AN: This is my first attempt at a Bakura-centric story, and unfortunately my first Yu-Gi-Oh story after a long break from the fandom. As always, I love feedback, especially the nit-picky ones. Don't hesitate to point out mistakes or make suggestions.

The title - and a bit of the inspiration - came from a Niel Diamond song, strangely enough. Go listen to it if you have the time.

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The Painter by AutumnOak

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"This project was very open to interpretation: a self-portrait, done on poster paper, using any medium of your choice. I was impressed by this classes' work in general, but one piece really stood out. Bakura, would you stand up here? Bakura did a stunning job. Come on now, introduce us to your portrait."

Aware of the classes' eyes on him, Ryou Bakura stood and approached the front of the room. The teacher was smiling at him warmly. She was doubly pleased, Ryou supposed, because he rarely put effort into his art projects. Normally, he met guidelines with a Spartan proficiency that hid his talent. The teacher often nagged him about his 'unrecognized potential', as if she had any idea what kinds of abilities rested in his body. Ryou realized that this portrait was an indication of his ability, but that didn't help the fact that he didn't know what to tell his classmates. As he passed her, he quietly asked, "What should I say?"

"Don't worry. I'll ask you questions to help you along."

All the student portraits were pinned to the wall. His did stand out - stark black and white and red - placed in the middle of his classmates' colorful works. Ryou managed not to meet anyone's eyes as he waited beside his art for the first question. He could still feel their eyes on him, however - especially those belonging to his friends.

The teacher cleared her throat and smiled again. "Bakura, how did you approach this project? Did you do practice sketches or rough drafts?"

He bit his lip, running his answer through his head before speaking. "I spent a lot of time thinking about it… But then I just started. I jumped in. It wasn't planned."

/ "Don't speak to me. This is due tomorrow, and I haven't even started," Ryou muttered. He was staring balefully at his blank paper, just as he had been doing for the past half-hour. The spirit of the ring moved into Ryou's peripheral vision. Even though the spirit was silent, he was still a distracting presence. It wasn't long before Ryou changed his order. "You can speak if you're going to be helpful."

The spirit was laughing, Ryou knew, even though he couldn't see his face or hear him at the moment. When the spirit finally spoke, though, it was in a serious tone. "I'll be helpful. I know your problem."

The spirit's hand reached for Ryou's, and the boy could feel his mind and his body slide apart from the pressure. For a moment all that Ryou knew was darkness, and then just as suddenly he was back in control. He was shaking slightly, but the tremors passed quickly. Glancing down, he saw that he held his paintbrush above the table, the tip wet with black ink. Even more startling was the single, elegant line curving down the side of his paper.

"Your problem was that you couldn't make the first move. You had a clean canvas, and couldn't make the first mark. Now you don't need to worry, because I'm not afraid to stain the paper. See? I am helpful." /

"No planning?" The teacher glanced up from her grade book. "You must have been very inspired, then. Tell me, how did you draw yourself? Did you use a photograph, a mirror, or draw from memory?"

Ryou turned towards his portrait. The first brush stroke seemed to stand out to him, as if it were in a different shade of ink. He wondered if his classmates could see the differences between that stroke and all the others as easily as he could. He mulled the teacher's next question over in his mind as he stared at the face he had drawn.

/ Ryou sighed and put his brush down. He was doing his best to ignore the spirit sitting beside him, and up until now it had been working. Ryou had finished painting the basic outline of his face; the slopes of his cheeks and forehead and jaw easy to recreate as he glanced back and forth between the mirror and the paper.

He had found the mirror in his father's room. It was very old, probably an antique his father had picked up during his travels. The surface was a little warped and rather dusty, but when Ryou wiped at it with his sleeve and held it up, he saw himself.

Unfortunately, he was having trouble getting past the frame of his face. He kept ghosting his brush over his painting, imagining how his eyes should look. Something was off, though. The spirit wasn't helping matters, sitting so close that Ryou was afraid he'd see their bodies merged at the shoulder if he glanced over. It was all he could do to look straight ahead.

Ryou swallowed and stared hard at his reflection. He leaned forward and shifted the mirror a fraction, enjoying how the smallest movement changed the shapes and shadows drastically.

