Chain
by Dawn

Word Count: 23,849
Genre: Action, Supernatural, Shounen-ai/Yaoi
Pairings: Thief King Bakura/Malik, minor Honda/Otogi/Shizuka, suggested Shizuka/Anzu, Atemu/Mahaado, Jounouchi/Mai
Summary: [AU] In a modern Egypt stuck in its ancient ways, one jail guard meets a thief named Bakura and, in return for breaking his chains, gains a life he never thought possible.
Rating: R
Author's Notes: There are some violent scenes, suggestions of sex and explicit cursing. Enjoy. :]

Chapter One: Hero

The man had never stopped grinning.

The guards had dragged him into the cell, body limp and bleeding from days of beatings and interrogations, but even between ragged breaths the man was grinning. They had thrown him into a sitting position against the wall before chaining him there, arms held high and legs bound together. The grin was maddening, and, as Malik Ishtar watched between the bars of the cage, the guards spat on the prisoner's beaten form before tossing what had apparently once been his jacket at him. Now in filthy tatters, the red garment fell over the prisoner's near-naked form, the only source of warmth granted to him in the cold cell.

Malik had been one of the newer guards, smaller than the rest and clearly less hard-hearted, which made him a prime target for the worst jobs. The older guards had sneered as they'd pushed the basin of water and thin cloths at him, ordering him to clean the grinning prisoner up for the Pharaoh's presence. Malik had taken the job silently, fear tightening in his chest -- appearing before the Pharaoh the highest rank of punishment, reserved for those who committed mass murder, desecrated the holy shrines or attempted treason against the Pharaoh. They would be judged by the Sennen Items themselves, a horrifying process that was whispered about for weeks afterwards, and it was widely accepted that those who were subjected to it were justly deserving of it. And now Malik would have to wash one of these said prisoners, alone. He swallowed.

Malik entered the cell cautiously, keys hooked tightly around his waist. The prisoner hadn't moved from the position he'd been set in, body draped loosely against the wall and floor, head bowed and wild white locks covering his face. Thinking he might be asleep, Malik allowed a small breath of relief. He could just clean up the man's wounds and be done before he woke up. Malik kneeled beside him, setting his basin down and dipping a cloth into the cool water, wringing it out again before he scrubbed at the drying blood on the man's legs.

"Be more gentle. I don't need more scars just from being cleaned."

Malik jumped at the sudden, low voice, nearly knocking the basin over in his alarm and splashing water over the stone floor. His eyes fell on the supposedly sleeping man, whose shoulders were quivering a bit with laughter.

"You're clumsy for a guard," the prisoner said in that same, dark voice that sent chills of warning down Malik's spine. Malik watched as the prisoner lifted his head slowly, blue eyes locking with Malik's and that same, inanely calm grin on his face. "What's your name?" Malik was surprised by the question, having expected a bloodthirsty howl of laughter or something else more fitting of a criminal.

"M-Malik," he managed finally, almost able to hear the imaginary jeers of his fellows for showing weakness in front of a prisoner. He's bound and weak, he told himself. What harm can he do to you? Steeling himself, Malik moved back to the man's side, pulling the now half-empty basin along with him. "And I'm supposed to be cleaning you for the Pharaoh, so sit still."

"Ooh, yes sir, Malik, sir," the prisoner said with a snicker, eyes following Malik's movements. As Malik repeated dousing a cloth, the man said, "You're shaking. I won't bite you, you know."

Malik glanced down at his hands and scowled when he realized he was, indeed, quivering a bit with the tension of holding up his bravado against irrational fear. "Shut up," he barked with as much force as he could summon, resuming his scrubbing of the man's skin again.

The man merely laughed again, and Malik could feel the grin burning on him, even though he couldn't see it.

"Are you frightened because of the tombs I've raided? Or of the homes I've destroyed? Or, perhaps," the prisoner's voice dropped to a confidential whisper, "because of the people I've murdered in their own homes, tearing them apart with my bare hands just to hear them scream?"

Malik felt a shudder pass through him and he scrubbed harder, causing the man to snicker again. "Don't talk like you know me," Malik snapped. "I'm not afraid of you. The Pharaoh easily overpowered and captured you, and now look at you."

The man exhaled a breathy chuckle. "Rumour is I'm going to get to meet his Royal Highness soon enough," he said, pointedly ignoring Malik's statement. "A pity I have to go escorted by those brawns-for-brains out there, rather than on horseback, meeting the Pharaoh head-on. Well," he paused to snicker again, "Perhaps not head-on, seeing as how I'm a good three feet taller than he is."

Malik merely remained silent, ignoring the man as best he could as he scrubbed the man's wounds until his tanned skin shone raw and red. He didn't care if it hurt, anymore.

"Are you curious?" the man asked at length, before hissing softly at a particularly rough scrub.

"About what," Malik bit out after some hesitation.

"How the grand King of Thieves got captured, of course."

Malik paused, caught by surprise again, before he cleaned more dutifully than before, silent. The man, clearly taking his silence for a 'yes,' told him the entire story in every gruesome detail he could summon up -- of how it had been a grand chase through the desert, with the Pharaoh's very own priests at his heels, and how he'd lasted two days running from them before hunger and a lack of sleep had started taking its toll on his ka, the beast of his soul, and he was overpowered, but not before putting up a great fight. And, despite himself, Malik listened, secretly fascinated; his own life had always been rather simple and ordinary, and he'd never believed that there could really be anything more, outside of drama novels. It made him wonder if the thief was actually telling the truth.

The man was still grinning, even as he finished his story with, "And now I'm here, waiting for my dashing hero to break me out."

"There are no heroes for the likes of you," Malik muttered.

"We'll see about that."

Time passed slowly in the days that followed, a waiting game for the Pharaoh's presence which, even for the "King of Thieves," was hard to come by. Every day, Malik was nominated to bring said King of Thieves his daily gruel and help him eat it, and every day, Malik was rewarded with some new story he never asked for but received anyway. And, while he wouldn't admit it, more often than not Malik looked forward to the company; it was certainly better than that of his fellow guards, by far.

Sometimes the man's tale was of some grand steal; sometimes, he told Malik of the rumours of corruption in the ruling classes; sometimes, he just talked about the best place for a decent beer, while intimating how much better the food was there, in some lower class bar, than in the Pharaoh's own dungeons. Yet, not once did Malik learn of more intimate details -- of who or what the thief was -- and he never dared to ask. He was just relieved that the prisoner never questioned Malik's past, nor spoke of the stories he told Malik to any of the other guards.

The days blended together; a week passed, then two, and the date was set for the prisoner's appearance before the Pharaoh. Judgment day, as the thief so fondly called it, was coming for him and, though his lash wounds and other injuries were healing quickly, even Malik could tell that the thief wasn't strong enough to handle another tortuous interrogation or anything else the Pharaoh had planned. Malik wondered if the thief knew it too, for his grin seemed to waver a little each day.

The night before the appointment, as Malik brought in the thief's meal, he saw that the grin was near-faded, replaced now by a grim resignation, as if his hopes of being rescued were slowly slipping from him. The thief had quickly covered upon Malik's arrival, smirking at him and shifting in his bonds a bit.

"Judgment day's almost here," he said, and Malik nodded as he kneeled beside the other. Somehow, despite all of the things this prisoner had done, Malik couldn't find it in his heart to be happy he was leaving. No one deserved what he would be put through, and something deep inside him told him the thief's actions had a deeper purpose than had been revealed to him. Still, he thought as he fed the thief, it's not as though I have any say in the matter.

He sat with the thief a little while once he was fed, although the thief had no story to tell, this time; he wasn't even sure why he bothered staying, except that, as the prisoner had amusedly pointed out to him a few days before, it was better to feel at least on somewhat equal terms with a prisoner than to return outside and become the dog of the other guards.

They sat in sober silence, until at last Malik couldn't take it anymore.

"Looks like your hero never came," he said with stiff humour in his voice. The thief was silent a moment before his lips curled into a remnant of his old grin.

"No, he did. I just don't think he knew it at the time."

Malik blinked, mind quickly running through the past week or so. No one had visited the thief, and there were always guards posted outside his cell, except for when Malik was tending to him, so who...?

"We're two peas in a pod, Malik," the thief continued, closing his eyes, and Malik felt his heart stop for a fleeting instant. This prisoner, this thief didn't really expect...him to free him, did he? But that was ridiculous! He was a guard! He could lose his job, his pride...

But, a softer voice inside him said, if he didn't do it, he could lose the closest thing he had to a friend in this wretched place.

Malik busied himself with setting aside the empty bowl, the spoon set beside it; he changed his mind twice, putting the spoon first on the other side and then inside the bowl. A few moments later, the spoon was on the ground again.

Malik twisted the bowl, the ceramic cool in his hands, before he closed his eyes tightly and exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Beside him, he heard the thief breathing, even and steady, but he knew that those eyes were on him, waiting.

Cursing his weakness, he grabbed at the keys at his hips, clawing at the clasp with blunt fingernails until he at last got it undone. Quickly, driven by fear, anxiety, thrill, he fumbled through the various keys as he got to his feet, shoving a number of them against the keyhole in the manacles that held the thief's wrists aloft. He finally found the right one, popping open the manacles and causing the thief's wrists to fall to his lap, the metal clattering noisily against the stone wall.

Malik hesitated a moment, hands shaking, as the thief rubbed at his numb arms. What was he doing? It wasn't just his job or his pride he was risking -- he could get killed for this! The thief glanced up, eyes sharp and alive, and he reached up to snatch the keys from the hesitant guard. He plucked the correct key from the group easily -- so easily, in fact, that Malik later suspected the thief had had his eye on it for a while now -- and moved to unlock the cuffs about his ankles. His legs were free in moments, but even that was too long as Malik heard voices approached, shouting to Malik in question of the noise the manacles had made.

Malik was frozen, unable to react any more than he had already. He'd just freed a criminal. A convicted thief. A man headed for the Pharaoh's judgment. The King of Thieves. Him. Freed. Him. Cold fear clutched at Malik's heart, and already he could hear his sentence passed by the Pharaoh himself for such a sin. He could feel the burn of the whip, see the Sennen Items prepared to weigh his soul...

A sharp punch across the jaw snapped him back to reality, and his briefly fuzzy vision refocused on the man before him. Drawn to his full height and no longer limp in the guard's hold, Malik suddenly realized why he'd been afraid of the man at first. He was at least a good head taller than Malik, with muscles that were anything but hidden across his tanned body, fairly rippling as the thief pulled his tattered jacket over them. Malik stared blankly for a moment before he realized that his jaw was starting to ache, and a scowl overtook his awe.

"That hurt!" he protested, albeit quietly.

"Stop panicking," the thief hissed, and Malik felt ashamed that he'd been so easily read by this man. "Listen, just tell them you were undoing your belt to get the keys so you could leave when I knocked you out."

"What...?" Malik questioned, stupefied, before a shock of pain overtook all thoughts and questions bubbling to his lips. The thief had struck him in the back of the head, sending his vision spinning away from him as he distantly felt his knees buckling. The thief deftly caught the other's falling body in his arms, draping him over the ground just so and hoping he was a damned good liar.

As Malik's mind spun away into darkness, all feelings replaced by cold dizziness, his last thought was that he'd never learned the other man's name.

Chapter Two: Scrappy

Malik awoke with a start as the bus jumped beneath him, the frame rattling almost dangerously. He winced and rubbed his face where it had been pressed against the glass. It had been weeks since the events of his dream, but somehow they managed to haunt him with annoying persistence. His jaw even twinged a little at the memory, and Malik sighed, sinking deeper into the torn plastic cushioning of his seat.

He'd been lucky to get off just losing his job, they'd told him. Even if it hadn't been his fault (though not every guard had bought his story about the thief managing to escape on his own), letting a thief of such danger and renown break out could have had him facing a jail cell of his own, had the head jailer not taken pity on him.

Still, regardless, he wasn't much better off. In jail, at least he would have had food to eat -- now, essentially penniless, he was forced to travel from town to town looking for work, and, being that horses were definitely not his favorite mode of transportation, he was forced to resort to a more public means. He grimaced as the bus jolted again, eyes passing over the few other passengers with disdain. He'd taken a seat in the farthest corner in the back, hoping to avoid any and all human contact, if possible, but he couldn't shake the nervous feeling that he'd be mugged by one of the other passengers if he so much as breathed wrong.

Malik sighed and squirmed a bit in his seat, trying to get more comfortable and resume his nap. It was quite a ways until the next town, so he had some time to kill. He rested his temple against the window, watching the monotone sands whirling and kicking up around the bus, and, just as his eyes started to drift closed again, the bus gave an almighty jerk and came to an abrupt stop, throwing Malik into the back of the seat in front of him.

With a groan, Malik rubbed his head and glanced down the aisle, mouth open to vocalize his protests. He stopped, however, when he realized that someone was actually getting on the bus, which wouldn't have been so strange had they not been in the middle of nowhere, quite literally.

The bus driver seemed somewhat confused as well as the man he'd stopped for got onto the bus. The moment the driver seemed ready to question the man, there was a flash of gold, and the driver caught what the man had thrown him. He blinked, gaping for a moment, before he grinned and greedily shoved whatever he'd been given into his jacket, waving a hand to usher the man into the bus.

The man was almost completely bundled up, no doubt against the harsh desert sands, such that only his eyes could be seen between layers of tan cloth. He glanced around the bus as it started up again and he shuffled down the aisle, heading, much to Malik's chagrin, right in his direction. Malik attempted to make himself as small as possible as the man flopped into the seat to his left, exhaling noisily. It was just his luck -- the bus was almost completely empty, and still the man had to take the seat right next to him.

The man didn't even seem to register his presence, reaching up to undo the fabric bound around his face. Malik settled, but he couldn't help a curious glance out of the corner of his eye as the fabric fell away, spilling out sand onto his clothes and freeing wild locks of strange, white hair.

...wait.

