A/N: For the YGO Fanfiction Contest Season 11 Round 3. The pairing: Minorshipping (Ryou Bakura x Otogi Ryuuji). And I'm back again with another crossover. This time with Yoko Matsushita's Yami no Matsuei/Descendants of Darkness. (Those of you who know the first thing about YnM will see the plot twists coming from a mile away.) The existence of this was cemented by one of those random prompt generators which yielded, "A black cat, a silver bell, and a camellia blossom." From there on out, I just had to, even though neither of these three feature all that prominently in this story. Go figure.
Timeline: very comfortably post-canon for both fandoms. YnM takes place in 1997 (there's… a bit of a discord between the anime and manga actually, but it's just the anime messing up one character's age, which… has no impact on the overall thing; so why am I even bringing it up? Well, I'm just obsessive about even the tiniest details like that, orz.), and I'm keeping it consistent with the YGO timeline I used in my other crossover fic where Duel Monsters became a thing in 1998. The year for this fic is ~1999 when the dust has already settled on the main events for both fandoms, but the layer hasn't yet grown too thick, so to speak.
And again, we have a glossary:
shinigami – Guardians of Death who sort out all the shady wandering/missing soul business when necessary, but usually they're just doing a whole lot of paperwork, making sure departed souls go to where they should be going. You become one if, after your death, you have a strong wish to fulfil something you've failed to do in your life.
ofuda – a (generally paper) charm used to attack or defend, and for all sorts of spellwork.
shikigami – mythical creatures that are summoned for battle when all else fails/you need to finish things quickly.
Disclaimer: Kazuki Takahashi, Yoko Matsushita and all associated companies are the rightful owners of the Yuugiou! and the Yami no Matsuei franchise, respectively, 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: So I wrote you some angst so that you could angst while you angst about angsting because there's too much angst to angst about without angsting about it. Otherwise, this one's tame. There's some swearing and a modest amount of violence, described and hinted-at. But tame. And worksafe. (Though why'd you read this at work, I don't know, man. 's bad for your health. And work ethics. …said the hypocritical author, so carry on as you were.)
To Hold That Which Is
"365 days of a year
running around, running around
and going nowhere
365 days and nights
365 tries to make it right"
- I Will Love You Monday (365) by Aura Dione
It all stated with a lost cat. Well, Ryou assumed it was lost because it was too well-groomed for a stray and it had a neat little collar with a silver bell attached that tinkled softly as the cat stole along the side of Ryou's apartment building. He saw it every now and then for a week after having first spotted it, but any inquiries to his neighbours about it yielded nothing. Nobody had owned a black cat, or known someone who had, and no missing posters appeared anywhere in the vicinity. Then, just as it had appeared, the cat disappeared without a trace. And Ryou's blackouts started again. Not quite like they had been just a few months ago before Yuugi and the ceremonial battle when he'd often come to in a different place than he remembered being before a huge empty spot had stolen over his memories. No, this time he found himself exactly where he'd been in that moment between blinking his eyes once, and then opening them up to a whole new perspective of the same scenery. Slumped on the ground, often with painful bruises to account for his loss of consciousness. In the park, in the grocery store, at school. People were getting worried about him. He was getting terrified of himself.
Otogi was the one who found him passed out at the bottom of a staircase one morning, arriving late for school because an early business meeting had dragged on for too long. He'd checked on him and taken him to the school's infirmary, a little surprised to see a new doctor there in place of the elderly Wakabayashi-sensei, who, in turn, had replaced nurse Tomizawa who had experienced some sort of a traumatic accident a few years ago when Domino High had been plagued with strange occurrences and inexplicable hospitalisations. He'd never seen nurse Tomizawa in person; he hadn't attended this school back then yet. He'd heard the story from several of the students who, nowadays, only shrugged nonchalantly at the often staff changes.
"Sensei!" Otogi greeted, tilting his head in a respectful bow, though the image he presented wasn't at all respectful, considering that he was supporting the unconscious Ryou with one arm while he juggled both their schoolbags with the other.
"Oh, dear. Over here, please." Concern flashed across the face of the new substitute doctor before he schooled it into a mask of professionalism, helping him position Ryou on one of the stretchers, though the care still shone through quite clearly. "What happened?"
"I found him on the stairs like this. He… hasn't been well lately." At least he assumed so from the whispers he'd caught from Yuugi and the others. He didn't know the teen so well and therefore he wasn't the best judge on these things. To him, everything had seemed normal, with a dash of the odd quirk which he'd shrugged off, but, just some time ago, this kind of thing had been quite common for the possessed Bakura apparently. But the Ring couldn't be seen anywhere on his persona now, and after the ceremonial duel Malik had assured Yuugi that the Items were gone for good this time. And still… Still.
"Shouldn't you be in class?" The doctor glanced his way, looking somewhere else but at Ryou for a moment.
Otogi shrugged. "I'm already late for that. I don't think they'll appreciate me barging in at this point. If you don't mind," he hesitated a moment here, then made up his mind, "I'd like to stay here. Wait till he wakes up and take him home if he's still not feeling well or something." He'd found him and now he was feeling oddly responsible for him. Funny how these things worked.
"Ah, very well. You can use the other bed behind that curtain there if you want to rest. It seems like not much will be happening here for quite a while, so it should be peaceful enough."
And then Ryou had moaned and his body had jerked as if he'd been hit. The doctor's face had lost some of its warmth, as he studied the teen more carefully now, checking his pulse a second time and running his hand across his forehead. His lips pursed together in mild worry.
"High fever. This is…"
"Is everything alright, sensei?" Otogi had glanced from one to the other in concern, half-expecting the Ring Spirit to spring forth again and go on a merry rampage to repay them all for his imprisonment. Even though he was supposed to be gone for good now, the stories of his persistent nature and his ceaseless quests back into the world of living did raise a few questions which he would have been more than happy to never explore.
"I would need to do some more tests to know for sure, but these symptoms… I've seen them before. Would you, perhaps, know anything about his medical record?"
Otogi could see the hope in the doctor's eyes, or maybe it was just the play of shadows and light that danced off his glasses. He didn't like crushing that hope, even if he'd only imagined it. "No, sorry. All I know is that he lives alone and that he's always been this pale." He didn't know if the shade of his skin mattered at all. But he put it out there anyway.
"I see. That is a pity. Then we'll have no choice but to wait for him to wake up and fill in all the details."
And they waited. It took Ryou half an hour to come back to his senses with a pained groan and a disoriented gaze which was filled with panic when he didn't instantly recognise his surroundings. The real panic set in only a week later when the doctor got back to him with the results of his tests.
"So what's the deal with you two?" Jounouchi crossed his arms, eyeing Ryou and Otogi with suspicion. All of them had noticed that the two of them often disappeared off to somewhere together. It was impossible to miss that they often walked home together and sometimes arrived to school together too, and, more often than ought to be normal, Anzu had spotted them both in the library, poring over something that was always hidden beneath schoolwork and innocent-looking textbooks.
The school was over, so the classroom was already empty, save for the six of them still hanging behind and making plans for the afternoon. Yuugi and Ryou were still sitting down, Anzu was leaning back against a desk in front of Yuugi's seat while Otogi subtly mirrored her two seats ahead of Ryou, and Honda and Jounouchi stood in the walkway between the rows, their backs to the classroom door.
Uncharacteristically, Otogi was struck speechless. No offhand remarks, no smart-aleck quips. His lips were sealed with a single whispered, "Please, don't tell the others. I don't want to upset them," in what had to be the most broken tone he'd ever heard anyone use on the day when Ryou had learned about the reason behind his most recent bouts of blackouts. When the doctor – who, as it turned out, was actually working at the central hospital and was only a temporary replacement until a new school nurse was hired – had asked them both to come to the infirmary because Ryou would need support upon hearing the news. He hadn't been prepared to offer any kind of support back then. He wasn't sure he was emotionally equipped for that even now. He'd promised, though not without arguing first that the others deserved to know that he had a poor health condition, that they would all help him get through this on his way to full recovery. But Ryou had been adamant about it, pain and something else, something close to terror in his eyes when he'd pleaded with him that, until the school let out, this one year, for as long as they were all still together as friends – finally, as friends – he wouldn't tell. He thought he understood. Back then, he thought he understood the seclusion and the loneliness Ryou must have felt all those years before to ever consider asking for a favour like that. All for the sake of friends. Which he'd hurt time and time again under the possession of an entity he'd had no control over, but for which he still blamed himself and held himself responsible.
