Part III: Fears
Yugi, like a great many dragons, had never truly been one to focus on his fears for any longer than directly necessary. When he had finally found it in himself to challenge Atem for courtship, he had been forced to settle it with himself that should he lose, he would allow Atem to find another. He had forced himself to accept the fact that, should he lose, then it was not meant to be that he became his mate.
He had told himself that he would hope then that it would be someone willing to treat him well. He had told himself that he would not fight with him any further. He had told himself not to argue. He had told himself that he would wish him the best, apologize for further upsetting him by ruining his sunbathing, and then he would take his leave.
And he had known that Atem could not be bothered to watch him leave should he have lost. He would not have spoken further, especially when Yugi's initial silence upon confronting him had infuriated him so much.
Atem had been hideously angered by his quiet. When Yugi had found him sunbathing at his favorite river in his territory, the Gandora had used only his mating call to gather his attention. He had not spoken a word to him, for they had been too hard to form in the light of the relief that he'd been overwhelmed with upon finally finding and facing him.
And then, as Atem had risen to his paws, he had understood much of the fear of some of the rumors that surrounded the Sky Dragon.
His origin form was the absolute biggest Yugi had ever seen.
He was far more serpentine then, with huge jutting red wings. He'd had three long smooth claws. His eyes had been cut and narrow like gems but large enough to rival the sun when he'd opened them to stare at him. And his mouths had been so huge as to swallow Yugi in one bite.
And so he had understood then that not all of his lore had been so greatly exaggerated.
He was vicious, yes, by all means Yugi would agree with such an assessment. But he was not as bloodthirsty and violent and hideous in temperament as had been claimed. He had been infuriated by Yugi's refusal to speak, but the Gandora was rather certain he would have loathed him then had he known how enamored he was with him.
Yugi thought it was mostly his foolishness which had granted him much of his forgiveness later. Atem was the only dragon Yugi had ever thought to court and so his lack of experience when it came to challenging another for the right to mate must have been apparent. He had probably seemed stupid standing there before him and performing a mating call and then refusing to speak to him.
But the first thing that would have come out would have been a very loud "I love you!" And he knew for a fact that would have made Atem feel mocked and hurt and angry enough to attack him outright. Yugi could only imagine how terribly he would have flinched when he'd said it. And how Atem might have lashed out and knocked him around a few times.
Atem was not violent by nature.
Yugi knew this, something that many others did not and often refused to acknowledge. He had watched him when he was younger. He had seen him catching fish by their tails and then release them back into the rivers he'd frequented. He had seen him play with his siblings, only every trying to protect himself when he was beaten almost senseless.
Atem was not one to draw blood unless he felt it absolutely necessary. The Sky Dragon would have been furious and he might have lashed out, but he would have been honorable and fair all the while. He would have challenged him to the same game he'd initially spoken of upon accepting his courtship.
When Atem was not given another choice besides fighting until one could no longer move, his first instinct was always to challenge his suitor to a very simple game.
He would invite them to play at the odds of pinning him. He would rather simply pin an opponent than beat them to unconsciousness or death at the worst.
And Yugi knew this only because of how beautiful a soul Atem had been growing up. He'd known that his nature had not changed just because of the circumstances. Atem was still soft and beautiful. And he still had a rather innocent—albeit more stressed and somewhat frustrated—view of life.
The Gandora had been forced to believe with everything in him that the red dragon would still hold such innocence and mercy, no matter how damaged he might have been. Such hope had paid off. It had been amazing and bewildering to the younger dragon. But he had been stunned as well.
He had not expected Atem to truly allow his challenge. He knew that Atem had come to despise Fire Dragons for the most part. They had been abusive and terrible towards him. And Atem had become bitter and resentful towards them due to it.
But he had also known that Atem had been unable to fully recognize every aspect of his body. He had not been able to recognize that he was Wind and Fire Dragon in species. But, more than anything else, he had been absolutely amazed to realize that Atem would accept such a defeat despite his disdain and fears.
Yugi had always known the Sky Dragon to be honorable, able to accept a loss. But he had not been sure that Atem would truly wish to concede to a younger combatant. He had not expected either that the God Dragon would wish to mate with him when he realized he was two species which could potentially ruin him through their physical union.
Sky Dragons mating for life was a blessing and a curse all within itself.
Atem would have been tied to a dragon that could have been abusive and used him simply for status or as a toy to mount endlessly. It was not as if he could stop them should they use physical stress or venom or their heavier weight against him to overpower and subdue him. Atem was a lightweight, no matter how large and powerful he was. And he was violent and able to hold his own, but he grew exhausted as well. He could be overcome and forced to his belly.
He shuddered to think of the various ways Atem's own species could have been used against him. He had been terrified and horrified and altogether disgusted to hear what many of his challengers had said to him before. And the Sky Dragon had become so used to such threats that he'd grown extremely fearful of such outcomes. He had become more cautious, skeptical of anything to do with Yugi's kindness. He had adapted, had made himself far more vicious than he ever had before in order to combat such threats.
So, when he had asked Atem to eat and he had done so, Yugi had considered it a battle won even if it did not, in the light of day, amount to much. He had not had to argue with him endlessly. He had not been forced to attempt to beat him into submission to make him do so—and thank the gods for that, because he did not think he could have ever done so for the smallest of moments. He had not even had to attempt to beg him as he'd initially assumed to do so first.
Atem had seen his face. He had looked into his eyes. And he had offered a treaty in eating as he had so requested of him. And that had been the only reason that Yugi had not attempted to press him to eat more.
Earlier, laying upon the Sky Dragon in such a manner had been something of a victory to him as well. He would not have fought him had Atem simply shrugged him off. Nor would he have fought back had Atem snarled and shook him away using one of his powerful wings. The God Dragon could have used that immense tail he possessed to throw him aside had he so desired.
But he had allowed him to stay.
He had let him drape across his body in such a position as to detect even the slightest of movements from the red male.
And he had known Atem had understood what the position meant. He had known the moment he'd done it that the Sky Dragon had simply humored him in allowing him to remain as he was.
And so, now, as he paced about the river bank and watched Atem swallow a mouthful of fish, Yugi was content for the moment. He was happy to simply think that Atem would remain healthy as long as he continued eating. He was more than pleased to tell himself that it would help to ensure they would win when this fight came to them.
But stress was a troublesome matter in truth.
And he had come to realize that Atem himself was not immune to such a thing in any manner either. It was, however, more easily hidden in that Atem struggled in a very different way than Yugi.
He did not fret. He did not groom his scales or the blades of his long tail.
Rather, he was often silent and Yugi would watch the gem in his forehead become laden with dark shadows like storm clouds. He had, predictably, begun to dwell on thoughts that were much better left alone.
He would twitch.
He would breathe slightly harder.
At times he got up and wandered a few paces.
Sometimes he came to Yugi's side.
Other times he simply left again.
Occasionally the Sky Dragon left him to chase birds which lived on the land near the foot of the village at the base of the imposing mountains. He would even swim for hours and ignore Yugi in the meantime, then shake himself out unhappily and slowly trot over to his side to allow the Gandora to groom him dry.
His resting period was infrequent. But his heavier, labored breathing when he was asleep was incredibly constant. His claws would flex uncomfortably. They would dig into the dirt. His tail would lash violently. Once the end's blades had opened and he had thrashed as if within the grips of a seizure.
Other times he had stared off at the sky for long hours.
Sometimes he peered at the peaks of distant mountains. And, more often than not, he seemed almost to forget that Yugi was ever there with him to begin with. He seemed almost to forge that the Gandora had ever existed. He would spin on him, snarling and snapping his teeth and lashing his tail whenever the black dragon moved after a long period of stillness.
Then he would blink, confused and startled. Atem would take a moment or so to truly recognize the younger male beside him. And then he would settle and relax again. Yugi was more amazed than ever, however, that Atem did not ever lash out at him in his shock.
But those moments had become far too common to be ignored.
And it killed Yugi to know that he had no manner of which to ease Atem's tension. So he was shaky as he watched Atem dip under the water once more. The red dragon disappeared from his sight altogether and Yugi clawed at the soft sand uncomfortably. His scales shuddered and his hearts raced as he drew in a deep breath and shook his head.
