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Faust

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In Chiba Prefecture’s Domino City, there is a train that leaves at midnight. No tickets are collected; the conductor never visits your carriage. This train will carry you away from the city, away from the ocean, deep into the countryside. Deep into the mountains.

Are you intrigued? Then remember: if you decide to board, then don’t speak to anyone. Don’t let the rattling and clanking of the train lull you to sleep. Keep your eye on the horizon, on the living grass outside.

If you decide to board, then make sure you alight before dawn. Otherwise, you’ll be riding for a long, long time.

So: if you are undaunted, if you are foolhardy, if you are tired of the city and the ocean on this side of the world, then you can find the train waiting for you in the station beneath Domino Plaza. The last stairway to the old platform has been boarded up, so you’ll have to do what Bakura Ryou has done tonight, and pry the nails out one by one, until you can move the boards and squeeze your body through the merciless gap.

The boards will tear at you like hands trying to hold you back.

 

Standing alone on the platform, Ryou can feel, somewhere overhead, beyond the heavy overhanging concrete and asphalt, straining towards the vast night sky, the second hand of the Domino City clock shuddering into place. He draws back his sleeve to peer at his watch. The watch is digital, and it is dead: its screen is dull and black.

Good, he thinks.

He looks up and sees the train.

It waits at the platform, sleek and silver and silent, like any of the many trains that run through Domino during the day, but when Ryou blinks, he sees something else behind his eyelids: a red and glowing afterimage.

The doors open. Ryou steps inside.

The interior is modern, with cheerfully orange plastic seats and bright lights overhead. Advertisements line the sides in regular intervals, a parade of toothy smiles beaming down into the aisles. Ryou does not look at them. A figure waits in shadow at one end of the car; Ryou turns his back to it. He finds a seat by a window.

The train lets out an antiseptic, electric beep, and the darkened platform seems to melt away before Ryou’s eyes. 

Not long after they depart—Ryou thinks it might have been twenty minutes, but he has no way of really knowing now that his watch has stopped—a school-girl sidles shyly up to him. He thinks it’s a school-girl, anyway, because of the worn black mary-janes that shuffle up the aisle, and the pleats of her skirt, unfashionably long, that just brush against his shins. He doesn’t dare look up, unsure of what might he might see in her face—or not see, as the case might be. 

“Excuse me,” she says, in a soft and sleepy voice. “I dozed off. Do you know when we will stop at Futomi Station?”

Ryou stares steadfastly at the floor, suddenly fascinated by his feet in their scuffed blue trainers. Just in front of his knees, he can see the dark green of the girl’s pleated skirt, her rumpled black stockings, and her old-fashioned shoes, as she waits for his reply. He bites the tip of his tongue between his teeth.

Finally, she says, “Don’t help me, then,” and steps away in a huff. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryou sees her stride to the far end of the car, reach for a handle that isn’t there, and vanish.  

Ryou will never know whether the train stops at Futomi Station. He gets off long before, on a deserted country platform. He is the only one who leaves the train at this stop.

There should be insects at the station, hurling themselves into the lone electric light swaying overhead, but there are none. The air should be alive with the singing of crickets and frogs and bats, but the only sound in Ryou’s ears is that of the night air filtering lethargically through the grass.

The moon is round and high and far, far away in the sky. Only a few hours before, as Ryou picked the lock at a service door in Domino Plaza, the moon was a low-hanging crescent over the clock tower.

Something has changed, though Ryou isn’t sure what. Time, perhaps. 

He sees a gleam in the distance: the moon shining down on the black waters of a river. The night air is humid, and he pushes up his sleeves as he walks toward its banks. The reeds rustle and part before him.

There are lights on the far shore. Ryou doesn’t spare them a second glance. His real object is elsewhere: by the river, beneath an iron bridge that has appeared as suddenly and magically as a droplet of ink spreading on rice paper, an ogre of a man is drinking a beer.

The man sits cross-legged on a dais, above the mud of the bank. Three attendants cluster around him, hoisting red lanterns on long poles.

Their feet do not touch the ground. The first carries a carved wooden mask, its face contorted into a howl; the second is wearing round tinted spectacles low on its nose. The third, the shortest, is small and spindly, the skin of its face stretched tightly over its bones.

All three are soaking wet. The lanterns cast red light on their glistening hands and feet, their bulging eyes. They look at Ryou and say nothing.

The man crumples his beer can and throws it into the river.

For the first time in hours, Ryou speaks. His voice comes from deep within him; he can feel it resonating in his belly, even as it cracks and shakes.

He says, “I want to make a trade.”

“Fuck off,” the man says. He frees another beer from the plastic bag beside him and opens it with a noise like a spark. 

“Er,” Ryou says. 

“You heard me,” the man says. “Get out of here.”

Something huge and black is winging down from the sky. Ryou thinks it might be crane, until—

It slams down onto the dais with a blast of wind that knocks Ryou off his feet and blows the attendants back several meters. As he picks himself up and the attendants drift back, the moonlight flashes on the glossy violet feathers and glossier golden hair of the winged woman. 

“Keith, you shit,” the woman says.

“Mai,” the man says, unfazed. “Wanna beer?”

She slaps it out of his hand and kicks it, still frothing, into the river. “You idiot,” she says. “Where’s the soul? I went where you said he’d be, and there was nothing there. Nothing except this!”

She throws down a small figurine, no bigger than a game piece. It bounces across the dais and into the mud. The man shrugs; he reaches into the bag for a new beer, then yelps as the woman, Mai, impales his hand with a taloned foot.

“Ow, what the fuck,” he shouts.

“Is this your idea of a joke, bozo?” Mai shouts back. “Not laughing now, are you?”

While they bicker between the stone-faced attendants, Ryou picks the figure up and rolls it around in his palm. The wood is rough and unpolished. It’s been painted, somewhat abstractly, with strokes of navy blue, and three black dots, to indicate a gakuran uniform. There is a dark stain on its featureless face.

It’s not Ryou’s best work. But he was in a hurry.

“Are you looking for Jounouchi Katsuya?” Ryou says. “You won’t find him.”

The woman turns on him. Her eyes flash in the lantern light. Her pupils are blown: a hawk’s eyes, focusing on the kill.

“Who the hell are you?” she demands.

“I want to make a trade,” Ryou repeats. He sets the figure down on the dais. “My soul for his.”

 

Ryou’s watch reads 5:18 p.m. against the afternoon sky. He pulls his sleeve down and looks back through the chain-link fence. Club activities are over, and his classmates are flooding through the gates below, a sea of blue uniforms hurrying back to their homes or to the arcades or cram schools. The ones with illicit part-time jobs left hours earlier. 

The setting sun casts a red haze over the rooftop. It turns Jounouchi Katsuya’s bleached hair into flame as he hovers in the doorway, shifting from one foot to the other, his eyes darting left and right. Eventually he steps outside, slamming the door behind him.

“Jounouchi-kun,” Ryou says, nodding in greeting.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” Jounouchi says. He jams his hands in his pockets and looks at his feet. He’s been brawling again: there’s a bruise on his cheek.

“Is this a love confession?” Ryou says.

Jounouchi’s head snaps up. “I’ll kill you,” he says instantly. “Of course not.”

“Oh,” Ryou says. “I thought that might be the reason you put thumbtacks in my shoes, or threw my books in the incinerator, or pulled my hair…”

The sun is red on Jounouchi’s cheeks. “I never put thumbtacks in your shoes,” he says. “No, wait. Is that what you think people do? When they like someone?” His eyes are wide. “Is—do you—do you like—”

“No! No, but—” They’re not getting anywhere. Ryou frowns. “Never mind. Why did you need to see me?”

Jounouchi looks at his feet again.

“I heard that you see things,” he says. “I mean—see things.”

“Okay,” Ryou says, and waits.

“I need your help,” Jounouchi says. “Please.”

  

Ryou takes him to a nearby konbini. He has Jounouchi buy himself a bento box, a family-size packet of seaweed crackers, a toothbrush, and two liters of water. They walk down a side street to Ryou’s apartment and climb the rickety old stairs in silence. 

“I’m home,” Ryou says, out of habit. There’s no reply. The only shoes in the entryway are Ryou’s—the beat-up black slides he uses when he takes out the trash.

“You live by yourself?” Jounouchi says. “Wow.”

“My dad got transferred,” Ryou says, setting Jounouchi’s bag of food down on the tatami. “All the way to Kobe.”

“I live with my dad,” Jounouchi says. He rubs at his cheek. “I wish I didn’t.”

“It’s only for another few months,” Ryou says. “Right?”

“Yeah,” Jounouchi says. “One more semester. If you can save me, that is.”

“I can save you,” Ryou says. He goes to his desk, and Jounouchi trails after him, unbuttoning his uniform jacket. 

There are a few unfinished models scattered across the work surface, starships and robots, spiraling outwards from Ryou’s model village.

“Wow,” Jounouchi says, peering at it. “Did you make this?”

Ryou scratches at his ear, embarrassed. “Uh, yeah.”

The village is made from cardboard and papier mache, painted to look like stone and mud-brick. It is populated with little wooden figurines of humans and animals. Their faces have been shaped with varying levels of skill, some almost grotesque in their deformity. Ryou keeps his earliest, worst attempts hidden in a drawer, unable, somehow, to throw them away.

“These, too?” Jounouchi says, plucking Wasret the potter from his little shop and raising him up to the light. His arm is monstrous above the miniature desert.

Ryou snatches Wasret back and returns him to his wares.

He looks up and sees Jounouchi staring at him, mouth open.

Ryou can feel himself turning red. He steers Jounouchi away from his work station. “Here—I have the new Killer Instinct.”

  

Jounouchi plays video games, reads, eats, and naps. Ryou carves, sands, and paints a new figurine, then gently nudges Jounouchi awake. It’s 8:35 p.m.

“I need some of your blood,” Ryou says.

“What?” Jounouchi says, drowsy. “That’s crazy.” But he holds his arm out, waiting obediently for Ryou to slice him up.

Instead, Ryou pricks the pad of Jounouchi’s index finger with a needle. Their hands shake together. Then, still shivering, Ryou presses the bead of blood to the figurine’s forehead. They watch as the blood sinks in. 

“Don’t you have to use a knife or something?” Jounouchi says, sucking on his finger. “And, like, cut open my palm? Isn’t that how this usually goes?”

“Only if you want to be dramatic,” Ryou says. He blows on his hands, stupidly, as though the cool air will calm them, stop their trembling. “I guess I could chant something. Do you want me to?”

“No,” Jounouchi says. “It’s okay.” He jerks a thumb at Ryou’s work station. “Why’d you make another one? Why didn’t you just use one of those?” 

“It doesn’t work that way,” Ryou says, embarrassed again. He’s never had to explain himself before. “It—I—I kind of have to be thinking of you. Of the person, I mean. From start to finish.”

“Oh,” Jounouchi says. He looks back at the model village. “So who were you thinking about when you made them?”

“Those are different,” Ryou lies. There’s no time to tell Jounouchi about the dreams—no reason to either. He yanks open the top drawer and rummages through it, disrupting pens, stickers, erasers, mutilated figures, unsent postcards. “Anyway, do you want a bandaid?” 

“Sure,” Jounouchi says.

Ryou hands him the entire tin. “They won’t be able to find you now,” he says. “Just stay here and be quiet. Don’t go outside until the sun rises.”

“Are you leaving?” Jounouchi says. “Where are you going?”

Ryou holds up the figurine. “I have to hide this in the playground, in the—the tunnel thing. Where you said you’d meet them. Otherwise there’s no point.” 

“Oh,” Jounouchi says. “Oh—uh—okay.”

He’s sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest, shoulders slumped. He looks small and frightened.

“You’ll be fine,” Ryou says. “Just remember: don’t go outside until morning. And don’t answer the door for anyone. If they say they’re me and want you to open the door, then they’re not me. Okay? Because I have a key.”

“Right,” Jounouchi says, wide-eyed again. “Okay. Bakura,” he calls, as Ryou is doing up his shoelaces. 

“Yeah?” 

“Thanks. I really mean it. I mean, I really owe you. I’ll never…” He trails off.

“See you later,” Ryou says.

 

“A trade,” Ryou says. “My soul for his."

“Go home,” Mai says. “One.”

“I can’t,” Ryou says. “The last train has gone.”

“He may be your lover,” Mai says, “but he isn’t worth it. Two.”

“He’s not,” Ryou says. “He’s not even a friend.”

“This is your last chance,” Mai says. Her voice is changing, filling the air. She’s as tall as the bridge, now, and the ogre Keith is even taller, blotting out the stars. “Turn around. Go home. Three.”

Ryou breathes in. “Take my soul in place of his.”

It is done,” Mai says, and her voice rattles the lanterns, flattens the grass. 

The attendants move as one, spearing their lanterns into the mud. They seize Ryou with their wet hands and drag him onto the dais.

“What’s going on?” Ryou says. “Wait! Wait, what are you—”

The ogre cuts his throat, slicing so deeply that Ryou’s head flops to one side. He staggers and falls. The river fills his eyes, his ears, his nose. It chokes his gaping mouth and the grinning new mouth below his jaw.

As Ryou sinks down, he sees something silvery and gleaming bleeding from the wound.

Moonlight, he thinks. It must be moonlight.

 

Chapter Text

The river in Ryou’s dream is green and sparkling. He thinks that if he looks closely enough, gets close enough, he’ll be able to see fish swimming in its depths—maybe even get to touch them. But his mother is holding his hand, and she won’t let him run to the water’s edge. The sun is hot on his face, but his mother’s fingers are cool and gossamer-soft against his palm. 

“When I’m bigger, I’ll do whatever I want,” Ryou says.

“Then I hope you never get bigger,” his mother says, squeezing his hand. “I hope you stay just as you are and always listen to your mother.”

 

There are voices around him—tight, angry voices. He hears the crackle of plastic. 

“I’ve only ever heard of this happening in fairy stories,” Mai says. “I don’t like this, Keith. There’s something wrong.”

“Give it a rest,” Keith says. “You wanted a soul, you got a soul. I don’t see a problem.”

Mai makes a growling sound. “Shaitan, it’s not—”

Ryou opens his eyes.

Three lanterns bob ahead on the path, held by Keith’s gliding attendants. Keith walks behind them, swinging his bag of beer in one hand. His other hand holds a red lead, a rope. The other end of the rope is tied around Ryou’s wrists, and Ryou is walking, too, has been walking ever since they fished him from the other side of the river. One bare foot in front of another.

Mai floats alongside, talons trailing off the ground. Her wings propel her forward with quick, irritated beats.

“Oh,” she says, noticing Ryou’s stare.

“That was horrible,” Ryou says. Surprised by the smoothness of his voice, he reaches up with his bound hands and feels at his neck. There’s nothing there but damp skin—no blood, not even a scar. 

Mai watches him, silent, frowning.

“What were you expecting?” she says finally. “A contract signed in blood? A chasm opening in the ground? The devil himself in a fiery chariot? This isn’t Faust.” 

“Oh.” 

“Amateurs,” Mai sighs. “You work a little magic and think you have the whole system figured out. And look where you are now.” 

“So am I dead?” Ryou asks.

“More or less.”

“Where’s my body?”

Mai hesitates. “In the river,” she says.

“Oh,” he says again. “Why are you answering all my questions?”

“Because I’m such a sweetheart,” Mai says. “You got anything else for me?”

“I’ll let you know if I do, I guess.”

 

“Hey, kid. You have any witch blood in you?”

“No, why?”

“Just curious. Your hair’s a funny color.”

“It’s been like this since I was born.”

“You’re taking this awfully well.” 

“I guess it’s shock.”

“You’re a cool customer.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s shock. I don’t feel anything. I feel like I’m falling asleep.”

“Maybe you should do that. Your feet will keep on walking, you know.”

“I know.”

 

When Ryou opens his eyes again, he sees a red glow on the horizon. “Is it morning already?” he asks, and thinks of Jounouchi, probably still crouched by the video game console, watching the door, wondering where Ryou has gone.

“No,” Mai says, reverently, “it’s Dahlia. The unfurling city. The devil’s star."

“Uh,” Ryou says.

She scowls at him. “You have no idea what you’re doing, huh?” she says. “That thing with the doll, that was just a fluke, after all? You don’t know what any of this is. You don’t even know where we’re taking you.”

“To, er, the devil?” Ryou says. “To punish me for my sins?” 

“Oh, Belial,” she says, looking earthward. “No.”

“Where, then?”

“A soup-pot, in all likelihood,” Mai says.

Ryou tries to stop his feet, but he can’t. He feels as though he is digging his heels into the dirt with all the strength in his body, but his feet trudge inexorably onward. Toward the devil’s star and its soup-pots.

“What?” he says. “No, I’m sorry—what?”

She looks toward the horizon. “Well, maybe not,” she concedes. “They might filet you, or drink you down in a single swallow. Dahlians have strange tastes. Unnatural, even. But they pay good coin.” 

“You—” 

“Some people fish for souls,” she says. “You might say we’re farmers. Harvesters.”

“The pigs who snuffle for truffles,” Keith calls over his shoulder. “Dragging our bellies in the mundane mud.” 

“Speak for yourself, you louse,” Mai replies.

“Oh, so I’m a louse now?”

“I don’t understand,” Ryou says, breaking through their squabbling. “You promised Jounouchi a miracle. And for what? For ingredients? Is that what we are to you?”

“A miracle is nothing,” Mai says, “compared to the power of a human soul. A trifle.”

“A truffle,” Keith repeats. 

“Why don’t you eat me yourself?”

“I don’t have the stomach for it,” Mai says. “It’s an acquired taste. I told you, it’s unnatural.”

“You’ve got claws for feet,” Ryou points out.

“So? You’re the one who—” She breaks off.

“What?” Ryou wants to know.

“Never mind,” Mai says. “Forget it. I washed my hands of it. I washed my hands clean in the river.”

 

They come to the city walls, built from sand and clay heaped impossibly high. Ryou stares, open-mouthed. It’s like something out of a video game, a movie. A dream.

“This is nothing,” Mai says. “These are the old walls. They built them long ago, in days when there was no word for magic.” 

“And now?” Ryou says.

One by one, the attendants extinguish their lanterns; there’s no need for them anymore, against the harsh red glare emanating from behind the walls. Ryou looks up, following Mai’s pointing finger, and sees the wide arches and narrow spires, towers and buttresses, creations of pure light and heat, curling flower-like into the sky. 

Oh,” he breathes. 

“Well,” Mai says. “Society advances.”

“Yeah, and I’d like to advance toward my pay, so can we get a move on?” Keith says.

“Fuck off,” Mai says. “We’re having a moment.” 

Keith laughs. “I guess I will,” he says. “I need a drink. Long night. Long night.” He tosses the lead to Mai. “So long, soupy,” he calls. “Boil, boil, trouble, toil, and so on.” 

The attendants trail after him, leaving puddles in their wake.

“Do they work with you?” Ryou asks. “Are they harvesters too?”

“What, Bonz and company?” Mai says. “No, they’re Keith’s. They go wherever he goes.”

“Souls?”

“Parasites,” she says, making a face. “Shaitan knows where he picked them up.”

“The riverbank,” Ryou says, thinking about their glistening webbed skin and the muddy color of their clothes.

“Well, let’s go,” Mai says. She bounces the lead in her palm. 

 

“I’d really rather not be eaten,” Ryou says, as he follows Mai through the spiraling, spiderweb streets, past homes and hovels. There are—not people—things—on the cobbles, veiled, shadowy. Their features blur into a miasma around him. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t get his eyes to focus.

“Kid, I’m going to sell you to the highest bidder, and they can mount you on the wall for all I care,” Mai says.

“I’m sorry about the figurine,” Ryou tries. “I know it must have been upsetting.”

“This isn’t personal,” Mai says. “I mean, yeah, it cheesed me off, but that’s all in the past.” 

“Don’t you like me?” Ryou says. “We get along, don’t we?”

“Sure,” Mai says. She pauses. “You want to know why I answered your questions?” 

“You already told me,” Ryou says. “It’s because you’re a sweetheart.”

Mai half smiles. “Yeah, okay,” she says. “No, it’s because you’re the first soul I’ve brought back that’s ever asked. You’re the first one that’s ever said a single blessed word, actually.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” she says. “Let me try to put it in a way you’d understand. It’s like if you brought home a goldfish from the summer festival, and out of nowhere, it starts talking to you, asking you questions. Wouldn’t you try to answer it to the best of your ability?”

“We don’t eat goldfish,” Ryou says.

“You’re missing the point,” Mai says. She sighs, shakes her head. “Talking to you right now, stone cold sober, it’s—surreal. It’s like a jar of pickled plums just came alive in my hand.”

Ryou thinks back to the girl on the train. Would his fate have been worse if he had just looked up into the pits of her eyes, into the ruin of her face, and told her Futomi Station was bombed out and gone? Paved over and forgotten? 

Creatures on this side of the world are ready to liquefy him, stick straws in him, suck the marrow from his bones.

“Run away,” Ryou says. “That’s what I’d do.”

“Well, you didn’t,” Mai says. “That’s why you’re here, Umeboshi-san.”

 

Chapter Text

Inside a store called Peahen’s Emporium, Mai makes him climb into a glass jar, just tall enough and wide enough that he can sit, cross-legged, without touching the sides. He touches the sides anyway, pressing his palms against the glass, which feels lumpy and cold against his skin.

“What if I run out of air?” he asks. “What if I have to go to the bathroom?”

She looks at him oddly. “You won’t,” she says. She jams down the lid, which is a huge stopper made of something resembling cork.

“Oh, right,” Ryou says. “Because I’m dead.”

“Yeah, let’s go with that,” she says, muffled now on the other side of the glass. “Listen, I’m going to give you some advice.”

“Okay?” Ryou says.

“Maybe stop talking for a while,” she says. “I can see you like to ask questions—” 

“It’s all very interesting to me.”

“Sure. But try not to,” Mai says. “It’s off-putting.”

“Are you saying no one will want to eat me?” Ryou says. He’s never been particularly talkative, but if talking is what will keep him out of the metaphorical and literal soup, then he’s ready to sing like a bird. 

“I’m saying they’ll probably dissect you first,” Mai says. “To see what makes you tick. And it won’t be pleasant. Oh, hell, what am I doing? I’m talking to a soul.”

“Thank you,” Ryou says. “For the advice, I mean.” 

“Don’t mention it,” Mai says. “I mean it. Don’t mention it. To anyone. Goodbye.”

“Where are you going?” Ryou calls, but she doesn’t reply. He hears her locking the store up behind her, murmuring over the locks to secure them, and then he is alone, the largest specimen in her cabinet of curiosities.

 

“There’s nothing to do but talk to myself,” Ryou says, after a while. The silence inside the jar has grown so loud that it’s pressing in on him, hurting his ears. The sound of his voice makes the empty air shiver, dispels the roar.

He beats his fists against the jar; he kicks at it with both feet. The glass reverberates around him like a drum. 

“Ugh,” he says. He sinks down onto his elbows, propping his feet up on the glass. “Well, Ryou, this is a fine pickle you find yourself in. And you will soon be a pickle. The finest pickle of them all.”

The silence is terrible. He wants to fill it with babbling. If he doesn’t—

If he doesn’t, he’ll feel it again. The pull in his guts, or whatever’s left of his guts, as tight and painful as a hand wringing his intestines. The thing that’s making him want to mash his face against the glass and scream, and claw at the stopper, and tear himself open to be free.

“Mai,” he calls. “Mai!”

There is no reply. 

Ryou tries to sing himself a song. He tries to think about the last book he read, mice in the woods—about the last game he played, collecting dragons to storm a castle. It’s all too far away to keep hold of. And then he starts to rock back and forth, picking at his sodden jeans, unraveling the ends of his sweater. He digs his nails into his skin, but it refuses to break, and the thing inside can’t get out get out get out.

 

This is what you wanted to show me?” 

Another woman, a cool dark presence, hair falling over her bare brown shoulders like a black curtain. She peers intently into the jar and her three eyes are blue and gold.

“I don’t understand,” Mai says. “He—it—it was fine when we brought it in. Better than fine. It was beautiful.”

“I can’t accept this, Kujaku,” the woman says. “This isn’t at all up to your usual standard.”

“I—” Mai sounds like she wants to protest. Then she sighs. “My sincerest apologies.”

 

Angry voices again, one slurring, the other sharp.

“You took it out? Oh, Shaitan, you put it on the floor! I’m not cleaning this.”

“What the hell was I supposed to do? Look at him, for Belial’s sake. I knew it. I knew something was wrong.”

“Just toss it,” Keith says.

“But—”

“It’s worth nothing like this. It’s rotten. It stinks. I saw her—I saw your prissy little lady hurrying out of here with her nose all wrinkled up. We’ll be lucky if she comes to us again.” 

“I just—I don’t understand what happened.”

“Souls are finicky,” Keith says. “End of story. We’ll write it off.”

“You’re always so fucking quick to write it off—” 

“Are you blind? Just look at it!”

“Okay. Shit. Okay.” 

 

“I shouldn’t have compared you to a goldfish,” Mai says, as she tips Ryou out onto the street. “It was unlucky.”

She goes back inside and doesn’t come out again.  

The cobbles are hot under his hands. The air smells rancid. Ryou crawls.

 

A red curtain. His fingers grasp at it and pull, and then the curtain parts, and Ryou looks up and finds himself staring into his own face. He sees himself, a disembodied head above a pool of blood, floating beside a diminutive brown-haired woman.

“Shaitan below,” his mouth says. “What—”

“Gutterghoul,” the woman beside him says, thin and high and girlish. “Must be. Kick it, Master, and let’s be on our way.”

“No, wait,” Ryou says, or rather, the man with Ryou’s face says, and he squats down and takes Ryou’s chin between his fingers.

“Out out out,” Ryou says, and, “Don’t eat me.”

“Eat you?” the man says. “I’m not the slightest bit tempted. What, pray tell, are you?”

“Edible,” Ryou says stupidly. He’s burning up all over. “Please—”

“Mana,” the man says. “What is this?” 

“Not worth your time, whatever it is,” the woman says.

“And yet,” the man says, and trails off as Ryou seizes his wrist. Ryou hears the click in his throat as he swallows. “Go on without me, Mana. I find myself entangled.”

“Do you require rescue?” she asks, coolly.

“Go,” he whispers, and she makes a rude, abrupt gesture with her hands and vanishes.

“I’m soup,” Ryou says. 

“You’re delirious,” the man says. He’s stroking Ryou’s face for some reason, and his hands are cool and perfect on Ryou’s skin. “You’re—shit!” 

Ryou tears at him, at the curtain, pushing it aside, gasping with urgency. It’s not a curtain at all, or a pool of blood, but a cloak of soft, heavy crimson fabric, and he wants it gone. There’s a man behind the cloth, a bare chest under Ryou’s hands, a beating heart that he needs.

“Fuck,” the man mutters, “shit,” and he pulls something from his belt, a little ceramic jar.

“Shh,” Ryou says. There’s blood seeping between his fingers now, collecting under his nails. The man is rigid and swearing beneath him, scrabbling at the cobbles, and that won’t do at all. “Shh, shh…”

“Pot of greed!” the man shouts, and the jar starts to grow and grow and grow, the ceramic eyes coming alive, the lid splitting into a gaping, thick-lipped grinning mouth—

Ryou screams. 

The mouth snaps shut, locking him in darkness.

 

Chapter Text

Jounouchi Katsuya opens his eyes in someone else’s bed, nudged awake by the noise of footsteps overhead. He lies there and stares at the bowing white ceiling, slack-mouthed. He fell asleep on top of the sheets, still in his uniform, now hopelessly rumpled. Soft gray light is sloping in through the window. Slowly, he notices the rain.

He sits up. “Bakura?” he calls, but no one answers. 

The alarm clock on the nightstand reads 11:42 a.m. Bakura must be in class. He’s a good student, after all.

A good person, Jounouchi amends, smiling as he imagines Bakura creeping around his own apartment like a ghost, gathering his books and schoolbag as quietly as possible, while Jounouchi snores in his bed.

11:43. It looks like Jounouchi is skipping today.

On his way to the door, feeling mischievous, Jounouchi swipes one of the little figures from the center of Bakura’s weird cardboard desert. He remembers the look on Bakura’s face, the wide eyes and scalded blush, and grins to himself. He’ll catch up with Bakura later.

 

Jounouchi goes home to get a change of clothes and check on Shizuka. The apartment is silent and dark, curtains drawn; his dad’s gone, which is great. The fridge is still empty—not so great. Jounouchi side-steps the empty bottles on the floor.

His mom usually ignores his dad’s number and only calls back if Jounouchi leaves a voicemail, but today she picks up on the second ring.

“What do you want, Toshiyuki?” she says sharply. Then: “Katsuya? Why aren’t you in school? Are you sick?” 

Jounouchi coughs into the receiver. “Uh, yeah, I caught a cold from Honda,” he says. “Got a fever. Hi, Mom.”

“Where’s your father? He shouldn’t leave you by yourself if you’re not feeling well.”

“Mom, I’m fine. Dad had to go to work. Can I talk to Shizuka?” 

“Don’t try to cover for him. Work? Work? I know he’s playing pachinko, pouring your rent money down the—Shizuka? Shizuka isn’t here, sweetie.”

His heart drops. “Where is she?”

“School, silly,” his mom says. “Where else would she be? Did you say you’re running a fever? How many degrees? Why aren’t you lying down? Really, that Toshiyuki. He can’t call himself a man, let alone a father. Hello? Katsuya?” 

There’s a lightness in his chest, an incredible warmth. The phone presses into his cheek as he grins.

“I’m here, Mom,” he says. “You’re right, I should go lie down. Tell Shizuka I said hi.”

“Make yourself some soup if you can,” his mother says. “With lots of spring onions. Okay?”

 

The rain lightens into a drizzle. Jounouchi buys himself a gyudon lunch set and goes to the arcade. He tries his luck with the girl who keeps an eye on the claw machines, but she won’t give him her email address or even tell him what the A. on her nametag stands for. She just laughs and shakes her head. For a moment Jounouchi hates her, hates the condescending smile on her face. She’s a university student, sure, but she’s not that much older than he is. She’s not even twenty.

“I had a near-death experience yesterday,” Jounouchi tells her, trying a new tactic. “It really puts everything in perspective, you know? You kind of realize what’s important.”

“Oh, yeah? So did you promise God that you would study harder for your high school entrance exams if he let you live?” she teases.

“Aw, forget it,” Jounouchi says. He smacks the joystick, watching as the claw goes haywire, and stalks off.

 

He’s not in the best mood as he waits by the school gates, arms folded and scowling. Stupid claw girl, stupid university. Part-timers scurry past him, throwing him anxious looks from under their umbrellas. Eventually, Domino clock tower sounds 5:00 p.m., and the school chimes echo the call, signaling the end of club activities. Students start pouring from the building. But there’s no sign of Bakura.

“Jounouchi!” Honda leaps down over the school wall and slaps him hard on the back. He’s still wearing his rugby gear, carrying his uniform jacket folded over one tanned arm; he smells like grass and sweat and rain and Jounouchi takes a long deep drag of it before he catches himself. “What the hell, man, you didn’t tell me we were skipping today.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Jounouchi says. “Did you see Bakura? I need to talk to him.”

“Who?” Honda says.

“Bakura,” Jounouchi says. “You know, the freak.”

“Uh, okay,” Honda says, laughing. “You’re the only freak I know, freak.”

“Fuck you,” Jounouchi says. He wants to laugh too, but a faint thread of uneasiness has needled its way deep into his guts, tangling them together, and he can’t. He can’t even smile. “Bakura,” he says. “The kid with the white hair, the one who transferred in when we were in middle school, the one who can see ghosts! We threw his books in the incinerator that one time. He turned Nosaka down and made her cry, so we—”

“Micchan?” Honda squints at him. “She’s never cried over anyone. Are you sure you’re not the one who’s been seeing ghosts? Like, a ghost named Bakura?”

“Come with me,” Jounouchi says, grabbing Honda’s arm. “I’ll show you, god damn it.” He drags Honda, sniggering and protesting, back through the school gates.

 

“Bakura Ryou,” Jounouchi says, jabbing at locker 29. “See? It’s written right there, as plain as—”

He stops dead. The locker reads Honda Hiroto.

“Holy shit,” he says. He looks wildly at the surrounding lockers. Bandai, Hayakawa, Hayashi, Horie. “Holy—shit.”

“Okay,” Honda says. “Seriously, man, I’m starting to worry about you. Oi! Hey!

He can hear Honda cursing him as he runs to their homeroom. Maybe Bakura is dawdling; maybe he fell asleep after the last chime and the students on cleaning duty were too nice to wake him up.

He bursts in. The floor is freshly swept, the chalkboards just washed. A warm, damp breeze is blowing through the open window, carrying the smell of rain.

Bakura’s desk is there, but there’s no sign of Bakura.

He jams a hand deep into his pocket. The doll is still there, and as his skin drags across its rough wooden surface, Jounouchi remembers the prick of the pin, Bakura’s stupid bandaids. They were so girly in their polka-dot tin, colorful little strips in pink and green and baby blue. He was going to tease Bakura about them.

He raises his trembling right hand to the light.

The blue bandaid is gone. That’s fine, he thinks; it probably fell off while he was sleeping. But then he sees the pad of his index finger, the whorl smooth and undisturbed. There’s no scab, no mark, no soreness.

Jounouchi screams, actually screams, and sprints for the roof, taking the stairs two at a time. He kicks the door open.

A lone crow scolds him as it flies off, scattering droplets. The rooftop is deserted.

“What the fuck,” Honda says, sticking his head through the door. He staggers up beside Jounouchi and folds forward over his legs, wheezing. “C’mon, this is mean. You might be energetic from lazing around all day, but I had to do P.E. and club practice, and my legs are killing—Jounouchi?”

“Something really bad happened last night,” Jounouchi blurts.

Honda stops grinning. “Your dad?” he says.

“I gotta—I have to go,” Jounouchi says.

“Hey!” Honda catches him by the elbow. “Is it Hirutani again? You can tell me,” he says, low.

“I can’t, I really can’t,” Jounouchi says, “I’m sorry,” all in a rush, and then he jerks free and runs back inside. Honda doesn’t follow him this time.

 

He can’t find his way back to Bakura’s apartment. He knows it’s somewhere near the convenience store, but he keeps going in circles and winding up exactly where he began, on the same corner, under the same tree, getting dripped on by rainwater. He stands there, fists clenched, and yells Bakura’s name until someone sticks their head out the window and shouts that they’re going to call the police. 

So Jounouchi goes to the playground, to the tunnel, where he told the demon he’d be waiting, where Bakura said he was going last night, before he disappeared. He doesn’t know what else to do.

It’s dusk by the time he gets there; the park is closed, technically, though that’s never stopped anyone before. Jounouchi hops the gate and hurries in. A group of teenagers are cutting across the grass, laughing; a salaryman creaks back and forth on the swingset, his briefcase balanced across his knees.

The tunnel doesn’t go anywhere—it’s an old concrete pipe, a remnant of some past construction project. He and Honda used to play in it when they were small enough to fit, chasing each other around and around in circles while Shizuka cried because she wasn’t healthy enough to join in. Now, they mostly perch on top of the concrete and smoke menthols, and grind out the butts at the mouth of the tunnel.

“Bakura,” he says, pleading, but there’s no reply.

 

Chapter Text

He can’t move. His body is splayed out against a solid, vertical surface, spread-eagled, arms and ankles held fast. There is a disconcerting breeze sifting between his legs, almost as though—

Opening his eyes takes effort; they feel heavy, sticky. A girl sits cross-legged on the floor in front of him, making notches on a clay slab with a wedge-shaped tool. She has her back to a towering, multi-paned window, and the light is pink on her dark brown hair. 

She doesn’t look up, but her hand stills over the clay as though she hears the pop of his eyelids coming unstuck. 

“Master,” she calls.

“Yes, poppet?” floats a voice from another room, and Ryou squeezes his eyes shut again and shivers all over.

“He’s awake,” the girl says. Pause. “I think.” 

Much closer now, the voice says, “Good,” and Ryou makes himself look.

The man’s face is in shadow, his eyes so dark Ryou can’t tell their color. His hair is brilliantly white against the crimson of his robes, which fall open to the waist, revealing a marred circle of black marks on his skin—a ring of scabs in the shape of half-moons, as though someone has tried to push their fingernails straight through his chest. As he comes closer, each step musical with the sound of singing metal, the shimmering pink light glances off a bone-white cluster of scars down his right cheek. 

“Hello,” the man says, and the girl on the floor laughs hysterically.

That’s what you’re going to say?” she says, subsiding into hiccuping giggles. “ ‘Hello’? After what he tried to do to you?” 

“Well, what do you suggest?” the man says mildly. “‘Meow’?”

The girl sets the clay slab aside, slowly and deliberately, and cracks her knuckles—and something yanks Ryou’s head back, back, back, until he’s staring up into a ceiling so high its beams and rafters disappear into darkness, until his neck is straining and he cries out despite himself, the breath dragged from his throat. 

“That’s what I suggest,” she says.

“Enough,” the man says, still mildly. There’s another crack! and Ryou’s head rockets forward like a rubber band snapping. “Shaitan, you’ll break his neck.”

“Where are my clothes?” Ryou rasps, voice squeaking higher and higher. “Why am I—why did you—what did you do with my clothes?”

“I burned them,” the man says. “They were soiled. Oh,” he says, suddenly intent, “you’re blushing.”

Ryou’s eyes prickle, and his throat tightens; he feels so spread out and exposed and sick

“Can you, I mean, um, can I have something, to cover—”

“Chain energy,” the man murmurs, sweeping off his red robe, and Ryou tumbles into it as the restraints on his limbs hiss and evaporate.

“Master!” the girl shouts, leaping upright with her fingers taut.

“You’re so blessed jumpy,” the man says. “Go sit outside.”

“He’s dangerous!”

“So am I,” the man says. “Mana. Get out.”

 

The robe is too long; it pools around Ryou’s feet, unbearably heavy and soft, and Ryou tugs it tighter, folding one flap over the other like a kimono. He crouches down, tucking his chin to his chest.

The man crouches down with him, and Ryou feels a pang of familiarity. They’ve been here before, though he can’t remember when.

“Thank you for, uh,” Ryou says. He pulls the robe up to his eyes.

“Don’t mind Mana,” the man says. He smiles, and the light glimmers on the points of his teeth. “She’s only upset because she thinks you’re going to rip my heart out.”

“Um,” Ryou says, through the robe.

“I wouldn’t advise it—the heart-ripping,” the man says. “If that is what you’re planning.”

“Who—what are you?” Ryou asks, hushed. “Are you—a wizard?”

The sharp smile widens. “Close enough. I’m the dark magician. And what are you, if not a gutterghoul?”

“What’s a gutterghoul?” Ryou says. But the man doesn’t explain; he just waits, patiently, eyes fixed on Ryou’s face. Ryou gulps. “I’m Ryou,” he says. “I’m human.”

“You might have been, once upon a time,” the magician says, cocking his head to one side as he looks Ryou over. “I hate to disillusion you,” he continues, sounding almost gleeful about it, “but you certainly aren’t human now. Tell me—how long have you been wandering on this side of the world?”

Unthinking, Ryou starts to draw the cloak back from his left wrist, so that he can check his watch.

“Chain energy!” the magician bites out, and Ryou’s arms slam down and seem to cement themselves to the ground, dragging him forward onto his stomach. His cheek hits the floor, rattling his teeth.

“Ow—”

“I said I wouldn’t advise it,” the magician says.

“What?” The robe has fallen over Ryou’s head, and his backside is exposed again. He flails around, trying to unstick his hands. “No, I just wanted to—my watch—you asked how long!” he finishes, almost a whine. “You asked! Let me up, please. Please.” He kicks his heels. “Ssshit!” The expletive whistles through his teeth.

“How long?” the magician says, calmly.

“I don’t know,” Ryou says, yelling now. “A day—twelve hours. I don’t know! It was after midnight. Sometime after midnight! Let me up!”

“What—midnight? Midnight today?” the magician says. “How?”

Panting, Ryou turns his head and glares. “I’ll tell you if you let me up,” he says.

“I can make you talk,” the magician says, after a silence, but he relents; he whispers under his breath, and then Ryou sits up, yanking the robe back down over his legs. “Happy?”

“Please don’t do that again,” Ryou says. He rubs his wrists.

“I’ll do as I please,” the magician says. “Now, reveal all. How did you come to be here?”

“I took the train,” Ryou says.

“The what,” the magician says, flat.

“The train—the ghost train,” Ryou insists. “You know. You get on at midnight—it’s always midnight, no matter where you start—and it takes you into the mountains…”

The magician looks at him blankly, and Ryou hurries on. He tells the magician about the field, the ogre under the bridge, the woman who came streaking out of the sky like a winged comet, the drowned men with their lanterns. And the river—

“I saw the moon on the water,” Ryou says, remembering it, hearing the sound of the wind in the grass. His hands still in his lap, right hand encircling the left. That’s right: his watch is gone. “No—the moon was in the water.”

“Don’t speak in riddles,” the magician says. He’s frowning. The mass of scars pulls at his cheek, distorting his features.

“They cut my throat,” Ryou says. He traces the path of the ogre’s knife. “They took my soul. They threw my body into the river.”

The magician makes a sharp, angry noise, a hiss between his teeth. He reaches out—

“What are you—”

There are cobwebs high up in the rafters, rosy in the growing light. The magician pushes Ryou’s head back and tilts it from side to side. His hands are warm against Ryou’s skin.

“There’s not a scratch on you,” the magician says finally. “You’re mad. Or lying. Or both.”

It’s hard to sound righteous with his head at this angle, but Ryou makes an effort. He grates out, “I’m telling you the truth! I’m a soul, a human soul!”

“You smell nothing like one,” the magician says. Ryou can’t see the expression on his face, but he sounds thoughtful. “And you don’t look very appetizing. In fact, you look as though you may be poisonous…

“Oh, well,” the magician sighs, and leans forward.

 

Chapter Text

For a moment, Ryou thinks the magician is pressing his fingers against Ryou’s lips. Then he realizes the magician’s hand is tangling through his hair, cupping the back of his head; he gasps, and their teeth clatter together, and the magician laughs and draws him closer.

It’s his first kiss, and it’s horrible, Ryou thinks. And—

Sweet, somehow.

And then he can’t think at all. His body feels hot; he grabs at the magician’s forearms, trying to steady himself. The magician swears—and swears again. He sounds panicked now, but Ryou can’t understand why. Everything is exactly the way it should be.

Crack! Crack!

Ryou opens his eyes and finds himself flat on his back on the far side of the room.

The magician is slumped against the wall, breathing hard; the girl is kneeling beside him. As Ryou watches, disbelieving, she rears up and slaps the magician across the face.

“Damn you!” she shouts, and “How could you? How could you be so reckless—” and “Haven’t we lost enough,” and starts to cry.

But the magician doesn’t respond. He gets to his feet and wobbles into the next room without another word, leaving Ryou and the girl together by the window.

It’s full morning now, the pink glow of dawn giving way to clear blue light. The air is warm and sandy. The city unfurls below them, turning its face to the sun.

The murderous anger has gone out of the girl. She slumps against the windowsill, red-eyed and red-faced, wiping half-heartedly at the tears on her cheeks and sniffling. Ryou would offer her a handkerchief if he had one, but all he has is a corner of the magician’s robe, and he’s not sure it’s his to give. He hovers beside her.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “Are you—”

She hiccups and turns away.

“Here we are,” the magician says. He is no longer wobbling; his muscular legs move with purpose, kicking up clouds of sparkling dust from the floor. As the dust thins and vanishes, the magician shows Ryou what he is holding: a kirtle, the kind Ryou has seen knights and squires wearing in his crusader games, made from some dark shimmering cloth. Its color is strange, oily, ever-shifting. Instead of a crusader’s cross, there is an eye embroidered across the breast and mirrored on the back. Both eyes are circled by a ring of gold and spangled with five dangling golden points.

“Oh,” Ryou says. “For me?” He plucks at the embroidery and feels the eye growing hot under his fingertips. Warmed by the sun, no doubt.

“That is the ring,” the magician says. “The emblem of the dark magicians of Dahlia. Will you accept it?”

Ryou nods.

The magician drops the kirtle over Ryou’s head and guides his arms through its sleeves. An odd sensation washes over him as the kirtle settles: the echo of a distant bell. He tastes something sweet and metallic at the back of his tongue.

His eyes refocus. The magician is watching him closely, almost hungrily.

Ryou gulps. The magician is at least a head taller than Ryou, large and broad. His hair is gleaming silver, not white, and it is coarse and wild; his arms are thick and muscled and brown. Beside him, ghost-pale and made paler still by the dark color of his new clothing, Ryou feels as insubstantial as a moonbeam. 

“Not bad,” the magician says, slow and soft. “My old costume fits you tolerably well. Yes,” he says, reacting to the surprise on Mana’s face, “this was mine, in days gone by.”

Mana starts to reach toward a fold of the cloth with a dazed expression; then she seems to remember or notice that the kirtle is on Ryou’s body, touching his skin, and stops herself with a jolt, her face pinched. 

“So you’re keeping him,” she says, as though Ryou isn’t standing right there between them. “Even though—”

“I’m not going to keep him,” the magician says. “You are.” 

She recoils. “What?” she says. “I don’t want him. I don’t need him. I don’t need help to keep this castle. The scrubbing, the dusting, the gutting—” her gaze darkens momentarily “—I’ll do it, all of it. Unless you’re not satisfied with—”

“I’m satisfied,” the magician says quickly. Ryou might be imagining it, but he seems slightly exasperated.

She’s scowling now. “Then why?” she demands.

“It’s time you had a pupil of your own,” the magician says. “Someday, perhaps sooner than either you or I would like, you’ll hold the staff. You’ll do the teaching. Why not get a little practice now, while I’m still around to supervise?”

“But he’s a ghoul,” Mana says, strident.

“Are you so certain of that?” the magician says. “We can’t all have scions of noble houses for our apprentices,” he adds, pointedly, and Mana’s cheeks redden. “I bestow him upon you, Mana. Consider it the next part of your education.”

“Fine,” she says. “Then I accept him, as I do all your mad schemes. Master.”

She stalks off into the next room. She doesn’t touch the door, which bangs shut behind her anyway.

“My robe, if you please,” the magician says to Ryou.

“Oh—oh, right, sorry, thank you,” Ryou says, jumbled.

The magician shrugs the robe back over his massive shoulders and draws the hood over his head, pulling it down until only his mouth is visible. The mouth parts into a wolf’s smile. “Study hard,” it says. Then mouth, robe, and magician flicker and vanish, leaving Ryou alone in the tower.

Ryou stares a moment at the space left behind, breathing rabbit-fast; then he turns toward the closed door.

 

There is no knob, but as Ryou reaches tentatively toward the door’s seams, it flies open, almost smacking him in the face. The same many-paned windows spiral around the room beyond, almost to the high ceiling, drawing in huge amounts of heat and light. The pentagonal space is bisected by a long red Persian carpet, woven with a pattern of leaves and flowers, and at the very center of it all, Mana is waiting for him, feet planted, arms folded. Her face is wiped blank of any expression, which is somehow worse than the scowl Ryou had been expecting. 

Again, even though Mana remains stock still, almost frozen, the huge windows blast open at the hinges, exposing the room to the sandy air beyond. The world roars, and a flock of unbelievably large, leathery birds—dragons?—erupts into the sky, bellowing in alarm.

Ryou, who ducks at the first enormous noise and falls to the ground at the second, begins to realize that he has not been blown apart and that no monsters have alighted inside the tower to attack them. Slowly, he uncovers his head and straightens up.

Mana’s blank facade has cracked, just a bit, at one corner of her mouth. A breeze filters in from the bronzed sky, stirring her rough brown hair.

“Are you frightened?” she says. “You should be.”

It’s not the most auspicious start to a lesson. Ryou tiptoes just a little bit closer, torn between curiosity and abject terror. He keeps an eye on all available handholds in the room, just in case Mana decides to blast him out the window next.

Self-preservation is a strange instinct to have after death, he reflects. Oh, well.

Mana sits down, cross-legged again, and regards him coolly with her hands palms-down on her knees. 

“Well, go on,” she says regally. “Show me what you can do.”

“Er, excuse me?” Ryou says. He stands uncertain and awkward in front of her, not sure where to put his hands. The kirtle has no pockets. 

“Your magic,” Mana says, insistent. “What form does it take? Or,” she says next, with a sarcastic smile, “do you simply prey on the magic of others?” 

Ryou settles for wringing the hem of the kirtle. “I don’t know,” he says. 

“How can you not know?” she says. Without warning, she pulls a glowing orb, seemingly out of thin air, and hurls it straight at Ryou’s nose. He yelps and raises both forearms to block it.

It rolls to a stop at his feet: a bruised yellow apple. 

“Shaitan,” Mana says, staring at him. “Where are your reflexes?”

“What’s Shaitan?” Ryou asks. “Is it a spell?” 

Her eyes are going to pop out of her head in another moment. “What do you mean, what—” She’s beginning to splutter. “A spell? Shaitan is the king, you—you treasonous, blaspheming idiot!”

A gleaming black tablet falls out of the air next, striking Ryou on the shoulder before hitting the carpet.

He picks it up. The tablet is cool and heavy in his hands, chipped from some kind of glossy dark stone. Its surface is textured, decorated with a chaotic pattern of angular indentations and dots.

“What is it?” he asks Mana.

“The king-list, you dolt!” she says. “Read it!”

“I can’t,” Ryou says. He turns the tablet upside-down—or maybe right-side-up—and then tilts it sideways. The markings glisten, but they do not become any clearer. “Which way does it go?”

“You can’t read?” Mana says. Her hands go into her hair, clutching and tugging. “Oh, Shaitan! Oh, Master! How can I teach someone who can’t read?” 

Before Ryou can answer, she snatches the tablet from him and jabs at the first line. “Shaitan,” she says, tracing her fingernail over the indentations. “First King, Creator, ruler over all, even the unknown realms. Belial, Moloch, Mammon, Beelzebub: the Four Kings. Lucifer the Fair. Alal the First, Alal the Second, Botis the Fiery, Baal the Wicked, Iblis the Fanged, Valefar Nine-Dragon, Focalor the Halfling—”

“You’re going too fast,” Ryou says.

She ignores him. “Mara of the Nile,” she says. “Murmur the Uncanny. Malphas death of Murmur. Malaphar son of Malphas. Adramelech the Short-Lived. Ninurta the Conqueror. Dajjal the Southlander. Tamiel the Unfortunate. Djed Blood-Spike.”

The tablet is changing: the markings ripple and shimmer as Mana reads, shifting into new configurations, new names and titles, faster and faster, until the whole surface is covered with an oily, dancing blur. Ryou stares at Mana in consternation, but she drones heedlessly on.

Suddenly she falters to a stop, and her fingers tighten on the black slate. “Akhnamkanon the Sorcerer,” she says finally. Her voice is beginning to shake. “Aknadin the Usurper. Atem—Atem—”

They seem to have come to the end of the list. There is only one line left, and Mana’s fingertip wavers over it. Her head droops. Her jaw clenches.

Ryou is appalled to see new tears forming in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says hastily. “Please don’t cry. I can learn how to read.”

A tear falls into the carpet, then another.

“There are those who say the king is dead,” Mana says, raising her dark head to stare out into the blazing sky. She drags the back of one hand across her face, vanishing the tablet in the same motion. “But they are fools and traitors.”

“What happened?” Ryou asks.

“I’ll show you,” Mana says. Her eyes glister green. “Your first lesson. Give me your hand.”

She doesn’t wait but instead takes Ryou’s right hand in her own. Her hands are damp and hot, almost feverish. She guides the knuckle of Ryou’s index finger to the center of her forehead.

At the moment of contact, the room shatters and billows into blue smoke.

 

Chapter Text

All the world is fire and blood. If you look closely, peering through your fingers, through the blue smoke, you can see the wings of death: gleaming and pale like the wings of an ibis bird in flight. And the face of death—  

You can’t remember. You can’t remember. You’re not allowed to.

Deep purple sweeps over you: a velvet night falling indoors. Stars spangle before your eyes, and the smoke cracks cleanly in two; the world has torn asunder, as you always knew it would. Electricity and ash dance along the jagged edges of your reality.  

Behind you, a sandstorm is brewing. If you stay, the storm will flay the flesh from your bones, strip you of every last vestige of your magic and your sanity. Through the crevice, the air is soft and wet and gentle.

Can you hear the sound of the rain?

If you are ready, if you are willing to pay the price, then step forward. But remember: don’t look back. Don’t answer the voices that call you, for they will be the voices of the dead and the dying. Don’t waver. Keep your eye on the horizon, on the living grass beyond.

Go now! Go now!

The wind will tear at you like hands trying to hold you back.

 

Two minutes after midnight, in a bedroom above a little game shop in the heart of Domino City, Yami opens his eyes. A police car is driving down the street, its sirens silenced but its lights ablaze. Blue shapes twist like rising smoke across the walls.

Yami swings himself out of bed and creaks his way to the window. He reads the time on the Domino clock tower and lets his eyes follow the curve of the crescent moon overhead. As he watches, one immense hand shudders forward. Another minute banished.

12:03 a.m.

A gleam of white catches his eye, and he recoils, but it’s only the moonlight on his pillowcase. Only the moonlight—nothing more.

Yami closes the curtains, erasing the gleam and the final faint blue flashes of the police strobe. He considers the shadow of his four-poster bed. He does not want to go back to sleep. His heart is pounding. He imagines the organ pummeling the inside of his chest, ricocheting wildly off his ribs, thrumming with blood.

Barefoot in the hallway, he sees that the light in Yuugi’s room is still on.

He’s learned to knock after one or two embarrassing encounters.

“Grandpa?” Yuugi says, and Yami opens the door. Yuugi is wearing his light blue pajama set, sitting in his computer chair with his legs dangling, his dyed hair still damp and sticking up at odd angles. He sets his controller down. “Oh, Yami. What’s up? Can’t sleep?”

Yami sits down on Yuugi’s bed. “What are you playing?” he asks.

“Golden Axe,” Yuugi says, frowning at him. “The Duel one. We got it in today, remember? You helped Grandpa unbox the shipment.”

“Oh,” Yami says. “I forgot.”

“It’s pretty forgettable,” Yuugi concedes. “Do you want to play?”

Yami waves away the offered controller. “No, it’s okay.”

Yuugi holds out a box of Pocky next. There’s only one stick left, strawberry flavored, and Yami waves this away also.

“Can I watch?” he asks.

“Sure,” Yuugi says, shrugging. “I don’t think it’s very interesting to watch, but suit yourself.” He jams the last piece of Pocky into his mouth icing-first, biting it between his teeth like a cigarette, and resumes his duel with a gray-skinned magician in a purple cloak.

Yuugi is the spoiled only son of the Mutou house. His room is littered with video game cartridges, figurines, and other strange memorabilia; the Sega Saturn and its prior incarnations; and his very own television, the twin of the sixteen-inch set in the living room downstairs.

To be fair, Grandpa Mutou did tell Yami, his favorite and only grand-nephew, on the occasion of his return from the hospital, that he was welcome to decorate his room however he pleased. But since Yami can’t remember any of the things he used to like, and can’t be bothered to find new things to like, he’s left his walls bare.

“Don’t you have classes tomorrow?” Yami says, as Yuugi’s musclebound avatar dodges a series of skull-shaped fireballs. “Or today,” he corrects.

“Gonna skip,” Yuugi says breezily, around the Pocky. “Gonna go to the—c’mon, punch, punch, punch—go to the arcade, probably. Oh, no!”

Another corpse in my wake,” laughs the gray magician.

“Argh,” Yuugi says. The screen asks if he wants to continue. He tosses the controller aside and swivels to face Yami, who is now sitting cross-legged on the comforter, hugging a pillow to his chest. “Well?”

“Well?” Yami echoes.

“Another bad dream, huh?”  Yuugi says.

“A woman was screaming,” Yami says. “She was screaming my name.”

Yuugi, pink-cheeked, innocent-looking Yuugi, grins. “That’s not necessarily a bad dream, you know.”

“Shut up,” Yami says, hitting him with the pillow. “It wasn’t like that. The world was collapsing under our feet, that’s why she was screaming. Screaming and screaming and screaming, and there was a blinding light, and it felt like a knife going through my head. And then—the smell of rain.”

“Rain again,” Yuugi says. “Did you write this one down?”

Yami is keeping a dream journal to show his neurologist—not that it will make any difference. “Not yet,” Yami says. “I will.”

Rain again. It was raining the day his grandmother veered off the road, though they discovered later that the rain had nothing to do with the accident. Her stroked-out brain, dying without its supply of blood, simply forgot how to use its limbs. 

And so Yami woke up the next day with a skull fracture and a subdural something or other; a dead grandmother; and a stocky, stodgy old man who sat beside his hospital bed and cried like a little boy at the sight of Yami’s swollen eyes creaking open. And his only memory: the memory of rain.

He didn’t meet Yuugi until he was discharged a week later, but when he did, it was like watching all the lost parts of him tumble into place, as neatly as puzzle pieces. But he’d forgotten they were cousins.

“Maybe you should take up archery,” Yuugi suggests. “Or flower-arranging. Aren’t those activities supposed to be good for your peace of mind? I’m sure Grandpa would be more than happy to pay for lessons.”

“I couldn’t ask him to do that,” Yami says.

Yuugi ignores him. “How about kendo?” he says. “I’ll go with you. I’ve always wanted to try kendo.”

Yami takes a moment to picture Yuugi decked out in kendo gear, swimming in lengths of dark blue cloth and trying to force his immaculately gelled hair into a masked bogu helmet without crushing any of its multicolored spikes. He snorts.

“Don’t laugh at me, you NEET,” Yuugi says. “I bet I could beat you in kendo.”

“You can’t even beat me in a duel,” Yami says. He scoots to the edge of Yuugi’s bed and snatches up the second controller.

“Oh, it’s on,” Yuugi says.

 

It’s raining when Yami wakes up the next morning, the sky gray and bruised. Foreboding spreads through him like the ripples in the puddles in the street. He follows Yuugi to the arcade.

No matter what Yuugi says, Yami knows his frequent trips to the arcade have nothing to do with the arrival of the third installment in the Virtua Fighter series and everything to do with a certain arcade employee, A., as it says on her nametag.

Mazaki Anzu is eighteen, with long dancer’s legs, chin-length hair the color of black tea, and bright blue circle-lenses that make her look slightly bug-eyed. She shared Yuugi’s homeroom when they were students at Domino High and crosses paths with him from time to time in the halls of Domino University.

Yami likes her despite himself. He likes her smile and the dark brown of her hair, and the way she always brushes a piece of it behind her ear and stoops a bit when he or Yuugi is talking, as though this will help her to hear them better.

The reason Yami is going to the arcade, though, has nothing to do with the delicate shell-pink of Anzu’s ear, or Yuugi’s beaming smile, and everything to do with the screaming woman in his dreams.

He’s forgotten many things since the accident, he knows—tasks and conversations slipping away from him like water through his fingers—but he hasn’t forgotten the sound of the woman’s screams, or how very much she sounded like Anzu.

 

They arrive at the arcade just in time to see a high schooler slam his fist down on a game console, causing an avalanche of plush toys inside the claw machine. He pushes past Yami with a sour expression on his face, while Anzu, perched on a stool in her peony-pink uniform, laughs at his retreat.

“Everything okay?” Yami asks. There’s something off about that high schooler, he thinks, or, more likely, with Yami’s vision: a trail of weird particles hovers in the boy’s wake, a miasma of false ice.

But Anzu turns her smile on him and dispels the cloud. “Hi, Yami,” she says. “Everything’s fine, I was just teasing him a bit. I guess they’re sensitive at that age. Hi, Yuugi.”

Yuugi doesn’t answer right away, and Yami realizes that he, too, is staring at the space left behind. He’s frowning.

“Wasn’t that Jounouchi?” he says.

“No way, really?” Anzu says, but without any real interest. “I thought he moved away.”

“His sister was the one who moved,” Yuugi says.

“I see that kid around all the time with Hirutani and that crowd,” Anzu says. “It can’t be Jounouchi.”

“Hirutani?” Yuugi says. Yami sees the change in his posture: Yuugi never really tenses when he’s nervous, but an unnatural stillness comes over him, like a rabbit frozen in the grass, assessing the situation. Yami has never heard of Hirutani before (that he can recall), but he knows now that Hirutani must be bad news.

Anzu, noticing the alertness in both their faces, laughs again. “Come on, you two,” she says. “They kick the machines, but they never make any real trouble. They know they’ll get banned.”

“Yes, that would be bad,” Yuugi says, mock-solemn. “Banned from the only arcade in town! They’d die of boredom.”

He disturbs the calm himself, like someone stepping out of a painting, and pushes a hundred yen into the claw machine. The inside is stacked high with sooty brown monsters: Kuriboh mascots.

“This one’s rigged, you know,” Anzu says breezily. She notices a coworker flagging her down from the other side of the arcade and hops to her feet.

“When do you get off work?” Yami asks. He’s still thinking about the high schooler, about Hirutani, about the screams. “We’ll walk you home.”

“It’s not a big deal, you don’t have to worry,” Anzu says, while Yuugi says, rolling his eyes a bit even as he manipulates the joystick, “Come on, Yami, how many times do I have to tell you Anzu’s shift ends at eight? If you can’t remember, you should write it down.”

“Right, sorry,” Yami says.

“Yuugi,” Anzu says, chiding.

“We’ll see you at eight,” Yuugi says, totally focused on his prize. But the claw opens mid-air and the captured Kuriboh tumbles back down to rejoin the others.

 

After Yami trounces him at the racing and dancing games, Yuugi announces that he is bored. So Yami follows Yuugi, obediently, to the bookstore in Domino Plaza. He flips blindly through magazines—it’s hard to read these days, the characters won’t focus—and watches Yuugi pore over this month’s Famitsu. At the music shop next door, he lets Yuugi crown him with the store headphones and bobs his head to the terrifying black metal that Yuugi likes.

“What do you want to do?” Yuugi asks, pausing by a row of gacha machines. The entire wall opposite is made of tinted glass, overlooking the street.

Yami shrugs. “Whatever you want is fine,” he says.

“Come on,” Yuugi says, smiling. “You spend every day cooped up in the house. There’s gotta be something you want to see. Or eat.” He feeds a handful of coins into the machine and cranks out a little Ultraman figurine in a capsule.

Through the droplets on the glass, the shops across the street are all blurring together, a watercolor effect. Stories below, the people milling around below with their umbrellas are smaller than the toys in the gacha machines. Suddenly none of it seems real.

“Yami?”

Yuugi’s reflection is behind his own in the glass, ghostly.

“I don’t know,” Yami says. Yuugi’s reflection frowns at him. “I don’t—”

“Movie,” Yuugi says. His hand is warm and gentle on Yami’s forearm. “Right?”

“Right,” Yami says.

 

They see the new Gamera movie. Yuugi decides, because Yami takes too long at the ticket counter. Yami spends most of the film glancing Yuugi’s way, seeing how the light reflects off his round cheek. The noise and the color of the movie is too much, but Yuugi seems enthralled nonetheless. And then it’s over and they filter out into the night. 

“Man, Tokyo!” Yuugi says. “Wasn’t it cool? Why don’t we go sometime?”

“Before a kaiju destroys it?” Yami says.

“Nah,” Yuugi says. He makes a dinosaur with one hand and a flying monster with the other and smashes them together. “Tokyo’s been destroyed tons of times, and they always put it back together just in time for the sequel. Seriously, though. Don’t you want to go?”

“I like it here,” Yami says.

“Do you?” Yuugi says. “It’s hard to tell. You like your room in the attic, you mean.”

“It’s not an attic.”

“It’s an attic,” Yuugi insists. “I cleaned out so many spiderwebs the day before you came home. Spiders and rafters equals attic.”

“But you were never in danger of hitting your head on the rafters,” Yami says.

“Shut up,” Yuugi says, elbowing him. “Well, think about it,” he says. “We can just go for a few days. Let’s ask Anzu. I’m sure sheeee—”

His voice trails off into a squeak. He goes still.

They’ve gone past entrance of the arcade, side-stepping the trash cans, to the service door where Anzu usually waits. And Anzu is there, but she isn’t alone.

 

Chapter Text

Two men in dark suits are waiting with Anzu. They stand in casual positions, but their bodies are taut beneath the suits, alive with menace. One of them lounges against the service door, blocking the way; he looms over Anzu, one forearm against the brick wall, a huge hand pressed over Anzu’s mouth. The second stares calmly upward, hands clasped behind his back, as though assessing the weather. His shoulders bulge.

Anzu’s handbag, the little pink heart-box, dangles limply from one wrist. Her eyes are wide and staring. At the sight of Yami and Yuugi rounding the corner, she makes a muffled noise of panic.

“What are you doing?” Yami demands. “Get away from her!”

The men in suits turn their heads as one. For some reason, they are both wearing sunglasses.

“Well, well, well,” one of them says. “Won’t Mister Croquet be pleased.”

Yuugi, inflating with rage, is about to charge headlong into the suits, but Yami grabs him around the neck, holds him back.

