Manjoume heard the sound of oncoming footsteps and quickly ducked into a darkened office, drawing his jacket tightly around him so that he blended in with the shadows. No one looking into the room would have seen even the glinting of his eyes as he held his breath and watched for the approach of an enemy.
It turned out not to matter, because it was only Gekkou.
"Aw, geez ,it's just you," Manjoume grumbled, stepping out of his hiding place.
"I take it you haven't run into any trouble yet," Gekkou replied. He leaned against the wall near Manjoume's hiding place. "I'm actually surprised. I more than half-expected someone to try to stop us by now."
"Me too," said Manjoume. He ground his fist into his hand. "It's not fair! Juudai gets to do all the important stuff and I have to stalk around like a stupid hall monitor. He never thinks about anyone else's feelings..."
"I take it you were hoping for a fight. Well, I was too, if it comes to that."
Manjoume gave him a look. "You don't really look like the fighting type to me."
"That's perceptive," said Gekkou. "To tell the truth, what I was really hoping was to find my brother."
"You wanted to fight with your brother?" Manjoume said. "That's stupid. I fight with my brothers all the time and it's not worth the bother."
"I think this is a little different," said Gekkou. "Yakou and I used to be very close, a long time ago. It wasn't until Pegasus adopted us that thing started getting... complicated."
"Pegasus adopted you?" Manjoume repeated. This was the first he'd heard of Pegasus adopting anyone.
"Assumed legal guardianship," said Gekkou. "There were a lot of us - children he chose for their skills in gaming and game design. Pegasus recruited me after he saw me playing cards with my friends. He didn't realize then that I even had a twin, but after he found out, he took us both." Gekkou sighed. "Yakou never really forgave me for that."
"For what? Hooking him up with a home with one of the richest people in the world?" Manjoume retorted.
"For being the one who was noticed," said Gekkou. "Yakou worships Pegasus. All he's ever done since he got here is try to get Pegasus to notice him, and I seem to do everything better than he does without even trying."
"That's his problem, not yours," Manjoume said.
"You don't understand," said Gekkou helplessly. "He's my brother."
"So what? I've got brothers, too," Manjoume said, "and let me tell you, they're the biggest jerks you've ever met. They put me down and push me around every chance they get. If I can deal with it, so can he."
Gekkou gave Manjoume an evaluating look. "Do you think I'm a jerk?"
"Well, no, not really. Not compared to some people..."
"Then maybe I don't want to treat my little brother that way."
Manjoume was robbed for words. Instead, he snorted softly and folded himself into his black coat as though trying to disappear into the shadows again. Gekkou sighed softly.
"I wonder what's going through his mind right now," he said. "For the first time in his life, he's the one Pegasus favors now."
"Except he's not. Hayato snapped Pegasus out of it, remember?"
"That's not going to make things any better from Yakou's point of view, is it?"
Manjoume had to admit that this was probably true.
Gekkou continued, "I just wish that there was something - something I could say to him that would make him... make him..."
"Make him what? Be happy with being second-best?" said Manjoume. "Not going to happen. Not if he's got any pride."
"At least someone here has some sense," a new voice interjected. It was very much like one of the familiar voices, but not quite. It was Gekkou's voice, but where his was soft and gentle and hesitant, this one was cold and proud and thrummed with intensity. There was a hint of a strain, to it, something that called to mind the wildly spinning gears of a machine just before it broke down entirely.
"Yakou," Gekkou greeted.
"You just can't leave me alone, can you?" said Yakou. "The one time I finally manage to get ahead of you, and you insist on getting in my way."
"I'm not trying to get in your way," Gekkou began, but Yakou talked over him.
"And you took Pegasus from me," he said.
"It wasn't me, it was-"
"That doesn't matter," said Yakou."I've been looking for you, big brother. I want to show you in person what I've learned from the Light. You're finally going to get what's coming to you."
"Yakou, if we just talk about this, I'm sure we can..."
"No," said Yakou, holding up one fist. There was a Duel Disk mounted on one arm, and he wore it in the manner of one who intends to use it.
"We don't have time for..."
"Better do what he says," Manjoume advised, almost boredly. In his experience, dueling someone was often a good cure for whatever mental hangups they were suffering from. Even if they weren't possessed by evil entities that could be conveniently driven out, it was still a good way for all parties involved to blow off steam.
Gekkou seemed to consider for a moment, then nodded. He charged his own disk and took his position on the other end of the hall. Manjoume settled in to spectate.
Yakou, predictably, took the first turn, and Manjoume decided almost at once that either Gekkou had been exaggerating his own abilities, or the Light had drastically improved Yakou's. After a few more minutes, Manjoume settled on the former. Yakou had wasted no time in getting a number of high-powered monsters on the field, mostly filmy angelic-looking creatures that packed a far greater punch than they looked like they should be able to. Gekkou, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling. He was barely defending himself, losing life points by the hundreds each turn. He also seemed to be having trouble settling on a good set of cards, constantly casting things to the graveyard and refreshing his hand.
This is the guy who Pegasus picked to be his ultimate duelist? He doesn't look like much of a prize to me, Manjoume mused. Still, there was something odd about the fact that Gekkou couldn't even seem to muster a decent offensive - he'd barely scraped Yakou's life points - when even the greenest beginner could have at least managed to summon a few more monsters. This was a man who presumably had access to all the best cards ever made, and, if those weren't enough, could make a few more of his own devising. There was no way he ought to be playing that badly.
Which, Manjoume realized suddenly, meant he was playing very well indeed.
"My turn," said Gekkou in his quiet, confident way. "I play Arms Reincarnation. All equipment cards in my cemetery are brought back to the field as monsters with 500 attack points each, and their effects are treated as the monsters' special effects."
Manjoume watched approvingly as an array of monsters appeared in a neat row across the field. Not very strong monsters, to be sure, but it was better than he had done since the duel started. Pity they were all in defense position, though...
"And now I play Stop Defense," Gekkou continued. "All my monsters go into attack mode. And for the final touch, I play Power Connection. Each of my monsters gains an additional 500 attack points for each monster of its type on the field. Since each of my monsters is of the same type, they each gain 2000 attack points."
Manjoume whistled softly. In one move, Gekkou had gone from having no monsters on the field to having five monsters on the field with attack points ranging from 2500 to 3000, and all of them were about to rain down some punishment on Yakou.
Well, what do you know, he mused, as he watched all of Yakou's monsters - and his life points - go up in smoke. He really isn't half bad. I'd like to have a crack at dueling him someday.
Yakou crumpled to the floor, sent reeling by the force of having all his life points disposed of at once. Gekkou turned off his disk and walked over to his brother's side.
"That's done," he said quietly. "Now, let's forget all this. There's no reason for us to fight."
Yakou raised his head, and his long hair fell away, revealing a face that was twisted into a rictus of pure fury.
"Don't you dare take that condescending tone of voice with me!" he snarled. "It's like this every time! You think you can just keep pushing me down and I'm supposed to smile and tell you it's all right. Well, it's fine for you, but what about me?"
"What about you?" Manjoume sneered. "That's your problem, isn't it?"
Yakou glared icily at him. "Who asked you?"
"Well, excuse me for having an opinion," Manjoume shot back. "I just can't stand listening to some whiny loser carrying on like nothing's ever his fault."
"Manjoume, please, stay out of this..." Gekkou said.
"Who are you calling a.... a...." Yakou stumbled over the words as though they were something unbelievably obscene that he couldn't quite bring himself to pronounce.
"A whiny loser," Manjoume repeated. "That's what I called you, because that's what you are. Anybody who blames the fact that he lost on the other player is an idiot who needs to get off the duel field."
