This is my first foray into the Yu-Gi-Oh! genre, so take that for what it is. But my muse struck and wouldn't leave me alone until I created this three-shot story. It's just a take on what happened after the series, on how lives went on or didn't go on, and what happens when there are chances to risk everything for love.
Note: this is meant to be a shonen-ai, non-graphic fic. Basically, it's Yugi/Atem, but long, long before either has truly come to understand what is already in place between them. If you have a problem with that, I politely ask you to refrain from reading.
I don't own any of the characters herein – I am only borrowing them for entertainment. Also, the chapter titles come from a Phil Collins song, which I also don't own. Sigh.
It was well after midnight when the bedroom door opened, revealing one extremely tired Yugi Mutou pulling at errant suit buttons and clasps with a tense frustration. Tugging off his tuxedo with very little grace, he flung the overly-expensive garment onto his desk chair in a rented heap. Running his fingers through his eternally wild hair, he sank down onto the familiar bed in his boxers and undershirt and sighed as his head hit the old pillow.
"I sure hope they have a good honeymoon," the young man thought to himself, mind rushing through the craziness of the past few days. Though they had been "just friends" for a very long time, eventually Jounouchi and Mai had discovered a mutual attraction between them that blossomed into affection and love, a relationship that balanced both, strengthening one and softening the other. It had taken years, but those years were not wasted as the couple grew together, finally ending in tonight's glamorous yet heartfelt wedding. Yugi had, of course, been Jounouchi's best man, and he still swelled with pride and friendship and joy for his friends.
"I think today is my proudest, happiest day," Yugi said to himself, folding his hands under his head and staring at the ceiling. "I've had days I was even more proud of someone, or of myself, but not many where I was this full of happiness, too."
Unwillingly, the champion duelist's mind flashed back to that fateful day almost ten years prior when he had beaten the spirit of the Millennium Puzzle and sent his closest friend onto a deserved afterlife of rest. It had been his hardest duel, and at the end he could honestly say he was more proud of his own skills and accomplishment than ever before, or since, but the victory was still tinged with pain. For that day had also marked the end of a friendship, something more than a friendship, whose absence haunted him even now. Like trying to go on after the death of a loved one, Yugi had found a place in life that suited him, but there was forever a nagging hole in his heart, an emptiness that nothing and no amount of time had ever filled.
Wrenching his thoughts from the pain of that one loss, Yugi remembered that he owed Rebecca another email. The American duelist had grown from an insistent and obnoxiously intelligent girl into a cleverly outspoken woman, both unusually attractive and successful in all that she attempted. Over the years, Rebecca had lost her infatuation with Yugi, but always there remained a certain tension between them, and Yugi knew all too well that she continued to harbor some romantic attachments to him. Flattered by her attention, Yugi had continued to politely decline her subtle advances, regretting that it was so necessary, but unable to do otherwise.
"She just…doesn't get it. None of them do," Yugi said bitterly, rolling over and throttling his pillow, his joy on behalf of his friends lost in a storm of sudden emotion. "Not Rebecca, not Anzu, not even Jounouchi, though his interest isn't like the girls'. Grandpa keeps trying to set me up with the 'nice young women' he meets, but it just doesn't work."
Yugi punched his pillow again, remembering a particularly difficult conversation between himself and Anzu while they had both still been in high school together, about a year after the pharaoh had moved on. She, having always struggled to reconcile her feelings for the two parts of Yugi, had finally decided that it was Yugi Mutou, not the pharaoh Atem, whom she loved.
"I think maybe it's always been you," Anzu said shyly, looking out across the school's rooftop at the city. "You've changed, of course, but you're still the same one who came to my rescue once upon a time. The pharaoh, I mean Atem, was a strong, dynamic personality, but it was the gentleness of heart that drew me. Your gentleness, Yugi."
"Anzu…" he began.
"So, I guess what I'm saying is that my feelings for you are very strong. I know I've confused you over the years, and I'm sorry for that. But I wondered if you could see that I've gotten over Atem, and I'm here if you still feel the way I think you once did about me." The wind played with Anzu's hair in a delicate, pretty way, and her blue eyes were wide with hope and feeling when she finally turned them on the young man beside her.