No, Otogi's mind absolutely refused to cooperate with him on this one.
"Well, truth is," Ryou started hesitantly, cast a sidelong glance at Otogi, drew in a breath and finished with a shy and borderline apologetic smile, "we're, um, dating."
Jounouchi actually took a step back, his arms uncrossing and wind-milling awkwardly, even as he tried to reign in his reaction. But Ryou had that smile on his face. The Battle City smile which, as everyone knew now, had been the Ring Spirit's smile when he'd told them how he'd won six locator cards in one go. In the cemetery. At night. Like it was no big deal.
"You… what?" he sputtered. Sure, there'd been a few jokes exchanged with Honda when nobody else had been around to hear them, when Anzu had been safely out of earshot and they needn't worry about her wrath, but they'd never been serious.
"You and Otogi," Anzu started slowly, letting the words trail off. Her hands managed to stay where they'd been loosely hanging by her sides even as her head snapped back and forth between the two boys. The silence was booming loud.
A pair of dice had somehow found their way from his pocket back into his hand and Otogi flicked them pointedly. Tossed them up, caught them. Toss. Catch. Toss. Catch. Rolled them across his fingertips and hid them in a clenched fist. His jaw was set stiffly, a sharp edge slipping into his gaze. "Wanna make something of it?"
"That's, um, that's great!" Yuugi beamed, but it was quite obvious how forced that was. Not that he was against it. It was all just very sudden and unexpected, and he merely needed some time to adjust to the idea. Ryou did look happy, though, so maybe… Maybe.
"Mhm, mhm," Honda nodded in agreement, his eyes closed so as to not betray any stray emotion which might set off the wrong sort of reaction, face serious even though on the inside he was torn between cautious nervousness at this revelation and the gleeful realisation that the dice master was now out of the way where Shizuka was concerned. He managed to keep his hands loosely shoved into his pockets. With Miho gone, he'd latched onto Shizuka as some sort of therapy because she'd been just too… Too everything Miho might have been if she hadn't disappeared quite so suddenly. A stab of guilt and loss vied for a place in the foreground of his emotions in a tight competition with unease and relief and more than just a bit of hope than, he reckoned, he ought to feel. He'd wish those two happiness if only he knew how to sound not so gleeful and relieved as he did so. That would certainly give them the wrong impression.
"Congratulations, you guys!" Anzu tried to salvage the situation with exuberant joy and it seemed to be working because Ryou's smile grew a touch wider, even if Otogi's eyebrows slightly knitted together, as the black-haired teen gave her an indecipherable look. She chose to turn a blind eye to that, focusing instead on the white-haired teen.
Ryou raised his index finger to follow that up with some sort of a statement and Jounouchi did two things: he suppressed a shudder at what a perfect Dark Bakura impression he was making just then, and resisted the urge to take another step back.
"We're not getting married quite yet, you know. It's a little too early for congratulations." He gathered his belongings, stood up and, half-turning to Otogi, said, "Shall we?"
"Right." Pocketing the dice again, the teen in question grabbed his own bag and slung it over his shoulder, nodding at the rest of the group and trailing after Ryou. "See ya."
"Yeah, see you!"
"See you tomorrow!"
Side by side the two young men walked out of the classroom, Otogi halting his steps slightly to let Ryou pass through the door first, leaving four very dumbfounded people behind.
Halfway down the corridor, Otogi peeked through a classroom door that had been left ajar and pushed it open wider.
"Here, this one's empty." His voice was subdued.
They quickly ducked inside the room and he slid the door shut. Ryou slumped against a wall as his strength gave out and he started shaking. With his muscles contracting painfully, he lost the grip on his schoolbag and it fell to the floor with a thud.
"Sorry," he mumbled, gaze turned down at the dirty-green linoleum without really seeing it. Not about dropping his bag and making a noise. "I just… couldn't think of anything else."
"It's okay," Otogi said. He avoided looking at him as well, instead very taken with the chalk smudges on the blackboard at the far end of the room. "I couldn't think of anything either."
Ryou nodded and swallowed. "Could you…"
"Right. Where is it?"
"Inside. The small pocket at the back that closes with a zipper."
Otogi took a step forward and crouched down to rummage through Ryou's bag. He shifted the bag upright where it had fallen and, repeating the instructions in his mind, located the small black case almost instantly. He took out a small spray bottle of sanitizer, applied it to his hands and handed the bottle over to Ryou before retrieving a syringe, a strip with disposable needles, and a vial with a transparent liquid from the case. Ryou nodded and mumbled a quiet thank you, fumbling at his sleeve and pushing it up with one hand to apply the sanitizer to the inside of his elbow while Otogi prepared the prescription medicine exactly as the doctor had demonstrated on the day when Ryou's results had come in; explaining to them that sometimes the muscle spasms could get too strong for Ryou to manage the injections on his own. He swabbed the rubber stopper before drawing the medicine into the syringe, made sure there were no air bubbles trapped inside it, and only then looked up at Ryou.
"Ready?" For some reason, his voice wouldn't rise above a hoarse whisper.
Ryou nodded again, shuddering and reaching down to place the spray bottle back into the case. His sleeve slipped down to his wrist again.
Otogi stood up and helped to move the fabric above his elbow. He tried to position the syringe, but Ryou's arm was too twitchy with the tremors that shook his body to quite manage the necessary accuracy for the task. He considered the solutions and shook his head.
"Sorry. I'll have to pin you down."
"S-sure." Ryou's body jerked again and he winced as the pain that came with it increased.
Otogi stepped in closer, pressing Ryou up against the wall. The position was awkward, but it was much easier to hold the other teen's arm in place that way. Once more checking the syringe to make sure the liquid drug made a tiny bead at the tip of the needle, he pressed it against the spot on the inside of his elbow where the doctor had drawn a small "x" in black marker during the demonstration. For a moment that marking flashed before Otogi's eyes. Had that really been two months ago?
He hadn't believed he'd ever be able to get used to this. To do it so… casually. He wondered if he'd really been able to hear his own heartbeat drumming in his ears the first time, the way a faraway memory seemed to whisper to him. The way the odd clenching at the pit of his stomach confirmed that stray thought. Chasing it away in irritation, he softly asked, "Ready?"
Ryou drew in a steadying breath and willed his body to become still, even if only for a moment. "Un." The word was no more than a light sound.
The needle went in. The syringe emptied. Otogi took a step back and took the syringe apart, carefully packing away the used-up needle and setting it aside for later disposal. Ryou was still trembling, and he guided the other boy to the closest chair to wait it out until the medicine took hold.
"It's getting worse," he commented, leaning back against the wall where Ryou had been standing just a moment ago. It was just as the doctor had predicted, he thought grimly. In the foreseeable future, the number of injections would have to be increased to two a day. And then things would get worse.
The severity of his condition, the doctor had said, was due to it never being treated the way it should have been at the first sign of the symptoms, which, at the present time, meant a slow and painful struggle towards health. But he'd always been moderately healthy, Ryou had said in confusion. Never passing out? Never losing his recollections for extended periods of time? And as he'd looked the doctor in the eye, thinking back on all those times when his mind had gone blank and then later he'd found himself in places he could never remember going to; when he hurt someone without intending to, without realising it, without remembering the fact of the act. But those had all been because of the spirit possessing him and he couldn't just tell the doctor that. Nobody would believe that. No doctor would believe that. Then the doubts came creeping in – what if he'd been so susceptible to possession because his body had been weakened by the untreated illness? What if it had opened up a gate in the wall of his natural resistance? Yuugi had fared so much better in comparison, hadn't he? Even though they had started out the same way, with the same moments of dark streaks in their memory, coming to with the horrible sense that something had happened, that they had done something that was completely wiped from their memory because the spirit possessing Yuugi had been the same as the one Ryou had been stuck with, in the beginning. But Yuugi had adjusted. And there wasn't even a hint that he would be able to see the otherworldly as clear as Ryou was seeing it in the aftermath. Not even the tiniest nod at possessing a sixth sense that wasn't. So maybe… Maybe it had been the derailed condition of his physical health that had given the vehement soul such absolute control over him. Taking what was already there and then playing it to its strengths, knowing that his host was too weak to put up a decent fight physically, even if his mind would have prevailed.
