Disclaimer: I do not own YuGiOh; I am not profiting from this story.
Note: Just in case any readers of Sakakku see this, then give chapters 33 and 34 a double-take, and open their mouths to ask a question-- yes! That's exactly what I was implying. But this has nothing to do with Sakakku, so on with the story!
Yuugi sat cross legged on his bedroom floor, his old deck arranged by card type in front of him, and dozens of other cards sprawled about the carpet, taking up all available space in his room. "My deck has sure come through for me," he chatted merrily to Yami, standing silently beside him in spirit-form, "But with Kaiba's new tournament, I know I'll need to make a couple changes. What do you think about this card?" He held up De-Fusion.
"It would be strong against Kaiba's Ultimate Dragon," Yami said seriously, nodding. "Yes, I would put it in." Yuugi busied himself with finding a space for the magic card, while Yami looked through the new pile.
Yuugi looked up and blinked. Yami was holding out a card he'd never seen before. "Huh?" he asked, taking it. "Hey, cool! Dark Magician Girl?" He happily took it, shifting through his deck to find his favorite monster. "There!" he said, putting it next to the Dark Magician. While the Dark Magician gazed solemnly from the picture on the card, Dark Magician Girl was leaning forward, her eyes sparkling and a knowing smirk on her face. "They look awesome together, huh, Yami?"
But the former Pharaoh was staring at the two cards, his eyes half-lidded, trying to catch elusive memories.
Mana was just a lowly apprentice who happened to be living in the Pharaoh's palace; but two things made her special.
First, she was Mahaado's apprentice, and everyone knew Mahaado sat at the right hand of Atemu.
Secondly, Mana was… herself. Bright, exuberant, and blue-eyed, with a cheeky grin that never quit, she brought a certain sparkle to the palace – especially since her wild laughter was so often heard ringing through the halls. Everyone liked her, maybe even Seth, even though he concealed it perfectly; he always scowled at her, glared at her, snapped at her, and didn't give even the slightest sign of affection.
Okay, maybe not Seth.
But aside from the grumpy priest, who didn't like anyone else anyway, Mana was a beloved figure in the palace. She was allowed to get away with mostly anything, including hiding in the large, decorative, and very expensive vases that dotted the royal hallways, to escape her lessons.
Unfortunately, Mahaado seemed to have caught onto this practice; who else would be ominously walking down the hallway, tipping over each vase slightly and letting it thunk back in its side when found empty?
Mana couldn't actually see the person coming down the hall- after all, it was dark inside the pottery- but she could hear the footsteps coming ever closer. She hunkered down inside the red clay vase and shut her eyes, hoping Mahaado would just give up.
No such luck. 'Her' vase was slightly tipped, then there was a pause. Abruptly, the vase was pulled way down, caught from shattering on the stone floor at the last second, and slowly lowered to the ground. It rocked back and forth unsteadily, and Mana half-spilled, half-crawled out.
"I'm sorry, master!" she said in a rush, then caught her breath. Lying on her back on the floor, she could see not the disapproving face of Mahaado, but the slightly amused smirk of Atemu himself.
"Master?" he asked, grinning at her. "Don't you think that's going a little overboard? I get quite enough flattery, thank you."
"Oh!" Mana blurted, scrambling to her feet in a hurry. "S- sorry. My prince," she added in a hurry, her cheeks turning pink. She tried to back up, only to nearly trip over the pottery. Turning hastily, Mana attempted to right it, finding to her dismay that it was almost too heavy for her. "Oof!" she gasped, narrowly escaping crushed fingers.
"Here, let me help," Atemu said, making as if to step forward. Instinctively, Mana lifted her foot backwards, blocking his progress. "I can do it!" she insisted, heaving a little more and finally shoving the vase to the proper position. "There!" She turned, somewhat sheepishly, to find Atemu rubbing his calf, where he had collided with her leg. Abruptly, her face flared even redder. Thanks to her personal charm, she might get away with treating the Pharaoh less than perfectly respectably, but certainly not with assaulting him!
"Hiding from your lessons again?" Atemu asked, ignoring the fact that Mana had kicked him dangerously close to the groin.
She ducked her head. "I know I shouldn't, but it's just the history lessons I can't stand! Have you ever heard Mahaado read from the ancient scrolls?"
"You forget, he's my chief advisor," Atemu reminded her. "I have to listen to his reports on the grain harvest every year."
"He speaks in such a mo-no-tone…" Mana imitated, and Atemu chuckled, shaking his head.
"I shouldn't be making fun of him, though," she said, growing serious and straightening. "He's the best teacher I could ask for. Ever," she added vehemently, in case he had any doubts. "I just… don't like history," she added sheepishly. "I'd rather stick to learning magic."
"History teaches you about where magic came from, and how you should use it best," Atemu reminded her.
Mana made a face. "That's what Mahaado always says."
"Where do you think I learned it from?" Atemu asked, giving her a quirky grin.
She gave a surprised face, then giggled. "Is he looking for me?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," he said solemnly. "Which is why I was, also."
"You're handing me in?" she asked, resigned. And also a little surprised- why would the Pharaoh himself waste time searching for her? Was he that close to Mahaado, that he was willing to look for his friend's vagabond apprentices?
"Shhh," Atemu said, putting a finger to his lips and looking around suddenly, like they were being followed. But his movements were exaggerated; he was acting. "Mahaado thinks you're hiding in the temples," he whispered. "We can sneak out the back."
" 'We'?" Mana asked, her jaw dropping.
Atemu winked at her. "Seth is supposed to be giving me a report on the aristocrats- meaning he'll spend the next two hours or so ranting about how they're power-hungry maniacs, yelling at me for snickering at him, and yelling me for not paying attention. And I'm not too keen on hiding in pottery. Running down to the riverbanks is more up my alley."
