Disclaimer – Kazuki Takahashi owns pretty much everyone, so this qualifies as textual poaching.

A/N – This is a collection of scenes from an alternate timeline of YGO. As such, I've taken for granted that readers know the basic structure of what happened when in the show. The fic only goes as far as the end of the DOMA arc (Waking the Dragons in the dub), because that's really only as far as I've seen and can write about with any amount of confidence.

Feedback – It's taken me over two months and a lot of agony to write, so reviews and reader feedback aren't just appreciated, they're begged for.

Variation on a Theme

© Scribbler, October 2005.

But where is he, the Pilgrim of my song,

The being who upheld it through the past?

Methinks he cometh late and tarries long.

He is no more – these breathings are his last;

His wanderings done, his visions ebbing fast,

And he himself as nothing: - if he was

Aught but a phantasy, and could be class'd

With forms which live and suffer – let that pass –

His shadow fades away into Destruction's mass.

-- Canto IV: Verse 164, from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by Byron.

It's said that people's personalities are fashioned from a combination of environment and genetics. Scientists disagree about how much of a role each one plays in shaping the average person, but they tend to agree that both are involved to some degree. It's not a fact, but that's useful, because it means you don't have to go to the trouble of disproving it if you need to. Facts are messy things. General assumption, while volatile in the wrong hands (like that of, say, a bloodthirsty mob carrying a rope and looking for a tree), is much easier to swallow.

What it all boils down to is this: Some people say you can be born good or bad. Some say you become one or the other depending on what happens to you and how you live your life.

Genes can be a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to bad behaviour. "It wasn't my fault. I'm just made that way!" You can't change your genes. A lot of people would say you can't change the rest of your life, either. Things happen to make you who you are – the kind of home you're born into, the friends you make, the rhetoric you hear, and even the sorts of television you watch. People can argue that your environment is about as changeable as your genetics, when you come right down to it. By the time you've figured out the impact of something on your life, you're already doing damage control. You only know it was important because you can see the after-effects.

Sometimes the stuff that affects you most is stuff you can control. You have choices, you make decisions, and your life opens out from there, like a box unfolding into a pathway of different coloured squares. Then again, sometimes you don't have any control at all. And sometimes the people you care about the most work the biggest changes in your life, even if they don't mean to.

How much of your life is predetermined? How much do you owe to your genes, and how much to luck? How much is down to you, and how much of your personality is in the hands of others? Can the tiniest of actions made by someone else really change who you are?

Those, my friends, are the million-dollar-questions.

The first time Anzu saw the puzzle it was sitting in the middle of Yuugi's desk. It was less than half finished, gold and shining in the sunlight from his window. The scattered pieces reminded her of the Lego bricks she used to play with when she was small.

When she expressed an interest, Yuugi was all too glad to show it to her. It was, he admitted, a frustrating thing. His grandfather had brought it back from one of his digs as a souvenir, but a few months later had foisted it onto his grandson when it proved too time-consuming and difficult. Yuugi had spent long hours trying – and failing – to solve it, and even more just staring at it. Of course, he was hasty to add, that was before he met Anzu – before he had a friend to draw him from his bubble of loneliness.

Their friendship was the highest point in his life since his father died and his mother's breakdown made her move to the city. Anzu felt like she should be bothered that Yuugi put so much weight on it, but it wasn't like she had any reason to be creeped out by him. Yuugi was one of the few decent boys at school, and she sort of liked him – though not in a romance novel sort of way. He was quiet and humble and failed all his exams on the first try.

When she asked if she could hold the puzzle he all but thrust the completed section into her hands.

"It's pretty," she said, turning it over. It felt heavier than it should've.

"You can have it, if you like," Yuugi offered.

"I couldn't do that, it's too valuable! And your grandfather - "

"He won't mind. Honest. It's mine to do with what I want, and I want to give it to you."

Anzu was touched. It was, in a weird kind of way, the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her. She got it out as soon as she'd had her evening meal, sitting at her own desk in her own bedroom with Yuugi's gold pieces scattered before her.

The puzzle was challenging. She could understand why Yuugi and his grandfather had never cracked it. She wasn't the best at solving puzzles herself, but she liked them. It might have been a throwback from spending so much time around Yuugi. He was a master at this sort of thing – a by-product of a childhood spent mostly on his own. The idea that she could do something that he couldn't, could compete with him in his own area of expertise made her struggle on where she might otherwise have given up.

She spent as much time as she could on the puzzle. Usually when she came home from dance class she jumped straight into the shower, but more and more she found herself sitting at her desk, slotting and unslotting pieces while the sweat dried on her. It became a mixture of hobby and catharsis, giving her something to distract herself with while her parents were arguing downstairs. The more they argued, the more her hands seemed to accomplish. Once or twice she looked down to see that she had completed whole sections of the puzzle without even realising it. Other times she could spend hours fighting with one piece that simply refused to fit.

"How's the puzzle coming?" Yuugi often asked, a hint of regret in his voice, even though he refused whenever she offered to give it back.

