To paraphrase Louise Rosenblatt, "a story's just ink on a page until a reader comes along to give it life." This in my way of saying, I'd really like to know what you think, and appreciate all reviews.
CHAPTER 33: HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN
I awoke slightly before dawn. Yami and I had actually spent a night in a bed. It was comfortable, lying here next to him. It was another first – the first time we'd both been asleep at the same time. I supposed I could get used to it.
Once, I'd asked for a dog, I'd asked for a home for Mokuba and myself. I was wary of asking for anything that mattered.
And here Yami was, without my asking for a damn thing.
It was ironic. I'd longed for Yami to come back with us, to come back with me, with an intensity that had seemed to insure it would never happen. But it was only now, thinking of him as a person and not as another loss, that I realized that I… liked him. If I was going to have to deal with another person in my life, I was glad it was him.
Mokuba was oxygen, as necessary to life as the air I breathed. Yami was incense – dizzying, intoxicating. He left me light-headed. He was a matter of choice, not requirement. It was a curious, subtle distinction. I'd never wanted anyone before.
It was unexpected.
Yami had known my hesitation and doubts. He hadn't cut me any slack. If I had believed in omens this would have been a good one.
I'd reached the steel that lay at his core, the steel that was seemingly belied by his bewildering flashes of gentleness. I'd once believed that to be a reflection of Yugi, like a cheap plating over a truer metal. I'd been wrong. It was a veneer, but it was bonded with the metal that existed at Yami's core. I'd grown accustomed to his alien kindness, but the steel I understood.
It was familiar.
I walked to the window. The sky was already turning a lighter shade of gray. It would be dawn soon. I got dressed and headed for the door. I looked at Yami. I hoped he'd understand when he woke up alone. Yami and I had the future. I couldn't watch this last sunrise with anyone but Kisara.
I found her, as expected, in the courtyard. I sat down, leaning against her as usual. "Now comes the hard part," I said. "I wanted Yami to come back more than I've ever wanted anything but Mokuba's safety."
"But…" Kisara said, a question in her voice.
"How in hell am I going to manage to do this? To… care for someone besides Mokuba… to trust him? Even though he's the most trustworthy person I know." I shook my head in frustration. "But I'm not losing this game, now that I've won."
"Maybe you should try telling Yami that."
I smirked. "I'm ahead of you on that score."
"You have always been ahead of me, just slightly out of reach."
I stroked her side, enjoying the cool, smooth feel of her scales. "You know… sometimes I'd pull your card out, just to stare at it."
"It's not even like I said anything."
"I heard every word."
"Soon you'll just be a card in my hand again," I said. "I'll miss you, miss sitting here like this. I wish I could take you back with me."
"That would be a sight to see, little one." She tried to give her chuckle; it came out sounding almost like a sigh. "But you can never truly lose me. I promise, if you listen, you'll always hear my voice. Am I not your faithful servant? Your pride and soul?"
"You're all that and more."
Yami came out of the palace. He nodded when he saw me. I suddenly realized – he'd come to find me. He'd known where I'd be. I shook my head and managed to keep from grinning.
It was so damn, fucking new.
"Yugi's getting Mokuba," he said.
He looked from me to Kisara. "You're going to miss it here?" It was somewhere between a question and a statement, but I answered it anyway.
"Some things," I admitted, grinding out the words. I refused to look away, even when I saw the expected sympathy sneak onto his face.
"I know," he said. "This isn't my home any more, but I'll miss the people who have made it theirs."
He walked up to me and kissed me lightly on the lips; one of those bewildering kisses that felt more affectionate than sexual. In some ways having made a friend was even odder than having acquired a lover – even when they were both the same person.
"It can't replace the comrades you're leaving, but I'm glad we're going home together," he said.
"As am I," Kisara said decisively. "It seems some things can be delayed, but not truly defeated. Is this a victory for destiny or a celebration of its defeat?"
I opened my mouth to weigh in on that count, but she snorted and added, "It was a rhetorical question."
Mokuba emerged from the palace, accompanied not just by Yugi, but by Ready for Intercepting's knight and the Nobleman of Crossout. They bowed to me, but couldn't stop hugging him. Judgment of Anubis' weird dog was wagging its dark green tail and butting its head against Mokuba's leg.
