I feel like I should have something incredibly profound to say, given how long this story is (also given how long I've worked on it, and that it's the first novel-length fanfiction I've ever actually completed), but the truth is, I don't. I could tell you about long hours spent researching, agonizing over parallel plotlines, writing, editing, even sitting at the dining room table going "what? Where the fuck did THIS come from? I mean, it's great, but where the fuck did it come from?", but either you already know about those things - or on some level have, at least, intuited them - or you don't care about them. I feel something of a loss finishing it up, but if you haven't written something of your own like this you wouldn't understand, and if you have, then you already know. So what more is there to say?
I suppose there are a couple of final notes to be made. The first is about Mahado. My characterisation of Mahado is based on three of my best teachers from my compulsory-education years: Mr. Kevin Wible (ninth grade history), Mr. Lon Jenkins (tenth grade English), and Mrs. Catherine Heil (seventh and eighth grade English; she also happens to be my mum). They are the kind of teachers I think every teacher should strive to be - compassionate, involved, striving to make their courses interesting for their kids. It's because of them that I was able to bring a slightly less haphazard characterisation to the teaching aspect of Mahado's character, and this final chapter is dedicated to them.
The second-slash-last note is about the end of the chapter. Some of you may notice that it would appear a section is missing right at the very end of this story. This is partly true. However, I decided I did not want this story to go the way of a certain seven-book saga featuring a boy with black hair and glasses, and a lot of pondering (also T.K. Yuy) led me to the conclusion that the final section would be akin to that hideous "Nineteen Years Later" epilogue for various reasons. If you'd really like to know what happens after the final epigram at the end, let me know in your review, and if enough people are in favour, I'll post it as a separate piece. (There's no sex in it, though, so don't ask for it in the vain hope of more R-rated scenes.)
And so I present to you the final chapter of Written in the Stars. It's been a fun ride; it's my sincere hope you'll come along with me on some of my future escapades both major and minor.
In the meantime, enjoy.
THE -ONLY AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'd like to give a shout-out to you guys for representing 21 countries (I checked in Reader Traffic)! It's really exciting when you realise your work is liked - or at least looked at - globally. A special shout-out to the Finland contingent for being so big, and to the Brazil contingent just because you guys are from Brazil. (Long story.) Glad to see you around
Title: Written in the Stars
Pairing/Characters: This chapter features puzzleshipping/blindshipping, and also a couple of incidental ship mentions.
Word Count: 19 500
Story Rating: R/M for sexual situations, language, and violence.
Chapter Rating: R/M for sexual situations, nudity, sex, and a bit of language.
Story Summary: When Yuugi's class gets to study a new panel from a pharaoh's tomb, Yuugi walks straight into trouble. Can he stay alive? And can he find his way home?
Chapter Summary: . . . just read it. 's the last one.
Spoilers: For the end of the series.
Warnings: Eh. Sex?
Notes: I would like to take note that in all relevant countries, both Yuugi and Atem are now above the age of statutory consent.
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.)
Special Thanks/Dedications: This chapter is for Sailor Twilight Assassin, who introduced me to Dark Magician Jesus. nod (Also, I promised to plug her here. Her crack is win. I like it. You should like it, too. Go read it.)
Atem raised a hand absently and studied the board. Yuugi studied Atem. Opposite him, Idut was trying not to make it blatantly obvious that she was studying Set. Atem moved. Yuugi followed. Set took his turn to study the board and played. He scooped up the dice to hand them to Idut, who promptly dropped them. Yuugi watched her flush scarlet and wondered if Atem's inviting her had been such a good idea after all. Idut picked the dice up again and rolled. Set shook his head.
Idut flushed again as Atem picked up the dice. "I don't think I have the talent for it that you do," she admitted. Set shook his head.
"A truly good die is perfectly balanced. There's no talent to it at all. It's moving, not rolling, that takes practice."
Atem rolled three. Yuugi took the dice, clasped his hands loosely one against the other, and shook.
Big money, he thought, a phrase from so many half-forgotten television gameshows. Big money, big money, come on, big money. It had once, when he was very small, been his joke with Jii-chan to chant "big money" while rolling the dice. Yuugi remembered holding a pair of dice - plastic, not knucklebone - in his hands and felt a wave of homesickness. He continued shaking, knowing if he only concentrated he could make it go away.
Yuugi let the dice spill out onto the board - a pair of sixes. Set snorted.
"I swear you cheat."
Yuugi looked down at the board so Set wouldn't see the insultingly wide grin Yuugi could not keep off his face. "A really good pair of dice are perfectly balanced. Isn't that what you said?"
Atem started laughing. Idut let out a squeak that was trying very hard not to follow Atem's suit. Yuugi chanced a glance upward. Set was giving Atem the glare that meant Atem ought to shut up. Atem wound down to chuckles.
"You're a poor example to the slaves, Set."
Set snorted and took the dice. Idut looked up at the sky.
"I - I should probably go," she murmured. "It's getting on close to evening."
"It's your leisure day," Atem protested. Idut shook her head.
"Only until afternoon," she answered. "I'm needed in the evenings."
Atem shrugged. "I suppose if you feel you're needed elsewhere I can hardly keep you here."
Idut got up, thanked them quietly for inviting her, and slipped away. There was a long silence. Then -
"I thought we had an agreement about that, Atem."
"Mmm?" Atem looked polite, but nothing more. Set gave him a look.
"I'm doing no such thing," Atem protested. "We needed a fourth to fill up the game, and with Mahado gone - "
" - you could just as easily have asked any member of the council, or half a dozen others," Set cut in. "You're matchmaking."
Yuugi decided to stay out of the argument. Trying to get between Atem and Set never went very well.
"If Idut chooses to make herself known to you as a potential wife, I can hardly stop her. She's strong-willed, if nothing else. I choose to stay out of it."
Set snorted again. "If that's what you call strong-willed, I'd hate to see what you consider docile."
Atem shrugged. "She's not Shemei. It's hardly her fault if circumstance made her soft-spoken. She's stubborn as a mule beneath."
The men turned to Yuugi as one. He blushed, but he'd had enough. Listening to them argue was only amusing for so long. "What was wrong with her eye?" Yuugi hadn't seen much of Idut since he'd become Atem's personal servant, but he was absolutely positive the white scar by the corner of her eye - perhaps the size of Yuugi's smallest fingernail - had not been there the last time he'd seen her.
"The left one? Burned," Set answered. "An accident with an improperly lit cookstove. The fire exploded. I swear on my life Greek slaves ought not to be allowed in the kitchens. What kind of a fool puts stones in a cookstove to hold the heat?"
Yuugi shifted, but remained still. It wasn't his place to challenge the casual prejudices that surrounded him every day, no matter how uncomfortable they made him feel; he would have liked very much to point out that Set's female slave was both Greek and perfectly sensible, but doing so would only cause trouble. Yuugi had no desire to be whipped.
"One who didn't cook before becoming a slave?" Atem suggested. "Don't look at me that way. I've never cooked a day in my life. I wouldn't have the slightest idea."
Set shrugged. "As long as we're down to three, I suppose I ought to go see how Karim's managing with Mana. I've been doing her runes. Karim can't get her to sit still long enough to even explain how to invoke them."
Atem chuckled. "Mana's not going to like that."
"Her master's away, and she has lessons to learn. She'll learn them and be glad someone's taken the time to keep up with them, no matter the day."
Set sighed, stood up, smoothed his robes, and made an exit. Yuugi watched him go.
"Do you think Idut's going to be okay?"
Atem paused in the middle of clearing up the senet pieces. "Mmm?"
"Her eye. Set said she was burned."
"Shemei hasn't spent all these years in the kitchens to learn nothing, little Aibou. If it's already scarred, she'll be quite all right. The gods must have been watching for her, if such is her only injury."
Yuugi nodded. He felt badly for Idut, who had been beaten almost daily by her husband but had never actually been left with scars on her skin. Atem had expressed a hope that she might marry again someday; Yuugi wondered if a scarred face would prevent that. Egyptian men could be picky about the weirdest things, in Yuugi's opinion. He picked up the senet board and tucked it under his arm to carry away. Atem yawned.
"I can't abide this heat. It makes one lazy." Yuugi was a little surprised - Atem was mostly immune to the incredible Egyptian heat - but not entirely. Yuugi put it at a hundred and fifteen at the very least, and being so close to the Nile had a tendency to put a great deal of humidity in the air.
"You know, Mahado can't steal your clothes right now if you want to go swimming."
Atem started to laugh. He put his hand on Yuugi's shoulder. "Even were I so inclined, I hardly think it a good idea to do so in broad daylight, little Aibou. We'd be relying on our own protection, unless you're disposed to take a guard, as well."
Yuugi wrinkled his nose and wished - not for the first time - that Atem weren't the pharaoh. Swimming in the Nile could be great fun as long as the swimmer remembered to watch out for crocodiles. Swimming in the Nile under the watchful eye of a soldier, though . . . that was different. Atem smiled and tapped Yuugi's nose.
"Have you become a rabbit, little Aibou?"
Yuugi's nose wrinkled again. Atem chuckled and kissed Yuugi's forehead. He had to stretch to do it. "Perhaps it's best if we retire indoors. It's rather too warm outside the walls."
Yuugi nodded and followed Atem obediently.
"Can I ask you something?"
Atem turned to Yuugi and smiled. "You ought to stop asking me that, little Aibou. You know my answer by now."
Yuugi blushed. "Well . . . "
Atem raised an eyebrow at him. Yuugi blushed more heavily and continued.
"Were you matchmaking?"
Atem chuckled. "Not as such. If Set chooses to take it so such is his decision, but as he said, we do have an agreement. He refuses all entreaties to force a wife on me, and I respect his decision to remain unmarried."
"Isn't that kind of weird? I mean - " Yuugi tried to consider how to best explain what he meant. "I just thought that was a big deal here. You know, being married."
Atem shrugged. "He's not young as these things go, but he has at least a good fifteen years ahead of him - twenty-five if the gods are good, and perhaps more. It's happened in the past, after all. Sooner or later he'll change his mind."
"How old is he, anyway? I thought he was your age."
Atem shook his head. "His exact age is a mystery - he was orphaned as a child - but he puts himself at somewhere between twenty and twenty-three. I tend to lean toward the latter. He remembers the presenting ceremony when I was born, and I find it a bit hard to believe a two-year-old would have any clear memory of it. Twenty-three seems the more likely."
Yuugi tried to imagine not having an exact age or birthday and failed. Atem sighed.
"Well, little Aibou, what would you? It's in the palace we should stay for the nonce, I think."
Yuugi considered. "I could teach you how to play Yahtzee."
Atem's brow furrowed. "To play what?"
"Yahtzee. It's a dice game. We'll need - mm. Papyrus and something to write with, so I can keep score, and five dice. I probably can't write numbers you know, but if you'll help me make a key I can keep score in hieratic. And then I'll show you how to play, if you want."
Atem's face was lit by a sunny grin. "Such would please me ever, little Aibou."
"You should probably ask for the papyrus. Karim'll give it to you, but probably not me."
"Tell him I sent you. He'll give it to you."
Yuugi nodded. "Okay. Where's he going to be - I mean, because it's the weekend? I don't know where he stays."
"Two doors down from Mahado in the complex. His door is red - you can't possibly miss it."
Yuugi nodded again. "See you in your room in fifteen minutes?"
It was Atem's turn to nod. "And then, little Aibou, you can teach me Yozzy."
"Yahtzee," Yuugi corrected absently. "Okay."
They smiled at each other.
And Yuugi headed out for the complex.
Yuugi rolled the dice. Three fives, a one, and a four. He put the fives to the side and rolled again.
"Clear-roll." This was a term Atem, still unable to say 'Yahtzee' after Yuugi had repeated it for him four times, had coined as a name for rolling all five of the same number. Yuugi had taken it up out of respect for Atem, although he still had to stop and think about what he was saying every time he rolled five of the same. He marked his score down on the paper. Atem frowned vaguely. Yuugi looked at what he'd written and realised he'd used Arabic figures instead of Egyptian glyphs.
