A/N: This last chapter took a long time because the original version grew out of control, and has now become its own fic. Stand by for it to be uploaded as a separate story called 'On Little Cat Feet' sometime in the near future. Thanks to everyone who has supported and been patient with me throughout this project, and thanks also to Marian Babson, whose books inspired me to go back and finish this when I'd thought I never would.
5. When I Return to the World
When I return to the world,
Who's going to know I was here?
You'll never know I was there,
But I was there!
-- From When I Return to the World by Lorraine.
"Just go on through and sit down. I'll make everyone something to eat and drink." Bakura waved a hand vaguely at the doorway, not even looking at them. He'd been tense ever since he made the offer for them to come over to his apartment after school. Anzu heard him muttering under his breath as he went into the tiny kitchenette. "Please say I remembered to pick up milk when I went to the bakery …"
Bakura's apartment was miniscule. There was no other way of putting it. When she, Yuugi, Honda, Jounouchi and Otogi went into the 'sitting room' they barely fit, and couldn't all sit down on the two-seater sofa and single armchair. It was bizarre to think both Bakura and his father lived here – although in his father's case it was more of a stopover between trips abroad. For the most part Bakura lived alone, taking care of himself and living the kind of quiet, inconspicuous life that had made it far too easy for the Spirit of the Millennium Ring to take over without anyone noticing.
They could hear Bakura moving around, periodic noises signalling he'd dropped something or opened a cupboard with too much force.
"You okay in there?" Yuugi called.
"Fine, fine, just spilled the sugar. Nothing to worry about."
"Would you like some help -"
"No, I can manage. You can switch on the TV if you like."
Jounouchi gratefully grabbed up the remote, but then he just stared at it. After a moment he tossed it at Otogi, who passed it to Honda. Honda sighed and put it back on the coffee table.
"Well this is awkward," he murmured. "Why exactly are we here again? We've never been to Bakura's before." He looked around, indicating the lack of space with them all crammed in. It was claustrophobic in the extreme.
"For exactly that reason," Yuugi murmured in an equally soft voice. "We've never been here before. We always gather at my place, or Anzu's house, or Otogi's – and we've never invited Bakura over. Not once."
Yuugi shook his head. Anzu knew what thoughts would be ricocheting around inside it: that they should have reached out more, should have been able to tell that Bakura was being possessed by an evil spirit. It had been going on for months, and not one of them had realised. This weighed especially heavily on Yuugi, though Bakura had never accused them of neglect. Quite the contrary – he had thanked them for banishing the spirit and finally freeing him of its influence.
Still, Anzu knew how Yuugi felt, mainly because she felt it too. They all did. After all their high-handed words about how much friendship meant to them, they'd failed one of their own in the worst possible way. No amount of apologising was going to make that okay – may never make it okay.
Requests for forgiveness actually made Bakura uncomfortable. He wasn't given to displays of deep emotion – another reason it had been easy for the spirit to walk about in his body unnoticed. Bakura was used to keeping his head down and blending into the background. He'd spent a long time perfecting his technique. He'd tried to go back to that after Egypt, but they'd learned their lesson and refused to let him be alone anymore.
Because Bakura was alone. The more they looked, the more they'd realised just how isolated he was. It was rather chilling, actually, how easy it was for one person to be there and yet not be there; how a regular teenager could go to your school, sit in your classroom, read aloud from the same textbook, even share your after-school cleaning duty – a bonding session for all involved, if only because it united you against the faculty for making you mop floors and clap chalkboard erasers – and yet that person could still be a total stranger.
Anzu had been shocked when she comprehended that, despite several people having crushes on him, Bakura didn't interact with anyone at school. Not of his own accord, at least. He had no friends but their little group and never showed any interest in making others, or even in keeping their friendship as anything but a step above acquaintances. He responded when she and the rest of the gang reached out, and he'd step in if they needed help, but he never sought them out for simple things like company or conversation. He never volunteered stuff about himself unless pressed. He never asked for anything – no favours, no comfort, no support, no time.
Even following all his traumatic experiences, he seemed committed to going through life as overlooked and unneeded as possible. Most distressing of all was his clear certainty that he shouldn't expect anything more for himself. Under his bright smile and politeness, Ryou Bakura was even more of a martyr than Yuugi.
And considering what she knew about Yuugi, to Anzu that was just plain terrifying.
Obviously, they couldn't carry on that way. Before, it had been easy to forget Bakura when they arranged to go out or meet up. It had been simple to carry on a conversation while he sat a few desks away, and not even think about him asking him to join in, or expect him to join in on his own. It had been easy just to forget him when he wasn't there – and even when he was. Anzu felt sick when she thought about it. Some friends they were.
