Note: This was written for the Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction contest, for the prompt "Messiahshipping (Pharaoh Atem x Horakhty)"
Atem woke up slowly, reveling in the remnants of the dream that still hadn't quite let go of his mind. He couldn't quite remember what he'd been dreaming anymore, only that he'd felt himself surrounded by a sense of warmth and light, and the light had been alive. He had the oddest sense that it had been searching for him, had in some strange way been lonely for him, and overjoyed that it had found him. It had left him filled with a sense of peace and contentment, as if everything in the world would be all right forever as long as he could remain in the embrace of that living light. He could almost still hear its voice whispering in his mind.
My chosen one...
He was jogged out of his dream-fogged state by the sound of someone banging on his door. He groaned and pulled his blankets over his head. Too late - the dream had fled, leaving him in his own little room, in the apartment he shared with his twin brother. The light level outside his window told him even before opened the blinds that the day might have started with dreams of light, but it was going to continue with heavy clouds.
"Atem, are you awake yet?" Yugi called.
"Almost," said Atem reluctantly.
The door cracked open, and Yugi peered into the room. He was already dressed, bright- eyed and ready for the day. Atem felt a little embarrassed. Usually he was the early riser, and Yugi was the one he had to drag out of bed by his feet. Small wonder Yugi was staring at him with concern.
"You aren't sick or something, are you?" he asked.
"I was having a dream," Atem mumbled.
Yugi smiled. "It must have been some dream. What was it about?"
Atem frowned a little. "I'm not sure. There was a woman, I think..."
Yugi laughed. "My brother is all grown up. Come on - breakfast is on the table, and you can't get away with being late."
Atem wanted to disagree, but he couldn't. Yugi worked the morning shift at their grandfather's toy and game shop, and could get away with the occasional bit of dawdling. After all, the store wasn't going to open until he got there to open it. Atem, on the other hand, was on someone else's schedule, and he had to stick to it whether he liked it or not.
"I'll be there," he promised.
As he pulled on his clothes, he tried to stifle a sense of resentment. There had to be more to life than this, he thought, as he yanked on a pair of jeans. All the rest of his friends had their lives sorted out, didn't they? Look at Yugi - he was perfectly content to mind the shop every morning, and would probably take over entirely once their grandfather stepped down. Their friends they had gone to high school with had all gone off and found jobs and careers of their own. Anzu was happy working in community theater and making extra money as a dance instructor. Honda had settled into working at a garage with every appearance of contentment. Hanasaki was blissfully happy pottering around in his comic book shop. And Atem...
Well, nothing had ever really become of him. He was good at a lot of things, but none of them had ever added up to that one big thing that he felt he needed to do in life. He was a moderately good student, but not an outstanding one. He enjoyed sports, and was good at them, but never so good at any one that he could have gone pro. Like his brother, he was passionate about games of all types, and usually won at them. He just couldn't seem to resign himself to looking after a shop all his life - the idea left him feeling a bit claustrophobic. No, there had to be more to life than just sitting behind a desk taking people's money all day, even if it was taking people's money for something he really enjoyed working with and talking to people about. He had considered trying to become a professional poker player, or something of that nature. He might have enjoyed that, but it still didn't quite feel right. It would be fun, yes, but it wouldn't seem meaningful.
So here was Atem at twenty-two, still not knowing any more what he wanted to do with his life than he had when he'd been a child. It wasn't just frustrating, it was embarrassing. He had always been the stronger and more confident of the two brothers. He was the one who solved problems and got things done. People had always expected great things of him, and somewhere along the way, he'd started expecting great things of himself. Some days he felt as though there was an immense weight of important things hanging over his head, like a thunderstorm looking for a place to release its weight of rain and lightning. He wished he knew what he was supposed to do with it all.
In the meantime, he helped out at the shop whenever his family needed him to, and the rest of the time, he worked his regular job. He'd been fortunate enough to get a research position, mostly on the strength of his grandfather's reputation. Mutou Sugoroku had been a noted adventurer in his youth, and he had learned a lot about ancient cultures in his pursuit of secrets and treasures. He had particularly fallen in love with ancient Egypt, enough to have a bit of a reputation even in scholarly circles. He was the one who had named Atem after an ancient sun god. Atem had naturally enough ended up sharing his interest. Some of the happiest afternoons of Atem's life had been spent sitting at the counter of the game shop, waiting for customers to arrive and listening to his grandfather regale him with tales of Egyptian myth and legend, or just teaching him about the ways of the ancients. If there was anything in the world that Atem would have liked to have been, it was a great adventurer and gambler like his grandfather.
Sadly, the limitations on digging around in Egyptian soil and unearthing its long-lost treasures made it a little impractical for a freelancer to just barge in and start digging for things the way his grandfather had. Atem had little patience for paperwork and bureaucracy, and even less for the painstaking note-taking and record-keeping that would come with professional archeology. Still, he had taken courses in Egyptology in college, and when a letter had arrived in his grandfather's mailbox, offering him a position as a research assistant, he'd recommended his grandson in his stead. The offer had been extended, and Atem had accepted it because he wasn't sure there were any better offers forthcoming.
He finished putting himself in order, ate his breakfast while listening silently as Yugi chattered, and hurried out of the house at a brisk walk. He was running a little behind today, and while he might not consider this position his dream job, he still tried to do it as well as he could as a matter of pride.
Not that his boss was liable to scold him for arriving five minutes late. Odds were, he wouldn't even notice.
At least he normally enjoyed the walk to work. The game shop was in a good part of the city, surrounded by equally specialized shops that sold everything from candles to candy, and he always took pleasure in looking through the windows. Sometimes, when he was feeling generous, he'd stop by the little bakery and pick up some sweet pastries to share at work, but today was not going to be that day. Instead, he simply hurried as quickly as he could up the sidewalk and down the twisting streets until he came to a handsome iron gate set into a stone wall. He pushed a button on the gatepost, and the security guard hidden within the house checked his credentials before opening the gates for him. Atem spared a glance at his watch as he dashed up the front walk. Two minutes to eight - right on time.
Once inside the house, he walked quickly through the foyer and up the stairs, away from the areas of the house meant to show off for visitors and into the places where people actually lived. He tried the upstairs parlor first, and was unsurprised to see the lady of the house sitting there, enjoying a morning cup of tea.
"Good morning, Mrs. Crawford," he said politely.
"Good morning, dear," she answered. Cyndia Crawford was a sweet, inoffensive woman, perfectly mannered but still somehow down-to-earth - the perfect match for her rather flighty husband. "Are you looking for Pegasus? He's in his studio already - he got a new idea and took off in the middle of breakfast." She shook her head, smiling fondly.
Atem smiled too, in spite of himself. He liked Cyndia, even if he wasn't always sure he liked his employer.
Pegasus was that rarest of specimens, a pure intellectual. His mother had died when he was still quite young; his father had keeled over of a heart attack when Pegasus had been only eighteen years old, and he had inherited the entire estate. The estate, in this case, ended up meaning several large houses in various parts of the world, a fleet of vintage automobiles, a private plane, and six successful Las Vegas casinos, not to mention several smaller but still thriving businesses and a considerable personal savings. Some teenagers, when suddenly presented with such a substantial fortune and no parental supervision, would have immediately embarked on a life of wild parties, fast cars, and beautiful women. Pegasus, on the other hand, had immediately married his childhood sweetheart and settle down to pursue a life of art. The two of them had traveled around the world, taking in its great sights (and in his case, painting most of them). Eventually, he'd become interested in the places and things he was painting as more than just pleasant vistas to be set on canvas. When his wife had finally grown weary of never staying in once place for more than a month, he had obligingly found a house where they could settle down, but he'd never stopped indulging his lively curiosity. He continued to paint prodigious quantities of pictures, and to study anything and everything that caught his fancy - biology, astronomy, history, along with a lot of stranger things. In some ways, Atemu admired him for that. He didn't do it for money, or for glory, or politics. He did it for the sheer joy of learning.
