Oh my Ra this is IT! 8D The final chapter! This chapter is dedicated to all of you lovelies who have stuck with this fic through all these years! I'm so EXCITED! (lyrics at beginning and ending of chapter are from Billy Joel's "Lullabye".)
habib: love (title for someone)
inshallah: god willing
ain shams: eye of the sun
Enjoy the conclusion!
Goodnight, my angel
Time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you've been asking me
I think you know what I've been trying to say
I promised I would never leave you
And you should always know
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away
Chapter 30: Ain Shams
"Something smells delish!" Jounouchi sticks his head over my shoulder and inhales deeply. "Ahhh. Is it almost ready? Can I have some? What is it? Is that sauce?"
"Get off!" I shake my shoulder to rid myself of him as a finger heads straight for the pot and he laughs, dodging when Yugi flings a wooden spoon at him. "How am I supposed to cook when you're drooling all over the food?"
Jounouchi perches on the back of a chair like a drunken vulture awaiting the dying breath, swaying back and forth dangerously.
"Not my fault you two are natural chefs!"
"Go bug somebody else!" Yugi ignores the compliment, knowing Jou would only take advantage of using flattery.
The blonde puts on a pouting face. "I can't find anyone else!"
Tapping the ladle on the edge of the pot before returning the cover, I turn down the heat on the burner to let it simmer. I nearly groan aloud when I look at the clock. We can't take another half an hour of this pestering.
"That's simple. Mr. Mutou is checking out a few buildings for a good one to rent until we can afford a permanent setting for the shop. Malik and Yami are in their room—don't go there. Marik and Minkah went to a movie."
"You're kidding! What the hell kind of movie would those two oddballs find any interest in?"
"It's at some small theater. Something historical, I think," Yugi contemplates, not having been attracted enough to remember.
"Niu went to your apartment about an hour and a half ago. Honda called all excited about something or other," I prompt, trying again to get the hungry blonde out of our kitchen. "You might catch them."
He picks a sun-kissed apple out of the bowl on the table and rubs it on his shirt.
"Nah. I'll let them have their alone time."
Yugi and I exchange bemused looks.
"And that means…?"
"They're so boring!" he complains before taking a large bite and chewing loudly. "They just sit around Honda's laptop all day being serious. Sometimes I think they're acting boring just to get rid of me."
"Honda might do that. Niu wouldn't," Yugi decides. "Not that I'd blame them if they did," he finishes under his breath.
"I dunno. It almost makes me think…Nah. Niu said he was straight."
"Jou, they're not a couple!" It isn't even entertaining to think about. More creepy than anything else. Picturing Niu and Honda together…It just doesn't work for either of them.
"And why was Niu bothering to tell you his sexual preferences?" Yugi asks with curious amusement fighting a smile.
"Cause I asked him!" Jou answers indignantly, frowning when Yugi and I burst out laughing. "What's so funny?"
"You are. Now will you please make yourself scarce? Dinner's in half an hour. Go watch TV in the other room." God, Yugi sounds like an annoyed parent. I suppose that makes me one as well.
Our strange child glowers at us, shoulders slumping. Partial apple in hand, Jounouchi flips the bottom of his shirt inside-out and places three more apples in this makeshift pouch making him the ugliest kangaroo to-date.
"Fine. Yami and Malik wouldn't stand for this, you know. They'd lemme have a sample!" he huffs before biting into another apple to carry in his mouth, marching off to watch wrestling or a bad science fiction movie.
We wait thirty seconds, not trusting he won't try and sneak back in to steal a taste. When he doesn't poke his head back in, Yugi sighs in relief.
"He's partially right, you know. They wouldn't stand for it. Malik would pummel him."
The two of us snicker, allowing this to play out in our heads. Unfortunately, Malik isn't available to assist us and neither Yugi nor I would dare go up there and interrupt them. Once their carnal desire kicks in everyone stays clear of that room.
Yugi suddenly starts giggling again. "It's so weird Jou thought Niu and Honda were a couple!"
"Disturbing," I correct my friend. "They have more of a relationship with that computer than they would with each other. I swear they're working on it every time they run into each other."
"Easier for Niu to communicate," my friend supplies.
The notebooks are a distant memory. I don't miss them. Next came the dry erase boards. Then typing on the computer. Minkah hasn't gone into those writing trances in weeks. This gives Niu a lot more freedom and the rest of us a peace of mind. My brother is stabilizing and assimilating into society fairly smoothly.
"Perhaps Honda's helping him with that new device. The one that talks for him."
"If it actually works they could make a mint."
"Niu could become a millionaire anytime he wants," I point out turning on the sink and immersing my hands under the lukewarm stream of water. "I guess it's not his ambition to be rich."
"Too much pressure. Might as well do something he enjoys."
Yugi releases a dry laugh. "I'll never understand geniuses. I mean, he could be filthy rich!"
"Seeing green at all?"
"Shut up!" he playfully shoves me away from the sink and commences in washing his hands. "I'm just saying if they're gonna spend that much time they might as well make some money from it! I swear this project is taking over Niu and Honda both."
"If it makes them content then leave them be."
His brow creases under styled blonde bangs. "I know, but…"
"Hey guys!" a neglected Jounouchi enthusiastically greets the unfortunate people who just entered the house. "How was the movie? What'd you see? Were there any good action scenes? Any hot babes?"
"That'd be Marik and Minkah. I'd better go save them."
Leaving Yugi to keep watch over the food, I hurry through the dining room into the living room where Jounouchi is bouncing around my brother and Marik like an ecstatic puppy. Lavender eyes are amused, whilst grey ones are more exasperated. There is a hint of mirth twitching upon the edges of my brother's mouth, but he refrains from smiling outright. That would only serve to encourage the excitable blonde.
"Have fun, guys?"
"It was interesting," my brother admits sinking down on the couch. "Chinese history is almost as messed up as the ancient Egyptians."
This produces a grin from Marik who plops down beside Minkah. He is obviously pleased he picked another winner. Marik has been the most successful in discovering pastimes my brother enjoys. We have found Minkah, like Marik, prefers smaller crowds. He isn't interested in fictional stories, deeming them a waste of time. The arcade has also been dubbed "a waste of brain cells and money." Sports are more to his liking, though fencing fell short with the thin foils and epees. He had been thoroughly disgusted by how harmless they were in comparison to the weapons he is accustomed when I gently reminded him blades are illegal in Japan which only irritated him further.
"Stupid fucking laws."
He's always known them. But to abide by them? That, he is adjusting to. I still can't believe how long he managed to roam Japan—including our school—with an ancient Egyptian sword tucked at his side. Woe to the policeman who might have confronted him.
"Now that we've caught up on our day, what we should do?" Jou pipes up with that hungry look.
"Eat?" I venture wearily.
"An excellent suggestion, Ryou!" He slaps me on the back and races for the kitchen.
"Jou! That's not what I-!"
"He's incorrigible," Marik grins leaning his head back into the cushions.
I stop from going after him, lingering by the two Egyptians for a moment's peace. "He's been driving Yugi and me crazy!"
"Sounds about right," Minkah mutters staring at the television.
Realizing I won't be getting any sympathy from them, I dally near the mantle, delaying the inevitable task of dragging the blonde out of the kitchen. Next to the pictures of mother, Amane and myself there is an empty space cleared, waiting for some type of commemoration to the other deceased. Mr. Mutou is the only one who makes suggestions to Minkah every so often but even this has become more infrequent as my brother disregards everything. I don't say it, but it makes me worry that he's avoiding it for a reason.
"Get out!" Yugi's bellow is followed by a frightened yelp as Jounouchi dashes into the living room, taking a nosedive for the light blue carpet. His hair is covered in potato skins, one piece hanging over his nose, sticking to his skin like a leech.
"Shit. Don't joke 'bout his height an' then ask for food," the blonde moans piteously. "It makes him mad."
"Not kidding," Minkah snorts switching off the television and casually stepping over the broken blonde lying flat on the floor.
Some upbeat jingle chimes from our fallen friend. Wincing, Jou peels off the spud from his face, fishing his phone from his pocket.
"Isn't that from the squeeze cheddar commercial?"
