Disclaimer: Historically not mine.
A/N: This is part of a project I started writing in 2006, though at this time I didn't realise it was going to become big enough to be termed a 'project'. Sisters Under the Skin was supposed to be a short vignette, but in October 2008 I went back and expanded on what I started there, creating Sometimes It's Got to Hurt Before You Feel and Escape to the Stars. Pretty soon it was another case of darn-it-the-stupid-thing-got-away-from-me-again! and I was sunk. Consequently, some aspects of this fic may seem familiar at first, but trust me when I say that they've been altered enough to fit in with the wider continuity that has sprung up around this storyline. You don't have to have read any of those fics to understand this one.
This has become the biggest single fic I have ever undertaken in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Fandom, and has turned me into Research Girl™ since last October when I started writing it. There's a reason why I've taken so long to venture into the Ancient Egypt arc with my fanfic, and it's mostly to do with messing up any semblance of historical accuracy. Therefore, feedback isn't just welcome, it's begged for.
© Scribbler, October 2008/April 2009
Prologue: The Legacy of the Women
Isis was an intelligent child. It was obvious from an early age, though her father rarely acknowledged it. In his eyes she would always be a girl first – a soft and vulnerable female body, a dowry and a demand on his resources – before he acknowledged the personality that went with that. He had little respect for his daughter.
"What did I do," he asked more than once, "that Allah cursed me with such bad luck in a firstborn child?"
He never acknowledged that Isis wasn't his firstborn. He had even less respect for Rishid, and never used any words that revealed they were actually family. Rishid was reduced to a series of epithets – 'you there', 'useless creature', and 'foundling'. Half the time he was treated more like an indentured servant than an adoptive son.
"You should thank me," their father said on those few occasions he did recognise Rishid. "I have given you everything you have. Your life is due to me and my generosity."
"Yes, sir," Rishid replied quietly.
Other times, if Rishid had done something wrong, their father would look at him as though he was a pile of goat mess, and say, "The world outside is a terrible place. I should put you out in it. It would be no more than you deserve. You're a filthy thing. Unclean. Cursed. Not even your own flesh and blood wanted you. They left you to die in the sand. They could see from the moment you were born that you aren't worth a camel fart. If you're not careful, foundling, I'll send you back where you came from. They cut the hands off useless creatures there. They string them up so nobody else will make the same mistakes as them. Never forget that the only thing standing between you and that place is me."
Malik, though; Malik was both blood and a boy. He was their father's favourite from the moment he arrived in the world, gory and squalling. Their father lifted Malik in his arms and declared him the most precious thing in it, his face shining with pride even as his wife lay dying.
"Has there ever been a more perfect boy than this? He will be strong. He will have the spirit of our family and carry it proudly through his long life."
Isis and Rishid could only ever be half of what their father wanted. It didn't take a new baby brother to make them see that. Nonetheless, the day Malik was born they crouched in the corridor, two tiny lumps of grief, Rishid's arm around her shoulders as she refused to cry. He was a silent, comforting presence next to her, already showing the steadiness that would carry him into adulthood without turning him bitter.
They dealt with their father's daily rejection in different ways. Rishid kept to himself and blended into the shadows, making himself essential but invisible to their daily life. Isis buried herself in books. When she wasn't reading she was thinking about what she'd read, or thinking about how to get hold of more reading material. Her father thought reading was bad for girls.
"What man needs a well-read wife to argue with him?" he asked on her twelfth birthday, throwing one of her books across her room. "You're filling your head with harmful ideas. The only things you may read are the archives of our history as Tomb Keepers and the Qur'an. That is all!"
"I hear you, Father," Isis said quietly. Not yes or no, or 'I'll do what you say', just 'I hear you'.
He accepted her response and went back to ignoring her. Isis acceptance his treatment and went back to reading whatever she could. Not everyone in the tunnels agreed with his narrow views, though they didn't challenge him openly. He was the head of the family, after all.
Many people mistook Isis's behaviour for coldness. Those who sneaked books to her recognised it for what it was, but she never misunderstood that if her father found out she'd be on her own against his wrath. Her allies were fair-weather, and she was intelligent enough to know it, alongside many other things she couldn't learn in books.
For instance, she learned how to cope without a mother or a female role-model except what her father fabricated from her mother's ghost.
"Your mother would never be so rude. Your mother would know her place. Your mother had no interest in reading. Your mother would do as I say. Your mother understood what was expected of her. Your mother was a good woman. Why can't you be more like your mother?"