Just then the voices of Yuugi and the others sounded in the hallway at a distance and Ryou postponed his answer until they passed by the classroom the two of them were in and until even the echo of their voices and footsteps had faded out into the distance. By then, the drug had already begun to take effect and only an occasional tremor shook his body. The pain was slowly receding and he found himself breathing marginally easier.
Otogi regarded him for a moment with a frown, then said simply, "I'll pick you up before school tomorrow."
Ryou nodded in silent gratitude, then ducked his head and pulled up his shoulders defensively.
Otogi's frown returned again for a moment, as he studied him in an attempt to understand this reaction. Was that a barely concealed smile playing at the other's lips? Unable to determine any physical reaction that could pertain to the illness, he crossed his arms and asked flatly, "What?"
"When you say it like that… it does sound like we're dating."
He almost sputtered at the tinge of suppressed laughter in Ryou's voice, but caught himself and went for a sarcastic, "Wait till this gets out. Our fangirls will despair."
Ryou made a desperate choking sound, his shoulders trembling, for once, not with pain. The corners of Otogi's lips didn't want to stop twitching. He snorted, realising that he was fighting a losing battle, and then they had no idea which one of them broke down first. They laughed so hard that tears prickled at the corners of their eyes and they couldn't seem to stop until they were both gasping for breath and clutching at their sides. And if asked, they wouldn't be able to tell what exactly had been so funny to warrant quite that reaction.
Just like that, two months' worth of insecurity, mutual awkwardness, and mental self-torment of the most arcane kind trickled away into nothingness.
Much later, when camellia bushes bloomed wildly all over the city, on their way back from an after-school appointment with Ryou's physician at the central hospital, they ran into two young men also looking for him. Well, a young man and a teenage boy no older than them, to be fair. They had looked surprised – no, startled was the more accurate term for the expressions on their faces – upon learning that Otogi and Ryou were just returning from a meeting with him. And once they'd heard about Ryou's illness, a certain kind of tension had crept between them that wouldn't want to settle as they showed the two strangers the way to the doctor's office, but the doctor had already vacated the building, his shift being officially over for the day, as the nurse at the reception confirmed.
"Can you take off your shirt?" the sandy blond teen asked out of the blue, eyes fixed on Ryou's wrist where the sleeve had slipped back when the other teen had reached up to brush a lock of hair out of his eyes.
"Huh?" Colour crept involuntarily into Ryou's cheeks and his eyes widened in surprise.
Otogi bristled, though he remained silent because, judging by the look on the sandy-haired teen's face, he – Hisoka, as an exchange between the two strangers had revealed moments earlier – was being quite serious about it and wasn't about to let the matter drop.
"I just need to confirm something. Can you take off your shirt?"
"Please," his taller dark-haired companion, Tsuzuki, added, an oddly pained expression on his face, as his gaze flitted to Hisoka with visible concern before settling on Ryou again.
Ryou shifted uneasily under their gazes, his own gaze making traction across the deserted hospital hallway, his hands twitching uncertainly. "Um, I… suppose."
"You don't have to do this," Otogi quickly cut in, reaching out a hand to stall his friend when he hesitantly reached up to unbutton his clothes. Undressing in front of creepy and weird strangers was never a particularly good idea. Even if they were currently in a hospital. Even if they did claim to be acquaintances with Ryou's physician.
"I'm afraid he has to," Tsuzuki countered gently and a little too sadly to be reassuring.
Otogi found himself wanting to… He didn't know. Punch something or fling his dice at something because it felt like the situation was slipping out of his hands and he didn't even know how or why. Nothing had changed. Nothing at all. Had it?
Colour rising even higher in his cheeks, Ryou slipped his school jacket together with his white shirt off in one go of summoned courage that bordered on sudden insanity. In confusion and bafflement he'd forgotten to undo the buttons on the cuffs, however, so that both articles of clothing ended up being caught on his wrists and hanging loosely about his hips. A myriad of emotions passed across Hisoka's face before his expression hardened. He circled Ryou, taking in the expanse of exposed skin. He looked like he was about to faint while also being livid with rage and something else that was probably… horror? Tsuzuki had drawn in a sharp breath at the moment when the shirt had parted on the white-haired boy's chest and hadn't yet released it.
"What is it?" Otogi snapped, making his annoyance at the proceedings known. Whatever they were seeing on Ryou's unmarred skin, save for the five slightly paler spots on his chest where the ancient artefact he'd once owned had dug its spikes in, had to be serious enough to warrant such a reaction. Even if there was nothing there to see. He was caught between wanting to cover his friend with his own jacket, and bodily dragging him away from here, and he didn't know which one he'd rather start with. So he started with crossing his arms.
"It's the same," Hisoka whispered, voice barely above a simple exhale, and suddenly his expression turned infinitely sad as he stopped in front of Ryou and looked him straight in the eye. "Exactly the same."
"What? What's wrong?" Voice equally soft and only a fraction louder, he looked into the green eyes of the sandy-blond teenager in front of him. He didn't miss the tiny flinch in his eyes when their gazes met. He was almost afraid of the answer. Something had changed suddenly; he could feel a certain sort of wrongness settling in, down to the marrow of his bones.
"Bakura-kun." Tsuzuki's voice was sad and sympathetic, using the name Otogi had used in their conversation earlier, though neither of the four of them had introduced themselves formally. And… were those tears in the corners of his eyes? "You're dying. I'm sorry."
"What?" Otogi almost exploded. His crossed arms unwound at once and his body lurched forwards even as he remained rooted to the spot. "That's bullshit! He's getting treatment for it! He's taking his medicine regularly and…" And. Realisation dawned.
"Is it helping?" Hisoka asked in a quiet voice, his eyes still on Ryou.
"Yes!" Otogi proclaimed ardently, fists clenching uselessly at his sides because never before had he wanted to believe in his own words more than right in that instant.
But the question hadn't been for him.
"No," Ryou responded as quietly as Hisoka had asked it. He could see the truth in the other's green eyes. "What's wrong with me?"
"It's a killing curse. You… Muraki must have taken a special liking in you or…" Hisoka trailed off.
Muraki? Ryou's physician? The man who was actively working on curing his untreated illness?
"A killing curse? Yeah, right." Otogi stuffed his hands into his pockets, his expression turning borderline brooding. After everything he'd witnessed ever since becoming friends with Yuugi, was this really that hard to believe? He found that he was double-guessing himself. "How would you even know that? And what's Muraki-sensei got to do with this?"
"He used the same curse to kill me." There was something very worrying in the tone with which those words were uttered. Not that the fact in of itself those words presented was in any way consoling.
"Hisoka," Tsuzuki started to say half in warning, half – cautioning his partner, and there was something else in his voice that both Domino High students could only guess at. Surprise, maybe.
"What?" Otogi stared at the teenager who stood in front of them in flesh and blood and yet claimed himself as being dead. He glanced at the boy's dark-haired partner who seemed to be supporting this madness wholeheartedly, judging by his serious expression. "You're standing right there, you know that? We can see you. You're real."
Hisoka scoffed at his words. "We're shinigami. We can make ourselves visible when we want to."