"An' no other! Good ear, Mare!" Jou's grin freezes on his face as if his mind can't pick what should replace it as he reads the text message. A drawn out pause makes me shuffle from the mantle and pick up the newspaper. Our friend has never been subtle or good at fibbing. To top it off, he now has a nervous twitch a lot of the time.
"Something wrong?" Minkah asks gruffly from above the blonde who jolts, quickly stuffing the phone into his pocket and clambering off the floor.
"Nah. Just Honda messin'."
"Should we be expecting him and Niu anytime soon?" I inquire tiredly. At least I know we'll have enough food. Nowadays we cook every meal expecting Jounouchi and Honda to show up. Which they do more often than not. If anything, college life has made them all the more ravenous.
"He and Niu are busy…as usual."
"Jou, not that again!"
Marik doesn't ask. No—he knows better than to ask. There are very few exceptions in which a hunch of Jounouchi's was actually true or even tangible to begin with. This one about Niu and Honda is ranked right up there with the outlandish "intuitions" of his.
"So they're not coming?" Minkah asks in his usual nonchalance, still eyeing Jounouchi reproachfully.
"I dunno. I guess. Maybe."
"Let's just save ourselves the trouble and assume so," I toss the paper back on the chair.
"Is Grandpa home yet?"
I shake my head in answer to Marik's question.
"It won't make a difference. What will have changed this time?"
"Don't think like that, Mink!" Jounouchi chortles. "They've been loosening their hold on you for months now. Soon they'll forget about you altogether." He sends my brother two thumbs up. "Congrats: You're just as boring as the rest of us now!"
"…and that's a wrap for today," I announce around a wide yawn, shutting off the computer I've been sitting dutifully in front of all day. Never thought I'd be akin to an office nerd right out of high school.
Or that I'd be an office nerd, period.
The yellow rays begin to turn orange as they fall across the seemingly simple room. The window with its paned glass looks out right over the ocean. An awesome view to catch the sunset. I don't even glance at the sky and hovering sun. At the beginning I wouldn't have believed it possible to grow impassive to these beautiful spectacles. I could stare at the glowing orb slowly sinking seemingly into the depths of the black water. People would pay big money for a vista like this. They've just forgotten it's here.
Niu didn't choose this place for the view. Like so many abandoned factories and other buildings shut down along the harbor, he found a secluded one where we wouldn't be disturbed by thugs or the army snooping. I don't know if he's aware of it or not, but we're only two blocks away from the place where we emerged from the underground tunnel at Kaiba Corp. I don't know how much he know of our misadventures when Minkah was with us here in Domino the first time around.
My joints pop as I stretch my arms high over my head. How did I agree to do this on all of my days off? The wheels on the bottom of the chair whir, scratching at the tile floor as it spins. I cough loudly to gain my companion's attention. He doesn't blink, eyes flitting from one screen to the next. Three monitors surround him like a mini planetary system; Niu being the center of gravity.
"It's almost seven. They're expecting us for dinner. I phoned Jou. We're already late."
"Hmm," he hums in blasé acknowledgement as if to say: Yes, we are late. What of it?
It's not the first occasion we miss dinner at their house altogether because Niu gets too wrapped up in his work. I've threatened to go ahead without him, but there's always that nagging fear that he'll have some major breakthrough while I'm absent.
The others no longer ask. They never pried much to begin with. Everyone was dealing with their own set of personal issues. Plus the fact that Niu keeps working on new gadgets to aid in communicating is a believable excuse for a project.
A project he hasn't touched in over a week.
"Niu, let's call it a night."
He understands me. The two of us have had this argument many times before. We have been working together tirelessly through his recovery and forward from there. He needed someone to lean on for support; Niu himself having to shoulder the weight of being Minkah's rock.
My presence is the most I have to offer him. Compared to him, I accomplish very little. His fingers dash over the keys, scanning pages upon pages in mere seconds. Despite the new device he's working on that that speaks whatever he types, he opts for grunts and the bizarre hand singles he and Jounouchi use. The apparatus that is comparable in size to a large watch allows his nimble fingers to enter in a code for each word, making it extremely fast and efficient. I don't like the voice, though it's coming closer and closer to sounding human-like. It will never be his.
It's not like he has much he wants to share. When Jou and I left him behind in the mountains I had made Niu promise me that if we both survived he would open up. Not that I had expected him to come back alive. When the doctors informed us that he was going to survive and things had settled some, I recalled our last conversation when he still had the ability to speak.
"Promise you'll come back! Then you will tell me about your life and your friends and family. You'll teach Jou more Arabic so he'll annoy the crap out of us. You'll stay with us and we'll call you by your real name…!"
"If I come back, I do these things."
"When you come back. And you're coming back to do all those things we just talked about, all right?"
Perhaps he was kidding himself as much as I had been trying to do, telling himself that he would survive and return to us and that everything would be normal and perfect. He lied as much as I had for the sake of not facing his own mortality glaring blatantly in our faces. It is clear now that it was too much to ask of him. He's as closed up as ever while Minkah opens to new possibilities slowly, gradually day after day. I would never have fathomed Minkah being the one to make such progress.
Niu's finger taps the surface of the screen on the far left and my heart sinks. So much for dinner. Niu leans forward, ignoring the other two monitors in favor of honing in the third completely. He's pulling up window after window, broadcasts from any country that's covered the story. Must find every angle possible. Using another of his programs that translates on the spot, all of the columns are converted to Arabic. On the monitor in the middle he opens the files in Japanese for my benefit.
Fire Engulfs Five Blocks in Marrakech, Morocco
Niu immediately digs for information on what buildings were destroyed, searching for something that would be classified as "relatively significant". I sit back resigned, quite used to these false alarms to become even remotely excited. Is it really any surprise? There are hundreds upon hundreds of fires igniting all over the world every single day. Some by natural causes, others are accidents, and even fewer are what we are looking for. It doesn't help any that this has been a big year for droughts. This fire sparked his interest, being an Arabic-speaking country, despite it apparently being the most difficult of dialects to understand.
I don't care if Niu gets irritated with me, pushing my chair across the room in one fluid movement as the small wheels scuff the flooring in order to get as far away from the stories as possible. I don't look at the information. How they believe the fire started. How many people were killed. Where the hell Marrakech even is…
"Niu, let's go," I repeat in a firm voice, watching the sun begin to dip below the horizon. "Even if it was her, what the hell are we supposed to do at this hour? In Japan?"
The corners of his mouth tighten and his fingers flutter in a frenzy on the keys. Permanent circles have darkened under his eyes, lines straining his face ever since he awakened from his surgeries at the hospital. He lights up a cigarette to my displeasure. Minkah attests to this being a habit of the tech expert when he was under extreme stress on their missions following the fall of Apophis. Apparently it was one of his few luxuries in those years of confinement.
"You've become neurotic. Crazy," I emphasize a word he knows. "This is exactly what she wants, Niu."
Digits freeze, hovering over the keyboard. The cigarette hangs from his lips, a thin curl of smoke lifting off the tip. I did not misspeak. For all we know the bitch is lying low in some resort town drinking margaritas and hasn't so much lit a match. That is how ridiculous this has become.
"I know you want to get this sorted out before he decides he wants to go looking for her again," I grumble standing up on aching legs. "But we need to find a different approach. If she wants to hide then she'll hide. What if she never comes back? Maybe she likes mind games and is going to let us drive ourselves insane looking for her for ten years before making a move. I know you're trying to save Minkah from going down that path again, but you're losing yourself in the process!"
His hands rise to his temples and he leans back in his chair with a groan of frustrated exhaustion. Two streams of black shoot out his nostrils. These were questions that we contemplated from the start, but we hadn't been so concerned about them then. That was when we were under the illusion that this would be a simple task of following a trail of fires. When we believed she would come back while we were still very vulnerable. We believed she would necessarily ever return. She made certain we would focus all of our time and effort on her. The real stumper is: Are we worth hers? Are we even remotely part of her agenda?
She made it feel like we were. Driving Ryou, Niu, and Malik to safety, if that really was her. We've ruled out everyone else, as outlandish the idea is. She also spared Minkah's life, outwardly challenging him; goading him on after killing Afika in front of him. It feels like it was all leading to some big showdown. Like lighting the fuse of a firework but it turns out to be a dud, but no one wants to get too close in case it goes off. There's this weight hanging over us but nothing has happened. Over time the others have grown accustomed to it, able to ignore that nagging fear. I'm stuck in between, all of my efforts focused on keeping Niu from wandering too far into this obsession.
