RETURN TO ROMANCE

SUMMARY: It was the happy ending nobody had expected – especially Yami. He knew he should be grateful but living had never been part of his game plan before. Then Kaiba decides it's time to repay his debts. But rivalry and obligation don't quite add up to friendship, much less romance.

DISCLAIMER: I don't own Yu-Gi-Oh! I do admire Kazuki Takahashi for his skill in creating such vibrant characters and for his generosity in allowing the rest of us to borrow them for a few adventures of our own.

THE TIMELINE: The ceremonial duel does not exist in this story. Instead, it begins immediately after Zorc's defeat and branches off in its own direction. The story also doesn't refer back to the Ancient Egypt/Memory World arc except to note that it happened. The opening of the story also includes Ishizu and Mokuba who were not present at Zorc's defeat in either the subtitled or dubbed version of the anime (and manga).

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I use the manga version of events, where possible, but I also lean on the subtitled anime versions of the filler arcs like the Noa's Arc, Virtual World, DOMA, and Grand Prix episodes, simply because they have a lot of the Kaiba brothers and I like them. When necessary, I'll put in a Manga or Anime Note explaining plot or character differences from the 4Kids dubbed version. In this chapter, I was influenced by both the dub and the subtitled anime versions of the aftermath of their victory over Zorc. I'll explain why in the author's note at the end.

In the book, 'Dune,' there's a saying of the Bene Gesserit: "Beginnings are such delicate times." I think that's true for stories as well as people, so I'd love to know what you think of this beginning. Please read and review.


AUTHOR CHOOSES NOT TO WARN


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CHAPTER 1

EASY LIVING: Screwball comedy, circa 1939. Jean Arthur plays a Depression-era secretary who has a valuable sable coat literally dumped on her head. While most people (especially in a much less animal cruelty conscious time) would consider this an unbelievable stroke of luck, she quickly discovers that not all changes are desirable. (Hint: when a woman in the 1930s suddenly starts flashing fur, a lot of people are going to assume that she's switched to a much older profession than secretarial science.)

MORAL: Having a miracle thrown in your face takes some getting used to.


None of it had been planned. Atem and Kaiba were both brilliant strategists. But it never occurred to them that the same kind of care needed to be taken in matters of the heart. That was a thought which only occurred much later, when they were in a relationship that neither had meant to begin at all, a relationship that upended all of the pharaoh's ideas of destiny and Kaiba's convictions of the rationality of his own actions. Of course, it could be argued that Yami's ideas of destiny were due for a shake-up, and Kaiba's actions were never as rational as he liked to believe…

But here, at the beginning, all they knew was that Zorc was gone. They'd defeated him. He'd taken the entire memory world with him as he vanished. Atem was left in the middle of a desert, marooned 3,000 years from the time when he'd ruled. His friends stood beside him, yet he felt as empty as the surrounding sands. He glanced at his partner; Yugi's stunned face mirrored his own. Ishizu smiled at him. He wished that she could still read the future, but that gift was gone. Atem turned from his friends to stare at the horizon.

"What do I do now?" he whispered.

As if in answer, a light grew in front of him. He raised an arm to shield his face as it coalesced into a grander-than-life being. He could hear Yugi gasp behind him. Horakhty had reappeared. The sun-bright goddess hovered silently above them, her gilded silver wings dripping towards the earth. It hurt to look at her; it was impossible to look away. Her golden face was sad as she looked down on the pharaoh's upturned one.

"Your task has ended. Your business in this time is over. Your place is in the afterlife," Horakhty said gently.

"Thank you." Atem had felt frozen since Zorc had fallen. Now he could move. She had given him a direction.

"Why are you listening to a giant ball of light? You do realize she's here only because a big bag of crazy like Pegasus stuck her ass on a card?" Kaiba broke in.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" Yugi asked, for once interrupting Kaiba in mid-rant.

"Yeah, this whole after-life thing doesn't sound so good," Jounouchi added.

"I want to be where I belong," Atem said. He looked around as if he expected to see a doorway appear in front of him.

Behind Horakhty, the stone tablet they all remembered from the museum in Domino rose from the sands to tower above them, enveloping them in its shadow. Six of the seven millenium items gleamed from their places in the monolith. The seventh still hung from Atem's neck. The three God Cards stared down at them, as if they'd never been used to summon Horakhty and defeat Zorc, as though the cards themselves were waiting for an outcome that had yet to be decided.