Malik paused a long moment before he turned his head, wide-eyed, to the man who was now shaking the sand out of his hair. White hair, a vivid scar now clearly visible as the man pulled away the fabric completely, and -- as he noted with a closer look -- deep blue eyes that were uncommon in this part of Egypt.

He made a strange, strangled sort of mewl as he threw himself away from the man, pressing himself into his corner of the bus tightly. The man blinked and glanced at him with an odd look, but there was no hint of recognition in his gaze, and Malik allowed himself a moment of relaxation at the thought that maybe he was wrong, or maybe, at least, the man didn't remember him.

Unfortunately, he didn't have a lot of time to dwell on it, because the bus hadn't been moving five minutes before it gave another jerk and came to another sudden stop, throwing Malik half-forward, half-into the man beside him. He groaned, wincing as he was shoved off again, but the man was on his feet abruptly before he could say anything. Malik straightened and blinked to see the man staring intently at the front of the bus, where the doors were opened again, this time to what must have been at least five men.

At the lead was a man who, despite the cloth bound about his face similarly to how it had been on the man beside Malik, was easily recognizable by the golden Ring hung from his neck that he clearly had no intention of hiding.

Mahaado. Captain of the guard, Pharaoh's closest and most trusted priest, and there he was, on a dinky old bus in the middle of nowhere, glaring at the man who was slowly regaining a far-too-familiar grin.

"Well, well," the man said with a leer, folding his arms. "You're quicker than I thought, captain!"

Mahaado scowled darkly. "There's nowhere left for you to run, thief! You made a mistake, getting on this bus. You're trapped."

The man shrugged lazily, smirking. "I just wanted to get out of the sand, captain," he said with unconvincing innocence, and Malik's stomach knotted. It was certain now -- he hadn't been wrong. He was barely two feet away from the King of Thieves, the man he himself had freed not two weeks prior. He had to fight back the urge to groan loudly; why did this stuff always happen to him?

The man's eyes darted about the bus quickly before he licked his lips, grinning wider. The other passengers on the bus were pressed back into their own seats in fear, and they clearly had no intention of helping the captain and his men, but it didn't seem that he needed it. Mahaado was right, the bus was tiny, and there was scarcely enough room for one man to stand in the aisle, let alone for the King of Thieves to somehow squeeze past five men and get out the door.

Mahaado seemed quite conscious of this, and he let a small, confident smirk of his own creep onto his face. "Men," he said, "arrest the king of thieves." He drawled the title almost mockingly, and two of the men behind him laughed as they carefully pushed past him and approached the man.

The man didn't step back, not that he had much room to anyway, and he raised his hands in submission, though the smirk on his lips clearly showed he had other plans. The guards, however, continued to approach, swords drawn and at the ready, and just as the closest one was about to reach out and grab the man's wrist--

"Wait!" Malik was conscious of the fact that he was on his feet, and that he'd spoken, but try as he might, he could not remember why. The guard did wait, however, scowling at Malik quickly, and Malik floundered for an excuse, but the moment of hesitation was enough. The man beside Malik reacted, swooping in and driving a blade into the closest guard's gut. In another instant, almost too fast for Malik to see, the man had grabbed the now-falling-guard's sword from him and neatly sheathed it in the second guard's chest, shoving him backwards.

Malik's eyes were wide at this point, and he tried to sink back into his seat again in the hopes of calming his now shaking legs, but he was given no such chance. His heart fairly stopped when he felt the man grab his wrist, yanking him forward abruptly and bringing him into the aisle before him. Malik now stood between the man and the guards who, at the loss of two of their own, were approaching angrily, and Malik barely registered the bloody sword that was now pressed to his throat. He gasped, his entire body stiff, and he only tensed further as he heard the man behind him growl out his next words, so close he could almost feel them.

"Move and this child dies," the man hissed. "And we couldn't have the good captain's name tarnished by the death of an innocent bystander, now, could we?"

Mahaado was glaring dangerously, and suddenly, Malik wasn't sure who he should be fearing -- this man, or the captain of the guards. After all, why should the captain save some measly peasant, if it compromised his chances of catching the King of Thieves? The man, however, seemed confident in his tactic, and the blade bit into Malik's neck.

"What's the matter, Mahaado?" the man called, louder. "Can't do it?" He laughed, dark and dangerous, and Malik's nails dug into his palm as he clenched his fists. "Get me a horse!" the man barked, but the guards looked hesitant, glancing from their fallen comrades to their captain.

Mahaado was silent a long moment, quivering visibly with anger, before he finally gave a curt nod. The guard closest to him looked astounded but, catching Mahaado's glare when it turned to him, hurried out of the bus to fetch one of the horses they'd been riding. He returned to the entrance a moment later, tether in hand, and Malik could almost feel the man's grin as he shoved Malik forward, careful to keep the blade poised at his neck. Malik stumbled forward, almost afraid to move for fear of slipping and falling right into the blade, but he didn't dare test the man's patience -- "friend" or not, he doubted this man even remembered him, let alone cared about his well-being. Besides, Malik was sure the man would just get on his horse and leave Malik behind, anyway, so all he had to do was move where he was forced.

The guards were forced to squeeze into seats as the man led Malik down the aisle toward the door, and the man cast Mahaado a triumphant sneer before pressing past, shoving Malik down the stairs and into the desert, where the guard held the horse.

"Get on," the man said sharply, and it took Malik a moment to realize he was being spoken to.

"What?" he asked quietly, not daring to even look up at the man, but, as he felt the blade leave his throat and a hand shove him forward towards the horse, he knew he wasn't mistaken.

"Get on!" the man said, louder, and Malik, hesitating only a moment, scrambled onto the horse, clinging to it with shaking limbs. A moment later, the man had followed him onto the horse with a bit more grace, and Malik didn't dare look at the guards, the bus or even the man -- all he could focus on was mane he was clinging to and the fact that he was actually being kidnapped by a man he'd risked his life to save in the first place.

"Much obliged for the ride, captain!" the man called tauntingly, reaching around Malik to grip the reins, and Malik shivered. The wind was somewhat calm, fortunately, so Malik didn't have to move for the thicker robes in a pack he still had at his side, but he doubted he would have dared to move, anyway, so it was just as well. "Now, if you'll excuse me," the man continued, jabbing his heels into the horse's side, sending them on their way with an annoyed whinny from the horse. The man brought the horse to a full gallop quickly without even so much as a glance back at the bus that was rapidly growing further and further behind them, and Malik winced and closed his eyes as sand whipped into his face. His chest ached, and he suddenly realized he'd been holding his breath. Releasing it in a quick gasp, Malik clung to the horse desperately, praying to every god he could remember that he wouldn't fall off.

"The jail guard, right?" Malik started at the voice that was suddenly right beside his ear, strangely calm. He started when he realized what the man meant, trying to turn his gaze up to him with a scowl.

"You did remember!" he protested.

The man grinned wickedly. "Of course I did," he said. "It's not every day someone helps me out -- you think I would forget?"

Malik scowled deeper. "If you remembered, then why the hell did you kidnap me? This isn't much of a thank you!"

Surprisingly, the man laughed. "If I hadn't taken you, you would have been taken in for questioning because of your outburst that kept that guard back."

Malik blinked (with a bit of difficultly, due to the sand still in his face), and, with growing discomfort, realized the man was right. Even if he hadn't been dragged into things, he'd still made himself an accomplice in the eyes of the guards simply by shouting 'wait.' Malik groaned softly, turning away from the man again, and the man chuckled.

"Don't worry," he said. "There are worse things than being stuck with me for a little while. Being interrogated by the Pharaoh would be worse, trust me."

Malik huffed a little, doubtful, but he didn't really feel like arguing. A thought occurred to him, and he frowned, glancing back up at the man.

"You never did tell me your name," he said.

The man grinned. "Bakura."

Chapter Three: Bird Cage

"So essentially what you're saying is that you let a thief who has desecrated countless tombs, stolen priceless gems and even attacked His Majesty head-on just walk off the bus because of some boy?"

There wasn't even an attempt to hide the mockery in Seth's voice, and Mahaado cast him a dark look out of the corner of his eye, though he kept his head bowed. However, before he could reply, the firm but not unkind voice of his king interrupted.

"That is enough, Seth. Please explain your thoughts on the situation, Mahaado."

Mahaado nodded, finally daring to glance up from the floor to where his Pharaoh was seated -- he didn't, however, rise from bended knee. "While I initially believed the boy to simply be an innocent bystander, who perhaps stopped my guard for his own moral beliefs, further research has revealed that his description matches that of the jail guard who, just a few weeks prior, had been present during the thief's escape. He claimed innocence of the escape then, but now I feel the coincidence is too great."

He lowered his eyes again, frowning. "I believe the boy may have been some sort of partner of the thief, and that the escapes -- both of them -- were planned."

The Pharaoh nodded slowly. "Still, there are some parts of that theory that don't make sense," he said after a moment of though. "I'm sure the thief didn't plan to be caught attempting to take back his ka, and yet without perfect planning and timing, he never would have made it onto the exact same bus as the boy." He looked up and around at the other priests who, aside from Seth, had been mostly silent during Mahaado's report. "The rest of you, what do you think?"

There was a brief silence before Kalim, the priest who held the Sennen Scales, said, "I believe a boy should be much easier to catch than the thief has been, my Pharaoh. We may be able to turn this to our advantage." The others nodded in agreement, except for Isis, who remained in a meditative silence, thinking.

"Isis?" the Pharaoh questioned, turning a little in his seat. The priestess looked up at him. "Can you see anything?"

"No, my Pharaoh," she murmured after a moment, fingers brushing over the Tauk about her neck. "Nothing at all."

The Pharaoh frowned lightly in concern, and Mahaado rose to his feet, glancing back at the priestess as well. He knew this had to be hard for her -- after all, it was no secret that her brother was the same boy who'd been dismissed as a guard and was now apparently the cohort of a renowned thief. Although Isis hadn't seen her brother in some time, as her duties as a priestess had kept her apart from her family, Mahaado knew that she felt responsible for her brother's faults and guilty for not being there to prevent his actions.

The Pharaoh no doubt recognized this as well, as he didn't press the subject, turning his court's attentions to other matters and adjourned them briskly.

"I'm truly sorry, my Pharaoh," Mahaado murmured to his king, once the other priests had left. "I failed you."

The Pharaoh rose from his seat and walked over to Mahaado, giving him a small smile. "You know I do not blame you, my friend," he said gently, resting a hand against Mahaado's. The priest lowered his eyes a bit.

"As the Pharaoh's priest, I should have--" He was interrupted by the Pharaoh's hand on his lips, silencing him, and he raised his eyes again to meet the Pharaoh's amused ones.

"I've told you before to call me by my name," he said, smiling wider at the faint redness he saw creeping across his priest's cheeks.

He moved his hand again, and Mahaado spoke softer, as if the name were something dangerous to be treated gently. "Atemu, then. But you know it is improper for me to--" He hesitated a moment as the sound of someone moving behind him, clearly trying to keep quiet, reached his ears, and he turned swiftly, one protective arm in front of his Pharaoh. "Who's there?"

Silence was all that met him for a moment, but as Mahaado continued to stare intently at the now-empty room, there was an awkward shuffling of feet and then a nervous chuckle as a girl peeked out from behind a large stone pillar, waving guiltily.

"Hi Atemu, Mahaado. Nice weather we're having, isn't it?" the girl said with a weak titter, only to wince as Mahaado scowled at her.

"Mana! How long have you been hiding there?"

The girl grinned sheepishly, tracing a circle on the floor with her foot. "I, uhm, came in sometime between the stuff about the thief and the stuff about the other countries?"

"So, in other words, you've been here the entire time," Mahaado sighed, touching his temple in irritation. Behind him, Atemu chuckled in amusement, stepping around Mahaado and walking over to Mana, patting her head fondly.

"Well, I think we can forgive her just this once, eh?" he said, turning his head to smile at Mahaado. Mahaado exhaled heavily, folding his arms.

"If only it were just the once," he replied. "But this is the third time this month she's snuck in when she was specifically told to stay out." He frowned deeply. "Your magic is meant to be used for protecting the Pharaoh, Mana, not for making yourself invisible so you can sneak into places you're forbidden from."

Mana waved a hand at him, laughing nervously again, her cheeks crimson with embarrassment. "Ahh, I know, I know, teacher! But you were the one who told me to practice my magic more, and--" She cut off abruptly at the sight of the dark look growing on Mahaado's face, and she squeaked and hid behind Atemu a bit. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

"Now, now, Mahaado, no need to look like you're about to eat her," Atemu said with another laugh, and Mahaado sighed, shoulders slumping a bit.

"Mana, return to your studies," he said wearily, and Mana leapt out from behind Atemu again, clicking her heels together and saluting sharply.

"On my way, teacher!" she said with a broad grin, winking at Atemu and scuttling out of the room before Mahaado could reprimand her again. Mahaado sighed and rubbed his temple lightly -- between the damnable thief causing trouble for him at every turn and his student who seemed intent on doing the opposite of everything he said, Mahaado was starting to get a permanent headache.

"She's a sweet girl," Atemu said, approaching Mahaado once more. "Bit of a troublemaker, but we can't say she hasn't always been like that." He smiled up at Mahaado, who attempted to smile back, stretched as it felt on his face.

"Yes, my Ph--" He was silenced once more by Atemu's hand, before it slid across his cheek and behind his head, drawing him down more to Atemu's height.

"Really, Mahaado," Atemu murmured, eyes alive with coy amusement, "we've known each other since we were children. Is it really so hard to use my name, even when we're alone?"

Mahaado hesitated, the blush returning to his cheeks as he felt his king's lips hover near his own. "It's not my place," he said at last, not daring to speak above a whisper.

"One of these days," Atemu breathed, "I'll make you believe me when I tell you how little I think of the separation of class between us." In one motion he drew Mahaado down, rising onto his toes so their lips could meet, and Mahaado said nothing more.

"Do you really think this is such a good idea?" Malik questioned as he flopped back on one of the beds, wincing as he received a jab in the back by an exposed spring in return.