"How dare you speak that way to me," Yakou snapped.
"I'm saying it because it's true," Manjoume replied. "Listen to yourself. You act like it's everyone else's responsibility to let you win no matter how bad your game is. Maybe if you put a little effort into improving yourself, you might win once in a while."
"I do put in effort!" Yakou protested. "All I've done since I got here is fight to catch up to him..."
"So you want him to stop fighting?"
"Well..." There was a long pause. When he spoke again, he sounded uncertain. "No, not exactly... I just want to win. To be appreciated."
"Uh-huh," said Manjoume. "Let me tell you something. I know what it's like to have big brothers getting in your way all the time. I know what it's like to lose. And I also know it doesn't make any difference if you don't let it. If you lose, get up and try again. That's the way of a duelist. And as for being appreciated..." Manjoume trailed off and looked at Gekkou. "Looks to me like someone appreciates you. That's more than my big brothers ever did. I can't tell you what to do, but if it were me, I think I'd take advantage of it."
Yakou looked uncertainly at his twin, giving every appearance of a man who is teetering on the brink.
"We used to be friends," said Gekkou gently. "In the orphanage together, remember? You were always the strong one, then. I always relied on you for courage. I still don't like facing the world alone. I still want us to be friends, the way we were before."
He offered Yakou his hand. Yakou looked at him blankly. Manjoume just sighed and pressed a hand to his face.
"Get up, you idiot," he said. "Don't you know an apology when you hear one?"
An expression of shock crossed Yakou's face, and then a cautious smile. He took his brother's hand and stood up.
"Thank you," he said, to Gekkou, to Manjoume.
It was an uncomfortably mushy moment, of the sort that Manjoume preferred to avoid whenever possible. He began to say something disparaging to break the tension, but was saved from having to do so by the ringing of his phone. He flipped it out and answered it while the brothers watched him curiously.
"What is it?" he demanded.
"We have a problem," said Asuka's voice on the other end of the line. "Juudai's passed out, and we can't get him to wake up."
"Oh, great. He's sleeping on the job again!" Manjoume complained. "All right, we'll be right there."
He turned off his phone and looked at the brothers.
"Come on, we've got to get out of here," he told them. "Looks like our hero needs help."
"Is he still alive?" asked Shou.
"I think so," Kenzan replied. "He's still breathing, I think."
"He had better be!" said Manjoume. "I didn't come all this way just for him to die now."
Juudai felt a foot prodding at his shoulder. He thought it was a foot, anyway. His head hurt, and his whole body felt tingly and achey, as though he were coming down with a bad fever. He moaned and twitched a little.
"Well, he's still alive," said Misawa's no-nonsense voice. "Come on, Juudai, rise and shine."
"You have to. It's important."
"Fymurr mints," Juudai mumbled.
"What did he say?" Misawa asked.
"He wants five more minutes," Shou explained. "Here, I'll get him. Hey, Juudai, if you don't get up right now, the cafeteria's going to run out of fried shrimp."
"What?" said Juudai. "But they don't serve fried shrimp for... Oh," he finished, looking around. There was a ring of people standing around him, watching him anxiously. He fixed an accusatory glare at Shou. "That wasn't nice."
"Sorry," said Shou, "but it's the only known way to get you to wake up."
"I don't know what I did wrong," said Zweinstein. He was bent over his computers, staring at the screens. "Everything should have worked perfectly... I can't find a single mistake."
"What's wrong?" asked Juudai.
"You're asking us?" Asuka replied. "As soon as that machine turned on, you collapsed. You've been out cold for nearly an hour."
"But... but I did go there," said Juudai. "I climbed this huge tree, and there were all these animals..."
"You were dreaming," Manjoume told him.
"I was not! It was really real... Maybe a little too real," said Juudai. "It was scary."
"I guess we'll just have to try it again," said Misawa. "Maybe if we lowered the amplitude a bit..."
"You guys aren't listening!" Juudai snapped. "I really was in Neospace! If I wasn't, then where did I get these?"
He reached into his pocket and pulled out all the cards he had picked up when he was climbing the tree. He was surprised to find that there were more there than he remembered finding, but everything he remembered was still there. He held them up for everyone to see.
"Where did you get those?" asked Pegasus.
"I told you," said Juudai. "In Neospace. In the tree."
"I think it might be a bit more complex than that," said Saiou. He was giving Juudai a thoughtful look. "Something has definitely changed. Mizuchi, what can you show us?"
Mizuchi glanced around the room until her gaze fell on a framed print of the periodic table of elements, mostly hidden by a stack of physics magazines. She pushed them aside and unhooked it from the wall.
"This will do," she said. She carried it over to Juudai and held it up in front of him. "Look at your reflection, please."
Uncertain what this was supposed to accomplish, Juudai nevertheless positioned himself in front of the picture until he could see his image reflected faintly in the plastic that covered it. At first he could see nothing unusual, but the image gradually changed, like a developing photograph. The outlines grew sharper and the colors more vivid, until it was exactly as though he were looking into a mirror, and not merely a piece of cheap plastic. Juudai's jaw dropped, but his reflection continued to gaze at him steadily. The space around him darkened and filled with swirling shadows, and his eyes brightened to gold. His face looked harder and sharper somehow, at once older and ageless.
"Am I seeing things?" said Zweinstein..
"This is the image of Juudai's true soul," said Mizuchi. She gave the reflection a critical look. "It appears sufficiently dark to me."
"That's all well and good," said Misawa, "but those of us with more scientific mindsets would like a bit of solid proof."
"Where are we going to get that?" Zweinstein replied. "I haven't got anything he could test it on..."
"Oh, that's all over the place," said Gekkou calmly. "Brother, might I borrow your deck for a moment?"
Yakou took out his cards and passed them to his twin.
"Here," Gekkou said, handing the cards to Juudai. "See what you can make of this."
Juudai made a face at it, as though it felt slimy.
"What has he been doing with these things?" he asked. "Their voices don't sound right."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kenzan muttered, but Manjoume shushed him.
Juudai wasn't paying attention to either of them. He was staring pointedly down at the cards. Something like a white mist was forming over them, writhing and straining. Juudai held the deck over his other hand and squeezed it.
"Come out," Juudai told it sternly. "You don't belong in there. Come out."
The blot of light slithered out of the cards to land in Juudai's palm. It began to twine around his fingers like a tiny white snake. Juudai spread his hand flat, and the light settled there, twinkling. He closed his fist tightly. There was a high-pitched squeal that caused everyone to clap their hands over their ears, and a strong smell of burning plastic. Juudai held his hand closed until the shriek died down, and when he opened it again, there was nothing left but a small patch of silvery dust on his hand. He brushed it off on the leg of his jeans.
"I don't think we'll have any more trouble with the Light," he said.
"Then that's it!" said Edo. "Now all we have to do is go find my Dad."
"You make it sound easy," said Pegasus. "You had better be careful in there. My offices weren't designed for people to find their way through them easily. Even if we unlock the doors for you, beyond that point..."
"We can do it," said Edo. "It's Destiny."
"Be careful," said Saiou sternly. "If anything happens to you..."
Edo stared at him. "I thought you were coming with me."
"What?" said Saiou, plainly caught by surprised. "But I thought..."
"Look, you don't have to come if you don't want to."
"I do," said Saiou quickly, "but I thought it was only meant to be you and Juudai. It's not part of my fate to do this."
"I don't care," said Edo flatly. "You said it would take me and him to do this. You never said that nobody else could come along. You didn't predict all of these people, and they've all helped one way or another. Why not you?"