While this exchange was taking place, Ryou pulled his shirt and jacket on again and buttoned them up in a vain attempt to shield himself. Feeling the sympathetic gaze of Tsuzuki's bright purple eyes on him, he resisted the urge to hug himself because he knew that nothing could warm up the ice-cold emptiness that had spread inside of him at the green-eyed boy's words. He believed him. Every word. He could tell when he was dealing with beings from the spirit world. And right now – he was. Part of the reason why he'd offered to show them to Muraki-sensei's office had been because they'd felt so otherworldly and he'd been so very curious about that. The years-long possession by the Ring Spirit had left unfortunate consequences behind. He'd been exposed to the spirit world, torn open like an unripe fruit and then left to either rot or clot. He'd clotted along the tear, though he suspected that, no matter how hard he'd try, it would never fill up and grow closed again. Becoming whole was something he'd never be able to do. A desperate, hysterical chuckle threatened to break forth from his throat, but he swallowed it down. Dying. Dying. What the Spirit hadn't accomplished…
"We can prove it." Hisoka shrugged nonchalantly, regarding the black-haired teen with some form of tired annoyance.
"No knives through the hand this time, though," Tsuzuki warned. "That's very reckless and irresponsible, even for us."
Hisoka bristled and snapped back indignantly, "I don't want to hear that from you."
"Ah." Tsuzuki ducked his head and yanked up his shoulders, expression turning sheepish, well aware that his partner was right. He had the tendency to overreact and rush into things headlong without giving much thought about the consequences such action would bring upon him. His own safety mattered little when the lives of other people – dead or living – were in potential danger.
Hisoka, still glowering at his partner, faded from view. Otogi jumped. Ryou merely blinked at the empty spot where he'd stood just a moment ago. His mouth formed a small "o" of surprise. Then the boy was fading back into view again.
"Nice trick," Otogi commented, visibly subdued after such a display. He grudgingly permitted himself to believe in shinigami as well, and, by extension, killing curses. He'd already believed in the Pharaoh and spirit possession, so why not this too? – he decided with a resigned sense of self-irony. It would hardly be the most preposterous thing to believe in after everything else he'd gone through.
Hisoka shot him another tired look, milder this time, accepting the unvoiced apology.
"So how do we stop this curse from killing Bakura?"
"We can't," Tsuzuki admitted regretfully. "Muraki is the only one who can lift it, but… he won't do it willingly."
The options here were only too plain to see for both Hisoka and him. If they tracked down Muraki to bargain with him, it would have to be Tsuzuki's life for Ryou's, again. And even that was if they got lucky, considering the way their last encounter had ended. Considering that none of Muraki's victims had ever survived. The other option was killing the caster of the curse, which seemed just as futile, though both shinigami were more than determined to carry it out. But they'd failed twice before. And Muraki still lived.
"Then we'll just have to make him," Otogi declared, casting an uneasy glance at Ryou to make sure he was still holding up, but the white-haired teen wore an indecipherable expression. He was keeping silent, his gaze distant, and Otogi was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to hug him.
Tsuzuki shook his head. "Impossible. We've tried. He's already killed… we don't even know how many people," he admitted, visibly aggravated by this fact. "It's not often when he does it in person. He tends to work through others by putting them under spells to do his bidding. By the time we caught on to him… There's no real way to tell." His gaze wandered down to stare at the floor in dismay. He kept his shoulders straight though, not letting it get to him. He knew what dangers awaited him if he wandered down that path of regret and despair again. He wasn't about to put his friends through a rinse-repeat of that disaster.
There was something terrible about the quiet way Ryou said it. Finality. Resignation. So he had been listening. Otogi couldn't pinpoint exactly what caused that timbre that sounded like broken glass in his friend's voice, but it sent a chill down his spine. One that bounced back for a vehement stab at his heart because this was so unfair. It hadn't even been a full year since Ryou had been freed from the spirit possessing him for the better – actually, worst – part of his life, and now this. His fists clenched reflexively against his own inability to do anything, so he stuck them inside his pockets, found the dice there, and attempted to crush them in his grip. It didn't work, but the pain he got for trying was a tiny non-satisfaction. But at least it was something. Something to hold on to, something to make his own in this world because this seemed like the only thing he could do in a situation where everything else was tilting and slipping at angles his mind couldn't quite parse.
"I understand. It's alright."
But it wasn't, wasn't, wasn't. Otogi intensified his attempts at pulverising plastic in his pockets.
"Is there really nothing we can do?" He hadn't intended for his voice to gain that rough edge at all.
Tsuzuki considered it for a moment. "We can have someone look at the curse and the medicine you've been given to see if we can learn something about the way it works. It could give us a better idea of what exactly we're dealing with."
"When it doesn't work out," Hisoka began in a low voice, frowning at his partner. He'd said the same thing once before; about hopes, promises impossible to keep, and aftermaths to it all. There was danger at the end of that path too.
"If there's a chance, we'll take it," Otogi declared firmly. He refused to accept this battle as already lost.
"You don't have to," Ryou started to say, but Tsuzuki got ahead of him.
"It's decided then! Bakura-kun, you're coming with us to Meifu."
"Meifu," he repeated, beaming at the confused stares the two boys were giving him. "It's our home in the Underworld. I think you might like it."
"I'm going with him," Otogi declared, stepping up beside Ryou and sending the two shinigami a challenging glare to try and stop him. They probably could, but he wasn't about to let them drag his friend into underworld. Not if he had a say in it. He sensed more than saw Ryou opening his mouth to say that he didn't have to do this, but he shot him down instantly. "I'm going."
"You don't have to," Ryou said, not for the first time. And, it seemed to him, definitely not for the last. Otogi didn't have to come over for regular visits the way he was doing right now, he didn't have to stay by his side, he didn't have to help him, he didn't have to keep him company, and he didn't have to a hundred other things. Because Ryou was fine. Yes, incurably ill, courtesy of a mad doctor's curse, placed on him he couldn't even hazard a guess when, but he was fine. Fine. Dying. But fine. It was an exquisite lie that he was trying to spin for himself. Trying; the keyword was trying. And failing spectacularly because the way his friend, classmate, and, since that fateful day in high school's infirmary, nurse in one person kept hovering about him like an annoying insect, looking at him with… what was that expression in his eyes that flickered to the surface every now and then when he thought Ryou wasn't looking?
"No, I have to," Otogi replied with a stubborn sort of determination. "We're dating, remember? Ditching a date is very bad form." And since Ryou looked like he was about to say something more in protest, Otogi hastened to deny him that opportunity. "It's not pity. It's principles."
The other teen opened his mouth. Closed it. An odd expression settled on his face. Then he opened his mouth to speak again. "How rude."
Otogi noted the threadbare amusement in his voice. It was only a weak shadow there, like butter spread too thin on a slice of burned breakfast toast – nothing could be done to salvage something so ruined, no matter how hard one tried, no matter what one piled on top of it. But they were trying. Maybe trying too hard, but they had to. In the face of everything that lay ahead of them, there was only that much they could do. Accept or deny. Sink or swim. Choose one and then sink nevertheless. He latched onto Ryou's weird mood as if it was a lifeline.
Flippantly, he said, "Yeah, I'm a jerk. Ask Jounouchi. He'll confirm it."
The corners of Ryou's mouth twitched and for a moment it looked like he would laugh – or at least chuckle – but then he grew sombre. "He doesn't really think that about you. Not after… everything."
Slightly taken aback for a moment, that comment not at all what he'd been expecting, Otogi could only nod in acceptance. Then he frowned at him. "How do you even know that?"
"Oh, I just do." The reply was given in a light tone. "I watch people a lot, so I can tell what's really on their mind just by how they're acting."
"You watch people." A drawled statement. Raised eyebrows.
"Well, yes." A bashful half-smile.
"You're a creep."
"That's very rude."
"Says the creep who watches people."
For a moment they just looked at each other, and then they laughed. It was almost the same as before learning the truth of Ryou's condition. Almost. But not quite. The hope of Ryou getting better didn't exist anymore.
"So what do you want to do? Since this is a date," Otogi said once the laughter had died, but the smiles had remained. He reclined on the couch while Ryou perched on the arm on the other end.
Ryou grasped around for options. "Well, I'm not, um… play a game?"
"Sounds good. What game?"
It was said in such a hopeful tone that Otogi wanted to laugh again. Instead, he turned it into a grin and dressed it up with a sidelong mockingly sceptical look.
"It uses dice too," Ryou cajoled further, suddenly very taken with the idea. His gaze briefly darted across the room where the game set sat on a shelf, bracketed by dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and books on myths and occult matters. "And I promise that nobody's getting their soul trapped inside game pieces this time."