"Um. Sorry. How do you write 'fifty,' again?"
Atem took the stylus out of Yuugi's hand, turned the papyrus around, and marked the number on the corner. Yuugi studied it and then copied it into his score-box. Atem had suggested that Karim might keep a card for them, but Yuugi had insisted on doing it himself; it gave him an incentive to learn hieratic numbers, and he didn't mind looking a bit silly in front of the council as long as he wasn't undermining Atem's authority by doing it. He also believed, but did not say aloud, that he was fairly sure Karim would cheat the scores in Atem's favour. Yuugi didn't mind losing - had occasionally lost on purpose when Atem proposed to entertain guests with a game simply because it was best if Atem appeared undefeated, and Atem would always make it up to him with a rematch later - but being deliberately cheated out of a win would have irked him to no end. Atem took up the dice and took his rolls.
"I have four of three."
"D'you want to take four of a kind, or fill up your three-spot?"
Atem considered. Yuugi had explained to him that the mechanics in winning a game of Yahtzee were a combination of luck and good planning, and Atem had taken Yuugi's words to heart.
"Four of a kind."
Yuugi let the stylus hover over the inkwell. "Are you sure?" Atem was drawing close to the enticing 65 on top that would give him the 25-point bonus, and if he took the three-spot he'd be only three points away. It was a bonus that could easily tip the entire game on its head. Set, who took a kind of especial pleasure in games that involved both planning and scorekeeping, watched them intently. Siamun and Ankhnadin had both raised their eyebrows in expressions that seemed to say something about kids these days and their disrespect for two thousand years of tradition.
Atem seemed to be adding up points in his head. "Perhaps filling in the three-spot would be better," he allowed, and Yuugi wrote in the twelve points where they belonged. Then he rolled.
"Great Pharaoh, a caravan from Nubia approaches."
Atem shifted on the throne. "If the caravan is friendly, let them in."
Yuugi felt a strange sensation race down his spine - not a chill, but something similar. The exchange was identical to one he remembered from the day Atem had first taken notice of him outside the kitchens. So much was the same, and yet so much had changed - including Yuugi himself. He couldn't imagine the Yuugi he was then being able to even keep up with the Yuugi he was now.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Yuugi palmed the dice and retreated to his place by Atem's throne as Atem hauled himself off the floor. Yuugi put the stylus with Karim's supplies and sat back. Atem sat on the throne and raised his head.
The caravan belonged to the jewel-trader Kasim. Atem leaned forward.
"How fares our counselor in your land?"
Kasim swept an arm behind him. A dusty man with very dark skin let go of someone's shoulder and stepped forward, limping slightly. The scars beneath his eyes stood out sharply against his sunburned skin.
"All's well between us, and all's been done," said a very familiar voice. Yuugi felt his face split in a grin.
All's well, all right.
Yuugi sighed and flopped back against the pillows. "I'm beat."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Really tired," Yuugi translated. This one, at least, he didn't have to think about. Atem raised his eyebrows.
"Ah." He rolled over and slid an arm over Yuugi's waist.
"Uh-uh. Not again. Once is enough."
Atem put his lips against Yuugi's ear. "Do you think so, little Aibou?"
"I know so. Unless you want to be serving yourself your own meals and carrying your own stuff tomorrow while I just lay around up here trying to get my legs to work again."
Atem chuckled and ran his fingers though Yuugi's hair. "I'd not be the cause of your pain if I can avoid such." He sighed and curled up against Yuugi's side like a cat after drinking a bowl of fresh cream. Yuugi was surprised, but said nothing; Atem had been positively jubilant since Mahado's return. His being in the throne room had required a certain decorum of him, but as soon as they were in private Yuugi had been positively attacked with hugs and kisses and laughter. Yuugi had the feeling Mahado ought to be glad he hadn't stopped by Atem's quarters for a chat; Atem was the smaller of the pair by far, but size would not have prevented Mahado from being pounced on, perhaps even knocked over, by an excited Atem. Yuugi wrapped his arms around Atem's waist.
"You know something? I could live like this."
"You are living like this, little Aibou."
Yuugi played absently with the hair at the very back of Atem's neck. "No, you don't understand. I mean, you know, permanently. I don't think I'm ever going to stop missing home, but I could still live like this."
"To make Egypt your home, you mean?"
Yuugi shrugged. "I guess you could put it that way if you wanted." He tried to pull Atem closer, but there was no more cuddle room available. "I just like being here with you."
Yuugi felt Atem smile against his chest. "It pleases me to hear you say so, little Aibou."
"Well, it's true." Yuugi paused. "I should find something to call you."
"Mmm?" Atem wiggled upward to look Yuugi in the face, obviously puzzled.
"Well, you know, you call me 'little Aibou' all the time, and I don't think I ever call you anything at all. Except Atem."
Atem shrugged. "Your tastes are plainer than mine, perhaps. I've no objection to it."
"Yeah, but that doesn't seem right," Yuugi protested. "I mean, if you want to look at it like that, you know all my names, and you get to pick which one you use. I've never heard anyone call you anything but Atem." He paused, and when he began again, there was mischief in his voice and his grin. "Except, you know, Great-Pharaoh-who-is-morning-star."
Atem snorted laughter and rested his forehead against Yuugi's shoulder. Yuugi followed him into helpless giggles.
"Little Aibou, you're incorrigible."
"I had a good teacher. Atem and Yuugi, partners in crime. Hey, that's it. I could call you my koibito."
Atem made a face. "Your what?"
"Umm. Well, okay. 'Aibou' means 'partner,' but it's kind of like a working relationship, not a romantic one. And - "
"And this ko-bitto would be another form of 'partner?'"
"Koibito," Yuugi corrected. "Or just 'koi,' if that's easier. They mean the same. But yeah. Koibito is a partner, but more like - you know - a lover."
"Ah." Atem considered. "And yet, little Aibou, you already address me directly so little. Do you think calling me such would change anything?"
Yuugi shrugged. "It could, you know. I'd kind of like having a special name to call you."
"Little Koi-bito," Atem mused, and Yuugi swatted him with a pillow. They both started laughing.
Yeah, I could live like this.
"So, with a night's rest behind you and a morning's time before you, advisor Mahado, tell us: how went your journey?"
"We reached the capital in good time," Mahado said, "and Kasim garnered my entry into the court, where I was granted an audience with the king."
"And what had he to say?"
"Well, first he called me a pyramid-building ass - "
"After the obligatory round of insults, Mahado."
Yuugi stifled a squeak. Mahado and the Nubian king were only half-brothers, not full - and that only if Mahado's hypotheses were true - but they had been raised together, and the long-held sibling rivalry between them was the stuff of legend. Mahado's brother had gotten the throne, but Mahado had gotten the brains of the outfit, and his brother both knew and resented it.
"He listened to our proposal," Mahado answered, "and concurred that peace is in the best interest of all of us just now. He returned one gift for the other, as Shada may have told you, and all's been stored for your perusal at the occasion most convenient to you. There was a list, the easier for you to examine his gifts, that I translated from Nubian into hieratic in the evenings on the return from the capital - " Mahado produced a thickish document Yuugi could only presume had to be both the original and the translation - "and it would be my suggestion to pass it directly to Karim for a more legible copying into the official record. Writing on one's own lap with no tablet isn't precisely conducive to a neat document, I'm afraid."
Atem nodded and waved Mahado in Karim's direction. Mahado handed over the document and then resumed his report.
"I completed the copying and translation of the scroll I sought to replace, and as mentioned when we spoke in my rooms yesterday, the second half of the scroll can be copied from the undamaged portion of my own original."
"Excellent. Then you'll be returning to your usual duties among us . . . ?"
"The day after tomorrow, I think," Mahado said. "I'd like to take a day to rest and review Mana's lessons first."
Atem nodded his approval. Mahado bowed and made his exit. Atem ordered the list read aloud. Karim did so, pausing several times to decipher Mahado's handwriting, and at one point he stopped altogether.
"Well, on with it, then."
"I'm sorry, Great Pharaoh," Karim apologised. "Mahado is a good man and a wise one, but either this is a word with no translation, or his ability to spell properly suffered greatly during his journey homeward."
Atem held out a hand. "Let me see it."
Karim handed the list over. Atem examined it. Yuugi wished he could see the mystery word, to try and figure it out. A smile lit Atem's face. The word he said to Karim was one Yuugi did not understand, but then -
"They're a Nubian fruit with an orange rind. Curious things - they grow in globes that break into segments exactly the right size to eat. They won't grow here. Mahado believes it has to do with the difference in climate."
Oranges? Here? Bliss! Yuugi wondered what it would take to talk Atem into giving him one. Or two. Or half a dozen. Atem handed the packet of papyrus back to Karim.
The sheaf did not contain both translations of the list, and by lunchtime Yuugi was both bored brainless and a little in awe of Mahado's apparent speed. Many of the items on the list were of absolutely no interest to Yuugi whatsoever - amethyst and ivory were pretty materials, but unless they'd been fashioned into a checkerboard, Yuugi really wasn't interested in them. He was more than a little relieved when Atem left the throne.
"I think I'll call it a half-day, little Aibou," Atem mused. "I've the urge to pay a visit to Mahado. It's been long since we've sat at a board together."
Yuugi pouted and batted his eyes like a girl. "But, koibito!"
Atem began to laugh. Yuugi grinned. It was the stupidest joke since the beginning of ever, but Atem thought it was an absolute riot. At last he quieted.
"I think I'll release you just now. Be in the back courtyard in an hour."
Yuugi nodded and went his way. Someone had made rice and lentils, and Yuugi helped himself to a bowl. He took it back to his room with a bowl of beer and had lunch, then settled down with his new blocks of wood. Yuugi had decided to try his luck with Siamun on that score, and had been pleasantly surprised to discover that slaves, like servants, received wages. The majority of Yuugi's pay - unlike that of the servants' - came in the form of clothes and food, but there was a small portion of gold, as well, and two years' worth of it was more than enough to purchase the wood and paint he needed for Atem's Mahjongg tiles. Yuugi found himself incredibly glad that the initial language barrier had left him completely in the dark. It meant more money for materials now.
Even better than the ability to buy his own wood, he'd managed to save himself some time by finding a woodsmith who was perfectly happy to cut Yuugi's purchase into an even 144 pieces in a single afternoon with a lathe, saving Yuugi literally months of work with a carving knife. He could focus instead on painting the kanji and making the tiles beautiful, real works of art like the antique painted ivory set he remembered having once passed through Jii-chan's hands, instead of a slapdash set with the kanji hurriedly painted in the last few days before New Year. With an hour before him, Yuugi pulled off his wrap - he was not messy about his work, but he thought it better to avoid getting spots of paint on the white cotton - and pulled out the pot of green.
Then he took the sheet of numbers Atem had so carefully helped him copy out, Arabic and hieratic one next to the other, and laid it next to the tiles, and began to paint.
Yuugi brought a tray with beer when he came to the back courtyard; he'd peered out his window long enough to determine that there were two people there, and a good servant, armed with this knowledge, would bring drink. He was somehow not at all surprised to find Atem sitting with Mahado, teaching him Yahtzee. Yuugi had taken a small stack of papyrus one lazy evening and made up a set of scorecards so Atem could play when he wasn't around. It was one of these scorecards Mahado was now attempting to memorise.
"You don't have to learn it by heart," Atem was protesting. "All the information you need is on the papyrus."
Mahado shrugged and rolled the dice. "I still say I prefer senet."
"Senet requires a board and markers. Unless there's a set stashed away out here, which I highly doubt, then - little Aibou," Atem greeted. "You're here."
Yuugi nodded. He offered the men the beer he'd brought with him. They took the bowls and drank. Yuugi waited patiently for Atem to assign him another task. Atem set his bowl down on the barrel they were using as a playing field.
"If you've nothing to occupy yourself, little Aibou, I suggest you take your tray back to the kitchens and obtain something. We may be here yet awhile, and I'd like you in attendance - but not immediately by."