"It's coming," Anzu would reply.

When the bullies got to Yuugi she went home so frustrated that she felt like the puzzle pieces could melt from the heat of her fury. He thought of her as his best friend and that made her want to protect him, but she couldn't be there all the time. She had her own life to live. And besides, his already battered reputation was damaged further each time he was rescued by a girl. The boys taunted him and the girls laughed in his face. When they got into high school it escalated, until Yuugi just stood there while other kids punched him and stole his lunch money because it was so much better than what would happen if he fought back, or – worse – her conscience piped up and she stepped into save the day.

One morning she walked by the game store and he didn't come out to meet her. His grandfather said he'd already gone to school. Anzu was niggled he hadn't waited to walk with her, but he wasn't there when she arrived. He missed roll call, and first period, and recess. He missed art class, which he usually loved. His paintings of monsters and grotesque, under-the-bed type creatures were what the teacher called 'inspired', but which Anzu secretly thought disturbing.

It wasn't until lunch that she found him cowering under the bleachers in the gym, torn and bloodied and blinking too rapidly. His bag was missing, and with it all his expensive books and the collection of key chains he'd kept since fifth grade.

The school said there was nothing they could do about it. Everyone knew which kids had done it, but they had no proof, and Yuugi wasn't saying anything. He was too afraid of the repercussions.

Anzu went home seething. She slammed at the puzzle, knocking bits together more by luck than skill. Her father had gone out for the evening, and her mother was at bingo. Peace reigned in the house, but she was too angry and overwrought to appreciate it. She was angry at the bullies, angry at the school, and angry at herself for allowing this to happen. The last piece of the puzzle slipped into place, but she didn't realise until her room was suddenly filled with coloured lights and what felt like a small cyclone.

Afterwards, she didn't know how to express the sensation of being sucked deep into her own body. She was still there, still in residence, but there was an abrupt sensation of newness, of nearness that defied description. It was as though her mind, her sense of self was a reservoir made separate by a beaver dam, and then suddenly one of the twigs in the dam came loose and something else seeped in.

She nestled in the recesses of her brain, while this new occupant stood up – using her body – knocking the chair over backwards – her chair – and looked down at her hands – her hands, with the little ink stain on the right thumb from her leaky fountain pen.

"Well," said a voice. Not hers, but it came from her throat. She knew this later, when she retained more consciousness of … everything, really. "Well," it said, "this is unexpected."

Anzu closed the door to the toilet cubicle, locked it, and then leaned heavily against it. "Okay. Okay, I know you like him, but could we please keep it to a low background hum? At least? The running commentary is getting really old, and it's extremely hard to concentrate with you whispering sweet nothings he can't even hear."

"Sweet nothings?" Yami's voice was a monotone, but she'd learned how to recognise suspicion – that special blend he reserved for when he thought she was trying to fool him about the details of modern life. Life as a teenage girl in the 21st Century was not something he identified with – on any level.

She spent a several seconds explaining, after which a slow outrage perforated the back of her brain. Yami didn't blow up with her the way he sometimes did at duellists he was battling – and boy, hadn't that been interesting, explaining to Yuugi how she suddenly got so good at a game she'd barely taken an interest in before. Instead, sitting atop her synapses, he simmered. Trapped in her head with nothing to vent on, Yami was a great big cauldron full of all kinds of crap – and the heat was always, always on.

"I do not whisper 'sweet nothings'," he told her firmly.

"Yeah, sure, whatever. But what you're not doing? Stop it. Okay? It's bad enough I have to take a backseat to you when any bozo with a Duel Deck points a finger, but hitting on my best friend is crossing a few lines I'd rather not have to deal with."

"Why? Are you attracted to him?"

"What? No!"

"Then I fail to see the problem."

"That is the problem. He's going to think I have some split personality disorder soon, making eyes at him one second and acting uninterested the next."

She thought about that for a second. It was dangerously close to the truth – though she didn't know how Yuugi would react to the idea that she had a ghost who could almost pass for his double sharing her headspace – a five-thousand-year-old one, too, if the dating of the Millennium Puzzle was anything to go by. He'd probably react better if she just made something up about schizophrenia. She'd probably react better if she could convince herself this was all just schizophrenia. Except that she was fairly certain schizophrenia sufferers couldn't mind-wipe people or seal their spirits into pots.

"It's not fair on him, if nothing else."

"This modern custom of ingrained heterosexuality is foolish," Yami declared, and she could feel him crossing his arms, even though she couldn't see it in the regular sense. It was the same way she knew how much he resembled Yuugi without ever seeing his face.

She'd gotten better at sensing him. He was never very far away, his spirit tethered to her by the Millennium Puzzle she wore tied to her belt. Luckily, the school was quite lax about jewellery, so long as you kept your grades up and didn't cheek the teachers. At first people had commented about it because it was so bulky and – let's face it – ugly. Yuugi had been amazed and delighted to see his Puzzle again – and it was Puzzle, not puzzle, she understood that now. Anzu had considered giving it back to him, but when she learned more about Yami and the fainting fits and this infatuation he'd developed with her best friend while she was sleeping, she kept it with her instead. She wouldn't feel right dumping something like that on Yuugi. It would feel too much like a betrayal.

