Title: A Thousand Paper Cranes
Author: Nina/TechnicolorNina
Pairing/Characters: There are several OC's, but no OC romances. (Although one of them does have quite the unrequited crush on Yugi, I must say.) Otherwise there's a fair smattering of Anzu, and the entire story is Yugicentric, with a focus on puzzleshipping.
Universe: Yu-Gi-Oh!. More specifically, the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga (although one of my readers on GJ has only seen the anime and loved this all the same).
Word Count: Approximately 15 500. The word counter lies.
Page Count: 34 pages in Microsoft Word.
Rating: This fic is rated T for language, implied shonen-ai, and some violence.
Genre: Light but fairly constant angst, with romance and just a bit of fluff.
Disclaimer: The author hereby apologizes for playing with things/places/characters/books/movies/manga/musicals that do not (and probably never will) belong to her. Please do not take the money she does not have to begin with. Tony, however, belongs to ME. Got it? (If you want to use him in a story, by all means feel free to ask for his backstory and I'll give it to you. But please credit me, 'kay?)
Spoilers: Post-YGO. That means if you don't know wfhat happens to Yuugi's "other me" ("Yami" for American dub-watchers), don't know his real name, or don't know how his storyline is resolved, you don't want to read this unless you don't mind being spoilered. 'Kay?
Warnings: I suppose I should warn y'all that although there is only one actual 'ship in this story (and no really mushy bits at all), there's a fair bit of UST between Yuugi and two other characters. Don't flame me for it. Just go with it and if it's important, I promise it'll explain itself. Also, there's an incident near the end that probably counts as self-injury.
Feedback: There may be something out there that's better than a review containing concrit, but if there is, I haven't found it yet. So if you have two minutes and you wouldn't mind? Please? Arigatou. (And concrit is cool. Flames are not.)
Notes: This was originally a giftfic, and I was in the interesting position of having written it before I actually got to finish the series. (I was spoilered for the end . . . dumb bitches.) If it shows, please let me know so I can correct any errors I didn't catch when I did my edits. I heart concrit. Also, if anyone cares, there is a sequel. The plotbunny kind of bit me in the butt one night and wouldn't go away, so I'm working on it right now. It'll probably come out a bit after the epilogue.
Special Thanks/Dedications: Dedicated to my lovely hikari, Miss Britt-chan. Merry Christmas, dear.


"Congratulations!"

"Are you going out for coffee?"

"Mako-chan, this is my boyfriend . . . "

Yuugi sighed and leaned against the side of the building. He looked down at the diploma in his hands, then turned his eyes out toward the people he'd spent so many years with. Most of them were clustered in small groups, taking pictures and chattering excitedly. And why not? Their entire lives were ahead of them. Yuugi found it distinctly depressing to think his life was already over. What did you do with fifty or sixty years of no life left to live?

Anzu appeared next to him and hugged him.

"Yuugi, we did it!"

Yuugi pasted a smile on his face.

"Yeah. Congratulations."

The smile on Anzu's face faded. "Yuugi? What's wrong?"

Yuugi shook his head. "It's nothing. Don't worry about it."

Anzu was nothing if not perceptive, and she thought she knew what "nothing" was. None of his family had been able to come to the ceremony. He was Yuugi Alone - again.

Yuugi pushed off from the wall.

"I'm probably going to go home early," he said. "Jii-chan said he doesn't want me out if people are going to be doing crazy stuff all night. He doesn't have a car anymore, and he's afraid I'd end up having to take a ride from someone who's been drinking." He rubbed the side of his face. Anzu put a hand on his arm.

"My mom said you're invited to come over and have coffee or something," she offered. "And she could give you a ride home."

Yuugi shook his head. "No, that's okay."

"Are you sure?" she pressed. "Jounouchi and Honda are coming."

Yuugi shook his head again. "Really, Anzu." He forced the smile again. "I'm actually kind of tired."

Anzu didn't push any farther. "We're getting together Saturday, if you want to come."

Yuugi turned away. He'd spent years working for this night, and it was ending for him before nine o'clock.

"I'll think about it."


"So what are you doing now?" Anzu stirred her milkshake with her straw. Jounouchi shrugged.

"Dunno."

"Honda?"

Honda mimicked Jounouchi. "I never really thought about it before now. We've been so busy, you know?"

"Yuugi?"

Yuugi seemed to not hear. Then he looked up from the depths of his own shake.

"Huh?"

"What are you doing – since we're graduated?"

Yuugi looked back down into his shake. "I'm going to Egypt."

"Man, you're kidding!" Jounouchi nearly spilled his Pepsi as he leaned forward. Yuugi shook his head.

"Jii-chan got one of his friends to sponsor me for a year-long internship in Saqqara. I leave at the end of the month."

Honda joined Jounouchi in the starefest. "That's incredible!"

"If you think working around dead people all day is incredible, yeah."

Anzu made a face. "Yuugi, that's horrible."

Yuugi shrugged. "Well, it's true."

A silence fell over the table. None of them quite knew how to break it.


Anzu handed Yuugi his backpack. He shouldered it, then leaned forward and kissed her not quite on the cheek before turning away. It was a ridiculously intimate gesture, the kind of thing only Yuugi could get away with, and it made her feel like crying. She laid a hand on his arm.

"Yuugi!"

"I need to get going," he said, not turning his eyes back to her. "I have to get through Customs, and Jii-chan said that takes forever."

Anzu stepped in front of him and hugged him tightly. Yuugi hesitated, then hugged back.

"Call," she whispered. He didn't answer. She stepped back, and Jounouchi and Honda grabbed him at the same time. They'd had to plan it - Yuugi had grown increasingly squirmy about hugs, and neither of them was going to let him get away without one. He managed to slip out from between them all the same, and took a step backward.

"I'll see you guys," he said, his eyes not quite on any of them. He turned to hurry through the security checkpoint, passport in hand. Anzu turned to Jounouchi, threw her arms around his waist, and cried.


1 JULY - CAIRO

Yuugi stepped off the plane into a dry and oppressive heat. He was more than happy to get into the airport proper, where there was at least air conditioning. He managed to survive Customs, then made his way to the baggage claim. As he pulled his duffel bag off the belt, he saw a clean-shaven man in jeans and a T-shirt waving at him.

"Are you Yuugi Mutou?"

Yuugi nodded. The man stuck out his hand.

"Dan Wood. I'm supposed to pick you up," he elaborated, and Yuugi shook his hand tentatively. The man spoke good Japanese, but Yuugi was fairly certain his accent was American. With nowhere else to go, Yuugi followed him out to what looked like a Jeep. Dan swung his duffel into the back.

"Climb in," he said. "It doesn't look like much, but it'll get us where we need to go."

The ride to the complex was mercifully brief, and Dan didn't try to make conversation. Yuugi slid out of the Jeep – there were no doors – and pulled his duffel after him. Dan led him down a hallway, opened a door, and ushered Yuugi inside.

"Well, this is it," he said, and Yuugi looked around. The living room was full of light and the plain kind of furniture that came with pre-furnished flats. Two people, a man and a woman who both looked about his age, were sitting on the sofa playing a card game.

"Gin," the woman proclaimed, laying her cards down on the table and flicking her brown hair back over her shoulder.

"Damn it, Fannie, that's the third one," the man complained, and Dan slammed the door. The pair jumped and looked up.

"Hey, guys, it's Yuugi," Dan said, switching over to English. Yuugi held one hand up halfheartedly. The woman offered a friendly wave. The man just smiled.

"I'm Stephanie, and this – " the brown-haired woman waved at the man across the table – "is Ancel."

Yuugi murmured an acknowledgement as the man greeted him, an unfamiliar accent pronouncing a language he barely spoke.

"Sandy's not home this afternoon, but Tony's probably in the kitchen and he can tell you where to go," Dan said. Yuugi nodded numbly. Then he caught sight of the man standing in the doorway out of the living room, and for a moment he forgot to breathe.

His dark hair was spiked, a few blonde streaks running past brown eyes and carelessly down the side of his face. And then there were the dark clothes and wristbands. Once he was in the light the resemblance ceased to be quite as startling, but Yuugi still had to drag his eyes away. The sardonic smile on the man's face didn't help.

"Yuugi, this is Tony Perez," Dan said. Yuugi barely heard him.

"You put your things in the bedroom," Tony said, and Yuugi's eyes snapped back to him.

"Gomen nas- sorry?"

The smile widened. Tony pointed back through the doorway he'd come from. "Down the hall on your left. You're in the bed by the window. The bathroom is across the hall."

Yuugi nodded and slipped out of his shoes nervously, then picked up his duffel bag and headed down the hall.


Yuugi sat with his eyes resolutely on the manga he'd brought with him on the plane, trying to follow Vash's most recent exploits. Tony was talking on the phone in a language Yuugi couldn't even begin to comprehend, but all the same, he wasn't going to eavesdrop. At last he heard a click as the phone was set back in its cradle, and he looked up.

"You look nervous," Tony said in his thick, nearly unintelligible accent. Yuugi shrugged.

"You're shy," Tony observed. Then he held out the phone.

"You have someone to call?" he asked, and Yuugi shook his head.

"I called my grandpa this afternoon," he murmured. Finally curiosity got the better of him. "Tony?"

Tony raised his eyebrows. Yuugi bit his lip.

"Where are you from?"

Tony offered the sardonic smile again. "Barcelona. In Spain," he answered, and Yuugi let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. For one wild moment, he'd been sure Tony would say he was native.

"On Monday you come out to Saqqara with me," Tony said, and in spite of the strange sentence construction, Yuugi felt a pang at the commanding tone. "Make sure you wear heavy shoes. We're digging."


3 JULY

Yuugi stared at the cliff in front of him. Surely this was just a bizarre nightmare. Or maybe he'd done what he'd been thinking about vaguely the night of graduation, and this was some kind of weird death fantasy.