Otogi leaned slightly away from him in surprise, his eyebrows riding up. "That actually happened?"
Ryou nodded, suddenly shy again, but still earnest. "That's right. You weren't around back then yet."
Otogi's eyebrows rose a fraction higher at that. Just how much of the crazy had he missed?
"Oh, I know! Why don't I tell you all about it while we play?"
Otogi looked at his friend's bright expression and yielded without putting up much of a fight. His enthusiasm was contagious. And his skill at the game – as fifteen minutes later proved it – tremendous. Even though he was a master of dice games, he found himself struggling here. He couldn't even begin to imagine how Yuugi had won against him, even with the rest of the group and the Pharaoh helping him.
"Oh, I helped them. The… um, the dice was rigged, so I rigged it right back."
Otogi didn't miss the slight hesitation in Ryou's tone and the way he avoided bringing up the Spirit of the Ring, even though a reference to him had clearly been meant to precede the bit about the rigged dice. "So, basically, you cheated yourself in a game against yourself."
Ryou's bright smile seemed to light up the room. "When you put it that way…"
"You know what? I give up."
"You have one more roll though."
"Let's be real here. It probably won't do anything anyway." And he was loath to admit that he was most likely right. The situation on the game board was not favourable for him at all. He would have claimed that Ryou had kept him mostly distracted with his recount of the game he'd played against their friends that very first time, because something had twisted inside of him every time he'd been able to pick out the places in the other's tale where he carefully stepped around calling the dark entity once possessing him by name. Would have. But he wasn't that much of an asshole.
"You won't know until you've tried."
Otogi grumbled something about Ryou's cheerful smile, Anzu, and poison under his breath, extracting an incredulous little laugh from him, which made him feel a fraction better about losing the game. But only a fraction. He rolled the dice and watched Ryou's gaze follow them with avid interest, saw the earnest smile blossom on his face when he got a good outcome of the roll – good for Otogi, and he was still thrilled about that.
"Oh, it's a critical!" Ryou lifted his gaze, caught him looking and blushed slightly. "Um…"
"You're really invested in this," Otogi commented, not bothering to hide the surprise and more than just a touch of admiration in his voice.
"It's my favourite game."
"Hmm." He propped his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his palm, giving him a thoughtful look. "That critical."
"Ah! It deals a powerful blow, but my monster is still standing. And, let's see here… oh! I also have a critical. My monster's attack is devastating. I'm sorry."
Snorting, Otogi leaned back on his cushion and crossed his arms, telling himself that he wasn't really admiring the bright expression on the other teen's face. He really, really wasn't. "No, you're not."
"Yes, I am," Ryou defended. "…just a tiny bit."
Otogi snorted again, with more emphasis this time, at the honesty in his voice. The corners of his lips quirked up in amusement and a healthy dose of self-irony.
"Um, if you want a rematch…" There was that look again in Ryou's eyes. That honest, accommodating, sorry-I-won-and-enjoyed-it look.
"Oh, there will be a rematch. Dungeon Dice Monsters."
Ryou laughed lightly at the fierceness in his voice. "Fair enough. Would you like some tea?"
"Tea would be nice, thank you." Otogi watched him stand up and make his way to the kitchen, taking that peace offering for what it was and trying to make sense of what had just happened. Of just what on earth his mind was doing.
Looking back on it, their first kiss was probably the most awkward thing ever. More of a way to say, "I'm here," rather than an actual kiss. Still shaken from the confrontation with Muraki, they were lying in the rubble of what had once been a church with the choking realisation of finality because the shinigami had been right. Muraki didn't care whether they lived or died. Or, more correctly, he didn't care whether Otogi lived or died. He was quite intent on adding Ryou to his collection of beautiful dead dolls, which had caused a shockwave of outrage from Hisoka that had almost choked Ryou, who had been standing beside him, with its intensity.
Somewhere in the resulting battle led off by Tsuzuki with his shikigami in vanguard and Hisoka bringing up the rear, Otogi had fallen across Ryou's chest, pinning him against a slab of concrete that might have been a wall. Might have been ceiling too. Nothing looked the way it should anymore. Perspectives had shifted.
His side was bleeding from an injury he didn't remember sustaining. He could tell how painful it was for Ryou to draw breath now because it hissed out somewhere close to his ear. The curse was progressing much faster than Hisoka had told them it should; than what they had counted on. He craned his neck, found Ryou's face and pressed his lips to the corner of his mouth, losing contact every time the other's body shook with violent tremors. Five times, Otogi thought, but he hadn't really counted. Ryou had responded by clenching the edge of his jacket with the one hand that wasn't pinned down beneath rubble, unable to turn his head towards him because there was a jagged-edged metal bar pressing into his temples. A bruise had already blossomed there and skin had broken when a particularly violent spasm had wracked his body. His brown eyes were glazed over with pain. These days, no amount of medication seemed to be able to relieve that. And then Muraki had gone and done something to him just before the battle. He'd touched him and he'd set something off inside his mind, unsealing his memory of the night he received the curse, the doctor had said, lips hovering beside Ryou's ear, and something had lit up beneath Ryou's pristine white shirt that currently was not so pristine anymore with blood, dust, and who knew what else staining it. Hisoka had screamed something incoherent at him, something that had sounded like a command or a desperate plea to don't you dare no Muraki, but he wasn't sure. The only thing he'd been able to register clearly had been Ryou's rigid form in the doctor's mockingly gentle embrace. Everything else had bled together in a wild chaos at about that point. And then Ryou's body had jerked as if he'd been hit by a lightning strike. He had arched in the doctor's arms, eyes wide and suddenly unseeing and then he'd screamed. Otogi had never heard anyone scream quite like that. The curse marks had burned a fiery red on his too-pale skin, finally visible to even his human eyes.
Somehow, they were still alive. Alive, alive, alive. For now. And that was the only thing that mattered; the here and the now. There was a shield spell thrown over them by Hisoka, who was currently off… somewhere. Probably in that general direction where the battle sounds still raged on and mythical beasts, the shinigami's shikigami roared and snarled above the howl of fire and the cracks of spells and collapsing structures. Here, the translucent hemisphere of a barrier shimmered over them like air on a scorching hot summer day, preventing the rest of the building from burying them under the rubble, but it did nothing to stabilise the rubble inside of it. Otogi had tried moving off Ryou some time ago and that had brought them here, with a potentially lethal metal bar pressed against Ryou's head and something heavy pinning down Otogi's legs, immobilising him. Immobilising them both. And Ryou's breath was hissing out of him in pained borderline-moans.
He was getting a crick in his neck, but Ryou's hand fisted in the jacket at his hip was an odd kind of anchor, making him unwilling to break the not-quite-kiss because it felt like, if he did, they both would be lost. Time stretched on infinite. The battle still raged on somewhere, but it didn't matter. It didn't concern them anymore. The world didn't concern them. Neither knew whether they were still alive or already dead. And not knowing was perfectly fine too. They were fine. Half-dead, but fine. It was a lie Otogi was spinning in his mind for them both. The only thing he could still do in this situation. And then the darkness descended.
The aftermath of the battle was decidedly non-glorious. They had won back their lives, but they hadn't actually won. Muraki was still alive. Ryou was still death-bound. As were they all, strictly speaking, but his final destination loomed in an unsettlingly clear sight. Otogi hadn't seen him in days. Or maybe weeks. He had no idea how time was working here, in Meifu. He'd been told that Ryou was doing well; his recovery was steady. Frankly, he called bullshit on that. Ryou wasn't going to be well until Muraki was well dead.
And so it was that one afternoon found him slowly making his way down a corridor to where he knew Ryou's room had to be – somewhere here, surely behind one of these doors – trying to work the pair of crutches that were going to become a part of his daily existence for a while. He'd only narrowly avoided ending up in a wheelchair, the physician had said with a cheerful smile that rubbed him just the wrong way, promising almost perfect recovery because this was Meifu. Whatever that was supposed to mean.
