has to be—”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wheeler, but without her consent, there’s nothing I can do.”

Serenity’s heart ached in her chest. She curled her toes into the white sheets, her knees pulled up to her chest. She dug her fingernails into her knees, willing herself not to cry, but a second tear followed the first. Then a third. Her eyes burned. They stung. They would never have full vision again.

And then the familiar voice of an angel shattered everything.

“Y’ain’t keeping me from my little sister, doc! I fought off scarier things than you in Duelist Kingdom!”

Serenity jerked forward, grabbing for the plastic baseboard of her bed. Joey burst into the room, a nurse at his side trying in vain to hold him back. Serenity tried to shout his name, but it didn’t make it past the tightness in her throat. Her heart lodged itself high in her chest, beating her forward until she stumbled off the edge of the bed and threw herself at her brother. She caught just a flash of his smile, and then she was wrapped in his arms.

She vaguely heard the nurse complaining about improper check-in while the doctor told him it was fine. For her part, she fought very hard to keep the tears in check because she would be having the surgery after all. Joey’s hug practically crushed her bones, but it was a pressure that made her spirit soar.

“You got so tall, sis,” he choked out, and then he laughed, and she laughed with him. She clung to him, face buried in his chest, breathing him in. It had been eight years since her mom had taken her and left, and since then it had only been phone calls. Here he was, finally, in person.

Just like he’d promised.

She pulled back to see his face, soaking in the sight of him even if her vision was bad. Then she let out a small gasp.

“Joey—” She reached up to touch his cheek, but he winced away.

“Just a dumb mistake,” he said. “I’m sorry. Sorry it kept me away.”

She’d known all along—it was only something bad that could keep Joey away. It had to have been their dad. Serenity couldn’t count the number of fights she’d had with her mom over leaving Joey behind.

“Joey Wheeler, I presume,” Doctor Yamamoto said, stepping forward. Joey released Serenity and gave a quick half-bow. “May we now proceed?”

Serenity bit her lip. She felt six years old all over again, running to find her big brother for protection from a monster.

“Joey,” she whispered. “I’m scared.”

Joey gripped her shoulders, his eyes fiery. “Of course you are! Surgery ain’t nothin’ people do for fun. But you’re gonna be just fine. You’re Serenity Wheeler—you got more heart than ten other people together, and there’s no way you’d lose to a lousy surgery. You’re gonna come out with your sight one-hundred-percent back, and I’m gonna be right here waitin’ for you.”

Just as she’d been hoping, praying, imagining, he didn’t judge her for it. He was her seven-year-old brother again, blustering while waving a paper sword.

It was all she needed.

She clutched his hands, looked him in the eyes, and gave a determined nod.

“Okay, Doctor,” she said. “I’m ready now.”

Chapter Text

After Serenity went in for surgery, Joey was left to wait with the mom he hadn’t seen or spoken to in eight years. She hadn’t said a word to him since he walked in, and sitting there in dead silence, Joey felt like his fingernails were being pulled out with pliers one by one. He fidgeted and shifted and rustled in his seat until finally he sprang to his feet to start pacing.

When Tristan had dropped him off at the hospital, he’d offered to stay, but Joey’d told him he could handle it alone. Now he was almost wishing he’d have kept his trap shut.

Each time he turned to pace the opposite direction, his mom seemed to tighten into her seat like a screw into wood. She kept her eyes on the floor, her hands clasped in her lap.

She looked different than he remembered. Like her eyes were smaller, or her jaw was steeper, or something. Just different. The gray hair along her temple was new.

“You’ve been fighting,” she said on his twenty-eighth lap across the floor. Didn’t even bother to ask—just threw it out there.

“I got jumped,” he said, which was true. After the creepy guy won the duel, he hadn’t even waited for Joey to hand over his Red-Eyes. The other thugs just grabbed him and held him down. Dirty fighting by anyone’s standards.

“Of course you did,” she agreed, except she wasn’t agreeing at all.

Joey’s temper reared its head, but he forced it back down. He didn’t have anything to prove. He’d only come for Serenity.

“You almost made her lose her sight.”

Never mind that Joey had come up with the money for the surgery in the first place. Never mind that if it weren’t for his mom, he wouldn’t—

Nothing to prove. Just Serenity.

He kept pacing.

And finally, the surgery ended.

And the news came.

++++++++++

“She’s okay?” Yuugi asked again, gripping the phone with both hands, grinning wide as possible.

“Went off without a hitch!” Joey’s voice crowed back. “Doc says she needs a week or so with bandages, then her sight should be better than his!”

Yuugi relayed the news to the crowd gathered in the game shop, and everyone cheered. Tristan even picked Ryou up and spun him while Ryou squawked in protest.

“That’s fantastic, Joey!” Yuugi shouted over the noise.

Joey laughed. “Thanks. Tell everyone else thanks, too. You guys really saved me on this.”

“Anytime you need it,” Yuugi said, “we’re here.”

Joey thanked him again, then hung up to go be with his sister.

“Alright, everyone”—Grandpa clapped his hands together—“there’s ice cream in the freezer, so let’s break it out to celebrate.”

Anzu got the ice cream while Yuugi distributed bowls and spoons. It was interesting how a morning so full of dread had turned into a bright afternoon, but that was the way of it sometimes, and Yuugi would never complain about a happy ending.

He spotted Yori chatting with Tristan, which he was pretty sure was a first. Tristan mimed a punch, and they both laughed.

Ryou got ice cream first, and Yuugi remembered he’d promised to lend the albino a comic, so he excused himself to run upstairs to grab it.

Yami appeared briefly while he was on his way out of the room, making Yuugi hesitate. After glancing around the room, Yami smiled, then shook his head, waving off whatever he’d meant to ask or do. He was gone again just like that.

//We have ice cream if you want any,// Yuugi said.

//The offer is certainly tempting,// Yami said. //But I am content.//

//Serenity got through surgery without any problems. She should be able to take her bandages off in time to see Joey duel in Battle City.//

//With that kind of support, Joey may just be the fiercest duelist in the tournament.//

Yuugi grinned. He grabbed the comic from a shelf in his room, then hurried back downstairs to join the others.

As he ducked behind Yori, he bumped her elbow with his.

“Yami wants to talk to you later,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.”

She saluted with her ice cream spoon.

Then Yuugi filled his own bowl, handed the comic off to Ryou, and asked Anzu if she wanted to play a game of Shogi.

++++++++++

Although Serenity was overjoyed the surgery had gone well, with her bandages on, she was still temporarily blind. But even though everything was dark, even though the top of her face felt numb, even though the nurse had to help her find the lunch tray in front of her and help her pick up the bowl of miso soup and the spoon, she kept her smile.

Mostly because Joey was right there narrating everything like a game master.

“You feel around the cupboard in complete dark, since even an itty bitty spark of light would alert the dark lord to your bein’ there, until, at last, you find his secret stash of food, the food that keeps him never-dyin’ and lets him yank the reins to the whole kingdom. Most important is his miso soup, which keeps him pretty while also givin’ him abs like an Olympic swimmer.”

The nurse helping her giggled, and Serenity nearly tipped her soup bowl as she did, too.

“’Course, that only happens on men,” Joey went on, unfazed. “When you drink his miso, you’ll get the shiny rare power of lightnin’ bolts from your fingers and, most importantly, perfect sight. The men really get ripped off here.”

Once Serenity had a firm grip on everything, the nurse stepped back. It was strange; without physical contact, Serenity couldn’t tell where anyone was in the room. There could have been a whole crowd of people watching her, or it could have just been her and Joey and her soup.

She chose to pretend it was the second. She breathed the steam in deep before taking a long sip of the broth. It warmed her throat and stomach.

“Mmm, I feel it working already!” she said.

“Naturally! And after you drink it all, the dark lord’s abs’ll melt away, his horns’ll come back, and he’ll be so embarrassed, he’ll hide under his bed like a kid.”

Serenity smiled. “Then I can start a revolution to overthrow him and free the kingdom.”

“Whoa, you’re goin’ full campaign on me here! I ain’t got notes for that kinda heavy stuff.”

“Maybe a small revolution, then.” She giggled. “I could feed my grapes to the little gnomes he keeps locked in his dungeon, and they’ll all grow twenty feet tall, and I’ll have an army.”

“You’re writin’ this story without me! That’s it; you’re DM now.”

“Joseph,” snapped a sharp voice. “She isn’t even able to eat lunch with your distraction, and she needs to get her strength back.”

Serenity bit her lip and tried to focus on drinking her soup. The nurse must have exited; her mother only spoke freely when the doctors and nurses left the room.

“Eh, you’re a killjoy,” Joey said, but behind the carefree tone, Serenity heard his pain, too. It pinched her heart.

Serenity had tried sending her mother out of the room a few times—she’d asked for an extra blanket or a bottle of water—but each time, her mom harshly said she wouldn’t leave Joey alone with Serenity, and Joey had been the one to go out for whatever Serenity needed.

Each time, Serenity wanted to yell. She wanted to be mean right back to the woman. But she knew her mom would just turn it back on her, say it was Joey’s bad influence, and use it as a reason to push him away. She was pretty sure Joey hadn’t said anything for the same reasons. If they wanted to be together, they had to work it out around the ogre. And Serenity knew that was a terrible thing to think of her mother—she knew her mom had sacrificed a lot to put Serenity in a good school and handle her previous eye expenses and try to keep her happy—but she couldn’t help thinking it anyway.

Then she giggled. She carefully finished her soup, setting the bowl on the tray in front of her. She had to feel for a minute, but then her fingers found the small pile of grapes the nurse had shown her earlier.

“Joey,” she said, voice quiet, secretive, “I was wrong about these grapes.”

“Oh yeah?”

Even in the darkness, she could imagine him leaning closer.

She took a grape, held it out. A moment later, his hand came under hers, and she drew strength from the contact, then dropped the grape into his palm.

“They don’t make you grow taller,” she said, taking one for herself and holding it up even though all she saw was black. “They make you see a secret world. And there’s a fierce ogre who rampages through the whole kingdom, trying to take all the grapes away from everyone so they can’t see the secret world, because the ogre knows that once you see it, nothing can take it away.”

Joey’s voice had a smile in it. “I wanna see.”

Serenity nodded and popped her own grape into her mouth. The juice flooded her tongue, lifted her with brightness.

“See it?” she said quietly. “There’s a fabric castle lit by fireflies. The two defenders are so brave and so powerful they keep all the monsters at bay with paper weapons.”

Joey had to clear his throat. His voice was husky. “I see it.”

“Me too. And the ogre can’t ever take it away.”

“Alright, that’s enough,” their mom said. “I don’t like all this talk of violence and monsters. You need your rest, sweetheart.”

“I’m okay.” Serenity smiled. She knew Joey would be smiling, too. “I’m not tired. We can talk about something else.”

And even though it was just silence for a while after that, Serenity knew she and her brother were both seeing the same thing, standing in that castle of blankets, safe from all the monsters, even the ones at home.

++++++++++

Since Yuugi had warned everyone about the Ghouls, they all called it an early night and headed home before sunset. Ryou Bakura walked with Anzu and Tristan to the street corner. Then Tristan headed left, and he and Anzu kept going straight. They chatted about nothing important until they reached the intersection where she had to turn off as well.

Then it was just Ryou, and he slid his hands in his pockets and walked the rest of the lonely way to his lonely apartment.

He knew he shouldn’t complain about having a flat all to himself; most people his age would be overjoyed at the freedom. The fact that his father covered all the rental expenses and also sent him a large allowance every month was like a dream to most.

But to Ryou, it couldn’t cover the fact that his father never visited. For a while, he’d sent gifts from his various expeditions—the most significant being the Millennium Ring—but those had recently stopped coming, and Ryou was honestly waiting for the day the money stopped coming, too, because his father had finally forgotten that his son hadn’t died in the same accident that took his wife and daughter.

“I’m home,” he announced to no one as he opened the door. He switched to his house shoes, turned on the light, and locked the deadbolt.

Just as he always did, he turned on his stereo quietly to cut the silence. Low rock ballads murmured in the air as he filled a teakettle with water, setting it to boil. He gathered a few vegetables from his small pantry and spread them on the counter along with curry paste, a can of coconut milk, and a few other spices.

Just as he began chopping the first potato, the spirit of the ring appeared next to him. Ryou started, slicing open his finger.

“Not my fault,” the spirit growled. “That was your own fool doing.”

The cut was shallow, luckily. Ryou ran his hand under cold water and dried it.

“What do you want?” he asked as he rummaged through a small box of bandages. He hated the quake in his voice, but he was still unused to seeing the spirit or speaking with him.

The spirit scowled. “I’m not haunting you.”

Ryou wasn’t sure what the best response to that would be, so he gave a shallow nod and focused on wrapping a bandage around his finger. The spirit didn’t say anything else, so Ryou tentatively washed his knife before starting over with the potato.

After he’d finished dicing the two potatoes, the tomato, and the bell pepper, the spirit finally spoke again.

“You’re boring.”

Ryou couldn’t help a small glare at that. “What d’you expect me to do ’round dinnertime in my incredibly exciting flat? Watch telly? I might get to that later if you stick around.”

“Hmm.” The corner of the spirit’s lips twitched. “Attitude. I don’t see that from you often.”

“Maybe you bring out the worst in me,” Ryou muttered, reaching for the teakettle as it whistled. He set some Earl Grey to steep, then returned to making his curry.

The spirit wandered around the kitchen, staring at this and that. He reached for a cupboard once but started scowling again when his hand passed through.

Ryou prepped his teacup with hot water before replacing it with milk and adding the tea. He sipped at his favorite beverage while the curry simmered on the burner.

“Do you just sit around being incredibly dull all day if you aren’t with your friends?” the spirit whined.

“That’s me,” Ryou said. “Incredibly dull.”

“I want some tea.”

“Have some if you like,” Ryou said, “as long as you do it in spirit form.”

The spirit’s expression, which had brightened for a moment, returned to a glower.

“You’re a lousy host,” he said.

“And you’re a lousy flatmate,” Ryou shot back.

He believed that, but it wasn’t like he could get rid of the spirit. The one time he’d tried to remove the Millennium Ring, it had sunk its daggers under his skin and refused to budge. He had the scars to prove it.

Of course, things were different now that the spirit was bound. Ryou had been able to hand the ring off to Yori without a problem. If he really wanted to, he could likely toss it in a river and be done.

He couldn’t explain why he didn’t.

When it came time, he turned the burner off and dished himself a bowl of curry with some heated leftover rice.

“I want some curry,” the spirit said.

Ryou paused, spoon halfway to his mouth. “Are we going to play this game all night?”

“Ooh, there’s an idea.” The spirit bared his teeth. “Got any games?”

Ryou stared at him. Despite himself, he nodded.

“Well, then, get some out! Are you as useless as you are dull?”

“I’m eating.” Ryou pointed at his quite-obvious bowl.

“Then hurry up,” the spirit huffed, starting to wander again.

Ryou shook his head, returning to his meal. He polished off his serving, and though he normally would have gone back for seconds, he couldn’t explain why he packed the leftovers into the fridge instead.

“Do you even play games?” he asked the spirit. “And I don’t mean death games where you leave people bleeding for Millennium Items.”

The spirit grinned. “Pegasus Crawford is the fool who shoved one in his eye socket. Was he expecting to keep his head intact when someone better came along to claim it?”

“Despite your tactful phrasing, I’m going to have to say yes.”

At least he had confirmation the spirit had stolen the eye (nearly killing Pegasus in the process). He and Yuugi had suspected it, of course, but it was nice to know. What wasn’t nice to know was the fact that Ryou hadn’t seen it around anywhere. He didn’t like the idea of the spirit having a secret treasure stash somewhere without his knowledge. One could only guess at what other stolen goods he might have.

Although, if Ryou’s pockets were any indication, maybe the eye was truly the only danger. After the shadow game with Yori, he’d found his pants stuffed with museum pamphlets. The thought almost made him laugh.

“I have Shogi,” Ryou said, wondering why he was still playing along. Whatever sorcery Yori had worked out earlier had kept the spirit silent for nearly a week. If he threatened to give the ring back to her, the spirit would likely disappear for at least another one.

But instead he said, “Or playing cards?”

The spirit snorted. “Your games are as dull as you.”

“Well, pardon me. I normally play Monster World, but—”

“If you insist.”

Ryou blinked. “What?”

“Monster World it is, if you insist.”

“You want to—” Ryou gestured helplessly. “But it takes a full campaign and players and a DM.”

“I’ll be the DM,” the spirit said. “I’m suited to it.”

“I’m not playing a shadow game with you.”

“Then we’ll be dull and dreary, just your style.”

So without really understanding how he got there, Ryou found himself sitting at a small arrangement of a Monster World board with a set of dice and a few miniatures.

“Haven’t you got anything scarier than this?” the spirit demanded, pointing at the miniature Ryou had chosen as the big boss. The demon carried its own head and had flesh peeling off in several places; it was scary enough Ryou never brought it out in campaigns with his friends because the one time he’d tried, Joey had gone green in the face and taken refuge behind Anzu.

Ryou set the piece below the board’s castle. “Considering I’m the one who has to move everything, you can deal with what you get.”

He set his hero miniature, a human beast tamer, at the far end of the board.

The spirit laced his fingers as if to crack his knuckles, but the action made no sound.

“Very well, hero,” he sneered. “What is your first move?”

Ryou couldn’t believe he was doing this.

“I’ll visit the town,” he said.

“How predictable.” The spirit pointed at the section of the board that marked the town. “When you enter the gates of Khasut, you find the town derelict and empty. Somewhere nearby, an abandoned dog howls mournfully. The streets are washed in blood. There’s a man in your path panhandling for coins. He appears to be the only person left. Do you kill him?”

“No!” Ryou gasped out. He checked his inventory for money, then added, “I give him a silver.”

The spirit stared at him with half-lidded eyes.

Ryou swallowed but stayed firm. “I also ask him what happened to everyone in the town.”

“Fine. The panhandler doesn’t stab you as he should but instead lays out a gag-worthy sob story of the day an army of men rode through their small town, slaying every soul they encountered—men, women, and children alike.”

Ryou swallowed again but for a different reason. “How long ago?”

“Mere days. The men dragged away all the bodies, and the panhandler doesn’t know where they were taken, but he knows all was done to suit the purposes of the evil pharaoh, ruler of the land.”

“Hold on.” Ryou frowned. “No evil pharaoh.”

The spirit rolled his eyes. “The evil king, ruler of the land. Just because your country had a king and mine had a pharaoh and the blasted place you’re living now had an emperor. They’re all the same bloody thing.”

Ryou smiled a little, noticing how the spirit sometimes adopted his accent.

“What does the evil king want?” he asked.

“To be evil. It’s in the title, you fool.”

“Maybe he doesn’t mean to be evil. Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding.”

The spirit narrowed his eyes. “Because you’re such a terrible hero, a goblin appears to steal all your worldly possessions.”

Rather than calling the spirit out on his dreadful DM tactics, Ryou checked his stats.

“Hold on. My intelligence and speed mean I get a reaction before the goblin gets away. I’ll try taming hands on him.”

The spirit huffed. “Roll your attack, then.”

Since the spirit couldn’t handle the dice, Ryou also had to roll the goblin’s evasion. His spell worked, and before he knew it, he had all his possessions back plus a loyal minion.

Also before he knew it, he was engrossed in the story the spirit laid out. He followed the trail of the men who’d slaughtered the town to find a group of them camped in the forest. He defeated a monster, then snuck up to camp and overheard them discussing what they’d done with the townsfolk.

“To make weapons?” he whispered, horrified. “Out of people?”

The spirit nodded gravely. “The men continue boasting about their dark ritual and the three weapons that were created: a bow whose arrows find their target around any obstacle, a sword that can pierce any armor, and an axe that prevents regeneration or resurrection.”

Then it was up to Ryou to gather the weapons. The axe and sword had been given to the evil king’s servants, but the group of men who’d done the dirty work had kept the bow, so Ryou sent his goblin in to steal it, and then he had one out of three. He captured the men in the camp and questioned them about where to find the king’s servants, then set out for the castle.

“Roll for a monster encounter,” the spirit said.

Ryou did. No monster.

“You’re terrible with the dice,” the spirit huffed. “I can roll criticals every time. Want to see?”

“No thanks.”

Ryou trekked through forest and grassland until he reached the outer walls of the castle. His goblin found a secret way in through a loose grate, allowing him to catch the guards by surprise. It took him several encounters to find and claim the sword, but since he already had the bow, he could stay at range during battles, which helped.

It was nearing three in the morning when he claimed the axe.

“Now”—the spirit’s eyes glinted—“you have gathered all three. It is time to slaughter the evil king.”

“Suppose I don’t use these to kill him,” Ryou said.

The spirit blinked. “What?”

“They’re made out of people’s souls, right? There must be a ritual to undo it and put the souls to rest.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Well, because they’re innocent people. They didn’t deserve this.”

The spirit’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Who said they were innocent? They were thieves, cutthroats, rapists, the whole town, even the panhandler you didn’t kill.”

Ryou swallowed. “Even so . . . can’t I lay them to rest?”

“No,” the spirit said coldly, “you can’t. Their souls can never rest so long as the evil king is alive.”

Ryou wasn’t sure what to say to that, and he didn’t know why it was so important to him. He’d run campaigns in the past that were similarly cut and dried. But he no longer enjoyed them as much. He’d come to appreciate how complicated the real world was, come to respect approaches to handling it that weren’t always straightforward.

Like the one Yuugi’d used on him. When Ryou had moved to Domino, he’d kept completely to himself, determined not to make a single friend. After the loss of his mom and sister, he couldn’t handle the world. Didn’t want to.

Yuugi had tried for months to break through his barriers, had invited him to lunch and arranged to be his partner on every project, but Ryou managed silence through it all until the day Yuugi dropped a game master handbook on his desk at school. It was for a roleplaying game called Monster World, a game impossible to play alone.

A game Ryou was already obsessed with and had all the boards and miniatures for at home.

Yuugi called it a lucky guess. Ryou called it a miracle, one that pulled him out of the dark when nothing else could.

“Maybe I could try my taming spell on the king,” he suggested. “If I make him good, perhaps he can—”

“The evil king appears and attacks.”

Ryou gave a small sigh. “Hold on, you need initiative.”

“My initiative is your stupidity.”

“It isn’t stupid to want to help people!”

The spirit leaned in close, eyes blazing. “People are who they are—thieves, pharaohs, priests—good or evil, the lot of them. You can’t help that.”

“If we are who we are,” Ryou said quietly, “then I can’t help wanting to help.”

The spirit hissed. The ring vibrated against Ryou’s chest, and he gripped the table, trying to keep his breathing calm.

“The evil king slices your head off,” the spirit snarled, “even though you had everything you needed to beat him. Game over.”

He disappeared, leaving Ryou alone in his flat once more.

++++++++++

After Yuugi’s other friends left, Yori stuck around, waiting for Yami. But it was Sugoroku who joined her in the main shop. Although he smiled, there was a shadow in his eyes.

“Seems I can never keep these shelves organized.” He adjusted a few displays. “It would help if I had less inventory, but there are just too many good games in the world.”

“Organization is overrated.” Yori smiled. “You know where everything is, so that’s what matters.”

“What matters . . .” he murmured. He took a deep breath, but before he could say anything else, Yuugi bounded down the stairs.

“Sorry I made you wait,” he said. “I can get Yami now.”

“Wait a moment, Yuugi,” Sugoroku said. “Don’t.”

Yuugi and Yori both looked at him in surprise. The air was charged with energy just waiting to spark.

And then a single tear dripped down the old man’s cheek.

“Grandpa!” Yuugi cried, stepping forward, reaching out. “What’s wrong?”

Sugoroku cleared his throat. He wiped his eyes, blinked them clear.

“We should sit down,” he said. “There’s something you both need to know.”

And Yori knew.

Domino was too perfect; it had been from the start. She’d been waiting for a storm.

And she knew this was her storm.

She could run now. She’d done it before—seen a storm coming and taken it as her cue to find a new city. But the very idea was a joke; she was neck-deep in Domino. She’d breathed in a new life, allowed it to fill her to the brim, and now she was too heavy to run.

So she followed Sugoroku and Yuugi into the entertainment room, and while they sat on the couch, she pulled a chair from the table.

And she waited for the rain.

Chapter Text

Yori could remember all the cold from that October day. The cold air that chilled her skin as she knocked on the orphanage door. The cold look from the headmistress as she stood uselessly on the front steps. The cold emptiness in her mind when she tried to remember.

As she listened to Sugoroku speak, she felt the cold all over again.

“My daughter, Haru,” he said, “was the most untamable soul to ever grace this earth. Her mother had frail health and passed away shortly after the birth, but Haru was always strong. At times, too strong for me to handle.”

“Grandpa . . .” Yuugi frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Sugoroku gripped Yuugi’s shoulder, his aged fingers trembling.

“Listen,” he pleaded. “This is the only way I know to explain.”

Yuugi looked bewildered, but he nodded. Yori didn’t move, just sat there feeling the cold.

“The older she got,” Sugoroku went on, “the more I lost her. She wouldn’t attend her classes, wouldn’t tend to her studies. She fell in with bad crowds and brought home bad boys until we’d argued enough, she stopped bringing them home and eloped with one instead.”

“Mom did?” Yuugi’s eyes were wide as plates, and despite herself, the corner of Yori’s lips twitched.

“She’d be mortified if she knew I was telling you, but you need a complete picture for any hope of understanding.”

“Understanding what?”

“Why she made the decisions she did. And before that, what meeting Junta Yoshida meant for her.”

Yoshida. The name chilled Yori to her core because she hadn’t shared her surname with anyone in Domino yet, not even Yami.

 Sugoroku shook his head, smiling faintly. “Junta was a sweet, clumsy boy. The gods only know how he got through to Haru when no one else could. He saved her from the ruins of her first marriage, and then he took her to the altar himself. For years, everything was more wonderful than I’d dared to hope possible.” He took a deep breath, adjusted his bandana. “But when they tried to have children, Haru found out she couldn’t, and we started to lose her again. She felt like she was being punished for things she’d done wrong in her youth, and despite Junta’s best efforts to comfort her, she felt responsible for stealing from him the family he’d always wanted.”

Yori couldn’t hold back any longer. But just as she was about to speak, Sugoroku took another deep breath.

“That’s when Shadi came.”

And Yori’s mouth snapped closed.

“Shadi?” Yuugi repeated, eyes wide. “The spirit I met in Duelist Kingdom?”

Sugoroku nodded. “Before he was a spirit. He walked in the store one day with his Millennium Scales and a deal.”

“It is a lonely world, isn’t it?” Shadi’s voice whispered in Yori’s memory. She could see his kind blue eyes surrounded by cold.

He’d been a Millennium Item user.

He hadn’t told her anything.

“He said he could balance the emptiness in Haru’s heart.” Sugoroku’s voice caught. Broke. “He said balance is just that, and in order to receive something dear, she and Junta must sacrifice something dear as well.”

He swallowed, and the room filled with silence. Yori felt it weighing on her chest, stopping her breath.

“Junta refused the deal at first, but Haru was so stubborn, so persistent, and in the end, they agreed. They were given a baby girl to watch over, barely a day old, the Millennium Bracelet her only possession.” Sugoroku’s eyes burned into Yori’s. “They named her Yoriko.”

Yuugi’s eyes shifted to her as well, his jaw slack.

“I didn’t know,” Yori whispered. “I—”

How could she say it? How could she explain she didn’t remember anything?

“Not quite two years after taking Yoriko in, Haru gave birth to a baby boy. But they were told”—Sugoroku’s voice grew hoarse—“that one day they’d be taken from him. They were even given a date.”

“October 25th,” Yori said, throat clenching. “1988.”

Yuugi’s eyes widened further. “The day Mom and Dad . . .”

Sugoroku nodded, gaze falling.

“I don’t understand,” Yuugi choked out. The boy looked like he’d been hit by the Tokyo Metro and was still being carried along.

But Yori did. All they’d wanted was a family, but somehow, taking her in had cost them their lives. Ishizu had said October 25th, 1988, was the day slated by the gods for Yori’s death, but Yuugi’s parents had died instead.

She’d killed Yuugi’s parents.

“I have to go,” Yori whispered. She stood, pushing her chair back. Her feet tangled in the legs, and she caught the edge of the table, gripping it like an anchor to sanity.

“Yori, wait!” Yuugi jumped up as well, reaching for her. “Don’t go. Don’t—”

But she was running with no second glance. The front door to the game shop clanged its bells like a death toll on her exit.

Yori couldn’t stop running. The early night air burned her lungs, hollowed her mind. She focused on counting off her steps: right, left, right, left, right, left.

Because if she allowed herself to think, where would her thoughts take her? Her entire world was tilted, dazed and crashing.

So she counted steps—right, left, right, left, right—as they carried her into the heart of Domino, past streets and buildings that were familiar to her now, pieces of the puzzle she’d come to claim as her home.

Her feet took her to the museum, where there was a big security guy in the process of locking the front doors.

Before she could stop herself, Yori had him pinned to the ground.

“Where’s Ishizu?” she demanded. He made a move to radio for help, but she kicked the radio out of his hand. It slid across the pavement and fell out of sight down the museum’s front steps.

“Don’t make me ask twice unless you want to bleed!” she shouted.

“Such a temper,” said another voice, “yet you’re surprised you cause trouble for people?”

Yori looked up to see Ishizu standing in the doorway, bracing the door open with one hand. Yori released the guard. As he moved to fight back, Ishizu waved him down.

“Nothing to worry about, Mr. Oda,” she said expressionlessly. “I know why she’s here.”

“Yeah?” Yori barely restrained herself from using her throwing knife. “Why don’t you tell me what else you know about me?”

“There’s someone you’d rather speak to,” Ishizu said.

And without hearing it, Yori knew.

When she followed Ishizu inside and walked down the now-familiar steps to the basement, she wasn’t surprised to see the white robe and turban standing before one of the tablets.

“You stayed away for seven years,” she said, “and suddenly your timing is so convenient.”

Shadi stood silent, as if he’d been carved from the same stone as the tablets.

It was Ishizu who answered. “There’s nothing convenient about it. After your previous blunder in leading the spirit of the ring here, I kept a close eye on you. When I saw the havoc you would wreak in coming here again, I summoned Shadi to deal with you.”

Her dark eyes glared holes in the back of Shadi’s turban. “Since he created the problem,” she added, “I thought it only fair he babysit it.”

Yori’s hand twitched.

“Don’t even think about it,” Ishizu said. “There are priceless artifacts here, and if your knife were to damage one of them when I dodged, I’d see you in prison for life.”

Shadi still hadn’t spoken a word.

“No hello?” Yori scoffed. “I thought we were best buds. I mean, you gave me my name and everything. Oh, wait, you didn’t; the family you killed did that.”

“It was not my will,” he said quietly, “to see them dead.”

“Not mine either, but I didn’t get a say in it, did I?”

He turned, and though he hadn’t aged a day, his blue eyes were not the kind ones she remembered. “Be wary the assumptions you make.”

All at once, she felt tired. “Then why don’t you just tell me what’s going on so I can stop guessing. And while you’re at it, tell me why you didn’t tell me seven years ago and why you abandoned me at an orphanage. I thought . . .”

She couldn’t bring herself to finish. The headmistress had referred to Shadi as her imaginary friend. For a long time, Yori had thought of him as her only friend. Even when he never came back.

Ishizu turned to leave. As soon as she did, Yori had her throwing knife in hand, pointed at a nearby statue.

“I’m not done with you yet,” she said, “and even if you throw me in prison, Anubis will still be missing an ear.”

Ishizu glared at Shadi. “See what you’ve done?”

Shadi folded his arms behind his back, stood rigid as a board. Under the harsh lights, he looked more dead than alive. More cold than human.

“I am bound by my calling as a tombkeeper,” he said. “The secrets I keep, the lies I tell, the deeds I carry out, all is done by the will of the gods, as duty requires.”

“As it should be,” Ishizu said.

“An innocent couple dies”—Yori’s knuckles whitened around her knife—“and it’s just ‘as it should be.’ Hey, how are your parents doing, Ishizu? Maybe I should have been dropped by your family.”

“Hush,” Shadi said sharply.

Yori blinked.

“My parents,” Ishizu said, gripping her necklace like a lifeline, “gave their lives serving in the honorable tradition of my ancestors.”

Yori couldn’t manage an apology, but she put her knife away.

“Great,” she muttered. “So we’re all miserable, then.”

The silence was heavy. Yori wondered if she should just give up on answers and leave, go back to how things were before.

She wondered if that was even possible.

“My father,” Shadi said after a pause, “was the first holder of the Millennium Bracelet. It was he who passed it to you.”

Yori’s heart stopped.

Shadi gestured to the far tablet, the one of the pharaoh and his opponent. “My mother once told me I was blessed to live in the time of Egypt’s greatest prosperity. But I was still a child when that prosperity ended. Great darkness overtook our land, and despite its leaders’ best efforts, the country fell into war.”

Yori struggled for breath. “When you told me your father served a king . . . did you mean . . . ?”

“While he was alive,” Shadi said. “3,000 years ago.”

“No,” Yori said.

Shadi continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “That ancient war was never concluded. Ra declared there could be no satisfactory ending, so through his mortal vessel, he sealed the darkness. The war will return in this day to be decided on modern soil, and when it does, the nameless pharaoh is not the only one with an ancient destiny to fulfill.”

“I’m seventeen.” Yori’s voice cracked. “I’m nobody.”

Shadi’s eyes were piercing. “Both were true of you then as well, yet my father saw in you something others could not. Not even the gods. He saw in you the satisfactory ending to the war.

“If you feel”—his voice grew harsh—“that the sacrifices which have brought you where you stand today were foolish, then perhaps he was wrong.”

Yori scoffed. She shook her head.

“It’s so nice,” she said, “that you want me to honor all these sacrifices people have made for me, but I don’t remember any of them. If you want to explain how that’s possible, maybe I can be a bit more grateful.”

He turned away. But before he did, she saw it in his eyes.

“Struck a nerve, didn’t I? Tell me, Shadi, if your dad gave me the bracelet or Yuugi’s parents took me in or whatever else, why can’t I remember it?”

He remained silent, so she rounded on Ishizu. “Tell me, huh? If Yuugi’s parents took care of me but they didn’t have me, then where did I come from? Who am I?”

“Just as you said earlier”—Ishizu’s eyes cut her to the core—“you’re nobody.”

The bracelet burned hot on Yori’s wrist. “Your ‘sacred records’ tell you that?”

“My Millennium Necklace told me that.”

“Why don’t you have it tell me?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re unworthy to access the power of your own item much less mine.”

“Cease!” Shadi commanded, turning to face them again.

But Yori’s bracelet was already glowing.

“You want to make this a shadow game,” Yori said, “I’ll gladly fight for my answers.”

Shadi stepped forward, grabbing her wrist. She raised her other arm threateningly but didn’t strike.

“You won’t find your answers here,” Shadi said. “Not the ones you want. Ishizu may feign omniscience, but the necklace has its limitations. The door you seek is in the Valley of the Kings.”

“Oh, of course.” Yori wrenched away, the glow of the bracelet fading. “Let me guess—the door that takes three god monsters to open.”

“You and the pharaoh are not the only ones who must seek it. There are certain memories which have been sealed even for those of us who lived them. There is one gate by which they may be accessed and one gate only.”

Yori shook her head. “You know, you’re the first person I ever trusted. Ask me how great that’s working out for me now.”

His expression softened, and something in his eyes was familiar again. “I have always trusted you, Yaara. Even when I was commanded not to.”

They breathed in silence. Then, “Was that my name?”

“I’m afraid, once again, it’s all I can give you. Go with the pharaoh to the Valley of the Kings.”

“Ishizu said you saved my life. Is that true?”

The corner of his lips twitched. He turned his gaze to Ishizu.

“There are some things the necklace can show,” he said.

Ishizu frowned. “Why should I?”

Either he said something only she could hear or she read something in his gaze. After a moment, she stepped forward, scowling.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

Although Yori wanted to resist, she did as instructed. Ishizu’s cold fingers touched her forehead, and even though Yori’s eyes remained closed, she saw.

A man and woman sat together in an old car, the engine idling away. She recognized them from the framed picture on Yuugi’s altar, and her heart twisted as Haru reached out to grip her husband’s hand.

“What do we do?” she asked.

Junta smiled Yuugi’s smile. “We live it to the end.”

They pulled onto a cold street, drove an empty road until they met the flow of traffic. They parked at a curb, and Yori recognized herself in the pig-tailed girl who ran to meet them. She chattered away in the backseat, talking about a music class, oblivious to anything coming.

Oblivious to the car that blazed through an intersection at freeway speeds.

Then oblivious because the wreck was so terrible, there was almost nothing left.

Sirens rang in the distance, but before they came, a white-robed man stepped through the twisted metal. He lifted the bloodied girl from the wreckage. She hung limp, and Yori had seen enough in life to know the difference between unconscious and dead.

Shadi carried the girl away, laid her gently on the ground in a secluded area. He held the Millennium Scales above her chest. Closed his eyes. A white feather appeared on the right side of the scales, the basket carrying it sank, and the glow from the item encompassed Yori’s younger self. When it faded, leaving the baskets even, so did every bruise and bloodstain.

She saw the change in Shadi as well. The sudden lightness in his skin, the almost-translucent brush at his edges. He touched her bracelet, which glowed in response. Then he lifted her again, and they both disappeared—

—to an orphanage dusted with snow. He set her gently on her feet, tucking two cards into her jacket pocket before he stepped back. She blinked open her eyes, looked around, and found herself alone in an unknown place.

Yori opened her eyes as Ishizu withdrew her hand. The Egyptian woman rubbed her necklace, grimacing.

“Happy now?” she said.

Yori turned to Shadi. “Was I really worth so much?”

He gave something akin to a shrug, the most casual thing she’d ever seen him do.

“Only you can prove that,” he said.

Her eyes stung. She looked away. “Couldn’t you have saved Yuugi’s parents?”

“All I did,” Shadi said, “was all I could do: bring balance. Life is advanced through natural means. Any unnatural introduction of life into this world requires a life to be removed from it. Such is the law of Amunet.”

“But it isn’t balanced,” she said. “Yuugi and I came in but three people went out—you and his parents.”

A shadow crossed his expression. He tilted his head, gestured for her to follow, and led her to an empty pedestal that stood with the statues. He pulled the Millennium Scales from beneath his robe, placing the item on the pedestal. The two baskets hung even with each other.

“There was a sacred prophecy concerning Yuugi’s birth and his destiny with the puzzle,” he said. “However, there are always dark forces that seek to disrupt the correct flow of events. Such a force derailed Haru Mutou at a critical point in her life. This disruption of prophecy was my chance to fulfill an ancient promise to you. Since I was advancing my duty to the nameless pharaoh by the same stroke, there was no divine intervention made to stop me.”

A white feather materialized in the basket on his right. Threads of gold traced the feather and began to glow. The basket carrying it lowered, sinking toward the pedestal.

“Balance,” he said. “In order for Haru and Junta to be granted the blessing of their own child, they had to accept and love a child that was not their own. They could not take in a child without your existence, but for your life to be created, Junta’s life had to be ended, which could not happen before he proved love and acceptance. For Yuugi’s life to be created, Haru’s life had to be ended, but having a child of her own could not be considered a blessing if she was not allowed to enjoy it. Thus, all elements were gathered, weighted, calculated, and by the power of darkness, balance was declared. You and Yuugi were given life, and Haru and Junta were given ten years before theirs were taken. For those ten years, all was set in stone. Unalterable even by gods.”

The feather lost its glow as the baskets evened out. Shadi touched the feather, and it dissipated from the point of contact.

“But once balance was achieved, my shadow power was at its limit, and all was subject once more to destiny and the whim of the gods.”

“Let me guess”—Yori’s eyes flickered toward Ishizu, who stood next to Anubis like a statue herself—“the gods don’t like me much, do they?”

“Reincarnation and extended life are gifts of Ra, bestowed only upon his chosen servants,” Shadi said. “It is by such a gift that I lived all my years on this earth. It is by such a gift that I walk upon it still.”

Yori nodded slowly. “But apparently I was alive back then, and I’m alive again now, and I’m guessing Ra didn’t give me the all-clear since I don’t know anything about him.”

Shadi’s clear blue eyes met hers. “Correct. The power you now live by is indeed of Ra, but stolen, not given.”

“Great.” Yori scrubbed her hands over her face. “I just couldn’t stay out of trouble back then either, could I?”

The corner of his mouth twitched.

“While Yuugi was prophesied to this time period,” Shadi said, “you were unwelcome in this second stage of the war, and the deal you made to bring yourself here created many enemies. Your early death was retaliation from Ra, as was the theft of memories. I saw both as a violation of the very laws of balance that govern this world and the next, but there was nothing I could do except use the scales to once more trade a life for yours.”

“You didn’t have to,” Yori whispered.

“Do not mourn for me,” he said. “I have already lived more than my rightful allotment. But my life was my final feather. As I said to you on that snowy day, you are now called to stand on your own. When danger returns, as it will, I have nothing left with which to tip the scales.”

Over the years, Yori had made powerful enemies twice. The first time, she’d been taken to the hospital with a knife in her back and a punctured lung. The second time, she’d put the man in a coma but not before he paralyzed her friend. Powerful enemies always came with high cost.

And no one was more powerful than a god.

“So this is a losing battle,” she murmured.

“If you are willing to give up so easily on yourself and your allies.”

“With these stakes, how can I ask for any allies at all?” She spread her arms. “I don’t even know what this war is; what makes it worth fighting?”

His gaze was steely. “If the pharaoh loses this war, the very freedom of mankind will be lost.”

“Who’s the enemy?”

“The names are sealed, as are the events that happened in ancient Egypt. All we have are the prophecies.”

“So I don’t know anything about my enemy,” Yori said, “and I don’t know anything about myself, and at any moment, Ra might try to strike me down again.”

Shadi smiled. “Yet you will fight. And in that, you have the reason for my trust.”

“And the reason for her hate.” Yori nodded at Ishizu, who didn’t bother to disagree.

She took a deep breath, gripped the bracelet until her fingernails hurt, stared at the carvings on the tablets. The god monsters looked back at her with condemning eyes.

“Even if I go forward,” she murmured, “how do I face Yuugi?”

Shadi rested a gentle hand on her head, just as he’d done in the snow all those years ago.

“Haru Mutou and Junta Yoshida did not walk into their sacrifice blindly,” he said. “They were told of the sacred prophecies surrounding the son they would be blessed with, and they were told of my father’s hope for you. Their actions may yet save the world, but if not, I believe they were worthy nonetheless.

“And I believe,” he added, “that a world without Yuugi Mutou would be a tragic one indeed.”

And if Yori was in doubt about anything else, she knew that, at least, was true.

++++++++++

Yuugi wished the clock on the wall would make noise, wished the TV were on, wished anything would break the ringing silence.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he finally asked. He couldn’t remember ever using such a sharp tone with his grandpa before, but everything was sliding, and he didn’t know how to grab it.

“Because I didn’t remember,” Grandpa whispered. He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand, pulled the bandana from his wild gray hair and dropped it on the floor. “I found all this in a journal before you ever completed the puzzle, written by my own hand, and what was I supposed to believe? Until Yori walked in that front door wearing the Millennium Bracelet, I had no idea any of it was true.”

“What do you mean?”

“According to my journal, Shadi came to the game shop one more time, on October 25th, 1988. Haru and Junta were picking Yori up from school, but you were home with me.”

Yuugi could remember; he’d been recovering from chicken pox. It was hard to forget the day his parents didn’t make it home alive.

“He said the scales had been evened, but the gods demanded one last sacrifice. He said it was unjust. Against the nature of balance. I guess that’s why he didn’t mind that I wrote everything down. After he used his item, you didn’t remember ever knowing a girl named Yoriko. I’d imagine the same is true of why Yori doesn’t recognize us either.”

Yuugi could remember Yori’s gentle expression from across a checkerboard, remember her words: “You don’t have to smile. I’m an orphan, too.”

Had she been in the car with his parents that day? When they died, had she thought they were her only family?

“The gods just play with people like this?” Yuugi’s stomach twisted.

“I wasn’t going to tell you,” Grandpa murmured. “Even after realizing the truth, I thought it could only hurt. But when Joey went missing today and you were all so frantic, searching in the dark . . . It forced me to remember that honesty is the gift we give the people we love most. It has to be that way, no matter how hard.”

“Mom knew . . . ?” Yuugi’s breath caught in his throat. “She knew they were going to . . . ?”

Grandpa sighed. “Come with me.”

Yuugi followed his grandpa up the stairs to the elderly man’s bedroom. The incense from the corner altar filled the air with a heavy, sacred scent. Although his grandpa’s redwood altar was much bigger than the one Yuugi kept in his room, he was partial to his own because he and Grandpa had built it together after his parents’ accident.

Grandpa retrieved a thick, leather-bound journal from his dresser before handing it to Yuugi. Yuugi leafed tenderly through the pages. He’d known all his life that his grandpa enjoyed journaling, and every once in a while, Grandpa had let him read stories from his various expedition journals, but this was different. Every page of his grandpa’s tight, neat handwriting detailed daily events—things around the store, goals he wanted to reach, and interactions with his children and grandchildren.

Yoriko is absolutely enchanted with Yuugi, one entry said. If Haru sets him down for even a moment, Yoriko tries to carry him off. She gets very miffed when told she can’t play with him because he needs his sleep, and her little temper tantrums are only what Haru deserves after the ones she used to give me. It’s amusing to me that even though Yoriko carries not a drop of Haru’s blood, she’s my child’s spitting image in temperament. Less amusing to Haru. Yuugi, on the other hand, is the calmest child I could ever imagine. His temperament is already so much like his father’s.

The entry was dated October 16, 1980. Yuugi would have been four months old. The entries were sporadic, sometimes a few weeks apart and sometimes several months. He flipped further ahead, to an entry on June 4, 1985.

Haru and Junta took the kids to an amusement park in celebration of Yuugi’s fifth birthday. Yuugi’s been so excited, he hasn’t been eating, much to Haru’s frustration. Yoriko helpfully told her that once they were in the park, Yuugi could eat a bunch of cotton candy to make up for it. Yuugi supported the idea. Hopefully the poor boy doesn’t get a stomachache that keeps him from enjoying any rides.

Yuugi remembered going to the park with his parents. He remembered the green roller coaster that looked like a dragon and the man who gave him a yellow balloon lion for his birthday.

But he didn’t remember Yori there with him.

He scanned through other pages until he stopped cold on one not marked with a date. The large, sprawling handwriting wasn’t his grandpa’s.

It was his mom’s.

I knew you’d still be writing in this thing, old man. Maybe if I’d replaced some of my recklessness with some of your reliability, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But here we are. Come on, it’s beautiful, don’t you think? Despite everything, somehow it’s beautiful. If you ever forget that, just look at Yuugi.

You know I’m terrible with words and soggy nonsense, so I’ll be done now.

I love you, Dad.

Yuugi’s vision blurred, and his chest ached. He shut the journal, handing it back to his grandpa, rubbing hard at his eyes.

“Mom knew,” he said.

“She did.” Grandpa held the journal to his heart, his eyes under the same attack as Yuugi’s. “Having you was her dream, Yuugi.”

“Even when it cost so much?” But Yuugi already knew the answer to that.

Because he could remember the night before his parents’ car accident, when his mom had come in his room just before bedtime.

“You’re still up?” she’d groaned, rolling her eyes dramatically. “What am I supposed to do with such a wild child?”

And he’d giggled and told her it was only 8:00 and that he was feeling much better, maybe even better enough to go to school the next day.

“Scoot over, rebel,” she’d said. She’d sat on the bed next to him, opening her arms for him to snuggle close. He’d listened to her heartbeat for a few minutes. Then he’d asked if they could play a game the next day after school, shocked when she started crying.

He’d never seen his mom cry before. And he would remember what she said for the rest of forever because it was one of the last things his mom ever said to him.

“Yuugi, it’s hard to be good. You have to remember that. Selfishness is easy, and it’s tempting. And it’s terrible. You are the best thing I have ever done. If it’s cost me everything, I’d pay it again. So even if it costs you everything, be good anyway. Be good and be happy, my sweet boy.”

She’d kissed his forehead and held him until he fell asleep.

Tears dripped down Yuugi’s cheeks without a sound, and after wiping at his eyes four or five times, he stopped trying.

The Millennium Scales had balanced his parents’ shortened lives with the family they wanted. And Yuugi couldn’t bring himself to blame them because he’d also wished on a Millennium Item. He’d also made a trade with the darkness to get something he wanted.

Over the seven years it took to solve the Millennium Puzzle, Yuugi had sensed the darkness in it. He’d sensed the power. Sometimes it whispered to him in his dreams. But he’d snapped the final piece in place anyway, and as he’d done so, he’d sent a wish to the dark for something he’d never had before—best friends.

And he didn’t regret it. Because after that, he got Joey and Tristan. Then Ryou. Even Anzu had stopped seeing him as a passing friend and joined their circle for real, something he had never imagined could happen.

“I’m going to wait for Yori downstairs,” he said quietly.

Grandpa nodded, and Yuugi made his way down to the game shop, tracing his hand along the wall as he went. He reached out to a shelf, brushing his fingers over a wooden checkers set. He couldn’t count the number of nights he and his dad had played checkers together after dinner. Even when Yuugi had homework to do and his mom insisted it was time to be done, Yuugi and his dad would give her matching puppy eyes until she begrudgingly allowed them one more round. Homework had been much easier with his dad at his shoulder to help him. His dad used the checkers to demonstrate math problems or act out stories from his reading, and Yuugi grew to love framing the entire world with games. If his mom taught him to be good, his dad taught him to have fun while doing so.

And maybe he couldn’t remember Yori from when he was young, maybe he couldn’t remember her trying to steal him away from his mom or eating cotton candy with her at the park, but he could remember sitting across the table from her just that week, playing checkers while they both smiled.

And that was certainly worth something.

//Yuugi,// a gentle voice said in his mind. //You’re upset?//

//I’m okay,// Yuugi said. //But I need to tell you something because I don’t think I’ve ever said it. I don’t regret putting together the Millennium Puzzle. If I had the choice, I’d do it again.//

Yami was silent for a moment. Then, //Even with the cost?//

The tears had slowed, so Yuugi wiped his eyes again. He smiled. //Putting the puzzle together gave me patience. Having you at my back gave me courage. Patience and courage gave me my friends and the life I have now. What cost isn’t worth that?//

//Then . . . there’s something I need to say as well.//

Yami appeared beside him suddenly.

“Out of all the people in the world,” he said, “there’s no one I would rather have had solve the Millennium Puzzle. From the beginning, I have felt blessed to have you as a partner and friend. You are one of a kind, Yuugi.”

“Well,” Yuugi said, and though he tried so hard, his smile faltered, “I had a really good mom.”

A sob caught in his throat, and he sank to the floor, back pressed to a set of shelves. Yami didn’t ask for an explanation; he just sat with Yuugi while he cried.

++++++++++

By the time Yori made it back to the game shop, she found Yuugi curled up on the floor, asleep. Yami sat next to him, and he looked up when she entered.

“Big day?” he asked quietly.

There were a million different things to say, and since she didn’t know how to choose between them, she just nodded. She crouched to wake Yuugi, then hesitated.

“Is he okay?” she asked, stomach tight.

“I believe so,” Yami said. He tilted his head, eyes intense. “Are you?”

“How much do you know?”

“Practically nothing. Emotions carry easily through our mental link, events less so.”

She swallowed, and when she opened her mouth, it just spilled out. “Apparently I died once. Maybe twice. Shady on the details. Also I stole from Ra, and he wants me dead. Again.”

His eyes widened. Hers did as well because it was just as freaky to say it as to hear it, and she hadn’t really adjusted yet. If she ever would.

“Did I mention a war coming and Yuugi’s parents adopted me but none of us remember it?” It was really a toss-up whether to laugh or to cry.

“Real big day,” he finally said.

And that tipped the scales to laugh.

“Life is insane,” she whispered.

“It is.” He leaned forward. “But you’re not alone. If Ra plays card games by any chance, put me on your team. I’ve beaten one creator; I’m sure together we could manage another.”

Her heart flipped in her chest.

For a moment, she almost leaned forward to match him.

But she didn’t.

She swallowed. “I’d ask how you’re so calm, but I guess people tell you new things about yourself all the time.”

He smiled tightly. “And somehow only things I’m not keen to hear.”

There was so much she wanted to say.

So much she couldn’t.

She took a deep breath, then gently shook Yuugi’s shoulder. He stirred, gradually blinking his eyes open. Then he launched himself at her.

She’d been given more hugs in Domino than throughout the rest of her (remembered) life combined. Once again, Domino had all the marks of home she’d always wanted, and maybe it was fate that led her back or maybe it was just her Millennium Item; she didn’t care either way. She was just selfishly glad.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, holding Yuugi tightly in return.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Just don’t leave.”

He pulled back, and she could tell from his eyes he’d been crying.

“I’m in this for the long haul.” She shifted her gaze to include Yami as well. “If . . . if you’ll have me.”

Yami smiled.

“I don’t let my friends escape even when they want to,” Yuugi said, and though his voice was chipper, his eyes were very serious. It made Yori laugh once more.

“Joey’s grateful,” she said. “So am I.”

There was a drawn-out silence. If they were both debating whether or not to talk about what they’d learned, they both decided on the not. There was only so much one day could handle. Yuugi headed for bed, but when Yori followed him upstairs, she turned to Sugoroku’s room rather than her own.

She knocked softly, wondering if the elderly man would already be asleep.

Just as she decided he was and started to turn away, the door opened.

They shared the same kind of silence she’d just shared with Yuugi, but there was at least one thing she needed to say. When she couldn’t figure out how to say it and her eyes were burning to the point she nearly couldn’t breathe anymore, she knelt and bowed until her forehead touched the floor.

Sugoroku knelt with her, laying a gentle hand on her back.

She wanted to tell him she was sorry—sorry for the way his family had been broken, sorry she couldn’t remember it, sorry there wasn’t any way she could fix it. She wanted to tell him thank you—thank you for the place in his home, for his kindness, for his honesty.

She wanted to tell him she was terrified, that she’d stood on her own for seven years because she’d had no home to run to, and now that she had one, she wanted to lock herself in the game shop and never leave, never face what was coming when the past caught up to the future.

But she couldn’t speak, and her tears were silent as they hit the floor.

“It isn’t your fault,” he murmured.

After everything she’d learned at the museum, she wasn’t so sure.

“Here,” he said.

She rubbed her eyes dry, looking up to see the journal he held extended to her.

“It’s the rest of the story.” He smiled. “I think you’ll enjoy it.”

So she sat in her room with her back against the wall, the journal propped open across her thighs, and she read.

She read about herself learning to walk.

Yoriko refuses to watch where she’s walking. She’s far more interested in the people around her, so her eyes are on the sky each time she inevitably runs head-first into some shelf or chair. Then she wonders why the furniture is so mean. Haru jokes that she’ll have well-deserved brain damage, but whenever she sees it about to happen, she sticks a hand out to act as a bumper.

She read about her bad influence on Yuugi.

When asked where he’d learned such a phrase, Yuugi became so stressed about whether or not to tell on his sister that he burst into tears. Yoriko volunteered herself for punishment shortly after. Despite her brazen streak, she has a sharp conscience, and when she promises to do better, it’s a reliable promise. She lives up to her name.

She read about his bad influence on her.

Rather than finishing her assignment, I found her in Yuugi’s room, testing out a new card game of his invention. Apparently he’d insisted it was the only way he could feel better. Somehow, the two of them managed to weasel me into it as well. Now we can only hope Haru and Junta don’t ask if the children made it to bed on time when they return tomorrow.

She kept reading through the night until the morning sunrise crept across her room in stripes of soft yellow. And somehow, all the little pieces fit together and made her feel whole.

Chapter Text

Punctuality was important for a dancer, so Anzu Mazaki made it a point to be on time to things, even if they were informal. Any kind of delay to her schedule stressed her out.

Even if that delay’s name was “Mom.”

“This is an important event for him,” Mom said, waving off Anzu’s protests that she needed to leave already. “Don’t you want to support your friend?”

“I do,” Anzu said. “That’s why I’m going.”

“And if you bring a little gift, it’ll show even more support!”

Her mother finished wrapping the small cookie tin. She rifled through the cupboard for a shopping bag.

“Besides,” she continued, “sweets are always the best way to let a boy know you’re interested! That’s how I first caught your father.”

She winked, making Anzu blush bright red.

“Mom!” she groaned. “I’m not interested in Yuugi like that!”

“Could have fooled me. You spend your whole life with him. It’s about time he started showing the attention back. After all, my beautiful, talented daughter could snag any boy—”

“I’ve leaving now,” Anzu said, covering her cheeks with both hands. She stepped out of the kitchen into the entryway and slipped off her house shoes, replacing them with a set of blue platform sandals.

“Here you go!” Her mom popped up behind her, shopping bag in hand.

Despite herself, Anzu snatched the bag.

“Tell him good luck in the tournament.”

“Joey and Ryou are participating, too, you know,” Anzu said. “And Yori. The party tonight is for everyone.”

“Well the cookies are for Yuugi. Maybe you’ll get a date soon with just the two of you.”

“We’re just friends,” Anzu insisted. She unzipped her backpack, slipping the shopping bag inside. “We’re all just friends.”

“It’s always good for things to start that way.”

Anzu rolled her eyes, face still burning. “Bye, Mom.”

Her mom grinned. “Have fun, sweetheart.”

Anzu closed the door behind herself and jogged out onto the sidewalk, anxious to make up her lost time. She crossed a few streets alone before joining up with Ryou on a corner.

“Hey, Anzu,” he said brightly. “You’re—”

“Don’t say it!” She blushed again for a different reason. Her mom knew she couldn’t stand being late, but she’d still—

“Don’t ask about your backpack?” He blinked.

“Oh.” She shrugged. “I needed a few supplies.”

His eyes widened, and he smiled. “Have you brought a new game?”

“Nothing that exciting,” she said, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

“Oh well. We’ll have a full day of dueling tomorrow anyway.”

She bumped him in the shoulder, grinning. “Are you excited for your first big tournament?”

He nodded, his expression falling into set lines. “Only ten people can make it to the finals. I’m going to be one of them.”

It would be exciting if all her friends could make it to the finals. When Joey and Yuugi had faced off in Duelist Kingdom to see who would earn first place and the right to duel Pegasus, it had been one of the best duels she’d ever seen. Possibly because no one in it was making threats against people she loved.

Tristan and Joey joined their group just before they reached the game shop, arguing loudly about something as usual.

“I’m tellin’ you, it’s Yoshi’s Island!” Joey said. That was about all Anzu needed to hear to know she wasn’t interested in joining the debate. She rolled her eyes in Ryou’s direction, and he answered with a small, helpless head shake.

The game shop had been marked closed for the day, but the door was still unlocked, allowing them all to pile into the store.

“Hey, guys,” Yori said casually, stacking boxes onto a top shelf behind the counter. “Grandpa’s in the kitchen finishing lunch. Yuugi’s upstairs.”

Anzu had to do a double-take at the “Grandpa.” Of course, the rest of them all called Yuugi’s grandpa “Grandpa” at his insistence, but it was the first time she’d heard Yori do it.

“Need any help in there, Gramps?” Joey shouted, nearly deafening everyone around him.

“The table needs to be arranged,” came the answer. Joey and Tristan headed off to it.

“I need to talk to Yuugi,” Anzu said, bowing away from Ryou apologetically. She left her shoes at the foot of the stairs before trotting up to Yuugi’s room.

When she knocked and announced herself, he called out for her to enter. She found him sitting cross-legged on his bed, deck in hand, staring at a single spell card.

“Getting your deck ready for tomorrow?” she asked, swinging her backpack down from her shoulders. While she unzipped it, her heart started thumping stupidly.

“Yami and I have been debating whether or not to include this spell card for—What time is it?” He glanced at the alarm clock on his bedside table, giving a weak laugh. “About four hours.”

 The mention of Yami made her heart thump in a different way, and something must have shown on her face because Yuugi suddenly looked embarrassed. He slid his deck into its holder—including the spell card—and snapped it shut.

“I’m glad you won’t be alone out there,” she said. It was the best she could manage. Then she smiled. “I, um, have something for you.”

She pulled out the shopping bag, extending it before she could back out.

His eyebrows shot up, and his eyes widened.

“It’s nothing special,” she said quickly. “Just, you know, good luck in Battle City.”

“Thank you!” He bounded off the bed to claim her gift, grinning ear to ear.

And Anzu had to admit his smile was handsome, the way it brightened his whole face and lit up his faded eyes. She’d always loved his smile. It was much harder to find reasons not to be attracted to Yuugi than it was to find his good points.

Even so, she smiled and said, “Friends should support each other, right?”

And she didn’t wink the way she could have. And she didn’t let her hand linger on his the way it could have.

He pried apart the wrapping, careful not to tear it as he exposed the cookie box. Then he grinned at her again. “I love these!”

“Maybe you can take them with you,” she said. “You’ll be dueling all day. It’s probably a good idea to have snacks between matches.”

They’d expected to have food provided at Duelist Kingdom only to find themselves trapped on an island for three days with nothing to eat. If it weren’t for the other duelists they’d met who’d come prepared—like Mai—those three days would have been even more miserable.

“That’s a great idea,” Yuugi said, but she saw the flicker in his expression when she mentioned dueling, the quick falter in his smile.

She bit her lip, then fixed her smile in place again and gestured for him to scoot over so she could sit next to him on the bed.

“So,” she said, crossing her ankles and smoothing her mini-skirt, “what worries you most about the tournament?”

“I’m not worried.” He set the cookie box on his nightstand, almost knocking his lamp off in the process. When he jerked a hand out to save it, he did knock his alarm clock to the floor. They both stared at the fallen clock until he admitted, “I may be a little worried.”

“I think you’d be crazy not to be,” she said. “This feels like a big setup from Kaiba. His win against you on Pegasus’s island wasn’t really a win, and now he’s made this flashy tournament and specifically invited you. I’ve even heard rumors that he’ll be broadcasting the finals live to the world to immortalize the victory he plans on having.”

Yuugi shook his head. “I’m not worried about Seto. I want a rematch with him as badly as he wants one with me.”

He stared down at his Millennium Puzzle.

“There’s something more to this tournament, Anzu.” He hesitated, gaze flicking in her direction, then away.

“You can tell me,” she said.

“Something about . . . the pharaoh’s past.” He gripped the puzzle’s chain. “He tries to play it casual, but this means more to him than any battle we’ve fought before. And I’m worried . . . I’ll be in the way.”

Anzu’s eyebrows lowered as she frowned.

Yuugi gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m nothing special, you know? People can say I’m special, but really, I’m just a kid who likes games. He’d be safer without me because people always use me to get to him. But he doesn’t even get that option because someone has to carry the puzzle, so he gets a useless tag-along for every battle, and I . . . now when it’s most important, I might be what tips the scales in the wrong direction.”

Still wearing her frown, Anzu reached out and twisted his ear like she did with her own brothers when they were being ridiculous. He let out a yelp, snapping his eyes to hers in betrayal, slapping a hand over his injured ear.