"What?" Bakura questioned distractedly, already busying himself with emptying the contents of a small bag he'd had on his person -- filled, Malik saw with some distaste, with clearly stolen jewelry and pieces of gold.

"Us getting a hotel like this," Malik continued, rolling onto his side to face Bakura, head propped on one hand. "I mean, who's to say the hotel owner won't sell us out the first chance he gets to the Pharaoh?"

"Oh, he would, in a heartbeat," Bakura said casually.

"Well, then--!"

"Which is why," Bakura interrupted, glancing up at Malik, "I already bought him out for more than the Pharaoh would ever be willing to reward a measly hotel owner in the back streets of Egypt." He fingered through the small pile of wealth on the mattress, carefully separating out necklaces, cuffs, and other assorted relics that were no doubt worth more than even the hotel itself.

"You see," Bakura continued, "everything, especially in places like these, can be bought, and when you're on the run, your best bet is to use money to make sure the people you meet along the way keep their mouths shut."

"That, or shut it permanently for them," Malik said dryly, and Bakura smirked.

"Now you're catching on."

Malik groaned softly, falling back into the mattress and folding his arms behind his head. "I can't believe this," he muttered. "Gone from respectable guard to no-good, on-the-run criminal in less than a month. Rishid's going to kill me."

"Rishid?" Bakura questioned, and Malik was surprised to hear he sounded almost curious.

"My brother," Malik sighed. "Well, adopted brother, at least. More like my parent if anything, though -- overprotective and all that. Took me forever just to convince him I'd be all right on my own for a while, since he had to stay and run my father's business and I wanted to go out and see the world." He snorted. "If he finds out about this, I'll never even see sunlight again, let alone the world -- he'll lock me in my room for life."

Bakura chuckled softly, and Malik glanced over at him. The thief was now sitting on the bed, exchanging some of the jewelry on his person for the pieces laying out on the bed. "He sounds like fun," he noted, amused, and Malik rolled his eyes.

"Yes, just me and my fun family," he muttered. "A sister who's as good as vanished from our lives, and a brother who'd just as soon see me permanently handcuffed to him if he thought it would keep me safe from harm. Woohoo."

Bakura didn't reply, sorting through the rest of his jewelry and fingering through a small pile of gold coins before he scooped the lot back into the brown satchel. Malik watched as he tied it off and tossed it into a corner, as casually as if it weren't a bag full of stolen riches, before rising to his feet.

"I need to get out of these clothes," he muttered, plucking at his linen robes with a scowl. "Some king I am, out looking like a commoner."

Malik started to point out that he himself was wearing similar robes, and that it was better to look like a commoner than to risk the Egyptian desert in anything less, but he stopped himself, sighing. He, too, felt like changing out of his clothes, more for the sake of how dirty he felt after riding around in the desert and then wandering almost aimlessly through unknown streets, looking for this rundown hotel where apparently they'd remain safe, for now. He pushed himself up, debating whether or not to risk this facility's no doubt less-than-hygienic bathroom in order to take a shower, only to blink and stare as he realized that, when Bakura had said he needed to get out of his clothes, he'd meant right there and then.

The thief finally finished wrestling out of his linen robes when he realized Malik was staring, and he smirked, resting a hand on his hip. "What?" he asked teasingly. "Forgot what I looked like without any clothes on, after only a few weeks? Or do I just look that good in proper light?"

Malik quickly looked up at Bakura's face, trying his best to ignore the fact that Bakura was now standing in front of him in nothing more than a dark loincloth that truly left little to the imagination; despite Bakura wearing about as much back when he'd been jailed, it didn't make the situation any less awkward, now.

"Don't be stupid," he bit out, trying to mask his embarrassment with irritation. "I just didn't expect to have your," he waved a hand vaguely at him, "nudity so in my face all of a sudden."

Bakura gave an amused laugh before turning away from Malik, heading over to his satchels, which were resting against the wall. Malik scowled at his naked back, though his expression softened as his eyes found a faded patchwork of scars marring the skin there -- whip wounds, as well as numerous others that looked like burns and knife cuts -, but he quickly turned his eyes away before Bakura could catch him staring again. He felt flustered and a bit hot around the collar all of a sudden, and he rapidly rose to his feet and moved towards the bathroom; a shower, he decided, would make him feel clean and (hopefully) more like himself again, regardless of how suspicious the bath itself may have been.

Bakura listened until he heard the click of the bathroom door closing before he glanced over to where Malik's satchel lay. He straightened, waiting for the sound of water running before going over to it and flipping it open, curious. He rifled through the things inside: a thick cloak to protect against the desert sands, a couple of changes of clothes as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a few other personal belongings. His fingers wormed into the pockets until they found what felt like a photograph, and he carefully worked it out of the pocket it was wedged in.

It was an old photograph, worn slightly at the edges, but distinct nonetheless; on it, Malik was standing beside two figures, one a tall, well-built man with some sort of marks over half of his face, the other a woman whom Bakura, with some surprise, realized he recognized far too well.

He chuckled, holding the photo up to the light and gazing at it with a wry smirk.

"Family, huh?"

Chapter Four: Cat's Delicacy

When Malik emerged from the shower some time later, a towel about his waist and steam rolling from the bathroom behind him, he found Bakura laying back on one of the beds, apparently dozing. He'd changed his clothes, now dressed in a dark waistcloth and a deep red jacket that, upon closer inspection, Malik was surprised to find looked much like the tattered and torn one he'd left the prison wearing. This one, however, scarcely had a mark in it, and it was clearly woven out of the highest quality fabric -- even the colour gave away how expensive it must have been.

Malik rolled his eyes, passing him to get a change of clothes from his bag. Of course, the "King of Thieves" would want to show off his supposed status as much as possible. Malik, on the other hand, was sure that inconspicuousness was the way to go -- he hadn't been on the run long, but he wasn't stupid.

So, as he pulled out the few sets of clothes he had packed in his satchel, he opted not to adorn his better set of robes, dark purple in color and not exactly commonly seen, instead choosing his more simple robes that, as Bakura had so snidely remarked, looked like those of a commoner. He silently regretted the loss of his other bag, which had been tucked on a rack on the bus and therefore inaccessible to him during his "kidnap," that had contained all the rest of his clothes and a few other belongings, but at the very least he had (he hoped) enough to survive on for a while.

He quickly changed into his robes, casting the supposedly sleeping Bakura a wary glance before sliding a pair of boxers on under his towel. He then tugged the towel off and adjusted his robes, sighing lightly. Now that he was clean and dressed again, there were more important things to tend to, such as trying to figure out how to get himself out of this mess.

He glanced around the shabby hotel room and, spying what appeared to be a window, he headed over to it, running his fingers through his damp hair as he went. He pushed against the stubborn wooden shutters hard until at last, with a low groan, they gave out, opening sharply and sending a shower of dust into the air. Malik coughed and waved away the dust, silently grumbling that he'd just gotten clean, but it seemed his effort had been in vain, anyway. The window merely opened out into a back alley, and the only things to see were the mud-brick walls of the building across from him, all the windows shut tight.

"Let's go get a drink."

Malik cursed sharply, grabbing onto the windowsill in surprise at the voice suddenly right in his ear. He turned his head sharply to glare at Bakura, who was now standing right behind him, startlingly close seeing as how Malik hadn't even sensed his approach.

"Don't do that!" he hissed, and Bakura chuckled, folding his arms.

"You startle easily, guard," he said, amused, and Malik's cheeks heated in embarrassment and annoyance.

"I have a name," he muttered bitterly, looking away from Bakura again.

"Malik, then," Bakura said, moving closer such that Malik could practically feel his body against him. How could he not have noticed his approach? "How about that drink?"

"Fine," Malik said reluctantly after a moment, scowling at nothing in particular. "But you're paying." In truth, a drink was exactly what Malik wanted right then -- things tended to make more sense when he wasn't completely sober -- but he wasn't sure how much he trusted Bakura's choice of bars or taverns.

Bakura laughed again, ruffling Malik's wet hair. "With that attitude, you'll be a proper thief in no time," he said, turning away again before Malik could demand what exactly he meant by that. Malik huffed a bit to himself, eyeing Bakura's back before he picked up his towel again, rubbing his hair with it. If Bakura thought he could make a thief, bandit, or any other sort of outlaw out of Malik Ishtar, he had another thing coming.

There were three things Jounouchi hated more than anything in the world: green beans, cats, and sleaze-balls who hit on his sister. Unfortunately, this tended to make things complicated, when one of those sleazeballs turned out to be his best friend.

Even though Jounouchi had pointedly moved his baby sister to his end of the table, far away from her two "admirers" at the other end, Honda was still making embarrassed, gushy faces at her, and Otogi -- well, if his feet brushed Jounouchi's one more time in their attempt to reach his sister's, Jounouchi thought he might just have to cut them right off.

The worst part was his sister, Shizuka, who neither rejected nor accepted the two men, smiling kindly at their advances but never revealing whether she even noticed that they liked her. This, unfortunately, tended to send the wrong message to Honda and Otogi, who had for some time now been trying to court Jounouchi's sister. Jounouchi was just grateful the tankard of beer in front of him was keeping his hands from pulling out that stupid ponytail of Otogi's, or smacking Honda across the head; they were lucky, he only showed this kind of self-restraint in front of his sibling.

It wasn't that he blamed them, though. Ever since she'd come of marrying age (too young, in Jounouchi's opinion), Shizuka had been attracting the eyes of many men, and though she'd always politely refused their offers, it often took Jounouchi's fists to make the message very clear they weren't wanted. Otogi and Honda, however, had been the hardest to chase away; Otogi because he was wealthy and difficult to beat up without repercussions, and Honda because Honda had been Jounouchi's best friend since they were children, and so was far too used to Jounouchi's wrath to fear it.

"So, Shizuka," Otogi said in that slippery-sweet voice that made Jounouchi want to throw up, "perhaps after this you would care to accompany me to a fine dining establishment not far from here? I can assure you, you'd quite enjoy it there."

Jounouchi snorted loudly before his sister could answer, though she didn't even seem to be paying attention to them, eyes scanning the nearby stage almost anxiously. "Don't even try it, you," Jounouchi half-snarled, eyes darting to the die weaving between Otogi's fingers and then back up to his eyes, an intense shade of green, which were eyeing Jounouchi distastefully. "Nobody's going to be taking my sister to any sort of establishment," he drawled the word, "and if you could please keep your feet to yourself we might be able to at least survive this evening."

Honda snickered behind a hand before Jounouchi turned on him, barking, "As for you, I catch you doing that stupid little wave every time you think I'm not looking again, I'll break your hand, you got it?!"

"My, my, the family dog seems to be quite vicious tonight," Otogi commented snidely, smirking.

"What did you call me?" Jounouchi snapped, moving as if to rise to his feet, but he was quickly halted by a new voice from behind them,

"Everything all right here, gentlemen?"

"Perfect!" Jounouchi said quickly, sitting down again and grinning sheepishly back at the woman who had one hand rested on the back of Jounouchi's chair, a trademark sultry expression on her face and a tray in her other hand.

"Good, good," she said, leaning over just a tad more than necessary between Jounouchi and Shizuka in order to set down their next round of drinks. She then straightened and smoothed back her blonde hair before smiling broadly. "Ah, Shizuka, you just get cuter every day! Are you sure you're related to this one?" She pointed at Jounouchi with a titter, earning a smile from Shizuka and a barely smothered glare from Jounouchi.

"Nice to see you, too, Mai," he ground out between gritted teeth that were attempting to keep the grin on his face. Mai laughed and pinched Jounouchi's cheek, bending over a bit -- Jounouchi saw Otogi and Honda lean in a little closer as she did so, and it took sheer willpower not to smack their heads together.

"Aww, did I go and hurt little Jounouchi's feelings?" Mai said with a fake pout.

"Woman, please," Jounouchi said, waving her hand away and leaning back in his seat, smug expression returning to his face. "I'm one of the Pharaoh's guards, you really think you could wound me so easily?"

"It's not exactly difficult," Otogi pointed out casually as he rolled the die over his knuckles, and Honda nodded knowingly, causing Jounouchi to growl.

"Well, well, good to know who your friends are," Mai laughed, ruffling Jounouchi's hair, and Jounouchi snarled louder.

"Stop nodding, Honda," he spat, unable to think of anything more potent to use in retaliation. Mai laughed again, tucking the tray under her arm and glancing at Shizuka, who had once again returned her attention away from the table and out into the tavern.

"Don't look so stressed, she'll be over soon," Mai murmured, smiling as she blinked up at her. "Look, she's over there." She pointed over to a table in the corner, where a girl was serving a rather wild looking man and his blond companion.

"Ah, Anzu!" Shizuka said, standing and waving towards the girl, and Jounouchi blinked and frowned.

"You mean that's who you were waiting for?" he asked, watching as the girl looked their way and smiled, waving back at Shizuka. "Man, you could've just said."

Shizuka blushed faintly and smiled, sitting down again. "Sorry, brother," she said sheepishly, though her eyes remained in the direction of the girl Mai had pointed out. Jounouchi noticed and turned, calling out,

"Oy, Anzu! Over here!" Shizuka blushed faintly at her brother's forward attitude, but the girl nodded apologetically to the customers she was helping and came to their table regardless. "Shizuka's been waiting for ya; maybe you and her can go do some catchin' up or something." His eyes darted over the disappointed faces of Otogi and Honda, and he smirked a bit to himself, clearly finding Anzu to be far better company than them.

Anzu smiled and nodded, tucking her hair behind one ear. "Sure thing! I'll ask Mai if I can take a break and then we can go to the back where it's quieter, away from all these boys." She winked and Jounouchi wondered if he was imagining his sister's insistently growing blush.

"Sure," she mumbled, getting to her feet to follow after Anzu, who was heading in Mai's direction, with only a small wave back to her brother. Jounouchi sighed, half in relief and half in weariness, and slumped in his chair a bit, only to catch the dark looks being cast at him from across the table. He grinned.

"Guess you two will have to hit on each other, now," he drawled, taking a swig of his beer and lowering it again just in time to see Otogi and Honda surreptitiously scooching farther from each other, each giving the other rather wary looks. "Guys," Jounouchi said, arching an eyebrow, "I was kidding."