“That’s right, call off your hedgehog,” the first suit says. He’s one to talk: all his hair is gelled up into something resembling a shark’s fin at the top of his head. It should be ridiculous, but Yami’s heart is seizing within him.

“Get out of here,” Yami says. “The manager is calling the police.” His voice is regal and very distant—a herald shouting across an ocean. He tightens his grip on the collar of Yuugi’s shirt. Yuugi’s neck is hot and damp against his knuckles.

Cueball’s mouth drops a bit in surprise under his sunglasses. “The police?” he says. “What the hell?”

“Leave,” Yami says. He can feel someone’s pulse in his fingers, though he’s not sure who it belongs to. “If it’s money you want—”

With his free hand, he pulls the vinyl wallet from Yuugi’s right pocket, fans it so they can see the bills, and hurls it over their heads. Neither suit shows even a flicker of interest; their sunglasses are like voids in their faces.

“Hey, what’s going on, Sarucchin?” Cueball says. “He’s throwing paper at us.”

The shark’s lips ripple into a grin. He nods at Yami. “Won’t talk to the underlings, huh? I get it. No hard feelings, Lord Darkness. We’ll go up the chain.”

With every syllable he steps closer, impossibly tall and ugly. His teeth are numerous and shark-sharp. He reaches into his breast pocket.

A flash of white—

Yami hisses, recoils. It’s too late, though; the shark is on him.

“If I may be so bold,” the shark says, low, “you ought to invest in a new set of bodyguards.” He smiles toothily, nods conspiratorially, finishes patting a rectangle of cardstock into Yami’s dangling left hand. “ ’Bye for now.” 

Yami blinks—or the streetlight flickers. When the darkness recedes, the suits are gone.

Yuugi breaks free of Yami’s death-grip and runs to Anzu, skidding to a stop on his knees beside her. “Anzu, Anzu,” he says. Her legs have given out; she’s slid down the wall and is squatting against the brick, a little hunched, rubbing her mouth. One of her circle lenses has popped out. Yuugi finds it, places it tenderly in her outstretched palm.

Yami looks down. The pristine business card in his hand, held vertically, is embossed with two pillars, red as blood against a snowy background. At first Yami can’t make out the any of the letters, which seem to vibrate with the shaking of his body; slowly, though, the shapes congeal into syllables, then words.

Saruwatari, the card reads. Head of Security, Industrial Illusions.

 

“Definitely yakuza,” Yuugi says.

They’re sitting at their customary booth in Burger World. Yuugi orders a mountain of food and then pushes it to one side, untouched, so he can get a better look at the red and white card at the center of the table. It lies there, a little worse for the wear from the sweat of Yami’s hands, faintly gleaming and malevolent.

“Yakuza,” Yuugi says again. “And they knew you. I heard them! Yami-sama, they said!” He slaps the table triumphantly. “I knew it wasn’t a car crash.”

Yami, nursing a lukewarm cola, raises an eyebrow.

“Don’t give me that,” Yuugi says. “I knew you were mixed up in something bad. I knew you were trouble. You’ve got that look.”

“What look,” Yami says.

“The—the—” Yuugi turns pink. “You know, dark and mysterious. Brooding. The strong, silent type. Um.” He reaches a blind hand towards his plates and crams a fistful of french fries into his mouth. “Grandpa totally lied. Come on, a car crash? That’s completely bogus. Car crashes and amnesia, those are the worst clichés in the book.”

“I do have brain damage,” Yami reminds him. “They did tests.”

Yuugi brushes this off. “Okay, sure, but it’s not because of a car accident. It’s because a rival gang cornered you and beat you up with baseball bats and left you to die, in an alley, in the rain.”

“Now who’s relying on clichés?” Yami says, but he smiles. The knot of fear in his stomach is beginning to loosen. It’s like any other time he’s followed Yuugi to Burger World at one in the morning. The suits in the alley were just another bad dream, and this—Burger World, with the smell of stale oil and watery ketchup, and the sight of Yuugi grinning at him on the other side of a stupid plastic table, kicking his feet back and forth in happy anticipation of a milkshake—this is the real world, the best world.

Anzu returns to the booth and slides in beside Yuugi. She’s removed her remaining circle lens and changed into street clothes: a slouchy yellow sweatshirt and denim shorts. Her hair is tied into a short messy tail. 

Yami glances at her, at the red mark on her exposed shoulder, and opens his mouth—

“Yes, for the last time, I’m fine,” she says, pulling the sweatshirt into place to hide the bruise. “And no, also for the last time, I don’t want to go to the police box, or tell my mother, or go to the hospital.”

“But—”

“Oh!” Yuugi exclaims, shooting upright, and both Anzu and Yami jump. “Industrial Illusions! They do card games and stuff. For kids. Grandpa stocks some of their merch—you know, all those little Kuriboh plushies. I knew it sounded familiar.”

“I don’t think yakuza are mixed up in the children’s card game and plush-toy business,” Yami says. He thinks this is a reasonable argument, but Yuugi scoffs.

“Of course they don’t just do card games,” Yuugi says. “They’d go under. They have a TV program and arcades and tournaments and pachinko parlors and, uh, night entertainment. I bet they were at the arcade to collect their earnings, or something.”

“Oh, please, what earnings?” Anzu laughs.

“I’m not the lost heir of some group,” Yami says. “I think you’d know if you had a crime boss in the family.”

“Would I?” Yuugi retorts. “Grandpa keeps quiet about all the insane things he did when he was younger,” he says. “But I’ve seen his photo albums. Grandpa was a punk.”

“Yuugi,” Yami says, a little shocked.

“And he doesn’t talk about Great-Aunt Sadako either. Ever. I bet it’s because he got out, but she stayed in the family and married a gangster and it broke his heart.”

Anzu makes a quelling sound, and Yuugi hurriedly eats another handful of fries. Yami just shakes his head. He can’t really remember his grandmother, except as an indistinct silhouette against a bronzed blue sky. There’s nothing else in the empty reaches of his brain. Not even the echoes of a voice.

“Sorry,” Yuugi says eventually. “I always get carried away.”

“It’s okay,” Yami says.

“Anyway,” Anzu says, “what do we do about this?”

They look back at the card.

“Sleep on it,” Yuugi suggests. “We can pay them a visit tomorrow. Industrial Illusions. I’ll look them up in Grandpa’s address book.”

“No,” Yami says firmly. He picks up the card and, ignoring Yuugi and Anzu’s mingled cries of protest, tears it methodically to shreds. He balls the fibrous remnants up inside a dirty napkin.

“Forget it,” he says.

  

“Are you mad at me?” Yuugi asks. His voice is quiet. They’ve helped boost Anzu over the gate of her parents’ home and are walking back to the Turtle Game Shop in companionable silence. The moon is like a thin grinning mouth behind the glowing face of Domino clock tower. 

“No,” Yami says instantly. “Of course not.” He adds, “I hope you’re not mad at me.”

“What for?” Yuugi sounds genuinely bewildered. 

“For throwing your wallet into a dumpster.” 

“Oh, well,” Yuugi says. “It’s not like you were aiming for a bag of wet garbage. Anyway, they didn’t take anything. Hey,” he says brightly, “that’s one way to protect yourself against robbery. Dip your money in rancid cabbage juice.” 

“Gross.”

Another darkened block goes by. A late train whizzes along somewhere in the distance. The front gate of their little townhouse is only a few hundred feet away. Yami is already thinking about the all-enveloping softness of his bed.

Abruptly, Yuugi comes to a stop on the sidewalk. Yami stops with him.

“Yami,” Yuugi says, turning. Yami can’t see his face, but he can feel Yuugi’s gaze on him, intent and probing. “Yami—listen. I don’t think you should forget. What I mean is, you should try to remember. Remember and keep remembering. What happened tonight was real. And it’s not over yet. They’re going to come back.” 

’Bye for now. Yami suddenly feels cold. 

“I just want you to understand that,” Yuugi finishes. “You tore up their card, but they still know where Anzu works.”

“This is a matter for the police,” Yami says. They’re at the gate now. He punches in the combination and awaits the beep.

“Don’t you want to know?” Yuugi bursts out, chasing him up the front steps. Yami ignores him; he lunges for the door, jams the key into the lock. Yuugi hovers at his elbow. “They know who you were. Who you used to be. Don’t you want to hear what they have to say? Maybe they know about the accident—about Great-Aunt Sadako, and—Yami?”

His heart is pounding again. The key trembles in his hands.

“No,” Yami says. He finally manages to unlock the door and hurries upstairs, leaving Yuugi behind in the darkness.

 

Chapter Text

Ryou lurches away from Mana, with a gasp like a drowning swimmer, breaking free of the waves for one last doomed moment. His eyes sting with tears; the skin on his face feels seared; the roar of the fire fills his ears. But there is no smoke in the tower, no knife-like heat. No one is screaming. The sky beyond the windows is serenely blue. 

For a moment, he can’t even speak. He raises his eyes to Mana’s in mute horror, in time to catch the final glint of flaming orange.

“I was there,” Mana says. “I was there when the palace burned. But I was too far away. I couldn’t reach him.”

“He was your friend,” Ryou says. He doesn’t understand how, but he knows. He remembers. Warm gold on his limbs, laughter bubbling in his throat—hands clasped over a pectoral to stop its rattling—muffled snickering and a gentle elbow in his ribs. Shh! The jars in the storeroom are massive and wonderfully cold against his cheek.

A shadow cuts through the sunlight in the doorway; a smile flashes in a dark face. His heart flutters.

Mistress Mana, it’s unseemly to hide from your master. And as for you, your highness—

“Since childhood,” Mana says. “The fire burned so hot it melted the walls of the palace. When at last it was over, and the flames quelled, there was nothing left but dust and ash. Not even bones. So the fools say he is burned and lost. But they are wrong. We are born in fire.”

“Mana, for fuck’s sake,” the magician says. Ryou jolts and looks wildly around the room, but it is empty; the magician is nowhere to be seen. His voice echoes down, seemingly from inside Ryou’s skull. “Are you there? Answer me! Demons are coming.”

Mana snaps to attention. “How many?” she says. “What do you sense?”

“I don’t know about sensing,” the magician says. His voice is everywhere and nowhere at once. “But I count two.”

“Everyone and their mother is after your head today,” Mana says. “What do you want to do? Bar the gates?”

“It’s everyone and their sister, I think,” the magician’s disembodied voice says. “No, Mana. I can’t put her off forever.”

“I wish you would,” Mana mutters. 

Distantly, a horn sounds, and booming voice cries, three times, “The Lady Ishtar seeks an audience with the Dark Magician of Dahlia.” 

“Shaitan,” Mana says, still in an undertone. 

“I heard that,” the magician’s voice says. “Come down and pay your respects to the Lady Ishtar. Bring the ghoul.”

“Why, in Shaitan’s name?” Mana cries.

“Symmetry,” the magician’s voice replies, unperturbed.

There is a hatch in the floor beneath the Persian carpet. Mana releases the catch with her toe and steps back as the floor opens, revealing stone stairs that spiral down into darkness. 

“We’re not going to teleport?” Ryou says.

“What do you mean?” Mana says, tilting her head to the side. She looks puzzled. But at least she isn’t scowling at him anymore.

“The magician—” 

“The magician has complete freedom of the castle,” Mana says. “He can go where he pleases, however he pleases. In fact, it moves around him. But we have to walk.”

The staircase goes nowhere. It ends in something resembling the bottom of a dried-up well, in a darkness so complete Ryou misses the last few steps and falls with a scream. A glittering cloud bursts around him as he hits the ground, sparking and crackling, illuminating the tower for a heartbeat and a half before winking out.

Ryou hears, rather than sees, Mana alight softly beside him.

“You have to be careful in the dark,” she says, and helps him pick himself up. “Keep your hand on the wall. I used to count the steps—there are two hundred and twenty-four.”

“Two hundred and twenty-four,” Ryou repeats. “Right.”

“You’ll get used to it,” she says. She moves forward, and he catches a last glimpse of her in the dissipating magical dust, stretching out her hands to press against the stone.

“Dark door,” she says, sing-song, and the wall peels silently open, while Ryou gapes. It takes the shape of an inverse petal, a pointed arch. There appears to be nothing beyond the arch but blackness.

Mana grasps Ryou by the hand and steps forward, dragging him along. He has the sensation of resistance, of something a bit thicker and heavier than air sucking at his skin. The air gives off an oily flash like a bursting soap bubble, and then they are through. 

The light is low and red. At the far end of the long, narrow court, illuminated by a pair of braziers, the magician lies sprawled across a dais at the foot of an ornate golden divan, flipping idly through a moldy-looking volume. He looks up as they enter.

“Here you are at last,” he says. He closes the book with a snap and tosses it aside. “Did you take a wrong turn?”

“Where is she?” Mana demands.

“Stewing outside, I expect,” the magician answers. “Possibly summoning an eclipse. No, don’t give me that look, poppet. I can’t face her alone, you know that.”

“I don’t want to see her,” Mana says. 

“That makes two of us,” the magician says.

Mana huffs. “I’ll get the tea.”

“No, don’t go,” the magician says feebly, but Mana has already gone, reversing through the arch and vanishing from view.

Ryou looks at the magician.

“So much for symmetry,” the magician says. He reaches up and taps the divan. “Come here, little ghoul.”

Ryou obeys, after a moment’s hesitation. The divan is horrendously uncomfortable, hard as concrete under his legs. It is molded metal, heated to burning temperatures by the braziers, and the images of strange birds, flowers, and men in pointed hats jab at various parts of Ryou’s anatomy. He arranges and rearranges his limbs, trying to find a posture that doesn’t result in metal curlicues corkscrewing into his buttocks.

The magician grins up at him, and Ryou swallows hard for no discernible reason.

“So?” the magician says. He rolls onto his side and his beautiful red robe trails over Ryou’s bare feet.  “First lesson go well?”

Tears and smoke flash across Ryou’s mind, one after another. But the magician doesn’t wait for his answer. He leans against the base of the divan, arms comfortably spread, and announces:

“The Dark Magician invites the Lady Ishtar to join him at her convenience.”

The archway glimmers, and two veiled figures appear, white pillars silhouetted against sand and sky. Noises of a busy marketplace filter in behind them. Only one of these figures crosses the threshold, however, one alone, a tall woman in cream and gold, and as her slippered foot strikes the floor of the court, the blue sky beyond the arch narrows to a pinpoint and disappears. 

The woman throws back her veil as she strides forward. Ryou has the impression of a thousand eyes springing forth from a gliding shadow, a peacock’s tail fanning out across black silk.

She is tall and slender, glowing as if lit by moonlight in the darkness of the court. Around her neck, wrists, and ankles, she wears bands of gold. Some of these bands have been molded or hammered into the shape of eyes. The eye at her throat is the largest of these, with a deep hollow point for its pupil. 

Her own blue eyes sweep over the scene, taking in the sight of Ryou crouched awkwardly on the divan and dismissing him entirely.

“Please,” the magician says, with a slight nod of his head, indicating the area before the dais. The tile its base has worn into numerous parallel grooves. Ryou realizes with a start that visitors are expected to kneel. 

But the Lady Ishtar does not kneel. There is the barest flicker in her eyes at the magician’s gesture. Her lip curls. She remains upright, marmoreal and distant.

“To what do we owe this honor?” the magician says. “Oh—pardon. I’m all muddled. Let me start from the beginning—no, I simply can’t remember all your titles. Consider them recited, and let us return to the matter at hand. To what do we owe—”

“Dispense with the niceties,” the Lady Ishtar says. “You know my errand. What is your answer?”

There is a pause. 

The magician grows languid. He slouches down onto one elbow, and his robe slides down over one shoulder. He dangles a jeweled ankle over the edge of the dais. 

“Unchanged,” he says.

Ryou has the distinct impression that the Lady Ishtar’s eyes, both the real and golden ones, are beginning to throw sparks.

“I had hoped, given time, you would reconsider,” she says. Her voice is clipped.

“You must think me very fickle,” the magician replies. “A sennight is hardly time enough to consider, let alone reconsider. No, Lady Ishtar, my answer remains the same. I can’t restore a madman to sanity. You ask the impossible.” 

“Impossible for you, perhaps,” the Lady Ishtar flares. “Mahaad—”

“Yes,” the magician interrupts, trailing his fingertips down the length of his fine linen skirt. “Quite impossible for me. Foolish to think otherwise.”

The Lady Ishtar watches with unconcealed disdain. Her blue eyes are burning.

“Your tenure is a farce,” she bites out. “Mahaad pursued knowledge, he was good, he was wise, he was dedicated to the people of this realm! To him it was a science! But here you sit, frittering away his wealth and reputation, a lout, a pretender, a degenerate, the gutter’s ghoul—”

“Speak plainly, why don’t you?” the magician says, turning his wolf’s smile on her, beginning to raise himself from the dais, and the Lady Ishtar snarls, her fingers twisting, her robes fluttering. Ryou recoils from the snaking shadows, from the cold white brilliance of her thousand eyes—

The arch bubbles again, and Mana returns bearing a lacquered tray laden with a huge silver teapot and jeweled goblets. She floats past the Lady Ishtar with her burden, chin raised, and sets the tray before the magician with a bow.

The magician reaches a careless hand down and plucks one of the two goblets from the tray. Mana fills it. The magician raises it to his lips. Ryou watches as his throat works, gulping it down. 

Only when the magician replaces the goblet does Mana straighten. She stares blankly across the court, her gaze empty, as though she is looking through the Lady Ishtar and not upon her.

“My lady,” Mana says quietly.

“Ah—” The Lady Ishtar’s arms are limp at her sides. She hesitates. “Mana. I—”

“A cushion for her lady, if you please, Mana,” the magician says, in warmer tones. He wipes his mouth with the back of one hand.

Mana obeys in silence. She selects a tasseled pair and lays them at Lady Ishtar’s feet, then returns to her post at the magician’s right arm, without another word.

“Please,” the magician says again. This time, Lady Ishtar sits. She sinks down with a slow and practiced grace, arranging her skirts and veil around her so that only the very tips of her gold-embroidered slippers peek out from beneath the folds of fabric.

Only when every last fold is in place does she look up. Her gaze is steady.

“You know I would not come to you unless I had the utmost need,” she says. 

“You have no need of me,” the magician says, and his smile is almost a leer. “Ghoul that I am. Any sorcerer would do.” 

“No other will do,” Lady Ishtar says. “You were there.” 

His smile slips. “So I was,” he says, drinking again. His eyes dart toward Mana, standing stiffly beside him. “So were many others.”

“You must have seen something, sensed something,” Lady Ishtar insists. “You must know what evil has taken hold of my brother.”

“The blaze terrified him out of his wits. The blast addled his senses. That is all. A blow to the skull, perhaps, from some errant debris. The noise alone—” He shakes his head. “No, Lady Ishtar. The matter is not magical, and it is not in my hands. Only time—”

The Lady Ishtar slams her palm down onto the tile. It’s clear she’s imagining making contact with something else; the noise of the slap rings across the court. “It’s been a year, almost to the day,” she says. “Time enough. There must be something you can prescribe to speed his healing. A potion, a tonic—”

“My lady, you know as well as I that the Dark Magician of Dahlia does not dabble in tonics.” 

The Lady Ishtar rises in a single smooth motion, hands clenched. She starts to go, hesitates, turns back. 

“He asks after you,” she says. “In his moments of clarity. He wonders what’s become of his old friend.” 

The magician grows still. He says nothing.

“He was always kind to you,” the Lady Ishtar says. “Though you were nameless. Though my father and I looked upon you with disdain. Dark Magician, if you have any feeling within you, any regard for the friendship he once showed you, then I ask you—I beg you—save him.” 

The melodic formality of the magician’s speech roughens. “Shaitan, Isis,” he says. “You don’t have to beg.”

The Lady Ishtar replaces her veil over her eyes. Hidden again, towering over them all, she says, “I’ll see you shortly, then. We dine at sundown. Don’t be late.”

The archway seals itself shut behind her.

 

The red court is silent in her wake. “Bar the gates after all, Mana,” the magician instructs, after a moment’s pause. “She may be back with an army.”

Mana scoffs. “House-soldiers can’t force you to visit her brother. Or heal him.”

“Can’t they?” the magician says. He’s quiet. Then: “No, of course, he’s beyond repair. But they’ll beat the hell out of me all the same.”

“They’ll have to get in line,” Mana says, with a teasing gleam in her eye. “What have you done to Mahaad’s court?” She indicates the court with a sweeping arm, and Ryou notices that the area behind the divan is strewn with detritus: clay fragments, discarded codices, blackened scrolls, half-eaten food. “You’ve made such a blessed mess!”

The magician grins at her. “All in a day’s work. Chide me if you must, Mistress Mana, but I’ll give as good as I get! You should know better than to look into the eyes of a Seer of House Ishtar.”

“She wouldn’t dare try to ensorcel me,” Mana says, slipping from the dais and beginning to gather the scattered scrolls. 

“It’s not a question of daring, you idiot,” the magician says without heat. “She does it without thinking.”

Ryou hops down from the divan. “Can I help?” he says. 

Mana eyes him over her growing pile of scrolls. He holds out his arms. “Oh, all right,” she says, and dumps her burden in his arms. “Put these in a safe place. I’ll scour the tiles.”

“Arrange those scrolls by subject, if you please,” the magician tells Ryou. 

“He can’t read, you know,” Mana calls from behind the divan, where she’s carefully straightening the crumbling leather-bound volumes. “Tell him where you want them.”

“Oh?” the magician says. His gaze flickers back to Ryou, who stands at attention and starts to blush. His smile widens. “Really, now.”

“I can’t teach him if he can’t read,” Mana adds. She sounds hopeful.

“Can’t you?” the magician says. “If you have enough mad courage to stare down Isis Ishtar, then you can teach an ignorant ghoul to read. Mahaad did.”

Mana looks up. “Mahaad—”

“Whoa,” Ryou says, as the magician sweeps him up in his arms, scrolls and all, and hovers a bit above the tile.

“Safe place,” the magician says to Mana. “Scour away.”

Mana rolls her eyes. Then her hands fly into the air in a series of bizarre, sharp gestures, fingers bent neatly into interlocking geometric shapes. She breathes out sharply, and a low black tide sweeps across the tile, cresting in a wave of purple sparks. It dims into nothingness, leaving a sparkling red surface behind.

The magician deposits Ryou and his scrolls back on the ground. “Well done, poppet,” he says, and Mana smiles.

Her smile slips a bit as the magician continues, “Why don’t you take tonight to develop a lesson plan?”

“What?” Mana says. “But—what about my lesson—with you—?” 

“Will have to wait,” the magician says. “You heard the lady. She begged me, not quite on her knees, but I’ll take it. I’ll appease her with a visit this very evening. I know, I know,” he adds, soothing, “you don’t want to go. But I must have an attendant, Mistress Mana.” 

He nods at Ryou. “Come with me, little ghoul. You’ll have to do.” 

“Master!” 

“Are you at a loss?” the magician says. “Don’t you remember your own royal lessons? A recitation, a rhyme? Start him on a king-list, why don’t you?” He seems not to notice Mana’s sudden pallor, or Ryou’s anxious twitch. “Now, then. With me, little ghoul. I shall give you your very first task under the ring, and that is to watch me as I minister to the lunatic and call out if the Lady Ishtar or any of her whole blessed, deluded household attempt to put a knife in my back.”

He holds out his hand, and Ryou, after a moment’s hesitation, takes it. The magician drags him in close, enveloping him in his robe. Ryou gasps, and Mana rolls her eyes again, and the red of the magician’s court ripples and vanishes.

 

Chapter Text

Jounouchi wanders back toward the main road, disconsolate. One of the swings is still gently creaking back and forth, stirred by its own breeze in the otherwise heavy evening air. There is a chill setting in. The salaryman has gone. 

He jingles the coins in his pocket, squeezes the little clay doll. He wants to call Shizuka and ask her about her day, her first magical day at school, even if she doesn’t know it is, and listen to her cheerful voice recounting all the mundane events of every period, but he doesn’t have enough for the payphone. And he doesn’t want to call collect, obviously.

He doesn’t want to go home. His dad might be back, might be drinking. Might want to talk.

Preoccupied by these thoughts, Jounouchi bangs into someone on the path. He stumbles; the kid goes flying.

“Shit, sorry,” he says, helping the kid up. Short and scrawny. Rintama uniform. It’s a hand-me-down and much too large. The sleeves droop over the kid’s hands, and Jounouchi feels a powerful sense of familiarity. Shit, what’s the kid’s name? He’s so small and mousy. He’s a second-year but so fucking tiny for his age. They call him Nezumi, but surely—

“Jounouchi-kun! Jounouchi-kun, thank goodness,” the kid says, pawing at him. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I went to the arcade and the beach and—”

“What’s wrong?” Jounouchi says. Shit, he can’t help it. His heart goes out to the kid, who has a split lip and is developing a hell of a shiner around one eye. “What happened?”

“Hirutani wants to see you,” the kid says.

Fuck. Just what Jounouchi needs, to put the finishing touch on this peach of a day.

“I don’t run with that crowd anymore,” Jounouchi says.

Nezumi clutches at him. “Please,” he says. “I can’t go back by myself. They’ll kill me.”

They’ll kill me too, Jounouchi thinks. He looks down at Nezumi, with his teary, pulped face and trembling hands, and then, suddenly, he thinks about Bakura. Bakura said he would help. Bakura knew he was facing demons, not overgrown punks, but he never hesitated. He saved Jounouchi’s worthless life. 

And now Bakura’s missing, might be dead, but fuck, fuck, he won’t be outdone by Bakura and his girly bandaids.

Hirutani, that son of a bitch, Jounouchi thinks.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll help you. Lead the way.”

 

Nezumi, almost incoherent with gratitude, takes Jounouchi through a pattern of back alleys and weird angles, always eastward, climbing the gate at the docks, spiraling through the maze of shipping containers, until they reach the battered old seaside warehouse where Hirutani likes to hold court. Jounouchi feels a cold chill at the sight of the salt-worn graffiti spattered across the metal sheeting. So little has changed.

But his debts are paid. It’s Nezumi who needs help now.

At least, that’s what Jounouchi thinks, until he opens the door and Nezumi shoves him hard from behind.

“Sorry,” Nezumi whispers. “Sorry! I had to. I had to do it, or—”

He’s still apologizing, in a whisper, as one of Hirutani’s thugs slams the door in his face.

Jounouchi picks himself up slowly. He’s expecting a crowbar to the back at any second. Instead, the goons grab his arms and haul him to his feet.

“All right, what the hell,” he says. They’re standing around him in a semicircle in the dark. He can barely see their faces. A couple of bozos in the back are holding flashlights, their saliva-wet gums and vitreouses shining blue; they look like the background monsters of a B horror movie. “What is this, a cult meeting?”

“Hey, Katsuya,” Hirutani says, from somewhere beyond the semicircle. God, Jounouchi hates his voice; it’s worse than an oil slick.

“Don’t act like we’re friends,” Jounouchi says.

Hirutani ignores this. “It’s nice of you to pay us a visit after so long,” he says.

“What do you want?” Jounouchi says.

“You’re hurting my feelings,” Hirutani says. “How ya been, man?” 

“Just fucking perfect,” Jounouchi says, clipped. “Hirutani. What do you want?”

“I don’t think you’re perfect,” Hirutani says. “I don’t even think you’re good. I think you’ve been lonely. I think your fists are restless. Why don’t you let me put them to use?”

“No thanks,” Jounouchi says. “I told you—” 

“Katsuya,” Hirutani says, “nobody says no to me. You think you can transfer schools and be done with it? You think that’s it, it’s all over? We’re blood brothers, Katsuya. It’ll never be over. Come back and play with us.”

“Yeah, play with us,” chorus the semicircle of creepy-ass thugs. Someone sniggers.

“I said no thanks,” Jounouchi says. He can see the rectangle of light forming around the edges of the door. If it’s just Nezumi out there keeping guard, then no sweat; he can give the door a kick and Nezumi’ll go flying, the little backstabbing shit.

“C’mon, Katsuya,” Hirutani says. “I’d hate to see anyone get hurt.”

“I don’t give two shits about Nezumi,” Jounouchi says, which is untrue, he gives at minimum half a shit, but Hirutani doesn’t have to know that.

“I wasn’t talking about Nezumi,” Hirutani says. “He’s served his purpose. Nasty, snivelling little rodent, I always said. No, that’s not what I meant. How’s that friend of yours, what’s his name—Honda? Pretty strong forward, I hear. How will the rugby team reach the finals if his legs are broken?”

“You can’t fucking do this,” Jounouchi says, but his heart drops. Hirutani’s uncle has connections. The police always seem to look the other way whenever someone gets hurt.

“Well, don’t make me,” Hirutani says, oh so reasonably. “Okay? Welcome back to the group, Katsuya-kun. I’ve got a job for you.”

He loves Honda, which is why Honda is going to have to take his own fucking chances. Jounouchi will be right there beside him. They’ll help each other. Jounouchi is never going back. 

“Get fucked,” Jounouchi says.

He swings. 

 

He hits the guy to his left pretty hard in the solar-plexus and hears a satisfying oof, followed by retching noises. No one reacts, in part, Jounouchi suspects, because they can’t see where he is. To be fair, Jounouchi can’t see where anyone else is either. Not that it matters. He just starts whaling away.

“Hit the lights, fuck,” someone yells.

Someone else whacks him really hard in the arm with a flashlight. Jounouchi grabs the offending implement and wrestles it away, and then it’s really on. The flashlight strobes on and off as he flails around, landing heavy blows left and right. They’re all a bunch of skinny punks in shitty Rintama uniforms. The bulk that is Hirutani is too far away to reach him in time.

They try to block his way out, but he’s unstoppable. He barrels through their outstretched arms, bellowing, and kicks open the door.

The light blinds him for half a second, but he doesn’t waste time blinking. And Nezumi is there, staring at him with horror, already cringing back—

“Run, you dumb shit,” Jounouchi yells at him. “And transfer schools!”

Nezumi doesn’t move, and Jounouchi doesn’t wait around to encourage him. He takes off running.

 

He’s dodged his fair share of dockworkers and security guards around these shipping containers, but it’s been a while. The farther Jounouchi runs, the more lost he thinks he’s getting. He can hear his pursuers shouting and banging on the containers, cursing him, cursing Honda. 

Honda—

Honda can run faster than he can. He’s the best damn forward in all of Domino. If Jounouchi ever makes it out of this labyrinth of metal, he’ll sprint straight to Honda’s house and tell him what’s going on. They’ll figure something out.

He skids around a corner and comes to a crashing halt. Hirutani is standing there, flanked by a dozen snickering idiots in Rintama uniforms. They’ve swapped their flashlights for sections of pipe and one crowbar. 

Jounouchi’s back is to a shipping container. They’re closing in on both sides. There’s nowhere else to go.

Shit.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” Hirutani says, shrugging his massive shoulders with his hands in his pockets. “I thought it was a good offer.” 

“It was a great offer, boss,” some whining sycophant says.

“Fuck you,” Jounouchi snarls. “Leave Honda out of this. He’s legit. He’s clean. You wanna break some legs? Fine. Break my legs.” 

“Sure,” Hirutani says. “We could do that.”

There’s a pause.

“Or,” Hirutani says, thoughtfully, “you could go for a swim.”

“What?” Jounouchi stares at him.

“Yeah,” Hirutani says, grinning lopsidedly. “Just hop right in. We’ll tell you when you can get out.”

This time of year, the water in the harbor is fucking freezing. Jounouchi may be a moron, but he’s not so much of a moron that he thinks he can stay afloat in Domino Bay for longer than twenty minutes before hypothermia sets in. 

This crazy motherfucker’s planning to kill him.

And no one’s going to say anything about it, except maybe Honda. But even Honda will say, Yeah. Yeah, he was in a weird mood yesterday. He was acting crazy. He talked to me about ghosts.

So maybe even Honda will accept it, after a while. Honda will come to the conclusion that Jounouchi finally snapped. Eventually, he’ll say, why didn’t we see it coming? All that shit with his dad, we should have known, we should have done something—

Jounouchi’s heart feels like it’s breaking into pieces in his chest. Just two big clean halves. 

At least he got to call his mom one last time. At least Shizuka is okay. Yeah. She’ll be okay from now on.

“Surely you don’t intend to be merciful.” 

At first Jounouchi thinks it’s one of the goons, gone all poetic about Jounouchi’s impending demise, but they’re all looking around in confusion too. Hirutani is scowling at him.

No, wait—not at him—

Above me! Jounouchi realizes, the hairs on his neck standing on end, I didn’t hear anything, and he throws caution to the wind and lurches around.

There’s a man sitting on the shipping container.

A single black patent shoe is tapping impatiently, just above his nose, polished to such a high gloss that the dying sun and Jounouchi’s face are reflected clearly in its toe-cap.

The shoe extends into a slim, bony ankle encased in a long teal sock. Midway up a thin calf, the sharp crease of fabric of one dark blue trouser-leg begins.

Slim-cut navy blue suit, green shirt with two buttons undone, a long white throat and a pretty face. A dangling briefcase. The hand gripping the briefcase is slim and luminously pale in the growing gloom.

Jounouchi recognizes him. It’s the salaryman from the park. Up close now, he looks really young. And the briefcase is battered to hell and back. He’s not a salaryman at all—just some punk in a borrowed suit. 

“Who the fuck are you?” Hirutani says, echoing Jounouchi’s tumbling thoughts.

“Just an observer,” the man says. His voice carries a hint of hoarseness, a sore throat, a thin curl of smoke dissipating across a cold winter night. “Please, don’t stop on my account.” His gaze is directed at Jounouchi, piercing him to the bone. “Show me what you can do.”

“Get outta here, man,” one of Hirutani’s lieutenants says. “Unless you wanna go for a little swim too.”

“Cool it, Sawada,” Hirutani snaps.

“Sorry, boss,” Sawada mutters.

“This is a matter between old friends,” Hirutani says to the man perched on the shipping container. He spreads his huge arms wide, shaking his head as if to say, We’re all friends here. This is just a simple drowning incident. Among friends. “Don’t interfere.”

“Unfortunately for you, I have a stake in this matter,” the man says. He’s watching Jounouchi almost hungrily. Jounouchi’s skin crawls with goosebumps.

“Katsuya owe you somethin’ too?” Hirutani says, wary now.

“Oh, yes,” the man says. “Yes, he does. And I’ve come to collect.”

“Well, get in line,” one of the thugs bawls. “We were here first.” 

“I don’t think you understand,” the man says. “No one gets in my way.”

There’s a round of almost awkward laughter. Hirutani is the size of a young elephant, and he has minions. The man looks about as dangerous as a cardboard cutout.

“Uh,” Jounouchi says, feeling like he should say something. “I appreciate your—” he fumbles for the right word “—uh, concern? But I’ve got this.”

“Do you?” the man says. He folds his arms, briefcase and all, and sits back. “Show me, then.”

It’s just Jounouchi and his flashlight against the world. His fingers are numb and so are his toes in his sneakers. He tightens his clammy grip around the shaft, drags it across the shipping container behind him, listening to the squeal. The metal’s so damn cold.

“Dunk him, boys,” Hirutani says, and laughs.

They close in recklessly fast. The guys on the right rush in a little quicker and get blasted with the flashlight for their troubles. Jounouchi kicks a kid in a red hat straight in the chest, knocking him down. He lands a pretty solid uppercut to another one of the goons, and then they pile-drive him, slamming him against the container. 

“Fuck!” Jounouchi manages to bite out, before he’s completely overrun, overwhelmed. They wrestle the flashlight out of his hand. 

Shit, they really are going to kill him. He’s being lifted, borne up, carried bodily forward in a wave of arms and legs. Jounouchi claws and gouges and bites. Someone else’s blood is in his mouth. He spits and swears and the crowd swears back. He nails another guy in the temple and they drop him for a second, but someone else steps up and grabs his legs, and they’re off again, teetering to the concrete edge, arms and legs flailing like some kind of demented, possessed centipede— 

He’s lighter than a fucking feather, he’s airborne—

Oh god, oh fuck!

Jounouchi’s entire body seizes on impact, and he thinks the cold is going to stop his heart. The salt stings his eyes, fills his nose and ears. He’s swirling around in a vortex of silver bubbles, spiraling around him like the jaws of a huge ancient animal. The water roars.

He kicks back to the surface, snorting and blowing water, cursing—

“Oh fuck, oh fuck!” he gasps. The air that hits his soaked hair and skin is somehow even colder than the sea. It burns like fire.

Then:

“Little rats, scurry on home,” comes a voice colder than the water and air combined, and Jounouchi opens his eyes.

He swipes hair and salt out of his face with his entire arm, already unable to control the movements of his fingers, and squints at the harbor: he’s ready to dodge the first swing of a bat, but the shoreline is empty. There’s no one grinning and leering at the water’s edge, waiting to kick him back into the water or throw trash at his head. There’s no one there at all.

Jounouchi powers back to the concrete edge with short, quick strokes, swearing and gasping all the way. It’s so fucking cold.

He bobs cautiously up beside the concrete. The tide is still too low; there’s a good three feet to scale before he can get to dry land. His hands are too numb to get a grip on the edge, though, so he just hovers there, a human popsicle, slapping ineffectively at the sheer concrete sides, being swept back and forth by the movement of the waves.

Eventually he’s gonna sink. His clothes are sodden, heavy; the sea will take him. Shit. Forget about people thinking he’s committed suicide; he’s just going to disappear. They’ll think he’s run off to Tokyo. There won’t even be a body. Not for months.

A hand closes around the collars of his jacket and his t-shirt, and some of his hair, all at once, and lifts him bodily from the water. He has a violent and embarrassing flashback to the claw machine and the girl from Domino University. What would she say about this? Probably nothing. She’d probably just point and laugh.

The hand discards him like an unwanted plush toy, and Jounouchi collapses onto the concrete with a sigh of gratitude. He’d kiss the ground if he could get his lips to move and his teeth to stop chattering. He curls onto his side in an attempt to dispel the aching cold. 

“That was truly pathetic,” the cold voice says above him. “The worst thing I’ve seen in years. Possibly ever. Are you some kind of moron?”

It’s the man in the suit. Jounouchi looks blearily up at him through salt-shocked eyes, wondering why he’s still there. He must be some kind of yakuza bigwig, Jounouchi thinks. It’s the only reason Hirutani would rescind an order, let Jounouchi crawl from the sea. The man must be one of his uncle’s associates, arrived just in time to stop the nephew from making an ass of himself. 

He has to work his mouth for a few more seconds, but he finally manages to speak. “Th-th-thanks,” he rasps.

The man just sneers. “Get up,” he says, nudging Jounouchi with the tip of one of his shiny, shiny shoes.

“I c-c-can’t,” Jounouchi says. 

Get up,” the man says, soft. He doesn’t quite kick Jounouchi, but his foot gets under Jounouchi’s ribs and lifts, and Jounouchi rolls onto his stomach—

And sees the blood.

There’s a lot of it. At least one body’s worth, because there’s only one body left. It’s Hirutani, and he’s been thrown so hard against the shipping container that he’s gone halfway into it. There’s a Hirutani-sized dent in the side of the metal, and a bent and broken Hirutani-sized body crumpled at its base. It’s a face somehow still attached to a bag of bones.

Jounouchi’s voice is still too far gone to scream; he makes a high, thin, hollow whistling sound in his throat instead.

Everyone else is gone, weapons and even shoes discarded in their haste to escape. At least, Jounouchi hopes they’ve escaped. God, he hopes they have.

The bag of bones moves; Hirutani groans.

“Oh, fuck, thank god,” Jounouchi exclaims. Never in his fucking life did he think he would be relieved to know that Hirutani was still alive, and yet here he is. Here they are.

Pure adrenaline is flooding his body. He’s never felt colder, but all his muscles are twitching now like they’ve been shocked. He lurches to his hands and knees, and then up to his feet, groaning, stiff-armed, another Frankenstein’s monster.

He tries to run. He doesn’t get very far.

The man touches his hand. Just a brush. But at the barest contact of skin on skin, every vein and nerve in Jounouchi’s body seems to fill with ice. He teeters, and the man catches him.

“Don’t touch me, get off me,” Jounouchi says, and, “You—you did this—” 

“I cut off the head,” the man says, mouth tilting into a sarcastic smile. “In a manner of speaking. It’s too soon for homicide. Cut off the head, and everything stops. Works better on humans than on hydras, I’ve found. On cowards and lost souls, anyway. Stand up. There’s a chance his friends will have summoned the police. Or an ambulance, if they’re wise, which I sincerely doubt. No matter. Stand up. We’ve wasted enough time already.” 

“We,” Jounouchi splutters. “There’s no we—”

The hand that grabs his wrist feels like the hand of Death itself.

“No?” the man says. “Isn’t there, Jounouchi Katsuya?”

That cold voice seems to spiral through him: the first frost, curling across a pane of glass. “The scavengers were taken in by that ludicrous little decoy of yours, but I’m not so easy, am I?”

Jounouchi gurgles frantically. He’s frozen in place. He can feel his eyes bulging. His lungs, compressed on an exhalation, ache to inflate again.

His vision is going black around the edges.

“Jounouchi Katsuya,” the man says again, in a voice so quiet it hurts. “Did you think you could escape me?”

His knees buckle. The world winks out.

 

Chapter Text

Jounouchi wakes up, warm and drowsy, glowing inside with the complete certainty that it was all a nightmare. He’s back in Bakura’s bed, in Bakura’s apartment. It’s raining. At any moment now, he’ll hear a key turning in the lock, and Bakura will come in and take off his shoes, and smile, and he’ll say—

What the fuck.” 

Jounouchi blinks. His vision is blurry, but a few more blinks clear things up. He’s gazing dumbly down at his own bare feet and naked legs. The light is red, claret-colored, oddly foggy. He’s still in the water, but the water is scalding hot now, and soft. It feels like a blanket. Hot water pours down on him, envelops him. The steam feels silky in his lungs. Somehow he’s still shivering. He crouches down, hugs his knees closer to his chest. Water drips down his neck, down his chin. It starts to run up his nose and he wheezes and lurches upright.

Not the ocean after all, though it may still be a nightmare. The red lights are mood lighting, and he’s in his briefs, propped up in a gaudy, heart-shaped bathtub. There are no shower curtains; the shower and tub are encased in glass.

Through the fogged up glass, Jounouchi can see the dark shape of the hitman, the monster. He’s pacing back and forth in front of a king-sized bed.

“I’m dead,” Jounouchi whispers to himself. He’s been more than half-drowned, and now an insane yakuza hitman has brought him to a love hotel, stripped him down, and thrown him in the bath. He’s not sure this day can get any worse, but also, no, he’s not daring it to get worse.

It gets worse. 

The man comes striding into the bathroom. He grabs Jounouchi by the arm and hauls him from the water, ignoring the thoroughly unmanly, banshee shriek that Jounouchi lets out.

“You’ve got this all wrong,” Jounouchi babbles, as he half-hops, half-stumbles toward the bed, wriggling desperately and throwing water droplets everywhere. “I’m not interested. Really. Hey! Don’t—don’t, whatever it is you’re thinking, don’t—”

The man flings him toward the bed, but not onto it. Jounouchi takes a gulping breath and immediately heaves it out again, relieved, and his knees give out and he sort of just sits there, breathing, at the foot of the bed, clutching at the sheets. His sea-sodden clothes have been laid out, pockets emptied, across the duvet. Next to the salaryman’s battered briefcase, Jounouchi sees the remnants of his gyudon meal ticket, the arcade stubs, his handful of coins, his ruined wallet. And Bakura’s doll.

“Explain yourself,” the man snarls from behind him.

Jounouchi wants to bristle, to shout, to spin around and punch this asshole in the dick. But he’s so tired. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” It comes out as a squeak. “What? What is it? That’s my stuff.”

“What. Is. This,” the man grates, and he snatches up the little clay doll and shoves it in Jounouchi’s face. All of Bakura’s carefully applied paint has been destroyed by the seawater. Shit. Jounouchi feels improbably guilty.

“It’s a toy,” he says. “A model.”

“It’s not yours, is it,” the man says. “Is it!

“Well—no—” Jounouchi founders. Why is he defending himself to a psycho, a contract killer? “It’s my friend’s. I didn’t steal it, I was—holding onto it for him. I was gonna give it back, I swear—”

The man sits down on the edge of the bed so fast it looks like he’s collapsing, unfolding, unraveling. He rubs his forehead with his hands, then pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Fuck!” he says, emphatically, through his fingers. His face is white.

Jounouchi doesn’t want to put his wet clothes back on. He squats down on the floor in his briefs and watches the man breathe in and out through his thin flared nostrils.

“Look,” he says, finally. “I’m really grateful you showed up when you did and took those guys out. I am. You have a bright future ahead of you in mixed martial arts. Or any martial arts, I guess, mixed or not. I’m, um, I’m gonna go.”

The man says nothing, and Jounouchi starts picking his stuff up. He doesn’t bother putting the coins back in his pocket. He balls up the wet paper and throws it away, then opens up his wallet and starts pulling out soggy bills. “I don’t have a lot, but you can take what you need to cover the room. I’m gonna dry my clothes and—”

“Stay where you are,” the man says, muffled, but ice cold. “Sit the fuck down.”

Jounouchi stills. He sits.

“Seven days ago, on a moonless night, you met a woman in the shadow of an old sawtooth oak tree,” the man says. “You knew who she was because you’d seen her before, in your dreams. On a darkened platform where a single ancient lantern is hanging, with a full round moon in the sky. You know the platform. You know the river.” 

“How—”

The man talks over him. “She said she was the answer to your prayers. And she was beautiful. But more importantly, she was kind. She caught your reaching hands and whispered into your cupped palms, and what she told you was so sweet, so wonderful, you could almost ignore her talons.”

Horror floods Jounouchi, as cold as seawater. Of course—of course. No one is as strong as that, strong enough to bend metal with their bare hands. No human, anyway.

“You’re one of them,” Jounouchi says, feeling sick. “You’re a demon.”

The man—the demon—makes an elaborate show of flicking back his sleeve and checking a nonexistent watch.

“Congratulations,” he says. “It only took you an hour and a half. You’re not a complete loss.”

“What do you want from me?” Jounouchi says.

The demon smiles. It’s not a nice smile. Jounouchi flinches.

“I want your soul,” he says. “Obviously.”

 

He should have known it was too good to be true. Poor Bakura! He’s died in vain. And now Jounouchi will die too, even more horribly than he would have in the water, growing numb and heavy. Hirutani was trying to do him a favor, even if neither of them knew it at the time. 

Jounouchi eyes the window on the far side of the room. The curtains are drawn, and he has no idea what floor they’re on. Either way, if he can break through the glass, he’ll be free.

“Don’t even think about it,” the demon says.

“Okay,” Jounouchi says, and in the next moment his hands are reaching out to crush the demon’s crisp green collar. The demon just looks up at him, cool and calm, his features washed out by the harsh lighting. His eyes are bluer than the water in Domino Bay. 

The hands that come up to grasp his wrists are icy cold.

“Are we going to do this again?” the demon says, fingertips light across Jounouchi’s skin. “I’m not sure your brain cells could take it. Sit down before I hurt you.”

The demon is sweating, Jounouchi notices. The fluorescent light gleams on the wetness of his forehead and the dip beneath his long straight nose.

It’s all Jounouchi needs. He lunges, shouting. The demon tumbles sideways with a bitten off curse; the briefcase hits the floor, and Jounouchi kicks it away. The demon tries to retrieve it and fight Jounouchi off at the same time.

Mistake. Jounouchi has learned a lot of things from Hirutani in the last year—things he was trying hard to forget, but for once he’s glad for the memories.

He hits the demon across the face so many times it should kill him, or at least break his jaw, but nothing happens. The guy’s head doesn’t explode or turn to dust. His nose starts to bleed, and in the fluorescent light, it looks like normal human blood, not glowing ichor.

“For fuck’s sake,” the demon says harshly. He’s breathing hard and bleeding harder. Jounouchi draws back to hit him again and the demon just reaches up and touches his face, palm to cheek, without any force at all.

“Fuck!” Jounouchi manages, before the freeze takes over again. “You motherffff—”

“Listen to me,” the demon says, lying perfectly still beneath him. His voice is soft and insistent. “You don’t want to do this.”

The constriction on his throat is sufficiently weak enough for Jounouchi to grate out, “You’re trying to kill me and drag me down to hell, you son of a bitch. I absolutely—absolutely—want to do this. Ghh—” 

“Is that what you think?” The demon’s voice gets louder. “I don’t want your death, you idiot. I’m not going to eat your liver. I pulled you out of the water for a fucking reason, you miserable creature. So don’t make me choke the life out of you now. It’ll be inconvenient for both of us.”

“Inconvenient—both—” The constriction is almost gone, but Jounouchi is still spluttering, heaving, trying to catch his breath.

“Shizuka,” the demon says, and a deep freeze of another kind settles deep in Jounouchi’s body. Jounouchi’s bones. “It’s a nice name. Pretty girl, too. Pity, though, about her eyes.”

“What did you do to her?” Jounouchi shouts.

“Oh, nothing yet,” the demon says. “Actually, I won’t do anything to her at all. You will. You are.”

Jounouchi falls back, all the strength draining from him.

“What do you mean?” he says. He can barely speak.

“I seem to recall you made a deal,” the demon says. He gets to his feet and retrieves his briefcase, blood dripping as he stoops to pick it up. “You have to keep your end of the bargain. A wooden doll is no substitute for a human soul.”

“So I have to die,” Jounouchi says. “Okay. Okay.” 

“For the last time,” the demon says, very slowly, “you’re no use to me dead. But your soul belongs to me, and you’ll do what I say, if you want Shizuka to keep her pretty little eyes in her pretty little skull. Do you understand now?”

Jounouchi gulps. “Yes,” he says.

A ghastly imitation of a smile stretches the demon’s lips—a dark tilting gash in his dead white face. Jounouchi shudders.

“Good,” the demon says. “Settle your affairs. Meet me at the dock at five p.m. tomorrow. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Don’t bother with your ushabti trick. It won’t work on me.” 

“Wh—” Jounouchi can’t believe his ears. The demon is just going to let him go—let him wander off! He could be sneaking onto a train to Tokyo in an hour.

“And don’t be late,” the demon says. He sneers. “The lovely eyes of Kawai Shizuka depend on your punctuality.”

“I’ll be there,” Jounouchi says.

The demon considers him coldly. Then he swipes at the blood still dripping from his nose and starts to go. At the door, he pauses. He says, “I’ve paid for the room.”

Jounouchi stares at him.

“Uh, okay,” Jounouchi says.

After the door shuts, Jounouchi bolts it, as though the deadbolt and chain will have any effect against a demon who can tear sheet metal in half with his hands. He sits back down at the foot of the bed and breathes until he feels steadier, until his legs aren’t shaking anymore.

He takes stock of his worldly possessions. The demon has taken Bakura’s little clay doll with him.

  

Jounouchi spends his last night on earth at a twenty-four hour manga cafe across the street from the love hotel, in his damp, stinking, salt-crusted clothes. He drinks the free, cheap tea and writes Honda a letter. Well, a more of a postcard. He uses a black marker and scrawls his message out on the back of a manga volume, then tears the cover off. He’ll hide it in their secret spot in the park, under the concrete tunnel.

By the time you get this, I’ll be gone. Sorry. Don’t look for me. Take care of Shizuka.

I like you. But I think you already knew that. 

He doesn’t write that part down.

  

At 4:54 p.m. the next day, Jounouchi is standing on the docks, hands in his pockets. Hirutani is gone, but the shipping container is still busted, still bloodied. He can’t pretend it was just a hallucination. The ground is littered with evidence of the fight: a shoe, a bat, a piece of pipe, and two teeth, a canine and a molar.

“Charming,” the demon says in his ear.

Jounouchi twitches.

“I’m here,” he says. “Like I promised. Sir.” What the hell are you supposed to call a demon? The winged woman just laughed when he begged her for her name and stroked his cheek with a long sharp fingernail.

The demon is wearing the same clothes, too—the same blue suit and green shirt, the collar stiff with old blood. The same shining black shoes. His briefcase looks, if anything, even more battered than it did the day before.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out Bakura’s clay doll and then, before Jounouchi can react, he bites it.

The clay cracks under his teeth, and the world cracks with it. Jounouchi feels a sickening lurch in the pit of his stomach; everything feels dragged sideways. The sky breaks in half, then reforms, black with thunder. Clouds burst; the ocean churns, lashing against the concrete, buffeting Jounouchi with wind and icy water.

The demon hurls one half of the figure into the sea. He grinds the other half to dust under his heel. Lightning flashes. It starts to hail.

Jounouchi watches, wide-eyed. The demon is sweating again—sweating and swaying.

He says, “Get in water.”

Jounouchi’s body obeys; it moves mechanically toward the edge of the concrete. The storm is raging overhead, wrecking the city. Hailstones the size of gumdrops and then pachinko balls clatter down around him. The air rising from the sea feels warm, almost comforting in the midst of the maelstrom. Somehow this is terrifying. It feels like giving up, like death. 

Black water laps at the sides of the concrete. The rain seeps into his shoes, squishes between his toes. The worst part of all of this is the firm grip the demon has on Jounouchi’s right hand. Fingers interlocked and everything. 

“I don’t like it any more than you do,” the demon says. Pause. “Don’t let go.”

They leap in together. The black water closes over their heads.

 

Jounouchi and the demon hang in the water, suspended for minutes or decades. Air bubbles from their lips and nostrils and spirals away into nothing. Then, slowly, the darkness starts to clear, and Jounouchi catches a glimpse of something golden and viscous glimmering above. Honeyed sunlight.

He erupts from the water, snorting and swearing. The demon says nothing at all, but he keeps his death grip on Jounouchi’s hand. They stagger to shore, the sodden and pathetic only contestants of an impromptu three-legged race. 

Jounouchi rolls onto his back and kicks off his shoes. He lies on the warm damp sand and fills his lungs with one heaving breath after another. The sun is burning hot on his skin. It feels amazing.

“Oh, fuck me,” the demon says, sharp and irritated, just as Jounouchi licks his lips and tastes the salt. 

Jounouchi sits up. They’ve crawled out of a different ocean, it seems. The water in Domino Bay was black and churning with hail and rain; this ocean is huge, placid, eternal. The water is almost painfully blue. Jounouchi has never seen water this color before. It gets darker the further out he looks, until the horizon is banded with navy. The water that laps up on the sand is green, the color of young jade.

The demon is sitting beside him, drenched and sullen, staring out across the glittering blue horizon with his white hands clenched in his lap. Water drips down his chin in thin rivulets.

A huge white bird wheels overhead, coasting on the currents.

“Great,” the demon says. He starts to rub his eyes and stops, hissing, probably because the saltwater stings.

“Something wrong?” Jounouchi asks. “Uh—sir?”

“Seahorse.”

“What?” Jounouchi goggles at him.

Kaiba,” the demon repeats, glaring at the water. “My name. Use it. And get up. I’ve wasted enough time.”

“Where are we?” Jounouchi asks, standing up and stretching. He doesn’t get an answer.

The demon—Kaiba—is already picking his way across the sand, meters ahead. He’s taken off his shoes and is dangling them from the fingers of his left hand, oddly careless, and has rolled up the hems of his trousers and put his socks somewhere, probably in his blazer pocket. The briefcase is gone. He’s very tall and very thin, a lonely figure across the expanse of sand and water. 

Jounouchi pauses, looks back out to sea. The water is endless. Domino City is gone.

He turns and follows the demon up the beach.

 

Chapter Text

Yuugi goes to class the next day, and Yami thinks the matter is over, that it’s all behind them now. He sleeps in and makes himself an omurice for lunch. The result is so poorly put together it looks deconstructed, almost avant-garde. Grandpa Mutou has left a one thousand yen note on the kitchen table; Yami assumes that it is for Yuugi and doesn’t touch it. The day is overcast, and his head hurts. He stays inside. He brews some tea and forgets to drink it. The hours tick on.

And then Yuugi doesn’t come home.

For a while, Yami doesn’t panic. He waits. He opens up Yuugi’s tournament save file in The Duel and trounces the beautiful warrior Jamm and the next opponent, a grizzled inventor called Panchos. A few minutes later, he checks Yuugi’s schedule for the fourth time. Yuugi fills his planner out each day and leaves it on his computer desk upstairs especially for Yami, for just these types of situations, so Yami can know when Yuugi has an afternoon study session or is meeting friends after class. But there is nothing written in the planner for today. 

He calls Anzu, eventually. It’s one of the only numbers he has written down in his notebook. But no one answers, so he tries the next number on the page.

Grandpa Mutou picks up on the third ring. He sounds out of breath, and Yami’s heart lurches.

“Oh, Yami,” Grandpa Mutou says, tinny and far away. “I was in the storage room. What is it? Everything okay?” 

“Yuugi isn’t home yet,” Yami says.

“He wouldn’t be, would he?” Grandpa Mutou says. Even over the bad connection, Yami can hear the pride in his tone. “He’s finally taken an interest in the family business.” He sounds amazed and delighted by this news.

“What do you mean?” Yami says.

“A shipment came in from Industrial Illusions,” Grandpa Mutou says. “But it was the wrong one. I ordered the Mothra Ten vinyl figures for the front of the shop, but they sent the Twelve model instead. It’s an easy mistake to make, the lettering is so delicate—well, never mind that. I set the Twelve models aside to ship back, and then, wonder of wonders! Yuugi said he’d deliver them himself! Get to know our partners in the industry, he said. Our partners!”

“No,” Yami breathes.

“Yes!” Grandpa Mutou exclaims. “I’ve tried for so many years to get him involved. I’m so happy, Yami-kun, and I know it’s all due to your steadying influence. Of course—” and Grandpa Mutou’s voice drops, conspiratorial “—I know he wanted to spend some time with Anzu-chan, too. Beautiful girl. Beautiful—uh—figure. Has he asked her out yet, do you know?” 

Yami doesn’t have time to gossip with his grand-uncle. He mumbles something and hangs up blindly, missing the cradle at first and smashing the phone onto the countertop.

Yuugi has taken Anzu into danger, into the grinning shark-mouth of Saruwatari and his dark-suited cronies, even after what happened, even after he saw what those men were capable of. Even after Yami begged him to leave it alone.

Yami would be angry, but he’s just too frightened right now. His breath is coming quickly in his throat.

He gathers what he can from the Mutou household: a cleaver and, pathetically, a bicycle helmet. He hides the cleaver in a backpack and puts the helmet on.

He’s all set to go sprinting out into Domino City when he realizes that he doesn’t know where Industrial Illusions is. And he’s torn up Saruwatari’s snow-white-and-blood-red business card.

So Yami sits on the front step, helmeted head in his hands, feeling the pressure building behind his eyes, until a black car pulls up in front of the gate.

The windows are tinted; Yami can’t see inside. The door nearest to the curb swings open, and a man with slate gray hair, neatly parted, and a slate gray moustache, neatly combed, steps forth onto the sidewalk. He’s wearing a dark suit and dark glasses. He sees Yami sitting forlorn and abandoned on the front step and bows carefully from the waist.

“Yami-sama,” he says. “I am relieved to see you alive and well. I am your humble servant, Croquet.”

 

Yami gets in the car. The seats are upholstered in smooth tan leather, and they are deep and plush and springy. The partition is down, but all Yami can see of the driver is a fantastically bizarre hairstyle and a hulking body bulging out of a dark suit. Croquet has closed the door behind Yami, trapping him in the back seat; a moment later, he opens the passenger-side door and slides in. He murmurs something to the driver. The car engine barely makes a sound as they accelerate over the asphalt, and Yami realizes, too late, that he’s forgotten to lock the front door.

  

His first glimpse of Industrial Illusions is through the windshield. His immediate giddy thought is that it looks like a giant cocoon: a curved shell of intricately laced white metal encompasses the building, meeting in a point some forty stories above in the sky. Parallel red lines run the length of the tower within, recalling the double red pillars of Saruwatari’s card.

The car has pulled up to an actual red carpet, which runs over the sidewalk and into the building. A pair of suits wait by the huge, arcing front entrance, backs ramrod straight, arms at their sides.

Yami only has a moment to wonder why he’s never seen this building before. But then, maybe he has, and has simply forgotten about it. 

“Please,” Croquet says; he gets out first and opens Yami’s door for him. Yami’s boots sink into the carpet.

The car moves off with a low purr. Croquet bows again, deeply and precisely. The movement makes his hair swoop down over his aged face; his moustache does not budge.

“Please,” he says, for a second time, and gestures for Yami to walk ahead of him.

The suits at the automatic doors don’t even check his bag. Yami staggers past them, armed with his cleaver, wearing Yuugi’s bike helmet, so dizzy with anxiety that he feels like he’s on a boat, adrift in dangerous seas. 

 

There’s no other word for the lobby: it’s luscious. The walls and floors are long, glossy expanses of lustrous white. The same cocoon effect of the exterior shell is in play here too, as narrow white beams lace across the ceiling and cradle the elevators. A symmetrical, slender woman of indeterminate age, with a straight fringe brushing low over fine hazel eyes, sits at a wide, curved white desk. She wears a navy blue blazer over a creamy white shirt, and the blazer lapel has been stabbed with a small red enamel pin: the Industrial Illusions double pillars again. She bows to Croquet, a slight, elegant gesture that he returns, and then to Yami, bowing over hands folded flat, so deeply that her fringe sweeps the desk. There is no one else in the lobby.

“Please,” Croquet says, for the umpteenth time, and indicates the bank of elevators. As Yami approaches, the central elevator, slightly larger than the rest, slides noiselessly open.

Its interior is jet black, polished to a high gloss. There are no windows and no handholds, and the interior is strangely narrow. Yami can see himself and his stupid bike helmet reflected in all four surfaces of the cube, hunched and nervous beside the reflection of Croquet, who looks official and bland all at once. 

There are no buttons, but there is no need for buttons. As soon as the door glides shut, the elevator begins to move, humming upward at an astonishing speed. Yami’s ears pop several times.

  

The elevator opens into a gamer’s paradise. Memorabilia from countless games and movies have been arranged in exhibits, in glass cases, in the open air on gleaming black tables. A menacing, buck-toothed rabbit scales a plush black castle. A Kuriboh mobile hangs suspended from the ceiling, spinning slowly. An elaborate, gilded pinball machine occupies a central space, emblazoned with images of cartoon kings and jesters.

Through the white lattice of the building’s exterior shell lies a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view of Domino City. The clock tower is in the distance, oddly diminished in daylight, and several stories below. It looks like a model.

Scattered among the soft toys and figurines and plaques and posters are various tropical plants, the likes of which Yami has never seen. Sunlight seems to burn from within the wide and colorful leaves, turning everything to jade and emerald and deep, glowing amethyst. The air is warm, humid, and still; the scene is lush and utterly baffling.

Suddenly, Yami hears laughter. Croquet draws back the broad leaves of a huge, palm-like plant, as though pulling back a curtain. 

“Yuugi!” The name bursts from his mouth before he can stop it. He sees Yuugi bending over a display case of oversized Ultraman and monster models, knees bent, his little hands and nose pressed to the cage. The Ultraman is in a defiant pose, striking out against real, creeping vines and variegated leaves which have encroached on the display from a lacquered blue pot sitting nearby on the table. This plant Yami recognizes; Grandpa Mutou keeps one in the living room. It’s a money plant, a silver vine. The devil’s ivy.

Yuugi, pink-cheeked and smiling, looks up in surprise. His eyes widen and then crinkle with pleasure.

“Yami!” he says. “What are you doing here? What are you wearing? Is that Grandpa’s helmet?”

Anzu is with him, wearing a black sundress and periwinkle cardigan, comfortably ensconced in the crook of a red velvet sofa. It has a curved back, plump tufts hammered with diamante-headed nails, and four almost painfully shiny ebony legs that end in clawed feet. She’s dangling a slim goblet of dark red liquid carelessly from one hand, barely holding the stem with her index finger and thumb. She, too, is pink-cheeked and smiling.

Yami, scanning the room for Saruwatari and Cueball, sees no one but Yuugi and Anzu amid a teeming throng of leaves and stems and super-deformed chibi dolls.

Then the extravagantly, exaggeratedly tall maroon wingback chair opposite Anzu’s sofa slides noiselessly back over the tile, and the tall, broad figure of a man unfolds to greet him. The man is wearing a blood red double-breasted suit trimmed with gold, over the shoulders of which spills long, silky, silvery white hair.

Yami’s heart seems to judder against his ribs. White—a gleam of white—

The hair is immaculately combed and shaped, sleek, slicked-down. It falls over one half of the man’s face, obscuring it, apparently intentionally. Near the hair, like a fresh wound in the long, mournful white face, half a mouth smiles at Yami and reveals half a mouth’s worth of pearly white teeth, unusually small and rounded.

“Croquet, you darling, darling man,” the white-haired man says, setting his own wineglass down on a gold-and-glass end table. His voice is as rich as the red of his suit, almost unctuous. It pours over them all like sticky amber, and Yami is trapped. “You found him after all.”