On the other hand, Atem had the vague sense that Pegasus was more or less amoral. It wasn't that he was a particularly unpleasant person, and Atem had never actually seen him do anything particularly bad, merely playful and prankish. It was just that he had a general sense about him that his studies were all that mattered, and if his scholarly pursuits happened to cause trouble for someone else, well, that was their problem. He cared about his wife, his art, and his scholarly pursuits, and that was where his concern for the world stopped.
Still, he was entertaining to work for. His scholarly interests tended towards the unusual and eccentric - some even said towards the lunatic fringe. He believed in aliens, he was interested in parapsychology, he was fascinated by the idea of reincarnation. Lately his big ideas had to do with parallel dimensions - the idea that there were multiple realities existing side-by-side, and that every possibility that hadn't been realized in this world somehow existed in some other world. Atem wasn't as fascinated, but he wasn't going to dismiss the idea out of hand, either. He'd heard weirder stories from his grandfather.
Maybe that's my problem, he thought, as he started towards Pegasus's workroom. I'm just in the wrong universe.
The woman lay on the bed that had been made up for her, sweating and exhausted, but pleased with herself. In her arms, she held a newborn baby. For a little while, at least, this was all she needed to think about, and she was content to lie there and admire the new life she had brought into the world. Soon she would have to show him to his father. More than that, she would have to show him to the rest of the court, for this was the first son of the Pharaoh. Everyone would want to see and admire him. For now, though, there was only the midwife who had attended the birth, hovering solicitously off to one side, making sure that both mother and child would continue to be well in these first hours of the new prince's life.
And there was one other. No one could see her, but she was there, watching the baby more closely than the midwife or even the mother. Horakhty had been planning this moment for a very long time. She was a goddess, and she had known since the dawn of time that this place, this woman, this child would all be here, but oh, how sweet it was to finally see it happening! The goddess manifested next to the bed so that she could look down into the child's face. He had been drowsing, but when she reached out one of her hands to touch the boy's cheek, he opened his eyes and gurgled happily. No one else noticed her.
"That's my boy," she crooned. "You will grow up to do great things for the world, my little chosen one...
Atem found Pegasus in his studio. It was on the top floor of the house, on a corner where it could get the best light from multiple directions. At the moment, the great man was sitting in front of an easel, his silver hair tied back, his clothes and hands blotched with various colors of paint. The painting in front of him showed a mysterious forest, deep and shadowy, completely at odds with the brightly lit cityscape around them. Atem had to admit, the man was a genius. He could almost feel the coolness of the shadows, and smell the resinous scent of the pine trees. It almost seemed he could put his hand up to the picture and touch leaves rather than paint.
After a few moments had passed without Pegasus noticing him, Atem cleared his throat. Pegasus roused himself as if from a dream.
"Oh, it's you again," he said pleasantly. "Is it time for you to be here yet?"
"Yes, sir," said Atem.
"Ahh," said Pegasus, as if this were a surprising revelation. "In that case, I've left some books for you in the library. They're all piled on the table. Go through them and see what you can find that's useful, and if you finish before your time is up, come back and find me and I'll see what else I can dig up for you."
Atem nodded and agreed that he would do so. Then he trudged his reluctant way to the library to spend another morning tucked away in a library, digging through moldering old books and taking reams of notes on them. By the time he got home, his hand would be cramped and aching from all the writing he'd been doing.
At least it's interesting, he consoled himself, but without much real conviction.
He reached the library and found the promised stack of books waiting for him there, thick leather-bound things with delicate brown pages and cracked spines. Atem sighed as he settled into his chair and cracked open the first one.
It didn't take him long, however, to realize that his mind was wandering. He plodded through a few more paragraphs, reading and rereading them before finally giving up and admitting to himself that his mind just wasn't on the job. He got up with a groan that was part stiffness from the uncomfortable chair, but mostly frustration with himself and life in general.
There must be something more to life than this. There must be something out there for me to do - something that's actually suited to me. I just wish I knew what it was...
He walked around the library, as if somewhere amid Pegasus's many strange tomes and books of forgotten lore, there might be an answer to his conundrum. Maybe there was. Everything else seemed to be in there.
At random, he pulled down a book and flipped it open, just to see what was inside. Knowing Pegasus, there could be anything. His books were arranged by some arcane system that only he properly understood, and while he could find everything he wanted easily enough, he didn't care to let anyone else in on how to use his system. That was why he picked out books for Atem to study every day instead of just telling him what to look for and sending him off to find it himself. That was one of the reasons why Pegasus had asked first Atem's grandfather, and then Atem himself, to take this position, rather than inviting a pure academic. An academic would probably have had a fit of the vapors at their first sight of the library, even if they didn't turn up their nose at the avenues of research they were being asked to pursue. This book seemed to be a book of obscure mythology, and Atem flipped through it, looking at artist's interpretations of various long-forgotten gods and goddesses, reading the improbable things the book said about them.
"Not so improbable as all that," said a voice.
Atem looked up sharply. He had not heard anyone come into the room. The voice had been feminine and sweet, but definitely not Cyndia's voice, and she was the only one he'd expect to be in here talking to him. He looked all around, but the room was empty.
"If gods couldn't do impossible things," the voice continued serenely, "they would not be gods."
The voice seemed to be coming from somewhere downwards. Very slowly, Atem turned his attention to the book in his hands. The pages were open to a depiction of a goddess, feminine but somehow not quite human-like, with outstretched wings and a wise, kind expression. When his eyes came to rest on the picture, it smiled at him.
"What in...!" he exclaimed, and dropped the book.
The voice did not seem to be perturbed by his reaction.
"I am the goddess Horakhty," she said. "I was once revered by the Egyptians, many thousands of years ago, so long ago that men of this age have all but forgotten me. But I have not forgotten my people. I have come to this time and place in search of you."
Atem shook his head. "I must be dreaming again. I must have dozed off over those books..."
The voice laughed softly. "You don't believe in me yet. That's all right. I will be patient. I have been searching for someone like you for a very long time, across the expanses of reality. You are very precious to me, Atem."
This, he thought, was what came of stressing so much over his life choices - he had been worrying so much about his life options that he'd started seeing imaginary beings. He supposed it was meant to be a comforting illusion, reassuring him that he was special and destined for great things.
"No," she said, with pity in her voice. "You aren't destined for great things. And that is exactly why I chose you."
"I don't understand," said Atem, frowning. It bothered him that he couldn't understand his own hallucination. If this was a product of his own mind, it ought to at least make some sense to him.
The goddess smiled at him, a smile that was full of warmth and acceptance.
"We will talk again," she said, and just like that, the illustration was only a picture on a page, with no life or animation at all. Atem stared at it, but it did nothing else. He put the book back on the shelf as if he thought it was about to turn around and bite him if he didn't.