"It's a positive treasure trove of history," Sandy enthused, and Yuugi tried to force a smile onto his face. "I can't wait to get it opened again."

Yuugi thought he could wait forever, if it came to that. He supposed he should have known the archaeological vultures would want to dig the tomb back open, destroy whatever sanctity was left in it, but he couldn't just leave now. He couldn't. And this had been his assignment ever since Jii-chan's friend had found him a place here. Someone had probably even told him that. He just didn't remember.

He slid out of the Jeep. Tony put a hand on his shoulder.

"You know I'm your dig leader," he said, and Yuugi nodded. "Then let me tell you this: when you come here, you always wear those shoes." He pointed at the steel-toed boots Sandy had taken Yuugi to pick up in town. "You never wear loose clothing or jewelry. And you never go inside without someone else." Yuugi nodded again, and let Tony lead him up the path to the collapsed tomb.

Maybe, he thought, he really should have gone through with it.


7 JULY

"It's okay," Yuugi was saying, one hand on his stomach and the other cradling the phone to his ear. "Hot." He paused to listen. "Five. And me," he added. "Sandy and Dan are both from America. Stephanie's from Britain. Ancel's from Germany. And Tony is from Spain." He listened again. "Dan is kind of crazy, but I guess he's okay. I really don't know the others," he said, not precisely lying. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tony throw a damp towel onto the far bed.

"Listen, Anzu, I've got to get going. It's my turn to use the shower." Yuugi said his goodbyes and hung up the phone. Then he put his hands over his eyes and sighed before dragging himself off the bed.


8 JULY

Yuugi stared out at the flat desert landscape. In front of him, Tony and Sandy were laughing and chattering away. Yuugi felt distinctly left out. He was the only member of the team who spoke fluently only in his native language. Everyone else usually spoke in English, which Yuugi had struggled for years to master. He watched as a dilapidated stone building zoomed past them.

". . . cranes?"

Yuugi's attention snapped to the conversation in front of him.

"Huh?"

Sandy laughed. She was easily the darkest person Yuugi had ever seen, and her smile seemed almost ridiculously white next to her skin.

"I asked if you knew the legend of the thousand paper cranes, honey."

"Thousand paper cranes?"

"There's a Japanese legend about a wish and a thousand paper cranes," Sandy explained. "I remember hearing it as a little girl from one of my grandmother's friends. But I can't remember for the life of me what it is."

Yuugi shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know. I'm sorry."

Sandy shrugged. "Well, that's all right." She slid down from the Jeep. "Pass me the bag, honey."


"Anzu, have you ever heard a legend about a thousand paper cranes?" Yuugi asked, tossing his manga on the floor restlessly. It was too hot to even read.

"Of course I have," Anzu answered. Her voice seemed very small and far away. "It's really, really old."

"Well, what is it?"

Happy to hear Yuugi actually holding an active conversation, Anzu hurried to explain. "Well, basically, the legend says that if there's something you want more than anything, and you make a thousand origami paper cranes, the gods will grant you one wish as long as it's made with all your heart."

"Anzu, that's ridiculous. You know there aren't any such things as gods."

Anzu's voice seemed hollow in spite of her shock. "You actually believe that?"

Yuugi closed his eyes. "I didn't used to," he answered slowly. He heard a crackle on the other end of the line.

"Anzu, did you say something?"

He was fairly certain Anzu responded, but all he heard was "cell."

"Listen, Anzu, I'll call you back later, okay? I think I'm losing the connection." He clicked the off button and dropped the phone on the bed with a sigh.


11 JULY

Yuugi stared out the back of the Jeep. It was starting to be a habit. In the front seat, Sandy and Tony were discussing a nameplate Yuugi had found in the front of the tomb, carefully hidden. If he hadn't been small enough to crawl up above the entrance, it would likely have remained unfound forever. He'd nearly fallen into a bout of hysterical laughter when Tony, who was well-versed in reading hieroglyphs, had confirmed his initial translation of it. Somehow he'd known deep down he'd end up back here. It was like some kind of hell on earth. The old stone building zoomed past them. For the first time in the nearly two weeks he'd been here, Yuugi interrupted a conversation.

"Sandy?"

"Hmm?" Sandy turned in her seat.

"What's that building we just passed? I never see anyone around it."

"It's a temple to Atem," Tony answered, and Yuugi's eyes opened wide.

"Atum," Sandy corrected. "Atem is an alternate translation." She caught Yuugi's expression in the mirror and smiled. "Funny, isn't it?" she asked. "Pharaohs were supposed to be ranked with the gods, but . . . " she paused, then frowned. "I thought it was considered blasphemy to name someone after a god, wasn't it?" She turned toward Tony, who shrugged.

"I leave the history to someone else," Tony answered. "My job is to keep you people from getting killed."

Yuugi hopped out the back of the Jeep and dragged the bag of tools out with him. His foot caught on something just below the bumper, and he fell. Yuugi let go of the bag and rolled back to his feet. He even managed a small measure of grace while doing it. As he stood the world went momentarily dark, and he grabbed at the backbar of the Jeep in case he passed out. The darkness passed, but not before an oddly compelling image formed in his head. His fingers relaxed on the backbar, and he swayed. A water bottle was pressed into his hand. He looked up and saw Tony staring back at him. There was no smile on his face.

"Don't do that again," he said, turning his back and walking away. Yuugi's cheeks burned, and he took a drink from the water bottle to hide his embarrassment. The wind blew his bangs into his eyes, and he pushed them away impatiently. As he did, he thought again of the building, into which nobody ever went, and from which nobody ever came out.


Yuugi stood in front of the temple and looked up at it. On the front he could see a carving that even he could read: it was the symbol of an important god. Atum. Also known in some circles as Atem. A couple of early-bird scorpions seeking the warmth of the stone scuttled away from his feet as he climbed the steps.

The inside of the temple was incredibly dark, and Yuugi clicked on the electric lantern Stephanie had pressed on him before he left. In the dim light, his earlier vision recurred to him. He could easily imagine Atem, his other half, kneeling in front of the large god-statue in front of him, his lips forming words in a language no longer even spoken, maybe seeking guidance before the events that would land his soul inside the Millennium Puzzle for three thousand years. Yuugi stopped in the middle of the floor and set down his lantern, then looked up at the statue in front of him.

"I don't know how to pray," he said. "I never really learned. But there's a wish I want to make, and if you'll grant it for me, I'll give you something back."

Once upon a time, there had been a man named Atem. Destined to change the history of the world not once but twice, he had gained favor with his namesake for nothing less than sheer courage – and maybe a little bit of madness, as well. That namesake now looked down at the boy in the ripped jeans and faded tank top with a mix of fascination and amusement. It had been years since anyone had made him such an offer - both naively honest and audacious in the extreme.

Yuugi sighed and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Jounouchi's right," he murmured. "I really am going crazy." He picked up his lantern and turned to leave. A sudden strong gust of wind blew through the mostly closed building, ruffling his hair and clothes. His eyes went wide, and he turned back to the statue. His hand relaxed on the handle of the lantern, and then tightened again just before it could fall and hit the ground.

"No way," he said. "Just – no way. Okay? Let's go." He turned back to the entrance.

Aibou . . . listen.

Yuugi stopped dead. His own heartbeat seemed incredibly loud in his ears. He supposed it could have been the wind, but surely the wind didn't sound so very much like a voice he'd expected to never hear again. At last he set the lantern down yet again and turned back for a third time.

"Okay," he said, and Atum found himself impressed. The boy's voice didn't waver in the least. "Okay. All right. If you're there, I'm listening."

What is it you offer?

If anyone else had been standing in the shrine, they surely would have believed their insanity was pending. Yuugi, however, had spent the better part of a year with someone else's voice in his head, and it had long since ceased to even seem unusual to him.

"I'll make a thousand paper cranes for you if you can bring Atem back," he said. The words echoed off the hard rock walls. If he thought his request sounded ridiculous, it didn't show . . . and that interested Aten most of all.

There is a higher price. Surely now the boy would run, as had so many before him. But he only waited.

Give me something now, and something later . . . something dear, and something necessary.

Yuugi looked down at the floor and bit his lip. Maybe he really had gone insane, and maybe he was currently being addressed by an Egyptian sun god. Both options seemed equally plausible. Then he reached for his wallet.

Atum looked on, intrigued, as the boy pulled something from his wallet and ran his fingers over it. It was something hard to find, and that was good. It was something he'd owned for years, and that was also good. But most important, it was something Atem had touched with his living hands, and it was something the boy wouldn't part with for any but the most pressing reasons. He watched, wondering if the boy would continue or if, like so many before him, he would simply turn and leave.

Yuugi approached the statue. He'd come back tomorrow night, and if it was still here, he would take it back. Otherwise . . .

He bit his lip so hard he nearly drew blood, then let the dog-eared item fall from his fingers. He stared at it, backed away, took his lantern. Then he nearly ran from the temple before his traitor feet and hands could take away even this miniscule chance.

The Dark Magician stared up blankly from the floor.

He'd done it.


1 AUGUST – 51 CRANES

Yuugi grabbed a towel and waved at the smoke in the air to no avail. The smoke alarm went off, and Stephanie bolted into the kitchen. Tony was immediately behind her. He grabbed the smoking pan off the stove and dumped it in the sink, then turned on the cold water. Steam billowed up in waves.

"What were you doing in here?" His accent seemed thicker than ever, twisting words into new and interesting shapes that Yuugi had to parse and then put back together. His cheeks burned, and he pulled away from Tony's eyes.

"I was trying to make onigiri," he answered quietly. Tony's lips thinned.

"It isn't your job to cook."

Yuugi bit his lip. Tony had a way of making him feel roughly five years old and useless. Stephanie pulled the pan out of the sink.

"I'm not sure I can clean this," she noted. The rice inside would come out with some scraping, that wasn't a problem, but the bottom of the pan was completely black. Yuugi forced back tears. Tony sighed and turned away.