In all actuality, he shouldn't have even been up yet, and the streaks of liquid fire shooting up his legs at each step he made proved that, but he was sick of staring at the same four white walls and the same damn view of cherry trees in full bloom outside his window. He needed a change of scenery, stat. And whatever it was here in the air – or in the water – it sped up the mending of broken bones three times that of normal recuperation process. Not quite what one would expect of the world beyond, but Otogi wasn't complaining. The concrete block that had pinned down his legs had slowly crushed his bones with the weight. Adrenaline and concern for Ryou had made him ignore most of his injuries, so he'd never even known. A good thing too, he supposed. Otherwise he would've lost his senses back there.
He meticulously checked the rooms on this floor of the hospital wing until he located the white-haired teen. He was sitting in his bed, propped up against a pillow, and looking out of the window at the infinite fields of eternally blooming sakura. It didn't seem like he'd noticed his presence.
"Hey," Otogi greeted, manoeuvring his way into the room. There was a moment when he thought that Ryou wouldn't turn to look at him, but when Otogi came to a stop beside his bed, he finally did. But it was as if he hadn't. His eyes were dim and devoid of any emotion. The bruise on his temples had already healed, he had his right arm in a cast and, from what he could make out under the blankets, his right leg was in a splint.
"How are you?" A stupid thing to ask, Otogi knew, but he didn't know what else to say. Didn't have enough experience with visiting people in hospitals. He could already see exactly how Ryou was – he wasn't. He looked like he was barely there; still connected by some thread that kept him anchored to the remnants of life he'd retained post-battle. Otogi could also make a quite an accurate guess at what that thread was – Muraki's curse. Muraki wanted him to suffer through it in its entirety and, from what he'd gathered during that mayhem and from the psycho's rambling, there was actually an inbuilt command that prevented the victim from committing suicide; the most exquisite mindscrew if Otogi had ever heard one. He had so much regret in regards to not believing the shinigami about the doctor before that night. All of that had backfired on them in ways he was sure they'd be picking up for years – if they had years to speak of.
Ryou's head turned towards the window again. Otogi fumbled for something else to say.
He blinked, unsure if his ears were playing tricks on him or if he was actually hearing Ryou speak. But no, there it was again.
"I couldn't, before. When I was cursed."
Oh. Otogi lowered himself onto the vacant bed next to Ryou's, trying to move as quietly as he could. He propped the crutches against the wall, in that small space between both beds. Suddenly the room became claustrophobically small for him. Unsettlingly, he was reminded of a mausoleum where nobody dared to raise their voice out of respect for the departed and that odd mixture of fear and foreboding and utter resignation concerning the end of all things.
"You don't have to," he started to say, keeping his own voice low to match Ryou's tone. He didn't have to delve into memories that were so clearly painful. He didn't have to share. In fact, he would prefer if he didn't. But it was as if Ryou hadn't even heard him speak.
"It was last year. Around this time. When sakura was blooming."
But here, in Meifu, sakura bloomed always.
And then Ryou laughed. A horrible, broken, hollow sound. "It wasn't even me he wanted. No. No. The Spirit of the Ring caught his attention."
Otogi jerked at the mention of that entity. First time, so freely. Something was seriously wrong with Ryou.
"He liked challenges." His bitter voice faded to a whisper and Otogi was only partially sure of which 'he' that was supposed to be. Then his voice rose again to a flat, emotionless tone with the next sentence, only to gain a bitter edge and fade out again. "Of course, he had to challenge him. Always, always. But he had no idea, he didn't…" There was a brief pause, and then, full of resentment: "Muraki-sensei wanted him."
"And when he was gone…" Realisation dawned for Otogi. His breath caught in his chest as it contracted painfully. But it wasn't physical pain that he felt. Icy phantom hands set about to rearrange his insides.
"He wanted him. But the body was mine."
"So you got the curse instead," he finished in a whisper as Ryou lapsed into silence again, his pale fists tightening on the sheets, and he could see that it wasn't the first time he'd done that. The otherwise neat covers tucked around the teen by someone caring had been crumpled around the place where his hands rested by his sides. Otogi felt like doing the same. Also, like punching something. Someone. Preferably Muraki-sensei, although the Spirit of the Ring sounded like a good enough substitute right about now. Too bad that both of them were out of his reach.
"He made me remember. And I remember now. Everything the Spirit did. Everything."
Otogi's head came up with a start. "Bakura…"
"He touched me and I…" Ryou's shoulders trembled once, uncontrollably. His fists clenched on the fabric tighter and then his entire body was shaking. "Who am I?" he asked brokenly. Again, there was that sound like broken glass, except dulled this time. "What am I anymore?"
Then, just as if a tide had crashed over him, he became still again. His hands released the fabric and remained limp by his sides. And this was suddenly somehow worse. And Otogi could see why the doctors had been so reluctant to talk about Ryou. Why Ryou hadn't come to visit him. He was already halfway gone to a world somewhere inside of him where he had merged with the Spirit of the Ring. Where he could no longer distinguish between which one of them still lived and which one was only an echo, caught in a web of a curse. Etched into the faint red lines which Otogi could still make out on the other's torso where the hospital gown had parted in front. They were receding, drawing back into invisibility like a snail into its shell. He felt like saying something, but he couldn't find any words fit for the occasion.
He remained sitting there; a mute observer who didn't know how to deal with the situation at hand. He could only watch Ryou shiver and tremble, words tumbling from his lips without making much sense, without stringing together in coherent patterns, then fall back into the catatonic stillness, then attempt to strangle the life out of the off-white cotton sheets. Otogi remained by his side until the medical staff came looking for him after not finding him in his own room and shepherded him out of there, scolding him for getting up and putting strain on his still not healed legs. He barely registered all of that. It felt like whatever was blanketing Ryou from the real world had caught him in its edge and wrapped him up as well.
Day two was a rinse-repeat of the first one. Ryou went through the exact same dialogue with only small variations while his hands worried at the sheets as if they could give him some sort of an answer, if answers were what he was looking for. Otogi somehow doubted that. The staff found him and led him away faster than the day before, already knowing where to find him, and yeah, Otogi had to admit that they were right. His legs hurt more than they had before his small trip, and he imagined that he could feel the cracks in his bones separating again because of that pain, but something was hurting his chest a whole lot more.
Day three was pretty much the same as the previous two. The only notable difference was that the curse lines had faded out a little more. Ryou's words were more frantic, he was trembling a lot more, and there was one instant when he lurched forward, bent over and in on himself and launched into a desperate litany of, "Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who? Who? Who?" The medics walked in to retrieve Otogi at that moment, and he was hastily heralded out by two of them while the others descended upon Ryou in concern.
On day four he had to pointedly stalk – as much as that was possible when one had both legs in a cast and walking around with crutches was pure torture – past the medic that had been assigned to his side to make sure he would stay in bed and wouldn't wander around, damaging the healing processes in his legs more than he already had. It would have escalated into something that would have found Otogi most likely restrained if Tsuzuki hadn't happened in the vicinity, coming to check up on them and bring them up to speed with their so far unsuccessful search for Muraki. He promised the medic to keep an eye on the human boy and make sure he didn't do anything reckless. Then he'd accompanied him to Ryou.
After listening to Otogi's speculation about the markings on Ryou's skin slowly diminishing and his very hopeful proposal that maybe the doctor was slowly dying somewhere, Tsuzuki shook his head, sadness and regret colouring his voice as he said, "I'm afraid that's not the case. If it were, Hisoka would have noticed it too. He would be the first one to…" And he'd trailed off.
"Oh." The hope Otogi had been building up overnight deflated.
"I'm sorry we couldn't do anything more for the two of you. I…"
Otogi wasn't in a state of mind to listen to apologies. He shrugged and that was an awkward thing to do when one was mid-step and on crutches, and with pain shooting up his legs because the doctors had been right. And that grated. But being helpless and constrained to a bed grated even more. "There's still time."
"Yes," Tsuzuki agreed, though the earlier spark didn't return to his eyes.
They found Ryou subdued and sedated, acknowledging their presence the same way he'd acknowledged Otogi on the first day, but otherwise showing no sign that he recognised them or cared much about their presence. This time, when Tsuzuki suggested leaving the boy be, Otogi followed him back to his own room without much objection. There really was nothing that could be done there.