"I need a break," he said aloud.
The door to the library opened.
"Did I hear you say you needed a break?" asked Pegasus, peeking inside.
"Sorry," said Atem. "I suppose my mind just isn't on the job today."
Pegasus frowned at him. "You do look a bit pale. Are you feeling unwell? Perhaps you could use some fresh air."
"That might help," Atem admitted.
"All right," said Pegasus. "As it happens, I just got a call that some books I've ordered have come in. Would you be so very kind as to pop around the corner and pick them up for me?"
Trust Pegasus to find a way to turn "not feeling well" into "available to run errands". Atem squelched the urge to grimace and nodded instead. Getting out into the fresh air and getting a chance to walk probably would make him feel better. Anyway, he really wasn't getting anything done here, so he might as well earn his paycheck somehow.
A few minutes later, he was making his way to the bookshop. The fact that Pegasus lived in this neighborhood and bought books in prodigious quantities was probably the only reason the shop could continue to flourish there in the fist place. It was the sort of alternative bookstore that stocked books on crystals, meditation, past-life regression, and similarly esoteric subjects, along with jumbles of candles, yoga mats, dreamcatchers, and horoscope charts. Then again, there were usually customers in there, so perhaps there was more of a call for those sorts of things than he'd have guessed.
But there was one good thing about it: the proprietor was a friend of Atem's from high school, and it was always good to see him. A bell chimed gently as Atem stepped through the front door, and Bakura Ryou looked up from the counter and smiled.
"Hey," he said, "what brings you here in the middle of the day?"
"Pegasus said you had some books for him, and sent me to pick them up," said Atem.
"He's got you running errands now?" asked Bakura sympathetically. "You deserve a better job, if you don't mind my saying so."
"I don't mind. I feel the same way," said Atem. "All the same, I'm glad to have the chance to stop in and say hello."
Bakura shrugged. "I'd offer you a place here, but..."
He trailed off, and Atem nodded in mute agreement. He wouldn't fit in here, either. It would just be more make-work, not a true vocation.
"I'll just get those books for you," said Bakura, starting for the back room. "Feel free to look around, and shout if anyone comes in."
He disappeared through a door, leaving Atem on his own. He began wandering vaguely around, contemplating crystal pyramids, incense burners, and bags of rune stones. He rather liked some of the artwork on the walls, paintings of animals or graceful women depicted against lush landscapes, and there was a wall-hanging depicting an assortment of Egyptian gods that on any other day, he might have considered buying and taking home with him. The odd vision he'd seen in the library, however, was too near to him still for him to want to tempt fate any further. He didn't want to have his brother come home and find him arguing with the decor.
To take his mind off that, he began studying a collection of boxes and bags, each small enough to hold in his hand. He picked one box up and studied it. They were sets of Tarot cards, he realized. He tipped the cards into his hands and fanned them out, contemplating the intricate pictures that adorned them. Looking at them, feeling their weight in his hands and the slick way they slid against each other, made something in him say yes. There was an answer here, just a little beyond his reach, and if only he had a tiny bit more information, he'd have all his problems sorted out. He frowned down at the cards, trying to make the answer come clear.
"Oh, are you interested in Tarot?" said a voice behind his shoulder.
Atem almost dropped the cards. Either he had been contemplating more deeply than he'd realized, or Bakura could move very quietly.
"A little," he said, tapping the cards together again and putting them back in their box.
"I've been studying them for a while now," said Bakura. "I'm getting pretty good at reading them."
"Would you do a reading for me?" Atem asked. He doubted Pegasus would mind - he'd probably approve, if he knew.
Bakura looked thrilled. "I'd love to!"
He fished around behind the counter and took out a set of cards - obviously his own personal deck, rather than one of the sets for sale. The corners had faint sides of wear, and the edges were discolored by innumerable fingers riffling over them. He offered them to Atem.
"Here," he said. "Shuffle these and focus very hard on asking them what it is you want to know. Let them get acquainted with you."
Atem raised an eyebrow, but he took the cards and dutifully began shuffling them. "Acquainted?"
"Well, yes," said Bakura. "The cards may not be alive, exactly, but they have a... something. Mind, soul, heart. Whatever it is they use to communicate with us."
Again, Atem had that unsettling feeling was right there at his fingertips, if only he knew what it all meant.
If you know the answers, then tell me! he thought fiercely at the cards.
"That should do it," said Bakura.
He took the cards from Atem and began spreading them out on the counter. Atem leaned a little closer as he watched Bakura turn them over one by one. The pictures were beautiful in their strange way, but if they held any answers, he wasn't seeing them. His eye was drawn to one of the more elaborate ones, depicting a beautiful woman in a flowing blue gown, her hair hanging long and loose, a silver crown on her head. She was perched on a rock surrounded by what seemed to be ocean, and she held a heavy chalice in one hand, from which more water overflowed. He could almost believe that the ocean around her had come about from her patiently pouring water out of that cup.
"Who is she?" he asked.
"That's the Queen of Cups," said Bakura.
"Is that a good sign?" Atem asked.
Bakura frowned a little. "Well, it's not a bad sign. The Cups suit is the suit of emotions, so the Queen is a woman who is guided or ruled by her emotions. In the upright sense, she can be a woman of caring and compassion who does good things out of love for other people. In her worst aspect, she can be jealous and possessive, or her actions could be misguided - say, she might be so caught up in some romantic fantasy that she can't see reality anymore."
Atem stared down at the card. "So which one is she here?"
"It's hard to tell," Bakura admitted. "I'm getting mixed messages. The sense I'm getting is that there's a woman who has taken an interest in your life and wants to help you, but her motives are maybe a little bit self-centered. It's less that she cares about you and more that she wants something... well, not exactly from you. It feels more like, um..." He paused, groping for the best explanation. "Kind of like how somebody who never really did much with their life might really, really want their kids to succeed so they can live vicariously through them. It's like that. This woman is disappointed by something, and she wants you to fix it somehow. That's the sense I'm getting from all this, anyway."
"Hmm," said Atem. For some reason, he felt oddly comforted. He had told Bakura nothing at all about his odd encounter in the library, and somehow he had still deduced that there was a woman involved in his life who wanted something from him. It felt like a fragile sort of confirmation that perhaps he wasn't losing his mind after all, and Pegasus and Bakura had been right all along. Maybe he was just the last one to know.
"Does any of that help at all?" Bakura asked.
"Yes," said Atem. "I think perhaps it does. I did run into a woman today who said some things I didn't understand. Now I think I may have a better idea how to deal with her if I see her again."
Bakura smiled. "Glad to be of service! Tell me how it all turns out, okay?"
"I will," Atem promised. "And thank you."
He collected Pegasus's books and started back outside in a somewhat more cheerful frame of mind. If he was losing his mind, well, at least he would be in good company. Pegasus would be fascinated, and Bakura could probably find work for someone who talked to a genuine, if rather obscure, Egyptian goddess. If that was how things were going to be from now on, he would cope. And if he wasn't just going mad from boredom and frustration, if there really was a goddess taking an interest in his life, then so be it. If she wanted to push him, then he would very well make sure that he only let her push him in a direction he really wanted to go. Just now, he felt up to it. In fact, he felt like he could do just about anything.
Even tackle the rest of those old books Pegasus wanted him to read.