"We'll have to order something tonight," he said. "The stove is a mess."

Yuugi shuffled to the sink and grabbed a sponge. Tony pulled it out of his hands.

"You'll light that on fire too," he said, and Yuugi turned to the door. Once safely out of the kitchen, he pounded down the hall and flung himself on his bed, burying his face in the pillow. Beneath it, he heard the crackle of paper, and he pulled out the sheets he'd left there for tonight. One red, one gold, one brown. He took up the gold paper and folded it, his hands doing the work they'd become accustomed to, and he calmed slowly.

When he went to bed at last, there were three new cranes sitting on the floor next to him.


12 OCTOBER – 280 CRANES

Yuugi sat on his bed, folding. This one was patterned, purple on black. He set it aside and picked up a piece of yellow. He'd just gotten to the finicky little piece of folding that was the beak when Ancel's voice echoed down the hallway.

"Yuugi! Telephone!"

Yuugi looked up, feeling vaguely irritated. He'd been concentrating very hard on a mantra he'd developed in his head, one he repeated with every crane he made, and now he was going to have to start over.

"Who is it?"

Ancel appeared at the door, one of the many cordless phones in his hand. "Someone named Joe?"

Yuugi swung his legs off the bed. Jounouchi never called him unless he'd called first. Maybe the world was ending. He grabbed the phone he and Tony shared.

"Ancel, can you hit the line?" Ancel nodded and headed for the main phone in the kitchen. The multi-line system in the apartment was jury-rig at best, but it allowed three people to take calls at once and still leave one line free for short incoming calls. Yuugi didn't want to be tying up the main line if he could help it. The line of the phone in his hand suddenly hummed, and he raised it to his ear.

"Moshi moshi."

"Yuugi? Man, is that you?" It was Jounouchi for sure, and he sounded panicked.

"Yeah. Jounouchi, what's going on?"

He heard Jounouchi take a deep breath. "You might want to be sitting down, man."

"I am." He flopped onto Tony's bed. He hated working on cranes when he was on the phone, but he knew if he went back to his own bed he'd never be able to stop himself.

"Jii-chan . . . he's in the hospital, Yuugi," Jounouchi said. Yuugi stared at the floor, dumbfounded. Jii-chan hated hospitals.

"What happened?" he asked, aware that there was something genuinely sick about wanting nothing more than to get off the phone so he could go back to his self-appointed task and not really caring. He found it harder than ever to care about much these days.

"They think it was a heart attack. Honda was helping him clean up at the end of the day and he just collapsed."

Yuugi suddenly became aware of a presence in the doorway. Probably Tony. He ignored it.

"Is he going to be okay?"

If Jounouchi found it a strange question to skip to, he didn't say so. "Yeah, they think so. They're keeping him overnight, and I'm going to be staying with him when he gets home until they can be sure he's okay."

"So they don't need to do surgery or anything?" Yuugi scribbled a note to Tony on the phone pad, then crumpled it up in frustration when he realized he'd written the entire thing in hiragana. Translating it to English would take too much concentration, and so he simply dropped the crumpled paper in the wastebasket.

"No, it was pretty minor, but the doctor keeps saying better safe than sorry. I don't care, it's really no problem," Jounouchi continued.

"Can I talk to him?"

There was a pause. Yuugi heard Jounouchi's voice suddenly in the background, asking a question. Then he came back on the line.

"Nurse says he's been sedated. But he said he doesn't want you coming home when he'll be back on his feet again in a few days anyway."

"Okay."

The conversation continued, but Yuugi barely paid attention to a single word of it. At last he got Jounouchi off the phone and hung it back in the cradle. He sat silently for roughly ten seconds. Then he let out a yell of frustration and pounded both fists on the bed at the same time, and started to cry.

The patch of bed next to him sank, and he suddenly remembered it was Tony's bed he was sitting on – not his own. He decided he really didn't care. Tony could treat him like a baby until the end of time and it really wouldn't matter.

A warm hand planted itself on his shoulder.

"Que tal, Yuugi?"

Yuugi swiped at his eyes ineffectually with one hand and took a wavery breath. "My grandpa's in the hospital."

"Shit." Yuugi automatically parsed the accent and decided Tony was swearing, not talking about bedding. "You need to go home?"

Yuugi shook his head. "Jou said Jii-chan doesn't want me coming home when he'll be okay in a few days anyway."

"So what happened?"

"Heart attack."

The word that came out of Tony's mouth was completely foreign to Yuugi, and he suspected it was in Spanish. It still had all the sound of a curse. Yuugi's eyes dropped from the cranes on his bed to the floor. What did they matter, anyway? What was the ridiculous impulse that had given him the idea he could bring anyone back from the dead by spending his nights doing origami? And to what purpose?

"You need anything?"

Yuugi started to shake his head. Then he changed his mind.

"Yeah."

Tony raised his eyebrows.

"I need to remember what it's like to feel something that's not numb," he said, and then turned his eyes away. It sounded ridiculous even to his own ears, and he expected Tony to start laughing. Instead he found himself inside a warm hug. Tony pulled back and took him by the shoulders. Yuugi thought it might be the first time since he'd arrived that Tony had actually looked at him like a person instead of a kid.

"You got your problems, Yuugi," Tony answered. "What's going on with you?"

Yuugi shook his head and shrugged. He couldn't really date the beginning of his strange apathy; after Atem's departure he'd thrown himself wholeheartedly into his schoolwork, trying to ignore the absence of the friendly, familiar presence that had been with him through so much and for so long. Shortly before graduation he'd started wondering if it was really worth it. And then there had been his considerations on graduation night. He supposed he could blame it on Atem if he really wanted to, but somehow the idea felt cheap.

"I don't know," he finally said aloud. "I just . . . I remember when I used to laugh. I wish I could be like that again."

Tony shrugged. "I can't help you with that, Fish. You got to fix that on your own."

Yuugi paused in mid-nod. "Fish?"

The sardonic smile appeared on Tony's face. "Sure. You're just a little too big to be a shrimp, and you're good at wiggling out of small spaces."

Yuugi made a face that once upon a time might have turned into a smile. Now it just struggled for a few moments before falling away. He rested his forehead against Tony's shoulder and cried. Tony snagged a tissue from the box on his nightstand and tilted Yuugi's face away from his shoulder.

"You shouldn't cry that way, Fish," he said. He brushed the remaining tears off Yuugi's face. "You'll give yourself a headache."

Yuugi nodded and sniffled, then rubbed his eyes with one hand. Tony leaned over to throw the tissue in the trash. The wings of gold hair he called "fringe" dangled forward into the light.

And then Yuugi kissed him.

Tony grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. "What the hell?"

Yuugi's eyes went wide, and he clapped both his hands over his mouth in horror. Resemblance or no, this time he'd really gone and done it. He shrugged out of Tony's hands and slipped off the bed in one fluid, terrified motion, and made for the living room.

"Hey! Yuugi!"

He ignored the shout from Tony's side of the room.


Yuugi sat in the window and looked out at the small porch attached to the apartment. He didn't dare go outside; sometimes scorpions crept onto the bricks to enjoy their warmth after sunset, and he had no desire to be the next one in the emergency room.

He had no idea how long he'd been sitting there before Stephanie came into the room and picked up the phone. Yuugi barely even noticed her until her quiet voice filled the room.

"Hi there, sweetheart," she said, and he turned around, ready to answer. Then he realized she was on the phone.

"I know," she continued, and Yuugi turned resolutely back to the window, wishing he had a new manga to read. Dan had some American comics about Spider-Man, but they were nowhere in sight. He managed to ignore the conversation behind him fairly well until the end, when for no known reason his brain decided to tune back in. Had he remained lost in speculation everything might have been different, but he didn't.

"I just needed to hear your voice," Stephanie murmured, and Yuugi's fingers tightened on the wooden bar across the patio door. "Mm-hmm. Love you too."

Yuugi heard a beep as she hung up the phone. Then, "You still awake, Yuugi?"

He nodded without turning around. "Just thinking."

"I hear you," she said. "You need anything?"

Yuugi shook his head. "I'll probably go to bed soon," he said, fairly certain he'd just told one of the biggest lies of his life. Stephanie nodded and left the room. Yuugi returned to staring out the glass at the patio.

What would you give to hear his voice just one more time? I mean really hear it, not just some cheap memory.

Yuugi turned the question over in his mind. He had little of value, and less still that he thought would be a fair exchange. He supposed the answer was "pretty much anything."

And why? Why go to this trouble when you have friends all around you?

"I don't know," he said.

Are you such a coward you have to lie even to yourself? the voice in his head mocked, and he pressed his hands against the glass. He bit his lip. No, he wouldn't lie. Not to himself. Because he wouldn't have. He would have met it head-on and laughing.

"I love him," Yuugi whispered. "I love him. The way Anzu did," he added.

With the words said, Yuugi's wish came true. He was no longer numb; he was at once both elated and terrified. Unable to identify a good reason for either emotion, he simply continued to stare out the window until his confused thoughts led him into sleep.


13 OCTOBER – 280 CRANES

Someone was shaking him.

"Yuugi. Yuugi!"

"Mmmm?" Yuugi's eyes fluttered open. He was momentarily confused; why was he in the living room? Then the events of the previous night flooded back into his head, and he turned bright red. Right. That.

"What you doing out here, Fish?"

He didn't dare look at Tony's face. He was afraid of what he might see in it.

"I . . . I guess I fell asleep," he answered, and stifled a yawn that threatened to crack his face. He stood up unsteadily. Tony sighed. He sounded exasperated.

"You look like hell," he said, and Yuugi bit his lip to keep from snapping back. Lack of sleep always made him short-tempered. He shuffled past Tony to go wash his face and throw on a shirt.

"Oh, fuck it," he heard, and turned around. "Get a shower and take a nap. You're not going today."

"But - !" Yuugi tried to not panic. This is why you're supposed to think things through, genius.