"I'm telling you, she was definitely giving me the once over!"

"You're dreaming, kid."

Malik huffed and sank down in his seat, folding his arms sulkily. "Just because she wasn't eyeing you..."

Bakura laughed, leaning over the table a bit to leer at Malik. "Are we going to start counting track records, now? Bet you're a virgin, too."

His ears burning, Malik sputtered and quickly looked away, making a show of grabbing his mug up and drinking in order to cover his embarrassment. Bakura laughed again and leaned back, tilting his head to glance around. The bar wasn't as busy as usual, which left him feeling a little disconcerted, exposed almost. Still, he shook the feeling off quickly. As the King of Thieves, it was part of his job to be out in the open, free to roam where he pleased. Still... He eyed Malik over the rim of his mug, eyes narrowing a bit. With the kid along for the ride, he'd have to start being more careful, for both their sakes.

"Let's go," he said after finishing off his mug, rising to his feet. "We've gotta start planning out our next moves."

Malik arched an eyebrow incredulously as he took a slow drink, reluctantly shifting up a bit. "I don't know about you," he said as he set down his mug and pulled himself up as well, "but I just want to go home and forget all of this ever happened."

Bakura chuckled and ruffled Malik's hair. "That's what I like about you, kid. You're a wishful thinker."

"Hey. Hey, Jounouchi." Honda reached over the table to tug insistently at Jounouchi's sleeve, his eyes locked on something across the room from them.

"What, what?" Jounouchi snapped irritably, drumming his fingers on the table as he waited for their next round of drinks.

"Didn't our captain's report on that thief they're looking for have something about him having a scar and hanging out with a blond guy?"

"Man, no one reads those reports," Jounouchi drawled, resting his chin in his hand.

"Everyone reads them except you, Jounouchi," Honda said with a roll of his eyes towards his best friend. "But, that's not the point, look." He pointed insistently across the room at the pair of people Anzu had been serving earlier, now rising to leave. Jounouchi's eyes widened; he didn't recognize the smaller of the two, but the taller, his red jacket standing out like a sore thumb, looked almost exactly like the wanted poster that had been shoved in his team's face while his leader had prattled on about responsibility to the Pharaoh and dangerous criminals.

"Fuck." Jounouchi rose to his feet sharply, and Honda quickly followed suit.

"Wait, Jounouchi, you can't take them alone!" he said, resting a hand on the sword at his side.

"Like hell I can't," Jounouchi said, vicious grin on his face. "I make this catch, that'll shut our leader up for good about me. Lack of motivation my ass."

"Yes, Honda, do let him run headlong into his certain defeat," Otogi drawled from where he was leaning back in his seat, watching all of this with some interest. "It will be quite funny to watch."

Jounouchi growled at Otogi, but was cut off by Honda, who stepped out and nodded to him. "Let's go."

His grin returning, Jounouchi quickly hurried after the two convicts, who were making their way towards the door. "Stop in the name of the Pharaoh, y'bastards!" he shouted, hand grabbing for his sword. The two turned, the taller the swifter of the two, and as Jounouchi approached, the thief quickly grabbed for the nearest thing -- an unoccupied table -- and flung it upwards, sending tankards and utensils flying up right as Jounouchi came close, the entire table crashing into him.

"Run, now," the thief barked to his companion, but Honda, who'd cut around a few tables, made it to the door first, blocking their exit. At this point the bar was in an uproar, many of the people running for cover -- a majority of them, no doubt, to avoid getting captured themselves for their own dealings. The thief, however, did not hesitate. He grabbed his companion's wrist and, as Jounouchi was still struggling from where he was half-pinned under the table, pulled him towards the front of the bar. Honda hurried to help his friend, shoving the table off of him and pulling him to his feet, before the two chased after the thieves, both swords now drawn.

"I knew it, I knew this was a bad idea," Malik breathed harshly as he stumbled to keep up with Bakura's insistent pulls.

"Just trust me, I'll get us out of this," Bakura replied under his breath, eyes darting around the room quickly. He cursed silently -- without his ka or any suitable weapons, fighting the two after them, presumably guards, would be a hassle, and would he couldn't risk backup arriving in the meantime. They'd have to run for it. He backed up quickly as the two guards approached, pushing Malik back with him until they were pressed against the small stage at the front of the bar.

Just then, a sharp "Psst" to their right caught their attention. Malik glanced over to see their waiter hastily beckoning them from a small door past the stage at the corner of the room, darting back once Malik noticed her so as not to be seen by the guards. Bakura glanced back at Malik and Malik nodded slightly.

"Make a break for it," Bakura murmured under his breath. "I'll distract them." Malik nodded again and, just as the guards came close enough, the two moved as one, Malik darting for the door left ajar by their waitress while Bakura moved forward, grabbing some abandoned tankards and flinging them at the guards, quickly followed by another upturned table. The guards threw their arms up to defend themselves and that moment of hesitation was just long enough for Bakura to bolt after Malik, banging his way through the door and hastily locking it behind him.

Glancing around, Bakura found he was now in a narrow hallway with doors leading to what were no doubt changing rooms for the waitresses, who often doubled as dancers or entertainers in the evening. He caught sight of Malik down near the end of the hall, hurrying towards an apparent exit, and he quickly followed after him. He caught up at a door that led to the outside, where Malik was standing with the waitress, waiting for him.

"Thanks again," Malik said to the girl as Bakura approached. "We owe you big-time."

"Don't worry about it," the waitress said with a wink. "Our first rule of business here is we serve everyone and support no one. We do whatever we can to keep our customers happy."

"Those guards in there won't be too happy you helped us escape," Bakura said flatly.

"Oh, don't worry about them," the girl said with a laugh. "We're old friends. I know just how to handle them." Malik laughed at that, suddenly taking up her hand and kissing it.

"Well, we appreciate it all the same," he said with his best attempt at a winsome smile, while Bakura barely smothered snickers behind him. The waitress' cheeks tinted slightly, and she smiled.

"Well, aren't you a gentleman," she said. "I'll expect to see you back here sometime soon, handsome."

"Don't count on it," Bakura said, resting a hand on Malik's shoulder. "We have to go, now." He turned and began walking down the alleyway swiftly, not wanting to risk the door's lock.

"I didn't catch your name," Malik said to the girl as he stepped backwards after Bakura.

"Anzu Mazaki," she called, waving a hand to him.

"Anzu. I'll remember that." Malik winked before he turned and hurried after Bakura, disappearing around a corner and out of sight.

"I'm telling ya, that Mazaki went and helped those criminals, I saw her!" Jounouchi growled, struggling angrily in the restraining arms of Honda. "She just went and let our ticket to pride and honor walk out the door!"

"Anzu would never do that!" Shizuka half-sobbed, pressing her hands against Jounouchi's chest. "She wouldn't! She went out to run some errands for Mai before anything started happening!" At the sight of tears that were welling in his sister's eyes, Jounouchi hesitated and stilled, sighing.

"All right, all right, I believe you, don't cry," he said gently. Turning his head, he frowned at Honda. "They can't have gone far. Let's go look around the city."

Honda nodded and released his friend, giving Shizuka a sympathetic look. "We'll be back soon," he said, and Jounouchi nodded.

"You wait here, Shizuka. Let's go, Honda." With that, the two swiftly departed, hurrying out the front door. Shizuka sniffled, wiped at an eye and, when she was sure they were out of sight, stopped crying and smiled. She turned and headed back to the door next to the stage; knocking on it, she beamed as Anzu opened it for her, giving a victory sign.

Anzu laughed, pulling Shizuka into a brief hug. "I'll take it that means you were successful. Someday you've got to teach me your secret to controlling Jounouchi without swinging punches."

Shizuka giggled, a blush creeping onto her cheeks as she hugged Anzu back. "Just call me Master of the Crocodile Tears. So, who were those guys, anyway?"

Anzu shrugged and smiled. "Just customers."

Chapter Five: Fatal

"Seth!" A young boy ran from his brother's side into the waiting arms of the crouching priest, who smiled and held him close.

"Welcome back, Mokuba," he said affectionately, pulling the boy back to arm's length in order to look him over. "Well, look at you, you've grown! And what's all this?" He chuckled and ruffled Mokuba's long black hair, causing it to muss up and stick out even more than its natural mop-like state.

"Rebecca likes it long 'cause she says it makes me look like an American rock star!" Mokuba said with a grin, quickly combing his hair back from his face.

"Careful now, you get anymore American and they won't let you come back here anymore," Seth warned teasingly. Mokuba pouted a bit before grinning, grabbing Seth's hand and pulling him back a bit. Seth rose to his feet, meeting the gaze of the man who'd accompanied Mokuba.

"Seto," he greeted with far less enthusiasm, face morphing into a stoic glare once again.

"Seth," the man greeted in return, an identical expression on his face.

Mokuba glanced up between them and huffed loudly, folding his arms. "All right, that's enough of that!" he said sulkily. "I know you two don't like each other much, but can't you at least be civil in front of me? You're twins, for crying out loud, you're supposed to be all super-close, not glaring at each other after months apart."

Seth sighed faintly and forced his expression to relax just a little, for Mokuba's sake. "Nice," he arched an eyebrow, eyes darting up and down his twin's form, "jacket."

"Thank you," Seto said flatly, clearly showing no signs of wanting to acquiesce to Mokuba's wishes.

"How was America?" Seth asked in an attempt to make small-talk.

"The same as always. Egypt?"

"Quite peaceful."

"With war on all sides, that seems unlikely."

Seth smiled without humor. "Our defenses are solid and our country strong. War does not concern us."

"Ah, yes, how are the little hocus-pocus magic tricks going, then?" Seto said, a sardonic smirk crossing his lips.

"They aren't 'hocus-pocus,'" Seth said with as much composure as he could keep about him. "If anything is hocus-pocus, it's your sorry excuse for a replacement for it, your computers and fancy little techno-bits."

"At least those techno-bits are actually sound and scientific, not based on some children's fantasy."

"Just because you failed every magic test you ever took doesn't make them a fantasy."

"You'd rest all your hopes on something you can't even be sure works?"

"I can be sure it works, because unlike you, I have enough magical talent to actually see ka beasts and--"

"That's ENOUGH," Mokuba snapped at last, summoning an impressive amount of loudness for his small stature. "Honestly, you two are impossible! Everything is an argument with you two!" He glared up at them both, folding his arms tightly. "I'm going to go and find Yuugi -- at least I know he will play with me, unlike my brothers." With that, he turned and stormed off into the palace, leaving the twins silent in his wake.

"He's developing quite an attitude," Seto said after a long moment.

"I blame America."

"You would."

"Well, had he been raised in Egypt, he'd have a proper sense of respect towards his elders."

"He'd also have a head full of gobbledee-gook about magic and super-powered animals--"

"Ka beasts."

"Same difference." Seto smirked. "Although you know, those beasts are going to be quite a popular game for small children back in America, soon enough."

"The Pharaoh will not allow this Crawford fellow to have his way," Seth growled. "He is trying to make a mockery of all that we hold to be sacred."

"Rather, he's trying to put your foolish ideas to good use that can actually turn a profit."

"You're a fool if you think the world revolves around money."

"You're a fool if you don't."

Seth and Seto glowered at each other for some moments before they were finally interrupted by a voice from across the palace courtyard.

"Great, it's my worst nightmare. Seth in surround-sound." The twins looked up as Jounouchi approached them, smirking smugly at his own wit.

"And what would a little puppy-dog know about technology like surround-sound, hm?" Seto drawled, turning towards the blond and folding his arms.

Jounouchi scowled and bit back a retort, glancing at Seth and muttering. "You two are still exactly alike."

"We are not!" the twins snapped at the same time before turning their glares to each other. Jounouchi smirked again, resting a hand on his hip.

"Much as I'd like to stay and watch you two rip each other's heads off, I'm afraid some of us have gotta work. I just came over here to tell you that all the shouting in the courtyard is starting to piss off the Pharaoh's magicians, and believe me, you won't like them when they're pissed."

Seth snorted audibly. "You really think I'm afraid of a few petty magicians? I'm one of the Pharaoh's seven royal priests, mutt. You're lucky I don't have you judged for your insolence."

"Yeah, yeah, all hail the king of pricks," Jounouchi said nonchalantly, waving a hand as he walked between the two brothers. "Atemu 'n Yuugi are old friends of mine, I'm not worried." "You will show respect to the Pharaoh," Seth hissed, and Seto chuckled, smirking.

"See, not even his own guards take him seriously. This country and its king are nothing but jokes."

"Hold it," Jounouchi said, turning at that and scowling at Seto. "I damned well take Atemu seriously -- he's a great leader, and he knows what's best for his people."

"A bit hypocritical to say that, when you resorted to technology in order to save your sister's sight, wouldn't you say?" Seto pointed out with a broad smirk. "If you truly supported your Pharaoh, you would have supported his ideals and attempted some little magic trick instead, no?"

"You--" Jounouchi snarled and stomped back over to Seto, grabbing his collar and pulling him in sharply. "Fucking bastard, that's none of your business! Just 'cause you could never best Atemu at anything, you gotta be all spiteful and shit--"

"Let go of me," Seto interrupted coldly, grabbing Jounouchi's wrist and twisting it. Jounouchi hissed between clenched teeth but didn't let go, using his body to shove Seto backwards a bit.

"What's the matter, rich-boy? Talk the talk but can't--" Jounouchi trailed off with a grunt as Seto suddenly bent his arm back, pinning it against his back and shoving him forward, such that he stumbled forward and nearly fell.

"I believe I can put little puppies in their place," Seto sneered, causing Jounouchi to whirl around again, growling.