"Anzu, I can't." Yugi could not bear to look at her anymore, so he turned to the horizon instead, speaking as gently and honestly as he could, softening his tone but not his words. "It isn't that I don't forgive you for loving the other me. Of course I do. But…I just can't give my heart away."
"What do you mean?" Anzu's voice sounded stuffy, and Yugi knew without looking that she was caught off-guard, her hopes dashed.
"Love is…supposed to be when you give your heart to someone and they become part of you. And I sort of already did that. There was another half of my soul, the person who completed me like nobody else, but it's all over now. No other love can replace it."
"Are you saying you were in love with the pharaoh?"
"It isn't that simple," Yugi deflected her question. "Think about all the romantic movies you like so much, all the fairy-tale stories about people who are meant to be together forever, couples who are destined for each other. Do you think that, say, if one of them died, that the other could ever really love another person?" Yugi's voice grew deep and shook with something like frustration. "How could someone who had known true love, or whatever you want to call it, settle for anything less than that? If the princess died, the charming prince might not ever love again, unless he found that same love-at-first-sight-'til-death-do-us-part love, you know? Not because other girls who came into his life weren't special or wonderful, but because they could never equal what he had already lost."
"But…is it love or isn't it? The way you talk about it…" Anzu whispered, not sure how to finish her sentence.
"Anzu, everything we feel towards the people in our lives is love of one kind or another. You know that better than anybody. This just…doesn't have a good word to describe it. The closest I can come without using the romantic terms that confuse the issue is the concept of 'mine.' The other me was 'mine' and I was 'his,' and that was all there was. We fit, we belonged, and nothing and nobody can ever fit or belong like that again."
"Nobody can ever be a part of my mind, a part of my heart like that ever again! I didn't think I was alone until suddenly I wasn't alone anymore. And now, even though I've got you and Jounouchi and Honda and everybody else, I'm still alone, because I'm alone in my own head! I can't, can't give my heart away to anyone because it's already given and gone!" Yugi punched the chain-link fence that ringed the rooftop, striking the ringing metal again and again as though the pain of his body could make him forget the ache in his soul.
"I didn't know," Anzu said quietly as sorrow washed through her, both for herself and for the obvious suffering of one she cared for deeply. Then, resuming her usual role in Yugi's life, she moved to catch his shoulders and pull him away from his furious pummeling, saying, "Stop now. You'll get hurt."
"I'm already hurt," Yugi said sullenly, but he allowed her to draw him back and examine his bruised hands. While she made sympathetic noises and wrapped a handkerchief about one long cut on his knuckles, Yugi stood perfectly still, staring across the horizon, his thoughts racing bitterly.
"My life did go on, and there's a world of adventures waiting for me, it's true. I sent him away because it was best for us, because I had to be able to live without him and he without me, for both our sakes. But just because I can exist without him doesn't mean I want to anymore. Somehow, even though I proved I was strong enough alone, being on my own is empty now. What does it matter how strong I become if my heart can never let go?"
Yugi felt his chest constrict as he relived the memory, the familiar anguish rising and threatening to choke him. In the nine intervening years, he had learned to tame the new demon inside his heart, to hold back the isolating void that lived in his deepest spirit, but he could never eradicate it. It was a terrible irony: he had surrendered one being of shadow from his soul only to acquire another, far more cutting one. And this demon chewed at his resolve every day, weakening and draining him. To please his grandfather and friends Yugi had tried dating several times, but his feelings always distilled back to the affection of friendship, nothing more. What he had said to Anzu so long ago was still true: his heart had been given and he could never get it back, nor give it away again.
"I sure hope it was worth it," he thought for the millionth time as he flung himself onto his back and stared at the ceiling as though it might reply. "I hope you are so happy wherever you are that you don't have any regrets about me or the others. Maybe you've already forgotten about me."
A prickle in his eyes told Yugi that he was moments away from crying. Some would have said he was a grown man now, a world champion duelist several times over, and far too old to cry. But Yugi knew better. In his heart he knew that honest, real emotion and expression was far healthier than any perceived "appropriate" behavior.