Bakura pottered around the shop, feeling fairly content. He was glad that he'd been able to help Atem with his problem, whatever it had been. He rather wished he'd thought to ask a little more about the strange woman - perhaps it would have made it easier for him to understand the signs he'd been getting. Still, what he'd told Atem had seemed to help him make up his mind, so perhaps it was all for the best that he hadn't gotten all the details of his friend's personal life. He hadn't heard much about Atem dating since he'd broken it off with Anzu back in high school. He'd have to remember to ask how things turned out later.
There weren't a lot of customers this time of day, so he usually used the time to tidy up, take inventory, rearrange displays, and generally put things in order for the afternoon shoppers. He had just opened up a case of jewelry to dust it when he felt a jolt. Just like that, he found that he couldn't move, not even his eyes, not even to breathe. It was as if he had turned to stone. Even as he was realizing that, the room around him began to fade, going dark and shadowy, its colors draining away to blacks and grays.
Is this the end? he wondered, feeling oddly detached. Have I had a heart attack or something? Am I about to die?
Then a voice, as dry and harsh as a sand-laden wind off the desert, hissed through his mind.
I think you'll do, it said.
For a moment, it was as if an immense weight was pressing down on him, as if he were standing underneath a waterfall, or as if several tons of sand had suddenly began falling on him. He wanted to gasp or cry out, but he was still locked in that strange paralysis, and he couldn't even draw a breath to scream. The world around him went black, and he felt despair wash over him, knowing that this had to be the end of everything.
Then, just as suddenly, everything was all right again. He blinked, took a deep breath and let it out again. The room was as bright and cheerful as ever, its various wares glittering invitingly in the display lights. There was no sign that anything had been disturbed.
"What the heck just happened?" he asked the empty room, but there was no answer.
"You look cheerful," said Yugi, as his brother came through the front door.
Atem shrugged out of his jacket and took off his shoes. "I had an interesting day at work."
"Oh?" asked Yugi, looking up from his work. "Has Pegasus got you on some exciting new project?"
He was in the kitchen area of their little apartment, fixing dinner. Since he worked the morning shift at the game store, while Atem's hours with Pegasus tended to be erratic and often lasted well into the evening, he was usually the first one home. It had fallen to him to cook dinner, partly due to their schedules, and partly because cooking was one of the few things Atem didn't have at least some aptitude for.
Atem shook his head. "No, but he gave me a break to go to the bookstore for him, and I got to stop and talk to Bakura." He paused a beat, before deciding to continue, "He told my fortune for me."
"Was it good news?" Yugi asked, half-teasing.
"He told me to beware of manipulative women," said Atem, "and I think he was probably right. How long till dinner is ready?"
Yugi surveyed the chaos in front of him. "It's going to be a while. A family brought in a whole birthday party's worth of kids and told them to pick out what they wanted as party favors. It took forever to clean things up after, and you know I wasn't going to leave it for Grandpa to do."
Atem smiled. "No, of course not. If you're going to be busy a while, then I'll be on the computer."
"Set the table first," Yugi told him.
Atem did as he was told, and then ducked into his room to turn on his computer. For him, "being on the computer" translated to "being online, playing video games". While he wasn't the world's most hardcore gamer, preferring games where he could interact with other people face to face, he tended to gravitate to video games when he had something on his mind. Somehow, solving abstract puzzles, untangling codes, and blasting virtual monsters seemed to help free his mind to work on his real-world problems without him attending to it. Yugi seemed to have figured this out, and tended to leave him alone while he was gaming unless it was absolutely necessary, so Atem figured he had at least half an hour before Yugi called him in to eat.
He logged into an online game called Mists of Illusia, his particular favorite. Yugi liked it, too, and when the mood was on them, they could happily spend hours playing it together, unraveling its mysteries and cooperating in battle. They both liked it because the game required as much problem-solving as actual monster-fighting, and even some of the monster battles required you to solve some sort of puzzle in order to be successful. Atem's game loaded and presented him with an image of his avatar at its last save point, standing just outside the mouth of a cave. Somewhere in that cave was a citrine jewel, one of ten colored jewels he needed to unlock the next phase of the game. He made a quick check to ensure that he was properly equipped, and then began making his way into the cave.
For the first few minutes, the game progressed normally: monsters attacked, locked doors presented themselves for which keys or codes needed to be found, treasure chests occasionally yielded loot. The progression was soothing, and for a while, he nearly forgot all his problems. Reality seemed to slip away, and all that mattered was the cave and getting through it.
Eventually, Atem worked his way through a particularly complex door, one that required three keys, each of which were in different parts of the dungeon, protected by a mini-boss monster and further sealed off by three different puzzles that had to be solved. Atem hoped there would be a save point beyond the door; he didn't want to go through all that effort again if he was called to dinner in the next few seconds.
The door swung open with a prolonged groan, and Atem's avatar slipped through it to the shrine on the other side. The room, as it turned out, did contain a save point, glowing soothingly off to one side, but the focal point of the room was an altar holding a treasure chest, one of the ones bound in red leather and trimmed in gold, rather than the wood and iron ones that could be found strewn randomly around the cave. This was his goal, and Atem hurried to take it.
Then he stopped. The altar had been presided over by a statue of some sort of nature- goddess, a lovely woman with the antlers of a stag and a dress made of leaves. Then, somehow, as Atem had blinked, it had become a representation of Horakhty. He stared at it. It smiled at him.
"Hello again, Atem," she said. "I have been enjoying watching you play. You are every bit as talented as I'd hoped you would be."
"Why are you so interested in me?" Atem demanded. "I don't remember doing anything so important that it would justify a goddess taking an interest in me."
Her smile warmed. "That's just it. You have felt it yourself. You are a man of tremendous potential - potential that is not being used. Because of this, you are bored and frustrated. The longer this goes on, the more unhappy you will become. I came to you because I knew I could make something great of you."
Warring senses of hope and doubt rose inside Atem's chest. Hope said, Yes, this is exactly what you need! He'd been desperate for some outlet for his energies, and anything a certified goddess could dream up for him was bound to be as exciting as he could ever hope for. The other part of him said, Dou you really want someone else choosing your life for you?
"What kind of something are you talking about?" he asked cautiously.
"You will be my Chosen One," she said. "You will be the conduit for my power in this world, and usher in a new age."
"What if this new age of yours isn't something I'd like?" he asked.
"It will be," she said. "This will be the age of games."
Suddenly, his view of the game, his computer, his room, everything in front of him vanished entirely. Instead, he seemed to be looking at a scene through a warped lens, the kind of view he might have gotten by looking the wrong way through a telescope, so that the image seemed to be both near and very far away. What he saw was two young men facing each other in a vast sandstone room, built in a style he recognized as ancient Egyptian. The two men were obviously Egyptian, too, dressed in sandals and robes and heavy gold jewelry, their skins tanned deeply by the sun. At the same time, he recognized one of them as Kaiba Seto, a young man he had known in school and had not exactly been friends with, but had competed at in various games because the two of them were among the few people who were good enough to give each other a challenge. The other young man was clearly Atem himself. The two of them seemed to be intent on some sort of ritual involving stone slabs with monsters on them. Even as Atem watched, one of them made a gesture and shouted words that he couldn't quite hear, and one of the stone slabs began to glow. A dragon emerged from the slab and made a lunge at the Egyptian Atem, who responded by making a gesture and summoning up a monster of his own.