The red dragon resurfaced a moment later, swallowing his catch and looking down at the water as he had each time prior. He would measure the distance between himself and the next shadow of shimmering scales beneath the surface. Then he would disappear again, coming up moments later in a new spot mere feet away.
Yugi watched him with bright blue-violet eyes and shivering paws. He would study and stare. And the he would count and pace ever few moments. It made him anxious not to be able to see the red dragon when he disappeared under the water. It was disturbing and striking and he had to continuously suppress trembles at the thought.
He would swallow away oncoming waves of panic.
His worries were too close to the surface, brimming there and making his head spin.
A day had passed. And all but one defensive measure had been proven incapable when Atem had demonstrated why they would not hold. They had, however, dug the pit as Yugi had specified, large enough to catch any heavyweight dragon, the net set to snap downward and snare to a shut over their heads when they plummeted. Atem had moved a boulder to plop into the center to make it collapse, testing it several times. And he had looked amazed when he'd seen the damage the net itself was capable of.
The way it had fallen and knotted upon the rock had made it clear it could snap a dragon's neck from sheer force alone should they struggle. Atem had pounced about it a couple of times, then helped Yugi to reset the trap. He had layered leaves and fallen pine needles about it, marking it with the displaced boulder if only to hold one of the corners of the net in place. The various other traps Atem had disproved the effectiveness of, however.
He had explained to him and even demonstrated the various ways that they would not hold. He had shown him the smallest of faults the younger dragon had overlooked in his desire to find some other way to potentially protect his mate.
Yugi was not worried about one or two dragons.
That was something he could handle with little to no difficulty.
He could take on three at once if he was forced to.
But to face an entire army, with all of them looking to sink their teeth into Atem?
Yugi was not so boastful or foolish to consider that he was capable of such a thing. The feat was too immense. And he was too new to the concept of truly fighting. He had done so a few small times, but not in the manner which this potential war truly required.
Atem was not infallible. It did not matter that he was a God Dragon. None of that could be taken into account when death was a possibility. He could be struck down, no matter how much he might have wished to pretend otherwise.
If all six of his hearts were to be stopped in battle, Atem would not come back…
And Yugi was not sure that he could share a heart with him. Their genetics were not designed for such a thing. They might have held the Wind Dragon traits in common, but he was half Fire. And Fire could not quite aid Sky. The problem was that Fire Dragons were so vast in their genetics that much of it was unbalanced. From what he knew of it, the Fire Dragon part of him prevented him sharing a heart with any species but another Fire.
Had he been simply Wind or Water or Lightning, he could have done so without hesitation. He could share his heart with him the moment he might be harmed or potentially killed. There was no reason he would not have been able to do so had he been any of those three species.
He might have even found himself capable of such had he been an Ice Dragon. They were a subspecies of Water Dragons, after all, though their builds and their mating rituals were entirely different.
The younger dragon flexed his claws in mounting stress. His anxiety was becoming tenfold as Atem raised himself from the water again. Unlike those various other times, however, the Sky Dragon was facing him. His golden eyes were locked entirely on his face, searching and taking note of something Yugi could not detect within himself.
The Gandora shivered and lashed his tail. He lowered his head and scrutinized him, somewhere between shame and frustration with his fearful thoughts. He forced himself to look away after a moment or so, flicking his tongue and ignoring the way his wings twitched. He paced a few more steps and ignored the way that Atem seemed not to have moved in any manner.
The only sound which came from the other dragon was that of his paws touching the sandy bank. Water dripped from his body in sheets and when he shook himself Yugi felt it hit his side though he ignored this as well. He didn't think he knew how to speak to him at the moment. His thoughts were too tumultuous and he was fearful he might say something that he could never take back.
The Gandora blinked when he heard nothing but silence after a moment. It was bewildering and confusing. And he hesitated as he tilted his head and listened. Then he turned his head to look back.
Immediately he yelped. He jumped high into the air and snapped his teeth with huge blue-violet eyes. He settled again instead, huffing out a breath of relief. It was simply the Sky Dragon standing a few inches away from him.
The God Dragon failed to acknowledge him for a long handful of moments. His tail lashed only once. His claws flexed. He stared at him blankly. And then, finally, he stretched and shook himself out to shed away the water on his scales.
"You seem rather irate with me."
Yugi blinked, then bristled at the soft words. "No, no, not with you," he corrected with a growl. He shook his head and looked away again immediately. He flicked his tail and lowered his head a small degree towards the sand. Never with you, he wished he could add. But he doubted Atem would accept such a statement and he did not have the energy to fight him should he reject it. "I am not upset with you, Atem. I'm anxious. The entire thought of an army coming after you makes me nervous."
Atem remained silent for what felt a lifetime. He was so quiet, in fact, that for a long moment Yugi did not think that he could even hear his primary heart beating. And then he strained his ears for the sound of his easy, steady, soft breathing.
The realization struck Yugi that Atem could have left. And it made him stop short, his head snapping back up and turning to look over his shoulder once more. He flexed his claws, lashing his tail nervously, and felt his hearts racing within his chest. The panic was almost enough to swallow him entirely. The idea of his mate departing from his side was terrifying to him.
But then he spotted him again.
Atem had not moved but to sit upon his haunches. From there he had turned away and begun to lick away the water lying upon his huge, dripping wings. They looked deceptively soft but Yugi had seen him use them when he was younger. He had been too young to know his true strength and had been practicing cutting a tree down using his tail. But it had become jammed within the wood halfway through and Atem had initially looked horrified and scared. But then he had blinked, tilted his head, and slammed his nearest wing into the trunk.
The tree had toppled mere seconds later, slamming into another and using its branches to remain somewhat upright. Atem had shaken himself out, inspecting his tail and wing, and then happily trotted away.
Just like now, those red wings had been huge and powerful. But they had been shinier and thicker back then due to his need to grow into them. Now they were thinner, longer and sharper in design. And they were glossy, but it was clear that they were lined with individual scales that one could not have seen when he was younger. But they also appeared softer, with a design that reminded Yugi of a deer with velvet antlers. They did not possess the fuzzy hairs nor did they even seem to, but the sheen of them and the way the light reflected upon them made them look layered enough to give such an appearance.
Yugi watched him groom his wings. His blue tongue was bright against his blood red scales and the stripes of white along the bottom of his black throat and underbelly flexed constantly with the movement. The gem on his forehead was glittering as if the sun were touching the surface of a pool of water. His eyes were clear and untroubled in the slightest. He looked almost as if the thought of a war was just another meal he might wish to catch.
The black dragon was so ruffled by this nonchalance that he nearly snarled at him. He bristled and his wings arched faintly. He thought to thump his tail and glare. But then the impulse passed, the frustration ceasing but the fear remaining.
Atem had raised his eyes and was watching him now. He looked rather content at the moment. And so Yugi felt calmer, but it did not stop the way his hearts raced or the feeling of despair that threatened to swallow him.
He wanted almost to burrow into his flank. Maybe he would lick and nuzzle him or perhaps he would simply rest there. But the simplicity of the way his mate stared back at him did nothing to push away the more persistent lingering fear inside of him.
Because, what if, by some terrible act of the gods, this was the first and only time he would ever come to know this expression on Atem's face?
He almost shook with the thought.
"Tell me about your home," Atem requested without preamble, cutting into his thoughts like teeth in his flank. The red dragon moved to stretch his wings and got to his paws, circling once and then twice and laying on his belly to watch him with his head tipped up and his eyes wide and sparkling.
The image was so innocent and soft. And Yugi was abruptly brought to the memory of a much smaller Sky Dragon.
His golden eyes were larger, more circular than diamond in shape. His wings were just a little too large for his tiny, slender frame. His tail was a light feathery design that was adorable as he ran around, looking much akin a small branch of red fall leaves waving in the wind. His claws were far too large but somehow amazingly perfect for his small body's balance. There was a large blue gem in his forehead almost twice as big as his eyes, the crown of scales cresting his head softer and smoothed out and rounded like dog ears. His cheeks were fatter and softer in definition. His teeth were slightly blunter, his tusks at the cusps of his broad jaws…
Yugi blinked, a smile threatening to come over him.