She eyed him for a long moment. He grinned back, sincere, open… and extremely attractive.
"Race you?" she offered.
"It's all muddy!" Mana squealed.
"This is the riverbank," Atemu said thoughtfully, scratching his chin. "Dirt… water…"
"Whoa!" she cried, nearly losing her balance as she stepped in mud up to her ankle. "Forget these shoes," she sighed, reaching down and pulling them off with great difficulty, almost toppling over again. She chucked them farther up the bank, where it was a lot drier. "Why did we come down here again?" she said, screwing up her face and sticking her tongue out.
Atemu, who had left his sandals way up in the sand and was squelching around quite comfortably, laughed at her. "Does the mud bother you?" he asked, in a voice that Mana couldn't quite tell whether it was serious or teasing.
" 'Course not," she answered stoutly, bending down and scooping up a handful of the reddish goop. She tossed it from hand to hand, grinning at him mischievously. With each pass, more mud slipped between her fingers and trickled down her arm or onto her skirt, but she ignored it. She raised her hand, pretending she was about to throw it. She didn't intend to, of course; Atemu was still the Pharaoh, no matter how carefree he was acting now.
But of course, when you're hit first, all bets are off. Atemu proved to have excellent aim, and Mana caught a glob on the forehead. She stood still a fraction of a second, blinking. How'd he do that? She hadn't even seen him grab a handful of the mud!
Then she lifted her fist and let fly. The mud went soaring through the air; Atemu ducked, but her aim was good and the top of his hair got splattered.
She burst out laughing, and Atemu quickly retaliated. This time, Mana dodged just before the mud splattered all over her shoulder. At least… the first handful Atemu threw. The second one, she didn't notice until it hit her square on the leg.
"Hey!" she said indignantly, scooping up a double fistful and slinging it in Atemu's general direction. She managed to slightly splatter him, but didn't notice as she bent to grab handful after handful, gallantly pelting him and missing most of the time.
Atemu, while not quite as fast as the perpetually energetic Mana, was a lot more graceful and had much better aim. And by the time the extremely disapproving 'harumph!' came from the top of the slope, she was absolutely slathered in the reddish mud, while Atemu was still slightly visible under his dirty coating.
Mana let the large chunk of mud fall from her fingers and plop on the ground. She squeaked, fervently praying that Mahaado wouldn't recognize her under all the filth atop her giveaway cap.
She and Atemu slowly turned to glance at the two figures standing farther up the riverbank. Mahaado, with his arms crossed and his face impassive; and Seth, who gave a second 'harumph!', clutching a papyrus scroll and glaring at Atemu.
" 'Morning!" Mana said brightly, recognizing when they were trapped.
Mahaado spoke slowly and deliberately (even more than he always did), sounding like he was trying to restrain himself. "Mana… did you forget about your lessons today?"
She absently flicked a bit of mud off her arm. What to do? She couldn't exactly blame the whole thing on Atemu… he was the Pharaoh. And if she lied, Atemu would know. Mahaado would probably know, too; but then again he could always tell when she was lying.
"Were you looking for me?" she asked innocently, finally deciding to just ignore the question.
Mahaado simply stared at her. "Yes, apprentice. I was."
Ouch. He was the only person she knew who could make her feel guilty with four short words. Actually, he was the only person who could make her feel guilty, period.
"And I was looking for you," Seth broke in, rudely addressing Atemu. "You and I were supposed to go over the report on the aristocrats, remember? Now we've lost a good hour of work time!"
"Oh yes," Atemu said vaguely. "Now I remember. What a shame." Seth glared at him, suspicious, then turned on his heel. Behind Seth's back, Atemu winked at Mana, and she stifled a giggle. Unfortunately, Mahaado also saw. Mana was afraid that he was going to yell at her again, but he just shifted his eyes to Atemu. The Pharaoh grinned at his friend, wiping mud off his brow, and the corners of Mahaado's mouth twitched. Mana's eyes lit up.
"Come on," Seth said stiffly. "Back to the palace."
"Without washing up first?" Atemu protested, struggling up the small hill and standing next to Mahaado and Mana. "I'll track mud all over the floor."
"There are servants to clean it," Seth said dismissively.
"You can't expect me to listen to your report for the next hour, all covered in dirt!" Atemu said, scowling at his cousin.
"You should have thought of that before you started slinging mud around," Seth responded, frowning with disapproval at him.
"It was my fault," Mana butted in quickly. "I started it."
Seth's response was only to glare at her, taking in her mud-encrusted body, indistinguishable dress, and the hairpiece nearly falling out of her bedraggled locks. He snorted, turning around.
Seth whipped around. "All right, which one of you threw that?!" he bellowed, shaking his finger at Atemu and Mana. "I should have known better than to get near you two in this state! Honestly, covered with mud, completely filthy, completely immature and irresponsible… and you can't just accept your poor behavior, either; you start slinging mud at me next… Cousin, if there were anyone to report you to, believe me I would!" Atemu struggled to hide his smirk. "And Mana! I'm lucky your master is here! I hope he's taking proper notice of how his apprentice acts around her superiors!" He turned his glare onto Mahaado, who had arranged his face into an emotionless lock, nodding along with Seth's outburst.
"Of course," Mahaado said stiffly, his hands clasped behind his back.
This didn't necessarily have anything to do with showing disapproval, however. It was more along the lines of having to conceal one tell-tale muddy palm.