Croquet does not reply. He merely bows, his hair swooping forward over the hollows of his wizened old cheeks. Yami has now seen enough of Croquet’s bowing to recognize something different, almost jaunty—triumphant—in this one’s aspect.

“Leave us,” the man says, and Croquet obeys in silence. He steps backward into the elevator, and the door closes quietly, entombing him and cutting Yami away from the world beyond this mad jumble of toys and terraria.

“Well, well,” the man says, stepping closer. He is, Yami realizes, also wearing lace: a veritable fountain of it at his wrists and throat, and the waterfall of lace at his neck is bound with a thin black ribbon, expertly tied. “Well, well, Yami-sama. Yami-sama, at last. At long last. I do like your hat.”

It has to be cosplay. Yami wracks his brains for the appropriate video game character and comes up empty. Yuugi probably knows, but Yuugi has gone back to examining Ultraman in his fight against the devil’s ivy.

“Who are you?” Yami says. “What do you want?”

“Pegasus J. Crawford,” the man says. “President and founder of Industrial Illusions, creator of the Toon Monsters brand, and many others besides. I’m a big fan, m’lud. A big fan.” His single visible brown eye glitters. “And I want you.” 

“I—what?” Yami says. 

Anzu giggles. “Mister Crawford, you can’t say things like that,” she says. Her voice is blurry, sleepy. “You really can’t.”

“Oh, I do beg your forgiveness,” Pegasus J. Crawford says, turning to her and lifting her hand delicately to his lips. “What should one say?” 

“He means he wants to collaborate,” Anzu tells Yami, exuberantly. “He wants to partner up, partner.” She adds, “Mister Crawford is from America!”

“Raised but not born,” Pegasus J. Crawford says, improbably. Now that Yami listens closely, he can hear something a little strange in Crawford’s voice, a slight, almost comical lilt. “What I want, if I am putting this correctly, is an alliance.” 

Yami is a nineteen year old boy with a bicycle helmet on his head and a cleaver in his backpack. His shoes are scuffed, and his shirt is wrinkled and mostly untucked.

Pegasus J. Crawford, on the other hand, is tall, and beautiful, and gaudy. He finds his wineglass again and stands there sipping, looking down the straight narrow bridge of his nose at Yami.

“I don’t understand,” Yami says.

“May we speak privately?” Crawford says. “Your associates are charming, but the time has come to talk business.” 

“My friends will stay,” Yami says, with an imperiousness he doesn’t feel. “Whatever it is you have to say, you can say in front of them.”

“How delightful,” Crawford says, smiling again with half a mouth. “In that case: will you sit? Please do. Right this way. Something to drink? A toast, perhaps—to new ventures?”

Yami waves off the crystal goblet and decanter.

“I’m only nineteen,” he says. He frowns at Yuugi’s back. Yuugi has just turned eighteen and shouldn’t be drinking either. Certainly not in a weird, cosplaying American CEO’s combined penthouse jungle and playroom. 

“Are you, indeed,” Crawford says, perturbingly.

“Seriously, take that thing off,” Yuugi says, spinning around and coming back to join them. He’s more than pink now; he’s flushed, and his eyes are bright. He reaches unsteadily for Yami’s face and manages to get his hands on the buckle under Yami’s chin. His fingers are soft and moist. “You look totally stupid.”

“Don’t,” Yami says, pushing him off. “Yuugi, this is serious.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to take this somewhere more—” Crawford pauses, searches for the right word, goes wide “—intimate?”

Anzu snorts quietly into her goblet.

“Stop it,” Yami mutters to her. “Stop it. This is serious,” he says again. Anzu just grins at him over the edge of her glass. She isn’t wearing her circle lenses today, but her eyes look huge, her pupils blown big and dark. Belladona eyes. Her wine sloshes, spills down the front of her dress.

“Oops,” she says happily.

“I don’t know what you want,” Yami says to Crawford, who is watching intently, leaning forward in his wingback. His shoes are patent leather, shining so brightly they look plastic. Yami tries one more time. “I think you’re confused. You’re thinking of someone else.”

“Am I?” Crawford says. “Please don’t be coy. You may have thrown it all away on a whim, but we’re still here. We’re still waiting, wishing, hoping.” His single eye narrows with laughter. “Praying.”

“Uh,” Yami says.

“Don’t you want it back?” Crawford says. “Don’t you miss it? They all think you’re dead. Think of their faces when you come back. With me at your side! Think what we could do—together!” 

Anzu slumps over the arm of the sofa, and her goblet slips from her fingers with a clatter. It doesn’t shatter; it rolls in a slow circle over the tile, spreading wine like a bloodstain.

Yami turns to her, alarmed; then he whirls back with a cry as Yuugi begins folding forward, drooping until his spiky head hits the seat, taking Yami’s helmet with him as he goes. It, too, makes a ferocious noise as it hits the floor, but neither Anzu nor Yuugi stir.

“What have you done to them?” Yami demands. “Yuugi! Anzu!” He grabs Crawford by the lacy cravat. “What the hell did you put in the wine?”

“Nothing, oh, nothing at all,” Crawford says softly. “Nothing in the wine. A fine vintage, though nothing special.”

He starts to remove Yami’s hands from his shirt-front; Yami, repulsed, jerks away and sinks back onto the sofa.

Crawford smooths his suit. “It’s hard for humans in my realm of shadows,” he says. “Hard to breathe. Hard to thrive. Harder still to remain alive.” He looks benignly down at Yuugi and Anzu’s unconscious faces. “So they’re human after all, are they?” he murmurs. “Look at them, look at their sleepy, grubby bodies. How weak they all seem to be. And these are the creatures you’ve chosen to surround yourself with. How very interesting. How open-minded.”

“Stop this!” Yami shouts.

It is very dark in the penthouse, in this jungle of overgrown, alien plants and staring cartoon eyes. It is as though a thundercloud has descended over the cocoon, roiling and purple, obliterating Domino City from sight.

In this tumultuous darkness, Pegasus J. Crawford’s single eye is gleaming gold. It is suddenly all that Yami can see. It’s the wrong eye; it’s not an eye at all; there is no eye there. Crawford has brushed his hair back behind his ear, and there is no eye on that side of his face. It’s a light emitting from an empty socket.

A monster’s face.

“You see, my lord, what I am capable of,” the monster says. “I too control a realm of shadows. Am I not worthy? Your father’s advisors sent me away. They called me a toady, a ghoul, a foul climber, a licker of boots and worse. Now those advisors are dead. I alone support you. I alone will be the staff you lean on. Come, take my hand. Let us seal the bargain. I will restore you to your former glory and raise you higher than you could have ever thought possible. I am possessed of abounding wealth on both sides of the world. We will rebuild your palace with gold and bone. This I swear.” 

“Stop,” Yami says, numb. “Stop this. Bring them back.”

He is gripping the edge of the sofa with his left hand, and Yuugi’s limp fourth and pinky fingers with his right, but slowly, carefully, Pegasus J. Crawford lifts his right hand and uncurls its fingers one by one.

 

Yami’s salvation comes in the form of a literal bolt of lightning. It strikes the cocoon head-on, freezing everything into white silence, overwhelming the golden glow of Pegasus J. Crawford’s empty socket, vanishing it. Yami, maddened, seems to feel the current running through him, up through Yuugi’s metal-buckled boots and their clasped hands, into his shoulder and down his other arm. Crawford lets go of him, perhaps out of shock. Seconds later, the resulting clap of thunder shakes the building, drowning out the hiss emanating from Crawford’s lips. It starts to hail.

“Oh, no,” Anzu says, on his left. He spins around to gape at her. She’s sitting upright again, perfectly conscious and unharmed, one leg crossed over the other, staring out the magnificent wrap-around windows. Yami follows her dismayed gaze. Through the lattice of the cocoon, he sees that a storm has broken out, churning the sea in the distance.

Yuugi is standing by the Ultraman display case, silhouetted, still peering into its depths, brushing at the devil’s ivy, as though he never moved at all.

And Pegasus is bending, smoothly, righting Anzu’s dropped glass. The floor is clean; Anzu’s glass is empty, has always been empty. He sets it on the table beside his own.

“The weather was so nice earlier,” Anzu continues, mournfully.

“Shall I have Croquet run you home?” Crawford says. “It’s no trouble.” He presses a button, and something chimes in the ceiling.

A woman’s voice issues from a hidden intercom. “Yes, Master Crawford?”

“Send Croquet up, please,” Crawford says. “And get the car ready. My guests are leaving.”

“As you wish.”

“Oh, thank you,” Anzu says.

“It’s been a pleasure,” Crawford says. “My pleasure, absolutely. How nice to have a visit from our distributors. I always like to meet the enterprising young people behind our success. It’s thanks to family businesses like yours...”

Yuugi looks a little bored by this speech; Anzu positively glows on his behalf. Yami takes it all in, slack-jawed. His heart has finally stopped pounding. He turns toward the window, toward the hail, which has softened into rain.

“Yami?”

Yami blinks. Yuugi is standing beside him, watching him with concern. He’s holding two glossy, structured white bags, one in each hand, each bag marked with the double pillar logo and loaded with individually packaged Mothra figurines.

“You okay?” Yuugi asks.

“Yeah,” Yami says, after a pause. He tries to stand and discovers that his legs are wobbling. 

“Master Crawford,” Croquet says, behind them. The elevator has slid open, and its black interior beckons. Yuugi leads the way, with easy, cheerful steps; Anzu follows, adjusting the hem of her dress. Yami is the last to enter, and Crawford’s single brown eye follows him as he does. 

“I'll see you again soon,” Crawford says.

  

In the car, with Yuugi sandwiched in the middle seat, the bags of Mothras on his lap; Anzu looking dreamily out the window; Croquet sitting stiffly, ramrod straight, in the passenger seat; and a new dark-suited driver with a hairstyle equally bad as the last driver’s, Yami tears his gaze away from the receding view of the Industrial Illusions tower. The lightning strikes continue in the distance, gashes of blue and purple in the sky.

The back of his neck prickles; he can feel Pegasus J. Crawford’s false golden eye on him, watching him across the miles.

He looks down at his right hand. There is a red mark beginning to grow and itch and sting in the center of his palm. A burn.

 

Chapter Text

“Back to square one,” Yuugi says.

Yami’s fury at Yuugi has burnt itself out, leaving nothing but cold ash in its wake. He knows Yuugi can sense this, and that Yuugi is baffled by it. He eats silently, and steadily, pushing rice into his mouth, barely bothering to chew.

“Yami…” Yuugi says. 

“I told you to forget about it,” Yami says flatly. “What did you do instead? You walked straight into the monster’s lair and took Anzu with you. You didn’t even tell me what you were planning.”

“First of all, of course I wouldn’t have told you,” Yuugi says. “You took it so badly when I suggested it. Secondly, we didn’t walk; we took the train. Thirdly, monster?” Yuugi has given up the pretense of eating dinner altogether. He pushes his food to the side. “Come on, Yami. Sure, he was a little weird, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say—”

“You didn’t see what I saw,” Yami says.

“Well, what did you see?” Yuugi demands. “You won’t even tell me!”

“That’s because—that’s because you’re going to think I’m crazy,” Yami says. “You’ll say I need to get my head checked.”

“No, I won’t,” Yuugi says. “Because you already get it checked. Twice a month.”

“He drugged you,” Yami says. “You and Anzu. You were both drinking wine from crystal goblets, and then you passed out. You just fell over. It—scared me.”

Yuugi looks like he wants to scoff, but he holds himself back. “Okay,” he says. “Go on.”

“Then the sky went dark.”

“It was about to rain, but all right,” Yuugi says.

“Fuck,” Yami mutters. “I know what I saw.”

“Sorry,” Yuugi says, stalling him as he starts to get up to go. His hand is so gentle on Yami’s. “No, wait. I’m sorry, Yami. What happened next?”

“I saw his eye,” Yami says. “The one he was hiding, under his hair. It’s not an eye at all, Yuugi. It’s a—doorway. There was a hole in his head.” He sits back, defeated. “I know how crazy this sounds, you don’t have to tell me.”

“Yeah,” Yuugi says. But—

“It does sound crazy,” Yuugi goes on, and he squeezes Yami’s hand. “Thank you for telling me. I believe you.”

Yami gapes at him. “You do?” 

“Yeah, I do,” Yuugi says. “You’d do the same for me, after all.”

Yami tears his hand away. “Damn it—no! This isn’t about showing your support, or being a good friend, or a good relative. Don’t humor me.”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” Yuugi says. “I think—I think it is your head. No, Yami. Wait. I don’t mean it like that. I mean that whatever happened to you, it’s changed your perception of reality—I can’t see what you see, but I know that what you see is real to you—”

Yami runs, actually runs, up the stairs to his room in the attic. And slams the door. Grandpa Mutou isn’t home to hear it or murmur to himself about Yami’s rebellious age.

He lies on his bed and stares at his palm. The burn is starting to coalesce. It looks like an eye.

  

Yuugi calls Anzu, because of course he does.

She comes over and knocks on Yami’s door until he relents and lets her in. But only if Yuugi isn’t there, because he can’t bear to look at Yuugi’s face right now.

“Did Yuugi tell you that I’m a lunatic with a traumatic brain injury?” Yami says.

“No, but I do know that you have a traumatic brain injury,” Anzu says. “You told me about it months ago. It makes you a little forgetful and you get headaches. But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Are you here because I’m a lunatic who hallucinates things?” Yami says next.

“No,” she says, patiently. “I’m here because you’re my friend. I’m sorry that Yuugi and I did this behind your back. We only wanted to help, but it was wrong, and I’m sorry, and Yuugi is too, even if he won’t admit it.”

“Weren’t you scared?” Yami says. “These are the same people who attacked you.”

“I thought they would be less likely to do it in broad daylight,” Anzu answers. “Also, I put a knife in my bag before we went.”

Yami blinks at this. “Oh,” he says. “Me too.”

She laughs. “Yeah, but you went a step further and got some body armor.”

“A bicycle helmet,” Yami says. “Foolproof.”

“You probably know better than I do how frustrating Yuugi can be sometimes,” Anzu says. “He gets these crazy ideas. He thinks the world is full of good people who behave a certain way, and when they don’t, he wants to stop them, and he wants to help them to change. I don’t know if you remember, but that’s how he got me fired from Burger World, fighting with a customer who was rude to me. He didn’t mean to, but those were the consequences. And then he followed the manager around for weeks asking her to give me my job back, like that would convince her. Man, I was so angry.” She laughs at the memory.

“That’s fine,” Yami says. “It’s fine if Yuugi is like that. But these are my memories. I don’t want them back.”

“Yeah, that’s what’s weird to me,” Anzu says. “May I sit?”

Yami nods, and she sits down on his bed.

Why don’t you want to remember?” she asks. “You already know the bad things that have happened. Your grandmother died, and you were badly hurt. What harm could come from learning about your life before the accident?”

“I’m happy with the way things are,” Yami says.

“I don’t think you are,” Anzu says. “I’m sorry, Yami-kun. Yuugi told me—he told me how you never really go outside. You don’t talk to anyone else. You haven’t made any moves to register at university. You never go to the shop. You just—exist. He worries about you. We both do.” 

“What would you do?” Yami wants to know.

“If it were me,” Anzu says, “I’d be scared too. But I would want to know. I’d chase after those memories with all my heart, because they would be my precious memories.” 

She coaxes him into coming back downstairs, where Yuugi is waiting with a hopeful expression and three mugs of hot chocolate. They watch a movie selected at random from Grandpa Mutou’s collection of VHS tapes. After the movie, Anzu goes home, and Yami and Yuugi play three hours of Mario Kart before falling asleep on the couch.

 

Yami goes to meet Yuugi after class the next day. He decides to do this after his talk with Anzu the night before, to make an effort, to show Yuugi that he is happy. That he can function. The world is hypersaturated with noise and color, and he loses his way twice, but soon he sees the front gates of the Domino campus. There’s some kind of festival going on.

“Yami!” Yuugi looks so delighted to see him that his heart seizes up in his chest, all arguments forgotten.

It turns out that Yuugi’s group, the Dungeon Masters Club, is operating a snack booth at the festival. They are fundraising to buy new gaming equipment. Yami meets Yuugi’s fellow club members and promptly forgets their names, but he does his part, smoldering at the young ladies who walk by in an attempt to get them to buy more snacks. 

“Why don’t you go have a look around?” Yuugi suggests. “We’re going to hit our goal ahead of schedule, thanks to you. Anzu’s club is here too, they’re selling crepes!”

“I know what you’re doing,” Yami says.

“Just have a look,” Yuugi says. “Even if you don’t want to go to university, this is your chance to see what student life is like. Go on.”

“Fine,” Yami says. He says goodbye to Yuugi’s clubmates, who look sad to see him go, and heads across the quad.

He walks by students with flyers, students with samples, and students with glittering batons. A band is performing on a small sound-stage, belting out the latest pop tunes. He spots Anzu, dancing along to the music at her own booth. She’s wearing a pink apron with white polka dots and big golden hoops in her ears. 

“Yami!” She waves him over.

“Ooh, boyfriend?” drawls her companion, a tall young woman with dyed red hair.

Anzu introduces them. “This is Yuugi’s cousin,” she says. “So how do you like the festival? Can I interest you in a crepe? Strawberry, banana, chocolate, or plain? Two hundred yen, please.”

“One hundred yen for you, cutie,” her friend says. Yami has already forgotten her name.

“No, thanks,” he says, but he puts two coins in Anzu’s friend’s outstretched hand as a donation. “I’m just waiting for Yuugi to finish his shift.” 

“Well, you’re going to be waiting a while,” Anzu says. “I think he’s on deck until four o’clock. I’m ready to take a break, though. Want to walk around with me?”

“Are you in on this too?” Yami says. 

She blinks at him. “In on what?”

“The whole getting me to want to go to university thing,” he says.

“Oh,” she says. “I guess that would be fun. We could meet up between classes. Do you want to?”

“No,” he says. He can barely write his own name.

“Oh, look at this,” Anzu says. She grabs his hand and leads him toward a tent, almost bouncing in excitement. “The Circus Club,” she reads from a flyer handed to them by a silent clown. “Juggling and acrobatics. That’s pretty cool!” 

She lets go, fluttering off to join the acrobats, who are demonstrating handstands. Yami wanders a few more steps, hands in his pockets.

He stops in front of a stretch of broken-down cardboard boxes, laid out in a square like a picnic cloth. Various charms and amulets are spread across the surface, unlabeled and unpriced. After some difficulty, he pieces together the kana on the paper sign: Fortunes told

“Wanna know your future?” the man sitting on the cardboard says. Yami does a double-take. The man is so huge, so bulky, that Yami almost can’t believe he didn’t notice him sooner. He’s the size of a bear under his theatrical black cloak, the hood of which is drawn low over his eyes. Yami can only see the aquiline line of his nose and the blue shadow of a beard on his chin. His speech is ever so slightly slurred. He might be a foreign student.

“Are you the Occult Club?” Yami asks. He knows Yuugi was vacillating back and forth between Occult and Gaming for the longest time; they ended up settling it with a coin toss. Based on what he’s seen so far today, it looks like it was a lucky throw. All the same, he’s curious. He feels drawn to the fortune teller, a satellite being pulled into the black orbit of an unknown, unknowable planet. “How much?”

“Whatever you wanna pay,” the man says. “Whatever you think your future is worth. I also accept beer. Have a seat.”

Yami sits, adopting the same cross-legged posture. He puts two coins into the collection jar, which is an empty beer can. They fall in with a clatter; from the sound of it, the fortune teller has not been doing well this afternoon.

“Cheers,” the man says. “Hand.”

“What?” Yami says.

“Gimme your hand,” the man says.

Yami starts to hold out his right hand, then thinks better of it. He keeps it curled into a fist and offers his left hand to the fortune teller.

“Cool,” the man says. “Okay. It looks like you’re not very happy.”

“Are you getting that from my palm or from my face?” Yami says, dry.

“Ha ha, very funny,” the man says. Yami notices, with an internal shudder, that the man’s fingertips are grimy. There is deep red-brown dirt embedded beneath his nails, the color of old blood. “Your health line ain’t lookin’ so great either.”

“Is that all?” Yami says. He tries to pull his hand back, but the man just holds on tighter.

“Well, well, well,” the man says, jabbing at Yami’s palm. “I knew I sensed something in you. A gnawing pain. It was making you all hunched and old inside. Like another person altogether. And would you look at this: stars across the heart line, dragging upward. Unrequited love, huh?”

“I thought this was going to be about my future,” Yami says.

“Oh, did I get it right?” the man says, leering down at Yami. “I hit the nail on the head—or should I say the heart? Young lover, do you want a cure for what ails you? Close your eyes, and we’ll take a look together. Go on, go on. I’ll show you a beautiful future.”

Yami, somewhat unwillingly, lets his eyes shut. The noise of the festival fades, the light dims; the darkness behind his eyes becomes overwhelming.

He sees something then, someone, walking steadily from the darkness toward him.

“Yuugi?”

Yuugi smiles up at him. He doesn’t speak. His cheeks are pink, and his eyes are shining, and—

His lips are so, so soft. His body is warm against Yami’s, pressing ever closer. Yami can feel the air shivering in his throat. He wants more than anything to throw his arms around Yuugi, drag him to the ground—

I belong to you,” Yuugi says.

Bite him, make him cry out—

I don’t need anyone else,” Yuugi says. “You’re all I want. Tell me you love me. That’s all I want to hear.

“This is wrong,” Yami blurts, recoiling.

“It could all be yours,” the fortune teller says. Yami feels him then, pressing down on his hand, punishingly hard. His voice is raw velvet; his body fills the darkness, towering over Yami. “I could give it to you, for the right price. What do you say? The one you love could be yours forever. Never leave you, never lie to you. Never love anyone but you. Live for you. Die for you.”

Yuugi is still smiling at him, but his eyes are dull, unseeing. His limbs dangle: the puppet cut free from its strings. “I am yours,” he says, and he staggers forward, head tilting to one side.

“No,” Yami says, “Not like this.”

He wrenches his hand away, and the scene is extinguished; they’re back on Domino University green, kneeling over the cardboard.

“Aw, come on,” the fortune teller says, scowling, “come on,” and grabs at Yami’s limp unresisting hand—at the wrong hand

At the moment of contact, Yami feels a sickening shudder go through his entire body.

The fortune teller’s mouth falls open. A ripple goes through him, shaking the folds of his cloak. When he speaks, his voice is wrong: it was oily and caressing before, knowing, insinuating, and now it’s flat, emotionless. Every syllable is like a lead weight dropping into the palm of Yami’s outstretched hand.

“The king is dead,” the fortune teller says, squeezing Yami’s fingers so hard that Yami thinks his bones will crumble.

“Let go,” Yami says.

The fortune teller’s hood blasts back: he has a huge, ugly, ogre’s head; his hair is ragged yellow straw and his breath is foul. His blue eyes bore into Yami’s soul

“The king is dead,” he says, wooden. “Long live the king.”

“There you are!” 

Anzu’s voice breaks the spell. Yami blinks darkness away from his eyes, looks up. She’s standing in front of him with her hands on her hips, smiling down at him, at the probably very stupid expression on his face.

“I got the details for their next performance,” Anzu is saying. “The acrobats. They’re doing a joint performance with the Traditional Arts Club, and it’ll be Kenshin themed! Isn’t that weird? Do you think Yuugi will be interested? Hey—are you okay?”

Yami swallows. “Yeah,” he says. “Just daydreaming, I guess.”

He’s alone on the green, hands limp by his sides. An empty beer can lies crushed in the grass beside him. The fortune teller, if he ever existed at all, is nowhere to be seen.

Anzu helps him to his feet, and they walk around the remainder of the perimeter, Yami dazed, Anzu chatting about nothing in particular. Yami notes the booth of the real Occult Club, decorated with horror movie posters. Then Anzu’s break ends, and Yami goes back to haunting Yuugi’s booth until closing. He doesn’t try to smolder anymore, but the coins still pour in, much to the three Dungeon Masters’ delight. 

“No, you go on ahead, Ryuzaki-kun, Haga-kun,” Yuugi says. He knocks his shoulder companionably against Yami’s. “We’ll clean up. Good work today.”

“Good work,” Yami echoes, vaguely. 

Yuugi waits until his clubmates have gone. Then he says, “Are you okay?”

Yami half-laughs, half-sighs. Of course he isn’t, and of course Yuugi can tell.

“I’m fine,” he says. Yuugi is looking at him doubtfully. “I’m fine,” Yami insists.

“Well, help me with this garbage,” Yuugi says, “and let’s go get something to eat.” He shakes the jar containing today’s earnings; it has a satisfyingly heavy jingle to it. “My treat.”

“That’s improper use of club funds,” Yami says, mock-stern. “That’s embezzling.” 

“Oh, shut up,” Yuugi says. “We’re way over our target. We could buy four dungeon dice sets with this. Let me treat you, Yami, okay? Consider it payment for, uh—” he grins “—for your hard work today.” 

 

They are walking the last back of trash out to the street when a noise catches Yami’s attention. He looks up and sees a figure, all in black, draped in a long cloak, waiting at the other end of the street. At first he thinks it must be the fortune teller, but the fortune teller was the size of an ogre, a mountain troll, and this new figure is tall and thin, a black line in the distance.

“Fuck,” Yami says.

“What?” Yuugi says, and, “Oh, not again,” and it’s all he has time to say before the cloak comes alive: the asphalt ripples like a daytime heat mirage under its hem; hands too long and sharp to be human reach out from beneath folds of fabric, distended, grasping. Below the heavy, hanging hood, Yami sees teeth bared in a hideous smile—he sees— 

Combustible trash flies into the air as the cloaked figure flings itself toward them, the sharp inhuman hand extended like a blade. Yami counters with the nearest thing he can reach—

The lid of the trash can all but folds in half with the force of the blow, crumpling around Yami’s left fist like aluminum foil.

Yuugi reels away from the noise, yelling. “What the ffff—”

Yami draws back his arm, mangled lid and all, and punches, and his fist sinks into the dark depths of the cloak and hits—nothing at all, there’s nothing in there—

Yuugi swings the bag of trash, which explodes on impact. Styrofoam and fragments of plastic rain down. The figure turns on him, and Yuugi stumbles backward and falls.

“Yuugi!”

Yami throws out his right hand, unthinking, and fire bursts from the mark at the center of his palm. The air is momentarily so hot that he feels blinded by it. 

“What the fuck!” Yuugi screams, and gets the whole word out this time. 

Before Yami can react, move, do anything, the cloak leaps at him, carrying him to the ground with its momentum and crushing all the breath out of his lungs. The lid clatters away; the fire flutters; sharp fingers close around Yami’s face.

His brain rattles in his skull. He scrabbles at the cloak, at whatever lies under the hood, scattering sparks, but he can’t see—his vision is going black, and there’s nothing there—there’s nothing underneath

Men! Tsuki!

His assailant stiffens and slowly, oh so slowly, topples over. 

Blinking, Yami sees Yuugi bent double and panting, a discarded wooden plank held across his thighs. 

“There,” Yuugi wheezes. “I told you I’d be awesome at kendo.”

  

They bind their assailant with leftover zip-ties and sit on him, waiting for him to wake up.

“That was amazing,” Yuugi says. “Did you find the blowtorch from the pastry tent? They shouldn’t have thrown it out with the regular trash, I don’t think. It’s not safe. But I’m glad they did.”

Yami doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want to argue again. Yuugi may have seen the fire, but he’ll never believe where it came from. 

He gulps down a breath. He opens his hand—scorch marks.

“Oh, shit! Are you okay?” Yuugi says, snatching up Yami’s hand and peering at it. The burns today look less like an eye and more like a sharp-petaled flower, slowly blossoming across Yami’s palm.

“I’m fine,” Yami says, pulling his hand away and curling it back into a fist in his lap. “And you? Did he hurt you?”

“Nah,” Yuugi says. “Just gave me a fright. We should really stop hanging out in alleys. Or around trash, generally. Seems to draw the baddies.”

They both turn to look at the unconscious man in the cloak. He’s thin and pale and bald, with hollow cheeks, blue-tinged lips, and a number of inexplicable, painful-looking piercings down one side of his face. The cloak is a bizarre touch: cut from beautiful, heavy cloth, embellished with two golden chains across the chest that serve no apparent purpose, it looks too expensive and detailed to be a costume. But it has to be.

“More cosplay,” Yami says, rubbing the fabric between the thumb and index finger of his unburned hand. “Do you think Industrial Illusions makes all its employees wear costumes?”

He can’t see Yuugi’s face, but he can hear the discomfort in his voice. “I know we disagree on this point,” Yuugi says carefully, “but I don’t think Mister Crawford had anything to do with this.” 

“Okay, maybe not Crawford,” Yami says, not believing it, but needing Yuugi to stay engaged. “What about Saruwatari? Maybe he went rogue.”

Yuugi seems to be considering. “Yeah,” he says finally. “That makes sense. He was a jerk.” 

He pats the less pierced side of the unconscious man’s face with his hand, gently, and then slaps it once.

“Yuugi!” Yami says, appalled. 

“It’d be easier to just ask, don’t you think?” Yuugi says. “Hey, mister. Wakey wakey.” 

The man groans. Yami, twitching, grabs the plank and holds it at the ready. Yuugi doesn’t quite laugh at him. He goes still.

The man opens his eyes, and Yami recoils: there’s something wrong with him. His pupils are different sizes; his eyes seem to stare straight through them. They’re hollow and sunken and gray, the pinpoints of light already extinguished: a corpse’s eyes, beginning to decay. The man’s dry lips crack open.

Then—

I—found—you,” the man whispers. His voice doesn’t match the movement of his lips. His wide, staring gray eyes seem to pierce Yami’s heart. The voice rises into a shriek. “You’re—alive! Alive! ALIVE!

“Yami!” Yuugi says. His hands tighten around Yami’s arm, clutching at him. “Yami—”

Yami nods. “I see it. Don’t touch him.”

Blood is dripping slowly down the man’s face, trickling in dark rivulets from his ears and nose. His bleeding lips stretch into a beatific smile.

“Oh my god,” Yuugi says, horrified. “Did I do that? I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to!”

“He attacked us,” Yami says forcefully. “You did what you had to. Go call 119. Go!”

Yuugi nods, stricken; he scrambles to his feet and hurries to the payphone on the green.

Yami turns back to their attacker. “Who are you?” he demands. “Did Crawford send you? What do you want from me?” 

We are born in fire,” the man says, and giggles. “They were wrong, they were all wrong. How they laughed. Now I shall laugh. Ha! Ha! Ha!” His laughter seems to come from deep within his body, deep within the earth, booming from his belly like thunder. In the next moment he is wailing, his limbs undulating, seizing. “I’ll kill you! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! D—” 

His tongue protrudes from between his lips, ashy; his eyes bulge. He slumps backward, staring into eternity.

In the next moment, the body is gone, as though it never existed. Yami is left with the cloak, with its two golden chains. Then it, too, vanishes, slipping through his grasping fingers.

 

Chapter Text

Even before Ryou opens his eyes, he knows he is underground. He can feel the weight of tons and tons of earth pressing down on him from above, and he can almost taste the sand and soil in his mouth. Moments before, between the last red flicker of the magician’s court and this new darkened, cavernous space stretching out before his eyes, he felt and heard a noise of shattering glass.

Sure enough, his kirtle is torn across the sides and hem. The magician’s robes, too, have suffered, but as Ryou watches, disbelieving, the fabric of both garments begins to knit itself back together. 

“We teleported!” Ryou says.

The magician grins at him. It’s such a nice grin, Ryou thinks, so wide and bright and confiding. He thinks of sakura in full bloom, the smell of spring flowers wafting in through the open windows of his homeroom.

But before the magician can speak, there is another crackle, and the Lady Ishtar materializes before them, eyes wild. She has shed her cloak, and her bare arms drip with gold. The neckline of her dress is embroidered with seed pearls that glow in the low bluish light. 

She says, “You dare.”

The magician says nothing.

“You may hold the city in the palm of your hand,” the Lady Ishtar continues, furiously, “but don’t think that gives you license to jump straight through our shields!”

The magician shrugs. “You impressed the urgency of the errand upon me,” he says. He nods upward, toward the darkened ceiling. “Besides, the sun was beginning to set. I didn’t want to be late.”

“And you’ve dragged your plaything along with you, I see,” the Lady Ishtar says, her features still contorted with anger.

“He is a servant of my household,” the magician says, clapping Ryou heartily on the back. Ryou staggers, and the magician undermines his own words by seizing Ryou around the waist and hauling him upright. His fingers press into the dip of Ryou’s hipbone. “No plaything: a workhorse merely. Enough chatter, my lady. Where is your brother?”

“I wonder which of you is truly mad,” the Lady Ishtar says, narrowing her eyes. She gestures. “This way.”

As they go, the Lady Ishtar reaches out to stroke the space above them with her fingertips. Hot air sifts over them, through the air and their clothing, like a giant’s sigh. Ryou hears the slide and tinkle of glass shifting back into place.

  

If the Lady Ishtar keeps servants, or even monsters, they have made themselves scarce this evening. There is only one other person around, a tall, forbidding man with a half-shaved head and a long black ponytail. His eyes are smeared with kohl. Ryou stares at him, at the weird pattern of hieroglyphs that seems to be scrolling down the the left side of his face, ever-shifting. The man meets Ryou’s eyes and frowns. The magician squeezes Ryou’s hip, a warning, and Ryou looks quickly away.

The man joins them, slipping in alongside the Lady Ishtar as she leads them on, down, down, down, deep into the heart of a cavern of pale stalactites, hung with white lanterns like full moons, beneath which a feast has been laid out.

A young man in a white shift lounges by the table, seated on a tasseled cushion. His golden mane of hair is unkempt, standing straight up; his soft violet eyes are dazed and dreamy. He looks as though he hasn’t slept or eaten in days. 

He sees them and leaps to his feet.

“You came!” he says, hurrying to the magician and clasping his hands with obvious delight. Under the greasy sweet smell of perfume and roasted meat, he smells sour. “Isis, look who’s here! Look, Isis!”

“I see,” the Lady Ishtar says. “How nice of the magician to spare a few hours of his time. You must thank him, Malik.”

“Magician?” Malik says. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s no more the magician than you or I. Someday, though, if he’s lucky—”

“Malik,” the magician says. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you,” Malik says, leading him to the table. “Come, tell me how you’ve been. Mahaad still giving you a hard time about that bumpkin accent of yours?”

“Shall we?” the Lady Ishtar says, gesturing toward the low table. The tabletop is laden with pomegranates and figs, olives and dates, accompanied by loaves baked in the shape of fish and birds. The centerpiece is something resembling a whole roasted duck, though Ryou sees that it has two too many heads.

“Thank you, Rishid,” the Lady Ishtar says, and the man with the tattooed face smiles and looks pleased. “It looks delicious.”

They sit down to their meal, but only the magician eats. He does so voraciously, inelegantly, tearing into the cerberic duck’s carcass with his bare hands.

Ryou tries an olive, but it turns to dust in his mouth. He spits it surreptitiously into his palm. The man with the tattooed face—Rishid—stares at his plate, glazed and unseeing. The Lady Ishtar only has eyes for her brother.

And her brother is unable to be still. Malik talks rapidly, wildly. Several times, he stands up and paces around the table, fluttering his hands. He asks after Mahaad. He laments the state of Shaitan’s court. He is relieved that his father is dead. When will Mahaad be free of his duties? Malik wants to travel to the sea.

The magician finishes eating and wipes his greasy fingers on his robes. 

“Malik, you’re not well,” he says.

“Nonsense,” Malik says.

“Mahaad is dead,” the magician says. “He’s been dead more than a year. You watched him die.”

“What are you saying?” Malik says, laughing uncertainly. “Don’t joke about such things. Mahaad will—”

“I can say what I want,” the magician says. “And Mahaad will do nothing. Because he’s dead, Malik. Dead and burned, along with the rest of Shaitan’s palace. I am Dahlia’s magician now. The staff came to me.”

“Magician,” the Lady Ishtar interjects, “surely this isn’t—”

“Wise? You asked me to come,” the magician says, brutal. “These are my methods. Malik, look at me.”

Malik’s eyes are darting around in panic.

“You’re mad,” he says, and giggles.

“No,” the magician says. “Malik, listen to me. The king is dead.”

Abruptly, Malik throws his head back and screams. He beats his fists on the table, which ignites under his touch. The flames engulf the runner. Ryou scrambles backward with a gasp; Rishid and the Lady Ishtar leap to their feet. The magician gets up more slowly, even as the flames begin to lick at his robes.

“The king lives!” Malik screams. “He lives! I saw him. I saw him, just today. He was small, he was afraid, he stood above me surrounded by filth and vermin—”

The Lady Ishtar cups her brother’s face in her hands. “No, Malik—Malik, please—”

“I’ll kill him,” Malik screams, knocking her back. He sweeps his arm over the table, shattering plates, throwing sparks. There is fire in his palms. He’s almost slavering now, eyes gleaming, tongue distended, distorting his words. “The king, the king! He’s no king of mine. Murderer! He can’t hide from fate. We’ll find him. Oh, we will find him. We will hunt him. We will tear out his heart and burn it. I’ll burst his cursed eyes beneath my heel. I’ll piss on his corpse. Kill him—we’ll kill him—we’ll kill him, won’t weMalik!”

Rishid bundles Malik into his arms and holds him like a baby, rocking him back and forth, stroking his hair.

“I’m burning!” Malik cries out. “I’m burning. Oh, Shaitan! It hurts. It hurts. I’m dying. Mahaad! Mahaad!”

“I’ll take him to his room,” Rishid says. “Shh, my lord. Soft now. I’m here. You’re safe.”

“Rishid, thank you,” the Lady Ishtar says. Her brother has clawed long red marks into her arms. She rubs the wounds absently as the man, Rishid, bears Malik bodily back into the depths of the cavern. His wails echo around them, rising in pitch, until, abruptly, a heavy door slams, cutting him off mid-scream. 

Ryou’s ears ring in the resulting silence; his stomach twists with pity, and he doesn’t know where to look. He wrings his hands and the hem of the kirtle and says nothing.

The table and all its rich offerings are still on fire. The magician extinguishes them with a murmur.

“That was cruel,” the Lady Ishtar says, low. 

“I’m sorry,” the magician says unexpectedly. Ryou looks up, surprised. “I reacted badly. Mahaad—” He breaks off, pauses, tries again. “It’s hard for me to hear his name.”

The Lady Ishtar is looking at the magician, too, and her gaze is almost gentle. “I understand. But we must speak his name, magician, again and again and again, however much it hurts us. Else he will be forgotten.”

“Then let him be forgotten,” the magician says, in the barest of whispers. The Lady Ishtar does not react or respond, and Ryou realizes he’s the only one who’s heard. “Let me see him again,” the magician says, louder now. “Take us to his rooms. I will be kind. I will pretend with him, for a little while.”

“He reacts so badly to the truth,” the Lady Ishtar says. 

“I won’t speak a word of it,” the magician promises. He holds out his hands, and the Lady Ishtar, after a moment’s hesitation, extends her bleeding arms. “Ectoplasmer,” the magician says, bending over her, and the wounds glisten and seal themselves shut.

The Lady Ishtar smiles. “Come,” she says. 

 

There are windows in the Lady Ishtar’s home, tall, petal-shaped archways, but they have been filled with earth and rubble. The air is cool and almost damp. The entire space is dimly lit, though beyond the cluster of the globular white lanterns, no other light sources are visible. The Lady Ishtar herself seems to be glowing faintly, like the moon behind a dark cloud. Between some of the windows, the stone has been cut precisely away, revealing square openings into black halls. Each opening has its own carved roof, decorated with strange birds and hermaphroditic figures in flowing garments. Ryou is reminded simultaneously of the tunnels of an anthill and of an ancient stone city on the cover of one of his father’s travel magazines.   

The magician holds out his hand. “Don’t dawdle,” he says. His silver hair is shining in the darkness.

The Lady Ishtar sweeps ahead. Ryou takes the offered hand, relishing its warmth and strong grip, and allows himself to be pulled forward. 

They follow the Lady Ishtar around the corner, the ground beneath them sloping upwards, and come to another doorway. This one is barricaded with a heavy facade of bare, unhewn stone, and would look like a solid wall, except for the thin line of purple light seeping out from around its edges. The Lady Ishtar rolls back the door with a gentle movement, revealing a rich chamber. The stone floor of the chamber is covered in a thick purplish rug, woven with flowers and littered with toys—rough-spun dolls with frightening painted faces, scattered game pieces, and wooden and stone chariots in miniature.   

Malik is tucked into his bed against the far wall, rolling fitfully this way and that. His hair is limp against his pillow, soaked with sweat. Rishid sits cross-legged beside Malik, one hand resting on the coverlet. Their bodies cast a shadow over his face, and his tattoos seem to writhe. He looks up. 

“Rishid, come away,” the Lady Ishtar says.

Rishid’s expression does not change, but he hesitates. “Are you sure that is wise?” he says, and his gaze slides over Ryou and comes to rest on the magician, standing in the doorway with folded arms. 

“Come away,” the Lady Ishtar insists, and Rishid rises to his feet in a single lithe movement. He towers over them all. 

“I’ll be just outside,” he says to Malik. “All right, little master? Call my name if you want me.”

Malik says nothing, and Rishid goes. 

As soon as he is gone, Malik sits up, trying to wrestle his heavy blankets from his body. “I thought he’d never go,” he says, and his voice is thin but cheerful. “Fretting and fussing all day long—he’s more of a nursemaid than a house soldier.”

The magician sweeps his robes to the side, sweeping the toys away with it, and sits, drawing Ryou down with him. The ice cold of the stone radiates upward through the rug, chilling Ryou’s skin until it aches. There’s a wheeled toy digging into his leg; he pulls it out without looking and squeezes it in his fist. It feels smooth and soft, almost rubbery.

“How’s Mana these days?” Malik says, chattering blithely on. It’s as though the episode at the dinner table never happened. “Still mooning after that master of yours, I suppose. Poor girl.” He winks. “And Mahaad gazes at the moon herself. Haven’t seen him recently, though—perhaps he’s come to his senses.”

The magician says, slowly, “She’s doing well.”

“There’s something about you,” Malik says, dreamily. “Something’s different. Have you cut your hair? Have you—”

His gaze sharpens.

“You stink,” he says. He’s looking over the magician’s shoulder—looking straight at Ryou.

Ryou flounders, and the magician’s smile goes fixed and frozen—more of a rictus than a smile now.

“You stink,” Malik says again. He struggles against his blankets, apparently too weak to lift them completely. “You’re rotten. You’re garbage. He was there, he was there, holding his garbage court. He was ankle-deep in filth. He smelled—like you!”

“Who was there, Malik?” the magician says.

“The king,” Malik says. “The king—aren’t you listening to me? I have eyes and ears all over his cursed realm,” he says, sing-song, “even the rats whisper to me their secrets, and so—and so—I know where he is.” 

“And where would that be?” the magician prompts. 

“I won’t tell you,” Malik says. “He’s mine. Mine to kill. Mine to—” he shudders “—dismember! Don’t look at me like that—”

Suddenly, he flings back his blankets, sliding from the bed; the magician starts forward, but he’s too late. Malik has broken his fall by grabbing Ryou; he is holding him by the arms, squeezing tight.

Ryou stares at him, breathing fast. There are deep purple bruises beneath Malik’s wide eyes, and his cheeks are thin and hollow. He looks like a skull, and his breath is foul.

“Malik,” the magician begins—

“You’re real,” Malik whispers, burbling with euphoric laughter. “Is this what you came back to show me? That you’re real, and the time has come? I’m ready. I’ve kept the faith. They think I’ve gone mad, but you and I know the truth. Take me with you—hurry!” He cries out in ecstasy, tongue protruding. “The king, the king! Take me to the king.”

Ryou recoils, or tries to—Malik’s thin fingers are unbelievably strong.

“What’s wrong?” Rishid shouts, and, “Master!”

“No, Rishid,” the Lady Ishtar exclaims, just as Malik lets out another wild cry. 

Rishid throws the door open, barreling at Ryou and the magician with murder in his eyes. “What have you done?” he shouts.

“No!” Malik screams. “No, Rishid!”

Rishid flings one hand forward, and Ryou goes flying, bowled over by a blast of sand. Malik lets out a wail of pure misery.

“No,” he screams, “no, no—”

The magician plucks Ryou from the air, almost by the scruff of the neck; he snarls something dark and urgent in Ryou’s ear, and the world tips, dizzyingly, and smashes into pieces—

“And that settles that,” the magician says, smoothing his robes. “I don’t think we’ll be invited back any time soon.” 

Ryou straightens up, winded. They’re back in the tower, standing beneath one of the enormous windows as the purple sky darkens all the way to black. There’s a soft red glimmer in the air, hovering around their bodies—the edges of a tear beginning to shrink back together.

“Mana,” the magician calls. “Where are you?”

As the magician wanders off in search of his apprentice, Ryou sags slowly down against the wall. The world is still showing an alarming tendency to whirl about. He grips the sill with his free hand and looks down.

Malik’s toy is still clenched tight in his fist. Slowly, Ryou uncurls his fingers. For a moment he can’t believe his eyes. The toy is a small plastic motorcycle, with cheap, chipped red paint on the chassis and free-spinning wheels. A dollar-store toy, a gacha prize.

“Domino,” he says.

 

Chapter Text

Yami stares down at his empty hands, so bewildered he almost doesn’t hear Yuugi cry out. Almost. Then, over the ringing in his ears and the desperate pounding of his heart, he catches, faintly, Yuugi’s shouting, a high and garbled sound that abruptly resolves itself into words—into his name— 

“Yami—Yami—”

He can still feel the imprint of the vanished chains across his palms; he flexes his fingers around the memory, lurching to his feet. For a moment he stares, uncertainly, before the realization sets in: Yuugi is no longer making any noise at all. Gathering speed, Yami hurtles over the piles of garbage and sprints toward the green, remembering too late the plank left discarded by the shadow of their hunter’s body. He has nothing now but his empty hands—nothing but his empty hands and the fire. 

Night is rising over Yuugi’s campus, several hours too early, a steady, all-encompassing, supernatural darkness spreading across the lawn, obliterating even the lights of the lampposts set at regular intervals on the pavement.

The wind in the trees rises, too, and it sounds like laughter. 

Yuugi, pinned to the ground by cloaked figures that extend from the darkness like fingers, groans and tries to lift his head; he groans again and lies still. 

The fire, Yami reminds himself, and he holds out his palm and imagines it pouring from his skin in a crackling white-hot wave, but his body is cold with fear. There is no fire. The ash on his palm flutters away into the wind.

A giant’s eye opens in the grass. A moment later, under Yami’s horrified stare, it becomes a mouth; it spits a fang onto the green. 

No, not a fang: a person all in white.

“He’s here,” Yami mumbles, “he’s found me, I am undone, Yuugi, I am finished,” and he isn’t sure what he means, or why his legs have suddenly given out. He kneels in the grass while the monster picks itself up, swaying, and staggers toward him. One hand is outstretched, brown and painfully slender; the other holds a long golden rod crowned with an eye and tipped with a knife. The wasted body drags itself closer, and Yami feels called to it, pinned by it, as the circle of cloaks draws in, the shadows beginning to trail over his feet and the backs of his calves, the back of his neck.

The face that looks down into his is as beautiful and vacant as an angel’s, wreathed with gold, the blue eyes wide, guileless, and flat, devoid of the usual pinpoints of light.

A slow, slavering smile.

I am undone, he thinks.

“I found you,” the mouth says, wet. “Not dead after all. Not dead yet.”

“What do you want?” Yami says. The pressure is building in his skull, squeezing, crushing; he feels blinded, black spots dotting in his vision. Nausea floods him; bile rises in his throat, thin and bitter, and his ears start to ring.

“Oh, my king,” the angel says. The knife flashes. “Your liver between my teeth. Your back under my knife. Your eyes in my palm. Your member under my heel, your heart in my hand, your blood on my lips. Your last breath. Your sacred life. Your forgotten truth. Everything, my lying lord, my lost sun. I’ll cut you all to pieces, my king, all to pieces, and drag your bones home in a sack of your skin tied with your own guts.” 

Yami turns his head and vomits into the grass. 

“Squeamish?” the angel says. “My king, squeamish?” Its eyes grow impossibly wide, until they are all that Yami can see, so wide he thinks they must burst free of the angel’s face and fall to its feet. Eyes the size of apricots. There is nothing angelic about the breath that steams against his nostrils. The angel has leaned in close. It whispers, “You will bear it, my king, my lord, and bear it nobly; this is nothing compared to the torment of my people, whose souls you rent from their very bodies.” 

“No,” Yami says. “I don’t understand. No: I’ve gone insane. This isn’t happening. None of this is real.”

An overactive limbic system, his neurologist said, explaining to his grandfather. Look at how lit up it is on the charts. No—tapping with a finger—right here. Yes. The amygdala, Mutou-san. The seat of fear.

What is real? Yami thinks, and then he remembers Yuugi in the grass. 

“I’ll close my eyes,” his mouth says, gentle, and, “Are you an angel?”

The angel laughs, shrill and pleased. “I am retribution,” it says. “Open your eyes, my king. Open them and do not blink. Look upon me until you can’t anymore, and then look at my blade: my father’s blade, that he wore at his belt until I took it from him and killed him. I killed him too quickly. I should have savored it, taken the time to adorn him, as he adorned Malik. Stroke for stroke. Blood down Malik’s back. It cleaved Malik’s soul in two, my king, and I should have flayed the skin from my father’s body,” the angel says, “and kept it, a skin for Malik’s ruined skin, a present for Malik’s sister, a hanging for her wall, yes,” it says, “yes,” and it runs the sharp point of its long pink tongue down the flat of the knife, its chin shining with saliva, its eyes as dull and empty as plastic buttons.

Suddenly, the cloaks ripple around Yami’s body, and the heaviness seems to leave his limbs. A glow rises in those empty eyes, crackling into sparks, into beads or pebbles with fiery hearts. The angel screams; its knife falls into the grass and lies there, gleaming darkly.

“That’s right, get fucked,” someone shouts. “Get out of here. This is my town, demon. This is my city, and you are unwelcome.” Stars are bursting around them, little contained explosions. The angel reels back with a wail.

The voice continues to shout: “Get him. Get him, get him, just fuck him up!”

Yami grabs the knife, or the knife-stick, or whatever it is, and swings it in a wild arc. Every cloak he catches dissipates, taking its wearer with it. For a moment he is ringed by the angel and by naked blue corpses, the smell of them overwhelming in the dead dark; then he and the angel are alone on the green, and the strange plastic fragments scattered around them seem lit from within, molten, with the light of the setting sun.

The angel swipes at him with its long-nailed fingers, but its arms are weak and Yami bats them away. He swings the knife again, but before its blade can make contact with the filthy white of the angel’s garment, the angel seizes it and tears it from his hands.

The tunnel reopens in the grass and the angel tumbles into it as though into a chasm. It screams again, a haunting, haunted broken-hearted howl that cuts off as the earth seals shut above it.

Just as abruptly, the ringing in Yami’s ears stops, the pressure behind his eyes releasing with an almost audible hiss. His vision clears, and the very air seems lighter and easier to breathe. His nose is dripping; he swipes at it and the back of his hand comes away smeared with blood.

He closes his eyes for a moment.

When he opens them again, a college student is squatting beside him, haloed in the sunset. 

“I meant fuck him up with fire magic,” the student says, “but the pointy end of the evil stick works too. I’m Otogi Ryuuji,” he adds. 

“I’m,” Yami starts. 

“I know who you are,” Otogi Ryuuji says, smiling. The smile droops. “Is your buddy okay?” 

“Yuugi,” Yami says, shaking him. “Yuugi.”

His skin feels damp, unusually warm to the touch. He has a welt on his forehead and bruises like fingermarks on his throat. At the press of Yami’s fingers on his cheek, his eyelids twitch but do not open. 

“Ah, hell,” Otogi says. “Give him some time. It’ll wear off.”

Yami turns to him. “What will wear off?” 

“The demonic aura,” Otogi says. “Humans get kind of loopy because of it.” 

At this, Yami recoils. “Demon—?” he says. He stares back at the green: whole and undisturbed, blades of grass waving gently in an evening breeze under the unflickering yellow glow of the lamps. In the distance, along a low brick wall, young blossoms in the flowerbeds glow pink and purple. The air smells like spring and car exhaust. The darkened figures moving beyond the wall belong to students; the noise of their happy chatter drifts toward him, exclamations about classes, about goukon. “I think I need to go to the hospital,” he says. “Both of us. My head—can you call an ambulance? There’s a telephone over…” He points vaguely in the direction of the street. 

Otogi eyes him. “Oh, boy,” he says. “Listen, Lord Darkness, you don’t need an ambulance. Come on, let’s get him to a bench. He’ll sober up in a moment.”

Yami doesn’t move until Otogi starts forward, hands outstretched, and then he says tightly, “I’ll do it,” and brushes Otogi aside, taking Yuugi under the armpits and hoisting him upright. He lugs him toward the flowerbeds and sets him down atop the brick, still holding him under the arms. Yuugi’s head lolls left, then right.

“Yuugi,” he whispers. “Wake up, Yuugi.”

“I don’t want to die,” Yuugi mumbles, and then he opens his eyes. “Oh, Yami,” he says. “Sorry, I must have spaced out. Are you hungry?”

“Yuugi!” 

“What?” Yuugi says. “What’s wrong? You look—” His eyes narrow, and Yami flinches, only to realize that Yuugi looking past him, looking at Otogi, just now loping up with his hands in his pockets. “You!” Yuugi says. “What are you doing here?” 

Yami looks between them, perplexed. “You know each other?” he says. 

“That’s Otogi Ryuuji,” Yuugi whispers to him. “You know—from Dark Clown Games. They’re opening stores all across the city. They're trying to put Grandpa out of business!”

Yami goggles at him momentarily, at the indignation in his voice. Grandpa would probably burst into tears at this unanticipated display of outrage on behalf of the family business.

“Hey,” Otogi says, with a little wave. “How’s it going? What’s the last thing you remember?”

“About you?” Yuugi says. He scowls. “Beating you at your own stupid dice game and sending you home in disgrace.” 

“Yuugi,” Yami says, chiding.

“Sorry,” Yuugi says. He looks down at Yami’s hands, still wedged in his armpits. “Uh—”

Yami withdraws, flushing. “Sorry,” he says, too. “I—” 

“Look,” Otogi cuts in, loudly now. He’s scanning the courtyard, squinting at the people walking on the other side of the wall, looking over his shoulder at the looming mouth of the alley. “We can’t stay here. They might come back.” 

“They?” Yuugi says. He frowns. “Yami, what’s going on?” 

“I’ll explain everything,” Otogi says, “but you have to come with me now.”

“Why?” Yuugi says, frown deepening. “Why do we have to do anything you say? Why are you even here, Otogi, you’re not part of any clubs, and the festival is over. You barely ever come to class. You—” 

Otogi shrugs. Your turn to persuade him, he seems to be saying. I tried

“Yuugi, come on,” Yami says, tugging at his sleeve. “Can you stand? Let’s go. Let’s just go. It isn’t safe here.” 

“Who’s they?” Yuugi demands. “Safe? What are you—” He gets to his feet and immediately topples forward with a truncated cry of surprise; Yami catches him. Yuugi stares up at him with wide eyes. His legs are shaking beneath him. “Yami,” he says, hushed. “My entire body hurts, Yami. What’s happened to me? Why do you look like you’re going to cry? Yami, what’s going on?”

“Come on,” Yami says, putting an arm around his waist. “Lean on me.”

  

Otogi leads them through the gate to a well-lit side street, where he leaps into the driver’s seat of a bright red convertible. He revs the engine as Yami, still supporting Yuugi, hobbles closer. The car looks new and expensive, waxed and polished to a high gloss. A pair of fuzzy red and black dice dangle from the rearview mirror.

Yuugi, sweating and panting with the effort of movement, manages nevertheless to roll his eyes and let out a huff at the sight of the car.

Otogi rests his arm along the driver-side door and winks at them. “Cute, isn’t she?” he says. “Get in.” 

“Ugh,” Yuugi says.

Yami helps him into the back seat. Yuugi promptly slumps down, flushed and complacent, humming to himself while Yami buckles him in.

“I’m so tired,” he says. He turns his head away, eyelashes fluttering. “I’ll sleep for a little. Wake me up when we’re there.”

Otogi pats the seat beside him. “Come on up, Lord Darkness,” he says.

“Don’t call me that,” Yami says, sliding into place and clipping himself carefully in.

Otogi laughs. “How very democratic of you.”

He maneuvers them onto the main road with unexpected delicacy, crawling up the streets of Domino City at exactly the speed limit.

“My old man don’t pay my speeding tickets,” he explains, to Yami’s unasked question. He jabs at the radio dial.

I’ll find you, the radio whispers, find you and kill you, before the static coalesces into a shrieking, spiraling duet of a pair of electric guitars. It’s the same kind of late eighties hair metal that Yuugi likes. Otogi sings along and drums the steering wheel with the palms of his hands. His voice is low and melodic, and he knows all the words. In the rearview mirror, Yami can see Yuugi, eyes closed, brow gleaming with sweat, mouthing the chorus and tapping along on his thigh.  

“What’re you grinning about?” Otogi says.

“Nothing,” Yami says, biting down on his smile. The dice bounce as Otogi shifts gears. He carries them onto the highway and turns up the music. The wind streams through Yami’s hair like cold water; it soothes Yuugi’s feverish skin. Night settles over center-city Domino as they drive away from it, its tall buildings beginning to sparkle with light. The moon rises behind them, too, huge and orange, pierced through its cratered heart by the clock tower as it drifts into the sky, and Yami settles more comfortably into his seat, shuttering his mind against the memory of the cloaks, of the eye in the grass, of the white fang.

“Where are you taking us?” he asks.

Otogi names a suburb to the north. “Home,” he says. “Not far.”

“Kill me,” Yuugi says, from the back seat. For a moment, Yami thinks he is still singing along, but the station has gone over to commercials and is extolling the virtues of a certain konbini chain. His heart drops. He twists around against his seatbelt and finds Yuugi fast asleep, head tilted back. “Find me and kill me,” Yuugi says, rigid. “No—no!”

“Just a side effect of exposure,” Otogi says. “It’ll pass.”

“But you’re okay,” Yami says.

Otogi takes his hand off the gearstick and rubs at his own skin, high up on his cheek beneath his left eye. In the flash of passing streetlights, his fingertips come away black with kohl.

“I’m protected, aren’t I,” Otogi says. “My eye sees true, thanks to this.”

The angel had something similar, Yami remembers now: jagged black lines beneath his dull blue eyes.

Your heart in my hand. 

He glances back at Yuugi, curled up in his seat mumbling about death and torment, and asks, “What about me? Am I immune? To the, uh, the—” His tongue stumbles over the words. 

“The aura?” Otogi says, enunciating carefully. “The demonic aura?” 

He meets Yami’s eyes in the rearview mirror and raises his eyebrows. Yami stares until Otogi’s eyes flicker back to the road. 

“Yeah,” Yami says. “Immune to—to that.”

He doesn’t like the way Otogi has been looking at him—some parts sardonic and more than a little bit pitying. It makes his head feel dim and empty, like Otogi knows something he doesn’t know, something he should know.

“Well, obviously,” Otogi says. 

The commercials end. The music starts again with a plunging scream, startling Yuugi awake. Otogi leans forward and cranks up the volume.

 

Chapter Text

Otogi Ryuuji lives in a fashionable neighborhood in the northeast part of Domino, jammed up against the water. The currents are rougher here, and the bay is festooned with signs prohibiting swimming. They rumble past an equal number of fish canneries, art installations, warehouses, and shipping containers. Given the immaculate cherry red gloss of the convertible, Yami is expecting a penthouse in one of the newer highrises, but instead Otogi parks his car on a corner and makes them walk six blocks toward the water, supporting Yuugi between them, until they reach a low, flat building divided into eight apartments, its two stories so dark and squat that the building itself seems half sunken into the ground. Otogi leads them into it, unlocking the first black door on the far left of the first story and cautioning Yami to watch his step: there is a raised threshold. He locks the door behind them and murmurs over it, words Yami can’t quite catch, words that seem to burn his ears.

Yami finds a light switch. The apartment is small and cramped and littered with toys: carefully painted mecha models, colorful figurines, game cartridges. In many ways, it looks just like Yuugi’s room above the game shop. In fact, Yuugi’s room may be bigger.

There is an expensive-looking black swivel chair against the far wall. Otogi nods at it, then nods again approvingly as Yami lowers Yuugi into its leathery depths. 

“Yami,” Yuugi says, soft. His fingers catch the edge of Yami’s shirt and tighten in it. Yami flashes back to the sight of Yuugi’s hands, lifeless in the grass. He envelops him with a gasp, buries his face in Yuugi’s shoulder. Yuugi’s neck is damp and hot against his cheek.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he says. Yuugi’s hand loosens, slides up his back; he pats Yami bemusedly on the shoulderblade.

“There, there,” Yuugi says. He sounds confused. 

Yami hears the slide of Otogi’s feet on the wooden floor. He releases Yuugi and turns to see Otogi standing beside them, two mugs in hand, one red, one blue. He holds the red one out to Yuugi. 

“Here,” he says. 

Yami looks at it suspiciously. The liquid is black, oily; light gleams on its surface.

Otogi rolls his eyes. “It’s just coffee, your maj.” He sips from his own mug. “See?” he says, though this proves nothing and does little to allay Yami’s concerns. “Come on, drink up, Mutou. It’ll help with the brain fog.”

Yuugi accepts it, still bemused, looking between them. He sips and makes a face.

Yami frowns. He turns to Otogi, hands already turning to fists at his sides. “What did you put in—”

“It’s cold,” Yuugi says, and Yami stops, breathes out, tries to relax. 

“Yeah,” Otogi says. He’s looking at Yami as he speaks, eyes crinkling with amusement. “I keep a pot in the fridge. For emergencies. Want sugar?”

Yuugi huffs. “No. I only look like a baby.”

“Okay,” Otogi says, beginning to grin. Yami turns back in time to see Yuugi taking a huge gulp from the mug, wincing as he forces it down. Otogi snickers. “It’s on the counter if you want it,” he says.

Yuugi mutters into the mug. 

Yami leans against the wall and folds his arms. “I didn’t get a chance to thank you,” he says.

Otogi, drinking deeply, raises his eyebrows at Yami over the edge of his own mug. “Well, I’m listening,” he says. “No need to bestow a boon upon me, though.”

“A what?” Yami says.

Otogi’s eyes sharpen. They’re green, Yami sees now, in the light, almost the color of summer grass. The color is unnatural, but somehow he knows Otogi isn’t wearing lenses.

“A what?” Yami repeats.

Otogi whistles, low and soft, through his teeth. “Something’s gone terribly wrong over there, hasn’t it,” he says. “You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Dressed like this. Talking like this. Acting like—” he shrugs apologetically “—well, like an idiot.” He’s watching Yami closely, as if to gauge his reaction; whatever he sees in Yami’s startled stare makes him shake his head. “Phew! I’m almost scared to get mixed up in it. Although I guess it’s too late now. You’ve crossed the threshold. Darkened my doorstep.” He grins to himself, enjoying a private joke. 

Yami says, “Care to explain?”

Otogi looks at him. “Well, that was a bit better,” he says. “Regal enough. Maybe all isn’t lost. Tell me: who are you?”

“Mutou Yami,” Yami says.

“Amazing,” Otogi says. “That’s your story and you’re sticking to it.”

“There’s no story,” Yami says. Some anger returns to him, heating the tips of his fingers, and he clings to it, takes refuge in it. “There’s no story except that my cousin and I are being hunted.” The words stick in his mouth for a moment, but he forces them out. “By monsters,” he says. “By demons.” 

“Just thugs,” Yuugi supplies, mumbling into the coffee mug.

“It’s nice of you not to take credit,” Otogi says, with a pitying glance in Yuugi’s direction, “but it’s you they’re after. If anything happens to him, it’s just collateral damage. You’re the big prize.”

“Why?” Yami says. “What possible reason—”

“It was always supposed to be the other way around,” Otogi says, more to himself than Yami. “When a demon knocks on your door, they’re the ones who are supposed to drag you into a world of magic and nightmare. Oh, man. Mutou—Yuugi—get out of the chair.”

Yuugi looks up. He’s drunk the cup of coffee to its dregs, and slowly, slowly, some of the dreaminess has drifted away from his eyes. He looks at Otogi, more alert now, and wary. Then he nods and gets to his feet. The chair rolls a bit to the right, and Yami catches it and steadies it. 

“It’s okay,” Yami says, “sit,” just as Otogi says, “Your name isn’t Mutou Yami. And you’re not human. You never were.”

Yami sits. 

He hears Yuugi laugh—more of a nervous giggle than anything.

“Come on,” Yuugi says. “You’ve been playing too many video games, Otogi.”

“Have I?” Otogi says, quiet. “You know my dad’s been sick. I’m running the downtown shop now. I barely have time to go to class. I’m not fucking around, Mutou.”

“You’re crazy, then,” Yuugi says.