Looking at Atem now, the dragon in his memory almost seemed completely different and yet appeared entirely similar. The hatchling had been innocent, asking his brothers if they wanted to play fight and still getting up and showing his bright optimism after the game had turned sour for him. The Atem before him now had the same expectant, easygoing expression, one which reassured even if Yugi did not wish to tell him he would not hold such a thing against him.
Yugi wondered for a moment if perhaps Bakura had been right in that way.
Perhaps Atem truly had not outgrown the entirety of his hatchling years.
Because he looked back at him with such soft innocence that it reminded him so much of watching Atem as a dragonet, pouncing about and splashing in the water and grabbing at fish by the tail and releasing them a moment later.
Yugi could not help but smile at him now, the fear draining from him and a soft warmth swelling within him. "My home?" he echoed with a soft, curious expression, searching his face as he tilted his head. "Do you mean the one upon the mountainside or where I lived with my parents before I left to come find you?"
"The latter." Atem flicked his tail dismissively and watched him, eyes warm and attentive. "I know my nesting grounds very well. I can still recall them even now."
The Gandora hummed, nodding slightly as he considered the truth of his words. Atem had been the one to explore rather endlessly when his brothers were not tormenting him. Yugi had watched him pounce from stone to stone and climb into lower hanging branches and leap from tree to tree. He had seen him fumble and fall and land on his belly and immediately leap back to his paws and try again. He had seen him stalk a squirrel and chase a rabbit and even fall over the edge of the slope leading to his nest. He'd gotten up a couple of feet away, stumbling, shaken himself out, looking towards the darkness Yugi was hiding in, and then seemingly sensed his brothers or parents, as he had taken off running again.
Yugi flexed his paws and considered for a moment. They'd been so close to meeting then. He thought Atem would have seen him in the dark, but he supposed it had been the black coloring of his scales to prevent it. Though, he doubted for even a moment that the Sky Dragon would have harmed him. But he'd been shy and scared after all of the warnings his parents had given him and the little God Dragon had not remained for long. Had he ventured further into the den, Yugi did not think he could have stopped himself from leaping out to meet him.
He shook the thought off and looked at him sideways as he picked his words. "Well, my mother was a Fire Dragon so she wanted to return to the Badlands where she had grown up. But my dad being a Wind Dragon wouldn't have been able to survive in the heat like that. The temperature was too harsh. The sunlight was always really overbearing for him and he would complain endlessly when we were in the desert. My mom would get frustrated and huff and swat at him every now and then." He smiled when Atem snorted softly and then watched the God Dragon with brightened eyes. "I just realized I never told you what species they are. My mom is a Red-Eyes and my dad is a Luster."
Atem blinked. Then he raised his head the smallest degree. He had never thought to even ask before about Yugi's lineage. He had not been so much curious about his parents as he had him, and so the thought had not crossed his mind in the slightest. He had not considered the parents who had raised him and helped him to see the world in the unique perspective he possessed. He had only ever thought of the little Gandora in front of him, with his bright blue-violet eyes and gleaming red gems lining his body.
But now it all made sense to him.
Luster Dragons possessed gems all throughout their scales, ensuring that they were some of the absolute toughest Wind Dragons to battle against. The gems did well to reflect physical attacks and even blunt the force of elemental magic. But they were usually varying shades of blue sapphires, so deeply embedded into the scales that it was impossible to find a crack in their armor to utilize against them.
They were considered heavyweight for the Wind Dragon species, with raw power in their frames unmatched by many others. And they possessed keener eyes, with the ability to detect almost any movement in their peripheral faster than others could. They were laden with power, heavily armored, and their senses were much greater than most of their species'. They were land-based, however, and their endurance was short-lived much like that of the Gandora itself.
And the Red-Eyes Black Dragons were some of the absolute strongest Fire Dragons in existence. Their bodies were lined with a great and terrible strength, their heavy weight the only thing allowing them to move beneath the burden of their scales. They had such powerful scales capable of withstanding so much damage that it was all but impossible to kill them.
Their weakness was that they had only two or three hearts because of this evolution, as more would have taken from their ability to support their huge frames. Their claws were deadly and hooked at the ends like talons, their wings were single large slabs of scale as heavy as their bulky bodies. Their jaws were rather narrow, however, but their aim was impeccable.
They were the only species to truly never miss their target.
But, to make it all worse, the Red-Eyes' deadly nature was overseen by a truly brilliant mind. They were not stupid by any stretch of the imagination. So their tougher frames and heavier bodies might have slowed them, but their brilliance and ferocity deflected this weakness.
Atem had thankfully faced off with only a rare few of them. They had admittedly been the most incredibly difficult kills he had ever managed to perform. He had found that only decapitation was truly effective in any manner. And he'd learned that truly it was only their neck that was most vulnerable. Their underbellies were harder to cut through than most species'.
The combination of the raw strength the Luster possessed and the heavy weight and dense armor of the Red-Eyes was truly the perfect combination of genetics for a Gandora.
"My dad is actually larger than average for a Luster Dragon. And it would make him overheat so much that he would have to spend the entire night resting and trying to shake it off. But he's a hundred pounds larger than most of his species and it caused a lot of troubles for him." Yugi flexed his claws and tilted his head, watching him with a small smile on his face. "I was unaffected by the heat, which is why my mom dismissed his frustration at first. But then she saw how sluggish he'd become and how little he could move once the sun set and she realized she had to move us again."
Atem blinked in surprise at the thought. The Badlands were towards the center of the desert, where the rocks and the outcrops and the reddish sand all made the heat far more intense. That was all he could think to explain how it was possible that the heat was so terrible as to weigh Yugi's father down even beneath the dirt.
"So, one night, she woke us both and decided that she had found a nice area of which they could find compromise."
Atem flicked his tail and tilted his head. He flexed his claws and twitched his wings as he watched him. He was confused by the silence Yugi was displaying for the moment. He almost opened his mouth to question him, wondering if perhaps there was something in his memories which threatened to make him uncomfortable.
"So, that night she had found a place that was more along where the desert met a forested kind of region. I guess, really, it was more a jungle than a forest, since there were vines and large spotted cats. There were even little turtles and porcupines and fish and things like that."
Atem blinked and flexed his claws again. He wondered at the idea, tilting his head, and attempting to picture the place. He had never truly seen a jungle for more than a hundred paces, however. The heat had been too hideous to remain nearby, and the air had been distorted about the tree trunks and made him bristle unhappily. He had witnessed such intense disgusting humidity and it had unnerved him to even consider the idea of entering such a place. The heat did not do Atem well if it was not simply from the overhead sun. It made him extremely sluggish and became suffocating to him, much as it must have Yugi's father.
But now he wondered at the joy in his mate's glowing eyes. If Yugi could have come to love such a thing, then perhaps he could as well? Maybe he could make a small den there for them both. But he also had to wonder now if perhaps Yugi would care for such a thing, thinking it astounding or somehow distasteful…
"It was hardly a large jungle. It was probably even more of an oasis than it was an actual jungle, honestly." Yugi smiled when he looked at Atem and the Sky Dragon could see his eyes glowing as they looked at one another. "The water was always so clear and pristine, no matter where you went. You could see the clouds and the sky and every hint of the sun's placement overhead. At night you could count every star and see every constellation and the purple and blue ribbons against the stars. During the day, the fish had beautiful, bright shimmering scales with eyes that were always huge and seemed to be a strange aquamarine or muddy brown color. All along the bottom of the water's edge was covered in long weedy grass that gave way to large trees for miles past it. To the east the sand was golden and slightly reddened, while the west led into the trees where it became more a jungle. Where we settled was along the water's edge because it was coolest and we chose a den carved into a large handful of upraised stones covered in moss and lichen. The trees beyond it were knotted with moss and the branches tangled with drooping vines. The branches were all close together and the soil was soft and black and warm but not scorching hot like the sand in the desert. And the shade was always cool, even if it was heavy from the humidity."
Atem shifted his weight slightly. "You loved this place," he commented softly, flicking his tail and watching him keenly.
"I did," Yugi agreed, nodding.
The red dragon flicked his tail again. He stretched his limbs out and flexed his claws once more. "But you left it," he murmured in a softer, quieter voice, and he thought his tone awed and somewhat flustered, "for me."
