(blinks dazedly) You know what I said last time about incentive to continue? It was apparently taken as a challenge. The response to the last chapter totally floored me. I fell off my chair at some of the names, and got some some of the nicest, most helpful, and incredibly supportive reviews I have ever received. Thanks, all of you. I guess I must be doing something right!
I think I've finally found a format for differentiating the mental speech that works. Previous chapters have been edited (grins at Helix1047), and YumeTakato, Dogmatix, Icka, and Ocianne? Bits that you asked for and/or suggested are addressed in this chapter. Hope this clarifies things for those of you who were confused.
And m'lady? I owe you major thanks for the beta-ing, inspiration, and support that actually got my plotbunnies to stop sulking and get this done.
And as per usual, anonymous reviews get answered in my profile.
/He's not going to be happy with us…/
/That is to be expected./
/I mean he's going to be really Not Happy with us./
/Yes. Which is why we are here./
/I'm not so sure that's a good idea./
/You would rather not face the consequences of our actions?/
/…no. This has to be done. But that doesn't mean I'm not nervous./
/I would be concerned if you weren't. He is not an adversary to take lightly./
/I don't like thinking of him as an adversary./
/Yes. And again, that is why we are here./
Yami Yugi in the truest sense of the name, the King of Games walked steadily through the eddying darkness of the Shadow Realm, merged minds silently conferring quick as thought.
/Do you think he'll meet us soon?/
/He has likely been waiting for some time already. I doubt it will be long before he shows himself./
Shared steps reached a part of the Shadows that would have seemed no different than any other to an ordinary mortal, but to the senses of an Item holder was something almost akin to what a clearing would be to a forest. And halted as a voice sounded from the darkness.
"I trust you have an excellent explanation for this afternoon." Icicles glittered in the Kid's furiously polite tone. A monocle gleamed, slitted blue glaring for a moment from among the shadows.
Red-tipped black spikes above yellow bangs swayed gently in the unfelt breeze of the Shadow Realm as the holder of the Puzzle sighed. "How about saving the world? Again," the added mutter sounded suspiciously of Yugi.
"And this required me why?" Some of the chill had gone from the Kaitou's voice, but the dangerous crystalline edges remained.
The violet-eyed duelist was silent, memory from that afternoon flashing back to that moment of –
Desperation, hidden in the face of his enemy's leering grin from across the arena. Letting nothing but confidence show, even as he looked at a hand that held nothing that could help him. Keen awareness of how vulnerable the last attack had left him, all his monsters on the field wiped out. Knowing as he looked at the field that this was bad, that it could really be the end, for everyone
Not losing courage, optimism, or hope, not by a long shot, but any mind so adapted to tactical thinking could not ignore the worst-case scenario, no matter how much faith in the eventual outcome. Trusting in the cards, he had drawn, keenly aware that the entire duel hinged on this, his only chance.
Only to find himself holding a card he had never set eyes on before and had never added to his deck. Not physically, at least, not as paper card and ink.
But he recognized it nevertheless. A card he had implicitly promised not to use.
Yet there was no choice. He could instantly see at least three ways that his opponent could wipe him out on the next turn, and the face-down card on the other side of the field radiated foreboding. He had bluffed his way out of similar situations before, but the Heart of the Cards had been behind him then. It thrummed dangerously at him now, not threateningly but in warning.
His own voice, ringing out clear and confident as he played the card, knowing that he would pay for it later. It might be anger, broken trust or broken souls, or betrayal of secrets – the smoothing of which from mortal minds by Shadow would carry its own price – or anything in between, but there would be a cost.
But that was for later. Now he hid a wince as half his life points – half his life, here – drained away, Yugi's soul wrapping a warm, comforting ghostly embrace around the worst of the pain even as the darkness of Yami's strength shifted to better support his lighter side, knowing that his enemy only saw him standing straight and proud.