This hadn't gone down well with the spirit. Yami was obstinate when he wanted to be, which was great when he needed a poker face to disconcert an opponent, but bloody irritating when they both had limited options on how to ignore each other.

"Yeah, well, cry me a river. Just don't do it anymore."

"I cannot promise that."

"Argh-chuh! Then can you at least promise to be more discreet? Please? I have a life to live outside of duels, you know. The life I was living quite happily until you came along with your whole magickal … thing."

Yami went quiet for a moment. He seemed to be considering this. Then he sighed. It felt like the taste of a shadow might. "All right. I will try to be more … discreet." He said the word like it was a dead rat he had to pick up by its cold, still tail and deposit in the dumpster behind Burger World.

"Thank you," Anzu said, and meant it. "Now, a little privacy, please?"

He faded into the recesses of her mind, not quite back in the Puzzle, but far enough away that she didn't feel so self-conscious about answering the call of nature. Yami may be pig-headed, but at least he wasn't a peeping tom.

When she opened the door of the cubicle there was another girl standing by the washbasins. She jolted when Anzu looked at her, eyes wide with a mixture of fear and morbid curiosity.

Hell, Anzu thought. Undeterred – after a while, you learned how not to let how things bothered you show unintentionally in your face – she strode forward and washed her hands. When she yanked a paper towel from the dispenser and the girl still hadn't looked away, she gave up and glared at her. "Yeah, and what are you looking at?" It was a pointless and stupid thing to say. But then, it had been a pointless and stupid kind of day.

The girl flushed. "N-nothing."

"Good. Because if it had been me you were looking at - "

"It wasn't! I was just thinking things. To myself, thoughts. That I was thinking. Uh…" She ducked her head and scuttled out.

Anzu watched her go and leaned one hip against the enamel sinks. "I suppose I should be getting used to that kind of thing," she mumbled, tossing the balled up paper towel into the trash.

"You are an odd one, Anzu Mazaki," Yami whispered. He'd snuck up on her, and now hovered somewhere near the base of her skull. She resisted the urge to brush at her collar. He couldn't help being dead and creepy. "You criticise me for breaking you from your normal patterns, and then remove yourself from them anyway."

"Advantage of being a modern girl in a modern age. I'm legally allowed to be fickle."


She finished up quickly and went back to class, whispering a short, "Hey," to Yuugi as she slid into her seat. He glanced over and half raised his hand in greeting, and then they were both caught and held by the teacher's steely gaze for the rest of the lesson.

Head bent over her books, Anzu reflected that Yami was indeed keeping the noise down. He was still there – still right there – but if he was staring at Yuugi or strategising or wondering who he was and where the hell he came from again, then he was keeping his own counsel.

She could have taken the Puzzle off, of course. She could have done that right at the beginning, before the blackouts started. Had she not convinced herself the first time was a hallucination, had she not wanted to please Yuugi by wearing the completed Puzzle like a prize, she could have avoided all of this. She could have locked the stupid thing in a drawer, stowed it in the attic, or taken it apart and scattered the pieces in the bay. She could have prevented this whole situation from ever arising when she did realise Yami wasn't just a product of her own mind.

Except that for all his blustering, all his complaining, and all his veiled menace, Yami was actually kind of pathetic. He was a bodiless spirit, which she assumed meant he was dead. When you died, you were meant to either move on or stop existing altogether. You weren't supposed to get trapped between worlds, robbed of your memories – your very identity – for no apparent reason.

The prospect made her want to shiver, and maybe she would've been more sympathetic, were he in someone else's head and not her own. Being pathetic didn't mean he wasn't still a Grade A jerk, and this was still her body. There was no rule anywhere that said just because she felt sorry for him meant she had to share herself with him. This was hers – her turf, her body, her self. All things considered, he should've been a lot more grateful than he was.

Than he seemed

He'd saved her life a couple of times, she thought. She couldn't remember very well, but Yuugi had said how she once turned up at his house covered in cuts and bruises, not saying much but smelling of saltwater. That had to have been Yami. The next day there was a story on the news about how a known rapist was found facedown in the water by the docks. The authorities said there was alcohol in his bloodstream and he'd most likely fallen in and drowned. She told herself that was true, but even so she altered her route home from her new job at Burger World so that she didn't go near the docks anymore.

A ball of paper hit her on the head. She turned to see one of the boys from the back of class grinning and mouthing an apology. Clearly he hadn't meant to hit her. There were many similar balls of paper around Yuugi's desk. Old anger welled within her. She gripped her pen so tight she could have snapped it and glared at the boy.

And somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt a presence stir in similar anger

"I'm telling you, she's nuts."

Anzu froze with only one shoe on, the other dangling from her fingertips.

"She always seems so nice, though. A bit pushy, maybe, but nothing that bad."

