Disclaimer: Veritably not mine.
A/N: A birthday present for DragonDancer, who has been an absolute star ever since I met her through the YGO fandom. Happy birthday, chickadee!
Maybe I'm Amazed
© Scribbler, November 2008.
Maybe I'm amazed at the way you pulled me out of time,
And hung me on a line.
Maybe I'm amazed at the way I really need you.
Maybe I'm a girl,
Maybe I'm a lonely girl who's in the middle of something,
That she doesn't really understand.
-- From Maybe I'm Amazed by Jem.
She was sitting on a wall, blowing on a reed pipe and making a terrible noise. She could play very well if she wanted to, but sometimes there was satisfaction in just putting her lips to the end and blowing as hard as she could, no finesse, just lungs emptied of air and the sharp pain of puffed-out cheeks. The shrill shriek from the pipe was like an animal in pain, or one of the hawks who came when she stuck out her arm and called.
She'd always been good with birds. Mahaad called it a special gift, how they never cut her with their claws or tried to peck her with their razor beaks. They weren't tame, but they sat docilely as she gave them messages, or when she just wanted to catapult them into the air and watch them loop-the-loop above her. Birds were free, and nobody ever told a wild bird what to do.
She used to wish she could fly. She imagined wings stretching out from her shoulders, or her fingers stretching, feathers fanning between them and down her arms. When she was little she would run around the courtyard flapping her arms, practising in case one day the gods blessed her. It was ridiculous, childish notion, but it didn't stop her from jumping off tree branches and standing on lidded pots to get more height in case it helped.
"What are you doing?" Atem asked once, sounding far more adult than a boy only six months her elder was supposed to. She supposed it was because he was destined to be pharaoh someday. When you knew you'd be the living avatar of the gods on Earth, it probably made you grow up a little faster than everyone else.
That didn't stop her from convincing him to join her and act like a commoner child. She'd spent her first years living in the city as a peasant, until the seeds of magic were discovered in her and she was brought to the palace for them to be nurtured, just as Mahaad had been when it was found in him too. She was to be a protector, and perhaps someday even a wife of the new pharaoh, but from the very first she was Atem's friend and the one who encouraged him to shuck the supercilious ways of royalty in the pursuit of fun. Many times Akhnaten wondered aloud whether she was a good influence on the young prince, and whether Mahaad alone would have been enough magical protection for the boy.
She didn't care what the sacred priests thought of her. Some things were more important than appearances. Until her dying day she carried the image of Atem waving his arms up and down, squawking and running around in circles until his attendants arrived and led him away, horrified at this reminder that their master was a six-year-old boy with six-year-old boy wants and needs.
She tried to revisit the memory after her death, too, but it was harder then – not because it had faded, but because thinking about Atem, locked away in the Millennium Puzzle, made her chest hurt like she was dying all over again. She'd died trying to save him – they all had – and in the end it had been worthless, at least as far as the pain in her chest was concerned. He had died anyway, following their sacrifices with one of his own. She couldn't fault the nobleness of his actions – how could you resent someone for saving millions of people? – but part of her hated him for not only knowing what had to be done, but having the courage to do it.
She missed her life. She missed him. She missed studying with Mahaad, hiding in pots to remind Atem who he was under his crown, the rolling gait of a horse at full gallop and the feel of real hawk talons closing gently around her forearm. Things could be mimicked on this side of the void, but after a few thousand years that lost its sparkle. The afterlife was glorious, just as she'd always been taught it would be, but it couldn't replace what they'd lost. It wasn't real.
Some days she wondered whether she was real, or whether everything she thought she knew was just a whim of the gods. Such heavy thoughts sat badly with her, but she found them difficult to shrug off while the knowledge of Atem's imprisonment rested like a stone in the middle of her mind, slowly indenting the ground and sliding everything towards it.
And then he found a way around it all, and colour flooded back into a world that had become washed out and colourless as old cloth.
She'd been the first at the gate when it opened, but for some reason hesitated at the last second and let everyone else rush forward before her. She'd caught a glimpse of the world beyond – still sand and stone peopled with shadows, but the men and women there wore strange garments and had skin as pale as the foreign slaves traders had sometimes dragged on ropes behind their camels. She had seen a pale version of the traitorous Priest Seto standing near a boy who looked so much like six-year-old Atem that her eyes had widened, and she had backed away from the real thing, darkening back to himself before them. The others had rushed to fill the gap, clamouring to welcome him, but her eyes had been fixed on the pale mimicry vanishing behind the closing doors. The scene was so surreal that for once she was lost for words.
He had accepted the others' greetings with joy that was no less genuine for being slightly aloof. There had something subtly different about him, though; as if he'd gone on to live more of his life and learned lessons without them to guide him. The way he spoke, the tilt of his head, the way he placed his feet as he walked – still him, but also changed. He was less deferential than he had been, and … softer. It clung to him like sweet-smelling smoke.
On her wall she could think things through. Mahaad sometimes came after her, but not this time. She knew it was Atem behind her – or the new person who used to be the Atem of her childhood and the pharaoh of her teenage years. She gave another sharp blast on the reed pipe, like a wild heron sounding a warning before flying away. Herons weren't as impressive as hawks, but she still used to like watching them, all spindly legs and deadly, stabbing beak.
"Serves you right for taking so long," she said.
"I was delayed."
"I know. The others. They've … we've all missed you."
He pulled himself up to sit beside her without asking permission to share her wall. She'd created it out of dust and imagination, just as she'd recreated the view of the palace grounds as they appeared when she was knee-high to a hippo. "I apologise for taking so long," he said in his new, softer voice.
She kicked her heels against the wall, took a moment as if to think about it, and then said, "You're forgiven." She thrust the pipe at him. "Here. You remember how to play, right?"
"Just pucker and blow."
"You're still not very respectful of me, are you?"
New or old, when she looked into his eyes she still saw someone who could use a few lessons in how to have fun. "It's difficult to be respectful of someone you've seen falling on his face when he pretended to be a bird."
She felt rather than saw his smile. It was a hesitant, half-lidded thing, but so, so genuine. "You haven't changed, Mana."
She shook her head. "Sure I have. And now you've got time to figure out how."
He paused before he spoke again. "Yes," he said at last. "I suppose I do."
Her chest still hurt, but not like she was dying. It was like a baby bird pecking its way out of its shell, pushing against the walls of her heart and giving a tiny cheep of new life. He had time to learn about her, and she had time to learn about him and his changes, too.
This time, the feeling in her chest was like she was living all over again instead.
A/N: Wow, this is my 280th fic here on FFN.