Stepping over to him, I carefully place my hand on Niu's tight shoulder.
"You can't keep putting off your life for this."
He knows what I am referring to. When I confronted him about refusing to become part of the Mutou family, Niu wouldn't give me a reason, but I guessed it. He can't stand the thought of losing another family and by somehow keeping his distance he'll be able to shield himself enough emotionally for the time being. I think he's convinced himself that he'll accept their offer once all of this shit concerning Severa and the army has resolved itself. That's the problem. There is no end in sight.
"We've all seen what this type of obsession can do to a person," I indicate the misfortunes and heartbreak that Minkah has suffered in his quest for a mother he didn't know in all actuality. "I'm not saying we should give up completely, but you need to slow down."
His right hand rises to the keyboard and words appear on the screen on the far right that I am standing in front of. As he types, his left hand brings the cigarette down in the small umber tray that contains almost a full pack's worth of smokes. And that's just today.
He's counting on me
"He's moving on," I answer squeezing as his scarred jaw clenches; an uneven line of lighter tissue traveling down the side. "It's happening. You have been too busy to notice. When was the last time he talked about hunting her? He hasn't broken down in weeks. The person putting more pressure on you than anyone else is you, Niu. You've talked about taking Afika's place, but you haven't." Gripping the back of the chair I swerve him around so we're face-to-face. "You'll never be him. Get it? You're not alone this time. Stop acting like all of this is up to you to fix."
The muscles of his face loosen ever so slightly, creases smoothing on his brow as he releases a long, quiet breath he has been holding for months. Anxiety in his eyes depletes somewhat, leaving sheer exhaustion in its place. He's worn, beaten down by his own conscience and fears. I knew he was comparing himself to Afika in terms of capabilities to protect Minkah, but I had no idea how deep they had rooted. Niu has been torturing himself for being unable to find her and lay Minkah's qualms to rest.
"We'll figure this out. Wait and see. Everything will turn out fine."
Lifting one hand he types an Arabic phrase that he has used quite frequently these past few months of uncertainty and tribulations.
I had been confused by it the first time I saw it. Neither Malik and Marik nor Minkah had ever used this phrase. Mr. Mutou explained it to me, pointing out the religious connotation despite it being a common Arabic expression. Very appropriate in these circumstances. It's not like it's really up to us what happens anymore.
"God willing," I repeat. "Time to take that to heart, Niu."
The keys tap.
Easier said than done
"Without a doubt. Let's step back a bit and see how he does. Worst comes to worst, we start this up again and don't stop until we find her. None of them know we're even looking for her besides Jou and he isn't asking for details. How will it hurt Minkah if we ease off for our own sakes? He's at the point where he's deciding what he needs. Maybe Severa's head won't make the list if we're lucky."
Niu heaves a sigh.
He won't ever give this up. And she may not either. That's why I haven't.
"We'll see about that. Give it time."
Clapping the back of the chair, I reach over him and begin shutting off the computers. He doesn't stop me, doesn't move. Eyes so dark they are almost obsidian gaze at the disappearing headlines, watching all of it fade away as though it never existed. As the screens go black I suddenly notice the endless drumming of the waves crashing against the nearby seawalls. The sky is orange with black and grey streaks across it. I don't bother looking at the time before the computers close. Dinner is over by now.
"Jou's probably devoured every last crumb since we didn't show," I grin wryly as Niu slowly stands, no doubt experiencing the same numbness of sitting in one spot the entire day. "Wanna grab a bite to eat?"
Niu shakes his head, fingers and thumbs forming the shape of a triangle and then moving straight down in two parallel lines. It's a sign he and Jounouchi created that is ingrained in my mind.
"I'll go with. Gotta pick up Jounouchi at any rate. Otherwise he'll be clambering into the apartment after I've gone to bed," I mumble fumbling for my keys as we exit the dreary room. "Moron makes so much noise and we don't even share a room!"
Niu snorts in mild amusement, the light smile on his face a truly welcome sight.
'We will figure this out,' I silently promise my weary friend as we walk down the narrow stairwell that echoes with our footsteps. 'One way or another…'
The air is still warm, smelling of salt and a slight fishy odor blowing in from the waterfront. I inhale deeply, letting my senses take it all. The breeze wafts over my skin like an invisible blanket. All affirmative reminders that I am alive.
Then I breathe out heavily, shoulders relaxing, dispelling all of the anxieties and fears that have dictated my life for over half a year. I can still detect a trembling in the center of my chest where a shard of fear has lodged itself. Not all of it is so easy to remove. I'll let go of what I can and leave the rest to some higher power.
"Inshallah," I murmur, saying it again and again in my head as we walk to my car parked a block away. Niu nods but I don't know if he heard me or if he is pondering over something else entirely. Perhaps it will be my new mantra that I repeat when I feel like I'm going to crash for sure. It will be one of the many things I remind Niu when he's in over his head. We'll use it to stay afloat. To breathe.
"Get some rest. Tomorrow I have school and you are gonna kick back and do nothing. And I don't want you to slack off and do something. All nothing, all day. Got it?"
A small smile and a conceding nod are the reply.
"Know what we need?" Ryou states more than asks as he tidies up the living room after Honda dragged Jounouchi back to their place. It was only after they had established that we were indeed out of food that they decided to depart for the night.
"A larger refrigerator?" I scoff as he holds up one of the many plates that are spotless. Not a crumb. Literally licked clean. Blinking in realization, Ryou hurriedly sets it back on the couch while wiping his fingers on his jeans with a scowl.
I chuckle at the playful glower he shoots me, settling back into the recliner that I have deemed "mine". Sketchbook in lap, I curl up comfortably with my legs folded to one side. Since everyone else has already turned in for the night I don't have to compete for the favorite blanket with several shades of blue threads woven in. It isn't brand new like many of the others. In fact it's worn and faded in several areas. But that's what makes it so wonderful. The shabby patches make it soft and comfortable. That is something I have noticed about new things: They aren't all that pleasant in terms of repose.
"I was going to say we could use a family portrait. An updated version."
He's stopped to look at the mantle where a younger version of himself and his deceased mother and sister smile out at us. It's where he can come and whisper to them from chair in the early hours of morning when everyone else is sleeping. He has a sacred place to do this. Only when I'm alone do I let the sorrow break out of the hollow shell I keep locked inside of me for such private, weak emotions. Tears have been scarce. Despite the tragedy of it all, I have found myself unable to cry for either of them. Is that another part of grieving that I am missing? Is something wrong with me? I no longer ask them such questions. It just depresses everyone.
"Not gonna happen."
I take out one of my pencils and begin carefully flipping through the pages of finished pictures. Many of them still-life sketches of different areas of the house. Nothing spectacular. Others hold images that were ingrained deeply in my mind's eye. Hell, there are two entire books filled with pictures of Afik alone.
"Why not?" Ryou frowns at me, immediately becoming the overprotective, concerned brother.
I smirk holding up the sketchbook to show him the frayed edges where several pages have been ripped out.
"Tried sketching Malik. He's a bit…how shall I put it? Vain as a peacock. Nothing would make him happy short of me drawing him as some naked god on a bed of roses. Which I won't," I add as Ryou's grin stretches as far as is physically possible.
"Really? Doesn't even intrigue you?"
I hold my chin up. "He was the lusting one. Not me."
"Yup. All one-sided, hmm?"
"And you were just the latest innocent he decided to try to sexually corrupt."
"I do believe that tone is sarcasm."
"Absurd," he smiles angelically as if there weren't a single devious bone in his body. "You're imagining things."
"What is that?" He approaches with an attentive look on his face as he squints at the frayed ends where the failed portraits of Malik resided.
"Just as I said: He's hard to please," I yawn.
"No, not those." Ryou takes the book from me before I realize what's happening and turns it around so I can see what he's referring to.
A lump forms in my throat preventing me from voicing an explanation. Not that I have much of one. My brother's face falls when I don't answer, turning the sketchbook back to himself and studying the detailed pencil drawing with curiosity and unease. I mentally thank myself for tearing out the earlier versions that didn't turn out as I wanted. If any of them saw me making multiple drawings of this kind they would grow worried. I'm still not satisfied with this picture either.