"Yeah, Kanza. It's not like she's tried to kill anyone like in that school up north. Y'know, that kid with the handgun? You know; the guy who had all those poison-pen letters and stuff shoved in his locker."

"I heard it was a dead rat."

"Well I heard it was a cow's heart. And when he shot all those people he was shouting about breaking their hearts too."

"Ew. Why would he do a thing like that?"

"For dramatic irony, I guess."

"Not that. I mean shooting people."

"Hel-lo? Can we please focus?"

"Sorry Kanza."

"Yeah, sorry Kanza."

"Thank you. And before you start mouthing off again about how she always seemed so nice, remember that she sometimes hangs out with that weird Mutou boy. And you guys didn't hear her. She wasn't just talking, she was arguing with herself."

"For real?"

"Maybe … maybe she was just doing it to freak you out."

"Get real, Naoko. She didn't even know I was there."

"Maybe all that time around Mutou scrambled her mind."

"I wouldn't be surprised. He's mondo weird. You notice how none of the guys ever talk to him? It's like he's infected with cooties and they all still believe in them."

"They just don't want to ruin their macho images."

"Someone should teach Mutou how to be a real man. It's not normal staying home and playing games all the time. There's chic, there's geek, and then there's freak."

"He and Mazaki make a good couple, then. Hey, maybe one day they'll get married and have a whole brood of little freaky children."

"With bizarre hair and big butts!"

They couldn't know she was there. Everyone else had gone home already; she was just waiting for Yuugi so they could walk together. Her fingers were starting to cramp where she'd tightened her grip on her shoe. Comments like that were why she hadn't, by any means, been the best friend Yuugi liked to peg her as. She still left him alone with his games a lot. She let him continue building the reputation that drew bullies to him like wasps to an open jam jar.

"Hey, Anzu!" Yuugi's voice lanced the air like a needle in a boil. She jerked her head around, and the voice on the other side of the locker stack ceased. "You waited for me. Cool. Just let me get my sneakers. I won't be a jiff."

While he retreated to his locker at the far end of the room, Anzu slipped her own shoe on and clipped her bag shut. Yami's aura was easy to detect when he appeared in her mind. Though he didn't speak, she just didn't feel like talking to him right now.

"Leave me alone."

For a second he continued to say nothing. She thought he was maybe going to take control; march her body around to face those girls and crush their minds into pulp, or something equally dramatic and cartoony. While a part of her smarted enough not to mind, a larger part balked and roiled against his presence.

"If that is what you wish," Yami responded, and left again.

"Ready?" Yuugi looked in high spirits, and if he noticed the odd look traded between Anzu and the three girls on the other side of the lockers when they passed them, then he said nothing of it.

For her part, Anzu just walked a little closer to him than normal.

She felt like her eyes were trying to fall out of her head – like her mind was trying to fall out of her head. "Did you have to be so … full-on?"

"They deserved it."

"Oh, that sounds so much like a kindergarten kid."

"Kindergarten?" Yami struggled with the new word. Strange that he'd picked up so much language and basic survival knowledge from being inside her head, but some things could still blindside him.

"Never mind. And you're sure neither of them will bother Yuugi again?"

"Quite sure."

"And this won't impact badly on him?"

"There will be no negative ramifications. Trust me. I made sure of it."

And, weirdly, she did trust him. About this, at least. "I suppose nobody would believe them if they tried to tell, anyway."

"As was my intention. I was careful – unlike some people."

"Hey, it wasn't my fault I got trapped in the Puzzle. Urgh. How do you stand it in there?"

"One learns to live with things after a while. It's better than oblivion"

"Oh. Yeah." Well that killed the conversation stone dead. She searched for something to say, but all the important questions had been asked and there was really only one valuable thing left. "Thanks for putting it back together, when you could've … y'know…"

"No, I don't know."

"Stayed in control." Lived her life. Just plain lived again. And had a for-real chance at Yuugi, whose childhood crush on her could have worked so well to Yami's advantage - even if he did have breasts instead of a trouser snake. It hadn't escaped her notice that by putting the Puzzle back together after Katsuya Jounouchi and Hiroto Honda broke it, Yami was effectively giving up what might be his only chance at a proper life again.

Evidently, it hadn't escaped his notice, either, because he stayed quiet for a long moment. "It isn't my life to live," he said softly, almost sadly.

A warmth spread outwards from the pit of her belly, but it came from a core of uncomfortable ice. She flopped backwards onto her bed, the newly remade Puzzle in her hands. It felt warm to the touch. "So, tell me again how they screamed when the shadow tried to eat them."

"It's just so weird, y'know?"

"I don't think so. People like him are always bound for a bad ending."

"That's rather callous, isn't it?"

"… Maybe a little." The way Yuugi said it made Anzu squirm. Katsuya Jounouchi had made his life miserable, yet he was still sad when the guy was turned into the victim for once and trounced by his old gang. Had it not been for Hiroto Honda, he might have died. As it was he was still in the hospital being treated for bruised ribs and burns. The cast over Honda's wrist and knuckles had tipped them off about what happened when he came into school that day, linking him with an article in the newspaper Mrs. Mazaki had been reading when Anzu left for school.