“How dare you talk about my best friend like that,” she said, eyes burning. “He’s held on to the puzzle when most people would have sold it or abandoned it after it put them in danger the first time. He has a heart of gold, and he is not useless, and he is not ‘just a kid who likes games.’ He’s the most incredible person I’ve ever met.”

Yuugi looked away, still rubbing his ear. She could see color creeping up the base of his neck.

“Something else,” she said quietly. She took a slow, deep breath. “I’ve been able to see the difference between you and Yami since before Duelist Kingdom.”

That brought his gaze back, his jaw hanging open.

“I’ve seen him,” she said, “when he fights. I saw the change from the first duel of the tournament to the final one. He didn’t get any less brave or skilled or bold, but he got softer. I don’t think that change happened naturally or on accident. I think it happened because of you.”

She plucked at her bangle bracelets, suddenly unable to meet his eyes. “I mean, maybe you haven’t noticed, Yuugi, but you’ve made all your friends better just by being you. So don’t call yourself useless. You’ll hurt all of us.”

The silence got heavy fast while Anzu continued fidgeting with her jewelry. A selfish part of her wished she’d said something different, wished she’d encouraged him to pass the puzzle to someone else.

Because truthfully, it wasn’t that she didn’t find Yuugi attractive or just wanted to be friends and nothing more—the problem was that Yuugi’s life wasn’t his own. He was sharing it. And she couldn’t bring herself to tell him not to when she knew how much it meant to him to help others. She never would have reached out to Joey and Tristan on her own; she’d written them off as stupid bullies. But Yuugi had seen something different, so he’d helped them turn their acts around. In the same way, the Millennium Items scared Anzu. If she’d been the one to somehow solve the puzzle, she would have thrown it in the ocean immediately. But she knew Yuugi never would. He’d help the pharaoh just as he’d helped Joey and Tristan.

It was the reason she loved him in the first place.

She heard a faint rustling before the cookie box slid into her vision, open and missing a cookie.

She glanced at Yuugi. He was smiling at her, the soft smile that was even more handsome than his grin.

“Cookie?” he said quietly, lifting his own.

She smiled back.

++++++++++

Once the table was all set up and lunch was ready, it took two calls to get Anzu and Yuugi to come downstairs, but then they were all seated. Yori glanced around at the gathered family, all from different bloodlines but family nonetheless. She smiled.

Sugoroku gestured for everyone to wait before digging in.

“I’d like to thank all of you kids for coming,” he said, smiling around the table. “I wanted you all to have a chance to celebrate before the chaos tomorrow.”

“Thanks for having us,” Tristan said.

“And thanks for the free food!” Joey raised his chopsticks with a grin.

“In my card game days,” Sugoroku continued, earning a quiet laugh around the table, to which he gave no response, “we didn’t have these fancy tournaments and tough competitions. We played the game just for the game’s sake. It seems it’s not quite that simple anymore. But I am proud of you kids for fighting with a worthy purpose—because that has always been the way of true champions.”

He paused, sweeping his eyes over the table again. “Yuugi, Joey, Ryou, and Yori, be true to the heart of the cards, and no matter what happens, you will come out of this tournament a champion.”

Despite herself, Yori felt a thrill of adrenaline in her heart. Joey cheered, joined by Yuugi. Ryou raised his cup, smiling wide. Everyone dug into the meal with enthusiasm, passing plates of food, refilling drinks and rice bowls, and Yori found herself smiling through all of it. The tournament the next day would be a scary thing, but she felt grounded. She felt ready.

“Alright, game time!” Joey tossed three dumplings into his bowl as he spoke. “Yori guesses what deck type we all use, and we guess hers!”

“Ryou uses fiend types,” she said instantly.

“Just a mo’,” Ryou protested. “You dueled the—I mean, you’ve seen my cards.”

She laughed.

“You’ve seen my deck, too,” Yuugi said. “Although I haven’t seen yours, which really isn’t fair.”

She smirked. “Take it up with your partner.”

“Bet’cha can’t guess mine!” Joey said through a mouthful of dumpling.

Anzu kicked him under the table, telling him to swallow his food.

“Warrior and beast-warrior types,” Yori said. She snagged the last dumpling before it could fall victim to Joey’s appetite.

After gaping, Joey scowled. “You been lookin’ at my cards, too?”

“I’ve been looking at you. You’re sort of a type yourself, no offense.”

Tristan erupted with laughter. Joey snapped his chopsticks in her direction. She smirked again.

“Those are just monster types, though,” Ryou said. “What about deck style?”

Yori swallowed, reaching for her glass. “Joey relies on single powerful monsters.”

“Wrong!” Joey said at the same time Yuugi shook his head, smiling.

“Really?” Yori winced. “Good thing I didn’t put money on that one.”

She added more pickled cabbage to her rice bowl.

“My deck is luck based,” Joey said, puffing his chest up like a balloon.

Yori wasn’t sure it was something to be proud of when there was already so much unavoidable luck involved in Duel Monsters without tempting fate more, but to each their own. That was the great versatility of the game.

“Are you a trump-card type?” Ryou asked, setting down his bowl.

“I have a favorite card for sure,” Yori said. “But my whole deck isn’t built around it.”

“Themed deck?” Joey offered.

Yori snapped her chopsticks at him this time, scowling. He snickered again.

“Themed decks are for vanity,” she said. “I play to win.”

Ryou gave a little pout. “Mine’s sort of themed.”

“I don’t consider favoring one monster type a theme,” Yori said. “It’s not like you built your deck around music or canoeing or something.”

Ryou’s eyes widened. “People do that?”

“I dueled a guy once,” Yuugi said, crinkling his nose, “who had a themed deck around working out. You wouldn’t believe some of the monsters that exist out there—Ab-Man, Relentless Bodybuilder. It was straight-up freaky. He even had a spell card called Rowing Machine. No joke.”

“We knew Pegasus was nuts.” Tristan leaned over Joey to snag more steamed carp. “So I don’t think it’s that surprising.”

“Besides,” Anzu added, “his fringe cards get people to collect, don’t they?”

“Good business for a collectible card game,” Tristan agreed.

Sugoroku sniffed. “I won’t carry cards like that in the store. It’s disrespectful to the heart of the game.”

“Not to mention its origins.” Yori tried to picture Relentless Bodybuilder and his Rowing Machine carved on an ancient Egyptian tablet with Ishizu showing them off proudly as “sacred artifacts.” She had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

“I think you have a combo deck,” Yuugi said, setting his bowl aside while he reached for his drink. “I think you rely heavily on traps to back up your monsters. Maybe you even have a trap monster or two.”

Yori shook her head. “Talk to Ryou for that.”

Ryou blushed. “Don’t give away my secrets.”

“Alright, what is it?” Tristan asked.

Yori raised her hands. “It is a combo deck. But I use monster combinations, mostly pairs.”

“That would have been my second guess,” Yuugi said, nodding expertly.

Tristan elbowed him. Joey laughed.

“Alright, who’s going to help me make dessert?” Sugoroku asked.

“I can,” Yori said.

The rest of them stood to help clear the table. Yuugi, who’d been a step behind Yori at volunteering, looked a bit crestfallen, but he began gathering teacups. Joey and Tristan competed to see who could carry the most platters until Anzu told them in a deadpan voice that if they broke anything, they would have to work in the game shop the next day and forget about seeing or competing in the tournament. After that, they moved dishes one at a time as if they were made of bubbles. Ryou gathered up rice bowls while Anzu helped.

Yori followed Sugoroku into the kitchen, and he uncovered a mixing bowl to reveal a large lump of dough.

“We’re making Kahk cookies,” he said quietly, as if imparting a secret. He smiled. “A favorite of mine I discovered in Egypt.”

“You don’t say.” Yori smiled back.

He directed her to break the dough into balls just over half the size of her palm.

“We need at least twenty of them,” he said as he handed her a plate.

She dutifully washed her hands before dividing the dough. It was smooth and oily as she rolled it on her palms.

Sugoroku bustled around her, gathering ingredients into a pot on the burner.

After opening her mouth twice, Yori finally asked, “Do you know much about the Egyptian gods?”

“Enough to brag.” Sugoroku winked, whisking honey into his mixture.

“What’s the deal with Ra?”

He raised his eyebrows, glancing over at her. After lowering the heat beneath his mixture, he said, “All the information about Ra is a little overwhelming. Simply put, he is the supreme god of Egyptian mythology, known most commonly as the god of the sun.”

Yori almost dropped her current ball of dough. “Supreme god. God of gods. Of course.”

Sugoroku chuckled. “Ra was called father to the pharaohs, and a portion of his power was believed to reincarnate within each pharaoh, giving them the divine right to rule. It’s why the pharaohs were considered gods themselves.”

Oh, even better. Yori swallowed hard. “He’s not in Yami, is he?”

“Would it matter?”

“I . . . think it would.” She rotated the plate, placed the next ball on it. “I have a pretty good reason to think the gods don’t like me—Mr. Boss God especially.”

Sugoroku considered that for a moment. He removed his pot from the heat, setting it aside.

“Yami is a mystery to me,” he said, “but I think if there is one thing clear about him, it’s that he’s unlike any other pharaoh in history.”

Before Yori could respond to that, Joey burst in, asking how Sugoroku wanted the leftovers boxed up. Sugoroku moved to help him, and the others started bringing the empty dishes in to stack them by the sink. Ryou took over washing dishes, and Anzu snuck around him to bump Yori’s shoulder gently.

“When your hands are free,” she said. “I have something for you.”

Yori blinked. She hurriedly finished rolling the rest of the dough balls, checked if Sugoroku needed anything else—which he didn’t—then rejoined Anzu in the entertainment room.

Anzu produced a curling iron and makeup bag from her backpack, extending them to Yori.

Yori blinked again.

“Don’t make that face.” Anzu laughed. “I figured you’d want to look your best for the tournament tomorrow, and Yuugi might have some black nail polish floating around somewhere, but that’s about it.”

She opened the makeup bag and showed Yori its seemingly infinite contents.

“Bobby pins, hair ties,”—Anzu dug around the items, indicating each as she spoke—“ooh, these little clear ones are great. They’re invisible once you put them in. And then, of course, eye shadow, concealer, lip gloss, the works. I didn’t know what color nail polish you would like, so I tried to throw in a variety, but I don’t have many dark colors.”

The makeup bag was a more intimidating opponent than anyone Yori had stared down across a dueling table.

“Anzu, this is . . . really thoughtful,” she said. She lowered her voice a little, feeling heat in her face. “But I don’t actually know how to do makeup. I’ve never painted my nails either. Or, um, curled my hair.”

Anzu didn’t miss a beat. “Well, good thing I’m here, then!”

And before Yori knew it, they were both in her bathroom. Anzu showed her techniques with the curling iron first, then showed her how to apply and blend makeup.

“Mmm.” Yori grimaced after applying eye shadow, squinting up at Anzu. “Don’t like it.”

Anzu laughed. “It can feel heavy at first, especially on your eyes. If you keep up on it, that goes away, but if you want to keep it once-in-a-while, you can just use the concealer instead of full foundation or just do eyeliner instead of the shadow. Little touches can still make your features pop without feeling like too much.”

After finishing the makeup, Anzu showed Yori how to get it back off with wipes, which was, in Yori’s opinion, almost a more useful skill.

“Now let’s talk outfit,” Anzu said. “What are you wearing?”

Yori had never thought about it much before, but she felt embarrassed realizing she had exactly four shirts to her name while Anzu looked like a queen who’d possibly never worn the same thing twice.

But when she showed Anzu the pink shirt she planned to wear, the other girl squealed like it was some fancy blouse from a high-end shop.

“This is so cute!” she said. “I didn’t even know you liked pink; all I’ve seen you wear is black.”

Yori didn’t have the heart to tell her the only reason she had a pink shirt was to wear when she wanted to make opponents underestimate her. (Even though part of her thought the color was flattering and liked the light green butterflies across the front.)

“Shorter sleeves are good, too,” Anzu said. “You always look a little grim in those long sleeves.”

“Thanks,” Yori said dryly.

The pink top was a half-sleeve, which she’d chosen specifically to show off her bracelet. Another tactic to lure opponents in.

“Sleeveless would be even better,” Anzu said. “I have some super-cute crop tops you could borrow. And we could get you out of those black sneakers.”

“Not gonna happen.”

Anzu laughed. She picked out a bottle of pink nail polish and helped Yori do her nails. The makeup hadn’t been a favorite for Yori, but the nail polish she definitely approved of. It made her calloused street hands look like they belonged to a girl again.

“We can do accents, too,” Anzu said, pulling out what looked like a white pen. “Sorry I don’t have green.”

She drew a butterfly on each of Yori’s thumbnails, and Yori couldn’t stop staring at the delicate white lines.

“Then we just seal it with a clear coat.” Anzu extended a clear bottle to her. “You can do the honors.”

While Yori waited for her nails to dry, she thanked Anzu again. Anzu waved her off.

“I’m around boys all day,” she said, “even at home—one big brother, one little brother. So this is nice for me, too.”

She packed the nail polish back into the bag, hesitating after she zipped it closed.

“Can I . . . ask a favor?”

Yori nodded for her to continue.

“Tomorrow in the tournament, could you look out for Yuugi?” Anzu tucked her short hair behind her ears, her face creased with worry. “He’ll be so worried about everyone else, I’m afraid he won’t worry about himself.”

Yori wished she could say there wouldn’t be any serious danger in a card game tournament, but it would be a lie.

“I will,” she said.

Anzu smiled. “Sorry I’m such a downer. I hope you can all have fun competing, but . . . I can still see that cut healing on Joey’s cheek, and it reminds me that one of my friends got hurt before the tournament even started. Just like Duelist Kingdom.”

“Hopefully this tournament won’t have anything as wild as soul-stealing,” Yori said, trying for a smile.

In her mind, she saw the Ghoul sagging forward, eyes rolled into his head, as someone else spoke to her through his mouth.

“Right,” Anzu said. “It’s Kaiba this time, not Pegasus. He can be jerk, but he’s not crazy.”

“I think it’ll be fine,” Yori said.

“Right,” Anzu said.

And they let it be at that even though neither of them believed it.

They went back downstairs just as dessert finished baking. Yuugi was busy showing Tristan something on Yoshi’s Island while Joey and Ryou compared cards off to the side.

Yori wished she could talk to Yami, but he hadn’t appeared all day. In fact, she’d only seen him briefly in the past few days since talking to Shadi, and those appearances had just been while Yuugi helped at the game shop, nothing private. She knew the tournament had to be weighing on him even heavier than on her, and honestly, after her conversation with Jiro, she should have been glad for the distance. Especially if he was, in part, a reincarnation of the god who’d tried to kill her (and temporarily succeeded).

“Something about impossible relationships,” Jiro’s voice whispered in her memory. “Don’t they just make you want them all the more?”

The time passed quickly until soon enough, they were approaching sunset, and everyone said their goodbyes.

“10:00 next to the clock tower!” Joey shouted over his shoulder. “Don’t be late, Yuug’!”

Yuugi blushed. Tristan hooked an arm around Joey’s neck, teasing him about his own punctuality patterns. They bickered down the street while Anzu and Ryou waved. Yuugi waved back, allowing the game shop door to swing closed, the bells tinkling quietly.

“I’ve gotta work on my deck,” he said. He seemed calm and ready, so Yori didn’t want to distract him, but she couldn’t help catching his arm before he headed up the stairs.

“Hey,” she said softly. She glanced at the Millennium Puzzle, then met his eyes again. “Tell him he’s not alone, okay?”

Yuugi smiled. “Okay.”

“And neither are you,” she added.

He nodded. Then his smile turned mischievous. “I like your nails. Yami will, too.”

Yori swatted him in the back of the head as he snickered. They went their separate ways, and Yori sat on her bed, staring down at her deck. She’d already made any necessary adjustments—it wasn’t hard, since she didn’t have very many extra cards. But she didn’t need a big selection to know the cards she’d chosen were good. Humble though it might be, her deck had already gotten her through plenty of dangerous situations over the years.

Hopefully it would be enough to get her through Battle City.

“I’m counting on you, buddy,” she murmured, staring down at Dante.

If she didn’t know any better, she’d say her dragon’s crimson eyes looked confident, ready for what was to come. It was just up to her to match that confidence.

She snapped her deck back into its holder.

Chapter Text

Despite Kaiba’s theatrical announcement of the tournament, Battle City started in a quiet, almost ominous way. Come Friday morning, every screen in downtown Domino showed a countdown to the tournament’s opening.

And at 10:00 AM, the countdown reached zero. Every green clock flashed red before shattering, replaced by the KaibaCorp logo beneath bold white text that read, Let the Battle Begin.

Yami watched as the duelists around him hung in a kind of awed reverence, the tension crackling in the air. Then two people at the end of the street snapped decks into place to break the silence—and battle ensued. Amateur duelists charged with emotion jumped to challenge anyone close by, and others gathered to feed off of the mob energy or hovered back to survey the competition.

A duelist or two looked his way, but upon recognizing him, the color drained from their faces, and they scampered off in search of easier opponents.

“Yuug’,” Joey said, a predatory grin on his face as he scanned the surrounding duelists, “who you gonna fight?”

Yami hesitated. His fingers twitched toward his deck.

“No one yet,” he said simply.

“Scopin’ out the enemy.” Joey slapped him on the shoulder. “I can respect that. I’m gonna go find the goon that took my Red-Eyes and teach him some manners. See you around?”

Yami nodded. “Be careful, Joey.”

“Yeah, you too.”

He waved and took off running, disappearing quickly into the crowd.

Ryou stood on tiptoe to peer over the gathered groups.

“There aren’t as many entrants gathered here as I expected,” Ryou said. “Then again, I suppose the purpose of it all is to scatter us throughout Domino.”

“Making the whole city a battlefield.” Yori smirked. “This Kaiba guy seems just my speed. Maybe I’ll search him out before it’s all over.”

“Careful,” Yami said. “Kaiba’s skills are nothing to scoff at.”

Yori’s smirk remained in place. “It’d be no fun otherwise.”

Fun. Yami wished he could say he’d come to the tournament in search of fun, but his lungs felt heavy with every breath, and the chain of the puzzle felt hot on his neck. His previous battles had always been fought with goals focused around Yuugi or his friends—saving, protecting, avenging.

Now he was about to set foot in a battleground solely for himself, without any way of knowing if the end result would be worth it. Even if he managed to unlock the memories he’d lost, who was to say they’d be good?

Ryou headed out to find his first opponent, leaving just Yami and Yori.

“You look stressed to the max,” she said. “You have the wrinkles.”

He rubbed the spot between his eyebrows self-consciously.

“I won’t tell you to have fun,” she continued. “I don’t know how much fun the Ghouls plan on letting us have even if we try. But I’ll tell you to fight your hardest, and I’ll tell you to win, and most importantly, I’ll tell you that no matter how the fights go, you have friends here. Remember that.”

The tension in his shoulders eased, and he managed a smile.

“Make it to the finals with me?” he said. It was the first goal on the road to success, the first hurdle he would need to jump to have any hope of making it all the way.

“I’d never make you go alone.”

Her smile was breathtaking. She was dressed in a bright, bold manner, in lighter colors than he’d ever seen her wear, her bracelet exposed to catch the sunlight, her hair twisted up to hang in ringlets. She looked ready to take on whatever might come, and standing there next to her, he couldn’t help but feel the same.

They parted ways. Yami headed the same direction Joey had gone, his eyes sweeping each group of people he passed, lighting on every silver Duel Disk. Roars from holographic monsters and cheers from onlookers vibrated the air, infusing his every breath with an anticipatory tingle.

One girl stopped him to ask for his autograph. He and Yuugi had created a system for such events in the past, so without missing a beat, Yami smiled at her warmly, sketched a minimalist outline of the Dark Magician in her notebook, and scribbled something illegible next to it that started with a Y.

Letting people mistake him for Yuugi was one thing, but Yami would never feel comfortable claiming the boy’s name himself.

As the girl ran off to rejoin her friends, Yami’s first opponent made himself known. Unlike the others who’d turned tail after recognizing him, this man had a grin that widened when his eyes fixed themselves on the Millennium Puzzle.

The purple cloak across his shoulders was unmistakable, as was the tattoo on his forehead.

“I accept your challenge,” Yami said before the man even issued one.

“I wouldn’t have given you a choice,” the Ghoul said, showing his teeth through his grizzled beard.

They each shuffled their decks before snapping them into place in their respective deck holders, opting not to cut their opponent’s deck. The Ghoul extended his arm, and his Duel Disk released two metal projectiles. Yami copied the action. He and Yuugi had already spent hours testing out the Duel Disk in preparation of the tournament; the device would not be an obstacle as he played, and it already felt as natural on his arm as if it were an extension of his own body.

“Let’s duel!” Yami shouted.

“Let’s duel,” the man agreed, already playing his first card. The corner of his Duel Disk wing opened to reveal the field zone as he activated the field spell card Clock Tower Prison. An ornate metal clock tower rose behind him. The face of the clock was blank.

“I’ll also summon Destiny Hero: Defender [100/2700] in defense mode. Turn end.”

The giant stone golem appeared atop its card, kneeling, one arm crossed over its chest.

One of Yami’s favorite improvements for this version of the Duel Disk as opposed to the one Kaiba had first used on him was that no matter what cards were played, the holograms would always arrange themselves in a way that left direct line of sight open between the players.

“My turn.” Yami drew a card, adding it to his hand. He surveyed his six cards and his opponent’s field. Field spells were sometimes nasty and sometimes almost useless. He’d never seen Clock Tower Prison before, but he was willing to take a gamble.

“The King of Games is dueling!” someone shouted, breaking Yami’s concentration. People began to swarm in, staring at him with wide eyes, filling the air with loud chatter.

When he’d sailed to Duelist Kingdom, he’d been a virtually unknown player with only one impressive win to his name—the defeat of Kaiba. And although Kaiba was an international champion, Yami’s renown after defeating him was more infamy than anything. Most people considered it a fluke.

After winning Duelist Kingdom and defeating the creator of Duel Monsters himself, such was no longer the case.

Soon enough, there was an entire ring of people surrounding the match, and although the people on the sides left plenty of space for the holograms to appear, the people at Yami’s back pressed a bit close for comfort.

“You daydreaming?” the Ghoul snapped.

“Right,” Yami muttered. He took a deep breath, grounding himself once more in the game. He’d played under far worse conditions than overeager onlookers. “I set two cards facedown and summon Beta the Magnet Warrior [1700/1600] in attack mode. That ends my turn.”

The images of both facedown cards appeared before him, hovering a few inches off the pavement, each one larger than a person. Beta the Magnet Warrior materialized above the white face of its own card, crouched in a fighting pose, eyes narrowed on Yami’s opponent.

The holograms had grown larger from the Duel Fields to the Duel Disks, and they’d lost the grainy touch around the edges. If not for its outlandish design, Yami’s yellow, magnet-clutching warrior could have passed for real under any amount of scrutiny.

For all of Seto Kaiba’s faults, he was every bit the genius he claimed to be when it came to technology.

The Ghoul grinned. “In your end phase, my Clock Tower Prison gains a clock counter.”

The number twelve appeared on the white face.

So the clock had to be built during the opponent’s turns. The most likely conclusion was that it would take four clock counters—the twelve, the three, the six, and the nine—before a special effect would activate. The safest strategy was to dismantle the Ghoul before then, but his defense monster was stronger than—

“Found an opponent already!” Yuugi chirped, appearing next to him.

Yami clutched the front of his shirt, recovering from a near heart attack.

“It’s not like dueling takes concentration,” he muttered to himself, rubbing the space between his eyebrows.

“A Ghoul.” Yuugi’s expression turned fierce. “Good.”

And Yami couldn’t help a smile. Despite the interruptions to his concentration, it was nice to know he had support from strangers and friends alike.

“No matter how the fights go,” Yori’s voice whispered, “you have friends here. Remember that.”

Yami stood a little straighter.

The Ghoul passed his turn without summoning any additional monsters or adding any facedown cards.

“So your strategy depends entirely on that field card.” Yami smirked. “Too bad you’ll be out of the game before its ability activates.”

“Talk big all you want,” the Ghoul sneered. “We gather rare cards from all around the world, which means any Ghoul deck is better than whatever measly cards you’ve scraped together.”

Yami narrowed his eyes. “My cards don’t take kindly to being insulted.”

He drew a card, then summoned the Celtic Guardian [1400/1200]. The elf-eared warrior brandished his sword at the Ghoul.

“I’ll tribute both my monsters,” Yami said, sliding both cards into the graveyard slot beneath his deck holder, “to summon my Dark Magician [2500/2100]!”

Yami’s warriors disappeared in a cloud of smoke, and his spellcaster burst from the cloud, staff in one hand, opposite hand braced on his pointed hat. He wagged his finger at the Ghoul, a feature of the Dark Magician’s personality that Yami never tired of seeing.

After activating one of his facedown cards, Magic Formula, Dark Magician’s attack points rose from 2500 to 3000, allowing Yami to attack the Ghoul’s defensive monster, blasting the stone warrior into a shower of gravel pieces.

The Ghoul scowled, tugging at his beard. “A lot of effort for a pitiful win. Since my monster was in defense mode, I don’t take any battle damage.”

Yami shook his head. “Did you forget I had two facedown cards?”

He pressed the button below his second set card, activating his trap.

“Relentless Tide takes effect when I destroy a defensive monster, and it means you take battle damage equal to half my monster’s attack points.”

The Ghoul’s lifepoint counter scrolled down from 4000 to 2500 while the Ghoul let out a pained gasp.

“Excellent combo!” Yuugi cheered, pumping a fist in the air.

“Now remind me again.” Yami spread his arms. “Who was talking big?”

And although he hadn’t come to the tournament for fun, although he knew the leader of the Ghouls was lurking in the shadows with a Millennium Item that was as dangerous as anything he’d faced before, Yami couldn’t help a smile. At the end of the day, he loved dueling, plain and simple. There was something in the game that spoke to his soul and sent life flooding through his veins to wash away any limitations his existence possessed. Maybe it had something to do with the origins of the game—the tablets carved in stone that spoke of monsters with origins even more ancient than his own. Or maybe it was simply the one thing that allowed him to step forward with confidence in a world so largely outside his reach.

Regardless, if he were to call himself a king of anything, the dueling field would be his kingdom—not because of some title he won in a tournament but because of something he felt in his heart.

“Your turn, Ghoul,” he said. “We’re one move closer to your defeat.”

++++++++++

Seto hummed in satisfaction as duels broke out across the streets of Battle City. Data from the duels flitted across the screens surrounding him, gathered remotely from each Duel Disk as it was activated. Each card logged itself in his database as it was played; anything with ten copies or fewer was highlighted by the computer and placed in a special folder. When the two missing god cards appeared, they would be instantly flagged, and the system would notify him.

At his side, Mokuba gave him a breathless grin, pointing out the first sighting of a five-copy card. Seto smirked, making a mental note of the player’s name and face; he looked forward to improving his deck with more than just the god cards before the tournament was over.

“Look, Seto!” Mokuba drew his attention to the data he had been scrolling through. A new duel had just appeared between Yuugi Mutou and an opponent.

Without commenting, Seto highlighted the duel, transferring it to the big screen facing him so he could survey all of the available data. It was the first duel for each player—not surprising, since the tournament had just opened—and two rounds in, Yuugi already had the advantage on lifepoints.

A thrill of anticipation wove its way through Seto’s blood. Not only was this tournament his chance to crush the owner of the god cards, but it was also his opportunity for a rematch with Yuugi. A fair one.

Seto used a separate screen to access information on Yuugi’s opponent but frowned at what appeared. The man’s name had been listed as “Ghoul.” He had no previous tournament listings, a neutral five-star rating, and Graceful Charity as his rarest card.

“They’ve been in my system,” Seto murmured. He did a quick search for “Ghoul,” which turned up more than twenty other entries, all identical. Even the picture was the same for all of them—an unrecognizable figure covered by a purple cloak and hood.

“What dummies.” Mokuba shook his head. “They’re all still registered with individual Duel Disks. We can shut them all down from here, and they won’t be able to continue competing.”

“Let them be,” Seto said, returning to the main duel layout for Yuugi’s match. “I left the system open as bait.”

During the weeks leading up to his tournament, Seto had been far from idle. He’d kept close watch on the Ghouls arriving in the city, and he’d heard reports of the duelists they’d already gone after.

But now they were on his turf, where he’d line them all up like pins and strike them down with his god card until he found their leader.

“Mr. Kaiba,” one of his workers called out. Seto leaned forward to see the woman past his control panel. She pointed at the largest screen, where Yuugi’s duel was showing. “Duelist number two, ‘Ghoul,’ has been flagged by the system. His cards are not registering properly with the Duel Disk. They seem to be fakes, sir.”

“Fakes?” Seto snapped.

Of course. Not only card thieves but also card frauds. He would have to be sure the god cards he ended up with were originals and not fakes.

“Then he’s cheating!” Mokuba shouted, pointing at the Ghoul’s shrouded image. “We have to stop the duel!”

Mokuba headed for the exit, presumably to board the KaibaCorp helicopter waiting on the roof. Seto’s first instinct was to follow—he would love nothing more than to send the cheater crawling back to his ringleader with a message to bring the real god cards—but a second option seemed more appealing.

“Let Yuugi take care of him,” he commanded.

Mokuba hesitated, his face pinched in a frown. “But . . . if he’s cheating, he should be kicked out of the tournament. What if he beats Yuugi by some dirty trick?”

If Yuugi dared surrender his King of Games title to a worm, Seto would personally strand him on a desert island with nothing but his pathetic Kuriboh card for company.

“Let’s see how it unfolds,” Seto said, the corner of his mouth twitching into a smirk. “If it takes Yuugi four rounds to beat this greasy lowlife, I’ll be surprised.”

Mokuba wavered for another moment, then gave a sigh, returning to Seto’s side.

“Just keep track of how many fake cards he plays,” Mokuba said. “I don’t want him giving Yuugi a fake for his ante.”

The workers nodded.

Seto highlighted Yuugi’s dueling data and sent it to the broadcasting screen, which had previously been showing duels at random on the screens all over downtown Domino.

“Everyone watch,” Seto murmured. “If you think you can be at the top, see what the throne really looks like.”

++++++++++

Yori had never competed in anything outside of back-alley duels for money. Stepping into Battle City hit her like night to day. For every duelist issuing a challenge, there were twenty non-duelists crowding around to see how it would go. Everywhere, people filled the air with shouts, cheers, and curses while behind them, holographic projections of monsters roared, shrieked, and bellowed; it was the madness of fighting rings loosed on everyday streets. She wondered if there was a quiet spot anywhere in downtown Domino.

After separating from Yami, she doubled back to follow him. She intended to fight Ghouls in Battle City, and she knew they’d be targeting Yami above anyone else, so he was the quickest way to the opponent.

Sure enough, it didn’t take long before a Ghoul jumped forward to challenge him. But before Yori could spot a second one in the area, a duelist stepped forward to block her path, too.

Spiky blue hair, baggy pants, and Duel Monsters stickers pasted across every blank inch of his duel disk—he was about as far from a Ghoul as she could get. He regarded her with an arrogant sneer, one hand braced on a massive belt around his waist that had at least six deck pouches stuffed full of cards.

“Duel me!” he demanded. “This will be the last battle you ever fight in this city.”

“Clever.” Yori barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes.

Already, people had started to gather, nudging each other while they whispered about the outcome. A flash of irritation heated Yori’s blood when someone shouted out that she was doomed; the self-stuffed punk before her would have sooner jumped off a bridge than fight the people Yori usually faced in her duels—the kind who didn’t need to pretend to be threatening and who wouldn’t take your rarest card if you lost but rather a hefty cash price and anything you couldn’t pay straight out of your blood and skin.

“Sure you want to face me?” Yori said. “The last guy I dueled broke down in tears.”

“Who was that—your baby brother?”

She’d given him a chance; she couldn’t be blamed for answering his challenge with everything she had.

“Fifty bucks on top of your locator and rarest card says I beat you in four rounds or less,” she said, snapping her deck into place in her Duel Disk.

He frowned. “This ain’t a casino, you weirdo.”

Force of habit. Still, she needed money to stay alive, and anyone bleeding as much arrogance as the kid in front of her could be baited into betting.

The gathered onlookers whispered amongst themselves, probably scandalized by her boldness or appalled at her lack of tournament etiquette or whatever.

“What?” She smirked. “Are you worried there’s no way to beat me or just concerned you couldn’t hold out for more than four rounds?”

He barked laughter, turning to face the crowd. “Can you believe this chick?”

Just because he was that annoying: “Battle City rules only permit a forty-card deck. Did you bring all your extras because you’re so scared of the competition, or were you just trying to compensate for the normal lack of bulge in your pants?”

Scattered laughter echoed from the onlookers. Color shot to life in the punk’s face, turning his skin a brilliant shade of red that complemented his blue hair. She could practically see his mind straining to come up with a sufficiently brutal response.

“That’s it!” he finally snapped. “You’re on. And another fifty bucks says that when you lose, you’ll be the one in tears!”

Yori smiled sweetly as she extended her arm; her Duel Disk released its holo-imagers and scrolled her lifepoints up to 4000.

“Then let’s duel,” she said.

++++++++++

After realizing Yami’s skill level was higher than anticipated, the Ghoul settled more seriously into the fight, which allowed Yami to do the same. He’d adjusted to the presence of the crowd, and Yuugi had returned to the puzzle, so he was able to keep all his focus on his opponent, as it should be.

The Ghoul activated a spell card called Field Barrier, which encased his clock in a shimmering force field that prevented his Clock Tower Prison from being destroyed or replaced by any other field effect. He’d gained another clock counter at the end of Yami’s turn, which meant the clock now had both the twelve and the six visible.

“I’ll set one card facedown,” the Ghoul said, “and summon Destiny Hero: Diamond Girl [1000/1500]. That ends my turn.”

The armored girl leapt onto the field, brandishing two diamond blades.

“Your monster’s in attack mode,” Yami said.

“Very good. You have eyes.”

If Yami destroyed Diamond Girl with his Dark Magician, the Ghoul would drop to 500 lifepoints. So either he wanted his lifepoints down for his field card’s special effect or he’d played a facedown trap card and wanted Yami to activate it with an attack.

Yami wasn’t anxious to risk his Dark Magician on setting off a trap, but he didn’t currently hold any other monsters. He drew the card for his turn. While it wasn’t a new monster, it was close enough.

“I activate the spell card Brain Control,” he said, sliding it into his Duel Disk. The card materialized on the field, twin arms reaching from it to grab Diamond Girl and drag her to Yami’s side of the field. “For one turn, your monster is under my control, and since you have no other monsters to defend you, I’ll use her to attack you directly.”

The girl leapt forward, blades raised.

“I activate my trap card, Eternal Dread!” the Ghoul said just before Diamond Girl’s blades slashed across his chest, one after the other. He stumbled back, face twisted in pain.

Yami knew from earlier tests that any direct attacks caused the Duel Disk to send electric jolts through the player’s arm. Kaiba’s system intended to make dueling feel as real as it looked.

The clock face glowed as the numbers three and nine appeared in their respective places.

“This trap,” the Ghoul huffed, “allows me to add two more clock counters to Clock Tower Prison when attacked. Too bad for you—that completes my clock face.”

He didn’t announce the special effect, but Yami could take a guess based on the fact that the Ghoul’s lifepoints hadn’t dropped. Not to mention his earlier concern with battle damage over the defensive monster.

“Your clock protects you from battle damage,” Yami said.

The Ghoul sneered. “So you’ve heard of it. Since spell cards that directly impact the player are banned in Battle City, without battle damage, you have no way to drop my lifepoints. You’ll keep drawing cards and passing turns until you have nothing left and I win.”

It was true; if Yami exhausted his deck and was unable to draw a card on his turn, he would automatically lose. But hiding behind a field card while counting down more than thirty turns was a long, grueling method of defeating an opponent. Few people would have the patience for it, especially if put under pressure.

“I was expecting a more impressive strategy,” Yami said. He played Pot of Greed, drew two cards, then placed them both facedown. “I was also expecting a more impressive knowledge of Duel Monsters.”

The Ghoul scowled. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Yami smirked. “You should know battle damage and direct-attack spell cards aren’t the only way to take out lifepoints. Your clock tower might as well be a hood ornament on the field for all it’s going to save you.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“We’ll see. It’s your move.”

Duel Monsters was as much a battle between two players as it was between two decks. Strategy could make all the difference. Luck could make all the difference. Preparation could make all the difference.

But so could confidence. Psychological tactics were as important as card tactics, and Yami had tipped the scales in his favor many times by convincing an opponent to attack when they should have retreated or to doubt themselves when they should have charged ahead. In his experience, more duels were decided by which opponent trusted themselves and their deck than were ever decided by luck or strategy alone.

The Ghoul activated Diamond Girl’s special ability, which allowed him to summon a Destiny Hero from his graveyard in defense mode. He brought back his Destiny Hero: Defender, switching Diamond Girl into defense mode next to it, which was all Yami needed in order to know how easily the man bowed to pressure. If he truly trusted his clock to protect him from damage, he could have left his monster in attack mode. He’d made no move to summon a monster stronger than Dark Magician’s 3000 attack points, despite the spellcaster remaining in attack mode, so it was possible he didn’t even possess one.

“Here I go,” Yami said. “Prepare to lose more lifepoints.”

He activated the spell card Magical Hats. A giant black top hat covered his Dark Magician and facedown cards before splitting into four identical hats.

The Ghoul laughed. “You’re going to damage my lifepoints by hiding your monster? Now who needs a more impressive strategy?”

“I’m not finished. I also activate the trap card Life Counter.”

One hat disappeared, and the set card beneath it lifted on end, flashing with light. At the same time, the Ghoul let out a sharp gasp as his lifepoints dropped from 2500 to 1500.

Yami smirked. “For every active monster on the field, Life Counter subtracts 500 lifepoints from the owner.”

“But you have a monster, too!” the Ghoul cried.

“Do I?” Yami raised his eyebrows. “I don’t see it anywhere. It must not count as active on the field.”

Scattered laughter rose from the audience along with cheers. Someone called out for the King of Games to win.

The dark tattoo on the Ghoul’s forehead stood out sharply against his pale skin. His wide eyes looked Yami up and down from head to toe. He licked his lips.

“You’re wondering,” Yami said, “if my card was a fluke, the only one of its kind in my deck.” He spread his arms. “Well, I’m sure you wondered the same when I damaged your lifepoints over a defensive monster, yet here we are now. You can keep hiding and hope for the best, but let me tell you this: You will never defeat me without attacking.”

“I will,” the Ghoul snarled. “Thanks to my Clock Tower Prison, your life is limited.”

Yami chuckled. “Not as limited as yours at the rate I’m going. Your move, Ghoul.”

And just as he’d hoped—

The Ghoul broke.

The man played Gryphon’s Feather Duster, a spell card that destroyed all of his own spell and trap cards while raising his lifepoints by 500 for each one. His clock tower shattered, its force field disappeared, and the Ghoul’s lifepoints rose from 1500 back to 2500.

“When my Clock Tower Prison goes to the graveyard, it special summons Destiny Hero: Dreadmaster to the field!” The Ghoul cackled. “Since you’re so impatient, this card will finish you off in a single turn!”

The Ghoul could pretend boldness all he wanted, but the cracks were visible in his expression.

The hulking, shirtless dreadmaster appeared on the field with a roar, chains dangling from his arms and neck. The monster had two abilities. First, it allowed the Ghoul to special summon up to two Destiny Hero cards from his hand. He chose Destiny Hero: Departed [1000/0] and Destiny Hero: Mad Hatter [1700/0]. Second, his dreadmaster’s attack and defense points equaled the combined attack points of all monsters on his side of the field, which made dreadmaster 800 points stronger than Dark Magician.

The Ghoul ordered his dreadmaster to attack the second hat on the left.

Yami smiled.

“You have nothing to be happy about!” the Ghoul shouted, red in the face. “Even if I missed the hat hiding your magician, I’ll get it next turn. You’ve lost this duel!”

“Oh, you didn’t miss,” Yami said. “But did you forget I still had one facedown card left?”

The Ghoul’s jaw dropped. His dreadmaster screamed a war cry, punching both arms forward. A rush of tornado-like wind tore across the field toward the hat concealing Yami’s magician.

“Activate trap: Magical Cylinder!” Yami shouted.

The Dark Magician leapt from the top of the hat, a diamond-patterned cylinder on either side of him.

The cylinder on the left sucked in the tornado attack before the cylinder on the right spat it back at the Ghoul’s dreadmaster, destroying the monster with its own attack.

The Ghoul sank to his knees. All around, people in the crowd cheered.

Yami raised his eyebrows. “I take it that’s the end of your turn? Don’t worry; I’m sure you can summon a monster next turn to make up the difference. Unless, of course, that was your strongest one.”

The Ghoul surrendered, and Yami claimed his first locator card in Battle City.

Chapter Text

Within one round, Yuugi had lured the Ghoul into deserting a near-impervious stronghold and attacking with his strongest monster, which, following a perfect trap combination, was promptly destroyed along with the Ghoul’s will to fight. The King of Games had only grown stronger since Duelist Kingdom.

Well, Seto had grown stronger as well, and as he pictured introducing Yuugi to his god card, he couldn’t help a shiver of excitement.

“You were right.” Mokuba stared wide-eyed at the screen. “Yuugi totally destroyed that guy.”

“It took him five rounds,” Seto said coolly. “He’s losing his edge.”

He grabbed his silver briefcase from the floor, then straightened up.

“Notify me immediately if any god cards appear,” he said, waiting until all his workers confirmed the order.

Mokuba turned, fists balled and muscles coiled with visible eagerness. “Are you entering Battle City now, Seto?”

Seto answered him with a smirk. “You know where to find me if you run into any technical problems.”

Not that Mokuba would have any difficulty—whether marketing new technology or hosting a tournament, KaibaCorp was a well-oiled machine equipped for anything. Seto made sure of it.

“Yes, sir!” Mokuba gave him a mock salute with a bright, impish grin. “Kick their butts, bro!”

For an instant, Seto felt the urge to ruffle Mokuba’s hair, like he used to when they were younger.

But all he did was say, “I intend to,” and head for the streets.

++++++++++

Yori would never admit it out loud, but she definitely should have put more preparation into the tournament. She’d read the tournament rules and skimmed the Duel Disk instruction manual, but she’d never taken the gadget for a test drive, unless breaking a Ghoul’s nose counted.

So when she summoned her first monster and the Red Raptor [1700/1000] stepped from its card with an ear-piercing shriek, she couldn’t stop the instinctual way she tensed into a fighting stance, one hand halfway to her switchblade.

“What?” the blue-haired punk scoffed. “Scared of your own monster?”

She shook her fingers, relaxed her position, and made no response. The opening turn of the duel was hers; if she wanted to win her bet of completing the duel in four rounds or fewer, she needed to focus. She forced herself to ignore the all-too-real hologram towering before her, even as it snapped its jaws and swung its tail.

“I’ll set one card facedown,” she said. “Your move, kid.”

The punk scowled, whipping a card from the top of his deck. “Your raptor doesn’t stand a chance against my Warwolf [1750/1200]. Say goodbye to your dinosaur!”

His shaggy, hunched beast dove from its card with a snarling howl and charged at her raptor.

“Don’t put much thought into your strategies, do you?” She pressed a button on her Duel Disk. “Activate trap card: Sandman!”

Her facedown card lifted, pulsing with light. A tubby, elf-eared fairy zipped out and circled around the Warwolf, cackling as it coated the beast in golden powder. Warwolf stumbled over its own paws before crashing to the ground, out cold. A bit of drool dripped from its tongue to darken the sidewalk.

If Yori did manage to cross paths with Seto Kaiba during Battle City, she would be sure to tell him what an insanely amazing job he’d done bringing the game to life. She’d thought the Duel Field was incredible, but the Duel Disk put it to shame, especially by setting the monsters loose on any city sidewalk. Even the shadow game’s monster manifestations paled next to the ones she faced now.

“Looks like your beast is down for the count.” Yori smirked. “But even if your attack didn’t succeed, it still allowed me to activate Red Raptor’s special defense. Whenever an attack is declared against it, my monster can summon another raptor from my deck to come to its aid.”

As if it had read her mind, the deck holder in her Duel Disk pushed a single card halfway out of her deck. She took it, and sure enough, it was the correct card. Normally, she would have needed to flip through the deck herself and then reshuffle.

So the Duel Disk had more going for it than just the holograms. More impressive by the minute.

She summoned her Blue Raptor [1700/1000] to the field. The two raptors snapped at each other in greeting.

“And it gets better,” Yori continued. “When both of my raptors are on the field at the same time, their attack points raise by 300 each, and they attack in unison, which means when my Red Raptor gets its counterattack, Blue gets one, too. Guess that means you’re the one saying goodbye to your monster—as well as half your lifepoints!”

Her opponent stared in open-mouthed shock as her first raptor tore into his Warwolf while the second one skirted around its companion for a direct attack. The punk let out a cry as the raptor slashed across his chest; his lifepoints dropped to 1750. The crowd around them broke into excited whispers.

“Might want to put a little more thought into your next move,” Yori said.

So far so good—they hadn’t even finished the first round yet. She could get used to tournament dueling.

“Well,” the punk said, his face bright red again, “I guess you’re a little better than you look.”

He was one to talk about looks. Yori raised her eyebrows but said nothing.

“But not good enough to beat me!” he said. He turned his eyes to the gathered spectators. “See how she wasted that trap card when her monsters could have taken me out by themselves? Only amateurs waste their cards.”

Yori smirked. “Think what you will.”

He scowled. “Whenever my Warwolf is destroyed, I get to draw until I have six cards, and I can add one monster from my hand to the field if it has less than 1100 attack points.”

He drew an additional card, surveyed his new hand, and gave an arrogant grin. He special-summoned Mutant Mindmaster [0/2500] in defense mode.

The robed alien stepped delicately from its card, surveying the field.

“Mindmaster doesn’t like to fight,” the punk said, shrugging his shoulders with a dramatic sigh. Then he sneered. “He’ll take control of one of your monsters and make it fight instead!”

His monster held up both arms as it began a murmured chant. Yori’s Blue Raptor hunkered down, shaking its head slowly from side to side. Then it let out a piercing screech and dove at her second raptor, clamping its teeth across the Red Raptor’s neck. Both of them exploded in a flash of light. At least since they had the same attack power, it left her lifepoints unharmed.

“I’ll add one facedown card, and that”—he smiled out at the crowd—“ends my turn.”

One round down. Three to go.

++++++++++

The crowd surged with cheers the moment Yami won, and he lifted a hand in a sheepish half wave. Everything disappeared from the field as the holo-imagers powered down. Yami retrieved both of his, snapping them back into place in his Duel Disk, then crossed the field to his opponent, who’d collapsed to his knees after his surrender.

The Ghoul extended a locator card and rare card with shaking hands, but Yami took only the locator card.

“Keep your rare card,” he said. “Even if your deck means nothing special to you, I don’t play for antes.”

The man’s eyes widened in surprise as he stared up at Yami. The gathered crowd was already heading off for other duels, taking most of the noise with them, which helped Yami’s shoulders to relax. He offered the Ghoul a hand, helping the man to his feet. The man straightened his long cloak, which looked bulky and uncomfortable. Yami much preferred the uniform jacket snapped to his shirt, courtesy of Yuugi.

“Where’s your master?” Yami asked.

The Ghoul shook his head. “You’re nothing like I expected.”

Yami gave a half smile. “Not exactly an answer.”

“I wouldn’t face him if I were you.”

“I appreciate the warning, but he declared a challenge, and I’ll face it head on.”

The Ghoul hesitated. He cast his gaze around the street, as if expecting his master to leap from the shadow of any person.

When he spoke, it was nearly a whisper. “He won’t.”

Yami frowned.

“Keep fighting, and he’ll find you.” Sweat dotted the man’s forehead. “But you may not like who he finds you through.”

The man hurried away, leaving that ominous warning in his wake. Yami had faced a man who could read minds when he fought Pegasus, but a man who could control them was another threat entirely.

//Hey,// Yuugi said, //it felt like you won, but now things are gloomy?//

Yami shook his head. He took his deck from his Duel Disk, including collecting the cards from his graveyard, and snapped it back into its holder.

//It’s nothing,// he said. //Still no sign of the Ghouls’ leader.//

//Yori said she had to call him out pretty hard before he said anything.//

Since the man had been so eager to send Ghouls out to announce his existence, Yami had imagined his attack would be a bold one as soon as the tournament opened. But perhaps the Ghoul leader was all talk and no spine. Perhaps his lurking in the shadows of others was a show of cowardice rather than a display of dark power.

Regardless, there was nothing Yami could do but proceed forward and wait for the leader to make his move.

He headed down the street, eyes open for his next opponent.

++++++++++

Sugoroku heard the jingle of the front door and hurriedly turned from where he’d been reorganizing a shelf. With the tournament happening in town, he’d been prepared for a rush of customers seeking Duel Monsters cards, but he hadn’t expected them to start filtering in until around lunchtime, after the tournament had enough time to get fully underway and fire people up.

He smiled brightly at the new customer. “Welcome to the Kame Game Shop! What can I help you find?”

The sandy-haired teenager smiled back, his expression full of warmth. He had a striking appearance, mostly due to the gold bands around his wrists, upper arms, and neck—an Egyptian style, Sugoroku was delighted to note, though perhaps a bit outdated in the modern age. Pointed gold earrings dangled from his ears, and even his sleeveless shirt had a gold chain, crossing from one shoulder to the other. His eyes sported Kohl lines that spread from the outer edges like wings before dipping down to touch the top of each cheek.

“My!” Sugoroku stepped forward, beaming. “I don’t suppose you’ve come from Egypt, have you?”

“Good eye,” the young man said. “I’ve been told Yuugi Mutou lives here, the boy with the Millennium Puzzle.”

“Interested in artifacts, are you?” Sugoroku’s smile faltered a bit.

The young man looked to be about Yuugi’s age, but age meant nothing when it came to the danger of the Millennium Items.

“My family certainly is.” He shook his head, the earrings tossing against his neck. “I’m more interested in games, and look at your collection!”

His wide, pale eyes took in the multitude of shelves before he gestured to one small box in particular, leaning close. “Tell me this isn’t actually Senet.”

Sugoroku allowed himself another smile. “I have the best Egyptian collection of any game shop in Japan. It’s a personal interest of mine; I used to be an archaeologist.”

“My father never let me play games,” the young man said wistfully. He lifted the Senet box and turned it over in gentle hands. “I had a duty to fulfill and all that. No time for frivolity or sunlight or, you know, life. Ironic, isn’t it? Since Egypt was the origin of most great games that exist today.”

When he turned to pick up the game, Sugoroku saw an artifact hanging through the back of his belt. The shaft ran parallel to the young man’s thigh, and the Eye of Horus stared out blankly from the orb at the top, nested between two gold wings.

The Millennium Rod.

And Sugoroku realized who the young man was.

“It’s a sad thing,” he said, “when children aren’t allowed to play. How about you keep that copy of Senet as my gift? Play with a friend. It’s never too late to make up for good things we’ve missed.”

The young man set the box down quickly, as if burned. His pale eyes turned sharp, and he withdrew the Millennium Rod from his belt, clutching it tightly.

“No wonder you have such a small store,” he said, “if you just give away the merchandise. You’re a fool.”

“And you’re the leader of the Ghouls,” Sugoroku said. “Why are you after my grandson?”

“My only grievance is with the pharaoh.” The young man smiled. “But Yuugi’s in the way, so I’ll take the shortest path forward.”

“You may find that path to be an unfriendly one. Yuugi is surrounded by people who would do anything to keep him safe.”

“Like you?” The young man laughed, and it sounded too relaxed, too bright for someone with such dark intentions. “I wouldn’t worry, sir. You’ll find people aren’t much of an obstacle for me.”

“If you plan to use me against Yuugi,” Sugoroku said, voice and gaze calm, “Pegasus Crawford already tried that once, and look where it got him.”

Before the young man could respond, the door to the shop jingled again.

And Anzu walked in.

“Hey, Grandpa!” she said. “Tristan wanted to meet here after his doctor’s appointment so he wouldn’t have to wander around the tournament alone. He’s such a baby when it comes to crowds. Is he here yet?”

“Anzu, go home,” Sugoroku said sternly.

The girl blinked, but it was too late.

The young man smiled at Sugoroku. “Whoever said I was here for you?”

And the Millennium Rod flashed.

“Anzu!” Sugoroku cried.

The girl’s expression glazed as her arms fell limply to her sides.

“I’m afraid she can’t hear you anymore.” For a moment, the young man’s eyes looked wild, foreign in the rest of his calm expression. “As for you, be a good messenger and let the pharaoh know I’m here. If he plays by my rules, Yuugi and his friends can all stay safe. If not, the shortest path forward is to cut them down one by one.”

Without a word from him, Anzu turned and stepped back out onto the sidewalk, holding the door open for him to follow.

The young man winked. “Now isn’t this a fun game?”

He exited, the door swinging closed behind them both.

++++++++++

Time seemed to pass differently in the puzzle, although it may have been an illusion created by the lack of any way to tell time. Either way, Yuugi felt like his stays in the puzzle always dragged on, and there was only so much thinking he could do before his mind hurt, so he liked to invent games he could play by himself using just his hands.

Today’s game was a variant on a classic, a test of coordination where he used a finger from one hand to tap a finger on the other hand and then that finger had to tap a different finger than the one that had tapped it. He tried to see how fast he could get without hesitating or messing up.

He called it Tap Out, and he was certain it would have been a big hit if anyone knew about it.

//Yuugi, come here.//

Yuugi appeared instantly in the real world. He expected to see their next opponent. Instead, he saw a small crowd gathered in front of a bookshop. It took him a moment to realize people were gathered around a duel in progress and not simply in line for a book signing or new release. It took him another moment to recognize the red hair visible just beyond the crowd.

“Yori’s dueling!” he said, voice cracking from excitement.

Yami smiled. “I assumed you’d enjoy the chance to watch. I can say from experience that she’s quite formidable.”

After a few attempts to jump in place, Yuugi had no better idea of what was happening in the duel than before. Yami chuckled—which was really unfair considering his height wasn’t much more to brag about than Yuugi’s—and edged his way forward into the crowd. Yuugi followed closely in his wake.

Of course, Yuugi could have chosen to walk right through any of the people to get a clear view, but as much as he’d adjusted to trading places with Yami, he couldn’t see himself ever becoming that comfortable with his time as a spirit.

They reached a fairly open spot in the crowd, allowing Yuugi to see that Yori had no monsters on the field. Her opponent had one crouched in defense mode. He couldn’t tell who had more lifepoints, and he suddenly missed the days of Duelist Kingdom when lifepoints had been displayed in huge numbers on the side of the Duel Fields for anyone to see.

“Ask someone what’s going on!” Yuugi said.

“Excuse me,” Yami said quietly, catching the attention of a girl near him. “Who’s in the lead?”

She shrugged. Her eyes stayed fixed on the duel as she answered, “Well, when they first started, I thought that guy was just going to win right away, like BAM! I mean, I saw him on TV for regionals or something, and the guy he beat was totally K.O., know what I mean? But this girl was all confident she could win and she even bet on it, and then she did this raptor thing and his lifepoints went SKEEEEEW. Totally gone, more than half. But then he was like KABAM, and he mind-controlled one of her raptors to kill the other one! Total betrayal! So now it’s like neck and neck because he has half lifepoints and she’s got full ones but he’s the one with the monster and she’s got ZIP.”

“Ah, so that’s how it is,” Yami said, an expertly restrained smile playing around his lips.

Since Yuugi was safe in spirit form, he dissolved unabashedly into giggles.

“Look, look, look!” The girl grabbed Yami’s arm, shaking it up and down in the direction of the duel. “She drew her card. Now we see if she gets—dun dun DUN—revenge!”

Yami gently pried his arm out of the girl’s grasp, but in his own way, he seemed just as excited to see what Yori’s next move would be. Yuugi felt the same rush of anticipation as he stood on tiptoes to watch Yori start her turn.

++++++++++

As the second round of the duel began, Yori surveyed the five cards in her hand. If she summoned a monster, the punk’s Mindmaster would just use it against her on his turn. She didn’t have anything in her hand stronger than its 2500 defense points, so she couldn’t take it off the field, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to anyway since it had one glaring weakness—its 0 attack points. If she could manipulate that weakness, she could take the rest of his lifepoints out with one attack. She actually had the perfect monster for it.

The only problem was it was still buried somewhere in her deck.

“I pass my turn,” Yori said.

She heard gasps from the audience. The punk’s eyebrows nearly touched his hairline.

“You don’t have a single card on your field,” he said.

She shrugged.

“Wow.” He shook his head at the crowd. “I was too generous before when I called her an amateur. Even an amateur wouldn’t leave their lifepoints completely unprotected!”

“Better teach me a lesson, then.” She winked.

He scowled. “You can’t bluff when it’s plain to see you don’t have any kind of plan.”

He yanked a card from his deck, barely glancing at it before summoning a monster in attack mode—Hikari Wolf [1600/1300]. The metal dog leapt from its card, gold light shining from the chinks in its armor.

“Say goodbye to 1600 lifepoints,” the punk said, ordering his monster to attack. It charged across the field, jaws open for Yori.

Yori smirked. “Activate trap card: Sandman!”

The golden fairy burst from her graveyard and tossed armfuls of yellow dust into the glowing wolf’s face. The wolf collapsed at Yori’s feet, paws and tail twitching.

This time the crowd let out cheers.

“You can’t activate a card not on the field!” the punk cried.

“Why not?” Yori chuckled. Her graveyard spit out Sandman, and she held it up. “Sandman is a special trap. If I use it in a battle where it isn’t the deciding factor, it can be activated from my graveyard at any time. Once activated from the graveyard, it goes back into my deck. It’s never out of the game, only sleeping.”

She pulled her deck from its holder, cut Sandman into it, and reshuffled.

With any luck, she’d also brought the monster she needed closer to the top.

Her opponent looked like he’d been punched in the stomach. He stared down at the cards in his hand, eyes darting back and forth between his options. His fingers hesitated over first one, then another.

Without warning, he glared at her. “Who are you? What tournaments have you been in?”

She blinked. With a slightly uncomfortable shrug, she said, “This is my first one.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re lying.”

“Think what you will.”

“What’s your name?”

“Angel.” Despite her tournament registration, she left the “avenging” part off once more. It was her right to define her identity the way she wanted.

The crowd around her broke into murmurs, which made her feel all the more uncomfortable. But she kept her face composed and met her opponent’s eyes evenly.

“Alright, Angel,” he said, more serious than she’d seen him look before. “I won’t underestimate you again.”

She shook her head. “It still won’t save you. You have less than two rounds left.”

He played a facedown card and ended his turn.

Yori drew.

And it was exactly the monster she’d needed.

“I’m still a lucky girl,” she said, grinning. “I’ll play two cards facedown and summon Drunken Duck [500/1800] in attack mode.”

Her cartoonish duck stumbled onto the field with swirling eyes, its bill clamped around an empty beer bottle.

The punk blinked.

“Alright, maybe I spoke too soon,” he said.

The crowd laughed. Yori couldn’t blame them.

“I know he doesn’t look like much,” she said. “But he’s my key to victory. First, let’s clear the field.”

She activated her spell card Remove Trap. If her opponent’s facedown card was a trap, it would be sent to his graveyard.

It was.

With the minefield swept, Yori ordered her monster to attack. The duck quacked loudly, followed by a hiccup. It charged forward in a mostly straight line toward the mindmaster.

“Oh, did I mention?” Yori smiled. “Drunken Duck sometimes gets confused about attack and defense points. Even his own.”

The punk’s eyes widened as understanding dawned.

Yori’s duck spat its beer bottle at Mutant Mindmaster, and the robed alien cried out as the glass shattered against his chest. He vanished from the field.

The punk scowled. “You may have killed my monster, but it was still in defense mode, so at least—”

Yori pointed at her remaining facedown card, stopping him short. The residual color drained from his face. She activated the quick-play spell card Bleeding Out, causing him to lose lifepoints from an encounter where he normally wouldn’t.

The punk’s lifepoints scrolled down to 0.

And Yori won the duel.

Chapter Text

After the duel ended, Yori’s opponent looked away and clenched his fists, crushing the cards he still held in his hand. His entire frame trembled as he kept his eyes on the pavement.

Yori frowned. With his arrogance, she’d expected to hear threats after his defeat or some kind of raging outburst. Instead, he looked like he might be on the verge of tears. She’d had opponents break down crying before, but usually it was out of fear of retribution from their gang. The blue-haired kid across from her just looked sad, which made her skin crawl.

The punk tossed his crumpled cards at the gutter and glared at the crowd around them until they began to disperse, headed off to watch someone else get humiliated.

Yori busied herself with retrieving her holo-imagers and fixing her deck back in its holder. The punk made no move to do the same. He tugged at the front of his tank top, swayed in place. When most of the crowd had wandered off, he crossed the field to her, rifled through his cards, and produced two.

“Locator card and rarest card,” he said, extending them to her, still not meeting her eyes.

She accepted them wordlessly, at a loss of what to say.

Then a familiar voice spoke up. “It was an excellent duel.”

Yori nearly choked as the punk whipped around to reveal Yami standing right behind him.

“How long have you been here?” Yori demanded, unable to help a smile.

Yami gave a slightly impish shrug before focusing on her opponent. He extended the punk’s holo-imagers, which the boy took wordlessly. After they’d been snapped into the bottom of his Duel Disk, Yami extended his hand.

“May I inquire after your name?”

Like someone stuck in slow motion, the punk inched his hand toward Yami’s. After a firm handshake, he managed to force out, “Are you Yuugi Mutou? For real? The King of Games who beat Pegasus?”

Yami’s expression turned mysterious. “I did indeed beat Pegasus.”

The punk’s knees looked ready to give out. In a breathless voice, he said, “I’m, uh, Daichi Harada . . . sir.”

Now that he was standing next to her—and being a swooning fanboy—Yori realized that the kid couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen. His tough act had made him seem at least her age, which she was sure was half his intention. (The blue hair didn’t help either.) She also felt a flash of guilt that she had not only never asked his name but hadn’t cared about it at all. It was another effect from dueling only back-alley thugs who wanted nothing but trouble and almost always fought dirty.

Once again, dueling in a tournament was a difference of night and day.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Daichi,” Yami said.

Daichi’s expression brightened until he practically glowed. Yori coughed, heat burning in her neck and ears.

After a moment’s pause, Daichi’s eyes widened again. He glanced quickly between Yori and Yami.

“Oh, I get it.” He winced. “You’re the King of Games’ girl. No wonder you’re so good.”

Heat flooded the rest of Yori’s face. “Oh, I’m not—we’re just friends.”

She glanced at Yami for backup. After a second’s hesitation, he nodded, but he looked almost . . .

“That’s quite the collection of cards you’ve assembled,” Yami said, turning his eyes to Daichi’s belt.

Daichi beamed, resting both hands on the massively overstuffed pouches. “Every strong card I could find. I’ve been collecting for years. I was in the national tournament before this—sixth place.”

“That’s impressive. But would you allow me to impart some advice, one duelist to another?”

If the kid had died and gone to a land of real Duel Monsters, he probably couldn’t have looked any happier.

“Take all of your cards, build a forty-card deck, and leave the rest at home. Your other cards don’t exist until you’ve played at least twenty matches with your chosen deck. Do you understand?”