"Is it supposed to be anyone in particular?" Ryou tries to be subtle but, as usual, fails miserably.
He gives me a weird look that I don't like, as if I were losing my marbles. I hate it when they doubt me. At the same time, I haven't thought up of a fake explanation to give them. They don't snoop into my business, which includes not going through my growing collection of sketchbooks. Mr. Mutou calls it my "outlet", whatever that's supposed to imply. How stupid of me to not notice what page it was open to when I held the book up.
"You've put a lot of detail into it," my brother continues to pry in that shy way of his; always sensitive and mindful of my feelings. "…for something that isn't based off anything, I mean."
I do my best to shrug off these polite allegations that I'm withholding things from him. It's not like I'm doing it on purpose. And the part of me that is only is doing it to protect him.
"There's not much to tell. Just an image I had in my mind. That's how it is with all of my other sketches. I just draw whatever's there."
"This has been floating around in your head?" Ryou asks incredulously returning it to me with delicate fingers.
Gingerly accepting it, I stare down at the pair of eyes gazing out at me. No, glaring is a better description. Eyes are not a simple thing to depict and I am still not satisfied with these. The ones I can view so clearly in my mind hold this unquenchable fire. It's not so much rage as I have illustrated here. I've sketched them so many times, unable to find the unnamed emotion burning within their depths. First I tried anger and fury. Then I moved on to grief. Lust. Jealousy. After that I stopped trying to put a label to what I was seeing. It's an unknown passion.
"I don't remember who it is," I mumble somewhat embarrassed. "If it ever was anyone."
Ryou sobers, obviously feeling guilty for becoming so doubtful of me.
"Do you want to remember?"
The answer doesn't come straight away. His question lingers in the air between us for a long moment as I ponder his words. This feels like one of those trick questions. What am I trying to achieve by putting all of these images to paper? Never once had I considered making sense of them. I'm the artist not the critic. They intrigue me. It's like releasing a burden you didn't even know you were lugging around. All you knew was that your back ached. I never asked "why".
"It's just pencil sketch of two eyes," I reply in a dry manner while carefully smoothing the creases on the corner with the pad of my thumb. Time to diffuse this conversation. "There's nothing more to it."
"But what if…?"
"Not everything needs to be dissected, despite what those shrinks have been saying," I cut him off while threading the pencil between my fingers. "Some things just are. These are eyes that I conjured. What else do you want me to say?"
Ryou bites his lip, his own anxious brown eyes straying to the page resting on my legs. He hesitates before speaking. Everyone knows I have a short fuse. It has been pointed out time and time again by the shrinks and Niu. It's not like I don't notice everyone always tiptoeing around me.
"That you aren't slipping," he says quietly, voice rising as he looks at me, bolding.
"If you are suffering then tell us!" my brother exclaims without restraint motioning around us with outstretched arms as if he were trying to embrace the entire room. "Don't let it all build up inside of you until you're too far gone to ask for help! If you left us again…" His eyes have become glassy in his fervor, lip trembling as he holds face. "I'm…afraid to be so direct about this…Just tell me if you're okay or not," he ends meekly.
To accuse him of overreacting would be denying the psychological battles I have warred against my own mind. They've coddled me plenty. For the first few months I followed Niu around like a second shadow. My temper would flare if someone even insinuated something regarding Afik. As for Um—everyone avoided that subject like she was the plague. They still don't mention her. If we do talk of her, I'm the one who has to start the conversation. Needless to say, there hasn't been much.
Staring down in bafflement at the picture on my lap, I wonder whether I've done wrong if Ryou's getting so worked up over it. Maybe I was mistaken. Have I broken an unspoken rule or propriety regarding what should and shouldn't be put into illustration? My old sketchbook that burned in Ryuuji's lodge held more damning evidence. No one reproached me for drawing those, though there were a multitude of questions. The tombs. The slaughtered children. The numerous sketches of Um consumed by a wrath that wasn't hers. When other people saw them it did more harm than good.
So why is this picture upsetting him so much?
"I…" I clear my throat, not sure what I feel, I say what I believe I should with an assuring smile. "Ryou, I'm okay."
Pushing his bangs to the side he peers at me in search of deception. The marks on his face are nearly identical to mine, only not as defined. He's self-conscious of the wounds Kek inflicted, allowing his lengthening hair to fall into his face. They crease as he scrunches up his features in doubt.
Collecting himself, Ryou straightens after a few more agonizing seconds of scrutiny. He wants to believe me. Fuck, I want to believe me. After so many years of deception it can be impossible for even me to read myself? And he asking me if I'm "okay". I don't even fully understand what that entails. In terms of what?
The pain pinches the corners of his eyes as he gazes at me imploringly. What am I supposed to do now? I said I was fine. That's what he wanted, wasn't it?
"So many times we've nearly lost you. Many times I was certain you were dead for sure," he whispers in a hoarse voice taking a single step closer.
"But I'm here now. Why are you all upset?"
"It can change so quickly," he shakes his head as if throwing out my reasoning. "Minkah, I'm afraid of…I don't want to lose you again."
I am beyond baffled, staring him down nonetheless. I learned running does no good. If I run, they are sure to follow.
"Do I look like I'm going somewhere?"
"Not now perhaps," he admits, nearing defeat. "But eventually you're going to want revenge…"
"I do want revenge." I realize my mistake too late when he pales. Hastily I try to correct it, leaning forward and giving him my most asserting look. "Ryou, I'm not trying to scare you. What do you expect me to say? That I can just forget what Severa did? It's not possible and I don't want to. She needs to pay."
His fingers fidget at his sides. He reacts excessively when it comes to being left behind. Not that anybody can find fault with that after the number of people he's lost. I cannot get angry at him for this, especially since I was responsible for several of said losses.
"Are you positive this is really about Severa?" is the almost inaudible reply.
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" I am unable to hold back the exasperation rumbling in my chest any longer throwing the pencil down on the paper. "You know damn well it has everything to do with her! What other reason is there?"
It is his turn not to answer. He's gone as mute as Niu. Does he think I'm still delusional, kidding myself about my lover's fate? We've been over this again and again. They keep worrying I'm going to crash and fall back into the belief that he's alive. I have to ask. Have to rule out that possibility that he thinks I'm teetering on the brink of insanity.
"Is this about Afik?"
"No. I just…"
"If it's not about Severa or Afik then why else would I leave?" I demand wanting him to just spit it out already. "I'm the only one capable of killing her. That's my reason if I ever had one."
Ryou holds gaze with me just as I taught him; holds his ground despite being dreadfully upset.
"You said," he breathes with a shattered, mournful look, "that you were done killing."
"She's too dangerous to be left alive," I argue my case quickly, afraid that of waiting and thinking. Any pause could show him the doubt that has been growing inside of me for over half of a year now. "I won't risk all of you by allowing her to live. Once she's dead…"
"You'll be satisfied until someone else threatens one of us?" he rejoins in a biting nature filled with melancholy. This is veering too close to the last argument I had with Afik. A knot twists tight in my gut making me feel ill. "Until another person is too dangerous and you have to protect us again?"
"The chances of anyone…"
"The chances are real," he stops me in my tracks. "I can't imagine you were the only organization out there…that you didn't have enemies. And what about the army? What happens if they decide it's too risky to let us roam free?"
"Even if I didn't act, Malik and Niu at the very least would," I point out. He's being absurd. Does he have a death wish for our new family? "Are you saying you'd want me to stand off to the side while they fight for our lives?"
"That's not what I said!"
"But that's not what I was talking about!"
"Then what the fuck are you talking about? It's what you asked me!" I rant, frustrated that I still don't get what he's trying to relate to me.
Ryou turns away from me, looking to his mother and sister for guidance. He can do that because they were what people call "trustworthy". Polar opposites of my own family. He rubs his face with his hand and groans from somewhere in his abdomen like the action physically hurts him. Balancing the sketchbook on the arm of the chair, I lift myself up, unbending my legs and standing. Ryou doesn't look at me, hand over his mouth as he stares at the dark fireplace.
"You have to step aside and allow him to cope with what he knows however he will," Niu instructed me during one of our many conversations on how to live among them as one of them. "He said he has pardoned you. There's nothing more you can do."