"You fu--"

"If you're quite done acting like children," Seth snapped, interrupting Jounouchi, "I'm going to go and check on Mokuba." With that, he turned and briskly walked away from them, cape furling out behind him and revealing the Sennen Rod hooked at his hip. Jounouchi glared at Seto for a long moment before he snorted and turned away, stomping loudly across the courtyard in his frustration. Seto watched the two of them go with a smug smirk, glancing up at the blue sky above, framed by the walls of the courtyard which were intricately carved with protector deities and stories of the gods and the pharaohs. He snorted softly. Soon enough, he'd see the end of this ridiculous, out-dated kingdom, and his foolish twin along with it.

The sun had barely risen past the horizon when Bakura started packing up their horse to leave again. Town was no longer safe, he'd said, and even money wouldn't protect them for much longer. They'd have to find somewhere safer, and apparently he knew just the place.

Whether or not he was telling the truth, however, was still questionable in Malik's mind. After all, he hadn't done the best job keeping them low profile so far, and any place safer than the middle of a rundown town full of thieves and robbers... Well, Malik didn't want to imagine the possibilities.

He sighed and rolled over on his mattress, causing the springs to creak in protest. Fortunately, Bakura had allowed Malik the time it took him to pack to keep sleeping, as he was, as Bakura put it, "just a kid," but he needn't have bothered. Malik had scarcely been able to sleep at all that night. The sheer reality of what had almost happened to them only sunk in after the fact; they had almost been captured by the Pharaoh's guards, escaping by means of sheer luck (and, of course, his own good looks and charm). He'd spent the night tossing and turning in half-consciousness, mind mulling over the possibilities of what could have happened to them, had they been captured. Bakura would have no doubt stood trial as he'd been intended to -- probably die for his crimes -- and what of him? He was only an accomplice, but in the eyes of the Pharaoh, that would make him equally punishable. While at his short-lived job as a guard, he'd seen men go to jail for less, come back from interrogations barely conscious and often no better off for having confessed to something that they may or may not have done in the first place. It was a frightening legal system that relied on its power system and its Pharaoh to survive, and it was a system Malik had never wished to be on the wrong side of.

He sighed and rolled again, fingers clenching and unclenching methodically on his pillow. He couldn't do this alone. Much as he hated it, he was already in a position he couldn't work his way out of; the best he could do was to trust in Bakura and hope that the thief wouldn't stab him in the back. But then, thinking back, had Bakura intended to betray him, he could have simply left him behind at the bar and escaped by himself; if anything, Malik had only slowed down his escape.

He closed his eyes and remembered the fierce look in Bakura's eyes as he'd told him to trust him; a determination to protect them both and a will to survive. And Malik did trust him. Despite everything, he had no reason not to; Bakura had rescued him on the bus, kept him safe even after throwing them into a situation they were sure to get caught in, and despite all this, Malik had done nothing to help him or protect him, save for letting him out of jail. On the one hand, he shouldn't have felt obligated to help the thief in any way, considering he was hardly a willing participant in all of this to begin with, but on the other...

Malik sighed. He couldn't start thinking like that. The minute he started abandoning his old ideals to Bakura's fantastical ideas... He shook his head and quickly rose to his feet, stretching his sore body and running a hand through his hair. No time for a shower now, and five minutes in the desert would make it pointless anyway, but Malik wouldn't have minded one simply to take his mind off of things. Regardless, it seemed he had no choice in the matter, for just then Bakura returned, expression serious.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Yeah," Malik said with a faint yawn. "Just let me get dressed and everything." He headed over to the closet where he'd put away his robes and gathered them up again, slipping on his outer robe and gloves and bundling up his face for the outside. It was bound to still be cold outside at this hour, and Malik was taking no chances with the weather. Bakura did the same in silence, wrapping the fabric slowly around his head, though by his expression it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. Malik glanced at him for a moment before he gathered up his bags and walked back over to him, double-checking to make sure he was leaving nothing behind.

"So, where are we going, anyway?" Malik asked, voice muffled behind the fabric. Bakura glanced at him, something unreadable in his eyes that made Malik hesitate, before he answered vaguely, "Somewhere safe." Finishing his bindings, Bakura beckoned Malik with a hand as he headed back out of the room, not even looking back. Malik followed him somewhat reluctantly. Bakura's vagueness had unsettled him somewhat, but as he'd decided earlier, he really had no choice in what he did anymore. He had to follow Bakura; he was his only hope, now.

The air was still cold as they retrieved their horse and rode out of the quiet city. Bakura had apparently seen no need for a second horse, at this point, which was just as well because Malik had no intentions of riding a horse on his own, regardless. Not to mention, much as it disturbed him to admit it, there was something a bit comforting in the shared body warmth between them, Malik clinging to Bakura and trying to ignore the rush of air and sand as the horse galloped into the open desert.

They rode for some time, and Malik found himself gradually starting to relax on the horse enough that he even found himself nodding off a little against Bakura's back. However, he struggled to keep himself awake, not wanting to fall asleep and discover that Bakura had abandoned him in the middle of the desert and run off by himself or something of that sort. Still, the motion of the horse was steady, and the sun had risen high enough that the air was starting to feel pleasantly warm and comfortable, before the pounding heat of the day set in. It couldn't hurt to close his eyes for just one moment, after all...

Malik woke with a jolt, and the first thing he was aware of was how incredibly hot his robes now were, sweat slicking his skin and causing his robes to feel sticky and uncomfortable. He blinked groggily and trying to orient himself, and he realized the reason he'd been woken up was because Bakura had stopped the horse. They were standing on the berth of a sand dune now; before them, almost eroding into the desert it was surrounded by, was what appeared to be the ruins of an old town. There was scarcely anything left now, it seemed. The buildings were charred and crumbled, scarcely reminiscent of any sort of place capable of housing people, the entire town a black mar on the continuous sea of sand before them.

"Where are we?" Malik asked groggily, peering around and up at Bakura, who was staring at the town with narrowed eyes.

"Kuru Eruna," Bakura exhaled after a long silence. The name meant nothing to Malik, but from the looks of things, this was "somewhere safe." Well, he knew better than to judge anything by its appearance; his own family's living habits had been anything but ordinary for centuries, who was he to judge?

Bakura snapped the reins a bit, nudging the horse into a careful trot down the dune and towards the town in silence, while Malik peered at it curiously from under Bakura's arm. The closer they got, the clearer it was that this was no underground people; there wasn't a single sign of life in this entire area, not even animals or stray desert plants. On top of that, there was an almost overwhelming presence of something that sent chills up Malik's spine the closer they got to the crumbling town. He felt it like a weight on his chest, threatening to suffocate him -- something wasn't right.

Their horse seemed to notice this, too, for it whinnied and slowed on its own, shaking its head and pacing a little ways away from the town, clearly reluctant to get any closer. Malik expected Bakura to urge the horse to continue, but to his surprise, he started dismounting instead, clambering off before he offered a hand to help Malik do the same. Malik blinked, but he accepted the help and slid off the horse, his knees giving a little with the sudden use of his legs and a suddenly distinct ache in his thighs from riding for so long. As he composed himself, Bakura walked around the horse, patting its muzzle reassuringly before he gathered his bags off of him, slinging them onto his back. He tossed Malik's to him as well, and Malik caught it somewhat clumsily, motions sluggish in the sand.

"He's a good horse, we can leave him here to wait for us," Bakura called. "Let's go." With that, he started to trudge down into the town. Malik sighed and glanced over the town; the feeling was inescapable now, and Malik was forced to pull the fabric covering his mouth down a bit to aid his breathing, which he found was coming harder now. Still, determined, he slogged after Bakura, feet dragging a bit in the sand and his bag heavy on his weary back. What he wouldn't give for a warm bath and a soft bed...

Still, no hopes of any such thing at this rate, it seemed. Every building he passed was just as it had appeared -- charred, crumbling, and in some cases entirely reduced to rubble. He shivered -- every step he took further into the city felt like ice water down his spine. Something had happened in this town, something bad, and some of the stains on the remains of the buildings were black and flaking, suspiciously like the remnants of blood. Malik swallowed and focused his eyes on Bakura's back ahead of him, silently praying to himself that Bakura's reputation truly was all it was cracked up to be, and that he was going to be killed in this horrible place.

He jumped a little when Bakura turned to him, pulling off the fabric around his face as he did so. "You can't see them, can you?" he said as Malik got closer, and Malik blinked and looked around quickly.

"See who?" he questioned a little nervously. Bakura looked around, expression once again unreadable.

"My family."

"Your--" Malik swallowed and looked around again, this time a bit more closely than before. What he had passed off as blurs in his vision or heat waves he suddenly realized were very much there, and moving in a way quite unlike any heat wave he'd ever seen before. The closer he looked, the more and more the translucent bodies took shape, until he couldn't understand how he'd missed them in the first place. Scarcely human in appearance but clearly an attempt at it, the floating figures gradually filled in before his eyes, gaining somewhat human details -- arms, heads distinct from their bodies, eyes, gaping mouths...

"Ghosts?" Malik hissed under his breath, scarcely daring to speak over a whisper. He couldn't believe what he was seeing, certain this had to be some sort of trick of his eyes, but no amount of blinking or shaking his head could chase away the figures now that they were distinct before him. In fact, as he looked on, he suddenly realized that they weren't just in front of him, but all around him, hovering around buildings, swooping across the ground and, for the most part, watching him with whatever could be called their eyes, their animosity towards him almost tangible on the air.

Before Malik's knees gave out under him, he felt Bakura's arm come across his shoulders, strong and supportive. "Go!" Bakura called out to the spirits, waving a hand at them. "He's with me. He's not aligned with the Pharaoh! Go back to sleep!" For a moment, it seemed the spirits hadn't heard him, but at last, somewhat reluctantly, the figures migrated away, dissipating into the air or fading through building walls and away. This time, Malik couldn't stop himself; he sagged against Bakura, who quickly caught him and held him against his side.

"Ghosts," Malik mumbled almost dazedly.

"Sorry, I should've warned you," Bakura said, pulling Malik's arm over his shoulder and supporting him.

"Yes, you should've!" Malik said shakily, gripping Bakura's clothes. Bakura exhaled lightly and helped Malik over to the nearest building that had some remnants of a wall left, guiding him to sit down and lean against it. Though he normally would've been paranoid about what exactly he was leaning against, Malik couldn't have cared less at this point. He cursed faintly when he realized he was trembling, and he hugged his knees tight to his chest and breathed deeply to try and get it to stop.

Bakura stood over him, watching him carefully, though a noise caught his attention and he turned. His expression softened faintly at the sight of one last ghost still hovering a ways away, waiting for him. Malik glanced up as Bakura started walking towards it, and his eyes turned to the ghost. He was surprised to find that this one looked normal, almost human, translucency and the fact that his form was a few inches above the ground aside. He was small, probably a young boy, though his features seemed almost delicate, feminine in appearance. He had long hair, as white as the rest of his form appeared to be, except for dark streaks of what could have been blood that seemed spattered over his form. Dressed in a simple one-piece robe and clutching an old blanket, transparent as he was, to his chest, he looked up with blank eyes as Bakura approached. As Malik watched, Bakura crouched and rested a hand on the ghost's shoulder.

"Go back to sleep," he heard him murmur. The ghost turned its head to look at Malik, who shivered; the ghost's gaze was like a cold wind over his body, though not nearly as malicious as the gaze of the previous ghosts had been. "Don't worry about him," Bakura whispered. "Go back to sleep."

The ghost gazed at Malik for a moment longer before turning its eyes back to Bakura. It nodded slightly, and it began to descend back to the ground. As its feet touched the ground, its body almost seemed to ripple, and for an instant it was revealed before Malik's eyes; instead of the human-looking form it had once been, now there remained a skeleton, bones visibly soaked in blood. It turned its head to Malik once more, eye-less sockets paralyzing him where he sat, before the image was gone and the boy was there once more, sinking slowly back into the ground with its gaze lowered. Only once it was completely gone did Malik realize he'd been holding his breath, and he gasped sharply for air, gripping at his chest. Bakura rose to his feet slowly, expression suddenly so clear and open that, had Malik not been desperately trying to catch his breath, he would have stopped to stare. For the first time, an air of sadness was evident in Bakura's expression, smothered quickly into neutrality when Bakura realized it but ingrained in Malik's memory all the same.

"What happened here?" Malik breathed as Bakura approached him again. Bakura was silent for a long moment before answering, exhaling heavily through his nose.

"This was once a village of thieves," he said. "And, years ago, when the former Pharaoh ruled, this place became a casualty in the reformation of this country." He sighed and offered a hand to Malik, helping him to his feet. "You're probably too young to remember all this, but not too long ago, Egypt was starting to get desperate. We'd been a power for longer than any other nation in the world, far too long, it seemed. There was pressure on all sides for war, and without any true means to protect ourselves, we were basically screwed." He supported Malik against his side once again as he spoke, leading him down the main path through the rubble of the town. "The Pharaoh needed a weapon, something that would put it on the playing field as a viable opponent rather than a crippled country waiting to be destroyed. 'Course, Egypt's always refused to meddle in the sciences more than is necessary, so they had only one choice left to them."

"Magic?" Malik questioned.

"Mm," Bakura nodded. "Dark magic. The kind of stuff you're not supposed to touch under any circumstances, but Egypt was desperate and the Pharaoh had no choice." Bakura chuckled wryly, turning and leading them into one building that had remained mostly intact, down a set of stairs just inside the entrance, "The Pharaoh didn't realize the weight of his choice, and he only saw the end that satisfied the means -- a weapon so powerful that it would keep Egypt at peace, at least for a little while longer, able to compare even to the bombs and other things science had managed to develop." Malik grimaced faintly as he listened at the musty smell of age tinged with the iron smell of blood that hung thick in the air, covering his mouth and nose with his free hand.