Saiou hesitated. Edo turned and began walking towards the door. "Come on if you're coming. I'm not going to wait."
He caught Juudai by the arm and dragged him along with him. A moment later, Saiou went scrambling gracelessly to catch up.
"Knew you'd do it," said Edo. "Now, let's not waste any more time."
They didn't. With their newfound powers of Darkness, there was no more fear of running afoul of one of the Light's adherents, so they headed straight for the nearest elevator and pushed the button for the top floor. Edo fidgeted as they rode slowly upwards.
"Nervous?" Juudai asked him.
"Kind of," Edo admitted. "I feel like I've been waiting all my life just for this..."
"Then you should be glad it's almost over," said Juudai. "It's no good spending your whole life waiting for something. You ought to be living the life you've got now."
Saiou gave him a thoughtful look, but refrained from commenting.
They reached the top floor, and the elevator doors slid silently open. Edo stepped out warily and looked around. There was no sign of life, and no sound but the almost inaudible hum of a ventilation unit somewhere nearby. Keeping in a tight huddle, they made their way down the hallway to the grand wooden door labeled "Pegasus J. Crawford." Edo glanced at his companions before setting his hand on the latch and resolutely opening it. He threw the door open.
There was nothing inside. More accurately, there was something, but it was only a perfectly ordinary office, with a large desk and a computer and a few bookshelves full of handsomely bound books. Tasteful artworks adorned the walls. There was even a vase of fresh flowers resting on a pedestal in a corner.
"He's not here," said Edo, disappointment etched across his face.
Juudai frowned. "It feels like something is in here... I can hear someone breathing. Can't you?"
Edo shook his head, but Saiou said, "He's right, there is something here, something we're missing..."
Juudai took a few experimental steps into the room, and, when nothing unpleasant happened to him, he took a few more.
"Well, it seems like it's safe," he said, and tripped over something that wasn't there.
"What was that?" said Edo, moving instinctively towards him.
Juudai sat up, apparently unharmed, and began feeling the empty space in front of him. "It feels like a chair."
"An invisible chair?" Edo said, frowning. He put his hand next to Juudai, and felt the leathery texture of the arm of a good-quality piece of office furniture.
"I don't think invisible is quite the right word," said Saiou. He stepped carefully into the room and began walking slowly towards the nearest wall. He stopped and raised a hand to let it rest a few inches short of actually touching anything. "The walls aren't where they should be, either. This whole room is an illusion."
"So the guy is hiding in here somewhere where we can't see him?" asked Juudai.
"Not quite," said Edo. "Pegasus has this whole floor to himself - there are bunches of rooms, all connected to each other. He could be in any of them... but we can't find him if we can't even see the rooms."
"Leave that to me," said Saiou. He began to untie the cravat he wore at his throat, and bound it around his eyes like a blindfold. "I don't need to be able to see to know what my surroundings are. I will be your guide."
He started across the room, moving as confidently as he did when his eyes were uncovered. He paused a few feet to the right of a nearby side door, and reached out to apparently open the wall. There was no visible change, but he turned back to Juudai and Edo to say, "Through here."
Edo found it a disorienting sensation to have to walk through a wall. The fact that Saiou did it with no apparent problems was the only thing that persuaded him to do it. It didn't feel like anything at all, but his eyes were dazzled with a sudden burst of light that made him snap them shut. He could still see bright spots dancing against the back of his eyelids. He kept his eyes shut as he stumbled into whatever came next, and he felt Saiou's hands reach out to steady him. Behind him, he could hear the sound of footfalls, indicating that Juudai was on his way through after him. Edo decided it was safe to open his eyes.
Nothing had changed. They were still in the same office, with the same furniture and the same computer and the same flowers on the same pedestal. Edo blinked. The door they had come through was still open - he could see out into the hallway.
"What just happened?" he asked.
"We moved," said Saiou.
"But it's the same room," said Juudai, which made Edo feel much better.
"It is not," Saiou said. "Whatever it may appear to you to be, this is actually a file room. Be careful how you move - there are a lot of shelves in here."
Juudai was looking around the room, spinning in place.
"Something is different," he said. "I can't put my finger on what, though."
"What do you mean?" Edo snapped back. "It's the same stupid room. Just look at it! Even the pattern of the rug is the same. Even the..."
And then he stopped, because he had just realized what was different. The tasteful artworks on the walls had been replaced by paintings of swirling starscapes. Edo glared at them. They were the same pictures that his father had been painting the day Edo had run away from home.
"Oh, that's really funny!" he shouted at the air in general. "That's really damned funny!"
"Calm yourself, Edo," said Saiou.
"The hell I'm going to be calm! That stupid light thing is laughing at me!" Edo retorted. "Which way is out? I'm going to find that thing and teach it not to play games with me!"
Saiou silently extended a hand, pointing at an invisible door, and Edo rushed toward it, pausing only long enough to glance over his shoulder and make sure Saiou and Juudai were following him. He passed easily through the open doorway, and with another bright flash of light, he found himself in another building entirely.
He was home - his old home, in the little apartment where he had once lived with his father. It looked, he thought, rather the worse for wear, and wondered warily just why he was being shown this when he knew full well that he was supposed to be at Industrial Illusions. His mind knew it, anyway. The rest of him was having trouble believing it. Even though it had been years since he had been in the apartment, memories of it came back clearly. It looked smaller and shabbier than he remembered, but then, he had been smaller the last time he had seen it. The checkerboard tiles in the kitchenette were still there, the ones he had played hopscotch on as a child, and the wobbly kitchen table that his father would try to draw on even though it wouldn't ever stand straight, and the old lamp that his father had picked up at a yard sale still sat in the corner of the living room next to the swaybacked old sofa. Edo wandered over to it and ran his fingers through the fringe on its shade. He had constantly been doing that as a child, no matter how often his father had told him not to do it. Now, as then, he watched in near-hypnotic fascination as the satin tassels swayed and rippled. Illusion or not, it was nice to be home.
Don't let down your guard, he told himself. This isn't really home.
Even so, it was hard to just turn and walk away. The whole place looked so familiar and so real. He could even smell the scent of his father's painting supplies and the pot of coffee he always kept close at hand. Without thinking about it, Edo began walking towards the studio door and pushed it open.
His father was at his work table, sketching busily, but he looked up as Edo came in. He smiled and held up his picture, offering it for Edo's approval. It was one of the armored heroes Edo had always favored. Edo felt his throat tighten.
It would be so easy just to stay here...
The thought felt like it came from somewhere inside him, in his own voice. It seemed so natural. Everything he'd wanted was here. He wouldn't even have to fight for it. As long as he just stayed here, everything would be simple and perfect, exactly the way he wanted it...
"Oh, hell, no," he said aloud. "You aren't going to get me like that. Nobody ever got anything good without fighting for it."
He turned on his heel, and, forcing himself to ignore his father's heartbroken expression, marched out of the room.
The scenery changed again. Edo found himself standing on a pile of rubble. Smoke hung heavily beneath a reddish sky, partially obscuring a skyline of ruined buildings that stood before him like a row of broken teeth. He took a cautious step and staggered a little. The ground he was standing on was actually no more than a few slabs of flooring lying precariously across twisted metal beams. The whole thing looked like it would fall apart at any moment. He cast around for a way to get down.
It's all an illusion, he told himself, but his brain was having none of it. What he saw was that he was standing a long way up, on uncertain footing, and that falling down would hurt. He stayed put and tried to decide on an alternate strategy.