"Ryou, I don't fully understand what you're getting at," I say in what I can only hope sounds assuring. My confidence has depleted at being unable to give security or console him. "But I'm here. Look at me. Ryou, look at me."
Lowering his hand into a fist he squeezes his eyes shut tight and bows his head before the pair of them as if they were 's a dip on his right eyelid where Kek cleaved it in half. It makes my blood boil to think I wasn't there to protect him. That Kek terrorized him as he did me.
And that we share a savior.
Not allowing my own unease to guide me, I move without hesitation. My arms envelope him in a secure embrace as he wavers. Releasing a choked sound between a sob and a sigh, he buries his face in the front of my shirt. Pale fingers cling to the material like a vise. He trembles like the frightened little child I once was huddled against Afik for protection. My brother never had that security growing up. I took it from him; left him with the one person who would do nothing for his tears.
Is there really nothing I can do?
"It's too massive. Too much for the two of us to take on."
I'm sitting with my back up against the mast facing the beautifully adorned throne. I haven't visited this place in quite a while. The waters beneath us are as stagnant as ever, making me wonder if we'll perpetually be trapped here in this cavern with no light. I won't let that happen. I'll get out and push and heave if I must. This isn't how we are meant to live, waiting for some disaster to happen before we make our move. I've never been content sitting in one place.
With a sigh I run my fingers over the blade of the khepesh that the army keeps in reality. I have every detail memorized. The curve of the steel. The intricate carvings of hieroglyphs into the ivory hilt. My finger presses over the scarab as I look around the funerary boat disconcertingly.
"That I do not doubt," Niu replies dryly with the tongue he no longer possesses.
He sits on the bow with his legs crossed at the ankles, staring at the screen of the computer that I cannot see. I glare, more frustrated than angry. I want his complete attention.
"It feels wrong to give up," I practically plead my case, wanting someone to help me veer either one way or another. I hate being stuck like this without a direction. On the other hand, I don't like to outright talk about Severa either. It just scares the others when I do, as I discovered when voicing my doubts to my brother an hour ago.
We were trained never to give up. To always follow through on assignments. While this isn't an assignment, it is personal. And the assassin that is fighting to survive within me is itching to hunt her down and gut her. Is this wrong to think this way? How would an average person deal with their loved one being murdered? Do they just cry in a corner while waiting for someone else to bring justice?
Niu told me not to pretend. I haven't been. Aside from when we're with the army or psychiatrists, I haven't put on any façades. Um could not do that. She always had to keep her guard up. With Afik and me at her side, it wasn't an option. The circumstances are completely different. Mine are much more favorable than hers.
"Perhaps we are not a top precedence," Niu muses offhandedly as he types. "I suppose she lands higher on our list."
"You think?" I scoff.
"There's no reason to use that tone with me." He's using that lecturing tenor of his that makes me want to slug him. "We have to organize our own priorities." Looking up at me, his features are stern. "Minkah, I want you to think hard over this…"
"I don't know what else to do!" I exclaim in exasperation rubbing my face over splayed fingers. "Am I supposed to just let go of it all? I don't know how to do that!"
He looks at me, really focusing on me now. I avert my eyes just enough so I don't have to meet his acute gaze.
"Are you trying to justify your own desire to kill her?" his voice drops just above a whisper, yet the words are a direct punch to the gut. "Killing her won't bring him back."
"Fuck you!" I spit at him, sulking that he hit the target. "I'm not an idiot, Niu. Despite what all of you think, I'm not completely ignorant! I'm not kidding myself into believing I can bring him back to life! I just…isn't allowing her to live some kind of admittance of defeat?"
Niu waits with a placid expression void of any sensation, letting me flex my temper. It's been weeks since we've conversed like this, and I find myself spilling every fiber of annoyance and frustration into words. Page upon page fills as I pace the boat, not caring how pathetic it makes me.
"I do get it more than you think. It is true that your family won't be able to live in complete peace while Severa breathes," Niu concurs as I fall back onto the wooden deck, resting against the throne for support. "But what will become of them if you go after her?"
I give him a look like he's grown a second head. "Well if I ever go after her, I plan to kill her. Obviously."
"I didn't ask what would happen to you." As usual he doesn't take the bait, ignoring my attitude. "What will happen to them when you leave?"
"You underestimate them, Niu." Has he forgotten how they all survived that chaos in the mountains? "They're strong."
Dark eyes grip me in steel and I cannot look away.
"Don't believe you are fooling anyone trying avoidance with me," he admonishes in a hushed undertone. He sighs when I give him a skeptical stare. "You can be so oblivious! They're afraid of losing you."
Running a fingernail along the edge of the blade, I say somewhat sheepishly, "You could always come with me. Then they won't worry and we'll get back even sooner…"
"So your proposal is we two wander off on an international manhunt." His lips downturn into a deep frown. "Brilliant. What then? You cannot expect things to be the same after that."
The fuck is that supposed to mean?
"They'll be even better!" I rejoin feeling as dizzy as I did when arguing with Ryou. Like I'm missing a piece of the puzzle that everyone else has viewed in full. "Don't pretend things are fine, Niu. Honda told me you've taken up smoking again. Fuck, I can smell it on you."
He refuses to concede.
"When I say they're afraid of losing you, I don't mean you dying."
"Why can't it be as simple as it used to be?" I growl fingering the khepesh, imagining Severa's jugular before me. "It used to be so easy to decide a course of action."
"That's because all 'courses of action' ended in bloodshed."
The laptop closes with a 'click' and he sets it aside. Using his arms as leverage on either side, he pushes himself to his feet. Heaving a great sigh that moves his shoulders up then down, he paces to the edge of the ship, leaning against the side and peering at nothing.
Rapidly flipping through the pages of garbled nonsense of our conversation, I find one of the many failed sketches. Clutching the book with trembling hands I peer intently at the eyes before looking up. My heart sinks at the inquiring, concerned stare he's sending me now.
That's not it.
He blinks, tilting his head.
"Why are you staring at me like that?"
I want to order him to return to his previous sentiment so I can glimpse that foreign sensation again. If I can do that then perhaps I will finally understand. Only to myself, I will admit that haunting memory from my childhood is bothering me more than Severa living. Of my first kill. It's like if it isn't spoken then it won't be true.
It makes my project with these sketches more complex. I remember that look of stunned bewilderment mixed with anger in those eyes. Were those emotions for me? Or was there even time to comprehend what had happened? These are questions I must keep to myself. Always keep to myself for fear of it all becoming too real.
"We have our fair share of tribulations, Niu," I mutter resting my chin on my hand in frustration, my voice hoarsening as I go deeper into what's troubling me. "They're still afraid I'll just run out on them."
He raises his eyebrows in an infuriatingly chastising way that clearly is meant to remind me: You have tried it before. More than once.
I glower at him.
"Well they need to cool down. It's not like I'm planning on leaving tomorrow. The problem is their outlook," I decide, disregarding the questions piling up in my head. I learned my lesson about asking too many questions. "They're so fearful of what I was in the past that they don't trust me with what's happening now." Angling my neck, I shoot Niu a glance when he looks back at me. "Neither do you."
"The problem resides in you regarding any of this as simple," he retorts calmly shoving his hands into his jean pockets.
I've gotten under his skin. I can see it in the way his lips twitch and his eyes rove over the sentence repeatedly even though he already knows what it says. The need to counter me burns and yet he remains silent and fuming lost in chasms of his own subconscious. At least this is familiar, how most of our disagreements end. He'll be pissed at me and I'll pretend not to notice, waiting patiently for the steam to blow away.
"I'm not Afik," he whispers tersely, glare expanding from the Arabic lines to me. "I'm not Severa. Nor am I Kek."
'I never said you were,' I want to cut in. I'm not sure he's aware who he is arguing with—that it's his own mind and fears that he's disputing with now, not me.
"I'm not Fenyang or Nimr or Burhan…"
The pain turns to hostility as he tallies off all of the people who have hurt us and turned our worlds upside-down; each name striking a match. There's a spark as one by one they jump from his lips like embers, threatening to start a larger fire that cannot be overcome.
"I'm not Bakura," he grounds out hatefully.
"No comparison," I assure him. "To any of them."
Minkah's voice drops, eyes softening. An aching appears where the hatred was festering just moments before. Something tender has doused the fires.
"I'm not Um."