It didn’t seem to be the advice Daichi had expected. He looked ready to protest, even opening his mouth, but Yami’s intense gaze stopped him.

“Your Mutant Mindmaster could have won that final battle, did you know?”

Daichi’s eyes went wide as rice bowls. “How?”

Yami regarded him evenly. “Put together a deck, include Mutant Mindmaster, and you’ll find out.”

Daichi’s eyes shot to Yori, pouting like he’d been betrayed. She shrugged.

“Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about your cards. I just played mine the best I could.”

“In order to be a true duelist,” Yami continued, “the cards must become more than just cards to you—they must become partners. You have to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It takes time and attention, but only if you battle together can you win together.”

Daichi looked down at his card collection.

“Is that what you do?” he asked.

Yami gave a firm nod.

“Then”—Daichi swallowed, the fire back in his eyes—“that’s what I’ll do, too!”

Yami nodded again. Daichi hesitated, then bowed to both of them. When he walked away, his shoulders were squared with real pride rather than arrogance.

“That was amazing.” Yori turned to face Yami. “You totally changed him. How did you do that?”

He moved like he was about to reach for her hands but stopped just as abruptly.

“Well,” he said, sliding his hands into his pockets instead, “would you allow me to impart some advice, one duelist to another?”

She raised her eyebrows and waited.

“Every opponent is fighting for something, just as you are. There are so many corrupt duelists in existence, it’s important to recognize and honor the ones with a pure cause for standing on the field. When you do, they will see the same traits in you and return the same respect.”

Yori nodded, just as Daichi had done.

“I’m not used to dueling people who have any kind of honest cause,” she said.

Yami gave a somewhat-embarrassed chuckle. “To be honest, neither am I. That’s why it’s always encouraging to find the exceptions.”

“What about your duels so far? Exceptions?”

“Well, I haven’t had any knives thrown at me,” he said, the corners of his lips twitching, “but I’m only one match in.”

That teasing almost-smile sent her heart spinning.

“Hey,” she said, “however this tournament turns out, I think I’d like to join another one. How does your schedule look?”

Yami’s smile blossomed for real, lighting his vibrant eyes and stealing her breath. “Wide open.”

He passed on a message from Yuugi that she’d dueled “like a pro,” then said he wanted to see Joey’s progress. She watched his back until he disappeared into the crowd, only then managing to breathe again. A million thoughts battled for attention in her mind, and she didn’t have time for any of them, particularly the ones that wanted her to go after Yami and make more plans for the future.

She had time for only one thing: find the next opponent, win the next match.

After that, she didn’t know what was possible.

She looked down at the two cards still in her hand. She slipped the locator card into the back of her deck pouch. Daichi’s rarest card was called Transforming Avatar, a monster that could take the shape of another monster on the field; she cut it into her deck, promising silently to take good care of it. It was the least she could do.

Only then did she realize that he’d never actually given her the cash for their bet. She rolled her eyes and sighed. Her next opponent would just have to pay double.

Time to find a Ghoul.

++++++++++

Yami found Joey several blocks from where they’d started Battle City. He had apparently located the man who’d taken his Red-Eyes, but the progress stopped there.

“You fought dirty!” Joey shouted, facing a gangly man seated at a café table. The man’s pale hair hung in a ring around the back of his skull like wire legs to support the balding globe of his head. His wide-set, narrow eyes gave him a kind of leer even with his mouth fixed in a neutral expression. The dark Ghoul cape hung from his shoulders, pooling behind him on the chair.

“You’ve worried that bone to death,” the Ghoul said, pausing to sip a cup of tea. He wiped the back of a hand across his mouth, leaving a smirk in its wake. His eyes never left the laptop on the table before him.

“I ain’t leavin’ without my Red-Eyes!”

The Ghoul chuckled, setting his teacup aside. “Make yourself comfortable, then.”

The man was toying with Joey rather than honoring his challenge as a duelist should. Joey’s face burned bright red as his fists trembled at his sides. He wouldn’t strike, Yami knew, and the man would continue to prod him in circles for his own entertainment.

“Turning down an honest challenge,” Yami said, stepping forward, “shows you’re unworthy of it. Nevertheless, I’ll issue another.”

The Ghoul’s eyes lifted for the first time, narrowing on Yami. Joey’s widened in surprise.

“Yuugi Mutou,” Yami said, addressing the Ghoul.

The Ghoul chuckled. “So you see my purpose here.”

He typed the name into the laptop, no doubt accessing the tournament registration files. Yami moved to stand at Joey’s side.

“Dark Magician,” the Ghoul murmured, sipping his tea again. “Not the rarest, but a favorite for collectors. And my master has a taste for your blood.”

“Yuug’,” Joey hissed urgently. “You can’t fight this guy.”

“If I win,” Yami said, eyes still on the Ghoul, “you must return Joey’s Red-Eyes Black Dragon. And I should like an introduction to your master.”

The Ghoul flashed a predatory grin. “I accept.”

“No way!” Joey moved to place himself in front of Yami as the Ghoul stood. “Yuug’, I ain’t lettin’ you risk your Dark Magician on this. I lost Red-Eyes as my own stupid fault. You’ve got bigger—”

Yami smiled, reaching out to nudge him aside. “I came with the intent to support you, Joey. This is my choice.” He hesitated, then added, “As a friend.”

Joey stared down at him, brow creased and jaw slack. Something unspoken warred in his expression, but just as he opened his mouth, the Ghoul spoke up.

“Off the playing field, dog.” He gripped the edge of his cape and whipped it off his shoulders, dropping it in a heap across his chair. “And if you breathe a word of my strategy to your friend, I’ll shred your dragon and leave you with the pieces.”

Yami’s eyes narrowed. “Tread carefully, Ghoul.”

The Ghoul merely sneered.

Joey clenched his jaw as fire flared in his eyes.

“It’s alright, Joey,” Yami said, shuffling his cards. “My deck can overcome any strategy he may use.”

He snapped his deck into place, and the lifepoint counter on his Duel Disk glowed to life at 4000. Joey looked away, finally stepping to the side to allow Yami clear access to his opponent.

The Ghoul prepped his own deck, the harsh sunlight cutting his face into sallow angles. They extended their arms, sending holo-imagers out to either edge of their sidewalk playing field.

“Let’s duel!” Yami said.

“I’ll go first.” The Ghoul drew his five cards, adding a sixth for the start of his turn. “Spell card: Graceful Charity.”

He drew three more cards, examined them, and discarded two. He then summoned Gear Golem the Moving Fortress [800/2200] in defense mode before ending his turn.

“You went through a lot of cards just to end up with a wall monster,” Yami said. “Waiting for something in particular?”

“Speculate all you want. You’ll never defeat me.”

Gear Golem had a special effect if played in attack mode, but the Ghoul had made no move to do so or even to threaten it for the future. Perhaps he’d simply put the card in his deck because it was rare without even knowing its full potential. Yami would expect nothing less from a thug who disregarded soul for the sake of monetary value.

Over the course of Duelist Kingdom and after, Yami had watched the painstaking care Joey took while compiling his deck. He joked about gathering “shiny rare cards,” but at the end of the day, each of his cards had a place in his deck because it meant something to him, even if there were a thousand copies available.

And this Ghoul had cut the heart out of it with callous intent.

“My, what a fierce scowl,” the Ghoul said, chuckling. “Have you given up already?”

“On the contrary.” Yami drew his card. “I will crush you.”

++++++++++

Joey wished he could say Battle City was off to a good start. After leaving Yuugi’s party the night before, he’d gone to the hospital to visit Serenity again, who was almost finished with her recovery.

His mom had met him at the door with her usual cold eyes and cold greeting, but this time there was more. She’d heard about his plans to compete in a tournament. She’d heard him filling Serenity’s mind with thoughts of gambling and violence. She’d heard Serenity say she wanted the first thing she saw when she took her bandages off to be Joey fighting.

“I can’t stop you from following Elliot’s path,” his mom said, “but I can stop you from dragging Serenity down with you.”

Joey tried every argument—the tournament was safe, it was just a card game, he was nothing like his dad, he wasn’t gambling, she could come with Serenity to make sure, and on and on. He and his mom exchanged more words in ten minutes than they’d done in ten years.

But in the end, the result was no surprise. His mom didn’t hear a thing he said, and her answer didn’t change. Serenity wasn’t allowed to see him in the tournament. She and his mom would be flying back to America the day after Battle City. Then things would go back to how they were before, with Serenity free from his corrupting influence.

And Joey had never wanted to hit someone as bad as he wanted to hit his mom that night.

But he didn’t.

After that, he barely managed to get any sleep. Finally, around dawn, he sat up and went through his deck for the hundredth time. Without Red-Eyes, he had only one card of any rarity worth noting, a monster called Time Wizard that had been a gift from Yuugi for his very first deck. He didn’t want to lose Time Wizard, too, and his tired mind couldn’t remember why the tournament had seemed so important to begin with. So what if they ran out of money? It wasn’t Joey’s responsibility, and if the cops tried to send him to America with his mom, he’d live on the street first. He’d eat out of a dumpster before he’d sit across a breakfast table from her every single morning listening to her count his flaws while making up extra ones, too.

He almost gave it all up, sitting there at his window with only the sunrise to light his cards. But his friends were waiting for him, and he’d already made them worry by disappearing once, so when the time came, he strapped on his Duel Disk and headed for the door.

Only to be stopped in the front room by his dad.

Joey’s luck was on an unparalleled losing streak. His dad was always passed out in the mornings—always—except that rotten morning when, for some reason, he was awake and staring at a deck of face cards on the folding table.

The man’s sunken eyes landed on Joey’s Duel Disk, which Joey had carefully kept hidden up to that point. Joey wondered if he could make it to the door before his dad wrestled it away from him and sold it, just as he’d done to everything else they’d ever owned worth mentioning.

“Game tournament in town,” his dad grunted. “You better not be gamblin’, boy.”

Joey snorted. “That’s rich comin’ from you, old man.”

The man’s shoulders were slumped, his whole frame sagging in his chair. He probably had a hangover dragging him halfway to the grave. Since he hadn’t made a move for the Duel Disk, Joey wasn’t afraid of any retribution for his attitude.

“A man’s mistakes,” his dad said, pressing his hand down on the playing cards, “are his own responsibility.”

There was that business magazine wisdom again. Joey scowled. “Your pachinko machine spit out that fortune cookie, or’d you find it at the bottom of a bottle?”

“Damn that tongue.” His dad jerked his hand off the table, sprayed the red cards across the stained carpet. “It’s just like Sonomi’s.”

That was all his parents saw when they looked at Joey: each other.

“You’re the one who had a kid with her,” Joey snapped. “And I ain’t cleanin’ those cards up. I’ll be in the tournament all day. Maybe tomorrow, too, if I make the finals.”

His dad laughed, a harsh, slurred sound that ended in a cough.

“Think you’re good enough?” His eyes bored into Joey’s, made him feel small.

Joey squared his shoulders anyway. “One way to find out, ain’t there?”

“Then get lost already.”

“Gladly.”

Joey slammed the door behind himself. He dragged in a few deep breaths, restrained himself from punching the metal railing (because he’d broken a knuckle the last time he’d tried that), and shoved his hands in his pockets.

By the time he met his friends under the clock tower, he managed a smile and a carefree voice, but the pressure was building at the back of his skull, ready to explode. All he wanted was to release it in a duel, but even when he found the thug who’d taken his Red-Eyes, the Ghoul just sipped his tea and clicked around on his laptop until Joey wanted to take the laptop and close it over the guy’s head.

Then Yuugi stepped in, and Joey had a new problem: His best friend was fighting for something important in the tournament, but he’d had to take time away from it to sort out Joey’s issues.

No matter where Joey turned, he was in the way. He was dragging down the people around him.

And he hadn’t been able to warn Yuugi, but the Ghoul had a very specific strategy—he had not one but three full copies of Exodia in his deck. That was fifteen cards out of forty. In the duel against Joey, it hadn’t taken him a full four turns before he’d been able to assemble the five pieces of Exodia to declare an automatic win. Joey had been distracted by trying to destroy the guy’s strong defensive monsters, so he hadn’t realized what was happening in the Ghoul’s hand until it was already over.

The same trap Yuugi was now caught in.

“My chimera attacks!” Yuugi shouted. His fusion monster leapt forward and chomped both heads down on the Ghoul’s Stone Soldier, blasting the monster apart. The Ghoul still had another monster in defense, Gear Golem, and Yuugi only had one monster on the field, so he was unable to attack again. He’d taken two turns to create the fusion monster Chimera the Flying Mythical Beast [2100/1800], and during that time, the Ghoul had done everything possible to add cards to his hand.

How many pieces of Exodia did he have already? Three? Four? There might only be one turn left until he drew the final piece and Yuugi lost the card he loved most and Joey was to blame.

Even if it cost him the permanent loss of his Red-Eyes, Joey had reached his limit on silence.

“Yuugi, listen!” he burst out. “It ain’t about what’s on the field. It’s about—”

“Joey!” Yuugi cut him off sternly, his eyes piercing. “What are you thinking?”

The Ghoul also looked his way, snarling, “I think it’s about time you laid down and played dead.”

“Shut yer trap!” Joey snapped.

“Joey.” This time Yuugi’s voice was softer at the edges. “I appreciate the concern. But do you remember on the way to Duelist Kingdom when you jumped off the ship?”

Joey frowned.

“’Course I do,” he murmured.

There had been a kid named Haga who’d pretended to be nice to Yuugi. Yuugi’d had his own copy of Exodia back then—the one he’d used to beat Rich-boy the first time—and Haga had talked Yuugi into letting him hold the cards. Then he’d tossed them overboard and laughed. Just remembering Yuugi’s stricken expression was enough to make Joey want to find Haga again and string him up a tree by his green shoelaces.

“No one else in the world,” Yuugi said, “would have dived into the ocean after my cards. Not even me. Why did you?”

“Because we’re friends, Yuug’!” Joey burst out. “I couldn’t let him—”

Yuugi gave him a pointed stare, slowly raising both eyebrows. Joey fell silent, the tips of his ears burning.

“We are friends, Joey.” Yuugi smiled. “And I’m not doing anything quite so reckless as leaping off a cruise liner after your stolen card.”

The pressure in the back of Joey’s skull eased, replaced by a different kind of pressure behind his eyes.

“Besides,” Yuugi added, smile turning to a smirk, “I already know my opponent is trying to summon Exodia.”

Joey’s jaw nearly hit the ground, as did the Ghoul’s.

Yuugi laughed, though the sound wasn’t amused. “What, Ghoul? Did you think your strategy wasn’t transparent—the way you’ve done nothing but cower in defense and shuffle cards through your hand as quickly as you can?”

“Even if you’ve realized,” the Ghoul snarled, “it’s too late! You’ll never stop me from claiming the final piece.”

“Nice to know you have four already,” Yuugi said. “Although I’d guessed that as well.”

The Ghoul cursed while Joey laughed, feeling lighter than he had since before Battle City started.

“I promised at the start of our duel to crush you.” Yuugi held up two cards, backs facing the Ghoul. “These two cards are the fulfillment of that promise.”

He placed both cards facedown. The Ghoul stared at the field, forehead dotted with sweat.

“What’s the matter?” Yuugi taunted. “If you truly believe I can’t stop you from claiming the final piece of Exodia, you should have no fear in moving forward.”

Joey shook his head in wonder at his best friend. He was so in control, so confident. Even the way he stood—back straight, shoulders braced, chin forward—said he owned the field. It wasn’t arrogance; it was power. Joey could think of no other way to describe it: real, awe-inspiring power.

And it made him realize two things.

First, he wanted that power for himself. He wanted to believe in his skills and his worth and his motivation so strongly that he could stare down any opponent like that, no matter how terrifying their strategy, no matter how dirty their tactics.

Second, Yuugi wasn’t Yuugi.

The second realization was so abrupt and so ridiculous he almost laughed at himself, but it was nevertheless true, and as soon as he realized it, he could see it—how the blonde of his fringe was nearly gold and the red edging on his spikes was brighter, how he stood taller than he should have, how his face lacked the baby curves. Not-Yuugi was a completely different person, and Joey knew the only possibility; it was the thing Yuugi had been trying to tell him since Duelist Kingdom.

“Kick his trash, Pharaoh,” Joey said.

The pharaoh’s eyes shot wide open, and he blinked several times, shoulders hunched like he’d been caught in a crime. Then he slowly relaxed and gave Joey a thumbs-up, which Joey was happy to return.

“My turn is over,” the pharaoh said, turning his attention back to the Ghoul. “Time for your final move.”

“Your bluff doesn’t scare me!” the Ghoul snapped.

But when he moved to draw a card, his draw phase triggered the pharaoh’s facedown trap card, Lightforce Sword, which pierced one of the cards in his hand, revealing it on the field. It was Exodia’s right arm. As soon as it touched the field, it triggered the pharaoh’s second trap card, Chain Destruction, which destroyed that card along with every identical card in the Ghoul’s deck.

Without all five pieces of Exodia, the Ghoul couldn’t summon it, and he couldn’t win. He surrendered.

When the Ghoul fell to his knees, Joey cheered.

The pharaoh deactivated his Duel Disk before tucking his deck back into its holder on his belt. He strode across the field to the fallen Ghoul and retrieved the man’s deck. The man did nothing but stare at the ground, muttering something unintelligible to himself.

“Joey,” the pharaoh called out, glancing over his shoulder briefly as he flipped through the Ghoul’s cards. Joey hurried over as the pharaoh extended a card to him. “Here’s your Red-Eyes, as promised.”

Before Joey could react, the Ghoul leapt to his feet, clutching his head while screaming a wordless expression of terror. Joey spasmed in response and stumbled backward, almost tripping over his own feet. The pharaoh also withdrew a few paces, eyes locked on the man before them.

As a golden light shimmered to life around the tattoo on his forehead, the Ghoul’s scream fell away. The man devolved instead into low, bubbling chuckles.

“Well done, Pharaoh.” He tilted his head back, regarding the pharaoh with half-lidded eyes. His irises were glazed over and unfocused, like he was blind. “This was one of my weakest Ghouls, but still, what a solid victory.”

“Master of the Ghouls, I presume,” the pharaoh said. His voice was cold and his gaze intense, a stark contrast to the Ghoul.

The man’s arms slapped together like limp noodles trying to clap. His head lolled to one side, then the other, before a lazy, detached grin broke out over his features.

“Yes, I am the Puppet Master,” he drawled. “The Reformed Tombkeeper. The Fate-Changer. I am the wielder of the Millennium Rod.”

Yami’s eyes narrowed further. “Your name?”

The Ghoul’s grin widened. He drew in a breath and held it, as if savoring it, then exhaled in a hiss, “Marik.”

“And what have you done to this man, Marik?”

“Admiring my work?” The Ghoul wriggled to the side like a snake. He spun in a full circle, arms flopping as if they lacked their bones.

“Man, cut it out!” Joey shouted. “That’s beyond creepy!”

The man’s face twisted in a sneer, but he straightened into an almost-normal posture. He was still a bit hunched and sagging, like a marionette held up by only half its strings.

“I’m afraid you wore this toy out,” he said, wagging his arms up and down, hands bouncing limply at the wrists. His sneer softened into something like a pout. “Now I’ll need to find a new one.”

His eyes swiveled toward Joey, causing the blonde to yelp and jump back a step. The fact that they were now focused made it even worse.

“Every Millennium Item has its ability,” he said, though his eyes remained on Joey. “The Millennium Rod has a powerful influence on the human mind. The weaker the mind, the stronger the influence.”

Joey inched closer to the pharaoh. “What’s goin’ on here, pal?”

But the response was less than helpful: “I’m not certain. I only know this man has sought me out for a purpose.”

The Ghoul threw back his head to laugh, high and piercing. Chills broke out over Joey’s skin.

“That’s rich,” the Ghoul said, still lost in chuckles. “Pretending you’re unaware of the source of our conflict. It was your will that began this, Pharaoh, and it shall be my will that ends it. When we meet again, I shall be prettier and more familiar. Keep your eyes on the sky, fixed on the dancing cloud, and perhaps you’ll spot me in time. I look forward to it.”

The glow on the Ghoul’s forehead vanished, and he crashed to the ground in a heap.

Joey stared down at him, skin crawling like he’d been coated in invisible spiders. After a few moments of no sound or movement, he reached out to poke the Ghoul’s arm with his toe. Then he jumped back, expected the man to lunge forward like a zombie. But the man gave no response.

“Alright,” Joey said slowly, “I am most definitely havin’ nightmares. What just happened?”

When he turned to face the pharaoh, he was surprised to see his face twisted like he was in pain. Not like broke-my-arm pain, but like hole-in-my-heart pain. It reminded Joey of the day he’d lost Serenity.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked.

The pharaoh shook his head.

“There are some games I don’t enjoy,” he said simply.

He and Yuugi got sucked into a lot of those games, it seemed.

“Sorry for gettin’ you mixed up in all my problems on top of the rest of this.”

The pharaoh’s shoulders relaxed. “Your problems are my problems, Joey. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“That’s Yuugi rubbin’ off on you, ain’t it?” Joey grinned. Yuugi said stuff like that all the time—about the meaning of friendship. But it was a good reminder. More seriously, Joey added, “Thanks for comin’ when you did. I was lost before things even started.”

The pharaoh smiled.

“Where is Yuug’?” Joey added.

He lifted the puzzle around his neck.

So Yuugi was haunted by a spirit who lived in a necklace, and when the spirit was out, Yuugi lived in the necklace. Joey still thought it wasn’t as strange as Pegasus replacing his own eye with a fake one that read minds, so he nodded sagely.

“How did you come to accept that I was not Yuugi?”

Joey shrugged. “I just realized, that’s all. I mean, now that I look, I can’t believe I never saw it sooner.”

The pharaoh gripped the chain of the puzzle. “Yuugi and I believe the puzzle acts as a sort of shield for me, making me appear more like Yuugi unless someone has a determined heart to see the truth.”

“Well, I see it now, Pharaoh.”

“I’m glad.” The barest hint of color rose in his face. “But please, Yami is fine.”

“You got the title of a king, and you just want a plain old name?”

“Whatever I once was, I no longer am,” he said. “Now it’s just Yami.”

“Alright, man, suit yourself.”

Yami extended Red-Eyes once more. “This is yours.”

Joey took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Carefully, deliberately, he slid both hands into his pockets and took a step back.

“I can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “And I need a favor.”

Yami raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

“I can’t explain it all.” Joey grimaced. There were too many years of history to sum up in a moment. “But watchin’ you duel just now, I realized I’m weak. I got things I gotta fix. So if you’re willin’, I need you to hold on to Red-Eyes for me, and at the end of this tournament, I’ll face you to win him back.”

Yami stared at him, a strange light in his eyes that Joey kind of hoped was respect. Then he extended his hand. Joey shook it firmly.

“Deal,” Yami agreed. “I’ll keep your Red-Eyes safe until then.”

Joey grinned. “You better, or I’ll kick your pharaoh butt.”

Yami chuckled, releasing his hand. “I look forward to our battle. Until then, Joey.”

Joey nodded. He turned to leave, almost tripping over the still-unconscious Ghoul. There weren’t many people around, but they’d certainly been watching when the guy went freaky, so he hoped one of them had called a hospital. If not, there was nothing Joey could do, and he didn’t want to be there when the creeper woke up.

It worried Joey that someone like Marik was going after Yuugi, but Yuugi had never had a problem beating psycho people in the past: Pegasus, Rich-boy, etc. He would be fine. And he had the pharaoh—the guy who held himself like a king and battled with real power.

Yeah, Yuugi would be just fine. In the meantime, Joey had a promise to keep.

Chapter Text

Seto had already tested his god out in a practice duel to be sure the system could handle a card of such immense power. It put a taxing load on the holo-imagers for sure, but they’d held up. He’d made slight alterations to his deck to include strategies for summoning Obelisk to the field faster, and now he was ready to test it out on a real opponent.

The problem was finding one. More third-rate lowlifes had snuck into his tournament than he had expected, all of whom went scampering when faced with Seto Kaiba himself. It had put a permanent scowl on Seto’s face. He was half-tempted to seek Yuugi out just for the sake of finding a worthy opponent—but he wanted to savor that battle, and he wanted to see Obelisk in action at least once before using it to destroy his long-standing rival.

Shouting from a nearby alleyway caught his attention.

Seto lurked at the alley’s entrance, peering around the corner to gauge the situation. A blonde man had his fists balled in a second man’s shirt, pinning him to the wall.

“Your ‘rare card’ isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on!” the blonde spat, slamming the second man’s shoulders into the rough brick. “Either you give me something better or I’m taking your whole deck!”

The second man’s face crumpled in fear. He held a card between them like a pathetic barrier.

“This is all I have,” he panted. The skin around his left eye had begun to darken into the first stages of a bruise. “Please—you agreed to my Cyber Jar before we dueled!”

Seto’s hand tightened around his briefcase. If there was anything he hated more than an amateur, it was a bully.

“Well, I changed my mind!” the blonde man sneered. “And since I won, you have to do what I say—and I say I want your whole deck!”

Just as Seto started to move, a shrill whistle pierced the air. Mokuba came charging in from the alley’s opposite entrance and jabbed a finger at the blonde man.

“Violation!” he shouted, red as a beet.

Seto cursed to himself, ducking out of sight again. He touched the radio in his collar.

“Roland, why isn’t Mokuba at headquarters with you?” he snapped.

“I was just about to alert you, Mr. Kaiba,” came the response. “Shortly after you left, he said he wasn’t feeling well. I went to check on him just now—”

“I get the picture,” Seto growled. He shook his head.

In the alley, the blonde man stared Mokuba down with a scowl fit to kill. “Beat it, kid, or you’re next.”

“Section C of the Battle City rulebook has the guidelines for treatment of opponents,” Mokuba said, standing firm even though his voice cracked. “Harassment, violence, and seizure of any property beyond the locator card and registered ante are violations of the official tournament rules. If you don’t follow the rules, you don’t get to stay in the tournament.”

The blonde released the man he’d been attacking, turning his full attention on Mokuba. A vein pulsed in his temple. “Just who do you think you are, kid?”

Mokuba puffed his chest out. “I’m Mokuba Kaiba, Seto Kaiba’s brother and co-organizer of the Battle City tournament.”

“Well, I say you’re a troublesome brat who needs a lesson in respect.”

No sooner had the words left the man’s mouth than Seto was towering at his back. The blonde turned and practically melted under the heat of Seto’s glare. He shrank toward the wall like the worm he was.

“Kaiba—” he choked out.

“Seto!” Mokuba cried, grinning.

“Any insult to my brother,” Seto said, his words measured and slow, “is a direct insult to me, my company, and my tournament. Since you were so quick to turn out the words, I assume you’ll be just as quick to accept the consequences.”

While the blonde struggled for words, Seto crouched down and opened his briefcase, turning the contents toward the man. Each pocket in the velvet liner had been filled with rare cards. The man’s eyes bugged out at the sight.

“Choose any of these you like,” Seto ordered. “Build a new forty-card deck. Then face me in a duel.”

The man stared at the cards with obvious greed, then turned wary eyes on Seto.

“If I lose, I’m out of the tournament. But if I win . . . ?”

Seto snorted. “If you manage to win, you can keep the entire briefcase.”

Like he would ever lose to a man who insulted his brother.

The blonde fell on the cards like a wild dog at a slaughterhouse, gathering monsters faster than he could read the descriptions. When he’d chosen his deck, Seto snapped the briefcase closed before handing it off to Mokuba.

“You’re gonna regret this,” the blonde sneered, activating his Duel Disk. “I’m gonna beat you with your own cards, and then they’ll be mine forever.”

Seto refused to grace that display of idiocy with a response; he simply narrowed his eyes.

The blonde normal-summoned a rare dragon with 1900 attack points, a useless barrier before the flood that was about to destroy his world.

Then it was Seto’s turn.

First, he used his normal summon to bring a low-level monster to the field. Its effect allowed him to add a second directly from his hand as a special summon. Then he activated a spell card that took control of his opponent’s monster for a single turn.

He could have directly attacked the player right then. The three monsters’ combined attack powers added up to more than the blonde’s lifepoints—which, judging from the undisguised horror on the man’s face, he knew all too well.

But Seto didn’t want a simple defeat. He wanted the man to come away broken, knowing full well the extent of the power he had dared to disrespect.

So Seto played Star-Crossed Sacrifice, a spell card that allowed him to discard up to two monsters from his hand and pull a monster from his deck with the combined number of stars. He discarded two five-star monsters. Once upon a time, such a move would have been useless; even Seto’s Blue-Eyes White Dragon, the strongest normal monster in the entire game, had only eight stars.

But that was before Seto wielded a god.

He transferred his god card to his hand. Then he sacrificed the three monsters to tribute-summon his ten-star Obelisk, the Great War God [4000/4000].

As his card materialized on the field, blue electricity rebounded from the alley walls and set the sky ablaze. Wind tore through the narrow space, whipping Seto’s trench coat against his legs. Behind him came the silence of a rising god; he could feel the unimaginable power in the very air he breathed.

The blonde man stumbled backward and crashed to the ground, his mouth open in a cry of terror. The second man took off running, hands over his head as if they offered protection. Mokuba pressed himself against the alley wall, white visible all the way around his irises as he stared up at the summoned god. Seto tilted his head to look over his shoulder.

The muscled monster stood at least fifty feet high, towering above the buildings on either side of the alley, hands curled around the edges of the two rooftops, piercing red eyes fixed on Seto’s opponent. The sight would have brought entire armies to their knees.

Seto turned back to the blonde, raising a hand. Obelisk needed no further invitation. With a roar that shook the earth, the god brought his fist crashing down on the man, demolishing his lifepoints and ending the duel in a single blow. The man gave a scream of pure terror as Obelisk attacked, then fell ominously silent.

When the Duel Disks deactivated and Obelisk vanished, the man lay sprawled on the ground, completely unconscious.

Seto looked down at his hand, surprised to see minuscule tremors in his fingers.

“Seto . . .” Mokuba sank to the ground, hugging the metal briefcase. His eyes were still wide in wonder.

Seto raised an eyebrow. “Wanna duel me next?”

Color shot through Mokuba’s face as he shook his head vigorously. “Not funny, bro!”

But Seto laughed anyway. He clenched both fists, drew in a deep breath, and released it. The power of a god was his. There was no duelist he couldn’t defeat now. Not Yuugi. Not the leader of the Ghouls with his remaining two god cards.

Unfortunately, before he could move on to his next match, he had a problem to deal with.

Seto narrowed his eyes on his baby brother. “You lied to Roland.”

The color in Mokuba’s face darkened, and he stuck his bottom lip out. “I didn’t lie, really, I just—”

Seto’s glare didn’t let that thought go any further.

“I’m sorry,” Mokuba muttered.

“I’m not interested in apologies,” Seto said. “Especially ones you don’t mean.”

Mokuba hugged the briefcase tighter, looking away. Seto crossed the field to his collapsed opponent and retrieved his first locator card of Battle City as well as his collection of rare cards the man had used.

“Yuugi was dueling another Ghoul,” Mokuba said.

Seto snorted. “Wish he’d send some of that luck my way.”

“And the second Ghoul was using fake cards, too!”

“And?” Seto raised an eyebrow.

Mokuba’s pout returned. “And I don’t understand why you’re just letting people cheat in our tournament, but if you won’t do something about it, I will!”

A headache pulsed to life in the back of Seto’s skull. But at the same time, he couldn’t expect Mokuba to be as ruthless as he was. One Seto Kaiba in the world was already too much sometimes.

“You know what I think you should do?” Seto said.

“Go back to headquarters. I know.”

“I think you should help me find my next opponent.”

Mokuba shot to his feet so fast, he tripped over the briefcase. Seto rolled his eyes.

“You mean I can stay?” The boy’s face fell a moment later. “But you’re still not gonna do anything about the cheaters?”

Seto gestured at the briefcase. “My laptop is under the liner.”

Mokuba frowned and popped the briefcase open. He handed Seto the laptop, and Seto moved to the end of the alley, where he could prop the machine on the staircase of someone’s fire escape. He managed to work in silence for about five minutes before Mokuba was standing on tiptoe at his elbow, peeking at the screen.

“You’re sending a message out to all the Duel Disks?”

“Just the Ghouls’,” Seto said.

The Duel Disk’s LED display was fairly limited. Most of the time it only showed a lifepoint counter, but depending on card effects, it had also been programmed to show things like “draw two,” or “shuffle.” For the tournament, Seto had included a special feature for emergency warnings.

That was what he activated now. As soon as he finished, each Ghoul’s Duel Disk would flash with a warning of fake cards. The Duel Disk couldn’t do any more than that on its own, but it would be enough to make all of them take heed, and a little spooking could go a long way on someone spineless.

Seto finished his work and closed his laptop.

“Happy now?” he said.

Mokuba grinned. “It’s a start!”

Seto shook his head, but the corner of his lips twitched. Somehow, Mokuba always managed to get his way. Maybe it meant he was spoiled; maybe it meant Seto was a poor guardian.

Or maybe it meant Mokuba was the one thing holding Seto back from some dangerous edges.

“Am I now free to find my next opponent in peace?” Seto asked.

“You’re the one being slow about it!” Mokuba tucked the laptop back into its place. He hauled the briefcase forward—despite the fact that it was half his size—and headed for the street.

“Just one more duel,” Seto said. “Then I need you back at headquarters.”

“Two more duels!” Mokuba chirped.

And Seto was already certain Mokuba would get his way.

++++++++++

Ryou could tell his opponent didn’t think much of him. It wasn’t due to any impressive powers of deduction on his part, more due to the girl announcing it every turn.

“Look at him over there!” she crowed to the four watchers as if they were a stadium crowd. “Shaking in his boots, playing scary monsters to make up for how wimpy he is!”

“I’ll summon the Headless Knight [1450/1700] in defense mode,” Ryou said.

His knight appeared on the field, kneeling, shield braced before him.

“And I’ll add—”

“You’re terrible at this,” a new voice drawled.

Ryou gave a small start as the spirit of the ring appeared at his side.

“He’s scared of his own cards!” The girl howled with laughter. One of the watchers gave a weak chuckle. Another wandered off, presumably to find a more exciting match.

“Go away,” Ryou hissed under his breath.

The spirit smirked. “I think not. I haven’t got anything else to do today, so I thought I might help you win.”

“I’ll also play—” Ryou started again.

“Don’t!” the spirit snapped. “Why would you add a facedown card when you need her to destroy your monster?”

“Just end your turn already,” the girl said. “You obviously don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Oh, that’s good,” the spirit said. “She’s underestimating you. Make that stupid wounded-dog face you make.”

Ryou frowned.

“Yeah, that one.”

“I end my turn,” Ryou said.

The girl sacrificed her Abyss Soldier [1800/1300] to summon Sea Dragon Plesion [2300/1800]. The looming monster raised its long neck above Ryou, staring down at him from beady, cold eyes. Then, under a command from the girl, it bit down on his Headless Knight and sent it sailing through the air until it vanished.

“So much for your wall monster!” The girl made a come-at-me gesture. “Why don’t you grow a spine and try attacking?!”

“This is perfect,” the spirit said. “Set your next monster in attack mode, and she won’t hesitate. That will be your third fiend in the graveyard, right?”

Ryou clenched his jaw and both fists, trying very hard to breathe calmly.

“Will you please leave so I can focus?” he whispered.

“It’s your turn. Just do as I say, and you’ll get your first win.”

“I have a win already!” Ryou hissed. “This is my second match.”

The girl shrieked with laughter again. “Are you talking to yourself?!”

“Really?” The spirit blinked. “That’s not as useless as I’d expected.”

Ryou scowled. He drew a card before summoning Winged Minion [700/700] in defense mode.

To his surprise, the spirit shrugged. “Fine, then. Show me what you’re made of.”

He moved a few paces away, then lounged on thin air, arms folded behind his head, legs kicked forward and crossed at the ankles, not even touching the pavement.

And somehow, that put even more pressure on Ryou than his coaching had.

“I end my turn,” he said.

“You’re literally the worst opponent I’ve ever had,” the girl said as she destroyed his monster.

“Guess that means you’ve only ever fought Yuugi,” Ryou said, smiling to himself. Not a second after, a bit of color touched his cheeks; the appraisal of his own skills may have been a bit high. At the very least, it was slightly pig-headed to make such an evaluation out loud.

He cleared his throat and pressed on with his next turn. With three fiends in the graveyard, he was free to summon Dark Necrofear [2200/2800] in attack mode.

“I seriously can’t believe anyone in Battle City is this bad!” The girl cackled as she sent her sea dragon to destroy his monster.

It was the last taunt she made. Ryou activated his Dark Sanctuary combination, and between Dark Necrofear’s ghost and his Earl of Demise, he bled her lifepoints dry over the next three turns.

After her loss, she kept screaming that he’d cheated.

“Let me take over.” The spirit rested his elbow on Ryou’s shoulder, smirking across the field. “I’ll stop her protests.”

Ryou’s stomach flipped. “I’m not letting you cut someone’s tongue out.”

The spirit rolled his eyes. “I could have used another method. You’re so morbid.”

“Give it up, lady,” one of the watchers said. “That young man won fair and square.”

The girl finally surrendered her locator card. Ryou told her to keep her rarest card since it was a water type he had no interest in.

“Thank you for the fantastic duel,” he said.

“Stop being so fluffy.” The spirit imitated gagging. “You’re like a walking basket of kittens.”

The girl slunk away while Ryou re-situated his Duel Disk and deck.

“Second win,” he said pointedly to the spirit, showing off his three locator cards.

“Don’t try to brag when you’re so fluffy.” But after a beat, the spirit smirked and added, “I suppose you weren’t a complete embarrassment.”

“What’s your name?” Ryou asked. He nearly slapped a hand over his mouth; the question had simply burst from him without permission. As if he was in a friendly conversation. As if the spirit was a polite stranger on the street instead of a malicious ghost who’d taken over his life without his permission.

The spirit scowled. “Does it matter?”

Ryou considered that for a minute. He swallowed.

“Yes, it does.”

“If I tell you, I get to take over for one duel.”

Ryou rubbed his chest. He could feel the ring through his shirt.

And when the daggers shifted, he could also feel the scars across his abs.

He shook his head.

The spirit snorted. “Then it’s none of your business.”

And he was gone again.

Ryou sighed. Ever since he’d first put on the ring, his life seemed to hit new twists and bumps every day.

At least he couldn’t say it was boring.

He tucked the three locator cards into his pocket, glancing up and down the street. He thought it was high time for a break, and there was a bakery in the area that made the best cream puffs.

++++++++++

Joey scoured the streets for an opponent who could help him learn to stand with confidence. There were plenty of no-skills-and-no-experience guys around, but he wasn’t interested in small potatoes. If he was going to learn anything, he needed a real challenge. A big potato.

He was also surprised at how many people he saw leaving already. He even spotted a Duel Disk in a sidewalk trash can. Of course, he couldn’t really point fingers considering the only reason he’d made it to the tournament at all was because of his friends.

Just up the street from the arcade, he spotted a huge gathering of people. As he got closer, he could hear chatter about “special powers” and “unbeatable.”

Joey liked the sound of that.

He broke into the crowd with a grin, wiggling through gaps until he could see the two players. One of them was a stranger, but he’d know the second guy’s ugly mug anywhere.

“Dinosaur Ryuzaki!” he gasped out.

The woman standing next to him cast him a sideways glance.

“Hope you’re not a fan of his,” she said, “because he’s getting crushed. Esper Roba’s been winning this thing from the start.”

“Yeah,” another guy agreed, staring out at the field in seeming awe. “That guy can read his opponent’s cards with his mind. He’s got power.”

Power. Joey’s skin tingled with excitement.

Just then, Ryuzaki’s opponent—what had the chick called him? Robed something?—cast the final blow, draining Ryuzaki’s lifepoints to 0. Ryuzaki collapsed to his knees with a moan.

Dinosaur Ryuzaki was the original owner of Joey’s Red-Eyes Black Dragon. Joey had won it from him during Duelist Kingdom in the first duel he ever fought without any assistance from Yuugi. Seeing him again after just giving Red-Eyes up—that was something called fate.

“Hmm.” Ryuzaki’s opponent examined the rare card he’d been handed. “Your little dinosaur’s not bad, but it really won’t fit in with my psychic deck. I suppose I’ll just have to find another use for it. Perhaps as a drink coaster.”

Ryuzaki scowled and turned away.

The winner turned to face the crowd, scanning the gathered faces. “Now, who will be my next opponent? Who dares face the power of the cosmos?”

Everyone on the front row shrank back, but Joey stood firm.

“You, there!” The duelist jabbed a finger in Joey’s direction. “Do you think you’re strong enough to withstand my gifts?”

“Joey?!” Ryuzaki’s jaw dropped. “Get out of here! He’ll crush you.”

“He’s right, kid,” the man beside Joey hissed. “Esper Roba has never lost a duel. He’s unbeatable.”

Esper Roba. That was the guy’s name. And he might or might not have psychic powers. And he’d never lost a duel.

Joey had found a big potato.

He stepped forward, a determined grin stretched across his face.

“Joey Wheeler’s the name,” he said, holding up his deck. “And I accept your challenge. Let’s duel!”

Chapter Text

Yami couldn’t get Marik’s words from his mind; he recognized a riddle when he heard one. Marik’s indication that he would be “more familiar” when next they met seemed to paint Yami’s friends as targets, and “prettier” would indicate a girl.

The problem was “dancing cloud.” He initially thought the inclusion of the word “dancing” was to point to Anzu as the target, and he was halfway to a pay phone before he remembered—Dancing Cloud was the name of the studio he’d visited on his date with Yori.

So Anzu could be the target.

Or it could be Yori.

Either way, one thing was certain: it was also a specific location. And Marik had mentioned the sky.

So Yami made his way across the streets until he arrived at the Dancing Cloud studio. He found roof access for the building, climbing the stairs with dread turning his stomach cold.

It was Anzu on the roof.

And she smiled against the clear blue sky.

But it wasn’t Anzu’s smile.

++++++++++

Anzu kept looking at Marik. She couldn’t help it; she knew there was nothing strange about him, no reason he shouldn’t be standing next to her, yet her eyes just kept wandering back to that sandy hair and those pale eyes.

The sand dunes around them felt like home, and she wondered if she’d always been here.

“When did we meet?” she asked.

Marik smiled, warm as the summer sun. “Let’s talk about when you and Yuugi met. In fact, show me.”

Of course. Why hadn’t she thought of that?

As she pictured the day she’d met Yuugi, she could see it all again, as clear as the moment it happened. The sand melted away into the soft colors of her elementary school. She saw the rows of neat school shoes, smelled the onigiri the teacher had made, saw that head of tousled black hair sitting by himself in the corner with only a metal brain teaser for company.

“I asked him if he liked onigiri.” She smiled.

“You’ve known him longest?” Marik asked.

“Of all our friends,” she said.

“Good. Show me your other friends.”

She did. She saw Tristan and Joey again as bullies, saw them steal bentos, saw them trip kids in the hall. They bullied Yuugi, she got in the way, and the cycle repeated until the day Yuugi called them his friends, and everything changed.

She saw the day Ryou introduced himself to the class as a transfer student, saw his tired brown eyes and timid smile when Yuugi gave him a Monster World book.

“The Millennium Ring,” Marik said. “How interesting. Is it as dangerous as the prophecies say?”

Anzu thought of Duelist Kingdom, of Ryou’s sharp eyes as he locked everyone in the shadows while the pharaoh stood to face him alone.

“The pharaoh. What do you know of him?”

Anzu thought of the time she’d been kidnapped and blindfolded by a killer. She heard again the strong voice that came to save her, remembered the way she’d thought for just a moment that it was Yuugi, then realized it couldn’t be. She saw the pharaoh step confidently onto the Duelist Kingdom island and raise his deck against opponent after opponent.

She saw Kaiba standing on the edge of the Duel Castle tower, ready to jump if he lost. She saw the fire in the pharaoh’s eyes as he raised an arm and ordered a final attack, even knowing—and then it was Yuugi again. Gentle Yuugi, who would rather lose the chance to save his grandpa than take a life, even indirectly.

“You can tone that crush down a little,” Marik said. “I’ve seen enough anyway.”

He turned away as everything melted back into orange sand. Anzu shaded her eyes and scanned the sky, but she couldn’t find the sun. Everything was simply warm and glowing without any reason to be. The dunes stretched out forever like an ocean.

It made her smile.

“Yes,” Marik murmured to himself, “the duelists will be isolated. Easy targets.”

He moved his fingers toward his belt, then stopped short, as if reaching for something only to realize it was gone. His eyes remained far away, and she couldn’t stop thinking about how strange it was that his skin was dark and yet pale at the same time. How could he ever look pale when he lived in this beautiful place where the light was ever present?

As she focused on the skin of his face, she could suddenly see past it. She saw dark, cramped passageways of cold stone as if walking them herself, everything forbidden and foreboding, all of it twisting to a single large room with a ceiling she could never hope to reach.

And in that ceiling, a single opening in the stone, a single passageway to day that let in blindingly breathtaking sunlight.

It was the first time she ever saw the sun, and when Father found her there, he—

Marik grabbed her arm, jarring everything back to sand and warmth.

He was breathing heavily, pale eyes narrowed on hers.

“I suppose that’s how it feels,” he said. “Foolish of me to let my concentration slip. Foolish of you to be interested.”

“Have we been friends long?” Anzu asked.

A sharp pain cut through her mind, and she staggered back, gasping.

“I direct things here,” Marik said. “Your job is to be obedient.”

The pain dulled to nothing, and Anzu looked around, dazed. The sand was so warm; she wished she could bury herself inside it and feel its warmth forever. She knelt in the orange dust, running her fingers through it, so soft it was almost silk, so smooth it was almost water.

Marik crouched beside her, his smile warmer than the sand. “I need a favor.”

“Anything,” Anzu said without hesitation.

“Good girl. If the pharaoh’s as sharp as he claims, he should arrive any moment. There’s a message he needs to hear, and I want him to hear it from you.” Marik lifted a hand. “Ready?”

Anzu nodded. He touched her forehead, and she knew exactly what to say and do. But she frowned.

“I’m not sure . . .” She hesitated, but the warmth around her settled deep in her bones, calmed her soul. The sand was so lovely, twirling in the light breeze.

“You’re a dancer?” Marik asked.

She nodded.

“This is your chance to take the stage.”

She smiled.

++++++++++

The last thing Yami wanted was for Yuugi to see Anzu under Marik’s control, but it would have been wrong to keep it a secret.

Still, the boy’s stricken expression twisted his heart. “Anzu . . .” he whispered.

“Anzu,” Yami said gently, “can you hear me?”

She tapped her toe against the edge of the roof, humming down at the wandering crowds far below.

“Marik has a message for you, Pharaoh,” she said. When she glanced at him, the Eye of Horus flickered on her forehead, then disappeared. “Riddle me this: I’m alive at will but without breath, as cold in life as in my death. I walk a wall between two worlds and trade my servants’ lives for pearls. Who am I?”

Yami’s eyes narrowed. “The Nameless Pharaoh.”

“Very good!” Anzu stepped away from the edge, twirling once, graceful as a shadow. “I guess you get to keep me. But I can’t speak for the rest of Yuugi’s friends yet; that will all depend on the games.”

“The only way I’ll play a game with you, Marik, is if you face me directly.”

Anzu shook her head. “Don’t bluff, Pharaoh. Marik’s seen the concern you have for Joey and the others. If only you’d been that considerate of your servants, we wouldn’t be here.”

Yuugi stepped forward, hands clenching into fists at his sides. “Is there any way we can snap her out of it?”

“I don’t know,” Yami said quietly. He’d never encountered a power like Marik’s before, even among the Millennium Items.

“Now”—Anzu clapped her hands together—“on to the games. You’ve played in the sandbox of shadows before, so you should be well equipped for what’s waiting in Battle City. Scattered throughout the city are Ghouls with special arenas they’ve put together just for you. You wouldn’t be much of a king if you didn’t honor their heartfelt service by showing up to play your part.”

“What is your goal here, Marik?”

“Haven’t you guessed?” Anzu smiled. “Marik wants you back in the grave. If good men don’t get to rise from the dead, why should you?”

“If he really wanted that,” Yami said, “he could have given you a gun.”

“Well, he gave me this.”

She pulled a knife from her purse, tilting the blade to reflect the sunlight.

Yami’s heart stopped cold.

She laughed, a harsher sound than anything Anzu would ever make on her own. “Don’t look so scared; the time for that will come later. This is just to show you how powerful the Millennium Rod’s hold is on a person’s mind.”

Before Yami could move or think twice, she slashed the blade across the back of her own hand. Red droplets splattered to the rooftop.

“Anzu!” Yuugi cried, reaching for her even though she couldn’t see him.

Yami felt the tug on his mind, and he surrendered control without a fight. As soon as Yuugi was mortal again, he rushed to Anzu’s side and grabbed the knife, tossing it away to the other end of the roof.

Anzu simply laughed again as a golden eye glowed to life beneath her bangs, constant now. “Anzu can’t feel it.”

Yuugi gripped her shoulders. “Anzu, I know you’re still there. It’s me.”

She shook her head. “Anzu can’t hear it. She’s just a puppet with specific programming.”

She reached up, wiping the back of her hand across Yuugi’s cheek, leaving a streak of blood behind. He flinched but didn’t step back.

“There’s something else you should know about the rod,” Anzu said, lowering her voice as if sharing a secret. “Once I have control of a mind, even if I release them back to their normal life, I can retake that control at any moment from any distance. You know what that means, don’t you, little Yuugi?”

“Marik, you scum,” Yami whispered. He wished he could reach past Anzu, grab Marik by the throat, and drag him out.

But he couldn’t.

And Marik knew it.

Anzu tapped the end of Yuugi’s nose with a finger. “It means if you don’t play by the rules, Anzu will be mine again in an instant, and this time, she’ll step off the roof for real. And after she’s gone, I’ll take the rest of your friends. One. By. One.”

A tear dripped down Yuugi’s cheek despite his obvious efforts for restraint. He took a shuddering breath.

“Don’t cry,” Anzu said, wiping his tear with her palm. For just that one moment, she looked like herself, sounded like herself.

“Anzu,” Yuugi whispered.

Then she smiled that harsh, too-wide smile. “Play the game. Play it my way. Play it out until I’m bored and I finally give the pharaoh permission to lose. I’m taking him no matter what you do to stop me, but this is your way to keep your friends.”

Yuugi’s eyes snapped fire. “You can’t have any of my friends, Yami included.”

“My first Ghoul is waiting in the basement of the shop where you registered for the tournament. Better hurry; you wouldn’t want to be late.”

Anzu’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed. Yuugi caught her, lowering her gently to the ground, one arm cradling her head, the other under her wounded hand, keeping it from further damage.

Yami stared at the back of her hand, at the tiny rivers of blood that criss-crossed her pale skin.

She drew in a deep breath suddenly, and her eyes flew open. Yuugi had to catch her again as she flailed like a person waking from a nightmare.

“It’s okay.” Yuugi gently grabbed her hands, ignoring the blood that crossed his own skin. “It’s me. It’s Yuugi.”

“Yuugi, what—?” Her breath hissed out in a gasp as she clutched her hand.

“It’s okay,” Yuugi said again.

Funny, the human habit of saying that even when it wasn’t. Perhaps especially when it wasn’t. Yami slid his hands into his pockets and closed his eyes for a moment, steeling himself. Marik’s challenge had woken the shadows in his soul, and they wanted blood for blood.

“We have to get you to a doctor,” Yuugi said.

Anzu took a pack of tissues from her purse and pressed a clump of them to her injury. She held her hand above heart level while Yuugi helped her down the stairs to the street. He hailed the first nearby cab.

The entire time, she kept apologizing, and he kept saying it was okay.

The cab pulled to the curb, but when Yuugi moved to get in with her, Anzu stopped him.

“You have to check on the others,” she said, eyes wide and red-rimmed. “Joey, Ryou, Tristan—he knows about all of them.”

She fumbled her good hand through her purse until she found her phone and shoved it into Yuugi’s hands.

“I can’t leave you alone,” Yuugi said.

“You have to,” Anzu snapped. It was her bear tone, the one she used when Joey and Tristan were being particularly obnoxious.

Despite everything, it almost made Yami smile.

“No matter how sick and twisted this guy is,” she said, “you can beat him. I know you can.”

She kissed his cheek. Then he helped her into the cab and closed the door. His fingers left blood on the handle.

The vehicle drove out of sight.

“You’d better call the game shop,” Yami said quietly.

Yuugi nodded. He raised the phone like a robot. It was Tristan who answered. He said Grandpa had left a cryptic note for him telling him not to go anywhere and that he was out looking for Yuugi. As soon as Yuugi told him Anzu was headed for the hospital, Tristan offered to go after her and to leave another note for Grandpa.

“I’ll watch out for the Ghouls, too,” Tristan said, voice quiet as it reached Yami. “Run, don’t fight. I promise.”

“Thanks, Tristan,” Yuugi said. When he hung up, he stared at the phone. “There’s no way to call Joey or Ryou. Just Yori.”

To Yami’s surprise, he felt the tug again. He didn’t resist, and then he was once more in the physical world, holding Anzu’s phone. Yuugi didn’t say anything, and he didn’t say anything either; he just dialed the number and raised the phone.

But Yori didn’t answer.

“She’s probably just dueling,” Yami said calmly, knuckles bone-white around the phone.

“Probably,” Yuugi agreed.

“I’m going to the registration shop.”

“I know.” Yuugi’s eyes had the fire again. “But I meant what I told Marik. I’m not losing you, and I’m not losing any of my other friends. We’ll fight this guy together, and we’ll find his weakness, and we’ll win.”

Yami almost said Marik was stronger than Pegasus, but there was no point. They both knew it. And to be honest, Yami didn’t care how strong he was. Yuugi was right.

If it was blood Marik wanted, Yami was more than capable of giving him blood.

Yami adjusted the jacket across his shoulders and the Duel Disk on his arm. He touched his deck holder.

Yuugi disappeared, and Yami headed for Marik’s trap.

++++++++++

“Like I told the first lady,” Tristan said, “no, I can’t describe her injuries. I just know she came here. Anzu Mazaki.”

The second receptionist didn’t seem to know much more than the first one, and Tristan was about to give up hope when she finally said, “Here it is. She’s with a doctor right now. Hand injury.”

Tristan’s entire body sagged in relief. With how terrified Yuugi had sounded on the phone, he’d expected a lot more than a hand injury.

“Can I see her?” he asked.

The receptionist looked ready to tell him to wait in the lobby, so he added a please. Then he added a second one for good measure. He was about to add a third when she directed him down a hall and told him not to run in the hospital, as if she’d read his intentions.

He thanked her and headed down the hall at a brisk—but reasonable—pace.

Anzu was in the middle of getting stitches, which made his stomach a bit queasy, but her smile was so bright when she saw him that he couldn’t just wait outside.

“I’m glad you’re okay!” she said.

He blinked. “You’re the one getting sewn back together.”

“Right.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Like I was telling the doctor, I really shouldn’t be allowed in the kitchen.”

Tristan would have to wait for the real story. He settled into a chair next to Anzu.

“I can’t imagine how you were trying to cut cabbage,” the doctor said dryly.

Anzu’s laugh turned a little shriller.

“No one’s imagination can match this girl’s bad knife skills,” Tristan said. “Did you tell her about the time you cut your knee?”

“Right. That time. That time that I cut my knee. When I did not mean to cut my knee.”

Tristan rolled his eyes. Anzu was a worse liar than Yuugi.

The doctor finished quickly and put Anzu’s hand in a splint. When Anzu protested the stiff glove, the doctor gave her a stern look.

“I don’t want you gripping things,” she said. “You’ll pull the stitches. You’ll also need to keep your hand dry for at least 48 hours.” Her eyes moved to Tristan. “Can I trust you to keep an eye on her?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tristan said.

Anzu stuck her tongue out at him.

The doctor scheduled a return appointment for Anzu to have the stitches removed and gave her additional care instructions. She asked them to wait just a minute. Then she stepped out of the room.

When Tristan asked if her parents knew anything, Anzu said her dad was on his way and had already spoken to the doctor over the phone.

“He didn’t need to come,” she said sheepishly. “It’s not like I’m dying. I’m fine. It’s fine.”

The doctor returned and said she needed to receive a tetanus shot.

“I’m sure your kitchen knives are clean, but since your immunization is out-of-date, I’d rather err on the safe—”

“No, that’s great,” Anzu said quickly. “I have no idea where that knife has been.”

When the doctor blinked, she blushed and added, “Messy kitchen.”

Tristan rolled his eyes once more. The doctor said a nurse would be in shortly to administer the vaccine.

“As long as we’re here,” Tristan said, “do you mind if I check on Serenity while you sort everything out? I don’t know if Joey actually arranged a way for her to get to the tournament today. He didn’t say anything.”

Anzu’s eyes widened. “I forgot she was still recovering! Yeah, of course. I’ll come to you when I’m done. I really want to meet her.”

Tristan ran the hamster wheel with the receptionists again until one of them could tell him which hospital wing Serenity was in and which room after that. Then he made his way to the other side of the building. After getting directions twice, he found the right room.

He straightened up outside the door, checked his collar, checked his breath, and then knocked.

“Come in,” said a sweet voice.

He opened the door and slipped in. There were two people inside, a stern-looking woman who had to be Joey’s mom and a smiling brunette girl who had to be Serenity. Despite the white bandages across her eyes, her face was pointed right in his direction.

“Hello,” Tristan said, smiling in what he could only hope was a charming way. “My name is Tristan Taylor. I’m—”

“Tristan!” Serenity squealed before he could finish. Her smile wrinkled her nose. “Joey’s best friend!”

“That’s me.” Tristan’s smile widened. In contrast with Serenity’s glow, he couldn’t help but notice the scowl Joey’s mom adopted.

“You may tell Joseph that sending a friend won’t work,” the woman said.

“Uh-huh,” Tristan said noncommittally, unsure what else to do.

Serenity’s smile turned a bit strained. “Um, won’t you sit down?”

He did, although it didn’t take him long to regret it. Joey’s mom was like a crocodile, submerged in the conversation, always ready to bite. After hearing Joey talk about her on the beach, Tristan should have expected it, but it still caught him off guard.

And it didn’t take long for him to pick up on why Joey hadn’t made arrangements for Serenity to get to the tournament.

“Well, thank you for your concerned visit,” Joey’s mom said after only a few minutes, “but Serenity needs her rest.”

Serenity gripped the bedsheets tight enough her knuckles strained against her delicate skin.

“Right.” Tristan climbed slowly to his feet, trying to think of something he could do. Anything. He couldn’t even tell her how Joey was doing in the tournament because he hadn’t had any opportunity to find out.

“Tristan—” Serenity’s voice broke on his name, and it twisted his heart. “I need your help with something.”

“Anything,” Tristan said.

“I probably won’t see Joey today”—her smile was completely gone now, and her chin trembled—“so can you . . . tell him I hope he wins and tell him . . . I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough to stop the ogre.”

Tristan’s heart pounded in his throat. He had to swallow it back down. “He’ll say your support makes it possible for him to win, and he’ll say you’re brave. You’re crazy brave, Serenity.”

He could see her biting her lip, could see the way her hands trembled, too.

“I think that’s quite enough,” her mom said.

Tristan left. Once out in the hallway, he scowled at the wall.

From the day they’d bonded over being the only half-Japanese kids in class, Tristan had promised he’d always have Joey’s back. He’d kept that promise through fist fights and detentions and tournaments, but it had never been more important than it was in that moment.

Tristan was going to take it upon himself to get Serenity to Battle City if he had to die doing so.

Chapter Text

Yori didn’t mean to miss the call from Anzu. She’d seen a Ghoul running through a crowd and taken off after him, so when her phone rang, she was too preoccupied to answer. But eventually, the Ghoul turned enough corners that she lost him. She cursed to herself, but there was nothing to be done about it, so she checked her phone and returned the call.

To her surprise, it was Yami’s voice that answered.

“Are you safe?” he said in lieu of a greeting.

“I’m fine.” She frowned. “What’s wrong?”

And the more he told her, the deeper her frown got.

“Is she okay now?” she asked.

“Yuugi got her a ride to the hospital, and Tristan went to check on her.”

“Where are you right now?”

“On my way to an appointment.”

Yori knew she couldn’t blame him; if Marik had issued his challenge to her with the same conditions, she would have taken it on as well. What other choice was there?

But even still.

“Promise me you’ll be okay.”

For a moment, only silence answered her, then, “You trust me, right?”

Despite herself, she almost smiled. Her own words against her.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then I’ll be fine.”

After he hung up, she stared at her empty phone screen.

Yami was forced to take Marik’s challenge head-on to protect Anzu and the rest of them. Yori was under no such constraints. If she could find Marik first, there was a chance she could put a stop to everything. She’d tried to find him once with no luck; there was no guarantee this time would turn out any better.

But she had to try.

She’d already been searching for Ghouls, but maybe if she could get a better angle, she’d have more success. She shaded her eyes, scanning the rooftops around her. A building on a corner would give her the best vantage point, so she could at least start there.

After jamming her phone back in her pocket, she took off running for the end of the street. Just as she did, a bolt of blue lightning struck the horizon to her right, partially obscured by a building.

She skidded to a stop, eyes wide as a monstrous blue head rose above the building, glowing red eyes fixed on the pavement below it.

Even though she’d only seen it carved in rough lines, Yori recognized the god monster from Ishizu’s tablet. Her mouth went dry. A few nearby people shrieked. One lady ran.

Yori started running again, too—toward the monster. She skirted the closest building and crept along an alley edge until she could get a clear view of the next street over, where the fight was happening.

To her shock, the trench-coated brunette she saw was none other than the tournament organizer himself. He ordered his god to attack, and when it brought its fist down on his opponent, the force of the attack sent wind howling down the street. Yori turned away as it stung her eyes. Even after the holograms disappeared, blue electricity sizzled in the air, making her hair stand on end.

Someone cheered, and when Yori peeked around the corner again, she saw a black-haired kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, running up to Seto Kaiba.

“That was awesome, Seto!” he shouted.

“I know,” Seto said, which made Yori snort.

The brunette stepped forward to claim a locator card from his unconscious opponent—a Ghoul. Yori would have preferred a live one, but maybe she’d found the next best thing.

As Seto and the kid approached, Yori stepped from the alley into their path.

“Hey,” she said, smiling briefly. She pointed at the downed Ghoul. “Know where I can find one of those?”

Seto blinked. The kid blinked.

“Pre-defeat,” she clarified.

“Who are you?” the kid asked, head cocked to the side like a curious puppy.

“I’m a duelist,” she said, shrugging the arm that carried her far-from-subtle Duel Disk.

“You’re a moron,” Seto drawled. “I’d suggest you look for opponents more your speed. There’s a preschool nearby. That should do.”

He towered over her with a cold gaze that may have cowed someone else. But Yori eyed him calmly from head to toe. From his sleek, tailored coat to the intensity in his eyes, Seto Kaiba had shaped his appearance to be as intimidating as possible—everything about him said rich, powerful, and superior.

But standing there in her pink shirt, Yori recognized the mask. And although Seto had fallen for the image she was putting forward, she wouldn’t make the same mistake with his.

“I can’t take on a preschool,” she said. “They swarm. I’d have, like, four on each leg, and they’d topple me like lions bringing down a giraffe.”