Day five was when Otogi moved himself to Ryou's room against the medical staff's insistence on the contrary. But it seemed like Tsuzuki had said something to them the other day because they gave up on him sooner than he'd expected. He also pointed out that he was doing them all a favour by moving over there because then he wouldn't need to walk around and ruin all the work the doctors had done on his legs.
The red lines on Ryou's skin by then had turned to being only a faint whisper of colour. In the evening, Otogi watched one of the nurses gently coax his unresponsive friend to lie down and then carefully cover him with the blankets. And when the lights went out and everything fell silent, the nightmares started. Ryou tossed and turned in his bed, sobbing and moaning, sounding so broken and utterly vulnerable that it set Otogi on the edge. He wanted to do something. Hug him. Shake him awake. Punch something. Kill someone. He had no idea what. So he started with trying to get him to wake up. Nothing he did worked. The spell that held Ryou captive in sleep was too strong. Eventually, he gave up and returned to his bed where he stayed half-sitting, half-reclining against his pillow and barely slept that night, listening to the sounds of pain and distress from the other bed. He dozed for most of day six only to be roused again by the same thing on the next night.
When the morning dawned and Ryou stilled somewhat in his sleep, Otogi noticed that the lines had disappeared completely from his skin. Not knowing whether to be relieved about that or even more worried, he settled back onto his bed and fell asleep as soon as his cheek hit the white pillow.
He jerked awake to find the room dark. For a moment he tried to figure out why he'd snapped back to consciousness so quickly when everything around him was so uncharacteristically still and quiet. Was that the reason?
Then Ryou screamed and he jumped in surprise. As quickly as his casts allowed him, he moved to perch on the edge of his bed. The covers on Ryou's bed were a tangle hanging down on one side and pooling on the floor. His pillow was precariously balancing on the edge and a sweep of his hand knocked it off, and with it the glass of water that had sat on the edge of the nightstand. Water spilled, the glass rolled off the table and miraculously ended up hitting the pillow before touching ground and remaining in one piece. Ryou screamed again in anguish and it was enough to bring Otogi over to his bed. His left arm moved erratically again as if fighting off something invisible. He cried out again, his voice rising into a pained wail. Otogi leaned over him, propping himself up with one arm on the side of his bed and gripping his shoulder tight with the other. He shook him, calling his name, but Ryou only twisted away from him, wailing and accidentally hitting him with his currently uncoordinated arm.
Otogi hissed in pain from the blow, then sat down on the edge of the bed, leaned over the other teen, and pinned him down so that he wouldn't be able to accidentally hit him and called his name again. Which, in hindsight, was probably the worst possible thing he could've done in that situation, considering that Ryou was fighting a nightmare and just now something was actually holding him down. Something real. That never translated well. Not where killing curses and traumatic memories were concerned. Ryou trashed in his grip, almost managing to knock him off his precarious perch and practically shrieked. Otogi shook him a touch more violently than he'd initially wanted to.
"Bakura! Bakura Ryou!"
Brown eyes snapped open, wild and terrified, and his body went perfectly, deathly still. Breath hissed out and stayed out, his chest not rising to admit new air in.
"O-togi?" It was scarcely more than a breath in a tone that was something between disbelief and hope.
"Yeah. Hi." The relief at being acknowledged threatened to overwhelm him. "I'm letting go now," he said, removing his hands from his shoulders and reaching over to the small nightstand where one of the nurses had placed a small lamp just the other day in case Otogi needed to make a nightly trip so that he wouldn't have to stumble through absolute darkness.
Soft golden light flooded the room, making them both flinch. Otogi tried his best to adjust as quickly he could to it so that he could study Ryou. Something fluttered inside of him when he saw that his eyes were attentive again. That there was emotion in them again, even if that emotion was a mix of confusion and uncertainty. And, yes, fear. But it faded once he'd made sure that the person sitting on the edge of his bed was really Otogi.
"What…" he started, voice scratchy and he winced at himself for that.
"You were gone for a while."
The simplicity of Otogi's words and the carefully measured tone with which he'd said them made him knit his eyebrows together. He studied his friend with attentiveness the other was only too glad to see.
"Water?" he offered, suddenly wanting to get away from the scrutiny. He'd managed to forget that Ryou could do that: stare right down into your soul and drag up the things you had no idea you felt. His gaze stopped on the top of the nightstand that glistened wetly and he considered cleaning that up, but there was nothing else in the room aside from the sheets, blankets, and their own shirts. And he didn't particularly feel like using either of those. So the water would have to stay where it was.
Otogi reached for his crutches and Ryou's eyes widened, only now realising that he was injured as well. Ignoring that reaction and not wanting to see what kind of emotion would flicker to the forefront in the other's gaze, he stood up and headed for the table on the other side of the room to retrieve a glass of water to replace the one that had spilled.
"Are you- How are you?" Ryou got that out in one breath and Otogi found himself smiling ruefully. Typical. As usual. As expected. Relief was a feeling he could get used to, for a change, he decided.
"I'm fine. The fractures are healing up well. The doctor says I got really lucky with the way they broke. Nice and clean, no splinters, no unnecessary cracks. Real breeze to put back together."
Ryou shot him a disapproving look. "No matter how you say that, it still sounds wrong," he muttered.
Back turned to him while he poured the water, Otogi grinned. "How about you?" he countered with a question of his own.
"I'm…" Ryou hesitated, listening in to his body. Checking his injuries, visible and other. "Alright, I suppose."
"You suppose." Otogi arched an eyebrow at him and performed the most awkward trick to date, called bring the water over to the bed without sloshing it everywhere. He couldn't really complain though. The small nightstand between their beds was only large enough to hold the night lamp and a single glass of water. And the pillow had knocked the latter over in its fall.
"My head hurts a little, but I'm fine, really. Don't worry about me."
Otogi snorted, handing him the glass, and Ryou moved to sit up, hissing in pain when his muscles disagreed with the movement.
"Sure you are. And I'm going to dance polka for you the moment you finish that."
"Oh, I'll make extra sure to drink very slowly then."
Otogi blinked at the smile that flashed behind the rim of the glass. For a moment he just stared at him. He wanted to growl at him. He wanted to smack him upside the head. He wanted to tell him to never stop being him. Instead, he deigned that comment with a snort, sat down on his own bed and put the crutches away again, sparing a glance at the floor and the puddle of water there. It had soaked into the pillow and the edge of the blanket. With a sigh, he leaned down and picked the pillow up, shaking it to get the water off, then checking how large of an area had gotten damp.
Ryou carefully set the glass down on the nightstand, making a face when it made a wet sound, then rolled over to take a look at the miniature pool on the floor. "Oh, dear, did I do that?" He pulled up the blanket and carefully squeezed the water out of it. It didn't work all that well.
"You were having a nightmare." Otogi shrugged and handed him back the pillow.
There was a moment of silence as Ryou took it from him and put it back in its place, smoothing it down. "A memory," he corrected lightly, his tone very carefully measured.
Otogi's breath caught. His stomach dropped and the quiet happiness that he'd managed to rebuild at having Ryou coherent again fled. "You…"
"I remember, yes. Everything."
"Even the…" He was afraid to ask. He was afraid to not ask. And he dreaded the answer in advance.
"The Spirit? Yes." When he said nothing, Ryou continued, each word slow and measured, "I think… I always did know, though. Most of what he did, I mean. We shared a mind for years. The memories were always there; I just couldn't get to them. Didn't want to get to them."
Otogi realised, with no small amount of surprise, that there was no resentment in his voice. No regret. Only bare acceptance. Not the note of fatality that had been there whenever the talk had turned to his incurable illness, but something closer to… forgiveness?
"I remember how he got the curse." His voice dropped low. "Sensei did something to his mind; a spell that bound him in place. I think, that's why… He sealed his memories into me without knowing that he was doing it." The silence was becoming uneasy, but he dispelled it by regarding Otogi again, his expression suddenly very serious. "I also remember one more thing. You kissed me."