Then the scene shifted. Now he was seeing something in the modern era - a boardroom, by the look of it. A dozen or so men in expensive suits were sitting around a table, watching something that was happening on a screen. Atem was surprised to see that one of the men in the image was Pegasus. Atem had never seen Pegasus wearing anything resembling a business suit before, but there he was in jacket and tie, his place at the table showing that he was clearly the one in charge. He looked younger in the vision, but somehow more careworn. His long hair, rather than being tied back as it usually was, so it wouldn't dip in Pegasus's paints, had been allowed to fall over the left half of his face, mostly obscuring it. Atem had the intuition that what he was seeing was neither the Pegasus of the past nor one to come, but one that simply might have been, had circumstances been other than what they were. Perhaps, he thought, this was one of those parallel worlds that Pegasus had been so interested in lately.
The vision shifted ever so slightly, just enough to give Atem a clear view of what was happening on the screen. In the video, a young man and young woman were sitting at a table, their faces intent as they played a game of cards, while words occasionally appeared on the screen, explaining what was going on. The more Atem watched, the more excited he felt himself growing. Somehow, he knew that this was the game that he'd always been meant to play - not just to play, but to win, the perfect balance of strategy, luck, skill, and raw nerve. On some deep level, he understood that the sense of something missing in his life wasn't because of something he'd done wrong or overlooked, but because he'd had the bad luck to be born in a universe where this game had failed to appear.
The video ended, and Pegasus stood, speaking inaudible words to the men at the table. All of them were chatting animatedly now, and one of them got up to shake Pegasus's hand. Atem caught the words "...thrilled to invest in..." before the image faded. Now the image showed Atem a stadium filled with cheering fans, all of them focused on the action in front of them, and what they were watching were two people playing the game. One of them made a particularly complex move, and the audience erupted with approval.
"Do you see?" asked Horakhty, as the image faded. "This game has the potential to take your world by storm. It could revolutionize society. It hasn't, but with my help, it will, and you can be the one to make it happen."
"I don't know," said Atem. "It sounds too good to be true. What do you get out of it?"
She laughed. "And why must I get anything out of it? I am a goddess of light and creation. It is my nature to help. Is that not enough?"
"No," said Atem bluntly. With Bakura's reading still fresh in his mind, he was not about to accept anything that seemed so very perfect from someone who wasn't being open about her motives.
Her smile was tolerant. "Very well. I do have my own reasons, but they are nothing that can harm you or anyone you care about. They are my own, and not something a mortal would fully understand."
"I need to think about it," Atem temporized.
"Very well," she said. "I've waited this long. I can wait a bit longer. I can wait as long as you need. If you want to speak to me again, call me and I will hear."
Then she was gone, leaving him staring at his screen saver. He sighed with a mix of exasperation and melancholy. It would have been so nice to have been able to say "Yes, of course, what should I do first?" He wasn't even sure why he was balking, beyond a suspicion that there had be a catch somewhere, and he didn't want to commit to anything until he knew what it was. Dealing with a goddess was probably going to make that difficult.
Still, Horakhty had given him a clue. She might have wanted him to help her make the visions she'd showed him into reality, but she hadn't once suggested that he'd be doing it alone. Pegasus was tangled up in this story somewhere, too, and that meant something.
Tomorrow, he would be having some words with his employer.
It had all been planned out.
That was what gods did, after all: they made plans, and watched their human subjects carry them out - sometimes in perfect choreography, sometimes not. This plan, though, had been Horakhty's masterpiece, and she had been so anxious to see it come to fruition. Her chosen one would become Pharaoh and usher in a glorious new era of peace and enlightenment. Her time would finally be at hand.
Only it wasn't going to be that way at all, because there were more gods than just Horakhty, and their plans often intersected in unpredictable ways. She had ended up watching helplessly as her chosen one had taken the only choice left for him, and had sacrificed himself for the good of everyone. She was proud of him, yes, but now his soul was locked deep within the shadows of a Millennium Item fashioned from Zorc's power. Within that darkness, she could no longer reach him - not to speak to him, not to watch over him, not to give him the slightest bit of comfort. He was lost to her, perhaps forever.
And Horakhty was an immortal. The mortal man she had loved the most, the one who had been meant to dwell with her in the afterlife for all time, was lost to her. All she could do, it seemed, would be to endure eternity without him...
Once again, Atem dreamed of being surrounded by light and warmth, and this time, he knew exactly what it was. This was Horakhty's dream, and they were dreaming it together. It was a dream of a world where magic was real and a part of everyday life. Weapons and wars had been set aside, and people resolved their differences with friendly games instead. And they were more than just games, he realized now. The monsters painted on these cards were somehow more than just paper and ink, they were living things, ready and waiting to become part of this world, to act as friends and helpers to those who were kind to them, and to deliver justice to the unworthy. In this new world, it was Atem and his friends who stood at the forefront, amazing the populace with their skills. They would be famous and successful beyond their wildest dreams. It would be a good life, and a good world, possibly better than the one they lived in now. He could make it real. All he had to do was tell Horakhty it was what he wanted, and she would make it happen. He was her chosen one, and she wanted him to be happy. She wanted to make everyone happy, and make the world a better place. The only thing that was stopping her was that she needed his help to make it a reality. Together, they could do wonderful things...
Atem started his morning in a contemplative frame of mind. He awoke long before his alarm went off, filled with the conflicting urge to do something, and a lingering sense that he had missed some vital bit of information somewhere along the line, and that he should not proceed without it. He dressed distractedly and ate little at breakfast.
"Are you okay?" Yugi asked him.
"I have things on my mind, that's all," said Atem. He pushed his scrambled eggs around on his plate before saying, "Yugi, are you happy with the way life has turned out for you?"
Yugi blinked. "Well, sure I'm happy. I've got you and Grandpa, and all our friends, and my work at the store... I can't think of anything else I really need."
"What if you could change things?" Atem persisted. "If you could choose a different life for yourself, maybe something better."
Yugi nibbled a piece of bacon, looking thoughtful. "Better how?"
"Whatever you like," said Atem. "You could be rich, or famous, or bring about world peace."
"Hmm," said Yugi.
He was quiet for a long time, and Atem waited. Yugi tended to be treated as the more immature one, but he was a deep thinker, and there was always more going on behind his childlike expression than people tended to give him credit for. Atem had learned long ago that it was wise to listen when Yugi told him something.
"Well," said Yugi at last, "I guess it would depend on what else changed."
"Ahh," said Atem, sitting up a little straighter. "Yes, I think you've put your finger on it. You can't really know, can you? Maybe a different life would only look better because you don't know the complications that would come with it, but we know all about the troubles we have with this one."
"Exactly," said Yugi. "Maybe it would all turn out a lot worse if you started changing things. Then again, it could be better."
"But you'd want to know first," said Atem, nodding. "Yes. I think that's what I was trying to work out."
Yugi smiled. "Why? Are you planning on changing the world?"
"I might be," said Atem, smiling back. "But I plan on talking to Pegasus about it first."
"Why?" Yugi asked. "You aren't planning on asking his advice, are you?"
Atem smiled. "No, I just want to clear my schedule with him before I start changing the world."
Yugi laughed, and Atem laughed with him. Even so, he'd been serious about wanting to talk to the man. He headed for work at a jog. For once, he had no eye for the shop windows he passed. His mind was awhirl with questions and possibilities. He arrived at Pegasus's manor slightly winded, and took a moment to put himself in order before letting himself inside.