White swirled, cape draping neatly around the shoulders of the white-suited kaitou that materialized on his side of the field. If there had been any surprise on that half-hidden face it was gone in a flash, leaving only a knowing half-smile that hinted that there was something the phantom knew that no one else did.
Shoving apprehension to the back of his mind to deal with the now, smoothing his features into his own small unnerving smile. And from somewhere found the strength to laugh condescendingly as one of his enemy's monsters tried to attack, the creature's pale eyes widening and fanged jaw dropping in surprise when the slash hit nothing but pink smoke and the kaitou's monocle gleamed elsewhere from hat-brim shadow, slow shake of head announcing disappointment at such rude behavior. Again, and again, the enemy growing sloppy in desperation at not understanding why the white-caped Monster could not be destroyed. And in that panic, the enemy wasted turns that he did not.
Endless moments of keeping his features impassive, hiding his trembling relief at finally being able to draw the cards - the other cards - he needed.
An agony of uncertainty whether his gamble would work, for he instinctively knew that this monster would not – could not – be used for a conventional attack. Too close to wounding, to killing, and it would break him beyond any repair. The warm, reassuring thrum of the Heart of the Cards, and he trusted, and gave the command. That face might have been a mask for all the reaction it showed, but a flicker, a swirl of smoke and pale shadow, and the phantom proved to be indeed a thief. Back on his side of the field, the card that had lurked ominously face down now held delicately between two gloved fingers, a small slip of card that vanished as an agile hand splayed wide.
The opening he needed shone bright in the ever-changing array of strategy flickering within his mind, and he seized it. Two, three, four cards thrown into play without hesitation, the combination roaring to life and rushing devastation onto the monsters suddenly no longer protected – who vanished in moments – and then onward to the enemy behind them, whose mouth and eyes opened in horrified, disbelieving dismay as he fell into the abyss of defeat.
For all that he may be a phantom, a kaitou is a gentleman thief, and he always returns what he steals. And so another flick, a card flying across the field to fall after its owner. Whose face twisted into an expression of hideous glee as he reached upward to activate the card, evidently thinking to take them down with him in spiteful revenge.
Only for the bilious yellow-green coils that emerged to bind him instead, the doomed enemy's look of sick triumph turning to shock and terrified despair as he disappeared beneath bindings of his own making far more hideous and inescapable than the void that closed over his head and took him from view.
His own side of the field was already empty before he could take a breath to speak, the shadows dissolving even as he turned, leaving him in a city where he knew countless traps and agents of death were disintegrating at the breaking of their master's power…
"…I had no other way." There was silence for a heartbeat, and then, more softly, "I'm sorry."
Yami Yugi closed his eyes. To anyone ordinary, or to an enemy, he would have seemed expressionless.
But the one who studied him was far from ordinary and had never in the ambiguity of his dealings with the King of Games been worse than an opponent. And knew much about masks, especially the ones you couldn't see. And so he looked, and saw truth, and apology. Not regret, never regret for saving everyone who mattered to him, and to them, and to all of them, but still sadness at the price that had to be paid for it. And yet full acknowledgement of what he had to do, and had done.
And full acceptance of the consequences.
"What do you mean, you had no other way?" The immediate danger had faded from the Kaitou's voice, but it was still as unyielding as a mountain. Yami Yugi raised his head and stared unflinchingly into the dark.
"If I had done anything else," he said quietly, "I would have lost. And everyone tied to us would have fallen as well."
There was silence for a long moment.
And then the Kaitou Kid materialized from between the shadows.
The spirit of the Puzzle relaxed, fading back from dominance; the phantom's greatest strengths lay in misdirection, so revealing himself meant that he did not intend to fight. But more important, it indicated that neither Yugi nor Yami was being considered an enemy. Their status as friend was uncertain, and it did not mean they had been forgiven, but they would at least be allowed the chance to try.
Glancing to the kaitou and receiving tacit permission, Yami Yugi turned his attention to their surroundings. The Millennium Puzzle around his neck glowed brightly as he used its power to shift the weave of the shadows around them, warding against casual eavesdroppers or interruption, nodding in satisfaction before turning back to the taller figure.