Yuugi nodded. He was a little confused - Atem ought to know by now that Yuugi didn't gossip - but let it slide. He did as Atem instructed and asked Shemei if there were any chores that could both use an extra set of hands and be completed in the courtyard. She gave him a basket of peas to shell. Yuugi balanced them on his hip and headed back to the courtyard, where he settled into a comfortable corner and began his work. Shelling peas was one of Yuugi's favourite tasks, one he actually missed from his days in the kitchen - the work was easy, the unwanted pods delicious, and the task simple enough that he could complete it and let his mind wander as it pleased while he did. He wondered if he could, perhaps, talk Shemei or Idut into making rice with peas and onions in some night; peas and onions, with beef and gravy spooned overtop. It was not Jii-chan's stir-fry - that would have required soy sauce, not to mention baby corn-ears and peppers and broccoli - but it would be something like it.
"Of course I will."
Yuugi looked up from his peas. Mahado was holding Atem's hands, the smile on his face tired but genuine. Atem looked positively ecstatic.
"I was once told by someone I respect a great deal that truth is more important than propriety, and if it's so - and perhaps, sometimes, it is so - I see no good reason to withhold what you'd ask of me."
Yuugi ducked his head and went back to his peas, humming quietly to block out the rest of the conversation. Atem usually winked at Yuugi's commenting on anything he'd heard during the course of the day, whether servants' scuttlebutt or council's chatter, but Yuugi would not betray Atem's trust by eavesdropping when Atem had given him implicit orders not to.
At last he heard someone getting up to leave, and looked up just in time to see Mahado kiss Atem's forehead - a purely fatherly gesture Yuugi had also seen bestowed on Mana at least once - before disappearing through the door into the castle. Atem was smiling. Yuugi wished he knew what the pair of them had been talking about. Once, Atem had been given to a grin that was as much a smirk as a smile; time and Yuugi had gentled it into something sweeter, but still wide and sunny and occasionally ridiculous. The smile on his face now was neither of those, but rather a slightly dreamy and offbeat curving of the lips. Yuugi shifted conspicuously with his basket. Atem glanced in his direction, the spell broken, and the smile became his usual sunny grin.
"Little Aibou." He patted the seat next to him. Yuugi padded over obediently and took the place vacated by Mahado. Atem took his hand. Yuugi rested his head on Atem's shoulder.
"I appreciate your patience. I'd expected us to be here longer, and require refreshment."
Yuugi shrugged. "Don't worry about it." He snuggled a little closer. "Am I allowed to know what that was all about?"
Atem chuckled. "If it's our discussion to which you refer, then you'll know soon enough. If it's the other - " Yuugi understood Atem was referring to the way Mahado had taken his leave - "then you know already as much as I. Were I to guess, I'd say he found what he sought in Nubia."
Yuugi considered for a long time. "Okay. I give up. What was he looking for?"
Atem's fingers wound into Yuugi's hair. "Peace of mind."
Yuugi nodded. He thought he could understand that.
Yuugi looked at the tiles. Atem had paid a second visit - this one to Set - and had voiced the opinion that it would be best if Yuugi simply met him for supper and took the rest of the afternoon for himself. Yuugi had agreed readily, and now sitting in front of him was one set of Mahjongg tiles, numbered neatly in hieratic and awaiting decoration. Yuugi had been stopped only once, by the two sets of four that had nothing to do with numbers - the season-set and the flower-set. These he'd replaced with native flowers and, since there were only three seasons in Atem's time, native animals as well. He'd been careful to paint the ceremonial slash across the bodies of the snake and crocodile, the one that would, according to magic lore, keep them from coming to life and attacking the pharaoh. Far be it from him to send the council into hysterics by presenting a gift with a perceived threat in it.
Yuugi took his brush out to the slaves' courtyard and washed it. Then he cut himself two small sycamore branches. Some of the kanji he'd paint next were too delicate to be painted with a soft brush, and so he intended to use the stiffer, thinner wood-point as a kind of pencil for the lighter strokes. He wished he'd thought to bring the tiles out here, where the wind would dry them quickly and carry off the smell of the paint.
Yuugi considered his options, and then relieved the kitchens of a tray he could use to carry some of the tiles to the courtyard. He would work on them two dozen at a time and return them to his rooms when they were dry. At this rate he'd have the entire set done well before New Year, still a full month and a half away. Yuugi blinked in surprise when he realised for the first time that his twentieth birthday - quite the big deal in his home country - had come and gone completely unnoticed.
Eventually Atem, leaving Set's rooms well before sunset, came to fetch Yuugi from the courtyard. Yuugi tried to hide the tiles he had with little success. Atem raised a playful eyebrow.
"Another project that won't turn out so well, little Aibou?"
Yuugi made a face. "It's going pretty good so far," he answered, and automatically reached back to knock on the tree trunk behind him. "Don't jinx me."
Atem chuckled. "What is it?"
"It's a game called Mahjongg." Yuugi blushed. "I was kind of hoping you wouldn't see them until they were done."
"They look well enough to me."
"I've got about a hundred more that need finished back in my room," Yuugi told him. "Mahjongg's a big game." He nearly laughed at the shock on Atem's face. "Anyway, these are just the kanji - it's kind of like the Japanese version of hieratic," he elaborated, gesturing toward the kanji-suit tiles he'd brought with him. "You're actually supposed to decorate the tiles, too."
"Do these serve some ceremonial purpose, little Aibou?" Atem picked up the seven of circles and tilted it back and forth to catch the light. Yuugi shook his head.
"Not really. I mean, the single-person game is sort of a mind-building exercise, because it teaches you to be observant and think around corners, but it's not, you know, taught in schools or part of a religious ceremony or anything. It's just for fun."
"Ah." Atem put the tile carefully back where he'd taken it from. "Then these are your alphabet?" he enquired, tapping the outlines of circles and bamboo sticks Yuugi had carefully painted in black, to be filled in and decorated later. Yuugi started laughing, embarrassed, and rubbed at the back of his neck.
"Oh. No. Sorry. Those are suits - types of tiles. These are from the circle suit, and these ones - " Yuugi tapped another tile - "are bamboo. It's a kind of grass that can actually be used like wood for a lot of things."
"This grows in your country?"
Yuugi nodded. "My whole part of the world, actually. China grows loads of it. That's, um - well, my country is an island, like Greece, and China's the land closest to it."
"Mm. And these, little Aibou - " Atem pointed to the third suit - "you called these by another name."
"Those are kanji," Yuugi said. "It's the formal version of Japanese writing. The kanji tiles are part of the symbol-suit."
"I think I begin to understand why you use the heathen characters when you scorekeep," Atem mused. Yuugi shrugged.
"They're faster when you're in a hurry, yeah. I put the numbers on these in hieratic. I tried to, anyway. I think the eights are a little off."
"They look perfectly all right to me," Atem answered. "And here I thought you asked to learn hieratic for my benefit. You're quite the sneak."
Yuugi wrapped his arms around Atem's shoulders from behind. "I did ask for your benefit, koibito." Yuugi loved having a reason to use that word. "It just . . . wasn't for your benefit the way you thought it was."
Atem chuckled and turned his head as Yuugi had so many times. Yuugi kissed him happily and then for a few moments they only sat that way, heads together, Yuugi with his arms around Atem and Atem with his hands resting against Yuugi's arms. At last Atem sighed and moved to push himself up from the ground. Yuugi leaned back to get out of his way.
"And so you intended these tiles of yours for what purpose?" Atem asked at last, taking Yuugi's hand and pulling him up. Yuugi staggered slightly before catching his balance; he probably should have planted his feet first.
"Well, for you," Yuugi answered. "I was going to give it to you for New Year."
Atem chuckled. "People don't give gifts for New Year, little Aibou."
Yuugi held open the door to the palace. "Well, maybe they don't here, but where I'm from we have a holiday called Christmas where we give lots of gifts and it's a week before New Year, and it's a really big deal." Yuugi stopped in surprise. "Actually, it's about a week before your birthday, too."
Atem's chuckles turned into an outright laugh. "Your people celebrate the new year in winter?"
"Now I know they must be mad."
"Well, I don't see the sense in celebrating right in the middle of summer, so maybe it's your people who are weird."
Atem let out a final snort. "Indeed. Next you'll be telling me you all celebrate your own birth festivals."
"We do, actually," Yuugi said, after taking a moment to decide that 'birth festival' was probably what Atem called all birthdays, not just his own. "Mine would have been last week."
Atem looked somewhat more interested. "Do you say so?"
Yuugi nodded. "I think. Next month is New Year, right?"
"Then yeah. My birthday would have been the fourth day of this month. I'm twenty now."
"Little Aibou, you ought to have said something."
"Nobody else does."
"Nobody else is you." Atem stroked Yuugi's hair away from the side of his face. "Perhaps it's not cause for a state festival, but I wouldn't in the least have minded celebrating with you."
Yuugi shrugged. "It's no big deal. Usually at home I just had some friends over for dinner and then we'd play a game or something and that was it. Anyway, it's no big deal. I mean, turning twenty is a big deal in Japan, because that's when you get old enough to do a lot of stuff for yourself, but - "
Atem silenced Yuugi with a finger against his lips. "You went out of the way to ensure my own festival was a pleasant one, little Aibou. It's only fair I return the favour."
Yuugi blushed. "You don't have to do that."
"Nevertheless, I'd return your kindness." Atem stopped them both in the middle of the hallway and took Yuugi's hands. "Come, tell me what you'd like."
How romantic, New Yuugi teased. Yuugi felt a stab of homesickness. For just a moment, his mischievous mental counterpart had sounded almost exactly like Jounouchi. He waited, and the melancholy passed. Yuugi shrugged. What could Atem give him that he didn't have already, except for things he'd never have again?
"You spoke of a special meal, little Aibou. What of it?"
"Nothing you can get here," Yuugi answered, aware as he did it that he was making this much harder on Atem than it needed to be. "Jii-chan used to make it. It's called stir-fry."
"And what, exactly, is that?"
"Mostly stuff you can't get here. All you can get here that's in it is carrots and onions, and Jii-chan made it with pea-pods in. You cook it all up with some beef or chicken and serve it over rice."
"And is it cooked in some special way?"
"You - you're supposed to cook it in something called a wok, but you haven't got those here, either," Yuugi answered. "It's kind of like frying it, only instead of just leaving everything to sit on one side and get brown, you keep stirring it so it cooks all over at once." There was actually a trick to how it was stirred, too, but Yuugi wasn't even going to attempt explaining it. "And then you serve it over rice, and eat it."
Atem's brow furrowed. "It seems to me, little Aibou, that what you recommend would be rather painful to eat. Fried foods are hot."
"Hmm? No. We eat with chopsticks in Japan, not our fingers. Those are, um . . . okay, they actually look kind of like pick-up sticks, only longer and a little thicker. There are ones made of bamboo - "
"Uh-huh. Anyway, those ones you usually use once and throw out, but a lot of people have ones that last longer. My family has two sets - this really, really old set that's been in our family for about a hundred years, and those ones are ivory. We use them for company. And then there's the ones we use every day."
"And are your everyday chop-sticks made of bamboo?"
Yuugi shook his head. "Plastic. There's nothing even close to it here, but it's really common where I'm from." It'd probably be common here, too, if it'd been invented yet.
Atem pondered. "I think, little Aibou, that if you can find a way to get these chop-sticks, we might have a special meal of our own this evening."
Yuugi's eyes widened. "Seriously? You actually mean that?"
"I rarely if ever say things I don't mean, little Aibou."
It had been two years since Yuugi had tasted Jii-chan's stir-fry, and this would be nowhere near - but it would be close enough to be a taste of home, and Yuugi felt his mouth trying to water.
"All I'd need is a strip of wood," Yuugi said. "Maybe a finger thick, and three fingers wide. I can do the rest in ten minutes."
"I'll see if I can secure one from Shada for you. And if you're agreeable, I could take you to ride."
"If you'll wear a cloak, then I'm agreeable."