The courtyard was filling up quickly. The combined monsters of our deck had turned up to see us off. It made for an impressive gathering. Even Exodia was there.
I couldn't help but notice most of my deck looked worse for wear this morning. Lord of Dragons and Kaiser Seahorse seemed to be holding each other up; the Hitosame Giant's one eye was blood-shot; my Battle Ox was groaning softly, as if he'd just noticed that he'd spent most of the night before running into things (and other monsters) head-first. Even Spear Dragon's beige underbelly had taken on a greenish tinge.
I had a feeling that from now on, whenever I summoned them, I'd see them like this.
Exodia didn't do anything as obvious as clear his throat, but he got everyone's attention.
"You may remain here if you wish," Exodia said to us, inclining his head slightly. "You have all earned that right."
I'd already figured that out. It didn't matter. Like I'd told Exodia Necross, I had a brother to raise, a company to run and, unexpectedly, a life to live – and none of it was happening here.
"And as you have seen, this world will conform to your wishes," he continued.
I grinned at Exodia. "Don't worry. By the time I get through with it, so will the world on the other side of this door."
"Then all that remains is our farewells," Exodia said, leading the way to the edge of the settlement. I frowned, considering the logistics. It had taken us days to walk here. Even on dragon-back, it'd take us hours to get back to that door. Or rather, it should have. But when we reached the edge of the settlement, there was the door. As an added touch, my briefcase and Yugi's obelisk were still right beside it.
"What gives?" I asked. "That door was kilometers away when we arrived."
Mahaado raised an eyebrow. "Things change," he said blandly.
I took a step towards the door, expecting Yami to follow, but he had other ideas. He turned to Mahaado. Yami looked like he was trying to think of something to say.
"Thank you," was what he finally came up with.
"No thanks are necessary. You are my liege," Mahaado answered.
"Loyalty might be a pharaoh's due, but not friendship or acceptance. You have given me both in full measure, and it is for these gifts that I thank you. Keep this realm well."
"This place will always be here, should you return to grace it."
Yami paused, then asked hesitantly, "Do you think we may meet again?"
"As an old rival and comrade was fond of saying, even fortunetellers can not see all ends. The gods may once again choose to be kind. So I will hope, and hope is another thing that is eternal."
Mokuba waved at Mana, but he stayed at my side. I put my hand on his shoulder. He reached up to give it a small squeeze. He'd sounded all right last night. In some ways he has more sense than me. You could see Mana'd been crying. But she managed a smile. As a practice girlfriend, she hadn't been a bad choice.
"I guess it's time for both of us to be where we belong again," she said. "And I don't even remember your world anymore. I can't imagine being in a place where I couldn't change the seasons or the color of my hair."
Suddenly the desert became a glade, complete with improbably big flowers and stupid long eared rabbits hopping through it. Her blonde hair had turned an even brighter shade of yellow. Like the meadow, it was a little overdone.
"If you plan to persist in this extravagance, I suppose it is time to train you properly," Mahaado said with a sigh.
Yugi gestured towards the door and asked, "No time's passed out there?"
"None worth mentioning," Exodia answered. "Jounouchi has started to yell; the tears have begun forming in Anzu's eyes."
"Anzu's crying?" Yugi screamed with totally unnecessary alarm.
"Not yet. But that is her intent."
The door was still shut. I wondered what was going to happen next. It was starting to get annoying, just standing here. I walked to my briefcase, as if in claiming it, I could reclaim my life, but I should have known I wasn't getting out of here without one last piece of video game bullshit. As soon as my fingers touched the handle, I felt an electric shock run through me, knocking me flying. I struggled to my feet, trying not to gasp for breath. It wasn't just the shock. I felt different.
I didn't really notice him, not most of the time, so it was surprising how quickly I noticed he was gone. Or not gone, exactly… just gone from my mind. Seto was standing in front of me instead, shadowy as ever. I could hear Yami and Mokuba gasp behind me. I guess everyone could see him now.
"You mind telling me what's going on?" I hissed.
"Have you forgotten the Holy Elf's words, after parroting them for weeks? 'Of the many things you may find, you can bring back only one,'" Seto quoted softly. "Sometimes the most obvious answer is the hardest to find."