Otogi sighs. “I thought that coffee would clear your head. Think about it a little, would you, Mutou? Think about all the weird stuff that’s been happening to you. Or, more correctly, to you because—” he jabs an elbow in Yami’s direction “—you’ve been hanging out with him.”

“There’s nothing,” Yuugi begins, stiffly, and then he concedes, “Okay, but that was just—that was just yakuza stuff. Is that what you mean?” He sounds hopeful now, almost desperate. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it? You just think that yakuza are less than human. And Yami is the long-lost son of some kingpin.”

Otogi’s smile is almost a grimace. “The clues are there,” he says, “but your conclusions are all wrong. Well, he’s lost, all right. Son of some kingpin—I’ll say!” 

“Is this some kind of joke to you?” Yuugi says. “Are you on—on some kind of medical leave from school?” 

“What do you mean,” Yami says, voice creaking, “what do you mean, I’m not human?”

“Oh my god, I don’t even know where to start,” Otogi says. He turns from them, goes to the counter.

“Let’s go, Yami,” Yuugi whispers. “Let’s get out of here.” 

His head is splitting. The door seems too far away. He stays where he is, ignoring the frantic clammy pull of Yuugi’s hand.

It’s too late, anyway. Otogi sets his cup down in the sink and spins back to face them. He’s leaning against the countertop, arms spread, body relaxed, but his eyes are shining.

“You, Mutou, do you think reanimated corpses attacking from another dimension is a typical battle strategy of the average Domino yakuza? And you, Lord Darkness, Yami-sama, why are you here on this side of the world, living above a game shop, if not to draw the eye of Pegasus J. Crawford, gamemaker extraordinaire? Oh, yes,” he says, at Yami’s shiver, “I know all about that. I’ve been interested in Crawford for a long, long time.” His gaze sharpens. “Ever since my dad went to see him and came back all gray and twisted.”

“Corpses,” Yuugi says, “what—”

“He’s evil,” Yami says, with a relief so sudden and powerful that it nearly makes him sob. He lurches to his feet, fighting through the headache. Yuugi’s hands slide away. “You know that he’s evil.” 

“I know that he’s up to something,” Otogi says. Yuugi protests, weakly, in the background; Otogi ignores him, and Yami does, too. “I thought you knew too. I saw you in a limousine being ferried into the belly of Industrial Illusions, and I thought you were in on it: a conspiracy to shatter everything we hold dear.”

“No,” Yami says. “No, Otogi. He—he had Yuugi. I mean, he had my friends.”

“A hostage situation,” Otogi says. “I see. Well, that’s a relief. And you managed to escape—how, exactly?” He looks pointedly at Yami’s palm, the one that looks red and shiny and burned, and Yami curls it into a fist at his side. 

“There was a storm,” he says. “A lightning strike.” He gulps. “So you know—you know about his eye.”

Otogi frowns. “What?” he says. “His eye?” 

“You said,” Yami says, “you said I was living at the game shop to draw his eye. His eye. His eye is all wrong, Otogi. It isn’t an eye.” He’s babbling now, heedless of the frantic tug of Yuugi’s fingers at his sleeve. “It isn’t an eye, Otogi; it’s a door, there’s a door in his head—”

“Oho,” Otogi says softly. “So that’s what he’s hiding under all that hair.”

“What does he want with me?” Yami says. 

“Isn’t it obvious?” Otogi asks him. “Haven’t you realized what you are? Who you are? He wants you because you’re you. Who wouldn’t want to ally with the king of demons?”

“The king—”

The pressure on his skull intensifies for one excruciating, crushing moment, before it clears. In the ringing silence, he hears the dull recitation of the mysterious fortune-teller on the green. 

The king is dead. Long live the king.

He hears the sound of rain, being whipped by the wind into a howling torrent, into a roar as loud as that of any fire. Slowly, it resolves itself, lessens, diminishes into the old familiar pitter-patter, and then into soft, muted protests: Yuugi’s voice. 

“No, no, no,” Yuugi is saying. “Listen, Otogi, thanks for the coffee, but we have to get going. It’s late. It’s really late. C’mon. We’re obviously all very tired. The festival was probably too much for you, wasn’t it, Yami? We should—”

He whirls on Yuugi, who gasps and falls silent, eyes wide. 

“I’m not tired,” Yami says. “I’m not tired, and I’m not delusional! Stop tugging at me. Stop trying to get me to walk away from this.”

“Don’t,” Yuugi says, “don’t, please don’t—” 

“No,” Yami shouts, “you stop! You were happy to encourage me and indulge me back when you thought this was all just a stupid game. But the game is real. It’s real, Yuugi! People—monsters—are trying to kill us. Kill me. If you saw even half of what I did, up there in that tower, or just now at school, you’d—”

Yuugi’s face is flushed, his eyes too bright. His lower lip is quivering. As Yami watches, disbelieving, a tear wells up and rolls down his cheek.

He breaks off, aghast. “Yuugi—” 

A phone rings on the counter, and they all jump. Otogi glances at it, the fierce green of his gaze dropping away, and Yuugi propels himself off the wall, all but sprinting for the door.

“Yuugi!”

The phone is still ringing, shrilling like an alarm. Otogi makes no move to answer it, but he grabs Yami as he hurries past, seizing him by the forearm and wrist. “My game shop,” he says in an undertone, pushing a card into Yami’s hand. “Come see me there tomorrow.”

The door bangs shut; Yuugi has fled into the night. Yami half turns to follow him, but Otogi isn’t finished. He squeezes Yami’s forearm with surprising strength, and Yami pivots back toward him, wincing. 

“One more thing, Lord Darkness,” Otogi says. “If you can—come alone.”

 

Chapter Text

Jounouchi stares across the endless water. Domino City is gone, and Kaiba is getting farther and farther away. 

“Hey, wait,” Jounouchi shouts. He breaks into an awkward jog across the beach. “Hey!”

He catches up, grabs Kaiba by the elbow, and is immediately shaken off and flung into the sand for his troubles. 

“Don’t touch me,” Kaiba says.

“Don’t touch—” Jounouchi clambers to his feet, spitting sand out of his mouth. “You’re the one who told me not to let go!”

Kaiba ignores him. 

“Where are we, anyway?” Jounouchi asks, trying to match Kaiba’s pace. His toes sink into the sand at odd angles, throwing his balance. Too late, he realizes he’s left his sneakers at the water’s edge. 

“Irrepressible, aren’t you,” Kaiba says. “We’re in hell.” 

Jounouchi spins around in a circle, drinking it all in: the gulls, the white sand, the curving line between sea and sky, all so achingly blue. “This is hell?” he says. “Seems more like paradise. Where’s the fire? Black thread? Gray ghosts?”

Kaiba’s step falters. He glances at Jounouchi, eyebrows raised. “You’re surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject. No, it’s neither naraka nor yomi. It’s a splintering.”

“A splintering?” 

“A broken mirror. A poisoned reflection. The other side of the world.”

“So—no dead people,” Jounouchi says.

“No dead people,” Kaiba confirms. “Only souls.” He frowns, and his gaze goes gray and shuttered as he stares at the horizon. “Souls and monsters.”

“Great,” Jounouchi says. “And where are we going? That is, where are you taking me?”

Kaiba falters again. Jounouchi, watching closely, can see his throat working. He notices how Kaiba’s hand clenches around his dangling patent shoes.

“A monster’s house,” Kaiba says.

They trudge on in silence, while the sun—hidden in the sea-mist—arcs overhead, shortening their shadows into nothingness. The sand darkens and sharpens into pebbles, then stones. The soles of Jounouchi’s feet start to feel raw and scratched.

The ground starts to rise; Jounouchi starts to huff and puff. Kaiba glides upward, seemingly unaffected by the increasing steepness of the terrain. At last the ground levels out again, and Jounouchi folds over his knees and tries to catch his breath. 

When he straightens up, he whistles. Directly ahead, surrounded by wind-beaten cypress trees, is a crooked black house at the edge of a cliff. It must be at least five stories tall, with a high, pointed roof like a witch’s hat. The sea-wind has stripped half the paint from its cliff-facing side. It looks like a huge hand has scored five long marks across the side of the house, scraping the blackness away from the gray structure underneath. Even at this distance, he can see that most of the windows are broken. The pieces of greenish glass left in the frames stick out like jagged teeth. The house looks haunted. It looks evil.

A monster’s house.

With a new sinking feeling, Jounouchi realizes that Kaiba is heading straight for it.

The sky seems to darken as they get closer, clouds drawing in from the sea. What is left of the front gate is warped and bent; Kaiba ignores the padlock and steps right through the gap in the bars. Jounouchi, feeling dragged, follows him in.

There is no door—only a splintered entrance.

Kaiba hesitates in the doorway, long enough for Jounouchi to catch up to him. There is a damp, cold wind seeping out from inside the house, ebbing and flowing through their hair and clothes. It’s like the house is breathing.

Unthinking, Jounouchi reaches out and grips Kaiba’s hand in his own. His skin is even colder than the air—of course. Kaiba glances back over his shoulder, startled. But he doesn’t shake Jounouchi off this time.

Kaiba breathes out; the house breathes with him. And they step through. 

 

Jounouchi’s first impression is of a long gray hallway stretching on into infinity. Then he blinks, and the space rearranges itself. It looks completely ordinary—a fancy Westerner’s type of house, with a carpet rolled out in the hall and a gilded mirror hanging by the entry and another huge mirror in the room ahead, hanging over an empty fireplace. There’s even a hatstand. Further on, he can see a wide staircase made of some kind of white stone, with more carpet bolted to it by metal rods. That carpet looks black and mossy, moldy. Everything inside is nice enough, but a little worn, a little dilapidated, and all of the mirrors are broken. 

One hundred cracked fragments of Jounouchi stare anxiously back at him as they pass by. At least there isn’t a front door, Jounouchi thinks; if anything had slammed shut behind them, he definitely would have screamed and embarrassed himself. Abruptly, he realizes he’s still holding Kaiba’s hand and releases it, flushing.

Kaiba glances back at him again and lifts an eyebrow coolly. Jounouchi pretends not to notice and jams his hands into his pockets.

“So what is this place, anyway?” he asks. His voice booms down the hallway and echoes. 

Kaiba hisses at him to be quiet. Jounouchi shuts up and stares at him in a panic. Over the sound of his suddenly rapid breathing, he hears the noise of the sea crashing on the rocks below. But nothing happens, and Kaiba gradually relaxes and continues on, Jounouchi hurrying after him.

They climb the stairs. The carpets are moldy, and wet, and cold; they squish under Jounouchi’s bare feet, releasing a pungent odor of dead fish and murky seawater, and he almost gags. 

Kaiba doesn’t speak until they’ve climbed five flights of stairs and crept into a room at the end of another endless hallway. Actually, he doesn’t speak until he’s shoved Jounouchi into the center of said room and bolted the door behind them.

It’s a bedroom that looks like a still from a movie. The bed has four posts and a canopy, and the windows are flanked on either side by heavy red curtains belted with golden tasseled rope. The smell of the sea is less overwhelming here, and the glass of the windows, facing the water, is still intact. Jounouchi gingerly pokes at the armchair by the charred mantel, finds that the upholstery is dry, and sinks into it.

There are no mirrors in this room, but Jounouchi guesses that if he could see his face, it would be a reflection of Kaiba’s—gray and pinched. There’s something off about this house, beyond the base level of creepiness. It’s making him feel tired.

“Do you want a fire?” Kaiba asks him. 

“Oh, uh,” Jounouchi says. “Can I have one?”

“You look cold,” Kaiba says.

“I am,” Jounouchi admits. “Are you not—” he remembers the icy feel of Kaiba’s hand before they even went inside “—oh, I guess you wouldn’t be. Thanks,” he adds, as Kaiba stands in front of the fireplace and does—something—and flames spring up. 

“I told you,” Kaiba says, wiping a sudden sheen of moisture from his face, “I don’t want your death.” 

“Thanks,” Jounouchi says again, puzzled. The chimney isn’t exactly clean, and at least half of the smoke that’s supposed to be dispersed outside the house is coming back down into the room, stinging his eyes a bit. Kaiba doesn’t seem to notice, and Jounouchi doesn’t really mind—stinging aside, the fire feels amazing. It’s drying him off, defrosting his fingertips. It’s the warmest he’s felt in hours. He curls up in the crook of the arm closest to the flames and sighs. He could really go for something to eat, too, but he doesn’t say this out loud. He doesn’t want to push his luck. 

Kaiba, meanwhile, is striding to the other end of the room, toward a jumble of rolled up papers and books and a gigantic wooden trunk, belted closed with grommeted leather straps. He knocks some of the rolls of paper over, sweeps the books away, and tugs at the straps on the trunk. He’s making a shit-ton of noise now, which Jounouchi thinks is unfair.

Jounouchi tries again. “What is this place?”

Kaiba doesn’t answer at first. Then he says, so quietly Jounouchi almost can’t hear him, “My father’s house.”

“Holy shit,” Jounouchi mutters. “And is your pops at home?”

Kaiba almost smiles. “My ‘pops,’ as you put it so ridiculously, is dead,” he says.

“Sorry,” Jounouchi says.

“Don’t be,” Kaiba says. “He was a monster.”

It’s a little weird hearing that from a demon’s mouth. After all, Kaiba is a monster, too. Does he mean it literally? No, probably not.

Jounouchi knows a thing or two about monstrous fathers, in any case.

“Well, good, then,” he says firmly, and Kaiba looks at him and actually smiles this time, cold and hard. The fire seems to climb higher, sending bright heat searing along the tops of Jounouchi’s cheeks.

Kaiba gets the trunk open and throws the lid back with both hands. Jounouchi, watching his progress, swears he sees something sparkling evaporate into the air as it opens. Dust, maybe, or a trick of the light. 

Jounouchi is almost too warm now. In another moment, he’s going to start to sweat, and then he’ll be all gross and clammy. He clambers out of the armchair, into a shock of cold air, and shuffles across the room to where Kaiba is peering into the depths of the trunk. 

At first it looks like it’s empty. A moment later, he spots the toy rolled into one of the corners, a carved wooden rockinghorse. Ignoring Kaiba’s restraining arm, he tips forward, nearly diving inside—the interior of the trunk smells sweet and fragrant—and scrabbles at the corner until his fingers snag on the rockinghorse and he’s able to twitch it into his palm.

He straightens up, toy in hand, and holds it to the faint watery light coming through the window. There are traces of paint on the saddle, red and green, and grooves where little fingers used to grip it. “Were you looking for this?” he says. 

Kaiba stares at him, shocked; then he snatches the horse from Jounouchi’s fingers without a word and slips it into his pocket.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Jounouchi says.

“No,” Kaiba says, coldly. “I was looking for a mirror.”

“There are a shit-ton of mirrors downstairs,” Jounouchi says. “Didn’t you see—” 

“We can’t use those,” Kaiba says. “Remember what I said about the splintering.”

Jounouchi doesn’t remember, but he nods sagely all the same. “Right, sure,” he says. "Obviously."

Kaiba scowls. “I’ll have to look through the rest of the house. Stay here.”

“Okay,” Jounouchi says. 

Kaiba looks at him sharply. “I mean it,” he says. “Obey me. Keep your side of the bargain, or Shizuka—”

“Fuck you, don’t bring her up, don’t speak her name,” Jounouchi snarls. Kaiba’s eyes have gone all flinty and hard, and he says Shizuka like a cold and hopeless winter wind, and Jounouchi hates it. “I got it, okay? I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here.”

“Fine,” Kaiba says. He nods at the bed. “Get some rest if you can.”

Another bizarrely solicitous line, totally incongruous, especially considering he was just making threats on Shizuka’s life. Jounouchi frowns at him. 

“Humans are weak,” Kaiba says, reading the confusion in his eyes and, for some reason, deciding to address it. “We’ve only just begun. I can’t have you keeling over before we’ve even gotten to Dahlia.” 

“Dahlia?”

Kaiba indicates one of the rolled up sheafs with a jerk of his chin. “Read a map, why don’t you?” he says. He crosses the room; the door shuts creakily behind him, and Jounouchi is alone.

 

Chapter Text

The door is so heavy and solid that after a second or two, Jounouchi can’t even hear the click of Kaiba’s footsteps receding into the distance. He does what he’s told and unfurls one of the rolls of paper, and gasps—

It’s one of those massive, old-timey maps, with inaccurately curved landmasses in vivid colors, and dragons and lions in the margins. The lettering, brushed with shining gold, sort of looks like classical Japanese, or Chinese, but Jounouchi has slept through almost every literature class he’s ever had to take, and he can’t read a single thing.

And even if he could read the map, and figure out which one of the colorful blobs was Dahlia, he still wouldn’t know where they were—

Well, maybe this ocean, he thinks, squinting at it. It’s painted the exact shade of blue that he can see through the windows. But, no, he doesn’t know which side of the ocean they’re on.

There are other maps; maybe he can find one that makes sense. He rolls the medieval map up carefully and picks up a smaller scroll, unrolls it. It looks a lot newer, and he can read the kanji, and—oh, he thinks, with a dull burst of surprise as he recognizes Tokyo and Mount Fuji, it’s Japan

The island is laced with bold red lines of ink, radiating out from city centers. Detailed Map of the Railway Network, 1927.

The stations are marked with little white circles. The map predates Domino, which was just a little fishing village until the fifties. Jounouchi has slept through almost every history class he’s ever had to take, too, but he knows that much, at least. Shinto and Buddhist temples are marked along the map by neat red Ts, indicating the Shinto gates, and manji, for the Buddhist sites. He finds the marker for the old station and follows the red line out of the city limits with his finger. He traces it into the mountains, where it just fades out, without ever touching another station. Weird. Domino has direct lines to all the major cities now, of course. He was going to ride to Tokyo this summer—to Hakone, to visit Shizuka… 

Domino. Jounouchi rolls up this map, too, and stares out the window at the sea. Through the old warped glass, the water seems to be churning, turning black under the darkening sky. There really is a storm coming. Jounouchi wonders if it’s the same one they left behind in Domino Bay. 

He blinks and rubs at his eyes. There’s something beside his reflection in the glass, something moving—

Getting closer

Jounouchi spins around, the map falling from his fingers, but there’s nothing there. Nothing but the crackling fire, and the grimy air, and— 

A face! A face in the smoke!

“Fuck!” he shouts, scrambling backward, and the air shimmers and smiles at him. The smile causes a pang—it’s familiar, somehow, and thoroughly unpleasant. 

Who are you? 

Jounouchi hears the voice in his head.

“No one, I’m no one,” he gasps. He wants to tear his eyes away but he can’t, he can’t

The smoke is taking shape, coalescing. All of a sudden there’s a boy standing by the fire, standing between Jounouchi and the door. His hair and skin have an unnerving greenish tinge—the color of rot, Jounouchi thinks, shivering, and he edges closer to the window, stumbling over and crushing the maps. 

The boy doesn’t have eyes. His eyes are black pits, charred and sooty. The outlines of his little body waver and blur, flowing through the smoke. He’s wearing a suit, and it’s—

White—white, funeral white— 

I’m lonely, the boy says. Will you play with me?

“Oh fuck, oh my god,” Jounouchi says. He’s seen movies like this, and they don’t end well. He and Honda would scream and clutch at each other and fall over laughing afterwards on their way out of the movie theater. Well, he’s not laughing now. 

The boy’s body blurs, and before Jounouchi can blink, he’s right fucking there, right in front of Jounouchi, so close that Jounouchi could probably reach out and touch him.

Which he definitely won’t do. Jounouchi tries to yell, but all that comes out is a whimper. He ducks the boy’s reaching hands and sprints for the door.

“Kaiba!”

He tears down the stairs, bellowing his head off. The house groans and rustles around him. Oh shit, oh shit—the little ghost is still following him, gliding after him with his head tilted to the side.

Play with me. 

“No, please, no thank you,” Jounouchi babbles. “Find someone else to play with. Oh fuck.”

He runs down the stairs, slipping and sliding on the wet carpets. 

“Kaiba—Kaiba!” His voice is starting to crack with desperation. He can’t catch his breath. Kaiba is nowhere to be seen, and the ghost is glaring at him through all the broken mirrors in the house. “Help!”

He makes it down the third flight of stairs, and is all set to dive down the second, when the ghost materializes in front of him.

I said I’m lonely. Why won’t you play with me?

Those endless eyes—

“Fuck!” Jounouchi gasps, as he loses his balance. He grabs in vain at the bannister, but gravity is merciless, even or especially in hell; he’s going down.

Kaiba’s hands close around his shoulders and pull him back. Instant brain freeze—the air behind him is so cold he feels like he’s just fallen into a snowbank. But he’s also so relieved that he practically collapses, slumping against Kaiba’s body.

“I thought I told you to stay in the room,” Kaiba hisses, and then he looks down, and goes silent, and Jounouchi feels his entire body tensing, his fingers going taut on Jounouchi’s arms. “Ah.”

“What the fuck,” Jounouchi says, trying to sound indignant. His voice wavers instead. “Kaiba, what the fuck—”

“Run,” Kaiba says.

Great.

They scramble up the stairs, hand in hand again, but Jounouchi is too freaked out to give a shit. 

“What is that,” he wheezes.

“A ghost,” Kaiba says.

“I know that,” Jounouchi screams at him. “I mean, what is it, why is it here, I thought you said there weren’t any dead people in hell, you lying son of a—”

“Shut up and run, you blithering idiot,” Kaiba snaps.

At the end of a hallway on the twelfth and final floor of the house, Kaiba lets go of Jounouchi briefly to grab hold of a latch dangling from the ceiling. He jumps up to reach it and hangs on it, pulling with his entire body, until the latch gives way and clouds of glittering dust spill out from a darkened hole in the ceiling— 

“The attic?” Jounouchi squeaks, staring at the rope ladder. “Are you insane? That’s where ghosts live!”

“Live?” Kaiba says, pausing in his climb just so he can look coolly down his nose at Jounouchi. Jounouchi can’t fucking believe him.

“Fuck you!” he says. “You know exactly what I mean! This isn’t the time to—” 

He smells smoke. He swallows back the rest of his diatribe and follows Kaiba up the ladder. 

“Careful,” Kaiba says, as Jounouchi’s head pops up over the edge. The warning isn’t necessary: Jounouchi can see that the attic is destroyed, the floorboards torn, the small porthole window shattered; a whole section of the roof has peeled back, opening the attic to the elements. Moisture collects and trickles into the space. Kaiba hesitates at the edge of a gap, then leaps over. The wood squeals but doesn’t give way. 

Jounouchi clambers in the rest of the way and yanks the ladder up after himself before dragging the hatch shut. His efforts are wasted, though—as soon as he straightens up, he sees the ghost waiting for them, hovering dead center in the middle of the warped floorboards. Smoke is seeping up through the gaps.

“K-Kaiba,” Jounouchi says unsteadily.

“I see it,” Kaiba says. He is digging through the mounds of accumulated junk, throwing aside bolts of fabric, framed photographs, suitcases, pieces of driftwood

You left me here, the ghost says. You left me here all alone. 

Kaiba ignores it. The ghost is growing more solid, more concentrated, and its black eyes are starting to flame.

I’m lonely. I’m lonely. I’m lonely. 

Jounouchi gulps. “Kaiba, um, Kaiba—”

“Shut up,” Kaiba bites out.

I hate you, the ghost says. The floor ignites.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” Jounouchi yells. There’s no escape now, unless they can manage to squeeze their bodies through that impossibly tiny window—or maybe vault onto the roof—

Smoke billows into the attic, choking him, bringing tears into his eyes. 

“Be quiet, damn you,” Kaiba whispers, furiously, and Jounouchi drags his shirt up and stuffs it into his mouth and bites down—

SETO.

Kaiba stretches out his hand across the darkness and the fire, and Jounouchi lets his eyes flicker shut for a moment, just a moment, and then he’s lunging at the ghost, lunging through it—ash and death and deep bitter sadness, dark and lonely, the vast sweeping silence of the ocean floor— 

He’s through, he’s across. He grips Kaiba’s hand.

Kaiba’s other hand is clenched tight around the handle of a fancy gilded mirror, the kind Jounouchi has seen mermaids admiring themselves with near shipwrecks, in cartoons.

DIE.

“Ready?” Kaiba says, breathing fast.

Jounouchi stares at him. “Ready? Ready for—wuh—”

Kaiba mashes the mirror against Jounouchi’s face, practically backhands him with it. Jounouchi, feeling his cheek squashing and distorting against its cold wet surface, is amazed that the glass doesn’t break. 

“What the fuck—”

The burning attic sucks to a pinpoint and vanishes.

“—is your problem?” Jounouchi screams out, and then the full dead weight of Kaiba’s body hits him like a sack of bricks, knocking him onto his ass. Distantly, he hears the sound of glass smashing.

Kaiba groans in response.

“Holy shit,” Jounouchi says, sitting up. Quick check: no ghost. No house, for that matter—no house, no ocean. The sun is setting over a grassy hill. They’ve fucking teleported. “Shit—Kaiba. You okay?”

The body in his arms is limp and warm. Kaiba lifts himself partially onto his hands and knees, then collapses again, banging his head against Jounouchi’s chest.

“Hey, watch it,” Jounouchi says.

“Your heart’s so loud,” Kaiba mutters.

Jounouchi blushes. He tries and fails to shake Kaiba off. “Well, excuse me,” he says furiously, in the direction of Kaiba’s sweaty hair. “We almost died, in case you hadn’t noticed. And at least I have a heart.”

“Ugh,” Kaiba says. 

He doesn’t say anything for a while, just breathes, and Jounouchi, resigned, lies beneath him and waits for his heart to settle down. It takes a while. Eventually, Kaiba pushes himself up and rolls onto his back, eyes closed. Jounouchi can see the sweat gleaming on his face in the dying light.

“So if it wasn’t a ghost, or a soul, or a monster,” Jounouchi says, struggling upright, “what was it?”

Kaiba doesn’t open his eyes. “A memory,” he says.

“A memory?” Jounouchi asks incredulously. “You mean it wasn’t real?”

“Oh, it was real,” Kaiba says, slowly. “It was real. It burned the house down. A fiery end for Gozaburo and his house of horrors.” 

“Shit,” Jounouchi says.

Kaiba fumbles for his pocket with a shaking hand and pulls out the little wooden rockinghorse. He draws it to his chest, square between his collar bones, and squeezes it in his fist. “Thanks for saving this,” he says. His voice is slurred. “Don’t wander off.”

His hand relaxes suddenly, and the horse tumbles into the grass.

“Kaiba?” 

He’s—sleeping, or unconscious, it’s hard to tell. His chest is rising and falling with slow, deep breaths. Jounouchi slips the rockinghorse back in Kaiba’s pocket. He doesn’t wander off. He sits beside Kaiba and watches the sun set.

 

The stars are beginning to rise—a true glory of stars, Jounouchi has never seen so many at once, speckling the night sky—and Jounouchi’s stomach is really starting to let him have it, when he notices a light flickering over the hilltop. 

It better not be another fucking ghost, or memory, or whatever. Jounouchi ducks down into the grass and narrows his eyes.

“Keith, you motherfucker,” a woman’s voice says. Jounouchi’s whole body twitches and sings in response—he wants to get up, run across the grass, bow down at her taloned feet. He curls his fingers into the hem of Kaiba’s jacket instead. It’s her—it’s her. “I swear to Mammon. Wake the fuck up, we have work to do.”

The light sears his vision; he throws up an arm against it—

“Oh,” the voice says. Jounouchi, eyes watering, squints into the lanternlight, and sees the glow reflecting off her glorious mane of golden hair, her inhuman violet eyes and black wings. “Well, well. Fancy meeting you here.”

 

Chapter Text

Ryou falls asleep alone in the tower. He dozes fitfully, pursued by grasping talons, and wakes to the sight of Mana standing over him—standing over him and frowning. The pink light of dawn is only just beginning to glow against the windows. 

“You don’t have to teach me how to read,” Ryou says quickly, in a voice cracked with sleep. “I can help you with cleaning and, um, cooking, and—”

The gutting, his mind supplies. He bites his lip.

Mana seems to be sizing him up. “So you’re going to stay,” she says.

Ryou gulps. “I guess,” he says.

“If you’re going to stay, then you’ll do as you’re told and learn to read,” Mana says. “And I’ll do as I’m told, too, I suppose, and do my best to teach you.”

A sudden lightness fills Ryou’s chest. He imagines that relief is beaming out of him, making the tower glow just the slightest bit brighter.

“Thank you,” he says.

As the sun rises, Mana provides Ryou with his own stylus and his own bit of red clay, and they work through the king-list syllable by syllable, until Ryou can write Shaitan, First King, Creator, ruler over all, even the unknown realms, to Mana’s satisfaction. What lies beyond is still a mystery, but at least he is able to recognize the configurations of arrow-headed flecks.

“You’re not doing too badly,” Mana says grudgingly, as Ryou’s strokes increase in confidence and fluidity. “When we finish the king-list, we’ll move on to spells.”

That’s motivation enough. Ryou grins at her, and after a moment’s hesitation, she grins back.

Days pass, long, strange, interesting days. Mana spends each morning drilling Ryou on his writing and reading, and laughs at his stuttering pronunciation. When their lessons are finished, he follows Mana on a long winding path through the castle, watching as she whispers strength into the walls, pressing her hands to the stone. They sweep the corridors and courtyards, and when these tasks are done, they spiral downward to the kitchens, which are squat and dark with grime. The black cupboards are bursting with spices, and the medieval-looking stove piled high with copper and stone pots, but they prepare plain, cold vegetarian meals instead, with plates of flat, unleavened bread, pickled mustard greens, and slices of oversized white radish, like daikon. Mana apparently trusts Ryou enough now to arm him, and gives him a knife; one day, he makes her laugh by carving a smiley face into one of the radish rounds.

Every evening, they return to the tower, Mana balancing their plates on the same heavy silver tray she used for the Lady Ishtar’s visit. The magician never joins them; Mana reads while she eats, and Ryou tries to write, and fails, and balls his clay up in his hands to assemble into little kokeshi dolls.

“What are you making?” Mana asks one night, peering curiously over his shoulder.

“Oh, uh,” Ryou says. “Nothing.”

“Ushabti?” Mana says. She pokes the soft red belly of one of the dolls and smiles. “We used to make them from river clay.” She launches into a story of playing on a riverbank by the summer palace, hiding in the reeds, of the day she and the king fled from a single mallard, mistaking the green of its feathers for a crocodile’s hide in the morning mists.

“It’s nice to be able to talk to you,” Mana says. “The magician doesn’t like to speak about days gone by.”

“Why not?” Ryou says, squashing a doll flat with his palm.

“Well, you heard him,” Mana says. “And Isis—the Lady Ishtar, I mean. He was nameless, nothing, before he became the Dark Magician. He’s had a hard life. Who wouldn’t want to forget that?”

“Where is he, anyway?” Ryou wonders. He’s hardly seen the magician since the first day. 

“At court,” Mana says. “Or what’s left of it. The regent takes counsel in his own hall, in the Court of Keys.” She says it reverently. “The magician has to go every day, to report on the city and its wards. It’s his duty to safeguard them. Dahlia is a flower, and he is its careful and constant gardener.”

“Oh,” Ryou says. He imagines the magician, with his strong hands and enormous body, stooped tenderly over a window planter filled with soft pink and red buds, and smiles.

The regent, Mana tells Ryou, is a ghost.

“A spirit,” she says. “He was not always so. He lost his body in the desert thirteen years ago.”

Lost?” Ryou says.

“No one really knows what happened,” Mana says, hushed, as though someone might be eavesdropping at that very moment. “I was only a baby, so I didn’t understand—or care, really. But I’ve heard rumors since then, at court. They say he was set upon by brigands, or by sand-wights, and his indignation burned so hot that it destroyed his corporeal form. They say if you walk into the desert now, somewhere among the dunes, there is a crater, and it is rimmed with the bones of those who dared trespass against him.” 

Ryou has seen and spoken to—or avoided speaking to—ghosts. They haunt all the spaces of Domino, the train stations, the streets, bedrooms and parks, in various stages of decay, soft and sad, vehement and vengeful. But Mana is describing something more than a ghostly echo; the regent’s consciousness is whole and intact, purposeful, terrible. Immortal.

Her insistence that the king still lives makes more sense now, too. If people like this regent, this Shaadi, can slip off their mortal skins and continue existing undisturbed, then surely, surely— 

Atem, Ryou thinks: the boy-king, noble and kind, and shining with beauty, with a weakness for board games, and a fiery power flowing so strong through his veins, the concentrated magic of centuries, that it is impossible he should have died.

“Have you gone back?” Ryou asks. “To the palace.”

Mana flips a page. “Why would I?”

“To look for him,” Ryou says. “I’ll go with you, if you want. If you think there’s even a chance—a trace—”

“What?” she says. Her eyes are staring fixedly at the same spot in her book; she isn’t reading anymore. “The palace is off limits,” she says.

“But he might be there,” Ryou says. “He might be waiting.”

Mana looks at him now, anguished. “I can’t,” she says. 

“Why not?” 

“The magician would never let me,” she says. “If the staff had come to me—”

She goes rigid. 

“What?” Ryou says. “What is it?”

The book falls from her stiffened fingers— 

And the magician catches it, tucks it into the crook of his arm. His robes and hair flutter around him, red and silver, silver and red, as he comes fully into being, chains and bangles jangling. “You’d use it to bludgeon Isis to death, wouldn’t you?” he says, ignoring Ryou’s gape-mouthed stare of surprise.

“Master!” Mana sits up tall. “I didn’t mean—I wasn’t—”

“She’s here,” the magician interrupts, casting the book aside without a second glance. The book bounces off a windowsill and lands, crumpled. Mana looks stricken; the magician doesn’t notice. He continues to pace the tower, ranting, “Angels take her and her moonish sorcery! Why can’t she attack at a more reasonable hour? Noon, perhaps? No, it would be too much to ask! And they say Malik is mad! Mad? They’re all mad—the whole cursed bloodline—too much fucking time spent brooding over the dead and departed—”

Mana blanches. “Master—”

Distantly, there is a noise resembling a clap of thunder. The castle trembles around them.

The magician breathes out. “Shit.”

Mana sways to her feet. “I am so very sorry,” she says, looking appalled.

“It’s not your fault,” the magician says. “Or mine, I would like to add. I doubt Mahaad’s shields were any better at keeping Isis out when he was alive. Even at the height of his power.” Mana looks torn between gratitude and shock.

“Right, well,” the magician says, and cracks his knuckles, and—

Lady Ishtar bursts through the floor, erupting through the boards like a statue returned to flesh and blood, her movements unnaturally large and uncoordinated. Her black hair streams around her, resembling more a tangle of brambles than the long, smooth, satiny sheet Ryou remembers from previous visits; her eyes are unpainted, shockingly blue in her dark face. 

“My lady,” the magician says, too startled to be languid. “You’re alone. What a—pleasant—surprise. Don’t have a seat.” 

“He’s gone!” the Lady Ishtar exclaims, before the magician can say another word.

“Who?” the magician says. “What do you mean?” 

“My brother, angels take you!” she says, voice rising, bouncing off the walls. “Who else? My brother. My brother is gone.”

“That’s hardly cause for alarm, is it?” the magician says, recovering somewhat. “Surely the Lord Ishtar is as free to walk the city as you or I. Freer still, perhaps.” 

“He is not,” the Lady Ishtar says, after a fraction of a pause. “He is not—free.”

“You imprisoned him,” the magician says, amazed.

“He is unwell!” the Lady Ishtar shouts. “A danger to himself and others! We had to bind him, for his own good. For the good of this city which we hold so dear! And now he’s managed to wriggle free. To escape. He’s loose!” 

“We?” the magician asks.

“Rishid and I,” the Lady Ishtar says. “We bound him to the crypt together. We only meant to keep him safe. Keep him close.”

“A keeper for Shaitan’s keeper,” the magician says, musingly. “An interesting concept.”

“Damn you,” the Lady Ishtar says. “Damn you, no more games. Do something.”

“Why are you here?” the magician asks. “Aren’t you best equipped for just this kind of situation? Seeress Ishtar.”

“Don’t you think I’ve tried to find him?” the Lady Ishtar cries. “Don’t you think that I have looked and looked and dipped my head into the mirrored waters? I have seen nothing—nothing. He has broken my mirrors. He has shielded himself from me.”

The magician frowns. “If he’s gone beyond the city limits, I won’t be able to find him,” he warns.

“He can’t have gone far,” the Lady Ishtar says. “He’s in no fit state—he—he’s ill—”

“Very well,” the magician says. “As you insist.” 

Ryou blinks: he is holding a black staff in his right hand, where a split second before he held nothing. An orb seems to hover at its flared mouth, shining green; within the orb, the city unfurls in miniature.

He peels back the windows with a short, perfunctory, “Dark door—” 

The tower room is open to the air, now, cool and dark. The windows have warped to the magician’s will, their glass suddenly as pliant as Ryou’s sculpting clay.

“This is no time for child’s magic!” Isis snaps, clearly unimpressed. The magician ignores her. He steps forward into the night, and Isis follows; Ryou starts to lunge after them and yelps a bit in shock as Mana grabs him, almost by the scruff of the neck, and hauls him back into tower.

Ryou looks around wildly. The magician and Isis are standing on a narrow ledge high above the city. Windows in the night-darkened structures below sparkle with red light. Mana keeps her grip on the back of his kirtle; she has just yanked him away from the edge.

“Thank you,” Ryou gasps, and she grins at him, briefly, before turning her attention back to the magician, who is gripping the staff. 

“Stand back,” the magician says, but Isis doesn’t move. He shrugs. “Suit yourself—” 

He thrusts the staff skyward with a guttural shout.

Ryou feels the pulse inside him, a single, dull, bone-shaking thud. The staff flares a deep, shimmering green; the orb grows so bright, so hot, that it seems to turn white, and Ryou has to look away. 

In another moment the air is consumed. Green light pours from the staff, almost molten, seeping into weird cracks in the stone, spreading outwards like a network of veins, or a woven lattice. The light envelops them all, throwing strange, hot patterns on their skin. Ryou has the impression of ten sharp nails digging into his forearms, of forked tongues flickering, tasting the air. The threads converge; the light seeps toward the edges of the platform and flares out across the city. The magician is casting his net.

And then it is over; the night returns to normal, leaving an afterimage burned into Ryou’s eyes in negative. A world of neon green cut through with spidering black string. 

The magician is breathing hard; he sags, and a window rises to meet his back. 

“Well?” the Lady Ishtar demands. “What did you see? Where is he? Speak!”

“You’re certain he hasn’t left the city limits,” the magician says, slowly, still gulping down air.

“Assuredly he has not,” the Lady Ishtar says. “How could he? He took nothing but the clothes on his back. Magician, he cannot walk unaided.”

“Then he has accomplices,” the magician says. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Isis. He’s gone.” 

“Impossible!”

“It is more than possible,” the magician says. “A fast carriage, a winged horse, all would take him beyond the old boundaries within the turn of an hourglass. If you say it is impossible, then the only other explanation is—” 

He catches himself and looks warily at the Lady Ishtar.

“What is it?” she says. “What do you—” 

She breaks off, staring at him in frozen horror.

“It can’t be!” she says, abruptly, and simply winks out of existence. One moment she is standing there, eyes wide; in the next, she is gone, leaving the air wavering in her wake. Sparkling dust motes fly through the night in a narrow spiral.

The magician shakes the staff again, and it, too, vanishes. He swipes his hand across his robe and steps back into the tower where Ryou and Mana are waiting.

“That was amazing,” Ryou says, but the magician doesn’t seem to hear him. 

“We may as well have candy floss for our shields,” he snarls at Mana. 

“I’m sorry,” Mana says. “The perimeter—”

“Damn the perimeter,” the magician snaps. He slaps the wall open-handed, and the windows slam shut all around them in an angry circle, shuddering in their panes. “There’s more to worry about now than the blessed perimeter. Shaitan, Mana, she came waltzing right in! We might as well be prisoners of House Ishtar.” 

Mana bows so low that she almost folds in half. “My deepest apologies,” she says, with extreme formality. “I’ll strengthen the boundary at once.”

“See that you do,” the magician says. “I don’t relish the thought of a reappearance after she’s found his body.” 

Mana starts. “You mean—”

“What else?” the magician says, brutally. “She insists he hasn’t left the city. Well, I saw nothing. He’s dead.”

“Dead!” Mana turns and stares at the swirling dust, where the Lady Ishtar stood moments before. Her mouth trembles. “Oh, no. Oh, Isis—” 

“Forget Isis,” the magician says. His voice is harsh. “We have more pressing concerns. Go!”

Mana hurries to the trap door and practically vaults through it, vanishing into the stairwell with a thump. 

The instant the trap door shuts behind Mana, the magician’s legs give way; he sinks ungracefully down into a heap, robes crumpling around him. As Ryou watches, he begins rubbing his right hand with his left, then opens and closes his fist, flexing his fingers, cracking his knuckles. He looks smaller, somehow, mean and diminished. 

Before Ryou can even understand what his body is doing, he is kneeling down, taking the magician’s hand.

“Are you all right?” he says. It’s the closest he’s been to the magician in days, and the realization steals his breath away. He looks up. 

The magician’s eyes are shadowed. There is a silver sheen of stubble on his jaw.

“I wonder,” he says. He offers Ryou a crooked half-smile. “And Mana wants to hold the staff. She doesn’t know how heavy it is.” 

“I thought you looked really cool,” Ryou says.

“Cool?” the magician echoes, sounding out the syllables.

“Impressive,” Ryou clarifies. The magician is still smiling at him. He’s holding both of Ryou’s hands in his own now, a reversal Ryou notices belatedly and with some confusion. “You were amazing. Um—oh—?” 

The magician draws back, slowly. The corner of Ryou’s mouth feels hot. 

“No?” the magician says.

Another pulse now, deep inside, deep in his belly. Everything goes a bit hazy, soft and dim. Ryou lets the magician draw him closer, feels his laughter rumbling in his chest. He closes his eyes.

 

Chapter Text

The magician bears Ryou to the ground, none too carefully. Ryou reaches for him, eyes still squeezed tightly shut, and finds his bare shoulders, warm and silky to the touch, and then the magician’s mouth is on Ryou’s again, and his tongue is slick and hot.

Ryou draws a tentative hand down the magician’s chest, splaying his fingers. The magician murmurs his approval between kisses, but Ryou doesn’t know what to do next. He’s burning up, with—with embarrassment and sheer incomprehensible need. The forty-five minutes of that one awkward sex-ed class where Takahashi-sensei drew diagrams and refused to answer any questions—the rumors about which classmates have gone to love hotels, the shameful sneaking through the adult video section of the rental store to peek at the VHS covers—it’s all flashing through his mind in a horrible jumble of irrelevant facts and useless imagery. Below the dismayed shuffle of his thoughts, he can hear the noises their mouths are making, soft and wet, and he can feel the magician’s heart beating wildly under his hands. Suddenly, the magician is pressing his thigh between Ryou’s legs, and Ryou chokes, disbelieving, and arches—

He can’t remember anything now; the only thing in the world is the wonderful pressure of the magician’s body against his. “Please,” Ryou says, rocking against the magician in small eager movements—he’s not sure how to say what he wants, but the magician must know, and the magician will give it to him— 

The magician groans. He fumbles at Ryou’s sides, pulling at the kirtle, dragging it out of the way and bunching it around Ryou’s waist. For a moment the air is cool on Ryou’s skin. Then the magician’s hand closes around him. 

“Oh!” Ryou says, startled, and “oh—”

The magician is whispering in his ear, but nothing makes sense. He draws back, abruptly, and Ryou whines low in his throat. Ryou can feel him, hard against his hip, and so hot—he reaches down blindly, finds the magician’s wet fingers and allows his own to be guided. The magician curses and laughs in one breath as Ryou starts to stroke, clumsy, using both hands. He drags his fingers across Ryou’s lips and Ryou, feeling possessed, licks them into his mouth and sucks.

“Fuck,” the magician says, in a voice like gravel; he pulls his fingers away, then brushes Ryou’s hands aside and strokes them together, slowly and relentlessly. 

The warmth in Ryou’s stomach is building, tightening. He’s moving uncontrollably, breathing in shallow, shaky gulps. He puts his hands in the magician’s hair and grips, dragging that warm mouth towards him, feels the breath trembling on the magician’s lips. The magician bends to meet him—another kiss, muffling Ryou’s choked off gasp—he thrusts into the magician’s hand, eyelids fluttering, mouth dropping—

The magician doesn't wait for Ryou’s breathing to steady; he turns him roughly over and slides between his thighs. 

“What—ah—” 

The magician is burning hot between his legs, against his back. He murmurs into the skin between Ryou’s shoulderblades, breath damp, as he moves. Ryou arches back to meet him, obeying the command to squeeze his legs together. His inner thighs grow slippery and warm. 

The magician’s nails dig into the skin at his waist, holding fast; Ryou reaches back and finds one large hand, and tugs it until he is able to bring it to his lips, to kiss it. The magician runs his fingers along Ryou’s lower lip and plunges them into his mouth again, and above him, Ryou hears the magician cry out, garbled— 

His movements stutter, grow erratic. He squeezes Ryou to his body as he finishes, panting into Ryou’s ear. 

Ryou wriggles around in the circle of his arms and finds the magician facing him with his eyes closed. The glimmer from the city beyond is red on his eyelashes. Ryou noses at him, and the magican’s hands tighten, and he locks a leg possessively around Ryou’s hip, drawing him even closer. Ryou curls his toes and feels them slip against the magician’s jeweled ankles, creating a low metallic jingle, not unlike the sound of a distant chime. 

The magician says, “I must be going mad. Come to bed with me.” 

“I just did,” Ryou says, then clears his throat, astonished at the sleepy, syrupy sound of his own voice. “Sort of.”

“I mean a real bed,” the magician says; Ryou hears his smile. “I have one, you know. Dark door.”

The floor dissolves beneath them, rug and all, and they plunge downward into darkness. Before Ryou can even yell, or begin to clutch at the magician’s body, they’ve landed—on a plush, soft surface, the promised real bed, probably, though it’s too dark in this new room to tell. And Ryou is too distracted to look around: the magician is already pressing him down, biting at his throat, pinning his wrists at his sides. 

He licks at Ryou’s right nipple, and Ryou giggles; it’s ticklish. The magician worries it between his teeth and swipes roughly at it with his tongue, and Ryou moans. A flash of teeth; the magician grins up at him and starts to kiss his way down, down, down. His hair slides across Ryou’s skin, and Ryou grabs at it, lost, panting, as the magician takes him into his mouth.

Dimly, he becomes aware of a strange sensation, of the magician’s fingers sliding up and down between his buttocks, nudging at him, at—

“No way,” he says, dazed, and the magician whispers something completely inane into his hipbone, a murmur about a pot of greed, and slips his suddenly oil-slick finger inside. Ryou hisses and shivers; the magician kisses the inside of his thigh.

“Am I hurting you?” he says.

“No,” Ryou says, “no, but—” The magician rears up to kiss him, and he pushes the magician’s chin away and hides his face in his hands, toes curling. “It feels weird—”

The magician kisses the backs of Ryou’s clenched hands. He does something with his finger, crooks it, and Ryou gasps. He peers over the tops of his fingers down at their joined bodies, watches as his own cock twitches against his belly, already beading at the tip.

“Better?” the magician says, wickedly, and does it again. The red light gleams on his teeth as his smiles, and Ryou shuts his eyes against the sight, hopeless, struggling to fill his lungs—

He loses his breath almost immediately, expelling it in a helpless, ragged shout; the magician’s mouth is so hot, stretching around him, swallowing him down. His hips shake, and the magician pushes another finger in and finds a rhythm. Another finger, a growing sensation of being stretched slowly open, of being filled, and Ryou keens and arches, trapped between the magician’s mouth and hands. The magician whispers against his skin and his fingers grow even slicker and wetter, and the noise they make is obscene. 

“Yes,” Ryou says, “yes—”

The magician takes him ruthlessly apart, each twisting motion setting off sparks behind his eyes, until Ryou’s cries grow hoarse and he can barely lift his head. He lies there, boneless and exhausted, and moans faintly as the magician drags his legs apart and eases into him.

“Ah, Shaitan, shit,” the magician gasps, into Ryou’s shoulder, and then he starts to move, and Ryou chokes and kisses the top of his head, frantic, and claws at his shoulders. He opens his mouth eagerly beneath the magician’s and grinds back against the magician’s body, willing him to go even deeper. 

The magician is going to come again; Ryou can feel it, can feel the magician shivering against him, biting down on his own lip in an effort to hold on. 

“Give it to me,” he says, in a flash of inspiration, quoting the woman he saw in that one illicit AV smuggled home from the rental store, and immediately regrets it. The magician freezes above him and starts to laugh. “Sorry,” Ryou says, strangled, “I just—I thought—”

“All right, then, incubus,” the magician says, still chuckling. “Whatever you say.”

“Sorry,” Ryou tries again, then squeaks, then yelps, as the magician drags him up into his lap, still buried inside him. “Whoa—mmh—”

He wraps both arms around the magician’s head, and the magician is really laughing now, even as he starts to move again, and then he isn’t laughing anymore, and his hands are painfully tight around Ryou’s hips, and Ryou is trembling over him, hands braced on his shoulders—

The magician is breathing harshly against his throat, alternating between endearments and curses—Ryou, shattered, collapses forward and clings to him and sobs. The thick drag of the magician inside him is so good, so perfect, he’s never felt anything so sweet in his life. He’s melting, dissolving—disappearing

The magician swears; he thrusts wildly a few more times, biting down on Ryou’s collarbone, and collapses backward, taking Ryou with him. He slides out slowly, one hand pressed to the small of Ryou’s back, and kisses Ryou’s chest before letting him go.

Ryou flops onto his back and stares upward. Now that his eyes have adjusted, he can just make out the ceiling above, rippling with netted silver. He blinks and the silver vanishes. 

The magician traces the shell of his ear with his fingertips. “All right?” he says.

“Yes,” Ryou rasps, feeling utterly demolished. He doesn’t know what people are supposed to say after they’ve slept together. Should he thank the magician? He feels like he should. Instead, he hears himself whisper, “I should go back to the tower.”

“Can you stand?” the magician replies, drowsily, rubbing Ryou’s earlobe between his fingers, “I’ll be disappointed if you can,” and Ryou blushes; he can’t. His entire body is trembling. The magician trails a gentle hand through his sweat-soaked hair.

“But Mana,” he says. They’ve just—abandoned her, left her to do all the hard work of repairing the castle’s shields, or whatever it is that must be done in the wake of the Lady Ishtar’s destructive reappearance. He imagines Mana crouched now in the dim, dark stairwell, breathing strength into the stone, while the magician curls around him like a big warm cat, and feels a pang of guilt.

“She’ll assume I’ve done away with you,” the magician murmurs. “Mana always assumes the worst of me…” 

His voice trails off; he’s asleep.

Ryou feels suffused with an impossible warmth. It covers his skin like late summer sunshine and seeps into him, into his soul. He hears the green river in his mind, burbling and pleasant. He burrows under the magician’s arm and goes to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Ryou opens his eyes in a strange bed, marshmallow-soft. It sinks beneath him as he shifts.

He looks over and freezes mid-yawn.

By the light of the day filtering in through the long, slitted windows, the magician’s bed is low and plush and opulent, piled high with rugs and blankets and tasseled pillows in every color. The magician is breathing softly in the midst of this jumble, lying mostly on his belly. He’s tangled up in the blankets, sound asleep and very naked.

Memories hit Ryou like a Mortal Kombat sequence of blows to the solar-plexus, executed with deadly precision. He starts to sit up and stops, gasping a bit at the soreness permeating his body. It still feels like—like something’s inside. His face is burning.

The magician groans and rolls onto his side. He opens one eye, pierces Ryou with a dead, lizard-like stare, and closes it again.

Weakly, Ryou says, “Good morning—”

The magician bolts upright, a heartbeat before the door flies open. Ryou yelps and tries to duck, but it’s too late to hide under the sheets.

“Master!” Mana grabs the door frame and skids to a halt. Her jaw drops. “What—Shaitan! What are you doing?”

“Er,” the magician says.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Mana says. “I didn’t think you’d still be—” she gulps, drags her eyes up to the ceiling “—in bed.” 

The magician glances at Ryou, who stares back in consternation, then back at Mana. It’s comforting to know that he, too, is at a loss. Finally, he clears his throat and says, “Never mind, Mistress Mana. What’s all the fuss?”

“Lord Shaadi is here,” Mana says.

“Oh, Shaitan below, spare me, please,” the magician says, collapsing backward onto his pillows, heedless of his nakedness. “This is Isis’ doing. What does she want now?”

“I don’t know,” Mana says. She hesitates. “I wonder if—if they’ve found him.”

The magician stares at the ceiling. “Ah,” he says.

Mana tries again. “Master—”

“Stall him,” the magician says. “I need a moment.”

Mana wavers. “What? I can’t—”

Stall him, damn you,” the magician snaps. He gestures eloquently downward. “I can’t greet him like this.”

“Oh!” Mana says, blushing bright red. “Right. Yes. Of course.”

She hurries out, banging the door shut behind her.

The magician sinks back, squashing Ryou against the mattress.

His hair is wild, sticking up at the back, and the sun casts golden tones against his dark and sinuous body. Ryou can’t help himself: he reaches up and strokes the magician’s arms, delighting in their firmness.

A low, burbling chuckle builds in the magician’s chest. “Isis was right,” he says, kissing Ryou and laughing at him. “I am a degenerate.”

He slides from the bed, retrieving his red robe from the floor in the same fluid movement. Ryou struggles upright and spots the black shift crumpled by the door. It’s clean enough, with only one questionable stain at the hem. He hesitates a moment, then grabs it and pulls it over his head. It settles on his body with a dry shimmering heat. The light glitters on the magician’s emblem, emblazoned across his chest.

He freezes in place as the magician brushes the back of his bare calf with his knuckles, then kneels down and replaces his hands with his mouth. He pushes the hem of the shift higher and higher—

“What are you doing?” Ryou says, strangled.

The magician sounds perplexed. “I don’t know,” he admits, licking a hot stripe up the back of Ryou’s thigh. “I can’t seem to stop.”

“No, don’t,” Ryou says, feebly, but the magician is already standing, pressed flush against his body, wrapping his arms around Ryou’s chest, and Ryou is grabbing at his hands, melting into him.

“This might be bad,” the magician says. “Shaitan, your skin—” He brushes Ryou’s hair aside and kisses the top of his spine. “Get out of here before I tumble you again—get out, go, hurry—”

“Okay,” Ryou says, but his legs won’t move. He pivots toward the magician, who meets his stare with a look of desperation. “What’s happening?”

The magician doesn’t answer. He’s biting his lip, looking dazed now, and Ryou can’t stand it. He leans up on his tiptoes to kiss the magician’s mouth, and the magician hums happily against him—

“Dark Magician,” a new voice says, cool and dry, from the space by the window.

A cord snaps. The magician straightens up, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. “Lord Shaadi,” he says. He slings a casual arm around Ryou’s waist.

The newcomer is nearly as tall as the magician, made taller still by his pure white turban. He’s dressed simply, in sandy tones of beige and white, but the golden circles in his ears are enormous, and his cuffs and his hem are stiff with golden embellishment, threads stitched in the shape of corded crosses. His eyes are strange and hollow, pupiless, the color of a clear summer sky at dusk, a gradient between blue and orange.

“Your apprentice was very insistent that I wait below,” the newcomer, Lord Shaadi, says. “I became curious.”

“Cats and cautionary tales.” The magician’s arm tightens around Ryou. “Why have you come?”

“To enlist your services,” Shaadi says. “We are forming a search party.”

“He’s dead,” the magician says.

“How can you be so sure?” Shaadi says.

“We’re not all like you, my lord,” the magician says. “We tend to die and stay dead.”

The strange bluish eyes glimmer as they meet Ryou’s stare. “Do you, indeed.”

“You’re only prolonging her suffering,” the magician says.

“Isis sees clearer than us all,” Shaadi replies. “Even you, magician, holding your hand so carelessly on the pulse of this city. She would know if her brother were dead. Come now. I’ll brook no argument from you. Mahaad—”

The magician tenses. “If you must speak to me of corpses—”

“Ah, my apologies,” Shaadi says. His voice is like a wind over the desert, bone-dry and faded. “I’ll wait for you in the courtyard.”

Ryou gasps—too late, the magician clamps a hand over his mouth—as Shaadi steps forward from the window and departs through the door. He doesn’t go around the magician or Ryou, or between them—he walks through them. It feels like someone has poured a fistful of dust or flour down Ryou’s throat. He starts to cough.

The magician lets him go with a final, lingering touch to the back of his neck. He follows Shaadi through the door and down the stairs.

Moments later, Mana pokes her head in.

“What was that all about?” she says. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Ryou says. His eyes are watering. “Mana—that was the regent! The ghost!”

Mana cracks a smile. “Yes,” she says. “Didn’t you see how nervous I was? Didn’t you see the keys on his sleeves?”

“I thought they were crosses,” Ryou says.

Mana makes a face. “Shaitan, of course not,” she says. “Don’t you recognize an ankh when you see it? The key to eternal life. He took it as his emblem when he returned from the desert. Well, when his spirit returned.”

“They’re organizing a search party,” Ryou says. “To look for Isis—the Lady Ishtar’s—brother.”

“But he’s dead,” Mana says, and Ryou frowns at her.

How can you be so sure? Shaadi said.

“He might not be,” Ryou says. “Just like—like Shaadi. Or Atem.”

“Maybe,” Mana says, doubtfully. She tilts her head to the side and asks, “Was he any good?”

Ryou stares at her and doesn’t reply. He can’t. He’s speechless. His mind is clearer now that the magician is gone, and he wants nothing more than to lie back down, press a pillow over his face, and ask Mana to smother him with it.

“The magician,” Mana says patiently, as though it needs clarification, and Ryou chokes. “He must have been decent,” she continues. “He was so popular at court.”

The sunlight seems to dim and turn blue and cold. Ryou looks up sharply. “He was?” he says.

“Oh, yes,” Mana says. She’s shaking her head at a memory, a stupid memory, and Ryou bites at his lip to stop his frown. “Especially with the court ladies. They liked his terrible manners. They said he was bodythrilling. They were always pulling him into corners and alcoves and giggling. Mahaad hated it. He used to cover my eyes!

“Is that why you came to us?” she asks. “Not to spy—but because you wanted him?”

Ryou’s stomach churns.

“It’s okay,” Mana says kindly. “You don’t have to answer.”

She leads him to the kitchen and reads while he drinks and eats, stubbornly pushing food into his mouth, even though it might as well be ash. Gradually, the sullenness lifts, and he realizes it is nearer to noon than morning.

“I slept through our lesson,” he says, soft. “I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t look up from her book right away. “Well, you were otherwise occupied,” she says easily, and Ryou flushes. “Oh, I don’t mind at all,” she says. “The magician is always in a better mood after he’s managed to—well, you know. Although I don’t know what he’ll be like when he gets back tonight. He might need some cheering up,” she adds, and waggles her eyebrows at Ryou while he turns redder and redder.

“Which is why we’ll have to leave soon,” she says, and Ryou blinks.

“Sorry, what?” he says.

She nods at him. “We’re going to the palace, of course,” she says.

“We are?” he says stupidly.

“Think about it,” Mana says. “Shaadi, Isis, and the magician are going to search this city from top to bottom. They may even leave the city limits. There’s no better time. No one will be watching. No one will be able to stop us.”

Maybe someone should stop us, Ryou thinks. He feels sore and wobbly and has already had a lungful of ghost this morning, and that’s probably enough for one day, for a lifetime.

But he sees how brightly Mana’s eyes are shining, and how she’s trying very hard not to smile, pressing her lips together in a thin trembling line. It’s a futile effort. The smile is in her eyes. She twinkles down at her book, unseeing.

“He’s waiting,” she says, and her voice is glowing.

 

A little while later, Ryou waits in the red court while Mana gathers their supplies, darting this way and that, tearing pages from books, filling her pockets with what looks like stones or toys.

“Ready?” she says. She thrusts a pile of fine blue cloth at Ryou’s stomach; he catches it and unfolds it. It’s a short cloak with a long, pointed hood, embroidered with in soft pinkish lines in a corkscrew pattern.

Mana nods at the question in Ryou’s eyes. “This isn’t an official errand of the magician’s,” she says. “We’ll dress in plain clothes.”

Ryou pulls the cloak on, fastening it around his throat. The clasps are silver, shaped like sunbursts and set with small red and green gems. For all her teasing about the magician’s extravagant tastes, Mana seems to have her own skewed ideas about plainness.

“Ready?” Mana says again. She drags the hood of her own cloak down over her head. It barely fits over her masses of dark hair, standing straight up like a wizard’s hat.

Ryou feels heartsick and weary. He wants, very badly, to see the magician, to hold his hands and touch his face.

He draws his own hood over his eyes.

“Okay, I’m ready,” he says.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m ready,” Ryou lies, and Mana grins at him.

She peels the arch open, grasping the air between her fingers and pulling as though sliding open a heavy door. Her hair and cloak fly back in an unseen wind, and the petal stretches and shivers, revealing the sand and sky beyond. Ryou recognizes the scene: it’s the same area where the Lady Ishtar stood awaiting entry to the magician’s court.

He steps over the threshold and stops dead, just barely avoiding a collision with a galloping chariot. Horse and rider stream by in bright white and red, jingling with the noise of several strings of bells, blowing the hood off Ryou’s face. His light-shocked eyes track the chariot until it vanishes, then slide back over the buildings ahead and above, each glowing in shades of dusty cream and khaki. The structures wind into the sky, tall and narrow, and their towers and peaks seem to curl and spiral into the blazing sun. There are flowers in the windows and scattered in the streets—fat, round blossoms tapering into hundreds of pointed petals, the color of blood. Dahlias.

Discordant music is playing, drifting down the street from a mysterious origin, smoky and warped; the chatter of the crowd threads through it, one hundred thousand voices raised in conversation and song.  

The arch seals itself shut behind them. Ryou steps onto the street, dazed, filling his eyes with the swirling colors and sounds.

The inhabitants of Dahlia are dressed universally in filmy white linens, through which the lines of their brown and golden bodies can be seen, blurry and indistinct. At first glance, they all seem normal, but Ryou slowly begins to notice the colors of their hair and eyes, unusually large and luminous in the dust of the streets. False hair, and painted eyes you could drown in. Among the glowing healthy bodies, he catches sight of a few strange figures, strangely proportioned and conspicuously clothed in dark colors—maroon, navy, puce. The shifting fabric reveals glimpses of furred cheekbones, forearms gnarled with scales, even a long dragging tail.

Umeboshi-san

“Scavengers,” Mana says, in an undertone. “Don’t stare.”

Another chariot flashes by, parting the crowd with a shriek of bells. Mana jumps into the space left in its wake, pulling Ryou after her.

“This way,” she says. “And put your hood back on. Your hair—it’s too much like the magician’s.”

Ryou remembers the magician’s hair, suddenly, so thick and soft under his grasping fingers—

“It would cause a panic,” Mana says, very seriously, while Ryou replaces the hood, relieving some of the painful glitter of the sun on the sand. “If anyone saw the magician going into the palace. I told you—the palace is off limits.”

“Even to the magician?”

Mana doesn’t reply right away. She leads Ryou away from a troupe of street performers, turning somersaults. All that is visible of the magician’s castle now, behind a new crest of impossibly tall and curved structures is a single unbending black spire.

Especially to the magician,” she says, and doesn’t explain further.

The city isn’t divided into blocks, or any sort of grid, as far as Ryou can tell. They follow the same unbroken street, shadows growing longer in the dust at their feet, crowd thinning into emptiness, until, abruptly, it all comes to an end.

“House Ishtar,” Mana says.

The boxy structure in front of them is sealed, vault-like. Whatever it is, it’s not a house—not a house by any stretch of Ryou’s imagination, which has been considerably stretched in recent days. There are no windows and, as far as Ryou can tell, no doors.

It’s a mausoleum, a gray ruin in a devastated landscape.

“This is all that’s left now,” Mana says, looking the mausoleum over disdainfully. “They had such beautiful grounds, once upon a time. But when the palace burned, Lord Ishtar sealed everything. The whole house sank into the earth. It’s all underground now, and the gardens are lost, and Isis hasn’t even tried to unseal it. I bet she likes it like that.

“Come on,” she says, tugging at the front of his cloak. “It’s not much farther.”

They hurry past the mausoleum, Mana glancing over her shoulder every few seconds, apparently holding her breath. Her hands are clenched into fists, and Ryou can feel the anxiety radiating from her slight frame. But no one emerges from the gray box to shout at them; no corpse-pale hands strike out through the sand to grasp at their ankles. They continue on, following a disintegrating path; then the path ends, cut off by a toppled stone pillar, and Ryou looks up to see the palace, as vivid as the image Mana plucked from her memories and deposited in his mind—a hulking, burnt out shell, cracked open to the sky like a poisonous egg.

Oh,” Mana says.

For a moment, Ryou thinks she’s going to cry again, but instead she stands up straight, thrusting her chin forward, squaring her shoulders.

“Let’s go,” she says.