Atem smiled widely. "And I may have something else for you, as well. Go, little Aibou. Wash up, and I'll bring the wood to your room."
Yuugi was waiting in the corridor when Atem came to retrieve him. He had two pairs of chopsticks clasped in his hand - rough ones, the kind his mother would never have allowed at her dining room table in a thousand years unless there was no other option, but that was all right. Yuugi had tested both pairs on checker pieces and a senet marker, and they seemed to work well enough. Atem reached for Yuugi's free hand.
"Come, little Aibou. It's time for us to eat."
Yuugi grinned at him. "Yes, koi."
"I'm beginning to think you enjoy that far more than you should."
"Before I ended up here, I kind of figured I'd never have a koibito. I was too weird. You better believe I enjoy it." Yuugi squeezed Atem's hand. Atem squeezed back.
Yuugi was more than just momentarily wrong-footed when Atem led him not to his usual storeroom, nor even to the smaller private dining room he was in the habit of using at least sometimes when there was nothing important going on, but to the banquet hall itself.
"Tell me you didn't throw together a surprise party in an hour," Yuugi pleaded. Spending the evening with Atem would be nice. Having the entire council dragged in would not be.
"Not as such," Atem answered. "But I'm only one, and you spoke of an evening with friends." And he pushed the door open.
Yuugi was so sure Atem would have half the palace waiting for him that for a quarter of a second he was convinced they were all sitting there in their best dress, staring at him. Then his vision cleared and he saw better. The room was empty, save for two place settings at the royal table.
"We're to join Mahado and Mana for a bowl after we've eaten," Atem said. "And then we'll ride."
"Yeah, where were you planning on doing that, anyway?" Yuugi was somewhat nervous about that part of the whole thing.
"Into the desert," Atem answered. "There are paths we can ride, and we won't disturb the townsfolk."
Yuugi nodded. As long as it wasn't by the Nile.
Dinner was a fantastic affair; Atem had relayed Yuugi's description to Shemei, who had done her best to put it together. Her best wasn't Jii-chan's, but it was still good, and along with it came sweet wine and sweeter oranges, tangy and delicious. Atem watched Yuugi set to with his chopsticks, just a few bites to remind himself how to use them. Then Yuugi put them down, carefully crossed on the edge of his plate - two years was not enough time to forget proper table manners.
"I brought you a pair, too, if you want to try them."
Atem eyed the second pair warily. Yuugi had been exceedingly careful to get rid of the few splinters that had presented themselves. Atem reached for the second pair, and the next ten minutes saw their dinner grow cool while Yuugi tried to show Atem how to use the pieces of wood in his hand. At last Atem - who had chosen to laugh at himself instead of getting frustrated - shrugged and gave up.
"Perhaps it's self-evident to you, little Aibou, but I'm afraid I've not the talent for it."
"You might," Yuugi answered. "I was almost six before I could use them exactly right, and I started using them when I was three. Don't feel bad. They take a little practice." He picked up a pea pod and bit it in two. Atem watched him, and then scooped up some of the dish with his fingers and tried it.
"Well, it's not Jii-chan's, but it's still pretty good. What do you think?"
"Unusual, but not displeasing." Atem tried a pea pod and then put it down. "I still say the innards are preferable."
Yuugi shrugged. "Suit yourself." He was happy just to have a pair of chopsticks in his hand, and familiar food before him - not to mention the prospect of a late-night ride away from the palace when there were no curious townspeople to stare at him.
At last they finished, and Atem slid around the edge of the table to take Yuugi's hand and pull him up. Yuugi reached for the dishes - there was no serving tray, but he could stack them well enough - and Atem stopped him.
"Tonight we celebrate, little Aibou. It's not your care."
Yuugi hesitated, then nodded. Atem could work wonders in the space of three hours, it seemed. Yuugi simply let Atem lead him out, through the corridors, through the kitchens, through the kitchen yard. A horse was waiting for them. Atem scrambled up - he would not let Yuugi help him - and then pulled Yuugi up in front of him.
"And next to the complex. I've heard there's something in wait for you."
Yuugi had a mental image of half-hidden videogame bosses lurking just out of sight, tucked away at the top of staircases and down trapdoors in castles. "What, did Mahado put Ammit on a leash while he was in Nubia?"
Atem started laughing. The horse beneath him - an experienced gelding long used to Atem's strange outbursts - simply cantered on. "Hardly, little Aibou. I referred to something he procured today from one of his servants."
The horse stopped, and Atem slid down with the practiced ease of someone who'd ridden a thousand times before. He took Yuugi's waist to help him down, and then knocked on the door. It was Mana who opened it, and she promptly threw her arms around Yuugi's waist with a squeal.
"Wow!" was the word that came out of Yuugi's mouth when Mana hit his midsection. "Yeah. I'm here. Hi, Mana."
The voice behind her was amused, indulgent, but firm. "Mana . . . "
Mana let go and trotted back inside obediently. Atem and Yuugi followed her. There were six places set at Mahado's plain table, and Hebony and Idut were standing up to pay their respects. Atem waved them back to their places.
"I'm afraid we're a bit late."
"Not a minute," Mahado answered. "The womenfolk got here a bit early." He waited for Atem to take a seat before taking his own, and then called to one of his servants. She brought some of the flavoured wine Yuugi had come to expect as custom when in Mahado's home, and along with it some kind of bread that, when Yuugi took his first bite, turned out to not be bread at all. It reminded him a little of Grandma Mutou's recipe for Christmas cake, fresh figs and plums and the sweeter, spicier taste of dried apples and dates, all overlaid with the taste of honey and a pinch of cinnamon. Yuugi devoured it. Dessert was a rare treat even for the pharaoh's favourite, and he had little doubt Mahado had been sweet-talked into the whole thing.
"This is fantastic."
Mahado smiled. "I'm glad it pleases you."
Idut and Hebony were the first to leave - both of them had to be up before sunrise - and after a short game of team senet, Atem and Mahado against Yuugi and Mana, Mahado sent Mana to wash up and go to bed.
"Do you know, I don't think I've ever seen a game of senet end in a tie before," Mahado mused. "That was a first."
Atem and Yuugi shrugged almost in unison. Mahado chuckled.
"I'm afraid I've also got to be getting along," he said. "Tomb duties tomorrow before council."
Atem said his goodnights. Yuugi thanked Mahado for the rare treat that was neither cake nor bread but some delicious combination of the two, and then the pair of them left. Atem pulled Yuugi up onto the horse.
"And now, little Aibou, what say you? The moon's near-full, and we've all the land before us."
The moon laid a clear track before them long after they'd left palace and city behind. The wind was cool but not cold, and Yuugi held his arms out, laughing, as Atem's horse galloped across dunes and hardpan. The wind whipped Yuugi's tangled curls into his face. He pulled them away with impatient fingers and threw the arm back out. It wasn't quite flying, but close.
At last Atem pulled the horse back to a trot, and then to a walk. He waited for the horse to decide he was good and ready to stop, and then slid off. He helped Yuugi down after him.
"It's beautiful out here," Yuugi said. It was true. The desert was bare of trees, grass, even deadwood. Instead it had dunes, silvered by the moon, and rocks, turned to ebony by the shadows, and an absolutely unbelievable view of the stars. Yuugi felt almost dizzy just looking at them. Atem rested a hand on Yuugi's shoulder.
"I think the moon's got into your blood, little Aibou."
"Maybe," Yuugi answered. It was good to be out of the palace, good to be in this place with Atem's arms around him and a free, playful breeze in his hair. Yuugi rested a hand on top of Atem's. Then he kicked off his sandals, pulled away, and sped off across the sand.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" Atem called after him. Yuugi turned around, and on his face was one of the largest grins he'd ever grinned at anyone.
"What, are you too tired to catch me?"
Atem gave Yuugi a look, the one that said Yuugi wasn't stupid enough to believe Atem would back down from a challenge like that, and Yuugi turned around to keep going before Atem could get out of his sandals and cloak and follow. Atem was smaller, but his legs were longer than Yuugi's, and with the biggest head-start in the world Yuugi couldn't hope to outrun him forever.
He was doing pretty well until he tried to feint a turn; Atem crashed into him from behind, and they both tumbled to the ground.
"Ow!" Yuugi brushed sand off his palms. He wasn't hurt, but sand stung when it was pressed in hard enough. Atem rolled over and sat up, dazed. Yuugi simply watched him.
"I guess you caught me."
"I did." Atem made for the horse. Yuugi felt a moment of dismay, and then Atem reached up to the cloak he'd thrown over the gelding's back and detached something.
"I'd intended to give this to you before leaving the palace, but I'd forgotten I had it with me." Atem took Yuugi's hand and turned it over so the palm was up. He put the mystery item in Yuugi's palm and closed his fingers over it.
Yuugi opened his fingers. Something vaguely silvered and purple glittered in the moonlight. Yuugi held it up to examine it. It appeared to be a scarab, carved out of amethyst - a powerful amulet to say the very least.
"Mmm." The sound Atem made was noncommittal, but he nodded and smiled as he said it. Yuugi searched for the hole or clasp that would let him string it on the cord with the schen ring and the gold band he'd won from Atem. Held in his hand, the purple seemed brighter than ever.
"Just promise me one thing. Even if it's a lie."
"Tell me you didn't give me an amethyst one so it would match my eyes," Yuugi pleaded. He didn't mind his eyes, but just once it would be nice to have some other part of him noticed first.
"Never think it, little Aibou. Amethyst is a stone of unequalled power." He kissed Yuugi and then smiled against his mouth. "Although I must admit it does suit you."
Yuugi groaned and pushed playfully at Atem's shoulders. Atem stumbled, not expecting even that little nudge, and Yuugi grabbed him to keep him from going right over onto his backside. He didn't succeed; Atem was already too far past his center of balance, and all Yuugi managed to do was fall with him. They lay on the sand, both momentarily stunned, and then began laughing - Atem first, Yuugi following. At last they wound down, and Yuugi whispered in Atem's ear.
In two years Yuugi had only ever seen shock on Atem's face two or three times, and the expression had never been preceded by a positive incident. Now there were no tears to be wiped away, no frightened women to bring a reminder of an evil past, and Yuugi wished - for the thousandth time or so at least - that Polaroid had existed in 1000 BC.
"Mmm?" Yuugi grinned at the expression on Atem's face. Atem sat up and began dusting himself off.
"I think perhaps we ought to get you indoors. The moon really has gotten into your blood."
"My birthday," Yuugi reminded him. Atem shook his head.
"And when you turn up tomorrow in the throne room and spend the entire day trying to scratch between your shoulderblades because of all the insects that wished to feast on your sweat?"
Yuugi decided Atem was probably talking about mosquitoes. "They wouldn't come this far out here. They need water. And plants to eat. I studied them in school."
"You do realise that what you just proposed would involve sand, little Aibou. Not necessarily in places that would lend themselves to easy removal."
Yuugi pointed to the cloak still hanging over the gelding's back. Atem stared at him in disbelief.
"You actually intend me to believe - "
Yuugi grinned at him again.
"Did you plan this?" Atem demanded.
"No way. But as long as we're out here - and don't tell me you're afraid of bugging people, because you said yourself the city's in the other direction - why not?" Yuugi scooted into Atem's lap. "I think it sounds like a good idea." And he kissed Atem, hard, on the mouth.
Yuugi did have a way of getting what he wanted where Atem was concerned.
"No. Absolutely not!"
Yuugi sat back on his haunches, straddled across Atem's lap, and made a face. "You don't even know what I was going to do."
"I can make a perfectly logical conjecture, and the answer is no."
Yuugi rolled his eyes. "Like I said. You don't even know what I was going to do."
"And as I said, I - "
"I wasn't going to do that." Although I definitely wouldn't mind doing that. "Lighten up and trust me a little. Relax. Okay?"
"Not until you tell me just what, exactly, you plan to do."
Yuugi squirmed a little closer and rested his head against Atem's shoulder. Then he turned it so his mouth was against Atem's ear, and told.
There was a long pause, presumably Atem sifting through the data Yuugi had just given him. Then -
"I'm reserving the right to stop you."