"Can you walk?" Bakura asked once they reached what seemed to be the bottom of the stairs. Malik nodded and Bakura carefully freed him from his grip and reached for the bag at his side. He fished around in it before disappearing into the dark of the room beyond what Malik could see from the light at the top of the stairs. There was a sound of something striking and a flare as Bakura lit a torch that had been hanging from the wall. The light illuminated the room with a dim glow, revealing a bare room, with walls of stone, empty except for a large stone tablet in the center. As he approached it, Malik felt the same distinct feeling of dread he'd felt upon entering the village, and the smell of blood became sharper and more acrid in his nostrils. Still, his curiousity got the better of him, and he came up beside the tablet which, looking at it now, was rather peculiar indeed. Atop a circular stone slab inscribed with hieroglyphics that were clearly from a more ancient form of Egypt's language, there was another stone slab in the shape of a person, with a head at the top reminiscent of what one would find on a Pharaoh's sarcophagus, except Malik didn't recognize the face. Stranger still was the body, for in it, surrounded by decorative images and more hieroglyphs, were seven distinct indents, almost like slots for fitting together pieces of a puzzle. Malik shivered slightly as his finger brushed over the one in the center, in the shape of an upside-down pyramid; he knew these shapes.

"The Sennen Items?" he whispered, looking up at Bakura who had crossed the room to light another torch. Bakura turned to him and nodded slowly, his dark expression only intensified by the flickering shadows of the room.

"They were created as weapons of peace," he said, snorting softly. "But creating them involved a ritual of darkness, and the sacrifice of one thousand lives. And what better people to sacrifice than thieves and murderers who should have hung for their crimes regardless?"

Malik's eyes widened in realization, and he gripped the cold stone of the tablet for support; he forced himself to breathe, but the iron smell burned in his nose and all through his body a cold feeling of dread crept in. He could see them again, the spirits of this city, now circling the room and its tablet. Some he could even hear hiss in anger, and a few swooped past him and the tablet, causing him to start. He looked to Bakura desperately for help, but Bakura's eyes were towards the stairs leading into the room, where the boy from earlier stood once again, his body almost glowing in the light that spilled from the entrance. He looked at Malik again, and Malik suddenly felt something quite different from what he felt from the other spirits; there was a pleading look in the boy's expression, and a sudden burst of sadness swelled in Malik's chest for this boy who had clearly been caught in a war that was not his own.

"There was one who survived." Bakura's voice came to him like something out of a dream, distant and dark, as Malik slowly released his hold on the tablet and moved towards the ghost of the young boy. "One who managed to escape, though he was forced to leave behind everything he knew and loved to do so..." Malik fell to his knees before the boy, able to see even clearer now the boy's wide-set eyes and long hair and shifted in a nonexistent breeze. "He abandoned his family, his mother, his father...his brother, all in order to survive."

Malik looked up slowly to find Bakura standing above him, expression the same as it had been before, open and revealing. "He was supposed to become their avenger," Bakura said quietly, in almost an exhale. "But it looks like I can't do it by myself." Malik's gaze slid back down to the boy's, which was still locked on him.

"Your brother...?" Malik murmured weakly, unable to conjure anything else to say as he was almost overwhelmed by everything around him. Bakura nodded.

"Ryou," he sighed. "He never wanted to be a thief, you know. He was young, but he knew a lot, this kid. Talked about leaving the village, learning to read and write, apprenticing at an honest job. We were both just kids, but he always knew what he wanted from his life, and it wasn't this." Malik glanced up just in time to see a faint, wistful smile cross Bakura's face. "Even now, he's only still here because he wants to be; he isn't bound by his hatred or bitterness like the rest."

Malik swallowed lightly and gazed at Bakura's brother--Ryou. There wasn't much of a family resemblance, aside from his hair, which Malik presumed had been the same shade of white in life as Bakura's.

"You said," Malik said slowly, eyes not leaving the boy before him, "that you couldn't do it alone. What did you...?" He blinked as he felt a hand on his chin, drawing his face towards Bakura, who was now crouching beside him.

"I need your help," Bakura said, voice quiet but insistent. "Your sister is a priestess. I need you to help me get into the palace through her. I need my ka beast back." Malik was too dumbfounded by this to think of asking how on earth Bakura knew about Isis, but as he floundered for something to say, Bakura continued, "You have to help me, Malik. My family -- all of Egypt -- needs this. The Pharaoh is using the Items to keep alive a country that doesn't deserve to live any longer, sacrificing its own people out of desperation and clinging to its old ways. The world has changed. We need to help Egypt change, too, before it destroys itself. For my family," he leaned in, so close that Malik could almost feel his breath, his blue eyes burning into his own, "for me. Please."

Malik swallowed lightly, eyes locked with Bakura's for a long time as his mind still tumbled to comprehend what he was hearing. In the corner of his eye he could see Ryou still watching them, and he exhaled slowly, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, he was resolved.

"All right," he said.

Chapter Six: Prophet

Mahaado left his Pharaoh sleeping in his chambers, adjusting his robes slightly as he quietly slipped out of the room. Isis was already waiting for him in the hallway as he emerged, and his heart skipped in fear for a moment before he recognized her. There was no need to make excuses for his late night visits with the Pharaoh to her.

"You know what's going to happen," he said softly. There was no question in his tone.

Isis nodded slowly as she approached Mahaado, her fingers tracing the warm gold Tauk about her neck. "I have seen it," she said, gazing up at him with a hint of sadness in her eyes. "But it is not the destiny you hope for."

"I will do whatever it takes to bring down this menace," Mahaado whispered firmly.

"Even if it costs you your life?"

"Even then."

Isis' eyes flickered to the door behind her leading back to the Pharaoh's chambers before she met Mahaado's eyes again. "Very well. But, before I tell you, I have one selfish request I must make..."

It was all far too easy. Bakura was no fool; he knew far too well the number of guards posted at the gates of the palace at all times, where the weak points were and when the fewest guards were on patrol, and he knew that, for some reason, things had changed that night. Still, he didn't mention it, not wanting to put the already-nervous Malik even more on edge. Together they'd scaled the palace walls, Bakura helping Malik as much as was possible without making too much noise and Malik doing his best to keep up the pace.

Originally, Bakura had wanted Malik to serve as a distraction, luring the priestess out and in the process leaving a door open for Bakura to slip through and retrieve Diabound at long last. Malik, however, had different ideas. He'd refused to deceive his sister like that, certain that, despite her position in the palace, if he explained to her all that he'd seen, she'd understand and allow them to take Diabound. Bakura, however, was not convinced, but since it was Malik's sister, he didn't have any choice but to reluctantly agree to the plan, in the meantime forming counter-measures in the strong possibility that this plan backfired. They'd sent a message to the priestess earlier that day, and now, if all went well, she would be waiting in the palace garden to hear from them and to hear their side of the story. If all didn't go well, however, as seemed more and more likely from the lack of guards surrounding the palace, they would be captured then and there and left with little hope of escape, this time around. Bakura reached into his coat, rechecking that all of his knives were still in place. There was no way he was going down without a fight.

They arrived at the palace gardens without incident, the moon already high in the night sky, and it was by its light that Bakura could see the lone figure of a woman standing beside a fountain, waiting for them. Bakura glanced around; there were few places where any guards could hide here, and he could sense no telltale traces of magic that could be used to shield them. But, then, traces were sloppy, and sloppy had never been Mahaado's style. Bakura touched Malik's shoulder and pointed towards the figure ahead of them; Malik nodded, and Bakura gestured that he should go on ahead. Malik was hesitant for a moment, but his expression hardened and he nodded again, slipping from their hiding place in a gathering of bushes and approaching the priestess.

Bakura remained where he was and continued to check for any signs of hidden guards or surprise attacks.

"It's been a long time," he heard Malik say softly. "You got my message, then?"

"A hawk bearing letters wasn't an easy thing to miss," the priestess responded. "What is this about? Malik, what's happened to you?"

"It's a long story," Malik replied, his voice growing more distant as he led the priestess around the fountain and further away from Bakura. "I have a lot to tell you..."

Bakura allowed himself to exhale gently as they moved out of earshot, and his eyes darted around once more before he moved. Malik was too na´ve; Bakura knew the priests of this palace well, and didn't trust in their capabilities for pity in the least. He had no plans on waiting around for Malik to return and tell him that Isis had taken pity on him for his sob story and was willing to help him overthrow the Pharaoh by releasing Diabound. Stepping lightly across the garden, Bakura came to the entrance to the palace, normally locked, but not today. Bakura smirked as he silently pulled open the door and slipped inside, closing it gently behind him. The last time he'd made it this far, he'd been caught before he'd gotten anywhere, but it seemed luck was on his side today. Summoning a mental image of the inner workings of the palace in his mind, Bakura ran swiftly down the hall, careful to keep his steps light. His knives were bound tightly against his leg to keep from rattling and only the ripple of his coat in the wind gave any evidence of his presence. How long had he been training his body to master the art of silence, for the sole purpose of one day being able to break even into the royal palace itself? And here he was, and how easy it would be to simply kill the Pharaoh while he slept? But no, Bakura thought to himself, shaking his head slightly. That wouldn't be a revenge worthy of all the crimes his family had committed; only when the Pharaoh's blood soaked the palace walls at the end of a glorious battle would Bakura truly feel he had bested him and proved how weak this ruler truly was. The one he truly wanted revenge on was dead, but he'd made the mistake of leaving his son to pick up the pieces, and now it was his son who would pay for his crimes.

Bakura's heart raced as he sped through the halls, dodging behind pillars to avoid passing guards and making his way through halls and buildings with the practice of one who'd lived there all his life. Diabound was sealed in a ka temple that connected to the palace on the opposite side, but Bakura managed to get there swiftly, driven on by the nagging feeling that those missing guards had to be somewhere. He found the door he wanted after a bit of searching and tried it carefully--unlocked. Bakura's senses flared again in warning, but trap or no trap, if there was a chance he could get Diabound back in the process, there was no way he wasn't going to take it. He pushed open the door and slipped inside.

The temple was lit with torches, and all around the wide expanse of the first room Bakura could see walls and walls of ka beasts, sealed and awaiting a master to summon them. Bakura smirked faintly. His relationship was nothing like that of the priests and their sealed beasts; he and Diabound acted as one, and being separated from him for so long had started to drive Bakura a bit mad, but all that was about to change. Even now, he could feel warmth spreading through his body from his proximity to his beast, and a faint, gentle tug in the back of his mind drew him towards where he was being kept. Bakura crossed the room quickly, eyes scanning over the monsters that lined the walls. He found Diabound at last in one of the smaller connecting rooms, in a corner and surrounded by sealing hieroglyphs. Bakura smirked broadly in amusement. Only Diabound would merit such strong sealers just to keep him from breaking out.

Still, Bakura thought as he glanced around the room, it was strange that there weren't any seals on the place itself -- it was far too late for any priests to be wandering through here, so surely they should've closed the place off for the night. Well, no matter; if he was walking into a trap, he certainly didn't plan on doing so unarmed. He quickly smudged out the sealing marks on the ground -- there was a crackle of energy and then a low rumbling as the spell was lowered. Bakura smirked and stepped back as Diabound's tablet trembled. He knew his beast had been anticipating this moment for some time now, and was quite ready to break free. Hairline cracks ran swiftly along the stone tablet, spreading like spider webs and deepening with astounding speed. There was a sharp crack, and the tablet shattered loudly. Bakura threw his hands up to shield his face from the debris, but the pleased roar of Diabound let him know he'd been successful. He lowered his arms and grinned up into the face of his ka beast, who towered above him, the snake that made up the lower half of his body hissing loudly in pleasure. Diabound raised arms as large as tree trunks in triumph, and Bakura laughed loudly in his shared pleasure at his freedom.

"They should've known they couldn't hold you forever!" he shouted, his voice and Diabound's reverberating throughout the temple. However, a sudden, equally loud call cut their victory celebration short.

"Holding him was never our intent!" Bakura turned and sneered at the newcomer, who now stood at the entrance behind him, scowling.

"Mahaado," Bakura called back. "You're running late, today! How do you plan on stopping me when I have my ka beast back, now, hmm?" He laughed again as Diabound's snake circled him protectively.

"As I said, thief," Mahaado spat, striding forward. "Holding him was never our intent. Now that you're here, and he's free, any attacks we make on you are in," smirk, "self-defense."

Bakura laughed again at that, grinning up at Diabound. "You hear that, Diabound? I'd say the priest isn't as innocent and good as he tries to let on."

Mahaado snorted softly and raised a hand -- rows of lower-ranked priests suddenly appeared in both of the entrances to the room, blocking them off.

Mahaado smirked. "Just in case you try and make any hasty escapes." Bakura snorted softly, folding his arms.

"You underestimate me, priest, if you think that could hold me. But don't worry. I don't plan on leaving here without your ring around my neck." Diabound growled loudly from behind Bakura, and Bakura's grin widened.

"It is you who is underestimating me, thief," Mahaado said. He raised his hand and called, "Magician of Illusion!" There was a flash, and a figure in the shape of a man rapidly formed before him, dressed in dark purple robes with his head adorned by a large pointed hat, a staff in his hand. The figure was expressionless, but it was obvious it was just as angry as its master, and it took an offensive stance, wand at the ready.

"Really, Mahaado, we've been at odds for so long and yet you still haven't learned better than to use that pathetic little wizard of yours?" Bakura sneered, glancing back at Diabound. "This should be good." He turned back sharply to Mahaado, throwing his hand forward. "Spiral wave!"

Above him, Diabound roared and held his arms up. In the middle of his chest, a spiraling wind formed, moving faster and faster until it burst forth in a stream of power headed directly for the Magician of Illusion. Mahaado, however, was prepared for it, and the attack diffused harmless against an invisible shield around his magician.

"Looks like you'll have to be a little more creative," Mahaado called. "Go, my magician!"

"You don't say..." Bakura chuckled darkly, and as the magician swiftly rose in the air and launched himself towards Bakura's ka beast, Diabound suddenly melted into the floor beneath them, disappearing completely and leaving the magician floating in the space where he'd been, uncertain.

Mahaado scoffed softly. Trust Bakura to use that trick again -- he didn't know the definition of a fair hand-to-hand fight. Still, it didn't matter. He knew Diabound had one weakness, one that Mahaado was more than happy to exploit.

"Magician!" he called, and his beast turned towards Bakura, staff at the ready. Bakura sneered.

"You really are a fool."