But her equilibrium doesn’t last. They walk past the remnants of an ornamental pond, all its water long since evaporated, its lilies incinerated, and Mana cries out and grabs at Ryou’s arm, whispering, “There were fish here, once, golden ones and ghostly ones—”

Farther ahead, the ground is littered with torn and scattered tree limbs. The palace grounds must have beautiful, or, if not beautiful, then at least impressive. They have covered several tens of meters, but the palace remains a fixed point in the distance, ominous and seemingly unattainable.

“We used to play in the cypress grove,” Mana says. “Atem burned down a tree and blamed it on the lightning, even though the skies were clear. And now look at it—look at it.”

“I’m sorry,” Ryou says.

Mana shakes her head. “It’s fine,” she says staunchly. “We’ll rebuild. When Atem comes back, all this will be restored. All will be as it was.”

Their path is uncertain. They pick their way across the broken statuary and archways. The damage increases as they progress, until at last there is nothing but a charred and barren landscape. The sand beneath their feet turns into black glass and begins to swoop downward, drawing them in a gentle spiral toward the center of a depression.

Mana slips ahead. “This was the courtyard where we had our sparring lessons—”

How can she tell? Ryou wonders. There is nothing left. Nothing but black glass and rising clouds of ash, disturbed by their footsteps.

This is the mausoleum, he thinks. If Atem is waiting inside, then he is almost certainly a ghost.

At last they come to the burnt-out shell of a great arch, another inverse petal, much like the entryway into the magician’s court, only this one is ten times the size, towering into the sky. Under the soot, Ryou sees lines of inlaid blue and gold, intricately interlaced, running like veins through the black and blackened stone of the arch. But this archway, too, opens into absolute darkness.

Mana holds out a tentative, testing hand. She bites her lip, closes her eyes, and abruptly shoves her hand through the air between the pillared sides—

Nothing, not even a ripple.

“Every protection broken by fire,” Mana says, softly. She turns to Ryou. “Come on.”

He pulls his hood back as he steps through dead air. The ground seems to tilt beneath him, tilting downward into a great black pit, and he gasps a bit, stretching out a hand to the arch, to catch himself. Nothing happens; he doesn’t start sliding inexorably downward. He straightens with a sigh and notices Mana looking at him curiously.

“What is it?” she says.

“Sorry,” he says. “Nothing. I slipped.”

The sunny skies beyond, deepening and mellowing into mid-afternoon, throw a long golden petal across the cracked and broken tile. When they pass beyond it, Mana whispers to herself, “Hazy flame,” and the air in front of them begins to glow with a muted red light.

“This was Malaphar’s Hall,” Mana says. She raises her arm and the light spreads, illuminating the black bubbling, pitted surfaces of the walls. Ryou can’t stop the shudder of revulsion at their pockmarked appearance—thousands upon thousands of orderly little holes, like pores or frogspawn. “The walls were scaled with rubies. At dusk, when they lit the braziers, the light would turn pink.”

Mana recalls her hazy flame, bringing it down to hover closely around their shoulders, and the gruesome walls shrink away into shadow. The space feels cavernous overhead. For the first time, Ryou wonders how they are going to find Atem, adrift in all this vast darkness.

As though she can hear his thoughts, Mana glances back at him. “We’ll start with the throne room,” she says.

And then? The complex is so large they could wander it for days. Ryou’s uncertainty must be broadcasting itself loudly now, for Mana stops in her tracks, turns around, and smiles at him.

“He’ll be there,” she says firmly. “There at the very heart of Dahlia.”

They move onward, passing out of Malaphar’s Hall.

“On feast days, we would walk the gardens counterclockwise,” Mana tells Ryou. “There were seven areas, then, and seven gates. We would bow at the foot of each gate before passing through, and finally come to Malaphar’s Hall, and the king—Atem’s father—would receive us, one by one, and give us little gifts, little toys, and we would run past him into the central court—”

She stops dead, and Ryou collides with her, causing the flame to shiver around them.

“Listen!” she hisses.

Ryou strains his ears. For a moment, nothing, and then—

Someone is singing, high and thin and sad.

Mana’s flame is wavering now, jumping wildly; she stares at Ryou, eyes wide and glistening, and her lips tremble.

“The king’s lament,” she gasps. She grabs Ryou’s hand and begins to run, pulling him after her. “You were right. You were right! He’s here—he’s here—he’s calling to me.”

Ryou’s tired legs can’t keep up; he stumbles over the debris, and Mana tears impatiently away from him, drawing the flame with her. The light flares, throwing their shadows up against the wall, black and gigantic, then sucks back into a tiny point. Mana’s footsteps are beginning to recede into the distance.

“Wait,” Ryou calls, trying to hurry and falling a second time, scraping his knees. “Mana!”

He’s alone in the dark, and the darkness is total and almost suffocating, pressing against his body, his lungs. He picks himself up again, painfully, and hobbles toward the afterimage of light burned against his eyelids, arms outstretched to ward off any sharp corners.

Dimly, distantly, someone cries out in joy.

“Mana,” Ryou says, “Atem,” and hobbles faster. The palace roars and shivers around him. A tearing scream seems to pierce his eardrums; a hot white light sears three figures against his vision, tall and imprecise—

He throws up his arms and is engulfed.

Through his ringing ears, he hears a loud shout of disbelief.

Bakura?”

He opens his eyes. The figures are closer than he thought; one of them looms over him, grabbing roughly at his shoulders, at his face, squeezing

Ryou breathes in sharply.

“Jounouchi-kun,” he says.

 

Chapter Text

Kujaku Mai—that’s the tengu’s name, as it turns out—has lost interest in Jounouchi’s soul. She’s been hunting for her partner, she explains, the ogre Keith, “that drunken oaf, probably off gallivanting around on the other side of the world while I do all the hard work. Son of a bitch. How’s your sister?”

“She’s good,” Jounouchi says. Mai cracks a smile, and it pulls at him, at his gut. He smiles back. “She’s great, actually. It worked.”

She loads Kaiba, still dead asleep, into the back of her wagon, among the boxes and jars and hanging bunches of dried plants, and has Jounouchi sit up front with her. The wagon trundles along at a slow and placid pace; there doesn’t seem to be anything hitched to the front, but the wagon lurches and stalls like it’s being pulled by a living thing, and Mai is holding a red lead in her clawed hands. The lantern rattles by their heads.

“That was a shitty trick you pulled,” Mai says.

“Sorry,” Jounouchi says. “I didn’t know what else to do. He said he could save me.”

“And did he?” Mai says, raising a perfect eyebrow in the circle of lanternlight. Jounouchi has to admit she has a point.

“Is he with you?” Jounouchi asks. “At your shop, I mean. Can I see him?”

There’s a pause.

“He’s dead,” Mai says.

“What?” Jounouchi says. The pain is so sudden and sharp that he bends forward, folding his arms over his belly. “No—no, you’re wrong!”

“I saw it happen,” Mai says. “We harvested his soul. And then he went off and we had to bin him. They go off, sometimes.”

“Go off?” Jounouchi’s voice cracks. “He was alive!”

“No, he was a soul,” Mai says. “And a total weirdo, come to that. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he went rotten on me. There was something rotten about him all along. It was a pity, sure—he was clever. Curious. I liked him. But you have to get rid of them when they go off. The risk of contamination alone—ugh, gives me the creeps just thinking about it.” She shudders theatrically, rustling her feathers.

Jounouchi sniffs, and rubs at his nose and his eyes, and she says, almost kindly, “He wasn’t destined for a long life. I could see that right away. Don’t take it so hard, Katsuya.”

Jounouchi sinks lower, curling up around his agony and guilt, and doesn’t answer.

“So what’s the story with this guy?” Mai says, after a few miles. “You shacking up or something? You just can’t stay away, huh?”

Jounouchi blinks at her. “What the hell?” he says. “No. We’re—he—I—”

I belong to him, he thinks, but he can’t bring himself to say it out loud, obviously. It sounds ridiculously gay, even in his head, which is where it’s going to stay.

Mai laughs. The sound of it rings out into the night, star-bright. “Okay,” she says. “I get it. It’s complicated. Is that right?”

“Yeah,” Jounouchi says. His stomach saves him by growling.

“Well, don’t keel over on me,” Mai says, laughing again. “We can eat as soon as we circle up and make camp for the night. It’s only another twenty miles or so.”

“Why are you helping us?” Jounouchi says.

“Oh, hell, I don’t know,” Mai says. “Boredom. Loneliness. I think I’m gonna call it quits with Keith,” she adds. “He’s a lousy partner, even if he is useful muscle to have in a pinch. Not cut out for the daily grind, you know what I mean?”

Jounouchi has never met Keith and never wants to, based on descriptions of his size, drunkenness, and meanness. He nods.

“Too bad your friend bit the dust,” Mai says, airily. “He had potential.”

“Too bad,” Jounouchi echoes, throat constricting. “Yeah.”

Hours later, Mai reins them to a stop, hammers a post into the ground, and tethers the red lead. The wagon rocks back and forth and is still. Jounouchi holds out his hands, intending to give Mai something to hold on to while she dismounts, but she floats out with a little beat of her wings, laughing at his startled reaction.

Jounouchi goes around the back to check on Kaiba. He hasn’t stirred. He lies there on the floor of the wagon, cold and quiet, his hair limp across his cheek. Jounouchi lifts one of Kaiba’s arms and lets it go; it thuds back down onto Kaiba’s chest, and Kaiba doesn’t make a sound.

Mai climbs in beside Kaiba and starts rummaging through the contents of a large lacquered chest, pulling out bits and bobs and setting them on a wooden tray.

She unties the lantern hanging from the wagon, hooks it onto one long finger, and hops back out with the lantern and a metal jug dangling from one hand, balancing the tray atop the other. When she sets the lantern down, it expands, and the flame inside grows in size and intensity, warming Jounouchi’s face with its renewed sparkle. She gestures for Jounouchi to sit, and he does.

“What’s wrong with him?” Mai asks, jabbing her thumb at the wagon.

“So many things,” Jounouchi says. Mai raises that eyebrow again, and he relents and says, “I don’t know. I think he’s tired.” That trick with the mirror seems to have done something to Kaiba—drained him, exhausted him. He remembers the heaviness of Kaiba’s body against his, not entirely unpleasant, and swallows.

Shaking his head to dispel the memory, Jounouchi eyes the tray. It’s piled high with flatbread, and apples, and what looks like a whole extended family of mice on long skewers. They’re dried, almost like jerky, but he can very clearly see the outlines of their little heads and tails.

“Uh.”

“No?” Mai says. “Not a fan of dried dormouse? More for me. Have some bread, then. Humans can eat bread, right?”

Jounouchi snags a piece off the tray, careful not to touch the mice, and nibbles at it. It crumbles on his tongue, dust-like, before turning into a paste. His stomach doesn’t seem to mind the taste or texture. It rumbles back to life, and saliva floods his mouth; he crams one section down after another. Mai nods at the jug, and Jounouchi tilts it to his lips and sucks down its contents—

“Oh, shit, fuck,” he wheezes, spraying liquid everywhere. It’s some kind of powerful sake, and it’s burning his esophagus. He’ll breathe fire in another moment. Mai, having downed the row of mice, skewer and all, before spitting some bones up delicately into her palm, laughs at his reaction.

“Steady,” she says. “It’s strong stuff.”

“What,” Jounouchi says, feeling a rush of nausea. “What is that?”

Mai gets up and disappears into the wagon. She comes back a moment later holding a bottle (“Tada!”) and sets it down in front of Jounouchi.

“Nice, right?” Mai says. “It’s human. Ever had it before?”

“Uh, no,” Jounouchi says. He stares at the container in amazement. He was expecting a glass bottle and a label, but this is a gourd-shaped ceramic container, like something out of a historical drama. “Where did you get this?”

"Shipwreck," Mai says, as though it is obvious. “Keith was sleeping off a hangover, so I went out alone. Good thing, too. He would have downed this in a heartbeat. I hide it in the cleaning supplies. Only place he never looks.” She sighs.

“You mean you went scuba-diving?” Jounouchi says. “Like, for treasure?” He didn’t realize demons were so high-tech. Kaiba’s suit and his patent leather shoes, and his lost briefcase, make a little more sense now.

She sips at her own cup. “What’s that?” she says. “Oh, you mean diving? Going underwater? No way. Have you seen these things?” She flaps her wings around, blowing crumbs and bits of dormouse everywhere. “They’re heavy as fuck when they get wet.”

“Then how—?”

“The usual way,” Mai says. “It washed up in the mountains. That happens sometimes, you know. Water and mountains; that’s where all the boundaries are blurred. You can find all kinds of stuff if you know where to look. Lots of bone, too, if bonedust’s your game.”

“You mean—” Jounouchi turns the gourd over in his hands. His one mouthful of sake must have gone to his head; he feels heavy, sleepy, confused. He wishes he hadn’t taken such a large gulp. In the back of his mind, he can see Mai strolling down by a riverbank, stepping precisely through the mud with her talons, catching a glimpse of something sparkling in the water, and reaching in—

Mai sighs again. “It used to be easier, in the old days. But now they’ve sealed up the city. You can’t stick your hand into a fountain and hope for more than a little coin now, oh no, that would be much too dangerous for the dear citizens of Dahlia! You have to go outside the limits. Way outside. So that’s what we do. Well, what I do. Keith does fuck all. And meanwhile all the beautiful lords and ladies sneer at us, call us scavengers and ghouls—” the sake is clearly going to her head, too “—well, they can fuck right off. They all come to my shop anyway.”

She eats another skewer of mice. This time, she crunches down on the bones.

“Kaiba said this is the other side of the world,” Jounouchi says.

“This?” Mai laughs. “You’ve got it backwards. This is the real world. Where you come from—that’s la-la land. The mirror world. The distortion. Stay there too long and you start to get distorted yourself.” She flexes a talon and winks. “Shaitan knows how you humans can withstand it. But I hear the distortion happens inside, most of the time.” She jabs at her own heart with a claw. “Right?”

The memory of his father slumped at the kitchen table, surrounded by discarded beer cans, looms up behind his eyes.

“Right,” Jounouchi says.

Mai drinks half the bottle, and Jounouchi sits with her, watching as the moon rises higher and higher in the star-filled sky. Mai gets up to put the tray away, or just throws it out; Jounouchi hears a series of tinkling crashes. In the back of the wagon, Kaiba just keeps sleeping. He looks weird like this, all soft and vulnerable and young, and Jounouchi drags his gaze away.

Mai rolls out a blanket onto the grass. “You can join me, if you want,” Mai says, nodding over her wings as she lies down, “but no funny business. And I kick in my sleep.”

The light gleams on her talons. Jounouchi declines.

Mai blows out the lantern, dousing them in darkness. Jounouchi has had too much to drink, and he’s really starting to feel overheated. He ends up lying down beside Kaiba in the wagon just to cool off a bit, pressing his face against Kaiba’s arm.

His exhaustion is making him feel soft and fuzzy, but a little raw, too, a little cracked open. Poor Bakura, he thinks, and his eyes sting with tears. Bakura is dead, dead too young, and no matter what Mai says or thinks, Jounouchi knows it’s his fault.

He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, and two hot tears roll down his cheeks. He doesn’t bother wiping them away. He can smell the sea on Kaiba’s clothes—not the horrible, toe-curling dead fish smell of Kaiba’s haunted house, but salt and sun and a hint of a cool breeze carried over miles of blue water.

He inhales a deep, shuddering breath of it and closes his eyes again.

Chapter Text

He opens his eyes to find himself curled on his side, Kaiba starfished beneath him, and sunlight pouring in through the front of the wagon, catching on the bottles and boxes strewn across the wooden floor. The sun bounces off Mai’s hair, too, golden, as she shifts and swivels around to look at him.

“Good morning,” she says. “Hit some bumps in the road earlier. Mind tidying up?”

Jounouchi nods at her, and she turns back to her driving.

“Kaiba,” he whispers, giving Kaiba’s forearm a little shake. “Kaiba. Hey.”

A shadow of a frown furrows between Kaiba’s eyebrows, but it’s gone before Jounouchi is even sure he’s seen it, smoothing back into nothing.

Some baubles have spilled from a chest; the sun gleams on them now, lighting them up like pebbles at the bottom of a river. Jounouchi sighs and begins sweeping them back inside the chest.

He rights the bottles and books, retrieves the bunches of half-dried herbs and foliage and returns them to their hooks. As they dangle overhead, he drags Kaiba back to the center of the wagon, hauling him under his armpits, and arranges him neatly on his back, arms at his sides. It’s just like tucking his father in after a night of carousing, although he hasn’t bothered to do that in years.

His father would grunt and curse and swipe at him, but Kaiba, of course, says nothing, does nothing. Jounouchi wonders if he’ll ever wake up again.

He can see the empty road behind them through the flapping back curtains of the wagon, the clouds of red dust filtering into silent air. The land on either side of the path veers off into tall grass. He could leap to freedom, vanish in an instant. He’s not sure Mai would bother coming after him. She probably wouldn’t want to leave her goods unattended. She’d shout after him, maybe, but that would be all.

But then he would be lost in demon country.

He looks back at Kaiba, at the blank white face.

“Asshole,” he mutters.

Then he clambers over the partition to sit beside Mai in the cool morning air, admiring the lazy red curl of the reins that she keeps looped across her knuckles. Paradoxically, it seems that the tighter she holds them to her body, the faster the wagon moves. He watches the scenery rolling by, green plains giving way to dense, spooky forest, where leaves shaped like hands reach across the sky and clasp to blot out all sunlight. He marks the growing lateness of the hour by the cold that settles over them in the darkness, and by the lights that begin to glimmer in the distance, one by one, like stars rising. Mai never approaches them. Often, she turns the wagon away, setting their course deeper into the trees. They make camp in a clearing blanketed by fallen leaves.

The next day is more of the same: forest unending, Kaiba unconscious.

“He sure knows how to sleep,” Mai remarks.

Whenever he checks on Kaiba, motionless in the back of the wagon, he thinks about the princesses in Western fairytales, trapped in sleep or death and encased in glass coffins. He feels like he’s peering through a windowpane frosted over with ice. What lies beyond, in Kaiba’s flushed, sleeping face, is blurry, radiating cold and foreboding.

The forest has dwindled into a boulder field. He isn’t sure how many days it’s been. Time passes in drips and dribbles: icicles giving way to spring.

The season, too, seems suspended in early spring, the air chilled and damp, as Mai’s wagon winds its way into the mist-hidden foothills of a hidden mountain range. The atmosphere has obscured the mountains from sight, but Jounouchi can feel them towering over him, their rocky faces turned toward the wagon, tiny and trundling, climbing stubbornly upward, beetle-like in its determination. He feels a heaviness bordering on disapproval.

It’s drizzling when Mai drops the reins, bringing the wagon to a lurching stop.

“What is it?” Jounouchi says. The trees are thin enough here, at the balding crest of the mountain, that he can see the sky, the faint edges of light limning the storm clouds in the distance. It’s still daytime, too early for them to be setting up camp.

“Pit stop,” Mai says. She unhooks the lantern and hops from the wagon, landing with a bit of a splash. She holds out a talon. “Come on.”

Jounouchi looks uncertainly at the back of the wagon, where he can see Kaiba, a dim shape lying on the floorboards.

“Come on,” Mai repeats. “We won’t be gone for long.”

“Where are we going?” Jounouchi asks.

“My cache,” Mai says. “Come on,” she says, for a third time. “Keith isn’t here, and I need a pair of hands.”

Jounouchi dismounts with a squelch. Despite the temperature of the air, the wet ground beneath his bare feet feels warm. He looks at Mai, puzzled, but she’s already threading her way into the underbrush. He hurries after her.

 

The ground slopes beneath his feet as he follows Mai into a curtain of mist. Here and there, Mai’s clawed footprints reveal traces of glassy black stone beneath the mud. He can just see the tips of her wings, shining in the damp. The mist thickens into white opacity, and then, as Jounouchi staggers forward, heart thumping, dissipates.

He sees Mai waiting beside a huge black rock, twice her height. As he gets closer, he sees that it’s an illusion: not a boulder at all but the yawning mouth of a cave.

The walls of the cave are running with water, rushing down the rock toward underground lakes and rivers. Moisture drifts in front of him, creating clouds in miniature. He brushes through them, following the tap-tap-tap of Mai’s claws on stone. The whiteness of day dims and disappears. With a whisper, Mai lights the lantern, painting their surroundings red and purple.

Something chitters in the darkness ahead. Mai’s lantern wavers to a halt, and Jounouchi halts with it.

“You!” Mai exclaims. “What are you—”

Three dark shapes rush by, splattering Jounouchi with foul water.

“Ugh,” Mai says. “Gross.”

“What,” Jounouchi says, twisting around to try to get a better look. He sees the figures silhouetted at the mouth of the cave before they blur and vanish. Some of the water hit him in the mouth; it’s slimy on his tongue, reeking and vegetal. “Argh, what—”

“Keith’s toadies,” Mai says.

Jounouchi’s heart thuds. “Is—is he here?” he asks.

Mai snorts. “I doubt it. I hope he hasn’t been raiding the cupboards. Were they carrying anything? Did you see?”

Jounouchi only remembers a glimpse of drowned white skin stretched tight over protruding cheekbones.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Oh, well,” Mai says. The lantern bobs forward. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Mai’s lantern unveils something resembling a pirate’s trash heap. There are chests and crates scattered everywhere, some overturned, spilling their guts onto the wet stone. Here and there, the lantern catches on bits of bright color: banners, gems, plastics.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Mai says. She sets the lantern down and kicks at some of the debris, causing a brief sparkle of movement. “What the hell were they looking for?”

The sparkle fades, but something white and glowing is still moving in the shadow just beyond the lantern’s circle of light. It begins to stumble toward them.

“Uh, Mai,” Jounouchi says. “Mai!”

“What?” she says, looking up. She follows his shaking, pointing finger and starts to chuckle. “Do you mean to tell me you can’t even recognize a fellow human when you see one?”

Jounouchi stares. The thing is an approximation, much like a child’s drawing, of a human form: a bulbous body with four jutting, ill-proportioned limbs. It has no hair, no features. Slowly, the form coalesces, condenses, becomes more familiar. Its silvery paws lengthen and separate into fingers. Its long white jaw distends, and holes open in its face: eyes, nostrils, mouth.

There’s nothing human about it.

“Is this—” his voice cracks “—is this a soul?”

“Obviously,” Mai says. He can’t see her face, but it sounds like she’s rolling her eyes. “Keith, that son of a bitch. It’s going to take me weeks to figure out what…” Her voice sharpens. “Hey, don’t—”

He touches the outstretched hand, finger to finger, palm to palm. The holes widen into five screaming orifices.

“Shit!” Jounouchi yells. He tries to pull back, but he can’t. The soul is pulling his arm into its core, silver lines shooting up his skin to consume him. In an instant the cave is erased. He’s looking down at his feet: pink sneakers atop concrete. His legs are skinny, hairless, and bare, prickling with cold. His skirt stops just above his knees. It’s his favorite skirt, he remembers; his mother bought it for him, back when she could still walk. He wore it so that she would smile. He wasn’t planning on spending so much time outside, shivering in the growing darkness, but he couldn’t bear it, the sight of his mother’s sunken eyes, the way she moaned in pain at the slightest movement. She didn’t notice the skirt. He excused himself, ran outside. Usually there are several people smoking outside in the designated area, but today the hospital courtyard is empty. The ogre is waiting on the bench.

His fingers shake. Ash collects at the tip of the ogre’s cigarette and begins to fall. That’s when time stops.

Flat blue eyes look up into hers. The ogre’s mouth splits into a grin.

“So? Do we have a deal?”

She starts to reply, but he’s distracted by the noise of wings overhead—the rustle of birds settling down in the trees.

She opens his mouth, and—

“Oof!”

Jounouchi hits the ground and skids, buffeted back by the gust of wind from Mai’s wings. She beats them a second time, and the soul tumbles backward. Mai steps between them, wings spread.

“Careful!” she snaps. “It has no vessel. It’ll take yours. Don’t touch it again.”

Jounouchi blinks down at the sodden bottoms of his jeans. The girl’s legs hover over his, an afterimage. He flexes his dirt-blackened toes.

The ground shifts beneath them, sliding left. He’s crouching atop a scimitar. He steps back and stoops to pick it up, only to realize that there is no blade, just a hilt and an empty scabbard. The lanternlight dances across its curved surface, illuminating veins of gold and blood.

“Whoa,” he says.

“Oh, I forgot we had that,” Mai says, glancing over her shoulder. “Grab it, will you? It might be worth something.”

 

Swearing under her breath about Keith and Keith’s minions, Mai gathers a crate of items—jewelry, fabrics, sand-worn jars—and has Jounouchi carry them from the cave. The clouds have parted by the time they reemerge, sunlight dappling the path ahead. The atmosphere seems to haved lightened, too, and Jounouchi lightens with it, despite the weight of his burden. He picks up the pace as the mud dries beneath his feet, high-stepping. The sun warms the scabbard slung across his chest, a buffer against the cold horror of having that thing at his front, that empty screaming soul.

Mai has bound its arms and torso with a red leash and is dragging it through the underbrush. But the soul is proving uncooperative: like an automaton, it moves repeatedly into the surrounding trees, marching pointlessly into trunks and branches. Finally, it tries to walk through a low, jagged shrub and falls over.

Jounouchi slows to a stop and stares down at it, at the futile movements of its arms and legs. It’s already beginning to deform, light bleeding away, fingers and ears blurring into rounded, indistinct shapes.

“Don’t worry,” Mai says as she tugs at the leash. “Don’t worry, Katsuya. This isn’t how your friend ended up. Far from it.”

“He ended up dead,” Jounouchi says, quiet.

Mai looks at him. “Isn’t that better?” she says.

Jounouchi swallows. He starts to set his crate down so he can give her a hand, but she shakes her head. “Go on ahead,” she says. “I’ll catch up.”

He marches on, following the gentle curve of the slope. As he breaks into the open, he sees that the curtains at the back of the wagon have been thrown open. Kaiba is kneeling at the edge of the wagon, one hand braced against it, swaying dangerously forward.

“Kaiba!” he exclaims, and drops the crate with a crash. A jar shatters, releasing a puff of smoke. Jounouchi winces.

Kaiba sits back. For a moment he says nothing, while Jounouchi stares at him, panting, and then he clears his throat faintly and mutters, “You’re alive. Good.”

Fucking—same to you, I guess,” Jounouchi says, rubbing the back of his neck. For some reason he feels embarrassed. Kaiba looks perfectly unrumpled, not a hair out of place, whereas Jounouchi can taste his own breath, and it’s not the greatest.

“Where are we?” Kaiba demands. “What is this place? What did you do?”

“Whoa, relax,” Jounouchi says, holding his hands up. Stop. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine,” Kaiba snarls at him. “We need to go. You’re wasting time.”

I’m wasting time?” Jounouchi scowls. “You’re the one who passed out. You’ve been out for days. We had to drag you in here. Wasting time? You’re the one who’s wasting my time!”

Two points of red color appear on Kaiba’s face, high on his cheeks. “Days?” he says, sounding as though he can’t believe it. He looks away. “Days,” he repeats. “Shit! Shit—”

Despair cracks his voice.

“Kaiba—look—listen,” Jounouchi starts, more conciliatory now, “I don’t even know what you want,” and then Mai drops onto the roof of the wagon with a whoosh and a clack. The soul is tangled in her talons like some kind of translucent grub wriggling in the grasp of a black hawk.

Kaiba’s eyes widen momentarily, then narrow. “Oh, great,” he says. “We’ve been picked up by scavengers.”

“Sleeping Beauty awakens,” Mai says. She waggles her eyebrows at Jounouchi, who flushes.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Kaiba says. “We’ll be going now.”

“Whoa, there, buster,” Mai says. She spreads her arms, and spreads her wings, too. “Hang on a second. You’re in the middle of nowhere, in case you hadn’t noticed. Why the rush?”

Kaiba breathes in, and Jounouchi swears the temperature drops a few degrees.

“Don’t get in my way,” Kaiba says.

“Don’t get in your—” Mai’s affronted gaze darts between them, relaxes “—oooh, okay, right. Don’t worry, Katsuya is safe from my clutches. He’s not my type. Or, if you think about it, my species.”

Kaiba gapes at her. “Clutches—”

“Well, yeah,” Mai says, making an upward curling motion with one taloned foot that somehow looks obscene. “Grasp. Grip. Wiles. Come on, have some lunch before you rush off into the blazing afternoon.”

Jounouchi’s stomach gurgles, and he sneaks a hopeful glance in Kaiba’s direction. Kaiba’s expression is stormy, but he notices Jounouchi’s eyes on him, and he sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Fine,” he says.

 

Chapter Text

He sits with Kaiba at the back of the wagon at first, enduring a silent and uncomfortable hour and the thin downturned press of Kaiba’s lips, and then he shrugs and clambers back to join Mai at the front. She tells him about some of her other finds in the mountains. She complains more about Keith. She rolls her eyes about Kaiba.

The sun is setting by the time they make it off the mountain. The city appears on the horizon just after moonrise, glowing like a ring of flame.

“Oh,” Kaiba says. Jounouchi glances back and sees him staring through the gap in the curtains, the moonlight glimmering in his gaze. His expression is unreadable.

The wagon has been rolling more and more slowly over the course of the evening. Now Mai reins them to a stop. It must be time to make camp, Jounouchi thinks. But as he watches, perplexed, Mai comes around to the back of the wagon and digs the very tips of her talons into the seams of the floor, peeling back a doorway into a hidden compartment. She rolls the soul, now bound into a fetal position and shoved inside a crate, down first.

“No,” Kaiba says.

Mai rolls her eyes. “Into the wagon or you’re walking,” she says. “And good luck getting past the city guard all by your lonesome.”

“Go,” Kaiba murmurs, and Jounouchi slides in after the crate, Kaiba following close behind. They lie flat, side by side, while Mai seals the false bottom above them. It’s more than a little bit like being buried alive, and Jounouchi’s breath starts to quicken at the thought of it.

“Quiet,” Kaiba whispers. He brushes Jounouchi’s hand, and a whisper of ice springs into his body. It concentrates his mind, steadies his breathing.   

He hears murmured conversation and the noise of sandaled feet overhead, shuffling against the wood. The floorboards creak and then fall silent. Finally, he hears the tap-tap of Mai’s talons.

She follows up with a sharp rap on the floorboards. “Knock, knock,” she says, muffled. “Coast is clear. Come on up.”

Red light is leaking through the seams of the false floor. Jounouchi finds the hinges. When he alights from the wagon, he finds himself standing on a quiet city corner.

Kaiba lands beside him, his patent shoes clacking on the pavement.

“Dahlia,” he says, and Jounouchi lets the curtain fall and turns to him, astonished.

“Dahlia!” Jounouchi repeats. “So we made it. That’s great.”

Kaiba looks distant. “Is it?” he says. “I wonder.”

There are lights on in the towering buildings surrounding Mai’s little first-floor shop, the Emporium. It almost looks like an ordinary street in Domino at night, except all the lights in the windows are deep red, and every stone face turned toward the cobbles has been carved with intricate designs, creeping skyward, vine-like.

As Jounouchi stares, a strange flash seems to sweep across the scene, freezing everything in jagged green and black. He feels something like spiderwebs brushing across his skin, dew-damp, and shudders.

The feeling lifts. Jounouchi scrubs at his face and arms.

“What was that?” he asks. He turns to Kaiba in time to catch him brushing his face with the edge of one sleeve.

Kaiba frowns. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Knowing this city, nothing good. Let’s go inside.”

Together, they unload Mai’s goods and stack them on the cobbles. Mai brings the soul out herself and sends her wagon away with a click of her sharp fingers.

“I’m just going to take this downstairs,” she says. She pauses just outside the front door, at what looks like the entrance to the cellar, balancing the crate against one thigh. “Make yourselves at home. But not too at home, capisce? Don’t touch anything.”

The cellar doors have barely swung shut behind her when they hear her cry out.

“Mai!” Jounouchi shouts, just as the cobbles explode into the air, and a huge, blond head erupts from the ground. The head is followed by a pair of hulking shoulders. Before Jounouchi has time to react, there is an ogre standing in front of him.

He’s swaying and bloodied and panting. One of his enormous hands grips the red rope that binds the soul, now lying crumpled at his feet; the other is crushing a beer can.

Keith, Jounouch thinks, and shit.

“Who the fuck are you?” Keith says.

“No one,” Jounouchi says. He staggers as Kaiba’s hand lands on his arm.

“Stay back,” Kaiba says, shouldering his way in front. Jounouchi wonders if Kaiba is going to deal with Keith the way he dealt with Hirutani. It seems challenging—Hirutani was the size of an elephant, sure, but Keith seems to be the size of a house—but not impossible. Kaiba seems totally unconcerned. He has his hands in his pockets.

Mai bursts into the air, propelled by a blast from her wings. “Keith, you son of a bitch,” she shouts, and then she dives at him, talons outstretched. “Paws off my property.”

Your property?” Keith says. He brandishes the rope, lifting the soul into the air where its arms and legs dangle with sickening limpness. “This one’s mine. I tricked it fair and square.”

“Months ago. And then you left it to molder in the middle of fucking nowhere,” Mai snaps. “Degrading and degrading. You’re lucky it didn’t go bad like—like the last one. It’s mine now. I lay claim to it, as I do to this shop and everything in it. Everything except you. Our partnership is over. Now get out!”

Keith’s eyes, roaming wildly around the empty street, come to rest on Jounouchi, frozen on the doorstep.

“This one ain’t inside,” he growls, and he drops the soul and the beer and lunges.

“Move!” Kaiba shouts. Jounouchi dives out of the way, rolling back to his feet in time to see Kaiba grappling with Keith, both hands clenched around one of Keith’s fists, struggling to push him back. A second later, Kaiba loses his footing. Keith throws him into a wall.

“You,” Keith says, “you, it’s gotta be you.”

“Oh shit, oh fuck,” Jounouchi says. He looks frantically around the street for anything to throw that isn’t just a pointless glass bottle or a rock or a handful of air; he sees nothing. And then he remembers the scimitar.

It’s just a hollow scabbard, but Keith doesn’t know that. Maybe the threat of a blade will slow him down, give him pause. Stop him long enough for them to regroup.

But as Jounouchi’s hand closes on the handle, he feels a current of warmth shooting down his arm.

The scabbard catches fire. From its depths, his hands already sweating against the blaze, Jounouchi draws a flaming sword.

What—”

He can see the orange of the flames reflecting in Keith’s bleary eyes.

The juggernaut grinds to a halt. Keith breathes in. “Maybe I was mistaken,” he says.

“Maybe you were,” Mai says.

Kaiba picks himself up and hurries back to Jounouchi’s side. He squares up, empty-handed but no less determined.

“Aw, come on, Mai,” Keith says, wheedling now. “Call off the dogs. Sure, I had a rough few months, but things are about to change, baby. I got us a new deal. Got us a new patron. I signed with the Big Five, Mai—the Big fucking Five! I just came back to tell you the good news. That’s all.”

“The Big Five?” Mai sneers. “Are you kidding me, Keith? I’m not interested. I told you, it’s over between us! And don’t call me baby.”

“Fuck you, then, you bitch,” Keith says, and he barrels past them and down the alley, his feet pounding so heavily on the cobbles that several of them crack and split. A moment later, he’s gone.

Jounouchi drops the sword. It extinguishes moments after it hits the ground, leaving scorch marks.

“Well,” Mai says. “That’s that. At least he didn’t break the blessed doors.” She claps Kaiba on the shoulder and pats him while he stands there awkwardly, hands jammed back deep into his pockets. “Haven’t seen anyone try to go head to head with Keith in a while. A for effort. You maniac.”

Jounouchi glances back at his feet and stares. Where it was once a broken hilt, the sword is now whole: there is now a curved blade sprouting from the handle, the cool steel of it shining through a layer of soot.

Mai, whistling, goes to pick it up, only for the blade to flame back to life. Swearing, she recoils, and the fire goes out.

“Guess it doesn’t like me,” she says, mock-mournful. She nods at Jounouchi and grins as he shoves the sword back into its scabbard. “Yeah. Better leave that capped.”

 

Jounouchi and Kaiba take the goods inside while Mai replaces the soul in the cellar. Jounouchi stands amid shelves and shelves of bottles, herbs, curios, and plain old junk; Kaiba paces a circle around the center of the shop. They can hear Mai banging about below. Eventually, her clacking taloned footsteps grow heavier, and she reemerges, brushing dust from her wings.

“Phew,” she says. “That’s that. Go on, make yourselves comfortable.”

“We can’t stay,” Kaiba says.

Mai rolls her eyes. “And where is it that you have to be so urgently?” she asks.

Kaiba murmurs something.

“The palace?” Mai says loudly. It’s almost a yell. “Are you actually insane?”

Jounouchi peers at Kaiba, wondering how he’s going to answer that one.

“Probably,” Kaiba says.

“All right, I don’t want to know,” Mai says, shaking her head. “But you’re not going to make it ten feet, now or in broad daylight. You might as well have targets on your backs.”

“Targets?” Jounouchi says nervously. Palace?

“Don’t you get it?” Mai says. “Human souls are worth a lot of money. Not everyone’s as nice as me about it, you know. Some of ’em won’t even give you your heart’s desire in return. They don’t care if you die happy. They just—” she makes a short, violent motion with one hand “—tear it out. Like Keith was going to.”

Jounouchi shudders.

“Tell you what,” Mai says. “Stay the night, and I’ll take you out there in my wagon tomorrow.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Kaiba says.

“Come on,” Mai says, cajoling. “I might even get you there before noon. It’s almost an hour if you try to walk it. We’re on the outskirts of town. I’ll even throw in a complimentary magic sword.”

“Really?” Jounouchi says.

“Sure,” Mai says. She shrugs. “I can’t even touch the blessed thing. How am I supposed to sell it?”

Jounouchi grins. He turns the sword over and over in his hands, admiring the flow of light over the hilt. “Thank you.”

She looks at him pityingly. “Hell, don’t thank me, kid.”

 

They set out at first light. Jounouchi sits in the back of the wagon with Kaiba, and Mai draws the curtains shut behind them. But as the wagon lurches forward and starts to rattle across the cobbles, Jounouchi twitches the curtain back, just a bit, to peek outside—

And gasps. There’s a woman standing on the sidewalk who looks like an angel. The sun is shining down on her blue-black hair, creating a haze like a halo. She turns to her companion, who is cute and petite and perfectly proportioned, and says something, and they both laugh, and their laughing faces dazzle Jounouchi’s eyes. Everywhere he looks, he sees more of the same type, beautiful, long-limbed beings. If he didn’t already know he was damned, he’d think he’d gone to heaven.

“Are we going to see the king and queen?” Jounouchi says. He can easily believe that the beautiful creatures walking outside, in their glowing white clothes, would have a royal family, or maybe even an imperial one. “Wait—are you a prince or something?”

It doesn’t explain everything, but it would explain the stick up Kaiba’s ass, and his complete, cold insistence on having his way, that ridiculously giant house by the sea, and his face—the beauty of his face.

There’s a bit of a gleam in Kaiba’s eyes now; he’s amused, and at Jounouchi’s expense, but Jounouchi finds he doesn’t mind it too much.

“No,” Kaiba says. So much for that theory.

“The king is dead,” Mai says, from the other side of the curtain. “The palace is a ruin. And I would strongly advise against—well, doing whatever it is you’re planning on doing.”

“What about the queen?” Jounouchi asks. “Is she still around?”

“You’re so cute,” Mai says. “No, Katsuya, she’s been dead a long time. You’re looking at the last moments of a dying age.”

They drive on. Jounouchi stares at his hands, hypnotized by the rocking of the wagon, until a thought occurs to him, sudden and plunging, and he looks back at Kaiba. He’s sitting with his limbs precisely arranged, legs crossed, arms folded. His suit is really sleek-looking, like something from a magazine. It’s completely at odds with their surroundings, with the worn wooden floor of the wagon and the celestial garments and tumbling, voluminous hair of the women on the city streets. Jounouchi could believe that Kaiba was a prince, but maybe not a prince of this place. He doesn’t belong here any more than Jounouchi does.

“Why are we here?” he says.

Kaiba darts a warning glance at the curtain, where a winged shadow is visible—Mai driving the horseless wagon, shouting at people to get the hell out of their way. “There’s no need for you to know.”

Jounouchi crawls a little closer. The movement of the wagon tilts him forward, and he throws out a hand, clawing at the curtain just in time to stop tumbling into Kaiba’s lap.

“Tell me,” he says. “Whisper if you have to.”

Kaiba leans in, but all he says, breath cool on Jounouchi’s ear, is, “Don’t question me. Just do as I say, and Shizuka won’t get hurt.”

His stomach drops. “I know,” he says. “I know, you asshole.”

Kaiba doesn’t respond, and Jounouchi thinks about punching him. Mai will probably help, if it comes to that. Then he thinks about Kaiba sleeping at his feet, sweaty and defenseless, and he sits back.

At that moment, the wagon comes to a stop, and the curtains part.

“Okay, boys,” Mai says. “This is as far as I go.”

They clamber from the back of the wagon. Mai provides some cover with the spread of her black wings. Then she folds them back, and Jounouchi swears at the sight before them, a wreck of broken trees, their trunks and limbs snapped and scattered across blackened earth. Rising above the carnage, he sees something that looks like a bombed-out building. A ripple of cold spreads through him, making his hair stand on end.

He turns back to the wagon and sees Mai and Kaiba huddled together in a savage, whispered conversation.

Mai says, “I know a scavenger when I see one.”

“Fuck you,” Kaiba says, and Jounouchi looks between them in alarm.

“Hey,” he says.

Kaiba turns away without another word and starts walking, picking his way across the wreckage. Mai sighs.

“Sorry,” Jounouchi says, knowing it isn’t enough. “Thanks, uh, thanks again for the sword.”

Mai just smiles at him. “Good luck,” she says.

A few steps later, he looks back over his shoulder, still feeling the pull in his stomach, the hunger inside calling him back to her. She’s already driving off, but she seemse to sense his gaze; she turns back to him, one taloned hand raised in farewell.

“Hey,” Kaiba snaps. He’s already at the line of trees.

“You were rude as hell,” Jounouchi says, jogging to catch up to him.

“What, is she a friend of yours now?” Kaiba mutters.

“Well, yeah,” Jounouchi says. “She helped us out, didn’t she? We owe her. Big time.”

Kaiba whirls on him. “That’s exactly what I don’t want,” he exclaims, voice ringing out in the silence of the wrecked garden, and Jounouchi stares at him in surprise, shuffles to a halt. “I don’t want that,” Kaiba repeats, quieter now.

“She only wanted to help,” Jounouchi says, stunned.

“Did she?” Kaiba says nastily. “Is that all? And I’m sure it wasn’t your soul she was eyeing, for her little shelf of human trinkets—”

“Not everyone is like you,” Jounouchi says. He remembers Mai’s smile, bright and distinct, shining in the middle of a haze of sake. The mirror world, the distortion. “They’re not all using each other. Sometimes people just want to help.”

“Enough,” Kaiba says.

“You have to let them help you,” Jounouchi insists. “You can’t just go on alone and—and—”

And ignore them—turn down that Domino kid’s invitation to hang out, again and again, because you’re embarrassed about being held back a grade, you don’t want him to know about your past with Hirutani, or about your father—tell your mother you’re doing fine, tell Honda there’s nothing to worry about, smile, smile

Back to the wall, demons at the door. No one to turn to except that weird kid who says he can talk to ghosts.

Bakura is dead now, because of Jounouchi, because of Jounouchi’s shit choices.

“Now what?” Kaiba says. “Jounouchi?”

It’s the first time Kaiba has said his name since their meeting on the docks. The sound of it floods his ears like cold water. He raises his head and sees Kaiba looking searchingly at him.

“It’s lonely,” Jounouchi blurts out. “Isn’t it lonely?”

“Keep up,” Kaiba says, turning away. “Don’t—”

“Don’t wander off, I got it,” Jounouchi says. “I got it.”

He follows Kaiba deeper into the broken grove.

 

Chapter Text

The palace is a bombed-out ruin. Jounouchi follows Kaiba inside, barely daring to breathe. It looks like it could come crumbling down around them at any moment. Light streams down in huge shafts through the breaks in the ceiling, bluish and indistinct. The walls were carved, once, with images of giant horned figures; now their eyes and mouths run with ash.

“What the hell happened here?” he says.

“A cataclysm,” Kaiba says. He’s awfully forthcoming now that they’ve left Mai behind. Jounouchi should find it annoying, but for some reason he just feels pleased. Kaiba’s voice is nice to listen to, cool and smooth. “My father died here.”

Not so nice anymore. Jounouchi stops dead. “Holy—what—”

“You wanted to know why we came,” Kaiba says. “I’m retracing his final steps. There’s something I need to know. Someone I need to find.” He looks back at Jounouchi, still frozen in his tracks. “He died a year before the palace was destroyed. They buried him. What was left of him, that is. Don’t worry. There are no bodies here anymore.”

“Only souls,” Jounouchi mumbles, more to himself than to Kaiba, “and monsters.”

Kaiba hears him anyway. “That’s right,” he says. “This way.”

“Were you here when it happened?” Jounouchi asks.

“When he died?” Kaiba says. “No. More’s the pity.”

“When the palace burned,” Jounouchi says.

“Ah,” Kaiba says. “No again. I wouldn’t be standing here now if I had been. No: I was sealed away.”

“You were what?”

“Sealed. Trapped on the other side of the world.”

The other side—he must mean the human world. Maybe even Domino. Jounouchi remembers the quiet streets, the elementary school children in their little hats, the long walk to Domino High School. Has he walked by Kaiba before without even noticing him?

Impossible, he decides—impossible that he wouldn’t notice.

The song starts up so softly, so gently, that at first Jounouchi thinks it’s inside his head, a memory of some melancholy enka tune. It’s so sad and lonesome that it brings tears to his eyes, and he scrubs them hastily away and tries to think of something else, some Morning Musume candypop bullshit. But the song just gets louder.

“Do you hear that?” Jounouchi says finally, hushed, and Kaiba nods.

“She’s awake,” he says.

Jounouchi quavers, “Wh-who’s awake?”

“The guardian of this place,” Kaiba says. “The monster at the end of the maze.” For some insane reason, he’s smiling. “She’s watching us.”

Jounouchi’s eyes have adjusted to the gloom. He follows Kaiba’s gaze and sees something white and blurry standing at the far end of the rubble, swaying in the darkness. Another soul? A second later, though, the white thing winks out of existence.

Ghosts and monsters.

Jounouchi shudders.

“I hate you so much,” he says.

“Stay close,” Kaiba says, low, and Jounouchi doesn’t need to be told twice. He glues himself to Kaiba’s side, darting nervous glances all around. He’s definitely not imagining it: the walls are closing in on them, the looming burned out eyes of the reliefs getting bigger and bigger.

The lament cuts off abruptly, and Jounouchi gasps a bit despite himself. The white thing is back. He wants to put his hands on the sword. He wants to lift the sword and summon its fire and banish the white thing into the darkness.

He wants to crouch down and shut his eyes and pretend none of this is happening.

Kaiba just keeps walking.

“I’ve been here before,” he says, conversational, heedless of the white thing stalking them at the edge of Jounouchi’s vision. “When I was a child. My father brought me to meet the king.”

“Was he, uh, was he nice?”

“I don’t know,” Kaiba says. “I was brought as an offering. Don’t look so shocked,” he adds. “I suppose the king was kind in his own way. He refused.” He reaches up and strokes his fingertips across the remnants of a pillar. “All I remember of this place was how frightened I was. But now my father is dead, and the palace is burned, and only we remain, trampling over the ashes of ages past. No,” he says, to Jounouchi’s unasked question, “no, I am not frightened anymore. Are you?”

“I’m fucking terrified,” Jounouchi says, and Kaiba laughs.

“How honest,” he says. “I envy you.”

Parts of the ceiling have fallen away completely in this part of the palace, leaving them exposed to the blue sky. It blazes down on them, and Jounouchi starts to sweat.

“Is she going to hurt us?” Jounouchi asks. It’s so bright here, with direct sunlight beaming off the gleaming black surface of the floor beneath them; he can barely see the ghostly figure any more, let along his own hands, outstretched as he gropes his way forward. The bottoms of his feet feel scorched. He brushes against a fallen pillar, heated to searing temperatures under the noonday sun.

“Maybe,” Kaiba says, which isn’t reassuring. “Try not to touch anything. She’s sworn to protect this unhallowed ground.”

Jounouchi twitches, drawing his hands back to his sides and shoving them deep into his pockets. “Okay,” he says, wretched.

They pass back into a shadowed area, and the blackness is so complete that he gasps.

He gasps again: the figure in white is waiting for them at the center of the darkness.

She isn’t singing anymore, just standing. Standing absolutely still.

Then Jounouchi realizes that she isn’t wearing white at all; in fact, she is naked. She has a head of silver-white hair, and it cascades down her shoulders, over her breasts, down, down, consuming her legs, trailing over the ground. She glows, somehow, with a ghostly outline. She is the moon, and Jounouchi is a shepherd alone in a field, entranced. Her eyes shine with an electric blue light.

When she sees him, she smiles. Her lips part. She has far more teeth than make sense, and they, too, are shining.

Hair and teeth, Jounouchi thinks. This is a dream, he thinks. It must be.

He ignores Kaiba’s restraining hand and draws the sword. It flames to life in his hands. The woman’s smile grows wider.

“Stand down,” Kaiba hisses.

“She’s gonna eat us!” Jounouchi says. His hands slip around the hilt of the sword. He’s already pouring with sweat. The fiery aura of the blade sears his face. Why isn’t she backing off? “I got this, okay?”

She begins to walk toward them, her long hair streaming behind her. Her mouth is stretched wide over her sharp, sharp teeth. Her bare feet make no sound as they hit the ground, and her limbs are unhindered, but nevertheless Jounouchi hears the rattling and clanking of heavy chains. The metallic noise fills his ears until the air itself begins to vibrate and sing—

The lament—

A flash of blue—of Kaiba’s suit as he steps in front of Jounouchi, arms outstretched.

Jounouchi breathes out convulsively. “Kaiba—”

“Be quiet,” Kaiba says. He holds out his hands. “Kisara.”

She looks at him, considering. She isn’t smiling anymore. With her razor-like teeth hidden from view, she looks unearthly, as beautiful as those demonic women on the sidewalk, if not more. She’s radiant in the darkness.

“Aren’t you tired of wandering these empty halls?” Kaiba asks. “Even the dead have moved on. Only you remain. Isn’t it lonely?” he says, and Jounouchi glances at him, startled. Kaiba is gazing at the woman, evidently so determined not to blink that his eyes are starting to tear up and water under the force of her white glow. “There’s nothing here for you now, Kisara. Leave this place and come away with me.”

She touches his cheek, and he hisses and closes his eyes, holding very still. Her mouth opens, and sound issues from behind her rows and rows of teeth, even though her lips don’t move. The words reverberate around them, through them, inside Jounouchi’s chest.

Will you be kind?” she says. “Seto.

“I need you,” Kaiba says.

You want to use me,” she says. “Like your father before you.

Kaiba’s face contorts under her luminous white hand. “No,” he says. “No.”

I have died for you before,” she says. “It was painful then. It broke my heart. And now you ask me to die again, to give up myself, to obliterate what little remains of me.

“I’m sorry,” Kaiba whispers, and Jounouchi stares at him, astonished. The tears are streaming from his straining eyes, dripping down his face. “Forgive me, Kisara. I only want the power to protect what is mine.”

Protect me, then,” she says, wiping his eyes. “For I am yours, and have been from the day we first clasped hands. My Seto. I have been waiting.

She cups his face with both hands, now, and leans down to kiss him. The white light begins between their joined mouths and spreads outward, a steady sweep, eradicating Jounouchi’s vision and wiping everything out—

He can’t believe his eyes.

The woman has disappeared, leaving a burning afterimage in her wake. As a last parting magic trick, she has conjured up two new people to replace her: a small dark girl standing at the edge of the room with her hands pressed over her mouth, and just beside her, looking broken and elemental and bewildered, a boy—

Jounouchi’s heart flips in his chest.

“No way,” he mumbles.

“Kisara!” the girl cries out, muffled through her fingers, “you—you can’t,” and Kaiba turns to her and laughs.

“You’re too late,” he says. “She’s mine. She was always mine.”

And Kaiba is shining faintly, with a residual bluish light emanating from his clothes, his skin. Jounouchi can’t be bothered to inspect him right now. He notes the weird glowing in his peripheral vision and pushes it aside for later. His whole focus is on the boy gripping the wall, the boy with the bleeding knees and wide staring eyes under that familiar shock of white hair.

The girl looks ready to slap him, or gouge at him with her sharp fingers. He elbows roughly past her, ignores her cry—

Sheathes the sword, singeing his pants as he does—

Grabs Bakura by the hands—by his whole and warm and living hands—touches his face, rubs his thumbs across his cheeks and feels the flutter of his eyelashes as he blinks—

“Bakura!”

 

Chapter Text

Ryou blinks and blinks again, but his vision refuses to clear. The ground is threatening to tilt beneath him again, to buckle his knees. He stares at Jounouchi’s face, bewildered.

He left Jounouchi crouched at the foot of his bed, small and frightened and silent, and now Jounouchi is standing in front of him, tall and broad and holding a flaming scimitar. His hair is—brighter than Ryou remembers, a pure soft gold, the dyed roots no longer visible. Even his eyebrows, Ryou realizes, have changed, grown fair and blond, shining in the light of the fire. But the sight of Jounouchi’s face, fierce and familiar beneath the gleam of his hair, conjures up the memory of Ryou’s own bedroom, his model village, his black slides by the door—God, the feeling of wearing pants again, the humid air on his skin, the chime of the clock tower—

The light of the scimitar goes out, and Ryou blinks a third time, wondering if he imagined the fire. And then Jounouchi is on him, squeezing him tight, and Ryou is holding onto his arms, feeling how solid and warm and real they are. This is no hallucination.

“You’re alive,” Jounouchi is saying, over and over. He’s petting Ryou’s hair, stroking his cheeks, his own eyes wide and wondering, as though he can’t quite believe it. “Bakura, holy shit. Bakura. Ryou—”

What are you doing here, Ryou wants to ask, are you real? and How? But all his mouth can manage is, “Jounouchi-kun.”

Hearing his name on Ryou’s lips, Jounouchi swears and drags him closer. He smells like the sea and sweat and smoke.

“I’m so glad,” Jounouchi says. “I thought I got you killed.”

“I’m okay,” Ryou says. He decides to gloss over the whole throat-cutting thing—Jounouchi is upset enough as it is. For a moment, he thinks Jounouchi is going to kiss him, but instead Jounouchi just bangs their foreheads together and breathes, his hands warm at the back of Ryou’s skull. “A lot of things happened, but—but I’m okay.”

“A lot of things happened,” Jounouchi repeats. He doesn’t quite laugh. “That’s for damn sure.”

The air turns white and crackling, and they jolt apart, startled. Ryou turns toward Mana, already afraid of what he will see.

She is crouched in a low fighter’s stance, one hand behind her back, contorted into a claw, the other extended with its fingers bent into an equally jagged and unnatural position. The other figure, dimming now into the shape of a tall, blue-suited young man, hasn’t moved.

“Give her back,” Mana says. “Give Kisara back!”

Never,” the man says.

Jounouchi starts forward. “Kaiba—”

“Mana, wait,” Ryou says. “Don’t—”

“Stay back,” Mana cries. “Stay back. He’s a thief!”

“Thief, am I?” the man says, folding his arms. He’s smiling—it’s not a nice smile. “A thief for setting Kisara free?”

“She is a servant of the palace, of the king!” Mana shouts, and her fingers twist, and the tile beneath them cracks, pieces of tile breaking away from her feet in a spidering spiral. “You have no right!”

“I have every right,” the man says. “And she was a slave.”

Mana screams.

“Fuck!” Jounouchi shouts; he dives at Ryou, knocking him out of the way. Winded, Ryou looks frantically over Jounouchi’s shoulder and watches as Mana’s tide of pure shadow sweeps toward the man—

It breaks around him, reduced to a harmless eddy.

“Bastard!” Mana shouts, while the shadow laps around the man’s thin ankles. “Don’t hide behind her power.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” the man says. He’s surrounded by a white aura, and it’s getting brighter and brighter. “It’s what she wants.”

He extends his right arm, sharply, and a crystalline staff shoots into his palm, as tall as he is, glittering like a diamond. Without another word, he charges at Mana, swinging to maim and to hurt

“Mana!”

She meets him with another crack of her fingers and another blast of shadow, snarling. The impact sends Jounouchi and Ryou flying, skidding back across the dark ground.

“Ow,” Jounouchi says.

“Are you okay?” Ryou says. “Jounouchi—”

Get your hands off him,” the magician says.

“Master!” Mana cries, with warlike delight.

“Don’t sound so pleased to see me,” the magician says. His voice is deceptively light. He steps forward, the red of his robe filling Ryou’s eyes. The staff is in his hand. “How dare you.”

Mana falters. “Master—”

Sangan!” the magician snaps, and three enormous, luminous yellow eyes blink open behind him. They stare down at Jounouchi, still kneeling with his arms held protectively around Ryou.

“Imagine my surprise,” the magician says, “when I returned to an empty castle. Shields intact, gates locked; no apprentice in sight, no you. So I stretched my mind across this city,” he continues, looming over Jounouchi, his own eyes like burning coals, “and what did I see? A twisted, poisonous, poisoning wrongness, a plague on my city, the smell of carrion on the wind—”

Jounouchi draws the scimitar in a blazing arc of flame. Ryou doesn’t understand—he doesn’t understand, but he knows he has to stop them.

“Don’t,” he exclaims. Jounouchi winks at him, so brave, so stupid

“Don’t?” the magician says, tilting his head and sounding genuinely puzzled. “Little ghoul, haven’t I told you already that I do as I please?”

“Don’t hurt him,” Ryou begs. “He’s a friend.”

“Is he?” the magician says, low and terrible. “Is he, little ghoul? What company you keep. Let me tell you what I have seen: a pair of humans who crept into my city like rats, like thieves in the night, who came to break the peace, to steal my power, to shatter the eternal rest of my lord, my king—”

Jounouchi gasps.

“A pair,” he says, the scimitar rattling in his hands, the flame guttering, “a pair of—”

“Stop!” Ryou yells, lunging at the magician, only to be pushed away.

The yellow eyes open wide.

“Jounouchi!” the man with the glowing aura says, throwing his hands out, and the shadows writhe.

A dragona dragon with three heads

It snakes overhead, sinuous and serpentine, its glowing white body filling the space. Each head opens its huge jaws and bellows, teeth glittering. Beside Ryou, the magician curses, his three-eyed monster already torn to fragments on the ground—he draws back the staff, sweating with the effort—

The dragon blasts him back with a flap of its wings, knocking the staff from his hand.

“Master!” Mana shouts.

“Don’t touch him,” the man says, stepping forward. The dragon folds over him with its white wings, its six blue eyes fixed and staring, promising violence.

The magician lifts himself onto his elbows, seething and swearing. He opens his hand and the staff shoots back into it, just in time to counter the white-hot beam of light that emanates from the central head’s mouth—

The staff skitters away again, and the magician falls back, slamming his head into the ground.

The man laughs.

“Incredible,” he says, examining his own palms. He steps forward, standing over the magician. “So you are the magician of Dahlia. The city is in poor hands.”

Mana leaps at him. “I’ll make you eat those words!” she shouts.

“Mana, no—” Ryou reaches for her, but he’s too far away.

The dragon buffets her back; she rolls and rolls and lies still.

“I know you,” the magician says, looking up at the man. “The Usurper’s heir, Akhnadin’s weakling whelp. You’ve come back to finish what your blessed father began. The dismantling, the destruction of this city—”

“I will protect what is mine,” the man says. “And if I destroy you and your pathetic, evil city in the process, then so be it, magician! So be it.”

The three mouths of the dragon begin to shine with white light.

The magician opens his hand again, but this time the staff only shakes where it lies; it doesn’t move.

“Fuck,” the magician grunts. “Fuck, not now—”

“Master!” Mana tries to pick herself up and crumples. She drags herself painfully forward, forcing her fingers into the grooves of the tile in a futile attempt to reach him.

The dragon roars.

Ryou skids to a halt in front of the magician, throws his arms around his neck and buries his head in the magician’s chest, feeling it swelling beneath him with a startled inhalation—the magician’s arms come up and pry at him, trying to push him away, but it’s too late—

He can hear Mana screaming.

The light envelops him. It feels warm on his skin—warm and gentle, like the morning sun on a pleasant day, rushing past his ears like burbling water—

 

My darling

His mother’s hands are cool by the riverbank.

 

He opens his eyes.

The magician is lying beneath him, wide-eyed—and blinking—alive! His mouth moves, but Ryou’s ears are ringing too loudly; he can’t understand him. His tears are dropping on the magician’s face, sliding down his skin. The magician reaches up and wipes them away, and then his hands go limp and fall to his sides, and his eyes slide shut. But he’s breathing—he’s breathing.

A shadow falls over them. Ryou raises himself, arms locking, bracing for the next blow—

Nothing happens. He looks up.

The dragon is gone. There is only the man now, still glowing brightly in the shadows of the palace, standing over them with folded arms. Jounouchi hovers anxiously beside him, scimitar extinguished by his side, eyes darting back and forth between Ryou and the magician.

“Jounouchi says you’re the one,” the man says. “You’re the one who made the doll, who saved his soul.”

“Yes,” Ryou replies, unwillingly. His body is heaving. “So what?”

The man stares at him. “But you’re just a vessel,” he says.

“Fuck you,” Ryou gasps, trembling. “Fuck you. If you’re not going to kill me—”

“Let’s go,” the man says to Jounouchi. “We’ve overstayed our welcome.”

Jounouchi wavers. “But—”

“An attack on the magician is an attack on the city,” the man says. “The entire population will descend on our heads in another moment. Kisara and I can’t fight them all.” He sighs. “Fine. Bring your friend, if you must.”

Jounouchi starts to smile, and Ryou can’t understand it, can’t understand the brilliance of Jounouchi’s smile, not when the magician is lying insensate on the ground. He stares at Jounouchi’s outstretched hand, alive with tension, at the tendons taut under his skin.

“Come on!” Jounouchi says, grinning.

“No,” Ryou says.

“What—what do you mean, no?” Jounouchi demands. “Don’t be an idiot, just take my hand and come with us!”

So Jounouchi wants him to go back—to take his hand and return to Domino, return to the living, to a world where the magician doesn’t exist. His mouth twists.

“No,” Ryou repeats.

Jounouchi stares at him, uncomprehending. “Bakura—”

“I don’t want to go back,” Ryou explains. “I’m going to stay here, Jounouchi-kun. This is where I want to be.”

Jounouchi is shaking his head. “You belong with me. With me—in Domino!”

“I’m dead,” Ryou says. “I can’t go back.”

Jounouchi’s hand drops. “No,” he says, horrified. “No, that’s not true.”

“I tricked you, too, you know,” Ryou says. His throat is burning, aching. The magician is so still. “That night when I went to the river, I told you to wait for me. That was a lie, Jounouchi-kun. I was never planning to come back.”

Jounouchi’s voice rings out, anguished. “Bakura!”

“Go,” Ryou says softly.

“No,” Jounouchi shouts. “No, God damn it. I won’t leave you. Not this time.”

“Take him and go!” Ryou cries out, to the man with the glowing aura, and wonder of wonders, he nods sharply at Ryou and seizes Jounouchi by the back of the shirt—

They vanish in a burst of brilliant white light.

Ryou collapses across the magician’s body. He reaches for Mana’s hand and she brushes his fingertips with her own, straining to touch him. The palace is beginning to crumble, Ryou sees, chunks of it breaking away and falling to the ground. The last thing he remembers is a vision, a hallucination: a dream of one thousand blue eyes opening in the darkness above them.

 

Chapter Text

The river again, green in the summer sunshine. Ryou smiles at the water and opens his eyes to the sight of a lush subterranean jungle.

He’s been laid out on some sort of rattan chaise beneath the shadow of a massive tropical plant, with broad green leaves split like fingers. The air is damp, but warm, and shot through with silvery light—moonlight, perhaps, but he can’t see any windows.

He can hear voices, faintly, above the trickling sounds of water.

“Mana?” he says. He wants to call for the magician, too, but his tongue twists and wavers: there is no name he can use. “Mana?” he says again. The voices hush, then resume. Ryou slides from the chair.

Cold pain shoots up his right leg, through the sole of his bare foot; wincing, he looks down and sees that he’s trodden upon the fragments of a broken vase or pot.

He sinks back down, crossing one leg over the other to examine the wound. There’s a black shard lodged in his skin. He pulls it free with a hiss, pushing down with his thumb against the welling of blood. But there is no blood; instead, white light follows the shard as he removes it, issuing from the ball of his foot in soft beaming rays like sunlight pouring through the heavy cover of clouds. Then the light stops, and Ryou finds himself staring down at the skin of his foot, whole and unbroken.