Isis suspected her mother wasn't everything her father said. She'd gone against her husband to take in Rishid, after all, which spoke volumes for her kindness and compassion – two things Isis's father didn't talk about when he was holding her up as a model of female virtue. Isis had to get her modernism and thirst for knowledge from somewhere, she reasoned.
Locked away from the sun and forced to entertain herself outside the confines of her father's idea of 'education', she'd developed something of a second skin, which acted as a shield between her and the dusty air breathed only by other Tomb Keepers. Once, when she was small, she'd watched a beetle crawl across her bedclothes and tapped at its shell with the tip of one finger. The beetle hadn't run away, or been hurt. Instead, it had turned towards her and paused, as if wanting to know what she was, secure in the knowledge that she couldn't hurt it. Isis had decided that she, too, would have a shell like the beetle, which would keep her safe from her father's cruelty and allow her to continue learning about the world he wanted to pretend didn't exist.
"And one day," she said to herself, or perhaps to her mother's spirit, "I'll be able to open my shell and fly away on my own set of wings, and he won't be able to do anything about it."
Except that she knew she'd never be able to go without her brothers, and they didn't have beetle-shells with wings hidden under them. Rishid had just the shell. He didn't want to leave here, where he was ignored but safe from the world that had rejected him when he was only a few days old. Malik had the wings but not the protective shell, and Isis worried that someday his gossamer dreams would be shredded by the legacy of the Tomb Keepers. She had to stay, for their sakes.
Isis looked up from her paperwork to see Malik framed in the doorway. She smiled, as she always did when she saw him. He was so different these days to the hate-filled boy who blew through Battle City, but he wasn't the naïve child he'd been before that, either. Old as it made her feel to say it, at sixteen her little brother had grown up. His experiences had made him both less and more than the man their father had wanted of his heir.
"Hey," he said softly. He tended to say everything softly, which was also different than the old days – no more excited giggling or booming commands, just a polite, slightly anxious tone that veered into contentment when alone with those he cared about. After years of being his enemy, it was gratifying to be counted amongst this old-new category.
"Malik." Isis gestured at the chair on the other side of her desk. "This is unexpected."
"I was, uh, going through a few things." He sat down. "From the tunnels."
Her expression twitched. They'd recently been back to their childhood home, and she'd hated every moment of it. The place crawled with bad memories like a head full of lice. Even though intellectually she knew it was ridiculous, she hadn't felt like she could breathe properly until they were back in open air. Rishid, too, had looked sick, though he'd been more concerned about what the visit might do to Malik.
Thankfully, Malik had been fine. The visit had actually been his idea. "For closure," he'd said when they returned to Egypt from Japan.
"Closure?" Rishid had echoed.
"A concept championed by psychiatrists." Malik had caught Isis's eye and looked away, still too raw inside to meet the understanding there. "Bringing something to a conclusion. It means tying up loose ends, accepting that something is over and … that it can't affect you anymore. Or hurt you, at least."
And so they'd pulled open the long-shut doors and gone into the tunnels, though each one of them would rather have been anywhere but there. They'd explored the rooms where they'd spent their formative years, touched the walls and floors, breathed air that smelled of nothing but dust, and eventually returned to their new lives aboveground when Malik gave the signal.
"It's really over," he'd said. "He's really not there."
Neither Isis nor Rishid had needed to ask who he meant. Rishid had placed a protective hand on Malik's shoulder and Isis had drawn closer on his other side. They'd stood together in front of the open doorway, united in a way that had seemed impossible only weeks earlier. It had been simultaneously painful and the most wonderful thing in the world.
They had brought things out of the tunnels with them – keepsakes and objects safeguarded by Tomb Keepers for centuries. They weren't as sacred or important as the Millennium Items, but were still links to the ancient past that museums would love to own. Isis knew it was probably wrong of her not to have donated them already, but Malik had taken the task of sifting through them, and if it brought him more of this 'closure' she was happy to bend a few rules. Her colleagues would have been shocked, but then again her colleagues scoffed at the idea of ancient Egyptian as more than fairytales.
Malik watched for her reaction to his words. Isis set down her pen, steepled her hands under her chin and said, "Oh?" She kept her voice soft and her tone gentle, as if talking to a skittish animal. It was less to do with coddling Malik than it was to conceal her own emotions.
Malik placed what he'd been carrying on top of her paperwork. It was a wooden box. There was no lock, but it radiated privacy and obviously hadn't been opened for some time. The wood was dark and worn, faint patterns showing like the veins under the dusky skin of her own wrist. Something had been carved into the lid and around the edges, though age had made the shapes indistinct. This box had been touched by many hands.