"Isis, how could you? You betrayed us!" Malik shouted, pulling his hands out of his sister's. Isis winced slightly and moved forward, desperately trying to calm her brother.

"Malik, you must understand, I did this for you!" she said pleadingly. "Because of this, you're safe from punishment by death!"

"What, because I brought him here?" Malik snapped, pulling back again. "Isis, I didn't bring him here to be captured, and I definitely didn't ask you to protect me! I came here because I thought you would help me, but it looks like I expected too much." He scowled and turned away swiftly, but was stopped by Isis' hand on his arm.

"Malik, you can't possibly support him... He's a thief, and a murderer! He's made attacks against our Pharaoh and--"

"You don't know anything," Malik spat, wrenching his arm free of Isis' grip. "I can't believe I ever called you sister." With that, he turned and ran from the garden and out of sight, following the sounds of explosions. Isis sank to her knees, fighting tears and clutching at her Tauk, but no matter how hard she concentrated, Malik's fate faded from her sight. All that was left for him was darkness, now, and there was nothing Isis could do.

A loud roar from behind Mahaado caught his attention, but before he could turn to see, the blast had already struck him in the back, sending him flying forward to the ground with a grunt of pain. The Magician of Illusion flickered faintly before he raised his staff and blasted at Diabound, who'd revealed himself wrapped around a pillar. Diabound met the blast with another of his own, causing an explosion that shook the temple. Bakura smirked and walked over to Mahaado, who was struggling to get up again, and he kicked him onto his back forcefully.

"You're really off your game today, magician," Bakura sneered, pinning the priest with a foot pressed hard against his throat. Mahaado gagged and scowled sharply at Bakura, who only smirked broader. "Well, no need to drag this out," he said, glancing up at the ka beasts. Diabound was keeping the magician effectively occupied, blocking him from coming to his master's aid by firing blast after blast, his snake lashing out at him when he came too close. Bakura grinned and reached into his jacket, withdrawing a knife from its sheath at his side. Mahaado's eyes widened, and he thrashed beneath Bakura's foot as Bakura crouched down, holding the knife steady.

"Calm down, priest," Bakura drawled, slicing the cord holding the Sennen Ring around Mahaado's neck. He grinned and straightened, holding the Ring triumphantly in his hand. "No need to dirty my hands with your blood when my ka can destroy you with one blast," he sneered, pressing down hard on Mahaado's neck and earning a choked, pained noise from the one beneath him. "Pity - I'd been hoping for more of a ch--"

He hesitated a moment; something was wrong. Mahaado was smirking beneath him, and, as Bakura looked closer, he could see a purple aura starting to surround the other, strengthening in power until it was almost blinding. Bakura winced a threw an arm up, but before he could react, he felt a force suddenly lift his feet from the ground, throwing him to the ground hard. The knife slipped from his grip, clattering across the floor as Bakura quickly tried to get to his feet, only to find that he was pinned down by an invisible force, facedown against the ground.

"I didn't want to resort to this," he heard Mahaado croak, and he could see him slowly stand, rubbing his neck. The glow was still there, surrounding him like a purple fire, and before he could respond he felt as well as heard the pain of his ka being struck in the chest. Bakura winced and struggled against the force, pain wracking through his chest - Diabound had been hit, and from the feel of it, it was more powerful than it had been before. He turned his head to glare at Mahaado, but Mahaado wasn't looking at him anymore; he had his eyes closed, and he was chanting rapidly under his breath.

"Diabound!" Bakura called, but it was too late. The ground beneath him was shaking, and above him he could hear the loud cracks of stones breaking. He fought hard against the invisible bonds, but to no avail; whatever was holding him down had him pinned. Bakura cursed sharply under his breath, mentally calling Diabound over him to shield him from falling rumble as the temple began to crumble around him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Mahaado, watching him with a resigned expression. Bakura sneered.

"If you bring this place down, you'll die too!" he called.

"I know."

Bakura growled in frustration, clutching the captured Ring to his chest. He could feel its power seeping into him, like liquid warmth through his fingertips, but there was no way he could harness its power in time to strengthen himself or Diabound. He was, indeed, completely trapped.

"No!" he shouted, once again thrashing against the power that held him. "I won't die like this!" He winced as more rubble struck Diabound's back, the building falling apart around them. "NO!"

"Bakura!" Bakura's eyes widened, and he turned his head just in time to see Malik on horseback, breaking through the ranks of priests who'd been holding the rest of the temple aloft, only allowing the one room to crumble. Malik glanced around the room quickly, taking in the situation, before he glared and dug his heels into the sides of the horse, charging forward into the room and straight at Mahaado. Mahaado had also turned at the noise, and was chanting again, but Malik was faster, and Mahaado was forced to dive out of the way before he could be trampled under the horse's feet.

For a fleeting instant the pressure holding Bakura down dissipated, and that was just long enough for Bakura to mentally call Diabound to lift him up. Malik turned the horse away from Mahaado and led it quickly to Bakura's side.

"Get on!" he called, and Bakura nodded. Diabound lifted Bakura onto the horse and flew behind them as they took off again, protecting them as best he could from the large stone pieces falling heavily around them.

"We're not going to make it in time!" Malik called desperately as the horse bucked when a broken tablet crashed just in front of them.

"There's a faster way," Bakura called back, arms around Malik's waist. "Head towards that wall!" He pointed and Malik quickly tugged the reins, heading towards the wall and desperately praying that Bakura wasn't completely out of his mind. "Diabound!" Bakura called above them, and Diabound nodded. Diabound's large snake wrapped around the horse, lifting it off the ground and causing it to whinny and thrash in protest.

"Bakura!" Malik called in alarm, clutching the reins for dear life.

"Trust me," Bakura said, his voice directly in Malik's ear. Malik felt his cheeks heat up slightly, and he nodded. Diabound carried the horse with him as he flew straight for the wall. Malik ducked his head down, waiting for the collision, but it never came; when he opened his eyes again, they were outside, flying swiftly out of the palace and over the walls.

"How did..." he breathed in wonder. Bakura smirked.

"Can't be a thief without a few tricks, now, can I?" he said, relaxing against Malik and sighing faintly. He glanced down at the Ring he'd had pressed firmly to his chest and a steady grin formed on his face. He laughed, softly at first and then louder until it was nearly a cackle, holding the Ring above his head in triumph.

"Great," Malik groaned, glancing back at Bakura as Diabound slowly lowered the horse to the ground. "I rescued a psychopath."

Bakura laughed louder, wrapping an arm around Malik and squeezing him tightly for a moment. "I owe you for this one, kid," he said, and Malik couldn't help but smile at the sheer happiness evident in Bakura's voice.

"You're damn right you do," he replied with mock-huffiness, petting the horse's mane to calm it down a bit. "I rode a horse for you, you know. You should thank me on bended knee."

Bakura chuckled and reached around Malik, grabbing up the reins from his hands. "Let's go," he said, tugging the reins lightly and leading the horse down the road back into town. "The night is still young, and I'll be damned if I let this victory go to waste."

Malik was vaguely worried about what Bakura meant by that, but, glancing up at his expression, he decided it didn't matter anymore. He leaned back against Bakura's chest. He'd made his choice; there was no turning back now.

Chapter Seven: Ring

Fortunately, whatever plans Bakura had for the rest of the night didn't seem to involve Malik, who'd had more than enough adventure for one night. They returned to the hotel they'd stayed at before, because, as Bakura put it, after all that, there was no way the Pharaoh would expect either of them to stay in town, right under their noses. Malik wasn't sure he completely believed that logic, but he was too weary from the night's events to care, and he'd happily sunk into a broken bed the moment they'd gotten their room. He thought he heard Bakura shuffle back out again, closing the door behind him as he went, but before he could really think about it, he was already asleep.

His rest, however, was short-lived. It was still dark out when he was awakened again by his bed shifting from a new weight and the sudden presence of a warm body behind him. Thinking that Bakura had merely gotten confused in the dark, he turned slightly and muttered, "Wrong bed, stupid."

"No," he felt Bakura breath against his neck, "This is right."

Malik started to ask him what he meant by that, but he was stopped by the sudden awareness of Bakura's body pressed up firmly against his and one of Bakura's hands sliding over his chest and lower still. He thought about protesting, but then Bakura's lips were covering his and his body was pinned back against the bed with Bakura on top of him, and he lost all thoughts after that.

They were wrapped around each other almost an hour later when Bakura finally opted to speak again.

"Got you something," he murmured, shifting slightly and reaching for the bedside table.

"Mm?" Malik murmured, come out of his daze a bit to blink at Bakura. Bakura turned back to him, something silver in his hand, but Malik couldn't see it clearly in the darkness of the room. He reluctantly pushed himself up a bit and took from Bakura's hand a silver chain necklace. It was a simple thing, only silver links and nothing more, but it was still nicer (and probably more expensive) than anything Malik had ever owned before.

"Consider this my thank you for breaking my chains," Bakura said with a faint hint of amusement in his voice as he sat up as well, taking the chain from Malik again and unclasping it, draping it around Malik's neck. Malik snorted softly, pulling his hair out of the way so Bakura could clasp it.

"So, what, now you've got me chained, instead?" he said, touching the chain lightly.

"Something like that," Bakura said with a grin, leaning in and nipping lightly at Malik's neck just above the chain. Malik shivered slightly and closed his eyes with a soft noise, and Bakura smirked, nuzzling him lightly.

"What are you going to do now?" Malik murmured as he opened his eyes again. Bakura sighed and sat back, glancing at the bedside table where he'd placed the Ring.

"I know what I have to do," he said after a moment, gazing at Malik seriously. "But I have to do it alone."

"What?" Malik protested, turning towards Bakura and frowning. "I've given up everything I had to help you do this!"

"I know," Bakura said, sighing faintly. "But..."

"You don't think there's anything I can do?" Malik said, frowning deeper. "I might not have a ka, but I can fight! I'll--I'll distract the priests while you go after the Pharaoh! I'll--" He was interrupted by Bakura, who rested a hand over his lips lightly.

"I'm not saying I don't want your help anymore," he said. "There is one thing I need you to do."

"I'm afraid the Pharaoh doesn't want to see anyone right now," the guard said, a spear extended over the door. Yuugi frowned up at him.

"I'm the Pharaoh's brother, I think he'll want to see me."

The guard shifted uncomfortably for a moment or two before he finally nodded and stepped back. Yuugi sighed and walked forward, pushing open the door and slipping inside. "Atemu?"

Atemu turned from where he was leaning against the window, gazing out over the palace. "Yuugi," he said with a tired smile that seemed almost painfully stretched. Yuugi's expression softened and he hurried over to Atemu's side, wrapping his arms around him tightly.

"I'm so sorry," Yuugi whispered, clinging tightly to Atemu. Atemu smiled faintly and gently returned the embrace, though his expression quickly slipped into sadness.

"It's not your fault," he murmured, drawing back a moment later. "How is Mana, have you seen her?"

Yuugi nodded, his expression saddening further. "She's locked herself in her room to practice. The servants said she's been crying all night, but now she seems to have thrown herself into practicing her magic. Said she has to become the greatest magician ever, for Mahaado's sake."

Atemu flinched slightly at the name, and Yuugi bit his lip. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Atemu said, forcing another smile. "I--he--" He trailed off, shaking his head and turning away from Yuugi so he wouldn't see the tears that had started welling again. "We can't let the thief escape," he said at last with a shaky breath.

"I know," Yuugi said, rubbing his arm uncomfortably.

"Listen, Yuugi, you know if...if something were to happen to me..." Atemu turned back to Yuugi and gazed at him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "I know you've been considering Seto's proposition to go to America and promote that new card game, but..."

Yuugi sighed and smiled faintly, resting a hand on his brother's. "I know you don't want me to go," he said softly. "And I..." He shook his head and gazed up at Atemu with a new determination. "I'll take your place, if anything should happen. I won't let Egypt fall."

Relief flooded Atemu's face, and he pulled his brother into another tight hug. "Thank you," he murmured.

Yuugi nodded and held tightly to his brother, fighting not to cry himself. "I love you," he whispered.

"Love you, too," Atemu murmured. Mahaado flickered through his mind again, and he felt a swell of sadness rise up once more, but this time it was followed by a new determination. He couldn't let Mahaado's death go to waste. He would protect Egypt and its ways to the bitter end.

It was Ryou's face again. So many dreams of him and still he couldn't escape them, not even at the pinnacle of his victory. Ryou's face gazing up at him, silent, questioning, pleading.

"There was nothing I could do," he would always whisper to Ryou. "Nothing. You know that, right? You know." Grab the dream Ryou by the shoulders, pleading with him, but Ryou would always look at him with such forgiveness in his eyes that Bakura wept anyway. An easy thing to control when he was awake, but when he slept there was no fighting the tears back.

But this time, something was different. He could feel it, with the vague awareness of one who knows he's dreaming and doesn't know what to do about it; the darkness was stronger than usual, if darkness could even be stronger, and he felt it pressing in on all sides. Not even Ryou could be a comfort in this dream, for the pressure he felt from all around him came from Ryou, too. He was the darkness, and his eyes, this time, were accusing.

"You could have saved us." Ryou never spoke in his dreams, wasn't supposed to speak, the dead didn't speak, but Ryou had opened his mouth and the words had come out, sharp and bitter and not like Ryou at all.

"You could have saved us, but you chose to run."

"No," Bakura whispered, shaking his head and stepping away from the dream Ryou that wasn't Ryou. "No, I would've died, too, and then no one would've been left. You know that."

Ryou's hands dropped to his sides and his eyes narrowed. Now Bakura knew there was something wrong; never, not even once, had he seen Ryou glare. Even as he watched, Ryou seemed to morph before him, his eyes sharpening with a dark streak of maturity, his hair ruffling in a nonexistent wind and then remaining wild and spiked at odd angles.

"You could have saved us," not-Ryou repeated, stepping forward. His voice was dark and harsh, and Bakura winced. To hear Ryou's voice abused like that was like nails on stone to him. "You could have saved us." Again, but this time it almost sounded as if there was another voice accompanying Ryou's, dark, deep and hollow. Bakura shook his head desperately, fighting to glare back.