"Fair enough. Lay back." Yuugi unhooked his arms from around Atem's waist. Atem stared at him distrustfully. Yuugi slid his arms around Atem's shoulders. Three steps forward, Yuugi thought. And then one step back. Seriously, I've had enough.
"Listen. I know I was a virgin the first time we ever had sex, but people are a lot more open about this stuff where I'm from. I know what I'm doing. Mostly. And I'm not doing it to hurt you or try to lord over you or something. I'm doing it because I love you, and I want to try something just a little different we might both like. A lot. So just once - if you don't ever do it again - trust me. Please. All right?"
Atem continued to stare at Yuugi with a wary eye. Yuugi sighed. This was not how it worked in the romance novels he and Anzu loved to lampoon. Not only did the romance novels usually feature a pair of protagonists who were completely willing to trust each other no matter what, they also tended to omit the parts involving things like spit and the sand that was going to take hours to wash out of Atem's hair. Yuugi wished he'd thought to take off his wrap to fold under Atem's head and neck. It would have made the cleanup later a great deal easier.
Yuugi squeaked in surprise as he landed against Atem's chest. He boosted himself up on his hands and knees so Atem would be able to breathe. Atem caught Yuugi's shoulder with his hand, keeping Yuugi within inches of Atem's face.
"If you go back on your word - "
"Have I ever gone back on a promise to you?" Yuugi fought to keep from being irritated. Tonight had been wonderful. He didn't want to end it with a fight.
Atem sighed and let his shoulders fall back against the cloak spread on the sand. "You haven't, no."
"Then why are you acting like I'm going to start now?"
Atem didn't answer. He simply stroked the side of Yuugi's face, let his fingers linger at the edge of Yuugi's jaw, trail down over his neck and the top of his shoulder and then down his chest and stomach to hike up the wrap tied around Yuugi's hips.
"Your best and your worst, then, little Aibou."
Yuugi pushed himself back up to fully sitting and then scooted up toward Atem's stomach on his knees. He found the edge of Atem's tunic with his hands and shoved it up to Atem's waist. He toyed with the idea of taking off Atem's belt so he could push the tunic up farther and rejected it. Yuugi let his weight settle backward and let out his second surprised cry in a minute. Atem gasped, and Yuugi saw his eyes squeeze shut. He reached out to touch Atem's face.
Don't shut me out.
Atem opened his eyes. One of his hands found Yuugi's thigh and then traced the lines of it, moved, and found something more interesting to touch. Tonight, Yuugi thought, was his night for making interesting noises entirely without meaning to. In the course of their usual activities, Atem would have been holding himself up with at least one arm, and sometimes both; he was taking advantage of having both hands free now to do some serious catching-up on his exploration of Yuugi's body. Atem was a lover both curious and thorough, and the few square inches of Yuugi he hadn't managed to map with his fingers in the last six months were undergoing a complete examination now, the texture of Yuugi's skin being stored up with the topography created by his bones and muscles. Yuugi, if asked, would not have lied - he was thoroughly enjoying Atem's attentions. For his own part, Yuugi was using his hands to rock his weight back and up and forward again, and Atem seemed more than happy with it.
In only a few short minutes they were both spent and satisfied. Yuugi tried to curl up on the cloak next to Atem and encountered a slight problem.
"Hey. You. Koi." Yuugi poked Atem playfully in the ribs. "Can you shove over a little?"
Atem arched an eyebrow. "Is that any way to address the man who just made love to you in the middle of the desert against his better judgment, just to make you happy?"
Yuugi rolled his eyes and got up on his knees. Then he fell forward in a parody of a throne-room prostration. "Oh, great koibito, light of my life! D'you think you can spare me just a bit more cloak so I'm not getting sand in - what did you call them? - places that wouldn't lend themselves to easy removal?"
Atem started laughing. "Incorrigible, little Aibou. That's what you are." He did move over to make space for Yuugi to lie next to him. Yuugi cuddled against his side.
"So. Are you ready to admit maybe I'm not out to make a fool of you?"
Atem stroked Yuugi's hair. "I suppose I can't call myself high enough to not tender an apology where it's due."
"Okay, so now repeat after me. 'The next time you come up with some idea that doesn't sound like it's going to kill or maim us both, I promise I'll at least give it a bit of thought.' Go ahead. Your turn."
"Little Aibou . . . "
Yuugi made puppy eyes. "Come on."
Atem sighed and ran his fingers into Yuugi's hair. "I promise to consider you trustworthy."
Yuugi rolled his eyes. "I thought we'd already figured that one out."
Yuugi poked Atem in the ribs again. "You know, after a year and a half, you'd think you'd have learned to trust me already."
Atem pulled Yuugi closer and trapped his wrists to keep him from administering any more pokes. "I promise to give consideration where it's due to your suggestions."
Atem kissed the tip of Yuugi's nose. Yuugi felt it scrunch up almost involuntarily, and then Atem chuckled.
"My little rabbit."
"I think rabbits have more sex than we do."
Atem raised an eyebrow. "Meaning what, little Aibou?"
"Nothing, really. Unless you want to, you know - "
"I think I've had enough for one evening."
Yuugi curled as close as he could. In a few minutes real life would start back up, and they'd have to go back to the palace. He wanted to savour his time away as much as he could.
"Okay." Yuugi sighed, sat up, straightened his wrap. "I guess we should get going."
If he'd only known what the next twenty-four hours would bring, he would have tried to make it last longer.
"Today's a half-day, Set, yes?"
Set shrugged. "If you wish it, then it must be so."
"I wish it."
Yuugi saw the edge of Mahado's mouth twitch, and the hand that came up to turn a chuckle into a discreet cough. Yuugi bit the insides of his cheeks to hide a grin. It was a good day to be alive, warm and breezy and with the promise of honeyed wine later. The honeyed wine was actually for the council members who would be joining Atem in a friendly game of pick-up sticks, but Yuugi had little doubt Atem would find a way to spoil his favourite slave. He'd started to make a habit of it. Yuugi dropped his eyes as the council broke, then trotted after Atem obediently. Atem reached out, and Yuugi took his hand. They walked to the courtyard in companionable silence, and after getting Atem settled, Yuugi left to retrieve a bowl of plums for the incoming party.
By the time he got back into the courtyard Atem had been joined by Set, Mahado, Isis, Mana, and Siamun. Ankhnadin was also present, although saying he'd joined them seemed like a misnomer to Yuugi; the man who'd gouged one of his own eyes right out of his head was lurking beneath a tree, watching Set and Atem count up sticks - Set's green, the ones in Atem's hands a vivid orange. Yuugi thought they might belong to Mahado, but he wasn't entirely sure. At last Atem shook his head.
"I've fifty here. How many have you?"
"Not nearly enough. Who here has another set we can add?"
Siamun and Isis both shrugged and shook their heads. Mahado shot a glance at Mana, who blushed and shook her head, as well - Mana might once have possessed a set, but it was long gone. Ankhnadin, of course, had little interest in games. Yuugi held up a hesitant hand, like the fabled shy kid in the back of the classroom. Atem glanced in his direction.
"I've got a set with sixty sticks in. I know it's not much, but it's something."
Atem considered, then nodded. "Get them, if you would."
Yuugi nodded and went to retrieve the set Atem had given him so long ago. Then, on a hunch, he padded up to Atem's room, and yes, here was Atem's own set. Yuugi added them to his own and hurried back to the courtyard. Atem added the two sets to the stack already on the bench.
Yuugi jumped. "Mmm?"
"Choose any number between one and fifty, but speak it not. And when you've chosen, tell so."
Yuugi picked twenty-seven. "Okay."
Atem looked at his fellow players. It seemed to be some kind of ritual; Siamun spoke first, and they all answered roundabout - sixteen, forty-four, seven, twenty-eight, thirty-one. Isis said nothing, and when the turn came to Mahado, he first hesitated and then shook his head. Yuugi breathed a sigh of relief when Mahado's decision went unquestioned. Atem looked at Yuugi expectantly.
"Um. Am I giving the number now?"
"Twenty-seven. Set was closest."
Mahado shook his head again. "Atem was. Closest without going over is how it's done."
"Okay, Atem, then. Number's still twenty-seven."
Atem reached for the stack of sticks, then paused. His hands weren't large enough to encompass them all. "Set."
Set slid his hands under the pile. Atem left his hands on top.
Set nodded. Yuugi felt his eyes go wide as they picked up their massive multi-set game - two hundred sticks in all - and held them over the large clay tablet they were using as a playing surface.
"One, and two, and three."
"And may the luck all go to me," Mahado added, as the sticks clattered down onto the tablet. Yuugi thought he could see an impish twinkle in Mahado's eyes. Atem gave him a look.
"Let the gods forbid. But if they're so disposed . . . " The look faltered. " . . . then let them strike me cold?"
Mahado covered his eyes with one hand as Isis and Siamun tried to hide their chuckles. "'Then let them strike you cold.' Honestly, Atem, if you don't remember the charm you're trying to cast, don't cast it. One of these days you're going to get yourself killed doing something like that. Didn't you pay any attention to this when you studied it?"
Atem leered at Set. "I was too busy paying attention to that lovely expanse of neck just across yonder."
Yuugi covered his mouth with his hand automatically. Set glared. Mahado looked thoughtful.
"It is rather longer than the usual, isn't it?"
"All the better to tease with, I suppose."
Set turned red. Yuugi had to fight down a squeak. Mahado's comment - neutral enough on the surface - could be taken any one of half a dozen ways, and Set had apparently elected for the most questionable one. "If you think - "
"Peace," Mahado said. "Fighting on a holiday ruins a man's health." He cast a glance at Atem. Atem glanced back. Set glared.
"Atem - "
"I said nothing."
Wow, Yuugi thought. I think he might actually be doing something mature. Did a world just end somewhere?
Don't bet on it.
Atem's grin turned devilish. "I prefer to stay out of marital spats."
The courtyard filled with laughter. Mana rested her forehead against Mahado's shoulder. Isis put a hand on Atem's arm as she laughed. Even Siamun was fighting a fit of chuckles. Only Ankhnadin and Set remained silent, and their glares were almost identical. Mahado wound down to chuckles, then leaned over and whispered something in Set's ear. Yuugi wished Mahado hadn't put up his hand to block his mouth; there was no lipreading behind a cupped hand. Set snorted laughter and rocked forward, one hand coming up to cover his mouth. His eyes squeezed shut, then opened. Yuugi had to restrain himself from asking aloud how blind these people could be; Atem's eyes were red, Set's blue, but when they laughed, there could be no doubt the shape was the same. Mahado held up his hands in a caricature of a shrug.
"It's true, is it not?"
Set didn't answer. He was busy trying to catch his breath. Atem only looked perplexed.
"What did you say to him?"
Mahado gave Atem a look. "If I wanted you to know what I'd said, Atem, don't you think I'd have said it aloud?"
Atem shrugged. Set finally got control over himself and forced his face straight. The tension diffused, Yuugi trotted off to retrieve bowls and a wineskin. He considered the group in the courtyard, and then took a second, as well. Better prepared and unneeded than to need it and not have it.
The games lasted perhaps an hour, and at the end of that time, Yuugi was glad he'd brought the second wineskin. Only Ankhnadin had abstained from the food and drink Yuugi had brought, and the wine had gone quickly. Yuugi waited until the last of the group - Mahado - had gone, and then plunked down next to Atem on the bench. Atem raised his eyebrows and nodded toward the wineskin. Yuugi refilled his bowl, and then poured a little for himself. He held up his bowl.
"To Set's neck."
Atem laughed and touched the edge of Yuugi's bowl with his own. "To Egypt."
"To Egypt," Yuugi agreed. "And Japan."
"And Japan," Atem added. "To the peace and prosperity of both our countries."
They drank in a companionable silence. Yuugi, who'd poured only half a bowl for himself, finished first. At last Atem set his bowl inside Yuugi's, and took Yuugi's hands.
"Little Aibou." He paused, frowned, and changed his mind. "Yuu-gi."