"It was Mother's," Malik said simply. He pushed the box towards Isis. "It's supposed to be passed from mother to daughter."
"'The Legacy of the Women'. I checked; it's not in any of the official Tomb Keeper records, but there was a note. Is a note. Inside."
Slowly, Isis removed the lid. There were two levels, rather like a jewellery box. The first level was indented so it could be lifted out. A slightly yellowed envelope lay on top. It was old, but not nearly as old as the box. Isis flicked her eyes briefly to Malik's face, picked up the envelope and slid its contents free. The note was brief but heartfelt. When she'd finished reading there was an uncharacteristic lump in her throat.
"You read this?"
Malik shook his head. "I saw it wasn't for me and stopped. I figured it was important, to be hidden away like this. I don't think Father even knew about it."
"He didn't. 'The Legacy of the Women' isn't anything to do with the Nameless Pharaoh, it's about the history of the tomb-keepers themselves." Isis finally focussed on the items beneath the letter. "Relics of what the first people charged to wait for the Pharaoh's return were like. The men were concerned only with their mission, but the women of the time wanted to preserve their own identities after they were secluded. They couldn't write, but they passed down objects that were precious to them, mother to daughter, and told each other stories. These things … they're our history, Malik."
"I think I like their way better than how they preserved the story of the Nameless Pharaoh." Malik's hand went briefly to his shoulder, rubbing as if he wanted to feel the sigils burned into his back.
But for once Isis wasn't distracted by the ghosts of her brother's pain. She didn't remember her mother properly. The woman was little more than a collection of vague images, like a half-remembered dream that faded a little more with each passing year. Isis's childish mind had retained what it could, but it had never been enough. She'd always wanted more, but had to content herself with what she had. Her mother had come from outside the family and was rarely talked about afterwards, as though the husband she left behind felt ashamed of her and his own decision to marry her. It was one of the only things he'd ever done that made Isis think of him without dislike. However narrow-minded and officious he had become, once upon a time their father had been a young man who fell in love with the wrong woman and defied tradition to be with her.
And yet each word in the letter, penned when Isis had only been a baby, echoed in someone else's voice. Isis could hear it clearly – better than she could hear Malik breathing, her own pulse in her ears, or the sounds of Cairo outside her open window. Her mother had promised to explain everything to her someday, and finished the very personal message with the words: 'When you're old enough to understand, I will teach you about the world, but first and foremost I will teach you about my love for you, my precious firstborn daughter'.
Her mother had loved her. Somehow that lifted a great weight that Isis hadn't even been aware was o her shoulders.
"She never got the chance to explain what these items all mean," Isis said thickly, covering her mixed up feelings with well-practised composure like always. Malik frowned worriedly at her – a role reversal she found laughable, though she didn't show it. "Although I suspect most of the stories would have been lost or altered through retelling over the years."
She set down the letter and picked up a few pieces of tarnished jewellery that had probably been beautiful when they were first made.
"Chinese Whispers," she muttered.
She was careful with the items, but couldn't help herself from touching them with her bare hands. It made her feel closer to all the Tomb Keeper women who had gone before her. Perhaps amongst them there had been others like herself, who had dreamed of getting out and making new lives for themselves in the outside world – women who hadn't wanted husbands or children, just the chance to be themselves and be accepted.
But unlike them, Isis had actually done it. She was finally free, and she hadn't had to sacrifice her promises to either of her brothers to achieve it. This little box of keepsakes emphasised to her just how many lives had gone into making the miracle of theirs possible. It also hammered home the responsibility they had to those who'd died without achieving the same dream. Briefly, she shut her eyes, overcome but not wanting to show it.
Something touched her hand. She looked down. Malik's was over her own. Her hand had clenched into a fist around a pendant made from a chunk of turquoise with a hole bored through one end. Her knuckles were blanched. Conscious of the great archaeological sin she was committing, she loosened her fist, releasing the item, and allowed Malik to take her fingers in his. It was an unprecedented act. Malik usually hated to be touched. His experiences had left him fiercely private.
Isis took a breath. "I'm all right."
Malik didn't seem convinced.
"I am," she said, trying to reassure him. "I was just a little shocked."
"Would you like me to leave you alone?"
"It was traditional for women to keep this from the men in their lives. They were frightened that the items would be cast out as unnecessary to the Sacred Mission."
Malik started to rise, but she held tight to his hand.
"Tradition hasn't always been the healthiest aspect of our lives."