"It will not be easy." Horakhty warned. "You must win a ceremonial duel with your partner. Only then will the doors to the afterlife open." Horakhty looked over their heads across the sands. Atem suspected she was looking across time itself.

Kaiba opened his mouth to argue again, but closed it at the mention of the word, "duel."

"Partner," Atem said, looking at Yugi.

"Anything you need… just as long as you're certain," Yugi promised.

Atem nodded. "It's fitting that a duel will decide where I am destined to go."

"That won't be necessary." The voice that broke into their conversation was cold and implacable.

Everyone turned around. The newcomer had appeared so silently that no one had noticed he was in their midst until he'd spoken... and then it had been equally hard to imagine how they'd missed his arrival. He was impossibly tall, as tall as Zorc had been (if much more human in appearance), and solidly built. He was clothed in a robe that left his massive chest and most of his legs bare.

"Oh no, not another weird Egyptian guy!" Jounouchi muttered.

"Certainly not Egyptian. Greek or possibly Roman, you moron," said Kaiba, eyeing the tight, black curls in the stylized beard and hair.

"Either will do," the newcomer said, still in the same impersonally cold voice. He turned to Horakhty. "Death is the fate of all mortals. You have allowed this one to escape for 3,000 years. You should have taken him when your gods held undisputed sway over this land. But when Rome conquered these lands, I gained a foothold here too. Now that your pharaoh is finally walking the earth once more, I have come to claim him and take him to Tartarus."

Horakhty inclined her head. "You were worshiped on this soil, once. You have the right to be heard."

"The hell he does! No way we're letting you drag our friend off somewhere! You'll have to go through us to get to him!" Jounouchi yelled.

"And you think that will be a problem for the god of the underworld?"

"Hades?" Yugi asked, trying to remember what he'd learned of Greek mythology in school.

"Since Pluto was the god worshipped here, that would be the more accurate name for me on this soil."

"Just what we needed, an outdated deity convention," Kaiba muttered.

"Well, whatever your name is, you won't be the first god we've defeated!" Jounouchi announced. He stood with his legs planted shoulder-width apart as if preparing for a street brawl. His hands curled into fists.

"Atem is our friend. He deserves the right to go home – if that's what he wants," Yugi said, coming to stand next to his partner.

"I accept," Pluto said.

"Accept what?" Yugi asked, stepping even closer to Atem.

"Your challenge – as soon as you get around to figuring out what you're challenging me to and what the stakes are. It doesn't matter. There is no game I can't master."

Kaiba laughed. "What is it with gods and megalomania?"

Pluto glanced at Kaiba out of the corner of his eye. "It's not only gods that have that failing. But how could it be otherwise? Life is a game. Death is the whistle that announces its end. As an impertinent human once said, everything from cards or chess to the blood-soaked wars of the human race is a game."

"Wow… you have to be seriously creepy to come up with a line like that," Honda muttered.

Kaiba nodded to Pluto. "Thank you. But if you're quoting me, you should remember everything I said. The gods give us a single meaningless chip called our lives to play with. I'm ready to put mine on the table." He gestured towards Atem. "My life if you win – his freedom when you lose. You asked for stakes – those are mine."

Atem had been silent, as if the events unfolding had nothing to do with him. At Kaiba's words he came forward and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "I've never let anyone fight my battles for me, yet!"

Yugi stepped forward again and put his hand on Atem's shoulder. He smiled as his partner turned to look at him. "I'm glad that before we have to duel each other, we've been given a chance to fight one last battle side by side."

"Count me in too! Get ready to go down, big guy!" Jounouchi yelled. Behind him, Honda, Anzu and Mokuba nodded.

"So you are all agreed?" Pluto asked. He smirked as seven heads nodded.

"Terms have been proposed and accepted. The court of the gods will accept this contest as a fair one. We will not interfere with the results," Horakhty said.

"Oh shit… what do we do now? I don't think gods play Duel Monsters and there's nothing else we're good at," Jounouchi said.

"Speak for yourself, mutt," Kaiba muttered.

"I don't think throwing money at Mr. Big and Gloomy over there is going to help."

"Since he left the challenge up to us, it makes sense to go with our strongest hand. If he doesn't know how to play Duel Monsters, that's his problem, not ours," Kaiba observed.

Pluto laughed; the force of his mirth made the sand fly up around them. They covered their eyes until the noise – and winds – died down.