"What the fuck…" I turned around ready to strangle Exodia for playing such a cheap trick, but Yami got in first. Only he was yelling at Seto.
"No! I can't let you do this," Yami screamed.
"You must," Seto replied. "Because of your sacrifice, I lived to raise a family, to see our nation grow strong under my care. All I wished for you, graced my life instead. And yet, despite each day's joys, not a day went by that I did not miss you, did not mourn your absence. Despite all I lived to see and do, each day was one I was living it in your stead. After 3,000 years, you can not deny me the chance to repay that debt. It is all I have dreamed of for millennia, though 18 years of disembodied waiting. Live well, my friend and prince. The gods are merciful, but they do not give infinite chances. Do not miss life for a second time."
Yami didn't like it. I could see it in his face. But he didn't refuse Seto.
Seto turned to me. "You understand necessity as well as I. But it is not always an excuse – sometimes it is an opportunity. I had a life outside. I lived it completely. I can't pass the door again. My unfinished business lies on this side; my second chance is here. For the first time in two lifetimes I am unfettered by obligation."
Seto was, as he'd said last night, at peace with the world. We'd probably never been farther apart. I knew that when I went through that door, I was never going to feel this safe, this much at home again. I was going to miss him and Kisara. I was going to miss this feeling. Brief as it was, I'd gotten used to it. I understood now what the Holy Elf had meant by saying we could take only one thing back with us. But if Seto was giving up a chance that had never really existed and that he didn't want anyway, and I was giving up a feeling of belonging that I'd never really had, how could that be a sacrifice?
I must have mumbled that aloud, because the Holy Elf answered, "I said 'offering' not 'sacrifice.' You have offered many things: yourself, your trust, your life…even your odd magic of the numbers. Your companions have offered their friendship and their love. Are these things not of value?"
"The gods do not give gifts without exacting their price," Seto said, much more gently than I've ever said anything in my life – even to Mokuba. "But only you can determine how high that price will be. It's not everyone who can best Exodia – or the gods for whom he speaks – in a bargain. Kisara and I can not follow you. But the lessons you learned here are yours… and you are the only one who can decide whether to discard them or add them to your hand. Understanding, as always, knows no boundaries."
"Seeking and finding are two different things," the Holy Elf reminded me.
I nodded. In the end, I'd found more than Yami. Although he'd been my goal, I'd found that I could walk away from obsession, that I had friends if I chose to accept them, that I had a future if I could meet its challenges, could learn not just to fight, but to win on this new battlefield.
And no one could take that from me.
No one but myself. And I wasn't backing down to anything, not even to my own worst impulses. I hadn't listened to them while fighting the Sphinx Teleia, and I wasn't going to start now.
"As long as I have the confidence to play this hand to its fullest, despite my doubts and hesitations. As long as I don't cling to my own anger and distrust because it's familiar. As long as I don't turn back," I said to Seto, finally understanding the Orpheus myth I had been forced to memorize. I almost smiled. It wasn't the kind of challenge I was used to, but it was a challenge nonetheless. I remembered Kisara saying, "The harsher the battle, the sweeter the victory." It was time to see if she was right.
"Life is uncertainty," I added. "I can't ask Yami to accept that and refuse for myself."
My head hurt. Yami put his hand on my shoulder. His touch reminded me, we'd have the rest of our lives to figure it out on our own.
"Loyalty survives. So does friendship. So does love," Kisara said. "Some virtues are eternal. They will not keep you safe, but they are a comfort in the night."
I looked at Yugi and Mokuba. "I'll try to remember," I said.
"And when you forget, don't worry – we'll be glad to remind you," Mokuba laughed.
Seto gave me my most arrogant grin before turning it on Mahaado, "For all their air of mystery, even spellcasters can not see the future clearly. I do not pretend to have gleaned what it will bring, wherever it alights. If life offers no guarantees, death grants even fewer. But I believe we will be reunited one day."
Seto turned to Kisara. "It is good to speak to you without an intermediary."
She snorted. "So… you did not truly disappear. I had no hint any part of you had survived."
"It took 18 years to come this far, to be able to shape my being even if only into this shadow-form." Seto smiled. "It seems whatever the age, I can not resist fighting fate."
"And winning," Kisara said proudly.