Yuugi nodded. Atem ran his thumbs over the backs of Yuugi's hands.
"Some time ago, we had a discussion about our intentions, each for the other. I told you then that there was something I wished to wait for before raising a point with you."
"Yeah," Yuugi agreed. "I remember that. You said you weren't waiting for some perfect moment, you were just waiting for something specific."
Atem nodded. "I'd complete that conversation now, if you'd concur."
Yuugi nodded. "Okay."
Atem looked down at their hands, linked together between them on the bench. Then his eyes flickered back to Yuugi's face.
"It's tempting to hide now behind pretty words that mean nothing," Atem admitted. "I've not your courage when it comes to plain speech, little Yuu-gi."
Yuugi shrugged. "Just spit it out. That's what I do. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but - " Yuugi shrugged. "You've got my attention. Let's have it."
Yuugi saw Atem swallow hard. Nervous? He was acting like the fate of the world depended on what he said next.
"You know I'm fond of you," Atem said. "More - that you come second only to my duty in terms of love."
"And I know that you'd consider - if not yet fully accept - Egypt as your home."
Yuugi nodded again. It had been slow in coming, had required him to think "well, that's it, I'm stuck here forever" more than once before it really sank in, but yes - he could call this place home. There was no Anzu or Jounouchi, no Honda or Ryou or Otogi, but he had friends here - and Atem, whose fingers were actually trembling in Yuugi's own. Yuugi pulled one of his hands away, reached up to Atem's face, and brushed the fringe out of his face in the old familiar gesture. Then he let his hand fall back on top of Atem's.
"Even longer ago than our discussion, we made an agreement," Atem continued. "I asked to court you."
Yuugi had the feeling he knew where this conversation might be going. He also had the feeling his part in it was to nod and look serious, and so he fulfilled that part before waiting for Atem to go on.
"You asked me then for the definition of such, and I gave it to you. Little Aibou - Yuu-gi - if you'd allow me - I'd like to fulfil the second part of that promise. Mahado's agreed to bless us, and Set to witness it."
Yuugi felt his mouth fall open in surprise. He'd known for a few sentences what Atem must be asking, but hearing it actually said aloud was still something of a shock.
Atem must have taken Yuugi's silence as a no, because when he spoke again his voice was slightly panicked. "You'd want for nothing - I'd remain faithful to you - and if it's your family that concerns you, I can send a messenger to your country - to be allied with them."
Yuugi could see it all behind his eyes, in his head. Yes - to be equal with Atem officially, as fully as anyone could be, to be able to really put his mind to work to help Atem keep the country peaceful and happy instead of doing dumb-work day after day, to leave behind the worry of a public facade and hold Atem's hand wherever he liked - yes. Yes, yes, and the first thing he'd do would be make sure nothing could happen to Atem because of that one-eyed bastard who -
- except it hadn't happened that way.
Yuugi looked down at their linked hands. The edges of their fingers blurred, fuzzed out, blended together, disappeared. Atem raised a hand and put it under Yuugi's chin.
Yuugi blinked away his tears, then rubbed at them with the heel of his hand. He took a deep breath.
" . . . I can't."
It was Atem's turn to sit, shocked into silence. Yuugi breathed again.
"If it was just about you and me I'd say yes so fast you wouldn't believe it. But - it's not."
Atem nodded. Yuugi saw tears gathering at the corners of his eyes and reached out to wipe them away.
"It's just - I - you have to - I can't - "
Atem squeezed Yuugi's hand. "Take a deep breath." His voice wavered as he said it. Yuugi did as instructed, and let it out.
"There's something I should have told you a long, long time ago," Yuugi said. "Something that changes everything."
Atem only looked at him, and this was another way of defining what had just happened; at any other time he would have come back with an amiable "well, what is it?" Yuugi pushed his hair out of his face and continued.
"I told you I'm not from around here. And this is probably going to sound crazy, but - I'm not from this time, either. I'm from so far in the future you can't even begin to imagine what it's like. I know what's in your future." The tears came thicker this time, and Yuugi didn't bother trying to hide them. "And I know I'm not it."
"And you have reason to believe that changing my future would cause harm." Atem's voice was soft.
Yuugi nodded. It would cause harm, all right. The end of the world as everyone knew it, for a start. But he owed Atem an explanation, and now he would give it.
"People in my time study people from your time. They're called archaeologists. My grandpa used to be one, before he got married, and - okay, there's this legend, about your tomb. Nobody goes in and comes out alive. And for three thousand years, that was true. But my grandpa - Jii-chan - he wanted to find out why. So he went in."
Atem's face darkened. "Your grandfather was a tomb robber?"
Yuugi shook his head. "I mean - I guess - I don't know. It depends on your perspective, kind of. The things that come out of the tombs aren't used for personal gain - they're used so we can understand how people lived then - well - now. And he was a lot younger back then. He probably thought it was exciting, checking out some cursed tomb." He took a deep and wavery breath. "Anyway, he nearly died, too. When he told me about it a lot of years later, he said he only lived because someone took his hand and pulled him out of a pit. Someone - someone who looked like you."
"I see little reason to save the life of a tomb robber."
"He wasn't robbing the tomb," Yuugi said. "Just . . . taking a look around, I guess. Anyway, this spirit - you - led him to this gold box - I think it's the one you use for your kohl, actually. I remember thinking that when I saw it here. He brought it back to Japan, and tried to solve the puzzle that was inside - a puzzle made out of this." Yuugi reached out and touched the God Pyramid. "But he couldn't. Nobody could. And then when I was a really little kid, I found it and solved it."
Atem looked faintly disgusted. Yuugi felt two tears go rolling down his cheeks, too warm in the chilly tracks earlier tears had left, and he looked away. Losing Atem's regard hurt more than Yuugi would have ever believed he could hurt and still survive. Far from explaining well, he'd probably just gotten himself killed. But there was no point in not continuing.
"Something really bad is going to happen here - something I wish I could change, but - if I do, then my world is going to end. I mean that literally. There's an evil power that's going to be unleashed in my land, in my time, and only you can stop it. That's why the puzzle was so important. That's why you looked so familiar to me the first time I met you. I'd already met you - in spirit. Completing the puzzle let me call your spirit to help me. You helped me and my friends keep my country from being destroyed. If I change things here, you won't be there when we need you." Yuugi considered explaining the paradox that would be the real cause of all the trouble - if Atem survived now, Yuugi would never have reason to even touch the gold box, meaning he would never come to the past and save Atem's life. But saying so would mean admitting that he had to let Atem die, and so he rejected the idea even as admitting it to himself made something twist painfully in his middle. Atem was frowning more than ever.
"I returned from the field of reeds in the hands of a tomb robber to aid a country I never knew?"
Yuugi shook his head. "It's way more complicated than that. I - I probably shouldn't tell you why."
Atem nodded. The disgust had left his face, and this, at least, calmed Yuugi a little. "I don't know what I think about archaeology, really. When I was younger I thought it was really cool - you know, seeing all this stuff that's so different from things in my time, and how people here lived and everything - but now that I know you, now that I know what it really means . . . anyway. I think that's why I landed here. We were studying this writing that was found in your tomb - in one of my classes, you know - and I tried to translate it. It was something about 'your filthy hands mean no time is yours' or something like that. I don't remember it exactly. But before you left my friends and me, for the afterlife, you know - you told me I could keep the box. And when I'd translated as much as I could, I put the paper - that's kind of like papyrus - into the box, to worry about later. And I think what happened is I cursed myself, and ended up here somehow."
"You weren't party to the removal, I take it."
Yuugi was startled into shaky laughter even as tears still ran down his face - probably not the best action under the circumstances, but he couldn't help it. "No way. My dad wasn't even born then." Mutou Shigeru had still been almost two years in the future. Atem nodded his understanding, if not approval.
"Anyway - if I tell you this you're going to think I'm just making stuff up to get out of hock," Yuugi said dispiritedly. That Yuugi was from the future Atem seemed able to accept, but the rest -
"You may as well tell it."
"The thing is. The thing is - I know the whole field-of-reeds thing. But you know the belief that you can be reincarnated again and again and in about three thousand years you'll be human again?"
Atem nodded. "Such may also be true."
"Such is true," Yuugi said. "Set, and Isis, and Shada, and Karim - I know all of them. Siamun, too. Because - he's my grandfather. That's why you saved him, and not any of the others who tried to take anything away. At least, that's what he thinks."
"It's plausible enough, if what you say is true."
"I'll swear it on whatever you want me to."
"Your own heart, that a lie strike your soul into Ammit's claws where you sit."
Yuugi put his hand over his heart. "I swear it on my heart. Every word. My soul, too."
Atem nodded. "You said nothing of Mahado or Ankhnadin."
"I'm not going to say anything about Mahado or Ankhnadin. If either of them are alive again in my time, I never met them. They could be anywhere, really. Kaiba and Jii-chan - Set and Siamun, I mean - they're both Japanese. But Ishizu and Shaadi and Rishid - "
"Are these the others?"
Yuugi nodded. "They're all still from Egypt."
Atem looked down at their hands, now sitting a little apart from each other. "And you dare say nothing for fear I'll change it, either inadvertently or by will."
Yuugi nodded regretfully. "If I could change it - "
Atem put his fingers over Yuugi's lips. "It's a hard future you speak of. If I must face it, allow me to do so as every man since Ra created man - unknowing of my day or my hour."
Yuugi nodded again. Then his shoulders hitched. The tears that had inched their way down his cheeks in slow pairs all through his telling turned into a flood. Atem pulled Yuugi into his arms. Yuugi felt something damp touch his bare shoulder and understood that Atem, too, had lost his battle to tears.
"I knew long ago that you understood well the responsibilities of state," he whispered, his voice hoarse. Yuugi didn't answer. He was too busy crying for the loss of everything - home, friends, family, lover. When he stopped at last his stomach hurt and it was just a little hard to breathe. The last time Yuugi remembered crying that way, he'd been cowered against a locked door after Atem asked the question that had brought them both to this place now, and even remembering that hurt.
"Koibito," Yuugi whispered, and then he, like Atem had earlier, paused. "Pharaoh."
"I think I like 'koi-bito' better."
"Koibito, then," Yuugi said, still whispering into Atem's ear. "I just want you to know - in my heart - it's yes."
Atem's face was buried against the side of Yuugi's neck, but his words were still clear enough. "Do you say such is true?"
"Truer than anything I've ever said in my life."
"Then I go to my fate with your love in my heart, and can fulfil my duty happily, when it's asked of me."
"I wish it didn't have to be this way," Yuugi said, still in his own tear-hoarse whisper. "I hate this."
"You have your duty to your country, little Aibou, my Yuu-gi," Atem whispered back. "As I have mine."
Yuugi sensed Atem in the hallway before he heard the knock on the door. "It's open."
Atem stepped into the room that was no longer Yuugi's. His small pile of personals had all been stacked carefully in the basket with the half-finished Mahjongg set, ready for someone to carry away and burn. He'd only been waiting for the last thing, and this was it. Yuugi stood up and let Atem lead him into the hall. Then he grabbed Atem's arm.
Atem looked at him silently.
"I call off."
Atem shook his head. Yuugi looked down at the one thing he'd held back, twined around his fingers.
"I want you to have this." He took Atem's hand and turned it palm up, and let the jade bracelet slip into Atem's hand. "You were born in the morning, weren't you?"
"Then your guardian is this one - Tenou, the sky," Yuugi said. "Kind of funny, actually. Mine's Chi - earth. Isn't there an Egyptian legend about earth and sky being lovers?"
Atem nodded. "Geb and Nut, yes." He was walking slowly, much more than his usual habit. Yuugi did not fail to notice he hadn't undressed for the night.
"You know something else - it kind of fits. You having Tenou as a guardian, I mean. Because the word for king - tennou - sounds almost exactly the same. They look almost the same in Roman letters, too. Maybe it's a sign of something." Yuugi's words were tiny in the silence. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the palace so empty.
"Perhaps." Atem stopped walking. He lowered his head. Yuugi saw him swallow the way people did when they were trying not to cry and put a hand on his arm.