The kid snorted, stifling a laugh.

Seto merely frowned, folding his arms across his chest.

Since no one else was speaking, Yori pressed on, “I’m glad I ran into you, actually. I’ve been wanting to say something since Battle City started.”

“If you’re about to issue a challenge”—his eyes glinted—“you’d be better off against the Ghouls.”

So he knew who the Ghouls were. Good.

“It’s not a challenge,” she said. “It’s a compliment.”

He and the kid exchanged a glance.

Yori stepped forward and tapped the back of her knuckle against the wing of his Duel Disk. “These are incredible, and I’ll remember my first Battle City duel forever. Thanks for sharing your tech genius with the rest of us.”

Seto’s expression turned blank, and he made no move to respond. But she noticed the palest hint of color in his face. She wondered if he got compliments often or if people just expected a genius to turn out genius and therefore never batted an eye when he did.

Of course, going around calling people morons likely didn’t get him many compliments either.

Just then, the kid dissolved into warm, bubbling giggles.

“They are incredible, aren’t they?” he said, eyes shining. “This is actually the second version. I really liked the first one because you had to throw it, and it spun to create the hologram, which was just a super cool effect. But the new Duel Disk has more features, and it allows the players themselves to interact more easily, so this one really is the best.”

Yori gave a short laugh. “Throwing a Duel Disk sounds exciting. Did it come back like a boomerang?”

Seto pursed his lips. The color in his face seemed to have darkened just a bit.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. Though his expression remained the same, his voice had lost its hard edge. “The first model was completely unique from the current design—it was a round disk attached to a cord, not the wing design that straps to your arm.”

“Much more reasonable for throwing,” she agreed.

The kid grinned. “I’m Mokuba Kaiba, Seto’s brother. What’s your name?”

And before she could stop herself, Yori said, “Yori.”

If there had been any doubt before that she’d put down roots in Domino, it was gone now. She was only careless when she was comfortable. Funny that a city—

Something tickled Yori’s senses, and she whirled around, throwing knife already in hand.

Just in time to meet the Ghoul who dropped into the street before her.

++++++++++

Seto didn’t notice the cloaked man on a ledge above them until he leaped. While Seto was quick to place himself between the Ghoul and Mokuba, Yori’s speed had him beat, and somewhere in the millisecond it had taken her to turn around, she’d produced a knife from thin air. Seto was suddenly glad she had only sought him out to compliment him on the Duel Disk. The last thing he needed in his existence was a crazy woman with a knife.

The Ghoul threw back the hood of his cloak to smirk at them. His night-black hair swallowed up the sunlight, but it glinted from the massive silver gauge dragging down his right earlobe. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, as if he’d entered a buffet.

“New prey,” he said, eying the three of them. “I love new prey.”

“Looks like I should have found you sooner.” Yori glanced over her shoulder. “I can’t get them to come to me.”

Seto raised an eyebrow. “My deck is every card thief’s dream. They fight each other just for the chance to fight me.”

“Sounds like you get all the wild parties.”

“There was this one guy from Spain—” Mokuba started.

The Ghoul snapped his fingers twice. “Hey, guys, back on me? Okay. I think you know what I’m looking for, right? My master has a little pet god card that seems to have wandered away. And me, well, I love to play fetch.”

Seto turned his raised eyebrow on the Ghoul and added his best condescending glare. But a thrill raced up his spine. The Ghouls had come for his god card; he was going to win theirs instead.

Before he could speak, Yori said, “Hey, you know what you could fetch me? Your master. Marik.”

Seto’s eyes widened.

The Ghoul gave a flat, wide grin. “No can do.”

“You know the leader of the Ghouls?” Seto demanded.

“I know of him.” Yori turned slightly so she could speak to him without losing sight of the Ghoul. “I know he’s a coward who sends his little rats out to fight for him.”

“I know you’re hoping I’ll be insulted”—the Ghoul spread his hands and shrugged—“but I’m not. Now, back to the little issue of the missing Obelisk. I saw it summoned here earlier, so who did the Egyptian pest give it to? Hmm? The tournament organizer or the Millennium Item holder?”

The third-rate imposter hadn’t even sought Seto out for his god card; he was playing a guessing game. Seto could only hope the man’s dueling skills were at a higher level than his skills for “fetch.”

Yori rested a hand on her hip, displaying her bracelet. Seto hadn’t missed the eye among the twisted gold strands—the same eye on Yuugi’s puzzle and Ishizu’s necklace—he’d simply chosen not to care.

“As if Ishizu would give the god card to anyone other than a Millennium Item holder,” Yori said.

And Seto suddenly felt like he’d missed something.

Which was not a feeling he got often.

And not one he liked.

The Ghoul unfastened his cloak. It tumbled to the ground, revealing a Duel Disk on his arm, his deck already in place.

“Hope you didn’t get too attached,” he said.

“Hold on,” Seto said.

Yori laughed. “Why would I duel you? I have your precious god card, but the only thing I want is the location of Marik. And what did you say about that? ‘No can do.’ So this duel? Sorry, Ghoul. No can do.”

“Hold on,” Seto snarled. “Obelisk belongs to me.”

Now it was the Ghoul’s turn to say, “Hold on.”

“Wishful thinking, Seto,” Yori said.

Seto bristled at the informal address along with her gall.

“What’s happening here?” the Ghoul demanded.

“True to his nature,” Yori said, shaking her head at the Ghoul, “Mr. Kaiba would do anything to get his hands on the next rare card. He’d make a really good Ghoul, you know.”

Oh no, she didn’t.

“Before you blundered in here, he wanted to duel me for Obelisk as well, and he’s counting his chickens before they hatch. Although, unlike you, he actually has something I want. So I think I’ll be dueling him. Unless you have a better offer?”

“I . . .” The Ghoul floundered. He touched the tattoo on his forehead, that same stupid eye.

“No one is dueling until we get something straight!” Seto shouted. “I’m the owner of a god card here.”

Yori scoffed. “Prove it, then.”

Seto was positive if his emotions could vent in the form of smoke, he would be whistling like a steam engine. He didn’t know what she hoped to gain from her stupid game, but if she wanted proof, he’d shove the proof in her face.

He reached for the pocket of his coat where he kept his most prized cards—Obelisk and his three Blue-Eyes White Dragons.

Yori suddenly whirled aside, the way she’d done when the Ghoul first appeared. In the same instant, there was a loud ringing of metal on cement.

Seto turned as well, ready for another threat, every sense on alert. His eyes searched the street, but it was still deserted; everyone had cleared out after he’d summoned Obelisk earlier. He couldn’t pinpoint where the sound had come from.

Then he noticed a faint gleam of light from a small object on the sidewalk. It looked like—

His eyes shot wide open, and he whipped back to find Yori standing much closer than she’d been before.

She looked him straight in the eyes. Her expression betrayed nothing. Her hands were empty.

No knife.

Of course not—her knife was the item sitting up the street. A throwing knife. Which she’d thrown at nothing. For seemingly no reason.

Seto had a terrible feeling about what had just happened.

“So, Ghoul,” Yori said, turning to face the man once more. “How about it? You lose this duel, you give me Marik’s location. You win, you get every god card in my deck. If you’re confident you can win, there’s no risk in it for you. So. Are you confident?”

She raised her deck, staring the Ghoul down with a look that could have frozen vapor.

Seto touched his prized-card pocket.

It was empty.

His heart thudded into his shoes, and fire roared to life in its absence.

Yori lifted the top card of her deck, displaying Obelisk to the world. “Don’t you want it, Ghoul? Didn’t you come here to win?”

Seto’s god card.

Seto’s god card.

Seto tried to scream the accusation of thief! but he couldn’t form words. His throat wouldn’t even let him breathe. Mokuba let out a loud gasp, but the Ghoul merely gave a satisfied smirk.

“Alright, fine,” the man said. “We duel. Your conditions. Everybody’s happy.”

Yori nodded and cut Seto’s god card into her deck.

Seto could have ripped her spine out with his bare hands. She was going to lose his god to the Ghouls. Not only that, but she had his Blue-Eyes cards as well.

“You—” he finally managed to hiss, though he couldn’t articulate more than that.

Then the fog in his mind cleared just enough to present the easiest answer; he was tournament officiator. She had cheated by stealing his cards, and he would have her promptly removed from his tournament while she could do nothing about it.

He unclenched his fists, letting out a low, un-amused chuckle. At least she’d given him the name of the Ghouls’ leader, and he could duel the Ghoul under the same conditions she’d established, which would bring him one step closer to claiming the remaining two god cards. If she wouldn’t have made an enemy out of him, maybe she could have benefitted from the situation, too.

Her loss.

“Glad to see you can take this kind of situation with a healthy dose of laughter,” Yori said. She snapped her deck into place in her Duel Disk. “I still owe you a duel. You say the word, and you’ve got it. Any time, any place.”

She extended her hand, meeting his eyes evenly. Seto’s lip curled in disgust.

“You won’t be dueling anyone after this,” he spat.

He intended to announce her removal from the tournament, but as her eyes dropped to her extended hand, his followed.

And he realized what she was trying to do.

The back of her hand faced the Ghoul, and she had curled a Duel Monsters card into her palm, hiding it from sight.

“I meant what I said.” Her lips twitched. “If I lose this duel, I really will give the Ghoul every god card in my deck. Can you live with that?”

Seto’s anger slowly drained, and he stared at her in shock.

“I don’t have all day,” the Ghoul called, rolling his neck to the side as he cracked it. “I came here for the god card, not to listen to you yak.”

She went to all that trouble to convince the Ghoul she held the god card—went as far as pickpocketing—with no intention to keep it? She didn’t even try to keep it for the duel and give it back afterward, even though it would have guaranteed her win had she managed to summon it.

Seto reached out and took her hand.

She pressed Obelisk into his palm, then turned and strode forward to face her opponent.

“Let’s duel,” she said.

“Finally!” The Ghoul extended his arm, releasing the holo-imagers. Yori mirrored the action. Both of their lifepoints scrolled up to 4000 as they drew their first hands.

Seto stared down at the god card in his palm. Shifting his fingers slightly revealed his three Blue-Eyes cards behind Obelisk.

She had tricked the Ghoul into believing her story, tricked Seto into giving away the location of his god card, taken it from him without his knowledge, and returned it without the Ghoul any the wiser. She was clever, and intelligence was not something Seto complimented lightly.

“Seto,” Mokuba whispered, moving to his side and peering at the cards, “what just happened?”

Seto tucked the cards back into his coat before the Ghoul could notice anything suspicious. He gave no answer but rather seated himself on a nearby bench and leaned forward, bracing his arms against his knees and fixing his intense blue eyes on Yori.

Show me what kind of duelist lives inside that mind, he thought.

++++++++++

If Joey was honest with himself, he wasn’t sure he was the kind of duelist who could win Battle City. On his first turn with Esper Roba, he’d been so focused on his opponent, he hadn’t paid attention to what he was doing, and he’d tried to summon a five-star monster without a tribute. The summon had failed, obviously, and it had also forfeited his turn, putting him behind from the start.

Esper Roba found it hilarious, as did the crowd. Ryuzaki had stayed to watch, and he shouted out that Joey was even more of a moron than he’d been in Duelist Kingdom. He also demanded the return of his Red-Eyes, which was kind of fair, all things considered.

The pharaoh never would have made a mistake like that. Neither would Yuugi. But that was exactly why Joey had taken Esper Roba’s challenge. He had a long way to go, but he was ready to climb.

“I was just givin’ you a head start,” he said. “Goin’ easy on you.”

“You’re just a useless duelist who thinks boasting wins matches,” Roba shot back. The audience snickered. “You probably heard this tournament had a big cash prize, and you blundered in with no experience hoping to win big. Someone should have told you your odds are better with a real lottery—one that requires no skill to win.”

Joey’s face burned as someone in the crowd jeered. “Okay, make your move, smarty-pants.”

Roba summoned Cyber Raider [1400/1000]. Since Joey had no monsters on the field, he was able to do a direct attack and cut Joey’s lifepoints from 4000 down to 2600. Joey gasped in pain as Cyber Raider’s fist connected with his chest. The pain that came with the new Duel Disk was no joke, and it left his hands shaking, but it also helped him ground himself.

“A little advice?” Roba said. “You may want to summon the card on your very left—your Swordsman of Landstar. Of course, it can’t beat my Cyber Raider, but at least it’ll appear on the field.”

The crowd burst into murmurs about Roba’s psychic powers. Joey glanced down at his hand. Swordsman of Landstar was indeed right where Roba had called it. But while everyone else trembled in awe, Joey shrugged.

“Tough break, pal,” he said. “My best friend faced down a guy with real psychic powers in Duelist Kingdom. Even if you do know my cards, I ain’t scared of you.”

Roba’s eyebrows drew down as he scoffed.

Joey drew a card to start his turn, pausing when Roba raised a hand in his direction. The self-proclaimed psychic closed his eyes and hummed to himself. Joey blinked, unsure if Roba was about to say something or not.

A slow smile broke on his opponent’s face, and his eyes slid open.

“You just drew a second Graceful Dice,” he said. “You say you’re not scared of my power, but how will you fight when I know your every move?”

Joey gripped the Graceful Dice card he’d just drawn. He glanced down at his hand again.

Then he smirked.

“I’ll take my chances,” he said.

He played two cards facedown before summoning Swordsman of Landstar [500/1200] in attack mode.

On his turn, Roba sacrificed his monster to summon Fiend Megacyber [2200/1200]. The yellow-armored warrior let out a battle cry and charged at Joey’s monster.

Joey activated Graceful Dice, and a little fairy send a giant turquoise die spinning across the field. When it landed on a three, his swordsman’s attack points multiplied by the same number, rising to 1500.

“Not enough.” Roba grinned. “And you can’t activate two Graceful Dice in a single turn.”

“Sure can’t,” Joey agreed. He pressed a button on his Duel Disk. “But I can activate a Skull Dice!”

A little demon rolled a giant red die onto the field. When it landed on a five, Fiend Megacyber’s attack points dropped to 440, allowing Joey’s pudgy swordsman to slash right through it.

The crowd broke into whispers again, and it was Joey’s turn to grin.

“You ain’t got any ESP,” Joey said. “All you got’s a friend with binoculars somewhere looking at my hand. Because of the way my cards were stacked, your friend couldn’t tell my cards weren’t both Graceful Dice.”

The horror that crossed Roba’s face confirmed Joey’s words.

Joey raised his eyebrows. “Now how about we duel fair and square, Roba? After all, this lottery’s about skill, ain’t it?”

And if Joey was honest with himself, he wasn’t sure he wasn’t the kind of duelist who could win Battle City.

Chapter Text

The shop door was silent when Yami entered. He was so accustomed to the game shop’s bells, he almost opened it again, but refrained. The interior of the shop was dark and deserted, save for the person who waited at the front register. The Ghoul’s smile gleamed in the darkness.

Yami’s eyes narrowed in return.

He followed the Ghoul down a flight of steps to the shop’s basement. Everything had been cleared out, leaving the room feeling empty and hollow—fitting for a Ghoul. The center of the room dipped an extra step, like someone had taken a box cutter and sliced out a square of the floor.

“Step into my arena,” the Ghoul invited, lowering his hood to reveal a bald head above a mousy face.

Yami stepped down into the hollow floor space. The Ghoul cackled as he crossed to the other edge of the hollow.

“Allow me to explain the game,” the Ghoul said.

There were flamethrowers set into the floor on either side of them. When the duel ended, the flamethrowers on the loser’s side of the field would instantly go off, burning the man alive while the winner walked free.

“This is no game,” Yami said. “But before I play, you’ll answer me a question. Did Marik design this match?”

The man’s face split in a leer. “Master Marik offered a great incentive to his most talented Ghouls for your defeat. Extra points for brutality. I did the rest myself.”

Yami unsnapped his deck holder. “Then you’ll burn of your own free will. Let’s duel.”

++++++++++

Yori was pretty sure she’d had a scrape with death when she’d stolen Seto’s god card—at least the look on his face had promised murder. But she had no regrets since it had given her the upper hand with the Ghoul.

Now to keep it.

For her opening turn, she played Thief of Lives [1300/500] in defense mode. The hooded woman crouched with both arms crossed in front of her face.

“How boring.” The Ghoul heaved a sigh. “If you ever want anything in life, you gotta go on the attack. Let me show you how it’s done, biscuit.”

Yori blinked. “Biscuit?”

The Ghoul gave a little frown. “You know, because you’re soft and weak. Like a . . . that’s not a thing here? Where I’m from—whatever, just duel.”

He summoned The All-Seeing White Tiger [1300/500] in attack mode. His beast leapt from its card, twice the size of her thief, teeth bared as it snarled.

“And here’s a lovely spell card—yes, I meant lovely—that powers up my tiger!” He slapped a card into play. “If we each have a monster with the same amount of attack or defense points, Jinx lowers your monster’s points to zero. Since we’re so in sync and they’re both the same, your monster loses both.”

Her Thief of Lives’ defense and attack zeroed out, and the Ghoul sent his monster in to destroy it. The hooded thief cried out as the tiger slashed its claws through her chest; she vanished in a burst of light.

“Only wish it would have taken some lifepoints with it.” The Ghoul pouted. “But there’s plenty of time for that. Turn end.”

Yori smirked. “Oh, but it did take some lifepoints with it.”

The Ghoul frowned, then gasped as his lifepoints scrolled down to 3500.

“Whenever my Thief of Lives is sent to the graveyard, she takes 500 points of direct damage from my opponent.”

It was a good thing Yori had wanted him to destroy her monster—that would have been a painful first round if she would have left her thief in attack mode.

“My turn,” she said, drawing a card. The Ghoul merely scowled.

She summoned her Thief of Souls [1100/800] to the field in attack mode. He released a low chuckle from within his hood, staring down her opponent with glowing white eyes. Yori almost pointed out to Seto that it was exactly effects like that she’d been talking about earlier but refrained since he probably still wanted to kill her over the god card thing.

“And my Thief of Souls just hates to be alone,” she said, “so I activate his special ability, which allows him to steal the soul of a familiar monster from the graveyard.”

Yori’s graveyard glowed with white light as her Thief of Lives dove headfirst onto the field, rolling into a crouched position at her counterpart’s feet.

“Even better, when Thief of Lives is special summoned by her companion, they both receive a 500-point boost to their attack.” Yori pointed at the Ghoul in satisfaction. “So now my Thief of Souls can wipe out your tiger, leaving my Thief of Lives free to attack you directly!”

Her first thief dashed forward and pulled a short scythe from under his cloak, slashing it through the tiger’s face. The beast howled before vanishing in a burst of light. Her second thief used her companion’s back as a springboard to leap in the air and send six daggers sailing toward the Ghoul. The daggers glinted in the sunlight, and for just a moment, Yori caught her breath, certain the knives would injure the Ghoul for real. As they embedded themselves in his chest, he let out a scream.

Then they vanished, and his lifepoints dropped to 1400. Yori let out a pent-up breath.

“Wow!” she heard Mokuba say behind her. “That was a great monster combo!”

“Not bad,” Seto replied, which Yori was pretty sure counted as high praise. Maybe he wasn’t so intent on killing her after all.

“Isn’t it a bit early in the game to be losing so badly?” she taunted, eyes on her opponent.

The Ghoul shrugged. “Nothing matters until the final attack, and that will be mine, okay? So, focus up, biscuit; one lucky strike doesn’t make a victory.”

He was a level-headed duelist. If he wanted to regain lifepoints, he’d need some spell or trap cards, but considering how little he’d been bothered by losing them in the first place, it was more likely he would go on the attack again. He would want a high-level monster, but he couldn’t tribute summon without any monsters on his field. After evaluating her cards and debating for a few more moments, she set one card facedown before ending her turn.

The Ghoul drew a card, then played it facedown on the field.

“You know what’s wrong with this duel?” He tapped his chin.

Yori raised an eyebrow. “You’re still in it?”

He grinned. “There are too many thieves. How is a man supposed to get any peace of mind with these hooligans on the loose?”

He slapped a spell card into play—Soul Exchange. Yori gritted her teeth. Soul Exchange allowed him to sacrifice her monsters as tributes instead of his own. Using it, he tributed both of her thieves to summon Rainbow Beast Golden Lion [2400/700]. His hulking lion stood twice as tall as he did, its hideous rainbow mane accounting for most of that space.

“Now the crime rate’s down,” the Ghoul said. “Time for your lifepoints to follow.”

When he raised a hand, his lion charged forward, snarling. Yori activated her facedown card before the beast could reach her.

“Spell card: The Price of Time!”

His lion skidded to a stop, rainbow-colored claws leaving marks in the pavement. Or, at least, it looked like marks in the pavement. Sometimes it was so—

Yori shook her head. “By paying 1000 lifepoints, this card prevents me from taking any damage to my lifepoints for the next two turns.”

A jolt of energy pinched the nerves in her arm as her lifepoints scrolled down to 3000. She ground her teeth.

“Well, now, well played.” The Ghoul clapped his hands lightly. “But you couldn’t do it for free, and progress is progress. Now show me your counter-attack.”

Yori drew a card, but she wasn’t left with many promising options. She passed her turn.

“Boring!” The Ghoul drew his card with a flourish. “Why don’t you bring out your god card—add a little spice?”

Seto snorted, and a bit of color stained Yori’s cheeks. She did feel bad for the whole pickpocketing thing. If anyone had done the same to her Dante, she likely would have stabbed them in the hand before they could take their next breath, so all things considered, Seto had been very generous.

The Ghoul summoned Ape Warrior [1500/1200]. Unlike his lion, the ape was decked out in clothing—a full CIA-esque suit, to be precise, with shades, an earpiece, and a gun. Yori did a double take. But she used Drunken Duck unironically, so she was no one to point fingers.

“Every time my ape defeats a monster in battle, his attack points increase by 300,” the Ghoul said. “But just to give him a head start, I’ll activate my facedown card to equip him with a Lucky Iron Axe.”

The ape raised his gun in one hand, a glowing axe in the other, and bellowed. His attack points rose from 1500 to 2000.

“Back to you, biscuit.” The Ghoul smirked.

Yori’s two turns were up. She needed a powerful card.

But she didn’t draw one.

She played Sangan [1000/600] in defense mode, and since she’d drawn Pixie Dragon [900/700] that turn, it was automatically summoned to the field in defense mode as well. She ended her turn.

His monsters obliterated hers one after the other. Then he activated a spell card that deducted 500 lifepoints from his opponent for every successful attack in his battle phase. Yori winced as her lifepoints dropped to 2000. Her arm trembled from the back-to-back shocks.

Barely audible, she heard Mokuba say, “This doesn’t look good, Seto.”

“Come on,” the Ghoul said. “Is this all the fight you’ve got? I’ve been waiting turn after turn to see something impressive, but all you’ve had is a lucky opening hand. Is that god card the only worthwhile thing in your whole deck?”

“Be careful what you wish for,” she said.

Thanks to Sangan’s special effect when it was destroyed, she added a monster card with less than 1500 attack points from her deck to her hand. Then she reshuffled and snapped her deck back into place. She drew a card to start her turn—

—and she smiled.

She summoned Constellar Aldebaran [1300/800] to the field.

“Hey, Ghoul,” she said. “Congratulations. You’ll be the first rare-card hunter to see this one-copy card in action.”

The Ghoul’s eyes widened, and despite his earlier invitation for her to step up her game, sweat appeared on his upper lip.

“You can’t tribute for a god.” He licked his lips. “You need three monsters. You only have one.”

“I have two,” she said, “thanks to Pixie Dragon, which can still act as a sacrifice after it’s in the graveyard. And I never said I was summoning a god.”

She swapped Aldebaran for Dante the Fire Dragon [2900/2600]. The card glowed to life on the field, and white pixels patterned the air, turning to black as her dragon materialized. His scales swallowed the sunlight except for the dull red gleam of the ridge down his back. That same red marked the smooth scales of his belly along with the sloped underside of his wings. His horns were an even darker red, swooping back from the ridges above his eyes—and those eyes were the brightest part of him, burning like flames around his slanted pupils. He snaked his head just above the pavement, hunkered like a big cat about to pounce, tail curved behind Yori like a scaled wall at her back. Even crouched, he was three times her height, and staring up at him, she almost forgot how to breathe.

Even the shadows hadn’t brought her dragon to life with such detail.

Yori tried to speak twice before she could manage words. “Dante, blow away his lion.”

Dante’s crimson eyes gleamed. He spread his wings wide, covering the street from one edge to the other in shadows. His big chest expanded with air, orange light peeking from the cracks in his scales like the glow from a furnace. He opened his mouth, revealing rows of sharp teeth and a set of fangs like a venomous snake.

The Ghoul’s rainbow lion opened its own mouth, as if to roar—

But Dante beat him to it. Fire poured from the dragon’s mouth, engulfing the playing field, swallowing the lion whole. The ape bellowed and covered its eyes with its axe.

Yori flinched away, shielding her own eyes. The air felt hot on her skin, despite knowing it was only a hologram.

The Ghoul shrieked, hopping a few steps away from the flames while slapping at his cloak as if he’d expected it to catch fire. His lifepoints dropped to 900.

Dante closed his mouth and snorted black smoke.

“That’s my boy.” Yori smiled.

He tilted his head to look right at her, and she felt his gaze like an arrow through her soul. A rumbling growl emanated from his chest.

Once again, she had to try a few times before she managed to speak. “I’m sure you’ve done the math, Ghoul. There’s a 900-point difference between my dragon and your ape. One more attack, and it’s all over for you.”

 The Ghoul scowled. “Don’t act as if you’ve already won.”

He moved to draw a card, but Yori held up a hand.

“I didn’t say I’d ended my turn.”

His eyes rounded in horror as Yori smirked. She played the quick-play spell card Victory Shot, which allowed one monster of her choice a second attack if it had successfully destroyed a monster during the battle phase.

Dante destroyed the Ghoul’s ape, dropping his lifepoints to 0.

When the fire and smoke cleared and Dante disappeared, Yori strode across the field. She could still feel the crackling heat on her skin, in her heart. She planted her feet before the Ghoul and folded her arms, eyes burning just as her dragon’s had.

“Now tell me, where’s Marik?”

++++++++++

Marik liked a certain amount of independence in his followers; despite the rod’s impressive powers, he could still only be in so many places at once, and managing a large group was much easier when they could show a bit of initiative about orders. But he wasn’t keen when that initiative reached too far, like the Ghoul who’d agreed to give away his location during his hunt for the god card.

From the man’s eyes, he watched the Millennium Bracelet holder cross the field and loom before him, demanding answers.

“Say nothing,” Marik commanded.

The man’s tongue froze, and Marik focused on a different mind—that of the Ghoul currently dueling the pharaoh. The world tilted before him, the colors blurring into sandy orange before righting themselves in the dim lighting of a barren basement. The pharaoh ordered an attack with his Buster Blader, and filthy fear overtook the Ghoul’s mind, trying to swallow Marik’s as well. The pharaoh was about to win his first death game, and Marik hadn’t expected to be preoccupied with other things, yet he was.

As he pulled himself back to his own body, the world slanted again, as if he were falling from a harness, falling in every direction at once until the floor suddenly appeared beneath his feet. When the ground solidified and he tasted the air, he opened his eyes, taking a moment to breathe. The boat rocked ever so slightly beneath his feet, even while moored. The buildings of Domino City filled the skyline outside its window.

The rod still glowed hot in Marik’s hand, its connection to the two Ghouls firm even while paused, and Marik felt the heat in his forehead. It itched. Made his eyes heavy. Made it hard to think.

“Master Marik?” Odion asked.

Marik turned to face him, but when he did, he stumbled. Odion stuck out a hand, but Marik had already righted himself, and he glared at the offer.

“I’m fine,” he snapped.

“I’ve sent Ghouls after the other two,” Odion said. “What of the girl?”

“Still a nuisance.” Marik rubbed his forehead. “If she has my god card, she didn’t reveal it in the duel. It isn’t registered to her for the tournament, but Kaiba doesn’t even have a listing in the system, so I know nothing more than when the pointless duel started.”

“For what it’s worth”—Odion hesitated—“Ishizu puts great stock in the Millennium Items and those who wield them.”

“Ishizu also keeps secrets,” Marik said.

Not that he had asked many questions when given the chance. Even the secrets he did know, he had never asked for. The burdens he carried on behalf of the tombkeepers had come unbidden, and while his sister bathed in her destiny like a pig, Marik would have been happy to trade it and all its secrets for a life in the sun.

Marik slammed his free hand into the wall. “If I didn’t have useless servants, Ishizu never would have kept her grip on the third god card, and I wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with!”

The rod flared with light, and he felt the heat in his blood. Black edges encroached on his vision.

“Forgive me, Master.” Odion dropped to one knee. “Instruct me how to correct this, and I shall go at once.”

“I didn’t mean you,” Marik muttered. He tried to take deep breaths because he recognized Odion’s tone—it was the same one he used whenever Marik scared him.

His brother thought he didn’t know, but Marik always knew.

One more swelling breath and Marik blinked the shadowy edges of his vision sharp again. He needed clarity to think. He needed time. He had patience for neither, so brute force would have to do in a pinch.

He sent his mind back into the rod, to the Ghoul facing Kaiba and the Millennium Bracelet holder.

“Take them to the masks,” he said shortly.

Once he was sure the man would obey, he turned his focus to the mask team, speaking to both their minds at once.

“I’m bringing you fresh meat, and one of them has my god card. Use your sealing decks. Find out which one. Win it.”

“Yes, Master Marik,” came the chorus.

Finally, he turned his mind to the Ghoul facing the pharaoh, only to discover it was no longer the pharaoh at all but his mortal vessel. He barely had to prod the Ghoul’s mind to uncover what had happened. The Ghoul had lost the duel, but before he could be burned alive by the flamethrowers, the pharaoh’s vessel had pulled the man from harm’s way.

“Such a weak vessel,” Marik said, speaking through the Ghoul’s mouth, “to house such a mighty spirit.”

Yuugi stared directly into the Ghoul’s eyes, which few managed to do while Marik was in control. The unfocused eyes usually deterred them. Marik had no complaints; he enjoyed inspiring unease.

“I may be weak, Marik,” Yuugi said. “But I won’t let you kill people. Not my friends and not yours.”

Marik shrugged the Ghoul’s shoulders. The man’s vision swayed, as usually happened whenever he directed physical actions. Humans were such flimsy puppets.

“This man is no friend of mine, but even so, I never raised a finger against him,” Marik said. “It was he who orchestrated these circumstances and the pharaoh who won this duel while knowing the consequences for his opponent.”

Yuugi’s eyes were steady just the same. “Maybe the lies make you feel better about yourself. But they won’t forever.”

Darkness crept into the edges of Marik’s vision again.

“Search along the river for your next game, little Yuugi,” he said. “You’ll know you’ve found it when you discover the doll.”

He released the Ghoul, falling back into his own body. The rod ceased glowing, and its heat slowly faded, leaving his skin cold and clammy.

“What are your next orders, Master Marik?” Odion asked.

Marik slid the rod through his belt and rubbed his hands, trying to get warmth back into his fingers. “You need to collect six locator cards.”

Odion frowned. “I thought you’d already sent a Ghoul to secure your place in the finals.”

“I did,” Marik said. “You need to secure your own. Or did you expect me to enter alone if the game continues that far? Some loyal servant you are.”

Odion’s lips twitched, as did Marik’s. Before he could rethink it, Marik’s body was moving on its own, and he crossed the cabin to where he’d tossed his purple cloak across a chair. He felt beneath the cloak until his hands touched a compact wooden box.

“Did I show you?” Despite himself, Marik felt light on his feet. “My souvenir from that trip into town.”

He lifted the box, displayed the dark-and-light checkered top, the drawer where the pieces were stored. Marik had meant to leave it behind with the old man but had been unable to.

“A game?” Odion raised both eyebrows. The carved hieroglyphs along the left side of his face wrinkled under the action.

“It’s called Senet,” Marik said. “Ishizu brought a copy home from the market once, don’t you remember?”

Odion shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marik said. “I doubt she had it a full day. When Father found out, he smashed it. I never got to play.” He gripped the box. “After I deal with the pharaoh, we can learn it together.”

He expected Odion to smile for real, but instead, the hint of a smile vanished as mysteriously as ever.

“As you wish, Master Marik,” he said stoically.

Marik almost sighed. He almost screamed. All he actually did was toss the game back into the chair and mutter, “It’s meaningless anyway.”

Odion gathered up his own cloak and fastened it around his shoulders, pulling the hood over his shaved head and low ponytail. He strapped a Duel Disk to his arm, but as he moved for his deck, Marik held out a hand.

“Give it to me,” he said.

Odion obeyed, and Marik crossed the room to the large wooden box where he kept a few specific decks.

“How many cards do you have?” he asked.

“Forty-one.”

A forty-card tournament deck was allowed a minimum of forty cards and a maximum of forty-six, so there was plenty of room to play. But Marik didn’t want to greatly disrupt Odion’s strategies—especially since they were so formidable—so he only lifted a single card from his stash. The ruby dragon’s savage gaze cut right to his soul.

When he added the god card to the deck, Odion’s eyes widened.

“Master, I can’t—” he started.

“There’s no one else I would give it to,” Marik said. “I’ve never used it in battle, so there’s no need to win it from me. It’s yours.”

He extended the stack of cards, and Odion took it with trembling fingers.

“You’re an Ishtar,” Marik said, pale eyes fierce, “a tombkeeper, as much as I am. The god will bow to you.”

Odion hesitated a moment longer, then inclined his head. “Yes, Master Marik.”

“Now go win your place in the finals.”

Odion bowed deeper. He attached a deck holder to his thick belt, stowed the deck, and headed for the door. As soon as he was gone, Marik reached once more for the rod.

There was more to be done in Battle City.

Chapter Text

When Seto had designed the program that created KaibaCorp’s duelist profiles, several members of his team had suggested he exclude any non-tournament duelists—the reason being to simplify his data pools. Of course, the team members in question weren’t duelists themselves, so they didn’t understand that a skilled duelist wasn’t built by tournament wins alone. Seto knew better than anyone that Yuugi Mutou had been one of the world’s greatest duelists before he’d ever set foot in a tournament. So Seto had included underground duelists in his profiles as well.

And he hadn’t recognized the girl in the pink shirt who came barreling out of an alley to ask about Ghouls.

But he recognized her dragon.

“Wow!” Mokuba gasped as the black beast stepped onto the field. “I’ve never seen that dragon before!”

Quite a statement considering Seto owned more rare dragon cards than any other duelist on the planet, a collection which included the world’s only three copies of Blue-Eyes White Dragon.

“That’s because she owns the only one in existence,” Seto said.

The cards didn’t lie; each one was stamped invisibly with its edition number, and when he’d worked with Industrial Illusions on his solid vision technology for the Duel Fields, that stamp was one of the things he’d designed the system to read. When he’d received the alert just prior to tournament registration about a one-copy card being played at a Domino arcade of all places, he would have thought it was a fluke if not for the flawless design of his own system.

“Mr. Kaiba,” a familiar voice crackled from his radio, “the system has just registered a one-copy card in play.”

“I’m aware,” Seto replied. “I’m looking right at it.”

“You certainly have those duelist’s instincts you talk about.”

Since Roland’s voice betrayed no emotion, Seto chose to believe the man was impressed.

“Keep watching for a god card,” he said.

Seeing the one-copy dragon in action was no disappointment, and neither was the performance of its owner. Her duelist rating should have been one star higher in the system.

As soon as Yori won, Seto was on his feet, and as she made her way to the Ghoul, he followed. The man gave no response to her demand; he seemed to have zoned out or gone into shock. Perhaps he was faking in order to avoid the consequences of his loss.

“Hey!” Mokuba barked, grinning. “As loser of a Battle City duel, you have to forfeit your rarest card and locator card to Yori!”

The Ghoul still gave no response. Yori thumped the tattoo in the middle of his forehead with her middle finger. Still nothing.

“Just what I needed,” she muttered to herself.

“You were great, by the way,” Mokuba said, and she gave a brief smile at that.

Seto looked down at her sternly. “You’re registered in my tournament under a fake name.”

“Hey”—she raised her hands—“you had my alias in your system first. I just didn’t go out of my way to correct it.”

Seto smirked. His fingers itched to reach for his deck.

“You promised me a duel,” he said.

“You’re cashing that in already? Not that I’m not flattered, but I’d hoped to—”

“Master Marik,” the Ghoul said suddenly, his eyes snapping back into focus on Yori.

“So close,” she said flatly, “but he probably looks more like a man.”

“I will take you,” the Ghoul said, “to Master Marik.”

“Your robotic voice is oh-so-convincing. As long as you’re feeling so obedient, I’d like my locator card.”

The Ghoul retracted his deck from his Duel Disk, extending it mechanically.

Yori rolled her eyes. “Make me do all the work.”

She took the locator card from the bottom and flipped through the rest until she seemed to find one she liked.

“You’ve got a Minerva the Sky Scholar.” Her eyes sharpened. “I’ll be taking this back to its owner. And while we’re here, I think I’d like your wallet, too.”

The Ghoul pulled it out.

Mokuba blinked. “Wow, I think that loss really shocked him.”

“No, he’s been mind-controlled.” Yori took the Ghoul’s free hand in hers and slapped his deck into it.

Seto scowled.

“Give me that look all you want,” Yori said, “but if you’re after the leader of the Ghouls, you should know. This is what he does to people.”

She opened the Ghoul’s leather bifold and rifled through it, pulling out a ten-dollar bill.

“This is all the cash you have?” She rolled her eyes. “I’d expected more from a rare-card hunter. If you only get one-percent back from your strikes or whatever, you should really find a new boss.”

“Um . . .” Mokuba blushed. “Battle City rules say . . .”

“I’m not taking anything he didn’t offer me.” Yori shrugged, looking the Ghoul in the eye. “Do you mind if I rob you blind, biscuit?”

“I will take you,” the Ghoul said, “to Master Marik.”

“See? No protests.”

She tucked the money in her pocket and dropped the Ghoul’s wallet back in his hand. He turned, still holding his deck in one hand and his wallet in the other, and began walking down the street.

Yori jerked her thumb after him. “This is a trap, but it’s my ticket. If you really want to duel me, you’ll either have to come along or catch me after. I doubt I’m hard to find with that system of yours.”

Seto frowned at the Ghoul’s back, then at her. “If you think it’s a trap, why are you going?”

She smiled. “As a duelist, shouldn’t you know?”

After sliding her newly acquired cards into the pouch with her deck, she followed the Ghoul. Seto watched the two of them go, calculating.

Mokuba gave a low whistle, threading his fingers behind his neck. He grinned.

“She’s really cool, Seto.”

Seto snorted. “I think she’s a little old for you.”

“But not for you.”

He got the Kaiba Glare for that, which made him giggle.

“Alright,” Seto said. “Time’s up. Back to headquarters.”

“What? Aw, come on! I take it back!”

But Seto wouldn’t be persuaded again. He wouldn’t say it aloud, but the Ghoul’s sudden personality drain and robotic responses had unnerved him, and although he would always be quick to debunk superstitions, he knew of at least one person who had a supernatural power he couldn’t deny. When that person was the creator of Duel Monsters, it made it hard not to be wary wherever the game was involved.

He caught Mokuba a taxi back to headquarters. Then he set out after Yori.

++++++++++

Joey was well on his way to becoming a true duelist. Not only had he figured out Esper Roba’s psychic trick was a fake, but he’d managed to beat the guy’s toughest monster, one that made traps useless—and now he had the shiny rare card to show for it. He tilted Jinzo in his hand, grinning as light reflected on the metallic ink. Although not as rare as his Red-Eyes, it was comparable in strength, which meant Joey was building up his deck at the same time as his confidence.

He slipped Jinzo into his deck and started scanning the street for the next big potato.

What he saw instead was a pay phone, and his steps faltered. He knew the number to Serenity’s hospital room, but would his mom even let him talk to her while he was in the tournament? Even if she did, he didn’t know if hearing about the tournament would make Serenity feel better or worse.

The only hope he had was to win Battle City’s big prize. If he could pay his way out from under his dad, he could also pay his way to America for a visit. He’d get around his mom and make it up to Serenity. Somehow.

A sudden tug on his elbow shook Joey out of his thoughts. He turned to find a grade-school kid standing there with shining eyes, intent made clear by the cardstock and pen he held halfway extended.

“Are you Joey Wheeler from Duelist Kingdom?” the kid burst out.

With just that, the gloom over Joey’s mind vanished, and he grinned.

“Now I’m Joey Wheeler from Battle City,” he said, giving what he imagined was a celebrity wink. “And this time I ain’t settlin’ for runner-up. I’m taking the gold.”

The kid practically shoved the pen into his hand, begging for his autograph, just as Joey had predicted. As Joey signed his name with a flourish—which he had, admittedly, practiced at home—the kid stared with wide eyes at his Duel Disk.

“This,” Joey said, gesturing at the device, “is a duelist’s life.”

He wasn’t really sure if that was accurate, but it sounded catchy.

The kid bit his lip, staring down at the ground. When he looked back up, he had a puppy face better than a real puppy’s face.

“Mr. Wheeler, do you think I could try it on? Just for a second? I’ll be really careful!”

Joey hesitated. He’d just called the Duel Disk his life, which was not something he should hand over to a random kid. But then again, this was his first-ever fan. And it wasn’t like he’d be out of Joey’s sight.

“Just for a second,” he agreed.

He unlatched the Duel Disk from his arm, handing it over. With all the excitement of Christmas morning, the kid snapped it on and struck a fighting pose. Joey laughed. For just a moment, he wondered what it would have been like to have a kid brother in addition to a little sister.

“What’s your name, kid?” he asked.

“Hiroto.” The kid beamed. Then, as if he’d just remembered, he said, “Oh, do you think you could also sign an autograph to my brother, Kajiki? You can just sign next to the one for me.”

Two fans in one family? If Joey wasn’t careful, he’d float away and never come down.

“Just be careful when you’re wavin’ these around,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you to get mugged for havin’ a priceless artifact.” He focused intently on recreating the awe-inspiring swirls of his first fame-and-fortune signature.

When he finished, the kid had already taken off the Duel Disk. They swapped items, and Joey secured the disk back on his arm. The bulkiness seemed almost comforting now that he’d gotten used to wearing it.

“I sure wish I could compete in the tournament,” Hiroto said, his puppy expression back in place. “I wanted to—I even had a rare card and everything.”

Joey frowned. “Well, then, why not? They run outta spots?”

The kid shook his head, swiping at his nose. “My rare card got stolen by this guy who said I wasn’t worthy of it. He had these big glasses with beetles on them. I think he’s a big champion; he was in Duelist Kingdom, too.”

A cold chill spread through Joey’s blood. It had nothing to do with fear; it had to do with anger. Insector Haga was the same guy who’d stolen Yuugi’s copy of Exodia and thrown it in the ocean before Duelist Kingdom started. The guy was a dirty cheat if there ever was one, regardless of the fact that he was Japan’s newest national champion.

Joey clenched his fists. “Any idea if that guy’s still hanging around?”

Hiroto pointed down the street. “I was by the bridge when he stole my card, so maybe he’s still over there. But I can’t get it back. Only the King of Games has ever beaten him in a duel.”

“’Til today,” Joey said.

He checked his deck, which was still secure in his Duel Disk. Thanks to Roba’s card he’d just added, he was more powerful than ever, and although Haga had a lot of dirty tricks, he still had a lot of skill as a duelist. He was a big potato.

Joey had found his next opponent.

++++++++++

Luckily for Anzu, her dad worked close to the hospital, and this wasn’t the first time she’d had to call him at work to deal with an unexpected injury. The previous two had been dance injuries, of course. A knife wound was a little hard to pass off as another one of those, but her dad was a relaxed person, so she just told him she was fine and it was an accident. Then he resolved the rest. He offered her a ride before he headed back to work, but she declined, and after a hug, he was gone.

It took Anzu a little while after that to find Serenity’s room, but eventually she was approaching the door, a determined bounce in her step that she liked to think of as stomping on Marik’s face.

Tristan stood in the hallway outside the door, and as soon as he spotted her, he rushed forward and pulled her around the corner, out of sight.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

And her face grew more and more ashen as he explained.

“So I need your help,” he finished.

“Maybe you didn’t give Joey’s mom enough time,” Anzu tried. “I mean, a lot of people give bad first impressions, and I’m sure she’s still upset about how Joey almost missed the surgery.”

Tristan scowled. “She’s bad news, Anzu. That’s all there is to it.”

Anzu’s expression got a little fiercer to match. “Look, this isn’t a gang. This is Joey’s mom. Let’s both go in and talk to her. We can explain how much Joey has worked for this and how much it would mean to have Serenity there. We can—”

“When I found Joey on the beach,” Tristan interrupted, “the whole reason he was hiding was because of his mom. I’m not overreacting; I promise.”

Anzu bit her lip.

“My mom isn’t quite like Joey’s,” he said, “but she’s strict, and she’s stubborn, and there are certain times when talking just plain won’t get you anywhere. This is one of those times. Trust me. We have two options—we can either leave things the way they are, or we can act. I know what Joey would do for either of us.”

Anzu scratched the back of her brace, then stopped herself. She brushed her hair away from her face, chewed on her lip for a moment longer.

“Okay,” she finally said. “But I want to make sure this is Serenity’s choice, since she’ll have to deal with her mom afterward. If she says no, we back off, no matter how much we want to help Joey.”

“Fair enough.”

“What’s your plan?”

He glanced down the hallway, craning his neck. “First, we have to find my favorite nurse.”

He tugged her around the hospital until they found a raven-haired nurse with a rounded face who immediately asked if Tristan was okay.

“I’m not here for me,” he said.

“You look pale,” she said. She was already reaching for a blood pressure cuff on a nearby cart.

“I had an FBS earlier today,” he said, “and, hey, this is my friend Anzu, and we need a favor.”

The nurse gave him the skunk eye for another few seconds before asking for details on the favor. To Anzu’s surprise, Tristan told her everything exactly how it was. She’d expected a crafty cover story like what she’d given the doctor about her cut. But the nurse listened and nodded along, giving no reaction that anything was out of the ordinary.

“What do you need from me?” she said at the end.

Tristan pointed at Anzu. “Can you pretend to be her mom?”

Anzu’s eyes shot wide open.

The nurse shrugged. “Well, we do have similar eyes.”

“I think you need to explain this plan a little better,” Anzu said.

After he did explain, she shook her head. “Serenity’s doomed.”

But it was better than any plan she had, so she fixed her hair, then followed the nurse down the hall.

++++++++++

When Yami crossed a bridge over the river, he couldn’t help glancing down, remembering with a smile when Yori had showed him the giant fish at a different section of the same river. Unfortunately, that sunlit park could have been in a different city for all that the current scene matched it. This area of Domino was all concrete, including the walkways beside the river and the bridge over it. If there were any fish to be found, they couldn’t be seen through the murky water.

He’d walked a good length of the river already with no sign of Marik’s “doll,” or even any other people, but as he crossed the bridge, he found a small group in the middle. A man and woman stood in front of a stone bench, while a second man stood on top of it. The elevated man had decked himself out in white face paint, and he wore white gloves to match. His hands were held stiffly before him, as if pressed to a wall of air. He stood completely unmoving, unblinking. Possibly even unbreathing.

“I thought mimes were supposed to move,” the woman grumbled.

“It’s artistic expression,” the man next to her said.

For his part, Yami narrowed his eyes at the mime—or, more specifically, at the tattooed Eye of Horus on his forehead.

“Alright, doll,” he said. “Now what?”

As if he’d inserted batteries, the mime’s head swiveled toward him, wide, bloodshot eyes fixed on his. The man and woman both turned to look at him as well.

“Ugh, I didn’t come here for an ‘audience participation act,’” the man grumbled. He gripped the woman’s hand, pulling her away.

With staggered, robotic movements, the mime reached for a bag at his feet and pulled out a Duel Disk. He attached the disk to his arm, then leapt from the bench and immediately began running, hands splayed and knees jerking up unnaturally. Yami was startled enough it took him a moment to give chase.

The mime led him around the bridge and down the steep concrete slope that attached to the walkway below. He ducked into an open flood grate, and Yami had to follow him down the large tunnel beyond it until they emerged in a wide underground area where four tunnels met. His shoes splashed in the inch or so of water covering the cement floor. There was barely enough light to see by, but the mime’s painted face glowed like the moon.

“I wanted you to feel at home, Pharaoh,” the mime said. The voice was high and light, like a young boy’s. A golden eye glowed to life on his forehead, casting his features in bleak shadows. “But this was as close to a tomb as I could find.”

“Marik.” Yami narrowed his eyes. “If you planned on facing me yourself, you should have come in person.”

“And waste a perfectly good doll?” The mime wagged a finger. “Of all my Ghouls, this vessel is the most suited to me. Its previous owner lost his mind after killing his own family. He barely has any will left to overcome, and with one foot already in the grave, he won’t mind having the ceiling dropped on him when you lose.”

Yami glanced at the surrounding tunnels. It was too dark for him to see any planted charges, but he could guess at their existence anyway.

“If your lifepoints hit zero, the tunnels collapse.” The mime’s wide eyes never blinked, the malice in his words never touched his empty expression. “I know it isn’t as fancy as your first tomb, but the labor force just isn’t what it used to be, and pyramids are hard to come by. At least you’ll have this servant to be buried with, although I can’t promise he’ll be much use to you on your ferry to the afterlife.”

“You really enjoy all this,” Yami said.

“Enjoyment was forbidden for the first twelve years of my life, so I have a lot of ground to make up.”

The mime approached Yami in the dark, extended his deck. Yami swapped it for his own, and they shuffled. Then the mime crossed to the other end of the open space. Their holo-imagers lit up the darkness a little more, and the mime drew a card for his first turn.

“What I’d enjoy most,” he said, “is seeing you suffer the way you’ve made my family suffer.”

“I don’t even know your family,” Yami said.

“Of course not, Pharaoh. I wouldn’t expect you to remember the existence of your servants. We’re far less important than your own kingly agenda.”

He played two cards facedown and summoned Revival Jam [1500/500] in defense mode.

“Your move.”

Chapter Text

“So how long have you been a Ghoul?” Yori asked.

The Ghoul who’d been so full of life before stared straight ahead, eyes glazed, gait measured and mechanical.

“I’m gonna guess a year,” she said. “Anyone can have a bad year. Look at me; I spent a year in a gang. But come January, I have a resolution for you: Dump the guy who brainwashes people.”

 The man continued walking forward down the sidewalk, fixed on a point beyond her gaze, leading her to who-knows-where and wasting minutes along the way.

“So how does this rod thing work? Does Marik hear everything you hear all the time or did you just tell him about our agreement specifically so he could derail it?”

No response. No surprise.

Yori blew a breath out hard enough it flipped her hair. She fiddled with the latch on the bottom of her Duel Disk, scratched at a black streak on the back of one of the holo-imagers.

And they just kept walking.

Maybe there was no way to reach Marik. The people who could lead her to him were the very wall he hid behind, and that wall could grow at any moment, swallow people she knew. Maybe she should put her focus on protecting those people instead—as if she’d ever been good at protecting people she cared about.

She wondered how Anzu was doing.

She wondered how Yami was doing.

“I’d really hoped you’d be better company than this,” she said.

As the Ghoul led her around a corner, a voice behind her piped up suddenly.

“Do you always talk to yourself?”

She smiled without looking back. “Hey, Seto, you finally caught up.”

The CEO increased his pace until he walked beside her; it couldn’t have been hard for him to catch up since each of his legs was practically its own skyscraper. Yori knew she was below average-height, but rarely had it ever been driven home so hard as standing next to Seto Kaiba. His tailored coat alone was taller than her entire body.

“How tall are you?” she asked.

He scowled. “What?”

She didn’t repeat herself, and finally, he said, “Six-two.”

“Have you measured lately?” Yori raised an eyebrow. “Gotta be taller than that.”

His scowl grew more pronounced. “Maybe six-three on a good day.”

That made her laugh, the kind of laugh that bubbled up until her eyes watered.

“A good day?” she repeated. “What, do you grow extra vertebrae on good days? Or do you just wear platform shoes?”

“How short are you?” he shot back.

“Five-two,” she said, “but I’m gonna start saying it’s five-three on my good days.”

The path before them opened into a familiar park. Yori wiped the moisture from her eyes, and though her smile slowly faded, she felt lighter than she had moments before. A few of the normal park vendors were still out and about, but most spots stood empty, including the stage that usually held Purple Hearts. Yori may have been the only duelist in the band, but she wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the game, and with the majority against him, Jiro had finally held his hands up in surrender, allowing everyone a break from practice in order to watch the tournament for the day. Yori wished the band could have seen her first match. At the very least, she hoped they got to witness duels that were Ghoul-free.

And speaking of Ghouls—on the bridge ahead, two Ghouls waited, hoods drawn up. One was tall and broad-shouldered (though not as tall as Seto) while the other was squat and rounded.

 “Well,” she said. “Found my trap, and it looks like there’s enough to go around. Aren’t you glad you came?”

Seto said nothing, but he flexed his fingers, eyes narrowed on the new Ghouls.

The Ghoul who’d led them there suddenly collapsed. Yori barely reacted in time to catch his arm and drop him gently on the grass rather than letting him crash into it face-first.

“Look, Yami,” one of the Ghouls on the bridge said, “our opponents have finally decided to grace us with their presence.”

Yori bristled. The Ghoul who’d spoken wore a white half-mask that curved upward in a cartoon smile over the right side of his face. The Ghoul he’d addressed wore a complementary black mask that curved downward in a fanged frown.

She hated them already.

“With how they took their time, Hikari,” the black-masked Ghoul said, “you’d think they weren’t serious duelists at all. Perhaps our master heard wrong about their prowess.”

Seto was already striding forward. “I am the greatest duelist on this planet, and before this match is over, you’ll be crawling at my feet.”

He hadn’t left her much room to respond, so Yori said nothing. Maybe there was an opening for greatest duelist on Mars; then she could be impressive, too. She checked her deck before snapping it into place in her Duel Disk. She wasn’t too worried about rushing forward to meet an opponent since Seto was obviously covering that front, and she didn’t care which one she faced. Part of her wondered if facing them was worth anything at all since Marik always seemed to be one step ahead.

But it would advance her in the tournament, and she’d promised Yami to make it to the finals with him. Maybe that was all she could do. Not a very invigorating thought.

“Looks like your partner isn’t feeling so brave.” White Mask snickered.

“Partner?” Seto deadpanned.

“You’ll need one, of course,” said Black Mask, “seeing as how this will be a tag-team duel.”

Yori blinked. “A what now?”

“Too scared to face me on your own?” Seto snapped.

White Mask grinned, matching the exposed side of his face to his mask. “Too scared to face us together?”

“If you want our locator cards, you’ll face us on our terms,” Black Mask said. “Beat us, and we may be willing to give you something else as well: the location of the remaining god cards.”

“Unless Marik holds them,” Yori said, “I’m not interested.”

That wasn’t quite true; Yami still needed all three god cards for the door to his memories (which was apparently the door to her memories as well), but Yori didn’t want the Ghouls to think they had more bargaining chips than they did. A god card was a little more obvious in the city than Marik; after all, she’d practically tripped into Seto’s.

“Master Marik does,” White Mask said, still grinning.

Speaking of tripping into things. If his statement was true, it really narrowed the Battle City targets down, which could be good or bad.

“Seto,” she said, “how do you feel about tag-team duels?”

“I despise them,” he said flatly. “And stop calling me by my first name; we’re not friends. Everyone in Battle City is my enemy.”

“I’m gonna take that as a ‘let’s do it,’ Mr. Kaiba.”

She stepped forward, and the Ghouls smirked at each other. They retreated across the bridge, leaving its curved belly open as the dueling field.

“I can crush these insects by myself,” Seto snarled. “Just sit quietly in defense mode and watch.”

Yori extended her arm, releasing her holo-imagers. “Has anyone ever told you dueling really brings out your charm?”

Seto and the two Ghouls followed her lead, but they also reached under their Duel Disks for something. Yori glanced at the bottom of her cuff and saw two small switches next to the button that released the latch. Once again, she realized she really should have studied harder before the tournament.

“Red switch,” Seto said, and if his tone said she was a moron, his expression said it louder. “It connects your Duel Disk to other local holo-imagers and allows shared play for a tag-team match.”

“I really hadn’t expected to play one,” Yori said, though it wasn’t much of an excuse.

“Neither had I,” Seto muttered.

“The girl goes first,” White Mask said.

Yori shrugged, drawing her first hand. She summoned Constellar Sheratan [700/1900] in defense mode. The ram-horned guardian crouched atop his card, eyes barely visible from within his gold helmet, arms crossed in front of his face.

“His special effect allows me to add another constellar from my deck to my hand,” she said. Her deck holder pushed out a card for her, and she took it. “That ends my turn.”

“You’re sitting quietly in defense mode.” Seto raised an eyebrow.

“Surprised I have ears?” She mirrored his action. “Unlike some people, I don’t need all the glory. If you want to take these guys by yourself, be my guest. I know you have just the card for it.”

“My turn,” White Mask announced. He played two cards facedown, ending his turn without summoning a monster.

Yori narrowed her eyes. There were two good reasons for her to sit quietly and observe for a while. First, it would allow her to figure out how a tag-team duel worked since she’d never played one before. Second, it would give her a chance to feel out the Ghouls’ strategies, which was even more important since she was in a new style of game. Let Seto charge ahead if he wanted; she didn’t even know where the ground was yet.

Seto went next, also playing two cards facedown. Then he summoned Battle Ox [1700/1000] in attack mode. The hulking minotaur gave a bellow and stomped hoof-shaped craters into the bridge, brandishing a double-headed ax the size of Seto.

Then it was Black Mask’s turn. So far, the tag-team style seemed very straightforward.

“Time for it all to come together,” Black Mask said. “Hikari, you have my back?”

“Always, Yami.”

Yori ground her teeth.

Black Mask summoned Shining Abyss [1600/1800], and no sooner had the bulbous blue-and-yellow monster appeared on the field than White Mask activated a facedown card—Mask of Brutality.

The fanged mask with arms in place of eyes attached itself to Shining Abyss’s face, raising its attack points by 1000 and dropping its defense by the same.

“Of course, this equip comes with a price.” White Mask sighed. “I’ll have to pay 1000 lifepoints every turn to keep it in place.”

“I have just the thing, Hikari.” Black Mask slid a card into play. “Spell card: Masked Doll!”

A poseable wooden doll appeared on the field, slumped forward. A wooden stake pierced its chest.

“As long as my doll is in play, it negates the cost of all mask cards we play.”

“Ah, so clever, Yami!”

“Alright, we get it,” Yori snapped. “You’re great team players. How cute. Did you come up with your nicknames yourself?”

“I am the mask of darkness,” Black Mask said. “Yami.”

“And I am the mask of light,” White Mask said. “Hikari. And our team strategy is unstoppable.”

“Please. You’re like the low-budget dub of a children’s cartoon and even less entertaining. If you ever stand back-to-back, I swear I’ll put a knife in your kidney. My turn.”

She jerked a card from her deck.

“Has anyone ever told you,” Seto drawled, “that dueling really brings out your charm?”

Yori knew it was stupid to get worked up. Name overlap was a common thing; she couldn’t count how many Sakuras she’d met in her lifetime. But hearing Yami’s name applied to a Ghoul of all people was like a hot coal pressed to her skin, burning and burning no matter how she tried to ignore it.

She summoned Constellar Aldebaran [1300/800] in defense mode. The ox-horned guardian knelt next to his comrade, dwarfing him like a German Shepherd next to a Chihuahua.

 “I set one card facedown,” she said, “and end my turn.”

++++++++++

“You’re not talking much,” the mime said.

After surveying his hand, Yami set a card facedown. “I wasn’t under the impression we were on friendly speaking terms. But perhaps I simply misinterpreted your intention to kill me.”

The mime’s shoulders quivered with laughter, outlined in the white glow his monster cast.

On Yami’s first turn, he’d summoned Gazelle the King of Mythical Beasts [1500/1200] and tried attacking Marik’s Revival Jam, but the monster had a special ability that resummoned it to the field whenever it was destroyed in defense mode, making it a permanent wall monster.

On Marik’s next turn, he’d summoned Melchid the Four-Face Beast [1500/1200] in attack mode.

Now it was Yami’s turn again, and he had a good idea about what was in store for him if he attacked. It was like staring down a pile of leaves he was certain hid a bear trap, but there was only one way forward, so he was ready to throw a rock.

“I’ll sacrifice Gazelle to summon Archfiend of Gilfer [2200/2500],” Yami said, “and I’ll attack your Four-Face Beast.”

His winged demon lunged forward, a roar in its throat, claws raised. Marik’s four-faced floating head sat like a rabbit before a car.

Then sure enough—

“Permanent trap card: Jam Defender!”

Revival Jam swooped in like a shield just as Yami’s archfiend brought its claws down. The slime monster burst apart into silver droplets, then reformed itself just as before.

With Marik’s trap card in play, any attack against one of his monsters was automatically redirected to his Revival Jam, which would just come back to the field after being destroyed. Marik wanted to build up his monsters without the risk of losing them, most likely to use in a tribute summon.

And if he needed such a powerful wall, Yami had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to summon.

“Looks like I’ve found my god cards,” Yami said.

“Very good, Pharaoh.” The mime clapped politely. “Interesting that you say ‘my’ when I’m clearly in possession. The entitlement of royalty, I suppose.”

Yami bit back a response.

Despite being focused on sharp conversation, the fact remained that Marik had a very solid defense strategy, one Yami currently had no way of breaking through. There was always the option not to break through it and instead spend the time preparing for the god card. Yami had no idea what to expect from a god monster beyond “powerful.” Not very promising or reassuring.

“You know what’s great about the gods?” the mime said. “They play favorites.”

“Doesn’t sound great,” Yami said.

“No, I didn’t think so either. Not for the longest time. Of course, that’s because I was never a favorite. Merely a servant.” The mime tilted his painted face up, and though his expression remained as blank as always, his voice was nearly wistful. “I once watched my sister pray to Sekhmet. I asked her, ‘If the goddess had to choose between answering a prayer for you or a prayer for the pharaoh, would she choose the pharaoh?’ What do you think?”

Yami ended his turn and said nothing else.

“Be a good sport, Pharaoh.” Marik’s gaze was heavy from behind the mime’s eyes. “Did you forget my game terms already? Shall I have your friend Anzu remind you?”

“The pharaoh,” Yami said tightly.

The mime smiled. It was a gruesome expression. He drew a card.

“From birth, I was told my life’s privilege was to serve the nameless pharaoh. I was meant to feel grateful. Blessed. Instead, I felt like a slave with no life of my own. And why? Because favorites.”

//Hanging in there?// Yuugi asked.

Yami could only imagine how much of his roiling emotions were spilling unintentionally through their bond. He took a deep, calming breath.

“Then I realized something interesting,” the mime pressed on. “You were never chosen by the gods because of who you are, simply because of how you were born. Which means the favorites are circumstantial. Which means, actually, you’re nothing special at all.”

He summoned another monster to the field: Makyura the Destructor [1600/1200].