"No," Tony said, effectively cutting him off. "With my luck you'd flinch when I said scurry and when the dust settled I'd be scraping you off the floor and sending you home in a shoebox."

Yuugi felt his cheeks flush and turned away. He felt as though he was being penalized for nothing more than falling asleep on the living room couch, in spite of the fact that logic told him he couldn't have slept more than four hours. His eyes burned.

The nap he took did more than restore him to some kind of equilibrium; it also gave him a few answers to the panicked questions he'd asked himself the night before. By the time he'd sat down to his lunch of Chinese takeout leftovers and milk, he was fairly certain he had everything worked out. Yuugi had almost forgotten what it was like to be alone somewhere; even when most of his roommates were out shopping or at parties, there always seemed to be at least one other person there. The solitude was both refreshing and productive, and by the time Dan and Stephanie returned to the apartment, he'd completed another half a dozen cranes.


14 OCTOBER - 286 CRANES

He was in the puzzle.

That was his first thought; then he realized it was just a room made of the same stone as Atem's soul room. And in front of him -

"Kneel, damn you," a rough voice said from behind him. Yuugi felt a fist connect solidly with the skin between his shoulderblades. He hit his knees with a soft grunt of pain. "Maybe you're scum, but you'll still show the Pharaoh respect."

What did I do, die in my sleep? Yuugi wondered, and then Atem turned around. Yuugi felt his breath stop. This was not his Atem. This was a man with hard eyes and a firm, unsmiling mouth.

"A-Atem?"

"This is the man Pereub?" Atem asked the man standing behind Yuugi. Then his eyes flicked back to Yuugi's face.

"I'm Yuugi, Atem," Yuugi said. "Don't - don't you remember me?"

"Pereub, son of Zoser, you have been brought here for the rape of the girl Irun. Do you deny it?"

Yuugi's thoughts were a mass of confusion. "Atem, I - "

"For this crime you have been lashed, and sentenced to my judgement," Atem continued. Yuugi had the distinctly surreal feeling that Atem didn't hear him at all. "I sentence you to a shadow game."

Yuugi's eyes widened. He knew what the shadow games were. The people challenged to them rarely survived - if ever.

"Atem, I didn't - !" The words died in his throat. Atem was standing directly over him. In the torchlight he looked like some kind of malignant demon.

"The purpose of the shadow games is to weed out the unfit and criminals of society," Atem said. His voice was cold. "If you win, you walk free from this place. If you lose . . . you lose your life."

Yuugi's heart was hummingbird wings as he realized what he was here for. Perhaps this trial had once been for Irun's rapist, but now it was for him. And he knew why.

"There is only one way to win this game," Atem said. "You may use any means you think appropriate, but your time is limited." He turned away. "On your feet."

The man who'd hit him the first time now grabbed his arm and yanked. Yuugi stumbled to his feet. Atem turned back to him.

"Game start."

Yuugi heard a loud and terrified scream - whether from himself or the trial's original victim he didn't know. And then, from behind him -

"Aibou!"

Yuugi spun around, and yes, Atem - Atem as he'd known him - was standing behind him, holding out a hand.

"Leave this nightmare, aibou," he advised. Yuugi grabbed his hand without hesitation, and they were standing in his bedroom. Of course. He'd never left at all. The final battle had been a success - but Atem had stayed. As for Tony Perez, he didn't exist. No wonder everyone said Yuugi had an overactive imagination. He threw his arms around Atem's waist and buried his face in the fabric of his jacket. Then the fabric wasn't there.

Not one of these dreams, Yuugi thought with an inner moan. I can't deal with this right now.

"A dream, Yuugi? You were right the first time," Atem said, and his voice was that of the Atem in the temple. Yuugi took a step backward, eyes wide, and was looking at a stranger. He brought his arms up to cover his bare chest.

"I can't rescue you forever," Atem continued. His voice was impatient now. "If you must persist in your crimes, there's nothing I can do about that."

"A-Atem?" Crimes? But it was all a dream, he'd said so, and -

"The shadow games are intended to weed out the weak-hearted and criminal element of society," Atem said. Yuugi watched with horror as the Atem in front of him slowly changed into the Atem from the nightmare.

"I didn't mean to!" Yuugi could feel panic taking over again, and he tried frantically to beat it out of his mind. He had no time for panic. Not if -

"There is only one rule to this game, and only one way to win," Atem told him. "You may use any means you think appropriate, but you must succeed before your time is used up."

"Atem, it was an accident! I won't do it again, I swear!" Yuugi reached for Atem's wrist. Surely the man hadn't just gone crazy. They were past that, weren't they? Atem jerked away. His face was stone.

Yuugi's eyes widened in terror. "Atem, it's me! It's Yuugi! Your partner, don't you remember? Your aibou!"

Atem's eyes were cool, disinterested. "Aibou? I see no aibou here," he said. Yuugi shook his head.

"I know I look different, but that's just because I'm older now, Atem! I'm not - "

"Your body betrays you," Atem answered, and Yuugi looked down at himself. At first he thought he was seeing a trick of the flickering torchlight. Then he realized that yes, his hands and legs really were streaked with blood, and yes, the skin it dripped on really was turning black.

"A scarlet letter was tattooed on her forehead so everyone would know she'd committed adultery," Atem said. Yuugi recognized the line from a book report Anzu had once given in one of their English classes, and he struggled to keep breathing. His lungs didn't want to cooperate.

"Atem, I didn't! I wouldn't - I didn't mean to - I - " Yuugi felt the first tears roll down his face as Atem turned away from him altogether.

"Game start."

Yuugi shook his head. "No! Atem, I - "

His legs were growing curiously stiff. He looked down and screamed.

I'm turning into a mummy!

He reached out again, a gesture now of supplication. "Atem, please!"

His mouth was covered with linen, and his screams became muffled. Atem turned back to him, and Yuugi's fear redoubled as he saw idle pleasure in the eyes that surveyed him. Then Atem's hands shot out and seized his shoulders.

"Do you see, Yuugi? Do you see what happens?" Atem shook him. "Do you see, Yuugi?" His voice echoed back. "Yuugi! Yuugi!"

Yuugi forced his arms away from himself in a desperate flail, and Tony jumped back just in time to avoid a smack to the face as Yuugi fell out of the bed. He was still screaming.

"Yuugi, chill!"

Yuugi's eyes snapped open. They were terrified and not at all aware.

"Atem, I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm - "

There was the sound of skin on skin, and Yuugi rolled over, his eyes wide and one hand to his cheek. Tony pulled his hand back in preparation for another slap if it became necessary, then dropped it when Yuugi started to cry. Tony put a hand on his back, and Yuugi jerked away, scrambling to his feet.

"Hey, Fish - "

"Don't touch me!"

Tony jumped up as Yuugi ran out of the room, a study in panic.

"Yuugi. Yuugi!"

The front door slammed.


Yuugi's bloody feet pattered up the stairs of the temple. He thought somewhere along the way he might have been stung by a scorpion - or maybe it had just been another particularly sharp rock. He didn't care.

The moon was just right to show him the inside of the temple without a light, and he got down in front of the statue in tears.

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice muffled by tears. "I'm sorry, and I ruined everything, and - "

Atum looked down curiously. Surely the boy didn't believe a single - and relatively minor - mistake could render his entire sacrifice void? Had he pushed too far in his test?

Aibou, calm down.

The voice came on the wind as always. It was far from enough to stop Yuugi's tears, but his desperate tirade abated into sobs. Eventually he would cry himself out, and then he could pick up the pieces and keep going.

But for now, he needed to cry.

15 OCTOBER - 286 CRANES

The first thing Yuugi saw when he woke was a scorpion. It was sitting in the middle of his palm, and it appeared to be sleeping. His breath sped up, but he didn't move. If it wasn't sleeping, he didn't want to get stung. Not when he was out in the middle of nowhere.

"Yuugi!"

Someone was calling him, just outside. He thought it might be Sandy. He managed to ease, very slowly indeed, into a sitting position without moving his hand. A shadow fell over him, and he looked up.

"Yuugi!" Sandy ran to his side and got down on her knees next to him. Yuugi raised his free hand to keep her from hugging him. She stared at him, puzzled.

"I've got a visitor," he said, and pointed to his other hand. Sandy reached out and flicked it out of his hand, then pulled Yuugi to his feet and stepped on the scorpion before it could attack him. She wrapped a light blanket around his shoulders.

"We've been looking for you for hours, " she admonished him. "Don't do that again, okay?"

Yuugi nodded and let her lead him down the steps. His feet ached. Running over sand and stone in bare feet had been far from the smartest idea he'd ever had.

Tony was standing at the bottom of the steps.

Yuugi bit his lip. Now there would be questions. He might even end up getting sent home. He cringed. What would Jii-chan say? He hadn't even lasted three months.

"Get in the Jeep," Tony said. Yuugi slipped past him and into the back seat, trying to make himself as small as possible. He didn't want to attract attention. Sandy got into the front. Tony climbed in and started the engine.

"You going to be okay running today?" he said, and Sandy nodded.

"I went to bed early last night," she answered. "If I really can't handle it, I'll make it a half-day and send the crew home."

Yuugi barely paid attention to the stares from the rest of the team as Sandy eased out of the Jeep. Now the lecture would come. He'd never seen Tony really pissed off, but he had an idea it would be frightening.

They pulled up in front of the apartment. Tony killed the engine.

"Get out." He swung around in his seat. "I'll be back in twenty minutes. You're going to take a shower and get dressed, and then you're going to sit. I don't care where you sit, but you better be here when I get back."

Yuugi did as he was told, got a glass of iced tea from the kitchen, and then sat down on his bed. He didn't want the tea - it tasted like sawdust - but his throat was swollen and dry, and he thought drinking something was probably a good idea.

He heard the front door, and cringed. Now there would be retribution, and it was liable to be messy.

Tony tossed his keys on his bed, sat down in front of Yuugi, and began examining his feet.