"Not entirely," Seto responded, gesturing to his already fading body. "It has taken me 3,000 years, but I have learned to appreciate the concept of a partial victory." He paused. "I have missed you."
"And yet you did not deign to enter my consciousness; you did not chose to make me the host and home for what remains of your spirit," Kisara observed, "for all that you named me your pride and soul."
"I did not think it was fitting. Dragons are not made to be beasts of burden."
"Carrying your spirit within my soul would be no burden. I too, have learned to appreciate partial victories," Kisara said.
"I've often wondered what it would be like to be part of a dragon; to soar above the world, to feel it rush past me, as inconsequential as the wind." Seto gave a ghost of a smile. "Perhaps it is time that I learned to fly."
He faded away until I couldn't even pretend to see his outline any more.
Kisara smiled and murmured, "Rest for now, little one. We have all the time in the world."
For the first time, she wasn't talking to me. I wanted to listen, to see if I could still hear his voice, then I decided to accept that his voice was my own.
It was time to go home. But I wasn't surprised Yugi was the one who found the words first.
"Come on guys," he said. "Our lives are waiting for us on the other side."
He was right. It was strange though… I'd been fighting all my life only to wind up on a battlefield that had no enemy. It would make for an interesting victory.
I turned to Yami and grinned. "When we go through that door, the real duel starts."
Yami smiled back. "Yes. The road to our future battle lies ahead. It's been a long wait, but it's finally time to go home."
You could say that this adventure had reached its end – but what are endings for if not to make new beginnings of?
As they turned towards it, the door swung open. Kaiba felt the weight of his responsibilities settle, donned as unconsciously as his trench coat. He squared his shoulders, ready to add the challenge of including Yami onto an agenda that was suddenly less controlled, less knowable.
Yami looked at the door, at the scarcely imagined future that lay behind. It was ironic he thought, that he had retraced his steps in order to move forward.
And Mokuba wore the expression of a child returning home from summer camp – after having just said goodbye to his first girlfriend. You could say it was only puppy love, a child-sized version of the real thing, but puppy love is real enough – if you're one of the puppies in question.
Kaiba and Mokuba and Yugi had found what they sought, and more than they had expected, but there is in every ending, even the happiest, a kernel of sadness; a faint air, as shadowy and intangible as Seto's form, of what might have been.
And yet, for all his faults, Kaiba was right in holding that it is the future that matters. He saluted Kisara and strode towards the door, as he had promised, not looking back, seeing only the goal line ahead of him.
And so they stepped through the now opened door, returned to the sounds of Jounouchi's incoherent shouts and Anzu's cries of relief… were greeted by the sight of Isis' raised eyebrows and Honda's open-mouthed stare.
For all his eagerness to step into his future, Yami – like Orpheus – could not resist a backwards glance. But the gods were merciful – or perhaps they were still too busy replaying their game and celebrating their victory to notice his lapse. He was granted a last look at Mahaado, as his councilor put his arm around Mana's shoulders, as she cried against his chest. He was given a final glimpse of the pride and sadness in Kisara's eyes as she watched Kaiba heading, as always, towards his future.
Then Yami was through the door with the rest, and was too busy being slapped on the back by Jounouchi and Honda, was too wrapped up in being lifted off the ground with the force of their hugs to see anything else. Anzu gulped out the name he had given up and sobbed as she hugged him, only to end up on Yugi's shoulder as he mumbled "Anzu…" over and over, his head smashed against her chest; her breasts not quite hiding the blissful smile on his face.
Yami reached out to Kaiba, who had walked through the crowd untouched, as if his duster was made of Teflon. He held on to the taller duelist's arm as if he was the one who had come all this distance to find Kaiba and bring him home, not – as Kaiba was only too ready to point out later – the other way around. Or maybe Yami simply reached out to pull Kaiba into his life and hold him there, safe and secure.
Then as naturally as one second follows the next, his other arm pulled Yugi close. Mokuba followed like a satellite, somehow ending up wedged in next to Kaiba. Then everyone was in a clump, jumping and hugging and pounding each other's backs, until Yugi couldn't help but notice it was just like the dance the night before, except there was no music but their shouts and laughter.
Unnoticed, behind them, a door closed and disappeared.