Atemu and Seth had reentered the palace through the same back entrance Mana and Atemu had snuck out of. Atemu looked slightly grumpy at the prospect of listening to an irritable Seth give the same boring report he'd run away from the first time, except now in muddy pants. Mana had waved to him, shyly this time, and she'd blushed when he grinned and waved back before Seth dragged him indoors.
Mana and Mahaado continued circling the outside of the palace, heading for Mahaado's private quarters, and the smaller room Mana inhabited next to them. "Master?" she asked after a moment. "Where did you get the mud to throw at Seth?"
His eyes swiveled to glance at her, though he didn't move his head. "Who, me?"
She stifled a sudden snort. She'd never really seen this side of her master. He was always so serious… Then again, the only time she interacted with Mahaado was during lessons, where he wasn't much concerned about 'fun'. Maybe Mahaado was more interesting then she'd thought.
"My Pharaoh handed it to me," Mahaado finally answered, turning to see her reaction.
A wide grin broke out on Mana's face. She hadn't had much chance to meet the Pharaoh before, either. But it seemed like she had a lot more to learn about this palace, and the people in them. If everything was going to go like this, she would enjoy every moment of it.
Mahaado watched her admiring glance move from him off to the right, where they had last seen Atemu. Abruptly, his shoulders tensed, and he faced forward again, wishing he'd just left it as a mystery. But it seemed Mana wasn't ready to drop the subject. "The prince seems like he has a great sense of humor," she enthused. "It was a lot of fun to hang out with him."
"Mmm," Mahaado said noncommittally.
"He found me in the pottery," Mana confessed, giggling. "He said he didn't want to hide in there with me, so we went down to the river together."
"When my prince was younger, he'd hide in the pottery too," Mahaado admitted, then wished he hadn't.
Mana burst into giggles. "Wow! You're kidding!" Mahaado just shrugged, his thoughts drifting. He caught himself searching for topics that would distract Mana from Atemu, and immediately felt ashamed. Mana was his apprentice: feeling too much fondness for her was inappropriate; feeling jealous was downright wrong; and feeling jealous of his best friend and Pharaoh was utterly out of the question and irresponsible. He had been trying to suppress all these feelings for a very long while – and doing quite a good job at it, too, since he was accustomed to suppressing emotions – but it was becoming harder and harder over time.
"I feel bad for the prince," Mana said thoughtfully. "Reports from Seth might be even worse than history lessons."
His shoulders stiffened, trying not to feel hurt that she didn't enjoy his history lessons. "You shouldn't make fun of Seth," he said instead. "He might put on an angry façade, but there aren't many sharper than he is. And he's loyal to the Pharaoh."
Mana snorted. "Well, he's not as loyal as you," she said, smiling, and he stopped walking to face her. Her beaming smile was right in front of him, though she was considerably shorter.
"Maybe," Mahaado acknowledged, successfully fighting off a faint blush, though his gut twisted. Yes, he was loyal to Atemu… except for the lurch his stomach gave when Mana talked about him.
Atemu appeared suddenly, just as Mana was rounding the bend, and she nearly crashed into him. "Yikes!" she giggled, jumping back. "You startled me!"
"I'm good at that," Atemu said, grinning roguishly and stepping farther forward. Mana ducked her head, smiling. "Feel like making another grand escape? Or will Mahaado get angry with you?" he added as an afterthought.
"Mahaado is in the temples, Atemu," she chided. "Shouldn't you know what your priest is doing?"
Atemu shrugged, lifting his hands in a you've-got-me expression. "Probably," he admitted. "But right now, I'm concerned about Aishisu."
"Aishisu?" Mana asked curiously.
He extended a hand. "Tell you while we run?"
She only eyed it for a fraction of a second before accepting it. She couldn't pretend she hadn't been hoping to bump into him. After all, that was why she'd been wandering the palace for the last two days, an endless source of exasperation for Mahaado. Every free moment she had, she'd be casually strolling down hallways, not-so-discreetly peeking into all open doorways and side passages, despite his admonishments that she should be doing her studies.
"So why are you hiding from Aishisu?" she asked in a quiet voice. Atemu pressed his back to the wall, cautiously peeking around the bend, then tugged her forward.
"Wait…" he breathed, dashing past an open doorway and heading for a small, rarely-used door. He and Mana ducked under the low ceiling, and emerged into bright daylight.
"The riverbank again?" she asked, carefully grasping his hand more fully and blushing when he turned his piercing gaze upon her.
"Actually, today is market day down in the village," he said hopefully. "Would you care to join me?"
She fought to control her glee. "You bet!"
Atemu squeezed her hand; then, to her disappointment, let it go. "Follow me. If we make it past the guards, we should be okay."
She nodded, tiptoeing after him out of palace grounds. She could have sworn one of the guards spotted them, but Atemu waved him off. The guard just grinned, cast his eyes back to the palace, then resumed his position. Mana and Atemu made it away from the other sentries without any incident, and hurried down the path into the small but bustling village.
"So about Aishisu?" she prompted, and to her surprised gratification, Atemu stopped and grabbed her hand again.
"She thinks it's high time I got married," he confessed, pulling her farther down the road.
"Mm-hmm," he muttered. "Apparently, I need an heir."
"An- heir?" Mana couldn't hide how shocked she was. "But you're so young!"
He gave a lopsided grin. "That won't stop me from dying. It's unlikely, perhaps, but Aishisu thinks the kingdom needs reassurance."
She raised her eyebrows. "That seems kind of unfair though! I mean… you should get married to someone you want to! When you want to!"