"You're damn lucky, Fish," he said as he finished. "You're damn lucky." Yuugi's feet were covered in enough scrapes and cuts to have left perfect bloody footprints soaking into the stone of the temple, but he had no bites or stings. Tony got up, ran his hand through his hair, paced, sat down on his own bed.

"Come here."

Yuugi got up and crossed the room slowly. Tony hadn't started yelling - not yet - but Yuugi knew it had to be coming sooner or later. He sat down next to Tony's bed. Tony patted the foot.

"I'm too tired to talk down at you. Get your ass up here."

Yuugi perched on the end of the bed, putting as much space between them as he possibly could. Tony took a deep breath, closed his eyes, let it out, opened them.

"You don't know why you're here, do you, Yuugi?" he asked. Yuugi's brows knitted together.

"My grandpa's friend - "

Tony waved a hand to cut him off. "No, Yuugi," he answered. "This is a work-therapy program. Most of the kids who come through here are in rehab for something."

Yuugi's mouth fell open. A work-therapy program? A modified form of boot camp? Was that what this was?

"I started this thing nine years ago," Tony told him. "I've spent a lot of time in this room with kids in trouble. I've worked with pregnant girls and kids on heavy drugs and boys just out of prison. I've taken kids in for AIDS tests and sat here with them when they came back positive. I've taught a few kids to read. I've raced a couple kids to the airport when they decided they couldn't take it anymore and they wanted out. But until yesterday, I never had a kid just run off half-naked in the middle of the night. So now you're going to sit there and tell me what in the hell that was about, and I'm going to sit here until you're done, and then we're going to talk."

Yuugi looked down at his hands. He couldn't even begin to explain. There was just no way.

"I . . . I had a nightmare," he said. Tony snorted.

"No shit, Fish. I didn't think you screamed like that on a regular basis for no good reason."

Yuugi twisted his fingers together and wished he had something to occupy his hands. "I . . . " He shook his head. "I could tell you, but you'd never believe me."

Tony snorted again. "You know, I hear that a lot. Do I look like the kind of person only believes what he can see right in front of him?"

Yuugi shook his head.

"So tell me," Tony said. "Nothing you say goes out that door." He pointed at the door to the bedroom.

Yuugi panicked. He couldn't lie well enough to make anything up. He couldn't tell the truth without being branded crazy. He started to cry. And then he started to talk. If he was going to be crazy, he might as well do it in good company.


"And that - that's it," he finished, his voice waving madly. Somewhere along the way his tears had stopped, and then started again without his even being aware of it. "You probably think I'm crazy."

Tony didn't answer him right away. Yuugi wondered if Anzu would visit him in the mental ward. Maybe she wouldn't want to talk to him at all.

"I don't think you're crazy," Tony finally said, and Yuugi let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. "Your gramps said you're a lousy liar, and I've had enough crazy things happen to me in this country to believe you when you say everything you just told me is gospel truth."

"It is," Yuugi offered. "You can call Anzu and Jounouchi if you don't believe me."

Tony nodded slowly. "The only part of this whole thing that bothers me, Fish, is the part where you seem to think your life is over because he's gone. You gotta be your own person without him. That's just the way life works."

"But I'm not my own person," Yuugi protested. "I mean - before I met him I was always too afraid to do anything on my own and I didn't really have any friends."

"So you learned something from him," Tony answered. "That doesn't mean he is you, and it doesn't mean you can't live without him."

"I guess . . . I guess I could," Yuugi said slowly. "But I don't want to."

Tony sighed. "Fish, let me tell you something. If I decided to quit living because I lost someone I didn't want to live without, you wouldn't be sitting here now, because I couldn't have started this program if I was dead. You'll learn to move on sooner or later. We all do. That's life."

Yuugi shook his head. "Not until I know there's nothing else I can do."

Tony shrugged. "And that's fine. It takes time. But you don't quit living just because somebody else dies, Fish. And you sure as hell don't quit living because you think you owe that somebody something. The way I see it, he owes you."

Yuugi nodded. Then he squirmed uncomfortably. Getting one of the big glasses for his tea probably hadn't been the smartest idea.

"Tony? I - " Yuugi squirmed again. "I have to go to the bathroom."

Tony gestured him off the bed. "I think we're done here unless you take off again," he said. Yuugi nodded and headed for the door. Then he stopped.

"Tony?"

Tony raised his eyebrows. Yuugi blushed.

"I - I'm sorry about - "

Tony waved him off. "It happens. Get outta here while the bathroom's empty. It's almost lunchtime."

Yuugi did.


14 DECEMBER – 480 CRANES

Yuugi stretched out on his bed, then looked disconsolately out the window. He'd asked Tony about the likelihood of snow for Christmas, and had been incredibly disappointed in the answer. Christmas just wasn't Christmas without snowball fights and sledding. And he wasn't going home.

There was a light knock at the door, and Stephanie poked her head in. "You coming out?" she asked, and Yuugi shrugged. He didn't see the point in a Christmas party when there was no Christmas to be had. Stephanie shrugged, too.

"Just thought you might want to meet Dan's girlfriend. She's from Kyoto," Stephanie remarked, and Yuugi pulled himself up onto his elbows.

"She's Japanese?" he asked, and Stephanie nodded. "She brought . . . I'm not sure what it is," she admitted. "The only Japanese food I know is sushi." Yuugi swung his legs off the bed. It might be worth it. Maybe.

Yuugi stopped short in the doorway to the living room. Sitting in one corner was a giant tree made out of plastic. He knew what it was – he'd seen enough movies to recognize a Christmas tree when he saw one – but he'd never actually been in a room with one before. There were several packages wrapped in bright paper beneath it. Were they exchanging gifts? It hadn't occurred to Yuugi to get anything for anyone.

"Yuugi!"

Dan was hurrying toward him. Following him was a short girl with a black bob.

"Hey, Yuugi. This is Ami," Dan said. Ami smiled, and Yuugi nodded to acknowledge her.

"It's nice to meet you, Ami-san."

At that, Ami started laughing. Yuugi was on the verge of apologizing when she stopped. Her smile was friendly.

"The pleasure's mine, Mutou-san," she answered. Yuugi knew she must know his last name because of the reputation he'd gained as a duelist – the reputation Atem had gained for him – and it hurt a little, but the familiarity of the address was so welcome he almost didn't notice.

"Yuugi's fine," he said, and found he was not at all displeased when she called him "Yuugi-kun." It was a piece of Domino, and he appreciated it. He made a beeline for the food, and for the first time in months he smiled without being aware of it when he found a dish of onigiri and another of chicken tatsuta sitting among the American and Egyptian offerings. He piled some onto his plate with nachos and some kind of dip – probably courtesy of Tony - before finding an open spot to sit down and eat.

Yuugi was surprised to find he was actually enjoying himself. People from two different sites had managed to squeeze into the living room – maybe sixteen people in all – and most of them were people he knew at least through a shared lunch or a movie night. He laughed aloud during an involved discussion on the origin of the pyramids, and was so shocked he nearly stopped right in the middle. How long had it been since he'd actually laughed at something?

Stephanie and Sandy were dragging something out of their bedroom. Stephanie was laughing. Sandy was simply shaking her head. Yuugi saw the picture on the side of the box, and his smile faded. Suddenly more than ever he missed Anzu and Jounouchi and Honda. He wondered what they were doing now.

"Okay, guys!" Stephanie was waving a microphone in the air. "Who wants to sing?"

At first he thought he might make it through all right; he and his friends were not, after all, the only people in the world to sing karaoke, and he recognized almost none of the music being sung. Then Stephanie and Ami got up together, and Yuugi recognized the song from the first note. Hadn't he and Anzu sung it, usually as loudly and badly as possible, on at least half a dozen occasions?

"Near, far – wherever you are," Stephanie sang, Ami giggling next to her and fumbling through the words. Yuugi curled up against the sofa with his legs against his chest. It was one of the only English songs he understood the whole way through. The girls began to all but shout the last verse, both of them off-key and laughing. It was almost like being home, he thought – but in a bad way, because he and Anzu should have been the two holding the microphones. And because the words were so familiar. He understood completely what it was like to love someone who wasn't there anymore. Suddenly his stomach was a tight knot and the room was too small. He stood up and excused himself. By the time he hit the hallway he was almost running.

He threw himself on the bed, grabbed his pillow, and curled up around it miserably. It was supposed to get better. That's what everyone always said. He'd gotten over Anzu, and she'd gotten over Atem, so why did it feel like he never would? Even when he'd been chasing Anzu he'd never felt like this – there had never been a time when something so stupid could make him feel this way.

Maybe it's not the way she loved him after all, he thought. Maybe I'm in love.

Far from calming him, the thought only made Yuugi feel sick to his stomach. If this was what it meant to be in love, he wished he'd never finished the puzzle at all. He knew he didn't really mean it – two years of a confused kind of friendship was definitely better than being lonely forever because he was too shy to talk to anyone – but for just a moment, part of him did mean it, and wholeheartedly so.

Nobody followed him, and he stayed in the bedroom until long after the party had broken up and Tony's quiet breath could be heard from the bed across the room. And then he let himself cry. Was there anything lonelier, he wondered, than being one side in an incomplete romance?


25 DECEMBER – 520 CRANES

Yuugi had no interest in running into the living room on Christmas morning. He expected to get exactly nothing, and so was more than happy to sleep in – at least, until Stephanie came running into the bedroom and plunked down on the bed.

"Yuugi! Yuugi, wake up, it's Christmas!"

Yuugi's eyes shot open and he sat up excitedly. Then he remembered it was a Christmas with no family and no snow, and his shoulders slumped.

"Stephanie, I was sleeping in," he murmured, and Stephanie grabbed his hands to pull him out of bed.

"No time for that! You've got stuff to open!" she shouted. Yuugi caught a blurred glimpse of Tony sitting up and looking irritated before he was pulled into the hallway.