He pokes at it. Nothing else happens.

“Okay,” he says. He starts to get up again and falls back a second time with an exclamation: there’s a man standing behind the leaves, tall and silent, with the light gleaming on the whites of his eyes. It gleams on the lines of writing writhing hypnotically down the left side of his skull, too. Ryou remembers those lines distorting with anger, remembers the taut brown arms outstretched, blasting him backward with a magic like a hot desert wind while Malik Ishtar’s screams rose behind him.

“Rishid,” he says.

Rishid acknowledges this with a bow. His expression remains unchanged. “You’re wanted in the Lady’s chambers,” he says.

He sweeps the shards from Ryou’s path with a gentle fanning gesture.

“Follow me,” he says.

He leads Ryou a short distance through the darkened garden, past statues that have lost their heads or hands but wear extra eyes emblazoned on their chests, to an arch growing from the wall in the form of a bisected lotus.

“Enter,” the Lady Ishtar’s voice says, smooth and clear, and they do.

The air is brighter here, shining with the sharpness of light glancing off a mirror. He remembers some of the untidiness of Malik’s room; there is none of that here, in the Lady Ishtar’s chambers, which are as cold and barren and white as the surface of the moon. And the magician is here, too, laid out in the center of a long black carpet like a crater.

Ryou freezes in his tracks. Once again, he wants to call to the magician, and once again his cry is stifled by uncertainty.

“Bakura!” Mana says. Ryou turns to her, startled. She’s standing by the Lady Ishtar, small and dark beside the Lady’s luminous robes, covered in dust. Her cheek is bruised. Ryou grimaces, remembering the noise of her body as it struck the palace floor.

Mana seems to misunderstand his grimace; she covers her mouth with her hands, eyes widening.

“Bakura,” the Lady Ishtar echoes. She has a phial in her hands, dangling between her fingers. It disappears up her sleeve as she sweeps toward him. “Is that your name, contaminant?”

“My father’s,” Ryou answers, stepping back, and the Lady Ishtar laughs.

“You’re right to be cautious,” she says, and Ryou takes another step back. “Very well: what shall I call you? The magician’s servant, perhaps,” she muses, coming closer still, “or his lover? He was anxious to save you. You, above all others. I wonder why?”

Rishid is behind him, a towering wall of shadow. He can go no farther.

“Don’t protest,” the Lady Ishtar says. “I have seen it. I have seen many things in the mirrored waters today, as I searched for my brother.”

“My lady,” Mana begins, in uncharacteristically deferential tones, “this—this isn’t—”

“Be quiet now, Mistress Mana,” the Lady Ishtar says. “Your silence in this moment will satisfy your debt to me. You have said and done enough for one day, I think.”

Rishid’s hands are firm on Ryou’s arms, holding him in place.

“Just a little cut,” the Lady Ishtar says, gentle. “Just a little nick to see your substance.”

She begins to draw back her sleeve. The cut crystal of the phial flashes. It is empty, Ryou realizes—empty and meant for him, for the blood in his veins. Air leaves his throat in a squeak. Rishid’s fingers tighten and dig into his skin.

“So this is what passes for hospitality in these dark and kingless days,” the magician says, and every being in the room goes still. The dead air shivers. “Servants menaced while their master is laid out on the cold ground and waited upon by carrion crawlers. Please, I beg you, Lady Ishtar, not a step more. You’ll go too far.”

The Lady Ishtar’s smile is fixed and poisonous. “Shaitan, magician,” she says lightly. “There’s no need to beg.”

“That is, if I assume correctly,” the magician continues, sounding sleepy, “we are guests.”

The Lady Ishtar withdraws. “Unwanted,” she says, “but yes—guests.”

“How nice,” the magician says. “The Dark Magician of Dahlia is moved, nay, staggered. To me, Mana—lend me your shoulder.”

Mana rushes to him as he draws himself upright with a grunt.

“I agree with you, Lady Ishtar,” he says after a pause. He’s sagging against Mana, his eyes sunken and shadowed, his mouth parted with shallow breaths. “I have a pair of troublemakers on my hands. But let’s leave their disciplining to their master, shall we?”

“Don’t dissemble, magician,” the Lady Ishtar says. “My interest frightens you. That much is clear, however clouded my sight has been of late. But you’re weak—”

“With gratitude,” the magician says, swaying.

“—weak as a kitten,” she finishes. “Lie back, magician. Lie back and rest. It is pity, not fear, that stays my hand this evening. And sense, for I, too, am tired from this day’s work and have no wish to bring war to what remains of my father’s house. Your servants—” and Ryou flinches as her blue eyes rove over him “—will go unharmed in House Ishtar.”

“I want better than that,” the magician says. “Unharmed? No, Isis. Say also that they will be untouched.”

The Lady Ishtar rolls her eyes. “Semantics,” she says. But at a nod from her, Rishid releases Ryou. “Unharmed and untouched,” she says, curtsying ironically in the magician’s direction, and Ryou, freed from her gaze, hurries to the magician’s side.

“Thank you,” the magician replies, bland, and closes his eyes. Mana and Ryou ease him back down onto the carpet. His body is limp and heavy, a dead weight.

“What happened?” Ryou whispers.

Mana stares at him. “I should be the one asking you that,” she says.

“Perhaps I can shed some light on the matter,” the Lady Ishtar says above them. “Let your master sleep. Come with me,” she says, and then, with an amused glimmer in her eyes, “come, I said. You heard my promise to the magician. Neither I nor Rishid shall touch you.”

Mana scowls. “My debt to you is erased,” she says. “You said so yourself. My silence—”

“And so hostilities resume,” the Lady Ishtar says, sighing. “How docile you were only moments ago. What of the long years of friendship between your father’s house and mine? Come with me,” she says again. “We have much to discuss. And you, little one,” she says to Ryou. “Whoever or whatever you are. You must have many questions. I may have a few answers.”

She ushers them from her chambers. Ryou casts a last glance over his shoulder as they go, at the magician lying quiet and still on the carpet while Rishid sits cross-legged at his shoulder, expressionless but watchful. Fine silver threads spiral out across the rug, appearing to ripple and pulse beneath the magician’s body. Then they step through the arch, and a black veil draws itself across his vision.

The Lady Ishtar moves ahead, her shining robes trailing over the dusty ground like pooling water.

Mana says, low, “I’m sorry.”

“What for?” Ryou asks.

“Your name,” Mana says. “I shouldn’t have—in front of her—I slipped up.” She pauses. “It is your name, isn’t it? It’s what he called you—that human. The one with the golden hair.”

Jounouchi—

“Yes,” Ryou says, swallowing. He tries to squeeze his eyes shut against the pain of that memory, but it only sharpens. He sees Jounouchi’s dumbfounded stare, the tension in his hands as he reaches for Ryou and is rebuffed. “Yes.”

They have returned to the garden, and Ryou sees now, under the glow emanating from the Lady Ishtar’s body, that it is vast, stretching far into the darkness. There are whole trees here amid the battered statues, jungle plants towering into blackness. The sound of running water seems to have intensified. Though he cannot see them, Ryou knows now that there must be fountains somewhere in the distance.

Mana’s voice rings in his mind. When the palace burned, Lord Ishtar sealed everything. The whole house sank into the earth. It’s all underground now, and the gardens are lost.

Not lost after all, he thinks. Just buried. And somehow thriving.

They’ve lost sight of the Lady Ishtar, momentarily, but a few steps forward reveal her again, reaching up to cup the sharp black cheek of a figure in a fountain. The form is clad in rigidly pleated material wrought of stone. Its pose is inorganic and unnatural. Water pours forth from two angular cupped palms in a clear stream; behind it, sprouting from its back and shoulders, an additional five pairs of arms adopt numerous intricate and geometric poses.

“My mother,” the Lady Ishtar says, as they step closer. “In the style of the time.” She arranges herself at the edge of the fountain, drawing her robes carefully around her feet, away from the spattering of the water. “Sit with me.”

Mana sits first, to Ryou’s surprise, with far less care and dignity, crushing her robes beneath her and drawing her bare legs to her chest. She beckons, and Ryou follows.

From their seats by the fountain, they have a direct line of sight to a headless statue. Its hands, as yet unbroken, are outstretched as though in supplication.

“Dark and kingless times, indeed,” the Lady Ishtar says. Ryou turns back to her and sees her tracing a pattern in the wetness across the lip of the basin, just below their reflections. The Lady Ishtar looks serene; Mana looks exhausted and sulky. The eyes of Ryou’s reflection widen at the sight of himself: he’s glowing almost as much as the Lady Ishtar, bits of light escaping from him like steam rising from a cup of tea. He looks ethereal, transported.

The Lady Ishtar’s finger dips into the water. Their reflections waver and disappear.

Ryou sees the empty sockets of Malaphar’s Hall, where one hundred thousand rubies once glimmered in firelight. Now the sockets are eyes, winking open one by one by one as the vision wings across the hall, arcing overhead until it passes into another room, until the eyes open above a man and a white dragon.

He sees the magician, grotesque in his anger, and Mana, gone jagged in hers, her fingers twisting into knots. As the magician steps foward, the real Mana, soft and tired beside him, goes tense; when the magician falls, she winces and hisses through her teeth.

“That is what I saw,” the Lady Ishtar says. “I saw the Usurper’s heir come back to dog us. He is stronger now, and he is no longer alone. His companion wields a relic of the olden days—it is burning anew, and that must mean something, though I don’t know what. And you and I saw the demise of the guardian of the palace, Mistress Mana.”

“She wasn’t destroyed,” Mana says. “She was taken.”

“What is the difference?” the Lady Ishtar says coolly. “She is gone now, and the palace has fallen.”

She trails her fingers across the surface. Tiny in the space below, Ryou casts himself to his knees. He lies down atop the magician’s prone body, and the dragon shrieks at them, and the room fills with burning light. The ghosts of rubies glitter; the watching eyes boil and burst.

Suddenly the image shivers and changes. Ryou sees a man with a broad white grin, darkly handsome, resplendent in deep purple robes. He turns under the water and seems to speak; his gaze is soft.

Mana gasps.

The Lady Ishtar has gone stiff and still beside them. Her fingertips waver above the water, hesitating.

“You never met Mahaad, I presume,” she says quietly. “The magician before this one.”

Ryou shakes his head no.

“He was a good man,” the Lady Ishtar says. She pulls her hand away, wiping it down the shimmering length of her robes.

Mana, breathing fast, plunges both hands into the pool up to the forearms.

Mahaad vanishes, rippling outward, only to reappear, drawing a pair of golden symbols into the air. Mana stands beside him, little more than a child, tracing the glimmer in the air with clumsy hands. Ryou recognizes the shapes; they are the same as the notched arrow script he is learning to read, bound into clay. He sounds them out, quickly and to himself, before they fade: Mana.

“Master,” Mana whispers, almost inaudibly. Ryou hears the hitch in her throat.

In another moment, Mahaad is reading by candlelight with a furrow in his brow; in the next, he is sparring with Mana, meeting her tentative black shadows with green and purple flame. The magician lurks in the background of these visions like a red stain.

“Enough,” the Lady Ishtar says, but her voice is kind. “Enough, Mistress Mana.”

“Sorry,” Mana manages. “Forgive me—” She gulps, leaps to her feet, and hurries from them, coming to a halt at the edge of the path. She crouches down, grinding the heels of her hands into her eyes.

“And you,” the Lady Ishtar says, turning to Ryou. “If you touch these waters, what will we see?”

The water looks cool and clear and undisturbed again, casting up nothing but the reflection of the Lady Ishtar’s mother. Ryou feels a lurch within the pit of his stomach. Even as something within him screams against it, he begins to trail his fingertips toward the surface.

“Go on,” the Lady Ishtar whispers. “Go on.”

The water ripples as he draws nearer. It turns green and warm: the river of his dreams. From its depths swims up the blank face of a woman, the sun shining so brightly on her dark hair that individual strands of it appear to glow, white and unearthly.

“Mom,” he says. She reaches for him, and he meets her partway, clasping her hand: a hand he hasn’t held in years, a hand that feels strangely small in his own. He realizes that he does not remember her face, which grows large, rushing toward the surface of the water—at any minute she’ll break free, his enormous, faceless mother, and—

She vanishes. The water runs red. Ryou gasps and tries to pull his hand away, but something is holding it fast beneath the waves, which are churning and frothing now. He feels hands slick with mud rising from below to grip him, to claw at him, at his forearm. Screams split the air; the damp wailing of a crying child envelops him; he tastes blood and silt in his throat.

“Stop,” someone says distantly, and “What is this? What are you—”

Ryou grabs his own arm with his free hand and tugs at it, desperate to free himself. The water has taken on a strange and frightening new quality: it is slick, viscous, and hot. Blood, he thinks, frantic, liters and liters of it, innocent blood spilt across the sand, turning it to mud—

“Careful where you tread,” someone says. “Filthy stuff. It’s everywhere.”

“The sun will bake it into brick,” a second voice says.

“Good,” another voice replies. “Let us build houses of it.”

Laughter.

“Shaitan,” the first voice says. “My lord, never mind houses. We will build a city of it. We will nourish our flower in the desert; its walls and towers will breach the ceiling of this world.”

Something vast and serpentine shifts in the water. Scales brush his tangled hands.

Ryou cries out and tumbles backward. He is back in the darkness, with the softness of humid air on his face, cocooned in warmth. The Lady Ishtar is standing over him, arms outstretched, but she has not broken her promise to the magician; she has not laid hands on him yet. Mana’s hands are the ones bunched in his kirtle; Mana has pulled him away from the pool. She kneels beside him now, panting.

“There was something,” she gasps, “there was something in the water.”

The Lady Ishtar looks down at them, silent. For a moment, Ryou is unable to read the expression on her face; then he recognizes it for what it is, something far worse than anger or a knowing smile.

Fear.

 

Chapter Text

The weather in Domino changes suddenly and with vehemence: the air grows heavy, and summer rains arrive, months early. As he has been doing every day for the last week, Yami wades carefully through the puddles, umbrella bobbing, to the black doors of Otogi Ryuuji’s game shop.

As requested, he goes alone. Yuugi seems to have chosen to ignore the events after the school festival; he bristles at the mention of Otogi’s name.

“Stop talking about it,” he says. “You know I don’t care about him or his stupid game shop.”

“Fine,” Yami says, just as sharply, and Yuugi looks briefly wretched. Yami relents. “Yuugi—”

Yuugi gulps. “I have to go to class,” he says. He grabs his backpack and hurries down the stairs two at a time.

After that, Yuugi stops filling out his notebook for Yami, leaving his class schedule a mystery. Yami checks in with Anzu, who confirms that she hasn’t seen Yuugi on campus in days, but she adds that he also hasn’t been to the arcade.

“Is everything okay?” she says.

“Yeah,” Yami says, “yeah, I think.”

She sighs. “Boys. Need me to come over? I have a study group after class today, but I’ll try to leave early.”

Yami nods even though she can’t see him, twisting the phone cord around his index and middle fingers. The kitchen clock reads 12:31 p.m.; he’s going to be late. “I’ll get the hot chocolate ready,” he says. “Anzu—”

“Yeah?”

“You’re not planning anything, are you? You and Yuugi? About Pegasus.”

“Of course not, Yami-kun,” Anzu hastens to reassure him, but he doesn’t believe her.

“See you later,” he says, and hangs up.

Grandpa is home today, watching soaps on the television downstairs. “Take care,” he says, as Yami races by with a muffled farewell, grabbing his jacket and umbrella and stomping his feet into his boots.

He and Yuugi have spent so much time apart that even Grandpa Mutou has noticed. He pulled Yami aside the night before to ask about it. “What has Yuugi done?” he asked, jovially enough, but his eyes were worried. He can’t remember the last time his grandsons fought like this, he said; even when they were children, they must have been inseparable. Must have been, he repeated, and then trailed off.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, Grandpa said, and laughed ruefully.

His laughter is still echoing in the depths of Yami’s mind as he reaches out to knock on the door of Dark Clown Games.

Before his knuckles can make contact with the black-paned glass, though, the door slides open. He finds himself staring at a boy in a high school uniform, tanned, athletic, with the same shark fin haircut as Industrial Illusion’s Saruwatari. The uniform is dark blue and niggles at him; it looks familiar, he thinks, a split second before he remembers that it is the Domino gakuran, a twin of the one Yuugi still has hanging in his closet. Grandpa’s laughter fades into nothing. In the ensuing silence, the tinkle of the bells above the door sounds vaguely like the noise of shattering ice.

“Oh,” the boy says. “Uh, I think we’re closed.” Then his eyes widen. “Oh, shit,” he says.

“Uh,” Yami says.

“What are you doing, Honda?” Otogi says, drifting into view over his shoulder.

Honda wavers. “Is this—”

Otogi snorts. “Yes, that’s him.”

“Whoa,” Honda says. He pulls the door wide. “Uh, come on in, your majesty.” In a loud whisper, he asks Otogi, “Do I need to bow?”

“Yes,” Otogi says, deadpan. “Do it quickly before he smites you for your impudence.”

Honda flinches and bows so low he nearly folds in half. He catches the dumbfounded look on Yami’s face as he straightens up; swearing, he reaches over and punches Otogi in the arm.

“Asshole,” he says.

“Should have told you to curtsey,” Otogi says, snickering. He flips the store sign to Closed and waves Yami in. “Come in, come in, get out of the rain.”

Yami does, furling his umbrella and shaking loose drops onto the concrete step outside. The bell clangs again above him as the door slides shut. The interior of Dark Clown Games is minimalist and futuristic in appearance, with brand new boardgames, dice sets, and figurines laid out individually across shining black shelves and under stark white lighting. It’s nothing like the cluttered, dusty, dimly lit chaos of the Turtle Game Shop, with its slightly crushed and re-taped boxes of secondhand merchandise, its jumbled window displays, its glass cases smeared with the small handprints of eager children.

“This is Honda Hiroto,” Otogi says, and Yami and Honda bow to each other. Honda bows much more shallowly this time, looking sheepish. “Honda, this is—”

“Yami,” Yami says firmly. “No titles. Please.”

“Mm,” Otogi says, looking him over doubtfully. “For now, anyway.”

“My friend disappeared,” Honda blurts. Both Yami and Otogi turn to look at him, Yami in surprise, Otogi with vague exasperation.

“I told you, he doesn’t—”

“Demons took him,” Honda says, ignoring Otogi. “I think, anyway.” His face looks strained as he speaks, his gaze at once hopeful and desperate. “Do you—do you know where they might have gone?”

Demons took him.

An eye opening in the grass—a figure all in white—

He envisions Honda’s friend, Domino gakuran and all, being swallowed up in the pit at the center of the university green, pierced through the abdomen with a golden spear or all cut to pieces, pieces the golden-haired monster feeds into the hole one by one with gleeful abandon.

I’ll drag your bones home.

“I’m sorry,” Yami says, blinking hard to clear the images from behind his eyelids. “I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t know anything,” Otogi says. The words are vicious, but his tone is mild. “He’s a blank slate. A baby. He can’t help you, Honda. Not yet, anyway.”

“But you think there’s a connection,” Yami says. “Between Honda’s missing friend and—” he gestures, for some reason, toward his forehead “—all this.”

Otogi nods. “Of course,” he says, folding his arms. “There’s something going on. Can’t you feel it? The energy of the city is changing. Things felt frozen before. It was like we were in stasis. But now—”

“It’s spring,” Honda says, snorting. “Of course things felt frozen before.”

But Otogi is shaking his head. “Ever since that storm last week,” he says.

Honda isn’t laughing at Otogi anymore. “That’s the last time I saw Jounouchi,” he says. “The day of the storm.”

“Jounouchi,” Yami says. The name sounds familiar, but he can’t place it. After struggling for a few moments, repeating the name to himself under his breath, he gives up. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “I don’t think—”

“No,” Honda says, shoulders slumping. “I guess you wouldn’t either. No one does,” he goes on. “Not the police, not his fucking layabout dad. Not even his mom! It’s like he never existed. But I remember,” he says. “I remember.” He looks anguished.

“And Shizuka remembers,” Otogi says. “Jounouchi’s little sister,” he explains to Yami.

Honda groans. “Sure, she does,” he says, “but what good is it when she’s stuck all the way up in Hakone? Her mom won’t buy her a ticket for the shinkansen because she can’t remember that Shizuka even has a brother!”

“I’ll get her a ticket,” Otogi says.

Honda doesn’t look reassured. “I don’t even know if I want her to come here, if things are going to go bad,” he says. “Jounouchi would never forgive me if—”

Otogi rolls his eyes at Yami over Honda’s shoulder.

“We’re at an impasse, you see,” he says.

“You think something bad is going to happen?” Yami asks, but even as he speaks, the feeling of doom is settling over him, magnified tenfold, as heavy as an anchor dragging him to the bottom of Domino Bay.

Otogi nods. “Yes,” he says. “It’s like something’s shifted. Like things are being shaken loose. Monsters revealing themselves left and right, out of the grass, inside glass towers. They can sense it, too.”

“I put up a bunch of flyers last week,” Honda says. “About Jounouchi. But that’s how I ran into Otogi—he was putting up flyers—”

“Asking people if they’d experienced anything supernatural in the days since the storm,” Otogi says. “And my phone’s been ringing off the hook.”

“What’s been happening?” Yami says.

“Disappearances, ghosts, monsters in the dark,” Otogi says. “People who have gone to the mountains and never come back. People who got on the wrong train and barely made it out alive. And you’ve revealed yourself, too, you know.”

“I have?” Yami says. “Hey—”

Otogi grabs his hand and turns it over before Yami can close it into a fist. The burn at the center of Yami’s palm hasn’t healed any further; in fact, it seems to have gotten larger: the long strands of red stretch out from a blackened heart, like a jagged flower or firework, spanning his entire palm.

“What is that?” Honda says.

As they peer at it, the light seems to dance across the burn. The charred marks sparkle. Honda is the first to leap back, biting off a curse.

Yami’s hand is smoldering.

He swears, too, snapping his hand back into a fist. Smoke curls out between the lines of his fingers. When he opens them again, it’s as though he’s holding a handful of embers. They glow and dim in time with his breathing, which is spiraling rapidly out of control. He closes his hand again and hears a sizzle.

It doesn’t hurt. It feels good. He wants to let the fire burn. He wants to surround himself with it, melt into the flames.

We are born in fire, he thinks.

The headache hits him abruptly, like a pincer materializing around his skull and clamping down on his temples. He winces, grunting under the all-consuming pressure; the fire goes out with a wet squeal, and Yami doubles over.

“Holy shit,” Honda says. “You’re—you’re—you really are—”

“What did you think he was?” Otogi says, as Yami straightens up. His arms are folded again, and he’s looking down his nose at them both, striving for smugness, but he sounds shaken.

As the pain between his temples deepens into a more familiar throbbing, Yami examines his hand. His fingertips are shiny and red from the heat but otherwise unharmed. The marks on his palm are beginning to curl up his wrist.

They all freeze as a shadow passes by the front window of the shop. Then Honda relaxes.

“Elementary school students are going home,” he reminds them. Sure enough, a moment later they hear a high, thin, disappointed voice fluting, “Aw, no, why are they closed?”

Otogi sighs. “I should let them in,” he says. “Haven’t made an actual sale all week.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Honda says. “Buy that ticket for Shizuka, okay? I’ll pay you back somehow.”

“Sure,” Otogi says. “Work the counter for two weeks and we’ll call it even.”

“What?” Honda says. For some reason, he flushes. “Students at my school aren’t allowed to have part-time jobs.”

“Like you give a shit about that,” Otogi says. “You left after third period today. And that’s assuming you didn’t just spend the morning on the rooftop.”

“I have rugby practice, you know,” Honda tries next.

“All seven days of the week?” Otogi says pointedly.

“Fine, fine,” Honda says. “See you tomorrow, jerk.” He shoulders his way out of the shop, reversing the Closed sign as he goes, to the cheers of the students outside.

“Same time tomorrow?” Otogi says to Yami, as four children in their little blue smocks and hats rush in, umbrellas dripping. “Let’s talk about Pegasus.”

“Sure,” Yami says, with a slight shiver. “Okay.”

“Good,” Otogi says. He grins. “Try not to set anything on fire.”

 

The coolness of the air startles him as he steps outside; some of the unseasonable summer swelter has been rained out, it seems. A figure leaning against a bollard across the street peels off toward him, emerging from the shadow of the trees. As Yami blinks at it, alarmed, it coalesces into a small body canopied by five drooping points of hair.

“Yuugi?”

Yuugi hasn’t bothered with an umbrella. He looks pale and unhappy. The rain streaks his face.

“Hey,” he says. His hands are in his pockets. He shrugs at Yami in greeting.

“What are you doing here?” Yami says. His heart has started to beat in the hollow of his chest, a drum in the deep. He mirrors Yuugi’s posture, hands pushed so hard into his jacket pockets he’s sure he’s about to puncture them. His umbrella is wet in the crook of his arm.

“So this is the shop, huh,” Yuugi says. “Just saw some kids running in yelling about Kirby. No appreciation for the classics.”

“Yeah,” Yami says. “Do you—” He hesitates, squeezes the umbrella tighter between his ribs and his arm. “Do you want to—”

He leaves the question hanging between them. Yuugi doesn’t answer it.

“Are you going home?” he says. “I’ll walk with you.”

Yami nods and falls in beside him, unfurling the umbrella so they can both walk under it. The light catches on his burn, now looking rather damp. Yuugi’s eyes widen at the sight of it, and then he looks away.

He doesn’t speak for another ten blocks. Finally, he says, barely audible over the pitter-patter of the rain, “We just got a shipment of Zork merch from America. I helped Grandpa unload it.”

“That’s good,” Yami says. Another block passes. The Turtle Game Shop is just around the corner.

And then—

“I don’t remember you,” Yuugi says.

The umbrella shivers in his grasp. Yami stops walking. “What?”

Yuugi turns ahead of him, just beyond the circle of the umbrella, and stares at him, drenched in misery.

“Yuugi?”

“I don’t—I don’t remember you,” he repeats. His voice is beginning to break. “We’re cousins, aren’t we, Yami? We spent every summer together in the countryside. We caught bugs and got lost in the mountains and played with firecrackers. That’s what Grandpa says. That’s what I feel. That’s the story.”

“Yes,” Yami says. “It is.”

“So why don’t I remember any of it?”

“I don’t understand,” Yami says.

Yuugi’s throat works. He scrubs at his nose. “I looked through all the photo albums,” he says. “All the ones at home, all the ones in the shop. I spent a whole day digging through storage. But there aren’t any pictures of you or of Great-Aunt Sadako anywhere. And every time I ask Grandpa about her, he gets weird, like he can’t remember either—”

“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Yami says. “It’s painful for him.” But his voice is dull.

“No,” Yuugi says. “It’s like he can’t focus on the question. It just slides away from him.”

Cars are passing, splashing the sidewalks with water, splattering their feet. Yuugi doesn’t move. “It’s like—” he chokes and looks up into the bruised sky. “It’s like—”

“Yuugi—”

“You’re so perfect,” Yuugi says. “You’re so perfect for me, the best friend I could possibly have, you’re so good-looking and nice and you like everything I like, you do everything I like, and you don’t have any other friends. You don’t have a life. You’re so—so removed from the rest of the world, it’s like—it’s like you’re a figment of my imagination. It’s like you aren’t real.”

Yami is holding the umbrella so tightly he’s certain he’s about to crush the handle. “Yuugi, no. Look at me. I’m standing right here.”

“Are you?” Yuugi says.

“What are you saying?” Yami demands. “You’ve seen me talk to Anzu. You’ve seen me talk to Grandpa! And Otogi—”

“Otogi told me you were a demon,” Yuugi says. “As for Anzu and Grandpa—of course I’ve seen you talk to them. I was probably hallucinating every conversation!”

“Of course you weren’t!” Yami says. “Yuugi, this is crazy!”

“Yes, because I might be crazy!” Yuugi says. “When I talk to her about you, and you’re not there, she changes the subject!”

“Because she likes you!” Yami shouts. “Because she doesn’t want to talk about me!”

But Yuugi isn’t listening. “And that whole thing with Anzu and the guys in suits—that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It happens in psychotic breaks.” His breath hitches on a cry, but he smothers it down. “What if—what if—what if you never existed, Yami? What if I’m standing on this sidewalk by myself, in the rain, shouting into thin air?”

Yami drops the umbrella and steps over it. “Yuugi—I’m right here.”

He pulls Yuugi into his arms. Yuugi is trembling, droplets shivering from his eyelashes, dripping down his cheeks, his lips. Yami brushes the rain from his face, smooths his hair back. Cups his jaw with both hands and stares into his eyes. He can feel how warm his own hands are, how solid and alive, and he hopes that Yuugi can feel it, too.

“No, please,” Yuugi begs. The words vibrate between their mouths. “Please don’t. Think about it. Are you doing this because you want to—or because I want you to?”

Yami twitches back. “What? You—what—?”

Another voice is calling Yuugi’s name. Yuugi wrestles free and spins around, and they both stare down the street at Anzu, who is pelting barefoot toward them in the rain. Just beyond her, they can see lights blazing through the shattered windows of the Turtle Game Shop.

“Anzu?”

“Come quick!” she cries. “Grandpa—it’s Grandpa—”

 

Chapter Text

The jingle of the bell above the door as Yami bursts inside the Turtle Game Shop is a mockery—a feeble imitation of normalcy where none exists. The shelves and displays have been toppled. Figurines, games, and cards are strewn across the floor, and they look as though they've been blown apart: limbs separated, cartridges pulverized, cards sliced. The case of rare cards behind the counter is untouched, but the counter itself is dented, as though by paw prints, as though some heavy animal reared up and set its feet on the counter, and lifted Grandpa Mutou up and away with its teeth.

His absence behind the counter is palpable and wrong. Just earlier, Yami thinks, just earlier he would have been standing there. Ringing up a purchase. Smiling at a customer.

And now he's gone.

Yuugi hurtles past, hammering down into the basement, shouting for his grandfather.

Yami turns to Anzu, numb. “What happened?” His voice trickles out of him, barely louder than the droning of the rain outside.

He can guess what happened. Some part of him already knows.

But Anzu is shaking her head. She's pale and shivering, though not tearful, not yet. “I was just walking up to the door," she says, "and I heard—no, I felt—something like a bomb going off. It happened inside me. Everything inside me shook. It felt like my ribs were going to break and fall, my heart was in my stomach, all I could do was grab on to the gate and close my eyes. And then I opened them and everything looked fine, I mean, the trees were fine, the street wasn't in pieces, it was like nothing changed, but—” her voice quavers “—but then I looked up and I saw all the shop windows had blown out.”

“Are you okay now?” he says, and she nods.

“Yeah,” she says, and gulps, “yeah. It felt different before, Yami. Entering and leaving. It felt like I was forcing my way through a sheet of plastic. The air was sticking to me and I couldn't breathe. But now things feel normal. I mean, the air feels normal. Not this—not this—” She gestures at the carnage, and her lip begins to tremble.

“Did you check the house?”

She nods again, shallowly. “He isn't here, Yami. I looked everywhere. Even in the attic.”

“Maybe he wasn't home,” Yami says, but the dread in the pit of his stomach has an answer for this too. “Maybe he went out.”

“He didn't,” Anzu says, and two tears well up in her eyes and slide down her cheeks. “He didn't, Yami. He saw me coming down the street and he waved to me, he waved to me from the window.”

“Oh, God,” Yami says.

“Do you think he,” she's shaking wildly now, her hands fisting in Yami's shirt, tears and snot running down her face, “do you think he—disintegrated—”

“No, no, Anzu, come on,” Yami says. “There would be something, blood, I don't know. He's been taken.”

She hiccups and stares at him, swiping at her nose and eyes with her sleeve. “Taken?”

“By Pegasus,” Yami says. “By Industrial Illusions.”

“Yami—”

“I know," Yami says, too loud, too harsh, “I know you and Yuugi think I'm crazy. I know you think it's all in my head. But you haven't seen all the things I've seen.”

“No,” Anzu says, very quietly, “I believe you.”

“What?”

“Those men,” Anzu says. “Those men in suits. It hurt when they touched me.” She grabs at the collar of her own sweater and jerks it to the side, and Yami sees it, the bruise from Saruwatari's hand, still livid, stark and purple against her skin in the shape of fingerprints. “I've been hiding it with make-up,” she says. “My mom saw it and thought it was a tattoo. She screamed. I told her a friend from university had touched me with paint on her hand, but then it didn't wash off...” She winces, rearranging her collar. “It hurts sometimes. It feels like I've been stung by something. Like a jellyfish.”

“Anzu,” he says. “I'm so sorry.” He swallows. “Did you show Yuugi?”

“I didn't,” she says. “I didn't want him to worry.”

“Show him,” Yami says, “please,” and then he pulls his hand out of his pocket and turns it over and spreads it wide so that Anzu can see the flower in his palm.

“You, too,” she says, amazed. She traces the mark with the very tips of her fingers. “God,” she says. “I wonder if we all have one. Yuugi's been so freaked out the last few days about something, I wonder if—"

Yuugi’s voice drifts up weakly from the basement, calling his name.

“Oh, no,” Anzu says, and she grabs Yami's hand, burn mark and all, and they hurry down the stairs.

 

The shelves and boxes in the basement are undisturbed, and everything looks exactly the way it did the last time Yami stopped by, down to the thick layers of dust and the cobwebs in the corners. But there's a tear in the floor—a tear in the floor that leads straight down into darkness.

Yuugi is beside it on his knees; his hands are on the jagged seam, his fingers dipping down into nothingness, as he peers inside.

“Please,” he says, softly, as Yami and Anzu jump the last few stairs and reach him, “please tell me you can see this too.”

Yami nods, but Yuugi isn't looking at him. He's staring into the pure velvet night of the void, and there are tears in his eyes.

“Yes,” Yami says, out loud. His voice is hoarse and anguished. “Yes, we see it. I see it.”

“I see it too,” Anzu says. She slides down beside Yuugi and holds one hand tentatively out over the tear. “What…is it?”

Yami doesn't kneel. He strides forward to the edge.

“Pegasus,” he says. “What have you done?”

For a moment, there's no answer—just silence and the terrified acceleration of Yuugi's breathing, quick and fast at Yami's feet—and then the tear ripples.

It’s not a tear, Yami realizes. Not a tear at all, but a mouth.

“My lord Darkness,” the mouth says, while Anzu gasps and Yuugi recoils and Yami holds himself firm, clenches his fists. He will not waver, he will not. The voice sounds unfamiliar at first; then he recognizes it: Croquet, Pegasus' butler, the man with the precise gray hair and impeccable gray suit and heavy gray moustache. “My lord Crawford regrets that he is unable to greet you at this time, as he is otherwise occupied. He asks that I convey to you his apologies and an invitation to dine this evening at his chateau—these are his exact words, my lord—should you be available. We promise a pleasant night at a good table. With food and friends. Yours and his. At sundown.”

“Where,” Yami says, in a voice he barely recognizes, flat and terrible, “is my great-uncle?”

“Deceased, my lord,” Croquet says smoothly. Anzu cries out beside him. Yuugi jolts and shivers and says nothing at all. “Like all your illustrious ancestors, he was returned to fire many years ago. Ah—you mean the old man with whom you shared this residence.”

“Yes,” Yami says, through gritted teeth. “Him. What have you done with him?”

“My lord Crawford worried he would not be able to find the way. We were sent to retrieve him.”

“You should have sent a car,” Yami says.

“My apologies,” Croquet's mouth says, smooth and bland. “Time was of the essence.”

Yuugi lunges. “Give him back,” he shouts. “Give him back, you—”

“My lord Crawford looks forward to the pleasure of your company,” Croquet says, and Anzu yells and drags Yuugi back a second before the mouth closes and seals itself away, leaving nothing behind but concrete.

 

The sign on the door of Dark Clown Games still reads OPEN. It rattles against the glass as Yami barges in. Otogi looks up from the cash register, and Honda, in the middle of restocking, freezes with a box in his arms. The shop is empty; the elementary school children have gone, leaving only a few puddled footsteps here and there on the floor.

“Back so soon,” Otogi says. His eyes roam over Yugi and Anzu, and his brows raise. “And with friends.”

“They've taken him,” Yami says. “They've taken my great-uncle.”

Honda drops the box. “The demons?” he says, as Otogi says, sharply, “Pegasus?”

“Yes,” Yami says, “yes.”

“Fuck,” Otogi says. “That bastard, what is he up to?”

“What did he do,” Yami says, “what did Pegasus do to your father?”

“What?” Yugi says, starting forward. “Otogi—your father—?”

Otogi ignores him. “He drained the life out of my father,” he says to Yami. “He's in a ward in Domino Hospital. He likes to look out the window and count the clouds.”

Yuugi trembles. “We have to go now,” he says. “We have to save him!”

“With what?” Otogi says. “The tower is a sealed fortress. How exactly do you propose we get inside to save him?” He grabs a figurine off the shelf behind him. “With these? With some game cartridges? Shall we use them as throwing stars?”

“You have a baseball bat,” Honda says. He hefts it up from behind the counter: aluminum, light, dented in several spots.

“Great,” Otogi says. “We're all set now. That's how Nobunaga broke the Third Siege of Nagashima. With a baseball bat.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Honda says, but without any real heat. “I'm just trying to be helpful.”

“What did you use on campus?” Yami says. “Against the demon in the grass?”

“Magic dice,” Otogi says, matter-of-fact while Anzu, Yuugi, and Honda goggle at him. “But I doubt they'll have any effect against a building.”

“Okay,” Honda says, eyes wide, “you have magic dice. You could totally enchant some game cartridges into throwing stars. Couldn't you?”

“Yes,” Otogi says, long-suffering, “but again, what use will they be against a building? We can't save his great-uncle if we can't get inside.”

“We have the fire,” Yami says. He holds out his flower-marked hand in a fist. “We have me.”

“Ye-es,” Otogi says, considering him. “We do have you.” His eyes narrow. “We do have you,” he repeats. “That must be what Pegasus is after.”

“Me?” Yami says. “Then why did he take Grandpa? I'm right here. Whatever he sent after Grandpa—he could have sent it after me instead.”

“He's scared of you,” Otogi says. “He's scared you're going to burn his house to the ground. He doesn't know that you go out with a wet sizzle the second your head starts to hurt.” He sighs and leans forward, folding his arms. “What exactly happened?”

Words fail him. Anzu takes over, retelling her tale of the blast, of Grandpa Mutou, there one moment, gone the next. Of the mouth in the basement.

“And then he invited Yami to dinner,” Anzu finishes.

“Okay, yeah, don't go,” Otogi says. “That would be a terrible idea. He's going to eat you alive.”

“He's going to eat Grandpa alive if we don't do something now!” Yami exclaims.

“Well, his tower is barred to us,” Otogi says, “by ten thousand spells of protection and probably a circle of blood, too. If Yami was invited, only Yami is getting in.”

“No,” Yami says, “he invited my friends, too.”

Otogi's eyes gleam. “Ah,” he says. “Well, now, that's different.”

They pile into Otogi’s convertible, parked around the corner from the game shop, demure under its retractable hardtop. Honda brings the baseball bat.

 

The drive to Industrial Illusions is conducted in mostly tense silence, punctuated by the rhythmic thump and swish of the windshield wipers. Otogi and Honda and Anzu discuss battle logistics: angles of attack, diversions. Yuugi doesn’t chime in, even though Yami knows for a fact that he loves to play these kinds of strategy games on his computer; instead, he closes his eyes and takes quiet slow breaths. It hurts to look at Yuugi—his chest swells with guilt and anger—and he looks away, at his burned hand curled loosely in his lap. Don't let us down, he thinks at it, fervid. Ignite when I want you to. Ignite, ignite. But it doesn't even start to smolder.

He turns to the window, to the gloomy cityscape zipping by, blurring into a stream of wet gray. Suddenly, he feels a hand on his: Yuugi's hand, soft and tentative, curling around his fingers.

He startles, turns back. Yuugi is looking at him, pale and anxious, still gnawing at his lip. His fingers brush across the thickened, raised edges of the burn mark at the center of Yami's palm, and Yami flinches and winces.

“Sorry,” Yuugi says.

“It's okay.” He tightens his hand around Yuugi's. “It's going to be okay. We're going to get him back.”

“This feels like a bad dream,” Yuugi whispers. He inhales. Then he smiles at Yami, a little strained. “It’s even raining.”

“What?”

“It’s always raining in your nightmares,” Yuugi says. “Isn’t it?”

Yami looks at the water lashing the windows of the car, distorting the view of the city beyond. Over the rumble of the engines and the slick roll of the tires over rain-dark pavement, a voice is calling to him with painful urgency. Go now! Go now!

The car rolls to a stop. Yami looks up and meets Otogi’s eyes in the rearview mirror, shining green.

“You ready?” Otogi says.

“No,” Yami says.

Otogi grins at him. “Well,” he says. He shrugs as he pockets his keys. “Too bad.”

 

The white cocoon of Industrial Illusions glows starkly in the sheeting rain, and the red of its parallel lines seems deeper, bloodier. There is no red carpet reception today. The rain puddles on the bare black stone of the front steps. The glass doors of the lobby are closed and dark.

“Fuck, this place is creepy,” Honda says. He giggles nervously, craning his neck as he stares upward into the rain, where the latticed white edges of the building disappear into mist. “How tall is this thing? Why haven’t I seen it before? A tower like this should be visible from outer space…”

“Your voice is audible from outer space,” Otogi replies evenly. “Give me that bat.”

Honda hands it over. Otogi walks up to the doors and swings.

BONG.

The glass doesn’t break. It ripples like water, like a pool, and Yami sees their reflections in it, Anzu with her hands to her mouth, Yuugi rabbit-still, Honda wide-eyed, Otogi determined. He sees himself for a split second, a faceless horror; then, in the next moment, the glass settles, though the noise remains. The reverberations boom through Yami, through his bones.

Honda swears. “And you’re giving me shit about being too loud?”

“I don’t want to be overheard. I want to be announced,” Otogi says. He draws the bat back.

BONG.

The sound crashes over them like the peal of a bell falling from its tower. The doors shake and wobble in their frame. The darkness beyond seems to stir: there are storm clouds inside Industrial Illusions, too, crackling with thunder. Otogi is undaunted.

BONG.

He pulls back for a fourth strike—

And his bat crumples like foil in Croquet’s grasp, and then it shatters.

“Can I help you,” Croquet says, smoothly, “Mr. Otogi?”

Otogi freezes, and Yuugi twitches; Anzu and Honda let out cries of surprise. Yami spins around. Croquet is behind them, one hand outstretched, the other held stiffly at his side. He’s still in a suit, a dove-gray three-piece that’s rapidly becoming darker at the shoulders as he stands in the rain. His moustache droops; his hair is damp. Yami barely manages to suppress a shudder, wondering how long Croquet has been standing there watching them, hidden, somehow, in the shadows.

“We’re here,” Yami says, with a boldness he doesn’t feel, “for dinner.”

“You’re exceedingly punctual,” Croquet says. He opens his hand and lets the fragments of aluminum fall to the ground; they land with wet little plicks and plops. “In fact, Lord Darkness, you’re more than a little bit ahead of schedule.”

Yami shakes his head. “You said ‘at sundown,’” he says, loud and clear. He gestures at the sky, black with rain. “We’re right on time.”

“My lord Crawford had envisioned a more, ah, intimate gathering,” Croquet says next. His voice is still smooth, but his eyes have gone flat and dull above his bland, indifferent smile. “If your companions would be so good as to…take themselves elsewhere—”

Yuugi stirs. He grabs Yami’s hand. “No,” he says. “No. We’re not going anywhere. Except inside.”

“You didn’t mention limited seating,” Yami counters. His soul is quaking in his body; there’s a gulf between his panicked thoughts and his voice, which is booming and official, almost imperious. “You said, ‘food and friends.’ Your words, Croquet.”

“Did I?” Croquet says, almost to himself. He looks at them in sequence—Yami, Yuugi, Anzu, Otogi, Honda—his expression blank except for the slight curl of his lip. “I regret the error. Your—friends—may come to regret it, too.”

Anzu steps forward and takes Yami’s other hand. “We won’t,” she says firmly. “Are you going to let us in or not?”

“You may find, young lady, that you don’t have the stomach for what lies ahead,” Croquet says.

Yami turns away from him, and the others turn too. Through the glass doors of Industrial Illusions lurks a darkness so solid and sinister that it may as well be alive. Hand in hand, Yami and Anzu and Yuugi push open the doors.

 

Chapter Text

The darkness engulfs them in an instant like ink over water. Red sconces throb along the walls, a lattice of smoky rubies, their true fire obscured by a veil of shadows. The darkness muffles even the noise of the doors closing behind them; but they must have closed, because the air has gone dead and quiet, and all hope of sunlight has vanished from the corners of Yami's mind. He grips the hands in his: Yuugi's, in his right, hot and sweating, Anzu in his left, cold, clammy. Their pulses mingle and jump together. He feels Honda and Otogi at his back, as strong and upright as pillars. In a phalanx, as one body, they move forward.

Croquet looms up in front of them. Gray mist curls from the edges of his form. The low red light of the sconces flashes across his irises.

“Really,” he says, in a voice as heavy as the fog, “I must protest.”

“We're hungry,” Yami says.

He holds Yuugi and Anzu's hands tightly in his own and takes one step, then another—slow, methodical, foot-dragging steps, carving a path through the darkness. Before his chest can touch the soft gray front of Croquet's waistcoat, though, Croquet disappears.

Honda lets out a nervous laugh. “Oh, good,” he says, “great, this is fine.”

“Hold my hand if you're scared,” Otogi says. “It's what all the cool kids are doing.”

“I wish Jounouchi were here,” Honda says. There's a rustle, as though he really has reached over and taken Otogi's hand. “I wish Jounouchi were here with a crowbar.”

“That'd be useful,” Otogi agrees.

“Please, be quiet,” Yuugi says. His voice is strained. “Please. Sorry. But I don't—I don't like this.”

“There's still time to turn back,” Croquet says. Yuugi makes no sound at this reappearance, though his hand jerks in Yami's. They continue to plod forward. Croquet's head and torso drift alongside them; the rest of him is obscured. There is nothing angry or menacing about his tone, which remains perfectly professional and even. But his eyes are shining red. “You have and continue to have ample opportunity to...”

Yami sees the smooth blank face of the elevator in its bank along the far wall. It's cold and white and modern, just as he remembers, though for a moment, as he blinks, he sees something else: a red and glowing afterimage of an old-time-y elevator, encased in gilded cage. He begins to let go of Yuugi and Anzu; he starts to reach for the handle that doesn't quite seem to be there.

Otogi leans over him and punches the elevator button. It illuminates, as red as a wax seal. There is, again, no indication of whether the elevator will be taking them down or up.

Yami startles. “Thanks,” he says, low.

“I hate to sound so cheesy,” Otogi says, “but trust your heart, not your eyes. We should have painted ourselves before we came,” he adds, and as Yami looks at him, puzzled, he taps the long black line of kohl streaking down his left cheek. “Remember?”

“Right,” Yami says. “We should have.”

The door opens with a soft, innocuous ding. They step inside.

There are no buttons. As the elevator closes, Yami has a sensation of being sealed inside a coffin; the doors have come together so tightly that no light can seep through their seams. He can feel Yuugi beside him in the dark, vibrating with tension; he can hear the slight squeak of fear frozen in Anzu's throat. The elevator hums, and time passes—seconds, hours, days.

“You're reaching the point of no return,” Croquet says, as the doors open.

“Get out of our way,” Yami says. He tries to sound imperious again, as though he's making a decree, but his voice issues in a hopeless croak and is absorbed instantly by the dead black air.

“I really can't advise...” Croquet begins, and this time, as Yami swings into him, hard, with his shoulder, with his and Yuugi's joined hands, Croquet's form billows at the point of contact and dissipates into nothing. A sigh sweeps over them all, a cool gray mist of droplets a little too light to become rain.  

They're in the penthouse again, surrounded by drooping greenery and figurines in glass cages. But as Yami and the others rush forward, parting the hanging leaves and charging toward the center of the room, they find the wingback chair empty.

“Pegasus!” Yami shouts.

“My lord Crawford is, as I have said, otherwise occupied,” Croquet informs him mournfully, drifting back into his peripheral vision. “If you would be so good as to wait here, I can provide some light refreshment—some wine, perhaps—a fine vintage—"

His words grow choppy as he speaks, his red eyes darting left and right, up and down, in fast jerking motions.

Yuugi interrupts him. “I want my grandfather,” he says, and his voice cracks. “Fuck the wine. Bring me my grandfather.”

But Croquet continues as though he hasn't heard. “A lovely red from my master's cellar. And a few morsels too, to amuse you while you—”

“What's happening?” Anzu whispers, as Croquet flickers and warps before their eyes. “Why is he—"

“It's a projection,” Otogi says. “Isn’t it, Mister Croquet? Just an illusion. One of thousands. An—industrial—illusion,” he says, harsh, punctuating his words with a sweep of his arm through Croquet's torso, left, right, and left again. His arm moves freely, slicing through the air, and particles of Croquet trail after it, gray and dismal. “Powerless.”

The flashing red eyes dart toward Otogi. “Powerless?” Croquet says. “Powerless, no. But a trifle distracted, I grant you, Mister Otogi. A trifle—”

The illusion shivers from head to toe.

Then—

“Get out!” Croquet shouts, staring a hole in an empty space above their heads, and all the blast of sound from his false throat shakes the leaves; air gusts against Yami's skin, his clothes; the windows rattle. The penthouse seems to rock—the whole tower is trembling on its foundations—and Yuugi grabs at him, at Anzu.

“What—”

Croquet's ghost vanishes, this time without even a ripple or splash of mist. He simply disappears.

“Is...is he gone?” Anzu whispers. “For real this time?”

The penthouse shakes. A roar begins distantly beneath their feet, growing louder and louder as it rumbles up the tower, story by story, until—

The penthouse becomes seven things at once: an innocuous conference room with boring white walls and boring tan carpet, at the center of which sits a glossy oval table ringed by leather high-backed swivel chairs; a jungle, where jagged white teeth glimmer in the space between the dense, deep green leaves; a void of darkness; an endless expanse of sand, on which blood spatters; the tapestry-draped floors and walls of an ancient stone fortress or castle; the muddy reed-studded banks of a long black river; and finally, itself, superimposed atop all of these separate realities, lush and green. There is only one glass case, Yami realizes, and he and the others are trapped within it in miniature.

The glass case bursts, along with the far wall. A tear opens in the rain, a fraying blue strike of cloudless sky, and through it, an ogre leaps into the penthouse.

The fortune teller, Yami realizes, the one from the Domino University green. In the same flapping black robe, with the same vacant red-rimmed eyes and sun-bleached stubble.

“Pegasus!” the fortune teller bellows. “Where are you, Pegasus?”

His hoary blue eyes scan the room and widen in recognition as his gaze falls on Yami.

“You!” he cries. “You again, the heartbroken lover.” He starts to chuckle, and then he throws his head back, and the hood falls from his yellow hair as he laughs. “Nice try, Pegasus. You can't use the same trick on me twice. I know an illusion when I see one!”

“Uh,” Honda says. “Friend of yours?”

Yami is about to reply when, still laughing, the fortune teller lowers his head, tucks his shoulders, and runs at them, arms outstretched.

“I'm going to guess he doesn't want a hug,” Otogi says.

“Fuck!” Yuugi exclaims. He drags Yami and Anzu to the left. Hands seize Yami from behind—Honda and Otogi, pulling at him, all of them trying to get him out of the path of the juggernaut.

Time slows. The face of the fortune teller contorts. Behind him, condensation is gathering on the leaves of the plants. Yami watches the progress of a single bead of water as it rolls toward the tip of its leafy cradle, lower, lower—

It splashes onto the sharp, jutting shoulders of Croquet's suit as he materializes between Yami and the fortune teller, meeting him head on with a smash.

“You were not invited,” Croquet says. “You were not welcome. How did you—”

His red eyes narrow.

Ah,” he says. “A parasite.” And he sets his old gray hands on the fortune teller's skull, with infinite tenderness, as though he's just resting them there, and then his knuckles bulge, and his hands tighten and twist

Honda and Anzu scream.

The body in its black cloak seems to diminish slightly as Croquet releases it, dropping it to the side. The bulk of the fortune teller crashes down, shaking loose even more condensation from the leaves of the surrounding plants. He lies there, starfished, arms and legs akimbo, torso to the ceiling, head turned all the way around, his nose pressed to the floor. Croquet steps on the fortune teller as he approaches, grinding his nose into the tile. They hear a crunch. Blood starts to flow, but the fortune teller doesn't react.

“Oh,” Anzu whimpers, as Honda swears beside her, “oh, God.”

Croquet wipes his hands.

“I do beg your pardon,” he says coolly. “What an unforgivable disruption. I hope this doesn't put a damper on the evening, my lord Darkness.”

“Why?” Yami manages. “Why—”

“As I was saying,” Croquet says. Yuugi and Anzu recoil, and Honda raises his fists and tucks his chin, ready to strike a blow. “As I was saying, we have an excellent red in our cellar, rich and full-bodied and smoky. I'll just—”

His mouth drops open. His eyelids flutter as the red light leaves his irises.

“I'll just,” he repeats, dully. “Just—oh.”

The blade protruding from his chest is bright gleaming gold.

Anzu drops Yami's hand to cover her mouth. “Oh my God!” she whispers through her fingers. “Oh my God!”

“How intolerably inconvenient,” Croquet says. He doesn't dissolve into mist this time; he buckles to his knees and then slumps to the ground. The fortune teller is standing behind him. Blood and ichor drip down the knife over his rough, gold-furred knuckles and fall steaming and sizzling to the tile beneath his feet.

The fortune teller's head flops against one shoulder as he regards them with a single beady blue eye; the other socket has been crushed.

With all the jerkiness of a puppet, he pulls the knife free from Croquet's back.

“My king,” he says, singsong, “my king.”

Reality remains torn behind him, the edges of the slash in the sky fizzing and sparking and smoking. Over his bloodied shoulder, a different sun is shining. Through the rain and exhaust of Domino City, Yami smells the sweetness and warmth of summer sand.

“It's your turn now,” the corpse of the fortune teller says. “Your turn, my king, and I'll take my time with you. A skin for Malik's skin, for my poor flayed vessel.”

“This is just getting better and better,” Honda says. He seizes Pegasus' wingback chair and heaves it up in his hands, holding it out against the corpse of the fortune teller like a lion tamer without a whip. “I'm glad Shizuka isn't here.”

“I'm not,” Otogi mutters. He nudges the body of Croquet with a toe and winces. “She could teach us a thing or—Hiroto!”

The fortune teller lunges, his huge musclebound arms thrusting the blade end of the golden rod all the way through the bottom of the chair, up through the upholstery. The ichor-soaked end stops short of Honda's heart, though; it only manages to nick his front pocket, slicing free the second button of his Domino High School gakuran.

“I'm okay,” Honda grunts, arms straining, and then, as he staggers back, he yanks, and the knife flies from the fortune teller's hand.

“Grab it, grab it!” Otogi shouts at Yami, as Honda falls and the chair falls with him, crashing to the tile, but his fear-frozen joints are too slow; he bends toward it with a creak, only to have the fortune teller's hands close around his, close and tighten.

He gasps, panicked, and tries to shake free, but the fortune teller's hands are like iron jaws, and the single dead eye is staring into his, the blue of the fortune teller's iris dulling, bleeding into a peculiar sort of lilac. For a moment, despite his terror, despite the crushing pain in his hands, he is struck by an impression of singular beauty, and then he remembers: the angel in the grass.

“No, no, no," he says, "oh, no, please—”

Burn, he thinks at his fist, as the bones of his knuckles ache and pop beneath the angel's grasp, burn, please, burn.

Nothing happens.

The angel smiles.

Yuugi's war cry pierces Yami's left eardrum as he and Anzu topple one of the enormous tropical plants. The heavy terracotta container slams into the back of the fortune teller's leg, buckling him to one knee and pinning him momentarily to the ground; the edge of his cloak is trapped beneath its weight, and the chain wraps tight around his throat, choking him as he tries to lunge at Yami again.

“Well, this ain't good,” a new voice says, and Yami whirls to see Saruwatari, flanked by two other men in dark suits, emerging from the elevator in lockstep. He pauses over the body of Croquet, his expression unreadable, his eyes hidden behind his customary sunglasses.

“And you call yourself the head of security,” Otogi says.

Saruwatari's head swivels, just a bit, to the left. “Oh,” he says. “It's you. How's your old man? Not great, I bet.”

Otogi doesn't have a snappy comeback this time. He throws himself at Saruwatari with murder shining green in his eyes, but before his fist can make contact, he's flying to the side, flung into the air by a sweep of Saruwatari's arm; he knocks over a table and skids across the tile with a grunt.

“Looking to end up like him, I see,” Saruwatari says, as Otogi picks himself off the floor, gasping.

Honda hoists him up the rest of the way. “Ryuuji—”

“Oh, so we're on a first-name basis now?” Otogi mumbles. “Have some respect for your elders, why don't you?”

“You started it,” Honda says.

The jaws of the fortune teller's corpse hinge wide, and the angel snarls up at Yami, a wordless scream of hatred. He stabs at Yami's legs, but Yuugi and Anzu pull Yami back, and they watch as the blood-crusted fingernails and blade claw futilely at the air.

“Keith's gone rogue,” one of the suits observes. “Keith, what gives? I thought we had a deal.”

“That's not Keith,” the other says. “That's a ghoul. You need your eyes checked.”

“I don't care who or what it is,” Saruwatari says, grinning savagely. “It isn’t welcome here.” He dodges a swipe from the rod that cuts the right leg of his trousers. “Ooh, pointy. Watch out, boys.”

“You can’t stop me,” the angel says, in a ragged thin voice echoing from the center of the fortune teller's bulk. “I am destiny. I am truth. I have power over the sun.”

“The sun?” Saruwatari replies. His eyebrows raise above his dark glasses. “Oh, yeah?”

"Over the sun and the moon,” the angel continues. “Over life and death. Over truth. Over memory.”

“You have nothing,” Saruwatari says, advancing, “on this side of the world.”

He wrests the rod away from the angel's groping hands and stabs it through the fortune teller's remaining eye.

“You have nothing here,” Saruwatari repeats, twisting the knife while the angel writhes and smokes and shrieks. “We're all beggars,” he says, “just beggars, awaiting scraps from our master's table.”

The fortune teller's body goes limp; before it even hits the ground, it crumbles into ash and vanishes. All that remains is the black cloak, pooled beneath an oversized terracotta pot.

“Gee, Sarucchin,” one of the suits says. “That was poetry.”

“I have my moments,” Saruwatari says. He twirls the knife up into the air like a baton. He adopts a cartoonish approximation of Croquet’s smooth, cold voice, sniggering. “And now, Lord Darkness, if you’d be so kind as to—fuck!”

Wheezing with laughter, the body of Croquet bats Saruwatari away. He crashes through the window and into the black sky.

“I have everything,” the angel hisses, deep in Croquet’s throat. “And now I will have you, my king—my king!”

It reaches up; it catches the falling knife; it swings.

It swings at the wrong person.

It swings at Yuugi.

No!” Yami screams, and he throws up his hands, and the entire world catches fire. The hanging flap of reality—of sun and fog, of Domino and something beyond—goes up in a column of howling red. The roar of the flames surrounds him like the voice of a storm.

 

Rain again.

Yami’s head is singing, singing with pain. The air blasts his face with heat. He tastes soot in his mouth; he smells singed flesh. He opens his eyes, and tears run down his cheeks: the sky above him is wide and bright and empty and searingly, achingly blue. Warm sand scrapes against his arms as he struggles upright; granules of it trickle down his chest and embed themselves into the burned and pitted surfaces of his bleeding hands.

“Yuugi,” he gasps. “Yuugi!”

But he’s alone in the sand.

The sunlight is like a knife through his eyes. He squeezes them shut again; he curls around his knees and his blistered, oozing palms and sobs.

And then he hears a voice, soft and tremulous, getting louder and louder, as loud as the footsteps crunching toward him in the sand—footsteps that grind to a stop as the voice wavers into a cry of disbelief—

“Atem!”

 

Chapter Text

“Take him and go!” Bakura yells, and Kaiba’s hand closes around the back of Jounouchi’s collar, so brilliantly cold it’s almost burning.

“No!” Jounouchi shouts, but it’s too late: the air flares white, and the shattered tableau of the palace disappears just as the first big blocks of ceiling start to tumble down. The next thing he knows, he’s lunging toward the charred remains of a mansion overlooking a familiar and empty coastline. The sky is overcast, the water bleak and gray. Waves lap against the shore. “No,” Jounouchi repeats, raw; he casts the sword down at his feet.

Kaiba’s hand lingers against his skin before slipping away.

“Strange friends you keep,” he says. His voice sounds cool and distant, like the mist hovering at the mouth of a cave.

Jounouchi turns to him, so crushed with dismay that he’s barely able to lift his head. “What do you mean?” he says, and, “oh, God, Bakura.”

“There was nothing alive in that body,” Kaiba says. “It was a doll, a puppet.”

Jounouchi stares. Kaiba’s eyes reflect a memory of the water: bluer than anything Jounouchi has ever seen in his life. He looks thoughtful.

“What do you mean?” Jounouchi says again.

“I mean,” Kaiba says, “if you thought your friend was human, then you were sorely mistaken.”

“Human,” Jounouchi repeats, numb. “Human.”

Kaiba reaches into his pocket. He holds his hand out to Jounouchi, the little wooden horse cradled in his palm. “A golem,” he says. “A vessel for magic, molded by someone else’s hands. A source of power. Just like this toy.”

But Jounouchi is remembering the words of the demon in red, the one who raised a staff and tried to kill them both.

“Human,” he says, a third time, and he looks at Kaiba, really looks at him, at the light pouring from his silhouette, the pale marble cast of his skin, the unearthly blue of his eyes, and the gentle stirring of his hair in some unseen breeze. “He said you were human.”

Kaiba puts the horse back in his pocket. He grins at Jounouchi with the dragon woman’s mouth, the dragon woman’s rows and rows of teeth. Then the image dissipates, and it’s just Kaiba standing there, looking at Jounouchi with a slight smile on his lips. Then and only then, Jounouchi’s heart starts to hammer in his chest.

“Not anymore,” Kaiba says, and raises his arms.

The sky screams. Jounouchi screams with it, staggering under the force of an insane wind that blows in out of nowhere, bending the cypress trees until they bow and touch the ground. The broken remains of the house fly into the air, where the wind shatters them into ash and sweeps them into the sea. Silence: the world holds its breath, and so does Jounouchi. Then the blackened, cratered ground seems to erupt, spires shooting upward. The wind pulls columns of cloud from the sky; they meet the spires of earth like hands clasping. A dense blanket of snow flurries blinds Jounouchi before howling away over the sea, and as he blinks, the trees spring upright once more, lining a sandy brick path leading to the house, rebuilt now in glory.

Some things have changed about it, though: it is neither as tall nor as spindly as Jounouchi remembers, and all the menace has gone from it. The walls are soft stucco, winter white; the shutters ocean-blue, and each of the new windows glows with warmth. In an unexpected touch, there are window boxes, and each is filled to the brim with fuchsia and white flowers.

The clouds overhead are gone, funneled away. As Jounouchi looks out over the glimmering blue sea, trying to see where the storm has gone, he notices that much of the water surrounding the house has frozen: waves cling to the cliffside, jagged patterns of ice spreading across their peaks like lace or embroidery. Vapor rises from the frozen surface of the sea, filtering slowly into still air.

He turns back to Kaiba, who seems to be steaming gently, too, in the sudden sunlight of afternoon.

“Holy shit,” Jounouchi says.

The doors of the new mansion are thrown open in welcome. Kaiba turns from Jounouchi’s flabbergasted stare and heads up the path. After a moment, Jounouchi picks the sword up and goes after him.

Inside, the house is clean and neat. The floors are old gray beachwood, gnarled and knotted, but sanded flat, joined almost without seams. The planks are cool against the soles of his feet and do not creak, and they are dry; the sea-damp has not had time to penetrate the house yet. What little furniture there is within is simple and modern: no clawed feet, no paisley upholstery, no gilt edges. A narrow staircase leads upward, plain, unspiraling, and well-lit. No room for ghosts, Jounouchi thinks, with a shiver. He notices that Kaiba leaves the doors wide open. Wildflowers and seagrasses are pushing their way up along the sandy path beyond the door at an unnatural speed.

He follows Kaiba into a long gallery, where an unusual chandelier made up of a ton of huge, globular lights is hanging.

“Interesting, uh, interesting décor,” he says.

“Not to your taste?” Kaiba says. He sweeps his fingers along the edge of the wall. The temperature begins to drop, frost curling across the windows. “I can change it, if you like.”

The light dances wildly as the chandelier begins to warp. First it becomes a cascade of crystal drops; then the drops separate and fling themselves across the ceiling, turning into something akin to tracklights. There are no light switches anywhere that Jounouchi can see. He doesn’t know what’s powering the house, but he’s pretty sure it must be Kaiba himself—Kaiba and whatever’s left of that terrifying dragon woman.

