A/N: For the YuGiOh fanfiction contest's (here on ff-net) Season 9 and 3/4 Round 1. The pairing - Tendershipping (Yami no Bakura x Ryou).

Disclaimer: Kazuki Takahashi and all associated companies are the rightful owners of the Yuugiou! franchise and I claim no association with any of them. No copyright infringement intended with this and no money is being made from this. Please support the creator by purchasing the official releases.

Warnings: All of the hurt, not much of the comfort.

Six Degrees Of Separation

"No there's no starting over,
Without finding closure, you'd take them back,
No hesitation,
That's when you know you've reached the sixth degree of separation"
- Six Degrees Of Separation by The Script

he thinks the worst is a broken heart. Not that there's been much to be heartbroken over, Ryou notes to himself ruefully, but because he has lost portions of his life – hours, days, weeks, months – that he will never be able to take back. That will never truly belong to him, to his body and mind, even though he has lived through them and he has aged with them. He remembers, vaguely. He guesses at, often mortified. But the Ring is gone and with it – a heavy burden. With it, a portion of memories of people in pain because of him, by his own hand, has departed. But shadows of it all still linger, like a bad aftertaste in his mouth from the drink that he'd been handed and forced to drain to the last drop. Sometimes he's still trying to catch the flavour subconsciously at the back of his throat because something draws him over to the dark side. Something nameless or yet unnamed. He thinks it's because of his deceased mother and sister, of the natural fascination with the unknown and the frightening. Something else, something reinforced by Yuugi and his readily offered friendship, insists that it's a darkness he should never let back inside himself. Not if he wishes to retain his sanity. Not if he wishes to live.

But Ryou has to wonder – has he ever been truly alive? Has he lived? Or has it been someone else living through him all these years and the only moments of true freedom had been witnessed while the Ring possessed him. Did it possess him? Or did he possess the Ring? His thoughts often become muddled where the Ring is concerned. There doesn't seem to be a strict line drawn there anymore.

He tries to piece his life back together. School, friends, reminiscing of their collective adventures, of which he doesn't remember all that much and what he does recall with any kind of clarity would be best forgotten. He is no fool. He can see how uneasy his self-proclaimed friends feel around him. He finds his relief in solace, in lonesome corners and solitary activities. That way he doesn't have to feel guilty for committing the deeds he only barely recalls committing. And the only reason he even remembers them – or thinks to remember– is because of Yuugi and his friends who, in one way or another, more directly or quite evasively, have relayed the events which the television cameras following them around during the duels have failed to convey. The off-camera moments which no one else has been privy to but the five-minus-a-half of them. And now that he is that minus-a-half…

He finds companionship in his figurines of Monster World. He picks the game up again, after many years of abandonment, still wary of himself, of his strange ability to put those who lose against him to sleep eternal. But the Darkness has gone beyond the fabric of this world. It cannot rend the curtain and step back into existence. He should be safe. His opponents should be safe. He picks up the dice to roll, looks at his opponent – a casual acquaintance from the gaming world – and smiles, and wishes dearly to live. Because he is beginning to see the faint light at the end of the tunnel and it seems to be growing brighter. There is still a full life ahead of him, still things unnumbered to accomplish, but…

What's going to get him killed is the

part. It doesn't happen right away. It doesn't even seem to be connected with him in any way, at first. But the people from the Monster World tournament – specifically the ones he, Ryou, played against and won – start dropping dead. If they are found, at least. Some just inexplicably go missing. Investigation is still ongoing and he's been interrogated along with most everyone from the tournament, but he knows even less about his opponents than he does about his friends – which is, mostly, an insignificant clutter of useless knowledge. He hasn't seen them in a while, Yuugi and his other friends. Not since graduation. Suddenly, his life seems dreadfully empty and he begins to yearn for their company; uneasy looks, hesitant gestures and thinly veiled disgust or not. He makes a choice. He takes a chance. He no longer wishes to be just half a man, half a friend, half a memory. It's all or nothing now. Because… because, hadn't Yuugi said it himself? Hadn't his friends repeated it countless of times afterwards in one way or another – that he was free now, that he was himself again. Back to the way he'd been before… before.

He attempts to track them down, but to no avail. It turns out that they've moved and either they haven't thought to leave behind an address in case if someone would come looking, or they've decided that there was no need to leave one because all of the important friends had been personally notified. He remembers, then, one very important aspect of being Yuugi's friend in something more than just a name: you always had to be by his side, always nearby, always ready to take a stand in his defence. If you didn't, his other friends conveniently forgot you existed. Not out of spite or some other ill-harboured feelings, but simply because Yuugi managed to make too many friends and keeping all of them equally close…

And he… had been away, trying to pick up his life and make something reasonable out of it. He'd thought it best to be done on his own. Apparently, that had been a mistake.