"Do you consider seven to be your lucky number?"

"Seven? Learn how to count. There are four of us." Kaiba sounded slightly bored.

"Four of you agreed to duel. Seven agreed to be bound by the outcome."

"What?" Kaiba turned to stare at Mokuba, then glared back at Pluto. He took a few steps forward. "Nobody threatens my brother!"

"From what I've observed, everyone threatens your brother. It's practically a sport in your world."

"I should have clarified – nobody threatens my brother and lives," Kaiba hissed.

"It's a good thing I'm immortal," Pluto replied.

"Duel Monsters it is, then," Kaiba snapped. He drew in a breath, straightened his shoulders and walked forward to negotiate the details of a four-on-one match. By the time he reached Pluto, his face was as calm and unrevealing as if it was an ordinary business meeting.

Atem knew he was fighting for his life, but he felt curiously distanced from the process. A few moments earlier he'd been ready to duel Yugi as a prelude to leaving this world. It made it hard to regard the projected match as anything but an unnecessary and annoying delay.

Kaiba's angry voice drifted back to them. Atem broke out of his trance long enough to smile at the way Kaiba was driving the hardest bargain he could as if Pluto was just one more opponent to bulldoze, before dropping his gaze to study the ground once again.

Kaiba finally finished, bowed, and headed back to rejoin the others. He frowned as he surveyed them. Jounouchi was goggling like a fish out of water. Yugi had moved closer to Atem and was looking to him for guidance. That was pretty much status quo, in Kaiba's opinion. But Atem was equally adrift – and that was unacceptable.

Kaiba felt something catch in its throat. He'd had only had two rivals in his life: Gozaburo and Atem. Kaiba had beaten the first. He wasn't about to surrender the second. He'd pictured defeating Atem often. But in all his imagined triumphs, Atem had never looked lost. Instead, he'd hungered for battle, for revenge. He'd been more focused on Kaiba than ever before, finally truly sharing Kaiba's obsessive need to win, wanting to prove himself to Kaiba as badly as Kaiba did to him.

In Kaiba's fantasies, Atem hadn't looked beaten, he hadn't looked broken. Most of all he hadn't looked like Gozaburo in the moment before he had jumped from the Kaiba Corporation tower.

Kaiba frowned. This was no way to start a duel. He'd just zoned out and his partners were still staring cluelessly at Pluto.

"Focus, you idiots! There's an obsolete god in front of us threatening to kill Mokuba if we lose!" he snapped.

"Uh, he's going to destroy the rest of us along with your brother," Jounouchi reminded Kaiba, but he finally started sorting through his cards. Yugi laughed and did the same.

"Whether this is the duel you wanted or not, don't you dare tell me you're going to give up," Kaiba said quietly to Atem.

"Never," Atem answered through gritted teeth.

Kaiba scowl deepened until it looked as if he was the god of the underworld, not Pluto. For lack of a better word, the three duelists standing next to him were his partners. Kaiba knew more than he wanted to about Jounouchi's crappy, luck-driven deck. And as for Yugi and Atem… Kaiba wasn't sure how many decks they had between them at the moment – one or two. A flash of light caught his eye. Mokuba was waving his briefcase. He smiled as Kaiba turned to look at him and pointed to it. Kaiba nodded. Mokuba was as quick on the uptake as always. It was almost enough to put Kaiba in a good mood, despite the upcoming duel and the prospect of letting the mutt paw his cards.

"Here," Yugi said, holding out a deck to Atem.

"I couldn't… that's your deck, not mine…" Atem began.

"Yes, you can." Yugi pressed the deck into Atem's hand. "If you can imagine anyone else holding the Black Magician, all I can say is that I can't! They're your friends. They need to be with you." Yugi blushed. "I made a new deck of my own, anyway."

Atem's hand closed around the deck. "You are truly ready to stand on your own, without me."

"Maybe. But I'm glad we have a little longer to stand together, instead."

"If there are any other cards you need…" Kaiba said sourly. Mokuba opened the briefcase, grinning wildly.

They stared in shock at the contents. Kaiba had once boasted of owning 10,000 cards. They couldn't help wondering how many of them were in the briefcase.

"Oh wow! You're letting us borrow your cards? Thanks, Kaiba." Jounouchi grinned. "Be careful though, someone might think you have a heart."