While he was still standing there, wondering what to do, his attention was caught by the sound of someone walking slowly across the rubble. Edo looked up, wondering what was going to be thrown at him now, and almost sighed with relief when he saw that it was only Juudai. He looked to be in rough shape - his jacket was torn and there were smudges of soot on his clothing and hair - but he didn't seem to be injured. He walked very slowly, like a man in a trance.
"Hey, up here!" Edo called.
Juudai looked up at him, and Edo felt a chill, not only at the haggard expression on his face, but because his eyes glittered with a hard light, like gold.
"Edo," he croaked. "You... survived...."
"Survived?" Edo repeated. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know," said Juudai. He took a few staggering steps forward, slipping on the debris. He kept his eyes fixed on Edo in a way that he found disturbing. It was as though Juudai thought Edo was the last safe thing on earth. "I don't know what I did. It just... went out of control..."
Edo stared. "You mean you did this?"
"I didn't mean to!" said Juudai desperately. "It went out of control. The darkness was too strong... I couldn't make it do what I wanted..."
He reached out a hand towards Edo. Tendrils of darkness twined around it, spreading away from him like a cloud of smoke. Edo tried to back away.
"Please," Juudai gasped, creeping forward. "Don't leave me... you're the only one left... Don't leave me all alone here..."
Edo backed away frantically, and he stumbled and fell down hard. In the next instant, the dark clouds were engulfing him, blinding him...
He lost track of things for a while after that. When he came to, he was lying down, in bed, with the blankets drawn over him. He blinked a few times as he recognized the familiar setting of his own room back home. A wave of disorientation washed over him. Where was he, really? Could this really be just a hallucination, or...
He turned on his side, and saw Saiou dozing in a chair nearby. He looked tired. Edo noticed that his long hair had a frazzled look, as though part of it had been burned off.
"Saiou?" he said cautiously. "Are you... okay?"
Saiou twitched a little and opened his eyes. His features relaxed into a wan smile. "Edo... you're awake. Finally."
"How long have I been out?" Edo asked. He still wasn't convinced that anything he was seeing was real, but he felt that the more he learned about what he was seeing, the more easily he could spot any discrepancies.
"Almost two days," said Saiou. "I was afraid, for a time, that... I'm glad you're all right. Edo. I was worried."
Edo sat up. "What happened?"
"There was... an accident," Saiou answered slowly. "Somehow Juudai's power went out of control. Everything was destroyed. We were lucky to make it out alive. Some of the others were badly injured. Juudai..." He trailed off and shook his head. "It was too much for him."
"And my dad?" asked Edo.
Saiou bowed his head. "I'm sorry. The Light's hold on him was too strong, and Juudai's control was not great enough to separate them."
"No!" said Edo. "That can't be... this is just a dream..."
"I'm afraid not," said Saiou. "You're going to have to accept this."
"I will not accept this! This is just another of these illusions, and I'm not going to listen to it anymore!"
"Calm yourself," said Saiou. "What illusions are you talking about?"
"When we were looking for my dad, there were these hallucinations where I kept thinking I was in different parts of the building, or other places, and... look, it doesn't matter anyway because none of this is real!"
Saiou watched him, his expression grave and tired.
"Edo, please. Don't make this harder than it is," said Saiou. "You've been dreaming. Whatever you have been seeing was a dream, but this is real."
"It is not!"
"I know it will take some time to accept," said Saiou calmly, "but it will be all right. I'll still take care of you. You'll never be alone as long as I'm with you... and the others will be there for you. You can finally move on with your life."
"No, I can't do this..."
"You must. This is reality," said Saiou. "You've never been one to run away from your problems before."
"That was when I thought I could fix them!" Edo snapped.
"Not everything can be fixed. You've done everything you could do, Edo. No one can blame you for how this turned out. It's time to move on."
Edo hesitated. He felt lost and confused, and was wondering if all of this could truly be just an illusion. Maybe he really had been dreaming. If only he could figure out where he stood...
Close your eyes, said a voice in his mind.
"What?" he said aloud.
Close your eyes. The illusion can't affect you while your eyes are closed.
That made sense. Edo shut his eyes tightly, and a moment later, he felt a pair of hands closing around his own, drawing him to a standing position.
"Juudai, kill the lights," said Saiou's voice.
"What, all of them?" Juudai asked.
"As many as you can."
There was a long pause. Then there was a shriek, much louder than the one that Edo had heard when Juudai had crushed the tiny living light, and he would have clapped his hands over his ears if Saiou hadn't been holding tightly to them. Instead, he winced and gritted his teeth until the sound gradually faded away to a whimper and then vanished altogether.
"I believe it is safe for you to open your eyes now," said Saiou.
Edo opened his eyes and was not entirely surprised to see that the scenery had changed again. This time, though, he was not in any place he recognized. In fact, it appeared to be a men's bathroom - immaculately clean, but indisputably a bathroom. Edo was somewhat disturbed to realize he had been lying on the floor, and he brushed reflexively at his clothes. It was dark in the room, with the only light supplied by the moonlight streaming through the curtains of a small window. As Edo's eyes adjusted, he realized that he was still seeing the faint outlines of his room at home against the backdrop of the bathroom. He blinked a few times, but they were still there.
Evidently, Saiou noticed there was something off, too.
"Is that the best you can do?" he demanded, turning his blindfolded face towards Juudai.
"Hey, I'm really new at this!" Juudai protested. "At least it's better now, right?"
"Could someone please tell me what's going on?" Edo demanded.
"You wandered off," Saiou explained. "You kept going from room to room, and it has taken us this long to get our bearings and find you again. You're going to have to be more careful."
Edo bowed his head. "I didn't mean to."
"I know you didn't mean to," said Saiou gently. "Listen. I am not affected by the illusions because I do not need to see to find my way, and Juudai can resist them because he has the powers of Darkness with him, but you have no defenses besides your own innate stubbornness. You are going to have to control yourself."
Edo nodded. "I understand."
"Keep hold of me so you won't wander off again," Saiou told him.
Edo started to protest that he didn't need someone to lead him around like an infant, and then realized that yes, he probably did, considering what he'd just been doing. There was only so long a sane man could go around doubting his senses, and the last thing Edo wanted was to spend the next few days wandering around getting trapped in bathrooms while the world came to an end.
"All right," he said, and took hold of Saiou's arm.
The blind leading the blind, he mused, as he allowed himself to be escorted out of the room. It felt odd to be relying on someone who obviously couldn't see where he was going to show him the right way, but it was downright eerie watching Saiou navigate his way around obstacles without ever seeming to notice they were there.
They stepped out of the bathroom and into an art studio. Edo glanced around it, taking in the shelves of materials, the easels and worktables, the shadowbox, the array of finished and unfinished works set off to the side, the rolls of canvas and framing materials, all the little odds and ends of the trade that he had seen in his father's house so many times before. There was a coffee machine sitting in the corner, patiently keeping the pot warm for the next time someone felt inclined to attend to it. Edo remembered the familiar scents of coffee and paint thinner from his earlier dream and sighed wistfully.
They continued on in silence, with Saiou serenely leading the way and Juudai bringing up the lead. Edo couldn't help but notice that he was growing steadily more agitated as they went on, and that from time to time, his eyes gave off a metallic glimmer. It made Edo uneasy enough that he stopped looking, and felt ashamed of himself for it. Even if they had been only dreams, the idea of Juudai losing control was not a comfortable one.
He forced his mind away from that thought with a great effort of will, and instead tried to think about what he was going to do when they got to the end of this mess and finally found his father. What then? He couldn't help but think that it wasn't going to be as easy as marching in there and telling the Light it wasn't wanted...
The next thing he knew, he was back in his father's workshop again. He stifled the urge to sigh. How many times were they going to go through this?