"Marriage is usually used as a political tool," Atemu reminded her. She made a face, signaling her disapproval. "But anyway," he continued. "Aishisu also thinks I should marry someone who would help me with ruling. She says- and I quote- 'You need a woman on the throne! A strong-willed, competent woman who ensures that you make the right decisions and concentrate on your work!' " He rolled his eyes at her, then a mischievous spark entered his crimson gaze. "You know any strong-willed, competent women? A sense of humor would help," he added.
Mana felt her jaw drop, nearly to the dusty ground. "I… uuuh…" But they'd finally entered the village, and there were starting to be people around.
"The market is this way," Atemu said abruptly, hurrying her forward. She chanced a glance at him- was he blushing, or was that her imagination?
"You know, I could make your life miserable with this information," Karimu said thoughtfully.
Mahaado pursed his lips. "I could make your life miserable, period," he replied tersely.
The sun had just begun to set, and Karimu and Mahaado were walking back from the temples after a long day. Karimu had been talking longingly about a giant dinner, and Mahaado mentioned that he would need to make sure Mana had done her 'homework'. This led to one thing after another, and finally Karimu had been able to extract a confession from Mahaado.
"So-o," he said cheerfully. "You're in love with your apprentice."
"I did not say that," Mahaado corrected, scowling.
Karimu shrugged. "You don't have to say it to make it true."
"When did you get so cheeky?" Mahaado complained, folding his arms across his chest.
Karimu grinned. "It's just part of my charming personality, Mahaado. But don't try and change the subject."
Mahaado sighed. "What I said was… I was surprised by how much I cared what Mana thought of me. I wanted her to respect me." Karimu cocked an eyebrow. "But that's normal," Mahaado rushed on. "Right? She's my apprentice, so it's natural that I should want her to respect me."
"But that was just the beginning, wasn't it?" Karimu asked with a wide smile.
"What do you mean?" Mahaado asked with a slight frown.
"You wanted her to respect you, and like you said, that's natural. But you spent so much time around her, and you started thinking about her all the time – and of course this is Mana we're talking about, she's always smiling and laughing and bouncing around. She's lovable," Karimu winked, "and let's face it, my friend, you need someone to love. You're serious and dedicated all day, and maybe you could have continued like that for forever, but it's like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. Maybe the coolness is a relief for a while, but once that sun is out, the world just starts basking in it. And, Mahaado, a little light and warmth isn't a bad thing."
Mahaado stopped walking and stared at the other priest in sheer amazement. "So now you're a poet?" he managed, his voice completely lacking sarcasm.
Karimu winked again. "I'm a lot of things. And I'm right, too, aren't I?"
Mahaado shook his head. "About Mana… you are absolutely correct. But not with me." When Karimu groaned in exasperation, Mahaado continued stubbornly, "I am her teacher! We both have a responsibility to the court!"
"Oh, Mahaado." Karimu shook his head right back. "Being in love isn't going to endanger the court, or Egypt."
That one threw Mahaado for such a loop that he was unable to respond for several minutes. Love. Oh, for the love of Egypt, was he in love with Mana? He'd never been in love before; how was one supposed to know? And how was one supposed to deal with it? No, he couldn't be in love with her, Mahaado firmly decided. Of course, Mana was the sort of girl one fell in love with, he knew that much; the sort of girl that men went crazy for… and then that reminded him.
"It wouldn't matter, even if I was," he said, lifting his chin. "She's quite enamored with someone else, someone whom I could never compete with – and have no desire to – so this whole conversation is rather pointless."
Karimu looked like he wanted to smack Mahaado, but settled for slapping a hand to his own head. "You're just trying every excuse in the book, aren't you? Come on, who in this palace is better than you? Aside from me," he added with a roguish grin. "And you can't convince me that Mana is stuck on Seth, either."
"No," Mahaado said, and Karimu looked at him, startled. His friend's voice was serious, quiet, and suddenly pained. When Mahaado still didn't move, Karimu followed his gaze to see Atemu trotting merrily up the path from the village, grinning more widely than either of his priests had ever seen him. He was clutching hands with none other than Mana, whose red flushed skin was visible even in the quickly-diminishing twilight.
"You're kidding me," Karimu said flatly, as Mana's laughter rang across the palace grounds, and Mahaado's face settled into an impersonal mask. He glanced helplessly between Mahaado and Atemu, torn between loyalty to his two closest friends.
"Karimu!" Mana called, spotting him first. "How were the temples? How's my master?"
Mahaado stepped forward, his face completely composed.
"Oh! H-hi, master," Mana said, taken aback and suddenly a lot less cheerful and self-assured. Self-consciously, she dropped Atemu's hand, resulting in a surprised and disappointed look to briefly flit across his face. Mahaado merely nodded at her, thankful for his self-control.
"I take it you haven't completed the assignment I asked?" he questioned.
Mana's eyes widened, then she tried out an innocent smile. "Aaah… that's what I was heading to do now?"
Mahaado shook his head, then inclined it in the general direction of the palace. "Go."
She turned to Atemu with a shy smile, and bowed her head. "Thank you again," she whispered. He looked like he was about to touch her, but the presence of Karimu and Mahaado made him self-conscious and he restrained himself. "I had a good time today," he said in a low voice, but not so low that Mahaado missed it.
"Me too," Mana said, biting her lip and turning to the palace.
"Perhaps we could… never mind," Atemu said quickly. "I hope to see you around."
"Me too," Mana said again, waving quickly and abruptly breaking into a jog. All three of the young men watched her retreat.
Even after her slight figure had disappeared into the palace, the three men stood there, for perhaps the first time in their lives not knowing what to say to each other. Karimu fidgeted uncomfortably, but he was mostly ignored by Mahaado, who still maintained a carefully blank face, and Atemu, who was studying Mahaado. The Pharaoh finally opened his mouth to say something, but Mahaado beat him to it.