"Could you have forgotten about me? I mean, you had a whole other life before we even met; for all I know you found your true soul-mate in Egypt and I really was nothing more than a host and a good friend. I guess that would make things easier on you. You wouldn't be missing me the way I miss you. You might even be with that person right now. So, even though it would be awful for me, I hope you did forget all about me. I hope you found your eternity and you're happy with the friends and family who really mattered in the first place. I hope you're not torn in half the way I am, always incomplete."
A tear slipped and ran uncomfortably into his ear. Roughly rubbing at his face with a balled fist, Yugi turned onto his side and tried to force himself to sleep, clutching the blankets around him although the night was warm. The sorrow and loss he had lived with for so many years was much harder to ignore now than it had been before, the threat of despair much, much greater. What had once been a dull pain had grown unceasingly over time; his heart now wept blood with every beat. The only thing that could possibly hurt more than being without the other half of himself was believing that his other half had forgotten him, and yet it was the only thing he could hope for if he wanted any peace at all for the spirit he had loved and lost.
Yugi, choked by his own pain beyond screaming, swallowed his soul and forced himself into welcome oblivion.
Elsewhere, somewhere beyond the realm of human comprehension, another man sat disconsolately on a hard bench, thinking. Gold bangles clanked musically on his wrists and arms as he fidgeted with his royal robes in agitation. Feeling an uneasy, sleeping rest that was not his own steal over his mind at last, he hung his head, tri-colored hair brushing across his face in the light wind of the night.
"Of course I haven't forgotten you, aibou. Even if I couldn't still hear your thoughts now that I am beyond the Western Gate, I could never forget you. It's generous of you to wish I had, for the sake of my own peace of mind, but you of all people should know I would rather have honest pain than not remember my past. I only wish you had forgotten me and been spared this unending pain."
Atem had never expected to see or hear from the reincarnated half of himself again after he passed through the doorway of light and into his eternity. The choice to leave had been the most painful decision of his unnatural existence, but he had believed that he owed it to Yugi to let the boy have a life of his own, free of an alien spectre haunting his heart. It was only later that he had discovered he was still bound to the boy in his mind, with Yugi's memories, thoughts, and feelings still leaking across space and time.
"I never meant to put you through so much torment. Had I known what separating would do to you, what it would do to us both, I'm not sure I would have left. You've grown stronger and braver than I ever anticipated, you have surpassed me in both wisdom and courage, and your heart remains pure and untainted by greed or hate. You are a miracle of a person, I've always known that. I thought by leaving you the rest of your life as your own you would do better than you would have being shackled with me. You have done well, but you are not better. You haven't been the same since the day we parted."
Atem closed his eyes in concentration. Sometimes, if Yugi's mind was relaxed enough in sleep, he almost felt like he could reach the boy. Yugi did dream of him often and woke comforted by the fancy that he had met his other half somewhere between sleep and death, never realizing it was almost true. Atem could indeed spur the dreams, but he could not interact directly. Just as he could not make himself known in Yugi's mind, he could only hear and feel what his other thought and felt, an echo of the life he lived apart. At times the echo was faint, if Yugi were concentrating on something, but other times, especially when he was dueling or feeling particularly lonely, their one-sided rapport was all too clear.
"Is the boy well?" came a voice. Atem opened his eyes to see Seth standing nonchalantly in the doorway.
"He's not a boy anymore," the pharaoh answered automatically, in spite of the fact that he also continued to think of Yugi as one. It was habit, comforting, and hard to break.
"He will always be a boy at heart, just as you have never been one." Atem shrugged at the statement, wordlessly admitting its truth. "But is he well?" the advisor repeated.
"No more or less than usual. But I fear that the sorrow is starting to gnaw away his natural defenses against despair. Time is beginning to take its toll, and I can see no way for him to avoid greater pain as the feelings get worse." Atem gestured for his friend to join him on the long seat. Having reconnected with his past, the pharaoh had renewed the close kinship with this successor to his throne, and Seth had served as a dedicated and understanding companion, much like Jounouchi had always been to Yugi.
"It is a powerful spirit that can withstand such pressure, but he is mortal and there is no joy strong enough to outweigh his pain and silence the clamor of his heart," Seth nodded, taking his place beside his friend and fellow king. "I am surprised he has managed for so long."