Yugi seemed surprised by the statement. He blinked, almost as if bemused by the comment, and then leaned forward to nuzzle his cheek. His eyes closed and he purred softly. "I did. I love you far more than I ever have some little patch of greenery at the edge of a desert." His eyes opened into slits before lowered his head to lick along the edge of his jaw happily. He nudged the corner of his cheek with his beak to make Atem tip his chin up and allow him more room. The Gandora began rubbing his head there now, all but trembling with his growing excitement.
Atem had never truly allowed him to do this before.
And, to his amazement, the Sky Dragon did not seem even remotely tense. When Yugi pulled back slightly to look him over, he was startled as he considered his expression; Atem was not even remotely upset. It was invigorating to realize this.
"We were situated closest to the water so that my father could catch prey. But my mom hated anything to do with the water, including the fish. She didn't like the reflections as much as I did and she hardly seemed to care for the way the fish were almost always swimming under the surface." Yugi frowned slightly at the thought, considering it. "But my dad could catch fish more easily than he could anything else. So she would eat whatever it was that he caught and was really good about not letting him see how much she actually despised it. She loved to hunt the larger game. And she would slip off at night for a few hours in order to hunt in the desert before dragging it back to the den when the sun would begin to rise."
Atem had begun flexing his claws and kneading at the soft sand. A deep sigh left him, and Yugi could feel every muscle within his body moving with the actions. When the Sky Dragon tipped his head up the smallest degree, Yugi ran his tongue over his jaw and nudged gently.
"We would eat our fills and then leave the rest for the smaller predators that might come through. It was mostly the big cats and sometimes occasionally a pack of dogs. It was easy coexistence with all of the animals there. And my father could move around again, even if he still sometimes complained that the heat was burdensome and the humidity made him unable to hunt larger prey. My mom loved to debate with him about how much better he thought the forest was than the jungle or the desert."
Atem raised a paw that was outstretched towards Yugi's broad shoulder nearest him. His claws lightly scraped upon his scales, soft and delightful in touch. He flexed his toes and tried to grab at him, Yugi knew, but the Sky Dragon could not get a grip to pull him closer. His paw slipped from his shoulder and fell to the sand again. Yugi laughed softly, unable to help himself, and smiled brightly when Atem hissed unhappily and tried a second time with similar results. Yugi shifted closer to him, lowering himself to lie down beside him, and was surprised when the Sky Dragon rubbed against him affectionately.
The God Dragon got close enough that he could almost climb atop him for mating had he simply tried. But, instead, the red male raised his chin a little higher and ran the underside of it upon the top of Yugi's head. He continued purring, the soft vibrations making Yugi almost tremble with delight. The action tickled him and the combination of the affection he showed in doing so was all but overwhelming to him.
"You are full of surprises," Atem murmured softly. His claws continued to flex and Yugi nearly laughed. "You're truly full of them."
The Gandora barely suppressed his growing need to tremble with exuberance. "I was taught compromise at a young age. Any my parents worked well to show me exactly what it was that I would need to consider when I came to see about mating with you," he said softly. His hearts were pounding within his chest.
Atem moved his paw to lie upon his shoulder. His purr became deeper, making Yugi almost vibrate in turn from the sheer force. He laughed as the red male pressed him down into the dirt and rubbed more insistently against him. The Sky Dragon licked at his wings, nipping seconds later at the sharp scales lining his back. Atem's paw there kneaded upon his flesh, flexing gently to hook his claws into his scales and then release seconds later. Then he ran his tongue over his neck in a fashion that Yugi would have taken for mounting preparation had it not been for his species.
"You're such a beautiful little dragon," Atem commented softly. He nuzzled his shoulder again, nipping at his cheek and nuzzling beneath his jaw seconds later. Yugi trembled, further elated, and the red dragon groomed at his face and neck once more. The younger dragon found himself shaking and lashing his tail back and forth, mimicking a dog in his happiness.
"I love you." Yugi laughed as Atem began to groom him more rigorously, blue-violet eyes bright with affection. The Gandora licked at his cheek. "I love you so much."
The Sky Dragon seemed to pause for a moment, his actions ceasing altogether. Then he blinked, eyes half-hooded before he faced him more pointedly. The purr lessened slightly but did not cease in the slightest, though now the Gandora realized that he was incredibly unnerved. It took him a moment to understand, as he'd told him before that he loved him and it made no sense for Atem to feel so surprised and shaken now.
But then he realized it was not the fact he'd spoken the words. It was the fact that he himself had no such emotional attachment. Clearly he could not tell him the same and that made him uncomfortable and unsure.
The seconds passed, dragging themselves out rather slowly.
Atem had not stopped staring at him in that time, his eyes unreadable and his face expressionless. The smile had disappeared long before and he looked incredibly confused and bewildered. Then, abruptly, something seemed to clear within his thoughts and he went back to grooming, licking along his scales and particularly along the top of his neck.
But the rubbing did not continue.
And the distance between them seemed like a void.
"My brothers will return in a few days."
The statement was violent in the way it drew the Gandora from his thoughts. He had forgotten about them for that brief moment. And the agreement was slow in returning to his thoughts. He blinked, nearly snarling with dismay, and then stared at him with widened eyes.
The Sky Dragon had returned to the task of licking at his shoulder, ignoring him now. And, as Yugi stared blankly, the licking became far more persistent. His paw moved from his shoulder and Atem moved the smallest inch closer to him, nipping at the joint.
A loose scale was pulled from him. It was dulled in color, gray rather than glossy black any longer. When it dropped to the ground, Yugi looked over at where it was dislodged from. Where it had been was a glossy, shining black scale as brilliant as the night sky. But it was not the scale he truly cared about.
When he turned his head, worried, Atem seemed to be searching relentlessly for another. He had not seen him so distressed before, as the golden eyes were narrowed and a shade darker and his gem was cloudy and almost completely uniform sapphire blue. He watched the Gandora uncomfortably for a moment.
Had he been so stressed that he had plucked his own scales beforehand? Maybe that night of their first mating Atem had not been merely grooming his wing. Maybe he had been plucking them forcefully in order to distract himself from speaking to him…
The red dragon continued searching for a moment, looking confused when he found nothing else. "I am not sure that I truly care to help them," he finally stated, turning to him with darkened eyes. They looked almost rustic orange, like the dying embers of a human's fire.
Yugi shook his head immediately. He wanted to rub muzzles with him. He wanted to lick his face. He wanted to tell him it was okay. He wanted to remind him he loved him. But he knew all of these things would do him no good.
Atem would grow further unhappy. He would become miserable…
"But you would."
Yugi blinked, startled, and wondered for the first time how much it was that Atem was trying to change his own personality for the sake of their union. He shivered and flexed his claws, unsure of what more to do. And he did not have the words to tell him that he did not need to do so. But to bring it up would only upset Atem more, he was certain, and he refused to do such a thing.
"Atem, I worry about this army moving closer and getting to you," he answered with a firm shake of his head. "Of course I would help your brothers if it meant that your safety was ensured. Beyond that, your brothers are free to suffer. I see it as their dues."
Atem shook his head.
Yugi blinked, puzzled. "No?"
"You cannot tell me that you lack sympathy towards Kisara," the Sky Dragon stated quietly, his eyes narrowing the faintest degree. He did not look happy in the slightest as they stared at one another. "I saw your expression when I sneered at him about his nest."
"I… I don't like the idea of another dragon being enslaved or mounted forcefully. It…it reminds me too much of you." The declaration was met with wide, startled eyes. "There were so many of your suitors who wished to do the same to you. And it scared me then just like it scares me now."
Abruptly the God Dragon pulled himself into a seated position. His eyes had grown sharper than ever before, darkened with something melancholic and cold. The Gandora blinked up at him in confusion, startled and unsure.
"What if… What if I can't protect you and you end up in a similar situation?"
Atem blinked, then slowly shook his head. "I won't."
"How do you know?" Yugi asked in something of a frantic tone, eyes wide and maybe somehow slightly hopeful. "How can you be so sure?"
The Sky Dragon remained quiet for a few long moments. He studied him with dark eyes and drew in a deep breath as he shook himself out. But Yugi moved to sit up, staring at him with an increasingly fearful expression in his eyes. He did not like the way the Gandora's eyes had flipped and dilated to pinpricks within his immense blue-violet orbs.