"Don't nauseate me. Given the unfortunate necessity of us working together, it makes sense to augment your pathetic deck. Don't get too attached to them and try not to drool. I'll be taking them back afterwards and I'd hate to have to clean off water marks."

"At least I've never ripped one up while throwing a tantrum, moneybags."

"If you don't want them, just say so," Kaiba taunted.

"No take-backs, rich boy," Jounouchi said as he rummaged through the briefcase.

At last they were ready. Yugi looked at Atem and smiled impishly. Kaiba thought it made Yugi look even more juvenile than usual, something he'd previous assumed was impossible.

Pluto waved a hand. The three God Cards floated out of their place in the stone tablet, to hover in the air in front of him. They were soon joined by a horde of cards. No one wanted to ask how Pluto had conjured them.

"You let him use the God Cards? Some hotshot negotiator you are! I'm surprised that Kaiba Corporation is still in business if that's the best you can do," Jounouchi protested.

"I had to give him something," Kaiba said calmly. "We each got to keep our decks at full strength and coordinate our attacks. He'll be facing 160 cards, we'll be only facing 80."

"But God Cards..." Yugi began.

"Can be beaten," Kaiba finished. "We've done it, before. Are we supposed to roll over because someone waves a couple of cards in our faces and gives them a fancy name? 'God' is just another word." Kaiba pressed his lips together and stared at the point far in the distance where the sand met the sky.

Atem's head swiveled to watch Kaiba's. A rougher, rawer note had entered the other man's voice. Even Pluto's arrival had failed to pierce Atem's calm disinterest in the surroundings he was planning to leave forever. Now once again, he found his attention drawn back to the present, curious to hear what Kaiba had to say.

"Weakness or strength… how we live, what we make of ourselves… it's our choice, not any god's. Anything can be beaten," Kaiba finished.

"Even destiny?" Atem asked.

"I don't believe in destiny. But if it exists, I'm not just going to defeat it, I'm going to trample it into the sand beneath my feet. I refuse to give in to any other possibility."

"We'll see which is stronger." Atem's whisper was so soft, it was hard to tell if he'd actually spoken or if the wind had whistled a little more loudly.

"Well then," Yugi said with his slight, shy smile, "I guess it's time to duel."

Kaiba watched the opening rounds carefully. He'd expected Jounouchi to be flustered, to react too impulsively – and both had turned out to be true. He'd expected the duel, in its familiarity, to steady Atem, and that had been borne out as well. Atem had opened his habitual long game, whittling down Pluto's life points in his usual tediously slow way. The commanding tones were back in Atem's voice, lacing through each sanctimonious speech. Kaiba permitted himself a small smile.

Yugi was the surprise.

He'd started by playing satisfactorily, if not spectacularly – neither an asset nor a liability.

"If the game is always this uneventful, I'm surprised it's become so popular," Pluto commented.

"It's only boring to those too mediocre to find strategy interesting," Kaiba snarled. God or not, he didn't permit anyone to insult his game.

Yugi looked up at Pluto suspiciously. He could almost feel Pluto's deck humming. Yugi glanced at Atem, who nodded back in confirmation. Yugi pressed his lips together, placed a card face down and ended his turn.

"You feel it don't you?" Pluto asked him.

Yugi swallowed and nodded. His cherubic face hardened into unfamiliar lines.

"Your God Cards answer to me. One of them is about to join us on my command."

Slifer the Sky Dragon flashed across the sky. The sight was both familiar and fresh to the watching duelists. They'd seen Slifer slide through the air like an eel slicing through water before, but it had proven impossible to hold a true memory of his power and grace in their minds. But Slifer was as deadly as he was beautiful. He tore through their monsters one after the other, leaving a trail of graveyard dust in his wake.

Pluto laughed as the turn came around to Yugi again. Yugi had only two cards in front of him; both were face down. He turned his monster card face up. Belial, Marques of Darkness rose from the sands, to tower above them. He was a study in black and white; his height emphasized by ebony wings that trailed to the ground, his head crowned with a halo that seemed to hold the darkness of a moonless night. His white hair and cloak flowed behind him, whipping in the wind. He drew a black sword that glimmered with silver highlights. Yugi summoned the Celtic Guardian to stand beside him, a forest sprite in shades of brown and green. Both were fantasy creatures, but they seemed to have sprung from different stories. Mysterious as the night and familiar as green leaves returning in springtime… they were as different and as connected as Atem and Yugi themselves.