"I – what? Fannie, I – "

"It came in yesterday afternoon. Come on!" Yuugi finally sped up of his own accord. Maybe she'd let him at least stop for a cup of coffee so his brain would start functioning.

Yuugi stopped short in the doorway of the living room. Ami had taken to staying with them since Ancel's time had ended, and now she and Dan were sitting under the Christmas tree. Sandy apparently hadn't joined them yet.

"Hey, you got stuff," Dan greeted, and Yuugi padded toward the tree. A small pile of wrapped packages had been set to one side, and Dan pointed to them.

"Tear in before Tony gets up," he advised. "He's a real-life Scrooge if there ever was one."

Yuugi did as Dan advised, starting with the box that had Anzu's, Honda's and Jou's names on the tag. Someone here had wrapped it - the paper matched that on the other packages - but the tag had clearly been included, because it was in Anzu's neat, rounded hiragana. Yuugi pulled it off the paper and tucked it in the pocket of his pajamas, then opened the box. He didn't cry - not exactly - but he could feel his eyes prickling. He understood now why they'd gotten together to get him something. Yuugi only followed one manga on a regular basis, but he'd missed it dearly since leaving Domino, and here were all the issues between July and November. Vash stared out at him jauntily from the top cover. Yuugi smiled and folded the box up carefully before moving on to the very small package from Jii-chan - an extra memory card for the digital camera he'd gotten for his birthday. Apparently everyone thought he had time to take pictures.

He picked up the boxes, ready to move them to his room, when Sandy's sleepy voice came from the door.

"You're missing a few, sugarbee," she said, and Yuugi looked down to see his name on another tag. He immediately flushed.

"I - I didn't - "

Sandy waved her hand at him. "Didn't expect you to," she answered. "Open it."

Yuugi obediently set down his box and picked up the bright blue package. Inside were two pairs of blue jeans. He looked up, confused. Sandy sat down on the sofa.

"I'm tired of watching you walk around looking like an orphan," she said. "And don't you dare let Tony talk you into ripping out the knees on these. They're not playclothes."

Yuugi nodded, then picked up the last package in his pile. It was small and flexible. Stephanie was all but bouncing.

"Go on, open it," she urged. Yuugi slid one finger under the tape, and Dan rolled his eyes.

"Rip it, man," he said, and Yuugi bit his lip. "It's Christmas paper. You're supposed to rip it." He made a theatrical tearing gesture with one hand.

Yuugi hesitated, then grabbed one corner of the paper and yanked. Ami and Stephanie started laughing.

Inside was a small package of rice paper. Yuugi turned it over, expecting to see some kind of instructions on it.

"It's for your origami," Stephanie explained, and Yuugi jerked his head up. They knew about that?

"Tony said you're always making these little birds, and when Sandy said you were always going to the craft store in town I just thought . . ." She shrugged.

Yuugi smiled at her, but thought to himself privately that he wouldn't use rice paper for his cranes unless it was the last paper on earth. Papyrus, now, that would have been different. He found a package with Sandy's name on it and passed it up to her.

"You all sound like a herd of water buffaloes," Tony said, and Yuugi turned to see him standing in the doorway. He'd thrown a robe on over his boxers, but apparently hadn't bothered dressing beyond that. Yuugi automatically pulled his knees up to cover his bare chest. He knew he needed to get around to buying new pajama tops or at least a couple of bigger T-shirts, but it kept slipping his mind. It didn't really matter, he knew that, but it still made him uncomfortable.

"Oh, humbug," Sandy answered, and the rest of the group started laughing as Tony's eyes narrowed and grew dangerously dark. Yuugi bit his lip and looked down at his knees. It seemed the safest course of action. Tony snorted and retreated to the kitchen. Yuugi picked up his small pile of gifts and headed for the bedroom.

"Don't let him get you down, man," Dan advised. "He's always like this about Christmas."


Tony stayed in the bedroom until dinner, when he came out of hiding to eat. Then he vanished again. Yuugi followed him. He wanted to call Jii-chan and his friends before it got too late in Domino.

His call to Jii-chan was short, and his call to Honda wasn't much longer - Honda was apparently out the door, on his way to a party. Yuugi hung up, turned the phone on again, and dialed Anzu's number. Then he waited while her mother went to find her.

"Yuugi!"

Yuugi smiled when her voice came on the line; he hadn't realized how much he missed her.

"How are you?"

Anzu's voice bubbled back at him, happy and quick. She was fine; Jou had come over to spend the evening; she was taking a dance class downtown. Then she changed tacks at the speed of light.

"So did you get your box?"

Yuugi started laughing. "You bet. I've been trying to get away all morning to read," he told her. Anzu giggled.

"How much Pocky do you have left?"

Yuugi's eyes widened. "There's Pocky in there?"

"Four boxes," Anzu said. "Didn't you - "

"Hold that thought." Yuugi dived for the box next to his bed and pulled out the manga in a single stack. Sure enough, there were four boxes of chocolate Pocky sitting in a neat row beneath. Yuugi opened a box, pulled out a piece of Pocky, and bit into it. Then he picked the phone back up.

"Mmm. Sorry. Anzu, can I marry you?" He snapped off another piece and ate it slowly.

"Haven't you asked me that before?" He could hear the laugh in her voice, and it sounded even better than Pocky.

"I was six years old," Yuugi protested. "Maybe you changed your mind."

They chatted until Yuugi saw Tony making irritated gestures at the phone. Then he asked if he could say a quick hello to Jounouchi before hanging up. At last he padded back to Tony's bed and put the phone back in the cradle.

"You're not supposed to talk on the phone more than twenty minutes at a time, Fish," Tony said. Yuugi flushed.

"Sorry."

Tony shrugged. "I take it something really exciting was in that box."

Yuugi nodded enthusiastically. "I guess Anzu told Jounouchi and Honda they should keep buying Trigun for me so I wouldn't miss any." He gestured toward the stack of manga. "Now I can find out what happens."

Tony's eyebrows furrowed. "Trigun?"

"It's a manga," Yuugi explained. "A comic."

Tony nodded. "And Pocky?"

"Is heaven in a box." Yuugi paused. "That's what one of my classmates used to call it."

The side of Tony's mouth quirked, but no laugh was forthcoming. "So what is it really?"

Yuugi grabbed the box off his bed. "It's a . . . it's kind of a snack. Here, have a piece."

Tony raised his eyebrows, then took a piece. He ate it thoughtfully.

"Think I'll stick with fruit bars," he said at last, and Yuugi shrugged.

"I like it."

Tony also shrugged. "To each his own." Then he buried his nose back in his book.

Yuugi took the hint and retreated to his own bed, where he sat down, picked up a manga, and began to read.


31 DECEMBER - 550 CRANES

"Gin!"

Yuugi slapped his hand down on the table and groaned. "Fannie, how do you do that?"

Stephanie grinned. "I'm just that good." She shuffled and dealt.

"You people are insane," Tony said. "You got a dig to be on tomorrow."

"So have you," Stephanie protested, and Tony shook his head.

"It's my day off," he told her. "You're not gonna see me at all." He grabbed his keys off the rack by the door. "Yuugi - only one person in the bedroom at any given time, got it?"

Yuugi made a face. "Huh?"

Tony waved his hand dismissively. "Never mind. I'm out of here. Sandy and Dan are in the kitchen. Happy New Year."

The door swung shut behind him. Stephanie started to giggle. Yuugi turned to her, confused.

"He's staying with his boyfriend tonight. He's never been over there before. It's a new house. I heard them talking on the phone," Stephanie confided. Yuugi's eyes went wide.

"Fannie, you were eavesdropping!"

Stephanie shrugged. "They eavesdrop on us."

"Well . . . " Yuugi squirmed in his seat. "Yeah, but that's their job."

Stephanie rolled her eyes. "It's your move, Yuugi." She watched him discard, picked up, and began moving the cards in her hand. "So who are you going to kiss at midnight?"

Yuugi checked his hand. If he could just get the seven of hearts . . . "Huh?"

"At midnight," Stephanie repeated. "Who are you going to kiss for good luck?"

Yuugi shrugged. "I didn't know you were supposed to kiss anybody. I don't normally stay up until midnight at all," he admitted.

Stephanie's eyes went wide. "Then you've got to kiss someone," she persisted. "It's practically a law."

Yuugi squirmed in his seat again. His face felt very warm. "But - I mean, I don't . . . "

Stephanie leaned forward. "Be my boyfriend for the night?"

Yuugi bit his lip. "I - " He was blushing, he just knew it. Stephanie was staring at him.

"Do you already have a girlfriend or something?"

"Well, I . . . not exactly," he said, and Stephanie's mouth fell open.

"You've got a boyfriend, don't you?"

Yuugi shrugged. "No. I mean - it's just . . . " It's just I finally stopped having nightmares and I don't want them to start again, he thought but didn't say.

Stephanie shrugged. "Whatever." She discarded and laid her hand down. "Gin."


14 FEBRUARY - 670 CRANES

Yuugi sat cross-legged on the floor of the temple. He'd been there since lunchtime, when he didn't think he could take another minute of Stephanie grumbling about how Valentine's Day just had to fall on the weekend immediately preceded by her breakup with her boyfriend. Tony had advised her to think of it as Singles' Awareness Day, and she'd started yelling. Yuugi, unable to deal with another argument, had decided to come here. He supposed he'd have to go back soon. It was almost dark.

There was movement outside the temple. Yuugi twisted around, his eyes wide.

"Who's there?"

No answer, and that made him very nervous, indeed. He didn't think he could be touched in here - well, maybe not. He wasn't entirely sure. But when he left? He couldn't stay here forever, and he had no working cell phone to call for help. He thought he could hold his own for at least a little while in a fair fight - two years with Atem and nearly three with Honda and Jounouchi had provided the knowledge, and he knew he'd gained at least a little muscle climbing around the cliffs - but if whoever was out there had a knife? A gun?