"Truthfully, I do not. I cannot know. If I am truly a God Dragon, future sight was not gifted me. Perhaps Jaden or Yusei might share such an ability alongside the Leviathan. But it is not me who knows the events to come. But, even if I might lack such comprehension, I trust in you and your capabilities. And I know well what it is that I am capable of."
Yugi blinked at him, then shivered with a somewhat horrified expression. He shook his head slowly, eyes wide and his tone becoming laden with confusion and bewilderment. "If you are a God Dragon? Atem…"
A small hint of shame came over the Sky Dragon but he made a point not to show it as he watched Yugi more closely. The Gandora looked hideously upset by the statement, as if he might snarl at him at any moment. "I simply mean to say that I do not have each and every strength and ability that they are rumored to have. I am not capable of seeing the future. I cannot influence another's thoughts or decisions in any way. I am incapable of the prediction of death. I am not even able to further distort my genetics in order to procure eggs for you and—"
Yugi lunged, immediately on his paws and snarling low in his throat. Their beaks were mere inches form each other and his lips were peeled far back enough that each ridge of his teeth was bright and gleaming. "Distort your genetics? I would never ask such a thing of you! Why would you ever think to attempt changing yourself for me?"
Atem shook his head slowly, unnerved by his anger. "I didn't. And I have no plans to do such a thing. I merely mean to say that I cannot do what those legends claim. It makes me question this status everyone claims I possess. I could simply be a Sky Dragon with two mouths for all the power I have."
The Gandora bristled, quivering in his rage. "You are missing a bigger, far more important detail, Atem! It is not the God Dragon's magic that dictates their status. It—"
"I do not wish to fight with you." The shame was eating away at his insides now. He had upset Yugi to the point of glaring and trembling. And he hated himself for it as he looked away again swiftly and stared at a small stone near his toe. "I truly do not care to argue. I…I should never have spoken. I apologize."
In an instant Yugi found his anger abandoning him. The demure reaction shook him to his core. Atem would not look at him any longer. And now Yugi realized that it must have taken all of his courage to simply attempt to bring such a conversation to light. The Gandora leaned forward to run his tongue along the bottom of the Sky Dragon's chin, tapping him gently with the tip of his beak.
"Atem, my sweet bright sky," Yugi mumbled, licking him again and closing his eyes. "It's okay."
The God Dragon failed to answer him.
"So then I had to tackle him and we both went right over the log and straight into the water." Atem blinked and considered him with an amused sideways glance as Yugi huffed loudly and shook his head. "And then, of course, I panicked. I screamed and panicked and lost the stupid wildebeest after that. My mom was absolutely horrified and my dad could not stop laughing at me."
The Sky Dragon watched him in bewilderment for a moment. His parents had seemed genuinely caring and affectionate towards him when he had told him stories formerly. So why was it that his father might have laughed at him rather than helped?
"The wildebeest escaped while I was screaming and flailing." Yugi paused and bounced in place for a moment. His eyes were brighter than ever despite the clear frustration within them. "My dad couldn't stop laughing. Because the pool was just high enough to touch my elbows."
The Sky Dragon absorbed this statement, blinked, and then laughed so hard he couldn't breathe. Yugi huffed again, pouting in front of him with a shake of his head and then raised a paw to cover his face. His golden eyes bore into his and he could not stop himself from laughing harder at his frustration.
Then he shook his head and drew in a deep breath, snickering, "Did you truly?"
Yugi pulled his paw away, lashing his tail. His eyes were wide and glowing with warmth as they looked at one another. He was smiling at him, embarrassed and shy, and tilted his head the smallest degree. "I did, and I was still flailing when my dad reminded me I could just stand up. My mom started laughing after that. And, oh, I was so upset, Atem." He paused, huffing softly, and shook his head more firmly. Then he bounced up and down in place, growling. "That wildebeest was long gone by the time I got to the bank again."
Atem chuckled and nudged him gently with his muzzle. "I would have been as well," he teased softly. His easy words were underlined with a soft and gentle rumble. He closed his eyes and nudged him a second time, rubbing his head against his shoulder for a moment. "And that was the day you failed to learn how to swim."
Yugi laughed and licked his head. "Maybe you could teach me, huh?" he asked hesitantly. He watched curiously as the Sky Dragon blinked and looked him over intently. Atem chortled again, turning away as a deep rumble akin a purr left his lungs. The Gandora licked him again and nudged him gently in the cheek.
"If you should so truly desire," he agreed. He was smirking at him, considering him with a tilted head and deep golden eyes. Then he licked his forehead in turn and trotted past him a few feet. Abruptly he turned around, eyes dancing and smirk turning into one of pure laughter. "Well, you lost live prey. But there was one time when I lost dead prey."
"Dead prey?" Yugi echoed, curious and puzzled as he considered him. How could one lose dead prey? He had never heard of such a thing before.
"Mmhmm," Atem said simply, nodding and turning away from him. "I tried to take a carcass from one of the alligators."
Yugi blinked and froze, his eyes growing wide with shock.
Alligators and crocodiles were dangerous!
Atem knew that!
Why would he have ever done something so foolish?
"It had moved away and I was extremely hungry. My side was still hurt and I could not hunt properly. So I decided that rather than waste the energy in an attempt to hunt that would have surely failed, I would steal instead. So I crawled down along the banks and went for it. The gazelle or deer…or whatever it was, had been stowed between a couple of large rocks near the bank but also at least a few feet into the water. So I grabbed the leg closest me and started to tug it out."
Yugi blinked at him, tilting his head and considering him curiously. He could not help but picture the small red dragon, fumbling about in his battle form and attempting to steal the food. But he remembered more than ever that hideous jarring red wound, blackened along the edges, he was sure, and perhaps even oozing yellow pus.
Atem had begun snickering, clearly ignoring this part of the image he'd painted in his mate's mind. "Oh, the alligator saw me and came back to get it. But I was so hungry and angry that I bristled and snarled at it. But it only took me spitting at it. Having two mouths and snarling like I was had to have been intimidating, as it turned and fled almost immediately. So I went back to trying to get it onto the sand to eat. But I stepped extremely close to a frog. And it croaked."
Yugi blinked, tilting his head. Atem had paused and turned to him with glowing eyes.
"So I screamed."
He processed this, then laughed and reached up a paw to cover his beak. He tried to stop laughing as Atem beamed at him and smirked in amusement. Then he straightened and smiled at the Sky Dragon in turn. "You're just making fun of me now."
"No, no, not at all," Atem denied in a soft voice, shaking his head and watching him. He smiled wider and studied him for a moment. "When I screamed, the alligators swam away in a panic. And I wound up turning tail because of the frog."
Yugi couldn't help it when he barked out a huff and shook his head, shocked by the admission. "No!" he snickered, breathing out hard and struggling to find his breath. "There's absolutely no way."
The God Dragon smiled at him again, then turned away and trotted a few steps ahead before flicking his wings. He circled around to face him again, chucking, "Needless to say, it did not do well for my pride." He flicked his wings again and Yugi wondered, despite himself and how untroubled Atem seemed, if his laughter had hurt him in any manner. "But I suppose it did teach me to consider my surroundings much more than I did back then."
Yugi shook his head, watching him for a moment. "You would have learned such a thing regardless," he murmured, searching his face. "It just takes a little maturing."
Atem blinked, then snorted loudly and growled in a playful manner. He crouched for a moment, clawing at the dirt, and wiggled his rump, but did not leap at him. "Oh, please, Yugi, I am not upset about it now! But I was back then. I was terribly upset for days afterwards. So, to prove myself better, I decided to hunt frogs. But when I would chase them, they would disappear into the puddles and I didn't want to harm them by digging them up. The one time that did not happen, however, the frog landed on my back. And it croaked so I panicked all over again." He straightened and tucked his wings into his sides, stepping forward lazily. "I almost screamed again, but then I took off instead, and when I did I fell over and decided that I would rather lie about and pout than try to better myself."
The younger dragon felt a steady warmth filling his chest.
"So, after about two more days of sulking, I decided that a frog was far too small to warrant such fear from me." He raised his head, looking proud for a moment, though he was laughing again. "And so, I approached another, caught it between my paws, and then I considered eating it but it looked gross so I just knocked it around once and trotted off feeling victorious."