Atem pulled Yuugi close and kissed him. It was, Yuugi knew, the last time, and so he put into it everything he had - all his love and all his spirit. Atem stroked his hair. Yuugi returned the favour.
"Don't forget me," he whispered, and Atem held him closer.
Atem did not understand the tears Yuugi shed then, and Yuugi would not explain them. And so presently they continued on their way, in silence now, until the last turn into the final corridor, and there Yuugi stopped them. He took the jade bracelet looped around Atem's fingers and searched for Tenou's bead. He kissed it, and then folded Atem's fingers back over it.
"It's not really important if you believe in them, you know," Yuugi said, as his fingers left the bracelet for the last time. "They believe in you, and that's what matters."
Atem said nothing. He only led Yuugi past a pair of torches that should not have been lit at this hour, and into the throne room.
There were no slaves present, but the council was assembled, all of them in full formal dress. Yuugi stopped in the accustomed spot for people on trial. He had no illusions about what he was here for. Atem seated himself on the throne. Karim took a step forward.
"You are Mutou Yuugi, called Aibou among us?"
Yuugi nodded. There was no point in lying. The only real question, as far as he was concerned, was how he would die; would they send him to the town square to be whipped, like Madu? Would he be told to commit suicide, like those involved in the conspiracy against Ramses III? Or would he simply see Atem raise his arm to motion Mahado or Set forward, and then sometime tonight or tomorrow his soulless body would be burned with the kitchen refuse, like the Ophirite captain who had been killed in this room? And if it was that last, who would he be? Three thousand years from now, would he play a card that was really himself?
"You know why you have been brought here. Are you aware of the charges against you?"
Yuugi took a deep and trembling breath. "Not exactly."
"You have been accused of abetting a tomb robber. The punishment for this is death."
Yuugi nodded. He knew that.
"What have you to say to these charges?"
Another of those deep, trembling breaths. Once he had hoped to not die screaming - sixteen months and a thousand years ago, when Atem had played a punishment game against him. Now he hoped only to not beg. He would not embarrass Atem by whining and blubbering in the face of death. "Nothing."
Karim stepped back. Mahado stepped forward. The questions began, the neat, methodical cross-examination that Yuugi had heard Mahado give dozens of times. Yuugi answered them all. He saw the look flitting from one council member to the next and knew they would not acquit him just as surely as he knew his own name. At last Atem stood. Yuugi sent a frantic glance in Mahado's direction, thinking with everything in him, hoping some last trace of the Ring's power would bind them one last time.
Don't make him do this. If you really love him, don't make him say it.
Yuugi could tell - could feel, somehow - that his thoughts were not being picked up, and he wanted to cry for frustration. As a rule it was Atem's duty to pass final judgment, but on half a dozen occasions that Yuugi could remember clearly that judgment had been passed by Set, or occasionally Siamun. He saw Atem swallow hard, watched him take a deep and trembling breath of his own.
"We have deliberated these things in the light," Atem began, and then stopped. The council as one made no sign that they noticed. "With all circumstances accounted for and considered, I sentence the slave Yuu-gi, called Aibou - "
Atem didn't bother trying to hide the reason for his troubles; the only motion he made in that direction was to bow his head, to take Yuugi out of his immediate line of sight. Mahado put a hand on his shoulder. Yuugi thought he could read a kind of sadness in Mahado's eyes - you were so good for him. Why did you have to go and fuck everything up?
"I sentence the slave Yuu-gi to exile in the country of Japan." The words came in a single hurried rush. Yuugi drew a breath that hitched in his chest. Atem's eyes met his, and Yuugi could see his tears. He felt tears of his own burning in his eyes. Atem could not pardon a tomb robber . . . but there was this thing, this one last thing, that he could do. He could rig the punishment in order to send Yuugi home.
The council gathered around Yuugi in a loose circle - Atem, Isis, Karim, Mahado, Ankhnadin, Shada, Set. They stood each an arm's length from the other, all of them solemn. Atem pulled Yuugi close as the rest prepared themselves for what was coming. Yuugi hugged him tightly. There was a breath against his ear, so quiet he almost didn't hear it - but almost a year and a half of sleeping in Atem's bed, next to a man who had a habit of speaking when Yuugi was half-asleep, had prepared him for it perfectly.
"I love you, little Aibou."
Yuugi tilted his head so his mouth would be next to Atem's ear. "I love you, too."
Atem was the one who let go first. He stepped into the place Set and Isis had left for him and raised a single trembling hand to the side of the God Pyramid. Set drew the Rod. Ankhnadin swept his hair out of his face. Isis touched the Necklace. Shada and Mahado both followed Atem's suit. Whatever they intended to do, Yuugi thought, they expected to use the Millennium Items to do it. There was a pause as they all focused their power, and then they joined hands, Isis placing hers overtop the hand Karim used to hold the Scale.
"We execute this punishment as the will of Ma'at," Mahado said, "to protect this land and all who dwell herein."
Yuugi felt the tangled curls on his head blow in a wind that should not have been possible in the closed throne room. And it was no ordinary breeze, was it? No. But he knew what it was, all the same.
It was a window fan.
He turned around and was somehow not surprised to see a large, blurred-edge hole in reality.
"That's my room!"
And it was - the orange bedspread, the pressed-wood desk with his calculus book still sitting on it next to a very familiar gold box. His school jacket was still hung over the back of the desk chair, schoolbag leaned carelessly against the bottommost drawer. Yuugi stared at it, entranced. It all looked so familiar, so normal.
"Go now, if you'd go at all." Atem's voice was strained.
Yuugi reached out one hand to the hole, and then drew it back. What was on the other side of that hole could be nothing more than his own hopeful imagination filling in the darkness. But if after two years he'd learned nothing about risking it all, then what was the point in this entire thing? He was leaving so much behind . . . and yet if he stayed they'd only kill him anyway. That was the law.
Yuugi twisted with one foot in Domino City, 2003, one still on the stone floor of an Egyptian throne room sometime around 1000 B.C., halfway through his step back into his old life. He was helpless to resist that cry; could not have ignored it for worlds. There was nothing he could change, that much he knew, and when Bakura came he would undoubtedly have to stand to the side and watch it all play out, but maybe -
Atem's eyes rolled up.
Yuugi's own eyes went wide. Of course - Atem was the one holding the door open, because only the Pyramid had ever actually belonged to Yuugi. If it was true that memory worked both forward and backward - and Yuugi had reason to believe it was so - then only the Puzzle could provide the door to Yuugi's time, because only the Puzzle would have access to Yuugi's memories of modern-day Japan. But holding that door open was a strain for a teenaged body, and the effort had sent Atem into a faint.
Yuugi might still have had the time to dive back through if the rest of the council had stayed steady. And in spite of their alarm they did all hold their places - except Mahado. Yuugi should have known he would be the one to break contact, to make a dive of his own to keep Atem from hitting the floor.
He had enough time to see Mahado's arm slide around Atem's shoulders, and then Yuugi fell into darkness . . .
. . . and through forever.
Yuugi buried his head under his pillow. The light rapping he could hear was driving him crazy. He wondered if maybe the slaves in charge of the shutters hadn't closed them properly, and if so, he was going to have to get up to pull them shut from the inside before he went insane.
"Yuugi! Hey! Yuugi! We're late!"
That wasn't Atem's voice.
Yuugi's eyes snapped open. The first thing he saw was an alarm clock. The second was Jounouchi, clinging to the thick branch of the cherry tree and rapping on Yuugi's bedroom window.
"Come on! We've got an English exam at eight o'clock!"
Yuugi looked at the clock. Seven-thirty. He should have been up an hour ago.
He was up in the dismayed flash only late schoolboys could manage, already reaching for his dress shirt - short sleeves, summer uniform.
"Meet me downstairs!"
Jounouchi made himself gone. Yuugi yanked his uniform jacket over his shirt, and then stopped.
His jacket was caught on his ear.
Yuugi approached the mirror cautiously. The wild hairstyle he'd favoured was gone, replaced by a short, unruly cap of black curls, just the way his grandmother had worn her hair until it started falling out. And there was a small silver hoop earring in his right ear.
Yuugi had never had a pierced ear.
"Yuugi! You're late!"
Jii-chan's voice, and it was speaking Japanese. Yuugi tore himself away from the mirror and went looking for his trousers. They had to be around somewhere.
He had them halfway to his knees when he realised he'd forgotten underwear, and had to start the whole process over again.
Way to go, genius.
Oh, shut up.
Yuugi crammed his calculus book into his schoolbag. Had he finished his homework? He couldn't remember. He'd just have to hope. He pulled his trainers on, tied them, darted into the kitchen, grabbed his bento box and a piece of toast, and pounded down the stairs.
"Thanks - love you - see you tonight!" he shot at the barely-seen figure behind the counter, and then he was out the door, still marvelling in some corner of his mind at how normal all this was, and how weird to not be waking up in a large feather bed right about now. What was even weirder was Jounouchi's lack of comment over the abrupt change in style. It was as though Yuugi with short hair and an earring was nothing at all new.
"Getting a ride from devil-spawn." There was a derision in Jounouchi's voice that Yuugi could not interpret. He wondered how long he'd been gone. Not so very long, surely - this was their last year of school - and yet everything was so different.
They skidded to a stop in front of the school building. People were still streaming in, and Yuugi breathed a deep sigh of relief. It had to be deep; whatever physical changes he'd undergone in Egypt, it was clear none of them had come back with him. He reached up for the leather cord that should have hung around his neck, with Mahado's charm and Atem's ring, and it, too, was gone. He felt a pang, a strange kind of homesickness.
It wasn't all a dream, was it? Couldn't have been.
A motorbike pulled up in front. Yuugi heard Jounouchi give a derisive snort, and saw Anzu swinging her leg over the back.
Anzu saw him, gave him a sunny smile, and then kissed the driver, who had brown hair much too short to be Bakura's. Yuugi watched the bike pull away.
What's going on here?
The day passed with surprising quickness. Yuugi was pretty sure he'd aced the English exam - it was a simple recap of how to use plurals in conjunction with the various conjugations of "to be" - and calculus turned out to be a laugh, because the teacher was absent due to illness. Yuugi took the period to finish his half-completed homework.
It was a Saturday, and so classes were all running short. It was sometime around twelve-thirty that Yuugi had his next big shock of the day.
"You all remember the panel we discussed yesterday, I'm sure . . . today we'll be watching the documentary that was on television last night."
This, Yuugi thought, was where the real weird began. The main interviewee of the documentary was a man named Antonio Perez, who was apparently in charge of the dig at Atem's tomb. He looked to Yuugi like a kindred spirit - dark jeans, wristbands, hair whose original colour could not be accurately pegged for the amount of green and orange streaks in it - and Yuugi was disposed to trust him. And yet - if this man knew what he was talking about, and surely he must, then why did he make no mention of the tomb's collapse? If anyone would have known about it, it would be Mr. Antonio Perez, whose word was second only to that of Zahi Hawass where Atem's tomb was concerned. He could barely concentrate on the rest of the careful narration, and got hopelessly lost just trying to take notes. He'd have to copy from Anzu later.
The bell to freedom rang at last. Yuugi just managed to stay out of Ms. Miyamoto's clutches. Better the company of his friends, his three good friends he'd thought to never see again.
"So how was your date with Beelzebub last night?" Jounouchi, that note back in his voice. Anzu's lips pressed together.
"My date with Seto was fine. I wish you'd - "
The gaze Anzu turned on Yuugi was both puzzled and a little impatient. "How many other boys named Seto do we know?"
She was dating Bakura. I know she was. I know it.
Anzu tucked her hair behind her ear. "Anyway, since you asked . . . he's pretty - well - interesting when he's sleep-deprived. I'm kind of sorry the day of sloth and debauchery is tomorrow."
Yuugi swiveled his head again. He must have heard wrong. "The day of what?"