"Aishisu will be happy."
"I'm the one who is good at interpreting people's thoughts, Mahaado, not the other way around," Aishisu said, appearing over his shoulder. Karimu was the only one to jump, and although Mahaado didn't laugh at him, Karmu fixed the other priest with a glare anyway.
"I assume you are talking about the possibility of our prince finding a bride," Aishisu continued, "And as it happens, I am not so pleased, for several of my own reasons." She fixed Atemu with a look. "Did you proposition her?"
Atemu looked uncomfortable. "Well. I suppose I did, in a roundabout way."
Mahaado felt his heart fly up and lodge in his throat, and he was afraid that his face twitched, because all the others turned to look at him.
"And?" Aishisu raised an eyebrow.
Atemu gave a half-smile. "Well, the first time, we both sort of ignored it. But I brought it up again later, at quite an inopportune time, because she was holding a tray of glass objects. She dropped it, and all the glass broke, and the tray landed on a dog who got startled and ran into the next vendor's fruit display, which tipped over and all the fruit went flying into the street."
Karimu couldn't keep a straight face after that description and snorted in laughter. Mahaado allowed himself to feel a moment of fondness: that was pure Mana.
"And what did she say to your proposal?" Aishisu pursued.
Atemu looked directly at his priest. "She didn't say anything. She looked at the mess and exclaimed 'Oh! If Mahaado saw this he would kill me!'"
Silence reigned for a long time. Mahaado was unable to keep eye contact with Atemu and looked away; this was certainly a night of firsts. The first time he'd felt too guilty to look his Pharaoh in the eye. He didn't quite know what was going on, but Atemu's words had given him a twinge of hope, and it unsettled him.
Aishisu, having got the answer she wanted, melted away from the group. Karimu watched her back disappear into the quickly-growing shadows, and wondered if she didn't want Atemu to marry Mana because it would be far more politically advantageous to match the Pharaoh up with a foreign princess, or because she knew how Mahaado felt about his apprentice.
"She'll likely say yes," Mahaado finally said, and Karimu stopped himself from rolling his eyes. There went Mahaado, still trying to be noble and self-sacrificing and ignore his own feelings.
Atemu looked surprised. "I left her the option, certainly," he said quietly. "But I do not believe now that she will ever say yes. And even if she did, I could never marry her now, Mahaado – not now, when it is so clearly written on your face that you care for her. I could never do that to you, my best friend."
Mahaado was worried, now, for two reasons. It seemed to be apparent to all the world he was thinking of his apprentice in an inappropriate way; and he certainly did not want to be disloyal to his Pharaoh. "My prince, you know that I live to serve you. I would never stand in your way – of anything."
"Mahaado!" Atemu exclaimed, taken aback. "I am not a tyrant or a dictator, you know, running around taking whatever I want. I'm still a person – and I'm still your friend."
"And Mana isn't exactly a thing to be snatched, either," Karimu remarked, entertaining himself with the thought of what Mana would do to anyone who tried to claim her as such. He was ignored, though, as Mahaado looked as if he'd been slapped. Mahaado clearly felt as if he'd just offended Atemu by not trusting him, and was so completely warring with his emotions that his confusion showed on his face.
"Mahaado," Atemu said, now pleadingly, stepping forward and taking the priest's hand. "Mana is such a special girl, and you are my closest friend. For those reasons alone, I wish the two of you the best of happiness, in whatever you decide. And I think, if you wish to try to win her, she will choose you."
"My prince," Mahaado said quickly, "Mana aside, I feel that I must apologize for my behavior today. I haven't – I've just been – it's that-"
"No need to apologize, Mahaado!" Atemu said cheerfully, and like that, nothing was wrong anymore. Mahaado smiled at his best friend, and Atemu continued mischievously, "It's good to see you showing emotion again, my friend. Even if you are lovesick and stammering."
Karimu chortled, and Mahaado was again taken aback – and even though it was dark, after Mahaado left, Karmu and Atemu agreed that they'd seen him blush.
Mana skirted down the wide hallways, wearing a dreamy smile and humming slightly under her breath. She'd had the most fantastic day with Atemu. Despite his troubles whenever he was recognized by the people, they'd run around the market, carefree and having a good time. The peasant's food had been surprisingly creative, and Atemu enthusiastically told one elderly lady that he had never tasted a chicken roast so fine, even with all his chefs and servants. She'd stammered and blushed, especially when he insisted on giving her ten silver pieces for her fine work.
Atemu was so generous. She closed her eyes briefly. Not only that; he was funny, charming, and polite. She'd never guessed that someone like that lay hidden under the serious, almost angry pose he put on whenever she saw him in the palace.
Not only that… he was so handsome.
Sure, she had been taken aback when he sort-of proposed to her: who wouldn't be? And this was the first time Mana had encountered someone being more impulsive than her, and she didn't know how to deal with it. To be honest, she'd forgotten about it for a little while, when she dropped the tray and caused a great deal of chaos. Her thoughts had flown to Mahaado, and how he would act so exasperated with her if he'd seen this. She liked seeing him annoyed; he would purse his lips and make a funny face, and she would give him her best smile and bat her eyelashes and watch the scowl slip off his face.
Later, as they were returning to the palace, Atemu had said – rather bashfully, she thought – that he was sorry if he'd surprised her, it was just that he'd rather marry someone he'd met and liked, however briefly, than a complete stranger. He said he would wait for her response, and she giggled and asked him how long, and he dryly answered, "For as long as I can stall Aishisu." She had still been laughing about that when they came up the hill and saw Karimu and her master having a serious conversation about something. She had stopped laughing when she saw Mahaado, and started wondering what he would think if he knew Atemu had proposed to her.