Yugi could have quivered for all the satisfaction he felt at that moment.
Even wounded and exhausted from the various beatings he had endured from his siblings beforehand, even starving, Atem had not lost his affection for simple play. He had not lost that sense of innocence and mercy.
"What is that look in your eyes about?" Atem questioned curiously. He had tilted his head, eyes narrowed the faintest degree, and he seemed to be attempting to puzzle though the emotion.
"Just… Oh, I wish I could have seen it."
Yugi did not know how he was meant to explain his joy or the sensation of being proven correct like this. He loved it more than ever. And he adored the fact that Atem still retained his nature even now.
So he simply butted Atem in the shoulder with his head and forced himself to suppress the purr which budded in his primary lungs. And Yugi did not think that he could phrase such a realization to his mate without sounding like that disgusting brother of his…
The comment was so quiet that Yugi almost could not hear it. The black dragon pulled away just enough to consider him but the Slifer did not appear amused any longer. It was startling to him to see how much his eyes had darkened and how cloudy the gem on his forehead had become. He seemed troubled by the very idea, and there was a faint glimmer of shame within his eyes that made Yugi's hearts ache and tremble within his chest.
The Sky Dragon snorted and watched him for a moment.
Yugi did not have time to prepare. A paw came forward and swatted into his shoulder. The action jostled him nearly off his paws. He stumbled, eyes wide. And then the second blow knocked him over.
The Gandora, startled and somewhat affronted, huffed. He kicked his legs and twisted his hips to regain his balance. He went to snap at him, confused and bewildered. But then he stopped immediately again, startled.
Atem had come closer. His muzzle was at his chest. And his bottom mouth opened wide. He aimed it at his chest plate. And his eyes glowed almost aggressively. And, had Yugi know not known him better, had he not trusted him, he would have lashed out viciously. He would have drawn blood and snarled. He would have bitten into his flesh and torn at him.
But he knew well enough that Atem had not meant him harm in any manner. Had he wished to, he would have ended him before he had even looked up. Instead the Sky Dragon was simplistic in the way he aimed his jaws. After a moment he snapped them shut, blinking. Then he stuck his nose into the gem on Yugi's chest. He growled and his tongue flicked out over it. And, finally, when this gained no response, he turned his head. His beak butted gently into his underbelly.
Yami still did not move. And Atem raised a paw to flip him over onto his back. A paw pressed into his chest. And his mouth lowered to his belly again. Yugi kept his paws tucked to his belly and his head turned as he watched him.
The two males studied each other.
And then, shakily, Atem mumbled, "It is…rather…overwhelming to realize how much trust you have bestowed upon me." He paused for a moment. Then he lunged at him. He loomed over his throat, snarling. His top mouth snapped open and shut. He bore his teeth against his flesh. And then he breathed roughly outwards. The Gandora still did not move. And the distress seemed to grow for the God Dragon. "Don't you ever worry?"
The younger dragon tilted his head. His eyes grew softer and he moved to place a paw between the scythes of keratin that jutted from his primary chest plate. Yugi turned his head to look at him, smiling. "I worry about you, but never whether you will harm me," he stated simply. He searched his eyes for a moment. And Atem peered back at him with dark, glowing golden eyes and he almost trembled as he looked him over. Atem seemed to be staring through him. "You haven't given me a reason to think you're going to turn your claws and fangs on me."
Atem huffed and leaped over and away from him. He was a few feet ahead when Yugi scrambled to his paws and followed him.
"Do you ever sometimes wonder if perhaps the world could be better?" the Sky Dragon asked softly, eyes faraway and voice somewhat curt. "Do you ever consider that maybe God Dragons are more an ideal than a truth?"
"What?" Yugi bristled, slowing a step. He hesitated, then could not stop himself rushing to his side with a snarl. "Why are you asking me this? Is this because of what your brothers said about this army?"
Surely Atem was not so worried about that? He had seemed so deliberately sure of him just the day before. He had seemed so certain that he was capable of winning. And, no matter the odds, Yugi promised himself that at the very least he would make sure Atem made it out alive. If there was nothing else, he would ensure this.
The God Dragon shook his head now, stopping and facing him completely now. Yugi stopped in front of him. And Atem studied him for a moment, eyes glinting and sharp. "It is nothing to do with these dragons, nor some foolish rumors of a higher species to be born. I have been having these thoughts for a great many years, far beyond what you have witnessed of me. I grew up wondering."
There was a small flash of fear within Yugi's eyes now, sharp and glinting. And abruptly Atem felt shame course through him, drenching his insides like water soaking his scales. His hearts ached and his chest tightened. Slowly the Sky Dragon forced himself to turn away again, wings drooping if only slightly.
"You do not understand, Yugi. When you are raised to be a force more powerful than your peers and perhaps even nature itself, supposedly a dragon with powers that are meant to be feared and revered, it tends to cause much wonder. It has the strength to cause one to question the very reality of their existence, from the moment they were born to the moment they might die. More than once I attempted to broach the topic with my own parents and they would not speak of such things."
"Because it's not true!" Yugi hissed loudly. He thumped his tail heavily enough that it startled Atem and the Sky Dragon whipped his head around to stare at him in surprise. Yugi was glaring at him defiantly, sinking his claws into the dirt and snarling low in his throat. "It's not—"
"You seem almost more upset that I speak of such things than even the return of my siblings."
The black dragon faltered, eyes wide with shock. He blinked, stunned, and then watched him with a somewhat crestfallen expression. Atem did not like such a look on his face but he could not help but continue, ignoring the urge to simply pull him closer and dismiss the subject. He wanted to know…
"It's a very lonely thing when you are told that you alone have such power and tenfold the strength of your larger, older brothers. And knowledge did nothing to shield me from Seto's spite or Bakura's hatred or Malik's disdain. It did not stop them. It fueled them more than ever, in fact."
Yugi shivered and his expression became slightly stricken. Atem did not have to guess to know what the surge of shame that came through his eyes meant as well. He was ashamed of himself, of how foolish and innocent he truly was at his core. He had not meant to seem so young to Atem, and now he was afraid of how the God Dragon might feel in turn.
Atem tilted his head, wondering at the Gandora's thoughts for a moment. He wondered if Yugi truly did think he thought him foolish for his exuberance and defiance. In truth, however, it was one of the brightest expressions he had ever seen on another's face when it came to his regard and he adored it. It was hard to think of even a moment beyond his parents' and occasionally a bright laugh from Timaeus that showed such excitement. Bakura had only shown that when he'd knocked Atem off his paws and the God Dragon had been all but unable to move in his exhaustion. And Seto had only shown it when he'd clawed his side open and laughed in delight. And Malik…he'd never seen that expression on his golden brother's face.
"Jaden and Yusei were revered from birth and their siblings were very giving towards them. And the Leviathan was powerful enough to conquer an entire Clan of dragons within twenty years of being born. Such a feat is impressive beyond measure." Atem lashed his tail and flicked his tongue, growling in distress. "I cannot boast such a thing! And none of them have a second mouth, either, Yugi."
"No," Yugi agreed, voice spiteful, "because the Leviathan was born larger than usual and without wings of any kind. And Yusei has harder scales than usual for a simple Ice Dragon. And Jaden has the ability to influence those around him. But you have a second mouth, a tail that can be utilized as an extremely deadly weapon, greater control over the elements and your magic, and a very powerful reputation for killing and defending yourself."
Atem blinked, tilting his head a fraction. He narrowed his eyes into slits as Yugi shivered and slammed his tail forcefully into the dirt once more. Anger made his eyes as sharp as his terrible hooked claws and Atem bristled faintly at the sight.
"You are the only Slifer dragon with two mouths and that gem on your forehead. You're the only one with a tail like that! And you have five claws rather than just four. You're a Sky Dragon! Do you know how rare it is that a Sky Dragon is to be considered a God Dragon, Atem? Most often they're Lightning or Wind or Water Dragons. There's only ever been one other Sky Dragon! And never before a Slifer!"