//I’m fine,// Yami said, trying to believe it himself. //Thank you for your concern.//

He knew it was more than concern for himself Yuugi felt. After winning the previous duel, Yami had hesitated to save his opponent. He hadn’t meant to, and it had been a second of hesitation at most—but enough for Yuugi to seize control once more, enough for Yami to feel through their bond how the boy was remembering shadow games and wondering if Yami was still the same person who would have thrown Kaiba from a tower for victory.

He wasn’t. Yet he’d hesitated, and he couldn’t say why.

“Why are you here, Marik?” Yami asked.

The mime’s teeth split his makeup. “Why are you here, Pharaoh?”

Yami gripped the chain around his neck.

The mime shrugged. “Your move.”

Yami drew a card, trying to ignore the way he felt his pounding heart in his jaw. He added another facedown card to his field and switched the Archfiend of Gilfer to defense mode.

“So I have you on the run.” The mime rolled his shoulders as though prepping for a fight. “Best keep it up. Where was I? I was a tombkeeper. The firstborn son of the lineage guarding the nameless pharaoh’s memories for his return.”

Yami gritted his teeth. //Yuugi, have you heard of tombkeepers?//

//A little? I think that’s what Shadi called himself when we first met.//

“Guarding my memories?”

“Anything that is the pharaoh’s is sacred.” The mime’s tone held mock severity. “Therefore, it must be guarded. Every firstborn son in every generation for the last 3,000 years—how many people is that, Pharaoh? How many men lived and died for your purposes?”

Yami remained silent once more, and the question hung in the air until Marik answered it himself.

“One-hun-dred,” the mime said, enunciating each syllable, “and-six-teen.”

Yami wished he could say Marik’s family traditions had nothing to do with him, that if generations of men had chosen to live and die defending a secret, they had chosen to do so of their own free will. But the truth was what it always seemed to be—unknown. He simply didn’t know what hand he’d had in Marik’s fate. He didn’t know what his soul had done in 3,000 years of sealed darkness or even how many years of mortality he’d lived before that.

“I realize we pale in comparison to the thousands of slaves Egypt’s majesty was built on”—the mime’s eyes narrowed—“but I’ll keep count all the same.”

The mime drew a card, surveying his hand. Even if he wanted to keep Revival Jam in play, two monsters were all the tribute needed for an eight-star monster, the strongest monsters in the game. Either a god required three or Marik had yet to draw the god itself.

After another moment, the mime summoned Domineering Fiend [1500/200] and ended his turn.

Yami drew a card, but he couldn’t focus on what action to take.

//You’re worried,// Yuugi said. Not a question.

//Marik has at least one of the god cards,// Yami said, choosing to omit any additional information. He had to remind himself he was dealing with a man who had declared nothing but hatred against him—not a shining source of reliable information.

Still . . .

//Kind of a big coincidence for him to know who you are and have a god card,// Yuugi said. //I can only imagine he knows you need them.//

“What’s the matter, Pharaoh? Don’t know what move to make?”

Not for lack of options. There was plenty to say—that Yami hadn’t asked for Marik’s fate any more than he’d asked for his own, that he didn’t know what it meant to be a tombkeeper or the sacrifices such a life entailed—but true or not, the words would have felt like excuses. Empty air. Just as Marik’s unyielding Revival Jam defended his monsters, his wealth of knowledge defended his actions. Yami could hardly challenge him without an inch of ground to stand on.

But perhaps he had that much.

“I end my turn,” he said, lowering his Duel Disk. The satisfaction was clear as the mime moved to draw a card, but before he could, Yami stopped him by speaking again.

“If you’d been born as pharaoh,” he said, “would you have done better than I?”

The mime’s face gave no reaction, but the glowing eye on his forehead blanched for just an instant.

“Of course I would have!” he snapped.

“Of course you would have.” Yami’s eyes narrowed. “Single-handedly ended slavery and saved the tombkeepers, all without any knowledge of the future. Perhaps you could have cured famine and drought while you were at it and given Egypt flight technology just for fun.”

“I—”

“You may judge me with 3,000 years of hindsight as your support, and perhaps your judgments are righteous, but tell me, outside of blaming an ancient pharaoh, what have you done to improve your own circumstances?”

Fists clenched, the mime stuttered for words.

Yami pressed his advantage. “You control people like puppets and use them to fight your battles. You blame others for your problems. You’re a coward at heart, Marik!”

“You killed my father!” Marik shrieked.

Yami’s eyes widened. He took an involuntary step back.

The mime scrubbed the back of his wrist across his forehead, blurring the Eye of Horus before it righted itself, smearing his face makeup. His eyes were wild in his face, different than they’d ever been before, and he nearly panted as he drew breath.

“On December 23rd,” he said. “Four years ago. You killed my father.”

Four years. Long before Yami’s first recollection, long before he’d woken from the darkness. The puzzle had been with Yuugi already, uncompleted and useless. He’d always assumed his spirit had been the same. Had it instead been free to roam? Had completing the puzzle trapped him in place when he’d previously run wild?

He knew the person he’d been when he first gained awareness, knew how deep the darkness had run in his veins. If he’d been free before that, he . . .

“Nothing was more important to my father”—the mime’s voice had lowered, but his eyes were still wild—“than his duty as a tombkeeper. He’d have died for you. He’d have killed for you. But just as my sister’s prayer meant nothing to Sekhmet, my father’s loyalty meant nothing to you.”

The glow on the mime’s forehead flared, casting shadows across his face. “Today is your reckoning day.”

He drew a card, and even across the distance, Yami felt it like a static shock.

The mime’s eyes were alive with gold. “I hope your soul is ready to meet God.”

He swept three monsters from his Duel Disk, leaving Revival Jam alone on the field. He touched the god card to the silver surface, and their stone cavern erupted with golden light. Yami shielded his eyes with a hand, flinching back as a rush of hot air crashed against him like a wave, stealing his breath.

//Yami?!//

//Stay back!// Yami said.

He could barely make out the mime’s silhouette against the sun rising behind him. Golden wings took shape encircling the field, and a brilliant phoenix head bowed forward above the mime, white-hot eyes fixed on Yami.

And Yami saw something in that gaze.

Or rather, he saw something missing.

“Marik,” he gasped out, “what have you done?!”

The mime cackled. “Say your prayers, Pharaoh! Let’s see if they do anything for you now.”

Yami had never run from an opponent, never turned his back on a challenge. He had never retreated from a match, no matter how dishonorable or underhanded his opponent’s tactics, no matter how slim his chances of success.

But when he saw the emptiness in those white eyes, his very soul seemed to flee from his body, and somehow, he knew. He just knew.

He leapt backward, pressed himself inside the edge of a tunnel—

—just as the phoenix turned to flames that roared through the hollow cavern.

The mime’s clothes lit on fire, but rather than scream, he scowled.

“What is this?” he snapped.

Nothing in the cavern should have burned; it was all cement, metal, and water. Yet it did. The flames roared gold and white, devouring the water across the floor as if it were dry grass, swallowing the ceiling as if it were aged wood. Yami couldn’t breathe past the heat. He covered his face with his arm.

Yuugi appeared at his side, horror on the boy’s face.

“We have to help him!” Yuugi shouted, the same thing he’d said when Yami’s previous opponent had stood in the path of a flamethrower.

But this was no flamethrower. And if the unnatural wildfire wasn’t bad enough, Yami knew the next danger coming, knew Marik’s assigned penalty for the end of the duel.

Yami felt the tug on his mind, felt Yuugi trying to take over so he could rush in to help the Ghoul, but for the first time in memory, he resisted it. He turned abruptly and raced down the tunnel.

“We can’t—” Yuugi started, but an explosion covered whatever he might have said next. The ground rocked beneath Yami’s feet, almost sending him to the floor. Ears ringing, he caught himself on the wall and kept running. The brilliant white light behind him disappeared as an avalanche of concrete filled the tunnel opening.

He burst into open air once more, gasping for breath. Bright spots filled the air each time he blinked, his face still prickling from the heat. He doubled over, then sank to his knees. A glance down at his Duel Disk told him all his cards were still firmly in place, and he managed a humorless laugh as he unlatched it from his arm.

“Good tech, Kaiba,” he muttered, dropping the machine to the ground beside him. He sat and pressed a hand to his chest, feeling his heart pound. The day was bright overhead, the concrete path devoid of people, the river beside him placid, everything completely oblivious to the chaos that had raged underground.

Yuugi appeared next to him in a crouch, eyes wide.

“What was that?” the boy whispered.

Yami shook his head. “A fake god card.”

After he’d beaten the Exodia-wielding Ghoul, he’d gone through the man’s deck to find Joey’s Red-Eyes, and he’d been certain some if not all of the cards were fake. Apparently, Marik and his Ghouls thought they could clone even a god.

“I don’t think anything about that was fake,” Yuugi said.

“No,” Yami agreed. He glanced up at the sky overhead where the mid-day sun burned in crystal blue. “I believe the fake god invoked the real god’s wrath.”

He rubbed his face, his fingers ice cold and trembling. He shook his head.

December 23rd. Four years ago.

He shook his head again.

“I’m getting really tired of fire,” Yuugi said quietly. His eyes were on the tunnel entrance, his mind no doubt on the buried Ghoul beyond.

Yami reached out to grip his shoulder. He took a deep breath before climbing back to his feet, lifting his Duel Disk with him. But his knees trembled, and he stumbled forward. He gave another hollow laugh.

“I can take over for a while,” Yuugi offered.

Yami shook his head, latching his Duel Disk on once more. “I doubt Marik will be deterred by that setback. His next strike will come just as quickly as before.”

December—

“All the more reason for you to take this break while you can get it.”

Yami hesitated. His heart still raced in his chest, and he felt clammy. He could see those empty white eyes each time he blinked, feel the fury they roused deep in his heart. He clenched a fist, trying to stop his fingers from trembling. The tremor wasn’t from fear; it was from anger, and he couldn’t explain why seeing Marik’s soulless fake had felt like a crime against his own soul. Perhaps he was focusing his emotions in a familiar place—anger at underhanded tactics—in order to avoid facing something worse.

You killed my father.

In the end, he surrendered to the gentle tug on his mind, allowing himself to release his temporary hold on mortality. It was a relief to lose all those tormenting physical sensations, but alone in the maze of his soul, he was left with the memory of Marik’s voice and more questions than ever.

Chapter Text

When Marik was learning to write, his father would demonstrate the set of hieroglyphs he was meant to copy, then stand above him with a thin wooden rod as he practiced. Without fail, Marik’s hands would shake under the pressure, and he would overdraw a line or smudge the ink with his pinkie knuckle, and he could practically hear his father’s deep frown.

“Focus, Marik!” his father would bark while that wooden rod came whistling down to crack against Odion’s back.

Because it was never Marik his father punished. Marik’s back was a sacred slate that had to be kept clean and unmarked.

Odion never cried out or complained, and while his eyes carried a wound whenever he glanced at their father, he never directed such expressions at Marik. For Marik, all he did was smile encouragingly like the best big brother anyone could ask for.

And sometimes, that made Marik’s hands shake even more.

When Marik had demanded his Ghouls make copies of the two god cards in his possession, Odion never spoke against it because he never spoke against anything, but Marik had seen the worry in the creases of his carved face. When confronted, he quietly admitted he did not think the gods would look kindly on copy cards when half of Pegasus’s development team had been slaughtered just for making the originals.

Marik dismissed the concern. Copy card or original, all that mattered was that the bearer be powerful enough to command a god.

Upon project completion, one of the Ghouls was foolish enough to steal the completed copy of Osiris and attempt to use it. His body was still smoking when it was discovered.

And the worry in Odion’s face had grown deeper.

Marik had rightfully declared the Ghoul an imbecile and warned the remaining Ghouls involved in the project that the gods would only obey a bloodline of power such as his own. He reclaimed the copy of Osiris and handed it to Odion.

When he did, Odion looked at him, and for the first time, Marik saw in his expression what used to be directed only at their father. In that moment, he realized he was treating himself as the lamb that must be kept without blemish, just as his father had.

It made him ill.

“Dispose of it,” he said. When Odion’s eyes grew wide, he added, “What else would I have given it to you for?”

The worry disappeared, and he said, “Yes, Master Marik.”

But without telling Odion, Marik kept the copy of Ra. He believed there was nothing to fear in duplicating the god cards, but if he was wrong, he was no longer the child forbidden from receiving the punishment of his own mistakes.

The irony of the pride he’d felt at that decision was not lost on Marik now. Ra’s white and gold flames burned the very air in his vision while Marik felt the skin of his Ghoul host melting from his bones. Though the connection was not as vivid as if it had been his own body, he felt the pain nonetheless. The pharaoh had escaped, and Marik’s test had failed, so he released the mind of his doll, slamming back to reality in his own body.

Only to cry out in pain once more.

He stumbled forward, catching himself on a chair with one arm while the other clawed at his shoulder. If he could have seen his back, he was certain he would have seen those same flames peeling the muscles from his spine. What he did see was the sudden burst of flame that consumed the chest where the real god card was hidden.

“ENOUGH!” Marik bellowed, brandishing the Millennium Rod at the fire. His item flared with golden light that overwhelmed and pushed back the flames until nothing remained but the smoldering embers of the box—and the real Ra, the Great Sun God.

Marik hissed through clenched teeth, sliding the rod into his belt. He pulled his sleeveless shirt over his head.

The fabric was bloodied.

He wadded it up and tossed it over the remains of the box.

In the ship’s bathroom mirror, he was able to angle himself enough to see the markings on his back. Most of the delicate scars were untouched, but the image of Ra wept blood as intensely as the day it had been carved.

So much for having a backup for his god card. The fake had been a convenient idea because it would have allowed him to duel remotely through a host without letting the true god card out of his hands. He’d planned to use it to challenge the owner of the third card as soon as he discovered which of the pests had it. Of course, he’d also wanted to see the pharaoh crushed beneath the power of a god.

Now the pharaoh was likely laughing at his humiliation.

Marik smashed a fist into the mirror. The grass fractured around his knuckles while his skin split and leaked blood. A pounding ache roused in his hand, dulling the burn in his back. He lowered his head, biting his lip as laughter rumbled through his chest. The laughter spilled out, and he shook his hand, flexing his fingers as they tingled.

When he glanced up at his reflection, the left side of his face seemed to skew, his eye reaching for his ear, his smile a step behind.

He blinked and it was gone.

The top of the rod felt hot against the bare skin of his hip, and he touched it with his injured hand. The Eye of Horus glowed to life on his forehead.

He closed his eyes, losing himself in the orange sand dunes of his mind. The sand swirled around him, alive with images and voices. He trailed a hand through the windswept particles, letting the colors, feelings, and sounds wash over him until he found what he sought.

Through a Ghoul’s eyes, he saw Yuugi’s friend Joey dueling a kid with glasses. Neither duelist was below 2000 lifepoints yet.

“When he’s alone,” Marik ordered the Ghoul, “take him.”

Then Marik was searching again. This time, he found Yuugi’s friend Ryou.

The pale, thin-framed boy was already alone.

“Now,” Marik ordered.

He returned to his own mind, his own body, and the pain was waiting for him, but Marik was laughing again.

As he caught his own fevered eyes in the mirror, they seemed to be looking back at him from a different face.

++++++++++

Ryou’s stop at the bakery was meant to be a quick thing, no more than ten or fifteen minutes. But as he sat by the window with his three perfectly appetizing cream puffs, minding his own business, he was mobbed by three much-less-appetizing girls from school who gushed over his Duel Disk and his participation in the tournament. He conversed politely for several minutes, but rather than being satisfied, the girls only seemed more eager to pester him. They took seats at his table without invitation, and one girl even helped herself to his cream puffs.

“Start talking about corpses,” the spirit said. This time, Ryou didn’t even jump when he appeared. “They’ll clear out in an instant.”

Ryou shook his head ever so slightly, his polite smile still pasted on despite the fact that he was about half an hour past polite feelings.

“I know, right?” one of the girls said, licking the evidence of his final cream puff from her fingers. “It’s just crazy for Mr. Watanabe to expect that much work.”

“Better yet,” the spirit said, “turn them into corpses. Of course, then you’re the one stuck doing the clearing.”

Despite himself, Ryou snorted. He turned it into a cough, and all three girls fawned over him, asking if he was feeling alright, if the tournament stress was taking its toll, and if he needed a cough drop. Ryou took it as his opportunity to excuse himself to the loo. He ducked through the cramped room, and once he was certain none of the girls were looking, he made his way out the door as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, they did see him out the window. Rather than turn back to face his impropriety like a gentleman, Ryou ran for it. He made it two full blocks before he dared slow down to breathe. But a sudden slap on the back stole his breath as soon as he had it.

 “Bravery at its finest!” The spirit cackled. “Running from a bunch of girls. You’re a real soldier.”

Ryou scowled but chose not to grace the ghost with a response. Best to just get on with the tournament and leave the unfortunate delay behind. He checked his Duel Disk and deck, which were both secure and unchanged. Since no one around him had a Duel Disk, he started walking—still heading as far away from the bakery as he could get.

To Ryou’s surprise, the spirit didn’t leave.

“Made the finals yet?” he asked.

Ryou frowned. “You know I haven’t. I’ve been trapped in a bloody bakery for an hour.”

“I’d’ve made the finals by now.”

“Is that so?” Ryou rolled his eyes.

“I could demonstrate if you like.”

Ryou came to a stop and regarded the spirit. It was like looking in a mirror honeycombed with cracks that made everything about himself jagged and sharp.

“If I let you out,” he said, “you’d never go back.”

“I had a scar,” the spirit said.

Ryou blinked. “What?”

The spirit ran his thumb from below his right eye down his cheek.

“When I was mortal,” he clarified, smirking, “I had a big scar right here. You were just thinking how similar we look, and it bothers you, so there you go. I’m meant to have a scar. Wish I could tell you I had a tan, but Egypt was pure hell for an albino, and the sun did me no favors.”

“I don’t think we look similar,” Ryou lied. They could have been brothers. “Your shoulders are at least twice the size of mine. It’s a wonder you fit through doors.”

The spirit cackled at that. “It’s a wonder you don’t fall through sewer grates, beanpole.”

“Beanpole? That’s the best you’ve got?”

“I absorbed my modern vocabulary from your mind, so if you have a complaint, take it up with yourself.”

Ryou grimaced at that. “Way to sound like a parasite.”

The spirit shrugged. “Isn’t that how you think of me?”

Once upon a time, certainly. Ryou had felt like the ring was a cursed artifact and the spirit within it was the nightmare that could take over his awareness at any moment.

Now he wasn’t sure what to think.

The spirit’s eyes narrowed at something over Ryou’s shoulder. “Duck!”

Without thinking, Ryou obeyed, and a set of arms that had been poised to grab him closed on nothing but air. The man they belonged to scowled from within a deep purple hood.

Ghouls. Ryou’s blood ran cold, remembering Joey’s bloodied face.

“Let me take over!” the spirit barked.

Ryou tried to run, but the big man was too fast, and his hand clamped over the boy’s wrist, twisting it behind his back, forcing him to his knees. The spirit snarled at the Ghoul, but his hand passed right through the man’s cloak.

“Let me take over!” he repeated, brown eyes burning.

Ryou wanted to. He had no doubt the spirit could overpower the Ghoul when he couldn’t. But what would happen then?

Another Ghoul stepped forward. He raised his fist.

“You’re a fool!” the spirit screamed.

Maybe he was.

The second Ghoul struck him, and everything went dark.

++++++++++

Yori would never forget the night she first heard of Duel Monsters, sitting in the dark with only the black-and-white TV lighting the cramped room. She’d been in the orphanage for almost a year, and though she couldn’t remember what movie had been playing, she remembered the thirty-second ad that popped up during a commercial break announcing how the hit American card game was now available in stores across Japan. When Yori saw the cards—the brown spiral leading to a center circle of black—she recognized them instantly.

The very next day, she snuck out of the orphanage yard and ran to the closest store. The cashiers there directed her to a shop down the street, and the owner of that one directed her to a third. The third store was a sweets shop with only a tiny corner dedicated to games, but they had one box of booster packs available for sale. Yori lifted a foil pack reverently, tracing the image of the purple knight charging across the silver.

A big kid elbowed her aside, then bought three packs at once. When Yori heard the cashier tell the kid his total, her heart dropped to her heels. She almost ran for it, pack in hand, but she didn’t. She almost tucked the pack into her pocket or under her scarf, but she didn’t. She put it back.

The headmistress nearly skinned her alive for running away, which Yori thought was stupid because she’d come right back and everyone knew the headmistress didn’t want her there anyway. One of the other kids said it was only because the headmistress would get in trouble for losing an orphan. Another said it was because the headmistress got paid for every kid in the place, but Yori was certain if that were true, the woman would have started stealing babies in town and calling them orphans.

 Either way, she was confined indoors for the next month. It didn’t matter; there was no point sneaking out again when she couldn’t afford to buy a single dango much less a Duel Monsters booster pack.

It was another two years before she picked up a booster pack again, and that time, she bought it. She’d just been given to her first foster family, and they wanted to get her a “welcome to the family” gift. That generosity only lasted about three days, but it was enough to buy an experience Yori would never forget. The silver foil crinkled like a candy wrapper as she tore it, but the hunger she felt was much deeper. She examined each of the five cards one by one, tilted them to catch the light, traced the edges, the illustrations, the text. She held them against the two cards she’d found in her pocket that October day, and they fit together perfectly, pieces of the same puzzle.

The first identity Yori ever found for herself was in Duel Monsters.

“Even the strongest chain,” Black Mask said, “can be broken by a single weak link.”

After Yori had ended her second turn, White Mask had played a permanent spell card that stopped any of his opponents from sacrificing their monsters for tributes. Since tribute summoning was the most reliable way to get high-level monsters on the field, it was a huge handicap for Yori and Seto. Seto had refused to go on the defensive, leaving Battle Ox in attack mode despite the 900 points of difference between Black Mask’s monster and his.

Black Mask had taken the bait to attack, and Seto had activated the trap card Ring of Destruction, which was meant to destroy Shining Abyss and subtract its attack points from both Seto and Black Mask. Seto then activated his second facedown card, a spell card that protected him from taking damage.

But White Mask was ready with a spell card of his own, which transferred the effects of both of Seto’s cards to Black Mask. Battle Ox was destroyed by Ring of Destruction, taking 1700 of Seto’s lifepoints with it. Seto had only 2300 lifepoints remaining, and Shining Abyss still hadn’t taken its attack. As soon as it did, he would lose the rest of his lifepoints and be out of the match.

It was disappointing. Yori had expected a better play from the tournament organizer, but apparently his pride wouldn’t let him play it safe for even one turn.

“It’s a shame, Hikari,” Black Mask added. “I can testify that having a good partner at your back makes all the difference.”

“You said it, Yami,” White Mask said. “But don’t beat yourselves up too much—even if you’d attempted to work together, there’s no way you could have beaten our perfect tactics. Our decks are two sides of the same whole.”

Yori frowned at that. They almost made it sound like—

“I look forward to collecting the god card from whoever has it,” Black Mask said.

He ordered Shining Abyss to attack, and Seto’s face twisted in a snarl.

The bulbous monster lurched across the field, both clawed hands raised high, but when they came slashing down, it wasn’t Seto’s chest they slashed through.

It was Constellar Sheratan’s.

The small guardian let out a shriek as he from the field, but since he’d been in defense mode, Yori’s lifepoints remained untouched.

“You’re unbelievable,” Yori said.

Seto stood with his jaw open, staring at the empty air before him where Yori’s monster had been. It was a good thing sending her monster to defend him had worked; she hadn’t been sure it would. The learning curve was steep on her first tag-team duel.

She narrowed her eyes. “You weren’t going to tell me that if one partner loses a tag match, the whole team loses?”

White Mask giggled to himself, and she wasn’t sure if he found the whole situation funny or if he hadn’t realized that she didn’t know. Either way, it only set her nerves more on edge. Thank heaven the Ghouls had given her enough cues to figure things out since her partner certainly wasn’t helpful.

“It’s in the tournament rules,” Seto snapped.

“Which you wrote,” Yori snapped back. “Why would you make such a stupid rule?”

“To prevent weak players from being carried.”

“Yet here I am carrying you. So much for ‘strongest duelist on the planet.’ You’re a joke.”

“What?!” he snarled, eyes cold as ice. “You’ve contributed nothing to this—”

“Other than saving your life?” Yori scoffed. “And who was it who told me to ‘sit quietly in defense mode’ again?”

“Much as you two obviously don’t need opponents,” Black Mask interrupted, “my turn is not yet finished.”

Yori ground her teeth, looking away. But Black Mask was right about one thing; Seto wasn’t her opponent. Marik was. While she sat here playing cards like an idiot, he was off somewhere in the city threatening the only friends she had.

And she couldn’t do a thing to stop him.

“Spell card: Mask of the Accursed,” Black Mask said.

An eyeless green mask appeared over Constellar Aldebaran’s face and bolted itself in from both sides. Yori’s monster let out a bellow, then went still, arms dangling limp at his sides.

“This card renders one monster on the field unable to attack or defend,” Black Mask said. “And it will drain the owner’s lifepoints by 500 during each of their standby phases. Turn end.”

Perfect. Everything was just perfect. Yori yanked a card from her deck. It was the spell card Pot of Greed, and it was good timing since she could certainly use more options at the moment.

Her standby phase activated, and she hissed as her lifepoints dropped from 4000 to 3500.

She moved to play Pot of Greed, hesitating just before it touched the surface of her Duel Disk. She stared at the leering face on the green pot, at the way the turquoise border looked against the silver metal.

Pot of Greed was the only card she still had in her deck from that first booster pack. She heard again the crinkle of the silver foil, saw each of the cards as she sat next to the window and tilted them in the light, smiling as the holographic ink reflected gold and black in the sun.

She’d been hesitant to step foot in Battle City from the start, afraid of a battle on someone else’s turf by someone else’s rules.

But Duel Monsters had always been her home field.

She smirked.

“I can see why you hate tag-team matches,” Yori said, glancing at Seto. “I like being in control as much as any CEO, and I don’t think I have a bone of teamwork in my body.”

Seto raised one eyebrow.

“So forget the cooperation,” she said. “Let’s have a competition. First one to crush the opponent and keep their partner alive wins. Fifty bucks says it’ll be me.”

His smirk matched hers.

“Get ready, Ghouls,” she said. “It’s a brand-new game.”

“No matter what you do”—White Mask shrugged—“you can’t beat our perfect combos. Our decks are two halves of one strategic whole. Yours are disjointed and, thanks to my permanent spell card, crippled.”

“We’ll see.” Yori slapped Pot of Greed down on her Duel Disk. The screen above her deck flashed “draw two,” and she drew the top two cards in one fluid motion. She slid them in with the rest of her hand, surveyed her options, and smiled.

“I think it’s about time we got some real power on the field,” she said.

White Mask shook an admonishing finger at her. “Too bad you can’t tribute summon. Even if you have a god in your hand, you don’t have any way to bring it out.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” She slid a card into one of her magic-and-trap slots. “Spell card: Magician’s Release!”

Magician’s Release wasn’t just an equip for Dante to reveal his spellcaster form; it was also a way to special summon him in it straight from her hand. Yori set Dante the Fire Dragon [2900/2600] in the monster slot above his equip.

The spell card cast blinding white light across the field, and Dante leapt from it, hovering just above the field, braced on nothing but air. His human form had tousled black hair and a black-and-red uniform with sleeves rolled back to his elbows. His hands and wrists were tattooed with faint symbols in swirling patterns, his shaved right temple tattooed to match. Only his burning crimson eyes were unchanged. He held out a hand; a black staff appeared in his grasp, carved with the same marks as his tattoos and topped with a flaming garnet.

“Your dragon can do that, too?” Seto stared at the tall spellcaster. If Yori didn’t know any better, she’d say he was a little impressed.

“2900 points?!” Black Mask choked out, eyes darting between his own monster and hers.

Yori smirked. “Wait for it.”

The plaque at Dante’s feet displaying his attack points scrolled from 2900 to 3700.

The Ghouls nearly lost their jaws in shock.

“I’m glad you Ghouls love those spell card masks so much,” Yori said. “Because Dante goes up 200 points for each one.”

White Mask had one card facedown on the field, but based on his stricken expression, he’d made no plans for an attack from a stronger monster. She was willing to gamble on that with confidence.

“Dante,” she said, “wipe out their monster.”

Dante smirked. He whipped his staff out, garnet pointed at Shining Abyss. The symbols on his hands and forehead glowed orange, like embers buried in his skin, and Black Mask’s monster burst into flames. The monster howled as its mask melted from its face. It vanished, and Black Mask’s lifepoints scrolled down from 4000 to 2900.

Yori grinned. “I believe that’s Yori ten, Mr. Kaiba zero.”

Seto scowled. “I’d give that maybe a five. He’s barely dented.”

A five. She’d summoned in an eight-star monster without a tribute and taken out the only monster on the opposing field without falling into any traps. Seto certainly hadn’t managed that.

“Fine. Yori five, Mr. Kaiba negative five.” She shrugged as his scowl deepened. “After all, you had to be rescued two rounds in.”

Dante grinned as if he appreciated the quip as well, though his eyes were on the Ghouls. He tilted his staff back and forth at his side. Yori wished she could have sent him in for a direct attack—it would have wiped out their opponents and ended the duel—but each monster could only attack once during a battle phase, and she didn’t have Victory Shot or any other card in her hand to get around that.

So maybe it was just a five.

“I’ll play one card facedown,” she said, “and end my turn.”

Dante’s attack points, which had fallen with the destruction of the spell card supporting Shining Abyss, rose back to 3700. Magician’s Release was a little disadvantageous since it revealed if her facedown cards were spell cards or not, but it did the same to her opponents, so it had its advantages as well. And the power-up for Dante was certainly worth it.

The Ghoul across from her drew a card, his expression the exact opposite of his mask’s wide smile.

“Careful with spell cards, Hikari,” his partner said.

“I realize that!” White Mask snapped.

“So much for that unshakeable teamwork,” Seto said.

White Mask’s hands trembled around his cards. Yori could guess at the cause—based on what she’d seen so far, Black Mask held most if not all of the pair’s monster cards, leaving White Mask with a deck full of spells and traps.

And sure enough—

“I play Mask of Dispel!”

Dante’s attack rose from 3700 to 3900. The spellcaster licked his lips, pointing his staff threateningly at White Mask, who jumped.

“This mask,” he squeaked out, “targets one spell card on the field and drains 500 lifepoints from the owner on each of their standby phases.”

A droopy purple mask attached itself to the holographic projection of Magician’s Release. Yori would certainly feel the burn on her next turn when she lost 1000 lifepoints from the two masks combined, but in the meantime, they were still boosting Dante.

“Why would you give them more power?!” Black Mask demanded.

“I don’t have a lot of options here!” White Mask said.

“Aw, don’t sell yourself short,” Yori said. “Dante’s not picky—you can play any spell card you want.”

Seto gave a cough that sounded halfway to a chuckle.

The half of White Mask’s face that was visible flamed red. He ended his turn.

As Seto drew his card, he caught Yori’s eyes. “Watch and learn.”

She smirked. “Nothing less than a ten will get you out of that hole you’re in.”

He activated the spell card Virus Cannon, forcing White Mask to send ten spell cards from his deck to the graveyard. The Ghoul’s face paled to match his mask.

Despite the fact that it majorly crippled the Ghoul’s deck, Yori said, “Didn’t take any lifepoints. I’d give that a three.”

Seto raised an eyebrow. “Of the two of us, I’d say I’m the one actually qualified to judge the impressiveness of any maneuver in this game.”

“Oh, right, because you’re so objective and impartial?”

He smirked. “No. Because it’s my tournament. Where have you been all day?”

Despite herself, she laughed.

Seto summoned Vorse Raider [1900/1200] and attacked Black Mask directly, who cried out as his lifepoints dropped from 2900 to 1000.

“How’s that for taking lifepoints?” Seto played one card facedown before ending his turn.

Yori shrugged. “I’d give it another three. I’m the one who left him wide open for you.”

“I wasn’t actually asking for an amateur judgment.”

Black Mask’s face was twisted in fury, but while Yori expected him to throw out an insult at Seto—or even at her—he rounded instead on his partner.

“You did nothing on your turn to protect me!” he shouted. “You’re half my deck, but all you did was give them power and leave me defenseless after you told me to trust that you’d always have defense under control.”

“I did have it under control, Yami,” White Mask protested. The facedown card on his field glared a silent contradiction. “And I trusted you to be able to handle yourself!”

 You trust me, right? Yami’s voice whispered in Yori’s mind. To be honest, she wasn’t sure Seto would step in if she were in danger of losing, even if it meant his own loss. She knew barely anything about him or his motivations. But if she were in a match with Yami, it would be a completely different story. If she were blindfolded and Yami told her to throw a knife, she would do it. At the risk of injury, at the risk of life and limb.

There wasn’t another person in the world who made her feel that way.

When she’d let him go after Marik alone, it was because she trusted he could handle himself. But maybe she should have gone with him all the same, not out of lack of trust but as a sign of it. Maybe she should have let him trust that he didn’t need to be alone in this fight.

“Give it up, losers,” she said, focusing once more on her opponents. “You two haven’t trusted each other from the beginning, and it’s about time to drop the masks. Every Ghoul is out completely for himself. Otherwise Marik wouldn’t be able to tug you around like puppets.”

The two Ghouls stopped glaring at each other, turning the heated expressions her way.

But her answer didn’t come from either of them; it came from behind her.

“Not exactly, biscuit.”

Chapter Text

Betrayal was an interesting thing. No matter who it came from—even if it was a passing stranger—it still burned like a poison. Joey shouldn’t have cared that his supposed fan was hired by Haga, shouldn’t have cared that the kid was playing him from the start, shouldn’t have cared that while he wore Joey’s Duel Disk and talked about champions, he slid a card into Joey’s deck that almost cost him the duel.

At least, he should have cared in a way that made him angry, not in a way that made him hurt.

“It’s your own fault, Wheeler,” Haga said in that whiny, nasally voice, adjusting his beetle-rimmed glasses. “Even a half-decent duelist knows to check their deck before every match.”

On the field, the insect card the kid had snuck into Joey’s deck slowly devoured and infected his own monsters, rendering them useless against Haga’s Insect Barrier field card.

“Shut your trap, Haga,” Joey growled. “You wouldn’t know nothin’ about bein’ a half-decent duelist because even a half-decent duelist has a bit of honor. You wouldn’t recognize honor if it was stamped on your big, fat glasses.”

Haga snickered and wheezed. “I don’t need honor. I just need your locator card.”

“I’ll be takin’ yours instead, you little creep.”

And Joey dueled true to that promise. He used Gearfried the Iron Knight, whose special effect prevented him from being infected, to smash through Haga’s defenses. He defeated Haga’s pride and joy, Perfectly Ultimate Great Moth, and then he defeated Haga’s rarest monster, Insect Queen. He dueled with everything he had and shattered everything Haga had.

But as he walked away from the sobbing, cursing kid, and the people who’d gathered to watch parted with cheers and looks of amazement, he still felt like the win was tainted. Maybe meaningless. He didn’t even want to put Haga’s Insect Queen in his deck. Several times, he almost handed it off to a stranger on the sidewalk. In the end, he only kept it as a reminder that Joey Wheeler could withstand.

Be it beatings or betrayals, be it from strangers or parents, Joey Wheeler could withstand.

He found a bench and sank into it with a sigh. After sliding his deck from his Duel Disk and collecting the cards from his graveyard, he added Insect Queen to the bottom of the stack. Then he thumbed through the cards until he found the Parasite card Haga had slipped in. He put his deck back in the Duel Disk holder and tore the Parasite monster card in half. He crumpled the pieces in his hand and tossed them, watching with satisfaction as they bounced into the gutter.

The hair on the back of his neck raised, and that was all the warning he got, but he was already on edge, so it was enough. He dove forward off the bench just as a set of hands grabbed for where he’d been sitting not a moment before.

“Picked the wrong time, pal,” Joey snarled.

The Ghoul looked up just in time to catch Joey’s punch square in the nose. One of his companions lunged around the bench and got Joey’s knee to his stomach.

“Still after my Red-Eyes?” Joey grabbed the guy’s hood before he could fall and punched him in the jaw, knocking him back into a third Ghoul. “Joke’s on you!”

The fourth and final hooded jerk caught Joey from behind, wrapping an arm around his throat, pinching until he couldn’t breathe, but Joey stomped a heel down on his instep, and the guy staggered enough for Joey to twist away. He grabbed the jerk’s arm and twisted it behind his back, kicking him forward. The Ghoul crashed face first into the bench.

“Come on!” Joey roared, fists clenched, eyes burning.

But the Ghouls scattered.

No surprise. Anyone who fought dirty was a coward at heart.

Joey stood there for a minute, panting, fists trembling, before he kicked the park bench.

They should have known his Red-Eyes had already been taken. And unlike his first encounter, this group had made no attempt to duel him. If they were after any of his cards, his fake fan had made a better thief than the supposed professionals.

If they weren’t after his cards . . .

That really only left one thing.

Joey hopped on the bench, looking up and down the street. The area he was in had fewer people than he’d seen all day, which made it easy to spot what he was looking for—a pay phone.

He called Anzu’s phone, but it was Yuugi who answered.

“Yuug’, you alright?” Joey demanded.

“I’m fine, Joey. Are you?”

Joey explained the run-in with the Ghouls, and Yuugi explained about Marik and Anzu.

“I wanted to warn you,” he said. “But I didn’t know how without drawing more of Marik’s attention to you. I’d hoped if I kept his focus, he’d leave you guys out of it.”

Joey gripped the phone so hard his wrist cramped. “Where you at?”

“Don’t come, Joey. Just get somewhere safe and public, and stay away from the Ghouls.”

“Where. Are. You?”

Yuugi gave a small laugh. His voice had the one tone Joey hated. “You know I won’t tell.”

Joey slammed a fist into the back of the phone booth, shaking the flimsy walls.

“It’s okay, Joey. Even if you came, what would you do?”

“I’d . . .” Joey faltered. He cursed. “I’d face Marik for you the way you faced the Ghoul for my Red-Eyes.”

Or the way the pharaoh did. Same thing.

“Thanks, Joey,” Yuugi said. “But even if you won, Marik won’t stop unless it’s the pharaoh who takes him down. He’s made that clear. Maybe not even then.”

Joey could still see the Ghoul flopping around like a lifeless character while Marik moved the joystick. He’d been hyper focused on the pharaoh, that was for sure. Still . . .

For all of its craziness, the one good thing about Duelist Kingdom was that they’d stuck together as friends through every match. Joey wanted to learn to stand on his own, but at the same time, he didn’t like anything about the idea of Yuugi off on the other side of the city facing threats alone.

“If you don’t beat this Marik creep in the prelims,” Joey said, “he’ll follow you into the finals.”

“I know.”

Joey gave a wolfish grin. “Then don’t worry about beatin’ him here. You just get locator cards fast as you can, and I’ll get locator cards fast as I can, and we’ll corner him in the finals. I’ve heard rats can’t stand closed spaces.”

A moment passed in silence, then Yuugi said, “How many locator cards do you have?”

“Three. You?”

“Four.”

“See? We’re halfway there already.” Joey gripped the phone even tighter. “Maybe I can’t face Marik for you, but I can be there for you when you do. We all can.”

“Okay,” Yuugi said, and Joey was pretty certain he sounded calmer. “Deal.”

Joey nodded. “Just two more duels, Yuug’. Then we can breathe. See you in the finals.”

++++++++++

Yuugi hadn’t even realized how discouraged he felt until talking to Joey. After the conversation, there was a bounce in his step once more, and he faced the street with a smile. He didn’t even care if his next two duels were against Ghouls. The faster he could get into the finals, the faster he could level the playing field a bit. Or at least narrow it. The support from his friends would be a big relief as well. And Yami took courage from having his friends’ support as much as Yuugi did.

Thinking of Yami made Yuugi bite his lip. He glanced down at the artifact around his neck. He’d heard nothing from the spirit since their latest duel, but he could feel the darkness stirring in the puzzle. Yami would never complain, but Marik’s attacks were wearing him down, discouraging him as much as they discouraged Yuugi.

Which was even more reason to push ahead as quickly as possible and try to change circumstances in their favor.

Yuugi waited as a car passed, then crossed the street. Most of downtown had been blocked off to anything but pedestrian traffic; he was on the outskirts. If he made his way back toward the heart of downtown, he was likely to find more duelists, but he still kept his eyes peeled just in case.

And he did see a duelist lurking at the end of the street.

But it was a familiar head of white hair.

“Ryou!” Yuugi shouted, smiling. At least now he knew for sure that all his friends were—

Ryou turned, and even across the distance, Yuugi saw the emptiness in his eyes. In his expression.

And his heart fell.

++++++++++

The door was unchanged.

That was to be expected of a door, especially one outside the mortal world, but Yami still found it unnerving. No matter what happened to him, the maze within his heart remained the same, as if the outside world mattered nothing.

He stood at what he and Yuugi had deemed the entrance to his heart. The world within the Millennium Puzzle could barely be called such: it was a hallway with two doors. One was soft blue, modern in appearance. The room that lay beyond it was simple and small, painted in warm, friendly colors and filled with toys. It was the door to Yuugi’s heart. Yami had only seen it once because Yuugi always kept the door firmly closed—not, as Yami had discovered, out of any distrust but because he was embarrassed to be a near-adult with what he saw as the heart of a child.

Yami would have gladly traded the manifestation of his own heart for something so innocent, but he never said such a thing. It wasn’t his place to dismiss Yuugi’s feelings in light of his own.

His own door was ancient at a glance, made of gray metal that surely would have been rusted in the real world. It looked cold even against the cold yellow stone of the puzzle’s hallway. At eye-height, the Eye of Horus stared back at him. He’d read in the museum that such a symbol was meant to be a protection. Funny, then, how he felt exposed rather than protected.

The scene beyond the door would be unchanged as well, he knew, but still, he pushed it open. There was no doorknob; it simply responded to his touch.

An empty, lightless room. A single seat in the center, made of the same cold gray as the door, high-backed like a throne. There were staircases beyond, which led for eternity into nowhere, and Yami knew from experience that climbing any would lead him back into light.

But it was the darkness he sought.

The door closed behind him, stealing the light, but he knew his way to the throne, so his steps never faltered in the blackness. The metal chilled his soul as thoroughly as it would have chilled flesh. No sooner had he touched it than whispers stirred in the dark. The whispers were always there, in his heart—the shadows. Usually they kept him out of this area completely.

But if he had any hope of finding answers from before his awareness, it would be in the shadows.

So he would search in the dark.

++++++++++

Yori had completely forgotten about the Ghoul she’d already defeated. She’d assumed he would stay passed out on the grass for a while, and then the duel had started, putting him miles from her mind.

So when he answered from behind her, she jumped.

He was sprawled out casually on the grass as if he were on a picnic, one knee pulled up to rest a hand on. He grinned at her when she turned.

“What?” he said. “You think all us Ghouls are just cookie cutter people? I thought you had a decent head between your ears.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” she said. “If you say not all Ghouls are selfish, what are your impressively unselfish reasons for serving Marik?”

“I didn’t come here for a talk show,” Seto said. “Can we get on with the duel?”

“Me? Benefits,” the Biscuit Ghoul said. “Serving Master Marik comes with a great family plan.”

“Fine, I’ll move the duel forward,” Black Mask said, glaring once more at his partner, “but I’ll do it on my own.”

Yori frowned, ignoring her current opponents in favor of her previous one. “What does that mean?”

The Biscuit Ghoul shrugged. “As it sounds. Helping Marik helps my family. So what if he wants me to duel this person or that one, sell this card or that one? A lot of bosses demand a lot more. I mean, just ask the guy to your right.”

Seto shot a glare over his shoulder. “I’ve never ordered my employees to engage in anything unsavory or illegal.”

“I find that hard to believe. I mean, ‘unsavory and illegal’ was sort of your dad’s whole business model, wasn’t it?”

“Hello?” Black Mask said. “My turn.”

He summoned a monster to the field: Grand Tiki Elder [1500/800].

Yori considered a quip about how his monster was an appetizer for Dante at best but decided against it.

“I’m not Gozaburo,” Seto growled under his breath, so low Yori barely heard him.

“Not that this discussion interests me,” Black Mask said, “but I’d work for Master Marik over KaibaCorp in a heartbeat.”

“Your opinion of my company”—Seto narrowed his eyes—“is worth less than dirt.”

“It’s not an opinion of your company.” The red-and-black mask on his face leered across the field. “It’s an opinion of you.”

Since Black Mask’s animosity had been focused in a new direction, White Mask seemed giddy to jump in.

“I’m surprised anyone,” he said, smiling that plastic smile, “is willing to work for the guy who killed his own father.”

If the verbal attack affected Seto in any way, it was impossible to tell beyond his own mask, which was twice as well-crafted as either of the Ghouls’.

But it made Yori’s blood boil.

“Huh,” she said, voice measured and calm, “guess that means I should never start a business. No one will work for me. Unless, of course, the rules change if you killed two parents instead of one.”

When all the Ghouls gaped at her, she shrugged.

“No?” she said. “Too bad. I would have made a killer entrepreneur, pun intended. But no job for me.”

After a moment, Seto said, “I wouldn’t say that. Maybe you could work at KaibaCorp.”

His face was still a composed mask, but Yori smiled.

“Yeah?” she said. “My résumé to speak of is basically just dueling and pickpocketing.”

“I’m sure we could teach you to answer a phone.”

She laughed, and the corner of his mouth twitched. The smallest crack in the mask.

“Dante’s getting hungry,” Yori said, directing her attention to the masked Ghouls again. “So you can just end your turn, and we can all be done. He’ll either make quick work of your monster or your partner—either way, we win.”

Black Mask scowled. “My Grand Tiki Elder’s special effect means I get to choose one card blindly from my opponent’s hand, and he chooses one from mine. If the cards are monsters, they get special summoned to the field in defense mode. If not, they’re sent to the graveyard.”

“Interesting.” Seto’s eyes were cold as steel. “Let’s test your luck, then.”

“What are you doing?” White Mask practically shrieked. “If he has the god card, it’s all over!”

“Only if it’s in his hand,” Black Mask said. “And even then, only if it’s the card I choose.”

Seto raised his cards, backs facing Black Mask, while Black Mask did the same with his own.

“The card on your far left,” Black Mask said.

“Second card on your right,” Seto said.

Black Mask summoned Masked Chameleon [1600/1100] to the field in defense mode.

Seto smirked.

“I hope you’re about to pull a ten,” Yori said.

White Mask looked ready to faint.

Seto pressed a card to his Duel Disk, and the field lit up with brilliant blue-tinted light. A dragon roared from within the brightness, shaking the air itself.

Dante grinned, and Yori did the same.

An elegant white dragon took shape on the field, dwarfing every other monster. Her neck curved up like a swan’s, crossed by the same smooth white plates that protected every inch of her body like armor. When she stretched her wings, the sunlight patterned them with sheens of blue that flowed like rainbows across the surface of a bubble. Unlike Dante in his dragon form, she stood mostly balanced on her hind legs, her front legs shorter, though still tipped in deadly claws. Horns curved forward on either side of her mouth, and her narrow eyes were as blue as Seto’s.

“Look what you’ve done!” White Mask shrieked. “That’s a Blue-Eyes White Dragon [3000/2500]!”

But Black Mask appeared unruffled. “It’s still my turn.”

He swept both of his monsters off the field, tributing them to summon Masked Beast Des Guardias [3300/2500].

The horned monster that appeared was half the size of the dragon and more than twice the size of any of the players, with most of that size taken up by its bulky, clawed limbs. It had three blue masks on its upper body, one where its face should be and one peering forward over each shoulder.

“Attack the Blue-Eyes!” Black Mask ordered.

“Dante,” Yori said quietly.

If she didn’t know better, she’d say Dante was moving even before she gave the order. The symbols on his skin lit up with their flaming glow as he darted across the field to stand in front of the crouched dragon just as the beast reached for it with shining razor claws. Dante extended his staff, and the masked beast burst into flames before it could finish its attack.

Yori bit her lip, praying there was no special effect to beware, no unseen trap she’d just fallen into. Seto wouldn’t have taken any damage from losing his dragon, so she could have waited, but destroying the masked beast would cut Black Mask down to 400 lifepoints if it succeeded.

And she had to admit she couldn’t let Seto’s dragon be destroyed. Not when she’d seen the way his eyes lit up when he brought it to the field.

Black Mask let out a strangled cry. His lifepoints dropped to 400.

But just as Yori dared smile—

—Dante let out a cry, too.

“I’d hoped you’d do that,” Black Mask said, leering at her.

Dante dropped to his knees, clutching his face as a red, horned mask overtook it.

“Dante,” Yori whispered. Despite herself, she raised a hand as if she could help him.

Her spellcaster lowered his arms until they hung limp at his sides, staff tip dragging on the ground. He levitated to the opposite side of the field until he came to rest in front of Black Mask.

“Excellent play, Yami.” White Mask snickered.

“When Des Guardias is destroyed,” Black Mask said, “it leaves behind the Mask of Remnants to take revenge on the responsible monster. Your monster is mine, now. Indefinitely. And its 4100 attack points are much appreciated.”

Yori clenched her empty hand into a fist, painted nails digging into her palm.

“Your turn,” Black Mask said.

Yori wished she could rip Magician’s Release out of her Duel Disk. Better to have Dante in the graveyard than in the hands of Ghouls. But even after drawing, she didn’t have any cards that could get rid of the equip spell or save her monster.

Her standby phase activated, dropping her lifepoints to 2500, leaving her gasping from the burn in her arm.

Even if she managed to defend against Dante’s attacks, she wouldn’t last three turns thanks to the life-draining masks on her Constellar Aldebaran and spell card.

“I guess that’s about a negative fifteen for me,” she said.

“Maybe a negative eight,” Seto said. “You did save Blue-Eyes, after all.”

One attack from Dante, and Blue-Eyes would be gone, too. Their only hope was Seto’s god card. Even then, she had to drop Dante’s attack power; otherwise even Obelisk with its 4000 attack points would be no match for her favorite monster.

“I activate the spell card Monster Reborn,” she said. Her facedown card cast a gentle fog across the field. Constellar Sheratan rose from the mist, crouched in defense mode. Due to his special effect, her deck pushed out another Constellar card for her, and she took it.

“I’ll also summon Constellar Leonis [1000/1800] in defense mode.”

Without her facedown Monster Reborn on the field, Dante dropped from 4100 attack to 3900. But then Yori was at a loss. Seto couldn’t tribute to summon his god card, and she didn’t have any tricks for a special summon. She didn’t even know if he had the god card in his hand or if he would draw it in the next two turns before she ran out of lifepoints.

Of course, there was a way for her to get rid of at least one of the masks sucking her lifepoints away. There was just one thing that worried her.

She narrowed her eyes at the facedown card in front of White Mask. It hadn’t raised Dante’s attack, so it had to be a trap card, but what could trigger it? Not monster attacks, that was for sure. She’d just played a spell card, so not spells either. A trap card that activated against other traps, then?

Or, maybe . . .

“Isn’t it funny,” she said, glancing at Seto, “how it’s always the small things that win or lose a duel? Like how it doesn’t matter if you have a powerful card in your deck, it only matters if you can summon it at the right time. Or how one trap makes all the difference.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Or how sometimes it’s actually better for your opponent to have more monsters?”

Well, at least that answered one question. Seto did have the god card in his hand, and he had a way to summon it using their opponent’s monsters. The problem was their opponents only had one monster when he needed three.

Yori didn’t have any way to make the Ghouls summon monsters. White Mask had barely any monsters in his deck, so the odds of him summoning even one was low, and Black Mask had no reason to summon another monster when he had Dante, which meant if Yori sat quietly in defense mode, they would almost certainly lose.

The only thing she could do was walk into a trap. Again.

And hope the trap was triggered the way she suspected it was.

And hope the trap did what she suspected it did.

In short, the only thing she could do was hope her luck held.

Just as she always did.

“Get ready, boys,” she said, narrowing her eyes at White Mask. “Whenever my three Constellar monsters gather on the field together, it’s like the stars aligning. One of my monsters goes to the graveyard in order to allow the other two to fuse into something much stronger.”

She slid Aldebaran into her graveyard, breaking the effect of the mask on him. Dante’s attack points dropped from 3900 to 3700.

That was as far as she got.

“Hold it!” White Mask shouted, raising a hand. “You activated my trap card: Cold Fusion. Whenever my opponent attempts a fusion, I gain control of the monsters they would have fused.”

Her two remaining constellars crossed the field to stand before White Mask, leaving her side of the field empty and exposed.

“Well,” Yori said, biting back a smile. “Seems my monsters just can’t get away from me fast enough.”

“Take it as a sign and surrender,” Black Mask said.

But all Yori said was, “I end my turn.”

All she had to do was survive White Mask’s turn. The two constellars had a combined force of 1700, so their attacks would knock her down to 800 lifepoints, but she would survive.

White Mask drew a card, then ordered the two monsters to attack.

Yori braced herself; sharp electricity jolted through her arm, burning her bones.

White Mask ended his turn.

“I’d give that a ten,” Seto said.

She smirked.

He activated his facedown card, Soul Exchange, which allowed him to tribute his opponent’s monsters in place of his own. The mask on Dante’s face shattered, and Yori caught a glimpse of his smirk just before he disappeared along with the two constellars. Staccatoed lightning cracked overhead as the great blue god rose from the river beneath them, water pouring from his head and shoulders, his massive form filling the waterway to both banks. One enormous hand reached out to curl around the middle of the bridge, each finger the size of a person. His other hand rose. Fisted.

With no monsters left to defend them, both Ghouls took the fist of Obelisk directly.

The duel was over.

Even after the god was gone, blue sparks hung in the air. Strands of Yori’s hair lifted before she swiped them back down.

“Not so bad for a tag match?” she asked.

Seto stacked his cards and stowed his deck in the pouch on his belt. A grunt was his only answer before he strode purposefully across the bridge.

Rather than following, Yori turned to the Biscuit Ghoul, still seated on the grass.

He licked his lips. “I assume you’d like to know where Master Marik—”

“No,” Yori said. “You’re gonna tell me something else.”

He frowned, waiting.

“Tell me where the pharaoh is.”

The Ghoul blinked. He cocked his head to the side. “Why—?”

“Just tell me.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

She stepped forward, pressing a finger into his tattoo forcefully. “Then get in touch with someone who does.”

After staring at her for another moment, he gave a small shrug. He closed his eyes.

“Here,” a gruff voice said behind her.

Yori turned as Seto extended a locator card.

“I took their Des Guardias card, since I won,” he said. He practically had smug stamped across the bridge of his nose. “You’re welcome to an ante as well if you so choose. And you owe me fifty dollars.”

“Seriously?” She gave him a half-lidded stare. “You’re rich.”

“I wouldn’t be so if I didn’t cash in on my investments.”

She snorted. After digging through her pocket, she sheepishly realized she only had forty dollars on her, and it was never smart to be completely without cash.

She extended thirty, trying for an innocent smile. “Do you take I-owe-yous? Or maybe give out tag-partner discounts?”

“Making a monetary offer without the funds to back it.” He raised an eyebrow as he swapped her cash for the locator card. “There’s the real reason you can’t start a business; you’re a spendthrift. I expect the remaining balance by the end of the tournament, cash or check.”

“How generous, Mr. Kaiba,” she said, slipping the locator card in her deck pouch with her three others.

He rolled his eyes. “Seto.”

She smiled.

The Ghoul gave a shuddering gasp, drawing her attention again. The tattoo on his forehead glowed yellow, and he stared up at her with glassy, unfocused eyes.

“The old Dream Theater,” he said flatly. “Do give the pharaoh my best.”

“Simple as that, then.” She snapped her deck back into its holder and took a deep breath, ready for another trap.

“Seto Kaiba,” the Ghoul purred. “The man with my god card.”

“My god card,” Seto deadpanned. “But my collection is open to donations if you have anything to add.”

“I’ve entrusted Osiris to a special servant of mine. If you feel up to the challenge, you may find him in the area of your company’s headquarters. I’d hurry; he’s but one locator card from the finals.”

The Ghoul collapsed in the grass again, leaving Yori and Seto in silence.

“Well,” Yori said after a moment. “Battle City continues.”

“Duel me in the finals,” Seto said, adjusting the collar of his trench coat. He didn’t even wait for her response before setting off, long legs carrying him away in seconds.

Yori gave a quiet laugh. She retrieved her holo-imagers, switched her Duel Disk back to normal mode, and then headed for the theater.

Chapter Text

Serenity tried to be more angry than she was sad. Angry meant she wouldn’t cry. If she soaked this set of bandages, when the nurse took them off, she wouldn’t replace them, and Serenity wasn’t ready to see the world yet.

Not when it was a world without Joey again.

A soft knock came at the door, causing Serenity’s heart to leap into her throat. Despite herself, she couldn’t help the hope.

The door slid open, and an unfamiliar female voice said, “Hello.”

“May we help you?” Serenity’s mother asked.

“Is this Serenity Wheeler’s room?”

Serenity gripped her bedsheets tightly.

“See?” the stranger said. “Told you.”

“Serenity?” said a second, breathless voice. The girl it belonged to sounded much younger.

Serenity frowned in confusion.

“This is my daughter,” the first woman said. “She came in today for that brace, and I told her Serenity was here.”

“Do you remember me?” the girl asked.

Serenity shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Oh, duh, the bandages! We were friends in elementary school before you moved, remember? It’s me—Anzu!”

Serenity’s jaw nearly dropped to her sheets, and a smile overtook her face. She recognized the name, of course, but not from elementary school. Joey had a friend named Anzu, and after Tristan had been in earlier, it couldn’t be coincidence.

“Right!” she cried. “Anzu Mazaki—I can’t believe it!”

She held out a hand, and after a moment, another hand took hers. Anzu’s skin was soft, her grip firm.

“It’s so good to see you,” Anzu said.

Serenity nodded, her heart beating faster in her chest. There could only be one reason for Anzu to lie, so even though Serenity wanted more than anything to ask about Joey, she kept up the pretense, asking how Anzu had been all these years and where she went to school now.

“Sweetheart,” her mother interrupted once.

Serenity held her breath.

Anzu gripped her hand.

“Wouldn’t you like to take off your bandages to see your friend?” her mother continued.

The silence extended. Serenity bit her lip. But in the end, she shook her head.

“That’s okay,” Anzu said quickly. “I don’t mind if you can’t see me. I’m having a terrible hair day. And I have this big ugly brace. Did I tell you what happened? It’s the silliest thing. I was helping make lunch, and I got the cabbage—”

She continued telling the story, and Serenity slowly relaxed when her mom didn’t push the point.

“Ma’am,” the first woman asked quietly, so quietly Serenity almost didn’t hear her. “May I speak to you in private?”

Serenity heard the door again, and after it closed, Anzu abruptly stopped talking and leaned close.

“I’m a friend of Joey’s, and I’m here with Tristan.”

“I knew it!” Serenity whispered. Before she could ask anything, Anzu rushed on.

“Tristan and the nurse are going to keep your mom distracted as long as they can. I can take you to Joey, but only if you want to go.”

Serenity was already reaching to pull the blankets away.

Anzu stopped her. “Are you sure? We’re going against your mom, and I don’t know how she’ll react or what kind of consequences you’ll get. We haven’t made any promises to Joey, so he isn’t expecting you.”

Despite the darkness, Serenity could see her brother’s smile, the one he’d given her before the surgery. She wanted to see it again with perfect vision. She wanted to see him playing the game he loved. She wanted to give him the memory of having his sister cheer him on.

She loved her mother dearly, but her time in the hospital had taught her that if she waited for permission, it was never going to come.

“Do I have time to leave a note?” she asked.

Anzu made some rustling noises. “I have a notepad in my purse, but it’s small, and we have to leave fast.”

“That’s okay,” Serenity said. She told Anzu what to write, and as she dictated the note, she could see the words as if she were writing them herself.

I’ll be back after the tournament. Love you. Serenity

“Oh, wait!” Serenity said. “Add ‘eggnog’ at the end.”

“What?”

“It’s our safe word. Since I’m not writing the note.”

“You have a—okay.” Anzu made a quick scribbling sound, then came the sharp hiss of paper tearing.

“My mom’s cautious,” Serenity said.

Anzu grabbed her hand. “I can’t imagine why considering the fact that I’m kidnapping her daughter.”

Serenity giggled. Anzu helped her stand and move away from the bed. Luckily, Serenity had already practiced moving blind for a week, so for the most part, she moved with confidence.

“I found your street clothes,” Anzu said. “Can you dress?”

“I’m really good at that now that they’ve let me go outside a few times. Hand me my shorts first?”

Her mom had planned on checking her out that evening so she could spend a day with her grandparents before their flight home, but unlike Joey, her grandparents hadn’t been restricted in their visits, so Serenity didn’t feel too bad. Not to mention her grandparents had made a trip to America just the year before.

As soon as Serenity had her clothes and shoes settled, Anzu slid the door open, leading her into the hallway. Serenity clung to her hand, staying as close as possible. The hall was filled with quiet chatter and scattered beeps.

“I don’t see your mom or Tristan anywhere,” Anzu whispered. “Let’s go.”

They hurried forward, Serenity doing her best not to trip. Anzu warned her when they reached a set of stairs, and though Serenity’s heart pounded against the roof of her mouth with each step, she survived to feel flat ground again.

“Joey is one lucky brother,” Anzu said, squeezing her hand. “Hang in there; we’re almost to the front doors.”

When they exited the hospital, Serenity could see the bright behind the dark, and she could practically taste the sunlight on her face. She took a long, deep breath of the air, accepting the gritty scent of buildings along with the distant ocean salt.

“More steps,” Anzu warned.

Serenity couldn’t tell how far from the hospital they went. She heard cars and people, and somewhere, a seagull called.

Anzu finally brought her to a stop and said, “We’ll wait here for Tristan.”

“Thank you very much for your help,” Serenity said.

Anzu gave a small laugh. “You don’t have to be so formal. If it were my big brother trying to get to me, Joey would have helped just the same. That’s what friendship is.” After hesitating, she added, “I’m sorry your mom is . . .”

Serenity tried to say her mom was only trying to protect her, tried to list other defenses. They would have been true, but they felt like excuses nonetheless.

“Anzu,” she whispered, “I know why my mom left my dad, but sometimes I hate her for leaving Joey.” She bit her lip. “I’m kind of a terrible daughter.”

Anzu wrapped her in a hug. “You’re not a terrible daughter.”

Serenity bit her lip. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves.

“Maybe . . .” Anzu faltered, then sighed. “Look, when I first met Joey, I thought he was annoying and, uh, a bit of a bully. It was Yuugi who saw something different. Without him, I never would have gotten to know Joey—I never would have realized what a big softie he is at heart. Maybe your mom needs your help to understand Joey. Like I needed Yuugi’s.”

“I’ve tried,” Serenity whispered.

“Keep trying.” Anzu stepped back and gripped her shoulder. “One very stubborn person can beat the impossible. I saw Joey do it at Duelist Kingdom for you.”

Serenity smiled. Her eyes ached, but it was a good pressure. After a moment, she nodded.

“You made it!” a familiar voice shouted.

“Took you long enough,” Anzu said, but if her words were cross, her tone wasn’t.

“Well, I had some things to say.” As Tristan’s voice drew close, he stopped to gasp in a few breaths.

“To my mom?” Serenity asked.

“Uh, yeah.” He suddenly sounded embarrassed. “I wasn’t mean or anything. I think. I just told her to back off.”

