Although the fic works well enough where I left it last chapter, I still wanted to write this little epilogue type thing. Just for a because, and I wanted a true happy ending. I'm a sucker that way. I want to thank all of you who've stuck by this story to its conclusion. For the love and reviews, I'm truly grateful. Hope you enjoy.
Disclaimer: YuGiOh is the property of Kazuki Takahashi. This particular Death belongs to Neil Gaiman. Go forth and worship the both of them.
"Ryou, tell me one more time. Please? I'm not tired yet." A tiny hand tugged persistently at him, not to be ignored.
The non-captured hand ran its course through drastically shortened white hair. He'd cut it to remember him. Always to remember him. "Its almost dark. I have things to do, and you need to be in bed. What would your father say if he knew I let you stay up all night?"
The little boy sobered, considering. "He'd ask why you didn't have me studying as long as I was up."
Ryou smiled. It was an unfair tool of youth, that adorable ability to charm. "Yes, yes I suppose he would. He's like your great grandfather in that respect." Caving, he sat on the nearby windowsill. "Come sit with me then."
The little boy scrambled into his teacher's arms, settling comfortably in his lap and drawing the comforting softness of that white feathered wing into his hands. "Start at the beginning."
He was just like him, almost. It hurt Ryou's heart to be around the boy, more so because he knew that this wasn't Malik's soul. Just a little piece of his family: Ishizu's grandchild. Such beautiful blue eyes. "One hundred years ago, here in this very kingdom, there was a terrible war. A powerful evil was seeking to overthrow the kingdom, and was fast gaining the power to do so. Every day the people lived in fear."
"But the kingdom was gifted with a very wise and powerful ruler, and he had a plan. One day he told his mages to create a being of great power, and to send it among his enemies. This creature would never age nor tire, and would have the power to destroy the great evil." Well, stories did have a way of changing with the passage of time.
He paused for dramatic effect, causing the body in his arms to squirm impatiently. When a story's been told a thousand times there was room for some theatrics. "And the mages did just that. But on its journey the angel crashed to the earth and lost its memory, and took the leader of the enemy as his own commander. He led him into the palace, to destroy the king."
"The king prepared hurriedly for the arrival of his enemy. He gathered his bravest warrior and his most powerful mage to himself, and went to wait for his opponent." He ruffled the boy's hair. "And that was your great grandfather."
The boy beamed. Ryou continued. "There was a grand battle, and the thief was slain, though not without grievous injury on the side of good. And peace came over the land, where it lasts to this day." He shifted, dislodging the boy. "Now go to bed."
Much grumbling was heard, as well as much shuffling and dragging of feet. But if there was something that one learns in the course of a century, it must be dealing with people. Particularly the small ones. Not understanding them of course, but managing them. Perhaps Seto had foreseen this evolution in his skills when he asked him (is it truly a request when one is on their deathbed?) to take his position.
The little body paused once at the door, watching Ryou pull on a cloak. "Teacher, why do you always wear that red cloak?"
Aside from fraying at the edges and a hole cut in the back, the fabric hadn't altered much in the course of a century. "It belonged to someone who was very important in my life, once upon a time." Satisfied, the child padded off and Ryou was alone.
The grave site had long become a mere fixture of nature, though it was avoided by the public. Ryou in his red coat was the spitting image of Bakura, and the rumor had spread that the thief's ghost haunted the woods. Only the very foolish wandered very near, and quickly lost their nerve once alone in the undergrowth.
Ryou knelt before the twin graves, hands clasped together. He didn't believe in prayers nor gods, but it gave him a sense of peace. It made him feel closer to them, even if what lay beneath the ground had long since rotted. "I can't keep this up. Its been over a century now. One hundred and twenty years I've waited, and nothing." He bowed his head low, his forehead brushing the earth. "I can't do this to Yuugi."
Poor, poor Yuugi, trapped in an enchanted sleep now, tied to life as long as Ryou clung to the earth by that one piece of soul that they shared. The anguished look no his face when he realized he couldn't join Atemu in death was seared forever in Ryou's mind. A braver soul would have died for his friend's happiness, but…"I have to see him one more time. Just one more time."