"I'm not," Atem replied. "Yugi has a soul greater than any I've ever known."
"Be that as it may, all strength eventually gives out under the weight of painful emotion. It is the cost of retaining one's humanity. If you feel that he is beginning to slip, I would anticipate he will collapse rather quickly as his remaining courage evaporates."
"I fear you may be right, Seth. And I shudder to think what it will do to him when those few barriers he has erected against his despair finally collapse."
"Then what would you do?"
"Nothing! I can do nothing!" Atem's eyes glowed with contained fury, and he clenched his fists. "The boy is the other half of my soul, the aibou to my very being, and I am condemned to watch him live his life in unanswerable pain. What sort of restful eternity is this?"
"I do not know, my pharaoh, but you must reach him before it is too late." Though both had ruled over Egypt, Seth had never ceased thinking of Atem as his pharaoh.
"We have spoken thusly many times, my friend, and yet here I remain doing nothing, and somewhere my aibou continues in suffering. No matter how many times you counsel me, nothing comes of it. Not that I blame you for our circumstances, of course," the scarlet-eyed king said apologetically.
"Of course, my pharaoh. But I believe that one thing has changed from our previous conversations." Seth, like his reincarnation Seto Kaiba, had a true gift for delivering good news and making it sound inconsequential and beneath notice. However, Atem had waited too long for such words to ignore them.
"What do you mean?" his very being lit in excitement. For the first time since he had passed into this place of eternity, he began to feel the stirrings of something truly alive within his heart, assuming Seth's comment portended what he thought it did.
"One benefit to eternity is the possibility for much study and contemplation," Seth began slowly and with a very small wry smile. "And I believe I may have found a way to reunite your spirit with the boy at last. The stars and moon of the earth are in a rare alignment, and I have at last located a very old tome of magic and wisdom which may assist us. But," and his voice grew warning, "there will be great risk to you both, and great sacrifice."
"Beyond the pain it would cause you both to undergo such a thing, and it would be very painful, you and the boy would be bound for all time, never able to live independently again. Even in the afterlife, there would be no possibility of unbinding if either or both of you wished it. In essence, you would be required to willingly and knowingly surrender your existences as individuals, the two of you becoming truly and irrevocably symbiotic forever. Neither of you would ever know solitude or freedom again."
"Nor would we know loneliness or isolation," the pharaoh countered. "But can this be the only cost of such a miracle?"
"No. There is more." Seth sighed.
"I will risk anything. He is my hikari. I grow dark without him. But, what of the risk to him?"
"Without lifting the Millennium Puzzle from its resting place, there will be no focus powerful enough to contain your immortal soul, save the boy's frail human form. And there is no telling if he would survive the process."
"You mean it could kill him to rejoin with me."
"More than that. As I said, neither could live without the other. So if the boy's body cannot withstand the rebinding, you would both die. However, because you were neither made one nor apart, yet the magic had been cast, the result would be the destruction of your very souls."
"Our very… Do you mean to say that if the process killed Yugi's body that both our souls would cease to exist as well?"
"Indeed. Neither of you would be able to return to the afterlife. You would pass into what very few mortals have ever known: true oblivion. It is, perhaps, a better thing to be condemned to the pain of the underworld for all eternity than to suffer such an unmaking."
They were both silent for a long while, lost in thought.
"My pharaoh," Seth finally broke the quiet, "I offer you this for I do not wish to see you so burdened by the pains suffered by your reincarnation. If I may be so bold, you are not the man I once knew and called king and friend. You have not been that man for as long as you have been with us here."
"No," Atem answered quietly. "And you're not bold. It is true. Even remembering my past, even reliving the last of my days, I am still incomplete. Once, I was not whole for I did not know of myself. Now I am still not whole, because even with my own life restored, I have lost the reality of myself. I think, perhaps, I already depend upon my aibou for life, for that which makes a soul real."
"But are you willing to take this risk?"
"I? Certainly. I have waited far too long for such a chance, consequences or no. But we can do nothing without Yugi's permission."
"Then perhaps it is time to…as my own reincarnation would say, call in a favor."