Yuugi thought they ought to send a card and get-well gift to each. Anzu disagreed. As far as she was concerned, both bullies had got what was coming to them.

"I agree," Yami interrupted. "Nothing less than they deserved. It's only regretful their lesson was only half learned."

Anzu paused, processing the meaning behind these words.Hearing Yami's voice reminded her about their own roles in getting Yuugi's bullies off his back.Jounouchi and Hiroto were jerks, but they'd already been punished once ...

She dug in her pocket for whatever change she had. "Here. What do you reckon we can get for this?"

Yuugi counted it. "About half a postage stamp. But it's the thought that counts."

"Hey Mom." Anzu kicked off her shoes while Yuugi took his off, turned them around and placed them neatly next to her mother's slingbacks. Her father's shoes were noticeably absent, but it didn't look so odd anymore. "We're just going upstairs to study." And trade Duel Monsters cards.

For all her sudden expertise when Yami was at the wheel, Yuugi was one of the only people in school who could give her a run for her money – and the only person who didn't challenge her out of some need to prove he was better. He was still grateful to her – well, Yami, but Yuugi didn't know that – for duelling Seto Kaiba in his place while he went with his grandfather to hospital, and Anzu enjoyed the appreciation as much as she felt like a fraud for accepting it.

"Anzu, honey." Mrs. Mazaki appeared at the door to the kitchen. She had her coat on and was obviously ready to go out. "I was just writing you a note. This came for you today – by private courier."

"Really?" The package wasn't exceptionally heavy, but it was big and rectangular, like a box. "I didn't order anything online."

"Maybe you have a secret admirer. You can tell me about it when I get back."

"Where are you going?"

"Silly. I told you this morning about my evening class. Life painting, remember?"

"Oh yeah, I remember."

Mrs. Mazaki smiled. There were new lines bracketing her mouth and eyes, and wisps of grey in her hair, but her chin was still strong and her neck smooth. She kissed Anzu on the cheek, and then turned to Yuugi. "Maybe I'll be able to compete with your art skills when the course is over. Though I wouldn't hold my breath."

Yuugi blushed at the praise. Their art teacher had entered one of his charcoal drawings in a national competition, and he'd taken second place, beating out several hundred other school's entries and losing only to a specialised academy from Tokyo. His drawing had been a stylised piece called simply 'Magician'.

"There's no food in the house, so you kids can call out for pizza if you like. I left some money on the counter."

"Thanks, Mom." Anzu was pleased her mother was branching out again, but she wished she'd remember such mundane things as groceries. It was a nuisance, getting up early just so she could call in at the corner store for an apple and an extortionate pain au raisin. "What time will you be back?"

"Not too late, honey. You know, there's something wrong about this situation. I'm supposed to ask you that question, not the other way around. And I'm going to be late for my class if I don't get a move on. See you, honey. Yuugi." Mrs. Mazaki smiled at them both and left.

Anzu went into the kitchen to inspect just what they could order on what her mother had left them.

Yuugi followed. "So?"

"So what?"

"What's in the box? Aren't you going to open it?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. I'd forgotten about it already."

The contents were less than inspiring. Embedded in foam sat an unmarked black videotape and an enormously ugly fingerless glove. Anzu wrinkled her nose and looked for a return address to see who could have sent her such oddities.

Yuugi picked up the tape. "Cassette? Haven't people ever heard of DVDs?"

"Not everybody's as technologically savvy as us, Yuugi."

"True. Grandpa can't even set the VCR clock."

"Neither can you."

"A minor detail."

"I can't find any sign of who it's all from." Anzu picked up the glove. "Some misguided fashion boutique, maybe? It could be a free sample."

"We should play the tape," said Yuugi, taking it through to the living room. "That's probably what it's for, to explain things. The sooner we solve the mystery, the sooner we can get pizza and trade some cards." His smile was trusting and infectious. "I have some real stinkers I need to unload onto you."

"Hey!" Anzu marched after him, the glove still in her hands. "If you think you can take advantage of me just because you've been playing Duel Monsters longer than I have, then you've got another thing com-"

"Something doesn't feel right."

She ground to a halt at Yami's voice. She'd almost forgotten him. Almost. Her teeth gritted at the sudden invasion. "What?"

"The air. It's not right. There's something … dark in it."

No. He wasn't going to spoil her evening with doom and gloom. Yuugi looked happy for the first time in a long while, and since they stepped out of school it had felt like old times, innocent and free from bullies, spirits and narcissistic millionaires.

Selfishly, Anzu snapped, "Shut up. Just shut up. Gratitude only goes so far. This is my life. My life. You're not even meant to be in it. You aren't meant to be here. You're not alive. Go away."

Yami bristled. All the hairs along her arms prickled, and the back of her neck started to itch. She remembered the news report about the rapist.