Footsteps sounded behind him. "What's a pretty lady like you doing in a place like this? And crying, no less." The stranger made a small tsk noise. "And I expected to find ghosts."
Ryou wiped at his eyes, rising to his feet. He kept his back to the stranger. "I'm not a girl." His white fingers brushed dirt away from the long fringes of the coat. "This is a place of mourning. If you're looking for thrills you can keep going."
"Hey, hey, don't be like that." A hand laid itself on his shoulder. "I didn't mean to upset you. What, family buried here or something?" The pressure on his shoulder increased; the stranger was standing on tip toes, looking for graves. "I was kidding about the ghosts."
Ryou's heart gave a lurch. He'd kept himself well away from physical contact, excusing the occasional late-night comforting of one of his students. From someone his own height it was…disconcerting. He raised his arm to brush the hand away, turning as he did so. "Please go-" His arm only made it half way-about the distance he turned before catching sight of the young man's face. His breathing became labored, and tears fought to get out.
A confused look crossed the blonde's face. "Is something wrong?" Dumb question. Something more wrong than the obvious, he should have said.
Ryou shook his head, resisting the urge to touch the achingly familiar hair. "You look like someone I knew once." He busied himself with wiping away the tears that were threatening to fall. "I'm sorry."
Without thinking about his actions the young man put his arm around the white haired mage, squeezing the way one would comfort a young sibling. "Nothing to be sorry about. My fault for interrupting." He paused to consider the red cloak. "So, are you the ghost everyone talks about seeing?"
"You might say that I didn't exactly discourage the rumor. It keeps this place sacred." Ryou winced at the word. Bad choice.
"I never held much with religion. My family's really dedicated to the whole 'supreme deity' idea but, I just can't." His eyes were tired like Malik's had been, though a beautiful shade of blue.
Ryou turned away, kneeling in front of the rose bush. His fingers caressed the soft leaves, leaving speckles of blood on the burgeoning blossoms as they passed over thorns. "If there is a God then I have never met it, nor felt that there was more to my existence than those I care about."
The blonde nodded almost too quickly, finally hearing what he had asked himself all along. "I can't stand it! My life is mine to live." He clenched his fists dramatically. "I'll find what I believe in, no matter what my father wants me to believe."
Seto's lessons were true, it seemed. "Even as the body changes, the soul remains the same." Malik had said similar things, and certainly he had been one for rebellion. Ryou's fingers clenched. Hadn't that been what had gotten him killed, in the end? "Ow!" Blood welled up in the palm of his hand, which had closed over a thorn.
Again without thinking Malik's look-alike moved to comfort the other, taking his hand and placing a small kiss over the puncture wound. A moment passed, and he seemed to come back to himself. "This is, awkward." He stuttered. "Um, I'm Marik."
Ryou ignored the young man's blustering, calmly willing the ragged skin closed again. Decades of study did count for something. "Tell me," he regarded the soft lines of his palm, "do you believe in an afterlife? A resting place for the soul?"
How did he always manage to find the strange ones? "I don't know. I want to, just to make all of this worth it." He shrugged. "But who knows?"
A cool wind blew across the landscape, carrying a melancholy sigh away into the night. "No one knows. But many have ideas, and that is what I asked you." What was he hoping? That somewhere, in the back of his mind, this boy remembered what he had seen between worlds? Unlikely at best.
"You're strange." Marik wrinkled his brow, squatting near the mourner with a peculiar look in his eyes; as if trying to remember something. "I guess I feel like I've done this whole thing before, a hundred times. It all seems boring."
Ryou nodded. "And upon the century of its death a soul shall seek a new body, to be given another chance to live out its life."
Marik blanched. "Don't say that." He shivered. "Can you imagine? Stuck doing the same thing over and over and over…"
"There's more to it, if you'd let me finish." Ryou sighed. "Each successive rebirth shall bring the soul closer to perfection. Upon reaching such a state the soul shall enter nirvana, and its final rest."
What kind of person asked a complete stranger what they thought of death? It was disquieting. "I've heard worse theories." He wished this stranger would look at him, do something to make himself seem more real, less an ethereal presence.