If they'd taken a little more interest, pushed a little harder, could they have prevented everything? Would they have noticed what was happening to Bakura and been able to stop it? Who knew the kind of scars he now carried? He was too good at hiding what he felt. Still, having your soul pinned down, unable to get free no matter how hard you struggled, and losing chunks of your life while someone else used your body like it was their own, use it to steal and murder …
The sick feeling just increased, the more she thought about it.
Now they made a conscious effort to include Bakura in whatever they did. It was motivated by guilt, sure, but they tried to hide that. They didn't want him to ever feel left out, or alone, or like he didn't have anyone who would stick up for him if he needed them. They also wanted to assess the damage and see what, if anything, they could do to repair it.
To say the arrangement felt artificial would be a horrendous understatement. Bakura was so used to his independence that he chafed at them constantly being around, but was too polite to tell them to go away. They, in turn, felt surplus to requirements with every bit of his life they uncovered that they hadn't known before. Bakura had his routines and his little world, which he had diligently built up around him like the protective walls of a castle. He was cautiously lowering the drawbridge, bit by bit, but it was obvious it would be a long time before they'd be able to cross it.
Still, they persevered. There was no way they could do anything else; not without becoming complete hypocrites.
"I spy with my little eye," Otogi said suddenly, in that bored tone he used when he was so on edge he couldn't bear to show it, "something beginning with 'c'."
"Crappy atmosphere?" Honda tried.
"Can't believe we've never been here before?" Anzu offered.
"Can we just go home now?" muttered Jounouchi. "Ow! Fucking hell, Anzu!"
"Don't nearly pull my fucking ear off. Ow!"
"Children, children, if you can't play nice I'm going to have to separate you. Besides, you're all wrong." Otogi shook his head and pointed. "Cat."
As one, grateful for something else to focus on, they followed his finger to the top of the open door. A fluffy white cat balanced on the impossibly narrow strip of wood. One push of the door would have dislodged it. Maybe that was why Bakura had left it open when he went to school that morning.
The cat was watching them intently, luminous green eyes fixed on Otogi. You could almost believe it was irritated at him for giving away its presence. It didn't close its eyes and try to sleep, or come down to investigate these strange invaders, the way any normal cat would. Instead it continued to watch, shifting its gaze from one face to another as if committing them to memory.
"That is one creepy cat," said Jounouchi. He shivered. "It's giving me the heebie-jeebies."
"Bakura never mentioned he had a cat," said Anzu.
"Maybe it's not his," Yuugi suggested. "He could be pet-sitting or something."
This theory was disproved when Bakura appeared in the doorway bearing a large tea tray. The cat mewed once in warning, and then leaped down onto his shoulder, where it arranged itself facing forward so it could see all that was going on without falling off. Bakura dipped slightly under the weight, but the mere fact he didn't drop the tray or act surprised told them this wasn't anything new.
"This is your cat?" Anzu realised with a jolt that it was she who'd spoken.
Bakura looked up. "Hm? Oh, yes." He set the tray down on the coffee table and reached up to scratch behind its ears.
"You never told us you had a cat," said Jounouchi. Anzu glared at him for his accusing tone. He spread his hands in a typical What did I do wrong now? gesture.
"Didn't I?" Bakura frowned. "I'm sure I must have."
The cat turned a look on Bakura that could only be described as peeved. Anzu hadn't known cats could be so expressive with just a look. Her family were dog people and had never had much time for cats.
"Oh. Well then." Bakura scratched again – left shoulder, left hand, like he was doing a complicated version of 'I'm a Little Teapot'. The action had the practised ease that said it, too, was a longstanding one, equal parts placating the cat and nervous habit. "I guess introductions are in order, then. Everyone, this is Alice. Alice; everyone."
Another peevish look, this one tinged with exasperation as well.
Okay, now you're just being silly, Anzu thought to herself. You're just personifying it. Cats don't have emotions the same way humans do. And you certainly aren't perceptive enough to read them in its eyes, even if it did have them. Which it doesn't. Duh, it's a cat. Stop reading too much into things.
Which was when Yuugi, very solemnly, got up and bowed a formal greeting. "Nice to meet you, Alice. I'm Yuugi."
The beat that followed this seemed to go on forever. Anzu waited for the other shoe to drop. Yuugi wasn't the type of guy to mock, but at the same time what he was doing was so ridiculous it was almost surreal.
Or was it? Yuugi was a lot more perceptive than the rest of them. He'd proven it time and time again. Had he picked up on something she'd missed? Had he read into Bakura's obvious affection for his pet and seen a way to connect with him that might actually work? More so than their previous ham-fisted attempts to find common ground that wasn't anything to do with Duel Monsters.