"You're not Ryou," he spat, holding his ground. "Who are you?" Not-Ryou grinned, so malicious and yet so smug that Bakura almost felt he was looking in a mirror. "Who am I?" Not-Ryou whispered, though it was backed by such force that he may as well have been shouting. The darkness pressed in harder, and Bakura winced and fell to his knees unwillingly.

"You willingly took me into your hands," Not-Ryou hissed, his face twisting and contorting as shadows chased across his form. "You wish to use my power? Then you will complete your quest and mine. You've already set things in motion, but now you must finish what you started."

Bakura blinked and then Not-Ryou was in front of him, grinning madly. "The god of darkness will live again." He reached out with one hand, which suddenly became skeletal before Bakura's eyes before all vision was stolen from him and the world became darkness.

Malik pulled his horse to a halt when he reached the top of a tall cliff that overlooked the palace and the city, now lit by the rising sun. It was already late morning, but the night had been long and Bakura waking up halfway through from some sort of bad dream certainly hadn't helped. Still, strangely, Malik didn't feel weary; merely resolute for what he had to do.

He gazed out at the city, giving it one last look. He knew, deep down, that after this, nothing would ever be the same again; not his homeland, and not himself. He touched the chain about his neck and sighed softly. The days when his greatest excitement had been leaving home at long last to see the world seemed so long ago. Now he'd seen too much of the world, and he desperately wished he could go back to the way things once were. Still, upon reminiscing about the night before, Malik, with a faint blush burning his cheeks, decided it wasn't all bad.

He closed his eyes for a moment before he nodded to himself. He adjusted his robes and gathered the reins up into his hands, leading his horse towards the open desert. It was time.

Bakura had always intended to face the Pharaoh head-on, and he didn't intend to let that dream die now. As he marched up the road into the palace, the Ring about his neck and the sounds of explosions and screams behind him, Bakura smirked proudly. The guards who tried to stop him at the front gate quickly met with Diabound's Spiral Wave, and every blast made Bakura's heart leap, his blood pounding with sheer excitement and the energy that flowed through him from the Ring. He felt strong, stronger than he'd ever felt before, and he knew now what had to be done. He'd been confused before, sure of what he wanted but unsure of how to get it, but no longer. His head felt clear, and though he wasn't entirely sure how he knew, the path seemed so obvious now. Distantly, the image of Ryou flickered through his mind as if from a dream he'd forgotten, but he shook it off quickly. This was for him, after all.

The palace gates barely held against Diabound, who had, ever since Bakura had put on the Ring the night before, grown more powerful than Bakura had ever seen him. Even his skin, once pale white, was now streaked with dark marks, almost tainted and yet all the more powerful because of it. Bakura laughed as he made his way towards the palace, leaving a path of destruction in his wake.

"Come on out, Pharaoh!" he shouted, laughing louder as two more guards were easily swept away by Diabound. "Is this all you can throw at me! Bring out all your priests, at least give me some kind of challenge!"

"Bakura!"

Bakura sneered as he approached the owner of the voice and the Sennen Rod, who was now standing defiantly at the entrance to the palace.

"Only one chosen priest? I thought I said I wanted a challenge!" Bakura grinned and waved a hand, bringing Diabound around in front of him, already charging up another blast.

"I'll teach you to respect me and to respect the Pharaoh!" Seth growled and he held the Rod high; there was a flash of light, and a warrior-ka appeared, dressed in a blue outfit with his face hidden by a mask.

"Really," Bakura snorted. "This is pathetic. Diabound!" Diabound roared and fired his blast at the monster, who dodged swiftly, drawing a sword seemingly out of nowhere and trying to strike Diabound with it. Diabound growled, his snake lashing out and catching the warrior by the ankle before he could reach him, flinging him aside as if he were a ragdoll.

Seth growled and threw his arm out, and the warrior quickly recovered and tried to leap back to Seth's side, but he was met by another of Diabound's blasts before he could even get close. Seth winced and raised the Rod again just as Diabound turned on him, his snake lashing out for him. With no time to dodge, he tried to draw out the hidden blade inside the Rod, but a sudden tackle to his side threw him out of the way of Diabound's snake and caused him to drop his Rod in the meantime. Seth and his rescuer tumbled and fell, but his rescuer on his feet again first, drawing a gun, cocking it and firing shot after shot in Diabound's direction. Diabound didn't even flinch when the bullets hit, instead turning his attention to breaking down the doors of the palace and ignoring his assaulter, and Seth growled as he pulled himself to his feet.

"Seto!" he said angrily. "What are you thinking?"

Seto glared down at his brother before hoisting him none-too-gently to his feet. "Saving you, obviously," he spat back. Seth was about to retort, but he paused for a moment in realization, blinking.

"You...can see him, can't you?" he said incredulously, pointing at Diabound.

Seto snorted. "Just because I see them doesn't mean I believe in them. Now, let's go!" He grabbed Seth's arm and pulled him away from the entrance to the palace, which was now nothing but a gaping hole in Diabound's wake. Bakura chuckled and picked up the Rod from the ground, its power sending a warm shiver through him and causing Diabound to roar as his power only continued to increase.

"Soon," Bakura murmured to himself, climbing over the rubble of the entrance and into the palace as a maniacal grin spread over his face. "Soon."

It hadn't been easy, but it was done. Malik gazed up at the palace gates and then higher up, to where the tablet of the Sennen Items seemed to be flying in midair, heading on a collision course for the palace itself. It had taken some doing to convince the ghosts of Kuru Eruna he was on their side, and that carrying the tablet to Bakura was what Bakura wanted, and without Ryou, he probably wouldn't have managed it, but the young ghost had managed to win him the spirits' trust and their compliance. Malik couldn't help but smile faintly himself when he remembered the young boy's warm smile, and any doubts that had remained about all of this easily melted away.

He watched as the tablet collided with the wall of the palace and disappeared, and he sighed. Bakura had told him to run after that, to get as far away from the palace as possible, and as much as Malik wanted to disobey and try and help him, deep down he knew there was nothing more he could do. Gripping the reins of his horse, he led him away from the palace, first reluctantly and then faster, until he was galloping through town, which was now left in chaotic ruins, no doubt at Bakura's hands. He didn't dare slow down for fear of changing his mind, so he pressed on, through town and away.

Bakura had been retrieving the Sennen Ankh with bloody hands when the tablet had come crashing through the wall, amazingly unharmed for the journey, and fell to the ground heavily. He grinned and tossed aside the body of the priest who had once held the Ankh, and the priest fell to the ground heavily, barely breathing.

"It's about time," Bakura said as the ghosts of his family detached from the tablet and flew around him, hissing loudly. Bakura laughed darkly as he walked over to the tablet, pulling the Rod from where it had been looped at his hip. He fitted it into its slot on the tablet easily, quickly followed by the just-taken Ankh. He also unhooked the Tauk from his side and held it, but he hesitated for a moment as he gazed at it. Malik...

A faint pang of regret ran through him; had the priestess not put up a fight, he probably would have allowed her to live, if only for her brother's sake, but as it was.... Bakura shook his head quickly, such thoughts quickly smothered back down again. He'd already explained to Malik the night before that there were no guarantees there would be any survivors, and Malik hadn't said a word more about it. Bakura wasn't the sort to do a half-baked job about it, anyway, especially not with something this important. He shoved the Tauk into its place and rose again, just in time to see another priest who'd been taken down by Diabound's blast crawling towards the one he'd just killed. He sneered.

"Still putting up a fight, Kalim?" he called with a laugh as the priest desperately clutched at his fellow priest's hand. "Don't bother. I made sure to kill him off completely; he was too much of a fighter." Kalim's eyes snapped up to him, his glare sharp with bitterness and anguish, and Bakura only smirked wider. "Close, were you? Well, then I'm sure you'll be happy to join him in the afterlife." Kalim struggled to get to his feet, lifting up the Sennen Scales, but before he could even start to call for his beast, Diabound's hand was wrapped around his head from behind. Kalim struggled, but Diabound lifted him off the ground easily, his other hand coiling around Kalim's body. Diabound twisted, there was a snap, and the priest sagged and was still, the Scales slipping from his hand and falling to the ground with a clatter.

Bakura didn't even flinch at the gruesome sight, clambering over the remains of a few guards, and crouching to pick up the Scales. "Good job," he said to Diabound, who dropped Kalim's body beside the other priest's. "Now, come on. We're not finished, yet."

Malik only dared to let himself slow his horse down when he was well out of town, the palace as small as a model in the distance. He sighed and allowed him to relax a little against the horse, stroking his mane absently as he kept his eyes trained on the palace.

Please, he thought desperately. Please, Bakura, you have to survive.

"Well, well, it's about time you showed up, Pharaoh." Bakura sneered as he straightened, wiping the Sennen Eye off on a piece of the priest's robes.

"Bakura..." Atemu's knuckles were white from his clenched fists as he gazed at Bakura with intense emotion. Bakura, however, was unmoved, sneering,

"Sad that I killed all your precious little friends, Pharaoh? Well, don't worry, I'll make sure to send you and this entire kingdom on the same path they went."

"You are a fool, Bakura," Atemu said, his voice surprisingly steady since Bakura could see tears welling in his eyes. "It seems seeing only one back when we first captured you wasn't enough. You've left me no choice. You will own up to the gods, Bakura, one way or another."

"If you're quite done with your little speech," Bakura said, as he walked over to the tablet, mockingly turning his back to the Pharaoh as he did so. He fitted the Eye into its slot in the face before turning back to him, eyes wide with his wild grin. "Show me god."

It was like nothing Malik had ever seen. Above him, the sky was darkening, covered with ominous clouds. Sparks of lightning cracked through the sky, followed by unexpected booms that caused Malik to jump. Even more strangely, the clouds seemed to be moving with all swiftness to one point, just above the palace. They swirled above it, each passing moment sinking the world deeper into darkness, and Malik squinted to see what was happening down at the palace.

Suddenly, there was an almighty crack, so loud it caused Malik's horse to jump and buck, whinnying loudly, and even as Malik tried desperately to calm him he felt his heart pound sharply. The feeling of wrongness, similar to what he'd felt at Kuru Eruna but a hundred times as strong, sunk into his stomach and sat there heavily, and once he had his horse calmed, he slumped slightly. Whether it was a sign Bakura had been successful or not, Malik didn't know, but he knew he didn't like it, and that was enough to make him start to panic.

However, just as he was reconsidering going back, there was a sudden, blinding light that began at the palace and spread rapidly, until it was so bright that Malik had to shield his eyes from it. He heard a pained roar, if it could even be called that, so high and painful that it made Malik's blood boil, and he cried out, but just as soon as it had begun it was smothered, and the air was deathly still.

There was a moment of silence as the earth seemed to hold its breath, waiting. The light was gone, but so was the overwhelming feeling of wrongness, and even as Malik watched from over his arm, the clouds began to dissipate and fade away into the blue sky.

Malik exhaled. It was over.

The pieces of the Puzzle were scattered across what remained of the palace hall, some half-buried in rubble and others as far as the next room over. Still, it was with tender care that Yuugi found each and every one, picking them out of whatever hole they'd managed to get into and gathering them into his arms.

This was the promise he'd made to his brother, to his country, the country his brother had sacrificed himself to save. Now, as he sat with the puzzle pieces laid out before him, he knew what was left for him to do. He took up the pieces, and began to put the Puzzle back together.

Chapter Eight: Second Life

The execution took place as soon as was readily possible. The town and the palace were still under construction, but progress was swift under the control of the new Pharaoh, and many of Egypt's other provinces had sent in assistance as well. All the dead had been properly buried, with only the royal funeral of the priests and the Pharaoh left, but this took priority over those.

The prisoner had been surprisingly docile, but nevertheless kept under the strictest of watches, such that not even a mouse could pass through security. Still, it all seemed for naught; the prisoner didn't even move, let alone try to escape. He simply remained in a corner of his cell, expression empty, never speaking a word and scarcely eating. It would have been pitiful, had his crimes not been so weighty.

The execution was public, if only for the sake of satiating the people's call for vengeance and creating a certain amount of acceptance for the new king. The prisoner was escorted from his cell, flanked by four guards with shackles around his hands and feet which dragged noisily along the ground as he walked. He walked tall, but nothing in his expression gave any hint to the confidence his body seemed to suggest; rather, it remained empty, almost frighteningly devoid of any emotions, positive or negative.

The people screamed their hatred for him as he was brought before them, and many had to be held back physically by guards to keep them from attacking him. Still, the prisoner did not react, not even as he was led up the steps to the platform where the executioner waited, sword in hand. The appropriate ritual sacrifice had been made, the area had been purified, and, as the anxious crowd of people watched, the Pharaoh rose to his feet. The prisoner was shoved to his knees, facing the crowd, and he gazed out into the crowd blankly.

There was one member of the crowd, however, who wasn't cheering, and as Bakura's eyes locked on his, the first signs of life since his attack on the palace finally flickered into his eyes. Malik, dressed in dark purple robes with the hood raised to shade his face, gazed at him with a somber expression and nodded when he finally met his eyes. The prisoner blinked slowly as he was kicked to lean forward, and his eyes never left Malik's. The Pharaoh nodded, and Seth, who was standing at his side, raised a hand. The executioner raised his sword into the air.

Malik's eyes flickered up to the sword for a moment before returning to the prisoner's, and at last Malik's hard expression softened. He smiled faintly, and the prisoner, after a moment's hesitation, slowly let his own empty expression melt away. He grinned.

Seth's hand fell, as did the sword. There was a dull sound of sword on flesh, a thud, and then nothing.

They would call him a phantom, a boy thief whose only identifiable feature was the chain he wore around his neck. He moved like a man possessed, knowing no peace until he had accomplished his purpose, fighting against the kingdom of Egypt and all of its injustices. He followed in the same footsteps as a deceased radical thief, and it wasn't long before their names were entwined in many stories. Together, they became something of legend, such that even when Egypt began to crumble against the forces of time, they remained immortal, chained and yet free.


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