It's not going to work this time, he thought defiantly. He could no longer see the reality, but he could feel Saiou's hand guiding him steadily forward, and he knew that what he was seeing wasn't real.
Oh, but this is real, hissed a voice in his mind. It's the truth. You're about to see what really happened. You should know.
And why would I believe anything you tell me? Edo thought.
Because I am the Light. I illuminate. It is my nature to reveal things. Consider this my token of gratitude.
Gratitude? What have I ever done for you? In case you missed it, I'm here to kick your ass back to outer space or wherever it is you came from.
It's your fault I'm here, said the Light. Watch.
And Edo, despite his best efforts, could not seem to do anything but watch, because his eyes saw the same thing wherever he looked. What he saw was the window of his father's workroom, with a starry sky beyond it. One of the stars shone more brightly than the others, and Edo realized that it was coming closer, until it finally fell straight through the glass and onto the desk where Edo's father kept his spare pencils and other odds and ends. Edo saw a piercingly bright light seeping from the edges of the drawer for a second before it faded.
A moment later, the door to the room opened, allowing a shadowy figure to slip inside. The thief began scanning the room before making a beeline for the drawer. He slid it open slowly, and Edo could see a card shimmering faintly inside.
He's going to steal it! thought Edo, with a sinking feeling. The stranger was going to steal the card, and the Light along with it... only he wasn't, because in a few seconds, Edo was going to walk in and stop him. He was going to run away and leave it behind, and Edo's father would find it instead, and the events that had upended Edo's peaceful life would be set in motion.
You see? It's your fault, the Light whispered. If you hadn't interfered, I would have been taken far away from you and left in the hands of a common thief. Because of you, I was able to work my way into one of the most powerful companies on Earth...
"It's not my fault!" Edo shouted, and the others stopped walking to stare at him.
"What is it?" asked Saiou urgently.
"You don't shout over nothing. What is it?"
Edo hesitated a moment before admitting, "The Light's trying to convince me that this is all my fault. But it's not," he added fiercely. "There was no way I could have known what I was doing..."
Saiou shot a glare at Juudai. "I thought you were supposed to be keeping him from hallucinating."
"I'm trying, okay?" said Juudai. "This is harder than it looks, and I'm new to it."
"Well, keep trying."
"It's okay," Edo insisted. "I know it's just a trick. I'm not going to listen no matter what it says."
Saiou looked doubtful. Tense lines showed in his usually placid face, but all he said was, "Let's hurry."
And hurry they did. Saiou guided them steadily through the maze of rooms, while Edo struggled to ignore the images that flashed before his eyes. Eventually he grew so tired of trying to tune it all out that he decided that Saiou's solution was best, and closed his eyes. It was somewhat nerve-wracking to be wandering through an unfamiliar space without being able to see where he was going, but Saiou was sure and steady and did not let him take any missteps.
He couldn't do much about the voices, though.
He could be leading you anywhere, the Light insinuated. He could march you straight out of this building and you'd never even notice. Trusting fool, he's already betrayed you once...
Get out of my head.
Perhaps I should bother Juudai? He's not used to this sort of stress. It wouldn't take much to make him lose control...
Forget it. If you could make him lose control you'd be over there messing with his brain instead.
What makes you think I'm not?
Because he's not reacting to it.
You think you're so clever. We'll see.
The voices retreated. Edo didn't think much of it, but a few moments later, he felt Saiou stop moving. Behind him, Juudai's footsteps also stilled.
"What's wrong?" Edo asked.
"Nothing," said Saiou. "That's what worries me."
Confused, Edo opened his eyes. They were standing in a perfectly ordinary library, with no sign of any illusions. The lamplight reflected softly off the spines of the old books. Edo frowned.
"It's trying to trick us," he said.
"Undoubtably," Saiou agreed, slipping off his blindfold.
"It's gone," said Juudai. "I can't even feel it anymore." He gave a relieved-sounding sigh and leaned against one of the bookshelves, mopping his forehead with the back of his sleeve. "Good thing, too, because I'm bushed. Holding that thing down is hard work." "I'm not crazy enough to think it's giving up," said Edo. "How close are we now?"
"It's in there," said Saiou, pointing at an otherwise unassuming wall of books. On closer inspection, it appeared to be resting slightly at an angle from the wall, and when Edo tugged on it, it moved slightly on hidden hinges. Edo glanced back at the others.
"Ready?" he said.
Saiou nodded gravely. Juudai straightened up and cracked his knuckles.
"Let's finish this," he said.
Edo gave him a thumbs-up, and he opened the door.
And immediately decided that maybe he had been a little too hasty. Beyond the door there was a vast space of shimmering lights, a swirl of colors that was both beautiful and eerie, seeming to creep around the edges of the visible spectrum and into realms that made Edo's eyes ache just to look at it. He looked at Saiou instead, but that wasn't much better. The rippling glow cast weird highlights on his fair skin, making him look alien.
"All right, what am I looking at?" Edo asked.
"I think that's real," said Saiou faintly.
"But it can't be real," Juudai protested. "It's too big. There's not enough room..."
"I have a feeling this door doesn't lead to the same place it used to," Saiou replied. He cast a worried look at Edo. "It's not safe in there. I'm not sure if we'll even be able to get back out once we go in..."
"Thanks for the warning," said Edo, and he went in.
There seemed to be a floor. That was the most he could be certain of - that he was walking on something that was smooth and solid. He even thought he could see it. It swirled and rippled as much as everything else, did, but if he gazed off into the horizon, he could make out a point where the swirling colors didn't match. That was slightly reassuring: it meant that if nothing else, he didn't need to worry about suddenly plunging down a bottomless pit. Not that it would have made a lot of difference anyway, because there was nowhere to fall to. Nothing but light.
Except that off in the distance, there was a tiny dark speck, and the lights danced around it in a pattern that didn't match everything else. Edo made a beeline towards it, feeling his heart hammering. His stomach was clenched in a way that had nothing to do with the nauseous shifting colored lights. It was because he knew what he was going to find, and he didn't want to see it. His feet, however, didn't seem to care what he saw, because he continued to trudge grimly forward.
The only point of darkness on the vast plain of light was a single human being. He was dressed in simple clothing, a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt with its sleeves rolled up, and a pair of glasses perched on his nose. He looked like a pleasant sort of person, the kind who probably went to the store to buy milk and came home with everything but, the kind who probably had half a dozen overdue library books lying around the house, and who probably managed to be late to work on a regular basis because he'd stopped to help someone carry their groceries or get a kite out of a tree. His very normalcy made him seem that much more out of place in this alien plane. He was smiling contentedly, his eyes shining, looking for all the world like a child on Christmas morning looking at his new presents, hardly able to believe all those wonderful things were there for him. His hands moved swiftly as though wielding an invisible paintbrush or conductor's wand. The lights followed his movements, sculpting themselves into flickering shapes that vanished as soon as he turned his attention from them, only to be replaced by something new. He didn't seem to notice that Edo and the others were there, even when they stood quite close to him. Edo reached up to tap him on the arm.
"Dad?" he said.
He didn't even turn around.
"Hey!" said Edo more loudly, and tugged hard on his arm.
Mr. Phoenix blinked a little and turned around, fixing them all with a nearsighted look and a benign smile.
"Visitors?" he said. "Good, that's just what I needed. It's amazing here, but it's not the same without anyone else to see it..."
"We're not here to visit," said Edo urgently. "We've got to get you out of here."
His father frowned. "Why would I leave?"
"What, are you kidding?" said Juudai. "Look at this place - it's crazy!"
"Don't say that," said Mr. Phoenix, looking hurt. "Do you even know what this is?"