Kaiba frowned. Neither creature would be able to stand against Slifer. He'd wondered how Yugi would rank as a duelist without Atem to rely on. There was an unexpected satisfaction in the thought that Yugi didn't measure up.

Pluto looked from the Celtic Guardian to Belial, who was hovering behind the elf, as protective as an older brother. Pluto laughed. It was a sound the beginnings of an earthquake might make, if given a voice, as it rumbled deep beneath the surface of the Earth.

"You must realize that Belial's effect is useless before my god. I choose what order to destroy your monsters, and just to drive that point home, I'll start with your elf. Prepare to say goodbye to your remaining life points this turn."

Yugi didn't answer. His slight smile was too faint for Pluto to notice. Yugi waited for Slifer's attack to turn over his remaining face down card: Gift of Final Effort, transferring the battle damage caused by Slifer's attack on the Celtic Guardian to Belial's attack points, increasing them by the same amount.

Slifer automatically moved to attack Belial, forced to assail all new monsters facing him, no matter how hopeless the fight. Yugi's move had raised Belial's strength high enough to defeat even a god. Slifer disappeared as quickly and as gracefully as he'd arrived.

"That was an interesting move," Pluto said as his monster vanished.

"You seem pretty calm for someone who's just lost one of his most powerful monsters," Kaiba observed.

"That's because you have no concept of immortality. You taunted me with becoming obsolete, but my realm is eternal, my subjects are mine forever. Human lives are so brief, like rain drops on an endless sea. But watching how the pattern they make as they fall changes the ocean's surface, watching them ripple and grow before they flicker into nothingness... witnessing those fleeting moments is a blessing, even to a god."

"You're welcome, I guess," Yugi said.

"You are capable of learning and adapting. Your partner, for all he looks like you, is incapable of either. You're fighting a battle you've already lost. He belongs with the dead."

"You have no right to say that! Everything you think I've learned… to hold my own, to believe in myself… I've learned because of him! And Atem's grown more in the two years I've known him than you probably have in a thousand years!"

"You better listen to Yugi," Jounouchi warned.

"I suggest you save your boasts – and your platitudes – for your victory," Atem said coldly.

Kaiba remained silent. Atem was standing as proudly as ever in the face of a clear opponent, but Kaiba couldn't help wondering if Pluto was right. Did the fire that had been rekindled in Atem's voice still run all the way through to his core? Or was it an after-image that remained when everything real had turned to ash?

Kaiba turned his attention back to the game, wincing as Jounouchi played yet another of his gambling cards. Barrel Dragon was as ungainly as was possible for a dragon; a laser cannon rose from his open neck in place of a head. For once, Jounouchi won the coin toss, whittling Pluto's cards still further.

But Atem could sense the next God Card in Pluto's deck, could hear it thumping as loud as a heartbeat, rising closer to the top with each turn.

Next to him, Kaiba stirred and Atem knew that his rival felt it too. Kaiba smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "Do you know what I think gods are?" Kaiba asked. His light, conversational tone was belied by the manic gleam in his eyes. "Power, pure and simple. It could be the power of belief, it could be more elemental. But it's there. I can feel it pulsing in your deck, throbbing like a toothache. It's Obelisk. I can feel him." Kaiba threw back his head and laughed. "He may be in your deck, but I'm the one who will dismiss him before you've even had the chance to put him in play. You're pretty quick to talk about power… well, that's power, too. It's not just for gods anymore."

Kaiba discarded his monsters to call Iron Chain Dragon to the field. All the shades of a new day dawning were in the dragon's hide. Blue, silver and gold flashed with each beat of his mighty wings. Even his chains were adornments, not fetters. Atem stared at the card and then at the man who had summoned him. It was the perfect card for Kaiba, who'd willingly donned so many responsibilities in his short life: to his brother, to tame his adoptive father's corporation. Kaiba would have scoffed at the thought the card held any deeper meaning that its attack points and effects, but the truth was that Iron Chain Dragon suited him.

With a start Atem realized that he'd put an Iron Chain Dragon in his deck as well. Now, it was hard to understand why. Once again, he and Kaiba were standing on opposite sides of a mirror, each struggling to see past their own reflection. Where Kaiba had eagerly taken on each bond, and then had held onto them with every iota of his fierce will, Atem was dissolving the ties that held him to this world and to Yugi. Each of Yugi's confident moves in this game was a further proof of the rightness of Atem's decision, each monster Yugi dispatched was one more demonstration that he was ready to live without the man he'd once called his other self.