He shifts uncomfortably. “That’s okay,” he says. “It’s fine. Don’t—don’t waste your strength.”

Kaiba throws back his head and laughs. “Don’t worry,” he says. “There’s no danger of that anymore.” He looks at Jounouchi, eyes gleaming. “Would you like a fire?”

But Jounouchi shakes his head. “I want to go back,” he says.

The lights flicker.

“What?” Kaiba says.

“For Bakura,” Jounouchi says. “Let’s go back for him. He wasn’t thinking right. He was scared of that guy, the guy who attacked us. I bet if we just go back and grab him, and bring him away—”

“You idiot,” Kaiba says. “He didn’t want to go. You heard him.” Softer, more musingly, Kaiba adds, “And anyway, I don’t know if I’d want a creature like that in my retinue.”

“A creature?” Jounouchi says. “A creature like what?”

“I told you,” Kaiba says. “That friend of yours isn’t human.”

“But you need him,” Jounouchi says. “That little doll—the one you thought I made—I told you, it was his. He made it.”

“You idiot,” Kaiba says, but he says it without heat. He sounds almost fond. “That was before. I don’t need it now.”

“Then why do you need me?” Jounouchi blurts. The lights flicker again as Kaiba stares at him. “You don’t need me hanging around now either, do you? You have what you need: that dragon. I’m not even magic. There’s nothing special about me. I’m just a human soul, and you can’t use my soul until you kill me and tear it out of my body, and you haven’t done that. That’s what Mai said.”

Kaiba doesn’t respond.

“Right?” Jounouchi says.

When Kaiba speaks again, his voice is like ice. “Don’t you dare question my methods,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what I need you for. You can’t leave, and that’s final.”

“Final?” Jounouchi says, stunned. “Says who? You? Either kill me and take my soul or let me go.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Kaiba says. “A bargain is a bargain. You think Shizuka’s miracle will stick if I let you waltz back home?” He sneers. “You’re trapped, and so is your friend; you’ve both made your choices.”

“If you threaten Shizuka again, I’ll fucking kill you,” Jounouchi yells. “Why don’t you just fucking kill me and use my soul, and get it over with!”

“No!” Kaiba shouts back. “I’ll do as I please. And it pleases me to keep you like this. Alive.”

“Fuck you,” Jounouchi says. He turns to go.

“Where are you going?” Kaiba demands, stalking after him.

“Out,” Jounouchi snaps.

The air grows cold against his back. Kaiba grabs at him, trying to spread ice through that single point of contact, but the heat of the scimitar seems to thaw Jounouchi, and he tears free with a curse. Kaiba follows, speaking tightly but urgently. “I told you, you can’t go anywhere. You’re powerless. You can’t get back home, no matter how hard you try. The boundaries are sealed. They—”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Jounouchi snarls at him. “I’ll be back. I won’t go far. I can’t, after all.” He sings out mockingly. “Shizuka’s life depends on it!”

With a bitten off exclamation, Kaiba slams the front doors shut in Jounouchi’s face, sealing them with ice. Jounouchi doesn’t falter. He draws the scimitar—it ignites instantly—and smashes through, leaping through the singed and shattered planks. He slices through the tops of the seagrasses lining the path, and then, as their fragments drift away on the sea breeze, edged with embers, he turns and sprints down toward the beach. Kaiba shouts something after him, but whatever he says is lost in the wind.

 

The gulls are calling overhead in alarm as Jounouchi runs from the house. He can sense Kaiba at his back, but he doesn’t turn around. He heads toward the water, full tilt, bursting from the grass and leaping down a crumbling ledge into the sand. There, his progress slows to a stagger, but he presses on, moving until he comes to the water’s edge. Waves are lapping at the beach just ahead, and the sand beneath his feet is wet. The feeling of it crunching and squishing under his bare toes seems to have a quenching effect. The scimitar’s flames cool and extinguish, and the hilt grows cold and heavy in his hand. He stops and sighs and sheathes the scimitar.

The horizon is bare and lonely. As he walks along it, hunched, he thinks back to a day so long ago it feels like ancient history, another lifetime—the day he and Shizuka went to the beach. Shizuka was still an elementary school student; he’d just started junior high. They saved their pocket money for months until they had enough for the train, and then they skipped school, riding north. His dad’s drinking wasn’t so bad at the time, although it was getting worse, and his parents were fighting every day. It was giving Shizuka nightmares.

They’d built castles in the sand, kicked them down, and built them again, bigger and better than before. Jounouchi bought them sodas from a machine with their leftover coins, and they stayed all morning at the beach, watching the tide go out and the fishermen in the distance and the bigger ships, passing along the horizon like floating houses.

Jounouchi pointed these out eagerly.

“Where?” Shizuka said, shading her eyes. “Where, where? I can’t see them.”

She asked if Jounouchi could see any mermaids. Jounouchi already felt too old and jaded for these types of fantasies, but he entertained them anyway.

“I want to be a mermaid,” Shizuka sighed. “I’d float all day long in the nice blue water. I’d have a necklace of shells.”

Back on this desolate beach, Jounouchi wonders how his sister is doing. He has no idea what time it is back in the human world. If it’s nighttime, he hopes she’s sleeping peacefully. If it’s daytime, he hopes she’s eating a good breakfast. He hopes she’s doing her homework, and he hopes that she is smiling.

Shizuka, Jounouchi thinks, and, There are no mermaids in hell. The surface of the water is undisturbed, save for the remnants of Kaiba’s ice storm, which are now breaking apart and floating out to sea.

Then he notices something: a figure, damp and shadowed, lounging in a nearby tide pool.

“What the fuck,” he says, and he blinks and rubs furiously at his eyes and blinks again—

“Shizuka!”

She is neither eating nor sleeping nor reading nor scribbling at a worksheet. She is reclining in the tide pool in front of him, and she seems to be naked, her gaze distracted.

At the sound of his voice, her head snaps up, and she shrieks and grabs at something—a towel seems to materialize in the air beside her—and drags it over her torso. She floats in the pool, the water lapping at her waist, clutching the towel to her chest, looking scandalized.

“Who are you?” she gasps, wrapping the towel hastily around her body. “This is the women’s private bath!” And then she frowns, and her eyes grow vacant. “Who are you?” she repeats, sounding dazed.

“Shizuka,” he gasps. He runs to the pool, stumbling and slipping over the sand. “Shizuka—Shizuka—what are you doing here?”

His sister’s eyes clear, and her mouth drops. “Oniichan?”

“This is bad,” Jounouchi says. “You shouldn’t be here!” His voice breaks. “Shizuka—”

He reaches her, skidding to a stop at the rocky lip of the pool, and she flings her arms around him, whole and alive and solid, digging her fingertips into his shoulderblades: neither a hallucination nor a dream. He clings to her, buries his face in her wet hair, and sobs.

“You’re okay,” he whispers, and Shizuka sobs, too, and mumbles into his shoulder, “I knew you were alive, I knew you were real, I knew I wasn’t going crazy.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Jounouchi repeats. “It isn’t safe.”

“What are you talking about?” Shizuka says, drawing back. “The hot springs aren’t safe?”

“Hot springs?” Jounouchi says, bewildered.

Shizuka points over his shoulder. “Look!” she says. “This is the women’s private bath.” She grins proudly. “I work here now,” she says. “Part-time. I get to use the baths for free!”

He follows her pointing finger: toward a dune and a straggling, wind-worn mound of seagrass and the empty sky.

“Where?” he says. “Where? I can’t see it.”

He hears Mai’s voice in his head suddenly, with such clarity it’s as though she’s standing somewhere behind him, speaking into his ear. Water and mountains; that’s where all the boundaries are blurred.

Heart sinking, he looks back at Shizuka. “I’m at the edge of the sea,” he tells her. “Shizuka, I’m not in Hakone. I’m on a beach on the other side of the world.”

Shizuka’s face crumples.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” Jounouchi tells her, stroking her hair. “Shh. It’s okay. Everything will be okay.”

“Yes,” Shizuka says, muffled but determined. “It will be, Katsuya-’nii. Because we’re going to save you.”

“We?” Jounouchi says.

“Me and Honda-kun and Otogi-kun,” Shizuka says.

Honda,” Jounouchi whispers. “So he—he knows what happened to me.” Relief floods him, so sharp it brings tears to his eyes.

“It’s harder for him,” Shizuka says, soberly. “But he’s trying to remember. It’s hard for me, too, Katsuya-oniichan. I don’t understand why, but my memory of you changes sometimes, and I have to hold on to it and think about you with all of my strength. Sometimes I’m scared I’ll forget you altogether, but I know that isn’t possible. Mom doesn’t remember you at all,” she says, face crumpling again. “We fight about it. She thinks I’m making it all up, because of the stress of entrance exams or something. I know it’s hard, I know there’s magic involved, but how can she just forget like—”

“How do you know about all this?” Jounouchi says, shocked.

“Otogi-kun told me,” Shizuka says. “He lives in Domino too. I met him on a chatroom—”

“Shizuka!”

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Shizuka says quickly. “Honda-kun went to see him and he really is just a first-year college student like he said—”

“That’s not reassuring at all!”

Oniichan! Listen to me! He knows a lot about the occult and after talking it over with me and Honda-kun, he put two and two together—”

Her voice catches. She looks stricken. “He says that you must have sacrificed yourself for a miracle. And I know—I remember—my eyes—my eyes were—”

Jounouchi shushes her. “Don’t,” he says roughly. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. You know that. I don’t regret it at all.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Shizuka says. “We’ll save you, oniichan. We’ll get you back.”

His heart is in his feet now. “Shizuka, you can’t,” he tells her. “You can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Shizuka says, and her eyes are wide and startled.

You’re trapped; you’ve made your choice.

“No,” Jounouchi says, wild, desperate. Is this how Bakura felt, staring up at him, at his outstretched hand? There’s a lump in his throat so painful and large that he feels like he’s choking on it. 

“What?”

“Shizuka, you can’t save me,” he says. “I’m stuck here. Just—just forget about me. Honda too. Tell Honda. The next time you start to forget about me—just let it happen.”

He cries out: she’s thinning and fading in his arms.

“No!” she exclaims, scrabbling at him, grabbing at his shirt, but her grip is fading, too, the clutch of her fingers weakening into nothing. He pulls at her, tears icy on his cheeks, but she passes through his hands. “No! Oniichan! Katsuya-oniichan! Kat—”

 

The light dwindles. Jounouchi stands in the tide pool until his legs grow numb and the sky darkens. At length, he gives himself a shake; he clambers out of the pool; he wipes his face. He slogs toward dry land, toward the house on the cliff with its shining windows, lighting his way with the blaze of the scimitar.

At the edge of the path, where the ground begins to rise and the sand sloughs off into pavement stones, he collides with Kaiba.

He stares. Kaiba is holding a white lantern. At the moment of collision, his head was turned toward the beach, scanning the shoreline for any sign of Jounouchi, eyes straining so hard into the distance that he didn’t even notice Jounouchi shuffling toward him.

They look at each other in silence, and then Jounouchi looks away, down at his feet, and sheathes the scimitar. He feels bruised from the inside. He doesn’t feel like speaking at all. He can feel Kaiba’s eyes on him, searching.

The lantern bobs. Kaiba clears his throat.

“Come inside,” he says quietly, and Jounouchi does.

 

Chapter Text

Kaiba has assembled a meal of white rice, fish, and pickles. He’s also moved—or conjured—a long dining table into the gallery, and he and Jounouchi eat together at opposite ends of it, silent, listening to the noise of their chopsticks clicking against the edges of their bowls and the waves crashing against the cliffside. That pulpy, bruised feeling lingers for a while in Jounouchi’s chest, heightened by the memory of Shizuka shivering and clutching at him, but he starts to feel a little better after his stomach is full.

After dinner, Kaiba takes Jounouchi upstairs and brings him to a room on the second floor. It’s brightly lit with a luxuriously thick and large rug spread across the floorboards and an enormous bed: it must be king-size. Jounouchi looks at it in wonder, and then gapes at the windows that open onto a huge veranda that wraps all the way around the side of the house and overlooks the sea.

Kaiba still hasn’t said more than a few words to him since he came back. He flushes as Jounouchi looks questioningly at him and grinds out, “Your room.”

“Thanks,” Jounouchi says, bewildered, even as his heart seizes strangely inside him. “It’s—it’s really nice, Kaiba.”

Kaiba looks away. “It’s been a long day,” he says. “Get some rest.”

“Okay,” Jounouchi says, still puzzled.

“I’m just down the hall,” Kaiba adds. “If you—” He frowns as though he’s tasted something sour, cuts off abruptly, and disappears into the corridor.

Jounouchi flops back onto the bed, which bounces pleasantly under his weight. He doesn’t bother with the duvet and closes his eyes.

Immediately, he sees the white, strained face of Bakura staring entreatingly up at him. They cut my throat, Bakura seems to be saying, even though his lips aren’t moving. They threw my body into the river. Then he smiles, and the gaping wound in his neck smiles with him, and his head falls to the side.

Shizuka wails. Katsuya-oniichan!

His eyes fly open. It feels like mere seconds have passed, but the room is dark, and the moon has risen; shafts of moonlight stripe the carpet and the bed. He can hear the sea pummeling the cliffside. As he gazes out onto the veranda, he sees a slice of pale yellow: the light in Kaiba’s room is on.

Jounouchi heaves himself out of bed. He slides the veranda door open and tiptoes outside. The night air is cool and damp on his skin, and he takes a deep gulp of it, feels it tingling deep into his lungs, refreshing him.

Sea and sky form a black wall in the distance, dotted with glimmering swathes of moonlight. Kaiba is bent over a desk in his room, his suit jacket draped over the back of his chair, his shirt untucked and uncuffed, looking at something Jounouchi can’t see. He seems to sense Jounouchi’s presence, though; he looks up and nods at Jounouchi to enter.

“What’s the matter?” he asks, as Jounouchi comes in and slides the pane shut behind him.

Jounouchi says nothing. He shrugs and sits down on Kaiba’s bed. It’s less squashy than his own, he notices, and there are fewer pillows piled up by the headboard. He has a better view of Kaiba’s desk from this angle, and he sees now that Kaiba is poring over a huge crackly piece of parchment—

“The map!” Jounouchi says, sitting up straight. Kaiba has the map of the underworld laid out on the table, edges weighed down with big white shells, and is marking it carefully and precisely with a ballpoint pen.

Jounouchi feels an unexpected swell of delight. He realizes he’s glad the map survived the blaze. It was so old and so beautiful.

“Yes,” Kaiba says, looking surprised. “I was just—” He sighs. His eyes are shadowed. “You should go back to bed. It’s late.”

“I’m okay,” Jounouchi says. “Go on. You were just—?”

Kaiba sets the pen down. He’s sitting in an extremely modern-looking leather swivel chair, and he turns to face Jounouchi, crossing one leg over the other as he does.

“I was just trying to see where the sunken points in the map might be,” he says. “All the deep, dark hiding places on this side of the world. I need to find them.” He points at the map, and Jounouchi can see that he’s touching the middle of the wide blue sea. “There’s a trench here, for instance. And over here—these are tar pits. That scavenger woman, Mai, she probably knows about a few others.” Regret crosses his face. “I should have asked her.”

“You still can,” Jounouchi says.

“We can’t go back to Dahlia,” Kaiba says. “I may have the power of a three-headed dragon, but I’m no match for an entire city.”

“Mai’s a scavenger,” Jounouchi points out. “She travels. We can meet her in the wild.”

Kaiba looks like he wants to dismiss the idea out of hand, but he restrains himself. “I suppose we could try to get a message to her,” he concedes. The look on his face at that moment reminds Jounouchi of Shizuka: crumpled, on the verge of tears. Softly, so softly Jounouchi almost can’t hear him, Kaiba says, “I don’t know what to do.”

Jounouchi doesn’t say anything. He waits.

“I say my father was a monster,” Kaiba says, still softly. “He was a monster, but he wasn’t really my father. We had no blood ties. He plucked me from the orphanage. Me and—my brother. Mokuba.” He swallows and pauses, clearly expecting an interjection, but Jounouchi stays quiet. Kaiba continues. “You remember the memory that haunted the old house.”

Jounouchi nods: the rotting, snarling, green-haired ghost. Play with me.

“He was my brother, too,” Kaiba says, “in a way. He was the first child Gozaburo Kaiba sacrificed for power, and he had the dubious distinction of being Gozaburo’s blood: his own son. He was murdered when he turned thirteen, and his ghost lingered, confused and lonely and desiring vengeance. But Noah’s death wasn’t enough, so Gozaburo came to the orphanage and chose two others—my brother and me. I was so happy that day. I thought our troubles were over. This man was so rich and seemed so kind—” He breaks off. “It was the beginning of a long nightmare. We split our time between Domino and this side of the world, moving back and forth; it was easier in those days to jump between. Mokuba’s magic was stronger—so strong, in fact, that it masked the weakness of mine—but I was older. When I turned thirteen Gozaburo brought me to Dahlia, the devil’s star, the seat of magic in this realm. He offered me up to the king of hell himself in exchange for power. But the king refused.

“Oh, no,” Kaiba says, at the look in Jounouchi’s eye. “The king didn’t refuse because he was good and kind and cared about children. He refused because my magic was so weak that I was worthless to him; it would have been like swallowing air. He and his courtiers laughed Gozaburo out of the throne room. I was beaten for that when we returned to the seaside,” he says, looking distant. “So hard I couldn’t walk for a week. But before we left the palace, I met Kisara. We held each other and clasped hands and promised that we would set each other free.” His eyes glow briefly, and Jounouchi sees the shadow of the dragon curling her tail around Kaiba protectively, laying her shining head on his shoulder and settling herself down to sleep. “And we kept that promise.”

“What happened to your brother?” Jounouchi asks, dreading the answer.

“I don’t know,” Kaiba says. “Gozaburo didn’t kill me after his humiliation in the throne room, as I thought he would. He sent me to Domino to run his business in the human world. I was good with numbers. I had shown some head for business. He kept Mokuba in this old house by the sea and concealed him from me whenever he brought me back to discuss his accounts. He dangled Mokuba’s life in front of me. As long as I behaved, as long as I did well at the helm of his company, he wouldn’t sacrifice my brother. Because, he said, he wouldn’t need to; he would have all the money he needed and wouldn’t have to depend on magic to survive.

“He was lying, of course. Two years ago, when Mokuba turned thirteen, Gozaburo took him to Dahlia.”

Jounouchi swears. “No!”

But Kaiba is smiling, albeit grimly. “The king was dead by then. He had been ill all along; he was ill when I met him. His son was still too young to rule. I don’t know how Gozaburo managed it, but he took the throne—by force or by persuasion. He ruled for a month and a day, and then Kisara tore him to shreds.”

Jounouchi breathes out. “And Mokuba?”

“And Mokuba disappeared,” Kaiba says. “And I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he is alive or dead. I don’t—I don’t know if he’s hungry, or cold, or lonely, or frightened. I don’t know if he remembers who I am.”

His chest constricts. “Kaiba—”

“Eventually, I realized Gozauro had died,” Kaiba says. “There were portents. Thirteen months after his death, his portrait fell from the wall in the company boardroom. All the computer screens went black, then displayed images of his mangled hands. I had been gathering resources for years, readying myself to go to war against a monster. But by the time I was ready, by the time I understood that he was gone, some cataclysm had occurred on the other side of the world, and the usual in-between paths were sealed shut. I couldn’t return.” His face twists. “And I was weak—I was weak. I had a briefcase of amulets: that was the source of my power.”

Jounouchi remembers the briefcase, remembers Kaiba’s frustration at its loss.

“To get to the other side of the world, I’d need something more,” Kaiba says. The loathing is heavy in his voice. “I’d need to behave just like my monstrous father—and trade a soul for power.” He looks at Jounouchi then, open and pained. “Your soul.”

“You lied to me,” Jounouchi says. “In the beginning. You let me go on thinking that you were a demon. So that I’d be afraid of you. So that I’d obey you.”

“Yes,” Kaiba says. His smile has a sarcastic tilt to it, more of a grimace than anything. “And I made the same mistake Gozaburo made when he plucked me from the orphanage: I thought you were much more powerful than you were. I was misled by the ushabti in your pocket—your friend’s clay doll.”

Does my soul really belong to you? The question is pushing at his lips, but he swallows it back. He realizes he doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t want to, because he doesn’t want to know. There’s a chance Kaiba will say no, and Jounouchi will be free—trapped on this side of the world, but free nonetheless—and their connection will be severed.

“I understand,” he says instead. “I’d do anything for my little sister, too.” He grins, rueful. “I guess I already have, in a way.”

There’s a pause. Then—

“Your—your sister,” Kaiba says, blank.

“Yes, my sister,” Jounouchi says. “Shizuka. Who did you—”

He breaks off as Kaiba lets out a muttered exclamation and turns away.

“Kaiba?”

Kaiba is leaning forward, head in his hands. Through his palms, he murmurs, muffled, “Nothing. Forget it.”

Jounouchi’s heart starts to pound.

“No way,” he says. Inside his head an absurd litany starts up, chasing itself around and around in a drunken chorus: No way, no way, no way, no way, no way.  “You thought—I—my soul—for a girlfriend—”

Kaiba's face is faintly flushed. He isn't meeting Jounouchi’s eyes.

Jounouchi stares at him. Crosses the room.

“Are you some kind of moron?” he says, quietly, and as Kaiba snaps his head up with a blistering retort on his lips, eyes wide with outrage, Jounouchi kisses him.

His upper lip mashes against Kaiba’s front teeth, and Kaiba makes a tiny noise that vibrates down through his body: a little exclamation of surprise or irritation, Jounouchi can’t tell. He feels stupid and clumsy and his blood is roaring in his ears, but as he starts to pull back, already apologizing, Kaiba gasps and grabs at him, hands clenching in his shirtfront, dragging him in. Kaiba’s back hits the wall, and his hands are sliding up and down Jounouchi’s chest and arms, and his leg is wrapped around Jounouchi’s hip, locking them together—

Jounouchi moans and comes up for air.

Kaiba looks destroyed. Well—destroyed by Kaiba’s standards. His hair is standing straight up; his collar is askew; his suit jacket is definitely wrinkled. His mouth is red and wet and his cheeks are warmly pink.

He meets Jounouchi’s gaze, defiant, and then his eyelids droop, and he looks quickly away.

“Well—shit,” he says, with vehemence. But his hands stay where they are: pressed up against Jounouchi’s sides.

“How—how long,” Jounouchi says, breathless. Kaiba’s hands are stroking his ribs through his shirt, jerkily, mechanically, almost like Kaiba can’t stop himself. “How long have you—”

“Does it matter?” Kaiba says, trying to sneer. His mouth trembles. In the next moment his hands are drawing Jounouchi back in, sliding up under his shirt, while Jounouchi shivers and swears under his touch.

“Fuck, your hands are cold—”

“Shut up,” Kaiba says. And: “Warm them for me?”

And Jounouchi, feeling dizzy, almost delirious, pulls Kaiba’s hands up to his face and kisses Kaiba’s fingertips one by one. Kaiba hisses, watching him with dark eyes, then lunges.

They end up on the floor, rutting against each other. Kaiba is still kissing Jounouchi, almost desperately, like he’s trying to lick his way into Jounouchi’s soul—and there’s his leg again, coming up to wrap around Jounouchi’s thigh, the heel of his stupid patent shoe digging into the back of Jounouchi’s right calf as he grinds up against him. Jounouchi reaches back and rips Kaiba’s shoe and sock off his foot, grips his bare ankle, tries to haul him closer.

Kaiba writhes beneath him. “Oi, watch where you’re—mmhah—”

All Jounouchi can think about is how much time they’ve wasted arguing, glaring, retreating to their separate corners. When all along they could have been doing this instead. He wants to make Kaiba sweat. He wants to make Kaiba cry.

He’s obviously never had someone’s dick in his mouth before, and if he thinks about it too long he’ll probably get grossed out, but right now it’s all worth it just to feel Kaiba trembling beneath him, practically shaking apart, trying to keep quiet and still and failing spectacularly at both endeavors. He can taste the salt of Kaiba’s skin, and the bitterness. He palms himself roughly through his pants with his free hand. Kaiba’s chest is heaving. There’s a whimper building behind Kaiba’s clenched teeth and it’s fucking music to Jounouchi’s ears.

Kaiba shudders and makes a noise like a sob; his hands seize in Jounouchi’s hair, gripping painfully tight. “Kh—

His hips jerk and then he’s coming down Jounouchi’s throat. Jounouchi gags, grimaces, squares his shoulders, swallows like a champ—

Kaiba strokes his hair, soft, and from above his cold voice murmurs, faintly, dazedly, “Katsuya—

Jounouchi groans and comes like a shot.

Kaiba jerks him off two more times after that, methodically and mercilessly, Jounouchi assumes out of a pure desire for vengeance. He assuages Kaiba’s wounded pride by moaning loudly, at first just to see the startled look in Kaiba’s eyes and the hot red flush that burns its way across his cheekbones and down his chest, and then because he really can’t help himself. The second time, Kaiba kneels behind him and guides Jounouchi’s hand with his own, watching over Jounouchi’s shoulder, biting at his neck and the tip of his ear while Jounouchi’s head lolls and his mouth drops open and his eyes roll back in his skull.

When he comes back to his senses, Jounouchi pins Kaiba and sucks him off again. It seems only fair.

 

Jounouchi wakes up and discovers that everything is sticky and crusted over and disgusting. He’s mostly naked in the bed with his pants inside out and tangled around one ankle. His briefs, and Kaiba’s green shirt, are all the way on the other side of the room. His entire body is sore.

He groans, stretches, sits up.

The door to the veranda is open, and Kaiba is standing just outside, gazing out into the distance. It’s raining, and the rain has blanketed the coastline with an impenetrable veil of gray. He’s already dressed, wearing a black suit under a long white coat, his hair neatly combed and parted, slicked down. He’s spinning a needle of ice absentmindedly in one hand.

“Uh, morning,” Jounouchi says lamely. He starts to unstick himself from the bedclothes, wincing. “Oh, fuck, gross. Sorry. Shit.”

“You wanted to know how long,” Kaiba says.

Jounouchi stills. He looks up. Kaiba is staring determinedly out into the rain, unblinking, lips pressed into a thin bloodless line.

“Yeah,” Jounouchi says, hoarse, while his heart does a weird flipping thing inside his chest. “Um—yeah.”

“From the beginning,” Kaiba says. “Maybe—maybe even from the moment I saw you.” Jounouchi sees his throat working as he swallows. His face is pink. The needle wobbles, then winks out of existence. “You’re—stupid. And stubborn. And brave. And I...care for you.”

“I like you too,” Jounouchi says, but it comes out too fast, too eager, so he clarifies: “Most of the time.”

Kaiba still won’t turn to face him, but Jounouchi can see the smile on his lips.

Chapter Text

As the roiling and bubbling of the water subsides, the Lady Ishtar wheels to face them.

“I'll have no more secrets under the sacred ground of my father's house,” she says. “If the magician has bound himself to this creature in some way and cannot explain himself, that is another matter. But you are not bound, are you, Mistress Mana? You are not bound.”

“It isn't my place to say,” Mana says. Her gaze is downcast, but her hands are fisted at her sides, and her feet are grinding into the earth. She won't move from where she is standing, a small, stern barrier between the Lady Ishtar and Ryou.

The Lady Ishtar speaks quickly. “Mana, if you bear any love for this city, you will tell me what this creature is.”

“Is he such a danger to us?” Mana says. “Look at him!”

“I have looked,” the Lady Ishtar says. “I have looked, and the waters have also looked upon him. Mahaad's Ring can only seal so much away from our composite eyes. Mana, look again: he is leaking. He is pestilence.”

“He is nothing but a miserable ghoul,” Mana exclaims, “a ghoul we found crawling in the gutter. The way Mahaad found my master in the gutter, long ago on the worst day of summer. I know what you think of my master, my lady, of his foul manners and his tawdry finery and child's spells. But you cannot doubt his loyalty. The staff came to him, my lady. It came to his hand. He was chosen over you and I.”

“You are naive,” the Lady Ishtar says, low. “It is a tool, merely, the magician's staff.” Her hand goes to the eye at her throat. “A tool like any other. It will pierce the hand of those who lean too heavily upon it. No, not the hand: the heart.”

All of the Lady Ishtar's eyes have begun to glow—all of her eyes and all the water in all the pools around them, all the water trickling from the leaves—as bright as the light of the full moon on a cloudless night.

“Why did you come?” she asks Ryou, and her voice is the whispering of the wind on the riverbank. The wind that was silent the night the ogre cut his throat. “What is it that enables you to walk among us? What is the shape of the name etched across your soul?”

“Don't answer her,” Mana says. “Say nothing!”

But Ryou can't answer her, even though he wants to, even though her thousand eyes are compelling him. He doesn't know how. Why did he come? Why did he go all alone to the station and pry the boards open with his hands? Why did he go without a care in his heart, and why did the wind whisper to him the way the Lady Ishtar is whispering to him now?

“Very well,” the Lady Ishtar says softly.

“Isis,” Mana says. “Isis, please. You swore we would go untouched in your father's house.”

“A house that has stood for a thousand years in defense of this city,” the Lady Ishtar says. “It is fitting that I raze it now in the name of the devil's star.”

“Isis!” Mana yells. “You can't break your promise.”

“On my mother's head be it!” the Lady Ishtar shouts.

As she throws up her arms, the house begins to rumble; the angular head of her mother's statue cracks and topples into the pool. The splash slows and freezes. Droplets of water hang in the air. Leaves shiver; Mana shivers. And then the walls come down.

“Run!” Mana cries.

“But the magician—”

“She can't touch him. That would be a trespass against the city itself. He will come for us. He will know. Now run! Before the house is gone and her oath is broken by circumstance. Run!”

The moonstruck darkness peels away in crumbling slabs. The afternoon sky unfurls above them, as blue as a forget-me-not. The mausoleum of House Ishtar has become a crater at the edge of the shattered palace. Clambering out into daylight, tearing open the skin of his hands and feet—and there is no blood, only light—Ryou gasps for a moment on the sandy ground.

“The palace,” Mana screams at him, bursting through the earth like a monstrous flower. “Hurry.”

“But the guardian is gone,” he says uselessly.

“I know every hiding place,” Mana says, tearing free of a tangling root. “We just have to hang on until the magician can get to us. He'll take us away.”

“Where?” Ryou asks. “Where will he take us?” But Mana doesn't answer. They pelt toward the misshapen grove.

 

Without the shade of the once-towering cypress trees, the light in the palace courtyards is blinding. Ryou, glancing over his shoulder, fully expecting to see the Lady Ishtar gliding toward them, her thousand eyes blazing, yelps as Mana jerks him to a stop.

“What—”

For a moment, Mana doesn't say anything. Her grip on Ryou's hand tightens to the point of pain. He hears the rasp of breath in her throat. And then she whispers, “Please tell me—please tell me that you can see him too.”

Ryou follows the shaking line of her pointing finger. There's a man sitting in a heap on the ground, steam or smoke rising from his clothes and the wild, singed crown of hair on his head, as unnatural as the hues Ryou saw that morning on the street. As he stares, the colors seem to deepen. The man wipes at his forearms, as though trying to remove soot, but the burnished color of his skin does not change. His palms are red, seemingly soaked with blood.

The heat mirage resolves itself. The man is young. There are tears in his eyes, and raw, bleeding blisters across his hands, and he's wearing a black t-shirt and and the smoldering fragments of jeans.

A memory, a dream of Domino City. The watch on the man's wrist winks in the sun.

“Yes,” Ryou says simply, and he catches Mana as her legs fold.

“Atem,” she cries. She shakes free and scrambles across the burning sand. “Atem!”

At Mana's cry, the man stirs and looks up.

“A game,” he says. His voice is ragged. He stares at them, and the orange reflection of flames slides across his dazed eyes. “Game!” He repeats it, louder, and then he flinches as Mana throws her arms around him.

Ryou watches them. He wonders if this is what he looked like after they sank his body into the river, if this is how he emerged, singed and terrified, onto the shores of the other side of the world.

And if this is truly Mana's dear, departed king, he doesn't look it, Ryou thinks; he looks small and frightened, his lips trembling around a sob.

“The whole world was on fire,” he says. “I did it. It was my fault.”

“What?” Mana says. She turns to Ryou. “He’s speaking in tongues,” she says.

“No,” Ryou says, bewildered. “He said that the world was burning.”

Mana nods. “Of course,” she says. "Of course it was. But you did it for us, Atem. To save us.”

The man looks uncomprehending; Ryou repeats Mana’s words to him.

“Am I dead?” the man says.

“Yes,” Ryou says. The whole world was on fire. “You must be.”

The man recoils, and Mana turns back to Ryou, demanding, “What did he say? What did you say?”

“He asked if he was dead. I told him—”

“No, no, oh, Shaitan, no,” Mana says, stroking Atem’s arms, his cheeks. Her own cheeks are wet with tears. “Atem, you're alive. You're alive.”

“He can’t be,” Ryou says, but Mana is no longer listening.

The man blinks at her. “Atem,” he says, soft. He looks at her as though he is seeing her for the first time, and then he raises his eyes to Ryou. “What is that? Who are you? Where am I, and where are my friends?”

The watch shines on his wrist.

“Mana,” Ryou says, “I don't think it's him.”

“Of course it is!” Mana snaps.

“He's from my world,” Ryou says. “That’s why I can understand him. He’s speaking—”

“Your world,” Mana interrupts. “What world? There is no other.”

“The human world,” Ryou says. “The one on the other side of—but Mana—Mana, listen. There’s only one way to get here from there, and—”

Mana laughs. “For the last time,” she says, “you aren't human. And neither is he.” Abruptly, she folds forward, pressing her forehead into the hot sand. “Hail, Shaitan,” she cries, muffled. “Creator of all. Lord of the unfurling city. And my true friend. The fire is undying.”

“Please,” the man says, looking at Ryou, “what’s happening? What is she saying?”

“Who are you?” Ryou asks instead.

“My name is Darkness,” the man says. “And I don't know—I don't know who you are. I’m sorry.”

“He says he doesn’t know who we are,” Ryou says. “He says he’s sorry.”

Mana wavers. “Atem,” she says. “It's me. It's your Mana. Don't you know me?”

“He won't know you,” a new voice says. “He's a coward and a liar, and he's locked away the truth.”

For a split second, Ryou sees only the shadow of a young, thin cypress, dark beneath the light of noon. The darkness coalesces into the brother of the Lady Ishtar, Malik, cloaked in black and barefoot in the sand. There is a hole in the sky behind him, a long flapping strip of nothingness.

But Ryou doesn't have time to stare into the void. In his hands, Malik is holding a golden spear; its tip is bright and dripping with blood, and the blood is in Malik's eyes, too, red and maddened, as he stares at Yami, still huddling in Mana's arms.

They all jump, but Yami sees Malik and screams.

“But you and I know the truth, don't we, magician?” Malik continues. His voice is whisper-soft: the wind in the broken grove. “You see the truth, and I hold it in my hands.”

He raises the spear high.

“What are you doing?” Mana yells. “Malik, no! Bakura!

Huge, invisible hands have Ryou in their grasp, rearranging and molding him as if he were little more than a clay doll. He leaps at Malik, arms outstretched, and catches the spear as it falls.

“Betrayer!” Malik howls at him.

“Please, stop!” Ryou gasps. His heels are being driven deep into the sand, and it's shifting beneath him. He staggers, and Malik lunges. 

Malik snarls. “I will cut you down where you stand!”

“To the palace,” Mana hisses at Yami, “the palace, that way, quick, go! We'll find you in the jars. Oh, Shaitan! Translate for me!”

“I’m a little busy here,” Ryou says, but Mana shouts his name again, and he chokes out, “Yami, run now, go that way. Find the storeroom. Find the jars. And hide!”

“The jars,” Yami repeats.

“Go!” Ryou breathes, and Yami obeys.

Malik swivels toward Yami as he flees, but Mana leaps forward, her fingers cracking.

“Traitor, murderer, assassin,” she yells. A black tide sweeps over the sand and lashes Malik's ankles, and he stumbles.

They arrive on the scene, then, the Lady Ishtar and Rishid, robes flapping, thunder in their eyes.

“Atem lives!” Mana shouts at the Lady Ishtar. “Please, Lady—Isis—stop this war between our houses. Bind your brother before he becomes a slayer of kings. Atem lives, he is in the palace, I have seen him, I have sent him there.”

“He lives but for a moment,” Malik says, laughing. “I have followed him through time. He cannot escape me any longer.”

“Rishid,” the Lady Ishtar says, low and urgent, and Rishid nods, and as they pull at the air between their hands, long silver chains appear like gossamer strands of spiderweb, of the fragile light of the moon shining down the length of the Lady Ishtar’s hair.

But even as she and Rishid spin the threads into a net, Malik leaps with the golden point of his spear flashing, and the threads separate and fade into dull strings, falling into the sand.

“No, Sister,” he says. “You can bind me no longer.”

“Malik, please,” the Lady Ishtar says. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Unfortunately, Sister,” Malik says, “I do not share your compunctions,” and he slices away a piece of her long black hair and dents her collar of eyes, missing her throat by centimeters.

Malik lifts his arm to strike again, and Rishid bellows. The sun flashes against the lines of writing on the side of his face and on the gilded edges of the spear as he ducks Malik’s swing and collides with him, tackling him to the ground.

Blood gleams on the sand.

“Rishid!”

“Fool,” Malik spits at Rishid, who lies groaning, his hands groping at his side. “Your strength is not your own; it was given to you by Malik’s father, and I took his life, and now I have taken yours.”

From the wreckage of the palace there comes a distant boom.

Malik shudders. “No!” he cries. “He must die! The king must die!”

“Don’t you dare,” Mana says. She plants herself in Malik’s way and sends another tide to attack his footing, her fingers contorting into wild configurations.

“Stop him,” Rishid says. “My lady, leave me.”

“No,” the Lady Ishtar says; she has gone to Rishid and is kneeling beside him, heedless of the blood, pressing her hands to his wound.

“Save him,” Rishid begs. “Leave me. I am nothing. He is the future of our house.”

But the Lady Ishtar hisses, “Enough! You are also my brother!”

“Isis,” Rishid says, reaching for her, but before his fingers can touch her skin, he faints dead away.

Mana whimpers. Ryou spins around.

Her tides are ebbing. Malik has his hand on her hand, breaking the formation as he breaks her fingers; his other hand grinds the spear closer and closer, the point shaking wildly toward Mana’s left pupil.

Yelling, Ryou barrels into him like a rugby player. They crash into the sand.

Malik paws at him, his fingers like claws, seeking to gouge and to maim. Light oozes from Ryou’s puncture wounds. He swears and shouts and gargles as Malik’s hands close around his throat.

Just as suddenly, he is free, and the sky is blue above him, and strong arms are lifting him to his feet.

Malik is screaming and spitting and scrabbling at the sand, tearing at the magician’s staff impaled in his thigh, pinning him to the ground. His spear has fallen just beyond his reach.

“No, no, no!” he wails.

“Yes, yes, yes,” the magician says. He brushes the sand from his face and shoulders. “Little ghoul, are you all right?”

“Yes,” Ryou gulps. “Yes. And you—”

There are black circles beneath the magician’s eyes, from exhaustion, from the sweat running through his adornments of kohl. He continues to brush at Ryou’s cheeks with one hand, but his other hand digs into Ryou’s shoulder as brutally as Malik’s did; plainly, without the staff to support him, Ryou is the only thing keeping him upright.

“I’ve been better,” the magician says. “Two buildings collapsing on me in a single day—what are the odds? If the castle tumbles down around our ears after we go home, I’ll be disappointed but unsurprised.”

He glances at the Lady Ishtar, still bent over Rishid. “Really, now, Isis,” he says, lightly enough, but his stare is dark. “What was all that about? A bit of spring cleaning?”

“Magician,” the Lady Ishtar says, “have a care. You have been harboring a viper in your house.”

“I?” the magician says. “Me? Surely, Isis, that particular honor belongs to you. The viper is—”

“Master!” Mana screams.

As one, the magician and Ryou turn; as one, they see the magician’s staff lying discarded in the sand, above a scrap of torn cloth and a pool of blood.

“Ah,” the magician says.

Everything happens quickly after that, the burned bark and ash and sand and blood all blurring into a nameless horror, as Malik howls and slams his spear through their chests.

They stagger. Ryou catches the magician in his arms. There’s nothing else he can do; they are bound together irreversibly. He can’t feel the spear between his ribs. He feels nothing but the warmth of the magician’s blood as it trickles and spreads between them.

They fall to their knees.

“Fuck,” the magician gasps out, “fuck, fuck—”

His voice is fading. So is his body. As Ryou holds him, tugs at him, tries to keep him, the magician sighs and diminishes, the bulk of his body lightening, lessening, until he is little more than a patch of moonlight, a memory, a ghost. Within seconds, there is nothing left but his robe, hanging from the spear still embedded in Ryou like an obscene flag.

“Magician,” Ryou rasps. There is nothing else to say, no other name to call. His heart has been turned to pulp between his ribs. “Magician!”

Mana is wailing, huddled over her broken hand. The Lady Ishtar is frozen where she kneels.

Malik tears at his spear; it comes away with a dry rustle. He turns and limps swiftly across the sand, dragging his injured leg.

 

Ryou can feel the torn edges of the kirtle flapping in the hot desert wind. There is a hole right through the middle of the ring, the emblem of the dark magician of Dahlia. But beneath the hole, there is nothing: no wound, no blood. As he touches himself with shaking fingers, he finds only the skin of his chest, smooth and unbroken.

“Magician,” he says, thickly, but the magician is gone.

“He lives,” Mana says, crawling toward the staff. “He lives. He must live. I will not gain one life to lose another.”

When the Lady Ishtar manages to speak, her voice is soft. “Mana—”

“The staff!” Mana shouts. “Look at the staff, damn you; it has not chosen another master.”

“Take it, then,” the Lady Ishtar says.

Mana stares at her. “What?”

“Take it,” the Lady Ishtar repeats. “The city is in peril, Mistress Mana. You were the magician’s apprentice. Twice over. Take up his staff. It is yours.”

Mana hesitates.

“Think of the king,” the Lady Ishtar urges her. “You alone can protect him. Take it now, Mana!”

Mana takes a deep breath, and then another. And reaches.

But the staff shivers away from the fingers of her uninjured hand. It rolls and rolls across the sand and comes to rest at Ryou’s feet.

“No,” the Lady Ishtar exclaims, but it is too late. Dreamily, dazedly, Ryou bends down.

It is heavy, he thinks. Far heavier than it looks.

“It is not yours to hold,” the Lady Ishtar shouts. Blood and silver arc toward him across the sand.

Ryou throws up his hands. The staff pulses. The Lady Ishtar and Rishid are flung into the air like dolls; they land in a heap and lie still.

“Bakura!” Mana’s voice cracks with horror.

“I’m sorry,” Ryou says. He tries to release the staff, but he can’t; it is seared to his hands. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean—I—oh, Mana,” he says. His words are beginning to slur. “Oh, Mana, it’s heavy. It’s so heavy.”

The sky goes dark. The staff is dragging him down, through the sand, through mud, through time.

Dimly, he hears a metallic noise: the chime of a bell, the clash of swords. Iron gates clanging shut. Or the sound of the ghost train as it clatters over the body lying on its tracks, one distant midnight in Domino City.

Far away and long ago.

 

Chapter Text

Yami crouches on the other side of the gate. His boots are peeling from his feet in blistered strips; he tears them off along with the melted remnants of his socks.

He isn't stupid enough to think his rescuers have prevailed over the angel. In another moment, he knows, the beautiful face and golden hair and blood-soaked golden knifepoint are going to appear on the horizon, burst over the crumbling gate at the edge of this haunted courtyard. Or the bloodied faces and broken bodies of his rescuers will, reanimated and shambling, and laughing, too, without moving their dead lips: the wild-haired girl with her tearful eyes and clutching hands, or her ghostly companion, the one who could speak Japanese normally enough, despite the pure magical light steaming from every cut and pore in his body.

Perhaps the time has come to stand and fight. But that voice in his head is insistent, blending with the cries of the girl and the ghost: Go now! Go now!

So he goes, gasping and wincing, over the boiling hot sand.

It's not much of a palace, he thinks. Or it's a palace for an ogre. A monster. And the monster has stepped on it, cracked a hole right through the roof, toppled the pillars, snapped the trees.

There is a pure singing ache in him to find his surroundings familiar, to look at the disturbed and disturbing landscape around him and think, Ah, yes, I saw this once in a dream. Or a nightmare. But all of it is new to him, as alien as another planet or the pixelated background of one of Yuugi's video games.

Yuugi!

He starts to think of the others, too, as he clatters across broken tile and ash, hurrying deeper and deeper into the pit. They were all standing in his line of fire. There is no chance they could have escaped unscathed. He pictures the strands of Anzu's tea-colored hair fusing together in the waver of heat, Otogi's single dice earring melting and dripping onto his shoulder. The outlines of Honda and the lost bat wavering into a pool of quicksilver.

Am I dead? he asked the ghost, and the ghost said, Yes.

My life for their lives, he thinks, stumbling over fallen blocks. Pieces of the ceiling and the walls are still crumbling around him, spiraling down and exploding into dust. I died in the fire. I died and no one else. Please.

He drags his mind away from memories of Yuugi, pouting over a console, grinning over French fries—Yuugi, his face and hair so drenched by rain it was impossible to see whether he was crying, at least until Yami tasted the salt on his lips—and back to the space around him.

It's a study in contrasts: overhanging pieces of the roof send down columns of darkness, while other spaces are so sunny and bright they're almost glittering. He catches the glimmer of jewel-like fragments amid blackened debris. And he sees his own feet, somehow burned dark by fire, wandering over gray ash.

There are fragments of bones in the piles of ash, gleaming in shafts of sunlight. Yami shivers. He tries not to walk on them, but there are too many; the floor is blanketed; bones roll or crumble under the soles of his feet.

The light slants sharply over the reliefs on the walls: images of people and monsters. Winged dragons and serpents. Repeating motifs of eyes and mouths follow him from chamber to chamber.

People begin to follow him, too; dim, wretched figures, crawling, drifting. More ghosts, he thinks. Memories of the people who walked here once, when the rooms were whole and softly lit and peaceful desert air drifted down cool dark corridors. He hears the ringing of metal on jeweled ankles and wrists and throats. He sees the swoop of white linen.

A palace would have a ruler at its heart. Some creature to sit on the throne and issue decrees. Seven feet tall, he thinks. With a crown of horns. A consort or seven on their arm, feeding them figs, dates, red teardrops of pomegranate. A pet dragon curled around their throne. Bearded, hoary-headed advisers clamoring for their attention. Knights and wizards circling them, ready to do great deeds, perform great feats of magic.

A shadow falls over the fire-shattered tile—a cloud passing overhead, perhaps.

Not great deeds, Yami revises, seeing more bones as the light shifts. Blood sacrifices. He envisions the victims lined up in a row, heads bent, mouths trembling, the swords of knights shining overhead, ready to lop off heads. The palace was burned; it still smells like smoke. And maybe a little bit like flesh, though he doesn't try to smell it, and maybe he's getting confused; maybe what he can smell is in fact himself, his burned and charred remains, as he joins the crowd of ghosts.

Who would want to rule this, he thinks—this pile of death?

The storerooms, he reminds himself. The jars. Hurry.

But when the corridor bends, he finds himself in a room where the darkness is so heavy, so all-consuming, that it seems to muffle even sound. If he hides here, he thinks, if he just stands still and covers his mouth, he could stay for a thousand years, unseen, forgotten. The blackness is like a cloak of midnight drawn across the noonday sun, so complete that it is almost a void.

No, he thinks, looking closer; it is a void, it is the void, the tear in the basement of the Turtle Game Shop, in the window of Pegasus' tower.

His heart soars. He forgets the desert, the girl, the ghost, the angel. The palace and the sun. He relegates them to the place of dreams. The real world is awaiting him on the other side of this flap.

“Yuugi!”

He runs.

The air of the void burns him with cold as he thrusts his arms into it, pushing at the flap, ducking his head as trying to wriggle through, the way someone would try to shoulder past a heavy curtain on a stage. He feels it sweep across him, a velvet cape, and then he gasps as someone or something seizes his hands, heedless of the blisters, and pulls him through.

 

Gravity spins. For a moment, he's weightless, and then he's being crushed by eternity. There's dirt in his eyes, his mouth. Stopping up his nostrils and ears. Grave dirt, he thinks, unable to shake the idea. He's in a graveyard; he's dead and buried and decomposing. He tries to jerk away from the hands gripping his, tries to paw the dirt from his face, but the hold is too strong. Slowly, inexorably, the hands pull him through the earth. He feels cool air on his fingertips first, soothing the burns, then his wrists, his forearms, and, finally, his face. When he opens his eyes he finds himself on solid ground with nothing at his feet, not even a hint of dust.

There are manacles on his wrists.

“Ah,” Pegasus J. Crawford says, looking up from his reading. There’s some sort of magazine in front of him, some trade publication, glossy and modern. “Good evening.”

The light burns low and red; the walls are pristine, smooth, and unburnt. Yami is suddenly relieved to find himself back in darkness, sheltered from the eye-watering blue of that merciless other sky, from the bright gaze of the girl who clutched at him and spoke to him in tongues.

This is territory he understands. These are lines he knows how to tread. His head is clear, and the only thing that hurts are his hands, and even then, he'll use them if he has to. He'll squeeze Pegasus' throat until his blisters pop.

Rescue Yuugi. Rescue his friends. And exit, pursued by demon.

“I do apologize for my tardiness,” Pegasus continues. “It's a large space, my realm of shadows. Sometimes pests get in and gnaw holes everywhere, and there goes your entire afternoon—crawling around in the dark on your hands and knees, patching up the walls. But I left one door open for you, my lord Darkness, and here you are at last, safe and sound.”

Pegasus is seated at the far end of a comically long table, toying with the stem of a wine goblet. He is wearing his red double-breasted suit, his silvery hair falling over his shoulders in neatly combed lines. His single eye glints at Yami across the distance. There is a portrait of a woman hanging on the wall above him, larger than life, in an old-fashioned lilac dress, her hair golden and tumbling. She's smiling, but her eyes seem to be filled with tears. Yami looks at her and feels nothing.

“Pegasus,” he says. “Where are my friends?”

“Yes, about that,” Pegasus says.

About that—not them. Yami realizes he won’t be getting any answers—not answers that he likes, anyway.

He watches as Pegasus swirls the wine in his goblet—wine or blood, Yami isn't sure.

“I really wasn't prepared for such a large party,” Pegasus goes on. “You understand, don't you?”

As he speaks, the table warps and stretches another meter.

“I'd really been hoping for a more intimate setting,” Pegasus says. He gestures, or Yami blinks, and the table returns to more normal proportions. “Especially as Croquet will no longer be joining us. Nor Saruwatari and his horrid little henchmen either. We'll have to serve ourselves, you see. It's a pity, isn't it? Good help is so hard to find these days. We just burn through our resources so quickly, don't we, you and I.”

Yami pretends not to have noticed the insinuation. He lifts his bound hands. “Serve ourselves? I don't know about that. Looks like someone will have to serve me.”

Pegasus titters behind his fingers. “Yes, forgive me,” he says. “A precaution, that's all. I wasn’t sure whether you’d emerge guns blazing, so to speak.”

He sets the goblet aside and makes an abortive gesture as Yami begins to open his hands.

“Now, now, now,” he says quickly. He spreads his own hands so that Yami can see them: relaxed, empty. “So let cooler heads prevail. Cooler hands. If you will. If you start a fire here, my lord, you'll burn down more than you can possibly imagine. We are tethered to all the deep places of the world. Both worlds.”

“I see,” Yami lies.

“But if you're inclined to be reasonable—and it seems you are—we can do away with such demeaning artifacts.”

When Yami looks down, the manacles have gone, bleeding away into nothingness.

“I think, my lord,” Pegasus says, “once we've had a little more time to chat, that you and I will come to an understanding. Please, sit. Help yourself to some…”

Yami doesn't sit. “I'd prefer to get the discussion out of the way now,” he says.

“You're very like your father,” Pegasus says. “Abrupt. Decisive.” His eye glitters, and something behind the long silver strands of hair glitters too. “I'm not sure I like it.”

Yami says nothing. He waits.

“Yes, of course, the king is dead, long live the king, and so on,” Pegasus says. “Very well, I'll state my terms. It's simple enough. I am no longer content to dwell in the shadows. And neither are you, I suspect.”

The sunlight hurts my eyes, Yami thinks. Aloud, he says, “I’m listening.”

“Some may call me an upstart,” Pegasus says. “I was not born in fire. Many of us are not. Many of us are demons made, not born. Why must we be left in the cold? Why must the gates of hell be closed to us? Come, my lord. I have likened you to your father too many times. In this way, you can be different. In this way, you can set forth on your own path. Take my hand, take the bargain. Take your first step as king.”

Yami swallows.

“I can’t,” he says.

Pegasus sets his goblet aside with slow, deliberate elegance. “Stubborn as always, stubborn as your father,” he says. “My lord, why buy into these ancient prejudices?”

“Pegasus—”

“It pains me to see you like this, so narrow-minded,” Pegasus says. “They are wasted on you,” he says. “Your youth and your power. Your loyal retainers.”

He sweeps his arm across the table. “Let’s eat,” he says silkily. “Maybe you’ll change your mind after dinner.”

Yami starts forward with a cry. There are no plates or trays on the table. His friends lie across the tablecloth, unconscious, their arms or legs or heads dangling over the sides.

He sees Yuugi at the bottom of the pile, his little wrist limp within the curl of its studded leather bracelet.

Pegasus is standing over them with a carving knife.

In the next moment, he sees his friends seated around a smorgasbord of dishes and drinks, staring straight ahead, their hands in their laps. They make no move to touch the silverware lining the table, the nice place settings, the lumps of bloodied meat sitting on their plates like broken hearts.

Grandpa Mutou is there, too, in the seat of honor, his stare fixed on something Yami can’t see. Beside him sits a hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked child, their hair long and black and disheveled.

“My protegé,” Pegasus says, acknowledging the child with an ironic nod of his head. “He’s shy.”

He can feel the tablecloth beneath his fingertips, satin-soft. But as he stares at the child, he has the impression of an open screaming mouth, of hands rattling silver bars.

What is real, and what is the illusion, Yami wonders, heart hammering, and then he realizes he doesn’t have to wonder anymore.

He brings his fingers to his face as though he means to rub his eyes, and carefully, very carefully, with the soot dragged from his clothes, he paints his eyelids.

The red light sharpens.

“Help me,” the child says, in faded voice. “Help me. Help me.”

“Pegasus,” Yami says, and he hears his own voice like the distant, hollow hum of a storm across a dark desert. “What have you done?”

“Nothing, my lord,” Pegasus simpers. “Nothing at all. I have made use of the resources at hand. I have given shelter to a poor little orphan, all alone in the world.” He nods at Grandpa. “I have given rest to the weary.” At Honda. “I have brought an end to the confusion.” At Otogi. “I have brought peace to the tormented.” At Anzu. “To the frightened.” At Yuugi. “To the yearning.” He smiles. “And I take so little in return. So little, my lord.”

“Our souls,” the child says. “He has taken our souls.”

“How dare you?” Yami says.

“I dare,” Pegasus says. “I dare because I have had no other choice. What else are we poor scavengers to do, my lord? It takes a great deal, let me tell you, to keep twitching the boundaries open, and a twitch is all we can manage between us, my associates and I, a quick twitch, a little peek, past the curtain, at the beautiful red light of hell.”

“Let them go,” Yami says, and he calls to them. “Yuugi! Anzu! Grandpa! Honda, Otogi, open your eyes!”

No one stirs.

“I have grown wealthy beyond measure, that is true,” Pegasus says, musingly. “In human coin. I have enriched myself, that is true also. I have gorged myself on souls—human souls. My dear fellow, it isn't enough. Your father knew this. You know it too. A hundred human souls are not enough to break the barrier between worlds. A thousand, no. A million, perhaps, but why expend the effort, why orchestrate disaster, when you walk among us?"

He finds his goblet and drinks.

“You must not think I am coming to you in laziness,” he says. “I promise you, my lord, I have tried every avenue, exhausted every angle. I have loved. I have made sacrifices.” He looks down. He tucks his hair behind his ears but keeps his gaze trained on his plate of meat. “I have loved,” he repeats. “But it is not enough, you know, to have loved. Love can only get you so far.”

Above him, the woman in lilac seems to glow.

“She was powerful,” Pegasus says. “She kept the gates open long enough for your father’s advisors to laugh in my face, to cast me out into the cold.”

He gazes at the portrait then, and the hole in his skull is deep and dark, a tunnel into nothingness; his single eye is blank and dazed.

Painted with the ashes of an enchanted land, Yami’s own eyes see Pegasus, the truth or memory beneath the illusion: slender, stripped, his plain white shirt rolled up around stringy forearms. His hair is shorter, wilder. He hauls himself forward, centimeter by wretched centimeter, a pitiful figure, dragging his belly through the sand. One of his eyes leaves a trail of tears; the other, blood.

Young lover, do you want a cure for what ails you?

“I paid a dear price,” Pegasus says. He rubs at his empty socket. His mouth twists. “And then she died. She died anyway. The strain was too much. She slipped through my fingers, my golden one, my laughing girl. For the love of me, she…”

He seems to gather himself. He sighs, wistful. “The boy will die, too, soon enough. He’s lasted longer than I thought he would, I’ll grant him that. But it’ll be days, not weeks, until his power is spent.”

“Help me,” the boy intones.

“Yes, my lord,” Pegasus says, low. “Yes, help me." He touches Grandpa's shoulder, and Grandpa lilts to the side and back to center like an okiagari-koboshi doll. "They don’t last long at all, ordinary human souls. They go mad, go soft. Melt away into nothing.”

He wants to fall to his knees and beg. He locks them instead and stands tall. Squeezes his hands into fists. The soot is stinging his eyes, burning them. He digs his fingernails into the raised edges of his unfurling scar.

“Set them all free,” he says. “The boy, too. Release them into Domino. Alive and whole.”

“And then?” Pegasus’ eye is fixed on his face, hungry. “And then?”

“And then I will help you,” Yami says. “But on these conditions. You will release the souls you have taken into Domino. And you will never take another human soul. You will never harm the ones I love. Those are my terms, Pegasus. Do you accept them?”

“With you by my side, my lord…”

“My terms,” Yami interrupts. “Do you accept?”

“They will die if you do not help me,” Pegasus says.

“If they die, I will burn your realm of shadows to the ground,” Yami says, remembering the devastation in the desert. “Those will be the only flames of hell you will ever see again, before I take it all away from you. Do you accept?

Pegasus swallows one last mouthful of wine. His eye roams Yami’s face, wandering, wondering. His lips part: his teeth are stained as red as blood.

“I do,” he whispers.

“It is done,” Yami says, and his voice is not his own but the voice of thunder.

 

Chapter Text

The magician’s castle is cool and silent as the last drops of sunlight slide out of sight. Ryou stands in the darkness in chains. One by one, red lights appear in the windows of the buildings below, massing into something resembling a swarm of fireflies. Somewhere, in the growing night, a man begins to sing.

Ryou twitches toward the noise, startled, and nearly falls as the chains catch.

“Argh,” he says. He jerks his limbs one after another, testing the chains. They rattle and hold fast.

He feels a hot swell of irritation, and with it, recklessness.

“Chain energy,” he says, but the words twist in his mouth and come out slurred and garbled. The chains shiver, and Ryou shivers with them, electrified. He sounds the syllables out in his head before he tries again, filling his lungs with enough air to burst them—

Chain energy!

His mouth burns, and his shout lifts into a cry of surprise as the chains snap and dissolve. Ryou falls backward onto his arse. The chains haven’t gone altogether, as he hoped they would, but they’ve separated from whatever they were bound to, and Ryou is free, albeit manacled, and still trailing a meter of links from one wrist and one ankle.

His lips feel blistered and his teeth are ringing as if from a punch, and he can’t stop gasping.

He pries open the trapdoor and pokes his head down into the empty stairwell.

The staircase seems to unfurl beneath his feet, spreading infinitely onward, spiraling and undulating. The song chases itself around and around, tumbling through verses in an ancient language; the voice that sings it is low and hoarse.

“Magician!” Ryou calls, but there is no answer.

He catches a glimpse of white disappearing down the steps and darts after it.

Windows appear in the walls as he passes them, of varying sizes and shapes and colors of glass. Through a round moon banded with iron, Ryou sees a young green meadow. Water as red as blood laps against the diamond panes of a lancet window. The passageway spins in his vision like a kaleidescope.

A new, narrow slit of a window opens beside him. It overlooks a toy village in the desert, a cluster of boxy little miniatures spilling between rocky bluffs. From this scene comes a high thin sound: the wind, or screams.

“My village,” Ryou says aloud, in wonder. He presses his hand to the opening and feels a ripple of heat against his skin, the tickle of sand. But the landscape is empty. His figures are nowhere to be seen.

The window snaps shut. In one pane of the lancet window, he sees a ghostly white reflection.

“Wait!” he shouts, and hurries on.

He reaches the bottom of the stairs before he realizes it and reels, feeling the sharp, stomach-churning lurch that accompanies the thought of a missed step. He gropes in front of him until he feels the seams of the stone wall.

“Dark door,” he says. He repeats it until he’s winded, and on the last attempt, the stone gives way, groaning as though in protest.

He expects to see the magician’s red court waiting on the other side of the malformed archway. Instead, the wall opens onto a sandy courtyard and a series of ornate gates, decorated with strange birds and lit by a hundred lanterns.

He steps over the threshold, chains dragging.

The song stops. The courtyard disappears.

In the dead black void on the other side of the gate, the magician is waiting with folded arms. There are chains on the magician’s wrists, too, he sees, silver and gold, trailing into nothing.

“Magician!”

In his relief, he realizes that he is hungrier than he has ever been. He opens his mouth wide to smile, to laugh, to swallow the magician whole.

“You’re alive,” he says.

“Am I?” the magician says. His voice echoes in the shadows. He looks carefully at his own hands, turning them over, staring at his palms, his knuckles, his fingernails. And then he reaches out across the darkness and grabs Ryou by the collar. “You have me now, or I have you, rather; you may think your plan has succeeded, little ghoul, but as you can see, we’re both trapped here.”

“I don’t understand,” Ryou says, as the magician shakes him viciously, rattling both his teeth and his chains. “Please, wait. Wait. What do you mean, trapped? This is the castle, isn’t it?”

Mana, he remembers abruptly, we left Mana crying in the sand.

“This is wrong,” he says. “Isn’t it?”

And the magician looks wrong, too, dreamlike—washed out and diminished and sly. His eyes are larger and darker than Ryou remembers. He seems to be looking past Ryou and not at him.

“Drop the act,” the magician says. “I know you aren’t what you claim to be. Who sent you?”

“No one,” Ryou says, breathing fast. “No one sent me.”

“Isis, perhaps,” the magician muses. “Her hatred of you is almost theatrical in its intensity. The lady doth protest too much. But I asked you to stand beside me when she came calling, and you did it willingly enough.”

“Symmetry,” Ryou says, “you said—”

“Symmetry is for kings and tombs. No, I watched Isis closely that day: not a flicker of recognition. Shaadi, then. It’s more his sort of trick. More his sort of design, too. That’s one problem with centuries of incorporeality: you stop caring about putting innocent flesh in peril. I suppose he intended to interrogate whatever remains his people could retrieve from the pauper’s pyre.”

Ryou doesn’t know how to respond to this. “I’m human,” he says finally. “I sent myself.”

“My dear little ghoul,” the magician says, squeezing even tighter. “You can’t hide from me. The whole of this city is—was—mine. I held my hand on the pulse of every living thing within its limits. Every living thing. And you—you blew up the grid.”

Ryou frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” the magician says, and his voice is rising, swirling into a storm, “you’re alive. More than that. You’re bursting with it—with life—teeming—”

This hunger is going to kill him.

Gasping, Ryou tears free, staggers back, and—

 

It’s a shock to find himself standing in the hallway of his old apartment in Domino. It’s Western-style, with carpets, and a lavender checked tablecloth in the kitchen, his mother’s choice. He remembers the flowers wilting in their vase on the kitchen counter, the dry clicking of the clock overhead. The sky is dark. If he looks out the window, he’ll see the bare branches of the trees in December. He remembers the season. He remembers the day.

Ryou wants to turn and leave, walk out of the kitchen and into the world beyond. Instead, he sets down his bag by the door, sheds his shoes, and lets his legs carry him mechanically forward into the living room.

Ryou’s father is talking to his mother. He does this sometimes, kneeling in front of her black-wreathed photograph with his gray head bowed.

“What should I do, Chisato?” he’s saying.

Ryou, watching from the hall, hears his own voice say, “You should accept the transfer, Father. I’ll be fine.”

“Of course you will be fine,” his father says flatly, without looking up. “It’s not you I’m worried about.”