He found Pegasus where he usually was first thing in the morning: in his studio, taking advantage of the morning light. He had finished the forest scene he'd been working on yesterday, and was now working on something full of fanciful birds and brightly colored flowers, none of which probably existed in real life.
"Pegasus," said Atem.
Pegasus jumped, leaving a streak of brilliant fuchsia paint across his work. Pegasus turned on him with a petulant expression.
"What did you do that for?" he asked.
"I wanted to talk to you," said Atem. "About something important."
"I see," said Pegasus. He regathered his equanimity and began patiently cleaning the smudge on his painting. "Business, or personal?"
"Both," said Atem.
"And you came to me for it?" asked Pegasus. "I wasn't aware I was privy to your personal matters." Still, there was a flicker of interest in his expression. He was curious.
"You seemed to be the one most likely to have the answers I'm looking for," said Atem.
"Well, then, I suppose I should be flattered." Pegasus set aside his paintbrush, carefully wiping it clean first and putting it in its cup, before turning around on his stool and resting his hands on his knees. "Very well. What service can I be to you, oh great sun god?"
"That's just what I want to talk about," said Atem. "What do you know about gods?"
Pegasus smirked a little. "Why? Wondering if you are one?"
"Not exactly," said Atem.
"Good, because I would have hated to have to disappoint you," said Pegasus. "So, what do you want to know?"
"Do you think they exist?" Atem asked.
Pegasus raised an eyebrow. "This isn't going to turn into proselytizing, is it?"
"I don't think so," said Atem.
"In that case, I would say... yes, I imagine that there are probably gods of some sort out there. I'm not sure they take quite as much interest in the average man on the street as we'd like to think. We all like to imagine that we're special, but I don't suppose we're much more than mayflies to something that lives forever."
"That's just it," said Atem. "I think one has taken an interest in me."
To his credit, Pegasus didn't scoff. He simply gave Atem a measuring look and said, "Care to elaborate?"
So Atem told him everything - about the dreams, the image in the book, the way his computer had started speaking to him. Pegasus listened without any sign of doubt or judgment.
"Well," he said at last, "I can't say that I envy you. There's always trouble when gods get involved in mortal lives, even when they have good intentions. It always seems to end in suffering for whoever gets chosen to do their work."
"So you don't think I should take her offer?" Atem asked.
"Oh, now, I didn't say that, either," said Pegasus. "Sometimes we should do things that are mightily inconvenient for us, after all. Sometimes we should make sacrifices for the greater good. It's just not likely to be any fun for whoever is involved." He looked thoughtful. "Atem, do you know the difference between a god and a man?"
Atem smiled wryly. "The gods are immortal and all-powerful?"
"Not really," said Pegasus. "If you accept that we have eternal souls, then we're as immortal as a god, and as for being all-powerful... well, the old ones tend to be very powerful within their spheres, but they also tend to be limited in scope. An ocean god isn't going to do you much good when your crops are failing, and a harvest goddess isn't much use when you're caught in a storm at sea."
"All right, I'll grant you that," said Atem. "So what's the difference, then?"
"The difference," said Pegasus, with authority, "is that people can change. Your ocean god is always going to be an ocean god - he can't just pull up stakes and decide to become a fire god or an earth god or a chartered accountant. A human can change. Today I'm a painter, but tomorrow I might decide to open a restaurant or take up control of my father's casinos or go lecture in history at some university. Perhaps I will do one of those things soon. Things have been a bit dull around here lately, after all. I always have that choice. That's why I wouldn't want to get too involved with a god, you see - they are what they are and they want what they want, and they probably wouldn't take very kindly to one of us deciding that we are tired of doing what they want, and could we possibly do something else now? No, I wouldn't want to have to give up my freedom that way, no matter what I got in exchange."
"I see," said Atem slowly. "That makes sense."
"Have I helped you solve your conundrum, then?" asked Pegasus.
"You've given me something to think about," said Atem.
"Glad to be of service," said Pegasus with a half-bow that was only slightly mocking. "Now, do you suppose we could get back to work? I did have one or two things I thought we might get done today."
"I think I can manage that," said Atem wryly. Then, more sincerely, he said, "Thank you for listening."
Pegasus made a dismissive gesture - no need to thank me - and turned back to his art, their conversation apparently forgotten. Atem didn't mind. Between his conversations with Yugi and Pegasus, he had a lot to think about. Silently, he retreated to the library to work.
Or, if not to work, then at least to think where no one would disturb him.
It was true that gods did not change.
They did not handle change well, and Horakhty was trying to endure it. Her plans had failed, and somehow, she had to keep going onwards, coping with a world that had changed while she remained the same. For centuries, she mulled over the problem, slowly working her way from conclusion to conclusion. She had chosen her earthly representative; he had been lost to her; she had no way of bringing him back; she needed a human avatar to work her will effectively in the mortal world. She had spent generations arranging for the perfect avatar to be born, and it would take eons to make it all happen again. There was no telling what the world would be doing in the meantime...
At last, it dawned on her: the world she'd been working with might have changed, and she could not change it back, but she was not bound only to this place and time. There were other worlds where the gods had refrained from interfering. If she could just find the right one, a world where her chosen one had never realized his full potential, the two of them could help each other. She could make him great, and he could help her create the world she'd been working towards. Everything would be much better for both of them.
All she had to do was find him.
As soon as Atem got off of work, he went for a walk. He wasn't planning on going anywhere in particular, but he felt the need to get outside in the fresh air and get his blood stirring. He needed to think, and computer games weren't going to cut it tonight, not with what was likely to happen as soon as he turned one on. No, he needed to be alone, completely alone, without any godly interference. He called Yugi and told him that he would be buying his own dinner that night, and that he would try to be home by nightfall, and then he went.
It was getting close to sunset when Atem's ruminations were disrupted. He'd been ambling along, finishing off the remains of the sandwich he'd bought to munch on while he walked, when a battered old car pulled up beside him.
"Hey," said the driver. "Need a lift somewhere?"
Atem smiled as he recognized the voice. "Jonouchi. Yes, I think I'm ready for a lift."
"Well, hop in," said Jonouchi, leaning over to push the passenger door open. "Where are you headed?"
"The museum," said Atem decisively.
"Pegasus got you working late on something?" Jonouchi asked.
"No," said Atem. "It's something I'm working on for my own curiosity, mostly."
"Well, if that's your idea of a good time," said Jonouchi.
They drove a while in silence, as two old friends could. Atem watched Jonouchi out of the corner of his eye as he worked his way through the afternoon traffic. There was a success story, right there - not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but a success story nonetheless. Jonouchi had started out as a street thug, but he'd put his brawling days behind him now. These days he worked with an organization that mentored children and teenagers who were in the same sorts of situations now that he'd been in then. It wasn't making him rich, but it was doing a lot of good. Despite the tragedies of his life - parents who were divorced, his father dead from alcohol poisoning, his sister gone blind in her teens - Atem still sometimes found himself envying Jonouchi.
"Compared to you," Atem said aloud, "I sometimes think I'm wasting my life."
Jonouchi gave a short laugh. "Wow, you're in a good mood today. What brought that on?"
"I've been doing a lot of thinking lately," said Atem.