"What decorative chains. How well you wear them, mortal," Pluto sneered.

"Grow up! The only bonds that tie me are the ones I have chosen! And no god has the power to change that."

Kaiba gestured to his dragon with a flourish of his hand. The dragon raised his head, then leaned towards Pluto's deck. His fiery breath burned the top three cards to ash,

Atem stared at Kaiba. Was Kaiba's answer his as well?

"Yeah! Two down and one to go!" Jounouchi yelled, reaching eagerly for his next monster.

Even Kaiba had to admit, Jounouchi's cards had a point – each gamble he won whittled Pluto's life points down a little further. Yugi and his friends breathed a little easier. Even if Pluto managed to summon Ra, the god no longer had the necessary life points left to make the dragon the unstoppable force they'd seen at Battle City.

Atem could feel the Winged Dragon waiting in Pluto's deck, could feel when he was sent to the graveyard in tribute. He smiled. It seemed a fitting for Pluto to try and draw power from the dead. Atem placed a card face down and waited through the next two turns for Pluto to draw Monster Reborn. He turned his trap card over before Pluto had finished his summons.

"I'm ready to fulfill my destiny, to leave this world. But it will be to the after-life of my choosing, not yours!" Atem said.

Kaiba frowned and looked away. In a way, it was good to have a duel to focus on. For once, Kaiba didn't want to think of the future… of the moment when Atem would turn his back and leave them.

In answer to Atem's summons, Call of the Grave's fanged and mummified monster rose up laughing. Its talons ripped Monster Reborn apart. Ra was not fated to live again. Atem smiled. Soon he'd be leaving as well. It was time. The cards agreed: the fitting destination for life was the graveyard – and even a god couldn't change that truth.

The next card finished the duel. They'd won. The monsters disappeared, leaving all of them – even Kaiba – staring stupidly at each other.

"Well played," Pluto observed.

"That's it?" Yugi asked, more stunned by Pluto's matter of fact tone than by their victory.

"Gods exist to test humans. You have proven yourselves. Enjoy your borrowed time. I can wait. Sooner or later some underworld will claim all of you for its own. Everything mortal must die."

Pluto disappeared as silently as he arrived; the dividing line between present and absent as thin and as final as the one between life and death. Yugi looked at the empty sands and shivered.

"Come, partner," Atem said. "It's time for our ceremonial duel." He looked around but Horakhty and the panel that had held six of the seven Millennium Items had disappeared. Atem turned to Ishizu.

"That way is closed," she said.

"What? How? Horakhty said that it was my fate!"

"The stakes in the duel you just fought were clear: we were fighting for your life. The agreement was binding, even on our own gods. You won a lifetime – but you lost your destiny in the winning. Fate no longer has a part to play in your actions."

"Welcome to the club," Kaiba snorted.

"You mean…" Yugi started to say; his smile threatened to split his face in half.

"The pharaoh is free to live his life as he chooses."

Atem was engulfed in a swirling, cheering, chest-bumping mass. Only Kaiba, Mokuba and Ishizu stood to the side, and Mokuba looked as though he would have joined in, if only he knew how. Kaiba's eyes remained fixed on his rival's face. It was the only solemn one in the crowd.

"I don't understand," Atem said when it was quiet enough to be heard.

"Who cares how it happened? You're alive!" Jounouchi shouted, pounding him on the back again.

"But my fate was to end my existence in this world."

"Do you need a god to slit your wrists for you?" Kaiba asked. Everyone turned to stare at him. "You self-righteous hypocrite!" Kaiba thundered. "You don't need a god to kill yourself. Poison, guns, jumping out of windows… there's plenty of ways to escape living. This is the second time I've picked a rival and if you prove yourself just as big a coward as he did…"

"Of course that wasn't what he meant!" Anzu said angrily.

"This is great news, partner," Yugi said quickly, but his voice betrayed him, rising at the last moment, turning his sentence into a question. "It's wonderful! You deserve the chance to live your own life at last," he said, forcing some firmness into his voice. Yugi continued talking in the face of his other half's failure to react. "Just think of everything that's ahead of you, all the things you can do now…Atem…"

Kaiba's snort stopped Yugi's well-meaning babble in its track, finally forcing a reaction from Atem. He turned to Yugi and said quietly, "You're right. It's wonderful, partner. I was too stunned to react."