Atem stared at him rather blankly, then turned away again with his eyes on the ground. "Yes, I am aware. But it does make me feel better to know such a thing. It could simply be a birth defect of some kind. Yusei can sense disasters. Jaden can manipulate thoughts and feelings. The Leviathan can cast illusions and warp another's perception as well as see events in still water. And I? I cannot do any of those things. I cannot even truly summon storms at will as Shadi could. Not to mention that he was capable of healing almost any wound to be presented him. I cannot do that either…"
Yugi bristled, stepping towards him furiously, trembling with his anger when he got close to Atem's face. "You measure yourself by other's accomplishments?" he spat softly. His tail thumped once more. "Truly, Atem? Not by your own paws and abilities?"
The Sky Dragon raised his eyes from their focal point on the ground. He had been staring at a small, smooth pebble for the last handful of seconds and now he remembered something distantly in the back of his mind. He blinked and looked at Yugi slowly, thoughts churning.
"Accomplishments? What have I done that others have not?" he sneered bitterly, shaking away his distracted thoughts. He narrowed his eyes further and flicked his tongue. "I fought suitors off and accumulated a number of skeletons to scatter about my home range. I have a second mouth. My tail is utilized as a weapon. I manipulate weather patterns for the sake of making sure the world is never relinquished of its natural weather, as is the same responsibility of every Sky Dragon. I fled my home when I was younger than was natural. Which of those few things am I truly meant to be so terribly proud of, Yugi?"
But Atem could not find it within himself to wait for an answer and so he turned and trotted off without a second glance.
Yugi wished more than anything that he could see into Atem's mind. The Sky Dragon had not spoken to him for two days now beyond answering questions and occasionally commenting that he needed to move when he'd burrowed too hard into his side. He'd wanted more than ever to convince him to open up to him, but any approach he could think of seemed to waver when he went to put it into action. The problem was that Atem had eyes like a god angered and sometimes he looked at Yugi with a cold expression that made him bristle in alarm.
When he spoke, however, there was none of that frost. He simply said whatever he felt he needed so softly that the words were nearly inaudible. And there was heaviness to his voice that it weighed upon Yugi terribly. There had not been a hint of his former lighthearted affection in those golden eyes.
The silence was deadly between them. It tore through Yugi like claws. He could not rest with such discontent. He twitched. He flexed his claws. He shuddered. He swallowed away whimpers.
And he knew that Atem noticed all these things.
For sometimes he looked at him with concern. But others he merely eyed him.
And Yugi realized that there was some part of him that was entirely closed off. Somewhere in his mind something had clicked and the God Dragon had either failed to recover from it or he'd decided to shield it away from his discovery. But, either way, Yugi did not know how he was meant to reach out to him.
And he could not find the words for an apology…
"How long has it been?"
Yugi faltered, confused and stunned for a moment. He blinked, turning his head in bewilderment. Atem was still lying at his side, eyes on the pine trees further ahead of them. He looked almost as if he were half-asleep had it not been for the way he curled his claws into the dirt and ignored Yugi pointedly.
"Six days," he finally mumbled, a sinking feeling in his chest. "It's been six days, Atem."
The God Dragon was quiet for a moment. "Then I expect that they will arrive tonight." As he had for the past two days, the Sky Dragon refused to look over at him. And he did not even feign the slightest bit of attention towards Yugi in any way.
And, abruptly, an hour or so later, he got to his paws and shook himself out. He glanced at him only long enough to say, "I will be back by sunset" and disappeared in a brisk trot before taking to the air. Yugi had barely been able to watch him for more than a moment before he disappeared into a red speck against the skyline.
Yugi would have followed him—or at least tried, for he still wasn't the best at flying and heights still made him nervous—had it not been for the misery that had come over him. The silence and state of unease that Atem seemed to have fallen into had all but shattered his hearts. And, where Yugi would have immediately followed him another time, for those hours he'd been alone, he had merely wallowed. But mostly he'd prayed to every God Dragon past that Atem would somehow be okay.
But, true to his word, the three of them came just as the sun sank and the moon was rising. Atem was seconds later than them, shaking himself out and holding food in both of his mouths. The fresh kill was still dripping blood, which spoke of the urgency he'd treated the mission of gathering prey.
He shot them a dismissive look and then hurried towards Yugi, ignoring them entirely. The glance shot them was received with bristles and awkward snarls before Seto hurried forward a few steps.
"Well?" he demanded icily. His long claws flexed and his simple, dark-colored tail lashed in the dirt. He twitched, pacing several steps forward, and then growled softly in annoyance.
Yugi wondered if he might attack and so readied himself to get up.
But Atem never turned away from him now. He did not even bother to give his brothers a sense of acknowledgment. Instead the red dragon took a seat in front of Yugi, as if shielding him from them entirely. And he lowered his head, opening both mouths to drop the deer meat he'd been carrying. When Yugi made no move towards it, Atem nudged it with his beak, staring at him with a slightly concerned expression.
"Atem, this is not something to be taken idly," Malik commented in a furious tone. He was glaring at Atem but he seemed more confused and anxious than anything. He was shifting his weight awkwardly and he seemed uncomfortable for the moment. "He's moved his army ahead of time. Our allies have said that he's moving faster than we were prepared for."
"Eat." The word was snarled low in his throat, vicious and cold. Yugi's head snapped up and he blinked, eyes wide and startled. Atem sat as a looming figure before him, lips drawn back to show the ridges of his white teeth, golden eyes burning. When Yugi failed to move, the Sky Dragon lowered his head to nudge at the meat with his beak again. "You have not eaten in two days now. You require more sustenance than I. Now eat."
"Atem," Seto snarled.
"He's not answering because he doesn't wish to admit to his cowardice," Bakura sneered in amusement. Yugi blinked and turned his attention to him for a split second. Atem twitched, but it was more by way of dropping a wing to shield the Hunter from Yugi's line of sight. The Gandora obediently turned his attention back to the God Dragon. "Isn't that right, Atem?"
Yugi bristled, moving to get to his paws. He would box the insolence out of the bastard—
There was a long, low, soft hiss. The Gandora blinked and his head snapped back to Atem once more. Confusion made him nearly bristle in bewilderment and he stiffened. The red dragon's eyes had grown colder than he'd ever seen them, unrelenting and furious as they bore into his.
"I told you to eat."
The ferocity in those golden eyes made the younger dragon quiver finely before slowly turning back to the deer meat in front of him to gulp it down as he had insisted. The Gandora swallowed both chunks of food and flicked his tongue along the outside of his mouth. And, only when he was done did Atem move to lie beside him, plopping down close enough that their sides brushed. His breathing was even and lazy when he turned to his brothers.
"I seem to recall saying that I would help you on the seventh day." He flipped one of his paws over to lick at the blood that crusted his claws and Yugi was abruptly aware that Atem had probably had trouble getting hold of the deer he'd caught. Perhaps he had been too big or maybe his initial attack had failed. Either way, he was still dirty from the hunt and that made Yugi feel that perhaps he had run out of time to clean himself and so hurried back. No doubt he would have had more trouble hunting on land than he did underwater. Atem mostly relied on fish and sometimes larger birds. It was not often that he hunted an animal on four legs…
"I am rather certain, in fact, that I spoke such words."
Seto lashed his tail, studying them both. In the nightly shadows, Atem looked somehow hideously like an animal that meant to kill him rather than offer aid. There was something great and terrible in his eyes, and the glint of his immense teeth, the jagged edges of his long claws, made him nearly shiver. But somehow he seemed to have lost much of that spirit that Seto had so despised growing up.
There was no abundance of warm strength. In its place was a terrible cold power that was frigid enough to make Seto feel his bones tighten and freeze beneath his flesh. There was something eternal, unnatural and godly there that he had never recognized there before…
Even when Atem had come to blows with him upon his entering his territory, he had not displayed this coldness. The red dragon had been silent for the most part, listening quietly to his pleas. And, to his shock, he'd looked almost friendly before he'd launched himself and attacked him relentlessly. He'd clawed his face open and pinned him, snarling low in his throat that if he should ever return he'd rip each heart out slowly and watch him writhe on the ground. He'd spat at him to leave and never return and he'd told him in no uncertain terms that if he bothered him again he'd rip him to pieces.