"Then you believe its true? That someday we truly leave behind this mortal coil, to see those we love?" As if hearing the blonde's wish Ryou stood, staring at him with hyper-intense brown eyes.
"Sure." Marik faltered. Behind the intensity that gaze was so sad.
Ryou smiled then. "Thank you." His hands grasped either side of Marik's face, drawing him in for a kiss. Marik stiffened in shock, afraid to move either away or closer. He'd kissed others before, plenty of them. But a stranger had never felt so familiar as this one did.
He settled for blustering, only after Ryou had pulled away. "Don't I get some kind of introduction at least? N-not that I'm exactly complaining but-"
Ryou covered Marik's mouth with one hand. "Its Ryou. But you don't really need to know that. That was…for old time's sake, if you will." He felt a head rush coming on: he'd never needed to borrow magic after that day, and hadn't felt much need for kissing either. It was quite the experience.
Curiously, his ability to breathe seemed to have ceased. Strange. Ryou. Seemed familiar. But then, this entire night had a sense of déjà vu about it. "What are you doing?" He blanched.
Ryou turned with the robe halfway down his back. "Calm down." With the smallest flourish the cloak was off, the red cloth hanging loosely in his arms. Beneath it Ryou wore a simple tunic. "I need you to do something for me."
Not waiting for Marik's ascent, he continued. "In a few days there's going to be a funeral. I need you to go, and to wear this." Closure was a strange thing. "Will you do that for me?" He freed a rose from the bush, twirling it around in his fingers thorns and all.
About to refuse outright, Marik instead found himself relieving his bizarre companion of the cloak, and putting it on himself. It wasn't as if it was something enormous, and it would get him out of services for the day. "How do I know where to go?"
Another enigmatic smile. "Believe me, you'll hear about it." He made his away back to the road, whispering softly as he passed. "I'll be waiting for you, Malik."
Marik watched him go, only thinking to shout long after he'd gone; "What's that supposed to mean?" A night of confusion wrapped in a mystery swathed in enigma. Marik went to bed that night with a headache.
No light had touched the room in a very long time. With the passing of time most had forgotten that it even existed. Ryou's feet maneuvered through the pitch with the ease of muscle memory, not even bothering with artificial light. He spoke, and his voice came out low, commanding. "I release thee from our contract, ready to fulfill its tenants."
It felt cold without the cloak, which had become almost an extension of himself. He waited a beat, then two, until he heard the telltale movement of waking. "Its me." He said quietly, summoning a small blue light in his hands.
Age is not kind to those obeying time's natural flow, and even less to those stuck in the middle. Yuugi shielded his eyes from the light, and his skin was waxy and pale, corpselike. His eyes were exhausted. "How long has it been?"
"Since your sleep? I imagine…seventy." A very lonely seventy years for Ryou.
Yuugi drew his knees up to his chest, processing the information. "And Seto? Jonouchi? Anzu?"
Ryou nodded. "They've all gone on. All but us."
Yuugi bit his lip. "I'm really sorry Ryou. I didn't mean to leave you all alone."
Ryou shook his head, laying a hand on the mage's shoulder. "Its understandable. There are days I just wanted to sleep too, and I chose to remain here."
"But if I'm awake," Yuugi shot Ryou a wide eyed look. "You found him?"
"It wasn't what I expected it to be." He shrugged. "But I shouldn't have expected anything. I've had more than my time here. And it isn't fair to keep you alive so I can cling to an old dream." He crossed his fingers. "Here's to hoping all of that about 'final resting places' isn't completely wrong, hmm?"
"Ryou…" He watched Ryou produce a white rose, looking away when his friend made long red lines down his wrist with the thorns.
"Hey, Yuugi?" Ryou's voice was breathy, the effect of rapid blood loss evident. "Do you think they take fractured souls like mine? In paradise?"
"Mmm. I'm sure. You're a good person, after all. That's all that matters." The piece of Ryou within him was beginning to flicker and die, and without it his body was hard-put to function. Death wasn't so bad.
Ryou felt himself sinking to the floor, felt it in a fuzzy manner, quite distant from himself. "I hope, I," the rest was lost. The darkness around him got colder, and all sound faded away. So this is how it feels to be dead.