"Nothing wrong with that, I guess," said Jonouchi. He drove in silence for a while before saying, "I guess you haven't done too badly for yourself. I mean, compared to some of the guys I used to hang out with, you're a regular overachiever. At least you're doing something halfway useful." He laughed a little. "Hey, you're helping Bakura stay in business - that's something."
Atem smiled. "There is that."
"Yeah," said Jonouchi. He was thoughtful for a little while. "You know who I really feel like isn't living up to his potential? Yugi."
"Why him?" asked Atem, surprised.
"I dunno. It's hard to put into words," said Jonouchi. "You were always the one the spotlight was on, so I almost wasn't surprised when you faded out of sight when we graduated. It's what I would have done too, maybe, if everyone was always looking at me to be the one with the answers all the time, the way everyone always was with you. But people always kind of overlooked Yugi. There's something kind of special about him that gets to people, and I always kinda thought that once we were out of school and he was out on his own, he'd come out of his shell and really show people what he's made of. I don't know. I can tell he's happy working at the game store, but..."
"It's like there could have been more," said Atem softly.
Jonouchi nodded. "Yeah. I just don't know what it could be."
"I might have some ideas," said Atem.
Jonouchi gave him a sidelong look. "Feel like cluing me in?"
"Ask me again tomorrow," said Atem. "I'm still sorting out all the details tonight."
Jonouchi looked for a moment like he wanted to ask more questions, but then he shrugged. "Well, I guess you know what you're doing."
"I don't," said Atem, "but hopefully before the night is out, I will. Thank you, Jonouchi. For the ride, and for the talk."
"Any time," said Jonouchi.
He pulled up his car in front of the museum and let Atem climb out. Atem stood and watched him, half expecting him to simply find a place to park and come back for him. They'd had a lot of adventures together in high school - him, Jonouchi, Yugi, Anzu, Honda, and sometimes a few others. It would have been nice to have his old friends along for this trip as well. Atem sighed and turned to walk into the building.
He was surprised to find Bakura loitering around the lobby.
"What are you doing here?" Atem asked, surprised.
Bakura gave him one of his sweet smiles. "Meeting my father for dinner. He's having a meeting with the museum director tonight, and then we're going to that seafood place next to the mall."
"Oh, that's right, your father is an archeologist, isn't he?" said Atem. "Do you want some company while you wait?"
"No, that's fine," said Bakura. "He should be along any minute."
"If you're sure," said Atem. "In that case, I'm going to go have a look at the Egyptian exhibits."
"Maybe we'll stop and say hello before we leave," said Bakura, still smiling. "Dad loves showing off his finds."
"Don't let me take time away from your night out," said Atem, and slipped down a corridor towards the stairs to the Egyptian wing.
There weren't a lot of people there that time of day. It wasn't a weekend, and the school field trip crowds had already come and gone for the day. Atem passed a bored-looking husband trudging resignedly at the heels of his wife as she gazed rapturously at the classical art exhibits, a pair of teenagers more interested in finding a dark and private place than in improving their education or sense of aesthetics, and a stern-faced academic staring very hard at a display and ignoring everything else around him. Other than that, the museum seemed to be deserted. Atem followed the corridors and climbed the stairs to the second floor, which seemed to be even more deserted than the floor below, and he decided he was glad of it. His words to Bakura aside, he didn't want anyone to come in and find him talking to the empty air. He really didn't want anyone to come in and realize he was talking to a goddess.
He roamed around the Egyptian exhibit until he found an object he thought would be suitable for his purposes - a carved statuette of some long-ago Egyptian queen. It was about three feet tall, carved of golden sandstone and ornamented with delicate bits of gold and glass. Atem stared at it almost accusingly.
"All right, Horakhty," he said, "I'm ready to talk."
A golden glow suffused the statue. Then, suddenly, there she was, no taller than the statue had been, but three-dimensional and perfect in every detail. She smiled at him as if he had just given her the best birthday gift in all the world.
"My dear one," she said, "I'm so glad you came to me."
"I want to ask you some serious questions," he said.
"You may ask me anything you desire," she said somberly. "I cannot withhold the truth, especially not from you."
"Explain to me again exactly what you want me to do for you," said Atem.
"I want you to become my mortal avatar in this world," she answered. "You will become the conduit for my power. In exchange, you will have all the things I offered you. You and your friends will achieve greatness beyond anything you could have had without my help."
"You mean you'll introduce this game of yours to the world, and then make sure we always win at it?" Atem persisted.
Horakhty shook her head. "No. All of you have always had that potential. I will only provide the avenue for it that they otherwise would not have had."
"You make it sound as though everything is going to be perfect," said Atem. "What's the drawback? There has to be a catch."
"I can't predict the future," she said gently. "My access to time and space is much broader than a mortal's, but some things are off-limits even to me. I can only promise you that my intentions are good, and that I will do everything in my power to guide things to the best possible outcome, not only for you and your friends, but for everyone."
"I see," he said. "And what will happen if I say no, my friends and I can look after ourselves, we don't need your help? Do you punish me?"
"I would never hurt you, my dear one," she said, with infinite gentleness. "If you reject me, I simply leave. I go away, and this world continues as it always has, with no magic or monsters. Nothing will change at all."
"I see," said Atem thoughtfully.
He considered his options. On one hand, he had the warnings and advice that Yugi and Pegasus had given him about tampering with the future and putting too much faith in the whims of immortal beings. On the other hand, he had Jonouchi's words and his own his own formless sense that there was something missing in his life and in this world. How much better could he make things if he accepted Horakhty's help? How could he pass up the chance? He wouldn't just be doing it for himself. He'd be doing it for Yugi, who truly did have more potential than he was using. He'd be doing it for Jonouchi, who might be able to leverage his fame and fortune would bring him into money he could spend on the surgery that might yet save his sister's eyesight. To give all that up, knowing that he could have done it and had let it pass him by because he'd been afraid of the consequences...
"Actually," said a dry voice, "I think you're being entirely sensible."
Both Atem and Horakhty looked up sharply. Bakura was standing at the entrance to the room, leaning casually against the doorframe, his arms folded across his chest. He was smiling, but the sweetness that had been there before was completely gone now. His whole face seemed to have become sharper, his hair wilder, his whole expression utterly feral. The shadows behind him seemed very deep, though the lights had been on in the hall a moment ago.
"You," said Horakhty, her voice gone cold. "How did you get here?"
"The same way you did," he said. "The very same way."
Atem looked accusingly at Horakhty. "What's going on? What's happened to Bakura?"
"That is not Bakura," said Horakhty. Her voice was tight with regret and anger. "That is my opposite, Zorc Necrophades. He has taken your friend as his own avatar."
Bakura's smile looked so stretched that it looked on the verge of splitting and bleeding. "She never told you I could do that, did she?"
"I did not think you would stoop to it," said Horakhty. The anger in her gaze made Atem take a few steps backwards, fearing that being caught between Bakura and that look would be enough to fry him to ash.
"You mean you were arrogant enough to believe I couldn't follow you here," he said. He turned his gaze to Atem. "Has she explained to you how she got to this world, where gods and magic have never gotten involved before? Well, I'll tell you. This isn't her world. She's a trespasser here, and she wants you to help her get her hooks into the place."
Atem frowned. "Explain."
"There are many worlds," said Bakura - or was it Zorc? "Many universes, many possibilities. She and I are from one time and place, completely different from yours. In our own place, she had her chosen one, and I took him from her, and she couldn't bear that, could you, Horakhty?"