He stared at her for a moment. Then he sat down. Almost at once he jumped back to his feet. "Rishid should be here as well. He's our brother."
And outdated traditions affected him as much as they ever did us, Isis thought as he hurried off.
Rishid was as hesitant as ever about 'intruding'. Malik forced him into the seat he'd vacated a few minutes earlier and perched himself on the edge of Isis's desk. Rishid's hands remained a tangled clasp in his lap, and his eyes constantly flicked around the room, as though Isis's belongings intimidated him. The irony would have made her laugh, if she'd felt like laughing. Physically, Rishid was the most imposing man she'd ever met. His height, broad shoulders and powerful chest made even hardened criminals nervous, but despite that a constant air of anxiety robbed him of the confidence everyone assumed he possessed.
"It's all right," she said impulsively. Rishid raised his eyes, startled. She wasn't usually given to platitudes, especially easily disproved ones. Everything was not all right – not even close. Even so, the words seemed to encourage him.
Together, they went through their mother's gifts, sent from across the years and finally, gratefully received by the children who'd wanted so much to know her.
Isis led the way through the various exhibits. She felt something like a mother goose, although her 'goslings' were mostly taller than her and didn't peep or sink when they tried to paddle away from her side.
She turned and was struck again by the differences in them since the Ceremonial Duel. Even those not directly involved had been subtly altered. There was loss in their eyes now, as well as the burning devotion that had always characterised the way they looked at each other. Yuugi Mutou in particular seemed drawn, although that was probably to be expected.
It had been Malik's idea for them to see the stone tablet before they went home. He really was a fan of this 'closure' thing now, and had insisted that it would do Yuugi and his friends good to look at it now they knew the true story behind it. Isis had tried to convince Seto Kaiba to do likewise, but he'd been predictably scornful.
"It's over," was all he'd thrown over his shoulder as he walked away from her. "That's all I need to know."
Yuugi and the others had been more receptive to the idea, although Isis got the feeling it was partly because they didn't want to disappoint Malik. Strange, she thought, how people who had once been her brother's enemies could be so considerate of his feelings; but then that was what had always made them special. They were extraordinary people, not because of how they'd saved the world, or because they'd defeated the forces of evil, but because they not only genuinely believed in forgiveness and second chances, but practised it as well. Not many would be able to accept a person who'd done what Malik's darker half – not an invading spirit, he kept pointing out, but something that had come from inside him – had done to them, but Yuugi Mutou and his friends had forgiven Malik, and without question. To Isis, that was far more impressive than anything else they'd done.
She watched as Yuugi muttered something under his breath and Anzu drew closer to him, bumping her arm against his. It wasn't as obvious as Jounouchi's punch to Yuugi's other arm, or the way Honda put his hand on Bakura's shoulder, but the meaning was the same: reassurance that they were there for each other. It made Isis want to reach for Rishid and Malik's hands, but she restrained herself. Really, these emotional displays were starting to take over her life.
This was the first time she'd seen the tablet since the loss of the Nameless Pharaoh. Though it had been only a short time, it seemed like so much had happened since then – not least of which was her trip into the tunnels. She was much more at peace than she'd ever been before, having renewed her relationship with her brothers and her dead parents. She'd finally said goodbye to the ghost of her father and made a connection with her mother. She'd even taken to wearing the turquoise necklace from the Legacy of the Women box. It made her feel closer to her mother in a way she couldn't put into words – at least, not without feeling slightly ridiculous. People in her position and office didn't rely on superstition and symbolism. They dealt in facts and things that could be proven. Still, it made her feel better to wear it.
The tablet was just as impressive as ever. Yuugi and his friends stared silently up at it for a long time.
"I guess Pharaoh Seto felt really bad about what happened," Jounouchi said eventually. "This is, like, some giant apology, right? Trying to set the record straight?"
"Something like that," Yuugi murmured, not taking his eyes off the carved faces. "But I think it was more like he was … just trying to remember …" He frowned a little, as if trying to remember something himself.
"Hey now, less of the frowning." Anzu bumped into Yuugi's arm again. She'd been watching him instead of the tablet. "At least this proves Priest Seto really was a good guy."
"Oh yeah. I forgot. I guess I just always think of Yami whenever the word 'Pharaoh' comes up." Her face clouded. "Uh, I mean Atem, not Yami. Man, it's weird with all these name switch-arounds. Pharaoh Seto. Pharaoh Atem. Mana. Mahaad. Priest Akhnadin. Nobody even knew about them for thousands of years, and now -" She raised her eyes to the tablet. "- we do. It's like … we have some sort of responsibility to make sure they're never forgotten again."