I allow my own irritation to diminish, seeing how vulnerable he had left himself by saying these things aloud.
"Who's left, Niu?" he murmurs one of his greatest fears, face in his hands. "Who am I without him?"
"Why do you always do this?" I prod gently. He gives me a quizzical look, peeking between his fingers at me. "It's like…" I raise my hands trying to find a way to convey what I'm thinking. "It's like you can never be your own person. Always have to find someone else to measure up to. Never yourself. Always hiding behind a mask. If it's not Afika then it's Malik. If it's not your mother you're trying to please then it's Ryou. You get so wrapped up in other people that you have entirely lost yourself."
Not so much unlike me.
For months I have watched him walk the fine line between Apophis and his family like a tightrope performer. Never certainty of safety, as there was no net below to catch him if he slipped. I would lunge forward with my arms outstretched while knowing the impact would be the death of us both. My own demise ceased to be a fear of mine long ago. It was his own impending downfall that kept me on edge. I know I may only be able to delay it. Stopping it altogether is an unfeasible objective. If either Severa or the army intervenes, the rope will snap beneath his feet. That doesn't mean I will give in. This is an uphill battle that I will not lose without using every ounce of my strength to fight.
Honda told me that I haven't been paying attention. He said Minkah has indeed shown great progress. Compared to me, he said the white-haired teen has made huge leaps and bounds in a better direction. Is that possible? I thought it would be me that recovered, wouldn't it? I'm the one that remembers humanity and family. I was never completely absorbed into Apophis's twisted world like Minkah. I was the closest to normal of our revolutionary group.
Yet look what he found all on his own. When I came into the picture they were all aware of what he was, nonetheless ready to give their own lives to protect him. I played no role in that. In fact, it is only because of Minkah that I am a part of their tight-knit group today. Somehow, however inconceivable it may seem, he made these bonds without any help. I remember gazing at my companion in a new light, distinguishing for the first time what Honda and the others have been seeing.
'You're not too far gone. The only one that lost faith in you was me.'
Minkah slumps back against the chair, his chin nearly touching his chest as he stands there.
"A snake is a snake no matter how many skins it sheds," he breathes out in a defeated way; and I perceive him teetering dangerously on the rope high up in the air. His phrasing makes me wary. It doesn't sound like something he'd say. More like he's reciting from a text of cautionary tales.
"If this is the truth, then I am just as much a snake as you," I reflect with a sardonic smile as he gazes at me in stupefaction. "A different subspecies perhaps…but a snake nonetheless." I shrug my shoulders, leaning back against the ancient wood. "There are many kinds of snakes in the world. And last I checked it took a lot more than simply being a serpent to earn the title Apophis."
He shakes his head, arching his neck and adding weight to the balls of his feet in a vain effort to see what lies just beyond view. I do not believe I am mistaken when I see the sliver of unsettled nerves as his eyes dart. Despite his inquisitiveness he is unwilling to stray far.
"You're too fond of solitude," he mumbles crossing a line that is rarely approached. "That hasn't changed even now."
"I don't think I've spent so much as a single day alone since being rescued from those mountains," I joke, downplaying the effect this insight has on me.
"But that is not how you would have it," he points out; all joking seeped up by the saturated air like a sponge. "If Honda was not so persistent…"
Minkah trails off and leaves the unfinished sentence hanging over us. The words that lie beyond his grasp trouble him as he turns away from the blackness to gaze at me with a darkened expression. I compel myself to remain still and not shift in discomfort. A strange, almost contemptuous look creeps across his face as his fingers close tightly at his sides.
"You cannot drag him into this, Niu. Jounouchi either." In one large stride he has corned me, planting himself in front of me like an iron barricade. "Don't give me bullshit!" He's right in my face, breath like steam. "I know you. I saw how little time you were given for the deadlines of projects for Apophis. If you were working on that machine to help you talk, it would be done already!" A hand grabs the front of my shirt roughly, dragging me closer. "Do not involve Honda and Jou. Don't involve any of them!"
I distinguish clearly the second part of that warning—the part he doesn't articulate: …or I'll kill you.
"I have no intention of doing so. I will not deny before, but I do not plan to have them involved in anything in the future." I don't move to shove him away, waiting for him to let go. "Just as I have no intention of allowing you to continue down that road."
He doesn't miss a heartbeat.
"And what about you, Niu?" His other hand that always trembles clutches me by the shoulder, squeezing to the point of pain. "What's it all worth if you're a casualty? All of these lectures you've given me about how what I do affects them…! When are you gonna start caring about yourself again?"
I had expected these questions to be screamed in my face. Patience has never been a virtue of Minkah's. So why are they quiet demands? For some reason, to hear him in such control of himself, requiring more of me…It's potent.
"It's like you've made a pact with the devil. Whatever you're trying to be—snap out of it!"
He's shaking from head to toe, almost embracing me we're so close. Our eyes remain level. A conflict for authority. All is dark and jarringly noiseless in this purgatory he has deported us to.
"I did make a pact with the devil," I murmur at last, eyes downcast. "I pledged to protect you at all costs. In return I was given this freedom so I could follow through."
"Why not make an oath to your God instead?"
"He never answered," I reply apathetically rolling my shoulder, subsequently loosening his grip. "After years of unanswered prayers I accepted an offer I could not refuse, though I should have. What was placed before me was tangible. I've already been punished for this treachery."
"You can't be punished by something that doesn't exist," he argues, thinking I am referring to the actual Devil of my religion.
Huffing, he lets go of me. I want to take a step back, our chests nearly touching we're so close. It shouldn't feel all that odd. When he was recovering after Kaiba, I held him all the time as a method of comfort and security. I was the only one Afik trusted wouldn't try anything. I move around Minkah before he budges, walking over to the empty throne.
"I guess anything is possible on some level." I mumble as he trails me, not wanting to dwell on the past any longer. "You created this place after all. It can be classified as 'real'."
"I should hope not," he replies monotonously. "If everything in our minds is real, then we're doomed."
I cannot help but smile wryly at this. "Hey, this is your mental representation, not mine. It would mean that ship of yours is real too. And if the ship is real…" He doesn't move, fingers around the khepesh tightening. "Well, it's not like anyone needs to convince either of us that Apophis exists beyond this realm," I add in mirthless humor. "We are proof of that."
"We destroyed Apophis."
"That's the thing about gods—they just don't ever seem to die."
This fact makes me sorrowful and enrages him. Will it ever be enough? We killed off all of the leaders and the poor souls that were under their power. Afika raved about destroying Apophis for good. Did he not see that it wasn't possible as long as he kept the most lethal portion—the six of us—alive?
"There are other interesting bits about that mythology," I muse when noting his despairing look. "Re is the source of all hope. If he were to perish…And yet did you ever notice he never lifts a finger in the story? Everyone else does the fighting for him." Thumping my hand on the top of the throne I say, "Doesn't sound like either of us, does it?"
"So what are we then?" he grounds impatiently. "Apophis?"
"I thought we already classified ourselves as snakes. You're jumping the gun, Minkah."
"What's your point?" He is in no mood for lectures about ancient Egyptian legends.
"My point is: I don't belong on this boat. I think you've come to realize that you don't either."
He looks back down at the vessel of the great god with a sullen expression. Yes, he knows. I think he realized it a while back.
"When danger arrived, you would jump off and fight. That is not the purpose of this ship. While it is on the whole inane, there are several lessons I have gathered from that myth." Grey eyes rise to meet me in searching hope. "The guardians never ran ahead in search of danger. They stuck by Re the entire time," I recall the legend that the ancients took to heart; a story that never held any meaning to me besides the quest for power. I never once examined it from any other angle than that which we were told. Why bother?
"What're you getting at?"
This time I place my fingers around his wrist; the one that is attached to the hand holding the ancient sword.
"That perhaps our roles have changed for the better." Giving him a weary smile, I say, "I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. I'm so tired it's painful. Physically...spiritually…mentally." Inhaling deeply, I sigh so my shoulders slack. "After all this…aren't we allowed to be tired? Isn't that permissible?"
Minkah looks down at the khepesh in his hand, fingers constricting and loosening around the ivory hilt. He was always so proud of that weapon. From what I gather, it was a present from Afika. I don't move a muscle, feeling his indecision through his pulse beneath my own fingers.