Kaiba glanced from one to the other, trying to decide whose smile was the greater travesty.

Honda looked at Atem and frowned. He was more comfortable watching and thinking than talking – and he couldn't help but notice that Atem looked as though he'd been hit over the head with a very large mallet and was waiting for the effect to wear off.

"I don't know…" he whispered to Jounouchi. "He doesn't look happy."

Jounouchi stared at his friend, then shook himself, like a dog shedding water. "You're worrying over nothing. Of course he's happy! It's a lot to take in. He probably needs a distraction... and I know just how to make him laugh…. Hey, Kaiba," he called, "now will you finally admit that we were right? There really are two of them. Unless you're stupid and stubborn enough to insist that we set up this all up to trick you."

"As if your idiot brigade could come up with anything this sophisticated. That would be harder to believe than any amount of mystical mumbo jumbo."

"Hah! So you do admit it. We were right and you were wrong!"

Kaiba smirked. "It's also possible that I've hung around you dweebs for so long that your combined imbecility has finally made me snap and I've started hallucinating."

With the ease of long practice, Anzu ignored the boys' squabble. She knew the other Yugi's name was Atem; she had carved it on the cartouche hanging around his neck, she had been calling him that the whole time they'd been in the Memory World. But now that they were home – or almost home at any rate – it suddenly seemed strange.

"Atem?" she asked, making the name into a question, just as Yugi had done.

He shook his head. "That was the name from my past. It's gone now." With a swift motion he yanked the cartouche from his neck and dropped it in the sand. "It served its purpose. It brought us here. I had hoped… had thought to carry it with me when I rejoined my companions from the past, but that chance is gone now. Let my name stay buried with them."

"Names are over-rated. It's what you make of them that counts," Kaiba said.

"Well we can't just say, 'hey, you!' every time we want to get your attention," Jounouchi argued.

"That won't be necessary. You've called me Yugi's Darkness, Yami no Yugi, since I arrived in Domino. It's still fitting. I feel like I was born into this world out of shadows.

"Isn't that the way everyone gets born into it?" Kaiba said, rolling his eyes.

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Thanks to Bnomiko for agreeing to beta this story. I can't begin to express how much I appreciate it!

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I always look forward to is getting to thank my friends at the start of each story. Bnomiko is the first person to mention in any acknowledgment, because I honestly can't imagine I'd still be writing and posting without her. I'd also like to thank Splintered Star for talking, and listening and sometimes arguing all things Kaiba. And as always, a special hello to Kagemihari. Although I'm over a month behind schedule, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In the subtitled anime, once Zorc's defeated, there's something that seems so lost about Atem. I have to admit that the music totally cheats because the score has the saddest instrumentals possible, but it really seems like from the moment Atem recovers his name and defeats Zorc he gives up on living in this world himself. In the dub version, after Zorc is defeated, Anzu asks Atem what he's going to do, and he answers that he doesn't know. When Horakhty appears and tells him to go to the after-life it almost feels like he's relieved that, once again, he has a mission. I think the thing that gets me about this is that the memory world isn't even real – it's a game constructed for the final battle.

The sense that Atem goes to the after-life on automatic pilot is something that's stuck with me from the ending of the series. I once wrote a story, "The Newly Revised Book of the Dead," that looked at what might happen the moment after he made that decision and what questions might come up. Then, years later it occurred to me that the opposite was just as interesting to explore: what if Yami had gotten stuck in our world without ever stopping to ask if that was what he wanted… what if it felt, not like a miraculous second chance, but like the loss of his destiny and his last mission? I also wanted to write a story about a Yami and a Kaiba who had both been shaken off their balance and watch them figure out where they go from there. This story is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

Pluto Note: Hades/Pluto comes across in myths as grim but fair, the kind of god who tests mortals, but is prepared to live with the results. I have to admit though, that I gave him a sense of humor that owes more to Disney's Hercules than to Greek or Roman mythology.

Tumblr Note: I'm on Tumblr as Nenya85, mostly posting manga frames and screen shots and rambling on about them. If you're interested in checking it out, the link is on my biopage.

Review Note: I reply to all signed reviews. I also post a summary of my replies on my Livejournal. The link is on my biopage.

I really appreciate comments. They help me figure out what's working and what isn't, and whether I managed to get the story in my head on the page. Please review.