Isis nodded, following her gaze. It was the same conclusion she'd come to when Malik brought her the Legacy of the Women box.
"Way to load up even more pressure, Anzu," Jounouchi grumbled. "Like we didn't do enough already?"
"Shut up, Jounouchi," Honda admonished.
But Jounouchi didn't shut up. "Anzu? Hey, Anzu?"
Honda nudged him, none too gently. "You just don't know when to quit, do you?"
Jounouchi pulled away from his friend and waved a hand in front of Anzu's face. "Yoo-hoo, Earth to Anzu, come in Anzu."
Finally, Yuugi also tore his gaze away from the tablet. "Anzu, are you okay?"
Isis focussed on the girl. Anzu Mazaki once played host to Malik's soul, though she hadn't been aware of it at the time. Despite that – or maybe because of it – Isis had always felt somewhat protective of her. Isis knew what it was like to care for someone so deeply you'd risk your life and soul for them, and she also knew what it was like to be the only female in a male-dominated group. There were parallels between herself and Anzu Mazaki.
Maybe that was why, when she saw the distressed look on the girl's face, Isis put her hand on Anzu's shoulder. Anzu was a girl defined by her physicality. As she'd proved only moments before, she viewed touch as comfort and drew strength from other people bestowing it.
"Sister!" Malik rushed to her side as she collapsed.
Rishid followed an instant later. "Isis!"
"What is it?" Malik demanded.
Isis shook her head, unable to speak. Her hand went to her chest, and the sudden searing heat that had sent her to her knees. Her skin felt like it was burning, but when she touched the turquoise necklace it was icy cold. She pulled it over her collar-line and breathed a little easier with a layer of cloth between it and her.
"That necklace …" Anzu's voice was trembling. So was the rest of her, as though she was suddenly cold, despite the oppressive heat. "Where did you get that?"
Isis looked up. Anzu's face had drained of all colour. Jounouchi and Honda looked a little sick, too, though they seemed more baffled than afraid.
"You recognise it?" Isis wheezed.
"I … no. But I …" Anzu shook her head and pressed her hands against her temples. "It seems so familiar."
How was that possible? The necklace had been hidden away for thousands of years. It wasn't part of the official history, and hadn't even left the tunnels since it was put down there. Maybe Anzu meant it resembled something similar, Isis thought; but one look at the girl's face told her this as incorrect. Anzu recognised this necklace, and somehow it was reacting to … what? Her presence? That didn't explain why it had chosen this moment instead of when Isis first met up with them, or why Jounouchi and Honda also looked suddenly ill.
Bakura knelt beside Isis. Isis knew this boy had fought the spirit of the Millennium Ring as much as he could, and had suffered more than anyone else at its hands. He was working hard to overcome his trauma and reassure the world that he wasn't the monster who had worn his skin. She felt for him. His future wasn't one she envied. Even so, distracted by the aftermath of pain, she had to force herself not to react to him like he was an enemy. Her face froze and her body tightened. Her flesh felt like it was trying to crawl off her bones.
"Is it magical?" he asked quietly, his voice as unlike the spirit's as a trickle of water is unlike a crashing waterfall. He was naturally pale, so she couldn't tell whether he'd also been affected like the others.
Isis shook her head. "Not that I know of."
"Could I see it more closely?"
Gingerly, she drew the chain over her head and held it out to him. The chain itself didn't burn, but when it bushed past her chin the turquoise stung.
Before Bakura's fingers could close over it, however, there was a tremendous crack, like a clap of thunder, or a bomb going off.
Isis instantly found herself flat on the ground, Malik's weight across her shoulders and Rishid crouched protectively over them both. Everybody else in the gallery was in a similar state, but when nothing further happened they started to get to their feet, chattering nervously.
"Whoa, man …" Honda breathed. He was staring up at the stone tablet.
When Malik and Rishid let her up, Isis stifled a gasp. The protective reinforced glass over the tablet, which had been drilled deep into the wall, had shattered. Moreover, she realised, as Bakura picked thick shards from his hair, it had shattered outward.
The turquoise necklace lay on the floor where she'd dropped it. Nobody made any move to pick it up. Isis stared at it, and then back up at the unharmed stone tablet. A sense of foreboding stole over her, as well as the after-effects of fear and shock that had come with the explosion. Adrenaline leeched out of her system, to be replaced by a sense of dread.
"Still say it's not magical?" Jounouchi muttered. "Great. Just what we needed. Yet another freaky necklace."
To Be Continued …