"If that's how you feel…"

"It is," she replied in a voice that sounded much braver than she felt, but he'd already faded from her mind – back into the Puzzle, presumably. The nape of her neck felt cold.

"Anzu?" Yuugi's disembodied voice called. "Are you coming?"

Anzu sighed, shaking her head, and went through to where he was perched on the faded paisley couch. She tried to ignore the knot of uncertainty Yami's unwelcome words had created. "Hit the play button. Let's see what this is all about."


He hadn't spoken to her since she insulted him. That was three days ago. She'd lost her job, skipped school, hopped on a boat and left her mother to fend for herself since then. Mrs. Mazaki had still been at the hospital when she left, comforting and taking care of Mr. Mutou in the inadequate scenery of the waiting room and proving she was more adept at coping then Anzu would have given her credit for. She hoped they would understand and accept the cockamamie story she'd left behind – especially since she didn't fully believe the real one herself.

Anzu hoped the other duellists thought she was just talking to some of the other duellists and not herself. She didn't need to be known as The Crazy One.

The crowd moved like a single entity, sometimes throwing bits of itself out the door and absorbing other bits when people came back. Trades were happening, practise duels were playing out; contestants were gauging each other as best they could while trying to give nothing away. The air was thick with anticipation and rivalry – and perhaps a little bit of seasickness.

"Yami?" Anzu tried again. "Please, Yami, answer me."

A faint sensation of sullenness and anger started up in the back of her brain. Yami didn't speak, but she could feel his presence. After days of no contact it was almost a relief. She'd been starting to think he was gone completely, the Millennium Puzzle reduced to nothing more than an ugly trinket.

Anzu huddled into her corner, her backpack between her knees. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Yami grunted.

"I'm sorry, okay? I didn't … I didn't mean the stuff I said. But I … damn it."

"Not many people haven spoken to me the way you did gone unpunished."

"I could say that not many people have shared my headspace and not had their Puzzles dismantled." He was dangerous. He was pathetic. He was the better duellist of the two of them. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but I need … I need your help. I can't do this alone."

There was a blonde woman walking about in a tight skirt who looked like she didn't need anyone. Anzu wished she could be more like that.

"You admit you need my help. Therefore I will help you, as you once helped me by completing the Puzzle."

She breathed a sigh of relief.

"But know that I'm not only doing it for you."

He blamed her. Of course he did. She blamed herself. Defeating Pegasus was the only way she'd ever rid herself of that blame. "That makes two of us."

"You can't!"

"I must."

"You can't kill him!"

Stupid Seto fucking Kaiba. Let him jump. See if she cared.

But no. She couldn't stop Yami before – still didn't even know if there had been anything to stop him from doing, since she couldn't bring herself to ask if he'd murdered using her body – but this time … she was here, damn it! She had a say in how this went down!

Reasserting control before Yami was ready to let go left her with double vision and a blinding headache. Screaming at the top of her lungs that she forfeited didn't help, either. Her eyeballs felt like they were going to explode, or else fire out of her head like ping pong balls.

"Idiot!" she shrieked between gasps. "You big … fat … asshole!"

Kaiba was talking, saying something about insults and how they wouldn't change the outcome of the duel, but she was on her knees and shaking so badly she couldn't concentrate on much more than yelling and keeping her face off the floor.

"I could have won," Yami told her furiously. "I would have won!"

"This isn't a game!" she screamed back. "This isn't about life points! You can't do this! Not with me! I won't let you!"

Kaiba pulled her up so that she was sitting on her heels and plucked out her star chips. She could just about focus on his face – his self-satisfied smirk and long, arrogant nose. "You already did."

"We could have entered the castle! We could be saving Yuugi now, but for your weak stomach."

"I am not a murderer!"

"You think I really would have jumped?"

"It wasn't murder. I didn't push him."

"You would have done as good as."

"And what of it? Seto Kaiba would be no great loss to the world."

"That's not the point – oof!" Kaiba had dropped her arm and she had sprawled on the flagstones. She could see his expensive designer shoes walking away. "I don't care that you don't remember who you are, I don't care that you have a crush on my best friend, or that we both hate Kaiba – Idon't care what you might have done in the past. I'm not a killer, and you're not using my body to murder people. Not anymore. You're not putting blood on my hands!"

"Delusional," Kaiba snorted.

"Anzu," said Ryou, scrambling over and pulling her onto his lap. "Anzu, it's all right."

She focussed on his face. Kind, lovely Ryou, who knew exactly what it was like to be governed by the will of a spirit from a Millennium Item. Ryou had thrown off his spirit's evil influence. And Yami was evil. He had to be. Yami meant dark. Big fat fucking clue right there. Only evil people murdered.

"Ryou," she whispered, as angry tears started running down her cheeks. "I've ruined it. My chance. I've ruined everything."

"You have to let me help you," Yami insisted. "I can win this."

"I don't trust you," Anzu replied.

Wham, bam, another hundred life points gone. Her chances of winning dimmed a little more.

"This is ridiculous. Let me duel."

"Go away."