Mana sighed aloud, letting her thoughts drift until she bumped against a warm surface. An annoyed voice said "Watch it," and she finally opened her eyes.
"Sorry, Seth," she said, rubbing her nose. Seth didn't scare her, although most of the rest of the palace was terrified of him. Seth didn't really like her, and as far as she was concerned the feeling was mutual, but that had more to do with her fierce protectiveness of Mahaado. Seth had a habit of insulting Mahaado, something Mana wouldn't stand for. But the two of them carried on a conversation easily, and sometimes Seth taught her – rather, forced her to learn – a little about Egyptian politics.
"You're the only one in the palace audacious enough to go dancing through with your eyes shut," he grumbled, readjusting his headpiece.
"I said sorry," she said complacently. "What were you doing down here, anyway? Did you come from the throne room?" she added, noting the open door.
"As a matter of fact, yes," Seth said, making as if to shut it. She poked her head around first, and peered inside.
"It looks the same as it always does," he said, annoyed.
"I hardly ever get to see it, though," she explained, eyeing the hugely intimidating room. It had high ceilings, a sweeping floor, and at the far end was a high-backed throne. "That's where the prince sits," she reasoned.
She jumped when Seth leaned down over her shoulder and peered in the throne room as well. "What were you doing in there, anyway?" she asked curiously.
"Wondering," Seth said slowly.
He stared off, his gaze distant. "What it'd be like to be on the throne."
Mana's eyebrows rose. "Why?"
Seth briefly turned his gaze to her. "Well, if the Pharaoh dies, I am next in line."
Mana shuddered. "What a horrible thought!" She hardly ever thought about the consequences of Seth being Atemu's cousin, except to wonder how two such different people could be related.
Seth looked annoyed. "Well, thank you for the vote of confidence."
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that," Mana said, although she sort of had. "I just meant that it would be terrible if the prince died."
"Especially since he has no heirs," Seth said. His voice was carefully bland, and she felt slightly annoyed again that he seemed to be thinking about the line instead of Atemu as a person.
"Maybe he will," she said brazenly, lifting her chin.
Seth raised an eyebrow at her. "For heirs, he needs a wife. For legitimate heirs," he added as an afterthought.
Mana wrinkled her nose at the implication. "And what makes you so sure he won't have one?"
"Because he runs down to the riverbank whenever Aishisu hunts him down to talk about it," Seth responded immediately, looking at her curiously.
Mana felt a blush burn her cheeks. "Or the village…" she mumbled.
Seth still looked at her intently. "Propositioned you, has he?" he asked abruptly. Mana hadn't expected the question, and squeaked a little and stumbled backwards.
Seth laughed out loud at her – and it was odd, he rarely laughed out loud – and shook his head. "You'll never say yes," he said simply.
Mana's mouth opened in indignation. "And how do you know that?" she retorted.
"You have no idea what ruling is all about," he shot back, getting upset with her for no good reason that Mana could distinguish. "You have no idea of the burden, the responsibilities. Atemu may get away with shirking them for now, but things are changing – Bakura is growing stronger, the Millennium Items are getting out of control, and things called shadow-monsters are on the move – and everything's going to get a lot harder from here on out. And you would hate it, being the diplomatic wife, sitting at home trying to deal with the cattle shipment problems of the peasants while Atemu went out and risked his life. You will be far better off studying your magic now, learning how to become more powerful so that you can deal with the impending threats. And even so, you could still lose someone you love."
"I could be Queen and study magic too," Mana argued, not because she really wanted to but because she needed to say something back to Seth. He was scaring her a little, and there was a strange gleam in his eyes, and she wondered where he thought he fit into this bleak future, and how far he would go to keep things right.
"You could," Seth said agreeably enough. "But you're getting deeper into magic every day. If you keep studying it, pretty soon you'll realize where your loyalty and your love truly lies, and then you'd never be happy with the Pharaoh."
Mana had nothing to say to that, and she shivered a little. Seth, obnoxious though he may be, was smart, as Mahaado said. She didn't think he could possibly know what he was talking about… but he sounded so sure.
"Do you remember when you went berserk on me a few months ago, because I said Mahaado needed to stop fooling around with his magic and start focusing on getting the government in order?"
Mana didn't know why he'd suddenly changed the subject, but at least she understood what he was saying now. She frowned at him. "First of all, you also called him a potion-mixing, star-gazing idiot, and I didn't appreciate that. Second of all… you were being a jerk!"
Seth snorted. "I won't contest that. But I might add that I was wrong."
"And you were right." He shot her a sly grin. "And that's why you'll never marry the Pharaoh… because you believe so strongly in Mahaado."
While she was busy gaping at him, Seth tipped her hat down over her eyes.
When she finally disentangled her hat from her wind-blown hair, Seth was gone. Still not sure what to think, Mana made her way back to her rooms. By the time she got there, she had mostly forgotten the ominous warnings that Seth had given her and was back to thinking about how she'd knocked the fruit everywhere, and those little kids had slipped on it and fallen into a pile of squashed papayas, and how funny it would have been if Mahaado had been there to snicker along with Atemu, and finally pay off the vendor an obscene amount of money to please him. Mana burst out laughing, only to look up and find Mahaado waiting outside the door for her.
"Sorry," she blushed, trying to control her giggles. "I didn't mean to take so long."
A hint of a smile on his lips, he shook his head. "Apprentice, you left for the palace many minutes before I, and you should have come directly to your rooms to begin your assignment. Care to explain how I beat you here?"
She hesitated, then set her lips. Looking Mahaado squarely in the eye, she shook her head.