But nothing prepared the King of Games for the Kid's dry query, "And what part of this explains why I have two sets of memories of this afternoon?"
Two trains of thought screeched to a tangled halt.
"…what?" Yami Yugi managed after a moment, angular eyes wide and violet.
The monocle gleamed as the Kid regarded him. "I asked what part of that would explain why I can remember being in two places at once this afternoon."
Stunned thoughts flew back into activity, parallel minds sifting through the unfolding array of possibility. Analyzing, considering and discarding scenarios, entire branches of probability going dark. But a dizzying splay of golden lines remained, the true path and its associated implications impossible to distinguish without further information.
Yami Yugi's gaze flicked back to the Kaitou standing still and bright as the moon among shadows. "You mean you were aware of both the duel and your…uncostumed self?"
The Kaitou considered, then shook his head. "No. I remember both now, but at the time…" he gave a careless, one-shouldered shrug. "I was…where I was. Then I was on the field. But I also remember being out of costume the whole time, still where I was, feeling…odd and knowing that something had happened, but not knowing what. And then Akako started her tricks again..." The thief shrugged again. "You remember her, she's that sorceress, witch, whatever you wish to call it. The one who's convinced that I'm Kid because I keep breaking free of her spells." The phantom thief sniffed.
Yami Yugi resisted the impulse to point out the obvious.
"Anyway," the kaitou continued, "that's where the memories start being the same again. I snapped out of it inches away from doing something I would not have appreciated, and, well." He shrugged.
Yami Yugi's gaze sharpened. "This Akako claims that only the Kid can resist her spells?"
The kaitou nodded. "She seems to believe that if anyone can resist falling desperately in love with her at first sight, it's proof they have to be the Kid. But it is not as though Hakuba's groveling at her feet either."
"Hmm. You were the Kaitou Kid when I cast the magic over you, were you not?"
It took skill to make a monocle express ever-so-polite disbelief that the vaunted King of Games couldn't even keep that much straight, but the Kid managed it. "Yes," was all he said out loud.
Yami Yugi let it pass. "And it was the Kaitou Kid who came to my summons," he mused. The shorter boy's eyes started to brighten in a way that sent the phantom thief unobtrusively backpedaling, fully aware it meant that the flexible mental gears behind them had found a shape that worked.
"Well," the duelist said softly, and behind the monocle the Kid eyed that slight grin as if it were a piranha. "Interesting..."
"What?" Against his better judgment, the kaitou asked, though he did manage to sound as unconcerned as though commenting on Nakamori at a heist.
"It looks as though it is the Kaitou Kid who is bound to my deck."
The monocle regarded him again. "I know that. Didn't we already discuss this right after it happened?"
"You misunderstand. The Kid is bound to my deck, yes. But that is not all you are, is it?"
"What are you talking about?" The monocle managed to convey concern about the Game King's continued mental health, such as it was.
The Kid froze at the single word.
Yami Yugi regarded him evenly. "That is what I meant." The white-caped phantom was completely, utterly still. Now it was the Puzzle holder's turn to sense racing thoughts flickering behind those hidden eyes.
Kuroba Kaito. The Kaitou Kid. Different mannerisms, different audiences, but he'd always thought of himself as the same person underneath. He was good at changing masks, after all.
But now the Kid was a creature of the Shadows. He knew it as surely as he could feel their texture around him, as easily as he'd stepped from that world to this between breaths.
And yet Kuroba Kaito...wasn't. Sorting back through his memories, he knew it to be true. Touched by them, perhaps, but not of them. He hadn't thought much of it at the time, too concerned that confused first morning to notice that he shed the newly clinging Shadows along with his costume. He was still aware of where they whispered in that raw new awareness that had unfolded like another sense, one that he could no more ignore than he could shut his ears, but as he settled back into his daily routine of being Kaito the incorrigible prankster, resident classroom magician, the comforting blanket of normality seemed to muffle them to the point where he could tune them out.