"It's some weird thing the Light of Ruin made," said Juudai promptly.
"No," said Mr. Phoenix. "I made this. It's my greatest work..."
"Is it even more important than your own son?" Juudai demanded.
A flicker of unease crossed Mr. Phoenix's features.
"My son..." he repeated. He shook himself. "My son is fine. Someone is taking care of him."
"I am," said Saiou. He glared fiercely at the man. "But not any longer. He's your responsibility now."
A flash of longing passed over Mr. Phoenix's face, but it was instantly replaced by a look of fear.
"No, I can't," he said. "I can't leave... I'll lose everything."
"You've already lost everything!" Edo snapped at him. "You've lost your home, your job, you've lost me. How could a bunch of lights be worth more than that to you?"
"He won't listen to you," said a new voice. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, and no one had any doubt as to what was speaking, even before the faint outline of something pale and serpentine came to wind itself around Mr. Phoenix like a pale snake. "He's lost in his own little world..."
"More like your own little world," Edo snapped back. "Let him go!"
"Let him go? I can't let him go," said the Light. "He doesn't want to go. He's happy here. He's happier than he's ever been - happier than you could ever make him."
"That's not true!" Edo shouted.
"It is true," the Light insisted. "This is his perfect world - a world of pure light, where he can create whatever he wants with nothing more than an effort of will. Everything here is exactly the way he wants it. I've given him pure artistic freedom - freedom to create whatever world he dreams of. Reality will never be as good to him as this. Why would he ever want to go back to clumsy pencils and inks when he can bring his visions into the world as fully formed visions of perfect light? Just like he'll never want to go back to you when he can have a perfect family who will never leave him..."
"I'm not planning on leaving now," Edo declared. "Not until you give him back."
The Light unraveled itself and slid across the ground to twine around Edo's legs like a hungry cat.
"But why would he want you?" it asked. "You were the one who abandoned him, remember? You told him you hated him. You never even tried to get in touch with him. Why shouldn't he prefer a family who will always be here for him and never leave or betray him? He can even be with your mother again. He can have a perfect son who will love him unconditionally and do whatever he wants. All he has to do is imagine it, and it will be so. That's something you can never do for him. He's happier here than you could ever make him..."
Edo tried to back away from the white creature, but it was wherever he moved, brushing against him caressingly. The touch cut through him like an icy wind, like a blast from the sunless regions of space, and he shivered in spite of himself. The cold crept into his bones and into his blood and spread icy white lights across his vision. With the chill came a creeping sense of depression. Maybe it really was better for his father to stay here. At least here he was safe and happy... and if Edo tried to take him away, who knew what would happen? Just look at the last time Edo had done something for him with good intentions...
But there was something else inside his mind suddenly, something warm, something that blazed with violet flames and drove back the frost, and Edo felt his malaise lifting. A voice in his mind that was not his own said, Don't even think about it.
The frost vanished, and the catlike creature bounded away with a hiss, glaring fiercely at Saiou. Saiou glared back, his eyes blazing. Juudai made a tearing motion, and the shimmers on the ground surrounding the Light abruptly went out, leaving it standing in the center of a ring of darkness.
"Ha! Let's see you get out of that!" said Juudai triumphantly.
The Light hissed and arched its back, stretching and expanding until it was no longer a cat but a massive snake, and then a dragon with a multitude of legs and wings and spines and claws. Its head split down the middle and split again, forming several new heads, each of which sprouted far too many teeth and horns and eyes. Edo stared as the creature stepped over the gap as though it weren't there and began advancing on Juudai.
"Okay, okay, I didn't really want you to get out of that," Juudai protested.
He began backing away, but it did him no good. The dragon flicked its tail around him, swift as a bolt of lightning, leaving Juudai encircled in white flames.
"Don't waste your strength," said the Light. "Do you think you can fight me with that frail human body? An hour ago you didn't even know you had that power, much less how to use it."
The ring of flames began slowly constricting, as though they might crush Juudai like a snake's coils. Juudai stood his ground as they inched closer. Edo cast a worried glance from him to Mr. Phoenix, who was ignoring the whole event, utterly wrapped up in his creations. Edo wondered if he even remembered that anyone else was there.
The Light continued its advance.
"I'm surprised by your bravery," it said. "It will do you no good, though. The Darkness has become weak from disuse, and I have been working to build my strength."
"Oh, yeah?" said Juudai. "Then why haven't you beaten me yet?"
His response was a hiss as the dragon rapidly contracted his coils, and Edo gave a cry of dismay, thinking that Juudai would certainly be crushed or burned. Instead, the wall of light passed over and around him, leaving a one-foot margin on all sides. Juudai's hair wasn't even ruffled. His only sign of discomfort was a slightly puzzled, I-didn't-know-that-would-happen expression on his face. The Light snarled at him and doubled back on itself, glaring as it tried to sort out new tactics.
"Looks like we're stuck," said Juudai. "Maybe I can't hurt you, but you can't hurt me, either."
Edo felt a twinge of frustration. After all this bother, Juudai still couldn't do anything to help him!
That's not true, said Saiou's voice in his mind. He is providing a distraction. Do what you came to do.
Edo considered a moment, then nodded. Keeping his eye on the Light, moving slowly so as not to attract attention. He need not have bothered; the Light seemed to have dismissed him as unimportant, and was busy creeping around Juudai, making exploratory strikes that Juudai clumsily dodged or deflected. Both of them looked uncommonly annoyed, as though this were not at all what they had signed up for. Edo decided that it was probably safe to ignore them.
"Hey," he said, tugging on his father's arm. "Come on - we've got to go before that thing notices us."
"Hm? Not yet - just let me finish..."
"No," Edo insisted. "If I wait around for you to finish, we'll never get out of here. Come on, move."
His command fell on deaf ears. Frustrated, Edo gripped his father's arm and attempted to physically pull him, but quickly realized that dragging his father anywhere wasn't going to work. It wasn't that Edo was too weak to move him - he was an athletic boy, and his father lived a fairly sedentary life. If it had come down to a physical fight between the two of them, Edo would have won without breaking a sweat. The problem was that physical laws had broken down a long way back, and any attempt to move Mr. Phoenix when he did not want to be moved was an exercise in futility.
This is ridiculous, he thought, pausing to catch his breath. He had succeeded in forcing his father to take a few steps in the general direction Edo thought the door had been, but for all the good it had done, he might as well have saved his energy. Not only were they no nearer to an exit than they had been before, they hadn't even succeeded in getting any closer to Juudai and Saiou. They were exactly where they had started. Not only is it ridiculous, it shouldn't even be possible!
At a loss for ideas, he looked back at the fight. Juudai still seemed to be holding out, but it was plain that the Light had been right to say that he didn't know what he was doing. The Light was doing all it could to harry him. One moment it was a dragon with innumerable heads; the next, it became a flock of birds that swooped at him and slashed with beaks and claws; the next, a pack of wolves. Juudai deflected each new attack, but he was beginning to show a strain. Shreds of shadow hovered around him like the fragments of a tattered cloak, and Edo had the unsettling impression that Juudai was starting to slowly come apart at the seams. Even at a distance, his face looked sweaty and grayish, but thus far grimly determined to carry on the fight.
He's going to lose it, thought Edo with a sudden stab of fear. Memories of his hallucinations were still fresh in his mind. That thing is right - he really can't control that power much longer. Pretty soon he's just going to snap...
He glared back at his father.
"Dammit, I'm sick of this!" he shouted. "I did not come all this way just to have you stand around staring off into space ignoring me! You are going to come with me whether you like it or not!"