Ryou shifted the mirror a little bit more, so that it was no longer his face in the glass. Sharp, dark eyes were reflected back to him, the pupils dark pits in the dim lighting. Without thinking, Ryou picked his brush back up. Soon a perfect drop of ink mirrored the pupil on the paper. Then, the heavy slant of the eyelid as it enveloped the glinting, glaring eyeball in its socket. Then, the pucker of skin that lifted his thin lips in a smirk. Then…

Then, he painted what he saw. /

"I used a mirror." Ryou said.

The teacher smiled. "I'm glad to see that using a mirror didn't dampen your stylization. The way you painted your eyes- they're dark and sharp and not really your eyes- and yet they fit. You painted yourself, but not the self us outsiders see from day to day."

Ryou blushed as the class murmured softly. Yugi, sitting near the back of the class, was staring straight at the portrait with a frown on his face. Ryou did his best not to think about what his friend was seeing.

"Just one more question, Bakura, and then you can sit down. That red border you painted – why did you choose that color? What compelled you to make the border?"

/ The spirit of the ring watched as his likeness was put onto paper in Ryou's careful sweeping brushstrokes. A final, jutting tuft of hair was drawn in the thick black ink, and the boy sat back.

"Do you like it?" Ryou didn't know why he asked. It didn't matter what the spirit liked. Certainly it didn't matter what Ryou liked to the spirit, at any rate. Still, he felt something like pride when his dark half answered:

"Your hand would put the Pharaoh's scribes to shame."

Ryou placed his brush in a cup of water, careful not to react to the kind-sounding words. The ink drifted to the water's surface like smoke wafting from a fire. He watched as the ink spread, quickly turning the water gray. He stood up, his legs aching from sitting so long. Picking up the mirror, Ryou turned from the table.

"Wait."

Ryou froze and glanced back. The spirit was standing too, now, his ghostly form leaning over the painting. His long white hair hid his face; hid his expression. "It's not finished," the spirit said. "It needs color. It needs life. Come here, my little Thoth."

Now that Ryou could see the spirit's smile, he didn't like it. He glared at the outstretched hand. "I'm done. Go somewhere else."

The infuriating smile widened. Ryou stepped back, suddenly frightened, but the spirit grabbed his wrist with lightning reflexes. Even though the spirit's hand was nothing but a mirage, the grip was painfully strong. "Don't worry. I'm still helping, you'll see."

"No. No!" But Ryou could already feel control of his body being wrenched from him, the spirit as unyielding as a strong river current, pulling him under and in and away, his hand raising without his permission, holding the ragged edge of the mirror against the skin of his palm, biting into the skin and across the skin as he jerked his hand.

He watched, literally detached, as his body held his bleeding hand over the portrait. The blood ran down the lines on his palm and dripped, landing on the paper with bright red splashes. His hand moved in a slow arc, framing the face in the macabre color. Some of the blood landed on the face itself, splatters of red in his hair and on his cheeks.

And then suddenly Ryou was back in control, and the pain from the cut was startling. He gasped and grabbed a napkin from the table, which he pressed against his hand.

"Why?" He demanded. There were angry tears in his eyes as he sat down. It wasn't a surprise that the spirit would hurt him, not really. But it still managed to feel like a fresh betrayal every time it happened.

"You are young," The Spirit's voice was laughing, but the sound was bitter. "Any true creation needs sacrifice. Needs blood. You'll learn, just like me." /

Ryou looked up at his teacher and shrugged. "That color was at hand. And… and the painting just wasn't finished."

The teacher beamed at him as if he had answered a tricky trivia question. She marked something in her grading book, and then turned towards the other students. "Class, does anyone have any comments or critiques for Ryou? Remember, feedback is an artist's true reward."

For a moment the class was silent. Ryou was about to return to his seat, relieved to get out of the spotlight, when a familiar voice spoke up.

"It's not you. It's an excellent painting, but it doesn't look at all like you."

Ryou's eyes locked with Yugi's. The young gamer looked unhappy, almost angry. All the students were watching them, waiting to see how Ryou would react. If any of them hoped for a confrontation, they were disappointed.

"Yugi," Ryou smiled softly. "It's just a painting."