Alice stared at the top of Yuugi's head, the tips of her front paws just visible beneath her chest-ruff. Her white fur blended with Ryou's hair. Odd, how well they matched, considering the difference in species – almost exactly the same shade and texture, so you couldn't tell exactly where one ended and the other began. It gave the impression of a boy with two heads, or a cat with a very strange verruca.
The tension escalated like an overfull balloon, and then popped abruptly.
"I guess you pass muster," Bakura said with far more warmth than Anzu had heard from him in a long time.
"Pass mustard?" Jounouchi blinked. "What's mustard got to do with it?"
Otogi rolled his eyes. "Idiot. He means we measure up."
"Huh?" Jounouchi clearly still didn't understand.
"We check out. We qualify. We come up to scratch."
"What the hell are you talking about?" He looked around the group. "Did I miss something? What are you laughing at? C'mon, quit it!"
"That's Jounouchi," Anzu sniggered, pushing aside the fact she was not only talking to a cat, she was talking to it like it was human and understood more than just the tone of her voice. "He's a moron, but deep down, he's actually a pretty good guy under all that stupidity." She paused. "Deep down. Very deep down. Deeper than the deepest canyon in the deepest ocean. Deeper than -"
"Okay, okay, we get the message! Jeez, overegg the pudding, why doncha?"
"We mostly keep him around for the entertainment value."
Jounouchi glowered at her. "Well she's Anzu, and she's the bossiest piece of … um, work you'll ever not wanna meet. She sticks her nose into everyone's business, gets up in your face about every little thing, and thinks she knows best just because she comes top in her tests and junk like that."
"A feeling you'd know nothing about, Jounouchi," Anzu said sweetly. "Passing tests or knowing what's best."
"Only because nobody else will tell you the truth."
"Why I oughta -"
"They do this all the time," Honda said wearily. "You get used to it after a while. Just clear the area if they really get going, or you might become collateral damage."
Alice watched everything with a disturbingly intelligent gleam in her eyes. She seemed almost to be enjoying the argument and the chaos it promised. Her head ticked back and forth between Jounouchi and Anzu like an audience member at a ping-pong match. "Mrrrryeow."
They went on introducing themselves. It didn't get any less surreal, since Alice meowed a reply to each of them in a different pitch and tone, as if holding forth about something very important, if only they could translate from cat to human. Bakura went on pouring the tea and handing out biscuits and pastries. Anzu accepted hers but didn't look at her plate, too entranced by the sight of a fluffy white cat jumping into Jounouchi's lap, placing a paw on either of his shoulders, and staring him into submission when he started arguing with her again. After a few moments she actually looked over her shoulder and made a muttering sound, before curling up in his lap to watch proceedings from a new vantage point.
Suddenly conversation seemed to flow much more freely and easily. Bakura smiled, laughed, even joked with them, and before they knew it evening was falling outside and the tea had gone cold.
Anzu nibbled her fourth lavender cream, a cookie-like confection Bakura said he stocked up on during those infrequent visits to England. Beside her, Yuugi held a delicate teacup decorated with a rose frieze that was so stereotypically English she half expected a plate of crumpets and a set of fox-hounds to materialise next to a roaring fire in an open hearth. Yuugi's kitchen housed only chipped mugs and comedy coffee beakers collected by Grandpa Mutou over a lifetime of Father's Day gifts. The teacup should have looked odd in Yuugi's hands, but it actually looked reassuring.
Against all expectations, Anzu felt suddenly very … comfy.
"So, Bakura, did you bring your cat with you when you moved here?" Jounouchi, absently scratching Alice between her ears, also displaying a degree of cosiness Anzu wouldn't have predicted when they first walked through the door. "Does this thing meow in English or Japanese?"
Anzu felt her breath catch. Jounouchi, you idiot. What did you say wrong?
"Um, actually, she's not really my cat," Bakura murmured.
"Say what?" Jounouchi frowned. "Looks like yours to me."
Bakura crumbled a lavender cream between his thumb and forefinger. "She belonged to my sister. Or her mother did. Alice was born the day after …" He flushed, just as uncomfortable as ever, despite the sudden leap in progress. The slamming of brakes was almost audible – likewise the screech as a U-turn loomed.
Alice leapt from Jounouchi's lap and twined in and out of Bakura's ankles.
Bakura brushed crumbs from his hands and picked her up, unashamedly burying his face in her belly-fur. "Alice's litter was born the day after my mother and sister died in a car accident. We were supposed to look after them, my sister and I. We'd done all the research, taken care of all the preparation. It was our project together. But then …" He shook himself. "The details of what happened aren't important. What matters is that Alice was supposed to belong to my little sister, Amane, so I've always rather felt like I'm just cat-sitting for her." He smiled ruefully. "Stupid, I know. It's not like Amane will be coming back to collect her anytime soon, but … well, there you have it." He took a breath, as if for strength. "Just another indication of how abnormal I am, eh?" His voice was jovial, but falsely.