"When will it be enough, Minkah?" I dare release him, stepping away to give him space. "That is something you must decide for yourself."
He rubs his thumb fondly along the carvings, taking in every memorized detail. Grey orbs travel along the curved, steel blade that created a gaping wound between him and everyone else. This is the last piece that he has not been able to release.
"If I just could have it back," he says softly, a mixture of regret and anger stirring in his voice. "Or even have Afik's. She must have taken it with…"
"Why? What purpose would it serve now? What use do you have for it here?"
Minkah tilts his head, really considering my question as he gazes at all that remains of his beloved weapon. I don't miss the adoration visible in his features as his fingers gently glide across the steel in a tender caress. He gives me a strange look when he catches me watching.
"Despite what I used to believe, I guess I understand sentimentality."
Chuckling, I let him go. "I knew this. I never imagined I would hear you freely admit to it."
With a scowl that holds no conviction, he steps away from me, still cradling the weapon as if it were a child or a precious treasure. I don't say any more on the matter. This is the last piece he's clinging to. And this is as tangible as it gets on a piece of paper scrawled with Arabic. I don't see it as wretched. We all find something to hold onto, refusing to let go no matter how concrete it is. Malik and Marik had each other. I have Islam. Minkah has the memory of this sword.
A gentle sigh escapes from between his lips as he pauses, fingers squeezes the hilt tightly. Then with the greatest care he places the khepesh on the vacant throne where both of us have refused to sit. He averts his eyes, turns away and…
I blink when he closes the notebook with a steady hand, setting it on the coffee table with the same care he did for his beloved sword. Without a word he rises off the couch, wandering over to the mantle where several pictures of Ryou as a child smile with his sister and mother. The tip of his finger runs along the frame while tracing their happy faces with inquisitive eyes.
"I know what they had," he murmurs. "I remember it now." Gaze locked on the trio, he asks, "You do too. Don't you, Niu?"
No longer possessing utensils with which I can conjure a tongue, I nod to verify that, 'Yes, I do remember.'
His brow furrows beneath jagged bangs as his fingers travels from the last photograph, hovering inches above the empty space that was cleared for the shrines. The muscles of his throat ripple as he lowers his hand and rests it on the mantle top as if placing his hand on a headstone to say a prayer. There are no prayers; at least nothing verbal.
This space will remain bare for some time. It needs to be that way. There isn't anything that can replace someone. Maybe having nothing in tribute to Dimah and Afika is for the best for now.
Minkah looks over his shoulder at me. I wait, expecting either some form of regret over killing Ryou's family or musing on his own mother and Afika. Something profound. Minkah stares at me for a moment before stating frankly:
"Go get a shower and brush your teeth. Thoroughly. You reek of cigarettes, Niu. I'm not sleeping in the same room as you when you stink of that shit."
Rolling my eyes, I smirk and give him a mock salute to which he scowls. Minkah folds his arms over his chest giving me a stern, paternal look. Turning, I head up the stairs without giving him any room for badgering me further.
'Honda did warn me about you fitting into this life well,' I muse with a snort of delight at my own defeat, rounding the corner on the landing. 'How often does this happen? Looks like I've slackened a bit lately with you. Well no more of that. It appears you've found yourself again. Time for me to step up my game as well.'
The green numbers on the digital clock glow 4:42 AM. Moaning, I roll onto my right side; not really sure what caused me to wake up so darn early. The sparse space next to me on the single bed is empty. I vaguely recall leaving Niu to get through to Minkah, so I squint at the bed sent only three feet away. My brother has slept beside the tech expert once in a while; usually to keep from waking me when they stay up late. There's only one lump curled up in tangled sheets. Lying perfectly still I listen to the deep breaths that sound more like sighs emitted from his open, empty mouth.
Ignoring my tight, tired muscles is not easy, and I consider burrowing under the blanket and trying to salvage the remainder of the night. Perhaps I could if I weren't so shaken from our argument earlier this evening. Nothing was resolved. Instead of upsetting either of us more, I decided to wait until morning. We both needed to calm down.
'Well, it's morning now.'
His words didn't frighten me so much. Though he's talked of revenge less frequently as time goes on, it's never been a topic he's completely dropped. To hear it come out of his mouth is upsetting, yes. But surprising? Not at all. I was just hoping in vain he could somehow get past it. How can I demonstrate to him there could be so much more than vengeance?
'What is with those eyes?' I fret while maneuvering off the bed and over the loud floorboards. No one in this house is a sound sleeper. Niu and myself being two of the worst. 'He didn't want me to see them. They were unnerving, I'll admit. But there's more to them than Minkah has said, isn't there?'
What am I doing? Hasn't Malik warned us all that nothing good comes from digging into one's past? I don't have a clue what I'm going to say that will make any difference or give a better outcome than earlier. All I know is avoidance isn't the answer.
The balls of my feet and my toes are all that touch the stairs as I creep downwards. Hand on the banister, I listen for any clue as to where my brother is. Nothing. Not that I expected any less from him. Being absolutely silent when he chooses is a trait that has not diminished.
My eyes strain to see in the darkness of the living room that is only dimly lit by fragments of broken light from the streetlamps. They will remain on for another half hour or so until the sun begins to rise.
"You're up early."
My attention automatically moves to the chair by the fireplace where my brother spends the majority of his evenings. He's sitting curled up with the coveted blanket draped around him like a soft cocoon. I wander closer, treading carefully to avoid bumping my shins on the coffee table.
"So are you," I reply, awkwardly stretching my arm out to feel for the mantle. "Did you even sleep?"
"No." He pauses before asking with a tilt of his head: "What time is it?"
"Nearly five by now." My fingers find the edge of the mantle and I trail my fingers carefully along its border, not wanting to knock over the pictures. "What were you doing all night?"
"I thought about what you said."
Both relief and trepidation fill me. Niu must have talked some sense into him. Please let Niu have gotten through to my brother about this need for revenge Minkah possesses. My brother sounds calm. Though that could be attributed to fatigue from staying up all night. Did our argument trouble him so much? And is it bad that I want it to have been as distressing for him as it was for me?
I come to a full stop when my fingers run into something on the part of the mantle that was empty just several hours ago. He moved the picture frames? My hand definitely bumped into one.
The lamp beside the chair clicks as he pulls the small cord, illuminating this portion of the room near the shadowy fireplace. My gaze meets familiar faces greeting me from a silver frame, having replaced the two small shrines we'd originally bought. Through Minkah's abilities there are my mother and Amane embracing each other while gazing at me with their gentle smiles and warm eyes. Gulping, I take it in my trembling hands, running the tips of my fingers gently along the frame.
"I didn't really remember what they looked like," he admits with a touch of apprehension in his voice as I stare. "All of your other photographs of them were destroyed at Ryuuji's, so I just had the other ones here to go on…"
I breathe deeply, amazed that he could have drawn them with such detail in so little time. Not only that, he captured the essence of my mother and sister. It's as if he had known them. There is that cheeky grin of Amane's and the almost dreamy, reserved smile of my mother. I'm waiting for them to move. To talk or blink.
As I hold it up to look at them straight on, I notice a second frame out of the corner of my eye. Inside the silver lining are Dimah and a black-haired child around the age of ten. She, too, retains that tender, motherly look despite her young age; no longer an hateful, evil woman haunting her son. Something about her glows even in the faded colors which he drew her with such care. Her arm is around the boy in a loose embrace as if he would be embarrassed by a hug. As if her gentle touch would break him. Because of her youth, someone who didn't know them would think they were siblings rather than a foster mother and child.
Young Afika's mouth holds a child's mischievous smirk, a devious gleam in his eye that Malik, Jounouchi, and Honda get when they plot a prank. It wasn't what any of us would have anticipated. I half-expected a portrait of 20-year-old Afika licking a bloodied blade. Maybe holding Kaiba's decapitated head. Instead is this perplexing child, the one that only Minkah remembers and understands.
Not only has he found a way to honor his own family, but he's given me back the one he took away from me. Otousan is nowhere to be found. Neither are any of the other assassins Minkah grew up with. Just the people that mattered. When Minkah said he thought about what I said, I assumed he meant his running away. Really it was about the family portrait.