But he had not been so cold then. He had still had warmth in his eyes, though not familial. It had been power, one that was beyond anything Seto could have hoped to touch. He was full of the heat that hatred granted someone, the strength of a creature wronged and pleased with the turn of the tides.
"I assumed that being earlier would give us a better advantage. The army has moved sooner than expected and we'll need to leave around sunrise instead. If we do that…"
"You think a matter of surprise will do us well to win? No, Seto." Atem was quiet in his denial. But the effects of these words were enough to shake the Felgrand noticeably. And he was not the only one. He saw Malik stiffen. He saw Bakura lash his tail. Yugi was staring at his mate with wide eyes. "I am sure that this dragon knows who it is that you are related to and if he claims that he has fought against me and come out of it victorious, I have no doubt it will come as no shock to any of his army that I will be there."
But it was a shock to Seto that he had agreed in the slightest. The truth of it was that he had expected him to snort and kill him then and there. It was stunning to him that Atem had even stopped Yugi from murdering them all as it was. When he'd killed Bakura, he had not done so permanently. And it was amazing to him that Atem had even shown such mercy as it was.
He'd been gambling when he'd returned here. He had been sure Atem would keep his promise to kill him painfully by removing all six of his hearts in a slow and torturous manner. He had been desperate, however. And he could not imagine going into this war without the aid of someone he knew to be stronger than him. Malik and Bakura were powerful, yes, but not in the way that Atem himself was. Even Seto knew this. He would never have told him so but he had known if he had wanted even the smallest sliver of a chance of getting Kisara back, it would require Atem himself rather than any of the others.
He'd have bet Atem against any of the dragons within the army they'd scraped together. And he knew the God Dragon would have come out on top of it. He was resilient and the rumors surrounding him painted him to be a great and terrible beast of power that could never be matched. If that were the truth of it…
"Do you ever think that darkness might do better for battle?" Malik asked slowly. He had tilted his head and Seto could see an understanding in his eyes as well. He had sensed that same primordial energy and it had made him twitch and flick his tail uncomfortably. "We do not know what species he truly is. He's too strange looking. None of us recognized it. And no one who might have known him before has said anything. He might not be able to see as well as us or Yugi in the darkness."
Atem dropped his paw into the dirt, no longer grooming himself. His head snapped to Seto now, eyes sharp and cold as they drilled into his form. The Felgrand bristled, unnerved as he shifted his weight and tried his hardest not to snarl his unease. "You truly mean to tell me that he usurped you in daylight?"
Seto looked away, unable to meet his eyes. He flexed his claws and wished for a moment that instead he were trying to endeavor himself to Yugi. At least the Gandora did not look as if he might box him upside the ears right about that moment. But then again, the Gandora was a wild animal, vicious one second and loving the next. He was probably a beast that could hold his own against that monster of a dragon if he were to try…
He looked slowly towards the black dragon. The blue-violet eyes were trained on his mate, studying the Sky Dragon in puzzlement. And Seto had the abrupt thought that perhaps Yugi was the single biggest threat to his youngest brother. He was powerful and, while he did not have the endurance to match him blow for blow, he was sure that one day Yugi would be strong enough to take any hit offered him and simply shrug it off—
His brother was all but roaring now. He was clawing at the dirt and spitting, flicking his tongues. And Seto was all too aware of the fact that he was staring at him now with such intensity because he'd been looking at the Gandora to begin with. Atem was protective of him, he realized. He was far more protective of him than he was even himself.
The thought made him nearly shudder.
He hoped to the gods no fool was ever unlucky enough to upset the Gandora.
Atem would wipe them from the face of the earth in a heartbeat.
He shook it off. "It was within twilight hours," he bit out.
"It doesn't matter," Yugi intervened abruptly, sharply, cutting away what potential remained for an argument between the youngest and eldest siblings. All four Sky Dragons turned to him now, and Bakura was amazed.
Yugi looked somehow gaunt within the shadows of the night. He looked—incredibly—as if somehow he had come to lose weight, though the Hunter could not tell why or how he might have done so. And, to his shock, the Gandora seemed to even realize this. For the black dragon eyed him with an expression that told him he'd skin him should he come close enough.
Bakura snorted and flicked his tail, dismissing him. And then his eyes flickered to Atem. Whatever power he'd seen formerly had disappeared at his mate's interruption. Now he looked somehow ethereal and otherworldly and yet, as he always had as well, weak and innocent rather than powerful and fierce as a god should have been.
"The fact of the matter," Yugi continued, looking to Atem now, "is that it happened and he's moving sooner than expected. He'll breach the territory soon enough. And if that's the case…"
"We're under the assumption that he's going to breach the outer edges of the territory by dawn," Malik supplied after a moment. "That's why we came now rather than in the morning. But there is also the chance that he'll move tonight."
"That would be an unwise move on his behalf," Atem stated coldly, turning to his brother with cold eyes once more. "If he were to do that, half of his army would be disabled. And to go against dragons that know my territory? How foolish should he be to diminish his brigade as well as potentially get lost within my land? He could not have been here for long. I would have recognized his signature. I made a note to do so with each of his suitors when we fought, regardless of whether I killed them afterwards."
Yugi nodded slightly. "And a small ambush would only tell us all that he's here." Atem nodded at him in turn, the slightest of smiles on his mouths. The Gandora almost melted upon seeing it, wanting nothing more than to burrow into his side and lick at his face. Perhaps his mate had simply been restless…
"Do we know which direction he shall come from?" Atem asked, turning away from him. His tail flicked and thumped lightly on the ground. It reminded Yugi oddly of a large jungle cat growing angry with its cub. He remembered seeing the lions in the Badlands do the same, the mothers snarling at their children when they drifted too close or played with an irritable female. "If he is smart, he will come from the south or the east. The ocean to the west will only impair their flight because of the density there. And the mountains to the north cause frigid air currents which rise too high for simple maneuvering for most dragons. To the south, the sea is almost clean of salt and to the east the land is basically a flat plain. If he does not come from these directions, I will be incredibly surprised."
Seto stared at him when he turned to look at him, shaken by his dismissive tone. And Atem could see the thoughts behind his eyes, so clear and icy that they had turned silver in the moonlight. He was trying to figure out who the God Dragon before him truly was. He did not recognize him.
And Atem nearly laughed with delight. He was not the same Atem that he had seen before. He was not the same hatchling he'd grown up with. He was not even the one that had struck out at him so violently.
But he wondered what he looked like to him now. Did he vibrate with the power he felt in his veins? Or did he radiate emptiness as he had hours before? What was in his eyes? Did he see anything? Or was the emotion as lifeless as it had appeared when he'd seen his reflection in the lake the deer had been near?
Did he wish to lash out as Atem had upon seeing it? Or was he scared of it?
Atem could not tell at the moment.
"If they come from the east, that would make it easier for us to defend against," Malik said, interrupting the God Dragon's thoughts entirely. Atem turned to him with a blink, but he could see Seto shooting him a look of confusion and perhaps bewilderment. "But if it's from the north or the west, it's going to pose a threat to us as well. None of us are used to being here. None of us know what to expect from the air pressure or—"
"Then it is by your own laziness and disregard that you have failed to familiarize yourself with it," Atem interrupted in a hostile tone. He did not raise his head from his paws again, flicking his top tongue in disdain before looking to Yugi. "You have had six days to do so. You have no excuse for your decision to choose otherwise. Neither Yugi or I would have interfered had you decided to do so."
"That is a load of horse dung and you know it," Bakura hissed.
"Why should I have bothered to attack you?" Atem dismissed easily, voice deepening with the coming edges of slumber. He could feel the soft touch of it, paws of quiet sleep and easy rest coming to embrace him and bring about darkness. He evened his breathing out, scooting a little closer to Yugi in doing so, and settled comfortably again. The young Gandora radiated the softest of heats. "I have no care for your negligence."
"Right. And your little Gandora there?"
"He would have remained with me."
Yugi blinked, curious at the certainty in his mate's voice. He felt the smallest bit of warmth course through him, his primary heart skipping a beat. He moved closer to him now, testing the waters before he got too near him. But Atem did not object to him when he brushed against his side more pointedly and he relaxed when he saw that slumber had already claimed the God Dragon. He smiled and lowered his head to his paws as well, hoping to follow him into something of a deep sleep.