Still, he doesn't give up because there are quite a few ways to find them. He doubles his effort, reaches the unreachable – Seto Kaiba, who, he knows, has kept tabs on Yuugi, at the very least. The fact that he still has one unfinished duel with him left, comes into the bargain as well. He doesn't remember owing Kaiba a duel, but one his stray remark about it has made him adapt to the thought and accept the second life he'd lead unbeknownst to himself. It takes time to get through to Kaiba, then even more time to give him a good reason why he should disclose the information he shouldn't even have – technically shouldn't. But Ryou is persistent and quite insistent, when he wants to be. When he remembers to be. And quite possibly he just borrows the memory how to be that way from someone else. From someone he shouldn't, but who is so far gone that nothing could call him back and have him interfere.

This little adventure drains him. And the

is when Ryou's world splits down the middle.

He is on his way to Anzu's place, having decided to start the reintroduction and befriending with her because she has always seemed the friendliest right after Yuugi and less wary of him than Jounouchi and Honda. Yuugi is currently out of the country, half a world across in a duelling tournament – which is no surprise for Ryou, as it's been covered in every newspaper that considers itself worth at least something. Finding Yuugi has been the easiest part of the deal – he just needed to look into the most recent newspapers or run a search on the Internet to get instant response to all of his directional inquiries.

But Ryou is smart. He knows that, if he wants back in, he can't start with Yuugi. Not this time. He has to reach out to Yuugi's closest friends first and foremost, to earn their trust. As he walks down the darkening street, he thinks of all the ways he could start the conversation, how he could present his reason. The truth is – he is lonely and he misses them. Even if they don't consider him a particularly close friend, they'd been the closest people he'd had since childhood, and for him that is a giant step already. He wishes to relay this to them, to try and have them understand why his cautious approach is the best. He doesn't think they'll believe him though. In fact, he can't quite explain why it has to be right now, right here, only this way and no other. Why it has to start with Anzu, even.

Wind blows leaves around his feet and Ryou runs his gaze over the peaceful evening scenery. Anzu is already expecting him, he knows. Getting her to agree to a meeting had been harder than he'd expected and yet less difficult than he'd dreaded. Curiousity, he guesses. He'd be curious too if one of his old would-be-friends showed up after years of silence. Even if it's been less than a year since they last saw each other. He lets his gaze wander, lost in thought until something makes his blood run cold.

It's there, standing in the dark mouth of an alleyway like a shifting shadow, but it's so unmistakable that Ryou freezes in his tracks. Something pricks at the furthest recesses of his mind. Something that shouldn't. Something that shouldn't exist anymore. When it seems that the shadows are about to lurch forward, some primal instinct makes Ryou's feet move onwards, as if on their own, faster and faster until he can see the place where he is supposed to meet Anzu. All the way he feels someone's gaze trained on his back. When he doesn't see her waiting for him, a tendril of fear grips his heart, attempting to choke all life out of it, but she comes soon enough and they can depart to a café of her choosing. Their meeting is short and quite awkward because he remains on the edge the entire time, his mind drifting off elsewhere instead of focusing on the conversation she's struggling to keep going.

Once the suddenly torturous ordeal is over, he is sure of having left a bad impression and at the same time he feels oddly relieved. It's as if some distant voice at the back of his mind impresses upon his subconscious that it's for the best. He is loath to give up, though. He makes a few more attempts, but it soon becomes obvious that they are all futile. There is a rift between him and Yuugi and his friends the size of a dozen Grand Canyons stockpiled. There is no bridge that could be built across that, no rocket to get into and fly across because he doesn't belong. He doesn't fit in with their neat little brackets and their trust and straightforward attitude. He's living in the grey zone. He's lost, in more ways than one. He resigns to the notion that this is his place in the grand scheme of friendship and acquaintances. Thoughts unbidden crawl into his mind and root themselves. Perhaps they've always been there as tiny seeds, just waiting for the right condition to sprout. Perhaps they're newly sowed by the insecurity, the desire to take a step back and fix things that are broken beyond repair. Just like he, himself, is. He needs to piece himself together before he attempts to fit in with anyone else, he realises, belatedly.

As the weeks go by with him keeping an eye out for the familiar dark shadow making a sudden reappearance and amounting to nothing – not even a distant whisper – he attempts to let go once more and

with a lot of work, he's starting to think that he's fixed himself, even if marginally. That what he saw in the alleyway before meeting Anzu was just a trick of his mind; just a little play of light and shadows. He knows all too well how they play and prey upon each other. How they dance against each other, how they twine around each other, and how they twist anyone's fears and insecurities so that they manifest in the most horrifying of ways. He has seen it done. He has done it himself – or, at least, his body has done it with another mind as a guide. He can still go through the motions and the emotions and the commotion of power that is as dangerous as it is intoxicating, and addictive beyond explanation. Every now and then Ryou finds himself craving that not-power, not-skill, not-a-part-of-himself.