And if they seemed to laugh alongside his ear as he soared in the night on white metal-framed wings, glorying with him in the thrill of the game, well, they never intruded too far or too close, so why begrudge them?
But then today, the myriad details of being a high school magician hadn't been enough to block the nagging itch in the back of his head, a tugging that grew stringer and stronger until something jerked - and something wasn't right, he knew something wasn't right, he felt lightheaded, almost dizzy but he wasn't sure why -
But, then, it made perfect sense, really. Should the Kid be called to duel, why would Kuroba go as well?
And if it was the Kid that Akako couldn't control, and the Kid was away while Kuroba was still there…
The thoughtful sort of pause in which you could hear the echo of the world falling into a shape for someone.
"Can I see my card?"
The Kid could see the subtle shifts in the appearance of the teen in front of him that signaled that Yami was now dominant, though the lack of tension in the Puzzle owner's posture told him it was merely because the Pharaoh's spirit knew more about Shadow matters, not a preparation for conflict. Had it always been this obvious? He had been able to tell which of the two spirits he was talking to before the incident with the Magic Card - he'd always been good at reading people - but he had the sneaking suspicion that some part of him could now feel the nuances of the shift through the Shadows…though he didn't need that extra sense to interpret Yami shaking his head.
"I'm not going to steal it, you know." He managed to keep the hurt out of his voice, sounding cool and unruffled as always.
Yami shook his head again, more vigorously. "No, no, it's not that at all! It's just…" he trailed off, trying to find the right words, "I'm not sure that it's even possible." He paused, and after a moment took out his deck, placing it facedown on an upturned palm and pulling up one cuff enough to expose the band of his Duel Disk. "A normal monster would only be anywhere near its card if there was a duel going on and it had been summoned. It might be able to see its card if summoned using a Duel Disk, but I don't think it would work without an opponent and an actual duel going on, and I doubt you would really want to try that."
The kaitou nodded.
Letting his sleeve fall and turning his attention to the deck he held, the Egyptian spirit continued, "When done purely through shadow, without the aid of a Disk, summoning is rather more literally through the cards…and the pictures are blank while those cards are in effect, leaving them little more than ordinary slips of paper as the powers within them are unleashed elsewhere."
Yami looked him straight in the eye. "And then there's your case. You are a Duel Monster, traveled here from your own realm without being summoned. I'm honestly not sure what bringing out your card would do to you." He hesitated. "Perhaps I am worrying over nothing…but there is a strong possibility that it would draw the Shadow Realm's attention to your – unique – status. It might decide you belong with all the other Duel Monsters, wherever they reside when not in play. Or you might be trapped within the card – or, worse, only that part of you that is bound to the deck might be." He shook his head slowly. "The Shadow Realm would not deliberately harm you, one it sees as its own – but it does not understand as we do, and might well see such an action as merely restoring matters to their rightful order."
The Puzzle spirit fell silent, eyes shadowed. When he lifted his head again, both the minds sharing that frame spoke as one. "I will not allow another friend to be trapped in such a way when I have the power to prevent it."
The phantom thief tilted his head forward ever so slightly in acknowledgement, brim of the blue-ribboned top hat casting his face farther into shadow.
"…Does that mean I can never see it, then?"
Yami Yugi hesitated. "As your normal self, in the normal world, I normally wouldn't hesitate to show it to you. The problem is…I never placed a card for you in my deck. I would not have, even if such a card existed. Yet there was one during the duel, since it was a Shadow Game, and as far as I can tell the Shadow Realm determined that as part of my deck, you should have a card within it. But I honestly don't know if I could find one there while in the real world. I might be able to, here and now…but what that might do to you when you are so close, while you are drawing on your Shadow nature..." The duelist shook his head slowly, troubled.
The phantom thief nodded, letting out an imperceptible sigh, and stepped back, turning away into the darkness. "I just wanted to know what it looks like." The mask was still calm, and if it weren't for the Shadows that linked them through his deck the duelist would never have noticed the weariness and faint resignation hidden behind the words.