He punctuated his outburst with a swing of his fist. It caught Mr. Phoenix on the jaw and nearly knocked him off his feet. He staggered, struggling to regain his balance, and his glasses fell off and skittered across the smooth ground. Edo watched, a bit guiltily, as his father managed to pull himself together and rubbed gingerly at his face.
"Ow," he said. "That hurt... who did that?" He looked around, squinting as he tried to puzzle out his surroundings. "Where did my glasses go? ... And where am I?"
"You... don't know?" asked Edo carefully.
"I'm not sure. I feel like I've been having a dream..."
"You were, sort of," Edo told him. "Come on, it's not safe here. We need to get out, now."
"But... I can't see..." his father protested.
Edo started to say he would retrieve the glasses, and then stopped.
"Saiou, could you get his glasses?" he asked instead. "And hang on to them for me."
Saiou looked like he wanted to ask questions, but then he changed his mind and hurried to do as he was told.
"You're going to have to do without your glasses for a minute," said Edo. "Trust me, you're better off that way."
"I don't understand," said his father, and Edo couldn't blame him.
"I don't know if I can explain," he admitted. "The short version is, we're in the middle of a big hallucination, and if you look, you'll just get confused again. You're just going to have to trust me for a little while, until we get out of this. All right?"
"All right," said his father hesitantly. "Hallucination?"
"Something like that," said Edo. "Think of it as being like... a hologram projection. One that shows you whatever you want to see. You've been trapped in here for days, watching daydreams."
"That would explain why I'm hungry."
Edo fought back the temptation to laugh, and it came out as a near-sob instead. "I promise we'll get you something to eat as soon as we figure out where the door is."
"You mean you don't know where it is? How did you get in?"
"Through the door. Let's just say I've had a few distractions since then."
Saiou was suddenly standing next to him, holding Mr. Phoenix's glasses in one hand.
"I think it's time to go," he said.
They went. Edo was pleased to find that now that his father was no longer fighting him, they could actually make progress... though towards what, Edo was not quite sure. He couldn't see the exit in front of him, only the battle between the Light and Juudai. The ground they were fighting on was no longer mirror-smooth, but torn and broken into rocky chunks. Juudai knelt on one knee, breathing heavily as he stared up at the monster. It no longer looked like anything recognizable. It was a glaring, pulsing vapor without edges or boundaries to mark where it left off and the rest of the world began. There was no place where it left off, except in the wavering ring of shadow where Juudai crouched.
"Juudai!" Edo shouted. "Come on, we're leaving!"
"Can't," Juudai panted. There was a blue tinge around his lips. "Can't... move..."
"None of you are going anywhere," said the Light. "I've sealed off the exits. There is no escape."
"Wait, I've heard that voice before," said Edo's father, looking blindly for its source. "Who is it?"
"Bad news," said Edo grimly.
"That," said Saiou, "is the one who took your son from you. That is who it is."
A look of shock crossed Mr. Phoenix's face, but it quickly settled into a look of grim determination.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised," he said. "In that case, I owe them a lot of payback."
"I think this guy is a little too strong for you," Edo replied. "We need to concentrate on figuring out a way to get out of here."
Unfortunately, not a lot of ideas were coming to him. He looked out at the scenery, and then from Saiou to Juudai, hoping one of them would think of something. Saiou gave him an apologetic shrug in return. Juudai didn't even give him that much. He swayed a bit and let himself fall to all fours, his arms trembling under his weight and finally giving out entirely. For a moment, Edo thought he had passed out, but then Juudai turned slightly to meet Edo's gaze. The eyes that should have been brown kept flickering crazily to gold and back again.
"What?" Edo replied.
"He's in control," Juudai mumbled indistinctly. "Make him... let... go...." and then broke into a fit of coughing.
"No such luck," said the Light, wrapping its misty tendrils around him. "I've waited a long time to crush the life out of you. I am going to enjoy it."
That's it, then, Edo thought, feeling his stomach sink. He's out of power. We've lost...
"Hey!" his father shouted. "Listen, I don't know who you people are or what's going on, but you can't go around threatening people like that."
"You stay out of this!" the Light snapped, but the tendrils began to withdraw. Edo watched, puzzled, wondering why the Light would look cowed by a few scolding words from a simple artist....
And then everything shifted, and Edo understood.
"He's in control," he murmured.
Saiou looked at him sharply. "Who is?"
Edo pointed at his father. "He is."
"What?" said Mr. Phoenix.
"Listen," said Edo. "The Light said it created this place so he could have a place where anything he imagines becomes real. How far do you think that applies?"
Saiou's eyes lit up. "Mr. Phoenix, could you do us a favor and imagine there is not a white fog in front of us?"
"Why would you want me to...?"
Mr. Phoenix frowned, and squinted as though something had caught his attention. "There is a white fog, isn't there?"
"It's only a figment of your imagination. If you don't think about it, it will go away."
"I can't not think about it. I'm staring straight at it."
Edo glanced from Juudai to his father and back again.
"Think about heroes," he suggested. "You haven't made any new ones in a while have you?"
"Not for a while, no," his father agreed. Already, his face was taking on the slightly misty expression he always got when he was dreaming up some new idea. "Not in a long, long time. Too long. I really should come up with some..."
The Light wavered, flickering like a dying neon tube and hissing its displeasure. Juudai, however, suddenly looked much improved, and he clambered to his feet with fresh energy and took out his deck.
"Time for some reinforcements," he said.
He charged up his Duel Disk and began laying out cards with no care for the proper rules, and monsters appeared one by one. Edo watched, impressed, as the new monsters took to the field: a dolphin, a bird, a beetle, a shaggy beast, a sleek black panther, a being of pale light. They arrayed themselves around Juudai like a phalanx of guards. The Light lunged desperately at them, spitting white flames, but Juudai held up a hand and the flames rolled away from an invisible force field. Then, at his silent command, the monsters moved forward in a rush, surrounding the fog and forcing it in on itself. The swirling lights of the landscape began to slow and finally became still, their colors fading. The Light gave a defiant shriek, but it could barely be heard over the attacks of the monsters.
Mr. Phoenix smiled quietly.
"Yes," he said. "That's just how I imagined it."
Edo held out a hand to Saiou, who wordlessly placed the glasses into it.
"Here," said Edo, passing them to his father. "I think it's safe for you to put these on now."
And it was. The lights around them had become dark, and the world was a misty gray blur. Juudai turned off his disk, and gave his monsters a final smile and a wave as they faded away.
"Thanks, guys," he said. He turned to the others. "I think it's time to go now, don't you?"
They went. On the far horizon was a single point of clarity - not so much brightness as a place where everything looked as though it were in its proper focus. As they hurried towards it, it took on more color and definition, until they could see that it was in fact a small room with many dark wooden shelves, all of them crammed from floor to ceiling with books. The group broke into a run and did not stop until they had reached the safety of its walls. Only then did Edo stop to collapse into a convenient chair. When he looked back the way he had come, he could see only a wall filled with more books. He looked instead at his companions. Juudai, true to form, appeared to have gone to sleep. The other two were watching Edo - Saiou expectantly, Mr. Phoenix with vague confusion.
"Ah," he said, looking uncomfortable. "I'm still not sure what just happened back there, but... I feel, somehow, that it wasn't good."
"No," said Edo, "it definitely wasn't good. But it's okay now, I think. I'm pretty sure we won."
"I suppose I should thank you, then," his father replied. His look of discomfort deepened. "Um... sorry for asking this, but... you look familiar. Have we... met before?"
Edo felt his eyes burning suddenly, and he closed them tightly until he was sure he had himself under control.