Horakhty's face twisted, so that Atem wondered if she was going to cry. "You haven't beaten me yet. I will find a way."
"Yes, I know what your solution is," said Zorc, still grinning. He turned to Atem again. "She scoured all of reality, searching for a crack she could slip through and access another universe entirely. It must have taken a long time to find this place. She needed to find a world where some other version of her chosen one existed, but one who had never been touched by destiny. More than that, she needed someone like that in a world where there was no other magic to interfere with her plans."
"And what are her plans?" Atem asked.
"Don't listen to him," said Horakhty. "He won't tell you the truth."
"I think he will," said Atem. "He'll tell me the hard truths, the ones you'd rather I didn't hear."
Zorc's grin couldn't get any wider, but his eyes did brighten, and he laughed. "Oh, you're a clever one. I can see why she's so smitten with you. And you're right, I don't need to lie to you. Her plans are exactly what she says they are. She wants to bring about a more peaceful and fulfilling world. Boring, in other words, but then, that's why I'm here, isn't it?"
"I don't know why you're here," said Atem. "Why don't you tell me?"
"I'm here because she's here," said Bakura flatly. "When she broke through the seals of this universe, that left the door open for me to follow her." He turned slightly, meeting her gaze. "I have that right. The laws carved into the bedrock of reality state that you and I are to be opposed to each other until one of us wins, and you do not have the right to place yourself outside my sphere of influence. Where you go, I go."
"So that's how it is," said Atem. "If I take Horakhty's offer, you come with her."
"Even so," said Zorc. "And everything she does, I will take and twist to suit my own purposes... starting with your little friend here."
"Why are you telling me this?" asked Atem. "What does it benefit you to warn me away from taking Horakhty's offer? Won't that just mean you have to go back where you came from?"
"I have the advantage here," said Horakhty grimly. "In the world we came from, he was able to cut off my access to my avatar, while his is still free to walk the earth. Here, I would have greater freedom to work and a stronger base to begin with. With you on my side, I could win."
"Perhaps you should join my side instead," said Zorc. "I can offer you much the same terms she can. Either way, I'll be taking your little friend. At least if you serve me, you'll be in good company."
"Don't listen to him," said Horakhty. "He will bring nothing but chaos and corruption to your world."
"He'll do that anyway, no matter what I choose," said Atem grimly.
He looked from one to the other, weighing his options. To choose to ally himself with Zorc was unthinkable. He didn't need Horakhty's warning to know this creature was bad news - that fact that it had possessed one of the gentlest people he knew was proof enough of that. Horakhty, on the other hand... she clearly meant well. He had no doubt that if he accepted her offer, she would keep her word and do everything she could to make all her promises come true and then some. The world would become a better place. More than that, Atem would finally have a purpose. If he didn't take this offer, he would go back to being what he'd been before all this started: a nonentity, a man without a destiny, a walking waste of potential. He would have to live the rest of his life knowing that he'd had the chance to do something great with his life, and he had passed it up.
And if he chose that option, Zorc would still move into his peaceful world and do all he could to undermine Horakhty's plans. He would keep Bakura as his host and his prisoner, and Atem and all his friends would never be able to trust one of their treasured companions ever again. Would it be worth it, he asked himself? Could he sacrifice one friend to benefit everyone else in the world?
What other choice did he have?
Slowly, he turned to face Horakhty, who was watching him with an expression of concern and longing.
"Horakhty," he said, "I'm glad you came to find me. I've learned a lot since I've met you. I think my life is going to be better thanks to you. But I can't accept your offer."
Horakhty looked stricken. Zorc grinned.
"So, you've decided to choose the winning side, then?" he asked.
Atem shook his head. "No. I won't join you either. I don't want to work for either of you. I want you both to go away to wherever it is you came from and finish your business there."
"But..." Horakhty said, plainly confused.
"I'm sorry that the me of your world was lost," he said. "But this is my world, and my life, and I have to live it the best way I know how. Maybe I can't become as great alone as I could with your help, but I would rather live a quiet life knowing my friends are safe than win honor and glory by giving up one of my friends." He smiled a little. "Besides, perhaps I'm just being arrogant, but I'd like to believe that I can make something great of myself without the two of you pushing me around."
Zorc laughed. "So be it! You can have your little friend back as soon as she leaves."
"Fair enough," Atem agreed. He turned to Horakhty. "Well?"
She gave him a sad smile. "Are you sure you won't change your mind?"
"I'm sure," he said. "But I truly am glad you came here. I think even after you're gone, things are going to get better here. I think I'll be sorry to see you go."
"I'll be sorry to leave you, too," she said. "I hope you will be happy with your choice. Goodbye, Atem."
"Goodbye," he said.
As he spoke, a peculiar thing happened. For a moment, the room seemed to go dark. Then, in the center of his vision, he could see a slowly resolving image. It was like the images Horakhty had shown him of a world that was not his own. This was no vision of battle and glory, though. It was an image of Yugi - a younger and more innocent Yugi, wearing the carefully controlled expression he wore when he was trying to put some private worry out of his mind. He was sitting alone in a room that Atem didn't recognize, holding some sort of strange golden puzzle. Even as Atem watched, Yugi fitted the final piece into the gap that waited for it.
The click that piece made as it slotted into place seemed loud enough to shake the universe.
Somwhere beyond the darkness, he heard Horakhty emit a delighted "Oh!" and heard Zorc swear in a language Atem had never heard and was glad he could not understand. The image he'd been watching dropped away, and for a moment his world was filled with a twin vision of light and darkness: a demonic creature swathed in shadows that somehow magnified rather than obscured the horror of his appearance, and Horakhty in all her glory, so beautiful that it made him ache to look at her. Both of them spread their wings wide, and Atem clapped his hands over his ears as he heard the fabric of reality itself begin to tear...
And then they were both gone, and he found himself standing alone in a room full of Egyptian artifacts. He sighed a little. He hadn't realized how keenly he'd been feeling the sense of the goddess hovering over him until she'd gone. He wondered what had happened to draw both gods away so swiftly. Probably he would never know for sure.
A small unsteady sound reminded him that he was not entirely alone. He turned around to see Bakura standing there, blinking and looking confused.
"Atem?" he said. "What are you doing here? What am I doing here?"
"You told me that you were meeting your father for dinner tonight," said Atem.
Bakura blinked again. "Did I? That's strange. He's not even supposed to be here tonight. He left yesterday on a trip to Cairo."
"Well, then," said Atem, "maybe I'll take you to dinner tonight."
Bakura brightened immediately. "Okay!"
Atem smiled a little. He wanted to tell someone what had happened, and Bakura, he was sure, would actually believe him.
"Come on," he said, putting an arm around his friend's shoulders and guiding him out of the room. "We have a lot to talk about."
That night, Atem's dreams were, surprisingly, troubled by neither gods nor demons. He dreamed about himself and his friends, all of them happy and having a good time, and he awoke in a positive frame of mind. He carried his good mood with him all the way to work, and he bounded up the stairs two at a time and darted quickly down the halls towards Pegasus's workroom.
"Good morning, my boy," said Pegasus pleasantly. "You're here early today. To what do I owe this burst of enthusiasm?"
"I have an idea," said Atem. "You were saying yesterday that you were bored. Well, I've thought of something for you to do."
Pegasus raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really? Do tell."
Atem smiled. "How does the idea of a collectible card game strike you?"