One of her monsters was suddenly vaporised. Luckily it was in defence mode, which safeguarded her life points, but it was still a crushing blow.

"You're being childish - "

"Am I? I don't think so. The thing you don't seem to have grasped, Yami, is that this isn't the same world you used to know. Here, now, murdering people – whatever the reason – is wrong. And passively watching someone kill themselves out of pride is as bad as shoving them over the edge with your own hands. Except that in your case, you'd be using my hands. How am I supposed to respect myself if I know I let Seto Kaiba die? How am I supposed to look at Yuugi without seeing the look on Kaiba's face as he went over the battlement?"

"You won't be seeing Yuugi ever again if you don't win this duel."

"You think I don't know that?"

Her latest monster left the field in a ball of fire, as did a chunk of her life points. Anzu winced.

"So why are you continuing to let this happen? You're being humiliated out there! You are throwing away our only chance of saving him!"

"I know!"

"Then why?"

"Because I'm not evil like you!"

"Hey!" The voice floated across the field, a twist of glee in it. "You going to just stand there talking to yourself, or are you going to make your move?"

"I am not … evil," Yami said, speaking far quieter than he had since she refused to let him take control.

"Then what would you call it? Just arrogance? Pride, maybe? Could you not stand to lose a duel, no matter what the cost?"

"I was saving - "

"No, Yami, you weren't saving anyone. Kaiba may be disgusting, but you can't just exchange one life for another. It's not your right to make that kind of decision."

"Hey! Hel-lo-oh. Can I call time on this, or should I wait until I die of boredom?"

Yami pulled back. The pressure behind Anzu's eyes abated, as did the tight lines at their edges.

"Evil?" he murmured. "Is that what I've become?"

Haven't you always been? she wanted to ask. Instead she drew a card from her deck and examined it. Magic card. Maybe useful, maybe not. Panic was beginning to set in, warring with stubbornness and making her forget all her meagre knowledge of complicated gaming strategy.

"Am I becoming like … the Spirit of the Ring?" Yami sounded … frightened? It wasn't something she'd ever heard from him before, so she didn't know for sure.

Anzu made her move and her last monster shattered into a thousand pieces, leaving her life points wide open except for one facedown card. "You're not like the Ring's spirit," she muttered bitterly, because it would have been so much easier if he were. "But I can't let you just do whatever you think is necessary to win without thinking about the consequences. I said it before – no blood on my hands. I'm going to save Yuugi, but I'm going to do it my way."

"Ooh, you made such a mistake there! Feeling a little off today, are we?"

"Dry up!" she called across the battlefield.

"Because I'm raining on your parade? Honestly, how did someone like you ever defeat Seto Kaiba? You're playing like a novice."

In her mind's eye, Anzu could see the hand reached out to touch her shoulder. In reality there was nothing there, but the effect was the same. The line of her shoulders tensed and the hand stopped before it reached her.

"I want to help," Yami said, sotto voce.

On the boat, she'd asked for that help. She'd believed she couldn't do this without him. "That depends on the kind of help you're offering." They were some of the most difficult words she'd ever had to say, because she was nothing if not a realist.

"I want to save Yuugi."

"Me too."

"Let me help you. You know I can win this duel."

"Actually, I don't."

"You doubt my skill?"

"I …" She nibbled on her lower lip for a second. Her hairline was damp with perspiration. "I don't know if I can trust you not to go too far."

"There's no wall here. No danger of that sort."

"You know what I mean."

"Then you will have to trust yourself to … keep me in check." The words sounded like they were difficult to say. Yami was an arrogant bastard. She knew that.

"For just this duel?"

"It's a start."

"I … I don't …"

"I'm not evil," he said suddenly – defensively. "Pegasus is evil. I am not."

Anzu lowered the hand holding her cards and closed her eyes. She felt her atoms shift as she slid from her own body and murmured, "Then prove it."

"Yuugi, you aren't seriously telling me you're having only one scoop, are you? That's just criminal!"

"I'm fine, really - "

"Nonsense. Here, let me have that."

Yuugi pulled himself up in bed. His pyjamas were a little large, hanging over his wrists and hands so much he'd had to fold them back several times. Green percale was so not his colour. "Anzu, really, I'm okay with just one - "

Anzu waved him away, struggling with the ice-cream scoop she'd smuggled into his room in the volumous pocket of her coat. The tub of ice-cream was small and a little melted, despite all the ice she'd packed it with, but Yuugi's genuine smile at the sight of it made bringing it seem even more worthwhile. She scooped out a ball of Rocky Road and plopped it into his dish. "There now. That looks much better."

"Thanks." Yuugi accepted it gratefully. "I was getting sick of all the grapes."

Anzu looked at the cards on the sideboard. There weren't that many, but there were more than she might have expected for someone like Yuugi. He wasn't exactly brimming over with friends and acquaintances. One or two were from regular customers at his grandfather's store, who'd picked up on his 'illness' when Sugoroku closed early so he could make visiting hours. The biggest one was from their class at school. The teacher had forced everyone to sign it, and while most students had written a generic 'get well soon', a couple had put down more personal messages. The others were from Mrs. Mazaki – who'd signed Anzu's name for her – one from Yuugi's own absent mother, their art teacher, and Ryou.