Now he really did laugh. "Have it your way… Mana," he said, waving his hand at the door. It swung open, and she fought not to look impressed.
"You've got a lot of work to do," Mahaado said sternly. "I hear you were at the market all day."
Opening her eyes wide, Mana swung them from side to side, the picture of innocence.
"Being silent, are we?" Mahaado inquired.
A wide grin on her face, Mana nodded.
Mahaado shook his head. "Well, since I suppose you don't need any help, I'll just be going," he said, making for his own rooms. "If you need any help, just give a shout."
Mana waved her arms frantically, but his back was to her. And were his shoulders shaking slightly? Was that laughter?
"Fine! I give!" she said desperately, stomping her foot. "I do need help!"
Mahaado was instantly back at her side, cocking an eyebrow at her. "It's not that hard," he said softly. "But I'll show you how to get started."
He entered her rooms first, rifling through the scrolls piled on her desk, meaning that he thankfully didn't see the huge blush that blossomed on her face. Mana stared at his back for a while, her eyes taking a thoughtful haze. Well, he certainly seemed to be in a good mood all of a sudden. It reminded her of the incident at the riverbank: Mahaado did have a playful streak, after all. She desperately hoped that it would continue – he was much more fun to be around when he was like this. And Mana's favorite moments were when she successfully tempted him to do something – most often, forgiving her – despite his strict tendencies.
When he was joking around with her, as he so infrequently did, she felt as happy as she did with Atemu – except it was different, Mahaado was familiar and comforting, and she had absolute trust in him – he made her feel complete.
Mana blinked. Mahaado had turned around and was eyeing her as she gawked at him. "Is something the matter, Mana?" he asked, in a voice that was so carefully deadpanned it could have been a parody.
"I, um… sorry. I blanked out." She bit her lip, confused all of a sudden. Why had everyone picked today to act so weird? "And just why are you so happy?"
The question seemed to surprise Mahaado. "Because you've been snickering and grinning all day," Mana blundered on. "At least, all day that I've seen you. Okay, the last two minutes."
Mahaado shook his head, and Mana smacked her own. "Never mind," she said grumpily. "What was that assignment again?"
Despite Atemu's subtle hints, and Karimu's less-than-subtle urges, and even the exasperated looks Seth threw his way every once in a while, Mahaado maintained a careful distance between himself and Mana for the next three months. Contrarily, he let her in more than ever, spending time with her to personally go over history and magic and all of her lessons. She was doing better than ever before, and he was wondering with some guilt if her past struggles had to do with his teaching methods.
That wasn't to say Mana didn't still sneak off – Mahaado would almost have been disappointed if she'd stopped. Because, after all, her silly behavior was what made Mana herself. She was better about skipping lessons, now, but she still spent a considerable amount of time outdoors. Often, she was with Atemu, whenever he could make time (which was less and less frequently these days); sometimes she hung around Seth until he got annoyed and shooed her; other times she'd latch onto Karimu or Mahaado.
Atemu and Mana had been developing their friendship during their available moments, and Mahaado was pleased to see it. His friend needed companions, and Mana was a good influence on anyone. The same was true, probably more so, for Atemu's influence on his apprentice. And, he had to admit, he had slightly selfish reasons for being pleased. The more time they spent together, the less smitten Mana became with Atemu. Rather than the attractive and mysterious Pharaoh, he was the affectionate and lovable friend.
Mahaado kept an unusually close watch on Mana whenever Atemu was mentioned. Slowly, she stopped blushing whenever his name was mentioned. And he noticed something interesting: she started turning red and ducking her head whenever he, Mahaado, entered the room.
Mana dropped the asp's scale into the potion and it exploded, filling the room with a purplish haze.
Mahaado sighed, waving a hand in front of his face. "Mana, why were you even holding the asp scale?"
"I… don't know," she confessed, coughing. "I wasn't paying attention. I meant to grab the dried scarabs."
He shook his head. "What was distracting you so much?" he asked teasingly.
Mana blushed again: it was becoming an annoying habit. She wished she could control how hot her face got sometimes, especially when Mahaado tried out his new 'teasing' voice.
Oh, so he actually wanted an answer. But there was no way she was about to tell him the truth. She glanced over, to see him watching her expectantly. His eyes twinkled out at her through the violet smoke.
"You look good in purple," she blurted, giving Mahaado a sheepish grin. He looked taken aback at her abrupt statement.
"Thank you, I suppose," he said, eyeing her. "But you're avoiding my question."
She scowled. "And you know me too well."
He raised his eyebrows. "Do I really?"
Mana paused at that. Did he really? If he knew her that well, shouldn't he know what she was thinking? She shrugged. "Maybe not."
"I don't suppose you'll enlighten me?"
She couldn't stop herself from shuddering, but she couldn't figure out why she'd had such a reaction. It wasn't a scared shudder; more of a pleasant tingling. Mana shrugged. "Nope." She shot Mahaado a winning grin. "You'll just have to figure it out for yourself."
The purple smoke was starting to disperse, but Mana closed her eyes anyway, heaving a sigh. She was so caught up in her thoughts once again, she forgot Mahaado was in the room before he touched her arm. The unexpected, albeit light, touch startled Mana, and she jumped and involuntarily grabbed his arm.
They were suddenly so close, staring directly at each other, Mana's shorter face gazing wide-eyed up at Mahaado. He seemed unable to move, and she unwilling, so they paused like that for a while. Mana had finally made up her mind to do something, but as she didn't know what yet, she hadn't gotten very far – when a shudder rippled through Mahaado's body, so strongly that it vibrated up her fingertips.
Well, at least she wasn't the only one.