"Actually…" The Kid turned his head back, attention caught, "that much might just be possible."
Hand hovering over his deck, Yami Yugi closed his eyes and the Puzzle flared gold. The deck flared in response, golden light shooting up through his hand as though it wasn't there, forming a gold-outlined image of a card hovering several inches above the back of his hand like a hologram or a projection from a slide.
The taller boy ghosted closer, eyes widening in interest behind his monocle.
The name of the card was simply, "Kaitou Kid." Nothing to hint at his real identity or even that there was a real person. The picture showed only a monocle gleaming from darkness, clover charm dancing on its chain above a grin that was more hinted at than seen.
The phantom thief smiled, tension that he had not even been aware he had suppressed dissolving. "Does that mean that stuff you mentioned about being protected from the Shadows because I'm part of your deck only applies when I'm in costume?"
"No. You may not be my Monster then, but you're still my friend. And there's a whole different set of rules that go with that." The other teen smirked slightly, removing his hand and dispelling the illusion. The Puzzle returned to its normal state.
"I'm sure." The kaitou grinned, and then asked in genuine curiosity, "Would I be able to see the card that got me into this whole mess?"
"I don't see why that one would be a problem." Deft fingers flicked out a card, and the phantom thief gazed in fascination at the slip of paper that was responsible for making him a part of the world of Duels and Shadows. 'Barrier Circle,' the neat white lettering of the heading named the Magic Card. The picture showed merely a transparent cylinder of white light against a dark background, indistinct runes glowing faintly in circles surrounding it.
Watching, Yami Yugi could feel the link running between the two, echoed by the complex, less obvious shadow web that bound the Kid to the rest of his deck. The Puzzle holder could not bring himself to be surprised at the stronger bond.
Finally, the kaitou nodded and stepped back. "Very well," he said, tipping a gloved hand to the brim of his hat in salute. "Though it would certainly be nice to have some warning, should there ever be a next time…" The phantom vanished into the dark, clover charm glinting for a moment in sourceless light like a parting grin.
"You and me both," the Puzzle holder murmured, shaking his head. Turning, he began to walk in another direction, falling into the same precise stride that had brought him there.
/I'm worried about this./
Wordless agreement answered.
/It was bad enough just knowing he was just one of our monsters. Now…what we summoned isn't even really him, just a part. It can't be good for him, being split like that./
/We had no choice, I'm afraid./ Darkness pulsed with understanding and matching pain. /If it was a choice between being divided or death…/
/I know. I'm just worried that using it more might, well, separate them, so that they're not the same person anymore./
/They weren't entirely the same even before this, though, or the magic would not have taken hold in the manner that it did./
/ I know…but it was like those were just two sides of him, and he was really the same underneath…/
Shadows thinned around them with each step until the spiky-haired teen eventually emerged from the depths of an alley, continuing to its mouth and out onto bright, familiar streets without a break in stride. The turns back to the Game Shop came without the need for thought.
/I wonder if it's because of his additional persona that we could make him one of our own. If another of our friends was in danger…would it even work if we tried to shield, say, Joey with a card? Or Kaiba?/
A sudden bright shock of amusement, the mental image of a card with the picture of a highly annoyed Seto dressed in Egyptian regalia with the label 'Skeptical High Priest' floating across the link.
/Can't you just imagine calling on him in a duel? Having him show up in full Egyptian costume complete with the Millennium Rod, only to have him start complaining and trying to chuck the thing away from him?/
/It would probably stick to his hand if he did,/ came the straight-faced reply.
Laughter bubbled bright across the link. /Oh, I don't think I'm going to be able to keep a straight face the next time I see him–! /
The bell above the door jingled as Yugi entered, seeming to announce the leaving of Shadow matters outside the bright shop where a boy waved a cheerful greeting to his grandfather and started off about the afternoon's chores.
Comments treasured. Criticism desperately needed.