He heard a footstep and scrambled to his feet. If he was going to be attacked, he'd rather it be in the light, while he was standing and had at least some small chance of defending himself.

The sound moved away.

Yuugi was fairly certain his heart didn't slow down until he was back in the apartment, the door closed solidly between him and whatever threat might be out there.


Tony looked up from his spot on the sofa. In his hands was one of his usual heavy books. "You see a ghost out there, Fish?"

Yuugi shook his head. "It's nothing."

"Shouldn't be going out this late," Tony commented. "Dangerous." Yuugi shrugged.

He had an obligation to fulfil, and he wouldn't let all the prowlers in the world stop him.


2 MARCH - 724 CRANES

Tony was waiting in front of the door when Yuugi slipped into the living room after dinner.

"Thought I told you it's dangerous out there."

Yuugi shrugged. "I'll be all right."

Tony raised his eyebrows. "Let me tell you something, Fish. I like my balls fine just where they are. And if I gotta call your gramps to tell him you're having emergency reconstructive surgery because somebody decided to rearrange your face before taking your wallet, they're not gonna be there much longer. You're not going out alone."

"Stephanie does," Yuugi protested, and Tony shook his head.

"Stephanie goes to town alone," he answered. "You go out to the middle of nowhere somewhere."

"I'll be fine," Yuugi said, aware that he sounded dangerously like a petulant five-year-old.

"You even got something to take care of yourself with?" Tony asked, and when Yuugi's face fell, he sighed heavily.

"You come with me."

Yuugi followed him back to the bedroom. It didn't take all the prowlers in the world to stop him, just an overprotective Spaniard who thought he couldn't hold his own in a fight. Tony got down on his knees in front of the large trunk that served him as a closet. Yuugi sat down on the bed and waited while Tony rummaged.

Something cold and not quite cylindrical slid into his hand, and he looked down to see the handle of a knife sitting on his palm.

"You take care of that, Fish," Tony told him. "You take damn good care of it. I don't want to have to replace it."

Yuugi turned it over in his hands. He recognized it well enough from drawings; it was a replica of the kind of sacrificial knife that once would have been used in the temples of the gods, the handle wrapped in copper and - he didn't believe it could be real, but maybe - gold. Quite possibly the only kind of weapon he would have felt comfortable carrying into the temple.

"If you like it so much, why are you giving it to me?"

"I'd rather replace a knife than a kid," Tony answered. "I wouldn't give it to you at all if I didn't think I could trust you to carry it." He pointed a finger at Yuugi's chest. "But if you go using it when you don't have to - and I mean I hear about one fight you started - you're not going anywhere at night again, got me?"

Yuugi nodded. He had no plans to be anywhere near people, anyway.

The knife was held in a leather wrap that tied to a belt. Yuugi secured it carefully within reach of his hand, although he doubted he'd need it. Then he nodded his thanks before slipping out the door.


2 APRIL - 830 CRANES

Yuugi flipped a page. Spider-Man swung across it. He'd all but memorized Trigun - even the new ones. Sometimes he wondered why he hadn't bothered bringing any books.

The front door slammed.

"Hola, bitches!"

Yuugi closed The Amazing Spider-Man and swung his legs off the bed. The new boy was supposed to come today. Yuugi thought his name was Hanschen. He was from Austria.

Yuugi padded into the living room. The new boy was glowering at his feet.

"Yuugi, this is Hanschen," Tony said. "Hanschen, Yuugi."

"Hi," Yuugi offered. The boy just glared at him, and Yuugi saw flat murder in his eyes. He shivered and felt his smile fade.

"You're staying with Dan - second door on the right," Tony told Hanschen, pointing down the hallway. "Bathroom's next door."

Hanschen shouldered his bag, then pushed past Yuugi rudely on his way through the door. Tony whistled under his breath, the sound of someone not entirely surprised but still slightly awed.

"He take some work, that one," he murmured. "You okay, Fish?"

Yuugi nodded. "Um . . . should I get him some tea or something? Sandy made a fresh pitcher." He thought again of that horrible glare in Hanschen's eyes and decided he didn't envy Dan his new room mate. Tony shook his head.

"Better just let him be, Fish," Tony said. "You got your own problems to worry about."


2 MAY - 905 CRANES

Yuugi slipped into the kitchen. He'd spent the entire afternoon on the back patio pulling weeds with Hanschen, and he was hot and dirty - and thirsty. Sandy, Dan, Tony, and Stephanie were all sitting around the table. Tony looked up as Yuugi padded in.

"Gotta kick you out, Fish," he said. "You can't be in here right now."

Yuugi bit his lip. Had he done something wrong?

"I . . . I just wanted to get a drink."

Tony waved him toward the fridge, and Yuugi found a pitcher of Kool-Aid. He poured himself a glass, then headed for the bedroom. He would drink his fake fruit punch, then get a shower.

He was still toweling his hair dry when he felt a pair of arms wrap around his waist with an excited squeal. Yuugi dropped the towel at once and spun around. Stephanie was behind him, giggling.

"Fannie, you scared the heck out of me!"

Stephanie continued to giggle. "I'm going home in two days!"

Yuugi wanted to smile, but suddenly his face felt frozen. She was leaving? He'd be stuck here with nobody for company but the adults and Hanschen?

But you're almost done, a voice in the back of his head whispered. Soon you'll have all the company you'll ever need.

And then he was able to smile. "That's great!"

Stephanie paused in her laughter to brush Yuugi's bangs out of his eyes. Then she started again.

"What do you say to one more game of Gin?"

Yuugi picked up his towel and retreated to hang it up. "You bet. I still have to beat you."

Stephanie laughed. "Don't count on it."


20 JUNE - 962 CRANES

Yuugi folded frantically, trying his best the whole time to not curse Tony and Sandy to the Shadow Realm and beyond. They were taking away his last chance, the one chance he had left, and -

"Yuugi!"

Yuugi sighed, set the completed crane on his bed, and got to his feet. Tony came to the door.

"Time for you to set up a plan, Fish."

"A - what?"

Tony gestured him into the hallway. "A plan. You're leaving in ten days - " panic stabbed Yuugi squarely in the stomach when he realized he had nine days, at most, to finish, and he hadn't had nearly enough time to work on the cranes lately - "and we got to know what you're doing when you get home."

Yuugi cast a glance back as he followed Tony down the hall. He knew what he was doing. He was going to be working with Jii-chan at the shop. And maybe, just maybe -

But he had to get this out of the way, first.


29 JUNE - SACRIFICE COMPLETED

Yuugi jumped off the bed and began rummaging beneath it. At last his fingers hit on the black plastic garbage bag he'd secreted there months ago, when -

"Yuugi!" Sandy came in just as Yuugi succeeded in getting the bag out from under the bed. "I'm going up to town, sugarbee. You want to come?"

Yuugi shook his head. He had other places to go, more important people to entertain. More important gods. Sandy looked reluctant.

"Tony and Dan aren't here this afternoon, sugar," she said. "I really don't want to leave you here alone."

"I was going for a walk," Yuugi told her, and she gave him a look that Yuugi recognized easily as a warning bell on what Tony called the Built-In Bullshit Detector. "I just . . . I had to take care of this stuff first. I'll be out of here in five minutes, I promise."

Sandy continued to give him the Bullshit Detector look. Yuugi attempted to look innocent. Don't mind me, I'm just a short kid with neatness issues. At last her face softened.

"Don't get yourself in trouble, sugarbee," she said. "This would be the worst time." Yuugi nodded.


It took him almost half an hour to make the mile-long walk to the temple; the bag was heavier than he'd expected. At last he heaved it up the stairs, ignoring the ghostly red footprints still imprinted there. He stopped in front of the statue.

"I'm here," he said. "I did it." And he upended the bag on the floor.

The thousand paper cranes spilled out, covering his feet. Yuugi watched them tumble, brown and black and gold and red. Skin - hair - eyes - just one white for the smile he so rarely saw but always gloried in.

And now what?

Yuugi waited.

Nothing happened.

Yuugi blinked back tears. And then -

give me something dear

He looked around, the voice an unfamilar one.

and something necessary

The temple was empty, save himself and the wave of paper at his feet.

something now and something later

Yes. His promise. Made so long ago, he'd nearly forgotten it.

But what did he have to give that was necessary? He could get by without the money in his wallet, and although society wouldn't like it much, the clothes on his back weren't really necessary either. He sank down amid the cranes and let his arms fall.

His left arm brushed against something cold.

Yuugi looked down, and saw Tony's knife hanging against his hip.

Necessary is an adjective for something you can't live without, Yuugi. Didn't you study this yesterday? Anzu's voice rang in his head.

Something you can't live without.

"First sign of madness, listening to the voices in your head," Yuugi murmured, and freed the knife from the leather sheath.

And then he got to his feet and held out his left arm, pale side up. He felt cold ice against his skin, and then in it. He swung his arm, shaking it. Lacy red ribbons appeared among the cranes. He swung his arm again, and then staggered.

I don't think I was supposed to cut that deep, he thought, and went back to his knees. The world wavered out of focus, and he fell forward to lay with his cheek against the stone. He wished Anzu were here.

Look, I probably need stitches and I'm not even crying! he thought. Wasn't there a time someone could hit me and I'd start whimpering like a kicked puppy?

His eyes closed. Either it would work or it wouldn't. Either way, he'd be seeing Atem shortly.

Unless it works and you die, and then Atem will be stuck in this world alone and it'll be your fault!

At the sound of his own voice - his old voice, Yuugi Alone, Yuugi Before - ringing clearly through the temple, Yuugi's eyes snapped open. He forced himself to sit up. The cranes were gone as though they'd never been.

And he was still alone - but he could hear a car somewhere outside. He looked down at his arm, a smear of red across the stones at Atum's feet.

Someone was outside.

"Sugarbee, are you here?"

Yuugi filled his lungs with air. It hurt a little. "Yeah. I - I cut myself, Sandy."