It's time to write the traditional ending line, but I have come too far to tell so large a lie. Because as Yugi and even Kaiba had known, as Yami had recently relearned, there is no "happily ever after." For eternity belongs to a far colder domain than ours.
There is only, if we are lucky, life – with all its complexities and contradictions and uncertainties.
And that is enough. It is everything.
It is enough to say:
"And so they lived…"
Thanks to Bnomiko for not just for betaing this story, but for listening to me obsess about which would be the best duel monster to fight or have a beer with, and encouraging me whenever it seemed we'd never make it to the finish line. She not only made the story better, she made the process more fun.
Thanks to Kagemihari for telling me to begin…
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Not surprisingly, I guess I'm in a summing up mood… It's easy to blame Gozaburo for Kaiba's truck-load of baggage. But one thing I really admire about Kazuki Takahashi's creation of Kaiba is that his character shows how the effect of repeated loses and abandonments have helped to create the angry, bitter, arrogant, hyper-competitive, driven, emotional idiot we all know and love. And since many of his most self destructive beliefs – like that you can't trust people and that having and revealing, emotion is a weakness – actually pre-dates Seto's adoption, I wanted to look at that earlier period in his life. Besides, from The Outsiders and Tex to Yugioh, I've always had a soft spot for fictional brothers who are trying to raise each other (insert smiley face here). And of course, really loving the cards and what they say about the characters, it was an unexpected pleasure to be able to bring them to life.
It's funny, with Yami, one of the things I've always found interesting is that he's this incredibly powerful and commanding person, who's also a total amnesiac, and really has to feel his way through who he is. But once he's done that, once he's figured out who he is, I wondered how his memories of his previous life would fit in with the person he's grown to become. He's also totally decisive when on familiar ground – like saving the world or winning a duel, but seem adrift when just asked to be, instead of being asked to do. I thought that led to his decision to go to the afterlife, but I also think it's one of the main conflicts in his character and wanted to explore it.
The moment when I end a story is such an odd one. Then again, writing stories sometimes seems like such a strange thing. Sometimes I try to figure out why I write. The short answer is because I love these guys and want to give them new adventures. The flippant answer is because Seto Kaiba clearly needs my dubious help in sorting out his life. The long answer is that contradictory as it seems, sometimes the only way to say some things directly is through the absurdly roundabout method of making a story of it. It's as if the characters and even the story itself are the only way to say things I could never find the words for on my own.
It's probably not a secret by now that I thought the end of the manga/anime left a lot unexplored. This story was my chance to do that – or rather to let Kaiba and Mokuba and Yami and Yugi do that for themselves, because in the end, it's up to the four of them to decide what meaning they will give to their lives. It was a long road, from their world to Mahaado's and back. I felt like I was discovering and recording it all at the same time.
For me, the downside to writing has always been, besides the general scarcity of time, that it can feel isolating. And yet, the act of posting, the act of telling a story feels so communal. I can't begin to say how much I appreciated the people who responded and reviewed and offered support, asked questions, and made suggestions. It really made a difference to me, not just because you made the story stronger by asking questions about things I'd never considered, by getting me to think about things in a new light, and by correcting my (hopefully few) dumb mistakes (I still can't believe I put the wrong army in the Trojan Horse) but most of all by making me feel like we were all sitting around the cyber equivalent of a camp fire. And a story just doesn't feel like a story to me until it's been told. Thank you for listening. And, of course, if you've made it this far, please review. I'd love to hear from you.
Possibly because I never seem to want to let go of a story when it's done, I usually end each story with a description of what I expect to be working on next, and I'm a sucker for tradition, even self-created ones, so…
Upcoming story ideas:
Story #1: It's hard to talk about this one since it's very short (3 or 4 chapters), hopefully funny, and actually has plot twists, so let's just say that Yami tests out the idea that his heart really isn't measured by his size, and Kaiba learns that inconsequential sex can have consequences.
Story #2: This story takes place after Alcatraz and goes off in its own direction. Kaiba takes Yami's suggestion to defeat his inner demons a little too literally, and designs a VR game where the players own fears determine the setting. Then he decides that a toned down version with proper safeties might be commercially viable. Except, nothing ever gets deleted in cyberspace, so some old enemies find new allies to try and turn his game into reality.
If you've enjoyed "The Newly Revised Book of the Dead" I hope you check them out when I post.