Anzu's throat felt very thick, as if she'd swallowed a treacle sandwich on molasses bread. Bakura's words struck like bullets, though she didn't think he intended them to be tactless. Instead, she thought he intended them as an acknowledgement of his own eccentricities – an attempt to laugh about the weirdness that characterised all their lives. Except that this time, the topic was closer to the bone than ancient spirits or Egyptian magic. It was easier to joke about deciding the fate of the world with a children's card game than it was to joke about grief and basic human pain.
Whatever his reason, Anzu disagreed with what he'd said. He wasn't abnormal, not that way, and the details were important. It was neglecting the details that had caused all the problems so far.
"I don't think it's stupid."
She heard the words, and for a second thought it was Yuugi stepping up to the plate again. It was the kind of thing he'd say. Then she saw his face, and realised she was wrong. Bizarrely wrong.
"Not in the slightest," Otogi went on. "You can't rationalise emotions. The fact you've kept the cat around, even bringing it with you when you emigrated, shows how much you miss your sister. It'd be more hurtful than you're capable of being, to get rid of it just because you don't feel like it's yours."
"Sorry," Otogi said without batting an eyelid. "Because you don't feel like she's yours."
A frown pleated Bakura's forehead. "You're saying I'm not hurtful?" he echoed incredulously.
Otogi fixed him with a stare that could, and had, reduced company executives to quivering plates of jelly. Anzu used to think the scourge of the boardroom was Seto Kaiba, until she overheard Otogi's secretary talking to his PA. "You're not."
The two words hung in the air like a cartoon raincloud waiting to rain on someone. Nobody said a thing. It reminded Anzu of a classroom right after the teacher has gone ballistic and thrown a textbook out of a window. Possibly without opening it first.
Then Alice broke the tension by pouncing on the plate of biscuits, scattering them everywhere. The plate scraped as the momentum of her jump carried both it and her across the coffee table. She shot off the end with a yowl and landed in a heap, the plate and its many crumbs plunking on top of her a millisecond later. A thin wail went up – the noise of a long-haired cat who has spent all day cleaning, at the expense of bringing up hairballs, suddenly finding it has to do it all over again.
She stalked out from under the plate and grumbled her annoyance to Bakura, butting his shins with her head until he picked her up again. Once in his arms, however, instead of cleaning herself she set about vigorously licking his face, as if to say: There now. Public humiliation over with. Now I've sacrificed my dignity for you, can you go back to normal and stop being so sad?
As if on cue, Otogi chimed in with, "Can we all quit with the war orphan faces so I can get off this soapbox?"
Bakura pushed Alice's face away. She yowled, so he let her return to cleaning him, her tail lashing in the manner of one who knows exactly what to do to improve every situation, if only people would stop thinking of her as a dumb animal and listen.
Anzu watched with surprise. Bakura was so affectionate with Alice – genuinely caring, not just the facsimile he used outside his home. The well-mannered, polite boy she'd gotten to know abandoned propriety and allowed himself to be covered in cat spit and biscuit crumbs, out of the kind of pure love people always kept private because that level of emotion was embarrassing when seen by those not directly involved in it. He made noises rather like purring himself, and her throat felt very thick again.
Bakura was startled. "What did you call me?"
"I … was wondering …" Anzu was embarrassed. "We've known you a long time now, right? But … um … well, would it be okay if we stopped calling you by your surname and used your first name instead? Like they do in England?"
Bakura stared at her.
"It just seems really formal for friends … and given your background … Of course, if you'd rather stick to using your surname the way Honda, Jounouchi and Otogi do, that's fine as well. It was just an idea. Y'know, because you sometimes still put your names the Western way around when you write, so I thought … if you think of yourself as Ryou more than as Bakura … maybe …"
"That's very thoughtful of you." A slow smile spread across his face, unlike the usual discomfort that appeared when one of them tried to be thoughtful. For once, someone had got it right. The relief inside Anzu was like an unclenching fist. "I'd be flattered for you to use my first name. Honoured, in fact."
"Don't get all mushy about it, dude," Jounouchi muttered. "You always use big words and act so posh and dignified. You're with us now, buddy. Dignity's got nothing to do with it." He picked up one of the scattered lavender creams, which trailed several long white hairs, and put it in his mouth.
Honda, Otogi and Anzu all rolled their eyes. Yuugi just looked on with quiet, resigned amusement.
"And don't we know it," Anzu muttered.
"Mre-he-he-ow!" Alice opined, and Anzu could've sworn she was laughing.