He catches my expression as I stare at them I know it's all he wanted. I don't have anything to say. There's a mixture of sadness and gratitude; of loss and hope. So many things that I cannot articulate to him, yet he doesn't need anyone else's opinions or feelings. He understands as much as I do, if not much more.
Without glancing at the pictures, he gets up from the chair, the blanket a cloak as he walks for the front door. My heart leaps to my throat and I hastily place the portrait of my mother and Amane back beside Dimah and Afika. Undoing the locks, Minkah opens the door all the way, peering out into the dark. I resist the urge to rush forward and cling to him. Instead I wait in fear for him to cast the blanket off and dash down the street to begin his hunt. My heartbeat pounding in my ears is deafening me to any other sound.
Stepping out onto the porch, he eases down onto the top step. Then he just…stays there…sitting there looking about inattentively. It isn't like months ago when he was on high-alert, always ready for any ambush or attack. This is a relaxed posture of anyone who sits on their porch.
"What are you doing?" I somehow manage to choke out, wondering if it was even audible. I'm afraid to break the spell. Afraid my words will shake off this peace.
When he doesn't answer I hesitantly move forward, inhaling the cool morning air as I step outside. Feeling nervous compared to his quiet composure, I stand over him wondering what the hell I should do. Studying his face, I watch the subtle things, like how he blinks every so often. And how his eyes keep looking down the block as if in anticipation of something or someone.
Is there someone coming? Has he not told us something?
His lips move in an almost inaudible cadence as he watches, waiting for something spectacular. I take another half-step to try and catch his words, my knee by his shoulder as he rocks back and forth ever so slightly like someone going into a trance. The streetlamps flicker, dimming as the light seemingly rises up out of the ground in some world beyond.
"…doha ya doha…"
There is a drawn out gap as he seems to ponder what he was just saying. Casting it aside, he returns from wherever he was. The confusion vanishes. A tranquil ease I have never seen in him spreads across his features, evening the lines of worry and tension.
"Hmm?" he mumbles, only giving me partial awareness.
"What are you doing?"
Eyes now fixated on the sky that is beginning to glow a dull orange just above the housetops, a small smile appears on his lips.
"Watching the sunrise."
Don't you see it now? Do you know that she was wrong? There are gods. Apophis is real as long as at least one of us breathes. By surviving, you are ensuring this dreadful reality, habib.
We can't change. No one is capable of that magnitude of change. You spoke so loftily, lecturing to me of all people on how we could assimilate into the little group of misfits you've fallen in love with. Can't you see how futile it is?
I will not ask your forgiveness for anything. I regret nothing even as these last gulps of air are doused with blood. You are crying nearby, aware that you are begging me for more lies. Even though you won't ever understand, it is what you want. It is easier this way, isn't it?
'Yes of course I did it,' I want to croon and alleviate all doubts. What I do manage to say is enough. Now your burden is bearable. Now you can move onward, locking away anything that anyone else has ever told you. I know you will accept what I say as true. As you just said: You've always believed me.
There is nothing more for me to do. I already know how this will play out and I am no longer needed. I am more use to you dead. Niu will be your guide. And he will go with you even if he opposes your plans entirely.
Those idiotic people will attempt to take my place in your life. But they won't, will they? None of them ever could.
Severa will let you live. I think she and I are more alike than she knows. She needs a goal, a purpose just like I do, even if hers is to have something to fight rather than protect. In that sense, she will become your objective, taking the place of Bakura and his family.
And I will take Dimah's coveted place in your heart. Nothing will quench your desire to avenge my death. Because of me, you will never be one of them. I will become a god to you. You will destroy, hate, and kill for me.
…just as you've always done.
A dog barks somewhere down the block and catches my attention for all of three seconds as the tune in my head stops abruptly like a wind up music box. I pull the blanket up to my face and breathe in the fresh scent of synthetic perfumes from the detergent. Rubbing the soft, worn fabric against my cheek, I decide that these are the senses I have labeled as "home". There's something comforting about being able to sit in my chair and sketch to my heart's content. Occasional conversations are for the most part welcomed.
The sunlight streaming down the block washes over me, slowly warming everything that has been frozen for so long. Beside me Ryou sits silently taking in this new day with me. We don't speak, don't need to. With him here beside me and my family safe nearby, I somehow feel that my path will become clear soon enough. There is still time to decide. That day may come. It doesn't have to be today.
Is this what Afik was craving for us? Is this that thing he called "freedom"? It isn't like anything I would have imagined. A quaint house, laying low. Quiet evenings to curl up and relax by the fire or with a group of friends. No knives at our disposal. No adventures and escapades to act against protocol for the sake of that rush of adrenaline. The feeling of power has depleted, replaced by the resonating push for routine.
Aside from wanting to avenge Afik, I don't have any cravings to go off and harm anyone. Not even the stupid army that still calls on us every so often to remind us how incompetent they are. As much as I miss my khepesh, I would have no real use for it if it were here in my hands. As I said to Niu, it is more sentimental. A symbol of something that is part of my past now.
I try to substitute different people with Afik, attempting to picture him here in this house living with us. None of these pastimes would be to his liking. He would be scornful of what I have found. Say I have been pulled into a fantasy too good to be true. Would he be correct?
'You always fought for me, Afik. Even if it isn't what you planned for us…I think I'm happy here. Is that enough? It would be for Um.'
I'm not ignored but am given my space. There are no threats or beatings. I am respected and cared for. Never do I go to sleep starving nor bruised and cut up. Here I am surrounded by people who know me and accept me as I am: scars, tantrums and all. They take me to movies and teach me different sports. I am even being allowed to pursue art classes at the college Malik and Yami are attending. Slowly I am finding my bearings. All of these things are so odd, so different from anything I ever imagined. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I don't have to pretend to be anyone but me. And…I'm actually enjoying it.
This doesn't feel like a dream of Afika's at all. What is it then? Is it Um's dream instead? Is it mine?
Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabies go on and on...
They never die
That's how you
Holy shit it's done! *collapses*
Minkah: She's DEAD!
characters: YAY! *party*
*sits up* So anyhoozle...
characters: *collective sigh*
It took forever, but I am satisfied with how this turned out. Now I am eager to hear your takes on it. So please review even though it's a last loooong awaited chapter. ;P I shall respond to each!
This was such a different story from all of my others in so many ways. It was inspired by actual people that I had the opportunity to hear about when I was in high school. Just recently I heard an update of them that inspired this more hopeful ending on Minkah and Niu. Afika and Severa especially represent the same people, as not all of them ended up going to the same route either. Thank you to everyone who stuck with a fanfiction with so many of my own characters. I know it's not a popular (or very smart) thing to do on this site.
When writing my fics I MUST have music on at all times. And when writing deeper into a character (esp one of my own) I need some extra inspiration. So if you're wondering what songs contributed to the development and scenes for different characters I'll post 'em below. While I REALLY wanted to include it somewhere, the song that was a MAJOR help in finishing these last two chapters is "Love the Way You Lie" by Skylar Grey (her version-not Rihanna's) It fits Afika and Minkah so much it's eerie. So a shout out to Skylar Grey for writing an amazing song to help me pass the final hurdle.
Our Farewell—Within Temptation
Mordred's Lullabye—Heather Dale
I Will Overcome—Within Temptation
Who Is This Child—Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—Trans-Siberian Orchestra
My Medea—Vienna Teng
My Side of the Story—Hodges
Once More I Can See—"Wonderland"
No One Knows Who I Am—"Jekyll and Hyde"
Step to Me—Thousand Foot Krutch
Who I Am—Smile Empty Soul
Home—"Beauty and the Beast"
Who We Are—Red
I Won't Give Up—Jason Mraz
Anthem of the Angels—Breaking Benjamin
Lucifer's Angel—The Rasmus
Wait for an Answer—Blind Guardian
Lost in Paradise—Evanescence
If I Die Tomorrow—Motley Crue
Prayer of the Refugee—Rise Against
Star of Wonder—The Roches
The Promise—Within Temptation
Cielo e Terra—Nek
Love the Way You Lie—Skylar Grey
Because of You—Kelly Clarkson
I'm Not Dead—PINK
The Living Proof—"The Help"
Passive—A Perfect Circle
They All Fall Down—SR-71
Pain—Three Days Grace
Everything Burns—Ben Moody
Blue Eyes—Within Temptation
(sorry Kasiya gets nothing, lol)