He's trying to shut it out now. He's trying to walk the right path now. He measures his steps, his thoughts, his breaths and his imaginations until he regains a semblance of control over his life. Ideas don't come to him unbidden, urges he can't explain with anything but base instincts from the times their ancestors still lived in caves or under the starlit sky are easily stomped out. Like flames extinguished before they can catch on and blaze high and bright, though with a hidden-to-the-eye purchase in the peat underneath they continue to smoulder on. And on, and on, until there's only a fragile crust left over it, barely holding everything together, barely holding back a hurricane of fire, still completely unaware of its frail condition and believing into a false strength, into a resilience that isn't there.

That is how Ryou builds himself up, attempting to tune out everything that would unbalance him again. He's learned his lesson – at least he thinks he has. Until the

he sees him out with someone else. Which Ryou doesn't want to believe in, but there he is, hovering like a menacing shadow – which he very much is – over someone else. Over Honda who is supposed to be his last attempt at mending the not-really-friendship with Yuugi and the others. The very fact that he can see the entity, takes him by surprise. He doesn't wish to believe it. He can't, lest his world comes crashing down again. But there he is – leaning so close to Honda that they're touching, brushing shoulders – and how can Honda not feel his hair brushing against his cheek when they're that close? – whispering things into his ear as if to a secret lover and looking like he's the one who belongs, instead of Ryou, who is suddenly overcome by a new wave of insecurities. And yet when he blinks – either too fast or for too long; he can never be sure which is it – the entity is gone. There's not a trace anywhere of the other, not even the tiniest sign that something has shifted in the fabric of eternity and reality. Nothing seems amiss; nothing seems skewed, not a thread broken, not a weave disrupted. But Yuugi's closest friends are still wary of him. They exchange meaningful glances when they think he doesn't notice, but he does. And it hurts. And if he were to bring up the spirit of the Ring now, after so much time has passed… No, he decides, it's best if he plays pretend, if he denies what he has just seen.

Every now and then Ryou has to stop and ask himself whether or not he's still sane. He has to be, he concludes, or else the world must have gone mad. Either way, Yuugi is a liar. The Darkness hasn't left. The Darkness hasn't crawled away into the shadows from whence it came. Worse yet, it brought with it shadows of the kind he has never seen before. They are at large and they're twisting their minds and setting them against him. And Yuugi is still a liar. The next time they meet, he intends to say that to his face. He wants to make it clear that, this time, he won't be dragged into anything dangerous like before. He won't lose even a minute of his life only to hear bits and pieces of it afterward. He no longer wants to feel like he's just borrowing his own body. With that in mind, he curls up in his bed and the

is when the entity admits that he might have fucked up a little. He has drawn Ryou in, but he has gotten too close. He has been tied down. Having split himself over and over again, having learned how to exist in fragments and pieces, he sometimes tends to forget that some parts of him go… missing. Rogue. He grins, teeth bared, lips pulled back in a nasty sneer because he knows that, for as long as shards of him lie hidden on this side of life, he will always find a way back. And it so happens that one such shard has become so wonderfully infused with his precious little host. Some part of his mind has been left here, with this mortal boy, and it keeps him anchored to this particular loop of the spiral of time. He's stuck until he frees himself or else has the binding piece destroyed. The latter he doesn't fancy because this is one of his last few refuges in this world. The last one holding on so strongly; the last one with the promise to last. He's determined to protect it no matter what the cost. He intends to take control once more. He just needs a safe way to get back inside the other's mind. It has to be a huge blow; big enough to merge his soul back with the part that has been chipped away.

He leans over the sleeping body, watching him intently. There is barely an inch between their lips and he pretends to feel how the living body breathes, how the air washes over his own lips, how it passes into his lungs, and he aches desperately inside. He wants that back. That shadow of a life, the exhilaration of winning over someone else's mind, of taking over another's body.

He observes the other's sleep gleefully, reminiscing on the time when he could dictate what nightmares his precious host would be seeing each night. He took care of the variety when he felt generous enough. The prospect of doing that again soon makes him yearn for full control all the more strongly. He rests his hands on both sides of Ryou's head, watching how they sink through the old down pillow, ethereal for the time being. But not for long, no, not too long now because there are things he still needs to do. There are death favours that need to be returned post haste, though they generally don't expire.

It's good having human hosts, the entity concludes. If they survive after being possessed, it counts as an unfinished business. Ryou has made himself his unfinished business. And the entity intends to finish it. Or rather, he is obliged to finish it – funny how these things work out in time. He leans in closer, ever closer, as if to breathe the other in, as if to drain the very life from his body, to steal his soul through the other's nose with just his breath. Their lips touch – ghostly transparent and cold on dry and warm and firm – and the entity grins in victory. From here on comes the hardest part and he can barely wait for the fight that's about to ensue inside the other's mind. Oh, he's going to destroy.

Sensing a cold draft, Ryou shivers and opens his eyes to a recurring nightmare.