There was a noise like Anzu had slapped his shoulder or chest.

“Since when is ‘back off’ polite, you idiot?”

“It’s okay,” Serenity said. “My mom isn’t very polite either, honestly.”

She reached out, feeling for a moment until her hand touched his chest. Then she gave him a hug.

“Thanks for being such a great friend to Joey,” she said.

He gave a laugh that sounded a little high-pitched for his voice. As he returned the hug, she could hear his heartbeat in his chest, pounding like he’d just been running, which he probably had.

“It’s only fair,” he said. “He’s had my back for years.”

When she stepped back, he cleared his throat, and she could practically hear the smile in his next words.

“Alright, time to get you to your brother.”

++++++++++

Yuugi followed Ryou to a theater that had seen better days. The backstage was cluttered with forgotten props, many sporting dust, and the stage had been chipped and scuffed over the years, spattering the once-polished black with freckles of white and gray.

Of course, most of the stage had been covered by some kind of magician setup, so it wasn’t apparent if the damage covered the entire floor or just the edges.

Ryou hadn’t spoken yet, but it didn’t stop Yuugi from trying.

“Why are we here?” he asked.

When he actually got an answer, he jumped—partly because it was unexpected and partly because it had come from a voice directly behind him.

“For a grand show, of course!”

Yuugi whirled to find a man dressed in a garish red suit, the upper part of his face covered by a black-and-white striped mask that curved down at the edges like horns.

The man swept him a flourished bow. “Welcome, Pharaoh. I am Pandora, the world’s greatest magician.”

“Where’s Marik?” Yuugi demanded.

“Oh, he’s never far.” The magician winked as he tapped the top of the mask, which likely covered a familiar tattoo.

“Marik.” Yuugi narrowed his eyes on Pandora’s. “Release my friend.”

“Me? Why, that’s so thoughtful! And here we barely know each other.” Pandora slapped a hand to his heart, feigning a gasp. After a beat, he glanced at Ryou, who hadn’t moved since entering. “Oh, you mean the little albino there.”

He grinned as if waiting for Yuugi to applaud or laugh at his joke. Yuugi did neither until eventually, the magician shrugged.

“Our grand show is still short one cast member, but there’s no sense in delaying the setup.” He clapped his hands together. “Places, everyone!”

He stepped into the large yellow ring before crossing to its opposite end. Maroon tarps covered two of the four sides, and Pandora stood at the edge of one in a spot marked by two red footprints. Ryou turned and silently entered the ring to the right of Pandora, standing beside a set of green footprints.

Pandora gestured Yuugi into the ring.

Yuugi stayed where he was.

“I’ve played by your rules, Marik,” he said. “You said you’d leave my friends out of this.”

“What’s that?” Pandora cupped a hand to his ear. “You need more incentive? Well, a magician’s job is always to please the audience.”

He waved grandly in Ryou’s direction. Eyes focused on nothing, each movement mechanical, Ryou pulled a hand from his pocket and raised it to his mouth. When he lowered it, he held a small capsule delicately between his teeth.

 “Despite all appearances”—Pandora leaned forward, hands extended theatrically—“your dear friend has stepped foot on a tightrope. If conditions remain favorable, he will cross the precarious height with no marks to show for it. However, the slightest wind, the first distraction that breaks his concentration, and he will plummet to his death.”

“Stop this,” Yuugi whispered, his heart breaking. In his mind, he could see Anzu’s hand as she sliced it open, grinning all the while, her expression not her own.

Pandora chuckled. Ryou did nothing.

“Very well: in plainer terms.” Pandora picked at a cufflink. “That capsule is a suicide pill. Your friend swallows—or, rather, Master Marik swallows for him—he dies.”

Yuugi wished he had a way to break Marik’s control, but he hadn’t been able to get through to Anzu, and he didn’t even have a way to save Ryou from the spirit in the ring. He really was useless.

//Yami?// he tried. But there was no response. There had been no response the first two times either, and when Yuugi reached hesitantly for their bond, he felt only darkness. Something had happened in the duel against Marik, something Yuugi had missed. And the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“Marik thinks as little of your life as he does of Ryou’s,” Yuugi said, his eyes fierce on Pandora. “Why serve a man like that?”

Pandora gave an enigmatic smile as he swept a bow. “That’s show business. Now, if you please, I believe I invited the performers to take their places. We wouldn’t want to delay what promises to be a thrilling spectacle.”

When Yuugi stepped over the low wall, he stood by a set of orange footprints. There was still a set of light blue footprints remaining. The orientation of the prints made Pandora’s intention clear—this was to be a tag-team duel. Either that or Yuugi would be facing Ryou at the same time a yet-unknown opponent faced Pandora.

Yuugi could only pray Joey had made it far away from the Ghouls and that the rest of his friends had stayed clear, too.

With exaggerated movements, Pandora lifted his feet one at a time and pressed them to the red footprints, as if he were a preschool teacher making a demonstration. Ryou stepped onto the green marks, though with none of the flair.

Yuugi stepped onto the orange footprints. Only the blue set remained empty.

“Shhh.” Pandora held a finger to his lips, tilting his head to the side. “Our final performer will make their grand entrance from stage left in three . . . two . . .”

He held up a single finger, and just then, a familiar voice rang out across the stage.

“Yami? You here, or am I about to be jumped by that creepy Ghoul who’s been tailing me this whole time?”

Yori. Despite himself, Yuugi smiled. She sounded like herself. Maybe that hope would be shattered in a moment when Marik revealed himself to be in control, but maybe it wouldn’t.

“Over here,” Yuugi said, his voice breaking with relief.

Yori stepped into a view a moment later, picking her way around the cluttered props and past the drawn curtains. Her eyes darted around as she took in the situation, her expression falling as it focused on Ryou.

“Welcome, final participant.” Pandora swept her a bow.

Her expression also made it clear what she thought of Pandora upon first impression. Yuugi stifled a laugh.

“Well, this isn’t what I expected,” she said. Her gaze fixed on Yuugi, eyes dark and intense. “Are you okay?”

“I am,” he said. But he couldn’t help a glance at Ryou.

“Please take your place so we may begin.” Pandora gestured at the blue footprints.

Yori raised an eyebrow. “Are we finger painting or is it story time?”

“I don’t know what we’re in for,” Yuugi said honestly.

He also couldn’t help but wonder why Yori was there at all. How had Marik manipulated her into this without using the powers of the rod? Or was it actually possible for him to put on a convincing performance while controlling someone?

“Perhaps your friend’s predicament has escaped your notice,” Pandora said, eyes narrowing on Yori as he nodded at Ryou. “He swallows; he dies. I would suggest you move forward with the show.”

“You had this all set up before I even asked for directions to the pharaoh,” she said, her eyes tracing the circle of the ring, lingering on the tarps that still concealed something. “Don’t tell me I’m second choice for the party.”

Pandora smirked. “Be that as it may, you’ll do in a pinch.”

The Ghouls had attacked Joey. Marik must have wanted to control him in addition to Ryou. There likely would have been a consequence for whichever team lost the tag-team duel, forcing Yuugi to choose whether to win or lose, and as an extension, which friend would suffer because of it.

But with Joey gone and Yori in possession of her own mind, was Marik’s only plan left to toy with Ryou while he forced Yuugi to watch? Perhaps the meltdown of the god card had affected him as much as it had affected Yami.

“Funny,” Yori muttered. “I just left one of these duels.”

She stepped into the ring, placing her feet on the blue footprints.

The instant she did, shackles shot out of the ring in four places, locking each member of the duel in place. Yuugi gasped and nearly lost his balance, which would have been quite painful considering the shackles were attached to rigid metal arms.

Yori kept her grace like a cat, but her smile was more like a lioness ready to hunt. “The shackles are a bit rude, and here I didn’t even take your wallet.”

Pandora cackled, though not at any joke. “Behold the opening act to our great performance!”

He raised an arm, and the two maroon tarps lifted. Yuugi’s side of the ring had a large holographic projector built into it. Yori’s side had a matching projector—

—but it also had a large buzz saw set into a grooved path that led straight to her knees.

Yuugi had been an idiot to believe Marik didn’t have a plan. He should have told Yori to run when he first heard her voice. Instead, he’d let himself be blinded by the desire to have a friend there to help him.

Yami would have told her to run. Yami wouldn’t have feared fighting for Ryou on his own.

No matter how much time passed, Yuugi was still the same coward. Their only hope was for him to hand control over before he made things worse.

//Yami, answer me!//

Nothing but that cold silence.

Just then, he noticed Yori’s expression. More than that, he noticed her hands, which were already shuffling her deck.

She wasn’t stricken with fear like he was. The buzz saw lined up to sever her limbs seemed to draw as much of her attention as an ornate chair—passing interest, if that.

“Choose a hand, Pharaoh.” Pandora extended both fists. “This shall be a duel of choices. Will you win or will you lose? Will you kill this friend or that one?”

He shook his empty hands with a flourish, then seemed to produce his deck from thin air.

“Remember, of course, that the magician is always in control of the stage.” He cackled.

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Yori’s voice lacked even a sliver of fear.

Pandora scowled; it obviously wasn’t the response he’d hoped for.

“I mean”—she smirked—“you don’t even know who you’re facing. The pharaoh’s not on this field. But the King of Games is.”

Pandora’s jaw worked soundlessly.

Yori snapped her deck into her Duel Disk, glancing at Yuugi. “Let’s show this clown what he’s up against.”

She’d called out for Yami when she first entered, but she hadn’t seemed disappointed to see Yuugi instead, and she spoke like she expected him to duel without a problem. Like she trusted him to.

Like he wasn’t useless.

“You got it, sis.” Though his fingers trembled, Yuugi’s face was calm as he unsnapped his deck holder and started shuffling.

Chapter Text

Yori knew Yuugi believed she wasn’t scared. She could see it in the way he relaxed, the way his hands moved with confidence as he shuffled.

She knew Pandora believed she wasn’t scared. She could see it in the unsettled way he shifted his weight, the way he moved to set his deck in his Duel Disk, then opted for one more shuffle and cut after glancing at her eyes.

Of all the skills she’d learned on the streets, bluffing was perhaps the most useful. And she was so practiced at it that her own hands moved with confidence, her own weight stayed centered. Her eyes stayed fixed on her opponent; they didn’t glance at the saw—not even when it hummed to life and began spinning in a fixed orbit within the ring, waiting for the opportunity to move along its track and make this day without argument the worst day in Yori’s truncated memory.

Each of the shackles around her lower calves was marked by an individual key slot. The buzz saw was roughly three feet away at its closest edge. Pandora’s behavior so far gave no doubt he could and would send it toward her regardless of the outcome of the duel, and at her current angle, there was no way she could successfully pick two locks before it hit her. If she tried, it would hit her while crouched, and that was certain death rather than just a loss of both legs.

Just a loss of both legs. Somehow, she felt like a fist fight with Ra would hold more hope than her current situation.

Not to mention her life wasn’t the only one on the line. Ryou still hadn’t spoken a word; he just stood there, death pinched between his teeth, shuffling cards like a machine.

“We won’t need our holo-imagers for this duel,” Pandora announced, flipping a switch on the bottom of his Duel Disk. “As you can see, Pandora’s Ring is equipped with everything we need for our grand stage performance.”

The projectors on either side of the ring shimmered to life. Yori flipped the second switch on her Duel Disk, and her life counter glowed to 4000, but her holo-imagers didn’t activate. She almost wished she could hear Seto Kaiba lecturing her on the technical aspects of understanding his invention. It would be a nice distraction from the ever-present hum of the buzz saw waiting to either put her in a wheelchair for life or . . .

“You must be a pretty terrible performer,” she said, smiling sweetly at Pandora, “if you have to shackle the audience in place. Glad I didn’t buy a ticket.”

Pandora scowled. Yuugi nearly laughed. Her bluff was as active on the field as a permanent spell card.

She wondered suddenly if Yami would have been able to see through it. The thought made her heart ache.

“As the true magician on this stage,” Pandora announced, “the opening turn is mine.”

He summoned a low-level wall monster, then ended his turn. Since Yori was now something of an expert on tag-team matches, she knew her turn came next, and she completed her draw phase.

“Waiting to tribute for Dark Magician?” Yuugi spoke for the first time since the duel’s opening.

Pandora’s jaw almost detached from the rest of his skull.

“You’re so proud of being a magician,” Yuugi said, “and you’re a rare-card hunter. I may be no substitute for the pharaoh, but I’m not an idiot.”

Yori smirked; she never would have picked up on that. “Nice job, Yuugi. So you’re a trump-card player, Pandora?”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Pandora sputtered. It was a sad excuse for a bluff.

“You’ll be easy to handle, then.”

Yori set a card facedown on the field before summoning Little Monkey [500/500] in attack mode.

The tiny black-and-white monkey appeared on the field, blinked left and right, then scampered up Yori’s body to sit on her shoulder. The hologram had no weight, of course, but it was startling all the same.

Pandora laughed, but Yori saw Yuugi’s smile and knew he understood.

“I’m activating his special ability,” she said.

Pandora’s laughter abruptly died. “His what?”

The monkey shrieked, then vanished. It was Pandora’s turn to blink left and right until the monkey appeared on his shoulder, chattering in his ear. He let out his own shriek and tried to shove it away, but his hands passed right through.

“My monkey scouts out all the cards in your hand,” Yori said, “and then I get to choose one that you have to shuffle back into your deck.”

The lower half of Pandora’s face, visible beneath his mask, burned flaming red. His cards appeared as holograms before her, and her smirk returned full force.

“Let’s retire that Dark Magician, shall we?” She reached out to flick the card in the center, and it disintegrated into white pixels.

Her monkey returned to her shoulder as Pandora shuffled his deck.

“You got your trump card in your opening hand,” she said. “Lucky. But not lucky enough.”

Of course, it was just as likely he’d used some sleight of hand to cheat. Either way, it hadn’t helped him in the end.

Pandora sneered. “The humming of that saw waiting to cut you in half is like a symphony, wouldn’t you say? I’d like to see you look so smug the moment it starts moving.”

Yori’s stomach tightened.

“It won’t move,” Yuugi declared. “We’re going to win, and we’re going to save Ryou, too.”

Yuugi was definitely a step up from her previous tag-team partner in his willingness to work together. Too bad Yori had the same weaknesses as Seto; she didn’t know how to coordinate her deck with someone else’s. More importantly, she didn’t know how to save Ryou from Marik. She had hoped Yuugi would have some kind of idea, but if he did, he’d said nothing so far. Once again, she found herself longing for Yami.

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, she remembered Yuugi’s relieved smile as he’d called her “sis.” She remembered the way he’d admitted he was no substitute for the pharaoh.

She didn’t know why Yami wasn’t fighting, didn’t know if there was something holding him back or something holding Yuugi back from calling for him, but either way, Yuugi trusted her, and it was past time for her to do the same.

“Tomorrow in the tournament,” she heard Anzu’s voice whisper in her memory, “could you look out for Yuugi?”

“You can’t have everything.” Pandora’s eyes gleamed through his mask. “Win or lose this duel, little boy; it’s your choice. But there will be a price either way.”

Yuugi glanced between Ryou and the humming saw. The pain on his face was clear.

“Never trust a magician,” Yori said. “They always lie.”

“I believe you’re thinking of misdirection.” Pandora shook his head. “There is none here; this is no escape act. Just us and a pill and a saw. An impossible puzzle.”

“I don’t know if you’ve heard”—Yori raised an eyebrow—“but Yuugi already solved one impossible puzzle, and yours pales in comparison.”

Yuugi smiled, just as she’d hoped. They weren’t empty words; she wasn’t entrusting her safety to incapable hands.

Though the drone of the saw was still present, her shoulders relaxed.

“On with my turn,” Yori said. “After using his effect, Little Monkey goes back in my deck, but he brings someone out to take his place.”

Her deck holder spit out a card for her. She shuffled Little Monkey back into the remainder, then summoned the new monster: Mondo Monkey [1600/1400].

The brown monkey was five times the size of its counterpart, but it chattered with the same voice. He had a special ability as well, but she couldn’t use it on the same turn he was special summoned to the field.

Yori moved to end her turn, then hesitated. Ryou was up next, and he stared straight ahead, all personality gone from his stance and expression. A faint golden eye pulsed on his forehead.

Yori caught Yuugi’s eyes.

“You said you’re no replacement for the pharaoh,” she said quietly.

Color rose in his face, but he didn’t look away.

“You’re right,” she said. “You’re not a replacement. You’re you. Be you. That’s the way we’ll win this.”

His eyes widened, and he nodded.

“Okay. I end my turn.”

Ryou said nothing as he began his draw phase. The silence was eerie. His glazed eyes barely glanced at his cards before he played The Gross Ghost of Fled Dreams [1300/1800] in attack mode. The sword-wielding banshee that appeared on the field was still more comforting than his empty expression.

Yori could see only one way out of their current situation. If Ryou woke up and surrendered, he and Pandora would lose. If she and Yuugi won, hopefully there was an automatic mechanism that would either release her or stop the saw. If not . . .

Well, she was a lucky girl. And it was the only thing she could think of to save herself and Ryou both—the only problem being, of course, that she didn’t know how to break Marik’s hold on a person.

But someone else in the room might.

“Tell me, Pandora.” She smiled coyly. “Are you in this for the benefits, too?”

He scowled. “What are you muttering about?”

“I met a Ghoul today who said serving Marik comes with great family benefits.”

She recognized the glint in his eyes. “Benefits, anyway.”

“Ah, so this is about a girl.” When his scowl returned, she shrugged. “Don’t try to deny it; you nearly drooled. Who is she?”

“None of your business.”

“Come on, magician. I thought you said this was a show. Where’s my sob story, my tragic setup to make the trick more interesting?”

His scowl grew more pronounced. “You want tragic setup?”

“Considering I may not walk out of this, I think I’ve earned it.”

As his expression soured, the silence grew, hanging in the space between the end of Ryou’s turn and the start of Yuugi’s. Yori could feel Yuugi’s gaze, but she kept her eyes on Pandora, kept just enough smugness in her expression to push him closer and closer to an edge, until finally—

He reached up and removed his mask.

Yori blinked.

Considering her previous duel, she’d assumed Pandora’s mask was all for show—the kind of flashy fashion statement expected from a tattooed, cloak-wearing gang member.

It wasn’t for show.

“What happened?” Yuugi gasped out. Bless his heart, he sounded like he was talking to a friend instead of a Ghoul. Yori wasn’t half as good at bluffing as Yuugi was at being genuine.

Pandora sneered, the expression further twisting the lumpy red flesh of his face. “Like it? Catherine certainly didn’t.”

There was the girl.

Yori shook her head. “What, your wife left you because you got caught in a fire?”

“My assistant.” He fixed his mask back in place, tightening the strap. “Catherine was my assistant even before I became successful. She was blonde, beautiful, busty—the perfect stage candy for the perfect escape show. Until the day I didn’t escape.”

Yori whistled. “Wow. Sounds like you’re a real charmer. Tell me, did you ever notice a personality under those curves or did you not care?”

“Catherine and I were a perfect match. Once this duel is over, we will be again.”

“Is Marik going to fix your face or your personality? Either way, he must be a real miracle worker.”

“Yori.” Yuugi’s voice strangled on her name, his face bright red. It was the same expression he’d given her after she’d pick-pocketed the guard at the tournament registration.

But she didn’t apologize. Not when she could still hear the buzz saw.

“Marik is going to force my Catherine back.” Pandora grinned, and it was somehow still gruesome even with the mask on. “All I have to do is torture the pharaoh a little first. What a bargain.”

“I bet you’ll really love her when she’s mind-controlled.” Yori narrowed her eyes. “Then she’ll have even less personality.”

His smile said it all. “She’ll never leave me again.”

“Until she does.”

His smile faltered.

Yori shrugged. “I mean, the Millennium Rod isn’t perfect, and neither is Marik’s mind control.”

At least, that was her hope.

“Nonsense,” Pandora snarled.

“What happens when she breaks free of Marik and sees your face again?”

“She can’t break free!”

Yori held up her hands. “Whatever you say. I mean, I’m no expert. It’s not like I have a Millennium Item. Oh, wait.”

She shook her wrist, letting her bracelet catch the stage lights, turning the Eye of Horus to face Pandora. Then slowly, deliberately, she looked at the Millennium Puzzle around Yuugi’s neck.

“We’re somewhat more acquainted with these things than you. So how about it, Pandora? What will you do the day she wakes up?”

“She’ll never wake up!” The sweat on Pandora’s skin was obvious.

Yori smirked. “Come on, you know what it’s like—having Marik in your mind. If she really wants to wake up, what will she do?”

“Nothing!” Pandora clenched his fists so hard his cards buckled. “There’s nothing she can do. She’ll never even realize something is wrong because everything will be calm. She’ll feel at home in the sand. Like she was born there. Like she could stay forever. Master Marik will direct her every thought, and even if he focuses elsewhere, her attention will be on the sun and the sand and the heat. She’ll never even think of waking up because she’ll never know she needs to!”

Yori’s stomach tightened. “You don’t say.”

Pandora’s eyes were sharp from behind his mask, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Without warning, he produced a thin remote from his sleeve, and the whirring sound of the saw suddenly increased. The spinning blade moved forward along its path.

Yuugi gasped.

The saw halted.

It was now a foot closer to Yori than it had been previously.

Yori clenched the muscles in her legs, focused on the tightness in her knees, forced her face and hands to stay relaxed, forced her expression to stay lazy and her breath to stay regular even while her mind was screaming.

“Whoopsie,” Pandora panted. “I think the audience got a little too vocal. Let’s not forget who’s running the show here. Get on with the duel, little boy.”

Yuugi swallowed and drew a card, almost dropping it in the process.

Yori’s stomach tried to shrink against her spine, and she counted silently to keep herself breathing. Should she throw out a quip? Pushing him further could move the saw again, but letting him think she was cowed by his threat could move it just the same. She needed some way to grab power again, but the wrong word, and—

She’d stopped breathing. She started counting again, praying the color in her face hadn’t changed.

Should she speak?

Should she glare?

Every second of indecision would cost her, and the final price might be her life.

“You like the Dark Magician [2500/2100] so much?” Yuugi’s voice rang out sharp and clear. “Take a good look, Pandora.”

Pandora’s eyes snapped to Yuugi, narrowed and intense. Yuugi normal-summoned Alpha the Magnet Warrior [1400/1700], then activated the spell card Brain Control, which gave him control of Pandora’s wall monster. Using his tribute summon, he sacrificed both, and a purple-clad magician swept onto the field, pointed staff in hand.

“Looks like you’re out of monsters, Pandora.” Yuugi’s expression was grim. “How’d you like to see a real magician up close?”

Since Yuugi was the last player on the opening turn, he was the first one allowed to attack. And attack he did.

Pandora shrieked as a blast of dark magic hit him full in the chest, dropping his lifepoints to 1500. The Dark Magician smiled like a wolf as he retreated to Yuugi’s corner of the field.

“You wanted me to get on with the duel. Now show me your counterattack. It’s your turn.”

Yori swallowed hard. Yuugi had taken Pandora’s attention off her just when she needed it, and she knew it wasn’t on accident.

“You’ll pay for that!” Pandora snatched a card from his deck.

The best thing for her to do now was to make use of the distraction. Yori closed her eyes and focused on her bracelet, feeling the metal warm against her skin. Pandora had said someone under Marik’s control had no idea they needed to break free, so all she had to do was somehow make Ryou aware.

//Ryou, can you hear me?// She focused her voice like a silent arrow, imagining it piercing through Marik’s control.

But the snarled response certainly didn’t come from Ryou.

//He’s a little brainwashed at the moment, bitch. You’ll have to eat cream puffs together some other time.//

Yori winced; the last thing she’d wanted to do was wake the spirit. If he was in control of Ryou instead of Marik, the situation might get even worse. At least for her. The spirit would probably pay good money for the remote to that saw.

But maybe even now he couldn’t take control without Ryou’s permission. She could only hope.

//Tell him to wake up,// she said.

The spirit’s return scoff felt like a burst of air against her eardrums. Mental communication was a bad radio at best, and it made her skull ache. No wonder Yami got frown lines when he did it.

//If he doesn’t wake up,// she said, //he’ll die.//

//Sorry, what was the question again? Too busy not caring.//

//You need a host to carry the ring.//

//So I’ll find a new one. Last I checked, plenty of tossers left in the world.//

//Not like Ryou.//

//Yes, I’m sure loads are more accommodating. I can’t wait to go shopping.//

Yori’s breath expelled in a rush, and she opened her eyes. Her wrist hurt, as did her brain. Marik’s item let him literally control people; meanwhile, hers was little better than useless.

“I end my turn,” Pandora said.

He’d summoned another defensive monster and played one card facedown. Despite his early preaching about Yuugi needing to decide who would win and who would lose, he didn’t seem to have any intentions of losing, which fit with his brazen nature so far.

Yori drew a card. It was the spell card Magician’s Release, and the majority of her soul wanted to slap it down on the field, bring out Dante, and have him set fire to Pandora’s face a second time.

But Mondo Monkey’s special ability could only be activated during her standby phase, and it was the only thing she could think of to give her another chance of reaching Ryou.

Sorry, Dante, she thought. It’s you or him.

“I’ll activate my monster’s special ability,” she said.

Pandora paled. “Another one?”

“If I hold at least five cards, I can send my entire hand to the graveyard to play one card of choice straight from my deck to the field.”

She stacked her cards neatly before sliding them into her graveyard. Dante’s crimson eyes seemed to pierce her heart as they slid out of sight. Hopefully she hadn’t just sacrificed her strongest monster for nothing.

She riffled through her deck until she found the right spell card. Then she shuffled the remainder and replaced it.

“I’ll play one card facedown,” she said, sliding Rescue into place, “and end my turn.”

Chapter Text

The spirit of the ring was not unaware of the intruder in his host’s mind. He’d felt the influence of a second Millennium Item from the moment it started, and he’d watched as orange sand trickled past the crack beneath the door of Ryou’s soul.

He’d even kicked the door open, as he’d done so often before, to see the carnage firsthand, to see the pale, sickly kid standing on a sand dune as if that was how things were meant to be, as if the normal representation of his mind wasn’t a life-size Monster World board where he played a character role in his own life and told himself it was true.

The spirit had never liked the RPG board, but he liked the sand dunes even less.

They reminded him of home.

“Who are you?” the blonde intruder demanded, scrambling for words, reaching toward his belt for something that wasn’t there. No doubt his Millennium Rod. Three-thousand years wasn’t long enough to make the spirit forget the kind of power the rod wielded, and even if it were, he felt the signature of every item in his very soul.

“Get out,” the spirit snarled. It was unfortunate that he had no power with which to back his words, not now that he needed his host’s permission to do anything.

Ryou glanced his way, brown eyes glazed with stupidness.

“Help me,” he whispered.

The spirit’s soul felt tight at the core, but before he could say anything, the blonde intruder smiled soothingly.

“Don’t worry,” he crooned. “He can’t hurt you.”

He raised a hand, and a wide pyramid of glass encased Ryou. A look of calm overtook the boy’s face as he seated himself in the sand, fingers tracing patterns in the grains.

The spirit glared at the intruder. From the Kohl beneath his eyes to the banded gold around his arms, he was as bad as the dunes he’d brought with him, and the spirit didn’t like his smile. It was too soft and warm. Like his sand.

A hot breeze circled the spirit, bringing with it unwanted recollections—galloping through the desert on a stolen horse, plucking figs from the palace trees, standing ankle-deep in the Nile beneath a dome of stars.

“Now, once again”—the intruder’s voice was much better than his smile, full of the hard edges the spirit expected from an item carrier—“who are you?”

The spirit of the ring remembered his name, but he hadn’t used it even while alive. It would be a shame to break a 3,000-year track record.

“This vessel is mine,” the spirit said. “Get your own.”

The intruder gave him an appraising glance. “Fascinating. You must be the spirit of the ring. Where you’re concerned, the records are vague at best; I’d thought you were a myth.”

The spirit grinned wide. “Boo.”

“You want all seven items in order to get revenge on the pharaoh.”

The grin remained but sharpened. “Let’s leave my motives to me, shall we?”

The intruder’s pale eyes narrowed. “I have my own reasons to see the pharaoh suffer. Perhaps there could be some mutual gain here.”

“Cute.” The spirit chuckled. “Holding your ‘reasons’ up to the light of a 3,000-year grudge. The shadow is unimpressive. Now get out.”

“I can’t do that.”

Ghostly arms reared up in the sand, grasping at the spirit’s legs, attempting to draw him in. The spirit chuckled, and with barely a thought, the sand blasted apart under a gale wind. The intruder stumbled back, eyes wide in shock.

“I wouldn’t attempt to invade my mind,” the spirit purred. “You’ll find it’s a dark, scary place.”

Plus there was the resident monster, the one even the spirit feared.

The intruder clenched his fists. Behind the glass, Ryou blinked and looked around, as if he’d forgotten where he was. Then the intruder relaxed, and Ryou settled back in.

“If you had any real power,” the intruder said, “you’d have used it by now. So lurk all you want; my plans shall continue onward.”

He disappeared, but the sand remained, soft and repulsive.

The spirit growled to himself, glaring up at the bright sky. The sun should have been blinding; Ryou’s freakishly pale skin should have been cooked pink already. In addition, the true sand of Egypt was thick and coarse and dirty, a testament to the grittiness of reality. It stung like scorpions in the wind and scratched faces raw, king and peasant alike.

“This kind of false reality is just your style,” the spirit growled.

Ryou gave no response.

The spirit stormed toward the glass. His feet slid in the sand, shoes filling with weight that made it difficult to lift his legs. He focused his mind again, but though he could blast away the sand, he couldn’t so much as crack the glass pyramid. Not even when he slammed a fist into it.

Ryou blinked around curiously, but he didn’t seem to see the spirit at all.

“You keep me out,” the spirit snarled, “but you just hand control over to the first new item that comes along?”

The boy continued drawing patterns in the sand. It looked like a stick figure group of friends. Or possibly a pack of dogs. Outside of painting figurines, he wasn’t much of an artist.

The spirit wished his wind could reach inside the pyramid to give the kid a face full of sand. But eventually, he gave up trying, and he left the room behind, closing the door on the sand and memories. The narrow hallway was darker than ever after the bright expanse, but there were no spots in the spirit’s vision. He hadn’t seen anything with mortal eyes, after all.

The door to his own room faced him, the only other place to go while locked away from the world. It was solid gold, edged in blossoming vines with gold leaves so delicate they would be edible in the real world—not that such a door could exist in the real world. It was befitting a king, though the spirit had only ever been self-proclaimed as such.

It swung open silently at his touch, and though the interior was solid gold to match, it was hard to tell amidst the fog of shadows.

The monster stood in the corner, as always.

The spirit strode into the room, legs stirring the shadows while they hissed and purred at his entrance.

“Miss me, my darlings?” He cackled to himself. Sometimes he spoke to the shadows; sometimes he remained silent. But he always heard them. They spoke now of the Millennium Rod, delighted at its presence.

Take it, they whispered.

He certainly would have liked to, but there was the little trouble of being trapped.

His throne waited in the room’s center, solid gold and padded with large red cushions. He sprawled across it sideways, feet dangling off the edge, eyes tilted to the ceiling. Unlike the rest of the room, the ceiling was clay, every inch painted with the mural of a village. The houses were simple and worn, barely a step above hovels—some of them not even that far. But the houses were background scenery; the focus of the mural was the people that filled it. Children lurking in doorways and laughing in the streets. Women gathered at street corners, using grinding stones, carrying water. Men sharpening weapons, trading wares, leaving home and returning again.

One hundred and twenty-seven people in all. The spirit had each one memorized.

Boring, the shadows hissed.

“You’re boring,” the spirit shot back, but the words had no heat behind them. He would have loved to go charging out after the rod. Sometimes when he looked at the mural, he lost himself for so long that by the time he checked in on his host, weeks had passed in the mortal realm. Perhaps for all his 3,000 years of darkness, he’d just been lost in the images of those aching people.

Another voice eventually pierced his mind—the voice of the Millennium Bracelet wielder. She wanted him to save Ryou, and he enjoyed telling her off, especially since it was her fault his hands were tied. Without her interference, the rod would have had the same power over Ryou as ever, but at least the spirit could have been going after it on his own in the mortal world.

//If he doesn’t wake up, he’ll die,// she said.

Like he should care.

//I can’t wait to go shopping,// he said.

She stopped talking.

He smirked.

Help me, the shadows whispered in Ryou’s voice. The spirit glared at the fog, and it swirled away, cackling.

It was the kid’s own fault. Let him get himself out or rot forever if he wanted.

The spirit returned his eyes to the mural.

++++++++++

Yuugi hadn’t missed the slight glow around Yori’s bracelet while he’d distracted Pandora. While part of him hoped she could get through to the spirit and convince him to help Ryou, past experiences didn’t allow him to be too optimistic. At least she was fighting for Ryou in whatever way she could. It was up to him to do the same.

Ryou played another monster in attack mode, The Portrait’s Secret [1200/1500]. Neither of his monsters were strong enough to beat either Dark Magician or Mondo Monkey, so Yuugi took his silence as the end of his turn.

He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. Sweat warmed his palms and forehead as he examined his options silently like pieces of a puzzle. Yuugi had never been brain-controlled before, but he could remember the hazy days when Yami first awoke, the disorientation of reaching for a cup at dinner only to find himself at the train station or of running down a pitch-black street to save Joey from a gang only to realize it was morning, he was late for school, and Joey was completely fine. Such an experience was something only he and Ryou could understand, and that shared knowledge had strengthened their friendship more than once. Maybe now it could save it.

“My turn,” Yuugi announced, fixing his gaze on Ryou. The albino gave no response.

Yuugi drew a card, barely glancing at it. He didn’t think there was a card that could help him in this situation. It was all up to him.

“Ryou,” he said gently, “I know you can hear me. I know what it’s like to be trapped in your own mind, and I know you can break out. Marik can’t hold a candle to what you’ve lived with from the ring.”

But nothing sparked in Ryou’s brown eyes.

Pandora cupped a hand to his ear. “Do I hear chit-chat when I should hear dueling?”

He lifted the remote for the buzz saw, wagging it at Yuugi.

“Let’s not make this duel messy too early,” he said. “You should never rush the big finish.”

Yuugi bit his tongue. He lifted a card from his hand.

“I summon—” Unfortunately, that was as far as he got. As soon as his card touched the surface of his Duel Disk, Pandora’s facedown card lifted, and white light swallowed his monster’s materializing shape whole.

“Trap card, activate!” Pandora cackled. “Dark Renewal!”

The light on the field became a sleek coffin marked by a pentagram. It swallowed Pandora’s monster as well, then opened to reveal a Dark Magician [2500/2100]. The new magician eyed Yuugi’s replica from head to foot, then smirked. Pandora wore an expression to match.

Yuugi’s stomach attempted a timid summersault. If the two magicians went head to head, he would lose his best monster, and while he couldn’t afford to win the duel as things stood, he couldn’t afford to lose it either.

//Yami?// he tried, but the back of his mind held only darkness and silence.

Yori scoffed. “Well, I knew your facedown card was a trap, but I didn’t realize it was a useless one.”

In an instant, Pandora’s eyes were narrowed on her, the corners of his mouth practically leaking smoke as they reached for his jaw.

She grinned. “You wouldn’t look so sour if it wasn’t true.”

And Yuugi almost smiled.

“Come my turn, I’ll show you exactly what a true magician can do,” Pandora blustered.

“What’s that? Not escape from a fire?”

“Yori!” Yuugi’s cheeks flushed with color even as a weight lifted from his shoulders. “I know he’s a Ghoul, but you shouldn’t . . .”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Be so mean?”

He couldn’t bring himself to nod, so he settled for an extra-sheepish expression. Yami taunted opponents too, of course, and Yuugi realized it played into certain strategies, but . . .

“You’re better than me, Yuugi,” she said, but she smiled when she said it.

The heat in his face reached the roots of his hair. “I’m not—”

“Don’t shrug it off; it’s amazing. You’re amazing.”

Yuugi ducked his head. “I don’t feel ama—”

He stopped.

Because in his mind, he could see Ryou, standing shy and washed out by hospital white, saying, “I don’t feel stronger, mate. But I trust you.”

Pandora rolled his eyes to the ceiling and made a sound halfway to gagging. “Take your turn, little boy, before I let this saw make your decisions for you.”

“I will,” Yuugi said, fire in his blood.

He snatched one card from his hand and played it facedown on the field. He had two cards left.

“I’ll activate a spell card,” he said. “Exchange!”

“What’s that?” Pandora huffed.

Yuugi regarded him evenly. “I’ll choose one card from Ryou’s hand, and he’ll choose one from mine.”

“No wonder I’ve never heard of it.” The Ghoul scowled. “It’s stupid. And don’t think I can’t see through your little trick—you’re not getting anywhere near your stick friend. That’s why you’re locked in place.”

Yuugi’s heart pinched in his chest. Ryou remained as stoic as ever.

But Yori didn’t.

“Alright, Pandora, I’ve swallowed your nonsense to this point, but here we draw the line.” Her eyes weren’t so much murderous as they were already burying the bodies. “You established this insanity as a duel with extra high stakes, but now you’re tossing out card effects you don’t like. This isn’t a duel at all, there are no rules outside your whims, and Yuugi actually has no choice in the outcome. So let’s stop pretending otherwise. Duel’s over.”

“I hold all the power here!” Pandora shouted. “I decide if the duel is over and what happens within it, and I decide when your legs come off your body!”

He brandished the remote once more, and Yuugi nearly lost his stomach. Things were escalating out of control, and he didn’t know how to save either of his friends.

But Yori never flinched.

“And I decide,” she said slowly, evenly, “when you die.”

Pandora’s eyes showed white. He huffed. “Don’t you try—”

“I’m not much of a knife thrower,” Yori said. “But you’re not at much of a distance. If I had a knife, I bet I could hit your throat from here.”

As she raised a hand, a switchblade snapped out from between her fingers, blade pointed at Pandora’s exposed neck above his sagging black bow tie.

“Oh, look at that.” Her expression was as cold as the glint on the blade. “I do.”

Pandora’s face turned as red as his suit. He sputtered for words. Yori moved her arm to the side, tossed her blade in the air, and caught it, eyes never once moving from the Ghoul. Yuugi would have guessed a switchblade couldn’t be thrown with precision, but after seeing the way Yori handled it, even he wasn’t sure.

“I’d be very careful,” she said, pointing the blade back on target, “about pretending you hold all the cards in this game.”

The skin under Pandora’s chin glistened with sweat. He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing.

//Yami!// Yuugi shouted. Things could explode at any moment, and he didn’t know how to help. He didn’t know if Yori had it in her to murder someone to save herself. If she didn’t, she might die. If she did, she would live with it forever. Either way, Yuugi couldn’t let something like that happen to one of his friends.

Tears burned hot in his eyes. He forced them closed, but just before he could send his mind into the puzzle, Pandora let out a shriek.

Yuugi’s heart stopped cold.

He opened his eyes.

Yori hadn’t moved. She still held her blade.

Pandora had sagged forward, hands clutched to his skull. A gold glow shone beneath his mask.

When he looked up, his face was as blank as Ryou’s.

“Seems someone’s broken the rules.” His voice was as blank as his expression. His arms slowly lowered.

“Nice of you to join us, Marik,” Yori said.

Yuugi wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or even more terrified.

“I apologize,” Pandora said calmly. He held the remote up, one finger barely touching each edge, as if it were rotten cheese.

Then he tossed it.

The plastic hit the hard stage floor and split in two, the back piece sliding almost all the way to Yori.

Pandora’s head tilted to the side, sagging on his neck. “Your knife next.”

Yori raised an eyebrow. “You want me to throw it at your neck?”

Pandora’s arms lifted and flopped outward in what might have been a careless expression. “Let’s not be bitter, now.”

Yuugi swallowed hard, forcing his voice to work. “Why are you here, Marik? Why do you care if a Ghoul cheats?”

Pandora’s head swung to the side, pointing his blank eyes toward Yuugi.

“I’m a Millennium Item holder,” he said, as if the answer were obvious.

“This isn’t a shadow game,” Yori said.

A lazy smile crossed Pandora’s face. “Oh ye of little understanding. Do you think that gold band on your wrist is a toy? Do you think it grants power with no price?”

Yori narrowed her eyes but gave no answer.

“I know you’ve never cheated in a game,” he went on. “Perhaps you’ve attributed it to honor or some kind of moral compass, but every item holder feels it in their soul from the moment they touch gold. Shadow game or not, we’re all bound.”

Yuugi shivered, glancing down at the puzzle. There was so much he didn’t know about the items and so much Marik did. He seemed to have the upper hand in every way.

“I’ve established my games,” Pandora said. “I stand by them. But if you break the rules first, I’m no longer bound. So what will it be?”

“Let Ryou go,” Yori snarled.

“I will not. Will you kill Pandora for it and die yourself, or will you drop your weapon and settle things by the established rules?”

Yori’s knuckles whitened around the hilt of her knife. For the first time since the start of the duel, she looked uncertain.

The air felt cold. A drop of sweat slid down Yuugi’s neck. His hands trembled.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You can drop it.”

Yori frowned at him. He tried to make his voice as confident as hers always was.

“You can drop it,” he said again. “If it’s a duel, we can win.”

“Confident Yuugi.” Pandora’s mouth spread in a smirk. “I see the pharaoh has shoved responsibility onto his servants again.”

“You don’t know anything, Marik.” Yuugi’s voice was growing calmer, and so was his heart. He wouldn’t lose any of his friends in Battle City. He’d already promised himself that when Marik had first declared war.

The smirk tilted into a sneer. “I know things you could only dream of.”

“Maybe.” A bit of heat touched Yuugi’s face. “But if so, you missed everything important. You won’t win.”

Pandora’s expression turned blank once more. “We’ll see.”

A loud THUMP echoed across the stage.

Yori’s switchblade had embedded itself in the wooden floor just outside the ring.

Her arm was still extended.

“I trust you,” she said simply, eyes on Yuugi.

Yuugi smiled.

“The duel continues,” Pandora said. “I hope your blind loyalty to the pharaoh doesn’t cost you everyone you care about, little Yuugi.”

The glow beneath his mask vanished. He slumped forward, then gasped for air.

“Looks like someone’s not getting a promotion,” Yori said, as calm as if nothing had happened.

“Hold your tongue,” Pandora snarled, wiping sweat from his face. He reached inside his jacket, and the shackles around Yuugi’s legs suddenly popped open. “Make your useless move, little boy. No funny business.”

Yuugi steeled himself and stepped onto the field, ducking around holograms. Ryou gave no response as he approached—didn’t even look at him—but Yuugi had to believe his plan would work. He came to a stop just in front of his friend.

“I choose a card from your hand,” he said.

Ryou woodenly turned his hand so Yuugi could see the cards. He held a collection of fiends and Ouija Board, which would be no good without its accompanying letter cards. Yuugi chose one of the fiends.

Then he raised the only card in his hand. A woman who was half devil and half angel adorned the front of the spell card, a red heart suspended above her open palms.

Ryou reached for it, then stopped cold.

“Remember this?” Yuugi whispered.

When the spirit of the ring had attacked Yuugi in Duelist Kingdom, Change of Heart was the card Ryou had used to sabotage him just enough for Yami to win the match. When Yuugi’s life had been on the line in that duel, Ryou had pulled through to save him; it was the first time he’d ever broken the spirit’s control. Yuugi had kept the card in his deck ever since.

Ryou’s eyes widened ever so slightly, the smallest spark of life.

Yuugi would take what he could get.

“You’re stronger than he is, Ryou,” he said fiercely, just as he had that day in the hospital. “It’s your life.”

“Finish your move, little boy!” Pandora shrieked.

“Cool your heels,” Yori said, and Yuugi could practically hear the smile in her voice. “He can’t finish until Ryou takes the card.”

Ryou’s fingers trembled. His hand didn’t move. He still held that awful pill between his teeth.

And moisture gathered at the corners of his eyes.

“No one can break Master Marik’s hold,” Pandora snapped.

“Come on, Ryou,” Yuugi begged.

Ryou blinked, and the calm descended again. He lifted the card from Yuugi’s fingers, sliding it into his hand, eyes blank and dry once more.

Yuugi’s heart fell.

Pandora cackled. “I told you it was useless.”

Maybe it was.

“It wasn’t useless,” Yori said. “It was just round one. We have plenty more to go.”

Yuugi glanced back at her, and he borrowed courage from the look in her eyes. He took a deep breath.

“I won’t give up,” he told Ryou.

He returned to his spot on the field, and the shackles closed around his legs once more.

“Turn end,” he said.

Chapter Text

It was a confused world. Yami grew more certain of that with every passing minute. He wasn’t the only one wandering without an identity. The only people bold enough to claim one were usually arrogant. Ruthless. Bullies and criminals.

Justice, the shadows whispered, and they were absolutely right. The world needed more of it.

Yami shook his head slowly, dragging himself back to center, just as he’d done over and over, lifting himself from the claws of darkness before they could sink too deep.

“Four years ago,” he said. “Where was I?”

Justified, the shadows whispered.

His uses of darkness always were. The Millennium Item he held was his scepter, his symbol of authority. It justified his every action. If he’d attacked, if he’d killed, it was only—

“Your lies won’t trick me. Four years ago. Where was I?”

How many times had he run these laps with the darkness? How many minutes had passed in the real world? There was still a tournament to get back to, and Marik’s next strike could come at any moment. He had to be back in time to protect Yuugi and his friends.

But the question burned within him, growing hotter each time the shadows dodged.

The shadows cackled. They swirled around his arms, around his face. Even without light, he saw the empty red skulls as they swam past. He was outnumbered in an ocean, and the power in the darkness was something he had never comprehended even as he wielded it. Had he ever even wielded it at all, or had it only let him believe such?

A skull turned to face him directly, empty sockets burning with something neither darkness nor light, jaw slack in a wicked grin.

All yours, came the purr, the hum, the temptation.

Power.

Control.

“Answers,” he said firmly. “Where was I?”

The skulls tumbled away, disappearing once more into solid black. The air around him grew thick and heavy, dark enough he could only tell his eyes were open when he blinked to be sure.

Silence. Then—

Here.

Yami sagged in relief. His soul had been tied to the puzzle all this time. There was no way he—

In the dark.

He swallowed, a useless reflex.

“Here in the puzzle,” he said.

The shadows cackled, and the throne beneath him disappeared. He let out a cry, startled as he fell. There was no floor to catch him; he simply fell and kept falling, feeling the shadows brush his skin like wind. He might fall through the very earth and be lost forever.

He closed his eyes, tried to retreat from the puzzle, but the shadows around him held fast, laughing.

All yours, they offered again. He could command the darkness if he just said the word. If he just released the doubt and once more embraced the power.

But what if Marik was right?

From far away, he thought he heard Yuugi calling for him. He tried to answer but couldn’t.

King, the shadows whispered.

He was a king. A king’s authority was unquestionable. Even the darkness bowed before him if he willed it. When a criminal was thrown at the feet of a king, it wasn’t so the monarch could hide behind the throne, crying indecision. His was the responsibility to declare judgment, to uphold peace.

Even at the expense of any corrupted life which threatened it.

Yami threw a hand into the black, commanding it to retreat.

The world righted beneath his feet, and the shadows released him. He gripped the back of his metal throne, gasping for air even though there was none to be had as a spirit.

The shadows purred.

God, they whispered.

His was the power and inheritance of Ra. If an earthly king’s authority was great, his was absolute.

Marik had challenged his authority.

Marik would learn.

++++++++++

As Pandora started his turn, Yuugi realized he was breathing hard. His skin had gone clammy, and he felt twitchy all the way down in his skeleton, like he was waiting for a jump scare in a movie that hadn’t come. If he couldn’t keep it together, he would have no chance of breaking through to Ryou again.

“There can be only one true magician on this field,” Pandora announced, pressing the button to activate his set card.

Yuugi narrowed his eyes, prepared to activate his own facedown card.

But Pandora’s gaze suddenly slid to Yori. “Before I take care of that problem, though, don’t think I forgot how you sacrificed your entire hand for one card. I wouldn’t want your pesky trap to interfere with my plans.”

His card lifted to reveal a purple shield and staff, which his Dark Magician promptly gripped, original staff vanishing.

“Black Illusion makes my Dark Magician invincible to both battle damage and card effects for this turn,” he said.

“What a waste.” Yori smirked. “My facedown card was never a trap for your magician.”

Pandora wagged his finger. “Don’t think your bluff can fool me. Now that we’ve got the dangers out of the way, I’ll activate a spell card: Mystic Guillotine!”

He slid a card from his hand into one of his magic/trap slots, and a large wooden guillotine appeared on the field, slanted blade gleaming. Yuugi’s Dark Magician let out a grunt as he was dragged forward by chains and fastened to the platform.

But before the blade could drop, Yuugi pressed the button beside his set card, covering his monster with a giant black top hat.

The blade fell, splitting the felt hat cleanly in two.

“Better luck next time, Pandora,” Yuugi said, gesturing at the three identical hats before him, one of which hid his Dark Magician.

Pandora’s eyes bugged in his head as he scowled.

“Then how about this!” he shouted.

His Dark Magician raised his staff, and a blast of magic exploded a second hat.

But not the one hiding Yuugi’s monster.

“Third time’s the charm, I’m sure,” Yori said. “Or was that the end of your battle phase?”

After steaming to himself, Pandora ended his turn.

Yuugi took a long breath in through his mouth. He wiped his empty palm on his pant leg. His whole arm was trembling.

“I hope you were a better magician than a duelist,” Yori said, drawing a card. “I was the obvious target last turn, but you can’t see anything past your obsessions, can you?”

Pandora’s hand twitched. His eyes darted toward the remote several feet away.

“The truth is you don’t have any actual skills,” Yori said. “It’s all just an illusion.”

It didn’t make sense.

Yuugi had been scared from the start of the duel, but it didn’t make sense for that fear to suddenly increase now more than it had when Pandora and Yori were wielding blades.

And yet it was. Frost in his heart. Cold when he breathed. Ice creeping in the back of his mind.

Yori lifted a card, her eyes fixed on Ryou. “Time for round two.”

And Yuugi suddenly realized the truth of what he was feeling—

It wasn’t his.

“Yori.” His voice came out as a croak, but she paused all the same.

“I know we’re in a crisis already.” He licked his lips, still breathing heavily as the air squeezed his chest. “But I think Yami’s in trouble.”

“I’ve got this,” she said without hesitation.

He closed his eyes, sending his mind into the puzzle.

Immediately, he couldn’t breathe at all. The air was black, and it clogged his throat, scratched his eyes. He didn’t breathe as a spirit, but the feeling was there nonetheless, the feeling that he was drowning where he stood, that the darkness was reaching deep inside him, wrapping fingers around his lungs and heart, crushing—

Someone grabbed his shoulders.

The darkness retreated.

He opened his eyes, but before he could thank Yami, the words died in his throat.

Because his best friend’s eyes were red as blood.

++++++++++

Yori forced herself not to wonder what kind of trouble Yami could be in, forced herself not to worry. Yuugi had left both the duel and Ryou in her hands, and if he could trust her with that, she could trust him with Yami.

She played the only card in her hand—Pot of Greed—and prayed that her deck wouldn’t let her down.

It didn’t.

She would bet it all on the two cards she held.

“I’ll play the spell card Solar Flare,” she said. “By dropping all my monsters’ attack points to zero, it allows me to activate a trap card straight from my hand regardless of conditions.”

Mondo Monkey’s attack fell to zero, and it chattered nervously.

She saw the sweat slide along Pandora’s jaw.

But her trap wasn’t for him.

Puppet Strings appeared on the field, and a set of wires lassoed Ryou’s Gross Ghost of Fled Dreams, dragging it forward to attack.

“Look at me, Ryou!” Yori snapped.

His brown orbs turned in her direction, empty as ever.

“I remember another fight that seemed hopeless,” she said, focusing on her bracelet, willing her words to reach through to whatever dark corner of his mind he’d been locked in. “I couldn’t have won without you then, and I can’t win without you now.”

She remembered the boy who’d hugged her tightly after saving him, the boy who’d cried and tried to hide it. She remembered his shy smile as he asked her to join Monster World for the first time. As she’d studied her character sheet, she’d seen his personality leaking from the curves in his handwriting and the meticulous details of the mage’s personality—likes strong flavors in food, especially onion; dependable and trustworthy; will sacrifice even his life for his friends. He’d entrusted her with the character he wished he could play because he was too busy running the game, taking the responsibility of making sure everyone could have a good time. She’d seen that in the way he ran every campaign, the way he adjusted battles when necessary so Joey could contribute enough heroics to feel validated, the way he added spur-of-the-moment items or mysteries when Yuugi decided that random sewer grate had to contain meaning, the way an NPC interacted with Tristan’s character whenever his attention started to wander, and the way he let Anzu create her own species within the world just to have the exact animal companion she wanted.

“He’s really good at this,” Yori had confided to Yami during one of the sessions.

He’d smiled. “Ryou is observant. If I were to plan an assault in real life, there’s no one I would trust more to handle the details.”

“You mean if we were in Ancient Egypt, you’d make him your war general?”

“I believe advisor would be a more appropriate position.” His expression turned serious. “If I could have had him and Yuugi as my voices of reason, perhaps we could have solved this whole Millennium Item crisis before it lasted a thousand years.”

Yori’s heart ached.

“Ryou, do you know how much you mean to your friends?” she asked.

He stared at her expressionlessly.

His ghost let out a banshee shriek as it raised its sword.

Her monkey cowered.

“Last time, I wanted to save you because you were Yuugi’s friend,” she said. “This time, you’re mine, too.”

Her bracelet flared with light, scalded her wrist, but she never took her eyes from Ryou’s.

The sword fell.

She activated her final card.

Rescue lifted on the field, and for a second, it was frozen, the blue-green border bright above the dark stage, the center filled by the illustration of a monster shielding its comrade.

“Wake up, Ryou!” she shouted.

++++++++++

Ryou didn’t like the sand.

He wasn’t sure when the thought had occurred to him. He certainly felt that he should like the sand, and while it was soft beneath him, it was soft in a way that weighed him down, made him feel tired. There were things he wanted to think of, he was sure of it, but each time he tried, he felt how soft the sand was, how easy it was to lose himself in its orange sherbet color, to trace meaningless patterns in it and feel the gentle strokes of the particles against his skin. Focusing on anything but the sand was difficult; his mind resented the effort.

Yet even as it lullabied him with its gentleness, the thought persisted: he didn’t like the sand. And the more it persisted, the more he wanted to know why. What fault could he possibly find in the comforting world around him?

Something tickled his ear. He itched it. The tickle remained, like someone whispering in his ear just enough to feel the breath and miss the words.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

He reached out, but his fingers hit glass. The shock jolted his heart, and in that instant, he heard the words:

“It’s your life.”

“Who’s there?” he demanded again. He tried to stand, but the glass tapered to a point above him, trapped him in a half-crouch. He pressed his hands to it—

He was so tired. What was he getting so worked up for?

With a sigh, he lowered himself to the sand again. The moment he did, his whole body relaxed, like sinking into bed after a rewarding day.

There was nothing to worry about. He could sit in the sand forever, watch the clear sky above, trace the patterns of the dunes rolling mildly across the horizon, and rest. A lazy smile overtook his face, followed by a laugh. The sand was so warm. It was—

He didn’t like it.

He sat up again, shaking his head. He itched his ear.

He didn’t like it.

When he rose to his feet, his head cracked against an invisible barrier, and he dropped down once more, biting his lip against the pain. One hand rubbed his skull while the other reached out and felt a glass wall.

Was he trapped?

It didn’t matter. The sand would be his bed, his home. He never needed to move.

But he didn’t like the sand.

For just an instant, a voice passed by like wind, lifting the hair on his arms, tingling down his spine.

“. . . without you . . .”

And then it was gone.

He wanted to hear—he wanted to hear the rest. He dragged himself forward to the angled glass, pressed his ear to it. The voice was still circling, slipping just past his senses, but he caught another snatch.

“. . . to your friends?”

He lifted a fist to pound against the glass, then lowered it. The air dragged down his lungs and eyelids like a child pulling him along, like his sister used to do when she was so small, he could put his arms around her middle and lift her off the floor even though he was barely two years older.

He didn’t want to think of Amane. It hurt his chest.

Lowering his hand further, he sunk his fingers into the sand. It calmed his spirit. It relaxed his muscles, swept away the burning behind his eyes.

The sand was perfect, really.

It was.

Really.

Hesitantly, he tilted his wrist. A layer of sand coated his palm.

He didn’t like it.

The sun overhead flared gold, blinding him.

“WAKE UP, RYOU!” a voice thundered.

And for just a moment, he remembered—

He launched himself forward, slamming both fists against the glass pyramid. It splintered around his skin, cracked all the way to its foundation of sand.

“Take over!” he shouted, praying the spirit was listening from somewhere beyond the dunes. “Please!”

The sand crashed against his legs in a wave, wrapped in ropes around his waist and arms, dragged him back, and pinned him to the dune. He tried to wrestle free, but when the stifling hold didn’t budge, he slowly relaxed.

He was so tired.

Had the sky always been so clear?

If he held the sand cupped in his hands, it looked like scoops of sherbet.

He loved it.

++++++++++

The spirit sat rigidly upright, swinging his legs to the floor. He raised a hand, ordering the shadows to silence.

In the quiet, he heard the voice of his host clearly.

A smirk spread across his face.

Take over, the shadows echoed.

“I heard,” he purred. The stupid kid had even said “please.” He’d come begging.

The spirit laced his fingers, cracked his knuckles with no sound.

“It’s a whole new game,” he said.

And the darkness cackled back.

Chapter Text

“What’s wrong?” Yami demanded, hands still gripping Yuugi’s shoulders. “Is it Marik?”

Yuugi swallowed even though the action was pointless.

“I’ve been calling for you,” he said. He realized now why Yami hadn’t answered. During those first days of Duelist Kingdom, communication between them had been almost impossible thanks to the shadows filling Yami’s mind. It was only during the battle with Pegasus that they’d really connected, only when they were both at the end of their rope that they’d managed to break through the mental barrier. Things had been just fine since then.

Until now.

“What were you looking for? In the dark.” Yuugi kept his gaze from wandering into the shadows that still circled them, kept it from following the hints of red that rode like undercurrents through the black fog.

Even though Yami said nothing to answer the question, Yuugi felt the cold grip of fear that was answer enough.

“Did Marik say something when you fought him?”

Yami released him and took a step back, expression hardening. “Marik will be making his next move soon. I should get back to the tournament.”

Yuugi shook his head. “You’re not yourself.”

“Nonsense.”

Of course, even with a mirror, Yuugi wasn’t sure Yami would see the obvious effect of the shadows. That was how they worked. But he wouldn’t get any better staying in the dark, and the duel wouldn’t get any better with both of them in the puzzle.

“He already made his move,” Yuugi said quietly. “He’s using the rod on Ryou.”

Yami’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Before he could just disappear into the real world, Yuugi grabbed his arm.

“You can’t make it a shadow game,” he warned. “We’re dueling Ryou, and if he loses, he dies. You have to find a solution outside the shadows.”

He felt his partner’s doubt as much as he saw it on his face.

“Promise me. No shadow game.”

Yami nodded, but somehow, it wasn’t reassuring at all. Then he was gone.

++++++++++

With everything frozen on the field, Yori waited for a response, a movement that would tell her she’d broken through, that Ryou had heard her. He’d heard her during the shadow game with the spirit, but from what Pandora had said, Marik’s control over him seemed to be different. Mind-numbing.

“You’re wasting your time,” Pandora said, breaking the silence. He’d lost a bit of his exuberance since Marik’s intervention, and the light in his eyes had turned even more dangerous. “Choose your replacement monster.”

Perhaps if she’d been closer, she could have seen some kind of change in Ryou’s face, but he was farthest from her on the field, and he seemed as blank as ever.

The heat from her bracelet faded, leaving her wrist cold.

If she’d been unable to break through to him with the Rescue card and her bracelet, what was left? Yuugi might have an idea, but he was still—

Just as she had the thought, Yuugi vanished.

Yami stood in his place.

Yori’s shoulders sagged in relief.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

When he turned her way, her breath stopped.

His irises were solid, burning red.

“Fine,” he said shortly, turning away to survey the field.

She would have to take his word for it. Yuugi was nowhere to be seen, and Ryou was still top priority. Hopefully Yami had some ideas of his own, since her plan had apparently failed.

She slid her deck from its holder, sorting through the cards until she found her Thief of Lives [1300/500]. Mondo Monkey returned to her deck, the thief took its place on the field, and she reshuffled her cards.

Just before she put her deck back, Ryou let out a low chuckle.

Yori snapped her gaze to his and was met with the spirit’s sharp eyes. But as quickly as they’d appeared, they were gone, leaving Ryou as silent and blank as ever.

“What is this?” Pandora snapped, leaning away from Ryou’s side of the field.

Yori focused her mind on the bracelet once more.

She didn’t want to be snide and make the spirit disappear again if he’d decided to help, so she just said, //Spit out the pill!//

//Busy,// he grunted.

If she’d still had her switchblade, she might’ve thrown it at him, but when she opened her eyes, she realized what his response meant.

Ryou looked like a TV screen with terrible reception. His features flickered back and forth between the controlled emptiness of Marik and the raging angles of the spirit wrestling for control. The muscles along his jaw were tense, and his hand tightened until it crushed his cards.

Yori didn’t know how to help.

“What can we do?” she asked Yami.

“Play the game,” he said.

Not the answer she’d hoped for.

If she tried to do something with the bracelet, she might block or interfere with the spirit instead of assisting. She was still locked in place and couldn’t move.

Continuing the duel really was her only option, it seemed.

With a sharp intake of breath, she snapped her deck in place once more. Her thief materialized on the field in a crouch, and Ryou’s ghost finished its swing, slicing her monster cleanly down the center. Since their attack points were equal, they both vanished from the field, but Ryou’s lifepoints dropped to 3500 from her monster’s special ability, while Yori’s remained untouched.

“I end my turn,” she declared.

She had no monsters left to defend her. Nothing facedown. Not a card in her hand.

All she had was the hope Ryou (or the spirit) could end things on his turn.

//It’s your move. If you surrender, the game ends,// she said. //Marik loses.//

//BUSY!// the spirit shot back. But at least he knew.

All she could do was wait.

++++++++++

As soon as permission had been given, the spirit had appeared in the mortal world only to be torn right back out. Ryou was fighting him.

Rather, the Millennium Rod was forcing him to fight.

The spirit thought it was about time he ripped the rod out of the owner’s hands. But before that, he had to win the current power struggle—which would be a lot easier if the bracelet user would stop butting into his mind just to spout useless advice.

Once more, he kicked down the door to Ryou’s room and found the intruder with all of his false sand.

“It seems you have more power than I first gave you credit for,” the intruder said.

The spirit gave him a face full of his own sand. They grappled, wind knocking them both back, the sand sucking them both in, and over the intruder’s shoulder, the spirit saw how Ryou’s glass cage had cracked from top to bottom.

Nice to see the kid wasn’t completely lily-livered.

The bracelet user was back again: //If you surrender, Marik loses.//

Based on the intruder’s face, he was the accused “Marik,” and he was none too happy about the message. In his moment of distraction, the spirit enclosed a hand over his throat.