Anzu started laughing. "The Day of Sloth and Debauchery, Yuugi. I told you about this. The Khrystall Rhelm games are always released on a Saturday, and on Sunday he just lays around and doesn't do anything until noon at the earliest because it's the first chance he actually has in a week to sleep through the night. You're a real space-case today, you know that?"
Yuugi shrugged. In the Domino he'd left, there had been no game called Khrystall Rhelm, and certainly not a series of them. And yet - he remembered them. He remembered standing in line for twelve hours for The Legend of Khrystall Rhelm: Rhelmas Quest, and having a playthrough with Bakura and Jounouchi for Mystic Dragon. He also remembered the vast amounts of disappointment online when playthrough gamers had discovered the dragon didn't show up until the end credits, and then only for players who got a score of 500 000 or above. He remembered Anzu telling him about Kaiba's reaction to the online theorists who swore up and down that Setji and Temi were lovers, and Anzu's reaction when Yuugi had told her outright that anyone with half a brain in their head could tell they were brothers and just didn't know it yet.
Impossible. But true.
A sound broke out of Anzu's schoolbag. It sounded incredibly familiar, but it wasn't until Yuugi realised the words were in English that he knew where he'd heard it before.
" - ninja teens! Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines! Raphael is cool, but rude! Michaelangelo is a - "
Anzu rooted quickly through her bag and pulled out a mobile phone that was definitely not hers. Anzu's phone was a cheerful red; this one was plain black and silver. She flipped the top open.
"Hey, kiddo! What's up?"
Yuugi raised his eyebrows. Curiouser and curiouser, one of his favourite childhood books had said, and that was definitely true. As far as he could tell, Anzu was chatting with Mokuba, and from what she was saying, he wasn't in Domino. At last she said her goodbyes and hit END.
"Seto's," Anzu said, as though it should have been perfectly self-evident - and probably was. "I nicked it out of his coat earlier because I knew if he had it somebody'd call him and that'd be the end of getting him to take a nap before the release tonight. He said he'll call you around four-thirty to give you guys directions, by the way. We're having pizza."
Yuugi nodded and tried to look like he understood. Something in him told him he was supposed to be going to a release party Kaiba was holding for some charity, but Yuugi couldn't remember where it was, or when, or why he was supposed to go. If he could have remembered those things, he thought, Anzu's statement probably would have made perfect sense.
"Here. Check it out. Mokuba sent him a picture. I guess his host family took him to the beach for this local radio thing." Anzu hit a couple of buttons, turned Kaiba's phone on its side, and opened it up. Yuugi was somehow not at all surprised that Kaiba had an Internet phone - nor was he surprised to see the people standing around Mokuba on what he somehow knew was an American beach.
The girl standing next to him had a mess of unruly brown hair and a mischievous light in her eyes that Yuugi knew would never completely fade. Standing behind them were two men, one more easily recognisable than the other, but both of them familiar. One had a long face and dark skin, and Yuugi had only ever seen him in someone else's memories. The other wore a smile truer than any Yuugi had ever seen on his face. There were laugh lines at the corners of his eyes instead of scars, and his hair - a colour that couldn't decide if it wanted to be purple or black - was pulled into a ponytail instead of hanging loose, but Yuugi knew him instantly anyway.
Anzu tapped the screen, pointing out people for Jounouchi's and Honda's benefit. The girl was Madeleine, the dark man Basir, the long-haired man Matthew. Yuugi knew their true names, one and all, and was not at all surprised when Anzu - chattering happily away on this new track - called the girl "Mannie" and then said Matthew's students had taken to calling him Old Mad Hatter after one of them had revealed her mother played Alice in an English department stage production of Lewis Carroll's works under his tutelage. Mad Hatter . . . Mahado. It made perfect sense, in a weird kind of way. Anzu could happily have continued in this vein for some time if the mobile hadn't rung again. This time Yuugi recognised the song as being from one of Anzu's beloved musicals. The voice was weirdly familiar. Yuugi couldn't place the single line of lyric before Anzu picked up.
"Hi, Isaac." Anzu rolled her eyes and made a face. "Uh-huh. You're still trying to bring him over to the Dark Side, huh?" Yuugi watched her changing facial expressions with no small amount of pleasure. He'd first missed Anzu's silly physical humour, and then had started to forget it. "Isaac, it's about a chess tournament. Of course he likes it. Isn't that what the military calls a backdoor attack?" A pause. Anzu laughed. "Whatever. I'll tell him. Right. Uh-huh. Bye. See you tonight."
Anzu ended the call, considered the mobile, and then shut it off. Jounouchi raised his eyebrows.
"Kaiba's phone isn't turned on? Isn't that a sign of the end times or something?"
Anzu rolled her eyes at him. "I'm not being his secretary." She paused. "He really needs to stop letting other people pick his ringtones. One of these days somebody's going to put something awful on there and get him in a lot of trouble."
"Who's Isaac?" Madu, son of Isaaq, Yuugi thought, and felt a chill go down his spine. And yet he couldn't help asking.
"He was - well, he's the American voice actor for Setji. But he's doing a show tour right now, and that's what we went to see last night. Aida. He's playing Radames. He loves it. It's one of the first times he's ever gotten a role that wasn't for a teenager or a drag queen."
"You actually dragged Kaiba to a show that isn't Godzilla the Musical?" Honda's eyebrows looked ready to disappear into his hair. Anzu shook her head.
"He kind of had to go. He and Isaac are pretty good friends. Well - as far as Seto has friends, anyway. I think he liked it, though."
Yuugi was frowning. He'd bet a great deal that Isaac had a small white scar by his left eye and curiously feminine habits. Call it a hunch, he thought. "Isn't that the show about Vietnam?"
Anzu shook her head. "That's Miss Saigon. Aida's the one about the Nubian princess who gets enslaved and falls in love with - I don't think he's actually heir to the throne, but he's supposed to marry the Egyptian princess, so that makes him pharaoh, right?"
Yuugi nodded. "Once they're married he'd be the crown prince, yeah."
Anzu picked up as though she'd never left off. "Okay, crown-prince-to-be, then. Except the whole thing was set up by his father, who's trying to kill the pharaoh, so Radames calls it all off, and then he and Aida both get killed for being traitors. Except what always bothered me about that," she continued, "is that in the original opera Aida committed suicide. Radames was buried alive, and Aida sneaked into the tomb so she could die with him. Call me a purist, I guess."
Yuugi couldn't help himself anymore. "Gosh, why does this sound so familiar?"
Jounouchi and Honda both snorted. Anzu gave Yuugi a look just as he realised that Atem had never told them about Mahado. Not in the Domino he'd been zapped out of. Except . . . all three of them were acting like they knew exactly what he was talking about.
"You should have seen it, Yuugi. It was beautiful. Here, hold on. Isaac sent me some bites I could use for ringtones." Anzu pulled out her own phone and slid it open. She ran her fingers over the touch-buttons. "Here you go - it's not from last night's show, but it's the same cast."
Nothing can be altered, there is nothing to decide
No escape, no change of heart, nor anyplace to hide
You are all I ever want, but this I am denied
Sometimes in my darkest thoughts I wish I'd never learned
What it is to be in love and have that love returned
Is it written in the stars? Are we -
Anzu snapped the phone shut. "Yuugi, are you okay?"
"Just for a second - you looked absolutely awful."
Yuugi forced his face into a grin. "Gosh, Anzu, thanks."
"Not that way," Anzu said. "More like somebody just punched you in the stomach and you weren't expecting it."
"Uh - no big deal. Something I have to do before tonight, that's all." No big deal? Who was he kidding? He'd called it, hadn't he? Why does this sound so familiar? Only because he'd lived it, that was all.
Anzu either didn't catch the lie or decided it wasn't worth calling him on. They turned down the last street to the shop.
"You might want to take your earring out tonight and put in a stud, by the way, Yuugi. We're expecting a really big crowd." Anzu grinned. "And don't forget you're emcee for the big fight."
" . . . big fight?" This, at least, sounded somewhat familiar.
"Setji vs. Anju," Anzu reminded him. "¥200 per person to watch me kick some guy's butt, money going to the Wishing Well Foundation just like admission is. Me against Seto if I can talk him into a pair of combat boots, and me against Isaac if I can't."
"You can," Jounouchi said, and made a face. "I think by now he's just pretending he doesn't care when you're pissed at him."
"How would you know?"
Yuugi stepped between them. "Guys. Don't fight."
Jounouchi looked ready to pursue a tussle anyway. Honda restrained him with a hand on his shoulder. They all stopped to say their goodbyes. Yuugi paused at the door to the shop.
Anzu looked up from reshouldering her bag. "Hmm?"
Anzu hoisted her bag into a more comfortable position. "I got an e-mail from him yesterday. He said he really thinks going back to Tokyo was the right thing to do. You guys were right. Oh - and he's going to try to make it up here for Golden Week for a couple of days, but don't count on it for sure yet."
Yuugi nodded. In the world he'd left, Bakura had never gone back home . . . but then, what else was new? Things had changed for reasons he couldn't even begin to understand. What was one more on the pile?
"See you tonight!"
Yuugi nodded. He was going to have to hurry if he was supposed to drag Jii-chan out of here by four-thirty.
There was a light on in the inventory room. Yuugi called a perfunctory greeting in that direction as he pounded up the stairs. He didn't want to face anyone else. Not yet.
"I'll forgive you your hurry this morning, but is that really any way to greet someone?"
Yuugi stopped dead in the middle of the staircase, eyes wide. That . . . hadn't sounded like Jii-chan. His bag slid off his shoulder and hit the stair riser with a meaningless thud. Yuugi turned, very slowly indeed, to look back down the staircase. Nobody there . . . and yet. Yuugi left his bag abandoned on the risers and plodded, a stair at a time, back to the bottom. His legs did not want to carry him around the corner into the understair inventory room. Yuugi forced them. After all he'd done, he ought to have enough courage for that.
Atem was smiling at him, hanging off the ladder to the top shelf, free arm held out the way Jii-chan's had always been when Yuugi was a little boy. Yuugi's semi-paralysis was broken. He darted the four steps across the room as Atem hopped off the ladder. Yuugi buried his face in the shoulder of the plain black top Atem was wearing and held him so tightly Yuugi's arms trembled. Atem's returning hug was looser, the hug of a friend instead of a lover, and for a moment Yuugi felt his heart sink. Then Atem's arms tightened, and his lips touched the cup of Yuugi's ear.
"It was last night, then?"
Yuugi knew instantly what he was referring to. For some reason Atem had, on this track of time, stayed in the present . . . but to keep from destroying everything, he'd let Yuugi curse himself anyway. He'd had to. Yuugi nodded against Atem's shoulder.
"Yes, little Aibou."
Yuugi felt a grin spread over his face even as tears trickled out of his eyes. Yes, little Aibou. He squirmed closer. Flickers of memory, so like the ones he'd been having all day, were worming their way into his consciousness. Long discussions about how to ensure Yuugi's identity was not questioned, building a life for Atem here in Domino . . . and the thing that had started it all, the one thing that had changed and set off this whole chain of alien events: Atem's hand on top of his deck.
"I surrender . . . I thought I was ready for this, but I'm not. Yuugi . . . can you forgive me?"
Yes. Atem's memories had returned, this time with Yuugi already in them, and he had stayed because there was just the slightest, most miniscule chance that maybe they could pick up where they left off, that happy-ever after might really come to be. He'd tried not to change history, and hadn't completely succeeded. He found he didn't care. They'd still achieved their goal, and here was Atem, whole and alive, and he hadn't forgotten Yuugi after all.
"Yuugi! How many times do I have to tell you not to leave your bag on the . . . ?"
Jii-chan glanced into the storage room. A smile - small and knowing - crept over his face, and he shut the door to the room quietly, leaving Yuugi and Atem to their kisses and hellos. He set Yuugi's bag on the stool next to the counter, and turned on the radio.
It was supposed to be Atem's turn to watch the shop, but he'd been waiting for three thousand years, and Jii-chan thought they could be spared fifteen minutes.
And their story, and my journey, and the lesson they provide . . . draw their strength and inspiration from a love that never died.