Yuugi had been friendly when Ryou came to see him. Anzu hadn't expected it, thinking their acquaintance was over when they got back from Duellist Kingdom. Ryou had always been a quiet boy, prone to bouts of isolation and keeping secrets. He sat at the very back and hardly had any friends at school – though now she was forced to wonder how much of it was due to the spirit in his Millennium Item. Without it he seemed more open, and far, far happier in himself. He'd brought chocolates tied with a bright red ribbon.

Yuugi took to him immediately, as though sensing a kindred spirit in this softly spoken boy with the hair that kept falling in front of his face like a shield. Anzu found herself feeling left on the fringes as they talked and laughed. Hence: the ice-cream.

Yami was in the Puzzle again. He'd been doing that a lot since they got back. He was quiet when he was out, too, and though just as arrogant as ever, Anzu got the feeling his recent experiences had affected him quite a lot. Enough to warrant long attacks of extra-private thought, at least. She knew something had happened in their duel with Pegasus. Yami had won, obviously – and a great help she'd been, falling unconscious and leaving him without their mind-shuffle trump card – but he'd been less jubilant than she'd thought he would be.

Ah, well, he'd get over it, whatever it was.

"Anzu," Yuugi said suddenly, breaking her from her thoughts.

She looked up. "Yeah?"

He hadn't touched his ice-cream yet. His spoon balanced between his thumb and forefinger, rocking back and forth like a metronome.

The doctors hadn't been able to explain his sudden coma, nor his equally sudden recovery. They'd kept him in for observation, but it looked like the official theory was going to link it to the protracted illness he'd suffered as a child – the one that had already left him with his growth hormone deficiency. Back then, they'd said there might be complications that didn't show themselves until he reached maturity. It was easier to put this whole thing down to that than to guess at the truth.

Yuugi's eyes were unfathomable. "Nothing." He dipped his head and spooned Rocky Road into his mouth.

Anzu watched him closely for a second, before doing the same.

To Be Continued …

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

First off, the above title comes from a similarly named section of InterNutter's X-Men: Evolution fanfic Don't Pity Me.

Second off, the title of the fic isn't terribly original, I know, but it's a bit of a side-fling in itself. Once, long ago, in the dim and distant past, an author called Nemain asked for prompts to help stir her muses into writing some X-Men: Evolution fanfics. I obliged, and the result was a fic called Variations on a Theme, a bittersweet femslash story. I love that fic dearly (and its sequel), but the draw of the title proved too much for me when trying to think of a title for this thing. So I hereby give kudos to Nemain for using it first.

She'd lost her job, skipped school, hopped on a boat and left her mother to fend for herself since then.

-- I always thought that all the jetting about that goes on in YGO would play havoc with holding down a part-time job. Duellist Kingdom in particular sprang out of nowhere, and it makes a degree of sense that Anzu's boss at Burger World would take umbrage at her suddenly asking for time off when she hasn't been working there very long. Of course, this may just be me thinking about how my boss would react if I asked that kind of question, but it would sure explain why, in the anime canon, Anzu's never seen working at Burger World after they get back.

"I could say that not many people have shared my headspace and not had their Puzzles dismantled."

-- It's my personal opinion that Anzu would be a whole lot less accepting of sharing her body with a dead guy than Yuugi. Canon!Yuugi's initial embrace of Yami's presence stemmed from his intense unhappiness, loneliness and minimal self-esteem. He was willing to overlook all the odd goings-on that followed because, for him at least, justice was at least being meted out and his extreme run of bad luck was finally ending. Anzu may have sometimes been lonely in this fic's version of events, but her childhood was a relatively happy one and so she has less reason to suppress any suspicions of Yami the way Yuugi did in canon. This might also be how she noticed his presence before canon!Yuugi did – Yuugi believed the Millennium Puzzle had granted his dearest wish and brought him friends. Anzu made no such wish. Neither is she a completely selfless character, and this shows up in her treatment of Yami. She fights his being there while simultaneously exploiting his duelling abilities. In a way, she's torn over the whole situation. While not as self-sacrificing as Yuugi, she's not the raging bitch many fans peg her as, either. Yami is tragic enough to stir her sympathy, dangerous enough to make her feel threatened, but strong enough that she also feels a little protected in having him there. Therefore the average reader may be able to empathise with her reactions more than canon!Yuugi's. Maybe.

The others were from Mrs. Mazaki – who'd signed Anzu's name for her …

-- There's some irony that Anzu was so busy saving Yuugi's soul she didn't have time to sign his get-well-soon card.

it looked like the official theory was going to link it to the protracted illness he'd suffered as a child – the one that had already left him with his growth hormone deficiency.

-- There has to be some reason Yuugi is the size he is and looks as young as he does even when he's nearly old enough to vote.