Her footsteps sped up, and she got on her knees next to him.

"Oh, honey," she murmured. "What on earth did you do?"

Yuugi unglued his tongue from the roof of his mouth. "I was going after a scorpion and I tripped," he said, shocked a little at how easily the lie came out of his mouth. "I thought Jou might like one, if I could get it back to Japan - it's kind of an inside joke."

Sandy's lips thinned to a line as she used the bottom of her T-shirt to clean Yuugi's arm. "You're not supposed to run with a knife in your hand, sugarbee."

Yuugi looked down. It wasn't as bad as he'd thought. "I'll remember that." He couldn't take the suspense anymore. "Sandy, did you see anybody outside? Or - or by the dig?"

Sandy shook her head. "You supposed to meet someone out here, sugar?"

Yuugi felt himself nodding from a long distance away. "Something like that."

He could see the pity in her eyes, and hated it. "I'm sorry, honey," she said. "I didn't."


Yuugi let Sandy lead him into the apartment. He'd failed. All the months and all the work had been for nothing. He saw Tony sitting on the couch and, for a wonder, he didn't have his feet on the coffee table. Probably because he was talking to -

Yuugi spun out of Sandy's guiding arm, and the world disappeared.

Atem was smiling back at him. "I was starting to wonder if I had the wrong place."

Yuugi took a single stumble-step forward and stopped, frozen. Somewhere a million miles behind him, Sandy was telling him he should go to the bathroom and get cleaned up.

He'd done it.

And with a single thought, the spell broke. Atem made it to his feet just before Yuugi all but attacked him, burying his face in a familiar blue jacket and breathing deep. And if in a few moments his nightmare came true? It would be worth it, he decided. Worth every minute for his success. Yuugi snuggled against Atem's shoulder. What happened next was past consideration. Right now he just didn't want to let go.

"Why are you crying, aibou?"

Yuugi shook his head without relinquishing his grip. "I don't know." At last he pulled his head back. He'd had enough of the shoulder for now. He wanted to see Atem's eyes. Atem pulled Yuugi's arm gently out from around his back and examined the deep cut running across it.

"And they call me mad," he murmured. "You could have died, aibou."

Yuugi shrugged. It was a gesture that, in context, perhaps only Atem would have understood.

"You should drink something, aibou," Atem told him. "You're very pale."

Yuugi let Atem lead him into the kitchen. Tony raised an eyebrow at him.

"What's all this about you and a scorpion, Fish?"

Yuugi felt Atem's gaze on the side of his face. "Scorpion?"

"I tried to get into a fight with one," Yuugi said, keeping his eyes carefully on Tony and not on Atem. Tony he could lie to if he really had to. "It kind of got away."

"Go wash. I want to see your arm," Tony commanded. Yuugi squeezed Atem's hand as he turned around. He had the idea that he was trapped in some very vivid, realistic dream, and any moment now he was going to wake up. He used hot water on his arm. He could feel pain in dreams, but it was always a kind of disconnected pain - as though he were observing pain instead of feeling it. He supposed this could be some weird death fantasy, but it was most definitely not a dream. He padded back out to the kitchen. He saw Sandy putting fresh sheets on the second bed in her room as he passed.

Tony nodded at the chair across from him. Yuugi sat down next to Atem.

"Your gramps was right, Fish," Tony commented. "You're a lousy liar."

Yuugi opened his mouth to protest. Tony cut him off.

"You're lucky I don't call him right now and tell him you've been carving yourself up. Let me see your arm."

Yuugi held it out, then hissed as Tony pressed a wet cloth against it. It felt more like fire than water.

"What is that?"

"Vodka."

"I thought you didn't drink," Yuugi said, and Tony shrugged with one shoulder.

"I don't. Alcohol makes people careless. Careless people cause problems. But I'd rather have vodka for disinfectant than anything you can find in the medicine cupboard. Stop squirming."

Yuugi found Atem's hand and squeezed it. Really, it was just a cut. And it burned like crazy. At last Tony pulled the cloth away from Yuugi's arm.

"You're supposed to be leaving tomorrow, Fish," Tony said. "You better hope this don't get infected, or you're gonna be in the hospital when your plane's taking off." His eyes flicked to Atem. "You going with him?"

Yuugi froze. Somehow he hadn't quite considered the problem of Atem having no passport, identification, or plane ticket. He hoped Atem was right in nodding.


1 JULY - DOMINO AIRPORT

Anzu craned to see over the heads of the people in front of her.

"Jounouchi, do you see him?"

"If I saw him, I'd tell you," Jounouchi answered, and she turned to Honda.

"What time is it?"

"Two minutes after the last time I told you."

Anzu sighed and turned to Shizuka. "You don't suppose we got the wrong flight, do you?"

Shizuka shrugged and shook her head. "His grandpa called his team leader, and this is the plane he's supposed to be on."

Anzu watched the people filtering through Customs. What if Yuugi had missed his connecting flight and was stuck in some country whose language he didn't speak, with no way of contacting them? A tall man with spiky black hair and blonde bangs came through the turnstile. Anzu examined him quickly before returning to her scrutiny of the passengers still waiting. Shizuka gasped.

"It's him!"

Anzu's head turned so fast her neck cricked. "Where?"

"In the turnstile - there - in the blue jacket."

Anzu took a closer look at the man she'd dismissed and gasped. It couldn't be. It couldn't.

"That's not him, Shizuka," she said, and her voice seemed to come from far away. "That's Atem!" Impossible? With Yuugi, who could say?

And then someone grabbed Atem's hand, and Anzu's eyes widened. Had she been asked to pick Yuugi out of a lineup, she would never have picked the man in front of her - the one carrying Yuugi's beaten-up backpack and wearing a tank top she recognized instantly as one Yuugi had gotten specifically for this trip. He was taller, his skin dark, his arms and legs strong - and his eyes were bright and alive. This was not the mopey, depressed Yuugi she'd seen through this gate a year ago.

Shizuka squeezed Anzu's hand and spoke in a half-whisper. "When did Yuugi get hot?"

Jounouchi groaned. "Shizuka, do me a favor. Don't ever say that again."

Shizuka giggled. Anzu tried to edge closer to Yuugi, to intercept him without having to deafen the people around her.

His eyes scanned the crowd and stopped on her.

"Anzu!" Even the voice was different. It wasn't deeper - not noticeably, at least - but the childish trill had disappeared from it entirely. Yuugi darted forward.

A pair of arms wrapped around her waist and lifted her right off the floor, and she squealed.

"Yuugi, don't!"

Yuugi started laughing - laughing! her disbelieving mind supplied - and put her down.

"Sorry." He hugged her again, a more civilized version of the attack she'd just been subjected to, and she hugged back - hard.

"Hey, man!" Jounouchi spoke from her right, and Yuugi turned to hug him next.

"Missed you guys," he mumbled as Honda attacked him from behind. He squirmed.

"Guys, I need to breathe." Jounouchi and Honda let go. Yuugi surveyed them all, nodded at Bakura, then leaned forward and hugged Shizuka. Anzu watched her blush and suppressed a giggle. Yuugi was going to be beating the girls off with a stick.

"You guys remember Atem, don't you?"

Atem offered them all a brief nod. Jounouchi's and Honda's mouths fell open in perfect chorus. Anzu wished for a camera.

"Man, how did you - "

"Find him? Long story," Yuugi interrupted. The company wasn't right. "Let's go, I've got something to pick up at baggage claim."

"And then we're going out to lunch," Anzu said. "Jii-chan said you'd probably want to chat, so he stayed home. We should have enough room between two cars."

Yuugi furrowed his eyebrows. As far as he was aware, Jounouchi was the only driver among them. "Two cars?"

"I brought mine," Bakura said, and Anzu blushed. Yuugi caught the blush and interpreted it.

"Anzu! You're supposed to tell me this stuff!"

Anzu's blush deepened. "Well, you've been so busy . . . "

Yuugi shrugged. "You're not getting away without details, just so you know." He darted forward and picked his bags off the line before returning. "So where are we going to eat?"

"Pick a place," Jounouchi told him. "My treat."

Yuugi grinned. "Anywhere that has sashimi. I swear nobody in Egypt's ever heard of it."

"It's the desert, aibou," Atem cut in. "Eating fish in the desert isn't exactly a recommended practice."

"Yeah, and when did this happen?" Jounouchi asked, waving at Atem. "I mean, you could have told us, or something."

Yuugi smiled. His cheeks turned pink. Shizuka's eyes went wide. Anzu grabbed her wrist and squeezed it - hard - before Shizuka could say anything aloud. Instead, she leaned over and whispered in Anzu's ear.

"He's - ?"

Anzu did the same. It was almost easier to talk directly into Shizuka's ear than to talk over the noise of the airport, anyway.

"I guess so," she answered, watching Yuugi, Atem, and Jounouchi all get into an involved discussion of some kind or other as they headed out to the parking lot.

"Okay, this one - " Jou pointed at a small silver compact - "is the happy couples car. This one - " he pointed toward a beaten-up green monster of a car - "is for the sane people." Anzu and Bakura laughed in unison. Yuugi just wound his fingers around Atem's as Bakura popped the trunk on the little silver car and took his bag.

"Bakura."

Bakura acknowledged Jounouchi as he wedged Yuugi's second duffel bag securely into the trunk.

"Let's take Yuugi to that new place. Mai said they have good sashimi."

Bakura slammed the trunk. "Okay."

Yuugi slid into the backseat, then slid over to let Atem get in. Anzu got into the front.

"Okay, Yuugi, spill. How did you - "

"You go first," Yuugi said, cutting her off. "That way I don't have to repeat myself."

Anzu fastened her seat belt, then spun around. "Come on, Yuugi, that's no fair."

Yuugi fumbled with his own belt - there had been no safety belts in Tony's Jeep - and then grinned.

"I'll give you one hint, Anzu. Do you remember the legend of the thousand paper cranes?"