“Never fought two minds at once, have you?” The spirit grinned. “Pathetic. The rod user in my time could dismantle entire armies.”

Marik’s eyes narrowed as he wrenched the spirit’s hand away. “Don’t underestimate me.”

The ground turned to quicksand, swallowing the spirit up to his chest, including his arms. The more he pulled, the more he sank. He felt Marik in his mind, trying to make him believe the light overhead was calming, the sand was gentle.

As if.

He felt the moment Marik encountered the monster—like opening a door in the side of a dam that released a flood of darkness.

Marik’s face blanched.

The spirit smirked.

“I warned you to stay out.”

The darkness twisted over the spirit’s limbs like armor, thin as spider webs, solid as flint. He lifted himself from the sand and caught hold of Marik’s collar, dragging him to the glass coffin encasing Ryou. When he pressed his opponent against the glass, Marik’s pale eyes were wide and frightened.

“What . . . was—” he choked out, gasping for breath.

No doubt he could still see the colossal red skeleton beneath a leathery skin of night itself. The eyes that burned a soul to look at.

“What’s the matter, item user?” the spirit sneered. “Have you never before looked the source of your power in the eye?”

He lifted Marik off the ground and slammed him spine-first into the cracked glass. It shattered, and the intruder disappeared into the wind.

Ryou looked up from a bed of sand, his eyes slowly coming back to life.

The spirit kicked him in the leg and pointed menacingly. “You’re useless as a dung beetle. And you owe me.”

With a shimmer, the dunes and sunlight disappeared, leaving the giant tabletop board that was nothing but Ryou.

“Thank—” the boy started.

“Shut up,” the spirit said. The shadows made his skin itch.

He closed his eyes and willed himself to the mortal world.

++++++++++

It seemed to take forever for Ryou’s features to settle; when they did, it was the spirit who opened his eyes and scowled across the field.

Yori held her breath.

“Stop this nonsense at once!” Pandora demanded, as he’d been doing for several minutes.

The spirit turned his head to the side and spit out the pill between his teeth. It clattered lightly on the floor. He slapped a hand over his deck, and his lifepoints dropped to zero, registering the surrender.

Pandora seemed to be in the middle of a stroke.

“Well,” Yami said quietly, “seems that’s the game.”

The spirit narrowed his eyes in return but said nothing.

Yori decided it would be wisest to stay silent until the shackles released and everyone could step free of the dueling ring. She had the uncomfortable feeling she was standing between three human mines ready to go off at the slightest touch, and she would rather be in the clear before accidentally triggering one.

“No!” Pandora screamed. “You’ve cheated! This is cheating!”

Yami turned burning red eyes on him, the spirit of the ring barely a half-step behind.

A drop of sweat slid from beneath Pandora’s mask. Maybe it was even a tear.

“The game will continue!” he blustered.

Eight simultaneous clicks echoed across the stage as the shackles released. Yori breathed a sigh of relief.

“NO!” Pandora shrieked, throwing his cards to the floor. “This is my show!”

Yori had barely stepped forward with her right leg when the shackle snapped closed around her left once more. Adrenaline flooded her system. A glance around the stage told her Yami hadn’t managed to step either foot clear.

Ryou and Pandora’s shackles had remained unlocked. The spirit looked down at his freed limbs, shrugged, and winked at Yami. Then he stepped over the low wall before disappearing off stage.

Yori could be grateful he’d helped Ryou at the same time she still wanted to catch him in the back with a knife.

“This is my show,” Pandora repeated, like a kidnapper trying to talk sweetly about candy while reaching for a bag. “You cheated, so now I get to do whatever I want. That’s what Marik said.”

“Consider your actions carefully, Pandora,” Yami growled.

Yori glanced at her switchblade, but it was still out of reach.

“Bring the most pain to the pharaoh. Those were the conditions.” Pandora adjusted his bowtie. He giggled, pressing fingers to his mouth that did nothing to hide the malicious mirth. “I’ll get my Catherine back, and you’ll hold yours while she bleeds out. How’s that?”

Pandora stepped forward, treading on his own cards, and scooped up the remote, snapping the back cover in place once more.

A faint glow stirred around the Millennium Puzzle.

Looking for other solutions had already cost Yori too many precious seconds. She fumbled a lock pick from the set in her waistband before dropping to a crouch, inserting the pick through the front of the keyhole. She was still at a terrible angle, and there were too many pins.

 “This field has only ever had one rule,” Yami said, voice low and menacing. “It defied shuffles and turns and draws. It denied heart and skill and decency. There was only one rule no matter what happened between first and final play: My friend dies, and you don’t get a scratch.”

“Now you’re understanding the escape act!” Pandora cackled. “And you—stop ruining my finale.”

Pandora’s pointed black shoe filled Yori’s vision with barely enough time to pull her head back. It connected with her hand instead, sending her lock pick flying. Her palm stung.

“Don’t touch her,” Yami spat.

If the magician would have stayed close, she could have grabbed him and wrestled the remote away, but he retreated before she had a chance to recover. Every inch of him was painted in coward.

Pandora leered at Yami. “As you wish, Pharaoh. I’ll let the saw do it instead.”

He raised the remote.

The roar of the saw was louder than ever.

Yori stood. Better to lose one leg than die. Her whole body trembled.

But Pandora’s thumb never pressed the button. It hung suspended as the color slowly drained from his face.

“You lied, Pandora,” Yami said, eyes red as blood, puzzle gold with the light of judgment. “You cheated. You betrayed. And the shadows will cut the payment from your very soul—if you even have one.”

Pandora screamed, a long-drawn sound that raised the hair on Yori’s neck and never seemed to end. The remote slipped from his hand while he clawed at his suit as if it were full of insects.

Although her skin crawled, Yori grabbed a second pick and began working at the lock again. It took more than a full minute before she got it to release, and in that time, Pandora never stopped screaming. He stumbled around his side of the ring until he caught a foot on the edge and fell, but even after his body thumped to the floor, he still screamed.

It wasn’t until Yori stood that the scream faded into a wail that rose and fell as he paused to gulp in air. His fingers had clawed divots in his gaudy suit. His eyes roamed the ceiling.

Yori slowly backed into place beside Yami, never taking her eyes from the writhing magician. The wail faded further until it was a soft moan, washing in and out of hearing like a tide. Then he fell silent. But his fingers still raked methodically over his chest, as if he couldn’t stop even if he wanted.

Yori crouched at Yami’s feet to pick first one lock, then the other, glancing at the magician periodically because she was certain at any moment, he could leap to his feet again and come grabbing at them like a maniac.

As soon as he was free, Yami turned away, stepping over the low wall of the ring.

Yori reached out on instinct and caught his wrist.

He wouldn’t look at her.

“Are you okay?” It seemed like a dumb question once she asked, but it was all she could think of.

His head turned just slightly, revealing his once-again-violet eyes. But they were focused on Pandora.

Involuntarily, Yori’s gaze darted in the same direction. The magician still lay there. Twitching. Spasming.

“He wanted to kill me,” she said. Her heart almost stopped at the thought. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me for this,” Yami whispered.

He tried to pull away, but she held firm. She recognized it now: the tightness in his jaw, the uncertainty along his lips. It was the same thing she’d faced in the mirror after she’d put a man in a coma.

“This,” she said, gesturing back at Pandora, “is not your fault. This is the result of a madman who thought having his life burned away gave him the right to do the same to everyone else.”

“And what right did I have”—his violet eyes touched hers, as intense as the day they’d met—“to react as I did?”

She shook her head. “There was no other way to stop him.”

“Maybe there was.” His gaze slid away. “Maybe I just couldn’t hear it past the shadows.”

He used his other hand to pry himself out of her grip, and then he was gone, exiting the stage just as the spirit of the ring had done minutes earlier.

Chapter Text

Yami wished he could stay at Yori’s side forever. Let the world pass him by, let it go with all its battles, all its darkness, all its cruelties. Let him wrap his fingers in hers and close his eyes and see a blackness that wasn’t cursed.

But the world was still around him, the air thick and stagnant and mocking just as much as the shadows.

So he turned his back on her and left.

She’s human. She’s alive. She’s radiant.

He turned his face to the sun, but he still felt cold.

What are you?

He reached a hand out as he walked, scraped the pads of his fingers against the coarse brick siding of the theater. He could feel just like anyone. He was as real as anyone. As real as—

A king.

But he wasn’t a king. If he’d ever been one at all. There was nothing behind him but shadows and nothing brighter ahead.

What are you?

The puzzle thudded against his chest with every step, heavy on its chain and heavier in his mind. His prison. His home.

No, he wasn’t real.

He didn’t know what he was.

His knees wavered, throat tightened. As he lowered his arm, a stripe of reflected sunlight crossed his gaze, thrown by the beveled edge of his Duel Disk.

And maybe that was all he had.

He was a duelist.

He cleared his cards from the previous duel, shuffled and reset his deck. The movement was familiar. Comforting. In a duel, there was no room for any thoughts outside the match itself. He needed a duel more than he needed water and air. He scanned the streets ahead of him for any sign of duelists, any sign of Ghouls.

“Show yourself, Marik!” he shouted suddenly, an explosion of sound and feeling.

A mother pulled her child closer, eyeing him as they passed on the sidewalk. But the streets remained empty of duelists. He would have to root out his next opponent from the weeds.

So be it.

And he tried to ignore the ache in the back of his mind, the silence that had fallen between him and Yuugi the minute he’d loosed the shadows on Pandora. It was too much to handle, just like the questions about himself were too much to handle.

All that mattered was one thing: He was a duelist.

And a duelist needed an opponent.

++++++++++

Marik felt it when Pandora lost. Though the consistent mind-link he shared with his Ghouls was limited at best, it was enough for him to feel a shiver of pain and hear the faint echo of screams as the shadows ripped Pandora’s mind to pieces. It left behind tremors in Marik’s fingers. With a snarl, he grabbed the glass he’d been drinking from not minutes before and threw it with his full weight against the wall. Glass and ice cubes scattered. The dark orange liquid streaked the white paint.

Odion chose that moment to enter, and the Millennium Rod turned on him before Marik could think twice. Odion dropped to his knees with a grunt, head bowed beneath the power of Marik’s mind as he lashed out.

Marik’s eyes widened. He lowered the rod, although he couldn’t quite release it.

“You should have announced yourself,” he spat, as if it were Odion’s fault in any way.

“Yes, Master Marik,” Odion said, as if Marik’s response had been reasonable.

“Shut up.” Marik screwed his eyes closed, pressing his fists to his forehead, willing the raging of his mind to calm. Physical, mental, spiritual—he no longer bothered to track the source of the pain the rod left behind when he overused it. It was simply a part of life.

Without a word, Odion moved about the cabin, wiping the wall clean, sweeping the remnants of glass into the trash. Marik watched him through slitted eyes as the pain ebbed into a dull ache. It always seemed to calm faster when Odion was around, not that Marik ever told him.

There was a lot Marik never told his brother.

After cleaning everything, Odion refilled a glass with ice and juice, setting it on the table beside Marik.

Only then did he speak.

“What’s happened?”

His deep voice was a familiar rumble that pacified Marik even further. He finally released the rod, sliding it through his belt. When he responded, his own voice was level.

“The bracelet user’s learned a few new tricks,” he said. “The spirit of the Millennium Ring is more than a fairy tale, and both are on the pharaoh’s side.”

He lifted the new glass carefully, agitated the ice, and took a drink that he felt the cold of all the way down.

After a drawn-out silence that meant Odion was pondering, he said, “Perhaps you need to increase your own forces.”

Marik clinked a fingernail against the glass. Set it down once more.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s time to stop drawing the game out.”

It was time to claim the final god card.

Of course, he’d hoped Odion would claim it in Battle City using Osiris, but when he’d lashed out at his brother’s entrance, he’d seen clearly in the older man’s mind how he’d won all his locator cards and returned promptly to Marik’s side—all without an appearance by Seto Kaiba. Odion was too efficient; Marik could hardly punish him for that.

Marik flexed his hands, clenched his fists until the knuckles whitened like the bones were peeking through. When he’d sent Ghouls out to collect Yuugi’s friends, they’d returned with 50/50 results, and the ones arranging duels were faring even worse. Odion had already served well.

“I suppose it’s my turn again.” Marik smirked.

After outlining his plan, Marik exited the ship, Odion in tow.

His motorcycle was waiting on the dock, right where he’d left it. He traced a hand along the edge of it, lifted the helmet from the seat. The engine roared to life with calming familiarity. He straightened the bike, knocked his heel into the kickstand, and revved the engine just to feel the energy pulse.

Beyond the docks where he currently stood, all of Domino waited. Some people thought they knew the battles they were in for.

They were wrong.

“Be safe, Master Marik,” Odion said.

But Marik hadn’t come for safety; he’d come for war.

“Have the Ghouls prepare the dueling site for me here on the dock,” he said.

Then he loosed the engine, and the bike roared forward, carrying Marik into the thick of the hunt.

++++++++++

After Yami left, Yori moved on autopilot. She picked up the remote first, pressing buttons until she found the one that finally silenced the horrifying wail of the saw. If she could have broken the blade, she would have, but she settled for crushing the remote beneath her heel. Then she reclaimed her switchblade and fixed her deck.

Only then did she check on Pandora, who was still breathing and twitching but showed no signs of recovery. Frankly, Yori didn’t care if he ever recovered. Maybe she should have felt bad about that, but she didn’t.

Yuugi would have. It was that thought alone that compelled her to reach for her cell phone and dial for an ambulance. They told her to stay on the line, but she pretended bad reception and hung up. They had the address already.

She crouched by Pandora.

“That ‘little boy’ you kept mocking?” she said. “If you make it through, you have him to thank.”

His eyes never moved to her; they were fixed on something she couldn’t see. She caught his arm as it spasmed, reaching beneath his Duel Disk to unlatch it.

“You weren’t making good use of this anyway, honey.” She smiled sweetly.

She slid the device off his arm, and he resumed twitching as if nothing had happened. After setting it aside, she fished his wallet from his pocket. He had more of an offering for her than the Biscuit Ghoul.

“And let’s be real,” she muttered, “you owe me a lot more.”

She tucked the stack of twenties in her pocket before returning Pandora’s wallet. Then she scooped up his Duel Disk, moved to the edge of the stage, and hurled it as far into the audience seats as she could. It rebounded off a chair in the center of the auditorium and crashed to the floor, out of sight.

A faint smile crossed her face as she remembered Mokuba talking about a Duel Disk designed for throwing. Dueling had never been much of a whimsical thing for Yori. Even if she enjoyed it, at the core, it was about survival. Music was that way, too. Maybe one day things would be different.

But not in Battle City.

She remembered standing on another stage looking at another empty auditorium as Jiro put in time-and-a-half preparing for the band’s shot at fame.

She remembered waiting for another ambulance at another abandoned building on the day she first met Yami.

So much had changed for her in Domino; so much had improved. But the fight for survival was always the same. And it was always on her heels.

Her leg tensed, and ridiculous as it was, she had to look down to be sure it hadn’t been severed after all—that she hadn’t deliriously imagined her escape. She sat at the edge of the stage and pulled her legs close, tucking them against her body and rubbing her calves until she was convinced she was fine. She was fine. She was fine.

And she never fully turned her back on Pandora.

When the paramedics finally arrived, they stared at the dueling ring like it was something out of a freak show, and rightly so. Yori told them Pandora was a magician practicing an escape act.

“I told him not to,” she said, wiping at a few tears that weren’t entirely faked. Her shaking hands weren’t faked at all. “But I guess he never listens to his assistants.”

“I think I saw this guy’s show once,” one of the two medics said, eyes wide.

They loaded the failed magician onto a stretcher, carefully strapping him down. When they asked for more details, Yori said he’d suddenly collapsed into seizures in the middle of the act; no, he’d never done that before; no, she didn’t have any contact information for his family.

“I don’t really know anything about him but his stage name,” she said. “He only hired me for the act today.”

The second medic eyed her Duel Disk with obvious distaste. “You’re part of the tournament?”

“He just pulled me right off the street and said he had something better for me than dueling. I thought it was interesting at first, but then it all went so wrong.” 

They asked her to give contact information, and she gave her usual fake info with ease. When they asked her to come to the hospital, she declined.

“I think I’d just like to forget this ever happened,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Of course.” The first medic smiled gently. “A word of advice: Next time a stranger pulls you off the street and says you can be part of something big, you turn around and walk the other way.”

She nodded.

They loaded Pandora into the waiting ambulance, and it pulled away from the building, lights blazing. Yori haunted the doorway for a moment, looking out at the Domino streets. A duel was starting down near the corner, but Yami wasn’t part of it. He was nowhere to be seen.

For just a moment, Yori imagined tossing her Duel Disk like she’d done to Pandora’s. She imagined walking to the station and buying a ticket out of town. Maybe even a ticket out of Japan. Maybe she could climb on a boat and sail until the horizon curved and the stars sank down into the ocean and everything turned blue.

She checked her deck, checked her Duel Disk. Then she took a deep breath and re-entered Battle City.

Chapter Text

There was a storm gathering over Domino, and Seto Kaiba was at the heart of it. Each challenger ran beneath the crash of blue lightning. Each opponent trembled in his wake, whimpering as they stared into the face of Obelisk, the face of death itself. Seto tracked down the Ghouls that had invaded his city and cowed them one by one, waiting for the moment his god would clash with another.

And Mokuba was on the radio, cheering him on, proclaiming his skill to anyone within earshot.

Seto smirked.

Only two locator cards stood between him and the finals.

Only one opponent stood between him and another god card.

What had been a brilliant sky began to turn cloudy, as if the elements themselves feared the power that had been unleashed. The overcast city stretched before Seto. He could imagine his steps carrying him down full streets, could feel himself looming over the buildings as if he were Obelisk himself. When he clenched his fists, his bones sparked blue.

A Ghoul threw himself in Seto’s path like a clueless man before a train. The caped man stood with his feet apart, his chest puffed out, just as all the others had. He spouted his empty threats while Seto watched the man’s throat, watched it strain, watched the veins bulge.

The man intended to cheat. Seto saw it in his stance, saw the confidence born of arrangement rather than skill.

Seto didn’t care.

The man had a weapon—a backup plan that glared obviously from the bulge in his shirt.

Seto didn’t care.

The duel began.

And the duel ended.

And the Ghoul was unconscious in the street.

And Seto was claiming his fifth locator card.

And the storm was crashing on Battle City.

++++++++++

As the sun slanted in the afternoon sky, clouds began to filter out the blue. Joey’s previous good humor muted with the light. After the Haga duel, he heard of an opponent who had won the national championship before Kaiba.

And Joey leapt forward to challenge.

The kid was arrogant. He was crass. He took one look at Joey and announced to the crowd that his final locator card was basically throwing itself at his feet.

The crowd laughed.

Joey bared his teeth in a grin.

For the first two rounds, the kid taunted, played to the crowd, reminded everyone of the opponents he’d already sent scampering in the tournament.

Normally, Joey would have blustered, but now he did something different: He listened. And he heard the echo of a bunch of street runners, tough guys Joey had faced during his gang days.

In the third round, Joey made a bad play. The kid predicted he’d wet his pants when he lost. Joey heard the echo of Hirutani, remembered being chased down on the street after he’d quit the gang, being dragged back to an empty warehouse to face his punishment.

The kid played a monster stronger than anything in Joey’s deck. Joey’s forehead beaded with sweat. His wall monsters disappeared one after another.

The kid laughed.

The crowd laughed.

Joey laughed.

They stopped.

Fire roared in the pit of his stomach, blazed in his eyes. He stood on the field the way he’d seen the pharaoh stand when he beat the Exodia Ghoul. He called on the courage he’d promised to develop. He clenched his fists and felt the remembered pain of split knuckles and bleeding skin. He clenched his jaw and tasted the remembered sweet burst of victory. As he drew a card, he counted silently to himself how many street fights he’d won over the years. As he played his hand, arranged his strategy, he recounted how many impossible odds he’d stared down in cold, abandoned alleys.

As his opponent’s lifepoints scrolled to zero, he pictured how many times he’d stood hunched over the sink at home, washing blood from his face and hands, bandaging cuts, pouring alcohol over scrapes and hissing curses through his teeth.

After each of those fights, he’d stared into the mirror with bloodshot eyes, and he’d smiled.

The kid cursed and screamed, throwing a fit right in the middle of the street while people in the crowd shifted uncomfortably. Joey stood firm, and in the end, the kid threw down his locator card and rarest card.

And as Joey picked them up, he rubbed his knuckles and smiled.

++++++++++­­

Yori felt like her entire life had been one long battle. The opponents shuffled, but the field was always set, and she was always ready. Sometimes she would lie awake at night, staring out windows at city lights set against a black sky, and the city would change, and the window would change, but she never did. She was always running from a fight, running to a fight, trapped in a fight, scared of a fight, thrilling in a fight. And as she searched for invisible stars in a dark sky, as the glaringly bright lights fogged up the city and drowned nature, she couldn’t help wondering if her life was filled with violence because she sought it out. Maybe she wished for it, called to it silently. Maybe she loved it.

Then day would break and the dark thoughts would retreat before the sun, and she felt crazy for ever thinking she loved violence.

As she threw herself back into Battle City, the cloud-filled sky above her began to darken.

She walked the streets with purpose, eyes narrowed, heart pumping. One duelist looked at her, prepped to challenge, then hesitated as Yori made eye contact. She didn’t know what the girl saw in her face, but the challenge never came, and Yori passed silently by.

She was looking for a Ghoul.

She found one in the business strip. He laughed at her challenge, refused to play with anyone but the pharaoh—until she baited him with a single-copy card, purposely hinting at gods, purposely vague.

The match was set in the basement of a building. Yori heard the door lock behind them. The room was airtight, and she recognized a gas valve when she saw one. The Ghoul laughed, reveled in the mortal challenge he’d created. They were on a natural timer. One or both of them might pass out before the duel ended, and unconsciousness meant death. It was about survival. It was about endurance. Though it was decided over trading cards, no part of it was a game. Perhaps the Ghoul even had a lighter or match and was willing to kill them both if Yori won.

Yori should have run screaming from the building. She should have broken the door down through sheer will, clawed her way out if necessary.

She was sickened by the twisted mind that had created the challenge. Her stomach did tie itself in knots, and cold sweat dotted the back of her neck.

But she snapped her deck in place.

And she didn’t understand why.

Except that she had come looking for a fight, and here it was. Except that she couldn’t get the image out of her mind of Yami’s red eyes and Pandora’s red suit, and no matter how she turned her head, her ears rang with the high-pitched whirring of a saw.

And when she looked at this Ghoul, she saw that Ghoul.

And her throat burned.

And her heart burned.

And her eyes burned.

And the duel began.

++++++++++­­­­­­­­­

Yami won his fifth locator card in a haze. Just an overzealous player who wanted to steal the title of King of Games. Not related to Marik. But any opponent would do, so he accepted the challenge, faced it, won. And as soon as the lifepoints and monsters faded, his mind filled with the same ghosts he’d tried to leave behind.

The woman cursed him for stealing her victory. Tears hovered in her eyes.

Yami wondered who she was off the dueling field. He wondered what she did in her day-to-day life, who she went home to at night. She certainly had more to her identity than just dueling.

Yuugi hadn’t appeared at all. Hadn’t said a word.

Down the street again. Barely seeing the people. Deaf to any attention they might have paid him.

One locator card remained between him and the finals. He would be there already if not for the battles he’d fought without gaining a locator card, thanks to Marik. But what would the finals even give him? All he had was Ishizu’s word that he could discover his past through this tournament. If he didn’t find it here, he might be searching forever.

If he did find it here, what would he find?

Who are you?

He saw a Ghoul standing at the end of the street.

And his mind burst through the haze.

He broke into a run. The Ghoul watched him for a moment, then turned and ran as well. He entered a building. Yami pursued. Just in time to see the Ghoul disappear into an elevator.

Top floor. It would have to be.

Yami waited, tracking the elevator lights with his eyes as he slowly ascended. Twentieth floor. Twenty-first. Twenty-second. Thirtieth. Thirty-first. His heart thudded in the cavity of his chest. Steady. Solid.

The Ghoul waited on the top floor, at the stairs that led to the roof. Yami followed once more. Silent. Certain.

The skyscraper had a glass roof and a hollow center. According to the Ghoul, as soon as the duel ended, Yami would fall to a glorious death amid shattered glass.

The dark sky above them murmured with thunder. The puzzle stirred with heat.

The Ghoul hadn’t finished the last gory details of his plan before they were surrounded by a world of shadows.

++++++++++

A new opponent stood before Joey. She was an American tournament champion. She was tall, calm, collected, intimidating. She’d been winning tournaments since before Joey lost his first duel to Yuugi.

And when she spoke, Joey heard his mom. In the condescension, in the assumptions, in the predictions of how he would amount to nothing. She cut him down, tore him apart. He had 300 lifepoints left.

But he dug in his heels and held on. He gambled it all on a coin toss, on a smoke screen, on a last-ditch effort.

And when the smoke cleared and he stumbled off the battlefield, he had his fifth locator card.

++++++++++

Yori fought with quick attacks and short breaths. She could smell the sour gas, could feel panic closing on her mind.

But while the Ghoul taunted, while her mind told her to retreat, she kept seeing that horned mask and bowtie. The grin that stretched too wide. The hand wagging the remote that determined her future.

And she saw Yami’s face. The way he blamed himself for a madness he’d never started, a madness he’d only continued to save her.

She tore through the Ghoul’s defenses, slaughtered his monsters.

He countered, and she redirected the attack.

He laid a trap, and she shattered it.

He boosted his lifepoints.

She attacked him directly.

Her monster’s jaws snapped closed on his body, and though his torso broke through the hologram, he screamed in real pain.

And Yori thought of Marik.

++++++++++

Shadow games were always determined by the challenger’s method of attack, and a shadow duel was no different. The Ghoul had wanted Yami to fall to his death.

And in this duel, someone would.

They both stood on a fragile platform of shadows that cracked and splintered with each attack. As their lifepoints dropped, the edges of the platform fell in chunks to the darkness below. The first player to reach zero would be left with nothing to stand on.

The Ghoul screamed and blustered at the unfairness, at the unbelievability of it. He demanded a release to the normal world, just as they all did. Demanded a game on his own terms.

They never understood that the terms were theirs.

Yami sent his monster to attack, and the outer half of his opponent’s platform dropped into the abyss.

++++++++++

Joey stared into the eyes of his opponent. The man crowed his premature victory, celebrating the attack that had brought Joey to his knees. Although the man’s eyes were brown, like his own, Joey saw blue. Ice blue. Corporate blue. He saw another opponent standing over him, heard the cold insults.

Joey had been on his knees before, and it was the one defeat that still haunted him.

++++++++++

The gas encroached on her clean air. Yori struggled to keep her breathing measured, keep her heart from racing.

The Ghoul had no such restraint. He gasped in air. His chest heaved. His eyes spat fire, and his mouth spat the same.

He had 200 lifepoints left, but he’d managed to pull a stunt that gave him a 3000-point defense monster. And all he had to do was make the duel last. All it took for Yori to lose was to run out of time.

And the clock had been ticking for far too long.

She took another shallow breath.

++++++++++

The Ghoul was frozen on his turn, hand clutching between his four cards, apparently unable to find hope in any of them. His eyes darted wildly, bloodshot and panicked. He whimpered. Sweat rolled down his face.

With 100 lifepoints remaining, he stood on an island barely large enough for his feet. Meanwhile, Yami hadn’t lost a single point. His win was secure. They both knew it. It was why the Ghoul was panicking.

The hollow darkness waited below, and the shadows around Yami purred, egged him on toward victory.

Minutes ticked by, and the Ghoul wasted out his turn in indecision until the play automatically passed to Yami.

Yami drew a card.

He ordered Valkyrion to attack.

++++++++++

Joey held his ground, but barely. He stalled for time. And as the man across from him increased his attacks, something about him changed. He stepped to the side, and it could have been a drunken stagger. He shouted an insult, and it could have been a demand for Joey to get a beer, to go out for groceries, to clean up a mess that wasn’t his.

As Joey stared forward, mouth parted slightly, tongue dry, he stared into the face of his father.

An attack rushed forward, shattered against Joey’s defenses, and it could have been a bottle.

But his defenses held.

Joey Wheeler could withstand.

He drew a card.

Joey Wheeler could withstand.

He played a monster.

Joey Wheeler could withstand.

But withstanding wasn’t enough. He needed more. He wanted more. He wanted courage, wanted purpose, wanted heart. He wanted not to withstand, but to stand—as his own man, separate from the heartless predictions of both parents, separate from the wounded bully he’d been on the streets, separate and strong against the onslaught of a mocking world.

He wanted to stand like his best friend did.

So Joey Wheeler stood.

++++++++++

As Yami’s monster charged forward across the gaping space, the Ghoul’s face drained of color. He seemed ready to collapse and fall without any force needed. The shadows cackled in anticipated triumph.

That was when Yami noticed.

That was when he realized.

The shadows were void of whispers for punishment. They were eager for blood, eager for a loss, but the crowding weight on his mind was absent; there was no warning of cheating, no call for justice and blood.

They always cheated.

He’d never faced an opponent in the shadows who didn’t break the rules. Even Pegasus had used his Millennium Eye for an unfair advantage. The only reason he’d escaped full punishment was his own command of the shadows.

And suddenly, the duel looked different to his eyes.

Instead of standing on the remnants of shadows about to shatter, he saw his opponent standing on the edge of a castle tower.

Instead of a Ghoul, he saw Kaiba.

“If you win, I’ll jump.” Kaiba’s eyes haunted him, ghostly blue. “You know what I would do in your shoes, so kill me, Yuugi! Kill me if you can!”

It had been an impossible situation. Both of them had to win to enter Pegasus’s castle. Both of them had to enter the castle to save someone dear—Kaiba’s brother, Yuugi’s grandpa.

But it wasn’t just for the sake of Yuugi’s grandpa that Yami had ordered his attack; it had been because he was a duelist and nothing else. Victory was his only goal. If he lost, the line of duels would come to an end, and he would be trapped in the darkness again with no truth to cling to.

If he won, he had an identity.

If he lost, he had nothing.

Valkyrion raised his sword, wings spread like an avenging angel. The Ghoul flinched away. In just a moment, Yami would win the duel, secure his place in the finals, and move forward.

But he wasn’t just a duelist.

He was human.

In the duel against Kaiba, it had been Yuugi’s voice that stopped the attack.

This time, it was Yami’s.

++++++++++

Yori coughed, breathed through her shirt. The air tasted heavy. Her mind felt thick. Black tendrils swam in her vision.

Her opponent had lost all his bravado. Everything he tried was a desperate attempt to hang on, but that tenacity would cost them both their lives.

This time, when she looked at the Ghoul, she didn’t see Pandora. She saw herself. That bull-headed tenacity was hers as she went charging into battle after battle for no reason except that there was nothing in life she understood more than conflict. When she’d broken her arm in a street fight once, she hadn’t even waited for it to heal before using it to punch someone again. The pain was nothing more than she deserved. If her arm would have never healed correctly, she would have deserved it even more.

And here she was again. If she’d have lost her leg for real, no doubt she would have told the paramedics to stitch it up real fast and give her crutches so she could get right back in the tournament. If she were to die young, it wouldn’t be the fault of her enemies or an Egyptian god, not really. It would be no one’s fault but her own. The violence was in her blood.

But so what?

Rather than worrying that fighting was all she was good at and that some part of her loved it, she should have spent her time worrying about what she was fighting for.

She’d entered the ring with Pandora because she saw Yuugi and Ryou in trouble. She didn’t regret that. If she’d lost a leg, lost her life, even, she still wouldn’t have regretted it. The same was true when she’d disobeyed her gang leader to go after the man who’d paralyzed her friend.

But this fight? If it took her life or the Ghoul’s, it would be pointless. Stupid. She’d wasted so much of her life already fighting senseless battles.

She lifted her hand to surrender. Let it be the end of the tournament if that was what it took for her to live—she couldn’t stand by Yami’s side in the finals if she was a corpse.

But she never got a chance to finish.

++++++++++

The shadows howled when Yami stopped the duel. Red skulls rose to face him, and black fingers clawed at his skin. But he stared them down without wavering, commanded the shadow game to an end without a winner. If the shadows demanded punishment for such a thing, if they demanded a price, let them take it from his soul.

The Ghoul stared at him with wide eyes, and for a moment, the dark world hung frozen.

Then the platform beneath Yami shattered and fell—

His stomach heaved.

His vision heaved.

—and he fell with it.

He grabbed desperately for a handhold; his fingers caught nothing. His heart slammed against his ribcage, and the air fled from his lungs, leaving him to plummet in shocked silence through a darkness with no end. This time, the shadows made no offer of power. There was nothing he could do to save himself.

And then a scream shook the world around him, tore through his mind even as he heard it with his ears.

Yuugi.

The shadows retreated.

He slammed into the ground.

The glass rooftop fractured with the sound of thunder.

Yami gasped for air. Red and black spots battled in his vision. His ears rang. A strange taste spread in his mouth. He tilted his head, saw only swirling darkness in the sky. But it was different, wrong—

A raindrop splashed against his forehead, then another on his mouth. And he understood.

He was back in the real world.

++++++++++

After working himself into a state of hyperventilation, the Ghoul collapsed.

It wasn’t the end Yori had expected, but she took it without hesitation. She darted forward, checked the man’s pockets frantically, looking for a key, a switch, anything to open the room—

Nothing. Nothing.

She forced herself to take the shallowest breaths possible, reminded herself that this wasn’t a battle either of them were allowed to die for. Her vision slanted dangerously to one side, and she couldn’t tell if her head was tilted or if it was all in her eyes. The light-headedness forced her to put a hand down, to prop herself up.

He had to have a remote. Pandora had a remote.

She wrenched the Ghoul’s arm toward her, checked his Duel Disk. A small gray box had been attached to the underside, but it had no buttons.

Her whole body tilted, and she caught herself again. Her mind fuzzed. It had to be the right thing, had to, but how? The duel, maybe. She shook her head hard. The world slid on ice. She slapped her hand down on the Ghoul’s deck. His lifepoint counter flashed, registered the surrender, ended the duel.

The gray box beeped. A little red light flashed.

And the door unlocked.

Yori dragged herself forward, stumbled, grabbed, and heaved the door open, smacking herself in the head with it as she did. She fell backward. Blood trickled into her eye. But the pain in her head kept her conscious—maybe saved her life.

She grabbed the unconscious man’s arm, dragged him from the room until she hit a staircase. Then she staggered up alone, tripped, forced herself onto the main floor of the building.

A woman saw her, saw the blood on her face, rushed to her side. She dialed the authorities.

Yori pointed wordlessly down the stairs, and another two people rushed down to check on the Ghoul. The woman guided her to a bench, told her over and over that things would be okay.

The world still dipped and wavered. Yori tilted in her seat, rested her head against a glass wall.

Outside, she saw the city lights against a sky darkened with rain.

She closed her eyes and breathed.

++++++++++

Seto Kaiba strode forward, towered over his fallen opponent. Rain streaked down his sleeveless white trench coat, soaked his black shirt sleeves, dripped from his hair. His only focus was on the locator card he found at the bottom of the Ghoul’s deck.

He took it, slid it in the pocket with the others. The corner of his mouth rose. He touched his collar to activate the radio.

“Six,” he reported, his voice sharp and crisp as the lightning that split the sky.

And Mokuba’s voice shouted back with the thunder: “You’re in the finals!”

Chapter Text

If he’d wanted, the spirit of the ring could have had his Millennium Item lead him directly to Marik. But there was a more efficient way to do things and that was to secure his place in the gathering that would call to all the Millennium Item holders.

So he headed for a graveyard.

As he walked, the sky darkened until it began dumping out fetid rain, but the spirit didn’t react beyond a scowl. The cold bothered him, as did the smell of wet concrete, but the fury of the elements had never stopped him in the past, and it failed to do so now.

Ryou appeared once, the first time he’d ever done so. Apparently the mental strength required to remain manifested was too much for him because he only stayed a moment before disappearing without a word.

No doubt he wanted his body back. Too bad for him. The spirit had no intention of returning the keys.

The cemetery at the edge of town was usually a quiet place, but under the reign of Battle City, it had filled with a handful of duelists who liked what the natural ambience added to their zombie and fiend decks. It was as the spirit had expected. After all, he hoped to give some unlucky soul a heart attack with his own occult-themed combos, and such a strategy felt far more comfortable played out in alleys and cemeteries as opposed to café corners and kids’ parks.

On second thought, a kids’ park might have been fun. Too bad he hadn’t thought of it sooner.

The wet grass creaked beneath his sneakers. Dark stains crept down the sides of each stone marker, giving the graveyard eerie undercurrents of life. Everything the spirit disliked about the rain was remedied by current surroundings—which was a real pity, since it was already beginning to let up.

All active life in the graveyard had huddled beneath a gazebo in its center, taking shelter from the vomiting sky. As he made his way toward it, he scanned the graves for any loose valuables, but apparently the people in this area only believed in leaving flowers. Pity.

“Look what we got here,” someone greeted him as he entered the gazebo.

The spirit didn’t know the duelist’s name, but he recognized the munchkin from Duelist Kingdom, where he’d gone by the moniker “Bonz.”

A few other duelists stood around, looking pitiful and weak, like so many dejected rats.

“You’re too late, noob.” Bonz proudly displayed a set of six locator cards. “I just cleaned this crew out not five minutes ago.”

“Oh, good.” The spirit’s lips spread wide in a grin. “I love one-stop shopping.”

Bonz scowled, the lines of his sallow face sinking even further.

Before he could speak, a blanket of shadows erased the gazebo and graveyard from view. All that remained were tombstones peeking through the darkness on all sides.

The spirit shook his head, sending water droplets flying from his long, white hair. It continued to drip from his soggy bangs.

“Let’s make this simple,” he said, cutting his deck. A drop of water hit one of his cards, and he swiped it away with his thumb. “Winner takes your spot in the finals.”

Bonz made all the usual blusters and refusals. He even tried to run, only to have the shadows swallow him whole and spit him right back at the spirit’s feet. He quaked like a small dog, but in the end, he agreed to duel. Not that he’d ever had a choice.

The spirit slaughtered him and fed his mind to the shadows. When the darkness retreated, Bonz lay wide-eyed and slack-jawed on the gazebo floor. The other duelists had already fled.

Since Ryou’s original Duel Disk had registered a loss in the tag-team duel, it was technically already out of the tournament, and since Bonz had qualified for the finals before dueling a non-tournament entity, his qualification should still be valid. So it was time to head for the finals. With luck, the spirit would claim the Millennium Rod there along with a few other items.

“I’ll be taking this,” the spirit purred. He bent down and unlatched Bonz’s Duel Disk, swapping it for his own along with the locator cards, though he kept Ryou’s deck.

A sudden tingle came to life in his skin. He breathed in deeply; the scent of the wet city was heavy with power. The shadows hummed at the back of his mind. The daggers of the ring shivered against his chest. Something had come to town, but it wasn’t a new item. No, all the items had already gathered. It was something else. Something ancient and vaguely familiar, like a scent from childhood the spirit couldn’t quite place.

Things grew more exciting by the minute. The past was racing forward at full speed, fingers stretched to trap the present. Maybe they wouldn’t even make it through the full tournament before everything came crashing down.

The spirit pressed a locator card into each monster card slot on his Duel Disk, sliding the final card into the field spell slot that extended from the end of the wing. A blue map of Domino City shimmered to life a few inches above the surface of the device, a red marker blinking at the location of the finals.

With a smirk, the spirit left the cemetery and its newest body behind, heading for the Domino West Stadium.

++++++++++

Even though Serenity had bandages over her eyes, Tristan couldn’t stop fixing his hair and tucking in his shirt. As soon as they met up with Joey, she would take her bandages off, and then she would see him for the first time, and what if she hated the way he gelled his hair or thought his voice was all manly but then his face made her laugh or—

“Any sign of Joey yet?” Serenity asked, leaning into Anzu as they made their way down the street.

And Tristan was reminded of the truth—that once she could see Joey, Serenity wouldn’t think of him at all. He told himself once more that it was a good thing. Told himself not to be selfish.

“Excuse me.” Tristan caught the attention of a duelist about to pass them on the sidewalk, getting the kid to peek out from beneath his red umbrella. “Have you seen Joey Wheeler around anywhere? Blonde. My height. You’d have heard his name. He announces it in every duel.”

The duelist shrugged half-heartedly. “I only made it two duels in. Haven’t seen him.”

“Thanks anyway.” Tristan smiled in what he hoped was a bracing way for the poor kid.

The story was the same no matter who he asked. They’d taken the train from the hospital to the heart of the Battle City area, but with no way to contact Joey directly, they’d just been wandering blind—quite literally, in Serenity’s case, although the girl had never once complained, not even when it started raining. Luckily, Anzu carried an umbrella in her purse that she and Serenity could at least huddle under. Tristan didn’t like what the rain did to his hair, but he wasn’t about to complain.

“Excuse me,” he tried again, stopping someone else. “Joey Wheeler? Blonde. My height.”

The answer was nothing new.

Anzu had even tried calling Yuugi, since he had her phone, but it had gone straight to voicemail, and she’d sheepishly admitted she hadn’t charged her phone recently. When they tried the game shop, Grandpa reamed them both out for not calling sooner to say they were safe, then told them he hadn’t seen either Yuugi or Joey in person but he’d seen several wins from both of them pop up on the broadcasted tournament feed.

Tristan should have found a bench for the girls to wait on while he ran around asking people, but he honestly hadn’t expected it to take this long to get a lead. He knew every minute waiting was harder for Serenity. She’d sacrificed a lot to come; he couldn’t let that to go to waste.

“Joey Wheeler?” he asked someone else. “Runner-up in Duelist Kingdom?”

Hadn’t seen him.

Hadn’t seen him.

Hadn’t seen him.

“I’m sure the next person will be the one,” Anzu said, and though her voice was chipper for Serenity, Tristan could see the worry in her eyes.

“Please don’t feel bad,” Serenity said. She held tightly to Anzu’s arm, but her smile was on Tristan. “I know you’re trying your hardest.”

So was she, obviously. Tristan could see the almost imperceptible tremor in her lower lip.

Clenching both fists, Tristan stepped directly into the road, leaned his head back, and hollered as loud as he could.

“SHOW YOUR FACE, JOEY WHEELER! SERENITY’S WAITING ON YOU!”

Then he doubled over, panting to catch his breath again, wiping the rain from his eyes. He felt the open stares from both sides of the road. He’d managed to stop pedestrian traffic almost completely.

“Tristan,” Anzu hissed, obviously embarrassed on his behalf.

But then a girl came running out of a nearby café, grin on her face, holding a jacket up as a shield against the rain.

“You’re looking for Joey Wheeler?” she said.

“Yes!” Tristan stumbled forward, palms pressed together. “Have you seen him?”

“Of course! I saw his last duel!”

Tristan’s heart stopped.

“What do you mean?” Serenity asked, rushing forward.

Anzu tried to warn her, but she tripped at the curb. Tristan grabbed her arm to keep her from falling. She clung to him, and his skin tingled beneath her hand. Anzu hurried to lean the umbrella over her again.

“His last duel before the finals,” the girl said. “You must be his sister. He talked about you.”

The worry vanished from Serenity’s face in an instant, swept away by an almost literal glow.

The girl laid it all out for them, how Joey had faced a duelist twice his size, some European champion five years running. He’d beaten Joey down to 50 lifepoints, forced him to his knees, and then Joey’s luck had turned like the tide. His defense held, then turned to offense, then won.

“It was amazing!” the girl said. “The best duel I’ve seen in Battle City, hands down. And when he claimed his last locator card, he kissed it, held it to the sky, and said, ‘Finals time, Serenity. Wish me luck.’”

Serenity released a giddy laugh. Her fingers held even tighter to Tristan’s arm. He was grinning right along with her.

The girl leaned closer, as if sharing a secret. “He got a little mobbed after that because some of the girls thought ‘Serenity’ must be his girlfriend. So he had to explain.”

“Joey got mobbed by girls?” Tristan rolled his eyes. His best friend’s dreams were finally coming true.

“Just the usual tournament crazies.” The girl smiled.

“How long ago was the duel?” Anzu asked.

“About half an hour, I think. He’s probably already at the finals.”

“Great!” Serenity squealed. She tilted her face up toward Tristan’s. “We just have to go meet him at the finals. I can still see him duel.”

“Thanks a lot,” Tristan said, bowing to the girl.

She waved him off and returned to her café, smiling.

But Tristan’s heart was tight in his chest because he remembered hearing Yuugi, Ryou, and Joey go over the Battle City rulebook together, and he remembered the part about how the location of the finals would only be revealed to finalists themselves.

“We can’t catch a taxi in this part of the city,” Anzu said, glancing up and down the street. “It’s been blocked off to cars for the tournament. We’ll have to backtrack towards the train station.”

Yuugi had probably already made it to the finals as well. He would have been able to tell them the location if Anzu’s phone hadn’t died.

Maybe Yori had made it, too? Tristan had never seen her duel, but for Serenity’s sake, he hoped she’d knocked it out of the park. If they could get her number from Grandpa, it was their best shot at getting to the finals.

“Where are the finals?” Anzu asked. “I don’t think Yuugi ever mentioned it, and I just assumed we would all be together.”

“We can take the train,” Tristan said quickly. “You guys head that way; I just want to call Grandpa real fast and let him know Joey made it.”

“That’s so thoughtful of you.” Serenity beamed.

If Anzu was suspicious, it didn’t show. “Just catch up fast. I don’t want to miss the start or get bad seats.”

The two girls headed down the street, and Tristan rubbed his sweaty palms together, praying he’d be able to get the location. He’d never be able to face Serenity if he’d brought her all this way only to fail her now.

++++++++++

Yuugi Mutou had a talent for puzzles. He’d never met a picture he couldn’t piece together, a mind-bender he couldn’t pick apart, or a Rubik’s cube he couldn’t spin right. Any maze or riddle unfolded itself if he only focused long enough. His dad used to joke that he’d solved his first puzzle before he’d spoken his first word, and his mom used to say his first word was puzzle (although it sounded more like “pa-sa,” apparently).

The greatest proof of his ability, of course, was the Millennium Puzzle—something no one else had been able to make sense of. Something that took even Yuugi seven years. But his success in the end spoke for itself.

But even with his ability, there was one puzzle left to him, one puzzle that couldn’t be twisted to a solution or built together even with his best attempts, the one puzzle no one could really solve: people.

When Yuugi first met Joey, it had been because Joey and Tristan bullied him. They stole his money, stole his possessions, mocked him after class. And he couldn’t explain why he still felt like they were good people or the exact process of how Joey changed to become his best friend. It was a puzzle. Unsolvable.

Seto was the same way. He’d shown nothing but hostility towards Yuugi and his friends, yet Yuugi saw his concern for his brother, and against best evidence, he knew Seto was a good person. Time had sometimes proven him right and sometimes proven him wrong, and how those could both be true was a puzzle. Unsolvable.

So it was no real surprise that despite a large part of him being afraid of Yami; despite the fact that he hated the shadows Yami seemed unable to break from; despite the fact that ever since Yami had become part of his life, he’d brought danger and blood with him; Yuugi still called him his partner. Still called him his friend. And Yuugi would still stand with him through all the shadows and all the danger, and yes, even the blood.

It was an unsolvable, unexplainable puzzle.

++++++++++

As the rain continued to fall, Yami lifted himself on one hand. The glass roof beneath him was honeycombed with cracks, making his vision tilt again. He could see the concrete floor more than thirty stories below, marked with tiny dots of human color, and it was like looking through a spider web that couldn’t possibly support his weight.

He wasn’t eager to make another long fall—one he definitely wouldn’t survive—but as he turned to move, an outstretched hand entered his vision.

He looked up to see the Ghoul, hood down, brown hair streaked with rain.

Yami accepted the offered help, allowing the Ghoul to pull him to his feet. They both backed away quickly from the damaged pane of glass until they stood in the concrete alcove for the stairs.

Yami checked his Duel Disk—the lifepoint counter was blank, but the cards he’d used were still in place. He gathered them quickly, brushed them clear of water droplets, and stored his deck in its pouch. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A cold wind chilled his bare arms. He unsnapped Yuugi’s jacket from his shirt and put his arms through the sleeves, wearing it properly.

“You could have won,” the Ghoul said. His voice was so quiet, it almost disappeared in the storm.

Yami’s stomach flipped uncomfortably. “Not at the cost.”

In all honestly, if he would have finished the game out, the Ghoul’s penalty may have been light, perhaps even nonexistent. When the shadows filled his mind, he was always certain that they only enacted justice, that they only punished the guilty when he set them free. But while it was true he’d never before faced an opponent in the shadows who didn’t attempt to cheat, he also wasn’t sure the power in the shadows shared his same ideals of justice. There was a law to the shadow games, that much was certain, but existence alone didn’t make a law correct, and there was no way for him to read the fine print.

“This is yours.”

When Yami turned, the Ghoul held a clear locator card extended. Yami frowned.

“The match was still going when we returned here,” the Ghoul said. He stared straight ahead. “I surrendered.”

Yami’s frown deepened. “You didn’t have to.”

A few moments of silence, then—

“I think you took that fall for me. So take this, too.”

The corner of Yami’s lips twitched into a smile. He accepted the card.

“Is that the finals for you?”

Yami nodded.

“Good.” The man unhooked his purple cape, stepped up to the waist-high retaining wall, and draped it over the edge. He left without saying more, disappearing into the stairwell that led to the elevator.

Yami held his six locator cards, watched the raindrops track their way down the clear plastic. He looked out over the city and thought it looked different. Newer, maybe. He wondered what Egypt had looked like, standing on a ledge over the city. He wondered what the city’s name had been. He wondered what his own name had been.

And the ache that always came with wondering seemed a little more forgiving this time.

//Thank you, partner,// he said, //for pushing back the dark.//

Yuugi appeared at his side, and it hurt Yami’s heart to see the touches of red in his soft eyes.

“I’m an item user, too, you know.” Yuugi scowled, possibly the first time Yami had ever seen him do so. “It’s not like I never could have made a shadow game if I wanted.”

It was a needed rebuke. Sometimes Yami forgot that Yuugi shared many of his own burdens—especially because he did so with such grace.

“You’re much stronger than I am.”

Thunder rolled again, more distant than before. Yuugi said something, but his words were lost in the noise. Yami shifted closer. The boy refused to look at him.

“You remember”—he folded his arms across his chest, gripped his elbows—“when that fortuneteller took my puzzle?”

Yami nodded. Once the puzzle left Yuugi’s hands, Yami had been trapped as a spirit, unable to help. He’d been forced to watch as the man fastened the puzzle to a concrete pillar and set the warehouse ablaze, forced to watch as Yuugi refused to abandon the artifact, even with the danger to his own life. Yami had begged the boy to leave, even tried ordering him to.

In the end, he’d been certain the fire would claim both their lives—or worse, that Yuugi would die, but something would put out the fire before the puzzle melted, and Yami would have to live with it forever, if his continued existence could be called living at all.

That was when Yori appeared.

“I tried everything,” Yuugi said, “to get the puzzle free.”

Yami remembered.

“But I couldn’t.”

Yami started to protest that nothing about that situation had been Yuugi’s fault, but something in the boy’s face stopped him, so he just listened.

“And for just a moment . . .” Yuugi took a slow, deep breath, “I thought, ‘This is it.’ There was nothing left I could do. And I was so—I was so relieved.”

The boy let out a half-laugh, half-sob. He rubbed his hands over his mouth, shook his head.

“Not that I wanted anything to happen to you,” he said. “Not that I wanted to lose you—I never want that. But I’d played every card I had, and the game was over, and I was just so tired. Tired of seeing my friends in danger, tired of being attacked. For just one moment, it was over, and I was glad.”

Yami rested a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder; he was trembling.

“And I wasn’t thinking about what would happen to Grandpa if I died or how much it would hurt my friends. You were right there hurting, and I wasn’t thinking about you either.” Yuugi took another deep breath. “So don’t think you’re the only weak one. Because I’ve made bad calls, too.”

They stood in silence as the rain slowly died away to a drizzle.

“When I dueled Marik”—Yami’s voice wavered, but he pushed on—“he told me I killed his father. I tried to find the truth in the shadows.”

Yuugi turned to face him. “Did you?”

Yami shook his head. “Just more questions. As usual. And I thought I couldn’t face more questions without answers, but it seems I can.”

A few rays of sunlight trickled through the clouds, highlighting edges of the city.

“Are you ready for the finals?” Yami asked.

Although he hadn’t cried as a spirit, Yuugi wiped his eyes. His smile was determined.

“We’ve gotta stop Marik,” he said. “And I want to help you find your past however I can. What about you?”

In answer, Yami retrieved the six locator cards from his pocket and spread them across his Duel Disk. The location for the finals blinked red, and his heart thumped in response.

He was ready.

Chapter Text

There were several things that made Mokuba happiest in the world—things like when Seto was happy, when Seto did awesome things, when Mokuba was able to be involved in the awesome things Seto did . . . things like that. So the moment he heard that his big brother had made the finals (like there was ever any doubt he would!), Mokuba did two things: He announced it to the entire room of KaibaCorp employees he was with, and he ran for the door.

Roland pointed to the roof as he passed. Mokuba grinned in response.

“I’m coming to meet you, Seto!” he shouted into a hand-held radio. “Roland’s getting a helicopter ready so we can head to the finals.”

“I’m next to your favorite sweater store,” came the response, punctuated with static.

“It’s not my favorite!” Mokuba shot back, heat touching his ears. “I just needed a sweater that one time.”

But he still smiled; winning always put his brother in a great mood.

Mokuba burst out the front doors of KaibaCorp and charged down the street in Seto’s direction. The rain had stopped, but shallow puddles coated the pavement, splashing water with each of his steps and soaking into his shoelaces.

A motorcycle engine revved from the curb behind him. Its rider swung past and then came to a smooth stop directly in his path, spraying water droplets in a low arc.

Mokuba took a wary step back.

The rider removed his helmet and ran a hand through his sandy-blonde hair, spiking it out rather than taming it. His skin was tan—the even kind that came from birth rather than time in the sun. Like Roland’s, but darker. And even though he was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a sleeveless, hooded shirt, he seemed anything but casual or normal. He seemed exotic.

Part of that came from his jewelry—the bands of gold around his forearms, upper arms, and neck, the pointed gold earrings dangling like daggers from his ears. Part of it came from the black lines that spread from the corners of his eyes like dragon wings and then dipped across the tops of his cheeks like calligraphy strokes.

He looked, in short, super cool, and Mokuba couldn’t help staring.

“You’re him, aren’t you?” the stranger said. His voice was warm, like sunbaked summer.

Mokuba blinked. “Who?”

“I’m Marik Ishtar,” the man said. He raised his eyebrows pointedly, like they’d met before or like Mokuba should recognize his name. It sounded a little familiar, but mostly it just sounded foreign.

“Anyway,” he went on after a pause, “you’re Mokuba Kaiba, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Mokuba said proudly. “Co-organizer of the Battle City Tournament!”

Marik smiled. He had a relaxed smile, like he was daydreaming about something. He scratched at one of the gold bands around his neck, just under his jaw.

“Younger brother to the one and only Seto Kaiba.”

“Yes,” Mokuba said, once again proud, but this time cautious.

“It isn’t easy, is it?” Marik tapped his fingers absently on the helmet he’d set between his legs. The motorcycle engine chugged along in the background.

Mokuba’s finger had been hovering over the talk button on his radio, but he hesitated at that.

“What isn’t?” he asked.

“Having a perfect older sibling,” Marik said. This time his smile was more subdued, his eyes distant. “They cast a big shadow but never see it. Tell us what we can’t do and always forget what we can.”

Mokuba’s heart twinged uncomfortably. His socks were wet in his tennis shoes.

“And we can love them with our whole souls, but somehow we always wind up in the same place.” When he looked at Mokuba, his pale eyes were piercing. “Betrayed. Hurt.”

“Seto’s never hurt me,” Mokuba said, but now his shirt itched, and his mouth felt hot.

Marik just smiled like he could see right through the lie. Then he raised his right hand, which had previously been hidden at his side. He held a weird golden rod, and a familiar hollow eye stared at Mokuba from between two stocky wings. The same eye as Pegasus.

Something was wrong. Mokuba clutched the radio, pressed the talk button.

“Seto—” he started, already turning to run.

The rod flashed with light. Mokuba’s steps faltered. His mind cleared to an empty slate, overtaken by the single warm image of an expanse of dunes, stretching out of sight to meet the horizon.

“Mokuba?” Seto’s voice seemed to echo at him from a long way off, but he wasn’t interested. He lowered his arms, the radio tumbling from his loosened grip.

The sun winked at him from over the dunes, beckoning him in. He reached for the calming image and felt himself float, falling gently into it until it was his entire world. The sun was warm on his skin. The sand tickled his fingers. The dune seemed to mold itself around him, softer than any bed. He allowed his head to fall back, cradled in the gentle embrace better than any pillow.

His eyes slipped closed.

++++++++++

Marik dismounted his motorcycle and propped it on the kickstand, still idling. As Mokuba collapsed, the Egyptian reached out an arm to catch him, then blinked in surprise.

Gods, he was so light. The kid’s baggy clothes and thick mess of hair must have concealed a stick-person’s frame. But then again, Marik dealt almost exclusively with people twice his age. Even within his own family, Odion was ten years his senior and Ishizu was five. He wasn’t sure he’d talked to anyone actually younger than him before. Ever.

The reminder of his secluded life made him scowl, and he draped Mokuba unceremoniously over the front of his motorcycle, then stooped to retrieve the fallen radio from the wet cement.

Seto Kaiba had called his brother’s name twice now, the second time much more abruptly, laced with a hint of panic, perhaps.

“Seto Kaiba,” Marik said, then waited. His voice would be enough.

Sure enough, a pause, then—

“Where. Is. Mokuba?” Kaiba hissed. Marik could practically feel his fury radiate through the plastic instrument in his hand.

“Dock five,” he said curtly. “Come alone. Bring my god card.”

Then he tossed the radio in the gutter.

++++++++++

The electricity that had crackled through Seto’s frame as he dueled was nothing compared to what snapped and hissed within him as he headed for dock five. He’d been close enough to KaibaCorp to justify returning first. One look at his face and Roland knew better than to ask questions. He surrendered control of the helicopter he’d prepared, and Seto flew himself to the dock. Alone. Like the scoundrel wanted.

How many times? Seto’s mind whispered as he flew. His expression darkened further, if possible, but the voice refused to be cowed. How many times has Mokuba been in danger thanks to you?

Gozaburo. Pegasus. Marik.

Too many.

What could he do? He didn’t ask for the psychos in his life, certainly didn’t want Mokuba involved, but was he expected to surrender any life ambition to keep his brother safe? Should he abandon KaibaCorp, dueling—just live somewhere out of the public eye and be something he wasn’t? Was he expected to cower in submission before the world for the sake of his brother’s safety?

If that was what it took, you wouldn’t do it. You haven’t done it.

Seto wanted to tell that part of himself that it was wrong, that he would do anything for Mokuba, anything to keep him safe.

But he couldn’t.

Have you done anything to protect him at all?

And for the first time in Battle City, Seto lost a battle.

He landed the helicopter on an open stretch of cement along the docks. Then he strode forward with confident steps that belied any inner conflict.

The sight that greeted him at dock five was something straight from a horror film. Seto absorbed it in an instant, grinding his teeth to keep his face composed. A makeshift dueling arena had been constructed over the water with platforms for each player and only ocean between.

Ocean and an anchor.

The steel anchor hung suspended from a wooden frame above the dueling area. On either side, a thick chain extended to the platform below. The purpose of the chains was immediately apparent since it came with a live demonstration: his brother. Mokuba stood on the far platform, one ankle cuffed to the chain on that side of the field. He showed no recognition upon seeing Seto. The entirely blank expression was so unlike his little brother that it raised goosebumps on Seto’s arms.

Although Mokuba was alone on the dueling field, he wasn’t alone on the dock. A stranger decked out in gold stood next to a motorcycle, staring across the ocean while tilting a short golden staff back and forth in his hand. Seto recognized the glowing eye on the face of the staff. And his blood boiled.

Two figures stood guard behind their leader, one hulking in comparison to the other, both wrapped in the all-too-familiar purple cloaks Seto had come to despise.

“Marik, I presume.” Seto’s voice came out measured and calm despite the fact that he’d pressed his thumbnail into his pointer finger hard enough for both fingers to go numb.

“Well, it wouldn’t take more than a child to figure that out,” Marik said with a lazy smile, turning to face him, “but the ‘genius’ has yet to be tested.”

Normally, such jibes came from the press. It was almost ridiculous to hear one from Marik, who looked even younger than Seto.

“Let Mokuba go.”

“I can’t.” Marik twirled the staff once. The eye followed Seto no matter its position. “I need my third god card, but you’ve already commanded it in battle. Therefore, it must be won in battle. You have no reason to duel me”—his pale eyes moved to Mokuba—“so your brother is your incentive.”

Seto’s eyes narrowed. “I never back down from a challenge.”

The Ghoul leader laughed; it was a surprisingly pleasant sound, which somehow made it all the more grating. He rubbed at a gold band around his neck.

“You say that . . .” He shrugged. “But I could easily find a hundred people you would refuse to duel. Besides, I’ve encountered enough surprises today to desire absolute certainty in this match.”

“If you want a duel, you’ve got one,” Seto snapped. “But Mokuba goes free first.”

“Can’t,” Marik said again. “He’s the one you’re dueling.”

As soon as he said it, Mokuba woodenly raised his arms, revealing a Duel Disk that looked much too bulky for his small frame. It already had a deck in place.

“Mokuba!” Seto shouted.

His brother didn’t so much as look at him. That eerie, blank expression never wavered.

“I’ve seen through the eyes of my Ghouls”—Marik’s voice was suddenly edged as a golden eye came to life on his forehead—“that you’ve decided commanding a godly lapdog makes you a god. Here’s your harsh welcome back to humanity.”

“What do you know of humanity?” Seto snarled.

Marik’s smile almost seemed to split his face, one side wild as the other remained calm.

“Plenty,” he said. “Attach yourself to the other side of the anchor.”

“No.”

Marik shrugged. As if dictated by his will alone, a green digital counter glowed to life above the anchor. It began counting down from twenty minutes.

“The duel is timed.” Marik bounced one of the staff’s wings against his palm. “If a player wins in less than twenty minutes, the box at his feet will open, releasing a key that will free him from the anchor. The loser will be dragged to his death. If twenty minutes expire and the match is still ongoing, both players will be dragged to their deaths.” His eyes glinted. “And if you refuse to duel, in twenty minutes, your brother will be dragged to his death. So you may walk away free and keep your god card at the expense of your innocent brother’s life, or you may surrender it and your own arrogant life for his. If you call for outside help, the anchor drops now.”

Seto’s blood surged within him, demanding that he strangle Marik with his bare hands. Instead he turned his attention to Mokuba.

“Mokuba, can you get free?”

Mokuba said nothing. He stared blankly ahead.

Just like the Ghoul Yori had faced.

Seto had scowled when she’d called it mind control, but she’d looked him coldly in the eyes and said, “If you’re after the leader of the Ghouls, you should know. This is what he does to people.”