"You… remember that?" Otogi was stunned. He hadn't thought he would remember that, not in the state he'd been in. They had been in. After coming to, it had taken him a few days to sort everything out and come to a conclusion that that part of his memories hadn't been dreamed up. Was it too late to save face? But the way Ryou was looking at him… He put on the air of nonchalance and shrugged, wondering if the guise was as crappy as he thought it was, for the situation. "We'd been dating for months and back then…" he ran out of steam.
"What?" Ryou quirked an eyebrow at him. "You didn't want me to die a virgin?"
Otogi barely refrained from gaping at him. Not the words he'd expected to hear from him. And while colour had definitely crept into his cheeks – he could tell even in this low lighting – his voice had been… Oh. Oh, damn. "Don't tell me you… Was that your first?"
The way his gaze darted away was more eloquent than all of the flowery love letters he'd found stuffed in his locker and between the pages of the books girls had lent from him.
"It was," Otogi breathed.
Ryou shrugged, meeting his gaze and cocking his eyebrow at him again. "Wanna make something of it?"
Before Otogi's mind had had the chance to catch up with him with such pesky things as logic and common sense, he'd already moved over to the other's bed, planted his hands beside Ryou's hip for support and leaned in. "What if I did?" His breath ghosted over Ryou's lips, eyes glinting at the half-offered challenge in front of him. No, common sense hadn't caught up with him yet. "What if I… did?"
Ryou squared his shoulders. Held his ground. Voice level, he said, "I'd like to see you try."
"You would, wouldn't you?" Otogi smirked and lingered only a moment longer to notice Ryou's eyes narrowing. Not bothering – or perhaps too afraid – to examine the emotion he gleaned there, he closed the final gap between them. He was good at this; he'd left plenty of girls breathless and misty-eyed in admiration.
But Ryou wasn't one of those girls even though his lips were soft and they stayed closed. …for less than three seconds because, much to Otogi's surprise, he wasn't one to give in easily. He kissed back and Otogi almost lost the momentary upper hand he'd gotten by being the initiator of the kiss. His mind came to a halt because Ryou – considerate, polite, accommodating, unobtrusive Ryou was kissing him back, giving as good as he was getting. Better, really, because it was completely out of the left field. And then it was on. Otogi shifted his weight, moving forwards and making him lean slightly back for a more advantageous angle, which didn't seem to deter Ryou in the slightest. In fact… Was that a smirk? Otogi let his breath huff out of him indignantly and traced his tongue teasingly along the other's bottom lip. Ryou's response was lighting-fast. Before Otogi had had the chance to process what had happened, his tongue had slipped against his, then across his, then into his mouth and… damn. Otogi responded in kind, determined to reclaim dominance over the kiss, but coming up short every time it felt like Ryou was yielding.
They made several attempts to pull away, but reconsidered each time in favour of prolonging it. When Otogi did finally break the kiss, it was because his legs were hurting too much and his arms were starting to go numb from supporting most of his weight in what was a rather precarious position, the way he'd been leaning over Ryou.
"Wow," he said, grudgingly admitting that Ryou was more than he'd bargained for. Then happily ruined that effect by adding, "This has certainly been the longest date I'd needed to get a kiss."
"Get out of my bed," Ryou said flatly, the corners of his lips twitching, the mirth in his gaze belying the tone of his voice.
Laughter bubbled in Otogi's chest even as he obeyed the demand, muttering something about prude virgins under his breath. He received a very undignified smack with a pillow in response. They both froze for a moment, locking gazes with each other, just being there, catching that one moment in time before a torrent of laughter swept everything away. For one blissful moment, the reality didn't matter.
So the reference notes. Again.
(So this fic should actually be called "365 days of a year which they don't have".)
- The fic is structured in bouts to account for Ryou's occasional blackouts. And in an attempt to cut down on the word count because, good lord, this thing would be well in the low 30k if I wrote everything out in succession and with proper transitions. And, as a result, I forced myself to keep Yami no Matsuei mostly as a backdrop. (And I only wish I were exaggerating about that word count.)
- The black cat is an allusion to another anime – Shinigami's Ballad where the girl-god of death has a winged black cat for a companion. And a cross-allusion to X/1999 because episode 9 of the anime features a black shikigami-cat that serves as a means to cast a very realistic and a very murderous illusion. They both have a golden bell on the collar, though. (Silver is a, um, ~clever~, allusion to the main villain-behind-the-scenes of this fic. If you google Muraki, you'll see why.) Also, black cats in general aren't the best omen out there. :'D So I'm laying it a bit thick there on the symbolism, OTL.
- The inexplicable hospitalisations hinted at in the beginning are – you all can probably guess already – all Season 0 penalty game aftermaths. Also, nurse Tomizawa? Well, after Count Ridley Sheldon, anyone would be traumatized. (My headcanon is that he kidnapped the nurse and kept her locked up somewhere while his doll made a darn good impression of her.)
- The blooming time for camellia (camellia japonica, specifically) is February-April. It grows all over Japan in forests and mountains of coastal areas, which just fits too nicely with the setting of Domino City being secretly Iwaki, Fukushima. This is also to give you a subtle hint of when, during the year, parts of this story are taking place. If you account for the entirety of YGO animanga taking place during the late spring-summer of 1998, as per the timeline I'm using, this story picks up sometime early in the autumn semester of that same year.
- And since we're talking school, this is how the semesters are in Japan:
First semester: April 5 – April 28 U May 6 – July 20 U August 28 – October 5.
Second semester: October 11 – December 21 U January 8 – March 24 (March 19, if you're a graduate).
Yes, you read that right. They have a summer vacation smack-dab in the middle of their first semester. (The "U" is a mathematical term meaning "the union of", by the way. I'm a math nerd, among other things, so I sometimes use math terminology and symbols for personal convenience, orz.)
- And now for the stray Japanese peppered throughout the fic:
un – the equivalent of a casual 'yeah' in Japanese.
sensei – while meaning "teacher", is also how you generally address doctors. And lawyers. And let's not make this complicated now. xD
- The "this is all Yami Bakura's fault" is actually a throwback to a crossover drabble I wrote upon a request way back when, and which is located here: lightrobber-livejournal-com/145428-html (replace dashes with dots) for those interested. See, I tend to follow up on things. In the most roundabout ways. Eventually. 8'D
- I'm pretty sure I went quite giddy with puns and throwaway hints at canon events on both sides of the converging fandoms and uh, I'm drawing the line here. And because you've read this far, have a cookie. Well, not really, but…
Ryou crawled into the bed and stretched out beside Otogi, trying to tune out the low strum of pain that was starting up again all over his body, uniform and unwelcome. He sighed into his partner's shoulder, letting his forehead fall against it. Otogi gave him a sidelong glance and slung his arm around him, anchoring him safely against his side. He could tell when Ryou was trying to hide the pain from him, not wanting to worry him. He would have told him that it was pointless anyway. There was already plenty of worry because…
"So, one more year?" his grip tightened involuntarily. Already, he hated the thought of losing him.
"Mmm. Something like that." Ryou sighed. "But it's the new millennium coming up."
"Year 2000? End of the world?" he supplied.
Otogi actually moved away to see if his lover was serious. "Don't tell me you actually believe that crap?"
A sheepish smile was his response. "Well, the spirits have been restless lately. Something's definitely coming up."
"The spirits," he said flatly. Well, there was that little… side-effect. Ryou and his spirit guests. Sometimes he felt cold in his own home and his lover always confirmed that yes, they were having invisible visitors, and no, it wasn't his fault that they flocked to him because the shinigami were currently busy elsewhere. "Watch it, spirit boy. I'm a very possessive boyfriend."
"So I've noticed," he drawled, mirth glinting in the depths of his brown eyes. He reached out to pat Otogi's chest reassuringly. "Don't you worry, though. I'm already possessed."
Otogi snorted despite himself. "That's a terrible pun."
"Does it matter?"
"No." And he promptly rolled over and pinned Ryou beneath him, giving him his most lascivious expression. "But there is a matter you could take care of."
Ryou made a sound halfway between an indignant sputter and an amused snort. "That's even worse."
"Are we going to argue semantics?" Otogi inquired with mock politeness, running a not-at-all-polite knee between his legs and pressing it up just… so.
"Shut up and kiss me."