"Dad," he said. "It's me. Edo. Ed. Your son."
His father blinked. "Ed? But... no, my son is just a little boy..."
"It's been a few years," said Edo softly. "I grew up a bit."
"But..." said his father. He suddenly slumped, leaning his face into one hand. "Dear God, what has been happening to me?"
"It's okay, Dad," said Edo. "Really. It's okay... Isn't it?"
Mr. Phoenix stood up and walked across the room. He placed a hand on Edo's shoulder and let it rest there for a moment, before finally kneeling so that he could put his arms around his son. Edo froze up before hesitantly returning the embrace.
"Yes," said Mr. Phoenix, his voice shaking. "It's going to be all right. I'll do everything I can to make it right. I promise."
Saiou silently got to his feet and began walking towards the door.
"I'll just tell the others that we're finished," he said, but no one really heard him. He took one last look at the scene in front of him before resignedly turning and walking away.
And all the while, Juudai slept.
That evening, there was a celebration. With Pegasus around, there couldn't have been anything else, for he was the sort of person who could not let anything slip by quietly. He declared that he absolutely had to reward the people who had so valiantly freed his company from the clutches of evil, and so he had invited more or less everyone he could find to his home for a victory party. There was a feast such as only a mad millionaire could host, where the pizza and cheeseburgers sat alongside the caviar and pate fois gras, and the chocolate gateau and cherries jubilee next to those, all of it in sufficient quantities to satisfy a small army, even one consisting of a number of healthy teenagers and at least one artist who could not remember his last meal. For a while, conversation was reduced to snippets as everyone focused their attention on piling their plates with whatever they liked best and digging in. It was not until people were picking at the last crumbs of their desserts that conversations began to pick up again.
"Whew!" said Kenzan, leaning back into his chair and rubbing his stomach. "I tell ya, this guy sure knows how to throw a party!"
"That's the truth," Juudai agreed. "I might just have to sleep here tonight, 'cause I don't think I can get up..."
"Oh, really? What a pity," said Pegasus slyly. "I was just going to say, I've got the original dueling table we used for the final rounds at Duelist Kingdom downstairs in the basement, and I thought some of you might like to turn it on and play with it a bit. I might even decide to join you."
"Whoa! You mean I could duel you on the same table where you dueled Yugi?" Juudai bounced to his feet, suddenly wide-awake. "What are we waiting for? Come on, hurry up!"
Asuka laughed. "Looks like he's awake now," she commented to those sitting nearest to her. Mizuchi gave her a smile from across the table. Misawa just shrugged.
"There's no keeping him from a duel," he observed. "You could chain him up in a dungeon and he'd still find a way to get out if he knew there would be a duel waiting for him once he escaped."
"I have to admit, I wouldn't mind going down there to join in," said Asuka. "I've read so much about those original battle simulators, but I've never seen one outside of a museum. What do you think - are you guys up for it?"
"Maybe in a little while," said Misawa. "I have some things to discuss with Pegasus and Dr. Zweinstein first. And possibly make a few phone calls."
"Phone calls?" asked Asuka. "Who do you need to call?"
"Principal Samejima, for one," said Misawa. "You know. To explain why I'm not coming back to school."
"You're not coming back?" Fubuki repeated. "Why not? Is something wrong?"
"No, no, nothing is wrong," Misawa hastily assured him. "In fact, everything is very good. It's just that I've been offered a job, and I think I should take it. I mean, it isn't every day an opportunity like this comes along..."
"So you're going to come work with me?" said Hayato. "That's great! It'll be good to have someone I know around."
"Well, not exactly with you," Misawa replied, "but here at Industrial Illusions. Apparently Dr. Zweinstein was impressed at how quickly I caught on to working the equipment..."
Asuka caught on. "So you're going to stay here and work with him? That's great. I know you'll enjoy that."
Misawa preened. "I think it will be an excellent opportunity to make use of my particular skills."
"Good," said Manjoume. "The less competition around, the better. Now, if you don't mind..." He got up and began following the others towards the basement and the promised duels.
"I think I'll start heading that way myself," said Asuka. She looked at Mizuchi. "Are you going to come?"
"In a minute," Mizuchi replied. She glanced towards where her brother and the Phoenixes were sitting. "I want to stay and see how this turns out."
The situation did indeed look as though it needed a watchful eye on it. Edo and his father were among the few who had paid more attention to conversation than to eating, and had been talking nonstop since they'd sat down. Saiou, for his part, had taken his place across the table from Edo and had spent the whole meal staring silently at his plate and eating without enthusiasm, in the manner of one who is sure everyone has forgotten he was there.
Mr. Phoenix set his fork down and regarded the crumbs on his plate as though not quite certain how they had gotten there. He had lost track of all time while he was sealed away in his dream world, and had therefore done ample justice to his meal, but he had been paying far more attention to his son than to his food. Odds were good that he'd forgotten what it was he had been eating. He reached for a cupcake from one of the nearly empty dishes in front of him, and as he did so, his gaze fell on Saiou.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ignore you," he said, flushing slightly.
"It's nothing," said Saiou, keeping his eyes on his empty dish.
"No, it really isn't. You were there helping me, earlier," said Mr. Phoenix. "I never properly thanked you for that."
"It's nothing," said Saiou again.
Mr. Phoenix looked distinctly ill at ease. "Ed's been telling me, too, that you've been taking care of him while I was... all this time. I truly can't say how indebted I am to you. If you hadn't been there to keep him safe, there's no telling what would have happened to him."
"It was not a problem," Saiou informed him in the same flat tone.
"From the way Ed tells it," said Mr. Phoenix, "you two are very close. He tells me he considers you his brother."
This time Saiou didn't say anything, but he did raise his eyes to give Mr. Phoenix a slightly suspicious look.
"Anyway, I've been thinking," Mr. Phoenix continued. "Ed says that you and your sister don't have parents of your own... If you wanted to, I wouldn't mind if... Well, it seems like a shame to break up the family, and I don't know you very well yet but I know that anyone Ed trusts so much can't be bad, so..."
"No," said Saiou flatly.
Mr. Phoenix looked as though he'd been slapped. He lowered his eyes.
"No," Saiou repeated. "I know what you're trying to say, but no, I am not going to move in with you and Edo."
"What?" Edo exclaimed. "Why not? Come on, Saiou..."
"I am not," said Saiou. After a suitably dramatic pause, he added, "I have seen your apartment, and it was never meant to hold four people. It would be much more convenient if you moved in with us."
Edo sighed with relief. "Don't do that."
"It's all right," said his father, laughing. "We'll figure something out, I'm sure. The important thing is that we stay together, one way or the other."
"Right," Edo agreed.
"But only during non-school hours," said Mizuchi.
The others looked at her. She shrugged a little.
"I don't know about the rest of you boys," she said, "but I plan to finish my education. I still have two and a half more years at Duel Academia." She smiled sweetly at her brothers' surprised expressions. "It's all right. I can always come home after classes." She twirled one of her ever-present pocket mirrors through her fingers.
"Well, as long as you come home," said Saiou.
"Otherwise, we'd have to come after you," Edo agreed, "and I'm not going through this again."
They were interrupted by Juudai bouncing over to them and seizing on Edo's arm, nearly yanking him out of his chair.
"What are you guys talking about over here?" he demanded. "Everybody else is already at the dueling table, and I want a rematch so I can show you all my new cards. Come on!"
"I don't know. Should we?" Edo asked his father.
Mr. Phoenix smiled. "Of course we should. I want to see how much your dueling has improved."
So they went - the whole family - to enjoy a few good games, and the companionship of their friends, and of each other.
And then, when they were done, they would go home.