It causes a pang even now. Ryou steps back and collides with the magician, who is standing behind him, expressionless.

“Why is it, Chisato,” his father’s voice comes softly from the darkened room. “Why is it only he who remains?”

“He’s grieving,” Ryou says, maybe to the magician, maybe to himself. “He doesn’t mean it.”

The magician’s presence is heavy and black behind him, a looming shadow.

This hunger is going to kill him.

Ryou blinks; the light is suddenly blinding. He’s so hungry. He can’t lift his arms. He sees his own belly, distended, brown, rising over skeletal limbs. The air is filled with sand and dust. People are walking by; they don’t seem to see him. A horse shies away from his body, bridle glittering, and someone dismounts, strides toward him—

The pain of the kick, of the slippered foot digging into his ribs, is nothing compared to the all-encompassing, gnawing hunger. He would laugh if he could summon up the energy.

His body its eating itself from the inside. He drags himself into the shadow of a nearby building, leans gratefully against the wall.

A young woman runs out in front of him, a tall wavering silhouette in dirty linen. “Here, little one,” she says, and kitchen scraps pour from her apron. “It’s all I could manage. Quickly now.”

He falls on the food, every gulp and swallow pouring strength into him. Scraps fall into the sand; he eats those too. His stomach aches with pain.

“That’s it,” the woman says. “Eat well. I know you, little one. I know your story. Eat more, grow strong. Come back as often as you like; I’ll feed you. Even a whore can keep the faith.”

He looks at her in wonder, his heart leaping—he hasn’t been forgotten, his god still smiles on him, there is still time—

Then she grabs him by the throat, her eyes narrowing, and says coldly, “I’ll ask the questions—”

 

His sister lives for a week in the neonatal intensive care unit. They bring Ryou to visit her, and coax him into letting her grip his index finger with her tiny, translucent hand. Hours later, holes open up in her intestines, and she’s too small to be patched back together. (Ryou knows this now; he finds his mother’s diary among her effects and reads it cover to cover.) Ryou’s parents return from the hospital empty-handed, empty-eyed.

After a few days, his mother puts on a cheerful face. She takes Ryou for walks along the river. He remembers the cool silky feeling of her fingers, even in the heat of July.

They sit on the bank and she teaches him how to write his sister’s name. She doesn’t ask him to do it one hundred times—only once. He traces over the characters she’s written for him in dotted lines. Then she folds up the paper and puts it in her pocket. (He finds this too, years later, after the funeral. The magician sits beside him and watches as he sorts through the files, the photographs.)

Ryou turns to the magician. “Teeming with life?” he says, and his voice has the same echoing quality, as though the wide, open riverbank is in fact nestled within a cave. “No. I am a bringer of death, a ghoul, a monster. I drained the life out of them. My father said so.”

“And the other souls?” the magician demands. “The others you keep within you, what about them?”

This hunger is going to kill him.

He recoils, but he can’t go far. His partner is writhing beneath him, heels digging into his back, urging him on. He buries his head in her breasts, gasping, and feels her nails scraping against scalp, against his ear, fingers going tight in his hair. The heat and softness of her body is unbearable. He shudders, hips stuttering, it’s too much—

It’s the same woman who fed him—Ryou recognizes her—older now, wiry and thin, sweet lines forming at the creases of her eyes and mouth as she smiles up at him. Hollow, burning, kohl-painted eyes.

“Always hoped I’d see you again,” she says, after, still stroking his hair. “Grow up big and strong, I said to you. Well, congratulations. Job well done there.”

Ryou’s whole body shakes with a bark of laughter.

“And have you kept the faith?” he asks.

“Have you?” she shoots back, hand splayed across his flank. She grabs a fistful of crimson cloth, rubs it between her fingers. “Such fine robes. Have you forgotten where you came from, guttersnipe?”

“A temporary setback,” he says. “But a welcome one. The magician of Dahlia is a fool. Our god smiles upon us both. Shall I shower my newfound wealth upon you?”

“Shower something else,” she says, nipping at him.

He laughs again, grabs her, rolls her over—

Ryou’s eyes snap open. The apartment is quiet. He listens a moment, then runs to the bathroom to wash his underwear. While the sink runs, he crouches down on the tile with a little moan of embarrassment, head drooping over his bare knees.

The magician’s reflection laughs at him from every mirrored surface.

Ryou doesn’t hear it. Nosaka Miho let him borrow her sister’s volumes of Ouke no Monshou, and he’s been reading them all weekend instead of studying. It’s the only explanation. The woman’s elongated, black-painted eyes linger in his mind.

He glances toward his bookshelf, as though the sight of Ouke no Monshou will reassure him, but as he does, his gaze falls across the body of Wasret the potter, abandoned in the sand of his village. There is a red stain across Wasret's chest: spilled ink, Ryou thinks, or blood.

“Who is he?” the magician asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Liar.”

“I don’t,” Ryou says, “I swear. It was just a dream I had once.”

“Liar,” the magician says again. “You know you aren’t capable of dreaming.”

The room blurs; the hunger in his belly roars. Wasret shifts beneath his fingers, loses his features, becomes an empty wooden doll. His own features twisting, the magician snatches at Ryou’s hand.

“No!” Ryou shouts, and blackness falls like a guillotine. The magician’s severed hand lies in the carpet at his feet, and then it disappears.

 

This time, when he opens his eyes, he’s alone, humming to himself, tuneless and old.

He swipes glittering black paint—his custom mix, made with matte acrylic and a drop of gold-flecked nail polish—over the figure’s eyes in a careful, zigzagging pattern. This is the last touch. As soon as the paint dries, he’ll dress this new doll in its purple robes, hand-embroidered with gold sewing thread, and set it aside. It’s not meant for his village. When he closes his eyes, he can see this doll at a party for nobility of a strange realm, immaculate in rich purple, golden hair flaring like a headdress—

 

“Well, gutter’s ghoul, what do you think of your first outing at court?” The voice is thin and nasal and very smug.

“It’s not my first time,” Ryou says, elbowing the speaker.

“I meant your first time unsupervised, without the exceedingly tight-arsed, boring Mahaad breathing down your neck, demanding perfect elocution.”

His companion has a head of golden hair so wild and gravity-defying he looks as though he’s sprung fully formed from the pages of Dragon Ball. His cloak is deep, royal purple, woven with a pattern of constellations and sunbursts in silver and gold. He’s wearing purple slippers; his neck gleams with a series of hammered golden collars. Golden points dangle from his ears.

Ryou casts a glance over his companion’s shoulder. The revelers are enjoying themselves to the fullest, scattered across the court in various stages of undress.

“This isn’t exactly a court-sanctioned event,” he points out. “Your sister—”

His companion snorts. “I see that Mahaad is succeeding in molding you to his image,” he says. “What Isis doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

“She’ll find out,” Ryou says. “Walls, eyes, Malik. And you know who will get the blame.”

“She can’t touch you,” Malik says. “Not Isis, not my father. You’re Mahaad’s great experiment. None would dare.”

“Is that all I am?” Ryou says.

Malik twinkles at him, bright, flirtatious, and all at once Ryou sees the reflection of fire, orange flame flashing across his eyes—

 

The palace is burning.

Stop this, the magician cries. His voice is twisted and strained, painful. It rakes across Ryou’s ears. Stop this. It’s not too late.

Ryou throws his head back and laughs.

The fire roars, consumes him.

 

As the last embers burn away into nothing, Ryou finds himself returned to the void, pale and unburned, his eyes and lungs raw with smoke and ash. He stares at the magician, who gazes placidly back, Ryou’s dark reflection in the mirror, matching him blink for blink.

“What are you?” they say together, and Ryou says, “I’m a monster,” and the magician says, “I’m a memory.”

Maybe it’s all a dream—Jounouchi, the riverbank, the harpy, Malik, all of it. He’ll wake up tomorrow and have to go to school.

Then he remembers Mana kneeling in the sand, kneeling and weeping.

“Come back to us,” he says. “We need you. Please.”

“I can’t,” the magician says regretfully. “I’m not here. Not really. I’m a tenant in your mind, little ghoul, and when the delirium passes, so too will I, into the darkness of memory.” He’s already beginning to fade. “It’s heavy, isn’t it, the staff? I didn’t want to hold it either. At least, I don’t think I did.”

“Where are you?” Ryou cries. “Where have you gone?”

But the magician is beyond hearing. Blank, expressionless, Ryou’s reflection replies.

“The village,” it says. “Our village. Kul Elna.”

 

Chapter Text

When Ryou opens his eyes, he looks at his wrists and finds them unshackled. The staff has vanished, but he can still feel its imprint on his palms, the searing, crackling ache of a bad burn, even though the skin is white and smooth. The light pouring through open stone arches is heavy and tinged with red: it is late afternoon.

Mana is sitting beside Rishid with her knees drawn to her chest and her arms locked protectively around them. The fingers of her right hand look painfully swollen; her index finger bends backward and to the side.

“Ectoplasmer,” Ryou says, and they both wince as her fingers curl back into shape.

“Thanks,” she says. Ryou repeats himself, crouching over Rishid, who murmurs but does not wake. Gingerly, Mana peels open the blood-crusted tear in Rishid’s robes and pushes back his bandages to reveal healed, unbroken skin and a mottled network of bruising. “You should go,” she says. “You can’t stay here.”

The tiles beneath their feet are deceptively plain, but on closer inspection Ryou can see the faint interlocking lines of gold. They are overlaid with pulverized sand like a fine powder, and the air is still and dead, and he knows they are in Shaadi’s realm, in the Court of Keys.

“They went after Malik,” Mana says, as Ryou looks around.

“And Atem?” he says. “Atem—the king?”

“Atem’s gone.” Mana’s voice is dull. She flexes her fingers. “Whoever—whatever—that was, it wasn’t him. With the guardian of the palace taken and all protections burned—it wasn’t my friend, Bakura, it was a malevolent being. A manifestation, a ghoul. That much is clear.”

“Did Isis tell you that?” Ryou says.

“Lord Shaadi.” Mana smiles, lopsidedly, bitterly. “And he would know. Go, Bakura. Isis will kill you when she comes back. She wants you dead. She wants the staff.”

She can’t have it, the magician whispers, in Ryou’s ear. Over my dead body, he says, and then he snorts, and he says, or over yours.

“Come with us,” Ryou says. “With me,” he corrects himself, as the magician laughs and laughs.

“Why?” Mana says quietly. “Because you healed my fingers? Because I owe you now?”

“Because I am the magician,” Ryou says, with his hands pressed over his ears against the magician’s frenzied laughter, “and you are the magician’s apprentice.”

Ask her, the magician says. Ask her where her precious Mahaad kept his papers.

“Mana,” Ryou says. The magician feeds him the image: a doorway into darkness. “There’s a room in the magician’s castle you’ve never been able to see.”

She looks at him with widening eyes. “How do you know?” she says.

“Don’t you want to open that door?” Ryou says.

“Who are you?” Mana says. “You’re not Bakura. You’re…”

“I told you: I am the magician,” Ryou says, and Mana throws herself on her knees in front of him, and her hair spills onto the sandy tile as she bows.

“Master,” she says. “Oh, Shaitan. I can’t believe it. You’re alive.”

“In a manner of speaking,” the magician says, with Ryou’s mouth, or Ryou says, with the magician’s insouciance. “Terrible, isn’t it?”

“But your body,” Mana says. “Where did your body…”

“Oh, who cares,” the magician says. “Dreadfully inconvenient for us all, I agree. But not insurmountable, as Lord Shaadi has proven time and time again. Shall we?” And he holds out Ryou’s hand.

Mana takes it. “Where were you?” she asks, getting to her feet. “Where did you go when you were asleep?”

Home, Ryou says, and the magician says, “I was retrieving myself from the land of the dead.”

There’s a barrier between the arches, but they pass through it easily, leaving Rishid behind on the floor of the Court of Keys, and stride into the sunlight. Faint traces of the barrier cling to their skin, as shivery and irritating as fragments of spiderweb, and they brush at themselves, at their faces.

A guard of the Court of Keys tries to intercept them. He plants his spear in Ryou’s chest, and the magician reaches down and yanks it out and tosses it aside. The guard stares at them, dumbfounded, in the split second before Mana blasts him away.

“What a nice, invulnerable body you have,” the magician says, to no one in particular. “I should have stolen it sooner.”

“Where is Bakura?” Mana asks.

“Oh, he’s here,” the magician says. “No,” he says, as Ryou tries to speak, “no, you may not have it back. Learn to share.”

You learn, Ryou retorts.

More guards arrive, this time with daggers and bows.

“Earthbound spirit,” the magician says quickly, and a mouth opens in the sand. They step into it, dodging jagged teeth. The mouth closes, but before the teeth can crush them, the magician shouts, “Narrow corridor!”

A channel writhes through the darkness, red and ridged and rigid like an inflamed larynx.

“What kind of spell is that?” Mana demands.

“An effective one,” the magician says. Behind them, fangs gnash, and a carpet of a tongue slavers; stinging saliva flows toward their ankles. The magician grabs Mana and pushes her past a dangling uvula, and they run.

 

The monstrous throat ends in a familiar archway.

Dark door? Ryou suggests, but the magician lifts his palm into the air, and the staff clatters into it. Ryou’s body staggers under its weight. Swearing, the magician hoists the staff up with both hands and turns it in the archway like a giant key.

There is no click. A sigh rushes through the tunnel, and the arch ripples, and Mana and the magician step through.

They’re in a small rectangular room, stacked floor to ceiling with codices and candles burned to stubs. Against the far wall is a toppled chair. It lies below an old wooden desk, which is covered in papers—papers and a skull, which stares malevolently at them with huge hollow sockets. Above the desk is a half-moon of clouded glass—a window or a mirror. A wizard’s room through and through, Ryou thinks.

Aloud, the magician makes a disgusted noise. “Books,” he scoffs.

“Mahaad’s study,” Mana says. “Mahaad’s papers.”

She starts forward and exclaims in wordless protest as the magician kicks the desk, scattering papers into the air.

“He kept this place under lock and key,” the magician says. “Bastard, the bastard. Just books. Just fucking books. What use to me are you?”

Mana picks the papers up one by one. “You’ve had the key for a year,” she says slowly. “Why open the door now? Why make an enemy of the regent himself, why dig a tunnel beneath the foundations of the city? You could have opened the door a week ago. Months ago. The moment the staff came to your hand. That’s what I would have done. What I—” she hesitates “—what I meant to do.”

“I forgot this place existed,” the magician says. “Does wonders for your memory, getting stabbed. Your life flashes before your eyes…”

“There’s a letter,” Mana says suddenly. “Oh, Shaitan. These are his letters. These are—he wrote these, he…” She gulps. “These are his last words.”

“Tiresome thing, correspondence,” the magician says. But he drifts closer, clumsily, dragging the toenails of Ryou’s bare feet across the floor. Then he recoils and makes another noise of disgust. “Shaitan, what atrocious handwriting.”

Mana recovers long enough to roll her eyes at him. “It’s demotic,” she says. “Cursive. You…” She pauses. “That’s right,” she says softly. “You never learned to read it. He never had time to teach you, in the end.”

“What do they say?” the magician asks, leaning over her.

Mana shuffles through, carefully at first, then quickly. “These are drafts. He’s replying to requests. From lords and ladies. Here’s one to my mother,” she says. Her voice shakes. “He says I’m doing well. He says the staff will be in good hands. He never finished writing it.” She starts to put the stack down, then stops. “Here’s one to Isis,” she says.

“Perhaps it’s better not to look,” the magician says.

“I’m not a child,” Mana says. “I know—I know how it was between them. Once.”

“Exactly,” the magician says. “There may be things you’d wish you’d left unseen. Things you’d rather you’d never learned about your beloved M…”

“Massacre,” Mana reads.

For a moment they’re all quiet, standing around the red shaft of sunset that falls across the page shaking in Mana’s hands.

“Belial and Mammon,” the magician says. He lifts Ryou’s hand and runs it through Ryou’s hair, and Ryou feels it like a distant, phantom touch, a brush across numb skin. “Is that what they called it, in Mahaad’s courting days?”

“This isn’t a love letter,” Mana whispers. “This is…this is a confession.”

“Of what?” the magician says. “Indecency?”

“‘My darling,’” Mana says. She’s trembling. “‘My own dear one. If you’re reading this, then I’ll have done the honorable thing: ended the engagement, though it feels like I’ve torn out my own heart and ground it to dust beneath my heel. It would be for the best, in any case. We both know that the dark magician’s first and only loyalty is to his city. I have found that loyalty sorely tested. By my love for you and by…”

…by the burden of ancient knowledge. I should have told you sooner, of course. But something always stopped me. I told myself the timing was bad. I told myself it was a kindness, keeping the truth from you.

We have buried this truth, Akhnamkanon and I. Akhnamkanon because death stopped his mouth, and myself because I cannot face what has been done.  

This city is built on blood.

Of course it is, you say. We have survived millennia of bloodshed. The streets are paved with bones. The borders are fed by war.

Isis, when you gaze into the mirrored waters, you seek knowledge of the future, of the present, of the immediate past. But have you never looked back further? Have you never desired to plunge your hand deep into the bottom of the pool, into the mud, and hold it there until something reaches back?  

You were warned against it from your youth, I know.

Isis, have you never asked yourself why?

Have you never asked what became of your mother, who looked too deep?

Mana looks up. Her brow furrows. “But we know what happened to the Lady Ishtar,” she says. “To the Lady Ishtar before Isis, that is. She saw her own death in the water, just like every seer before her. She obeyed the message. Just like Isis will, one day.”

You’ll think me foolish, putting my blasphemy in writing. I’ve already insulted my own office, Isis, so let’s continue. Shaitan was indeed the First Creator. He created a lie.

My scavenger friends have told me of the strange things they have seen in this vast world of ours. Inexplicable phenomena. Creatures older than dust. Things in the mountains and the oceans and the deserts that are older than God. They are gods unto their own. They have their own power. They have their own desire to create and to destroy.  

They create monsters, Isis, and they set monsters to walk among us. To destroy us.

A current of wrongness runs through Ryou’s body, or his shared body, a smooth shifting slide of scaly muscle down the length of his spine. There was something in the water, he tries to say, but nothing comes out.

Mana clutches the letter. “He’s telling Isis about human souls. About how they’re hard to find, hard to steal.” She looks up, bewildered. "But of course they're hard to find," she says. "They don't exist. Scavengers are liars, charlatans. They scrape at the boundaries of the world and try to tell us their pebbles are rubies."

Ryou tries to open his mouth to protest, but he can't make a sound. His jaw is locked and grinding. His hands curl and uncurl. Something seethes in the pit of his stomach.

Akhnamkanon wanted power, but he was impatient, and he was poor. He wasn’t willing to bargain for souls. It took too long; it was too costly. And so he sent his soldiers into the desert. He sent them to destroy his own people. One hundred throats cut in the name of Shaitan.

There was a village in the desert, once. There isn’t anymore.

Isis, I’m rambling. But you must understand already. You must know that it was a massacre. That Shaitan turned against his own people. With the strength of their blood we built the walls of our city. With the power of their souls we transformed ourselves into gods.  

The walls talk to me now, Isis. All of Dahlia talks to me. When the staff came to my hand, the city spoke. It told me stories of how its new walls came to be. It told me how cleanly the first swords of Shaitan sliced through bone and sinew.  

It told me there was a survivor.

It told me he was lying in a gutter beside the whorehouses of Ahriman, starving to death.

“Master?” Mana says. Her voice wavers.

Look out! Ryou yells, and though no sound emanates from the clenched muscles of his throat, a shriek rattles through the room anyway, a distant scream over the desert, and Mana leaps back as Ryou’s body claws at her.

He forces his mouth open. “Mana,” he says desperately. “Mana, the magician is dead.”

How dare you, the magician whispers. I’m…

And then he vanishes.

“He’s dead,” Ryou says, in a frantic burst. “He’s dead and gone. This thing in my head, this voice, it’s a memory. It told me so. It told me while I held the staff. The magician died in the sand. But he was already dead when Malik destroyed his body. He was never here, Mana. Not really. Whoever we knew, whatever we knew…” The creature riding in his body strangles his voice; it trails off into a ragged cry.

But Mana understands. “It was a manifestation,” she says. “A ghoul.” The letter crumples in her hands as she tenses. Breathing hard, she starts to form a rune with her fingers; then the rune collapses, and she stares at Ryou, wretched. “I can’t,” she says. “This will tear you into pieces.”

His body springs at her again, arms outstretched, and freezes.

“Finish reading, Mana,” Ryou gasps. “I’m holding it back. Finish the letter.”

Forgive me, Isis. I thought I could save him. I thought I could make amends. I thought I could give him everything Akhnamkanon took away; I thought I could be his father and his mother, his village, his magician.

I thought he was a boy; I didn’t realize he was a monster.

“You should have killed me when you found me,” the thing in Ryou’s body says then, the thing that both is and isn’t the magician. “You should have left me there to die in the gutter. Softhearted fool, you’ve doomed your city!”

“No!” Mana screams, but it’s too late: the staff is in Ryou’s hands, and the thing in Ryou’s body raises it up and howls in triumph, and the staff splinters, and the magician’s castle shudders and falls.

 

Chapter Text

Yami has seen the beautiful light of hell, and it is nothing like the red mockery of Pegasus’ sconces, throbbing through strategic shadows: it is blue and clear and so hot it seems metallic. He wonders where the thunder came from, just now, reverberating through his ribs. The sun was shining over the desert when he left it.

Now, in Pegasus’ kingdom, it is dark; the air ripples, like a curtain being buffeted by the wind, like the mist that sits atop Domino Bay every morning before the sun banishes it. The curtain is torn. Every so often, he catches a glimpse of rain, of highrises. Domino City is slipping deeper into dusk.

He rises. Pegasus rises with him.

The other guests remain seated, their expressions vacant; only the boy looks at him, a trembling roll of his eyes upward. No other part of him moves, but he looks like he is fighting with all of his strength against the magic that holds him. His eyelids flicker.

Yami plants his palms on the table. It pushes into the sore skin of his palms, cool and unsinister, just an ordinary table, no more, no less. He says, “I would like to say goodbye.”

Pegasus looks surprised, then sly. “Choose one,” he says. “Only one, my lord. And no tricks, now—no tricks.”

It’s Yami’s turn to look surprised. He can feel the shift of his features, the raising of his brows. A thought slithers through the pounding red in his brain: why is Pegasus thinking about tricks? Aloud, he only says, stiffly, “Of course not.”

“A deal is a deal,” Pegasus reminds him.

“Yes,” he says, and, “Yuugi.”

Yuugi jumps up so quickly he topples his chair, like a student who’s opened his eyes in class to see everyone staring at him and the teacher waiting expectantly, pointing at the board. Yami has a moment to wonder where the image has come from—he has no memory of ever seeing Yuugi in class—and then he’s opening his arms, and Yuugi is leaping into them.

“I have to go,” Yami says quietly. “I don’t know how much you saw—”

“Everything,” Yuugi says, muffled.

“—how much you remember—”

“Everything,” Yuugi says. “Yami, don’t do this.”

Behind Yuugi, a red door opens: the elevator. Pegasus leads Anzu and the others inside, holding their hands; they follow him as obediently as children. The door closes, the elevator dings. He’ll have to trust Pegasus, he thinks. And if Pegasus lies to him, if the elevator takes them and drops them into a pit, eviscerates them, crushes them, well, it won’t matter, will it? The fire will come easily then, bringing oblivion.

“It’s too late,” Yami says. “I am bound to Pegasus.”   

“We can figure something out,” Yuugi says. “We can—we—” But his voice trails off into stammering. “I don’t want this,” he says. “I don’t want this, please.” His eyes are filling with tears. “I should have believed you,” he says. “I wish I’d believed you from the beginning. Yami, I’m so sorry.”

I’m sorry, he says, again and again, as though with an apology he can take it all back, rewind time.

A glimmer of red lights the space behind Yuugi’s shoulder. He sees the slick of rain and the glow of Otogi’s convertible. There’s a ticket on the dash. Yami’s heart clenches at the sight and then relaxes: the last heartbeat before death.

“Didn’t you say that this feels like a bad dream?” he says. “It is. That’s all it is. When you wake up tomorrow, Yuugi, the sun will be shining again.”

Gently, he pushes Yuugi away and watches the wet strike of his sneaker on the pavement. He stands there, cut in two, suspended on the line between worlds, the rain darkening one half of his body.

Soon, Anzu and the others will be joining him; they’ll be helping Grandpa and the boy down the steps, murmuring caution, wiping sleep from their eyes. Will they remember him? He hopes not. He imagines them piling into Otogi’s car, damp, weary. When Otogi turns on the radio, it will play fizzy candypop, and in the distance, the clouds will begin to thin and waver. He imagines them eating together in Yuugi’s favorite booth at Burger World, hungrier than they’ve ever been in their lives and puzzled by it, by the gnawing pain of that hunger.

When they leave for the night, the skies will be clear again. Maybe the boy will go home with Otogi and Honda, maybe with Anzu. Maybe he’ll follow Yuugi and Grandpa back to the Game Shop and find a bedroom there already, made just for him. He’ll put his head down on a soft white pillow and close his frightened staring eyes.

The rain will stop, will dry. In the morning, in the sunshine, they won’t even remember there was a storm.

“But I don’t want to wake up,” Yuugi says. “Not if it means you won’t be there.”

“He’ll leave you alone now,” Yami says. Pegasus looms over his shoulder, but he keeps his eyes on Yuugi, on the horizon, on the living grass beyond. “Those are the terms. He will abide by them. He can’t touch you anymore. You or anyone I love, and I love all of you. You most of all. Yuugi, I love you.”

“Yami—Yami, no. Listen. Please—”

“Forget me,” he says. 

Yami!”

Yuugi’s voice rises in a cry as Yami himself reaches up and draws the curtain of reality between them. It feels cool and springy in his fingers and faintly furred, like velvet. Yuugi is still shouting after him, but his voice is muffled, and as the curtain swings into place, it cuts off abruptly.

Pegasus’ hand massages his shoulder in a way that he supposes is meant to be reassuring; it makes his skin crawl.

“There, there, my boy,” Pegasus says. “You’ve made the right decision.”

“Forget me,” Yami repeats. His voice is the thinnest of threads. He wills it to reach Yuugi, to wind across dimensions and pool silvery in his ear. Forget me. Forgive me.

But the tear is mended, the shadow is smooth and black and impenetrable, and Yuugi is gone.

 

Time passes—hours worn down to minutes, to excruciating seconds. Pegasus’ hand on his shoulder is no longer kind. His mouth is no longer smiling.

“You’re a liar and a cheat,” Pegasus says, sounding amazed. “Just like your father. Just like your father after all.”

He does not remember a time before pain. Pegasus began by clasping his hand, then shaking it, then squeezing it. When nothing happened, he sank his claws into Yami, his teeth. He took knives from the table and cut things away, shearing flesh from his body, snipping hair, plucking his fingernails, his eyes. Each part returns in this timeless place as though it was never removed, but Yami remembers the removal, the searing pain and the sudden darkness upon the severing of each optic nerve.

He looks at Pegasus blearily, his new-old eyes awash with tears. In the beginning, he tried to fight; he made Pegasus chase him around the table; he threw dishes, forks, knives, punches. So now his wrists are chained again, and the chains fly upward into darkness, suspending his arms from the ceiling. He dangles, and he suffers.

When he finds his voice, it is hoarse, flimsy from screaming. “I told you I couldn’t help you,” he says. “Before we made our bargain.”

Pegasus seethes. While Yami has been dismantled and made again and is feeling the strangeness of this, of his puzzle-piece existence, Pegasus is unchanged. He has thrown away his velvet blazer and rolled the white silk of his shirt to his forearms, and his forearms too are white silk, tipped with blood: Yami’s blood, which seems to steam and smoke in the hazy darkness.

“I was a fool to bargain with you, with any of your kind,” Pegasus snarls. “Years I have wasted. Decades I have wasted, decades I have let slip through my fingers like dust. I could have had everything already. I could have, but I was distracted and deceived.”

“I told you,” Yami repeats, “but you misunderstood.”

“No,” Pegasus says. “You have misunderstood. You have trifled with me, you have driven me to this.”

His tongue flops against his teeth; it is old-new like all the rest of him, and he remembers the sight of the last one, torn away, lying limp on a plate while Pegasus carved it into slices and hot blood bubbled and dripped from the clenched edges of Yami’s mouth.

“To what?” he says. It is not his fault, he thinks, that Pegasus has failed to extract his power. They both know it is there, dormant, that there is fire smoldering in him, in his hands. Maybe Pegasus will cut him into pieces, boil him down to his essence, and drink him. Maybe he already has.

Pegasus drags the air back, and they gaze down over the green and blue of Japan. The mountains are tiny; the waves of the Pacific Ocean are little more than wrinkles on a broad blue sheet.

“Tokyo and Kyoto,” Pegasus says, “those ancient seats of power, they have their own gods, they are haunted and bound by imperial ghosts who will not release their grip on cities they once ruled. As the borders and populations expanded, so too did the power of those ghosts. And I was weaker then, younger; I did not have the power to challenge them. But Domino,” he says, sighing, “ah, but Domino, it was nothing once. A fishing village so small and quiet and forgetful that it lost its own name to time and was given another by foreigners. By Americans. By me. I rule this city; I am its king. I built it up; I let it grow. It is my garden. It sustains me. I will do what your father did; I will cast my people into the fire.”  

“I don’t understand,” Yami says, and he doesn’t. Pegasus’ voice washes over him like weak acid, stinging and prickling his tender old-new skin.

“I told you,” Pegasus says, mocking him. “Before we made our bargain. I will forgive you for your ignorance of my history—after all, this land does not belong to you—but how can you forget the deeds of your own father? If he lived, he’d have you whipped.”

“Remind me,” he says. And as he speaks, he looks at the world, the beloved alcove, that pocket of calm and the crescent-shaped bay that he knows belongs to Domino, and he thinks of Yuugi, for a moment, before the pain drags him away.

“Your father wanted power,” Pegasus says. “He had grown so wicked and so vast that mere human souls could no longer satisfy him. I sympathize. So he turned to the map, and he pointed; he said, what is this, this speckle of red in the sand? And his advisors said, that is a village of no more than one hundred demons, simple people who love their king. To which your father said, are you sure? And as one his advisors recanted. Thieves and liars all, they said, none will miss them. And your father sent soldiers, or he sent a plague. He sent fire, monsters, death. He ate them up in one great gulp, and he told this story to his son, I am told, at bedtime, a story about kingship, about absolute power, and the awful ungrateful child forgot.”

He says, breathing blood, “You can’t reach them now. The doors of hell are closed to you. I am the key and you do not know how to turn me.”

“I am not,” Pegasus says, “looking at hell.”

The waves breaking against the crescent of Domino Bay are like fragments of white paper.

“One million souls,” Pegasus whispers. “One million souls, that’s all I need.”

“Pegasus,” he says. He struggles, but the strength is gone from him; his hands barely move in their restraints. “Pegasus, you can’t. You swore. You will break the bargain. Pegasus, I will set you on fire.”

“I wish I could send a wave,” Pegasus says. “How neat that would be, how clean and precise. Croquet would approve.”

“You swore,” Yami says. “You swore, you swore. You swore you’d never take another human soul. You’d never harm the ones I love. You—”

“Yes, I,” Pegasus says. “I said I would abide by your terms. I did not claim to speak for my associates. Gentlemen?”

At the table, five figures raise their heads. They are there and not there. The true versions of themselves are suited and proper, sitting in high gleaming offices with the rain sheeting at their backs, in computer rooms, in gilded restaurants, holding telephones, holding pens, rolodexes. Their shadow selves have blurred outlines; their lips are red and shining; on their plates sit old pieces of Yami. One shadowed figure gnaws at his fingerbone, another at his ear. The third toys with a scrap of skin; the fourth and fifth have an eyeball each.

“Pegasus,” the one with the fingerbone says, “what’s this about? I have calls to make.”

“I have the chairman of Taito Corporation at my feet,” says the fifth. He squeezes Yami’s eye between his fingers, and it bursts. “Anything to save his company. His house. His wife. His soul.”

“I have the unhappiness of my employees to manage,” says the fourth.

“Yes,” says the third, stretching his bit of flesh until it tears. “Johnson’s doing his utmost, isn’t he, but the employees of KaibaCorp are just too resilient.”

“They’ll give in to despair soon enough, Nezbitt,” Johnson growls, adjusting a pair of glasses. “And the ones who resign can’t escape me, either; unhappiness will follow them home, seep into all the crevices and cracks of their pathetic lives. That’s one thousand souls for you right there, Pegasus, ripe for the taking.”

The second says, “You lost the boy.”

The others look up, nodding. “Yes,” they repeat, one after another. “Yes. Yes. I don’t see him. Where is he? Where has he gone?”

The first says, “If Kaiba comes back, we’ll have nothing to offer him.”

“Do you refer to the father or the son?” Pegasus says. “Both are dead. They will not return. And I thank you, Johnson, for your contribution, but we need something bigger now.”

The five look at Pegasus across the table, at Yami, hanging in his chains.

“Didn’t pan out, huh?” the one called Nezbitt says. “Your little joint venture?”

“Gentlemen,” Pegasus says, spreading his hands. “You know how it is in business development. You win some, you lose some.”

“I told you hell was a pipe dream,” the first says.

“Thank you, Gansley,” Pegasus says. “Suppose you put your calls on hold. Your calls can wait. It’s time.”

“It’s time,” they repeat, one by one, and they get to their feet, some smoothly, some heavily. From the direction of the fifth, still holding Yami’s smashed eye, there comes a distant scream: the unfortunate chairman of Taito Corporation. The figures disappear, each leaving behind a strange afterimage—ghostly, ghastly, steely, icy, fiery.

Something flits across the map of the world, smaller than a gnat. It lands in the crescent, and the darkness shakes.

“Now, my prince,” Pegasus says, turning back to Yami. “What shall I do with you?” He glances at his wrist, where a watch suddenly shines. Around them, above them, the world is roaring. “I have an hour to kill,” he says. “So to speak.” And he raises his knife again.

Yami is screaming at him, bellowing, spitting blood; if he could spit fire, he would. The pressure in his skull is building and building.

He stares at the map, where pieces of Domino are already beginning to crumble into the sea. “Yuugi,” he gasps. “Yuugi—”

“The king is dead,” Pegasus says, stepping toward him. “Long live the king.”

The image cracks.

Pegasus spins around. Thin spidering lines are shooting across the world, rippling through it, with no clear indication of the fracture point. The fragments turn to mirrors, reflecting Pegasus’ one-eyed stare of wonder and the limp body hanging behind him, the body crying tears of blood, its face a red mask, the face of a stranger.

“What?” Pegasus says. His voice echoes across the pieces in a confused chorus. “What? What?”

On the other side of this broken mirror, a bronzed sky shudders, and a castle crumbles, great blocks of it grinding away into sand, blowing away on a howling desert wind. Bricks turn to dust, and a black staff peels into splinters, and a boundary bulges and squeals and stretches to its limits and bursts.

And Atem, the boy king, the prince who was lost, who lost himself, who ran away, who broke the world with fire, who blackened his hands—Atem looks at himself, at the violet flash of his eyes and the blood on his skin, at the chains running molten away from his wrists and sizzling onto the floor in drips of red and orange—

He looks at himself and remembers.

 

Chapter Text

A veil has been lifted over the city of Dahlia. Everything is vivid and raw. Atem stands on the broken floor of his father’s court, and the wind whistles in his ears. In his nostrils floats the smell of blood.

A demon called Pegasus is on his knees, beseeching. The delights he held out, the promises, the creations of glass and metal towering into a gray sky, all of these things pale before the wonder that is Dahlia, the unfurling city, whose walls spiral and twist, opening to the light. Indeed, all of Pegasus’ illusions have fallen apart; his realm of shadows has burned away under the demonic sun. The sun has burned away, too; there is an eclipse. In this accursed twilight, Pegasus has nothing to offer but his empty, open hands.

Atem has seen him in this posture before, some years ago, on this very floor, his eyes—both eyes, then—upturned and pleading.

“Pegasus,” he says flatly. “You were banished. You dare return.”

“My lord,” Pegasus is whining, “my lord, my king, it was a mistake. And you brought me here. You brought me here to raise me up, to set me by your side, to stand by your right hand, to be your right hand. That was our bargain. Remember our bargain. Remember it.”

“There was no bargain,” Atem says.

“My lord,” Pegasus says, “I offered you my world.”

“The world of humans?” Atem says. He almost smiles. “It is useless to me.”

“There are humans within it that you love,” Pegasus says quickly, “a boy, an old man, a girl with tea-colored hair. Remember,” he says again, his voice vibrating with tension. “Remember.”

“Liar,” Atem says. “Do not try to seed me with false memory.” He looks around him, at the ash, the blood, the bone. “The ones I love are dead, Pegasus, and I killed them. With these hands I reduced them to nothing.”

He looks at the cratered tile, the jagged ceiling: these are calamities beyond his power, visited by some other force. He doesn’t understand how. The fire may have burned Malaphar’s rubies from their sockets and reduced his father’s palace to a mere framework, but the frame would have held fast. It would not look as it does now, a wobbling wreck rotting from neglect. And Kisara is gone, too, and no fire could ever touch her.

He turns back to Pegasus. “You did this. By some dark magic. You were in collusion with him, with the man who tried to kill me.”

He shivers at the memory, the flash of white—hair, robes, wings, teeth, he isn’t sure; he can’t recall. His thoughts are dim and hazy, as though wreathed in smoke.

“No, my lord,” Pegasus says, breathing fast, “no, no. I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t understand. What man? What man? We are alone here.”

Outside, beyond the broken edges of the ceiling, the sky is black and howling: a storm is coming.

Atem stirs a pile of bones with his toe. Is that a scrap of purple he sees? Some piece of Mahaad’s beloved cloak? “We are not alone,” he says. “My would-be killer lies here also, and so do my courtiers, and my magician, and all the friends of my childhood.”

He remembers it, the year of terror, his first on the throne, while some unknown evil came for his father’s ministers, cutting their throats one by one until none but Shaadi remained. His new ministers kept their distance, out of an abundance of caution; his friends drew closer to protect him. With her master’s leave, Mana took up her old rooms in the palace; they roamed the halls and gardens together, and the weight of kingship was lessened, at least for a while, at least until the day that death came knocking.

He imagines Mana suddenly, imagines her kneeling over him in the sand, crying over him, brushing the soot from his face. The vision is so clear it might as well be a memory. He wishes she were there now, to stand beside him and wipe the tears from his eyes. “They came to save me,” he whispers. “And I rewarded them with death.”

“My lord, my king—”

“Your mouth burns with lies,” he tells Pegasus. “You have designs on this throne, you and Gozaburo before you, the other great pretender, who hounded my father to death. You should have stayed away.”

“Send me back,” Pegasus says. “Send me away, banish me again. I beg you.”

“Yes,” Atem says, considering. “I think that would be best.”

He does not want to take Pegasus’ other eye, but maybe he’ll have to. Maybe the gold one will suffice. Then he realizes there is no one here to see; he can send Pegasus away, unscathed, and none will judge him weak or inexperienced.

There has been too much blood shed today, he thinks.

Cautiously, he reaches with his mind again, hunting for Kisara. Perhaps she is in the gardens, wandering among the cypress trees; she did that often, he remembers, when she was a mere servant of the palace and had finished early with her chores. But his mind’s eye finds the gardens shattered, the trees snapped, the soil barren, and he reels back.

“This is monstrous,” he says. “This—”

His voice dies. Beneath the storm, beyond the trees, he senses something else: a serpentine evil, which is even now wrapping the cord of its tail around the city and squeezing the life from it. And there is no magician to protect them, he realizes, for after all both Mahaad and Mana are dead.

“Something’s coming,” he says.

Pegasus lurches to his feet, his fear transmuting into triumph, his pleading hands tightening into gouging claws. “A dragon is coming,” he hisses. “A dragon of our making, my associates and I, a dragon with five heads. They must have followed us through the breach. Leichter’s doing, I am sure; he has a nose for opportunity. Now, my prince, you will bargain with me, you will bow to me, or—”

But Atem looks away from him, frowning into the sky, turning and turning. The clouds have gathered into a vortex. Lightning lashes the borders of his city.

“A dragon?” he says. “No. I know what a dragon feels like. I have three under my command: Kisara my blue eyes, my winged Ra, Slifer of the sky.”

This is something else, he thinks. A desert snake. But it, too, has wings. It is hurtling through the sky even now, too fast to be intercepted. He calls out for the winged dragon and Slifer, but his voice is weak; either they do not hear him, or they do not heed him. The guardian Obelisk has been burned to ash, trapped in the catacombs where they set him to watch over the body of Atem’s father for a year and a day.

When Pegasus tries to stab him, the steel of the knife melts away before it can touch his skin, and Pegasus drops the handle with a shriek. The handle is burning, and Pegasus’ hand is branded by it, burns bubbling up through the skin.

“You have no power here,” Atem says. “This is not your realm. It is mine.” He speaks to Pegasus and to the sky, where the vortex is deepening, darkening. It looks like a closed eye. The spinning arms of the storm reflect the curling walls of the city: two flowers opening against each other, their pungent faces drifting closer and closer, closer and—

The eye opens and becomes a mouth. Into the air it spits a dull gray coil.

He throws himself behind the remnants of his throne, he, Atem, king and coward. It is well that he does: there is a shockwave that levels the few remaining walls of the palace, and as the final chunks of stone rain down, they crush Pegasus beneath them, blowing the fine leather shoes from his feet and pulping his leg and hip. He lies on the ground moaning.

The coil undoes itself in a long sinuous motion. The creature towers over Pegasus, veins running from its eyes like tears. It has the face and torso of a man and the head and body of a snake, a composite monster like the ones Atem’s father had chiseled into the walls of his summer palace. It is muscular, hulking; every part of it, from its narrowed eyes to its clenched fists and lashing tail, suggests violence.

Atem holds his breath. The monster lashes its tail across the floor, sweeping away soot and stone, freeing Pegasus from the brick that pins him.

Unwisely, Pegasus tries to flee. He begins to crawl across the floor, dragging his leg, dragging a trail of blood.

“Save me,” he wheezes toward the throne. Atem shrinks from him. “Save me. Darkness save me. My lord. My lord!”

The monster snatches him up with its hands.

“My lord, darkness,” Pegasus screams. “My lord, darkness, darkness, darkness,” and before Atem can finish wondering whether this cry is a prophecy or a curse, the monster takes Pegasus by the legs and tears him in two. It feeds Pegasus to itself, pushing one dangling gory piece after the other down its snapping snake’s gullet, and then it belches, and a golden orb falls from its fangs and rolls across the pitted floor: Pegasus’ eye.

A dark hand flickers over the tile, quick and graceful, plucking the eye from the dust. Blood-stained robes brush the floor.

The man straightens, his hair faded into silver by the gloom of the eclipse, his eyes pale, like the sightless bulging eyes of the dead. He limps toward the monster and runs his hand over its scales, and the thing seems to purr, and he takes the eye and tucks it carefully back into the snake’s mouth. There is a clicking sound as the snake swallows.

With a pulse, the monster grows in size; its gray scales take on a greenish tinge; its fangs lengthen.

“There’s no need to hide, my king,” the man says cheerfully. “We see you.”

He stands, his heart hammering, his throat dry. “Malik,” he says. “What is the meaning of this?”

The last time he saw Malik, he was at the very edge of court, running hard toward the throne room, shouting while Atem looked into the face of death. His rod was in his hand, unsheathed, ready to stab; he’s holding it now in much the same way, but his gaze is the gaze of a stranger. There is nothing friendly in his eyes now; his stare is dull with hatred.

“Take a wild guess,” Malik says. “Your saintly father slipped through my fingers. Mahaad shielded you—a foolish effort to thwart Fate, and I’m sure he recognizes that now, wherever he is.”

Malik’s speech is rough, the cadence unfamiliar. He’s holding himself differently, too, more broadly, boldly. Malik should be sweeter, Atem thinks; under the black, oppressive disapproval of his father, he was ever smiling, well-spoken, deferring to his sister. A pleasure seeker, a pleasant companion. Not this: not a killer, every part of him alive with menace.

He remembers with horror that Isis had come to court that morning, remembers seeing her striding toward Mahaad in the gallery, her face determined, and he wonders now if her bones are scattered here.

“Malik,” he says. “Malik, if I have done what I think I have, what I fear I have—”

A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. He should offer himself up now, he thinks, offer his throat up to be cut. And yet he holds back, trembling.

“Oh, my king,” Malik says. “Do you think you did this? Do you think you were powerful enough to cause this devastation?”

He steps forward, still limping; there is a gouge in his thigh, as though he has been impaled by shrapnel, by some thick wire or pike that corkscrewed itself into his body, through cloth and skin and muscle.

“I did this,” Malik says. “I set the charges. I, the potter’s son, the builder’s nephew, I, the magician’s gutterghoul, whom everyone overlooked.”

“Malik—”

“Malik is asleep,” Malik says. “He is tired from his long adventure. He is tired from sharing his poor broken mind with ghosts. As am I.” He hands his rod to the monster next, and the monster gulps it down, scales shifting, muscles bulging. Its underbelly shines like dull sapphires. Its eyes shine yellow. Still Malik comes forward, on and on, his voice as ragged as his step. “I have no magic, you see. I have no intellect, they say; I can’t even read; Shaitan alone knows what Mahaad sees in him, in that creature. Shaitan indeed. Shaitan knows exactly what Mahaad sees in me: redemption.”

“Malik,” he says, “you’ve gone mad. Don’t come any closer.”

“Mad?” Malik laughs. He laughs with the voices of ninety-nine people or more, thin and shrill, deep and bone-shaking, with the whooping of a jackal and the hiss of a snake. “So they say. I say that I am sane, and all of you—all of you who go along peacefully, walking below walls built on the backs of my people, my poor murdered people—you are mad.”

“What is the meaning of this?” he demands again, as regally as he can manage, calling on the ghost of his father: Father, help me, steady me, save us. There is no answer but the dull thumping of his heart.

“I hear the voices of my people,” Malik says. “They whisper things to me. They told me where the joints were in this palace, how to poison its seams with saltpeter. And my mother was a potter and the granddaughter of builders; before she died, she taught me how to shape clay into brick, and after she died, she taught me how to imbue each brick with life—with a spark—a single spark is all it took, in the end, to bring down Shaitan’s palace. I will do the same to his city. To your city. I will dismantle your walls, Shaitan; I will bring you to ruin. Mahaad is dead now and cannot stop me.”

He climbs the steps to the throne.

“You did this,” Atem says. His father is silent and burned in his tomb, and Obelisk is burned with him, and his dragons are gone: fled or destroyed. He looks at the smear of Pegasus’ blood across the tile, and he looks at his hands, bloodied also, with whose blood he does not know. He thinks of Mana burning in agony, lost forever. “Youdidthis.”

“Now you understand,” Malik says. “Now you fear me.”

His voice rises in a shriek as Atem lunges at him, toppling him from the steps. The light that flares across Malik’s eyes is orange with fire: flash after flash, as Atem sends flames crackling through the air, so hot and fast his lungs seize within him. The monster screams from both ends. Fire licks the sapphire edges of its belly. It writhes away, guttering with red light, howling and howling.

Malik howls with it. His hands are weak; they scrabble at the dust.

Atem slams him into the ground. “Murderer,” he shouts, “monster! I will tear you to pieces. I will feed you to your own creature.”

Malik’s fist closes around a chunk of stone. Atem grabs at his arm, tries to knock it away—

Pain bursts behind his eyes, a white light blossoming like a flower.

 

He hurtles through darkness: Pegasus’ dying cries were a prophecy, then. When he lands at the other side of the tunnel, emerging into stinging bright light, he hears the wind shrieking the way Malik shrieked, long and undulating, unending.

Below the wind there are voices, murmuring like water. A three-eyed woman is bending over him—two blue eyes, one gold—her hair like sheet of black silk tumbling over bare brown shoulders.

“I cannot pay you for this, Kujaku,” she says. “I mean, I can never repay you. Never.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” another voice says: another woman, shrouded in feathers. “On the house, my lady. Gratis.”

The three-eyed woman laughs softly. “The whole city owes you an enormous debt. Not the city—the world. You’ll have no need to scavenge anymore. We will raise you up, Kujaku; you will be given a rank, a castle of your own.”

“What a nice sentiment,” the winged woman scoffs. “I’ll stick to scavenging; it’s more reliable. Shaitan knows if the city will still be standing in the morning.” She pauses. “Where’s your brother?”

“He ran,” the three-eyed woman whispers. “His guilt is plain to me now. There is no saving him. There can be no saving him, not now that he has tried to kill the king. Shaadi will do what he has to. He will do it kindly, for love of me, I am sure.”

“I can’t believe he’s alive,” the winged woman says. “The prince. The king, I mean. You know I trade in miracles. I wonder what poor fool gave up their soul for this.”

Atem blinks: the three eyes swim in and out of focus and consolidate into the beautiful, exhausted face of Isis Ishtar. The winged woman remains winged. They both turn to him, attentive, as his skull twinges and he groans.

“My lord,” Isis says.

“Your highness,” the winged woman says. “I’m Mai. The Peahen. I found you in the rubble.”

“Thank you,” he says. He tries to sit up, but they push him down, murmuring with concern. “Isis, I’m so glad. I thought you were dead.”

He doesn’t understand why her eyes well with tears. She sniffs. “You honor me with your concern, my lord,” she says. “Rest easy, now. Lord Shaadi is pursuing my brother.” As she wipes her eyes, he sees that her arms are wrapped in bandages. “A glancing blow,” she says. “The snake grazed me with its fangs as it fled, and we feared venom, but as you can see, I am fine.”

“What was it?” he says. “I have seen its likeness cut into the walls of my father’s summer palace, in the stone we quarried from the cliffs by the sea. But I thought it was a creature out of his imagination.”

“Have you ever seen such a thing?” Isis asks Mai. “On your travels?”

But Mai shakes her head. “I’ve seen a lot of weird shit,” she says. “Dolls with souls. Souls without bodies. A monster or two, sure, and my fair share of fools. But nothing like this.”

The wind picks up. Isis and Mai exchange glances.

“I’ll go check on my wagon,” Mai says. “Can’t have that thing rolling off now—it’s our only way out of this mess.” She keeps her wings furled close to her body, ducking out into the storm. The wind rattles the rows and rows of glass bottles lining the walls. The door slams.

“She found you in the fire,” Isis murmurs. “She risked her own life to free you from the rubble; her wings were nearly burned to stumps. Can we not reward her? Can we not…” Her voice wavers to a stop as Atem presses his hands to his eyes. “My lord?”

He’s thinking of the fire, the one that Malik set in his madness and fanned into an inferno with his disguised explosives. It burned so hot even the gardens were stricken. How joyfully he and Mana used to go around those gardens, setting trees alight, dodging Mahaad’s reproaches.

She would have died in excruciating pain. All of them would have, their muscles tightening, curling, and then disintegrating, every nerve ablaze.

The loss settles on his chest like lead, but even as it does, he realizes he is mourning something deeper. There is another memory glimmering behind his eyelids: a soft mouth, a soft gaze, some boy’s laughter—not his. The smell of rain, the taste of rainwater. Is it raining now, outside?

He bites his lips against a cry. Isis squeezes his hands. His head aches and aches.

 

Chapter Text

Mana protects them from the rubble as the walls come down, flinging her hands up and out. One palm is open; the other clutches Mahaad’s letter. Pieces of stone the size of boulders crash overhead, clattering against her shield and skittering harmlessly away. But the floor is peeling away from them, too, fracturing and splitting. Ryou seizes Mana in his arms as they fall—

“Dark door,” he gabbles, “dark door, dark door,” and archways peel open beneath them, one after another.

Down they tumble, sliding sideways through the magician’s red court, books and scrolls tumbling with them—through the kitchen in a burst of copper pots—through a courtyard, as a fountain tilts and collapses in on itself, spewing brackish water. Finally, black earth flies up to meet them.

“Earthbound!” Ryou snaps out; his kirtle catches momentarily on the point of a fang, then tears. But they’re still falling, hurtling down a long red throat. He’s certain the throat will end in some monster’s gullet, but a second later they’re skidding across the sand. It’s only a thin layer, he realizes—they’ve reversed their path, slingshotted back into the Court of Keys. He looks up, wincing, expecting the bristle of pikes and spears, but the Court of Keys is deserted. The house soldiers have gone, and so has Rishid, leaving behind a puddle of blood.

Mana picks herself up first. “Quick!” she says, tugging at him. “The regent has his own mirrored waters,” she says, “a gift from House Ishtar in days gone by, a failsafe should the pools run dry or be destroyed, as they have been today—oh, quick! We don’t have time for lengthy explanations.”

He staggers after her. “Wait,” he says. “Wait.”

“Let us see what Isis’ mother saw,” Mana says. “What Isis has been too afraid to face. What my master wrote of in his last letter.”

“But it killed her,” Ryou cries.

“So my master says.” Mahaad’s letter is still crumpled in her fist. She squeezes it now like a child squeezing a favorite toy, raising it up, shaking it at Ryou. “He seems to think she drowned herself, in the manner of all seers who gaze too deeply into the water. I think she was killed. They say the last Lord Ishtar went mad upon her death, Bakura, but perhaps he went mad just before.”

“You think—”

“I think it is unlikely that a woman would drown in six bans of water. The pool is not deep. You can touch the bottom.”

“Mana,” he says. “There was—there was something in the water. I felt it. It coiled around me.”

“And you think it pulled her down?” Mana scoffs. “It’s memory-water, Bakura. Its only power is over your sight. You were hypnotized, perhaps, by Isis. Remember: she does it without thinking. That is her power; she commands you like the moon commands the tides.”

“Why are we doing this?” he says.

Mana stops; she looks at him coolly. “The magician is dead. The staff is in pieces, and so is his castle. Your body may be invulnerable, but that doesn’t mean Isis won’t still try to destroy you. I need something to stay her hand. I need something to hold her back.”

“Mana,” he says; he swallows.

“You’re my friend,” Mana says simply. "We have lost too much today, already." She holds out her hand, and Ryou takes it, and they run down the sandy, dusty tile together.

 

The Lord Shaadi keeps the gift of House Ishtar in a blue-tiled basin, its rim decorated with plain black-rimmed eyes, the pupils of black stone and the irises, blue again, set amid flecked white sclera. It is clear all the way to the bottom, looking as innocuous as bathwater.

“I wonder if he still sees his reflection, when he gazes into it,” Mana says. “Here,” she says, “do you want to go first, or should I?” But as Ryou looks between her and the water, hesitating, she seems to change her mind; she smiles and lifts their clasped hands and says, softly, “Together, then.”

The water is cool. At first, nothing happens, and Ryou wonders whether they’re using the wrong bowl, or a decoy, and then a ripple darts away from their joined hands, and then another, and then a third.

Below the surface, faces turn to them. Mahaad the magician, the magician in red, Atem the king, and another man, his face handsome but lined, an older, sterner version of his son: Akhnamkanon, Mana whispers to him, Atem’s father, whom we called the Sorcerer. At the sound of her voice or his name, the water seems to shiver, and Akhnamkanon’s smile stretches wide, and it seems to Ryou that his teeth are red with blood.

They fall down his throat, chased by the echoing noise of his wheezing and coughing—as though he is trying to dislodge them—and Ryou recognizes it, the plush red surroundings, gleaming, lined with teeth. It is the same red corridor that he and Mana and the memory of the magician used that day to take a shortcut through the city.

Mana goes rigid beside him. A second later, he twitches, feeling the tickle of scales over his knuckles.

He glances at Mana and sees her staring at him, eyes wide.

“I thought we would have to gaze for hours,” she says. “Is that a fish?”

Ryou shakes his head. He can see it moving in the shallows, green-gray. What is left of the sun shines on its humps and valleys as it winds through the water. A toy serpent that is at the same time as large as the city, larger even. Separately, down his forearm, he feels the hot cascade of granules of sand.

The serpent wraps around them, weaves between their fingers.

Mana looks at him again, smiling grimly through her fear. “Can you swim?”

Before he can answer, his face is in the water, pressed against the tiled bottom of the basin, and then it is in darkness. The black flares red and hot, and he opens his eyes to sunset blazing over sand dunes, and Mana lying beside him, as though asleep. Then she coughs, the way Akhnamkanon coughed, rattling, wheezing, and grains of sand pour from her gasping mouth into her cupped hands.

She sits up. “It took us,” she says. Her voice is a sandy rasp. “It took us beyond the city. Bakura?”

He blinks at her. He points across the sand. There is a village there, tiny in the distance.

“I built that,” he says. “Out of modeling clay and newspaper and toothpicks and popsicle sticks.” He remembers the time spent cobbling it all together, as though in a trance, the hours slipping by, his homework neglected. The dreadful compulsion to build it up, to see it standing again. His village. His village. He would pull it out sometimes just to look at it. He would keep it on his desk and gaze down like a god over the miniature houses, the huts, the pots, the carts.

He runs to it now, stumbling and skipping over the sand, while Mana calls after him, shouting, “Wait!”

“It’s all here,” he says, as she catches up to him. “Merit’s house. The stoop where the cat used to sleep. Perneb, who was always fighting with his brother; he broke a pot here, right here, in the street, and spilled milk on Siamun’s feet. Siamun who wove charms into his sandals.”

“Who are you talking about?” Mana says. “Who are these people? Your family? Your friends? You’ve never said anything about them before.”

“They aren’t people,” Ryou says. “They’re characters. I made them up.”

Mana is frowning. “Made up?” she says slowly. “There’s nothing made up about this place.”

Ryou shrugs at her. “Magic?” he suggests. He remembers the games he used to play, back when he was only capable of crude clay figurines, their mouths etched by a fingernail, their eyes pressed into their skulls with the tip of a mechanical pencil. He’d move them from block to block like pieces on a board. The cat he got from a gacha machine, a soft Japanese calico bobtail, but he pretended it was the real cat, who was named Mayet and was a lean silver tabby, prone to nipping; Mayet didn’t like children. What are you doing in there? his mother would ask on the other side of the door, hearing laughter, and he would ignore her.

“I made the sandals out of twine,” he says. “For Siamun. I had to use tweezers…in the end, they were too big, so I made Perneb spill milk on them, and I threw them away.”

When he was older it became spilled beer, not milk, and the arguments of Perneb and his brother were more vicious and ended in blows.

He takes Mana down a narrow, deserted lane, smiling at every strike of his bare foot on stone or brick or sand.

Finally, they stand before a hut that is smaller than the kiln behind it. “This is where Wasret lives,” he says. “Wasret the potter. One day he’ll be big and strong from shoveling bricks in and out of the kiln, but right now he’s small, he digs clay from the cave and the oasis and brings it to his mother.”

A scrap of red hangs from the door, flapping in the wind like a tattered banner. “His father’s cloak,” Ryou says, and they go inside, and they see the bodies.

At first all Ryou’s mind registers is more cloth—plain homespun, creamy flax—sunk into the ground. Then Mana cries out and jams her hands over her mouth as though to muffle any further sound, and he feels a tremor sliding through him like a shifting dune. The fragments of linen are draped over skeletal remains. The inhabitants of this hut have been mummified by sand and time, waxy brown skin stretched tight over bone, fingertips worn into disintegrating phalanges. Ragged, tangled hair, powdered red with sand, hides the empty sockets from sight.

He recognizes each body in turn, somehow, from the leather strap tied around one wasted wrist, the club foot, the precise braids. Menefer, Tauret, Amenia, Iunre. They were on their knees, he realizes, before they fell forward onto their faces and died.

One of them has fallen badly—bald Penthu, lying on his side. Ryou can see the neat line at the base of Penthu’s neck, the leathery edges of skin. The front of Penthu’s worn linen tunic is pink with old blood.

Ryou kneels down. There is a howl trapped in his throat.

Sand crunches. He looks up and sees Mana pushing her way back inside; he hadn’t even noticed that she’d gone. “There are more bodies outside,” she says. “Beyond the—whatever that thing is.”

“The kiln,” he says quietly.

“Bakura—what is this place?”

“The village,” he says, staring back at her. “My village.”

“There are so many dead,” Mana says. “It must have been a plague, some kind of—” She breaks off as Ryou touches the blood-soaked edge of Penthu’s tunic, once, gently. “Massacre,” she murmurs, almost to herself.

Mahaad’s last letter has come with them, through water and mud and sand. Mana finds it again, pulling it from the depths of her robes.

“This is it,” she says. “This is what my master was talking about. One hundred throats cut in the name of Shaitan. This village, the village in the desert, the village that no longer exists—”

The ghost of the magician whispers to him in the darkness of his mind.

“Kul Elna,” he says, and the wind echoes him, and Mana looks up.

“Kul Elna,” she says, “yes, that’s the name. The village of lost souls.” She smiles suddenly, sadly. “It is fitting that you were a child of this place.”

“Me?” he says. “No. Not me. The magician. These must be his memories.”

The magician’s family, his friends. His laughter in the back of Ryou’s mind, ringing out across warm red dunes. His mother lying here, faceless in death, Menefer the potter, between the shrunken bodies of Tauret and Amenia: her sisters and her friends.

“The survivor,” Mana says. “I never asked him where he came from, who his people were. It was obvious that he had none. I was—jealous. Angry that Mahaad had chosen a second apprentice, from the streets—without a name, without any talent, when all I had and all I was should have been enough. My master begged me to be patient. He lectured me; he was cajoling, and then he was stern. Still I dragged my heels. But in the end—” her voice falters “—in the end, I obeyed his wishes, his last wishes, as they turned out to be. And then, when the staff chose him—the nameless one, the gutterghoul—I fell in line. I was loyal.” She's whispering now. “And to think he was a traitor all along, that he came to us with the intention to destroy us.”

There is a long, long pause. The air does not stir.

Then Mana murmurs, “But can I blame him? I have seen the bodies in the street. In the last year, I have felt that my grief was large enough to swallow the city. I would have laid waste to it if I thought doing so could bring back the dead. But it cannot, can it, Bakura. I can only sit with my grief and wait for it to lessen.”

He wonders if they’ll find Wasret lying outside among the other corpses. But he thinks not. Menefer’s right hand is outstretched, clawing in the sand and dust. He rises, soundlessly, and follows the pointing finger of death.

“Where are you going?” Mana cries.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Outside, along the kiln, the sand is lined with pots. Time and the elements have not touched them; they look new, gleaming in the sun. Under the harsh light, Ryou wavers, uncertain, shading his eyes. Then he relaxes, and his feet carry him forward, one step after another, gaining in speed, pure muscle memory. He hunches as he starts to run, his breath frantic. Go now, his faceless mother cries, go now!

At the outskirts of the village, where crumbled huts and abandoned wares and firepits have been swallowed by the desert, his feet find the chasm before his eyes do; down he plummets, with the high, thin cry of a startled child. Mana skids down after him. They stare up at the slice of blue sky still visible through the overhanging sand.

“A cave,” Mana says, and, “Listen! Is that—?”

They look at each other. “Water,” Ryou says. He can hear it, below the rushing of his breath and his veins: the deep, placid murmuring of a subterranean river.

Hazy flame,” Mana mutters, and the firelight glimmers over the walls, which are smooth and striated, layered with line upon line of colorful stone. Under the red flash, Ryou thinks he sees the outlines of shells.

“I went this way,” he says, looking left, into the receding darkness.

“You?”

“The magician,” he clarifies. “I think.”

Farther down, there are holes chiseled into the walls, whole doorways. A network of tunnels, a lattice beneath the sand.

“They could have hidden here,” Mana says. “Why didn't they?”

“It was flooded,” Ryou says, remembering. “We—they—took our water from it, that was all.”

Green water all around, cold as death, colder than anything he'd ever felt in his life. He fell into the water, and the water swept into his eyes and throat and carried him deep underground. He lifts his hands to the cavernous ceiling, looks at their greenish cast, remembers how helpless he was, how wracked with pain. Choking and drowning. He winds his way down the tunnel, twisting in circles, holding his breath until he can't anymore, and his memory ends. But his feet continue, drumming down the stone.

How many of my memories are my own? he asks himself. Domino, my father, the traffic, the train. My mother had a face; my mother's name was Chisato. We walked along many rivers, and I never fell in, never...until the ogre threw me in.

The air grows damp and chilled. Mana's light flickers at his back, a small, warm presence. They've been sloping steadily downward for minutes, and the tunnel has been widening, spreading, until the light no longer touches the walls, and he and Mana bob along like fish at the bottom of the sea.

All that's left of the river now is a solitary pool, no bigger than the Lady Ishtar's magical fountain. There is a figure at the center of this pool, too, lying there as still as statue.

“Master?” Mana says. Her voice trembles. “No, the magician. No—”

They edge closer. The body is swathed in fine white linen, filmy enough to reveal the dark skin beneath, immaculately preserved and half-submerged in clear water. Mana lifts her hand, shifting the light. The man's hair is cut to his chin, fanning out and undulating in the shallows. His eyes are open and staring: unusual eyes, the color of a desert sunset, blue and orange at once. His expression is stunned.

“Shaitan,” Mana whispers. “It's him. The regent—Shaadi.”