Is that a light?It forced back the darkness, and as Ryou reached out to touch it a scene swam into focus before him. Below his feet was a gathering of several hundred people. Tear tracks were prominent among many of them. One by one Ryou saw the faces of several of his students, and Marik, adorned in the red cloak. Don't cry for me. And the scene was gone.
Time was flexible in the dark. Ryou at times felt as if he'd just arrived, only to be crushed under the weight of ticking seconds a few moments later. But try as he might sleep wouldn't come. Every time he shut his eyes the exhaustion would flee just beyond his reach. Was this eternity?
"You're a hard one to track down, you know?" The voice behind Ryou was light and feminine, remarkably cheerful for such a dark place. "I must have combed over about six different versions of this world."
Who are you?A nagging feeling in his stomach told Ryou that they had met before. I feel as though I know you. In some ways she reminded him of Anzu, but that wasn't quite it.
"Yeah. I get that a lot. We've met…but people don't tend to remember that." Ryou could see her clearly now, a young woman with chalk white skin and wild black hair. Ankhs adorned her body in various places; her neck, her ears, and a loose belt that hung around her waist. She extended a hand to him. "Shall we go?"
Go where?He had been formless for a while, and it took concentration to form a hand to grasp hers. Don't I have to stay here longer, suffer?
One eyebrow quirked up. "It hasn't been long enough? You remind me of my younger brother…always trying to punish himself for things that happened in the past. Men." Together they walked through and out of the darkness.
Being solid again after floating in darkness was similar to walking into fresh air after spending several hours on a plane; refreshing as a slap in the face. Ryou rubbed his eyes with his free hand. "How long have I been dead?" Unused, his voice was hoarse.
The woman shrugged. "Some time before I found you, I would guess. Your kind believes in reincarnation, right?" Ryou nodded. "Probably four or five life cycles." She smiled at him. "I wouldn't worry about it. You're a nice kid, Ryou. I like you."
Worlds swirled past them. Ryou caught flashes of lives, frozen moments in time that were gone as soon as they appeared. Before long they had stopped, and he stared up at an immense archway. "This is as far as I can take you. I think you'll be okay."
Frightened to be on his own, Ryou started. "Through there? What, what is it?"
She shrugged. "Think of it as the afterlife. I assume you don't want to go back again-you proved that by hiding out from me for a few centuries."
Ryou scuffed his boots against the ground. "I didn't mean to."
The kind smile returned. "I know you didn't. Now go on, there's people waiting for you. And I've got others to take care of." She placed her hands on his back, and pushed him through.
On the other side of the arch the ground changed. Beneath his quite bare feet was soft grass, similar to the wild green that had grown up around Malik and Bakura's graves. The sky was a soft gray, the kind that could foreshadow either rain or merely a cooling wind. Ryou had always loved the rain.
"Took you long enough to get here." Resting on a rock several yards away was a familiar figure, clad in red and looking, as he always had, perpetually annoyed. "Do you know how boring this place is? No one around for miles!" He gestured at the sky, at the empty plain. "Still." A rare smile crossed the man's face. "I suppose she did show me my family."
"Quit rambling, thief. He just got here." Another familiar voice, this one coming from behind him. "And its not that bad. Ryou's here now, and I saw my sister…" Ryou could imagine the smile, even if he couldn't see it.
Unable to process it all, he sat where he was, holding his head in his hands. There was the sound of movement, and then two sets of arms around his shoulders. "What is this place? She wouldn't tell me."
"Its whatever we want it to be, pet." The familiar growl purred against the back of his neck. "Whatever you want."
Malik nodded, his nose pressed in Ryou's hair. "The others are here too. Whenever you want to see them."
Ryou was crying, well and truly, for the first time since he had laid those two bodies in the ground. He grasped their arms as best he could, shoulders shaking from the sobs. "There's, p-plenty of time for that. I just want to stay with you two right now. For as long as I can."
He felt his body being shifted, and a sound from Bakura that sounded suspiciously like 'Mine'. Comforting warmth pressed against him from either side. Wind sang sweetly over the trio, something like music. Ryou fancied it something like a waltz. And at last he was at peace.