"Master?" she questioned, but he had already pulled away and was looking at the ruined potion.
"Try to be less jumpy as well." His voice sounded strained. Mana scowled: she was mostly mad at him for ruining the moment, but partially mad because he'd criticized her. She'd show him jumpy.
Mahaado was completely caught off guard when 100-plus pounds of apprentice landed on his back, and he almost toppled into the cauldron.
"Oh, Mahaado, try to be less jumpy," Mana sighed in his ear, clutching him around the neck.
"Mana!" She was choking him, and didn't show any inclination of letting go anytime soon, and Mahaado instinctively reached around to grab her thighs to support her and get some of the pressure off his neck.
Bad, bad, bad move.
Her skirt had ridden up when she pounced, and his hands landed on the bare skin of her upper thigh, and with her mouth so close to his ear he heard her gasp quite clearly, and this time they shuddered in unison.
"S-sorry!" Mahaado stammered, letting go of her immediately. Mana started to slip, and rebelled against it by wrapping her legs more tightly around him, ignoring how absolutely wrong this was. So much of their bodies were touching, and in all of the right places for her, that she had momentarily lost control. She strained her neck around, trying to reach Mahaado's lips, but his bright red face was staring obstinately forward. The closest she could get was the corner of his mouth, and she planted a kiss there, greedily sucking his lips and darting her tongue out to taste him. Mahaado started, and moved his head around slightly to face her; Mana managed to engulf the whole of his mouth before her strength finally gave out and she fell.
The sudden rush of cold air, and her body colliding painfully with the cold stone floor, jolted her back to reality, and Mana really really wished that she had learned some sort of spell that would allow her to sink into the cracks between the stones and never be seen again.
"Mana! Mana, are you okay?" Mahaado was on his knees beside her. His normally sober eyes were alight with some emotion that she could not identify, and his mussed-up hair – her fault, she realized – made him look so different.
"Uhmm. Not hurt," Mana managed, struggling to sit upright.
That was all she managed before he descended on her, pushing her back down, one hand slipping under her head so it was no longer resting on the stone floor. The other hand stroked her face, reverently, and she suddenly realized that Mahaado must have spent an awful lot of time thinking about this. Her thoughts grew hazy as he kissed her, over and over, showering little kisses all over her face but always returning to her lips for long, sweet, gentle ones. Eventually Mana decided to stop thinking all together and just kissed him back, with all her heart.
"You should really learn more about your own cards," Yami said, his heart lifting. It seemed that he might win this duel after all. "Dark Magic Curtain works for all the players on the field. Now, after giving up half of my lifepoints-" they obediently clicked down to 350- "I can summon my OWN Dark Magician!"
"But that's impossible!" Arkana cried. "I was told you only had one Dark Magician!"
"You were partially right, but mostly misinformed," Yami responded coolly, glancing at the card in his hand. It tingled, sending warmth up his arm and through his body. A single word slipped through his subconscious...
"Now, I call upon Dark Magician Girl!"
From the black depths of the curtain, a bubble of warmth and love and laughter just radiated outward. The shadows parted to reveal a slender blonde girl with large blue eyes, and a brief image flickered through Yami's mind.
Mana blowing a kiss to Mahaado as the priest and the Pharaoh moved on horseback to visit a certain tomb...
Mana felt the coldness of thousands of years shed from her body. She glanced around, alert, her body automatically twirling the wand in her hand. It felt strange on her sensitive fingertips.
A voice was talking. The language didn't make sense to her at first, but suddenly something clicked in her mind and she could understand what it was saying. "-a difference of five hundred points! That was your last move, Yugi! Dark Magician, attack!"
He was attacking her.
Suddenly, power surged through her body. As the black ball came zooming toward her, she twirled her wand and unleashed her own counter. The magic forces collided, but Mana barely registered the fierce winds tearing by her. She watched her opponent, looking oddly familiar, collapse.
'Mahaado would be proud.'
'Where is he?'
'Where am I?'
"But this can't be! My Dark Magician had a higher attack! Dark Magician Girl should have been destroyed!"
"You're forgetting my Dark Magician Girl's special effect!" a second voice answered. It was chillingly familiar, and Mana froze. Whipping her head around, she was hit head-on with recognition.
He looked strangely different, but there was no doubt that this was her friend and Pharaoh Atemu. He was talking, but she ignored the words, staring at him in fascination.
'If this is the prince, where's...'
Something shimmered to her side and she moved her eyes to fix on that. Two figures emerged from thin air. One looked like the man she'd just destroyed, but she was focused on the second one.
Mahaado was there. Smirking slightly at her, like she was missing something important.
"Dark Magician Girl, attack his lifepoints directly!"
She snapped back to attention at Atemu's words. 'Attack? Okay. This is for you, guys.'
Mana raised her staff, instinctively twirling it. A ball of energy erupted, almost without her control. It sped over to the man who had been dueling Atemu, and his side of the field was engulfed in smoke.
People were shouting back and forth now, but Mana was no longer paying attention. The field around her had dissolved into golden sand under a familiar blue sky, and the only people that she could see were herself and Mahaado.
"It's been a while," he said, smiling at her. His face had taken on an ethereal quality.
"I cried for weeks after you were gone," Mana said accusingly, grabbing his hands. He was even taller than her now.
"Then you didn't learn your lessons properly," he said, frowning, but she could tell he was at least partially teasing.
"Oh, but I did. Didn't you see me back there?" she grinned at him.
He sighed. "Like I've said, Mana. You have a lot to learn."
"Aren't you going to teach me?" she challenged.
"Yes, I am." Mahaado tugged her forward, embracing her for the first time in so long. "Later."