“Mokuba can’t hear you,” the Ghoul leader said. “All he can do is duel.”

“What have you done to him?” Seto snarled, each word sharp enough to draw blood.

Marik gave his lazy smile. “I’d tell you, but you don’t believe in magic.”

He twirled the staff in his hand.

Seto’s blood chilled.

It couldn’t possibly be mind control. Yuugi and his ridiculous group of friends had called Pegasus’s tricks mind reading, had attributed the power to his “Millennium Item.” Pegasus’s eye, Yuugi’s puzzle, his friend’s pendant, Ishizu’s necklace, Yori’s bracelet, and now Marik’s staff—the cult had doubled in Battle City, and Seto wanted no part of the superstition.

But he’d faced Pegasus himself, and he’d never been able to deny that things had happened during the duel that were impossible to explain. In the months since Duelist Kingdom, he’d more than once nearly made himself sick trying to find the logic behind the madness and coming up short.

The clock was winding down, and whether he could answer the “how” and “why” or not, something was wrong with Mokuba. He couldn’t deny it just as he couldn’t explain it.

Eighteen minutes on the display.

What will you do to protect him? his mind whispered.

Seto stood in place, fists clenched at his sides, arms trembling.

The leader of the Ghouls watched him, face set in impassive lines.

And Mokuba—devoted, bursting-with-life Mokuba—stood there like a puppet as his death ticked closer.

Seto lurched forward. He snapped his deck into his Duel Disk. He didn’t miss the smirk on Marik’s face as he passed. His steps brought him to the empty side of the dueling field, and he stared across the rippled water at his baby brother. The sky pressed down above him.

Mokuba’s expression was even worse up close. His eyes were glazed, his expression relaxed but not peaceful. Lifeless, apathetic, so alien on Mokuba’s face that Seto’s heart wrenched in half just to see it.

He cursed through gritted teeth.

“Mokuba,” he tried again, hating that his voice broke.

How many times, Seto? How many times because of you?

Mokuba said nothing, just rested his pointer finger on the deck, ready to draw a card.

Seto dropped to a knee. He snatched the shackle, locked it around his ankle, and stood.

Chapter Text

“Count to five as you breathe,” the medic said.

Yori did as instructed, counting a slow breath in, followed by a slow breath out. The oxygen mask felt sticky against her skin, and she seemed to have traded one form of lightheadedness for another, but at the same time, the slow breaths calmed her mind. She closed her eyes, counted her breaths. The oxygen tasted plastic, like she’d sucked air from a balloon. But it was also crisp and refreshing.

She didn’t know how long she sat there counting before the medic said, “Okay.”

Yori opened her eyes, lowering the mask. The rubbery edges peeled away from her cheeks, probably leaving behind red lines. It didn’t matter; she was sure she looked and smelled like a wreck. So much for Anzu’s hard work. At least her nails were still nice, just rough around the edges.

The sky had cleared, but the city still smelled like rain, something Yori could appreciate now that she was free of the mask. She tried to focus on the scent and ignore the fact that she had the attention of a small crowd in addition to the medic. For some reason, two ambulances had arrived to deal with the situation (likely the result of multiple people phoning the authorities and giving different accounts of what was happening), so while the first loaded up the Ghoul and took him to a hospital, the second stayed and insisted Yori get some treatment since she refused a trip to the hospital as well.

The medic had patched up her forehead first, which was mostly cleaning the blood away from her eye, making her cut sting like mad, and then taping a square of gauze over it—all things Yori could have done herself. After the gas leak was confirmed came the forced oxygen breathing.

“You’re the sixth dueling accident we’ve had today,” the medic said pointedly as she put away the oxygen. “Seems like a dangerous hobby.”

“The game isn’t,” Yori said. Her voice was slightly hoarse, and her throat itched. She swallowed. “The people are.”

The medic raised her eyebrows. “Gas leaks are, too. You want to tell me why you picked there of all places to play a card game?”

“I didn’t. The other guy was the challenger; he picked the place. I didn’t know about the gas until I started choking.”

“You’re saying he did?”

Yori shrugged, but it barely counted as a movement. She was tired of talking to authorities, tired of trying to be believable and secretive all at once.

“Ask him when he wakes up,” she said.

“If,” the medic corrected, which made Yori’s insides clench. A moment passed, then, “You should have left right away.

Yori scowled. “He locked the door. I only figured out how to open it after he passed out. There’s a remote on his Duel Disk; check it.”

“Why would he lock himself in a room full of gas with you?”

“Look,”—Yori brushed her hair out of her face with her fingers, took a deep inhale of moist, scented air—“I’m not pressing charges or whatever, and I got the medical care, so I’m free to go, right?”

“This man seems to have deliberately tried to kill you both, and you don’t want to see him punished?”

“I have bigger things to deal with.”

It was obvious in the woman’s expression how little she regarded Yori’s intelligence after that comment.

“Well, you’re a minor anyway,” she said briskly. “It’ll be up to your parents.”

Yori scowled, and her fake ID was in her hand before the woman could blink.

“Not a minor,” Yori said forcefully. “I make my own decisions, and I’m leaving.”

She hopped down from where she’d been seated in the back of the ambulance.

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing,” the medic managed after sputtering, “but if it almost got you killed this time, what makes you think it won’t succeed next time?”

“Thanks for the air,” Yori said.

She pushed her way through the small crowd that had been drawn to the ambulances like sharks to blood. People stared openly. A few of them had Duel Disks, but no one challenged her. One guy looked like he might pee his pants on the spot. Maybe he’d never heard of someone getting killed over a duel before. He obviously didn’t duel in the same circles as the King of Games. Or in Yori’s back alleys. She’d seen people get knifed over games before. Sometimes because they cheated. Sometimes just because they won.

Her cell phone rang, sending her heart up into her throat. She kept walking as she answered, trying to put as much distance between herself and the ambulance as possible.

“Yami?” she said hopefully. She’d answered too quickly to check the number.

“Uh . . . nope. It’s me. Tristan.”

She tried not to be disappointed, told herself Yami had found his feet after the last duel just like she had.

Well, hopefully better. And without the mortal peril.

“Are you in the finals?” Tristan asked.

Yori winced. She switched the phone to the opposite ear. “No. Not yet.”

If she’d gotten a locator card from the duel with Pandora and the duel with the most recent Ghoul, she would have been. But neither of them seemed to understand how the tournament was meant to work.

“Do you know where they are anyway? Do you know how to find out? Do you know any way to get in touch with Yuugi or Joey? Anybody? Any finalist? Are you one duel away? Can you just win one more duel?”

She tilted the phone away from her ear a little further with each subsequent question. He seemed rather . . . frantic.

“There’s no way Yuugi will go forward in the finals without all his friends there,” Yori said, hoping she sounded reassuring rather than impatient. “Just give him time, and I’m sure he’ll get you updated. He has Anzu’s phone.”

“It’s dead,” he said, tone matching his statement.

“Oh.” She frowned. “Then let me win my last two duels, and I’ll give you the location.”

But even as she said it, she glanced at the sun dipping lower and lower in the sky, her stomach dipping along with it. Even if she dueled the first two people she met, unless she could get crazy lucky right out of the gate with both . . .

“Have they announced any finalists yet?” she asked, looking around for a broadcasting screen. “Is there a running tally of how many spots are filled?”

“Joey made it,” he said. “That’s all I know.”

Despite her own situation, she smiled at that. Before she could say anything, though, a figure on the corner caught her eye. The man watched her intensely, black curls spilling forward over a teal bandana meant to tame them, hands tucked in the pockets of his black leather jacket, head tilted against a lamppost.

She knew that face better than her own.

Her heart stopped.

Her feet stopped.

He smiled.

And then he shouldered away; he walked toward her. His gold eyes danced, like seeing her had brightened his whole day.

Like they were still dating.

“I’ll call you back,” she said hoarsely.

“You can’t,” Tristan protested. “I’m on a pay—”

She hung up anyway.

“You look good, pet,” Haku said, coming to a stop right in front of her, reaching up to flick a strand of hair away from her face. “Red really is your best color. But your roots are showing.”

It would have been easier to breathe back in the room full of gas.

++++++++++

Japan: January 14, 1993

Although the air was cold, Yori’s shivers came from exhaustion rather than temperature. She covered her mouth with her hands—trying to muffle the sound as she gasped for breath—and squeezed herself tight as possible, pulling her shoes out of sight into the narrow crevice she’d found between two dumpsters. Her twisted ankle throbbed.

From the street just beyond her alley hiding place, she heard the shouting grow closer.

If she could’ve just outrun them.

If she wouldn’t have stolen in the first place.

She screwed her eyes closed, trying to breathe as little as possible even as her lungs screamed for air.

“Hey,” said a new voice.

A shoe kicked hers.

Her whole body spasmed as if she’d been electrocuted, and her wide eyes darted up to take in a guy she’d never seen before.

He wore a bandana like a crown, keeping his forehead clear of the waves of black curls that concealed his ears and brushed his neck. His clothes were clean, unlike Yori’s—a leather biker jacket over a white shirt with dark jeans that hugged his legs and led right to his black combat boots, everything stylish and straight-cut in a way that accented his sharp shoulders, his long legs. Even if he hadn’t been towering over her, he would have been intimidating.

But his eyes were a soft honey-gold that seemed comforting and somehow familiar, even though she’d never seen a person with gold eyes before.

“Get out here,” he said quietly, jerking his head to the side.

Pain stabbed her ankle with each heartbeat, and her legs were still trembling from her earlier escape attempt. If she tried to run again, he’d catch her before she cleared the alley. And she didn’t have a weapon.

“Who are you?” she forced out.

The shouting on the street was closer than ever. She could hear the approaching footsteps. Any second, the three gang members would hit the entrance to the alley, and while they might have ignored it before, they wouldn’t with this new guy standing in plain sight, and they certainly wouldn’t if she stood up with him.

Rather than answer, the newcomer reached down and dragged her out by the wrist. Although she pulled with all her might, her body weight seemed to mean nothing to him, and his grip on her wrist was as solid as if it had been cast in steel.

Just as he hauled her out of hiding, the gang discovered the alley.

“There she is!” the guy she’d stolen from shouted.

“Wait your turn,” the newcomer said as the three punks rushed forward.

And for some reason, it stopped them dead in their tracks.

The shortest of the group, whose jeans were so baggy they’d almost fallen off him in the chase, edged closer to the leader and whispered something. That was all Yori saw because she was suddenly moving without her permission again, dragged by the wrist to the edge of the alley, where there was a jumble of crates she hadn’t noticed when she first ran in.

Without releasing her arm, the newcomer grabbed and pulled at crates with his free hand until he’d arranged the largest one like a table and a few smaller ones around it like makeshift chairs. He dragged her unceremoniously into the assembly, forcing her to sit.

“Join us,” he said, gesturing with his free hand toward the other “chairs,” although he’d only set up four in total, and Yori was already occupying one.

The three men eyed him warily.

After an uncomfortable silence, baggy-jeans piped up, “We’ve heard of you. You can keep her.”

“Nonsense. Join us.”

The tone left no room for additional protest, and after a few minutes, the leader snorted and rolled his shoulders.

“This is stupid.” He marched forward, sat on the crate across from Yori, and jabbed a finger at her, his wide mouth drawn down in a scowl. “This chick owes me my wallet and enough to make up for taking it in the first place.”

Yori wanted to shove the wallet back at him and run, but escape wasn’t her best option. Strange as he was, the newcomer obviously commanded some kind of respect, and he didn’t seem to be against her. She may have been new on the street, but she wasn’t stupid. So she remained silent, looking up at him for where to go next.

And the corner of his mouth twitched up in an approving smile. He released her arm.

“What she owes,” he said, gold eyes shifting back to the leader, “will be decided now.”

Yori tried to rub feeling back into her wrist where the skin had gone white.

“Don’t do it, Gen!” baggy-jeans hissed, shifting his weight from foot to foot as if he were about to run.

“You’re under no obligation to play,” the newcomer said evenly. “It all depends on what the stakes are worth to you.”

The leader, Gen, frowned. “What do you mean ‘play’?”

The newcomer opened his jacket, revealing a large net pouch sewn into the side, and lifted from it a banded cobra.

Yori let out a gasp. Gen reared back, almost falling from his crate.

“I’m out!” was the last of baggy-jeans as he high-tailed it for the street.

The newcomer smiled, wide and pleased. He leaned over the large crate and began curling the snake in on itself until it formed a disk with its head at the center.

Yori’s heartbeat refused to calm even after she realized the snake couldn’t be real. The way he held it like it had weight, the way it fluidly shifted however he arranged it, the way its scales reflected a sheen of light as they curved, the glassy eye staring right at her—it looked so real she was certain she wouldn’t breathe again until it was back out of sight.

But it didn’t move on its own, didn’t hiss, didn’t open its mouth, so at the very least, she didn’t run.

“Mehen will be the game board,” the newcomer said, taking a seat next to Yori. When he’d bent forward, a teal-colored pendant had slipped from beneath his shirt, and it rested now against his chest, a palm-sized circle marked by a unicursal hexagram. It seemed to pull at Yori’s gaze the same way the hollow eye on her bracelet did.

She looked away.

Calling the snake a game board made Yori realize how much the alternating bands really did look like the squares on a checkers board, except that they spiraled in toward a clear objective.

“You’re insane,” Gen declared, as if he’d finally gotten hold of his voice again.

“Come now, it’s just a little game.” Those gold eyes focused on the remaining gang member, who hadn’t committed to joining either of his companions. “You’re also welcome to join if you don’t want your leader to be outnumbered.”

“Get over here,” Gen barked.

The acne-faced punk hesitated a moment longer, then made his way forward stiffly to sit at his leader’s side.

The newcomer’s smile returned. “First, the stakes. Should you lose, the girl retains what she’s taken and is never troubled by you again. Should she lose, you regain your stolen wallet along with her accessory, which, if you hadn’t noticed, is pure gold and worth more than your life.”

He grabbed Yori’s arm once more as he spoke—her right arm this time—raised it in the air, and pulled her sleeve down with one finger to reveal her strange bracelet.

Heat flooded Yori’s face, and her mouth went dry.

Gen scoffed. “Can’t be. Look at her—a scrawny nothing like that wouldn’t have real gold.”

Yori wanted to reassure him it was fake and worthless, but before she could say a thing, the newcomer was already going.

“You obviously have no eye for value, and it seems you didn’t connect the dots that if she could steal from you, she could steal from someone a lot wealthier.”

“I didn’t—” Yori started.

But those gold eyes turned on her sharply.

And her voice died in her throat.

The two gang members consulted in whispers for a moment before apparently deciding it was worth the chance.

“What’s the game?” Gen said.

His greedy gaze kept darting to Yori’s wrist, which she’d reclaimed from the newcomer’s grasp. Even though it was useless, she pulled her sleeve over her hand, holding it in place with her thumb.

“Simple,” the newcomer said.

He reached inside his jacket again and produced a thin wooden box, which popped open to reveal six rows of small white playing pieces. Each row had three seated lions and six smooth marbles that almost looked like pearls. After he distributed a set of pieces to each player, Yori held one of her lions up close, staring at the fine lines of his mane, the gentle curve of his tail around his paws, the regal way he sat upright while staring resolutely ahead. The piece was so light, and although Yori had assumed it was carved from ivory at first, she suddenly wondered if it was bone.

The newcomer explained the rules. Whichever team could defeat all six of the opposite team’s lions first would win. The only way to defeat a lion was with a divine lion, which became such by reaching the snake’s head, where a god lay in wait to endow the worshipping lion with power. Divine lions could move both forward and backward, while non-divine could move only forward. Landing on an opponent’s lion while non-divine would displace the opponent to your previous position. Landing on an opponent’s lion while divine would swallow it whole and remove it from play. If two divine lions clashed, they destroyed each other.

The marbles were for movement. On each player’s turn, they would hide a certain number in their right hand, and their opponent would guess how many they’d hid. If the guess was correct, the turn player couldn’t move. If incorrect, the turn player moved the difference between the guessed number and the correct number as long as there were spaces to move.

“I’ll go first, then,” the newcomer said, placing his first lion on the tail of the snake. He lowered his hands below the edge of the crate, waited a moment, then raised his right fist. “Take a guess.”

“Six,” Gen grunted.

Those gold eyes narrowed. “Not you.”

“Oh.” The other gang member, seated directly across from the newcomer, shifted uncomfortably, then said, “Six?”

With a shrug, the newcomer opened his palm, revealing it to be empty of marbles. He moved his lion forward across six of the snake’s bands.

Gen scowled. “You didn’t say zero was an option.”

“I did, but since you weren’t paying attention, now you know.”

The turn passed to the acne punk, and he set his lion on the board.

“Six,” the newcomer said. “You wanted to move the maximum number, and you thought I wouldn’t guess it right after you did.”

He’d guessed correctly. The punk remained on the starting square.

Yori set her lion on the board. She’d never done anything like this before, and it made her heart pound in all her joints, but she tried to keep her face calm as she transferred marbles to her hand, closed her fist, and then raised it.

“Zero,” Gen said.

Yori opened her palm to reveal four marbles. She moved her lion forward four bands.

On her turn to guess, her first instinct was to go with a conservative “three.” But when she glanced at the boy beside her, his gold eyes dancing, she felt a surge of confidence.

“Six,” she guessed.

And she was correct.

Yori had never considered herself a lucky person before, but as the game went on, she began to think she was. Or at the very least that the boy beside her, with his handsome eyes and playful curls, was a good luck charm. It took a “one” or “six” movement number to successfully add another lion to the board, and Yori was able to add both of hers on the first try while at the same time stopping the gang leader for two rounds on his second and one round on his third.

The newcomer was no less successful in his efforts, and when he became the first to move a lion to crown the snake’s head, their advantage in the game was undeniable.

“You planned this ahead of time,” Gen accused. “You and her, you’re in on it together. It’s a scam.”

The newcomer looked up with murder in his eyes. “I never cheat at games.”

They stared each other down until Gen retreated. The accusation wasn’t voiced again even though it was obvious both gang members believed it.

Yori’s team had three divine lions (two for the newcomer and one for her) by the time Gen’s got their first, and Yori immediately sacrificed her own to destroy it. It only took a few rounds after that before the newcomer eliminated the last of the acne-punk’s lions.

Gen had one lion left. It was four spaces away from becoming divine. He held up his right fist, dark eyes storming.

Yori swallowed. She thought carefully.

“Three,” she said. It was the only number guaranteed to keep him from divinity for this turn.

He opened his palm to reveal nothing. He moved forward three spaces.

One left to the cobra head.

The newcomer brought one of his divine lions closer, but he still wasn’t in range.

Yori moved one of her two lions forward a space, but it was nowhere near divinity.

Gen’s turn.

He held up his fist.

“Five,” she said.

He revealed two. A difference of three—he couldn’t move.

The newcomer came within range. Three spaces from his lion.

Gen’s turn rolled around again.

“Six,” she said.

He revealed five. He moved forward to claim his divine lion. Yori winced.

It was the newcomer’s turn. He was now four spaces from the final lion. He held up a fist.

Sweat dotted the acne-punk’s face. He darted a glance at his leader, who gave him a glare that promised violence.

Guessing “three” was guaranteed safety, but when he licked his dry lips and opened his mouth, he said, “Five.”

The newcomer opened his hand.

A single white marble rested on his palm.

He plucked his lion from its square and set it on the cobra’s head, removing Gen’s from the board.

Gen stood violently, slamming his hands down on the crate. “You cheated on—”

He got no further because when his hands hit the crate, the cobra reared up to face him, scattering the remaining game pieces, flaring its hood out wide. The very-much-alive snake hissed past bared fangs.

Nobody moved except the newcomer, who raised an eyebrow.

“Did you want to finish?” he asked dryly.

Gen’s entire body trembled as he stared at the upright snake, swaying gently in preparation to strike. Even though Yori was at its back, she felt no safer, certain it could turn on her in an instant if she startled it.

The newcomer opened his game box, gathered up the fallen pieces, and set them calmly within their slots.

“You lost,” he said, glancing at Gen. “If you abide by the stakes we agreed on, I’m sure you and your friend can leave with no harm. If you’d like to protest, you may do so now.”

Gen gave a little shake of his head, either that or a violent shudder. In any case, he offered no protest.

The newcomer smirked. “Mehen, let them go.”

Slowly, the snake’s hood collapsed into its neck, and its head dipped until it touched the crate.

For another moment, no one moved. Then the leader took off running, the other gang member hot on his heels.

Yori swallowed hard.

“You never said it was . . .” her voice rasped into silence before she could even finish.

“I never said it wasn’t.” The gold-eyed boy reached forward and picked the cobra up with zero fear, draping it over his neck. He tucked the pendant below his shirt once more. “She’s small for her breed and magical in her stillness. People make the assumptions on their own. It’s all part of the game.”

He wasn’t a snake charmer. Even snake charmers didn’t just wear cobras like scarves or tuck them away inside their jackets. The snake obviously wasn’t defanged.

“Does it . . . she . . . bite?”

“Of course. If provoked.”

Yori swallowed again. “Isn’t that dangerous for you, too?”

He reached up and lightly tapped a finger on the cobra’s head the way someone would pat the ears of a fluffy puppy.

“She was made for me,” he said.

Yori expected that to be the end of it, expected him to either leave or threaten her with the snake to get her bracelet and whatever else he wanted from her.

But he just stood there. And she just sat there.

Finally, she said, “Why did you help me?”

“You look young,” he said.

She frowned. “I’m fourteen.”

“So you are young.”

Her frown turned to a scowl. “What are you? Thirty?”

“Eighteen. By technical definition.” He smirked. “Got a boyfriend yet?”

Heat flooded her cheeks. She shook her head.

“Got a place to live? Access to a shower?”

She shook her head again.

“I know where you can get all three. That’s my offer. What’s your move?”

For years, she would look back on that moment and wish she’d run. Maybe she would have taken a cobra bite for it or maybe he would have shrugged and let her go without another thought. She had no way of knowing.

Because the truth was that even while accessorizing with a venomous snake, Haku was enchanting. Intoxicating. And she was young. And completely alone in a hostile world.

So she took his offer.

++++++++++

Japan: August 30, 1996

Yori’s jaw worked, but she couldn’t manage to string her words together. She clutched her phone so tightly the plastic creaked.

Haku’s gold eyes swept the Domino street, surveying the people passing on either side.

“Let’s go somewhere better to talk,” he said, and then his hand was around her bicep.

A shiver ran through her body, nearly displacing a few discs in her spine. But she wasn’t fourteen anymore, so she grabbed his hand, twisting it against his wrist until he pulled back with a hiss of pain.

“Alright, fine.” He showed his hands in surrender. He wasn’t wearing a Duel Disk.

“How did you find me?” she choked out.

“Pet, I didn’t come all this way just for you.” He reached out, brushing a finger along her cheek. Before she could slap his hand away, it was already gone. “I’m here for the pharaoh.”

Yori’s entire body chilled. Her worldview tilted on its axis more than it ever had under the gas.

“So you’ve met him already.” Haku smirked. “That’s good. It would have been a shame for your determination to carry you across three millennia only to abandon you in a back alley.”

“What?” she managed.

“Never mind. I’m here for a game.”

There was so much she’d blocked from her mind in the past three years, so many things she’d buried beneath every distraction she could find. But the longer he stood there, talking like he always had, smiling like he always had, with his bandana and his curls and his eyes, the more it flooded back into her mind past all her doors and walls and barricades.

She remembered stepping into his apartment for the first time, coughing at the heavy scent of incense that almost choked the air. Seeing the large bronze altar along the wall decorated with images of lions.

“Big on religion?” she’d asked.

He’d lifted the cobra from his shoulders, releasing her into a glass tank beside the door. And his eyes danced as he said, “I have a deep connection to deity.”

But in all the months she lived there, she never once saw him pray. Never heard him mention religion or read scriptures of any kind. All he did was keep incense lit on the altar, day and night.

If he worshipped anything, it was games.

“I’ll tell you the stakes,” Haku said, smiling in anticipation, brushing a few curls away from his ear.

It was always like that. Whether it was with her or with enemies on the street. Over their months together, she got so used to seeing him lay that cobra out as a game board that she began to forget it was a real animal at all, even when she would sometimes startle it at home and it would hiss at her from behind the glass.

No matter who or what he was dealing with, Haku solved things with his favorite game, and he always started by laying out the stakes.

“Am I a game to you?” she’d asked him once.

And he didn’t even have to answer because the answer was obvious. Everything was a game to him, even life itself.

Yori turned around and started back up the street the way she’d come.

“Hey!” Haku protested. He stepped into her path once more, his expression turning dangerous. “I wasn’t finished.”

Yori kept a wary eye on his jacket, ready to grab her switchblade at any moment. She wondered what he would do if his beloved pet got skewered through the head.

“We finished everything between us three years ago,” she said. “And believe it or not, I’m already in a game right now. Not interested in joining a new one.”

Funny she should say that considering Haku’s role in her own dueling. It was only while dating him that she’d started treating dueling as a solution to her problems on the street. As many times as he’d laid down that cobra, she’d laid down a dueling mat.

“Duel Monsters. Naturally.” He shook his head. “But you’re coming up a little short, aren’t you?”

He slipped a hand into his jacket. Yori tensed, reaching for her blade, but his hand was back out in a second, and it wasn’t a snake he held.

It was a set of six locator cards.

“Now I have your interest.” He splayed the cards in his hand, extended them forward. “Take them; they’re for you. After all, you have won all the required duels.”

Yori didn’t move. “There isn’t a gift on this planet that could make me take you back.”

“You’re misreading my intentions.”

His hand shot out, viced around her wrist. She gasped in pain. He pressed the corner of the locator cards into her palm like a knife’s point, turning the skin white at the pressure.

“I said”—his gold eyes took on a shadow of black—“they’re for you.”

Her eyes burned. She curled her fingers around the cards.

He released her and the cards in the same instant. His smile oozed satisfaction.

“Better plug them in,” he said. “Wouldn’t want the spots to fill before you get one.”

The center of Yori’s palm had a deep indentation, a harsh red point against the white. She blinked rapidly to keep her eyes dry. Although she wanted to take a step back, she forced herself to remain still.

“They won’t work,” she said. “The system is high tech, and it only accepts cards won by this Duel Disk.”

Haku was obviously unimpressed with the excuse. “Try it and see.”

Reluctantly, she lifted her Duel Disk, spread the cards across the slots. And her eyes widened in shock as a blue map of Domino shimmered to life, the location for the finals blinking clearly.

“I’ll tell you the stakes,” Haku said again, as if he’d never been interrupted. “How about . . . the fate of the world.”

Yori gathered the locator cards again and slid them into her deck pouch, heart racing.

“Now, the rules. There are so very many—it’s really going to be the most complicated game ever played. I can’t wait.” He grinned, something he only did when anticipating a big win. “You’ll be happy to hear that direct damage is allowed. I know you like to fight dirty.”

Said the man who’d literally stabbed her in the back as the signal he wanted to break up. The deep scar beside Yori’s shoulder blade burned with remembered pain.

“You’ve been stalking me,” she said, effectively stopping him short. “The pharaoh, the tournament. How long have you been in Domino?”

He checked an imaginary watch. “About three hours now. You were a little difficult to find, not to mention rounding up those cards.”

“Don’t joke,” she spat.

He pursed his lips, the amusement draining from his face. “Alright, against my better judgment, I’ll choose to be lenient. You don’t want to talk now? Fine. Tomorrow you will.”

“I will never want to talk to you.”

He snorted.

Her switchblade was in her hand instantly, and she stepped forward. But as if he’d sensed it coming, his jacket was open just as fast, and she came face to face with a full-hooded cobra, fangs bared.

A lady on the sidewalk screamed, but Yori didn’t. Mehen’s presence had long ago lost its shock, especially after being bitten once—another scar to add to the list of Haku’s generous donations from their time together.

Yori stepped back. Snapped her blade closed.

Mehen retreated into her net pouch, and Haku closed his jacket.

“We’ve caused a scene,” he said, glancing around the street. The idea seemed to please him. No surprise there.

Yori’s eyes burned again, but she blinked the tears back harshly. If she could have traded Haku and his snake for Pandora and his remote, she would have done it without a second thought.

But she couldn’t.

“I don’t know what you’re doing here.” She struggled to keep her voice level while her jaw trembled. “But the last time I saw you, you stabbed me. So we won’t be talking. We won’t be playing a game. You’re not getting my bracelet. You’re not getting anything from me.”

He was silent for several moments, face blank.

Finally, he said, “Marik is on dock five.”

She frowned. “What?”

“The useless tombkeeper with a vendetta: Marik Ishtar. He’s on dock five. You’ve been looking for him, tried everything, couldn’t find him.” He smirked. “If you go, and he’s there, and I knew something impossible to know—maybe then you’ll agree we have something to talk about.”

He started to step past her, then hovered at her shoulder, pressing the side of his arm to hers and leaning his mouth close to her ear.

“You’ll never be rid of me, pet,” he murmured. “It’s in the rules. See you after the tournament.”

Then he left. Walked down the street like any other person and turned the corner.

Yori pressed a hand to her ear, hugged the other one across her chest, but the chill he’d raised pierced all the way to her soul. She started walking again, crossing the street, heading the opposite direction from where he’d gone, anything to get space, anything to get distance, anything to get away.

And as she walked, she kept her head down. Because she could no longer hold back the tears.

Chapter Text

Never before in his life had Seto wished to be smarter. He’d always been clever enough for the circumstances, genius enough for the invention, quick enough for the victory.

He’d even put his life on the line in a duel before. In Duelist Kingdom, against Yuugi. Mokuba had been in danger then, too, and Seto had promised to jump from the tower they were dueling on if Yuugi won. But it had never really been a risk. Even then, he knew Yuugi Mutou—the child pretending to be a man when he dueled, the boy who kept a circle of misfit friends at his side. Yuugi wasn’t a killer. It wasn’t a risk; it was a manipulation. Seto had always known what Yuugi would choose.

And who knew if Seto would have gone through with it if Yuugi had won. He’d never had to find out. It wasn’t his most shining of victories.

But his current circumstance was about to test that offer he’d made months before, the offer to die for his brother. Only the winner could unlock himself from the anchor. Only one of them. And Seto couldn’t let it be himself.

“I’ll pass my turn,” he said. He hadn’t even drawn any cards.

He’d considered the possibility of a tie, of course, but the odds were near impossible. A circumstance that brought both of their lifepoints to zero at the same moment was almost unheard of. Seto knew his deck inside and out; he had no such cards. He always fought to win and only to win.

Until now.

Maybe if he and Mokuba could have worked together, coordinated their attacks, then it might have been possible, but Mokuba was—

“Fireball,” Mokuba said, his voice tinny and emotionless. A faint yellow eye glowed on his forehead. He slid a card mechanically into place.

—gone.

A blazing orange fireball took shape in the late afternoon sky, hurtling toward Seto like a falling sun. He watched it come. He braced his legs. He didn’t flinch.

And when it engulfed him and the pain seared through his body, he didn’t utter a sound.

His lifepoints scrolled down to 3500. The only thought he had was that direct-damage magic cards were against tournament rules. If Mokuba had been in possession of his senses, he would have disqualified himself for the violation.

The thought didn’t make Seto smile; it made his chest ache.

Escape was another possibility he’d considered. Marik and one of his Ghouls had retreated as soon as the duel began, but they’d boarded the ship anchored to the side of the dock; there was no doubt Marik had a clear view of everything happening. In addition, the second Ghoul had been left as a guard dog, and Seto felt his constant gaze without turning to see it. If he radioed for help, he would be seen. Even if he wasn’t seen, the instant a second KaibaCorp helicopter arrived or an armed guard drove up, Marik could drop the anchor. There was always the chance Seto and Mokuba could be rescued from the water, but there were so many variables: the response time of his guards, the distance from the dock, the depth of the seabed below them, and all of that before even considering how to free them both from the chains.

Seto wasn’t about to risk Mokuba’s life on a hope so slim it was basically nonexistent.

He drew a deep breath in through his nostrils. Steeled himself.

“I’ll pass my turn,” he said.

Mokuba drew another card, added it to his hand. His eyes stared into empty space. His face never changed.

“Fireball,” he said. He slid a card into place.

There were thirteen minutes on the clock.

Seto braced himself for the hit. The only thought he had was that if Mokuba had been able to put together his own deck before being brainwashed or hypnotized or whatever, at least Seto could have had an interesting final duel.

++++++++++

“I like it here,” Mokuba declared, staring up at the brilliant sky.

“Of course you do,” Marik said.

Mokuba glanced over at his companion. He wasn’t sure when Marik had joined him in the sandy landscape, or even why, but it didn’t seem to matter.

A smile crossed Marik’s face, and he ducked his head, chuckling to himself.

“You think I’m cool?” He raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“You’re super cool.” Mokuba grinned. “Like my brother.”

Marik’s humor seemed to die at that.

Mokuba tried to remember his brother, but his mind couldn’t seem to focus. He was certain he had one. He was . . . tall?

Without meaning to, his eyes drifted to the sand, and he traced a finger through it, loving the way it melted under pressure, soft as cotton candy. He wished he had bare feet, and just like that, his shoes were gone. He wiggled his toes, buried them in the sand. It tickled. He giggled.

“It’s warm,” he said.

Marik crouched beside him, gathered a handful of the orange powder and let it drizzle through his fingers. “It’s not at all like this in real life. But this was how I always imagined it would be. So here we are.”

“Then here is better than real life.” Mokuba nodded decisively. He buried his feet up to the ankles.

“Maybe it is.”

Mokuba frowned. He reached out and touched Marik’s shoulder, making him jump.

“You’re sad.”

Marik scowled. “Don’t read me.”

But his scowl was familiar. Mokuba could see it in his mind, except Marik had brown hair and blue eyes. He was tall. He was—

“Just can’t think about anything else, can you?” Marik sighed and straightened up again. “Fine, then, show me your brother. But show me the truth, not what you imagine is true.”

Mokuba climbed to his feet as the world around him shifted and darkened.

They were in Gozaburo’s library. Mokuba could smell the books, an adult smell, an old smell, one that scared him. The bookshelves were so tall, stretching almost to the sky, and every time he stepped into the library, he worried all the books would fall and bury him forever.

“Calm down,” Marik said.

Mokuba hadn’t been breathing. He drew in a breath.

Seto was at the library desk, writing hard, writing fast. There were so many books stacked around him that Mokuba almost couldn’t see him from the doorway.

“Gods, have you always been so tiny?” Marik asked.

“I’m a lot taller now,” Mokuba said, but he frowned because it was confusing to feel both thirteen and five at the same time.

“No, you’re not.”

Hobson stood behind Seto’s chair, wearing his round orange sunglasses that reflected everything in green. Mokuba hated those glasses, especially when they pointed his direction.

“Little boy’s out of bed,” Hobson said.

Seto paused, looked up.

“I was worried about you,” Mokuba said.

Seto didn’t smile. He never smiled anymore.

“Go to sleep, Mokuba.” He was already back to writing.

“Back to bed,” Hobson said, “unless you want to get belted.”

 “Your father?” Marik asked. Then, just as quickly, “No, your butler. Interesting.”

The scene changed, and it was Gozaburo in the library, dressed in his important red suit. He stormed toward Mokuba from behind the desk, hand raised. Mokuba flinched away, throwing an arm up to shield his face.

Marik caught his wrist.

Mokuba blinked. Everything was sand and warmth. He relaxed.

Marik released him.

“Gozaburo isn’t my dad.” Mokuba didn’t even know why it was important to say, but it was. “He isn’t.”

“Okay, stick boy. Calm down. Think about your brother.”

The sand disappeared again, overtaken by an image of home. It smelled like clean sheets. Mokuba did his homework in the dining room since he still hated going to the library, and when he heard the front door open, he leapt to his feet, grinning.

It took Seto a few minutes to get settled at home, handing off his briefcase and coat, giving instructions to the staff of anything that needed to be done, but as soon as that was over, he came to find Mokuba. Like always. And even though he rolled his eyes when Mokuba asked for homework help and said, “What am I paying your tutors for?” he still sat next to him at the table and pulled the textbook over.

“It’s not like my sister was always terrible either,” Marik muttered. “The fact that they sometimes care makes it all worse in the end.”

Mokuba suddenly remembered meeting Marik on the street, hearing him talk about older siblings. “It isn’t easy, is it?”

“I’ve seen that one,” Marik said.

The sand was back, but instead of feeling comforted, Mokuba felt unsettled.

“Where’s Seto?” he asked.

Marik flinched.

“You won’t ever thank me,” he said. “But maybe you’ll be better off.” His pale eyes hardened in a way that made Mokuba take a step back. “Either way, it doesn’t matter.”

Then he was gone, and it was just sand.

++++++++++

To say Odion knew Marik well would be an understatement. He still remembered with clarity the day Marik was born, remembered his first scream and the smile it created on Ahmed Ishtar’s face, a man who had never previously smiled about anything in his life. Ishizu stood beside her father, craning on tiptoes to stare in wonder at the new baby in his arms.

But Odion could only watch the woman he’d come to think of as his own mother, watch her breaths grow more and more tortured while feeling the pain of it in his own chest. He knelt beside the bed, grasping her hand.

“Mother,” he whispered softly. “I’m here.”

She smiled. Lifted her hand to touch his cheek.

“Take care of your brother,” she rasped.

It was the last thing she ever said to him. Giving birth to Ishizu five years earlier had nearly claimed her life; giving birth to Marik finished the job.

And while Ahmed carried his firstborn son to the ceremonial chamber and presented him to the entire clan, forgetting he had a wife at all, Odion wept alone at her deathbed. In the sixteen years that followed, he gave everything he had to fulfilling the last thing she’d asked of him. No matter where Marik went, no matter what he did, Odion was always at his side.

So to say he knew Marik well would be an understatement.

He knew Marik’s dark side just the same. And he knew the signs of when it began to resurface. In the search for the nameless pharaoh’s spirit, Marik had retreated further and further into himself. He spent more of his time spinning the rod in his hands, tracing his fingertip from one wing point to the other. Odion knew from experience that the more Marik put his mind in the rod, the more he lost himself.

“Master, I could duel Kaiba,” Odion said. “You needn’t use the rod.”

“Nonsense,” Marik murmured. “The duel is already set.”

His thumb traced circles on the rod’s haft. His pale eyes burned with a feverish heat while a third eye glowed on his skin.

Odion glanced out the window of the ship. The dock spread below them, the duel field extending from where cold concrete met sparkling ocean. His heart felt as heavy as the anchor suspended above the two brothers.

Although he knew it was hopeless, he asked, “You’re certain Kaiba deserves death?”

Marik turned slowly. His fingers tightened on the rod, and the glow on his forehead sharpened.

“Are you questioning me?” he hissed. One side of his mouth twitched momentarily, just enough to tilt it into a hyena’s grin, just enough to divide his face for that split second into two different people.

Odion weighed his words carefully, as he had learned to do. Only when he was certain did he speak.

“Perhaps he distracts you from the pharaoh.”

“Then perhaps for that, he deserves death!” Marik snapped, but he was one complete person as he said it, his selfish nature showing through. It was a small comfort.

The boy paced to the window, glared down at the Kaiba brothers.

“The pharaoh defeated another Ghoul before the rain stopped,” he said, intensity fading. “No sign of him since, but it doesn’t matter: he’s already made the finals.”

Odion wanted to point out that with no Kaiba, there would be no tournament and no finals. The structure Marik was leaning on would collapse into chaos. On a clearer day, Marik could be reached by such logic, could be swayed. But he was neck-deep in darkness at the moment, and a firm push meant to wake him would instead submerge him completely.

The only hope was to continue weighing each word carefully in order to coax him back, slowly, slowly, until he could be reached. Odion was used to such a tug-of-war with the darkness for Marik’s soul; he’d been engaged in it for the past nearly four years. Although he’d never before been put on a timer. He glanced out the window; the countdown on the brothers’ duel was already half expended.

“What of your sister?” Odion asked.

This time when the side of Marik’s mouth rose, it was a natural expression.

“Not a trace,” he said, “but how do you track someone who knows the future?”

“I see the dilemma,” Odion said. Although he felt ridiculous doing so, he raised his hands to his neck, palms facing each other, shielding an invisible necklace—just as Ishizu had done for years whenever dramatically referencing the powers of the Millennium Necklace.

And then Marik laughed. His real laugh, the lighthearted reminder of days long gone.

Even in a window as small as ten minutes, there was still hope.

++++++++++

­­­­­­Seto dragged in a deep breath. Tremors shook his knees.

Ten minutes still on the clock, and his lifepoints were down to 1500. Maybe he could take the opportunity for a pause before the next strike.

He swallowed hard, ran his tongue over his dry lips.

“Mokuba,” he said.

His brother gave no response.

Was he going soft? He’d never gone soft. But if these were his last ten minutes of life, he was rightfully entitled to do whatever the hell he wanted with them.

“Mokuba, remember the only time you ever beat me in chess?”

He waited, but Mokuba said nothing, just stared with blank eyes.

“Guess I’ll carry both sides of the conversation.” Seto ducked his head. “This is certainly a first.”

Normally, Mokuba was always bursting with stories, always eager to talk. Seto spoke when he had something to say. Otherwise he was happy to listen—if it was Mokuba speaking. Only if it was Mokuba.

“You didn’t really beat me,” he said. His ears burned under the impression that he was basically talking to himself; he could only hope Mokuba could still hear him even if he couldn’t respond. “But you taught me. So that’s something.”

Mokuba had learned a chess trick that allowed checkmate in four moves. It was something every chess professional knew, but since Seto had only ever pursued the game as a hobby, he’d never specifically learned the trick. He never would have fallen for it if someone had tried it on him since it took a glaring error on his part for it to work, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Mokuba had learned the trick from a classmate, and he’d come home beaming, eager to show it to Seto. He’d laid the checkered board right across the two spreadsheets Seto had been comparing, only laughing when Seto glared.

“Can’t this wait?” Seto had drawled.

Mokuba insisted it couldn’t, so with a sigh, Seto helped him set out the pieces. Four moves later, he was checkmated, and Mokuba was grinning wide enough to break his face.

“Isn’t it awesome? I knew you’d want to see.”

And though Seto only admitted to a “Not bad,” before shooing him off and returning to his work, the game had stayed with him all night.

Since Mokuba had told him exactly which moves to make, then checkmated him, and since Seto had seen it coming once he started, it hardly counted as a win. But Mokuba hadn’t been out to win. He never was; that was Seto’s obsession.

Mokuba only ever wanted to make people happy.

“You’re worth learning from,” Seto said. “I’ve always thought so.”

No wonder he never went soft. It just made him feel worse. But if he really was going to die, there was one last thing he should say. Something he’d never said. Something Mokuba needed to know.

“I . . . lo—”

He stood there like a fool, ears burning, life draining with every second. Yet the words stuck in his throat no matter how he tried.

A minute passed. Then another.

And in the end, all he could say was, “I’ll pass my turn.”

Like a toy that had been wound back to life, Mokuba raised his arms, drew a card, and said, “Fireball.”

Seto watched the orange flames gather in the sky.

He’d fallen for it after all. A glaring error on his part, and he was staring down checkmate. This time for real.

So much for his pride.

++++++++++

Mokuba sat up abruptly. The sand clung to his skin, dragged at him to turn his attention back to it and forget everything else. But he stood and slapped the sand from his jeans. He squinted up at the sky, unbroken by a single cloud. The dunes around him lay undisturbed.

But he still felt like there was something out there. Something he needed to find. Something important.

A breeze stirred, lifting a flurry of sand from the dune’s peak. And it almost seemed like there was a voice on the air. A familiar one. The something-important feeling increased.

Mokuba started to climb.

Chapter Text

“He’s a feisty one.” Marik almost smiled, scratching the eye of Horus on his forehead with his thumbnail.

After discussing Ishizu, Marik had fallen silent, and Odion was surprised to hear him speak again—even more surprised at the fondness he exhibited.

“The little Kaiba brother?”

Marik nodded, turning his gaze to the window. “Every distraction I throw is temporary; all he can think about is his brother.”

Odion’s heart ached in sympathy. But the fact that Marik was “throwing distractions” rather than forcing the boy’s mind into submission was more hopeful than anything that had happened so far.

“If only he and I could trade brothers,” Marik said. “Then everyone would have what they deserve.”

Odion’s eyes widened in shock.

Marik glanced over his shoulder, giving a dry laugh.

“What’s that face?” He shook his head, gripped the rod. “I’m well aware you’re more devoted than I deserve. I’m sure Seto Kaiba is aware of the gap between himself and his brother as well. If there’s anything I’ve learned from exploring a hundred minds, it’s that wickedness always recognizes itself in the mirror; it’s only virtue that’s blind.”

Odion’s mind tumbled over itself in an effort to keep up. Finally, he dropped to one knee.

“I would never trade you, Master Marik,” he said fiercely. “Not for anyone.”

“Don’t call me mas—”

Marik hissed, his eyes screwing shut in obvious pain, one hand clutching his forehead. He took a deep breath, held it, released.

“Never mind,” he said, turning away.

Odion stared at the carpet, feeling a weight in his soul that bothered him every day, a weight he could never give voice to.

The truth was that Marik had no idea of his greatest act of devotion—or of the fact that with enough such devotion, virtue could shield wickedness so fiercely from the mirror that the two reflections exchanged completely.

It was Odion’s fault that Marik searched for the pharaoh so obsessively, Odion’s fault they stood where they stood today.

And if the current duel claimed Kaiba’s life, it would be Odion’s fault as well.

++++++++++

“Fireball,” Mokuba said, voice empty, eyes empty.

“That’s seriously the whole deck?” Seto growled. He braced himself, but the blast still knocked him back a step. His entire body trembled.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if he wasn’t so stunningly good at his job.

Let’s incorporate physical pain into the game. Patent-worthy idea, Seto. You should have implemented a lock pick instead. Better yet, a plasma torch.

Of course, if he’d had that kind of foresight, he could have avoided this mess altogether. If he’d only kept Mokuba with him at all times or forced his brother to remain at KaibaCorp or locked him in the mansion and posted an army at every door and window.

But he knew the truth: No matter what he tried, there would always be a back door. It had been that way during Duelist Kingdom. Pegasus had cut a deal with the KaibaCorp board of directors to overtake the company, and for all his genius, Seto had never seen the sabotage coming, never suspected he couldn’t trust his own board while he was gone for a single weekend, never imagined any of them would willingly hand over a twelve-year-old boy to be kidnapped for political leverage.

Now he could imagine plenty, yet he’d still failed to keep his brother safe.

Maybe there was no way for him to win.

Maybe if you would have put Mokuba first and ambition second.

His own mind couldn’t just let him die in peace.

He had 500 lifepoints left. This was it. One more attack.

What now?

Last words weren’t really Seto’s style, as proven by his previous failed attempts.

But, then, neither was dying. He’d outlived his birth parents, outlived Mokuba’s parents, outlived Gozaburo. And apparently, now, he’d outlived his luck.

He shrugged off his sleeveless trench coat, threaded it carefully over his Duel Disk. He felt exposed standing there in his plain black turtleneck, but there was no point to his intimidating image with no one left to intimidate. He draped the coat over his arm and reached into the pocket where he kept his most treasured cards. There had been no point adding them to his deck at the start of the duel since it wasn’t an actual duel at all. He extracted Obelisk and tossed his coat onto the platform with his three dragon cards still inside.

“At least you’ll have Blue-Eyes,” he said, throat tight.

And somehow, dropping his three Blue-Eyes White Dragon cards on the dock was harder than the duel had been to this point. Standing through attacks wasn’t defeat; surrendering Blue-Eyes was. She had always been the symbol of his victory.

He slipped Obelisk into his pants pocket.

“If the Ghouls want the god card, let them drag the ocean for it,” he said, loudly enough for the guard dog to hear. Without looking, he flipped off the ship behind him where Marik had disappeared earlier.

Then he stood there.

And he took a shaky breath.

“I’ll pa—”

He stopped.

Because Mokuba moved.

It was a slight shift at best. A tiny shake of his head. But for that instant, his eyes seemed to flicker. And his mouth tightened.

Then it was gone.

“Mokuba?!” Seto surged forward and almost walked off the platform, stopping himself just in time. “Mokuba!”

Nothing.

Seto snarled in frustration. He backed up. The chain attached to his ankle scraped across the wood. His chest heaved, and he sunk his hands into the back of his hair, clutched at his neck.

Five minutes left on the clock.

He came to a stop, forced his breathing to be even again, lowered his arms. Even if Mokuba was himself again, what? If a tie had been impossible with eighteen minutes to work it out, it was even more impossible with five. It would take a miracle.

And Seto didn’t believe in miracles.

He stared down at the platform, at his coat, sharp white against the wood.

He looked at Mokuba and his empty eyes.

He’d never thought it would end like this. He wasn’t even sure what “this” was. A pointless death and a brainwashed brother. All in his own tournament.

“I’ll pass my turn,” he said.

++++++++++

“At least you’ll have Blue-Eyes,” said the wind.

Mokuba recognized the voice, and it made his heart leap. Even though the sand sucked at his feet, he forced himself to run, forced himself to the peak of the dune.

But when he stumbled over the ridge, when he looked around wildly, heart pumping, all he saw was more sand. More dunes. More spotless sky.

“Seto!” he shouted. He couldn’t remember exactly who that was, but he knew it was the voice, and he knew the person was important.

Nothing answered.

“Seto!” he tried again.

The sand weakened suddenly beneath his feet, swallowing him to his knees in an instant. He gasped out. He struggled. When he put his hand in the soft orange mass, it was swallowed to the wrist.

“Marik!” he shouted, even though he couldn’t remember who Marik was either.

But then there he was, as abrupt as anything. He frowned. Took a step back. Eyed the dunes. Then eyed Mokuba.

“How . . . ?” He trailed off, frown growing deeper.

Mokuba had intended to say something—to ask for help, maybe—but when he saw those pale eyes, the words seemed to drain away, as hard to grasp as the sand.

Marik crouched down in front of him. The sand relaxed, releasing Mokuba’s hand, releasing his feet. He wiggled himself out, knelt on the dune.

“You don’t have an item,” Marik said.

Mokuba didn’t know what that meant.

“So where do you get your power?”

Mokuba didn’t know what any of it meant. He could only think of one thing.

“Seto,” he said, trying to remember who that was.

Marik scowled. “Seto, Seto, Seto. Your brain’s as tiny as your body—it only has room for one thing. Maybe when he’s gone, it’ll be completely empty and useless.”

Marik moved to stand, but Mokuba latched onto his arm with both hands, held him down. “Where’s he going?”

The sand sucked his feet in again, tried to pull him away, but he clung to Marik with everything he had.

“What are you, a leech?!” Marik shook his arm, yanked back, all with no use.

Below them both, the dune shifted, then melted into familiar carpet, familiar walls, familiar furniture. The air smelled like home.

Seto and Mokuba sat together on the ground, a sketchpad laid out between them, several sheets of paper already filled with pencil sketches tossed around haphazardly. Seto was dressed in the black T-shirt and shorts he used as pajamas because he’d been on his way to bed when he’d suddenly had to hash out the same idea for the hundredth time. Mokuba was dressed in his own flannel pajamas, toothbrush in hand, but wide-eyed and excited because nothing was more exciting than helping his brother with something big.

His brother. Seto.

“It has to be like this,” Seto said, tracing his pencil fiercely over the extended wing of a Duel Disk.

“Not that far out,” Mokuba insisted. “It looks dorky.”

Seto scowled. “I can’t compress it more than this unless I remove the field spell slot, and that’s a sacrifice of game mechanics.”

Mokuba pressed his palms together as if praying, then opened them in a V, almost dropping his toothbrush. “Just make it a slot that pops open like whoosh!”

Seto stared at him. He pursed his lips. Then he tore the current sheet of paper out of the pad, tossed it aside, and started sketching again.

Mokuba giggled. “I had a great idea, didn’t I?”

“Don’t get cocky.”

A knife of pain sliced through Mokuba’s mind. He stumbled to his knees, finally releasing Marik.

“Don’t just direct things on your own,” Marik snarled.

Mokuba looked at his brother in the memory, sketching a new version of his greatest invention, content and comfortable and everything that Mokuba knew as home.

He looked up at Marik again, and now there was fire in his eyes. “Where’s Seto?”

Marik looked away. But he seemed to shimmer like a mirage in the desert, and through his outline, Mokuba thought he could see ocean. Something about the dark blue waves made his heart pinch.

Something was wrong.

Everything was wrong.

Mokuba climbed to his feet. Stood with fists clenched. “Let Seto go, Marik.”

Marik snorted. “You don’t even recognize who the hostage is here.”

The surroundings melted together, running like fresh paint until the colors changed and the scene was new. Mokuba saw Marik on the street, saw him raise something gold, felt the unease just before everything faded.

And Marik’s smile no longer seemed warm and welcoming.

“What have you done with my brother?”

“Okay.” Marik grabbed the front of his shirt, dragged him close. His eyes were streaked through with red, and his voice threatened blood to match. “Cry righteous injustice all you want, but I’ve heard the truth from the Ghouls. Show it to me. Show me the truth of your brother and your father.”

Mokuba’s mind started to shift, and he shook his head fiercely. “Gozaburo’s not my—”

“Show me!” Marik shouted.

The colors around them bled together, changed, solidified. Police lights flashed, but they flashed in silence. Everything was silent, like watching a movie without speakers and wondering if that was why nothing made sense.

Gozaburo was in his red suit. Mokuba wasn’t supposed to see—Roland tried to shield him—but he saw. He saw all the red. And he saw how most of it wasn’t the suit at all.

The police talked to Seto, but Mokuba couldn’t hear. Seto’s expression was hard. Cold. Gossip columns called it proof that he was responsible, that taking Gozaburo’s company hadn’t been enough for him without taking the man’s life as well. Instead of calling him a child genius, they called him a child psychopath. One article compared it all to a zoo, saying Gozaburo had taken in a wild animal with no hope for survival, tamed him, groomed him, made him into something great, and then the animal had turned on its handler without remorse.

Mokuba wasn’t supposed to read the articles just like he wasn’t supposed to see the body. But he did.

“Patricide,” Marik said. His expression was colder than Seto’s had ever been.

“Seto didn’t kill Gozaburo.” It wasn’t an excuse, wasn’t a lie. It was truth.

Everyone blamed him for it because blaming him was easy. Gozaburo had been on the top floor of KaibaCorp, and everyone agreed it was so strange to smash a window in a building with rooftop access. It was so strange he’d never shown any signs of depression, had no history of suicidal tendencies. So strange he’d left no note.

No witnesses had seen him break the window. No one had seen him jump.

Except Seto.

And since it was Seto’s word alone calling it suicide, everyone just started whispering the lies, passing the idea from hand to hand to hand regardless of truth—the idea that Seto broke the window, that Seto pushed Gozaburo through.

“Of course he did,” Marik said.

Mokuba shook his head. He tried to close his eyes, but he couldn’t, and the memories kept going.

Some of Gozaburo’s biggest supporters had pushed for Seto’s arrest, crowded outside the mansion with picket signs and insults. Mokuba had been confined to his room for a week, but Seto made no move to protect himself in the same way, instead facing the heat head on and fearless. The police backed him with an official statement that all evidence pointed to a suicide. Gozaburo’s landing position supported the story that he’d jumped on his own, and in addition, his body showed no evidence of a struggle and carried no traces of Seto’s DNA. There was also more than a hundred pounds of difference between the two and very little chance the fifteen-year-old boy could have physically overpowered his adoptive father in any way, especially without being pulled through the window along with him.

“As if enough money couldn’t bribe the police,” Marik said. “Or enough genius couldn’t hide the evidence.”

The police ruling satisfied most of the voices, but not all. And just like every other insult, every other criticism, someone always managed to dig it up and throw it in Seto’s face.

Someone like Marik.

“You have no right”—Mokuba’s eyes burned—“to judge my brother. You don’t know anything about us.”

The sand was back, and the cloudless sky was no longer gentle—it seared Mokuba’s skin like a spotlight.

“I think I’ve learned plenty.” Marik’s eyes were unfocused, his expression blank. “And you’re correct; I have no right to make a ruling, no authority outside shadows. But I can’t forgive it. So I won’t.”

The sand sucked at Mokuba’s feet, reached up with fingers to touch his own. His mind began to fuzz, and part of him wanted to lie back in the sand, to trace his hands through it and stare at the sky. But the rest of him held desperately to his brother’s name, unwilling to surrender it to the sand, unwilling to let things pass him by when there was somewhere else he needed to be.

And then a voice whispered on the breeze, barely loud enough for Mokuba to hear.

“I’ll pass my turn.”

Seto’s voice. And even if Mokuba didn’t understand what the words meant, they crushed his heart, choked him with hot tears.

He closed his eyes, pushed the sand from his mind, and pictured his brother. Pictured him with everything he had.

“I’ve had about enough—” Marik started to say.

Mokuba opened his eyes. He saw the mirage in Marik just as he’d seen earlier—a ripple, a flash, an idea, as if he were a dull mirror catching a duller reflection. But instead of ocean, it was the shadow of a man, tall and lonely and blue, surrounded in blue, glowing in blue.

So Mokuba dove forward, pulled himself from the sand and launched himself at Marik, imagined reaching not for him but beyond him. Marik shouted, tried to pull away, but Mokuba reached right through him, and then he was gone, and Mokuba was reaching through a long window, a deep window, reaching for the silhouette of blue that grew stronger every second, reaching, reaching. And the sand was going. The dunes were fading. Everything turned dark until—

Mokuba was himself.

And Seto was there.

And Mokuba understood it all.

++++++++++

After Seto waived his final turn, he waited for Mokuba’s strike.

But Mokuba didn’t move.

Seto shifted his weight, glanced up at the anchor. He waited for the mechanical words, waited for his death to form in the sky.

When his gaze returned to Mokuba, there were tears on the boy’s cheeks.

Seto swallowed hard. The clock continued to count down, almost to three minutes, reaching three minutes, dropping.

Then a new voice rang out across the dock.

“Seto?!”

Seto whirled around. A familiar girl in a pink shirt came tearing across the dock toward him.

“Yori?” he managed.

“Stay back!” the guard dog barked, reaching for his weapon.

Yori only ran faster, barreling into the Ghoul with her full weight, sending them both crashing to the ground. His gun slid to the edge of the concrete and dropped into the ocean. She pinned him and knocked him out with the hilt of her switchblade.

And this time, Seto was grateful for the crazy woman with a knife.

Yori scrambled up, her wide eyes darting from the anchor to him to his brother.

“Where’s Marik?” she choked out. “What has he—”

Seto didn’t even care how she knew.

“Do you have anything that can help?” he demanded. His voice had never before sounded so desperate, and he prayed Marik either couldn’t see what was happening or hadn’t processed it yet.

She darted another look between them. Then her eyes shot up to the anchor.

“Maybe there’s something on the anchor release,” she said, already rushing toward him, “a way to jam it. Can you handle my weight?”

He could have lifted a truck if it had the chance of saving his life. He nodded curtly and grabbed the chain at the same moment she did. She swung out over the water. He gritted his teeth and hauled back on the chain, keeping it from dragging him over the edge of the platform.

Almost two minutes on the clock.

And then Mokuba gave a loud gasp.

Seto almost dropped the chain.

“Watch it!” Yori snapped, losing a handhold. She regained it and hauled herself hand over hand toward the anchor.

Seto stared at his brother.

Mokuba’s gasp was not isolated—his chest heaved in ragged breaths. He staggered backward, dropped his entire hand of cards. His eyes moved wildly, full of life and color and himself. The third eye was gone from his forehead.

“Mokuba,” Seto whispered. His own eyes burned.

Mokuba stared up at the anchor, then across the water to Seto. Tears dripped freely down his face.

“Seto, I’m so sorry! I was stuck in this desert and Marik was there and I couldn’t focus on anything—”

“It’s okay,” Seto said. Nothing about the situation was remotely close, but none of it was Mokuba’s fault.

Yori let out a grunt. Seto looked up as she swung herself feet first from the chain onto the wooden framework supporting the anchor, twisting her leg around one of the beams. With her weight supported by one hand and one leg, she reached her other hand out to the anchor, grabbing and twisting at it.

“It’s a closed latch,” she said, banging her fist against it in a sudden, frustrated rush. “It’s just gonna open and drop. I don’t know a way to block it.”

A minute and a half on the clock.

Seto took a deep, slow breath.

“Mokuba,” he said, “you have to attack.”

“No!” Mokuba shouted before he even finished. “This isn’t—there has to—”

“Mokuba!” Seto snapped. “Attack me.”

Mokuba shook his head fiercely. He dropped to his knees and sifted through his fallen cards, tossing each of them back as he no doubt saw they only offered one option.

“Mokuba.”

“No!” Mokuba shot back to his feet, glared up at Yori with more fire than Seto had ever seen in his eyes. “You have to try harder! There has to be a way to block it!”

“I—” Yori trailed wordlessly, her face slack, helpless. Her fingers slipped on the wood, and she grabbed quickly to keep herself suspended.

“Mokuba.” Seto’s voice was quiet now but piercing.

“Shut up, Seto!” Mokuba choked on a sob. “You don’t get to decide everything. I won’t be here without you. If it falls, then it falls for—”

“Please,” Seto said.

He’d never done that before.

Begged.

He’d never done that before.

“Please, Mokuba.”

Mokuba collapsed to his knees and sobbed.

Forty-six seconds on the clock.

“If your lifepoints run out, he gets free?” Yori asked. Her voice was careful. Void.

All Seto could do was nod.

Yori flipped herself to the top of the framework, ran to the edge, then jumped to Mokuba’s side of the platform. She rolled as she hit the ground but still gave a sharp exclamation of pain.

When she stood, she had one of Mokuba’s cards in her hand.

Mokuba saw her coming, and he tried to pull away, but she planted a foot on the chain attached to his ankle, stopping him short. Mokuba had always been a small kid for his age, and Yori was obviously very physically capable. When he reached out to shove her away, she trapped his arm behind his back.

A vice tightened on Seto’s heart.

This was it.

At least he’d finally done something to—

Yori slapped the card down on Mokuba’s Duel Disk. The boy screamed Seto’s name. He sobbed so hard his voice failed.

A fireball formed in the sky.

Twenty-one seconds left.

Yori grabbed Mokuba by the shoulders, shaking him hard.

“I can save Seto,” she said. And then again, “Mokuba, I can save Seto. I promise.”

It was nice of her to comfort his brother, but Seto wished she wouldn’t give him false hope. Between the orphanage, Gozaburo, and Seto, Mokuba’d already had more than his share.

The attack seemed faster than the rest. Maybe because Seto had already accepted.

The fire blasted over him, hot on his skin, searing his bones. Then there was smoke. Then silence.

Seto’s lifepoints drained to zero.

Six seconds.

The box on Mokuba’s side of the field sprang open. Yori snatched the key and jammed it into the cuff on his ankle.

Seto calmly unhooked the latch on his Duel Disk. He lowered it to the platform, deck inside.

“SETO!” Mokuba screamed. He tried to run. Yori held him back.

A gruesome click, and the anchor dropped.

There was a moment of silence, of slackness. Then a splash, and the chain was dragging across wood, vanishing. A sharp yank, whipping Seto’s feet from under him, cracking his head on the flimsy platform. Spots bursting in air.

Then no air.

Chapter Text